They are Smol – Badguys, Boxes and Boops, Chapter 20: Lmao it’s a cypher

The thing about government offices is that, no matter your budget and no matter what it is you seem to be doing, you always got the lowest-bidder equipment. You could be doing anything from managing water meter readings in Antarctica to preventing meteorites from slamming into Earth; didn’t matter, welcome to your off-brand Dell computer hell and your keyboard scalped from some back office recycle bin circa 1994.

This current government servant hell was located in Belize, of all places; the Earth governments quickly realized that if recovery and reconstruction after The Great Clusterfuck was uneven, there would be hell to pay – so some nations were just given government work installations to help boost the local economy. This particular government servant hell was roughly 25 stories tall in a nondescript office building between a Horchata bar and a Hat Hut, and would be totally ignored if it weren’t for the reflective one-way mirrors on every floor and the inconspicuously placed concrete barriers around the building that silently said “how about you fuck off with that vehicle attack, eh?”.

The inside lobby was neat synthetic marble flooring, and the disinterested security guard would tell you to fuck off before actually helping; if you walked in the door you knew where you should be, and everyone including the guard knew he was just there to make the job seem more important than it actually was. If you happened to get into any of the other 24 stories in the building, you’d soon find that they were an open-office floor space crammed with cubicles, and each wall was painted that mandatory off-white, also known as eggshell, also known as beige, also known as the most boring color known to man. The carpeting attempted to be festive, in that “we do wacky tie fridays once a month” kind of way, and if you held your breath and put your ear to the ground, you could hear the dreams of the workers inside die.

The plus side? Some of the most beautiful Caribbean weather in the world, excellent food, friendly locals and white, sandy beaches. Sadly, your mandatory lunch breaks could only be taken inside the mandatory lunch breakroom, located in the center of the building with no windows.

“Well.” Miguel said, wrinkling his nose to push the bridge of his glasses up his face without lifting his fingers from the keyboard. “That can’t be right.”

The Department of Location, or DOL (no relation to the other DOL), existed for a very specific reason: Catalog the location of every human on a foster ship in interstellar space. The original iteration of the DOL (no relation) was probably in some high-tec bunker with the brightest minds of Mankind pouring over data and running numbers, but nowadays foster ships were so common and humans who took jobs on them so plentiful that it went from “top secret” to “farm it out and tell us if something happens”. So Miguel, one of hundreds of employees at the DOL, ran numbers and plotted points and created reports and printed things out and sent them to various other governmental departments to be added as a footnote in some presentation that the important people would sleep through. It wasn’t a bad job, per se, it was just thankless administration that the public was mostly blind to – so it almost didn’t matter.

Almost.

Miguel typed furiously, pulling up the plotted course for Ship#: 19.14.5.11//20.9.20.19//12.13.1.15 – spacetime coordinates were weird, and Miguel was ever-thankful for the computer systems that managed most of the heavy lifting for him. The ship, a cargo hauler carrying one Mr.Nathaniel Callaway, had suddenly gone offline-offline. Normal offline was fine; you were in warp, or had a power issue – these things happen, and the batteries inside the OIH terminal usually kept things running for a few weeks on standby power. However, Mr. Callaway’s ship’s OIH terminal was cut.

The DOL could count on one hand the times that a tracking beacon had been cut, and none of them were good. Such incidents happened once every few decades, but when they happened…

“Let’s see…” Miguel murmured to himself, his widescreen LCD terminal showing trajectory lines from station to station. There were about 15 normal stops, then a deviation, then another 5, and then another deviation – the ship Mr. Callaway was on was still headed towards it’s eventual endpoint, and long-haul freighters do deviate from time to time, so there’s nothing-

“Ah.” Miguel tapped the tip of his stylus to the last leg of the journey; another deviation. Less than two Earth days on the last drop-off point, then a trip to… the middle of nowhere.

Miguel furrowed his brow. It wasn’t unheard of for ships to deviate due to what was professionally called “Exchange worker request”, I.e. some human heard of something awesome nearby and pestered the captain to change course, but usually that course change was temporary and the next subsequent jump lead back to the original plotted route. Instead, there was what Miguel assumed an EWR to the middle of nowhere, and then … another EWR? And then the terminal was cut?

Miguel leaned back in his chair, thinking as he looked at the last know coordinate line for Mr. Callaway. There were times where ships ran out of power, or had to make an emergency landing, or any other number of things that caused the terminal to cut, but it was almost always the terminal eventually running out of power, and rarely would be due to trauma. “The last check-in was full power; it was still connected to the main. Atmo, temp and gyro all nominal. Huh.”

And so Miguel leaned forward and picked up a phone, cradling the dusty receiver in the crook of his neck, and pressed a bleached-out auto-dial button.

= = = = =

“[That didn’t happen at all.]” Drongo said, sighing as he raised Tiki’s bed to a more comfortable, ‘sitting’ position. She groaned – not from physical pain, Drongo was quick to discern, but from a deeper, emotional trauma.

“[Totally did.]” Toko said, roundly puffing out his torso feathers. “[An entire pack, all at once. Even did the traditional mating dance, the one where you do that thing with your hands?]”

Drongo shared a look with Tiki, whose expression oscillated between “kill me” and “please kill him”. He smiled as he started to work the autodoc, starting a new regimen of fluids and nanites to accelerate the healing process.

“[Well, good news.]” Drongo said, doing another once-over of Tiki’s vitals. “[You should be up and walking in the next few minutes, once we finish giving you a clear-out flush. I’m going to re-stress walking, because you shouldn’t be doing anything more strenuous than that for the next day or so, and you should… er. Especially not attempt to join a pack while drunk.]” He smiled, and was rewarded with a hollow whistle-chirp from his charge.

“[Not you too, Drongo! You can’t honestly believe-]”

Drongo laughed. “[Oh, I absolutely don’t believe a word that came out of your brother’s mouth-]”

“[Hey!]” Toko said, feathers snapping tight against his body in mock outrage. “[You can take the word of a priest!]”

There was a few moments of silence as Toko attempted to keep a straight face, before grinning – and breaking the magic.

“[Suuuuuure. Anyway, it’s a fun little mental picture, so expect to be teased about it once we’re out of this mess.]”

“[What. Mess.]” Tiki exhaled, her voice coming back stronger with each passing moment. “[Is-]”

“[Ah.]” Toko quickly darted forward, wrapping his hands around his sister’s muzzle. “[Sorry sis, but – we uh, we OK here Doc?]”

Drongo poked the medical privacy screen, and flicked his tail dismissively. “[Yes. Just keep it down, no yelling. Tiki, you feel you can handle some unfortunate news right now?]”

Tiki cooed softly, clearing her throat, before sitting at attention. “[Lay it. On me.]”

Drongo turned and rested his hands on the foot of Tiki’s bed. “[I don’t know the why of it, or the how. Doesn’t matter. We’ve been boarded by pirates, our ship is scuttled, and our friend is missing.]”

Tiki stared blankly for a few moments, before swinging her head to stare daggers into her brother.

“[I didn’t do it this time!]” Toko roar-whispered, feathers splaying out in anxious display. “[REALLY. I DIDN’T!]”

Tiki narrowed her eyes and scrunched her muzzle, silently judging her brother. “[Drong.o. What else. Do I need to. Know?]”

Drongo clicked his blunted claws against the metal in thought. “[Well. Our friend is probably alive, given that there hasn’t been chaos onboard this station. However, there hasn’t been chaos aboard this station, so your guess is as good as mine. He may have found a little nook to hide in, or …something, and is just waiting it out; he’s got a bright mind, so he knows better than to bring attention to himself. How long he can do so is… well. That’s the real issue.]”

“[Find him and. Bring him back. Where is crew?]” Tiki exhaled, her voice still raspy with the removal of intubation and breathing tubes. “[Defensive positions? Deaths?]”

“[All on their part and none on ours.]” Toko said, reaching forward to hold his sister’s hand in his own. “[None of ours are in medbay, and from what we know they’re all still alive and well. We-]”

Toko was interrupted as the privacy curtain to Tiki’s bedside poked inward, and the trio immediately quieted up. There were a few more inquisitive pokes, and Drongo shared a look with the siblings. Toko leaned in to whisper something to Tiki, and she nodded softly – Drongo pressing something on his tablet to pull away the curtain. They were greeted by a female Karnakian who was unfortunately at waist-height, the baton that was attempting to pull away the curtain quickly placed behind her back as she stood up to stare at a nonplussed Drongo.

“[Hello to you too, why are you in my Medical bay?]” Drongo questioned, as the female pulled her eyes away from his waist.

“[Ah, yeah! I um, was just… looking. For something.]” the Karnakian pirate said, tilting her head from side to side to ‘sweep’ under the nearby beds. “[Just curious, is all.]”

“[And what exactly are you looking for, daughter?]” Toko said dryly, pulling himself up with all his faux priestly grace.

“[N-nothing, your grace!]” The Karnakian said, bowing slightly. “[I was just… checking for stowaways. Making sure everyone was accounted for.]”

“[Yes! What a noble cause, for we are all stowaways on the great ship of life!]” Toko said, roaring as he spread his arms wide to deliver an impromptu sermon. “[And we all seek our own cabins, to lay our heads to rest – the sleep of the just, of the dead! But as we wander the unmarked corridors of this great ship-]”

The Karnakian pirate began to slowly edge her way back to the entrance door, nodding solemly and letting out non-committal agreement noises as she did so. This, of course, was the wrong thing to do, as Toko wide smile became very manic.

“[-checking our tickets! But now, my daughter, we shall go to the captain ourselves, and prostrate before them, and ask-]”

“[Yes this is very fascinating I agree father Ineedtogonow-]” The Karnakian pirate said, turning heel and beginning to powerwalk away. “[Thank you father I have so much to talk about pleasedon’tfollowme-]”

Toko gave a knowing nod and a wink to his colleagues before jogging around the infirmary bed, quickly chasing down his rapidly-sprinting new acolyte as the door rapidly shut behind him. “[Come, COME, GIRL! COME SEE THE VIOLENCE INHERENT IN THE SYSTEM-]”

= = = = =

“<Oh. Well Thank you, warm-cuddle New-hope!>” Stk’shzsk said, closing his eyes and smiling as he felt the tiny gloved hand press against the top of his snout once more. He was concerned that his tour of his – no, their – living quarters was going to bore the warm-cuddle, or even drive it away, but every time that ugly fear rose inside him there was a hug, or a gentle pat, or some (no doubt) sage and kind advice given to him in the warmcuddle tongue. The two of them had spent many happy hours together, and the tour eventually made it’s way outside Stk’shzsk’s room, into the surrounding halls.

He, of course, made sure the hallways were sealed shut; both for privacy and protection. He couldn’t – wouldn’t allow anyone to take his new hope away from him, and just the thought of the warmcuddle being pulled away-

The gloved hand gently pressed against his nose, and Stk’shzsk let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding, repeating the trust gesture with his new friend.

“<Thank you. Do you have these at home?>”

Warmcuddle New-hope said something, and waved his arms about – stepping around so much that Stk’shzsk caught himself trying to catch his new friend if he fell over again – but he seemed to be happy. Very happy, if the smile on his face was any indication.

A smile. Now that was also a welcome sight, and Stk’shzsk did his best to burn the sight into his memory, to keep for all of time.

Stk’shzsk let that new memory fill him up for a few moments, before settling into a more serious mood. “<Although, I do want to make sure you understand, warmcuddle New-hope. I had to put this together myself, so there’s not much in the way of pre-loaded software, or inventory, or… blueprints. Ah, but, we can build from the ground up, together, if you want!>”

The warmcuddle bapped his hands against the terminal of the older, but jailbroken fabricator, and let out a joyous yell.

“<I’ll take that as a yes!>”

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