They are Smol – Badguys, Boxes and Boops Chapter 21: Doublespeak

“You know, if I’m being honest I never read these reports until now.” Lt. Ruiz said, scrolling idly through the missive with his ring finger on the tablet. The report itself came fresh from the DOL (we’ve been over this), with as much information as they could provide about location, speed, timestamps – and included information on the ship’s make, model, retrofitting information, past station rendezvous and even crew makeup and history. The report was less an executive brief and more of an incredibly abridged book of hyperlinks, with the sum total of all the information the human government had about the ship, it’s crew, it’s human observer and their mission put into one single record of truth.

That record was currently being scrutinized by a dozen people in as many different disciplines; medical staff were on-hand reviewing health and checkup data, mechanical engineers and quantum physicists – now happy to have a non-theoretical job – were debating what could have shut the core, data scientists were trying to piece together every bit of information they could to provide the clearest and most recent picture of the host ship before it shut off… there were even a couple of two-tour ironheels, fresh from their final excursions with their xeno allies, there for consultation and firsthand knowledge.

“It’s not a report worth reading until something happens.” Specialist Cadieux shrugged, dragging his own index finger over some text to highlight it. “That’s the nature of the beast – telling us “all’s well” is useless information.”

“Still.” Lt. Ruiz murmured, checking Nate’s mental health screening information. “Hmmmm… Equivalent scores with a potato-” Ruiz switched to a different report, scanning it for any useful data. “- I’m guessing whatever happened was a catastrophe, and it doesn’t take this many people to figure that out. Any word on our liferafts?”

Specialist Cadieux let out a noncommital hum. “No. But what surprises me is that they’re purposefully put in the strongest places of the ship-”

“Directed energy weapon? Kinetic? Just run along the spine-” Lt. Ruiz said, making a ‘skipping-across-the-pond’ motion with his hand.

“-Well that’s what gets me. The liferafts are also put on separate levels to mitigate against that very problem-” Spc. Cadieux lifted his tablet to the side, and angled his free hand down against it, before bouncing off. “-if you break the keel, let’s say, from an angle – you snap the ship, the liferafts go off. If you hit it from the front or back perfectly-” Cadieuxs’ hand poked the bottom of his tablet, “-you would, at worst, be hitting the strongest part of the ship, and your round would just spin the keel around.”

Lt. Ruiz chuckled. “Kinetic impact; like bullet dynamics. They rifle their railguns too?”

“Maybe; it depends, but that’s neither here nor there. If you had the energy to crumple the first half of the ship, the odds are that the pure momentum of that kinetic round would just flash-weld with the ship and then just move it along.” Spc. Cadieux balled his fist up infront of his tablet, and moved the two in tandem. “If you just destroyed the one, the other would go off… But, say it’s an energy weapon.”

“The power for knocking out both liferafts that are buried into the keel of the ship would be immense. Hell, the liferafts themselves are hardpoints!” Lt. Ruiz mused.

“And that’s what gets me. We have environmental data from before the line was cut; everything was fine. Usually in a directed-energy scenario there’s a sudden increase in temperature to a couple million kelvin, which is incredibly hard to miss. This just looks like someone pulled a proverbial plug.” Spc. Cadieux finished, laying his tablet back down on the table. “Here, look.”

With a few motions of his hand, the tablet reacted – connecting wirelessly to the table it rested on. The surface glowed a soft blue hue before brightening suddenly, concentrating it’s light on a point in the center of the table. A weak, transparent hologram of the ship’s model floated silently in mid-air between the two men.

“You wearing your blue-lights?” Spc. Cadieux asked, and was rewarded with a grunt. “Alright, just don’t blame me when you gotta go in for new eyes.”

“I served on IO, I’m fine.” Lt. Ruiz said, scratching his stubbled jaw. “The solar wind damage is worse than any of this shit we got in house.”

Cadieux shrugged, and turned a touch-screen dial on his tablet, the ship expanding slightly to fit on more and more of the table. With a couple other touches, various systems were highlighted; Atmospheric and Temperature regulation, water and sewage reclamation, pneumatic vending – and there, sitting pretty, were two hard-point life rafts, connected via a network of emergency egress crawlways.

“So. One’s ‘topwise’ and the other, ‘bottomwise’. Front and back, they’d have to vaporize the entire ship, and have to do it in one go.” Cadieux said, pointing with his finger to various parts of the ship. “This is reinforced, as is this and this – and from our records, we actually added an additional firebreak here and here. It would take terawatts of energy to dissipate their shields, let alone start melting away at the ship itself; if you want to do that instantaneously?” Cadieux raised his hands in his best ‘oh well’ gesture, and Ruiz picked up the thread.

“So if he was wearing his space blanket we’d have a baked potato?” Lt. Ruiz joked, and was rewarded with a grin.

“Yeah, but I don’t think he’d cool down until the heat death of the universe. More importantly, you release that much energy all at once, we can see it.” Spc. Cadieux said, idly turning the hologram. “Light will always take time to reach the nearest station, and we’d be looking at centuries to see the scene of the crime, but if we’re talking both gravity waves and kinetic dark-matter interactions, that shit ripples out quick. You can’t blow out a ship reactor that suddenly and thoroughly without making waves on the spacetime pond.”

“So, if we’re not talking kinetic – or if we are it’s a near-c or better projectile – and energy would be problematic, then that means whatever did happen probably kept the ship intact. We didn’t get any distress signals from our liferafts, so they’re not deployed… adrift?”

“Power.”

“Ah.” Lt. Ruiz responded, thinking out loud. “So. Power, atmo, everything – but a sudden move and then silence. I mean…” Lt. Ruiz’s eyebrows rose, and he swayed his chair from side to side in thought. “Mutiny, but they would have to know about how the terminal works, and that’s … not possible. Smash and grab?”

“What do you mean?” Spc. Cadieux responded, leaning back in his chair. “They got boarded? I’m certain we would’ve received a ripcord message about it if it happened.”

“Mmmm, not from some of the toys I’ve seen.” Ruiz said, cracking his fingers as he spoke. “You jam their transmissions, or stowaway while on station… the key here is to get onboard, with weapons. Once you do that, you pop out in transit, grab your hostages, threaten everyone else. Hell that’s almost as old as flight itself – then get the plane to fly to friendly skies.”

Cadieux hummed as he connected the dots. “A deviation jump, a pause, another deviationjump to their base. Chop shop, rip apart the ship for scrap – what about your hostages?”

Lt. Ruiz shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe they’re just kept locked up, maybe they’ll be ransomed back in the next few months, maybe they’re slaves now, or maybe they’re dead. Depends on the pirates, doesn’t it?”

“I think we run this idea up the chain.” Spc. Cadieux said, nodding. “It fits together a lot of the pieces.”

“Great! Your idea, your report.” Lt. Ruiz said, slapping the table with his hand as he stood up.

“Oi! That’s not fair you fuck-” Cadieux yelled, pointing an accusatory finger at his colleague. “You gotta stay here and help!”

Lt. Ruiz thumbed the switch on the privacy pod the two men were in, and the glass slid down to reveal a set of 5 identical pods in a dice layout, set in the base floor of a mission control room. Ruiz silently waved his hand at the gallery above the two, and caught their attention.

“I did help! I got their attention, see? Now everyone’s gonna want to hear what you have to say-”

= = = =

“[Well. Isn’t this lovely.]” Brains said, smiling wide with as much energy as she could muster into her upper torso. Her chest was open, her hood relaxed out, and she even kept her head a bit lower than that of her guest – out of etiquette, of course. She positively beamed hospitality and warmth, and reached down to delicately take a snack from the shared food basket. Morsel in hand, she waited for her newfound friend to reciprocate.

And waited.

Sassafras was not having a good time. She had been woken up from an admittedly fitful and light sleep to be “escorteered” to a ‘captain’s chat’, which did not take place in Brains’ quarters but instead took place in what seemed to be a recently cleared-out hallway closet. The nickel-iron flooring still showed the dents and divots of the previous boxes, shelves and baubles that were stored here for gods knew how long, which meant that the floor was both dusty and rough to the touch. The lighting was harsh and fixed, washing the two of them in clinical light – and because the light source was directly and evenly overhead, the shadows cast by Brains’ face and body looked less warm and reassuring and more fucking exhausted. The two captains were left alone like this, in a barely-ventilated side-room, with the utility door shut and locked behind them.

It was not, in fact, lovely.

“[Please, dear. I’m just trying to put in a bit of comfort in these trying times-]”

Sassafras rubbed the bridge of her muzzle for a moment, before leaning forward and grabbing an individually-wrapped snack. Brains visibly relaxed at the gesture, and Sassafras put the wrapped treat on her lap. “[Thank you.]”

“[Thank you.]” Brains said, letting a bit of the exhaustion seep into her voice. “[It would be nice for something to work out once in a while, and your cooperation is appreciated.]”

“[Big assumption there, thinking I would help my captors – or did we forget that bit?]” Sassafras chided, straightening up. “[Or are you trying to give me a job, again?]”

“[I…]” Brains sighed, a low, rolling hiss. “[I do really think I’ve grown a soft spot for you, Sassafras. It’s not easy carving out your own path in the loam, and I think I see a bit of myself in you – if a couple hundred years younger and a few pounds lighter.]”

Sassafras, for her part, said nothing as she continued to listen.

“[But I did want to talk to you. We’re not… bad people, per se – we just picked jobs that fell outside of polite government, so we formed our own. We’ve not treated you poorly, have we – compared to the horror stories, of course?]”

Sassafras thought for a moment, before giving a slight tilt of her head. It was something, so Brains continued. “[We’re not evil. Sure, we might have a few crew who are rough around the edges, but who doesn’t have those gnarled shells to crack? And honestly, our goal from the very first moment was nothing more than a smash and grab, as things are more replaceable than people.]”

“[Why are you trying to virtue signal?]” Sassafras asked, rolling the wrapped baked good in her hands. “[What’s the point?]”

“[Because I need you to work with me, Sassafras.]” Brains said, and raised her hand to interrupt Sassafras’ complaint. “[No, not like that, I know that’s off the table – but I still need you to work with me.]”

The two Jornissians stared, unblinking at each other, before Sassafras shifted a bit. It was a non-verbal cue, nothing more than a simple “well, I’m listening”.

It was everything Brains was hoping for.

“[I was wondering, about your crew.]” Brains began, tracing a fingertip across her drink’s rim. “[Are they all accounted for?]”

“[Save for whoever’s still on-board; our medic and a couple others, yes.]” Sassafras responded with a level tone. “[You’ve done headcounts three times now.]”

“[And…]” Brains nipped at her lower lip for a moment before continuing. “[…if there was someone missing, maybe one or more people who would like to not be found for obvious reasons – would headcount count them?]”

Sassafras stared mutely at her host as her mind raced, studying her every movement, doing her best to read the body language and the atmosphere of the room. Brains obviously wanted to be welcoming and kind, but more to the point – Brains was also not a combatant, she was a negotiator. The rushed movement of goods and fixtures in this room, then, was not for torture or abuse but instead out of another necessity – privacy.

Sassafras lowered her head slightly to feign interest in the bottled drink selection before her as she continued to think. Brains needed privacy so badly that they created a makeshift bug-free interrogation room. This means privacy not necessarily for the conversation’s sake, though that was important – this implied privacy away from the crew’s ears as well. The only reason you do that is to avoid a panic, and the only thing to really panic about…

“[So.]” Sassafras said, selecting a bottle of mineral water and ripping the drink nub open. She let her response hang in the air for a while, and eventually Brains’ realized that they were finally going to have the same conversation for the first time that afternoon.

“[I’m just trying to make sure that we haven’t missed anyone. Especially certain people who may not be used to … interstellar problems.]” Brains charitably said, rolling her jaw.

‘Do you have a warm-cuddle?’ Brains asked, between the lines of an innocent conversation.

“[Headcount might miss one person here or there, certainly, especially if they’re near to the ground.]” Sassafras said, inspecting the drink sphere before squeezing some of the refreshment into her mouth. “[It’s not my fault that some of my crew like to hide behind crates and the like when roll is called – only trouble there is if they’re sleeping in cargo when we open the bay doors.]”

‘Yes. Did you check cargo? Is he dead?’ Sassafras asked, between the lines.

“[Oh goodness, that sounds terrible! No, we always check every single room, box, cupboard and storage unit before we open anything up to hard vacuum. In fact, all cargo is re-tagged and staged for disembarking beforehand! Safety first, as much as we can!]”

‘Not that we know.’ Brains responded, between the lines. ‘Though he wasn’t in cargo.’

“[That’s very good to hear. How do you deal with pets, or live cargo? Don’t they like to hold up in corners and tight spots?]”

‘Think smaller. He can hide where we can’t.’ Sassafras meant, taking a deep drink from the orb.

“[We check that too. We often do a heartbeat sweep of every room to make sure we haven’t missed a thing – the last thing we want, of course, is for our guests to become upset at the accidental death of a loved one.]”

‘If biometric scans missed him, then we’re fucked – but I don’t think so.’ Brains politely rebutted.

“[Well that’s comforting, though… I would assume an animal gets loose from time to time from storage. How do you deal with those incidents?]”

Then he has to be here. What’s your plan?’ Sassafras said, without saying.

“[Very simple – boringly so. We form a grid around the epicenter of the breakout, and start searching from the center outwards. Depending on the critter they can’t have gotten too far, and my own crew is usually very adept at finding our friendly little escapees and bringing them back safely. Sometimes, though, we do ask for some muscle, if the animal could endanger itself or others.]”

‘We’re searching the station, small security groups doing grid sweeps but haven’t found anything yet. Brains honestly explained.

“[Ugh, tell me about it. We were once shipping some long, bendy critters – couldn’t tell you their name, they’re just basically a thousand tiny furred feet and teeth biting everything, and one of ‘em escaped. Turns out, they’re a burrowing species, so it just started to make it’s own little tunnels in and among our ship’s cargo. Imagine our surprise to find out the little bugger not only escaped his enclosure, but he also created a tunnel a good kilometer long, winding through multiple levels of boxes and crates! Gigantic pain to explain that to the dockmaster!]”

Sassafras corrected her. ‘You’re not thinking like he would, though. He can get to places we can’t; he may not be on this main asteroid at all.’

“[That really is a story! I’ll have to remember it for the next time we have an escapee; it’s lucky that the critter stayed in the breathable parts of the ship!]”

‘Point taken. I’ll expand our search and make sure every place is livable.’ Brains said, smiling with gratitude.

“[So, do you have any other stories you want to share? I’d love to hear every single one!]” Brains grinned, popping open her own wrapped snack.

‘What else do I need to know?’

Sassafras thought for a moment, before tightening her hood up slightly. It was a simple, errant thought – more like a fear, really – but she dismissed it outright. The odds were too low, and there were more important things to warn her new friend about.

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