She was ponderous, she was lopsided, she was missing some of her plating and she was trying. Half tucked into a carved out recess of the nickel-iron meteor, the old girl sounded like she ran on a choked two-stroke, and Nate’s helmet so helpfully pointed out that some of the smoke coming out of the machine indicated overloaded and burnt wire insulation. It was probably fine, but as a precaution, he took a few steps back while the jailbroken fabricator attempted yet another ridiculous project.

Nate stood there for a moment, hands on his hips, as he saw his handwork so far: crates now stacked with orderly door prizes, boxes stuffed with goodie bags and even a couple of barrels of party pleasers. He wasn’t going to be able to launch a full-scale attack on this station; although he had gumption and surprise on his side, he was but one man. No, the idea he had come up with instead was to-

Nate went limp as he felt two arms wrap around his torso, and let himself get pulled into the lap of his newest and bestest pure friend. He knew his name was [Stk’shzsk], but whenever his translator asked him to give him a Terran-audible translation, he just fell into a rant of how sweet and pure this giant killing machine was and how the Jornissians were hiding their best people and how worlds would burn so the light would dance in his new friend’s lopsided, enlarged eyes. Apparently during one of these rants the translator rebooted, and … well.

It gave [Stk’shzsk] the name of Bleppy. Although this was a right and good name, Nate swore that he would have it changed as soon as possible so that Bleppy wouldn’t feel insulted by his “human” name.

He would never feel insulted again

“[New-hope, you’re doing that shaking thing again.]” Bleppy said, concerned, as he attempted to pat Nate through his helmet. “[Don’t be afraid of the smoke! It’s … natural, here.]” Bleppy trailed off, letting out a soft sigh after a few moments of the fabricator working uninterrupted. “[Though I wish there was a little more ventilation… Maybe if we were out of the abandoned areas of the station and into the more lived ones it wouldn’t be so bad.]”

“MMMMMN. FINE. I will sit here and be CONSUMED WITH FEELINGS for the remainder of the night!” Nate pouted, crossing his legs to make him easier for the larger alien to manhandle. He paused for a moment before he felt the larger, heavier head of Bleppy rest atop his own.

“[I wonder what you’re making, though.]” Bleppy began to muse, apparently still not used to having an audience for his thoughts. “[Do humans need smaller – well that’s silly, of course you need smaller things in general, but maybe these serve some additional importance?]”

And as always, Nate helpfully answered.

“M’ gonna kill everyone but you and my crew, buddy.” Nate blatantly admitted, patting his new friend wherever he could.

Bleppy hummed as he continued to talk. “[Mmmm. Religious significance?]”

“Firearms are a sacred right, but no.” Nate truthfully opined, patting a tune on his friend’s scaly body. “Though it might help some people here go see God.”

Bleppy suddenly tensed and began to wiggle from side to side. “[OH! Are you building a NEST?! Are you – is this decorations for your nest, New-Hope?!]”

“In a way, sure.” Nate laughed, patting Bleppy rapidly as a signal to let him out. “But more or less a way of making our position defensible! We gotta open up some chances for my crew to make a break for it, and once they do that then we can totally take this station over!” Nate poured himself out of Bleppy’s lap, rolling onto the ground before standing up. “Or, if we can’t take it over, then figure out how to escape… or, barring that, how to stop worrying and learn to love the void, because I am going to space everyone if I don’t get my demands met.”

Bleppy leaned forward and nodded up and down with his entire torso. “[I wish I spoke human.]”

“I wish I spoke human too, buddy.” Nate said, curling his hand into a fist. Bleppy looked down before letting out a soft “oh”, raising his own fist in response. Nate tapped his fist to Bleppys, and the two smiled at each other. “Now, let’s see about getting some of this stuff back to home base, huh?”

He was… happy.

It had been so long since Stk’shzsk had been genuinely, truly happy that he, at first, didn’t know if he should let the feelings wash over him or not. Growing up had been problematic, and although he had moments of joy, they were usually islands in a sea of misery, anxiousness, depression and doubt. When something truly good happened to him, it was rare enough that he would discount it as a fluke, or short enough that it never truly washed over him, seeped into him, and filled up his heart. He was used to the pain of being alone, of being ostracized, of not measuring up; he was not used to the joy of being happy, and it scared him. The fall scared him.

Stk’shzsk knew that his obsessions with warm-cuddles were a … coping mechanism, to put it bluntly. He knew that they weren’t as the media – well, the only media he could get – portrayed them; they weren’t innocent, they weren’t pure, they didn’t have magic, they didn’t grant wishes and they most certainly did not have the ability to fall asleep if you spun a coin in front of them. Stk’shzsk knew the last bit from experience, and even now it was incredibly embarrassing to think about, but-

He was happy.

His new friend had been with him for hours now – or was it days? Stk’shzsk had honestly lost track of the time! It strengthened him; the time he spent with his warm-cuddle friend wasn’t a fluke, it wasn’t something he was hallucinating, it was real. Every so often New-Hope had to go somewhere, and it was in those moments that Stk’shzsk grew concerned… but he couldn’t say if it was for the human or for himself. Those disappearances in and out of what he assumed was a decommissioned industrial ventilation shaft in his room were difficult – periods of time where Stk’shzsk was left alone to his thoughts, to dark fantasies that would plague him, but each time New-hope came back and he brought with him gifts and small baubles and wonderful little things that proved, more and more, that what was happening was actually happening and-


Stk’shzsk frowned internally, hefting the crates filled with stuff under his arms as he followed New-Hope back to their room. The dark clouds started to gather in Stk’shzsk’s mind, and try as he might he couldn’t beat them away.

It won’t last. It can’t last. You can’t provide for him, here.

Stk’shzsk slowed as the melancholy wrapped itself around his heart, cooling it like a wet blanket.

You won’t have a home with him. You will have to say goodbye.

The realization sapped the strength from his core, feeling like a weight around his hips as it drug him down to the ground. It was the same realization, the same battle that he had been fighting for hours now – days? He lost track of the time, to be honest – and each time it wore on him a little deeper, a bit closer to his core.

This won’t be your new normal. You don’t get things like this.

Stk’shzsk at least made it to the front of his room before laying the crates and boxes that weighed multiple tons outside of it, his arms aching like his soul. Stk’shzsk’s warm-cuddle friend said something to him, and he managed a forced smile and some kind words, but his heart wasn’t into it. Gently he moved around his new roommate who began to pick up crates and bring them inside the room, taking a position on his bed as he watched the human work. Idly he looked for his cameras, and saw that they were still diligently recording.

Good. At least he’d have proof of his memories, when it was all said and done.

He was determined.

“Please re-authorize.” Nate said into his tablet, and received a happy little beep. He had taken a clandestine picture of Bleppy – as clandestine as he could be holding a tablet the size of his head up to the larger alien for a picture – but the facial structure, scale pattern, size, weight, and other biometrics were successfully recorded into his OIH-approved personal computer.

Nate had realized, once his adrenaline and his “I will kill you if you hurt my precious child” response died down, that he would need to make sure that anyone who came to rescue him didn’t hurt his friend. It made no sense to make a valiant last stand if the cavalry came in and killed everyone anyway. So, a trip back to his life raft to take care of some hygiene, grab some (more) MRE snacks, and bring his handy-dandy take-anywhere computer, and he was ready to officially induct Bleppy as part of the UTF-approved crew as a… well. That was the problem; Bleppy couldn’t technically be crew. He also wouldn’t be an adviser, a cultural liaison, a trusted vendor, an emergency contact, plucky stowaway, wandering ship-to-ship salesperson or much of anything else! Every time Nate picked some title out of the drop-down picklist, his tablet software always asked for supporting documentation! He was on hour three of this quest, and although Bleppy was encouraging him the best he knew how, there was little Bleppy could do to help Nate with his current Sisyphean task. But as for Nate himself?

He was determined.

>Authorization Accepted. Title Designation?

Nate scrolled down through the same dropdown list, yet again, as he attempted to be a bit smarter about his next choice. Anything with an official title was right out – those things had to be checked and verified in triplicate, and paperwork was the enemy; no ambassadors, generals, admirals or any other -ls allowed. Anything with work certifications was also out – doctors, lawyers, arborists, forklift certified technicians – that’s all additional documentation too. He couldn’t drop Bleppy in as family, because that would require not only a birth certificate but also, yanno. A female human to verify parentage… Sooooo…


Nate gave up on the hundreds-entry long drop-down list, and began to idly click around. There had to be something! Manually attempting each option was taking away precious preparation time – there had to be an option that would make sure Bleppy was OK if things hit the fan! There had to be-


Nathaniel Callaway lifted his finger from from the benefits tab, as a little radial pick list appeared before him that he had never seen before. It gave him an idea. A terrible, awful, wonderful idea. Without a second thought he selected the appropriate options, fudged a few of the numbers, took another picture or two and submitted the application.

>Authorization Accepted. Title Accepted.

>”Bleppy, The best” now conditionally registered with OIH/UTF approved handle

>”Bleppy, The best” added to approved books II – VII excluding III and IV pending final registration approval with appropriate OIH/UTF governing body (c.SL8.115.46 s.6)

Nate let out a hoot, waving his tablet up and down with exaggerated joy. Bleppy smiled – but his hood didn’t quite flare like Nate knew they could, and Nate knew that his buddy was either tired, or feeling a bit down. Nate also knew that the cure for such things was not beatings, but instead snacks and illegal movies. Using that same tablet, Nate switched over from boring governmental paperwork to Bleppy’s local NAS, and pulled up an “authentic human movie” that was absolutely incomprehensible to the two of them. As the two settled in to watch the French film, Nate did his best to keep Bleppy engaged – pointing at things on the screen, trying to teach ‘human’, and even at one point producing an analog snack to the one that was on-screen, much to Bleppy’s delight. Nate’s tablet beeped once more, and a disappearing indicator message let him know that Bleppy’s application was now permanently stored on his life raft as well.

Good. At least now, no matter what happened, Bleppy would be accounted for when it was all said and done.

All things considered, it was not your typical conference call. For one, nobody was a cat. For two, although there were only a handful of people on-screen, every single participant had at least a dozen other people in their room. For three, almost everyone who was on the call was not actually broadcasting from the location that they were reporting to be broadcasting from. This obfuscation was both by design, and by tradition; such things as these all militaries keep alive for one reason or another.

“Ssssssssso.” Gen. Stilwell said, clearing his throat to truly begin the meeting. “Thank you again, Senate liaisons for the Human Protectorate force, for hopping on the call with such short notice. I know that legally your militaries are loaned to our species, and we appreciate the help in defending our borders, cultures, commerce and lives, but I view us as collaborators more than anything.”

“[General. I appreciate the pleasantries, but we’ve been working together for 7 years now.]” A grayed Karnakian said, tilting his head in deference. “[What’s the mission you want us to look over?]”

“Thank you General Far-sight. Today is a bit of a strategy briefing, and I’d like some thoughts on what a human-led expedition is going to look like.” Stilwell nodded to someone off-screen, and Stillwell’s view changed – as did everyone else’s. In place of oversized faces on-screen there was a map with a couple hundred mug shots, various ship data, telemetry… the works. The assembled xenos leaders began to thumb through the information as Stilwell began to speak.

“Approximately four Earth days ago, the ship carrying Nathaniel Callaway performed what we are assuming was an uncatalogued EWR – an Exchange Worker Request – to fly to a certain point from a port called Sweetwater. The telementry information is there for you to cross reference with your extensive networks as well, as we’re basically blind to what happened on-station. A few hours after this EWR, there was a second EWR to this point in space.”

“[Doesn’t look like there’s anything there.]” Adm. Star-eater said, her teeth visibly rippling through a cut chip of flesh on her muzzle.

“From what we know, that’s correct.” Stilwell confirmed, continuing. “We know of past incidents where our… host ships will allow a citizen to pilot their ships in a relatively empty part of space, and it’s something to note but we do not condemn it. Harmless fun, in other words.”

“[Sure. But?]” Gen. Far-sight said, turning to murmur something to someone off-screen.

“We make it no secret, at least to those assembled here, that our media is heavily edited. I’m certain you’ve all enjoyed the feed bleeds from our broadcasts, so you know. Out there, however, the OIH terminal is the only way we have of presenting our best foot forward. These terminals are equipped with an entangled battery, and report their exact position to us almost constantly along with a stream of other incredibly important data – that flow works both ways as well.”

“[So we’re rescuing another wandering pup?]” Adm. Star-eater grinned. “[Since it’s far afield you want an escort?]”

“Points for reading ahead, but no.” Stilwell said, rapping his knuckles against the table. “No, you all have been here when a battery dies; the life rafts have already been picked up, or the ship was found grounded on a planetoid – Far-sight, you were part of that one, the Prometheus, right?”

Gen. Far-sight smiled. “[Yes, and I was happy to help lift him back into orbit. This is different, I take it?]”

“It’s a constant stream, ladies and gentlemen. For the other incidents that have befallen our people outside of core systems, we kind of know that things are going south; The battery going on auxiliary power, for one. The slow, multi-week decline in charge is another good indicator. Changes in atmosphere, inertia, temperature – all great clues as to what’s going on, how serious it is, how long it’s been happening and what our window of opportunity is for rescue. Here, we have none of that.”

“[As in the data is corrupted?]” Star-eater mused, scrolling through the crew roster and singling out certain profiles.

“No. As in, we have none of that happening. Everything reads nominal until the line gets cut. We did get one thing, though; it’s a final failsafe burst of information that occurs when the battery itself starts to get disconnected from it’s range, or powersource, or however the hell that works. I wanted to share that last bit of information with you, and then determine what our appropriate next steps should be.”

General Stilwell pressed a few hard-light buttons on the table before him, and a simple, grainy alert appeared on screen.

THIS PERSON TRIED TO UNLOCK YOUR OIH TERMINAL” was emblazoned across the screen, and the image seemed to have been taken with the terminal laying on the ground, face-up. Staring down at the screen were the puzzled faces of four unknown xenos. The background to the photo showed some sort of workshop; gone were the geometric and patterned ceiling tiles and the messy lived-in room of a human, and in it’s stead were wires, grips, hoses and drills hanging from odd ends.

There were a few moments of silence, before someone in the background let out a gentle “[Oh.]”

Yeah. So. How should we go about this?” General Stilwell said, resting his chin in his hand. “And how should we work together?”