They are Smol – Badguys, Boxes and Boops, Chapter 25: Zeitgeist

The two old station workers sat, rambling to each other during their third hour of a 15 minute lunch.

“[And then they broke down my door!]” Rrsn’sspri said, raising his arms in a big sweeping motion. “[And I thought someone was going to steal that little guy, so I pulled out my old service pistol and-]”

A grey’d muzzle Dorarizin let out a chuckle, rocking his head. “[Oh stop. You brought out that thing? What next – you killed 50 men and got an award?]” He smiled, coyly. “[Where do the scantily clad sexy women come in?]”

Rrsn’sspri’s coworker was rewarded with a tossed drink cap, the two men laughing as they watched the stars roll by, the station languidly turning with it’s interplanetary orbit. “[I am serious, though. Little guy tried to escape, he did – tried to have his own little adventure.]”

The Dorarizin sighed, crumpling up the soft metal tray that his second – or third – lunch serving came in. “[I am not going to believe that you, of all people, befriended a wild human and then defended him against an attack squad of ex-mercenaries! Rrsn’sspri, I believed you when you said you dug up and landed that Rokwyemi, I gave you the benefit of the doubt when you said you saw an asteroid collision drop into ol’ Big Green and flare up as it hit atmosphere, and I charitably let you tell that story of you saving that nest of eggs from being spaced while the station – this station that you and I have been on for the past 500 years – was ‘falling into a black hole.’-]”

“[Considering how the rookies are making repairs, it’s not too far off.]” Rrsn’sspri interrupted, and the two broke out into laughter again.

“[Fine, granted. But This is just too much, old friend.]”

“[Fine!]” Rrsn’sspri said, leaning over conspiratorially. “[Then if I’m wrong let me be flash-frozen where I sit!]”

It was at this point that Joint Task Force “Old Yeller” warped into system, thrusters burning in retrograde to halt momentum as the combined force of arms appeared well within the service well of Sweetwater’s ports. Both men’s PDAs began to scream, and with the surprising ease borne from years of experience, the two automatically shut them off while keeping rapt attention at the viewscreens.

“[I uh… I didn’t mean it.]” Rrsn’sspri said, matter-of-factly, as one of the smaller military ships moved towards the station.

= = =

Admiral Star-eater, United Peoples’ Systems Representative to the Senate – and therefore, the Senate’s liaison to Joint Task Force “Old Yeller”, frowned as she reviewed the same information that her younger, newer allies were dissecting. Part and parcel of working with a new species was finding out how they dissected the same problems you were looking at; Everyone saw the same truth, but from a different perspective, and including that new perspective into your own calculations gave you a better overall view of the whole truth.

“[Look at this, he just swooces right on in.]”

“[Is that… an official term? Swooce?]” Admiral Star-eater said, idly picking at an errant tooth as she interrupted the apparent roasting of the staff and personnel of the starport they were currently parked outside. The bridge of her armada’s flagship, The Final Word, was aglow with multiple video streams, decrypted data, audio files and a couple physical interview transcripts of the incident that Nate masterminded. Her Captains, intelligence officers and bridge staff were following along with the timeline and dissection of that data, but the commentary by her tiny-chomper allies was…

“[Look at his face, look at his face. Oh man, y’inz slippin if everything’s connected by magnets-]” Someone off-screen said, rewinding and replaying Nate and Rrsn’sspri’s first meeting a half-dozen times.

“[Apparently… so. Admiral.]” Captain Fierce-gale mused, shaking his head. “[Though I honestly think they make up words on an as-needed basis and the rest of the species just goes along with it.]”

“I don’t think you’re wrong, but that keeps the translator guys in business.” Admiral Hawkings said, a half-smile on his face as the impromptu commentary was cut. “Though, I’ll ask my analysts to use more standard language in the future. As a side note, it’s good to see hot mics are a universal constant.”

“[My apologies, Admiral.]” Captain Fierce-gale said, bowing his head slightly towards the camera part in apology and part to hide his smile. “[But at least we’re in agreement.]”

“Yes. Honestly, I don’t think there’s any foul play here – and Snake Dad has been very cooperative with his interview.” Admiral Hawkings noted, picking up the conversation where it left off. “Though I can’t agree with the name Nathaniel gave him, it seems like a very cut and dry misadventure. For our part, we don’t believe anyone locally was involved in this whole ordeal; this system wasn’t taking care of it’s IT security patches, and we identified the malware that was installed into the job ticketing system. It, of course, didn’t lead us anywhere, but it at least proved that everyone here is innocent – so I don’t see any reason to stay here longer than we need to. Do you have any updates?”

“[Certainly.]” Admiral Star-eater said, the workers on the bridge beginning to funnel in new data. “[We’ve sent some stealth probes into the general area where the first EWR took place: Although we didn’t find anything stationary there were still some dust and echos for us to sift through. The brigand group we’re hunting had a very simple, but effective game that we’ve seen many times before: Set up a fake trade route between two established systems and cast a net once they get a bite. I doubt the host ship vetted the data thoroughly as it came from a trusted source, so…]”

“The prey leads itself down a dark alley to be mugged.”

“[Eloquently put, Admiral.]” Captain Fierce-gale noted. “[And if I may continue the hunt, here: Our probes then traversed to the final end-point at staggered AU drop-distances.]” As Captain Fierce-gale continued to speak, a new image spread across the various screens of the Armada’s assembled bridge crews.

“It looks like fucking Mickey Mouse. Are you kidding me?” a human voice cried out, and was subsequently shushed.

Captain Fierce-gale pursed his lips, reaching up to scratch the underside of his muzzle. “[Ah, sorry, I don’t know the reference… but. There seems to be three main asteroid clusters – one significantly large one, at the bottom, and then two smaller ones at the top – what we’re calling top and bottom, of course.]” The image was overlaid with heat, IR, Energy and X-ray scans. “[Everything seems to be held together by umbilical cords and some very dubious structural cabling; it’s a temporary structure built for a single purpose.]”

The view changed, enhanced lighting showing the cascading of debris from the center of the cluster; cosmic flotsam and jetsam being pushed into the never-ending garbage patch in the sky.

“[It’s a butcher’s shop. Ships go in, untraceable materials come out. We’re not going to risk the element of surprise by bringing our probes in closer, but from what information we’ve been able to gather there are no defenses to speak of.]”

“That screams trap.” Admiral Hawkings said, taking a sip from his mug as he tapped commands on his station aboard his own flagship. “Unless their entire defense was to remain undetected.”

“[That’s what we’re leaning towards, yes.]” Captain Fierce-gale stated, letting the data speak for itself. “[There’s not energy nor manufacturing capacity that we can detect to field ship based, or even station-based weaponry. Most likely, they’d stay here for a few years, grab a few ships, and then pack up and move to some other part of the galaxy, repeating the process ad-nauseum. There’s no need to dig in – their survival is predicated on flying under the radar, as you say.]”

“So be a big enough operation to be handsomely profitable, but small and fast enough to not get any direct attention.” Admiral Hawkings said, putting the dots together. “So, we’ll have stellar dominance, which is… preferable. We have no idea what we’re going to find inside, though?”

“[None.]”

Admiral Hawking sighed. “Well. Then those poor bastards won’t know what hit ‘em.”

= = = =

The two siblings sat, tiredly whispering to each other during their third hour of a 15 minute “lookabout”.

“|Are you sure you’re going to be OK to stand?|” Toko said, holding his sister’s forearm in his hands. “|[Drongo] said you shouldn’t be pushing yourself, at all.|”

Tiki smiled, trying to flex her braided feathers in as gentle of a dismissive way possible. “|I’m going to be fine; I was always the stronger sibling.|”

Toko said nothing and continued to rub his sister’s forearm, the silence eventually getting to her.

“|Brother, I’m fine.|” Tiki lied, interrupted by Toko’s soft whistle.

“|No, you’re not. You said you needed a moment because of a bout of vertigo, and then the next thing I know you’re sitting down holding onto the ground for dear life.|” Toko chided, turning away for a brief moment to wave away an inquisitive pirate. “|I shouldn’t have let you come out with me, and we both should be listening to [Drongo] more often.|”

“|It’s not bad.|” Tiki said, closing her front eyes and letting the soul-light dance across her mind. “|Just, sometimes I feel a bit off and need to… rest.|”

“|Well… fine.|” Toko sighed, placing his sister’s hand back in her lap. “|Did you find anything interesting before you decided to take a break?|”

“|Mmmmm.|” Tiki hummed. “|Not really. It’s odd seeing our entire lives packed into crates with everyone’s stuff and just sitting there. I’ve half a mind to start rifling through these boxes for our crap, pick out the good stuff. The important stuff.|”

“|I back up all our media at every stop, Tr’’r’ikii, as well as all our mail. As for the memorabilia… well, you can’t take it with you.|” Toko said, a smile in his voice. “|Wow, I actually am starting to fall into this role. I need to get a drink or get shot – something to make me a sinner again.|”

Tiki let out a two-toned whistle of laughter, before cracking an eye open to look at her brother. “|Yes, but what would the faith say, if one of their pillars turned out to be such a degenerate man?|”

Toko shrugged and stood up, making a show of dusting off his robes. “|Well then, I’d have to have a redemption arc, of course! And seeing a degenerate like myself become pious and pure will lead the masses to repentance and salvation.|”

The two twins looked at each other before Toko exasperatedly sagged, the two siblings sharing a light chuckle. “|Oh wow, you do have it bad.|” Tiki mused, closing her eye again. “|Though mom will be proud that you’re now 30 hours sober.|”

“|New galactic record, it is! Step up your game, dearest sister.|” Toko said, looking around. “|I’ll go get you something to eat and drink – a weary priestess going through a tribulation will stir many hearts and hands.|”

Tiki opened her eyes and furrowed her brow, studying her brother’s back. “|Toko! That’s… surprisingly manipulative, even for you! Are you a genius? Or are you actually living the clothes, little brother?|”

Toko let out a groan and began to scratch at his costume, jogging away. “|OH By the GODS I hope NOT!|

= =

Tiki hummed her laughter and closed her eyes once more, the sound of her brother fading off into the distance and being merged with the background noise of strange living that pricked at the back of her mind. The sights, sounds, smells and routines of the past few months and years bled away once you moved to a new environment, and whenever Tiki was on vacation or any form of prolonged leave she took time to savor the new landscape, to really imprint it as a memory she could pull from when the monotony of normal life came back too strong to bear. These memories were, are, and always will be separated in her mind as “Pre-Nate” and “Post-Nate”, with the latter having a surprising amount of sirens, emergency workers, cameras and bar fights.

The sudden realization of that binary BC/AD split – that her mind did not choose her years in service, or losing a lover, or her first time in space, but instead chose a feisty little gremlin with wide eyes, a soft heart and a scheming smile that could be seen from a mile away – made Tiki burst out laughing, the sudden movements causing her new pain to mask over the old. Grimacing and displaying in joy she writhed on the ground for a few moments, before coming to a rest upside down on a ramp.

It was, in fact, one of the better ways to position your body to have an epiphany. If you were a Karnakian, of course.

‘What would Nate do, if he was left alone?’

The thought was idle, and small, and so it slipped into her mind with ease. ‘What would Nate do if he was alone?

Tiki paused for a moment, as she stilled herself to let her mind echo this brave new thought.

It is also in these moments, of course, that the truly absurd can happen.

A memory came up unbidden in Tiki’s mind; an “Official Cultural Celebration” of the 9th ever post-party morning party, Nate standing on the table, fists filled with pancakes and his head in a box, with a peculiar Dirt avian on the box urging you to-

“|Follow your nose.|”

Tiki frowned, and tilted her head as if to hear someone calling her from far away. ‘Follow your nose?

She sat up with a grunt and a soft moan, her head swimming as she fought both gravity and inertia. “|What… well. I mean. Yeah?|” Tiki said to herself, as the congress of her mind convened and worked out the truth from whole cloth. “|I guess his stuff would smell different, and if he’s in hiding… but these started empty. So, he wouldn’t be here – but the obvious goal is. Yeah, is reconnecting. So how would you send a message to someone that you’re alive without screaming who and what you were? A smell?|”

Tiki looked up, staring hard at the vents.

“|A shared memory?|”

Her hands gripped the scaffolding before her as, with shaking feet, she ascended another level on the cargo bay shelves. Gravity was weak enough that a fall wouldn’t be fatal – probably, she was recovering after all – but allowed her to scale vertically up and down with relative ease. It was more an agility course, in other words, than a climbing competition. Tiki hopped onto a coil of wire, and then onto a stacked empty spool that stood right next to an industrial vent; Her 9th one checked so far. The itch in the back of her brain wouldn’t let go, that she’d find something other than dust and chemicals.

She wiped her face down once again on habit, her white robe long since turned grey. With a sigh, Tiki exhaled, pressed her face against the grate, and slowly inhaled, letting the air flow in naturally.

Dust. Rust. Chemicals. An oil-slick scum on the back of your throat, and toast.

‘That. Wait.’ She thought, and repeated the ritual.

Toast. Auburn brown, golden, made of a favored grass seed, and nuts with exotic spices. Nate had “smuggled” in live Dirt animals – because he believed homemade bread was best, and these animals ate and stank like any other.

This was sourdough.

Tiki opened her eyes, and somewhere there in the vents was the soft ding of an egg timer.

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