They are Smol – Badguys, Boxes and Boops, Chapter 26: The New Religion

They say there’s no honor among thieves.

That is, of course, a gross oversimplification, and not totally correct. Sure, thieves do not fight for King or Country or for any greater good than their own selves. The fight for self-determination, however, does have some nobility to it – and anyone who’s ever paid taxes has had such rebellious thoughts seriously cross their mind, as most pirate recruiters are quick to point out. Although nobility might be in very limited supply, pragmatism was not; doing what made the most sense and gave you the most resources at the end of the day usually ended up being the “right” choice.

Today, the right choice for one particular aspiring pirate named P“pacheep was to sit down against the cool nickel-iron wall of the main asteroid habitat and just exist for a while. The captive doctor he visited did not ignore his oaths – although the Dorarizin may have skimped on the pain medications – and P“pacheep was feeling better after the incident from a few days ago. He may even venture to say that after his first real checkup and health boost in years, he was doing better than he was before!

The thought made him smile, his feathers splaying out in a moment of relaxation as his mind began to reflect. Seeing the doctor probably added another 50 years to his life with the incidental outpatient work and booster shots he picked up. He was part of a big haul. He was injured as part of a big haul. His shares would… probably be pretty good, at least a couple years of ordinary wages off of just this one ship. He could ask Brains on what to do with the funds once they were transferred to a fringe star system account, and if things kept on keeping on as they were, he might even be able to start sending some GRC to his family back home.

Home. The thought was bittersweet to P“pacheep; His home was a dusty brown world with a name so fresh the ink hadn’t dried yet on the official registration paperwork. It was barely terraformed, and each homestead was more of a bunker than an actual house. Raw materials had to be ripped and clawed and gnawed and processed and forged just to become something useful – something basic, that everyone else took for granted… like water.

Sure, his parents were probably right: By the time he was old and bald, his down long since fallen and his claws blunted, his children – or grandchildren – would live in a paradise, with plenty of land and resources to do what they wished for the rest of time. P“pacheep wasn’t against multi-generational projects; he just wish he was consulted before being born into one.

P“pacheep frowned a bit, pulling his limbs tighter against his body as he became lost in his thoughts. Sure, he wasn’t super smart but even he could see that being the first generation on a new planet was a fool’s game – the real payoff was coming in on the second or third wave and just buying completed land and resource rights. If his parents were too stubborn to see that, and his family too dedicated to the task to realize there was a better way-

“|You seem to have a lot on your mind, brother.|”

P“pacheep started at the sound of a stranger’s voice and turned a bit too quickly – a phantom headache making itself known before slowly subsiding. With a wince of pain P“pacheep cracked a single eye open to glare at the new visitor – before realizing he was looking at the civilian ship’s holy man. Remembering some etiquette, P“pacheep gave the stranger a slight deferential dip with his tail. “|My apologies, sir. Just thinking, while I have the time to.|”

“|Well, if you don’t mind me taking a break as well-|” The priest said, lowering a cloth basket of various drinks and electrolyte snacks to the ground between them, before sitting against the same wall that P“pacheep rested against. “|-it’s good to have company. I’m… Tr’’ro’koi.|”

“|P“pacheep.|”

“|Well! Strong name, that is.|” Tr’’ro’koi said, rocking slightly to become comfortable before settling in. “|I was going to pass you by, but I was studying your expressions and scrying your heart. It looks like you need someone to talk to.|”

“|Hah. It’s… well.|” P“pacheep rolled his head side to side, both stalling for time and working out some kinks in his neck. “|I come from a first-gen planet, and it’s very hard-|”

“|I know – that’s one of the roughest lives you can live.|” Tr’’ro’koi agreed. “|Sorry, do continue.|”

“|Yeah, I just. I left to do this because I don’t have any real skills that can bring in a lot of money, and any industry that’s being built back home is… not going to be useful to anyone for many centuries. I signed on because of the money – sure – but also because… if I can make in a year what my family makes in a decade, then after a couple dozen spanlifes I could come home and accelerate everything.|”

Tr’’ro’koi said nothing, but reached down and offered a canned drink to the younger Karnakian. P“pacheep dipped his head in thanks and took the drink, ripping open the soft aluminum top. “|We’d have proper equipment, and more of it. We’d have new equipment to make life easier. We’d be able to own and grow luxury goods, which would actually set our family tribe up for generations, if not forever. If even a fifth of my siblings would’ve just followed me… maybe not here, fine, but somewhere, we would be…|” P“pacheep waved at the empty space in the hallway with his drink, before taking a sip. “|I don’t know. Better?|”

“|Mmmmm. I don- well, first, thank you for sharing.|” Tr’’ro’koi said, making a suitably holy gesture with his hands. “|Second, if I may drop the monastic act here for a moment and speak to you as just another weary traveler who’s seen a lot of this galaxy and what it has in it: People don’t just wake up one day and decide to commit violence, or to hate, or to be evil in general. Life is a lot of gray areas, and although there are certain points we can all rally around – that this is good and that is bad – there must still be room for good people to do bad things and for bad people to do good things.|”

Tr’’ro’koi leaned back a bit, preening his neck in thought with his free hand. “|Your family is worried, probably; they’re worried that you’re dead, or hurt, or that they raised you wrong – and that the “wrongness” might spread to their other hatchlings. They might be worried you’ll come back a shell of your former self, or come back only to die and be buried. There’s probably a million things on their mind about you, and it probably comes and goes, just as it does for you as well in these quiet moments.|”

Tr’’ro’koi looked down and smiled warmly, his collar crest fanning out. “|But I would not be concerned. They raised you well, and your motivations are pure; I don’t think you wish evil on people… you felt desperate, and you took a desperate chance. There’s no sin in trying to provide for your family, and ohdearwe’redoingthis-.|”

Tr’’ro’koi did not get to finish his thought, as P“pacheep let out a soft, warbling wail and flopped onto the “holy man”, ugly crying into his chest. “|Why is everyone so mean to meeeeeeeee~|”

Tr’’ro’koi looked down at P“pacheep’s hips, before looking up into the middle distance. “|I… don’t know, brother.|” He said, patting P“pacheep’s back soothingly. “|Hurt people hurt people. Maybe, with your kind heart, you can minister to these lost souls in your own way, and guide them back towards the light.|”

Tr’’ro’koi meant for that comment to be supportive nonsense – the kind of word mush that a parent would give a teenager letting them know that yes, it will all be alright, and that no, no one will remember you rolling up a personal pan pizza and deepthroating it in the school library. However, Tr’’ro’koi was wrong on both counts.

P“pacheep looked up at Tr’’ro’koi with newfound fire in his eyes, and said the line that would save his life – and take roughly 50 years off of Tr’’ro’koi’s.

“|Your words are wise and true – I will be your disciple, honored master!|”

= = = =

Tiki smiled and sang to herself, fully brooding like a mother hen – or well, Karnakian – in the middle of the warehouse. It certainly looked odd, and on more than one occasion Tiki was asked if she needed help, or if she would like to rejoin her friends, or if maybe – just maybe – she should be escorted to medical to be checked out again. She had politely declined all offers and remained a fire and safety hazard, with the repeated assurances that the priest of her order (which she was having trouble remembering exactly which order she belonged to right now) would be back soon and then they’d rejoin the flock as one!

Oddly enough, none of the pirates took her up on her offer of a religious conversion, which would include a free full-body shaving and an “introductory kinetic baptism” at a time and place of her choosing.

So she sat there, alone with herself and her thoughts, and smiled and sang – until the warehouse doors rolled open on well-worn tracks, the sound of her brother and – and someone else – making their way to her.

“|-so uh, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.|” A voice – her brother’s – said. The tone was off, and Tiki frowned slightly.

“|That… sounds silly. What if you’re facing the wrong way, or forget something 900 miles later? Shouldn’t the first step be a travel itinerary and a checklist? Or uh.. Ah… oh.|” A second, and younger voice trailed off. Tiki felt herself age just a bit quicker, and mentally prepared herself for digging out of the hole her brother tossed them both in. She opened her eyes and smiled at Toko, who returned her smile… lopsidedly. She also looked at some pirate Karnakian that was following him and seemed to have the stars in his very eyes and was looking at her like… like.

Oh dear.

“|Ah, so, this is my – our – honored sister, Tr’’r’ikii.|” Toko said, stepping over gently to lay down the bag of drinks and food at his actual sister’s feet. “|A priestess of our order-|”

P“pacheep stared at the woman, unable to see anything else. “|She is the very image of the divine.|”

The siblings shared a look with each other, the kind of look that guaranteed a beating would commence at some time and place of her choosing.

Toko laughed nervously, looking around at the sparsely populated warehouse they were in. “|Ah, hah… yes, we all have a part of the divine in us – come along, sister, let us not spend too long here, lest we forget our vows of non-violence.|”

Tiki inhaled deeply, centering herself. “|I didn’t expect a new… disciple, brother. One who is uninitiated will not truly appreciate the …holy relic I have rediscovered, and wish to put into your care once more.|”

Toko, to his credit, did his absolute level best to not look utterly confused. Tiki picked up on it, in that way that twins often do, and directed his gaze down her front to her brood-feathers. Leaning slightly to the side, she exposed their caste’s most holy relic.

Ding, chimed the holy relic, underneath all the feathers.

“|Honored masters, what is that?|” P“pacheep innocently asked, before Toko rounded on the young lad.

“|There is absolutely no time to waste-|”

“|But what is that? We have time, you can terhgmd.|” P“pacheep looked down at the hands that clamped his muzzle shut, his “honored master” bringing their faces dangerously close to each other.

“|Listen. To. Me. You’re a good kid, and I like you, and that’s probably my first mistake.|” Toko said, as firm as granite and as quiet as the grave. “|You are going to say nothing about this to anyone, you are going to follow along with whatever we do, and you are not going to ask any questions-|” Toko paused, as if making a new connection in his mind for the first time. “|- if you want to remain my disciple. Understand?|”

P“pacheep blinked his approval, and was released from the surprisingly strong grip of his sensei. He frowned, tilting his head from side to side. “|I just… I just wanted to kn-|”

“|Tell you what, kid!|” Toko chirped as he helped his sister up onto her feet, fluidly taking the Holy Relic into his free arm. “|My dearest sister here is in no condition to walk. So-|”

“|So you’d like me to keep her company?|” P“pacheep asked, hopeful.

“|So I’d like you to carry her. We must get to the rest of our flock, so I’m going to ask you to lead. And we must do it quickly, so I expect you to run.|” Tiki glared a look into the back of Toko’s skull, and he felt it – though he’d never admit to it. “|Not only does everything – and I mean everything – count on it, but our very lives may be at stake!|”

The three Karnakians stared at each other, before Toko stamped his feet. “|Come on then, mount the boyyARGH-|”

Tiki pulled a primary from Toko’s arm, and used it to fan herself in a most un-ladylike manner. “|Well. As long as he keeps his hands to himself, I’m fine with it. Are you?|”

P“pacheep had never agreed to anything faster in his life.

= = =

“[So, how was the meeting?]”

Sassafras gave a non-committal rumbling hiss, drawing a line in chalk on the ground. “[Same as I told the others, same as I’ll tell you.]” Sassafras looked up at one of her crewmates – Pool Noodle, as Nate called her – and shook her head. “[They’re worried, we’re worried, and we’re all just waiting for something to happen.]”

The other Jornissian – Pool Noodle – coiled up with a sigh. “[I hate hurry-up-and-wait.]”

“[Don’t we all?]” Sassafras chuckled, continuing her idle art. “[So are you also interested in the battle plans? Because I think we’re almost done mapping out what Licorice was able to figure out about this station’s layout, and I’m not certain…]”

To her credit, Pool Noodle didn’t sag too deeply at the implication. “[You think it’s too far gone? If that’s the case, yeah, I’m ready to make someone pay.]”

“[Well, I thi-]”

Sassafras never got to finish that thought as the doors to their prison-cell-turned-defensible-position slid open suddenly, a commotion and a tangle of bodies trampling over the Pirate’s heavy gun position and knocking over the sandbags and debris that had been piled up as an impromptu barrier. Tr’’r’ikii spilled out over the mass of bodies, the Karnakian who was carrying her not making the best of entrances. With a hoot and a piercing cry Tr’’ro’koi stood above the writhing mess of confusion and insults and lifted something up with his bare hands. Like Moses bringing the tablets to the Israelis, Like lightning coming down from the mountaintop, he rumbled and roared and all eyes were affixed upon The Most Holy and Sacred Relic-

And Pillsbury, not used to this much attention at all and feeling quite bashful shorted some wires, toasted himself once more, and let out another cheerful Ding.

And the crowd went wild.

= = =

“[So, anything yet?]”

Bile gave a non-committal, frustrated screech in response, drawing yet another path for his drone swarm to scan and sift through the debris of the civilian ship they had butchered so freely. “[It’s the same as it was 5 minutes ago, the same as it was 5 hours ago, and the same as it was a few days ago.]” Bile leaned back at his console, pulling away the headset glasses from his bloodshot eyes. “[I’ve been working straight since then, and I haven’t found a damn thing.]”

One of his subordinates let out an exasperated sigh, The Jornissnan picking at errant scales on his forearm. “[I appreciate you telling us about what we’re looking for, I get it, but… we’re all just waiting for something to happen, and I don’t like it.]”

“[You and me both.]” Bile said, flatly. “[But I’m running out of ideas. There are no life forms left on the ship or around it, and everything that is biological has been pulled in-house and sifted. By the void’s sake, I can tell you everything they ate last week, but I can’t tell you where the human’s body is.]”

The Jornissian hummed to himself. “[What if he’s on-station though?]”

“[We’d have found it.]” Bile groaned, closing his burning eyes and leaning backwards. “[We’ve sifted through every person and place on these rocks, and-]”

“[No we didn’t.]”

Bile, usually not one to allow an interruption to go unchallenged, uncharacteristically remained silent. He didn’t open his eyes or otherwise acknowledge the insubordination, but his silence was enough.

“[Sorry, just. Maybe he’s on an older part of the station? Or maybe he’s in a personal life-craft?]” The Jornissian ventured, flicking through video feed channels on his terminal. “[We’ve scanned the wreckage enough, but have we scanned ourselves?]”

“[That’s.]” Bile paused for a moment, before letting out a mirthless laugh. “[That’s… damn, alright. That’s something that we didn’t consider. Can we-]”

Before Bile could finish his thought, one of his subordinates wordlessly overrode every single terminal in the room. Although doing this was a feat of programming and engineering that would earn Bile’s subordinate both a drink and a backhand, all words and thoughts bled away at the sight – at the urgency of what was on screen.

The drone was a simple and stupid one, and was slowly coasting towards a single block of lumpy metal, floating aimlessly near the outside of an unused thermal vent from the first carved staging rock. There was no indication on the block, there was no lights or transmissions or anything to make it stand out, save for one very simple thing: It was moored.

“[Oh. OH. OOOOHHHHHHHH]” Bile cried out, standing up as he raised his arms to the screens arrayed before him, crowing with joy. “[TELL EVERYONE. NOW.]”

And across three asteroids, and a couple dozen private communication beads, the notice went out.

And the crowd went wild.

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