They are Smol – BBB Chapter 2: The kids are alright

Actually important Author’s Note: The new word that was invented for this story basically means “an epiphany with a gnawing realization, or mixed with regret/remorse”; “an epiphany + a sudden pit in your stomach”. I know there’s probably a German word for it, but hecc it. We doin’ this live.

= = = = =

Nate realized, just a few moments too late, that it was possible to receive angry headpats. After learning that the movie he sent over to “work up the crowd” was The Long Gray, there was a solid 10 minutes where his crew was totally uncontrollable, unreasonable, and inconsolable. Granted, it was a sad movie, fine – all species had them, and Humans in the past century had digitally filled in the “innocent sacrifice” role for hero development in xenos movies more times than he could count. But apparently the one-two punch of The Long Gray starting off as a feel-good drama and ending up as a tragedy after two hours of slow suffering… eh. It hit different.

Nate kept his arms crossed as he was passed to another crewmate for angry chiding and cuddles. He was no stranger to being passed around, either – new exotic alien, lonely ship at night… look. It was an open secret, ok? Once you got over the pants-shitting terror the only thing left was curiosity, and isn’t that what ancient man dreamt of when he first looked at the stars?

“[You’re monologuing again.]” Licorice murmured, the male Jornissian resting his larger head on Nate’s crown. “[And if you were interested you should’ve said something.]”

“It was experimentation.” Nate explained, and felt the Jornissian chuckle.

“[Repeated experimentation with most of the crew?]”

“I can’t help that I’m in high demand, Licorice.” Nate matter-of-factly said, unsuccessfully trying to wiggle his head out from under his crewmate. The Jornissian tightened his firm grip on the smaller human, giving the equivalent of a contented, if annoyed sigh. “[No.]”

“None of you have even let me explain-”

“[No.]” Licorice mumbled. “[No tears now, only dreams.]”

Nate pursed his lips as he thought, before looking up at the rest of the crew. It was very obvious to everyone that what was originally the “how could you do this” shaming show had turned into “yet another excuse to pat the human”, and to be honest Nate didn’t mind, but he had hoped to at least explain his reasoning while he was being manhandled.

“Can-”

“[No.]” Interrupted Sassafras, who wasn’t angry but who was very disappointed in Nate’s life choices. “[We’re going to have to run damage control for our entire time here, Nate! This changes the math-]”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. I’m not just a pretty face, yanno!” Tiki let out a chuckle at that, but Nate pressed on. “I have a great big brain. It has many wrinkles, lots of good thoughts.”

“[So in what universe was this a good idea?]” Toko said, finishing off a hyper-preserved confectionery he picked up from one of the break room vending machines. “[We’re used to your eccentricities, but these are strangers and don’t know that you’re a little shit.]”

“Firstly, Atlanta.”

“[Low blow, but we’ll do it again I swear it.]” Toko grinned, balling up the snack wrapper as he was gently smacked from behind by his sister.

“Secondly-” Nate continued, ignoring the sibling slap-fight unfolding right next to him. “-we’ve tried the adventure angle a dozen times now, from Indiana Jones to The Expendables and everything in-between. We’ve got good baseline data for how much that usually nets us, right?”

“[…Yes, we do.]” Sassafras said, tilting her head 90 degrees to the right. “[So what, this is a test?]”

“Bingo.” Nate beamed, reaching up to pat Licorice’s cheeks to his words. “So I figure we need to get some A/B testing going on. We’ve tried action and action-comedy, for very obvious reasons I’m not going to send over romance-”

“[Don’t think you can handle it?]” Licorice rumbled, smiling as tiny hands bapped his face.

“Nah, y’all just get jealous easy. Point being, we’ve got Drama/Tragedy to try, and outside of that… what? Pure comedy – which I don’t want to play the actual clown for a few weeks, documentaries are boring and no one watches them, and horror doesn’t exactly translate and isn’t something we want to send over, lest an entire station tries to spook me or something.”

“[Mmmmm. I get the angle, but I don’t like the method – that’s a rough movie.]” Tiki said, winning the slapfight against her brother.

  “[Mmmmn. It might be messy, and there’s probably other movies you could have sent.]” Toko said, winning the slapfight against his sister.

“Well, we still need to keep plausible deniability, right?” Nate sassed, pinching and pulling Licorice’s cheeks to no avail. “So if this all backfires y’all truly didn’t know, and if it goes swimmingly then there’s no problem at all.”

“[I don’t like being kept out of the loop.]” Sassafras said, sighing. “[But I can appreciate the logic behind it. We’ll work on running interference for the first few days, per usual. Test the harvest, see if it bounces, and if it’s good we’ll put you on the station.]” Sassafras lowered herself to look directly into Nate’s eyes, the sudden intense gaze causing him to shudder slightly and Licorice to pull around him defensively. “[But if there’s any hint of dangerous or destructive sentiment among the stationers, you’re staying on the ship.]”

“Fair dinkum.” Nate confidently replied, shrinking into the coils of his crew mate and not meeting the searing gaze of his ship captain for some reason he couldn’t put his finger on. “I just wanted to try something new, see if I could help out a bit more.”

There was a heavy pause before Sassafras visibly drooped, the fire in her eyes and the steel in her voice suddenly becoming misplaced at the mordiphany that Nate was just trying his best. Sassafras’ response seemed to have a ripple effect on the crew, as the general mood shifted from ‘bemused anger’ to ‘guilt-laden remorse’. 

“[It’s alright.]” Sassafras said limply, leaning back to check her tablet notes. “[We’ll adjust, don’t worry about it.]”

“Ok.” Nate replied, not looking at anyone in particular, as his time being passed around the break room came to a very sudden and awkward end.

= = = = = =

“<-D. Manifest encryption key being sent now; confirm patternback.>” I’css’oriss – Licorice – confidently called into his communicator, speaking to the dock master’s operator as The Perfect’s pilot started a slow putter into an open bay.

“[Confirmed, uh, patternback.]” The dock master responded, his voice thick with some emotion. “[You all… alright?]”

“<All systems green from what we can see, rolling in at half station-limit.>” I’css’oriss replied, watching indicators that the data he was sending over was being properly accepted by the station’s network and parsed correctly. “<How are things on your end?>”

“[Fine, fine… we’re all fine. Are you all fine?]” The dock master said, a slight whine in his voice. “[Because, we do have excellent medical crew on staff.]”

I’css’oriss frowned “<Yes, why wouldn’t we be->” There was a pause as yesterdays’ event flooded his memory, and he sighed.

‘Here we go.’ He thought, as he composed himself. “<Yes, the entire crew is in perfect health of both body and mind, I can assure you. I can also assure you that our Human is perfectly happy and healthy, and received a clean record of health from his last checkup a couple years ago.>”

“[O-oh! I wasn’t, I mean, I didn’t mean to insinuate anything regarding a particular species or personnel onboard your ship-]”

“<That’s fine. Nests open to receive Master patternback for docking.>” I’css’oriss said, trying to keep things professional.

“[Yeah! Uh, confirmed sent. And again, I’m not insinuating anything, but we have some of the best doctors in-system on this station-]”

I’css’oriss worked his jaw. “<You… have the best doctors in the entire system… on a mid-rim logistics station.>”

“[W-well they did kind of arrive this morning – for unrelated reasons, of course!]” The dock master said, reassuring absolutely no one, “[And our System government has a great, uh, public health drive! To make sure everyone’s happy and healthy and lives long and remembers who they are!]”

I’css’oriss stared into the middle distance as The Perfect drifted to a stop, magnetic gantries extending to lock the vehicle in place as umbilical wires, maintenance drones, and freight ferries started to automatically connect to the ship.

= = =

Customs was always a “fun” time – and sadly, the dripping sarcasm of that statement is difficult to get through in text. Customs eer, customs, ranged from station to station and territory to territory, from an incredibly laizze-faire “we don’t care as long as you don’t start shooting” to the incredibly strict “Your declared weight of this water bottle is 0.5 grams off; prepare the cavity search.”

Not that cavity searches were all bad, mind you: sometimes you got a communicator ID out of it and a date. However, that was just the dry protocol! The people were also unique, from their dress to their customs, from the food to the decor. Sure, there were species-wide aesthetics, but regional and local tastes almost always dominated, much to the benefit of every weary traveler who had not only counted the composite panels in their ship’s hallways, but named them. Point being, you never quite knew what you were going to face once you got off your ship and into a foreign land; it was part of the adventure and joy of stepping foot in places outside your door in the ever-growing galaxy.

“|Are we ready?|” Tiki said, checking her bags as the main airlock seals rotated in place. Her brother, standing beside her, fussed with his bags as well, responding with a non-committal chirp. The two of them, plus another half-dozen crew, were standing shoulder-to-shoulder as their docking ramp connected to the station proper, in twos and threes stacked up behind one another. To an untrained eye, it looked like they wanted to hurry off the ship and stretch their legs – and part of that was true. To a trained eye, however, it looked less like eager crewmates and more like a living shield wall.

There was a sudden and final thunk as the master seal magnetically connected the circuit, the crew placing their oddly-heavy luggage in front of their feet as the door slid open with just a slight disturbance of air. The disturbance of people on the other side was anything but slight; almost as soon as the two groups made eye contact the station employees swarmed the crew of The Perfect, who for their part remembered their training and remained in the airlock hallway.

“|Please calm down.|” Toko sighed as a medical-frocked Dorarizin attempted to push past the trained crew, being gently but firmly rebuffed.

“[I just need to make sure there’s no medical emergen-]”

“|There isn’t; if there was, we would have requested aid.|” Toko deadpanned, as out of his peripheral vision a Jornissian attempted to barter with his sister. “|I appreciate your concern, and the kindness of the people of Sweetwater. However-|Toko raised his hand, pressing it against the chest of the protesting doctor. “|-I need to remind you that unless the crew has notified the station management of a medical emergency, as is required by interstellar law, that no station personnel can force entry to our ship, as outlined in interstellar law. We play above-board on our ship, especially with our crew’s safety, as regulations require us to do so.|”

The Dogtor frowned, baring his teeth unkindly. “[Well in my medical opinion you have some crew that needs to be looked at, so-]”

Toko leaned forward, pressing his cheek against that of the agitated medical worker, interrupting him with a sickly-sweet song as he stared unblinking into the Doctor’s eyes. “|-In my opinion, the only people you’ve killed have been on an operating table, and you’re attempting to illegally force entry onto a Senate-UTF partnered ship-|” There was a sharp intake of breath as the clear metal blade slipped between Toko’s claws, the hilt pommel pressing at the space between the Dorarizin’s ribs. “|-and if I flick my wrist not only will I add you to my body count, but the Trifold Illuminated Path will give me a fucking medal.|”

A range of emotions played across the Dorarizin’s face, from anger and shock to fear and confusion.

Toko leaned back, smiling. “|The book deal alone will net me billions.|”

The Dorarizin fumed, and with a huff and not a few unkind words the man walked away – only to be replaced with a new supplicant. Toko palmed his knife and stretched up to see a sea of concerned and curious faces, and sighed internally.

This was going to be a long trip through customs.

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