Local systems, especially mixed systems, usually developed somewhat unique habits after a couple hundred years of running things. After a few thousand, those habits and past-times became cherished culture and unbreakable customs – much to the enjoyment of those who came to visit, and those who hoped to export their culture to the stars at large.

“I’m going to bet on Blue.”

There were, of course, constants: People needed to eat, to sleep, to practice good hygiene, to make more people – the basics. These things were as certain as stars being hot and black holes being as thicc as your mom, and nothing was more certain than when a person with bad judgment had money to burn they’d find incredibly silly ways to burn it.

Tiki looked over his choice, tilting her head from side to side. “[So why Blue?]”

“Cause it’s totally gonna smash.” Nate said, looking up at his crewmate with the certainty born out of using someone else’s money to place random bets on the in-system internet. Sure, this system had it’s sports carried over from the galactic common – and those bookies had already taken Nate’s money. Other companies allowed betting on local and regional racing, and they’d also reaped a surprise windfall from the little human. Currently, he was on one of the more esoteric betting sites and was gambling on – of all things – a flower.

Sweetwater had a local flower – as almost all planets with ecosystems do – colloquially called ‘The mad painter’s flower’, or ‘popflower’, and it was as special and unique as the trillions and trillions of other types of flowers that existed to the knowledge of science at large. This one was a thick-stemmed girl with steamed-bun looking buds, pale and doughy. As they “ripened” the buds split and cracked at the top, blooming into interlocking petals, the thick slices of porous plant material dripping a pollen and nectar analogue for the main planet’s pollinators to get a free lunch with as the sudden shift in weight seemed to bow the flower down. ‘The Mad Painter’s Flower’ carried no horrific disease, was not made to create the ambrosia of the gods, had no particularly fascinating scent to write home about, was not used in any form of medicine – there was nothing particularly special about this plant existed save for a single, almost incurable quirk of it’s genetic makeup:

Every single bud bloomed a different, and random, color.

There was no correlation between any of the colors. One could be a bright, emerald green – and it’s neighbor on the same twig could be a dull and trashy brown. You’d have scarlet reds and bright tumeric oranges one year, and the next year those same buds would be replaced with royal purples and concrete gray. Each plant bloomed uniquely, and from a host of totally random colors, and every year the entire thing changed – which was no doubt evolution’s bid to keep the pollinators coming back year after year, for millions of years.

And if you’re a casino looking for cheap ways to part idiots with their money… what better thing to use than what nature already provides?

“[Gonna smash, huh?]” Tiki smiled, gently tapping a down arrow to lower the bet by a few thousand credits. “[You sure about that?]”

“Smash that motherfuckin’ like button and ring the bell.” Nate said, wiggling as he placed a bet on a slowly rotating flower plant that had 7 of 18 buds bloomed, dozens of cameras at different angles to give the gamblers some sort of “edge” to their totally scientific wild-ass guessing. “This one is totally going to get our money back, 100%.”

“[Mmmmm.]” Tiki said, nonplussed, as she tilted her head back to stare flatly at their booth-neighbors who had gotten a bit too curious about the Human, trying to lean over the dividing wall to be included in the conversation. Tiki locked eyes with a Jornissian, who for her part at least looked bashful for a few seconds before slowly trying to extend her head over to catch more information about their diminutive crew mate.


Toko, in-between bites of his 5th free “Pentuple-Decker Calorie-Killer(tm)” sandwich monstrosity, thumbed off the safety of his highly-illegal table-pistol, the internal workings of the hypersonic plasma pellet gun screaming to life. He didn’t even look up from his tablet, but the message was clear and received, the civilian ducking back behind the safety of her booth.

Tiki turned her flat gaze to her brother, who clicked the safety back on with a slight shrug without looking up. “[So what now, Nate? You’ve spent… how much?]” Tiki said, pressing her chin into the crook of his neck playfully.

“Ah. I think something like 20 million-”

The two Karnakians at the table seemed to visibly flinch, Tiki subconsciously pulling the Human against her slightly before relaxing. “[That… I keep forgetting how much this run is netting us-]”

“Yeah.” Nate said, his sigh fogging up his visor slightly before it was cleared away. “But I think this is a good start. Maybe we do another 5 Million – I can’t believe I’m being so casual about that number, hah – and uh.” Nate struggled a bit against his chaperone’s arm, rolling it off of his shoulders before continuing. “Maybe lose another couple million at the next station?”

“[Why do you want to spread it out?]” Toko said around a mouthful of something that was probably a whole animal at some point. “[Wouldn’t it be better to bleed it all here, now?]”

“Well, I don’t know. You might want to ask Sassafras what she thinks, but my idea was to make it look like I have a gambling problem.” Nate said, closing his tablet for a moment as he looked up in thought. “Losing over a couple of stations would tack well with that kind of condition, and it increases the plausible deniability of the rest of the crew – it also means we could bleed future over-earnings as necessary, and if we’re ever audited only my sticky fingers are on the card and tied to the account spend.”

“[You’ve put a lot of thought into this, haven’t you?]” Tiki said warmly, giving the human a bit of an affectionate shake.

“I did fuck everything up-”

“[Don’t carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.]” Toko said, surprisingly soft.

  “[A single pebble does not make the avalanche.]” Tiki said, motherly and warm.

Nate rolled his eyes at the platitudes, clapping his hands once. “Yeah, well… oh speaking of an avalanche, I gotta go.”

“[We’re not going anywhere but back to the ship-]”

“No, Toko, I mean, I have to go. You know-” Nate began making some hand gestures, and the male responded with a soft “ah”.

“[Alright. Tiki, slide out of the booth-]” Toko said, grunting as he himself poured out of his side of the booth, the multiple servings of food finally hitting him all at once. “[Ooohg. I feel like I ate a boulder.]”

“[You nearly did! You depopulated an entire farm, I bet.]” Tiki chided, sliding out and turning around to help Nate get down from the non-human friendly seating and onto the floor. “[You’re going to be doing PT for a week to fit back into your exosuit.]”

Toko shrugged and hummed, following the human to the back of the bar – and to the restrooms. “[Mmm, if I have gained that much size I’ll just borrow yours – they’ll hang loose-AAWH.]” Toko writhed as his sister dug two claws right into his wingpit. With a sore look that was returned by his sibling, he ushered Nate back to the restrooms. As they stopped before the restroom door, the two of them shared a look.

Nate put his hands on his hips. “You are not

Toko raised his hands, lowering his body in deflection. “[I know, I know. Let me just go in to check, alright? Then you’re good to go.]”

“Hah! Good pun.”

“[I don’t… whatever.]” Toko murmured, shaking his head as he opened the large door. The interior was pretty standard for a station bar – a couple of advert panels, drains on the floor, vents – far too small for his companion or anyone else to get through – on the ceiling, wash stations and privacy stalls on the other side. He checked each stall for occupants and found none, and with a couple quick sweeps of a scanner found no obvious bugs or anything hazardous. It was a bog-standard bathroom for a bog-standard station, and Toko slid his tongue between his teeth to pick out a morsel he missed before mentally deeming the room “safe for use”.

“[Alright, you’re good to go.]” Toko said, opening the door and letting Nate walk past him. He bowed in the overly-exaggerated manner of his religious caste and Nate did something called a ‘curtsy’ before Toko walked outside. “[5 minutes?]”

“Five minutes will mean I have my suit off, Toko.” Nate said, keeping the door open with his foot. “Look, just hang out here and wait… 30 minutes at most, I’d say? 5 to de-suit, 5 to re-suit, 10 to think about the life choices I’ve made, 10 to just not be in this fuckin’ suit.”

“[Sounds like a plan.]” Toko said, turning around to face the patrons at the bar. There were a few people who looked like they were going to try to use the facilities, but a very concerned look from Toko made the few patrons stupid enough to entertain those thoughts realize how bad it would look that they’re trying to force themselves into a room with a Human who is trying to relive themselves.

…yeah. No way to spin that PR machine in a positive light.

The door swung shut, and Toko began his vigil.

= = = =

These fucking panels are always a pain in the ass. Nate thought as he massaged his hands, trying to work out the sudden cramp that had hit him in the middle of his work. His plan, for the most part, had been going off without a hitch – well. That would be too generous; it had been proceeding with acceptable variance. His plan – Operation Xanatos Gambit, as he decided to call it – had taken weeks to formulate, and it could all still go tits up at any point… but he was close. So close he could taste it.

Sure, it was one plan in a string of failed plans, but he had learned from each previous one, and this… this was almost as foolproof as it could be. He just needed to make sure to work within the 30 – 50 minute timeframe he had given himself-

Nate frowned. ‘30 minutes, for fuck’s sake. I could’ve gotten away with an hour if I tried.’ He stared at tilted advertising panel, the advert for self-adhesing tape or something still cycling happily with local resort ads and some new sports drink from the center of the Dorarizin empire. His colleagues had apparently gone through a, for lack of a better term “human-proofing” course, and so they’d check all the obvious ways for entering or exiting a room before deeming it clear – not only to protect him from being kidnapped, but also ‘for his safety’, I.e. to stop him from escaping if necessary. It was what it was, and Nate didn’t hold it against his trained and protective crew – he was a space panda, for fuck’s sake. However, training always left gaps.

Like the gap between walls behind an advertising panel, for example.

With a grunt he gripped the sides of the poster-sized panel, wiggling it forward and backwards, side-to-side. The goal was not to rip it off so much as to pry it off, keeping all the electronics intact. The last thing he wanted was station maintenance to get a repair code and raise some eyebrows.

With a satisfying pop the LCD panel came free, a nest of wiring and power cabling slowly roping out of the 24in x 36in hole in the wall. He gently lowered the (probably incredibly sturdy) screen to the floor and peeked over the waist-high opening, looking around the maintenance gap to see what he was working with.

“Well.” Nate said, grinning, as he hefted himself up into the gap properly. “I’ve squeezed through tighter spots.”

With a light tamp of his booted feet he landed in the maintenance space – a purposefully built gap between the bar bathroom wall and the general station corridor wall. Places like this existed almost everywhere, little places that people who never dealt with them never thought of and probably didn’t know existed. Nate’s father had been an electrician, and so in his youth (and to the ignorance of OSHA) he had followed his dad into places just like this. Places and spaces between the walls, where people and robots sometimes have to go to fix and wire and weld and mend without disturbing the people on either side.

Spaces like this always had multiple entrances and exits; it was just a matter of picking a direction. And since going to the right meant going into a dead-end wall…

Nate began to shuffle his way to the left, moving dusty cabling out of his way.

10 minutes, at most. He thought to himself, as he began to move with purpose.

= = = = =

Rrsn’sspri was content. The older Jornissian mechanic had finished the first half of his shift, with the only real problem being a couple of hydroponic pumps getting overheated with some loose algae clogging the fans, and the rest of his ticket queue looked completely clear. Union rules stated that all non-emergency tickets had to be logged at least 17 hours in advance, and he only had 10 more hours to go in his shift – any actual emergencies, unless they required a Master mechanic, would be handled by the junior crew, so that meant…

…well, it meant that Rrsn’sspri just needed to look busy. Wander the halls, hum attentively at some flickering signs, chat up a few of the local business owners and agree about how the station was falling into utter disrepair and should really be abandoned by now, and generally kill time.

Yes, Rrsn’sspri was content for all of 30 seconds before a loud pap got his attention. Frowning, he looked down a side-corridor, noticing that one of his maintenance drone tunnel access panels had somehow fallen out.

“<. . . I knew we shouldn’t have used magnetic seals on those things.>” Rrsn’sspri mumbled to himself, slowly making his way over to the problem panel. “<I said they’d fall off, I did. The magnets are too weak, all it needs is the station shifting and we’d have them popping off all over the place! But no, don’t listen to old Rrsn’sspri, he’s just basking until he bakes->” With a grunt that belied his age he leaned down, gripping the panel – before two tiny feet jumped down on top of it.

Rrsn’sspri was by no means trained in combat, or in fighting, but to his credit he retreated like a champion.

The fear-scream was also totally a battle cry, and he’d go down to his grave saying so.

“<WHAT TH- WHO?>” Rrsn’sspri lowered his body, glaring at the robot who… no…

“[S-sorry! I’m so sorry-]”

“<I uh… wait.>” The Jornissian blinked, slowly, as he realized he was speaking to the only Human in the sector. “<Oh! Howww….? What?>” Rrsn’sspri’s questions lingered in the air, as fear turned to curiosity.

“[I don’t know!]” The warm-cuddle said, looking around with a – frown? That was a frown, he remembered that indicator from that movie he saw-

-Oh. Rrsn’sspri looked down slightly as he gave himself a sad. “<Hey, it’s going to be ok, It’s ok.>”

“[N-no it’s not!]” The warm-cuddle protested, looking up at the older maintenance worker with sad eyes. “[I don’t know where I am!]”

‘<NNNNNNNNGH.>’ Went Rrsn’sspri’s internal dialogue, as he doubled over slightly while clutching his chest. “<S-ssh. Look, you’re, you’re on section 343 of Transport Installation 04 for the Star system Sweetwater.>”

“[Oh.]” The warm-cuddle stood there in thought, looking down at his wobbly little feet, before making eye contact with Rrsn’sspri. “[Then… what ship did I come from?]”

‘<OH NO.>’ screamed Rrsn’sspri’s thoughts, as he adopted his most fatherly attitude. “<You forgot?>”

“[Y-yeah, I guess. I don’t… I don’t remember. I think it was a cargo ship, but I don’t know the name.]” The warm-cuddle seemed to hug itself, and Rrsn’sspri sighed, reaching out his hands.

“<Come on, come here. We’ll go to a maintenance terminal, figure out if any of the ship names look familiar to you, OK?>”

“[Oh boy, thank you! I can’t wait to figure it out!]” With a bright, wide smile – a smile that was weeks in the making – Nate leapt forward and grabbed the much larger hands of his newest, bestest friend.