= = = = = = =

Loading bays on long haulers were either one of two things: Full of stationary crap, empty and quiet, or full of moving crap and all hands loading or unloading said crap. To have all hands assembled in an empty loading bay while quiet was… well. It was odd, to say the least.

The fact that the entire crew were arranged in a circle around a cylinder as one of them continued an impromptu puppet show would have any normal medical officer testing the air for gas leaks.

“[OoH bOy! I sUrE hOpE I dOnT dO AnYtHinG sTUpid!]” The suit bobbled forward, errant foam leaking out from underneath the not-quite-sealed helmet ring. “[I wOnDEr iF I cAn SquEeZe tHrOuGh HeRe~]” The puppeteer forcefully pressed the limp suit against the cylinder’s battery connector port, making an exaggerated point to try to shove it’s entire body into a 4cm square slot.

“That’s not nice and you know it.” Came the response from the Human Habitat Module with Snacks. “And I don’t sound like that at all – you gotta add a little more bass to your voice.”

Toko gave an exasperated sigh, a floppy suited forearm smacking against his puppet’s helmet. “[Everyone’s a critic!]”

“No, I just know slanderous media when I see it.” Nate said, poking his head out from the top of his habitat module. The ride back to the station was uneventful; to all outsiders his module looked like a capacitor bank, or a really old coolant overflow buffer, so his group drew no scrutiny when they meandered back to The Perfect. The fact that Nate had been a cheeky little shit means the crew took their sweet time on the way back home, stopping for real groceries, local knic-knacks, and at one point an actual meal.

Sit down, not to-go.

So it was to everyones chagrin that once they finally were back on the ship, instead of being stir-crazy, Nate refused to leave his habitat module. Hence, the meeting on the loading/unloading deck and the tauntingly hauntingly performance by Toko, improv actor extraordinaire.

“[Come on out, your new friend Plate wants to play with you!]” The Karnakian said, wiggling the foam-filled exosuit. “[See? Excited.]”

“M’not gonna. You’re all going to harass me for my brilliant plan.”

“[I mean, yes, but we can harass you while you’re still in the capsule.]” Licorice pointed out, turning his hand over as he shrugged his shoulders in a very human manner. “[But if you get out we can at least make sure you’re OK and put you in something more comfortable.]”

Licorice!” Nate said, turning his head towards his crewmate in shock. “Here, now?! In front of everyone you want me to wear something… comfortable~” Nate ended as huskily as he could manage. “I didn’t know you were into exhibitionism.”

Licorice groaned, pressing a palm into his neck. “[Can you – can your species not be so lewd for a few seconds?! For pity’s sake, I meant one of your snuggies! Or at least your ‘loafing-around’ clothes.]”

Nate narrowed his eyes. “I’ll consider it.”

“[I’ll order you out of that Habitat module, Nate.]” Capt. Sassafras said, slowly sliding towards the human. “[We actually do have to have a serious conversation-]”

“We can right now! I’m serious.” Nate said, completing a revolution inside the capsule to turn and look at the captain. “Serious!”

Sassafras sighed, working her jaw. “[No, come on.]”

“I’m not going. You’re all going to pick on me-”

“[Again, we can do that right now so you may as well come out.]” Licorice interrupted, before a discrete handsignal from Sassafras told him to shut up.

“[In all honesty, we do have to have an all-hands meeting because we need to discuss the ramifications of what you’ve done.]” Sassafras leaned forward, interrupting a concerned Nate. “[Legally, you’re not in any trouble, and I personally am impressed with the amount of planning and foresight that your little adventure took.]” She smiled, placing her hands on her “thigh” in a motherly way. “[Now how about you come out, get cleaned up, and we talk about our next steps, ok?]”

Nate thought for a moment before looking up at the captain with an expressionless face. “I will not fall for your honeyed lies, Boudica! For as soon as I step foot on celtic soil, your hordes shall be upon me like the savages of Iceni!”

Sassafras deadpanned as her translator struggled. “[You’re being a little dramatic.]”


Sassafras leaned back and looked at the assembled crew. “[Flip him.]”


= = =

Drongo grunted. “[And again.]”

The three assembled xenos lifted the upturned cannister by a few feet and then rapidly brought it down, stopping halfway to the floor. There was a loud shifting sound inside, some muffled cursing, but nothing else.

“[Once more.]”

The process was repeated, this time being rewarded with an errant leg losing purchase against the inner wall of the habitat module, the sole of Nate’s foot kicking against the concerningly high mound of trash just below before pulling back into safety. When the crew had initially upturned the container, the hope was that one of them could reach in and just pull him out.

That earned Lilybean a bite on her fingers.

So they began to shake him out. First time, they were rewarded with a fountain of snack and drink wrappers. The second time, more of the same. The third time included pillows and actual leftover emergency rations, and Drongo wondered in the back of his mind how such a small frame could eat so many thousands of calories.

“[This one should do it. Go!]”

There was another coordinated shake, and both Nate’s legs flew out of the container’s bottom – followed soon by the Human himself, unceremoniously landing in the evidence pile of his gastronomical excess.

“[Was all of that really necessary?]” Drongo sighed, letting Licorice and Toko take the container away.

“It certainly was entertaining.” Nate mused, smiling as he worked over his bruises. “Why else would you keep me around?”

Drongo swiped away some of the trash to kneel next to his crewmate, pulling out medical diagnostic equipment and beginning light triage. “[Oh, I don’t know. Helping you learn how to manage natural resource shipping, how to navigate, the intricacies of logistics, assisting in a fellow sapient species’ development and growth-]”

Nate began to count out Drongo’s points on his fingers as he continued, eventually beginning to add his own counterpoints. “-Giving you great videos you can share back at home for fun and profit, letting you permanently “borrow” real human paraphernalia to put your future kids through college, oh! Making your older brother jealous enough to, and let me remember the quote here, ‘rip out his own teeth-’”

Drongo bumped Nate gently with his shoulder, letting out a laugh. “[You wouldn’t get away with half of this stuff if you weren’t so cute.]”

“Do what you can with what you have, yanno?” Nate grinned, the beep of Drongo’s diagnostic tablet giving an “all clear” for the Humans’ general health.

“[It really was over-dramatic.]” Sassafras murmured, coiled up just a few feet away as she watched the two intently. “[But, I agree. Entertaining. Now can we be serious?]”

“Are you asking my permission or-” Nate began, before a look from the captain stopped him in his tracks. “-Yes ma’am.”

“[Mmm, good. I was wondering how close to insubordination you were going to take it.]” Sassafras said, smiling only slightly-sweetly. “[Glad to see you remembered that I outrank you.]”

Sassafras let the silence grow for a few moments as she straightened up, letting the rest of the milling crew sense the tone shift in the room. After a short while, she had everyone’s undivided attention without speaking a word.


Sassafras leaned backwards, working her jaw as she thought. “[Nate’s broadcast of The Long Gray turned out to be too successful. I’m not against – as Nate pointed out – testing other media to see what our overall returns are, but we rocketed past our earnings variance for operating under the radar. This, we all know.]”

The captain looked down at Nate with an indecipherable look. “[The plan-]” she emphasized, earning a sheepish grin from the human as he scooted back to his larger counterpart, “[Was to have Nate gamble away enough of our earnings to bring the books back down, so when we took our copy from this station the net profit would be reasonable. From what I’ve been able to see, it looks like Nate was only able to spend about half of what we actually needed to.]”

There were a few murmurs of acknowledgment, and Sassafras allowed the thought to turn over in everyone’s mind. “[So, with that being said, Sunflower and I have been working on an alternative. I’ll give the floor to him.]”

A bright yellow Karnakian cleared his throat, pulling out a tablet from his messenger bag. “[Thank you, Captain. So as you know my job is to lay up some options for us to take as haul jobs – what you may not realize, however, is that the jobs we actually vote on-]”

Nate perked up from his position in Drongo’s lap. “Wait, y’all vote on the jobs? Why am I not-”

“[Because we vote on what would help you learn the most. On the great arc back we were considering bringing you into the voting process, but this is not the time for that conversation.]” Sunflower said, shutting down that tangent. “[Point being, I’ve found a way for us to bleed a large portion of our excess cash. If everyone will kindly look at the status screen on the far wall-]”

As one, heads turned to the large utilitarian screen that made up a large portion of the interior wall. It served many purposes – to show at a glance who was in the docking bay and where, what and where was loaded and how, any errors or breaches in containment – hell, even where to pull things from to make whatever fabricator recipe was in the queue. Right now, however, it showed a local star map, with their ship’s system highlighted with an orange circle.

“[We’re going to do a, and I don’t think this term will translate too well, but a ‘bleeding charity run’. In essence, we’re going to over-bid on a loss-leading contract to haul some material from here-]” Sunflower tapped something on his tablet, and a system was highlighted with a red triangle. “[-back to Sweetwater. The system we’ll be doing this bleeding charity run to is called “Dust Haven”, on account of it still being located in a nebula. Slightly more industry there than here, but the trade route we’ll be flying is nothing special – just rarely used.]”

“So like a strip of desert road.” Nate mused, his head now the jaw-rest of the male Dorarizin.

 Sunflower thought for a moment. “[I… think that analogy works here. It is a known ‘road’, just not well traveled anymore since the colony was formally established and became self-sufficient. Since they’re both industrial colonies, us pulling raw iron and hydrogen from them and bringing it back to Sweetwater to sell, at a loss, will put us well within the margin of error.]”

“And then we can spend the excess on Snake Dad.” Nate said, nodding to himself.

“[Snake… Dad?]” Sassafras said, looking at Toko who shrugged. “[You mean [Rrsn’sspri]?]”


“[I… I just.]” Sassafras closed her eyes for a few moments, inhaling deeply. “[…If we promise to come back and let you spend time with Snake Dad-]” Sassafras said, an incredulous look on her face as those words left her mouth, “[-will you promise to behave? We can’t send any media, we can’t raise any eyebrows, and – I know this is against code, but – I’d honestly need you to stay on-ship while we do our transaction, because this needs to be totally under the radar.]”

Nate sat up and answered with all the poise of his stoic ancestors. “Yes.”

The two sapients stared at each other before Sassafras broke first, smiling softly and shaking her head. “[…can’t believe what I’m letting you get away with. Alright.]” Sassafras’ tone changed from ‘conversational’ to ‘ordering’, and the crew snapped to attention. “[We’re making way immediately. I don’t want to sit here and get a visit from the actual PDF or System Government, so if you haven’t done your shopping yet too bad – you’ll get priority disembarking and shore leave on Dust Haven. Even then, we’ll be staying only as long as it takes to load, restock and refuel. Navigation has my blessing to begin taking us out of system right now-]” As she spoke, Licorice and a few other crewmates bowed out, heading towards the bridge and engine room respectively. “[-Logistics can prepare the bays for intake, and the rest of us have plenty of things to do for maintenance. If you somehow don’t, then let me know and I will alleviate you of that concerning lack of work.]”

Sassafras leaned forward, maintaining eye contact with Nate. “[As for you, I want you to spend the rest of this journey with Tiki. She’s currently in medbay getting her implants looked at, and I think it would be a great thing if you could lift her spirits.]”


There was a pause, before the penny dropped for Sassafras. “[Look at me – look. I don’t mean in a sexual way-]”


“[Just. Go.]”

= = =

The nerve center was in a natural cave in a naturally occuring “orphaned” asteroid cluster; it may have been a proto-planet or the fragment of a moon long-since impacted and ejected from it’s home star. They didn’t know, and the geological deep history didn’t matter to them.

“[How are we looking?]”

He spoke to his colleague, who was strapped into the command center, wires and sensors connected to a full-body skin-tight suit and a military-grade helmet. Bound in her chair, the female Dorarizin idly bit her lip, drawing a bit of blood. “[Good. Whatever the hell they’re trading must be worth a lot, and they accepted the contract. I’m not… getting any inquiries about our origination details, so it slipped in fine.]”

“[What does it look like?]” The Jornissian said, the low-gravity environment making excited pacing an impossible task.

“[Overbid, definitely. They’re trying to do something fucky with the books, so they may be smuggling anyway – we net ‘em, they won’t squeal.]” The Dorarizin said, working the wound slightly as a nervous tic. “[But, that’s just an assumption, we don’t know-]”

“[If we wanted certainty we’d have been adopted.]” The male Jornissian laughed, patting his colleague on the back. “[I’ll go tell the fishermen, we’ll spread a wide net. They using the trail data you packaged with the contract?]”

“[Most likely.]”

With a grunt the Jornissian gripped a natural handhold, pulling himself up and through a doorway on the ‘ceiling’. “[Keep up the good work! We’ll clean them out and then skip, I promise – last one.]”

He was answered with a noncommital growl, and the nerve center was quiet once more.