On a trading route, near a comet, was a ship called Perfect.
The ship itself was one of those utilitarian, multi-species hauler ships that you would find anywhere in the Galaxy; universal parts, dummy thicc armor plating, reliable engines and drives, sturdy bolted-down tables in the mess hall – The Perfect would not win any awards for luxury or speed, or even innovation, but there are few classes and types of ships that can take a nickel-iron meteor impact at full in-system cruise speed and shrug it off.
In fact, that’s why the ship was just called Perfect; not because it could shrug off in-system debris, but because the painting scheme on the outside of the ship had been blasted off on one side by such a meteor strike that it only left the first half (or was it last half? Middle?) of the ships’ name visible. The Captain loved the new change and had the other side of the ship damaged to “even things out” – and the dockyards didn’t mind as long as the IFF signals didn’t change. One of the crew’s hazing rituals was to pester the new hire about what the ship’s full name was, and then playfully tease them for being incorrect. I mean, what kind of person would agree to serve on a ship they didn’t even know the name to?!
Speaking of the ship’s crew, two troublemakers – though that may be a bit too harsh of a word to call what they did to each other and everyone around them on a consistent basis – were hunched over a shared screen on the great ship Perfect, their feathers ruffling each other in that annoying yet comforting way that only siblings could manage. Add to the fact that they were from the same clutch and the same egg means that not only could they finish each other’s thoughts, but they were able to absolutely infuriate each other.
“|Mmmoooovvvveeeeeee~|” Whined the eldest sister of the twins, Tr’’r’ikii, as she attempted to shove her fatter brother out of the chair that he totally just stole from her.
“|Ugh, no! You also type slow, let me figure this out.|” Growled the eldest brother of the twins, Tr’’ro’koi, as he attempted to push against the force of his fatter sister trying to dethrone him from his rightfully-stolen chair, his hands gripping the terminal desk in front of him. “|Look, I’m just trying to find out what our little-needs-protecting decided to send, and then I’m done! Ju-ACK~|”
Tr’’ro’koi clawed at his sister’s, well, claws, as they covered his eyes and scratched somewhat-not-so-playfully at his face. “|If that’s the case why are you checking my recent contacts you blind idiot king-|”
“|AAah!|” Tr’’ro’koi cried out, gripping his sisters’ wrists and prying her hands away from his face. “|It is an elder brother’s duty to chaperone his younger siblings through life, as the scriptures fraaaAAAAOOW|”
Tr’’ro’koi flinched and ducked his head, turning with a frown as his sister leaned back, a smile on her face. “|Oh, sorry, was that a primary? Your feathers are so dull and small, I thought it was just loose down.|”
The two siblings stared daggers at each other, feathers and body language shifting rapidly from “are you done yet?” to “let’s fucking gooooooooooooo”, until a notification pip from Tr’’r’ikii’s monitor snapped them out of their rivalry. The two of them pressed their cheeks together, trying to both see the whole screen at the same time.
“|Ah! What did little-needs-protecting wiggle-nap choose-|”
“|Can you just move a bit it looks like he picked a tragic drama-|”
“|Hmm.|” Tr’’ro’koi mused, leaning back in his seat, a claw scratching underneath his chin as he gazed into the middle distance. “|I wonder wh-UHN.|” Tr’’ro’koi grunted as his sister apparently pushed his off-balance body from the chair and reclaimed his rightful throne, landing him flat on his back. He didn’t change his pose, of course – that would be admitting defeat, and we can’t have that.
“|What made him decide to do that?|” Tr’’r’ikii mused mostly to herself, reading the transmission report as she finished her brother’s sentence. “|I don’t know either – usually we just broadcast feel-good movies to work up the crowd. What in th- OH NO. IT’S THE LONG GRAY.|”
Tr’’ro’koi didn’t even respond to his sister; they shared that weird sibling connection, so just the tone of voice was enough to flip him back on his feet and get him sprinting out the door. His sister caught up to him a few seconds later, and the two of them – still jockeying for position within the long, straight hallways of the ship – raced to the meeting room.
This was bad.
= = = =
There was only one meeting room aboard the Perfect, and quite honestly that’s all that was needed. It doubled as a rest stop and vending machine outlet, and was used for anything from temporary storage to impromptu nap shelter. Originally it was decked out in perfect, orderly rows of tables and seats with a slightly-raised dais on one end for the presenter to stand and give briefings, but over the years some tables had been moved out, the official chairs were swapped for things the crew found more comfortable, and the addition of a few potted plants helped liven up the space. No one knew if the projector even worked, the thing being fired up only a handful of times in the couple hundred years the Perfect has been in service.
“[-So we can all agree: All dangerous chemicals will now be held in minimum 200lb grip-force containers.]” Captain Sassafras said, her tail flicking bemusedly behind her as she coiled on the dais. She looked up from her tablet to see her crew – a healthy mix of all established species, nodding lightly at the new announcement.
All save for one.
“This is speciesism and I’m going to talk to HR about this.” Nate Callaway said, his arms crossed over his chest as he leaned back in one of the few human-only chairs on the ship. “What if I need to open something? Huh? What if my life depends on it?!”
The Captain sighed, resting the tablet against her chest as she attempted to adopt a ‘motherly’ tone, lowering herself slightly in the proper manner of speaking to someone shorter than you. “[Nate, that type of concern might have worked on me the first dozen times, but it’s not going to work on me now.]” Capt. Sassafras said, smiling in a quite charming way. “[My top goal is the safety of every person on this ship, and I’m more than happy to change any of our standard operating procedures to do so-]”
“You’re basically making it physically impossible for me to open up half of the stuff in this ship!” Nate yelled, throwing his arms up exasperatedly. “It’s not like anyone else here is even impacted by this, so you’re very obviously singling me out!”
“[Two things, Nate.]” The ship Medic and HR department Drz’grn-of-Arhref rumbled behind the human, rocking his chair up and down playfully. “[One, this new SOP does not single out any person or species on this ship – and I will take this time to now remind you of the physical labor waiver that you signed before you boarded our ship.]”
“Drongo, I had to in order to g-”
“[And two-]” Drongo said, rocking Nate’s chair a bit more playfully, “[-this is all your fault for getting into the coolant anyway-]”
Nate hissed, spinning around in his captive chair to swipe futilely at the furred arm of his tormentor. “That isn’t even real coolant! It’s made out of fructose and tastes like cinnamon apple cotton candy-”
Drongo rolled his eyes as Nate battled his arm, the human making feral attack noises as he fought a knowingly-lost battle. “[I did not enjoy pumping your stomach, Nate, and I’d rather not do it again.]”
“You don’t know, it could’ve been perfectly fine for me!” Nate said, trying to pry a single finger off of the backrest of his chair with mixed success. “You didn’t even let me try the other flavors-”
“[Those were industrial chemicals, Nate.]” Capt. Sassafras sighed, the rest of the crew rippling with both mirth and slight concern. “[And I commend Drongo for rescuing you from what would have most certainly been your untimely death.]”
Nate crossed his arms again, letting himself get rocked. “You don’t know.”
“[They wouldn’t have given you superpowers, Nate.]” Drongo sighed, stopping his rocking and patting Nate on the head once. “[But you can try your luck on the movers and filers? Wouldn’t that sound fun?]”
“What’s the point of a robot army without superpowers, Drongo?” Nate sighed, slumping dramatically in his chair. The rest of the crew paid him little to no mind; to have a human on board – especially one who took to the particular culture of the ship like a duck to water – meant that you weathered both his bright ideas and their silly little fits.
“[Well, with that out of the way.]” Captain Sassafras said, changing the subject over the protests of her human crewmate, “[As you all know we dropped out of warp into Sweetwater. After broadcasting all of our information-]”
“What’s the name~” Nate called out of both habit and curiosity.
“[-you’re the idiot that signed the paperwork without reading it-]” The Captain said without missing a beat, “[-we should be entering port 72 within the next day or so; apparently there’s a bit of a backlog from some ore ships, so once that’s cleared and cleaned we should have a free dock.]” Sassafras smiled again, almost beaming at this point. “[So, our plan remains unchanged, and everyone knows the drill. Check your maps and vendors, make up your hit list for when we get to the station, we’ll probably have a full week to pick and choose, and then we’re off back to the hub. We’ll do our traditional rotation, starting with Licorice in the back. Any questions?]”
“What is the name of the ship you overgrown orange creamsicle-”
“[Oh Nate, I didn’t know you couldn’t read, buddy.]” Drongo said, sarcasm dripping from his voice. “[Tell you what, we’ll download some speak-n-spell books and work on that tonight.]”
Nate turned around in his chair once more and attempted to give his best puppy-dog eye impression. “D-does this mean we can read your diary to the crew, d-dad?”
Drongo pursed his lips and covered Nate’s face with a large paw, pushing him away. “[I denied to your mother that you were mine and I’ll do it again.]”
“Yeah that’s not what your wife said la-”
Nate never got to finish that thought as two Karnakian troublemaking twins burst through the open doorway, deftly and swiftly dodging the other crewmates to absorb Nate in what could best be described as a “fear/concern straightjacket of feathers”. Now all the crew had been trained on proper human handling, and Nate – after serving on this ship for well over 2 years – trusted these people with his life. In fact, most of the crew didn’t even react to the kerfuffle, and on Nate’s part, he didn’t have the reaction time to.
It also didn’t help that the experience of going from 0-100 in .05 seconds wasn’t absolutely terrifying.
“HHHHFFFFFFFFFFFHFHH~” Nate screamed through the sibling’s hug, his inner ear telling him he was being picked up and possibly turned on his side. After a few moments the warm darkness gave way back to the meeting room, save for the fact that he was on the slightly-raised dais with the captain… and was being held by the twins.
“I admit to no crime!” Nate barked triumphant into the concerned faces of the twins. “Tiki is lying! Toko was paid off! I was blackmailed for those photos-”
“[Nate.]” Tiki – Tr’’r’ikii, said, squatting so she was eye-level with the human. “[Nate. Why did you transmit The Long Gray to the station?]”
Immediately as Tiki said those words the entire meeting room erupted in a cacophony of noise, and none of it was pleasant.
= = = = =
The gig should have worked like this: The Perfect warps into system, gets scanned, sends manifests, metadata, IFF, route information – and most importantly, crew information. Flagged as a Human-carrying vessel under a Senate-approved internship program, The Perfect would then (more than likely) be allowed to have priority access to gates, to fuel, to lodging and a lot of other things. Humans, even though they had a mixed extra-solar colony and were in the middle of a population boom at this point, were still a rarity and in very high demand. More often than not things went swimmingly once the system in question knew they had such an adorable visitor, and the red carpet was rolled out, so to speak.
Then one day Nate had the bright idea to start transmitting “semi-approved” human media to the station with that initial blast of information. If they were caught by the OIH or some other body, plausible deniability: The Captain could say she was just teaching him how to work the transmission, Nate could say he was confused, there’s dozens of ways around the law as it was written. Better yet, the media in question wasn’t illegal, per se; it was modern and not yet had the rubber stamp of approval from the wonks in the high tower. It was better to think of it less like sharing banned media and more like leaking the new human movie a few months/years early. The transmitted media would, of course, stir up immediate interest, and kind of magnify the celebrity halo effect once they actually did hit the station. With this clout, Sassafras and the rest of the crew could use Nate as an incredible once-in-a-lifetime bargaining chip, and negotiate some real sweetheart deals.
No harm, No foul, No fuss, No muss. The station and dock crew got to take pictures with a real live human(tm) and the crew got to make money hand over fist.
That’s how the gig should have worked.
Unfortunately, and knowingly on Nate’s part, instead of transmitting a Rom-com or an action movie like usual, he transmitted the movie The Long Gray. Clocking in at roughly 2 hours, it followed the story of an elderly concert pianist as she went through her day to day life. As the movie progressed, it was obvious to the viewer that there was a bit of an unreliable narrator problem, until near the end the bombshell hit: She had dementia, and her world was unraveling at the seams. The final scene, the old lady humming the half-remembered melody of her favorite song as she’s wheeled away to destinations unknown, is the only memory she has left.
She repeats the melody halfway, and off tune. Incorrectly. Even that little thing, the only thing she has left, is leaving her… and then the world fades to gray.
It’s a real tearjerker, something that most humans wept at, and some xenos even went into depressive episodes over.
It’s also been broadcast to every living sapient on Station 72, a single day’s ride away.