They are Smol – Boxes, Badguys and Boops Chapter 10: The Natural Habitat of a Smol

The door to the medbay slid shut, and on principle Drongo locked it behind him as his guest hit the deck outside with a thud. “[Not my problem.]”

“[Really, Doc?]” Toko said, smiling as he rubbed his scalp, the suddenly-twisted crown feathers being entirely uncomfortable but necessary to pull off a “pious” look. “[Didn’t think you had it in you to turn your back on someone suffering like that.]”

Drongo groaned, flicking his ears in a dismissive manner as he moved to Tiki’s bedside, looking over her vitals. “[I have more things to worry about – you sure you’re doing a good job on her disguise?]”

Toko hummed as he continued to braid his sister’s collar feathers. “[Yep, it’s not the first time we’ve been holy pilgrims. Just give her a general anesthetic-]”

“[Toko, she’s going to be in a medically-induced coma for a few days after what she pulled.]” Drongo said flatly, checking the autodoc monitor attached to Tiki’s ankle. “[Recovering from fried implants and then immediately pumping yourself full of stimulants is horrifically dangerous, to say the least.]”

Toko shrugged. “[Old habits die hard, it seems – though she’s forgotten we don’t have infinitely-deep pockets backing us nowadays… and braiding feathers hurts until they grow like that.]”

Drongo growled only half-playfully. “[Oh. So you were the little shitcoils that would come to me with darts through your muzzle because ‘your friend peppered the barrel and wanted to see if it tasted good’, eh? Fucking bushwhackers.]”

Toko laughed, shrugging. “[Gotta keep you on your toes, medic.]” There was a pause as Toko watched Drongo do his work, before clearing his throat. “[Uh, so, Speaking of work… seriously: How is my sister?]”

Drongo paused for a moment as he looked over his patient, putting his thoughts into order. “[At first pass? Inflammation of the heart, lungs and spinal column. Possible cranial leaks; I need to get her under an omni-channel scanner and really check. If her implants have broken open: surgery to staunch or remove them. If not, continue to pump her with stem cells, nanites, steroids and anti-inflammatory medication. Might also switch to cold therapy just to spot-treat and accelerate normalization and re-integration of her wetware, if necessary.]” Drongo grumbled, checking over the autodoc collar on Tiki’s arm, adjusting some of the dosages as they automatically pumped into her limp body. “[Of course, it looks like some leftover parting-gift crap that’s not civvy spec, so I’m half blind in doing all of this… but the theory’s solid.]”

“[You wouldn’t… In your service have dealt with, uh-]”

“[No.]” Drongo said, staring at an awkward Toko. “[My people only.]”

Toko frowned a bit in thought. “[Served in the throne worlds?]”

“[Just no mixed crew – and no, not really. My team kind of meandered about in multiple places, and I did a stint with the Senate peacekeepers too. I was just mainly trained on Dorarizin physiology at that time; didn’t want to spend the 17 years going back to school to get omni-species rated, especially if I wasn’t going to stay in. Since I wasn’t in an active role, I spent a few years in the medbay racking up pension time, then decided to go be a tourist.]” Drongo said, matter-of-factly. “[Did my rounds, and it turns out the omni-cert wasn’t too difficult, and now I’m here.]”

The silence stretched, as the two of them watched Tiki’s gentle breathing, the atmospheric mask attached to her snout rhythmically fogging up with condensation before clearing.

“[So where’s our VIP?]” Toko said, apparently done with the handiwork of his sister’s disguise.

“[He was a bit insistent to stay in storage, so we agreed to house him in the pharmacy overflow cabinet.]” Drongo said, reaching up to pull down a robotic arm from it’s recessed hold in the ceiling. “[Odds are I can treat their wounded, they’ll probably let us keep our synthesized generic medication, and all of our… exotics are already slotted – so don’t get frisked.]” Drongo half-smiled, programming the robotic arm to help with his patient’s care. “[Nothing to steal here in the medbay that they can’t synth themselves, and the overflow storage is rarely used, so…]”

Toko nodded. “[Odds are he’ll be overlooked. Let’s hope so.]”

= = =

Early host integration ships for Humanity had to go through many years of rigorous retrofitting and safety standards on the Senate’s dime before they would be approved to house a human being for any length of time, and that tradition didn’t stop once human crews became more widespread: If you were carrying an endangered species, you submitted yourself to the process. Part of this process was submitting your ship to a mandatory full inspection to the United Terran Federation, or UTF, for a thorough once-over. This inspection and additional retrofitting could take months, or even years, and the ship was almost always returned ‘like new’ to the owners.

Operative word here: like. Similar, not exactly.

Certainly the Human quarters were a unique addition, and the locked OIH-approved secret media terminal the talk of the whole ship. Xenos almost always found their way around the bare human quarters to “leave gifts” before their new crew-member showed up, and they were honestly encouraged to do a little bit of snooping. A hidden panel here, a secret cubby there…

…all red herrings.

The UTF had caught on long ago that Humanity was on the back foot in almost all areas – physical, mental, technological, ergonomical, gastronomical – so it would be prudent to give any solo-flight humans every advantage they possibly could in a survival or emergency scenario. The reason to secretly retrofit every ship that was dropped off in Terran space was twofold:

(1) It would allow whatever host specie(s) or government(s) to potentially save face from being accused of letting the resident endangered species die on their watch, and

(2) possibly allow for passive intelligence gathering from the surviving human to be shared with the UTF during debriefing, if shit got so real that the emergency system had to be used.

One example of this emergency system were the red herrings peppered in the human crew quarters; stuffing their living area with secret (but ultimately irrelevant) compartments and switches gave the xenos crew enough “meat on the bone” to feel that they knew everything about the edits to their ship. Believable misdirection, in other words. Each Human crewmate would then be trained on the emergency systems’ use and entry points – and sworn to utmost secrecy, as the whole point of the systems’ effectiveness was in no one else knowing about it.

Certainly making sure the human living quarters could survive a significant amount of damage was sensible, but so were having options that didn’t scream “HEY I’M A VIP, VIP ROOM RIGHT HERE, HELLO COME ON IN.

These fucking panels are so easy.’ Nate said, disconnecting the trick latch behind the vent cover and opening the side panel.

So, part of the “retrofitting” M.O. was to sort of… move some things around inside the host ship. Nothing malicious, mind you, but, well. There is an awful lot of wasted space in xenos ships, and paneling isn’t perfect…

Nate slipped into security ventilation shaft 03, crouching down and turning in place to clamp the vent shut behind him. There were a total of 5 of these “vents” in the ship; soundproof, self-contained, self-pressurized corridors that ran the spine of The Perfect. Every so often there would be some emergency supplies – truly emergency supplies, like oxygen, bagsuits and weapons – bolted onto the wall behind a keypad door, and soft running lights let him know not only the direction he traveled but where was within the ship itself. These weren’t his concern, however, as he began the slow process of crawling on his hands and knees towards the rear of the ship.

No. His goal was one of the two panic rooms: self contained life-rafts, they were built to the same specs as his personal quarters, but buried deep within the guts of the ship. Small, cramped, and ugly; perfect to blend in with normal ship debris or jettisoned compacted garbage. He wouldn’t be living in luxury, as it’s just one room, but he could live there relatively safe for the next few months if necessary.

As Nate crawled forward, he remembered his emergency training acronym SCREM:

Survive: Get yourself out of the situation physically.

Cute your way out of it if you could not.

Reacharound or… Recon: Know your enemy.

Evade: Get out of there… somehow differently than Survive. Wait.

Mechanicus-approved killing machines. Combat Roombas… Or Mitigate Damage.

Wait, fuck.’ Nate mentally growled, cursing. ‘Was it SCREM? Or SERE?

It didn’t matter in the end; he was removing himself from a potential battleground, he was sequestering himself in a secure location, he was going to wait a few hours before poking his head out and checking, and he was going to stay out of everyone’s way. The acronym he used to remember how to do the right thing was irrelevant as long as he continued to do the right thing.

He paused before what looked like a side-branch to the ventilation system and checked the symbols in the light strip for confirmation. Nodding to himself, he laid flat on his stomach and slid down the gentle incline to more-relative safety.

= = =

“[37 so far, Bones.]” the Black Team leader said, not letting emotion creep into his voice. “[Possibly double that need some form of medical attention… I have no idea how many are critical.]”

Bones sighed, heavily. The Jornissian Captain – who goes by “Sassafras”, of all things – was most likely right: They weren’t worth it. They weren’t going to be worth it, but anger at perceived arrogance and dismissal clouded his judgment and lead to the single most disastrous operation his association had ever been involved in. Sure, a lost parasite-dropship here, a couple dead crew there – these things happened.

“[Updating. 39. I just lost two more vitals.]”

“[200 Million GRC transferred into an account, and a modified cargo ship worth, what, double that – with this damage?]” Bones mused to himself, looking at the now-quieted prey floating before his viewscreen.

“[Maybe.]” Yellow Team Lead liaison said, continuing to scan the ship. “[It would be worth more, but…]”

Bones closed his eyes. “[Yellow, my sweet, please don’t hurt me.]”

The female Karnakian just shook her crest, letting out a soft note. “[Our auditors aren’t finding anyth-]”

[DON’T YOU DARE TELL ME THERE’S NOTHING ON THAT VOID-TOUCHED SHIP.]” Bones roared – both to himself, to his team leader, and to whatever mute gods he apparently had pissed off over a lifetime of piracy.

Yellow Team lead paused, for a moment. “[… we have found some good weapons; top tier civilian with some possible black-market military, but nothing cutting edge. Better than what we got, so-]”

“[Explains the casualty count.]” Black Team lead mused, the Dorarizin playing with the tooth he pulled out a few minutes ago idly. “[So that usually means something good.]”

“[Well. They’re also wearing some really nice gear, from what pictures my auditors have sent back.]” the Yellow Team lead Karnakian said, scratching the side of her muzzle. “[Haven’t seen some of these things outside of catalogs and swanky shops.]”

Bones inhaled deeply, before letting out the breath slowly. “[Thank you, both of you, for what you’re trying to do – but literally stripping a crew is petty theft at best; we won’t break even on fuel for this if that’s all we got. You’re telling me your auditors have found absolutely nothing. No secret hatches, no cargo stashes, no fake floors. Nothing.]”

“[It’s fucked. A litter of stillbirths.]” Black Team said, flicking his tooth against his monitor with a plink. “[But consider this: They’re good. Whatever they’re hiding will take longer than a smash and grab to get.]” Black Team lead waved an arm dismissively at his terminal. “[Betrayer’s fur, I can’t even crack their encryption remotely, so unless that Captain is still feeling amicable enough to send us her creds…]”

Bones let out a squak of irritation, bouncing the back of his head against his headrest as he thought. “[Contract is contract and shall ne’er be broken. Dead shares mean at least 4M GRC per death, and 250K GRC per grievous wound. That already takes out a significant chunk from the general ledger, and that’s not counting kin-counting costs for the payout. Captain bleeds first, so I’m not going to see anything from this operation…]”

“[156M GRC in just bodybags, and what – if everyone who’s wounded lost just one limb, that’s what?]” Black Team murmured, looking at Yellow between the bounces of their Captain’s head. “[18M GRC? Not counting lifetime payouts of the dead, of course.]”

“[Sure. So we’re 174 million in the pit before the first word’s spoken.]” Yellow said, starting to tick off points on her fingers. “[Fuel’s roughly 500K among all ships. Staging costs, say double that for the past few weeks? Throw in miscellaneous damages – repairs to ships, to crew equipment, double that? 3.5M GRC for this excursion, before we get into shares for the living.]”

“[180 Million in the hole.]” Bounced Bones’ head between words. “[200 Million transferred. Net 20 Million, but crew capacity halved. That 20 Million would have to cover us for years to rebuild our capacity.]”

“[He’s not wrong.]” Black Team said, picking at his nails slightly nervously. “[We’d also have to toss in for the general ledger’s payouts.]”

“[Nope.]” Bones said, stopping his self-destructive thought process, his head now resting against the headrest. “[We walk away with just their GRC, we no longer are an operation. Not just here, but anywhere. We’d have to move the timetables up on liquidating our inventory to keep us solvent, which would give us unwanted attention… Gods above, I know I’m a sinner, but come on!]”

Silence settled on the bridge again for a few moments, before Bones looked down at The Perfect floating before him. “[Yellow. How much is that ship worth? Parts, not sum.]”

“[Aaah…]” Yellow Team lead warbled in thought, looking over her scans once more. “[Uh, etched in sand here? Most of it looks functional, and we can always adjust… uh, minus costs?]”

Bones let out an affirmative peep. “[Best guess.]”

“[Whew, uh. Assuming absolutely no cargo, and we butcher him for parts only and those parts are easy to get and those parts aren’t damaged… Maybe another 250 Million? Those engines look practically brand-new, and most of the shielding is pristine. I know nothing about the guts, of course, bu-]”

Bones held up a hand to silence his colleague. “[I know, I know. I’m not asking for you to give me a quote written in blood here – just, do you think it’s worth it to scrap the thing?]”

Taking a few minutes to look over The Perfect, and running a lifetime of logistics numbers in her mind, she nodded to herself. “[Yeah. Yeah, I think it’s worth it, and I think we have to.]”

Yellow Team Lead didn’t know it at the time, but she had just made the most important and impactful decision of her life.

And it was the wrong one.

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