They are Smol – Boxes, Badguys and Boops, Chapter 5: The best laid plans of mice and men

The problem once you got the ball rolling – whatever that ball ended up being was not important – was the fact that the ball was now rolling. An object in motion tended to stay in motion, etc., etc., and it gets exponentially harder to stop things or adjust course once you go underway. It’s why the old adage “measure twice cut once” is such good advice, and really should be heeded more often by people of all ages.

Like, for instance, Nate. Especially Nate.

He was a good 15 minutes into what he had hoped would be a generously-alloted 10 minute window to get a single question answered: ‘What is the name of the ship he came in on?’ Nate’s the only human so he figured it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out-

“[And this here’s the condenser coils! Have you ever seen these before?]” The kindly older Jornissian said, leaning down a bit in an incredibly patronizing way. Nate sighed internally and feigned rapt interest, turning over the pringles-sized dehumidifier coil in his hands as he ‘studied’ the device. When Rrsn’sspri took him to a maintenance bay Nate was initially hopeful – getting access to the maintenance areas with an all-access pass chaperon would probably also mean access to the station operations network, and to his ultimate prize.

Nate couldn’t leave well enough alone, however, and had to over-act; a slip of the tongue and an innocent question about waste storage bins turned into 20 questions, and then 200. What had originally started as a “let’s get you the name of your ship” had turned into “let’s quiz you on everyday objects because you might be losing your mind and maybe this will bring your memories back I saw it in a holovid once!” And this new game was eating up his precious time.

But he couldn’t drop the facade… he was further along in this plan than he had ever been in any of his others, and he was so very close. Again. Ball. Rolling. No stopping.

“Y-yeah! I remember this, it’s one of those things that takes the water out of the air!” Nate said, doing his best to keep the lie going as he smiled wide at the kindly old maintenance worker. Rrsn’sspri rumbled happily to himself, placing his hands on one of his lower coils and leaning forward.

“[That’s right, lad! Well done! Now let’s move onto my 2,700 piece ratchet set-]”

‘Oh God no’ Nate thought, a shiver of dread shaking his frame as visions of wardrobe-sized maintenance sets swam through his memories.

“Um! But my friends!”

“[Hm? Oh! Oh right, terribly sorry about that, hah!” Rrsn’sspri laughed a bit, reaching forward to gently place his hand on the human’s back. “[I got carried away, new friend – sorry again. Let’s go check the ship logs, shall we? Then I’ll radio to your captain – remember what a captain does?]”

“Drive the space boat!” Nate said, smiling as he very obviously pocketed the condenser coil.

“[That’s right! And then your Captain will come here and bring back all your friends and then you can go home again.]”

“I like home!” Nate cheered, bouncing forward with all the youthful enthusiasm that someone who audited a community college drama course could fake. “But where is home?”

“[Mmm, right. This way-]” Rrsn’sspri recovered, helping direct his diminutive charge over to his office. With a thought his implant opened up the door, and Nate stepped fearlessly though the threshold.

It was… well. A union foreman’s office. There were a couple of trophies for some regional company sport team buried behind mountains of paperwork and binders full of unknown crap, various boxes and odds and ends stacked in that “I swear this is temporary but will probably finally be cleaned out once I retire” kind of way. Rrsn’sspri gently moved past Nate, across a slightly discolored and well-worn groove in the metal flooring in-between stacks of not-to-be-touched odds and ends; Nate mused silently about how the office would be different if it was carpeted, and then quickly realized that nothing much would’ve changed except the amount of dust in the air. Speaking of, the office had a bit of an old-book smell, the kind that comes with consistent use and aging paperwork; it wasn’t an unwelcome fragrance, and Nate subconsciously looked up to count the drop-ceiling tiles that weren’t there. The Jornissian eventually coiled in on himself behind his crescent-shaped desk, a centuries-old terminal beeping dutifully to life. The scene was comforting to Nate in a way he couldn’t place, and for a brief moment he was overwhelmed with a homesickness for his father’s office, for playing trucks in a suspiciously clean square of carpeting next to towering mountains of paper, for a youth that passed by him so quickly he didn’t know it was precious until it was gone.

“[… Nate, friend? Are you ok?]”

Nate looked around a moment before nodding. “Yeah I… sorry.” He mumbled, an unplaced emotion thick in his voice.

“[It’s getting worse, isn’t it?]” Rrsn’sspri murmured sadly. “[Maybe we need to take you to medical instead of-]”

“No!” Nate raised his hands in a calming, pleading gesture. “No, no. I just was reminded of some place back home – not, ah, ship home. I mean, Mars home.” There was a pause, and Nate sighed. “Your office reminds me of my Dad’s, I guess.”

“[Oh?]”

Nate kicked himself again. What the hell was he doing? Time was of the essence, and he was literally at the finish line, so… Why did he feel so damn guilty?! Sure, he was lying to this Jornissian’s face, and the entire time Nate knew this maintenance worker he was rushing to get his own objectives completed, when all Rrsn’sspri wanted to do was spend time with him and share parts of his lif-

Oh.

“[Are you sure you’re alright, Nate?]”

“Honestly, now I don’t know. Uh.” Nate drifted over to the nearest pedestal-seat and unceremoniously dumped himself into it, the much larger bowl accommodating his smaller frame and all the additional paperwork that had been carefully and semipermanently filed on it’s surface. “I guess I just realized that my dad was super busy, so he’d take me with him to some work sites to spend time with me and I just remember playing around in his office when he was doing some actual real work, but… Maybe I didn’t make the best use of those hours? That time? Ah.”

Rrsn’sspri folded his arms over his stomach, tilting his body slightly in a fatherly way. “[Mourning the lost years?]”

Nate kicked his legs slightly. “Yeah, I guess. Damn, I didn’t… I just thought about carpet in your office and it brought back everything-]”

“[The shoulds and coulds of life will kill you just as surely as any blade or blast – but just slower and more painfully.]” Rrsn’sspri said, picking at a loose scale on his arm. “[Don’t hurt yourself with that… and for what it’s worth, for having hatchlings of my own here in this office, making a mess of things, trust me: Your father was happy that you were happy. I guarantee it.]”

“. . .” Nate sighed. “I miss him. I miss a lot of the little things about him – we live short lives, so… you don’t notice normal things until they stop being, and then there’s a gap in your perception – like, a missing space in life. He’s retired, and old, and… here I am halfway across the galaxy.”

Rrsn’sspri chuckled, drawing Nate’s attention away from himself. “[You’ve got time – more time than you realize, but less time than you want, which is a problem everyone has. Memory is funny like that… But we’ve got some good news at least! You thinkin’ about your past means our little quiz worked.]” The Jornissian smiled, tapping one of his heat-sensing glands with his fingers. “[Just like I knew it would! You’re getting your memory back as we speak!]”

Nate couldn’t help but smile. “You’re right – thank you, Renny. For everything.”

“[Awh, it’s alright new friend! It’s the least I could do.]” Rrsn’sspri hiss-rumbled to himself, waking his terminal from sleep mode once more.

“When we do figure out my ship and… call my captain, can we hang out some more?” Nate said, suddenly honestly earnest. “I’d… like to see how things are done here, compare notes, yanno?”

Rrsn’sspri smiled internally as he pulled up traffic manifests. “[Sure thing. We’ll spend the rest of the day together! And I’ll make sure to take you to all the spots we’re not supposed to go, alright?]”

Nate, for the first time, truly beamed as he smiled at the elderly maintenance worker.

“That’d be lovely.”

Then Rrsn’sspri’s office door exploded.

= = = = =

~10 minutes ago

Toko shifted from foot to foot. It wasn’t that standing for long periods of time was a pain to him, quite the contrary – the best kind of duty was “stand there and look intimidating” duty, because half the time you kept your implants off silent mode so you basically got paid to surf the net and look angry. He shifted from foot to foot to give the illusion that he was antsy and paying attention to the entire crowd, ready to make a leap at a moment’s notice.

In reality, he was just counting down the seconds until his latrine duty was over. There was a ping on his peripheral vision, and without any visible motion he reviewed it.

== SECURE CHAT REQUEST ==

+) [VAPOR SET: 32j-**238]

+) [VOIP ONLY]

+) [REQUEST: BIG_SISTER]

+) [DEMAND GEN: Y/N] ___

Toko blinked, accepting the request from his little sister.

[ENCRYPT KEY 32j-**238]

[VOIP ONLY]

[BIG_SISTER]: |You need to pick him up now.|

Toko sighed internally as he responded, years of clandestine conversation experience giving him the ability to talk without seeming to move.

[SELF]: |No. He’s a big boy, he can handle it himself – and if he can’t, there are cleaning drones for that.|

[BIG_SISTER]: |Stop being stupid, it’s been 20 minutes.|

[SELF]: |I’m giving him 30.|

[BIG_SISTER]: |When was the last time a long silence with our little-needs-protecting was a good thing?|

Toko paused – more, hesitated – for a moment.

[SELF]: |I should go check on-|

[BIG_SISTER]: |Yeah you do that.|

Toko composed himself and turned, opening the door slightly. He didn’t want to surprise Nate – that never ended well – so the goal was to just see if he was doing alright, possibly give him more or less time depending on the outcome, and move along with the day. Sliding his head into the gap, he saw a loose boot, a glove…

…and a vacant suit, with an advertising panel resting on top of it.

[SELF]: |So.|

[BIG_SISTER]: |Is he stuck in the stall again?|

[SELF]: |Wandering Prophet.|

[BIG_SISTER]: |Time to be blacklisted from another system, I guess.|

Toko silently slid into the restroom, dropping a metal wedge and kicking it with his heel to jam the door shut behind him. Given the increase in privacy he became a little more bold with his broadcasting, moving forward to unearth clues while pinging the rest of the crew. When it came to emergencies – involving little-needs-protectings or not – it was always best to take any time you could to get your facts straight. Toko inspected the back of the panel for any form of sabotage and found none; this means the human decided to rip the panel off on his own and escape. A pen light shone on the ground of the drone maintenance corridor tracked a trail of kicked-up dust and debris; there was no sign of a fight, no blood, or indication of a struggle.

So his little-needs-protecting decided to be an escape artist. But why? The human would not have been able to wander off far – ships didn’t get “emergency dock clearance” without an actual verified emergency – and it’s not like his species was hard to miss, so he wouldn’t be blending in with the rest of the population. This would mean either (1) He has a goal to accomplish and needs to ditch his minders, or (2) He might be under duress and any indication thereof would end badly.

Toko frowned as the Captain overrode his implant, forcing him into a continuous chat room/war room. The information flooded his eyes and mind, and for a brief moment it felt like he was schizophrenic as a cascade of conversation, information and requests poured into his implants. It was nothing he couldn’t handle, but the initial sensation was always a bit jarring.

== SECURE CHAT OVERRIDE ==

+) [VAPOR SET: ############]

+) [PREDETERMINATION: OK]

+) [ENCRYPTED CHATROOM 63.8%%3.hj334 FORCE JOINED]

+) [ENCRYPTED CHATROOM 63.8%%3.hj334 FORCE LOCKED]

+) [BIOMETRIC PASSKEY CHECK: OK]

+) [PASSKEY ACCEPTED]

+) [ADMIN FORCE METADATA: OK]

+) [ADMIN FORCE PING: OK]

+) [ADMIN FORCE ARCHIVE: OK]

+) [ADMIN FORCE OVERRIDE: OK]

.

.

.

The rambling of his systems connecting with, then ceding control to his Ship’s mainframe continued, and Toko ignored the scrolling. It looked like the Captain had separated the entire ship crew into multiple groups – probably with independent and mutually beneficial goals for each one. It didn’t matter; he was still in the general lobby and needed to catch everyone up.

+)[USER ACTIVITY]

—— [THIS_LITTLE_SHID][FORCE PING][PING HISTORY](PING @ 3ms OK)

++ [DOC_MEDIC][FORCE ACTIVE]

++ [BIG_SISTER][FORCE ACTIVE]

++ [BIG_BROTHER][FORCE ACTIVE]

++ [SHIP_COMMS][FORCE ACTIVE]

++ [ADMIN_CAPTAIN][FORCE ACTIVE]

++ [ENG_HEAD][FORCE ACTIVE]

++ [ENG_VICE][FORCE ACTIVE]

++ [LIAISON][FORCE ACTIVE]

++ [GATE_01][FORCE ACTIVE]

++ [GATE_03][FORCE ACTIVE]

.

.

.

[ADMIN_CAPTAIN]: “[Tell me what we’re working with.]”

[BIG_BROTHER]: “|Looks like an escape attempt. He pried off the advertising panel in the restroom and escaped through a maintenance drone access shaft. No signs of a fight or duress – he didn’t even cut himself from the attempt.|” Toko responded, without missing a beat.

[ADMIN_CAPTAIN]: “[Anything passed to him, any change in mood or temperament?]”

[BIG_SISTER]: “[No, and scans showed nothing out of the ordinary save for a slightly accelerated heart rate, but that would make sense given he was gambling. Nothing was passed to him either, we made sure of that.]”

[ADMIN_CAPTAIN]: “[Comms, anything?]”

[SHIP_COMMS]: “[No, nothing. No out of place EM transmissions, his accounts are all flat save for a disturbing amount of singlefans donations.]”

[ADMIN_CAPTAIN]: “[Can you run a backdate for our last few stops? I want to know if this was a long time running.]”

Toko began screwing the suit back together, connecting empty boots to limp legs.

[SHIP_COMMS]: “[Well, this probably isn’t military, whatever’s happening. Pinging his tracker still works, and from what I’ve skimmed we’ve got him in maintenance according to the cams I’ve been able to access. Alive and well, and all under his own power – but he does have a guide.]”

[BIG_SISTER]: “|Leave retrieval to me – I’m already making my way over to his last known location. Can you send me an omni?|”

[ADMIN_CAPTAIN]: “[Nonlethal preferred, Big Sister. This could still be a voluntary departure, and I’d rather turn over witnesses than corpses if things turn coldly. We’ve got a diversion planned?]”

[BIG_BROTHER]: “|Yeah, I was planning on pulling a straw flock.|” Toko murmured into his communicator, attaching vacant arms to an empty torso.

[ENG_HEAD]: “[Just pointing this out, but doing that’ll destroy the suit.]”

Toko paused as he finished assembling the empty human-suit. Reaching into his vest he pulled out a small, palm-sized deterrent device.

[BIG_BROTHER]: “|Certainly, but do you have a better idea? I’d rather do the paperwork over lost property than lost personnel.|”

[ADMIN_CAPTAIN]: “[… The suits are expensive, but it’s expected we’ll go through a couple of them. The diversion does what we need to do and draws the eye of the crowd. Do it, but come directly here – I’m going to send out for groceries.]”

[BIG_SISTER]: “|What’s our rendezvous point?|”

Toko ground the device in his hand, the deterrent heating up rapidly. He dunked it into the neck-hole of the semi-completed suit and screwed the helmet on tight. There was a fwoomph, and the entire suit bulged outward as it was rapidly filled with a rapidly-congealing foam.

[ADMIN_CAPTAIN]: “[You are the point. Secure the package, we’ll come to you.]”

[BIG_SISTER]: “[Affirmative.]”

Toko pulled down the solar visor over his foam companion, the suit flopping about in a somewhat believable way. I mean, from a distance, you’d definitely think there could be something with bones in that suit.

…Toko sighed as his little-foam-protecting sagged at the waist. He picked up the fake human in a bridal carry, tucking the flopping hands into the safety suit pockets. He took a few moments to compose himself, and then with a talon’d foot pulled the wedge out from underneath the door. Unbidden, the portal swung open, a dozen curious faces turned to shock as their eavesdropping was exposed.

“[Is he-]”  “[How is-]”

  “[What happ-]” “[Can I just-]”

“[I wanna hold his han-]”

Toko trilled a shrill, short tone before tilting his head towards his smaller charge. “|Quiet! You know they sleep like chicks!]” Toko looked down at his foam companion, a fatherly expression blooming across his face. “|Poor thing got tired halfway through putting on his suit, and is fast asleep.|”

The assembled mob seemed to melt at the chastisement, various forms of cooing and no-longer-clandestine cameras going off.

“|Now, let me take him back to the ship – you can follow, but don’t wake him up. He’s going to be terribly cranky if you do!|”

= = =

Tiki was not amused.

Pulling the little-needs-protecting’s tablet before her, she began to fiddle with the settings, doing her best to broadcast an aura of “I am important and have somewhere to be; leave me alone.” Human technology, while not the greatest even when copying wholesale that of their neighbors was still very versatile – and her hope was that she could mess with the tablet’s broadcast setting enough to…

Her software finished downloading to the tablet, immediately resetting and bricking the device. Well, bricking was a bit of a misnomer; the human’s tablet was now a single-purpose piece of hardware. As Tiki weaved between workers and civilians on the station, the innocuous tablet did only two things: harvest new ID codes, and vomit them back out on a repeating loop. Nate’s tablet was now nothing more or less than a skeleton key if Tiki was able to steal a copy of the right key to the right lock. 

As she made her way towards the directional indicator – the only thing that could discreetly show her where Wigglenap was without broadcasting something to any listening ears, she glanced at the tablet. 400 IDs and counting so far…

…hopefully it would do.

With purpose she strode up to a maintenance access door and pressed the tablet against the entry panel.

Nothing.

A few moments passed, and nothing continued to happen.

+)[USER ACTIVITY]

.

.

[BIG_SISTER]: “|Property damage is fine, right?|”

[ADMIN_CAPTAIN]: “|Small, yes. Let’s not make a big to-do until we know what we’re dealing with.|”

Tiki smiled as she reached into a pocket, slipping on what looked like an ordinary – if expensive and well made – glove. Pressing her palm to the door mechanism, she gave a mental command. There was a ripple of light on the glove, a small electrical whine, and a light hiss of smoke as the door circuitry was forcefully connected and disconnected, the glove’s AI cycling through hundreds of possible “open” states.

The door didn’t open, but when Tiki dug her claws into the material and pulled to her side, it slid open on lazy and disconnected hydraulics. She entered the corridor and spun on her heel, sliding the door shut.

Sure, it definitely caused a maintenance request, but to everyone involved it would look like an unfortunate short circuit and nothing more, which is exactly the kind of property damage you want to cause when you’re trying to do clandestine operations. The only downside is that the glove takes some time to recharge, so…

Tiki made her way down the corridor, the ping from LNP-Wigglenap’s tracker dropping from 3ms to 1ms as she rounded the corner into what looked like a maintenance hanger. Almost too late she noticed the office at the far end – with windows pointed out to the floor – and sprinted to the blind spot from the Jornissian’s viewpoint. Tiki skidded to a halt, tensed for battle, breath slow and steady. When nothing happened, she moved her way up to the office.

+)[USER ACTIVITY]

.

.

[BIG_SISTER]: “|I’m right outside the office door. Package is here; one handler. Verified terminal, but no weaponry I can see.|”

[SHIP_COMMS]: “[I’ve got you right now… give me a few seconds. Do you have a repeater?]”

[BIG_SISTER]: “|Use my implants, I don’t have anything that wouldn’t give me away that you could re-purpose.|”

[ADMIN_CAPTAIN: “[Any complaints from our little-needs-protecting?]”

[BIG_SISTER]: “|Not that I can see. I can hear conversation, but nothing else.|”

[SHIP_COMMS]: “[Don’t blame me for the headache. Brace yourself. 3… 2… 1.]”

There was a ringing in Tiki’s everything as her vision went white. Gritting her teeth she counted to 10, trying to focus on anything other than the discomfort of her wetware implants broadcasting so loud as to attempt an override on local systems. She was on 5 before the pulse stopped, and it took her until 15 to catch her breath again.

[BIG_SISTER]: “|Can-|”

[DOC_MEDIC]: “[Preparing a table for you right now. We’ll knock you out for a few days-]”

[BIG_SISTER]: “|Sounds lovely.|”

[SHIP_COMMS]: “[I got the terminal. Sliding in… he’s looking up ship manifests and departure times.]”

[LIAISON]: “[We can’t let that INTEL get away -]”

[ADMIN_CAPTAIN]: “[Go for hot breach BIG_SISTER. Grocery run is still 5 minutes out from your position.]”

The entire conversation had only taken a few seconds – thoughts and words scrambled together, but coherent enough to give direction. Tiki pulled out yet another palm-sized device and, after pulling it from it’s protective packaging and giving it a good squeeze, began to draw on the door – rapid, quick marks, the chalk-like substance rubbing apart freely. She pressed the leftover half of the malleable thing to the center of the door and stepped to the side, counting.

8…7…6…

She pulled out a stiletto. It looked like the Jornissian was a middleman, and the goal was not to kill.

…5…4…3…

So a pointed dagger in the gut wouldn’t kill, but it’d be just terrifying enough to preoccupy him until backup arrived. There was a scent of burning plastic as the thermobaric charge heated up, the sheer amount of condensed mass in the leftover lump enough to make the charge go critical.

…2…1…1…1…come on already-

There was a loud bang, and Tiki swiftly moved in, stiletto held high to throw at the poor bastard in front of her.

[MY HEART-]

“[DAD NO NOT AGAIN-]”

“|What.|” Tiki deadpanned, standing in the middle of a blown-out doorway with her knife-fisted hand raised like a jackass while an older Jornissian apparently had a heart attack and her little-needs-protecting began to cry and cradle the much larger man’s head.

“[DAD DON’T DIE HERE NOT LIKE THIS WE’LL GO TO THE LAKE AGAIN I PROMISE-]”

The smoke started to clear, and Tiki… well.

“|…What.|”

Tiki was not amused.

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