Standard Disclaimer: I do not take credit for the setting, this story is set in the They Are Smol universe, written by our very own u/tinyprancinghorse
. This is a much shorter story and unrelated to any characters or situations in Smol Detective. TPH has a Website, a Patreon, and also a Discord if you need more smol shenanigans. Happy Halloween, HFY
! Here's a four-part series and as
threatened promised the last chapter is going up on the 31st. Enjoy! Part one of this story is here, part two is here, and part three is here
Jason took another sip of not-cider and was pleased to see he still had a half a mug left. During Gertie's tale-telling she'd unconsciously pressed her arm a little more against him. Not hard enough to push him over, but with enough pressure to envelop his side in her arm-floof. Now that she was done, she leaned back and picked up her own mug.
Karl blinked and shook himself as if coming out of a spell. "[Another fascinating tale! Perhaps not as much of a parable, but one could argue it contains some elements of one's hubris causing trouble.]"
Henry didn't look as stressed as he had at the end of his own story, but he was still coiled in on himself a little more tightly. "[Indeed. Quite unsettling, apart from any, er, 'punishing' of pride on the protagonist's part. The thought of being lost and helpless like that, well, it's not something I'd want to dwell on.']"
Gertie didn't respond. She looked lost in her own thoughts as she sipped her drink, only to start in surprise as Jason hesitantly touched her arm. He'd gotten good enough at reading Dorarizin body language to know that she was genuinely upset.
"It was because she was alone, right? Not just that she was lost, but that she was lost and without her pack."
The Dorarizin nodded. "[Like I said, it's just an old myth. But it's stuck in my head ever since I heard it.]" With exaggerated care she put her arm around Jason's shoulders for a sideways hug. "[Thanks for your concern, but I'll be fine.]"
She removed her arm and playfully bopped the top of head with one finger. "[But don't think you'll get out of your
obligation either! Your story had better be worth the wait!]"
Jason chuckled as the other two aliens wriggled their way closer to the fire, their eyes gleaming with anticipation.
"[I'll bet it's about a [human] being chased by a predator,]" said Karl with a sassy flip of his crest.
Henry shook his hood. "[I'll bet it's a [haunted house] story, but with an actual [house] this time.]"
Jason looked up at Gertie for her input, but she just shrugged. He sighed and drained the rest of his not-cider. "You understand that we humans have a lot of stories for times like this, right? I could be lazy and tell you about the hook-handed killer, or the weeping woman, or the one about the big toe..."
?]" asked Karl.
"Oh, ah, I'll tell you that one later. It's more of a silly kid's story. Say, do you mind if I get a little more of that stuff?" He handed his mug to Karl, who refilled it from his own much-larger bottle. "Thanks. Might need a little liquid courage for this one."
Gertie settled her big arm once more onto Jason's shoulders. "[You don't have to tell us, if it's so upsetting.]"
Henry nodded his agreement.
"Nah, I should. You see, I've never told this story to anyone. And I mean anyone
Karl perked up his crest. "[Oh, you came up with this one on your own?]"
Jason swigged some not-cider and relished the slight burn it made in his throat. "Not really. You see, this isn't a made-up story. This is something that happened to me..."
JASON'S TALE: GOING WALKABOUT
Before I joined you guys, I was a shipbreaker. Does that word translate? It means I was helping take apart old ships and sort out anything valuable before they turned the rest of it into scrap for re-use.
Why not use robots? Good question, Henry. See, even now Earth is still working through all of the economic dislocation which happened after First Contact. Don't be sad, Karl! I know you guys were doing what you could to help. Anyway, thanks to that there's a lot of people out of work and not enough jobs to go around. So either you put everyone on the dole, which sucks, or you find something
for them to do.
I was lucky enough to grow up on a farm in a place called Idaho. I was born quite awhile after First Contact, and my family and our neighbors managed to avoid a lot of the previous bad times. That also meant that I had a job waiting for me, and I heard a lot from my parents about how growing food is a noble profession.
But space called to me. I loved lying in my backyard at night, looking up and out into the night sky. I liked to imagine my ancestors doing the same, back when we thought we might be alone in the universe. So naturally when I came of age I applied to the placement program. Now, it's the 'official' policy of the OIH that everybody has an equal opportunity to get placed with an alien crew.
But the truth is that Earth's governments are terrified of depopulation. If we get too dispersed, who's gonna make new humans? Which in turn means that, unless you possess certain skills, you don't get into the placement program. All I knew was how to grow potatoes, so I got a pat on the butt and a generic 'thanks but no thanks'.
Still, I wasn't gonna give up that easy. Even though the placement program turned me down, there were other jobs to be had in space. Once I'd got enough expertise under my belt...sorry, Karl, it means once I'd gained enough skill...then I could reapply. Sure, in the meantime I'd be stuck in Earth orbit but at least it was space.
After looking through what was available I found only one type of job I was qualified for...shipbreaking. It was nasty, sweaty, hard work and thus there was a lot of turnover. They were always looking for new people regardless of prior experience. The catch was it was not only sweaty and hard work but also dangerous
. I was always a smaller and more wiry than average, so I was a natural fit for the job. Heh, quite literally. I could wriggle into nooks and crannies like nobody else. After a while I didn't even notice the discomfort and how the sweat pooled in my pressure suit. The job became like a moving meditation, and I could step outside of myself and chill out.
It might seem weird that humans already had enough obsolete ships to make shipbreaking a profession, but in hindsight it makes sense...kinda. Once humans gained the ability to reach orbit easily, the governments of the world were frantic to make up for lost time and get some navies of our own built up. Seems silly now, but you gotta understand that during that time we were paranoid as hell. We had no idea if you all were truly friendly or had some nefarious plan.
Don't ask me what kind of plan, Gertie. Maybe they were worried that human flesh would turn out to be really tasty or something...settle down, y'all! We know you'd never do such a thing, humans have gotten a lot more relaxed since then.
But anyway, like I said everybody was in a hurry to make lots of ships for 'protection'. Never mind that we had no experience in how to make something like a proper warship, not to mention even if we did y'all could probably take out every Terran fleet with your version of a rowboat. Thanks to that initial panicked bout of shipbuilding we wound up with some real
stinkers. Especially the Armstrong class.
Oh man, the Armstrongs. I wish we could go back in time and erase those ships from existence, because a steely-eyed missile man like Neil Armstrong doesn't deserve to have his good name sullied by plastering it onto such a crapshow.
I guess they wanted to make it the space version of a corvette. It was supposed to be small, fast, and maneuverable. They equipped them with just enough armaments to make 'em somewhat of a threat and made 'em cheap enough to churn out in mass quantities.
What they wound up with was a slab-sided wallowing pig of a ship with an underpowered engine module. It maneuvered with all the grace of a pile of bricks. On paper it was supposed to achieve one gee of acceleration, but in practice it might make half that if you really flogged the engine. Its mass-drivers were too powerful for its size; apparently you could throw the entire ship off course with a single shot. They installed gas thrusters to try to cancel out that recoil, but that was just one more complex system packed into a ship already too small for its intended mission.
By the time they'd figured out what a disaster it was it was too late; they'd started making hundreds. Thanks to the human ability to fall for the sunk-cost fallacy, the powers that be decided to, heh, 'make do'. Because of that, 'Armstrong' has become synonymous with what not to do in ship design.
Out of all of the many hundreds of ships in that unfortunate class, the most unfortunate was the Lexington
. She'd been built in...what? Yes, Karl, we tend to call ships 'she'. No I don't know why, it's just a thing we do. Where was I? Oh yeah, the Lexington
. She was among the first of her class, so a lot of the stupid design decisions never really got reworked. I read up on her full history after...after what happened to me. She did a lot of escort duty out to Selene and Olympus Mons, but 'escort' is a little grandiose of a term for 'always breaking down and having to be towed'.
crew was also, er, special. Her Captain, Magnussen, was a functional alcoholic of a Dane who somehow kept getting ahold of booze in spite of repeated attempts by his crew to throw all spirits overboard. The doctor was a ditzy American named Hughes who sometimes spouted off about 'realigning chakras' during her diagnoses. The XO, a laconic Pole by the name of Olczak, was convinced that his assignment to the Lexington
was karmic retribution for some horrible sin he'd committed in a past life. He spent most of his time keeping Captain Magnussen upright and facing the correct direction while keeping the ship and the rest of the crew together. The other crew were equally colorful, especially the ship's engineer. Her name was Sousa, a bouncy redhead from Australia who was convinced that with 'just a little more tweaking' she could have the reactor and engines purring along with no problem. The fact that the Lexington
was always the slowest and least reliable of her class did nothing to dampen Sousa's enthusiasm for her 'Sheila'.
Under her care the engine section of the Lexington
, already a close-packed space, became even more bewildering as she welded in new coolant pipes with nary a thought for safety protocols. Most of her time during flight was spent back in the power section, trying to coax the fission reactor to behave itself for more than a few hours at a stretch.
Yeah I know, I know...fission. Like I said, the Earth governments really threw these things together in a paranoid hurry, and that was the most advanced engine tech we'd developed before the Karnakians came calling. We weren't about to put hyper-advanced alien engines into something that was intended to ‘protect’
us from the aforementioned hyper-advanced aliens.
During the last voyage of the Lexington
the crew was on their own, no escort or patrol duty for that one. To make matters worse it was also a bit of an emergency. Some weird bacterial infection had cropped up on the Olympus Mons colony. After consulting with Earth via laser they were pretty sure it was a strain from Earth that had mutated in the higher-radiation environment. But on the other hand it just might
be a native Martian microbe who'd decided that humans made a dandy home.
Either way, Olympus Mons was locked down in a tight quarantine until they could determine the true nature of the organism. This was early days for the colony, so the most advanced expertise and equipment were still back on Earth. Those experts needed physical samples to analyze and make sure this wasn't something worse. And wouldn't ya know, thanks to various logistical screw-ups the only ship in Mars orbit with enough delta-vee to make the trip to Earth was the Lexington
The higher-ups stuffed a bunch of frozen bacterial cultures on board and sent them on their way...with fingers crossed, of course. The plan was to burn for four days at half-gee to build up speed, coast for eleven days, then flip and burn for another four days to match velocities with Earth. In spite of the engine's notorious fussiness, Sousa swore an oath by her poisonous and perilous nation that she'd get them the full eight days of continuous burn.
And during the outward acceleration it seemed like her oath had done something. 'Sheila' managed to crank out a half-gee continuously without complaint, and that taste of success seeped into the rest of the crew. Magnussen was more functional than usual and for once seemed to give a damn about completing their mission. Olczak smiled, a unique moment actually captured on video. Sousa became like a ghost, appearing only sporadically to grab some water and rations before returning to the ship's rear and her beloved engine.
They made the planned four day burn, and everyone relaxed a bit during the next week while the ship coasted. Sousa slept right through the first three days of coast, utterly exhausted from her efforts. She waved off the crew's concern with an admonition to 'stop being a mob of whinging poms'.
No, Henry, I'm not quite sure what that means either.
Tension rose onboard during the tenth day of coast. Within forty-eight hours they'd have to fire up the engine again, and in spite of her rest Sousa still looked frazzled. Her red hair stuck out in all directions and that wasn't because of freefall. Captain Magnussen tried to assign Olczak to be her assistant during the deceleration burn but the engineer wasn't having it.
"This is bloody hard yakka, but it's my
yakka!" she yelled. "Sheila and me have an understanding now. We'll get you yer four days, but I ain't gonna babysit some clueless wanker in the meantime!"
In the end, all they could really do was let Sousa do her thing and hope for the best. The concern about the deceleration burn was not academic; if they didn't get four days of continuous thrust then they'd miss Earth by millions of miles as they sailed on past. Did I mention that they only had enough fuel on board for one attempt?
Yes, Gertie. There were Senate ships available in case they needed rescue, but they viewed that as an option of utter last restort. Pride is one helluva thing, especially for a species still in the throes of uplift.
So the crew of the Lexington
stowed everything and made ready for the end of freefall. They strapped in while Sousa made her way aft. Everyone else stared at the countdown timer and waited for the inevitable disaster.
But disaster didn't come. A familiar rumble shook the ship as they felt weight return, and Sousa's elated crowing could be heard on the intercom. "Toldja! Sheila and me are mates, through and through..."
The steady rumble suddenly turned into a series of hiccups, then returned to normal. But now Sousa's voice was filled with alarm. "Coolant leak! Bugger me, it's the main reactor line...hang on, gotta patch it."
Her grunts of effort and a few choice Australian curses drifted out of the intercom.
Captain Magnussen was, for once, dead sober but now regretting it. "Olczak! Get back there and assist her!"
The XO started to unstrap himself, only to be stopped by another shout from the intercom. "No, damn your eyes! Nobody set foot in here, the entire engine compartment's hot!"
The Captain stared at the intercom box in horror. "Engineer, what's your dosimeter read?"
There followed a long pause which said everything. Finally Sousa spoke one word. "Enough."
Everyone slumped in their acceleration couches as she went on. "Got the leak fixed, though. We should be good."
"Until the next leak, at least," muttered the XO. Then, more loudly, "Sousa, if you get out now we might be able to..." "No, I took over ten Grays. I've had it. But you need four days, we'll get you four days."
The crew unstrapped themselves, everyone feeling dazed at the knowledge that one of their own was now working under a death sentence.
The next twenty-four hours were horrific. Sousa kept up a brave front and talked a lot of cheery nonsense, but they could also hear her almost continuous vomiting. The next day she felt much better, but neither her nor any of the others were fooled. She'd entered the 'walking ghost' phase of acute radiation poisoning and everybody knew it would only get worse as time went on.
On the third day the pain and nausea returned. Sousa made one final call up to the captain. "Sorry, boss fella. In a bit I'm gonna be too weak to move. Can't do proper repairs. But I spoke to Sheila, told her no ‘ard feelins. She promised me that she'll get ya home."
Magnussen hadn't so much as looked at a bottle since the disaster, and his vision now swam. It was a little from withdrawal but much more due to tears. "Sousa, we'll make sure you're buried with full honors..." "Nah, mate. Gotta lot more pain headed my way and I'm not going out like that. Figure I'll go walkabout instead."
The crew watched in silence as the rear airlock cameras showed Sousa entering the chamber. She was dressed only in her uniform. Her red hair was now matted and patchy, with bald spots showing on much of her scalp. But her shoulders remained straight and upright as the outer door opened.
True to the engineer's word, the Lexington's
engine didn't quit. They made the four full days of burn, and when they shut down the engine it didn't even so much as sputter in protest. The bacterial samples made it to Earth, they found a cure, and the Olympus Mons quarantine was lifted. They parked the Lexington
in a graveyard orbit where it sat for decades while they waited for the radioactive contamination in the engine compartment to decay to safe levels.
This, of course, is where I come in all those decades later. I'd been shipbreaking for a few years by now and I'd heard the tale of the Lexington's
final voyage. When that ship popped up in my queue I was concerned. Not because of any superstition, but because the ship had suffered a major radioactive leak. It was going to be a finicky job, but by then I'd acquired a reputation for accomplishing the difficult. First I sent in a drone with a dosimeter just to make sure there weren't any remaining 'hotspots'. I figured I'd start with the easier stuff first and leave the engine compartment for last in case I ran into anything unexpected.
I budgeted it as a three-week job. The first two weeks went about as expected, although I did feel weird for the first couple of days. After all, this was a ship where someone had died on board. But nothing jumped out at me, so after a while I just put my head down and got on with it. I flushed the life support system and dismantled that, then followed up with the electronics and control systems. Those latter bits were decades out of date but still valuable for minor tasks. I stripped off what hull plating I could without interfering with the reactor's systems.
By the third week there was nothing else left to strip, so into the engine compartment I went. Usually, the tricky part in deactivating a fission reactor is draining the main reactor coolant into shielded containers. Even all these years later there were still lots of fun radioisotopes in that stuff, and I didn't want to recontaminate the place.
Of course, even before that I had to check that the core itself was safed properly and had its control rods fully inserted. The problem was, the only way to check that was on the control board gauges. There were no windows into the core itself, so I couldn't visually verify that the rod indicators were correct.
I hate to admit it, but I was also in a hurry to get this ship done and dusted. During the last few days I'd felt...I dunno, watched
? I put it down to getting worked up thanks to the ship's history, but I could sense a presence around me, even though I knew I was the only one on board.
What added to the creepy feeling was me finding the hair. All that hair, big clumps of it...still bright red even after decades in hard vacuum. Her hair had drifted all over the place, wedging into the engine compartment's various nooks and crannies. That made Sousa's death more than just a spacefaring tale. I now knew viscerally that she was a real person, one who'd never lived to see her final triumph.
Like I said, I wanted to get this job done and get the hell out of there forever. I checked the control board indicators...the control rods were in, we were good to go! I grabbed the first lead-lined bottle and hooked it into the coolant line's relief valve. The ship was totally deactivated, so there was no pressure in the line. I had to brace myself against one of the coolant pipes and use a hand-pump to force the coolant into the bottle. It was sweaty work, and by the time I was on the third bottle I could feel the moisture pooling against the small of my back, sloshing against my pressure suit.
That's also when I noticed the oncoming disaster. I glanced at the board while hooking up the fourth and final bottle. Thanks to the ship's crapola design the coolant line's relief valve was a good six meters away from the board. But even from that distance I could see the core's temperature climbing like the proverbial rocket. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as I realized that the control rod indicators were broken. The rods weren't fully inserted after all, and I'd just taken out most of the core's coolant. Now the reaction in the core was skyrocketing, and within less than a minute it would melt down. Hell, it might even explode. Either way the drydock and everyone in it, myself included, would get a lethal dose of radiation.
I started screaming into my suit radio, telling everyone to get the hell away from the drydock. There was no time to get the coolant pumped back in; I had only one option left. On the engine control panel there's an emergency shutdown, sometimes called the 'scram' button. It's got a flip-up cover over it to prevent someone from accidentally pressing it, but once pressed it throws all of the control rods into the core and kills any reaction dead.
There was no time to waste, I kicked against the wall behind me...and that was another of my screw-ups. In my defense I was amped up on adrenaline, but it was still a more forceful kick than needed. I flew across the compartment and crashed into the edge of the control panel hard enough to dislocate my shoulder. My legs cartwheeled around and slammed into a stanchion behind the panel.
I nearly went tumbling away from the panel, but still managed to grab one edge. Of course my luck remained shit, because the scram button was on the other
end of the panel from me. I flailed at the button with my injured arm, but my hand was still a good six inches away. I got ready to crawl up onto the panel and try again when...it happened.
For a long time after I went back and forth about it. I tried to tell myself that it was a hallucination caused by stress, or some optical trick caused by my suit's headlamp. But eventually I had to call bullshit on all that. I was staring right at the damn button with all my might and I know
what I saw and...and what I heard.
I saw the scram button's cover flip open all on its own. I saw the button sink in as if pushed by an invisible finger. I saw the temperature gauges drop like a rock and I knew I was going to live after all.
And then, amid the hiss of static from my radio, I swear I heard a faint voice.
A woman, speaking with a strange accent. Time for us to go walkabout, mate.
Jason was almost done with his second mug of not-cider but even so he felt more sober than before. "There's not much to tell after that. They gave me a commendation for bravery and quick thinking, even though I'd done nothing. There was no way I was gonna tell 'em that some...ghost lady had saved us. That was a sure ticket to get sent back down the nearest elevator and permanently grounded. After my shoulder healed, I went and reapplied to the placement program. Now I had years of experience in space, not to mention my shiny new commendation, so this time I made it through."
He stared into the fire. "So here I am."
Karl was the first to speak. "[Friend [Jason], please forgive me if I offend you with this question. You see, sometimes when relating a parable or religious lesson [Karnakians] will put themselves into the story. It isn't intended as a deception, but more as a way of making the lesson more relatable..."
Jason laughed. "You want to know if I made it up? Or maybe put myself in a ghost story I heard?"
The big raptor's arm-feathers fluffed out as he made an apologetic shrug.
"No worries, bud. It's a fair question. That's partly why I never told anyone about it. But you guys are my friends…and I don't bullshit my friends."
"[Thank you for your trust,]" said Henry. He sprawled out in something kind of like an infinity symbol as he tried to maximize his heat absorption from the fire. "[For what it's worth, I want it to be true.]"
"[Really?]" asked Gertie. "[Hmm, I suppose I see your point. The thought of someone doing their duty and helping their packmates even after their death...yes, it's an appealing idea.]"
"[The story is still unsettling, though.]" added Karl. "[Why did that poor woman's spirit remain in the ship? Why wasn't her spirit at rest?]"
"Because Sheila was still intact."
The three aliens looked at Jason as if he'd sprouted an extra head. "[[Sheila]...you mean...the engine?]" asked Henry, his hood set in the Jornissian version of a raised eyebrow.
"That's what I tell myself, at least. Like Sousa said, she and the engine were mates through and through. As long as it was there, so was she. Right until the very end."
Karl's throat worked as if he'd just tried to swallow a rhinoceros whole. "[But that was an engine
. It had no soul!]"
Jason waggled his mug playfully at the Karnakian. "Remember the punchline of your story? Maybe there's 'souls' in inanimate objects. Or maybe we imbue ourselves into them and give them life, of a sort. I dunno. In either case, I've had way
too much to drink and I should get some sleep."
"[Yes...sleep. Sleep is good,]" said Gertie, in a tone which indicated she was not getting any sleep for the forseeable future.
"[?Error#%#@(possible excrement term)?!yerfiddnonmuhfeff!]"
Kn'na''nan blinked his eyes as he awoke, then realized with something akin to fright that while he slept he'd unconsciously started roosting on his little-needs-protecting shipmate. Gngnra's white-furred body pressed against the two of them while Hn'narnatnss coiled up on the other side of the cuddle-pile.
"|Sorry, friend [Jason]!|" He shifted away to allow the little-needs-protecting to breathe.
[Jason] spat out a few bits of Kn'na''nan’s underfluff. "[That's okay, it just got kinda hard to breathe there all of a sudden.]"
The four of them untangled themselves and began packing up for the next leg of their hike. Daylight streamed down through among the giant spear-like growths which passed for trees on this planet, and to Kn'na''nan the fact that he could see almost to the horizon was a cause for joy. It was almost as if the unsettling stories of the night before had never occurred.
What did not cause the Karnakian joy was the sight of [Jason] hoisting his pack onto his shoulders. [Jason] kept insisting that it was a reasonable weight, but to Kn'na''nan it looked like the little-needs-protecting was always on the verge of toppling over.
"[Going to make it all the way this time, [Jason]?" asked Gngnra with a cheeky waggle of her ears.
"[Oh har dee har har. Not my fault y'all got such long legs.]"
"[I don't have legs,]" said Hn'narnatnss with a touch of smugness.
"[Are you kidding? You're just one big leg!]"
Kn'na''nan would never say it aloud, but he hoped that [Jason] would indeed tire during the day's travels. Two days before, the Karnakian had gotten the chance to let the little-needs-protecting ride on his back and as far as he was concerned that had been the best day of his life.
But for the moment [Jason] looked fully rested as he wobbled off down the trail, the top of his pack sticking far up above his head. Hn'narnatnss slithered after him, keeping his pace to the slower norm set by [Jason].
Gngnra paused before she set off after them. "[How'd you sleep?]" she asked Kn'na''nan.
The Karnakian held up one hand and rocked it from side-to-side in the universal sign for 'not so great'. "|How about you?|"
"[I had troubled dreams. For the first time in a long time.]"
"|Me as well. [Hn'narnatnss] also looked tired. But [Jason] seems fine.|"
"[Why am I not surprised?]" Gngnra shook her head. "[Scary stories at night. What a silly [human] ritual.]"
Kn'na''nan stared at the retreating figure of his small crewmate. "|No. Not silly. We must make sure to make friends with the little-needs-protectings.|"
Gngnra cocked her head. "[But we're already friends.]"
"|Not yet. Yes, we've made friends with individuals like [Jason]. But to the vast majority of them we're more like…allies. We must be more than that, for our own sake. We need to know that the little-needs-protectings have our back, as they say.|"
The pair set off down the trail after their comrades while Gngnra pondered. Finally she asked. "[Why do you think so?]"
Kn'na''nan waved a claw at the vast blue sky overhead. "|The universe is vast beyond our understanding. We might encounter horrors out there that would cause you or I or even Hn'narnatnss to curl up and pray for death. But [Jason]? He'll just laugh in what passes for that horror's face and declare that he's heard scarier stuff while drinking with friends by a campfire.]"