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SMOL-TOBER! A Spooooky They Are Smol Story, Part 4 of 4

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..."
"[The what?]" 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..."
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'.
The Lexington's 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.]"
submitted by Frank_Leroux to HFY


Custom Made: Chapter 14

Beginning | Previous | Next
Places and People, chapters 1 to 10
Fifteenth Day
HMDC.Tec.2256Uhj.8872 - General Tec Uhj
[The new barriers are online Tec. The Western face is ready for use.]
Mof’s voice soothed the lines of tension on his forehead. He’d been waiting for those.
[Wait two minutes for activation, start with the north side and activate them in order to the south in half minute intervals.]
Tec had been watching the Scrrsk all day and he’d quickly realized they had a regular pattern of bombardment. This sent him into his gifted memories for the relevant bits of information. Very important bits of information. Hardlight barriers were better against unfocused sustained attacks. So the Scrrsk concentrated their bombardment into volleys. This led Tec into another important bit of information. An activating barrier could potentially catch an incoming projectile, but in any part of the activation process, incoming fire greatly taxed the emitter.
So he had to time his hardlight shields properly.
Shells of plasma and artillery struck the barriers of the remaining escort, Dawn’s Sigh. The extended sails caught most of the bombardment, but the odd shot got past the ship.
Acting as an emergency stop-gap, the Zawess controlled ‘drifters’, airships resembling nothing more than floating lotus flowers, filled the gaps. The drifters were wholly unlike the swordbirds, symmetrical vehicles that could move in any axis with ease, fire in any direction with the weapons mounted on its pets, and could project a barrier in any direction. Tec thought of them as plugs. He could jam them wherever he needed to plug a hole. They didn’t move as fast as the swordbirds by any means, but they moved fast enough to interrupt what artillery fire Dawn’s Sigh missed.
Although with varying degrees of success. One failed to catch the entirety of a plasma blast, burning death raining down on one of the few remaining intact gardens on the outskirts. Another drifter received multiple focused shells. Its barrier failed and a follow-up shell obliterated the vessel with a direct strike.
Tec gritted his teeth. He could ill afford to lose the multi-purpose drifters. But the wave was over.
Newly built towers on the northwest and southwest corners of Teservi thrummed with power as engineers directed the installations to do their work. The already built western, northern and southern towers were primed and ready to go. Massive battleship sized emitters flickered to life, the barriers coming into existence. At this size, he first saw only a faint outline on the north side of the city, only for the first section of hardlight to brighten and turn opaque, as if filling up. The process repeated itself as Tec had ordered, slowly working from the northern face of the city, around to the south.
Several long moments later, matching blocks of ugly grey metal placed through the center of the city followed suit and more patches of hardlight phased in to fill the center. Roughly a third of the city remained unprotected, but the bulk of what remained faced the water. Those would be done soon enough.
As the escort Dawn’s Sigh moved back to rest its emitters, more balls of plasma and orbs of hardened chitin rained down. The plasma burst into great sizzling waves of destruction but splashed off the barriers. The artillery shells struck harder yet, shattering and blasting into focused explosions. A couple shells of focused acid burst against the shell, but no more followed. The Scrrsk knew better than to waste that ammunition against a solid face of hardlight.
[How is it looking Mof?]
[As projected. We can handle it for now, but we won’t be able to stay here as more reinforcements come down from space.]
Tec nodded, mostly to himself. He ran the numbers on observed drops, as well as the first reports on the evacuation progress.
[Well Mof, you are right. As much as I hate to say it, I approve of your ascension plan. The battle for Si’Tsunit is outside projections.]
He could hear her sigh. Mof had come up with that plan not because she wanted to, but because she saw the need.
[Understood. I’ll be depending on you then.]
[Don’t worry, I’ll make it work.]
Tec looked again at the numbers as another wave of strikes came in, observing the load and the heat of the emitters and the drain on the power grid of Teservi. Even as he watched, Tec began the next step of shifting the city defences.
[Hover units, redistribute to designated sea-facing locations for reinforcement.]
Little pips of acknowledgement drifted across his awareness, the SIs of the vehicles responding almost instantaneously.
Tec shook his head. He knew of the fleet cores, the SI’s so powerful they could almost be called divine. And he understood all these vehicles had Synthetic Intelligences loaded in to independently control their war platforms, or at least assist with technical systems.
But they were so incredibly limited. He knew the SI’s could think faster than most Humans, he didn’t see why they couldn’t think much faster than all Humans. The things had been carefully throttled as if being able to do more was threatening. And then there was the other problem. Unrestrained, he could have an army of nothing but SI’s!
Hidden deep in the bowels of Teservi, Tec rubbed his face. He knew why. Taking the flesh and blood out of war made it a game, too far removed for the people to understand the ramifications of all that happened. There were probably other ramifications he didn’t have the social awareness to avoid as well. His gifted knowledge came in fits and starts, often triggered by accidental fragments of ideas or conversations.
The insistent pulse of an encrypted message arrived. Someone was pinging him through the dataspace beacon. Tec Uhj shifted his attention again. That was almost certainly going to be bad news. And it was. Tec Uhj rubbed his eyes as he looked at the report from New Sunrise. Almost as soon as they’d spoken about it, the ascension plan was in trouble.
In a world of technological wonders and unthinkable advancements, superstition reared its ugly head once again.
Just what was it about the Thirteenth that made them the center of trouble?
HMHC.Ced.3374Uhk.5698 - Ced
“Keep your distance, you reek!
“You’s gunna eat zat?”
“No, no, they haven’t said, no, she’s… no…”
“Sorry. Will ask again.”
“No, they aren’t letting us out, they refuse to grant the freedom I deserve!”
“It’s all gone, the garden, the tower, the sculptures, the works… it’s all…”
Ced walked slowly, listening as he moved through the shelter. Most of the voices he heard were Feraylsen, with the occasional Yinglets and the very rare Zawess or Gerlen occasionally being heard. Moss followed from just behind, brooding quietly.
“I gots it, I gots it! Weh heh heh!”
Norf ran ahead, holding a ration ball high in his hand, Poon, Fike, Bod and Oose all chasing close. Ced could see some of the sheltering Feraylsen glaring at the noisy pack of Yinglets, but he didn’t care.
“You’re not going to run him down?” Ced asked, looking to the one Yinglet who’d remained at his side. The Black furred female, Cab. She turned her head and looked at him as she took a bite of one of the squishy ration balls Mof had begun distributing while trying to recover city food stores.
“Nomph, hafs fuds.” Cab explained messily with a chunk of soft meal in her maw. She tilted her head back, then snapped forward to swallow the bite in one gulp. She only had the one tooth at the tip of her snout and a bare set of small teeth at the back of her mouth. Ced supposed chewing wasn’t really an option for her.
They were walking through one of the city shelters. Originally a large recreational area and food court, the place was full of variable hardlight emitters, rest areas, gardens and lots of open space. This one existed for those who preferred a more sheltered area away from the open sky and the activity of the bustling surface and the traffic of civilian hovers.
Now it was one of the few places the Feraylsen civilians could hide. More than a few of those civilians glared at Ced with gemstone eyes. Blues, greens, reds, yellows, purples, whites, and more. If it could be made to look striking, it was apparently fair game.
“Hey Moss?”
“What’s the deal with eye colour? Barely any two Feraylsen seem to have the same colour eyes.”
“Oh, the mother gets to pick the eye colour of the baby.”
“The mother? There are no fathers though?”
“No, there are no… no males,” Moss explained patiently, hesitating as she remembered the Library. She took a breath and soldiered on, “Feraylsen do still have two parents. Having two parents is one of the very most important factors for a healthy child after all.”
“Okay, but father and mother? How do you decide?”
“At the time of pair-bonding, it is difficult to say who will fill what role, but every couple has to do their assessments if they wish to qualify to have a child. The assessment will determine which partner is the willful, dominant partner and which is the submissive and supportive partner. The dominant is given the role of father and the submissive is the mother and then given appropriate lessons. As acknowledgement for her compromising nature, the mother is given the choice of eye colour. Traditionally most mothers choose independently, a surprise for the father to look forward to.”
Ced felt his eyes scrunching together as he parsed what she was saying. “So you have to be tested to know which is which?”
“Of course, the you that you know is not the same you that I know,” Moss explained without a hint of trouble. “A person needs multiple perspectives to get an accurate profile of themselves. The assessment certifies the couple for compatibility and capability to raise a child. If you assess particularly well, you may even be permitted two children, if you wish.”
Ced shut his eyes tight for a moment as that one worked its way through his head. It did make sense though, the idea that a person didn’t fully understand themselves or their partner. He knew without a doubt that everyone had secrets or a history they didn’t just volunteer wholesale. That was less so with born grown-up Humans like him, but he had no doubt that this would remain true over time. But…
“So the assessment can fail you, declaring you unfit for children? What if you want to have children anyways?”
Moss actually stopped and looked at Ced with shock, her ears flattening out and her eyes wide. “How barbaric! That would be the height of irresponsibility!” Moss shook her head. “Fortunately, that’s not possible. While much of the Feraylsen productive organs work just fine, for recreational purposes, we are unable to conceive until we have been cleared to do so! There is no reason to submit to the burdens of biology.”
Moss had been a picture of outraged shock. Ced’s shock was numb, his mind blanking out as he processed what she was saying. He was still processing the idea that there weren’t really men and women among the Feraylsen. He didn’t even know if ‘she’ was a proper description for them! He knew none of this was in his implanted memories and certainly didn’t even begin to approach what his previous life knew. He had a creeping suspicion it would in fact contravene much of what he’d known before.
Ced took a deep breath, then let it out. This was a different time, a different place. How was he to know the old was any better than this? Even if he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that he’d still prefer his old life. “I suspect the world I vaguely recall was… different.”
Moss nodded, “Oh certainly, and there is nothing wrong with that! An important lesson to keep in mind is what the people who lived back then had to work with in terms of knowledge and philosophy! At any point in time it was a whole new world! And of course, no two cultures are the same, what works for us may not work for Humans.”
Ced wanted to shake his head. Just like that, Moss was interested and animated, enjoying the conversation. She quickly realized he didn’t share her excitement. Ced looked around at the busy, but well-manicured space of the recreation zone.
He glanced at Moss. Her ears slowly dropped, her blue eyes wide and looking up at him with concern. “Are you well?”
He couldn’t answer that. “Tell me about this place,” Ced asked instead.
“This place?”
“Yeah, like over there,” Ced pointed at an enclosed building. While walls and windows served to create an interior space, the spacious windows ensured anyone could clearly see inside. It was a place lined with large booths. Each booth had a central table with several chairs of what appeared to be cloth cushions and composite seats, legs and back. “That looks to be a… place to eat?” He squinted as he spoke, peering in to see groups of Feraylsen talking and eating their meals.”
“Indeed, it is a diner.” Moss slowly walked ahead, Ced stepping in next to her as she came abreast of him. “Although the menu is a bit more limited than usual right now.”
“Tell me about it, what would be different from my primitive world.”
“I’m sure it’s not so bad as to be called primitive-”
“Wood, oil, pitch, coal and sun, those are the sources of light by which we lived.”
“... Okay, that is rather primitive.” Moss dwelled on the problem for a bit, thinking about what he really wanted to know. “When someone has decided to visit the recreation zone, they often signal ahead, or ask a simple AI servant to lock a time to visit the diner. They will state in advance what they desire to eat and whether more will join them for the meal.”
Ced nodded, sensible enough. Then her description took off.
“When a visitor is in the diner, the booth they are in projects a partial dataspace. The chairs, tables and any individual within the direct zone is displayed either as they are, or costumed. The food and the furniture are true to life so that one may move about without trouble. But beyond the booth is wholly artificial. You can enjoy your meal and conversation with fantastical backdrops. Shattering ice ravines splitting wide with the movement of glaciers or perhaps volcanoes in the midst of violent upheaval, roaring and gushing magma. Peaceful plateaus overlooking incredible vistas or islands weathering brutal storms fit to flatten all within sight, if it was real. You can eat while riding the back of a comet, or watch a rousing duel between rival ships in space, all in the safe confines of your booth”.
By the time she was done, they had moved to the next venue.
What had once been an open field was now occupied by ugly grey boxes, maker made walls slapped together to form temporary housing for the refugees within. On closer look, ced could see the floor of the field consisted of hundreds of panels with transparent squares in their middles. The whole thing was absolutely humongous, providing plenty of space for people to live. Ced wondered what could use all that room.
“That is a games field. All the emitters in the floor give it a remarkable level of adaptability. Those emitters are variable emitters capable of reproducing a remarkable range of colours and objects and even more so, have them in motion! Reproducing the colours and objects that can move freely raises energy consumption to a remarkable level, taking away from what’s available to reinforce the constructs, but it’s more than enough to generate a field and the environment. Gear and tools necessary for the game being played are brought in as separate objects, the tools often specialized hardlight emitters as well. The field can be separated into regions or the whole thing may be reserved for a team game. The most popular game is ‘Return’. Players are given a handheld hardlight paddle that will pass through solid matter, but reacts to a projected hardlight ball. A net is placed in the center of the field and then the players, either singles or teams, attempt to touch the ground of the opposing side with the ball. “
“The most popular team games is that of Predator and Prey. The person playing as the predator must remain outside the simulation while those playing as prey construct their environment. All of the objects within the environment are to be made within some loose specifications and then the prey hide within these objects. Sight is blocked and indeed great care is taken to divide environments into blocks that don’t allow extensive line of sight. The predator then stalks through the environment, using their senses to detect those hiding within. If the predator guesses wrong by passing a hand or leg through a construct and finds nothing, they are blinded to give participants a chance to move around. Each found prey becomes a predator as well, until the last hidden individual starts the next round as the new predator, and all the rest get to hide all over again, until the game is done.
“That does sound like fun. Do children and adults play together?”
“Of course, it is important for the healthy development of children to participate with adults in group activities,” Moss hummed approvingly to herself as she spoke. “Of course, these are just two game of many that can be played within the confines of the field, sometimes new games may be adopted for other cultures if they prove interesting.”
“Do you play any?” Ced asked.
“I am not one for games normally,” Moss shook her head as she answered, “No, I have only played Return and Predator and Prey, but that was quite some time ago.”
The field extended quite far, giving Moss the time she needed to explain it to him, but by the time she was done, they were onto the next sight. Ced felt a tug on the pantleg of his suit. He looked down and saw Cab standing behind him, unwilling to move closer.
“There is little to worry about,” Moss called out as she stopped and looked back. “We aren’t going to visit the Echo Pools.”
“Don’t worry, you’re with me right now,” Ced said, looking down to the diminutive black Yinglet. He reached down and gently removed her hand from his pant leg, and held onto it. She squeezed his hand like a scared child. The other five rematerialized from the surroundings as they saw Ced hold onto her. Ced looked up and pointed past the building. “Let’s go that way, and now I definitely want you to tell me what the Echo Pools are.”
Ced could see through the typically huge front window of the building. Just inside it seemed to be stylized like a river with surrounding friendly vegetation with light streaming in from above. He could see stepped pools along the back wall, one accessible at the height of his knee. Many more extended above the first pool, seeming more decorative than practical. No one occupied the building, leaving him a bit curious.
“The Echo pools are where Yesinglets are made.”
The simple description surprised Ced. He felt Cab squeeze tight.
Ced frowned as he walked. “Made? Not adopted, not purchased or bred?”
“... No. They are made.”
As much as Ced didn’t like the sound of that, he didn’t miss the tone in Moss’s voice. “And you don’t like it.”
“I would prefer to adopt from a breeder,” Moss answered. They walked in silence for a few more moments. “Yesin… Yinglets from the Echo pools are much like you Ced. They are designed from the inside out based on the preferences of the customer.”
Ced nodded, he’d expected something like that. “That’s not all though, or Cab wouldn’t be frightened.” He gave the little black female’s hand a reassuring squeeze. He felt the puff of fur on his right leg and she wound her tail around him as much as she could.
“No… if a Feraylsen has had enough of their Yinglet, and they aren’t interested in searching for a new owner, they can take their Yinglet to the Echo Pools.”
Cab was pushing against his leg as they walked. He could hear the multiple taps on the floor behind him as the other Yinglets followed close behind.
“Let me guess. From the vats, and back to the vats.”
Ced looked down to see the bright yellow eyes of Cab looking back up at him. Her eyes were all the brighter surrounded by her black fur. He could understand putting down an injured animal. A creature unable to understand and unable to survive, to leave it to starve was nothing but cruelty.
And Ced well understood the value of hunting. The effort and skill required to track and kill, the most intimate of moments when one used all their skills, just so they could live at the cost of the beast they had hunted. That moment was humbling and sublime, so important he could remember it clearly even from another lifetime.
But to drop off this little person, this child-like creature, so it could be melted into goop…
Ced didn’t say a word until the building was out of sight, and Moss respected the silence.
They passed more buildings, a couple of diners, what looked like a maker shop for clothes, wrapped around a corner to see another portion of the hardlight gaming field. Finally Moss and Ced arrived at a small secluded garden, a little natural fountain sat in the middle with a burbling stream of water cascading down rocks into a series of small pools. A curved bench sat along one side of the enclosed foliage and the ground was a carpet of soft grass. It even smelled like plantlife. Ced felt his jaw unclench.
“Ced? Moss?” They looked down in unison to see Bod holding up a pair of flat, wide brushes that resembled smaller horse brushes. “You promise!”
“Heh, haha,” Ced laughed, struck by the disparity of the moment. As much as he had continued to brood over the idea of the Echo Pools, Bod here had moved on to much more important things. Ced kept laughing as Bod stared at him with confusion, ears perked up high.
“That seems like a good plan,” Ced agreed, the creeping pressure on his heart blown away. “Let’s get comfortable.”
“Yeshh!!! Bod jumped with excitement as the rest of the Yinglets piled in, making it hard to just move. Ced looked at Moss and smiled, genuinely smiled. He could see the tension leave her shoulders and neck, and for the first time, she smiled back. Awkwardly, making it clear it just wasn’t something she did, probably something no Feraylsen did.
But she was willing to try.
And so was he.
HFLC.Rom.8893Eyd.8958 - Captain Rom of the Firstborn.
There were distinct disparities between the different ‘classes’ of Humans. Rom was pretty sure it was more a matter of what had gone in to developing the various classes rather than them just ‘being better’. A good example was the way Fid and apparently Ced Uhk could commune with the Prisk when she could barely hear them. Rom just didn’t have the ears.
Another example was a stark difference between Rom and General Tec Uhj. Rom had to concentrate to manage the shared space of her company and give orders. But the general, he could look at the whole of the city all at once and assign orders to pretty much anyone, anywhere.
Another difference was in the gear set. After the battle she’d snuck a look. Ced Uhk’s armour had simply been better than hers with better dataspace defences built in and a stronger power supply and heat management profile. That made pretty much everything else about his armour better.
But sometimes she was happily reminded that even high class weren’t so different. Such as the captain of Dawn’s Sigh speaking out loud while also talking over dataspace as he talked to his admiral.
Rom wasn’t the only one.
Ciq Ath did it too, mumbling quietly to himself about linkage arrays and overload buffers as he worked on his templates.
“They have the makers working on the new gear.”
Rom shifted her head and realized Captain Lip Ebz had come to the back of his bridge to speak with her. It was a nice touch, that he was willing to literally take the extra step to speak to her in person.
“Good to hear, thank you sir.” Rom nodded to the olive-skinned, curly hair man. “My men and I have tested them in dataspace, and a few in truth as well. The extras will be welcome.” She watched him as she spoke, and Rom could see the edge of a smile sneaking through. She let him sit until he was ready to speak.
“Yes, good, but… porcupop?”
Rom grinned. She wasn’t surprised that was the thing he wanted to ask. There were a bunch of simple designs Ath and the other engineers had shared, but that was the strangest name. “Do you know what a porcupine is? I didn’t before now either, so it makes sense if you don’t.”
The Captain blinked at her.
“Well it’s an earth animal with spines that can get stuck in anyone who gets too close. The hand-bomb will emit spikes of hardlight in a wide area in a single piercing flash. They can skewer anything they hit. I’m told the white light of the spikes look kinda like porcupine quills.
“But it works in one big ‘pop’.”
“Consider my curiosity satisfied, but onto why you’re really here.”
“You’ve got the Firstborn because you need landing troops to help breakout the Thirteenth.”
“Yup, so…” Lip sighed and shook his head. “If I was to describe the Thirteenth by the reports I’ve seen, it would be ‘stupid luck’.” Rom felt the pulse of an invitation, even as Lip stepped away to return to his chair. As he took his seat in person, Rom joined him in Dataspace.
[The flight of Swordbirds has already proved useful, we were able to send one ahead and get a view of the scenery.]
Rom looked next to her as the ball of light that was Ath joined them while Lip spoke. Lip looked at Rom and Ath and then waved a hand, forcing the shared space to display them as their bodies. Rom stood just as her true self stood at the back of Lip’s bridge. Ath was sitting but stood as he realized what Lip had done. Ath grunted as he bumped into an invisible something, then stepped back, the appearance of him remaining still while walking jarring her senses.
Rom looked at the tableau the Captain had set out rather than glance at Ath.
The scenery was that of a huge valley that descended surprisingly deep into the surface. A river at the north end of the snaking valley had been dammed off and a long complex of buildings and roads extended the length of the valley. Most of it was battle scarred, but she could see numerous reinforced defensive points where soldiers had set up with weapons, vehicles and emitters to hold out against the Scrrsk.
[So the thirteenth is a series of good luck, bad luck situations.]
Ath snorted.
[Good luck. Deep Valley Forge here is the maker hub of the planet, with a huge collection of construction makers of all different sizes and the material stockpile to make use of it. Bad luck. The only surviving engineer of the Thirteenth is here on my ship. They’ve been making do with limited templates, most of it civilian in nature.]
[Those poor bastards,] Ath muttered.
[Good luck, a couple days ago much of the Scrrsk peeled off to attack the Ninth now that they’ve got the Twenty-Fifth and the Forty-First to help them, which is why New Sunrise got bogged down. Bad luck, the remaining Scrrsk are dug in here in Deep Valley and seem to know the tunnels every bit as well as the uh, the Prisk support.]
[Scrrsk are able to harvest the Prisk for knowledge,] Rom mentioned offhand.
[They are?] Ath asked, turning his head.
[How could you not know that, whiffle-waffle? When Ced Uhk reported back it went out like wildfire!]
[I was distracted!]
[Moving on.] Lip paused to make sure the two of them were paying attention. [Good luck is, of course, having all the makers and the materials to make more equipment than they can use. The bad luck is that the Scrrsk seem to have access to some of those makers and the ability to use them. They’ve taken to outfitting themselves with hardlight shields and mass drivers.]
Ath frowned and spoke, [That’s going to make them more dangerous in a melee if they can attack through hardlight shields. Hardlight constructs will fuse together, but they can still stab you through a hardlight shield if they do it right.] Looking up to Lip, he asked another question, [Is that common, the use of makers?]
[It doesn’t seem so. Everything we have suggests the Scrrsk are just using what’s at hand rather than let the thirteenth have it. The fight for Deep Valley has been see-sawing for a few days now.]
Rom looked at the long valley, key points highlighted along the winding crevasse. She could see where the Thirteenth was holding out and predicted Scrrsk strong points. Also highlighted were the largest maker bays as well as the most important storage warehouses. The apparent fortress of the Thirteenth stretched across the deepest part of the valley. Most of the Factory was embedded on the eastern wall of the section, with a complex of buildings, roads and supports extending to the western walls of this portion of the valley turned ravine. It looked almost like a fat gilded spider sitting in the middle of a spiderweb.
[We will send Ath and a contingent of hovers down to the current stronghold of the Thirteenth here] Lip tapped on the hanging fortress. [But the question now is what does the First want to do? You’ll have a limited opportunity to surprise the Scrrsk when we arrive.]
Fid popped into the dataspace, materializing from fragments of light in barely a moment.
[My apologies, Captain Lip, Rom, Ath, I’ve got an emergency signal coming in over the subspace beacon from orbit. The Scrrsk fleet has moved overhead and started dropping pods, if we don’t hurry, there won’t be anyone left to rescue.]
Even as Fid spoke, he updated the map with a wave, showing new hotspots appearing in alarming numbers with every moment.
Rom looked at Captain Lip. [I guess we’ll just have to find out when we get there.] But the captain already had the faraway look of being in dataspace. He wasn’t paying attention. The reason made it clear a moment later.
“I don’t care what the warnings say!” he shouted in the background, “Push Dawn’s Sigh until she shakes! They need us there now!”
[Damn typical,] Ath muttered. [Good luck, the Thirteenth is getting reinforcements.] He looked at Rom with a twisted smile.
[Bad luck, so are the Scrrsk.]
End Chapter
submitted by MyNameMeansBentNose to HFY