This is a smol book by TinyPrancingHorse, a throwaway reddit account that accidentally became super popular once he had a mental break at work. You can find his other works – including the other entries into this series, in the hobbit door under the stairs at:

Come join us, and ilu.

This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.

THEY ARE SMOL

First edition. September 21, 2020.

Copyright © 2020 TinyPrancingHorse.

Written by TinyPrancingHorse.

Chapter 1:

Caroline sniffed.

Not in that 'but what IS that smell?' kinda way, but in the 'fuck me it's cold' kinda way. Through gloved fingers she twisted yet another insulated cable shut, thankful that the drop in heat hadn't affected her like it did her cold-blooded friends.

"Th…there." she sniffed again. "About damn time, too." For a brief moment she took time to look over her ….quite honestly frankenstinian handywork; duct tape, forming putty, a couple of hasty welds, a half-used gigantic tube of black caulk – that'll do, pig. That'll do. Lighting up her communicator, she thumbs the bead implanted in her ear. "Engineering?"

"[Yes?]" her translator intoned.

"We lost 5 heating coils total; route power through auxiliaries for everything in my section."

"[We will still lose net heat, Caroline.]"

"Ok, granted, but would you rather be at 60% or at 0? Give this another day and even I couldn't be in here without an exo suit."

"[3$##f (error:undefined words) (error:undefined words)]"

She smiled to herself. "Aww now, come on Sassy – if you're going to curse say it clear enough for me to get it! Besides, 60% is downright comfortable for my species – consider it environmental training for the recruits!"

"[…. point taken, Caroline.]" and with the click of the bead, the communicator shut off – as the warm blue glow of auxiliary power lighting turned on, the air starting to circulate just slightly warmer than before.

—–

"Ok, look, I'm telling you we shouldn't be here!" Ssharnak hissed over his shoulder, quickly poking his head back out to the corridor.

"Yeah, yeah, you were all ready and weaving to strike when it was all talk, but now-" with a grunt, Ashhs'skk popped off the cover to their resident human's home terminal, quickly pulling out a few various tools. "-that we're here, you're showing how lukewarm you really are!"

"I am NOT a lukewarm coward! Ok?! Just… look, [Caroline] is a good [human] and I just, yes, I'm curious but that doesn't mean we should invade her privacy, ok?"

Junior Engineer – and self-proclaimed 'code cracker' Ashhs'ssk looked down over his deep navy coils at his partner-in-crime flatly. "So you want access to secret [human] media that's not cleared for our consumption…and you think she'll just, yanno. Break laws to give it to us?"

"W-well, no."

"So we turn to a life of piracy – subdue the guards, take over this ship, hold her hostage, demand the secrets of [human] cinema?" Ashhs'ssk's tongue slid out, lazily tasting the air.

"I…just want to know what she's always referencing…" Ssharnak mumbled, his red tailtip curling in and around itself.

"Ok then. Do you have a better plan?" When silence greeted him, Ashhs'ssk sighed. "That's what I thought."

"…We won't be stealing her biodata, right?"

"By Sotek-who-circles-the-world, we're having this conversation again, here? Now?" Ashhs'ssk complained, his head and arm stuck in a compromising position within the Gateway brand human terminal. "We're spoofing her biometrics, ONLY when in warp and ONLY to see what she sees! Even then, there's going to be a delay due to quantum, uh, estrangement? Let's go with that-" with another grunt and a snap, a small cricket-sized piece of hardware connects two previously separate wires, and Ashhs'ssk grins. "And anyway. We can't record anything, and this'll short out within a few [days] at most. We've got another 6 months in this contract – we're going to be FINE, ok?"

"Do you promise?"

Ashhs'ssk slid out and coiled around his maintenance box, quickly popping the cover back on to his human friend's terminal. "…just for that I'm making you get all the snacks when this thing works."

"Watch your tips, watch your tips~" Caroline sang-warned as she made her way back to the Engineering command center, the doors opening up into a balmy 30C environment. As she walked, the rest of the crew – Jornissians to the last – pulled their tails in under themselves. Flopping into the still-too-large-for-her-proportions human chair, Caroline made sure to make a big show of stretching and working out her fatigued muscles to the blue-and-gold swirled xeno.

"[Is that really necessary, Caroline?]" Engineering Lead Hsan playfully complained, his natural hiss-purring language being drowned out by the Comm-bead's translation matrix.

"But it was sooooo much wooooork~" she whined, tapping her arm-mounted computer to begin the wonderful world of interstellar incident reporting and general paperwork.

"[Yes, certainly, walking down a few corridors and rerouting wires. Thank Sotek-who-circles-the-world we had you.]" Hsan grinned, monitoring the redistribution of power throughout the ship's systems. "[If we didn't, I shudder to think what we'd have to do – possibly use one of our other 8 corridors!]"

"Mmmm, Big talk for someone who doesn't want to get a little cold."

"[This again?]"

"Look, all *I'm* saying is that you've got dakimakura exo-suits and I want to get a single picture in-"

"[(error: untranslated phrase)? What brand of exo-suit is that?]"

"It looks like a long pillow." Caroline grinned, causing Hsan to sigh.

"[80 generations of Jornissian technology-]"

" w. Y'all gotta look so dang soft in 'em…"

"[So you want to cuddle up to me? Caroline, I never knew!]" Hsan tilted his head 180 degrees backwards, arms still working the controls while he stared at her, and upside-down grin plastered on his face. "[I'll have to tell the captain to officiate our ceremony! So forward – so progressive!]"

"Oh baby, wrap your tail around me and call me-"

A Mottled black-and-gray Jornissian throws his hands up in the air. "[BY HARSAK-WHO-DEVOURS-THE-DEAD, WILL YOU TWO STOP.]"

"Sorry Haaank~""[Apologies, sonar technician Eshhsan.]"

—-

"Ok, ok, shh."

"Stop! That's not – mmf"

"Get your arm out of my face or so help me-"

"H-hey! Hey! Th- Who's touchi-iiiiii~"

Ssharnak sighed. SOMEHOW – and it definitely was not his fault, no matter who you ask – word got out about their little escapade during the heater repair incident. So, what was originally going to be just two friends sharing a lifelong secret together turned into 'let's invite a few females to join us so we can be cool infront of them and they'll think we're cool and maybe they'll nuzzle our hood flare cause we're cool guys' and then THAT turned into 'it's just a few more friends ha ha don't worry' until, well, now.

A good third of the entire ship's crew is crammed into the private quarters of two Junior Officers. Another third probably tried to come in and saw it was packed – if the complaints out in the hallway are any indicator, and the rest of the poor bastards that aren't in here or out there are probably actually flying the ship in warp…. with a live feed into this room.

If Ssharnak was a betting man (and he wasn't, but after this would be in the market for a few vices) he'd say at least half of everyone's body is still stuck outside in the corridor. The half that made it inside his room was comprised of a writhing mass of Jornissiary; males and females, senior officers and junior deckhands, pressing, writhing and squirming against each other for a good view…. which is kinda hot, honestly.

Ssharnak makes a mental picture of the situation, and then makes a mental note to check in for therapy.

"Ashhs'ssk, when does this thing start?"

"Well, Captain, ma'am, uh. She has to start the actual program and sign in, and then we'll just see what she sees…"

The Captain – and you didn't even know her name, nor how she got here, she was always just THE CAPTAIN – bore a hole into Ashhs'ssk with her glare. "Son. I did not come down here on a maybe or a might – this thing of yours had better work. Now either it does, and this never happened, or it doesn't and you get court marshaled. Understood?"

"Y-yes… ma'am."

Ssharnak rummages around the snack bowl he's holding for a particularly crunchy namptha ball and pops it into his mouth. "Here's hoping."

Ashhs'ssk whips around and leans in close, whisper-screaming at his erstwhile friend and co-conspirator. "You better be hoping too! We'll both be going down for this!"

"What? Nah. I was just the lookout – the cute face of the operation. I got plausible deniability-"

"Plausible den- I will crush seven types of hell into your body you little sh-"

With an unassuming crackle and a pop, the screen turns on. A desktop background of a [human] family slowly fades out to show [Caroline] and a few other females at some resort, and then to that same group of females in the water…

"oh! a dynamic background. Neat."

"Are all human females in those scale tones? No wonder they wear so much clothing"

"Just one sun? Just the one? Lame."

The peanut gallery continues through her reading of a couple emails, a few news articles caught up – apparently [Caroline] is an investor in iridium mines, who knew? The cancellation and ignoring of a couple warning popups (Ashhs'ssk went completely still and pale when the first one showed up) and finally, the opening of a program called Netflix.

Ssharnak smiles. "Man, I'm glad this was my idea."

Chapter 2:

Caroline was intrigued, in a detached kind of way, in how someone could be both paranoid and bored at the same time.

By Galactic Union Mandate, any human serving on an all-xenos ship needed to spend at least 4 hours a day immersed in human media. This wasn't necessarily because human media was somehow better than anything else anyone produced, merely that humans are very social creatures when it comes to themselves and things they understand. Although you can be friendly to a 350kg cold-blooded snake-person, there's still some things that are off, and the cheapest cure-all to that is just being reminded of home.

'It's the small things', Caroline mused, 'that drive you insane.'

And indeed, it was. Even if you ignored the obvious biological differences, living in a ship for months or years at a time where your footfalls are a constant reminder that you're the only biped on board, that the halls and doors and chairs and beds and bathrooms are all the wrong size and proportion, that there are racial and cultural in-jokes that you'll just never get, that even the food they give you – delicious, sure, but…

As if to illustrate that point, Caroline takes a namptha ball the size of her fist and gnaws at it – the dense-but-not-solid jawbreaker slowly giving way, rewarding her with the closest thing to licorice-mint that the galaxy has to offer.

Oddly enough, macro-wise it counts as a protein.

"….it's still not right." She hummed to herself, minimizing the Harry Potter movie she was watching for the umpteenth time. Idly, she pulls up the ship's schedule and manifesto, and begins to browse. "…up until literally last week, I had a 6 hour shift with an hour break halfway through. Now, I'm on a 3 hour shift with nothing else to do…"

Spinning in her oversized chair, she tosses the namptha ball into the sink, the hearty thunk echoing through the room proving her throwing arm is still good.

"But why? Nobody's asked me for more human-culture lessons, nobody invites me to meal time, nobody asks me to do anything – it's either I sit here and waste away, or lay about on one of the heat rocks on observation deck. I mean, at least then somebody will share the rock with me, but… nobody says I'm in trouble. So….why do I feel like I did something wrong?"

So she sat, and she worried. Humans, as a whole, weren't nearly as terrifying as their galactic neighbors. Jornissians were snake-people who could actually crush cars with their bodies, and some still had very potent if vestigial venom sacs. A 'short' Dorarizin would still be at least 2.8m tall with teeth and claws that could peel aluminum bars with ease, and a Karnak, well. Think "roided-up monitor lizard with frills and no sense of personal space" and you'll be pretty close.

All of them fine sapients, all of them could turn a human to paste with enough motivation. The question on Caroline's mind was: was she giving her hosts the first steps towards that motivation?

She sat and mused, the stark silence of the corridor outside her door doing nothing to ease her fears.

—-

Warp travel was, all things considered, the least exciting type of travel you could do in a spaceship.

Seriously. If you're in a major shipping lane, you have to worry about other vessels, space junk, independent merchant tugs trying to dock with you to get a better deal before stationdock and the general insanity that comes from space traffic control giving directions not only in a 3-coordinate plane but also in time. If you're out 'in the boonies' of real space, you still have to deal with interstellar dust, micrometeorites, gravity wells, rogue planet/oid/s and sometimes raiders. If you find yourself in atmosphere, well – your trip will be exciting, hot and short with a permanent conclusion at the end.

But when you clear out the local space around you – and just a few millimeters will do – and then fold that space around your ship and move, you're in nothing but a glorified impervious clear bubble. Granted, that bubble moves a couple exponential places above c, but still. The fact of the matter is, a majority of ship captains didn't travel above the galactic disc because of uncharted hazards, or some ancient enemy, or fear of running out of power.

They traveled amongst the stars and planets of the galactic plane at hyperspeed because if you didn't, there was fuck-all nothing to look at.

The recently-promoted Ssharnak, Junior Technician II, and his trusty-but-grouchy older ward Ashhs'ssk (still a simple Junior Engineer) were not having the problem of having fuck-all nothing to look at. Quite the opposite, really. Their room had become the de-facto '[Human] Cinema', complete with comfortable seats, a snack bar, a rotation list and even a couple drinking games. After Hsan saw the [Resevoir Dogs] movie, getting [Caroline]'s schedule changed was a done deal. With the extended cinema hours, there was less crowding and – Ssharnak wouldn't believe it unless it was happening to him – more females coming up to talk to him during off hours.

"wait… wa- SKITTERS IN THE BACK! TAKE A SHOT!"

There was a groan from one of the back-tables as Eshhsan pounded another molok, a grimace on his face. "That's not fair – they're in EVERY fucking scene in this one!"

"Yeah, well. That's what you get for not being here during the previous fantasy night. Considering [Humans] can't see in the infrared…"

"Yeah, yeah." growled Eshhsan, pointing a finger at his red-and-yellow comrade. "It's not fair, though. They can't help that they're half-blind! The humans in those skin-suits are invisible to their people!"

"No, but you should've figured that in when you took me up on this game. Ready for another round?"

"Ugh. No. No, I quit. And from the looks of it, so does she." Eshhsan pushed away a mountain of crushed drink-pearls, drawing Ssharnak's attention back to the screen. [Caroline] had minimized the movie, and was instead looking at ships' logs.

"Hey, Eshhsan? You think she's onto us yet?" Ashhs'ssk muses at the bar, his tail coiled lightly around a cute engineers' in the back corner of the room.

"I don't know. Maybe? Is 3 hours of work not enough time? What if we put her on 5?"

"5 is…. problematic with our schedule. The gems will keep their seats due to ranks, but the gemless and other junior members…" Ashhs'ssk trails off, sighing. "We probably should do it – but that didn't come from me."

"Mmmh. What's… what's she typing? I'm… having some trouble focusing."

"Uuuh….I don't know. It's not [Netflix] or [Hulu]. Looks like a private, off-books program to me…"

Unbidden, Ssharnak pipes up. "What does meme-edited Jarnissian even mean?"

Chapter 3:

It was an open secret that the races that comprised the Galactic Senate – the Jornissians, the Dorarizin, the Humans and the Karnak – kept secrets from each other. Traditionally, this would be a cause for war or some sort of political sanctions, but once you've achieved nanofactories, quantum cold fusion power and tesseract space travel, the entire cosmos opens up to you. At that point, why fight over this garden planet when a mere 800 light-years away there's another one? That's bigger and has two moons? Why fight over resources when a single dead system could be strip-mined for more raw materials than your species could use in a thousand years? Why fight over border disputes? Space is massive – in essence, war becomes a pointless and quite dickish endeavor.

Secrets on the Galactic scale were more… mundane, all things considered. If you know a few 'magic' tricks and can wow a couple species, you might get booked on a 10-system tour. If the secrets to your set get out, suddenly you're just the-human-with-the-cards-that-waves-them-around. If you've put down claim on a phenomenal planet with breathtaking vistas, you better file a copyright that view – or else the VR parlors will be sending out recording drones within the year. And Food? Well.

Who would've guessed that within 20 years after the accidental invasion of Earth, The Aunt Jemima factory complex would rival the NSA Headquarter's security detail?

Point being, most secrets were mundane and assumed to be mundane – for thousands of years, this had always been the case, and the rest of the races had no reason to assume that anything would change, let alone on the induction and (relatively) slow uplift of a fellow sapient species.

So when Caroline was continuing to freak out over possible, theoretical injustices she had delivered to her crewmates – maybe she took THE CAPTAIN'S favorite heat rock one day? Maybe her table manners are atrocious? Wait, no — [Hsan] and [Eshhsan] were secretly a couple! It all makes sense now! – she turned to one of Humanity's "secrets" to ease her fears and put her large, unblinking, omnivorous, venemous, titanically-strong crewmates mentally back in their place.

She turned to dank fucking memes.

Ssharnak was living in a world of Firsts. First one of his clutch to be promoted (take that, Ashhs'ssk!), First time a really cute girl talked to him without someone else prompting them to, First time one of his plans had paid off in any real measurable way, and now the First time that his plan had completely gone off the rails and into uncharted territory.

The entire Secret [Human] Cinema, Bar and Lounge (Floor 1A) was silent, staring attentively at the screen before them.

"But…wait. What? Is t- that's art." Ssharnak mumbled, tilting his head at the screen.

"Why. What does it even mean? Why is it of us?" Ashhs'ssk complained, tapping the picture. "My translator's kicking this back to me as a misspelling of comfortable. And what is that he's wearing? That is a he, right?"

C O M F

"I don't know, the hood is right but the ridge is wrong and what is going on with that scale pattern?! Just." Ssharnak replied, tilting his head a full 90 degrees, as if the change in perspective would provide an answer.

"I don't need this right now. He's a very pretty uh… he." Eshhsan slurred, one eye staring intently at the 'meme' and the other eye staring intently at the wall.

"Hasras, you need to get him to medical." Ashhs'ssk quipped, eyes not moving from the screen as a new picture replaced the old one.

[They don't think Jornissians be like it is]

"And miss this?" The red-and-yellow man replied, pointing at the screen. "Hells no. I'll make a call, get him picked up – I am not missing this."

Ssharnak merely grunted in reply, his head continuing to pivot past 90 degrees.

In retrospect, this would prove to be the wrong thing to do.

—-

You know how when something new and exciting is happening – that electric feel in the air of change? That same feeling that draws the informed, the uninformed and the downright curious in like a moth to the flame?

This is the feeling that caused the medical team to delay long enough in pulling Eshhsan out from under the table to send an automated warning flag to both their superiors and to security and maintenance, who both dispatched a team to investigate whether an unknown environmental hazard (or mutiny) had caused the med team's delay.

This is the feeling that caused neither of those teams to respond in during their scheduled check-in, sending up not only more severe alerts to the head of Navigation, Maintenance, Security and Medical, but also to THE CAPTAIN as well.

And it was that feeling that caused THE CAPTAIN to forget to turn off her dead-man's switch, causing their otherwise-innocent supply and rescue ship to pop onto the screens of Jornissian High Command as a possible Mutiny, en-route to one of their more populated core worlds. At a significantly higher speed than c. With all gem-tier officers not reporting to their stations.

Jornissian High Command felt this was enough of an issue to humbly request one of their defense fleets to scramble, immediately if possible – and if they'd be so kind as to throw out some warp-nets to stop the rogue ship before it plowed into something in-system, that would be great, too.

Admiral Var'Shrak agreed, and prepared.

Caroline, however, feeling slightly better, decided to click on "subtitled Jornissian movies", completely unaware that everything outside of her comfy little blanket cocoon was going to shit.

—-

"That's the defense of Malshak-V, one of our people's greatest triumphs." THE CAPTAIN murmured, coiled in the center of the room. She had plenty of space to do so – once THE CAPTAIN showed up, plasma pistol waving in one hand and combat drone control menacing in the other, screaming about mutineers and pirates – well, everyone kinda just made space.

And to be fair, it was a good movie about a good war, if there ever is such a thing. Federalist troops, outgunned and outnumbered, defending the last bastion of planetary civilization against a pirate queen who would have been a tinpot empress. Holding just long enough for the civilians to escape and for reinforcements to arrive, it's one of the best feel-good armed service propaganda stories ever put to media.

As to why when every one of the Jornissians was shot, the [Human] word [oof] would pop out of their mouths as they died, she could not say. Nor could THE CAPTAIN understand why there was text superimposed over various buildings – [hidey hole] and [best ledge] weren't translating too well, but [tanning roof] seemed to be a portmanteau of some sort combining the human word for damaging sun exposure to their skin and…. a roof. And why would a ledge be the best ledge – that's where the fiercest fighting was occurring.

"What is this word: [Heckin']." THE CAPTAIN asked the room. No one could reply. "There, again. [Heckin']. My matrix can't pull context from this – it's used in too many varied and obtuse ways. Who works with [Caroline]?"

Ssharnak, Ashhs'ssk and Hsan all look at each other, nodding in silent agreement. "Eshhsan, Ma'am." they reply as one.

"Don't make me review the security footage."

Hsan sighs. "Aye, Ma'am. Everyone in engineering works with [Caroline], and she's made plenty of friends throughout the rest of the crew – if we grunts don't know her, we at least know of her."

"That's better. Has she ever used this word before, in conversation or writing?"

"I can only speak for myself, Ma'am" Hsan begins, settling into the at-ease pose of subordinates trying to shift blame from themselves to someone else. "But, there was one time in reference to a [Heckin'] good [boop]."

THE CAPTAIN turned towards Hsan, movie forgotten for a moment. "A good what?"

He sighs. "A [Heckin'] good [boop] – she then placed a finger on my snout and, uh, smiled." Hsan seemed to recall a fond memory, but only for a moment. "This was, I believe, near the beginning of our tour – maybe a day, two days in. Other than that, no Ma'am, nothing that I can recall."

THE CAPTAIN analyzed Hsan, unblinking, for a few moments, before turning back towards the movie with a frown. "…the matrix we gifted them should have the common and slang words for our anatomy in part of their basic packages. So why is it not kicking back an additional translation back to our datab-"

THE CAPTAIN never got to finish her sentence, as four things immediately happened:

The screen suddenly and inexplicably shut off

The entire ship lurched up and backwards, before completely losing gravity

8 simultaneous breaching charges went off, as Jornissian special forces stormed points of interest on the ship

THE CAPTAIN and Caroline looked at their computer terminals, and swore for two totally different reasons

Chapter 4:

"No no no no no oh no-"

Caroline was doing so well just a few minutes ago, and then everything went to shit. She had no idea why the movie was stuck on a 15 second loop, just that no matter what she did she couldn't get the terminal to cut the program. She tried closing the program – nothing. Alt+tab didn't even pop open a window, her task manager laughed at her, and unplugging the terminal only caused it's internal fission battery to kick on.

Even the ctrl+alt+win+cmd+option+del+space+F7 self-destruct did nothing.

This was not just a problem, it was a Problem, with a capital P. As part of their initial, peaceful cultural exchange package the Jornissians (as well as every other member species of the Senate) had given humanity a package of media that showed their interstellar neighbors in the best possible light. In the Jornissian package, there was a movie that had sweeping battles like the classic LotR movies – the early 00's ones, not the 20's cyberpunk rom-com ones – and yeah, the Office of Interstellar Harmony had…edited it, granted. They edited everything. But it wasn't malicious! Honest! It's just there to stop you from freaking out too hard about, well, life on a spaceship surrounded by real apex predators. It was something to make them seem less dangerous and more approachable; nothing more, nothing less.

The OIH and most spacefarers agreed, however, that it would be a very bad idea to show those apex predators that you've edited the shit out of their best cultural artifacts to make them seem cuter, while alone with them in the vast emptiness of space. We've seen that movie – hell, we've made that movie, and we know how it ends.

It ends badly.

"Fuck. Time, I- I need time. I can fix this, I can fix this." Caroline muttered to herself, kicking off the wall to her work storage locker. Gripping the handle she pulled, both opening the door and tugging her forward into the locker itself. "I need time, oh God I'm already up shit creek…. Oxygen mask, ok, pressure tank – got it, promethium levels topped – uh, torch torch torch" Caroline wholesale scooped out buckets of nuts and tools, causing a snow-globe of easy-to-lose parts to cascade off the walls of her room.

Click. Click. Cli-FWOOSH

With a manic grin, Caroline floats to the door, blue-flamed torch in hand, welder's mask upon her head.

The Bridge was silent, save for the furious background noise of work. On a 3D hard-light projection, the ship Celestial Scale, indicator lights spreading throughout and within it's surface.

In his perch, Admiral Var'Shrak, watching his best soldiers do their jobs.

"Diamond, this is Ruby Squad. Engineering is clear, degaussing and powering-down drive. 5 minutes."

"Diamond copy, over. Resistance?"

"Negative. Confusion, but full compliance. No contraband, no weapons."

The comms engineer turned to the Admiral, waiting for his orders.

"Continue as planned." Admiral Var'Shrak shifted in his perch, uneasily. As his orders were relayed to Ruby Squad, yet another indicator of the Celestial Scale turned from a fierce and urgent green to white.

"Sir, permission to counsel?" Vice-Admiral Ressasi pinged, her grizzled face appearing minimized on-screen.

"Granted."

"This makes no Harsak-crushed sense. I would say we're darting into a trap, but everyone seems to be a loyalist."

Var-Shrak grunted in acknowledgement. "Engineering, Navigation and Life Support – all taken without a shot fired."

"A shot fired, sir, or a door barricaded, code changed, or even a single arm raised in defiance. Hell, we didn't even have to broadcast an IFF diffuser – none of the crew weapons are even out of their lockers, save for the security teams."

"We still haven't taken security, howev-"

The Admiral's Comms officer broadcast yet another update to the Bridge, interrupting him mid-sentence: "Emerald squad has taken Security. All weapons surrendered, full compliance. No contraband."

Var'Shrak shared a pointed look with his subordinate. To her credit, Ressasi tried to hide her smile. Tried to.

"Continue as planned."

Another green dot turns white.

"…have we processed THE CAPTAIN yet?" Var'Shrak questioned, his Vice-Admiral looking at something off-screen.

"Affirmative. Again, Loyalist – she, as well as all other gem-tier officers, were apparently reporting to a fire caused by overcrowding in some Junior Officers' room." Ressasi chuckled, softly. "First tour always had one idiot."

"Mmm. But why every officer?"

"That's….hmm."

Var'Shrak turned his complete attention to his Vice-Admiral, responding to the call of his Comms officer only with a hand gesture. "Found something?"

"I'm going to share this with OSI before I pass it up-"

"Humor me. It's not an official report yet."

Vice-Admiral Ressasi hummed. "Logs report a cascading failure-to-report warnings up the chain, per protocol. Started with a drunk, which, fine. Captain… apparently stormed the Junior Officer's room in full suppression kit."

Well that wasn't normal."Over a drunk?"

"Officially."

"And that's the best she could do? 'There was a drunk, so I show up in full riot-suppression gear…to combat a drunk.'"

"Yep. Then the fire happened. No casualties. Sapphire Squad has sifted through the debris – just….bog standard alcohol and a few vid screens. Yet again, no contraband."

"Is she related to anyone onboard? Covering up someone else's trail?"

"Negative."

Admiral Var'Shrak, 80 year veteran of The Fleet, subduer of pirates, lover of the people, was stumped.

"What would prompt a captain of a navy vessel to lie to an inquisitor on a possible mutiny-suppression squad. No, it's not a full lie; what would cause a captain to burn her own vessel in space?"

"That's what I'm going to pass to OIS… but I'll bet you 5 credits on this: It was an unapproved vids or holo-experiences parlor, run out of a Junior Officer's quarters. So large no gem can have full plausible deniability."

"Run a full check on her finances?"

Ressasi looks offscreen. "….done." Her face falls slightly, and Admiral Var'Shrak correctly guesses her next comment.

"Nothing out of the ordinary."Ressasi sighs. "If anything, she saves too much of her credit. She could redeem for a decent sized planetoid by now… or a couple thousand acres on a garden planet."

"Hmm. 5 credits for me, then." Var'Shrak murmured, looking idly to the almost-completely white icon'd ship.

Almost.

"What's the progress on Amber Squad?"

There was a minor flurry of bridge activity, before the Admirals' Comms officer responded. "Full Compliance, no contraband, still en-route."

Hmm. Well, once this was cleaned up maybe he could invite this [Human] [Caroline] to a meal. He'd only seen media of [Humans], after all, and if they were going to start joining his people amongst the stars it would do him well to learn more about them, and to apologize for what must be a harrowing and confusing experience.

'Besides,' Var'Shrak thought, 'Maybe she could shed some light on this situation.'

Caroline was smart.

She knew this, because of her paranoia and because her daddy always told her so – if they actually were out to get you, then you're prepared and ready for anything! And if they're not, well. You're still ready, just in case.

She had just finished welding her door shut when she heard what sounded like a few 500lb rubber zipperteeth being pulled closed in the corridor outside – with some various hiss-purr-shouting thrown in for good measure.

This meant one of three things:

(1) A V8 Murderbot on tank treads.

(2) A kill team sent to murder her. Possibly with their own murderbot. Or maybe they were the murderbots.

(3) There is no three what are you doing FIX THE MOVIE SAVE YOUR LIFE

"aaaaaAAAAAAAAAA" Caroline opined, kicking off from the door into the now-smokier room, oxygen mask working doubletime to stop her from passing out. With bare hands she gripped the terminal and started performing the ancient and secret mechanicus rite of percussive maintenance.

Pressed firmly against the floor, the operative looked down the corridor. He was in no danger – the ship wasn't equipped with EM warfare modules, the cloaking armor (that looked nothing like a soft pillow, to the eventual dismay of Caroline) masking his presence along the visible spectrum, and heat-wise he only looked a few tenths of a degree above ambient.

"KEYRING this is SPOTTER. Hallway is clear. Be advised, odd heat pattern midway. SISTER not visible."

It was precisely because he and his squad have been in no danger during this entire operation that everyone was spooked. Before every mutiny scramble, everyone prays that it's a false alarm – but it never is. For there to be an actual false mutiny alarm….

…well it just doesn't happen.

"Copy SPOTTER. GRANITE, FOAM, move up."

Two more operatives, very obviously NOT in cloaking armor, slithered down the corridor – the rubber treads on their armor allowing for omnidirectional grip and stability, but also utterly destroying any pretense of stealth. With shoulder-mounted kinetic launchers, pack-charged plasma throwers and spreaders and kinetic-force generators, GRANITE and FOAM weren't meant to be quiet.

They were meant to kill everything.

"FOAM here. SISTER's door is clear. Looks like warping, no combat damage or distress. Possible barricade."

"GRANITE here. End of corridor is clear, intersection clear. We're good to go for evac."

KEYRING slithered down past SPOTTER, and it was only when BREWER tapped him on the back did SPOTTER turn to point his weapons down the corridor where they came from.

"I don't like this." BREWER muttered, taking up position behind a bulkhead

"Mmm."

KEYRING made his way to SISTER's door, connecting his suit to the door command console. Outwardly he was immobile, but inside his helmet his eyes scanned over reams of data. Door access times, setup codes, maintenance codes, use logs, biometric data…

"[Caroline]?" KEYRING yelled to the door, announcing everyone's presence. "[Caroline], Ma'am, we're here to escort you out, ok? Our weapons aren't for you, they're for your protection – you're not in any trouble, we just want to make sure you're safe."

Nothing was unusual on his visor. At least, nothing was unusual until he tried to open the door, was met with the all-white code acceptance and the damn thing didn't move.

"SPOTTER, thermals." KEYRING commanded, and SPOTTER moved silently to the door, letting his sensors work it over.

"….FOAM was right. I'm detecting rapidly cooling heat lines around the entire door – from the inside. Weld, most likely."

KEYRING hesitated for a moment at the news – but it was enough to speak volumes to the rest of the squad.

[Caroline], codenamed SISTER, the only [human] on the ship, was the only one in possible danger.

"FOAM rip me a hole. Squad, Ready suppressants."

"Sir yes sir." And in one swift movement FOAM reached out, sunk her gauntleted hand into the metal door, and pulled.

Chapter 5:

FOAM was encased in a 7th Generation ship-combat rig.

The 7th Gen rig was fully pressurized, able to keep its pilot alive for up to 4 [days] in total vacuum, provided miniature gimballed ion thrusters for stability and movement in Zero/Micro Gravity, and most importantly to everyone involved right now, had non-newtonian nanite hydraulics woven into each and every armor panel during its' forging process. This extra boost of distributed power, combined with the Jornissian's already impressive resilience, allowed FOAM – or any other operator of the 7th Generation ship-combat rig, to grab onto, say, a ship's hull in mid-flight and just start digging.

Compared to a ship's outer hull, the soft metal of a private cabin's door was as sturdy as tissue paper. A watermelon-sized hole just appeared as FOAM pulled her hand away, throwing the metal ball behind her. Smoke – and screams – poured out of the hole from the violence of it's creation, along with the rhythmic pounding of metal-on-metal.

Amber squad immediately decided someone was dying today, and it would not be the [Human].

"SUPPRESSANTS, OUT. BREWER, TRAUMA. FOAM, WEDGE." KEYRING roared on speaker, as both he and SPOTTER threw in their suppression grenades, and the screaming grew louder. A few moments after the grenades sensed they were in the target room there was a loud BANG, and the dispersal of LED chaff – FOAM keyed her force generators to form a wedge within the newly created hole. The milimeter-thin hard-light wedge was forced straight up, then straight down, bisecting the door. With another thought, her onboard computer solidified with hard light the thin gap in the door, and with her commanded desire the metal split, slamming into the door frame on either side hard enough to dent it. Without a further word spoken, FOAM, KEYRING, SPOTTER and BREWER stormed the room.

The entire operation took less than 5 seconds. It all still went to shit.

The other side of the door, 5 seconds prior:

Caroline knew that her time had come. She had tried every trick in the book – and a few tricks that were just scribbled in the margins – and nothing had worked. Magnetic wipes, water, dust, insults, blunt-force trauma, renaming the video to 'not porn' – in the back of her mind, she wondered if there was some quantum warp fuckery about, and if that was the reason that she was doomed.

Hopefully the OIH's contingency plans would kick in: blame this program on some desperately lonely nerd in his basement, or maybe russian hackers. Shift the blame hard enough and the Galactic Senate wouldn't approve a war on humanity, we wouldn't have to weaponize The Hubble and humanity would live to see another day.

Her hind brain (lizard brain was deemed 'culturally insensitive' to our Karnak ….allies.) was still stuck between fight and flight, eyes darting between hiding spots, the window to open space, and even a few of the fist-sized air vents-

With the squealing protest of metal-on-metal, a hole appeared in her door, harsh hallway light pouring in through the smoke.

'This is it.' Thought the small, rational part of her brain.

'FIXITFIXIT' Thought pretty much every other bit.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAA" Caroline thought, aloud, as she gripped her fire extinguisher in both hands and used every bit of her might to smash it into her terminal.

"[SUPPRESS. TRAUMA. WEDGE.]" Boomed her translation matrix inbetween hits, and Caroline looked up just quick enough to see something thrown into the room.

Police, First Responders and Soldiers talk about times when they were in a firefight, rushing into a burning building, or trying to save someone, and time would slow down. That their hind-brains would flip a switch and process everything, all at once, in the desperate hope to give itself some way to unfuck the situation.

The difference between all these great men and women is that they are trained over years to use that time to it's best possible extent: muscle memory kicks in and they just do what needs to be done, and everyone gets out alive.

Caroline was a volunteer civilian engineer with a hind-brain on overdrive and a dented fire extinguisher.

'Dem's rocks.' Hind-Brain said. 'We have bigger rock.' Caroline's grip went white-knuckle. 'We will rock them'. Hind-Brain decided.

Quick enough to cause a major league scout to sit up and pay attention, the fire extinguisher left her hands, slamming into the two rocks, and with a loud BANG they ceased to be anything more than sparkly, painful-to-look-at dust. The momentum of the collision rocketed the extinguisher to the floor, where it finally decided that the relationship it had with Caroline wasn't worth the abuse and split, taking the visibility with it as it sprayed pressurized foam in random arcs across her room.

It was at this moment that her door ceased to be, and the Jornissian Murdersquadtm pushed forward.

'No rocks.' Hind-Brain considered. 'Them bigger.' It noticed. 'Run.' It decided.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA" Caroline explained to the Special Forces Squad, as she attempted to leap past them.

"CLEAR." KEYRING barked, followed quickly by SPOTTER, BREWER and FOAM. Their helmets digitally edited out the LED chaff, and cycling visible spectrum options took them miliseconds.

It was thankfully due to the Jornissian's naturally rapid response that FOAM was able to shift out of the way of [Caroline], who was screaming and rocketing right past the team. It was also this quick response reflex that enabled KEYRING to fling his arm out, performing a (what they would eventually find out the more savage version is called a 'clothesline' once the WWWF was approved for viewing) gentle block on her path.

Every Jornissian special forces member on squad Amber was in tread-assisted or magnetic-assisted suits, keeping them right where they wanted to be. [Caroline] was in footie pajamas, in Zero-G.

KEYRING's attempt to halt [Caroline] only turned her forward momentum into angular momentum. Her legs swung up, and hit the ceiling – and then she ran, completing a full 180 turn. KEYRING lightly gripped her arms, and tugged, causing [Caroline} to arc downwards…. still running. She hit the floor, feet squeaking, and started to make her way back up to the ceiling.

"[Caroline!] KEYRING said, trying his best to hold her gently as she spun in place. "[Caroline], relax, please. We're not-" The [Human] completed another revolution, and KEYRING turned to BREWER."We're gonna need a sedative – she's not cooperating. We need to move her out, NOW."

BREWER began to flick open a few pouches on his armor, falling silent as he read up on [Human] physiology. "This…may be no good. [Human]s are too delicate for most of my kit here, and diluting the dosage may still cause damage – moreso than using her limbs to stop all momentum. I don't want to choose between blunt-force damage or chemical damage to bring SISTER home."

BREWER, KEYRING and SPOTTER shared a look between each of them as [Caroline] continued to get her cardio in.

"I uh…My armor is technically the most frail of all of ours. I could just use my body to stop her…. rotation." SPOTTER mused.

"Alright. I'm running out of ideas here, and I'd rather not wait for the [human] to tire herself out. How do you want to do this?" KEYRING asked, as BREWER joined FOAM in searching the room.

"You just let her go once she hits the ground, and I'll remain cloaked until she hits me. Then you can help with subduing her if necessary."

KEYRING nodded, and SPOTTER got into position. As [Caroline] finished her 5th and final revolution KEYRING let go. [Caroline] got a few good forward steps in before she collided with the still-invisible SPOTTER with an audible thud.

Confused at running into face-first into nothing, [Caroline]'s hind brain just gave up. Bears and rocks it could do, but wizardry was beyond it. She felt arms wrap around her own, holding her close to something –

SPOTTER decloaked, slowly, making sure to shift into a spectrum SISTER could see. She blinked at the Jornissian – or maybe it was the still-pulsing LED chaff, who could say – teary eyes wide and confused.

His heart melted slightly at the sight.

"KEYRING….what the hell is this?" KEYRING looked over to FOAM, who along with BREWER were poking at a thoroughly dented terminal, with what looked like a movie on repeat.

With a shudder of fear, [Caroline] began to struggle. "[DAKI BETRAYAL! YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO BE LOYAL TO MEEEEEE-]"

When any special forces squad goes weapons-free, that information is cataloged and relayed back up the chain of command. Initially, it's for the Lieutenants to review, but it can be kicked up as high as it needs to go. Audio and Visual information, along with all sorts of spectrometer and sensor data is kicked up too to provide real-time information of the on-the-ground reality of combat.

Admiral Var'Shrak, along with Vice-Admiral Ressasi and various other Captains and Lieutenants, were notified when Amber squad went weapons free. The entire bridge was tuned in when the breaching maneuver was executed, and when [Caroline] was….

"Ok, Var'Shrak, between you and me that was the most-"

"Ressasi, remember yourself."

Vice-Admiral purred in a very motherly way, looking at the monitor on her ship. "Poor thing."

Var'Shrak sighed. "Well, at least the [human] is safe – we don't have the dubious honor of being the first race to lose one." He cycled through the different perspectives of Amber squad, noting nothing out of the ordinary – until he settled on the operative with the designation FOAM.

She was staring at the [Human]'s terminal. More specifically, at the Jornissian movie playing on a 15-second loop.

In the movie, which seemed to be "The Defense of Malshak-V", Captain 'Shsala stood at the foot of the planetary government's Caste room, rifle pointed at the pirate-queen Hesprres-reh.

The audio was there, but he ignored it – the translations were all wrong.

'You savage barbarian!' Captain 'Shsala roared, 'The Deaths of millions are on your soul!'

[I don't like thing!] the text near her head flashed.

'As if a Goddess needs to explain herself to mortals' Hesprres-reh spat, blind-firing from the broken dais.

[Nooooooh! no. noh. U mad, u bad.] the text translation said

Captain 'Shsala kept the fire on, moving with her few survivors from perch to perch, keeping Hesprres-reh and her cronies pinned. 'Then we will send you to your lover, Harsak! He'll enjoy devouring you, eggless bitch!"

[no you a bad.] The text chirped, before the whole thing looped over again.

". . . Ressasi, please review FOAM's visuals and make sure I'm not having a stroke." Var'Shrak murmured, trying to shake away his confusion.

"I uh. What… what?" Ressasi murmured, causing a few other officers to switch perspectives.

For a good 5 minutes, the silence on the bridge was broken only by the mandatory status updates of Amber Squad.

"I need to make a call." Var'Shrak decided, opening up a secure link.

Chapter 6:

Existence, maybe a week or so before everything went to shit:

Bill was hot.

And again, I don't mean in that 'lather him up in syrup and become a diabetic' kinda way, but in the 'holy shit it feels like it's 100 degrees in here' kinda way. Stripped right down to his boxer-briefs (and no, he wouldn't take those off no matter how bad it got) he honestly considered investing in a private air conditioning unit, or possibly one of those giant ice machines that you could crawl inside but were never supposed to (but you did anyway because you were 5 and your parents were a bit absentee).

He even idly mused about ripping out the temperature coils in his room and exposing it to the cold vacuum of space, but unfortunately he was no Engineer. Bill was, if you could believe it, a navigator.

Well. "Navigator".

The great thing about the Galactic Senate was that each member race has been expanding for thousands of years – which means there are millions of planets, billions of ships and trillions of sapients that they can call upon. As part of the peaceful uplift of Earth (and rebuilding of Atlanta), the Galactic Senate agreed to allow any human, regardless of their qualifications, to live and work on any ship, station or planet of their choosing – within reason. Obviously, after a few really enthusiastic engineers collapsed one of the Karnakian drone farms into an artificial moon, some reasonable limitations were put in place.

Nobody could say the Karnakians didn't deserve it, though. Just a little.

Regardless, Bill was a… well his official title translated into "Trainee Temporary Junior Navigator Intern (unpaid)" but "Junior Navigator" was all he responded to, and so the rest of the Dorarizin onboard were more than content to address him with that title. They even gave him a uniform to go with it.

He shifted slightly, kicking out a leg from under his bedmate to cool his body temperature down a little. The shift was met with a murmured protest, and strong arms pulled him a bit tigher into a fluffy chest. At the beginning of his tour, he didn't mind that the Dorarizin were group-sleepers; honestly, it was a bit cute.

Then he learned that he'd be staying in the men's dorm.

Then he learned that, to a person, they were all cuddlers.

Then he learned that double-bunking was not only encouraged, but it was required.

Bill sighed and attempted to get comfortable as his current bedmate let out a loud snore, tongue flopping out onto his forehead.

Grashak-of-Arhraf was having an excellent dream.

He had chased down a golden erzet, netting his Hunt team an additional 30 points. Even though he was a rookie, on a team nobody heard of, and a male, he was holding his own against the Iron Jaws.

Scratch that. The Iron Jaws were losing.

Raising his arms he let out a triumphant roar, the golden erzet projection disintegrating in his mouth as he crushed it's neck, mimicking a death bite – the crowd echoing his passion and fury in an overwhelming cacophony of sound. He was going to beat a core world team, and he was going to do it himself! He ignored the pinching pain in his side and crouched on all fours, gripping the turf with his unsheathed claws.

The pain traveled to both sides and got a little worse, but he blocked it from his senses. The crowd was chanting his name! The crowd was–

With an earsplitting shriek of translator feedback, Grashak-of-Arhraf woke up with a start. He inhaled deeply, shifting on his bed. Something squirmed in his grip, and as he pulled his tongue back into his maw he remembered: Tonight was his night with the [Human].

"{Damnit – [Bill] I'm so sorry! Oh by The Pale Moon are you ok?!}" Grashak exclaimed, quickly propping himself up above the pillows. Bill gasped underneath him, breathing heavily. (not like that)

" {No, no – are you hurt?!}" Grashak's cold nose prodded his friend's body, checking him for damage – for the scent of blood and bruising, or of deeper, worse things. Thankfully, he was only met with his own scent intermingled with sweat.

"{I uh…. I rolled over onto you again, didn't I?}"

Bill nodded, his breathing beginning to steady. "[Yeah, yeah you did buddy. It would've been fine until you started to move about in your sleep… that's when I got concerned.]"

Grashak blushed furiously. "{P-please don't tell anyone that I still chase in my sleep – I haven't done that since my second claw molt.}"

Bill grinned, propping himself up on his elbows. "[Hey, it's fine – bros helping bros, right?]"

"{Y-yeah. Uh, well, good news – you should be fine for a few days with the females.}"

"[Really?]" Bill went to sniff himself, scrunching his inefficient nose slightly. "[Gah… I can never tell. I just smell like heat and sweat to me.]"

"{Yes, well… your noses aren't all that, uh. Great.}" Grashak murmured, leaning back to sit on his rump, tail swishing slowly from side to side.

"[And you're all still certain there's no way to synthesize this scent at all? Granted, I like not being taken by a group of females against my will, but-]"

"{N-no, sorry. Scents mean so much; they change based on diet, mood, age….it's too complicated. Eventually everyone would go noseblind to your static scent and then you'd be, what's the phrase? [Up shit creek]?}"

Bill hummed to himself, pursing his lips. "[Well. Better the devil you know, I guess. Anyway, our shift starts in 3 hours – roll over.]"

Grashak tilted his head slightly, ears swiveling back. "{But didn't that start all this?}"

"[N-no. I mean, onto your side. I'm big spoon now.]"

"{Ah.}" Grashak propped himself up with an arm and turned to the side, settling back down into the den. A few moments later he felt a tiny hand rest on his side. "{Thank you again for not telling anyone, [Bill].}" The small hand pats him a few times, and Grashak twitched his tail in acknowledgement.

Bill cursed silently as his bunkmate's tail smacked him right in the jewels.

"[SHIFT CALL. LINE UP FOR INSPECTION, YOU KNOW THE CHASE.]"

Bill stretched as he stood in line, his shift sergeant making the way down the ranks. Every so often Sgt. Rauleh-of-Nragren would stop infront of one of her charges, tugging on a belt or checking a tank, before moving onto the next victim. Even though there were automated ways to check gear, the Dorarizin were a very… physical species. This gear check was just another carryover of 'the time before', and because nobody of any species ever really questioned tradition, here he was, waiting his turn to be poked and , it didn't help that she, like most females, were a little more… physical with Bill than he would have liked, but. It all comes with the territory.

"[Bill. Good Morning.]" Rauleh grinned, showing off three rows of pearly whites. Gently she leaned forward, and Bill suppressed his fight of flight instinct with practiced ease. Closer the jaws came to the top of his head, her hot breath cascading down his crown until –

*sniff*

"[Ah. Well good to see that you're still in great health!]" she beamed, leaning back.

"Aye, Ma'am. Your night cycle being 10 of my hours leads to me catching up on all the sleep I've ever missed. Anything on the docket for today?"

"[Mmmm.]" Rauleh reaches out, extending two 30cm claws, pinching his uniform's fabric on the shoulder. "[Just standard ore extraction on the planetoid we're orbiting – well, for them. For you…]"

"Aww, Rails, come on. Give me something other than simulation duty again." Bill complained as his uniform was adjusted slightly, then released.

"[Well. If you don't mind me supervising you-]"

"Destroy the station once in a simulation and nobody ever-"

"[-we do have to put out a few more GPS probes in orbit today.]"

"-could supervise me quite like you, my newest and bestest friend." Bill recovered, giving Sgt. Rauleh his winningest smile.

"[Hah! Excellent recovery – so I take it I can count on your help?]" Sgt. Rauleh-of-Nragren growled, returning Bill's smile with a cocky one of her own.

Bill saluted. "You can count on me!"

Unnoticed by him, a few tails swayed from side to side.

Chapter 7:

Although Technology levels among the Galactic Senate were mostly equal – again, egalitarian societies don't mind sharing small tweaks to nanite programming or new ways to harvest a moon – how that technology was put into work for the various physiologies of the member races were all wholly unique. The Jornissians preferred to have their workstations laid out in a full circle around them – they'll just slide under the desk and coil around to their full height to begin work. Notifications can be given as changes in sound, light or even heat – and to a human, it looks like they have some weird form of prescience.

Karnakians, well. No human serves on their ships just yet – for very obvious reasons – so we can't speak on how their workstations are laid out….

But, the Dorarizin are probably one of the more unique races; walking and running can be both bipedal or quadrupedal and at rest they prefer to either be sitting back on their haunches, or on all fours. Socially, sitting back is more for relaxation and time-off, so Dorarizin leadership had to figure out how to keep their people, relaxed, at their stations for hours…. while on all fours.

The answer was staring Bill in the face; all Dorarizin workstations looked like a VR Chamber mixed with a racing motorcycle's seat. The Operator would straddle his or her workstation, slip her hands into tactile feedback gloves, and every hand movement would be considered a "keystroke" – a 3D keyboard, wrapped around your hands, a hard-light screen giving you 360 degrees of data.

The answer was also about 3 times the most manageable size Bill could physically handle. Dorarizin high command realized this about their human counterparts, so…. adjustments have been made.

"[Ok, but do you need help up?]" Bill narrowed his eyes at Rauleh – well, narrowed and then leaned his head back so he could make eye contact – tightening the clasp on his navigator's gloves. "No, I'm fine."

"[I just… want to make sure. We are on a time schedule here-]" Rauleh rumbled, checking her implanted feed.

Bill looked around the command deck, blushing slightly – even though most other Dorarizin were either in their pods or busy doing, yanno, actual work, he still felt self-consious. "Rails, the helmet and harness outfit is already degrading enough – I look like a damn bobblehead. I swear if you bring in those booster stairs I will…"

Rauleh stands, unimpressed – her left ear slowly tilting forward in her species' answer to a raised eyebrow.

"…I'll do something. And it'll be impressive and you-HOSHIT" Bill squirmed as Rauleh suddenly lunged, wrapping her arms around his waist. With surprising speed and delicacy she picked him up, hoisting him over the 'hump' and onto the seat.

"[There. Problem solved!]" Rauleh chirped, and Bill felt the headpats through his helmet.

"….m'gonna." Bill grumbled as he scooted far forward on the seat. Muscle memory kicked in as he squeezed his legs together on a particular pad, the magnetic harness activating to clamp him down and keep his legs stationary. Leaning forward he slides his gloved hands into the cavernous openings, another set of 'hand harnesses' clamping around his gloves. With a nod of his head the computer lowers the VR console around him, and suddenly everything disappears.

For a brief nanosecond, Bill's brain really thinks it's floating about in space, and he clenches everything.

Rauleh-of-Nragren should not be staring – hell, none of them should be, and yet, here we are.

She's taken plenty of Sapient Sensitivity courses, and of course everyone on her station took the mandatory Introduction to [Humans] and [Human] care in space, so, a small part of her brain realized she could rationalize her scrutinizing gaze as 'making sure [Bill] didn't fall out of his seat once the camera feeds started and hurt himself, again.'

As [Bill] tensed up, she smiled, before patting his back gently. "{You all set up in there?}"

"[Ah – yeah! Yeah I'm good.]" He responded, Rauleh's translator matrix editing out the natural echo from him being in the chamber. Although the matrix did a good job of making him sound confident, it damn well couldn't mask the slight rensecf scent – that tinge of fear that comes with a spiked heart rate. One of the other stationmates – a male named Brera-of-Arhraz let out a little '{aww}' and was rewarded with a silent snap of Rauleh's jaws in his direction.

"{Ok, if you're good I'm going to step back now and start directing.}"

"[I'm fine.]"

Rauleh shrugged and made a wave of her hand, and with no indication that the deck had stopped to watch him everyone got back to work.

Bill sat in a hangar, looking over his spherical, metal body.

"[Check status thrusters.]"

Small conical indentations seemed to pivot on the surface of the sphere in tune with Bill's motion.

"Thruster check. Gre- eer. Orange."

"[Copy. Check status Quantum Clock?]"

"Quantum check. Orange." Bill replied, twitching his ring finger in to send the acceptance code.

"[Copy. Check status Pneumatics?]"

"Orange." Bill replied, pinching his thumb and index together to dismiss that particular control panel.

"[Ok. Ready for ejection from station?]"

"Aww, Rails, I thought you liked me." Bill smirked, shifting in his seat.

"[Bill, I do, which is why I don't want you to fail this.]" Rauleh replied, slight – what was that, apprehension? irritation? – in her voice.

Bill sobered up. "Copy that, Director. Pilot is Orange for ejection."

A countdown timer started on his screen – a simple decreasing bar, due to the differences in written language – and once it depleted Bill was forcefully ejected from the station.

Well.

Another quirk of Dorarizin physiology is that they're more apt to enter what Human athletes call "the zone" if you can trigger their chase or hunt instincts. This is another widely known reason for the VR pods – if you can trigger peak performance when you're doing something relatively boring, such as launching and positioning a satellite, or docking a mining drone, then you're more likely to get it done quicker and at a higher standard with less problems.

Bill 'knew' this. He also 'knew' that he was magnetically straddling a padded seat, a good 200m from the outer shielding of the station, surrounded by his personal friends and Humanity's allies. He 'knew' his body was not the one being ejected, nor that the sudden view of the station growing rapidly smaller wasn't truly his – neither was the inertia, nor the sudden lack of warmpth and safety.

Still. Bill was not a Dorarizin, and his little monkey brain screeched in terror at the sudden change of perspective, the perceived lack of speed and the terrifying realization of danger and clenched everything.

"{Aww.}"

Sgt. Rauleh-of-Nragren looked up at Brera-of-Arhraz with a slight scowl. "{Technician, I assume you have something to do?}"

"{No. I made sure to clear my schedule for this, Rauleh – you know that.}" Brera smiled down, leaning on the rail. "{Besides, we all want to support him as best we can.}"

"{And that support somehow means launching his drone with a sp-}" an indicator flashed on Rauleh's implant computer, and she thumbed her commbead. "{[Bill], I need you to relax, ok? Orient yourself to the galactic median.}"

"[Aah – ah, alright! Alright. Uh. Thru- ah, engaging thrusters.]" [Bill] responded, shakily. More importantly, through her incoming sensor data Rauleh was able to establish that he was slowing his drone's spin, leveling himself out onto the proper trajectory.

"{Ok. Well done. 15 degrees planetward on the mark I'm placing on your HUD. Do you see it now?}"

She could hear [Bill] swallow. "[Ah… yeah. Yeah. What's that, about [two minutes] out?]"

"{Correct. Your sensor data is coming in very clear – very well done on that part. Enjoy the slow descent, look around. Just remember, you're safe.}"

"[I knew that.]"

Rauleh turns off her comm, looking over [Bill]'s data. "{Technician, maybe you can explain to me why his drone launched with a 50m/s anteward spin?}"

Brera sighs. "{Long story short, mainly because his right hand was tilting too hard to the left-down. I don't think we should – well. Not to assume your position, Ma'am, but. We should let him know why, but we shouldn't let him know that he also damaged a launcher on his way out because of it.}"

"{…hm.}"

"{Getting a little protective of him, Sarge?}"

Rauleh looks up, meeting Brera's gaze flatly. "{And you think that's a problem?}"

With a gentle grin, Brera tilts his head up and back, making a show of nonchalance. "{By no means – I think we all are. Why else would Egrezre-of-Frgan and I be smoothing out his telemetry data in the background?}"

Rauleh blinks, looking at [Bill]'s data again. "{…I was wondering about that; his telemetrics were unusually clear coming from the training programs. You realize we can't clear him for solo launches unless he does it himself, right?}"

"{And you realize we're overstaffed as it is. Come on, Rauleh! What's the harm of letting us help him?! Besides, he gets to stay on-deck, and that's gotta be more fun than the training closet you've hooked him up into.}"

"{Mmmm…..I don't see why not, as long as we rema-}"

"{AWW YEAH! Egrezre we got us a-}"

[Bill] tensed at the sudden yelling. "[What – what did I do?! I'm, uh – it's, [15 seconds] until-]"

With pursed lips Rauleh looked directly at Brera (who sheepishly turned away), turning her commbead back on. "{It's nothing, [Bill]. You're doing just fine – make sure to hit your thrusters on mark.}"

"[Ok! I'm gonna do it – you just watch me, ok?]"

"{Sure thing.}" Rauleh replied, and the deck fell silent once more – save for the rythmic thudding of a few tails against metal.

"[Ok! LINE UP FOR INSPECTION, YOU KNOW THE CHASE.]"

Bill was ready – obviously, for inspection of his rig, but more he was ready for today. The initial satellite launch was terrifying, sure. The subsequent ones, less so. Now?

One could say he was addicted, but you'd be wrong. There was a certain feeling of speed, of movement and freedomthat you got when you were encased in those VR chassis, that no other type of control schema had come close to. What at first had seemed disorienting soon became exciting, and with the excess amount of fuel (and, Bill would guess, some leeway from Rails) he could afford to do a few loops, spins, and chases. Turning the camera to zoom in on your own bridge, "watching" yourself disappear – that was fun. Watching magnetic storms rage across the poles of the planet you're orbiting, and then getting clearance to fly through them? That was awesome. Seeing the binary star crest over a frozen moon, ice geysers creating rainbows a thousand miles wide….

Addiction was too light of a word. Bill was living for this.

Sgt. Rauleh-of-Nragren made her way down the line, checking helmets and straps, chiding her problem children over the usual mistakes until she made her way to Bill.

"[Well.] Rauleh smirked, "[If you were one of us, baring your teeth like that would be a challenge! Excited to launch your first probe?]"

"You have no idea. It's basically a gigantic missile! How could I not be excited to blo-"

"[Ah! Kinetic Mining probe. Senate protocol does not allow civilian or non-military government vessels to carry such horrific things as missiles, and I'd hate to have one of your sorties reviewed by the higher-ups and you say such a crass word.]" Sgt. Rauleh-of-Nragren finished her lecture with an obvious 'wink' (really, a shake of the head that meant the same thing), and Bill nodded.

"Right. I am very excited to launch a Kinetic Mining probe," Bill said, making sure to put the emphasis on thickly, "which will impact the moon with such force as to eject strata into orbit, allowing our sensors to better determine the quality of minerals and metals on this rock, and absolutely not make a fucking sweet-ass explosion."

"[Hah! Give me your write-up before you submit it; I don't think [fucking sweet-ass] explosion is the proper terminology.]" As she was speaking, she leaned forward and inhaled like she had done half a dozen times before, and like half a dozen times before she pulled away, smiling. "[Well. Do your best out there today, alright? Those probescost us quite enough resources, and manufacturing another one would put us off-schedule.]"

"Rails. You're asking me to literally hit the broad side of a moon. I can do that."

"{3 minutes out, Copy?}"

"[Copy. [Planetary-stationary] orbit achieved, waiting for go.]"

Sgt. Rauleh-of-Nragren looked over the deck, noting how most of her crew were simply 'working'. Almost all eyes were on the mission screen, or on the little human strapped into the control chamber.

[Bill] wiggled a bit on his seat in anticipation, and Rauleh sighed.

"{You are orange for final descent. Full thrust.}"

"[Alright! Copy that – pedal to the metal!]" [Bill] crowed, and he leaned forward in his seat as the mining probe made it's first and final descent to the moon.

"{…he does realize that leaning forward doesn't make it go faster, right?}" Brera said, watching [Bill] from his usual spot.

Brera got another silent snap of Rauleh's jaws in reply. "{Stop. Maybe it's just a [Human] thing? He's been leaning every time he makes a turn or a pivot, so…}"

"{Mm, yes, I guess so.}"

"[Oooooh I am feeling it!]"

"{Feeling what, [Bill]?}" Rauleh replied, thumbing her commbead.

"[THE NEED FOR SPEED.]"

Rauleh looked up at a silently-snickering Brera, who turned away. "{Shall I cap his probe speed?}"

"{Mmm. Set max to 15%. That should still get us up to around 200km/s. We don't want everything flying off so quick we don't get a read.}"

"{Yes Ma'am.}"

The moon filled most of the screen now – the targeting camera directly a little left of center on the "desired" landing spot, but still well within "preferred".

"{[Bill] change track 5 degrees anteward of orbit or else you'll miss desired probe landing point by 90km.}"

"[Copy that! I've also achieved maximum velocity; I thought these probes could go faster?]"

"{They can. They could also launch what we're trying to measure out of range of our sensor grid far faster than I'd like, and into inter-planetary orbit. I don't know about you, but I'd like to not have to reposition every satellite to avoid a new debris field. Samples would be nice too.}"

"[…You could've just told me to slow it down.]"

"{Would that have been as much fun for you? Also, Impact in 2 minutes.}"

"[Fine. Eer. Copy. I mean, it's fine that you cut my speed and – know what? Copy.]" [Bill] mumbled to himself, idly spinning the probe's camera about.

The moon loomed large – the main screen was completely filled, landscape detail now apparent. Rauleh sighed and straightened up, turning off her commbead to begin a long-standing station tradition.

"{PLACE YOUR BETS, HALF-MINUTE LIMIT.}"

"{5 credits on the mountain range.}" Egrezre-of-Frgan called out, followed by a few confirmations

"{Plateau! 10 credits! The one near that glacier!}" Brera-of-Arhraz countered. "{It's big and flat and is begging to be disintegrated!}"

"{Glacier itself! 20 credits!}" another technician interrupted, followed by a few more confirmations

The gambling war continued until the minute-thirty mark, and with a wordless bark Rauleh ended the positioning.

"[What the hell was that all about? Everything ok?]"

Rauleh turned her communications matrix back on. "{Yes, [Bill], just getting all my sensor technicians to pay attention – another soundoff. You impact in one minute – picked out a spot yet?}"

"[Hmm… anything's good?]"

"{Yep, but you better hurry. 40 seconds.}"

"[Uhhhh….]"

"{Half-minute.}"

"[The big flat thing that I can't mi-]"

"{YES!}" Brera howled, soon being pelted with various office-trash and empty wrappers, and Rauleh waved everyone silent.

"{Impact in 7, 6 -}" Rauleh began to count

Suddenly the rest of the crew remembered it had a job to do

"{Telemetrics good.}"

"{-5, 4,-}"

"{Sensors Orange across all spectrums.}"

"{-3, 2-}"

"[WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO]" [Bill] added to the conversation, his howl of joy semi-echoing in his command console.

"{Capture drones in place, Orange.}"

"{Impact. Well done.}" Rauleh smiled, tail swaying from side to side. She quickly thumbed an override on [Bill]'s command console, switching him to longer-range sensors so he could see the larger result of his efforts.

"[Aww, [fuck] yeah. [FUCK] YEAH.]" he bounced, filled with energy. "[Aww. Can we save this video? Please? I wanna… I want this to be my happy place.]"

Laughing, Rauleh responded. "{Sure thing. We'll add it to your file.}"

Bill was having a good day today: He blew up a moon.

Well. He fired a missile that blew up part a moon…

…he launched a kinetic mining probe that created a localized impact just forceful enough to launch debris into orbit to be scanned to determine if this moon was worth further investment.

But fuck all that noise. Bill blew up a moon and nobody was gonna tell him otherwise. Not you, not me, and not the other people he was on retrieval duty with.

"[I'm just saying, the mountain range was right there.]" The male Dorarizin complained as the drone tracked into the cargo bay, locking itself down on purpose-built rails.

"Sorry, how many moons have you blown up?" Bill countered, grinning at Grewreh-of-Azrehs (or 'Grapes', as Bill called him), who looked at him flatly.

"[I'm a sensor technician and a profitability engineer, I don't control drones.]" He chided, touching a control pad in his hands. The spherical drone slowly spun in place.

"So, none. Take it from me, kid, I'm a grizzled veteran of blowing up moons, and I know where to aim." Bill proudly stated, posing arms akimbo and stance wide.

His pose didn't give him any hope of dodging the friendly swipe that staggered him. "[Kid! I'm 300 of your years old! If anything, you're the child here.]"

Rolling his shoulders, Bill turned his stagger into a brisk walk, heading up to the drones 'rear' compartment. He pressed his hand to the oversized release panel, waiting for a confirmation from Greweh. "So does that mean I can claim child abuse?"

"[Hah! Please. Even I know you're in mating-age. Anyway, confirmation received, panel should be opening.]"

"Yep." Bill responded as a section of the drone seemed to melt into itself, rows of neat oversized compartments slowly sliding out.

"[Great. So now we'll just be taking them out and putting them on the transporter-]"

Bill was still riding the high of blowing up a moon so, he didn't really wait for Greweh to finish. His brain simply thought:

take box – simple

put box on thing – simple

I wield the power of a GOD

put more boxes on thing – simple

bask in glory – simple

And so, with no warming up or preparation, he pulled out and lifted one of the overhead (to him) compartments that stored a modest 45kg of powdered material. He was able to do so for roughly 2 seconds before the thing tipped, the latch popped open, and the moon had some semblance of revenge

Chapter 8:

In some nebulous kinda way, everyone - well, everyone who didn't grow up in a southern public school - knows about the composition of the moon; "it's got the stuff earth's got" would be a correct, if not wholly simplified and somewhat vague answer. We know there are rocks and dust and craters and ice and whatnot, and that's about as far as the layman's knowledge of moon geology goes.

Of course, every moon is different in some way; some are geologically active, some are ice moons, some may be made out of silica while others, carbon - the list literally goes on forever, depending on how thinly you want to split hairs.

Point being, the easiest way to determine if any given moon was worth a damn to spend time and energy on mining was to finely powder a small bit of it, capture it, and then sift through what you have. Repeat this over a few probes and you've got a good indicator as to what the crust of the moon is worth, and if it'd be useful to crack the celestial body to find more goodies within.

The moon the Dorarizin station had been orbiting was comprised of mostly silica, with a high aluminum and iridium content, of all things. Bill knew this, because most of it had just been dumped onto his body. Unfortunately, Bill couldn't tell his friend Grapes a damn thing, because silica + impact heat = powdered glass. The kind of miniscule powder that will, yanno. Shred your lungs and mucous membranes, blind your eyes and burrow under your skin for years.

For the first few seconds, the dust was merely annoying. Then it began to burn.

"[Hold on! Hold on, [Bill]! Just hold your breath and stay still-]" Grewreh-of-Azrehs yelled, the heavy thudding of his paws the only indicator of movement.

...4...5...6...7...

There was the sound of things being moved, what sounded like a few things broken as well, before the heavy thuds came back. "[Ok, I have a wash-down station setup - I'm going to have to strip you as we move, ok?]" Grapes stated, not so much asking permission as explaining what was happening. Bill, for his part, continued to remain still.

...18...19...20...21...

He tensed up - painfully, as the dust ground into his clothing and skin, his body being picked up and carried with frightening speed. As he moved he felt parts of his protective clothing disappear - a boot here, a sleeve there - whatever could be carved away was, until he was dumped hastily (but gently) onto what felt like a cold, metal grate. His lungs burned - the dust caught him by surprise, and he didn't have a full breath. It'd have to do.

...46...47...48...49...

With a heavy thud something was closed near him, and then there was rumbling. With no warning or notice, a torrent of water - a strong shower for a Dorarizin, but a biblical flood for a human - cascaded down from the ceiling onto his naked body. Under the weight of the water pressure Bill was lifted up, his conscious mind building a narrative as to what's happening around him, while his subconscious hind-brain was screaming about drowning.

...63...64...65...66...

His lungs sucked at themselves, an imploding fire spreading across his chest. He couldn't move, he couldn't breathe, he couldn't think -

...73...74...75-

The water suddenly stopped.

"[[Bill?!] Are you alright? Your heart still beats - are you awake?!]" Grapes lowered him gently onto the metal grate as Bill responded with an explosive exhale and a wet gasp.

"Good God..." he murmured in between heaving breaths, sprawling out in place as he tried to stop his body from freaking out. "Are... all your showers...this bad?"

A damp paw gently ran down his side as his friend let out a mirthless bark of a laugh. "[Alright, humor is good. We need to get you to medical - what happened?]"

"Forgot about the latches... and the weight. Only seen 'em... moved from a distance. Never...picked one up."

"[But those (err-)are so light. You need to {err-*whine*} PT. At least you remembered your emergency {*yip*}]"

"Holding things above your head is hard." Bill complained, thumbing his commbead on and off again.

"[(error:translation matrix not found) (error:translation matrix not found) {greer$. }]" Grapes said, nodding sagely.

"Uh. Buddy?"

"[(error:translation matrix not found)]" Grapes responded, his own hand reaching up to his commbead.

"I need a new comm bead too. I don't think it was rated for ten-thousand PSI." Bill said, fishing out the semi-implanted earpiece to inspect it.

"?Grrwlehshk?" Grapes muttered, pulling out his own.

"Yep..."Bill sat back up, the metal grate creating patters in his rear.

"...also where are my pants?"

Grewreh had a small problem, with a lower-case p: He needed to get a new commbead fabricated for himself and their human coworker. While an unfortunate delay, as a nanofabricator would have to be recalibrated for microelectronic work, it's not the end of the world. Grewreh tried to explain this to [Bill], but stopped halfway, mentally slapping himself in the head.

'No vocal communication, right. Uh.' With a few hand gestures he started work on getting the point across. [Bill] seemed to pick up on this.

'Many' he flashed his claws open and closed 'hours' he pointed to the clock 'new translators' he pointed at both their communication beads, before pointing at his ear and then [Bill]'s head.

[Bill] pointed to his hips and his torso, then hugged himself. Grewreh tilted his head, trying to understand. A little more instantly, [Bill] pointed to himself, then Grewreh, then himself again, moving his hands up and down his bo-

WOAH. Woah. OK. Grewreh blushed profusely - although he was a progressive Dorarizin, all things considered, and [Humans] as a whole are totally adorable, but I mean - firstly, he didn't build his den that way, and even if he did how would it work? N-not that he was curious, but just, the mechanics of it all...

Grewreh shook his head and crossed his fingers in a 'no'. Although he was proud to save his friend's life, he was not about to take advantage of him like that.

[Bill] seemed a little disappointed, hugging himself a little tighter. Maybe this was a [Human] custom? If so, Grewreh would have to have a talk with Rauleh about interspecies relationships... maybe see if someone on the station would be interested.

With a thoughtful hum Grewreh opened the emergency wash chamber and stepped out, offering [Bill] a helping hand. Together they dried off using the heated air circulation of the antechamber - Grewreh making sure to stay a respectful distance away. Once dried, Grewreh handed [Bill] an emergency blanket, to which he let out some happy yipping sounds and wrapped himself tightly in the offered cloth.

"{Alright. So...well, I guess we should notify someone, right? Your boss or mine?}" Grewreh said, looking down at a much warmer and slightly fluffier [Bill].

"?rr..yi! Nnr rer -ah. Bu.?" [Bill] said, attempting to come a bit closer to Grewreh.

"{I agree wholeheartedly! Let's just start with Rauleh-of-Nragren, to explain the delay, and then your denmate, on the off chance we can't get it fabricated before you go to bed.}"

And so, Grewreh used his implants to patch into the general communications network, and made a status update, all the while dodging the hugs of an increasingly insistent [Human].

"You stupid shit can you just stop for one moment and-" Bill complained as he broke into a light jog, following Grapes as he made his way over to the side of the drone hangar.

He was concerned; such a torrent of water (and possibly cleansing agents) had most likely all but erased his scent - even to his admittedly weak nose. Rule one of living with Dorarizin was to be scented properly, or else bad things would happen.

Turns out, he was right to be concerned.

Chapter 9:

To her crew, Rauleh-of-Nragren's tense silence was unusual, but not terribly uncommon; there was always a little bit of anxiety that rippled through the station crew once the first few kinetic probes were launched. Spectrometry gave a rich amount of data, especially with the sensor suite they were packing...but nothing beat actually sifting through the crust itself.

Profitability engineers therefore had some of the most boring and most high-pressure jobs in the crew: do nothing until the probe arrived, and then make a decision on the quantity and ease of obtaining the material on this moon to make or break this current venture. As a post-scarcity society it's not like there was any actual currency on the line, but, the empire still used resources and nobody wanted to man or command a station that was a net drain.

Although everyone was still "at work", many sets of eyes regularly checked Rauleh's body language. Rauleh-of-Nragren's ears were perked forward, her back ramrod stiff, forepaws pawing her station's seat. The staccato beat of her claws against diamond-carbide reinforced aluminum showing her anxious, but not worried.

Par for the course, really.

"{...say that again to me, but slowly.}" she muttered, her change in tone and voice catching some of the crew's attention. It would be a one-sided conversation; receiving a call via implant provides privacy at the cost of making the user seem like a lunatic. The fact that the metal under her claws began to squeal in protest as her pawing turned into a grip didn't help.

"{No! He - Damn your fur, Greweh! If [Bill] is injured you're not supposed to move him!}" Rauleh bellowed, forgetting her inside voice - and getting the attention of her entire crew. "{How do you know he doesn't have a concussion?! Or worse - his lungs could be damaged! There's an atmo tank right next to the emergency st-}" With a growl she caught herself, blinking away a few status indicators with absent-minded acknowledgements. "{N-no! No don't - look. I know you're not a medic, alright? If he's walking and up and about he's probably fine, but that doesn't mean you continue to risk injury! Take him back to the hangar and wait for us!}"

Rauleh paced back and forth, waving her hand at indicators only she could see. The crew status could wait - this was far more important. "{YES, escort him! He doesn't have his communicator, we can't track him through station systems! YES. No. NO.}"

More indicators. More distractions. More dismissals with emphatic flailing of her arms. "{STOP IT. Do what I say and you won't be written up for not protecting our [Human] - YES, because he should have been in an environmental suit and he wasn't! YES. No - I'm sending -of-Drezneh to the hangar and you two better be there, and he better be in a medical pod. Yes. Well if you can't find one just use any pilot capsule - they're programmed for both biometrics and-}"

Rauleh-of-Nragren suddenly blinked, her tirade and Greweh's protests ignored. Everything but her was silent... way too silent. 'Why is my command deck empty?' she thought. With a bit of morbid curiosity, she pulled up the 20-some odd notifications she dismissed in haste.

'Brera-of-Arhraz request dismissal from workstation: Acknowledged/Approved'

'Egrezre-of-Frgan request dismissal from workstation: Acknowledged/Approved'

'Zranf-of-Delzreg request dismissal from workstation: Acknowledged/Approved'

'Grawfren-of-Rrelren request dismissal from workstation: Acknowledged/Approved'

. . .

Rauleh-of-Nragren swore, furiously, over the protests of an increasingly panicking Greweh.

"{No! Look he's fine! He's FINE.}" Greweh explained, his hands opening in a pleading gesture to no one. "{He was responsive and even joking! He could breathe! I checked! And his skin is pink and half of them are pink anyway so-}"

He paced back and forth infront of a silent, but curious [Bill], his footsteps the only sound in the empty corridor. "{Look I'm not a doctor, I don't know [Human] anatomy like that, I'm not even on his sleep rotat-}" Greweh exhaled, an irritated growl escaping his lips.

"{Alright so I'll just send him back by himself while I calibrate a factory, I don't need to escort him pe- Really? It's just down the hallway he can turn arou- Look all I'm-}"

In the back of his mind, Greweh wondered what this all looked like to [Bill]. Did [Bill] think he had lost his mind? Maybe the moondust had driven him insane? [Bill]'s eyes never left him, and he never moved.

"{Look, let's just be efficient here with our time - You can't write me up over this, how is this my fault - So I'm supposed to make sure he's - Graah!}" Another bark of frustration, but at this point he didn't care. Rauleh was chasing in her territory, and it was getting old. "{FINE. But if I activate one doesn't that send a signal to Regional? I don't know what the new ones look like - FINE. I'll use a capsule then! Will you calm down now?!}"

There was silence, if only for a moment, before the cursing began. "{It's not that bad! It's not THAT BA- Pack damn you!}" Greweh, tired of being chewed out over an unforseeable accident, cut communications with his superior.

If he was going to be written up, it'd be for insubordination... but not for [Human] abuse.

With his hands he motioned for [Bill] to follow him back to the hangar. Reluctantly, he followed.

Grashak-of-Arhraf was running, breathlessly, his only saving grace being that he worked closer to the hangar than the rest of the crew. "{Hah - no, YOU don't understand! You need to den with him, now.}"

"{Why is everyone ordering me around?! I don't see wh-}" Greweh began to whine, but Grashak cut him off immediately.

"{Listen. To. Me. He doesn't have any scent glands, he can't mark anything - including himself.}"

There was a brief pause. "{No. Nip the right one.}"

"{You took the basic [Human] care course, but you didn't sit through the advanced class because you're not one of his denmates. Scent him, right now. Just do it.}"

There was a pause in the communication, and Grashak slammed against a corridor intersection's wall, panting heavily.

No matter the race, running while talking sucked.

"{Ok, I had to pat him a couple times to calm him down, but yeah. He smells...I. Like something. It's tickling the back of my mind-}"

"{Pups.}" Grashak said, swallowing hard before he began to run towards the hangar. "{Like a newborn pup.}"

For the first time today, Greweh began to swear.

'Well that didn't sound good' Bill thought to himself as he powerwalked/half-jogged behind an irritated, damp killing machine back the way they came. "I guess they didn't want us to wander off?"

"?Rrealah. N'Gr*srkrll?"

"I know. Gargling rocks sucks, dude. Almost as much as this security blanket. You know it's super heavy? Gotta be at least 20lbs."

"?Grrrrhns. Ra! Ng'-t'ttk.?"

"Yeah. I figure this is your version of our mylar blankets. But I gotta say, with all this runnin' around - I'm sweating like a dog." Bill grinned, looking up at Grapes. "Get it? Like a dog? Cause, yanno, the thing with the convergent evolution and..."The Hangar doors hissed open again, presenting the crime scene in all it's glory.

The hill of powder remained behind the probe, as well as a gray streak from that to the showerwasher9000. Scraps of clothing littered the trail - a boot here, glove there, half of a shirt tossed haphazardly to the side -

"Still no sign of my pants." Bill mumbled, looking around. He felt a gentle pat on his head and turned to Grapes, who was pointing at one of the construction drones nearby, and who began to play charades.

"Swimming... no. Climb? Me." Bill pointed to himself and Grapes 'nodded', and then pointed to the open egg-like control suite nestled within the machine itself. "Me, drone station. Oh. No, no." Bill shook his head and tapped where his communicator would rest, trying to indicate that he couldn't read nor control such heavy machinery and that it would be negligent at best, and suicide at worst, to put him in it.

Insistently, the same hand signals were mimed. 'You, egg. YOU egg. Mouth' no, that's not right, 'shut egg'. Ok.

Then, some new gestures: 'Me, you, Egg...'

Ears flicked back, Grapes started to hug himself, hands going up and do-

WOAH. No way. Bill cleared his throat, a blush creeping up his neck. "I mean, look, it's not that I'm speciest or anti-gay or anything - I mean, ok, everyone experiments in college, but that was a long time ago-

Bill's complaint died in his throat at the Dorarizin's continued insistence. Doing such a thing would...scent him. Perhaps very potently. And very bad things(tm) happened when you weren't scented aboard a Dorarizin vessel. And it's not like their race didn't have some appeal...

"...Why's the aliens always gotta do the anal probing? Why's this gotta be a thing." Bill grumbled, walking down the side of the hangar to the construction drone docking bay, shedding his blanket.

"Nobody ever realized that $20 is $20 shirt was a joke..."

"{Ok. Breathe, Greweh}"

The [Human] lay down on the seat, far too small to effectively fill it - his naked form sinking into the multi-g rated foam to contour around his body. He was breathing heavily, and as Greweh undressed he tried to tell himself that didn't know why.

That was a lie. That look the [Human] was giving him was...

Greweh swallowed, hard. He was no [Human]-mater, sure, and even if he was he wouldn't pack with one, but the gaze that [Bill] is piercing him with now made him seriously consider that and... other things.

Slowly he lowered himself into the pod, his weight pressing down on the [Human] - two small hands shot up to grip the fur on his chest, balled fists tugging at him slightly. He reached up with his forepaws once his hips rested on the [Human]'s thighs, placing a clawed hand on either side of his shoulders. He kneaded the foam absentmindedly and leaned forward, his eyes now staring deep into [Bill]'s

They were so small, and yet, so beautiful. The space between them closed, Greweh seeming to surround and engulf [Bill]'s tiny, hot bod-

"{BY THE FIRST PACK WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, GREWEH?!}"

Reflex honed by millions of years of evolution and a lifetime of combat training and absolutely not because of surprise, Greweh flew backwards, kicking off from the drone console with all four limbs. With an unceremonious 'WHUD' he landed on his back a good 30 feet away from the command pod, and [Bill].

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Greweh must've triggered something, as the pod with a protesting [Bill] quickly snapped shut, powered on, and inserted itself fully into a construction drone.

With an agile leap Grashak-of-Arhraf slams down on the deck beside Greweh, claws digging into the metal to stop his momentum. It was only a split second before Grashak made a second leap, taclking Greweh back towards the door, fighting the entire way

"{WHAT THE HELL WAS-}" Grashak begins, swiping at the prone profitability engineer

"{I'M NOT GAY YOU SAID HE NEEDED IT-}" Greweh responds, nipping at his attacker's wrists

"{THAT IS NOT WHAT I MEANT!}"Two muzzles, baring teeth, collide for a brief second - both bites miss.

"{I DON'T UNDERSTAND HOW THIS WORKS OK?!}" Greweh roars, bucking Grashak off of him

"{I MEANT JUST HUG HIM FOR A WHILE.}"

Greweh tensed up, his eyes unfocusing as the epiphany hit him full force. "{...oh.}"

"{DID YOU HONESTLY FORGET YOU HAD SCENT GLANDS ACROSS YOUR CHEST?!}"

"{...}"

"{How - Just. We rely on you to test profi- no. Just-}" Grashak shakes his head, growling to himself. "{I'm giving you an anatomy textbook next mailcall.}"

"{...I didn't mean to.}" Greweh mutters, sitting down on his haunches.

"{You didn't mean to try to mate with him?}" Grashak says, tapping the construction drone. He weakly hears a few taps in response, and sighs.

"{I don't even know anymore. His eyes were just so deep...}"

Grashak clicked his teeth.

"{Look, I'm just going to chalk all this up to having a very stressful day and we can talk about you and your newfound open den desire later-}"

Greweh protested as Grashak ambled back down the deck, picking up [Bill]'s discarded blanket.

"{Shush. Rub this all over your body.}"

Greweh blinked and looked at Grashak. "{What.}"

"{He smells like a pup and we probably have half the station - females included - on their way here. We need to buy time to get their curiosity sated and [Bill] safe. You know how delicate [Human]s are.}"

Greweh took the blanket and looked at it, contemplating silently.

"{They'd rip him apart trying to protect him.}" he murmured.

"{Yeah.}" Grashak replied, beginning to strip. "{We establish a perimeter, get his other denmates in here, get him looked at and scented properly. We lose a day or two of work, but, it's fine. Hey.}"

The Dorarizin made eye contact, passing the blanket between them.

"{Regional never has to know.}"

"?GR'SHRAK NE'GREN RETLEH.?"

"Uhhhhhhhhhh" Bill responded as the pod yelled at him. "Human! Human Bill Telito, Cosmic Code 11-AAB-4197-NC-V-"

"?GR'SHRAK NE'GREN RETLEH.?"

"Fuck's sake. HUMAN. H.U.M.A.N. BILLIAM. TELITO. COSMIC CODE 11-AAB-"

"?GR'SHRAK NE'GREN RETLEH.?"

Bill kicked one of the screens in front of him and sighed. After he responded to the taps from outside - the universal sign of 'are you dead in there?' this voice just began to loop. Of course, it couldn't recognize that he's a human and change anything. Of course.

After being dumped on, friction-cut, stripped, pressure-washed and death-marched around the station only to end right back where he started...

He covered his face with his hands, groaning.

Then there was the whole 'working-yourself-up-to-dick-or-be-dicked-by-an-alien-werewolf' thing that, dare he say he was ...'anticipating' is incorrect, and 'excited about' sounds wrong. It was like a force of nature about to happen, something inexorable and unstoppable and intimate and - and then suddenly THIS.

"?GR'SHRAK NE'GREN RETLEH.?"

"Oh FUCK OFF already! I haven't been this confused since Freshman year!"

"?FRESHAHN. RELK## ANEN REK'K&** FR.?"

Bill stopped and blinked. "Are you... kidding me. You didn't understand literally anything else I said, but-"

"?GR'SHRAK NE'GREN RETLEH.?"

"-but you got FRESHMAN."

"?FRESHAHN. RELK## ANEN REK'K&** FR.?"

Bill thought for a moment.

It was obvious even before first contact that humans and aliens - if they existed - would most likely never speak the same language or even have the ability to speak the same language. We slap meat together to make vibrations in the air to pass information. An alien race could, hypothetically, only use pheromones - or light, or body language.

It was a blessing and a curse to learn that meatslapping was a universal constant; unfortunately not everyone slaps their meat in the same way, but that's ok. Everyone slaps their meat the best way they know how, and translators fill in the gap - everyone goes home satisfied.

The fact that humans could partially make the correct sounds was possible, but, it would serve no purpose... just inane babble at best, and mouthsounds at worst.

"That might be my only way out."

"?FRESHAHN. RELK## ANEN REK'K&** FR.?"

"Whelp. I'll start on F, then: Fricassee. Frenchman. Fried Rotisserie Chicken..."

The call had gone out; [Bill]'s denmates converged on the hangar with grim determination. It was now up to Greweh and Grashak to form a Dorarizin barricade, stopping their worried comrades from opening [Bill]'s secure pod and possibly starting a grizzly tug-of-war.

"{This isn't going to work.}"

"{The theory is sound. The females smell us, we smell like a male pup, we're able to calm them down and divert their protective territorial instincts. His denmates and the other trained doctors arrive, we push everyone back, open the pod-}"

"{That's not why this is going to fail.}"

"{Oh?}"

The hangar doors slid open and Greweh pointed down infront of them, to the crowd of roughly 100 other crewmembers. As the doors yawned open, they began to rush into the hangar, spreading out in confusion and concern.

"{That's why.}"

"{GREWEH-OF-AZREHS, WHERE ARE YOU?}" Sgt. Rauleh roared.

"{Ah. Die in glory, brother.}"

At an impressive 120Km/h, Sgt. Rauleh sped forward, her claws dragging deep furrows into the metal every time they landed, pushing off almost as soon as they touched down.

"{IS HE ALIVE?! WHY ARE YOU BOTH NAKED?!}"Grashak silently, but with purpose, positioned himself directly infront of the Sargent. Skidding to a stop she slammed into him, and they tumbled to the ground.

Only the sound of curious footfalls interrupted their heavy breathing

"{Y-you're-Wh.}"

"{Sssh... I'm safe. We're all safe, it's ok, it's ok.}" Grashak murmured, forcing Rauleh's muzzle down to his torso - the Female was tense, her body shuddering as information flooded the primal part of her mind.

Male. [Bill]. Dorarizin. [Human]. Healthy. Not in Season."

{I need you to spread the word, ok? We're safe, he's safe, we're all ok. Ok?}"Rauleh growled lowly, her shoulders rolling as the tension in her body started to release.

"{Greweh, you're up.}" He chirped, his grip on Rauleh loosening up.

Sighing, Greweh broadened his stance, and with a courageous roar jumped forward.

Chapter 10:

"Shanghai. Sexytimes. Sumatra?" Bill ventured, idly looking at the flashing indicator in a block-claw script.

"?GR'SHRAK NE'GREN RETLEH.?"

"Figured. Whelp. Let's review, shall we?"

"?GR'SHRAK NE'GREN RETLEH.?" The construction done responded, awaiting Bill's input.

"Freshman."

"?FRESHAHN. RELK## ANEN REK'K&** FR.?"

"Grimace."

"?GRENHS. EW#$ DREEF SCH^*#.?"

"Kardashian" Bill said, groaning internally.

"?RRERHG. KRARDRESHN REK'KK %%$KRF." The drone replied, matter-of-factly. Although Bill was doing his best to not anthropomorphize the hunk of steel and electronics, he couldn't help but think the drone was copping attitude with him.

The smug bastard. Not like it's his fault he doesn't have the right mouth to make mouthsounds!

"Whelp. I've got another 5 minutes or so until you default back to the first error, so let's-"

"?RRERK. RRERHG. KRARDRESHN REK'KK %%$KRF."

"-try what we can. Uh. Shake-and-bake. Simpsons. I don't fuckin' know - Shaka Zulu?" Bill said, exasperatedly throwing his hands up in the air.

"SHAKASHZUL." The drone said with a confirmation that just felt exasperated.

"Wait no fuckin way-" Bill perked up, as all around him screens began to turn on. Although he was still a far cry away from being able to do anything, the fact that he could get the damn input loop to turn off was a massive victory. As blue-filtered cameras turned on, Bill saw a 360 degree view around his probe - as if the walls melted away. To be honest, he was really intrigued; most equipment he used has been tuned to human physiology, so to see things unfiltered was a surprising treat. Well. It was, until the external cameras tried to calibrate to human physiology as opposed to Dorarizin.

Bill swallowed the nausea and vertigo that seemed to overwhelm him as the cameras exploded in a kaleidoscope of viewpoints - his brain saw them as random, but the construction drone computer was doing it's best, dangit - it's not it's fault that human eyes are too small, too close - the fields of vision began to overlap and swim as the drone attempted to compensate.

Bill tried to look straight ahead and found he couldn't; the world looked like an MC Escher painting, and considering the only thing grounding him to reality was the seat he was currently gripping as hard as possible he felt he was doing a great job not getting sick. That is, until he took a hesitant glance to his right and found something to focus on.

That something happened to be his friend, Grashak, and his coworker, Greweh, being mauled by a hoard of his coworkers.

"JESUS CHRIST! STOP THAT - I'M OK! PLEASE - HEY! HEY! Goddamnit!" Bill cursed, his worry over the treatment of his friends giving him focus, driving out the background nausea. He wiggled into the seat, trying to find anything that would help - either to stop the mauling, because he was still alive and mob justice is a farce, or to help physically break up the-

His bare foot struck against something that felt oddly like a boot control harness. With another tentative nudge, he felt it try to close around his foot - but then release. That didn't mean he couldn't use it, though - just that he wouldn't have as much control as he'd like. Looking up, he realized a few feet above his head were the grips for his hands; based on his size he'd have to choose either hands or feet to work at a time.

Bill started to muse; apparently the pilot rested on his back in this drone, and was buckled in - which would make sense, as there's no "down" in zero gravity - and then operated as normal. That must mean the seat he was in was meant to be in hard vacuum, so it probably contained some sort of medical or stasis capab-

A sharp whine-bark broke his thought as the external microphones finally kicked on, and the savagery of the battle before him forced his hand.

"{HE'S OK! HE'S ALIVE! HE'S - GERWZEN, YOUR NOSE IS FUCKING ICE}" Greweh cried as he was swarmed with the second round of concerned coworkers, the first dozen or so untangling themselves from Grashak and each other. And, to his credit, his plan was working - albeit with a little more violent impact than he had hoped. Most of the males weren't so demanding that they'd go for a second scenting, and the females, well...

...it's not like he wasn't used to being tangled with a few of them at a time. The fact that one of them happened to be that iron-jaw Rzengrth-of-Frrgrel from Accounting notwithstanding, he was having an OK time of things. As the ladies reluctantly stood up he crouched, shaking himself clear again. Greweh had just been taken down by another 9 or 10 coworkers, but the sheer amount of tangled bodies in the way not only drew attention but also slowed down the overall working-pack. Once enough of them calmed down to have things explained, they started to run interference - either holding other packmates at bay, misdirecting them, or in the case of the calmer ones just explaining what was going on.

Grashak stood to his full height, nodding to himself. Yes, everything would work out - but by the barest of margins.

It was at this time that the construction drone holding [Bill] lurched forward.

Zgren-Nragren-of-Arzerghr was a tired, tired man. Even fathering and raising 4 dozen pups hadn't worked him this hard.

Although, he had every right to be; He was a Sector-General and as such, always had far too much on his plate at any given time. Even if you completely ignore the logistical nightmare of managing 10,000 planets, moons and associated celestial bodies, you still have to handle the trade between them, managing their assorted and independent police forces, checking and updating contraband laws (where applicable), moving personnel and all the accouterments that come with families, handling the various religious and social claims...

...and then there were the [Humans]. By the first pack, he hated the [Humans]. Why did their home world have to be under his jurisdiction?! The worst part is, it wasn't even their fault! After their uplift started and approved media began circulating in the empire, the demand to have a [Human] posted on-staff skyrocketed. He checked historical logs - not even when the [Jornissians] were discovered or the [Karnak] joined the Senate was there such a high demand. Sure, there was always that initial pique of curiosity, but after that things tended to level out somewhat.

The demand for [Humans] just grew, and grew, and grew. Wherever a [Human] went, it seemed, every single Dorarizin put in a request for another one. The paperwork that generated combined with the personnel use - by the Pale Moon's sake, he had people calling in political favors to have a [Human] put on-staff in their planetary capital!

He stared forlornly at the stack of reports, paperwork, bribes, threats and entreaties that sat on his desk. According to his special-team staff (who he had to pull from other teams specifically to handle demands for [Humans]), this was just the "VIP of the VIP" stack. The "VIP" stack occupied his secretary's entire office.

Requests from the general public were simply incinerated.

There was a gentle but firm scrape at the post, and Rezfran grunted. His secretary - well, one of them - simply began to talk. "{I have an urgent call from Adm. Var'Shrak of [Jornissian] Federated Navy-}"

"{Does it have to do with [humans]?}"

"{Uh, yes sir, bu-}"

"{Then it goes in the pile - unless he's offering to give us their [humans], in which case we'll only be short another 112 billion to fill these requests.}"

"{Sir, I can't say. It's-}"

"{What do you mean, you can't say? Put it in the pile and sometime this decade we'll-}"

"{Sir it's thread-encrypted. It's marked urgent, and it has to do with [humans]. That's all I can say.}"

Rezfran looked up from his terminal and, with a great show of effort, reared back to sit on his haunches.

"{Alright, I'll bite. Is this admiral... Var'Shrak, you said, on active duty?}"

"{Yes.}"

Rezfran clicked his teeth together. [Humans], for very obvious reasons, were not allowed near anything military, be it a simple sensor outpost or a star destroyer. This means it's not a simple 'please give us a [Human]' request - and even if it was, the [Jornissians] had a counterpart to him within their federation that would handle such things.

"{Emergency communique?}"

"{Thread-Encrypted, from the bridge Stinging Venom of [Jornissian] Federated Navy.}"

"{Pre-recorded?}"

"{Live.}"

Rezfran sighed, and waved his secretary away. "{Send him through and privacy close the office.}"

"{Yes sir.}"

Rezfran looked back down at his terminal, wiping away the 'toddler [human]' screensaver and refreshing his programs.

With a chime the screen changed to a reclining [Jornissian] in obvious military regalia - the rest of his crew, if there were any present, had been filtered out. "[I greet you in peace, Zgren-Rezfran-of-Arzerghr. May your scent carry far.]"

"{Hah! So polite - most people who call me like this have something burning in the background.}" The Dorarizin and the Jornissian shared what to each species was their version of a grin. "{Ah well. I greet you in peace, Admiral Var'Shrak of [Jornissian] Federated Navy. May you only have warm days. Now.}"

Rezfran's face lost some of it's charm, falling back into his bureaucratic mode. "{What's wrong and why me?}"

"[Hm! I came to you, because I was told you can handle things with discretion-]"

"{I'm not smuggling [Humans] for you.}"

The Jornissian started, then laughed. "[By Sotek-who-circles-the-World, you assume the worst! No, I just want clarification on something I pulled from a [Human] terminal from our ship, Celestial Scale. Please review the attached file - I'll wait.]"

A second indicator appeared on his screen, and with a practiced wave of his hand a badly-damaged movie clip began to play. It was some Jornissian military schlock - par for the course when it came to the initial media exchange, but...

Rezfran furrowed his brow as the movie looped.

"[Ah. So this is new to you as well.]" Var'Shrak mused, coiling in on himself. "[I had hoped you would have come across something like this in your records...I don't want to think the [Humans] are mocking us, but, we've never seen anything like this before.]"

Rezfran remained silent as the movie looped a third time.

"{I think - if you'll give me some time - I will figure this out.}" he finally spoke, beginning to make furious notes - programs and windows popping open to receive commands and then immediately shut down. "{I don't have access to military-grade encryption, of course, so leave with me the name of a subordinate to contact. I trust you want this research done discreetly-}"

"[Of course. I don't want to make a fuss in the senate otherwise.]"

"{Mmm. I'll get back to you when I can.}"

"[Thank you. Loam under your claws, Zgren-Rezfran-of-Arzerghr.]"

"{Yes. See all things clearly, Admiral Var'Shrak of [Jornissian] Federated Navy.}" He responded, and the call was terminated. Almost immediately, a second encrypted channel was formed - civil government encryption wasn't the best, but it would prove to be a hassle for anyone trying to break it - and Rezfran made a call to his eldest daughter.

The charging cables strained before ultimately snapping, Construction drone CX-4129 taking a heavy step forward. The top half of the drone flopped aimlessly, bonelessly backwards as CX-4129 completed another step.

"{...oh come on.}" Greweh murmured under a pile of coworkers. "{Did that cute idiot really try to turn the thing on?!}"

"{EVERYONE BACK!}" Roared Sgt. Rauleh, and as one her working-pack obeyed, a semicircle forming around the manned drone. "{Is the drone Malfunctioning - ENGINEERING, REPORT.}"

A Dorarizin called out as CX-4129 took a third step forward, then stood still, spinning it's manipulator grips clockwise. "{No Ma'am! Everything was orange as of 2 days ago!}"

"{Then what the HELL is going on?! It's acting like...}" Rauleh trailed off as CX-4129 suddenly turned it's upper torso to the right and took another step forward. "{Oh. Oh by the last hunt GREWEH-}"

"{HE HAD SUCH DEEP EYES-}"

"{GREWEH DID YOU PUT HIM IN A DRONE AND NOT CALIBRATE IT?!}"

Greweh was on all fours, fur bristled, teeth bared at the Sargent - not that it would do him any good, but to be fair he's had a long day and his hind-brain was starting to take over.

"[CONFECTIONARY]" Boomed CX-4129, as it's internal microphone kicked in and everyone's translators turned on. There was the sound of a few grunts and some heavy breathing, as all eyes eventually trained back on Greweh. "{LOOK IT'S NOT MY FAULT}"

"[RETURNED ITEMS]" Agreed CX-4129, as it started to make it's way forward towards the mining probe. "[PEACE CHAINS UH FOOT UM FRUITS PILE MEAT.]"

"{We need to shut it down - he could hurt himself in there, not counting the damage to the station! Engineering-}"

"{There's 5 battery tabs on the suit}" The engineer began, "{- he didn't have his EVA battery installed, so he's running purely off emergency power. That gives him at least 5 hours at his current burn rate, but that drops proportionally for every tab we pull out-}"

CX-4129 finally made it to the mining probe, and as if to make a point swung his still-rotating upper torso into it, breaking the rails that fastened the probe to the deck. "[ACCIDENT FORGIVENESS SKULL PAIN.]" It explained, manipulator hands still rotating.

"{SMALL BITES.}" Yelled Rauleh as the crew maintained it's concerned circletm around the construction drone.

"{Pull out the green squares-}"

"{YOU HEARD HIM! WHEN POSSIBLE, JUMP ONTO [Bill]'s FRAME, PULL THE GREEN SQUARES. GO GO GO-}"

Her crew, pencil-pushers and desk-jockeys to a person, summoned the will of the hunt. As one, they converged on the drone in blindingly-fast speed.

Unfortunately, in her haste to check on [Bill]'s status, Rauleh never turned off her comm impant, and the very hand signal she used to lead her troops into battle also accepted a call from her papa.

The call connected almost immediately, and Rezfran smiled softly. Old pack tales prove true, even 10,000 years removed from their homeworld, "every father dotes on the first". Although he would never do something as crass as true nepotism, he may have... pulled a few strings to get a [human] onboard her ship, per her request. It had been only 2 or so years since he last physically saw Rauleh, and he mused that she must be very excited to hear from her old man if she patched him through so quickly. Maybe she could help crack this mystery for her old man (and possibly get another small promotion as thanks).

"{Hello my little sweet meat-}""

{WATCH FOR HIS ARMS, PACK DAMN YOU. DORFREZ, TRY TO TAKE OUT HIS EYES - CUT HIS EYES}"

Rezfran blinked and checked the connection - audio only, final destination was Rauleh's implant, so surely-

"{GOOD JOB - TAKE OUT THE OTHER CORE ON HIS FRONT. STOP HIM FROM DESTROYING THE STATION!}"

Rezfran gritted his teeth. If pirates were so foolish as to raid his daughter's station, there would most definitely be hell to pay. Swearing oaths to bury the criminals in a lifetime maze of red tape, Rezfran distastefully overrode his daughter's implant limiters, giving him access to everything she sees and hears. He immediately is greeted by the floor as his daughter ducks as a construction drone with a half-dozen Dorarizin on it swings a giant arm in a lazy arc, utterly smashing an emergency wash station.

"{RAULEH BY THE FIRST PACK WHAT IS GOING ON?!}" Rezfran roars in his office - and in his daugher's ears.

"{DAD?!}" Rauleh cries, and as one every crewmember froze.

"NO OK LOOK IT WAS AN ACCIDENT PLEASE CALM DOWN STOP MAULING GRAPES HE WAS SWEET AND I FELT SAFE IN HIS ARMS-"

Bill was yelling hysterically as he alternated pumping foot pedals and then hopping up to grasp the arm controls until his grip tired, whereupon he'd fall back down and work the feet. It was slow, terrifying going - somehow he had managed to make the torso continue to spin to the left, his "hands" kept rotating, but he was walking "forward". Well. Walking towards the mining probe.

Bill attempted to pat the probe and explain himself. Instead, he ended up headbutting the probe off it's rails, the impact bouncing him around the cockpit. "FUCK, SORRY, HIT MY HEAD."

His vision swam - wait, no, that was normal in this cockpit. He looked around at his coworkers - his friends, cuddlebuddies, and Greweh. At least they had stopped mauling each other, and were barking - eer, talking it out.

Bill breathed a sigh of relief as his upper torso rotated. "Thank-FUCK!" he cried out, as the Dorarizin suddenly leapt onto him. His coworkers were upon him, teeth and claw slashing and biting into the metal that provided the only semblance of protection he had. Bill screamed as he felt the protest of metal, as the alarms started to go off, as his vision swam with sharp teeth, pointed claws and eyes that held fury. While coherent thought still had him, he wondered if by breaking up the fight between them they now viewed him as the new threat, and united to take him down - common enemy and all that.

It was around this time that coherent thought decided to take a break, and with pants-shitting fear Bill's hind-brain finally got the controls.

"PREDATOR" Bill's hind-brain said, and Bill agreed.

"RUN" Bill's hind-brain said, and Bill tensed up - unable to see a path as his drone - as he lurched forward, trying to grab the wall to steady himself. Always, on every screen, more teeth, more claws, more death.

Bill's hind-brain thought for a moment, shrugged, and pulled the other lever. "FIGHT."

Screaming, Bill reached up and gripped the hand controls - both satisfying his primal urge to climb from danger AND to have something to beat the beasts back with. His drone arm clamped down on something, and with a high-pitched squeal he brought his new weapon to bear.

"{No time to exp- no! NO. Look, the [Human] is stuck in the drone - Look, OK. I KNOW. IT'S NOT MY FAULT!}" Rauleh roared as she was grilled subvocally by the Regional Head, her father.

"{Not fun now, is it?}" Greweh smugly asked, already certain that his career was destroyed. The only response Rauleh gave him was an exasperated growling yell - until a strong, pressurized stream of water slammed into her, pushing the Sargent back 15 meters.

His implant crackled to life as a voice he had only heard in the yearly briefing roared oaths at him and everyone else alive.

Greweh turned towards [Bill] and what was left of CX-4129. Somehow he had pulled the water main from the emergency wash tank out of the tank itself, separating it from it's pressure valve. Those hoses were connected directly to their main water storage - [Bill] had a good 7,500 tons of water to play with before it ran dry.

He was using those thousands of tons of water to great effect: As his drone rotated he was blasting every crewmember he could find, washing them far and away from his drone. The poor bastards who were actually on the drone had it the worst, though: freezing cold water, a spinning perspective and not enough purchase to be effective - but just enough to not get flung off and hosed down. Every so often one would begin to slip - some would fall, some would find more purchase, but none of them could continue to power down the drone.

Greweh steeled himself. It seemed [Bill] was avoiding hitting him. This was a welcome surprise, as he was in no mood to be hosed down twice in one day. He looked past the drone to Grashak, who was tracking the last remaining power core on the drone's body. They shared a wordless glance - he was being spared, too. Dry = traction...

Greweh really didn't want to act as bait, but as another one of his crewmates skidded past him in a torrent of water, he pursed his lips. "{I fucking hate middle shifts.}"

Chapter 11:

The deck was finally silent. Well. Mostly silent.

This, in and of itself, was a massive achievement. It took another 5 minutes of dexterous leaping, strategic feints, the impromptu use of environmental hazards/pocket moonsand and one very lucky toss with the emergency blanket to pull out the last power tab of Bill's suit. Over the tirade of the Head Administrator (who was doing nothing to help morale) Bill's denmates were able to carve him out of the suit with their bare teeth and claws and form a protective barrier between him and the rest of the crew, and really, the world. Everything finally worked out in the end.

They just had to ignore all the screaming.

You have to understand, the Dorarizin were there to protect Bill, but he had long checked out into "fight or flight" mode - and before you judge, you tell me how you'd react to innumerable claws and three rows of teeth gnawing into your cockpit as the power flickers out.

Yeah, I thought so.

So, like I was saying, the deck was mostly silent, save for Sgt. Rauleh-of-Nragren. She wasn't delivering so much a chewing-out as it was just a 5 minute long wordless scream of exasperation. At least, that's what the cuddle-pile-formerly-known-as-Bill thought it sounded like. In between the mass of fur and arms and ... claws and teeth he could see Rauleh-of-Nragren alternate between yelling something at the crew, making desperate swipes at Grapes, and then seemingly bark at nothing at all. As Bill's heart rate slowly went from "amphetamine addict on caffeine" to "uphill kenyan footrace" he noticed how chastised the crew looked, and how as one they flinched when a particularly loud scream-click would reverberate off of the metal walls. Bill sighed internally. Turns out, guilt is one of the few things more powerful than fear. Squirming in the fluffy-warm safety-hug, Bill was finally able to pop his head out under what seemed like an arm and someone else's cheek.

"Ffhey! Vhloock, Hi'me fhinmeh. Breallrehy!" he protested, his cheeks smushed against his jaw by the weight of his denmates, slurring his speech.

Sgt. Rauleh paused in her tirade to stare at Bill for a few moments, before waving at him with a free hand and continuing her rant.

"Hime fhan."

"?Rewr-'!'ngrah SRESH N''GRKKLER!?" Rauleh yelled, rounding on the rest of the crew. "?N'GRak! RESMN RGREF WE'RRGLREZXK.?"

"Hime fhan tho."

"?R'EZRE. 'F''RAGN.?"

"S'chfhain. Rhellheh. Yhewswher hhthe hwonsh fweekin houht."

Rauleh paused, her ears twitching in fury, before letting out a long, low, guttural clicking-growl, angrily falling on her haunches.

"Athideths hapeh."

Rauleh shared a look with Bill that caused his murderballtm to tense up slightly, but he beamed confidence.

"Vuh ih hokai. Thhih ih hobw bwe lurrh!"

Rauleh, for her part, just whined.

Sgt. Rauleh-of-Ngraren was furious enough to scent shadows.

There were at least 87,000 other mining stations that had put in a request for a [human] in the year she sent in her requisition, and she knew that it was only her constant petitioning (and a little kindness from her father) that she was able to secure a single position out of an entire pool of 500 [human] applicants.

What her father could not help with was the mandatory 2-year gamut of sensor re-calibration, physical remodeling, general sapience training and advanced sapience training, stocking specialized food and medicine (and the subsequent training her medical and kitchen staff had to go through), additional specialized safety equipment, additional recreation and training equipment, escape pods, schedule changes, random Imperial inspections, customized gear, customized sanitation booths (because [humans] apparently need water in pretty much everything they do) and the assorted infighting over who gets to do what with the [human] and when. At any point their entire station could be flunked, and with that K%'-grade there would be no way her father could comb a few tails and get her a [human]. Somehow, some way, they passed. They passed after two years of hell, and now it could all be for nothing-

"{-BECAUSE NOBODY HERE FOLLOWED PROPER PROCEDURE. BY THE FIRST PACK, DO YOU WANT TO BE THE ONES TO KILL A [HUMAN] FIRST? DO YOU DESIRE TO TASTE HIS BLOOD THAT BADLY?}" She rounded on her crew, who flinched back.

"{AND NOW - NOW, BECAUSE OF THIS COMBINED IDIOCY, BECAUSE EVERYONE ABANDONED THEIR POSTS, WE HAVE DAMAGED A CONSTRUCTION DRONE, THE ENTIRE FUCKING HANGAR, PUT OURSELVES HALF A YEAR BEHIND SCHEDULE AND ENDANGERED [BILL]'S LIFE! MULTIPLE TIMES - IN ONE DAY!}"

Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the pile of denmates shift a little, and between two males a small, flat, furless face popped out. It was slightly redder than usual, and kinda smushed - but it was practically determined to give it's two cents.

"[(error: slurred speech. Re-translating with 99.98% estimated accuracy) Hey! Look, I'm fine. Really!]"

Rauleh blinked at [Bill], who squirmed just a bit - apparently he got his head stuck in the pile. She exasperatedly flung her arms out in his direction. "{-AND HE IS WELL WITHIN HIS RIGHT TO BE FURIOUS AT US, BUT HE'S TOO NICE TO SAY ANYTHING-}"

"[(error: slurred speech. Re-translating with 99.98% estimated accuracy) I'm fine.]"

"{AND, AND HE'S TRYING TO REASSURE US.}" She spun around, growling at the rest of her crew. "{US, WHO COULD HAVE ENDED HIS LIFE IN A FLURRY OF STUPIDITY.}"

"[(error: slurred speech. Re-translating with 99.98% estimated accuracy) I'm fine though.]"

Rauleh sighed, angrily. "{HE'S TOO INNOCENT TO UNDERSTAND. TOO PURE.}"

"[(error: slurred speech. Re-translating with 99.98% estimated accuracy) It's fine, really. You're the ones freaking out.]"

Rauleh paused, her ears twitching in fury, before letting out a long, low, guttural clicking-growl, angrily falling on her haunches.

"[(error: slurred speech. Re-translating with 99.98% estimated accuracy) Accidents happen.]"

Rauleh glared at [Bill], trying to will into her gaze that although accidents do happen, they don't happen near her, on her ship, under her watch.

[Bill], for his part, beamed back confidence.

"[(error: slurred speech. Re-translating with 99.98% estimated accuracy) But it's ok. This is how we learn!]"

Rauleh, for her part, just let out an exasperated whine.

There was a pause and a long sigh, as everyone's commbeads kicked back on. "{Well.}" Said the voice of Zgren-Nragren-of-Arzerghr, causing everyone to flinch - and [Bill] to protest slightly - "{Here I was about to deliver the dressing-down of a career, but I see Rauleh did it well enough for me.}"

"{Sector-General, I take full resp-}"

"{Rauleh-of-Ngraren, please do not interrupt me.}"

There was another pause and [Bill] piped back up, but nobody paid attention.

"{I can't... I can't not document this. My workstation has mandatory audit logs, so even if I chose not to report this - which for the record, I'm not doing - it could still show up under a random review. To my knowledge, no other [Human] has been put in such danger within our Empire's borders.}"

Nobody moved, as they waited for the axe to drop.

"{...however, after reviewing security footage and listening the, ah, condemned, I could theoretically argue before an inquisitor that Grewreh-of-Azrehs followed safety procedure, that he was not trained for a [Human]'s specific...needs, and that technically the [Human] was not hurt. I could also theoretically argue, due to a [Human]'s innate...}" there was a sigh, and the next word came out thick and dripping with exhaustion "{[Human]-ness, that the crew's concern was legitimate, albeit an overreaction.}"

Hope was kindled.

"{It also sounds like the [Human] won't want to press charges, or request a transfer - though, that ultimately is up to him. Regardless, this was a scenario that was not covered in training, and as such I'll petition to have all [Human]-Dorarizin training materials updated. It was also an oversight not to have their limitations made common knowledge, so, although everyone here will still have the joy of inquisitorial scrutiny I see no reason to-}"

As one the entire crew cheered at the stay of execution - if a Sector-General was going to hunt for them, then they wouldn't be demoted, they wouldn't be exiled, and they wouldn't lose their [Human]! The crew devolved into happy yips and barks of conversation, in that overly-excited way that only occurs once disaster has been averted. Zgren-Nragren-of-Arzerghr smiled in his workstation, and turned off his general override.

Rauleh's commbead, however, never turned off.

"{Daugher of mine.}"

"{Yes, papa?}"

"{Hm! Offering me a sweet-meat?}"

"{...Thank you.}" She sub-vocalized, emotion thick in her voice.

"{...Daughter. I'm not going to - I can't-}"

"{I know.}"

"{I'll stretch the truth as far as I can, but I'm not going to break it. You'll still have Imperial Inquisitors crawling all over you and everyone there, and that's not counting the Interstellar Safety and Standards commission that will undoubtedly be launched.}"

"{I know.}" Rauleh sighed as she watched her crew busy themselves, cleaning up and returning to their proper stations. "{But still. Thank you.}"

"{...This is why I hate [Humans]}" Nragren chuckled, humming to himself. "{Such little squishy beings of chaos and disorder.}"

"{I think you're just limping about because no [Human] wants to learn about interstellar paperwork.}"

"{Hm! Petulant child - I'll pull your claws out.}"

There was a small moment of silence, and idly Rauleh watched one of [Bill]'s packmates walk back into the hangar, holding a small box.

"{Well. Translators seem to have been made, thankfully. I'm going to order a half-dozen spare sets...}"

"{Speaking of translation, I need to talk to you.}"

Rauleh's ears perked up. "{That's right! In all this commotion, I forgot - what exactly did you call me for, Papa?}"

Zgren-Nragren-of-Arzerghr inhaled deeply and began to explain.

"I want hazard pay."

KEYRING sighed and looked at SPOTTER - well, at the emotional-wreck-formerly-known-as-SPOTTER. The extraction of SISTER was a resounding success (on paper), and the exfiltration of the Celestial Scale went off without a hitch. For the first time in anyone's memory, the mutiny alarm was a false alarm - all that the Jornissian special forces had managed to do was change out the crew and power down a ship in record time.

"No."

"So do you want to hold her?"

". . . ."

The problem was, well, SISTER. Once the room was cleared and SISTER was in custody, the assumption was that the [Human] would simply be confused - scared, possibly angry - but nothing that an explanation and cooperation wouldn't overcome. The team was expecting reactions ranging from fear to hiding or even fighting back; people in panic situations did not think clearly.

However, once SISTER was in custody she acted like she was about to die. After squirming in SPOTTER's grip SISTER went totally limp and began to cry.

That, in and of itself, was terrible. But then she began to beg and plead. The things she was expecting, and the things she was saying...

...after 5 minutes, everyone but SPOTTER had muted their commbeads to her cries. Unfortunately, this only stopped the real-time translation.

"KEYRING, she sounds like a wounded hatchling-"

"Suck it up, soldier."

So after an additional 10 minutes, the squad had figured out how to filter SISTER's cries completely from their helmet's audio.

"Oh, high talk from you GRANITE. Go ahead, look at her again. Watch her flinch."

GRANITE, a Jornissian who had been in numerous secret raids against pirates, butchered no less than 300 slavers, who had stared into the abyss between the stars and refused to blink, turned his head away.

"That's what I thought. I want hazard pay."

"SPOTTER-"

"No. No. You listen. Just do it, right now, cause I have to, because I'm holding her, and I have to make sure she doesn't get injured. Do it. I dare you."

"Oh, fine." KEYRING growled, flicking on some indicators within his suit. "She has to have calmed down a little bit by no-"

"[Ah-hand I never got to travel when I was young and I just, I just wanted to have a l-little fun, just a little fun before I died, I didn't want to die, I don't want to die like this, I wanted more time, I'm sorry - I'm so sorry, I didn't know, I didn't mean to, I'll do anything, please, I- my mom only has me left, I'm sorry, I'm so sor-]"

KEYRING tensed his hood and quickly muted SISTER again.

"...Hazard pay."

"I'll put in a request-"

SPOTTER looked down at SISTER, seeing her puffy face, red eyes and distant, pleading gaze. Her hands were going through a picking motion, nonsensically, never stopping - some sort of nervous tic. Even though she was in his coils, and the transport ship was well within her comfort range, SISTER shivered. She shivered, and never stopped shaking.

"You're Harsak-damned right you will."

Admiral Var'Shrak sang softly to himself. It was one of the many, many skills he had picked up over the course of his lifetime in the interstellar navy - whenever a deckhand had some menial bullshit to do, or a crewmate was being "unjustly punished" for dereliction of duty, you could bet there would be one of countless songs being sung to pass the time. He was, of course, not singing because he was about to do something menial, or something he dreaded; he was singing to himself because he was nervous.

Sure, he was around when [Human]s were discovered, and yes, he had reviewed their media - and like most of his race, he found them utterly adorable. Their humor was wrong, their music was beautiful, their art and science both advanced and yet very primitive. Of course, there was the initial rush of applications to serve with them, and of course there was a flurry of Senate rulings and restrictions that immediately passed unanimously. He had friends and colleagues who had put in some favors to have [Human]s aboard their vessels, but to do so they had to give up their military commission; a sacrifice that he wasn't ready to make until he was prepared to retire in general, and at that point he may as well attempt to get a teaching gig instead.

However, that didn't mean he didn't want to meet one. Quite the opposite, in fact - he was going to make sure to record every interaction with this [Caroline], and if possible, mayhaps take his time in returning her to the Celestial Scale. From her file she seemed, well. Cute, for one, eager - but also somehow very soft. Var'Shrak didn't really know how to explain it, but, if he was honest with himself he was giddy with excitement.

So, he was singing. Singing to pass the time until [Caroline] was checked out by medical and put in an officer's lounge, time until she's had something to eat and a little bit of time to relax. Singing while he determined what outfit to wear, as aesthetics of authority weren't universal, and he'd rather not come across as overbearing and dominant when it was obvious the [Human] was of no threat and quite possibly having a terrible time.

His implant gave him a wordless indicator; [Caroline] had been deposited in a freshly cleaned and stocked lounge and was awaiting debriefing. With a smile and a smart snap of his tail against the ground, the Admiral left his quarters and made his way midship.

Offering only perfunctory salutes and acknowledgements of his crew, the Admiral's mind began to wander, trying to form a narrative to his questioning. [Caroline] was in no trouble, no matter what happened - she was a civilian, and that's where that line of thought began and ended. However, what did the edited media mean? Was this some cultural thing that the Jornissian cultural attaches had missed? Was it an honor, or an insult? Was [Caroline] alone responsible for the edit, or was it something more... institutional? Even if he could coil around who was responsible, were any laws even being broken? Then there was the mystery of THE CAPTAIN and how she played into all this...

Admiral Var'Shrak continued to muse right up to the door to Officer's Lounge A-17. He would've mused a little further if it wasn't for a haggard-looking, limp-scaled, utterly exhausted special forces soldier, coiled in his way. Off to the side, his superior officer was in mid-explanation of something...but that would wait.

"Sharp Eyes to you, Soldier." Admiral Var'Shrak saluted, and was immediately incensed to see that the salute was not returned.

"Sir." Began the dead-eyed soldier, who Var'Shrak's implant identified as SPOTTER - nee Sresh'resk. "I have only carried the [Human] for an hour and a half, but if anything happens to her, I will kill everyone on this capital ship and then myself."

His superior officers - both of them - visibly flinched at the very deadpan and very serious way he delivered that line, before slithering off just to the right and coiling up.

"S-sir, I'm sorry, Shresh'resk is... well. He needs hazard pay."

The Admiral, tamping down his anger at the mutinous way he was addressed, glared at the Sergeant. "You dare?"

Wordlessly KEYRING tapped open the door, and the lights within kicked on. There was a cry - more like a wail - and [Caroline] darted under what appeared to be a blockade made out of foam perch pillows. His commbead was flooded with nonsensical half-pleading, crying, and promises to be good.

As the translator matrix began to work overtime and just exactly what she was saying finally hit him, Admiral Var'Shrak slumped forward, the excited energy he was projecting fully drained out of him. "Hopefully the Dorarizin are having a better go of it than I am" he thought, as he slowly made his way into the lounge.

"{So. [Bill]?}"

"[Ah uh, yeah? The 'bead's working now, yeah?]" [Bill] said, still smiling from his protective denmate-pile.

Rauleh smiled in return. "{Indeed it is. Hey, listen, I had a quick question for you.}"

"[Awww. Look, like I said accidents happen, and as long as I can keep blowing up moons I won't tell anyone-]"

"{No no no - it's not about that. And yes, you can still fire probes at the various celestial bodies that we orbit. It's about something else.}"

"{If it's about Greweh then I'll have to say 'it's complicated'.}"

Rauleh snorted and rolled her shoulders. "{Tell me about it. No, no. I uh, I was wondering if you could help me out with a [Human]-specific question.}"

"[Ok! Ask away!]"

"{Do you have something called [Meme]-edited Dorarizin, and what movies are inside it?}"

A sharp, pungent rensecf scent spiked everyone's nostrils, and [Bill] suddenly began to squirm violently, a panicked yell shuddering forth from his tiny frame.

"{Wait, [Bill]-}"

"{Woah! Hold on there little buddy-}"

"{Did he just pee on me?!}"

"{Don't clench up you'll hurt him-}"

"{Don't let him go he's got fear-madness-}"

So to answer Admiral Var'Shrak's question: No. No they were not.

Chapter 12:

He had faced multiple live-fire engagements in his younger days, even a few 'hot drops'. He pulled his friends from the line of fire, made hard decisions…had some friends not come home - both from a rebel's hand, or from his own orders.

He had moved through the ranks. Led his people through both victory and defeat. Taken the blame and the glory. Through mentorship, trial, luck, error and sheer determination he had become a leader worthy of commanding the lives of 50,000 fellow shipmen, not including the associated marines and ground personnel that were under his leadership.

In all of this, he had projected a stoic, calculating demeanor. In every trial, in every scenario where everything is on fire and the blood is on his hands, he did his damndest to at least seem like he knew what he was doing. The facade he projected - the mask he wore - was as much a part of his rank as the gems clamped onto his hood.

However, today, Admiral Var'Shrak clenched his jaw for the umpteenth time and willed himself not to cry.

"Caroline." He said, as even as possible. "Please. Just a little, ok?"

From the pile of upturned and requisitioned perch-padding came a soft whimper. Only by the grace of his anatomy could he see into the utter darkness of the pillow-cave, staring directly into the wet, red eyes of the resident [Human].

She was clutching a blanket tightly to her torso, wringing the fabric in her chapped, red hands.

Admiral Var'Shrak gently nudged the plate of snacks towards the blanket-cave, causing [Caroline] to shrink back slightly.

"It's ok, it's ok - it's just some tea-cakes. It's sweet, see?" He picks up one of the small disks, and making a show of breaking it in half he eats it, slowly. "See? It's good!"

Painfully slow to him, but lightning-fast for the [Human] she flung her hand out and gripped a handful of cookies, pulling them back into the safety of her cave. Var'Shrak lowered himself closer to the ground, doing his best to seem small and unimposing - and to get a slightly better view of the [Human]. She sniffed at the wafer hesitantly, before looking at Var'Shrak and taking a bite.

The click of her teeth on the cookie caused both of them to flinch.

"I uh… I'm sorry. I-I can get the chefs to make a different batch, one that's… softer." He said, losing heart halfway through his suggestion as [Caroline] worked her mouth slightly, scattering the wafers inside her cave. He was met with a noncommital murmur - at least the crying had well and truly stopped, but whether that was due to [Caroline] realizing that she was truly in no danger or that she had exhausted herself, Var'Shrak couldn't say. Deliberately slowly he reached for a second tray, placing before the cushion-cave a set of drinks; various teas, water, and [soda]-analogues. Thinking beforehand this time he opened all their pouches, leaning back to give [Caroline] some space.

She reached for one of the flavored teas, seeming to pick one out at random. Slowly she pulled the oversized pouch into her cave, taking a tentative sip from the rim.

Another happy universal constant: At some point in every species' infancy some genius got the idea to take a bunch of plants, boil them an take a swig. Sometimes it worked and a new beverage was discovered! Sometimes it didn't work and a new poison was discovered - which could be a success, depending on what you were going for. Regardless, warm tea and comfy blankets seemed to comfort the small [Human], and her soft complaints all but stopped.

They stayed like that for a few minutes; [Caroline] taking a sip of 'tea', Var'Shrak watching her with a neutral, if worried expression.

"[Caroline]?" Var'Shrak said softly, causing her to jump. "[Caroline], You're not in any trouble. I just want to talk with you, ok? Can we talk?"

[Caroline] gave what his crash-course in [Human] body language told him was a 'nod' of affirmation, and Var'Shrak relaxed slightly.

"Ok. Can you please tell me what a [meme] is?"

[Caroline] giggled at that - which was good! - and pursed her lips, rolling her shoulders slightly. "[It's…it's like a joke. It's a visual cultural joke, but it can also be musical? I guess?]"

"Alright. Were your people producing [meme]s before first contact?"

"[I uh. I mean, yeah. Memes really took off when the internet became ubiquitous, but, hell. There could have been ancient memes lost to time for all we know. We just have a better record of it, because yanno - once it's on the network it's out there forever.]"

Admiral Var'Shrak nodded - mimicking the alien gesture of his guest - and rested on his coils. "Well. The Senate-" Var'Shrak flinched as he saw [Caroline] flinch, and quickly finished his thought, "-won't stop [Humans] from making [meme]s, especially if it's part of your culture from pre-contact. This just seems to be a cultural artifact that our [Anthropologists] didn't recognize, which means it's our fault if anything."

Admiral Var'Shrak was many things, and smooth was in fact, one of them. He waited a few seconds, and with a sigh (and a deep drought of the cooling tea) [Caroline] took the lure.

"[It's not… we hid it from you on purpose. It's not your fault.]"

"Why?"

[Caroline] scrunched her nose and looked incredulously at Var'Shrak - for his part, he just waited, neutral mask forced upon his face.

"[Really?]"

Var'Shrak repeated the alien 'nodding' gesture. "Really. Again, you and [Humanity] in general are not in any trouble - I just want to learn, is all."

[Caroline] looked into her bag of tea and gently set it down between her legs, mumbling something too soft for even Var'Shrak to hear, her voice broken only by a small yawn.

"Sorry? Could you please repeat that?"

"[We're scared.]" She replied, no louder than before - but somehow, the weight of those words were deafening as they slammed against him. Admiral Var'Shrak recoiled slowly in dumb shock; a thousand questions roiled through his mind, each one darker than the last.

"Has any interstellar faction threatened you, your species or your planet?"

"[Wh- oh! Oh, no! I uh. We, [Humans], are scared of you. Of all of you. Of the entire Senate.]"

Silence.

"Wh-" Var'Shrak cleared his throat, resting his hands in his lap. He took a few moments to gather his thoughts before responding as slowly and purposefully as possible. "Why are you afraid of us?"

"[Because - because just look at you all!]" A tiny hand flung out of the safety of the cave in his direction, waving about frantically. "[You're big and strong and powerful and technologically advanced and weird and just - just, you could annihilate us without even feeling it! Not just in terms of a civilization-wide fight, I mean just… if you, if you got angry at me and… I'm not that quick…]"

Var'Shrak swallowed, hard, as the implications made themselves known. "I…is every [Human] afraid of us?"

"[I mean - no, but. Ugh.]" [Caroline] reached forward and aggressively took a drink of her tea, setting it back down infront of her. "[It's a spectrum. Some think you're here to enslave us, most of us are positive towards you - curing every disease, providing infinite power, unfucking our planet's biosphere and giving us a post-scarcity society will win you all the [Brownie] points. A… not insignificant number are even ah, attracted to you. I mean, not you personally - but I'm sure you're a, uh, good looking [Jornissian] and I'm not saying that a [Human] wouldn't be intere-]"

[Caroline] stopped her rambling to take a drink as Var'Shrak's mind shifted an entirely different set of gears, popped the clutch and then stalled out.

"[It's um. You've… always had other species to talk to. I mean, in your cultural memory. We haven't.]"

"But shouldn't that be a cause of joy?" he ventured, grasping at straws.

"[It is - trust me - it is. But, it's also, uh. There's no really easy way to put this - you're alien.]"

Var'Shrak blinked and clicked his tail against the decking, narrowing his eyes. "Did… are you saying [Humans] haven't fully realized we're not their species?"

"[Oh, no no. Just…well, ok. Imagine you're me for a second. You're used to the sound of feet on the floor, of [Human] mannerisms your entire life, of slang and body language and food and music and sights and smells. Not only that, but also proportions; the doors are just so high, the beds are just so arranged, the eating utensils look like they do, the toilets…]"

"I think I'm beginning to understand."

"[Mmm. Not only are you used to this, but your entire species for it's entire history is used to things being just so. To be out of that environment, and in one that's - it's alien. So sometimes, well. This is why we have to consume Home media - it gives us some normalcy, or so the [psychoanalysts] say.]" [Caroline] sighs, stretching.

"And memes about us are normal?"

"[W-well, no. That's… more for when we're ah, freaking out about being alone - about being the only [Human], I mean. It kinda…makes you cute to us? They're not spiteful memes, just playful ones to make you not so, uh. Deadly.]"

"I see. This would explain the confusion…"

"[I just-]" [Caroline] yawned, her whole body shuddering. "[I just don't know how the terminal screwed up… or why that elicited a full, uh. Special Operations team? To break into my room and kidnap me?]" she ended on a question, looking at Var'Shrak curiously.

"Ah, then it's my turn to be honest." Var'Shrak smiled, stretching up a little straighter.

"Some enterprising young deckhands - a and a 'skk - apparently found a way to install a physical override onto your terminal, probably when you were out."

The pillow cave became deathly still.

"So, they apparently streamed your terminal to their own, and it became a bit of a sensation on the ship. When the officers found out-"

The pillow cave exploded, circular perch-covers flung to the far ends of the room. Standing before him, bleary-eyed, wet spot on her crotch and arms raised in a triumph of rage, [Caroline] let out a furious roar.

"[THOSE SLITHERY LITTLE FUCKS BROKE INTO MY ROOM?! I'LL KILL THEM!]"

Var'Shrak leaned slightly to the right, avoiding a particularly high-velocity pillow. "I assure you, [Caroline], both of those deckhands are on disciplinary leave-" 'but after what they've put me through', thought Var'Shrak, 'I'll damn well make sure they're cleaning comet trails by hand for the rest of their careers.'

"[I'm gonna- I'm gonna. Just. NNNGH. Why am I not angrier?!]" [Caroline] suddenly said as another tremendous yawn wracked her body. "[What was… what was that tea?]"

"Gres'sken-leaf and petal. It is very safe for [Human] consumption…" Var'Shrak trailed off as he accessed his internal implant, pulling up information on the plant. "The tea is very high in iron, potassium, melatonin, keratin-"

"[Mmf. Melatonin? That - that makes us sleep. Sleepy.]" [Caroline] groused, rubbing her face a bit too vigorously.

"Oh." Var'Shrak said softly.

[Caroline] fumed for a second before glaring at Var'Shrak. She pointed at him with a single, drooping finger, accusingly. "[I am gonna take a nap and then I am going to be angry at them again, ok?]"

"Okay." Var'Shrak said, desperately trying to hide his smile. "Would you like me to-"

"[N. Noh. This is a-]" [Caroline] inhaled sharply, but powered through it. "[-an inconvenience to me, so I'm gonna return the favor. Loosen up.]"

"Excuse me?" Admiral Var'Shrak said, tilting his head as [Caroline] brazenly stepped forward. Without so much as an explanation, invite, or indication she full-body fell on the [Jornissian], curling up into a ball within his coils.

"I… what."

"[Remind me to be angry when I wake up.]" [Caroline] murmured, the exhaustion of the day finally catching up to her.

"Hah! So whatever happened to being afraid of us?" Var'Shrak mused. But he did so to himself, as [Caroline]'s only response was soft, shallow breathing.

After only five minutes, Var'Shrak was unable to hide his smile.

Chapter 13:

The problem with transporting [Human]s are, fundamentally, that they're somewhat fragile. This means as a host species you've got to figure out ways of transporting a [Human] from point A to point B with minimal - and preferably no damage whatsoever.

Having them move under their own power is absolutely option #1. A significant amount of stations have begun adopting the moving [sidewalk] method over their longer stretches of corridor, and as long as there's enough notification signage, forewarning, installed railing, grip-modified flooring and it isn't moving too fast, they've been met with great success.

However, the safety-nets at the end of each platform were a bit too much, most non-Karnakian species agreed.

When [Humans] are unable to move under their own power (or are just too slow), option #2 is to have a [Human]-created mobility device installed or manufactured on station/ship. This could be anything from a wheel-chair, which is a very sturdy seat on wheels, to "roller blades", which are a very concerning type of boot, to [golf]-carts - which not only are safer, but even come with added carrying capacity!

Due to the inherently physically unstable nature of [Humans], wheeled hoverboards are, of course, universally banned.

Option #3 is usually almost completely filled with emergency options, or options of last-resort; a [Human]-calibrated escape pod, for instance, a heavily-modified shuttlecraft or empty construction drone will do in a pinch. Although a [Human] can definitely use one, it's…it's going to be difficult for everyone involved, there will be injuries and there will be paperwork afterwards.

So imagine everyone's surprise, then, when Option #4 was unanimously selected by [Bill]'s denmate-ball: They would have to carry him to safety. As a unit [Bill]'s denmates stood up, making sure not to crush, twist, or rend their smaller crewmate.

"[Holy shit please let me out I didn'-]"

Arms bent at weird angles, wrists twisted in odd configurations, claws sheathed, about a half-dozen paws began to pat [Bill] on whatever body part was in reach. He squirmed in surprise for a few moments before staying still.

The patting stopped, and the murderball moved forward.

"[…C-can you at least tell me where we're going?! Look, It's not - the [memes] aren't-]"

The patting resumed. [Bill] stopped complaining, and after a few more minutes of being gently batted around the ball stopped petting him, picked itself up and began shuffling out of the hangar. [Bill] watched with growing curiosity as they moved, slowly, from hallway to hallway until he eventually recognized his off-duty wing.

The ball never stopped being a 'ball'; not when it walked through the dormitory halls, not when it finally found [Bill]'s room, and - somehow - not even when it squeezed through a doorway far too small for it's bulk. The only time the ball started to lose cohesion was ontop of [Bill]'s bed, and even then, it more or less just formed a lump.

A comfortable, fluffy lump.

The reason why was apparent to any Dorarizin there - Sgt. Rauleh-of-Ngraren was following the murderball the entire time, growling soft responses to questions only she could hear. Although the danger of the station rending the [Human] limb-from-limb had since passed, she was still a female, and [Bill] was still mostly scentless. The murderball agreed: it was better safe than sorry.

"[…are - are we done now? I - I'm only feeling one pat, so I'm assuming that's a yes.]" [Bill], the juicy center of the murderball said. "[Look-]"

"{We're - you're not in trouble, [Bill]. We just…noticed some irregularities, and, ah.}" Rauleh mouthed a few words silently, listening to silent instructions. "{…want to understand the significant cultural and social applications of [Human] edited-}"

"[Hi Rauleh's handler~]" [Bill] cooed playfully.

Rauleh's face soured a bit before her ears flicked back in irritation. "{T'ch. Fine. I'll claw directly at yo-}"

The murderball tensed up, and only after a few minutes of patting did Rauleh continue. "{Sorry… it's a phrase. I'll be direct? Direct with you. A [Jornissian] ship discovered [memes] from their resident [Human]-}"

"[Hah! I'm not gonna be court marshaled~]"

"{So it's a military secret? Cultural?}"

"[What? No. It's…look, whoever that is I really appreciate the enthusiasm but that's an erogenous zone-]"

There was a slight pause, and a shift in the lump.

"[…I didn't say stop.]"

There was another longer pause, and then a second reluctant shift in the lump.

"[So… as I was saying…]" [Bill] murmured, "[If someone can get me the remote to my terminal?]"

Over the course of the next few hours, [Bill], The murderball, Rauleh-of-Ngraren and Zgren-Ngraren-of-Arzerghr all learned a little bit more about themselves, and the universe at large.

—-—

There was an orange pip in his eye.

Without moving a single muscle - really, just using his thoughts, Admiral Var'Shrak parsed exactly who was calling him, hesitated for only a moment, and then answered the call. On the screen in the lounge a graying Dorarizin sprung to life, and before he realized the call went through Var'Shrak muted the audio and routed it to his implant.

"[Admiral Var'Shrak. May your coils never slip.]" Zgren-Ngraren-of-Arzerghr said, an odd emotion plastered on his face. "[I have…news.]"

"As do I." Var'Shrak subvocalized, barely forming an audible whisper. "They're scared of us."

The Dorarizin clicked his teeth. "[That's the long and short of it, yes. It reminds me of pups barking at the dark - false bravado and all that. It can be overcome, apparently, with training and support.]"

"But do we want to put them in that position? Forever? Always being afraid - is that any way to live?"

"[Well that's a very dark thought. Speaking of, why are the lights dimmed? I hope I didn't wake you-]"

"Our, ah. [Human], [Caroline], got so angry she had to take a nap." Var'Shrak said, matter-of-factly.

He really did enjoy the range of emotions that played across the Dorarizin's face: surprise, disbelief, a fleeting explosion of uncontrollable glee before a quick half-assed tamp-down back to stoic professionalism. "[I uh. I see. I did not know their species… did that.]"

"It seems today is a day of learning for us all."

There was a short pause, before the Dorarizin leaned in conspiratorially. "[You…did record it, right?]"

"By Sotek yes I did. And maybe." Var'Shrak replied, staying perfectly still.

"[Hmph. Well, this answers your question from earlier. No. We're not going to abandon them; we can't. Eventually they'll come after us, anyway.]"

"It's not right."

"[It's unprecedented, yes.]"

"It's not right to live in fear."

"[No… but. Well. I think this will fade with time - or with, uh. Proper intervention.]"

There was a pregnant pause, and [Caroline] took this time to roll over, murmuring a nonsensical complaint.

"[Oh, oh! She's-]"

"No notice, just dropped in."

"[How long-]"

"About 6 of her hours. I think we're almost through an entire night cycle."

"[Hah. I both do and don't envy you.]"

There was another still pause as the two aliens looked down at the sleeping [Human]. "You're going to go to the Senate with this, aren't you?" Var'Shrak finally said, looking up at his counterpart. The Dorarizin sighed and agreed. "[This is something that the Senate could use as leverage to-]"

"LEV-" Var'Shrak roared, but quickly remembered himself, going from a yell to a frantic whisper. "Leverage?! What do they have that we would - Zgren-Ngraren-of-Arzerghr what in the frozen Hell-"

"[Calm yourself, friend. I simply wish to help them-]"

"And putting their scales against the mountain does this how?"

"[The [Humans] have a phrase that I like, if you understand the context. I think it's very apt to use it here.]"

"That phrase being?"

"[Baptism by Fire]."

Var'Shrak didn't move, and didn't blink. His face soured as Zgren-Ngraren-of-Arzerghr began to explain his idea, and with bitter thoughts an inevitable realization hit him: He was right.

Zgren was right, and damn each and every one of his scales, Var'Shrak was going to support him.

For all that's been said about it, both good and bad, nobody could disagree that the Galactic Senate held the largest and most complete stranglehold of power in the Galaxy.

This was achieved by ancient and dark rites such as trade negotiations, byzantine paperwork, proper and equal representation of species, a very good marketing team and the very small fact that the largest central governments of each species were all members of the Senate and would happily curbstomp any little upstart who dared disturb the status quo.

Representation in the Senate was surprisingly streamlined and straightforward. Each specie had their own ways of electing a Senator, and each specie had their own amounts of Senators, but each specie also had only one vote. You could be elected, ordained, voluntold - however you got there, you ended up in the melting pot, the nexus of interstellar commerce, culture and might.

Whatever you brought to the table would be incorporated into the team you were put on, and through the power of bureaucracy your contributions would end up as nameless attributions to part of a trade deal that outlawed the Zerblum, but only if you didn't claim that the insect was part of a religious ritual, and only around certain non-yellow stars. As long as a simple majority (2/3 before [Humanity], now 3/4) voted in favor of your particular proposal it was put into law and enacted. Repealing worked exactly the same way, and revisions - well.

That just took forever.

The average citizen rarely interacted with the Senate; it was a nebulous thing that did stuff and then somehow your life was impacted. As long as the trade lanes stayed open, war stayed on the fringes as a distant memory and there was enough space to grow, people were content.

So given the Senate's size and complexity it was a minor miracle that Zgren-Ngraren-of-Arzerghr was able to compile and submit a joint report to the Senate in only 3 months. The delay was unavoidable; although both Admiral Var'Shrak and Zgren-Ngraren-of-Arzerghr were in very high positions and normally could get a Senator's ear, they had to deal with federal and imperial inquisitions respectively, safety checks and inspections(both specie-specific and senate-ordained), a human-Dorarizin den request (which raised a few eyebrows) and creating a new safety course for Jorissians on 'how not to be suplexed repeatedly by a [Human]: a 12 step guide.' (which raised even more eyebrows).

The Report, as it would come to be known, was a stand-alone binder filled with files, documentation, stamped paperwork, audio and visual interviews and various biometric data. It eventually made it's way to three species, and more specifically, to their respective Directors of [Human] Interaction. As each package was opened up, a simple plea unfolded; it both gave context to what the Senators would soon learn, but it also planted a small seed. A seed that, if the assembled races worked together, would give them something that they've been craving for years.

IF they played their cards right, and IF the [Humans] would react as their data models showed, and IF the idea could be positioned properly, then maybe, for the first time as allies, the Galactic community would be allowed to walk unfettered on the Earth.

Chapter 14:

Brazil always speaks first.

Now, this is really one of those cute little facts that end up becoming standard practice, and then codified into law: Brazil always speaks first.

You see, way back when the UN was less of the governing body it is today and more of a debate and "we really should be doing X instead of waging war, guis" club, Brazil spoke first at the General Assembly each year. It spoke at the General Assembly each year not because it won a particularly high-stakes game of poker (no matter what Senior Senator Antonio Silva insists) but because back then nobody wanted to speak first. Each country was deferring to someone else - for various reasons - until the ambassador from Brazil slammed down 5 highballs of caipirinha and just went for it. He did that every year until his liver failed, but by that time it became the norm for the Brazilian ambassador to speak first. That random act of initiative then turned into the norm, which has since been codified into law.

So, of course, when the world needed to unify, they turned to the one nation's ambassador who they could expect would treat the office with it's due gravitas and respect it deserved. The fact that he was a coke addict was absolutely not an issue, and so humanity's first el presidente was elected, mainly because again - Brazil just went for it.

Sr. Senator Mateus Carvalho Araujo, or "Mateo" as he was known to pretty much the entire human crew on Zephyr Nexus 01, was not el presidente. He was, however, the favored intern for El Presidente at the time, and so had the dubious honor of being Mankind's first voluntold/'elected' senator. Unlike his patron Mateo actually got into politics in order to benefit the world, and so over the course of 20 grueling years rose to the high demands of his venerated office.

Mateo was also having another exhausting day.

The Senate wasn't exactly one gigantic body where everyone sat in a room - or stood awkwardly on disk-shaped platforms dangling over a thousand-foot drop - and talked things out before having a vote and then partying on the taxpayer's dime. Instead, there were many "senates" depending on the scope and topic being covered. You want to discuss trade negotiations? Well then you'd go to this sub-senate that's specifically tailored to intergalactic trade and work the governmental machine there. You have an issue around refugee movement through your border? That's sub-senate room AA-3112 that you're looking for, though they meet only once a month. You want to talk to the people who manage the schedule and what's generally to be discussed across all the governing bodies? Well then you need to talk to the Senior Senate, but they never take appointments. Ever.

It might sound like a gigantic bureaucratic mess that exists solely to self-propagate it's own top-heaviness, but…

…uh…

Well. I mean, it does allow subject matter experts to directly weigh in on legislation, and it's not like the senators didn't talk to each other in-between sessions or rely on separate resources.

The average citizen's overall attitude was "eh. It could be worse. At least we're not anarcho-capitalists."

However, none of this was going to help Mateo get through his day. His office - and the office of most of his support team and fellow senators - still followed the 10+hrs/day, 5+days/wk work schedule of the old-school Wall Street firms; demands happen all over the planet at all times of the day - and that's not counting support for ex-solar humans as well - and so his office needed to stay responsive and up to speed at all times. Most other member species did this by having staff that measured in the hundreds of thousands.

Mateo did this with borderline illegal amounts of caffeine.

The subconscious twitch shaking his left eye had nothing to do with his caffeine intake, either. No, it very much had everything to do with the Karnakian Senior Senator that decided to walk into his human-scaled office and take a seat on his Italian leather couch.

The fact that she did this while Mateo was in the middle of a meeting didn't seem to phase her. Nor did the fact that she sat down in between the two people he was meeting with seem to bother her at all - in fact, it did quite the opposite.

"S…so…we'll…discuss the reallocation of funds for destroying the Three Gorges Dam and the subsequent environmental re-stabilization of that particular part of the Chinese Territory once we finish dismantling the Hoover Dam - which should be finished sometime aro-can you please stop that." Snapped Dr. Wagner, flinging his arm up to bat away at the enveloping feather-shroud that threatened to cover his vision.

"I mean, it's - her feathers are pretty soft." Ventured , resting her hands in her lap - more to keep her paperwork steady as opposed to any sort of demure body language as a Karnakian 'wing' wrapped around her shoulders.

"[I am here to help!]" Chirped Senior Senator, Beacon-of-Light, Follower of the 9th path Bretheren-Sister-Matron Ti'Shek'qc, shimmying slightly in place to expand her torso's….fluff.

"If that's the case why did you barge into my private meeting?" Mateo complained, not for the first time. "We're trying to figure out how to best allocate this year's environmental resource stipend, and we have a very full schedule."

"[Well, I have something here that will be very helpful, but I can't wait 5 of your months before we have our initial official conversation. So, I figured I would stop by and have a - you call them social calls? A social call.]" Ti'Shek'qc said, her crested feathers rippling in a nod to herself. "[And we are being sociable, yes?]"

Mateo inhaled sharply, paused, and then sighed. He drummed his fingers against his desk before leaning back, continuing the motion of both nervous/stress tics.

"You do realize my office is sovereign Terran territory, correct? Barging in, unannounced, unwelcomed, kinda echoes…"

He let the implication fall over the room, and for her part the Karnakian had the good sense to lose her chipper attitude. "[Yes, this is a good point, however, since this is a social call that would mean I've been invited-]"

"To a private discus-"

"You're not going to leave until you have a private meeting with me, are you." Mateo said, not so much asking a question as coming to a realization, interrupting Dr. Wagner in the process.

Ti'Shek'qc smiled to herself and began to silently fuss over her immaculate feathers, preening simply to drag out the silence. Mateo had been in the business long enough to notice a few tells - some would forever be beyond him - but he knew enough to know she was smug.

Mateo hated it when xenos were smug.

"Alright. It better be good." Mateo capitulated, crossing his arms as he leaned back in his chair.

Ti'Shek'qc sat comfortably on the couch, saying nothing, causing Mateo to frown for a totally different set of reasons.

"Listen, I may not be strong enough to move you but I will have you leave this off-"

"Dr. Wagner, Dr. Liu, thank you both very much for your time. Your combined efforts into the revitalization of our biosphere will not have gone unnoticed - I'll wholeheartedly push for an additional 80,000 tons of material and the subsequent materiel to continue healing our planet."

Dr. Liu jumped at the sudden dismissal and shimmied herself out of the Karnakian's fluffy grasp, rising to her feet. "Senator, are you serious?! The acidification of the Pacific is a far more-"

"Thank you, both of you. Please inform my assistant outside that my schedule is to be cleared for the day."

Dr. Liu and Dr. Wagner shared a look with each other - well, with each other and a very smug Karnakian, before silently grabbing their documents, files, examples and other bric-a-brac and leaving. The silence began after the door was shut a little too hard, leaving the two Senior Senators staring at each other from across a mahogany desk.

Mateo shifted in his chair.

Ti'Shek'qc settled a little more comfortably on Mateo's couch, the cracking protest of wood causing both of them to flinch.

"Again?"

"[Mmm, you should have a room-integrated nanofabricator for this kind of-]"

"Bah." Mateo waved his hand dismissively. "It fixes things down to the molecule, but it misses… I don't know. The repairs just seem too perfect."

"[Well, striving for perfection in all things brings us closer to The Great One.]"

"Ah. Well. Speaking about striving - what is going on? Apparently you need to talk to me about something that's time-critical and off the books, so spill it."

"[A report was given to my office, as well as the offices of the [Dorarizin] and the [Jornissian] [Human]-relations offices.]"

"So you're here to deliver my copy?"

"[No. You'll never get this report. At least, you're not ever supposed to.]"

"Aaah. The ol' Sao Paulo Paycheck. Alright, what's your price?"

"[Normalized relations between [Humans] and Karnakians, the removal of the service prohibition across all employment sectors, standardized trade terms in line with the rest of the Senate species and 20TB of banned media - of my choice.]"

Mateo, for the first time in many, many days, began to laugh. It started as a chuckle, but as Ti'Shek'qc continued it ended up as Superlative Laughter - the very highest form of laughter, as all learned people know. He continued to laugh after she finished, and for quite a few minutes after; dying down at first, but only to redouble once he realized that she was serious.

Ti'Shek'qc huffed and tapped her feet against the ground while her counterpart continued. After an indeterminable amount of time the laughter finally died down, Mateo - now red-faced - wiping the tears from his eyes.

"Good GOD did I need that! Honestly, I'll get you a banned movie just for that - hoo - that joke. Well done! But, but seriously - what did you want for that report?"

"[Exactly everything I said.]" Ti'Shek'qc replied.

"I can't do that-"

"[You're the lead Senator for [Humanity], you can pull some strings-]"

"Your people invaded Earth, and those who survived are still alive. Hell, my dad told me about when you guys wrecked Sao Luis as you swept down through South America from the Caribbean-]"

"[Accidents happen-]"

"Bullshit. Atlanta might have been an accident, but the rest-"

"[Regardless, we're asking you because tomorrow there's going to be an emergency Senate vote based off of this report.]"

"Alright, so how does that tie into Mankind?"

"[We know about the [meme]s."

Without betraying a single thing Mateo leaned forward, resting his forearms on his desk, clasping his hands together. "I speak on behalf of the Human Senate Offices as well as the United Nations in saying that we have no idea-"

"[The ones manufactured by the OIH.]"

"-and those rogue elements who have betrayed the trust of us all will be rooted out and tried for their crimes-"

"[We know why you've made them as well.]" Ti'Shek'qc said, softly. It was enough - Mateo stopped talking immediately, his mouth opening and closing a few times as his brain tried to come up with something to say.

It was having a hard time between "say something bullshittery to buy yourself time" and "Oh god the dinosaur knows and I'm all alone with it", but muscle memory kicked in - his right hand shot down and punched into a false side under his desk, flipping a switch that was installed for only the most dire of needs.

Somewhere, out in high earth orbit, the Hubble began to glow an ominous red.

"[A-are you ok? It sounded like you punched-]"

"FINE. F-fine. We're fine. We're all going to be fine. Fine. Wh. What do you want?"

Ti'Shek'qc sighed, running her claws against her teeth in a plaintive gesture for her species. "[Everything I said. We… we are truly sorry for doing that to you - to you, your people, your world. The Holy Diarchy has been trying to find a way to make amends, but. Well.]"

"So this report." Mateo said, speaking loud enough for the recording equipment to pick up. "Why is it worth… so much?"

"[Because tomorrow the Senate will hold an emergency vote, feign being upset and in the spirit of aiding your species request that they have more access to [Earth] in an attempt to normalize [Human]-Xenospecies relations.]"

"B-but that's forbidden under the Icelandic Treaties. You can't step foot on Terran soil."

"[No, we very much can, which is why I'm here. You don't have the military to stop us and you don't have the votes. Three races-]"

"-got the report, right. Right. So it'll be unanimous across the board with one dissenting vote, and then you invade earth properly this time." He growled, his fists clenched impotently on his desk.

Ti'Shek'qc flinched. "[N-no. They'd just want access to major cities, free travel - it's all outlined. Maybe a few semi-permanent residents, but other than that nothing else.]"

"It might as well be an invasion. Hell, our population is already draining due to …well." Mateo waved his hand at the general direction of earth through the wall. "So. So why are you here, then? Isn't this what you want? More access to us? More culture to mine? More people to take?"

"['A fat szikli is only pregnant with poison'. It is what we want, yes, but not how we want it. We'd never be truly welcome, we'd never be friends, we'd never sit at the table as brothers if we force ourselves upon you. We are willing to…give you the report, as well as additional information that will allow you to . . . Change the direction of the debate.]"

". . . But that does me no good if we're still a minority position-"

"[We will be voting against the measure - I, I have already seen to it, regardless of what happens here in this room.]"

There was another long pause as Mateo studied his colleague and counterpart, the stress of the past few minutes working it's way through and out of the man.

"[…the 'information' that I would give you to change the discourse would also, most likely, change everything.]"

"Everything how?"

"[Ah. No tasting the porridge before it's baked. I need you to pull those strings.]"

"Well Fuck." Mateo breathed, running his hands over his face and through his hair. "Either commit political suicide or allow the Earth to be invaded through bureaucracy? What options do I really have here?!"

"[I don't know, but to whomever is listening in - it really is good information, and we really are on your side.]"

"Wh - you kn-"

"[I felt it click on.]"

"It's a completely digital switch-"

Ti'Shek'qc shrugged, exasperatedly. "[I'm just saying, I felt it click on! That's all! It's also quite staticky, if that word translates.]"

"I just. Fine. Fuck it, fine. You got me in your corner-" The Karnakian smiled wide, and for the first time in many weeks a human didn't reflexively flinch at the sight. Mateo, in fact, was leaned over the desk, finger pointed harshly at his co-conspirator. "But this intel better be the best fucking thing I've ever seen. What is it?"

Ti'Shek'qc slipped her hand into her vest's front pocket, pulling out both a data chip and a small mechanical tool. She placed the chip - a rectangle about an inch high and 5 inches square, made out of a network of glowing crystals and nth-dimensional circuitry - onto his desk. "[That's The Report and all correlated evidence, including quantum-time stamps, interviews - everything.]"

Without skipping a beat Mateo stood up with the chip and walked over to his door. As soon as he approached it two men in vantablack suits opened the door, and the chip traded hands. No greetings, no words were spoken - Mateo spun on his heel and the door clicked shut unceremoniously behind him.

"Alright. My boys will look it over- and what the hell is that for?"

"[It's an implant modification device. What it does is-]"

"No, I mean, I know what it is - I had my 'bead installed like everyone else. I mean, what is it for?"

"[It is for giving you the second piece of evidence. I am going to update your translator to a more… correct version. Then I want you to ask me to tell you everything I know about [Human]s.]"

"…You've fucked with our translators. Do you realize wh-"

"[It is not making them in error, Mateo. Simply, the translators omit certain key phrases that might give you more context for your debate tomorrow.]"

"….fine. Fuck it." Senator Mateus Carvalho Araujo dropped his head on his desk with a hollow-sounding thunk. "Just do it."

"[Already done.]" Ti'Shek'qc said, the little device in her hand giving out a happy beep. "[Though I suggest not updating everyone's communication device - it would cause problems. You and the rest of your team, however, I think would be appropriate.]"

"My team? Right, right. Alright." Mateo said, rubbing his ear to get the ringing to stop. "So tell me about Humanity."

And Ti'Shek'qc did, using only the textbook definitions, the commonly-known history, and the OIH-approved culture artifacts that were provided. And as she did these innocent things, Mateo stared at her, his jaw slack. He said nothing, only his face betraying a look of more and more confusion, shock, and disbelief. Slowly he reached down and opened a bottom drawer to his desk and pulled out a bottle of scotch - 25 year, for what it's worth - and uncorked it.

He drank the whole thing without a glass in sight.

Chapter 15:

*Tic-tak tic-tak tic-tak*

Everyone has their little distractions.

*Tic-tak tic-tak tic-tak*

Some count tiles. Others play with their hands, a bracelet - or a ring. It's called a "self-soothing gesture", if you're interested in the psychology of it.

*Tic-tak tic-tak tic-tak*

Sr. Senator Mateus Carvalho Araujo was a "fidgeter" - mainly, he needed something to occupy his hands when he was nervous, anxious, or just plain bored.

*Tic-tak tic-tak tic-tak*

Of all the things he could use - hard light fidget-dodecahedrons not withstanding - he had in his hand a metal small soccer ball, no bigger than a ping-pong ball, which was his toy. His father bought it for him when he was very young, for some FIFA tournament - the paint had long been worn away by his hands, and the ball had enough dents in it from decades of abuse that you'd only know it was a soccer ball and not a misshapen aluminum lump if you took the time to really study it.

*Tic-tak tic-tak tic-*

"Mateo, for fuck's sake." Growled Sr. Senator Nicholas Hermansson, rapping his knuckles against the metal conference room table. "Please?"

Mateo stopped tapping the ball against the corner of the table and instead rolled the ball in his fingers, tossing it from hand to hand. "Mmm. Sorry."

"Don't be." Sr. Senator Yao Wei murmured, flipping through an extremely trashy tabloid. "I still don't really believe what you're telling me, but the fact that you're calling it even after the South China Sea incident-"

"Even? Hon', this shit is going to sink all of us." Sr. Senator Constance Washington said, her southern drawl coming out thick with cigarette smoke and heat. "-Me most of all. Can you fuckin' imagine it? 'Native Atlantan Senator approves normalization of Karnakian relations'-"

"Sorry."

"Yer' damn right you are, Mattie." Constance interjected, a cigarette held tightly between two pointing fingers. "Stone Mountain is still a fuckin' quarantine zone, we're on the cusp of the 30th anniversary of the Fox's rebuilding, and you drop this on my lap?!"

"Again, sorry." Mateo said, paying more attention to the ball than to his colleague.

"Don't be so sour, Connie." Yao said, flipping a page to find out what batboy has been up to. "Mateo's been in your corner for reparations every year-"

"Yeah, an' that's why I'm here, but I don't have to like it."

"I know. The session will be called, you've looked through the report-"

"Heads are going to ROLL at the OIH." Constance said, taking another drag. "That's what you get for cutting corners, I say."

"Mmm, but you know there's something up; they spun up two hundred thousand data models-"

"With their processing power" Yao said, licking her finger to turn another page, "That's not something to sneeze at in terms of resources."

Nicholas leaned back in his chair, bouncing the back in idle thought. "Still. A full data-analysis on our home media, algos and simos on Human affinity. Combine that with a head's up on an Emergency Session with no forewarning, no chance to build a consensus, and a vote that would be legally binding? Who the hell is your mole, Mateo?"

"A Karnakian. One of their lead senators." Mateo said, matter-of-factly. Nicholas leaned forward, studying his friend's face hard.

"Bullshit."

"Nope."

"Bullshit. Mateo, there's no way - this is a psyop!"

Mateo sighed at the exhuming of his friends' old spook. "Look, just because you spent the first half of your career shutting down Russian Propaganda-"

"They're everywhere" Nicholas hissed, driving his index finger down on the table. "They're just now feathery and way too chipper-"

"Aaaaah!" Yao cried, causing everyone to turn to her. Looking up from the tabloid with a panicked expression, she quickly crumpled the paper. "Batboy! He's on the dark side of the moon-"

"Fer Fuck's sake." Constance said, but by then the spell was broken - the four friends went from paranoia and anger to a more comfortable atmosphere.

"So. The plan, again?" Nicholas said, rolling his shoulders.

"We go in an' act stupid. They'll hem an' haw, want to build on our home soil - which again points to my 'habitable worlds are rare' theory-"

"It's not that." Mateo sighed, bouncing the ball on his thigh

"Right, well, we vote against that cause I wanna be able to go back t' earth-side without bein' lynched - which theoretically we have the votes to stall that-"

"We do." Mateo murmured

"-I fuckin' hope we do. And then you're gon' do something and our eyes'll be opened an' we'll all have us a come-to-Jesus moment."

"For the most part, yep."

"…I hate you when you're like this, Mattie."

"Love you too, Connie."

"Well." Yao said, smoothing her tabloid out again. "At least if things go south we have a better chance - the TDF actually exists, for one."

"Mmm. But they never give us any updates." Constance said, stubbing out her now-dead cigarette. "All we know is what the public knows-"

"Well I did pick up something interesting." Yao smiled, mischeviously. "Apparently they lost contact with the Hubble a day ago-"

"What?!" Mateo blinked, suddenly sitting upright. "Shit, I forgot to turn off that killswitch-"

Mateo's panic was interrupted by the door suddenly flying open, a very flustered intern panting at the door.

"S-Senators! Th-there's an emergen-"

"Yep"

"Yoh"

"Da"

"Mmm" They replied, standing up and putting their things together in no real hurry. Cups were drained and recycled, air was filtered and circulated, roombas were unleashed, clothing was smoothed out - each senator taking their time in getting prepared.

"Some - hah - someone…got to you first?"

"Mmm"

"Eh"

"Nyet"

"Mnn?" They replied, just as noncommittal as before, filing out past the unnamed intern.

"I-it's, they're holding it at-"

"Yep"

"We know"

"кто вас послал? что ты знаешь?"

"Here, hon." Constance said, patting her mostly-empty softpack into his uniform shirt pocket. "Take a break."

The intern, whose 15 seconds of fame was now up, just sighed and slumped against the wall.

It was meeting room 7-E, if you were curious.

The reason why it was meeting room 7-E was because 7-E is equidistant from everyone (so it's just as much of a pain to get there), it's held deep within the station (so you can shield it from everything), it was large enough to hold a handful of each race comfortably (so you can have your secret meetings in peace) and, most importantly, was only 20m away from one of the best dive concession stands on the nexus.

Don't judge. When you're 2,250KM above the surface of the earth even The Varsity's food looks damn good.

"[…and finally, we greet Vresh-Nrelgeh-of-Arzgrn. The 5th Emergency Session of the Four United Races is now active. All exits are now locked until the state of emergency is lifted. All electronic transmission devices are suppressed. Internal recording devices are now on, with IFF markers active. Each representative has full authority to speak on behalf of their species, and in this time of emergency, their word is law. I, Matron Ti'Shek'qc, speaker for this session, do hereby relinquish my initial duty of announcement to allow general discourse to begin.]"

The multi-hued Karnakian dipped her head slightly, pointedly maintaining eye contact with Mateo as she sat down across from him.

Each Species was arranged around the four corners of the room on a raised dais; each dais had workstations tailored to that particular species' physiology included on it, as well as tables, chairs, and various refreshments. As size so often also meant status (and because the Humans weren't as… large as their counterparts) they were given a few more pieces of furniture to fill out their section.

The couches and mini-fridges made sense. The foosball table was pushing it.

Regardless, the podium for each species was at the prominent corner, putting the speaker much closer to their adversaries and allies than the rest of the team. A Dorarizin, Vresh-Nrelgeh-of-Arzgrn, cleared his throat, and the three assembled species silently voted to give him the floor.

"[First, Thank you Matron Ti'Shek'qc for opening this emergency session. I'll get right down to the marrow - our topic of conversation today is the [Humans], [Humanity] in space, and how [Earth] views their allies.]"

Mateo licked his lips and shuffled his papers as Constance Washington stared daggers at the Dorarizin. "And what could we have done as a people to warrant an emergency session?" she verbally jabbed, tapping the podium with her knuckles for each point made. "Our military is earth-bound, senate propaganda paints all of you in a positive light, our civilians are spread out amongst your people-"

"[It has to do with these [memes], and how they degrade us.]" Strsk'ressn interrupted, tightening his coils around himself. "[One of your people on our ship was distributing propaganda-]"

"An' how in the blue hell are we supposed t' monitor the thoughts an' actions of everybody?! Not to mention we've adopted universal freedom of speech, so-"

"[This was state-sponsored degradation propaganda, Senator [Constance].]" Vresh-Nrelgeh-of-Arzgrn said, pulling up a broken copy of the edited Jornissian movie on every podium's screen. "[This came from your [OIH], and has been independently verified by another [Human] miner named [Bill]." As he spoke, a second screen overlaid on the first, showing an unreasonably comfortable man showing captioned pictures with Dorarizins in various poses and with various glowing minds.

The reason Mateo and the rest of his skeleton crew voted to have Constance lead was not because of any long-standing tradition, or even because she drew the short straw on this one. It was simply due to the fact that as an older black woman she had (1) raised 3 children and constantly prodded one husband, (2) risen through the politics of her local baptist church to be a deacon (which arguably is more difficult to do than normal politics), and (3) had an impeccable bullshit detector. Couple that with the fact that she did not give a single fuck as to who she was sassing, and would happily tell you - and give you - a backhand if you needed it, and she was a force to be reckoned with. Often times, you'd get a backhand even if you didn't need it; she was into preventative maintenance like that.

In other words, she was the perfect front man.

"How dare you insinuate that our cultural artifacts are some sort of long-standing ploy to disparage our allies!" Constance yelled, drawing herself up to her full towering height of 5'9". "The very fact that you would call an emergency session to talk about this - this utter bullshit speaks ill of all of you, and I have half a mind to withdraw from this session in protest!"

"[Senator [Caroline], you can't be so blind to the evidence-]"

"Oh I know this cold-blooded dipshit did not just tell me I am dumb to my face-" Caroline said, whipping around to glare at Strsk'ressn, causing him to stiffen up slightly before launching into a counter-argument, followed shortly by the Dorarizin, with the Karnakian delegation just trying to keep the peace.

Just as planned.

"[Then we have NO OPTION LEFT TO US-]" roared Strsk'ressn, slamming his fist into the podium before him. "[We MUST crush this nest before it hatches! I have put forward a motion that would allow civilian [Humans] to integrate peacefully with their Galactic allies-]" he hissed, pointedly attempting to stare down Senator Constance, who by now had already taken off her earrings and heels. "[-by providing them the ability to do so on their native soil!]"

"You're advocating invasion, you littl-"

"[I agree]" Interjected Vresh-Nrelgeh-of-Arzgrn, the rumble of his throat loud like thunder. "[The only way for us to make sure that there is no bad blood as we share technology with you is to make sure tribalism is stopped early. I second Senator Strsk'ressns' motion, with the additional addendums that a permanent group of vetted, safe citizens be allowed to live in peace on the planet [Earth], and that this motion is backed by the full propaganda arm of [Humanity]'s [OIH] in the spirit of integration. I motion to put this to a vote.]"

With impressive aggression a little indicator light blinked on Mankind's terminal, demanding a vote.

"FUCK ALL Y'ALL." Senator Constance said, adding in a few very spicy hand gestures. "TAG ME OUT."

Senator Constance spun on her heel and walked back to the rec area, high-fiving Mateo on her way over. Mateo stopped only to pick up his bag and a steaming cup of pick-me-up.

"[What.]"

"Mmm, sorry. There's only a slight chance this is just coffee." Senator Mateus Carvalho Araujo said, placing a warm mug on the indicator light.

"[It's not.]" Sniffed Vresh-Nrelgeh-of-Arzgrn, frowning. "[And we have put forth a motion to-]"

"Yep, yeah, we vote no."

"[…]" The assembled species looked pointedly at each other - Matron Ti'Shek'qc giving a noncommital shrug as she poked her indicator along with Vresh-Nrelgeh-of-Arzgrn and Senator Strsk'ressn.

"[We vote for the measure-]"

"[We vote for the measure-]"

"[We vote no as well.]"

"[Then we're agr-WHAT?!]" Roared Strsk'ressn, rounding on the now extremely smug Karnakian, who simply nodded at Mateo as yet another verbal tirade began. Mateo raised his coffee in a silent salute, a tired smile spread across his face.

As the Dorarizin and Jornissian delegations began to tear into the Karnakians - figuratively, not literally mind you - Senator Mateus fished out from his messenger bag a certain device. This device was passed around to the three other Senior Senators, and three happy little beeps added to the cacophony of noise. Wordlessly, Senator Mateus typed in a second motion and broadcast it to the surrounding podiums.

"[-and you can forget about cohabitation on any binary stars, once we ge-]"

*Ding*

The sudden silence was deafening as each species looked at their screens.

Humanity hereby petitions for increased aid in re: extra-terran colonization, industrialization infrastructure for a sovereign space fleet and R&D into cultural dissemination practices.

Humanity hereby petitions for normalized relations with the Karnakian Theocracy, and the lifting of all punitive measures in re: Destruction & Invasion of Earth, and the cessation of any punitive measures in re: The 5th Emergency Session of the Four United Races.

Humanity hereby petitions for suppression and destruction of all information regarding recordings, findings and decisions of The 5th Emergency Session of the Four United Races, and a coordinated propaganda campaign in regards to this petition and the previous two petitions.

"I mean, I can't really do the second one in here, but I figure it would be good to have it on record." Mateo said into his mug, taking a deep drought.

"[What has gotten into you, Twitchy-thumper? Has the tiny-chompers' representative gone mad?]" Vresh-Nrelgeh-of-Arzgrn said, smirking.

"I'm- wait." Senator Nicolas said, shaking his head. "What, repeat that. Just. What?"

"[What do you mean, shadowpouncer? I asked if the tiny-chompers' have lost their minds.]"

"[The warmcuddles haven't lost their minds, Vresh-Nrelgeh-of-Arzgrn.]" Strsk'ress said, rolling his jaw. "[We've simply been out-maneuvered by-]"

"What the fuck is a tiny chomper?!" Senator Nicholas said, turning to Yao Wei. She shrugged, tapping her earpiece. "Hell if I know - you tell me what a warmcuddle is first."

Vresh-Nrelgeh-of-Arzgrn blinked and Strsk'ress's jaw went slack, as behind them their associated attaches began to furiously delete everything - all to the musical tune of Matron Ti'Shek'qc's laughter.

"[You Traitor! You updated their com-]"

"[It was our mistake to begin with, so it is our prerogative to make it right!]" Ti'Shek'qc chirped and bobbed, her feathers standing out in what could only be described as maximum smug. "[It is not the fault of the little-needs-protecting, now is it?]"

"Litt-what. What?" Nicolas continued to parrot, his brain desperately trying to make connections in the conspiracy-shed out back that had become his mind. "Wh. WHAT."

"[Look, it's not our fault-]"

"Then tell me-" mused Mateo, swirling his drink before taking another sip, "exactly whose fault it is anyway? As far as I can tell, you've had these interesting names for us since, what, ever?" He looked at the almost spherical ball of smug that was Ti'Shek'qc, who nodded in agreement.

"[I-it's- look, we meant nothing by it, twitchy-thumper.]"

"Mmm, I've heard that one before."

"[It's not our fault - it's your fault!]" hissed Strsk'ress, somehow seeming to lunge at the human delegation while, in fact, retreating into what could only be called a 'Jornissian-ball' of coils on his dais. "[How could you expect us to not call you warmcuddles?!]"

"Oh, I don't know, common Human decency, a respect for your fellow sapient-"

"[To be fair, you did make it easy.]" chirped Ti'Shek'qc. "[You can't really blame our scouts for what they did-]"

"Yeah, explain yourself, speaking of, what the fuck." Yao Wei said, reverting back to a 1st-year english level of speaking as her brain tried to furiously parse the new words coming into her comms.

"[Well, ok. What's your home world's name?]" ventured Ti'Shek'qc.

"Earth"

"[Dirt. You're Dirtlings.]"

"Well, no - ok, I see. Terra, then."

"[Which also means dirt.]" halfheartedly rumbled Vresh-Nrelgeh-of-Arzgrn, who by now had rested his jaw on the edge of his podium. "[And you call your moon, moon.]"

"W-well, hey-" Mateo said, plunking down his 'coffee' mug. "That's not fair-"

"[You call all other orbiting bodies moons, sometimes, but your moon is moon.]"

"Ok, but-"

"[Your sun is named sun, which is a star. Other stars can also be suns, but your sun is Sun.]" added Strsk'ress, as more and more of him disappeared into himself. "[It's like you point at a thing, name it, and then just go along with your entire species' existence-]"

"[And don't forget the little-needs-protecting religions-]"

"Now y'all motherfuckers leave baby Jesus out of this-" Constance began, before Ti'Shek'qc trilled over her. "[And what is the name of your deity?]"

"Jesus."

"[Who is also?]" ventured Ti'Shek'qc, smiling wide.

"God."

"[So what is your God's name, then?]"

"…God. God is God - don't you fucking smug at me-" Growled Constance, lifting up her heel to make the 15m toss across the pit.

"[And what even is the Placebo effect?!]" cried Strsk'ress, turning in on himself in embarassed rage. "[You warmcuddles just really wish hard enough and your body kinda makes it happen?!]"

"That we don't know about." Shrugged Yao. "But it's kinda cool."

"[You literally hope hard enough and it works - just like every single feel-good hatchling story, nippysnoof. That makes no sense.]"

"Nippysno-"

"[Ooh, or lookit-teeth. What even is that?]" ventured Vresh-Nrelgeh-of-Arzgrn to the open air.

"Lookit-teeth?" Nicholas said. "What?"

"[That thing you do when you get tired, protect-from-russians.]" Ti'Shek'qc said, slowly deflating. "[You know, with the open mouth-]"

"You mean yawning?"

"[Yeah! Are you trying to intimidate me? Are you trying to show us your strength? No. Nope. You just want to sleep.]" waved Vresh-Nrelgeh-of-Arzgrn exasperatedly. "[And you expect us to take you seriously-]"

"We Humans are a proud and noble people - we are not cute-" Nicholas roared, earning him a trio of sighs.

"[We vote for the measures-]"

"[We vote for the measures-]"

"[I happily and will always remember this day as I vote for the measures-]"

"Well then." Sighed Mateo as he upturned his empty cup of mostly-not-coffee. "Good stuff, glad we had this meeting. I'll expect a triple-resource budget allocation on my desk tomorrow morning, then?"

"What is that?"

"Hmm?" Str'kzssi said, looking up from her terminal at the main screen. On it, [Earth] sat in space, suspended on nothing, as she always had since time began. Everything was as it should be, except for a small, angry red dot.

"That, that glowing re-AAAH!"

There was a sudden flash of red light that flooded their optical sensors, and then…. Nothing.

"By Sotek, what in the frozen hell wa- AAAH!"

Another sudden flash of red, and then, nothing.

"Well that's annoying. Can we filter out whatever it is that's doing that?"

"N-" flash "-negative, Captain. We're on standby as the surrogate Orbital Defense Fleet, so we must keep all spectrums" flash "-open."

"Well that's annoying."

Flash