2020.11.27 "Come on guys, it's OK."

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"Come on guys, it's OK."

A terrible idea occurs to me as I listen to the professional goon begging in the airlock. It is most definitely not OK, and I repress a grin as I flex my tool gauntlet.

There's a reedy inflection in comm that I'm not sure is accurate or affectation. "You sure didn't look like things were OK back there."

You could almost hear the goon's shoulder's slump. "Yeah, it was pretty tense."

"You're, ah, looking pretty zarking unscathed. You know. Considering."

"...Yeah. I don't know how I'm not dead."

This pause in the conversation sure sounds like other people conversing off-circuit. I wonder if it's accessible...

"Guys....?" Ooop, sounds like the goon is thinking the same thing as me.

"Just hang on a moment, Garvek." Ah, goon's name is Garvek. Or, at least that's what the reedy-voice being calls the goon. Might not be a reliable source.

"Not to be too pushy, guys, but I think we should get out of here before my luck catches up with us."

Oh, I think they're over there...

"...and it's bad for recruiting if we just ditch a crewman." Don't recognize that voice.

"Recruiting? Are you zarking with me? Potential security personnel on another planet aren't going to give a flying zark about what happened to this idiot." Well, at least reedy-voice is just as unpleasant with others, and not just poor Garvek.

"For any old lump of cannon-fodder while we're still making a name for ourselves, sure. But once we start needing really top-notch people, this sort of shit will stain us for a long-ass time to come." Hm. I think I like this guy.

"Shut the zark up, Krunks." Ouch. Someone knows they're wrong. Wonder if Krunks is going to stuff a fistful of righteous insight down Reedy-Voice's throat...

"As you wish, captain." Disappointing, but I guess I don't know the circumstances here.

"Orders?" That's a third voice, reptilian, who sounds like they were having trouble with the awkward pause.

"Gah! Let the impossibly-lucky goon in."

There might have been a grunting noise, but immediately afterwards we can feel and hear the heavy ship bulkhead door cycle. I wish we could get a peek into that big central corridor...

It's a bad idea: too many eyes. Moving carefully would have at least one of them glance over me, and a couple stages of mathematician would have me rooted out in no time. Moving swiftly might flash in-between their glances, but if not then it would definitely flare up their motion sensitivity. I carefully tamper the maintenance shaft access to seal again, and try the next node.

There's a heavy set of steps that ramp down from rushing in the door to end stepping demurely into the space with the rest of the crew. At least, it's all the crew I can smell - so far. "Whew - thanks guys. Had me seriously worried there for a minute."

"Don't thank 'the guys' - thank me. I'm the one that decided to let you back in. Nav: Get us the zark out of here."

"Thanks captain."

The gravitic controls of the ship give a lurch as they try to compensate for the ship disengaging from the spaceport and accelerating hard. Looks like this gambit is officially into "no backsies" territory.

"Get to the med bay to treat those suspiciously superficial wounds and tell Krunks in detail what you can. Those Zarkers were not zarking around, and I'm going to ping some contacts back on Ematoes Station to find out if there's anything we can dig up on them." Reedy-voiced captain asshole stalks towards what is doubtlessly some secluded portion of the ship. Maybe to not reveal it's contacts to the others, in typical insecure commmand-and-control leadery style. Makes for a dilemma - try to stalk the lone captain, or try to listen into the conversation that Garvek has with Krunks.

Best to not be too rash, and gather more information about our cast of characters. I'm not too bothered by having any background checks on my team. At least, not yet.

This crammed maintenance shaft doesn't have a lot of options here - I'll have to head back to that last node and see if there's another direction with the right smell. Ouch, dammit: I'm stabbing myself with my own quills turning around in this tight of a space. And I'm leaving talon-marks on things. I might be quiet still, but they'll definitely be able to track me in here.

That way.

"Your wounds are very clean."

"Well, I didn't stop to rub grime on them or anything while I was running back to the ship."

"No, I mean that the beam weapon used very carefully avoided hitting anything that might have slowed you down very much."

"...Uh. What? Are you saying that they were toying with me, so they could shoot me more?"

"Maybe. It is possible that they planned on shooting you more - after they had scared you and let you lead them back to us."

"OOOOOOOOOH! Shit. OK, that's such a relief. I thought you guys all hated my guts for something I did wrong and that's why you weren't letting me in."

"I'm not sure why you're relieved, Mister Garvek. The captain undoubtedly still suspects that you are working for or with those surprise assailants on Ematoes, and the superficial nature of your wounds does not disprove that."

I wish I could see Garvek's face; it's probably priceless. Honestly, the way my partner shot THROUGH this guy to drop two other goons was a masterpiece of snipery goodness. I certainly couldn't have done it. Of course, my filament rifle doesn't cut through things very well. There's something about Krunks here that has me pondering. If my mini-Mizzie-enchanted blaster and force blade hadn't freaked out and fled me when I insisted on entering this ship, I might have been able to more directly detect if the coldly logical Krunks was actually an active-metal shapeshifting monster. Alas - it's probably better that they're not here when this all plays out anyway.

Oh zark. I was too busy feeling smug that I failed to notice things getting quiet. Now I've got this awful sense that they're being quiet because they're trying to sense me behind the deck panel. It's really quiet - and I have better hearing than eyesight. Something is definitely wrong now. Yep, that's blood I smell. The spurty kind.

There. There's a sound. Footsteps - someone is approaching. All stompy, like they own the place.

"What the flying zark!?" Reedy-voiced captain: called it. There's a slapping sound on some wall panel I can't see, and suddenly the ship is filled with klaxons both audible and in their data net. Not that I'm able to hack into their data net past the intercoms, but I'm seasoned enough to notice that it's changed from trickle to a torrent.

Another person charges into the space. "Captain! What happened?"

"You zarking tell me, Krunks! You were supposed to be in here debriefing the corpse! Except, you know, before he was a corpse and still had his head attached!"

Whup. Head not attached would definitely account for the blood smell. Again, I'm no mathematician, but I think we can call the potential Missionary on this crew as the surprisingly terrifying Krunks.

"I had a bad feeling, and left for a moment to check the main hatch where Garvek came on board."

"OK, tell me what the hell that's about in a moment. First, let's lock everything down..." There's a staccato series of CLUNKs all around - bulkheads closing. I'm officially cornered. With a Missionary. Joy.

"I think your hunch was right - Mister Garvek was a trojan horse to let intruders on board."

"What? You said we should let him on, and I assumed that meant you did the mathematician thing and determined he was clear."

"He probably was clear, in that he did not know they were using him. His injuries were superficial, but it was unlikely that it would have seemed that way to him - they were expertly inflicted to be distressing."

"Now you're just talking goofy. How can they be inflicted to be minor but distressing?"

"They didn't nick him - they used armour-piercing beam weapons to shoot through him. Through some densely-vital regions, I should point out."

"Holy zark."

"Yes. Which is why I went to the hatch to check for any residual charge from cloaking devices."

The throaty-yet-reedy grunt speaks eloquently about the reedy-voiced captain's anxiety. "OK, let's get the zark out of this section and barricade the forward quarters. I don't want to be locked up in here with the thing that beheaded Garvek."

"Agreed." There's the sounds of departure, complete with UN-CLUNK / RE-CLUNK as they left the section.

My spines made scraping sounds against the hull plate I was crammed against as a shiver of fear washes over me. It takes concentration to maintain focus - my engineered species transmutes almost every emotion into bloodlust, which would be suicide here and now. I'm an epic badass, but there's no way I can go toe-to-toe with a full-sized Missionary. Even less so in this confined space. I've got to get out of this cranny.

My handy tool gauntlet lets me make short work of the access panel to the hallway, and I swarm out as silently as I can. I consider replacing the panel fully, but get distracted by the surprised look on Garvek's face. Which is surprising by itself, being neatly placed on the floor in the room next to the carefully-slumped form of the rest of Garvek.

Reflexively my comically-oversized force blade snapped up into a low guard, and my instinctive fear glows with squeaky I-told-you-so-ness as I regard the dour human that magically appeared behind me, near the bulkhead door.

"You're not what I thought." I'm not sure what it thought, but it was probably thinking a robot/Missionary hybrid. And probably not a spikey thing digging rents in the floor with his hind claws.

It takes a swallow to find my voice. "You're pretty much what I thought."

The profound sense of casual interest that the faux-human regards me is unsettling in a way that that I'm not physiologically prepared for. I don't do cold sweats, or whimper - except theatrically. What I can do, is shiver as my custom endocrine system resists my focus and tries to sublimate my terror into rage. Honestly, terror is by far the more appropriate response right now. It cocks its head, "It is almost certainly the most expedient to kill you immediately, but I really want to dig out the deep well of improbability that is you chasing me at all."

"It's a funny story, if you've got the time."

It's not laughing. It deploys some sort of tiny device that blossoms into an opaque black wall with soft sizzling sound.

After I pry myself off the ceiling grate, I prod the energy shell with the tip of my ridiculous force blade. Oh, a shield. With a dampening filter. I give the force blade a solid shove and a twist - the shield resists for a long moment before failing. The Missionary is gone, and I have no idea how or where. I regard the tiny now-crispy device, but decide against taking it. As appealing as such a thing would be to reconstitute, I'm far too wary about tracking functions.

Clearly, I don't want to stay here. I cast about for my best avenue of escape, but it's pretty obvious that my chances at stealth have been largely expended. Now that it knows I exist, there's no way it can't follow me at whim. That bulkhead looks too serious to try to get through, but my time in the service tubes definitely showed that they saved a little expense on some of the less obvious inter-ship membranes.

An enthusiastic swipe at one wall is successful enough to have a couple tactically-applied follow-up slashes. This probably doesn't put me into a totally different section, but it gets me further from where most of the crew is either locked down or retreated to. More importantly, it gets me closer to where I think an emergency escape pod is. Not that I want to launch in a defenceless pod while we're still in hyperspace, but it is a reasonable path to phase 3.

I can't deny that I had some profound doubts about there being anything after phase 2: confirm the existence of a Missionary on this ship's crew. But here I am - setting about to mess with the major functions of this ship. As I pull myself through the maintenance access to the launch tube of the escape pod, it occurs to me that this phase might be less about hampering the ship than the draw the Missionary into having to give up its façade and chase me.

Oh right - the helmet. I hate the helmet, even though it's clearly better than holding my breath in vacuum. Technically, it would also serve to make it somewhat more difficult to assassinate me by covering my vitals. But I really dislike how it messes with my hearing and sense of smell. But, again, not exactly things to worry about once I crack open the launch cover. A tap of my stylish collar causes a thick force construct to envelope my head and neck, and suddenly I can hear my raspy breathing even louder.

There's no obvious defensive functions built into the outer hull, so I flatten myself to scamper along under the ship's shield after I squeeze out. The intense cold of interstellar space causes my nanoscopic robots in my skin to freak out and set up a dampening field and tighten the filament mesh. There's still going to be an ugly layer of dead cells, but it'll just be a different sort of ugly than I usually am.

Also: it stings. There's probably a lot of boring introspection to be had about how good I've gotten at dialing down my pain receptors so that it's not overwhelming without too badly affecting my tactile performance. I make a mental note to bore my Orbodun partner with it the next time we're perched in a bar. He loves that shit.

Here we are: the external maintenance panel I originally pwned to get in in the first place. It's a gamble, but I don't want to take too much time wrestling with ship-scale parts using my personnel-scale tools. OK, my hacked control still works, and it promptly irises open to admit me back under the hull. This next part is doubtlessly going to get some negative attention, though.

Yup: the datastream got even fatter when I hacked open the drive service access. Which makes sense - this is a bad thing to have go wrong. Lucky for us all, I have some ability in tweaking the drives without causing us all to die suddenly. And, I suppose, also lucky is that I don't particularly want to die.

A thoughtful technician would probably neatly remove some important component, crippling the ship elegantly. My problem with that is then it would be similarly easy to repair for being able to rapidly construct replacement parts - which I assume the Missionary can do. So instead I use my intermediate-scale force blade to fuck up some control nodes such that they short and fuse themselves in a way that will be extremely tedious to remove and replace.

Oh good. They drop out of hyperspace and settle the ship into a safe trajectory. Lucky us.

"OI! Arsezarker in our drives: are you trying to kill yourself along with us?"

Hm. Broadband frequency, low power. I'm a little disappointed they didn't ping me via the intercom. "Oh, hi there captain. No, believe it or not I'm actually trying to save all your lives." I get the hell out of the drive-adjacent works before they try to cook me with some clever feedback of an auxiliary circuit.

"How in the everliving zark does messing with our drives - after assassinating members of our crew - possibly work to save our lives?"

I make a guess as to where the long-range sensors are, and start scrabbling along the hull with my grip pads. "It's actually a really funny story, and I hope to tell you all about it in a minute."

"Listen zarkface, just tell me what you want. No need to toy with us and kill us one at a time."

"Tell me something, captain, is Krunks there telling you what to say?"

"My lieutenant is here, and giving smart advice - as usual. What are you playing at, you zarking monster?"

"Captain, I'm not playing. I'm just trying to get a sense of how much I'm actually talking to my fellow monster."

"Please stop the head games and just tell me what you want such that we can live." The reediness in his voice pinched to almost a full whistle now. He must be stressed. Which is kind of funny, considering how things are actually much, much worse than he imagines.

"Captain, I know this sounds crazy. But the main thing determining whether you live or die is whether or not Krunks kills you before he comes out to kill me."

"You're... you're not making any sense."

"Did you manage to hear back from your contacts on Ematoes Station about me and my team?"

"Yeah. Their guess is that you're a pair of mercenaries who did some high-profile shit a while back, but went dark and now are only seen furtively chasing ghosts or some shit." Woo - that's pretty impressive intel gathering, to be honest. "Wait - how did you know I was checking on that? Zark, you were listening inside the ship."

Oh, there's the array node I'm looking for. Aaaaand, goodbye etheric sensors. "You got us right, captain. Krunks is one of the ghosts we're chasing." Oh, shit, he's yelling and probably missed what I was sayin.

"-the zark are you doing now?"

"Sorry captain - I'm trying to make it so that Krunks can't go anywhere with the ship for a while."

"You already did that! Why zark with the etheric sensors while we're not in hyperspaceGGHT?!!!"

The last word takes on a weird glottal aspect as the captain gets sucked out into space, along with a croc minor. The croc is already wearing a light space-capable suit, and the captain has the pissed-off look of someone whose nanoscopic robots are roiling out pores to deal with hard vacuum they're not ready for.

Mistake - should have been paying attention to the ex-Krunks missile that punched out that section of hull and is arcing around to shut me up. I'm not sure if it veers off more because of my barely-interposed super-slicey force blade, or because the ship starts broadcasting loudly on both EM and etheric comms it's short-range sensor data on the Missionary.

Instead it darts to a different vector of nowhere and pulses hard to accelerate.

But it's too late. My boss drops out of hyperspace and nabs it with a titanic force beam. And eats it.

A Takolee head appears out a hatch nearby with a sleek helmet and even sleeker leer. "Nice work, Pokey! Ready to meet our boss in person?"

I nod towards the slowly departing forms of the remaining ship's crew. "Shouldn't we retrieve them first? The captain probably only has a few minutes."

"You're just delaying because you're intimidated."

"No. I'm delaying because I'm fucking terrified. But it's also the honourable thing to do. And it'll give them an epic story to tell."

Forestalling my noble act, my boss zips over and dextrously gathers the two floating crewmembers to replace them into their ship, and etches some advanced shielding magic to repair their hull. Honestly, it's technology I haven't seen before.

I get pinged on the old battlewiki by my Orbodun partner. "Come on in guys, it's OK."

My ears reflexively lay flat back against my head. Getting into a ship-sized Missionary really doesn't feel OK.