Original Content Bought and Sold. Chapter 7, Arc 3

MyNameMeansBentNose

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Welcome to Oolseck 7. It's not very pretty, but it has its uses.

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Previous | Beginning | Technology | Wiki | Next
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Chapter 7
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It was day four of five before they arrived at Oolseck 7. The largest of a set of mining planetoids and a nice stopover for those who didn’t travel the main lanes. Technically, there had been no problems with their time. They expected to arrive early the next ‘day’.

And yet it ended up just not feeling fast enough. Aurula’s feathers bristled in the silence.

The group had organized the bay such as they could to provide a few chairs and a makeshift table.

Currently, none of them were talking. The air was thick with tension, and more.

Three of the four chairs were occupied. In one chair sat Otto, slowly eating his cereal. His seat was the closest to the rear of the ship. Aurula herself had jumped up on a crate behind Otto. She was slowly munching on her crunchballs.

Across from him was Daniel. He was done his 'breakfast’, sipping on his water. The man had tried to duplicate a thing called 'caffeine’ during their stay. All his attempts had failed and now he looked depressed whenever he drank water in the morning. From his seat, Daniel was the closest to the bridge.

None of them were speaking, including Tsury who was sitting closest to the cargo bay door. Her presence sat on the room like a haze. Aurula only wished that was figurative. The girl wasn’t visibly green anymore. They’d managed to duplicate a proper Human tone for her second skin. Of all the Humans Aurula figured Tsury looked a bit similar to Otto, but the ‘hair’ ruined the comparison.

The only sound aside from them all eating was the subtle hum of the air filter working hard to keep up with the load of the current crew.

The air filter had topped out for the last shuttle as well, making things a little rank at the time. But for this trip there was another factor in play. The taxed air filter had transformed from an uncomfortable part of the trip to a problem that would have to be dealt with before they left Oolseck. This trip was five days in the little shuttle. The next one to Karkantantar would be twelve days. A larger ship could make it in better time.

They didn’t have a larger ship.

Matchka was sleeping and Tank was in the pilot's seat. Aurula was still hooked into the dataspace. No one actually needed to be in the seat, she could control the shuttle from anywhere on the small vessel. But Tank was avoiding being in the same room as Tsury. It was making him a little ill.

Otto twitched as Aurula crunched into another of the hard rations. She couldn't help herself, the sensation provided a small outlet for the tension. And it was very tense in that room. She did wonder if she could use that to her advantage on Otto. He was oddly reluctant. She was undecided.

Tsury's hands twitched and her leg was bouncing. The girl was starving for physical contact, but there was no sympathy the guys could afford to offer her. Even Otto had forcibly stopped the unhappy Hyowean from getting close.

The door to the forward compartments opened and Stacey walked out with her own bowl of cereal. The woman twitched when the air hit her. Aurula clearly saw Stacey consider turning around.

Daniel turned in his seat. “Uh… hi Stace’, Mike in the shower?”

Stacey took the seat packed tight against the cargo, putting her bowl and cup down before squeezing herself in. “Yeah, he let me go first,” she explained, settling herself in.

“Mmm,” he acknowledged with a nod.

Otto didn't say anything.

Tsury couldn't help herself. “Are you…?” She stopped halfway.

“Am I what?” Stacey asked suspiciously.

“I shou… but I…”

“Just say it.”

“Are you not injured?”

“Pffft,” Daniel turned his head sideways and spit out his water. Otto was consumed by a sudden violent coughing fit.

Stacey’s face turned a bright shade of red.

Tsury, not understanding the reactions, kept going. “You and Mike were very loud last night. I could hear you through the walls-”

“I'm fine!” Stacey cut the girl off. “Everything is fine, no one is hurt!”

“Then why were you so-”

“I'm going back to my room!” Stacey stood up, grabbed her stuff and retreated. In mere moments she was through the door to the forward compartments. She'd left her cup of water on the table.

“Was she upset?” Tsury asked innocently.

“No,” Otto sighed. “Just embarrassed.”

Understanding lit up her face. “Oh,” Tsury said out loud as she figured it out. “It's my fault isn't it?”

Having spilled his previous drink, Daniel glanced at the cup of water Stacey had left on the table. He picked up Stacey's untouched cup of water and took a swig. No one else spoke during the rest of breakfast.

-----
Matchka
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She woke up from her sleep and checked on the air levels. The filters were working hard, but the sensors didn't indicate any dropping of the pheromones. Was the Hyowean producing more over time? She already knew something about Tsury's close proximity to the men was throwing her biology into overdrive. To have her production tick up even higher would just put the others under more stress.

Matchka was happy the men had such good self control. Unfortunately for Tsury part of that control meant they couldn't let her touch them. They didn't trust themselves. And onboard a much too small shuttle was not the time for such activities.

It really didn’t help that the shuttle was built to support only four average Sapients. The Humans might have been extended performance machines, especially with Rob’s teaching… but that had downsides. They consumed more to maintain health.

Matchka dug a batch of the mealballs and a bottle of water from the storage locker and returned to her seat. She set them down on her personal console in the small engine bay.

The object of their difficulties slumped through the door into the engine bay. Tsury sat in the seat across from Matchka. Every part of her posture suggested misery. The subtle flowery smell tickled Matchka’s nose. She popped one of the mealballs into her mouth.

“Hi Matchka,” Tsury said, her tone subdued.

She chewed the ball until she was able to take a swig of water to wash it down.“Hello!” Matchka replied.

“I guess… the filter is going at full power, isn’t it?” Tsury asked rhetorically.

“Yes,” she replied as she tossed back another ball. They sat in silence for another moment as Matchka worked on her food and started up a shallow system diagnostic.

The Hyowean finally spoke again. “I don’t know what to do,” Tsury complained, falling further into her miserable slump. “None of them will let me get close to them.”

“For the best,” Matchka replied once her mouth was clear. “Maybe awkward reaction.”

“I… think Mike and Stacey already… reacted.”

“Oh?”

“I could hear them through the cabin wall!” Tsury said in half amazement. “He was roaring and she was screaming.”

“Tsury, that’s private.”

“I’m worried about the others though!”

“They will endure.”

“But… I’m worse when I’m stressed!”

“You… knew?”

Tsury twitched. “Uh… no! But…”

“But?”

She sighed, then continued. “Well, I guess the Mother Willow control system tried to warn me.”

“It did?”

“...Yeah… but I didn’t pay it much attention because I didn’t want to let myself be limited by the old control systems.”

“If forewarned, many possibilities…” Matchka told her

“I didn’t know it would be like this!” Tsury complained loudly. “How was I supposed to know the pheromone mix would do that to the Humans! And it wasn’t like this on the planet!”

“On planet, relaxed, open air. On shuttle, neither...” Matchka trialed off for a moment. “But Mason, Otto, bore burden. Suddenly understand…” she said to herself. “Still, should know better.”

Tsury pulled her legs up onto the chair and wrapped her arms around to hold them in place. She rested her forehead on her knees so Matchka couldn’t see the Hyowean’s face. Matchka looked at the container of rations. Her tail swished back and forth as she considered.

Matchka looked back at the girl, then sighed. There was probably at least one way to calm down the little Hyowean, but it meant doing something like sitting in the middle of a flower bud. It was gonna clog her nose up. The Bellani replaced the cover on the little case the mealballs were kept in.

Matchka hopped down off her seat and padded over to a back corner of the small room. She picked up a small flat box and dragged it over to Tsury’s seat. The young girl had raised her head to see what the dragging sound was. Now her head was cocked with very Human curiosity. Matchka had realized pretty quick what Tsury’s fundamental problem was. The Hyowean had adopted much of the Human physiology and mental traits without actually understanding what she’d gotten into. And the mention of an interrupted ‘stabilization’ period did much to explain the rest.

The box dropped into place in front of the seat.

“Put feet down,” Matchka ordered.

“Uh…”

“Down.”

The feet came down and Matchka climbed up into Tsury’s lap.

“Uh…” Tsury repeated.

She rolled herself into a large but comfortable ball. “Scratch my ears!” Matchka demanded.

Tsury went for the upper right ear first. Not a bad plan, ever since the tip of that ear had been burnt off it seemed to itch so much more. She scratched around the base nervously at first, then with more strength when Matchka pushed into it.

“Ahhh, good,” Matchka purred. “Like that.”

“Okay…”

Matchka understood that Hyowean were extremely restricted as a race. Perhaps Tsury’s age was really four times that of any of the humans, meaning twice as old as Matchka. But if she had lived like a common Hyowean for all of that time, then she basically hadn’t lived at all.

It wasn’t long until Tsury realized that petting Matchka was a perfectly fine way to pass the time.

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Otto
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She was practically purring. She hadn’t let him look after her head until the other night when she’d asked to rest in the bed with him. Nor had she allowed him to touch below her waist. He’d taken that as guidelines to dealing with Tsury as well.

The little devil of a girl pulled at his libido, but there was something else in her face that smothered that fire oh so easily. She was beautiful and whenever he got a whiff of her it amplified the effect… but there was something wrong about treating Tsury that way. Seeing her tugged at his heart and made him...

At least now he understood why being able to smell her had driven him up the wall back on the planet. And why Mason had been having a hard time too.

He shook his head lightly. Right now was Aurula’s time. He moved around to that spot on her throat just under her lower beak, where he could just feel the tendons. She warbled in soft appreciation.

They were doing this in the bridge. Tank had retreated to his room. Otto didn’t want to do this back in their room. It was suffused with Tsury’s pheromones and that made it very difficult to keep his mind out of the gutter.

Not that the current situation was helping all that much. Aurula was on his lap and he was still feeling the aftereffects of being in the cargo bay. To be fair, he found he didn’t mind that much.

“Otto,” Aurula said. Her tone was… disappointed?

“Hmm?”

“Join the vessel space.”

With a sigh he placed his hands around her and let himself fall into the dataspace.

A figment of Seramana floated in front of them, waiting patiently. The body moved subtly, an imitation of life. It breathed and the tail twitched. But there was a hitch in its motions. A looped animation.

“... What?” Otto asked.

“Seramana?” Aurula asked.

The body shifted and made eye contact with Aurula. “Hello, I’m sure you are surprised to see this message,” Seramana’s image began. “I have taken the liberty of hiding Minmint aboard the shuttle.”

“Ahhhh, jeez.” Otto complained, his head rolling backwards.

“You will find her hidden in the far corner stasis pod. It was the only place that seemed feasible.”

As soon as the message was done, the figment flickered into non-existence.

Otto and Aurula looked at each other.

“Guess we better let everyone know,” Aurula said with a sigh.

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Arrival
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They dropped into the mining system without issue. Pirates were a known problem for an area like this but they had managed to avoid trouble this time.

What the crew found was a planetoid, a small moon. Facing them was a city sized pit encrusted with metal structures. A tower rose from the center of the crater. Many lines indicating rough-cut roads ran around the surface of the rock. Before the planetoid floated a station serving as an obvious storage yard.

The station was shaped much like a bismuth cube with brown metal boxes nestled in more boxes with yellow lights twinkling on its surface. It acted as the center point on one of the 'fences’ of the huge cube containing masses of bunched material and shipping containers waiting to be tended. As they watched a portal near the bottom of the structure opened up. Two doors split and retracted horizontally. Two behind the first set opened vertically.

When the way was clear a round wedge of a ship pulled out. It pulled a long tail of round cargo pods stacked like a honeycomb behind it.

Sensors revealed several other mining stations in this star system. What they were looking at was the primary station and the main shipping point.

Aurula opened a communications channel when she had judged they were close enough. “Station Ooleck 7, announcing presence of orphaned shuttle,” Aurula sent over comms.

“Orphaned shuttle, acknowledged, wait for approach vector.”

Aurula waited, and Otto did as well from beside her.

They could see the a couple more vessels moving in the distance. One leaving and one approaching. It wasn’t exactly hopping, but one couldn’t call the place empty.

In realspace, Daniel poked Otto in the side. Otto twitched reflexively. He pulled a portion of his attention to the real. “What?”

“We're kinda close to Earth right?” Daniel asked. “How close?”

“Close enough it kinda hurts to think about,” Otto hissed back.

“Yeah but… how close is that?”

The station traffic controller unknowingly interrupted. “Orphaned shuttle, sending approach data now, please accept.”

Otto saw Aurula accept and align the info package. An overlay arrived over the vessel space showing a guided path past the storage yard, leading to the main station. Aurula quickly brought them inline with the route and moved the shuttle forward.

“So…” Daniel pressed further.

Otto sighed. “We’re closer to earth than we are to Karkantantar. We could probably get there in about six days to gaze longingly at Earth before we had to leave.”

“Yeah…” Daniel sighed. “Thanks fer tellin’ me tho’, I just wanted to know.”

“Yeah, I understand,” Otto replied.

The route took them past the stockyard, but not too close. They could see a couple small ships pushing and pulling large crates around. One had grabbed a mass of raw material in a blob and was pushing it along with a small set of drones surrounding that mass. It was obvious to Otto they were using gravity fields to move stuff around.

He could see another structure further into the center of the yard, basically a bunch of boxes pushed close together to hold more bunches of material. It was a bit interesting to him, coming from an industrial setting, but they were past the station soon enough.

Mike spoke up next. “It sorta looks like they planted a ship in there,” Mike commented, pointing at the tower in the middle of the crater.

“They did,” Aurula responded idly.

“Cool,” Mike said with interest. “Is it stuck there?”

“No…” she replied slowly. “The Ooleck type station is pretty big, but relatively common in Veprutasian space. When it is done with one planetoid it will pack up and move to another rock.”

“Neat.”

It did look like a tower that had been built into the rock. As they came closer they could see where braces appeared to have extended outwards to lock the main structure in place. Ooleck 7 wasn’t any prettier than the main portal into the stockyard, but it was less haphazard in appearance. It was little better than a series of rectangles built into each other. The only consideration seemed to be easily utilized space inside and outside. All sharp ninety or fourty-five degree angles with thick hull or place for various utilities. Sensors and small utilitarian turrets dotted the outside of the ship.

Above the station floated a couple grey ships. It threw Otto at first. One of them was moving, but his eyes initially assumed it was in reverse. The ship was wedge-shaped, a lot like a star destroyer in media, but this one was oriented in the complete opposite direction. Instead of a wedge with a wide base, it look more like a cliff resting on a small point with a long and high tail.

“Those are?” Otto asked Aurula, highlighting the two ships in the vessel space.

“Looks like a small patrol group,” Aurula mused. “Those are typical Veprutasian destroyer vessels, a deterrent against raiders.”

“They seem pretty big,” Mike remarked.

“The Silly ship was way bigger,” Daniel countered.

Aurula chittered. Her own version of a chuckle. “The Silianisca are well known to be… excessive.”

“Ooleck 7 isn’t as big, but it’s comparable,” Otto noted.

“Yes, it is,” Aurula replied.

The route was leading them to the ‘top’ of the tower. The box had a permanently open yawning entrance. Otto was able to reach out and create a visual window, he used it to zoom in on the bay. A wide port area with a small scattering of visiting ships. It looked very much like a pier without the water. Juttys extended out from a wide platform for ships to attach to and be able to load and unload.

“Orphaned shuttle,” The controller pinged them. “Do you need automatic guidance?”

“I do not need, but I am willing to submit,” Aurula responded. Otto looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “It’s only polite,” she responded with a direct message to him. “They are highly unlikely to abuse the control and I can take it back if I need to.”

Otto shrugged and then nodded his understanding. He watched closely as Aurula created a slave session to allow the station to steer the ship, but with full oversight. It was an AI that took control. It ran through a quick diagnostic to see what it was working with and then slowly guided them to a side pier.

There were multiple bays for various ships to land in. Their shuttle was brought to a smaller one off to the side of the ship. Along the side of the bay was a smaller area for vehicle such as the shuttle they were riding. A grey saucer and a smaller reverse wedge similar to the patrol ships were also docked here.

They pulled up to an outlined ‘parking spot’ and a walkway extended as they drifted the final short distance to the platform. Two arms extended from underneath with wide pads on the end. A quick query designated them as magnetic docking clamps. The arms caught the ship with a couple heavy ‘thunks’ and they were docked.

“Thank you for your cooperation,” The controller sent. “Please report to inspections when disembarking.”

“Acknowledged,” Aurula responded before closing the connection. “Matchka, you are free to begin registrations for your ‘slaves’.

“Thanks, starting!”

“Well.” Mike said with a serious tone over the vessel space. “Who's all gettin' fresh air?”

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Mike
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Turned out the answer was ‘everyone’. Matchka wanted everyone to vacate the shuttle so she could scrub the atmosphere. It was an automatic process, but having the shuttle empty would speed things along. They waited a couple moments for Matchka to have the slaves registered under her name, and then sent them out.

“You’re all familiar with what to do if you’re given orders?” Otto sent to them all. The group was in the cargo bay, if only for the moment.

The Humans and Aurula were wearing their bands. Matchka and Tank were wearing their helmets. Minmint wasn’t fully augmented.

“Yeah,” Stacey responded and started listing Otto’s warnings. “You’ve designated Matchka as our ‘primary owner’. Aurula, Tank and Minmint are secondary owners. If they give us an order let the slave package do what it’s supposed to. It’ll probably hurt. Some security officers will have admin control and can issue orders too. Try not to make them suspicious.”

“Ya sure we can’t just be what we are? Free Humans?” Daniel asked.

“No. Bad idea,” Matchka sent back. “Will raise suspicion.”

“Indeed, so many ‘free Humans’ will gather undue attention,” Aurula noted. “Multiple well behaved Humans are rare, but not beyond reason for a Bellani master.”

“Oh, the cats have lots of Human pets?”

“Not a cat.” Matchka reflexively responded to Mike.

“They have lots of well treated servants in general,” Aurula explained without missing a beat.

“We ready to explore Tank?” Daniel asked.

“Yes, let us look around,” The young Kraltnin responded.

“Is it wise to explore?” Tsury asked.

“Better for mind,” Matchka told her with a quiet laugh.

“Oh, okay.”

They split into two groups. Tanktantun simply wanted to explore with Minmint, Mike, Daniel and Stacey in tow.

Matchka would be heading to meet her contact with Tsury, Otto and Aurula. Tsury was also doing much better having spent that time with Matchka. She was visibly less stressed and twitchy.

Aurula had planned to split off with Otto to look for some gear for Tsury. Then Matchka had waved one of the arms on her limb harness.

“Contact sold this,” Matchka said with amusement in her voice. “Can find Tsury's harness.”

“Fine,” Aurula responded with what Mike could almost swear was a pout.

“Well, we’re off first!” Mike said loudly. Tank laughed and headed out the ramp to the station. Minmint was after him, Stacey next and Mike in the rear.

“Do be careful!” Aurula called after them.

“We will!” Mike called back.

They had to walk a couple minutes along the long platform to the ‘Inspection Station’. A simple customs there to do a security check on anyone passing through.

“Hunh,” Mike mumbled quietly to himself, seeing a literal humanoid crow sitting behind the counter as they walked into the station.

The crow looked up from the console in front of… Mike had no idea if it was a man or woman. But the crow did have a white collar of feathers around its neck. It also moved with caution. The bird was old. Three talons extended from the middle joint of the birds wing that served as an approximate hand. They wouldn’t be able to use weapons or tools and fly at the same time with ‘hands’ like that.

“Alpha Kraltnin?” a male voice spoke. “Affiliated?”

“No,” Tanktantun responded. “Tanktantun Mentatin is my name,” he then pointed at the rest of them as he named everyone. “Companions, Kraltnin Minmint, Human Mike and Human Stacey.”

The crow focused hard on Stacey and then on Mike with one half lidded eye. “Cooperative?”

“Yes, I am merely borrowing them from their Bellani owner, name Matchka. She will be by shortly,” Tank paused for a moment. “Here are the credentials,” Tank didn’t move after saying that. Mike took a moment to realize Tank was sending a message over dataspace.

“Hmm. Credentials satisfactory, scans show no weaponry. You are cleared for passage.”

“Thank you,” Tank said calmly and headed for the exit on the opposite side of the room.

As soon as they were out the door Mike had to ask the question. “When did they scan us?”

“Likely as we stepped through the door,” Tank mused. “Perhaps when we stepped off the shuttle. I spent some time talking to Matchka to know what to expect.”

“She didn’t say anything about that to me,” Mike complained.

“She judged you to be too distracted and impatient as a result of the situation.”

Minmint laughed but cut off when Mike gave her a pained look. “Yeah, fair enough,” Mike acknowledged to Tank.

“It’s already nice to breathe… well, not ‘clean’ air, but nothing that’ll drive us crazy,” Stacey muttered.

Mike took a big breath. The air was… okay. It wasn’t outdoor fresh, but it didn’t stink. It was just a bit stale.

Upon stepping through the door they found themselves in a utilitarian hallway. The floor primarily consisted of grating with barely visible utilities underneath. It matched the piping and cables hanging in the ceiling with the orange strips of lights running down the center. The walls were long sections of bolted on panels with occasional bulkheads alternating with intersections to mark regular intervals. At the center of each section they would see opposing double doors. Tank would occasionally twitch as they walked.

“What’s wrong Tank?” Stacey asked.

“You have permission to access the local dataspace.”

“Ugh!” Mike grunted as the bright billboards filled his vision. He slammed the dataspace connection shut as he physically recoiled. “Man that’s bad!”

“That’s really bright,” Stacey noted. “Although you can reduce the intensity.”

As they went they walked past several shops that seemed to deal in general material trading as well as personal equipment. There was one that seemed to be advertising ships for sale and one section that advertised food. Mike was tempted to pull them that way, but they wanted to see the actual open areas around the station, there was supposed to be a settlement area that Matchka had suggested might actually be fun to explore.

They walked past a few other Sapients. A couple more crows. A Bellani. Four weasel looking aliens. Mike had to be careful not to rubber neck. When the weasel passed close he realized they smelled pretty strong, they had a noticeable musk. He saw Stacey’s head snap straight a couple times as well. Neither of them wanted to look like hicks, but it wasn’t easy to play it straight. They’d seen a couple different aliens on Hrossincru in passing, but that planet mostly just had Kraltnin.

Still, more hallways.

Mike wasn’t interested in more hallways. Neither was Stacey. Tank and Minmint didn’t see any reason not to humour the Humans. Tank found a station guide on the local dataspace and took them to the left in the next intersection to find a transport tube.

“This will take us to the outer settlement,” The Kraltnin noted as he rounded the corner, tail tapping idly as he walked.

“It’ll be nice to have room just to stretch,” Mike said.

“I agree!” Minmint replied. “I still find myself stiff after waking up.

“Heh, gotta love that look of acceptance on Otto’s face though,” Mike laughed.

Minmint’s head tilted. “He was not angry? I must admit I could not tell.”

“Not angry, no,” Mike chuckled. “Probably more put out that he went and told Umbra the Gerlen couldn’t go, then Seramana snuck you aboard the shuttle. Someone’s got some explaining to do to someone else… if it hasn’t happened yet.”

“Seramana told me she would have to apologize to Umbra.”

“Better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission,” Stacey noted quietly.

“That sounds like a Human saying, but I can see how it applies here,” Tank said seriously.

This hallway soon opened up to a subway station with a couple modules waiting for passengers. As they arrived a couple Veprutasians and a short Human stepped into one of the round pods.

“Oh-” Stacey started as the pod close up and immediately took off down the tunnel. “Did you see him?” she asked, looking at Mike.

“Yeah, another Human,” he acknowledged. “Looked Asian.”

“Asian?” Minmint asked.

“Yeah they’re another ra… no that’s a bad one. They’re a different uhhh…”

“Ethnic group,” Stacey filled in. “Earth has multiple continents and the people on each continent had a tendency to develop in different but mostly superficial ways. Asians are typically smaller than Whites with their own slight variations of facial features that mark them as being from a different area.”

“You are all ‘Whites’?” Minmint asked as they approached the next pod. Tank stopped and they all stopped behind him. His head twitched back and forth as he navigated an invisible menu.

“Yeah we are,” Stacey replied to Minmint. “But while there are lots of different variants of Humans, it’s not as extreme as white, grey and black Kraltnin or the red or black striped females. The different ethnic groups have varied traits, but it doesn’t automatically mean any group serves a specific purpose or is actually superior to another.”

Tank motioned them onto the pod.

“Man, the way you said that was much nicer than-oof” Mike cut off as Stacey elbowed him in the side.

“Quiet you,” she said to Mike, then continued talking to Minmint. “The group you saw on Hrossincru were just picked up from a relatively small area. That’s why we all appear similar.”

“Interesting,” Minmint said, her tone cheerful.

They loaded onto the capsule, the four of them only filling half the seats of the smaller vessel. There was a small walkway along the door side and two seating areas along the other side like restaurant booths. The seat was separate from the seat back, giving Minmint and Tank lots of space for their tails. It made sense when Mike realized he’d seen a bunch of the crows around so far.

There were larger capsules, but the only smaller ones seemed to be two seaters. It didn’t want for more riders before taking off. There was a slight pull of acceleration, but the speed of the capsule as it shot through the tunnel made it clear there was some methods to mitigate the effect.

Mike found himself lightly dozing as Stacey and Minmint chatted. When he glanced at Tank, the guy’s eye membrane was down, suggesting he was doing pretty much the same thing.

They passed a couple more stations as they hurtled down the tube. The capsule slowed and they arrived at a curve in the tunnel. It split there, one straightaway after the curve and another turn that led back into the ship.

Their capsule flew down the straight away and the pipe and conduit lined tunnel opened up to the space outside the main station. They followed a square tunnel through the open space as the capsule approached the inner wall of the planetoid. The gravity was oriented as if the opening in the side of the rock was a hangar rather than a pit. The platform they could see coming up followed this convention, forming one of many levels sliced into the rock.

The capsule pulled up close to an indented platform and the doors slid open with a hiss.

Mike and Stacey flinched, expecting the air to evacuate, but there was breathable atmosphere here.

Tank stepped out first, then waited for Minmint and lent her a hand as she crossed the threshold. Not to be surpassed, Mike did the same for Stacey.

The first thing they saw were their first proper cyborgs. A Veprutasian and a couple White Kraltnin stood guard with flimsy looking rifles. The eyes of the crow were replaced by small black glass orbs like that of a security camera. The Kraltnin on his left had a large Lens in place of his eye while the other had a fully mechanical segmented tail. All three of them wore bulky harnesses.

The crow also had a prosthetic leg that moved with all the tics Mike expected of a living limb. But somehow Otto’s hand still seemed better.

Upon spotting Tank the two Kraltnin immediately shrunk and dropped their membranes. An automatic posture of submission to a Black. Tank blinked his membrane at them and they twitched, then stood alert.

The Vep watched it happen, his feathers had shrunk and then relaxed as he watched. The black bird then approached Tank.

“You are new here,” he stated. “Purpose for visit?”

“Just landed after shuttle travel,” Tank replied, his time short but clear. “First time on the station, we are stretching.”

The crow whistled as he turned his head towards Mike and Stacey.

The command arrived over the dataspace connection. For a split-second Mike resisted, then submitted. He looked at the ground and dropped to a crouch, Stacey going down at the same time. Daniel followed a split second afterwards.

Otto had warned them security guards had basic permissions for peacekeeping. They could issue commands of their own to the slave package.

“Is that necessary?” Tank asked with authoritative annoyance.

“Gotta make sure they're well behaved. And it seems they are,” the bird explained. Mike felt the command release and he stood slowly, careful not to let his temper show. “Lots of humans on this station after all, so close to Earth. We just don't want trouble.”

“I understand,” replied Tank. “However, we have no interest in finding trouble.”

Tank stepped past the Vep and his two subordinates. Mike expected the bird to stop them but it seemed Tank’s response was the right one. The security squad didn't spare them another glance.

They stepped into a tunnel leading directly into the planetoid.

“Do we know where we are going?” asked Stacey.

“Somewhat,” Tank replied, his tone friendly now that the guards were out of sight. “Just as the guard said, there are many Humans here. I am curious to see what they are like.”

The tunnel opened up into a cavern. A very large cavern covered in multiple levels of shanty town.

“Whoa, rough,” Mike breathed as they took it in.

It wasn't that the area was terribly disorderly. It was just all so obviously cheap. Cavities had been carved out of the rock. Out of those cavities were stacked great numbers of thin, flimsy looking composite boxes. Each box had an identical door, window and small light above the entrance. Few of those boxes were much bigger than a ten by ten foot room. Although a number of them appeared to be fused together. Perhaps for families. The whole place seemed knotted together by cables, pipes and composite support structure.

There were figures moving about. Several adults and at least one bunch of children were running about that they could see in the close tangled knot of buildings. The kids weren't close, but it seemed odd to Mike that he couldn't hear them. Something bothered him but he couldn’t place it.

“Hmm,” Tank hummed as he checked a note in the local dataspace. “Late evening for them, the middle of the… 'second shift’ of three shifts.”

They walked further into the tangle. It didn’t take long for them to start seeing more activity. A pair of men were sitting in scavenged chairs in front of a high set block overlooking the walkways. They watched traffic as they chatted and paused as they spotted the group as it moved past them. Off one of their chairs hung a heavy and bulky looking harness with several ugly looking devices built into it. A smaller woman walked past them, hurrying to some place with a bag of supplies in one hand. A pair of kids ran by at full tilt, clearly playing keep away with an object held high by the leader.

Those two they could hear clearly. “Give it back, give it back!” one kid yelled while the other simply laughed with glee.

The residents would glance at them idly, sometimes giving Stacey and Mike a second glance. They were obviously poor, but didn't seem agitated to Mike.

“They’re all Asian,” noted Stacey.

“Yeah, probably Chinese?” Mike guessed. “Korean maybe,” he added. He pointed at a red and blue flag with a red star crudely painted in faded paint on a building ahead of them.

“I guess they had food problems in Korea right?” Stacey asked dubiously. “Maybe they found slaves who were just happy to have food, water and electricity.”

Tank gave Stacey a look, his head bobbing to one side. “Is that a common problem on Earth?”

Minmint was still looking backwards at the two running into the distance playing keep away.

“Yeah, there are still lots of poor… countries…” Stacey trailed off. “Do you guys smell that?

Mike sniffed the air along with Minmint and Tank. Something faintly tickled but he couldn't get a read on it.

“It smells… sharp,” Tank replied. His way of saying spicy. That particular type of food affected Kraltnin a little differently.

“This way,” Stacy said brightly, leading them down an alley. They spotted the large and well-lit building it was coming from quickly enough. A bigger building, made of many of the smaller fused boxes opened up to provide lots of windows and given an array of lights around the top of the box. But it was several layers up. They had to navigate a small maze of paths and turns to get there.

When Mike figured they were about halfway there a young girl turned a corner. Her expression was one of terror. She couldn't miss them standing in the middle of the walkway and she ran right up to Mike.

“Please hide me!” She begged, straining herself not to yell. There was something off about the way she spoke but Mike didn't let that distract him. They were passing a four way junction but someone had left a crate sitting just beside a door with the lid left slightly askew. He swiftly pushes the lid aside revealing a box empty of all but a few composite bars like what the support structure was made of.

He lifted her up with ease. She squeaked as she found herself dropped into a box. He pulled the lid back in place as a heavyset man jogged around the corner. He twitched when he sighted Tanktantun and his escort.

With a pudgy face and soft brown eyes he gave them a small too-friendly smile. “Did you happen to see a young girl run past? She has chores to do.”

“Yeah sure,” Mike replied. pointing down the maze they had just come from. He lied with relaxed ease. “She sprinted off that way, practically ran right into me.”

“Ah! Thank you!” The man said before running off in hot pursuit.

Tank and Minmint barely had time to react. Tank opened his mouth but paused when he saw Stacey holding a finger in front of her pursed lips. They knew the Human sign for 'be quiet’.

A minute passed.

“Ugh,” Stacey said with a sour expression. “He creeped me out.”

Mike opened the crate, revealing the girl. A slight young thing just entering the world of teenagers. With brown hair and brown eyes, she had the healthy look of a girl starting to grow into womanhood. He could see moisture in the corners of her eyes.

“Is he gone?

“Yeah, he is.”

Her only response was a sigh of relief.

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End Chapter
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