Tacky was happy. He had spent the better part of the last two days engaged in sating his curiosity. To hear the other citizen species speak, the only thing that they had that was comparable was engaging in reproduction. Except for the Awakeners, of course, but they were different. Almost as different from the other species as the Ningyo. If anyone ever gets The Joke, it’ll be the Awakeners. Pity for them they have no sense of humor. Tacky imagined the Awakeners floundering for some sort of way to convey what they had discovered to humans and Hrotata and failing miserably. He could imagine the human response: “Yes, we know that the Ningyo are strange… what are you getting at?”
The Ningyo response to humor did not involve the physical convulsions that many other species experienced. It simply scratched an itch opposite their curiosity. Humor was all about obfuscation and confusion and it was pleasing to watch others lose their calm due to it – and even more pleasing to watch them work it out.
Tacky was currently working to satisfy his curiosity in relation to the human who had been taken to the independent Tesetsi doctor’s lab. Actually, the human interested him less than what she had been carrying. Since he saw Tatalik scurry out of its quarters, he knew that she was probably being questioned over the comm system, and decided to listen in.
He adjusted one of the sensors on his suit and created a tiny fold in space that would carry the sonic vibrations from the nearby chamber directly to it. Tacky couldn’t actually hear, of course, but Ningyo suits were excellent at interpreting sensory stimuli into patterns that they could comprehend. They only needed the additional senses for dealing with other sentient creatures, but then that was the whole reason for their suits. Their species had developed on the crust of a cooling brown dwarf star, and they had never encountered any other life forms that could exist in similar conditions.
Kowalski said, “… this ceased to be an issue for Human Affairs when Mauraug started dying because of it, and I’m none too happy that they didn’t inform me of an investigation aboard my station. As the commanding officer of this station, I want to know: what the hell did you have in your leg?”
Perfect timing! Tacky squirmed in the chest cavity of his suit and waited for more.
Corporal Dea said, “I can’t tell you!” She sounded pained. “Too many people have found out already. Please just let the HA chiefs fill you in on it. I can’t keep doing this.”
Kowalski: “As far as I’m concerned, you are HA. You’re certainly operating by their orders on my terrain.”
Corporal Dea: “I was tapped and asked to help with this. It was big and it sounded important and you don’t just refuse Human Affairs. They offered to pay and said that as long as I followed their orders I would be at no risk of losing my job.”
Come on, Royce! Get to something I don’t know already! The tease was almost too much. He almost wanted to project his voice through the spatial fold just to beg her to get it over with. Although the image of Kowalski and Dea jumping out of their skins amused him mightily he thought the better of it. Humans had rules about when humor was all right, and he was pretty sure that this was one of those times when it wouldn’t be. He was also gleefully aware of how illegal his current activity was.
You can’t loosen them all up at once. A little bit at a time. Someday they’ll get it.
Tacky’s sensors picked up a slight scuffling noise coming from the other side of one of the doors in the room that Dea was in. Humans were well known for having underdeveloped senses, and the Corporal and Commander were engaged in an emotionally intense conversation, so Tacky took it upon himself to check the other side of the door. He adjusted his filters to allow electromagnetic radiation through as well, as he wanted to see as well.
It was a small room lined with equipment as the rest of Tatalik’s quarters likely were. On one bench was a clear-topped containment unit that had a small piece of electronic equipment inside. The outside of the device was smudged with carbon. This was probably the illicit implant! Tacky squirmed with joy and continued to search the room.
A ventilation duct leading into the room was the source of the scuffling. Careful not to hurt whatever was inside, he positioned the space fold directly next to the grating. On the other side of that shaft was a large shape, with the long arms and powerful torso of a Mauraug. It appeared to be unscrewing the grating.
This would not do at all. Tacky brought up a map of the station on his suit-based computer and took a quick survey of his surroundings. Fortunately, Tatalik had located its quarters with privacy in mind, and almost all of the units in the area were storage.
He didn’t want to scare the Mauraug away; he would have to be careful. Tacky wanted to know its business, which would be difficult unless he could get a chance to speak to it. He could just watch it, but then he’d never know for sure what was going on, and he was tired of not interfering.
It looked as though the Mauraug was done unscrewing the grate. It carefully pulled the grate into the shaft with it, and rearranged itself within the ventilation shaft so that it could lower itself feet-first.
It was time for Tacky to act. His suit could only produce a single spatial fold at a time, so he had to work blindly for a moment. He opened and expanded the fold beneath the shaft and shifted it so that it connected to somewhere nearby, rather than in his suit. He waited about ten seconds then closed it, wincing internally at the thought of the damage that that might cause if he had miscalculated how quickly the Mauraug would drop.
He then swapped ends of the spatial fold, so the opening that was in Tatalik’s lab was now much smaller and back in his suit where it could provide sensory input, and the other end of it was still in the space where (he hoped) the Mauraug had dropped. He narrowed the other end and looked through it. He was correct, a cold-storage containment area, stocked with the flesh of dead non-sapient creatures, and a very angry and suddenly very loud Mauraug.
Satisfied that he had been correct, he swapped his viewing apparatus back to the room where Royce Dea was being interrogated by the Commander.
Commander Kowalski: “… I suppose you expect to go back to your regular duties, then.”
Did I miss it? Really?
Coporal Dea: “I kind of hope to. I don’t want any position but the one I have – well, I am of course interested in advancement but I wouldn’t imagine that service to Human Affairs would be grounds for advancement within Collective security forces.”
Commander Kowalski: “You’re correct there. Your service to HA may mean that I can overlook a few things – like the outright illegal actions that your Brin has taken – but it’s hush-hush enough that I can’t let it apply to any case for promotion. I’m still a little steamed that they didn’t inform me of this dodge; I would’ve helped.”
Royce was quiet for a minute, and Tacky disconnected out of frustration. Well, he did have a Mauraug nearby who had probably been going to try and retrieve the implant. He would certainly know what it was.
Sensors in his suit warned him of impending physical contact. The head on his suit swiveled around to see the origin, as a white-furred, black-skinned Mauraug officer dressed in black with blue-green trim placed its hand on his shoulder.
“The less a Ningyo is moving, the more mischief it is up to, or so I have observed.” said Detective Ushkar. “Would you care to share your latest antics with me, my friend?”
Ushkar was the only citizen that Tacky had ever encountered that he felt was close to getting it. Avoiding his question entirely, Tacky said, “Do you know what? I heard Mashaun say that he was cold.”
Ushkar’s eyebrows raised and his lips spread in a fashion that briefly made Tacky wonder if it was mimicking his suit. “It, my friend. You have no reason to insult Mashaun Bash’Ugan so. Call it “It”. So you have been speaking to Mashaun?”
“No, but he – it’s been speaking to me. Or at least trying to.”
Ushkar’s smile broadened. “I wonder why he would take an interest in you. Tell me, friend, what does he speak of?”
“Hmmmm, of cold, and dark, and how hungry he is, and how hard it is for him to ingest frozen protoplasm.”
Ushkar cocked its head as though listening. “I think I hear him too, but I can’t make out the words.” It cupped its hands around its mouth as though to amplify its voice. “Mashaun, Mashaun? I can’t hear you? Where are you?” Ushkar shook its head as though in resignation.
Tacky’s head bobbled briefly. “I can hear it better than you can. Follow me.”
Ushkar smiled even more broadly, and Tacky wondered at what point a Mauraug smile stopped being personable and started to become predatory. “Lead the way, my friend. There will be frozen protoplasm for all.”