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Two Sizes Too Small

I can tell something is wrong the unit I step out of the cramped Defatigable. The lights in the Docks are low--too low. A power glitch? Unlikely, given the reliability of fusion tubes. And wouldn't alarms be sounding or something? Here, everything is eerily silent. No sign of the usual Port officials. No endless throngs of travelers. I glance up: no ever-present Security drones circling overhead.

This is weird.

And rather unsettling.

Gripping my Wasp somewhat more tightly than is perhaps strictly necessary, I cautiously edge my way into the Port proper. More of the same greets me: apart from a few maintenance 'bots engaged in routine tasks, the Port is virtually empty. Not even the giant hologram of Maya von Christova is active. Perhaps that's because she has no one to welcome to the station. I discard that theory almost immediately when it occurs to me that my own presence should have triggered her. Maya is off. And that never happens.

Have you ever been in a virtually empty station? Think of all the little things we take for granted every day. The indistinguishable hum of overlapping conversations. The tiny flashes of light from eyes reflecting CORETECHS signals. The constant whirring of robotic runners shuttling materials, scientific or otherwise. The solid walls of holo-screens bombarding us with advertising images, so ubiquitous we tune them out without even realizing it. The reassuring clicks of monitoring machines making constant micro-adjustments in the environment: atmosphere, temperature, gravity, flare shields.

Now imagine their absence.

Unpleasant fantasies run rampant. Did the pervasive technology of Benevolent Dynamics turn out to be something less than entirely benevolent? Or is this a second Catastrophe, here to finish the job? Maybe it's just a really, really compelling Omni-Reality broadcast? Somehow I doubt it.

A sudden noise from the Shipping Bay startles me. It's a sort of quiet scraping, as of one object brushing against another. Not metallic, so probably not automated machinery or a 'bot. I already wasn't moving around all that energetically, but now I freeze, ears straining, finger edging towards the Wasp's trigger. A few units of silence. And then... do I hear it again? Or is that a muffled whisper? I'm not sure.

It's astonishing how big a completely empty Port seems. All wide open space. No reasonable cover. That's intentional, of course--fewer hiding places for Security threats--but right now all it means is that I'm standing here like a gimboid, fully exposed in the middle of what might as well be a huge shooting range. Frak.

With no other direction looking particularly promising, I drop to the floor (without a loud thump, I hope) and strain my ears. Thirty, maybe forty units pass. Nothing. I start to wonder if it was all just a hallucination from an overactive imagination.

And then there's that sound again. More than one of them this time, I think.

Well, at this point I can either stay here until whatever it is comes out of the Shipping Bay and blasts me, or I can make my way towards it and hope for the element of surprise. (Or, y'know, hightail it back into the Defatigable and get the frell out of here, but of course that brilliant idea doesn't occur to me.) I start to slither forward. Very, very slowly. After a unit or two I realize that my gear is probably making more noise scraping against the metal of the floor, so I rise to a crouch and keep going.

I make it to the wall. Which I hug like a long-lost friend. And I pause to listen again. Now the mysterious scrapes and whispering are more frequent. This does not instill great confidence in me. Nevertheless, I begin slithering towards the entrance to the Shipping Bay. I reach it without incident, and I'm about to peek around the corner when I get a better idea. I fumble for the hilt of my katana, and gingerly ease the blade from its saya. Then, holding the blade almost perpendicular to the floor, I angle just its tip around the entryway, trying to catch a reflection of whatever lurks inside the Bay.

It works. And I just about smack myself in the head out of frustration (before remembering that smacking oneself with an unsheathed katana tends to lead to a quick trip to Sick Bay). The reflection is tiny, but it's enough to see the shapes of several humans of various genotypes, skulking around and poking into the unguarded shipping crates. They're all clad in dark outfits; at least one is wearing my namesake Stealth-Step. I can even make out a sizable pile of the goods they've already filched. Common thieves. I nearly gave myself a brain aneurysm for a bunch of common thieves, taking advantage of the--of whatever's going on here to help themselves to some ill-gotten gains.

Not on my watch!

Wasp in one hand, katana in the other, I let out what I hope is a blood-curdling yell and leap into the darkened Shipping Bay. Element of surprise, remember? And it seems to work: whoever these goits are, they're clearly not used to fighting an armed and trained enemy. (Thank you, nanites!) I'm able to take out three of them with the flat of my blade before the rest have done much more than look up in shock. Then, instead of fighting back, they scramble for the exit. Too bad I'm standing between it and them.

In less than half a segment, it's all over. I run a quick tally: three unconscious, two more bleeding (but nothing Sick Bay can't handle), six writhing and/or groaning in pain. No escapees, no fatalities. I'll admit, I'm feeling pretty proud of myself, and already mentally counting the reward I anticipate from a grateful Security. I crouch down next to one of the semi-conscious perps--the one in the Stealth-Step--and growl as menacingly as I can, "Maybe next time you won't be in such a hurry to steal from the good people of Hopkins' Legacy!"

She turns her head to glare at me with the huge amber pupils of a Harsene. "Steal from--?" she hisses. Is that indignation I detect? "You think we were stealing, you frelling moron!?" Yep, definitely indignation. Not the reaction I was expecting.

"Well, yeah," I reply. "The empty boxes, open crates, and enormous pile of stuff in the middle of the Bay is a bit of a giveaway."

I watch as her indignation morphs into disgust. "You unbelievable kriffing p'takh! Crukking moron! Miserable smegheaded idiotic nerf-herding dren-eating..." She goes on like this for quite a while. I have to admire her creativity, if nothing else.

Eventually she runs out of steam--or insults--and rolls onto her side, facing me. I tense, ready for a physical attack, but she merely points to a small badge stuck on her Stealth-Step. "Do you have any idea what this is?" she demands.

I look. It's an inverted triangle, with tiny holographic twinkles of orangish light cascading down in a constant stream over a background of some waving, flickering stripes of alternating colors. It's pretty, but I don't recognize it.

At first.

Then I focus on the twinkles. They do look a little familiar. Almost like cinders drifting from a fire...

Oh, grozit. Grozit all to frell.

The Harsene must see the change in my expression, because she sneers at me. "Is your CORETECHS defective, or don't dates mean anything to drek like you?"

"Emberfest," I mumble. "It's Emberfest."

"Got it in one, genius."

"So you're that, umm... that Old Lang Sign?"

She sits up, rubbing one arm painfully, and corrects me: "It's 'Auld Lange Syne,' p'takh. Maybe you've heard of it? Lights dancing? Stars advancing? Ring any bells?"

"I am so, so sorry--" I start to say. "Fat lot of good that does, karkhead," she snaps, surveying the carnage. "You've beaten the frak out of my entire team. How the frell are we supposed to distribute all this stuff to the needy when we're stuck in Sick Bay?"

...And that, good Sers, is why you find me here in the Wilds with you, delighted to present you with, umm, let's see, what do I have here... With these "Brain Booster" Bites and a Tier 1 ration pack, courtesy of the Auld Lang Syne! Also a couple of gently used holovids for the young ones. Oh, you'll love this one; it's one of my favorites. It showcases the natural habits of an old-Earth creature typically found in mountains and rocky crags. Scientists believe the green fur may have evolved for the purpose of camouflage, helping them avoid predators by blending in with cave lichens. Sadly, this "Grinch" went extinct due to the insufficient size of its cardiac system...

Out of the Black, the stars advanced,
Out of the Black, little lights danced.
From heart to heart, light remembers, darkness flees and fear dwindles.
From hearth to hearth, we spread the embers, joined together, life rekindles.

Merry Emberfest to all.