Updated: Dec 28, 2019
Curled up into a ball, the small rat’s nose twitched at the smell of singed fur and scorched meat. It was so young, so very small.
Its tail swept around timidly before it could coax its eyes open. There was more than the smell of fire-touched fur and flesh, but it was too much; there was a deluge of chaos, and the ashes nearly swallowed its appendages.
The air felt strange, as though something powerful had stepped down from a tear in the stars and swept away everything. The small rat tried to flex its eyelids, to gaze on the horror of what had happened, but the soot mixed with its tears and had hardened - His eyes were sealed shut.
Dust cascaded off its still-soft fur, creating a small cloud in the dark. It brought its small claws to its face, and as they passed his nose it dawned on him: it was his flesh that was burnt and blistered.
And finally, he wailed.
The young Ysoki was picked up from the smoldering remains of his life by chance: a crew of medics made a final scan to see if maybe, just maybe, something survived the onslaught. That was the moment he clawed his way to the surface of the rubble to discover what the odd noise was.
The doctors used a solution to unseal his eyelids, and comforted him when the lights overwhelmed his senses. They checked him thoroughly, helped to wash the clumps of dried blood and excrement out of his fur, stitched his paws and cleaned the sores. Slowly, he healed.
He showed proficiency for small gadgets and electronics, as are all Ysoki. They marveled at his dexterity, at small hands that were once so damaged, and praised his recovery. He did small things, like making a radio out of spare parts, or fixing a diagnostic cube they’d puzzled over for a month. When they’d ask him how he did it, he’d muster up a crooked smile – his face was still healing, and all he could do was smirk.
It took weeks before he spoke aloud. And yet, not shortly after that, a group of missionaries came to see the survivors of the wreckage. They smiled broadly, teeth spread unnaturally large across contorted faces. The Ysoki trusted their smiles about as much as he trusted a loaded pistol pressed against his temple.
They told the medics they would gladly bring this small child in, welcome him to their flock. They told them they would educate him, nurture his gifts, and raise him up to help others. The medics, some more hesitant than others, put the Ysoki into the missionaries’ trust.
The medics called him “Smirk.”
It didn’t take long for Smirk to realize that he wasn’t supposed to be with the missionaries, and it took even sooner for him to learn to have distrust for religion.
The missionaries brought him back to their orphanage at the Absalom station. It was pristine on the outside, glistening in the starlight, a beacon to draw in various races. The temple area was regal, supported by the followers of the church, worth more than almost half the station combined. The churchgoers made sure everything looked like their gods had hewn it from adamantine itself, as their coffers were always overflowing. Their orphanage, like a clichéd after school transmission, was the opposite.
For the first year of his stay, Smirk slept in a cupboard. It was the only private spot in the area, as everything else was dilapidated and corroded. They forced the children to construct toys to sell on behalf of their church, and with Smirk being the deftest at creation he was often the one forced to craft the most. His “reward” was his own space, snug and confined.
Every so often, the missionaries would grace Smirk with a bedtime story. Some stories featured overly curious children who wound up decapitated, others had unruly children pushed out of an airlock. And some nights the missionaries would tell Smirk stories of the boogeyman of the cosmos, who plagued the Ysoki race, lulled them to his thrall, or even used their very life essence to feed him. These were the stories that kept Smirk up at night, quivering in his cupboard. He lived in mortal fear of the day LaGrunch would come to claim him.
From his hideaway he would hear them beat the orphans who couldn’t work as fast or as well as he, and he would hear them torture the ones who couldn’t clean correctly or collect as many credit units as the missionaries deemed proper. Some would moan for hours afterwards, and some never made a noise again. Those bodies he heard dropped down the furnace shoot.
One evening, four months into his stay, he failed to meet his extreme quota of knick-knacks. One of the church elders took him aside to chastise him, and when Smirk failed to show the proper remorse the elder used a lighter to burn the tops of his hands.
“We wouldn’t want to harm your fingers, would we?” The elder said with a sickly sweet smile.
It wasn’t long after that encounter that the abuse become more frequent, more abominable, and soon his poor mangled paws were unable to meet the demands of the church. They were no longer dexterous and quick, and soon it was decided that Smirk would be better fodder for the furnace.
For the second time in his life, Smirk was utterly alone.
He had managed to escape the orphanage when protestors besieged the church. The crowds had turned violent, sparking a chaos that enabled him to skitter from the cupboard, to the tool closet, to the door. On his way out he started a small fire with a blowtorch, and a small part of him hoped the protestors wouldn’t get the credit.
He began to stop tracking time; time was just another measurement of suffering. It was a slow march of hopelessness, the hours and days beginning to run together. Existence was scavenging, cobbling together trinkets to sell, finding a safe space to sleep, and maybe eating – hopefully purchased food instead of trash.
Absalom was his home and his cage. He was terrified the church would find him again, so he kept to the dark sectors more often than not, places that weren’t for most adults, let alone adolescent Ysoki. He would get robbed and beaten on occasion, mercifully left alive…although he began to wonder if death provided less worry.
He spent his time scavenging food and hiding from law officers, trying desperately to nurse his bandaged paws back to functioning. The damage to his hands were great – they oozed for days after he escaped, and it wasn’t until he started raiding medical kiosks that they started to heal. He remembered his mother through a gauzy lens, her deft fingers dancing around his siblings’ various maladies. Cuts and scrapes and burns from working with a cornucopia of electronics and machines.
Yet one day, while attempting to buy food from a vendor, he was noticed.
He hadn’t heard his name called aloud in weeks, so his initial reaction was to run: he’d spotted missionaries wandering around his haunts before, but he had avoided their iron gaze. Now, he thought resignedly, they had finally found me.
There was a flurry of napkins from the vendor’s window, and Smirk departed on all fours. He rarely dropped down except to flee from a beating, but this time, to flee the living nightmare of returning to the church’s orphanage, instinct took over.
And yet, for being bold enough to attend a vendor in the market, he was too out in the open, too far away from his usual escape routes. He heard the footsteps pound towards him, felt the panting breath of his pursuer. His panic settled in as he surveyed frantically for a small opening to slip through and fell short. The footsteps were closer. He chose an outcropping to dip behind.
It was a dead end.
He turned, and bared his teeth and jagged claws with raw animal fury – he tried flight, but now his entire being now prepared for fight.
“Whoa, hold on!” said the man, stepping closer with his hands raised, “It’s me, Smirk! It’s Eugene. I was one of the medics that fou--”
The man knelt down, concern creasing his face. “Gods, your hands…what did they do to your hands…?”
Smirk caught the man’s scent, a mix of sweat, soap, and the grime of the sector. It was familiar to him, a reminder of better times.
“Run diagnostic on his hands,” the man said to nobody in particular. A brief silence followed, and then he said, “Yes, okay, but can we fix them?”
He held out his hand to the young Ysoki. It was even, unshaking. Smirk’s ears flattened as he approached gingerly. He knew he knew who this was, knew that his scent was familiar. His voice, his tone, was sincere. It had been so long since another being looked at him with genuine compassion... and it was frightening.
Yet there was something that piqued Smirk’s curiosity, a spark that was once dormant, and now led him forward to the man. He timidly put his paw into the hand of the man. His throat ached as he tried to summon words.
“W…who were y-you…talking…to?” Smirk asked.
The man smiled warmly. “I’ll introduce you later.”
“Eugene!” Smirk yelled from underneath the table, “Have you seen a small power converter anywhere?”
Eugene stuck his head into Smirk’s workshop at his clinic. “No, why?”
“I’m working on a backup generator for your gross old portable console.”
That garnered a grimace from Eugene. “It is not gross, and it’s only a little old.”
“Ha!” Chirped Smirk as he emerged holding a small device. “It is gross, it is quite old, and it scares the kids when it fritzes out…”
“Okay fine!” Eugene said with a bemused smile “But so help me if you break that console I won’t put anything into your head except a shoe!”
A small, frightened voice called out from the hallway, “Dr. Richards! The machines is spitting starlight at me!”
Smirk smirked, far too pleased with himself.
After finding him, Dr. Eugene Richards brought Smirk back to his pediatric clinic on the other side of Absalom station and slowly nursed him back to health. Fixing his paws was the most difficult part, as the burns had become infected by life on the streets, and his claws had been broken and cracked so often. It was laborious, but Eugene knew what Smirk was capable of if his paws were healthy, and didn’t want that future stripped from him.
Thankfully, the clinic was just the type of place that could really help Smirk recover. Eugene's apartment was the next floor up, where he had Smirk stay with him at night and be treated and heal during the day. Smirk was often surrounded by children of different races, and being around kids his own age made him feel more at ease.
When his hands healed he immediately wanted to begin helping at the clinic, be it talking with patients and their guardians or doing work on the various electronics in house. More than anything else though, Smirk loved dealing with Dr. Richards’ incredible AI, Herbie.
The idea of an AI was fascinating to him, and the fact that Herbie could be plugged into Eugene’s head or into the main console of the clinic even more so. From the central hub Herbie helped Eugene with surgeries and diagnosis, and eventually Herbie came to help Smirk with his tinkering.
When the humanoid lizard staggered into the clinic it looked as though it had lost a fight to several angry security droids: its eyes were clouded, and its mid-section was oozing green fluid. Eugene asked if he could help, but was met with an unrecognizable torrent of sounds.
Even though he was in one of the back rooms tinkering, Smirk heard the alien speech and stuck his head out. He heard as Eugene spoke to Herbie, asked the AI to translate, but then the creature suddenly made a surprised moan.
“Anything?” Eugene asked his AI, “Can you make out anything? It looks like it’s bleeding badly and I don’t know what it’s saying or how to help it.”
The creature stopped in its tracks as the doctor spoke to seemingly no one in particular. It again spoke, this time slowly and clearly, enunciating the strange noises, cradling its stomach. It tilted its head as the doctor continued to speak, frustrated with his invisible companion. The creature began to step backward, its eyes intense.
Eugene hurried around the counter brandishing a small machine that sealed wounds as Herbie rattled on. The AI couldn’t identify the language or the alien, but surmised that it appeared to be bleeding out – the green ooze began to tumble down its leg and made droplets on the floor.
Smirk came out of the back room with trepidation; something didn’t feel right.
At the approach of the doctor, the creature snapped its left arm out, and a metallic rod clicked into its palm. The end began to spark an intense blue crackle.
Eugene stopped cold, holding the sealer. “I’m just going to stop your bleeding…”
The creature brandished the metal rod, holding it forward. Its eyes were emotionless.
Eugene took another step. “Herbie, it could be dying, I have to help it."
In the space between blinks the creature lunged forward and stabbed the rode into Eugene’s sternum. The smell of burning flesh exploded into the air as the rod sizzled with blue lightning. Eugene’s eyes sparked sapphire, and he fell backward onto the floor, a smoldering hole in his chest.
The creature held the rod steady as the green ooze began to thicken its stream.
Smirk screeched and skittered over to his friend.
Dr. Richards coughed once, violently. The flecks of blood mottled into Smirk’s fur, but he didn’t notice.
“Hey, Gene…it’s okay, you’re okay…” he said, trying to convince himself more than Dr. Richards.
The lizard-like creature pulsed green fluid, sending a torrent down its leg and into a small puddle on the ground. It held its metal stanchion loosely in its left claws, the end emitting an acrid smoke that wafted into the air. Its right arm was pressed closely against its abdomen, trying to stifle the torrent of ooze. It glanced dispassionately down at the Ysoki cradling the human.
It let loose a slew of words that made no sense, in a tone that was as calm as a parking meter displaying the time.
Smirk looked up at it quizzically, and then back down to his friend. Nothing about this was making any sense.
“…No…” Eugene’s voice was barely above a whisper. It sounded wet and pained.
“’No’ what? What’s…” Smirk said, trailing off.
“Sm-Smirk. I’m…talking to Herbie…” he said with a slow exhale. He reached to the base of his skull, and with a small mechanical ‘click’ he removed the AI.
Smirk looked at him, tears brimming. “What are you doing? You’re going to be fine.”
With a trembling hand Eugene took Herbie and inserted it into Smirk’s AI port.
There was a click and then Herbie came online. In his head Smirk heard the AI’s voice: “Dr. Richards? Dr. Richards?”
“Can Herbie h-hear me?” he wheezed to Smirk.
“Yes,” the voice said. Smirk nodded.
“I want to initiate the transfer protocol,” Eugene said softly, “User Snik ‘Smirk’ Sarusan will now… will now be ‘Dr. Richards’… as far as your c-core programming is concerned…”
There was a nearly inaudible humming in Smirk’s ears as the AI began to reboot. In his mind he felt the AI blink out, and then began to show a graphic interface as its systems restarted. His view was laced with a light blue grid, and numerical symbols wound up, then down. It then scanned Eugene Richards, and a word shown in bright red: Fatal.
“He’s yours… be good,” said Eugene with a pained smile. He breathed out, a thick rattle.
And he was gone.
The lizard creature grunted, a throaty noise that split the silence. Smirk’s gaze darted over, anger bubbling. Herbie scanned the creature, noting that there was discomfort in the alien, but an even heart rate.
The ooze was coming steadily now as the creature clicked its prod back into place. It removed its arm, and with a pulse a large egg squeezed out and thudded to the ground. The lizard picked it up with both hands, licked some of the ooze off, and walked calmly out of the clinic.
“What now, Dr. Richards?” Herbie’s voice intoned.
Smirk cradled his friend and wept.
From that moment Smirk vowed never to be at a disadvantage with another creature. He would study the cosmos, a galactic archeologist, and bridge every gap that would enable a fatal interaction.
He took what he could salvage from the clinic, and abandoned the Absalom station, promising that he would never return.
For the rest of Smirk's story, you can listen to Reverse Centaur's Starfinder epic, starting with Episode 30: Nuar Your Business.