Back in Sol Again: Part 9

9.

Oh Hubris, Thy Name is Solsian

Simon couldn’t say how long he’d been out. He’d had nothing to mark time by during the brain melting tedium of inventory and being knocked unconscious had distorted his sense of time too far since. Between that and the obviousness that he’d been drugged, judging by the floating lethargy in his limbs, he knew there was no point in dwelling further on it. A more immediate concern was the throbbing in the back of his head. Evidently someone had mistaken it for a nail, hit it with a hammer.

The reality was much more sinister, he knew. He’d guessed it from the onset, in that flash of knowing before blackness came. Something about the feline face. He’d met more than his share of cats, big and small, but this one-eyed face stuck out. Why, he wasn’t sure yet. All he knew for certain was its allegiance.

These were anti-Humanists. No doubt the same that had infiltrated the HAA, the ISC before that. The most worrying, and pressing thing, to Simon’s mind, was how exactly they’d gotten here. Granted, there were a couple thousand people aboard Homer, they’d all been screened. Most especially, screened for connections like this.

Homer was long gone anyway, had been for hours. He knew that. They would too. No, they were here by some other means.

Instantly he remembered the ISC’s initial leak, years ago now, that had led to the creation of the Clarke-class vessels. The MeLon and its Anti-Humanist comrades, headed by a vengeful Zelphod, were in possession of Interstellar transportation blueprints. They’d created a space-worthy prototype, and were on their way to a second when Simon and the others destroyed the production facility on Ceres.

Even after personally bombarding the facility, the HAA and Earth Federation’s Fleet ran a so-called “training exercise” on Ceres to do the same. The fleet left the already decimated planet a series of smoking craters. Not a structure remained standing. What remained of the minor atmosphere was bled dry, its generators utterly destroyed.

Had the planet not been utterly depopulated a decade before, it would still remain a lifeless rock.

Where that initial Prototype ship was now, was anyone’s guess. It had been the prize of Alpha-Wolf Snow; the closest thing to a leader Jupiter’s anarchic Ganymede moon-station had. Snow was vicious. Cold. Lethal. He was a cunning Wolf with a history of violence and spec-ops work. Niala had served with him during Padfoot Lightning, worked with him afterward more than once. When the breach at the ISC pointed to an obviously innocent Simon, the pair went to meet the King himself.

For a moment, Simon nursed the idea that perhaps Snow was behind this. After all, he was the only one outside Sol’s various, official entities with an interstellar drive.

No, Simon knew; Snow was so fiercely apolitical, and violent at that, he’d single-handedly forced all the sleaze on Ganymede to get in line or get dead. Most did the former. He had no reason for such a move. Snow was a monarch, more than anything. He had no constituents, rather subjects. He had alliances, pacts. He had Dukes, Dames. An army of one-time Mercs whom found it more profitable to kneel before him than seek their daily bread elsewhere and anger their overlord. Most of all, Snow had what passed for honor in these times.

While that meant little to those unfamiliar with him, it meant everything to him; and through him, Simon.

His recollection flickered through Simon’s mind in the instants between swimming consciousness returned his senses to his limited surroundings. As if spinning until now, he found himself at the center of a reality swirling about him. The universe was a pure confusion that, for seconds, struggled to work out just what had happened– while fighting to keep his last meal from rejoining the open air.

He needed to keep from panicking. He’d done it enough, and ruined enough through it. He wasn’t about to risk his foolishness getting the best of him.

He suddenly thought of Lina and Niala, realized the room was dark, though no longer spinning. He also realized, something vaguely cotton was stuffed into his mouth, and finally, that he’d been lashed to something behind him. Something warm. Moving. He focused his senses, was suddenly aware of Lina’s warm scent. He shook himself, stirring the figure lashed behind him. It shook back limply.

Lina! He thought to say, tried to say. It came out “Llllnnnuhh!”

The cotton-gagged night sounded with muffled noise, as if a glutton with a mouthful of toast screamed for more. Something heavy and furred smacked the side of his head. The blindfold slipped from one eye. The one-eyed Feline appeared, face rigid with hate. At some point, one of his ears had been slashed through the middle, leaving a scar deep enough to tatter its edges. Stripes in the feline’s forehead fur were scarred and mottled, patchy from a lifetime of fights from fist, claw, talon, everything. He looked like an overgrown alley cat, smelled like one.

Simon finally recalled the face. He’d seen it before Homer’s departure, during a mandatory security briefing for officers and senior staff. Most people aboard the ship hadn’t been privy to it; even Lina wouldn’t recognize him.

But Simon did.

He remembered why too; the Feline was a fugitive. Caligulus Shafer, an Anti-Human extremist who’d been arrested multiple times for felony assault and battery, disturbance of peace, and inciting violence. His rap-sheet ran a mile longer than that but Simon didn’t commit much else to memory.

It was enough to know that Shafer was a bad guy. He’d escaped a work-mine on Deimos not long before the expedition launched. Knowing now what Simon did about Zark and the HAA infiltration, there was no doubt Shafer was been broken out in preparation for it.

Something bigger was going on. Something planned to coincide with the expedition. Simon’s gut told him it had more to do with Homer than anything, but Shafer’s method of transport might change that.

Simon stilled a sudden panic to Lina’s movements by clasping her hand. He watched Shafer rise, step away to converse in a low purr with a wolf. Given the markings, and the way the Wolf held itself, Simon guessed accurately it was a female.

Female Wolves were rare nowadays. Not as any sort of evolutionary byproduct, but rather largely from isolation. Wolves were one of few species that had retained independence when most of the animal world was dying off or surviving on conservation efforts. Wolves had already been restored through those acts. Though Simon knew of no Wolf that would ever admit it, to others or themselves, Vulpines only yet existed as a result of Humans.

Admittedly, they’d only ever been threatened because of Humans too, but C’est la vie. Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana. So it goes…

In the scheme of things, all that mattered was that Wolves had known freedom up to Contact and “evolution.” The first-gen of evolved Wolves had bestowed the deep importance of independence on their offspring. For females, that meant prideful isolation. For Males, it meant honor, leadership. No doubt, some measure of that pride fueled She-Wolf’s desire to join an Anti-Humanist strike force.

There was no denying they were that. Even from the minute corner of his uncovered vision, Simon could tell they were militants. They carried weapons. Tac-Vests. Comms. They reminded him of the vids of spec-ops teams he’d watch with Niala on alternate movie nights. She loved to razz him about his ancient sci-fi lizards and such, but even she knew nothing quite topped the ridiculousness of old action-vids.

He realized then that Niala was missing. Or had been. The sickening satisfaction in Shafer’s face said they’d found her. More than likely, they’d bring her here. Hopefully. If they weren’t smart enough to space her, anyway.

Shafer whirled, sensing Simon’s eye on him. He muttered to the Wolf, then stalked over as if sauntering up to toy with trapped prey. His voice came out like the rasp of an angle-grinder that smoked too much.

“We have the Lion. We’re searching for the bot. We’ll have it too. Soon enough. You want to make it through the rest of your miserably short life in a single piece, you’ll recall it.”

Simon’s heart skipped a beat. He let it tripwire hope in him; Rearden wasn’t deactivated. It was hiding. It could call for help. Something of this must’ve shown on Simon’s face. Another, sickly grin spread across Shafer’s jagged, tin-edge face.

“Think you might make it out of this, don’t you, Corben?” Simon’s face flickered with a minor repulsion at hearing his name in Shafer’s rasp. “Oh yes, I know all about you, Doctor. Savior of the Solsian republics. Scientist and star. Partner to the Dome-ess’. Co-perpetrator of crimes against animal-kind.”

Simon’s face couldn’t help but fall into an utter confusion. He was none of those things, let alone savior or criminal. He tried to say as much through the gag, but it all came out sounding like a series of “Mmms,” “fffs,” and “ouuuss.” On the plus side, he seemed to be understood regardless and his gag had come loose a bit.

“Deny all you like, Human,” Shafer said. “We know the truth. Whether you choose to see it or not, admit it or not, you work for a corrupt entity. Your people ruled over us for millenia. When we gained our intelligence, our independence, you used your infrastructure as an excuse to lord over us. You and your sympathizers talk of sense and reason, but you’re all motivated by your own desires.”

Simon threw his head back and groaned, unintentionally spitting out his gag. “Oh what. a broken. Record!” Shafer’s one eye narrowed. “All of you idiot anti-Humanists say the same thing; Humans are doing this. Humans are doing that. Humans are oppressing me. Humans aren’t giving into my every demand so let’s pitch fits and start civil wars. Shut up already. We get it. You’re not happy. We’re working on it. All of us!”

Shafer’s face sharpened to a point. The nails on one of his paws jumped out. Simon’s instinct was to swallow hard. He felt the scar from his last encounter with such claws throb across his throat. Before Shafer could lunge, re-enact that last encounter, a high-growl met his ears. Simon breathed relief, knowing Niala’s rage anywhere.

Shafer swiveled on-heel as Niala was dragged in by a large, male Cougar and a Rat whose scars gave even Shafer’s a run for their money. Behind them followed another, female Rat with a plas-rifle vertically in her hand and against a shoulder. Niala was pushed into the room and freed from their grip but the look in her eyes said it was obvious the game was nowhere near their favor.

She focused on Shafer. “Caligulus. I should’ve known it was you after the escape.”

Simon shook his head; more and more he wondered just how deep into the muck Niala had once traveled. No matter her distaste, she certainly knew well enough how to traverse it; more than a few whom did so willingly. She ignored Simon’s look, though he sensed she’d caught it.

“Dome-ess,” Shafer said, with as much vitriol as Simon had yet heard. “Kind of you to join us. Where is it!?”

“Where is what?” She said innocently.

“Don’t bullshit me, Martin. Where’s the bot?”

“What bot?”

Shafer nodded. The rat with the rifle slammed its butt against her back. She roared, ready to snap. Simon watched her incredible restraint. If she weren’t so certain they’d kill her for it, Simon knew she’d be goring the cat’s throat. She wouldn’t though, they were all prepared to kill her. The situation was delicate. They didn’t want her, didn’t need her, but if she could be kept alive, she could be valuable. If she became a problem, she was better off dead. The same went for the others.

Niala growled through low frequencies with the sound of a chain cranked through metal loops. No doubt she was saving as much fury as possible for later, when her infamous Lion blood-rage could be unleashed and better put to use.

“The bot,” she said. “Is probably at this moment, altering the distress signal you have running. When it’s done doing that, the ship you’re so interested in won’t be coming near this outpost until long after we’re all dead from starvation. Then maybe, if you’re lucky, they’ll space your corpse. Otherwise, they’ll burn it. Or grind it into fertilizer for a hydro farm. Or chum it at a fishery. You ugly. Worthless. Scum-sucking. Piece of genetically-altered wa–

The cat swiped her face, leaving a gash from one side of it to the other, roughly a half-inch deep. Niala didn’t cry out, but Simon sucked air through his teeth. Lina gripped his hand harder, completely impotent otherwise. Shafer began shouting for the others to lead Niala to a corner where they chained her to a support-beam.

In control, a shout emitted behind Rearden. Its optics were focused on the storage room feed. It saw and heard everything that had transpired, including Niala’s subtle instructions. Already, the altered transmission was broadcasting. Even when the door opened and the electric-stunner arc soared past the unconscious Hawk to incapacitate it, the little bot knew it had done its job.

Not far away, relativistically speaking, the transmission’s binary pulses echoed on the comm array of a ship much like Homer, though half its size. From the forward display in the central Bridge of the Alpha Wolf, against the back-lit floor sconces glowing with low fires, the grizzled face of a Wolf leaned forward into the light.

One half of the gray face pinched downward with resolve, “Set a course.”

 

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