Back in Sol Again: Part 11

11.

The Wolf Doth Protest

Snow hesitated at the storage room door and peered out along the hall. At its end were the two rats Niala had seen on meeting Shafer. The bastard was no doubt in Control with the She-Wolf, attempting to bypass Rearden’s code. No matter, the entire HAA would know of the take-over now, would entrust them to remedy the situation themselves– or Niala, anyway. Padfoot Lightning had its downsides. Then again, Snow’d found his way in. That only raised more questions she didn’t have time for now.

Niala focused ahead as Snow strafed to the corridor’s far-side, low and silent. Niala followed along the other side letting training take over to make her a leaf on the wind. When they dropped to all fours though, it was millions of years of instinct that led the charge.

Silent, quadrupedal motion turned to a full-force a pounce. A century ago, that would’ve given way to tearing throats and gored entrails. Now, only the soft snap of bone vibrated their paws. No other sound was heard, save the slight rustle of cloth settling against metal floor.

Snow broke left, knowing the corridors T off again. A few meters later, a corner wrapped around again. At its long end, the “T” led to another section of station, two-thirds of it forming the lone control room and station’s various controls.

But immediately past the corner, the doorway to the bunk room sat open. Snow could saw the large Cougar looming over two Humans, tied and blindfolded along a central column. Niala was too focused to see, ended up smelling them first. Lina was strongest; terror masked as well as one could. Conversely, Simon was nervous if little else. At least ISC incident had done some good for his courage.

Smell always betrayed humans, but it was the Cougar, Saffron, that reeked most– of blood-thirst and boredom. If they didn’t act soon, that combination would lead to bloodshed. Niala and Snow readied themselves.

Simon could neither smell nor see his would-be saviors. The only scent present was a pungent reek of something calling itself tobacco, and days-old, unbathed cat. If he’d learned anything in his years of friendship with evolved life it was, big or small, Felindae all smelled the same after a few days without baths: bad.

The Cougar was no different. He stank.

Like hell.

Simon was too preoccupied to care much. He couldn’t help feeling as if taking part in the first half of a witch-burning. It’d never reach the actual burning stage for lack of kindling, which ruined the illusion somewhat, but one couldn’t deny the similarities. He and Lina were tied, back-to-back, on opposite sides of a steel support beam that was more or less load-bearing for the section. The more he thought about it, the more he decided Nazi’s should be opening an ark nearby. Then again, whose to say they weren’t? He wasn’t exactly master of all he surveyed.

In simplest terms, Simon wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, barring the unforeseen.

Inward Snow and Niala crept, unforeseen, unheard, and unsmelled. The reek of tobacco would’ve covered them anyhow. Simon knew only the vague sense of a draft that Lina seemed to notice too. Perhaps she heard or smelled something no-one else could. Perhaps the simple shift in wind calmed her.

Intense grunting preceded a collision of heavy and soft. Then, something heavier hit the floor.

Niala rushed for Lina, unbound her hands and feet. She began to speak, but Niala pawed for silence. Snow cuffed the Cougar to the floor beside Simon.

“What’s going on? Who’s there? Lina?”

Snow ripped the blindfold off Simon’s face; half expecting gratitude, and half expecting a smart-ass comment. Instead, Simon’s eyes narrowed and widened, one after the other, in utter disbelief.

“Snow? Why are you here?”

“You’re welcome, Human,” Snow grumbled, cutting his bonds.

Niala helped Lina over, “Alright?”

Lina nodded and rubbed the back of her head, “Is it just me or is space turning into Glasgow?”

Niala instructed her quickly, “Stay here. Tie him up. Can you do that?” Lina nodded. “Simon, you’re with us.” Snow moved to the door, peered out, “Lock the door behind us.” She pulled a plaz-pistol from the Cougar’s side, handed it to Lina. “Just in case.”

They headed out. Lina followed to the door, and when Simon thought to linger, shut and locked it. He found himself once more unarmed and on a path he wished didn’t exist, least of all for him.

There were more than a few reasons he abhorred violence, and until a few years ago, he’d never have employed it voluntarily. That was, until he’d become concerned with righting an injustice so foul there was no choice but to allow for violence. While some of his actions then might have appeared vengeful, his true motivations had always been justice, correcting a grave and vile mistake.

Now, neither correction nor justice were the issue. Rather it was preservation of order; not law, nor even necessarily any specific order, but a status quo whose disruption would damage more than he alone. Allowing Anti-Humanists to establish the first foothold in deep-space, apart from mortifying, would be the first in a short line of “last” Solsian mistakes. Simon would rather his life end than those maniacs become his “ambassadors to the stars.”

So again, here he was, creeping along behind his boss, the Lioness, and a blood-thirsty Wolf. They were probably going to be in a fire-fight. And again, he’d be expected to improvise like a soldier. Obviously, he wasn’t one. Had never been one. Would never be one. He’d made it through the last militant exercises on luck. Even when closest to act or die, he’d frozen. It was Rearden that had saved him. Now the little bot was gone, incapacitated. His heart hurt at the thought.

Still, he followed the Lioness and Wolf along a corridor as it jutted left. His each step was as equally a feather on a library floor as the pounding of a war drum. His heart raced Delta V launch. His head lightened. If he didn’t know better, he might be about to faint. Instead, he swallowed saliva and creeping bile, and hunched a little lower.

They hunkered down outside the control room. Tell-tale sounds of graceless fingers against a touch-screen leaked into the hall. Even for an evolved animal, there was no denying the creature typing was heavy handed enough not to be handed at all.

Snow and Niala were prepared. Simon was barely breathing. Among other things, he didn’t want to give them away. They exchanged a silent look then sprang inward on all fours, galloping in charge. Simon stumbled in after them. All hell broke loose.

The hawk thwacking at the touch-screen nearly jumped from its down. Shafer and the Wolf reacted; rounded, weapons drawn. Snow struck first. The she-Wolf’s pistol flew to one side of the room; her body followed Snow’s to the other. They tumbled, howling and growling. Teeth flashed. Blood flowed.

Niala aimed for Shafer, Simon for the startled Hawk. Niala missed. Shafer was too small, too agile. Before she could rebound he was across the room. He hesitated at the door to watch the chaos unfolding, caught Simon flying over a console. He hit his mark and knocked the Hawk to the ground. The comical sight was considerably less amusing to Shafer as the Hawk’s head smacked the floor, rattling its hollow bones. It was out in a blink. Shafer bolted.

“Snow!” Niala shouted.

He was on his feet, “Go. I’ve got the bitch!”

Niala dropped to all fours. Simon fought to secure the Hawk’s wings, spied her pursuit:

A million and more years of evolution had formed her into a creature of pure power. One that, however unwittingly, the Zelphod had honed to a razor’s edge via their forced evolution that bestowed the brain of a genius-level thinker and strategist. She, in turn, sharpened both body and mind into a creature worthy of the royal title of Matriarch, bestowed by her Earth-based African sisters. All the honor and glory of that moment resounded inside Simon with a sort of pride, as if their shared planet of origin alone put him on some level with her– a level he could otherwise never reach or know existed.

And all of that humbling flew out the window like so much dander on the wind as she rounded into the hall, on all fours, slipping and sliding like Mittens the kitten hoping to flee on polished hardwood….

Hoping, and ultimately, failing.

By the time she recovered and disappeared, both she and Simon knew Shafer was gone. He had too good a lead.

Niala refused to admit defeat so easily, nor did Snow’s “Bitch,” whose title only made her angrier. Much angrier. She slashed at Snow’s suit, unaware of the inch-thick ceramic plating sewn into it. Failing to see it then, she lunged and bit at his mid-section.

A yelping howl saw her reeling back, one canine tooth shorter. Snow took his opening, lunged. The she-Wolf’s yelp fell to an angry, defeated growl. Snow had won, they all knew it.

But Niala had lost. She was at the airlock, watching Shafer’s Cheshire-cat, smug grin from beneath lights warning of venting atmo. Shafer locked his helmet in place as Niala baring her teeth. The last image they had of one another was Niala standing beyond the airlock, knowingly hopeless while Shafer waved goodbye sarcastically behind the shuttle’s retracting, cargo door.

Simon helped Snow secure the other prisoners, separated at various points of the storage room, then left with Lina to attempt the comm-hack. The more they did, the less they felt they could. Rearden had input a 400-bit encryption lock. That code would be irretrievable until it was up and working again or its memory was breached. Either way it would take time. That is, if the electro-stunner hadn’t entirely fried its memory cores.

Simon didn’t even want to entertain the idea of losing one of his best friends, let alone the broadcast code.

Niala on the other hand, merely stared at the empty airlock while her mind worked. She about-faced and stormed for the storage room. The need to retrieve Rearden prompted both Simon and Lina to follow behind her. They drifted along, lost in thought, completely unaware of the sudden fury ignited in her.

The Humans were at the storage room door– where Rearden had, once more, been tossed so carelessly for fear that Simon might reactivate him– when Niala exploded.

Snow stood beside Nero Saffron, still tied and unconscious. Niala lunged. Snow’s armored back slammed a station-wall like a ringing lead-pipe. It froze all present and conscious, including both the Hawk and the She-Wolf, Rhein and Fera. It was then, for the first time, that Simon realized how small the Wolf truly was. He showed no fear, but needn’t either, all present saw the scale of things.

Snow was neither a friend nor an adversary to be underestimated, but he was a Wolf. He was small, sinuous, built for pack hunting, running. Niala, Matriarch Lioness and Mother to uncountable cubs, most now fully grown and respected in their own rights, was a creature of pure power. She was built to stalk, to watch, and when the time was right, to kill.

It seemed that, he knew this, had always managed to compensate by taking charge or shelling out orders. It wasn’t a power-trip, more habit. Most especially, he did this when in the presence those who were, or whom he considered, subordinates. To him, the illusion of power was just as important as its reality, given he’d been required to recruit and command so many various species, and legions of them at that.

None of this changed facts, though. And the fact was, no matter how big he seemed elsewhere, beneath those massive limbs and before that angry, Panthera Leo muzzle, he was suddenly small.

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