“Traitor,” Niala growled, her arm at Snow’s throat. Her other paw flexed, razor claws tensed, ready. “Your ship could’ve fired.”
Simon was frozen. Beside him, Lina too. Across the room, Rhein cringed. Conversely, Fera licked her lips with a blood-thirst even Saffron couldn’t have matched.
Snow winced; any muddled explanation or unclear motive would end his life. His spine stiffened as best it could beneath her strength. The ultra-dense ceramic-plating of his suit compressed his body with the arm at his throat, the former utterly impotent against the latter. He would have to make a point to tailor something for his neck… if he survived.
He took the only route he could, even if it could just as easily end in his death; total honesty.
“You’re right.” He spoke slowly, his eyes fused to Niala’s. “It could have.”
Simon was too acutely aware of the blood-thirst on the air. He was also aware of how very small Snow appeared; how very large Niala appeared; and most of all, how very still everything had become. He wished deeply for something to break the tension, but chose further tension over the tension being broken with murder.
Much as Simon loathed Snow’s dominance games, he and Niala had long been friends– or as near to it as their circumstances and choices allowed– and Simon didn’t care to see that line erased. Or more importantly, the carnage of its erasure.
Yet Niala’s fury said their history meant nothing if Snow’s continued reply remained unsatisfactory. If so, it also said, there’d be blood by the bucketfuls to clean. He’d and Lina had already decided– however unconsciously– if it happened, Niala would be the one with mop in hand.
Snow stiffened even further against the hydraulic sandwich of the Matriarch and his own armor. The feat seemed impossible before he’d managed it, even less so afterward. He remained openly honest, no maneuvering, no games, however unfamiliar it felt.
“Had I destroyed that ship, two things would now be fact; the black-box transponder would be broadcasting to Shafer’s people, drawing them here. And, informing them something other than Homer was armed for battle in this quadrant.”
This was delicate ground. Everyone knew it. Curiosity, or sheer need, magnetized each person to Snow’s every syllable. Simon and Lina saw it for what it was. The others too, though less so; Snow hoped to manipulate the room into recognizing his importance. The problem remained however, that no-one could reach Niala before she decided to move, if indeed she did. He remained aware of this fact, as did the others of all the facts before and around it.
He stayed his course. “Had Shafer been killed, he’d have immediately been replaced by someone we’re ignorant of. We know our enemy now. We also know Shafer; he will seek revenge, hoping to rectify his failure. This allows us to anticipate our attacker, his attack.”
The slightest breath escaped Niala; blown pressure from a release-valve to avoid catastrophic overload. It wasn’t necessary for breathing, but for easing internal tension. Niala was now one breath further from explosion, from rashness. Judging by the room’s remaining tension, only Simon and Snow recognized the slight nudge the Wolf’s future had received against sudden, lethal misfortune. Over his next few sentiments, Snow kneaded enough of that remaining tension to dissipate it, nudge by nudge.
He remained with total honesty. Given the immense strength still posed beside his jugular, it was the advisable option. Warrior or not, to do otherwise was foolish. Snow hadn’t lived so long as a fool. No-one that knew him would claim it either.
“Knowing Shafer as we do is infinitely more important given the discovery below us. There is no doubt, had I ordered Alpha-Wolf to fire, the civilization below would’ve seen the destruction. If they’ve yet to spot us, it would have been a poor introduction.”
Niala’s jaw was tight. She agreed, but knew him too well to believe him fully. She knew what he wasn’t saying; that he’d yet to pick a side; that the Wolf was also restrained and hidden because he wished not to expose it to the Anti-Humanists; that he wished even less to expose his indecisiveness.
Sol and the HAA could be manipulated into believing in his impartiality. They were stupid enough to fall for it. Bureaucracy had a way of making even the most advanced civilizations look dimwitted. Mostly, it was the purely empirical nature of the beast. Empiricism had its place. Science of most of all.
But science was only one-part Empiricism. Science too, required heart, imagination, discipline. Bureaucracy was wholly empiricism, nothing else. It could not survive otherwise. As a result, it suffered from foolishness and myopia. Indeed, if universal, governmental history had proven anything, it was; any mode of thought based on a sole principal was infinitely worse off for it. Were anyone to seek an example, they need only turn to monarchy. Functional or not, a system relying on one idea as its core missed the point entirely of a system.
At the risk of needless repetition, bureaucracy had a way of making even the most advanced civilization look dimwitted.
Niala, on the other hand, was not a dimwit. She wasn’t a fool. And she wasn’t about to let Snow treat her as one.
“You must think I’m neutronically dense,” she said with a hint of pity.
One of his eyes narrowed further than the other. “Not in the least.”
She breathed deep, releasing him slightly. He had enough time to relax and stand again on his own two feet. A right cross knocked him sideways.
“Never forget your life was a gift from me, Snow. Bestowed more than once.“
He caught himself on the unconscious Cougar with one paw, pressed the other against his bleeding muzzle. The Cougar began to stir. Snow let out a momentary fury with a lone punch, knocked the Cougar back into unconsciousness.
Niala pushed past Simon and Lina without looking, left. It was more a show of finality than anything. The couple lingered long enough for Snow to sulk off into a corner and dig through a pack he’d brought in from his shuttle. He’d been corrected, wasn’t happy about it. Then again, he was alive. Anyone else in his situation wouldn’t have gotten away alive.
He could certainly take a punch, that wasn’t the problem. The obvious humiliation was.
Of all things, Snow was a leader, with pride. That pride, in turn, secured itself via an honor-code held to even more rigidly than nerves to his spine. In combination with that, he kept himself and his people safe through executed action. In simplest terms, he backed the threats and promises he made.
Niala’s victory was a reminder he could still bleed, still die. It was a promise too, she could ensure he bled whenever she wished, especially if he tried to pull-one over on her. Simon had learned years ago Niala could never bear to kill Snow herself– and yet even in retrospect it made the scene no less terrifying for him.
Simply, there was too much between Niala and Snow to kill him; too much trust, too much friendship. Too much of things Simon could never be certain of– though never anything more than a certain friendship and rivalry. Nothing more intimate.
What Niala could do though, was make to it so she effectively pulled the trigger. Killed him without killing. It was as simple as the act of forcing him against the wall in front of the right people. Humiliate him in the right time, right place, with the right company, make him appear weak enough, and someone else would get to him. His death would then be as much her doing as the act of exposure. It wouldn’t happen immediately, might very well be a fight to the death for the person, someone could get to him.
That was, if Niala wished them to.
For the moment, all involved knew the weren’t to that point. There was no reason for it. Not yet. Certainly there were unspoken reasons for not shooting Shafer down, but his sentiments remained correct regardless. The line of reasoning’s whole mattered less given the integrity of its constituent parts.
In layman’s terms; he’d lied, but only a little.
Presently, the two Humans trailed after the Lioness; Simon carrying Rearden’s dented, little figure along. He’d have to pull and examine its memory core, and if intact, side-load them into the station’s systems to access the code. Meanwhile, the rest would have to be repaired by hand, and if Simon was lucky, easily. Otherwise, it would cut into the inevitable shift-sleeping he and the others would take on monitor the station.
He and Lina set about loading and decrypting Rearden’s memory while Snow lingered elsewhere, licking his wounded pride. He might as well space himself for all the good he was doing. Niala felt similarly. Feelings aside, Snow’s ship-full of people far outstripped their three scientists, one fried bot, and cadre of prisoners. If the prisoners managed to escape, there was no telling what would happen– to say nothing of if Snow suddenly decided to pick the wrong side.
Simon and Lina worked over an hour to decode the emergency transmitter’s contents, several more before they were able to deactivate it. Translated to English, Rearden’s Binary message read like an old telegraph missing its stops: Alert. A-H- aboard. Seek Homer. Ambush planned. Do Not Return. Only trust direct contact. 1030 Zulu. Message Repeats.
That simple text had saved untold lives. Rearden, were it Human, would receive the HAA and ISC’s highest honors. But it wasn’t. It was a bot. A programmed and intelligent system, but a system nonetheless. Accolades meant nothing to it. All the same, Simon would find a way to honor the bot; perhaps a new coat of paint, something else of the sort. He’d figured it out in time.
The beacon deactivated while Niala launched a burst transmission to Homer. It was merely a request for a vid-call, signed by her operator’s code. That number alone guaranteed Homer knew it was her. At the very least, Ingstrom would know. Privy to the knowledge of her spec-ops training, he knew she’d die before that code was given up. For operatives like her, ones Ingstrom knew well, there was no “Room 101,” or life and death. There was protocol. Nothing else.
Minutes later the comm-console lit up. The quantum communicator and its sub-space packets could link the Milky Way galaxy to another if it so chose. Or, Beta station with Sol. Or simply, Beta with Homer, as was the case now. It could, and would, do so instantaneously, without lag, and until nothing short of catastrophic destruction of the transmitters interrupted it.
At the moment, things were calm. Even Ingstrom appeared much less severe than Simon recalled. He suspected relief was the cause, but Ingstrom’s stone-face grumble left him hard-pressed for proof.
“I trust the situation has stabilized and was handled appropriately,” Ingstrom stated.
Simon sensed his wish for no further details, either due to personal disinterest or professional caution.
“Aye, Captain, yes,” Niala replied. “There was only a single complication. Someone–“
Ingstrom cleared his throat, making it obvious to all that he knew more than willing to say– and that someone else was likely listening. It suddenly dawned how much he would know of Snow’s presence, more so than her, and that he’d possibly contracted him there, instructed him to keep from being spotted in the event he was needed.
It took Simon a moment longer to catch on, though Lina was thoroughly lost. New as she was to these games, she knew to keep quiet, listen and learn. Niala was clearly in charge anyhow, and far be it from her to question her well-trained, well-weathered, quite-well-frightening-when-angry boss.
Ingstrom gave a few, final remarks. “Question your captives. For now, they are to be treated as any domestic terrorists. There will be a diplomatic communique arriving I would like you to attend to concerning our new friends.
“Until then, be aware that we’re monitoring Gliese on long-range sensors but will be proceeding on-mission until directed otherwise. If you learn anything, do not hesitate to relay it. Stars guide you.”
“And you, Captain.”
The comm cut out and Niala turned for the door, headed from the control room.
Simon called after her, “Where are you going?”
“To get answers.”