Back in Sol Again: Part 18

18.

Obligatory Heroics

Simon wasn’t sure why, but he was running. Fleeing, really. He knew why, but not why. He was stuck in the middle of a space-station, in the dead of space, fleeing to a shuttle he couldn’t pilot if he wanted or planned to. True, he was headed there on request and indeed he needn’t run. Nothing could change his current peril.

But the million and more years of evolution guiding his nerves in the face of overwhelming terror said one thing, and one thing only; run! Less succinctly; run, you stupid bastard!

Where and why didn’t matter. He was really only running, fleeing, from one room to another, but it felt curiously good. The incoming armada of Anti-Humanists wouldn’t be stopped regardless of his chosen speed. He was certain of that, and that running was pointless, too, but he was also certain his terror had severed all hope of his body acting on anything but the vague hint of advice from its brain.

Yet another result of the eternal foot-in-mouth disease-vector all humans contended with. Its current bout had started something like this:

Moments of eternities passed between the Hog disappearing on-screen, the tension mounting in their guts, and the madness beginning. Everyone was shouting save Simon and the Vuur. The Vuur were calm, collected. Simon was quietly terrified, but his mind was working.

He knew a few things, as all Solsians inevitably did. Fortunately, his few were relevant. They had ten minutes. The trip to Vursara took thirty. The armada was coming. They had only one armed ship. They had two extra shuttles. Their ships would never survive combat with the armada. The Armada was coming.

“I’ve got it!” He said aloud, unthinkingly sealing his doom. “We invert the weapon conduits to modulate the shield power on the ships and encase the outpost indefinitely.”

He didn’t say, thereby turning certain death into a siege.

He also wasn’t expecting to here Melchondo say, “Good. Go,” then start pushing him along.

Now here he was, running between one airlock and the next, clock ticking, trying to save the galaxy.

It was getting old.

It shouldn’t have been getting old, but it was.

It shouldn’t have been anything. He was a scientist. A Human scientist; the most cowardly of all evolution’s thus-revealed concoctions. Mostly, because they had nothing to prove. But really, it was a convenient excuse.

Still, he should’ve been riding out the expedition on Phobos. Comfy and cozy in the ISC Plasma Propulsion Lab. His lab. He should’ve been doing something productive– anything– other than trying to save the galaxy; to save lives. He was wholly unqualified to do so. Were it not for the word’s prevalence in Solsian culture, he’d have no idea what “hero” meant.

Perhaps that was a bridge too far, but “hero” was never a label meant for him.

His body sprinted through the airlock into Snow’s shuttle it and his brain separate entities, one coping the other working.

He recalled Josie’s rescue; they’d called him a hero then. He didn’t like that. He didn’t scorn the fame it afforded him, largely for its contribution to his lab, but the title was unnerving. It downplayed the contributions of Niala, Snow, and Rearden. It made him seem different, impersonal, as if carrying some trait no person didn’t already, naturally have.

It was bullshit. Plain and simple bullshit.

Simon knew even then. Only now did it invigorate him. Anyone could be a “hero.” It wasn’t an inborn trait. It wasn’t some rare bout of courage. It was doing what was right. When it mattered. Regardless of the risk to oneself. That was all he’d done; all any of them had done. It wasn’t logic or even decision, it was instinct. Gut instinct, pure and simple.

That this was the result? His simple act of decency was mutated by ever-present forces of propaganda and ignorance. He wasn’t angry for the mutation. Not anymore. He was angry for the act’s praise. Praising common decency to make it seem heroic, as if impossible for all but a select few. Out of reach of all but the special ones.

He grit his teeth. That was what allowed for things like Anti-Humanism to take root. The series of events, personal and public, that made any person of any species feel marginalized when another was perceived as “better.” They became someone with decency; a nothing word that meant not being an ass-hat. Humans had barely recovered from slavery in their own species when Zelphod Contact occurred. That prejudice turned outward until everyone suffered.

Simon saw it now– the ultimate goal of the Zelphod; sowing dissent and unrest in Sol until it killed itself off just enough for them to strike again. It was the longest of cons. Solsians were notoriously impatient and short sighted. A few, evolved species were less prone to such behavior but toward it rather than not.

Puzzle pieces suddenly began falling into place. Simon saw the Anti-Humanist threat, its extent. First Contact was bloody, brutal, irreversibly altered the course of Solsian history, but was ultimately short. Sol had believed it won with the Zelphod withdrawal, the signing of the population-control treaties. No-one believed differently. No-one had reason to.

Until now.

Simon was beginning to think otherwise. The Zelphod had a way about them. They weren’t the most complicated creatures, socially. They were bugs. For the most part, they survived on swarm mentality, but with the benefit of all but the most automaton-like drones being capable of individuality, sentience.

Technologically, they were only a few hundred years advanced beyond Sol. An advancement stalled millennia by the dying of their home star. Their generational ships were largely autonomous, the drones handled working with the ingrained knowledge any insect used to act for the sake of the hive.

But they weren’t insects, Simon knew now.

Not as Solsians knew insects. The obvious physical and social resemblances all but solidified the idea in the minds of the Solsian majority. Simultaneously, Solsians were faced with the crumbling realities of their system, their non-uniqueness in the universe, the damage and loss of war. A reality, that by virtue of the abrupt change caused by the Zelphod themselves, was suddenly in dire need of utter reformation.

The Zelphod must have known that. It must have been the plan. Or a contingency. Forced Evolution was the main attack, in hopes unrest would inevitably weaken the system. Even in the event of that plan’s failure, the undeniable susceptibility to infection in Sol’s society could incubate something more dangerous, insidious; civil-war.

Or, simply, Anti-Humanism.

Now all of that was threatened with the discovery of the Vuur. A species looking in from the outside. One that had yet to be poisoned by the chaos of the Contact War. One that, above everything, had a pure sight. Anger turned to fury and Simon knew then why he was running.

He dove into the open engine-compartment in the shuttle’s rear. Like the last, it was cramped. A ventilation shaft more than anything. He shimmied along on his back, squeezing through cramped section of conduits and piping. Heat smothered his breaths. Sweat slid down into his eyes, propelled downward. Through the blistering hell and toward the power router.

For anyone else, a time-limit might’ve been prohibitive to the whole idea. Simon was different. He’d designed or revised plans on most of these ships, their systems. He knew everything connecting them, had designed or studied they and their constituent parts in depth to refine their designs. Thus, he knew the ships like an artist knew his painting.

Knowing what one was searching for, how to locate it without being killed or destroying power conduits was the important part. The actual act of inverting power was rather simple. Deceptively so.

Simon worked with ease, speed. Cylindrical power routers, nestled amid plethoras of cabling and connections, glowed with almost blinding blue-white in the red-lit confinement. The pinch of a pair of rubberized contacts feeding spoked boxes released the connections.

Another pinch. The cylinders slid free in his hands. Swift deftness reoriented their casings, and thereby, reoriented their current once reconnected. Simon slid the last cylinder in place, then left it unlocked and scrambled away.

He surged past the router, spinning about. Jagged steel shredded some portion of his clothing. Sweat stung a fresh wound around warm blood. It couldn’t have been less important if it were rebar impaling him. He had only moments before the router built to overload.

The next phase was equally delicate. Indeed, the manipulation requiring the utmost delicacy.

The giant, fuse-like power inverters needed physical reorienting. Otherwise, they would overload, discharge along ship conduits, fry its internal systems, and anything touching its framework; floorpanels, controls, seats, him. Everyone and everything inside the shuttle would turn to a sort of deep-fried potato-chip– or in Lina’s parlance, a crisp. Atop it, the ticking clock of overload.

Sweat drenched his eyes, making his hands and body slick. The distant sting of pain in his back from the fresh wound mixed with an undeniable need to pee.

Somewhere on the order of ten-seconds were left. Worse, touching anything more than the piping hot ceramic-glass would kill him. He’d come prepared with a common pot-holder raided from Melchondo’s ship. It wasn’t much, but enough to do the job before major burns set in.

He hoped.

So far it had worked….

His mitted hand trembled for the fuse. He froze. Breathed deep. Blinked. His hand was still again, mitt steady as a dead sea. Another breath for courage, which sounded ludicrous in lieu of his thoughts, and he reached for the fuse. His mitted hand closed. Its micro-hair curled in the heat. He had only seconds once it came loose.

Seconds, or Human meat-crisp.

His feet braced against piping. With a single pull, the fuse came free. His hand worked in the confining space to turn it: Not too fast to wound the filament. Not too slow to overload. Not to mindlessly to cook his unmitted parts.

The mental timer in his head ticked. He swallowed his guts, turned the fuse.

The radio sqwaked, “Simon, they’re in range. Now or never.”

His arm went back, body pivoting. In an instantaneous way, which he could never discern, several things happened:

Blue light flickered. Electricity from the broken circuit. Building. Looking to go somewhere. Anywhere. Building to overload. The fuse turning. Positioned to lock in place. Simon extending his arm. His body half-lunging with appropriate force. His ungloved hand and arm sliding away from his comm. The bottom of his forearm skimming ceramic-glass. An absolutely ear-splitting shriek of pain. The fuse locking in place. The arc discharging onto the nearest grating, dissolving.

He screamed pain, somewhere between that and utter tears was, “Go!”

The final stage of shield power-up roared and buzzed around him like a Tesla coil rising to full power. The whirring buzz of ultra-high voltage components grew to full strength, drowning his cries. He half shimmied, half shoved himself along the shaft, ignoring the smells of cooked flesh, the feel of it. He cried like a child, without shame until red-light broke to the shuttle’s cool lighting above.

He had enough strength to drag his top-half out before collapsing half in and half out. Intermittent whimpers bridged otherwise hysterical sobbing; he’d need skin grafts. Recovery. Therapy. Bandages. Blood. So many things.

That moment confirmed his earlier feelings. There was no such thing as a hero. There were only idiots in the right time and place, and idiots everywhere else. All of existence was filled with idiots. Idiots one planets. Idiots on ships. Idiots. He wasn’t sure which kind of idiot he was, but didn’t care. All he knew was the excruciating pain and the reality of idiots.

His vision began to fade, no doubt shock from the pain.

As if blinking, reality went black then reappeared as a pen-light in his eye. Niala, he guessed. She had a habit of it; one of her paradoxical quirks of nature. She was a relentless ball-busting spec-ops vet but a regal and honored lady with a legacy; an aggressive, cutthroat killer, but a doting and wise matriarch. More bullshit from just another idiot.

He swatted the light away, yelping as his burned arm struck something amid a pillow of meds and festerd pus. Lina winced dully beside him. His eyes widened in dumb, vain hope of taking in the scene, and failed spectacularly.

Niala sighed, “You’ve suffered a third-degree burn to the medial antebrachial cutan. Your arm needs to be immobilized.”

Her cultured response was met with an equally unimpressive, “Huh?”

“You’re hurt.”

He clutched his wrist, poking at the bandages there, “This?”

She nodded with slow sarcasm, “You were burned.”

“Son of a–“

“Simon,” Lina said gently. “It worked.”

“What you did saved us all, Human,” Snow said from a doorway. “There is honor in that.”

Niala stepped away. Simon sucked air through his teeth as he sat up. “Yeah. Thanks.” His jaw set so tight it had no choice but to chatter from the phantom pain. “H-how long will our fuel hold out?”

“Six days,” Snow said, stepping across from Lina. “If we ration. More, if we link the station’s fusion breeder to the shuttles and bridge it with Melchondo’s cruiser.”

“Is th-that necess–“

“They’re jamming our comms,” Snow interrupted. “So it could be. Unless, you’re thinking of running the blockade.”

Lina held one arm at the elbow, chewed the other thumb-nail, “What about the Wolf?”

“They have strict orders to maintain position until instructed otherwise.”

Lina brightened slightly, “What if they come anyway?”

“Penalty for defiance is death,” he said stiffly. “So they’ll stay put.”

“And the Homer is t-two weeks out,” he said, trying to calculate, and failing.

“Enough,” Niala said, returning with two syringes, one in either hand. She pulled the cap off one, “You need rest. You’re still at-risk of shock. We’ll assess the situation and alert you when we’re ready.”

She uncapped the first syringe. Simon shuddered. “What is it?”

“Morphine-sedative,” she said, shooting his bicep. She tossed the first syringe onto a tray, lifted the second. They all suddenly realized it was larger, empty. “So I can do this–“

The room cringed. Simon was confused. She jammed the needle into one of the exposed pustules near his wound. He screamed.

Then, he was out.

Niala began drawing pus, one blister at a time.

“Did you really need to put him out?” Lina asked, unable to watch directly.

Niala was silent, focused. Snow laughed, brow raised, “You wanna’ hear him moan and complain with every needle prick he isn’t really feeling?”

She huffed, defeated, “Point taken.”

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