Back in Sol Again: Part 20 (Conclusion)

20.

Marble and Granite

It seemed ludicrous. Even despite her agreement to it– more than agreement; arrangement, planning. It was a terrible idea. She knew it, felt it. Above all things, she was a servant of the Alliance, the Federation, Sol. She was Ambassador. “Evolved” or not. A woman of the people. One whom took their plight seriously.

Thus, standing before the airlock to an anti-Humanist shuttle, her security detail in-tow for safety’s sake with three of the four Anti-Humanist prisoners, she couldn’t help feeling as if betraying something. If things went wrong, if the plan didn’t work, they were committing treason. Then again, if things went wrong they’d likely all be dead too.

Mataan’s objective was simple; exchange all but Fera for a small portion of supplies. The anti-Humanists had agreed thus far. Fera would be kept to ensure they didn’t use the opportunity of the shield deactivation to blow the station to hell.

In reality, she was simply too valuable. Saffron and Fera were the real prizes among the prisoners. Thus they kept one, gave the other as a gesture of diplomacy. Anti-Humanist acquiescence to the plan made sense; an entire planet had only just made contact with Sol. Among the first-contact team were several non-Humans. That might still be spun to the Anti-Humanists’ advantage, but only if they did not appear unnecessarily hostile.

Of all things, they that meant not endangering the Vuur.

At least, not yet.

Mataan had anticipated this. Snow, in his wisdom, anticipated the siege-leaders did too, wouldn’t risk damaging already-fragile reputations with the Vuur. Otherwise, they might never manipulate them later.

Snow and Mataan came up with vague plans to counter unknown but suspected motivations. Simon would help however he could, despite his relative confinement but Ka’at had already admitted she considered him a hero. He hated it. Her previously sudden, undeniable hesitation made sense now, but it made him reluctant to do much of his own constructing.

Nonetheless, he once more found himself disdained by the label of Hero. He wasn’t a Hero. He was the only one around that knew how to do what needed to be done. So he did it. So they wouldn’t all die. Him included.

There was nothing heroic in that. It was selfish. It made watching the airlock seal worse. He was the hero, but Snow, Niala– and worst of all Lina were going off to do the heroic thing. How was that fair? He sighed, deflated, and slumped off to await the inevitable command to initiate the next phase of the plan.
Just beyond the sealed airlock, Snow was leading the way out, up– as much “up” as existed in space.

In moments, the Evolved were magnetized “atop” the station, the Human Lina between them, ready to earn her wings in the asinine-but-required school of space-exploration. Their suits and helmet-comms were open, but quiet. Even to Niala’s surprise, Lina was calm, her breaths controlled.

Niala doubted Snow noticed, focused as he tended to be, but it astounded her how calm the human was. Simon was a wuss in comparison. His first outing was a string of panicking and hand-wringing until nearly killed and forced to act. Maybe Lina had learned something from his mistakes, maybe it was natural. Either way, she was clearly better-suited for it.

She took Snow’s lead and focused on the task at-hand. Everything had to happen just right; coincide so no single entity might fail. Most of all, it had to happen without comms. Only faith in the various constituent parts and persons would allow them to function properly. That was how, after the few minutes of mag steps, Snow and the others found themselves atop the Anti-Humanist shuttle.

The group sank to their knees like cement to an ocean floor between two, cramped, protrusions venting protrusions. They dialed up their magboots. Snow distributed a series of small, spherical devices. They engaged with a touch, emitting shields, visible only by their slight shimmer at close-range, other wise invisible.

The ship jolted, launched through space. Suddenly, they were car-surfing a quarter-galaxy away from any terrestrial vehicle while somewhere below, Mataan awaited docking.

She had nothing to say to the anti-Humanists in the cock-pit, choosing instead to ride out the passage in the cargo section. She’d been allowed the liberty of her security escort, as a show of good faith. Mataan personally suspected arrogance, but truly, what were a few, armed soldiers against an armada of disenfranchised fanatics?

Snow would’ve called it a tactical error. Niala would’ve called them fools– mostly, just to say it again, and while Mataan would’ve agreed on both counts, she didn’t. Couldn’t. Still, she knew the trio of hell-raisers lie in wait above.

Mataan glanced beyond a bulkhead and into the cock-pit. The usually vast, emptiness of space was dotted by various ships and shuttles of differing sizes. Each one, armed. Each armament trained on either the shuttle or the station behind it.

She couldn’t help but feel her hair stand on edge beneath the layers of silk and spandex. If she’d been less in control of herself, she might’ve purred with fleeting terror. Instead, she cleared her throat slightly, and stiffened her spine.

Directly ahead, lay their destination. The cargo frigate’s guns tracked their progress more intently than the other ships. It was pulling double duty as both hauler and med-ship. Neutral ground, Mataan knew, but no less guarded. Neither side would risk injured or innocent for the sake of vengeance, not with the Vuur watching.

Who was making that decision on the other side, Mataan still didn’t know.

With a slow, hateful sneer, Saffron angled in front of her, blocking out the viewport. Mataan huffed, withdrew again to sit against a wall beside one of her escort, Hudson. The old, scar-faced Tom-cat exchanged a tense look with her.

It was clear; neither knew what to expect, nor what to do if things went their way. Snow was adamant that no-one know more than necessary to do their part. Otherwise, they might give something away inadvertently, screwing the pooch as it were.

The more Mataan and her people believed they were aboard the frigate to exchange prisoners for supplies and begin peaceful negotiation, the less likely they were to betray their intentions as exactly the opposite. Particulars weren’t necessary. Thus, they weren’t known.

Saffron’s malice caused them to miss the boarding, but Mataan knew well enough how it went. They’d come up alongside an extendable arm to dock; ostensibly, the ER-entrance where shuttles rushed wounded in when necessary. Given peace time, or as best could be called such, the double duty loading-bay only made sense to dock in.

Among other things, the dual-duty ship forced Mataan to recognize how very wrong they’d been about the number of F-drives already in service.

The shuttle’s rear doors opened. Saffron led the way in. The others followed. Elondo and Roenig were immediately rushed to examination. Saffron led the others to a central locale on the ship. The twists and turns of corridors were maze-like, dark and labyrinthine. Mataan only hoped whatever Snow had planned was enacted before the negotiations inevitably broke down.

Atop the shuttle, the trio disengaged their shields and mag-boots, leapt a distance to put a section of upper-frigate. The ship was five times the size of the shuttle, levels deeper. Arrays of pipes, conduits, and millions of other, important pitfalls and obstacles formed the plane of the ship’s top-side.

They aimed for the sort of conning tower mid-way astern, formed of a series of comm-equipment atop the distant Bridge. The Bridge’s warden-like gaze surveyed everything forward with as little resolution as possible, given its innumerable blind-spots.

Snow halted the others to plan their route; cameras littered the path to the emergency hatch they sought, invisible to the untrained eye but meant for scuttling more than emergencies. In the event the ship needed evacuation, leaving through such a hatch just put someone outside it, not in safety.

Snow was still grateful that idiotic bit of bureaucracy made it into the design, if only for a breath.

He started forward, hustling without risking being seen. Any camera could be active at any time. The only way to safely bypass any was to treat them all as active threats.

Mag-boots at half-power, he turned Zero-G to Moon gravity without the bounce. In this way, he carved a zig-zagging, weave between blind-spots, ducking in and out of them with carefully paced timing.

Niala and Lina followed, not bothering to hesitate or question. They understood as well as he. Follow in-step, in rhythm, or risk it all. Each second in the open was an eternity. Each pause between was agonized relief as if halting a slog through a sea of molasses-tension growing thicker each moment.

Before they’d covered half the distance, they found themselves beneath the gaze of the Bridge. It loomed overhead like the inadequate guard-tower it was. The mutual realization gave them all renewed confidence, conveyed and strengthened through the open comm and relief in their breaths.

Niala took point at the hatch. Her careful movements produced a tethered pouch of tools, its implements necessary for opening the hatch’s control panel. The others could only wait, hunkered down and feeling supremely exposed. Being spotted before their moment would destroy everything, including the station.

Likely, the Vuur too.

The thought made Lina’s heart race. Her breaths quickened. Snow thunked a knuckle on her helmet, said with a glance, “even if they cared to look, they’d never see.” His face resolved that confidence into a certainty. Oddly comforting, given how intimidating he was, and that he’d only ever shone her scorn or complete indifference.

Now, she felt an equal. It stilled her breaths.

Niala turned, tool-pouch re-secured at her waist, and gestured them in. The airlock hatch slid open silently. She’d disabled the alarms but at cost of shorting the systems. That meant re-pressurizing by hand. It would need to be precise– as much to keep from killing themselves as to avoid blowing a hole in the ship and alerting it to their presence.

Niala directed the group to various walls, set them to work opening panels for pumps and internal mechanisms. A steady stream of commands flowed from Niala across the comms until the last pump was prepped ninety-seconds later. She sparked a pair of wires and the room began to pressurize.

Minutes from 0-hour. From D-day. Either everything would go right, and the threat would be neutralized; or, everything would go to hell and civil war would break out.

They slipped in, immediately dodging security cameras for the Bridge’s rear-elevator. They piled in, ascended to the control room. The door opened on a roomful of consoles and moving bodies. Evolved creatures of all types had manned the ship in extravagant numbers, with nary a Human to be seen outside Lina.

The group hid behind the walls of the elevator as it opened, silently. No-one paid it any mind, too focused on the consoles and screens scattered about. Snow was ready. Across the open doors, Niala was too. She poised to close the doors with a button. In a flash, Snow hurled something out, the doors slid shut, and a distant, incapacitating screech gave way to ringing silence.

The elevator doors opened again on total stillness. The previous moving and shuffling of life was gone. No-one had time to notice. Snow and Niala broke for a pair of consoles at the front of the room. Lina dove toward one nearer the elevator. She took over, began issuing orders to realign, re-route, and charge various, specific electrical conduits.

Several floors below, Mataan stood before Shafer and Saffron. Between them, a pair of crates. To one side, a folding table set with a pair of chairs; one at either side. Shafer sat in one. Mataan took the other. Behind them a short way, their security teams; save Saffron, whom stood directly at Shafer’s left.

“Speak,” Shafer said.

“I’ve nothing more to say. Either you accept our arrangement or not.”

He chewed his tongue, teeth grinding. “We have. You were brought to negotiate surrender.”

Mataan placed her paws together. Her empirically statuesque figure became all the more graceful, concealing a slight of hand neither Saffron nor Shafer caught.

“Indeed,” she said firmly. “Your surrender.”

The lights flickered. Darkness. Something exploded in the distance. A massive flash of incapacitating light emitted from Mataan’s hands. She was unconscious. Shafer and Saffron too. Hudson and Rodriguez’s rifles spit violet plasma, cutting down Shafer’s escort. Emergency lighting flickered on.

Across the would-be battle-field, secondary explosions were triggering. Lina watched them through the control room screens and their external cameras. Before her, the drive command flickered, “successful.” The EMP rolled out through space, multiplied by every ship it hit. Any, purely internal systems would be unaffected, life-support for instance. Whereas anything with external connections were having their components fried.

An alert screamed aboard Snow’s shuttle, still docked at the station. Simon was ready. The power went out, cut off intentionally to protect the shuttle and Melchondo’s cruiser. Gravity dissolved. The air stilled. Behind him, the Vuur felt it in their mass.

Simon was too focused on a silent five-count to notice the rotten-egg stench returning too. He re-engaged the ship’s systems, bursting super-speed for Vursara. He hadn’t the nerve to admit to the Vuur he’d never flown a shuttle. He’d driven air-cars. They were sort of smaller, planet-bound versions of shuttles, but it was in his youth… decades ago now.

That youth felt a long way off now. Save its familiarity with the inability to admit truths to oneself. Incidentally, Simon’s current lack of self-admission was his inability to fly the shuttle. So at least he and the Vuur were being equally deceived by him.

Breaching the atmosphere triggered a series of readings and guides on the view-screen’s transparent HUD. Soon, they’d be on the ground, landed or burning. His knuckles whitened, heart seized between beats. The energy it took managed to shut off his olfactory senses. The worsening rotten-eggs worsened.

Above, Melchondo’s cruiser broke rank. A second later, it formed a wide, triangular grouping around the disabled armada in tandem with both Homer and Alpha-Wolf. The pair had appeared simultaneously, almost invisibly, in the distance.

The Frigate’s control room was abound with both Niala and Snow shouting to launch all ships’ remaining shuttles. Mataan reported in; the cargo hold was secure.

Simon blasted through Vursara’s atmosphere, guides at forty-five degrees from one another. He nudged them toward level. The shuttle tinted red at its viewport’s edges. Sweat pooled in his lap from, oozed through his locked grips. Both injured and uninjured arms ached equally now. His armpits dripped, neck immersing his collar.

The perpetually clouded-atmosphere made it impossible to see anything. He panicked; it might never break. Never. The ship might just strike, one more, temporary source of ground just slight hotter than before.

Ingstrom reported in; shuttles were making contact. Anti-Humanist ships were in chaos, their crews offered no resistance. Snow’s second reported the same. Mataan’s team had finished securing the last of the cargo hold’s prisoners and were hunkering down. Niala locked out all control of the ship. No-one was going anywhere.

Simon’s heart felt ready to burst. Someone had put it in a vise. Then pumped it full of some adrenaline-concoction that enlarged it worse than a lifetime of bacon. He was about to die, prepared to die. There seemed no other choice.

The black gray broke, shattering like a mirror into neutral, patchy floral grounds plastered between massive stretches of glossy Obsidian. Plateaus were offset by beauts of pumice, basalt, rhyolite. Simon wrestled the ship swooped from its dive-bomb, leveled at a safe-altitude.

There it was; Vursara’s civilization, constructed of Marble and Granite. Ancient Rome had a rival for beauty; this was it.

Lina radioed in, “Simon? Simon, are you okay?”

He breathed deep, oblivious to sulfur-smell, pain, or anything else but the wonder before him.

“Yes, but Vursara, it’s… it’s magnificent.”

A small hand, seemingly too heavy for its size, pressed his shoulder. He glanced over to see the Ka’at gazing warmly outward. He followed her gaze, deciding he wasn’t so unqualified for his job after all.

21.

Back to Sol Again

Festivities aplenty had occurred since the miraculous thwarting of the Anti-Humanist fleet. Thus far, somewhere on the order of two-thousand people of all species, excluding Humans, were arrested and processed. The ships, whose origins remained a mystery, but whose design was decidedly Solsian, were still being combed for evidence.

That was, of course, apart from those few shuttles Snow had taken to replenish his ship’s stocks– and the ones stolen for Niala and Simon as parting gifts.

He left Vursara not long after to dismantle the would-be rebellion brewing on Ganymede. What would happen was anyone’s guess, but Simon sensed he’d see the Wolf again soon enough. In the wake of his departure, Mataan officially began full, diplomatic negotiations with the Vuur, using the damaged frigate as a sizable, more accommodating neutral ground than the cramped station. Its engine would one day be repaired, but no-one yet wanted the headache of deciding who it went to.

Niala considered taking it, but ultimately didn’t care to fuel it. Even after a century of space-flight, Solsians still needed gas-money.

The first portion of their primary mission achieved, Niala, Lina, and Simon boarded Homer to return to Sol for the expedition’s reassessment. In time, they’d return, continue the exploration, but given all that had transpired, the ISC and Alliance felt it best to postpone any further forays temporarily.

With that in mind, Simon settled in for the trip back to Sol. It would take a few days, given the start-stop necessity of the F-drive– and the crew’s general lack of wanting to return. Everyone needed R&R; emotionally, if nothing else.

Meanwhile, Simon was content in occupying his time between Lina and Rearden’s repairs, forced into a leave of absence as he was by his injuries. He was fine with that, and currently, tending to Lina.

The door opened to his bathroom, steam billowing out from the hot shower Lina had enjoyed. She pivoted out like a burlesque dancer, closing the door behind her, whipped the towel off her head. It cascaded through the air as her hair tumbled about sensually, like an animal ready to pounce.

Indeed, she was.

And precisely when she tried to, they learned several things:

First, trying to throw one’s robe off while it was caught in a door was difficult. Simultaneously, doing so made it impossible to properly throw her arms and head back to thrust her nude torso outward as she intended. Lastly, they learned that a robe caught in such a way, tended to throw one off-balance.

And in that way, she tried to be sexual.

And in that way, she thrust forward in an awkward spasm, was tugged back too fast, then thrown off-balance inside wet, slick-bottomed slippers.

She landed face-first on the floor in front of the bed, legs splayed, brain scrambled, and utterly buck-naked. Simon fell beside her, rolling and laughing. Her wits returned enough to realize two things; she too, was laughing as hard as he was, and they were perfectly, equally stupid– and absolutely perfect for one another because of it.

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