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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Back in Sol Again: Part 19

19.

Quality Time

Simon was out roughly six hours. He awoke to find Ramla and Lina standing to one side of his bed. At its foot was Nakato, the young Vuur Curator. For a moment he thought himself dreaming.

Then the agony in his arm swelled and surged. The sudden recognition of the power room cemented reality. His cot was against wall on both one side and at its head, hence the seemingly arrangement of nearby persons.

“Simon?” Lina asked, injecting him with mild pain-killers. “How are you?” He groaned, half-shrugged. “You need anything?” He shook his head. “When you’re up to it, Curator Nakato would like to speak with you.”

He groaned a “Nuhhhh.” Then, focused through the remnant drug-haze at the small Vuur. “About?”

“Your people,” she said sheepishly.

He was suddenly reminded of a girl he’d met after being crowned “hero,” how utterly terrified she’d been. It was another new, unnerving experience. Simon feared others. He was never feared. He’d done enough of the former that the latter was impossible to fathom. Nakato seemed to be exhibiting the same response.

It was both unnerving and confusing. She was a Vuur; only the second non-Solsian species to make contact. Beyond that, she was relying on him as his people’s envoy. Most people could describe that as insane. Fear of him was insane.

Then again, who knew how the Vuur really felt. They were benevolent, sure. They were kind, generous, supremely understanding– but this was their first first contact; as Zelphod had been Sol’s. There was no telling what those rock-like hides and velvet-sand-paper voices were masking. He certainly wished no ill to or from, but felt a curious duty to be as observant as possible.

For that reason, he agreed, provided someone brought coffee.

Lots of coffee.

Niala’s sedative was nice while he slept, but its after-effects left his tongue numb. His brain and eyes were heavy. He was sure the morphine sulfate was having an effect, but beyond keeping the third-degree burn to its current, dull throbbing, he wasn’t sure what.

Coffee arrived, and in the spirit so common of one in need of it, imbibed with rising vigor at gulping speeds. By his second cup, Simon found himself capable of more than a few, noncommittal grunts. Nakato knelt where a normal person might sit. This was clearly a habit or preference, given the roomful of chairs. Lina excused herself, leaving the two utterly alone and at a loss.

Simon cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Would you like a chair?”

She softened slightly– literally; the rock-like bone plating was somewhat malleable, turned as if from cartilage back to skin. How, he wasn’t sure. She spoke with calculated calm, still grasping the social intricacies of her new language. Simon guessed everything up to now was rehearsed in some way. Now that formalities were past, she’d have to form thoughts into words new to her.

“I… find them uncomfortable. Thank you. Vuur bodies are not used to such positions. We lack crucial… posterior padding for such furnishings.”

“No worries, I have no ass either.” Her brows vee’d. She suddenly understood, laughed. “Broke the tension nicely.” Nakato agreed with a gravelly chuckle. “What d’you want to know?”

There was a thoughtful silence. Nakato burst with passionate excitement, “Everything!”

“Everything?”

“Everything!” She repeated, no less enthused. “You’re our first alien contact. Your existence has confirmed so many suspicions, disproven so many others. And best of all, you’re friendly!”

He grimaced, “Curator Nakato–“

“Please, call me Ka’at.”

“Okay… Ka’at. I understand you’re excited, and none of us would hurt you, but the rest of Sol… may not be so welcoming. I worry you may get a false impression.”

Her passion was only temporarily quelled. “I understand completely, Dr. Corben–“

“Simon.”

She smiled queerly, “Simon. You need not worry about me. We Vuur are notoriously hard to injure. Bone-plating and all.”

His grimace widened, “That’s not what I meant.”

“Nor I. Not entirely.” She inched over on her knees, as a Solsian scooting a chair forward might. “You must understand what your very existence means to all of us. Not just the Vuur, but to Solsians, and Zelphod, and every other yet-undiscovered species.”

Simon couldn’t deny his sudden intrigue, “Go on.”

“Our Sages,” she began irreverently. “Have for hundreds– thousands– of years, foreseen oncoming events. For millennia, they were ignored by all but a few otherwise only half-heartedly believing them.

“Partly, this is a result of their unwillingness to show themselves. But also their claims have, at times, been seen as panic-stirring. The truth is much more complex but the end result remains: the Sages have been right. Almost every-time.”

Simon’s skepticism reared; Occupational hazard, he’d have said. Instead, he replied, “Almost?”

“Yes. Almost. But historical records indicate such incidents of wrongness often and invariably the results of unknown forces tampering with the flow of events. In a sense, those whom defined the skepticism, caused it. Their distrust of the Sages interfered in ways that changed predicted events. In present times, our people recognize that.”

“I see,” he said only half-honestly.

She continued anyway, “Only over eons did such trust grow. Cataclysms otherwise avoidable, weren’t avoided. Not in proper numbers. As a result, diminishing returns on successive generations of skeptics were wiped from refusal of proactive measures, metaphysical in origin or otherwise.”

Simon gathered a little of what she meant. “So your Sages are gaining regard among society.”

She bowed her head slightly. His arm tingled with pain as he lifted coffee to drink. He sat up on the cot, switched the coffee to his other hand.

“If they’re so concerned about keeping people safe, why not show themselves?”

“Why require a powered shield now?” Ka’at replied. Simon squinted. “Simply, they are important. That importance might make them targets.”

“I thought you said your people were peaceful.”

“As a general rule, yes. But did you not consider your arrival to be in peace, despite the obvious threat we face?” Simon’s head hung in shame. Ka’at’s gravelly throat softened to a finer grit to comfort him, or try. “Do not regret the course taken. It is the best presented given the pitfalls about us.”

Simon found her insight curious, “How old are you anyway?”

“In your time, fifteen solar-revolutions.”

“And you’re Curator!?” He blurted.

“You are surprised. It is understandable, given what little we know of your culture. You must remember, we do not live as long as you and greatly stress education from birth. Apart from agriculture, it is our top priority. There is also a mandate– a general consensus, that the Curator be a youth. It is the youth’s world, their future, most affected by the position and its colleagues. A certain logical sense to it is evident, you agree?”

He did, though he found it difficult to reconcile Ka’at was basically a teenager.

But what did that mean to the Vuur, really? To Simon, and most of Sol, it meant a time of tumult and emotional instability. It meant spending a half-decade or so as a walking, biological time-bomb.

That was, of course, if the instability ended there. From what he knew of his people, their history, and their present, more than a portion retained that label well beyond so-called maturity.

The difficult reconciliation was complicated by her next question, sprung in the manner of a snare trap. It appeared innocuous, but the ensnared creature ended up no less gutted. Thankfully, that was only metaphorically– usually.

“What of Human society? Is it not similar to ours?”

So innocuous. So simple. Simon almost welcomed the snap of rope against him. Almost pitied the universe’s lack of a dangling, upside down view. Yet, countless generations of honed instinct reminded him snares had only one outcome.

“Uhm… Hmm…” He stalled, at a total loss.

Humanity had a long, sordid history; in effect the polar opposite to the Vuur. Humanity didn’t care about anyone but themselves. Not on an individual level. Collectively, they’d grown to tolerate and occasionally embrace evolved life, but vastly by virtue of their being stuck together.

That was part of what made the anti-Humanists so dangerous: Progress in Sol was important. To preserve it without ending up in a dark age of prejudice, Sol needed to slow, methodical expansion. Expansion presided over by those without prejudice or bias.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a general sentiment of peace among the various species. There was… for precisely as long as was convenient to otherwise narrow minded or unintelligent groups.

Simon’s frequent readings of Scientific Solsian had revealed Sol’s colonies tended most toward coexistence when one of two parameters were met: When varying species occupied the same class bracket; or, when multiple species of increased intelligence and-or education worked as colleagues, with or without lower-intelligence members.

In other words, if money put you in the same area, you were equal. If intelligence or chance put you in the same area, you were equal. Those were the main equalizers in Solsian society. There were others, but those were the two that revealed Solsian civility for what it was; an equality of convenience.

There were exceptions, of course. With growing frequency, Simon admitted hopefully, but Ka’at’s question blindsided him. He wasn’t sure how to answer. Being honest meant being a poor rep for Humanity. For Solsians. But lying meant damaging the fledgling relationship with the Vuur, and Ka’at in particular, whom he found fascinating.

He heaved a long sigh, “Where do I begin?”

Ka’at perked up, began questioning him at length. He did his best, in a few hours, to relay all of Human history to the present day. The speed with which she absorbed the information, and the pace he set, allowed him to gloss over distasteful things without losing their importance.

There were no questions ’til the end. That was when he found himself dangling; slowly cut open, gutted by the nightmarish savagery of all the necessary evils that had led Humanity to this point. By the end, the shine had worn off Ka’at’s enthusiasm– more from fatigue than anything, but Simon wondered.

He ate lunch alone then awaited another morphine dose. Niala appeared, trailing all but Melchondo, his crew, and Mataan’s escort. Something was about to happen. Simon ate cautiously, awaiting an explanation. Of all people, it came from Lina.

“We have a plan,” Lina said. A single brow rose over chewing jaws. “You’re not going to like it. And you’ll have to stay here.”

He hesitated, swallowed food, hesitated again. “What kind of plan?”

Snow balked, “Kind that involves saving our asses before the siege really sets in.”

He considered it carefully, chewing another bite of his lunch. Niala administered his morphine with a shot he didn’t feel. Endorphins and opiates flooded him; his eyes drooped slightly. He swallowed. They snapped back open.

“Should probably get on with it then, don’t you think?”

Snow smiled even more smugly than Simon had ever seen. Why, he wasn’t sure, but it didn’t matter. Nothing did, save that soon they’d be safe again, one ally richer.

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.”

Back in Sol Again: Part 17

17.

Fast Friends

The first minutes in the control room with the Vuur delegation were like living in an utter hell. At least, that’s all Simon could think happened. His later recollection seemed to have block in place of the memory, leaving an otherwise momentous event as little more than a gray, watery fog… and a lingering cringe around his nostrils.

The Vuur were absolutely genuine; benevolent in personality and camaraderie. It was the scent of a species entirely without concept of olfactory stimulation. A sense known far too well to the Solsians in the room.

As if some gloriously merciful force sensed their discomfort, something flooded the room. The temperature dropped. A current of something vinegar-like, neutralizing swirled in a silent, invisible vortex. One end let it in, the other swept the old scent out. The process was continuous, constant, heavenly. Simon could’ve cried for joy.

It was, he later learned, done at Mataan’s request, silently transmitted to Melchondo’s crew during her shuttle ride. “To Lts. Hartke and Klimmer, due to an unforeseen development regarding our new companions, please have ready an aerosol expungent of CH3COOH and NaHCO3 to be piped through the station at one end and filtered at the other, in response to Vursara’s high sulfur content. Thank you, Amb. Mataan.

In a moment of swift poise, Mataan evaded more discomfort than necessary and any embarrassment to the Vuur, via a judicial application of text-messaging. Consequently, this may have been the first time in Solsian history such an act avoided tragedy rather than caused it. Often enough, Solsians messages tended toward one of two maxims: “Do me.” Or conversely, “Do yourself.”

The truth of Mataan’s message, was more colloquially translated to; “Our new friends stink. Send help.” In time, the Vuur themselves would find amusement in this, however true it remained.

When that first whiff of neutralizing air barreled through the station’s ventilation, Simon was unaware of anything but the saving grace it brought. He felt like an old vid-star, too long in space and finally reaching firm ground, and falling to his hands and knees to kiss it. Except his firm ground was the airs lack of rotten eggs. He’d have kissed it, could he have without giving the whole thing away.

Foremost in mind after the air’s sterilization became his seeming inability to keep from making a fool of himself. Congenital and incurable as Human foot-in-mouth disease was, the last thing they needed was showcasing it as one of their first, official acts. Simon’s only hope lie in keeping his mouth shut as much as possible, lest the foot inch its way up… and jam its way inward.

And, if need be, the option always remained to flee to the all-embracing silence of vacuum-space.

“Ambassador Mataan,” Ramla began, voice appropriately gravel-like, complimenting her resemblance to stone well. “It is of the utmost importance we discuss this threat with you.”

Everyone squirmed now.

She continued unabated, “It is through our Sages we understand this threat to be internal. That is, we know it is primarily a Solsian matter. However–“

She took a pause. It seemed to last both an eternity and only a breath. As if their stone statures were as much mirrored in thought as body. Simon sensed no Solsian aboard willing to break the silence, even to breathe. If Simon were the betting type, he’d have lain odds on someone passing out first.

Ramla, suddenly yet calmly, continued, “It is something we know well.”

Niala spoke up, “Forgive me, but… how do you mean?”

Ramla began with a whimsy that said she was both present and lost in memory simultaneously. The scientists in the room made note of it, sensing it might well be the case. “Our people do not live long. In relation to yours, we are roughly half your life-span, but we are hardy. We descend from warrior tribes whom, over eons and generations, honed our forms to withstand all but the rigors of time. Yet we remain lost warriors, searching for greater purpose in the universe.

“As you, we have philosophy, belief. But presently, unlike yours, ours revolve around hope and peace. We are are of one mind. We focus on one goal. Our people as a whole, and individuals. You are the opposite. You come from a world of conflict and hostility– or perhaps more appropriately, worlds. Your divisions are evident in your dress. Your stances. You embrace no-one without first examining them. You shake no man’s hand without checking him first for a blade. Most of all, you each focus on many things, some conflicting even between those closest. It is a way unknown to us, but one which we wish to understand.”

There was a long, profound silence. For once, Simon and Lina were too caught up in the moment to squirm. But it was there, under the surface, waiting to remind of their Humanity.

Ramla ensured all those present understood her gravity, “You reveal much more in yourselves and your ways than you realize. Both of good and ill intent.” The Solsians averted their gaze as if to accuse one another, were quickly redirected. “But you are not without hope.

“It is for this reason we have requested to meet you, face-to-face. Impersonal distance is a burden all must bear should they hope to continue advancing, but it should be avoided wherever possible.”

She refocused, “In simplest terms, we hoped you would greet us warmly. Minor anxieties common to sentient beings aside, you have. And we thank you. It is with hope that our greatest achievements might be mirrored between us and shared from here on.”

There was silence.

Snow spoke with firm indifference. “You’ve known civil war.”

It was a statement. A profoundly insightful one. Simon would never have gathered so much so quickly. How Snow had was a mystery, but Simon sensed something of the ruling warlord in it. He found himself oddly comforted. That Snow was equal parts brutal dictator and intelligent scholar was… eerily reassuring.

Ramla’s head bowed slightly. The smallest Vuur, Curator Nakato, spoke then. “For millenia, our people fought. Thousands of tribes competed for dominance across our world. Through bloodshed and utter carnage, our people evolved, knowing little else but battle, war. Then, over several thousand years, the tribal mindset began fracturing, forming something newer and larger.”

Guardian Zulu spoke next, doing his best to mimic Ramla’s regality but ultimately falling short. “Our people began to imagine, to dream. We foresaw a united world where food was no longer scarce; where death was neither premature nor certain.”

Curator Nakato seamlessly took over, “These ideas spread until Vursara’s warring tribes joined, partnered, becoming governors and ruling bodies seeking trade above all else. Most tribes migrated for trade’s sake, adding to emerging nation-states. Health and vitality were truly and fully discovered and sought.

“But darkness loomed. The nation-states occupying the world claimed its golden lands. Few to no villages or tribes were left between, isolating the populous. Before long, the states’ encompassed enough sectors that trade was no longer necessary. The former routes became too unstable to maintain, and their central regions turned to isolationism from fear.

“Unfortunately, the lands were not all equal forever. Some became impossible to farm. Others, depleted of their luxuries; whose presence, for the first time since their discovery, was mythical.”

Guardian Zulu’s face set, as if in sadness, but his voice remained unchanged. “Isolation and need stirred resentment. Old-ways, not long enough abandoned, returned in secret as nation-states experimented with newfound knowledge to contend with lost trade. As was our instinct, these ways inevitably turned toward armament with increasingly dangerous implements. What followed were twelve-hundred cycles of infighting.”

Nakato finished with deep shame. “The toll is greatest to those left behind. Our hardiness however, promises we might yet prevail and survive, so long as we take care. Thus, it is with wounded pride our species carries on in this way. What remained of intelligent leadership then, formed a global coalition centuries old and strong now, and currently focused on providing worldwide access to food.”

“A noble goal,” Mataan said in the appropriate silence.

“Indeed,” Ramla replied. “When global hunger is eradicated, we will discern and face our next challenge as a species.” Another profound silence rang with the Vuur’s words. Then; “But this is not meant to taint our meeting. Rather, it is to our similarity. We are, in a way, kindred species, seeking the same ends through similar means, having seen first-hand the repercussions of failing to do so.”

Snow once more spoke, still indifferent. “You believe civil war to be the logical bridge between us?”

An immediate thrum of static filled the air. Simon wondered if the Vuur counter-agent was failing, then quickly noticed the rather deep hatred emanating from Mataan. She did her best to keep it subdued, but the hairs around her gown’s neck-line had thickened. On cue, Snow did his best to quicken it.

Ramla bowed to affirm. Snow visibly disapproved, “Most foolish thing I’ve ever heard.”

Snow!Everyone said, at once.

Ramla had anticipated everything, raised a hand not unlike theirs. “I wish to know his thoughts. He is clearly perceptive.”

Mataan was silent. The slight glisten in Snow’s eyes told of a smug grin that would otherwise have manifested. Simon saw it in that instant. Had they been in a school yard, Snow might’ve stuck his tongue out and danced– or at least pointing a finger and chanted.

Instead, he stiffened with a Kingly air. “War serves no purpose but to divide and leaden the pockets of its benefactors. Whether in practice or politics.”

“You wish then, that our meeting emphasize another topic.”

He eyed Curator Nakato, “If only in the history books, yes.”

“What would you propose?” Nakato asked with extreme interest.

“That the records state we chose an equal meeting place in hopes of scholarly trade.”

“Would that not be false?”

“Reality matters only in the present. History matters always,” Snow said astutely.

The Wizened King returned full-force. Simon began to understand how creatures such as this had commanded mighty empires– not Wolves mind, but true leaders.

“Always, it matters most that History safeguard the future. We can ensure that now, so that forty generations from now, when our people are each at the other’s throats, the recall that what first brought us together was peace, not circumstance.”

A resounding silence prompted Ramla’s queer, Vuur smile. She’d clearly been coached on it, but bowed her head all the same. The rest of her delegates followed. Then, with sun-praising pose, “Let it be so. We meet here for the sake of peace and knowledge.”

Niala waited a beat, then spoke with gravity. “Then off-record, we are under impending attack. Anti-Humanists have been roused, seeing our meeting as counter to their agenda.”

Simon felt himself speak. Absolute and utter terror pinning his tongue up and down between words. “I am Human.” All eyes turned to him. He was certain some sweat dripped down his lower back and into his butt-crack.

He spooled off several sentences as if an old VI list-reading. “Our species was first sentience in Sol. Our people reached sufficient infrastructure and advancement through-out Sol before first contact with the Zelphod. The species desired human-dominated Sol for its infrastructure. Immediate war led to chemical attacks on Human-dominated planets. These chemicals, meant to spread chaos, inadvertently activated latent genes in Solsian species, most notably that of animal life, leading to the prevalence of Evolved life.”

Simon took a breath, searching his echo for anything worthy of his terror. He found nothing and exhaled. “Anti-Humanists believe they are marginalized as a result of the system’s remnants from Human dominance. Though there is reasonable debate on both sides, ultimately, their used as scapegoats to further others’ agendas.”

Zulu eyed him, “You mean to say they feel Human infrastructure is oppressing them.”

“Precisely,” Lina interjected, sensing Simon’s fear and hoping to alleviate it. He grimaced gratefully, “The truth’s much more complex. Many Anti-Humanists are opportunistic criminals damaging the debate’s finer points with unnecessary violence and extremism. Valid issues fester as a result.”

A sudden, unanimous nodding from the assembled Vuur, said this made absolutely perfect sense. They knew something of it. More than that, they sensed the sudden release of tension from the Solsians. As inexplicable as it felt, it was clearly the result of their dangerous reality being so well received.

As if on cue– as Simon relaxed– the comm system began to chime. Mataan excused them for the communique coming through the emergency circuit. A Hog appeared on-screen, foreign to all but Snow. A moment of confusion gave way to Snow pushing forward.

The Hog was petrified; paler than healthy, and less pink more bled, frozen ham-hock. “Sir, they’re coming. A fleet of armed shuttles just appeared on sensors. Ten minutes out.”

The entire room tensed up again, Vuur included.

Back in Sol Again: Part 16

16.

Fessing Up

Mataan sent Melchondo’s crew and her own security detail out, leaving her with those of consequence. Simon saw it that way. Admittedly, so did those forced to leave. Melchondo had influence and authority over events, and as such, the taciturn rat stayed. Simon would’ve liked to leave, take flight, and never stop until he was back in Sol again. Instead, he had no choice but to stand, dumbstruck and guilt-faced beside Mataan as they prepared to speak to the Vuur.

Niala was at Mataan’s other side; the rest a short way back. Snow remained too. The last thing anyone needed was the Wolf going rogue. Even less, losing his obvious tactical expertise. Personally, Simon just wanted him around in case someone tried to tie him up again– short of Lina, anyway.

Mataan stole the room’s attention again, “Dialing in now.”

She pawed the console amid a silence. The room felt near a singularity, tension black-holing it in on itself. Simon sensed it the walls bowing. In. Out. The lights flickering in cheap horror-movie style. Metallic creaked. The bowing doubled. The walls collapsed inward. Exploded out. Again. Almost cartoonishly. His brain and body did the same. Then, in and… pop! Gone. Nothing but a dot of metal obscured by the lensing effect of singularity-space.

He’d give anything for that to happen.

Ramla appeared, smiling the queerest, most foreign smile possible. She and her people were obviously pleasant. But– and Simon couldn’t help but make the assocation– they looked like sentient, walking rocks. Something in the back of his head tickled with an image of Rock Biter from The Neverending Story. How he’d managed to get his hands on such an obscure, centuries old flick, was as much a mystery as to the amount of drugs necessary to concoct it.

All told, he couldn’t shake feeling the Vuur were genuine, benevolent. If history remained consistent that meant one day becoming enslaved on war-torn worlds, species unrecognizable for all their fear and hatred of others.

Ah, Solsian memories.

Ramla repeated her same, sun-praising, prayer-bow; mirrored by three others of her kind. They were all various colors of tanned leather and slate, their clothing subtly metallic, ornamented for the occasion. What it covered, Simon could only wonder. Judging by that scarce bit of info, he guessed they were mammals– or something like them. The clothing they wore, and the slight hint of heat around them suggested climate control for warm blood.

Skull-cracker jaws, almost as intimidating as their armor plating, sat beneath nose-less, large-orbit faces. The terrifying thought of their strength was tempered by the half-darkness surrounding compensating for their light-sensitivity. Their night-vision was, no doubt, excellent. The thought of attempting to face one, alone and in the dark, left him all the more hopeful against ill-intentions.

Thankfully, Ramla was quick to divert his attention. “Ambassador Mataan, I wish to extend a warm welcome to you and your people. It is with the most humble and warm hearts that we hope this meeting marks the beginning of a fruitful and eternal friendship between our peoples.”

She once more sun-praised and bowed. Mataan returned the latter half, then replied with the same pomp and ceremony expected of all diplomats. Finding a way to mirror one’s words without actually using said words was the diplomatic way and all, but even Simon was impressed with the speed and ease Mataan employed her reply.

There was an almost audible blowing of trumpets despite none being present. Indeed, quite the opposite gave it the effect. No-one spoke. No-one moved. A mutual soaking in the profundity of the moment occurred, in which both Simon and Lina squirmed. Then, as if all at once, the ceremony ended and Ramla became more affable.

“Ambassador Mataan, if I may introduce my colleagues,” she half-bowed, gestured to the three Vuur beside her. “Ambassador and First Patriarch Geloof. Curator and Economist Nakato. And Supreme Guardian Zulu.” The trio prayer-bowed in tandem. “Ambassador Geloof and I are responsible for smoothing the transition to galactic partners. Supreme Guardian Zulu is here to ensure any security matters are handled. And Curator Nakato–” she gestured to the smallest, youngest of the assembled Vuur. “– will ensure any trade, cultural or physical, is overseen with the utmost care.”

“We are all pleased to meet you,” Nakato said with a small, feminine voice. “And on behalf of the people of Vursara, I am prepared to offer you the formal but immediate gift of our planetary orbit for continued occupation.”

“That is most generous of you and your people, Curator Nakato,” Mataan said, empirically graceful. Simon felt the roll of Snow’s eyes. Mataan turned grave. “As certain as I am of the historical significance of this moment, I am also certain of a threat we have inadvertently exposed you to.”

The Solsians were on-edge now. If the Vuur mirrored it, they were experts at hiding it. Or, Simon thought, their stone-like statures extended to their personality as well, making them eternal, immovable. A mutual pause and silent response between Mataan and Ramla not only allowed, but requested her to continue with neither fear nor ire.

Simon was calmer now. Oddly at-ease. Mataan too, though only externally. “Ambassadors, it is with the utmost sincerity I admit our discovery of your planet was as incidental as was believed. But it is with the most intense regret that this incident did not go unnoticed by those of our peoples whom feel marginalized for their divisive beliefs.”

A momentary silence.

Then, Ramla lamented quietly, “I see.”

Mataan replied with genuine sorrow and a slight, sad purr. “There is no denying our meeting is overshadowed by this reality. However, I believe it in our best interests, as individuals and representatives of our people, to admit this outright so our relationship might be formed of the strongest bond possible.”

Another silence.

Simon could feel his heartbeat in his throat. It rattled in his teeth, made a temple-vein throb. Then, he felt everyone else’s heart-beats add to it. For a full fifteen seconds, it last in plain, torturous silence.

Ramla again bowed her head. “This is indeed, troubling. Your willingness to reveal this information, however difficult and conflicting, engenders trust. That said, the reality of this… threat changes things. Perhaps it would be best if we meet in person to further discuss the matter.”

A mutual release-valve belched into the room. Mataan swallowed hard, relieved. Had she been capable of it, Simon would’ve expected to see her wiping sweat from her forehead. Instead, she carefully controlled her breath to conceal the obvious hints of pressure-panting.

Hours later, Simon was– in a way– glad for the way things had turned out. In another way, he was hysterical. He found himself standing outside an airlock, freshly showered and dressed, beside a similarly fresh Lina.

Behind him stood Snow, arms crossed, and dressed in kingly shoulder cape and armor. Stylized black-on-red draped over his right shoulder down to calf-height. Among other things, hiding the plaz-pistol at his back. His formal armor was as Kingly as he had a right to: Glassy, jet-black, composite ceramic interwoven at strengths higher than braided steel. Neither ballistics nor energy could pierce the Warrior-King armor. Between the gear and his various belts and pouches, he might as well have been some ancient monarch-conqueror.

Beside him, Niala was a similar picture of royalty. Her Matriarch robes were hewn in the most vibrant colors, of the finest silks, and hemmed in gold-fiber weave. A drapery of beads formed concentric circles, strung in equally multitudinous hues from her mid-neck to just-below her shoulders. The cloak-like effect managed an unquestionable royalty.

Yet to Simon, she still resembled a pack of cheap colored pencils.

It was only then he realized the Vuur might believe him shabbily dressed. Lina too. The pair were to represent the entirety of Humanity, Sol’s most prolific and so-called advanced species, in cheap cotton and polyester. As far as first impressions, humans weren’t doing well. Simon and Lina would only make it worse.

“Just another reason to get home,” he muttered, Galactic politics e’er his kryptonite.

His utterance gave way to the distant sound airlock depressurization. In moments, he would make first, Human contact with an alien species since the Zelphod. The thought terrified him, given how it went so well and all…

He couldn’t help but think of all those anti-Humanists bitching and moaning about their so-called “marginalization–” code for “veiled hatred–” and how they weren’t being properly represented, galactically. Meanwhile Mataan, an evolved feline, was first to make contact. Yet sometime in the future he’d hear about “Human involvement,” Human “guided” contact, while nothing about Mataan’s presence or direction was said.

The truth was, their long held dominance of Earth and Sol had altered Human psychology to a point of apathy. Humans couldn’t give two spits about making history. They’d done it already. They’d never be forgotten. Never die out. All of Human history, from its amoebic origins to its bipedal maturation, had been about establishing a legacy. That was done. The species as a whole could kick back and bask in the universe they’d helped find and form, await their eventual end in its heat-death.

Of them, no Humans were more of this mindset that Lina and her countrymen. The English had been conquerors for thousands of years, inclusively. When the time came that matters were sufficiently tended to, they withdrew to focus on the home-front. They were by no means the only example, merely the most relevant to mind.

He tried to mirror the English aloofness. Evolved life was eager, new. From Melchondo to Niala and Snow, and the Anti-Humanists– Hell, even the Vuur– each was eager to make a mark; to leave an impression of humble nobility. Simon just hoped to get through without making an even greater ass of himself than he eventually would anyhow.

They lined up to received the Vuur as a procession. Mataan led them out. She began by introducing them to Niala. They shook hands one at a time with a slight bow. Beside her, Simon was fought back tears. His eyes were watering. His body worked on instinct to mirror Niala’s movements. He didn’t even recall saying hello, nodding, bowing.

Rotten-egg stink swallowed him, as if billowing in from a chicken coop left in the sun for days. Simon couldn’t help it. The sudden presence was overwhelming, gut-wrenching. Internally, he screamed, wept. Externally, he blinked repeatedly, eyes burning and somehow not leaking.

The horrendous smell outright confirmed two things; Vursara was primarily a sulfuric world. And, the Vuur lacked any olfactory senses. It made perfect sense for a species on a world dominated by such rankness not to evolve a sense for it. Both from evolutionary and social standpoints, there was scientific logic to it. Less time supplying fluids and development to vestigial senses meant more for important ones. Moreover, not smelling one another meant one less barrier to emotional attachment or procreation.

Personally, Simon envied that lack of noses, wished it on himself. However unaware of it he was, the others were right along with him.

Before he knew it, the delegation disappeared down the hall for the control room. Niala and Lina trailed behind with Melchondo between them. Snow and Simon glanced at each other, for once, both on precisely the same page.

Snow winced, “Smell like a sewer.”

 

Back in Sol Again: Part 15

15.

Decisions, Decisions.

Mataan had been socially castrated before her security escort, Captain Melchondo, and Niala at Snow’s hands. That she’d been willing to show herself at all after was a tribute to her character. There was no denying the undercurrent of resentment present, but some part of Mataan had become less rigid. She elected to use the personal exposure to better facilitate communication rather than stonewall those around her. At that, everyone currently on-site was present, prisoners excepted.

“I have reached a decision regarding how and when to make contact,” she began almost ceremoniously. It was discarded. “As Snow so graciously pointed out, it is best we not shit where we eat.” No one dared laugh. “In that spirit, and as Ambassador from Sol, I believe it in everyone’s best interests to make contact and admit the truth of our position.”

Niala was concerned, “Madame Ambassador, are you certain that’s wise?”

“Doctor?”

Niala stiffened. “I take it you mean you wish to inform them of our… precarious position.”

“Indeed,” she said with a slight regality. The question as to her wisdom was unanimous. Mataan rebutted, “Would you rather Anti-Humanists soil our first contact by moving against them? Or have the knowledge later arise that we knew of the threat and did not warn them?”

Again, silence.

Whoever she was, personally, it was clear Mataan was Ambassador for a reason. She had a clarity even Snow marveled at. Spitefully of course, but marveled nonetheless. More than that, Mataan had foresight. For any politician, that was worth preservation.

Indeed, for yet another universal truth is the corruptive and lobotomizing affection for power; or simply, corrupt, lobotomized politicians. Mataan was one of few, precious diamonds in that rough.

Or as Snow later put it, headed for the storage room; “Got two sets of balls, for sure. Had anyway. Seems I took the smaller ones.”

Simon sighed dully, tongue half-out in exhausted dismay.

“If Madame Ambassador’s instincts are half as good as she believes, we may come away from this with an ally.”

Simon was less hopeful, however dulled, “And if we start another interstellar war?”

He shrugged with an odd candor. “Frying pan. Fire. Sol knew this risk and sent us anyhow.”

Simon raised a brow at the tacit admission of collusion but sighed, “Let’s get it over with.”

He still wasn’t sure how he’d been picked for meal-detail. Snow made a certain kind of sense: he was strong, quick, and the captives already knew he was here. Mataan’s security or Melchondo’s crew might’ve been regardless of Mataan’s presence, but the prisoners still better off unaware of their true numbers.

Personally, Simon couldn’t remember his job description anymore. It’d been too many years. One too many knocks on the head. ‘course, the minor, subtle changes of his job itself made it impossible to know it word for word. It wasn’t really important anyhow.

However, he was certain nowhere in it was the phrase “Feed Alliance Prisoners.”

He might’ve been irritated could he feel much, but since the Ambassador’s arrival, he’d been incapable of sleeping. Amongst others, one security officer currently residing in the bunks with he and the others was Emile Cantu. He was an otherwise respectable hound, job clearly an extension of his typically-loyalist, Canid personality. Simon was pretty sure he loved him– platonically, of course, the rest otherwise reserved for Lina.

The problem was:

Emile snored.

A lot.

It was awful.

Evidently no-one else minded. Simon wasn’t sure how. Only during the deepest of sleep did it arise, but Simon couldn’t stand it. It jarred him awake, shredded his dreams to jagged reality with an angle-grinder that cut rebar beside his head. In fact, he was sure he’d have slept better with that than with Cantu’s long, deep fractures to the fabrics of space and time. Simon was convinced nothing short was occurring, nor could occur, to cause such violent disruption.

He was left exhausted. Slow. He’d have been outright pissy but between maintaining the station, trying to repair Rearden, and trying not to collapse, he had nothing left. He ate during repairs or maintenance, spoke to Lina over them, but was otherwise watching, reading, calibrating.

Or trying to sleep.

Trying.

In the four days since Mataan’s arrival, he’d gotten somewhere on the order of sixty-eight minutes of sleep. It was unnerving. Dangerous. He’d done all-nighters in grad school, rushed off to exams afterward still awake, but this was crazy. He needed sleep. For everyone’s sake. If he didn’t get it, he was likely to kill someone. Indirectly, or through a somnambulistic rampage. Only time might tell which, even if he hoped for neither.

He managed to escort each prisoner out with Snow, one-by-one, let them eat before heading back to monitor power. Before he could even sit down, Mataan was in the room, requesting he aid her in control. The next hour was spent troubleshooting an interface malfunction. For over an hour he sifted system logs, checked hardware statuses, and ran or re-ran diagnostics. In the end, the cuprit was a toggled setting on a hidden section of the UI.

The dreaded Techie Plight had caught him without his knowledge.

Part of him hated Mataan for that.

The rest took solace in the fact that he’d likely caused the problem himself, when flying over the console to tackle Rhein days earlier. No-one had used it since, but now was the time it was needed… and failed.

He slank back toward the power room, eyes half-closed. His brain discerned only vague shapes; blobs of various, metallic neutrals smudging into one another toward the power room. He flopped into his chair, hands working mechanically to grasp Rearden’s encased figure. Before he knew what happened, he was asleep.

Under the console. Clutching Rearden’s incapacitated figure as a child with a plush-toy might.

There, Lina eventually found him. Six glorious hours later.

She’d been preoccupied meeting with Mataan and Niala, and helping Melchondo and his limited crew examine and maintain their ship’s systems. It was trivial for someone as well-versed in tech, and as such, she’d readily volunteered for anything outside the monotonous rhythm.

She stepped into the power room, “Simon, I was–“

Empty.

She rubbernecked the room, catching the faintest whistle. Her ears strained for it.

Srreeeee.

Silence.

Again; srreeeee.

Silence.

She followed its rhythmic emissions beneath the console, found Simon. He had all the hallmarks of a child sleeping: drool along a corner of the mouth; a hugged robot in one hand, labcoat-blanket in the other, and completely dead to the world. The only thing that might’ve cemented the image further was a sucked thumb and a onesie.

His obvious exhaustion had claimed him so thoroughly she thought not to wake him, but her presence was more or less detected. He rolled toward her, head on Rearden, suckling back drool and wiping his mouth. His eyes fluttered against harsh-light, snapped shut again.

She knelt beside him, “Tired?” He grunted an affirmation. “I see that.” He grunted again, depressed. “No choice, huh?” He grunted a negative. “You’ve no idea where you are, do you?”

“Hmm?” He finally opened an eye to look.

Utter confusion reigned first. Then, his mind clawed into recognition. He knew of the power room, but it was different somehow now. Curiously tilted. Askew. His eyes fought for purchase. He knew then that gravity, however artificial, had made a fool of him again.

The second thing he recognized was the small, flexible optical sensor curled toward him from Rearden below. The incapacitated bot gazed dully at him from the curled sensor with no more life than a plush toy.

The final thing he came to recogonize– almost instantly with the first two, was an agonizing pain in his back and legs. It spawned from his neck, shot down through wrenched, knurled muscles, matched only by the stink he then fourthly recognized as his own.

He couldn’t help but cringe at himself. Then at pain. Then his surroundings. Then, finally, at the reality that encompassed them.

He was suddenly awake. He sat up. Banged his head on the console’s underside. Howled pain. He rubbed his forehead, slid from beneath the console. Lina fought back snickers.

“Funny, huh?” He asked sarcastically.

She smiled behind a hand. He stuck out his tongue in response.

“Careful,” she prodded. “Might get it stuck in an airlock.” He pushed himself up as she finally continued where she’d first began, “I was told to bring you to control.”

His shoulders slumped automatically, “Fine. Might as well get it over with.”

“They’ve made contact.”

He was suddenly pale. His spine turned first to jell-o then to steel rebar. “They made contact without us!?”

“No,” she calmed. “Not– Just c’mon.”

She drug him toward control. He wouldn’t have needed to be drug but his body had suddenly lost proper connections to its brain. Until now, he’d half-expected the expedition thus far to be some sort of fever dream. He couldn’t explain why, but he did.

In that moment, all he knew for certain was the Solsian history of First Contact… and the war that followed. And that he was suddenly being asked to be part of a First Contact delegation. And that He shouldn’t be. And that he knew that.

And above all, he knew that given his penchant for foot-in-mouth disease, and his unyielding lack of social and physical grace, there was no-one worse suited for the job.

Then again, he wasn’t sure anyone aboard was suited for it. Snow was an asshole. Niala was too unpredictable. Lina was almost as bad as he. Even Mataan, though proven graceful, could be easily inflamed given proper fuel. All that, to say nothing of the Anti-Humanists, Mataan’s security detail, or Captain Melchondo and his crew– all of whom were technically even less qualified than Simon.

Yet, he still found himself standing behind the main control-console, the rest of the unqualified present. The largest vid screen stared at them, blank, but waiting. The eerieness common to Humans at the cusp of profound moments came about Simon and Lina.

As noted, the Human species has a fickle reaction to profundity. This fickleness no doubt contributed to the madness of Zelphod First Contact. Those present then were equally as unqualified and prone to foot-in-mouthness as Simon, possibly even less so. No wonder it turned into interstellar war.

Not the greatest combination to foster peace and hope in the Galaxy.

Mataan stole his attention before he could think further, “We received this ten minutes ago.”

She lifted her hand to key a console. Simon cut in, “We!? They made contact with us!?

Mataan glared. “Watch.”

A vague image of what they’d seen before appeared on-screen; Stocky, muscled, and the color of tanned leather. The humanoid-creature was clearly armor-plated beneath its sparse, dark-metallic clothing, it spoke with the sort of guttural quality of a creature without olfactory openings, or of one with clogged sinuses.

“People of Sol, I am Ramla; First Matriarch of Vursara and Starborne Ambassador of the Vuur. Our Sages have foreseen your arrival. Now that our peaceful intentions are declared, and that we are certain of yours, it is my honor to welcome you to the Orbit of Vursara.”

“They speak English!?” Simon blurted.

The room shushed him at once. The creature continued on-screen, unabated. “–of importance. It is known to the Vuur you have found us as incidentally as is possible for the space-fairers you are. I am certain we have much to teach one another. Indeed, much to learn from one another.

“Under the Sages’ direction, several of us were prepared for First Contact. We know much of you, but not all, via the shakey, psychic power the Sages possess. Though some of it is likely misrepresented, we are fortunate enough to have learned a good deal of your language. Thus, we need not burden each other with the confusion common to new species.

“In the hopes of timely replies, we have sent a communication frequency. Our transmitter and receiver, though crude, appears to functional nominally. Please forgive any difficulties in the matter. We eagerly await your reply. May peace reign!”

Ramla’s bulky arms rose skyward as if praising the sun. Then, her hands met and her head bowed, as if a bird in full dive with its wings pinned together behind its back. The image cut out, returned to the idle, black screen.

The room was silent. No one breathed. No one moved. The moment was historical, profound. All Evolved life present sensed the Humans’-discomfort. It wasn’t their fault; they’d adapted too well to the retrospective disappointment they formed upon greeting new peoples– mostly, by just being disappointed in themselves to begin with.

But something more had frozen them all now. Whether or not anyone else knew what, Simon knew it exactly: the Vuur knew of them, had taken great pains to communicate an offer of peace and friendship as their first act.

And now the Solsians would be forced to reply with Anti-Humanism.

Back in Sol Again: Part 14

14.

Real Mature

“And neither side has attempted communication, correct?” The She-Cat was asking.

She was the high-value cargo. Anyone that looked at her could see that. Although she wore the white-spandex common to Sol’s professional, evolved life, she’d covered it with a gown-like cloak that hung just above the floor and trailed the air wherever she went. Gold threads fastened it near the neck-line. Tassels and other fine filaments adorned its fringes and seams. She looked more like an Empress than an ambassador of the Solsian people.

For the sake of everyone, Niala bore the Ambassador with a stiff, upper lip to put even Lina’s to shame.

“Correct, Ambassador.”

“Good. Excellent,” she said, spinning amid the central control room. “There’s to be no communication from this station without my explicit orders or attendance. Both the Federation and the HAA have ordered that the ISC make no further attempts to explore this system. This order has been relayed to Captain Ingstrom and the proper system-base as well. Until I am up to speed, and better understand this new world, I must also insist your prisoners not know of my arrival.”

Niala bowed slightly, “As you wish, Ambassador.”

“Excellent,” she said with a regal spin, cloak twirling after her. “Now, bring me the Wolf.”

Niala squirmed, bowed again. “Yes, Ambassador.”

She hurried from the control room, passing Captain Melchondo and his crew. Simon and Lina watched Niala’s profile rush past the Galley. A certain stiffness to her usual-grace outright disturbed Lina. Then again, Niala also looked like someone was brooming her along, cartoon-style.

“She doesn’t look happy.”

Simon joked over a steaming, foil-packet of food. “Maybe someone just told her the zoo’s making a comeback.” Lina glared. He shrugged, “Can’t be helped. If she’s doing what I think, this won’t go well.”

“You don’t think–“

Their thoughts aligned. “I know. If the ambassador’s half aware as she should be, she’ll know he’s involved. There’s no way he’s getting out without some confrontation.”

Lina sipped her room-temp coffee, “Suppose he leaves before that.” Simon shook his head. Only Lina’s eyes were visible behind her mug. “And why not?”

He choked down whatever some sadistic bastard had labeled “mashed potatoes,” and explained, “I know Snow well enough. If he truly believes some kind of conspiracy’s going on in his ranks, he’ll stay here until the Anti-Humanist threat’s removed.”

She was catching on more quickly now. “You mean to learn more when they attack again…”

Something about the word “attack” slipped from her with such casualness it forced a pause.

Simon grimaced, again knowing her thoughts. “It’s frightening, I know, but we know they’re coming. And we know they’re largely incompetent–“

“We do?” She said, brows rising.

“History dictates as much.” Lina’s still-erect brows begged further explanation. “Anti-Humanists have never been more than a ragged band of criminals masquerading as revolutionaries. Simple fact is, short of some divine intervention like the Zelphod, they’ve neither the political nor material clout to actually do anything more than we’ve already seen.”

“That’s specious,” Lina argued in the most proper, English tone. “And dangerous. Underestimating an enemy can never end well.”

“They only think they’re enemies,” he asserted. “Truth is, they’re being used. Accurate grievances or not, by degrees or wholly, their beliefs are simply a convenient point of leverage; the proverbial strings tied to their backs.”

“That’s rather insightful,” she said, thinking on it. He nodded, in part to shift the awful taste of food from his tongue to his cheek, though the gesture was nonetheless genuine. Lina sighed, “So, whether or not they’re right, their tendency toward militant extremism makes them, what? Like confused children?”

“More or less.”

“Foolish.”

“Incompetent,” Simon corrected. He shuddered at an especially grainy aftertaste. “A Solsian epidemic.”

“Perhaps our new friends will lack that charming trait.”

Simon grimaced, “We can only hope.”

Simon’s hope, of course, was another short-sighted aspect of his species. It was not truly his fault. For, as has been said, making an ass of one’s self appears a Universal epidemic. It was however, nonetheless short-sighted.

Ah, well; C’est la vie. Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana. So it goes.

Down the hall, “c’est la vie,” would’ve only further angered to an already furious Wolf.

Niala stood at the far-side of the open airlock that separated the cabin and cargo sections of Snow’s shuttle. She’d entered the airlock easily enough, pressurized to the station as it was. Where she stood now, and her hesitation therein, was more or less for courtesy’s sake.

Snow slumped in his pilot’s chair, his Kingly-ardor damped. Why, Niala wasn’t sure, but she sensed it wasn’t good. Niala had never wanted to humiliate Snow as she’d done. On the contrary, she needed him in power on Ganymede. She needed his reputation to remain. For herself and for the millions affected if it faltered. If Snow’s power-base fractured, it meant civil-war on Ganymede. Possibly through-out Sol. Especially now, they couldn’t happen.

Unfortunately, forced to choose between the mission and his pride, the mission came first. Perhaps she’d overreacted. She certainly knew of better ways to handle things, but none so succinct. First and foremost, she’d needed to know why he was there; to help or hinder her.

For now, his power-base was unaware of that confrontation. Questions would arise when the Anti-Humanist prisoners eventually reached their destination. Those questions would reveal the truth. Between interrogations, informants, and outright prison gossip, further questions would tap Snow’s true intentions, his strength. That was bad. His obvious dejection was bad. The particulars of his dejection were moot. What mattered was, for as lawless and anarchic as Ganymede claimed to be, Snow ran it. That could change easily if he weren’t careful now.

One, well-placed rumor could add to another, atop an already-growing pile from his frequent absences, forming a king-killer. It was obvious some subset of his power-base hoped to stir trouble, were asking questions that could lead exactly where all of Sol didn’t want.

“If you hovered anymore I’d tell the bot to switch bodies with you,” Snow grumbled.

“Rearden’s indisposed. Thought I’d fill in.”

“Shame.”

“Snow.”

“Come in, Niala,” he said unceremoniously. “Sit down. Lingering helps no-one.”

She blew a sigh and sank into the co-pilot’s seat. They were silent long enough for Niala to mirror the Wolf’s stare. The blackness of space was pin-pointed by lights, as if someone had hung a black cloth over a universe of a light, then poked holes to tease of its existence.

“Ganymede will survive, whatever you choose.”

“That’s no solace, Domess,” he said, his insult’s sting even less than usual. “They leverage my own intelligence against mob mentality. I have my issues with Sol. With its politics.”

“This much I know,” she reminded.

Everyone knows it. My people. Your people. Their people.”

He sighed again, almost shrinking into a singularity in his seat. His face wrinkled with the snow-gray that lent him his name, but bled into something deeper, whiter. Niala was suddenly aware of how old they’d become.

No-one was quite certain the average age of Evolved species. Too many unknowns made for too much uncertainty presently. First-gen Contact survivors had been forced through their evolution cycle mid-life, cutting their lifespan to fractions. The very stress of undergoing such radical mutation made it a wonder they’d survived at all. It undoubtedly affected them more than anyone realized.

Since then, near-constant fighting had dominated Solsian life. Whether for the HAA, the Federation, or planetary gangs, unnatural deaths abounded. Any estimates for life expectancy were too skewed for certainty. Given the two were second-generation Evolved– or rather, first born Evolved, neither Niala nor Snow had any idea how long they might live. That uncertainty made it impossible to plan anything too long-term.

For a King, or someone masquerading as one (however virtuously,) it required drawing on the only known historical examples of such. Given Snow was a Wolf, largely detested Humans, he wasn’t willing to emulate their historical monarchs. That reality left him entirely in the dark.

He reiterated for effect. “Everyone knows my politics. And yet, they exploit them erroneously. They seek to use group-idiocy against the intelligence of my position: I do not care for Humans. I do not care for most things. I live, and rule, by a rigid code of honor. That code also dictates I refuse to waste time and lives waging foolish wars over meaningless viewpoints.

“Yet I must respond somehow. In spite of their idiocy. In spite of my wizened position– that I’m not stupid enough to believe Solsian Civil-war is a plausible answer. In spite of it all, I must meet them head-on. But how? Their tactics are as guaranteed to succeed as I am to fail at making them understand my position. How am I combat that without stooping to their level? Without compromising my honor? My integrity?”

A long, thoughtful silence passed.

Niala did her best to reassure him, “Simply? Do not. Combat them with the methods of a King– their King: Rationality, reminders that their world thrives as a result of his efforts. With reminders, above all, that many enemies threaten he and his subjects, some in ways indirect and insidious.”

He thought long on it in silence, then he gave her a lone look. “I was not going to say it, but … it is good to see you again, Niala.”

She managed a small smile, “Always a pleasure to entertain the King.” He barked a sudden laugh. Her face reset into stiff reality, “Unfortunately, matters of state require our attendance.”

“To hell with that shit-boxer.”

“You wanna’ keep your Merc contracts with the Feds, you need to speak to her,” Niala quipped back. One of Snow’s eyes narrowed on her. “There’re how many systems in the galaxy? Why else would you have been here?” His face hardened. She reassured him. Again. “My silence is assured. Hers is not.”

He rose, grumbling, “Flea-bag shit-boxer.”

Niala followed him with the cartoonish, brooming stiffness. Snow’s profile preceded hers past the Galley in a whisk of movement. Lina and Simon exchanged a tense glance over fresh, steaming coffee, hesitated, then scrambled to spectate. The feeling was mutual; “I have to see this.”

“Alpha-Wolf Snow,” the Ambassador said, empirically.

“Ambassador Mataan,” Snow said, oozing a generous lather of repugnance.

“I’d have thought you’d fled the moment taking responsibility for your actions was required,” Mataan said with equal distaste.

He growled, “And I’d have thought the universe would collapse attempting to bow appropriately to your whims, but here we are.”

“Ambassador,” Niala began gently. “Snow,” she said caustically. “Please, we’ve matters to attend.”

“You have my report,” Snow said to Mataan, ignoring Niala. “Either take me at my word, or don’t. I don’t care.”

“And how’m I to know it’s accurate?” She asked, knowing her implication.

He bared his teeth, “Because I wrote it.”

Mataan was too pleased to have affected him. “Yet your intentions may be questionable.”

Snow looked ready to explode. Niala was almost certain she’d have to repeat their earlier spat. Instead, he stiffened as she had and his voice smoothed out, “As are yours, Madame Ambassador. I wonder how the Alliance would feel if they learned your youngest daughter was currently on holiday on Ganymede, meeting with anti-Humanist sympathizers. Or if they learned of her sister’s… schoolgirl indiscretions.”

Mataan’s face hardened. Her eyes became icy knives, ready to cut Snow’s throat, but knowing they couldn’t.

“I would suggest, Ambassador, not to shit where you eat and instead use the box.”

He swiveled with the smuggest of grins, catching Niala’s glare as he left. At a word, the room emptied, leaving the Ambassador to herself. Niala left, seeing Snow far ahead. Lina and Simon stared, open-mouthed, at what he’d gotten away with.

Niala muttered under her breath as she passed, “Real mature, Snow.”