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.”

 

Back in Sol Again: Part 13

13.

Answers

Niala and Snow led Fera, shackled, from the storage room. Well-armed but regarded with both amusement and pity by her charges, Lina guarded the remaining prisoners. She found herself indifferent, largely due to the empowerment of her big, new gun. Meanwhile, Simon returned to control to monitor for the diplomatic communique and attempt minor repairs on some of Rearden’s circuit boards.

Niala kept Fera at arm’s-length between her and Snow. The trio single-file shuffled to the Galley, whose name made the pantry-closet of a room sound much larger and more important than it was. They sat Fera on one side of the jam-packed table, the edges literally touching the cabinets beside it, and placed food and water before her.

The She-Wolf snarked blithely, “A bribe? Gonna’ have to do better than that.”

Snow snarled. Niala remained neutral. “We’ve been instructed to do two things; treat you as a common, domestic terrorist– meaning you’re to be fed and treated with the same rights as any Solsian criminal.”

Fera’s brow cocked up, “And?”

“And, to get as much information from you as possible.”

Fera’s eyes skimmed theirs over a laugh, “You’re telling me this, why?”

“To offer you a simple choice,” Niala said, seating herself on the far-side of the table with an unfathomable grace. “You tell me what I want, when I want, and you eat, bathe, and sleep like any normal prisoner.

Or. Have every bone in your body broken, one-by-one, until I get what I want.”

Fera snorted incredulously, “You can’t. You wouldn’t. HAA regs. You can’t countermand a prisoner order without suffering a treasonous fate.”

Niala’s eyes narrowed, “You saw my strength. And yes, the ISC and HAA could punish me… but not Snow.”

He leaned forward, “And you bet your furry ass I’m willing to take you down a peg.”

Fera’s neck stiffened. She stared down her plate of food as if communing mentally with it.

Niala rose from her seat, “I’ll leave you to think on it.” She nodded to Snow. He nodded back. She hesitated at the door, “Better eat up. Don’t want it to get cold.”

Snow’s eyes flicked from Niala as she left, settled on Fera as she ate. He sized her up; the prisoners could say what they wanted of Niala’s confrontation, end of the day, he wasn’t shackled to chairs or wall-struts.

Fera snarled up at him, “So you’re Ganymede’s resident traitor.”

The corner of his eye pinched with sardonic distaste. “My reputation precedes me. But who do I betray? And for that matter, to whom?”

She snapped, “Same as every domess. Claiming peace to sell us all out.”

“I claim nothing. To you, least of all.”

Fera was silent. She ate, reluctantly. It was a full minute before she spoke again, a half-meal heavier. “The great warlord, Snow, errand boy for the Human-Animal Alliance. How would the separatists on Ganymede feel if they learned of your presence here?”

He leaned in, indifferent, “Ask them.”

She sensed his meaning: she wasn’t free to, wouldn’t be for a long time, if ever. She went back to eating, slower now. Every bite became as much a stall tactic as a feeble attempt to fill the void of her silence. It began to overwhelm her. Snow sensed it; the air around her was more desperate, more anxious. Were she not the glorious Wolf, Evolved and lethal in every capacity, she’d have looked more like her lame-brained cousin, the Chihuahua; small, bouncy, impotently aggressive. A far cry from her true nature.

He remarked as much, adding, “Whatever lies you tell yourself, you know the truth: I am not the traitor.” She spit air through her teeth, seething. He ignored it. “You claim I betray yet you ally yourself with creatures whose notions of honor and kinship are a fallacy to be used against them.”

“What would you know of honor!?” She growled.

He straightened, stiffened with a firm bellow, “I know many things you delude yourself into believing.” She sneered. “You are a Wolf. A genetic apex predator. A creature whose lineage dictates her allegiance be only to her pack– her people. But rather than follow her kind, she chooses to be a scared, confused pup.”

“I–“

“A Pup!” He barked. “Following a feline into battle– a cat.” Her fury began to bubble. He pressed her. “A cat! The most two-faced creatures short of the MeLons.” The slightest tremble outlined itself along her features. Snow’s eyes narrowed. “A Wolf! Following one. Into a battle it created, then fled from leaving her to suffer for his actions.”

She exploded, all but jumping from her chair. “We were all following orders. Shafer included. He did as he was told. As did I.” His brow rose. “What of you? Consolidating more domesticated power for the HAA?”

Snow threw a paw sideways, howled, “Where’s your honor!? Fighting a losing battle against your own people. You should be leading a planetary fleet. A General on a front-line. Instead, you’re down in shit-holes with Cats and Hogs too stupid to see their conquest is futile. That their battles are the last desperate gasps of their own ignorance.”

Her body flexed against her shackles, “What would you know of front-lines? Sitting high on your Ganymede throne, pissing on those below you. Killing those that disagree. Slitting throats of so-called peaceful, political opponents.”

He snapped back. “Retaining order is a consequence of power.”

“Order!? Is that what you believe it is?”

“And what do you believe, Fera Sattler? Do you believe Anti-Humanists will one day rule the galaxy peacefully? That the Zelphod will lead them there; rescue you from the HAA prison? Do you believe anyone in this universe gives one, infinitesimal whisker-twitch of a shit about you!?”

She exploded again, this time, pulling so hard at her shackles, even Snow worried for a moment– more that he’d have to clean and bandage wounds than anything.

“The Zelphod failed. We will not. The way forward is Solsian. We will soon make it known. We’ll put Humans and sympathizers in their place. When we do, the galaxy will know us. We will write history this time.

“Enough.” Niala cut-in from the door. “I’ve got everything I need.”

A resounding silence descended. The last of Fera’s re-spouted extremist rhetoric became like so much other propaganda through-out history; merely a ringing silence beyond lies. Nonetheless, she undeniably realized she’d given away something crucial. Judging by the growing satisfaction in Snow’s face, possibly everything, even if she still wasn’t sure how.

Snow grinned through her at Niala, “You’re certain?”

Niala sauntered in, “Positive. She’s passed knowledge, is regurgitating dribble now.”

Snow gave a slight nod; their coup as near-to perfectly executed as either could’ve hoped. Fera’s face might as well have been removed. She’d not only had the wind knocked from her sails, but her entire ship off-keeled and flooded. Her dullard look held as much animosity as shame and confusion. That is, it held nothing and everything at once. Fera was amid a complete-systems reboot.

“Let her finish eating then return her to storage,” Niala said, with a grateful nod. “And well done, Snow.”

“Thank you, Domess,” he said with a satisfied sarcasm. Niala left, in earnest this time.

A quarter-hour later, Niala and Snow stood with Simon and Lina in the control room. A wide-angle of the storage room glowed on the main screen so that each prisoner was visible. The present parties kept one eye glued on the screen for trouble– though none would come, even after Saffron awoke. Stubborn as they all were, at least the Anti-Humanists knew when they’d been beaten.

“What did you learn, precisely?” Simon asked, too tired from working on Rearden to pick out the information from the melange.

Niala began, “As suspected, Shafer was just leading the strike-force, was under orders to flee rather than allow capture.”

“For fear they might give something up,” Snow guessed aloud.

Niala nodded, “And given the Zelphod comments, we can assume if they’re involved, its much more secretly than anyone’s given them credit for.”

Lina’s eyes narrowed, “You mean, if they are, the anti-Humanists aren’t aware of it.”

“Not at this level, anyhow.”

Simon sighed, glancing sideways at the screen, “So they’re all just foot-soldiers?”

“More or less,” Niala confirmed.

Snow crossed his arms, “They were recruited for various reasons. But given their resentment, many are likely to have lost family to Human-allied groups. Or otherwise, to have been ostracized from groups as a result of Human dominance. Fera especially, fits the former.”

Niala agreed, “Shafer and Saffron fit the latter; both are recidivist Felons that come from poverty in human-run colonies.”

Lina allowed a hint of sadness to her tone, “Is it really so bad for the Evolved?”

“Not as much anymore,” Niala reassured her. “So long as Solsian society allows for it though, there’ll always be poverty. It was worse for us, the first generation of Evolved, when we were coming of age. Contact had only just ended when we were born. The Zelphod were still retreating. Sol was still in transition from colonization and the Apollo programs. There was great disparity. Even greater uncertainty.”

Snow remained light, however hard of a left turn he took. “But things have improved. No matter how many fish-brained morons forget that.”

Simon put up a hand. “We know they’re working for someone and why. What else?”

“It’s an organization operating outside the HAA’s sphere of influence.”

“Uh-huh,” Simon followed. Lina put a fist to her chin in thought.

“With Solsian political connections.”

“Hence the breach at the embassy,” Snow reminded.

Niala added, “And we also know a second attack is imminent.”

“We figured as much,” Snow said. “But knowing can focus us.”

Lina shook her head, mind clearly elsewhere. She eyed Snow, “How certain are you of your power-base on Ganymede?”

His eyes narrowed, “My authority is absolute.”

All eyes were suddenly on Lina. “How much do you trust the people you’ve left in charge?”

“Where’re you going with this?” Simon asked.

Lina’s eyes swept the others’ settled on Snow. “If I were looking to establish a power-base to oppose the HAA or the Federation, I’d look for a lawless– or mostly lawless– place to lay down roots. Then, I’d make sure its economy could remain independent of any leadership I sought to oppose.

“In short, I’d look for Ganymede.”

Snow’s eyes hardened. He said nothing, but about-faced and marched out. A moment later the distant sound of an airlock pressurizing to the station forced them to eye one another. The Wolf’s fury was obvious even from the distance.

The silence he’d left behind suddenly shattered with the chime of a console. Niala eyed it, then braced herself against there with one paw, keyed it with the other.

“Go on. I’ll handle this.” The pair departed and a Rat’s graying face appeared on the main screen, shoving the view of the prisoners aside. “Go ahead.”

“Matriarch Martin, I presume,” The Rat said with a stiff, military bearing. Niala gave a slight nod. “This is Captain Melchondo of Firestorm-class Cruiser Sentinel, informing you we’re within range of your station and plan to dock upon arrival. ETA Two hours.”

“Can you state your intent, Captain?”

“Only vaguely,” He said, hinting his fear of eavesdroppers. “I carry highly-sensitive cargo.”

Niala stiffened slightly. Given the circumstances, it meant only one thing; an HAA diplomat and a security team. She cleared her throat, “Very well, Captain. I will see to it accommodations are made. Crew size?”

“Six. Plus cargo.”

“We’ll prepare for your arrival. Light-speed to you, Captain.”

He gave a minor nod and disappeared. The prisoners retook their place. Niala stared at them, exhausted by the prospect of yet-more complications. She rubbed her eyes with her paws, drew a deep breath…

And blew a frustrated raspberry, flipping off the screenful prisoners.

 

Back in Sol Again: Part 12

12.

Uneasy Alliances

“Traitor,” Niala growled, her arm at Snow’s throat. Her other paw flexed, razor claws tensed, ready. “Your ship could’ve fired.”

Simon was frozen. Beside him, Lina too. Across the room, Rhein cringed. Conversely, Fera licked her lips with a blood-thirst even Saffron couldn’t have matched.

Snow winced; any muddled explanation or unclear motive would end his life. His spine stiffened as best it could beneath her strength. The ultra-dense ceramic-plating of his suit compressed his body with the arm at his throat, the former utterly impotent against the latter. He would have to make a point to tailor something for his neck… if he survived.

He took the only route he could, even if it could just as easily end in his death; total honesty.

“You’re right.” He spoke slowly, his eyes fused to Niala’s. “It could have.”

Simon was too acutely aware of the blood-thirst on the air. He was also aware of how very small Snow appeared; how very large Niala appeared; and most of all, how very still everything had become. He wished deeply for something to break the tension, but chose further tension over the tension being broken with murder.

Much as Simon loathed Snow’s dominance games, he and Niala had long been friends– or as near to it as their circumstances and choices allowed– and Simon didn’t care to see that line erased. Or more importantly, the carnage of its erasure.

Yet Niala’s fury said their history meant nothing if Snow’s continued reply remained unsatisfactory. If so, it also said, there’d be blood by the bucketfuls to clean. He’d and Lina had already decided– however unconsciously– if it happened, Niala would be the one with mop in hand.

Snow stiffened even further against the hydraulic sandwich of the Matriarch and his own armor. The feat seemed impossible before he’d managed it, even less so afterward. He remained openly honest, no maneuvering, no games, however unfamiliar it felt.

“Had I destroyed that ship, two things would now be fact; the black-box transponder would be broadcasting to Shafer’s people, drawing them here. And, informing them something other than Homer was armed for battle in this quadrant.”

This was delicate ground. Everyone knew it. Curiosity, or sheer need, magnetized each person to Snow’s every syllable. Simon and Lina saw it for what it was. The others too, though less so; Snow hoped to manipulate the room into recognizing his importance. The problem remained however, that no-one could reach Niala before she decided to move, if indeed she did. He remained aware of this fact, as did the others of all the facts before and around it.

He stayed his course. “Had Shafer been killed, he’d have immediately been replaced by someone we’re ignorant of. We know our enemy now. We also know Shafer; he will seek revenge, hoping to rectify his failure. This allows us to anticipate our attacker, his attack.”

The slightest breath escaped Niala; blown pressure from a release-valve to avoid catastrophic overload. It wasn’t necessary for breathing, but for easing internal tension. Niala was now one breath further from explosion, from rashness. Judging by the room’s remaining tension, only Simon and Snow recognized the slight nudge the Wolf’s future had received against sudden, lethal misfortune. Over his next few sentiments, Snow kneaded enough of that remaining tension to dissipate it, nudge by nudge.

He remained with total honesty. Given the immense strength still posed beside his jugular, it was the advisable option. Warrior or not, to do otherwise was foolish. Snow hadn’t lived so long as a fool. No-one that knew him would claim it either.

“Knowing Shafer as we do is infinitely more important given the discovery below us. There is no doubt, had I ordered Alpha-Wolf to fire, the civilization below would’ve seen the destruction. If they’ve yet to spot us, it would have been a poor introduction.”

Niala’s jaw was tight. She agreed, but knew him too well to believe him fully. She knew what he wasn’t saying; that he’d yet to pick a side; that the Wolf was also restrained and hidden because he wished not to expose it to the Anti-Humanists; that he wished even less to expose his indecisiveness.

Sol and the HAA could be manipulated into believing in his impartiality. They were stupid enough to fall for it. Bureaucracy had a way of making even the most advanced civilizations look dimwitted. Mostly, it was the purely empirical nature of the beast. Empiricism had its place. Science of most of all.

But science was only one-part Empiricism. Science too, required heart, imagination, discipline. Bureaucracy was wholly empiricism, nothing else. It could not survive otherwise. As a result, it suffered from foolishness and myopia. Indeed, if universal, governmental history had proven anything, it was; any mode of thought based on a sole principal was infinitely worse off for it. Were anyone to seek an example, they need only turn to monarchy. Functional or not, a system relying on one idea as its core missed the point entirely of a system.

At the risk of needless repetition, bureaucracy had a way of making even the most advanced civilization look dimwitted.

Niala, on the other hand, was not a dimwit. She wasn’t a fool. And she wasn’t about to let Snow treat her as one.

“You must think I’m neutronically dense,” she said with a hint of pity.

One of his eyes narrowed further than the other. “Not in the least.”

She breathed deep, releasing him slightly. He had enough time to relax and stand again on his own two feet. A right cross knocked him sideways.

“Never forget your life was a gift from me, Snow. Bestowed more than once.

He caught himself on the unconscious Cougar with one paw, pressed the other against his bleeding muzzle. The Cougar began to stir. Snow let out a momentary fury with a lone punch, knocked the Cougar back into unconsciousness.

Niala pushed past Simon and Lina without looking, left. It was more a show of finality than anything. The couple lingered long enough for Snow to sulk off into a corner and dig through a pack he’d brought in from his shuttle. He’d been corrected, wasn’t happy about it. Then again, he was alive. Anyone else in his situation wouldn’t have gotten away alive.

He could certainly take a punch, that wasn’t the problem. The obvious humiliation was.

Of all things, Snow was a leader, with pride. That pride, in turn, secured itself via an honor-code held to even more rigidly than nerves to his spine. In combination with that, he kept himself and his people safe through executed action. In simplest terms, he backed the threats and promises he made.

Niala’s victory was a reminder he could still bleed, still die. It was a promise too, she could ensure he bled whenever she wished, especially if he tried to pull-one over on her. Simon had learned years ago Niala could never bear to kill Snow herself– and yet even in retrospect it made the scene no less terrifying for him.

Simply, there was too much between Niala and Snow to kill him; too much trust, too much friendship. Too much of things Simon could never be certain of– though never anything more than a certain friendship and rivalry. Nothing more intimate.

What Niala could do though, was make to it so she effectively pulled the trigger. Killed him without killing. It was as simple as the act of forcing him against the wall in front of the right people. Humiliate him in the right time, right place, with the right company, make him appear weak enough, and someone else would get to him. His death would then be as much her doing as the act of exposure. It wouldn’t happen immediately, might very well be a fight to the death for the person, someone could get to him.

That was, if Niala wished them to.

For the moment, all involved knew the weren’t to that point. There was no reason for it. Not yet. Certainly there were unspoken reasons for not shooting Shafer down, but his sentiments remained correct regardless. The line of reasoning’s whole mattered less given the integrity of its constituent parts.

In layman’s terms; he’d lied, but only a little.

Presently, the two Humans trailed after the Lioness; Simon carrying Rearden’s dented, little figure along. He’d have to pull and examine its memory core, and if intact, side-load them into the station’s systems to access the code. Meanwhile, the rest would have to be repaired by hand, and if Simon was lucky, easily. Otherwise, it would cut into the inevitable shift-sleeping he and the others would take on monitor the station.

He and Lina set about loading and decrypting Rearden’s memory while Snow lingered elsewhere, licking his wounded pride. He might as well space himself for all the good he was doing. Niala felt similarly. Feelings aside, Snow’s ship-full of people far outstripped their three scientists, one fried bot, and cadre of prisoners. If the prisoners managed to escape, there was no telling what would happen– to say nothing of if Snow suddenly decided to pick the wrong side.

Simon and Lina worked over an hour to decode the emergency transmitter’s contents, several more before they were able to deactivate it. Translated to English, Rearden’s Binary message read like an old telegraph missing its stops: Alert. A-H- aboard. Seek Homer. Ambush planned. Do Not Return. Only trust direct contact. 1030 Zulu. Message Repeats.

That simple text had saved untold lives. Rearden, were it Human, would receive the HAA and ISC’s highest honors. But it wasn’t. It was a bot. A programmed and intelligent system, but a system nonetheless. Accolades meant nothing to it. All the same, Simon would find a way to honor the bot; perhaps a new coat of paint, something else of the sort. He’d figured it out in time.

The beacon deactivated while Niala launched a burst transmission to Homer. It was merely a request for a vid-call, signed by her operator’s code. That number alone guaranteed Homer knew it was her. At the very least, Ingstrom would know. Privy to the knowledge of her spec-ops training, he knew she’d die before that code was given up. For operatives like her, ones Ingstrom knew well, there was no “Room 101,” or life and death. There was protocol. Nothing else.

Minutes later the comm-console lit up. The quantum communicator and its sub-space packets could link the Milky Way galaxy to another if it so chose. Or, Beta station with Sol. Or simply, Beta with Homer, as was the case now. It could, and would, do so instantaneously, without lag, and until nothing short of catastrophic destruction of the transmitters interrupted it.

At the moment, things were calm. Even Ingstrom appeared much less severe than Simon recalled. He suspected relief was the cause, but Ingstrom’s stone-face grumble left him hard-pressed for proof.

“I trust the situation has stabilized and was handled appropriately,” Ingstrom stated.

Simon sensed his wish for no further details, either due to personal disinterest or professional caution.

“Aye, Captain, yes,” Niala replied. “There was only a single complication. Someone–“

Ingstrom cleared his throat, making it obvious to all that he knew more than willing to say– and that someone else was likely listening. It suddenly dawned how much he would know of Snow’s presence, more so than her, and that he’d possibly contracted him there, instructed him to keep from being spotted in the event he was needed.

It took Simon a moment longer to catch on, though Lina was thoroughly lost. New as she was to these games, she knew to keep quiet, listen and learn. Niala was clearly in charge anyhow, and far be it from her to question her well-trained, well-weathered, quite-well-frightening-when-angry boss.

Ingstrom gave a few, final remarks. “Question your captives. For now, they are to be treated as any domestic terrorists. There will be a diplomatic communique arriving I would like you to attend to concerning our new friends.

“Until then, be aware that we’re monitoring Gliese on long-range sensors but will be proceeding on-mission until directed otherwise. If you learn anything, do not hesitate to relay it. Stars guide you.”

“And you, Captain.”

The comm cut out and Niala turned for the door, headed from the control room.

Simon called after her, “Where are you going?”

“To get answers.”

Back in Sol Again: Part 11

11.

The Wolf Doth Protest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cougar was no different. He stank.

Like hell.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s going on? Who’s there? Lina?”

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

“Snow? Why are you here?”

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

Niala helped Lina over, “Alright?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Snow!” Niala shouted.

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

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

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

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

Hoping, and ultimately, failing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Story: Nothing Better to Do

Snow plummeted at odd angles, reducing visibility to near-zero. Even if she’d had a car, Elizabeth Arnold would’ve never driven to or from school in such a blizzard. She’d rather take her chances on frost-bite getting through three layers of clothes, rather than risk totaling what would be the only set of wheels she’d have for a decade. So, she was stuck walking home.

Another day, another pile of shit, she’d say. Today that was at least half-true, given how oil darkened and grit covered the snow was. In Bacatta– and most snow-afflicted areas– snow wasn’t white or even gray most times. It was black, or brown, caked with mud, sand, salt, oil, anything the roads picked up between winters. And it was always ugly.

White snow was reserved for lavish places that could as easily afford to import it as choose to live in it. Those sub-human morons could keep their white snow, Elizabeth decided, even if human snow one ice, one part old beef stew without the carrots. All she cared about at the moment though was putting one foot in front of the other, and hoping the effort wasn’t in vain and that she’d get home more or less whole.

For all she knew, the whole city had disappeared beyond the few feet of continuous sidewalk and piled snow that peered in from either side of her hood. Bacatta could be little more than an endless void of white particulates where humanity sound as if it were hiding, but wasn’t. She guessed the answer to that would remain a mystery for some time to come. The forecast for the next few days was, to utterly no-one’s surprise, snow, snow, and more snow. The walk-home white-out was just the start of it. Seventeen years of living in Michigan, Bacatta in particular, had taught her one thing if nothing else; Winter was long and it came early, like the most teasing and disappointing sex partner ever.

Of course it was going to snow. It always did. A lot. So much so the first white-outs closed up the town with a collective “fuck it” that intended to wait out the coming storm. After a few days, and a few feet of snow, the city dug itself out and started up again.

If it weren’t for her foresight, Liz would’ve been forced to trudge home, freezing all the way. Truth was, she expected to get to school only to be turned away. That they’d managed to hold a few classes was as surprising as it was pointless. Half-days were as much snow days as exercises in futility. Especially for high-school students, whom usually weren’t alert until their third or fourth class, all a half day meant was waking up early for no reason or having a free ditch-day.

But Liz had never been one to ditch. She wasn’t sure why. There was no moral obligation compelling her to attend school. The only explanation she’d been able to manifest was “having nothing better to do.”

That apathy was largely prevalent in her life, regardless of venue. Between school, homework, getting older, more cynical, and the trials of recurrent menstruation, too many emotions had bludgeoned her since childhood had ended. So, rather than get angry like some people, she just sort of switched off.

It wasn’t that she didn’t care about people, or even things, just that a once easy-going organism had evolved into one comfortable wherever it found itself. Or, if not comfortable, then indifferent. School was no different. Neither was snow. Even the half-hour walk that should’ve taken ten minutes didn’t really bother her.

She pushed into the house to find it still empty. No surprise; big sister was usually gone and Mom was always working. Most times she had the house to herself. Apart from the day’s excess mental energy, nothing was all that different.

She headed to the basement. It hadn’t use until Liz had moved into it. Since then, she’d entirely taken it over. Apart from laundry and utility rooms, there was nothing anyone had used or needed otherwise. Having an extra bathroom she wasn’t forced to share was nice too, and she’d done her best to decorate the place.

Noon was lunch time. Always. At school, at home, at any other place she could think to go. No matter what she’d eaten for breakfast, too, or what she was doing, as soon as the clock hit noon, her stomach growled and grumbled for sustenance or recompense– usually in the form of fainting. Funny, even her gut seemed to have a do or die attitude despite her otherwise total indifference.

She slapped together a sandwich from provisions she’d squirreled away in a mini-fridge in her room, then sank into a chair in front of her computer. The screen faded on to a web-browser and her open email account. To one side, a message app flashed an alert. Above it read, “Sam Ellery,” in alternating green and white with black text. Below was “Hey Chickie, U round?”

If Liz had to guess, Sam was eating lunch and praying she’d suss out a way to spend the day with her. Liz’s charteristic indifference struck again;she had no strong feelings, one way or the other. Then again, logic begged the question, “what else did she have to do?”

Nothing. Ab-so-lutely nothing.

The next three or four days would be boring as hell unless she rectified the problem now. Sam was probably thinking ahead as much as she was caught in the moment.It didn’t make her any less on target.

Sup?

Liz scarfed down her sandwich, sucked down some soda, and read the next message.

Shit. U?

Same.

Wanna chill?

Liz shrugged to herself. My place or urs?

Urs. Rents r home. Fightin agn. Mind if I stay 2nite?

Another pointless shrug. If u want.

Coo. C u in 10.

With that, at the very least, the next few days had been secured against boredom. Sam always had a heavy bag of grass and at least a handful of ideas to offer to pass time. Liz had plenty of ideas herself. Seeing as no-one ever entered the basement either, incense could cover the smell of even a few bags of lit grass.

Ten minutes passed quicker than Liz expected. Sam entered without knocking. Even had she, Liz would’ve never heard it. It was just easier this way. She shook snow off herself, dropped a heavy backpack just beyond the closed, basement door, and dug out a separate pair of shoes to change from her snowy ones.

Liz watched with something like envy; Sam was always stunning, even in spite of a little pudge around the love-handles. Perhaps it was just her confidence– her small build made the pudge more noticeable but she seemed ever the force of nature. Her larger cups and the petite hourglass they hung on couldn’t hurt, Liz knew.

Liz was the opposite in almost every way; a hair taller than average, lumpy in all the wrong places, flat in most others. If it weren’t for the aloof personality she’d cultivated, she’d have probably been a neurotic mess of insecurities. Weed helped too.

Sam settled onto the small couch beside Liz, pack beside her feet. She broke out a bag of grass and a few cigars and rolling papers, set them on a book atop the coffee table.

“What’chu been up to?”

“Had lunch. Now this,” she said, focused on the TV.

“Wha’s it?”

She shrugged, “Some movie. Started just before you came in. Dunno know what about yet.”

Sam poured weed onto the book, put one half onto another book, and handed it over with the cigars and a knife. “Roll the blunts. I’ve got more weed if you need it. I’ll do the joints.”

The pair worked autonomously, eyes focused intently on the screen ahead. The idiot box had claimed two more victims for their foreseeable future. By the time the pair were done rolling their respective smokeables, they were on the edge of their seats.

The movie, it turned out, was about two young girls, both friendless and alone with great responsibility riding on them. All that usual mumbo-jumbo about strength and companionship and how greatness was a measure of someone’s birthstone or something.

As they sparked their first round of grass, the pair derided the movie. It wasn’t for lack of enjoyment, but rather to mask the awkwardness of the increasingly misplaced sexual tension between the two, female leads. The weed descended and the awkwardness disintegrated into its own, self-derision with giddy glee. Everything was suddenly hilarious. Especially when the two women ended the movie with a cliched, triumphant-victory kiss.

The pair fell about in stitches, their second joint burning down in the ashtray.

Liz laughed through tears, “Jesus, that was the worst kiss I’ve ever seen.”

Sam giggled with screeching breaths, fighting to open her mouth and stick out her tongue, flick it around with exaggerated movements.

Liz gasped for air, “You look… like a cow!”

Sam managed to lock herself into a rhythm of the movements. Between it and the tearful laughter, she found it nearly impossible to stop. It only fueled the already maniacal fires of laughter.

By the end of it, both girls feared for their lives from airless lungs and watery eyes. The laughter settled enough for breath to return as credits faded to commercials began, separating the end of one movie from the start of another.

“I mean, really,” Liz said, laughs still bubbling out here and there. “Who kisses like that?”

Sam’s laughs were lighter, arguably more under control now, “I honestly don’t know.”

“Oh jeeze, what the hell were they thinking?” She forced laughter away with a wide grin.

“I know. Such a lame ass ending.”

“And such a bad kiss.”

Sam chuckled with a roll of her eyes, “Not like you could’a done better.”

“Oh I so could,” Liz balked with a smarmy smile.

“Prove it,” Sam challenged with a raised eyebrow.

What? You want me to kiss you?” She asked, her eyes gigantic.

“Put your money where my mouth is,” Sam giggled. “I bet you’re all wet and sloppy.”

Liz’s mouth hung open, “I dunno’ which is worse, your insult or that you wanna’ kiss me!”

“Oh c’mon.” She hissed playfully, “Wussss”

Their eyes met for a moment: the simple challenge in Sam’s, and the deranged question of sanity in Liz’s. Sam’s raised brow said putting her money where her mouth was– or rather, where Sam’s mouth was– was the only way out of the challenge without a forfeit. Whether from Sam’s confidence that she was, in fact, a terrible kisser, or something else entirely, Liz couldn’t back down. She stiffened her face, finally not indifferent toward something; and that was that she wasn’t about to back down.

She grabbed Sam’s face almost sarcastically, hesitated, then stuck her tongue in with fast movements. The sarcasm suddenly slipped away. Her body flared with heat. It slowed her tongue, Sam’s with it. Almost a full minute passed before the girls parted.

Sam’s eyes nearly closed, her voice soft, “That was really good.”

Liz nearly panted, “Agreed.”

Before either one realized it, Sam was straddling Liz, their hands roving and tongues dancing. For the first time, Liz’s indifference was nowhere to be found. In fact, the only thing she could find was a certain, undeniable lust to continue running the bases.

Likewise, Sam didn’t want her to her stop. One thing was already leading to another, and being teenagers with home plate never far off, she didn’t see a reason for it not to keep leading there. By the end of the night, a lot of things were in limbo but one thing was certain; even if they’d had nothing better to do before, their few snow days were now full, and they’d be anything but boring.

Sam rolled over and kissed Liz’s neck. Then, as if to confirm their shared thoughts, Liz giggled and pulled the blanket over their heads.

Back in Sol Again: Part 10

10.

All Hail The King

Simon and Lina were kept apart from Niala. They’d been moved to the bunk-area, while she was sequestered to her beam in the storage room. The reason was simple, she couldn’t break through steel, but if she got close enough, could easily break the plastic and rope bonds tying Lina and Simon together. Freeing them could only serve to free herself in time. The last thing the Anti-Humanists wanted was a pissed-off Lioness rampaging aboard the outpost.

Rearden was brought into the bunk room, tossed unceremoniously into a corner to clang against the ground like a tin-can full of nuts and bolts. Simon could only wince. The scorch mark on its side said enough; it was hit some sort of electrical weapon that overloaded and shut it down. No doubt, it blew half its capacitors in the process. It might take weeks to repair it. Simon could only hope it had gotten its altered message out. What they were supposed to do after, he wasn’t sure.

He understood Niala’s reasons, but turning away their only chance at rescue seemed the opposite of a good idea. He knew Homer was the target, or at least one target, but he questioned how much threat they might actually pose to its thousand-plus crew. At the same time, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the hunch Niala had played off otherwise.

He could do nothing more but sigh, hoping a solution presented itself.

Snow stood in the center of his ship’s Bridge. The various screens readout a plethora of metrics, informatics, charts, and scans that flickered in constant updates. Each one meant something specific to one of the dozen creatures around him, and while Snow knew them all, he cared only that they functioned. He’d hand-picked his crew from the best mercs and swashbucklers in Sol, they ensured he didn’t need to pay attention to more than was crucial for his own interests. Each of his people were organs in a body; each with a job both crucial and singular.

Each crew member knew it, knew they were expected to act as such. Any deviation meant punishment. Snow knew few things better than effective forms of punishment. He’d practiced many, been subject to others, and knew infinitely more.

What he knew, most of all though, was honor.

Whether to his word, or his allegiances, he put honor above all things. In his world, defying or defiling honor, earned a death reserved for only the most depraved of dregs. A death made sure to see to, personally.

To Snow, a fight was an exercise in primal fury no matter how stacked to one side or the other. But there were rules. Rules stemming from millennia of evolution. Rules, unspoken, that demanded your prey never be humiliated, dehumanized– for lack of better terms. Humans angered Snow for that reason; they knew of no rules, no honor, to battle or warfare.

In many ways, he hated Humans; hated that they’d made themselves Lords of Sol. That they’d gated off their most important positions and places on Earth and elsewhere for themselves. That they, even after decades of evolved animal life, forced themselves upon or into their burgeoning cultures, into their individual lives wherever possible. That they forced the animals into certain rungs of society, on planets, and in the minds of the system, whether directly or indirectly and consciously or not.

He hated too, the way they’d humiliated his cousins, the Canids. His descendants, evolutionarily speaking. They’d taken once-proud, intelligent, fearsome Vulpines, and turned them into mockeries. They’d bred them to appear like himself, with none of their personality, their spirit.

Then, they decided they’d liked that idea so much, they inbred those mockeries until they were genetic freaks; mutants whose own DNA rebelled against their very existence. The result was everything from spinal problems to the inability to breathe. Contact had only made it worse, too.

When Snow thought about Humans long enough, he thought about the Pugs; creatures with their genetics so corrupted their faces perpetually looked like something cast beside railroad tracks after being hit by a traveling freight train.

He thought about the Bulldogs, inbred ‘til their honorable lineage of cutthroat fighting and strong-backing was replaced by the inability to breathe so that each had to carry inhalers, oxy-tubes, or the scars and financial burdens from multiple, astronomical surgeries that unduly complicated their lives.

He thought about the Pitbulls, the Shepards, the Boxers, and Rotts; all once trained to be protectors and guardians, fighters as capable of man-killing as child-loving, and how their family trees were in shambles, tatters, rife with the senseless murders of their shining, ancestral apex-predators–murders spawned by human fear at their own magnificent or freakish creations.

Snow held no love for Humans, hated that some evolved life defended them to literal death. He’d both willingly and not, fought side-by-side with them, against them. Nothing had changed his feelings. He knew of very little that could.

And yet, when the message arrived, he did not hesitate. He immediately set a course toward Gliese-Beta. The simple reason; with as much as he hated Humans, he hated Anti-Humanists more.

Anti-humanists were fools. Bigots. Too easily controlled through their hatred. They were used by media to enable governmental and corporate overreach; used by equally bigoted Humans for overreaching into evolved society; used police as scapegoats; by gangs as symbols. Most notably, by the Zelphod to attempt disrupting the balance of Solsian powers.

No matter what anyone else wished to focus on from the ISC breach, Snow remembered the truth of its conclusion. A Zelphod General was involved. Despite claims from Zelphod leadership that the General’s actions were not sanctioned, neither were they condemned internally.

To Snow, that was as much as admitting to a false-flag op as anything. He’d been part of a couple himself, thwarted a few too, and he’d gotten a sense of them. They’d been used through-out all of Solsian history to turn the blame for an act onto another party via the acted upon party.

One such incident indirectly gave rise to the second, global war on Earth. When an act of a political party against itself was framed as an attack by another, it allowed a tyrannical monster to assume power and enact a so-called “final solution–” for a problem that had never existed in the first place.

Humans were like that, Snow knew. They were stupid, dishonorable enough to have created False-flag ops. They weren’t however, the only ones dirty enough to perpetrate them. Among other things it made them yet another tool of warfare, leveled the field for players like Snow to take full advantage of.

No doubt the Zelphod had learned of False-Flag ops since the war, had hoped to institute one themselves. Snow sensed as much, wasn’t about to forget it. So, setting his crosshairs on the Anti-Humanists was as much about retaliation against foolish bigotry as it was an attempt to secure Sol’s future, its place in the galaxy– perhaps even the universe.

For, as much as he hated Humans and their apologists, there was no denying Niala’s eternal argument: Sol could not progress with Animals and Humans at one another’s throats. He simply disagreed with where Humans belonged in their collective hierarchy.

Even so, he’d have rather seen the end of evolved life– and the rise of Humanity to masters of the universe– before letting Anti-Humanists make first contact with a new species on behalf of Sol. Let alone an intelligent one.

Alpha-Wolf sailed through the cosmos at its highest sub-light speed between bouts of recharging its jump drive. The more primitive big-sister to the F-Drive required more parameters be met, and more time for cool-down and recharging between shorter jumps. Nonetheless, he’d remained within a day’s range of Homer before his one-time companions were deposited on their temporary outpost.

He’d sailed for that outpost as fast as his ship’s hyper-physics would allow, all the time manning the Bridge. When, at last, he stood in a shuttle alone, he was prepared. Like his ship, the shuttle was the elder prototype for the shuttles now used aboard Homer and the other Clarke-class vessels, but unlike Alpha-Wolf, it was more or less identical.

He fitted his Vulpine helmet over his specially-armored space-suit, engaged its systems, tested his mag-boots, and stepped into the shuttle’s cargo-area. He gave Alpha-Wolf’s Pilot a command over the comm and the ship disappeared through the cock-pit view-port behind him. With a few keys of a rear panel, the shuttle’s lights dimmed and his mag-boots engaged. Gravity disappeared only a breath before the atmosphere vented. External sound went with it.

With a steady, slow-motion silence, the rear door of the shuttle sank. The station’s airlock revealed itself in the shuttle’s younger sibling, opposite it, where its true-crew had left it. Between the two, along what appeared to Snow as the station’s left-side, and at its lowest airlock was an identical ship– the fools’ who’d taken over the station. Soon, they’d regret that decision.

Niala’s vision was a fog. Her mind was scientific, rigid in its logic, but there were bits of irrationality leaking in. Drugs always had a way of taking the mentally astute and making them dream big. It was the only reason Solsians had made it to space in the first place. Some Human had looked up at the stars, stoned out of his gourd, and dreamed. And then, another. And another. Until one did it that concocted a story about how magnificent it must be up there.

And then some not-quite-so-stoned person decided they agreed. And then, a lot more, sober ones did too. They all got together, did some math, and then showed up on the doorstep of the stoned dreamer’s house, and said “watch this!” Then a mile a way, a trail of fire and light cut through the sky, and the stoned person could only stand beside the sober ones, each of them mustering the only thing they could; a complete and totally bewildered, “cool.”

The rest, as they say, was history. Niala had never been surprised, on reflection, that Chinese Opium lovers were also the first rocketeers. Drugs made one think in that stoned, dazed way of boundless imagination. Dreams first and logic second. Niala would’ve loved it given any other circumstances.

But currently, someone was trying to use it against her. Why, she could only guess. They’d yet to question her. More than likely, it was something to do with Rearden’s interference. If the bot was half as smart as she knew, it put a lock-out code on the console. No doubt, Shafer’s people believed she knew it.

Mostly, she guessed that hadn’t considered Rearden’s intelligence or capacity before zapping it. Also mostly, because they didn’t have enough of either to tie their shoes without being told how to, or when. So when the Hog came in, stinking like road-kill and mud, it refused to believe her even despite the would-be truth drugs.

“I don’t know it,” she said in earnest.

The universe spun around her. The room’s lights left streaks like shooting stars. The whole effect was that of watching a meteor shower, during daylight, from a spinning merry-go-round.

He demanded an answer. She gave one; “Did you try, “dip-shits?”

A hoof cold-cocked her across the jaw. It served only to add a cross-wise tumble to the spinning universe. The pain was far too dull and distant to matter much, even if the hog hadn’t hit like a tired butterfly.

Niala laughed, “Try again. Nothin’ there, but something’s bound to come up.”

The Hog reeled back again. Niala was focused behind it; a figure grew six sizes, loomed above it. From her drugged state, the Hog was actual size. The figure was a skyscraper. Darkness bathed its one-side, the other only vaguely reminiscent of something she once knew. Before the Hog could know what was happening, the skyscraper flattened it against the storage-room floor.

Snow swatted downward with his oxygen tank. It connected, followed through, took the Hog with it. Niala couldn’t help but find this instantly and uproariously amusing. Whatever the effect to her, it left the Hog limp on the floor, blood trickling from its cracked, unconscious head. Snow set the tank aside to rouse Niala. She babbled something amid laughter and Snow instantly knew she was drugged.

He dug through a pouch on his suit, produced a horse-pill, and broke it apart beneath her nose. She sniffed hard, uncontrollably. The world stopped with a jarring vertigo amid its spin, settling into place before her. Her eyes homed in on Snow’s, then narrowed intensely.

“Snow!?” She said in a hush.

He put up a paw for silence, then whispered, “There are more nearby. Are you fit?”

She tested her legs, let her arms level out with the beam she was chained to, then nodded. Snow dug for the keys in the hogs vest, freed her from the locked steel. He gave a signal to stay low and quiet, then made for the storage room door. Niala’s head still teetered to and fro, but she fought it with a tightening jaw; they had a job to do.

Back in Sol Again: Part 9

9.

Oh Hubris, Thy Name is Solsian

Simon couldn’t say how long he’d been out. He’d had nothing to mark time by during the brain melting tedium of inventory and being knocked unconscious had distorted his sense of time too far since. Between that and the obviousness that he’d been drugged, judging by the floating lethargy in his limbs, he knew there was no point in dwelling further on it. A more immediate concern was the throbbing in the back of his head. Evidently someone had mistaken it for a nail, hit it with a hammer.

The reality was much more sinister, he knew. He’d guessed it from the onset, in that flash of knowing before blackness came. Something about the feline face. He’d met more than his share of cats, big and small, but this one-eyed face stuck out. Why, he wasn’t sure yet. All he knew for certain was its allegiance.

These were anti-Humanists. No doubt the same that had infiltrated the HAA, the ISC before that. The most worrying, and pressing thing, to Simon’s mind, was how exactly they’d gotten here. Granted, there were a couple thousand people aboard Homer, they’d all been screened. Most especially, screened for connections like this.

Homer was long gone anyway, had been for hours. He knew that. They would too. No, they were here by some other means.

Instantly he remembered the ISC’s initial leak, years ago now, that had led to the creation of the Clarke-class vessels. The MeLon and its Anti-Humanist comrades, headed by a vengeful Zelphod, were in possession of Interstellar transportation blueprints. They’d created a space-worthy prototype, and were on their way to a second when Simon and the others destroyed the production facility on Ceres.

Even after personally bombarding the facility, the HAA and Earth Federation’s Fleet ran a so-called “training exercise” on Ceres to do the same. The fleet left the already decimated planet a series of smoking craters. Not a structure remained standing. What remained of the minor atmosphere was bled dry, its generators utterly destroyed.

Had the planet not been utterly depopulated a decade before, it would still remain a lifeless rock.

Where that initial Prototype ship was now, was anyone’s guess. It had been the prize of Alpha-Wolf Snow; the closest thing to a leader Jupiter’s anarchic Ganymede moon-station had. Snow was vicious. Cold. Lethal. He was a cunning Wolf with a history of violence and spec-ops work. Niala had served with him during Padfoot Lightning, worked with him afterward more than once. When the breach at the ISC pointed to an obviously innocent Simon, the pair went to meet the King himself.

For a moment, Simon nursed the idea that perhaps Snow was behind this. After all, he was the only one outside Sol’s various, official entities with an interstellar drive.

No, Simon knew; Snow was so fiercely apolitical, and violent at that, he’d single-handedly forced all the sleaze on Ganymede to get in line or get dead. Most did the former. He had no reason for such a move. Snow was a monarch, more than anything. He had no constituents, rather subjects. He had alliances, pacts. He had Dukes, Dames. An army of one-time Mercs whom found it more profitable to kneel before him than seek their daily bread elsewhere and anger their overlord. Most of all, Snow had what passed for honor in these times.

While that meant little to those unfamiliar with him, it meant everything to him; and through him, Simon.

His recollection flickered through Simon’s mind in the instants between swimming consciousness returned his senses to his limited surroundings. As if spinning until now, he found himself at the center of a reality swirling about him. The universe was a pure confusion that, for seconds, struggled to work out just what had happened– while fighting to keep his last meal from rejoining the open air.

He needed to keep from panicking. He’d done it enough, and ruined enough through it. He wasn’t about to risk his foolishness getting the best of him.

He suddenly thought of Lina and Niala, realized the room was dark, though no longer spinning. He also realized, something vaguely cotton was stuffed into his mouth, and finally, that he’d been lashed to something behind him. Something warm. Moving. He focused his senses, was suddenly aware of Lina’s warm scent. He shook himself, stirring the figure lashed behind him. It shook back limply.

Lina! He thought to say, tried to say. It came out “Llllnnnuhh!”

The cotton-gagged night sounded with muffled noise, as if a glutton with a mouthful of toast screamed for more. Something heavy and furred smacked the side of his head. The blindfold slipped from one eye. The one-eyed Feline appeared, face rigid with hate. At some point, one of his ears had been slashed through the middle, leaving a scar deep enough to tatter its edges. Stripes in the feline’s forehead fur were scarred and mottled, patchy from a lifetime of fights from fist, claw, talon, everything. He looked like an overgrown alley cat, smelled like one.

Simon finally recalled the face. He’d seen it before Homer’s departure, during a mandatory security briefing for officers and senior staff. Most people aboard the ship hadn’t been privy to it; even Lina wouldn’t recognize him.

But Simon did.

He remembered why too; the Feline was a fugitive. Caligulus Shafer, an Anti-Human extremist who’d been arrested multiple times for felony assault and battery, disturbance of peace, and inciting violence. His rap-sheet ran a mile longer than that but Simon didn’t commit much else to memory.

It was enough to know that Shafer was a bad guy. He’d escaped a work-mine on Deimos not long before the expedition launched. Knowing now what Simon did about Zark and the HAA infiltration, there was no doubt Shafer was been broken out in preparation for it.

Something bigger was going on. Something planned to coincide with the expedition. Simon’s gut told him it had more to do with Homer than anything, but Shafer’s method of transport might change that.

Simon stilled a sudden panic to Lina’s movements by clasping her hand. He watched Shafer rise, step away to converse in a low purr with a wolf. Given the markings, and the way the Wolf held itself, Simon guessed accurately it was a female.

Female Wolves were rare nowadays. Not as any sort of evolutionary byproduct, but rather largely from isolation. Wolves were one of few species that had retained independence when most of the animal world was dying off or surviving on conservation efforts. Wolves had already been restored through those acts. Though Simon knew of no Wolf that would ever admit it, to others or themselves, Vulpines only yet existed as a result of Humans.

Admittedly, they’d only ever been threatened because of Humans too, but C’est la vie. Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana. So it goes…

In the scheme of things, all that mattered was that Wolves had known freedom up to Contact and “evolution.” The first-gen of evolved Wolves had bestowed the deep importance of independence on their offspring. For females, that meant prideful isolation. For Males, it meant honor, leadership. No doubt, some measure of that pride fueled She-Wolf’s desire to join an Anti-Humanist strike force.

There was no denying they were that. Even from the minute corner of his uncovered vision, Simon could tell they were militants. They carried weapons. Tac-Vests. Comms. They reminded him of the vids of spec-ops teams he’d watch with Niala on alternate movie nights. She loved to razz him about his ancient sci-fi lizards and such, but even she knew nothing quite topped the ridiculousness of old action-vids.

He realized then that Niala was missing. Or had been. The sickening satisfaction in Shafer’s face said they’d found her. More than likely, they’d bring her here. Hopefully. If they weren’t smart enough to space her, anyway.

Shafer whirled, sensing Simon’s eye on him. He muttered to the Wolf, then stalked over as if sauntering up to toy with trapped prey. His voice came out like the rasp of an angle-grinder that smoked too much.

“We have the Lion. We’re searching for the bot. We’ll have it too. Soon enough. You want to make it through the rest of your miserably short life in a single piece, you’ll recall it.”

Simon’s heart skipped a beat. He let it tripwire hope in him; Rearden wasn’t deactivated. It was hiding. It could call for help. Something of this must’ve shown on Simon’s face. Another, sickly grin spread across Shafer’s jagged, tin-edge face.

“Think you might make it out of this, don’t you, Corben?” Simon’s face flickered with a minor repulsion at hearing his name in Shafer’s rasp. “Oh yes, I know all about you, Doctor. Savior of the Solsian republics. Scientist and star. Partner to the Dome-ess’. Co-perpetrator of crimes against animal-kind.”

Simon’s face couldn’t help but fall into an utter confusion. He was none of those things, let alone savior or criminal. He tried to say as much through the gag, but it all came out sounding like a series of “Mmms,” “fffs,” and “ouuuss.” On the plus side, he seemed to be understood regardless and his gag had come loose a bit.

“Deny all you like, Human,” Shafer said. “We know the truth. Whether you choose to see it or not, admit it or not, you work for a corrupt entity. Your people ruled over us for millenia. When we gained our intelligence, our independence, you used your infrastructure as an excuse to lord over us. You and your sympathizers talk of sense and reason, but you’re all motivated by your own desires.”

Simon threw his head back and groaned, unintentionally spitting out his gag. “Oh what. a broken. Record!” Shafer’s one eye narrowed. “All of you idiot anti-Humanists say the same thing; Humans are doing this. Humans are doing that. Humans are oppressing me. Humans aren’t giving into my every demand so let’s pitch fits and start civil wars. Shut up already. We get it. You’re not happy. We’re working on it. All of us!”

Shafer’s face sharpened to a point. The nails on one of his paws jumped out. Simon’s instinct was to swallow hard. He felt the scar from his last encounter with such claws throb across his throat. Before Shafer could lunge, re-enact that last encounter, a high-growl met his ears. Simon breathed relief, knowing Niala’s rage anywhere.

Shafer swiveled on-heel as Niala was dragged in by a large, male Cougar and a Rat whose scars gave even Shafer’s a run for their money. Behind them followed another, female Rat with a plas-rifle vertically in her hand and against a shoulder. Niala was pushed into the room and freed from their grip but the look in her eyes said it was obvious the game was nowhere near their favor.

She focused on Shafer. “Caligulus. I should’ve known it was you after the escape.”

Simon shook his head; more and more he wondered just how deep into the muck Niala had once traveled. No matter her distaste, she certainly knew well enough how to traverse it; more than a few whom did so willingly. She ignored Simon’s look, though he sensed she’d caught it.

“Dome-ess,” Shafer said, with as much vitriol as Simon had yet heard. “Kind of you to join us. Where is it!?”

“Where is what?” She said innocently.

“Don’t bullshit me, Martin. Where’s the bot?”

“What bot?”

Shafer nodded. The rat with the rifle slammed its butt against her back. She roared, ready to snap. Simon watched her incredible restraint. If she weren’t so certain they’d kill her for it, Simon knew she’d be goring the cat’s throat. She wouldn’t though, they were all prepared to kill her. The situation was delicate. They didn’t want her, didn’t need her, but if she could be kept alive, she could be valuable. If she became a problem, she was better off dead. The same went for the others.

Niala growled through low frequencies with the sound of a chain cranked through metal loops. No doubt she was saving as much fury as possible for later, when her infamous Lion blood-rage could be unleashed and better put to use.

“The bot,” she said. “Is probably at this moment, altering the distress signal you have running. When it’s done doing that, the ship you’re so interested in won’t be coming near this outpost until long after we’re all dead from starvation. Then maybe, if you’re lucky, they’ll space your corpse. Otherwise, they’ll burn it. Or grind it into fertilizer for a hydro farm. Or chum it at a fishery. You ugly. Worthless. Scum-sucking. Piece of genetically-altered wa–

The cat swiped her face, leaving a gash from one side of it to the other, roughly a half-inch deep. Niala didn’t cry out, but Simon sucked air through his teeth. Lina gripped his hand harder, completely impotent otherwise. Shafer began shouting for the others to lead Niala to a corner where they chained her to a support-beam.

In control, a shout emitted behind Rearden. Its optics were focused on the storage room feed. It saw and heard everything that had transpired, including Niala’s subtle instructions. Already, the altered transmission was broadcasting. Even when the door opened and the electric-stunner arc soared past the unconscious Hawk to incapacitate it, the little bot knew it had done its job.

Not far away, relativistically speaking, the transmission’s binary pulses echoed on the comm array of a ship much like Homer, though half its size. From the forward display in the central Bridge of the Alpha Wolf, against the back-lit floor sconces glowing with low fires, the grizzled face of a Wolf leaned forward into the light.

One half of the gray face pinched downward with resolve, “Set a course.”