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.

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.”

 

Back in Sol Again: Part 7

7.

The Colloquial Human

The few people aware of the anti-Humanist development were on-edge, Simon among them. Something about knowing utter chaos is poised to break out makes one absolutely paranoid. This is yet another example of universal phenomena. Every sound was an attack. Every light-flicker an assault. Every shadow an assailant.

Were it not for occasional trips to the break-room, and seeing Lina there, Simon might’ve lost his mind. She fared more or less normally. He grew worse over time, internally and otherwise. His feelings became mirrored, first by rumpled clothing and dishelved hair. Then, in a grease-slick face and wide, red-veined eyes.

Ultimately, Niala had been right; hours could pass as quietly as needed, but even five minutes before contact was enough it to a mockery. Simon still remembered confronting Josie– or whom he assumed to be her– and having his throat cut. Things had gone from zero-to-bloody carnage in a blink.

Lina didn’t quite understand that. She was an innocent, in her way. While he wouldn’t recommend near-death experiences– or rather, near-murdered ones– blissful ignorance made it impossible to relate. Then again, she wasn’t entirely ignorant, just in disbelief of her own vulnerability. At least, she treated it as such.

Despite his gratitude for her reassurances, she simply couldn’t make things better. Danger turned him to rubber. Until forced to become stone or become dead, he was useless. He’d done well with the stone part in the past, but his wasn’t an on-off switch engaged at will like Niala’s.

He was tense. So were many others. Like Lina with him, the whole ship felt it even if most didn’t know why. Sleep was restless, difficult. Lina felt it too–

And materialized unexpectedly at Simon’s apartment.

He’d zoned out on his couch, staring at a Vidscreen. Nowadays most people had dual, inbuilt Vidscreen/holoprojectors, but given the cabin’s circumstances, vidscreens alone would do. As spacious as the state-rooms were, space was at a premium. Yet another con to add to the ever-spooling list. Simon didn’t care. In fact, the movie he was currently watching was older than anyone or anything ship-board.

On-screen, the 1000ft tall lizard, played by Haruo Nakajima in a heavy rubber-suit, stomped out and belched atomic breath across Japan. The metaphorical atom bomb Godzilla represented seemed the perfect fit to Simon’s circumstances. Much like the atom bomb, no-one really knew what to do in the event of this new species being met. Everyone had their theories, their protocols to be adhered to, (or discarded) but no-one really knew how to act.

Nor could they. Not until the moment had passed and they could benefit from hindsight.

Much like them, Simon was indecisive, uncertain. He’d inherit enough of the chaos sure to overwhelm Homer’s crew when, if ever, it descended. He currently preparing for that possibility by imbibing as much down-time as manageable. Though something was bound to come and ruin it eventually, he felt the knock on the door premature.

Then the door opened, and there was Lina.

The first thing Simon thought was to check his watch: Despite being more light years from home than most of his species could manage, everyone aboard Homer still went by Zulu Standard time. That is to say, Earth-standard 24 hour day whose zero-hour aligned with the zero hour of an arbitrary line drawn upon a map of “Earth, Sol system” somewhere far far away.

Consequently, the debate of time’s existence and effects is a long, heated one which most often descends into fecal flinging no matter one’s location in the universe.

His first thought was answered by his digital Casio, which gave the time as 02:30.

His second thought was spoken aloud, went, “Lina? What’re you doing here?”

Her eyes fluttered, brighter than she’d have liked. The air around her said she was wired. Simon sympathized, but for once it wasn’t his reason for remaining awake. He’d simply become used to sleeping a certain way aboard Homer. Given the last week was their first aboard, he saw no reason to break the habit yet.

Lina replied to his question with an involuntary sigh. “Can I come in?”

He thought of what happened the last time she’d entered his stately hell-hole and realized he was once again in his underwear. She pushed past for the couch and vid-screen, took in the screaming, atomized breath of Godzilla.

“Old monster flicks? I had no idea.”

He eyed his exposed lower-half, its tightie-whities persisting despite their generations of unflattering fashion, and shrugged. He shut the door and sat beside her on the couch, only then noticing she was clad in a robe, with little more than boy-short panties, slippers, and a dark, see-through tank-top on beneath.

“Y-yeah,” he stammered. “So… is everything alright?”

She nodded, eyes glued to the screen. “Just can’t sleep. Too much work. S’like running on I-V adrenaline.”

He did his best to be at ease with things that otherwise made him feel nervous. Perhaps that was Lina’s plan; arrive as relaxed as possible and catch him in a similar state.

She leaned her head against his shoulder and his eyes fell to her, then beyond to spy the hint of pink peering from beneath her bra-less, tank-top. Panic shifted his attention to his tightie-whities that tented swiftly despite his will.

He squirmed in terror. The heart attack sure to come was fed by the path he found himself on and a dark primal desire. The path was one of real, deep love for Lina. The desire was a hot, slobbering, myopic beast that sought nothing but another of its kind.

The cause, unfortunately for Earth descendants like Simon, Lina, and every other creature hailing from Sol, was the very thing they owed their existence to. An act of bonding between two halves of genetic data in formation of one, new one. This act, known as conception, was an incident (or more oft-times, accident) stemming from succumbing to one or another’s love, lust, or simple boredom driven by that primal, beastly desire.

Early in Solsian history, the goal of this desire was building a genomic legacy that, in the grander scheme of things, was as self-serving and pointless as all other activities life engaged in. Despite never receiving an answer as to its purpose, life was not dissuaded in its attempts to carry on. In parlance, this process was done through “having sex,” “doing it,” “fucking.”

In reality, there was no purpose to life. As evidenced across Sol, the Milky Way, or indeed the known universe. For, in order for it to bear purpose it required one assigning said purpose, a reality with even less evidence than a “life’s-purpose” itself. Like everything, life merely existed. Reasoning was an abstract side-effect of intellect and sentience, just as it seemed, was making an ass of oneself. Believing otherwise was the result of imagination, ego, and the need to belong, to understand.

If one required a meaning for life, in an effort to fulfill some facetious need, they must first recognize that need was no more necessary than life’s existence itself. One would then need recognize “purpose” was merely their own desire to have purpose. Only then could any purpose be ascribed. Thus one must recognize all of the preceding as moot; as unnecessary as anything could be.

If one managed thus, and was not turned away from pursuing the result entirely due to existential dread or elsewise, the following could then and only then, be regarded as life’s purpose– as evidenced by its own commitment to one, inherently adhered to principal; to persist.

The only purpose life, known and unknown, might be said to have was that which coincided with empirical evidence. From the vacuum of space, to the molten core of Earth, and beyond it entirely to the volcanic world of G876-d, and beyond it still, life had done nothing but attempt to, and ultimately succeed in, persisting. In doing so, it had made possible adaptation through the process of evolution.

And thus, it reinforced the idea of persistence as a means of course. That purpose, in its way, was so grand yet simple it seems the greatest rationale as any might find, especially where science is concerned. Grand as it was in its attempt to persist, Nature; the conglomerate of living things and forces acting upon them, had thus imbued the varying species and races with implements to continue persisting.

For Sol, these methods of persistence, fucking, were carried out via the concept of attraction. The bridging force of spaces between two beings capable of mating, attraction, led colloquially, to fucking. As all things regarding evolution, fucking required primers be engaged before the act could be carried out– no matted how satisfied or not the effected parties found themselves after.

For most, Solsian males (and Human males in particular) one of these priming events was the inward flowing of blood to the male sex organ, officially known as the penis, colloquially known as The Rod, Dick, Cock, etc. The blood, then kept from flowing out again and forced to pool, filled The Rod’s spongy, internal tissues. The experienced erection, or “hardening” of The Rod, continued until it more or less stood freely of its own accord. (Other Solsian males, most often politicians, merely found themselves a few inches taller.)

Life’s intent and success at persistence had imbued itself, and Simon specifically, with this tightie-whitie tenting capacity. Blood cells had arrived, and as a family at picnic on a breezy summer’s day, had pitched a tent as large and wide as they could muster. Some were shamelessly proud of it.

Contrary to logical deductions and life’s own “purpose,” this was absolutely the last thing in all the universe Simon wanted to happen.

Or so he thought. For the actual last thing was what came next.

Lina giggled. “Happy to see me?”

He tried to hide it by crossing his legs with an obviously desperate chuckle. Instead, he thrust it forward and grunted. (Recall the male propensity for grunting.) Lina snickered. Before he realized it, she was atop him, straddling The Rod in all its hard glory.

“Lina, I–”

She shut him up with a kiss. Then another.

And a third.

Like their male counterparts, Human females too, had ways of preparing for the act of mating– fucking. It involved a series of secretions released within the reproductive organ, (officially termed Vagina, but also known as pussy, snatch, satin pouch, etc) that lubricated it for The Rod’s reception whilst signaling arousal. (Personally, Lina preferred “pussy,” but like The Rod, there were equally as infinite an amount of names.)

Lina’s body had been worked to a near frenzy before ever arriving at Simon’s door. Admittedly, her intentions had never been to straddle him, but as they were both rather enjoying it now, she saw no harm in it. Rather, it was a reaction to seeing that, like her, he found himself involuntarily aroused by their combined presence.

The near-frenzy she’d achieved before her arrival was the result of her inability to sleep. Temporary insomnia had been a problem of Lina’s since she was a young girl living outside Sussex and dreaming of bigger, more amazing things than England’s southern grasses.

It had taken quite a few years to master her bouts of temporary insomnia, but most of the time, could be done with a single act. If however, that act failed, as it could from time to time, she would be forced to toss and turn restlessly until sleep came far too late and far too short– unlike her.

Incidentally, that act of stress relief was meant to also temper the lust of Solsian creatures. An act that, as a result of Solsian life’s evolved methods for persisting, required essentially fucking oneself somehow. Literally.

Lina had used masturbation as much as a tool for relaxation as for relieving pent-up sexual tension. Since her early youth, when insomnia attempted to rear its ugly head, she skirted and explored her own southern, English grasses until climax left her writhing like a drooling, drugged psych-patient.

From a youth experiencing it for the first time, through restless post-adolescence and adulthood’s nights of grad school, and now to her place on the first expedition outside Sol, Lina’s use of the act had varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, as then with now, failure meant not only failing to achieve sleep but also the intended climax– cumming, and largely the only conscious reason for any creature to attempt fucking, alone or with others.

Lina had failed to sleep, failed to cum, and failed to relieve herself of the growing tension within. Instead of wallowing, she felt it best to visit Simon, hoping to spend her restless night in the company of a warm and familiar embrace, if nothing else. What she did not realize, nor could Simon have anticipated in a million years, was the sudden, unconscious drive that would seize Lina at seeing The Rod so proudly supporting the raised tent.

She wanted to fuck.

Simon.

And Bad.

Thus, the pair found themselves half-clothed, fully aroused, and headed for “the next level.”

The painful confinement of Simon’s tighty-whities suddenly gave way to sexually-heated air between his and Lina’s groins. In a breath, that too gave way to a welcome, constricting wetness. After minutes of astoundingly extreme physicality, the pair collapsed on the floor beside the couch, pleasure trickling through them.

Neither could help wanting more, nor receiving.

Events repeated in prolonged fashion until they once more found themselves on the floor, propped on pillows, with Lina’s robe across them for warmth. Simon was still a ways from it himself, but Lina quickly fell into sleep, her head on his chest and her body against his.

There was no doubt this would prove only the first of many such encounters. They’d already established that desire and more in one another’s minds. Thus, such fucking undoubtedly led to that most highly-regarded of delusions, love. And though Simon could only vouch for himself thus far, he was perfectly fine with it. As other, omnipotent forces could relay however, Lina felt exactly the same.

Unfortunately, things can get much more complicated before settling for any protracted period. For Simon, Lina, and others prepared to board the temporary outpost over G876-d, that time was roughly… now.

Back in Sol Again: Part 6

6.

Conning the Con Whom Cons

Simon slept like a baby for ten hours, dead to the world otherwise. He was only awoken by his cabin’s door-bell, and the thought to curse Rearden. Then, realizing the bot cared so little for doors it would enter regardless, he sensed someone mannerly wanting to speak to him. That left everyone ship-side, excluding Niala.

Whomever he expected, it wasn’t Lina. Perhaps it was an effect of lingering disbelief that he’d managed to nab her, but mostly he suspected shame. He’d never have turned her away, but finding her first thing in the morning wishing to enter his stately hell-hole, and in his underwear no less, was not his envisioned introduction to his private life. Nonetheless he beckoned her in and quickly disappeared, gone before she could see him inside.

Simon dove into his room, hopping about, half-clad in pants. Lina called out, “Simon?”

“Just a minute!” Then, seeing no reason they couldn’t speak, added, “Is everything alright?”

“Yes. Niala wishes to see us.”

“Is everything alright–”

He’d intended his next words to be “with her,” but fell forward in a fashion so spectacular he was unaware it happened until viewing his subsequently damaged ego.

To understand the damage Simon’s ego took, one must first know that his apartment-like cabin had come fully furnished, as every other room aboard. His furnished, apartment-sized “state-room,” more than enough living space. Throughout it were various surfaces and counters one would expected of a modern living space.

Among those furnished items was a beautifully manufactured oak dresser; long, squat, and expensive looking. Like the millions of others manufactured with it, it was made by a factory that specialized in recreating one of a kind, old-era, antique furniture via new era mass-production tools and materials– thereby completely stripping the antiques of their value, in exchange for exorbitant retail prices. This con, in effect, was known as capitalism.

It was also the same manner of devilish trickery that had taken Earth by storm in the early 2000’s via flashy stickers proclaiming things like “organic,” and “unprocessed,” or phrases like “no preservatives,” and “free-range.” In the end, all any of it came to mean was some gullible fool was about to pay twice the cash for the same old stuff.

Solsians, and Humans in particular, were always abreast of these types of developments. They manufactured, mass-produced, mass-farmed, or mass-whatevered they could. Usually, this process involved some form of grift, sold as a “labor cost” that required charging much greater than the items manufacture so as to allow the middleman, or seller, to profit. With this added cost, they ensured the grifters continued grifting as without being out-grifted by other grifters.

And like everyone involved in that system, someone had conned someone else into believing the beautiful, heavy, and densely dark-wooded dresser was required. And of all people, the circle of conning decided, this particular dresser was required by Simon.

Incidentally, grift is a synonym of con.

Also incidentally, the wood this particular dresser came from was mismarked as defective at the con-manufacturing warehouse. Thus, it was subsidized to go to the lowest bidder in a wholesale– or a giant con whereby a single entity pays an exorbitant sum for many items, with each item being less than each unit otherwise, but still remaining more than the collective cost of the materials together.

Still following? No? Too bad, moving along.

In other words someone was conned into believing buying X amount of those dressers all at once should be cheaper than buying X amount individually. The only reason that fool was right anyhow was because of something called economies of scale. But the truth about the dressers was the company manufacturing them were outright con-men– and when building large orders like that placed for Homer, used inferior materials to profit even more than already guaranteed to.

But as said, the materials for Simon’s dresser were mismarked. Coincidentally, as a result of the conners wishing to maximize profits via hiring “unqualified,” wannabe-con-men called workers, rather than expensive, “qualified” ones. And in fact, though it seems belabored, this dresser was made of not just more dense and thus more valuable wood, it was made of the most valuable and dense wood the company offered.

If it weren’t for this spectacular series of cons, or attempts at them, this dresser might have no place in history, let alone the history of Simon’s damaged ego. Unfortunately for Simon, it did, and several of his rather more hopeful dreams were about to be shattered by it. Most notably, one involving not showing Lina his stately hell-hole whilst half-naked.

He hopped around the room hoping to fit his slacks without being caught pants-less. He’d managed to get them on and pulled half-way up before his brain conned him into believing socks were now warranted. They weren’t. Not quite yet. But his brain believed otherwise, and was conned. As it went, so went the rest of him.

On one, hopping leg.

With nary a hope to retain his pant-clad visage in Lina’s mind.

After the fact, Simon could only remember the event as this: Lina began speaking. Simon called out question. She spoke again, about Niala. Simon spoke; then and there, half-hopping, half-aware of his mistake, he slipped on a piece of plastic snack-wrapper.

One moment, he stood crane-style with one leg up, torso bent toward it. The next moment, he was free-falling at 1G. Just enough to ensure his forehead collided with the especially dense dresser. He was unaware of the moment after, “the moment after that” as he lie on one side, still crane-style, and now unconscious.

While Simon knew at least part of these facts and happenings, Lina knew none. She heard only his interrupted question regarding Niala. A moment later, also Simon’s moment after “the moment after that,” she called to him. A further series of moments later, tense and frightened, she found him lying on his side, unconscious. Given her analytical mind, and Simon’s propensity for being a clumsy ass, she surmised the goings-on that had gone on.

She flew for a telephone-comm, immediately called a med-team. Then Niala, told to her meet them in the infirmary.

Simon knew only the moment of impact and the moments before. Only vaguely recalled any of them, even after he awoke in the infirmary.

A bright light flitted back and forth in his eyes, each lid forced open by a rough mid-finger pad on his forehead. The slight poke of a thumb-like dewclaw honed his consciousness enough to deduce his examiner. The past rushed back in its broken way, and he knew everything.

He swatted the light away, and with it, Niala’s paw. Her face took the place of the blinding light. Contrary to his expectations, she looked concerned. Her brows were inward, her orbits and jaw thinned. She handed the penlight back to a nurse nearby and dismissed him.

“You’re lucky you don’t have a concussion,” Niala said, more serious than usual.

Simon glanced down at his legs, found he was dressed. Beyond his feet was Lina. He quickly flushed with embarrassment, averted his eyes.

“I’ve heard enough to know how it happened, but how the hell’d you manage this?” Niala asked, half crassly but genuinely confused.

“Being cursed,” he mumbled.

Lina managed a smile, “It’s not a curse, Simon.” Niala eyed her. Simon did his best to avoid eyeing her. “It’s me.”

He did eye her then. “Huh? How’ve you–”

“You get stupid around me,” she snickered. “I know the feeling.”

He blushed in earnest this time. Niala might’ve laughed, but couldn’t. Her mood was too sour; enough spread alarm over both Simon and Lina’s faces. If she wasn’t laughing, she was too tense or angry to do so. Neither was good.

Once, Niala could’ve rightfully been called cold, but she’d warmed over the years. Life was an exercise in amusement nowadays. Padfoot Lighting had sharpened her already natural killing-instincts, by showing the universe was a place of cold, harsh realities. As time distanced her from it, she found more reasons to warm and laugh, reveled in them.

She’d been forced to emulate that harsh reality; shown things that could make anyone, of any species, do the same. Since then, only a few, specific incidents had ever made her tense. Simply, nothing was ever as bad as what she’d already seen. That much alone had allowed her to mellow.

Anger was a different story. Anger was useful to Padfoot, so it was honed. The Lioness and her blood-line, already masters of the predatorial arts, feared next to nothing to begin with. Thus her temper was her greatest asset, but could still flare. When it did, Simon feared the collateral damage.

He’d inherited something of the Lion himself through their years of friendship, but nothing compared to the true article. She was the original, he a poor reproduction. Even now, he sensed the original manifesting despite her best efforts.

Simon inched up the bed, “Why’d you call us to Comms?”

Niala glanced up and down the infirmary; one, large hospital room of a few dozen beds, paper-thin walls and doors between them. Another series of cons had led to its creation, but was presently irrelevant. However, Niala heard and knew more than she let-on. A few patients were scattered about, one right next to them. She couldn’t risk relaying what she knew until certain they wouldn’t be heard.

“Can you walk?” She asked Simon.

“Do I have a choice?” He griped. She glared. “Fine. Yes. Did anyone bring my shoes?”

Lina shrugged, apologized. “No. But I got your other sock… and buttoned your pants.”

He reddened, “Right. Thanks.”

Niala gestured them from the tiny “room” and the infirmary. White-painted steel of a bulkhead passed as Niala angled for a nearby conference room. Supposedly the room was to be used for medical-staff meetings, but likely was added as another con between architect and engineer to game the HAA. Organizations were often taken advantage of in that way, and most of the time, couldn’t care less.

Niala shut the door, hurried to a security camera in the corner, then unplugged it. If anyone was monitoring it, they’d have seen her do it. Regardless of what they’d been told, Niala’s face would keep them from doing anything to rectify the situation. When she was finally satisfied they were alone and unmonitored, she stood before them.

“Ingstrom and I spoke to Sol this morning,” she said in a low voice.

Lina’s ears perked up. Simon waited for an “and.” When it didn’t come, he spoke it aloud.

And?”

“And,” Niala began, as redundantly as possible. “We have a serious problem.” Again they waited. Niala continued unprompted, her anger only held back by the lack of deserving target. “The HAA’s diplomatic embassy was alerted of suspicious activity. Their systems monitor all internal connection points when externally interacted with– for instance, when called. During that time, all interactions are recorded and logged system-wide.”

They followed, still lost.

“The system activated during our call-in yesterday, during which time logs recorded a third-party interaction. The HAA confirms someone intercepted our communique.”

Simon didn’t see a point. “Someone eavesdropped, so?”

Lina listened intently as Niala explained, “That log was deleted from the main system, but not the secure back up. They weren’t aware that its erased only once a week by security. That the third-party was discovered at all was a fluke; a technician was ordered to analyze all comm-data between the HAA and Homer to ensure our system is running as efficiently as possible. The tech located and tracked a ping discrepancy to a lone computer within the embassy.

That led to a low-level employee who’s since disappeared. His office computer was wiped, and after locating his employee I-D, he was cross-checked against criminal data-bases and found to be using a falsified name. He was identified as Angmar Zark, a Vulpus-Canid hybrid that’s done two stints in prison, both on Earth and Mars, for hate-crimes.”

Simon’s eyes widened, his mouth hung half-open. For once, it was from serious concern rather than dull foolishness. Lina noticed the shift, sensed something unspoken. “What’s that mean?”

“An Anti-Humanist,” Simon said, swallowing to shut his mouth and wet his throat. “Anti-Humanists hate Humans and anyone they consider a Human sympathizer.”

Niala seethed, her rage understandable now. “Evolved animals know cooperation is more important than isolation. More than that, Anti-Humanists are usually just brain-washed morons. Often when they aren’t, they’re violent extremists masquerading as activists. Dangerous. Everything that started the construction of this ship stems from their hatred.”

Lina thought deeply: To her, anti-Humanists were just protesters chanting slogans, not hardened criminals threatening people’s lives. Judging by the ire and despair in front of her, the latter was much more the case than expected.

“So… Anti-Humanists know we’ve located a new species,” she said, slowly recognizing the enormity of the implication.

Simon spoke it aloud, his defeat evident, “And more than likely, don’t like it.”

“And even more likely,” Niala added. “They’ll try to keep us from first contact. Now they know they have only thirty six hours to do so; that’s the earliest we can make contact.”

The others’ dread infected Lina as it weighted Simon’s stomach. Niala’s face said she felt it too, however little it affected her otherwise. There was little doubt now that the future would be far more interesting than any of them had hoped for, or wanted.