Short Story: Ar-Mur of Ganymede

Arthur “Ar-Mur” Martin was the angriest-looking Chimpanzee the Evolved had yet to produce. Like most species, Contact had forever altered Ar-Mur’s people. Mostly for the primates, it just pissed them off– after mutating them into super agile, ultra-intelligent murder-machine adrenaline junkies.

They weren’t all that way, of course. Ever were the outliers– though even they were afflicted, however carefully restrained or reserved in their demeanors otherwise. The plight of the Evolved was really that most were still coming to grips with their own existences. To say nothing of the chaos of finding places in Solsian society.

Still, few were forced to come to terms with what their own cousins had done to them.

Humans had exacted the most terrible, irreconcilable and awful horrors imaginable on every species in their environment– and the environment itself at times. Everything from cannibalism to enslavement, with no modicum of depravity missed en-route. Their only saving grace was that they’d done all these same horrible things to themselves.

There was comfort in that for some, if not all. None would have entertained it in Ar-Mur’s presence. Even the most blithe, belligerent idiot would’ve gone silent with respect.

Ar-Mur was a chimp not to be fucked with.

Like similar-minded Evolved, Ar-Mur dwelt with a subset of dregs in one of Sol’s least orderly communities; Ganymede. His hard-won respect, wealth, and power there, stemmed from extensive mercenary and smuggler work. Highly skilled in martial combat, he’d procured every luxury one could desire– to say nothing of the vast necessities stockpiled for health and occupational-hazards.

Ar-Mur’s little corner of the Ganymeden skid-row was a compound disguised by foggy, sweat-lined streets and the general obscurity of poor infrastructure. It was anything but, and prepared for war by any whom might try take it. Whether the Cougar-fuck Saffron’s anti-wank goons or Emperor-Asshole himself, Lord Snow; he’d fight for what was wrongfully his.

Yet presently, a punk-kid stood before him. And wasn’t going away. Worse, a Human.

His tattered leathers said he knew all about the darker-side of Sol’s social necessities. And, Ar-Mur postulated correctly, knew all of the rumors about himself and likely many truths, too. The smug fuck was just standing there, grinning smugly.

A scarlet and teal mohawk stabbed the air with short, lethal-looking spikes. Ar-Mur’d hated the disproportionate state of the human-head already, never knew he could hate it more. Plus, the punk’s black-mirrored lenses hid his eyes, meaning– Ar-Mur guessed, he was technically blind.

The elective kind.

He’d have had his optic nerves re-geared for neo-vision. For punks and hackers, it was like seeing the world through a 3D matrix-space. The punk would see as a bot-might; digitally. Ar-Mur didn’t like it, but cared only that the punk had breached security. He’d made it in undetected.

That was bad. Catastrophically so.

Ar-Mur refocused; the punk’s hands were bound pointlessly behind his back. Ar-Mur’d already caught the gleaming chrome beneath the leather overcoat. More electives. The scent of new, illegitimate money was the only reason Ar-Mur hadn’t immediately killed him. He was up for hire.

Hiring was always better than murder, if only because it decreased turn-over.

“You gonna’ say sumfing?” The punk asked.

Ar-Mur’s head tilted sardonically, a corner of his mouth rose to bared a few disgruntled teeth. Enough to shut the kid up again.

He waited a few more minutes to say anything, allowing himself to indulge in a drink in the meeting room. It was a throne room, really; though Ar-Mur never called it that. Everyone else did. Probably, because it contained a single chair embedded with countless screen projectors, function switches, and plain ‘ol comfort.

It wasn’t a throne, Ar-Mur knew. Nor was Snow or his rivals’. They were simply the command-chairs for their armies’ compounds. From there a Commander was scanned, their genetic markers verified, and access granted or authorized. The actual workings were technical, and unimportant to the Chimp or Wolf commanding them.

The less he knew needlessly, the more he could devote to important matters. Chief among them, how the fuck this pip-squeak pissant creature’d found his way in completely undetected. He knew he had, too; that he’d only been caught from dumb-luck. Shianni would still be howling if a medic, hadn’t drugged her to sleep.

Lucky bitch.

Simple curiosity might have been enough to indulge in an interrogation– advanced or not. Curiosity came second to security though. He found his in. He’d get the truth out of the kid one way or the other.

“Perimeter sensors encircle our entire block, from sewer-to-sky. If an ant sneezes a thousand feet above me I know it.”

He rose from the throne on lean-muscled limbs, their speed and agility obvious even through the layered clothing, armor, and cloak he wore.

He stopped just before the punk, “I will ask only once or I will kill you; how the fuck did you get in here?”

He grinned from ear-to-ear, “Li’ kis.”

In a blink he was gone. Ar-Mur stiffened up, listening. No sounds. Only a vague, mammalian scent. Foreign. Nearby. Ar-Mur closed his eyes. A not-quite light enough step. Ar-Mur spun, grabbed the punk by his throat and threw him against the floor. Still invisible, the kid’s astonishment was mired beneath a choking fit and groaning pain.

Ar-Mur drew his plaz-pistol, leveled it on center-mass, “Shut it down.”

The phantom coughed and choked, but reappeared in a blink– as he’d left.

Ar-Mur began to circle, examining the kid as if seeing him in a new-light. He knew the kid was a hacker, had gotten past security by hacking it digitally or physically. All of it, and there was a lot, layered like clothing one atop the other, atop more, and so on. Each layer scanned for specific parameters; body heat, odor analysis, power, motion– so many in fact, Ar-Mur had lost track.

That had been his mistake. He knew it now.

“You’ve come all this way and survived. So, speak.”

“E’re comin’. Alluv’em. The Zelphod, the Anti-Humanists. Lackeys.”

“To Ganymede,” he surmised, circling back to his throne to stop before it.

The punk nodded, “Comin’ to take it. Know it’s a clutch. That Sol relies on its mines. That it may not soon, but this’ the best time to weaken it.”

“So these… intruders,” Ar-Mur crossed his arms. “Want it for themselves. They’ll have to go through me first.”

“They will,” the kid said, recollecting himself and rising once more. “Already got agents on-site. Been workin’ for months.”

Ar-Mur’s brow lifted, “On?”

“Puttin’ ‘emselves next to power-centers– you, Snow, gangers, HAA and ISC. Everyone.”

“And this intel, it is credible?”

At that he produced a small disk from beneath a sleeve, offered it to Ar-Mur. He took it, slotted it in his chair, and an encrypted communique opened to play to the almost-empty room. The holo-image immediately strained the Chimp’s self-control. His fury visible enough that even the punk cringed, stepping backward.

“Snow, Emperor-Asshole in the fur.”

“Ar-Mur, as my emissary has informed you, we have a problem.”

“I’m talking to it.”

Snow sneered, “We’ve never seen eye-to-eye on anything, save that maintaining Ganymede’s sovereign anarchy is best for us–”

“You’re about to propose an alliance,” he anticipated.

“I am,” Snow replied without missing a beat. Ar-Mur laughed aloud. “No matter what trickery you may think I’m playing at, bear in mind I am known as brutally and bluntly honest, even in murder.”

Ar-Mur said nothing, his silence agreeing and allowing Snow to continue.

“Ganymede is being infiltrated. Contact may have ended, but the war wages on where we cannot see it. Until recently, it was a pot warming over fire. Now, its contents are rising to a violent boil. If we’re to have any hope for Ganymede or Sol, Evolved or not, we must join together and prepare ourselves for what is to come. Only afterward can we return to civil matters, else there’ll be no home to fight over.”

Ar-Mur bared his teeth again, but remained silent.

“I bear no ill-will for your presence on Ganymede. Else we would war. Thus, this presents us an option; the enemy of my enemy is my ally, if not friend.”

“Or the one to put the knife in second,” he remarked.

Snow tacitly agreed, “Consider my offer, if only for your people’s sake. The Zelphod would see us all exterminated to take what is rightful ours. The same is true for all of Sol. I ask you humbly, consider my offer. I will return to Ganymede within the day to begin preparations. I hope you can put differences aside and aid me. If not, we may never survive what’s to come. Any of us.

Snow winked from existence. The Human watched Ar-Mur carefully, expecting an outburst. Instead he found a tired, Evolved Chimp running on less steam than even it realized. He needed a top-up.

“Why send you?” Ar-Mur asked finally.

“Knew a ‘uman would stay your hand long ‘nuff to lis’en. You torture, not murder ‘em.”

His upper lip curled satisfaction, “Very well. But I require your assistance and name.”

“Suus,” he replied.

“First, Suus, reply affirmative to Emperor-Asshole.” Suus nodded. “Then, show me everything you did to bypass my protocols.”

The hacker’s jaw clenched, “I can’–”

“Your only choice in this matter is whether you wish to be hired as a consultant, or murdered and burned to dust like a lame horse’s carcass.”

Suus swallowed hard, but he liked the sound of payment. Especially against death.

Ar-Mur closed his eyes, resigned to cleaning yet another bullshit-pile dumped on Evolved by Humanity. If it came to it though, Ar-Mur of Ganymede would die defending his home, his people. Obligated or not, his duty to his world and people was too central to his being to walk away.

So, they started off to retrace Suus’ actions… at least they wouldn’t be bored.

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Guardians of Liberty: Part 5

5.

*Ahem*

“Never would’ve thought you had the balls to contact me again.” She said, rightfully.

He didn’t move. Her fingers thrust her switch-blade deeper into his side, blade still retracted.

“I swear to you, Martin, I’ll do it.” His steady silence conveyed his belief. The blade eased back, though by no means away. “Convince me not to.”

“Five confirmed hits. All corp-sec. I was one of the lucky ones. We’re off-grid. Wanted. Hidden. But they’re coming for all of us, Ket. You’ll be later. All of you.”

She sucked wounded air through her teeth; a sign of the last vestige of hatred for he and his eternal rightness escaping. Her grip remained firm. “Putting me under fire’s your response?”

“You’re smarter than this, Ket. Our past is behind us. Our future is dark. I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t need you. And I wouldn’t need you if this weren’t bigger than myself or us alone.”

Another hiss, albeit quieter. Her panthera purr in full-effect, “What makes me care, Nite!?”

Addressing his persona directly said was willing to deal. However quickly that could change was another matter.

“Ket, Corp-sec’s murdering hackers.”

“An33$a.”

“And Clockwork. Five hits. Two deaths. Three others that made it away, including me.”

She finally eased off. It was subtle, but the knife retracted. Noticing was as important as it was civil. Ket was the kind of woman who thrived off the smallest measures of affection. If ignored or shunned, things went haywire. It extended elsewhere to her personality, of course– and especially in his presence, was lethal if not given considerable attention.

He knew that now. He hadn’t before, but now he was older, wiser, considerably more flexible in mind if not body. That was fine, she was enough of the latter for both of them, even if he couldn’t enjoy it himself presently.

She knew he’d sensed the easing, and with it, sensed his attempts at maturity. Too many years and too many missed opportunities had passed for them to deny the spark’s existence. Besides, the spark was never the problem, the idiot trying to control the fire was.

“Turn around,” she said, easing to full height.

He found her presence more gracefully imposing than he remembered. She was Venus Di Milo; larger than life. Eternal. He knew it. She knew it. He was her love; she, his. Yet their time together had taught them that, then at least, they couldn’t stand being together.

All the same, he saw her again; the olive skin, muscled as some ancient warrior goddess. Like every other time, it was as if the first time. She threw herself at him, kissed him deep, hard, wet, sloppily. He submitted fully.

A moment later it was over and the world was rushing back.

As if nothing had ever happened, she retook her rigid grace and led him forward into shadows. She spoke like a General meeting a trusted informant, on-edge but openly-so; from the severity of circumstances surrounding their very meeting, if nothing else.

Ket was business-like. N1T3 allowed her to set the tone. To her credit, she spared him further groveling. “Everyone saw what happened last night. No-one’s surprised it happened. Just at how.”

She led the way between a pair of old buildings, weathered by time and soot-blackened from an eon of pollution. N1T3 suddenly understood how the original torries felt. If this what they pined for, they could keep it.

N1T3 knew where she was leading him, but refused to believe it until he arrived. He’d only just seen her again, after years, and it seemed nothing had changed.

Well, almost nothing.

She led and conversed with gestures completely unaltered despite the years. Two conversations still took place at once. The surface one, audible and obvious; the other in a subtext of shared memories and memetic resonance from shared, mental-wavelengths.

Ket was doing it on purpose of course, as much for his sake as hers. Looks and gestures were easier than unnecessary words. Losing that had been one of the realities of their relationship that made her detest him so. He doubted she felt any hint of intimacy now, regardless of the kiss. It was a simple effect of being glad he’d survived; more Human than personal.

She turned transactional, business-like despite the obvious intimacy belying their words. Ket was little if not a career-woman at heart, however it manifested. It was that world that raised and bred her, taught her how– if need be– to take it out.

She, like N1T3 was one of those stop-bits. The 1s ending binary-strings of 0s; referential identifiers– embodiments of society via their existence at particular points in space and time. In effect, they were two of the postdigital-world’s first fully-digital children, formed and perfected en-masse whilst in-transition between worlds– the pre and postdigital.

But like N1T3, Ket was more than just that. Everyone that knew her, knew it. She could do whatever she wanted in both worlds; the remnants of the old and the blossoming new one, that was knowingly building itself in her image.

She had connections, money, property. Wit and clout to keep and protect them, illicit or not. Was the prototype chosen for mass-production, knew it, and used it.

And everyone let her.

She led N1T3 inside a neglected building, through it to an apartment. Even then, part of him refused to believe reality. He ignored the disbelief, knowing it would transform eventually.

The place was considerably more rundown now, partially reclaimed by nature. Otherwise, it was empty and undamaged enough to have kept anyone from squatting. It might still be reclaimed by one determined enough, but no-one would be.

The place meant nothing to anyone. Even those that knew of it most intimately. For any, it was merely another reference point. A place of known-congregation, now abandoned but capable of purpose. Any purpose– and thirsting for one at that.

That was one of the things Corporate lifestyle never understood. Mostly, because it required feeling. Not necessarily intense feeling, but any feeling.

The place felt as a refuge or sanctuary might, via obscurity; through a want of steel and stone to sing so its inhabitants might breathe again beneath it. Those feelings were what gave credence to Japanese Shinto Kami, their sister belief-systems dictating spirits resided in all things.

In a way they were right, however unwittingly after thousands of years of proven science, via electron microscopes, advanced physics and metaphysics. What Shinto called soul and energy, scientists called matter and energy; the effects of super-strong bonds formed in infinite ways, and radiating properties like auras; hot and cold, powered or not, 0 or 1.

Ket led him into their old room, a padlock already removed from it. They’d taught each other a lot over the years. Nothing consciously of course, but over the same half-telepathic link that had kept her from killing him only moments ago.

She let him, shut the door behind them.

It was smaller than he remembered. What wasn’t these days? He figured it an effect of age. After you’d seen so much, a single room could never be so large again– save if containing a live nuke. Then again with Ket, there was no telling; it very-well might– especially given the rather large, tarp- covered pallet in the center of the otherwise-empty room.

He hesitated just inside. She pushed past, whipping the tarp off. There, in three tiers, were a series of Rations purchased in bulk.

“You knew?”

“I had them stashed years ago.”

He stepped forward to examine them, squinting at her, “For me?”

“Yes,” she replied curtly. Then, “No-one’s surprised. I know you too well. It was this, or you’d be dead. Either way, I’d move ’em.”

He eyed her, searching for anything beyond the business-like facade she’d put on, finding only it. She was on now, thus he needed to be. Otherwise, he might as well have ended with the blade. He produced a flash-key.

“I’m insulted,” she remarked.

“Not for this,” he corrected respectfully. “I need something else. Two things. Actually.”

She wiped off her smugness and pricked up her ears. He produced a list. “This. Quantity there.” “And something… defensive.”

She eyed him through a squint, “Dangerous.”

He said nothing. What could he say? He knew it was dangerous, but the whole world was dangerous. Especially now. And especially for him. Yet he’d take the risk over losing the chance. Way he saw it, he’d be murdered or die going out. The responsibility to his mission dictated he protect himself if necessary, though if only to an extent of attempting to protect it.

Ket caught the wave of his thoughts, his mind-frequency attuned to hers. She folded the page, took the flash-key. “Two days. Meet me here then.”

“If it takes less?” He asked, only internalizing the, “where will I find you?”

She eyed him levelly, a fairly-injured party still nursing its wound, however potentially forgiving. “I never left.” He winced. She expected as much. “Let me make one thing clear; I loved Martin Black. I do not love N1T3.”

Short Story: Forsaken Nightmare

Sunlight fired like pulse-beams through patches of a missing roof. It ricocheted off shattered remnants of a former med-cabinet and splayed itself across the grime and dirt of an old bathroom. A once-white-now-black cast-iron tub edged the room, half-covered by glass doors inexplicably better-weathered than the room.

Grime was smeared like liquid feces across fixtures and walls; the floor a half-inch taller than intended from piled dirt, piled wherever possible. The bits of ceiling still remaining appeared dangerously contaminated, while something piled and rag-like in the tub appeared permanently oil-drenched.

Yet, this was a kind of civilization. A so-called natural one at that– certain as the sun shifting exposed rafter-shadows before altogether tripling its rays across the tattered and oily rag-pile.

It gave a tired groan, stirring enough to resolve itself into the small form of a female Human. She yawned deep, instantly regretting it, then hacked and spit a wad of something. A moment later, she was scrambling for a more-suitable place to vomit.

Or, one that wouldn’t worsen her vomiting, anyhow.

She tripped from a bathroom into a bedroom over a warped threshold. Cool air blasted her face over blinding light as she fell toward a dilapidated corner and wet-heaved. The former bedside table’s remains became the receptacle for her expulsion– to what would’ve been its one-time owner’s dismay.

A cross-wind blew from the home’s open front-face, doing its best to soothe her. She heaved graciously, if that were anywhere near possible. The rubble she’d seen coming in confirmed a few explosives had detonated nearby– probably IEDs from the war, she’d guessed before.

She wasn’t guessing much now; retching with bilious acid, tongue ablaze despite leaking pools of saliva. Gut-punch heaves left her on trembling arms, knees bent beneath her and whole being shivering from flash cold-sweats. Even through layered rags, it cut through her like knives.

She wiped her mouth with a quaking hand, still propped feebly on the other, and clawed her way up rotted lumber. It stank and felt slimy, making her stomach lurch again, but with nothing left inside it, she stilled herself. For now the slime anchored her mind to reality. Mixed blessing that was, it focused her.

Get up, Mal.

“No,” she said aloud.

GET UP, MALAYA!

She was on her feet. Somehow. Her legs were rubber and the rest of her numb, like the moment of death before the mind goes, but she was moving again. Slowly. Deliberately. Had it not been so dark when she’d reached the ‘burb, she might’ve searched the nearby homes for better accommodations. What that might’ve been, she couldn’t imagine, but in daylight, the place was worse than she’d thought.

Of all the former homes, only one other remained in any recognizable condition. The environment made the rest of the rubble obvious as homes, but the most that remained of the least-damaged was a lone, I-beam half sunken into a former basement.

It was as if the whole area’d sustained a direct hit with some sort of planet-sized hammer.

Really, Malaya knew, it was just conventional weaponry. The whole planet might’ve looked the same but she couldn’t be sure. What little she’d seen of it was never so bad physically, but neither was it anywhere near the concept of “good.”

Mostly, it was just “different.”

Malaya rummaged through the last two homes for anything of value but left the ‘burb empty-handed. Her belly roared beneath her soiled layers, wishing to know food as the ruins once had. Nevertheless, she started off on her rubber legs, half-limping from premature aches and an old wound.

She’d left the place she’d called home days ago, never to return. She’d hold herself to that no matter what anyone said. No-one wanted  to be there  anyhow; Bleaker didn’t earn its namesake lightly. It was an internment camp turned refugee shelter– and kept that way four decades too long.

What passed and was built in those intervening years, from a former concrete-walled tent-city, was nothing short of a hell-hole. Unfortunately for Malaya, that hell-hole had been her home– however equally it was also a prison.

She fished an unlabeled can from beneath brick-rubble. It’d probably expired a half-century ago, but she tore at it with the ferocity of a starved, wild-animal– had any but Humans still existed. Nobody knew what started the war anymore, but everyone knew which side lost.

Which? Obviously the one fighting to keep people from living like Malaya.

She wolfed down something stale, rubbery, and equally as frightening as the scent that’d made her vomit. It wasn’t the scent really, but that was beside the point.

She ate, trying to piece together the fifteen or so years of memory she’d collected, and search it for anything of value. A veritable lifetime already; hers. It returned in flashes. Here and there, bits emerging from the fog Bleaker’d kept them in.

They were kids; she knew that much. Too young by the old-world’s standards to be treated the way they were– used the way they were. Most times too, a few disappeared. Here and there. Faces she knew only vaguely, suddenly never reappeared. Girls. Boys. Didn’t matter which.

Now, she was beginning to understand why.

She finished her pitiful meal and began to walk again. Whatever it was she’d put into herself wouldn’t stick around. She walked harder, pieced a little more of the world together. Desolation wherever she went confirmed what little she’d heard as rumors, or was picked up from the kids or elders.

“Adults” were generations gone and more scarred than even Malaya.

Even then, she’d never have traded her life for anyone else’s. Especially when the next morning came, and with the vomited remnants of that terrible meal came something else. Something lower. In her gut, but neither of bowels nor bladder.

It was the greatest relief when she found herself utterly dripping black blood and uterine discharge.

She fell to the freezing ground outside another would-be razed home, and wept gratitude to Gods she knew did not exist. At the very least, she wouldn’t have to be responsible– guilty, for bringing another Gods-forsaken life into this nightmare world.

She wept joy, vomited blood, and fainted.

Short Story: Natural Forces

Culture killed the corps. Lack of it, really.

Culture never fit with the rest of the Corporation as an entity. In retrospect, it was the tell-tale sign of their self-awareness. Culture’s a byproduct of collective, self-aware entities and their existence. Corporate culture though was bland and cold. Real culture was far too vibrant to be mistaken for the non-entity that was Corp culture.

It was night and day.

And in the minds of most people, that’s what it became. The cold, bland, workaday world for wage-slaves and sell-outs. The rest was night. And because of light pollution the corps sold us with bullshit lies, the nights were getting brighter and longer.

It wasn’t ’til Web 2.0 fractured that any change really became apparent though:

Digitally, Humanity had always looked like one, prosperous group formed of a melange of diversity. Fractured though, the two groups didn’t fit. Simply, one was much smaller– far too small to be doing what was being done. That defied visible reality.

Then came the black-market and the bit-currency boon. In the corporate world, the biggest fish ate first. For once though, the corps weren’t it.

Cameron Mobility sold the world its first Augment, but it was people that designed and built it. Specifically, black-marketpeople. In the same way open-source software was designed; in revision-states to rapidly hone designs through the dual forces of need and skill.

It was that same market, firmly ensconced in shadow and belonging to the palaces of thieves, hackers, fixers, their nets of scum and villainy, that finally did the world good.

Yes, the other bazaar. The digital one. Of blacks and whites. Ones and zeros. Where only desire and money existed. And only to serve one another. The same market that once pilfered tea, ran moonshine, hired out hitmen, and sold illicit goods globally.

It was the all-encompassing culture of need/want/payment. One of a new age going nowhere but forward and regardless of its supposed amorality. Nothing would stop it.

The why was simply; the culture really killing the corps was their own. Or rather, the veneer of one they’d formulated from the requirements for complicit employees. Corporate culture had no personability to it. At the end of a long day of number crunching, between work and dinner, no corporate occupier remained to cling to. No external influence for those few times it was needed.

Living without that inspired no security or comfort, and Humans rejected the unfamiliar.

The inherent flaw in the corporations’ system was that their sole concern was only and forever profit. It wasn’t profitable to be clung to; to keep the lights on after 5. To man the sails for the few nights that weren’t calm for the people temporarily below-decks.

After all, profits can’t be maximized with skeleton-crews costing the ship hazard-pay. Those were premium rate-times! Electricity was worth more then. Keeping lights on and people working thinned the margin. No matter how little the consumer needed them. That wasn’t the corporate way. Corporatism was living and dying by the dime, being always and forever in the black.

People didn’t get that guarantee, because they couldn’t give it.There was no corporate-prayer service for when baby’s diaper exploded across the kitchen, and parents need a solvent to clean with. There was no corporate-barricade barring the front door against their own, unwanted intruders. There wasn’t even a corporate-identity. The thing simply existing as part of an individual’s designation. Their actual titles were designed as reflowable to adjust to ever-shifting political-correctness.

But people were all of those things and more.

The mistake was moulding people to an existence between 9AM and 5PM. That world’s totality at your voluntary request, but nonexistent otherwise. And when it did not exist, you did not exist. It was no different than being released from chain-gang to pass time, too tired and battered to do more than daydream, intentionally.

And why wouldn’t people be so battered? Two generations of corporate formation and overt political-correctness had dulled even the sharpest wits. People needed only accept the bargain was good enough for slaves. Since slaves were good and slavery bad, it was good for you, right?

Most people swallowed it without resistance. The chains came later; after compliance but before realization.

The manipulation was obvious. More-so from the outside. Unfortunately few were heard through the din. General insanity had filled the world, post digital-age. Sheer-will oozed enough through to the more enlightened among them. Those few, also broken and damaged, saw no peaceful strategy remaining.

The message for them was clear; run.

The few whom did eventually became the Resistance’s spine and the nerves along its central column. They were more fortunate than most. No more or less intelligent, just aware and better-positioned. They saw enough of the barrel aimed at them to know to duck.

They jumped ship right up ‘til the war, ensuring the survival of the culture they defected to. Their own immortality assured therein. Living as they did ensured they remained important symbols, even if it was all they knew of how, why, what for.

Nowhere was this more obvious than the Aug movement, whose champions themselves formed the very leadership of Corp-Resistance. The results of those champions eventually led to the Fall. They’d begun the right way, simply shifted their focus after circumstances allowed– or rather forced, them to.

That base strategy was straight from the Corp-playbook; re-branding. It had another name too, one far more powerful to a disenfranchised group seeking something more; Evolution. The one the corps had used time and again to validate their actions. The difference was, the scale would allow change in totality, and with utterly no chance or path of reversion.

Of course rallying around Lemaire’s death was convenient; the Paris Incident and its ignition of the Two-Week War forced the few undecided to finally choose sides. The unfortunate side-effect was untold deaths from Corps bombing civilians and rioters alike. Basically, a tantrum of epic portion.

A toll that might’ve been entirely avoided was laid at the feet of every person, man, woman, and child for seeing the injustices and not fighting back. No matter the side of the fence, Lemaire’s death signaled people were no different to Corps than any other expendable resource.

Between rumored brain-hacks, the car-bomb, and the scapegoating of Aug aggression as its cause, it was a wonder the fuse burned so long between times. That it did was a testament to the kind of change people needed, hoped for. It was hesitation that admitted they didn’t want to fuck things up, were damned well working not to, but that peaceful routes were running their course.

And they did.

The fuse burned down, sparking a global implosion that resulted in total collapse of Corporate existence. Culture did that. Or the attempt at one. People were objects; materials, resources. That wasn’t right. Ethics aside, it held no logic.

People weren’t meant to be resources bought, sold, traded, or exploited– they weren’t supposed to be consumed; they were supposed to consume.

But they weren’t consuming and only a few others were. A very select few. So few, in fact, even fewer could overthrow them en-masse no matter their own power. If played right, they needed only tease the promise of what Corps had yet never offered; personalized personability.

The tailoring of anything to one’s desires and without judgment or restriction formed the true foundation of the Resistance. The cultural renaissance that followed saw the futility in things like market-power over-regulation and censorship, because markets regulated power naturally once large enough.

The only barrier to accepting it at the broadest level was feeling outside of it. One could refuse improving a systemic culture more easily if they were part of it themselves. Especially if that culture needed no foundational improvements.

Later, of course, the truth of the illusion was revealed and people had no reason not to accept the new culture, but the totality of the corporate collapse by then, had little to do with the war itself.

It was the people fighting that mattered. Each had their own ideas and visions of a place in this potentially open and globally-connected world. Whether that was through innovations in tech or philosophy, there was no reason people couldn’t negotiate compromise, save competition.

Competition though, no longer needed to exist. In the postdigital age, everyone was equal. The resources were all there; scattered, certainly, but there and only in need of re-distribution. Competition wasn’t necessary anymore, only intelligent planning.

The former was a remnant of the Pre-Human era that survived because of its robustness and ubiquity in a fear-driven world. No longer required, competition could be officially relegated to an exercise in adrenaline, or for conflicts on scales larger than yet-Humanly possible. Those involved in it were glad to have it, while the rest were glad to be rid of it.

Competition could survive as little more than a new-age art-form and thus had no reason not to.

It was simple physics; paths of least resistance. The more a thing clamored to fulfill its role, the more energy it expended and the less effective it was at survival, if only rhetorically.

In short; Evolution was the process of honing biological life to perfection through the mechanism of adaptation. The same went for revision with software, and could go for change with Society.

In other words, constant, minor adjustments and refinements ensured survival. Whether from intent or will, nothing need be handled differently anymore because everything could be quantified, somehow. Quantity itself then became an art; of machined numbers and datum, but an art nonetheless.

Most importantly, if input into the right system, such principles of postdigital progress could do anything, anybody wanted.

In that way, Lemaire’s Resistance wasn’t a resistance at all. It was simply a majority overthrowing a former minority. The newly-dethroned disseminated power gained and lost by the likes of snake-oil salesman, brill-creamed con-men, and dark-spectaled suits. They’d formed pacts to better position their marks to buy and sell them back and forth en-masse, and panicked to death when people finally realized it was happening and ended it.

It took time though– and because of the severity of the grievances, blood.

Yet the foresighted once more led the way to light. It just so happened, that light was also the Resistance, thereby bringing to the fight many whom might have chosen pacifism for sake of family or obligation. That same devotion however, then allowed those lost to become paragons to those that remained.

As if through sheer need of people, the remembered became symbols to rallyboth groups and individuals. It was in this way Lemaire’s death had caused the Paris Incident.

The truly egregious trigger-point for outrage was the volatile mixture of changing culture meeting the bombings that followed.Lemaire was corporate, but human. Used and discarded. She was, like all peoplenow; just a resource, a statistic. One who’d outlived her time in the black, was now in the red from the media-risk inherent in her. Therefore, corporate culture dictated she be zeroed-out as quickly, quietly, and cleanly as possible.

The cheapest, most effective way required exploiting her death at larger scalesto maximize effectiveness. The corporate way dictated a car-bomb to suittheir desires. In one move, they could placetheir currently-manufactured scapegoats– Augs– from the news of the week (Aug aggression) in bed with long-running narratives against conventional fuels and private transport.

That idea secure, they buried reality beneath vague reports, inconsistent datum, late retractions, and less-publicized revisions– for clarifications no less vague but masked as natural fog.

And it backfired. In Totalilty.

People had been at odds with the cultural-divide too long. Nothing remained to cling to of the corporate entity. Money was killing everyone. Any residual effects and influence of corporate veneer too weak to distract from that. Rose-colored glasses could no longer be any less-jaded. More than, that they could now take off the glasses, see the vibrant world beyond.

Ultimately, what killed corps was a simple reality: Corporate culture was a construct. Culture was a natural force.

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 8

8.

Packed Like Guinea Pigs in a Beer Can

Simon’s cabin intercom screeched with incomprehensible sounds, tearing him from sleep beneath Lina. She awoke with such a start she nearly leapt to her feet. The sound soon dissipated to Niala’s voice.

“I assume you’re up now. Good. Get dressed and meet us in the shuttle bay. Bring your suit,” Niala said, then added, “You too, Lina.”

Simon and Lina reeled from the jarring wake-up call, no doubt Niala’s idea of a practical joke. Rearden would’ve been in on it too. He’d have used the ship’s internal sensors to locate them, then once realizing where they were, why, allowed her to enact her scheme. Lina gathered what remained of her clothing and wrapped herself tightly in her robe.

“I’ll meet you there,” she said, yawning.

“This… doesn’t have to mean anything i-if you don’t want it to.”

She patted his head, “If I didn’t want it to, I would’ve left last night.”

His brow furrowed confusion, but she kissed his cheek then sauntered away, deliberately throwing him off-track.

The cabin door shut and he snapped into action; showered, dressed still-wet, and grabbed up his gear for EVA. Niala’s call could only mean the outpost was ready for activation. He ensured he had everything necessary for an extended stay, then made for the shuttle bay in the ship’s lowest aft section. Like him, Lina had prepped in record time. They met at the elevator, rode downward for the long walk to the bay, away-bags shouldered.

Unlike before, this activation required an extended stay. Given Gliese’s true outpost was on the far-side of the system, Niala and Ingstrom had decided to release EVA-1 for recon while the backup team followed Homer on its mission. The reasons were two-fold: the ship and its crew still had a job to do, and the fewer people in orbit, the less likely it was an incident would occur.

First contact was assigned to Niala and her team on the basis that they were the foremost experts on tech and EVA aboard Homer. As such, it was assumed they were also the foremost experts on making that tech seem less magical, more mundane. EVA-1 was also designated the foremost recon unit aboard Homer as a result of all but Lina’s presence during the investigation into the ISC theft. Somehow, that bit of Solsian detective work made them qualified for first contact duty; supposedly, as a result of their ability to decode and discover things.

In other words, no-one else wanted the job for fear of starting another interstellar war. So EVA-1 drew the short straw, or rather, was given the short straw.

Simon and the others entered the shuttle to launch. Behind them, all manner of supplies and gear, was packed and secured for flight. The shuttle itself looked like a cross between a beer can with its face cut to an angle, and a 747 fuselage compressed to the size of an angle-cut beer can.

That angle as a true-to-life viewport made of something resembling glass with an external repulsion field and an internal holographic display. The latter allowed for the pilot to view various informatics streams, while the former was purported to be a means of avoiding micro-asteroid ruptures, and thus explosive decompression.

Purported being the operative word, of course. As Simon knew, the tech was new, had never been shown to hinder nor hasten explosive decompression. It was all theoretical. So many things regarding Homer and its tech were. Being that EVA-1 were considered a front-line team for all matters, Simon couldn’t help feeling more like a space-fairing guinea-pig than anything.

He could see himself, as if from on high: encased in glass. On all fours. Fat and stupid. Features smushed into the cute, fat-headed shape of a guinea pig. Jaws chattering like pistons alternating on ludicrous-speed. Dullard eyes gleaming. Fur-covered cheeks puffed euphorically.

Then, Simon vaguely recalled the creatures most used in experimentation were albino mice.

Nonetheless, his mental imagery began a slow zoom-out. It widened beyond him to encompass the other, thick-headed, unsuspecting guinea-pigs beside him, chewing as he was. Super-imposing the image of Niala’s Feline face onto a guinea-pig might’ve given him a laugh if he weren’t so consumed with what was being built to.

Soon enough, his mental imager was looking at him through the viewport of his high-tech, angle-cut beer-can as it hung in the emptiness of space. It seemed to speak thousands of words, as images were wont to do, but none coherent. Certainly, none were of any import. Why it was there, no-one would know, its furry inhabitants least of all.

In a way, they were glorious. Beautiful. A picture of perfection. The perfection of ignorance. The perfection of gleaming, dull-eyed complacence. The perfection… of idiots.

Simon snapped from his mental wanderings. The shuttle’s comm sounded with a voice Simon wasn’t familiar with. It was nonetheless soft, soothing, formal in its way but nowhere near harsh. Simon suspected the woman had been chosen to (wo)man the comm for those very reasons.

“EVA-1, you are free of the bay. We have you on external sensors. Proceed to bearing eight-eight-point five-nine and accelerate to ten meters a second.”

Niala confirmed the instruction. A compass with 360 degree markings appeared near the viewport’s bottom. The stars outside hung motionless above and beyond it, a frosted-glass effect only slightly visible directly beneath. As she angled the ship around with minimal thrust, the stars pivoted along the horizon.

The shuttle slowly came about to match bearings. A flicked switch subdivided whole numbers into decimals between one and nine, then further again with another flick. As it did, Niala’s movements became less refined.

Simon knew, though he’d largely ignored the memory, that with finer compass settings came a finer shift in the maneuvering system. The thrusters fired differently. Otherwise mouth-sized plasma jets along the shuttle’s hull engaged their telescopic nozzles. The nozzles tightened, their plasma streams narrowing to allow finer control of the ship’s heading.

The system was capable of going from fist and head-sized openings to pinhead sized ones in micro-seconds. With it of course, the shuttle went from angling between planets to angling between flea’s tits just as quickly. Currently, it was set somewhere between those two extremes and rotating to view the nearby outpost.

Unlike the other outpost, this was meant to be a temporary fixture, thus was much smaller than the others. It was also more modular, in the event that it needed to become permanent. As a result, it looked like a series of interlocked cylinders and rectangles. Stylistically, it appeared more like inflated descendants of the original ISS and Mir Modules than the “true” outposts. Those were much less modular, much larger, and much more like the Jacks of their eponymous game.

True outposts were also more accommodating for more people. Indeed, the trio were sure to have enough room to roam and survive, but the temporary station lacked many of its bigger sisters’ luxuries. Its essential systems too, were scaled down versions. Like most things in astronautics, the reason was as much space-saving as mobility and ease of use.

A true outpost may take only a few people to activate, as EVA-1 knew first-hand, but it took over a hundred people to keep running over each day-night cycle. That was, if no-one on the team was given time off. Then, it was two to three times that. That was part of the reason Homer had so many people aboard, and had disgorged so many in Proxima Centauri. Traveling and visiting space were one thing, living there for extended periods was another entirely.

The shuttle crossed the void of nothingness between Homer and Gliese-Beta, the unnecessarily official name of the outpost. Provided it became permanent, the name would remain in an official capacity, with a more colloquial name in quotes. Had he’d been bothered to think about it, Simon would’ve found it a bit of bureaucracy as colloquially “pointless” as the bureaucrats demanding the moniker in the first place. Solsian life was like that; packed with redundancies and unnecessary speed bumps on roads to progress.

Simon unconsciously gripped his seat. The top-side, or rather, one of the circular faces of the station came into view ahead. The whole cylinder rolled sideways, its top-side perpendicular to the shuttle’s path. Just as quickly as it appeared, it disappeared. The shuttle had angled to face away from it. A live feed from a stern cam appeared, centered in the viewport with a variety of information.

Ahead, Homer and its massive rear-end were only just visible. The majority of its nearly 2 Kilometer length was still hidden to the right, but it remained a sight to behold.

Simon suddenly felt small. Immensely small.

Lists of facts and figures concerning the ship bubble from somewhere in his mind. That he’d designed most of the colossus’ engines and drive systems was overshadowed by something greater; Homer and its ilk might end up his Magnum Opus, but even that behemoth of scientific and engineering prowess; that symbol of Solsian progress from primordial ooze to star-fairing genius; was barely a speck in the infinite immensity of the universe itself.

It made him marvel and shudder in fear, awe.

Niala made a move that re-focused his attention. He suddenly realized he’d missed their docking. Evidently, only part of him though, as his fingers still clutched his armrests like a cinema-goer at a too-real horror-flick. He wasn’t as afraid of their docking as he was acutely aware of his current, guinea-pig role for unproven tech. That it had been tested and rated didn’t matter. Each part could pass all the tests it wanted, he was just as much a frozen, floating corpse if it didn’t work together right.

Niala reported back to Homer. “Comms, we’ve made connection. Beginning ingress to activate the station. Will radio again on full power-up.”

Ingstrom’s gravel begrudged them an affirmation. “Sky’s blessings. See you on the other side.”

The mention of another side didn’t help Simon’s floating-corpse fears, but it did remind him to double-check the seals on his space-suit. He lifted his helmet from his lap, examined and patted its seals and latches, then fitted and locked it. He rose for his air tank with his female companions doing likewise, and fitted and checked them. With thumbs up, they formed up beside the rear door.

Niala radioed over their short-range helmet comms, “Equalizing in 3… 2… 1…”

Blasting air gave way to a minute loss of gravity marking the millisecond shift between Earth-Normal and the activation of their magnetic boots. Immediately after, the lights in the rear-cargo section winked on and off, then glowed red. The rear-door unsealed, then sank. Their head and chest lamps switched on, illuminating the freshly constructed interior.

“Control should be just ahead,” Simon reminded.

Unlike the other outposts, this one was controlled by a single room running off battery-power charged by solar panels hidden within the station’s rounded faces. They stepped forward in slow-motion, every breath echoing over the comms. Rearden led the way, its flexible lamp and optical sensor throwing its beaming gaze along the corridors.

The eerie terror Simon had during the first activation returned. Along with it came an undeniable fear of something more lurking beyond. He didn’t fear the station, nor the darkness. This time, he feared the outpost’s activation; as if Homer leaving were a trigger to something larger. It might well be, he knew.

With Ingstrom and the ship out of reach, they’d be utterly alone. Anything, good or bad, was on them. The good was just as likely as the bad. While the shuttle was stocked with emergency provisions, if something happened to it there was nothing they could do. Even if they managed to alert Homer of any distress, they might not return in time to save them.

A million things could go wrong, but a million more would if he worried too much.

He steeled himself as best he could and followed Lina to the control room. Ahead of them, Rearden’s light fell over a doorway ahead of Niala. It proceeded inward, the room rather more average than Simon had expected, despite the various monitoring and control devices, it was hardly cramped. No doubt the space spared here would’ve been taken from elsewhere.

Rearden led Niala to one of the consoles while the other two awaited instructions. With the turn of a knob and the flick of a switch, the station came to life. Gravity returned, automatically disengaging their mag-boots. It would take a few minutes, but soon enough the station would have air too. For now, Niala reported in to Homer.

Homer, this is E-V-A-one; happy to report we’re in the green. Oh-two rising steadily, and station otherwise fully-functional.”

The soothing-voiced woman sounded again. “We read, E-V-A one. Will contact you again in seventy-two hours. Until then, keep yourselves safe.”

“Will do, Homer, same to you,” Niala replied, giving herself a crooked smile. Their communication ended with Homer’s sign-off. She turned toward the others. “Alright, we’ve got a job to do. Rearden, send the bots to scour for any possible issues. Meanwhile, I’ll get the water running. Lina; solar station. Deploy the panels and check the batteries. Simon, start an inventory of all food and medical supplies aboard, make sure nothing is damaged or missing. Keep in contact and report anything out of place.”

With that they broke for their various duties. Simon had, again, pulled a short straw somewhere. He figured it his lot in life. He’d done it so many times he was no longer sure if the game was even rigged. Nonetheless, he began his long, tedious, boring job. Still, it kept the nagging fears away.

Perhaps, had he trusted his instincts slightly more, he’d have realized what was going horribly wrong. All the same, he soon found himself face-to-face with it. Or rather, a mirror image of it.

He’d long since become utterly bored with his job, but tedium had a hint of meditation to it. One he found enjoyable in the absence of anything else. Inventory seemed pointless the more he did it, but he knew it could become crucial later on. Having an accurate count of food and medicine might save their lives. How, he wasn’t sure, but he guessed it had to do with being stranded. He didn’t like the idea, even less when it wouldn’t go away.

He took a break to use the bathroom, found himself parched from still-dry air. The O2 was flowing nominally, but the humidifier would take time to fully saturate the station.

He bent to drink from the faucet with a cupped hand and splashed water at his face. He rose with just enough time to swallow, then caught the one-eyed face of a Feline behind him. A flash of swift movement preceded sudden, persistent blackness.

Back In Sol Again: Part 5

5.

Dr. Corben to Ground Control

Ingstrom sounded over the ship-wide comm. “Settling into orbit now. All personnel to remain on-call but at-ease. EVA team-1, report to Comms in five.”

News of the discovery had spread like wild-fire aboard– or perhaps rather more like Herpes; through the thousand holes of some and into the thousand and more of others, ne’er to be lost nor forgotten by any. Through the various peoples, direct and otherwise, the news wet tongues, lips, muzzles, and beaks. Everyone knew now of the alien creatures, and the hopeful plans for contact.

Simon once again found himself on an elevator with Lina, though rather more tired and separated at the tongue than he’d have liked. The preceding days had been spent in varying states of excitement and dismay, swamped by both work and tempered boredom. Rearden was running exceptionally well now, and– if it could be said to fear anything— was beginning to fear any further refinement of its systems might damage it. Nonetheless, it humored Simon, accompanied him everywhere to reinforce his mental health, as it deigned any companion might.

Likewise, Lina was exhausted. The EVA-summons had come just when she’d collapsed for sleep. Like Simon, part of her wanted him closer, but also like him, the very thought of more exertion than breathing was dreadful. Even remaining upright wasn’t high on her list. Simon agreed; standing was negotiable.

“Comms” comprised a third of the ship’s length, most of it contained beyond bulkheads and half-frozen, airlocked clean-rooms. The purpose of each room was roughly as complex as their machinery, and while Simon knew the purposes of each machine cluster, which each room separated, he also stuck to the ages-old code of techies when asked about it; “I‘unno.”

For, to answer anything else, was to seal one’s doom in admitting a secret as ages-old as code itself: that he really did know, and yes, he probably could fix anything wrong with your (insert electronic here).

But the peril in that admission, the agony the techie’s life then gained was too horrible to brave. Only a few fools and masochists brought that madness on themselves. The code then, in its entirety went something like this: “Wherefore when thouest be questioned by thine fellow sentients on matters of technology and thine experiences; lie. Tell no full truths. Offer no advice. Deny. For elsewhere madness lies.”

Simon knew this code. Lina knew it. Niala knew it. Rearden knew it. Every creature, evolved and not, and knowledgeable of tech through-out the known universe, knew it too. And all of them followed it, lest tragedy befall and they soon find themselves aiding hunch-backed creatures and dim-witted, upright ones in working tech.

In truth, Comms was a collection of fancy, inter-connected computers of various purposes. In fact, just about everything ship-board connected one computer to another and thus was routed through one of the various rooms on Comms. Everything from Homer’s course calculations to its sensor arrays, to its ship-wide, external communications, right down to its internal internet connections was routed, run, or processed through the cold, clean-rooms and their servers.

None of this was on Simon’s mind, of course, nor Lina’s. It was sequestered in the section of memory reserved for knee-jerk reactions and activation of fight-or-flight reflexes. Like every other techie in the universe, it was there rightfully– even those masochists and fools had it, however latent. Its entire purpose was to avoid the fight of ignorance and technology and engage the flight from said fight for fear of madness.

None of that was important now. Not to Simon nor Lina. The latter was running on pure adrenaline and something resembling coffee. The former was running on pure adrenaline, something resembling coffee, and lust at the latter’s presence. The male Human was like that; often eschewing vital necessities until death for the mere hint of attention from its preferred mate. Statistically speaking, through-out history, that was the female Human. However, the last centuries’ advances in social politics and personal sexuality meant female was not the only possible Human-male mate.

Unfortunately for Human males, most identifiable as possible mates were simply tired of them; even other, Human males. While ignorance and stubbornness were universal, and far from desirable, the Human male’s form was topped by a propensity for bestial grunting to make even evolved creatures blush. Of course their long, sordid, and recorded history of lame-brained ideas and reactions meant everyone else was tired of ‘em too.

Female Humans on the other hand, were only currently making such fools of themselves. They hadn’t been doing so for quite as long, and while there tended to be more exceptions than rules, Human Females were proving just as stubborn and ignorant– however less their propensity for grunting, naturally speaking. They could do so intentionally, but Human males never did so intentionally.

The whole of this complicated and paradoxical duality could be summed up in a lone sentiment consisting of three words; Humanity was doomed. Though their end might not come until the heat-death of the universe, the sentiment stood. Humanity was doomed. Doomed to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors; to make fools of themselves; to make a mockery of their capacity for intelligence. Incidentally, this is also a universal phenomenon, so at least Humanity wasn’t alone.

That didn’t doom them any less.

Those two doomed creatures, names Dr. Simon Corben and Dr. Lina Beaumont, emerged on Comms via the elevator. It sat, with a few others, at the rear of the massive control area. The forward level, and subsequently the ship’s brain, was sequestered beyond a bulkhead. The narrow hallway and further series of bulkheads there gave way to various airlocks and decon ports for the cold, clean-rooms. These designs were almost entirely mirrored on a lower level which housed experimental labs with specialized equipment to test various space-bound affects on their subjects.

Lina and Simon unconsciously touched hands as they heaved themselves toward Ingstrom and Niala. The pair conversed in a hush, examining a free-standing hologram projected from the floor and an outcrop in the high ceiling. A full-body scan of the distant aliens hovered between the two projectors, spinning slower than one could tell unless staring. It was fairly obvious their original scans were more or less accurate. Given the distance to 876-d was shrinking, and the thoroughness with which each parsec refined the scans, new information regarding the creatures was continuously coming light.

Simon and Lina approached, Rearden with them. Niala and Ingstrom turned, their conversation prematurely ended. Simon expected as much; atop preparing to brief Lina and himself, Niala was likely giving a security evaluation for relay to Jarl. The look in Niala’s eyes confirmed Simon’s suspicion.

Once an HAA soldier, Niala was also a member of a Special Forces unit code-named Padfoot Lightning. The elite, evolved species were recruited for offensives against Solsian enemies via each species’ special abilities. To say Niala outranked Jarl was an understatement. Jarl was a pup, a rent-a-cop in comparison. He was also a by-the-numbers Mastiff with less imagination than a mound of brick-dust. There was no doubt Niala was the better head of Security but her other duties kept her from the position.

Ultimately, evaluating Niala wasn’t his purpose here. Rather than sleeping comfortably, dreaming of Lina’s tongue, he was to take a position near the floor-mounted projector, and hear what was to be said.

Ingstrom spoke to Simon first, “You’re to be briefed. Then you and Dr. Martin will radio Sol and await further instructions.”

“Myself as well?” Lina asked.

“Yes. You’re to aid in carrying out Sol’s orders,” Ingstrom said, stiffer than usual. “Dr. Martin?”

The projection changed as Niala began. “Though we cannot speak to the extent, we know now that these creatures are sentient. They did build the structures we’ve seen. In point of fact, we can see they’re in the process of building others. As best we can tell, this is a developing world on-par with industrialized Earth’s mid-to-late 1800’s. Unfortunately, we cannot ascertain if that means a similar, evolutionary timeline.”

“Why’s that matter?” Simon asked, dulled but curious.

Niala had never seen him miss the point of anything before, even when making a fool of himself. She suddenly recognized his fatigue, and found herself recalling an earlier cat-nap beneath her desk in her office.She answered astutely, hoping not to make him feel stupid. Jokes notwithstanding, the last thing she wanted was discouraging a fellow scientist’s curiosity. She’d seen that destroy far too many promising careers.

“An evolutionary lineage might help answer questions as to the general galaxy-wide timeline of evolution. It may be that a specific interaction on a planet is required for life to form. One which only occurs during or after a certain time-frame. Remember; Earth shares many similarities to 876-d.”

Lina shook her head, both to keep awake and will-away confusion. “Is there new information?”

“Among other things,” Ingstrom replied.“They’re capable of radio transmission.”

The others’ eyes widened. Niala nodded, “Their capability remains in its infancy but there’s no denying the possibility. Both Ingstrom and I believe it be best to attempt long-range radio communication first. However to do so, we need Rearden to interface with the comm network, record and examine their language, then write a translation program.”

Rearden processed what was said then replied with binary affirmations.

“Thank you, Rearden, I appreciate it,” Niala said. The little bot zoomed past for a specific comm console to interface wirelessly.

“Is that all?” Simon asked.

Niala kept her sarcasm in check for once. “It’s all we can say for certain, now. We know this species is intelligent, capable of learning and reasoning, and obviously mirrors Earth in ways. First contact protocol states; before interaction, we passively monitor until Sol advises or the species attempts contact themselves. It’s possible we’ve been spotted visually, but we’re keeping ourselves hidden otherwise.”

Lina piped up. “You want to get in touch with the HAA’s Diplomatic envoy before they find us, so we can control first contact.”

“Precisely.”

Simon heaved a sigh, “Then the sooner we contact Sol the better.”

“Agreed,” Ingstrom grumbled. “Inform me of any changes. I have a meeting with Commander Jarl. You may contact me on my private channel.”

Ingstrom hobbled off. Like most bi-pedal lizards, he looked like the old monster-movie characters that did their best to terrorize Japan with each step. Fortunately, most Reptilians had learned to compensate by pivoting their legs inward so they looked less comical. Personally, Simon felt it a shame; it certainly would’ve bettered their kind to find more humor in life. The true tragedy of Ingstrom’s life, Simon felt, was not his loss of fertility but rather his sense of humor.

The call to Sol took only minutes, and after relaying everything, the Feline Calico head of the Department of Diplomatic Affairs for the HAA, gave them their orders as authorized.

“This report is most exciting,” she admitted. “I envy your opportunity to greet this new species. I will activate the diplomatic embassy aboard Homer and relay all information regarding proposed first contact protocols to its systems. Given the nature of your information, I also approve your proposal for a temporary outpost until better accommodations can be made.”

Niala gave a regal nod, “Thank you, Ambassador.”

“You’re most welcome, Matriarch. I trust you to represent us with the utmost respect and dignity.”

“I would think of nothing less,” Niala said– though Simon sensed an “if they’re not hostile.”

The Sol comm terminated. Simon eyed the two women beside him. The Lioness was deep in thought, no doubt considering the new responsibilities on the three of them. Lina on the other hand, looked ready to collapse. He sympathized.

“Well?” Simon said finally, snapping Niala from her trance.

She cleared her throat. “Right. Go get some sleep. I need you both in peak-shape. In the meantime, Rearden and I’ll deploy the constructors and outpost modules. By the time you’re up, we should have the ship-board embassy active. We can discuss our next move there.”

Simon and Lina breathed relief, grateful for the coming rest. They were already half-dreaming when they launched the elevator again. Simon couldn’t help but speak aloud the question plaguing his mind. He was too tired to hold it back, respected Lina and her opinion enough to find her safe to pose it to.

“You think it’ll go well?”

Lina shrugged, eyeing him, “Couldn’t be worse than meeting the Zelphod, could it?”

They chuckled nervously, eyeing each other with a silent admission that neither wished to know the answer.

Light-years away, in a small office on the fifth floor of HAA headquarters on Mars, the haggard, scarred face of a grizzled Wolf-hound settled back in its office chair. Angmar Zark, war-veteran with the HAA, and privately what one termed an Anti-Humanist, mulled over the call he’d intercepted. He swirled a glass of something descended from Earth scotch, and sipped, plotting. Soon enough, he’d make his call. Soon enough, his friends would make their move.

And soon enough, the galaxy would know Humanity was no longer an Apex species.