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.”