Poetry-Thing Thursday: You ask, Yet I Answer

You ask me what love is,
yet I do not know.

I know that I have loved and lost:
the feelings of life and entertainment,
all at mercy of soul’s cost.

You ask me what love is,
but I do not know.

I know only warmth and vibration:
delivered through aetheric space-time,
from the source of cosmic machination.

In the end,
what do my meanings matter?
Do you not,
know them yourself?
Then look toward the lingering,
of the inner soul-health.

It is what’s needed
‘tween the dwindlings of time,
and if gone unheeded,
the Mariner’s last rime.

You ask me what love is,
yet I haven’t a clue.

But I have a deep-down feeling,
that you know,
really,
you do,
yet still,
you go on reeling.

You ask me what love is,
I haven’t the faintest,
for all I know,
is when it is true.

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VIN 16- Musky Smells

The thing about Musk is: he could be genuine. Or, equally, yet another flunkie. More or less, an Antichrist for the postdigital liberties movements, coming at a time most detrimental and damaging. Why? Simple: Elon Musk is of the age, position, and personality type to affect great change. Many have been. The difference is his field of play.

He’s a postdigital child.

Whether he realizes it, lives it, accepts it, even wants it or not, he is a perfect example of a multi-faceted, system-oriented thinker, in a position of true power in economic, global, scientific, and innovative communities.

He is the elite, and appears to be playing for Sense, if little else.

But to do what needs be done for Humanity, truly, requires setting events in motion that would eventually destroy his own legacy through his effects– even those he as an admitted digital-child, cannot begin to foresee.

The problem inherent in this issue inevitably becomes foreseeing one’s own legacy and its demise, committing regardless.

But it is no different than accepting one’s memory, like oneself, will die out. Will it have been worthy of living, as one’s life should be, thus becomes the sole question. At the heart of this, like most things, is the binary issue of selfishness or not. In combination: Human behavior further dictates one cannot always be counted on to check one’s own greed.

At the helm of a mega-corp, that greed, can be astronomical. Literally. Musk wishes to capture the minds of Humanity and point them at Mars, but whose priorities are these? Are they his: the man of new-blooded money new to a game and ready to change it? Or are they the Corporations’: age-old ideals of what can be, for the moment aligned because of potential greed.

Leaving Earth for Mars is not to be taken lightly. We cannot begin to expand, to Mars or elsewhere, if we’ve not yet finished our foundational building, here. Death among the stars is no less death. Attempting otherwise will forever alter our history, our so-termed destiny or fate. Therein history will cease to write of Humanity’s story and instead begin to write of its demise.

All from the loss of a crucial moment of opportunity and understanding. That moment, one of decades and seconds, generally sensed by our species, told that only by growing closer could we understand this Universe. It cannot be done by individuals alone. Science and history dictate as much. Are the products of it.

Therefore, it is imperative it be carried out by a, if not unified, symbiotic society. Preferably, one seeking to establish its legacy and secure itself as a force in the Universe– as any multi-cellular organism is driven to.

Corporations, though also multi-cellular, are not organisms. This is a common misconception both perpetuated and ignored by those involved in their workings. Mostly, from fear of recognition that the great evil– Corporations– are really only bureaucratic systems. Not societies. Their utter lack of feeling, empathy, or sympathy, makes them such.

It is not a failing. Rather, a byproduct of a system’s design. It is not a character flaw or a personality trait: however seemingly alive, it cannot feel. It cannot think. It can only run. In most cases, only run toward output of money.

To further muddy the image, evolution implied through long-term PR and Ad department schemes of re-branding have become akin to cell-regeneration. Beginning with single-cells and dividing, replicating, and successively revising their internal structure, Corporations like societies and organisms too, ultimately appear to be evolving.

However, they remain unliving. Their own actions well-documented by themselves but maintaining the ignorance through ritzy glamours that hide their every, hideous deformity. Each one only so grotesque as is made by oneself when allowing it to fester.

Yet these are systems.

Countless generations of growth-fracture cycles have formed them. Rhythmic, steady, but always producing errors, detrimental or not. Those anomalies, better known as Mutation, form the basis for all adaptation and survival of known organisms. The same can be seen in Corporate consolidation, Dark-horse industries and leaders, and flash in pan billion-dollar ideas.

But Corporations are not ruled by these rules: they imitate them.

A Corporation has no fixed head. No fixed owner. It exists to exist. Not because nature intended it, but because it was willed into power by (mostly) intelligent beings. Yet, there is no-one behind the curtain. Not even for those involved. Certainly, predecessors and successors have come and gone, but there is no “heir” to a corporation. Heirs may inherit corporations, but Corporations whom inherit requires intangibility to be otherwise.

Corporations are systems. Socio-economic thought-systems. Series of processes for doing business, as software running transactions in an OS: a system within a system, but one nonetheless.

Now wrapped up in the face of a postdigital child, whose inheritance neither exists nor does-not exist. Like many things of the time Musk’s as likely a product of as he is of hope. Worse, postdigital child or not, not one of us is incorruptible. Humans have demonstrated this time and again.

Humans live only within comfort zones, or surrounded by familiar things, or supportive out of habit. So deep does this fear of unknown corruption go, we’ve created whole spheres of public, private, and provincial health and governance laws. All of it to combat corruption we’ve termed– through rational dark ages– evil, hate, badness.

But many things of their time, like Evil and Musk himself, are the manifestations of simple realities incapable of being ignored. Regardless of best way, his may be little more than a flag to show communication on matters (his, chiefly,) are now open. After all, it is only from fear of loss that watchers cry out.

Musk’s opportunity here will make him a place in history. Even if, as a passing memory of Humanity’s folly. Whether from reverence or regret, there’s no telling. Not yet. All any watcher can do is remain vigilant, make their call, hope they’re heard so tragedy can be avoided.

But being a postdigital child myself, I’m neither holding my breath nor putting all my eggs in one basket. Especially in space, that feels prudent.

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.

Short Story: The Bovine Folk

Nobody ever asks about the Cows, the Bovine folk. Chickens, turkeys, sure; deer, yes. Bears and Tigers and Lions– well, the last ones speak for themselves. Literally.

Point is, nobody ever asks. Prob’ly, because those that know them know the truth already. Those that don’t, aren’t prepared for The Bovine Reality. All the same, where are they? What happened to them? Why? What the bloody hell could occur to an entire species that it was seemingly, however shoddily, scrubbed from reality?

Firstly, it’s not so much no-one knows as no-one wants to talk about it. The situation is yet another delicate, fractal-relic of the post human-dominance era. People– human people, don’t really know what to say. They’re just as perplexed by the whole thing as the rest of people– Evolved or not

Problem is, the only people that really might’ve ever understood some decisions are long dead and dust. Prob’ly less, now.

Digressions aside, Bovines had every reason, right, and allowance to leave, hate us, or war with us. For what little we know, they did, will. All of them. At least, if any stayed, they’ve kept hidden; prob’ly just to enjoy the peace, graze at-will.

But who were they, what did they look like? Like cows crossed with humanoid genetics. Like all Evolved.

They had more or less human features, save for the cases of all hoofed creatures– with mallets on the ends of their arms rather than dexterous digits. All of them adapted. Not a single Solsian creature living would begrudge another an opened door these days. Even less so for Bovines.

Not a single Bovine would ask.

Why should they? They were an entire species existing for no purpose but to serve another, superior one’s appetite. Once, anyway. Not so much anymore. People didn’t eat meat anymore. Meat was a luxury. Eating was utilitarian. Long gone were the days of meat and mead.

But that was okay. Because Sol, its peoples, had more than enough otherwise. If food was ever requested or desired, it was available. As for meats and their origins, in all but the seediest places it was the luxury it had become; expensive, complexly vat-grown, engineered for taste and satisfaction. It wasn’t meat. It was meat.

It was the connoisseur mindset for an aficionado niche. It was no more or less complicated than necessary. Food need only be guaranteed, not enjoyable– though preferably enough to hold off revolt. Anything more in the turbulent unrest after Contact was asking too much. Nobody denied that.

Contact and everything during, after– even a little before, was chaos incarnate. Its immediate echoes would continue resonating for generations, forever-after altering countless species and their futures.

Species aside, people needed some guarantees now; water and shelter were guaranteed by the simple immensity of the cos mos. Food wasn’t. Thus food was it. It was easiest conceit for all involved. Free food for all. Caches. Dumps. Drop-ins. Stamps. Every world, outpost, and settlement, no matter how big or small, played host to at least a few choices as to how and where to eat.

It was an imperative now, socially, that no-one starve. Food; guaranteed enough not to die between meals, was the conceit that united Sol.

Humans could never have done it on their own. They were too set in their ways. They needed a massive external lever, something to turn them away from being wholly-evil assholes their entire existence.

Contact threw a tens of billions of levers at-once.

While Contact did more good than the bad it could ever do, ultimately what mattered was, the good was in the universe was here to stay. At least for now. Sol, its one dwindling puddle of life, had surged, exploding like a geyser onto its surroundings. Earth-life took a foothold it wasn’t going to give up without one helluva fight.

Free food ensured it.

Then, the war ended. People were displaced. Society was upheaved. Food was guaranteed. Food! But food wasn’t all that should be guaranteed. Work. Want. Those were next. They came side-by-side with Earth-life’s expansion and transition into Sol-life.

Sol wasn’t like Earth. It was bigger. It stood for something. The flag of a Republic. Eight planets. A few dozen moons. Countless hunks of floating debris between to be mined– and well, mined– for resources and defense. When things came into order again, it seemed as close as people could get to utopia.

That was one thing even narrower-minded Evolved knew, if refused to admit: everyone owed Humanity for trail-blazing as the first, sentient, Sol-life. So far as it was known… or could be called such.

Chalking their failures up to an attribute of sentience than an Earth or Sol thing was likely for the best. If reality didn’t reconcile, so what?

People did go otherwise, though. Mostly, in the form of Anti-Humanists. Ironically though, so far as it’s known, not a single B’ohs risen in anger with these dregs. Arguably, they have the greatest motive, but absolutely zero capacity for contempt.

People– evolved and non-alike, believed them stupid; at that, they were likely of less-average intellect overall, but what people aren’t? It is always the outliers that dictate true capacity. As an old shuttle surpassing life expectancy by decades without a scratch or malfunction shows no signs of slowing.

B’ohs, like all Sentients, had their thinkers and their morons. Difference being, unlike most species, each had every right to be blood-rage furious. For no particular reason at all, if they felt it–

Yet none were.

Their species existed for the sake of Human sustenance. Thus, when no longer needed, they had no place in the worlds they’d suddenly been thrust into. Even if idolized and hoisted upward– that was worst of all for a species wishing for the peace of grazing verdant fields all day.

B’oh evolution had been so guided they’d no choice but to live as slaves or die on some butcher’s rack. Not exactly inspiring of poetical thought for a species newly granted it. So, what it came down to was need. A need to make their own way in the universe; their own story and path.

Sol would never have been capable of denying them that. It wasn’t Earth. It was bigger. Newer. Different. And undeniably better.

So, in herds, droves, pairs, and singles, the B’ohs set off for the unknown to settle and create their own future. No-one could begrudge them their one desire; to graze upon the universe’s endless verdant hills for eternity. After all, who wouldn’t want to?

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Life and Death Curse

A wormhole in your eyes.
Dimensions of space, I defy.
Tunneling through planes,
of unimaginable aims.

Creatures unknown both big and small,
gather in hubs that never fall,
from space or from orbit.
to trade in currencies of digital-bit.

Where ships of flesh,
both metal and real,
abound with things,
that sense more than feel.

And even the inane, innocuous,
invokes wonder so glorious,
and so pure,
undiscovered,
as to make one’s breaths encumbered.

So saddle up. Take the ride,
I promise not to chide,
but to show the universe,
as more than a life-and-death curse.

Back in Sol Again: Part 20 (Conclusion)

20.

Marble and Granite

It seemed ludicrous. Even despite her agreement to it– more than agreement; arrangement, planning. It was a terrible idea. She knew it, felt it. Above all things, she was a servant of the Alliance, the Federation, Sol. She was Ambassador. “Evolved” or not. A woman of the people. One whom took their plight seriously.

Thus, standing before the airlock to an anti-Humanist shuttle, her security detail in-tow for safety’s sake with three of the four Anti-Humanist prisoners, she couldn’t help feeling as if betraying something. If things went wrong, if the plan didn’t work, they were committing treason. Then again, if things went wrong they’d likely all be dead too.

Mataan’s objective was simple; exchange all but Fera for a small portion of supplies. The anti-Humanists had agreed thus far. Fera would be kept to ensure they didn’t use the opportunity of the shield deactivation to blow the station to hell.

In reality, she was simply too valuable. Saffron and Fera were the real prizes among the prisoners. Thus they kept one, gave the other as a gesture of diplomacy. Anti-Humanist acquiescence to the plan made sense; an entire planet had only just made contact with Sol. Among the first-contact team were several non-Humans. That might still be spun to the Anti-Humanists’ advantage, but only if they did not appear unnecessarily hostile.

Of all things, they that meant not endangering the Vuur.

At least, not yet.

Mataan had anticipated this. Snow, in his wisdom, anticipated the siege-leaders did too, wouldn’t risk damaging already-fragile reputations with the Vuur. Otherwise, they might never manipulate them later.

Snow and Mataan came up with vague plans to counter unknown but suspected motivations. Simon would help however he could, despite his relative confinement but Ka’at had already admitted she considered him a hero. He hated it. Her previously sudden, undeniable hesitation made sense now, but it made him reluctant to do much of his own constructing.

Nonetheless, he once more found himself disdained by the label of Hero. He wasn’t a Hero. He was the only one around that knew how to do what needed to be done. So he did it. So they wouldn’t all die. Him included.

There was nothing heroic in that. It was selfish. It made watching the airlock seal worse. He was the hero, but Snow, Niala– and worst of all Lina were going off to do the heroic thing. How was that fair? He sighed, deflated, and slumped off to await the inevitable command to initiate the next phase of the plan.
Just beyond the sealed airlock, Snow was leading the way out, up– as much “up” as existed in space.

In moments, the Evolved were magnetized “atop” the station, the Human Lina between them, ready to earn her wings in the asinine-but-required school of space-exploration. Their suits and helmet-comms were open, but quiet. Even to Niala’s surprise, Lina was calm, her breaths controlled.

Niala doubted Snow noticed, focused as he tended to be, but it astounded her how calm the human was. Simon was a wuss in comparison. His first outing was a string of panicking and hand-wringing until nearly killed and forced to act. Maybe Lina had learned something from his mistakes, maybe it was natural. Either way, she was clearly better-suited for it.

She took Snow’s lead and focused on the task at-hand. Everything had to happen just right; coincide so no single entity might fail. Most of all, it had to happen without comms. Only faith in the various constituent parts and persons would allow them to function properly. That was how, after the few minutes of mag steps, Snow and the others found themselves atop the Anti-Humanist shuttle.

The group sank to their knees like cement to an ocean floor between two, cramped, protrusions venting protrusions. They dialed up their magboots. Snow distributed a series of small, spherical devices. They engaged with a touch, emitting shields, visible only by their slight shimmer at close-range, other wise invisible.

The ship jolted, launched through space. Suddenly, they were car-surfing a quarter-galaxy away from any terrestrial vehicle while somewhere below, Mataan awaited docking.

She had nothing to say to the anti-Humanists in the cock-pit, choosing instead to ride out the passage in the cargo section. She’d been allowed the liberty of her security escort, as a show of good faith. Mataan personally suspected arrogance, but truly, what were a few, armed soldiers against an armada of disenfranchised fanatics?

Snow would’ve called it a tactical error. Niala would’ve called them fools– mostly, just to say it again, and while Mataan would’ve agreed on both counts, she didn’t. Couldn’t. Still, she knew the trio of hell-raisers lie in wait above.

Mataan glanced beyond a bulkhead and into the cock-pit. The usually vast, emptiness of space was dotted by various ships and shuttles of differing sizes. Each one, armed. Each armament trained on either the shuttle or the station behind it.

She couldn’t help but feel her hair stand on edge beneath the layers of silk and spandex. If she’d been less in control of herself, she might’ve purred with fleeting terror. Instead, she cleared her throat slightly, and stiffened her spine.

Directly ahead, lay their destination. The cargo frigate’s guns tracked their progress more intently than the other ships. It was pulling double duty as both hauler and med-ship. Neutral ground, Mataan knew, but no less guarded. Neither side would risk injured or innocent for the sake of vengeance, not with the Vuur watching.

Who was making that decision on the other side, Mataan still didn’t know.

With a slow, hateful sneer, Saffron angled in front of her, blocking out the viewport. Mataan huffed, withdrew again to sit against a wall beside one of her escort, Hudson. The old, scar-faced Tom-cat exchanged a tense look with her.

It was clear; neither knew what to expect, nor what to do if things went their way. Snow was adamant that no-one know more than necessary to do their part. Otherwise, they might give something away inadvertently, screwing the pooch as it were.

The more Mataan and her people believed they were aboard the frigate to exchange prisoners for supplies and begin peaceful negotiation, the less likely they were to betray their intentions as exactly the opposite. Particulars weren’t necessary. Thus, they weren’t known.

Saffron’s malice caused them to miss the boarding, but Mataan knew well enough how it went. They’d come up alongside an extendable arm to dock; ostensibly, the ER-entrance where shuttles rushed wounded in when necessary. Given peace time, or as best could be called such, the double duty loading-bay only made sense to dock in.

Among other things, the dual-duty ship forced Mataan to recognize how very wrong they’d been about the number of F-drives already in service.

The shuttle’s rear doors opened. Saffron led the way in. The others followed. Elondo and Roenig were immediately rushed to examination. Saffron led the others to a central locale on the ship. The twists and turns of corridors were maze-like, dark and labyrinthine. Mataan only hoped whatever Snow had planned was enacted before the negotiations inevitably broke down.

Atop the shuttle, the trio disengaged their shields and mag-boots, leapt a distance to put a section of upper-frigate. The ship was five times the size of the shuttle, levels deeper. Arrays of pipes, conduits, and millions of other, important pitfalls and obstacles formed the plane of the ship’s top-side.

They aimed for the sort of conning tower mid-way astern, formed of a series of comm-equipment atop the distant Bridge. The Bridge’s warden-like gaze surveyed everything forward with as little resolution as possible, given its innumerable blind-spots.

Snow halted the others to plan their route; cameras littered the path to the emergency hatch they sought, invisible to the untrained eye but meant for scuttling more than emergencies. In the event the ship needed evacuation, leaving through such a hatch just put someone outside it, not in safety.

Snow was still grateful that idiotic bit of bureaucracy made it into the design, if only for a breath.

He started forward, hustling without risking being seen. Any camera could be active at any time. The only way to safely bypass any was to treat them all as active threats.

Mag-boots at half-power, he turned Zero-G to Moon gravity without the bounce. In this way, he carved a zig-zagging, weave between blind-spots, ducking in and out of them with carefully paced timing.

Niala and Lina followed, not bothering to hesitate or question. They understood as well as he. Follow in-step, in rhythm, or risk it all. Each second in the open was an eternity. Each pause between was agonized relief as if halting a slog through a sea of molasses-tension growing thicker each moment.

Before they’d covered half the distance, they found themselves beneath the gaze of the Bridge. It loomed overhead like the inadequate guard-tower it was. The mutual realization gave them all renewed confidence, conveyed and strengthened through the open comm and relief in their breaths.

Niala took point at the hatch. Her careful movements produced a tethered pouch of tools, its implements necessary for opening the hatch’s control panel. The others could only wait, hunkered down and feeling supremely exposed. Being spotted before their moment would destroy everything, including the station.

Likely, the Vuur too.

The thought made Lina’s heart race. Her breaths quickened. Snow thunked a knuckle on her helmet, said with a glance, “even if they cared to look, they’d never see.” His face resolved that confidence into a certainty. Oddly comforting, given how intimidating he was, and that he’d only ever shone her scorn or complete indifference.

Now, she felt an equal. It stilled her breaths.

Niala turned, tool-pouch re-secured at her waist, and gestured them in. The airlock hatch slid open silently. She’d disabled the alarms but at cost of shorting the systems. That meant re-pressurizing by hand. It would need to be precise– as much to keep from killing themselves as to avoid blowing a hole in the ship and alerting it to their presence.

Niala directed the group to various walls, set them to work opening panels for pumps and internal mechanisms. A steady stream of commands flowed from Niala across the comms until the last pump was prepped ninety-seconds later. She sparked a pair of wires and the room began to pressurize.

Minutes from 0-hour. From D-day. Either everything would go right, and the threat would be neutralized; or, everything would go to hell and civil war would break out.

They slipped in, immediately dodging security cameras for the Bridge’s rear-elevator. They piled in, ascended to the control room. The door opened on a roomful of consoles and moving bodies. Evolved creatures of all types had manned the ship in extravagant numbers, with nary a Human to be seen outside Lina.

The group hid behind the walls of the elevator as it opened, silently. No-one paid it any mind, too focused on the consoles and screens scattered about. Snow was ready. Across the open doors, Niala was too. She poised to close the doors with a button. In a flash, Snow hurled something out, the doors slid shut, and a distant, incapacitating screech gave way to ringing silence.

The elevator doors opened again on total stillness. The previous moving and shuffling of life was gone. No-one had time to notice. Snow and Niala broke for a pair of consoles at the front of the room. Lina dove toward one nearer the elevator. She took over, began issuing orders to realign, re-route, and charge various, specific electrical conduits.

Several floors below, Mataan stood before Shafer and Saffron. Between them, a pair of crates. To one side, a folding table set with a pair of chairs; one at either side. Shafer sat in one. Mataan took the other. Behind them a short way, their security teams; save Saffron, whom stood directly at Shafer’s left.

“Speak,” Shafer said.

“I’ve nothing more to say. Either you accept our arrangement or not.”

He chewed his tongue, teeth grinding. “We have. You were brought to negotiate surrender.”

Mataan placed her paws together. Her empirically statuesque figure became all the more graceful, concealing a slight of hand neither Saffron nor Shafer caught.

“Indeed,” she said firmly. “Your surrender.”

The lights flickered. Darkness. Something exploded in the distance. A massive flash of incapacitating light emitted from Mataan’s hands. She was unconscious. Shafer and Saffron too. Hudson and Rodriguez’s rifles spit violet plasma, cutting down Shafer’s escort. Emergency lighting flickered on.

Across the would-be battle-field, secondary explosions were triggering. Lina watched them through the control room screens and their external cameras. Before her, the drive command flickered, “successful.” The EMP rolled out through space, multiplied by every ship it hit. Any, purely internal systems would be unaffected, life-support for instance. Whereas anything with external connections were having their components fried.

An alert screamed aboard Snow’s shuttle, still docked at the station. Simon was ready. The power went out, cut off intentionally to protect the shuttle and Melchondo’s cruiser. Gravity dissolved. The air stilled. Behind him, the Vuur felt it in their mass.

Simon was too focused on a silent five-count to notice the rotten-egg stench returning too. He re-engaged the ship’s systems, bursting super-speed for Vursara. He hadn’t the nerve to admit to the Vuur he’d never flown a shuttle. He’d driven air-cars. They were sort of smaller, planet-bound versions of shuttles, but it was in his youth… decades ago now.

That youth felt a long way off now. Save its familiarity with the inability to admit truths to oneself. Incidentally, Simon’s current lack of self-admission was his inability to fly the shuttle. So at least he and the Vuur were being equally deceived by him.

Breaching the atmosphere triggered a series of readings and guides on the view-screen’s transparent HUD. Soon, they’d be on the ground, landed or burning. His knuckles whitened, heart seized between beats. The energy it took managed to shut off his olfactory senses. The worsening rotten-eggs worsened.

Above, Melchondo’s cruiser broke rank. A second later, it formed a wide, triangular grouping around the disabled armada in tandem with both Homer and Alpha-Wolf. The pair had appeared simultaneously, almost invisibly, in the distance.

The Frigate’s control room was abound with both Niala and Snow shouting to launch all ships’ remaining shuttles. Mataan reported in; the cargo hold was secure.

Simon blasted through Vursara’s atmosphere, guides at forty-five degrees from one another. He nudged them toward level. The shuttle tinted red at its viewport’s edges. Sweat pooled in his lap from, oozed through his locked grips. Both injured and uninjured arms ached equally now. His armpits dripped, neck immersing his collar.

The perpetually clouded-atmosphere made it impossible to see anything. He panicked; it might never break. Never. The ship might just strike, one more, temporary source of ground just slight hotter than before.

Ingstrom reported in; shuttles were making contact. Anti-Humanist ships were in chaos, their crews offered no resistance. Snow’s second reported the same. Mataan’s team had finished securing the last of the cargo hold’s prisoners and were hunkering down. Niala locked out all control of the ship. No-one was going anywhere.

Simon’s heart felt ready to burst. Someone had put it in a vise. Then pumped it full of some adrenaline-concoction that enlarged it worse than a lifetime of bacon. He was about to die, prepared to die. There seemed no other choice.

The black gray broke, shattering like a mirror into neutral, patchy floral grounds plastered between massive stretches of glossy Obsidian. Plateaus were offset by beauts of pumice, basalt, rhyolite. Simon wrestled the ship swooped from its dive-bomb, leveled at a safe-altitude.

There it was; Vursara’s civilization, constructed of Marble and Granite. Ancient Rome had a rival for beauty; this was it.

Lina radioed in, “Simon? Simon, are you okay?”

He breathed deep, oblivious to sulfur-smell, pain, or anything else but the wonder before him.

“Yes, but Vursara, it’s… it’s magnificent.”

A small hand, seemingly too heavy for its size, pressed his shoulder. He glanced over to see the Ka’at gazing warmly outward. He followed her gaze, deciding he wasn’t so unqualified for his job after all.

21.

Back to Sol Again

Festivities aplenty had occurred since the miraculous thwarting of the Anti-Humanist fleet. Thus far, somewhere on the order of two-thousand people of all species, excluding Humans, were arrested and processed. The ships, whose origins remained a mystery, but whose design was decidedly Solsian, were still being combed for evidence.

That was, of course, apart from those few shuttles Snow had taken to replenish his ship’s stocks– and the ones stolen for Niala and Simon as parting gifts.

He left Vursara not long after to dismantle the would-be rebellion brewing on Ganymede. What would happen was anyone’s guess, but Simon sensed he’d see the Wolf again soon enough. In the wake of his departure, Mataan officially began full, diplomatic negotiations with the Vuur, using the damaged frigate as a sizable, more accommodating neutral ground than the cramped station. Its engine would one day be repaired, but no-one yet wanted the headache of deciding who it went to.

Niala considered taking it, but ultimately didn’t care to fuel it. Even after a century of space-flight, Solsians still needed gas-money.

The first portion of their primary mission achieved, Niala, Lina, and Simon boarded Homer to return to Sol for the expedition’s reassessment. In time, they’d return, continue the exploration, but given all that had transpired, the ISC and Alliance felt it best to postpone any further forays temporarily.

With that in mind, Simon settled in for the trip back to Sol. It would take a few days, given the start-stop necessity of the F-drive– and the crew’s general lack of wanting to return. Everyone needed R&R; emotionally, if nothing else.

Meanwhile, Simon was content in occupying his time between Lina and Rearden’s repairs, forced into a leave of absence as he was by his injuries. He was fine with that, and currently, tending to Lina.

The door opened to his bathroom, steam billowing out from the hot shower Lina had enjoyed. She pivoted out like a burlesque dancer, closing the door behind her, whipped the towel off her head. It cascaded through the air as her hair tumbled about sensually, like an animal ready to pounce.

Indeed, she was.

And precisely when she tried to, they learned several things:

First, trying to throw one’s robe off while it was caught in a door was difficult. Simultaneously, doing so made it impossible to properly throw her arms and head back to thrust her nude torso outward as she intended. Lastly, they learned that a robe caught in such a way, tended to throw one off-balance.

And in that way, she tried to be sexual.

And in that way, she thrust forward in an awkward spasm, was tugged back too fast, then thrown off-balance inside wet, slick-bottomed slippers.

She landed face-first on the floor in front of the bed, legs splayed, brain scrambled, and utterly buck-naked. Simon fell beside her, rolling and laughing. Her wits returned enough to realize two things; she too, was laughing as hard as he was, and they were perfectly, equally stupid– and absolutely perfect for one another because of it.

Back in Sol Again: Part 19

19.

Quality Time

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

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

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

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

“Your people,” she said sheepishly.

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

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

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

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

Lots of coffee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everything?”

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

He grimaced, “Curator Nakato–“

“Please, call me Ka’at.”

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

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

“Simon.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see,” he said only half-honestly.

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you said your people were peaceful.”

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

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

“In your time, fifteen solar-revolutions.”

“And you’re Curator!?” He blurted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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