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.

Back in Sol Again: Part 18

18.

Obligatory Heroics

Simon wasn’t sure why, but he was running. Fleeing, really. He knew why, but not why. He was stuck in the middle of a space-station, in the dead of space, fleeing to a shuttle he couldn’t pilot if he wanted or planned to. True, he was headed there on request and indeed he needn’t run. Nothing could change his current peril.

But the million and more years of evolution guiding his nerves in the face of overwhelming terror said one thing, and one thing only; run! Less succinctly; run, you stupid bastard!

Where and why didn’t matter. He was really only running, fleeing, from one room to another, but it felt curiously good. The incoming armada of Anti-Humanists wouldn’t be stopped regardless of his chosen speed. He was certain of that, and that running was pointless, too, but he was also certain his terror had severed all hope of his body acting on anything but the vague hint of advice from its brain.

Yet another result of the eternal foot-in-mouth disease-vector all humans contended with. Its current bout had started something like this:

Moments of eternities passed between the Hog disappearing on-screen, the tension mounting in their guts, and the madness beginning. Everyone was shouting save Simon and the Vuur. The Vuur were calm, collected. Simon was quietly terrified, but his mind was working.

He knew a few things, as all Solsians inevitably did. Fortunately, his few were relevant. They had ten minutes. The trip to Vursara took thirty. The armada was coming. They had only one armed ship. They had two extra shuttles. Their ships would never survive combat with the armada. The Armada was coming.

“I’ve got it!” He said aloud, unthinkingly sealing his doom. “We invert the weapon conduits to modulate the shield power on the ships and encase the outpost indefinitely.”

He didn’t say, thereby turning certain death into a siege.

He also wasn’t expecting to here Melchondo say, “Good. Go,” then start pushing him along.

Now here he was, running between one airlock and the next, clock ticking, trying to save the galaxy.

It was getting old.

It shouldn’t have been getting old, but it was.

It shouldn’t have been anything. He was a scientist. A Human scientist; the most cowardly of all evolution’s thus-revealed concoctions. Mostly, because they had nothing to prove. But really, it was a convenient excuse.

Still, he should’ve been riding out the expedition on Phobos. Comfy and cozy in the ISC Plasma Propulsion Lab. His lab. He should’ve been doing something productive– anything– other than trying to save the galaxy; to save lives. He was wholly unqualified to do so. Were it not for the word’s prevalence in Solsian culture, he’d have no idea what “hero” meant.

Perhaps that was a bridge too far, but “hero” was never a label meant for him.

His body sprinted through the airlock into Snow’s shuttle it and his brain separate entities, one coping the other working.

He recalled Josie’s rescue; they’d called him a hero then. He didn’t like that. He didn’t scorn the fame it afforded him, largely for its contribution to his lab, but the title was unnerving. It downplayed the contributions of Niala, Snow, and Rearden. It made him seem different, impersonal, as if carrying some trait no person didn’t already, naturally have.

It was bullshit. Plain and simple bullshit.

Simon knew even then. Only now did it invigorate him. Anyone could be a “hero.” It wasn’t an inborn trait. It wasn’t some rare bout of courage. It was doing what was right. When it mattered. Regardless of the risk to oneself. That was all he’d done; all any of them had done. It wasn’t logic or even decision, it was instinct. Gut instinct, pure and simple.

That this was the result? His simple act of decency was mutated by ever-present forces of propaganda and ignorance. He wasn’t angry for the mutation. Not anymore. He was angry for the act’s praise. Praising common decency to make it seem heroic, as if impossible for all but a select few. Out of reach of all but the special ones.

He grit his teeth. That was what allowed for things like Anti-Humanism to take root. The series of events, personal and public, that made any person of any species feel marginalized when another was perceived as “better.” They became someone with decency; a nothing word that meant not being an ass-hat. Humans had barely recovered from slavery in their own species when Zelphod Contact occurred. That prejudice turned outward until everyone suffered.

Simon saw it now– the ultimate goal of the Zelphod; sowing dissent and unrest in Sol until it killed itself off just enough for them to strike again. It was the longest of cons. Solsians were notoriously impatient and short sighted. A few, evolved species were less prone to such behavior but toward it rather than not.

Puzzle pieces suddenly began falling into place. Simon saw the Anti-Humanist threat, its extent. First Contact was bloody, brutal, irreversibly altered the course of Solsian history, but was ultimately short. Sol had believed it won with the Zelphod withdrawal, the signing of the population-control treaties. No-one believed differently. No-one had reason to.

Until now.

Simon was beginning to think otherwise. The Zelphod had a way about them. They weren’t the most complicated creatures, socially. They were bugs. For the most part, they survived on swarm mentality, but with the benefit of all but the most automaton-like drones being capable of individuality, sentience.

Technologically, they were only a few hundred years advanced beyond Sol. An advancement stalled millennia by the dying of their home star. Their generational ships were largely autonomous, the drones handled working with the ingrained knowledge any insect used to act for the sake of the hive.

But they weren’t insects, Simon knew now.

Not as Solsians knew insects. The obvious physical and social resemblances all but solidified the idea in the minds of the Solsian majority. Simultaneously, Solsians were faced with the crumbling realities of their system, their non-uniqueness in the universe, the damage and loss of war. A reality, that by virtue of the abrupt change caused by the Zelphod themselves, was suddenly in dire need of utter reformation.

The Zelphod must have known that. It must have been the plan. Or a contingency. Forced Evolution was the main attack, in hopes unrest would inevitably weaken the system. Even in the event of that plan’s failure, the undeniable susceptibility to infection in Sol’s society could incubate something more dangerous, insidious; civil-war.

Or, simply, Anti-Humanism.

Now all of that was threatened with the discovery of the Vuur. A species looking in from the outside. One that had yet to be poisoned by the chaos of the Contact War. One that, above everything, had a pure sight. Anger turned to fury and Simon knew then why he was running.

He dove into the open engine-compartment in the shuttle’s rear. Like the last, it was cramped. A ventilation shaft more than anything. He shimmied along on his back, squeezing through cramped section of conduits and piping. Heat smothered his breaths. Sweat slid down into his eyes, propelled downward. Through the blistering hell and toward the power router.

For anyone else, a time-limit might’ve been prohibitive to the whole idea. Simon was different. He’d designed or revised plans on most of these ships, their systems. He knew everything connecting them, had designed or studied they and their constituent parts in depth to refine their designs. Thus, he knew the ships like an artist knew his painting.

Knowing what one was searching for, how to locate it without being killed or destroying power conduits was the important part. The actual act of inverting power was rather simple. Deceptively so.

Simon worked with ease, speed. Cylindrical power routers, nestled amid plethoras of cabling and connections, glowed with almost blinding blue-white in the red-lit confinement. The pinch of a pair of rubberized contacts feeding spoked boxes released the connections.

Another pinch. The cylinders slid free in his hands. Swift deftness reoriented their casings, and thereby, reoriented their current once reconnected. Simon slid the last cylinder in place, then left it unlocked and scrambled away.

He surged past the router, spinning about. Jagged steel shredded some portion of his clothing. Sweat stung a fresh wound around warm blood. It couldn’t have been less important if it were rebar impaling him. He had only moments before the router built to overload.

The next phase was equally delicate. Indeed, the manipulation requiring the utmost delicacy.

The giant, fuse-like power inverters needed physical reorienting. Otherwise, they would overload, discharge along ship conduits, fry its internal systems, and anything touching its framework; floorpanels, controls, seats, him. Everyone and everything inside the shuttle would turn to a sort of deep-fried potato-chip– or in Lina’s parlance, a crisp. Atop it, the ticking clock of overload.

Sweat drenched his eyes, making his hands and body slick. The distant sting of pain in his back from the fresh wound mixed with an undeniable need to pee.

Somewhere on the order of ten-seconds were left. Worse, touching anything more than the piping hot ceramic-glass would kill him. He’d come prepared with a common pot-holder raided from Melchondo’s ship. It wasn’t much, but enough to do the job before major burns set in.

He hoped.

So far it had worked….

His mitted hand trembled for the fuse. He froze. Breathed deep. Blinked. His hand was still again, mitt steady as a dead sea. Another breath for courage, which sounded ludicrous in lieu of his thoughts, and he reached for the fuse. His mitted hand closed. Its micro-hair curled in the heat. He had only seconds once it came loose.

Seconds, or Human meat-crisp.

His feet braced against piping. With a single pull, the fuse came free. His hand worked in the confining space to turn it: Not too fast to wound the filament. Not too slow to overload. Not to mindlessly to cook his unmitted parts.

The mental timer in his head ticked. He swallowed his guts, turned the fuse.

The radio sqwaked, “Simon, they’re in range. Now or never.”

His arm went back, body pivoting. In an instantaneous way, which he could never discern, several things happened:

Blue light flickered. Electricity from the broken circuit. Building. Looking to go somewhere. Anywhere. Building to overload. The fuse turning. Positioned to lock in place. Simon extending his arm. His body half-lunging with appropriate force. His ungloved hand and arm sliding away from his comm. The bottom of his forearm skimming ceramic-glass. An absolutely ear-splitting shriek of pain. The fuse locking in place. The arc discharging onto the nearest grating, dissolving.

He screamed pain, somewhere between that and utter tears was, “Go!”

The final stage of shield power-up roared and buzzed around him like a Tesla coil rising to full power. The whirring buzz of ultra-high voltage components grew to full strength, drowning his cries. He half shimmied, half shoved himself along the shaft, ignoring the smells of cooked flesh, the feel of it. He cried like a child, without shame until red-light broke to the shuttle’s cool lighting above.

He had enough strength to drag his top-half out before collapsing half in and half out. Intermittent whimpers bridged otherwise hysterical sobbing; he’d need skin grafts. Recovery. Therapy. Bandages. Blood. So many things.

That moment confirmed his earlier feelings. There was no such thing as a hero. There were only idiots in the right time and place, and idiots everywhere else. All of existence was filled with idiots. Idiots one planets. Idiots on ships. Idiots. He wasn’t sure which kind of idiot he was, but didn’t care. All he knew was the excruciating pain and the reality of idiots.

His vision began to fade, no doubt shock from the pain.

As if blinking, reality went black then reappeared as a pen-light in his eye. Niala, he guessed. She had a habit of it; one of her paradoxical quirks of nature. She was a relentless ball-busting spec-ops vet but a regal and honored lady with a legacy; an aggressive, cutthroat killer, but a doting and wise matriarch. More bullshit from just another idiot.

He swatted the light away, yelping as his burned arm struck something amid a pillow of meds and festerd pus. Lina winced dully beside him. His eyes widened in dumb, vain hope of taking in the scene, and failed spectacularly.

Niala sighed, “You’ve suffered a third-degree burn to the medial antebrachial cutan. Your arm needs to be immobilized.”

Her cultured response was met with an equally unimpressive, “Huh?”

“You’re hurt.”

He clutched his wrist, poking at the bandages there, “This?”

She nodded with slow sarcasm, “You were burned.”

“Son of a–“

“Simon,” Lina said gently. “It worked.”

“What you did saved us all, Human,” Snow said from a doorway. “There is honor in that.”

Niala stepped away. Simon sucked air through his teeth as he sat up. “Yeah. Thanks.” His jaw set so tight it had no choice but to chatter from the phantom pain. “H-how long will our fuel hold out?”

“Six days,” Snow said, stepping across from Lina. “If we ration. More, if we link the station’s fusion breeder to the shuttles and bridge it with Melchondo’s cruiser.”

“Is th-that necess–“

“They’re jamming our comms,” Snow interrupted. “So it could be. Unless, you’re thinking of running the blockade.”

Lina held one arm at the elbow, chewed the other thumb-nail, “What about the Wolf?”

“They have strict orders to maintain position until instructed otherwise.”

Lina brightened slightly, “What if they come anyway?”

“Penalty for defiance is death,” he said stiffly. “So they’ll stay put.”

“And the Homer is t-two weeks out,” he said, trying to calculate, and failing.

“Enough,” Niala said, returning with two syringes, one in either hand. She pulled the cap off one, “You need rest. You’re still at-risk of shock. We’ll assess the situation and alert you when we’re ready.”

She uncapped the first syringe. Simon shuddered. “What is it?”

“Morphine-sedative,” she said, shooting his bicep. She tossed the first syringe onto a tray, lifted the second. They all suddenly realized it was larger, empty. “So I can do this–“

The room cringed. Simon was confused. She jammed the needle into one of the exposed pustules near his wound. He screamed.

Then, he was out.

Niala began drawing pus, one blister at a time.

“Did you really need to put him out?” Lina asked, unable to watch directly.

Niala was silent, focused. Snow laughed, brow raised, “You wanna’ hear him moan and complain with every needle prick he isn’t really feeling?”

She huffed, defeated, “Point taken.”