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.”

Back in Sol Again: Part 17

17.

Fast Friends

The first minutes in the control room with the Vuur delegation were like living in an utter hell. At least, that’s all Simon could think happened. His later recollection seemed to have block in place of the memory, leaving an otherwise momentous event as little more than a gray, watery fog… and a lingering cringe around his nostrils.

The Vuur were absolutely genuine; benevolent in personality and camaraderie. It was the scent of a species entirely without concept of olfactory stimulation. A sense known far too well to the Solsians in the room.

As if some gloriously merciful force sensed their discomfort, something flooded the room. The temperature dropped. A current of something vinegar-like, neutralizing swirled in a silent, invisible vortex. One end let it in, the other swept the old scent out. The process was continuous, constant, heavenly. Simon could’ve cried for joy.

It was, he later learned, done at Mataan’s request, silently transmitted to Melchondo’s crew during her shuttle ride. “To Lts. Hartke and Klimmer, due to an unforeseen development regarding our new companions, please have ready an aerosol expungent of CH3COOH and NaHCO3 to be piped through the station at one end and filtered at the other, in response to Vursara’s high sulfur content. Thank you, Amb. Mataan.

In a moment of swift poise, Mataan evaded more discomfort than necessary and any embarrassment to the Vuur, via a judicial application of text-messaging. Consequently, this may have been the first time in Solsian history such an act avoided tragedy rather than caused it. Often enough, Solsians messages tended toward one of two maxims: “Do me.” Or conversely, “Do yourself.”

The truth of Mataan’s message, was more colloquially translated to; “Our new friends stink. Send help.” In time, the Vuur themselves would find amusement in this, however true it remained.

When that first whiff of neutralizing air barreled through the station’s ventilation, Simon was unaware of anything but the saving grace it brought. He felt like an old vid-star, too long in space and finally reaching firm ground, and falling to his hands and knees to kiss it. Except his firm ground was the airs lack of rotten eggs. He’d have kissed it, could he have without giving the whole thing away.

Foremost in mind after the air’s sterilization became his seeming inability to keep from making a fool of himself. Congenital and incurable as Human foot-in-mouth disease was, the last thing they needed was showcasing it as one of their first, official acts. Simon’s only hope lie in keeping his mouth shut as much as possible, lest the foot inch its way up… and jam its way inward.

And, if need be, the option always remained to flee to the all-embracing silence of vacuum-space.

“Ambassador Mataan,” Ramla began, voice appropriately gravel-like, complimenting her resemblance to stone well. “It is of the utmost importance we discuss this threat with you.”

Everyone squirmed now.

She continued unabated, “It is through our Sages we understand this threat to be internal. That is, we know it is primarily a Solsian matter. However–“

She took a pause. It seemed to last both an eternity and only a breath. As if their stone statures were as much mirrored in thought as body. Simon sensed no Solsian aboard willing to break the silence, even to breathe. If Simon were the betting type, he’d have lain odds on someone passing out first.

Ramla, suddenly yet calmly, continued, “It is something we know well.”

Niala spoke up, “Forgive me, but… how do you mean?”

Ramla began with a whimsy that said she was both present and lost in memory simultaneously. The scientists in the room made note of it, sensing it might well be the case. “Our people do not live long. In relation to yours, we are roughly half your life-span, but we are hardy. We descend from warrior tribes whom, over eons and generations, honed our forms to withstand all but the rigors of time. Yet we remain lost warriors, searching for greater purpose in the universe.

“As you, we have philosophy, belief. But presently, unlike yours, ours revolve around hope and peace. We are are of one mind. We focus on one goal. Our people as a whole, and individuals. You are the opposite. You come from a world of conflict and hostility– or perhaps more appropriately, worlds. Your divisions are evident in your dress. Your stances. You embrace no-one without first examining them. You shake no man’s hand without checking him first for a blade. Most of all, you each focus on many things, some conflicting even between those closest. It is a way unknown to us, but one which we wish to understand.”

There was a long, profound silence. For once, Simon and Lina were too caught up in the moment to squirm. But it was there, under the surface, waiting to remind of their Humanity.

Ramla ensured all those present understood her gravity, “You reveal much more in yourselves and your ways than you realize. Both of good and ill intent.” The Solsians averted their gaze as if to accuse one another, were quickly redirected. “But you are not without hope.

“It is for this reason we have requested to meet you, face-to-face. Impersonal distance is a burden all must bear should they hope to continue advancing, but it should be avoided wherever possible.”

She refocused, “In simplest terms, we hoped you would greet us warmly. Minor anxieties common to sentient beings aside, you have. And we thank you. It is with hope that our greatest achievements might be mirrored between us and shared from here on.”

There was silence.

Snow spoke with firm indifference. “You’ve known civil war.”

It was a statement. A profoundly insightful one. Simon would never have gathered so much so quickly. How Snow had was a mystery, but Simon sensed something of the ruling warlord in it. He found himself oddly comforted. That Snow was equal parts brutal dictator and intelligent scholar was… eerily reassuring.

Ramla’s head bowed slightly. The smallest Vuur, Curator Nakato, spoke then. “For millenia, our people fought. Thousands of tribes competed for dominance across our world. Through bloodshed and utter carnage, our people evolved, knowing little else but battle, war. Then, over several thousand years, the tribal mindset began fracturing, forming something newer and larger.”

Guardian Zulu spoke next, doing his best to mimic Ramla’s regality but ultimately falling short. “Our people began to imagine, to dream. We foresaw a united world where food was no longer scarce; where death was neither premature nor certain.”

Curator Nakato seamlessly took over, “These ideas spread until Vursara’s warring tribes joined, partnered, becoming governors and ruling bodies seeking trade above all else. Most tribes migrated for trade’s sake, adding to emerging nation-states. Health and vitality were truly and fully discovered and sought.

“But darkness loomed. The nation-states occupying the world claimed its golden lands. Few to no villages or tribes were left between, isolating the populous. Before long, the states’ encompassed enough sectors that trade was no longer necessary. The former routes became too unstable to maintain, and their central regions turned to isolationism from fear.

“Unfortunately, the lands were not all equal forever. Some became impossible to farm. Others, depleted of their luxuries; whose presence, for the first time since their discovery, was mythical.”

Guardian Zulu’s face set, as if in sadness, but his voice remained unchanged. “Isolation and need stirred resentment. Old-ways, not long enough abandoned, returned in secret as nation-states experimented with newfound knowledge to contend with lost trade. As was our instinct, these ways inevitably turned toward armament with increasingly dangerous implements. What followed were twelve-hundred cycles of infighting.”

Nakato finished with deep shame. “The toll is greatest to those left behind. Our hardiness however, promises we might yet prevail and survive, so long as we take care. Thus, it is with wounded pride our species carries on in this way. What remained of intelligent leadership then, formed a global coalition centuries old and strong now, and currently focused on providing worldwide access to food.”

“A noble goal,” Mataan said in the appropriate silence.

“Indeed,” Ramla replied. “When global hunger is eradicated, we will discern and face our next challenge as a species.” Another profound silence rang with the Vuur’s words. Then; “But this is not meant to taint our meeting. Rather, it is to our similarity. We are, in a way, kindred species, seeking the same ends through similar means, having seen first-hand the repercussions of failing to do so.”

Snow once more spoke, still indifferent. “You believe civil war to be the logical bridge between us?”

An immediate thrum of static filled the air. Simon wondered if the Vuur counter-agent was failing, then quickly noticed the rather deep hatred emanating from Mataan. She did her best to keep it subdued, but the hairs around her gown’s neck-line had thickened. On cue, Snow did his best to quicken it.

Ramla bowed to affirm. Snow visibly disapproved, “Most foolish thing I’ve ever heard.”

Snow!Everyone said, at once.

Ramla had anticipated everything, raised a hand not unlike theirs. “I wish to know his thoughts. He is clearly perceptive.”

Mataan was silent. The slight glisten in Snow’s eyes told of a smug grin that would otherwise have manifested. Simon saw it in that instant. Had they been in a school yard, Snow might’ve stuck his tongue out and danced– or at least pointing a finger and chanted.

Instead, he stiffened with a Kingly air. “War serves no purpose but to divide and leaden the pockets of its benefactors. Whether in practice or politics.”

“You wish then, that our meeting emphasize another topic.”

He eyed Curator Nakato, “If only in the history books, yes.”

“What would you propose?” Nakato asked with extreme interest.

“That the records state we chose an equal meeting place in hopes of scholarly trade.”

“Would that not be false?”

“Reality matters only in the present. History matters always,” Snow said astutely.

The Wizened King returned full-force. Simon began to understand how creatures such as this had commanded mighty empires– not Wolves mind, but true leaders.

“Always, it matters most that History safeguard the future. We can ensure that now, so that forty generations from now, when our people are each at the other’s throats, the recall that what first brought us together was peace, not circumstance.”

A resounding silence prompted Ramla’s queer, Vuur smile. She’d clearly been coached on it, but bowed her head all the same. The rest of her delegates followed. Then, with sun-praising pose, “Let it be so. We meet here for the sake of peace and knowledge.”

Niala waited a beat, then spoke with gravity. “Then off-record, we are under impending attack. Anti-Humanists have been roused, seeing our meeting as counter to their agenda.”

Simon felt himself speak. Absolute and utter terror pinning his tongue up and down between words. “I am Human.” All eyes turned to him. He was certain some sweat dripped down his lower back and into his butt-crack.

He spooled off several sentences as if an old VI list-reading. “Our species was first sentience in Sol. Our people reached sufficient infrastructure and advancement through-out Sol before first contact with the Zelphod. The species desired human-dominated Sol for its infrastructure. Immediate war led to chemical attacks on Human-dominated planets. These chemicals, meant to spread chaos, inadvertently activated latent genes in Solsian species, most notably that of animal life, leading to the prevalence of Evolved life.”

Simon took a breath, searching his echo for anything worthy of his terror. He found nothing and exhaled. “Anti-Humanists believe they are marginalized as a result of the system’s remnants from Human dominance. Though there is reasonable debate on both sides, ultimately, their used as scapegoats to further others’ agendas.”

Zulu eyed him, “You mean to say they feel Human infrastructure is oppressing them.”

“Precisely,” Lina interjected, sensing Simon’s fear and hoping to alleviate it. He grimaced gratefully, “The truth’s much more complex. Many Anti-Humanists are opportunistic criminals damaging the debate’s finer points with unnecessary violence and extremism. Valid issues fester as a result.”

A sudden, unanimous nodding from the assembled Vuur, said this made absolutely perfect sense. They knew something of it. More than that, they sensed the sudden release of tension from the Solsians. As inexplicable as it felt, it was clearly the result of their dangerous reality being so well received.

As if on cue– as Simon relaxed– the comm system began to chime. Mataan excused them for the communique coming through the emergency circuit. A Hog appeared on-screen, foreign to all but Snow. A moment of confusion gave way to Snow pushing forward.

The Hog was petrified; paler than healthy, and less pink more bled, frozen ham-hock. “Sir, they’re coming. A fleet of armed shuttles just appeared on sensors. Ten minutes out.”

The entire room tensed up again, Vuur included.

Back in Sol Again: Part 16

16.

Fessing Up

Mataan sent Melchondo’s crew and her own security detail out, leaving her with those of consequence. Simon saw it that way. Admittedly, so did those forced to leave. Melchondo had influence and authority over events, and as such, the taciturn rat stayed. Simon would’ve liked to leave, take flight, and never stop until he was back in Sol again. Instead, he had no choice but to stand, dumbstruck and guilt-faced beside Mataan as they prepared to speak to the Vuur.

Niala was at Mataan’s other side; the rest a short way back. Snow remained too. The last thing anyone needed was the Wolf going rogue. Even less, losing his obvious tactical expertise. Personally, Simon just wanted him around in case someone tried to tie him up again– short of Lina, anyway.

Mataan stole the room’s attention again, “Dialing in now.”

She pawed the console amid a silence. The room felt near a singularity, tension black-holing it in on itself. Simon sensed it the walls bowing. In. Out. The lights flickering in cheap horror-movie style. Metallic creaked. The bowing doubled. The walls collapsed inward. Exploded out. Again. Almost cartoonishly. His brain and body did the same. Then, in and… pop! Gone. Nothing but a dot of metal obscured by the lensing effect of singularity-space.

He’d give anything for that to happen.

Ramla appeared, smiling the queerest, most foreign smile possible. She and her people were obviously pleasant. But– and Simon couldn’t help but make the assocation– they looked like sentient, walking rocks. Something in the back of his head tickled with an image of Rock Biter from The Neverending Story. How he’d managed to get his hands on such an obscure, centuries old flick, was as much a mystery as to the amount of drugs necessary to concoct it.

All told, he couldn’t shake feeling the Vuur were genuine, benevolent. If history remained consistent that meant one day becoming enslaved on war-torn worlds, species unrecognizable for all their fear and hatred of others.

Ah, Solsian memories.

Ramla repeated her same, sun-praising, prayer-bow; mirrored by three others of her kind. They were all various colors of tanned leather and slate, their clothing subtly metallic, ornamented for the occasion. What it covered, Simon could only wonder. Judging by that scarce bit of info, he guessed they were mammals– or something like them. The clothing they wore, and the slight hint of heat around them suggested climate control for warm blood.

Skull-cracker jaws, almost as intimidating as their armor plating, sat beneath nose-less, large-orbit faces. The terrifying thought of their strength was tempered by the half-darkness surrounding compensating for their light-sensitivity. Their night-vision was, no doubt, excellent. The thought of attempting to face one, alone and in the dark, left him all the more hopeful against ill-intentions.

Thankfully, Ramla was quick to divert his attention. “Ambassador Mataan, I wish to extend a warm welcome to you and your people. It is with the most humble and warm hearts that we hope this meeting marks the beginning of a fruitful and eternal friendship between our peoples.”

She once more sun-praised and bowed. Mataan returned the latter half, then replied with the same pomp and ceremony expected of all diplomats. Finding a way to mirror one’s words without actually using said words was the diplomatic way and all, but even Simon was impressed with the speed and ease Mataan employed her reply.

There was an almost audible blowing of trumpets despite none being present. Indeed, quite the opposite gave it the effect. No-one spoke. No-one moved. A mutual soaking in the profundity of the moment occurred, in which both Simon and Lina squirmed. Then, as if all at once, the ceremony ended and Ramla became more affable.

“Ambassador Mataan, if I may introduce my colleagues,” she half-bowed, gestured to the three Vuur beside her. “Ambassador and First Patriarch Geloof. Curator and Economist Nakato. And Supreme Guardian Zulu.” The trio prayer-bowed in tandem. “Ambassador Geloof and I are responsible for smoothing the transition to galactic partners. Supreme Guardian Zulu is here to ensure any security matters are handled. And Curator Nakato–” she gestured to the smallest, youngest of the assembled Vuur. “– will ensure any trade, cultural or physical, is overseen with the utmost care.”

“We are all pleased to meet you,” Nakato said with a small, feminine voice. “And on behalf of the people of Vursara, I am prepared to offer you the formal but immediate gift of our planetary orbit for continued occupation.”

“That is most generous of you and your people, Curator Nakato,” Mataan said, empirically graceful. Simon felt the roll of Snow’s eyes. Mataan turned grave. “As certain as I am of the historical significance of this moment, I am also certain of a threat we have inadvertently exposed you to.”

The Solsians were on-edge now. If the Vuur mirrored it, they were experts at hiding it. Or, Simon thought, their stone-like statures extended to their personality as well, making them eternal, immovable. A mutual pause and silent response between Mataan and Ramla not only allowed, but requested her to continue with neither fear nor ire.

Simon was calmer now. Oddly at-ease. Mataan too, though only externally. “Ambassadors, it is with the utmost sincerity I admit our discovery of your planet was as incidental as was believed. But it is with the most intense regret that this incident did not go unnoticed by those of our peoples whom feel marginalized for their divisive beliefs.”

A momentary silence.

Then, Ramla lamented quietly, “I see.”

Mataan replied with genuine sorrow and a slight, sad purr. “There is no denying our meeting is overshadowed by this reality. However, I believe it in our best interests, as individuals and representatives of our people, to admit this outright so our relationship might be formed of the strongest bond possible.”

Another silence.

Simon could feel his heartbeat in his throat. It rattled in his teeth, made a temple-vein throb. Then, he felt everyone else’s heart-beats add to it. For a full fifteen seconds, it last in plain, torturous silence.

Ramla again bowed her head. “This is indeed, troubling. Your willingness to reveal this information, however difficult and conflicting, engenders trust. That said, the reality of this… threat changes things. Perhaps it would be best if we meet in person to further discuss the matter.”

A mutual release-valve belched into the room. Mataan swallowed hard, relieved. Had she been capable of it, Simon would’ve expected to see her wiping sweat from her forehead. Instead, she carefully controlled her breath to conceal the obvious hints of pressure-panting.

Hours later, Simon was– in a way– glad for the way things had turned out. In another way, he was hysterical. He found himself standing outside an airlock, freshly showered and dressed, beside a similarly fresh Lina.

Behind him stood Snow, arms crossed, and dressed in kingly shoulder cape and armor. Stylized black-on-red draped over his right shoulder down to calf-height. Among other things, hiding the plaz-pistol at his back. His formal armor was as Kingly as he had a right to: Glassy, jet-black, composite ceramic interwoven at strengths higher than braided steel. Neither ballistics nor energy could pierce the Warrior-King armor. Between the gear and his various belts and pouches, he might as well have been some ancient monarch-conqueror.

Beside him, Niala was a similar picture of royalty. Her Matriarch robes were hewn in the most vibrant colors, of the finest silks, and hemmed in gold-fiber weave. A drapery of beads formed concentric circles, strung in equally multitudinous hues from her mid-neck to just-below her shoulders. The cloak-like effect managed an unquestionable royalty.

Yet to Simon, she still resembled a pack of cheap colored pencils.

It was only then he realized the Vuur might believe him shabbily dressed. Lina too. The pair were to represent the entirety of Humanity, Sol’s most prolific and so-called advanced species, in cheap cotton and polyester. As far as first impressions, humans weren’t doing well. Simon and Lina would only make it worse.

“Just another reason to get home,” he muttered, Galactic politics e’er his kryptonite.

His utterance gave way to the distant sound airlock depressurization. In moments, he would make first, Human contact with an alien species since the Zelphod. The thought terrified him, given how it went so well and all…

He couldn’t help but think of all those anti-Humanists bitching and moaning about their so-called “marginalization–” code for “veiled hatred–” and how they weren’t being properly represented, galactically. Meanwhile Mataan, an evolved feline, was first to make contact. Yet sometime in the future he’d hear about “Human involvement,” Human “guided” contact, while nothing about Mataan’s presence or direction was said.

The truth was, their long held dominance of Earth and Sol had altered Human psychology to a point of apathy. Humans couldn’t give two spits about making history. They’d done it already. They’d never be forgotten. Never die out. All of Human history, from its amoebic origins to its bipedal maturation, had been about establishing a legacy. That was done. The species as a whole could kick back and bask in the universe they’d helped find and form, await their eventual end in its heat-death.

Of them, no Humans were more of this mindset that Lina and her countrymen. The English had been conquerors for thousands of years, inclusively. When the time came that matters were sufficiently tended to, they withdrew to focus on the home-front. They were by no means the only example, merely the most relevant to mind.

He tried to mirror the English aloofness. Evolved life was eager, new. From Melchondo to Niala and Snow, and the Anti-Humanists– Hell, even the Vuur– each was eager to make a mark; to leave an impression of humble nobility. Simon just hoped to get through without making an even greater ass of himself than he eventually would anyhow.

They lined up to received the Vuur as a procession. Mataan led them out. She began by introducing them to Niala. They shook hands one at a time with a slight bow. Beside her, Simon was fought back tears. His eyes were watering. His body worked on instinct to mirror Niala’s movements. He didn’t even recall saying hello, nodding, bowing.

Rotten-egg stink swallowed him, as if billowing in from a chicken coop left in the sun for days. Simon couldn’t help it. The sudden presence was overwhelming, gut-wrenching. Internally, he screamed, wept. Externally, he blinked repeatedly, eyes burning and somehow not leaking.

The horrendous smell outright confirmed two things; Vursara was primarily a sulfuric world. And, the Vuur lacked any olfactory senses. It made perfect sense for a species on a world dominated by such rankness not to evolve a sense for it. Both from evolutionary and social standpoints, there was scientific logic to it. Less time supplying fluids and development to vestigial senses meant more for important ones. Moreover, not smelling one another meant one less barrier to emotional attachment or procreation.

Personally, Simon envied that lack of noses, wished it on himself. However unaware of it he was, the others were right along with him.

Before he knew it, the delegation disappeared down the hall for the control room. Niala and Lina trailed behind with Melchondo between them. Snow and Simon glanced at each other, for once, both on precisely the same page.

Snow winced, “Smell like a sewer.”

 

Back in Sol Again: Part 15

15.

Decisions, Decisions.

Mataan had been socially castrated before her security escort, Captain Melchondo, and Niala at Snow’s hands. That she’d been willing to show herself at all after was a tribute to her character. There was no denying the undercurrent of resentment present, but some part of Mataan had become less rigid. She elected to use the personal exposure to better facilitate communication rather than stonewall those around her. At that, everyone currently on-site was present, prisoners excepted.

“I have reached a decision regarding how and when to make contact,” she began almost ceremoniously. It was discarded. “As Snow so graciously pointed out, it is best we not shit where we eat.” No one dared laugh. “In that spirit, and as Ambassador from Sol, I believe it in everyone’s best interests to make contact and admit the truth of our position.”

Niala was concerned, “Madame Ambassador, are you certain that’s wise?”

“Doctor?”

Niala stiffened. “I take it you mean you wish to inform them of our… precarious position.”

“Indeed,” she said with a slight regality. The question as to her wisdom was unanimous. Mataan rebutted, “Would you rather Anti-Humanists soil our first contact by moving against them? Or have the knowledge later arise that we knew of the threat and did not warn them?”

Again, silence.

Whoever she was, personally, it was clear Mataan was Ambassador for a reason. She had a clarity even Snow marveled at. Spitefully of course, but marveled nonetheless. More than that, Mataan had foresight. For any politician, that was worth preservation.

Indeed, for yet another universal truth is the corruptive and lobotomizing affection for power; or simply, corrupt, lobotomized politicians. Mataan was one of few, precious diamonds in that rough.

Or as Snow later put it, headed for the storage room; “Got two sets of balls, for sure. Had anyway. Seems I took the smaller ones.”

Simon sighed dully, tongue half-out in exhausted dismay.

“If Madame Ambassador’s instincts are half as good as she believes, we may come away from this with an ally.”

Simon was less hopeful, however dulled, “And if we start another interstellar war?”

He shrugged with an odd candor. “Frying pan. Fire. Sol knew this risk and sent us anyhow.”

Simon raised a brow at the tacit admission of collusion but sighed, “Let’s get it over with.”

He still wasn’t sure how he’d been picked for meal-detail. Snow made a certain kind of sense: he was strong, quick, and the captives already knew he was here. Mataan’s security or Melchondo’s crew might’ve been regardless of Mataan’s presence, but the prisoners still better off unaware of their true numbers.

Personally, Simon couldn’t remember his job description anymore. It’d been too many years. One too many knocks on the head. ‘course, the minor, subtle changes of his job itself made it impossible to know it word for word. It wasn’t really important anyhow.

However, he was certain nowhere in it was the phrase “Feed Alliance Prisoners.”

He might’ve been irritated could he feel much, but since the Ambassador’s arrival, he’d been incapable of sleeping. Amongst others, one security officer currently residing in the bunks with he and the others was Emile Cantu. He was an otherwise respectable hound, job clearly an extension of his typically-loyalist, Canid personality. Simon was pretty sure he loved him– platonically, of course, the rest otherwise reserved for Lina.

The problem was:

Emile snored.

A lot.

It was awful.

Evidently no-one else minded. Simon wasn’t sure how. Only during the deepest of sleep did it arise, but Simon couldn’t stand it. It jarred him awake, shredded his dreams to jagged reality with an angle-grinder that cut rebar beside his head. In fact, he was sure he’d have slept better with that than with Cantu’s long, deep fractures to the fabrics of space and time. Simon was convinced nothing short was occurring, nor could occur, to cause such violent disruption.

He was left exhausted. Slow. He’d have been outright pissy but between maintaining the station, trying to repair Rearden, and trying not to collapse, he had nothing left. He ate during repairs or maintenance, spoke to Lina over them, but was otherwise watching, reading, calibrating.

Or trying to sleep.

Trying.

In the four days since Mataan’s arrival, he’d gotten somewhere on the order of sixty-eight minutes of sleep. It was unnerving. Dangerous. He’d done all-nighters in grad school, rushed off to exams afterward still awake, but this was crazy. He needed sleep. For everyone’s sake. If he didn’t get it, he was likely to kill someone. Indirectly, or through a somnambulistic rampage. Only time might tell which, even if he hoped for neither.

He managed to escort each prisoner out with Snow, one-by-one, let them eat before heading back to monitor power. Before he could even sit down, Mataan was in the room, requesting he aid her in control. The next hour was spent troubleshooting an interface malfunction. For over an hour he sifted system logs, checked hardware statuses, and ran or re-ran diagnostics. In the end, the cuprit was a toggled setting on a hidden section of the UI.

The dreaded Techie Plight had caught him without his knowledge.

Part of him hated Mataan for that.

The rest took solace in the fact that he’d likely caused the problem himself, when flying over the console to tackle Rhein days earlier. No-one had used it since, but now was the time it was needed… and failed.

He slank back toward the power room, eyes half-closed. His brain discerned only vague shapes; blobs of various, metallic neutrals smudging into one another toward the power room. He flopped into his chair, hands working mechanically to grasp Rearden’s encased figure. Before he knew what happened, he was asleep.

Under the console. Clutching Rearden’s incapacitated figure as a child with a plush-toy might.

There, Lina eventually found him. Six glorious hours later.

She’d been preoccupied meeting with Mataan and Niala, and helping Melchondo and his limited crew examine and maintain their ship’s systems. It was trivial for someone as well-versed in tech, and as such, she’d readily volunteered for anything outside the monotonous rhythm.

She stepped into the power room, “Simon, I was–“

Empty.

She rubbernecked the room, catching the faintest whistle. Her ears strained for it.

Srreeeee.

Silence.

Again; srreeeee.

Silence.

She followed its rhythmic emissions beneath the console, found Simon. He had all the hallmarks of a child sleeping: drool along a corner of the mouth; a hugged robot in one hand, labcoat-blanket in the other, and completely dead to the world. The only thing that might’ve cemented the image further was a sucked thumb and a onesie.

His obvious exhaustion had claimed him so thoroughly she thought not to wake him, but her presence was more or less detected. He rolled toward her, head on Rearden, suckling back drool and wiping his mouth. His eyes fluttered against harsh-light, snapped shut again.

She knelt beside him, “Tired?” He grunted an affirmation. “I see that.” He grunted again, depressed. “No choice, huh?” He grunted a negative. “You’ve no idea where you are, do you?”

“Hmm?” He finally opened an eye to look.

Utter confusion reigned first. Then, his mind clawed into recognition. He knew of the power room, but it was different somehow now. Curiously tilted. Askew. His eyes fought for purchase. He knew then that gravity, however artificial, had made a fool of him again.

The second thing he recognized was the small, flexible optical sensor curled toward him from Rearden below. The incapacitated bot gazed dully at him from the curled sensor with no more life than a plush toy.

The final thing he came to recogonize– almost instantly with the first two, was an agonizing pain in his back and legs. It spawned from his neck, shot down through wrenched, knurled muscles, matched only by the stink he then fourthly recognized as his own.

He couldn’t help but cringe at himself. Then at pain. Then his surroundings. Then, finally, at the reality that encompassed them.

He was suddenly awake. He sat up. Banged his head on the console’s underside. Howled pain. He rubbed his forehead, slid from beneath the console. Lina fought back snickers.

“Funny, huh?” He asked sarcastically.

She smiled behind a hand. He stuck out his tongue in response.

“Careful,” she prodded. “Might get it stuck in an airlock.” He pushed himself up as she finally continued where she’d first began, “I was told to bring you to control.”

His shoulders slumped automatically, “Fine. Might as well get it over with.”

“They’ve made contact.”

He was suddenly pale. His spine turned first to jell-o then to steel rebar. “They made contact without us!?”

“No,” she calmed. “Not– Just c’mon.”

She drug him toward control. He wouldn’t have needed to be drug but his body had suddenly lost proper connections to its brain. Until now, he’d half-expected the expedition thus far to be some sort of fever dream. He couldn’t explain why, but he did.

In that moment, all he knew for certain was the Solsian history of First Contact… and the war that followed. And that he was suddenly being asked to be part of a First Contact delegation. And that He shouldn’t be. And that he knew that.

And above all, he knew that given his penchant for foot-in-mouth disease, and his unyielding lack of social and physical grace, there was no-one worse suited for the job.

Then again, he wasn’t sure anyone aboard was suited for it. Snow was an asshole. Niala was too unpredictable. Lina was almost as bad as he. Even Mataan, though proven graceful, could be easily inflamed given proper fuel. All that, to say nothing of the Anti-Humanists, Mataan’s security detail, or Captain Melchondo and his crew– all of whom were technically even less qualified than Simon.

Yet, he still found himself standing behind the main control-console, the rest of the unqualified present. The largest vid screen stared at them, blank, but waiting. The eerieness common to Humans at the cusp of profound moments came about Simon and Lina.

As noted, the Human species has a fickle reaction to profundity. This fickleness no doubt contributed to the madness of Zelphod First Contact. Those present then were equally as unqualified and prone to foot-in-mouthness as Simon, possibly even less so. No wonder it turned into interstellar war.

Not the greatest combination to foster peace and hope in the Galaxy.

Mataan stole his attention before he could think further, “We received this ten minutes ago.”

She lifted her hand to key a console. Simon cut in, “We!? They made contact with us!?

Mataan glared. “Watch.”

A vague image of what they’d seen before appeared on-screen; Stocky, muscled, and the color of tanned leather. The humanoid-creature was clearly armor-plated beneath its sparse, dark-metallic clothing, it spoke with the sort of guttural quality of a creature without olfactory openings, or of one with clogged sinuses.

“People of Sol, I am Ramla; First Matriarch of Vursara and Starborne Ambassador of the Vuur. Our Sages have foreseen your arrival. Now that our peaceful intentions are declared, and that we are certain of yours, it is my honor to welcome you to the Orbit of Vursara.”

“They speak English!?” Simon blurted.

The room shushed him at once. The creature continued on-screen, unabated. “–of importance. It is known to the Vuur you have found us as incidentally as is possible for the space-fairers you are. I am certain we have much to teach one another. Indeed, much to learn from one another.

“Under the Sages’ direction, several of us were prepared for First Contact. We know much of you, but not all, via the shakey, psychic power the Sages possess. Though some of it is likely misrepresented, we are fortunate enough to have learned a good deal of your language. Thus, we need not burden each other with the confusion common to new species.

“In the hopes of timely replies, we have sent a communication frequency. Our transmitter and receiver, though crude, appears to functional nominally. Please forgive any difficulties in the matter. We eagerly await your reply. May peace reign!”

Ramla’s bulky arms rose skyward as if praising the sun. Then, her hands met and her head bowed, as if a bird in full dive with its wings pinned together behind its back. The image cut out, returned to the idle, black screen.

The room was silent. No one breathed. No one moved. The moment was historical, profound. All Evolved life present sensed the Humans’-discomfort. It wasn’t their fault; they’d adapted too well to the retrospective disappointment they formed upon greeting new peoples– mostly, by just being disappointed in themselves to begin with.

But something more had frozen them all now. Whether or not anyone else knew what, Simon knew it exactly: the Vuur knew of them, had taken great pains to communicate an offer of peace and friendship as their first act.

And now the Solsians would be forced to reply with Anti-Humanism.

Back in Sol Again: Part 14

14.

Real Mature

“And neither side has attempted communication, correct?” The She-Cat was asking.

She was the high-value cargo. Anyone that looked at her could see that. Although she wore the white-spandex common to Sol’s professional, evolved life, she’d covered it with a gown-like cloak that hung just above the floor and trailed the air wherever she went. Gold threads fastened it near the neck-line. Tassels and other fine filaments adorned its fringes and seams. She looked more like an Empress than an ambassador of the Solsian people.

For the sake of everyone, Niala bore the Ambassador with a stiff, upper lip to put even Lina’s to shame.

“Correct, Ambassador.”

“Good. Excellent,” she said, spinning amid the central control room. “There’s to be no communication from this station without my explicit orders or attendance. Both the Federation and the HAA have ordered that the ISC make no further attempts to explore this system. This order has been relayed to Captain Ingstrom and the proper system-base as well. Until I am up to speed, and better understand this new world, I must also insist your prisoners not know of my arrival.”

Niala bowed slightly, “As you wish, Ambassador.”

“Excellent,” she said with a regal spin, cloak twirling after her. “Now, bring me the Wolf.”

Niala squirmed, bowed again. “Yes, Ambassador.”

She hurried from the control room, passing Captain Melchondo and his crew. Simon and Lina watched Niala’s profile rush past the Galley. A certain stiffness to her usual-grace outright disturbed Lina. Then again, Niala also looked like someone was brooming her along, cartoon-style.

“She doesn’t look happy.”

Simon joked over a steaming, foil-packet of food. “Maybe someone just told her the zoo’s making a comeback.” Lina glared. He shrugged, “Can’t be helped. If she’s doing what I think, this won’t go well.”

“You don’t think–“

Their thoughts aligned. “I know. If the ambassador’s half aware as she should be, she’ll know he’s involved. There’s no way he’s getting out without some confrontation.”

Lina sipped her room-temp coffee, “Suppose he leaves before that.” Simon shook his head. Only Lina’s eyes were visible behind her mug. “And why not?”

He choked down whatever some sadistic bastard had labeled “mashed potatoes,” and explained, “I know Snow well enough. If he truly believes some kind of conspiracy’s going on in his ranks, he’ll stay here until the Anti-Humanist threat’s removed.”

She was catching on more quickly now. “You mean to learn more when they attack again…”

Something about the word “attack” slipped from her with such casualness it forced a pause.

Simon grimaced, again knowing her thoughts. “It’s frightening, I know, but we know they’re coming. And we know they’re largely incompetent–“

“We do?” She said, brows rising.

“History dictates as much.” Lina’s still-erect brows begged further explanation. “Anti-Humanists have never been more than a ragged band of criminals masquerading as revolutionaries. Simple fact is, short of some divine intervention like the Zelphod, they’ve neither the political nor material clout to actually do anything more than we’ve already seen.”

“That’s specious,” Lina argued in the most proper, English tone. “And dangerous. Underestimating an enemy can never end well.”

“They only think they’re enemies,” he asserted. “Truth is, they’re being used. Accurate grievances or not, by degrees or wholly, their beliefs are simply a convenient point of leverage; the proverbial strings tied to their backs.”

“That’s rather insightful,” she said, thinking on it. He nodded, in part to shift the awful taste of food from his tongue to his cheek, though the gesture was nonetheless genuine. Lina sighed, “So, whether or not they’re right, their tendency toward militant extremism makes them, what? Like confused children?”

“More or less.”

“Foolish.”

“Incompetent,” Simon corrected. He shuddered at an especially grainy aftertaste. “A Solsian epidemic.”

“Perhaps our new friends will lack that charming trait.”

Simon grimaced, “We can only hope.”

Simon’s hope, of course, was another short-sighted aspect of his species. It was not truly his fault. For, as has been said, making an ass of one’s self appears a Universal epidemic. It was however, nonetheless short-sighted.

Ah, well; C’est la vie. Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana. So it goes.

Down the hall, “c’est la vie,” would’ve only further angered to an already furious Wolf.

Niala stood at the far-side of the open airlock that separated the cabin and cargo sections of Snow’s shuttle. She’d entered the airlock easily enough, pressurized to the station as it was. Where she stood now, and her hesitation therein, was more or less for courtesy’s sake.

Snow slumped in his pilot’s chair, his Kingly-ardor damped. Why, Niala wasn’t sure, but she sensed it wasn’t good. Niala had never wanted to humiliate Snow as she’d done. On the contrary, she needed him in power on Ganymede. She needed his reputation to remain. For herself and for the millions affected if it faltered. If Snow’s power-base fractured, it meant civil-war on Ganymede. Possibly through-out Sol. Especially now, they couldn’t happen.

Unfortunately, forced to choose between the mission and his pride, the mission came first. Perhaps she’d overreacted. She certainly knew of better ways to handle things, but none so succinct. First and foremost, she’d needed to know why he was there; to help or hinder her.

For now, his power-base was unaware of that confrontation. Questions would arise when the Anti-Humanist prisoners eventually reached their destination. Those questions would reveal the truth. Between interrogations, informants, and outright prison gossip, further questions would tap Snow’s true intentions, his strength. That was bad. His obvious dejection was bad. The particulars of his dejection were moot. What mattered was, for as lawless and anarchic as Ganymede claimed to be, Snow ran it. That could change easily if he weren’t careful now.

One, well-placed rumor could add to another, atop an already-growing pile from his frequent absences, forming a king-killer. It was obvious some subset of his power-base hoped to stir trouble, were asking questions that could lead exactly where all of Sol didn’t want.

“If you hovered anymore I’d tell the bot to switch bodies with you,” Snow grumbled.

“Rearden’s indisposed. Thought I’d fill in.”

“Shame.”

“Snow.”

“Come in, Niala,” he said unceremoniously. “Sit down. Lingering helps no-one.”

She blew a sigh and sank into the co-pilot’s seat. They were silent long enough for Niala to mirror the Wolf’s stare. The blackness of space was pin-pointed by lights, as if someone had hung a black cloth over a universe of a light, then poked holes to tease of its existence.

“Ganymede will survive, whatever you choose.”

“That’s no solace, Domess,” he said, his insult’s sting even less than usual. “They leverage my own intelligence against mob mentality. I have my issues with Sol. With its politics.”

“This much I know,” she reminded.

Everyone knows it. My people. Your people. Their people.”

He sighed again, almost shrinking into a singularity in his seat. His face wrinkled with the snow-gray that lent him his name, but bled into something deeper, whiter. Niala was suddenly aware of how old they’d become.

No-one was quite certain the average age of Evolved species. Too many unknowns made for too much uncertainty presently. First-gen Contact survivors had been forced through their evolution cycle mid-life, cutting their lifespan to fractions. The very stress of undergoing such radical mutation made it a wonder they’d survived at all. It undoubtedly affected them more than anyone realized.

Since then, near-constant fighting had dominated Solsian life. Whether for the HAA, the Federation, or planetary gangs, unnatural deaths abounded. Any estimates for life expectancy were too skewed for certainty. Given the two were second-generation Evolved– or rather, first born Evolved, neither Niala nor Snow had any idea how long they might live. That uncertainty made it impossible to plan anything too long-term.

For a King, or someone masquerading as one (however virtuously,) it required drawing on the only known historical examples of such. Given Snow was a Wolf, largely detested Humans, he wasn’t willing to emulate their historical monarchs. That reality left him entirely in the dark.

He reiterated for effect. “Everyone knows my politics. And yet, they exploit them erroneously. They seek to use group-idiocy against the intelligence of my position: I do not care for Humans. I do not care for most things. I live, and rule, by a rigid code of honor. That code also dictates I refuse to waste time and lives waging foolish wars over meaningless viewpoints.

“Yet I must respond somehow. In spite of their idiocy. In spite of my wizened position– that I’m not stupid enough to believe Solsian Civil-war is a plausible answer. In spite of it all, I must meet them head-on. But how? Their tactics are as guaranteed to succeed as I am to fail at making them understand my position. How am I combat that without stooping to their level? Without compromising my honor? My integrity?”

A long, thoughtful silence passed.

Niala did her best to reassure him, “Simply? Do not. Combat them with the methods of a King– their King: Rationality, reminders that their world thrives as a result of his efforts. With reminders, above all, that many enemies threaten he and his subjects, some in ways indirect and insidious.”

He thought long on it in silence, then he gave her a lone look. “I was not going to say it, but … it is good to see you again, Niala.”

She managed a small smile, “Always a pleasure to entertain the King.” He barked a sudden laugh. Her face reset into stiff reality, “Unfortunately, matters of state require our attendance.”

“To hell with that shit-boxer.”

“You wanna’ keep your Merc contracts with the Feds, you need to speak to her,” Niala quipped back. One of Snow’s eyes narrowed on her. “There’re how many systems in the galaxy? Why else would you have been here?” His face hardened. She reassured him. Again. “My silence is assured. Hers is not.”

He rose, grumbling, “Flea-bag shit-boxer.”

Niala followed him with the cartoonish, brooming stiffness. Snow’s profile preceded hers past the Galley in a whisk of movement. Lina and Simon exchanged a tense glance over fresh, steaming coffee, hesitated, then scrambled to spectate. The feeling was mutual; “I have to see this.”

“Alpha-Wolf Snow,” the Ambassador said, empirically.

“Ambassador Mataan,” Snow said, oozing a generous lather of repugnance.

“I’d have thought you’d fled the moment taking responsibility for your actions was required,” Mataan said with equal distaste.

He growled, “And I’d have thought the universe would collapse attempting to bow appropriately to your whims, but here we are.”

“Ambassador,” Niala began gently. “Snow,” she said caustically. “Please, we’ve matters to attend.”

“You have my report,” Snow said to Mataan, ignoring Niala. “Either take me at my word, or don’t. I don’t care.”

“And how’m I to know it’s accurate?” She asked, knowing her implication.

He bared his teeth, “Because I wrote it.”

Mataan was too pleased to have affected him. “Yet your intentions may be questionable.”

Snow looked ready to explode. Niala was almost certain she’d have to repeat their earlier spat. Instead, he stiffened as she had and his voice smoothed out, “As are yours, Madame Ambassador. I wonder how the Alliance would feel if they learned your youngest daughter was currently on holiday on Ganymede, meeting with anti-Humanist sympathizers. Or if they learned of her sister’s… schoolgirl indiscretions.”

Mataan’s face hardened. Her eyes became icy knives, ready to cut Snow’s throat, but knowing they couldn’t.

“I would suggest, Ambassador, not to shit where you eat and instead use the box.”

He swiveled with the smuggest of grins, catching Niala’s glare as he left. At a word, the room emptied, leaving the Ambassador to herself. Niala left, seeing Snow far ahead. Lina and Simon stared, open-mouthed, at what he’d gotten away with.

Niala muttered under her breath as she passed, “Real mature, Snow.”

 

Short Story: These Damn Games

Keith Munson was dreaming. He knew it. The only other explanation was… There wasn’t one. None. Any were too fantastic, too impossible to be real. He’d fallen asleep at his computer again, that was it. Head on the keyboard, drool at the corner of his mouth. The sounds of chaos caused by random key presses interfered with his sleep, guided his dreams. That had to be it. All he had to do was wake up. Close his eyes. Open them. Be awake.

He closed his eyes, opened them…

And was still staring through the cock-pit of a single-seat fighter. Beyond the glowing, holo-HUD and the transparent view-port was the most immense blackness he’d ever seen; space. Space was a never-ending black fabric; eternally unrolling around him. He was alone amid it, joined only by pinpricks letting through some other, more ethereal universe’s light.

But it couldn’t be real. There was no way. He was a small-town kid from a flyover state. He lived and worked on O’Doyle’s farm, shoveling horse and cow shit or hefting bales of hay. In winter, he plowed rural roads for odd cash, tided himself over on money squirreled away from warm months. He lived in one of O’Doyle’s retrofitted pole-barns; a loft apartment roughly the size of a usual master bedroom. The only difference was an attached bathroom and a few, simplified essentials like a gas stove and small fridge-freezer combo. Often enough, they were stocked with overflow produce from O’Doyle’s across the farm.

The only other things Keith owned were a computer, some clothes, and a bed.

The computer was hooked to a fiber-line net-connection he and O’Doyle had installed at great expense and effort. It connected them to a nearby city’s telecom infrastructure, granting net-access at the highest possible speeds. Combined with his gaming rig, Keith was his own sort of rocketeer each time he sat down.

None of that explained this though. People had barely breached space. There were still problems with the real rocketeers. They hadn’t figured out the math or tech on the fighters he knew as sci-fi. More importantly, this fighter was his. It was the same fighter he logged into every time he booted Galactic Conquest. How he was in it,he didn’t know. He didn’t want to know. He just wanted it to end.

He stared vacantly; nothing around him. Not immediately, anyhow. His first instinct was to run, flee. Then, he remembered where he was; where he’d been. The crushing reality of a warzone and possible death terrified him into a caution that replaced his outright disbelief.

He had to know where to go. Somewhere safe. Somewhere no-one could harm him. A medical ship! Neutral ground.

But the nearest one was light hours away. Would take days unless he engaged his jump drive. His jump drive could be easily tracked though, identify him as a hostile invader. A jump drive could be easily destroyed until it leapt away.

But he had no choice. Jump, or sub-light assurances of capture or death… or drifting forever, until his O2 ran out with his life– and his ship became a tomb for some scavver to pick clean. He couldn’t let that happen. He’d do what he could to get to safety, then figure the rest out.

He gripped the controls, recalled watching his avatar do it. There was significantly less confidence in the act. Still, the sticks felt right in his hands.His left-hand throttled up. G-forces slammed him back before his inertial dampeners kicked in andgravity released him. The stars moved now, slowly but with a definite certainty.

His right hand pitched, rolled. Artificial gravity kept him in place, left him feeling small but powerful. He throttled up, felt the blast of Gs, the release of compensating dampeners. The stars were coming faster now, cantering at him with a ready, dead stare.Keith breathed deep, mimed the button presses used to engage the jump drive. The growl of the drive core rippled through the ship.

Screams pierced his eardrums. His whole body trembled. Adrenaline flooded his veins. The three-hundred sixty degree sensors HUD lit up before him. Six targets had dropped from jump-speeds and were closing.

Keith choked for breath, mind fumbling for action. His left hand drove the throttle up fully on instinct. The G-forces were tenfold before the dampeners compensated again. The only thing that kept his insides from exploding in the split-second before compensation was the ultra-advanced G-suit. It could protect him from just about everything but explosions and the vacuum of space; two things greatly concerning at the moment.

Translating from keyboard keys to throttle and stick was less difficult each second, but Keith needed time. Time he didn’t have. The piercing alerts meant charged weapons. His hand instinctively flicked a button, shut off the alert.

The first impact came; a glancing blow. He barely felt it. Nonetheless, the transparent field of blue appeared over his cock-pit, dissipating absorbed energy. It was good; energy weapons were manageable so long as they didn’t hit too hard all at once. Missiles and Rail-guns were a different story altogether.

Another hit; stronger, direct. The shield lit up. The ship choked from the power required. A few switches diverted all power from weapons into shields and engines. The jump-drive rattled his teeth, spurned forward by the increase.

A third hit. Direct, not as jarring. Either he was getting used to it or the shield had strengthened. It wouldn’t last. He had only one chance to escape. With a breath, and an instinctive set of movements, Keith hit the afterburner for a boost. He spiraled up, back, toward the onslaught of ships. Instinct and tactics would force the pilots to break formation, split apart for fear of weapons fire.

They did just that, splitting down the middle. Three broke left, three right. Keith blasted through their former center. The jump-drive charged. His left hand thumbed “engage.” The ship blasted into FTL, disappeared from known space.

In a blink, he emerged outside the medical ship, throttled down to cruise, and engaged the automated docking procedures. His heart raced, body sweat beneath the G-suit. Whatever the hell had brought him here, the fight was too real. Then again, it was just real enough. Realer than any game could be. He wasn’t sure how to get home, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know just yet.

O’Doyle himself stood before Keith’s computer, hand at his chin. Beside him, the local Sheriff took down everything he’d said. Everyone knew everyone in O’Doyle’s area. Everyone knew him, knew Keith, knew of their friendship, work, and living arrangements. Nonetheless, O’Doyle couldn’t help but fear for suspicion to turn on him.

The Sheriff patted his shoulder, “Don’t let it get to you, O-D. From what I hear, there’s been six or so cases like this. Kids just disappearing. All that’s left’s a running video-game. There’s no evidence of foul play. No notes of running away. One girl even had a cup of tea next to an open tea-packet– hadn’t even put it in to steep yet. It’s these damn games, O-D, they do weird shit. We’ll figure it out eventually, get Keith back home.”

O’Doyle sighed with a deep sadness, “I hope so.”

The Sheriff led him out, hand on his shoulder.

Somewhere no one was certain existed, Keith stepped down from his ship and into a universe entirely new, yet undeniably familiar. He’d make the most of it… for now.

Back in Sol Again: Part 13

13.

Answers

Niala and Snow led Fera, shackled, from the storage room. Well-armed but regarded with both amusement and pity by her charges, Lina guarded the remaining prisoners. She found herself indifferent, largely due to the empowerment of her big, new gun. Meanwhile, Simon returned to control to monitor for the diplomatic communique and attempt minor repairs on some of Rearden’s circuit boards.

Niala kept Fera at arm’s-length between her and Snow. The trio single-file shuffled to the Galley, whose name made the pantry-closet of a room sound much larger and more important than it was. They sat Fera on one side of the jam-packed table, the edges literally touching the cabinets beside it, and placed food and water before her.

The She-Wolf snarked blithely, “A bribe? Gonna’ have to do better than that.”

Snow snarled. Niala remained neutral. “We’ve been instructed to do two things; treat you as a common, domestic terrorist– meaning you’re to be fed and treated with the same rights as any Solsian criminal.”

Fera’s brow cocked up, “And?”

“And, to get as much information from you as possible.”

Fera’s eyes skimmed theirs over a laugh, “You’re telling me this, why?”

“To offer you a simple choice,” Niala said, seating herself on the far-side of the table with an unfathomable grace. “You tell me what I want, when I want, and you eat, bathe, and sleep like any normal prisoner.

Or. Have every bone in your body broken, one-by-one, until I get what I want.”

Fera snorted incredulously, “You can’t. You wouldn’t. HAA regs. You can’t countermand a prisoner order without suffering a treasonous fate.”

Niala’s eyes narrowed, “You saw my strength. And yes, the ISC and HAA could punish me… but not Snow.”

He leaned forward, “And you bet your furry ass I’m willing to take you down a peg.”

Fera’s neck stiffened. She stared down her plate of food as if communing mentally with it.

Niala rose from her seat, “I’ll leave you to think on it.” She nodded to Snow. He nodded back. She hesitated at the door, “Better eat up. Don’t want it to get cold.”

Snow’s eyes flicked from Niala as she left, settled on Fera as she ate. He sized her up; the prisoners could say what they wanted of Niala’s confrontation, end of the day, he wasn’t shackled to chairs or wall-struts.

Fera snarled up at him, “So you’re Ganymede’s resident traitor.”

The corner of his eye pinched with sardonic distaste. “My reputation precedes me. But who do I betray? And for that matter, to whom?”

She snapped, “Same as every domess. Claiming peace to sell us all out.”

“I claim nothing. To you, least of all.”

Fera was silent. She ate, reluctantly. It was a full minute before she spoke again, a half-meal heavier. “The great warlord, Snow, errand boy for the Human-Animal Alliance. How would the separatists on Ganymede feel if they learned of your presence here?”

He leaned in, indifferent, “Ask them.”

She sensed his meaning: she wasn’t free to, wouldn’t be for a long time, if ever. She went back to eating, slower now. Every bite became as much a stall tactic as a feeble attempt to fill the void of her silence. It began to overwhelm her. Snow sensed it; the air around her was more desperate, more anxious. Were she not the glorious Wolf, Evolved and lethal in every capacity, she’d have looked more like her lame-brained cousin, the Chihuahua; small, bouncy, impotently aggressive. A far cry from her true nature.

He remarked as much, adding, “Whatever lies you tell yourself, you know the truth: I am not the traitor.” She spit air through her teeth, seething. He ignored it. “You claim I betray yet you ally yourself with creatures whose notions of honor and kinship are a fallacy to be used against them.”

“What would you know of honor!?” She growled.

He straightened, stiffened with a firm bellow, “I know many things you delude yourself into believing.” She sneered. “You are a Wolf. A genetic apex predator. A creature whose lineage dictates her allegiance be only to her pack– her people. But rather than follow her kind, she chooses to be a scared, confused pup.”

“I–“

“A Pup!” He barked. “Following a feline into battle– a cat.” Her fury began to bubble. He pressed her. “A cat! The most two-faced creatures short of the MeLons.” The slightest tremble outlined itself along her features. Snow’s eyes narrowed. “A Wolf! Following one. Into a battle it created, then fled from leaving her to suffer for his actions.”

She exploded, all but jumping from her chair. “We were all following orders. Shafer included. He did as he was told. As did I.” His brow rose. “What of you? Consolidating more domesticated power for the HAA?”

Snow threw a paw sideways, howled, “Where’s your honor!? Fighting a losing battle against your own people. You should be leading a planetary fleet. A General on a front-line. Instead, you’re down in shit-holes with Cats and Hogs too stupid to see their conquest is futile. That their battles are the last desperate gasps of their own ignorance.”

Her body flexed against her shackles, “What would you know of front-lines? Sitting high on your Ganymede throne, pissing on those below you. Killing those that disagree. Slitting throats of so-called peaceful, political opponents.”

He snapped back. “Retaining order is a consequence of power.”

“Order!? Is that what you believe it is?”

“And what do you believe, Fera Sattler? Do you believe Anti-Humanists will one day rule the galaxy peacefully? That the Zelphod will lead them there; rescue you from the HAA prison? Do you believe anyone in this universe gives one, infinitesimal whisker-twitch of a shit about you!?”

She exploded again, this time, pulling so hard at her shackles, even Snow worried for a moment– more that he’d have to clean and bandage wounds than anything.

“The Zelphod failed. We will not. The way forward is Solsian. We will soon make it known. We’ll put Humans and sympathizers in their place. When we do, the galaxy will know us. We will write history this time.

“Enough.” Niala cut-in from the door. “I’ve got everything I need.”

A resounding silence descended. The last of Fera’s re-spouted extremist rhetoric became like so much other propaganda through-out history; merely a ringing silence beyond lies. Nonetheless, she undeniably realized she’d given away something crucial. Judging by the growing satisfaction in Snow’s face, possibly everything, even if she still wasn’t sure how.

Snow grinned through her at Niala, “You’re certain?”

Niala sauntered in, “Positive. She’s passed knowledge, is regurgitating dribble now.”

Snow gave a slight nod; their coup as near-to perfectly executed as either could’ve hoped. Fera’s face might as well have been removed. She’d not only had the wind knocked from her sails, but her entire ship off-keeled and flooded. Her dullard look held as much animosity as shame and confusion. That is, it held nothing and everything at once. Fera was amid a complete-systems reboot.

“Let her finish eating then return her to storage,” Niala said, with a grateful nod. “And well done, Snow.”

“Thank you, Domess,” he said with a satisfied sarcasm. Niala left, in earnest this time.

A quarter-hour later, Niala and Snow stood with Simon and Lina in the control room. A wide-angle of the storage room glowed on the main screen so that each prisoner was visible. The present parties kept one eye glued on the screen for trouble– though none would come, even after Saffron awoke. Stubborn as they all were, at least the Anti-Humanists knew when they’d been beaten.

“What did you learn, precisely?” Simon asked, too tired from working on Rearden to pick out the information from the melange.

Niala began, “As suspected, Shafer was just leading the strike-force, was under orders to flee rather than allow capture.”

“For fear they might give something up,” Snow guessed aloud.

Niala nodded, “And given the Zelphod comments, we can assume if they’re involved, its much more secretly than anyone’s given them credit for.”

Lina’s eyes narrowed, “You mean, if they are, the anti-Humanists aren’t aware of it.”

“Not at this level, anyhow.”

Simon sighed, glancing sideways at the screen, “So they’re all just foot-soldiers?”

“More or less,” Niala confirmed.

Snow crossed his arms, “They were recruited for various reasons. But given their resentment, many are likely to have lost family to Human-allied groups. Or otherwise, to have been ostracized from groups as a result of Human dominance. Fera especially, fits the former.”

Niala agreed, “Shafer and Saffron fit the latter; both are recidivist Felons that come from poverty in human-run colonies.”

Lina allowed a hint of sadness to her tone, “Is it really so bad for the Evolved?”

“Not as much anymore,” Niala reassured her. “So long as Solsian society allows for it though, there’ll always be poverty. It was worse for us, the first generation of Evolved, when we were coming of age. Contact had only just ended when we were born. The Zelphod were still retreating. Sol was still in transition from colonization and the Apollo programs. There was great disparity. Even greater uncertainty.”

Snow remained light, however hard of a left turn he took. “But things have improved. No matter how many fish-brained morons forget that.”

Simon put up a hand. “We know they’re working for someone and why. What else?”

“It’s an organization operating outside the HAA’s sphere of influence.”

“Uh-huh,” Simon followed. Lina put a fist to her chin in thought.

“With Solsian political connections.”

“Hence the breach at the embassy,” Snow reminded.

Niala added, “And we also know a second attack is imminent.”

“We figured as much,” Snow said. “But knowing can focus us.”

Lina shook her head, mind clearly elsewhere. She eyed Snow, “How certain are you of your power-base on Ganymede?”

His eyes narrowed, “My authority is absolute.”

All eyes were suddenly on Lina. “How much do you trust the people you’ve left in charge?”

“Where’re you going with this?” Simon asked.

Lina’s eyes swept the others’ settled on Snow. “If I were looking to establish a power-base to oppose the HAA or the Federation, I’d look for a lawless– or mostly lawless– place to lay down roots. Then, I’d make sure its economy could remain independent of any leadership I sought to oppose.

“In short, I’d look for Ganymede.”

Snow’s eyes hardened. He said nothing, but about-faced and marched out. A moment later the distant sound of an airlock pressurizing to the station forced them to eye one another. The Wolf’s fury was obvious even from the distance.

The silence he’d left behind suddenly shattered with the chime of a console. Niala eyed it, then braced herself against there with one paw, keyed it with the other.

“Go on. I’ll handle this.” The pair departed and a Rat’s graying face appeared on the main screen, shoving the view of the prisoners aside. “Go ahead.”

“Matriarch Martin, I presume,” The Rat said with a stiff, military bearing. Niala gave a slight nod. “This is Captain Melchondo of Firestorm-class Cruiser Sentinel, informing you we’re within range of your station and plan to dock upon arrival. ETA Two hours.”

“Can you state your intent, Captain?”

“Only vaguely,” He said, hinting his fear of eavesdroppers. “I carry highly-sensitive cargo.”

Niala stiffened slightly. Given the circumstances, it meant only one thing; an HAA diplomat and a security team. She cleared her throat, “Very well, Captain. I will see to it accommodations are made. Crew size?”

“Six. Plus cargo.”

“We’ll prepare for your arrival. Light-speed to you, Captain.”

He gave a minor nod and disappeared. The prisoners retook their place. Niala stared at them, exhausted by the prospect of yet-more complications. She rubbed her eyes with her paws, drew a deep breath…

And blew a frustrated raspberry, flipping off the screenful prisoners.