Back in Sol Again

1.

Live and Learn… Or Not

She was cute. And English. And Suns, she looked good from this angle. She had the sort of accent that drew the mind to foggy English plains where only perfect mornings occurred. Never-mind that England was mostly rain and “meh.” Simon Corben couldn’t believe it, not in her presence. He’d seen his share of pretty women, even dated a few, but none were like Lina Beaumont; Doctor of Applied Physics for the Interspecies Scientific Collaboration.

Lina sat to Simon’s right, angled ever so slightly toward him, but conversing across a square table with Doctor/Matriarch-Lioness Niala Martin.

For anyone unfamiliar with Simon’s hemisphere of the universe, and its uniquely astonishing history, a Human conversing with a bipedal, talking Lioness was outlandish and impossible to boot. That is of course, only if one came from a hemisphere of time-space where these two species remained separated by an intelligence gap. For anyone else, they were merely another trio of queer creatures in an exceedingly vast and queer universe– one only getting larger and queerer with time.

For Simon’s people, the bridging of the intelligence gap came decades ago, during first contact with an alien species. And like most Human attempts at communication, especially first attempts, first contact with the Zelphod failed.

Utterly.

And catastrophically.

Like, you don’t even know, man.

All out war between Humans and Zelphod broke out. Battles on the fringes of Earth-space, aka the Sol system, were “not good” on a whole new scale. Then the Zelphod did a thing no-one expected, nor realized the consequences of until Sol’s little hemisphere was already, irreversibly in total chaos.

The Zelphod felt the war was looking to end before it got climactic. They didn’t like that. Nobody likes it when wars do that. Human history teaches us that much, if little else. Especially when the aggressors have those feelings. And started the war. And are the ones trying to win it.

So, the Zelphod did something to Humans reserved for only the most inhuman of themselves to do to each other. Most often, by a specific sect called politicians or dictators. That horrible thing, done unto Sol, was chemical, biological warfare, and came with an unexpected consequence: it was absolutely and inarguably the best thing anyone could have done to Sol and its inhabitants.

But to fully understand why this inhuman thing was the greatest blunder in the history of known blunders, dating back to the widely known Big Bang, you must understand the state of Sol at the time.

The bug-like Zelphod had traveled an unknown number of light-years and astronautical units to reach us. Their species, now living exclusively on specialized generational ships, had wandered the Milky Way for untold eons. That time was filled with so much inner-turmoil that their history was almost entirely lost. Like so many fools, that made them believe they were smart. Smart enough, in fact, to take on a species perpetually at war with itself.

Well, live and learn.

Or not. Whatever.

What the Zelphod learned the hard way, and Sol learned to laugh off, was the extreme efficiency with they could kill off themselves and others species. Or at least, bring them all near enough that nature finished ‘em more incidentally than intentionally. Though good at few things, Solsians, slicing and dicing is one. Which is not to say they’ve ever been limited to that form of murder alone. Indeed, they’d become masters of the arts of not just killing, but killing differently.

Connoisseurs they are, really.

Earth’s dominant species, homosapiens— of which both Doctors Beaumont and Corben could be said to have descended from, if not were guilty of being– were really Sol’s mass-murdering overseers. As evil as they sound, and at times were, Humans weren’t entirely to blame. Nature had done that too. Murdering other species en-masse, be they plant, animal, or otherwise, was just a side-effect of Human existence and intelligence. The latter of which was said to be their strongest suit. Regardless, there was no denying its effectiveness as an evolutionary survival strategy… for them at least.

Whether wholly responsible, or a product of nature’s sadism, Humans were exceptionally good at killing.

Everyone.

Themselves too.

But the Zelphod entered Sol without knowing that. Thus, they opened the door to an entire solar system doing its best to kill everyone and everything in it, itself included.

Mostly in those days, it was just Humans killing or being killed; though the animals that would one day gain full sentience were killing each other just fine too. Mostly for food. Humans enjoyed the sport of it. Coincidentally, Humans love sports in general.

Earth itself was killing people too; people, animals, itself. The asteroid belts were killing probes. The few, established extra-Earth outposts were killing their new host planets and moons, and of course, those host planets and moons were evening the score whenever they could.

Needless to say, the rather inexperienced Zelphod, (whom hadn’t had anyone else to kill in eons anyway) opened a door they immediately wanted to close.

And couldn’t.

A saying states that time makes fools of all peoples. Or something to that affect. The Zelphod prove its truth. Theoretically, they had more time than anyone in Sol to prepare for anything. Even eons later they weren’t prepared for the Solsians making soggy corpses of everything in sight. Solsians; apex of murder-death in the near galaxy. Had they not already slipped Earth’s surly bonds, perhaps the Zelphod would’ve stood a chance. But they had. And the Zelphod didn’t.

Well, live and learn…. Or not. Whatever.

In the roundabout way of things, the Zelphod were suddenly forced to do something, lest they too become victims of the masters of murder-death. Having managed to retain some intelligence before entirely ensuring it never mattered again, they scanned Sol, its planets, and its various species. From the vacuum around it, to the smallest microbe on the flea’s proverbial tits, the Zelphod scan of Sol and its components led to a scheme:

A scheme that backfired so grandly, only a few decades later a pair of Humans found themselves sitting with a Lioness, discussing nothing in particular. Not that they couldn’t discuss anything they wanted, they simply cared not to. Such was the way of Solsian intelligence that their propensity for depth made them prefer not to use it.

Atop the pile of their people’s still-soggy corpses, the Zelphod decided to unleash a biological weapon on Sol. Specifically, on Earth, home-world to Solsian life. The next years of utter chaos damned near turned the tides of the war. For a time, the Zelphod thought themselves the eventual victors.

That lasted.

Latent genes in untold numbers of Earth-species, from big cats to wolves, from birds to rats, and from just about everything in, around, and between, to everything else, were activated. These genes, unleashed via biologically engineered contaminants, forced rapid mutations. Godzilla occurred across a massive spectrum and in months, save the gigantism– though some cities were destroyed.

That was the plan, the scheme. Chaos. Madness. Low morale. Zero war-effort. A plan fulfilled…

For all of five, solar minutes.

The chaos passed with Humans quickly convincing the newly “evolved” that their system was in danger too. The reason was simple– well actually, the reason was extremely complex. The result was simple; everybody turned to lunge at the Zelphod. The reason was that the same, latent gene for Humanoid growth, also carried the latent gene for sentience and awareness. Or at least, it carried something that carried that. In either event, it too, was activated.

That was never planned for.

The Zelphod victory turned to assured defeat after it dawned that they’d doubled the manpower against them. The Human-Animal Alliance was quickly created, known colloquially as the HAA, and formed a military force that took advantage of the various animals’ natural abilities. Murder-death capital Sol got specialized reinforcements to continue the murder-deathing in exciting, new ways.

For, despite being absolutely overwhelmed in nearly every fight, the Zelphod had one advantage against Sol’s people until then. Simply, numbers. The Zelphod, bug-like in all ways, were also bug-like in their reproduction. It took merely weeks to double a generational ship’s numbers, which might run somewhere in the hundreds of thousands. Thus, every available Solsian “soul” was quickly committed to the fight, including the newly evolved. The HAA soon became part of the animal wing of the Sol Federation military.

Sol’s majority, forced to put aside their prejudice, fought side-by-side with the “mutants”, “freaks,” “the zoo,” lest they were all overwhelmed by the man-eating ant-hill they’d fallen into. For once, Solsians stopped killing one another (mostly), to turn to killing a common foe. Through that unity, the soggy corpses were added to and the attrition kept from attritting long enough for the Solsians to overwhelm the Zelphod right back and kick them out of Sol.

Even as Simon stared, moonstruck, at the Human female from outside Sussex, the Zelphod were lingering outside Sol trying to establish some life for what was left of their wounded species. Part of the cease-fire had been a check on their population growth– which given the circumstances, was reasonably agreed to. In fact, agreeing to it might have been the smartest thing the Zelphod had ever done. Only time might yet tell how their fortunes fared or not.

And also, as Simon stared moonstruck at the Human female from outside Sussex, all of these facts swirled in the recesses of his learned mind. For, as intelligent as he was and as basic as this knowledge had become, he remained Human and it remained second to the present.

Presently Simon, like all infatuated creatures– for indeed both cause and effect appear pandemic to the known universe, if not always connected– was about to make a complete and utter ass of himself. How? By doing that most usual of all things; opening his mouth.

Admittedly, he did not compound the situation by speaking, and thus saved himself some hardship. But ultimately, he could not escape the fated string he’d sewn himself.

His mouth slacked, opened as if an occupied bathroom’s unlatched door on a draft. Then, driven by absent mindedness and the draft, it eased the rest of the way open until almost fully ajar. There it remained, its embarrassing contents in full-view long enough to be noticed by the Lioness.

And ridiculed without mercy.

Their long fondness for one another allowed Niala no qualms about revealing the utter ass for its assyness. Completely oblivious to reality, Simon only vaguely sensed the laughter that began rolling from Niala’s throat. It started like a purr, then fell into hissing snickers that stole Lina’s captivating voice from his ears.

“Wha–” Lina began.

She caught Niala’s gaze, hid her face. Simon stared, slack-jawed with infatuation. Lina did her best not to blush, but snickered. Simon caught on. He flushed, beet-red. Niala collapsed. Hissing snickers turned to full-on, roars of laughter. Simon snarled at Niala, having gained something of her people from her over the years.

It fell short.

So short Lina’s minor glimpse of it fractured her internal levee. As if flooding from a dam, she spit flecks of coffee at the air before her laughing mouth was half-covered.

“Oh hell! Fine. I’m going,” Simon said, launching himself upright.

His knees slammed the table he’d forgotten existed. His coffee hopped up, decided mid-air that gravity existed, and it was a cup, toppled over, and spilled its contents along his front.

Niala fell from her chair, betwixt laugh-roars and choking for air. She kicked at the air on her back, rolled onto her paws, choking and laugh-roaring. If she’d been a house-cat, Simon decided, she might’ve been regurgitating a hairball.

He stormed away, absolutely certain he would soon be murdering Niala, then himself. Self-murder was still termed suicide, of course, but Simon’s mind was too displaced to know that. Rather, it was somewhere near the mass of meat and fluids called “body,” scrambling for a towel, and reeling from the revelation of his feelings to their mark.

Simon survived long enough to mop up the spilt coffee, then busied himself with making a new cup for as long as Humanly possible. Simon’s reality said it still wasn’t long enough. Everyone else’s said it was much longer than necessary. Too long. He distracted himself while the laughter lulled to conversation and the conversation lulled to nothingness. Soon, Niala’s chair scraped the floor, signaling her departure. He continued on with his coffee, unaware of the half-container of sugar now dissolving in it.

Homer’s break room, such that it was, remained smaller than Simon’s pride hoped. Thus, avoiding the object of his affections was nigh impossible. Unfortunately for Simon, who’d only just begun traveling aboard Homer, his mind had yet to properly fit its proportions in his mind. As such, the tap on his shoulder came in the most innocuous way, but unavoidably so.

He swiveled ‘round to find Lina’s golden eyes gleaming softly at him. “If you’d like to have coffee with me, just ask. Okay?”

He winced, “I didn’t mean to–”

She grimaced, “Opening your mouth is inadvisable today.” He blushed. “I’ll see you later–” She stepped away, pausing with a smile, “Simon.”

Being addressed made him giddy. He watched her disappear out the door, raised his coffee to drink. A series of binary beeps stopped him. It accompanied low murmuring as Engineer Donnelly entered alongside Rearden; Simon’s faithful companion, assistant, and gourd-like robot extraordinaire. The little bot beeped its binary speech back and forth to Donnelly as he stepped beside Simon.

“What’re you smiling like an idiot for?” Donnelly asked.

Rearden beeped something sarcastic. Donnelly laughed.

“Smart-ass bot,” Simon grumbled.

“Aye, but you love ‘im.” Donnelly filled his cup and turned away. “C’mon Giddy Lee, we’ve got work.”

Donnelly was right. And anyway, he’d done the hard part. Making contact with Lina after the embarrassment was over. He thought about it, realizing it went even better than expected, and felt better. He was giddy.

He readied to follow Donnelly and Rearden, sighed to sequester Lina at the back of his brain, and took a swig off coffee.

And immediately spit it across the break room, ensuring one last soggy fact occupied his memory.

2.

Homer

Having recovered from his temporary madness and properly cleaned the multitude of messes he’d made, Simon finally returned Homer’s engineering compartment to work. It was only one section of the otherwise half-ship level, but arguably the most important. From here, the engines could be commanded and troubleshooted, repaired and maintained. From only a few, lone consoles, Simon or another engineer could diagnose and locate problems, shut down the engines, or even override their Bridge connections. That was the last thing in the galaxy Simon wanted to do, but it was possible.

Like so many other things aboard Homer, Simon knew the engines inside and out. Even if he hadn’t designed them, he would’ve committed their every schematic and component to memory. Partially, he was dedicated, but also partially, he was paranoid to occasional nervous breakdown. Not usually. It just happened sometimes.

Then again, nothing about Homer, its mission, or its design was usual. Simon might’ve relaxed more had he not designed so much of it. Given his propensity for making an ass of himself though, he preferred safety to regret. As a result, he kept Homer monitored, obsessively and thoroughly.

The ship itself was flawless though; the culmination of several years of work for all involved, and a century of Solsian rocketry R&D. More than that, Homer was the first Solsian ship to fly between solar systems without requiring generations of cryo-sleep or eons between departure and destination. Mostly, it did this via a new drive that folded space for interstellar jumps.

From there, its plasma sub-light engines engaged, and within hours or days, transferred it across the target systems. The jump drives, also know as Fold-Drives of F-Drives, were as much magic and voodoo to Simon as his sub-light plas-drives to laymen. Unlike most laymen however, he didn’t mind. As big as his brain proved to be at times, and as small as his mouth made it seem others, he didn’t care to understand the infinitely complex mathematics of multi-dimensional physics.

So far, that mentality had served him well. First, from his birth to doctoral work on Earth. Then, to his irreplaceable position as head of the ISC’s Plasma Propulsion lab. Now, to his place aboard Homer that represented the summation of the aforementioned.

Only a few years ago, Simon discovered how depraved the allure of Deep-Space colonization could make certain parties. Even as he sat before his main console, currently arranged for Human use, he recalled Josie’s gratified purr at being rescued. The rescue, and the foiling of the anti-Humanist forces involved, had afforded Simon a momentary fame. It had since faded to obscurity but not before giving him all the command he’d ever want or need over his career.

Simon didn’t mind the fading. He’d never been one for crowds or being ogled by them. All he cared about, really, was his work and his little hemisphere of the universe containing it.

Currently, that hemisphere was headed toward Proxima Centauri B on-rendezvous with an outpost deployed some months before. There, they would stop for a short time, activate the outpost, disgorge some scientist-passengers, then scan and map PCb’s surface. After their layover, they would continue onward toward Gliese 876 to scan its exoplanets, then activate another research outpost before continuing on.

Had it not been for the events initially affording Simon his fame, he might never have mustered the courage to go so far from Sol. Then again, he was never certain he would go until he’d boarded the ship and made their first jump, leaving Earth, Sol, and everything else he knew far behind. He still wasn’t certain he’d done it.

Though he’d never know or admit it himself, his decision to go was cemented on discovering Lina was attending. Niala’s decision to go put him on the fence, and though his best friend outside Rearden, even their attachment hadn’t been enough to drag him from the safety Phobos and the ISC.

But Lina’s decision coupled with Niala’s, and the minor hint of pride at his hand in the ship’s design, and eventually convinced him to go. Only after the F-Drive charged and deposited them outside Sol, did he realize he’d made the decision without being a party to it.

Yet, in spite of everything, he still found himself hopeful. He was headed for PCb, monitoring the sub-light engines, and reflecting on his idiocy in the break-room and its meaninglessness in the scheme of things.

Before delving too deep, Donnelly patted his shoulder, drawing his head to the side.

“Bit manic-depressive today?”

“Huh?”

He realized the apparent shift in his mood again and managed a chuckle. In truth he’d remained quite giddy. At some point in the near future, he and Lina would be alone together. He had no designs beyond that, but he wouldn’t lie about his hopes.

Donnelly heard the chuckle, “I’ll take t’mean yer a hundred percent.”

Before he could answer, an alert sounded on the console. Readouts from instrumentation and the code of ship’s systems scrolled past. Beside them, a bit of comm software flashed. Simon finagled the touch-screen and a fierce-looking lizard appeared.

Captain Ingstrom was one of the few Leaf-tailed Geckos left in the universe. He had granite-colored eyes with slit pupils that stared through someone as if they were insubstantial, mist-like. To Ingstrom, they might very well have been.

“Contact,” had accelerated the growth of the latent, Humanoid genes in species bearing them, not all reacted the same to the process– or even well. Some, like the Chameleons (MeLons), gained the ability to completely transform their appearance in an extension of their previous, appearance-changing abilities. Others gained more subtle advantages, some were left entirely unaffected. An unfortunate few though, like the Leaf-tails, had absolutely withered.

Contact had effected not only those benevolent, latent genes, in some species, but others best left alone as well. In response, some species became outright pariahs among the diverse, Solsian life due to various defects or adaptations. Others, and Ingstrom’s people, became irreversibly sterile.

The inability for Geckos to carry or bear offspring was the result of a poor, genetic mutation that might well have disappeared from their DNA given a few dozen more generations of natural selection. Contact came with the latent gene still present in nearly every Gecko subspecies and individual therein.

For a species not known to last much more than a decade or two, the Geckos’ numbers quickly dwindled. Even the fables of the odd, fertile individuals were almost entirely vanished now, lending credence that Ingstrom was one of the last of a sad, remaining few. Like him, it was assumed they’d given up hope of ever changing that.

All of these things meant Ingstrom was an unhappy creature. His species was dying off and he knew it, and he never let anyone else forget. So when his face appeared on-screen, it was only due to this sentiment beneath his bitterness that Simon didn’t lapse into manic-depression. Even Donnelly found it difficult to avoid. To both men’s credit, anyone would have.

“We’ve entered the Proxima Centauri system and are currently en-route to PCb. ETA is twenty minutes to Geosynchronous orbit and R-V with Orbital platform Alpha-One. Keep your asses glued to those chairs and your eyes on your readings. Inform me the second anything changes.”

Simon acknowledged with a reply, carefully containing what joy remained in him for fear Ingstrom might do his best to rip it out with the least effort possible. For the next while, he did as instructed remained focused. He kept his eyes glued to his readouts on the large touchscreen.

There, an electronic masterpiece was continually laid out by a master from the thousand sensors, cameras, mercury switches, and other minutiae ship-board. It worked in tandem, as one entity, producing the most ethereal scene the universe could: a star-system.

Proxima Centauri was magnificent. It was a system not unlike his, but entirely new, foreign. He knew of every bit and piece of Sol’s noises, its composition. Although he recognized the information fed to him from the panel, he didn’t know it. Not like he knew Sol.

But Neither did anyone else, and that was the important part. He was the first one seeing this system in such detail. The first one watching the stellar winds shift. The first one charting the dips and spikes of the cosmic rays, the planetary approaches and their micro-asteroids and surface refuse.

Somewhere inside of Simon there had always been a little boy staring at stars, thinking of Mars and Phobos, its rich history. Within that little boy, was the dream of something even bigger, more distant. Outside them both, now, it was here. There was no containing his giddiness.

When the ship finally docked at the outpost above PCb, it took all of Simon’s strength not to sprint to the airlock and into his space-suit. Somehow, he managed to stand, fidgeting, at a set of outer-airlock doors with Niala beside him.

The pair carefully fitted their tailored space-suits; the body-hugging cloth, like a neoprene wet-suit, was airtight and warm. Small, copper lines ran through it in scores and grids, a small pack stitched to the back that piped fluids through an electric heating and cooling unit.

The envirosuits were as useful for volcanology as for EVAs, with about as much research in them as the F-Drive. They were as near to perfect as Earth-descended creatures could attain, their only issue that they required tailoring. If one attempted to use another’s suit, it left them feeling too constricted, or as if floating, not the best idea in the cold vacuum of space.

The helmets were another story. Like the suits, they could be used for multiple purposes, and often were. However, they were interchangeable between members of the same species. Simon thought about this as he locked his bubble-faced helmet on and fitted his small O2 tank. They wouldn’t be needing much air now, he hoped. Then again, he’d never hoped to go to Ganymede, or foil an anti-Humanist conspiracy either, but that happened too.

He found himself standing in the airlock beside Niala. The gourd-shaped Rearden beside them. The bot was as much a friend as an automaton could be, but it was also insurance. The outposts had been deployed ahead of Homer and assembled by service bots. Those bots, many not dissimilar from Rearden, were now dormant and awaiting re-activation to sweeping and monitor the outpost. Among other things, Rearden could facilitate that.

The lights in the airlock flashed red and white over distant mechanics, then idled at red. The sealed, outpost doors parted to utter darkness. Rearden’s flexible optic-sensor flared with an LED to illuminate a second, unpowered airlock. Niala muscled a switch beside the doors and manually forced them apart, then space-walked in after the others and sealed them shut. The process was repeated on the inner-doors to grant access to the narrow passage beyond.

Slow, magnetic steps, carried them forward. Control was dead-ahead. Niala and Rearden could activate everything there, but first Simon needed activate the hydrogen power-plant in the station’s bowels. Only then could the other systems be activated.

Midway down the hall, the last of Simon’s excitement was replaced by fear of the eerily empty station. He veered left to a flight of stairs while the others continued forward, Rearden’s light silhouetting their progress. Simon took a deep breath, switched on his helmet and shoulder lamps, and started downward.

Flood-lit brilliance from his suit’s lighting all but erased the darkness, but could do nothing for the eeriness. He took the steps slowly. Several floors below, they let out in a small foyer before continuing downward. A few paces forward, another set of sealed doors waited to part down their middle. He reached them, hesitated.

Niala’s voice sounded in his ear, “At control. Awaiting your signal.”

“Give me a minute,” he said, trying to force the doors apart. He grunted and strained over the comm, as obviously trying to pry the doors manually as could be possible.

“Forget the keycard?” Niala snarked.

He found himself glad the Lioness wasn’t there to double over in laughter again. The urge to sever an oxy-line would’ve been too great.

He sighed, “Card. Right.”

A deliberate silence signaled a dead comm. He felt her laugh seven floors overhead and yanked the plastic chain from his waist to slot the card. The battery powered door-lock flickered, a light flashed, and the doors began to part.

More safe-guard then anything, the locks and hydrogen batteries were used on certain, vital areas to discourage outside tampering before station-activation. Simon still wasn’t sure who it was protecting the areas against, but given the hydrogen-plant’s destructive capabilities, and the control room’s general opportunities for mischief, it made sense to err on the cautious side.

The doors opened to a realm of darkness. His light just barely fell over and past giant, encapsulated generators, panels of old-fashioned lever-switches, and deactivated touch-screen consoles. Near the center of the room, he knew, a combination keycard-lever panel would ignite the plant.

He headed over in slow motion, surveying the bus-sized generators and water-vats, and the multiple-man-sized panels of levers and knobs. The vats’ verticality made him feel small, but he batted it away; the plant served a dual purpose and was required to be immense. By harnessing the hydrogen-plant’s H2O output, the station could create, reclaim, and purify water as well as generate power. Apart from food, the station was entirely self-sufficient.

Between two rows of vats were control consoles similar to those aboard Homer. At one edge, specifically, was the panel he sought. Simon put himself before it and radioed to standby. He slid the keycard through the slot, let the light change, then began the power up sequence:

A few gray switches were thrown. A vibration like someone in the distance driving a jackhammer into a steel sounded. A pair of yellow levers were thrown, gave way to a twisted knob that turned like a key. Industrial ignitions ground to life. The vibration was more jarring; a giant, jack-hammering nearby, with an equally giant jack-hammer. Instantly Simon was heavier, stuck in place by his mag-boots and now weighted by artificial gravity.

“Generators running,” Simon said.

“Beginning oxygen production now,” Niala radioed in response.

Moments later, Simon was standing in front of a newly-awakened console, watching the gravity and oxygen numbers rise to green. When it finally reached Earth-normal, Simon radioed Homer.

“Flight, this is EVA-1, we have atmo across the board. Welcome to Proxima Centauri, and outpost Uruk.”

“Roger that, EVA-1. Take some time to let your hair down. We’ll see you soon. Flight out.”

Simon couldn’t help but stand before the console to gawk at yet another electronic masterpiece. Like before, this was different, even more-so than aboard Homer. This was the masterpiece Solsians would be viewing for years to come.

Viewing, and remembering, as long as they existed, as their first foray into interstellar colonization.

3.

Dinner and a Show

The stressful nature of the preceding few weeks, both pre-flight and en-flight, assured some crew would require a few days of R-and-R before Homer continued on. Too much remained to be done aboard both the ship and the outpost to indulge too much, but luckily, a full twenty-four hours of rest was mandated for to keep crazy at-bay. That time was then doubled to ensure everyone let their hair down. In uncharted space, with a few thousand people working day or night, and hundreds more disgorged at each outpost, crazy needed to be at bay.

Thus, Ingstrom gave all but his skeleton crew their promised forty-eight hours. Everyone but Simon, Niala, and Lina. Others had pulled short straws too, but none knew the ship better, leaving them the only crew qualified to oversee the next, most hazardous twenty-four hours. The same twenty four hours before their own R&R was scheduled, and the same they would be forced to power through without sleep.

The ISC mused that the twenty-four hours following the docking, idle-cyle of the Homer’s sub-light engines was the time frame supposed by the ISC for anything to fail catastrophically, if ever. Their logic ran that anything not-yet catastrophic, but eventually catastrophic, would be caused by manufacturing or assembly defects encountered via the final, untested ship’s abilities. Such problems would be irreparable, even despite the extensive pool of repair parts and know-how.

In other words, what the ISC was deliberately not saying but meaning was; if Homer hadn’t blown up on launch, or during travel, it might still blow up in the next twenty four hours after docking, but if it didn’t blow up by then, it probably wouldn’t. At least, not of its own volition.

What that also meant was Simon’s hopes for Uruk station could be premature. Certainly, Ingstrom might’ve taken the ship to a safer distance, but he trusted his intuition that Homer was just fine. Everyone else trusted his intuition too, and there own where his fell short. Personally, Simon wasn’t sure he cared one way or the other, seeing as how the ship blowing up meant it taking him with.

In response, he took to paranoid anxiety and excessive coffee intake. Something in the back of his mind told him, after his eighth cup, not much of his insides would remain if he continued on his way.

He heard the concerns… he certainly didn’t heed them, but he heard them.

He silenced the voice with the childish challenge of chugging the last of that cup, then vibrated to the break room for another. By his return the voice, and his better sense, were silent. The act was, paradoxically, more an indirect self-preservation than challenge. With more hours than he wished to count left between he and real sleep, Simon pursued his caffeine intake on a kamikaze run.

Risking the only ship presently within a few dozen light-years capable of reaching them in an emergency wasn’t on his list of priorities. While he doubted the ship could suffer catastrophic failure– in other words, explode– from his slacking on the job, he wasn’t willing to allow even the remote possibility an opening. Before long, he found himself incapable of doing more than sipping coffee and staring intently at his console.

Fatigue wasn’t so much the issue. Suns knew Simon’d pulled enough all-nighters at both college and the ISC to function roughly as long as necessary without sleep. He was one of the few, lucky souls still capable of deriving energy from coffee and caffeine. (Unlike most other Solsians, whom were generally becoming immune to its effects.)

Rather, the issue was one he didn’t wish to admit. Given his place on the first, interstellar colonization voyage, billions of kilometers from Sol, even more from Phobos and “home,” it was understandable. His need for caffeine, coffee, anything to keep him awake, was even simpler than fatigue:

He was bored out of his mind!

The fact was, Homer was at its peak. The ship was brand new, resting and recharging from its first interstellar jump and extra-solar flight. Journeys it had made with the ease of a hot knife slicing butter. Everything was so nominally “green” Simon felt at ease concluding the ship was perfect.

The outpost was another matter. Like most things he had his hand in, he was confident in the ISC’s maintenance bots. Robotics was more a hobby for unwinding than a secondary occupation, but that only made him better with it. He’d overseen the various robotic units at the ISC for years now, a pass-time that had begun innocuously months after his minor fame was imparted and he’d found himself strung out, utterly overwhelmed by stress.

His fame had afforded him more lab-techs and interns, and thus more projects and responsibility– and, quite frankly, more people to screw things up. Things he was always forced to fix somehow. The stress caused a slight break down, so bad for a while that he’d have relished the idea of leaving Sol. He’d have signed on to the expedition in a heart-beat then, despite knowing he’d have regretted it later. So far the actual outcome of the expedition was beyond expectation, but in the interim he’d found peace in the mindless electronic tinkering and tedium robotics required. It had been his go-to ever since.

Presently, he was having a silent argument with himself. One side argued against things going as well as they seemed. The other argued he was an ungrateful twat for looking gift-horses in the mouth. Mostly he agreed with the second part, and mostly from wishful thinking.

Calling Rearden down from Niala’s post in comms was more an act of defiance against those two, argumentative brain-parts. Inner-monologues had a way of making him tired; like talk-radio with smooth-voiced DJs. Rubbing that vocal silk along his hyper-sensitive brain was akin to something primal, intimate, but the other side of sexual. It was comforting, as if a paternal voice read to him from a favored physics text-book to lull him to sleep.

By the time the argument passed fully, he’d torn himself from the throes of his ebbed attention span. Rearden appeared, its rounds done and its cells charged. Officially, Rearden had no station. It wasn’t even really under the ship’s manifest, however it took residence in Comms to act as go-between for techies Sol, Uruk, and ship-side. Rearden too, was both willing and able to come and go as it pleased. Between its general acceptance as crew-member, and the built-in comm-system Simon had given after the events on Ganymede, Rearden could do its job from anywhere.

To say the little bot enjoyed Simon’s company missed how extremely complex and sophisticated its programming was. It was sentient, in a way, but lacked the higher functions of AI that allowed them to run rampant. Rearden could learn, certainly. It could even react much like a normal, living being.

But in the end, Rearden wasn’t alive. It did not feel, though Simon was loath to say it had no feelings. Certainly Rearden had a self-preservation instinct. More than that, it was capable of reasoning and logic. Saying one hated the bot (so long as not in jest) would make it react as if fearful of that state. It would work to correct it. It was loyal, willing to go the extra mile to ensure the safety of its so-called friends, (though one would be hard-pressed to argue it, it technically had none) but wasn’t above trading jabs. It also, as a rule, had no problem harming other living creatures, though it wasn’t programmed to kill intentionally.

Simply, Turing’s eponymous test wasn’t applicable to Rearden. Thus, it couldn’t be said to live. Then again, Turing would be hard pressed to examine its history– life– and admit that it did not.

Rearden’s neural-mapped memory meant it was nearly indistinguishable from Solsians on a fundamental level. Rearden could think like a Solsian with all the same power of abstract thought, however rarely used. It also had Solsian definitions, memory included. Its memory, like its thought processing, was based on Solsian neuronal storage, effectively giving it the same memory limit and speed of every Human’s three-pound gray matter-glob. It remembered. It reminisced. It joked.

While not technically living, through a roundabout method of rationale it thought of itself as such. Everyone else did too, and most called it “friend,” or “Rearden.” Whether it could ever become more than it was, for instance a true AI, didn’t matter to it. Not because it was incapable of something resembling ambition, but rather, because it further separated it from the people it cared about. (If “cared” weren’t so grossly misleading.)

Rearden had proven, with its existence alone, that simple inclusion and friendship– daresay love– was the tool to temper the want of ridiculous power. Whether it truly understood that mattered less and less as it aged. It believed it did, if belief were accurate, and that was enough. That, and the ability to be a superhero sometimes…

Which it could sort of do. From time to time.

Those two things kept it from wanting too much change or power.

Rearden liked its place in things. Like all the varying species it met and occasionally befriended, it had certain advantages and disadvantages, certain uses and failings given context. But it had a place, a niche, and it knew it. It even found others nearby that enjoyed its presence. Even when forced to call on its abstract thought-processes, it could do so despite danger. And sometimes, it got to do cool things that made it seem more superhero than ten-pound, hovering gourd of wires, sensors, metals and plastics.

Simon liked Rearden’s place in things too. That was why he called it in to begin tinkering with its hover-jets and testing its internal connections. He ensured everything vital (and some things not) was up to snuff. Were it not for his robotic tinkering during his worst days, Simon might’ve lost his mind. Rearden especially had given him more than its weight in solace.

Commanding interns and techs and researchers was a wonderful thing when everything went smooth. The other ninety-nine percent of the time, it was chaos enough to bring even the most experienced anger management specialist to a boil– or to the end of a noose, depending on the day. Rearden was excellent at tempering that boil and helping to avoid the noose.

Once more Simon wiled away the hours tinkering with Rearden. They passed in a forgettable haze, until he was able to sleep. Having surpassed even his post-grad thesis coffee records (already miles beyond anything a normal Human could ever achieve) he managed to keep himself alert long enough to reach his bed, then collapse face first into it. He was out before Ingstrom sounded over the comm, never even felt the F-drive engage.

In a blink, Homer was gone, nearer Gliese 867 than before and only two days’ sub-light from arrival. Unlike most drives, the F-drive was sensitive to the immense gravity fields of nearby stars. As a result, every fold required targeting the extreme limit of a system’s gravity while ensuring it remained within reach of the ship’s sub-light speeds. Spending too much time between stops was as yet inadvisable, given the F-Drive put them more and more light years from Sol and its resources.

Eventually Gliese would prove to be more than anyone anticipated, but before then, Simon would have to live down one, last proof of his being an ass.

Unlike before, this one began with waking up. Also unlike before, nothing signaled the idiot’s coming save its deep, internal knowledge of being one. After the previous night, it wasn’t as conscious of that fact, and as such could be somewhat forgiven for what was to transpire… but only somewhat.

The hungover stupor that accompanied binges of most types greeted Simon on waking. The throbbing headache and dull-eyed fatigue followed him through his morning routine of showering, shaving, cutting himself shaving, and imbibing more coffee. Then, in anticipation of the date ahead, which he confirmed more than once through the day, he readied for his coffee and dinner with Lina.

The recent disgorge of ship’s passengers coupled with its immense capacity meant Simon could spend the better parts of his morning and afternoon transforming a recently-emptied cabin into a cafe-like compartment. He brought in various electric cookers, hot plates, coolers, and other appliances; replaced the generic art and dressings that lined the digital view-ports, (glorified televisions playing pretty pictures) and put up various, old-time picnic blankets. (He still didn’t know where Rearden had found them and wasn’t sure he wanted to.)

To doubly ensure nothing went wrong, Simon prepared a variety of foods, coffees, and other items to cover as many bases as he could. Then, after another shower, and a wait in which he expected he might need of another from worry-sweat, a knock sounded at the cabin-door.

He flattened his hair, did his best not to pant, then kept from sprinting or stumbling to the door. It opened on Lina, as beautiful as ever, standing before him in casual, hip-hugging denim and a long-sleeve shirt.

“Hey,” she said, half-waving one arm. The other clutched it.

“H-hey,” he said breathlessly, once more moon-struck.

“Can I–“

He managed to shake off his stupor, “Y-yeah. Sorry. Come in. Please.”

She stepped in, rubbernecking, “Wow. You did this?”

“For you.”

“It’s… lovely,” she said with a breathless smile. It lit the room, Simon with it. He led her to the various hotplates, burners, coffee, and coolers to reveal the buffet. She charmed him with her accent, “And this? All for me as well?”

He fell under her spell and nodded mindlessly. She smiled again, wider this time. Simon felt it infect him. Simon was certain he was dreaming as their eyes met and her face glowed. He thought it an angelic apparition, then recalled the overhead LEDs. They twinkled in her eye while he, less dully than he believed, stared back mesmerized.

A conversation took place without words as she gave a coy look away, as if to say no-one had ever done something so selfless nor romantic for her. He replied with a look that said he did it only for her, and could never for anyone else. Her look back sealed his doom.

No matter how ecstatic the next moments made him on later recollections; no matter how amused, or grateful, or even aroused; his doom was sealed.

She took his hand in hers, and in the way that such things happen, moved with slow-motion swiftness to kiss and embrace him. And he, being the fool that found himself in love, yet still a fool, kissed her back and once more prepared to reveal the fate-string sewn.

They kissed deeply and passionately. Long enough to stamp affection into one another’s minds. Lina pulled away. Simon was frozen; his dullard look in full fashion; mouth-open, as if trying to comprehend something baffling– or perhaps, from stroke’s wonderful hallucination. The foremost was clear as she moved forward in hopes of preserving all of his obvious effort. He returned to reality to follow her…

And could never be certain, no matter his subsequent recollections, if the coffee-hangover stupor was at fault, or the stupor of Lina’s wonderful, English kiss. The outcome remained immutable, for in a few deft movements, he swiftly destroyed everything save his hopes.

He stepped carefully over various cords strewn about before a moment like an eagle-eye nightmare crossed with a cartoon cat-mouse hunt: He tripped. A hot plate went with him. Its pot of spaghetti launched skyward. He dodged it unconsciously, managing to knock a tray of meats from atop sterno-burners. They collided with bowls of dip and potato salad. The jumble of food tumbled toward the floor as he rapidly deduced the universe’s nightmarish joke–

Just as the spaghetti pot deduced its gravity.

It shifted in an arc, tumbling end-over-end, tomato-laden contents emerging like a past-monster exploding across the room. The pot aimed for the coffee’s glass decanters and struck. They shattered, loosing their contents like the blood-flood of an ancient horror film spilling from elevators. The liquids followed the spaghetti pot’s final dance with gravity to its terminus-bow on the floor.

Simon stood, utterly frozen, staring. And just like that, felt he’d ruined everything. Forever.

But just like that he’d sealed in Lina’s mind– as she doubled her over in utterly uncontrollable laughter– that there was no-one in the universe she loved more than him.

4.

And So The Story Goes

Still recovering from the epic symphony of failure to which she’d just witnessed, Lina hung from Simon’s shoulder, gasping for breath. She felt much less happy than she seemed, but there was such cruel irony in the occurrence she couldn’t help but laugh. Simon took it in stride, mostly through utter shock.

Before he could recover, the ships intercom boomed, Doctors Beaumont and Corben; report to the Bridge A-SAP.”

Simon was still in shock, but Lina dragged out the door, promising to help him clean up in time. It wasn’t until he reached one of the ship’s countless elevators that he found his feet again. He stared in shock at his newly formed memory, shattering the silence somewhere between floors.

“It was a perfect storm. Just… total destruction of everything.”

Lina snickered uncontrollably, “Simon, it was sweet. I appreciate the effort. But you’re in shock. You need to be careful. You might have trauma. Try to breathe.”

Simon managed only half a glare through his confusion. It faltered; even busting his chops she was cute. Even doubled over, face contorted in hysterics, she was beautiful. He wanted her– even though she was a smart ass– because she was a smart-ass, he wanted her. Even though he was certain he’d ruined any chances with her, he grabbed her hand, held it.

And even though she needed almost unfathomable control to do so, she managed to composed herself enough to kiss him. Again. And Again. And again.

Soon their tongues were tied. Her hands clawed his arms. Her lips led his. Part of him decided he was dreaming. The rest of him dissolved into her, feeling only her warmth and tasting only English- sweetness. Somewhere in the distance, Simon felt the elevator stop. He didn’t care. He was where he wanted to be, never wanted to leave. They were two become one, an entity joined at the mouth, incapable of surviving anything but the next few moments but not caring for anything more anyhow.

The grinding stone of someone’s cleared throat parted them. A small crowd stood before the open elevator. At one side, Rearden’s optical sensor glinted as if it were an eye bulging at his stupidity. Niala fought with all of her might to keep a straight face. Donnelly frowned. Ingstrom’s slit-like eyes narrowed more than usual. A few others glared with embarrassment or outright hostility.

In that moment of frozen mortification, the assembled animals themselves must have remembered the Humans had seen them do the same and worse for countless eons, because almost immediately Ingstrom’s glare turned away. He led the group from the elevator; Lina and Simon hesitated, hid their eyes, then followed after them.

Homer’s Bridge was divided into three levels like descending risers. The lowest level, at the forefront, met a forward wall with flatscreen, ultra-high res monitors center on it. The digital viewports were connected to external cameras to give the appearance of windows. In reality, the monitors were sold the illusion of space to fight claustrophobia without compromising hull integrity.

While the F-Drive never actually required moving beyond sub-light speeds, sub-light speeds themselves might destroy the entire ship if a micro-asteroid punctured a window in the moments before the ship’s EM-shields rose. At that, Homer was far from a warship but hardly defenseless. Contact had taught that, of the possibly infinite species in the universe, at least some were hostile.

Leaving Sol was difficult enough, for the crew especially. If Homer were bombarded, they deserved some assurance against vain death. As a result, Homer had a weapons officer, a fleet of pilots and fighters, a series of thirty-foot railguns, a hundred batteries of plasma launchers, and a minor contingent of EMP and Particle missiles.

For the most part, the weapons were never meant to be used, but seeing the Canine, fighter-fleet Commander at the briefing table meant Simon knew something deeply serious was happening.

Approached the briefing table from the upper-most level of Bridge-risers. The comm-section there, for inter-ship communications, was linked through to external transmitters as well while the actual comm-room remained a few floors below. It alone was as large as the Bridge itself, and filled with countless maintenance bots, techs, and servers, which ran everything from ship-side internet and intercoms, to external quantum-communications.

Presently, the group gathered around the large table. Its center, an oblong piece of glass, engaged a relay from Comms at the command of Ingstrom’s claw. The relay covered half the large, touchscreen panel, stealing Simon’s breath. He gathered through his peripheral vision he wasn’t alone. Only Ingstrom seemed unaffected– possibly Rearden as well, but it was hard to know.

Given the nature of what lay before it wasn’t surprising. They stared dully, Simon with them. He felt more dull than they looked, but also felt less alone in it this time. Everyone was glassy-eyed. The entire Bridge had gone silent in a moment no-one present would forget their entire lives.

Before them was Gliese 876-d, an exoplanet intended for scan mid-route to the deployed, orbital outpost nearer the system’s sun (Gliese 876.) Like Earth, these exoplanets were assumed most capable of harboring life within the targeted systems. PCb had been one. G876-d had been one. Most of the crew, both planning and executing the expedition, had no real belief nor hope that either planet, nor the myriad of others to be studied, would contain life.

G-876-d was merely scheduled for a fly-by to capture information regarding the planet’s supposed volcanic activity. Given minor geological similarities to Earth, there were questions about what might happen to the latter if overwhelmed by in such a way. Homer’s intention to activate an outpost in the empty space between orbits of 876b and 876c, meant jumping to the system’s outskirts nearest 876d. Though two days still remained to rendezvous with the planetary orbit, Homer’s long-range sensors had been scanning the system, its planets, and its mother stars for information to ensure a safe journey.

On the touchscreen glass, across the table’s center, were the fruits of this thus far day-long scan. G-876-d was a small planet in a procession of stars on one area of the screen. Comprising the rest of it were a series of block-boxes of varying sizes. The first in line captivated the group most.

Ingstrom began, the old Gecko’s voice like an elderly freight-train rumbling cross-country on freshly-oiled bearings, “Thirty minutes ago, communications located this on our long-range scans.”

It was clearly artificial, dense enough to be stone, and arranged in too logical a way to be naturally occurring. It appeared like a series of blocks stacked in an orderly assortment. The stone was merely a 3-D wire-frame render, but the crew sensed its artificiality. Even as minor doubts arose for posterity’s sake, Ingstrom erased them.

“It is artificial,” the freight-train confirmed. “And it was created by this–“

A grainy image appeared, taken from one of the ship’s telescopic cameras meant for distant observation; Homer had many such instruments, being foremost a scientific vessel. Simon knew this but didn’t forget the Canine across from him. He studied the Fleet Commander, whom studied the image, no doubt evaluating the difficulty of killing the creature there– the creature that had stacked the blocks, that was now the third confirmed life outside Sol and the Zelphod.

Simon didn’t entirely blame him for worrying; the creature was shorter than the average Human, but stocky, thick skinned, intimidating. Simon had seen similar epidermal plating on some of Sol’s evolved animals, but his mind was drawn to the now-extinct Rhinoceros. Then again, he’d never seen a Rhino with bone-plating.

There was no doubt of its origins or purpose. More than likely, the bone-plated armor was resistant to enormous blunt trauma, possibly even conventionally bullet-proof. The reason they’d been called there was obvious; Ingstrom begrudgingly recognized the importance of the event, needed Simon, Lina, and Niala’s expert opinions.

Before Simon could think further, Niala’s intelligence was already earning its keep. “Given 876-D’s volcanic activity, and the atmospheric readings, we can assume the species is O2 tolerant, likely has excellent low-light vision, and most probably lacks any conventional sense of smell.”

Simon noticed, a distinct lack of any sort of usual, olfactory senses. It also occurred to him how utterly alien the creature was, would be. He could think of nothing to compare it to, really. Only things to compared parts of it to. It was as utterly alien as the Zelphod had once been.

Thoughts of First Contact hung heavy above the room, though no-one wished to admit it. Everyone knew they were as likely to be greeted with a hand-shake as a knife. Even if experience said only the latter, hope wished for the former.

“Let’s assume they aren’t hostile, for a moment,” Simon said, eyeing the Canine, whom stifled a snarl. “First contact protocol dictates we attempt cautious interaction. If it is not received with hostility and-or hysteria, we then attempt mathematical, followed by non-verbal, communication.”

An aging female Raven named Iris, and distantly related to Dr. Edgar Frost, former head of the ISC, fluffed out her chest and shuddered with a fearful chitter. “If you can guarantee my safety, I will attempt any non-verbal communication necessary. But I refuse to risk my life until we know more.”

“There will be no risking of anyone on my watch,” the Canine said, snarling more than ever.

No-one does anything without my direct authorization,” Ingstrom rumbled, eyeing Niala.

“Captain, if I may?” Lina said, more shyly than Simon had seen her. All eyes turned to her. “Perhaps we should send a shuttle to scout the planet before communicating.”

“Too risky,” one Human said. “If these scans are anything to go by, they’ve at least managed some sort of radio-system, however agrarian their society.”

Niala said, “The average temperature on this planet ranges somewhere near 650 degrees Celsius. No Solsian can withstand that temperature.”

“To say nothing of the shuttles themselves,” another Human added.

“Which is precisely why we need to continue scanning ‘til we reach orbit. Then we can decide on a proper course of action,” Simon suggested.

Lina considered it, and against her better sense of public decorum, agreed. “Simon’s correct. We need more information. We should study as much as we can until making orbit, then report to the ISC.”

Surprisingly, Niala agreed too. “If we aren’t careful, we could cause bigger problems than the Zelphod. We could be worse than them. None of us want that.”

Even the seemingly blood-thirsty Canine winced with shame. Ingstrom noted it. “It is no-one’s decision but mine.” Niala’s eyes hardened. Ingstrom surprised her too, “But I will take it under consideration. Matriarch, you and Rearden are to return to comms to relay this information to Sol and consult them on a temporary orbital outpost. We have components enough for two, ensure it counts.”

Niala nodded, immediately headed for the elevator. Ingstrom focused on the Canine next, “Commander Jarl, I want your squads in the simulators running maneuvers. I will do the same with my Bridge gunners.” Simon looked ready to protest, but Ingstrom cut in. “We must be prepared for any eventuality. That includes you, Dr. Corben. I expect you and Dr. Beaumont to divide your time between communications and engineering. I want our scanners augmented in any way possible, and our engines prepared for maneuvers, F-drive included.”

Simon sighed deeply, but headed off for the elevator as Niala had. He entered it beside Lina and launched downward. The awkward silence between them was broken only by with swish of passing floors. If Simon hadn’t known better, he’d have thought the woman beside him detested him through the silence.

On the contrary, Lina was captivated by her own thoughts. They’d just found the first alien life outside the Zelphod. This stocky, bone-plated species from a planet as akin to hell as anything outside a star could be the next Solsians or Zelphod, given how things went. Certainly no-one wanted another interstellar war, but some people were foolish enough to forget the true tolls of it.

Simon sensed her silence wasn’t about him and relaxed. The information relayed was overwhelming, to say the least, but it was relieving in a way. He couldn’t help feeling as if the expedition finally had a purpose. Before, they’d been wandering, scanning, exploring for the sake of it. Now, they were to be ambassadors to a world and people so radically different from theirs he couldn’t begin imagine it.

Most of all, he was no longer angry about being torn away from his date. Nor indeed, at the madness that had taken place directly before hand. It was enough of a good day for him without ever remembering the elevator make-out session– it got even better when he did.

5.

Dr. Corben to Ground Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That didn’t doom them any less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Myself as well?” Lina asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rearden processed what was said then replied with binary affirmations.

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

“Is that all?” Simon asked.

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

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

“Precisely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think it’ll go well?”

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

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

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

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

6.

Conning the Con Whom Cons

Simon slept like a baby for ten hours, dead to the world otherwise. He was only awoken by his cabin’s door-bell, and the thought to curse Rearden. Then, realizing the bot cared so little for doors it would enter regardless, he sensed someone mannerly wanting to speak to him. That left everyone ship-side, excluding Niala.

Whomever he expected, it wasn’t Lina. Perhaps it was an effect of lingering disbelief that he’d managed to nab her, but mostly he suspected shame. He’d never have turned her away, but finding her first thing in the morning wishing to enter his stately hell-hole, and in his underwear no less, was not his envisioned introduction to his private life. Nonetheless he beckoned her in and quickly disappeared, gone before she could see him inside.

Simon dove into his room, hopping about, half-clad in pants. Lina called out, “Simon?”

“Just a minute!” Then, seeing no reason they couldn’t speak, added, “Is everything alright?”

“Yes. Niala wishes to see us.”

“Is everything alright–“

He’d intended his next words to be “with her,” but fell forward in a fashion so spectacular he was unaware it happened until viewing his subsequently damaged ego.

To understand the damage Simon’s ego took, one must first know that his apartment-like cabin had come fully furnished, as every other room aboard. His furnished, apartment-sized “state-room,” more than enough living space. Throughout it were various surfaces and counters one would expected of a modern living space.

Among those furnished items was a beautifully manufactured oak dresser; long, squat, and expensive looking. Like the millions of others manufactured with it, it was made by a factory that specialized in recreating one of a kind, old-era, antique furniture via new era mass-production tools and materials– thereby completely stripping the antiques of their value, in exchange for exorbitant retail prices. This con, in effect, was known as capitalism.

It was also the same manner of devilish trickery that had taken Earth by storm in the early 2000’s via flashy stickers proclaiming things like “organic,” and “unprocessed,” or phrases like “no preservatives,” and “free-range.” In the end, all any of it came to mean was some gullible fool was about to pay twice the cash for the same old stuff.

Solsians, and Humans in particular, were always abreast of these types of developments. They manufactured, mass-produced, mass-farmed, or mass-whatevered they could. Usually, this process involved some form of grift, sold as a “labor cost” that required charging much greater than the items manufacture so as to allow the middleman, or seller, to profit. With this added cost, they ensured the grifters continued grifting as without being out-grifted by other grifters.

And like everyone involved in that system, someone had conned someone else into believing the beautiful, heavy, and densely dark-wooded dresser was required. And of all people, the circle of conning decided, this particular dresser was required by Simon.

Incidentally, grift is a synonym of con.

Also incidentally, the wood this particular dresser came from was mismarked as defective at the con-manufacturing warehouse. Thus, it was subsidized to go to the lowest bidder in a wholesale– or a giant con whereby a single entity pays an exorbitant sum for many items, with each item being less than each unit otherwise, but still remaining more than the collective cost of the materials together.

Still following? No? Too bad, moving along.

In other words someone was conned into believing buying X amount of those dressers all at once should be cheaper than buying X amount individually. The only reason that fool was right anyhow was because of something called economies of scale. But the truth about the dressers was the company manufacturing them were outright con-men– and when building large orders like that placed for Homer, used inferior materials to profit even more than already guaranteed to.

But as said, the materials for Simon’s dresser were mismarked. Coincidentally, as a result of the conners wishing to maximize profits via hiring “unqualified,” wannabe-con-men called workers, rather than expensive, “qualified” ones. And in fact, though it seems belabored, this dresser was made of not just more dense and thus more valuable wood, it was made of the most valuable and dense wood the company offered.

If it weren’t for this spectacular series of cons, or attempts at them, this dresser might have no place in history, let alone the history of Simon’s damaged ego. Unfortunately for Simon, it did, and several of his rather more hopeful dreams were about to be shattered by it. Most notably, one involving not showing Lina his stately hell-hole whilst half-naked.

He hopped around the room hoping to fit his slacks without being caught pants-less. He’d managed to get them on and pulled half-way up before his brain conned him into believing socks were now warranted. They weren’t. Not quite yet. But his brain believed otherwise, and was conned. As it went, so went the rest of him.

On one, hopping leg.

With nary a hope to retain his pant-clad visage in Lina’s mind.

After the fact, Simon could only remember the event as this: Lina began speaking. Simon called out question. She spoke again, about Niala. Simon spoke; then and there, half-hopping, half-aware of his mistake, he slipped on a piece of plastic snack-wrapper.

One moment, he stood crane-style with one leg up, torso bent toward it. The next moment, he was free-falling at 1G. Just enough to ensure his forehead collided with the especially dense dresser. He was unaware of the moment after, “the moment after that” as he lie on one side, still crane-style, and now unconscious.

While Simon knew at least part of these facts and happenings, Lina knew none. She heard only his interrupted question regarding Niala. A moment later, also Simon’s moment after “the moment after that,” she called to him. A further series of moments later, tense and frightened, she found him lying on his side, unconscious. Given her analytical mind, and Simon’s propensity for being a clumsy ass, she surmised the goings-on that had gone on.

She flew for a telephone-comm, immediately called a med-team. Then Niala, told to her meet them in the infirmary.

Simon knew only the moment of impact and the moments before. Only vaguely recalled any of them, even after he awoke in the infirmary.

A bright light flitted back and forth in his eyes, each lid forced open by a rough mid-finger pad on his forehead. The slight poke of a thumb-like dewclaw honed his consciousness enough to deduce his examiner. The past rushed back in its broken way, and he knew everything.

He swatted the light away, and with it, Niala’s paw. Her face took the place of the blinding light. Contrary to his expectations, she looked concerned. Her brows were inward, her orbits and jaw thinned. She handed the penlight back to a nurse nearby and dismissed him.

“You’re lucky you don’t have a concussion,” Niala said, more serious than usual.

Simon glanced down at his legs, found he was dressed. Beyond his feet was Lina. He quickly flushed with embarrassment, averted his eyes.

“I’ve heard enough to know how it happened, but how the hell’d you manage this?” Niala asked, half crassly but genuinely confused.

“Being cursed,” he mumbled.

Lina managed a smile, “It’s not a curse, Simon.” Niala eyed her. Simon did his best to avoid eyeing her. “It’s me.”

He did eye her then. “Huh? How’ve you–“

“You get stupid around me,” she snickered. “I know the feeling.”

He blushed in earnest this time. Niala might’ve laughed, but couldn’t. Her mood was too sour; enough spread alarm over both Simon and Lina’s faces. If she wasn’t laughing, she was too tense or angry to do so. Neither was good.

Once, Niala could’ve rightfully been called cold, but she’d warmed over the years. Life was an exercise in amusement nowadays. Padfoot Lighting had sharpened her already natural killing-instincts, by showing the universe was a place of cold, harsh realities. As time distanced her from it, she found more reasons to warm and laugh, reveled in them.

She’d been forced to emulate that harsh reality; shown things that could make anyone, of any species, do the same. Since then, only a few, specific incidents had ever made her tense. Simply, nothing was ever as bad as what she’d already seen. That much alone had allowed her to mellow.

Anger was a different story. Anger was useful to Padfoot, so it was honed. The Lioness and her blood-line, already masters of the predatorial arts, feared next to nothing to begin with. Thus her temper was her greatest asset, but could still flare. When it did, Simon feared the collateral damage.

He’d inherited something of the Lion himself through their years of friendship, but nothing compared to the true article. She was the original, he a poor reproduction. Even now, he sensed the original manifesting despite her best efforts.

Simon inched up the bed, “Why’d you call us to Comms?”

Niala glanced up and down the infirmary; one, large hospital room of a few dozen beds, paper-thin walls and doors between them. Another series of cons had led to its creation, but was presently irrelevant. However, Niala heard and knew more than she let-on. A few patients were scattered about, one right next to them. She couldn’t risk relaying what she knew until certain they wouldn’t be heard.

“Can you walk?” She asked Simon.

“Do I have a choice?” He griped. She glared. “Fine. Yes. Did anyone bring my shoes?”

Lina shrugged, apologized. “No. But I got your other sock… and buttoned your pants.”

He reddened, “Right. Thanks.”

Niala gestured them from the tiny “room” and the infirmary. White-painted steel of a bulkhead passed as Niala angled for a nearby conference room. Supposedly the room was to be used for medical-staff meetings, but likely was added as another con between architect and engineer to game the HAA. Organizations were often taken advantage of in that way, and most of the time, couldn’t care less.

Niala shut the door, hurried to a security camera in the corner, then unplugged it. If anyone was monitoring it, they’d have seen her do it. Regardless of what they’d been told, Niala’s face would keep them from doing anything to rectify the situation. When she was finally satisfied they were alone and unmonitored, she stood before them.

“Ingstrom and I spoke to Sol this morning,” she said in a low voice.

Lina’s ears perked up. Simon waited for an “and.” When it didn’t come, he spoke it aloud.

And?”

“And,” Niala began, as redundantly as possible. “We have a serious problem.” Again they waited. Niala continued unprompted, her anger only held back by the lack of deserving target. “The HAA’s diplomatic embassy was alerted of suspicious activity. Their systems monitor all internal connection points when externally interacted with– for instance, when called. During that time, all interactions are recorded and logged system-wide.”

They followed, still lost.

“The system activated during our call-in yesterday, during which time logs recorded a third-party interaction. The HAA confirms someone intercepted our communique.”

Simon didn’t see a point. “Someone eavesdropped, so?”

Lina listened intently as Niala explained, “That log was deleted from the main system, but not the secure back up. They weren’t aware that its erased only once a week by security. That the third-party was discovered at all was a fluke; a technician was ordered to analyze all comm-data between the HAA and Homer to ensure our system is running as efficiently as possible. The tech located and tracked a ping discrepancy to a lone computer within the embassy.

That led to a low-level employee who’s since disappeared. His office computer was wiped, and after locating his employee I-D, he was cross-checked against criminal data-bases and found to be using a falsified name. He was identified as Angmar Zark, a Vulpus-Canid hybrid that’s done two stints in prison, both on Earth and Mars, for hate-crimes.”

Simon’s eyes widened, his mouth hung half-open. For once, it was from serious concern rather than dull foolishness. Lina noticed the shift, sensed something unspoken. “What’s that mean?”

“An Anti-Humanist,” Simon said, swallowing to shut his mouth and wet his throat. “Anti-Humanists hate Humans and anyone they consider a Human sympathizer.”

Niala seethed, her rage understandable now. “Evolved animals know cooperation is more important than isolation. More than that, Anti-Humanists are usually just brain-washed morons. Often when they aren’t, they’re violent extremists masquerading as activists. Dangerous. Everything that started the construction of this ship stems from their hatred.”

Lina thought deeply: To her, anti-Humanists were just protesters chanting slogans, not hardened criminals threatening people’s lives. Judging by the ire and despair in front of her, the latter was much more the case than expected.

“So… Anti-Humanists know we’ve located a new species,” she said, slowly recognizing the enormity of the implication.

Simon spoke it aloud, his defeat evident, “And more than likely, don’t like it.”

“And even more likely,” Niala added. “They’ll try to keep us from first contact. Now they know they have only thirty six hours to do so; that’s the earliest we can make contact.”

The others’ dread infected Lina as it weighted Simon’s stomach. Niala’s face said she felt it too, however little it affected her otherwise. There was little doubt now that the future would be far more interesting than any of them had hoped for, or wanted.

7.

The Colloquial Human

The few people aware of the anti-Humanist development were on-edge, Simon among them. Something about knowing utter chaos is poised to break out makes one absolutely paranoid. This is yet another example of universal phenomena. Every sound was an attack. Every light-flicker an assault. Every shadow an assailant.

Were it not for occasional trips to the break-room, and seeing Lina there, Simon might’ve lost his mind. She fared more or less normally. He grew worse over time, internally and otherwise. His feelings became mirrored, first by rumpled clothing and disheveled hair. Then, in a grease-slick face and wide, red-veined eyes.

Ultimately, Niala had been right; hours could pass as quietly as needed, but even five minutes before contact was enough it to a mockery. Simon still remembered confronting Josie– or whom he assumed to be her– and having his throat cut. Things had gone from zero-to-bloody carnage in a blink.

Lina didn’t quite understand that. She was an innocent, in her way. While he wouldn’t recommend near-death experiences– or rather, near-murdered ones– blissful ignorance made it impossible to relate. Then again, she wasn’t entirely ignorant, just in disbelief of her own vulnerability. At least, she treated it as such.

Despite his gratitude for her reassurances, she simply couldn’t make things better. Danger turned him to rubber. Until forced to become stone or become dead, he was useless. He’d done well with the stone part in the past, but his wasn’t an on-off switch engaged at will like Niala’s.

He was tense. So were many others. Like Lina with him, the whole ship felt it even if most didn’t know why. Sleep was restless, difficult. Lina felt it too–

And materialized unexpectedly at Simon’s apartment.

He’d zoned out on his couch, staring at a Vidscreen. Nowadays most people had dual, inbuilt Vidscreen/holoprojectors, but given the cabin’s circumstances, vidscreens alone would do. As spacious as the state-rooms were, space was at a premium. Yet another con to add to the ever-spooling list. Simon didn’t care. In fact, the movie he was currently watching was older than anyone or anything ship-board.

On-screen, the 1000ft tall lizard, played by Haruo Nakajima in a heavy rubber-suit, stomped out and belched atomic breath across Japan. The metaphorical atom bomb Godzilla represented seemed the perfect fit to Simon’s circumstances. Much like the atom bomb, no-one really knew what to do in the event of this new species being met. Everyone had their theories, their protocols to be adhered to, (or discarded) but no-one really knew how to act.

Nor could they. Not until the moment had passed and they could benefit from hindsight.

Much like them, Simon was indecisive, uncertain. He’d inherit enough of the chaos sure to overwhelm Homer’s crew when, if ever, it descended. He currently preparing for that possibility by imbibing as much down-time as manageable. Though something was bound to come and ruin it eventually, he felt the knock on the door premature.

Then the door opened, and there was Lina.

The first thing Simon thought was to check his watch: Despite being more light years from home than most of his species could manage, everyone aboard Homer still went by Zulu Standard time. That is to say, Earth-standard 24 hour day whose zero-hour aligned with the zero hour of an arbitrary line drawn upon a map of “Earth, Sol system” somewhere far far away.

Consequently, the debate of time’s existence and effects is a long, heated one which most often descends into fecal flinging no matter one’s location in the universe.

His first thought was answered by his digital Casio, which gave the time as 02:30.

His second thought was spoken aloud, went, “Lina? What’re you doing here?”

Her eyes fluttered, brighter than she’d have liked. The air around her said she was wired. Simon sympathized, but for once it wasn’t his reason for remaining awake. He’d simply become used to sleeping a certain way aboard Homer. Given the last week was their first aboard, he saw no reason to break the habit yet.

Lina replied to his question with an involuntary sigh. “Can I come in?”

He thought of what happened the last time she’d entered his stately hell-hole and realized he was once again in his underwear. She pushed past for the couch and vid-screen, took in the screaming, atomized breath of Godzilla.

“Old monster flicks? I had no idea.”

He eyed his exposed lower-half, its tightie-whities persisting despite their generations of unflattering fashion, and shrugged. He shut the door and sat beside her on the couch, only then noticing she was clad in a robe, with little more than boy-short panties, slippers, and a dark, see-through tank-top on beneath.

“Y-yeah,” he stammered. “So… is everything alright?”

She nodded, eyes glued to the screen. “Just can’t sleep. Too much work. S’like running on I-V adrenaline.”

He did his best to be at ease with things that otherwise made him feel nervous. Perhaps that was Lina’s plan; arrive as relaxed as possible and catch him in a similar state.

She leaned her head against his shoulder and his eyes fell to her, then beyond to spy the hint of pink peering from beneath her bra-less, tank-top. Panic shifted his attention to his tightie-whities that tented swiftly despite his will.

He squirmed in terror. The heart attack sure to come was fed by the path he found himself on and a dark primal desire. The path was one of real, deep love for Lina. The desire was a hot, slobbering, myopic beast that sought nothing but another of its kind.

The cause, unfortunately for Earth descendants like Simon, Lina, and every other creature hailing from Sol, was the very thing they owed their existence to. An act of bonding between two halves of genetic data in formation of one, new one. This act, known as conception, was an incident (or more oft-times, accident) stemming from succumbing to one or another’s love, lust, or simple boredom driven by that primal, beastly desire.

Early in Solsian history, the goal of this desire was building a genomic legacy that, in the grander scheme of things, was as self-serving and pointless as all other activities life engaged in. Despite never receiving an answer as to its purpose, life was not dissuaded in its attempts to carry on. In parlance, this process was done through “having sex,” “doing it,” “fucking.”

In reality, there was no purpose to life. As evidenced across Sol, the Milky Way, or indeed the known universe. For, in order for it to bear purpose it required one assigning said purpose, a reality with even less evidence than a “life’s-purpose” itself. Like everything, life merely existed. Reasoning was an abstract side-effect of intellect and sentience, just as it seemed, was making an ass of oneself. Believing otherwise was the result of imagination, ego, and the need to belong, to understand.

If one required a meaning for life, in an effort to fulfill some facetious need, they must first recognize that need was no more necessary than life’s existence itself. One would then need recognize “purpose” was merely their own desire to have purpose. Only then could any purpose be ascribed. Thus one must recognize all of the preceding as moot; as unnecessary as anything could be.

If one managed thus, and was not turned away from pursuing the result entirely due to existential dread or else-wise, the following could then and only then, be regarded as life’s purpose– as evidenced by its own commitment to one, inherently adhered to principal; to persist.

The only purpose life, known and unknown, might be said to have was that which coincided with empirical evidence. From the vacuum of space, to the molten core of Earth, and beyond it entirely to the volcanic world of G876-d, and beyond it still, life had done nothing but attempt to, and ultimately succeed in, persisting. In doing so, it had made possible adaptation through the process of evolution.

And thus, it reinforced the idea of persistence as a means of course. That purpose, in its way, was so grand yet simple it seems the greatest rationale as any might find, especially where science is concerned. Grand as it was in its attempt to persist, Nature; the conglomerate of living things and forces acting upon them, had thus imbued the varying species and races with implements to continue persisting.

For Sol, these methods of persistence, fucking, were carried out via the concept of attraction. The bridging force of spaces between two beings capable of mating, attraction, led colloquially, to fucking. As all things regarding evolution, fucking required primers be engaged before the act could be carried out– no matted how satisfied or not the effected parties found themselves after.

For most, Solsian males (and Human males in particular) one of these priming events was the inward flowing of blood to the male sex organ, officially known as the penis, colloquially known as The Rod, Dick, Cock, etc. The blood, then kept from flowing out again and forced to pool, filled The Rod’s spongy, internal tissues. The experienced erection, or “hardening” of The Rod, continued until it more or less stood freely of its own accord. (Other Solsian males, most often politicians, merely found themselves a few inches taller.)

Life’s intent and success at persistence had imbued itself, and Simon specifically, with this tightie-whitie tenting capacity. Blood cells had arrived, and as a family at picnic on a breezy summer’s day, had pitched a tent as large and wide as they could muster. Some were shamelessly proud of it.

Contrary to logical deductions and life’s own “purpose,” this was absolutely the last thing in all the universe Simon wanted to happen.

Or so he thought. For the actual last thing was what came next.

Lina giggled. “Happy to see me?”

He tried to hide it by crossing his legs with an obviously desperate chuckle. Instead, he thrust it forward and grunted. (Recall the male propensity for grunting.) Lina snickered. Before he realized it, she was atop him, straddling The Rod in all its hard glory.

“Lina, I–“

She shut him up with a kiss. Then another.

And a third.

Like their male counterparts, Human females too, had ways of preparing for the act of mating– fucking. It involved a series of secretions released within the reproductive organ, (officially termed Vagina, but also known as pussy, snatch, satin pouch, etc) that lubricated it for The Rod’s reception whilst signaling arousal. (Personally, Lina preferred “pussy,” but like The Rod, there were equally as infinite an amount of names.)

Lina’s body had been worked to a near frenzy before ever arriving at Simon’s door. Admittedly, her intentions had never been to straddle him, but as they were both rather enjoying it now, she saw no harm in it. Rather, it was a reaction to seeing that, like her, he found himself involuntarily aroused by their combined presence.

The near-frenzy she’d achieved before her arrival was the result of her inability to sleep. Temporary insomnia had been a problem of Lina’s since she was a young girl living outside Sussex and dreaming of bigger, more amazing things than England’s southern grasses.

It had taken quite a few years to master her bouts of temporary insomnia, but most of the time, could be done with a single act. If however, that act failed, as it could from time to time, she would be forced to toss and turn restlessly until sleep came far too late and far too short– unlike her.

Incidentally, that act of stress relief was meant to also temper the lust of Solsian creatures. An act that, as a result of Solsian life’s evolved methods for persisting, required essentially fucking oneself somehow. Literally.

Lina had used masturbation as much as a tool for relaxation as for relieving pent-up sexual tension. Since her early youth, when insomnia attempted to rear its ugly head, she skirted and explored her own southern, English grasses until climax left her writhing like a drooling, drugged psych-patient.

From a youth experiencing it for the first time, through restless post-adolescence and adulthood’s nights of grad school, and now to her place on the first expedition outside Sol, Lina’s use of the act had varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, as then with now, failure meant not only failing to achieve sleep but also the intended climax– cumming, and largely the only conscious reason for any creature to attempt fucking, alone or with others.

Lina had failed to sleep, failed to cum, and failed to relieve herself of the growing tension within. Instead of wallowing, she felt it best to visit Simon, hoping to spend her restless night in the company of a warm and familiar embrace, if nothing else. What she did not realize, nor could Simon have anticipated in a million years, was the sudden, unconscious drive that would seize Lina at seeing The Rod so proudly supporting the raised tent.

She wanted to fuck.

Simon.

And Bad.

Thus, the pair found themselves half-clothed, fully aroused, and headed for “the next level.”

The painful confinement of Simon’s tighty-whities suddenly gave way to sexually-heated air between his and Lina’s groins. In a breath, that too gave way to a welcome, constricting wetness. After minutes of astoundingly extreme physicality, the pair collapsed on the floor beside the couch, pleasure trickling through them.

Neither could help wanting more, nor receiving.

Events repeated in prolonged fashion until they once more found themselves on the floor, propped on pillows, with Lina’s robe across them for warmth. Simon was still a ways from it himself, but Lina quickly fell into sleep, her head on his chest and her body against his.

There was no doubt this would prove only the first of many such encounters. They’d already established that desire and more in one another’s minds. Thus, such fucking undoubtedly led to that most highly-regarded of delusions, love. And though Simon could only vouch for himself thus far, he was perfectly fine with it. As other, omnipotent forces could relay however, Lina felt exactly the same.

Unfortunately, things can get much more complicated before settling for any protracted period. For Simon, Lina, and others prepared to board the temporary outpost over G876-d, that time was roughly… now.

8.

Packed Like Guinea Pigs in a Beer Can

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon suddenly felt small. Immensely small.

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

It made him marvel and shudder in fear, awe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Control should be just ahead,” Simon reminded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9.

Oh Hubris, Thy Name is Solsian

Simon couldn’t say how long he’d been out. He’d had nothing to mark time by during the brain melting tedium of inventory and being knocked unconscious had distorted his sense of time too far since. Between that and the obviousness that he’d been drugged, judging by the floating lethargy in his limbs, he knew there was no point in dwelling further on it. A more immediate concern was the throbbing in the back of his head. Evidently someone had mistaken it for a nail, hit it with a hammer.

The reality was much more sinister, he knew. He’d guessed it from the onset, in that flash of knowing before blackness came. Something about the feline face. He’d met more than his share of cats, big and small, but this one-eyed face stuck out. Why, he wasn’t sure yet. All he knew for certain was its allegiance.

These were anti-Humanists. No doubt the same that had infiltrated the HAA, the ISC before that. The most worrying, and pressing thing, to Simon’s mind, was how exactly they’d gotten here. Granted, there were a couple thousand people aboard Homer, they’d all been screened. Most especially, screened for connections like this.

Homer was long gone anyway, had been for hours. He knew that. They would too. No, they were here by some other means.

Instantly he remembered the ISC’s initial leak, years ago now, that had led to the creation of the Clarke-class vessels. The MeLon and its Anti-Humanist comrades, headed by a vengeful Zelphod, were in possession of Interstellar transportation blueprints. They’d created a space-worthy prototype, and were on their way to a second when Simon and the others destroyed the production facility on Ceres.

Even after personally bombarding the facility, the HAA and Earth Federation’s Fleet ran a so-called “training exercise” on Ceres to do the same. The fleet left the already decimated planet a series of smoking craters. Not a structure remained standing. What remained of the minor atmosphere was bled dry, its generators utterly destroyed.

Had the planet not been utterly depopulated a decade before, it would still remain a lifeless rock.

Where that initial Prototype ship was now, was anyone’s guess. It had been the prize of Alpha-Wolf Snow; the closest thing to a leader Jupiter’s anarchic Ganymede moon-station had. Snow was vicious. Cold. Lethal. He was a cunning Wolf with a history of violence and spec-ops work. Niala had served with him during Padfoot Lightning, worked with him afterward more than once. When the breach at the ISC pointed to an obviously innocent Simon, the pair went to meet the King himself.

For a moment, Simon nursed the idea that perhaps Snow was behind this. After all, he was the only one outside Sol’s various, official entities with an interstellar drive.

No, Simon knew; Snow was so fiercely apolitical, and violent at that, he’d single-handedly forced all the sleaze on Ganymede to get in line or get dead. Most did the former. He had no reason for such a move. Snow was a monarch, more than anything. He had no constituents, rather subjects. He had alliances, pacts. He had Dukes, Dames. An army of one-time Mercs whom found it more profitable to kneel before him than seek their daily bread elsewhere and anger their overlord. Most of all, Snow had what passed for honor in these times.

While that meant little to those unfamiliar with him, it meant everything to him; and through him, Simon.

His recollection flickered through Simon’s mind in the instants between swimming consciousness returned his senses to his limited surroundings. As if spinning until now, he found himself at the center of a reality swirling about him. The universe was a pure confusion that, for seconds, struggled to work out just what had happened– while fighting to keep his last meal from rejoining the open air.

He needed to keep from panicking. He’d done it enough, and ruined enough through it. He wasn’t about to risk his foolishness getting the best of him.

He suddenly thought of Lina and Niala, realized the room was dark, though no longer spinning. He also realized, something vaguely cotton was stuffed into his mouth, and finally, that he’d been lashed to something behind him. Something warm. Moving. He focused his senses, was suddenly aware of Lina’s warm scent. He shook himself, stirring the figure lashed behind him. It shook back limply.

Lina! He thought to say, tried to say. It came out “Llllnnnuhh!”

The cotton-gagged night sounded with muffled noise, as if a glutton with a mouthful of toast screamed for more. Something heavy and furred smacked the side of his head. The blindfold slipped from one eye. The one-eyed Feline appeared, face rigid with hate. At some point, one of his ears had been slashed through the middle, leaving a scar deep enough to tatter its edges. Stripes in the feline’s forehead fur were scarred and mottled, patchy from a lifetime of fights from fist, claw, talon, everything. He looked like an overgrown alley cat, smelled like one.

Simon finally recalled the face. He’d seen it before Homer’s departure, during a mandatory security briefing for officers and senior staff. Most people aboard the ship hadn’t been privy to it; even Lina wouldn’t recognize him.

But Simon did.

He remembered why too; the Feline was a fugitive. Caligulus Shafer, an Anti-Human extremist who’d been arrested multiple times for felony assault and battery, disturbance of peace, and inciting violence. His rap-sheet ran a mile longer than that but Simon didn’t commit much else to memory.

It was enough to know that Shafer was a bad guy. He’d escaped a work-mine on Deimos not long before the expedition launched. Knowing now what Simon did about Zark and the HAA infiltration, there was no doubt Shafer was been broken out in preparation for it.

Something bigger was going on. Something planned to coincide with the expedition. Simon’s gut told him it had more to do with Homer than anything, but Shafer’s method of transport might change that.

Simon stilled a sudden panic to Lina’s movements by clasping her hand. He watched Shafer rise, step away to converse in a low purr with a wolf. Given the markings, and the way the Wolf held itself, Simon guessed accurately it was a female.

Female Wolves were rare nowadays. Not as any sort of evolutionary byproduct, but rather largely from isolation. Wolves were one of few species that had retained independence when most of the animal world was dying off or surviving on conservation efforts. Wolves had already been restored through those acts. Though Simon knew of no Wolf that would ever admit it, to others or themselves, Vulpines only yet existed as a result of Humans.

Admittedly, they’d only ever been threatened because of Humans too, but C’est la vie. Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana. So it goes…

In the scheme of things, all that mattered was that Wolves had known freedom up to Contact and “evolution.” The first-gen of evolved Wolves had bestowed the deep importance of independence on their offspring. For females, that meant prideful isolation. For Males, it meant honor, leadership. No doubt, some measure of that pride fueled She-Wolf’s desire to join an Anti-Humanist strike force.

There was no denying they were that. Even from the minute corner of his uncovered vision, Simon could tell they were militants. They carried weapons. Tac-Vests. Comms. They reminded him of the vids of spec-ops teams he’d watch with Niala on alternate movie nights. She loved to razz him about his ancient sci-fi lizards and such, but even she knew nothing quite topped the ridiculousness of old action-vids.

He realized then that Niala was missing. Or had been. The sickening satisfaction in Shafer’s face said they’d found her. More than likely, they’d bring her here. Hopefully. If they weren’t smart enough to space her, anyway.

Shafer whirled, sensing Simon’s eye on him. He muttered to the Wolf, then stalked over as if sauntering up to toy with trapped prey. His voice came out like the rasp of an angle-grinder that smoked too much.

“We have the Lion. We’re searching for the bot. We’ll have it too. Soon enough. You want to make it through the rest of your miserably short life in a single piece, you’ll recall it.”

Simon’s heart skipped a beat. He let it tripwire hope in him; Rearden wasn’t deactivated. It was hiding. It could call for help. Something of this must’ve shown on Simon’s face. Another, sickly grin spread across Shafer’s jagged, tin-edge face.

“Think you might make it out of this, don’t you, Corben?” Simon’s face flickered with a minor repulsion at hearing his name in Shafer’s rasp. “Oh yes, I know all about you, Doctor. Savior of the Solsian republics. Scientist and star. Partner to the Dome-ess’. Co-perpetrator of crimes against animal-kind.”

Simon’s face couldn’t help but fall into an utter confusion. He was none of those things, let alone savior or criminal. He tried to say as much through the gag, but it all came out sounding like a series of “Mmms,” “fffs,” and “ouuuss.” On the plus side, he seemed to be understood regardless and his gag had come loose a bit.

“Deny all you like, Human,” Shafer said. “We know the truth. Whether you choose to see it or not, admit it or not, you work for a corrupt entity. Your people ruled over us for millennia. When we gained our intelligence, our independence, you used your infrastructure as an excuse to lord over us. You and your sympathizers talk of sense and reason, but you’re all motivated by your own desires.”

Simon threw his head back and groaned, unintentionally spitting out his gag. “Oh what. a broken. Record!” Shafer’s one eye narrowed. “All of you idiot anti-Humanists say the same thing; Humans are doing this. Humans are doing that. Humans are oppressing me. Humans aren’t giving into my every demand so let’s pitch fits and start civil wars. Shut up already. We get it. You’re not happy. We’re working on it. All of us!”

Shafer’s face sharpened to a point. The nails on one of his paws jumped out. Simon’s instinct was to swallow hard. He felt the scar from his last encounter with such claws throb across his throat. Before Shafer could lunge, re-enact that last encounter, a high-growl met his ears. Simon breathed relief, knowing Niala’s rage anywhere.

Shafer swiveled on-heel as Niala was dragged in by a large, male Cougar and a Rat whose scars gave even Shafer’s a run for their money. Behind them followed another, female Rat with a plas-rifle vertically in her hand and against a shoulder. Niala was pushed into the room and freed from their grip but the look in her eyes said it was obvious the game was nowhere near their favor.

She focused on Shafer. “Caligulus. I should’ve known it was you after the escape.”

Simon shook his head; more and more he wondered just how deep into the muck Niala had once traveled. No matter her distaste, she certainly knew well enough how to traverse it; more than a few whom did so willingly. She ignored Simon’s look, though he sensed she’d caught it.

“Dome-ess,” Shafer said, with as much vitriol as Simon had yet heard. “Kind of you to join us. Where is it!?”

“Where is what?” She said innocently.

“Don’t bullshit me, Martin. Where’s the bot?”

“What bot?”

Shafer nodded. The rat with the rifle slammed its butt against her back. She roared, ready to snap. Simon watched her incredible restraint. If she weren’t so certain they’d kill her for it, Simon knew she’d be goring the cat’s throat. She wouldn’t though, they were all prepared to kill her. The situation was delicate. They didn’t want her, didn’t need her, but if she could be kept alive, she could be valuable. If she became a problem, she was better off dead. The same went for the others.

Niala growled through low frequencies with the sound of a chain cranked through metal loops. No doubt she was saving as much fury as possible for later, when her infamous Lion blood-rage could be unleashed and better put to use.

“The bot,” she said. “Is probably at this moment, altering the distress signal you have running. When it’s done doing that, the ship you’re so interested in won’t be coming near this outpost until long after we’re all dead from starvation. Then maybe, if you’re lucky, they’ll space your corpse. Otherwise, they’ll burn it. Or grind it into fertilizer for a hydro farm. Or chum it at a fishery. You ugly. Worthless. Scum-sucking. Piece of genetically-altered wa–

The cat swiped her face, leaving a gash from one side of it to the other, roughly a half-inch deep. Niala didn’t cry out, but Simon sucked air through his teeth. Lina gripped his hand harder, completely impotent otherwise. Shafer began shouting for the others to lead Niala to a corner where they chained her to a support-beam.

In control, a shout emitted behind Rearden. Its optics were focused on the storage room feed. It saw and heard everything that had transpired, including Niala’s subtle instructions. Already, the altered transmission was broadcasting. Even when the door opened and the electric-stunner arc soared past the unconscious Hawk to incapacitate it, the little bot knew it had done its job.

Not far away, relativistically speaking, the transmission’s binary pulses echoed on the comm array of a ship much like Homer, though half its size. From the forward display in the central Bridge of the Alpha Wolf, against the back-lit floor sconces glowing with low fires, the grizzled face of a Wolf leaned forward into the light.

One half of the gray face pinched downward with resolve, “Set a course.”

10.

All Hail The King

Simon and Lina were kept apart from Niala. They’d been moved to the bunk-area, while she was sequestered to her beam in the storage room. The reason was simple, she couldn’t break through steel, but if she got close enough, could easily break the plastic and rope bonds tying Lina and Simon together. Freeing them could only serve to free herself in time. The last thing the Anti-Humanists wanted was a pissed-off Lioness rampaging aboard the outpost.

Rearden was brought into the bunk room, tossed unceremoniously into a corner to clang against the ground like a tin-can full of nuts and bolts. Simon could only wince. The scorch mark on its side said enough; it was hit some sort of electrical weapon that overloaded and shut it down. No doubt, it blew half its capacitors in the process. It might take weeks to repair it. Simon could only hope it had gotten its altered message out. What they were supposed to do after, he wasn’t sure.

He understood Niala’s reasons, but turning away their only chance at rescue seemed the opposite of a good idea. He knew Homer was the target, or at least one target, but he questioned how much threat they might actually pose to its thousand-plus crew. At the same time, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the hunch Niala had played off otherwise.

He could do nothing more but sigh, hoping a solution presented itself.

Snow stood in the center of his ship’s Bridge. The various screens readout a plethora of metrics, informatics, charts, and scans that flickered in constant updates. Each one meant something specific to one of the dozen creatures around him, and while Snow knew them all, he cared only that they functioned. He’d hand-picked his crew from the best Mercs and swashbucklers in Sol, they ensured he didn’t need to pay attention to more than was crucial for his own interests. Each of his people were organs in a body; each with a job both crucial and singular.

Each crew member knew it, knew they were expected to act as such. Any deviation meant punishment. Snow knew few things better than effective forms of punishment. He’d practiced many, been subject to others, and knew infinitely more.

What he knew, most of all though, was honor.

Whether to his word, or his allegiances, he put honor above all things. In his world, defying or defiling honor, earned a death reserved for only the most depraved of dregs. A death made sure to see to, personally.

To Snow, a fight was an exercise in primal fury no matter how stacked to one side or the other. But there were rules. Rules stemming from millennia of evolution. Rules, unspoken, that demanded your prey never be humiliated, dehumanized– for lack of better terms. Humans angered Snow for that reason; they knew of no rules, no honor, to battle or warfare.

In many ways, he hated Humans; hated that they’d made themselves Lords of Sol. That they’d gated off their most important positions and places on Earth and elsewhere for themselves. That they, even after decades of evolved animal life, forced themselves upon or into their burgeoning cultures, into their individual lives wherever possible. That they forced the animals into certain rungs of society, on planets, and in the minds of the system, whether directly or indirectly and consciously or not.

He hated too, the way they’d humiliated his cousins, the Canids. His descendants, evolutionarily speaking. They’d taken once-proud, intelligent, fearsome Vulpines, and turned them into mockeries. They’d bred them to appear like himself, with none of their personality, their spirit.

Then, they decided they’d liked that idea so much, they inbred those mockeries until they were genetic freaks; mutants whose own DNA rebelled against their very existence. The result was everything from spinal problems to the inability to breathe. Contact had only made it worse, too.

When Snow thought about Humans long enough, he thought about the Pugs; creatures with their genetics so corrupted their faces perpetually looked like something cast beside railroad tracks after being hit by a traveling freight train.

He thought about the Bulldogs, inbred ‘til their honorable lineage of cutthroat fighting and strong-backing was replaced by the inability to breathe so that each had to carry inhalers, oxy-tubes, or the scars and financial burdens from multiple, astronomical surgeries that unduly complicated their lives.

He thought about the Pitbulls, the Shepards, the Boxers, and Rotts; all once trained to be protectors and guardians, fighters as capable of man-killing as child-loving, and how their family trees were in shambles, tatters, rife with the senseless murders of their shining, ancestral apex-predators–murders spawned by human fear at their own magnificent or freakish creations.

Snow held no love for Humans, hated that some evolved life defended them to literal death. He’d both willingly and not, fought side-by-side with them, against them. Nothing had changed his feelings. He knew of very little that could.

And yet, when the message arrived, he did not hesitate. He immediately set a course toward Gliese-Beta. The simple reason; with as much as he hated Humans, he hated Anti-Humanists more.

Anti-humanists were fools. Bigots. Too easily controlled through their hatred. They were used by media to enable governmental and corporate overreach; used by equally bigoted Humans for overreaching into evolved society; used police as scapegoats; by gangs as symbols. Most notably, by the Zelphod to attempt disrupting the balance of Solsian powers.

No matter what anyone else wished to focus on from the ISC breach, Snow remembered the truth of its conclusion. A Zelphod General was involved. Despite claims from Zelphod leadership that the General’s actions were not sanctioned, neither were they condemned internally.

To Snow, that was as much as admitting to a false-flag op as anything. He’d been part of a couple himself, thwarted a few too, and he’d gotten a sense of them. They’d been used through-out all of Solsian history to turn the blame for an act onto another party via the acted upon party.

One such incident indirectly gave rise to the second, global war on Earth. When an act of a political party against itself was framed as an attack by another, it allowed a tyrannical monster to assume power and enact a so-called “final solution–” for a problem that had never existed in the first place.

Humans were like that, Snow knew. They were stupid, dishonorable enough to have created False-flag ops. They weren’t however, the only ones dirty enough to perpetrate them. Among other things it made them yet another tool of warfare, leveled the field for players like Snow to take full advantage of.

No doubt the Zelphod had learned of False-Flag ops since the war, had hoped to institute one themselves. Snow sensed as much, wasn’t about to forget it. So, setting his crosshairs on the Anti-Humanists was as much about retaliation against foolish bigotry as it was an attempt to secure Sol’s future, its place in the galaxy– perhaps even the universe.

For, as much as he hated Humans and their apologists, there was no denying Niala’s eternal argument: Sol could not progress with Animals and Humans at one another’s throats. He simply disagreed with where Humans belonged in their collective hierarchy.

Even so, he’d have rather seen the end of evolved life– and the rise of Humanity to masters of the universe– before letting Anti-Humanists make first contact with a new species on behalf of Sol. Let alone an intelligent one.

Alpha-Wolf sailed through the cosmos at its highest sub-light speed between bouts of recharging its jump drive. The more primitive big-sister to the F-Drive required more parameters be met, and more time for cool-down and recharging between shorter jumps. Nonetheless, he’d remained within a day’s range of Homer before his one-time companions were deposited on their temporary outpost.

He’d sailed for that outpost as fast as his ship’s hyper-physics would allow, all the time manning the Bridge. When, at last, he stood in a shuttle alone, he was prepared. Like his ship, the shuttle was the elder prototype for the shuttles now used aboard Homer and the other Clarke-class vessels, but unlike Alpha-Wolf, it was more or less identical.

He fitted his Vulpine helmet over his specially-armored space-suit, engaged its systems, tested his mag-boots, and stepped into the shuttle’s cargo-area. He gave Alpha-Wolf’s Pilot a command over the comm and the ship disappeared through the cock-pit view-port behind him. With a few keys of a rear panel, the shuttle’s lights dimmed and his mag-boots engaged. Gravity disappeared only a breath before the atmosphere vented. External sound went with it.

With a steady, slow-motion silence, the rear door of the shuttle sank. The station’s airlock revealed itself in the shuttle’s younger sibling, opposite it, where its true-crew had left it. Between the two, along what appeared to Snow as the station’s left-side, and at its lowest airlock was an identical ship– the fools’ who’d taken over the station. Soon, they’d regret that decision.

Niala’s vision was a fog. Her mind was scientific, rigid in its logic, but there were bits of irrationality leaking in. Drugs always had a way of taking the mentally astute and making them dream big. It was the only reason Solsians had made it to space in the first place. Some Human had looked up at the stars, stoned out of his gourd, and dreamed. And then, another. And another. Until one did it that concocted a story about how magnificent it must be up there.

And then some not-quite-so-stoned person decided they agreed. And then, a lot more, sober ones did too. They all got together, did some math, and then showed up on the doorstep of the stoned dreamer’s house, and said “watch this!” Then a mile a way, a trail of fire and light cut through the sky, and the stoned person could only stand beside the sober ones, each of them mustering the only thing they could; a complete and totally bewildered, “cool.”

The rest, as they say, was history. Niala had never been surprised, on reflection, that Chinese Opium lovers were also the first rocketeers. Drugs made one think in that stoned, dazed way of boundless imagination. Dreams first and logic second. Niala would’ve loved it given any other circumstances.

But currently, someone was trying to use it against her. Why, she could only guess. They’d yet to question her. More than likely, it was something to do with Rearden’s interference. If the bot was half as smart as she knew, it put a lock-out code on the console. No doubt, Shafer’s people believed she knew it.

Mostly, she guessed that hadn’t considered Rearden’s intelligence or capacity before zapping it. Also mostly, because they didn’t have enough of either to tie their shoes without being told how to, or when. So when the Hog came in, stinking like road-kill and mud, it refused to believe her even despite the would-be truth drugs.

“I don’t know it,” she said in earnest.

The universe spun around her. The room’s lights left streaks like shooting stars. The whole effect was that of watching a meteor shower, during daylight, from a spinning merry-go-round.

He demanded an answer. She gave one; “Did you try, “dip-shits?”

A hoof cold-cocked her across the jaw. It served only to add a cross-wise tumble to the spinning universe. The pain was far too dull and distant to matter much, even if the hog hadn’t hit like a tired butterfly.

Niala laughed, “Try again. Nothin’ there, but something’s bound to come up.”

The Hog reeled back again. Niala was focused behind it; a figure grew six sizes, loomed above it. From her drugged state, the Hog was actual size. The figure was a skyscraper. Darkness bathed its one-side, the other only vaguely reminiscent of something she once knew. Before the Hog could know what was happening, the skyscraper flattened it against the storage-room floor.

Snow swatted downward with his oxygen tank. It connected, followed through, took the Hog with it. Niala couldn’t help but find this instantly and uproariously amusing. Whatever the effect to her, it left the Hog limp on the floor, blood trickling from its cracked, unconscious head. Snow set the tank aside to rouse Niala. She babbled something amid laughter and Snow instantly knew she was drugged.

He dug through a pouch on his suit, produced a horse-pill, and broke it apart beneath her nose. She sniffed hard, uncontrollably. The world stopped with a jarring vertigo amid its spin, settling into place before her. Her eyes homed in on Snow’s, then narrowed intensely.

“Snow!?” She said in a hush.

He put up a paw for silence, then whispered, “There are more nearby. Are you fit?”

She tested her legs, let her arms level out with the beam she was chained to, then nodded. Snow dug for the keys in the hogs vest, freed her from the locked steel. He gave a signal to stay low and quiet, then made for the storage room door. Niala’s head still teetered to and fro, but she fought it with a tightening jaw; they had a job to do.

11.

The Wolf Doth Protest

Snow hesitated at the storage room door and peered out along the hall. At its end were the two rats Niala had seen on meeting Shafer. The bastard was no doubt in Control with the She-Wolf, attempting to bypass Rearden’s code. No matter, the entire HAA would know of the take-over now, would entrust them to remedy the situation themselves– or Niala, anyway. Padfoot Lightning had its downsides. Then again, Snow’d found his way in. That only raised more questions she didn’t have time for now.

Niala focused ahead as Snow strafed to the corridor’s far-side, low and silent. Niala followed along the other side letting training take over to make her a leaf on the wind. When they dropped to all fours though, it was millions of years of instinct that led the charge.

Silent, quadrupedal motion turned to a full-force a pounce. A century ago, that would’ve given way to tearing throats and gored entrails. Now, only the soft snap of bone vibrated their paws. No other sound was heard, save the slight rustle of cloth settling against metal floor.

Snow broke left, knowing the corridors T off again. A few meters later, a corner wrapped around again. At its long end, the “T” led to another section of station, two-thirds of it forming the lone control room and station’s various controls.

But immediately past the corner, the doorway to the bunk room sat open. Snow could saw the large Cougar looming over two Humans, tied and blindfolded along a central column. Niala was too focused to see, ended up smelling them first. Lina was strongest; terror masked as well as one could. Conversely, Simon was nervous if little else. At least ISC incident had done some good for his courage.

Smell always betrayed humans, but it was the Cougar, Saffron, that reeked most– of blood-thirst and boredom. If they didn’t act soon, that combination would lead to bloodshed. Niala and Snow readied themselves.

Simon could neither smell nor see his would-be saviors. The only scent present was a pungent reek of something calling itself tobacco, and days-old, unbathed cat. If he’d learned anything in his years of friendship with evolved life it was, big or small, Felindae all smelled the same after a few days without baths: bad.

The Cougar was no different. He stank.

Like hell.

Simon was too preoccupied to care much. He couldn’t help feeling as if taking part in the first half of a witch-burning. It’d never reach the actual burning stage for lack of kindling, which ruined the illusion somewhat, but one couldn’t deny the similarities. He and Lina were tied, back-to-back, on opposite sides of a steel support beam that was more or less load-bearing for the section. The more he thought about it, the more he decided Nazi’s should be opening an ark nearby. Then again, whose to say they weren’t? He wasn’t exactly master of all he surveyed.

In simplest terms, Simon wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, barring the unforeseen.

Inward Snow and Niala crept, unforeseen, unheard, and unsmelled. The reek of tobacco would’ve covered them anyhow. Simon knew only the vague sense of a draft that Lina seemed to notice too. Perhaps she heard or smelled something no-one else could. Perhaps the simple shift in wind calmed her.

Intense grunting preceded a collision of heavy and soft. Then, something heavier hit the floor.

Niala rushed for Lina, unbound her hands and feet. She began to speak, but Niala pawed for silence. Snow cuffed the Cougar to the floor beside Simon.

“What’s going on? Who’s there? Lina?”

Snow ripped the blindfold off Simon’s face; half expecting gratitude, and half expecting a smart-ass comment. Instead, Simon’s eyes narrowed and widened, one after the other, in utter disbelief.

“Snow? Why are you here?”

“You’re welcome, Human,” Snow grumbled, cutting his bonds.

Niala helped Lina over, “Alright?”

Lina nodded and rubbed the back of her head, “Is it just me or is space turning into Glasgow?”

Niala instructed her quickly, “Stay here. Tie him up. Can you do that?” Lina nodded. “Simon, you’re with us.” Snow moved to the door, peered out, “Lock the door behind us.” She pulled a plaz-pistol from the Cougar’s side, handed it to Lina. “Just in case.”

They headed out. Lina followed to the door, and when Simon thought to linger, shut and locked it. He found himself once more unarmed and on a path he wished didn’t exist, least of all for him.

There were more than a few reasons he abhorred violence, and until a few years ago, he’d never have employed it voluntarily. That was, until he’d become concerned with righting an injustice so foul there was no choice but to allow for violence. While some of his actions then might have appeared vengeful, his true motivations had always been justice, correcting a grave and vile mistake.

Now, neither correction nor justice were the issue. Rather it was preservation of order; not law, nor even necessarily any specific order, but a status quo whose disruption would damage more than he alone. Allowing Anti-Humanists to establish the first foothold in deep-space, apart from mortifying, would be the first in a short line of “last” Solsian mistakes. Simon would rather his life end than those maniacs become his “ambassadors to the stars.”

So again, here he was, creeping along behind his boss, the Lioness, and a blood-thirsty Wolf. They were probably going to be in a fire-fight. And again, he’d be expected to improvise like a soldier. Obviously, he wasn’t one. Had never been one. Would never be one. He’d made it through the last militant exercises on luck. Even when closest to act or die, he’d frozen. It was Rearden that had saved him. Now the little bot was gone, incapacitated. His heart hurt at the thought.

Still, he followed the Lioness and Wolf along a corridor as it jutted left. His each step was as equally a feather on a library floor as the pounding of a war drum. His heart raced Delta V launch. His head lightened. If he didn’t know better, he might be about to faint. Instead, he swallowed saliva and creeping bile, and hunched a little lower.

They hunkered down outside the control room. Tell-tale sounds of graceless fingers against a touch-screen leaked into the hall. Even for an evolved animal, there was no denying the creature typing was heavy handed enough not to be handed at all.

Snow and Niala were prepared. Simon was barely breathing. Among other things, he didn’t want to give them away. They exchanged a silent look then sprang inward on all fours, galloping in charge. Simon stumbled in after them. All hell broke loose.

The hawk thwacking at the touch-screen nearly jumped from its down. Shafer and the Wolf reacted; rounded, weapons drawn. Snow struck first. The she-Wolf’s pistol flew to one side of the room; her body followed Snow’s to the other. They tumbled, howling and growling. Teeth flashed. Blood flowed.

Niala aimed for Shafer, Simon for the startled Hawk. Niala missed. Shafer was too small, too agile. Before she could rebound he was across the room. He hesitated at the door to watch the chaos unfolding, caught Simon flying over a console. He hit his mark and knocked the Hawk to the ground. The comical sight was considerably less amusing to Shafer as the Hawk’s head smacked the floor, rattling its hollow bones. It was out in a blink. Shafer bolted.

“Snow!” Niala shouted.

He was on his feet, “Go. I’ve got the bitch!”

Niala dropped to all fours. Simon fought to secure the Hawk’s wings, spied her pursuit:

A million and more years of evolution had formed her into a creature of pure power. One that, however unwittingly, the Zelphod had honed to a razor’s edge via their forced evolution that bestowed the brain of a genius-level thinker and strategist. She, in turn, sharpened both body and mind into a creature worthy of the royal title of Matriarch, bestowed by her Earth-based African sisters. All the honor and glory of that moment resounded inside Simon with a sort of pride, as if their shared planet of origin alone put him on some level with her– a level he could otherwise never reach or know existed.

And all of that humbling flew out the window like so much dander on the wind as she rounded into the hall, on all fours, slipping and sliding like Mittens the kitten hoping to flee on polished hardwood….

Hoping, and ultimately, failing.

By the time she recovered and disappeared, both she and Simon knew Shafer was gone. He had too good a lead.

Niala refused to admit defeat so easily, nor did Snow’s “Bitch,” whose title only made her angrier. Much angrier. She slashed at Snow’s suit, unaware of the inch-thick ceramic plating sewn into it. Failing to see it then, she lunged and bit at his mid-section.

A yelping howl saw her reeling back, one canine tooth shorter. Snow took his opening, lunged. The she-Wolf’s yelp fell to an angry, defeated growl. Snow had won, they all knew it.

But Niala had lost. She was at the airlock, watching Shafer’s Cheshire-cat, smug grin from beneath lights warning of venting atmo. Shafer locked his helmet in place as Niala baring her teeth. The last image they had of one another was Niala standing beyond the airlock, knowingly hopeless while Shafer waved goodbye sarcastically behind the shuttle’s retracting, cargo door.

Simon helped Snow secure the other prisoners, separated at various points of the storage room, then left with Lina to attempt the comm-hack. The more they did, the less they felt they could. Rearden had input a 400-bit encryption lock. That code would be irretrievable until it was up and working again or its memory was breached. Either way it would take time. That is, if the electro-stunner hadn’t entirely fried its memory cores.

Simon didn’t even want to entertain the idea of losing one of his best friends, let alone the broadcast code.

Niala on the other hand, merely stared at the empty airlock while her mind worked. She about-faced and stormed for the storage room. The need to retrieve Rearden prompted both Simon and Lina to follow behind her. They drifted along, lost in thought, completely unaware of the sudden fury ignited in her.

The Humans were at the storage room door– where Rearden had, once more, been tossed so carelessly for fear that Simon might reactivate him– when Niala exploded.

Snow stood beside Nero Saffron, still tied and unconscious. Niala lunged. Snow’s armored back slammed a station-wall like a ringing lead-pipe. It froze all present and conscious, including both the Hawk and the She-Wolf, Rhein and Fera. It was then, for the first time, that Simon realized how small the Wolf truly was. He showed no fear, but needn’t either, all present saw the scale of things.

Snow was neither a friend nor an adversary to be underestimated, but he was a Wolf. He was small, sinuous, built for pack hunting, running. Niala, Matriarch Lioness and Mother to uncountable cubs, most now fully grown and respected in their own rights, was a creature of pure power. She was built to stalk, to watch, and when the time was right, to kill.

It seemed that, he knew this, had always managed to compensate by taking charge or shelling out orders. It wasn’t a power-trip, more habit. Most especially, he did this when in the presence those who were, or whom he considered, subordinates. To him, the illusion of power was just as important as its reality, given he’d been required to recruit and command so many various species, and legions of them at that.

None of this changed facts, though. And the fact was, no matter how big he seemed elsewhere, beneath those massive limbs and before that angry, Panthera Leo muzzle, he was suddenly small.

12.

Uneasy Alliances

“Traitor,” Niala growled, her arm at Snow’s throat. Her other paw flexed, razor claws tensed, ready. “Your ship could’ve fired.”

Simon was frozen. Beside him, Lina too. Across the room, Rhein cringed. Conversely, Fera licked her lips with a blood-thirst even Saffron couldn’t have matched.

Snow winced; any muddled explanation or unclear motive would end his life. His spine stiffened as best it could beneath her strength. The ultra-dense ceramic-plating of his suit compressed his body with the arm at his throat, the former utterly impotent against the latter. He would have to make a point to tailor something for his neck… if he survived.

He took the only route he could, even if it could just as easily end in his death; total honesty.

“You’re right.” He spoke slowly, his eyes fused to Niala’s. “It could have.”

Simon was too acutely aware of the blood-thirst on the air. He was also aware of how very small Snow appeared; how very large Niala appeared; and most of all, how very still everything had become. He wished deeply for something to break the tension, but chose further tension over the tension being broken with murder.

Much as Simon loathed Snow’s dominance games, he and Niala had long been friends– or as near to it as their circumstances and choices allowed– and Simon didn’t care to see that line erased. Or more importantly, the carnage of its erasure.

Yet Niala’s fury said their history meant nothing if Snow’s continued reply remained unsatisfactory. If so, it also said, there’d be blood by the bucketfuls to clean. He’d and Lina had already decided– however unconsciously– if it happened, Niala would be the one with mop in hand.

Snow stiffened even further against the hydraulic sandwich of the Matriarch and his own armor. The feat seemed impossible before he’d managed it, even less so afterward. He remained openly honest, no maneuvering, no games, however unfamiliar it felt.

“Had I destroyed that ship, two things would now be fact; the black-box transponder would be broadcasting to Shafer’s people, drawing them here. And, informing them something other than Homer was armed for battle in this quadrant.”

This was delicate ground. Everyone knew it. Curiosity, or sheer need, magnetized each person to Snow’s every syllable. Simon and Lina saw it for what it was. The others too, though less so; Snow hoped to manipulate the room into recognizing his importance. The problem remained however, that no-one could reach Niala before she decided to move, if indeed she did. He remained aware of this fact, as did the others of all the facts before and around it.

He stayed his course. “Had Shafer been killed, he’d have immediately been replaced by someone we’re ignorant of. We know our enemy now. We also know Shafer; he will seek revenge, hoping to rectify his failure. This allows us to anticipate our attacker, his attack.”

The slightest breath escaped Niala; blown pressure from a release-valve to avoid catastrophic overload. It wasn’t necessary for breathing, but for easing internal tension. Niala was now one breath further from explosion, from rashness. Judging by the room’s remaining tension, only Simon and Snow recognized the slight nudge the Wolf’s future had received against sudden, lethal misfortune. Over his next few sentiments, Snow kneaded enough of that remaining tension to dissipate it, nudge by nudge.

He remained with total honesty. Given the immense strength still posed beside his jugular, it was the advisable option. Warrior or not, to do otherwise was foolish. Snow hadn’t lived so long as a fool. No-one that knew him would claim it either.

“Knowing Shafer as we do is infinitely more important given the discovery below us. There is no doubt, had I ordered Alpha-Wolf to fire, the civilization below would’ve seen the destruction. If they’ve yet to spot us, it would have been a poor introduction.”

Niala’s jaw was tight. She agreed, but knew him too well to believe him fully. She knew what he wasn’t saying; that he’d yet to pick a side; that the Wolf was also restrained and hidden because he wished not to expose it to the Anti-Humanists; that he wished even less to expose his indecisiveness.

Sol and the HAA could be manipulated into believing in his impartiality. They were stupid enough to fall for it. Bureaucracy had a way of making even the most advanced civilizations look dimwitted. Mostly, it was the purely empirical nature of the beast. Empiricism had its place. Science of most of all.

But science was only one-part Empiricism. Science too, required heart, imagination, discipline. Bureaucracy was wholly empiricism, nothing else. It could not survive otherwise. As a result, it suffered from foolishness and myopia. Indeed, if universal, governmental history had proven anything, it was; any mode of thought based on a sole principal was infinitely worse off for it. Were anyone to seek an example, they need only turn to monarchy. Functional or not, a system relying on one idea as its core missed the point entirely of a system.

At the risk of needless repetition, bureaucracy had a way of making even the most advanced civilization look dimwitted.

Niala, on the other hand, was not a dimwit. She wasn’t a fool. And she wasn’t about to let Snow treat her as one.

“You must think I’m neutronically dense,” she said with a hint of pity.

One of his eyes narrowed further than the other. “Not in the least.”

She breathed deep, releasing him slightly. He had enough time to relax and stand again on his own two feet. A right cross knocked him sideways.

“Never forget your life was a gift from me, Snow. Bestowed more than once.

He caught himself on the unconscious Cougar with one paw, pressed the other against his bleeding muzzle. The Cougar began to stir. Snow let out a momentary fury with a lone punch, knocked the Cougar back into unconsciousness.

Niala pushed past Simon and Lina without looking, left. It was more a show of finality than anything. The couple lingered long enough for Snow to sulk off into a corner and dig through a pack he’d brought in from his shuttle. He’d been corrected, wasn’t happy about it. Then again, he was alive. Anyone else in his situation wouldn’t have gotten away alive.

He could certainly take a punch, that wasn’t the problem. The obvious humiliation was.

Of all things, Snow was a leader, with pride. That pride, in turn, secured itself via an honor-code held to even more rigidly than nerves to his spine. In combination with that, he kept himself and his people safe through executed action. In simplest terms, he backed the threats and promises he made.

Niala’s victory was a reminder he could still bleed, still die. It was a promise too, she could ensure he bled whenever she wished, especially if he tried to pull-one over on her. Simon had learned years ago Niala could never bear to kill Snow herself– and yet even in retrospect it made the scene no less terrifying for him.

Simply, there was too much between Niala and Snow to kill him; too much trust, too much friendship. Too much of things Simon could never be certain of– though never anything more than a certain friendship and rivalry. Nothing more intimate.

What Niala could do though, was make to it so she effectively pulled the trigger. Killed him without killing. It was as simple as the act of forcing him against the wall in front of the right people. Humiliate him in the right time, right place, with the right company, make him appear weak enough, and someone else would get to him. His death would then be as much her doing as the act of exposure. It wouldn’t happen immediately, might very well be a fight to the death for the person, someone could get to him.

That was, if Niala wished them to.

For the moment, all involved knew the weren’t to that point. There was no reason for it. Not yet. Certainly there were unspoken reasons for not shooting Shafer down, but his sentiments remained correct regardless. The line of reasoning’s whole mattered less given the integrity of its constituent parts.

In layman’s terms; he’d lied, but only a little.

Presently, the two Humans trailed after the Lioness; Simon carrying Rearden’s dented, little figure along. He’d have to pull and examine its memory core, and if intact, side-load them into the station’s systems to access the code. Meanwhile, the rest would have to be repaired by hand, and if Simon was lucky, easily. Otherwise, it would cut into the inevitable shift-sleeping he and the others would take on monitor the station.

He and Lina set about loading and decrypting Rearden’s memory while Snow lingered elsewhere, licking his wounded pride. He might as well space himself for all the good he was doing. Niala felt similarly. Feelings aside, Snow’s ship-full of people far outstripped their three scientists, one fried bot, and cadre of prisoners. If the prisoners managed to escape, there was no telling what would happen– to say nothing of if Snow suddenly decided to pick the wrong side.

Simon and Lina worked over an hour to decode the emergency transmitter’s contents, several more before they were able to deactivate it. Translated to English, Rearden’s Binary message read like an old telegraph missing its stops: Alert. A-H- aboard. Seek Homer. Ambush planned. Do Not Return. Only trust direct contact. 1030 Zulu. Message Repeats.

That simple text had saved untold lives. Rearden, were it Human, would receive the HAA and ISC’s highest honors. But it wasn’t. It was a bot. A programmed and intelligent system, but a system nonetheless. Accolades meant nothing to it. All the same, Simon would find a way to honor the bot; perhaps a new coat of paint, something else of the sort. He’d figured it out in time.

The beacon deactivated while Niala launched a burst transmission to Homer. It was merely a request for a vid-call, signed by her operator’s code. That number alone guaranteed Homer knew it was her. At the very least, Ingstrom would know. Privy to the knowledge of her spec-ops training, he knew she’d die before that code was given up. For operatives like her, ones Ingstrom knew well, there was no “Room 101,” or life and death. There was protocol. Nothing else.

Minutes later the comm-console lit up. The quantum communicator and its sub-space packets could link the Milky Way galaxy to another if it so chose. Or, Beta station with Sol. Or simply, Beta with Homer, as was the case now. It could, and would, do so instantaneously, without lag, and until nothing short of catastrophic destruction of the transmitters interrupted it.

At the moment, things were calm. Even Ingstrom appeared much less severe than Simon recalled. He suspected relief was the cause, but Ingstrom’s stone-face grumble left him hard-pressed for proof.

“I trust the situation has stabilized and was handled appropriately,” Ingstrom stated.

Simon sensed his wish for no further details, either due to personal disinterest or professional caution.

“Aye, Captain, yes,” Niala replied. “There was only a single complication. Someone–“

Ingstrom cleared his throat, making it obvious to all that he knew more than willing to say– and that someone else was likely listening. It suddenly dawned how much he would know of Snow’s presence, more so than her, and that he’d possibly contracted him there, instructed him to keep from being spotted in the event he was needed.

It took Simon a moment longer to catch on, though Lina was thoroughly lost. New as she was to these games, she knew to keep quiet, listen and learn. Niala was clearly in charge anyhow, and far be it from her to question her well-trained, well-weathered, quite-well-frightening-when-angry boss.

Ingstrom gave a few, final remarks. “Question your captives. For now, they are to be treated as any domestic terrorists. There will be a diplomatic communique arriving I would like you to attend to concerning our new friends.

“Until then, be aware that we’re monitoring Gliese on long-range sensors but will be proceeding on-mission until directed otherwise. If you learn anything, do not hesitate to relay it. Stars guide you.”

“And you, Captain.”

The comm cut out and Niala turned for the door, headed from the control room.

Simon called after her, “Where are you going?”

“To get answers.”

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.

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.”

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 culprit 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 recognize– 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 vidscreen stared at them, blank, but waiting. The eeriness 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 shaky, 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.

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.”

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 millennia, 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.

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 festered 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.”

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.

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 Rhein 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.

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