Back in Sol Again: Part 17

17.

Fast Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone squirmed now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow!Everyone said, at once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would that not be false?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The entire room tensed up again, Vuur included.

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Poetry-Thing Thursday: Best When Lived Right

Characteristic souls suffer in silence,
while effete tools eke out unimaginable existences,
that cause collateral casualties via circular causality,
from hatred that homes its hammers on honesty and honor.

Seek not the darkness,
it will find you soon enough.
And weep not for heartless,
your wounds will need you tough.
And if the light should find you too,
rejoice in the reprieve from doom,
for it is eternal,
and you are not.

Eyeing eggs of eternity from eons beyond an eager era,
is the province of science’s promise, prophets, and principle,
whom no matter their name find the game lame,
so meddle with neurons of nits whom know nothing.

For the darkness recedes,
but a few moments–
a flash of light and breath,
we call life.
It is short and sweet.
Delicious between sheets.
A flickering torch,
ever haunted by darkness.

So make the most of your time,
your light,
your life,
for there’s one and one alone,
and it’s best when lived right.

Short Story: Six-Leggers

She was running. Faster than she thought possible. She might’ve been small, agile-looking, but at heart, she wasn’t. At heart she was a lazy-ass couch-potato, something vaguely organic growing from one side after months of stagnation. Often enough, beneath her festered a lukewarm indentation from her time there. Now, it was aching, pain, exertion. Blitz was running like hell, and faster than any human had a right to.

She’d pissed off exactly the right people at exactly the right time in exactly the right way, so she started running. Problem was, something had gone wrong. They were running too. Faster than she’d anticipated. So fast, in fact, it was obvious they were no longer human. They’d never been human, she knew now, but whatever they were, she wasn’t about to stop to find out.

She threw herself down an alley, took it as fast as her gait allowed, power-slid across a puddle to face its open side. A fence half-way through inexplicably barred her way to the far-end of the alley, its freedom. She swore under her breath, hoping her boots fit the chain-link without a struggle. Even now the galloping six-legs charged her like the low rumble of a Maiden bass-line.

If hell was real, she decided, its minions were vacationing Earth-side.

She leapt at the fence, scrambled up it, caught her first bit of luck in the perfect fit of chain-link.

Blitz could smell them now, didn’t dare look back. They reeked of rotted sewage hinted with days-old corpse. She guessed the human suits they’d shed had hidden the smell too. Otherwise, she’d have stayed the hell away from them to begin with.

She clambered over, snagged her pants on rattling chain-link and leapt for the ground below. She landed with cool air on the small of her back. The fence had taken more than its share of her pants. She couldn’t care less about it, wouldn’t have missed a beat if suddenly ass-naked.

This was Dover’s fault. Stupid bitch. She should’ve never cooked up the scheme, never involved Blitz. Then again, Dover wasn’t busting ass down four-thirty-third street with the creds and six-legger demons. Blitz wondered if she’d ever go back to that shit hole now, but knew that was just anger talking. If she survived, she’d be back, and with Dover’s cut– less now, but her’s all the same.

It was really Yuki and Kris’ fault. Anger aside. They’d done the scam, bragged about it over beers. How the hell was Dover not supposed to try running her cousin’s scam? It wasn’t even really a scam, just a misdirection. It was only the fault of the stupid six leggers who’d put their money where their mouths supposedly were. How could they have expected not to get burned in a place they hardly knew?

Fact was if it hadn’t been Blitz– and Dover covertly– that burned them, it would’ve been someone else. They were wearing suits for fuck’s sake. No-one wore a suit this side of town unless looking to get taken for a ride or packing enough heat to fund a small army. Blitz decided, if she ever got to stop running from them, and wasn’t being eaten by them, she’d have to explain their obvious mistakes.

Then again, that also required facing them without screaming. Enlightenment wasn’t looking good for them.

She raced out into roaring traffic, completely unfazed by it. Headlights swerved and weaved on both sides of the street. Horns blared protests. She passed onto sidewalk, sprinting away from screeching tires. Something heavy thumped metal. Glass was crunched and crushed. One set of galloping legs clambered into a wrench of metal. Screams and horns said one was dead, the other still chasing her.

Even beneath the street noise she heard it, felt it; a rider from hell galloping in charge across a battlefield of blood and fire.

This couldn’t have just been about their money. There was no way. Between Blitz and Dover, they’d made a little over a G hustling through-out the night. Only a couple hundred of it was the hell-riders’ though. If only she could get away, get back to the bar, reach the range of Dover’s double barrel. She’d wanted to keep Dover out of it though, wanted to handle it herself. Do the job like a pro.Not possible now.

Dover ran the bets, upped the numbers, made the stakes look good against Blitz’s skills, and for a few hours, the dough and odds piled up. Then, when the time came, Blitz’s skills took over.

Kris and Yuki had run the scam at the Arcade in Jackstaff. Why couldn’t she and Dover run it at the Circuit Board in Seattle? Each of them do their part, form a whole, and make bank. Like pros. Not possible. Not now.

There was no way around it. Blitz was on E when she’d started. Short of giving back the couple hundred, she saw no way around making the wide bank back toward the C-B. Hoping she’d catch the last six-legger up in the panic of traffic, she sprinted back through it traffic; back toward the C-B and the way she’d come.

Galloping and screeching said the drivers and six-legger were prepared his time. She missed her chance to end things that way. No matter, she had a plan now. One she knew even Dover’d be prepped for, so long’s she knew ahead of time.

Panting for her life, pumping her legs, Blitz dialed her HUD-comm. Dover answered. She panted out a few words with spittle-laden exhaustion. “Comin’ back hot. Be ready!”

The comm cut. She angled back, around the block. The C-B was close, mid-way down. She’d have to play it right, else the six-legger’d grab her at the door, do fuck knows what. In fewer than rightful steps, she was there, half-fumbling the door grab.

Panic took over. Her center of gravity shifted. She was on her back, on the ground, eyes clenched shut in defense as something ranciddripped drool and breathed steam. She felt it reel back, ready to lunge. The air pulsed.

The legger exploded backward from a roaringblast. Screeches shredded the air. Blitz scrambled back. Buckshot tore through legs, severed them from the carapace.Dover’s double-barrel cracked open, ejected the pair of spent shells. Two more slipped in. The gun snapped shut. She let the beast have it again. First, with one barrel. Then, with the other.

It stilled into silence as she cracked open the barrel and reloaded again.

Blitz swallowed hard. “Th-Thanks.”

Dover offered her a hand. “Just protecting my investment.”

They stood, staring at the creature, wondering what the hell’d just happened. Dover decided she didn’t care to know, about-faced back for the bar. Blitz took a moment longer to watch the beast, shuddered at its reality, then hurried in after Dover, glad she was no longer on anything’s menu.

Back in Sol Again: Part 16

16.

Fessing Up

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

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

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

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

He’d give anything for that to happen.

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

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

Ah, Solsian memories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A momentary silence.

Then, Ramla lamented quietly, “I see.”

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

Another silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow winced, “Smell like a sewer.”

 

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Scars

Scars run deep,
in tissues that seep,
with blood and pus,
and memoried wounds that weep.

Steel sings sharp,
begs played harp,
from creatures with wings,
hanging o’er the body-covered tarp.

Words whispered from tongue,
in a madman that’s hung,
the sound knows no end,
bellows ever his lung.

Let snow blow and fall,
‘pon mountaintops tall,
and follow their slopes,
‘til warmth comes to call.

For in giant’s steps,
comes sadness that slept,
for the soul once ablaze,
knows not what it kept.

So remember each scar,
they’re important by far,
and no matter where you go,
each one sets a bar.

Short Story: Dead Men

It wasn’t possible. It just wasn’t. Not in a million years. Jake was dead. The trial was over. Martin was cleared of all suspicion. He’d done everything right. He’d passed all the detectors. His lawyer had made all the right arguments. Yet here he was, staring at what appeared to be a live image of Jake Cooper; recent adulterer and still-fresh corpse. The body hadn’t begun to decompose yet.

It had to be a tech trick, he knew. There was no explanation otherwise. He’d broken Jake’s neck himself. Felt the snap. He’d done it in just right, too. He’d had to. Otherwise, there would’ve been no doubts of reality.

As it was, he’d almost cooked his own goose leaving evidence suggesting he knew of the affair. The prosecution had a field day with that. Both Martin and his lawyer stood firm; he knew, but he’d still been deciding how to handle it. He was torn between disbelief and refusal to admit it to himself.

It worked. That was what mattered. The courts, the jury, the judge, his lawyer, everyone believed his version. They believed, per usual, he and Jake had been drinking heavily at his home; that he’d passed out on the couch; that Jake got up to piss; that inebriated as he was– and his BAC concluded– he fell, broke his neck against the bathroom sink; that he wasn’t found until Martin awoke around noon, hung-over and in a panic.

Everyone believed it. All of it. It was a masterful play. One for the ages. If he could only tell someone.

Courtney was still off somewhere, quietly mourning the asshole dicking her despite the five-year relationship with Martin. She was the type to want cake and eat it too. Or in this case, want cock and eat it too. He should’ve known years ago.

He found out in the most mundane way. It still angered him to think about it. He deserved better than looking at Courtney’s phone, being suddenly met with Jake slamming her from behind. Hell, they’d been friends twenty years. He wasn’t even snooping. He was looking for something from an old party. A picture of the two of them. If he’d wanted to snoop, he would have.

But then, there it was: her getting railed from behind. In front of a dirty mirror. Her face half-visible and Jake’s blotted out by the flash. All the same, Martin recognized the tattoos, had seen that filthy mirror often enough. He didn’t need to guess anything.

In hindsight, Martin was proud of himself; of his handling of things. Premeditated murder notwithstanding. He didn’t fly off the handle, and for all he knew, Courtney still wasn’t sure he’d seen the picture. The trial’s nonspecific terms, and his own lies, put the revelation on a discussion that had never taken place. The conversation said the adultery was formed of another, drunken circumstance. Courtney too, enjoyed getting shit-faced. And dicked too. The two collided.

She was just lucky he couldn’t bring himself to off her too.

Martin had killed Jake with his bare hands. Premeditated. No fit of passion. No irrational rage. Rather simple, measured vengeance. Intentional. Indifferent. Not cold. Not hot. It just was.

Just as it was that Jake now stared at Martin from the other side of a vid-call.

Tech. Pre-recorded.

But Jake didn’t know shit about computers. He worked janitorial. He wasn’t the brightest bulb. For that matter, neither was Martin. Nonetheless, he didn’t know shit about tech. He could barely program numbers into his cellphone– though apparently he knew how to coordinate taking a photo with dogging his best-friend’s girl.

The dead-stare in Jake’s face contained the slightest hint of amusement. It told of more to the state of things than a simple VOIP-call.

“SurprisedI’m back from the dead?” Jake asked suddenly. Martin vaguely noticed his own repulsion. “I seethe terror in your face. Don’t worry. My death’s our little secret… for now. I just wanted you to know why I did it. I figured the time would come, sooner or later, when you’d find out.”

Martin cast aside all doubts of a recorded message. It was clear by his implication. Jake managed to pre-record and program a vid-call. He wasn’t sure he’d ever known how to, but he was too focused now to care.

“Fact is, Mart, you’ve always been a cunt.” Martin reeled. “Can’t say I really cared for you most of the time, but brothers’re brothers, right? Can’t choose your family. Just happens. Something kept us friends all these years. Until…”

“Until you start railing Courtney, you fucking asshole,” Martin blurted.

There was a laugh. Too on-point and lag-free to be software. Or maybe not. Fucking eerie. It forced a shudder along Martin’s spine. Goosebumps rippled his limbs.

Jake was chuckling, “Yeah. Courtney.” A “hmm” trailed off into an obvious “mmm.” Martin grit his teeth. Jake ignored it, either in life or death, whichever was represented. “Fact is, Marty ol’ boy, you were a cunt. A royal one. You treated her in accordance with that mentality. You manipulated her with small nudges, quiet words. Everything an asshole does.

“And you drove her straight to me. And I let you. Because she deserved better. Hell, you didn’t even know how to fuck ‘er. Just spasmed on top’a her like a dying fish. Then you had the nerve to go and off me for giving her what she wanted. What she needed.”

Martin’s eyes doubled in size.

“Oh yeah, I know. Dead or not, I know.” He smiled, chuckled. “Funny thing is, Martin, I know a helluva lot more’n you do. A helluva lot more’n you think. For instance, I know how to wire an entire apartment for video and sound without making it look it. I know how to continuously offload that data to an encrypted, remote-server, to spool forever– or until the cameras are destroyed.

“I also know how to automate a botnet to search for relevant news keywords and program it to await specific phrases. For example, “Idiot fuckhead cleared of murder charges in killing of friend.” Then have it send the collected data… well, wherever I want. To an old girlfriend, say.”

Martin’s pulse began to race. He wanted to flee, knew it would do no good. Not yet. He had to know the rest. Had to know what else he was missing.

Jake smiled; a sinister smile. It told Martin more was coming than he wanted. “I know how and when to strike to get the best drop on people. I also happen to know there’s no conceivable way a dead man can be convicted of murder. Even if he were, I know he wouldn’t have two shits to give anyhow.”

The sinister smile tightened. Darkened corners emerged in Jake’s face that terrified Martin. He’d never seen such a monstrous creature before, especially not one in the guise of someone he knew so well.

“Most of all, Martin, I know if you mix a series of house-hold chemicals into a clay-like block and place it in the vicinity of a proper, electrical charge, it will level a building. A charge that, say, could easily be generated by the short in an overclocked computer chip.”

Martin was up, fleeing. Malevolent laughter followed him. He bridged half the distance to his door. Then, nothing– for dead men do nothing more.

Back in Sol Again: Part 15

15.

Decisions, Decisions.

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

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

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

“Doctor?”

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

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

Again, silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem was:

Emile snored.

A lot.

It was awful.

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

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

Or trying to sleep.

Trying.

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

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

The dreaded Techie Plight had caught him without his knowledge.

Part of him hated Mataan for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empty.

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

Srreeeee.

Silence.

Again; srreeeee.

Silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Funny, huh?” He asked sarcastically.

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

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

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

“They’ve made contact.”

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

“No,” she calmed. “Not– Just c’mon.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mataan glared. “Watch.”

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

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

“They speak English!?” Simon blurted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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