Poetry-Thing Thursday: White Wolf, White Wolf

White Wolf, White Wolf
the path is calling you, Wolf.
The Swallow is gone.
The winter’s to come,
and love’s violet eyes,
remain cold and numb.

White Wolf, White Wolf,
with silver and steel, dear Wolf.
The scars that you bear
are more than skin-deep,
and the path is aligned,
with frost-borne keeps.

White Wolf, White Wolf,
wraiths come today, my Wolf.
Fight for your love,
or freeze in new loss,
for the frost comes unbidden,
like it or not.

White Wolf, White Wolf,
of lands long gone and lost.
Find comfort in violet eyes,
raven hair,
black and white cloth
for the Swallow is flying,
and you’ve no choice but to watch.

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Short Story: These Damn Games

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

He closed his eyes, opened them…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sheriff led him out, hand on his shoulder.

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

Back in Sol Again: Part 13

13.

Answers

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

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

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

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

Fera’s brow cocked up, “And?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He leaned in, indifferent, “Ask them.”

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

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

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

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

“I–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not at this level, anyhow.”

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

“More or less,” Niala confirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“With Solsian political connections.”

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

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

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

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

His eyes narrowed, “My authority is absolute.”

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

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

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

“In short, I’d look for Ganymede.”

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

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

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

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

“Can you state your intent, Captain?”

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

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

“Six. Plus cargo.”

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

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

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

 

Poetry-Thing Thursday: The Cracking Spade

The rumble of a diesel idle,
sounds through a still,
and dead-quiet night.
Elsewhere,
its echoes are drowned,
in the crack of an earth-splitting spade.

Day-old death,
lingers long after diesel leaves.
Still the spade cracks,
forming the shallow grave,
meant to entomb a truth,
no-one will know exists.

Somewhere, close-by,
scavengers have awoken.
Called by promise of decay,
they follow their noses to the sound.

In the shadows they linger.
Unbidden. Unseen.
E’er circling, e’er waiting,
to strike.
More and more,
accustomed to the spade.

Going unheard,
as they chance closer looks,
hidden by the moonless sky,
they are, as if, non-existent.

When at last the spade pauses,
it has long been too late.
The wretches are in place,
breath stinging the air.

The spade rises,
but cracks no more.
Rises in place.

Then falls,
bearing witness,
to yet another,
fading cry.

Short Story: Mistakes Unchanged

Emile Manning had been in the motor-pool roughly four years now. He’d signed up as a heart-sick teen intent on a two-year deployment. He’d always preferred motor-pool maintenance, had done everything to ensure he ended up there. He took the tests, aced them, met the veterans, got in good with the job placement guys. When he finished boot, he got to where he wanted, spent a few months as a greenie gopher, passed muster, inspection, and P-T every day with flying colors, and when it finally came time to apply that discipline to his “dream job,”he did.

Maybe that was his mistake; dreaming of an average job in a sup-par part of the world. Who knows, maybe it was just being born.

In any case, he landed the job and shipped-out to Mid-East for a front-line motor-pool. His first few months established his routine of rising for chow, then watching the other guys head off for patrol, before he headed off to repair the HMMVs they ended up trashing.

Humvees weren’t his specialty, though he could breakdown and rebuild one with his eyes closed. He was to machines what foot-soldiers were to rifles. He knew every piece of the motor-pool, could hear when one was about to trash the others and require a rebuild. The EOD guys kept the roads safe, but Emile kept the people traveling them safer. Patriotism may’ve fueled the Army but sweat kept running, and Emile could sweat like no other.

So when General Hardin came through the motor-pool, he found Emile ass-deep in an Abrams tank– his actual specialty– and its jet-engine motor. The tank’s rearwas disassembled and scattered around the repair garage. Some jokerthought it a genius idea to ramp the thing off a ditch and onto a massive boulder. Sure, the tank had made it, even caught some air, but at the cost of a compressor and a few air and fuel lines.

The idiot brought it down too hard, forced the compressor to re-seat in its casing. When the pressure sky-rocketed in the lines, they burst and sprayed fuel, oil, and air everywhere. The resulting mess required an entire tear-down, cleaning, and rebuild. If Emile had been the unmotivated type, he’d have had the whole turbine scrapped but he liked the challenge.

He’d already torn down most of the saturated parts, replaced the lines and repaired the compressor, but still had over half the engine to clean and check before reassembly. His mind was empty, like a Buddha in meditation. The only thing he knew was the autonomous way he worked.

And, occasionally, the question of how the hell the thing hadn’t caught fire, exploded, and killed every one aboard. Jet fuel was highly volatile, after all.

General Hardin approached and called for attention. Emile dropped his tools, banged his knee, and stood board stiff with a grimace and a salute.

“General sir, Master Sergeant Emile Manning, awaiting orders, sir.”

“As you were, Sergeant,” the General instructed.

Light hit the four, silver stars on Hardin’s shoulders and Emile’s military instincts kicked in. He fell back into his routine immediately, ignoring Hardin’s continued presence. He’d been taught to power through anything to do his job, had even replaced an alternator on a stranded Humvee in pitch-dark night during a fire-fight.

Normally, they’d have just called out a tower, brought the old rig in and exchanged it for another. The fire-fight meant possibly never returning; someone else could get it. They couldn’t allow that. Short of scuttling the damned thing, they’d lose it unless Emile went out; the best, fastest mechanic in the whole damned army. He took it as a personal challenge to get the thing running again or die trying.

Maybe that was why Hardin was there now. He didn’t know. It’d been a while since that stunt, but there was a definite hint of evaluation to the air. Emile ignored it, but the little pill of curiosity was there, in the back of his head.

He emerged from the rebuild, expecting Hardin to question his break. Any normal human would’ve collapsed hours ago from heat. Between sweat, grease, jet-fuel and oil, even Emile was pushing it.

But that was the US Army; best of the best from the cream of the crop. Or in other words, damned if you did, damned if you didn’t.

Emile grabbed for a canteen at the edge of the torn-down tank-ass and threw back a few gulps. It wasn’t until he capped off the canteen again that he saw the General sitting a few paces away, studying him pensively. An awkward moment later, Emile spoke up, damned either way, but damned curious at that.

“General, sir, permission to speak, sir?”

“Granted, Sergeant,” Hardin said, rising to bridge the gap between them.

“Is there something you need, sir?” Emile noticed even the hardened, old man was red, sweating. “I only ask, sir, because I imagine you’d want to be as far from this heat as anyone.”

The General chuckled. He actually chuckled. And smiled. Emile’s surprise was obvious, less due to the fact that the often-enigmatic creature-type before him laughed than that he could laugh. He figured there was some regulation against it; an unspoken, secret code upper-echelon officers adhered to with subordinates.

“Son, I don’t know whether to commend your honesty or take offense to your implication.”

Emile stammered out a reply, “S-sir, I-I meant no–”

“I know you didn’t, son,” he said with a dismissive wave. “Point is, I am out here for a reason.”

Emile’s ears perked up. He couldn’t help it. His curiosity piqued, and if the General was truly speaking freely, and to Emile of all people, there was cause for interest.

“Sir?”

The General eyed him, then the engine, “I want to see you finish this thing, son. How much longer d’you estimate it’ll take? A straight answer. No bullshit bravado, understand?”

Emile gave a nod, and a “Yes, sir.”

He thought the question over in earnest; he could probably finish in a few hours, but that meant skimping some of the cleaning. He didn’t like the idea, but it was more a point of personal pride than necessity.

“Four or Five hours, ‘pending on if I take my time cleaning the parts, sir.”

The General retook his seat, “Do the job right, Sergeant.”

“Yes, sir.”He threw back another gulp of water and set to work.

The next five hours he did his job and did it well. He was zen; in a state of mind where repairing the turbine engine and cleaning each piece became more autonomous than anything he’d ever done before. Had he been a machine, they’d have modeled a production line after him. After all “do the job right”to a General meant time was the price paid for immaculate work.

Enlisted guys like Emile had learned to tell good officers from bad ones that way. Good officers knew to let their subordinates get the job done right, pushing however they wanted or needed, but not so much they forced their guys to fuck up. Bad officers thought perfection was a possibility, thus always demanded more, then bitched when things did fuckup. Thankfully, General Hardinseemed the former.

Emile finished near dusk. The heat had retreated, but the General remained in his seat, as passive and observing as he’d been all day. The other mechanics would fit the engine tomorrow morning, run the Abrams through her paces. Even so, there was no doubt in any mind the thing would run better than new.

Emile threw back the last of his now-warm water and the General stood from his seat. “I’ll be damned if I haven’t seen a better mechanic than you, son.”

“Thank you, sir,”he said, again in earnest.

“The reason I’m here’s classified, but if you agree, I’ll brief you on the way to your new deployment.”

“Sir?”

“I’m not gonna’ lie to you son, it’s work. There’s no pay raise, and no promotion, but you serve your country and put for your god-given gifts to the test everyday. You agree, and you’ll be rewarded, no doubt about that.”

Emile wasn’t one to deny officers their requests. That was suicide, physically and occupationally. More than that it meant ignoring his curiosity.

“I don’t expect you’d have stuck around this long unless you needed me, sir, and I wouldn’t want to disrespect you by declining. So… yes, sir, whatever you have for me, I’ll do.”

In retrospect, that was his mistake. It wasn’t dreaming of a certain job, or being disciplined enough to be damned good at it, or even just being born. Rather, it was the blind acceptance and plunging curiosity’s dick-first into something new.

It took a couple days, but when he saw the General again, he was dressed in his finest dress-greens, pins and all, and looking respectable. He and the General boarded a plane and twenty disorienting hours later, landed in the states. Emile could’ve kissed the ground, or indeed the General, on seeing America again and prematurely at that. It had been four years. Four too-damned long years.

His great mistake? He learned it all too soon. He and the General were escorted to an awaiting helicopter, to a nearby training academy, then to a nondescript building. They rode an elevator more floors down than he thought possible and emerged into something even more impossible.

The doors opened onto a skunkworks like a massive production-floor with obvious prototype fighting machines. Emile salivated; jet-turbines, combustion engines, sleek and boxy angles, armored plated tanks, APCS, next-gen HMMVs.

General Hardin escorted him through the building toward a back-office, took a seat at a desk, and offering one to Emile.

“You agreed, son, so this is the deal; you work here, under cover of still being on deployment. Nothing externally changes. Your family still believes you’re deployed. Everyone does. Everyday you wake up, come down here, and build the shit outta’ whatever the Engineers request. Test it. Beat the hell out of it. Whatever it takes to make the world a little safer in the process. In exchange, you stay safe, and out of that festering pisshole you came from. Sound good?”

What else could Emile say but yes? He knew even then he was making a mistake; slaking his curiosity with unimaginable change, prospects and projects he’d never dreamed of, all while never being able to tell anyone.

Still, he couldn’t deny the allure as he glanced out the General’s office window at the vehicles in their varying states of assembly. He was almost giddy.

“When do I start?”

The General chuckled and smiled again; some mistakes were best left unchanged.

Back in Sol Again: Part 12

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.”

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Traditions Defied

I have always,
gone against the grain–
Defied traditions–
had only myself to blame.

For making things harder,
on me and myself,
it’s a curse some say
but I’m not one to barter.

‘Cause after all,
anything worth doing,
is worth doing right,
and I’m doing it–
all night;
before each day’s fight.

I walk without rhythm,
still attract the worm.
Shai Hulud devours me,
in shadow or form.

So my eternal question;
to be or not to be?
But I’ve never been much for Shakespeare,
so I just keep on for another year.

Or even just a minute, you see,
with all traditions defied,
while just trying to be me.