Back In Sol Again: Part 5

5.

Dr. Corben to Ground Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That didn’t doom them any less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Myself as well?” Lina asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rearden processed what was said then replied with binary affirmations.

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

“Is that all?” Simon asked.

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

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

“Precisely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think it’ll go well?”

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

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

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

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

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Poetry-Thing Thursday: A Mourning Dove

I heard the cry,
of a mourning dove.
It cooed a message,
that it’d been sent,
“from up above.”

Even then,
I did not believe it.
But you can,
if you see fit.
I can’t tell you,
what to do or quit.
Just remember:
it’s your life
and all you’re sure to get.

I heard the song,
of a newfound voice,
it said to believe,
that I’d been given choice.

Even then,
I sensed its deception,
and indeed,
found need for correction,
for there is no-one and nothing,
giving nor taking direction,
but if you believe otherwise,
please consider always your affection.

I saw the rays,
of a freshly-risen sun,
and felt its warmth,
through-out my frigid days.

And I did believe,
for it I could see,
and in it, taste glee,
for it, world, seeks not to deceive.

Short Story: The Purist’s Sins

They sat, entwined, like wound yarn. The brunette’s hand stroked the ginger-girl’s head. A warm aura emitted from them, infected their bench with its glow and heat. Cold autumn didn’t exist within their bubble of love. Anyone looking on would’ve seen, as if removed from time with them, a world zipping and flickering past like film on fast-forward.

But no-one was looking, or rather, one person was, a man and not a man; a monstrous creature in the deceptive form of a human. The creature watching wasn’t seeing what anyone else would, or should. Instead, of two angelic figures, he saw only demons. Their pale skin, concealed beneath pre-winter clothing, told they feared of exposing it for its devilish origins. He watched, seething while somewhere in him, the most vile philosophies resonated with equally demented notions of so-called “proper” human behavior.

Mother had always been very strict about behavior. Father too. She only got stricter when Father died and was no longer the disciplinarian. She took on the dual role. Between it, the insurance money, and his own inheritance, the Purist had more than enough incentives to listen to Mother and emulate her “rightness.”

The Purist wasn’t his name, of course, but that’s what they’d taken to calling him. His name wasn’t important anymore. He’d taken to the persona fully. No-one knew what either looked like, but he preferred The Purist to his “true” self. He was a righteous being; an idea. A symbol. A paragon.

Mother had always been strict: righteousness was God’s way of separating phonies from pious. The only way to distinguish oneself was to become one or the other in extremity.

He still remembered his first taste of righteousness as the Purist, remembered testifying. He remembered the pride, the joy, the closeness to “God.” He especially remembered the taste of satisfaction. That taste was like chasing a dragon nowadays, but he’d become contented by his inner knowledge. The future was his satisfaction. The eternal reward his overall plan. It would be a long road, but he would reach its end, one purified heathen at a time.

The two women’s lips were meeting again. Passion palpitated between them, rippled through the aura. The Purist felt it like an atom bomb’s shock-waves.

The slight tickle of arousal so denied within in convinced himself of his hatred. Could he have even examined anything sanely, he still wouldn’t have been sure of its origins. Whether from taboo, or long-bred repression, he wasn’t sure. Mother had always been very clear; love was not something shown. Father taught her love was silent. Grandmother agreed. Grandfather taught her to.

From the outside, people called them cold, but as he’d been taught, God saw all. Pride was a sin. Excessive love was as akin to pride as anything. Wrath was preferable. Wrath sought to correct the imbalance. That was his family’s philosophy and he adhered to it.

That, and the idea that a “proper” society was the responsibility of all.

The two women parted from the bench, with an obvious pang of longing. It rippled through the aura that then shattered from their separation. It was his time now. The Purist was ready. He could never make a move when that aura existed. It repelled him like a shield. Literal or not didn’t matter. Not in the end. He got what he wanted once the shield failed…

And they got what they deserved.

The ginger girl was the better target; smaller. Weaker. He liked the thrill of the hunt more than the kill nowadays. The satisfaction, dragon-like as it was, wasn’t enough to justify the fight of larger adversaries. He was getting older. Mother had been gone decades now. His righteous fervor could only last another few years before the sloppiness of age set in.

He’d left a trail across the country of bodies riddled with biblical references and markings; pamphlets about the sin of homosexuality. There was more, but that was just what the media had picked up on. Had been allowed to know. So many other little bits of connecting information about the victims was withheld even he’d had trouble remembering it.

Most creatures of his kind– serial killers, he’d learned through various associations with himself– were the type to track those things. They made self-shrines in their hideaways and homes. Pride. They struck where they’d be most noticed. Greed. Gluttony. They struck in passion, for belonging. Lust. Envy. Most of all, they stopped or were caught from lacking commitment, for laziness. Sloth.

But The Purist struck with a vision. His own wrath was long soothed. The victims knew no better. Just like Ginger. She would get what was coming, like all the others. He’d strangle then carve her. Quietly. That was his way. The markings would be a sign at the gates of heaven and hell that her sins were recognized.

Hers, and all the others. Someone had seen the harsh truth, done their best to save what was left of their so-called immortal souls. Though he doubted such creatures had any.

It was perfect, as if Ginger knew. She led him straight through the park. The brunette was long gone, he could take his time. He let her get distance enough to enjoy the scenery. Chicago was a place where anyone could seem lost but remain a target, especially with such flamboyant hair. It was hard to hide no matter the crowd. Hardest in the lone alley she entered to cut through.

That was his time. He closed the distance as she aimed for it, and struck.

In a flash of speed and strength that could’ve made Mother proud, he was on Ginger. He threw her into an indented bit of building, large enough for a pair of dumpsters. His hands grasped her throat. They clamped down.

Ginger was ready. Had been ready.

A stun gun bit his testicles. Electricity surged up through his groin, loosed his bladder and bowels. He fell back screaming, shaking. Hatred surged through him. Wrath. The small spark he recognized; the hatred for himself he’d never been rid of. It was gone just as fast.

Ginger was near. The brunette too. Stun gun clicking. His body writhed in deserved agony. He spasmed, screaming, too near unconsciousness to know. The world turned black.

Ginger, real name Special Agent Angela Dunne, and the brunette, Skyler Rhein, cuffed the unconscious bastard. The partners in more than law swallowed bile above the so-called Purist. Some purist; covered in shit and piss whose smell tainted their UC-car for weeks. The pair were specifically chosen for their relationship, the dual cause of justice and law.

The FBI’s Anti-Hate-Crime Task Force had been on his trail for months. They’d caught a break in Madison after deducing his next likely target was Chicago. Their hunches were confirmed when he’d hit the city. The first victim there was the last. Enough for agency psychologists to finally find the pattern; gay-rights activists leading otherwise quiet lives.

Most victims were the type to otherwise be seen as perfect human beings. Paragons of the species. Most of all, they looked it. Innocence. That was important. He chose them based mostly on that alone, aware of it or not. They had it all; the looks, background, naivete, their only flaw was the so-called sin of their orientation.

Rhein and Dunne personally shoved the Purist into the UC car while acadre of CPD cars escorted them with lights blaring in triumph. They arrived, then personally shoved his shit-reeking form into a cell to await processing. By then, he was awake.

To add insult to injury, in his last moments, Rhein passionately and deep kissed Dunne. Something inside The Purist– real-name Herman Sanford– shattered. It was, only a dying part of him knew, the effect of that all-powerful repulsive aura. The true revelation and expiration of his only, and real sin; self-hatred.

Back in Sol Again: Part 4

4.

And So The Story Goes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Only One Wish

Sniffing and sniffing and sniffing the room.
I lurk amid shadows planning your doom.
I circle and sniff and position myself right,
to take you down with the least bit of fight.

For I may be cunning,
and quick just as lightning ,
but I wish for only one thing,
and that is control.

Prowling and stalking and preying I go,
hoping you’ll accept what we both may know,
that soon enough I’ll swallow you down,
and in my guts you’re sure to drown.

For I may be vicious,
and cruel as cold death,
but I wish for one thing,
and that’s to be fed.

Round and round and round I go,
when I will stop, nobody can know,
I’m millions of years of instinct,
a creature discerning, distinguished, distinct.

For I am merciless,
and do love to kill,
for little else but,
the passionate thrill.
Still, I’ve only one wish,
to eat when I will,
so could you please,
my bowl, fill?

Short Story: For Family

It was insanity. It was complete and utter insanity. This had to be the most stupid thing she’d ever done. And for the most stupid of reasons. She steadied herself on the front bumper of the car, held on to a windshield wiper. People’d been killed less stupidly.

At least if she fell at this speed, she told herself, death would be quick.

Somehow, it didn’t make her feel better. She wasn’t sure anything could, not at the moment. Maybe a bubble of down-soft mattresses around her. Probably not. Otherwise, the universe could call all their debts even so long as she didn’t die horribly– even dying non-horribly wasn’t off the table.

She swallowed hard, feeling the car’s engine explode with power. It raged forward, spurned by the foot of the fuming creature behind the wheel. Kris had never exactly been collected, but this was insanity. Stupid insanity. All of it.

If Kate hadn’t been insane enough to get involved with the gangers, this would’ve never happened. If Syd hadn’t been insane enough to still love her baby sister, she wouldn’t be hanging on by a wiper blade. If big brother Kris wasn’t insane, period, he wouldn’t be forcing her to. Most of all, if their parents weren’t insane, Kate might not have developed her insanity, and wouldn’t be just out of reach in the econo-van rapidly approaching their front-bumper.

The more she thought about it, the less she knew what the hell came next. Kris’ foot was to the floor. The car was gaining. Soon enough, she’d have to decide if she wanted to attempt something. As to what, she didn’t have a clue. All of this was played by ear. Obviously. Who the hell planned hanging off the front end of a rapidly moving vehicle. If she had planned anything, it would’ve been driving. Not hanging. Kris could’ve done the hanging.

Instead, here she was– in arm’s reach of their sister and the stupid fuck trying to kidnap her. Or who had rather– wasn’t much further to go on that, really.

Kate had always had drug problems. They all had their vises. Family problems were as genetic as the genes themselves. Kris liked to gamble. Syd drank like a fish. Kate smoked, snorted, or shot just about anything and everything she touched.

She’d always been safe about it– mostly. She’d contracted Hepatitis from bad needles. Not her fault, really. The needle exchange’s supplier made a mistake. It was a big one, ended in lawsuits that Kate had benefited from. She immediately took her cash payout to get high off of and had been coasting off it ever since. It was a lot of money, after all.

Likewise, Kris’d had both his legs broken by bookies. Not at the same time mind you, but it got the point across… for a while. Syd woke up in unfamiliar places more often than not, expected to start puking blood any day. She hadn’t decided if she’d stop drinking then or start drinking harder.

They’d have blamed their parents for their shitty lives if they weren’t so certain that, by now at least, it was unfairly beating a dead and less blameless horse than they’d like.

None of that prepared them for what was happening now. If Syd bothered to stop and think, or had time to, between the car’s first nudge of the van’s bumper and her reactive leap between them, she’d have realized how absurd the whole situation was. Kate was an adult. She could do what she liked. Including junked-out, maniac gang-bangers. It wasn’t their business. Both Syd and Kris knew that. But since when was sibling-anything ever rational?

Sure as hell not now, Syd knew. Or would’ve thought, if she weren’t clinging to the very razor’s edge of the van’s rear, double-doors. Her nails were splitting the weather stripping. Her finger tips stung from inflamed needles shooting agony through her hands. Her grip tightened. Knuckles whitened. Fingers went purple at their edges. Her feet caught the bumper and in a flash, Kris revved up and past to the van’s driver side.

Syd had only just gotten her footing when the van lurched right.

“Kris! You stupid fuck!” She shouted into the wind.

She regained her footing, only to lose it again from another lurch. She clung on by a lone set of fingers. Kris was ramming the van.

“You idiot!” She screamed, feeling her fingers bleed.

The van lurched again, forward this time. It gain an inexplicable burst of speed. Between it and the oncoming traffic, Kris was forced back behind the van again. Syd screamed and shouted at him, regaining her footing a last time. He seemed to understand the stupidity of his own actions, didn’t care. As soon as he could, he surged around and past again. Syd cursed his name, his life, and her own stupidity for being here. Then, she did the only thing she could think to.

Her free arm reeled back. All the force of the bar-brawling drunkard she was shattered the door’s window. Blood instantly streamed down her arm, her coat, the door, rained into the wind. Kris rammed the van again, but she had a better hold, however painful. Most of all, she had a burst of fury. She threw open the second door, and hurled herself into the screeching van.

The next few moments were hard to follow, even for someone sober. Syd barreled through the van toward her sister, drug-addled but in a terrified daze on the floor. Syd’s drunkard’s-legs engaged from her idiot brother’s head-butting. Then, in a moment she was sure would’ve killed them all, her bloody hands slammed the junkie’s head against the dashboard.

Syd had just enough time to grab the wheel before the van lurched, angled right, and tipped. She saw the last few hundred feet of the van’s momentum from a tumbling view progressing backward and around through it. There was also, in a glaring sort of way, the obvious, ongoing road rash of the junkie boyfriend’s head and face; gravity had wedged it through the shattered window and dented driver’s door.

Even before the tumbling world came to a halt, Syd knew the guy was dead– though her own status was undetermined. Dragging herself, and Kate, from the back of the van, she found Kris waiting. Only then was Syd sure she yet lived; there was no way they’d all three gone to hell at exactly the same time.

Kate swayed, another junkie on drugs and completely oblivious to the severity of her circumstances. Syd swayed too, but from a daze more excusable than Kate’s. By now, the junkie boyfriend’s face was mush between window and ground.

But that didn’t stop Kate from shouting through the back of the van, “It’s over, Shane! Don’t ever call me again!”

She swaggered over to Kris’ car and fell in to the backseat. Syd and Kris exchanged an incredulous look. Kris sighed and headed for the car.

“You’re welcome,” Syd muttered, though Kate wouldn’t have cared anyhow.

As if on cue, Kate yelled something fittingly foolish.

Syd threw her head back to confront the starry sky, “The shit we do for family.”

Back in Sol Again: Part 3

3.

Dinner and a Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was bored out of his mind!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I–”

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

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

“For you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just as the spaghetti pot deduced its gravity.

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

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

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