Short story: How typical

Sean O’Leery was a typical middle-school-aged middle-child. Nothing in his appearance nor manners put him out of place in a crowd. All the same, he attracted the ire of his peers as if a quasi-magnetic force drew it toward him from them– what he’d come to refer to as “Jerks.” In fact, if middle-school taught him anything, everyone was a jerk most of the time. The only break was the times he hid away during lunch or after class-work and punching the buttons on his game-pad.

Other times, the taunts of “O’Leery the Queery” were too prevalent to focus on much. Even the few jerks he might’ve called friends on good days, preferred to call him “Queery” rather than Sean. However unable to put it into words, he sensed it was to keep him at arm’s length. Lots of people did that for lots of reasons; his “friends,” random other jerks (people), his parents. For a while he wondered if he smelled bad. Nope, he was just that unremarkable.

Middle-child syndrome meant being too young for independence, but responsibilities; too old to be coddled but free of most childhood oversight. He occupied a curious middle ground in a quasi-bizzaro-land of raging hormones, rabid ignorance, and ineffable urges. In other words; a typical middle-schooler.

And while all things considered, life was going well, something was different.

Like most kids, Sean hated life some days– hated it with the enraged passion of a billion charging wildebeests– but he knew it could be worse. For the most part, he was healthy, clothed, fed, sheltered when needed, maybe even loved (if his parents’ distant words were in earnest.) Moreover, television and internet ads with sickly-looking African kids said there were parts of the world where even that stuff wasn’t guaranteed. So, if he felt things were getting too bad, he tilted his head down, and immerse himself in the mindless repetition of a game.

To say things were going well though, would miss the profound, emotional, nose-dive of modern life amid the teenage years. The roller-coaster of puberty had only just begun for Sean. Soon enough, he’d be screaming his head off through its dips, hoping and praying to any deities that might exist or not, that the restraints held. Such was life. He might’ve known that, but he wasn’t sure enough of anything enough to be sure of it.

That attitude was probably for the best. Especially when in walked Jacob Cartwright and all that came with him.

Jacob was another, scrawny middle-child. Completely unremarkable in the most literal interpretation of the word, he had a face that would blend in any crowd and the shaky mannerisms often accompanying such obscurity. Both boys would come to remember their meeting well:

Just outside the lunchroom’s back-door, lunch-recess; that glorious time of freedom between periods four and five that split the day between, pre-lunch (nap time) and post-lunch, (almost-home nap-time.)

Sean ambled from the door, face down-turned and hands rhythmically button-mashing to a tempo audible only to his ear-bud headphones. The three-headed dragon hydra needed slaying, and he was just the controller warrior to do it.

Until he smacked straight into a group of jerks of the jock-variety– in other words, half the 7th grade football team. His headphones were yanked from his ears with all the scolding pain typical of that action. The running back, or some such nonsense, gave a stiff one-handed shove.

“Watch where you’re going, Queery!”

Sean’s ass hit the ground, his ears burning in and out and his face red over the distant screams of a slain warrior and a triumphant tri-headed dragon. The jerks laughed and hollared, the offender gesturing his group to follow him from the door.

Jacob watched– had watched– from the doorway, blocking it until a line formed behind him. He was fixated on the exchange, headphones and gamepad intact where they were meant to be. He’d watched from the angle of one precisely capable of making the same mistake, but fortunate enough to be stopped short by Sean’s enactment of his own, possible future.

The line shoved him forward and time and the world began to move again. Still, Sean stared up, ass-to-ground, stunned. Jacob stooped beside him, picked up Sean’s handheld, its earbuds dangling like a death-dungeon’s swinging pendulum axe.

He helped Sean up, examining the handheld. The boy allowed it, slow to recover. “Looks alright. No scratches or cracks.” He handed it back, “Why’d they call you that? You ask a lot of questions or something?”

Sean took the game. “Thanks… Wait, huh?”

“They called you “Query,” like a question, right?” He asked, oblivious to his mental misspelling.

Sean’s face was a portrait of confusion. He blinked to make his mind work, but it stayed stuck. Jacob motioned him away from the door as a pair of girls stepped out and almost smacked into them.

A curious magnetism drew Sean along as he took a few, large steps away. “Anyway, I’m Jacob.”

They angled around the outer, rear wall of the lunchroom for a bench there and Sean’s wits finally returned. “Sean O’Leery. And they call me that ’cause it rhymes with my name… and they think I’m queer or something.”

Jake’s eyes bulged, “Oh, that kind of Queery.” Sean nodded. “So are you?”

“Huh?”

“Queer or whatever?”

Sean’s eyes bulged, “What!? No.” He hesitated, then scowled, “I mean, I don’t know. Probably not. People are just jerks.”

Jake shrugged, “Well, sorry. I’m not really in on people’s sayings. I’m new. And I read the dictionary a lot. Guess that’s why I was confused.”

Sean wasn’t sure what to address first, settled on the greatest of the three atrocities. “You read the dictionary!?” Jake nodded smartly. Sean gave him a deranged eye, “Uh… why?”

He shrugged, “It’s fun. There’s always new words to learn! Anyway, query means question. So, maybe next time they make fun of you, try to hear that word instead, it’s not so mean that way.”

“I’ll do my best,” he mumbled. He stiffened up a little, “So, you’re new?”

“Mhmm.”

“Got any friends yet?” He shook his head. “I guess we could be friends then.”

Jake’s eyes lit up, “Okay.”

That was all either of them would come to remember. One conversation drifted into another, then another. It was a typical meeting between two typical kids amid a typical day at a typical school. So much was typical that the word sort of lost its meaning.

Something changed though, and O’Leery the Queery suddenly wasn’t so strange anymore. He was one-half of a crime-fighting duo, sans the crime-fighting. When later it turned out both boys were, in fact, queerier than most, they became two halves of something greater than friendship. Their “tying the knot” was an even more typical affair.

All of that from a simple, mental misspelling; how utterly unremarkable and typical.

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Back in Sol Again: Part 11

11.

The Wolf Doth Protest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cougar was no different. He stank.

Like hell.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s going on? Who’s there? Lina?”

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

“Snow? Why are you here?”

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

Niala helped Lina over, “Alright?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Snow!” Niala shouted.

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

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

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

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

Hoping, and ultimately, failing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry-Thing Thursday: My Box

I haven’t left my box,
much at all this year.
Some say it’s a bad thing,
that I live in constant fear.

But the truth is,
my box is really quite large,
when my imagination descends,
and it takes charge.

Some people say that,
my box’s walls are uncouth.
I disagree,
but ’cause I know the truth:

That boxes,
ones both bigs and smalls,
are around us all each day,
most with invisible walls.

I like my box and keep it cool,
or in the winter cozy and warm.
But some still say my box,
does me lots of harm.

But I don’t believe it,
and I think I know why;
just between you and me,
my box has better views of the sky.

And ones of the beyond if I choose,
past the stars and the moon,
the sun and solar system,
to places so far, I can’t return soon.

Cause its out there I’m soaring,
while my hands remain here, writing.
And though my mind’s in the clouds,
it’s my box that keeps me here, safe

from fighting–
from crying,
from sighing,
or even white-lying.
‘Cause my box is like yours,
but different,
for it is ever,
adventure-supplying.

Short Story: Nothing Better to Do

Snow plummeted at odd angles, reducing visibility to near-zero. Even if she’d had a car, Elizabeth Arnold would’ve never driven to or from school in such a blizzard. She’d rather take her chances on frost-bite getting through three layers of clothes, rather than risk totaling what would be the only set of wheels she’d have for a decade. So, she was stuck walking home.

Another day, another pile of shit, she’d say. Today that was at least half-true, given how oil darkened and grit covered the snow was. In Bacatta– and most snow-afflicted areas– snow wasn’t white or even gray most times. It was black, or brown, caked with mud, sand, salt, oil, anything the roads picked up between winters. And it was always ugly.

White snow was reserved for lavish places that could as easily afford to import it as choose to live in it. Those sub-human morons could keep their white snow, Elizabeth decided, even if human snow one ice, one part old beef stew without the carrots. All she cared about at the moment though was putting one foot in front of the other, and hoping the effort wasn’t in vain and that she’d get home more or less whole.

For all she knew, the whole city had disappeared beyond the few feet of continuous sidewalk and piled snow that peered in from either side of her hood. Bacatta could be little more than an endless void of white particulates where humanity sound as if it were hiding, but wasn’t. She guessed the answer to that would remain a mystery for some time to come. The forecast for the next few days was, to utterly no-one’s surprise, snow, snow, and more snow. The walk-home white-out was just the start of it. Seventeen years of living in Michigan, Bacatta in particular, had taught her one thing if nothing else; Winter was long and it came early, like the most teasing and disappointing sex partner ever.

Of course it was going to snow. It always did. A lot. So much so the first white-outs closed up the town with a collective “fuck it” that intended to wait out the coming storm. After a few days, and a few feet of snow, the city dug itself out and started up again.

If it weren’t for her foresight, Liz would’ve been forced to trudge home, freezing all the way. Truth was, she expected to get to school only to be turned away. That they’d managed to hold a few classes was as surprising as it was pointless. Half-days were as much snow days as exercises in futility. Especially for high-school students, whom usually weren’t alert until their third or fourth class, all a half day meant was waking up early for no reason or having a free ditch-day.

But Liz had never been one to ditch. She wasn’t sure why. There was no moral obligation compelling her to attend school. The only explanation she’d been able to manifest was “having nothing better to do.”

That apathy was largely prevalent in her life, regardless of venue. Between school, homework, getting older, more cynical, and the trials of recurrent menstruation, too many emotions had bludgeoned her since childhood had ended. So, rather than get angry like some people, she just sort of switched off.

It wasn’t that she didn’t care about people, or even things, just that a once easy-going organism had evolved into one comfortable wherever it found itself. Or, if not comfortable, then indifferent. School was no different. Neither was snow. Even the half-hour walk that should’ve taken ten minutes didn’t really bother her.

She pushed into the house to find it still empty. No surprise; big sister was usually gone and Mom was always working. Most times she had the house to herself. Apart from the day’s excess mental energy, nothing was all that different.

She headed to the basement. It hadn’t use until Liz had moved into it. Since then, she’d entirely taken it over. Apart from laundry and utility rooms, there was nothing anyone had used or needed otherwise. Having an extra bathroom she wasn’t forced to share was nice too, and she’d done her best to decorate the place.

Noon was lunch time. Always. At school, at home, at any other place she could think to go. No matter what she’d eaten for breakfast, too, or what she was doing, as soon as the clock hit noon, her stomach growled and grumbled for sustenance or recompense– usually in the form of fainting. Funny, even her gut seemed to have a do or die attitude despite her otherwise total indifference.

She slapped together a sandwich from provisions she’d squirreled away in a mini-fridge in her room, then sank into a chair in front of her computer. The screen faded on to a web-browser and her open email account. To one side, a message app flashed an alert. Above it read, “Sam Ellery,” in alternating green and white with black text. Below was “Hey Chickie, U round?”

If Liz had to guess, Sam was eating lunch and praying she’d suss out a way to spend the day with her. Liz’s charteristic indifference struck again;she had no strong feelings, one way or the other. Then again, logic begged the question, “what else did she have to do?”

Nothing. Ab-so-lutely nothing.

The next three or four days would be boring as hell unless she rectified the problem now. Sam was probably thinking ahead as much as she was caught in the moment.It didn’t make her any less on target.

Sup?

Liz scarfed down her sandwich, sucked down some soda, and read the next message.

Shit. U?

Same.

Wanna chill?

Liz shrugged to herself. My place or urs?

Urs. Rents r home. Fightin agn. Mind if I stay 2nite?

Another pointless shrug. If u want.

Coo. C u in 10.

With that, at the very least, the next few days had been secured against boredom. Sam always had a heavy bag of grass and at least a handful of ideas to offer to pass time. Liz had plenty of ideas herself. Seeing as no-one ever entered the basement either, incense could cover the smell of even a few bags of lit grass.

Ten minutes passed quicker than Liz expected. Sam entered without knocking. Even had she, Liz would’ve never heard it. It was just easier this way. She shook snow off herself, dropped a heavy backpack just beyond the closed, basement door, and dug out a separate pair of shoes to change from her snowy ones.

Liz watched with something like envy; Sam was always stunning, even in spite of a little pudge around the love-handles. Perhaps it was just her confidence– her small build made the pudge more noticeable but she seemed ever the force of nature. Her larger cups and the petite hourglass they hung on couldn’t hurt, Liz knew.

Liz was the opposite in almost every way; a hair taller than average, lumpy in all the wrong places, flat in most others. If it weren’t for the aloof personality she’d cultivated, she’d have probably been a neurotic mess of insecurities. Weed helped too.

Sam settled onto the small couch beside Liz, pack beside her feet. She broke out a bag of grass and a few cigars and rolling papers, set them on a book atop the coffee table.

“What’chu been up to?”

“Had lunch. Now this,” she said, focused on the TV.

“Wha’s it?”

She shrugged, “Some movie. Started just before you came in. Dunno know what about yet.”

Sam poured weed onto the book, put one half onto another book, and handed it over with the cigars and a knife. “Roll the blunts. I’ve got more weed if you need it. I’ll do the joints.”

The pair worked autonomously, eyes focused intently on the screen ahead. The idiot box had claimed two more victims for their foreseeable future. By the time the pair were done rolling their respective smokeables, they were on the edge of their seats.

The movie, it turned out, was about two young girls, both friendless and alone with great responsibility riding on them. All that usual mumbo-jumbo about strength and companionship and how greatness was a measure of someone’s birthstone or something.

As they sparked their first round of grass, the pair derided the movie. It wasn’t for lack of enjoyment, but rather to mask the awkwardness of the increasingly misplaced sexual tension between the two, female leads. The weed descended and the awkwardness disintegrated into its own, self-derision with giddy glee. Everything was suddenly hilarious. Especially when the two women ended the movie with a cliched, triumphant-victory kiss.

The pair fell about in stitches, their second joint burning down in the ashtray.

Liz laughed through tears, “Jesus, that was the worst kiss I’ve ever seen.”

Sam giggled with screeching breaths, fighting to open her mouth and stick out her tongue, flick it around with exaggerated movements.

Liz gasped for air, “You look… like a cow!”

Sam managed to lock herself into a rhythm of the movements. Between it and the tearful laughter, she found it nearly impossible to stop. It only fueled the already maniacal fires of laughter.

By the end of it, both girls feared for their lives from airless lungs and watery eyes. The laughter settled enough for breath to return as credits faded to commercials began, separating the end of one movie from the start of another.

“I mean, really,” Liz said, laughs still bubbling out here and there. “Who kisses like that?”

Sam’s laughs were lighter, arguably more under control now, “I honestly don’t know.”

“Oh jeeze, what the hell were they thinking?” She forced laughter away with a wide grin.

“I know. Such a lame ass ending.”

“And such a bad kiss.”

Sam chuckled with a roll of her eyes, “Not like you could’a done better.”

“Oh I so could,” Liz balked with a smarmy smile.

“Prove it,” Sam challenged with a raised eyebrow.

What? You want me to kiss you?” She asked, her eyes gigantic.

“Put your money where my mouth is,” Sam giggled. “I bet you’re all wet and sloppy.”

Liz’s mouth hung open, “I dunno’ which is worse, your insult or that you wanna’ kiss me!”

“Oh c’mon.” She hissed playfully, “Wussss”

Their eyes met for a moment: the simple challenge in Sam’s, and the deranged question of sanity in Liz’s. Sam’s raised brow said putting her money where her mouth was– or rather, where Sam’s mouth was– was the only way out of the challenge without a forfeit. Whether from Sam’s confidence that she was, in fact, a terrible kisser, or something else entirely, Liz couldn’t back down. She stiffened her face, finally not indifferent toward something; and that was that she wasn’t about to back down.

She grabbed Sam’s face almost sarcastically, hesitated, then stuck her tongue in with fast movements. The sarcasm suddenly slipped away. Her body flared with heat. It slowed her tongue, Sam’s with it. Almost a full minute passed before the girls parted.

Sam’s eyes nearly closed, her voice soft, “That was really good.”

Liz nearly panted, “Agreed.”

Before either one realized it, Sam was straddling Liz, their hands roving and tongues dancing. For the first time, Liz’s indifference was nowhere to be found. In fact, the only thing she could find was a certain, undeniable lust to continue running the bases.

Likewise, Sam didn’t want her to her stop. One thing was already leading to another, and being teenagers with home plate never far off, she didn’t see a reason for it not to keep leading there. By the end of the night, a lot of things were in limbo but one thing was certain; even if they’d had nothing better to do before, their few snow days were now full, and they’d be anything but boring.

Sam rolled over and kissed Liz’s neck. Then, as if to confirm their shared thoughts, Liz giggled and pulled the blanket over their heads.

Back in Sol Again: Part 10

10.

All Hail The King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Snow!?” She said in a hush.

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

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

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Sobriety’s Uncouth

A month in chains,
is worth a lifetime of dreams.
Shackled at the wrists.
Bound at the ankles,
I live on,
knowing my freedom,
lies on the other side,
of cages gray and iron,
of bars cold and blue.

This is the mind,
the point of view,
of a creature
whom, unlike you,
finds sobriety uncouth.

To it,
said state is stagnation;
a poison,
bearing things far worse than death,
for this creature,
thrives on imagination,
and revels in its every tainted breath.

When cut off from it–
the muse of the mind–
such creatures wither,
they die inside.

And while they can be reborn,
each time their fire is dimmed.
Until one day but embers,
coals of themselves,
mockeries of their former existence.
Wouldn’t you rather fly,
than die?

So heed this command;
let live and let live,
for though there may be impostors,
so too are there anomalies,
true-born freaks,
creatures of darkness,
whose counter to light,
can only be accepted,
not understood.

Short Story: Carbon Copy Defects

Stone and asphalt stretched for miles ahead. His classic muscle cars were all but gone from the world nowadays. For relatively good reason, too; they polluted with noise and toxins, fumes from an old, less conscientious way of life. More than that, the cars were almost impossible to repair requiring ever part to be specially hand crafted from quality steel.

Mostly though, they were just too damned expensive to run. Petroleum oil was scarce. What could be found was usually reserved for private owners of old-world wells. They stockpiled and hoarded it like doomsday preppers during an apocalypse and twice as vicious. To even hear a muscler run was mostly a thing for vids and museum-goers.

That didn’t stop Murphy. He raced along, as he’d been doing for hours, through mountains outside the city. Out here it was just him, the stars, and eight cylinders of pure Big-Block chaos exploding in the night. Behind him, the city was a hive of light and noise. Pulsing. Throbbing; a vast organism teeming with infinitely more parasites.

It wouldn’t have been easy, had he bothered to look, to separate the so-called transportation from the people. Murphy didn’t care to. They were all automatons to him. Besides, nothing was worth breaking the spell binding him to the car, the fire, the cracked asphalt. The curves of every road, the thumps of every pothole and ridge screamed of gravity, exhilaration, a past now unmatched by an insurmountably different present. His dry-clean only, electric air-car, rechargeable torch world couldn’t hold a candle to it, even had it known what one was.

Still he drove, pushing the car further from ordered “civilization.” He abandoned it as it had once abandoned the car, let the night swallowed everything but the sky’s most prominent pinpoints of light. Even the glow managed to struggle after him.

The road dipped suddenly; the city disappeared behind rising mountains. A cavalry of three-hundred and fifty horses screamed in charge, leading his assault into the unknown. Where they might end up, only the road knew. All Murphy was certain of was the emptiness ahead, the order behind, and the chaos within.

Something had been lost in his world. No-one was sure what, or how, but a transition had occurred. The world went from choking smog, dirt and gristle, to smothering, white-walled sterility where microchips could be made on street-corners. There were still places resembling that old world; dirty and gritty, but further and further between than most knew. They were poor imitations anyway, lacking the life, the soul, to their grit. With the car at least, that soul was fire; smoke, the price paid.

The remnants of that world were the places you ended up when you’d run dry on luck– or couldn’t pull the weight you tried to throw around. They were gang recruiting grounds for the latest incarnation of street anti-heroes, or in some cases, corporate soldieries. They were places where metallic and neon recreated recurrent, age-old scenes of depravity and poverty in perpetual damp and wet; places dark of midnight even at high-noon, where warped reflections in puddles were better descriptors than even the most high-res vid-cams could manage.

But it was still Murphy’s world, not the one before. It was an imitation. The last, bleak scrap of tattered canvas hanging from the frame a once-proud masterpiece. Beneath it, or rather perhaps surrounding it, was a swaddle of so-called humanity smothering itself into obedience, compliance, or death. The choice between wasn’t a choice, but an outcome serving the purposes of those wrapping the bundle. If Murphy could’ve had his way, he’d have burned the whole damned thing, child of civilization included.

Instead, he burned fuel in a car a century older than him and made of over-pressurized fossils infinitely older than even that.

And all of it, just to forget, for even a moment.

It would’ve made him think, if he weren’t so engaged in avoiding it. That was the way of his world. People thought too much, never acted, and always about the wrong things; money, jobs, taxes, Social I-D numbers, angering or upsetting the infinitely spawning pool of overlords above them. Rather than act against their miserable realities, they tempered themselves with self-inflicted fear, fulfilling their own nightmares by becoming the oppressed they feared becoming.

The only difference between those people and the visions in their heads, Murphy knew, was the lipstick stained over-swine they feared falling to, but equally failed to recognize their present overlords for.

The whole thing made Murphy sick. So sick he drove: He wasn’t wealthy. He wasn’t a genius. He wasn’t married, engaged, expecting a child, dating a would-be model or even a wannabe model. He just was. In the moments before merely existing, he’d been many other things, including driven enough to scrimp and save to afford the car, and after, the fuel.

No one existed anymore. They were all imitations of imitations, generationally mutated over and over again, by impersonally impotent, carbon-copies of one template. Each one was just as defective as the last.

Murphy wasn’t really any different, he’d just pushed himself toward something different. His fear was letting fear win. Even then, he’d still lost, like everyone else. It was why he had nothing but the car, a full tank of petroleum fuel, and the insurmountable urge to drive until one used the other and both died out. The only other thing he did have was a six pack and a bottle of twenty year old whiskey. It wasn’t even particularly good whiskey, but it was his.

He imbibed most of the six pack on the way to the mountain-top and back down the other side. Now, near its end, he pulled off on the side of a cliff-face. It only just rose above one of the forests littering the mountain-sides.

At the very least, his world had managed to stay beautiful, though he wasn’t sure anyone knew it– or ever would.

He took the bottle of whiskey and leaned against the car’s warm front end. There, between the stars and the car’s radiating heat, he remained, thinking of nothing and merely existing.

And it was there he saw it:

An entire world spread before him. Few lights dotted the horizon; air-transports ferrying those carbon-copy defects between metros; the same ones that had signed away their rights to land and property for lazy money, city-life conveniences, never realizing the noose they were fitting around their own necks, their children’s, granchildren’s– every other carbon-copy defect that would ever spawn from a portion of their template.

Murphy saw it now, felt it now, but didn’t care. He was over the mountain. Before him, fog hung a veil over the low lands amid a sterling gray while forests rode mountains along ragged, saw-tooth waves to peaking crests as glistening and white as any could be.

Murphy had seen it before, but he knew it now; this was a different world. The mountains were different; the trees were different, every one a vastly varied organism. Down to their cores. They weren’t carbon-copies. They weren’t even their antithesis. They were what they were.

That, he decided, was why he’d come. He commemorated the event with a swig from his ten-cred whiskey and raised it in a toast at the moon for another.

Moments later he was back in the car, once more charging toward the unknown. The fuel wouldn’t hold up forever, but wherever it ran out, he’d start anew.

The world he’d left behind wasn’t his world any longer. He had a different world now, the world. Earth. One where, no matter how similar it appeared; every rock, every tree, every patch of soil was different,teemed with infinitely varied lifeas his old world had teemed with parasitic copies.

And he intended to experience as many his meager, remaining life-span allowed.