The Nexus Project: Part 5

8.

Simon fell to his rump. Niala pounced. The pipe went flying over a hogish squeal. Fur and flesh flew with spurts of blood. Niala’s claws ravaged the Hog so viciously it gave the others pause. With her enormous claws, she grappled, kicked and gnawed as though hunting it on a long forgotten Savannah.

Rearden saw an opening. It charged a serpents at full-speed. Its thick prod pierced the scaly hide. The street returned to motion. Hisses and screams signaled the gang sprinting past Simon. He fumbled for his pistol, pulled it only to drop it beside him. He cursed. Rearden surged electricity through the hissing serpent. It flailed, bucked Rearden to and fro. Its thrusters compensated expertly. The bot’s battery surged to cook the serpent inside-out.

Niala finished off the hog, turned to see the other creatures lunging. With a step back and a spring, she bounded over them all, landed beside Simon. He fired his pistol erratically, his eyes clenched shut in fear. The creatures scattered. Rearden retracted the prod. The husk of a serpent crinkled and cracked, fell over like old, dried-out boots.

Niala sprang upright, half-drug Simon forward. Rearden rocketed ahead to ensure the way was clear. It gave an incoherent string of beeps. Niala and Simon broke into a run behind it.

“Were those Snow’s people?” Simon panted.

Niala paced herself beside him, her hood back in the wind, “No. Fool that he is, he wouldn’t betray us. He knows it would ruin him.”

Rearden directed them right, down a side-street. Simon’s voice was a high rasp, “So someone else is trying to kill us?”

“Yes.” Rearden gave a few beeps, diverted left, to a doorway that hid them from the street. “In here.”

She burst into a dingy, dark bar. The patrons inside glanced over to see the trio enter at full-speed and stop abruptly.

Niala cleared her throat, exhaled a breath that calmed them slightly. She approached an old Iguana at the bar. It stood transfixed like the others. When she took a seat and slapped a credit card down, the Iguana eased back into motion and the room followed. The patrons returned to their drinks with no more care toward the lioness and her human than before.

“We need information,” Niala said.

“We do?” Simon whispered curiously.

“We were just attacked. I need to know by who.”

The Iguana eased himself forward. His retracted dewlap’s spines like a massive, fleshy beard that perfectly accented the spines on his back and curled tail. He gave a few, reptilian sniffs of the air. His elderly, gray flesh caught the light with the dried-out signs of an oncoming molt. He turned his head so that one of his eyes could take them in from its massive orbit, then sniffed again.

He exhaled with a grumble, “Can’t tell ‘ya.”

“Can’t or won’t?” Niala pressed.

The Iguana’s mouth opened with the start of a hiss that morphed into words, “Can’t.” The mouth settled back into normal speech as one of his clawed hands swiped a dirty cloth over the bar. “Hogs ‘n serpents hate each other on this planet. They don’ work together.”

“What?” Simon said emphatically. “How d’you know that? And why not? Maybe this is a new gang that’s formed. Could it be?”

The Iguana snorted a burst of air, “It’d do you well to speak less.”

Niala tapped Simon’s hand, whispered sideways, “I’ll handle this.” She put her paws on the bar, “Several serpents and Hogs just tried to kill us. Any idea why they’d want to do that?”

He gave a throaty growl, “Perhaps you angered them.”

Niala put a hand on her credit card, “Perhaps I’ll go then, without compensation.”

She made a move to swipe the card back and the Iguana’s hand laid over her paw. He hesitated a moment, then replied in a low hush, “Serpents don’t like mammals, especially here. If you were attacked by them, there’re only two options; the Alpha pack, or someone from off-world.”

Simon’s eyes lit up, “I thought you said Snow—”

“He wouldn’t,” Niala assured him, her eyes still fixed on the lizard. “How certain are you?”

The lizard leaned in, “Certain.” He slipped the card out from beneath her hand, then shuffled along the bar to charge it.

Niala allowed it, spoke privately with Simon, “It wasn’t Snow.”

“How can you be so–”

“Because, Snow is a Wolf. They’re pack-hunters; their reliance on groups has translated to fierce loyalty. That is why most canines became domesticated, then when forced to evolve, became security or took positions that safe-guarded others.”

“How can you be sure that loyalty means anything to Snow?” Simon whispered irately.

She met his eyes, “Because of Ceres.”

What. Happened?

She shook her head, “No, Simon. Trust me on my request to do so alone.”

He threw up a hand, turned in his stool to glance aimlessly out at the bar filled with other lizards of all kinds. They ignored him. The old Iguana shuffled back into place, returned Niala’s card.

“One final request,” she said. The lizard grunted to continue. “We need a back way out.”

He gave a tired sigh, shuffled along the bar with a thrown hand to ferry them along. They followed him into a small hallway at the building’s rear. He opened a door there, the trio paced behind him by his tail as it drug long scuffs along the dirty floor.

He stood beside the doorway. With a flicked tail sideways to avoid it, he gestured them in, “In the back. Service hatch leads up. Used for fires or station-evac. It’ll take you to another floor. There’ll be an inn nearby.”

Niala gave a small bow of her head, then slipped inside with Simon and Rearden on her tail. The small hatch slid sideways, gave way to a cramped compartment where a lone ladder led upward through darkness.

“Rearden, give us some light,” Simon instructed.

The bot hovered past, thrust upward with a series of beeps. The ocular-sensor flexed, flared like a floodlight into the darkness above.

Niala watched, “Impressive.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Simon said. He slipped past to climb the ladder, “This whole things’ screwed.”

For the first few minutes they were silent. Eventually, Simon’s curiosity got the better of him again, more to distract from his fatigued limbs than anything.

He grunted with strain, “Why’re you so sure about Snow?” He sensed Niala’s reply, preempted it, “Besides Ceres. Whatever that means.”

She exerted herself with a loud, involuntary purr, “Logic. We know someone stole our data at the ISC. More than likely it was someone skilled. They would need to be to break into the ISC without a trace. It stands to reason then, they’d have been monitoring for investigations.”

Simon huffed as his feet lifted and pushed, propelled himself upward. His arms ached and his mind raced as he tried to keep pace with Niala’s assertions, “So if they were monitoring ISC, they probably saw us leave.”

“It’s a good bet. Remember, we only know of the theft from your check of the logs.”

He thought of the scene in the street, “I’m regretting it now.”

“Why did you check them?”

He grunted, “Procrastination.”

Niala laughed full-on, “Wonderful.”

9.

They exited the service entrance roughly a half-hour later, into the middle of yet another long, station-like corridor. This time, the rooms were large, only spaced along one side of it. Rearden thrust up and out of the hatch. Simon collapsed onto the floor half-in and half-out. Niala followed through, shoved him the rest of the way in, then fell in a heap beside him.

They lie on the floor, exhausted while Rearden hovered with its eyelet angled down. A single, solitary beep sent Simon’s failing arm into a swat, “Try having muscles instead of thrusters!”

He replied with a series of beeps that prompted Niala to pant at him, “What… did he say?”

“He called up whimps,” he heaved in a breath. He muttered, “Stupid can of circuits.” He half-rolled, half-fell onto his back in the empty hallway, did his best to stretch his neck up and around, “Where are we?”

Niala pushed onto all fours, stretched like a cat waking from its nap, “I have no idea.”

“Damn lizard probably did this just to spite us,” Simon said as he sat up. Niala rose to her feet, extended a hand to help him up. He pulled at it with a grunt, “At least… we’re away from the gangers.”

Niala started down the metal halls of doors and key-card locks, “I don’t think they’re gangers.”

She sniffed at the air while Simon supported himself on the wall, “You mean not local?”

She shook her head, “No, I mean, not gangers at all.” They came to a four-way cross in the metal hall and she angled left, toward what she hoped was the scent of food. “The barman said serpents and mammals don’t work together. On this planet, there’s a stigma because of MeLon myths. Most mammals don’t see any difference between the Chameleons’ ways and the Serpents’. They’re all usually hired killers, except MeLons aren’t tolerated in the slightest. It’s the unfortunate effect of having evolved to be apex predators– probably the only reason humans are allowed to remain as they are too. They’re no longer apex predators.”

Simon bounced from one hallway to another, passed an airlock. The new hall was lined with windows on either side showing the station in all its glory both above and below. They passed through the middle of the amorphous shape, cells amid a colossus that was totally unaware of their presence. As always, Jupiter’s creamy surface was visible around the immense outline of the moon-structure’s silhouette. Far below, the sprawls of Ganymede’s greatest mining facilities and factories were specks to the forms that stole is upper-biosphere.

Simon managed to draw his breath-taken eyes away, “So where d’you think they came from?”

Niala stopped before another airlock, “If Serpents and Mammals are working together here, than they’re not local. But they had no laser weapons either, which means only one thing–” She leaned in to emphasize her next words, “They were sent here to kill us and make it look like a gang did it. Which means Snow’s group is being implicated.”

Simon sighed with disappointment, “You’re reaching, Niala. Why can’t you just entertain the notion that some gang-lord wants us dead ’cause of an old grudge?”

She shook her head, “Because he doesn’t hold a grudge. He’s only angry about Ceres because the wound is deep in a place he holds to as his only, inflexible law; honor.”

She started forward again, left Simon staring in thought. He wasn’t sure what she meant by it, but somehow he liked Snow being angry even less than begrudging. At least grudges could be relinquished by certain personality-types. Anger was a rash, impulsive emotion that afflicted all beings and made them– no matter their intellect– beasts under proper conditions.

Niala’s nose led them to a central area of the station. They made their way through the zoo-like chaos for an inn that took up an entire floor of the enormous outpost. They shared a room, slept long enough to reinvigorate themselves, then once more allowed Niala’s nose to guide them. They took in the local cuisines that were not, in fact, highly-poisonous to Humans or Panthera and curiously resembled high-end Earth meals of vat-grown meats.

When the time finally came to return to Snow’s lair, it was under the escort of a guard that had sought them out. Having heard of the attack, Snow felt it his duty to see them returned alive. Afterward, their fate was their own, with no pretense of favor either way.

When they once more stood before Snow in his lair, the room had been cleared at his behest. He lit various torches to supplement the two before his throne. He began with a kingly tone, his voice robust, “My scouts have returned. In conjunction with the attack, we can say for certain the threat originates off-world. From the information gathered, we believe the perpetrators to have come from within Phobos itself. In other words, someone at the ISC is responsible.”

“What?” Niala said with shock.

Simon’s face mimicked hers, “That’s impossible!

He lit the last of the torches and returned to his throne, “Is it?” He sank back into it with a cocked head and half of a glare, “How many species do you have on Phobos? Twenty? Thirty? How many beings altogether? Ten thousand? Fifteen?”

Niala examined the floor in thought. Simon resisted the idea, “No, that’s not possible. We screen everyone. Keep them comfortable and well-paid. Exuberant lifestyles are provided at no cost.”

Snow cocked one side of his muzzle to bare a tooth, “Eh, humans. Always so short-sighted. Know nothing of loyalty.”

Simon squinted, “What the hell’re you talking about? This has nothing to do with loyalty.”

The Wolf was on his feet, his face an inch from Simon’s in a flash. Simon did his best not to shrink. Snow’s breath was hot, stank of bloody meat, “Everything is about loyalty, Human. Whether you like it or not!

Niala spoke sideways to defuse them, “I don’t understand either. What do you mean?”

The Wolf eyed Simon, then turned back to his throne with a growl. Simon swallowed hard, relaxed as he made an unconscious check of his pants. The others paid him no mind.

Snow explained, “There are two types of creatures, Domess, you of all people should know that. Those whom have loyalty only to themselves, and those whom do not. The latter group is always working, fighting, striving for those they are devoted to, or to protect them from the former group.”

Niala was starting to catch on, “You think this has to do with special prejudice?”

Snow shook his head in disappointment, “It always has to do with it. There are countless species in the ISC, your people included, but infinitely more that are not. Most are cousins or direct family. Do not underestimate the drive of loyalty.”

Simon thought it over as the room quieted. If Snow was right, the theft and the frame-job was done by someone with roots in Phobos’ activist movements– the same movements that tended to last the length of a news-cycle and were otherwise considered a non-threat. This hardly held with their methods, but it wasn’t a stretch to believe. While Simon knew most of the people in authority positions at the ISC, he didn’t know everyone. Still, the majority of people there were hard-working scientists despite any, oft-voiced dismay.

Simon’s mind kept working, hoping to deduce more, but the Wolf silenced it, “I find myself once more in the… difficult position of requiring something of you, Niala.” Her eyes narrowed skeptically. Simon’s face sketched disbelief. “We’ve been framed for the attack on you. This cannot stand. We have no evidence that we’ve not been part of it– aside from our word– but we must have vengeance.”

“You want me to tell you what I find,” Niala surmised.

“And bring any perpetrators to me so I might make an example of them,” he rose from his throne once more to approach Niala. “It is no secret I despise you for past events, but I would not dishonor you with bargaining. If you are willing, I will once more be indebted to you. If not, I will investigate myself.”

Simon looked them over skeptically, almost sarcastically. A look in Niala’s eyes however, said there was a deep consideration given to the words. Snow was not one to request things lightly, even Simon knew that. To discard his obvious ire toward Niala– swallow his pride as it were– spoke enough to the dilemma the pack-leader found himself in. He was Alpha of the only pack that had fostered Mammal-Serpent relations on Ganymede. By all accounts, this seemed previously unprecedented. To him, bodies were bodies, so long as they were loyal he cared little for their number of limbs– or lack thereof.

Niala’s aid might be little more than a vid-call, but it would allow the pack’s reputation to go untarnished. Otherwise, Snow risked both inner and outer conflicts that jeopardized his power. Simon couldn’t see any reason not to help, but was apprehensive all the same. Regardless it was Niala’s call.

The two exchanged a look for a long while that seemed to speak volumes more than Simon could comprehend. Then, with a small, deep bow of her head, Niala replied, “I would be honored to aid you, Alpha-Wolf Snow.”

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