The Nexus Project

1.

The labs at the Interspecies Scientific Collaboration were the foremost in the galaxy. From them all manner of advancements, from technology to medicine, and everything between and beyond, had been produced. It was not uncommon to see the myriad of creatures that staffed it walking the halls in white lab-coats and slacks. Here and there ties of various patterns and colors accented feathers, fur, scales, or outright skin in a melding of humanoid and animal features. The ISC was home to some of the greatest minds known to exist, all of them products of the First Contact War.

It had thrown Earth and its colonies into chaos at the time, but was the greatest blessing in disguise for those few, lucky species carrying the inactive genes for humanoid evolution. Just a generation afterward, those first transformed had carved-out a place in society– whether in its upper-echelons or underbellies.

At the ISC though, everyone was an equal, there for the sole purpose of furthering science. From feathered Corvians with their hollow-boned limbs that tucked beneath their wings, to the Canines and Felines required to wear full-body suits for sterility purposes, their was a unanimous sense of oneness in their work. Across the facility’s hundred or so labs, the brightest minds collaborated no matter their genus or genetic lineage.

That was not to say the humans were gone. In fact, respectable positions, no matter the resentment from those outside. To that end, it was not uncommon to see groups protesting beyond the complex’s ten kilometer sprawl of labs, recreation, and housing buildings. Their sleek, white and gray exteriors matching the sterile colorlessness of their innards.

Security fences shimmered blue in the moonlight, an eerie beauty before protesters and their signs for “segregation of science and politics.” It was yet another clutch issue that lasted the length of the colonies’ news-cycles. Once a week the signs changed, some faces the same, but all chanting for the expulsion of one race or inclusion another. It never occurred to the protesters the irony– or their short attention span at that– of protesting with the species that they felt should be removed or included.

From his fifth floor office window, Dr. Edgar Frost, Corvian and head researcher at ISC watched the latest protest, his arms tucked beneath his wings.

“These fools make my cloaca twitch,” he grumbled with a gravely voice. He hopped one-hundred and eighty degrees, faced the assembly behind him. He best shuffled to the seat at his desk with small hops, “Josie?”

“Yesss?” The feline secretary purred in reply.

Edgar met her eyes with a curious persistent-ruffle to his feathers– as if waiting for her to pounce, gobble him up. Both had learned to suppress such acts outwardly, but no forced evolution could change millions of years of instinct.

“Josie, my dear,” Edgar said. “Would you be so kind as to call downstairs and ensure they keep an eye on our friends outside? We needn’t have another incident like last week’s.”

The canine head of security gave a throaty whimper, as was his way, “Do we really have to go through this again, Dr. Frost?”

Frost’s head tilted with its swift, avian manner, “Gnarl, I’ve little patience for interruptions this week. You know that better anyone here.”

“Yes, but you’ve–”

“I think,” Reyes, the male human, head of PR interrupted. “What Chief Gnarl means to say is we must allow the congregation its rights, else we stir greater resentment.”

Gnarl gave a tired growl, “Yeah. That’s what I meant.”

Frost’s head bobbed like a lowly pigeon, odd for a respected scientist, “Yes and it’s easy for you to say. You aren’t constantly mobbed during nightly flights by ignorant creatures. You know those raptors actually tried to chase me down?”

“Yes,” Gnarl replied tiredly.

Reyes added, “And we’ve still no recourse since they did you no harm. Had you not so evasive in your flights perhaps we could have arrested a few of them.”

Frost’s eyes opened fully, “And risk me being shredded by their talons?”

“They’re just angry, Doctor,” Gnarl replied. “Feeling they’re not being given representation.”

“Last week they felt that!” Frost corrected with a squawk. “This week they feel we should dissolve the ISC and let science progress without aide! I will not have such prejudice directing my policies. Besides–” Gnarl and Reyes exchanged a look, knew where Frost was headed. “Raptors know they are more than welcome to apply, and if we find sufficient candidates that can control themselves, we will allow them in at once.”

“Purrhaps,” Josie said as she returned from reception. Her ears had been attuned to their conversation even beyond the room’s walls. “We could bring in a MeLon in disguise. Just for a while.”

“No!” Gnarl barked. “Abso-lutely not! I will not allow MeLons in this facility, friend or foe. They’re too much of a security risk, and I will not–”

“Good Suns!” Frost squawked. “Calm down, Gnarl. Josie, thank you for the suggestion, but I’d rather not compound the problem with spies. We may be transparent, but we do have secrets.”

“It wasss merely a thought,” Josie replied, staring dully at an orb of light dancing down her lycra bodysuit.

Frost’s tongue skirted the insides of his beak in disbelief. Felines were like that– easily distracted and perpetually elsewhere. It made them excellent in positions where aloof manners and calmness were necessary. Josie especially always seemed half-stoned, probably was from too much nip each morning. All the same, she remained the cool-headed foil to Frost’s shrieking madness.

Presently he needed her full attention. He gave a grating squawk, “Josie!”

Her eyes widened to full size, her fur on end around her neck, “Ssssorry.”

“Now listen here, all of you,” Frost said carefully. “Our preparations for the Nexus Project are almost complete. There will be no way to keep the project contained once the first prototype is built, which means we have just under three weeks to secure this facility and ensure each department is prepared fofr the backlash.”

Gnarl bared his teeth, “I’ll have the bloodhounds double their patrols.”

“Good, Good. See that you do.” Gnarl rose from his seat for the door. “Reyes?”

“Yes sir,” the human replied.

“Ensure your department has contingencies prepared.”

“Right away, sir,” Reyes said, and hurried out after Gnarl.

“And Josie, darling,” Frost said as he rose for the window. “Ensure all visitors are thoroughly screened and the scanners have been checked for tampering.”

“Yess, doctor.”

She rose with a sway and sauntered from the room. Frost stared out the window at the congregation protesting, “My nest be damned if those fools take deep-space from us.”

2.

The plasma propulsion laboratory at ISC was one of the most closely guarded. Everyday that human, Simon Corben, went to work, he had to pass through more than a half-dozen security measures to get into the building. First, the basic pass-code/keycard combo at the thick, outer door. Two Then, inside it for the inner door; a voice-print, retinal scan, and visual ID through a camera. Five. When he finally made it into the building, he was met by a pair of security Bloodhounds that ran literal sniff-tests to ensure his pheromone signature was correct. Only after did they carry out the last two security measures; a thermographic scan and a wand-based metal detection. Eight.

Despite the seeming complexity of it, Simon couldn’t complain. It was routine, fluid enough that he hardly noticed it anymore. He merely sipped coffee with the same lethargic, zombification that infected everyone first thing in the morning, regardless of species. Besides, the measures were as much necessary as common sense. Apart from the Bloodhounds, it was old tech that ensured no secrets got out or saboteurs got in.

He reached the hounds with a mumbled “hello,” passed the sniff test. With a wave of the wand, he was let through, headed for an elevator at the lobby’s rear. Where most people found the Bloodhounds intrusive, Simon empathized with them. The poor bastards had to sniff all the employees, and as of late, they weren’t exactly the most hygienic bunch. He couldn’t imagine going an hour like that, let alone a whole life-time.

He entered the elevator alone, sank twelve floors to his lab. Due to the new Nexus Project, compartmentalized across several of the facility’s labs, most of his colleagues were now elsewhere. It left him alone elevator rides, during lunches, and forced him to run his lab on minimal staff. In other words, alone. Such was the nature of the project though, that no part could know too much about another lest their loosened lips let slip something vital or dangerous.

The elevator door opened on a long, narrow hall buffered by windowed walls. They looked in on massive, hangar-like testing areas. Inside, countless remote operated drones and bots, and molecular manufacturers, built, scanned, and maintained, each of the prototype engines to be tested. If First Contact hadn’t brought a massive boost of technology, Simon’s lab wouldn’t even exist. Even if had, it would’ve been theoretical for more decades than Simon was expected to live. Such was human technology before, that though they could colonize Sol, it had taken generations.

He followed the hallway to a flight of stairs that led up, right-angled, then up again. The control room and the practical portion of his lab was set on-high. Its windows fully encapsulated the view of the quarter-mile long testing grounds. Today, their drab, autonomously occupied expanse brought on a pang of depression.

A series of beeps sounded from the floor beside him, lifted his spirits somewhat, “Morning, Rearden.”

A small bot, like a lopsided gourd, nudged Simon’s foot. Its lone, ocular sensor, like a flexible eye on a thin neck, stared up myopically. Simon swore he saw partied out red-lines in their somewhere, but knew it was just his imagination.

“You were off your charger all night again weren’t you?” He asked with a disappointed look down. It beeped a binary lie of “No.” Simon rolled his eyes, “Great. You’re turning into a lying smart ass.” It beeped cheerfully. He sighed, led it to a table, and went about plugging a battery pack into its rear-panel. “You know you’re useless when you don’t charge properly. You were up data-changing with that maintenance bot again weren’t you?”

Rearden gave a few quick beeps as he switched on the batt-pack. A moment later, the bot hovered from micro-jets on its belly, beeped a “thank you,” then whizzed off for a computer across the room.

Simon sank into a chair at a holo-terminal, keyed the desktop interface with a coffee-filled sigh, “Even my damn bot gets more action than me.”

The holo-screen projection appeared at eye-height, lit up with the pro-OS bios post. It scanned through its associated hardware and networks, then flashed a password prompt. Simon keyed in his credentials, and the log of previous activity appeared. He gave an acidic belch. Coffee crept back up his throat– he’d had too much already today and he’d only just started work. It was going to be a long day.

He scrolled down the list of log-ins with hopeless procrastination, “What the–”

He double checked a secure entry from his off-site network. Connections details scrolled off;

Login: 12/6 04:30

Details: Restricted file access. Sync and download of X:\. Download completed successfully. User credential login terminated at 04:40.

Simon’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head, “Oh shit. Oh shit.”

He slid back so fast he knocked Rearden through the air. Its thrusters compensated over a squealing beep. It stopped just in time to avoid smashing through a glass panel that separated a pair of holo-displays. Simon was too concerned with sprinting from the lab to notice. Rearden revved its thrusters, barely able to keep up.

He took the hallway in roughly a quarter of the usual time, threw himself into the elevator and slammed the button for the top floor. Rearden zoomed in just in time for the doors to close, collided with Simon over a squeal. It beeped erratically, questioned Simon’s sanity and sudden lack thereof.

“Rearden!?” He said with shock. “Did anyone come into the lab last night?” An uncertain beep replied. “C’mon, think!” The bot processed, then its flexible eye shook sideways. “Damn it!” Simon fidgeted, paced small circles. The bot beeped an inquiry. “Someone hacked the terminal. It’s the only thing that makes sense. They hacked it, spoofed my address, cracked my credentials, then downloaded the data.” A few terrified beeps, then, “Yes! All the data.”

Rearden was now beeping like mad, its tones the same absurd terror of Simon’s thoughts. The elevator doors parted. He scrambled out on rubber legs for an office at a corridor’s end.

“Rearden, go to my apartment and run scans,” he instructed. “Check the interior and perimeter, and link with the Security mainframes. Pull any possible angles of the building. We have to get on top of this now!

Rearden whirled around, whizzed off with a loud squeal. The elevators doors slid closed again. Simon threw open the door at the end of the hall, the head of the Plasma Propulsion Lab sat in a conversation with a weaselly-looking Muroidean– a common brown-rat that managed to seem more like his cousin than his now noble-race. All the same he and the graying Lioness, Niala Martin were taken aback by his sudden, explosive entrance.

“Matriarch,” he said in grave accordance with her customs. “We have a problem.”

3.

As expected, Simon was escorted to a holding cell in the security building across the complex. Even Rearden knew where he’d end up. Simon on the other hand, knew he needed to go himself, remain as compliant as possible, or else look more guilty than he already did. Thankfully the Matriarch had assured him she believed his innocence. Putting him in a cell made any immediate incidents less complicated, and acted as a sign of faith that he remained innocent.

The one thing it didn’t do however, was allow him to work on discovering the perpetrator. He could trust Rearden, but the little bot might miss crucial evidence. It lacked both human determination and bloodhound senses. Part of Simon wished he’d investigated further before rushing to the Matriarch, but the rest of him knew it was safer this way.

He paced behind the security barrier of his cell, his hand at his chin as he made short circles. There were a million reasons someone might want to break into the ISC or even the Plasma Propulsion lab, but all of the information stolen pointed directly to the Nexus Project– a project that had only just begun. Moreover, no single laboratory knew enough to have put together its true intentions. Although Simon had his hunches, even he didn’t know. It was impossible anyone could know the information’s true value.

A distant door slid open down the long cell-block. It muted to heavy footfalls from three pairs of feet. Simon stopped at the center of the barrier. From the outcrops at either edge of the cell, he couldn’t see the trio headed his way, but knew they were there for him. There were no others in holding.

Two bloodhounds appeared, flanked Matriarch Martin as she sauntered to a spot across the barrier.

“Matriarch Martin,” he said with a respectful bow of his head.

She gave a droopy-eyed smile with a warm purr, “Simon, please.” He bowed again with a hint of confusion. She glanced back at the Bloodhounds; one keyed at a wrist-computer, deactivated the security barrier. Her gaze lingered on them, “You may go.”

One of the blood-hounds gave a huffed sigh, spoke with a gravelly fatigue, “We’re not to leave prisoners unguarded.”

She raised a paw at the two bloodhounds, flashed her claws with a deathly speed, then retracted them, “I don’t believe he would be a problem were he intent on it.”

The bloodhounds swallowed hard, a primal fear obvious in their throats from countless, generations of predator-prey instincts. They left, however apprehensive.

As soon as they were out of sight, she gestured to Simon’s cot on the left-wall. “Please, sit.” She stepped in to stand before him, “I’ve no doubt you were set up, Simon, but convincing Frost and the ISC’s going to be difficult without evidence.”

“I understand, and thank you, Ma’am,” he replied graciously.

She half-frowned with a tilt of her head, “Simon, drop the formalities. I’ve bore more young than most through more than a dozen mates, and I’m tired of formalities. I use my position to remind underlings of my position, but you are a friend. One in need. I won’t have you pretending I’m any more important than you right now.”

He swallowed, “Yes, Niala. Thank you.”

Niala sank to the bed beside him, “I know you put Rearden on surveillance footage. I commend you for that, but if someone was inside with ill-intent, they won’t be easily pinpointed.”

Simon agreed, “I want to cover all the angles. I know it won’t be simple, or I’d have done it myself. I wanted Rearden to analyze the systems.”

Niala gave a thoughtful nod, “That was foresighted.”

He sighed, pushed up from the bed to begin pacing again. She watched him for a moment before he stopped in the center of the cell, “What would someone want with my research? And why now? We’ve barely even begun the project, why not wait until we had more– and what good is it to put me as the fall-guy?”

Niala mused her thoughts aloud, “More than likely you’re just the unlucky one with access.”

He shook his head, hand once more at his chin, “No, I don’t believe that. There’s five other people with access to the lab. Four if we discount you. If the object was merely to disrupt our research, steal it in the meantime, why not implicate you?

Her pupils narrowed to slits, “You’re not suggesting–”

“Of course not, Niala,” he interjected. “It just doesn’t make sense to implicate me when there’s more damage that can be done.”

Her eyes lowered, pupils widened, “Unless the primary motive is not to hobble the project.”

Simon opened his mouth to speak. A series of beeps sounded down the hall. Rearden’s thrusters were maxed out. It squealed, calling for Simon.

“Down here!”

Rearden rocketed forward, bypassed the cell, then whirled round to zoom into a spot just past the security gate. Irate beeps of binary were foreign to Niala’s ears.

“What’s it saying?”

Simon focused harder on Rearden, “Buddy, slow down. What’re you talking about? What kind of problem?” A few quick beeps replied. “A leak? What kind of–” More beeps and suddenly Niala was beside him. “What d’you mean the security system’s leaking?” Niala bared her teeth at the thought. Rearden fidgeted with squeals and beeps. The thrusters bucked the bot up and down as if it danced in place. Simon suddenly swore, “Shit!”

Niala’s teeth still flared, now with a low predatory growl, “What’s going on?”

He spoke quickly to Niala, “Rearden says someone’s hacked security. There’s some kind of external data mining in place.”

“That’s impossible,” she said on the verge of a roar. “Our firewall’s would’ve caught it.”

Rearden beeped in emphatic reply. Simon waved it off, “I know, I know! You’re right, unless it came from inside ISC.”

This time she did roar, enough to rattle his chest and send Rearden backing away in fear. She readied to storm off, snapped after them, already four steps ahead, “Come with me! Both of you!

Simon half-stumbled in a jog to catch up, “Why? Where’re we going?”

“There’s only one person here that could’ve overridden the firewalls,” Niala said. She growled to an angry roar, “We’re going to see Gnarl.”

4.

Niala burst through Gnarl’s door as if ready to rip his throat out. Simon and Rearden were near terror, so fierce had the Matriarch’s gait and fury become. Gnarl was startled by the entry. He yelped, nearly fell backward in his chair. Simon’s heart stopped when Niala leaned over the desk at him.

His chest heaved while a hint of tongue panted in shock, “M-matriarch, my god, you nearly gave me an embolism.”

He braced himself to stand. Niala gave a low growl, “I should gore you where you sit.”

Simon swallowed hard to regather his wits. Clearly the forced evolution had only heightened the Lioness’ ferocity. He wasn’t sure whether to intervene or check his pants. Ultimately, he resolved to be a voice of reason, if a mousy one at that.

“N-Niala, please, calm down,” Simon requested. She bared her teeth over a throaty growl.

Gnarl’s canine brows inflected confusion, his tongue now tucked away, “Matriarch, I assure you, whatever you’re angry about I am not a party to.”

“The words of a guilty, flea-ridden–”

Gnarl was on his feet, “What did you–”

Simon angled between them, against his better instincts, “Woah, woah! Let’s step back here.”

The two growled over him, the finer hairs of their coats upturned around their Lycra collars. With a final half-roar, Niala straightened. Gnarl remained on-guard. Simon carefully extended his hands to tap Niala’s shoulders.

Simon stammered airily, “G-good. Let’s start over, okay?” A side of Niala’s muzzle lifted to bear the corner of sharp teeth. “Rationally, please.” Rearden gave a small beep of agreement. The two creatures’ fur relaxed slightly. Simon swiveled toward Gnarl, “Chief, we have questions. You’ve no doubt heard of the intrusion into our network.”

Gnarl’s eyes flitted between over him, “Yes, what of it?”

“Well, Rearden believes– a-and I agree– that someone must have been facilitating it.”

“In English, Simon,” Gnarl requested snidely.

Niala’s eyes were pointed on Gnarl, “Someone inside is responsible for the attack.”

Gnarl’s obvious prejudice faltered for minor panic. There was only one reason they’d come to him, especially with Niala in such a state. The hound wheezed with a half-whimper, sank into his seat.

“You may not believe it,” he began sullenly. “But I had nothing to do with this theft. I’ve spoken with every department head to ensure nothing else has been appropriated. They’re all losing it. Even the old bird’s hopping around in his office, out of his wits. Josie’s barely keeping him sane.”

Niala’s anger lessened each moment, enough that Simon felt comfortable speaking without pretense, “Then you know there’s a leak in our security network.”

Gnarl gave a sigh through his nose, put a paw to the center of his forehead, “We’ve plugged the leak for now, but we’re not certain the extent of the damage or even that we’ll be able to ferret out those responsible. We’re afraid to shut down the affected nodes entirely, so we’ve isolated them for now.”

Rearden beeped something to Simon, whom repeated it, “You think you might be able to use the leak, trace it?”

All of Gnarl’s remaining vigor left him, “We want to try, but whoever’s behind this is good.”

“How good?” Niala finally asked.

He glanced between them, “Good enough to implicate Simon and myself without leaving a single hair of evidence to pick a scent off. Even the leaking nodes aren’t public. They’re private terminals in various, unconnected residential quarters. Each time we trace one, it leads to another, as if the signal’s rebounding between all our internal computers.”

Rearden gave another few beeps, seemed to inquire something. Simon repeated the question in English, “You’re saying someone’s spoofed the origin and is bouncing packets between the dummies?” Gnarl shrugged. Rearden beeped in response, but Simon had anticipated it, “That means that somewhere between the bounces the packets are being intercepted.”

Gnarl was dejected. His investigation was going nowhere, and his own reputation was on the line. It showed in his weary tone, “We’ve called in a few favors with the HAA. They’re sending in tech experts to do forensics on our network, but it’ll only compound the problem.”

“How could the Human-animal alliance compound the problem?” Simon asked curiously.

“By making moves that are too public.”

“What’s Frost want us to do in the meantime?” Niala asked.

Gnarl was suddenly informal. He looked at Niala as an equal, “Frost can’t find his head with both wings right now. He’s damn-near a stroke every time we speak. You know how Avians are– always high-strung– well, except the tropical ones but you get my point.”

Niala swallowed her pride– a difficult task for one so defined by it, “What do you suggest?”

Gnarl glanced between them again, “Call in every favor you have.” He looked pointedly at Niala, “Every favor. See if anyone knows anything.”

Niala squinted to decipher his meaning. The phone began to ring on Gnarl’s desk, “Get it done, Matriarch. Simon, you’re off the hook. Help her. Whatever she needs or it’s your ass.”

“Yes sir,” Simon replied formally. Gnarl shooed the trio with a paw, keyed his desk to take his call. Simon found himself in the hall before a moment had passed. He looked to Niala with curiosity, “What did he mean by favors?”

She glanced along the hall of open offices. It looked much like an old-era police precinct might have. When she met his eyes again, it was to whisper so quietly even Rearden jacked-up the gain on its auditory sensors.

“A Matriarch such as myself has met many types of beast.” She rechecked the area, “Most are not the sort one of my station would cavort with, nor would like to.” Simon’s eyes narrowed. She gave him a clear-cut set of instructions, “You and Rearden will return home and pack enough clothing and money for a week. I’ll meet you at the transport depot when the next shuttle’s due to depart.”

He suddenly felt as weary with dread as Gnarl had been, “Where are we going?”

“Not here. I’ll tell you more once we depart. Be there.”

With that Niala turned on-heel and marched off. She rounded a corner for the elevators and disappeared. Rearden gave a suspicious series of beeps before Simon cleared his dread from his throat, “I don’t know either, but you’re right. Whatever we’ve gotten ourselves into isn’t going to end pretty.”

Rearden beeped affirmation, switched its thrusters from a hover to follow Simon’s slow progress to the elevators.

5.

Simon stood on the departure platform outside the shuttle. That Phobos had been colonized never seemed to cross his mind until he was here, ready to leave it. A dozen people waited with him to board the shuttles whose rounded, rectangular shape appeared almost the same as the Maglev rail-cars of Earth. Some of those old-world transports still functioned, however useless in the wake of hover-craft, inter-continental and inter-planetary shuttles.

Amid the plethora of scientists, security-guards, and laypeople, Simon blended. The faces of Felines, Canines, Corvians, and all other manner of creatures waited patiently with their eyes-front. However rigidly they held themselves to be the “best” of the pack, there was no denying the gleam of excitement in their eyes. Save Simon, all of the transport’s would-be passengers shared happiness in their quest for home, however contained.

He on the other hand, merely kept his back-pack shouldered and his duffle bag in-hand to ensure he looked the part of traveler. All the same his neck stiffened to strain his peripheral vision for signs of Niala. Rearden hovered in place beside him, as silent and stoic as a little bot could muster. Its own reservations had been spoken– or rather beeped incessantly, as was its way– while Simon packed his things. The heated discussion ended with no less agreement than when it had started. They both knew this was out of their depth. Unfortunately, Niala trusted them and needed their help.

A hooded figure appeared at Simon’s right, a cloth-sack slung over its shoulder atop a vivid-colored gown of obvious, African fashion. The collar flared out and down atop the shoulders to the chest. The elegant, thin material as much for honor as keeping cool in hot weather.

Simon glanced sideways. A few eyes surveyed the hooded figure. He spoke from the side of his mouth, “Could you’ve drawn a little more attention?”

Niala hissed back, “This is the only thing I have that isn’t spandex, and I hate the stuff.”

His voice was pointed with ire, “You look like a pack of cheap colored pencils.”

Her mouth hung half-open as she balked, “I’ll have you know these are my royal garments presented upon my ascension to Matriarch status.”

Simon eyes rolled. The doors of the transport opened. “Just get inside.”

Rearden followed them up and toward the transport’s rear. They took a seat across from one another at a small, booth-like table, sequestered from the bulk of the passengers. Rearden’s thrusters powered down and it came to a rest at the table’s inner-edge.

Simon relaxed across from Niala, “Where are we going?”

“Ganymede,” she replied quietly.

“What!?” He blurted. “Have you lost your mind?”

She squinted a slit-pupil at him, “I’m still your boss, you know.”

He heaved a futile sigh, “Niala, that moon’s filled with nothing but scumbags and gangsters.”

She raised a brow, “And they’re exactly the types to have information on the security breach.”

“This is too much, Niala. Ganymede’s dangerous.”

She chided him, “Lost your nerve already?”

“I’m not stupid,” he replied with a forward lean.

“Are you implying I am?” He scowled in response. She reassured him, “When we reach the hub station, you’ll see there’s nothing to fear. Normal people go back and forth to Jupiter each day.”

“Yes, miners. That live in secluded outposts. Not the moon!” Rearden gave a beep of agreement with Simon. “See? Even it knows this is nuts!”

She leaned in closely, “Do you want to learn who’s targeted you, put a black mark on your reputation, and stolen your work?”

Simon’s eyes darted around, “Fine! But for the love of science, get rid of that damned gown!”

She smiled, “Never.”

It was roughly five hours after they boarded the transport that it finally docked at the hub station between Earth and Mars. From a distance, the station looked like a caltrop once found in the ancient game “Jacks.” It’s various arms bulged at the tips where the connecting airlocks secured various transports to the station. The arms themselves were long, hollow, their innards crammed full of various commerce stands, stalls, and outlets like the mega-malls of Earth.

Indeed, as Simon and Niala made for the station’s center, they were overwhelmed with the sensation. Countless scents mingled over the din of innumerable voices that melded with drab or flamboyant fashions. Corvians, Raptors, Iguanidae– every evolved species mingled in their various manners with humans and even a Swine or two. All the while, Canines kept watch at the corners of halls and outlets. Their eyes and ears scanned for the slightest signs of trouble, no doubt ready to rush it and disperse the perpetrators with force if need be.

Simon weaved in and out of the crowd behind Niala as she pushed toward the station’s central hub. There elevators led to other ports or essential-systems levels. They remained on their level, followed the circular interior counter-clockwise to another arm of the station. Along it were all manner of outfitters, from clothing outlets to ship-salesman. The latter was most curious, especially given ships were far too expensive for the lay-person to purchase, and transport companies did business directly. Simply put, there was hardly a place for a ship-salesman in the Sol System, at least thus far.

To Simon’s surprise, Niala steered them to the aforementioned salesman, “Wait here.”

He lingered at the store’s edge, watched her enter. Rearden gave a quiet beep in its hover beside Simon. Niala greeted a salesman whom quickly provided her with a pamphlet. She said something inaudible, and the man’s eyes narrowed. They disappeared into a back room.

Rearden beeped. Simon shook his head, “I don’t know either, but I’m not feeling good about it.”

Niala reappeared moments later, thanked the salesman, and left with a brochure in-hand. She motioned Simon along, “Come on, we’re almost there.”

Simon’s confusion was obvious, “What was that all about?”

“Later.”

They pushed through the crowd for the open dock ahead. A scrunch-faced bulldog stood before a counter beside two security-Labradors whom scrutinized their approach.

“Names,” the bulldog requested.

“Niala Martin and Simon Corben,” Niala said as she set a credit-card on the counter.

“Length of stay and reason for visit?”

“Indeterminate. Official business for the ISC,” she replied formally.

The bulldog gave her a squint to put the guards to shame. He blew a jowly breath, “You understand Ganymede is an anarchic moon with no formal government, right?”

Niala’s eyes narrowed too, “Of course, but the ISC has business there.”

The bulldog looked them over, “Bot’s a child’s ticket. No-one travels free.”

“That is satisfactory,” Niala replied.

The bulldog scanned the card on the desk with an IR reader, “Good luck, Matriarch.”

“Thank you,” Niala said with a tilted bow of her head.

He waved them past, toward the near-empty transport ship. They took the boarding hall in few steps, found a place at the back at another booth. Niala sat with her back to a small surveillance camera, tapped Simon’s knee beneath the table.

She forced something into his hand, “Take this. It would be unwise to travel without it.”

His hand clasped a holstered laser-pistol, “What the hell?”

Rearden beeped, but Niala quieted it with a shake of her head, “One does not travel to Ganymede without the willingness to show force.”

He leaned over the table in a whisper, “I’m a scientist, Niala, not a criminal!”

She spoke even quieter, “If you wish to remain anything, you will take it.”

She straightened in her seat. He leaned so the camera would not see him affix the holster to the belt beneath his jacket, then sank back with a new weight to his hip. Niala gave a small, satisfied nod.

He muttered under his breath, “What the hell have I gotten myself into this time?”

6.

The ride to Ganymede was long enough that Simon eventually fell asleep bunched up in his booth seat. To say it was uncomfortable would miss the extreme lengths he’d gone through to reach even a modicum of the word. Niala had watched with subdued amusement. Simon had twisted and contorted in ways she wasn’t sure humans could. He finally passed out in a near-sitting position, his feet uncomfortably curled as he hugged himself to a corner, resembling a congealed lump of skin and cloth.

In contrast, Niala had no trouble finding comfort. She snoozed with her head draped over the back of the booth in much the same position she’d been sitting. Rearden dutifully watched, its reserves more than full enough for the length of the journey that the battery pack wouldn’t need to be used for sometime yet. Its ocular sensor merely sat in motion-sense mode, waiting to pick up anything beyond the shuttle’s jostle at solar turbulence.

When the transport docked, the slightest sound of its PA woke Niala to a warm, natural fog. She whispered Simon’s name to rouse him, failed. Rearden beep louder. Still nothing. Finally extended a small probe extended from a panel in Rearden’s side. A small arc of electricity shocked Simon awake with a start.

He blinked hard, “Low-power! Low power!” Niala snickered with delight. Rearden gave a few, chittery beeps. Simon swatted the bot with a light hand, “Stupid can of circuits.”

Niala stood and stretched with a purr, then pulled her hood up, “Come on, we’re late.”

He rolled his droopy eyes with a sarcastic mutter, “Yes, your highness.”

“I heard that.”

She led the way through the shuttle’s elongated compartments. Then, with a hiss and a small buck, the shuttle rested against its docking clamps and its doors parted for a small airlock.

Simon found himself speechless at the curious magnificence beyond. They entered a giant, glass-domed terminal, like an old airport. Multiple levels of outlets formed another mega-mall. Above, the domed ceiling looked out on countless, spindly arms of the moon’s upper-station. In the background millions of lights and torrid shapes were specks to Jupiter that gleamed like a gigantic cup of creamed coffee.

Niala aimed for the port’s depths. Simon rubbernecked the countless species that made the outpost its home– from rugged, worn Serpents and Lizards that hissed more than spoke, to the more inane creatures Simon was accustomed to. His senses were overwhelmed by the anarchic, alien chaos. His ears rang from thousands of tongues that lisped, hissed, and grunted countless dialects and accents.

“Stick close to me,” Niala said with a pull at his shirt sleeve.

He circled in-step to take it all in, bumped into someone clustered in a tight group. A ham-fisted swine shoved him back with a snort, one eye and ear missing. The others trained on him as he apologized and was pulled along. He followed vacantly while the crowd surged around in its disorder.

He finally regained his wits enough to match pace with Niala. She spoke sideways at him from beneath her hood, “You’ll find even such trivialities here may spark confrontation. Bumping someone is common for pick-pockets. If they suspect it of you, even my diplomacy may not save you.”

He hissed in reply, “Is that why you’re making me carry a gun?”

She began to ascend high stairs that spanned the port’s width, “Yes, and believe it or not, people here are more likely to trust you if you’re armed. Otherwise they’ll suspect you’re hiding something.”

“Hell of a place.”

Niala’s pull tightened at the stairs’ summit. Ahead the terminal narrowed progressively until it became a lone hallway. Here and there at its sides elevators and doors led deeper into the station. Niala aimed for an elevator at the end of the hall. They crammed themselves inside with the dozen other creatures that rode it downward. Little by little, Mammals and Reptiles, Serpents and Avians, left at the various floors.

The whole station was a blur of deepening grays and dirtier walls the further Simon progressed through it. Soon enough they came to a stop, alone, and at a lower level than he’d have liked. The ambient temperature had risen tens of degrees, made sweat bead on his brow. The elevator doors parted to a rush of humid wind that made bits of him stick to others.

Niala stepped out first. Simon followed with yet another staggered rubbernecking. His eyes rose to take in the enormity of structures that towered over him. The space-port was merely a speck amid the flurry of ships swarming it like gnats. Between it and he, amorphous rows and columns of buildings jutted with a seeming randomness to form a gray and black landscape. Peppered here and there, or snaked along their faces, were innumerable neon and argon signs, LED and LCD screens, and digital billboards that shifted rhythmically every ten or so seconds.

Simon wet a dry mouth. A hover-craft whizzed past nearby. “I… had no idea it was so big.”

Niala purred a “hmm,” headed along a street in the city that breathed with life. They trudged across the sidewalks amid the rush from hover-craft sprinting past or hurling themselves ’round the corners that formed the labyrinthine, urban blue-print.

Simon had heard stories of Ganymede. None of them had been anything like this. He’d only ever heard of a place rife with crime and poverty. Here, it was said, druglords and gangsters ruled and no self-respecting person would go. Indeed, he understood better now why the stigma existed; just like the cities of old Earth, Ganymede was a place filled with people– most of whom were likely the counter to those whom regarded themselves as “honest.”

Niala took him along a street in the multicolored glow, past a pack of Canines on a street corner that looked tougher than most of the ISC’s security hounds. Niala maneuvered them to an alley, down along it to a lone door on its back-wall. Animal piss and stale garbage stained the air– enough that even Niala breathed carefully. She thumped the door with a balled paw. A grate slid open at eye-height and a pair of glowing, yellow eyes stared out over a flickering, forked tongue.

“Tell the Alpha that Matriarch Martin requests an audience,” Niala said firmly.

A pair of fangs flashed with a suckling hiss. The panel slammed shut. A moment of silence passed. Simon thought to turn away. The door was thrown open to a dark interior. Niala stepped in to a wide, rectangular room. Simon followed. Rearden trailed behind quietly. The door shut at the nudge of a heavily scarred Serpent. It slithered past, around columns, and down a short hallway.

The trio were stopped midway through it by a look from the Serpent. It’s tongue flicked at the air, then it thumped its head against the door. A similar scene played out as the Serpent hissed something and the door opened to another, semi-dark room.

The serpent slithered inward and off to a side. Niala ingressed further. Simon followed until struck still by two dozen pairs of eyes. They glowed from various species of hard-looking reptiles and Canines.

In the center of the back wall, atop a raised platform, sat a throne of gnarled steel and wood. Torches on its sides spit flames at the ceiling, jostled by a draft from a door that slid open behind the throne. Heavy thumps pounded their way up the platform and around it. A massive, grizzled figure appeared. Gray and white of Wolf fur melded with black and red armor draped appropriately around its torso. The Wolf’s sharpened teeth bared as it looked his guests over through a battle-worn face.

He gave a low growl. A paw rose dismissively from beneath a crimson cloak draped around his shoulders, “Leave us!”

The room emptied to only the trio and their host. It was prompt. A followed order. The Wolf stood before its throne, and with hot breath its upper teeth appeared in a snarl. Simon gulped as the door slammed behind them, its echo petrifying his heart.

7.

The air was hot, tense. Simon was fixed in place beside Rearden whom gave a terrible shudder. The Wolf took slow, heavy steps down the platform toward Niala. He rose nearly a foot above her, his chest back, and a crooked snarl at one side of his muzzle. He sniffed the air around Niala, circled her. Simon took an unconscious step backward with Rearden.

The Wolf sniffed in the circle, then stopped behind Niala’s back. It suddenly jammed its nose between Niala’s legs. Simon recoiled. With a deep angry whiff, the wolf straightened, satisfied. Simon was frozen. Part of him wanted to laugh. The rest wanted to flee in absolute terror. He kept his wits about him, remained in place.

The Wolf stood before Niala. Throaty gravel sounded from its scarred face, “Niala.”

“Snow,” she replied with a small bow.

“It is you.” He sounded less than pleased. “I hoped I would never see you again.”

She released her bow to meet his height, “As did I.”

“You’ve come to call in your marker,” he guessed.

“I have.”

He emitted something between a growl and a sigh, ascended to his throne, and sank against it.

“Speak.”

Niala glanced back at Simon, only then did he realize the half-spring he’d taken to with a half-turned body. He wasn’t sure whether it was meant to fight or flee, but he eased out of it to settle a few feet behind and beside Niala. She retold of the theft, finished a handful of minutes later with Simon more at ease but sweatier than ever.

Snow considered the story with a quiet, pensive face. Upon his throne, he looked like a king deliberating to send his army to battle. An obvious element of stratagem had overtaken him, however lethal he was. Whatever Snow had been through to earn his status as Alpha, he clearly knew something of battle.

He set his body against his throne. It splayed perfectly across the arms and back. “You require information.” He surmised as much from their presence alone, but reiterated for the sake of speech, “But I cannot give you what I do not have.”

“Then get it,” Niala prodded.

He growled, “Do not tempt me, domess.” Niala bared her teeth. Snow scowled in reply, “I’ve been father to over a dozen litters. Alpha to countless in this bastard system. And I’ve more men at my disposal than even you could handle.”

“And you’ve a debt,” Niala reminded. Her paws tensed, nails readied to spring forth.

He watched her poise with a woeful pity, “Yes. I have but one debt.” He pushed up from the throne to step down to Niala, their faces mere whiskers apart, “One I intend to repay.” His voice was low, primal, “Know this domess; we are not kin. We are not friends. I have still not forgotten Ceres.”

Her head averted sideways with a hiss, eyes on a wall. She heaved shame and frustration. Snow reveled in it. He rose to full-height again to sniff the air, take in the scents of her at his mercy.

He swiveled to return to his throne, “I have but one debt.” He sank upon the throne with a grand gesture, “And I intend to repay it. I am an Alpha. One of my word. No matter what type of creature I owe my debt to.” Niala heaved another shame-filled breath. Snow ignored it. “Return in twenty-four hours. If I’ve not found anything by then, there is nothing to find and our debt stands.”

Niala gave a slow bow, then backed away. She whirled in a haze of gown and ruffled fur. Simon lingered a moment before his mind re-engaged his muscles. He hurried after her as she stormed out and into the street. The heat thickened once more, Simon smothered by its presence. Rearden kept hot on his heels as he grabbed Niala by the shoulder. She whirled in a lean, her claws out.

His heart nearly stopped. “Holy corpse, Niala! Relax.”

She eased back, retracted her claws, “Forgive me.” She swiveled again, gestured him along in-step, “That flea-ridden, mange-covered, shit-eater.”

Simon’s eyes widened, “Kiss your mother with that mouth?”

“My mother’s been dead since before you were born, Simon,” she seethed.

He shook off his confusion, “Uh… okay. Let’s just stop. Take stock here for a moment.” She stopped mid-step. He thanked her. “What’s got you so riled?”

She glared, “That brainless bag of balls should’ve been neutered decades ago.”

He glanced around. Wind gusted from passing craft. The streets had become sparsely crowded by various creatures– the local inhabitants of the Ganymede moon-post. He pulled Niala toward the edge of a building, leaned there while a few people passed in the clack of nails or boots.

“I get that you two don’t care for each other, but this was your call,” he reminded. “Besides, what’s the big deal? He seems willing to help.”

“Do you know what Domess means?” He shook his head. “It’s short for domestic– a slur used against evolved creatures that eschewed our history for the inclusion into society.”

He squinted at her, “You mean he said it ’cause you joined the ISC?”

“Among other things,” she admitted. “There is great resentment in some circles at species’ place in Sol. Some believe we animals should have ascended to head of the food-chain– above humans.”

“You’re talking about anti-humanists? Like the protesters at ISC?”

She corrected, “Partly. That some of us instead see one another as equals is considered a betrayal.” She shook her head with shame, “Everything in Sol, from outposts and transportation, to weapons and eating utensils, was created for humans. The rest of us have been forced to adapt to their uses, and still the issue persists that nothing is created with us in mind. At least, not on a large scale.”

Simon thought he followed, “So… animals, feel like they’re being shafted.”

She turned to step slowly forward, Simon followed. “Some, yes. Others see it for what it is; we are new, relatively speaking. The infrastructure in place thus far hasn’t allow for the type of revolution necessary to tailor such facets to animals alone. It’s why I wear a body-suit in the lab– because the clean rooms have not incorporated new designs to deal with problems like shedding.“

“Okay, but why’s a stupid slur gotten you so angry?”

She fumed at the thought of her own words, “Because he would never dare make such a remark if I didn’t require his help, but he knows he has me by the whiskers and I can’t help it.”

Simon nodded, his thoughts on Snow’s other accusation, “So… what happened on Ceres?”

She shot him a lethal look, “That is private, and not something I’m willing to sh–”

“Oi, Domess!” A robustly accented voice called out behind them.

Simon and Niala turned to a screeching beep from Rearden. A line of three hogs with sharp tusks waddled forward with rusty pipes and knives. Niala leaned with a growl, her nails out. The lead hog snorted, laughed full-on. Rearden beeped and Simon swiveled ’round to see more creatures closing.

Niala!” Simon hissed.

“I smell them,” she whispered, her lean lethal.

The circle closed to just out of arm’s reach. Simon circled to see the mix of creatures that surrounded them. His hand went for the weapon at his side. The lead hog thumped the pipe against a dirty hoof. In a flash he raised it to strike.

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.”

10.

The trio had left Snow’s lair only to gather their things and depart for Phobos. They leap-frogged between stations and shuttles to once more return to the ISC. The line of protesters outside had thinned. They currently chanted something about equal liberties and that lycra suits were a violation of rights. Personally, even Niala didn’t want her “people” shedding all over clean rooms and sanitized labs. Simon agreed, all the while knowing the news-cycle had rolled over again.

They returned to Gnarl’s office. The hound was slumped behind his desk, looking appropriately dog-tired. He hadn’t slept since before their departure. This much was obvious. His eyes were red, and the foul scent of old whiskey hung in the air around him. Rearden was the only one to escape it unscathed.

Niala stepped in first, smacked by the wall of sour liquor, “Holy hell, Gnarl!” His usually perky, Labrador eyes looked up with a blood-hound’s droop, “What’ve you done to yourself?”

Gnarl’s head hung in shame. For a moment he looked like one of his lesser relatives that had just piddled on the floor. Simon stopped at Niala’s side just as Gnarl whimpered, “I… I can’t take it anymore.” He shook his head in small descending waves, “I can’t take Frost’s anxiety, or Josie’s stoned flakiness, or the protesters’ threats… or anything.”

Simon and Niala shared a confusion before the latter shook it off, “What’re you talking about, Gnarl? We’re gone three days and we come back to find you soused to the muzzle.”

He stood behind his desk with a sway that nearly toppled him. He managed to brace himself on a paw before he went fully over. It made a loud scuff as he angled around the desk, tripped on a chair leg, then fell into a sit on the desk’s edge.

Niala steadied him with her paws, “Gnarl, you need sleep, peace. Go home. We can wait.”

He heaved a sigh that wheezed with a high-pitch, then managed to stand under his own power. Niala spotted him past, then watched him weave along the hall for the elevators.

“I can’t believe Frost’s done that to him,” Simon said curiously.

Niala took Gnarl’s place on the desk’s edge. Rearden eased over and down into a chair. Niala kept her head down, a paw at her chin in thought.

“You look intense,” Simon said.

She met his eyes, “I’ve known Frost over a decade. He’s meticulous, high-strung, and easy to provoke, but he’s also easily distracted.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So…” Her eyes swept the office. “This doesn’t make sense. The theft is important, a big deal, but even Frost should’ve calmed down by now, especially once he learned we were clearing things up.”

Simon nodded along, “Instead he’s gotten worse.”

“Which means someone’s making him worse– either by design or unintentionally.”

“And since we know the breach came from inside the complex,” Simon began. “It’s a fair-bet whomever’s responsible is keeping Frost that way to impede Gnarl’s investigation.”

Niala rose from the desk, “We need to see Frost.”

Simon hustled after her. Rearden’s thrusters once more engaged, whizzed along behind them. The ISC complex passed by at a jog, it’s barrier glowing in the distance around the random assortment of buildings that all bordered on large or larger. Their steel and cement exteriors perfectly matched the steel and cement grounds broken up by deliberately placed grasses and plants. Simon never cared much for the illusion of beauty. It seemed dishonest, pointless even. The scientists and various staff spent their lives indoors or underground. On the rare occasions they passed through here, it was unlikely they’d focus on them for even a half-second.

They made for the admin building, passed blood-hounds inside that confirmed their identities, and up an elevator for Frost’s office on the top-floor. It lay at the edge of a wide, open reception-area with Josie’s desk to one-side and a couch and coffee-table across from it. Various, disposable magazine-tablets lay across it. Their glowing covers only barely registered in the bright room. They made for the door past Josie’s desk with Frost’s name and title on it, but were stopped with a word.

“Soorrrry,” she said with her stoned purr. “He’s not seeing anyone.”

Niala stopped, her paw on the knob and a thought perched on her face that Simon couldn’t follow. She whirled toward Josie, “For how long?”

“Hmmm?” Josie replied.

Niala’s eyes beacme pointed, “How long has it been since he saw anyone?”

Josie’s eyes widened to take in her primal-looking cousin, “Mmm, since the theft. I’ve been in and out, but he’s not let anyone else in.”

Niala eased out of a lean for Simon’s side, her back to Josie as she whispered sideways to him, “She’s the only one that’s seen him.”

He did his best not to react, “You really think–”

“I do.”

Niala whirled around, “Josie, when was the last time you were in there?”

The feline was obviously on-guard now, her eyes wider, more sober, “Not sure… why?”

“And you haven’t let anyone else into this office?”

The cat seemed to be catching on to something, replied slowly, “No…”

“Would you follow me to Gnarl’s office please, I have some–”

Josie launched herself across the room. Her reflexes landed her behind Simon. She had him by the throat, claws out. She angled him around, hid behind his shoulder with only her eyes visible.

“Make a move and I take off his head!” She hissed.

Niala leaned with a growl. They made small circles of the room. Simon’s neck stiffened as his feet followed Josie’s path. Niala countered, waited to strike. Rearden remained over the couch, frozen with inaction.

“Why Josie?” Niala asked as they circled.

The cat was no longer stoned. She probably never had been. “You have no idea the power the Nexus Project is going to take from us.”

“Who is us?

Simon swallowed hard against Josie’s razor-sharp claws. They tapped at his neck. “Ni–”

Josie squeezed, “Shut up, human.”

Niala caught the ire in her words. “You’re an anti-humanist. One of the hate-groups that think the ISC’s just a cover for the human agenda.”

“I don’t think it,” Josie hissed. She squeezed Simon’s neck, half-drug him along the widening path. “I know it. All of your funding comes from human organizations. Their governments, colonies, their trade hubs, politicians. You’re no less leashed than you were before First Contact.”

Niala bared her teeth, snarled, “You’re a fool. You and everyone like you. We aren’t enemies. Humans and animals don’t have to be at odds. It’s people like you that put us that way. Your agenda’s what leashes you. Your hatred.”

Josie stopped before the open hallway, her claws poised over Simon’s jugular, “You’d never understand, Matriarch. You’re just another creature who’s raped your chance for culture in exchange for human gain. You whored it, and yourself, out for acceptance in their world!”

“Fool,” Niala hissed. “You have no idea what you’re doing.”

“In fact I do,” Josie said. She began to inch backward, step-by-step, “You don’t know what the Nexus Project is. Few do. I am one of them.”

“Care to enlighten me?” Niala asked, stalking forward with Josie’s steps. “What would be so worth betraying your friends, your colleagues? Risking your life by threatening others’, stealing from those that trusted you?”

She hissed with a fleck of spittle, “You think I care you domess human-lovers? You’re pathetic!”

“Let him go, Josie,” Niala demanded with a step. “Face the one that isn’t defenseless.”

“I’m not stupid domess.” Her eyes narrowed. “You could rip me in half. But you’ll find being smart is about knowing when to run.” She pressed her nails against Simon’s throat. He felt a trickle of blood leak down to his chest. “If you want him alive, you’ll stop where you are.”

“I can’t do that and you know it,” Niala sneered.

Josie finally stopped, “Then I’ll make sure you don’t follow me.”

Her nails flashed, punctured. In a swipe blood spilled down Simon’s neck. Josie was gone. The elevator was already headed downward before Niala reached Simon. He fell to his knees. Rearden squealed and beeped. An alarm rang out. Niala kept pressure on the wound, whispered to him. Doors opened all along the floor, Frost’s included. Eyes from human and animal alike fell to Simon.

Niala roared, “Someone call the fucking medics!” She glanced back at Frost, “Now!”

The crow flew for Josie’s telephone, sqwaked incoherently as Simon lost consciousness.

11.

When Simon next awoke, it was to the sounds of a steady beep from both Rearden and the heart monitor. Somewhere to his side he felt Niala’s presence. One of his eyes eased open to glance over the room; Niala stood before the door, whispered to someone obscured by his clouded eyes and her large, gowned figure.

He opened his mouth to speak, managed a throaty rasp that set his larynx ablaze. Were the pain not so intense he might have whimpered. All the same Rearden beeped, whizzed over. Niala whipped ’round to reveal the weaselly-figure of the Muroidean Simon had seen in her office. He wiped at his hands with a rat-like motion, then weaseled off. Niala knelt beside Simon, stroked his head with a soft paw and a purr. He opened his mouth, thought better of it.

She nodded, “Don’t speak. Your throat’s been cut. Do you remember what happened?” He gave a solitary nod. “We’re looking into her now, but we think “Josie” was falsified. Gnarl and his teams are scouring the facility. All transports off-planet were immediately locked down after the attack.”

He swallowed hard with teary eyes, readied to speak.

She shushed him, “There’s only one way she can get off Phobos, and that’s if she’s got her own transport hidden somewhere. More importantly, there’s only one place she can go within range to refuel– the Earth-Mars Hub. Gnarl’s already got an alert out for her.”

He gave a small nod, made a motion as if to write. She understood, excused herself for a moment. Rearden began a series of quiet, remorseful beeps, as though feeling solely responsible for the attack. He waved Rearden over with a tired hand, patted a bare spot on the bed. Rearden sank into place, thrusters off. Simon laid hand atop the bot, comforted it with a dutiful pat.

Whatever Josie– or whoever she was– was involved with, clearly didn’t intend to coexist with the Human-Animal Alliance, let alone the ISC. But what was the Nexus Project, and how did it play into it? The cat had said something about it taking power from her people; was it then, something that could be used against those that didn’t sympathize? A weapon of some sort? Or was that simply more rhetoric, something twisted and mangled from a scrap of misinterpreted truth?

Simon wasn’t sure, and the more he thought about it, the more he needed to be. Someone had deliberately targeted him, not once, but three times; first they’d tried to drag his name through the dirt, his reputation, then they’d taken a shot at him on Ganymede, now they’d outright attacked him in the form of Josie. There was no way he could escape the unrelenting hold the mystery had, even less so the cross-hairs his joint investigation had placed on him.

Niala returned a moment later, data-pad and stylus in-hand, “Here. It’s the best I could find.”

He took the small, digital-tablet in one hand, scrawled over it with the stylus: What is the Nexus Project? He held it up at her.

She shrugged, “I don’t know, Simon. You know as well as I do we’ve been compartmentalized to avoid leaks.”

Didn’t work. He replied sarcastically. She rolled her eyes. He scrawled out, what do you know?

She took a moment to think before she replied, “Apart from your research into more efficient plasma engines?” He gave a nod. “I was working on navigational software. It’s not a stretch to assume the Project has something to do with space-flight.”

He scribbled, Do you know what anyone else is working on?

She thought longer this time, “Someone’s working on deep-space telemetry, but I don’t see how–”

That’s it! He wrote in massive script. He tapped wildly at the data-pad. She gave him a confused look. He scribbled out a word formula; Better engines+Better Nav-software+DS Telem= deep space flight.

Niala was hit by a brick wall of logic. Then, an epiphany manifested on her face, “Frost’s putting together a deep-space flight prototype… All of the information collected here will be shipped off-planet to a manufacturing facility. Eventually all of that will be used to begin deeper colonization.”

And if we’re in charge, the anti-humanists believe the ISC will keep the tech proprietary, Simon added. Niala agreed. That’s why they took the data. To make sure what they have’s consistent with what we have.

Niala sighed, “But none of that makes sense. We’ve barely begun the project. Why now? Why steal unfinished research?” The answer came to them simultaneously, but Niala was the only one able to speak it aloud. “Because the prototype is already being built… and the research is just a smoke-screen.”

We need to talk to Frost. Simon wrote.

Niala was stuck in her thoughtful stare before her eyes fell back to the tablet, “No, I’ll go. You’re not in any condition to–”

He scrawled, They tried to kill me. Twice.

“And they nearly did this time.”

He pushed himself up in the bed, fought agony to speak in a rasp, “I. Am. Going.”

She looked him over with a grimace. IV-lines ran from various parts of his body. Heart and respiration monitors were connected to him via wires. They beeped steadily, giving the whole scene a pitiful, macabre look. A steel determination in Simon’s eyes had shifted the tone bitterly. Niala had only ever seen such a look in others of her kind. When locked in combat for mates or honor, Lions could be the most stubborn-willed creatures ever evolved. Now, Simon appeared to have inherited their will.

With a lone blink and a small bow of her head, she relented and acquiesced.

12.

Simon was barely able to stand. Both Niala and Rearden watched him fiercely, but somehow he managed to keep his feet under him. After countless doses of morphine and blood, he was more substance than man, and with the Lion-like will, he was all the more a beast. There was a determination in his eyes that said he would go through unimaginable hells to find the truth now, especially given the one he’d already been through.

When the doors opened on the top level of the admin building, it was to the scene so common to the non-lab locations of the facility; cubicles, creatures, and halls full of named doors. It seemed nothing had changed since the attack and betrayal by one of their inner-most. Even when they passed the spot where Josie nearly decapitated Simon, there was little more than a lingered glance to set it apart.

The maintenance bots had done an A-rate job cleaning up the blood spatters and pool from the walls and floor. As programmed, they’d eradicated all traces of the attack. Joise’s empty desk before Frost’s door was the only left out of place. Visibly, she might’ve merely been out to lunch, or perhaps on an errand for her scatter brained, Corvian boss.

Frost’s office-door flew open, nearly fell of its hinges. The Crow turned with a start. His wings flapped wildly and his chest heaved in a squawk.

Simon stormed toward him. He trembled reply, “Great skies, you gave me a fright!”

Simon planted both arms on the desk, leaned over it so that his bandaged stitches occupied one side of the bird’s view and his head the other. He grated sand-paper words against his wounded throat, “You. Will. Tell us. Everything.” The bird’s head tilted slightly to better view him, an obvious confusion in the movement. Simon alleviated it with a throaty fire, “Nexus Project. Deep Space. Colonization.”

Frost’s eyes enlarged to black holes, “Wh-what’re you t-talking about?”

Niala rounded behind Frost, spun him in his chair to meet her eyes. She held out a paw at him, pads up, and tensed her claws, “Start talking or I start playing bat the twine with your organs.”

He gave a squawk, “How dare you! You think you can come in here and threaten me!? I’ll have your job for this!”

“Go ahead,” Niala growled. “Try it. Then I can cut you in half for what you’ve done.”

“I’ve done nothing!

“Liar,” she hissed. “You’ve already begun building a prototype. All of our work’s just a smokescreen, a cross-check of your math. You and the Federation want to keep Deep-Space a secret, colonize it before the general public catches on.”

He was irate, “Martin you’ve lost your mind, I would never–”

“You would. You have. Now sing or I start cutting.”

His eyes followed her razor-sharp claws toward his throat. His head involuntarily eased backward, neck stiffened. He swallowed something with difficulty, began to stammer, “I-I d-didn’t have a choice, Niala. I swear it. The Federation was going to p-pull our funding if we didn’t cooperate. The HAA was going to allow it. S-so I divided the labor to keep everyone off the scent.”

“What. Scent?” Simon demanded with a scratch.

Frost’s beady eyes look lowered than a rat’s caught in a trash can. They darted between the Human and Lioness, “O-our research fund is d-double what it should be. I needed to hide the cause.”

“So you consigned us to a fool’s errand,” Niala snarled.

“N-no,” He insisted. “No. I swear. The research is genuine. The Federation wanted me to finalize the technology to work on mass-production once they’d established their outposts.”

Niala eased back, more confused than she let on. Her claws retracted, “Why the farce? Why hide it all if the Human Federation didn’t plan on keeping the colonies for themselves?”

He swallowed something less rough this time. “The political situation outside Sol is delicate at best. At worst, it is almost total anarchy. That kind of anarchy is exactly what the Zelphods want.”

Niala’s eyes narrowed; Zelphods. There was a word she hadn’t heard in nearly a decade. The Zelphods were the alien creatures that had caused the First Contact War. It was they, vicariously, that had allowed the Federation to remain in power. Directly, they’d been the hand to force the latent humanoid evolution on the animals. The Contact War had nearly eliminated their race. So far as anyone knew, they’d fled to the fringes of space to wither and die as a species.

Contrary to many popular theories, First Contact had not come from a radically advanced species intent on harvesting Earth. Instead, it came from a slightly advanced species. The Zelphods were barely capable of interstellar flight, had only just begun to venture between the voids of systems. They’d done so by way of generational colony ships, launched when their sun had begun to go nova. No one was sure where their home-world was anymore, but after generations, they’d found their way to Sol.

Despite their extreme, alien features (evolved from a largely silicone-based existence,) Zelphods had sought Earth due to its high Volcanic activity and liquid oceans. Requiring sulfuric acid to breathe, they were never seen outside their suits, which inflected a curious, wingless praying mantis quality about them. They were undoubtedly insect-like, but only a few knew of their actual appearance.

Niala, however, knew the Zelphods had been pushed back after the Human “Federation” organized the HAA, or Human-Animal Alliance, an organization devoted to interspecies cooperation and governance. Both man and animal fought and died side-by-side to ensure the sovereignty of their system. Meanwhile, what was captured or reverse-engineered from the Zelphod tech had raised both Human and Animal to their current status in under three decades.

Unfortunately, First Contact had also allowed for the Federation to gain massive power as the only, official protective outfit Sol had. Though Humans and Animals served together, the Federation gave the latter little power to affect change. What was more, the few that gained such prestige generally sided with their Human colleagues. Where people like Niala and Simon saw compromise for the better of all, those like Josie saw sworn fealty.

Such was the nature of Sol’s politics.

Niala mused aloud for the others’ sake, “So the anti-humanists steal the data, ensure light is shed on the project, and that the Federation comes under political pressure once the information leaks. But why risk all of Sol? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Because,” Simon said carefully. “If you. Control Deep-Space. You control. Who lives there.”

Niala shook her head, “Keep humans out? That’s impossible. They have to know that.”

Frost suddenly spoke up, “Not if they already have the prototype’s plans. If so, they may intend to use them, get there first. If so, they’ll like destroy the prototype as well.”

Niala looked back to Frost, “We need to know where it’s being built. Getting there before Josie may be the only way to stop them.”

The vid-phone on Frost’s desk rang, answered with a habitual sqwuak. Gnarl appeared, “Sir, we’ve found Josie. She’s boarding a transport for Ganymede.”

“Ganymede?” Simon said.

“We’ll go,” Niala insisted. “I have contacts there.” She turned away. Simon followed. They stepped out and she spoke sideways at Simon, “Snow wants his pound of flesh. He’ll get her to talk.”

13.

The shuttle rides to the hub and Ganymede beyond were desolate. It seemed as if all of Sol had left the two pursuers to their prey, wishing to remain as far from the action as possible. Simon was partially thankful for that. At least there were no beings attempting to kill him. While he’d been adamant about tagging along, he was hardly recovered. Not being able to speak without knee-buckling agony didn’t help. He felt all the more out of place, mute.

He’d barely had time to adjust to the idea that someone had stolen his work before learning he’d been framed. Then, when Niala released him, he’d been told to accept the sordid state of affairs and her contacts before being face-to-face with their terrifying reality. The first attack saw him freeze up, fumble. He’d have been dead were it not for his bot and Lioness companions. All this to say nothing of learning a friend had perpetrated the attack, then cut his throat once confronted about it.

He knew Josie, well enough to call her friend, at least. She was more than a face in a hall at any rate. He was head researcher of the Plasma Propulsion Lab, the only people above him Niala and Frost. Such a position meant semi-regular meetings and interactions with the Feline. To say they were pleasant would miss the obvious, retrospective taint. Now he saw her stoned facade had hidden everything.

Josie was the last being in Sol Simon would’ve expected to betray the ISC, let alone harbor such grudges. Perhaps that was what made her so excellent at the job; she blended perfectly, invisible to– a thought suddenly occurred to him.

He produced his data-pad, scribbled to Niala across the table: When would they have planted Josie? Why force her to move now? What else could have been sabotaged but wasn’t?

Niala read the pad with a glance, “I don’t understand.”

He elaborated: If Josie’s been an anti-humanist mole all this time, they know playing things slow and subtle was best. But they hit hard, drew attention to themselves. Even if I hadn’t found the log, they were very obviously tapping our network. Why be so blunt?

Niala caught on, “If Josie was really in on it from the start we’d have seen more damage.”

He nodded along; That just begs the question–

“Of it’s really Josie.”

Rearden watched. A series of binary words beeped out. Simon eyed the bot skeptically, head cocked sideways in confusion. Evidently its insight was perplexing to its creator.

“What’s he saying?” Niala asked curiously.

Simon wrote a single word on the tablet; MeLons.

Niala squinted with a visual turning of gears. It made sense. How the faux-Josie might’ve fooled Security raised more, important questions. However, for a MeLon to duplicate and remove her, two important things had to happen. One, was the obvious removal of the original Josie, likely accomplished overnight. Then also, a period where the MeLon studied her mannerisms, work schedule, social responses. It would’ve needed to become Josie to play her so well. However tantalizing an explanation, the ISCs extensive security wasn’t easy to fool.

Niala admitted reservations, “I don’t know, Simon. It’s a stretch. Forgetting everything else, how would they have made it past the Hounds alone?”

Rearden gave a few beeps that seemed to smack reality across Simon’s face. He scribbled mindlessly as he stared in thought; Pheromone Milking and IR-tech.

Niala gave the pad a critical look that flitted between Simon and Rearden, then back again, “Then Josie may be alive somewhere.”

Simon’s stomach rose at the thought. Josie wasn’t a murderer. She wasn’t even a spy or a thief. She was just another victim of the ridiculous scheme that seemed more illogical the more they learned of it. How long had she been held captive? What state was she in? More importantly, where was she being held? Ganymede? Somewhere else? Were they chasing a phantom, hoping to outsmart a prey that’d already eluded them?

The more questions Simon thought to ask, the less he wanted to ask them. A morbid illness spread across his face, worsened at the look Niala imparted between them.

“There’s something else we need to consider.” He gave a nod to usher her onward. “If there a MeLon is involved, we can’t take chances. They could be anyone when we reach Ganymede.”

He nodded in agreement, scrawled; Snow needs to be confirmed, then we keep him close.

She affirmed with a look that said more than her words could. Ganymede entailed its own risks, but MeLons were an utterly different story. They were the apex predator in a system that no longer had a place for the predator-prey relationship. Evolved creatures such as Niala, were the new nature of things. Wild animals still existed, but were hardly comparable. MeLons were a potent mixture of both worlds, able to affect change on planetary and system-wide scales with little more effort than an ant following a scent trail. What was more, they tended to do so solely out of spite, their kind too dangerous for society at large. It was an unfortunate reality of their new nature. Those that understood usually used their camouflage to blend, or else lived as exiles outside major colonies.

Something more concerned Niala now though. She ensured it showed before she spoke to Simon’s full attention. She hesitated to speak it; so much had already happened, she wished not to think of it getting worse. “If the MeLon’s cover is now blown, Josie’s a loose end. It won’t need her anymore. It’s only a matter of time before it kills her.”

14.

The shuttle rode solar turbulence right into the Ganymede spaceport. The combination moon-space station was once more smeared with light. Dots flickered in the distance below along a world of countless mines and industrial factories. Only the slightest hint of something cut through the atmosphere. The sun at its distant angle, with Jupiter’s enormous shadow encompassing it, shimmered from the climate barrier only just visible over the moon.

The shuttle came to a rest and the trio pushed down the boarding hallway. Crowds surged and rolled around them in the terminal, but Simon kept pace this time. His mind was caught in the whirlwind of questions spurred by their earlier revelations. He’d tried to sleep for the sake of healing, but couldn’t slough off the questions lining his thoughts. Every breath was another layer, another branching tree of inquiry that unnerved any hope for calm.

Even as they ducked, weaved, and pushed for a far-off elevator, he found logic in complete disagreement with the plot enacted. It seemed so far-fetched to go to such trouble to steal data that had barely manifested. If it was stolen by a planted agent, why so blatantly and boldly? Why expose your agent? Moreover, why impersonate a secretary? Josie hardly had confidential-level access. What was the purpose? Frost? Why not a more senior agent provocateur, someone with access and confidence, and just as easily replicated?

The more Simon considered it, the less sense it made. He found himself whizzing through the spaceport in an elevator car before his autopilot disengaged. A thought suddenly occurred; what if they couldn’t infiltrate the upper-echelons? What if, for some reason, the theft’s blatancy was to cover up for something else– to keep the ISC working doubly hard while something bigger happened elsewhere? What could it be? Who was involved? What if everything else was a smokescreen to plant someone else in their midst, or enact a different kind of sabotage?

Simon hit the emergency stop on the elevator.“What’re you doing?”

He found his words with difficulty, his throat aflame from the thought of speaking, “Someone else. Is. Involved.”

She eyed him curiously, “What? How can–”

“I. Know.” Over the course of a long, painful minute, he explained his previous thoughts, “Who. Could. It be?”

She shook her head, “I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense. It may not make sense until we find the Josie impersonator.” He stared at the floor. “We must ensure Josie survives. If she’s truly being held captive, she may have important information. Possibly her captor’s identity, or even their plans.” She shoved the emergency stop button in, “But we can’t know until we confirm Snow.”

He accepted the Matriarch’s wisdom, if only for the sake of stoking his own thoughts further. It was a quarter of an hour before they found themselves was once more in Snow’s den, his soldiers gone at his behest. Niala reached into her gown, tossed Snow a small holo-disk that lit up with a 3D projection. An image of Josie’s face spun slowly from Snow’s upturned paw.

“She’s a MeLon. We’re looking for the original as well. We believe she’s being held nearby, possibly on Ganymede itself.”

Snow stared at the image. A corner of his muzzle lifted to bare his teeth. He closed his paw over the image, then lowered it, “This lizard will pay for its crimes.”

“I would expect nothing less.”

Snow eyed her as she carefully considered something. He spoke of it with an almost sarcastic pleasure, “Troubled, domess?

She grit her teeth, “We need you with us.”

He grunted a smile, “Incapable of facing the threat alone? Matriarch, you’re slipping.”

She snorted frustration, “This isn’t a joke, Snow. You know how dangerous a MeLon can be, especially when holding someone hostage.”

His animosity fell away to curiosity, “Hostage? A MeLon? Wishful thinking. MeLon’s don’t take prisoners, Matriarch.”

For the first time, Simon spoke, “Why?”

Snow smiled, more from having something the human wanted than seeing its difficult speech. “So it is not entirely autonomous. It speaks like a man.” Snow leaned with a predatory sniff of the air, “It smells like a man.” He straightened with a forward step, eye-to-eye with Simon, “But does it have the value of a man, I wonder.”

Simon snarled; an effect of the Wolf’s ability to manipulate all creatures’ utter loathing, “I do.”

For a moment no-one was certain what would happen. Snow seemed to be deciding whether to drop his enmity, or make Simon an early lunch. When the cunning smile flashed again he turned for his throne, sat upon it. A small beam cut through the near-darkness from the throne’s apex, aimed downward to a place before it’s King. A series of projected displays appeared. Snow fed the disk into a slot beneath an armrest. The screens flashed, jumped. Feeds from all over Ganymede flickered and flitted past. Facial recognition software splayed dots over Josie’s image, searched the feeds for it.

“If your MeLon has been on Ganymede, my program will find it.” Niala breathed small relief. He snarled again, but it relaxed as he focused on the feeds, “She never told you about Ceres, Human.”

Niala was about to speak when Simon re-affirmed Snow’s statement, “No.”

He spoke as though she weren’t present, “The Matriarch has a way of feigning loyalty until she sees gain not to.” Snow glanced at her from the corner of an eye, expected Simon to do the same. His eyes darted to the human only to find them staring at his own, “You surprise me, Human.”

Simon rasped a full sentence without a stop, “I aim to please.”

If it was possible, Snow seemed to regard him with even more disdain than before, “Your species has a colossal pair.” His eyes refocused on the search. “For eons, your people enslaved the Canines, dangled food and security before their noses until they heeded your commands. Then, if they stepped out of line, you killed them or left them to die. Your people so diluted our bloodlines some of our descendants are unrecognizable.”

Simon rasped magma, “Your point?”

He ignored him to wax philosophical, “Your kind believed themselves the ultimate hunters. Bent nature to your whim. Placed yourselves above it. Then, the Zelphods appeared. You were still on top, you thought, because they were generations removed from the creatures that had begun the millennia-long exodus.” Snow finally met Simon’s eyes again, “But when those creatures you’d thought so flexible once more became a threat, you did the only thing you could; made peace for fear of destruction.”

Simon watched the Wolf’s glare. The Magma in his throat burst, made his voice crack, fade, “Coexistence is the only logical solution.”

“So it would seem,” Snow replied with a half-squint. “To one who’s only other option is annihilation.”

Niala interjected, “Can we focus on the issue at-hand?”

Snow replied with malice, “Oh domess, but it is the issue at-hand, don’t you see? His people run the Federation, the economies, the colonies, the construction companies, and everything else in between and around. What they don’t directly control, they do so vicariously through money or sympathizers.”

Niala fumed, “This isn’t productive. You’re just baiting us. There’s no reason to–”

“Shut up, traitor!” Snow barked. “You only refuse to see the truth. You’re a sympathizer, like the rest. Right now, it’s keeping you from understanding all the seemingly illogical moves made.” Simon and Niala exchanged a confused look. Snow took pleasure in enlightening them, “The ISC theft is only the first step in removing the Human issue. Research will continue. One day, it will be business as usual. Increased security, new locks on the doors, but the memory will fade. As it does, more facets will be infiltrated– facets of the HAA, the Federation, the ISC and elsewhere. Just as there, everything will be subject to intrusion and manipulation, by those few, well-placed agents.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Niala spat.

“Is it? Or is it so clever you fear its truth? So obvious it is hidden in plain sight?” He let the thought sink in a moment. “You see, Niala, Humans make the policies. They recruit the employees. Pay them. They have the say-so. All of it is done under the guise of a pre-existing infrastructure built before our kind’s rise. But it is a system without room for us. Not really. It has begrudgingly given us a choice to fit in or wither and die without it.” The holo-screen’s flickering came to a stop. “And that is why they’re doing this. Nothing has changed. Soon, it will.”

He pulled the disk from his chair, then rose. The beam of light disappeared and he stepped off the throne’s raised platform. He straightened with a backward flex, “I will help you, but only because there is gain in it for me. It is here, as much a threat to my domain as yours. But do not mistake my aid for anything more than repayment of a debt.”

Niala gave a small nod. Snow pushed between the pair, stalked past Rearden behind them, and out the door. They exchanged a curious look, both of their thoughts locked on his lecture. Regardless of his point, the theft’s goal was obvious now. Somehow, in someway, it would be used to displace the current powers, put the Humans lower. The why was simple enough. To have any hope of discovering the how, they’d have to follow Snow.

Simon started forward.

15.

The lower levels of Ganymede’s space-port were more like ground-levels. Here were actual planetary features that rose and fell around the station’s lowest reaches. Simon could even see where the atmosphere radiated from; huge turbines and vats the size of skyscrapers loomed in the distance. At their peaks and mid-sections, bright lights pulsed every few seconds to alert passing craft.

Much to Simon’s dismay Snow was on-point. The trio was now accompanied by a Wolf with a blood-thirsty vengeance. It rolled off him like steam, stained the air hatred and determination. Niala followed him single-file, her gown’s hood displaced by artificial winds from chemical vats that mixed perchlorates in a exothermic reaction, created oxygen.

The massive vats and turbines were only one part of the process, but their proximity made for gale-force winds that even Rearden struggled against. They seemed to gust harder every few seconds, then sink back to an idle torrent before starting again.

Simon shouted, an act he was certain he could only do once, “Where are we going?”

“Save your voice, Human,” the Wolf howled back. “You’ll need it to scream when the MeLon gets you.”

Niala glared at the back of Snow’s head, “It’s a valid question.”

Snow swiveled on the pads of his massive hind-paws, pulled Niala closer. She readied to fight, but he pointed off in the distance; “Beyond that ridge are the ice-mines. If the surveillance feeds are correct, your doppelganger is there.”

“Why would they hide in an ice-mine?” She asked over an especially loud gust.

“They’re completely autonomous. No surveillance. All equipment is connected via Ganymede’s control center above. If a MeLon is anywhere on this planet, it is there.” Niala gave a small nod. She stared at the distant ridge in thought. “Now, move. We’re wasting time.”

Niala stormed past with a quiet growl. She took point, Snow now enough paces behind to be out of ear-shot. He stepped beside Simon, “Human, you show compassion and determination. Most would see that as weakness.”

Simon grated angrily against a burning throat, “Your point?”

“Your loyalty to the Lion may be absolute, but trust that hers is not.”

“I don’t. Believe you,” he managed with visible difficulty.

“I don’t care. Know only not to trust in those who would sacrifice others for themselves.”

Snow quickened his pace, bridged the gap between them and Niala. He left Simon fighting the winds as he attempted to decode the cryptic warning. Ceres. But what about? Evidently she’d sacrificed someone for herself. How was that relevant?

It wasn’t, he decided. Merely just another attempt by the Wolf to manipulate those around him. For whatever reason, he didn’t want Niala to be seen as honorable, trustworthy. It made him all the less trustworthy instead.

Niala led the pack through the largely desolate landscape for nearly an hour. All that time, the ridge inched nearer until it loomed over-head like the station, only more jagged, organic. Snow informed them an entrance to the caverns would be hidden in the rock-face, difficult to pin-point until they stumbled into it.

If Niala knew anything about Snow, it was his resourceful relentlessness. No doubt he’d long ago sent teams to map the entirety of Ganymede’s surface in greater detail than even the planetary scanners. Those things tended to use echolocation software that often left geographical features as massive, solid blocks. Snow knew better than most though that this wasn’t the way geography worked. His people had come from caves, dens, lairs of naturally-carved stone otherwise invisible to software. His mapping was likely as much for credits as for the establishment of a refuge. If that was true, he knew exactly where they were headed. The Ice mines would’ve had a definitive entrance, sure, but no-one would use it if they were trying to hide. They’d go in the back-door, so to speak.

When the pack finally reached the ridge-line, Snow was quick to pinpoint the cavern’s entrance. An outcrop of thick ice emanated steam in the unnatural atmosphere. Snow slipped left of the outcrop, then edged right and disappeared in a curious optical illusion. Niala glanced back at Simon who’d watched with curious brows.

She reassured him with a look, disappeared as Snow had. Rearden and Simon followed, the little bot seemingly the more nervous of the two. For his primitive, optical sensors it was likely a leap of faith; to it there was nothing there. Without the brain to decode the opening’s presence, it was left only to trust in its companions. They entered a darkened tunnel that reverberated their footsteps, the sounds muffled by the fish-bowl effect the winds had caused.

Snow engaged a series of LEDs built into his armor, “Don’t touch the walls.”

Rearden added to the lights’ intensity with its optical sensor. The beam splayed over the narrow ice-walls, scanned forward through rolling ice-smoke.

“Ammonia,” Niala said.

Simon spoke with half-pauses, “Are. You sure. This is safe?”

“If you don’t touch the ice,” Snow grumbled.

“I mean. Breathing it,” Simon reiterated.

“You know a better way to the mines undetected?” There was silence. “Then shut up. The more you speak the more you inhale.”

Simon covered his mouth, breathed through a jacket sleeve. They followed the tunnel down a long, shallow decline. Snow and Rearden’s lights cut ahead near a hundred meters, endlessly illuminating the tunnel ahead. When it finally stopped, opened up, the group halted, killed their lights.

The Wolf inched in a crouch toward the opening, gestured the others up with a wave. Niala and Simon lined up beside Snow, careful of the walls. Beyond them shapes took focus, and the two scientists stared, eyes wide and mouths open.

16.

Before them lay a massive, open cavern, half a kilometer tall, and three-quarters in width. The splendor that captivated them stood on a dozen, hydraulic legs and filled most of the space. Three, squared sections ahead of a larger fourth connected to tubular engines Simon recognized from his lab. He’d designed them– both in theory, then in 3-D software. He’d even built a prototype, or what he thought was a prototype, anyway. It was currently sitting in his lab’s test-chamber.

They were PL-5 plasma-fusion drives, the “next-gen” of propulsion, and descendants of all engines currently used through-out Sol. Simon had calculated them capable of Earth to Ganymede travel in a little over an hour. They cut the current, eight-hour travel time to a fraction of itself via advanced-compression gasses that created tremendously greater thrust when turned to plasma. None of that seemed relevant now, but Simon was humbled at seeing his work incorporated into one, magnificent ship.

He and Niala pulled back as she whispered, “They weren’t stealing the information to use it. They were stealing it to keep us from using it. The anti-humanists have already developed D-S travel.”

Simon glanced between Niala and Rearden. It shuddered as it processed the thought. Snow suddenly whispered, “There it is.”

Simon and Niala leaned back out to see Josie’s doppelganger stroll along the ship’s belly. It dwarfed the faux-feline like a skyscraper turned on end. The MeLon headed for the tail-end, passed behind a large, ice-pillar that obstructed any further view. Snow moved forward on his paws as if stalking prey. Niala followed in a similar fashion. Simon followed, struck by how like a savanna or forest hunt it must be.

Rearden kept behind him, the bot’s thrusters in silent mode at minimal power. They followed to the obstructing pillar. Massive enough for the four to fit comfortably behind it. The far-end of the circular engines edged onto a long, empty expanse. The MeLon began to cross it for a transparent enclosure ahead that looked to be made of matte steel and other metals. Windows were fitted along its top in a dome, the MeLon already halfway there.

Snow readied to run, “We have to get to that door before it closes.”

Niala was ready. They timed their run. The MeLon was steps from the door. They dropped to all fours and galloped off. The MeLon keyed in a pass-code. The door slid open. Simon barely blinked before Snow landed atop the lizard.

They tumbled and rolled to the enclosure. Niala stopped in the doorway, waved Simon forward. He broke into a run, Rearden’s thrusters screamed past. He suddenly felt outpaced everywhere– maybe Snow was right about humans.

He couldn’t think of it now. Snow grabbed the faux-feline by her neck scruff, held her there. If she hadn’t been camouflaged, he’d never been able to hold her, but with the rearrangement of certain features, came the rearrangement of nervous systems to compensate. He snapped a metal clamp to the back of the feline’s neck and it stiffened like a board. He kicked it across the room as Niala and Simon appeared. Rearden was busy sealing the door, overwriting its lock codes.

Control panels on a raised platform bowed along the back wall with equally as many screens above them. Lights winked or glowed steadily, each one monitoring some component the place.

Snow headed for a door at the left in a carved, rock-wall that jutted out past the enclosure. Niala moved to the control panels, examined them. Simon merely stared at the MeLon. It was a cat to him, but something seemed off; a scent to the air like dried wood-chips beneath a heat-lamp. He remembered the smell from an Iguanidae researcher who’d been shedding. The smell was a type of oil especially pungent during molts. Here the scent was less intense, but unmistakable. Clearly the MeLon’s Pheromone treatment had worn off.

Snow reappeared, “She’s here. Go. I’ll guard the lizard.”

Simon and Niala hurried away. Snow took on a menacing hunch, stalked toward his prey. The pair entered a lavish room replete with red, hanging banners trimmed in gold. They gleamed with a strange, inhuman symbol along the walls and above a secondary control-panel. It was set in a small alcove before a chair, thirty or so screens with various feeds on them above it. At a glance, Simon made out various Ganymede districts and parts of the cavern.

Ahead, a large, satin-sheeted bed sat beside a lighted doorway jutting from an outcrop. Niala passed through first, Simon on her heels. A narrow hall cut left, opened on another room. Along its walls hung weapons and clothes of various sizes and shapes, likely where the MeLon stored its various species’ wardrobe.

Along the back wall, dangling from shackles at navel-height, was a crumpled feline.

Josie was almost unrecognizable. Her usually vibrant, striped fur was bald in places, mottled with blood in others. Her eyes had the crusted-goo effect domestic animals tended to get when they couldn’t clean themselves. Moreover, it appeared she’d cried so long and hard her eyes had turned a permanent shade of red, her fur stained at their corners.

“For the love of Bastet, what the hell has it done to her?” Niala asked, transfixed.

Simon pushed past, his throat ablaze. He didn’t care. He fought the rusted shackles and their pad-lock. They were crude, especially for this era. Then again, it didn’t take much to immobilize and contain such a helpless creature. Simon stepped back, pulled his pistol. He blasted the locks off to a red-hot glow of lasered steel. Josie’s arms fell free. She roused, already terrified and crying. Simon was beside her, his fiery throat less pained given her appearance.

“Shh, it’s okay.”

The closer he got, the more emaciated she looked. He tried to help her up. Her knees buckled. He lifted her gently, her weight a mere feather.

“She needs. A. Doctor,” Simon said.

Niala nodded, “I have something to keep her pain-free for the trip.”

“Help… me…” Josie purred in agony.

“Its. Okay. Josie,” Simon managed. “You’re safe.”

She sensed his sincerity, shuddered. She began to sob with light mews that stole what remained of his breath. He carried her back to the enclosure; Snow had the MeLon in a chair, menacing it with his teeth bared.

“We’re leaving,” Simon said, headed for the door.

Snow whipped toward him, “You’re out of your mind. We’ll never make it with her like that.”

“Do you. Have a better Idea?” He asked as caustic as his wound allowed.

He whirled back on the MeLon, “Tell me, assassin, does your ship have an infirmary?” The creature couldn’t reply with anymore than a pair of blinks. “Good.”

In one move, he knocked the lizard out.

17.

It hadn’t taken long to find the infirmary, but it was a wonder nonetheless. The ship defied logic, twice the size inside than it appeared outside. New, metal paneling formed its walls and floors, appeared as if anti-static film had only just been peeled away. All around, painted lines and signs directed them in a myriad of Earth-languages and a few others now native to Sol.

The ship was otherwise vacant, and according to what little they saw, yet to be flown. Simon carried Josie through the ship behind Niala, her sense of direction uncanny. Behind them, Snow maneuvered their prisoner through the ship over a shoulder. He cared little for the bumps and bruises its parts suffered along the way. He considered releasing it a moment, recalled a long-past fight with a MeLon and scars where his fur still grew wrong, and decided against it.

By the time they reached the infirmary, it had been nearly a half-hour since they’d found Josie. She no longer cried but seemed unable to do much more than purr. Given the feline propensity for purring in states of both pain and joy, Simon’s heart bled for her.

He laid her in a bed and stepped back while Niala rushed back and forth. Snow chained his prisoner to a bed on the infirmary’s opposite side, drew a curtain around it.

He stopped with it nearly closed, only part of his face showing, “You’re next.”

He threw the curtain closed and stepped to Simon’s side. Rearden lowered onto a bed, disengaged its thrusters to settle into place. Fifteen minutes of injections and bandaging later, Niala finished. Both Snow and Simon had settled into chairs, as much unsure of what to do as unwilling to get in the way.

Simon sensed a curious air about the Wolf. He occasionally sniffed with a subtle, upthrust muzzle. There was a deep contemplation in his features, as though mentally working something out. Wary of him, Simon ignored it until a rhythm became obvious, as though Snow wished to speak but knew not how to.

Simon sighed with a spark to his throat, “Something wrong?”

Snow’s mouth quivered with disgust, but for once he didn’t insult Simon, “Why here?”

“Huh?”

Snow expounded, “Why build the ship here? We are inside a mine. There is only one conclusion; they planned a way out.”

Simon thought on it, “What way?”

Snow eyed the human, “They planned to ignite the ship’s engines and incinerate the ice-mine. It would’ve pumped lethal amounts of ammonia into the atmosphere. The station would have been fine, and the planet would have been cleansed in time, but the lower station-levels would be toxic for days. Meanwhile, they’d bury all other evidence here.”

Simon was dumbstruck by his insight, began to see why he might be considered a leader. Despite his own distaste for the Wolf and its ways, a new image formed of him; he was far more intelligent than he let on. Given his association with Niala, he assumed they’d known one another in some capacity other than military– or at least one therein that showcased intelligence as an asset.

Simon’s voice was weaker, his speech as compact as possible, “Logical enough.”

Niala edged over, “We need to get Josie back to the ISC. I say we steal the ship and go now.”

Simon frowned, “Snow?”

The Wolf scoffed, “It would require vaporizing the mine and releasing the ammonia.”

“We’ll alert the station,” Niala countered. They watched her with dismal looks. “Josie needs medical attention and the sooner we get this ship out of MeLon hands, the better.”

Snow shook his head in defeat, knowing the Lion’s will was unshakable. He replied with a hint of enmity, “Do whatever you feel’s necessary, Matriarch.

Niala squinted, then instructed the group, “Simon, with me. Snow, watch Josie and the prisoner. Rearden, see if you can hack the med-terminal and link with security. Search the data-stores for any traces of that’s been anyone aboard– or still is.”

Rearden’s thrusters engaged. It zoomed across the infirmary to a terminal. Simon rose as Snow chided him, “Be a good boy for mother-domess, pet.”

Simon flipped the Wolf a bird before he left with Niala. They explored the ship, mostly blind but occasionally guided by hopeful signs touting “Bridge” in a handful of languages. They kept their pistols out, Simon’s more for show than anything. Despite the obvious scrapes with death, he still wasn’t sure he was ready to kill someone. It all depended on the moment, he guessed.

“Snow’s concerned,” he said finally.

Niala pointed them around a corner, pistol aimed outward, “About?”

Simon shrugged in reply; it was easier. He managed a few words, “Ceres. What happened?”

“I told you–”

Simon grabbed her arm, grit his teeth against talons goring his throat, “I’ve been framed. Threatened. Cut. I deserve answers.”

She moved to speak but saw he would take no protest. He altogether refused to move until the truth came out– Josie and Sol be damned, he’d earned an explanation.

She heaved a sigh, “Walk and talk.” Simon eyed her skeptically. “We may not have much time. We can do both.”

Simon started forward apprehensively. They took corners slowly, traversed long wide corridors that felt more like a power-plant than a deep-space vessel.

“Shortly after I had my third litter, I left Earth with the Federation. The HAA had recently negotiated the Federation into excellent benefits, and given I now had a Pride’s worth of family to provide for, I needed all I could get.” She rounded a corner, pistol up, then lowered it, “Because of my intelligence and civil-station as Matriarch, I was recruited into the Federation’s Special-Forces unit codenamed “Padfoot Lightning.” The PFL is how I met Snow.”

Simon listened intently as they started down a long corridor toward an elevator. “Bridge-4” was painted beside it beneath a list of other levels. The pair relaxed in the absence of threats.

Niala continued, “The P-F-L was the military’s answer to old-world units like SEALs and Rangers, but with an emphasis on using evolved animals’ heightened instincts for covert missions. Snow was a tracker. I was communications and tech. There were a few others with us– a Tigress, a Hog, and a Rat– each of us had unique skills because of our species’ evolution. We were all physically robust, and trained in unarmed and weapons combat. We were the Federation’s elite.”

Simon had difficulty seeing how this formed such a heavy grudge in Snow. Military units were usually like a brotherhood or family, and given the Wolf’s regard of honor, the two seemed irreconcilable.

Niala intoned over his thoughts while they entered the elevator and began to rise. “We ran counter-terror ops, tracked drug and weapons dealers, smugglers. You name a black-trade, and we worked it, either to shut it down, expand it, or manipulate events through it to our advantage.”

The elevator doors opened on a massive, wide room filled with computers and console-like workstations both eerily foreign and extremely familiar. Niala swept the area with her pistol, then relaxed.

“Needless to say, during one mission, our team was captured. We’d been sent in to extract a hostage from a gang on Ceres. If you’re not familiar, Ceres is essentially one big mine. An entire city was built beneath the surface where the crust was mined out.” She started across the bridge, focused more on her own thoughts than the room’s features, “That city was also a haven for smugglers and gangs. Mafioso types that, like Snow now, controlled everything on the planet. They’d organized a union strike, and in the process, had captured several foreign dignitaries escorted to the planet to ensure there were no Human Rights violations.”

Simon began to see where Niala was headed. He managed to forward her nearer the point with a few, painfully choice words, “Emphasis on Humans. The animals weren’t. Happy?”

Niala affirmed with a shake of her head. “We were lined up to be executed. It was then that we met the master-mind… one of my sons.”

Simon’s brain decoupled from his body for a moment. He stood in utter shock.

Niala’s voice became distant, “When my son saw me, he released me under guard.” Her eyes welled up, her breaths weak, “We argued until… he forced me to execute my team.” Traumatic memories played over her face, visible in her eyes and weak muscles, “I killed the Hog first; Our explosives expert and connection to the black-market. He had a way of making you hate him. It almost wasn’t difficult.”

She swallowed the admission hard. Simon watched internal conflict play visible stills over her.

“I killed the rat next– our infiltration expert and recon-man. He always shriveled like a fool at danger. Why he was chosen for the P-F-L, I’ll never know. It was a mercy, to say the least.”

Her voice was quiet now, her breath stuttered. Simon sensed she no longer inhabited the room, but instead a dimension of agony where nightmares were reality.

“I killed the tigress last,” she admitted. “We were friends. But she was straight as razor. If she lived, and we escaped, I knew I’d be court martialed and jailed for life. I couldn’t allow that.”

Her chest no longer moved. She existed in a vacuum. Simon stared dully.

“I turned the gun on Snow next,” she breathed finally. “And… I couldn’t do it.” She broke from her trance to meet Simon’s eye. “Snow was my best friend. My partner in crime. We were inseparable, and worked well together. Killing him meant killing a piece of me– maybe all of me, given how many times he’d saved my life.”

She almost choked on her tears. Simon’s heart felt a knife penetrate it.

“My son was agitated by my hesitation. I was wasting time, but I couldn’t move. I knew what I’d done was irredeemable, but I’d have rather died than hurt Snow.” Her face went blank. “So I murdered my son to save Snow.”

There was a silence impregnated by a tension whose source eluded him.

Niala finished with an ashamed glance away. “Snow blames me for the loss of our team and the black marks on his military record, but owes me his life, and so knows he cannot hurt me. What’s more, his beliefs in loyalty and honor makes him see the murders as a betrayal of both trusted friends and family.” Her tone shifted formally, “For a Wolf, the commitment to honor is instinct. Were Snow in such a position, he’d have inevitably chosen to kill us all, or immediately murder his child. My choice was motivated differently, by different instincts, but the same devotion. He refuses to admit that…. but I don’t blame him.”

She stepped to a console, examined it pointedly.

“Snow hates me because he believes I have loyalty only to myself. No matter how I’ve attempted to convince him my loyalty was ultimately to him, the murder of our team supersedes it. For me to have murdered my son as well only solidifies his belief that I know no true honor or devotion. He is mistaken.”

The foreign nature of the console began to dawn on Niala, but her mind was too transfixed on her memories. It took a moment for her to comprehend the design of what she was looking at. In the meantime, she breathed, “Now you know what happened on Ceres.”

18.

Niala hunched over the console, freshly guilt-riddled. Simon was still in shock a few paces behind her. She examined the console with the best, analytical eye she could muster, “Strange. This console seems to be based on human designs but with… modifications for non-humans.”

Simon ambled over. He looked down at a large, free-standing dashboard with over a hundred lighted buttons, switches, levers, and knobs. Between them, touch-screens were lit with various graphs, commands and measurements. He saw little difference to any normal console he’d have expected to find in an advanced, prototypical ship.

“I don’t. Understand.”

Niala keyed in a few commands. 3-D projections emitted in a strange perspective around them. It made Simon’s head spin. He blinked hard with a groan. She explained, “A projection mode for Avian species, to compensate for their orbital-placement.”

She keyed another command. The projection disappeared. Suddenly the touch-screens changed color and speed. They seemed more sluggish now than before. Simon examined them long enough to feel his dizziness worsen, then looked away.

“For those of us that see in fewer images and colors,” Niala said. She keyed in a final command, and half the lighted switches went dark. With a key, she cycled through various lighted configurations, “Avians. Quadrupeds. Reptiles…” The list went on. Niala stopped for Simon’s sake, “Somebody’s gone through a lot of trouble to properly compensate for Sol’s evolved animal-life. More importantly, they’ve done it without the aide of the ISC or Federation.”

Simon failed to see her point, but his mind was drawn to a single word, “Money?”

“Whoever’s built this thing is well-funded.” She knelt beneath a console that formed a desk before a chair. With deft paws, she eased off a panel to examine its innards, “Strange.”

Simon busied himself with a in-depth survey of the Bridge, “What?”

Niala splayed and sifted through wires, “The solders are pristine.”

Simon compensated for his inability to speak at length, “Your point?”

Niala continued to part wires, examine them, “In a prototype ship, solders are generally done by hand– everything is. There’s usually visible evidence of human or animal hands. But these were machined.”

Simon lingered on a massive, flat panel-display at the front of the room. For the first time it occurred to him there were no windows anywhere. It made sense, in a way. Windows were a structural weakness that required extreme, excess machining for any material put in them. Such were the rigors of space travel. In most public applications, like transport shuttles, this was less of an issue as their speeds were often too low to matter. Moreover, Sol’s people liked windows. Human and animal alike had evolved to need them to counter isolation disorders.

A D-S explorer however, if in line with his research, would move at speeds where the slightest micro-meteor impact could destroy it. A small hole would expand, suck out the crew and anything else nearby. The display ahead was probably one of many through-out the ship, likely connected to external cameras. Their link with image processing software would form true-to-life images as real as windows.

In all designs by the ISC and Federation, good, old windows prevailed. There was only design Simon knew of to incorporate simulated, external displays like this; Zelphod ships.

Niala had reached a similar conclusion regarding money; who in their right mind would give anti-humanists enough funding to mass-produce D-S ships? A myriad of small factions sprang to mind, but most were harmless. Even those that weren’t could never afford this level of support.

A faction heavily financed enough, and with access to mass-production machinery, would have to be accounted for. They’d have to have the motivation and means to disrupt an entire system’s economy, politics, and agenda. There was only one group with that level of commitment and grudge.

She slid from beneath the console, sat upright. “Zelphods,” they chorused together.

They were suddenly up, headed back to the infirmary. Ten minutes later, Niala was standing over a vid-phone with Snow beside her. A lone Hog looked back with massive tusk yellowed from Lunese tobacco.

“I authorize it,” Snow instructed. “Sound the alert. Count ten minutes, then lock down the lower station’s seals and keep the O2 monitored. Do not re-open them until the O-2 returns to normal.”

The Hog snorted, “Aye, Alpha. We’ll keep you updated.”

The screen went blank. Snow looked between Niala and Simon. He’d lost all of his previous distaste, replaced it with gravity, “You’re certain of this?”

Niala’s conviction matched his, “I wouldn’t do this otherwise.”

Simon grumbled a pained line, “We still. ‘ve no idea. Where the facility is.”

Snow disagreed, “There’s only one place with pre-existing infrastructure for an operation this size.” Niala looked away. Snow reiterated to emphasize his point, “There is only one place— a place we both know is abandoned.”

Niala swallowed with more difficulty than Simon. More regret and guilt filled her than before.

Simon watched, on-edge, “Where?

She winced, “Ceres.”

19.

Ten minutes later they once more occupied the Bridge. The ship’s auxiliary power flickered to life as its engines and main power-plant engaged. It shuddered with a groan of fresh welds.

“In less than a minute, the mine will begin to dissolve,” Niala said at a console. “Five minutes later, the cavern will open and Ganymede’s atmosphere will be flooded with ammonia gas.”

Rearden beeped over an intercomm with an interrogative tone, “What. Is it?” Simon asked a panel speaker.

It beeped a few more times. The forward display lit up; the same one Simon had used to deduce Zelphod design. Somehow, he knew, it was about to confirm it. The bridge appeared, identical to its present state but with a pair of Cobras flanking a MeLon. He approached a fourth creature. Its armored pressure-suit made it appear as a Praying Mantis might were its thorax missing.

“Zelphods,” Snow growled with a furious bare of teeth.

Simon was suddenly fearful the Wolf might channel his ancestors and charge the screen. Instead, he fixed himself in a lean. He growled low as panel speakers buzzed and zipped before them.

“Zelphodian,” Niala said astutely. “But why would he bother to speak it to–”

The MeLon cut her off with a hissing, nasally voice, “The ISC believes the Feline genuine. Pheromone collection and application is a success. We may begin phase-two.” There were a few buzzes and zips. Then, the MeLon made a half-bow, its bulbous eyes closed, “As you wish, sssir.”

A moment later, the MeLon was a Feline. It rounded on-heel, sauntered away and off-screen.

“Sonuvabitch,” Simon muttered with a scratch.

The ship’s launch rattled and shook everything– a tin can of old-world coins. The trio braced what surfaces they could grasp. Niala kept herself poised at the pilot’s console, ready to flick sequences of switches with trembling. Impacts struck the upper-decks, adding crashing to the grumble of engines.

Niala keyed up the exterior display. Yellow smoke swirled as bits of cavern disintegrated and dislodged. A large stalactite plummeted straight past the camera with a deep shadow, left stirred poison in its wake. Rearden beeped over the panels. Simon did his best to soothe the little bot’s fears. This much was expected, albeit more violent than he’d imagined.

Three-and-a-half minutes of shaking and shuddering accompanied pounding of across the hull. The gaseous smoke all but concealed the cavern from the cameras. Niala cycled through them anyhow, lost at what to do. A beam of light cut through gas on the forward display. A section of cavern collasped into a wet pile. The depressurization sucked ammonia smoke out, cleared the cameras.

Niala keyed up the ship’s thrusters. An emormous crash sounded atop the hull of the quaking ship. She threw a digital switch to full-power. The ship jolted them backward, rocketed forward at an shallow angle.

Silence. Then, a shattering crunch.

The ship groaned and shuddered from the top down. It threw them about. Niala kept her balance. Snow tumbled left, felt to all fours, then followed through onto his side with a wounded yelp. Simon was thrown forward, landed splayed over an L-shaped, inactive console. A sudden stillness returned them to silence.

Niala keyed up a few external cameras in a row; they were now beyond Ganymede’s artificial atmosphere. Jupiter dangled to one side of the moon-station, curved away from the ship’s momentum.

Niala exhaled a long breath, “We’re free.”

Snow was immediately up and at Niala’s side. He keyed up several cameras as the ship came about. Below, the station’s lowest reaches were shrouded in yellow smoke. It obscured everything in a curiously spherical area.

“There,” Snow said at it. “The At-Mo barriers are holding.”

“It’ll be there for days,” Niala winced.

Simon groaned. Buttons, knobs, and levers stuck into him in various, uncomfortable ways. He could only crawl forward, tumble over the console, and pull himself up at Niala’s left. He clawed his way up to watch the displays. Ganymede seemed motionless below, but Niala thumbed a knob and a bar-graph sprinted upward. A small jolt forced Simon to blink, and Ganymede was gone.

“Jesus,” he said quietly. “They did it.”

They were already near the asteroid field where Ceres waited; a darkened dwarf-planet in a field of meteors large enough to end all life in Sol if it so desired. Simon was suddenly grateful asteroid belts were neither sentient nor given to fury. If they were, Sol would be extinct.

Simon could think of nothing else as they sailed on through vacuum and celestial debris that dwarfed their ship. Moon-sized chunks of rock, forever caught in the gravity well of inner and outter planets, orbited space with little more than aimless spinning. They were all barren of features, even those most easily mined. The fear of doing so kept them that way. If these more monstrous bodies’ orbits decayed, a chain-reaction could spell doom for Sol.

“There,” Niala said.

An especially rounded asteroid– or dwarf planet, as Simon came to realize– rotated to one side of the visible asteroid field. As the display centered on it, a HUD appeared on-screen, it listed out Ceres’ cosmic information and history. It neared, seemingly the only body within vast, celestial distances given the belt’s sparse density.

Simon was more focused above the historical entry that read, “Population: 0.”

He glared, “What. The Hell?”

Niala rounded, “Ceres is dead, Simon. It has been for a decade.”

Snow crossed his arms with spite, “And we made it that way.”

He was breathless, “H-how?”

Snow was quick to speak, “Ceres was a scum pit. Ganymede is an Eden in comparison. Ceres was a slave-driven economy with more corruption that the Federation Senate. Nothing would have changed that outside extinction.” His face was fixed without regret, “What we did kept Ceres’ disease from spreading.”

“What. Was it?” He asked, fearing the answer.

Niala was more indifferent than anything, “A chemical gas attack.”

20.

“Isoflurane and Nitrous Oxide,” Niala was saying.

They were parked in orbit above Ceres. Simon hadn’t inquired further, but instead stared as they approached orbit and settled into it amid dead silence.

Simon’s demeanor remained unchanged. Niala explained, “We pumped it into the atmosphere after the union murdered the politicians. We knew there wasn’t any saving the planet. We were getting ready to leave, after our team was killed, and were caught off-guard by a mob. They strung the delegates up and hanged them from structural supports. The people did that. Animal and Human alike. Corruption had run so deep, it engulfed them. We retaliated by putting the whole planet to sleep, letting them die painlessly.”

Simon was caught in his thoughts. He could no longer see where insanity began and sanity ended– not just in the PFL, but in their search as well. They’d gone from hunting a thief, to suspecting a conspiracy, to headlong being enveloped in it. A need to take stock was a given, but no-one seemed to recognize that. Then again, beyond the ship’s passengers, no one knew what was really happening. Simon wasn’t sure he knew himself.

He stared at Ceres as it rotated beneath the ship’s belly cameras. With a sustained fire, he spoke at length, “What. Do we do. If you’re right? If they’re here? What. Can we do?”

Snow replied, “We blow the place to hell, and don’t look back.”

Niala was at Simon’s side, “You know this threat’s bigger than us, bigger than the ISC. If the Anti-humanists control deep-space they’ll war with Sol. The Zelphods will aid them. Even if it takes a decade, it will happen.”

Simon was numb. He could feel nothing. His throat burned as he spoke but it was just a dull throb muffled by gross reality. One of his closest friends had committed mass-murder. A planetary war-crime. Now she was ready to do it again, with him as an accomplice. He’d never been violent, but also wasn’t a pacifist. Violence was a solution to certain, specific problems even if it wasn’t the preferable solution. It didn’t make it easier to stomach though.

The MeLon posing as Josie had tried to kill him. If given the chance, it would do worse to many more others. It was complicit with the idea of one day warring with Sol, apart of human-centered hate groups formed to overthrow Federation laws.

But did that give Simon the right to murder? Could it solve the issue? He couldn’t answer definitively, only time could.

He swallowed hard through the fire in his throat, “We’ll need a way. down to the planet. We should search. for a shuttle. to keep the ship. out of harm’s way.”

With that Simon began to key through a console. Niala and Snow watched. They hesitated a moment, Snow the more curious of the two, then aided him in the search. A shuttle on a lower deck was docked with two-dozen others in an aft bay. Membrane barriers shimmered at the bay’s edge between atmosphere and dark space that encroached upon by the very apex of Ceres’ spheroid.

Snow re-checked the MeLon’s binds while Niala dosed it and Josie with powerful sedatives. Simon spoke absently to Rearden, as though ready to say good-bye, despite the others insisting it wasn’t.

He patted the robot’s gourd-like shape, “If we’re not back in a day. Free Josie and tend to her. Then take the ship to Phobos. Contact Gnarl. Inform him what’s happened and that you have the MeLon aboard.” He gave a last glance at the MeLon, still in its Feline form, “And keep it sedated.”

Rearden gave a few beeps, roughly translatable to “good luck.” Simon followed Niala and Snow down to the shuttle, took a place in a rear seat. Niala took the pilot’s controls, remarked something about its design that was lost on Simon. Snow keyed in a destination on a nav-console.

Externally, the shuttle looked like a tin can cut at a forty-five degree angle in the front. Its back-half was similar, but the angle less extreme and whole rear able to fold down. It was roomy, with only a dash and overhead panel for control. The seats too, were large, seemingly enough to fit even the girth of Hogs, while the cargo area was wide and long, presumably to allow creatures like Serpents to relax hassle-free.

Niala gave a “ready” and powered the shuttle. It gave a small, quiet rumble. A vertical sensation forced Simon’s stomach down his torso, dissipated a second later. Another sensation; lateral movement displaced his bones, left just as quickly. The hangar-bay crawled past out the forward viewport– a true to life window– darkened despite their forward lights at medium setting.

The membrane barrier passed with blue light that decontaminated the shuttle. Snow gave a command, and Niala keyed up the juice. The shuttle rocketed away, threw the trio back in their seats. A moment later, a great bout of turbulence rattled Simon’s brain in his skull like a bottle cap stuffed inside a pop-can. Some manner of compensator kicked in, and the ride was still again.

The re-entry wasn’t the least bit concerning afterward. Even as they angled for land and the edges of the viewport glowed red hot with atmospheric friction. It cooled as they weaved near the ground. Niala banked, followed Snow’s indicators on the view-port’s HUD; a series of checkpoints formed along the glacial scenery. The shuttle tilted, pitched, and pivoted through valleys shimmering red, blue, and pale-yellow or milky-white from the carbonate-mineral rocks.

The horizon of jagged valleys finally broke past a nav-point. A massive crater dipped near a kilometer into Ceres’ surface, deeper still at some points. The ship took the distance with renewed vigor, angled down to pass the crater’s edge. A moment later, lights flared ultra-bright. Cavern walls appeared, near vertical for hundreds of meters. They galloped downward, then slowed.

The ship leveled out. Lights fell over distant amalgamations of structural supports, ramshackle shanties, and buildings constructed of scrap. Simon was more interested in their vacancy than anything. What seemed to have once been a lively, expansive village, was now a pitch-black ghost-town. Niala set down on a patch of smoothed mineral, checked the laser-pistol she’d brought.

She tossed Simon a heavy coat and made for the door. Snow stood beside Simon a moment, “Know that everything you do here is to protect not only yourself, but your species, as well as all others that live in peace with it. What you do beyond this shuttle, is not a decision you make, but an inevitability you accept because the alternative as irreconcilable. Do not freeze when the time comes. Perhaps, when this is over, I might hold you in higher regard.”

Snow stepped away. Simon rose from his seat, oddly comforted. He fixed himself into determination, absent of little else, and followed the others out.

21.

The ghost town was once Ceres’ main hub. That much was apparent by the sheer amount of frozen corpses preserved by the decade since the PFL attack. Simon couldn’t imagine the MeLon entering this atmosphere. Snow might be at home in it, and Niala seemed unfazed by it, but he was freezing even through the ultra-warm coat he’d been given. He shivered violently, followed the others through the abandoned shanty town.

They seemed to know where they were headed, but he found a need to keep his eyes forward. Corpses were everywhere, like a scene from the old Vesuvian victim of ancient Pompeii. They’d been overcome by the anesthetic released and froze over, just as Pompeii with toxic fumes and pumice. Evidently, the PFL agents had shut down whatever means of distribution they’d used afterward. Or at least, Simon suspected as much, given he could still breathe.

They progressed down a series of long, double-wide staircases. Bodies were slumped over railings, splayed across foyers. At each level, sheet-metal entries hid countless more dead. For near an hour the planetary graveyard carried them toward Ceres’ heart.

Their destination became apparent in the distance; a lone manufacturing facility lit within an industrial district that was otherwise long-dead. Reaching the ground and facility proved to be the easy part, getting in would be another matter altogether.

Niala led at a crouch, stealthed around a side of the enormous factory. She paused every few paces to listen beyond thrumming machinery, until, at the factory’s rear-corner she stopped, peered around with a paw up to stay the others. A nearby door was stationed beneath a lone light flickering with age. Niala focused past it, at the start of a series of structural beams that led upward the hundred or more meters to the factory’s roof.

She pulled back, “We climb from here.”

“You’re nuts,” Simon managed in a lone breath.

She and Snow dismissed him with a look. “It’s the only way. Entering through the factory floor may get us killed.”

Snow replied, “We’re behind you.”

She set off in her crouch for the first series of beams. Simon sighed frustration. Snow shoved him past the corner, followed after him. The trio reached the first steel beams, braced in an H a meter up. Niala leapt to it with Feline agility. Snow took a short, sprinting leap. He and Niala extended their paws for Simon, easily pulled him up.

They started along a cross-beam, climbed up on an over-hang. Simon followed, envying his ape-ancestors. He heaved himself up, around, leapt with the pair’s aid, all the while exhausted by his “evolved” form. When they finally reached a series of braces running even with the factory roof, he glanced down. His stomach dropped at the two hundred meters of steel and air below.

Niala drew him back with a pounce that spanned the six-foot gap between roof and beam with ease. Snow followed with a similar spring. He landed with a skid and turn, looked more like a playful puppy than a hardened warlord. Simon swallowed hard, breathed deep. He long-jumped, eyes closed, only to feel himself jostled on landing. He opened his eyes to find his feet over open air. Niala and Snow’s nails dug into his shoulder. With a singular, powerful heave, they drew him onto the roof.

The progress up had been quiet, as was Simon’s near-fall. But where that was a noisy, clambering affair, their advance was a flea’s breath beneath ruffled fur. They crouch-walked to sky-lights frosted over by inner-heat. Snow wiped off a pane of glass, revealed the factory’s two, spaciously placed floors. The ground-level was a factory floor filled with machinery of all types; a sort of assembly line that reminded Simon of ancient stock footage from war-time manufacturing.

The second floor was a grated catwalk. Offices and other rooms lined it where they wouldn’t interfere with any machinery below. The space between them said a fall over a cat-walk could kill any species not agile enough to land on its feet.

They needed a way in. A quiet one. The machinery seemed fully automated, but would be overseen by a skeleton crew. Wherever they might be, they weren’t visible. What was however, was the beginnings of a dozen, large hydraulic pads– the ground-work for another ship identical to theirs. Mechanical arms swarmed them, while conveyors shuffled parts over. The machinery worked in concert to actively build the ship, piece-by-piece.

Niala made for a roof-access door, but Snow called her back. He pointed downward, somewhere to the side of the partially-built ship. Simon squinted to see better. Three figures moved about; a Cobra, a Hog, and an unmistakable, pressure-suited Zelphod.

Niala recognized markings on its suit, “Same one from the security footage. You think it knows we stole the ship?”

One of Snow’s eyes narrowed, “Doesn’t matter. This factory will be destroyed.”

Simon found it easier to speak at length in the cold air, “What’s to stop them from reactivating another factory?”

Snow gave a slight shake of his head, “They’ve lost the element of surprise now. We’ll blow this place to hell, then inform the HAA and Federation. They’ll bombard the planet from space. There won’t be a single structure left standing, and they won’t have anywhere in Sol to start up again.”

Simon was on-board, but didn’t know where to begin. Niala headed for the stairwell in a hush, “I’ve got a plan.”

22.

Niala’s plan wasn’t revealed until they were already inside the factory. Simon and Snow were left in suspense until they slipped down the roof’s stairwell. They crept along a pair of flights to a small corridor as Niala explained with a whisper. She went quiet when the upper-catwalk floor appeared. The trio huddled just beyond it at a doorway, surveyed the mechanized frenzy below.

Niala’s pistol was out. Snow mirrored the motion. Simon was less confident, but prepared himself. A cacophony of robotic arms and spitting plasma welders made for perfect cover as they slipped out and along the catwalk. The Zelphod had taken up a position at the rear of the factory floor to watch the machines with a reverent complacency.

The ship grew, piece-by-piece, across the far-side of the large building. Simon paused. He couldn’t help but recall time-lapse vids of old-era construction as machines grew in stop-motion animation. The constructors were eerily similar, but more fluid, their progress unending. At a motion from Snow, he crept along the catwalk. From their vantage point, large hydraulic pathways were now visible in the ceiling. When the time was right, the roof would part for the ship to ease itself up and out. Blackened scorch marks along walls and machines said this wasn’t the first ship built nor launched. It would be the last.

Niala led the way to the cat-walk’s rear-edge. They stood just above and behind the Zelphod, close enough now to make out the markings on its suit without need to squint. Its compatriots, the Cobra and Hog, suddenly appeared. They approached the Zelphod, oblivious to their infiltration.

“Ssssir,” The Cobra hissed. “We’ve found a sshhhuttle and there isss a sshhhip in orbit.”

A series of buzzes and zips replied. The Hog gave a snort, “At once, sir.”

They turned for the far-end of the factory floor. Niala whispered a command and threw herself over the catwalk. The Zelphod screeched. The two animals turned. Snow hurled himself over the railing, gunned down the Cobra in mid-air. He landed on all fours and charged the Hog. Simon was left helplessly to watch.

The Zelphod’s suited-limbs flurried with razor-sharp blades. Niala hissed, swatted through the field of knives. She yelped from a sliced a paw, roared with fury. Snow’s quadrupedal tackle caught the Hog as it turned. Its pistol was knocked free with a squeal. A random shot sparked concrete.

The Wolf and Hog rolled across the floor with excess momentum. Snow’s teeth latched onto throat-skin. Sounds of animal slaughter infected the hogs flailing. It fought to buck him, landed a few, good hooves into his ribs. Snow flew backward. Flesh tore and ripped with a screaming squeal.

Snow landed, hog-throat hanging from his jaws. Buckets of blood poured from its throat. It scrambled across the factory floor, zig-zagged, and fell dead at the end of a long blood-trail. Snow spit the Hog’s skin out, rounded to see Niala recoil as the Zelphod gashed her paw.

He dropped to all fours, sprinted forward, “Now, Human!”

Simon shouted into a communicator, “Rearden!”

Niala struggled beneath the Zelphod, fought to avoid the blades. She growled, felt her strength waning. Forearm blades pressed down at her throat. She fought their wrists, muscles aching. Snow tackled the Zelphod from the side, tumbled with it in flashes of fur and glinting alloy. Niala recovered. Snow gripped a limb in his jaws. He wrenched it backward to a resounding crunch of metal, and an unearthly screech. The limb disgorged from the Zelphod’s body as the factory’s edge exploded in a fireball.

The flaming crater was shrouded by a second explosion before they could react. The factory’s lights went out. Flames threw shadows over its rear. Simon broke into a sprint, slammed into a fire-exit. The Zelphod screeched, flailed. Niala jammed a syringe through its missing suit. She and Snow shouldered its stilled husk for a service door.

They were outside, sprinting, a hundred meters between them and the factory. Two more blasts struck side-by-side. Molten flames eradicated the last of the pre-built ship. Simon radioed Rearden as the trio scrambled for anywhere not in the path of the ship’s cannons. They fell to a stop just out the blast-range, watched the factory become swallowed by fiery plasma bursts.

Flames flickered, revealed only craters remaining beneath them. Their shuttle’s auto-pilot navigated it through the flame. Fire blew sideways as the shuttle angled downward, landed beside them. They threw the Zelphod in and rocketed toward the ship.

***

Less than a day later, they stood in the ISC Hospital’s acute-care wing. Josie had only been awake a collective hour. Her hair was still missing in places, but she was freshly cleaned, no longer blood mottled. Bandages were draped around various places where she’d been injured by her captors. All the same, she was relieved, comfortable and safe. Her eyes were alert despite a slight droop from IVs administering steady painkillers and fluids.

Simon and Niala sat to one side of Josie’s bed, Gnarl and Snow at its opposite side and foot respectively. The poor hound was exhausted from near-on a week of various, critical security situations caused by the theft and network attack yet his spirits remained high.

“That’s when we found you,” Niala said. She made quick work of retelling their discoveries and the destruction of the factory, then finished with, “You’re safe now. They won’t bother you ever again.”

Josie lapped up a large drink of water from a bowl-cup, then asked, “What about the others?”

Gnarl suddenly spoke up, “Officially, the Zelphod diplomats are denying any involvement. They have, however, named the Zelphod in custody. I… can’t pronounce his name, but he was an Admiral in the War. Both the Federation and the Zelphod believe his actions were retribution for a lost fleet. So far, he appears to have acted alone and without sanction.” Gnarl rolled his eyes, spoke casually, “Yeah, right, and my balls are made of kibble.” He sighed with a near whimper, “Officially, there’s nothing we can do, or say, to indicate we believe them responsible. Unofficially, no-one’s surprised. I doubt they’d have put the blame on the Admiral so easily had he not been caught.”

Niala summarized, “Meaning it may not have been sanctioned, but it also wasn’t prevented.”

“Precisely,” Gnarl said. He cleared his tired throat, tapped a paw on Josie’s, “Nonetheless, we know he was working with extremist, anti-human mercenaries. The MeLon’s being interrogated now and all security’s being bolstered against further intrusion. We’re also re-screening our personnel, present company excluded, of course.”

Simon’s throat was well enough to speak without hindrance, “And the Nexus Project?”

Niala replied with authority, “Formally, the project’s going ahead as planned. We’re to continue our research to maximize engine and system efficiency.”

“And the ship?”

Snow gave a mischievous grin, “Is currently docked on Ganymede, under my name, and will not be accessible to anyone but my people. A spoil of war, if you will.” He glanced at Niala, “I trust my debt is repaid.”

Niala rolled frustrated eyes, then nodded with affirmation. With that the Wolf swiveled for the door. Simon and Niala exchanged a look as Josie purred from minor pain. Niala patted her paw, applied a fresh dose of meds from an IV’s control panel, “Get some rest. We’ll be by to see you later.”

She gave a “mew” then closed her eyes. Gnarl excused himself at the doorway, parted with the others as Rearden drifted up with a few beeps.

Simon replied, “She’s fine. Sleeping.”

“We’ll leave her be,” Niala said to the little bot. She started forward, “C’mon, I’ll buy lunch.”

Simon followed her in-step. Whatever the future might hold, he knew one thing; at the very least, one day the ISC would finish the Nexus Project, and the next day, the Human-Animal Alliance would breach Deep-space with the aid of the Human Federation. Together, they would then begin colonization of the nearest, inhabitable systems.

The anti-humanists could say and do whatever they wanted. For, even if so ill-fitted to the job as Simon, there would always be someone to protect progress from them. At that, Simon would fight again, if need be. After all, he may have been “unevolved” to them, but to him, they were all the same; descendants of a little blue marble called Earth.

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