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.”
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.
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.”