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.
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.