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.
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?”
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.”