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.”
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.”