“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.
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.”