Niala’s plan wasn’t revealed until they were already inside the factory. Simon and Snow were left in suspense until they slipped down the roof’s stairwell. They crept along a pair of flights to a small corridor as Niala explained with a whisper. She went quiet when the upper-catwalk floor appeared. The trio huddled just beyond it at a doorway, surveyed the mechanized frenzy below.
Niala’s pistol was out. Snow mirrored the motion. Simon was less confident, but prepared himself. A cacophony of robotic arms and spitting plasma welders made for perfect cover as they slipped out and along the catwalk. The Zelphod had taken up a position at the rear of the factory floor to watch the machines with a reverent complacency.
The ship grew, piece-by-piece, across the far-side of the large building. Simon paused. He couldn’t help but recall time-lapse vids of old-era construction as machines grew in stop-motion animation. The constructors were eerily similar, but more fluid, their progress unending. At a motion from Snow, he crept along the catwalk. From their vantage point, large hydraulic pathways were now visible in the ceiling. When the time was right, the roof would part for the ship to ease itself up and out. Blackened scorch marks along walls and machines said this wasn’t the first ship built nor launched. It would be the last.
Niala led the way to the cat-walk’s rear-edge. They stood just above and behind the Zelphod, close enough now to make out the markings on its suit without need to squint. Its compatriots, the Cobra and Hog, suddenly appeared. They approached the Zelphod, oblivious to their infiltration.
“Ssssir,” The Cobra hissed. “We’ve found a sshhhuttle and there isss a sshhhip in orbit.”
A series of buzzes and zips replied. The Hog gave a snort, “At once, sir.”
They turned for the far-end of the factory floor. Niala whispered a command and threw herself over the catwalk. The Zelphod screeched. The two animals turned. Snow hurled himself over the railing, gunned down the Cobra in mid-air. He landed on all fours and charged the Hog. Simon was left helplessly to watch.
The Zelphod’s suited-limbs flurried with razor-sharp blades. Niala hissed, swatted through the field of knives. She yelped from a sliced a paw, roared with fury. Snow’s quadrupedal tackle caught the Hog as it turned. Its pistol was knocked free with a squeal. A random shot sparked concrete.
The Wolf and Hog rolled across the floor with excess momentum. Snow’s teeth latched onto throat-skin. Sounds of animal slaughter infected the hogs flailing. It fought to buck him, landed a few, good hooves into his ribs. Snow flew backward. Flesh tore and ripped with a screaming squeal.
Snow landed, hog-throat hanging from his jaws. Buckets of blood poured from its throat. It scrambled across the factory floor, zig-zagged, and fell dead at the end of a long blood-trail. Snow spit the Hog’s skin out, rounded to see Niala recoil as the Zelphod gashed her paw.
He dropped to all fours, sprinted forward, “Now, Human!”
Simon shouted into a communicator, “Rearden!”
Niala struggled beneath the Zelphod, fought to avoid the blades. She growled, felt her strength waning. Forearm blades pressed down at her throat. She fought their wrists, muscles aching. Snow tackled the Zelphod from the side, tumbled with it in flashes of fur and glinting alloy. Niala recovered. Snow gripped a limb in his jaws. He wrenched it backward to a resounding crunch of metal, and an unearthly screech. The limb disgorged from the Zelphod’s body as the factory’s edge exploded in a fireball.
The flaming crater was shrouded by a second explosion before they could react. The factory’s lights went out. Flames threw shadows over its rear. Simon broke into a sprint, slammed into a fire-exit. The Zelphod screeched, flailed. Niala jammed a syringe through its missing suit. She and Snow shouldered its stilled husk for a service door.
They were outside, sprinting, a hundred meters between them and the factory. Two more blasts struck side-by-side. Molten flames eradicated the last of the pre-built ship. Simon radioed Rearden as the trio scrambled for anywhere not in the path of the ship’s cannons. They fell to a stop just out the blast-range, watched the factory become swallowed by fiery plasma bursts.
Flames flickered, revealed only craters remaining beneath them. Their shuttle’s auto-pilot navigated it through the flame. Fire blew sideways as the shuttle angled downward, landed beside them. They threw the Zelphod in and rocketed toward the ship.
Less than a day later, they stood in the ISC Hospital’s acute-care wing. Josie had only been awake a collective hour. Her hair was still missing in places, but she was freshly cleaned, no longer blood mottled. Bandages were draped around various places where she’d been injured by her captors. All the same, she was relieved, comfortable and safe. Her eyes were alert despite a slight droop from IVs administering steady painkillers and fluids.
Simon and Niala sat to one side of Josie’s bed, Gnarl and Snow at its opposite side and foot respectively. The poor hound was exhausted from near-on a week of various, critical security situations caused by the theft and network attack yet his spirits remained high.
“That’s when we found you,” Niala said. She made quick work of retelling their discoveries and the destruction of the factory, then finished with, “You’re safe now. They won’t bother you ever again.”
Josie lapped up a large drink of water from a bowl-cup, then asked, “What about the others?”
Gnarl suddenly spoke up, “Officially, the Zelphod diplomats are denying any involvement. They have, however, named the Zelphod in custody. I… can’t pronounce his name, but he was an Admiral in the War. Both the Federation and the Zelphod believe his actions were retribution for a lost fleet. So far, he appears to have acted alone and without sanction.” Gnarl rolled his eyes, spoke casually, “Yeah, right, and my balls are made of kibble.” He sighed with a near whimper, “Officially, there’s nothing we can do, or say, to indicate we believe them responsible. Unofficially, no-one’s surprised. I doubt they’d have put the blame on the Admiral so easily had he not been caught.”
Niala summarized, “Meaning it may not have been sanctioned, but it also wasn’t prevented.”
“Precisely,” Gnarl said. He cleared his tired throat, tapped a paw on Josie’s, “Nonetheless, we know he was working with extremist, anti-human mercenaries. The MeLon’s being interrogated now and all security’s being bolstered against further intrusion. We’re also re-screening our personnel, present company excluded, of course.”
Simon’s throat was well enough to speak without hindrance, “And the Nexus Project?”
Niala replied with authority, “Formally, the project’s going ahead as planned. We’re to continue our research to maximize engine and system efficiency.”
“And the ship?”
Snow gave a mischievous grin, “Is currently docked on Ganymede, under my name, and will not be accessible to anyone but my people. A spoil of war, if you will.” He glanced at Niala, “I trust my debt is repaid.”
Niala rolled frustrated eyes, then nodded with affirmation. With that the Wolf swiveled for the door. Simon and Niala exchanged a look as Josie purred from minor pain. Niala patted her paw, applied a fresh dose of meds from an IV’s control panel, “Get some rest. We’ll be by to see you later.”
She gave a “mew” then closed her eyes. Gnarl excused himself at the doorway, parted with the others as Rearden drifted up with a few beeps.
Simon replied, “She’s fine. Sleeping.”
“We’ll leave her be,” Niala said to the little bot. She started forward, “C’mon, I’ll buy lunch.”
Simon followed her in-step. Whatever the future might hold, he knew one thing; at the very least, one day the ISC would finish the Nexus Project, and the next day, the Human-Animal Alliance would breach Deep-space with the aid of the Human Federation. Together, they would then begin colonization of the nearest, inhabitable systems.
The anti-humanists could say and do whatever they wanted. For, even if so ill-fitted to the job as Simon, there would always be someone to protect progress from them. At that, Simon would fight again, if need be. After all, he may have been “unevolved” to them, but to him, they were all the same; descendants of a little blue marble called Earth.