Simon was barely able to stand. Both Niala and Rearden watched him fiercely, but somehow he managed to keep his feet under him. After countless doses of morphine and blood, he was more substance than man, and with the Lion-like will, he was all the more a beast. There was a determination in his eyes that said he would go through unimaginable hells to find the truth now, especially given the one he’d already been through.
When the doors opened on the top level of the admin building, it was to the scene so common to the non-lab locations of the facility; cubicles, creatures, and halls full of named doors. It seemed nothing had changed since the attack and betrayal by one of their inner-most. Even when they passed the spot where Josie nearly decapitated Simon, there was little more than a lingered glance to set it apart.
The maintenance bots had done an A-rate job cleaning up the blood spatters and pool from the walls and floor. As programmed, they’d eradicated all traces of the attack. Joise’s empty desk before Frost’s door was the only left out of place. Visibly, she might’ve merely been out to lunch, or perhaps on an errand for her scatter brained, Corvian boss.
Frost’s office-door flew open, nearly fell of its hinges. The Crow turned with a start. His wings flapped wildly and his chest heaved in a squawk.
Simon stormed toward him. He trembled reply, “Great skies, you gave me a fright!”
Simon planted both arms on the desk, leaned over it so that his bandaged stitches occupied one side of the bird’s view and his head the other. He grated sand-paper words against his wounded throat, “You. Will. Tell us. Everything.” The bird’s head tilted slightly to better view him, an obvious confusion in the movement. Simon alleviated it with a throaty fire, “Nexus Project. Deep Space. Colonization.”
Frost’s eyes enlarged to black holes, “Wh-what’re you t-talking about?”
Niala rounded behind Frost, spun him in his chair to meet her eyes. She held out a paw at him, pads up, and tensed her claws, “Start talking or I start playing bat the twine with your organs.”
He gave a squawk, “How dare you! You think you can come in here and threaten me!? I’ll have your job for this!”
“Go ahead,” Niala growled. “Try it. Then I can cut you in half for what you’ve done.”
“I’ve done nothing!”
“Liar,” she hissed. “You’ve already begun building a prototype. All of our work’s just a smokescreen, a cross-check of your math. You and the Federation want to keep Deep-Space a secret, colonize it before the general public catches on.”
He was irate, “Martin you’ve lost your mind, I would never–”
“You would. You have. Now sing or I start cutting.”
His eyes followed her razor-sharp claws toward his throat. His head involuntarily eased backward, neck stiffened. He swallowed something with difficulty, began to stammer, “I-I d-didn’t have a choice, Niala. I swear it. The Federation was going to p-pull our funding if we didn’t cooperate. The HAA was going to allow it. S-so I divided the labor to keep everyone off the scent.”
“What. Scent?” Simon demanded with a scratch.
Frost’s beady eyes look lowered than a rat’s caught in a trash can. They darted between the Human and Lioness, “O-our research fund is d-double what it should be. I needed to hide the cause.”
“So you consigned us to a fool’s errand,” Niala snarled.
“N-no,” He insisted. “No. I swear. The research is genuine. The Federation wanted me to finalize the technology to work on mass-production once they’d established their outposts.”
Niala eased back, more confused than she let on. Her claws retracted, “Why the farce? Why hide it all if the Human Federation didn’t plan on keeping the colonies for themselves?”
He swallowed something less rough this time. “The political situation outside Sol is delicate at best. At worst, it is almost total anarchy. That kind of anarchy is exactly what the Zelphods want.”
Niala’s eyes narrowed; Zelphods. There was a word she hadn’t heard in nearly a decade. The Zelphods were the alien creatures that had caused the First Contact War. It was they, vicariously, that had allowed the Federation to remain in power. Directly, they’d been the hand to force the latent humanoid evolution on the animals. The Contact War had nearly eliminated their race. So far as anyone knew, they’d fled to the fringes of space to wither and die as a species.
Contrary to many popular theories, First Contact had not come from a radically advanced species intent on harvesting Earth. Instead, it came from a slightly advanced species. The Zelphods were barely capable of interstellar flight, had only just begun to venture between the voids of systems. They’d done so by way of generational colony ships, launched when their sun had begun to go nova. No one was sure where their home-world was anymore, but after generations, they’d found their way to Sol.
Despite their extreme, alien features (evolved from a largely silicone-based existence,) Zelphods had sought Earth due to its high Volcanic activity and liquid oceans. Requiring sulfuric acid to breathe, they were never seen outside their suits, which inflected a curious, wingless praying mantis quality about them. They were undoubtedly insect-like, but only a few knew of their actual appearance.
Niala, however, knew the Zelphods had been pushed back after the Human “Federation” organized the HAA, or Human-Animal Alliance, an organization devoted to interspecies cooperation and governance. Both man and animal fought and died side-by-side to ensure the sovereignty of their system. Meanwhile, what was captured or reverse-engineered from the Zelphod tech had raised both Human and Animal to their current status in under three decades.
Unfortunately, First Contact had also allowed for the Federation to gain massive power as the only, official protective outfit Sol had. Though Humans and Animals served together, the Federation gave the latter little power to affect change. What was more, the few that gained such prestige generally sided with their Human colleagues. Where people like Niala and Simon saw compromise for the better of all, those like Josie saw sworn fealty.
Such was the nature of Sol’s politics.
Niala mused aloud for the others’ sake, “So the anti-humanists steal the data, ensure light is shed on the project, and that the Federation comes under political pressure once the information leaks. But why risk all of Sol? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Because,” Simon said carefully. “If you. Control Deep-Space. You control. Who lives there.”
Niala shook her head, “Keep humans out? That’s impossible. They have to know that.”
Frost suddenly spoke up, “Not if they already have the prototype’s plans. If so, they may intend to use them, get there first. If so, they’ll like destroy the prototype as well.”
Niala looked back to Frost, “We need to know where it’s being built. Getting there before Josie may be the only way to stop them.”
The vid-phone on Frost’s desk rang, answered with a habitual sqwuak. Gnarl appeared, “Sir, we’ve found Josie. She’s boarding a transport for Ganymede.”
“Ganymede?” Simon said.
“We’ll go,” Niala insisted. “I have contacts there.” She turned away. Simon followed. They stepped out and she spoke sideways at Simon, “Snow wants his pound of flesh. He’ll get her to talk.”
The shuttle rides to the hub and Ganymede beyond were desolate. It seemed as if all of Sol had left the two pursuers to their prey, wishing to remain as far from the action as possible. Simon was partially thankful for that. At least there were no beings attempting to kill him. While he’d been adamant about tagging along, he was hardly recovered. Not being able to speak without knee-buckling agony didn’t help. He felt all the more out of place, mute.
He’d barely had time to adjust to the idea that someone had stolen his work before learning he’d been framed. Then, when Niala released him, he’d been told to accept the sordid state of affairs and her contacts before being face-to-face with their terrifying reality. The first attack saw him freeze up, fumble. He’d have been dead were it not for his bot and Lioness companions. All this to say nothing of learning a friend had perpetrated the attack, then cut his throat once confronted about it.
He knew Josie, well enough to call her friend, at least. She was more than a face in a hall at any rate. He was head researcher of the Plasma Propulsion Lab, the only people above him Niala and Frost. Such a position meant semi-regular meetings and interactions with the Feline. To say they were pleasant would miss the obvious, retrospective taint. Now he saw her stoned facade had hidden everything.
Josie was the last being in Sol Simon would’ve expected to betray the ISC, let alone harbor such grudges. Perhaps that was what made her so excellent at the job; she blended perfectly, invisible to– a thought suddenly occurred to him.
He produced his data-pad, scribbled to Niala across the table: When would they have planted Josie? Why force her to move now? What else could have been sabotaged but wasn’t?
Niala read the pad with a glance, “I don’t understand.”
He elaborated: If Josie’s been an anti-humanist mole all this time, they know playing things slow and subtle was best. But they hit hard, drew attention to themselves. Even if I hadn’t found the log, they were very obviously tapping our network. Why be so blunt?
Niala caught on, “If Josie was really in on it from the start we’d have seen more damage.”
He nodded along; That just begs the question–
“Of it’s really Josie.”
Rearden watched. A series of binary words beeped out. Simon eyed the bot skeptically, head cocked sideways in confusion. Evidently its insight was perplexing to its creator.
“What’s he saying?” Niala asked curiously.
Simon wrote a single word on the tablet; MeLons.
Niala squinted with a visual turning of gears. It made sense. How the faux-Josie might’ve fooled Security raised more, important questions. However, for a MeLon to duplicate and remove her, two important things had to happen. One, was the obvious removal of the original Josie, likely accomplished overnight. Then also, a period where the MeLon studied her mannerisms, work schedule, social responses. It would’ve needed to become Josie to play her so well. However tantalizing an explanation, the ISCs extensive security wasn’t easy to fool.
Niala admitted reservations, “I don’t know, Simon. It’s a stretch. Forgetting everything else, how would they have made it past the Hounds alone?”
Rearden gave a few beeps that seemed to smack reality across Simon’s face. He scribbled mindlessly as he stared in thought; Pheromone Milking and IR-tech.
Niala gave the pad a critical look that flitted between Simon and Rearden, then back again, “Then Josie may be alive somewhere.”
Simon’s stomach rose at the thought. Josie wasn’t a murderer. She wasn’t even a spy or a thief. She was just another victim of the ridiculous scheme that seemed more illogical the more they learned of it. How long had she been held captive? What state was she in? More importantly, where was she being held? Ganymede? Somewhere else? Were they chasing a phantom, hoping to outsmart a prey that’d already eluded them?
The more questions Simon thought to ask, the less he wanted to ask them. A morbid illness spread across his face, worsened at the look Niala imparted between them.
“There’s something else we need to consider.” He gave a nod to usher her onward. “If there a MeLon is involved, we can’t take chances. They could be anyone when we reach Ganymede.”
He nodded in agreement, scrawled; Snow needs to be confirmed, then we keep him close.
She affirmed with a look that said more than her words could. Ganymede entailed its own risks, but MeLons were an utterly different story. They were the apex predator in a system that no longer had a place for the predator-prey relationship. Evolved creatures such as Niala, were the new nature of things. Wild animals still existed, but were hardly comparable. MeLons were a potent mixture of both worlds, able to affect change on planetary and system-wide scales with little more effort than an ant following a scent trail. What was more, they tended to do so solely out of spite, their kind too dangerous for society at large. It was an unfortunate reality of their new nature. Those that understood usually used their camouflage to blend, or else lived as exiles outside major colonies.
Something more concerned Niala now though. She ensured it showed before she spoke to Simon’s full attention. She hesitated to speak it; so much had already happened, she wished not to think of it getting worse. “If the MeLon’s cover is now blown, Josie’s a loose end. It won’t need her anymore. It’s only a matter of time before it kills her.”