Short Story: AuralAgent

AuralAgent: Rdy?

FitWix: Yes

That was all they’d ever needed. The moment the response went through, the op had begun.

In the frenzy that followed, neither was sure what was happening. Only once it was over could they have known what they were doing. It was simply too automatic: combined muscle-memory and focus.

In the moment, Aural knew only the swift motion of her body as it vaulted a concrete barrier. Her sneakers slapped asphalt, then sprinted for the doorway ahead. The building stood as any uncaring stone formation but with an undeniably sinister lean. It seemed the core of the place was so corrupt, even the very architects had found pleasure in malicious, contrarian angles, utilitarian minimalism, and drab monochromes.

Aural was different.

Like so many others in the world, AuralAgent and FitWix were fighting for their freedom. True, neither were physically chained nor bound, their lives were no less constrained. Information, like water, needed to flow cleanly and liberally. Above all, it needed to flow freely and for all.

It didn’t.

Aural flitted through the door. Wix guided her via a comm-implant. “Seven doors to the left, there’ll be a break in the hall. Take a left.”

She did. Careful of the darkness that had stirred no-one thus far. It would soon enough. An entire building rose overhead with innumerable bodies ready to rectify any perceived problem. She rounded the corner.

“Hallway juts right.” She followed it. He continued, “At the end of the hall, take the stairwell to the fourth floor.”

She was through the stairwell door when the first signs of commotion rose behind her. Night workers were shambling from their stupor, groping, grunting their way forward: Zombies drawn to the source of their work’s interruption rather than brains.

“Thirty seconds,” Wix said.

Aural passed the third floor, doubled her speed. The hack wouldn’t last that long. She knew it. Wix knew it. Thirty-seconds was their best estimate, but too many people were onto it now. So long as she made the fourth floor though, it didn’t matter.

Her legs went double time. Suppressed mania from ten years of track and field unleashed itself. Equally as long outrunning service agents, dodging COINTEL, Mercs, Hunters, and beat-cops funneled the mania through the adrenal regulators she’d developed. The end-result was extreme capacity for focus, no matter the circumstances.

Kind of had to be, when the penance for failure was something worse than death.

Aural burst through the fourth floor just as lights flickered on overhead. Even before “Time” came through the comm, the fluorescent fixtures had regrown their strength quickly. She passed along narrow corridors broken by closed-door offices around two large, central rooms.

“You only have access to the North server-room,” Wix reminded. “Once you’re in, pull what you need, then switch the privileges to South server-access.”

By the time he’d finished, she was in. The door shut behind her on a large room cluttered with data racks and terminals. Pristine draperies of bundled cabling poured from the ceilings, tell-tales of such unholy rooms that existed as fashion statements, rather than as altars to that most holy: information.

Such power, squandered and neglected. Aural hated it. Machine-space no corp deserved.

She streaked along an outer row, down abreast lines of server racks to one in particular. A terminal flicked out and her fingers went to work. All the fury of a postdigital child at war fueled her. The stab of keys was her battle-drum, their beating savage. The terminal screen flashed white-on-black text. Commands flowered into processes and calculations. Rocket-fueled bars flashed beneath skipping text-dumps.

All at once, it stopped.

She was reading something. 4-1-8 repeating in her head. Then, movement began again: Slower. Punctuating silences with mechanical frenzy. She checked her watch, set it to twenty seconds, hit “Enter”.

The system was cycling, the authorization switching over. The system itself reset instantly, but it took time for all the checks to go through the thousands of drives, leaving a golden window of thirty-or-so seconds where her stolen ID had both Server rooms’ privileges. If the system had worked otherwise, Aural would’ve had no chance. Not even with Wix on remote.

But fools came in all shapes and sizes, con-men too. One had sold the other a security system without telling them how to run it, its pros and cons. It was equivalent to building a chain-link fence and expecting privacy and enclosure. Never gonna’ happen.

“One for the Angels,” Serling would’ve said. “Just another mark,” the con-man said.

Aural knew the type, couldn’t begrudge ‘em. “Even Hawking fucked around on his wives.” Thing was, someone like her would’ve just used that as an in to fuck Hawking’s wife. So, usually, the message of “don’t be a cock,” was lost regardless of its destination.

Someone like her. But not her.

It could never have been her way. She accepted that. She lived with that. Her way was confined to duality, the day and night. Shadow and not. Like a hag living as a maiden beneath a glamour. It mattered not why, when the time came to burn her alive. Just that she burn. Gods forbid if that formerly-fair-maiden, now burned-alive-hag, had been what kept the pox away.

What’d it matter? They cursed themselves no less when it came, were no less dead, no more deserving of spite for having learned of their mistakes in it.

But Aural was the Hag beneath the glamour. Deceptive, and dangerously so. Truth was, Aural was plain, but good enough looking to disguise the rot in her soul. That was what made her truly monstrous. She knew it, accepted it. Why not? Not like it was going to change. Didn’t matter all the rot came from the gangrene of guardianship. She was the product of an upbringing that fought for what felt right and it had tainted her.

Forever.

She double checked her watch’s timer, grabbed a drive from bay 418 on her way out, then strolled to the next server room.

“Making good time,” Wix acknowledged.

She’d chosen him to plan the op because he’d do it right. Shift changes, lunch-breaks. That was how he thought: like a wage-slave. Former one, anyhow. He knew the ins of a corp-system, especially if that corp happened to be waging a shadow war against… well, everyone– and he knew how best to exploit those ins. Aural was simply skilled enough to risk her throat doing it.

She was under no delusions. Death would be the least of offenses against her if she were caught by anyone. A specific few would seize any opportunity to turn the public on her. Whomever was unleashed directly would be maneuvered into parading her withering bones about until growing bored and throwing her to what few wolves yet remained.

No amount of connections would change that, political or otherwise.

She found the last terminal, hacked it to locate the data-bay she sought. Moments later, she was out of the server room, door hissing shut in a huff of conditioned air. The lights were back on in the building’s corridors, along with their security cameras. Her face tilted downward, obscuring her features: her clothing the only thing out of place on security cams. Didn’t matter. By the time anyone could move against her she was out of the building, skirting darkness for the getaway.

The box-truck was running down the alleyway, steam pouring from its tail-pipe into the cold air. The door was visibly unlatched, a single strand of light glowing from a dim source within.

Aural was in, pulled up by two pairs of hands: Wix’s half-mutilated face taught with effort, the other Zu’s tight with fury. The kid looked scrawny, barely looked able to withstand a stiff wind, but was rooted when he pulled.

Deception. Good.

Such details were necessary in a good crew. You couldn’t plan ops without knowing how every operative would react. That’s why breaking up a winning team was suicide, and adding to it, worse. Principles of American Life disseminated worldwide along the worldly-pipes: what Aural’s ilk called the Net. Mostly too, disseminated by Aural’s ilk.

The truck was rolling when the doors shut again. Aural handed the drives off to Wit. His one, wrinkled eye drew up with a half-smile like Two-Face at a bank vault. A hiss of “Shit!” emanated from the truck’s cock-pit, CanUHLynn was reporting in on time.

Something was different. Spitzu’s voice was rumbling quietly. He called her forward, “Aural, man, get up here.”

She was there in an instant, reflexes and guts ready. All the same, nothing could’ve prepared her: A small tablet computer, acting as entertainment, was propped up and velcroed to a console in the dash. On it, a video replaying at the press of Zu’s finger.

A news-vid cut in, an image of a man Aural knew entirely too well. The rest of, too, through her. It would’ve been hard not to, given his associations.

The vid played again, Anchor to one side. “– to Former President Hubert Langley, whom sources say, “passed away in his sleep” last night according to his wife and former First Lady, Barbara. A press-release says–”

Mom? Dad? Her first two thoughts.

The third was the plummeting in her stomach. Weights on her shoulders and the vertiginous feeling of reality collapsing in 3D tunnel-vision accompanied it. Wix and Zu steadied her. Lynn’s hand grounded her, its grip strained on Aural’s as the other wrenched the wheel back and forth to disappear them.

“Laura?” Lynn echoed quietly.

The use of her name ripped her back. Laura Langley was AuralAgent again– at least, in part. The other part was moving slowly toward the rear of the truck.

“I have to call my mom, my dad just died.”

It was a dumb thing to say, she knew. They’d all just learned it together. Still, it seemed integral to accepting things. They let her go without word or ridicule, but each one feeling weight in their chests.

Not exactly the victory party she was hoping for.

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The Nexus Project: Part 7

12.

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.”

13.

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.”

Bonus Poem: Named Her…

Mythos of war,
cries out for more,
with a viral pathogen,
that afflicts all that’s human.

It is not of this earth,
but sours its worth,
a genocidal concoction,
the worst man-made toxin.

There are but a few,
to save me and you,
but brow-beaten, betrayed,
their world’s been frayed.

With one foot in the grave,
they fight to save,
even hatred’s ferocity,
from unthinkable atrocity.

Fight for what’s right,
but know now their plight,
for we’ve no hope unless,
upon them freedom we bless.

It is a weapon,
insidious to threaten,
the curious nature,
of our genetic paper.

A drop of blood,
with science-like mud,
a dash of forethought,
and by death you are caught.

You need not inject it,
nor take a hot hit,
just breathe in,
or absorb through skin,

And you’ll be brought down.
Your genetics a clown.
For mad-men hath built her,
named her Syphon Filter.

The Nexus Project: Part 6

10.

The trio had left Snow’s lair only to gather their things and depart for Phobos. They leap-frogged between stations and shuttles to once more return to the ISC. The line of protesters outside had thinned. They currently chanted something about equal liberties and that lycra suits were a violation of rights. Personally, even Niala didn’t want her “people” shedding all over clean rooms and sanitized labs. Simon agreed, all the while knowing the news-cycle had rolled over again.

They returned to Gnarl’s office. The hound was slumped behind his desk, looking appropriately dog-tired. He hadn’t slept since before their departure. This much was obvious. His eyes were red, and the foul scent of old whiskey hung in the air around him. Rearden was the only one to escape it unscathed.

Niala stepped in first, smacked by the wall of sour liquor, “Holy hell, Gnarl!” His usually perky, Labrador eyes looked up with a blood-hound’s droop, “What’ve you done to yourself?”

Gnarl’s head hung in shame. For a moment he looked like one of his lesser relatives that had just piddled on the floor. Simon stopped at Niala’s side just as Gnarl whimpered, “I… I can’t take it anymore.” He shook his head in small descending waves, “I can’t take Frost’s anxiety, or Josie’s stoned flakiness, or the protesters’ threats… or anything.”

Simon and Niala shared a confusion before the latter shook it off, “What’re you talking about, Gnarl? We’re gone three days and we come back to find you soused to the muzzle.”

He stood behind his desk with a sway that nearly toppled him. He managed to brace himself on a paw before he went fully over. It made a loud scuff as he angled around the desk, tripped on a chair leg, then fell into a sit on the desk’s edge.

Niala steadied him with her paws, “Gnarl, you need sleep, peace. Go home. We can wait.”

He heaved a sigh that wheezed with a high-pitch, then managed to stand under his own power. Niala spotted him past, then watched him weave along the hall for the elevators.

“I can’t believe Frost’s done that to him,” Simon said curiously.

Niala took Gnarl’s place on the desk’s edge. Rearden eased over and down into a chair. Niala kept her head down, a paw at her chin in thought.

“You look intense,” Simon said.

She met his eyes, “I’ve known Frost over a decade. He’s meticulous, high-strung, and easy to provoke, but he’s also easily distracted.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So…” Her eyes swept the office. “This doesn’t make sense. The theft is important, a big deal, but even Frost should’ve calmed down by now, especially once he learned we were clearing things up.”

Simon nodded along, “Instead he’s gotten worse.”

“Which means someone’s making him worse– either by design or unintentionally.”

“And since we know the breach came from inside the complex,” Simon began. “It’s a fair-bet whomever’s responsible is keeping Frost that way to impede Gnarl’s investigation.”

Niala rose from the desk, “We need to see Frost.”

Simon hustled after her. Rearden’s thrusters once more engaged, whizzed along behind them. The ISC complex passed by at a jog, it’s barrier glowing in the distance around the random assortment of buildings that all bordered on large or larger. Their steel and cement exteriors perfectly matched the steel and cement grounds broken up by deliberately placed grasses and plants. Simon never cared much for the illusion of beauty. It seemed dishonest, pointless even. The scientists and various staff spent their lives indoors or underground. On the rare occasions they passed through here, it was unlikely they’d focus on them for even a half-second.

They made for the admin building, passed blood-hounds inside that confirmed their identities, and up an elevator for Frost’s office on the top-floor. It lay at the edge of a wide, open reception-area with Josie’s desk to one-side and a couch and coffee-table across from it. Various, disposable magazine-tablets lay across it. Their glowing covers only barely registered in the bright room. They made for the door past Josie’s desk with Frost’s name and title on it, but were stopped with a word.

“Soorrrry,” she said with her stoned purr. “He’s not seeing anyone.”

Niala stopped, her paw on the knob and a thought perched on her face that Simon couldn’t follow. She whirled toward Josie, “For how long?”

“Hmmm?” Josie replied.

Niala’s eyes beacme pointed, “How long has it been since he saw anyone?”

Josie’s eyes widened to take in her primal-looking cousin, “Mmm, since the theft. I’ve been in and out, but he’s not let anyone else in.”

Niala eased out of a lean for Simon’s side, her back to Josie as she whispered sideways to him, “She’s the only one that’s seen him.”

He did his best not to react, “You really think–”

“I do.”

Niala whirled around, “Josie, when was the last time you were in there?”

The feline was obviously on-guard now, her eyes wider, more sober, “Not sure… why?”

“And you haven’t let anyone else into this office?”

The cat seemed to be catching on to something, replied slowly, “No…”

“Would you follow me to Gnarl’s office please, I have some–”

Josie launched herself across the room. Her reflexes landed her behind Simon. She had him by the throat, claws out. She angled him around, hid behind his shoulder with only her eyes visible.

“Make a move and I take off his head!” She hissed.

Niala leaned with a growl. They made small circles of the room. Simon’s neck stiffened as his feet followed Josie’s path. Niala countered, waited to strike. Rearden remained over the couch, frozen with inaction.

“Why Josie?” Niala asked as they circled.

The cat was no longer stoned. She probably never had been. “You have no idea the power the Nexus Project is going to take from us.”

“Who is us?

Simon swallowed hard against Josie’s razor-sharp claws. They tapped at his neck. “Ni–”

Josie squeezed, “Shut up, human.”

Niala caught the ire in her words. “You’re an anti-humanist. One of the hate-groups that think the ISC’s just a cover for the human agenda.”

“I don’t think it,” Josie hissed. She squeezed Simon’s neck, half-drug him along the widening path. “I know it. All of your funding comes from human organizations. Their governments, colonies, their trade hubs, politicians. You’re no less leashed than you were before First Contact.”

Niala bared her teeth, snarled, “You’re a fool. You and everyone like you. We aren’t enemies. Humans and animals don’t have to be at odds. It’s people like you that put us that way. Your agenda’s what leashes you. Your hatred.”

Josie stopped before the open hallway, her claws poised over Simon’s jugular, “You’d never understand, Matriarch. You’re just another creature who’s raped your chance for culture in exchange for human gain. You whored it, and yourself, out for acceptance in their world!”

“Fool,” Niala hissed. “You have no idea what you’re doing.”

“In fact I do,” Josie said. She began to inch backward, step-by-step, “You don’t know what the Nexus Project is. Few do. I am one of them.”

“Care to enlighten me?” Niala asked, stalking forward with Josie’s steps. “What would be so worth betraying your friends, your colleagues? Risking your life by threatening others’, stealing from those that trusted you?”

She hissed with a fleck of spittle, “You think I care you domess human-lovers? You’re pathetic!”

“Let him go, Josie,” Niala demanded with a step. “Face the one that isn’t defenseless.”

“I’m not stupid domess.” Her eyes narrowed. “You could rip me in half. But you’ll find being smart is about knowing when to run.” She pressed her nails against Simon’s throat. He felt a trickle of blood leak down to his chest. “If you want him alive, you’ll stop where you are.”

“I can’t do that and you know it,” Niala sneered.

Josie finally stopped, “Then I’ll make sure you don’t follow me.”

Her nails flashed, punctured. In a swipe blood spilled down Simon’s neck. Josie was gone. The elevator was already headed downward before Niala reached Simon. He fell to his knees. Rearden squealed and beeped. An alarm rang out. Niala kept pressure on the wound, whispered to him. Doors opened all along the floor, Frost’s included. Eyes from human and animal alike fell to Simon.

Niala roared, “Someone call the fucking medics!” She glanced back at Frost, “Now!”

The crow flew for Josie’s telephone, sqwaked incoherently as Simon lost consciousness.

11.

When Simon next awoke, it was to the sounds of a steady beep from both Rearden and the heart monitor. Somewhere to his side he felt Niala’s presence. One of his eyes eased open to glance over the room; Niala stood before the door, whispered to someone obscured by his clouded eyes and her large, gowned figure.

He opened his mouth to speak, managed a throaty rasp that set his larynx ablaze. Were the pain not so intense he might have whimpered. All the same Rearden beeped, whizzed over. Niala whipped ’round to reveal the weaselly-figure of the Muroidean Simon had seen in her office. He wiped at his hands with a rat-like motion, then weaseled off. Niala knelt beside Simon, stroked his head with a soft paw and a purr. He opened his mouth, thought better of it.

She nodded, “Don’t speak. Your throat’s been cut. Do you remember what happened?” He gave a solitary nod. “We’re looking into her now, but we think “Josie” was falsified. Gnarl and his teams are scouring the facility. All transports off-planet were immediately locked down after the attack.”

He swallowed hard with teary eyes, readied to speak.

She shushed him, “There’s only one way she can get off Phobos, and that’s if she’s got her own transport hidden somewhere. More importantly, there’s only one place she can go within range to refuel– the Earth-Mars Hub. Gnarl’s already got an alert out for her.”

He gave a small nod, made a motion as if to write. She understood, excused herself for a moment. Rearden began a series of quiet, remorseful beeps, as though feeling solely responsible for the attack. He waved Rearden over with a tired hand, patted a bare spot on the bed. Rearden sank into place, thrusters off. Simon laid hand atop the bot, comforted it with a dutiful pat.

Whatever Josie– or whoever she was– was involved with, clearly didn’t intend to coexist with the Human-Animal Alliance, let alone the ISC. But what was the Nexus Project, and how did it play into it? The cat had said something about it taking power from her people; was it then, something that could be used against those that didn’t sympathize? A weapon of some sort? Or was that simply more rhetoric, something twisted and mangled from a scrap of misinterpreted truth?

Simon wasn’t sure, and the more he thought about it, the more he needed to be. Someone had deliberately targeted him, not once, but three times; first they’d tried to drag his name through the dirt, his reputation, then they’d taken a shot at him on Ganymede, now they’d outright attacked him in the form of Josie. There was no way he could escape the unrelenting hold the mystery had, even less so the cross-hairs his joint investigation had placed on him.

Niala returned a moment later, data-pad and stylus in-hand, “Here. It’s the best I could find.”

He took the small, digital-tablet in one hand, scrawled over it with the stylus: What is the Nexus Project? He held it up at her.

She shrugged, “I don’t know, Simon. You know as well as I do we’ve been compartmentalized to avoid leaks.”

Didn’t work. He replied sarcastically. She rolled her eyes. He scrawled out, what do you know?

She took a moment to think before she replied, “Apart from your research into more efficient plasma engines?” He gave a nod. “I was working on navigational software. It’s not a stretch to assume the Project has something to do with space-flight.”

He scribbled, Do you know what anyone else is working on?

She thought longer this time, “Someone’s working on deep-space telemetry, but I don’t see how–”

That’s it! He wrote in massive script. He tapped wildly at the data-pad. She gave him a confused look. He scribbled out a word formula; Better engines+Better Nav-software+DS Telem= deep space flight.

Niala was hit by a brick wall of logic. Then, an epiphany manifested on her face, “Frost’s putting together a deep-space flight prototype… All of the information collected here will be shipped off-planet to a manufacturing facility. Eventually all of that will be used to begin deeper colonization.”

And if we’re in charge, the anti-humanists believe the ISC will keep the tech proprietary, Simon added. Niala agreed. That’s why they took the data. To make sure what they have’s consistent with what we have.

Niala sighed, “But none of that makes sense. We’ve barely begun the project. Why now? Why steal unfinished research?” The answer came to them simultaneously, but Niala was the only one able to speak it aloud. “Because the prototype is already being built… and the research is just a smoke-screen.”

We need to talk to Frost. Simon wrote.

Niala was stuck in her thoughtful stare before her eyes fell back to the tablet, “No, I’ll go. You’re not in any condition to–”

He scrawled, They tried to kill me. Twice.

“And they nearly did this time.”

He pushed himself up in the bed, fought agony to speak in a rasp, “I. Am. Going.”

She looked him over with a grimace. IV-lines ran from various parts of his body. Heart and respiration monitors were connected to him via wires. They beeped steadily, giving the whole scene a pitiful, macabre look. A steel determination in Simon’s eyes had shifted the tone bitterly. Niala had only ever seen such a look in others of her kind. When locked in combat for mates or honor, Lions could be the most stubborn-willed creatures ever evolved. Now, Simon appeared to have inherited their will.

With a lone blink and a small bow of her head, she relented and acquiesced.

The Nexus Project: Part 5

8.

Simon fell to his rump. Niala pounced. The pipe went flying over a hogish squeal. Fur and flesh flew with spurts of blood. Niala’s claws ravaged the Hog so viciously it gave the others pause. With her enormous claws, she grappled, kicked and gnawed as though hunting it on a long forgotten Savannah.

Rearden saw an opening. It charged a serpents at full-speed. Its thick prod pierced the scaly hide. The street returned to motion. Hisses and screams signaled the gang sprinting past Simon. He fumbled for his pistol, pulled it only to drop it beside him. He cursed. Rearden surged electricity through the hissing serpent. It flailed, bucked Rearden to and fro. Its thrusters compensated expertly. The bot’s battery surged to cook the serpent inside-out.

Niala finished off the hog, turned to see the other creatures lunging. With a step back and a spring, she bounded over them all, landed beside Simon. He fired his pistol erratically, his eyes clenched shut in fear. The creatures scattered. Rearden retracted the prod. The husk of a serpent crinkled and cracked, fell over like old, dried-out boots.

Niala sprang upright, half-drug Simon forward. Rearden rocketed ahead to ensure the way was clear. It gave an incoherent string of beeps. Niala and Simon broke into a run behind it.

“Were those Snow’s people?” Simon panted.

Niala paced herself beside him, her hood back in the wind, “No. Fool that he is, he wouldn’t betray us. He knows it would ruin him.”

Rearden directed them right, down a side-street. Simon’s voice was a high rasp, “So someone else is trying to kill us?”

“Yes.” Rearden gave a few beeps, diverted left, to a doorway that hid them from the street. “In here.”

She burst into a dingy, dark bar. The patrons inside glanced over to see the trio enter at full-speed and stop abruptly.

Niala cleared her throat, exhaled a breath that calmed them slightly. She approached an old Iguana at the bar. It stood transfixed like the others. When she took a seat and slapped a credit card down, the Iguana eased back into motion and the room followed. The patrons returned to their drinks with no more care toward the lioness and her human than before.

“We need information,” Niala said.

“We do?” Simon whispered curiously.

“We were just attacked. I need to know by who.”

The Iguana eased himself forward. His retracted dewlap’s spines like a massive, fleshy beard that perfectly accented the spines on his back and curled tail. He gave a few, reptilian sniffs of the air. His elderly, gray flesh caught the light with the dried-out signs of an oncoming molt. He turned his head so that one of his eyes could take them in from its massive orbit, then sniffed again.

He exhaled with a grumble, “Can’t tell ‘ya.”

“Can’t or won’t?” Niala pressed.

The Iguana’s mouth opened with the start of a hiss that morphed into words, “Can’t.” The mouth settled back into normal speech as one of his clawed hands swiped a dirty cloth over the bar. “Hogs ‘n serpents hate each other on this planet. They don’ work together.”

“What?” Simon said emphatically. “How d’you know that? And why not? Maybe this is a new gang that’s formed. Could it be?”

The Iguana snorted a burst of air, “It’d do you well to speak less.”

Niala tapped Simon’s hand, whispered sideways, “I’ll handle this.” She put her paws on the bar, “Several serpents and Hogs just tried to kill us. Any idea why they’d want to do that?”

He gave a throaty growl, “Perhaps you angered them.”

Niala put a hand on her credit card, “Perhaps I’ll go then, without compensation.”

She made a move to swipe the card back and the Iguana’s hand laid over her paw. He hesitated a moment, then replied in a low hush, “Serpents don’t like mammals, especially here. If you were attacked by them, there’re only two options; the Alpha pack, or someone from off-world.”

Simon’s eyes lit up, “I thought you said Snow—”

“He wouldn’t,” Niala assured him, her eyes still fixed on the lizard. “How certain are you?”

The lizard leaned in, “Certain.” He slipped the card out from beneath her hand, then shuffled along the bar to charge it.

Niala allowed it, spoke privately with Simon, “It wasn’t Snow.”

“How can you be so–”

“Because, Snow is a Wolf. They’re pack-hunters; their reliance on groups has translated to fierce loyalty. That is why most canines became domesticated, then when forced to evolve, became security or took positions that safe-guarded others.”

“How can you be sure that loyalty means anything to Snow?” Simon whispered irately.

She met his eyes, “Because of Ceres.”

What. Happened?

She shook her head, “No, Simon. Trust me on my request to do so alone.”

He threw up a hand, turned in his stool to glance aimlessly out at the bar filled with other lizards of all kinds. They ignored him. The old Iguana shuffled back into place, returned Niala’s card.

“One final request,” she said. The lizard grunted to continue. “We need a back way out.”

He gave a tired sigh, shuffled along the bar with a thrown hand to ferry them along. They followed him into a small hallway at the building’s rear. He opened a door there, the trio paced behind him by his tail as it drug long scuffs along the dirty floor.

He stood beside the doorway. With a flicked tail sideways to avoid it, he gestured them in, “In the back. Service hatch leads up. Used for fires or station-evac. It’ll take you to another floor. There’ll be an inn nearby.”

Niala gave a small bow of her head, then slipped inside with Simon and Rearden on her tail. The small hatch slid sideways, gave way to a cramped compartment where a lone ladder led upward through darkness.

“Rearden, give us some light,” Simon instructed.

The bot hovered past, thrust upward with a series of beeps. The ocular-sensor flexed, flared like a floodlight into the darkness above.

Niala watched, “Impressive.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Simon said. He slipped past to climb the ladder, “This whole things’ screwed.”

For the first few minutes they were silent. Eventually, Simon’s curiosity got the better of him again, more to distract from his fatigued limbs than anything.

He grunted with strain, “Why’re you so sure about Snow?” He sensed Niala’s reply, preempted it, “Besides Ceres. Whatever that means.”

She exerted herself with a loud, involuntary purr, “Logic. We know someone stole our data at the ISC. More than likely it was someone skilled. They would need to be to break into the ISC without a trace. It stands to reason then, they’d have been monitoring for investigations.”

Simon huffed as his feet lifted and pushed, propelled himself upward. His arms ached and his mind raced as he tried to keep pace with Niala’s assertions, “So if they were monitoring ISC, they probably saw us leave.”

“It’s a good bet. Remember, we only know of the theft from your check of the logs.”

He thought of the scene in the street, “I’m regretting it now.”

“Why did you check them?”

He grunted, “Procrastination.”

Niala laughed full-on, “Wonderful.”

9.

They exited the service entrance roughly a half-hour later, into the middle of yet another long, station-like corridor. This time, the rooms were large, only spaced along one side of it. Rearden thrust up and out of the hatch. Simon collapsed onto the floor half-in and half-out. Niala followed through, shoved him the rest of the way in, then fell in a heap beside him.

They lie on the floor, exhausted while Rearden hovered with its eyelet angled down. A single, solitary beep sent Simon’s failing arm into a swat, “Try having muscles instead of thrusters!”

He replied with a series of beeps that prompted Niala to pant at him, “What… did he say?”

“He called up whimps,” he heaved in a breath. He muttered, “Stupid can of circuits.” He half-rolled, half-fell onto his back in the empty hallway, did his best to stretch his neck up and around, “Where are we?”

Niala pushed onto all fours, stretched like a cat waking from its nap, “I have no idea.”

“Damn lizard probably did this just to spite us,” Simon said as he sat up. Niala rose to her feet, extended a hand to help him up. He pulled at it with a grunt, “At least… we’re away from the gangers.”

Niala started down the metal halls of doors and key-card locks, “I don’t think they’re gangers.”

She sniffed at the air while Simon supported himself on the wall, “You mean not local?”

She shook her head, “No, I mean, not gangers at all.” They came to a four-way cross in the metal hall and she angled left, toward what she hoped was the scent of food. “The barman said serpents and mammals don’t work together. On this planet, there’s a stigma because of MeLon myths. Most mammals don’t see any difference between the Chameleons’ ways and the Serpents’. They’re all usually hired killers, except MeLons aren’t tolerated in the slightest. It’s the unfortunate effect of having evolved to be apex predators– probably the only reason humans are allowed to remain as they are too. They’re no longer apex predators.”

Simon bounced from one hallway to another, passed an airlock. The new hall was lined with windows on either side showing the station in all its glory both above and below. They passed through the middle of the amorphous shape, cells amid a colossus that was totally unaware of their presence. As always, Jupiter’s creamy surface was visible around the immense outline of the moon-structure’s silhouette. Far below, the sprawls of Ganymede’s greatest mining facilities and factories were specks to the forms that stole is upper-biosphere.

Simon managed to draw his breath-taken eyes away, “So where d’you think they came from?”

Niala stopped before another airlock, “If Serpents and Mammals are working together here, than they’re not local. But they had no laser weapons either, which means only one thing–” She leaned in to emphasize her next words, “They were sent here to kill us and make it look like a gang did it. Which means Snow’s group is being implicated.”

Simon sighed with disappointment, “You’re reaching, Niala. Why can’t you just entertain the notion that some gang-lord wants us dead ’cause of an old grudge?”

She shook her head, “Because he doesn’t hold a grudge. He’s only angry about Ceres because the wound is deep in a place he holds to as his only, inflexible law; honor.”

She started forward again, left Simon staring in thought. He wasn’t sure what she meant by it, but somehow he liked Snow being angry even less than begrudging. At least grudges could be relinquished by certain personality-types. Anger was a rash, impulsive emotion that afflicted all beings and made them– no matter their intellect– beasts under proper conditions.

Niala’s nose led them to a central area of the station. They made their way through the zoo-like chaos for an inn that took up an entire floor of the enormous outpost. They shared a room, slept long enough to reinvigorate themselves, then once more allowed Niala’s nose to guide them. They took in the local cuisines that were not, in fact, highly-poisonous to Humans or Panthera and curiously resembled high-end Earth meals of vat-grown meats.

When the time finally came to return to Snow’s lair, it was under the escort of a guard that had sought them out. Having heard of the attack, Snow felt it his duty to see them returned alive. Afterward, their fate was their own, with no pretense of favor either way.

When they once more stood before Snow in his lair, the room had been cleared at his behest. He lit various torches to supplement the two before his throne. He began with a kingly tone, his voice robust, “My scouts have returned. In conjunction with the attack, we can say for certain the threat originates off-world. From the information gathered, we believe the perpetrators to have come from within Phobos itself. In other words, someone at the ISC is responsible.”

“What?” Niala said with shock.

Simon’s face mimicked hers, “That’s impossible!

He lit the last of the torches and returned to his throne, “Is it?” He sank back into it with a cocked head and half of a glare, “How many species do you have on Phobos? Twenty? Thirty? How many beings altogether? Ten thousand? Fifteen?”

Niala examined the floor in thought. Simon resisted the idea, “No, that’s not possible. We screen everyone. Keep them comfortable and well-paid. Exuberant lifestyles are provided at no cost.”

Snow cocked one side of his muzzle to bare a tooth, “Eh, humans. Always so short-sighted. Know nothing of loyalty.”

Simon squinted, “What the hell’re you talking about? This has nothing to do with loyalty.”

The Wolf was on his feet, his face an inch from Simon’s in a flash. Simon did his best not to shrink. Snow’s breath was hot, stank of bloody meat, “Everything is about loyalty, Human. Whether you like it or not!

Niala spoke sideways to defuse them, “I don’t understand either. What do you mean?”

The Wolf eyed Simon, then turned back to his throne with a growl. Simon swallowed hard, relaxed as he made an unconscious check of his pants. The others paid him no mind.

Snow explained, “There are two types of creatures, Domess, you of all people should know that. Those whom have loyalty only to themselves, and those whom do not. The latter group is always working, fighting, striving for those they are devoted to, or to protect them from the former group.”

Niala was starting to catch on, “You think this has to do with special prejudice?”

Snow shook his head in disappointment, “It always has to do with it. There are countless species in the ISC, your people included, but infinitely more that are not. Most are cousins or direct family. Do not underestimate the drive of loyalty.”

Simon thought it over as the room quieted. If Snow was right, the theft and the frame-job was done by someone with roots in Phobos’ activist movements– the same movements that tended to last the length of a news-cycle and were otherwise considered a non-threat. This hardly held with their methods, but it wasn’t a stretch to believe. While Simon knew most of the people in authority positions at the ISC, he didn’t know everyone. Still, the majority of people there were hard-working scientists despite any, oft-voiced dismay.

Simon’s mind kept working, hoping to deduce more, but the Wolf silenced it, “I find myself once more in the… difficult position of requiring something of you, Niala.” Her eyes narrowed skeptically. Simon’s face sketched disbelief. “We’ve been framed for the attack on you. This cannot stand. We have no evidence that we’ve not been part of it– aside from our word– but we must have vengeance.”

“You want me to tell you what I find,” Niala surmised.

“And bring any perpetrators to me so I might make an example of them,” he rose from his throne once more to approach Niala. “It is no secret I despise you for past events, but I would not dishonor you with bargaining. If you are willing, I will once more be indebted to you. If not, I will investigate myself.”

Simon looked them over skeptically, almost sarcastically. A look in Niala’s eyes however, said there was a deep consideration given to the words. Snow was not one to request things lightly, even Simon knew that. To discard his obvious ire toward Niala– swallow his pride as it were– spoke enough to the dilemma the pack-leader found himself in. He was Alpha of the only pack that had fostered Mammal-Serpent relations on Ganymede. By all accounts, this seemed previously unprecedented. To him, bodies were bodies, so long as they were loyal he cared little for their number of limbs– or lack thereof.

Niala’s aid might be little more than a vid-call, but it would allow the pack’s reputation to go untarnished. Otherwise, Snow risked both inner and outer conflicts that jeopardized his power. Simon couldn’t see any reason not to help, but was apprehensive all the same. Regardless it was Niala’s call.

The two exchanged a look for a long while that seemed to speak volumes more than Simon could comprehend. Then, with a small, deep bow of her head, Niala replied, “I would be honored to aid you, Alpha-Wolf Snow.”

Short Story: The Secret Keeper

My hands are covered in blood, black and blue with bruises so I wipe them like an auto-mechanic with a shop towel. That metaphor feels the most apt, especially given I just worked the sunuvabitch over like a mechanic works a rust-bucket. He’s tied to a chair, jogging pants and wife-beater splattered with wide trails of blood. Between the sheen of sweat that covers his body like a greased hog, and the swollen-red bits of flesh beneath it, he has that same worn-out, beat-up look of a decades-old Ford that’s worked one too many days.

I don’t care why he’s tied to the chair. I never do. I just do my job.

As usual they brought me in after they’d nabbed the poor bastard in the night. They’d given him just about every other type of treatment known short of the MK Ultra-style drug and plug, and he’d still kept his mouth shut. That’s why I got the call. That’s always why I get the call. You know the one. It goes something like this: There’s a click as I thumb my burner-phone, half clothed in a towel and wet from a still-running shower or some other, mundane bullshit task of life. Then, there’s a deep, male voice– or maybe it’s high and feminine. Either way there’s a voice and it says; “we have a problem.”

That’s it. The phone clicks off. I finish my shower, lunch, or whatever, and leave. I toss the burner in a dumpster down the street during my walk to the pick-up point. It’s always the corner of eighth and Main. I picked it ’cause most days I can watch the petite book-shop owner across the street shuffle back and forth at the counter. She’s always leading with her left foot, but writing with her right hand.

It used to be I’d just stare at her ass, watch it buck left and right with those supple hips. Now though, I try to imagine what’s on her mind. Is it something good, bad? Maybe heartbreaking or even arousing? I’m never quite sure. Must be a sign of getting older and mellowing out. You think less about pussy and instead the person around it. There’s a lotta’ pussies in the world, half as many as there are bodies, but people are rarer. I’m not talking about a human creature. There’s more than enough of those to go around. No, I mean people– personalities and thoughts and dreams worth a god damn.

I always snuff my cigarette out with my left foot as the black sedan rolls up to the crosswalk. I never do it like that anywhere else, only when I’m watching her. The brakes on the sedan squeak as I give her frosted, platinum blonde hair a final look, then angle down into the car’s back-seat.

From there, each call’s a little different. Some days its a car-ride across town to an abandoned warehouse, or maybe a dry-docked tanker in for repairs at the harbor. Hell, we even used a hotel room once; rented out the whole damn floor so no-one would here the guy’s screams. What a waste of cash. He cracked like a damn egg and I’d barely touched him!

Sometimes though, when the situation calls for it, I get to really enjoy myself. Not in the torture, though in my line of work you find ways to enjoy what you do. Why live and work– and do your job well at that– if you can’t enjoy yourself? I mean I get to enjoy the life that accompanies the really swanky places they put me up in. We’re talking billionaire, yacht-club, coke from a G-an-hour stripper’s tit-crack level of swank. It’s the kind of shit you think only exists in movies ’til your numb face is between her plastic tits and shes pumpin’ you on the suite couch.

I’ve seen all of those types of places too. Not the places themselves. I’m not needed that often. But I’ve seen all their types; the tit-job, coked-out party places, the tea and crumpets, dusty-muff-stink places. Hell, even the ones where people address you as sir– because they know slavery’s still alive and well, and black, white, brown or flaming red, they’re whipped into sucking you off and thanking you for the privilege.

It’s the life to live when you’re young. You’ll never see anything like it unless you’re working for the black-box government-types like me, or get in deep with the hardcore mafioso like my bloody friend there. Let me tell you, take the former; the latter, always, always gets busted eventually. Even if they don’t– even if they’re one of the infinitesimally small numbers that slip through our fingers ’cause they’re greasier than a whore in tub of petroleum jelly– they still die younger than us. They spend half their lives looking over their shoulders for guys like me, hoping their time doesn’t come sooner than its planned to.

As for the poor fuck tied to the chair? Like I said, I don’t care why he’s here. Sure, I am too, but I just do the rough stuff. They ask the questions. Who are they? Pray you never find out, ’cause you’re either gonna’ be the one being asked, pissing yourself– oh yeah, a lot of ’em do that too, trust me– or you’re gonna’ be the one asking. There’s no two ways about it unless you hear about “them” and never more than that.

There’s a lot of people, mostly those bleeding-hearts who like to pretend their shit don’t stink. They “object” to my methods and line of work. Funny, they’re usually the ones begging us most to do this shit when their asses are on the line. I digress.

I do what I do because I’m good at it, and I’m good at it ’cause I like to push a person’s limits. It’s freeing. Something you can only understand after unleashing hell on a guy– or a chick, hey I don’t discriminate blood’s blood– and finding out his face is harder than you thought, and ending up with lacerated knuckles or torn tendons.

But it’s freeing for the mark, too. You have any idea what it’s like to keep secrets that’ll have you murdered if you tell them? No. How could you? Having that shit hanging over your head isn’t healthy. Eventually you reach a point where you’re helping ’em more than you’re hurting ’em. Which, even I know is a lot, but think how much better they’ll feel once they heal up in Witness Relocation and their conscience is clear. Not all of them make it there, but the doesn’t change facts. If they choose to give up what they’ve got, I get to free them of that burden.

I’m a secret-keeper; a sort of new-age sin-eater that swallows up all of these fuckers’ pain, bleeds it out the knuckles while I’m hammerin’ on ’em. In a way, I’m the one that suffers most for knowing what I do. Thank fuck for worker’s-comp and mandatory psych-evals. Maybe one day they’ll straighten me out enough to cover up my recurring wounds, then I can ask that cute minx out at the bookstore. I thought about saying I was a boxer once, but then realized I’d have to keep that cover by actually boxing. What fun is it when the other guy hits back?

There I go, digressing again. Anyway, that’s what I do. I beat the piss out of people for ol’ Uncle Sam, free them from their burdens, even help make the world a little safer in the process. I guess whatever my real title is, I’ll always just be the secret-keeper. Who knows, maybe even the minx has some secrets to tell.

The Nexus Project: Part 4

6.

The ride to Ganymede was long enough that Simon eventually fell asleep bunched up in his booth seat. To say it was uncomfortable would miss the extreme lengths he’d gone through to reach even a modicum of the word. Niala had watched with subdued amusement. Simon had twisted and contorted in ways she wasn’t sure humans could. He finally passed out in a near-sitting position, his feet uncomfortably curled as he hugged himself to a corner, resembling a congealed lump of skin and cloth.

In contrast, Niala had no trouble finding comfort. She snoozed with her head draped over the back of the booth in much the same position she’d been sitting. Rearden dutifully watched, its reserves more than full enough for the length of the journey that the battery pack wouldn’t need to be used for sometime yet. Its ocular sensor merely sat in motion-sense mode, waiting to pick up anything beyond the shuttle’s jostle at solar turbulence.

When the transport docked, the slightest sound of its PA woke Niala to a warm, natural fog. She whispered Simon’s name to rouse him, failed. Rearden beep louder. Still nothing. Finally extended a small probe extended from a panel in Rearden’s side. A small arc of electricity shocked Simon awake with a start.

He blinked hard, “Low-power! Low power!” Niala snickered with delight. Rearden gave a few, chittery beeps. Simon swatted the bot with a light hand, “Stupid can of circuits.”

Niala stood and stretched with a purr, then pulled her hood up, “Come on, we’re late.”

He rolled his droopy eyes with a sarcastic mutter, “Yes, your highness.”

“I heard that.”

She led the way through the shuttle’s elongated compartments. Then, with a hiss and a small buck, the shuttle rested against its docking clamps and its doors parted for a small airlock.

Simon found himself speechless at the curious magnificence beyond. They entered a giant, glass-domed terminal, like an old airport. Multiple levels of outlets formed another mega-mall. Above, the domed ceiling looked out on countless, spindly arms of the moon’s upper-station. In the background millions of lights and torrid shapes were specks to Jupiter that gleamed like a gigantic cup of creamed coffee.

Niala aimed for the port’s depths. Simon rubbernecked the countless species that made the outpost its home– from rugged, worn Serpents and Lizards that hissed more than spoke, to the more inane creatures Simon was accustomed to. His senses were overwhelmed by the anarchic, alien chaos. His ears rang from thousands of tongues that lisped, hissed, and grunted countless dialects and accents.

“Stick close to me,” Niala said with a pull at his shirt sleeve.

He circled in-step to take it all in, bumped into someone clustered in a tight group. A ham-fisted swine shoved him back with a snort, one eye and ear missing. The others trained on him as he apologized and was pulled along. He followed vacantly while the crowd surged around in its disorder.

He finally regained his wits enough to match pace with Niala. She spoke sideways at him from beneath her hood, “You’ll find even such trivialities here may spark confrontation. Bumping someone is common for pick-pockets. If they suspect it of you, even my diplomacy may not save you.”

He hissed in reply, “Is that why you’re making me carry a gun?”

She began to ascend high stairs that spanned the port’s width, “Yes, and believe it or not, people here are more likely to trust you if you’re armed. Otherwise they’ll suspect you’re hiding something.”

“Hell of a place.”

Niala’s pull tightened at the stairs’ summit. Ahead the terminal narrowed progressively until it became a lone hallway. Here and there at its sides elevators and doors led deeper into the station. Niala aimed for an elevator at the end of the hall. They crammed themselves inside with the dozen other creatures that rode it downward. Little by little, Mammals and Reptiles, Serpents and Avians, left at the various floors.

The whole station was a blur of deepening grays and dirtier walls the further Simon progressed through it. Soon enough they came to a stop, alone, and at a lower level than he’d have liked. The ambient temperature had risen tens of degrees, made sweat bead on his brow. The elevator doors parted to a rush of humid wind that made bits of him stick to others.

Niala stepped out first. Simon followed with yet another staggered rubbernecking. His eyes rose to take in the enormity of structures that towered over him. The space-port was merely a speck amid the flurry of ships swarming it like gnats. Between it and he, amorphous rows and columns of buildings jutted with a seeming randomness to form a gray and black landscape. Peppered here and there, or snaked along their faces, were innumerable neon and argon signs, LED and LCD screens, and digital billboards that shifted rhythmically every ten or so seconds.

Simon wet a dry mouth. A hover-craft whizzed past nearby. “I… had no idea it was so big.”

Niala purred a “hmm,” headed along a street in the city that breathed with life. They trudged across the sidewalks amid the rush from hover-craft sprinting past or hurling themselves ’round the corners that formed the labyrinthine, urban blue-print.

Simon had heard stories of Ganymede. None of them had been anything like this. He’d only ever heard of a place rife with crime and poverty. Here, it was said, druglords and gangsters ruled and no self-respecting person would go. Indeed, he understood better now why the stigma existed; just like the cities of old Earth, Ganymede was a place filled with people– most of whom were likely the counter to those whom regarded themselves as “honest.”

Niala took him along a street in the multicolored glow, past a pack of Canines on a street corner that looked tougher than most of the ISC’s security hounds. Niala maneuvered them to an alley, down along it to a lone door on its back-wall. Animal piss and stale garbage stained the air– enough that even Niala breathed carefully. She thumped the door with a balled paw. A grate slid open at eye-height and a pair of glowing, yellow eyes stared out over a flickering, forked tongue.

“Tell the Alpha that Matriarch Martin requests an audience,” Niala said firmly.

A pair of fangs flashed with a suckling hiss. The panel slammed shut. A moment of silence passed. Simon thought to turn away. The door was thrown open to a dark interior. Niala stepped in to a wide, rectangular room. Simon followed. Rearden trailed behind quietly. The door shut at the nudge of a heavily scarred Serpent. It slithered past, around columns, and down a short hallway.

The trio were stopped midway through it by a look from the Serpent. It’s tongue flicked at the air, then it thumped its head against the door. A similar scene played out as the Serpent hissed something and the door opened to another, semi-dark room.

The serpent slithered inward and off to a side. Niala ingressed further. Simon followed until struck still by two dozen pairs of eyes. They glowed from various species of hard-looking reptiles and Canines.

In the center of the back wall, atop a raised platform, sat a throne of gnarled steel and wood. Torches on its sides spit flames at the ceiling, jostled by a draft from a door that slid open behind the throne. Heavy thumps pounded their way up the platform and around it. A massive, grizzled figure appeared. Gray and white of Wolf fur melded with black and red armor draped appropriately around its torso. The Wolf’s sharpened teeth bared as it looked his guests over through a battle-worn face.

He gave a low growl. A paw rose dismissively from beneath a crimson cloak draped around his shoulders, “Leave us!”

The room emptied to only the trio and their host. It was prompt. A followed order. The Wolf stood before its throne, and with hot breath its upper teeth appeared in a snarl. Simon gulped as the door slammed behind them, its echo petrifying his heart.

7.

The air was hot, tense. Simon was fixed in place beside Rearden whom gave a terrible shudder. The Wolf took slow, heavy steps down the platform toward Niala. He rose nearly a foot above her, his chest back, and a crooked snarl at one side of his muzzle. He sniffed the air around Niala, circled her. Simon took an unconscious step backward with Rearden.

The Wolf sniffed in the circle, then stopped behind Niala’s back. It suddenly jammed its nose between Niala’s legs. Simon recoiled. With a deep angry whiff, the wolf straightened, satisfied. Simon was frozen. Part of him wanted to laugh. The rest wanted to flee in absolute terror. He kept his wits about him, remained in place.

The Wolf stood before Niala. Throaty gravel sounded from its scarred face, “Niala.”

“Snow,” she replied with a small bow.

“It is you.” He sounded less than pleased. “I hoped I would never see you again.”

She released her bow to meet his height, “As did I.”

“You’ve come to call in your marker,” he guessed.

“I have.”

He emitted something between a growl and a sigh, ascended to his throne, and sank against it.

“Speak.”

Niala glanced back at Simon, only then did he realize the half-spring he’d taken to with a half-turned body. He wasn’t sure whether it was meant to fight or flee, but he eased out of it to settle a few feet behind and beside Niala. She retold of the theft, finished a handful of minutes later with Simon more at ease but sweatier than ever.

Snow considered the story with a quiet, pensive face. Upon his throne, he looked like a king deliberating to send his army to battle. An obvious element of stratagem had overtaken him, however lethal he was. Whatever Snow had been through to earn his status as Alpha, he clearly knew something of battle.

He set his body against his throne. It splayed perfectly across the arms and back. “You require information.” He surmised as much from their presence alone, but reiterated for the sake of speech, “But I cannot give you what I do not have.”

“Then get it,” Niala prodded.

He growled, “Do not tempt me, domess.” Niala bared her teeth. Snow scowled in reply, “I’ve been father to over a dozen litters. Alpha to countless in this bastard system. And I’ve more men at my disposal than even you could handle.”

“And you’ve a debt,” Niala reminded. Her paws tensed, nails readied to spring forth.

He watched her poise with a woeful pity, “Yes. I have but one debt.” He pushed up from the throne to step down to Niala, their faces mere whiskers apart, “One I intend to repay.” His voice was low, primal, “Know this domess; we are not kin. We are not friends. I have still not forgotten Ceres.”

Her head averted sideways with a hiss, eyes on a wall. She heaved shame and frustration. Snow reveled in it. He rose to full-height again to sniff the air, take in the scents of her at his mercy.

He swiveled to return to his throne, “I have but one debt.” He sank upon the throne with a grand gesture, “And I intend to repay it. I am an Alpha. One of my word. No matter what type of creature I owe my debt to.” Niala heaved another shame-filled breath. Snow ignored it. “Return in twenty-four hours. If I’ve not found anything by then, there is nothing to find and our debt stands.”

Niala gave a slow bow, then backed away. She whirled in a haze of gown and ruffled fur. Simon lingered a moment before his mind re-engaged his muscles. He hurried after her as she stormed out and into the street. The heat thickened once more, Simon smothered by its presence. Rearden kept hot on his heels as he grabbed Niala by the shoulder. She whirled in a lean, her claws out.

His heart nearly stopped. “Holy corpse, Niala! Relax.”

She eased back, retracted her claws, “Forgive me.” She swiveled again, gestured him along in-step, “That flea-ridden, mange-covered, shit-eater.”

Simon’s eyes widened, “Kiss your mother with that mouth?”

“My mother’s been dead since before you were born, Simon,” she seethed.

He shook off his confusion, “Uh… okay. Let’s just stop. Take stock here for a moment.” She stopped mid-step. He thanked her. “What’s got you so riled?”

She glared, “That brainless bag of balls should’ve been neutered decades ago.”

He glanced around. Wind gusted from passing craft. The streets had become sparsely crowded by various creatures– the local inhabitants of the Ganymede moon-post. He pulled Niala toward the edge of a building, leaned there while a few people passed in the clack of nails or boots.

“I get that you two don’t care for each other, but this was your call,” he reminded. “Besides, what’s the big deal? He seems willing to help.”

“Do you know what Domess means?” He shook his head. “It’s short for domestic– a slur used against evolved creatures that eschewed our history for the inclusion into society.”

He squinted at her, “You mean he said it ’cause you joined the ISC?”

“Among other things,” she admitted. “There is great resentment in some circles at species’ place in Sol. Some believe we animals should have ascended to head of the food-chain– above humans.”

“You’re talking about anti-humanists? Like the protesters at ISC?”

She corrected, “Partly. That some of us instead see one another as equals is considered a betrayal.” She shook her head with shame, “Everything in Sol, from outposts and transportation, to weapons and eating utensils, was created for humans. The rest of us have been forced to adapt to their uses, and still the issue persists that nothing is created with us in mind. At least, not on a large scale.”

Simon thought he followed, “So… animals, feel like they’re being shafted.”

She turned to step slowly forward, Simon followed. “Some, yes. Others see it for what it is; we are new, relatively speaking. The infrastructure in place thus far hasn’t allow for the type of revolution necessary to tailor such facets to animals alone. It’s why I wear a body-suit in the lab– because the clean rooms have not incorporated new designs to deal with problems like shedding.“

“Okay, but why’s a stupid slur gotten you so angry?”

She fumed at the thought of her own words, “Because he would never dare make such a remark if I didn’t require his help, but he knows he has me by the whiskers and I can’t help it.”

Simon nodded, his thoughts on Snow’s other accusation, “So… what happened on Ceres?”

She shot him a lethal look, “That is private, and not something I’m willing to sh–”

“Oi, Domess!” A robustly accented voice called out behind them.

Simon and Niala turned to a screeching beep from Rearden. A line of three hogs with sharp tusks waddled forward with rusty pipes and knives. Niala leaned with a growl, her nails out. The lead hog snorted, laughed full-on. Rearden beeped and Simon swiveled ’round to see more creatures closing.

Niala!” Simon hissed.

“I smell them,” she whispered, her lean lethal.

The circle closed to just out of arm’s reach. Simon circled to see the mix of creatures that surrounded them. His hand went for the weapon at his side. The lead hog thumped the pipe against a dirty hoof. In a flash he raised it to strike.