Short Story: Not a Bad Day

The earth heaved with a frightful shudder. Laura’s feet felt the earth-shattering tear. Her teeth rattled. Cement split, cracked. She thought to leap for the sidewalk, but it lurched upward by the quake. A moment of inertia preceded a terrible rumble. It growled to a roar. Car alarms began screaming across the city. All was chaos. Skyscraper-chunks dislodged, tumbled through the air. A car was suddenly flattened. Laura tried to pretend she hadn’t seen the people there, couldn’t.

She’d been running through the park when it began. Her new, daily ritual had put her there. She’d only just found out her weight problem was going to become diabetes. If she didn’t get fit now, she might lose a foot– or worse. The future would only get more difficult. Fortunately, something had woken her up this time. Even though her breath was perpetually ragged that first week, she’d lost ten pounds. Now, breathing was much easier all ‘round.

Somehow those things so present in her mind dissolved when all hell broke loose. Moments ago, she was content, joyous. She should’ve known. She’d feared those emotions from the years of terrible happenings usually succeeding them. Her luck had been bad since childhood: when she first the wonder of life, her parents divorced. Her childhood home was sold off as community property. When she finally recovered, she got her first period. When that was over, the skies cleared just long enough for adolescence to become teenage angst. Cliques excluded her. Her grades fell. She was altogether depressed until college. The first rays of sunshine once more appeared when college dissolved the cliques gone. Even a few boyfriends came around, despite her “unattractive” physique.

Then the clouds parted, and a downpour flushed her hopes. A car accident forced her into traction, worsened her weight problem. Her then-fiancee stuck around long enough for her to walk again. Since then, her life was one series of disappointments after another and preceding more. Now, when the sun’s rays seemed most likely to shine again, the asinine happened.

She could’ve lived with a broken leg, getting hit by a car, or somehow gaining weight when she meant to lose it, but an earthquake? Really? This was absolutely the most unlikely thing to happen. Sure, the west coast got quakes, but here? In the middle of the park? At the peak of Seattle’s dormant period? And just when she was feeling alright? Seattle hadn’t had a major quake in almost twenty years. They weren’t “due for one,” either. This was a fluke. Of all the times… If she’d believed in God, he was laughing and pointing right now. Asshole.

Her body engaged. She leaped to the sidewalk. It shuddered, lurched. The ground split. A chasm appeared, widened. She bolted at a break-neck speed, raced splitting earth. Her feet bucked and trembled, bounced and skipped against the upheaval of concrete. She felt as if levitating, rather than running, feet never touching ground. Asphalt cracked. Car windows shattered. Something exploded far-off.

All the while the hot sun beat through a cloudless sky as if in a reality all its own of peace and serenity. Bastard.

She sprinted past falling debris, flocked with crowds rampaging the city. They were stampeding in every direction. Fleeing for nowhere in particular. Fleeing just to flee. They were no longer people: scared animals, directed and steered by crashes, cracks. The cluster around Laura grew larger each second. It became a gathering, an assembly, a stadium, so on until everyone in Seattle had joined them.

They fled together. Some manifested only panting terror, fueled by adrenaline. Normally Laura would’ve joined them– panting, wheezing, stumbling and eventually falling back to accept the inevitable. Being heavy and learning to run meant learning to breathe again though. If the quake had hit even a week earlier, she’d have fallen miles ago. She’d have been trampled to death by the crowd surging around her.

Now, she ran.

Her muscles ached. Joints burned. Her heart was a metronome set to insanity. Until now, she hadn’t liked the aches, the pains. Now, it meant she was still alive, intact, still running. She needed that. She managed to pass a few people, push nearer the mob’s front. She could jealous hatred around her:a fat girl outpacing them? Well they never! Jackasses.

Near an intersection, someone fell. People trampled him, unaware of his cracking bones in their terror-flight. He screamed, bellowed for help. Laura pushed her legs toward him, threw her weight around to shoulder and elbow people away. One strong arm pulled him up. His eyes and face were red, wet. He bawled “thank yous.” People tried to shove her away, force her along the current of bodies. Between her new muscles and still-heavy build, she was a boulder in the rapid.

Something exploded, forced them into a half hunch. A half demolished car careened out of control. It ramped off un-level asphalt, arced nearby. Its rear-end caught a fire-hydrant, tore it free. A geyser erupted the persistent swoosh of pure, liquid fury. The car punched through the front of a coffee shop, pinned a few people down inside. The man half-pulled, half followed her toward the still-running car. Its roof was dented from an impact of debris, driver dead. Laura’s adrenaline suppressed vomit and fear. They scrambled over shattered glass, angled nearer the pinned screams.

The man managed to kill the engine, the Earth’s trembling lessening each moment. Laura’s tone– “bitch” as it was often called by, at last count, everyone she met– rallied the people still standing in the shop. Together twenty-five people helped turn the car onto its side. The people still able to walk fled for their lives. Others merely moaned in pain. A few people helped to set bones over screams, a couple ending as their producers passed out. Jerry-rigged splints were fashioned from broke tables and various miscellanea. Someone even managed to loot crutches and from a drugstore nearby.

Laura turned to eye the man she’d saved. A doctor tended to him, an off-duty ER doc in from the street to check the injured. The rest were being carted off for nearby hospitals. The doctor assured the man he had a few broken ribs, some bumps and cuts, but otherwise was fine. The man stepped over to Laura, and as best he could, hugged her with thanks.

Then came a moment of almost total silence. Reality was still. The world had stopped. Laura swiveled: the entire coffee shop eyed her with gratitude. Someone said “thank you.” Someone else clapped. Another person whistled. Laura reddened. A line formed of people wanting to shake her hand or take pictures with her– even though her face was beet-red from exertion and bashfulness, her skin slick with sweat, and her hair wild.

The moment passed and the man pulled his savior aside to slip his phone number over sheepishly. “For, you know, if you wanna’ actually have coffee some time.”

Laura giggled. Then together, they laughed full on. Maybe her luck had changed. Maybe, it wasn’t such a bad day after all…

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Bonus Poem: Go Have a…

Tick and then tock.
I’ve the mind of a clock,
who’s brightened the flock,
with his elegant…

Tempo and rhyme’a,
In bodily time’a,
with a woman named Dinah,
I loved ‘er…

Muscles I flex,
for a soon-to-be ex,
maybe after she’ll hex,
but for now we’ll have…

It’s a wonder we hate,
when we all have a fate,
that though born to wait,
we’ll all copulate.

Then, with heart like a drum,
pulse and blood make a sum,
together, or alone in a slum,
we’ll all some day…

When at last you have moaned,
or perhaps groaned,
fingers tense and dethroned,
everyone loves to …

When it’s over that’s it,
the sore, used up bit,
of the partner thus quit,
she calls it a…

Ah, innuendo you see,
it needs not to flee,
nor even be,
more than a few syllables,
of rhymery.

So sturdy your ruck,
plough through the muck,
or go ‘n get stuck,
however you do it,
just go have a…

Short Story: Schokolade Mit Liebe

A lone match struck in the darkness, flared to strength and cast an orb of dim light on an aged, graying face. It leaned into spark a cigarette off the sulfuric flame, extinguished it with a breath and a hint of a putrid stench. The darkness returned save a lone, glowing ember at the cigarette’s end.

A thick German accent sounded over a high, aristocratic voice, “You’ve no idea who I am, do you, Herr Butler?”

The man across the darkness swiveled his head, struggled against the binds that lashed his arms and legs to a metal chair. “What the hell’s going on?” He asked through panic-breaths. “Who are you? What do you want with me?”

The cigarette glowed brighter from a deep drag as a third man in the darkness struck Butler with a heavy fist. He yelped, almost toppled sideways from the force. He went silent. Tears welled in his eyes. The German gave a breathy exhale, enunciated each word as though chocolate meant to be savored, “You have stolen something very precious to me.”

“I-I don’t know what your t-talking about–”

He shouted over Butler, “Betrüger!

Another heavy blow flooded his mouth with blood and salty sweaty. He did topple this time. It was slow, or perhaps instant, but he felt himself hang on two legs for then tumble to his shoulder like some kind of stunned droid.

The German sighed defeat as he rubbed his forehead between his eyes, “Herr Roke, erhohen mein freund, bitte.”

A primal grunt stuttered with amusement. Then, with an effortless stoop, the monstrous creature lifted Butler and the chair, flipped them in mid-air to right them on the floor with a singular motion. Butler felt the beast’s presence span twice the size of a common brick-wall over the scent of a back-alley ashtray soaked in stale beer. Butler would have dry-heaved were he not too occupied by fear.

The German spoke graciously, “Danke, Herr Roke.” He leaned forward so that the cherry of his cigarette inflected a minor light across his Aryan features. “Now, Herr Butler, I say again; you have stolen something precious of mine and I would like it back.” His voice lowered venomously, “Where is die zeitsteuereinheit?”

Butler was lost; he knew no German, let alone whatever the hell a Zeiten-heimer was,“I d-don’t know what you’re talking about?”

The man mumbled German at the ceiling with defeat that apexed into a clearer phrase, “Herr Roke?”

A heavy thud thumped the back of Butler’s head, meant to jarr his thoughts. He was pretty sure he felt marbles roll around in his brain when the world started to spin. His head fell forward in a daze. Another German mumble, almost cheerfully annoyed, and the cherry flared up, gave way to a bright flood-light on the wall to the left. It blinded Butler as his head rose again. There was nothing but the light– and darkness on either side of it– as loafers shuffled over concrete.

A metal clinking began somewhere in the room’s depths. Given the pungent smoke’s ailing waft, Butler guessed the German had displaced himself. A moment later, the metal sounds gave way to the scuff of loafers that approached through the shadows.

The German was merely an average-sized silhouette with something small in its hand. Identification of the object was impossible through the watery spinning of Butler’s vision. While his eyes welled wet, his mouth dried. The German leaned toward his neck, protuberance in-hand over the reek of a recent, expensive cologne bath. He injected something into Butler’s neck. Heat crept through him, small and insidious, as if his internal thermostat had been jacked all the way up. He felt his brow grow wetter, mouth drier, his t-shirt cold around his armpits.

“Now, Herr Butler,” the German said as he turned back for his seat. He sank into it with the satisfied groan of an old man, “Nature is a beautiful thing, is it not? It has lived longer than anything in the universe– it is the universe, in fact– and especially on Earth, it is a wonderfully complex and varied organism.”

Butler felt his tongue fatten. Sweat flowed like a leaky garden hose. He wanted to cry harder, but wasn’t sure how to. He didn’t know what the German wanted, nor why he seemed to so presently hell-bent on his ecology lecture. All he knew was small, throbbing waves of heat turning to molten lava with each second.

“As with all great organisms,” the German was saying. “Nature has found a way to take something simple, and build off it, as a foundation if you will.” He made a small, refined gesture. “I have just injected you with Formic Acid, Herr Butler. In moments your innards will feel as if they have been held to the core of the Earth.”

Butler already felt that, couldn’t imagine it getting any worse– in fact, he didn’t want to try, “B-but, I’m j-just an average guy. I d-don’t know about your Zeitenheimer.”

The German sighed, “Herr Roke, have you ever known a man to survive the Formic Acid?”

“Nein, Herr Schmidt,” Roke said with a bestial rasp.

“Believe him, if not me, Herr Butler,” Schmidt said.

The acid increased its toll; Butler trembled, shook more with each breath, “B-but I s-s-swear, I d-don’t kn-know anything.”

The German seemed disappointed rather than angry, “Perhaps, then, your wife will tell us.”

Wife? What wife?I don’t have a wife.

“W-wife? Wh-what wife?” Butler asked. “I d-don’t h-have a wife.”

“Herr Buttler, we know all about you, you need not lie; you are Roger Butler, your wife is Penny, und we know where she is,” the German warned casually “If you do not tell us what we want to know, we may have to escalate our interrogation.”

“B-but I-I’ve n-never b-been married!” Butler shouted through the pain.

“Herr Schmidt!” A new voice said from across the room.

“Ja? Excuse me for a moment,” he said politely as he passed the flood-light for a door behind Butler. There was a hushed whisper, then Schmidt’s voice, “Und you’re certain?” Another hurried whisper, then, “Very well.”

Schmidt passed through the floodlight again for the opposite end of the room. There was a shuffle of loafers, another sound of rifled metal, and Schmidt reappeared to inject something else into Butler’s neck.

Schmidt stepped back as Butler felt the pain lessen, “Herr Butler, I must apologize, you are… uh, the wrong man.” He nodded at Roke behind him. A grunt sounded before massive, meaty hands tugged at the knots that bound Butler to the chair. “Please accept my sincerest apologies.”

Roke pulled the last of the binds free, yanked Butler up. Schmidt maneuvered him toward the door, “It would be best if we parted ways– perhaps better if you spoke of this to no-one.”

In the daze of pain, drugs, and the acid’s antagonist, Butler hardly comprehended his surroundings as he was ushered into the hall. When his mind focused again, he was turned ’round, facing Schmidt from the far-side of a doorway, and half-blind from the bright hall-way around him.

“Guten Abend, Herr Butler, pray we do not meet again,” Schmidt said.

The door shut. Butler stared at it a moment longer than he ought’ve, his mind ablaze with questions. They’d obviously had the wrong man, he’d known that from the start, but what convinced them? He suddenly recognized a gift horse’s mouth and bolted in terror. The exit signs along the bright hallways led him into a city’s back-alley in late afternoon. He kept running, faster than any software engineer could or should, all the way through town to his apartment, and inside a closet at its rear. He cowered there in fear, terrified into sleep atop his hugged knees.

He was awoken by heavy knocks on the door that pestered him incessantly. He crept from the closet, hugged the walls along the bedroom, inched out, then sprinted to the door’s peephole. A delivery-man stood on the other side with flowers and chocolates.

He cracked open the door, “Y-yes?”

“Delivery for R. Butler,” the man said casually.

“Wh-what is it? Who’s it from?”

“Cards in the flowers, sir, I just deliver ’em.” Butler hesitated, inched the door open enough for the delivery to slide through. The man passed through a tablet with a stylus, “Sign, please.”

Butler’s shaky hand scrawled a signature, passed it back. A moment later the door shut, the delivery on the kitchen table. Butler lifted the card that read, “Sorry about the torture. Schokolade mit Liebe, H.S.

Butler’s eyes rolled back into his head as he passed out.

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.”

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.

The Nexus Project: Part 3

4.

Niala burst through Gnarl’s door as if ready to rip his throat out. Simon and Rearden were near terror, so fierce had the Matriarch’s gait and fury become. Gnarl was startled by the entry. He yelped, nearly fell backward in his chair. Simon’s heart stopped when Niala leaned over the desk at him.

His chest heaved while a hint of tongue panted in shock, “M-matriarch, my god, you nearly gave me an embolism.”

He braced himself to stand. Niala gave a low growl, “I should gore you where you sit.”

Simon swallowed hard to regather his wits. Clearly the forced evolution had only heightened the Lioness’ ferocity. He wasn’t sure whether to intervene or check his pants. Ultimately, he resolved to be a voice of reason, if a mousy one at that.

“N-Niala, please, calm down,” Simon requested. She bared her teeth over a throaty growl.

Gnarl’s canine brows inflected confusion, his tongue now tucked away, “Matriarch, I assure you, whatever you’re angry about I am not a party to.”

“The words of a guilty, flea-ridden–”

Gnarl was on his feet, “What did you–”

Simon angled between them, against his better instincts, “Woah, woah! Let’s step back here.”

The two growled over him, the finer hairs of their coats upturned around their Lycra collars. With a final half-roar, Niala straightened. Gnarl remained on-guard. Simon carefully extended his hands to tap Niala’s shoulders.

Simon stammered airily, “G-good. Let’s start over, okay?” A side of Niala’s muzzle lifted to bear the corner of sharp teeth. “Rationally, please.” Rearden gave a small beep of agreement. The two creatures’ fur relaxed slightly. Simon swiveled toward Gnarl, “Chief, we have questions. You’ve no doubt heard of the intrusion into our network.”

Gnarl’s eyes flitted between over him, “Yes, what of it?”

“Well, Rearden believes– a-and I agree– that someone must have been facilitating it.”

“In English, Simon,” Gnarl requested snidely.

Niala’s eyes were pointed on Gnarl, “Someone inside is responsible for the attack.”

Gnarl’s obvious prejudice faltered for minor panic. There was only one reason they’d come to him, especially with Niala in such a state. The hound wheezed with a half-whimper, sank into his seat.

“You may not believe it,” he began sullenly. “But I had nothing to do with this theft. I’ve spoken with every department head to ensure nothing else has been appropriated. They’re all losing it. Even the old bird’s hopping around in his office, out of his wits. Josie’s barely keeping him sane.”

Niala’s anger lessened each moment, enough that Simon felt comfortable speaking without pretense, “Then you know there’s a leak in our security network.”

Gnarl gave a sigh through his nose, put a paw to the center of his forehead, “We’ve plugged the leak for now, but we’re not certain the extent of the damage or even that we’ll be able to ferret out those responsible. We’re afraid to shut down the affected nodes entirely, so we’ve isolated them for now.”

Rearden beeped something to Simon, whom repeated it, “You think you might be able to use the leak, trace it?”

All of Gnarl’s remaining vigor left him, “We want to try, but whoever’s behind this is good.”

“How good?” Niala finally asked.

He glanced between them, “Good enough to implicate Simon and myself without leaving a single hair of evidence to pick a scent off. Even the leaking nodes aren’t public. They’re private terminals in various, unconnected residential quarters. Each time we trace one, it leads to another, as if the signal’s rebounding between all our internal computers.”

Rearden gave another few beeps, seemed to inquire something. Simon repeated the question in English, “You’re saying someone’s spoofed the origin and is bouncing packets between the dummies?” Gnarl shrugged. Rearden beeped in response, but Simon had anticipated it, “That means that somewhere between the bounces the packets are being intercepted.”

Gnarl was dejected. His investigation was going nowhere, and his own reputation was on the line. It showed in his weary tone, “We’ve called in a few favors with the HAA. They’re sending in tech experts to do forensics on our network, but it’ll only compound the problem.”

“How could the Human-animal alliance compound the problem?” Simon asked curiously.

“By making moves that are too public.”

“What’s Frost want us to do in the meantime?” Niala asked.

Gnarl was suddenly informal. He looked at Niala as an equal, “Frost can’t find his head with both wings right now. He’s damn-near a stroke every time we speak. You know how Avians are– always high-strung– well, except the tropical ones but you get my point.”

Niala swallowed her pride– a difficult task for one so defined by it, “What do you suggest?”

Gnarl glanced between them again, “Call in every favor you have.” He looked pointedly at Niala, “Every favor. See if anyone knows anything.”

Niala squinted to decipher his meaning. The phone began to ring on Gnarl’s desk, “Get it done, Matriarch. Simon, you’re off the hook. Help her. Whatever she needs or it’s your ass.”

“Yes sir,” Simon replied formally. Gnarl shooed the trio with a paw, keyed his desk to take his call. Simon found himself in the hall before a moment had passed. He looked to Niala with curiosity, “What did he mean by favors?”

She glanced along the hall of open offices. It looked much like an old-era police precinct might have. When she met his eyes again, it was to whisper so quietly even Rearden jacked-up the gain on its auditory sensors.

“A Matriarch such as myself has met many types of beast.” She rechecked the area, “Most are not the sort one of my station would cavort with, nor would like to.” Simon’s eyes narrowed. She gave him a clear-cut set of instructions, “You and Rearden will return home and pack enough clothing and money for a week. I’ll meet you at the transport depot when the next shuttle’s due to depart.”

He suddenly felt as weary with dread as Gnarl had been, “Where are we going?”

“Not here. I’ll tell you more once we depart. Be there.”

With that Niala turned on-heel and marched off. She rounded a corner for the elevators and disappeared. Rearden gave a suspicious series of beeps before Simon cleared his dread from his throat, “I don’t know either, but you’re right. Whatever we’ve gotten ourselves into isn’t going to end pretty.”

Rearden beeped affirmation, switched its thrusters from a hover to follow Simon’s slow progress to the elevators.

5.

Simon stood on the departure platform outside the shuttle. That Phobos had been colonized never seemed to cross his mind until he was here, ready to leave it. A dozen people waited with him to board the shuttles whose rounded, rectangular shape appeared almost the same as the Maglev rail-cars of Earth. Some of those old-world transports still functioned, however useless in the wake of hover-craft, inter-continental and inter-planetary shuttles.

Amid the plethora of scientists, security-guards, and laypeople, Simon blended. The faces of Felines, Canines, Corvians, and all other manner of creatures waited patiently with their eyes-front. However rigidly they held themselves to be the “best” of the pack, there was no denying the gleam of excitement in their eyes. Save Simon, all of the transport’s would-be passengers shared happiness in their quest for home, however contained.

He on the other hand, merely kept his back-pack shouldered and his duffle bag in-hand to ensure he looked the part of traveler. All the same his neck stiffened to strain his peripheral vision for signs of Niala. Rearden hovered in place beside him, as silent and stoic as a little bot could muster. Its own reservations had been spoken– or rather beeped incessantly, as was its way– while Simon packed his things. The heated discussion ended with no less agreement than when it had started. They both knew this was out of their depth. Unfortunately, Niala trusted them and needed their help.

A hooded figure appeared at Simon’s right, a cloth-sack slung over its shoulder atop a vivid-colored gown of obvious, African fashion. The collar flared out and down atop the shoulders to the chest. The elegant, thin material as much for honor as keeping cool in hot weather.

Simon glanced sideways. A few eyes surveyed the hooded figure. He spoke from the side of his mouth, “Could you’ve drawn a little more attention?”

Niala hissed back, “This is the only thing I have that isn’t spandex, and I hate the stuff.”

His voice was pointed with ire, “You look like a pack of cheap colored pencils.”

Her mouth hung half-open as she balked, “I’ll have you know these are my royal garments presented upon my ascension to Matriarch status.”

Simon eyes rolled. The doors of the transport opened. “Just get inside.”

Rearden followed them up and toward the transport’s rear. They took a seat across from one another at a small, booth-like table, sequestered from the bulk of the passengers. Rearden’s thrusters powered down and it came to a rest at the table’s inner-edge.

Simon relaxed across from Niala, “Where are we going?”

“Ganymede,” she replied quietly.

“What!?” He blurted. “Have you lost your mind?”

She squinted a slit-pupil at him, “I’m still your boss, you know.”

He heaved a futile sigh, “Niala, that moon’s filled with nothing but scumbags and gangsters.”

She raised a brow, “And they’re exactly the types to have information on the security breach.”

“This is too much, Niala. Ganymede’s dangerous.”

She chided him, “Lost your nerve already?”

“I’m not stupid,” he replied with a forward lean.

“Are you implying I am?” He scowled in response. She reassured him, “When we reach the hub station, you’ll see there’s nothing to fear. Normal people go back and forth to Jupiter each day.”

“Yes, miners. That live in secluded outposts. Not the moon!” Rearden gave a beep of agreement with Simon. “See? Even it knows this is nuts!”

She leaned in closely, “Do you want to learn who’s targeted you, put a black mark on your reputation, and stolen your work?”

Simon’s eyes darted around, “Fine! But for the love of science, get rid of that damned gown!”

She smiled, “Never.”

It was roughly five hours after they boarded the transport that it finally docked at the hub station between Earth and Mars. From a distance, the station looked like a caltrop once found in the ancient game “Jacks.” It’s various arms bulged at the tips where the connecting airlocks secured various transports to the station. The arms themselves were long, hollow, their innards crammed full of various commerce stands, stalls, and outlets like the mega-malls of Earth.

Indeed, as Simon and Niala made for the station’s center, they were overwhelmed with the sensation. Countless scents mingled over the din of innumerable voices that melded with drab or flamboyant fashions. Corvians, Raptors, Iguanidae– every evolved species mingled in their various manners with humans and even a Swine or two. All the while, Canines kept watch at the corners of halls and outlets. Their eyes and ears scanned for the slightest signs of trouble, no doubt ready to rush it and disperse the perpetrators with force if need be.

Simon weaved in and out of the crowd behind Niala as she pushed toward the station’s central hub. There elevators led to other ports or essential-systems levels. They remained on their level, followed the circular interior counter-clockwise to another arm of the station. Along it were all manner of outfitters, from clothing outlets to ship-salesman. The latter was most curious, especially given ships were far too expensive for the lay-person to purchase, and transport companies did business directly. Simply put, there was hardly a place for a ship-salesman in the Sol System, at least thus far.

To Simon’s surprise, Niala steered them to the aforementioned salesman, “Wait here.”

He lingered at the store’s edge, watched her enter. Rearden gave a quiet beep in its hover beside Simon. Niala greeted a salesman whom quickly provided her with a pamphlet. She said something inaudible, and the man’s eyes narrowed. They disappeared into a back room.

Rearden beeped. Simon shook his head, “I don’t know either, but I’m not feeling good about it.”

Niala reappeared moments later, thanked the salesman, and left with a brochure in-hand. She motioned Simon along, “Come on, we’re almost there.”

Simon’s confusion was obvious, “What was that all about?”

“Later.”

They pushed through the crowd for the open dock ahead. A scrunch-faced bulldog stood before a counter beside two security-Labradors whom scrutinized their approach.

“Names,” the bulldog requested.

“Niala Martin and Simon Corben,” Niala said as she set a credit-card on the counter.

“Length of stay and reason for visit?”

“Indeterminate. Official business for the ISC,” she replied formally.

The bulldog gave her a squint to put the guards to shame. He blew a jowly breath, “You understand Ganymede is an anarchic moon with no formal government, right?”

Niala’s eyes narrowed too, “Of course, but the ISC has business there.”

The bulldog looked them over, “Bot’s a child’s ticket. No-one travels free.”

“That is satisfactory,” Niala replied.

The bulldog scanned the card on the desk with an IR reader, “Good luck, Matriarch.”

“Thank you,” Niala said with a tilted bow of her head.

He waved them past, toward the near-empty transport ship. They took the boarding hall in few steps, found a place at the back at another booth. Niala sat with her back to a small surveillance camera, tapped Simon’s knee beneath the table.

She forced something into his hand, “Take this. It would be unwise to travel without it.”

His hand clasped a holstered laser-pistol, “What the hell?”

Rearden beeped, but Niala quieted it with a shake of her head, “One does not travel to Ganymede without the willingness to show force.”

He leaned over the table in a whisper, “I’m a scientist, Niala, not a criminal!”

She spoke even quieter, “If you wish to remain anything, you will take it.”

She straightened in her seat. He leaned so the camera would not see him affix the holster to the belt beneath his jacket, then sank back with a new weight to his hip. Niala gave a small, satisfied nod.

He muttered under his breath, “What the hell have I gotten myself into this time?”

Short Story: His(Its?) Image

Nobody believed it. Who would blame them though? It was a difficult thing to believe that one; there was confirmation of God’s existence; two, he was actually hooked into the internet, hip to all of the millions of slangs and cultures; and three that all those social-media posts begging for likes to save cancer-victims, help lost puppies, and vote on the newest teen idol were actually serious.

For his– or rather Its, which is a whole, other complicated conversation we’re not having right now– part, God seemed to be an okay guy (thing?). At least in the last few thousand years, he hadn’t directly caused any kind of mass murder, flooding, or pestilence. Not that there weren’t any, just none he had a direct hand in. Even the good things were none of his doing, sliced bread, the internet, free porn– those were things we’d given ourselves through the freewill he’d set in motion. (If you believe the stories, anyway.)

It was like he– it? Can a limitless entity really be confined to a single gender? I’m sure all those homophobic preachers might have something to say about it, but not me. Mostly I’m focused on the existential properties of the question, and whether or not human language will have to compensate for this new class of being, especially if it turns out he is not the only one. Like I said, ‘nother conversation for ‘nother day.

Anyway, it was like he’d set us up on this crazy green and blue rock, then loosed us to the rigors of time so he might come back later and reap the rewards. The internet had to have been one of those things that finally drew him back. Before he’d sent an ambassador (more than one if you believe the various stories) to speak to us in his name, each with their own language and ways to best keep the people in those parts of the world on the straight and narrow. Really gotta’ hand it to him, did a mostly good job– you know aside from the middle east and the third of the world starving.

But that’s yet another conversation for yet another day. Staying on track.

Seems the Good Lord had set up a kind of system networked into social-media of all things. In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad idea. There’s billions of computers hooked into the net, almost as many people behind them watching everything from social-media updates to, well, porn, and not a one of them was really listening to the Good Lord’s words anymore.

I can only imagine that to a creature like God the internet represented this vast, instant-feedback system where the commodity of information was like a tasty morsel of ambrosia. See, that’s the thing we never think about when we think of a God, or rather the God. Omnipotent may mean unlimited power, but who the hell has the time to be paying that much attention? I mean, if we’re created in his— it’s?– image, wouldn’t He/It be just as prone toward Attention Deficit Disorder?

Each of us has some form of ADD. Granted not everyone needs medication for it, but we all have a point where we can no longer stand to pay attention. Be it from hunger, exhaustion, or sheer boredom, we’ll each eventually turn away, look away, or pass out until we can come back with fresh eyes. It’s the human condition. We’re just sort of flawed in that way. It runs deep too, so deep, it was almost easy for us to miss that He/It was the same way.

After all, familiarity is comfort, and all beings that we know of seek comfort. Why would He/it be different? In the end, maybe that’s the whole “meaning of life thing:” so no one has to be alone. I mean, sure there were creatures before us, but they weren’t sentient. It’s more than likely that if He/It did anything to create us, it was with a push to the hominid populous’ evolution toward our creation. Then, let it stew for a few million years, and voila, sentient life!

But then we sort of spiraled out of control. We bred like rabbits and took over the face of the Earth. Those telepathic communications that he told us about in his books became overwhelming. Then, for a few millenia, he just sort of slinked away from us for a couple aspirin and a drink. Then one drink turned into five, then five into ten and soon enough he was passed out on the bar-room floor, only to awake in an alley-way dumpster with a hang-over and no shoes– wait, that was exactly my last Friday— Still you get the point. He/it got overwhelmed and he took off for a bit to unwind, prepared to come back later with fresh eyes. (Not literally of course, from all evidence we have He/It doesn’t need new eyes, though I’m sure He/It could conjure them in a moment.)

Maybe those fresh eyes helped, or maybe the hangover finally pounded a realization into his head– like that time I woke up in the Rusty Clam’s Alley with a hooker kicking me and telling me I was scaring off the Johns. I mean really, like I was the problem there. Get over yourself guy. What was I saying? Oh right, the epiphany. It was like that time I woke up and realized maybe the smell in my pants was my fault, and I should probably quit drinking before the hooker kicked me one too many times.

For Him/It, the realization was probably two-fold; we had internet, (Holy shit, free Porn! He/It exclaimed if I’m anything like His/Its image) and now he had an awesome little tool to make all those telepathic prayers easier to deal with.

So, He/It did what any smart Deity would and set up a kind of super-cool bot-net that translated the telepathic message into their own, electronic equivalents. Those lists were somehow programmed to prioritize and post themselves across the ‘net with “Like” and “Share” Goals. If they reached those goals, the bot-net would activate the telepathy machine– the same used to transfer prayers to text– and it would shell out a dose of miracles for whomever the prayer was for or about.

But see, that’s where He/It got things a little wrong. God forgot we’re created in his image, and we’re more than a little deficit in attention ourselves. So what happened? Well first off, no-one believed the profile actually was God. Then, nobody believed God would try to pass out prayers so cheaply. And Then? Some one found out it was real.

Oh yeah. You know that memetic saying that’s flooded every possible forum, chat-room, and website with comments that goes “don’t feed the trolls?” Well, that’s extremely difficult when everyone becomes a troll. See, the atheists weren’t angry that they’d been proven wrong, they were excited. With them were all of those would-be pious that lined up to beg and plead and pray.

But God? Well He/It’s kind’a got a funny sense of humor like that. I guess sort of like me too, in a way. He didn’t shut the bot-net down. Now, I can’t be sure what the hell he’s up to, but I know it’s still running. Every day, billions of posts flood His/Its little corner of the net, and every day, billions of people scramble to pray harder and like and share the ones that might be theirs. Its just so damned hard to tell anyway, so many people need money, or the cure for cancer, or for their pants to stop smelling strange, that it’s difficult to know exactly whose prayer is getting answered when they vote.

And here we come to my devious, devilishly simple bit of mischief. It isn’t mean, not even really difficult to do. In a way, I think He/It might agree with my cleverness. I created a second bot-net. One to spam the hell out of those posts. It’ll be sort of like that heaven and hell war, only digital and without any losers. Everyone will get what they want, have their prayers answered. It’s mischief, sure, but I was made in His/Its image, and he’s just as lazy, deficit, and cunning as I am if you believe it. In the end, maybe he’ll smite me. Or maybe, he’ll do nothing, happy that our ingenuity triumphed. Or maybe even, he’ll flip up the table and rage-quit and run back to the bar.

If so, cheers friend; maybe tomorrow my pants won’t smell so bad and you’ll have another one of your epiphanies. Until then, let the games begin and bring on the porn!