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.”
“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–”
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.
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.