VIN 16- Musky Smells

The thing about Musk is: he could be genuine. Or, equally, yet another flunkie. More or less, an Antichrist for the postdigital liberties movements, coming at a time most detrimental and damaging. Why? Simple: Elon Musk is of the age, position, and personality type to affect great change. Many have been. The difference is his field of play.

He’s a postdigital child.

Whether he realizes it, lives it, accepts it, even wants it or not, he is a perfect example of a multi-faceted, system-oriented thinker, in a position of true power in economic, global, scientific, and innovative communities.

He is the elite, and appears to be playing for Sense, if little else.

But to do what needs be done for Humanity, truly, requires setting events in motion that would eventually destroy his own legacy through his effects– even those he as an admitted digital-child, cannot begin to foresee.

The problem inherent in this issue inevitably becomes foreseeing one’s own legacy and its demise, committing regardless.

But it is no different than accepting one’s memory, like oneself, will die out. Will it have been worthy of living, as one’s life should be, thus becomes the sole question. At the heart of this, like most things, is the binary issue of selfishness or not. In combination: Human behavior further dictates one cannot always be counted on to check one’s own greed.

At the helm of a mega-corp, that greed, can be astronomical. Literally. Musk wishes to capture the minds of Humanity and point them at Mars, but whose priorities are these? Are they his: the man of new-blooded money new to a game and ready to change it? Or are they the Corporations’: age-old ideals of what can be, for the moment aligned because of potential greed.

Leaving Earth for Mars is not to be taken lightly. We cannot begin to expand, to Mars or elsewhere, if we’ve not yet finished our foundational building, here. Death among the stars is no less death. Attempting otherwise will forever alter our history, our so-termed destiny or fate. Therein history will cease to write of Humanity’s story and instead begin to write of its demise.

All from the loss of a crucial moment of opportunity and understanding. That moment, one of decades and seconds, generally sensed by our species, told that only by growing closer could we understand this Universe. It cannot be done by individuals alone. Science and history dictate as much. Are the products of it.

Therefore, it is imperative it be carried out by a, if not unified, symbiotic society. Preferably, one seeking to establish its legacy and secure itself as a force in the Universe– as any multi-cellular organism is driven to.

Corporations, though also multi-cellular, are not organisms. This is a common misconception both perpetuated and ignored by those involved in their workings. Mostly, from fear of recognition that the great evil– Corporations– are really only bureaucratic systems. Not societies. Their utter lack of feeling, empathy, or sympathy, makes them such.

It is not a failing. Rather, a byproduct of a system’s design. It is not a character flaw or a personality trait: however seemingly alive, it cannot feel. It cannot think. It can only run. In most cases, only run toward output of money.

To further muddy the image, evolution implied through long-term PR and Ad department schemes of re-branding have become akin to cell-regeneration. Beginning with single-cells and dividing, replicating, and successively revising their internal structure, Corporations like societies and organisms too, ultimately appear to be evolving.

However, they remain unliving. Their own actions well-documented by themselves but maintaining the ignorance through ritzy glamours that hide their every, hideous deformity. Each one only so grotesque as is made by oneself when allowing it to fester.

Yet these are systems.

Countless generations of growth-fracture cycles have formed them. Rhythmic, steady, but always producing errors, detrimental or not. Those anomalies, better known as Mutation, form the basis for all adaptation and survival of known organisms. The same can be seen in Corporate consolidation, Dark-horse industries and leaders, and flash in pan billion-dollar ideas.

But Corporations are not ruled by these rules: they imitate them.

A Corporation has no fixed head. No fixed owner. It exists to exist. Not because nature intended it, but because it was willed into power by (mostly) intelligent beings. Yet, there is no-one behind the curtain. Not even for those involved. Certainly, predecessors and successors have come and gone, but there is no “heir” to a corporation. Heirs may inherit corporations, but Corporations whom inherit requires intangibility to be otherwise.

Corporations are systems. Socio-economic thought-systems. Series of processes for doing business, as software running transactions in an OS: a system within a system, but one nonetheless.

Now wrapped up in the face of a postdigital child, whose inheritance neither exists nor does-not exist. Like many things of the time Musk’s as likely a product of as he is of hope. Worse, postdigital child or not, not one of us is incorruptible. Humans have demonstrated this time and again.

Humans live only within comfort zones, or surrounded by familiar things, or supportive out of habit. So deep does this fear of unknown corruption go, we’ve created whole spheres of public, private, and provincial health and governance laws. All of it to combat corruption we’ve termed– through rational dark ages– evil, hate, badness.

But many things of their time, like Evil and Musk himself, are the manifestations of simple realities incapable of being ignored. Regardless of best way, his may be little more than a flag to show communication on matters (his, chiefly,) are now open. After all, it is only from fear of loss that watchers cry out.

Musk’s opportunity here will make him a place in history. Even if, as a passing memory of Humanity’s folly. Whether from reverence or regret, there’s no telling. Not yet. All any watcher can do is remain vigilant, make their call, hope they’re heard so tragedy can be avoided.

But being a postdigital child myself, I’m neither holding my breath nor putting all my eggs in one basket. Especially in space, that feels prudent.

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Short Story: The Well

A series of long, rectangular modules interconnecting domes stole the rusted horizon. They rose from the dirt, dust-covered red and brown from high-winds and a oxygen-starved atmosphere. The city, Uruk, had originally been a lone, dome-rectangle module built to house a small team of astronauts. Their mission had been to make the Red Planet habitable. A few decades after having succeeded, Mars was thriving.

Uruk, named for the first, modern city in human history, had become Mars’ premiere settlement, and thus, the largest settlement outside Earth-orbit. Countless orbital stations contrived artificial gravity and took residence there still, but none compared to the masterpiece of human ingenuity, perseverance, and sheer will of Uruk. In merely three decades, Mars had gone from a settlement of five to over ten-thousand. Likewise, the astronauts’ lone module had grown to upwards of 5,000, not including the various modules required for vital systems, manufacturing, agriculture and the like.

Amid the glorious madness of it all was Commander Jenna Thomason; pushing fifty without looking a day past thirty-eight, eternally fit, and dark eyed with marbled steel and onyx hair. Contrary to expectations, no-one on Mars had aged prematurely from colony living. In fact, aside from a few, minor colds and pre-exisiting conditions, people were in pristine health.

Over the years, Jenna had become something of an icon; she’d been one of first, true residents, having arrived on the last, scientific deployment to Mars. She and four others were to complete the final preparations before the arrival of the colony ship en-route. Jenna had no reason to return to Earth afterward, and like the others, had elected to stay to ease the colonists’ transition.

Unofficially, she was looked at as Uruk’s leader; a Mayor of sorts, despite the position belonging to another woman (who often deferred to her.) Presently, the two were strolling through a series of modules in the “city quarter,” where most business and civil services were conducted. The dome-modules there were roughly a kilometer wide, multi-leveled, and arranged in such a way as to hide their curvature.

Their connecting hallways were another story; thick, with rubber-sealed windows offering views of neighboring stacked, steel modules, imposing edges and rises of domes, or if at the edges of the settlement, endless rusty expanses the faded into browns further along the horizon. It was beside one of these windows Jenna and Mayor Cline found themselves. Jenna stopped to talk, watching dust tossed about in a wind that whistled on the deceptive tundra beneath the sunlight.

“I’ve instructed maintenance to halt all other operations and begin repairs,” Cline said.

Jenna nodded, “And you’re hoping I have a solution. I don’t. I’ve been in this city longer than anyone, and we’ve always known it was only a matter of time. I’ve made weekly inquiries with Earth for twenty years, but no-one’s done a thing about it.”

“There must be something,” Cline urged.

“It’s been done, Sarah,” Jenna replied firmly. “We’ve deployed dew-collectors, and water reclamation systems, but the fact is Mars’ water-supply resides at the poles in its ice. We knew that when we arrived. Finding the subsurface glacier was luck, it was never meant to last.”

Cline’s face sank, “You’re saying you won’t help?”

Jenna palmed her forehead, “There’s nothing to help. Uruk is out of water. We lose too much to evaporation and agriculture to keep up. It’s always been a system of diminishing returns.”

“Are you trying to say “I told you so?”

Jenna leaned forward against a window sill, braced herself with a deep breath, “I would never be that spiteful, Sarah, let alone about this. Ten-thousand people is a lot of water. What we need to do is begin rationing. Put people on water budgets. But we need an accurate measurement of our current resources, and projections for measures to be emplaced.”

Cline’s frown cut deep curves into her cheeks and brow, “There’s going to be a lot of backlash, and it’s only prolonging the inevitable, not fixing it.”

“Backlash is better than death by dehydration,” Jenna reminded. Cline winced. “Put maintenance on stand-by. I’ll lead a team to survey the Well. Meanwhile, someone’s going to need to be review our current water usage to examine our options. I’ll look at them when I’m back. I suggest overseeing the process until then.”

Cline was less than satisfied, but recognized her authority, “I’ll see you soon, then.”

The two parted ways, and Jenna immediately set to gathering a team, exosuits, and supplies. Her group of four met in a module outside Uruk’s water-treatment plant. There, an airlock lead to a catwalk, and in turn, to Mars’ bowels and the small, glacial reservoir contained beneath it. For nearly thirty years, “The Well” had been relied on as Uruk’s main water-source. Unfortunately, ait was never meant to last, nor even to be relied upon in the first place. The ice-caps were, but given the nearby reservoir, all plans for a connecting line had been put on hold for more urgent matters at the time. In Uruk, urgent matters always abounded– such was the nature of planetary colonization. Thus, the pipe-line was never completed.

The team’s survey concluded enough water for three months remained. On proper rationing, Jenna estimated the time could be doubled. Two to Three days after that sixth month, people would begin dying of dehydration without either a solution, or the first of several, unlikely shipments from Earth. Mars and its people could rely on Earth’s hospitality, however.

That left one, worthwhile solution; several thousand kilometers of pipeline between Uruk and Mars’ North pole need be erected. Even if the project could finished in time, and there were considerable doubts, it would take almost every person in Uruk working nearly ’round the clock. The projections weren’t promising.

Sara Cline, elected and esteemed Mayor of Uruk, called a conferences. Every person in the city was required to attend, or view the broadcast piped across all channels of the city’s televisions. Cline stood before thousands of people, muster all the confidence she could, and with Jenna at her side for morale began to speak.

“It is with dire need that I come to you, Uruk. It has been brought to my attention that our water is running low. To preserve our stores, we must– regrettably– impose a ration limiting families to a thousand liters per week.” She waited for the griping to wane, then continued, “I know it will be difficult, but other matters demand our more immediate attention.” She glanced back at Jenna for courage. The public icon did her best to impart what she could. The crowd noticed, quieted. “We require every last body working to rectify the problem so we may never again be troubled by such matters.”

Jenna stepped up, ready to speak professionally on the plan’s logistics, but saw the concerned faces and sighed, “I’m not going to lie to you. Things aren’t looking good: In less than six months, we must begin and complete a pipeline spanning the distance between Uruk and the North Pole.” There was an audible murmur from the assembled few thousand people. “In order to do that, it will require every one of us working double-shifts.”

The crowd went silent again, but Jenna sensed their collective ire and anger. She did her best to rouse their passion in the proper manner. “One hundred years ago, people said we’d never reach the moon. Forty-five years ago, people said we could never survive on Mars. Today, I am saying we can, but only if we work together. This task should not be seen as insurmountable, but rather difficult, a challenge to be overcome. Our species has time and again proven its innate ability to not only survive, but to thrive. We overcome the difficult, make possible the impossible, all by virtue of our existence. Knowing that we must now turn our sights to the Pole and begin work should hone our focus. I, for one, set my sights there voluntarily, to toil as others will. I ask only that you join me.”

She went quiet, the room dead silent until applause began to rise to a crescendo. Whistles and hoots came with it. Someone said something about loving Jenna while tears formed in her eyes.

Six months to the day later, she and a team of tired, stinking workers stood in the newly constructed module of “Polar pump station-1.” The flick of a switch prompted the start of a water-flow. Minutes later, a radio echoed a confirmation of positive pressure at Uruk. The room exploded in cheers. Jenna smiled; such was the power of Humanity in the face of adversity.

Short Story: Home

Resplendent beams of gold waved over the rusted horizon. The rays winked and glittered along frost-tinted ground, rebounded off it and back up into the atmosphere. The soil had long been deprived of life, or so the surveys had said. In its absence, only clumped balls of hard minerals remained. Every handful of dirt grabbed up, held against only until a slight pressure pulverized it to dust.

The gloved-hand of Mars-one’s Dr. Cameron Markinson did just that. She let the Red-Planet’s malnourished life-blood trickle through her fingers. It caught a north wind, whisked away and dispersed until invisible. Lead-weight steps of low-g boots deposited a figure in place beside her; Commander Mackenzie Williams, always an imposing figure, made one feel he was in their space even at a respectful distance away.

Today was no exception, but neither felt the usual awkwardness from it. It was a new day. One for the record books– the ages, so to speak. Both of them sensed it. The truth of it infected their every breath, each one that much softer, gentler. Something colored the space between them, made even Mac seem smaller, while their forms were dwarfed by the awe-inspiring humility of events around them.

“First sunrise on Mars,” Mac said.

Tears wavered beneath the awe on his tongue. Cameron sympathized. She felt her eyes welling up, preparing to rain behind her helmet with vain hopes of watering thirsty ground. The sharp pain in her chest was as much welcomed as embraced.

“Six million years of Evolution,” Cameron said. “Two-hundred and fifty-thousand years of Human existence, five thousand of recorded history, and we’re finally home.” Her voice stiffened a little, “It took us a less than a century to go from ground-confinement to exploring the solar system. Imagine what we’ll have in another century– or even a millennium.”

Behind his glass face-plate, Mac smiled. He patted a shoulder of her suit, “C’mon, we’ve got work to do.”

He turned for the shuttle, but she lingered a moment before following him.

Mars-One’s shuttle, Verne, looked for all the world like a streamlined city-bus with millions of dollars more investment to it. Its infinitely more complex systems didn’t hurt the image, and its 747-like cock-pit managed to contain twice as many instruments and systems as a the jumbo jet into even less space. Technology was like that; unrelenting, pervasive, even astronauts were just well-educated techies at heart.

Half the cock-pit was used to communicate and monitor Verne’s docking cradle alone. Orbiting the planet, it was a veritable hotel for cosmonauts, and the only way-point between Earth and Mars’ surface. It was the sole place capable of harboring life outside Earth’s orbit. Even the shuttle itself could only power their suits’ oxygen, and otherwise was merely an airtight coffin for anyone seeking refuge.

But coffins weren’t needed here. The International Cosmic Exploration Agency, or ICEA, had made sure of that. Even a total-systems failure on the shuttle had been compensated for. Excess resources and parts aboard the orbiter could be shot down like one of Heinlein’s bouncers, aimed by the pair of crew still aboard. The canister would reach the target area in less than ten minutes, and could be repeated almost ad nauseum to ensure any problems were repairable.

Cameron and Mac worked to roll out metal cases and tubular contraptions for the next hour, aligning a series of large cylinders and various-sizes of steel and aluminum parts into formations. By the time “tank change” came, the items were separated into several, individual piles, each with angled sheets of aluminum, steel cases, cylinders, hoses and nozzles, and a plethora of fasteners and tools. Once assembled, the seemingly innocuous conglomerate of spare parts would form a fleet of UAVs that would begin laying down high-level nutrient sprays.

In the fleet’s wake, the orbiter would launch specialized seed-pods into the sprayed soil. The hardy seeds, genetically engineered for the Martian atmosphere, would theoretically take root in days. A month from now, Cameron and Mackenzie would return to check the results of the growth. If the seeds had taken root, and truly appeared to be surviving the harsh-Martian climate, phase two of “Habitat Reformation” would begin. It had become Cameron’s sole, life pursuit.

A little less than a decade before, she’d broken ground in astrobiology. It was the only reason she was on Mars now, why she wouldn’t have let anyone go in her place: While analyzing Martian soil deposits from the first, return-probe, striking similarities appeared between impact craters on both Mars’ and Earth’s surfaces. Rigorous testing proved conclusively the two shared a cosmic connection.

That connection, Cameron soon concluded, was the impact of a sole asteroid on Mars’ surface. Ejected debris from the impact was launched through the skies, into space, and eventually into Earth’s atmosphere, carrying microbes formed from an unknown, primordial ooze on the Red Planet.

Another probe Cameron designed, tested, and launched, eventually proved what many in the scientific community had begun to suspect; Earth’s life was alien. More specifically, it wasn’t Earth’s life on Earth, it was Mars’ life. The revelation of life being “extraterrestrial” took the world by storm. Space-exploration was suddenly reinvigorated. The ICEA formed to compensate for the sudden cascade of researchers seeking funding for space or Mars-based experiments. An influx of private investors, millionaires and billionaires with passions for science, quickly helped fund them.

But Cameron’s vision was different. Eventually, it had taken her to Mars, to home. The primordial ooze that had formed life, she reasoned, could not be understood until “home” or its history was. With Mars’ life no longer theoretical, only one option appeared to remain open to her. Most of her learned colleagues agreed; they needed to return home, begin seeking answers in their true birth-place.

Mars’ life may have merely gone extinct, some said, unable to thrive in the harshness of multiple impact events. It was probable even, others added, that the same impact transferring the microbes from Mars to Earth, had eradicated what remained of them on Mars. Most agreed, the impact had effectively launched a time-capsule, that opened prematurely on Earth, and thrived in its complimentary conditions.

There was no confirmation of whether the asteroid was responsible for the extinction, nor if the life had continued thrive before dying off from something unrelated. As Cameron saw it, there would be no further confirmation of their place in the universe until Mars was made habitable. After all, it had taken hundreds of years and countless naturalists to piece together even an infinitesimal amount of understanding regarding life’s formation on Earth– or rather, its evolution after arriving on Earth. That wayward life, now searching for its origins, simply couldn’t do so properly until it once more inhabited its home.

Over the course of six hours, and several air-tanks, she and Mac constructed and scrutinized the UAVs. The drones had enough battery-life, solar-panels, and payload to work unaided for a week. As the harsh winds grew colder, and the skies dustier and pinker from particulates, the last of the UAVs was assembled and tested via comm-connections to the orbiter.

When all was green, they stepped back to watch. As if launched like rockets, the UAVs sprinted into the distance, gained altitude. They came about in formation, fanned out, and separated for pre-programmed zones. They sank toward the ground, disappeared against the red-orange with streaks of invisible hope on their tails. In a month, the two cosmonauts would return to find life thriving, or dying, then try again, or continue the search for their true history.

Mac patted Cameron’s shoulder again, then made for the shuttle. She lingered once more, her mind on only one thing; Humanity had returned home, and begun to lay down its roots.

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.”

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 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?”

The Nexus Project: Part 2

2.

The plasma propulsion laboratory at ISC was one of the most closely guarded. Everyday that human, Simon Corben, went to work, he had to pass through more than a half-dozen security measures to get into the building. First, the basic pass-code/keycard combo at the thick, outer door. Two Then, inside it for the inner door; a voice-print, retinal scan, and visual ID through a camera. Five. When he finally made it into the building, he was met by a pair of security Bloodhounds that ran literal sniff-tests to ensure his pheromone signature was correct. Only after did they carry out the last two security measures; a thermographic scan and a wand-based metal detection. Eight.

Despite the seeming complexity of it, Simon couldn’t complain. It was routine, fluid enough that he hardly noticed it anymore. He merely sipped coffee with the same lethargic, zombification that infected everyone first thing in the morning, regardless of species. Besides, the measures were as much necessary as common sense. Apart from the Bloodhounds, it was old tech that ensured no secrets got out or saboteurs got in.

He reached the hounds with a mumbled “hello,” passed the sniff test. With a wave of the wand, he was let through, headed for an elevator at the lobby’s rear. Where most people found the Bloodhounds intrusive, Simon empathized with them. The poor bastards had to sniff all the employees, and as of late, they weren’t exactly the most hygienic bunch. He couldn’t imagine going an hour like that, let alone a whole life-time.

He entered the elevator alone, sank twelve floors to his lab. Due to the new Nexus Project, compartmentalized across several of the facility’s labs, most of his colleagues were now elsewhere. It left him alone elevator rides, during lunches, and forced him to run his lab on minimal staff. In other words, alone. Such was the nature of the project though, that no part could know too much about another lest their loosened lips let slip something vital or dangerous.

The elevator door opened on a long, narrow hall buffered by windowed walls. They looked in on massive, hangar-like testing areas. Inside, countless remote operated drones and bots, and molecular manufacturers, built, scanned, and maintained, each of the prototype engines to be tested. If First Contact hadn’t brought a massive boost of technology, Simon’s lab wouldn’t even exist. Even if had, it would’ve been theoretical for more decades than Simon was expected to live. Such was human technology before, that though they could colonize Sol, it had taken generations.

He followed the hallway to a flight of stairs that led up, right-angled, then up again. The control room and the practical portion of his lab was set on-high. Its windows fully encapsulated the view of the quarter-mile long testing grounds. Today, their drab, autonomously occupied expanse brought on a pang of depression.

A series of beeps sounded from the floor beside him, lifted his spirits somewhat, “Morning, Rearden.”

A small bot, like a lopsided gourd, nudged Simon’s foot. Its lone, ocular sensor, like a flexible eye on a thin neck, stared up myopically. Simon swore he saw partied out red-lines in their somewhere, but knew it was just his imagination.

“You were off your charger all night again weren’t you?” He asked with a disappointed look down. It beeped a binary lie of “No.” Simon rolled his eyes, “Great. You’re turning into a lying smart ass.” It beeped cheerfully. He sighed, led it to a table, and went about plugging a battery pack into its rear-panel. “You know you’re useless when you don’t charge properly. You were up data-changing with that maintenance bot again weren’t you?”

Rearden gave a few quick beeps as he switched on the batt-pack. A moment later, the bot hovered from micro-jets on its belly, beeped a “thank you,” then whizzed off for a computer across the room.

Simon sank into a chair at a holo-terminal, keyed the desktop interface with a coffee-filled sigh, “Even my damn bot gets more action than me.”

The holo-screen projection appeared at eye-height, lit up with the pro-OS bios post. It scanned through its associated hardware and networks, then flashed a password prompt. Simon keyed in his credentials, and the log of previous activity appeared. He gave an acidic belch. Coffee crept back up his throat– he’d had too much already today and he’d only just started work. It was going to be a long day.

He scrolled down the list of log-ins with hopeless procrastination, “What the–”

He double checked a secure entry from his off-site network. Connections details scrolled off;

Login: 12/6 04:30

Details: Restricted file access. Sync and download of X:\. Download completed successfully. User credential login terminated at 04:40.

Simon’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head, “Oh shit. Oh shit.”

He slid back so fast he knocked Rearden through the air. Its thrusters compensated over a squealing beep. It stopped just in time to avoid smashing through a glass panel that separated a pair of holo-displays. Simon was too concerned with sprinting from the lab to notice. Rearden revved its thrusters, barely able to keep up.

He took the hallway in roughly a quarter of the usual time, threw himself into the elevator and slammed the button for the top floor. Rearden zoomed in just in time for the doors to close, collided with Simon over a squeal. It beeped erratically, questioned Simon’s sanity and sudden lack thereof.

“Rearden!?” He said with shock. “Did anyone come into the lab last night?” An uncertain beep replied. “C’mon, think!” The bot processed, then its flexible eye shook sideways. “Damn it!” Simon fidgeted, paced small circles. The bot beeped an inquiry. “Someone hacked the terminal. It’s the only thing that makes sense. They hacked it, spoofed my address, cracked my credentials, then downloaded the data.” A few terrified beeps, then, “Yes! All the data.”

Rearden was now beeping like mad, its tones the same absurd terror of Simon’s thoughts. The elevator doors parted. He scrambled out on rubber legs for an office at a corridor’s end.

“Rearden, go to my apartment and run scans,” he instructed. “Check the interior and perimeter, and link with the Security mainframes. Pull any possible angles of the building. We have to get on top of this now!

Rearden whirled around, whizzed off with a loud squeal. The elevators doors slid closed again. Simon threw open the door at the end of the hall, the head of the Plasma Propulsion Lab sat in a conversation with a weaselly-looking Muroidean– a common brown-rat that managed to seem more like his cousin than his now noble-race. All the same he and the graying Lioness, Niala Martin were taken aback by his sudden, explosive entrance.

“Matriarch,” he said in grave accordance with her customs. “We have a problem.”

3.

As expected, Simon was escorted to a holding cell in the security building across the complex. Even Rearden knew where he’d end up. Simon on the other hand, knew he needed to go himself, remain as compliant as possible, or else look more guilty than he already did. Thankfully the Matriarch had assured him she believed his innocence. Putting him in a cell made any immediate incidents less complicated, and acted as a sign of faith that he remained innocent.

The one thing it didn’t do however, was allow him to work on discovering the perpetrator. He could trust Rearden, but the little bot might miss crucial evidence. It lacked both human determination and bloodhound senses. Part of Simon wished he’d investigated further before rushing to the Matriarch, but the rest of him knew it was safer this way.

He paced behind the security barrier of his cell, his hand at his chin as he made short circles. There were a million reasons someone might want to break into the ISC or even the Plasma Propulsion lab, but all of the information stolen pointed directly to the Nexus Project– a project that had only just begun. Moreover, no single laboratory knew enough to have put together its true intentions. Although Simon had his hunches, even he didn’t know. It was impossible anyone could know the information’s true value.

A distant door slid open down the long cell-block. It muted to heavy footfalls from three pairs of feet. Simon stopped at the center of the barrier. From the outcrops at either edge of the cell, he couldn’t see the trio headed his way, but knew they were there for him. There were no others in holding.

Two bloodhounds appeared, flanked Matriarch Martin as she sauntered to a spot across the barrier.

“Matriarch Martin,” he said with a respectful bow of his head.

She gave a droopy-eyed smile with a warm purr, “Simon, please.” He bowed again with a hint of confusion. She glanced back at the Bloodhounds; one keyed at a wrist-computer, deactivated the security barrier. Her gaze lingered on them, “You may go.”

One of the blood-hounds gave a huffed sigh, spoke with a gravelly fatigue, “We’re not to leave prisoners unguarded.”

She raised a paw at the two bloodhounds, flashed her claws with a deathly speed, then retracted them, “I don’t believe he would be a problem were he intent on it.”

The bloodhounds swallowed hard, a primal fear obvious in their throats from countless, generations of predator-prey instincts. They left, however apprehensive.

As soon as they were out of sight, she gestured to Simon’s cot on the left-wall. “Please, sit.” She stepped in to stand before him, “I’ve no doubt you were set up, Simon, but convincing Frost and the ISC’s going to be difficult without evidence.”

“I understand, and thank you, Ma’am,” he replied graciously.

She half-frowned with a tilt of her head, “Simon, drop the formalities. I’ve bore more young than most through more than a dozen mates, and I’m tired of formalities. I use my position to remind underlings of my position, but you are a friend. One in need. I won’t have you pretending I’m any more important than you right now.”

He swallowed, “Yes, Niala. Thank you.”

Niala sank to the bed beside him, “I know you put Rearden on surveillance footage. I commend you for that, but if someone was inside with ill-intent, they won’t be easily pinpointed.”

Simon agreed, “I want to cover all the angles. I know it won’t be simple, or I’d have done it myself. I wanted Rearden to analyze the systems.”

Niala gave a thoughtful nod, “That was foresighted.”

He sighed, pushed up from the bed to begin pacing again. She watched him for a moment before he stopped in the center of the cell, “What would someone want with my research? And why now? We’ve barely even begun the project, why not wait until we had more– and what good is it to put me as the fall-guy?”

Niala mused her thoughts aloud, “More than likely you’re just the unlucky one with access.”

He shook his head, hand once more at his chin, “No, I don’t believe that. There’s five other people with access to the lab. Four if we discount you. If the object was merely to disrupt our research, steal it in the meantime, why not implicate you?

Her pupils narrowed to slits, “You’re not suggesting–”

“Of course not, Niala,” he interjected. “It just doesn’t make sense to implicate me when there’s more damage that can be done.”

Her eyes lowered, pupils widened, “Unless the primary motive is not to hobble the project.”

Simon opened his mouth to speak. A series of beeps sounded down the hall. Rearden’s thrusters were maxed out. It squealed, calling for Simon.

“Down here!”

Rearden rocketed forward, bypassed the cell, then whirled round to zoom into a spot just past the security gate. Irate beeps of binary were foreign to Niala’s ears.

“What’s it saying?”

Simon focused harder on Rearden, “Buddy, slow down. What’re you talking about? What kind of problem?” A few quick beeps replied. “A leak? What kind of–” More beeps and suddenly Niala was beside him. “What d’you mean the security system’s leaking?” Niala bared her teeth at the thought. Rearden fidgeted with squeals and beeps. The thrusters bucked the bot up and down as if it danced in place. Simon suddenly swore, “Shit!”

Niala’s teeth still flared, now with a low predatory growl, “What’s going on?”

He spoke quickly to Niala, “Rearden says someone’s hacked security. There’s some kind of external data mining in place.”

“That’s impossible,” she said on the verge of a roar. “Our firewall’s would’ve caught it.”

Rearden beeped in emphatic reply. Simon waved it off, “I know, I know! You’re right, unless it came from inside ISC.”

This time she did roar, enough to rattle his chest and send Rearden backing away in fear. She readied to storm off, snapped after them, already four steps ahead, “Come with me! Both of you!

Simon half-stumbled in a jog to catch up, “Why? Where’re we going?”

“There’s only one person here that could’ve overridden the firewalls,” Niala said. She growled to an angry roar, “We’re going to see Gnarl.”