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.”