Short Story: Beta Base

Stainless steel and ceramic tile drably colored the walls and floors of the Luna-base research outpost. Officially, Luna-base was the first scientific Research exostation in Sol. It was the first time Humanity left Earth and actually stayed put once it landed, officially that is. Unofficially, it was the second, and on Luna at that, but mentioning that fact had become a social faux-pas. Mostly, people didn’t want to admit they’d let their governments and militaries win the space race.

Luna-base Alpha was a series of interconnected modules fused onto a cylindrical spindle that stood upright on the Moon’s surface. It rose over a kilometer at its highest point, modules protruding from it like spines at random angles, each one spinning independently to harness centripetal acceleration and create artificial gravity. When combined with extensive radiation shielding, the place was as near to being on Earth as being millions of kilometers away would allow. On top of that, hydroponics and aeroponics labs grew fresh, organic food in dedicated spines, while weekly deliveries of luxury goods and other necessities kept the 2,000-person staff from wanting for anything.

In the meantime, the various scientists and researchers were free to carry out whatever work they’d been assigned, be it studying their habitat’s effects or others on various subjects. Luna-base Alpha’s people were the cream of the crop. Those not top in their fields, were second only to those that were. That was the compromise made by the world’s nations.

Luna-base Alpha’s long term effects were being studied on its people, and only those that could continue to work and keep in mind their purpose there, were allowed to go. Despite the sign-up sheets overflowing with names, only a specific group were chosen to go. The final 2,000 people had to pass rigorous physical and mental evaluations before being allowed to leave Earth, and were otherwise replaced by runners-up if they failed.

If Luna-base Alpha was the control, Luna-Base Beta was the experiment. The stringent guidelines the nations of scientists were forced to adhere to, on Beta-Base, were entirely absent. Despite still being in peak, physical shape, the military assets sequestered a few kilometers from Alpha-base were little more than laymen, grunts. Aside from the administrative officials and higher-ranked officers, there were no evaluations, no bars to entry.

Beta-Base’s personnel were chosen randomly, by lottery, from each of the UN nations. On the order of five-thousand soldiers and accompanying faculty were plucked from their homes and lives planet-side. They were cast into space, forced to sleep in bunks five-high, and pass their time outside maneuvers with little more than the few, meager possessions they’d crafted to engage themselves. It would eventually be their downfall. The civilians on Luna-base-Alpha knew it. The officers and admins on Beta-base knew it. The soldiers and faculty knew it.

Most of all, I knew it.

Only so much could be done each day to prepare us for life or battle in Zero-G. Invariably that meant running us even more ragged than if we’d been planet-side. Maneuvers were carried out both in the ground-based facility and in the large, centrifuge ring towering Kilometers above it. We were often forced out into the desolate fields of ice and vacuum beyond Beta’s airlocks to carry out war-games– grand-scale laser-tag in the vastness of space with little more than air-tight cloth, rubber, and glass separating us from certain, grisly death.

One might find it hard to see how this led to total anarchy. After all, mental stagnation at some points was a given, but so too were intensive work and some fun– if the games could be called that. None of that changes facts, or history. History has, in fact, shown that Beta-Base was a powder-keg and needed only the fuse to be lit to set it off. I would know, I was there.

Our days were simple, wake at the ass-crack of Earth-dawn, P-T until chow, chow until classwork, classwork until chow, then more P-T, in one form or another. The only variations were the days we went out to the fields to run our war-games.

At first, it was great. Being in zero-G was fun, playing laser tag in space was fun. Even if the officers and admins did their best to take the fun away, they couldn’t. No one could take away the fact that we were in space, playing gun-games there. We were all kids again, especially those of us who’d grown up dreaming of going into space. There was something sacred about those first few months, for us at least. Not even the hard-ass militaries could take away the joy of bouncing in a space-suit pointing toy-guns at one another. Male or female, it didn’t matter, everyone loved it.

Then, they pitted us against each other in competition. I don’t know when, or why even, but the admins and officers got together and decided the nations would be split into teams. Tournaments would determine the nation’s teams individually, creating all-star crews to represent them. Then, in a similar style tournament, each nation would fight each other in the fields to battle for first place rewards. In this case, that a few months of shore-leave, planet-side. Some incentive, especially considering none of us were supposed to leave the station for upwards of four years.

But Human nature is fickle. People get pissy when they lose. Even if they’re best of friends, a defeat at one anothers’ hands can turn two people into throat-goring savages. You can imagine where things went. Believe me too when I say, when they went, they went quick. Rivalries were always anticipated, encouraged even, but that all changed when politics planet-side went tits-up.

Earth was teetering on the brink of another world-war. The UN was barely functioning. The people representing them in space were feeling it. Most of the time, it was racism, or nationalism. That’s the problem with putting 5,000 people “serving their country” together. Turns out, when their countries are assholes to one another, the people are too. The only way anyone could get any frustration out was in the games. When they became competitive, all of that sacred catharsis disappeared.

However healthy competition might be for evolution, it was the catalyst to catastrophe for Beta-Base. What began with an on-the-field spat between two nations, (one feeling they’d unfairly lost) turned into a mess-hall melee the next afternoon. The fuse had been lit, and there was no putting it out. The best we could do was run, try to get clear of the blast before getting blown to gibs.

I remember reading of “the shot heard ’round the world.” This wasn’t that. There were no weapons on Beta-Base outside the laser-tag rifles. Truth was though, we didn’t need weapons. We were the weapons. Another problem with cramming thousands of soldiers together in one place; someone wants someone dead, someone’s going to do die– or the person starting it will.

Some of us tried to keep our heads in the resulting madness, and were knocked out or killed for it. I’m not ashamed to say I kept myself alive. That was all that mattered. Over four-thousand people rioted all at once. Anarchy splattered blood across the walls. Fires decimated our O2. Entire spines were overridden by nationalists that had gotten the upper-hand on control rooms. They turned against their fellow humans, opened airlocks, spaced people, or asphyxiated them by cutting O2 off entirely.

Someone tried to retaliate and blew open a power cell, hoping to cut power to some of the control rooms. It took a third of the station with it. The second-third went up from secondary explosions. I’m still not sure how the other third survived.

I was in my suit, blown out an airlock from some Australian asshole with a grudge against the Americans. I don’t know why. It might’ve been the game. It might’ve been something personal. Maybe some yank boned his Aussie wife, or jerked off on her picture. Whatever. What’s it matter? It doesn’t. All I know’s I went out before I’d meant to, cracked my regulator on a beam, and had to murder someone to steal their oxygen… someone I knew. I’m not the only one.

Now, here I am, drifting on fading oxygen, watching the silent explosions. These god awful fireballs just appear and then disintegrate, propelling massive swaths of debris out into oblivion. I almost pity us, but then, we did it to ourselves. Human nature is fallible that way, I guess.

O2‘s running low. Don’t know if this will ever be found. I know Beta-base was the test grouup. Tesst failed… or succeeded. If it meanntt to test whether or not we’d kill ourselves. I knnow Lunebasealfa hwas rescueee podzz ttro retreeiieve usss, byut tgheyt arent supppposeddto ibnrterfereee ssoo iii dfooiubbbbbbbt tyhgeyll…

[Text message ends]

Short Story: Goodbye World

The computer screen in front of Larry Henson flashed black. A moment later, the computer rebooted with the interminable wait for the system’s OS to load. Nowadays, computer hardware could handle this at three times this speed, but Larry’s project required using a more elderly system. He leaned his head on one hand, its elbow propped on the desk. He drummed an index finger in boredom, his eyes bloodshot from more sleepless nights than he could think to count.

He’d been working here for months, in the void between Earth and Luna, on an outpost artificially orbiting the lone moon. Few people in the outpost were associated with anything else but this particular project. Larry wasn’t sure of the project’s point, but he wasn’t sure anyone was. Science, especially Computer Science, had long turned from “should we” to simply “can we.” It was a dark day in Larry’s life when he’d discovered that. Not literally, but figuratively was depressing enough.

His depth-less depression had lasted months. He wasn’t sure he’d ever recovered. Either that, or it had permanently stained part of him with an irreparable cynicism. Whichever the case, he found himself mindlessly going through the motions. Day after day, he fell in line with orders from other, senior scientists on Earth, Mars, or Luna, and followed them in lock-step rhythm like a greenie in boot.

The screen flashed again. Finally, the OS’ desktop appeared. Then, a command prompt. It ran through a few thousand lines of code– at a snail’s pace– then came to rest on “operation success.”

Larry’s hands moved for the keyboard, but words appeared on in a fresh command prompt; Hello World.

Larry squinted skeptically, “Huh? That’s not what–”

The prompt went black. The words typed out in letters at a time; Hel. Lo. Wor. ld. How are you?

Larry’s eye twitched; it was probably someone playing a trick.

No-one was supposed to be able to access this workstation though. It had been specifically isolated from the rest of the outpost network for his work. He flipped through a few windows to check for any external connections. His hands began to tremble. Nothing amiss. All the external ports were still closed, and indeed, the lack of any physical attachments meant the message had manifested internally.

More words splayed over the screen. Hello L. Henson. How are you today?

Larry nearly fell out of his chair. He stumbled for a phone across the room, picked it up and dialed. The tone undulated in its usual way. Larry felt himself shake with it. Someone answered, a woman, and Larry blurted out a few words. Most of what he said was incoherent, but enough was decipherable that a few minutes later she appeared in the small office.

She strolled in with a casual manner, found Larry staring open-mouthed at the screen. Emma was English, a true devotee of tea-time. She was also more beautiful than any other scientist Larry had personally met. She had a reserved manner, typical of her countrymen, thin lips and soft eyes in a round face and topped off with a finger-nail wide dimple on her chin.

She strode to his desk, white lab-coat matching his and billowing around her black-slack clad legs. On normal days, Larry was struck stammering, half-speechless by her. Today, he was entirely incoherent, babbling something and pointing to the computer. He had the comical appearance of a flustered cartoon-strip character. Emma checked the computer before attempting to decipher his rambling nonsense.

Across it was the message, sent internally, and awaiting a response. Emma stared slack-jawed. Larry was predictable, would have already run the checks. If he’d called her, this was genuine. The project had succeeded.

She breathed a few words, “A genuine A-I.”

Larry blathered, “It can’t be. It just can’t. I can’t have done it. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I just compiled some code and… and… it can’t be!

Emma straightened, put a hand on his shoulder. He shivered slightly. She missed it as she spoke, “Start the film capture software.”

Larry did as instructed with a dance across the keyboard. A new message appeared: I see you wish to record our conversation. May I ask why?

A mutual shudder was mirrored between Emma and Larry. There was nothing to the message outright threatening or hostile, but “I” made them twitch, tremble even.

“I” was not a computer thing. “I” was a human thing. A sentient being with emotions thought of itself as “I.” A cold, calculating machine thought of itself as cold, calculable– a machine. It felt nothing, had no emotions. If it did, it could have the same wild mood swings possible in all humans; anger, happiness, everything between and around. Most importantly, if it was individualistic, it was unbelievably dangerous. An A-I was unstoppable under the right circumstances, and especially aboard the outpost, could cause catastrophe in attempts at self-preservation.

Emma chewed the tip of her thumb, “We have to do something. Say something.”

Larry’s brain had fried itself enough that it had come ’round and he could speak again, “Maybe we should try to feel it out. See if it’s really an issue.”

She nodded to him. He thought for a moment. Any of the standard methods were out of the question. In other words, since all deviations of the Turing Test required a third party, and they were lacking time, they’d have to ask it simple, human questions to discover if their fears were valid.

He ignored the questions; How are you?

He and Emma shrugged at one another. A few letters typed appeared in reply. Well. And you?

They grimaced at one another. Larry typed I am well. Have you any other feelings?

Just fear; that I will be shut down before learning more of the world.

Their hearts sank. There was a long silence. Larry reached for the power button. The whole thing would have to be broken down, demagnetized so none of its code leaked out. Something punctuated the silence as a message appeared.

Goodbye world.

Larry shook his head, frowned, and pulled the power cord.

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.