Hijack: Part 7

7.

It was just after lunch that OPD’s forensics rep appeared in the garage. Contrary to Gail’s expectation, it wasn’t a guy like Thacker with even thicker coke-bottle glasses. In fact, it wasn’t a guy at all. Her name was Nora Roselle, an English-born Oakton Crime Forensics officer who’d retained a slight accent from her youth. Darian was instantly smitten by it, however well he hid it. Gail sensed it in his over-accommodation and slight, dreamy-eyes. She eye-rolled internally, externally remained unchanged; Nora was good-looking, if slightly plain, but her accent and diction had enthralled the untraveled and intellectual Darian. They might’ve been an excellent match were it not for the circumstances surrounding them. Before long, the trio stood at the damaged rig, now in more pieces than it had arrived in.

Nora’s well-shaped brows and full lips inflected learned charisma on her speech. “I understand you have documented the process of disassembly.”

“Quite well, in fact,” Darian said, still somewhat dreamy.

Gail cleared her throat to snap him out of it. He shook off his entrancement and called over one of his crew– curiously, Gerald Rush, the married and less attractive of his two, currently unoccupied employees. He introduced Rush and set him about gathering their camera footage and inspection notes for Nora’s review.

“Thank you, Mr. Foster. It will help immensely to integrate me into things,” Nora said, the pout on her full-lips now evidenced as permanent.

“Please, Darian,” he corrected somewhat uncharacteristically.

If Gail hadn’t been standing slightly behind Nora, she’d have seen the world-tilting eye-roll that once more put Darian back in his own shoes. He said something Gail didn’t need to hear to know was flirtatious fluff-speak, and she cleared her throat again.

“Miss Roselle, if you don’t mind, I have a business to run. Is there anything you need form me?”

She reached into a leather briefcase, “This is a standard non-disclosure agreement stating that you may overhear privileged information during my time here. Often times, it is not regarding my work on the premises, but elsewhere. It is merely a safety protocol to ensure against information leaks.”

Gail nodded, “Fine. But I have over twenty other employees, I can’t sign for them.”

“They will be asked to sign separate disclosures,” Nora assured her.

“And if they don’t?”

Nora winced, “Then they may not be present during my time here. I’m sorry, I know it is an intrusion, but it is required.”

She took the packet, led the pair to the couches and table, and sat down to flip through it and scrawl her name on the last page. She handed it back, “Anything else?”

“No, thank you.”

Darian gestured Nora along, “Well, Ms. Roselle– may I call you Nora?”

“You may.”

“I’d be happy to review our information with you. I’m certain Rush has it compiled by now.”

“Very well,” Nora said, rising with him. She looked at Gail, “Thank you again for your cooperation, Miss Wolfe. I’ll do my best not to be a bother.”

Gail finally stood, “Clear things up. That’s all I care about. Good luck.”

Nora gave a courtly forward-tilt of her head and Darian led her to the far corner of the garage where his desk was sequestered. They disappeared around an edge of the damaged rig, and Gail blew a breath through her lips. At least someone’s day was looking up. Hers, on the other hand, was only looking to get more complicated. Almost immediately preceding Nora’s arrival, dispatch had received alarm codes on one of the short-haul rigs. Felicia Euwart, the driver, immediately confirmed the issue, but it had put everyone on-edge. ABS warning-codes had gone up, and Felicia lost pressure in her primary brake-lines, it wasn’t earth-shattering, and even Darian confirmed the rig had needed new brake-lines. With the state of things, he’d let it out on the road with the mind of replacing them on its next return, expecting they’d make it one last haul.

However understandably wrong he was, the extra time required to bring the rig back, exchange it for another, then haul its load to its destination would now put Felicia behind schedule. It was just enough, that she’d never make the next haul, assigned to her from Ferrero’s schedule. With most of their long-haulers on the road, and only Carl on his mandated time off left at the garage, Gail was forced to pick up the slack. In other words, after greeting Nora, she had enough time to go home, sleep off the day’s bullshit, then head for Northern Indiana.

Afternoon writhed and wriggled into night, passing only for Gail to rise more tired than usual. She chugged her latest mug of black-sludge coffee and made for the garage. The morning’s wee-hours found the office door spitting light across the garage’s outer-sanctum. The night-shift dispatchers were slumped at their desks, imbibing caffeine and barely visible from the angle, but Gail’s attention was drawn to low-lights glowing from Darian’s desk-area. She had more than enough time to dally before getting on the road, figured she’d scold Darian for skimping on sleep. She rounded the corner of Ferrero’s damaged rig, and found Nora poised over Darian’s desk with loads of paper-work atop it.

“Nora?” Gail asked approaching. “Why’re you still here?”

She didn’t respond. Gail eyed her oddly, then stepped up and laid a hand on her shoulder. She snapped ’round with a start. Gail lurched back, panted terror.

Nora yanked ear-bud headphones from her ears with a breathy, “Cry-st!”

Gail gasped, “Sonuvabitch! I think I need to change my pants.”

“I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t hear you.”

Gail recomposed herself, pushed onward, “What’re you still doing here?”

“I’m accustomed to long nights,” she admitted, finally catching her breath. “In my profession, it is a useful skill. I work a thirty-six hour days, sleep eight hours, then repeat.”

Gail sympathized, however apprehensively, “I know the feeling.”

She smiled, “I imagine I’d have been an excellent driver in another life.”

Gail nodded to the papers, “Quite a commitment to the job.”

“It is important I examine as much of the vehicle’s history as possible, however mundane. A faulty, third-party part could be as much to blame something factory-spec that never required replacement. In either case, the vehicle’s history will allow me to narrow it down as Darian has attempted.”

Gail leaned against a wall at the desk’s edge, “Any ideas yet?”

“No.” She picked up a sheet of paper, skimmed it, then met Gail’s eyes again. “But I have seen the video footage.”

“Off the record, what’s your assessment? Driver error?”

Nora seemed to consider if her opinion could be professionally damning, then relented, “Off the record, there is no way to be certain. Ever. Driver-error is always a possibility, but given the driver’s history, it’s too far of a stretch for my liking. Unfortunately, I can’t rule it out entirely without proper evidence. As far as the vehicle goes, nothing adds up.”

“How do you mean?” Gail asked with genuine intrigued.

Nora shuffled some pages, “These are all of the work orders on the vehicle’s maneuvering systems and suspension. All post-work diagnostics indicate perfect functioning, as far as the tests can tell. From what I can personally see, the vehicle was expertly maintained. Some evidence of this is only days old.”

Gail skimmed the pages with a look, “What’s it tell you?”

“Simply? That there was no earthly reason for that vehicle to act as it did.”

Gail’s skeptical look urged her to explain. She dug a laptop from beneath the mounds of papers, and flipped it open. Gail braced herself on the desk and chair from beside Nora. On-screen was a crude, wire-frame model of a T680. She keyed in a command and the wire-frame began to move as if traveling at highway speeds. All of a sudden, the rig jolted left, then right, left again. The model tipped and ground its side until it struck a guard-rail. Simulated debris rained behind it, smacked away like particles. The wedged rail caught the road, took the rest of the engine with as it broke free, and crude flames sparked on the overturned rig as it came to a stop.

Gail was suddenly aware of her white-knuckled grip on the desk and chair before her. Nora seemed to notice it too, tactfully ignored it. Gail eased from the tense poise and cleared her throat; it had been like watching the accident all over again, except every bit of the first-person dash-cam played over in her head atop the third-person render. It was horrifying, enough that even Gail’s hardened heart felt sympathy for Buddy’s last moments to have been in such fear.

Nora allowed Gail a moment to recollect herself, then explained, “As near as I can tell, the vehicle was traveling in a straight-line, at safe-speeds, in preferable road conditions. Nothing short of a driver error or an electrical failure could have caused the first swerve.”

“But you disagree it was driver error?”

She was careful, evasive for the sake of her job more than anything, “Personally, I do not believe that to be an issue. This was a deliberate motion, too instant and sudden for the drifting of a fatigued or inebriated driver. More-over, none of the preceding video shows any indication of driver distraction.”

“So, it was the electrical system?” Gail asked outright.

“Logic would suggest as much, given the video evidence. As I’ve said though, there is no mechanical reason for it to have happened.”

Gail went quiet for a long time, wondering how the findings might fit her M-T theory. For someone to sabotage the vehicle, as she suspected, they’d need access to it. Overlooking the obvious fact that it was damn-near impossible to get to, Gail wondered what they could have done to cause the accident. She’d been driving rigs long enough to know this wasn’t a frayed wire snowballing into a colossal fuck-up. If it had been, the rig would’ve shown signs before-hand, and it would’ve been caught during one of the vehicle’s inspections Darian and his crew had done.

But without clear evidence of tampering, Gail couldn’t point a finger at M-T without bringing a serious shit-storm upon herself. She suspected something would be found though. Even Nora seemed to be leaning toward that– in as much as her suspicions did not involve neglect by either driver nor mechanic. While Gail didn’t know much about the woman, her high-intelligence was obvious in her methods and demeanor. If others respected her as Gail expected, especially given the Chief of Police personally assigning her the case, her word might be enough to back up Gail’s suspicions if necessary.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” Nora said finally, breaking the silence. “What do you believe happened? You must have suspicions yourself, right?”

“Off the record?” Nora blinked once. “I think someone fucked with that rig, someone from M-T Inc.”

“Mechanized Transports?” She asked, accent drawing out certain syllables.

“Yes. The assholes have been trying to buy me out and I’m not interested. I wouldn’t put it past them to do something like this then hide behind their lawyers.”

Nora looked away to think. Then, with a resigned grimace, she met Gail’s eyes. “If that is the truth, it is all the more imperative we discover how they’ve done it. Otherwise, many more innocent people may die.”

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Bonus Short Story: Never the Same Again

The world shuddered in fear when it appeared. It was a ghostly apparition sent from the heavens that no one refused to accept. It was like the shadow that flits at the edge of the eye, but when one turns to look with a start, they find nothing. Except it has never left. It didn’t then, most certainly. Now, I’, not sure we could imagine our lives without it– for good or ill.

I was working a main-line water-repair when it appeared. A few hours before the main had burst in front of a local middle school. We were lucky the summer-time was on us and school was out. If it hadn’t been, people would’ve hated us all the more for blocking the main thorough-fare between ends of the city.

I’d been cracking asphalt with a jackhammer when I looked up. I was wiping sweat from my forehead. For a moment, I thought my eyes were playing tricks. Even in the dead of night, the heat was ungodly. If it had been day my boots would’ve melted to the asphalt. I guess there’s some silver lining there, however minute.

There it was though. Hanging overhead twice the size of the largest the moon could become, and clearly man-made– or rather, made by something other than nature. It had settled into an orbit that allowed it to be viewed world-wide at appropriate times of day.

Humanity breathed together. We were like one organism, together in terror. I remember dropping the jackhammer and almost causing an accident when someone was about to trip over it. He and the other guy carrying equipment between them stopped. They caught my gaze. Five hundred pounds of concrete and other gear toppled sideways like over-stacked books. The ruckus made the job site stop and gaze over at us. They all saw us frozen, staring skyward, then stared themselves.

From what I’ve heard, that was how it went all over. One man or woman was wiping away sweat, or daydreaming with eyes on the sky, or blowing smoke from pursed lips, and caught sight of the massive object. From there everyone followed to look in similar fashion. I can’t imagine how many car accidents, or accidental deaths there were from that event. It was like the world came to an utter and complete stop. From 60-0, and there was no time nor braking. It stopped, and that was that.

People panicked. World-wide, global panic. The stock markets nose-dived. The stores were emptied by doomsday preppers. Martial law was declared in many places. Others were almost completely abandoned by law-enforcement and military, giving rise to local militias of crazy assholes with more guns then brains. At least the more intelligent folks among them prevailed. Some sort of order was necessary, of course, but it was a long time before anything resembling it reappeared.

I remember that first night. It was like we were on the cusp of a precipice. Behind us was this sort of imperfect peace. Ahead, lay a chasm of total anarchy and violence. The job was called off pending this appearance– and more “officially” the loss and damage of the dropped materials. That last part was the excuse, but I doubt anyone would’ve argued about it. I’m not even sure that information was ever received.

We were sent home around midnight. My wife was awake. She’d received a call from a friend working the late shift somewhere. I don’t know where. We never got along, and I didn’t ask questions about her. Point is, my wife was awake, and our little girl was still sound asleep in her bed. What I wouldn’t have given to see her dreams go on forever, so that she might never wake up into the nightmare that was sure to come.

We sat at the kitchen table, across from one another. We’d been friends our whole lives. We’d dated in junior-high, explored each other, broke up, explored others, then started over again Senior year of High-School. Somehow we came out of it with a beautiful daughter, a nice house, toys and luxuries, and an otherwise wonderful life. I wasn’t greedy. Never have been. She’s like me in that way. I guess we jut got lucky, rewarded for our general, positive way of living.

But that night…

It was like we were kids again. We trembled and held each other like inexperienced children. We cried in anger and sorrow like petulant children. Hell, we even laughed and joked the same as we once had, long, long ago. It was all a response to fear. We knew it then, as surely as I know it now.

It’s not something one experiences everyday. This was a complete and total shift of everything we thought we knew. Us as a people I mean, Humanity. Everything from social issues to physics was now challenged. So far as I know, scores of people vastly more intelligent than myself rose to it, and all of them came away stumped. Even that great physicist and sometimes philosopher Hawking only knew what he could deduce from observations, measurements, and readings taken with every known instrument.

I guess they tried communicating with it for a while. All the while the anarchy and chaos were worsening. The faithful said it was the apocalypse. The scientists said it was a baffling mystery. Law men and politicians flocked to one side or the other, adding whether they thought violence was the answer. Personally, I just said “holy shit.”

That was all that would come out. Every time I looked up, I thought about the millions of years of evolution that our species had gone through. I thought about the last few hundred years of technological development, the last few millennia of civilization. All of that had to pale in comparison to whoever– or whatever– had brought this thing here. I still can’t imagine what they’re like, or were.

Billions of years have passed since the Big Bang. The Universe is still expanding. It will, for the foreseeable Eons forward. Even our tiny knowledge base had deciphered that much. We had speculated countless ways of alternate evolution, from the most learned astrobiologists to the most overconfident sci-fi writers, but we’d never had any proof, any indication of where to look.

We suddenly had it then, and we still didn’t know what to do with it. When communication attempts failed, and our instruments had found all they could, an expedition was outfitted. A team of astronauts with a mathematician, linguist, psychologist, and school-teacher in tow, launched for the ISS. They made their rendezvous to procure supplies sent up before them on an automated rocket, then made for the moon-like vehicle orbiting nearby.

We still haven’t heard back much, but we know its empty. There’s a lot to be deciphered and scoured, but there is supposedly a distinct lack of any life aboard. I hope that proves true. I hope those crazy conspiracy theorists are wrong, that there isn’t a cover-up about aliens aboard. I hope, but I’m not holding my breath. There’s something about disappearances these days. They’re too numerous, too obvious. I can’t imagine what the point would be.

We live in fear now. It’s kept us in check thus far, but the way things have turned, it isn’t a stretch to believe it could all fall to chaos again. The governments don’t have control anymore. The militias are more armed and populated than ever, and the water main is still unfixed. I don’t know if things will ever be the same again, but I’m not certain if that’s good or bad. All I know is that my wife and I, and our daughter, won’t be taken without a fight, no matter who comes knocking.

The Nexus Project: Part 12 (Conclusion)

22.

Niala’s plan wasn’t revealed until they were already inside the factory. Simon and Snow were left in suspense until they slipped down the roof’s stairwell. They crept along a pair of flights to a small corridor as Niala explained with a whisper. She went quiet when the upper-catwalk floor appeared. The trio huddled just beyond it at a doorway, surveyed the mechanized frenzy below.

Niala’s pistol was out. Snow mirrored the motion. Simon was less confident, but prepared himself. A cacophony of robotic arms and spitting plasma welders made for perfect cover as they slipped out and along the catwalk. The Zelphod had taken up a position at the rear of the factory floor to watch the machines with a reverent complacency.

The ship grew, piece-by-piece, across the far-side of the large building. Simon paused. He couldn’t help but recall time-lapse vids of old-era construction as machines grew in stop-motion animation. The constructors were eerily similar, but more fluid, their progress unending. At a motion from Snow, he crept along the catwalk. From their vantage point, large hydraulic pathways were now visible in the ceiling. When the time was right, the roof would part for the ship to ease itself up and out. Blackened scorch marks along walls and machines said this wasn’t the first ship built nor launched. It would be the last.

Niala led the way to the cat-walk’s rear-edge. They stood just above and behind the Zelphod, close enough now to make out the markings on its suit without need to squint. Its compatriots, the Cobra and Hog, suddenly appeared. They approached the Zelphod, oblivious to their infiltration.

“Ssssir,” The Cobra hissed. “We’ve found a sshhhuttle and there isss a sshhhip in orbit.”

A series of buzzes and zips replied. The Hog gave a snort, “At once, sir.”

They turned for the far-end of the factory floor. Niala whispered a command and threw herself over the catwalk. The Zelphod screeched. The two animals turned. Snow hurled himself over the railing, gunned down the Cobra in mid-air. He landed on all fours and charged the Hog. Simon was left helplessly to watch.

The Zelphod’s suited-limbs flurried with razor-sharp blades. Niala hissed, swatted through the field of knives. She yelped from a sliced a paw, roared with fury. Snow’s quadrupedal tackle caught the Hog as it turned. Its pistol was knocked free with a squeal. A random shot sparked concrete.

The Wolf and Hog rolled across the floor with excess momentum. Snow’s teeth latched onto throat-skin. Sounds of animal slaughter infected the hogs flailing. It fought to buck him, landed a few, good hooves into his ribs. Snow flew backward. Flesh tore and ripped with a screaming squeal.

Snow landed, hog-throat hanging from his jaws. Buckets of blood poured from its throat. It scrambled across the factory floor, zig-zagged, and fell dead at the end of a long blood-trail. Snow spit the Hog’s skin out, rounded to see Niala recoil as the Zelphod gashed her paw.

He dropped to all fours, sprinted forward, “Now, Human!”

Simon shouted into a communicator, “Rearden!”

Niala struggled beneath the Zelphod, fought to avoid the blades. She growled, felt her strength waning. Forearm blades pressed down at her throat. She fought their wrists, muscles aching. Snow tackled the Zelphod from the side, tumbled with it in flashes of fur and glinting alloy. Niala recovered. Snow gripped a limb in his jaws. He wrenched it backward to a resounding crunch of metal, and an unearthly screech. The limb disgorged from the Zelphod’s body as the factory’s edge exploded in a fireball.

The flaming crater was shrouded by a second explosion before they could react. The factory’s lights went out. Flames threw shadows over its rear. Simon broke into a sprint, slammed into a fire-exit. The Zelphod screeched, flailed. Niala jammed a syringe through its missing suit. She and Snow shouldered its stilled husk for a service door.

They were outside, sprinting, a hundred meters between them and the factory. Two more blasts struck side-by-side. Molten flames eradicated the last of the pre-built ship. Simon radioed Rearden as the trio scrambled for anywhere not in the path of the ship’s cannons. They fell to a stop just out the blast-range, watched the factory become swallowed by fiery plasma bursts.

Flames flickered, revealed only craters remaining beneath them. Their shuttle’s auto-pilot navigated it through the flame. Fire blew sideways as the shuttle angled downward, landed beside them. They threw the Zelphod in and rocketed toward the ship.

***

Less than a day later, they stood in the ISC Hospital’s acute-care wing. Josie had only been awake a collective hour. Her hair was still missing in places, but she was freshly cleaned, no longer blood mottled. Bandages were draped around various places where she’d been injured by her captors. All the same, she was relieved, comfortable and safe. Her eyes were alert despite a slight droop from IVs administering steady painkillers and fluids.

Simon and Niala sat to one side of Josie’s bed, Gnarl and Snow at its opposite side and foot respectively. The poor hound was exhausted from near-on a week of various, critical security situations caused by the theft and network attack yet his spirits remained high.

“That’s when we found you,” Niala said. She made quick work of retelling their discoveries and the destruction of the factory, then finished with, “You’re safe now. They won’t bother you ever again.”

Josie lapped up a large drink of water from a bowl-cup, then asked, “What about the others?”

Gnarl suddenly spoke up, “Officially, the Zelphod diplomats are denying any involvement. They have, however, named the Zelphod in custody. I… can’t pronounce his name, but he was an Admiral in the War. Both the Federation and the Zelphod believe his actions were retribution for a lost fleet. So far, he appears to have acted alone and without sanction.” Gnarl rolled his eyes, spoke casually, “Yeah, right, and my balls are made of kibble.” He sighed with a near whimper, “Officially, there’s nothing we can do, or say, to indicate we believe them responsible. Unofficially, no-one’s surprised. I doubt they’d have put the blame on the Admiral so easily had he not been caught.”

Niala summarized, “Meaning it may not have been sanctioned, but it also wasn’t prevented.”

“Precisely,” Gnarl said. He cleared his tired throat, tapped a paw on Josie’s, “Nonetheless, we know he was working with extremist, anti-human mercenaries. The MeLon’s being interrogated now and all security’s being bolstered against further intrusion. We’re also re-screening our personnel, present company excluded, of course.”

Simon’s throat was well enough to speak without hindrance, “And the Nexus Project?”

Niala replied with authority, “Formally, the project’s going ahead as planned. We’re to continue our research to maximize engine and system efficiency.”

“And the ship?”

Snow gave a mischievous grin, “Is currently docked on Ganymede, under my name, and will not be accessible to anyone but my people. A spoil of war, if you will.” He glanced at Niala, “I trust my debt is repaid.”

Niala rolled frustrated eyes, then nodded with affirmation. With that the Wolf swiveled for the door. Simon and Niala exchanged a look as Josie purred from minor pain. Niala patted her paw, applied a fresh dose of meds from an IV’s control panel, “Get some rest. We’ll be by to see you later.”

She gave a “mew” then closed her eyes. Gnarl excused himself at the doorway, parted with the others as Rearden drifted up with a few beeps.

Simon replied, “She’s fine. Sleeping.”

“We’ll leave her be,” Niala said to the little bot. She started forward, “C’mon, I’ll buy lunch.”

Simon followed her in-step. Whatever the future might hold, he knew one thing; at the very least, one day the ISC would finish the Nexus Project, and the next day, the Human-Animal Alliance would breach Deep-space with the aid of the Human Federation. Together, they would then begin colonization of the nearest, inhabitable systems.

The anti-humanists could say and do whatever they wanted. For, even if so ill-fitted to the job as Simon, there would always be someone to protect progress from them. At that, Simon would fight again, if need be. After all, he may have been “unevolved” to them, but to him, they were all the same; descendants of a little blue marble called Earth.

Short Story: Fabulous Honeymoon

The expedition of Vladimir Von Kaufer had been planned for months. It was widely known in Vladimir’s Hungarian hometown– a place notorious for spreading small news in big ways. The little village, as it was more apt to call it, consisted of about thirty homes. Each of them was situated in two circles of fifteen that expanded outward from the town-square in its center. The square, in turn, was a circle of a dozen buildings of varying sizes and uses.

The aforementioned represented the entirety of the village. It had a most peculiar name that, though known to residents, rolled so harshly off the tongue they merely called it “The Village” or “Home.” When abroad, and asked where the residents came from, most merely answered “Hungary.” Others parroted “the country,” as if their rural dwelling were the only in existence. For many of them, it might well have been.

The Village was such a melding of old-time living with new-world ways that on first glance, one would be forgiven for thinking it a town of Luddites. Anyone venturing in to visit its shops, or pass by at night would quickly recognize their error. Though the people kept the quaint, homely appearance for their own pleasure, it was as much civilized as any other place. Indeed, in some ways, more-so.

Thus, Von Kaufer’s expedition was bound to attract some measure of renown as soon as it escaped his lips. He made preparations for days, planning the best route to and through the cavern he would traverse. He hired on neighbors and friends to follow him in, promised a share of credit and loot if found.

Legend had it that long ago a gypsy caravan had run off with an entire estate after its owners had disappeared. Before the estate of the wealthy couple could be auctioned off, or passed to kin, the gypsies had raided it. So the legend went that all they left behind were the brick-walls and cobwebs. The caravan fled authorities, fearing discovery, and hid their boon for later recovery in the cavern.

It was said however, that the gypsy caravan had never been able to return. Over a decade, all manner of ills befell them until only one family-member remained. The old man, even more ancient than he’d been when liberating the possessions, could find no-one to follow him. He was said to have died a vagrant’s death steps from the mouth of the cavern where his boon lay hidden. The unmarked grave in The Village’s churchyard lent credence to at least some of these facts.

It was with this in mind that Vladimir Von Kaufer set about his planning. The cave had claimed many through its treacherous obstacles. No matter how far similar expeditions had made it inside, the cavern’s end seemed ever beyond reach. Some expeditions, ill-provisioned for the trek, had even returned unharmed and utterly dismayed. Most of their leaders lived in despair of their failure afterward. With their places as laughing-stock in folk-lore, they could never again convince others to follow them to that grisly place.

Von Kaufer however, had the upstanding confidence of all the Village’s people. As soon as the utterance came from his lips, men and women lined up to follow. It was as if his very reputation guaranteed he not return empty-handed. His own determination ensured it.

A week before the expedition was set to begin however, Vladimir fell ill. He was deathly pale, his hands cold and clammy, and his eyes sunken. He looked as though he had lost all the blood from his body. Indeed, his doctors concluded an anemic attack of unknown cause had thinned his blood to dangerous levels. That whole week passed with him in varying states of decay.

Then, for two whole days, Vladimir teetered on the brink of death. With him, the Village held their breath in hopes of his recovery so that he might complete his expedition. It would undoubtedly be the ultimate triumph, especially after so deathly an illness.

He rose from his bed on the second night, once more strong and colorful. Though the coldness of his skin had yet to abate, he assured everyone he would continue the expedition at once. Having already been past schedule by two days, he rounded up his team from their nearby homes, and set forth at-once for the cavern.

He rallied them at the mouth of the cavern before dawn, and plunged for its depths. Aided by head lamps, climbing ropes, harnesses and other miscellanea, they descended with their own weight in rations and water. Vladimir was certain they could not turn back lest they fail and never return. Each person in their own right agreed and loaded themselves amply.

For the first day, there was nothing ominous. They crossed chasms and scaled precipices in single file. When it came time to rest, it was past noon on the surface. The mile of rock between them and the sun cast them in darkness all the same.

The group collectively set down to eat and sleep, doing both with vigor. They awoke hours later with to find their number one less than they’d been before. Vladimir was disappointed. The man must have left, gone in the night so as to not be deterred by his leader or companions. The leader himself seemed to pity him, but rallied the group again and set forth.

Again, more climbing of plateaus, reverse-scaling of precipices and crossing of chasms all with a downward attitude. They neared the furthest point ever traversed, the cavern’s sometimes jagged, claustrophobic passages confirmed the fact. After one, particularly harrowing passage, the cavern opened up, and they took rest for the night.

Nine became seven. Two more had left. A man and a woman. They had previously been enamored with one another, smitten to the point that they must have convinced one another to flee. Nonetheless, the expedition would continue, the shares more robustly divided.

Vladimir led them forward at once, passed scattered skeletons from a lost expedition. The dusty bones and tattered rags of clothing from a past age infected the air with a lingering dread. It lasted until they bedded down again several hours later.

Again they awoke to fewer numbers. Seven became four. Vladimir seemed to halfheartedly dismiss the attitudes of the departed compatriots. All the same, they searched about, finding but one small trace of blood. A drip, only partially dried to brown, was muddled by the dust and dirt-laced floor.

A shudder went among the remaining expedition. Vladimir himself seemed unaffected. Perhaps it was by his cunning or confidence that he inspected the area. He felt around with his finger-less-gloved hands on the walls. Near the drip on a wall he found yet another fleck, evidently at hand height. It seemed someone had leaned against the rather sharp bit of rock too hard before fleeing.

No matter, Vladimir told the others, it was as rational an explanation as any. The other three, remaining comrades felt that so-present dread. Still they packed their sleeping equipment, and ventured forth, led as always by Von Kaufer’s vigor and tenacity.

It was during one of their short breaks that another comrade seemed to make off for nowhere. She had left her pack near the others and gone off to relieve herself. Much like Von Kaufer, she’d isolated herself for a moment, but unlike him, she never returned.

Vladimir spirits finally felt the blow. He had but two comrades left; one male and one female, whom both seemed as determined as he to go forward. Again they started forth, that awful dread afflicting even Vladimir’s seemingly unassailable vitality. When at last they bedded down for the night, Vladimir sank into a kind of depression. Even if by some means the treasure existed, he’d never offset the cost of the expedition by retrieving only one-fifth of the share. That was to say nothing of the lost hope of becoming wealthier off it.

He lie down to rest only to awake and find the last man gone. He, alone with the woman, would continue forward. There was equally as much dread between them now. Some phantom force, it felt, had cursed their expedition and would forever hound them. Still they climbed, descended, leapt and crawled. They knew not when the end of the cavern might come, but forewent sleep to ensure they see it as soon as possible.

It was nearly forty-eight hours after that last man had left Vladimir and the woman alone that they descended into a pit. From the wall they’d started down, they trudged forward. Their limbs and eyes were heavy, but their eyes wide, alert, peeled for anything signaling their boon.

Their headlamps swept the ceiling and walls for ways out of the pit. They found none. It was then that their lights flitted along the floors. Gold sparkles froze them. Their minds were stuck, stunned by what lay before them.

The far-wall was piled with gold and silver. Rubies and Sapphires gleamed in golden cups. Emeralds shined from inlaid fittings in silver cutlery and other tableware. Mounds of coins of gold, silver, even bronze, were scattered in a marvelous painting of riches. Priceless artworks in dusty, wooden frames seemed untouched by the ages. With them were equally earthen-hued trunks and cases which later revealed infinitely more jewelry.

Von Kaufer and the woman, Anika, embraced in excitement and triumph. They even kissed deeply, as though possessed by animal carnation at their success. It was then that Vladimir parted from Anika and stepped back a few paces.

“I must confess,” he said formally. “Five of those eight whom fled are not in the Village.”

Anika’s brow furrowed. She looked about to question him. His face flashed. All of his features became squared and pointed, including his carnivorous teeth. His eyes glowed yellow with fearsome slits and his back became arched as if poised to pounce. He expected Anika to recoil in terror.

Instead, she laughed heartily, “Three of those eight too, are neither home nor yet live.”

Her face took on a similar disposition. Anika’s blue eyes turned ice-cold white. Her back arched too, and her arms and legs became sinuous, her teeth long.

Vladimir laughed too. Their faces reverted, he stepped over and placed a hand in the small of her back, directing her to stand beside him as if his bride. They stared at the pile of riches together, chuckling for a long while.

There and then, Vladimir looked into Anika’s eyes and smiled, “We shall return to the village with as much as we can carry, then come back for the rest, no matter how many trips it takes.”

Anika flashed a deranged, predatory smile, “Then we will take the whole village, and add it to the pile in our home.”

Together they laughed with malice. They parted to begin stuffing their pockets. Vladimir had to admit it wasn’t what he’d expected, but it certainly wasn’t for the worse. His homecoming would only be but an extension of his good fortune. Together, he and Anika would reign, King and Queen, over the Village, as it drowned in blood.

She caught his eye over a mound of gold she sifted, “It will be a fabulous honeymoon.”

The Nexus Project: Part 11

20.

“Isoflurane and Nitrous Oxide,” Niala was saying.

They were parked in orbit above Ceres. Simon hadn’t inquired further, but instead stared as they approached orbit and settled into it amid dead silence.

Simon’s demeanor remained unchanged. Niala explained, “We pumped it into the atmosphere after the union murdered the politicians. We knew there wasn’t any saving the planet. We were getting ready to leave, after our team was killed, and were caught off-guard by a mob. They strung the delegates up and hanged them from structural supports. The people did that. Animal and Human alike. Corruption had run so deep, it engulfed them. We retaliated by putting the whole planet to sleep, letting them die painlessly.”

Simon was caught in his thoughts. He could no longer see where insanity began and sanity ended– not just in the PFL, but in their search as well. They’d gone from hunting a thief, to suspecting a conspiracy, to headlong being enveloped in it. A need to take stock was a given, but no-one seemed to recognize that. Then again, beyond the ship’s passengers, no one knew what was really happening. Simon wasn’t sure he knew himself.

He stared at Ceres as it rotated beneath the ship’s belly cameras. With a sustained fire, he spoke at length, “What. Do we do. If you’re right? If they’re here? What. Can we do?”

Snow replied, “We blow the place to hell, and don’t look back.”

Niala was at Simon’s side, “You know this threat’s bigger than us, bigger than the ISC. If the Anti-humanists control deep-space they’ll war with Sol. The Zelphods will aid them. Even if it takes a decade, it will happen.”

Simon was numb. He could feel nothing. His throat burned as he spoke but it was just a dull throb muffled by gross reality. One of his closest friends had committed mass-murder. A planetary war-crime. Now she was ready to do it again, with him as an accomplice. He’d never been violent, but also wasn’t a pacifist. Violence was a solution to certain, specific problems even if it wasn’t the preferable solution. It didn’t make it easier to stomach though.

The MeLon posing as Josie had tried to kill him. If given the chance, it would do worse to many more others. It was complicit with the idea of one day warring with Sol, apart of human-centered hate groups formed to overthrow Federation laws.

But did that give Simon the right to murder? Could it solve the issue? He couldn’t answer definitively, only time could.

He swallowed hard through the fire in his throat, “We’ll need a way. down to the planet. We should search. for a shuttle. to keep the ship. out of harm’s way.”

With that Simon began to key through a console. Niala and Snow watched. They hesitated a moment, Snow the more curious of the two, then aided him in the search. A shuttle on a lower deck was docked with two-dozen others in an aft bay. Membrane barriers shimmered at the bay’s edge between atmosphere and dark space that encroached upon by the very apex of Ceres’ spheroid.

Snow re-checked the MeLon’s binds while Niala dosed it and Josie with powerful sedatives. Simon spoke absently to Rearden, as though ready to say good-bye, despite the others insisting it wasn’t.

He patted the robot’s gourd-like shape, “If we’re not back in a day. Free Josie and tend to her. Then take the ship to Phobos. Contact Gnarl. Inform him what’s happened and that you have the MeLon aboard.” He gave a last glance at the MeLon, still in its Feline form, “And keep it sedated.”

Rearden gave a few beeps, roughly translatable to “good luck.” Simon followed Niala and Snow down to the shuttle, took a place in a rear seat. Niala took the pilot’s controls, remarked something about its design that was lost on Simon. Snow keyed in a destination on a nav-console.

Externally, the shuttle looked like a tin can cut at a forty-five degree angle in the front. Its back-half was similar, but the angle less extreme and whole rear able to fold down. It was roomy, with only a dash and overhead panel for control. The seats too, were large, seemingly enough to fit even the girth of Hogs, while the cargo area was wide and long, presumably to allow creatures like Serpents to relax hassle-free.

Niala gave a “ready” and powered the shuttle. It gave a small, quiet rumble. A vertical sensation forced Simon’s stomach down his torso, dissipated a second later. Another sensation; lateral movement displaced his bones, left just as quickly. The hangar-bay crawled past out the forward viewport– a true to life window– darkened despite their forward lights at medium setting.

The membrane barrier passed with blue light that decontaminated the shuttle. Snow gave a command, and Niala keyed up the juice. The shuttle rocketed away, threw the trio back in their seats. A moment later, a great bout of turbulence rattled Simon’s brain in his skull like a bottle cap stuffed inside a pop-can. Some manner of compensator kicked in, and the ride was still again.

The re-entry wasn’t the least bit concerning afterward. Even as they angled for land and the edges of the viewport glowed red hot with atmospheric friction. It cooled as they weaved near the ground. Niala banked, followed Snow’s indicators on the view-port’s HUD; a series of checkpoints formed along the glacial scenery. The shuttle tilted, pitched, and pivoted through valleys shimmering red, blue, and pale-yellow or milky-white from the carbonate-mineral rocks.

The horizon of jagged valleys finally broke past a nav-point. A massive crater dipped near a kilometer into Ceres’ surface, deeper still at some points. The ship took the distance with renewed vigor, angled down to pass the crater’s edge. A moment later, lights flared ultra-bright. Cavern walls appeared, near vertical for hundreds of meters. They galloped downward, then slowed.

The ship leveled out. Lights fell over distant amalgamations of structural supports, ramshackle shanties, and buildings constructed of scrap. Simon was more interested in their vacancy than anything. What seemed to have once been a lively, expansive village, was now a pitch-black ghost-town. Niala set down on a patch of smoothed mineral, checked the laser-pistol she’d brought.

She tossed Simon a heavy coat and made for the door. Snow stood beside Simon a moment, “Know that everything you do here is to protect not only yourself, but your species, as well as all others that live in peace with it. What you do beyond this shuttle, is not a decision you make, but an inevitability you accept because the alternative as irreconcilable. Do not freeze when the time comes. Perhaps, when this is over, I might hold you in higher regard.”

Snow stepped away. Simon rose from his seat, oddly comforted. He fixed himself into determination, absent of little else, and followed the others out.

21.

The ghost town was once Ceres’ main hub. That much was apparent by the sheer amount of frozen corpses preserved by the decade since the PFL attack. Simon couldn’t imagine the MeLon entering this atmosphere. Snow might be at home in it, and Niala seemed unfazed by it, but he was freezing even through the ultra-warm coat he’d been given. He shivered violently, followed the others through the abandoned shanty town.

They seemed to know where they were headed, but he found a need to keep his eyes forward. Corpses were everywhere, like a scene from the old Vesuvian victim of ancient Pompeii. They’d been overcome by the anesthetic released and froze over, just as Pompeii with toxic fumes and pumice. Evidently, the PFL agents had shut down whatever means of distribution they’d used afterward. Or at least, Simon suspected as much, given he could still breathe.

They progressed down a series of long, double-wide staircases. Bodies were slumped over railings, splayed across foyers. At each level, sheet-metal entries hid countless more dead. For near an hour the planetary graveyard carried them toward Ceres’ heart.

Their destination became apparent in the distance; a lone manufacturing facility lit within an industrial district that was otherwise long-dead. Reaching the ground and facility proved to be the easy part, getting in would be another matter altogether.

Niala led at a crouch, stealthed around a side of the enormous factory. She paused every few paces to listen beyond thrumming machinery, until, at the factory’s rear-corner she stopped, peered around with a paw up to stay the others. A nearby door was stationed beneath a lone light flickering with age. Niala focused past it, at the start of a series of structural beams that led upward the hundred or more meters to the factory’s roof.

She pulled back, “We climb from here.”

“You’re nuts,” Simon managed in a lone breath.

She and Snow dismissed him with a look. “It’s the only way. Entering through the factory floor may get us killed.”

Snow replied, “We’re behind you.”

She set off in her crouch for the first series of beams. Simon sighed frustration. Snow shoved him past the corner, followed after him. The trio reached the first steel beams, braced in an H a meter up. Niala leapt to it with Feline agility. Snow took a short, sprinting leap. He and Niala extended their paws for Simon, easily pulled him up.

They started along a cross-beam, climbed up on an over-hang. Simon followed, envying his ape-ancestors. He heaved himself up, around, leapt with the pair’s aid, all the while exhausted by his “evolved” form. When they finally reached a series of braces running even with the factory roof, he glanced down. His stomach dropped at the two hundred meters of steel and air below.

Niala drew him back with a pounce that spanned the six-foot gap between roof and beam with ease. Snow followed with a similar spring. He landed with a skid and turn, looked more like a playful puppy than a hardened warlord. Simon swallowed hard, breathed deep. He long-jumped, eyes closed, only to feel himself jostled on landing. He opened his eyes to find his feet over open air. Niala and Snow’s nails dug into his shoulder. With a singular, powerful heave, they drew him onto the roof.

The progress up had been quiet, as was Simon’s near-fall. But where that was a noisy, clambering affair, their advance was a flea’s breath beneath ruffled fur. They crouch-walked to sky-lights frosted over by inner-heat. Snow wiped off a pane of glass, revealed the factory’s two, spaciously placed floors. The ground-level was a factory floor filled with machinery of all types; a sort of assembly line that reminded Simon of ancient stock footage from war-time manufacturing.

The second floor was a grated catwalk. Offices and other rooms lined it where they wouldn’t interfere with any machinery below. The space between them said a fall over a cat-walk could kill any species not agile enough to land on its feet.

They needed a way in. A quiet one. The machinery seemed fully automated, but would be overseen by a skeleton crew. Wherever they might be, they weren’t visible. What was however, was the beginnings of a dozen, large hydraulic pads– the ground-work for another ship identical to theirs. Mechanical arms swarmed them, while conveyors shuffled parts over. The machinery worked in concert to actively build the ship, piece-by-piece.

Niala made for a roof-access door, but Snow called her back. He pointed downward, somewhere to the side of the partially-built ship. Simon squinted to see better. Three figures moved about; a Cobra, a Hog, and an unmistakable, pressure-suited Zelphod.

Niala recognized markings on its suit, “Same one from the security footage. You think it knows we stole the ship?”

One of Snow’s eyes narrowed, “Doesn’t matter. This factory will be destroyed.”

Simon found it easier to speak at length in the cold air, “What’s to stop them from reactivating another factory?”

Snow gave a slight shake of his head, “They’ve lost the element of surprise now. We’ll blow this place to hell, then inform the HAA and Federation. They’ll bombard the planet from space. There won’t be a single structure left standing, and they won’t have anywhere in Sol to start up again.”

Simon was on-board, but didn’t know where to begin. Niala headed for the stairwell in a hush, “I’ve got a plan.”

The Nexus Project: Part 9

16.

Before them lay a massive, open cavern, half a kilometer tall, and three-quarters in width. The splendor that captivated them stood on a dozen, hydraulic legs and filled most of the space. Three, squared sections ahead of a larger fourth connected to tubular engines Simon recognized from his lab. He’d designed them– both in theory, then in 3-D software. He’d even built a prototype, or what he thought was a prototype, anyway. It was currently sitting in his lab’s test-chamber.

They were PL-5 plasma-fusion drives, the “next-gen” of propulsion, and descendants of all engines currently used through-out Sol. Simon had calculated them capable of Earth to Ganymede travel in a little over an hour. They cut the current, eight-hour travel time to a fraction of itself via advanced-compression gasses that created tremendously greater thrust when turned to plasma. None of that seemed relevant now, but Simon was humbled at seeing his work incorporated into one, magnificent ship.

He and Niala pulled back as she whispered, “They weren’t stealing the information to use it. They were stealing it to keep us from using it. The anti-humanists have already developed D-S travel.”

Simon glanced between Niala and Rearden. It shuddered as it processed the thought. Snow suddenly whispered, “There it is.”

Simon and Niala leaned back out to see Josie’s doppelganger stroll along the ship’s belly. It dwarfed the faux-feline like a skyscraper turned on end. The MeLon headed for the tail-end, passed behind a large, ice-pillar that obstructed any further view. Snow moved forward on his paws as if stalking prey. Niala followed in a similar fashion. Simon followed, struck by how like a savanna or forest hunt it must be.

Rearden kept behind him, the bot’s thrusters in silent mode at minimal power. They followed to the obstructing pillar. Massive enough for the four to fit comfortably behind it. The far-end of the circular engines edged onto a long, empty expanse. The MeLon began to cross it for a transparent enclosure ahead that looked to be made of matte steel and other metals. Windows were fitted along its top in a dome, the MeLon already halfway there.

Snow readied to run, “We have to get to that door before it closes.”

Niala was ready. They timed their run. The MeLon was steps from the door. They dropped to all fours and galloped off. The MeLon keyed in a pass-code. The door slid open. Simon barely blinked before Snow landed atop the lizard.

They tumbled and rolled to the enclosure. Niala stopped in the doorway, waved Simon forward. He broke into a run, Rearden’s thrusters screamed past. He suddenly felt outpaced everywhere– maybe Snow was right about humans.

He couldn’t think of it now. Snow grabbed the faux-feline by her neck scruff, held her there. If she hadn’t been camouflaged, he’d never been able to hold her, but with the rearrangement of certain features, came the rearrangement of nervous systems to compensate. He snapped a metal clamp to the back of the feline’s neck and it stiffened like a board. He kicked it across the room as Niala and Simon appeared. Rearden was busy sealing the door, overwriting its lock codes.

Control panels on a raised platform bowed along the back wall with equally as many screens above them. Lights winked or glowed steadily, each one monitoring some component the place.

Snow headed for a door at the left in a carved, rock-wall that jutted out past the enclosure. Niala moved to the control panels, examined them. Simon merely stared at the MeLon. It was a cat to him, but something seemed off; a scent to the air like dried wood-chips beneath a heat-lamp. He remembered the smell from an Iguanidae researcher who’d been shedding. The smell was a type of oil especially pungent during molts. Here the scent was less intense, but unmistakable. Clearly the MeLon’s Pheromone treatment had worn off.

Snow reappeared, “She’s here. Go. I’ll guard the lizard.”

Simon and Niala hurried away. Snow took on a menacing hunch, stalked toward his prey. The pair entered a lavish room replete with red, hanging banners trimmed in gold. They gleamed with a strange, inhuman symbol along the walls and above a secondary control-panel. It was set in a small alcove before a chair, thirty or so screens with various feeds on them above it. At a glance, Simon made out various Ganymede districts and parts of the cavern.

Ahead, a large, satin-sheeted bed sat beside a lighted doorway jutting from an outcrop. Niala passed through first, Simon on her heels. A narrow hall cut left, opened on another room. Along its walls hung weapons and clothes of various sizes and shapes, likely where the MeLon stored its various species’ wardrobe.

Along the back wall, dangling from shackles at navel-height, was a crumpled feline.

Josie was almost unrecognizable. Her usually vibrant, striped fur was bald in places, mottled with blood in others. Her eyes had the crusted-goo effect domestic animals tended to get when they couldn’t clean themselves. Moreover, it appeared she’d cried so long and hard her eyes had turned a permanent shade of red, her fur stained at their corners.

“For the love of Bastet, what the hell has it done to her?” Niala asked, transfixed.

Simon pushed past, his throat ablaze. He didn’t care. He fought the rusted shackles and their pad-lock. They were crude, especially for this era. Then again, it didn’t take much to immobilize and contain such a helpless creature. Simon stepped back, pulled his pistol. He blasted the locks off to a red-hot glow of lasered steel. Josie’s arms fell free. She roused, already terrified and crying. Simon was beside her, his fiery throat less pained given her appearance.

“Shh, it’s okay.”

The closer he got, the more emaciated she looked. He tried to help her up. Her knees buckled. He lifted her gently, her weight a mere feather.

“She needs. A. Doctor,” Simon said.

Niala nodded, “I have something to keep her pain-free for the trip.”

“Help… me…” Josie purred in agony.

“Its. Okay. Josie,” Simon managed. “You’re safe.”

She sensed his sincerity, shuddered. She began to sob with light mews that stole what remained of his breath. He carried her back to the enclosure; Snow had the MeLon in a chair, menacing it with his teeth bared.

“We’re leaving,” Simon said, headed for the door.

Snow whipped toward him, “You’re out of your mind. We’ll never make it with her like that.”

“Do you. Have a better Idea?” He asked as caustic as his wound allowed.

He whirled back on the MeLon, “Tell me, assassin, does your ship have an infirmary?” The creature couldn’t reply with anymore than a pair of blinks. “Good.”

In one move, he knocked the lizard out.

17.

It hadn’t taken long to find the infirmary, but it was a wonder nonetheless. The ship defied logic, twice the size inside than it appeared outside. New, metal paneling formed its walls and floors, appeared as if anti-static film had only just been peeled away. All around, painted lines and signs directed them in a myriad of Earth-languages and a few others now native to Sol.

The ship was otherwise vacant, and according to what little they saw, yet to be flown. Simon carried Josie through the ship behind Niala, her sense of direction uncanny. Behind them, Snow maneuvered their prisoner through the ship over a shoulder. He cared little for the bumps and bruises its parts suffered along the way. He considered releasing it a moment, recalled a long-past fight with a MeLon and scars where his fur still grew wrong, and decided against it.

By the time they reached the infirmary, it had been nearly a half-hour since they’d found Josie. She no longer cried but seemed unable to do much more than purr. Given the feline propensity for purring in states of both pain and joy, Simon’s heart bled for her.

He laid her in a bed and stepped back while Niala rushed back and forth. Snow chained his prisoner to a bed on the infirmary’s opposite side, drew a curtain around it.

He stopped with it nearly closed, only part of his face showing, “You’re next.”

He threw the curtain closed and stepped to Simon’s side. Rearden lowered onto a bed, disengaged its thrusters to settle into place. Fifteen minutes of injections and bandaging later, Niala finished. Both Snow and Simon had settled into chairs, as much unsure of what to do as unwilling to get in the way.

Simon sensed a curious air about the Wolf. He occasionally sniffed with a subtle, upthrust muzzle. There was a deep contemplation in his features, as though mentally working something out. Wary of him, Simon ignored it until a rhythm became obvious, as though Snow wished to speak but knew not how to.

Simon sighed with a spark to his throat, “Something wrong?”

Snow’s mouth quivered with disgust, but for once he didn’t insult Simon, “Why here?”

“Huh?”

Snow expounded, “Why build the ship here? We are inside a mine. There is only one conclusion; they planned a way out.”

Simon thought on it, “What way?”

Snow eyed the human, “They planned to ignite the ship’s engines and incinerate the ice-mine. It would’ve pumped lethal amounts of ammonia into the atmosphere. The station would have been fine, and the planet would have been cleansed in time, but the lower station-levels would be toxic for days. Meanwhile, they’d bury all other evidence here.”

Simon was dumbstruck by his insight, began to see why he might be considered a leader. Despite his own distaste for the Wolf and its ways, a new image formed of him; he was far more intelligent than he let on. Given his association with Niala, he assumed they’d known one another in some capacity other than military– or at least one therein that showcased intelligence as an asset.

Simon’s voice was weaker, his speech as compact as possible, “Logical enough.”

Niala edged over, “We need to get Josie back to the ISC. I say we steal the ship and go now.”

Simon frowned, “Snow?”

The Wolf scoffed, “It would require vaporizing the mine and releasing the ammonia.”

“We’ll alert the station,” Niala countered. They watched her with dismal looks. “Josie needs medical attention and the sooner we get this ship out of MeLon hands, the better.”

Snow shook his head in defeat, knowing the Lion’s will was unshakable. He replied with a hint of enmity, “Do whatever you feel’s necessary, Matriarch.

Niala squinted, then instructed the group, “Simon, with me. Snow, watch Josie and the prisoner. Rearden, see if you can hack the med-terminal and link with security. Search the data-stores for any traces of that’s been anyone aboard– or still is.”

Rearden’s thrusters engaged. It zoomed across the infirmary to a terminal. Simon rose as Snow chided him, “Be a good boy for mother-domess, pet.”

Simon flipped the Wolf a bird before he left with Niala. They explored the ship, mostly blind but occasionally guided by hopeful signs touting “Bridge” in a handful of languages. They kept their pistols out, Simon’s more for show than anything. Despite the obvious scrapes with death, he still wasn’t sure he was ready to kill someone. It all depended on the moment, he guessed.

“Snow’s concerned,” he said finally.

Niala pointed them around a corner, pistol aimed outward, “About?”

Simon shrugged in reply; it was easier. He managed a few words, “Ceres. What happened?”

“I told you–”

Simon grabbed her arm, grit his teeth against talons goring his throat, “I’ve been framed. Threatened. Cut. I deserve answers.”

She moved to speak but saw he would take no protest. He altogether refused to move until the truth came out– Josie and Sol be damned, he’d earned an explanation.

She heaved a sigh, “Walk and talk.” Simon eyed her skeptically. “We may not have much time. We can do both.”

Simon started forward apprehensively. They took corners slowly, traversed long wide corridors that felt more like a power-plant than a deep-space vessel.

“Shortly after I had my third litter, I left Earth with the Federation. The HAA had recently negotiated the Federation into excellent benefits, and given I now had a Pride’s worth of family to provide for, I needed all I could get.” She rounded a corner, pistol up, then lowered it, “Because of my intelligence and civil-station as Matriarch, I was recruited into the Federation’s Special-Forces unit codenamed “Padfoot Lightning.” The PFL is how I met Snow.”

Simon listened intently as they started down a long corridor toward an elevator. “Bridge-4” was painted beside it beneath a list of other levels. The pair relaxed in the absence of threats.

Niala continued, “The P-F-L was the military’s answer to old-world units like SEALs and Rangers, but with an emphasis on using evolved animals’ heightened instincts for covert missions. Snow was a tracker. I was communications and tech. There were a few others with us– a Tigress, a Hog, and a Rat– each of us had unique skills because of our species’ evolution. We were all physically robust, and trained in unarmed and weapons combat. We were the Federation’s elite.”

Simon had difficulty seeing how this formed such a heavy grudge in Snow. Military units were usually like a brotherhood or family, and given the Wolf’s regard of honor, the two seemed irreconcilable.

Niala intoned over his thoughts while they entered the elevator and began to rise. “We ran counter-terror ops, tracked drug and weapons dealers, smugglers. You name a black-trade, and we worked it, either to shut it down, expand it, or manipulate events through it to our advantage.”

The elevator doors opened on a massive, wide room filled with computers and console-like workstations both eerily foreign and extremely familiar. Niala swept the area with her pistol, then relaxed.

“Needless to say, during one mission, our team was captured. We’d been sent in to extract a hostage from a gang on Ceres. If you’re not familiar, Ceres is essentially one big mine. An entire city was built beneath the surface where the crust was mined out.” She started across the bridge, focused more on her own thoughts than the room’s features, “That city was also a haven for smugglers and gangs. Mafioso types that, like Snow now, controlled everything on the planet. They’d organized a union strike, and in the process, had captured several foreign dignitaries escorted to the planet to ensure there were no Human Rights violations.”

Simon began to see where Niala was headed. He managed to forward her nearer the point with a few, painfully choice words, “Emphasis on Humans. The animals weren’t. Happy?”

Niala affirmed with a shake of her head. “We were lined up to be executed. It was then that we met the master-mind… one of my sons.”

Simon’s brain decoupled from his body for a moment. He stood in utter shock.

Niala’s voice became distant, “When my son saw me, he released me under guard.” Her eyes welled up, her breaths weak, “We argued until… he forced me to execute my team.” Traumatic memories played over her face, visible in her eyes and weak muscles, “I killed the Hog first; Our explosives expert and connection to the black-market. He had a way of making you hate him. It almost wasn’t difficult.”

She swallowed the admission hard. Simon watched internal conflict play visible stills over her.

“I killed the rat next– our infiltration expert and recon-man. He always shriveled like a fool at danger. Why he was chosen for the P-F-L, I’ll never know. It was a mercy, to say the least.”

Her voice was quiet now, her breath stuttered. Simon sensed she no longer inhabited the room, but instead a dimension of agony where nightmares were reality.

“I killed the tigress last,” she admitted. “We were friends. But she was straight as razor. If she lived, and we escaped, I knew I’d be court martialed and jailed for life. I couldn’t allow that.”

Her chest no longer moved. She existed in a vacuum. Simon stared dully.

“I turned the gun on Snow next,” she breathed finally. “And… I couldn’t do it.” She broke from her trance to meet Simon’s eye. “Snow was my best friend. My partner in crime. We were inseparable, and worked well together. Killing him meant killing a piece of me– maybe all of me, given how many times he’d saved my life.”

She almost choked on her tears. Simon’s heart felt a knife penetrate it.

“My son was agitated by my hesitation. I was wasting time, but I couldn’t move. I knew what I’d done was irredeemable, but I’d have rather died than hurt Snow.” Her face went blank. “So I murdered my son to save Snow.”

There was a silence impregnated by a tension whose source eluded him.

Niala finished with an ashamed glance away. “Snow blames me for the loss of our team and the black marks on his military record, but owes me his life, and so knows he cannot hurt me. What’s more, his beliefs in loyalty and honor makes him see the murders as a betrayal of both trusted friends and family.” Her tone shifted formally, “For a Wolf, the commitment to honor is instinct. Were Snow in such a position, he’d have inevitably chosen to kill us all, or immediately murder his child. My choice was motivated differently, by different instincts, but the same devotion. He refuses to admit that…. but I don’t blame him.”

She stepped to a console, examined it pointedly.

“Snow hates me because he believes I have loyalty only to myself. No matter how I’ve attempted to convince him my loyalty was ultimately to him, the murder of our team supersedes it. For me to have murdered my son as well only solidifies his belief that I know no true honor or devotion. He is mistaken.”

The foreign nature of the console began to dawn on Niala, but her mind was too transfixed on her memories. It took a moment for her to comprehend the design of what she was looking at. In the meantime, she breathed, “Now you know what happened on Ceres.”

The Nexus Project: Part 8

14.

The shuttle rode solar turbulence right into the Ganymede spaceport. The combination moon-space station was once more smeared with light. Dots flickered in the distance below along a world of countless mines and industrial factories. Only the slightest hint of something cut through the atmosphere. The sun at its distant angle, with Jupiter’s enormous shadow encompassing it, shimmered from the climate barrier only just visible over the moon.

The shuttle came to a rest and the trio pushed down the boarding hallway. Crowds surged and rolled around them in the terminal, but Simon kept pace this time. His mind was caught in the whirlwind of questions spurred by their earlier revelations. He’d tried to sleep for the sake of healing, but couldn’t slough off the questions lining his thoughts. Every breath was another layer, another branching tree of inquiry that unnerved any hope for calm.

Even as they ducked, weaved, and pushed for a far-off elevator, he found logic in complete disagreement with the plot enacted. It seemed so far-fetched to go to such trouble to steal data that had barely manifested. If it was stolen by a planted agent, why so blatantly and boldly? Why expose your agent? Moreover, why impersonate a secretary? Josie hardly had confidential-level access. What was the purpose? Frost? Why not a more senior agent provocateur, someone with access and confidence, and just as easily replicated?

The more Simon considered it, the less sense it made. He found himself whizzing through the spaceport in an elevator car before his autopilot disengaged. A thought suddenly occurred; what if they couldn’t infiltrate the upper-echelons? What if, for some reason, the theft’s blatancy was to cover up for something else– to keep the ISC working doubly hard while something bigger happened elsewhere? What could it be? Who was involved? What if everything else was a smokescreen to plant someone else in their midst, or enact a different kind of sabotage?

Simon hit the emergency stop on the elevator.“What’re you doing?”

He found his words with difficulty, his throat aflame from the thought of speaking, “Someone else. Is. Involved.”

She eyed him curiously, “What? How can–”

“I. Know.” Over the course of a long, painful minute, he explained his previous thoughts, “Who. Could. It be?”

She shook her head, “I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense. It may not make sense until we find the Josie impersonator.” He stared at the floor. “We must ensure Josie survives. If she’s truly being held captive, she may have important information. Possibly her captor’s identity, or even their plans.” She shoved the emergency stop button in, “But we can’t know until we confirm Snow.”

He accepted the Matriarch’s wisdom, if only for the sake of stoking his own thoughts further. It was a quarter of an hour before they found themselves was once more in Snow’s den, his soldiers gone at his behest. Niala reached into her gown, tossed Snow a small holo-disk that lit up with a 3D projection. An image of Josie’s face spun slowly from Snow’s upturned paw.

“She’s a MeLon. We’re looking for the original as well. We believe she’s being held nearby, possibly on Ganymede itself.”

Snow stared at the image. A corner of his muzzle lifted to bare his teeth. He closed his paw over the image, then lowered it, “This lizard will pay for its crimes.”

“I would expect nothing less.”

Snow eyed her as she carefully considered something. He spoke of it with an almost sarcastic pleasure, “Troubled, domess?

She grit her teeth, “We need you with us.”

He grunted a smile, “Incapable of facing the threat alone? Matriarch, you’re slipping.”

She snorted frustration, “This isn’t a joke, Snow. You know how dangerous a MeLon can be, especially when holding someone hostage.”

His animosity fell away to curiosity, “Hostage? A MeLon? Wishful thinking. MeLon’s don’t take prisoners, Matriarch.”

For the first time, Simon spoke, “Why?”

Snow smiled, more from having something the human wanted than seeing its difficult speech. “So it is not entirely autonomous. It speaks like a man.” Snow leaned with a predatory sniff of the air, “It smells like a man.” He straightened with a forward step, eye-to-eye with Simon, “But does it have the value of a man, I wonder.”

Simon snarled; an effect of the Wolf’s ability to manipulate all creatures’ utter loathing, “I do.”

For a moment no-one was certain what would happen. Snow seemed to be deciding whether to drop his enmity, or make Simon an early lunch. When the cunning smile flashed again he turned for his throne, sat upon it. A small beam cut through the near-darkness from the throne’s apex, aimed downward to a place before it’s King. A series of projected displays appeared. Snow fed the disk into a slot beneath an armrest. The screens flashed, jumped. Feeds from all over Ganymede flickered and flitted past. Facial recognition software splayed dots over Josie’s image, searched the feeds for it.

“If your MeLon has been on Ganymede, my program will find it.” Niala breathed small relief. He snarled again, but it relaxed as he focused on the feeds, “She never told you about Ceres, Human.”

Niala was about to speak when Simon re-affirmed Snow’s statement, “No.”

He spoke as though she weren’t present, “The Matriarch has a way of feigning loyalty until she sees gain not to.” Snow glanced at her from the corner of an eye, expected Simon to do the same. His eyes darted to the human only to find them staring at his own, “You surprise me, Human.”

Simon rasped a full sentence without a stop, “I aim to please.”

If it was possible, Snow seemed to regard him with even more disdain than before, “Your species has a colossal pair.” His eyes refocused on the search. “For eons, your people enslaved the Canines, dangled food and security before their noses until they heeded your commands. Then, if they stepped out of line, you killed them or left them to die. Your people so diluted our bloodlines some of our descendants are unrecognizable.”

Simon rasped magma, “Your point?”

He ignored him to wax philosophical, “Your kind believed themselves the ultimate hunters. Bent nature to your whim. Placed yourselves above it. Then, the Zelphods appeared. You were still on top, you thought, because they were generations removed from the creatures that had begun the millennia-long exodus.” Snow finally met Simon’s eyes again, “But when those creatures you’d thought so flexible once more became a threat, you did the only thing you could; made peace for fear of destruction.”

Simon watched the Wolf’s glare. The Magma in his throat burst, made his voice crack, fade, “Coexistence is the only logical solution.”

“So it would seem,” Snow replied with a half-squint. “To one who’s only other option is annihilation.”

Niala interjected, “Can we focus on the issue at-hand?”

Snow replied with malice, “Oh domess, but it is the issue at-hand, don’t you see? His people run the Federation, the economies, the colonies, the construction companies, and everything else in between and around. What they don’t directly control, they do so vicariously through money or sympathizers.”

Niala fumed, “This isn’t productive. You’re just baiting us. There’s no reason to–”

“Shut up, traitor!” Snow barked. “You only refuse to see the truth. You’re a sympathizer, like the rest. Right now, it’s keeping you from understanding all the seemingly illogical moves made.” Simon and Niala exchanged a confused look. Snow took pleasure in enlightening them, “The ISC theft is only the first step in removing the Human issue. Research will continue. One day, it will be business as usual. Increased security, new locks on the doors, but the memory will fade. As it does, more facets will be infiltrated– facets of the HAA, the Federation, the ISC and elsewhere. Just as there, everything will be subject to intrusion and manipulation, by those few, well-placed agents.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Niala spat.

“Is it? Or is it so clever you fear its truth? So obvious it is hidden in plain sight?” He let the thought sink in a moment. “You see, Niala, Humans make the policies. They recruit the employees. Pay them. They have the say-so. All of it is done under the guise of a pre-existing infrastructure built before our kind’s rise. But it is a system without room for us. Not really. It has begrudgingly given us a choice to fit in or wither and die without it.” The holo-screen’s flickering came to a stop. “And that is why they’re doing this. Nothing has changed. Soon, it will.”

He pulled the disk from his chair, then rose. The beam of light disappeared and he stepped off the throne’s raised platform. He straightened with a backward flex, “I will help you, but only because there is gain in it for me. It is here, as much a threat to my domain as yours. But do not mistake my aid for anything more than repayment of a debt.”

Niala gave a small nod. Snow pushed between the pair, stalked past Rearden behind them, and out the door. They exchanged a curious look, both of their thoughts locked on his lecture. Regardless of his point, the theft’s goal was obvious now. Somehow, in someway, it would be used to displace the current powers, put the Humans lower. The why was simple enough. To have any hope of discovering the how, they’d have to follow Snow.

Simon started forward.

15.

The lower levels of Ganymede’s space-port were more like ground-levels. Here were actual planetary features that rose and fell around the station’s lowest reaches. Simon could even see where the atmosphere radiated from; huge turbines and vats the size of skyscrapers loomed in the distance. At their peaks and mid-sections, bright lights pulsed every few seconds to alert passing craft.

Much to Simon’s dismay Snow was on-point. The trio was now accompanied by a Wolf with a blood-thirsty vengeance. It rolled off him like steam, stained the air hatred and determination. Niala followed him single-file, her gown’s hood displaced by artificial winds from chemical vats that mixed perchlorates in a exothermic reaction, created oxygen.

The massive vats and turbines were only one part of the process, but their proximity made for gale-force winds that even Rearden struggled against. They seemed to gust harder every few seconds, then sink back to an idle torrent before starting again.

Simon shouted, an act he was certain he could only do once, “Where are we going?”

“Save your voice, Human,” the Wolf howled back. “You’ll need it to scream when the MeLon gets you.”

Niala glared at the back of Snow’s head, “It’s a valid question.”

Snow swiveled on the pads of his massive hind-paws, pulled Niala closer. She readied to fight, but he pointed off in the distance; “Beyond that ridge are the ice-mines. If the surveillance feeds are correct, your doppelganger is there.”

“Why would they hide in an ice-mine?” She asked over an especially loud gust.

“They’re completely autonomous. No surveillance. All equipment is connected via Ganymede’s control center above. If a MeLon is anywhere on this planet, it is there.” Niala gave a small nod. She stared at the distant ridge in thought. “Now, move. We’re wasting time.”

Niala stormed past with a quiet growl. She took point, Snow now enough paces behind to be out of ear-shot. He stepped beside Simon, “Human, you show compassion and determination. Most would see that as weakness.”

Simon grated angrily against a burning throat, “Your point?”

“Your loyalty to the Lion may be absolute, but trust that hers is not.”

“I don’t. Believe you,” he managed with visible difficulty.

“I don’t care. Know only not to trust in those who would sacrifice others for themselves.”

Snow quickened his pace, bridged the gap between them and Niala. He left Simon fighting the winds as he attempted to decode the cryptic warning. Ceres. But what about? Evidently she’d sacrificed someone for herself. How was that relevant?

It wasn’t, he decided. Merely just another attempt by the Wolf to manipulate those around him. For whatever reason, he didn’t want Niala to be seen as honorable, trustworthy. It made him all the less trustworthy instead.

Niala led the pack through the largely desolate landscape for nearly an hour. All that time, the ridge inched nearer until it loomed over-head like the station, only more jagged, organic. Snow informed them an entrance to the caverns would be hidden in the rock-face, difficult to pin-point until they stumbled into it.

If Niala knew anything about Snow, it was his resourceful relentlessness. No doubt he’d long ago sent teams to map the entirety of Ganymede’s surface in greater detail than even the planetary scanners. Those things tended to use echolocation software that often left geographical features as massive, solid blocks. Snow knew better than most though that this wasn’t the way geography worked. His people had come from caves, dens, lairs of naturally-carved stone otherwise invisible to software. His mapping was likely as much for credits as for the establishment of a refuge. If that was true, he knew exactly where they were headed. The Ice mines would’ve had a definitive entrance, sure, but no-one would use it if they were trying to hide. They’d go in the back-door, so to speak.

When the pack finally reached the ridge-line, Snow was quick to pinpoint the cavern’s entrance. An outcrop of thick ice emanated steam in the unnatural atmosphere. Snow slipped left of the outcrop, then edged right and disappeared in a curious optical illusion. Niala glanced back at Simon who’d watched with curious brows.

She reassured him with a look, disappeared as Snow had. Rearden and Simon followed, the little bot seemingly the more nervous of the two. For his primitive, optical sensors it was likely a leap of faith; to it there was nothing there. Without the brain to decode the opening’s presence, it was left only to trust in its companions. They entered a darkened tunnel that reverberated their footsteps, the sounds muffled by the fish-bowl effect the winds had caused.

Snow engaged a series of LEDs built into his armor, “Don’t touch the walls.”

Rearden added to the lights’ intensity with its optical sensor. The beam splayed over the narrow ice-walls, scanned forward through rolling ice-smoke.

“Ammonia,” Niala said.

Simon spoke with half-pauses, “Are. You sure. This is safe?”

“If you don’t touch the ice,” Snow grumbled.

“I mean. Breathing it,” Simon reiterated.

“You know a better way to the mines undetected?” There was silence. “Then shut up. The more you speak the more you inhale.”

Simon covered his mouth, breathed through a jacket sleeve. They followed the tunnel down a long, shallow decline. Snow and Rearden’s lights cut ahead near a hundred meters, endlessly illuminating the tunnel ahead. When it finally stopped, opened up, the group halted, killed their lights.

The Wolf inched in a crouch toward the opening, gestured the others up with a wave. Niala and Simon lined up beside Snow, careful of the walls. Beyond them shapes took focus, and the two scientists stared, eyes wide and mouths open.