The Nexus Project: Part 4

6.

The ride to Ganymede was long enough that Simon eventually fell asleep bunched up in his booth seat. To say it was uncomfortable would miss the extreme lengths he’d gone through to reach even a modicum of the word. Niala had watched with subdued amusement. Simon had twisted and contorted in ways she wasn’t sure humans could. He finally passed out in a near-sitting position, his feet uncomfortably curled as he hugged himself to a corner, resembling a congealed lump of skin and cloth.

In contrast, Niala had no trouble finding comfort. She snoozed with her head draped over the back of the booth in much the same position she’d been sitting. Rearden dutifully watched, its reserves more than full enough for the length of the journey that the battery pack wouldn’t need to be used for sometime yet. Its ocular sensor merely sat in motion-sense mode, waiting to pick up anything beyond the shuttle’s jostle at solar turbulence.

When the transport docked, the slightest sound of its PA woke Niala to a warm, natural fog. She whispered Simon’s name to rouse him, failed. Rearden beep louder. Still nothing. Finally extended a small probe extended from a panel in Rearden’s side. A small arc of electricity shocked Simon awake with a start.

He blinked hard, “Low-power! Low power!” Niala snickered with delight. Rearden gave a few, chittery beeps. Simon swatted the bot with a light hand, “Stupid can of circuits.”

Niala stood and stretched with a purr, then pulled her hood up, “Come on, we’re late.”

He rolled his droopy eyes with a sarcastic mutter, “Yes, your highness.”

“I heard that.”

She led the way through the shuttle’s elongated compartments. Then, with a hiss and a small buck, the shuttle rested against its docking clamps and its doors parted for a small airlock.

Simon found himself speechless at the curious magnificence beyond. They entered a giant, glass-domed terminal, like an old airport. Multiple levels of outlets formed another mega-mall. Above, the domed ceiling looked out on countless, spindly arms of the moon’s upper-station. In the background millions of lights and torrid shapes were specks to Jupiter that gleamed like a gigantic cup of creamed coffee.

Niala aimed for the port’s depths. Simon rubbernecked the countless species that made the outpost its home– from rugged, worn Serpents and Lizards that hissed more than spoke, to the more inane creatures Simon was accustomed to. His senses were overwhelmed by the anarchic, alien chaos. His ears rang from thousands of tongues that lisped, hissed, and grunted countless dialects and accents.

“Stick close to me,” Niala said with a pull at his shirt sleeve.

He circled in-step to take it all in, bumped into someone clustered in a tight group. A ham-fisted swine shoved him back with a snort, one eye and ear missing. The others trained on him as he apologized and was pulled along. He followed vacantly while the crowd surged around in its disorder.

He finally regained his wits enough to match pace with Niala. She spoke sideways at him from beneath her hood, “You’ll find even such trivialities here may spark confrontation. Bumping someone is common for pick-pockets. If they suspect it of you, even my diplomacy may not save you.”

He hissed in reply, “Is that why you’re making me carry a gun?”

She began to ascend high stairs that spanned the port’s width, “Yes, and believe it or not, people here are more likely to trust you if you’re armed. Otherwise they’ll suspect you’re hiding something.”

“Hell of a place.”

Niala’s pull tightened at the stairs’ summit. Ahead the terminal narrowed progressively until it became a lone hallway. Here and there at its sides elevators and doors led deeper into the station. Niala aimed for an elevator at the end of the hall. They crammed themselves inside with the dozen other creatures that rode it downward. Little by little, Mammals and Reptiles, Serpents and Avians, left at the various floors.

The whole station was a blur of deepening grays and dirtier walls the further Simon progressed through it. Soon enough they came to a stop, alone, and at a lower level than he’d have liked. The ambient temperature had risen tens of degrees, made sweat bead on his brow. The elevator doors parted to a rush of humid wind that made bits of him stick to others.

Niala stepped out first. Simon followed with yet another staggered rubbernecking. His eyes rose to take in the enormity of structures that towered over him. The space-port was merely a speck amid the flurry of ships swarming it like gnats. Between it and he, amorphous rows and columns of buildings jutted with a seeming randomness to form a gray and black landscape. Peppered here and there, or snaked along their faces, were innumerable neon and argon signs, LED and LCD screens, and digital billboards that shifted rhythmically every ten or so seconds.

Simon wet a dry mouth. A hover-craft whizzed past nearby. “I… had no idea it was so big.”

Niala purred a “hmm,” headed along a street in the city that breathed with life. They trudged across the sidewalks amid the rush from hover-craft sprinting past or hurling themselves ’round the corners that formed the labyrinthine, urban blue-print.

Simon had heard stories of Ganymede. None of them had been anything like this. He’d only ever heard of a place rife with crime and poverty. Here, it was said, druglords and gangsters ruled and no self-respecting person would go. Indeed, he understood better now why the stigma existed; just like the cities of old Earth, Ganymede was a place filled with people– most of whom were likely the counter to those whom regarded themselves as “honest.”

Niala took him along a street in the multicolored glow, past a pack of Canines on a street corner that looked tougher than most of the ISC’s security hounds. Niala maneuvered them to an alley, down along it to a lone door on its back-wall. Animal piss and stale garbage stained the air– enough that even Niala breathed carefully. She thumped the door with a balled paw. A grate slid open at eye-height and a pair of glowing, yellow eyes stared out over a flickering, forked tongue.

“Tell the Alpha that Matriarch Martin requests an audience,” Niala said firmly.

A pair of fangs flashed with a suckling hiss. The panel slammed shut. A moment of silence passed. Simon thought to turn away. The door was thrown open to a dark interior. Niala stepped in to a wide, rectangular room. Simon followed. Rearden trailed behind quietly. The door shut at the nudge of a heavily scarred Serpent. It slithered past, around columns, and down a short hallway.

The trio were stopped midway through it by a look from the Serpent. It’s tongue flicked at the air, then it thumped its head against the door. A similar scene played out as the Serpent hissed something and the door opened to another, semi-dark room.

The serpent slithered inward and off to a side. Niala ingressed further. Simon followed until struck still by two dozen pairs of eyes. They glowed from various species of hard-looking reptiles and Canines.

In the center of the back wall, atop a raised platform, sat a throne of gnarled steel and wood. Torches on its sides spit flames at the ceiling, jostled by a draft from a door that slid open behind the throne. Heavy thumps pounded their way up the platform and around it. A massive, grizzled figure appeared. Gray and white of Wolf fur melded with black and red armor draped appropriately around its torso. The Wolf’s sharpened teeth bared as it looked his guests over through a battle-worn face.

He gave a low growl. A paw rose dismissively from beneath a crimson cloak draped around his shoulders, “Leave us!”

The room emptied to only the trio and their host. It was prompt. A followed order. The Wolf stood before its throne, and with hot breath its upper teeth appeared in a snarl. Simon gulped as the door slammed behind them, its echo petrifying his heart.

7.

The air was hot, tense. Simon was fixed in place beside Rearden whom gave a terrible shudder. The Wolf took slow, heavy steps down the platform toward Niala. He rose nearly a foot above her, his chest back, and a crooked snarl at one side of his muzzle. He sniffed the air around Niala, circled her. Simon took an unconscious step backward with Rearden.

The Wolf sniffed in the circle, then stopped behind Niala’s back. It suddenly jammed its nose between Niala’s legs. Simon recoiled. With a deep angry whiff, the wolf straightened, satisfied. Simon was frozen. Part of him wanted to laugh. The rest wanted to flee in absolute terror. He kept his wits about him, remained in place.

The Wolf stood before Niala. Throaty gravel sounded from its scarred face, “Niala.”

“Snow,” she replied with a small bow.

“It is you.” He sounded less than pleased. “I hoped I would never see you again.”

She released her bow to meet his height, “As did I.”

“You’ve come to call in your marker,” he guessed.

“I have.”

He emitted something between a growl and a sigh, ascended to his throne, and sank against it.

“Speak.”

Niala glanced back at Simon, only then did he realize the half-spring he’d taken to with a half-turned body. He wasn’t sure whether it was meant to fight or flee, but he eased out of it to settle a few feet behind and beside Niala. She retold of the theft, finished a handful of minutes later with Simon more at ease but sweatier than ever.

Snow considered the story with a quiet, pensive face. Upon his throne, he looked like a king deliberating to send his army to battle. An obvious element of stratagem had overtaken him, however lethal he was. Whatever Snow had been through to earn his status as Alpha, he clearly knew something of battle.

He set his body against his throne. It splayed perfectly across the arms and back. “You require information.” He surmised as much from their presence alone, but reiterated for the sake of speech, “But I cannot give you what I do not have.”

“Then get it,” Niala prodded.

He growled, “Do not tempt me, domess.” Niala bared her teeth. Snow scowled in reply, “I’ve been father to over a dozen litters. Alpha to countless in this bastard system. And I’ve more men at my disposal than even you could handle.”

“And you’ve a debt,” Niala reminded. Her paws tensed, nails readied to spring forth.

He watched her poise with a woeful pity, “Yes. I have but one debt.” He pushed up from the throne to step down to Niala, their faces mere whiskers apart, “One I intend to repay.” His voice was low, primal, “Know this domess; we are not kin. We are not friends. I have still not forgotten Ceres.”

Her head averted sideways with a hiss, eyes on a wall. She heaved shame and frustration. Snow reveled in it. He rose to full-height again to sniff the air, take in the scents of her at his mercy.

He swiveled to return to his throne, “I have but one debt.” He sank upon the throne with a grand gesture, “And I intend to repay it. I am an Alpha. One of my word. No matter what type of creature I owe my debt to.” Niala heaved another shame-filled breath. Snow ignored it. “Return in twenty-four hours. If I’ve not found anything by then, there is nothing to find and our debt stands.”

Niala gave a slow bow, then backed away. She whirled in a haze of gown and ruffled fur. Simon lingered a moment before his mind re-engaged his muscles. He hurried after her as she stormed out and into the street. The heat thickened once more, Simon smothered by its presence. Rearden kept hot on his heels as he grabbed Niala by the shoulder. She whirled in a lean, her claws out.

His heart nearly stopped. “Holy corpse, Niala! Relax.”

She eased back, retracted her claws, “Forgive me.” She swiveled again, gestured him along in-step, “That flea-ridden, mange-covered, shit-eater.”

Simon’s eyes widened, “Kiss your mother with that mouth?”

“My mother’s been dead since before you were born, Simon,” she seethed.

He shook off his confusion, “Uh… okay. Let’s just stop. Take stock here for a moment.” She stopped mid-step. He thanked her. “What’s got you so riled?”

She glared, “That brainless bag of balls should’ve been neutered decades ago.”

He glanced around. Wind gusted from passing craft. The streets had become sparsely crowded by various creatures– the local inhabitants of the Ganymede moon-post. He pulled Niala toward the edge of a building, leaned there while a few people passed in the clack of nails or boots.

“I get that you two don’t care for each other, but this was your call,” he reminded. “Besides, what’s the big deal? He seems willing to help.”

“Do you know what Domess means?” He shook his head. “It’s short for domestic– a slur used against evolved creatures that eschewed our history for the inclusion into society.”

He squinted at her, “You mean he said it ’cause you joined the ISC?”

“Among other things,” she admitted. “There is great resentment in some circles at species’ place in Sol. Some believe we animals should have ascended to head of the food-chain– above humans.”

“You’re talking about anti-humanists? Like the protesters at ISC?”

She corrected, “Partly. That some of us instead see one another as equals is considered a betrayal.” She shook her head with shame, “Everything in Sol, from outposts and transportation, to weapons and eating utensils, was created for humans. The rest of us have been forced to adapt to their uses, and still the issue persists that nothing is created with us in mind. At least, not on a large scale.”

Simon thought he followed, “So… animals, feel like they’re being shafted.”

She turned to step slowly forward, Simon followed. “Some, yes. Others see it for what it is; we are new, relatively speaking. The infrastructure in place thus far hasn’t allow for the type of revolution necessary to tailor such facets to animals alone. It’s why I wear a body-suit in the lab– because the clean rooms have not incorporated new designs to deal with problems like shedding.“

“Okay, but why’s a stupid slur gotten you so angry?”

She fumed at the thought of her own words, “Because he would never dare make such a remark if I didn’t require his help, but he knows he has me by the whiskers and I can’t help it.”

Simon nodded, his thoughts on Snow’s other accusation, “So… what happened on Ceres?”

She shot him a lethal look, “That is private, and not something I’m willing to sh–”

“Oi, Domess!” A robustly accented voice called out behind them.

Simon and Niala turned to a screeching beep from Rearden. A line of three hogs with sharp tusks waddled forward with rusty pipes and knives. Niala leaned with a growl, her nails out. The lead hog snorted, laughed full-on. Rearden beeped and Simon swiveled ’round to see more creatures closing.

Niala!” Simon hissed.

“I smell them,” she whispered, her lean lethal.

The circle closed to just out of arm’s reach. Simon circled to see the mix of creatures that surrounded them. His hand went for the weapon at his side. The lead hog thumped the pipe against a dirty hoof. In a flash he raised it to strike.

The Nexus Project: Part 3

4.

Niala burst through Gnarl’s door as if ready to rip his throat out. Simon and Rearden were near terror, so fierce had the Matriarch’s gait and fury become. Gnarl was startled by the entry. He yelped, nearly fell backward in his chair. Simon’s heart stopped when Niala leaned over the desk at him.

His chest heaved while a hint of tongue panted in shock, “M-matriarch, my god, you nearly gave me an embolism.”

He braced himself to stand. Niala gave a low growl, “I should gore you where you sit.”

Simon swallowed hard to regather his wits. Clearly the forced evolution had only heightened the Lioness’ ferocity. He wasn’t sure whether to intervene or check his pants. Ultimately, he resolved to be a voice of reason, if a mousy one at that.

“N-Niala, please, calm down,” Simon requested. She bared her teeth over a throaty growl.

Gnarl’s canine brows inflected confusion, his tongue now tucked away, “Matriarch, I assure you, whatever you’re angry about I am not a party to.”

“The words of a guilty, flea-ridden–”

Gnarl was on his feet, “What did you–”

Simon angled between them, against his better instincts, “Woah, woah! Let’s step back here.”

The two growled over him, the finer hairs of their coats upturned around their Lycra collars. With a final half-roar, Niala straightened. Gnarl remained on-guard. Simon carefully extended his hands to tap Niala’s shoulders.

Simon stammered airily, “G-good. Let’s start over, okay?” A side of Niala’s muzzle lifted to bear the corner of sharp teeth. “Rationally, please.” Rearden gave a small beep of agreement. The two creatures’ fur relaxed slightly. Simon swiveled toward Gnarl, “Chief, we have questions. You’ve no doubt heard of the intrusion into our network.”

Gnarl’s eyes flitted between over him, “Yes, what of it?”

“Well, Rearden believes– a-and I agree– that someone must have been facilitating it.”

“In English, Simon,” Gnarl requested snidely.

Niala’s eyes were pointed on Gnarl, “Someone inside is responsible for the attack.”

Gnarl’s obvious prejudice faltered for minor panic. There was only one reason they’d come to him, especially with Niala in such a state. The hound wheezed with a half-whimper, sank into his seat.

“You may not believe it,” he began sullenly. “But I had nothing to do with this theft. I’ve spoken with every department head to ensure nothing else has been appropriated. They’re all losing it. Even the old bird’s hopping around in his office, out of his wits. Josie’s barely keeping him sane.”

Niala’s anger lessened each moment, enough that Simon felt comfortable speaking without pretense, “Then you know there’s a leak in our security network.”

Gnarl gave a sigh through his nose, put a paw to the center of his forehead, “We’ve plugged the leak for now, but we’re not certain the extent of the damage or even that we’ll be able to ferret out those responsible. We’re afraid to shut down the affected nodes entirely, so we’ve isolated them for now.”

Rearden beeped something to Simon, whom repeated it, “You think you might be able to use the leak, trace it?”

All of Gnarl’s remaining vigor left him, “We want to try, but whoever’s behind this is good.”

“How good?” Niala finally asked.

He glanced between them, “Good enough to implicate Simon and myself without leaving a single hair of evidence to pick a scent off. Even the leaking nodes aren’t public. They’re private terminals in various, unconnected residential quarters. Each time we trace one, it leads to another, as if the signal’s rebounding between all our internal computers.”

Rearden gave another few beeps, seemed to inquire something. Simon repeated the question in English, “You’re saying someone’s spoofed the origin and is bouncing packets between the dummies?” Gnarl shrugged. Rearden beeped in response, but Simon had anticipated it, “That means that somewhere between the bounces the packets are being intercepted.”

Gnarl was dejected. His investigation was going nowhere, and his own reputation was on the line. It showed in his weary tone, “We’ve called in a few favors with the HAA. They’re sending in tech experts to do forensics on our network, but it’ll only compound the problem.”

“How could the Human-animal alliance compound the problem?” Simon asked curiously.

“By making moves that are too public.”

“What’s Frost want us to do in the meantime?” Niala asked.

Gnarl was suddenly informal. He looked at Niala as an equal, “Frost can’t find his head with both wings right now. He’s damn-near a stroke every time we speak. You know how Avians are– always high-strung– well, except the tropical ones but you get my point.”

Niala swallowed her pride– a difficult task for one so defined by it, “What do you suggest?”

Gnarl glanced between them again, “Call in every favor you have.” He looked pointedly at Niala, “Every favor. See if anyone knows anything.”

Niala squinted to decipher his meaning. The phone began to ring on Gnarl’s desk, “Get it done, Matriarch. Simon, you’re off the hook. Help her. Whatever she needs or it’s your ass.”

“Yes sir,” Simon replied formally. Gnarl shooed the trio with a paw, keyed his desk to take his call. Simon found himself in the hall before a moment had passed. He looked to Niala with curiosity, “What did he mean by favors?”

She glanced along the hall of open offices. It looked much like an old-era police precinct might have. When she met his eyes again, it was to whisper so quietly even Rearden jacked-up the gain on its auditory sensors.

“A Matriarch such as myself has met many types of beast.” She rechecked the area, “Most are not the sort one of my station would cavort with, nor would like to.” Simon’s eyes narrowed. She gave him a clear-cut set of instructions, “You and Rearden will return home and pack enough clothing and money for a week. I’ll meet you at the transport depot when the next shuttle’s due to depart.”

He suddenly felt as weary with dread as Gnarl had been, “Where are we going?”

“Not here. I’ll tell you more once we depart. Be there.”

With that Niala turned on-heel and marched off. She rounded a corner for the elevators and disappeared. Rearden gave a suspicious series of beeps before Simon cleared his dread from his throat, “I don’t know either, but you’re right. Whatever we’ve gotten ourselves into isn’t going to end pretty.”

Rearden beeped affirmation, switched its thrusters from a hover to follow Simon’s slow progress to the elevators.

5.

Simon stood on the departure platform outside the shuttle. That Phobos had been colonized never seemed to cross his mind until he was here, ready to leave it. A dozen people waited with him to board the shuttles whose rounded, rectangular shape appeared almost the same as the Maglev rail-cars of Earth. Some of those old-world transports still functioned, however useless in the wake of hover-craft, inter-continental and inter-planetary shuttles.

Amid the plethora of scientists, security-guards, and laypeople, Simon blended. The faces of Felines, Canines, Corvians, and all other manner of creatures waited patiently with their eyes-front. However rigidly they held themselves to be the “best” of the pack, there was no denying the gleam of excitement in their eyes. Save Simon, all of the transport’s would-be passengers shared happiness in their quest for home, however contained.

He on the other hand, merely kept his back-pack shouldered and his duffle bag in-hand to ensure he looked the part of traveler. All the same his neck stiffened to strain his peripheral vision for signs of Niala. Rearden hovered in place beside him, as silent and stoic as a little bot could muster. Its own reservations had been spoken– or rather beeped incessantly, as was its way– while Simon packed his things. The heated discussion ended with no less agreement than when it had started. They both knew this was out of their depth. Unfortunately, Niala trusted them and needed their help.

A hooded figure appeared at Simon’s right, a cloth-sack slung over its shoulder atop a vivid-colored gown of obvious, African fashion. The collar flared out and down atop the shoulders to the chest. The elegant, thin material as much for honor as keeping cool in hot weather.

Simon glanced sideways. A few eyes surveyed the hooded figure. He spoke from the side of his mouth, “Could you’ve drawn a little more attention?”

Niala hissed back, “This is the only thing I have that isn’t spandex, and I hate the stuff.”

His voice was pointed with ire, “You look like a pack of cheap colored pencils.”

Her mouth hung half-open as she balked, “I’ll have you know these are my royal garments presented upon my ascension to Matriarch status.”

Simon eyes rolled. The doors of the transport opened. “Just get inside.”

Rearden followed them up and toward the transport’s rear. They took a seat across from one another at a small, booth-like table, sequestered from the bulk of the passengers. Rearden’s thrusters powered down and it came to a rest at the table’s inner-edge.

Simon relaxed across from Niala, “Where are we going?”

“Ganymede,” she replied quietly.

“What!?” He blurted. “Have you lost your mind?”

She squinted a slit-pupil at him, “I’m still your boss, you know.”

He heaved a futile sigh, “Niala, that moon’s filled with nothing but scumbags and gangsters.”

She raised a brow, “And they’re exactly the types to have information on the security breach.”

“This is too much, Niala. Ganymede’s dangerous.”

She chided him, “Lost your nerve already?”

“I’m not stupid,” he replied with a forward lean.

“Are you implying I am?” He scowled in response. She reassured him, “When we reach the hub station, you’ll see there’s nothing to fear. Normal people go back and forth to Jupiter each day.”

“Yes, miners. That live in secluded outposts. Not the moon!” Rearden gave a beep of agreement with Simon. “See? Even it knows this is nuts!”

She leaned in closely, “Do you want to learn who’s targeted you, put a black mark on your reputation, and stolen your work?”

Simon’s eyes darted around, “Fine! But for the love of science, get rid of that damned gown!”

She smiled, “Never.”

It was roughly five hours after they boarded the transport that it finally docked at the hub station between Earth and Mars. From a distance, the station looked like a caltrop once found in the ancient game “Jacks.” It’s various arms bulged at the tips where the connecting airlocks secured various transports to the station. The arms themselves were long, hollow, their innards crammed full of various commerce stands, stalls, and outlets like the mega-malls of Earth.

Indeed, as Simon and Niala made for the station’s center, they were overwhelmed with the sensation. Countless scents mingled over the din of innumerable voices that melded with drab or flamboyant fashions. Corvians, Raptors, Iguanidae– every evolved species mingled in their various manners with humans and even a Swine or two. All the while, Canines kept watch at the corners of halls and outlets. Their eyes and ears scanned for the slightest signs of trouble, no doubt ready to rush it and disperse the perpetrators with force if need be.

Simon weaved in and out of the crowd behind Niala as she pushed toward the station’s central hub. There elevators led to other ports or essential-systems levels. They remained on their level, followed the circular interior counter-clockwise to another arm of the station. Along it were all manner of outfitters, from clothing outlets to ship-salesman. The latter was most curious, especially given ships were far too expensive for the lay-person to purchase, and transport companies did business directly. Simply put, there was hardly a place for a ship-salesman in the Sol System, at least thus far.

To Simon’s surprise, Niala steered them to the aforementioned salesman, “Wait here.”

He lingered at the store’s edge, watched her enter. Rearden gave a quiet beep in its hover beside Simon. Niala greeted a salesman whom quickly provided her with a pamphlet. She said something inaudible, and the man’s eyes narrowed. They disappeared into a back room.

Rearden beeped. Simon shook his head, “I don’t know either, but I’m not feeling good about it.”

Niala reappeared moments later, thanked the salesman, and left with a brochure in-hand. She motioned Simon along, “Come on, we’re almost there.”

Simon’s confusion was obvious, “What was that all about?”

“Later.”

They pushed through the crowd for the open dock ahead. A scrunch-faced bulldog stood before a counter beside two security-Labradors whom scrutinized their approach.

“Names,” the bulldog requested.

“Niala Martin and Simon Corben,” Niala said as she set a credit-card on the counter.

“Length of stay and reason for visit?”

“Indeterminate. Official business for the ISC,” she replied formally.

The bulldog gave her a squint to put the guards to shame. He blew a jowly breath, “You understand Ganymede is an anarchic moon with no formal government, right?”

Niala’s eyes narrowed too, “Of course, but the ISC has business there.”

The bulldog looked them over, “Bot’s a child’s ticket. No-one travels free.”

“That is satisfactory,” Niala replied.

The bulldog scanned the card on the desk with an IR reader, “Good luck, Matriarch.”

“Thank you,” Niala said with a tilted bow of her head.

He waved them past, toward the near-empty transport ship. They took the boarding hall in few steps, found a place at the back at another booth. Niala sat with her back to a small surveillance camera, tapped Simon’s knee beneath the table.

She forced something into his hand, “Take this. It would be unwise to travel without it.”

His hand clasped a holstered laser-pistol, “What the hell?”

Rearden beeped, but Niala quieted it with a shake of her head, “One does not travel to Ganymede without the willingness to show force.”

He leaned over the table in a whisper, “I’m a scientist, Niala, not a criminal!”

She spoke even quieter, “If you wish to remain anything, you will take it.”

She straightened in her seat. He leaned so the camera would not see him affix the holster to the belt beneath his jacket, then sank back with a new weight to his hip. Niala gave a small, satisfied nod.

He muttered under his breath, “What the hell have I gotten myself into this time?”

The Nexus Project: Part 2

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Login: 12/6 04:30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Down here!”

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

“What’s it saying?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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