Poetry-Thing Thursday: Mote of Dust

Out among the stars,
amid the empty vacuum,
lays our fate,
our species’ collective end.
We come from nothingness,
and there we shall one day return.

Do not fear it,
for it is so far distant,
that before them the Earth,
will be gone–
even if by chance,
we manage to move on.

Fear not an end,
for it is only the beginning,
of something bold, new,
even if that is nothingness.
There’s nothing you can do,
so accept it and embrace life.

For time is ever marching us,
inexorably toward our doom,
which means to make the most,
of this mortal existence,
lest the end should come,
and you have no more beginnings.

Bear in mind we are,
but motes of dust,
on the wind and in the air,
in a gusting universe,
which seems endless,
and for us, is.

But do not let it,
burden your heart or mind,
for even the flap of an insect’s wing,
can cause a distant hurricane,
if channeled right,
prepared for flight.

Everything is a discovery,
for a mote of dust,
in a universe as large as ours.
Come to think of it,
I must admit,
I am a little jealous,
of future us.

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The Omega Device: Coming Soon!

Coming Soon!The Omega Device

Book I of the Ha-Shan Chronicles

When Tattooist Maggie Doherty’s client is found murdered, Detective Russell Williams discovers an identical tattoo on another, recent murder-victim. Her obvious innocence leaves Russell perplexed, and with little more than a promise of future aid from her.

But their brief association has unwittingly made them targets for a group known only as Omega. Both must swiftly accept that life as they know it has changed, and prepare to uncover secrets buried by time, or else fall in a battle that might determine the very fate of Humanity.

Excerpt, Chapter 6: Fight or Flight

Soft steps propelled her instincts. In a flash, she was digging in a cabinet, grabbing what she could. Bottles flew over the counter with reckless aim. The man grunted, cracked more shots off, then dodged from view.

She glanced at a single bottle of drain cleaner remaining. His heavy feet sounded. Her hands flew, grasped a large knife from a drawer. The feet hesitated. A hand unscrewed the cleaner’s cap.

Her heart pounded. Steps began again, reached the doorway. Maggie slid up the wall, flattened against it. She felt him shift for a view of the kitchen…

Coming soon to an Ebook seller near you!

Short Story: All in a Day’s Work

It was dark, dank. The whole place had a smell of mold and mildew. It was just like the places she’d hung around in her youth; abandoned basements with random, leaky pipes. The only difference was that she was above ground. A few hundred feet above it, actually. She wasn’t even sure what the hell could leak from this old junker. All she knew was that it was, and it felt more homely for it.

Izzy Merritt was twenty. She had all the markings of someone her age who’d lived with the streets and shadows as their home. Her brown dreadlocks, streaked with rainbow highlights, bore bone clasps and pipes interwoven with neutral colors. They accented the other, random objects like dyed feathers and random hemp twine. Enough piercings covered her face and ears for them to glint silver in passing, but not enough that any competed for view-time.

Her body bore the eccentricities of youth and street living too; rail-thin, almost emaciated. A sinuous strength said it spent as much time running from corps and cops as swaying to hypnotic trance beats. It had even infected her walk with a saunter that seemed crafted to tease and tantalize. Most would have called her a free spirit, though some derisively. Izzy, on the other hand, knew that was bullshit.

There was no such thing as freedom anymore. Not really. Either you fought the system, or it swallowed you whole. If there was anything Izzy was, it was a fighter. Maybe not physically, though she could hold her own, survive, but mentally. Brain-over-brawn attacks were just as effective, more so even, provided you knew what you were doing. At that, Izzy sure as hell knew what she was doing.

She presently stood in the bridge of a mostly hollowed-out freighter. Its gnarled corpse of steel and rust had come to rest in an ancient Tokyo harbor. CRTs for radar and informatics displays were still present in the place, despite being out of use for decades. Back in the day, they’d kept the ship on course or from running into others. Now they sat beneath layers of dust, puddles, and trash, as unused as any of the old gear like them. It was obvious the ship hadn’t run in decades.

Izzy figured as much. It was barely standing. It only remained above water because, aside from being taller than the harbor’s modest depth, it had come to a rest at a slight angle. Curiously enough, though it had been scrapped from roughly the mid-point to the stern, it remained sound enough to host a little street kid and her tech without much grief. She sensed she’d found something, if not permanent, temporary enough to call home.

The Bridge’s slight angle meant any thing cylindrical would roll away. She circumvented the issue by laying out her sleeping bag against the rear of a console. Ahead was another, but with enough space between them that she could lay out her bag and gear without issue.

She sat down, tattered backpack before her. She had a place to live now. Tokyo had been unforgiving lately, but it seemed karma was coming ’round to make her even again. Or at least, it would until she finished what she was about to do.

She dug through her pack for a laptop, set it on her lap. The odd protuberance of the battery in the rear bulged out awkwardly. The solar cell collector she’d installed was one of her own design, the battery it serviced even more-so. She’d created both to get around never having power outlets to jack into. The design and juice was more than ample, especially for what she was about to do.

She pulled up a list of net connections nearby, ran a brute-force software crack she’d designed. Thanks to the years of rising security, a WEP-key wasn’t difficult to crack anymore. Not for someone with a program like this. A command prompt opened, spooled out thousands of lines of code with each blink.

She pulled out a bag of Tokyo Cheeba to roll a joint and pass the time. Grass was easy to find now that most of the world had legalized it. Japan was still a ways behind in that regard, but it didn’t stop smugglers, traders, or everyday tourists from bringing the stuff in by the truck-full. It also made it easy for a street-kid to do five minutes of work, make it look like thirty, and walk away with a few ounces as payment for a job well done.

She sparked up the joint as the program cracked the WEP-key. The computer icon winked in the upper corner of her OS with a notification, “net connection complete on secure uplink: The Varden.”

It was one of the nearby freighters. She couldn’t say which, but calling a net connection something like that was what people hosting public access points did. “The this” or “the that,” or corp-name “guest network–” Things that only made them easier targets.

“Whatever,” she muttered for no reason in particular.

Her thoughts had been hectic lately, especially given her last “home” had been raided. She wasn’t the only one squatting there. In fact, she was one of a few dozen. Some asshole though, had got it in his head to mess with the Yakuza. Instead of just killing the guy outright, they’d sent in their corporate-security. Everyone scattered, scrambled for freedom– or rather, just fled. Some were gunned down. Others were arrested, printed, charged, and wouldn’t see daylight outside a corp-prison’s grounds for another twenty years, if ever.

She pulled up a pair of web browsers side-by side, fished a sheet of old-fashioned paper out of her pack. A list of numbers and words were scrawled on it, neatly spaced. With a series of quick clicks, she brought up logins for administrators of each of the sites. The banks would never know what happened. Her IP was masked, her MAC non-existent, and everything else identifying her a forged or stolen credential.

She flitted over to one window, keyed in an account number, then transferred a few thousand bitcoins into an account she’d memorized. She closed the window, repeated the process with the next, then closed it too. She slotted a chip into a reader on one side of the laptop, then keyed in a few commands on a prompt.

A few lines of code made a rubric with account numbers to one side, “transfer” in the middle, and a bit-currency amount to the right. The account balance below them read, “10,000;” somewhere around $500,000, if the US economy had ever survived.

She took a deep hit off her joint, shut the laptop, and kicked back. The banks could never trace the encryption on her bit-currency account– or any bit-currency account for that matter. That was the point. The black market functioned solely on that encryption, and there were a hell of a lot more people who wanted it that way than didn’t. Didn’t matter if they were on the corp’s side or not, bit-currency was here to stay, and so was the encryption.

She relaxed with a long exhale, felt the stoned haze descend. She gazed up at the dusty, dripping room, “It’ll work. With some new décor, anyhow.”

She laughed to herself. She could afford to buy a ship brand new now. But she wasn’t stupid. She wouldn’t blow all the creds at once.

She took another deep hit, exhaled slow, “All in a day’s work.”

The Nexus Project: Part 7

12.

Simon was barely able to stand. Both Niala and Rearden watched him fiercely, but somehow he managed to keep his feet under him. After countless doses of morphine and blood, he was more substance than man, and with the Lion-like will, he was all the more a beast. There was a determination in his eyes that said he would go through unimaginable hells to find the truth now, especially given the one he’d already been through.

When the doors opened on the top level of the admin building, it was to the scene so common to the non-lab locations of the facility; cubicles, creatures, and halls full of named doors. It seemed nothing had changed since the attack and betrayal by one of their inner-most. Even when they passed the spot where Josie nearly decapitated Simon, there was little more than a lingered glance to set it apart.

The maintenance bots had done an A-rate job cleaning up the blood spatters and pool from the walls and floor. As programmed, they’d eradicated all traces of the attack. Joise’s empty desk before Frost’s door was the only left out of place. Visibly, she might’ve merely been out to lunch, or perhaps on an errand for her scatter brained, Corvian boss.

Frost’s office-door flew open, nearly fell of its hinges. The Crow turned with a start. His wings flapped wildly and his chest heaved in a squawk.

Simon stormed toward him. He trembled reply, “Great skies, you gave me a fright!”

Simon planted both arms on the desk, leaned over it so that his bandaged stitches occupied one side of the bird’s view and his head the other. He grated sand-paper words against his wounded throat, “You. Will. Tell us. Everything.” The bird’s head tilted slightly to better view him, an obvious confusion in the movement. Simon alleviated it with a throaty fire, “Nexus Project. Deep Space. Colonization.”

Frost’s eyes enlarged to black holes, “Wh-what’re you t-talking about?”

Niala rounded behind Frost, spun him in his chair to meet her eyes. She held out a paw at him, pads up, and tensed her claws, “Start talking or I start playing bat the twine with your organs.”

He gave a squawk, “How dare you! You think you can come in here and threaten me!? I’ll have your job for this!”

“Go ahead,” Niala growled. “Try it. Then I can cut you in half for what you’ve done.”

“I’ve done nothing!

“Liar,” she hissed. “You’ve already begun building a prototype. All of our work’s just a smokescreen, a cross-check of your math. You and the Federation want to keep Deep-Space a secret, colonize it before the general public catches on.”

He was irate, “Martin you’ve lost your mind, I would never–”

“You would. You have. Now sing or I start cutting.”

His eyes followed her razor-sharp claws toward his throat. His head involuntarily eased backward, neck stiffened. He swallowed something with difficulty, began to stammer, “I-I d-didn’t have a choice, Niala. I swear it. The Federation was going to p-pull our funding if we didn’t cooperate. The HAA was going to allow it. S-so I divided the labor to keep everyone off the scent.”

“What. Scent?” Simon demanded with a scratch.

Frost’s beady eyes look lowered than a rat’s caught in a trash can. They darted between the Human and Lioness, “O-our research fund is d-double what it should be. I needed to hide the cause.”

“So you consigned us to a fool’s errand,” Niala snarled.

“N-no,” He insisted. “No. I swear. The research is genuine. The Federation wanted me to finalize the technology to work on mass-production once they’d established their outposts.”

Niala eased back, more confused than she let on. Her claws retracted, “Why the farce? Why hide it all if the Human Federation didn’t plan on keeping the colonies for themselves?”

He swallowed something less rough this time. “The political situation outside Sol is delicate at best. At worst, it is almost total anarchy. That kind of anarchy is exactly what the Zelphods want.”

Niala’s eyes narrowed; Zelphods. There was a word she hadn’t heard in nearly a decade. The Zelphods were the alien creatures that had caused the First Contact War. It was they, vicariously, that had allowed the Federation to remain in power. Directly, they’d been the hand to force the latent humanoid evolution on the animals. The Contact War had nearly eliminated their race. So far as anyone knew, they’d fled to the fringes of space to wither and die as a species.

Contrary to many popular theories, First Contact had not come from a radically advanced species intent on harvesting Earth. Instead, it came from a slightly advanced species. The Zelphods were barely capable of interstellar flight, had only just begun to venture between the voids of systems. They’d done so by way of generational colony ships, launched when their sun had begun to go nova. No one was sure where their home-world was anymore, but after generations, they’d found their way to Sol.

Despite their extreme, alien features (evolved from a largely silicone-based existence,) Zelphods had sought Earth due to its high Volcanic activity and liquid oceans. Requiring sulfuric acid to breathe, they were never seen outside their suits, which inflected a curious, wingless praying mantis quality about them. They were undoubtedly insect-like, but only a few knew of their actual appearance.

Niala, however, knew the Zelphods had been pushed back after the Human “Federation” organized the HAA, or Human-Animal Alliance, an organization devoted to interspecies cooperation and governance. Both man and animal fought and died side-by-side to ensure the sovereignty of their system. Meanwhile, what was captured or reverse-engineered from the Zelphod tech had raised both Human and Animal to their current status in under three decades.

Unfortunately, First Contact had also allowed for the Federation to gain massive power as the only, official protective outfit Sol had. Though Humans and Animals served together, the Federation gave the latter little power to affect change. What was more, the few that gained such prestige generally sided with their Human colleagues. Where people like Niala and Simon saw compromise for the better of all, those like Josie saw sworn fealty.

Such was the nature of Sol’s politics.

Niala mused aloud for the others’ sake, “So the anti-humanists steal the data, ensure light is shed on the project, and that the Federation comes under political pressure once the information leaks. But why risk all of Sol? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Because,” Simon said carefully. “If you. Control Deep-Space. You control. Who lives there.”

Niala shook her head, “Keep humans out? That’s impossible. They have to know that.”

Frost suddenly spoke up, “Not if they already have the prototype’s plans. If so, they may intend to use them, get there first. If so, they’ll like destroy the prototype as well.”

Niala looked back to Frost, “We need to know where it’s being built. Getting there before Josie may be the only way to stop them.”

The vid-phone on Frost’s desk rang, answered with a habitual sqwuak. Gnarl appeared, “Sir, we’ve found Josie. She’s boarding a transport for Ganymede.”

“Ganymede?” Simon said.

“We’ll go,” Niala insisted. “I have contacts there.” She turned away. Simon followed. They stepped out and she spoke sideways at Simon, “Snow wants his pound of flesh. He’ll get her to talk.”

13.

The shuttle rides to the hub and Ganymede beyond were desolate. It seemed as if all of Sol had left the two pursuers to their prey, wishing to remain as far from the action as possible. Simon was partially thankful for that. At least there were no beings attempting to kill him. While he’d been adamant about tagging along, he was hardly recovered. Not being able to speak without knee-buckling agony didn’t help. He felt all the more out of place, mute.

He’d barely had time to adjust to the idea that someone had stolen his work before learning he’d been framed. Then, when Niala released him, he’d been told to accept the sordid state of affairs and her contacts before being face-to-face with their terrifying reality. The first attack saw him freeze up, fumble. He’d have been dead were it not for his bot and Lioness companions. All this to say nothing of learning a friend had perpetrated the attack, then cut his throat once confronted about it.

He knew Josie, well enough to call her friend, at least. She was more than a face in a hall at any rate. He was head researcher of the Plasma Propulsion Lab, the only people above him Niala and Frost. Such a position meant semi-regular meetings and interactions with the Feline. To say they were pleasant would miss the obvious, retrospective taint. Now he saw her stoned facade had hidden everything.

Josie was the last being in Sol Simon would’ve expected to betray the ISC, let alone harbor such grudges. Perhaps that was what made her so excellent at the job; she blended perfectly, invisible to– a thought suddenly occurred to him.

He produced his data-pad, scribbled to Niala across the table: When would they have planted Josie? Why force her to move now? What else could have been sabotaged but wasn’t?

Niala read the pad with a glance, “I don’t understand.”

He elaborated: If Josie’s been an anti-humanist mole all this time, they know playing things slow and subtle was best. But they hit hard, drew attention to themselves. Even if I hadn’t found the log, they were very obviously tapping our network. Why be so blunt?

Niala caught on, “If Josie was really in on it from the start we’d have seen more damage.”

He nodded along; That just begs the question–

“Of it’s really Josie.”

Rearden watched. A series of binary words beeped out. Simon eyed the bot skeptically, head cocked sideways in confusion. Evidently its insight was perplexing to its creator.

“What’s he saying?” Niala asked curiously.

Simon wrote a single word on the tablet; MeLons.

Niala squinted with a visual turning of gears. It made sense. How the faux-Josie might’ve fooled Security raised more, important questions. However, for a MeLon to duplicate and remove her, two important things had to happen. One, was the obvious removal of the original Josie, likely accomplished overnight. Then also, a period where the MeLon studied her mannerisms, work schedule, social responses. It would’ve needed to become Josie to play her so well. However tantalizing an explanation, the ISCs extensive security wasn’t easy to fool.

Niala admitted reservations, “I don’t know, Simon. It’s a stretch. Forgetting everything else, how would they have made it past the Hounds alone?”

Rearden gave a few beeps that seemed to smack reality across Simon’s face. He scribbled mindlessly as he stared in thought; Pheromone Milking and IR-tech.

Niala gave the pad a critical look that flitted between Simon and Rearden, then back again, “Then Josie may be alive somewhere.”

Simon’s stomach rose at the thought. Josie wasn’t a murderer. She wasn’t even a spy or a thief. She was just another victim of the ridiculous scheme that seemed more illogical the more they learned of it. How long had she been held captive? What state was she in? More importantly, where was she being held? Ganymede? Somewhere else? Were they chasing a phantom, hoping to outsmart a prey that’d already eluded them?

The more questions Simon thought to ask, the less he wanted to ask them. A morbid illness spread across his face, worsened at the look Niala imparted between them.

“There’s something else we need to consider.” He gave a nod to usher her onward. “If there a MeLon is involved, we can’t take chances. They could be anyone when we reach Ganymede.”

He nodded in agreement, scrawled; Snow needs to be confirmed, then we keep him close.

She affirmed with a look that said more than her words could. Ganymede entailed its own risks, but MeLons were an utterly different story. They were the apex predator in a system that no longer had a place for the predator-prey relationship. Evolved creatures such as Niala, were the new nature of things. Wild animals still existed, but were hardly comparable. MeLons were a potent mixture of both worlds, able to affect change on planetary and system-wide scales with little more effort than an ant following a scent trail. What was more, they tended to do so solely out of spite, their kind too dangerous for society at large. It was an unfortunate reality of their new nature. Those that understood usually used their camouflage to blend, or else lived as exiles outside major colonies.

Something more concerned Niala now though. She ensured it showed before she spoke to Simon’s full attention. She hesitated to speak it; so much had already happened, she wished not to think of it getting worse. “If the MeLon’s cover is now blown, Josie’s a loose end. It won’t need her anymore. It’s only a matter of time before it kills her.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE LOGBOOK!

So here it is, a year since I began regularly posting to the Logbook. Essentially, a year since its birth. A lot’s been said, or rather typed, and I couldn’t be more pleased by the result. I’m eternally grateful to everyone who’s read my work. It always makes my day when I receive comments, likes, and follows, or see the stats page with its ever-growing numbers. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life but writing, and I sincerely hope the past year is just the start of things.

With all of that in mind, let’s get down to brass tacks: I’ve posted tons of work, and will continue to, but there’s something else lingering on the horizon– or rather, a few things. First and foremost is my book, The Omega Device.

For those unaware, I’ve written a book (several actually) that is about to be self-published. Why? Simply, I don’t care to wait for agents and publishers anymore. I’ve put over five years of blood, sweat, and yes even tears, into this book. It’s the culmination of a lot of things in my life. From the time of its first draft to now its final, I’ve struggled to find purchase as both a writer and a person. Now however, I feel I can take a leap of faith and maybe not splat on the ground quite so terribly as I might have before.

And that is largely due to all of you, readers.

The next thing, is the Logbook Archives. If you’re a regular to the site, or simply have explored beyond the main page, you may have seen the Logbook Archives page which lists all of my posted works. Its usually updated every few weeks. You may also have seen the previous posts where I’ve talked about collecting them into an ebook. Well I just want to assure everyone, that will soon be happening. It will be released shortly after The Omega Device, and will be found wherever it can be hosted.

Lastly, there is one other thing. I’ve always tried to refrain from talking too much about money. I don’t care for the subject, and it turns a lot of people off (myself included.) That said, it’s always going to be something I have to address as a starving artist-type. So to make it easier for all involved, in addition to my book release, I will also be starting a Patreon page for those who want to donate to keep me writing. (If you don’t want to donate, please disregard this and buy the book instead.)

Before I go, I also want to say; (though I don’t want to get too mushy, or personal, because as I’ve said, I prefer my writing to speak for itself.) It is extremely heartwarming and humbling to have put part of myself “out there” and not have it bludgeoned into oblivion. Most of my life I’ve struggled with extreme anxiety. For a writer, that’s a dangerous condition. Against my better self-preservation instincts, I began to post what I’d been working on for years. The confidence you, readers, have helped to impart has allowed me to continue on to new works that have surpassed even my wildest expectations.

As much as I do it for myself, I also write for all of you. I have a strangely, innate ability to distance myself from my work enough to read it as a reader might. I’ve found myself both laughing at and along with myself, being thrilled, suspended over precipices, and strung along excited with the rest of you. I continue to do what I do so that we can share in that together, even if part of me also does it to remain sane.

So before I belabor things too much (too late!) I want to say thank you, and I hope the next year’s even more fruitful than the last. Thank you for an amazing first year!

SMN

P.S: Just so you all know I’m not just talk, I present the cover to The Omega Device, coming soon to a digital bookstore near you! (I’m still in the process of purchasing the font rights, so don’t sue me.)

Coming Soon!

Short Story: Schokolade Mit Liebe

A lone match struck in the darkness, flared to strength and cast an orb of dim light on an aged, graying face. It leaned into spark a cigarette off the sulfuric flame, extinguished it with a breath and a hint of a putrid stench. The darkness returned save a lone, glowing ember at the cigarette’s end.

A thick German accent sounded over a high, aristocratic voice, “You’ve no idea who I am, do you, Herr Butler?”

The man across the darkness swiveled his head, struggled against the binds that lashed his arms and legs to a metal chair. “What the hell’s going on?” He asked through panic-breaths. “Who are you? What do you want with me?”

The cigarette glowed brighter from a deep drag as a third man in the darkness struck Butler with a heavy fist. He yelped, almost toppled sideways from the force. He went silent. Tears welled in his eyes. The German gave a breathy exhale, enunciated each word as though chocolate meant to be savored, “You have stolen something very precious to me.”

“I-I don’t know what your t-talking about–”

He shouted over Butler, “Betrüger!

Another heavy blow flooded his mouth with blood and salty sweaty. He did topple this time. It was slow, or perhaps instant, but he felt himself hang on two legs for then tumble to his shoulder like some kind of stunned droid.

The German sighed defeat as he rubbed his forehead between his eyes, “Herr Roke, erhohen mein freund, bitte.”

A primal grunt stuttered with amusement. Then, with an effortless stoop, the monstrous creature lifted Butler and the chair, flipped them in mid-air to right them on the floor with a singular motion. Butler felt the beast’s presence span twice the size of a common brick-wall over the scent of a back-alley ashtray soaked in stale beer. Butler would have dry-heaved were he not too occupied by fear.

The German spoke graciously, “Danke, Herr Roke.” He leaned forward so that the cherry of his cigarette inflected a minor light across his Aryan features. “Now, Herr Butler, I say again; you have stolen something precious of mine and I would like it back.” His voice lowered venomously, “Where is die zeitsteuereinheit?”

Butler was lost; he knew no German, let alone whatever the hell a Zeiten-heimer was,“I d-don’t know what you’re talking about?”

The man mumbled German at the ceiling with defeat that apexed into a clearer phrase, “Herr Roke?”

A heavy thud thumped the back of Butler’s head, meant to jarr his thoughts. He was pretty sure he felt marbles roll around in his brain when the world started to spin. His head fell forward in a daze. Another German mumble, almost cheerfully annoyed, and the cherry flared up, gave way to a bright flood-light on the wall to the left. It blinded Butler as his head rose again. There was nothing but the light– and darkness on either side of it– as loafers shuffled over concrete.

A metal clinking began somewhere in the room’s depths. Given the pungent smoke’s ailing waft, Butler guessed the German had displaced himself. A moment later, the metal sounds gave way to the scuff of loafers that approached through the shadows.

The German was merely an average-sized silhouette with something small in its hand. Identification of the object was impossible through the watery spinning of Butler’s vision. While his eyes welled wet, his mouth dried. The German leaned toward his neck, protuberance in-hand over the reek of a recent, expensive cologne bath. He injected something into Butler’s neck. Heat crept through him, small and insidious, as if his internal thermostat had been jacked all the way up. He felt his brow grow wetter, mouth drier, his t-shirt cold around his armpits.

“Now, Herr Butler,” the German said as he turned back for his seat. He sank into it with the satisfied groan of an old man, “Nature is a beautiful thing, is it not? It has lived longer than anything in the universe– it is the universe, in fact– and especially on Earth, it is a wonderfully complex and varied organism.”

Butler felt his tongue fatten. Sweat flowed like a leaky garden hose. He wanted to cry harder, but wasn’t sure how to. He didn’t know what the German wanted, nor why he seemed to so presently hell-bent on his ecology lecture. All he knew was small, throbbing waves of heat turning to molten lava with each second.

“As with all great organisms,” the German was saying. “Nature has found a way to take something simple, and build off it, as a foundation if you will.” He made a small, refined gesture. “I have just injected you with Formic Acid, Herr Butler. In moments your innards will feel as if they have been held to the core of the Earth.”

Butler already felt that, couldn’t imagine it getting any worse– in fact, he didn’t want to try, “B-but, I’m j-just an average guy. I d-don’t know about your Zeitenheimer.”

The German sighed, “Herr Roke, have you ever known a man to survive the Formic Acid?”

“Nein, Herr Schmidt,” Roke said with a bestial rasp.

“Believe him, if not me, Herr Butler,” Schmidt said.

The acid increased its toll; Butler trembled, shook more with each breath, “B-but I s-s-swear, I d-don’t kn-know anything.”

The German seemed disappointed rather than angry, “Perhaps, then, your wife will tell us.”

Wife? What wife?I don’t have a wife.

“W-wife? Wh-what wife?” Butler asked. “I d-don’t h-have a wife.”

“Herr Buttler, we know all about you, you need not lie; you are Roger Butler, your wife is Penny, und we know where she is,” the German warned casually “If you do not tell us what we want to know, we may have to escalate our interrogation.”

“B-but I-I’ve n-never b-been married!” Butler shouted through the pain.

“Herr Schmidt!” A new voice said from across the room.

“Ja? Excuse me for a moment,” he said politely as he passed the flood-light for a door behind Butler. There was a hushed whisper, then Schmidt’s voice, “Und you’re certain?” Another hurried whisper, then, “Very well.”

Schmidt passed through the floodlight again for the opposite end of the room. There was a shuffle of loafers, another sound of rifled metal, and Schmidt reappeared to inject something else into Butler’s neck.

Schmidt stepped back as Butler felt the pain lessen, “Herr Butler, I must apologize, you are… uh, the wrong man.” He nodded at Roke behind him. A grunt sounded before massive, meaty hands tugged at the knots that bound Butler to the chair. “Please accept my sincerest apologies.”

Roke pulled the last of the binds free, yanked Butler up. Schmidt maneuvered him toward the door, “It would be best if we parted ways– perhaps better if you spoke of this to no-one.”

In the daze of pain, drugs, and the acid’s antagonist, Butler hardly comprehended his surroundings as he was ushered into the hall. When his mind focused again, he was turned ’round, facing Schmidt from the far-side of a doorway, and half-blind from the bright hall-way around him.

“Guten Abend, Herr Butler, pray we do not meet again,” Schmidt said.

The door shut. Butler stared at it a moment longer than he ought’ve, his mind ablaze with questions. They’d obviously had the wrong man, he’d known that from the start, but what convinced them? He suddenly recognized a gift horse’s mouth and bolted in terror. The exit signs along the bright hallways led him into a city’s back-alley in late afternoon. He kept running, faster than any software engineer could or should, all the way through town to his apartment, and inside a closet at its rear. He cowered there in fear, terrified into sleep atop his hugged knees.

He was awoken by heavy knocks on the door that pestered him incessantly. He crept from the closet, hugged the walls along the bedroom, inched out, then sprinted to the door’s peephole. A delivery-man stood on the other side with flowers and chocolates.

He cracked open the door, “Y-yes?”

“Delivery for R. Butler,” the man said casually.

“Wh-what is it? Who’s it from?”

“Cards in the flowers, sir, I just deliver ’em.” Butler hesitated, inched the door open enough for the delivery to slide through. The man passed through a tablet with a stylus, “Sign, please.”

Butler’s shaky hand scrawled a signature, passed it back. A moment later the door shut, the delivery on the kitchen table. Butler lifted the card that read, “Sorry about the torture. Schokolade mit Liebe, H.S.

Butler’s eyes rolled back into his head as he passed out.

The Nexus Project: Part 6

10.

The trio had left Snow’s lair only to gather their things and depart for Phobos. They leap-frogged between stations and shuttles to once more return to the ISC. The line of protesters outside had thinned. They currently chanted something about equal liberties and that lycra suits were a violation of rights. Personally, even Niala didn’t want her “people” shedding all over clean rooms and sanitized labs. Simon agreed, all the while knowing the news-cycle had rolled over again.

They returned to Gnarl’s office. The hound was slumped behind his desk, looking appropriately dog-tired. He hadn’t slept since before their departure. This much was obvious. His eyes were red, and the foul scent of old whiskey hung in the air around him. Rearden was the only one to escape it unscathed.

Niala stepped in first, smacked by the wall of sour liquor, “Holy hell, Gnarl!” His usually perky, Labrador eyes looked up with a blood-hound’s droop, “What’ve you done to yourself?”

Gnarl’s head hung in shame. For a moment he looked like one of his lesser relatives that had just piddled on the floor. Simon stopped at Niala’s side just as Gnarl whimpered, “I… I can’t take it anymore.” He shook his head in small descending waves, “I can’t take Frost’s anxiety, or Josie’s stoned flakiness, or the protesters’ threats… or anything.”

Simon and Niala shared a confusion before the latter shook it off, “What’re you talking about, Gnarl? We’re gone three days and we come back to find you soused to the muzzle.”

He stood behind his desk with a sway that nearly toppled him. He managed to brace himself on a paw before he went fully over. It made a loud scuff as he angled around the desk, tripped on a chair leg, then fell into a sit on the desk’s edge.

Niala steadied him with her paws, “Gnarl, you need sleep, peace. Go home. We can wait.”

He heaved a sigh that wheezed with a high-pitch, then managed to stand under his own power. Niala spotted him past, then watched him weave along the hall for the elevators.

“I can’t believe Frost’s done that to him,” Simon said curiously.

Niala took Gnarl’s place on the desk’s edge. Rearden eased over and down into a chair. Niala kept her head down, a paw at her chin in thought.

“You look intense,” Simon said.

She met his eyes, “I’ve known Frost over a decade. He’s meticulous, high-strung, and easy to provoke, but he’s also easily distracted.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So…” Her eyes swept the office. “This doesn’t make sense. The theft is important, a big deal, but even Frost should’ve calmed down by now, especially once he learned we were clearing things up.”

Simon nodded along, “Instead he’s gotten worse.”

“Which means someone’s making him worse– either by design or unintentionally.”

“And since we know the breach came from inside the complex,” Simon began. “It’s a fair-bet whomever’s responsible is keeping Frost that way to impede Gnarl’s investigation.”

Niala rose from the desk, “We need to see Frost.”

Simon hustled after her. Rearden’s thrusters once more engaged, whizzed along behind them. The ISC complex passed by at a jog, it’s barrier glowing in the distance around the random assortment of buildings that all bordered on large or larger. Their steel and cement exteriors perfectly matched the steel and cement grounds broken up by deliberately placed grasses and plants. Simon never cared much for the illusion of beauty. It seemed dishonest, pointless even. The scientists and various staff spent their lives indoors or underground. On the rare occasions they passed through here, it was unlikely they’d focus on them for even a half-second.

They made for the admin building, passed blood-hounds inside that confirmed their identities, and up an elevator for Frost’s office on the top-floor. It lay at the edge of a wide, open reception-area with Josie’s desk to one-side and a couch and coffee-table across from it. Various, disposable magazine-tablets lay across it. Their glowing covers only barely registered in the bright room. They made for the door past Josie’s desk with Frost’s name and title on it, but were stopped with a word.

“Soorrrry,” she said with her stoned purr. “He’s not seeing anyone.”

Niala stopped, her paw on the knob and a thought perched on her face that Simon couldn’t follow. She whirled toward Josie, “For how long?”

“Hmmm?” Josie replied.

Niala’s eyes beacme pointed, “How long has it been since he saw anyone?”

Josie’s eyes widened to take in her primal-looking cousin, “Mmm, since the theft. I’ve been in and out, but he’s not let anyone else in.”

Niala eased out of a lean for Simon’s side, her back to Josie as she whispered sideways to him, “She’s the only one that’s seen him.”

He did his best not to react, “You really think–”

“I do.”

Niala whirled around, “Josie, when was the last time you were in there?”

The feline was obviously on-guard now, her eyes wider, more sober, “Not sure… why?”

“And you haven’t let anyone else into this office?”

The cat seemed to be catching on to something, replied slowly, “No…”

“Would you follow me to Gnarl’s office please, I have some–”

Josie launched herself across the room. Her reflexes landed her behind Simon. She had him by the throat, claws out. She angled him around, hid behind his shoulder with only her eyes visible.

“Make a move and I take off his head!” She hissed.

Niala leaned with a growl. They made small circles of the room. Simon’s neck stiffened as his feet followed Josie’s path. Niala countered, waited to strike. Rearden remained over the couch, frozen with inaction.

“Why Josie?” Niala asked as they circled.

The cat was no longer stoned. She probably never had been. “You have no idea the power the Nexus Project is going to take from us.”

“Who is us?

Simon swallowed hard against Josie’s razor-sharp claws. They tapped at his neck. “Ni–”

Josie squeezed, “Shut up, human.”

Niala caught the ire in her words. “You’re an anti-humanist. One of the hate-groups that think the ISC’s just a cover for the human agenda.”

“I don’t think it,” Josie hissed. She squeezed Simon’s neck, half-drug him along the widening path. “I know it. All of your funding comes from human organizations. Their governments, colonies, their trade hubs, politicians. You’re no less leashed than you were before First Contact.”

Niala bared her teeth, snarled, “You’re a fool. You and everyone like you. We aren’t enemies. Humans and animals don’t have to be at odds. It’s people like you that put us that way. Your agenda’s what leashes you. Your hatred.”

Josie stopped before the open hallway, her claws poised over Simon’s jugular, “You’d never understand, Matriarch. You’re just another creature who’s raped your chance for culture in exchange for human gain. You whored it, and yourself, out for acceptance in their world!”

“Fool,” Niala hissed. “You have no idea what you’re doing.”

“In fact I do,” Josie said. She began to inch backward, step-by-step, “You don’t know what the Nexus Project is. Few do. I am one of them.”

“Care to enlighten me?” Niala asked, stalking forward with Josie’s steps. “What would be so worth betraying your friends, your colleagues? Risking your life by threatening others’, stealing from those that trusted you?”

She hissed with a fleck of spittle, “You think I care you domess human-lovers? You’re pathetic!”

“Let him go, Josie,” Niala demanded with a step. “Face the one that isn’t defenseless.”

“I’m not stupid domess.” Her eyes narrowed. “You could rip me in half. But you’ll find being smart is about knowing when to run.” She pressed her nails against Simon’s throat. He felt a trickle of blood leak down to his chest. “If you want him alive, you’ll stop where you are.”

“I can’t do that and you know it,” Niala sneered.

Josie finally stopped, “Then I’ll make sure you don’t follow me.”

Her nails flashed, punctured. In a swipe blood spilled down Simon’s neck. Josie was gone. The elevator was already headed downward before Niala reached Simon. He fell to his knees. Rearden squealed and beeped. An alarm rang out. Niala kept pressure on the wound, whispered to him. Doors opened all along the floor, Frost’s included. Eyes from human and animal alike fell to Simon.

Niala roared, “Someone call the fucking medics!” She glanced back at Frost, “Now!”

The crow flew for Josie’s telephone, sqwaked incoherently as Simon lost consciousness.

11.

When Simon next awoke, it was to the sounds of a steady beep from both Rearden and the heart monitor. Somewhere to his side he felt Niala’s presence. One of his eyes eased open to glance over the room; Niala stood before the door, whispered to someone obscured by his clouded eyes and her large, gowned figure.

He opened his mouth to speak, managed a throaty rasp that set his larynx ablaze. Were the pain not so intense he might have whimpered. All the same Rearden beeped, whizzed over. Niala whipped ’round to reveal the weaselly-figure of the Muroidean Simon had seen in her office. He wiped at his hands with a rat-like motion, then weaseled off. Niala knelt beside Simon, stroked his head with a soft paw and a purr. He opened his mouth, thought better of it.

She nodded, “Don’t speak. Your throat’s been cut. Do you remember what happened?” He gave a solitary nod. “We’re looking into her now, but we think “Josie” was falsified. Gnarl and his teams are scouring the facility. All transports off-planet were immediately locked down after the attack.”

He swallowed hard with teary eyes, readied to speak.

She shushed him, “There’s only one way she can get off Phobos, and that’s if she’s got her own transport hidden somewhere. More importantly, there’s only one place she can go within range to refuel– the Earth-Mars Hub. Gnarl’s already got an alert out for her.”

He gave a small nod, made a motion as if to write. She understood, excused herself for a moment. Rearden began a series of quiet, remorseful beeps, as though feeling solely responsible for the attack. He waved Rearden over with a tired hand, patted a bare spot on the bed. Rearden sank into place, thrusters off. Simon laid hand atop the bot, comforted it with a dutiful pat.

Whatever Josie– or whoever she was– was involved with, clearly didn’t intend to coexist with the Human-Animal Alliance, let alone the ISC. But what was the Nexus Project, and how did it play into it? The cat had said something about it taking power from her people; was it then, something that could be used against those that didn’t sympathize? A weapon of some sort? Or was that simply more rhetoric, something twisted and mangled from a scrap of misinterpreted truth?

Simon wasn’t sure, and the more he thought about it, the more he needed to be. Someone had deliberately targeted him, not once, but three times; first they’d tried to drag his name through the dirt, his reputation, then they’d taken a shot at him on Ganymede, now they’d outright attacked him in the form of Josie. There was no way he could escape the unrelenting hold the mystery had, even less so the cross-hairs his joint investigation had placed on him.

Niala returned a moment later, data-pad and stylus in-hand, “Here. It’s the best I could find.”

He took the small, digital-tablet in one hand, scrawled over it with the stylus: What is the Nexus Project? He held it up at her.

She shrugged, “I don’t know, Simon. You know as well as I do we’ve been compartmentalized to avoid leaks.”

Didn’t work. He replied sarcastically. She rolled her eyes. He scrawled out, what do you know?

She took a moment to think before she replied, “Apart from your research into more efficient plasma engines?” He gave a nod. “I was working on navigational software. It’s not a stretch to assume the Project has something to do with space-flight.”

He scribbled, Do you know what anyone else is working on?

She thought longer this time, “Someone’s working on deep-space telemetry, but I don’t see how–”

That’s it! He wrote in massive script. He tapped wildly at the data-pad. She gave him a confused look. He scribbled out a word formula; Better engines+Better Nav-software+DS Telem= deep space flight.

Niala was hit by a brick wall of logic. Then, an epiphany manifested on her face, “Frost’s putting together a deep-space flight prototype… All of the information collected here will be shipped off-planet to a manufacturing facility. Eventually all of that will be used to begin deeper colonization.”

And if we’re in charge, the anti-humanists believe the ISC will keep the tech proprietary, Simon added. Niala agreed. That’s why they took the data. To make sure what they have’s consistent with what we have.

Niala sighed, “But none of that makes sense. We’ve barely begun the project. Why now? Why steal unfinished research?” The answer came to them simultaneously, but Niala was the only one able to speak it aloud. “Because the prototype is already being built… and the research is just a smoke-screen.”

We need to talk to Frost. Simon wrote.

Niala was stuck in her thoughtful stare before her eyes fell back to the tablet, “No, I’ll go. You’re not in any condition to–”

He scrawled, They tried to kill me. Twice.

“And they nearly did this time.”

He pushed himself up in the bed, fought agony to speak in a rasp, “I. Am. Going.”

She looked him over with a grimace. IV-lines ran from various parts of his body. Heart and respiration monitors were connected to him via wires. They beeped steadily, giving the whole scene a pitiful, macabre look. A steel determination in Simon’s eyes had shifted the tone bitterly. Niala had only ever seen such a look in others of her kind. When locked in combat for mates or honor, Lions could be the most stubborn-willed creatures ever evolved. Now, Simon appeared to have inherited their will.

With a lone blink and a small bow of her head, she relented and acquiesced.