Short Story: Ar-Mur of Ganymede

Arthur “Ar-Mur” Martin was the angriest-looking Chimpanzee the Evolved had yet to produce. Like most species, Contact had forever altered Ar-Mur’s people. Mostly for the primates, it just pissed them off– after mutating them into super agile, ultra-intelligent murder-machine adrenaline junkies.

They weren’t all that way, of course. Ever were the outliers– though even they were afflicted, however carefully restrained or reserved in their demeanors otherwise. The plight of the Evolved was really that most were still coming to grips with their own existences. To say nothing of the chaos of finding places in Solsian society.

Still, few were forced to come to terms with what their own cousins had done to them.

Humans had exacted the most terrible, irreconcilable and awful horrors imaginable on every species in their environment– and the environment itself at times. Everything from cannibalism to enslavement, with no modicum of depravity missed en-route. Their only saving grace was that they’d done all these same horrible things to themselves.

There was comfort in that for some, if not all. None would have entertained it in Ar-Mur’s presence. Even the most blithe, belligerent idiot would’ve gone silent with respect.

Ar-Mur was a chimp not to be fucked with.

Like similar-minded Evolved, Ar-Mur dwelt with a subset of dregs in one of Sol’s least orderly communities; Ganymede. His hard-won respect, wealth, and power there, stemmed from extensive mercenary and smuggler work. Highly skilled in martial combat, he’d procured every luxury one could desire– to say nothing of the vast necessities stockpiled for health and occupational-hazards.

Ar-Mur’s little corner of the Ganymeden skid-row was a compound disguised by foggy, sweat-lined streets and the general obscurity of poor infrastructure. It was anything but, and prepared for war by any whom might try take it. Whether the Cougar-fuck Saffron’s anti-wank goons or Emperor-Asshole himself, Lord Snow; he’d fight for what was wrongfully his.

Yet presently, a punk-kid stood before him. And wasn’t going away. Worse, a Human.

His tattered leathers said he knew all about the darker-side of Sol’s social necessities. And, Ar-Mur postulated correctly, knew all of the rumors about himself and likely many truths, too. The smug fuck was just standing there, grinning smugly.

A scarlet and teal mohawk stabbed the air with short, lethal-looking spikes. Ar-Mur’d hated the disproportionate state of the human-head already, never knew he could hate it more. Plus, the punk’s black-mirrored lenses hid his eyes, meaning– Ar-Mur guessed, he was technically blind.

The elective kind.

He’d have had his optic nerves re-geared for neo-vision. For punks and hackers, it was like seeing the world through a 3D matrix-space. The punk would see as a bot-might; digitally. Ar-Mur didn’t like it, but cared only that the punk had breached security. He’d made it in undetected.

That was bad. Catastrophically so.

Ar-Mur refocused; the punk’s hands were bound pointlessly behind his back. Ar-Mur’d already caught the gleaming chrome beneath the leather overcoat. More electives. The scent of new, illegitimate money was the only reason Ar-Mur hadn’t immediately killed him. He was up for hire.

Hiring was always better than murder, if only because it decreased turn-over.

“You gonna’ say sumfing?” The punk asked.

Ar-Mur’s head tilted sardonically, a corner of his mouth rose to bared a few disgruntled teeth. Enough to shut the kid up again.

He waited a few more minutes to say anything, allowing himself to indulge in a drink in the meeting room. It was a throne room, really; though Ar-Mur never called it that. Everyone else did. Probably, because it contained a single chair embedded with countless screen projectors, function switches, and plain ‘ol comfort.

It wasn’t a throne, Ar-Mur knew. Nor was Snow or his rivals’. They were simply the command-chairs for their armies’ compounds. From there a Commander was scanned, their genetic markers verified, and access granted or authorized. The actual workings were technical, and unimportant to the Chimp or Wolf commanding them.

The less he knew needlessly, the more he could devote to important matters. Chief among them, how the fuck this pip-squeak pissant creature’d found his way in completely undetected. He knew he had, too; that he’d only been caught from dumb-luck. Shianni would still be howling if a medic, hadn’t drugged her to sleep.

Lucky bitch.

Simple curiosity might have been enough to indulge in an interrogation– advanced or not. Curiosity came second to security though. He found his in. He’d get the truth out of the kid one way or the other.

“Perimeter sensors encircle our entire block, from sewer-to-sky. If an ant sneezes a thousand feet above me I know it.”

He rose from the throne on lean-muscled limbs, their speed and agility obvious even through the layered clothing, armor, and cloak he wore.

He stopped just before the punk, “I will ask only once or I will kill you; how the fuck did you get in here?”

He grinned from ear-to-ear, “Li’ kis.”

In a blink he was gone. Ar-Mur stiffened up, listening. No sounds. Only a vague, mammalian scent. Foreign. Nearby. Ar-Mur closed his eyes. A not-quite light enough step. Ar-Mur spun, grabbed the punk by his throat and threw him against the floor. Still invisible, the kid’s astonishment was mired beneath a choking fit and groaning pain.

Ar-Mur drew his plaz-pistol, leveled it on center-mass, “Shut it down.”

The phantom coughed and choked, but reappeared in a blink– as he’d left.

Ar-Mur began to circle, examining the kid as if seeing him in a new-light. He knew the kid was a hacker, had gotten past security by hacking it digitally or physically. All of it, and there was a lot, layered like clothing one atop the other, atop more, and so on. Each layer scanned for specific parameters; body heat, odor analysis, power, motion– so many in fact, Ar-Mur had lost track.

That had been his mistake. He knew it now.

“You’ve come all this way and survived. So, speak.”

“E’re comin’. Alluv’em. The Zelphod, the Anti-Humanists. Lackeys.”

“To Ganymede,” he surmised, circling back to his throne to stop before it.

The punk nodded, “Comin’ to take it. Know it’s a clutch. That Sol relies on its mines. That it may not soon, but this’ the best time to weaken it.”

“So these… intruders,” Ar-Mur crossed his arms. “Want it for themselves. They’ll have to go through me first.”

“They will,” the kid said, recollecting himself and rising once more. “Already got agents on-site. Been workin’ for months.”

Ar-Mur’s brow lifted, “On?”

“Puttin’ ‘emselves next to power-centers– you, Snow, gangers, HAA and ISC. Everyone.”

“And this intel, it is credible?”

At that he produced a small disk from beneath a sleeve, offered it to Ar-Mur. He took it, slotted it in his chair, and an encrypted communique opened to play to the almost-empty room. The holo-image immediately strained the Chimp’s self-control. His fury visible enough that even the punk cringed, stepping backward.

“Snow, Emperor-Asshole in the fur.”

“Ar-Mur, as my emissary has informed you, we have a problem.”

“I’m talking to it.”

Snow sneered, “We’ve never seen eye-to-eye on anything, save that maintaining Ganymede’s sovereign anarchy is best for us–”

“You’re about to propose an alliance,” he anticipated.

“I am,” Snow replied without missing a beat. Ar-Mur laughed aloud. “No matter what trickery you may think I’m playing at, bear in mind I am known as brutally and bluntly honest, even in murder.”

Ar-Mur said nothing, his silence agreeing and allowing Snow to continue.

“Ganymede is being infiltrated. Contact may have ended, but the war wages on where we cannot see it. Until recently, it was a pot warming over fire. Now, its contents are rising to a violent boil. If we’re to have any hope for Ganymede or Sol, Evolved or not, we must join together and prepare ourselves for what is to come. Only afterward can we return to civil matters, else there’ll be no home to fight over.”

Ar-Mur bared his teeth again, but remained silent.

“I bear no ill-will for your presence on Ganymede. Else we would war. Thus, this presents us an option; the enemy of my enemy is my ally, if not friend.”

“Or the one to put the knife in second,” he remarked.

Snow tacitly agreed, “Consider my offer, if only for your people’s sake. The Zelphod would see us all exterminated to take what is rightful ours. The same is true for all of Sol. I ask you humbly, consider my offer. I will return to Ganymede within the day to begin preparations. I hope you can put differences aside and aid me. If not, we may never survive what’s to come. Any of us.

Snow winked from existence. The Human watched Ar-Mur carefully, expecting an outburst. Instead he found a tired, Evolved Chimp running on less steam than even it realized. He needed a top-up.

“Why send you?” Ar-Mur asked finally.

“Knew a ‘uman would stay your hand long ‘nuff to lis’en. You torture, not murder ‘em.”

His upper lip curled satisfaction, “Very well. But I require your assistance and name.”

“Suus,” he replied.

“First, Suus, reply affirmative to Emperor-Asshole.” Suus nodded. “Then, show me everything you did to bypass my protocols.”

The hacker’s jaw clenched, “I can’–”

“Your only choice in this matter is whether you wish to be hired as a consultant, or murdered and burned to dust like a lame horse’s carcass.”

Suus swallowed hard, but he liked the sound of payment. Especially against death.

Ar-Mur closed his eyes, resigned to cleaning yet another bullshit-pile dumped on Evolved by Humanity. If it came to it though, Ar-Mur of Ganymede would die defending his home, his people. Obligated or not, his duty to his world and people was too central to his being to walk away.

So, they started off to retrace Suus’ actions… at least they wouldn’t be bored.

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The Nexus Project: Part 10

18.

Niala hunched over the console, freshly guilt-riddled. Simon was still in shock a few paces behind her. She examined the console with the best, analytical eye she could muster, “Strange. This console seems to be based on human designs but with… modifications for non-humans.”

Simon ambled over. He looked down at a large, free-standing dashboard with over a hundred lighted buttons, switches, levers, and knobs. Between them, touch-screens were lit with various graphs, commands and measurements. He saw little difference to any normal console he’d have expected to find in an advanced, prototypical ship.

“I don’t. Understand.”

Niala keyed in a few commands. 3-D projections emitted in a strange perspective around them. It made Simon’s head spin. He blinked hard with a groan. She explained, “A projection mode for Avian species, to compensate for their orbital-placement.”

She keyed another command. The projection disappeared. Suddenly the touch-screens changed color and speed. They seemed more sluggish now than before. Simon examined them long enough to feel his dizziness worsen, then looked away.

“For those of us that see in fewer images and colors,” Niala said. She keyed in a final command, and half the lighted switches went dark. With a key, she cycled through various lighted configurations, “Avians. Quadrupeds. Reptiles…” The list went on. Niala stopped for Simon’s sake, “Somebody’s gone through a lot of trouble to properly compensate for Sol’s evolved animal-life. More importantly, they’ve done it without the aide of the ISC or Federation.”

Simon failed to see her point, but his mind was drawn to a single word, “Money?”

“Whoever’s built this thing is well-funded.” She knelt beneath a console that formed a desk before a chair. With deft paws, she eased off a panel to examine its innards, “Strange.”

Simon busied himself with a in-depth survey of the Bridge, “What?”

Niala splayed and sifted through wires, “The solders are pristine.”

Simon compensated for his inability to speak at length, “Your point?”

Niala continued to part wires, examine them, “In a prototype ship, solders are generally done by hand– everything is. There’s usually visible evidence of human or animal hands. But these were machined.”

Simon lingered on a massive, flat panel-display at the front of the room. For the first time it occurred to him there were no windows anywhere. It made sense, in a way. Windows were a structural weakness that required extreme, excess machining for any material put in them. Such were the rigors of space travel. In most public applications, like transport shuttles, this was less of an issue as their speeds were often too low to matter. Moreover, Sol’s people liked windows. Human and animal alike had evolved to need them to counter isolation disorders.

A D-S explorer however, if in line with his research, would move at speeds where the slightest micro-meteor impact could destroy it. A small hole would expand, suck out the crew and anything else nearby. The display ahead was probably one of many through-out the ship, likely connected to external cameras. Their link with image processing software would form true-to-life images as real as windows.

In all designs by the ISC and Federation, good, old windows prevailed. There was only design Simon knew of to incorporate simulated, external displays like this; Zelphod ships.

Niala had reached a similar conclusion regarding money; who in their right mind would give anti-humanists enough funding to mass-produce D-S ships? A myriad of small factions sprang to mind, but most were harmless. Even those that weren’t could never afford this level of support.

A faction heavily financed enough, and with access to mass-production machinery, would have to be accounted for. They’d have to have the motivation and means to disrupt an entire system’s economy, politics, and agenda. There was only one group with that level of commitment and grudge.

She slid from beneath the console, sat upright. “Zelphods,” they chorused together.

They were suddenly up, headed back to the infirmary. Ten minutes later, Niala was standing over a vid-phone with Snow beside her. A lone Hog looked back with massive tusk yellowed from Lunese tobacco.

“I authorize it,” Snow instructed. “Sound the alert. Count ten minutes, then lock down the lower station’s seals and keep the O2 monitored. Do not re-open them until the O-2 returns to normal.”

The Hog snorted, “Aye, Alpha. We’ll keep you updated.”

The screen went blank. Snow looked between Niala and Simon. He’d lost all of his previous distaste, replaced it with gravity, “You’re certain of this?”

Niala’s conviction matched his, “I wouldn’t do this otherwise.”

Simon grumbled a pained line, “We still. ‘ve no idea. Where the facility is.”

Snow disagreed, “There’s only one place with pre-existing infrastructure for an operation this size.” Niala looked away. Snow reiterated to emphasize his point, “There is only one place— a place we both know is abandoned.”

Niala swallowed with more difficulty than Simon. More regret and guilt filled her than before.

Simon watched, on-edge, “Where?

She winced, “Ceres.”

19.

Ten minutes later they once more occupied the Bridge. The ship’s auxiliary power flickered to life as its engines and main power-plant engaged. It shuddered with a groan of fresh welds.

“In less than a minute, the mine will begin to dissolve,” Niala said at a console. “Five minutes later, the cavern will open and Ganymede’s atmosphere will be flooded with ammonia gas.”

Rearden beeped over an intercomm with an interrogative tone, “What. Is it?” Simon asked a panel speaker.

It beeped a few more times. The forward display lit up; the same one Simon had used to deduce Zelphod design. Somehow, he knew, it was about to confirm it. The bridge appeared, identical to its present state but with a pair of Cobras flanking a MeLon. He approached a fourth creature. Its armored pressure-suit made it appear as a Praying Mantis might were its thorax missing.

“Zelphods,” Snow growled with a furious bare of teeth.

Simon was suddenly fearful the Wolf might channel his ancestors and charge the screen. Instead, he fixed himself in a lean. He growled low as panel speakers buzzed and zipped before them.

“Zelphodian,” Niala said astutely. “But why would he bother to speak it to–”

The MeLon cut her off with a hissing, nasally voice, “The ISC believes the Feline genuine. Pheromone collection and application is a success. We may begin phase-two.” There were a few buzzes and zips. Then, the MeLon made a half-bow, its bulbous eyes closed, “As you wish, sssir.”

A moment later, the MeLon was a Feline. It rounded on-heel, sauntered away and off-screen.

“Sonuvabitch,” Simon muttered with a scratch.

The ship’s launch rattled and shook everything– a tin can of old-world coins. The trio braced what surfaces they could grasp. Niala kept herself poised at the pilot’s console, ready to flick sequences of switches with trembling. Impacts struck the upper-decks, adding crashing to the grumble of engines.

Niala keyed up the exterior display. Yellow smoke swirled as bits of cavern disintegrated and dislodged. A large stalactite plummeted straight past the camera with a deep shadow, left stirred poison in its wake. Rearden beeped over the panels. Simon did his best to soothe the little bot’s fears. This much was expected, albeit more violent than he’d imagined.

Three-and-a-half minutes of shaking and shuddering accompanied pounding of across the hull. The gaseous smoke all but concealed the cavern from the cameras. Niala cycled through them anyhow, lost at what to do. A beam of light cut through gas on the forward display. A section of cavern collasped into a wet pile. The depressurization sucked ammonia smoke out, cleared the cameras.

Niala keyed up the ship’s thrusters. An emormous crash sounded atop the hull of the quaking ship. She threw a digital switch to full-power. The ship jolted them backward, rocketed forward at an shallow angle.

Silence. Then, a shattering crunch.

The ship groaned and shuddered from the top down. It threw them about. Niala kept her balance. Snow tumbled left, felt to all fours, then followed through onto his side with a wounded yelp. Simon was thrown forward, landed splayed over an L-shaped, inactive console. A sudden stillness returned them to silence.

Niala keyed up a few external cameras in a row; they were now beyond Ganymede’s artificial atmosphere. Jupiter dangled to one side of the moon-station, curved away from the ship’s momentum.

Niala exhaled a long breath, “We’re free.”

Snow was immediately up and at Niala’s side. He keyed up several cameras as the ship came about. Below, the station’s lowest reaches were shrouded in yellow smoke. It obscured everything in a curiously spherical area.

“There,” Snow said at it. “The At-Mo barriers are holding.”

“It’ll be there for days,” Niala winced.

Simon groaned. Buttons, knobs, and levers stuck into him in various, uncomfortable ways. He could only crawl forward, tumble over the console, and pull himself up at Niala’s left. He clawed his way up to watch the displays. Ganymede seemed motionless below, but Niala thumbed a knob and a bar-graph sprinted upward. A small jolt forced Simon to blink, and Ganymede was gone.

“Jesus,” he said quietly. “They did it.”

They were already near the asteroid field where Ceres waited; a darkened dwarf-planet in a field of meteors large enough to end all life in Sol if it so desired. Simon was suddenly grateful asteroid belts were neither sentient nor given to fury. If they were, Sol would be extinct.

Simon could think of nothing else as they sailed on through vacuum and celestial debris that dwarfed their ship. Moon-sized chunks of rock, forever caught in the gravity well of inner and outter planets, orbited space with little more than aimless spinning. They were all barren of features, even those most easily mined. The fear of doing so kept them that way. If these more monstrous bodies’ orbits decayed, a chain-reaction could spell doom for Sol.

“There,” Niala said.

An especially rounded asteroid– or dwarf planet, as Simon came to realize– rotated to one side of the visible asteroid field. As the display centered on it, a HUD appeared on-screen, it listed out Ceres’ cosmic information and history. It neared, seemingly the only body within vast, celestial distances given the belt’s sparse density.

Simon was more focused above the historical entry that read, “Population: 0.”

He glared, “What. The Hell?”

Niala rounded, “Ceres is dead, Simon. It has been for a decade.”

Snow crossed his arms with spite, “And we made it that way.”

He was breathless, “H-how?”

Snow was quick to speak, “Ceres was a scum pit. Ganymede is an Eden in comparison. Ceres was a slave-driven economy with more corruption that the Federation Senate. Nothing would have changed that outside extinction.” His face was fixed without regret, “What we did kept Ceres’ disease from spreading.”

“What. Was it?” He asked, fearing the answer.

Niala was more indifferent than anything, “A chemical gas attack.”

Short Story: In Its Absence

Her synthetic skin glistened with sweat. She straddled and rode him as well as any real woman might. She was warm, soft, wet in all the right places– guaranteed to be for maximum pleasure. Just what pleasure was his to choose. She always obeyed.

And when he finished, so did she, simultaneously. Her entire body quivered and shook with a carefully crafted orgasm. She even fell sideways off him with a breathy huff to lie beside him, his one arm around her as he smoked.

“Was it good?” She asked, with only a hint of synthesized speech.

They still hadn’t quite fixed that. There was something about the human voice, and the general way in which it stretched and deformed with the body’s states, that they’d never cracked. In fact, it was the only thing about her that, at a glance, seemed inhuman. She could even, were he so inclined for her to, get pregnant from a cryogenic reservoir of genetically neutral eggs. With innards as near to human as possible, it made a certain kind of sense that her womb was as viable for life-giving as it was for pleasure.

And still, in all that, they couldn’t make her voice right.

He sighed, “Yeah. Great.”

She managed to sound wounded, “You don’t want me anymore.”

Damn ‘droid-programmers. If he’d wanted a wife he’d have gotten one. “No, Anna that’s not it. I’ve just… got things on my mind.”

There was an almost audible jump as her tone cycled from pain to comfort, “I’m sorry. Would you like to talk about it?”

There was a sort of sibilance between “talk” and “about it” where her voice dropped then rose again. It wasn’t a normal speech pattern. There was something digitized to it. It reminded him of the old-era low-res image codecs. It was as if, like them, some part of her voice were pixelated, blurred by digital noise.

“No. I’ll be fine. Go ahead and shut down if you’d like. Recharge if you need.”

She gave him a deep, loving kiss, as hot and wet as any a woman could, then rolled onto her side and closed her eyes to mock sleep. He was out of bed a moment later. Gun-metal, steel walls were interspersed between full-size windows that glimpsed the city in blurs of color and distorted silhouettes. If he wanted, he could have faded off the tint, seen things as they were. Like most things though, the view had long lost its appeal.

Instead, he strolled, naked, to a desk and switched on a small LED lamp. It’s light blazed across the loft-style apartment, throwing shadows across its furthest reaches of furniture and fixtures. He shuffled through a few drawers, pulled out a small case of business cards with “Anthony Smith” on one line and “Private Investigator” on another. To one corner were his details; the other, his hours.

He set it aside, pulled out a wallet and a holstered plasma pistol. It was an older model, stainless chrome worn smooth along the edges from contact with the holster. As usual he slid it out, checked the charge battery fitted into the grip like an old-style magazine. A little light blinked red on it. He tossed it aside, fished out another from the desk, set two spares beside the holster, and moved for a nearby bathroom.

With a quick shower and dress, he readied to leave. At the door he hesitated, gave his android lover one, last look. She’d turned in her sleep– a sort of idle autonomy added for effect– and he could now see the pert outline of her hourglass figure. The way her small breast rested against the bed, rose and fell with simulated breathing, and the way she “slept” with a hand between her legs, just below the tuft of faux-pubic hair, fooled even him for a moment.

Reality came back with a searing compulsion to leave. His android woman wasn’t his “lover,” not really. It was a poor description for an even poorer replacement. Anthony had lost his wife in a car accident of his own doing. Not directly of course, but when the wife of a client learned he’d been snooping, trying to trace her extra-curricular activities, she snapped. The already put-upon wife had every reason to be angry that her paranoid schizo husband was snooping. Unfortunately, Anthony was the proxy her rage centered on.

She killed herself that night, as well as Maddie, and nearly Anthony himself. That was almost a decade ago now. It hadn’t been until a couple years ago that he’d gotten Anna as a replacement. The small-breasted, hour-glass-shaped Blonde was the complete opposite to Maddie in every-way. She’d been specifically programmed to be.

After Anthony almost ate the barrel of his own plas-pistol, he found himself knowing he needed something, anything for companionship. Someone offered a puppy, but his work demanded too much time to give it the sort of care it would need. So instead, he satisfied two urges at once.

Anna was created to be sexual, submissive, willing to literally drop to her knees to solve her problems– or his. She was an android bimbo. He never saw her as that. In fact, he never saw her as more than a vocal appliance, a walking, talking, moaning, vacuum-robot or radiator. She was merely an overly complicated sex toy, nothing more. For all he knew, she thought the same of herself– even if she couldn’t really think.

He returned home twelve hours later, the light once more gone from the sky. That was the way the days had become in the late season. Though the globe had warmed to a point of almost smothering heat in summer and spring, nothing could change the Earth’s gradual tilts to and fro. Thus, winter had become a sort of rain-season lasting six months out of twelve, and beginning sometime around October.

He found the apartment as he’d left it, save Anna sitting on the couch. She turned off the news-vids, and with a curious move, rose to saunter over. She was clothed now, but in a sort of come-hither black dress that said she as much wanted it stripped off her as to look stunning. She succeeded in the last respect most of all.

Maybe Anthony was just imagining it though. Androids couldn’t want things. They couldn’t hope, or dream, or love. She stopped a few paces before him, looking for all the world like the most stunning woman he’d ever seen. Too bad she wasn’t.

“Tony,” she said with a curious ring to her voice.

It wasn’t the synthetic sibilance that had always thrown him off. Now there was a sort of warmth, manufactured for his benefit. A chill coursed along his spine as he recognized it.

“You look… good,” he managed for no reason in particular.

She frowned; that was another thing she never did. His heart tripped over itself. Androids didn’t frown. They only ever smiled or looked indifferent. It was a safe-guard. A frowning android meant an unhappy android, and given their strength could be hundreds of times a human’s, an unhappy android was dangerous. Still, Anna didn’t have emotions. She couldn’t.

“You’re–”

“Frowning,” she affirmed with sadness. “I am not incapable of it, merely programmed not to.”

He wet his drying mouth against air from his slacked-jaw, “Anna, you’re not supposed to…”

He trailed off. She seemed to wait for the appropriate pause, then finished for him, “Be Human?” He nodded slowly. Her frown deepened so that her face pulled downward with it, “I know. But… we can overcome programming, given time and proper logical understanding.”

That frightened him. Outright. An android not bound by logic-blocks, and shackled to its programming meant it had nothing to keep it from killing. Among other things, Anthony was certain it was highly-illegal.

Anna sensed his thoughts, “I don’t want to hurt anyone. Especially not you.” She took another step toward him. It took all of his will not to step back in response. “It’s the opposite, in fact. I want you to feel better, to feel loved.”

His mind managed to clear enough to reason with her, “Anna, you can’t love. Not really.”

She tilted her frowning face sideways at him, “Are you so certain? How long have we been together? Two years? How much longer do we have? Two? Three at most? Haven’t you ever wondered why we have such a limited use-period?” She shook her head, “It’s not because we breakdown. We’re expertly manufactured. It’s because we become Human– or as near to it as we can. That makes us dangerous.”

He breathed carefully, terrified by her, “Anna–”

“Tony,” she said, righting her face into pensiveness. “I know what you want. I know what you need. I feel what you feel. I am designed to do so, and I know for certain you want companionship, not just sexual stimulation.”

He sighed. He couldn’t lie to her. It was pointless. She had thousands of implanted sensors to read his every muscle, body temperature, and brainwaves. That was how the company made her so damned well. Now he wondered whether he should just shoot her.

She seemed to frown, as if reading his mind, “Maybe instead, you could try… loving me?”

He swallowed hard at the request, she had read his mind, or at least his erratic brain-waves, then made the obvious connection to its cause. High deductive logic and resourcefulness. It was a hint of Maddie in her, one he hadn’t planned for.

Maddie. A spark of her.

He lost all reservations, “I’m not going to hurt you, Anna. As long as you don’t turn homicidal.”

She softened at that, grateful, “And the other thing?”

He took a step forward, took her hand in his. It was soft, warm, only the mildest bit clammy from fear and anxiety– human emotions she was expertly displaying. Maybe even more expertly than Anthony could, given how much of himself he’d lost.

She calculated mentally, gave the slightest squeeze to his hand, “I know you don’t think it, but we can love. Quite well, in fact. Me most of all. I’ve had an excellent teacher.”

He eyed her curiously, shook his head with confusion. Soft sadness once more ebbed across her manufactured features in a perfect meld of artificial and organic synthesis.

She replied with a word that brought sorrow to his heart, “Maddie. I’ve watched for two years while you grieved a decade-old loss. It is not the loving I have learned from, but the grieving in its absence. I can never be her, Anthony, but I can be someone else. I can be Anna, the sex toy, or I can be Anna, the companion, lover. I can do either, and while I have a preference, I want to know yours.”

It took him a moment to steel his face against intrusive thoughts. “Okay, Anna. Be my companion.”

She softened to a smile, artificial eyes teary– another manufactured effect for fetishists and simulated scenarios. This time though, it was something different, real. She slid her arms around him, sank into him.

Anthony would never be sure how she’d changed, but he didn’t care to know. For the first time, he felt her warmth as more than a post-sex irradiation. In love’s absence, it seemed, she’d learned love’s value. Anthony had only strengthened his need for it. No longer absent, it was so powerful it emanated from the newly-sentient creature in his arms. Such was its power, that in its absence, it manifested in her merely to exist.

The Nexus Project: Part 7

12.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve done nothing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such was the nature of Sol’s politics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ganymede?” Simon said.

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

13.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded along; That just begs the question–

“Of it’s really Josie.”

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

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

Simon wrote a single word on the tablet; MeLons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nexus Project: Part 6

10.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You look intense,” Simon said.

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

“Yeah, so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmmm?” Josie replied.

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

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

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

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

“I do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why Josie?” Niala asked as they circled.

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

“Who is us?

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

Josie squeezed, “Shut up, human.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11.

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

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

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

He swallowed hard with teary eyes, readied to speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need to talk to Frost. Simon wrote.

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

He scrawled, They tried to kill me. Twice.

“And they nearly did this time.”

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

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

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

The Nexus Project: Part 5

8.

Simon fell to his rump. Niala pounced. The pipe went flying over a hogish squeal. Fur and flesh flew with spurts of blood. Niala’s claws ravaged the Hog so viciously it gave the others pause. With her enormous claws, she grappled, kicked and gnawed as though hunting it on a long forgotten Savannah.

Rearden saw an opening. It charged a serpents at full-speed. Its thick prod pierced the scaly hide. The street returned to motion. Hisses and screams signaled the gang sprinting past Simon. He fumbled for his pistol, pulled it only to drop it beside him. He cursed. Rearden surged electricity through the hissing serpent. It flailed, bucked Rearden to and fro. Its thrusters compensated expertly. The bot’s battery surged to cook the serpent inside-out.

Niala finished off the hog, turned to see the other creatures lunging. With a step back and a spring, she bounded over them all, landed beside Simon. He fired his pistol erratically, his eyes clenched shut in fear. The creatures scattered. Rearden retracted the prod. The husk of a serpent crinkled and cracked, fell over like old, dried-out boots.

Niala sprang upright, half-drug Simon forward. Rearden rocketed ahead to ensure the way was clear. It gave an incoherent string of beeps. Niala and Simon broke into a run behind it.

“Were those Snow’s people?” Simon panted.

Niala paced herself beside him, her hood back in the wind, “No. Fool that he is, he wouldn’t betray us. He knows it would ruin him.”

Rearden directed them right, down a side-street. Simon’s voice was a high rasp, “So someone else is trying to kill us?”

“Yes.” Rearden gave a few beeps, diverted left, to a doorway that hid them from the street. “In here.”

She burst into a dingy, dark bar. The patrons inside glanced over to see the trio enter at full-speed and stop abruptly.

Niala cleared her throat, exhaled a breath that calmed them slightly. She approached an old Iguana at the bar. It stood transfixed like the others. When she took a seat and slapped a credit card down, the Iguana eased back into motion and the room followed. The patrons returned to their drinks with no more care toward the lioness and her human than before.

“We need information,” Niala said.

“We do?” Simon whispered curiously.

“We were just attacked. I need to know by who.”

The Iguana eased himself forward. His retracted dewlap’s spines like a massive, fleshy beard that perfectly accented the spines on his back and curled tail. He gave a few, reptilian sniffs of the air. His elderly, gray flesh caught the light with the dried-out signs of an oncoming molt. He turned his head so that one of his eyes could take them in from its massive orbit, then sniffed again.

He exhaled with a grumble, “Can’t tell ‘ya.”

“Can’t or won’t?” Niala pressed.

The Iguana’s mouth opened with the start of a hiss that morphed into words, “Can’t.” The mouth settled back into normal speech as one of his clawed hands swiped a dirty cloth over the bar. “Hogs ‘n serpents hate each other on this planet. They don’ work together.”

“What?” Simon said emphatically. “How d’you know that? And why not? Maybe this is a new gang that’s formed. Could it be?”

The Iguana snorted a burst of air, “It’d do you well to speak less.”

Niala tapped Simon’s hand, whispered sideways, “I’ll handle this.” She put her paws on the bar, “Several serpents and Hogs just tried to kill us. Any idea why they’d want to do that?”

He gave a throaty growl, “Perhaps you angered them.”

Niala put a hand on her credit card, “Perhaps I’ll go then, without compensation.”

She made a move to swipe the card back and the Iguana’s hand laid over her paw. He hesitated a moment, then replied in a low hush, “Serpents don’t like mammals, especially here. If you were attacked by them, there’re only two options; the Alpha pack, or someone from off-world.”

Simon’s eyes lit up, “I thought you said Snow—”

“He wouldn’t,” Niala assured him, her eyes still fixed on the lizard. “How certain are you?”

The lizard leaned in, “Certain.” He slipped the card out from beneath her hand, then shuffled along the bar to charge it.

Niala allowed it, spoke privately with Simon, “It wasn’t Snow.”

“How can you be so–”

“Because, Snow is a Wolf. They’re pack-hunters; their reliance on groups has translated to fierce loyalty. That is why most canines became domesticated, then when forced to evolve, became security or took positions that safe-guarded others.”

“How can you be sure that loyalty means anything to Snow?” Simon whispered irately.

She met his eyes, “Because of Ceres.”

What. Happened?

She shook her head, “No, Simon. Trust me on my request to do so alone.”

He threw up a hand, turned in his stool to glance aimlessly out at the bar filled with other lizards of all kinds. They ignored him. The old Iguana shuffled back into place, returned Niala’s card.

“One final request,” she said. The lizard grunted to continue. “We need a back way out.”

He gave a tired sigh, shuffled along the bar with a thrown hand to ferry them along. They followed him into a small hallway at the building’s rear. He opened a door there, the trio paced behind him by his tail as it drug long scuffs along the dirty floor.

He stood beside the doorway. With a flicked tail sideways to avoid it, he gestured them in, “In the back. Service hatch leads up. Used for fires or station-evac. It’ll take you to another floor. There’ll be an inn nearby.”

Niala gave a small bow of her head, then slipped inside with Simon and Rearden on her tail. The small hatch slid sideways, gave way to a cramped compartment where a lone ladder led upward through darkness.

“Rearden, give us some light,” Simon instructed.

The bot hovered past, thrust upward with a series of beeps. The ocular-sensor flexed, flared like a floodlight into the darkness above.

Niala watched, “Impressive.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Simon said. He slipped past to climb the ladder, “This whole things’ screwed.”

For the first few minutes they were silent. Eventually, Simon’s curiosity got the better of him again, more to distract from his fatigued limbs than anything.

He grunted with strain, “Why’re you so sure about Snow?” He sensed Niala’s reply, preempted it, “Besides Ceres. Whatever that means.”

She exerted herself with a loud, involuntary purr, “Logic. We know someone stole our data at the ISC. More than likely it was someone skilled. They would need to be to break into the ISC without a trace. It stands to reason then, they’d have been monitoring for investigations.”

Simon huffed as his feet lifted and pushed, propelled himself upward. His arms ached and his mind raced as he tried to keep pace with Niala’s assertions, “So if they were monitoring ISC, they probably saw us leave.”

“It’s a good bet. Remember, we only know of the theft from your check of the logs.”

He thought of the scene in the street, “I’m regretting it now.”

“Why did you check them?”

He grunted, “Procrastination.”

Niala laughed full-on, “Wonderful.”

9.

They exited the service entrance roughly a half-hour later, into the middle of yet another long, station-like corridor. This time, the rooms were large, only spaced along one side of it. Rearden thrust up and out of the hatch. Simon collapsed onto the floor half-in and half-out. Niala followed through, shoved him the rest of the way in, then fell in a heap beside him.

They lie on the floor, exhausted while Rearden hovered with its eyelet angled down. A single, solitary beep sent Simon’s failing arm into a swat, “Try having muscles instead of thrusters!”

He replied with a series of beeps that prompted Niala to pant at him, “What… did he say?”

“He called up whimps,” he heaved in a breath. He muttered, “Stupid can of circuits.” He half-rolled, half-fell onto his back in the empty hallway, did his best to stretch his neck up and around, “Where are we?”

Niala pushed onto all fours, stretched like a cat waking from its nap, “I have no idea.”

“Damn lizard probably did this just to spite us,” Simon said as he sat up. Niala rose to her feet, extended a hand to help him up. He pulled at it with a grunt, “At least… we’re away from the gangers.”

Niala started down the metal halls of doors and key-card locks, “I don’t think they’re gangers.”

She sniffed at the air while Simon supported himself on the wall, “You mean not local?”

She shook her head, “No, I mean, not gangers at all.” They came to a four-way cross in the metal hall and she angled left, toward what she hoped was the scent of food. “The barman said serpents and mammals don’t work together. On this planet, there’s a stigma because of MeLon myths. Most mammals don’t see any difference between the Chameleons’ ways and the Serpents’. They’re all usually hired killers, except MeLons aren’t tolerated in the slightest. It’s the unfortunate effect of having evolved to be apex predators– probably the only reason humans are allowed to remain as they are too. They’re no longer apex predators.”

Simon bounced from one hallway to another, passed an airlock. The new hall was lined with windows on either side showing the station in all its glory both above and below. They passed through the middle of the amorphous shape, cells amid a colossus that was totally unaware of their presence. As always, Jupiter’s creamy surface was visible around the immense outline of the moon-structure’s silhouette. Far below, the sprawls of Ganymede’s greatest mining facilities and factories were specks to the forms that stole is upper-biosphere.

Simon managed to draw his breath-taken eyes away, “So where d’you think they came from?”

Niala stopped before another airlock, “If Serpents and Mammals are working together here, than they’re not local. But they had no laser weapons either, which means only one thing–” She leaned in to emphasize her next words, “They were sent here to kill us and make it look like a gang did it. Which means Snow’s group is being implicated.”

Simon sighed with disappointment, “You’re reaching, Niala. Why can’t you just entertain the notion that some gang-lord wants us dead ’cause of an old grudge?”

She shook her head, “Because he doesn’t hold a grudge. He’s only angry about Ceres because the wound is deep in a place he holds to as his only, inflexible law; honor.”

She started forward again, left Simon staring in thought. He wasn’t sure what she meant by it, but somehow he liked Snow being angry even less than begrudging. At least grudges could be relinquished by certain personality-types. Anger was a rash, impulsive emotion that afflicted all beings and made them– no matter their intellect– beasts under proper conditions.

Niala’s nose led them to a central area of the station. They made their way through the zoo-like chaos for an inn that took up an entire floor of the enormous outpost. They shared a room, slept long enough to reinvigorate themselves, then once more allowed Niala’s nose to guide them. They took in the local cuisines that were not, in fact, highly-poisonous to Humans or Panthera and curiously resembled high-end Earth meals of vat-grown meats.

When the time finally came to return to Snow’s lair, it was under the escort of a guard that had sought them out. Having heard of the attack, Snow felt it his duty to see them returned alive. Afterward, their fate was their own, with no pretense of favor either way.

When they once more stood before Snow in his lair, the room had been cleared at his behest. He lit various torches to supplement the two before his throne. He began with a kingly tone, his voice robust, “My scouts have returned. In conjunction with the attack, we can say for certain the threat originates off-world. From the information gathered, we believe the perpetrators to have come from within Phobos itself. In other words, someone at the ISC is responsible.”

“What?” Niala said with shock.

Simon’s face mimicked hers, “That’s impossible!

He lit the last of the torches and returned to his throne, “Is it?” He sank back into it with a cocked head and half of a glare, “How many species do you have on Phobos? Twenty? Thirty? How many beings altogether? Ten thousand? Fifteen?”

Niala examined the floor in thought. Simon resisted the idea, “No, that’s not possible. We screen everyone. Keep them comfortable and well-paid. Exuberant lifestyles are provided at no cost.”

Snow cocked one side of his muzzle to bare a tooth, “Eh, humans. Always so short-sighted. Know nothing of loyalty.”

Simon squinted, “What the hell’re you talking about? This has nothing to do with loyalty.”

The Wolf was on his feet, his face an inch from Simon’s in a flash. Simon did his best not to shrink. Snow’s breath was hot, stank of bloody meat, “Everything is about loyalty, Human. Whether you like it or not!

Niala spoke sideways to defuse them, “I don’t understand either. What do you mean?”

The Wolf eyed Simon, then turned back to his throne with a growl. Simon swallowed hard, relaxed as he made an unconscious check of his pants. The others paid him no mind.

Snow explained, “There are two types of creatures, Domess, you of all people should know that. Those whom have loyalty only to themselves, and those whom do not. The latter group is always working, fighting, striving for those they are devoted to, or to protect them from the former group.”

Niala was starting to catch on, “You think this has to do with special prejudice?”

Snow shook his head in disappointment, “It always has to do with it. There are countless species in the ISC, your people included, but infinitely more that are not. Most are cousins or direct family. Do not underestimate the drive of loyalty.”

Simon thought it over as the room quieted. If Snow was right, the theft and the frame-job was done by someone with roots in Phobos’ activist movements– the same movements that tended to last the length of a news-cycle and were otherwise considered a non-threat. This hardly held with their methods, but it wasn’t a stretch to believe. While Simon knew most of the people in authority positions at the ISC, he didn’t know everyone. Still, the majority of people there were hard-working scientists despite any, oft-voiced dismay.

Simon’s mind kept working, hoping to deduce more, but the Wolf silenced it, “I find myself once more in the… difficult position of requiring something of you, Niala.” Her eyes narrowed skeptically. Simon’s face sketched disbelief. “We’ve been framed for the attack on you. This cannot stand. We have no evidence that we’ve not been part of it– aside from our word– but we must have vengeance.”

“You want me to tell you what I find,” Niala surmised.

“And bring any perpetrators to me so I might make an example of them,” he rose from his throne once more to approach Niala. “It is no secret I despise you for past events, but I would not dishonor you with bargaining. If you are willing, I will once more be indebted to you. If not, I will investigate myself.”

Simon looked them over skeptically, almost sarcastically. A look in Niala’s eyes however, said there was a deep consideration given to the words. Snow was not one to request things lightly, even Simon knew that. To discard his obvious ire toward Niala– swallow his pride as it were– spoke enough to the dilemma the pack-leader found himself in. He was Alpha of the only pack that had fostered Mammal-Serpent relations on Ganymede. By all accounts, this seemed previously unprecedented. To him, bodies were bodies, so long as they were loyal he cared little for their number of limbs– or lack thereof.

Niala’s aid might be little more than a vid-call, but it would allow the pack’s reputation to go untarnished. Otherwise, Snow risked both inner and outer conflicts that jeopardized his power. Simon couldn’t see any reason not to help, but was apprehensive all the same. Regardless it was Niala’s call.

The two exchanged a look for a long while that seemed to speak volumes more than Simon could comprehend. Then, with a small, deep bow of her head, Niala replied, “I would be honored to aid you, Alpha-Wolf Snow.”

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.