The Nexus Project: Part 4

6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I heard that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hell of a place.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7.

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

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

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

“Snow,” she replied with a small bow.

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

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

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

“I have.”

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

“Speak.”

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

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

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

“Then get it,” Niala prodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niala!” Simon hissed.

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

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

The Nexus Project: Part 2

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Login: 12/6 04:30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Down here!”

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

“What’s it saying?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nexus Project: Part 1

1.

The labs at the Interspecies Scientific Collaboration were the foremost in the galaxy. From them all manner of advancements, from technology to medicine, and everything between and beyond, had been produced. It was not uncommon to see the myriad of creatures that staffed it walking the halls in white lab-coats and slacks. Here and there ties of various patterns and colors accented feathers, fur, scales, or outright skin in a melding of humanoid and animal features. The ISC was home to some of the greatest minds known to exist, all of them products of the First Contact War.

It had thrown Earth and its colonies into chaos at the time, but was the greatest blessing in disguise for those few, lucky species carrying the inactive genes for humanoid evolution. Just a generation afterward, those first transformed had carved-out a place in society– whether in its upper-echelons or underbellies.

At the ISC though, everyone was an equal, there for the sole purpose of furthering science. From feathered Corvians with their hollow-boned limbs that tucked beneath their wings, to the Canines and Felines required to wear full-body suits for sterility purposes, their was a unanimous sense of oneness in their work. Across the facility’s hundred or so labs, the brightest minds collaborated no matter their genus or genetic lineage.

That was not to say the humans were gone. In fact, respectable positions, no matter the resentment from those outside. To that end, it was not uncommon to see groups protesting beyond the complex’s ten kilometer sprawl of labs, recreation, and housing buildings. Their sleek, white and gray exteriors matching the sterile colorlessness of their innards.

Security fences shimmered blue in the moonlight, an eerie beauty before protesters and their signs for “segregation of science and politics.” It was yet another clutch issue that lasted the length of the colonies’ news-cycles. Once a week the signs changed, some faces the same, but all chanting for the expulsion of one race or inclusion another. It never occurred to the protesters the irony– or their short attention span at that– of protesting with the species that they felt should be removed or included.

From his fifth floor office window, Dr. Edgar Frost, Corvian and head researcher at ISC watched the latest protest, his arms tucked beneath his wings.

“These fools make my cloaca twitch,” he grumbled with a gravely voice. He hopped one-hundred and eighty degrees, faced the assembly behind him. He best shuffled to the seat at his desk with small hops, “Josie?”

“Yesss?” The feline secretary purred in reply.

Edgar met her eyes with a curious persistent-ruffle to his feathers– as if waiting for her to pounce, gobble him up. Both had learned to suppress such acts outwardly, but no forced evolution could change millions of years of instinct.

“Josie, my dear,” Edgar said. “Would you be so kind as to call downstairs and ensure they keep an eye on our friends outside? We needn’t have another incident like last week’s.”

The canine head of security gave a throaty whimper, as was his way, “Do we really have to go through this again, Dr. Frost?”

Frost’s head tilted with its swift, avian manner, “Gnarl, I’ve little patience for interruptions this week. You know that better anyone here.”

“Yes, but you’ve–”

“I think,” Reyes, the male human, head of PR interrupted. “What Chief Gnarl means to say is we must allow the congregation its rights, else we stir greater resentment.”

Gnarl gave a tired growl, “Yeah. That’s what I meant.”

Frost’s head bobbed like a lowly pigeon, odd for a respected scientist, “Yes and it’s easy for you to say. You aren’t constantly mobbed during nightly flights by ignorant creatures. You know those raptors actually tried to chase me down?”

“Yes,” Gnarl replied tiredly.

Reyes added, “And we’ve still no recourse since they did you no harm. Had you not so evasive in your flights perhaps we could have arrested a few of them.”

Frost’s eyes opened fully, “And risk me being shredded by their talons?”

“They’re just angry, Doctor,” Gnarl replied. “Feeling they’re not being given representation.”

“Last week they felt that!” Frost corrected with a squawk. “This week they feel we should dissolve the ISC and let science progress without aide! I will not have such prejudice directing my policies. Besides–” Gnarl and Reyes exchanged a look, knew where Frost was headed. “Raptors know they are more than welcome to apply, and if we find sufficient candidates that can control themselves, we will allow them in at once.”

“Purrhaps,” Josie said as she returned from reception. Her ears had been attuned to their conversation even beyond the room’s walls. “We could bring in a MeLon in disguise. Just for a while.”

“No!” Gnarl barked. “Abso-lutely not! I will not allow MeLons in this facility, friend or foe. They’re too much of a security risk, and I will not–”

“Good Suns!” Frost squawked. “Calm down, Gnarl. Josie, thank you for the suggestion, but I’d rather not compound the problem with spies. We may be transparent, but we do have secrets.”

“It wasss merely a thought,” Josie replied, staring dully at an orb of light dancing down her lycra bodysuit.

Frost’s tongue skirted the insides of his beak in disbelief. Felines were like that– easily distracted and perpetually elsewhere. It made them excellent in positions where aloof manners and calmness were necessary. Josie especially always seemed half-stoned, probably was from too much nip each morning. All the same, she remained the cool-headed foil to Frost’s shrieking madness.

Presently he needed her full attention. He gave a grating squawk, “Josie!”

Her eyes widened to full size, her fur on end around her neck, “Ssssorry.”

“Now listen here, all of you,” Frost said carefully. “Our preparations for the Nexus Project are almost complete. There will be no way to keep the project contained once the first prototype is built, which means we have just under three weeks to secure this facility and ensure each department is prepared fofr the backlash.”

Gnarl bared his teeth, “I’ll have the bloodhounds double their patrols.”

“Good, Good. See that you do.” Gnarl rose from his seat for the door. “Reyes?”

“Yes sir,” the human replied.

“Ensure your department has contingencies prepared.”

“Right away, sir,” Reyes said, and hurried out after Gnarl.

“And Josie, darling,” Frost said as he rose for the window. “Ensure all visitors are thoroughly screened and the scanners have been checked for tampering.”

“Yess, doctor.”

She rose with a sway and sauntered from the room. Frost stared out the window at the congregation protesting, “My nest be damned if those fools take deep-space from us.”

Short Story: The Grand Oops

The ship had lost control, the Pilot with his hands at its helm as useless as the Engineer in the decks fighting to restore lost power. The planet’s atmosphere set fire to the ship’s steep angle while the alarm klaxons blared inside of it. Sparks rained over the cock-pit from the largest bouts of turbulent friction that fried more systems, jolted the ship further from the Pilot’s grasp. Were he a less stubborn man, he’d have fled for the escape pods with the rest of the crew.

Unfortunately, even the inkling of fear he had was suppressed by his concentration and attempts to keep the stick straight. The Engineer would fight to her last breath to return control to him, patch the blown conduits and re-fire the engines. Until then, they were in free-fall at precisely the right angle to burn them up on re-entry or pancake them against the ground on impact. Emergency lighting kicked on through the ship, a main conduit severed on the exterior hull from the heat.

Another, apex up-heave from friction and the ship was cast sideways, helpless against the planet’s gravitational fury. The ship was certainly lighter now, beginning to spiral like a poorly thrown football. Still the Pilot fought, the Engineer cut, soldered, re-connected. Like the pilot, she knew of nothing else but the whims and will of her instincts exerted over her body. Long bits of copper cabling were yanked from one panel’s dark innards, sliced, spliced, and welded to another’s. Light flickered in the engineering compartment, then went out, plunged her into total darkness. She tripped over strewn tools, boxes, spare parts, groped for the dead-center of the room with a spanner in-hand.

The Pilot watched the blue sky turn red around him, become spackled and splattered with the gradated yellows and browns of a dusty, dune-laden desert. The ground approached at terminal velocity, ready to greet him with emptiness and death.

The Engineer’s hands worked double time. Her forehead poured sweat into already-useless eyes, burned them. She swallowed terror to crank back a nut that would re-seat the engines’ igniter. Then with a slap of a hand against a console, she lunged for the far wall, smacked a control panel.

“Light it up!”

The Pilot fought his turbulent tumult for a set of switches, tripped them up. Then with a mutter of “about fucking time,” he threw the ignition switch. The turbine-shaped engines at the ship’s rear glowed blue, sputtered and spit fire. Then with blast of thrust, the turbine’s rocketed the ship forward toward the ground.

“Woah, woah, woah!” The pilot said.

He yanked back on the stick, control returned to him. The ship’s trajectory made a wide, deep parabola, its vertex only meters from the ground. Another jolt said something was ripped off the ship’s belly as its rising ascent signaled a high-pitched, roaring laughter from the Pilot. It bled through the ship’s open comm to the Engineer’s ears with a heaving bosom in the darkened enclosure. She sank back against a wall, leaned forward with her hands on her thighs.

“You’re worth every penny, Em,” He shouted between laughs.

“Thank you, sir,” she panted. She took a breath, then, “We need to set down to asses exterior damage. We can’t follow the pods’ tracking beacons until I restore power to the Auxiliary systems.”

“Roger that, I’m on it.”

He straightened the ship out mid-way up the parabola’s far-side, jetted forward at full speed to come around again. The ship angled downward gradually, sank onto a damaged landing gear just over the rise of a high plateau that made a mockery of the ship’s ninety-foot height– even more so of its blocky, three-hundred foot length and hundred-foot wingspan. It set down at a lean, its left-most rear gear jammed in place from a severed hydraulic line somewhere in its housing.

The Pilot jogged through the ship’s innards with a set of flash-lights. All along the way, the random, over-loaded circuits of secondary and tertiary systems spit angry sparks at him, or arced the last of their currents over load-bearing struts and supports. He hurried into the Engineering compartment, ready to aid the woman doubled over against the wall.

“I wanna’ raise,” she panted at him.

He laughed with an affirming nod, “Consider it done.”

“Good,” she said as she straightened from the wall. “Let’s get this tub back in order.”

It was only a few hours before she’d gotten the ship fully-running again, retraced the escape-pods’ trajectory toward the crew. They were mostly intact, save a few cuts and bruises from their bumpy rides and rougher landings. In less than a day, the ship was repaired– even the landing gear’s hydraulics that required the ship to be re-started. It hovered above the ground as the last gear extended, and with an exhausted collapse, fell back to the ground more level than before.

The ongoing question all through-out the repairs was what had happened. There had been no epic space battle, no forced ejection from hyper-flight, nothing as an obvious prelude to damage. In fact, the flight had been rather dull; a routine delivery of medical supplies to a Galactic Alliance outpost– a high-paid, by the books courier job. Sabotage was the next concern on the list, but all of their advanced tech and good-old fashioned interrogation techniques told both them no-one aboard was guilty of wrongdoing.

All theories of foul play were thrown out as the Engineer set about searching for the problem’s physical source. The main culprit had to be a conduit between the engine’s cock-pit controls and the engines themselves. Indeed, it didn’t take much in-depth examination to locate the faulty part; a stripped and corroded, five-prong connector mid-way through the ship’s wiring.

“It was supposed to have been replaced,” The Pilot said cheekily to the Engineer.

“Yes, sir,” she dead-panned. “Then you said to leave it and if the tub was gonna’ fall outta’ the sky that you’d make sure it never hit the ground.”

“I did?” The Pilot asked blankly.

“Yes, sir, right before you unbuckled your pants and closed the door to the consort’s chambers in my face,” the Engineer said.

“Oh.” He stared off with a distant duality of shame and mortification, “Oops.”

“A grand “oops,” sir,” she said with a roll of her eyes.

He shrugged, shook off his trance, “Well, I was right though, we didn’t hit the ground. See? Gotta’ trust in your Captain, Em.”

He turned from the Engineering compartment with a smarmy smile. Em stared upward in defeat, shook her head.