Instead of going hunting alone as he normally did, Neza decided to join Saf for meditation the next day. Saf was happy to have company for once, but their conversation was making him slightly uncomfortable.
“I don’t like it either,” Saf admitted, “but the Colonel’s known what was best for me for a long time. I trust him.” His eyes never met Neza’s while he spoke, instead looking forward in an unfocused gaze.
Neza grunted quietly to signal his understanding. He admired Regan and was beginning to trust the man over the short time they had been living together. Loyalty was probably an overstatement of his feelings toward the Colonel, but he did feel like he owed his new father figure the benefit of the doubt. Neza wondered what Regan would say if he refused to join the mission, but his heart sank at the thought of disappointing him.
“Do you still feel Leash tugging you sometimes? I noticed you started getting headaches again since last night.” Saf said in a caring tone. His deep voice was soothing when he tried to speak quietly.
“Yea. Sometimes I think it’s Deitra punishing me for my wandering thoughts.” Neza smiled weakly at the idea. He never had a strong spiritual side, but he couldn’t help but question the reasoning behind the pain. Since Regan modified the program, the pains only occurred when he thought of doing something to betray the others.
“Deitra does not punish, Neza. She only gives us decisions to make and allows us to learn from the consequences.”
“I guess…” Neza felt relieved at the thought, even through his thin veil of skepticism. Perhaps if an almighty god wasn’t the one causing his pain, he could be free of it one day. “It’s probably just a hidden area of my software that we haven’t been able to find yet.”
Saf closed his eyes and breathed deeply. After a few moments of concentration,“Your BIOS is almost entirely receptive right now. I can see almost all of your data freely.”
“Don’t worry. It took some skill to access it. I’m pretty sure normal Security Team members would get locked out if they tried anything. Do you want me to set up a heavier firewall for you?”
“Ummm. Okay. What do I have to do?”
“I’m sending you an access request right now. I need to access your root directory to modify your security protocols. I promise not to make you my personal slave. Unless you make me mad…” Saf smiled at the idea, placing his hand under his chin pretending to be in deep thought.
Neza laughed. He had never given access to Regan this way, but he trusted Saf. Saf had always been honest and forthcoming with him about anything he ever asked. “I know I’m good-looking, but you’ll have to find yourself another slave to do all your chores in a skimpy outfit,” he said as he closed his eyes and granted Saf’s access request.
“Alright. Now just relax and don’t run any major operations for a minute. I’m going to run a visual of what I’m doing for you, so you can see exactly what I’m changing. You can switch it all back later if you want to.” Neza’s view changed to display a blue light trail moving through his psyche like electricity through circuits. Lines of text flowed vertically in the background. Neza could barely scan the words in the short time that it passed through his view.
After a few moments, his virtual memory centers appeared before him in the form of multiple spheres with swirling text and patterns orbiting them in smooth loops. Neza took a deep breath and relaxed as he watched Saf access his security center. The intrusion made him slightly anxious, but as he watched Saf work he could see barriers rising around his entire file system. The barriers layered over each other in random order. No patterns emerged from the translucent orange shapes that represented Neza’s newly-formed mental defenses.
Saf’s blue light exited the spherical area that represented Neza’s internal operational systems through a small opening between the barriers. “Okay, I’m out. Now I want you to activate this process right here.” A thin white line coming from Saf’s blue light pointed at a specific point inside Neza’s security system. “It will arm your Reprisal program. This will allow you to see when you’re being infiltrated by an incoming hack and decide what you want to do with them. You can sever the link and block all future signals they attempt to send.”
“Sounds simple enough.” Neza activated the process enthusiastically.
“You can also lock the connection in place and use it to hack them along their own connection. Using a counterhack this way makes it easier to infiltrate their system, since you can just retrace their steps back into their control centers. Or if you’re feeling dangerous, you can give them a false file system so they think they beat your defenses. You can short out their entire system with a massive data push once they open all their channels to mess with what they think are your most sensitive files. They’d basically lose their entire BIOS until they could get their hardware replaced.”
“Wow… I had all this just laying around dormant in my system? I had no idea.”
“Well, not all of it. That last feature was my own design I copied over for you. I thought you’d like it.” Saf lifted his head up and let a smile of perverse pride paint his rugged face.
Neza chuckled. “Thanks. What about that little back door you left? I don’t want you making me bring you drinks when you come back through there. Just because you’re not sneaky in the real world doesn’t mean your fat ass can’t be sneaky in the data stream.” He elbowed Saf in the hip playfully.
“Shit, you found it? You’re just too clever. I guess you’ll want to activate this last spot right here then.” Another thin white beam pointed toward a new data location.
Neza activated the program and saw the hundreds of orange barriers begin to rotate around each other at varying speeds and directions. He could no longer find any exposed area for another entity to enter. “Whoa.”
“I knew you’d like that. Lots of pretty colors and movement and all. You Felni love your shinies.” With that, Saf’s blue spark disappeared from Neza’s view and he opened his eyes.
Saf stood up and patted Neza roughly on the head, pushing his ears down and matting his fur. Neza stood up and shook his head vigorously. They started walking back to camp, taking separate routes. Neza leaped into the trees and bounded from one branch to another while Saf strode quietly and slowly in the opposite direction.
It felt great to trust Saf with such a sensitive task. Neza had always felt like he was a pure soul, but this experience confirmed that. The imposing beast with a nearly invincible body had a heart of gold beneath it all. Neza felt stronger than ever. If Saf was by his side when they attacked the refinery, Neza felt like he could do it.
On the other hand, Saf’s mind was filled with concern. He couldn’t fathom why Regan had allowed Neza to go all this time without advanced security barriers. Heavy Artillery units sometimes had advanced software installed that could easily break through the basic barrier Neza was using. Regan wasn’t the kind of person that would overlook such a thing.
He also began to worry about their coming mission. He may have pacified Neza’s concerns about it, but he still harbored his own misgivings about targeting his own kind. Was this just one more occasion where he would have to surrender his own judgement for Regan’s idealistic hopes of a greater good?
The Time Has Come
The next morning, Regan woke everyone earlier than usual. He met with each member of the group separately and gave them each a part of the greater mission. He explained “I just want to make sure no one gets distracted and focuses on their own objectives.” The man was an accomplished strategist and Neza was not familiar with how the military ran these kinds of things, so he had little room to argue with the method.
Neza was going to be the second team member to enter the premises. He would dress in the red shirt and tan pants of the Refinery workers and make his way to the offices on the second floor. Once there, he would choose a Felni supervisor and track him until he heard Colissa and Saf’s contribution in the form of explosions and diversionary violence.
At that point, Neza was to abduct the supervisor he chose and bring him to Saf’s location to make a big presentation of who he was taking. He and Saf would then withdraw from the Refinery and escape into the civilian area of the city. From there, they would enter the woods and meet the others at a designated spot deep in the jungle.
Neza didn’t ask what would occur next. He didn’t want to know if he was choosing which of the Felni were going to die that night. He hoped that the theater of the whole mission would take precedence over brutality. Saf would be there to help him get through it all. At the end of this campaign, hundreds of cubs would be safe from the Labs. That was what mattered most.
The four silently prepared for their mission. Neza couldn’t recall a time when any of their campsites were this quiet. Colissa packed a full backpack and armed herself with only her handgun and knife. Regan packed a similar backpack, but armed himself with his favorite assault rifle in addition to his normal arsenal. Saf grabbed some flares and smoke bombs and strapped them to his belt. It was odd to see him leave his perfectly maintained blade behind.
Though his mind was still racing, Neza hadn’t had a headache since he spoke with Saf the day before. Perhaps his uncertainty about the mission was now based in its execution, rather than the reasoning behind it. Perhaps his mind was relieved to finally trust his friends. This was a good sign.
Neza whispered his short prayer so the others wouldn’t notice. They all seemed so confident and prepared, but he was anxious. He was the only one entering enemy territory unarmed and he was much less experienced than the others. They all seemed to know exactly what to do and what tools they needed. He felt weak by comparison. Once he finished his words of prayer, he clenched his hands into fists to stop them from shaking.
“Major, you’re up first!” Regan shouted. Colissa saluted him and shouldered her pack. She put on her Security Team hat and nodded to Neza and Saf as if to wish them luck before darting through the tree line and into the open area of New Plymouth.
Thirty silent minutes passed before Regan called for Neza. “You’re up, Neza. We’ll give you plenty of time, so be careful.”
Neza saluted Regan, attempting to copy Colissa’s sentiment. Saf smiled at him as he passed by but he didn’t notice. He was focusing all of his attention and energy on his mission. The fur on his neck stood up under the thin red fabric of his uniform. He had watched other Felni walk through the town and into the refinery before, so he tried to emulate them. He walked as they did and stared down at the ground to avoid eye contact with the others.
He wanted to know what Colissa was doing in there, but knew he shouldn’t worry about her. The scar on his back reminded him just how tough she was. The refinery gate had a tall grey-colored Felni standing watch, but he only nodded to Neza as he passed. The uniform seemed to be enough to convince the staff that Neza belonged there.
As he walked toward the large bay doors of the massive structure, he couldn’t help but remember the Felni he killed here a few months earlier. The daylight made this place much less gloomy and frightful than it had looked that night. Through the open doors, Neza could see many more Rhin working inside now and several Felni walking around the walkways above them. Occasionally one would shout down to the Rhin, pointing to the machines to direct them. Most of the time they just walked from one office to another carrying clipboards.
Regan hadn’t instructed him in hostage selection. Neza was only told to pick one that he could handle, but he could easily handle any of these scrawny, tired-looking things. He entered the building and started up the metal staircase, carefully stepping to avoid making too much noise. At the top of the stairs, he could see over a dozen doors lining the second floor walls. He recognized the bathroom door at the far end and chose to avoid it. The doors that belonged to supervisors all had text scrawled across their textured glass windows.
Neza took a deep breath and started walking slowly, mimicking the other Felni he watched from afar. Each one he watched had the same human-like mannerisms and expressions. It was impossible to glean any individuality from them, especially from this far away.
He felt someone bump into his back and shove past him, “Out of the way, asshole!” the short, fat Felni shouted at him. He waddled slightly as he walked toward his office nearby.
Neza smiled as he casually walked toward the door, which read Supervisor Montir.
After waiting patiently in front of Montir’s door for several minutes, Neza heard a commotion below. Several workers were shouting to each other, but he couldn’t hear the words. A few seconds later, he felt the ground below him vibrate and heard a low frequency plume of sound that he knew was a distant explosion. A few seconds later, the supervisor’s door opened and the chubby face of the foul-mouthed fellow changed from confusion to surprise as he looked up at Neza’s malevolently smiling face.
The soft body felt almost pleasant on Neza’s fist as he punched Montir in the throat and kicked him back into the office. He didn’t bother to stand back up, instead choosing to sit on the floor coughing. Once he caught his breath, he choked out “What the hell are you doing!?”
Neza was looking back over his shoulder toward the work floor, but Saf hadn’t arrived yet. He had no desire to speak with his hostage or build any kind of rapport. He might have trouble doing what needed to be done later if he started viewing him as anything more than a commodity.
Seeing Neza ignore him, Montir reached for his microphone and shouted into it “Security! Come to my Office immediately! We have a-“ but his shouts didn’t travel beyond the room. His eyes followed the wire along the office floor until it looped around and ended –abruptly cut off– in Neza’s hand. Terror filled him when he looked up at Neza’s cold eyes and realized how dire his situation really was.
A loud crash broke the motionless mutual stare and both Felni turned their heads toward the refinery floor to see an enormous hole in the side wall and an equally enormous Rhin tearing the machinery apart. The Rhin employees fled to the edges of the large room, wanting nothing to do with the largest Rhin they’d ever seen.
That was Neza’s cue to grab Montir by the back of his neck and hold his wrist behind his back. Neza let his claws dig into the sides of the victim’s neck just a bit as he pushed him out of the office and toward the stairs. Neza used the zip ties Regan gave him to bind Montir’s wrists. Tears streamed down Montir’s face as he blubbered words that Neza ignored entirely. Other Felni workers stood on the walkways in awe of Saf’s mechanical carnage beneath them. They made no effort to free Montir from Neza’s grasp or call for help. Many of them ran toward the exits.
Saf was running out of machinery to wreck, so he started stomping the ground and making challenging gestures toward the smaller Rhin. He was expecting them to fight back, but none of them seemed interested in defending their employer’s equipment. Pulling wires and crushing pipes was fun and all, but it seemed a waste of adrenaline.
As Neza reached the ground floor with his captive, he saw a small group of Security forces running toward them from the north hallway. Their weapons were drawn, but they seemed completely unprepared for the scene ahead of them. Two of them fell to the ground with the sound of automatic gunfire, while the other three turned the corner into the room and took cover. They were so preoccupied with defending themselves from the firearms that they didn’t realize Saf was there until it was too late.
He lifted one of them by the back of their body armor and flung him the distance of the room into the second floor wall. The other two turned to fire at him, but they were both gunned down before they could. Regan emerged from the hallway covered in soot and reloading his assault rifle.
“You seen Colissa!?” he urgently shouted to Saf.
Saf shook his head.
“Shit.” Regan paused a moment to think, Alright, continue as planned. I’ll rendezvous with you guys soon.”
Saf nodded his head and Regan pulled a few smoke grenades from Saf’s pockets as he ran west through another hallway. Something was wrong with Colissa, and all of them could feel it.
Saf jogged toward Neza and Montir who was now completely silent. The three ran from the building and made their way toward the Felni slums of New Plymouth. Neza was obviously having trouble pushing the out-of-shape Montir along, so Saf grabbed the hostage like a piece of luggage and held him over his shoulder. Neza felt a tinge of guilt laughing at the sight of this grown Felni being handled like a doll in Saf’s hands.
As Saf jogged through the streets, the residents of the town parted and ran into their homes to avoid the commotion. Montir seemed to be in shock or passed out in Saf’s arms, which made it easier to carry him. Neza trailed behind and watched for Security forces or other interference, but no one followed them. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until Saf stopped abruptly before the tree line.
As he ran up behind Saf, confused about the halt, Neza asked “What’s wrong Saf?”
Saf put his massive hand on Neza’s chest to block him from entering the woods. “There’s someone there.”
Neza peered into the trees for a few moments, curious about how Saf could find anyone in the thick brush and dark shadows. Then he saw it. A pair of thin, slanted eyes peered at them from only about twenty feet away. When Neza’s eyes met them, the brush parted and a tall Felni female with robotic legs walked out. She had the same color patterns in her fur as Neza. His mouth fell open in shock as he clumsily spoke,
… (the following image is not Bayna)