Authors: Roxanne Smolen
Part of the Colonial Scout Series
Copyright © 2016 Roxanne Smolen. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior written permission of the copyright holder, except for brief quotations used in a review.
This is a work of fiction and is produced from the author’s imagination. People, places, fungi, and moss monsters mentioned in this novel are used solely in a fictional manner.
Cover and Interior Design by moonRox, Inc.
Published by moonRox, Inc.
Printed in the United States of America
For more books by Roxanne Smolen
Table of Contents
PLANET 327-01 DG TAURI B
ce exploded like a shot, filling the air with crystalline shards. Trace Hanson dove behind an outcropping, drawing his stat-gun. The cavern was large and laced with passages, slicked over with ice glowing blue with trapped gas. Ledges rose in levels from the curved floor. Nothing moved. He leaned forward, searching.
A blast shattered the frozen ridge, stinging his face. He ran for a tunnel and pressed against the wall. Who? Where? The cavern was filled with places to hide. Think. Think.
Ice blew apart above his head.
Trace ran. The weight of his footsteps jolted his body as he thundered through the tight corridor. This was ridiculous. He was a Colonial Scout, trained in first contact situations. If someone was shooting at him, he needed to take control.
He’d arrived on this world the day before, dropped onto the middle of a glacier by an Impellic ring, a programmable wormhole. He had three days to prove the planet worthy of colonization—and he didn’t want to activate the ring prematurely.
A bang rang his ears. Slush struck his cheek. Trace ducked and fell, sliding down a slanted tunnel, arms and legs flailing, fighting for purchase. He came to rest against a blue-splotched embankment. He looked back. No movement. Get up. They might be following.
might be following?
Struggling to his feet, he crept along the new passage, wiping gloved hands over his dripping face. He pulled his mask down from atop his head and snapped it into place, keying the mike with his tongue.
“Davrileo, what’s your position?”
Only static. Trace winced. Why had he listened when Davrileo suggested they split up to search the caves? He was team leader—his partner’s safety was his responsibility. Leave it to him to screw up his first command.
“Davrileo! Come in!”
“Right here, boss,” said Davrileo Mas.
Trace sagged in relief. “Where are you? Are you all right?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Someone’s shooting. An energy weapon.”
A pause, then, “That doesn’t add. I’m seeing evidence of a primitive race—nothing to indicate high-level weaponry.”
Trace scowled. “I’m telling you, your primitives are armed.” He shook his head. “Look, just get back to the mouth of the cave. Keep your eyes open.”
The com clicked off. Trace continued forward, eyes darting, cursing himself for his cowardice. As team leader, he was expected to be equal to any challenge. His job was to certify a planet safe. He’d wanted this mission to be perfect, wanted to impress his superiors, show them what he could do.
But most of all, he wanted to impress Impani. He groaned. Impani had already been named team leader three times. She embraced each new planet like a fascinating puzzle. Like he should be doing—instead of running away.
He slumped against the wall. His body ached, crawling with sweat, the skinsuit unable to compensate. Growing circles of fog marred his faceplate. He lifted his mask.
Cold. So cold. His nostrils crackled. Breath hung in a frosted cloud. Pulling off his gloves, he wiped his eyes and breathed the warmth of his fingers. He imagined steam rising from his overheated body.
The ceiling shattered. Trace dodged into a narrow passage, running full out with arms over his head. Ice pelted his back as blasts rang behind. The tunnel twisted. His feet shot from beneath him, and he skidded on his backside into a large cavern. The gun clattered away.
Movement caught his eye. He looked over at a scrawny, hairless humanoid swaddled in strips of fur. It was the size of a child. Its mouth dropped open, showing blocky teeth.
Trace scuttled backward, boots slipping on the slick floor. He fumbled blindly for his gun, not willing to take his gaze from the alien. The ice felt hot against his bare palm. It felt wet, as if melting. Cracking and popping, the ground burst into slush beneath his hand.
Trace froze as if time had ended. Ice. Trapped gas. The ice exploded
his hand. Realization thudded against his stomach. The blasts started after he removed his mask. No one had shot at him. His body heat caused the gas in the ice to explode.
He stared at the alien, saw the beaded necklace about its neck, saw the emptiness in its hands. Then he saw Davrileo Mas step from a tunnel across the cavern, raising his gun.
“Wait!” Trace cried too late.
Davrileo’s shot illuminated the alien, encasing it in a bright aura, holding it upright. Its body was whisper thin. It fell in slow motion.
Time released him. Trace rushed toward the fallen alien. Scorch sizzled in its back. He turned the body over, searching for signs of life, not knowing where to look for a pulse.
“You told me they were shooting at you,” Davrileo said, his voice sharp with recrimination. “You said they were armed.”
Trace looked at him, words caught in a knot. It was a mistake. A terrible mistake. No one had shot at him. Then his thoughts settled on Impani’s mantra: we aren’t here to butcher the locals.
PLANET 1186-9 HH30
ow could things go so wrong? Impani wondered, gazing over the turbulent lake. Driving rain pounded her body.
Her partner climbed beside her. “You can’t be serious.”
She looked at him, past his rain-streaked faceplate and into his large black eyes. Anselmi was humanoid—two arms, two legs, one head—but so pale he was silver, so thin he appeared brittle. People said that he and his kind were telepathic. Not many Scouts wanted to work with him. But Impani liked having a partner who knew her thoughts. Until now.
“You said it yourself. There is nothing here,” she shouted over the rain. “We have to cross the lake.”
“It’s too wide. Even your resonator can’t reach the other side.”
She looked back at the craggy, scabrous land. No animals. No plants. A paradox. I’m team leader, she thought, and I make the decisions—then wondered if he heard her.
“Impani, not every mission has to be spectacular.”
True. But she had gained a reputation as a risk-taker who always learned something extraordinary—and she found that she liked being a rogue.
“I’m going.” She switched on her jet pack. Its power rattled her teeth.
“Why?” shouted Anselmi. “Why is it so important?”
“Because there is air,” she shouted back. “An m-class oxygen atmosphere. There must be plant life somewhere. And I intend to find it.”
She lifted from the rough bank. Rain lashed as if to push her back to ground. With one hand on the control pad, she rose over the churning water. The land disappeared as if it had never been, obliterated by the sheeting storm.
Impani felt enveloped in gray fog. She felt that she could fly for days and not see anything. No visibility. No resonance scans. What was she doing?
She thought again about being a rogue. She knew not everyone admired her for it, even suspected that several of her peers avoided her. Reckless, they said. It didn’t matter. She didn’t need anyone’s approval.
But then Anselmi pulled alongside, hanging like a shadow. Immense relief flooded her.
The com clicked in her ear.
“Something is there,” Anselmi said.
Impani squinted through the rain. A jagged mass loomed ahead. Most likely it was rocks on the opposite shore. She smirked with vindication. Then the mass moved.
“Look out!” yelled Anselmi as a huge tentacle splashed down between them.
Impani reeled to one side, caught in its wake. She struggled for altitude, felt a sickening drop as the pack sputtered. Before her, a massive balloon-like body broke the surface of the lake—and part of her thought, this is new, we haven’t seen a giant squid monster before. It appeared transparent in the dark water. Tentacles waved around a beak-like mouth. Reaching for her.
Impani screamed. She mashed the controls of her jet pack, kicking her feet as if she would run away. With horrible slowness, a tentacle curled about her chest. Impani arched her back, clawing at the crushing pressure. Flashing stars encroached upon her vision.
A spear of light shot through the haze. The grip about her slackened. Impani wheezed and gulped the air. Anselmi fired his stat-gun again. Tentacles thrashed. For a dizzying moment, Impani was hoisted upward. Then the creature plunged her into the water as it dove beneath the surface.
race stood at a window on the ninety-fifth floor of Colonial Bureau Central. He stared at the sparkling spires of surrounding buildings and the ribbon of yellow cabs gliding between them. In his mind, he saw the fur-clad alien encased in bright aura falling in slow motion to the cave floor.
He could blame Davrileo Mas or shrug the incident away as an unfortunate accident. But as team leader, the mission had been
responsibility, and he took full blame for it at the debriefing.
“Heard you had to ring home early,” someone said behind him.
Trace winced, recognizing the voice. It was Robert Wilde, the person he least wanted to deal with right then. Keeping his voice level, he said, “The planet was occupied. There was no reason to stay.”
“Still. Losing an ice world with all that potential water.” Wilde stepped to the window and gazed out. “Won’t look good on your record.”
“I explored the planet, found out what we needed to know,” Trace said. “The mission was a success.”
Wilde sniffed. “Your first and doubtless last mission as team leader.”
“At least, they gave me a chance. How many times have you been chosen?” Trace cut himself off. He hated rising to Wilde’s taunts, hated the constant competition between them. He wished they could work together.
For in truth, Robert Wilde was an excellent Scout. He had an uncanny intuition that made him quick to understand an alien environment. Trace felt that they might have been friends—if not for that one thing between them.
“She doesn’t love you, you know.” Wilde sneered. “She’s just using you to make me jealous.”
“Give it up,” Trace said.
But Wilde was already walking away. Trace frowned as he watched him. Wilde had no chance with Impani. Neither did he. For Impani would never truly love either of them. She was in love with the job.
The thought broke in a wave of helplessness. He pictured her before him—green eyes flashing with excitement as she described the planet she’d just seen, laughing as she recounted this daring escape or that grand discovery. She was so alive, so… brilliant. It was enough for him to bask in her light. And as he looked out at the bright blue day, he hoped that wherever she was, she and her partner were having better luck than he’d had.
PLANET 1186-9 HH30
mpani gazed upward as the squid-like creature dragged her into the lake. Murky water enveloped the light. The filters of her mask closed. She had only what air remained inside, only minutes to decide what to do. If she activated the Impellic ring while still in the squid’s stranglehold, the creature would transport with her back to Central. But if she waited too long, she would either suffocate or be squeezed to death.
Part of her quailed in panic, yet a larger part appraised the situation calmly, and she surprised herself by hoping she’d sealed her backpack. She carried a small holo of Trace and didn’t want it to get wet.
A streak of light jarred her thoughts. Anselmi had followed them down. She felt both relieved and irked. He fired his stat-gun. The energy rippled over the squid’s massive body to no lasting effect—but Impani felt awash with electric pinpricks. Her ears popped as the creature took her deeper.
Anselmi fired again, but the shot sputtered and the beam died. With odd clarity, Impani remembered that stat-guns were powered by static in the air. Underwater, they would hold only a residual charge.
“Go back!” she gasped into the open com.
Before her partner could respond, the creature struck out with its many limbs and swatted him. Anselmi flipped end-over-end then drifted into darkness.
“Anselmi!” Where was he? She pounded the tentacle about her chest.
The creature thrust ahead. Its hold upon her shifted. She squirmed to pull her gun from her belt. A violent jerk threatened to snap her spine. She clung to the weapon with both hands. Tentacles gyrated around her as the creature reeled her closer. Its beaked mouth opened and closed.
Impani fired. The shot hit inside the mouth. The body flashed and heaved. Energy waves radiated outward, encasing her. She thrashed in heated pain, nearly blacking out. Lights crowded the periphery of her vision. She was aware of movement in the dark, aware that she was running out of air. Tensing for recoil, she shot again.
Abruptly, the squid released her. With a single stroke, it darted away. Impani wheezed and clutched her chest. She turned to look for Anselmi—and the lights moved. For a moment, all thought paused, and she stared mesmerized at the beings around her.
Their faces were fish-like with the frowning expressions of largemouth bass. Dark fins ran down their backs. Their bodies tapered into scaly tailfins, but their front flippers elongated into arms and fingers. Each creature held a glowing spike of phosphorescent coral.
First a sea monster, now mermaids. She wished she could stay longer, wished she had explored the lakes in the first place. But she had only moments of breathable air left. She had to find Anselmi and ring home.
Kicking hard, she swam in the direction she had last seen her partner. The mer-people flanked her, keeping their distance. She clipped a flashlight to her wrist, although its light did little to dispel the murk.
“Anselmi,” she panted. “Anselmi, do you read?”
No answer. A sob crested her throat, and she fought it down. Which way did the current flow? How far would he drift?
Then she saw him, his body eerily green in the lamplight. Impani blinked rapidly, fighting a sudden lethargy. Her arms and legs felt numb, her chest crushed with lack of oxygen. She propelled forward then pulled her partner close and activated the Impellic ring.
Immediately, she sensed the ring spiral nearer, felt its tug within her stomach. The mer-people swam away as if losing interest. She followed them with her eyes and saw a glowing city upon the lake bottom. Shining domes clustered like bubbles, and silhouettes of mer-people swam through the light. Forests of seaweed waved in the current. The plant life she’d expected to find.
Then the ring enclosed her, pulling her from the watery world into the void of the wormhole. She closed her eyes against a sensation of extreme velocity, her body wrenched by vertigo, her numb arms wrapped, unfeeling, about Anselmi’s slight form.
Was he dead? Did he die trying to save her? She shouldn’t have tried to cross the lake. If only he hadn’t followed her into the water.
Light seared her senses and something hard struck her legs. She dropped to her knees amid a great splash of water. Immediately, a claxon sounded.
She heard a voice over the loud speaker. “Hazardous Materials crew to Impellic Chamber 110B.”
Impani clawed off her mask, wheezing and retching, nearly blinded by the mirrored room. She leaned over Anselmi. His mask was askew, the hinge broken. His face swam in lake water.
He wasn’t breathing.