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Alien Safari (Alien Safari Series Book 1) - Paperback Edition

Alien Safari (Alien Safari Series Book 1) - Paperback Edition

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"Next to impossible to put a book down that so captures the imagination."  ‘VINE VOICE’ Amazon Reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Warning! Wildlife may be dangerous. Proceed beyond this point at your own risk.

When celebrated Omicron detective Ferrix Vaughn is called in to investigate a deadly breach on Hesperidia, a protected planet full of indigenous wildlife, he doesn't know what to expect. The place used to be a tourist attraction, but the safari tours were discontinued long ago due to rampant poaching. Only a handful of researchers live there now, including Jan Corbija, the young woman who reported the breach.

The deeper Vaughn digs, the more the evidence seems to point to a recent raid on a biotech facility in a nearby system. Whatever was stolen from there, it's attracted the attention of major political players in a time of war across the colonies. Vaughn suspects the secret is on Hesperidia, in the hands of the two fugitives who fled the murder scene. If he wants to get to them first, he's going to need Jan's help. Her Alien Safari tour will have to reopen for this final excursion. But to survive it, they'll both need to face their demons, for a predator far deadlier than man roams the wilds of Hesperidia. And this is its killing season.

This way for the ride of your life.

 

WHAT READERS SAY:

"Robert Appleton has tapped into his extraordinary imagination and penned a very entertaining story in Alien Safari. I would urge anybody who enjoys a fun story, Sci-Fi, intergalactic wildlife, or a good old shoot 'em up style space opera, to get a copy of Alien Safari today. You will be glad you did." ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ -- Readers' Favorite

"Very good story, excellent character development and use, plot unfolds very well, you know the story will end well without knowing how. An excellent detective / mystery story spread across a couple of planets with some high tech equipment and alien artifact and some unusual alien animals and fauna. Not my normal Sci-Fi adventure, but I liked the author's style very much and will look for his other works." ⭐⭐⭐⭐ -- Mini Library Reviewer

"Alien Safari features a world, Hesperidia, that caught my imagination like nothing before." ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ - 'VINE VOICE' Amazon Reviewer

"This book ticks all the boxes! The world building is great, and I fitted right into the future scenario without once feeling lost or confused. The descriptions of the tech, aliens animals, and human contrasts are so imaginative, and often beautiful. This is a mystery story, and the plot is paced out well, making the book hard to put down." ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ - Author Iseult Murphy

“A highly entertaining, nail-biting book.” ⭐⭐⭐⭐  Audiobook Reviewer

"The writing flows easily and enjoyably making Alien Safari impossible to put down." ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ - Amazon UK

“This was an awesome book.” ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ - Amazon Reader

"This was fun from the first page! Original story with strong characters - and an alien dog - on a strange planet full of dangers." ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ - Amazon UK

"The writing flows easily and enjoyably making Alien Safari impossible to put down." ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ - Amazon Reader

"I loved this book. The tone was amazing, the writing was strong, the characters were full, and the plot/world were well crafted." - Goodreads Review

 

READ A SAMPLE BELOW (Excerpt From Chapter 3...)

 

Even from a hundred thousand miles out, he could tell the Hesp was going to give him trouble. It shone like a crown jewel next to the dozen other unremarkable worlds in its system. Terraqueous bands of blue-green and gunmetal brown stretched diagonally around its southern hemisphere, as though a giant claw had torn across it. Clouds covered the north—pinkish orange clouds, flashing violently. He hoped like hell the murder scene wasn’t under that storm.

The satellite net sent him its automated warning in plenty of time:

You are entering restricted space. Unauthorized approach to the planet L-12 is absolutely prohibited. All authorized visitors, transmit your security access code now and wait for a reply from the planet’s personnel before proceeding. Any unauthorized vessel found inside the satellites’ perimeter will be fired upon. You have been warned.

He could see the little bastards from out here, through his ship’s telescope. Hundreds of them, glowing amber. Shaped like sharp and nasty bass clefs. He knew from experience the sats weren’t bullshitting either. A colossal cargo freighter had been blasted to bits last year when its pilot had died at the controls and the ship had drifted inside a quarantine ring around Gilpraxia. Partly the pilot’s fault. He should have activated the dead man’s switch while he was flying manually. Partly the shipping company’s fault. They shouldn’t have let him fly without a co-pilot. But for Vaughn’s money, these sat rings were the biggest goddamn menace in the galaxy. One of these days some poor schmuck with a malfunctioning comm system would wander into one and get annihilated, only he’d turn out to be some big shot far-flung dignitary, and there’d be another interstellar war quicker than you could say, Whose fault?

He slowed the Pitch Hopper. Broadcasted his official ISPA greeting to the planet. He didn’t often require permission to land anywhere, and it irritated him. Especially since he was doing this as a favor. The waiting made it worse. Five minutes. Ten. Twenty. Over half an hour. He re-sent the introduction on every frequency and in every language in his computer’s database. Then he ran a few miles, inverted, on the grav treadmill in his bedroom. Dropped for a few dozen press-ups. Drank a soda. By the time he received a reply from the planet, he was ready to flip this shit off and head back to HQ.

Then he saw her.

The sorriest-looking woman he’d ever seen in a uniform. Corbija, Juanita E, according to her profile in the bottom corner of the monitor. But the profile picture and her actual self were tough to reconcile, even side by side. She’d suffered extensive burn damage since, to more than half of her face and neck. And peeking from beneath the right side of her collar, a scar he’d seen many times on war vets. Cybernetic repair.

She yawned, then wiped the screen with a handkerchief. She moved closer. The image on the screen was crystal clear, which told him she was in the southern hemisphere, away from the storm. It also presented her in the least flattering light imaginable. Her shock of jet-black hair—some of it was tied in a pony tail, the rest was all over the place—suggested it was windy outside. At closer range, her damaged skin didn’t appear burned. It seemed, for want of a better phrase, imprinted upon. A thousand puncture scars in a perfect pattern, as if something strong and scaly had gripped her tight and held her for a long time.

“Mr. Vaughn, is it? What happened to Mr. Kraczinski?” She sounded unimpressed. Intriguing voice, though. It wrapped around the syllables with a slightly superior, sultry Spanish twist.

“He’s unable to come in person. I’m here instead.”

“It’s just you?” She did that annoying thing people sometimes did when they weren’t used to communicating via direct visual link. She moved her head to try to see behind Vaughn.

“It’s just me, ma’am. I can assure you.”

“And you’ve handled murder investigations before? You don’t look like an Omicron agent.”

 Vaughn was silent.

“Okay, I guess you’ll do. Just remember to do exactly what I say down here, or I’ll be flagging your buddies to come get you.”

Vaughn was silent.

“Transmitting code now.” She scanned her wrist tattoo into the front of her comm device. The hieroglyphic code filled half his screen, then unscrambled itself into numbers. He hit Auto Send. Immediately the several nearest satellites flashed green, giving him a safe window to fly through. “Enter the atmosphere and follow my beacon,” she said. “Use the last eight digits from the code I just sent you. That’ll guide your ship straight to me. Then land on the pad in the southeast part of the compound. Be careful—strong winds to the south.”

“Understood. Thanks.”

“Say, you don’t happen to have any McCormick’s, do you?” She leaned right up to the screen, then blinked her eyes with an amusing, deadpan coquettishness.

He smiled. “You know what? I think I might have a bottle. The Vodka sort.”

“Oh. In that case, you’ll definitely do.”

“I’d better, Miss...Corbija, is it?”

“Jan. Unless it’s tax month, I’m Jan.”

“See you shortly, Jan.”

“Not if I see you first.” She closed the link before he could.

Wow, okay. This assignment promised to be...different, at least. She wasn’t exactly a damsel in distress down there. On the contrary, he had to remind himself he was the one in charge. Sort of.

 

The climate and topography changed dramatically as he flew up the coast of the southernmost strip of land belonging to the ‘claw marks’ continent he’d seen from orbit. Ice floes and towering blue-white cliffs gave way to vast, desolate areas of tundra, where legions of huge anteater-like creatures marched in columns in every direction, as though they were tracing the lanes of an invisible Arctic metropolis. He passed over sharp, gunmetal-brown hills that belched up yellow fumes from their rivers and geyser lakes.

Eventually he reached a reddish desert far inland, where trees had contorted into ridiculous shapes as they’d intertwined in dense clusters on the shores of watering holes. An impossible number of crimson-colored jumpers—lizards of some description, well camouflaged in the sand—sprang away from the Pitch Hopper’s approach with astonishing height in their leaps, between thirty and fifty feet. They were so densely packed and numerous, their escape into two diverging halves resembled the parting of the Red Sea for at least twenty miles.

The continent stretched farther than he could see in every direction. Those threatening storm clouds he’d seen from orbit formed an inky barrier far to the north, across much of the hemisphere. Lightning flashes appeared a little too close for comfort.

He set the ship down on an empty landing area inside a rectangular compound of about ten acres, ringed with high, electrified fencing. None of the buildings were taller than forty feet. He counted seven, all adjoined, including the filthy-looking HQ and a garage that contained two of the weirdest-looking hover vehicles he’d ever seen. The pad was half-covered with sand and windswept foliage. His landing thrusters soon cleared it.

A large, dilapidated sign standing askew on the roof of the building next to the garage read:

A IEN SAF RI

Th  Adven  re You’ll N ver  orget

A smallish woman wearing a natty beige sweater, corduroy pants, and an air filtration mask limped onto the landing area. She carried a spare mask. At her signal, he opened the Hopper’s outer airlock door and went to meet her, wondering if she really was alone in this outpost, and what that must be like, long-term, psychologically. He might be the first visitor she’d had in ages—well, the first official visitor.

It was a first for him, too. He’d never met an ISPA-trained animal doctor before, nor had he touched down on a planetary preserve.

“Dr. Corbija, how do you do?”

She removed her mask, didn’t bother tossing her hair. “I only answer to Jan.”

“Jan. Is it just you out here?”

She limped forward, handed him the spare mask. “Just me. We had a VIP safari tour running at one point, to help fund our research. Over a dozen permanent personnel in this outpost alone. Then ISPA was forced to send us a full garrison, to police the poachers. Fifteen outposts across the planet, with armed rangers in constant rotation. The poaching got so bad we had to cancel the safari tour. And when ISPA installed the sat net, they pulled the whole garrison as well. Now it’s just me and five other XZ rangers. We don’t see each other much. Not that I’m complaining. I signed on for the wildlife, not the people.”

“XZ? What’s that?”

“Xenozoologist. Omega grade. I’m also a Theta grade xenobotanist, and qualified to AESOP Level 3 in all-terrain survival.”

“If you can spell all of that, you’re already smarter than me.”

“I can. And I am.”

“Well, I’m impressed.” He wasn’t lying.

She was silent.

“I’ll be even more impressed if you can take me to the crime scene before sun-down.”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“On whether or not you’re a man of your word.”

“And which word is that?”

“The magic one—McCormick’s.”

Vaughn laughed, and crooked a finger for her to follow him into the lounge. “I’m curious about what it is you do here, Jan.” He offered her a seat on the guest armchair. She declined, preferring to stand. “It sounds pretty dangerous.”

“Extremely. That’s why I threw all those qualifications at you just now. It’s the only chance I get to show them off, because believe me, the Hesp hawks them back in my face every chance she gets. No one’s qualified in anything here. Some people just last longer than others, that’s all.”

He went to pour her a glass of Vodka McCormick’s but she gently took the bottle from him, poured him a glass instead, and swigged a mouthful straight from the bottle. She corked it and kept it. Amused, Vaughn swallowed his drink and immediately retrieved a second bottle—Arinto, a liqueur he didn’t really care for, a present from a widow he’d helped last year. He stuffed it under Jan’s arm.

“So you can last a bit longer,” he said.

Her turn to smile, half turned away from him in embarrassment. A shame, really. She wasn’t unattractive from her right side—far from it, as it illustrated her fiery Latino heritage well, very well. Jan had once been dark and striking, with elegant high cheekbones and an athletic figure. She still had the latter, but her limp and the stiff, awkward way she held her left side, as though she was worried the pins holding her together would fall out, were painful to watch. And the extensive, scale-like scarring on the left side of her face and neck was even worse in person. Absurdly ugly. From one side she was a Mediterranean honey. From the other, Harryhausen’s Medusa.

Such a shame.

But he couldn’t deny she was intriguing company. Brusque, rude even, but certainly fun. And a breath of fresh air, considering the way people usually treated him—like some kind of timed explosive. She didn’t give a shit who he was, what he was, what he’d done in the past. All she wanted was for someone to clean up this mess that had landed in her back yard, as efficiently as possible, so she could get back to studying her plants and animals in deep alien isolation. So she could continue pretending to like her self-imposed exile. So she could go on facing whatever it was she’d stayed here to face...

Stop with the psycho-analysis already. Who are you to judge anyone?

But how had she got those injuries? Had anyone else been involved?

“Vaughn.”

“Hmm.”

“Been trying to figure out where I know that name from. I’m bad with faces, even worse with names, human ones, that is. But I’m sure I’ve heard of an Omicron agent called Vaughn.” She scrutinized his reaction—one he’d had plenty of practice at hiding over the years. “Any reason I should know you?”

“We’ve never met.”

“No, but—”

“What other gear will I need in the field?” He motioned his glass at the filtration masks she’d set down on the armchair next to her two liquor bottles. “Those are pretty light duty. I’m guessing the air isn’t too dangerous.”

“Oh it’s dangerous. High methane and carbon dioxide—the greenhouse effect here is substantial. Let me see...seven percent argon, including a peculiar new isotope one of my colleagues is studying at the pole, which reacts strangely to the Herculean sun’s radiation. They had to update the Galactic Periodic Table last year. And one or two of the trace gases are exotic. That’s about it for the scary stuff—scary gases, I should say. The air’s the least of your worries, to be honest. Our mask filters were designed specifically for the Hesp’s atmosphere; there’s enough O2 out there to feed our lungs indefinitely. You just wouldn’t last long without one, that’s all.”

“You mentioned isotopes. What about long-term exposure? Should we not cover up?”

“Stable isotopes, Vaughn. Argon’s harmless in that way. No, as long as you don’t wander off into an orchid veldt, you shouldn’t have any need to cover up here. Plus, the vicars are airtight—”

“Vicars?”

“That’s what we call our hover vehicles—they used to be the safari taxis, back when the tour was running, and we never bothered to remove the white logo stripe around the cockpit. It sort of resembles a vicar’s dog collar. Dumb, I guess. But they’re more than versatile enough for what we’ll need. The spare survival suits are on board for if the weather turns. Then we’ve got supplies to last us for weeks, trancs and pulse weapons in case we run into any nasty indigenous.” She clocked him looking at her scars, and turned away.

Vaughn felt sorry for her. “How nasty?”

“Depends on how far north we go.”

“How far north have you been?”

“Farther than we’ll be going.”

“Jan, look at me.”

She glanced at him askance, then looked away, pretending to itch her left temple—unconsciously shielding the damaged side of her face.

“What happened in the north?”

“You don’t need to know. You don’t want to know.”

He stepped toward her, touched her shoulder. “Sure I do.”

She threw his hand off. “Mind your own beeswax, asswipe.”

Vaughn recoiled, let his jaw hang for a beat, then spluttered a laugh. He couldn’t help it. He’d never heard that phrase before, and it sounded so blunt and ridiculous and uncalled-for at such a tender moment, in such an unusual accent, it left him in stitches.

Jan, too, was soon covering her mouth to hide an uproarious laugh that brought tears to her big brown eyes. Then she removed her hand from her mouth and let her dirty, bellowing laugh fill the entire ship. They laughed so hard it provoked an even louder bark from the compound outside.

“A friend of yours?” asked Vaughn.

“Yes. A furry little asswipe. Called Stopper.”

“Hell’s that?”

“Short for Back-Stop. We had a game of cricket one time, shortly after I arrived, and Stopper caught every bowl that got through, no matter how bad the bowler. Then me and one of the guys got into an argument about the rules of Leg-Before-Wicket. It got heated, almost came to blows. It ended when Stopper jumped between us and bit the guy’s scrotum.”

Vaughn pulled a face. “I’d imagine it would.”

She dried her eyes. “A handy dog to have on your side, little Stopper. His parents were both GenMods, engineered to breathe Hesperidian air. You remember ISPA’s Eden Project?”

“Only the protests. It was shut down when someone leaked footage of that human girl they’d engineered to breathe alien air. Macy, was it?”

“Millie. They were forced to pull the plug on any further research after that, but they’d already been at it for years. It was supposed to be a way to bypass terraforming, which as you know is incredibly expensive. Rather than change the planets to suit us, Eden was changing us to suit the planets. And they’d gotten really good at it. Everything from microscopic fungi to fully-grown humans had been adapted to live on specific worlds. A lot of GenMod animals had already been sold to private investors, and there was no way to recall them all.”

“So Stopper was—”

“Stopper’s parents were designed to detect threats from alien creatures by smell, heightened sensitivity to changes in air pressure, body heat, bio-electricity. Canines like those are indispensable in the far-flung colonies. They give our pioneers plenty of warning whenever an alien organism’s nearby. Stopper’s my pal. He’ll only bark his head off when he perceives a threat, or when there’s a new creature he hasn’t come across before. Like you.”

Vaughn grabbed his lightweight EVA jacket, his crime scene baldric, his Omicron-issue pistol in its holster, and the spare mask. “I’d like to meet him. I take it he’ll be coming with us?”

“I never leave the compound without him.” In Jan’s hurry to lead the way, she dropped the bottle of Arinto. Vaughn lunged and caught it on his folded jacket, then presented it to her.

She studied him for a few moments, cocked her head to one side. “So you’re that Vaughn.”

“I said we’ve never met.”

“You were on all the podnets. I remember. The Omicron agent who arrested his own family. For terrorism, was it?”

Vaughn was silent.

“Sorry. But you were prying into things I’d rather not talk about.” She put her mask on, bid him do the same. “Maybe we can swap war stories later.” Her voice was now gravelly, sounding less Spanish through the mask’s speaker.

“Maybe.”

He had no intention of reliving that day again...not with anyone.

Hyper after his breakfast, Stopper, a very large, muscular boxer dog, bounded around the HQ’s unfiltered anteroom, wrestling a rubber AI playmate that could fight back a little, right itself when left alone and make a wide variety of animal noises. As soon as he saw Vaughn, Stopper raced at him and quickly toppled and pinned him to the floor, awaiting further instructions from his mistress. Amused, Jan simply shrugged and hummed to herself as the dog, with its tongue hanging out, slobbered all over the motionless Omicron agent.

“So long as you know who’s in charge,” she said.

“Tell him he can have my badge whenever he likes.”

“Oh, he already knows that.”

Jan blew into a pink whistle that made no sound Vaughn could hear, but which Stopper responded to immediately. He dashed to the door leading to the office’s airlock, reared up on his hind legs, and howled several times into a speaker over the keypad, each howl distinct from the others. The door opened. Jan sealed herself inside the airlock, flooded the chamber with oxygen, then took the bottles into the office. She returned with a bag of biscuits, an omnipod, and a flexi-screen that detailed the Hesp’s terrain and animal territories in incredible detail.

“Interesting password,” Vaughn said.

“I taught him that.”

“Which reminds me—have you got a copy of the distress call?” he asked.

She patted the omnipod. “And the sat net’s visual recording of both ships’ approach.”

“I didn’t know there were two ships.”

“It was in my report to ISPA.”

“You said approach. What about their entry and landing?”

“Nothing.”

“Why not?”

She shrugged, led the way across the compound. “I was hoping you might be able to figure that out.”

“Tell me everything en route,” he said. “As much detail as you can remember.”

“I’ll try. It was...confusing.”

“It always is.”

“How good are you, Vaughn? As a detective, I mean.”

“Why?”

“Because I should warn you, there are other things about these events that make no sense.”

“In that case—” He helped her pull the rusty garage doors fully open when the auto-control didn’t work, “I’m the best.”

Jan said nothing when he tripped over Stopper and fell in a dusty heap.

 

***

 

Zipping over the vicious wilds of Hesperidia a mere twenty feet off the ground should have made him nervous. But Vaughn wasn’t nervous. He couldn’t explain why. Umpteen species they passed in the first five minutes alone were big enough to attack and maybe down the vicar, no problem. Instead, each had the same bizarre reaction to the hover craft. They packed tightly together to form impenetrable masses, with remarkable speed.

One herd in particular, some sort of amphibian rhinoceroses with webbed feet and dimetrodon-like fins, rushed into formation on the lakeside with stunning coordination, so that their large horns formed a three-sixty palisade ready to repel any attackers.

“Here, these might help.” Jan retrieved a pair of expensive-looking, black-and-white striped goggles from the glovebox, and handed them to him. As soon as he put them on, a stuttering purple line wiped across his vision. Then the Alien Safari title and logo—a winged dragon silhouette—blinked to life in vivid 3D.

“What is it?”

“Our interactive field guide. My vid footage was used for some of the pattern recognition constructs.”

“Is it rigged for eye control?” asked Vaughn.

“Yes, just like an omnipod. The software will follow your gaze, and if it recognizes what you’re looking at, it will bring up as much info as you like on that specific animal or plant. I should warn you, the technical names are in Avrillic.”

“The OC formal speak?”

“That’s a pigeon version of Avrillic. The original sounds more like Neo-Latin. They make everyone in the academy learn it. I know I had to.”

“I tried once. Never again.” He quickly discovered he could zoom in and out of the image by closing one eye or the other. A blink of his left eye brought up the menu file for the creature in his gaze, a blink of his right removed it, so he could move onto the next at will. Exactly like the IC store catalogue he used to order his ship’s supplies from over the podnet.

This was more fun.

“Shame we never got to finish it,” she said. “The tourists had a blast. But when the tour got pulled, so did the software development.”

Vaughn focused on the odd-looking rhinoceros—terraquafin aurelei, a.k.a. “Webbed Earl”—

a large, amphibious herbivore with an incredibly long lifespan (studies suggest up to 400 Core years), this placid, lumbering member of the terraquafin family is one of the most popular animals in its ecosystem. It can often be seen ferrying smaller species across rivers and lakes without complaint. But when confronted by a predator, it will wield its horn and use its enormous weight to vicious effect. The Webbed Earl is...

Vaughn moved on. He was fascinated by this idea of cooperation across species. Whenever the vicar passed a herd, not only those animals but other species would gang together in the same tight-knit defensive unit, species he could swear had nothing in common. Large, creeping sloths with bee-like stripes—vervidian eloisei—gave sanctuary to much smaller, caterpillar-esque tree dwellers—vercilius decambuli. The latter swizzled down through the air in rapid, hairy spirals and clung to the sloths’ shoulders.

Meanwhile, the sloths, who were anything but slow when the ship approached, bunched together with an even stranger species—troyelix centambuli—flat, stingray-like creatures with hundreds of legs, whose razor-sharp tails pointed out like bayonets from beneath the legs of the sloths. This kind of defensive cooperation went against everything Vaughn had understood about Nature and survival of the fittest. It was as if the creatures of Hesperidia had learned to ally against outside threats, for common survival.

He asked Jan about it.

“They’re just being cautious. They know me by now. But it does make them difficult to approach—especially when Stopper gets worked up about something.”

“But how can they be so coordinated like that? It’s like we’re flying through a military inspection, with everything suddenly armed and standing to attention.”

She chuckled through her nose. “I never thought of it quite like that, but yeah, it is, kind of. Have you heard of symbiosis?”

“Yes. I don’t know much about it.”

“It’s a controversial umbrella term for mutualistic relationships. De Bari described it as ‘the living together of unlike organisms’, so you could in theory extend it to all kinds of persistent biological interaction, like parasitic or commensal relationships. But what you’re observing is a shared defensive action—across species—that benefits the individuals and the ecosystem in all sorts of ways. You’ll find symbiosis everywhere in Nature, but on Hesperidia, it seems to have evolved on a much bigger scale. Many of the creatures on this planet have developed symbiotic relationships for survival.”

“Survival against what? They’re not just being cautious; it’s like they’re expecting an invasion. What’s the genesis of that behavior?”

Jan steered the vicar around a bioluminescent, misty swamp ringed with trees—wraithulia cronogenus—that grew so low and horizontal over the glowing area he couldn’t figure out how their trunks didn’t snap.

“You’re bright for a lawman, Vaughn.”

He stayed silent.

“The genesis of their cooperative instinct is a very real and very deadly threat that migrates across this continent once every few years. A super predator. As far as we can tell, it’s been top of the food chain forever.” She swallowed. “The animals, and even some of the plants, seem to have evolved their symbiosis around that common threat, to use strength in numbers to defend against it, to protect their own ecosystems. It’s a highly complex and paradoxical instinct I’m still trying to figure out. It probably goes back billions of years.”

“So what’s this deadly threat?” Vaughn recalled her mentioning nasty indigenous in the north, and the way it had made her clam up. “You’ve encountered it personally, haven’t you.”

“We’re almost at the crime scene. Best put your mask on.”

Stopper started barking as they approached a flat, grassy isthmus about a quarter of a mile wide stretching over a large lake covered with floating, pastel-colored flora. Spurts of water shot up here and there, followed by little tail fins wriggling up through the vegetation. Small, black skippers, resembling nippy catfish, darted after the water spurts in the hope of catching the fish before their wriggling tails disappeared.

A deep space survey ship—Nina class, either an S-9 or S-14—stood about forty feet from the water’s edge, before the start of the isthmus. It was armed with military-grade pulse cannons, a precaution more and more corporations were taking these days when venturing anywhere near the 100z border. But this wasn’t the 100z border or anywhere near it.

Jan set the vicar down close by, then stretched and yawned as though she hadn’t slept in days. “You want to study the sat footage first?”

“No. I’ll see the bodies, then work my way back through what happened. Fill in the gaps as I go, with your help, of course.”

“Suit yourself.” She gathered weapons, anti-venom, a survival bag, and oxygen canisters from the vicar’s cargo hold, and left them where they were easily retrievable in case of emergency. Then she led Vaughn out to the water’s edge, behind the Nina. “Stopper found the bodies in the dark last night,” she said. “Went right to them. I figured ISPA wouldn’t want them moved, so I put up airtight tents.”

“You did well.”

She deactivated the electric currents running through the tents’ spines, their only security measure, then collapsed and removed the four domes. “They’re all yours.”

Five bodies in four tents. Two men had been hit by the same intense heat blast, fusing parts of them together, melting away others. Not a pretty sight. The fanning pattern of scorched ground around them indicated the blast had originated from the shoreline. A riot of footprints in the mud at the water’s edge showed him exactly where the killer had stood. He sent up a bird’s eye surveyor, calibrated it to circle the crime scene the standard twenty-seven times at various heights and angles, so it could record the images and patterns in a series of light spectrums for spectro-analysis later.

He put his gloves on, took DNA samples from all five victims, then rummaged through their clothing. Nothing of much worth: a handful of clipped credits, discount clubcards for several strip joints in the outer colonies, gum, injection vials for inducing lucid dreaming—one of Vaughn’s own harmless vices—and spare power cartridges for their pulse weapons.

Vaughn stood on the spot where the killer had fired from.

No, make that killers.

There were two sets of boot prints, one a size twelve, the other much smaller, maybe a five. And the fact that there’d only been one heat blast suggested they’d had a weapon each. The other was a pulse cannon, probably a fairly powerful Shelby sidearm—ripples in the denuded topsoil were close together in a tight radius, and the victims’ wounds were extensive, deep, cauterized. No wasted shots. Every one had hit its target, if not dead center then close enough to impress Vaughn.

Two shooters, then. One of them a solid marksman, maybe even a quick-draw. He couldn’t see any signs of blood near the water’s edge. Some kind of oily residue mixed in with the dew on the blue fronds of a trampled plant, nothing more. Had the dead men even got a shot off? No way of telling without checking their weapons. He’d do that later.

Size five boots suggested a woman’s, twelve a man’s. But their prints didn’t lead anywhere. How had they got here, on the water’s edge, without leaving tracks across the grass or along the muddy shoreline? And how had they escaped? Had they swam here, killed the five men from the shuttle, then swam away? Possible, but it didn’t explain a more puzzling point.

If they hadn’t landed in the Nina shuttle with the others, how had they got down to the planet’s surface alive?

“Jan, you said the other ship exploded during entry, the courier ship?”

After entry. Can’t have been more than a couple of thousand feet from the surface.”

“Whereabouts?”

“Let me see...”

“In this vicinity?”

“Not exactly. The only wreckage I found was a mangled panel embedded in a tree, miles to the southeast. There’s a lot of swampland near there. Do you want to look?”

“Not right now. ISPA can do a full crash-site investigation if it wants. The victims’ families might insist on it. But for the time being, I’m more interested in who these two are?”

“Which two?”

“The two that got away,” he said. “I think they were on the courier shuttle before it exploded. They must have escaped just in time, either by parachute or on a smaller craft. I also think they’re the central players in this whole series of events.” He collected a sample of oily dew from the blue plant, smelled it, recoiled with a cough. Definitely potent pyrofluvium content.

“That reminds me,” Jan said. “The way you reacted to that just now—when we found the bodies, Stopper kept barking his head off at the water, wouldn’t go near that spot where you’re standing. See, look at him.”

She was right. The dog hadn’t even approached the crime scene. He sat near the vicar, watching Jan, not making a sound, occasionally gazing out over the lake.

“He’s never so reluctant to get involved. Normally I have to order him to sit still like that.”

“What are you saying?”

“That he’s sensed something he doesn’t like, something he hasn’t come across before.”

“Like what?”

She went back and cuddled Stopper, but still his tail wouldn’t wag.

“You said some thing he doesn’t like. Could it not be someone?”

“He knows people, Vaughn. He’s used to them. This is something else. Stopper’s spent his whole life exploring the Hesp. Believe me, if it’s got him spooked like this, it’s something entirely new. Maybe something those two people brought with them.”

He crouched in the still shallows, inspecting the water’s surface by the unfettered light of the bright Herculean sun. One or two oily patches were visible on the lake. “There’s liquid pyrofluvium in this water,” he said. “Do any of your vehicles use that for propulsion?”

“None. That’s outlawed, isn’t it? Except for long-haul interstellar travel?”

“It is.”

“So where do you think it’s come from? Not the exploded ship?”

“No, I don’t think any debris would have reached this far,” he said. “My guess is it’s from some kind of hover vehicle used by our two escapees. There are no other tracks. They bailed from the courier ship in it, and were chased across the continent to this spot. These five individuals lying here pursued them, but not to kill them.”

“Why not?”

“This Nina ship is heavily armed. It could have annihilated a courier ship before it got anywhere near this planet. No, they wanted our two escapees alive, or they wanted something they were carrying. They forced them to land here.”

 

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