Seeva didn’t expect fresh powder in this frozen tundra, but the brittleness is also odd.
Her slender legs aid her in stepping out of the icy sinkholes she creates. Now she wishes her feet were larger, much larger—like snowshoes—so she could scamper across the surface.
Seeva squeezes her pulser gun’s grip within a gloved hand and flexes her fingers. Her glove freezes to the metal and tears as she studies a spotty trail of blood that has thickened over the last kilometer.
This planet … again, but now its remotest region.
Shadows loom ahead. Two silhouettes: trees, crystal trees. They appear as bony hands with gangly, naked fingers, tearing their way from beneath the ice.
Ori—Seeva’s only companion, a flying creature resembling a monkey but covered in black and white feathers—howls, his tone armoring his sorrow. His flapping wings are as silent as his breathing, as silent as the calm of night.
Crunch. The snow sounds like breaking bones beneath her boots.
Seeva hunts the hunter, rushes to protect the defenseless inhabitants of this planet against humans, or humanoids, and their destructive nature.
Ice crystals drift up into the light, the snow dust of the tundra turning softly and twinkling: luminous, midnight blue, violet, carmine, shimmering like miniscule fairies who can only shout in color, the colors of the winter night.
Thirteen moons seem to suspend the sky over Seeva’s head. Glowing spheres or sickles form a vault of pale light; silver and azure shades paint the snow. Floating ice particles create a nimbus around the moons, some of which are as large as suns while others appear like crescent blades that could be carried on her back, waxing blue and waning copper. Another’s lighted surface is pocked by meteoroid strikes.
All Seeva recognizes in this shape is a skull with a depression fracture.
Another strained step, and Seeva’s foot punches through crusty snow. Air almost as thick as ice burns as it claws its way into her throat and then explodes in her lungs like smoke inside a burning building. Even the heated inhalation mask and the coils in her snowsuit barely keep the subzero temperatures out of her lean body.
A cloud of breath plumes from her mask into the night, turning to hoarfrost in the air before being sheared away by a rising wind.
Who the fuck could have done this? Tracked their victims through this region?
A gust of salty wind batters Seeva’s masked cheeks, the smell of blood hanging thick. She sees it: a splatter of black liquid against the restless white haze of hills and jutting mounds.
Her stomach solidifies into a dense ball of tension. Sparse hairs on her arms stick up; her scalp tingles.
Red light falls in a soft curtain, coating the landscape, washing out the moonlight. Seeva glances skyward.
Something is out there, something massive, beyond the moons. It pulses with a red glow like the heart of a god.
Seeva knows anarchy reigns out near the drifters, at the extremity of the galaxy, where unusual planets and peculiar people dwell. Where habitable worlds are sparse and civilizations sparser. Where many become lost. Where beyond the drifters lies the dead zone, an emptiness between galaxies that is always dark. Where no suns and no planets roam, where no one ventures.
A lock of Seeva’s sable hair lashes out from its typical location, clipped around the oak-dark skin of her neck like a scarf. The strand appears like black water, only hungrier, obscuring her vision as the wind skirls around her. She tucks it behind the orange-tinted view of dynamic lenses, projections from her v-rim—a thin silver band stretching from the ends of each eyebrow, a central dip at the bridge of her nose—a viewer for all the information she needs plus a link to the galaxy’s central network.
Seeva marches on, her feet sinking through brittle snow, her breath spewing into brittle air.
She wonders what kind of person could do what she’s worried she will find: the victims, the source of the blood trail. What backward fools with hearts of molten coal treated others like crops?
Seeva recalls a trial and lawsuit her Silvergarde Alliance discovered occurring on the neighboring planets, one hushed up from public scrutiny. The Northrite council, the primary governing agency of the galaxy and the largest corporation, was attempting to obtain mining rights to these planets.
She also recently heard of a newly discovered planet blanketed by a liquid sea—instead of clouds—the water suspended in its atmosphere by the gravity of its thousand moons and tensile troposphere. Only in the past year had people discovered land below, and then found native humans already living there, living in medieval conditions on a continent isolated from the rest of the galaxy.
Consciously aware humanoids have been venturing out from their planets of origin, dispersing throughout the galaxy and between solar systems, since the first age. Before Elemiscists discovered Striding, traveling so many light years could take families generations to reach another planet in their own galaxy, even traveling at the speed of light … generations … unless the occupants were placed in cryosleep. Slowly, over tens of thousands of years, the mixing of peoples and humanoids is now commonplace. And humans, as if by divine design or grievous error, have spread throughout the galaxy like the most adept colonizing virus.
Seeva is too similar to them all for her liking, even with her short stature of one of the ancient races, one dating back before the time of the communicating galaxy, before the time of even the written word. The small women of old, the ancient, dark-skinned sirens. But she’s not special: no magic, no enigma, no fading into fog.
The pulsing red light radiating from the heavens grows brighter, pulling Seeva back to reality.
“What the fuck’s causing this and what does it mean?” She points the muzzle of her pulser gun skyward.
“Time to leave,” Ori seems to say with only his pink and emerald eyes as his head rotates fully around his body. He’s wary of hidden spirits in this desolate place, wary of memories, of emotions. Ori’s native planet. She knew he’d be affected coming back here.
Seeva recalls a recent dream: a sound like wind shuffling leaves, a shadowy figure concealing something in their palm, something red and beating. Coincidence?
She strides forward.
Hunter, I know your path. I feel your presence. This trick with the light will not stop me.
Ori’s wings beat against the wind without a whisper.
A tower of a mountain soars upward in the distance, dark against the flashing red and pewter sky. A range of sharpened cliffs—which appear as black flames frozen in their fury—run before her, jagged peaks of petrified fire roasting the belly of the night.
Seeva follows the blood trail, climbing in lunges and bursts. Her feet crunch and slip on icy stairs of rock as minutes wear out and fall away, the flashing red overhead the fiery breath of a monster kindling her anxiety.
Beyond the crest of a white mound, a ravine of snow emerges. Massive forms lie scattered about, limbs stiff and stretching toward the moons.
As Seeva approaches, a shape becomes more distinct. An enormous animal. Purple hide as tough as leather wrought with iron. Stocky body and legs. Clubbed feet. Spike-like horns should have protruded in dense rows across its body, but only blunted stumps remain. Black liquid has pooled around the carcass, staining the snow with a macabre, amorphous shape resembling a distorted man.
The innocent and the weakest are always the first victims, in times long past and in the present. Only the perpetrator—this butcher—and their master and how to find the two of them changes. But this … this pointless slaughter.
Something inside her lashes out in anger, through the cold in her heart, with tongues of flame.
At least fifty dead beasts. Most of them would not have had any spikes remaining before this massacre, most of the species having been “humanely” hunted, their most valued parts removed over the last century. Why then were these all killed? Exterminated on their migration?
Hermadores are always moving, headed in some direction only they know, a journey man cannot understand.
Blood throbs in the arteries of Seeva’s temples, aneurysm-inducing rage continuing its battery of her heart with fiery fists. She falls to her knees, runs a gloved hand over the hide of a dead hermadore, and realizes the eyes of womrats are boring into her from the fog of the surrounding landscape—why they are called rats is unknown to her. In this climate these rodents, which appear more like woolly mammoths with long teeth instead of tusks, grow to the size of horses or elephants to maintain their internal body temperatures. Watching. Waiting for an opportunity, a moment of weakness.
And the eyes of proia, Ori’s species of flying creatures, hover overhead: little gargoyle-like creatures, feathered wings of black and white, thick gray-skinned faces, taloned feet and clawed hands. Seeva watches Ori as he takes in the scene: intelligent, comprehending, unable to verbally communicate with her.
Seeva creeps around the body of a massive beast, probably thirty times her size, the three eyes across its head all closed and dripping clear fluid. Reflections of the moons stiffen in the animal’s freezing discharges. Gaping wounds drag across its body, much deeper than its hide—that must be half a meter thick. These are not wounds from a bore gun but from something that can cut with a power, force, and keenness unlike anything she’s ever—
Dull thuds roll over the cold ballad of wind keening over ice. Seeva glances back and raises her pulser, her finger on the trigger, more than willing to dispose of any responsible party. She switches from shudder rounds to pulser projectiles.
Padding footsteps approach from the far side of the carcass beside her. In the interminable moments of apprehension, she reaches for a virtual control in the air—to switch the dynamic goggles on her v-rim.
A wide head with purple hide and aquiline eyes stares, stopping Seeva dead. Moisture cakes its lower eyelids as if it too had been weeping.
Seeva gasps. A hermadore, a tiny calf smaller than her. A long cord dangles from its abdomen: an umbilical cord. The thing must not be a day old, a pup of the dead mother before her. Babies of this species come only once every decade and take over fifty standard years to mature. Blood oozes across its body.
Whoever was responsible for this massacre orphaned this youngling. Senseless, psychotic, a heinous act. Her eyes burn and swim as tears pool at the corners and instantly freeze against the bridge of her nose.
Maybe it’s only my heart that’s still tender, fragile enough to feel the sharp sting of sympathy, heartbreak, remorse.
Clouds of breath billow from the calf’s flaring nostrils as it snorts. Scents of mint and rose waft through the night and mingle with suffocating fear.
The creature will die out here on its own.
Seeva lowers her weapon and reaches out an open palm. “Come with me. I won’t hurt you.” Her voice is tense and high-pitched. She clicks to the youngling.
The animal backs away and releases a sonorous cry, like a horn bellowing a bass note deeper than any human instrument.
Seeva drops to her knees. Ice digs into her thick pants, boring into her shins with a grating crunch.
The hermadore calf stops its retreat. The wrinkling of its thick hide makes its expression appear incredulous.
“It’s okay. Not all of us are hideous monsters.” Seeva reaches into her pack and pulls out a squishy substance the size of her hand. It glows with a dim green light. A rhiciopore—the favorite food of the hermadore. A smell like rotting kelp radiates from it. Not only does this food give these beasts sustenance, it also heats them from the inside during digestion, as if igniting a furnace in their guts. This one should be on milk, but the dead body of the mother has gone cold, the milk frozen in the mammary tissues.
The calf takes a step forward and sniffs again.
Seeva waits, immobile.
The calf’s steps come slowly, but it opens a broad mouth with four distinct lips, takes the rhiciopore from her palm, and chews with apprehension. Sloshing sounds burst from within its jowls, fluid escaping from the seed pod, followed by an overpowering odor of rotting algae.
Seeva reaches out and strokes the coarse hide of the calf’s forehead. Soft spines run along its back and sides. It must have remained hidden somehow … or crawled out of the womb after the massacre and the plunging of its mother’s body heat.
Boom boom boom echoes in the distance like crashing waves. The hermadore’s back end is flung around as if it were running and hit the end of some cable leash.
Another bang and the youngling drops like a teetering house into the snow beside her, releasing a cloud of ice dust into the moonlight intermixed with red flashes. It sighs and stiffens.
Pink blood flows from a gaping wound in its side and from another at its neck, turning black in the cold as if water turning to oil.
Red fringe appears at the edges of Seeva’s vision. Rage and sorrow tear through her like the shots through the hermadore’s infant body.
Seeva shields herself behind the frozen corpse of the mother, throwing back the hood of her lined jacket. Her dark hair streams out in the wind and snaps across her icy forehead. She activates dynamic thermographic goggles on her v-rim and reconnoiters the surrounding ridges.
Who or what lurks out there? If they see her, will they kill her as well? Or will they run?
The lumpy white tongue of the ravine that she stands on fades into jagged cliffs, the teeth of some enormous mouth. Mist hovers around the tallest peak, which eclipses a copper moon, a cyclopean eye. Fog seethes, the vast breath of this sleeping monster. And snow starts to drop from the sky in sheets of white flashing with red.
The poacher’s trail will be concealed, and the white may bury Seeva. Out there, five-meter tall womrats shuttle their broken, yellow teeth and fiery eyes through the dark. Proia camouflage their coming attack with the storm. The poacher responsible for this massacre hides.
Seeva wrestles with her concern and v-rim links to her ship for a regional weather update and to prep for evacuation, immediately after she locates the poacher.
A transmission crackles across the speaker of her v-rim, one delayed by the hours of lightspeed travel needed for standard communication here.
The message says, “The outer system consisting of the inhabited planets of Pseidoblane and Iopenia: All alert. Your central sun has abruptly become unstable. It’s converted from its ordinary state and is now burning red and has started pulsing. This is not a drill. The sun is now considered an imminent threat. Both planets are on mandatory evacuation. Neighboring systems stand by.”
Seeva’s eyes stop wandering the surroundings. That is the system she’s now in, only she’s on Climice, the next distant orbiting planet of the two that were mentioned, the two inhabitable, comfortable planets … The sun is rising here on Climice, why she can’t yet see the source of the pulsing red light in the sky.
Millions of humans and humanoids will be forced to abandon their planets, the first time Seeva’s ever heard of such an occurrence. Given the comm lag, the inhabitants who haven’t yet seen the beating daylight will be late in evacuating.
Seeva will be late as well.