I felt a strange apprehension when I stepped out of the shuttle into the sunlight and it sent a shiver down my spine, but the feeling quickly subsided as I looked around me. This place was magnificent! It was a tropical jungle paradise. Tall trees surrounded us on all sides. The only break in the canopy big enough to let in the sunlight properly was the clearing where our small shuttle, the Outrider, had landed for emergency repairs.
It was so wild and free and different to the world I knew. I’d grown up on Earth, which was so ordered and sterile and ‘civilised’.
Craning my neck, I turned in a circle. All around us were huge tree trunks with vines that intertwined around them and through the branches of smaller trees and shrubs, slowly choking them to death while reaching ever upward to the sun. There were ferns that spread their fronds several metres in all directions and fungi in various shades of orange, red and yellow. The scents and smells of a hundred flowers, plants and animals were concentrated in the thick, humid air.
The other five passengers around me were awed by Althar 3’s beauty too, and they stood open-mouthed in the clearing. I stifled a laugh. We looked ridiculous.
We’d travelled across the universe to start work with the Voyager Division to study and observe the natives on this super-primitive planet, but the shuttle taking us from the main ship to the surface had developed engine trouble, forcing us to land in the middle of the dense jungle.
We were headed to Station Jannali, a hidden underground base somewhere in this jungle, and now we were getting an up-close-and-personal look at the local scenery.
The shuttle pilot had already started working on the engine.
As soon as Station Jannali had heard that we had to land, they’d located a suitable spot and given us orders to collect some plant and soil samples so we could make ourselves useful. They gave us a list of the kinds of plants that they wanted, so we took some sampling equipment and a PocketPC that contained the pictures they’d sent of what was required. We spread out, wandering amongst the vines and blooms at the edge of the clearing.
I didn’t start work straight away. My mind was trying to process everything I was seeing. It was so surreal. We’d been briefed on the flora and fauna on Althar and what to expect, including the kind of wildlife that lurked in the jungle, and it was actually full of very large and very dangerous creatures that basically belonged in the Jurassic or Cretaceous Period of Earth’s distant past.
Another shiver travelled the length of my spine at the thought. What if one of those dinosaur look-alikes was nearby right now? Why did Jannali give permission for us to wander around out here without any training or weapons for protection? What kind of company had I signed up with?
I started to think that maybe I’d made a huge mistake. I was a new graduate from the Academy. I was qualified to deal with computer-related problems. I had so many options open to me, but I chose to go to the edge of the Known Universe. I must be crazy.
What was I doing here? Why did I apply for a job way out here? Was my life at the Academy that boring that I jumped at the first opportunity to go off-planet?
My mind answered immediately. Yes.
That realisation had my mind reeling. I’d been prepared to leave everything and everyone I’d ever known. That was kind of scary.
Part of our work would involve studying the family units, which would be weird – also very intriguing – for some members of our group because we didn’t have families. We were cloned and raised in groups according to age and gender.
I’d learned about the family units that existed in some of the older cultures on Earth and other planets. There were some people on Earth who were against cloning.
A sound like something flapping around in the breeze, followed by an ear-splitting screech, pulled me from my thoughts and I turned to see a large leather-winged reptile flapping its wings madly as it made its way across the clearing, bringing screams from the other female crew members, Larissa and Bazeelia. Even Janssen and Lanu gave a shout as the creature flew past.
Bazeelia was a tall Ziflarian with long, black curly hair that she kept tied up in a high ponytail. She scowled at Janssen and Lanu for laughing at her. “Don’t be laughin’ at me. That thing was a monster! And it scared you too!”
Janssen turned to her, his long white-blonde hair almost blindingly bright in the sunshine. “Hey. Take it easy. We’re just messin’ with ya.”
Lanu got up awkwardly from the spot where he was kneeling in the dirt and stalked over to them. “You’ve got to admit it was amazing though.”
Bazeelia stared at him open-mouthed. “Amazing? No. It wasn’t. It was terrifying!”
Lanu just smiled, a look of awe on his face. “But that thing is so similar to the Pteranodon from Earth’s past and it flew within a few metres of us. It’s like going back to the Cretaceous Period and getting a first-hand look.”
“Well, you can go look at it and admire its beauty if you want. Pat it. Study it. Although I’m not sure being a Sociologist will help when it comes to dinosaurs. Me? I’m glad I’ll be working indoors once we get to Jannali.” She flipped her long hair over her shoulder and went back to work.
“Miss Rhodarma?” I jumped. Once I realised who had called me, I cringed inwardly. Kami Olion, the other Sociologist in the group, was standing at the hatch of the shuttle. He was nothing like Lanu. He was a prickly, annoying person. “I heard screams. What has happened?”
He had refused to leave the shuttle. He’d said that the engine trouble was a bad omen. I’d ignored him. I didn’t believe in superstitions and had jumped at the chance to see the jungle first-hand.
And what was with the ‘Miss Rhodarma’? Did he have to be so formal?
“Please call me Zhenna,” I said.
He inclined his head. “Very well.”
I gave him a small smile, feeling awkward. “Everything’s okay. It was just a flying reptile. It flew through the clearing and gave us a fright.”
He shook his head. “Going outside was a bad idea. I said it was a bad idea. But would anyone listen? No, they didn’t. Will you come inside, please, where it’s safe? The others won’t listen. And I have a bad feeling.” He drew out the word “bad”, like that would make me believe him.
I frowned. Why was he only asking me? “Umm, I can’t. Jannali wants the samples. It’s going to give a bad impression if we refuse.”
His eyebrows drew together and his mouth turned down at the corners. He turned on his heel and went back inside.
I sighed, relieved that he was gone. He’d been a pain in everyone’s butt on the journey out here. He must have been really good at his job because I was sure he didn’t get hired for his personality.
“Don’t worry about him,” Larissa said as she walked up to me, her long white-blonde hair almost blinding in the sunlight. “He’s just a superstitious old grump.”
I laughed, then cringed. I hoped he couldn’t hear her.
She noticed my reaction. “I don’t care if he hears me.”
We’d met on the trip out here to The Fringe, as some called it, and became friends right away. It had taken us two weeks at Warp Delta and there wasn’t a lot to do aboard the Acronis. We both had an interest in art and liked similar types of music and had spent a lot of time together.
I turned my attention away from the spot where Kami had stood. I needed to actually do the job I was sent out here to do. We headed a bit further into the jungle. I was looking for an orange flower and Larissa was after a type of fungi, which should’ve been easier for her since she was a Botanist.
As we searched, I saw Larissa stealing glances at Janssen. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen her watching him. I was sure she had a crush. She’d shown an interest during the trip out here, but she always insisted that she didn’t like him all that much. I smiled.
The next time she looked at me I said, “I saw you looking at him.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
I just cocked an eyebrow at her.
“Okay. I was.”
I watched him ducking under a low-hanging vine and watched his long white-blonde hair fall over his shoulder. “You like him.”
Her cheeks turned pink. “I… Uh… maybe. I don’t know.”
“Well, you’ll have plenty of time to find out since you’ll be working together.” Janssen had also majored in Botany.
Her eyes never left him as he bent down to look at a lavender flower. “Is he unattached, do you know?”
“It has taken you two weeks to even ask that?” I asked. Her cheeks flushed even more. “I heard him telling Mosuti that he doesn’t have a girl. Or boy,” I added.
She looked relieved. I chuckled, thinking they’d make a great couple. They had a shared interest in botany and they even came from the same planet: Shakira.
Mosuti, our telepathic crew member, wandered over to where we were. “Hey, girls.”
“Hey,” we both said together.
“Found your specimens yet?”
We both said “no” at the same time and laughed.
From the corner of my eye, I saw movement. It was Kami again, just staring at us with a furrowed brow and his mouth set in a thin line.
“Mosuti. Kami doesn’t like you, does he?” I whispered.
“I’m afraid not, Zhenna. Says he doesn’t like my ‘kind’.”
I narrowed my eyes as I kept watching Kami. “Don’t let it worry you. He’s a douchebag.”
“He doesn’t worry me.”
Kami called me again. “Zhenna, dear, why are you talking to him?”
“Uh, because he’s my friend.”
“His kind can’t be trusted. He’s probably reading our minds right now.”
Mosuti stood up straighter. “I would never do that. It is against the Talents’ Code of Conduct to read a being’s mind without consent.”
The Code had been created years ago to protect people’s privacy and to protect Talents all over the Known Universe.
Larissa took a step forward. “You’re a jerk! What would you know about Talents? You’re so narrow-minded!”
He waved his hand in the air dismissively. “They are nothing but freaks. Mutated beings that taint our genetics.”
I clenched my fists, trying to keep my temper in check. “What do you suggest we do with these ‘mutants’?” I asked him.
“We need to keep them under control. They shouldn’t be allowed to wander free where they can manipulate our minds and wreak havoc across the universe.”
“So, we should enslave them?”
“I… wouldn’t use that exact term… but what else can we do? They’re freaks of nature and they are a danger to us all.”
My fingernails were digging in to my palms and my face felt like it was on fire. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!
I heard Mosuti’s voice in my mind. <It’s okay. I can defend myself. Don’t let him get to you. Don’t cause yourself unnecessary worry.>
It always gave me a thrill to hear his voice in my head. We’d messed around with it a couple of times on the trip out here. All I had to do was think my answer and Mosuti could read it. And, of course, he had my permission.
I know, I replied. But he’s just such an ignoramus!
I turned back to Kami. “I’m glad I won’t be working with you when we get to Jannali. You’re such an arrogant, narrow-minded, backwards hick!”
Before he could answer, there was a loud zapping noise like an electrical current arcing. I looked around. “What was that?”
Instead of answering, Mosuti grabbed Larissa and I by the arm and practically threw us to the ground. “Stay down!” he ordered.
I heard more zapping sounds and people screaming. I looked at Mosuti’s rugged face and wide eyes from my position in the leaf litter and he whispered, “Laser fire.”
I froze and could feel the warmth drain from my face. Laser fire? In the middle of a prehistoric jungle? How? … Who?
I heard another scream and looked up to see Bazeelia fall screaming to the ground with her hair on fire. I quickly put my head back down on the soft earth, trying to somehow block out the sound. There was nothing I could do to help her. We were all unarmed.
From where I lay on the ground, I heard more laser fire as it struck targets all around us. I was too afraid to move and it took all my willpower to keep from screaming. I knew that no race native to this planet possessed laser weapons, so my brain tried to figure out who could be attacking us.
The only answer I could think of was that the attackers were the Varekai. They were basically space pirates and had a reputation for being totally brutal. My heart constricted in my chest. Were we all about to die?
Our shuttle must have been followed somehow. But why would they bother? It’s not like we had anything valuable on the ship.
In the chaos, I noticed that the soil and leaves around me seemed to be moving. There were ants and a half a dozen other crawling insects moving about on the forest floor, some of which were starting to crawl up over my hands and arms. Again I had to resist the urge to cry out. I had to let them crawl. If I made any sudden move, the lasers might target me.
I could see the fear churning in Mosuti’s eyes as we lay on the ground side-by-side. Larissa was on my other side, but I couldn’t turn to see if she was okay. There was a weird beetle crawling on Mosuti’s arm, but he didn’t move.
The laser fire and the screaming stopped, and I froze where I lay. I heard footsteps all around me. I closed my eyes. I couldn’t bring myself to look, but I knew they were there, looking down at me. The left side of my face lay in the soft earth and I hoped that the position I was in made it appear as though I’d fallen that way and was either unconscious or dead. If they thought I was dead, they might leave me and return to their ship.
I knew that I wouldn’t be so lucky.
I could feel their presence, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Fear was creeping up my spine, eating into my flesh.
I tried to keep my breathing as shallow as possible, hoping they wouldn’t see my ribs expand and contract. They were right behind me. I imagined their piercing eyes, staring down from above. My lungs desperately needed more air, but I didn’t dare suck in enough to satisfy their hunger.
Someone said, “These ones are good…”
Something was crawling on my neck. Another ‘something’ was climbing along the length of my right leg. But I had to stay there. Had to let them crawl.
“Don’t damage them,” said another. What were they talking about?
I couldn’t just lie there. I desperately wanted to turn around and face my foes, to see who they were, but I couldn’t do it. Something was starting to bite my leg, but before I could give myself away by swatting at it, I felt burning pain surge through my whole body. Every muscle convulsed and the darkness closed in quickly around me.
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