“Yeah, about those,” Sparr said. “Any tips? I mean, you’re still alive.”

“So are you,” Nooma observed.

“I was traveling with a caravan until recently.”

“Ah,” Nooma said. She sat back. “Yes, for a solo traveler they’re more than a nuisance.” She thought on it for a moment. “Can you kill one?”

“Yes,” Sparr said. With his pistol and a defensible position he could kill quite a few.

“Okay,” she said. “Kill one. Skin it. Wear the skin. The scent makes them think twice.” Nooma rose, groaning. She banked the fire against the kettle, stretched, and went to the trunk of a fat tree. A rope from a high branch hung almost to the ground. She turned to Sparr. “Go back toward the carving. There’s a spot there where the soil is especially soft. Right overhead you’ll find a little cave. Not comfortable, but you’ll be safe.” She gripped the rope, then looked over her shoulder. “Good luck, Alain.”

As Sparr watched in astonishment, the aging woman tugged herself up the rope, to her own version of safety.


Enemy at fifteen meters, Sparr’s implant reported. Fourteen…

“Shit!” Sparr cursed, uncaring if the others heard. He hurried down the corridor of the doomed castle, looking for any escape. He was so close!

Twelve meters…

There! Sparr spotted a wooden door. He swung his sword, the legendary Blade of Kallon. The door burst into a hundred glowing fragments. He leapt through the opening, quickly assessing the room on the other side. He already had the Helmet of T’Charzon, his sword, and the Belt of Blessings. All he needed was the Requiem Crystal. It had to be here! Sparr approached each of the room’s three chests in turn. The first two popped open automatically, revealing nothing but a few useless gold coins. The third remained sealed.

Key required, his implant confirmed. Nine meters.

“Shit, shit!” he repeated. Frantically he ran again for the corridor. Left or right? He couldn’t remember which way he’d come.

“Bwaaaaaaaaah!” the creature roared, in a mismatched female voice. The thing towered over him, blocking escape. It rested on twenty writhing tentacles, while threatening him with at least twenty more. It lunged.

“Fuck! Goddammit Calista!” Sparr swung his sword crazily. The mighty blade sheared off one of the monster’s tentacles after another, but still it came for him.

Health sixty-three percent, his implant reported. Forty-one. Without the crystal he was doomed. For each tentacle he severed, two more grew to replace it. Eighteen percent. Five…


“Fuck!” Sparr tore off his extended reality goggles, jarringly replacing the blood-spattered stone corridor with the spotlessly clean mission lounge.

Calista, still wearing her goggles, performed her now-standard victory dance.

“I’m the monster, oh yeah!” The blonde shook her hips and wriggled her arms in a passable impression of tentacles. “Who’s the monster? I am!” The goggles did, in fact, give her a faintly non-human look.

“You’re the monster, all right,” Tracee groaned. Unlike the others, she had permanent vision enhancement. Without the sleek, dark lenses attached at her temples, the medical specialist would be almost blind.

“So, are you watching her victory dance in the game, or live and in person?”

“Live,” Tracee said. She turned to Sparr. “I jumped out of the game after she tore off your arms.” The brunette inspected her drink ruefully. Like Sparr and the others, Tracee had finished two rounds already. “I’m thirsty.”

“Hey, you guys should try mirror mode in this game.” Calista was still twisting and flailing her arms, oblivious to the others in the lounge. “It’s badass seeing yourself dance with forty arms!”

“Thirty-two at most,” Sparr grumbled. “I’m sure I severed at least eight or ten there at the end.”

“Mine grew back. Yours didn’t,” Calista replied. But at last the blonde grew tired of her solo dance. She tugged off her goggles and shook her hair. “I win. Agaaaaaain!”

“I don’t need mirror mode,” Kevin said. “I look badass in real life.”

Tracee snorted. “You look nothing, and I mean nothing, like Thraxx the Thrasher! He’s got carelessly flowing black hair, brooding, dangerous eyes, and muscles. Oooooh, those muscles.” Tracee ran her hands down and across her slim body, shuddering in imagined ecstasy.

“Shut up,” Kevin replied, but offered no further retort. Like Tracee, he was Alliance crew. Unlike her, the man came across as humorless and dull.

“Yeah, I’m thirsty, too,” Calista said. “Tracee, it’s your turn to fetch us a round.”

Tracee rolled her eyes. After each round of Kastle Kwest, the first player killed was expected to fetch a round of drinks or snacks from the self-serve cafe. The brunette roused herself, but before she could stand, Kevin spoke up.

“Hey, uh… wait.” He stood. “Let’s go to the terrace bar.”

‘Yeah, some fresh air sounds good,” Sparr said. After an hour and a half of gaming he was ready for a break. He, too, rose.

“Friday game night is over!” Tracee stood with a flourish. “To the terrace bar!” With a shake of her round ass she marched toward the exit.

Only Calista looked disappointed. No doubt, Sparr thought, she had hoped to play and win one more round of the game. But after an encouraging sign from Kevin, she joined them.

What the four referred to as the terrace bar was really a balcony which connected at one end to the Alliance officers’ club. The club was always off limits to Calista and Sparr. As corporate advisors they were treated well, but were kept away from official business. But after a certain hour, junior Alliance personnel such as Tracee and Kevin were allowed in. The two did so tonight, emerging shortly with a round of drinks. Kevin almost immediately pulled Calista to one side. Sparr and Tracee found a spot along the railing a polite distance away.

“I could do without the non-stop humidity,” Tracee said. She stuck her tongue out in mock panting.

“I grew up in the mid-Atlantic,” Sparr replied. “Used to it, I guess. At least in the summer.”

Both took a sip of their drinks, staring out across the sprawling Alliance launch complex. The place had a sort of orderly beauty. Thick Florida vegetation had been encouraged to grow in between the pads, towers, and loading yards. Even the spires of the launch facility, lit from below by blue-tinted lights, looked almost organic. Though far from an untamed area, Sparr admired what the Alliance did to share the complex with nature.

Tracee unsubtly waved her head toward Calista and Kevin, deep in some private conversation. “That would be an unlikely couple,” she said. Her lenses blocked any glimpse of the pretty brunette’s eyes, but through clever application of tinting, gave anyone standing close enough a clear idea of which direction she was looking. She was looking directly at Sparr.

“Kinda, yeah,” Sparr agreed. Calista was as tall or taller than Kevin, and although the security specialist wasn’t a bad looking man, his prickly disposition put most people off.

“You like her.”

“Do I?” Sparr asked.

“Mmm, yeah, you do.” Tracee seemed unbothered, even amused by her observation. “You and, oh, I don’t know, half the other guys on this mission.”

“So I’m in good company?”

“You guys like her tits.” Tracee cupped her hands at her chest, suggesting considerably more endowment than she herself had. “Big, jiggly boobies!” She danced, pantomiming bouncing breasts.

Sparr laughed aloud. “Shit, Tracee! You know, not all guys are obsessed with tits.”

“Oh, I know,” the brunette said. She turned back to the view. “I’m just giving you shit.”

In truth, Sparr had mostly given up on Calista as a romantic partner. The woman rarely dropped her guard. She was smart, driven, and perceptive, but so far he had been unable to share more than a few honest moments with her. Perhaps she and Kevin were a good match after all.

Tracee got them another round of drinks. She spoke of her home in New Mexico, while Sparr talked about growing up on the Chesapeake Bay. A deep relaxation settled upon him, accentuated by the heavy night air and the drinks. Tracee studied him for a moment before suddenly slapping him on the chest.

“What?” Sparr asked, startled.

“I almost forgot to mention it,” Tracee said. She was smiling mischievously. “You know that K2 Mineral has been negotiating a mass exception, right?” ‘Mass Exception’ was the term given to the permitting process required to bring something particularly heavy along on a mission.

Sparr did know. Calista, in an unguarded moment, had revealed they were bringing a submersible aboard the Odysseus. He was surprised Tracee would bring it up. “Yeah, I think Captain Fowler mentioned it.”

“Well, I might know something about that.” She leaned away, grinning.

Sparr tried to hide the extent of his curiosity. “Oh? Aaaand, are you going to tell me?”

Tracee looked around with exaggerated concern. “Here?” she giggled. “Anyway, it’s more something you have to see, not be told about.”

The brunette presented a stark contrast to Calista in almost every way. Where the blonde was tall and curvy, Tracee was compact and slim. Calista was reserved and guarded; Tracee was bubbly and open. Calista’s blue eyes revealed nothing. Tracee’s opaque lenses nonetheless spilled her secrets.

“Well, okay,” Sparr chuckled. “Where can you safely reveal this secret?”

“Follow me,” Tracee said. Almost before Sparr could react, she bounced up and out the door.

Sparr hurried to catch her, uncaring if the pair’s sudden departure from the terrace raised any eyebrows. Tracee was halfway across the headquarter’s atrium before he caught her.

“It’s up here,” she said. Ignoring the lift, the brunette darted up two flights of stairs to the residential wing. Confused and laughing, Sparr followed. Slowing slightly, Tracee led him past the Alliance crew quarters to the more posh advisor wing. She slowed again, taking time now to read the nameplate on each door. She stopped.

“Yeah, these are my quarters,” Sparr said, chuckling.

“You have a view of the launch platforms, right? Let us in.”

The door admitted them.

“Fuuuuuuck this is nice,” Tracee said, breezing into the room. “You do have a view of the launch platforms! Dammit!”

Sparr watched, amused, as Tracee admired the balcony then burst back inside to perform a circuit of the suite. She ran her hands across the upholstery, tinkered with the lighting, then flopped down into a lounger. “I should have been an advisor!”

“It has its appeal,” Sparr said. “You get to travel to distant systems, sleep in a can, crawl around inside caves, and catalog molds.”

Tracee laughed. “Yeah, I heard about that.” She spun the chair, then spun it again, kicking her feet out. “Have you ever tried this?”

Sparr realized his guest was tipsy. He was, too, laughing at her playful antics. “You said you wanted to show me something?”

“Oh yeah,” Tracee said. Abruptly, she pulled herself out of the lounger. “It’s in here. Hold on.” The brunette darted into the bathroom and closed the door. Sparr heard the sound of water running.

“What the fuck?” Sparr muttered to himself. He was confused and laughing, thoroughly entertained by Tracee’s unpredictable behavior. He hadn’t realized how much the pressure of the last month of training and classwork had weighed on him. The evening of games, drinks, and laughter was like a balm. When the brunette finally emerged, Sparr knew he would relax further yet.

Tracee stood naked, wet, and smiling.


The night spent in the cave was much as Nooma had described: safe, but far from comfortable. Sparr’s back was stiff, his elbow scraped, and his ear felt like someone had punched it. He dropped to the ground with a tortured grunt. As the world woke around him, the spacefarer once again took to his feet. A light rain began to fall.

Sparr was beset by doubt. He had chosen Santi as his destination based more on momentum than anything. There was nothing but wishful thinking to suggest that the coastal city would prove a more profitable destination than Shong. It might be just as ruined, scavenged, flooded, and perilous. Another military drone might be waiting for him. Without the protection of the caravan he would have little chance of surviving a second encounter with Alliance technology.

Worse, he no longer had a clear purpose. For the past two months Sparr had been buoyed by the thought that if he could reach Shong he could contact the Odysseus. Now he wasn’t even sure signaling the ship would be wise. The drone may or may not have been hunting for him specifically, but it certainly hadn’t been sent on a rescue mission.

Still, what other option really did he have? To give up contacting his shipmates would be giving up on his mission. Without his equipment he couldn’t make any progress documenting the Kaybe flora and fauna. Earth would get no new cures, crops, or hope. How many more years would pass before the diversity of the exoplanet could properly be explored? For that matter, the Odysseus was his only way back home. Sparr trudged on, uncertain of the path, but unwilling to stray from it.

The terrain continued to slope downward. The ridgeline softened, slowly melding into a coastal plain. Scrub turned into marsh, and by late morning Sparr found himself walking along a narrow, raised road. To one side were signs of cultivation – a crop which resembled rice except for its exceptional height and multi-colored stalks. The other side was a thick swamp.

Radio signals detected, bearing zero-ninety-six.

Sparr froze. Was another drone closing in on him? “Radio off,” he hissed, before scrambling from the road. He crouched in a thicket, trying to collect himself. A heading of ninety-six degrees would take him from the road to an area particularly thick with vegetation. Knowing it was perilous, knowing he had to go, Sparr headed toward it. He drew his pistol.

Sparr fought his way through the swampy foliage, careful not to lose his shoes to the suctioning mud. The terrain was completely unwelcoming, thick with vines and muck. There were no footprints, and no signs of food, fire, or debris. He crept forward, crouched to listen, then crept forward once more. From somewhere ahead he could just hear the repetitive click of a machine. The squat shape of a building invisible from the road emerged. It was alive.

The structure exhibited signs of only minor scavenging. A few side panels had been torn free and the door at the near end had been yanked from its rails and picked apart. Aside from that, the flat building appeared unmolested. The local plant life, on the other hand, was busy tearing it apart. Thick vines curled up, over, and into the building, finding or creating seams between the panels. Those that reached the roof twisted into tangles around what Sparr believed to be solar panels. That the building had any power at all was a miracle.

Curious and alert, Sparr slunk through the end door. Before him stretched a long, low line of identical machines which could only be for some type of manufacturing. None of the nearby devices were in motion, but from deeper in the gloom he could more clearly make out the rhythmic clicking he had detected earlier. With excruciating care, he crept forward.

The few machines near the door had been partially scavenged, but those just a bit farther in were mostly intact. Clusters of hoses and wires connected them to ceiling trays that ran the length of the facility. Each featured a flat tray with rails on opposite sides. To the rails of the least damaged machines was still attached a robotic arm, thick with the same tubes and wires that fed from the ceiling. Even the most intact was thick with dust, and those nearest the sides of the building in some cases were tangled with vines. The ceiling dripped.

Only one of the devices appeared to be working. Sparr approached it cautiously, searching the dim space for any sign of a drone, listening for the telltale whine of thrusters. Only the metronomic click of the machine broke the silence. He inspected it. The thing was just as filthy as the others, except that along the rails, the grime had been pushed to either end. As Sparr watched, the robotic arm slid along the rails, clicked as it hit some limit, then returned to where it started. After ten seconds, the motion repeated.

What, Sparr wondered, had set this single machine into motion? He took a step back, looking for anything that might distinguish it from its silent neighbors. In the near darkness, the robotic arm and cluster of wires was next to impossible to pick out. Then Sparr spotted a glint of something at one of the arm’s joints. With the pale light from his communicator, he gave it a look. Where the joint connected two sections of the arm, a glob of grey gel was just visible. It covered the side of the joint, clinging to the wires as they passed underneath. The outermost edges of the gel glinted metallic.

ProgGel. Sparr had heard of the technology, but had yet to encounter it in the field. Like the drone, it was developed by the Alliance. Best thought of as a system rather than a substance, ProgGel was a loosely-coupled cluster of nanomachines which could be programmed to behave in one of a myriad ways. A small amount of ProgGel kept on hand could be used to mend damaged equipment, become a tool or a part, even act as a missing extremity. Here it was being used to mend the decrepit manufacturing robot.

Sparr was fascinated. Leaning close, he yanked loose one of the wires passing through the joint. The machine jerked to a halt. Within fifteen seconds the ProGel mutated. Nearest the loose wire, the gel turned pink. A glob broke free and slid up the robotic arm, found the end of the loose wire, and drew it back into the joint. In less than one minute, the machine shuddered back into operation.

“Incredible!” he whispered. The stuff must be fantastically expensive. That some had been carried aboard the Odysseus wasn’t surprising, but its use to patch a relic of a manufacturing robot abandoned for three hundred years certainly was. What was so important about the factory?

Even with the gel, the machine still wasn’t working. After watching it cycle uselessly, Sparr saw the problem. A vine had curled around one end of the rail upon which the robot arm moved. The arm couldn’t quite reach the end. Curious, he cut the vine loose. As soon as he had done so, the machine finally fulfilled its purpose. With a satisfying chunk, the arm reached the end of the rail and locked into place. One of the tubes stiffened, filling with a pale liquid. The arm bent, and, as Sparr watched in fascination, extruded a narrow, thin rectangle of white paste onto the tray. Once it had cooled to a near translucent state, the arm flicked it to a small hopper at the end of the tray. The process began to repeat.

He knew what the pale rectangle was. Sparr had used hundreds of them every day on his last mission, and thousands during graduate school at Hopkins. Each strip could absorb, break down, and preserve DNA from any species of plant or animal. With a handful of strips and a simple field decoder, a biologist could make quick work of cataloging hundreds of species.

While the machine extruded strips, Sparr struggled to understand why. They weren’t rare, expensive, or even protected as intellectual property. A student on Earth would be given as many as they needed to get through an introductory biology class. Sparr and his friends had once used them as poker chips. The Odysseus would have had the capacity to fabricate them within weeks of arrival. Why go to so much trouble to produce them with such decrepit machinery?

A sound intruded on Sparr’s consciousness. A drone. He froze, cursing inwardly. He had dropped his guard, daydreaming when he should have stayed on alert. The whine drew closer, coming from the open end of the facility toward Sparr and the now-functioning machine. As carefully as possible, he edged back into the shadows.

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