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First pages

Prologue

E. D. 2519

Screamer Cell

The edge of Zeta Quadrant

The Known Universe

 

Hoping to slow the nanite devices devouring him, Ekis ran multiple diagnostic routines in concurrent loops. His body—no, no body remained, only cells, and precious few of them—the devices would never tire. When the last biological cell transmuted, the devices, their objective achieved, would disintegrate and Ekis would cease to be.

The stars visible through the observation window were so distant one could perceive no sense of movement or change. When the airlock was first ejected from Dark Landing, he’d watched the station grow smaller and smaller until even his imagination could no longer sustain its image.

His thoughts drifted and his concentration lapsed. What point to continue? In answer to his question, the airlock jolted as if it had bumped into something. Impossible! One did not bump into something in space. One smashed into it, or it smashed into you.

Chapter 1: Carry On

E. D. 2519

Dark Landing Station

Zeta Quadrant

Known Universe

 

“So, what do you think?” Curtis asked, eager for Dr. Tammy Jameson’s opinion of the new-hire. They sat side-by-side in the executive mess studying the unsmiling image of Austen Hargreaves on the monitor set into the table’s surface. To Curtis, she resembled a winter elf in a graphic novel he’d read. Long platinum-blonde hair framed pale, pixie-like features. Matching brows and lashes were mere suggestions, and her eyes were the lightest blue he’d ever seen. Like a summer sky—if his memory served him. It’d been some years since he’d seen any sky. Somehow those eyes projected an enthusiasm and energy disconcerting in a static image. He could see how some men might find her attractive. To him, she just looked scary.

Doc scanned CoachStop Management’s file on the incoming chief of administration. “She’s young—twenty-five—but, you’re only twenty-eight. You’re both whippersnappers. I’m the dinosaur.” She glanced to one side, frowning as if searching for a memory, and then sighed and continued. “She earned her space safety degree at nineteen. So, smart too. What are you worried about? You and I get along, don’t we? Most of the time.”

“Yeah, but you understand me,” Curtis said, his forehead furrowed in concern. “You’re used to me. And our jobs don’t overlap. Security and administration have to work close together . . . collaborate even.”

He was finding his way as chief of security on Dark Landing. Drew Cutter, his predecessor, had disappeared from the space station only six months earlier. He’d tidied up his office and left notes for the other two chiefs, but told no one where he’d went or why he left. Curtis suspected that Doc Jameson stayed in touch with Drew—not that it mattered.

“Poor Curtis,” Doc said, making a pouty face. “Is it too much of a struggle to be personable?”

“I can be personable.”

“I’m certain you can—when you want to. She comes in tomorrow on the Krasnikov? What time?”

“Ten hundred hours. I thought we’d meet up dockside and show her to her quarters, give her an hour to settle in, and then go to lunch and on a station tour. We can drop her off at the admin offices last.”

“Sounds good. Look, the company takes pains to match chiefs for their compatibility. I’m sure we’ll all get along fine.”

Curtis remained unconvinced. He’d inherited his position, not been profiled for it. Except for medical—outside his control—he ran Dark Landing. His day and night shift commanders, along with Nikko, Curtis’s assistant, handled the bulk of the security duties. That left Curtis free to oversee supply and maintenance, and the odd jobs that fell under the administration umbrella—like pigeons.

CoachStop Management, contracted by the owning co-ops to operate their remote outposts in Zeta Quadrant, should be happy to save script if the station could be run with two chiefs instead of the customary three. A new chief coming in now might muck up the works for Curtis’s side interests. Muck! He winced, remembering the other slated arrival.

“It gets worse,” he said. “Day after tomorrow, we meet our new Muck representative, Victoria Windsor—another Bahdaneian.” The Bahdane language consisted of non-syllabic hums impossible for others to speak. In consideration, they chose pronounceable pseudonyms for each race with which they interacted. Expert linguists, Bahdaneians were favored by the Multi-world Coalition for Travel and Trade—more often “MCTT” or the diminutive “Muck.

Curtis’s com implant toned for the second time in twenty minutes. He tapped the raised patch of skin behind his left earlobe to acknowledge the appointment reminder, and then ignored it.

Doc sighed. “Muck is the one problem I don’t have to deal with. I need to return to med-lab. Unless I see you sooner, we’ll meet dockside in the morning to greet our new chief. And, for the record, Curtis, no one understands you.”

After Doc Jameson left, Curtis grabbed another coffee and sat back down. He wanted the Hargreaves woman to have no doubts about who was in charge. As he stewed over her unwelcomed arrival, his com toned yet another reminder of his meeting with the Dark Landing Audubon Society. Ten minutes late. Why is there never a life-threatening emergency when you need one? And he’d forgotten to ask Doc about pigeon diseases.

~ ~ ∞ ~ ~

Curtis heard riled voices before he rounded the bulkhead to face a large group of station citizens carrying “Save Preston” signs and marching around the statue of the late Travis Barnes. The statue stood on a pedestal in the center of the bazaar. A good likeness of Travis, and posed in an extravehicular mobility unit with the helmet tucked under one arm, he looked heroic. Barnes had sacrificed his life to single-handedly save the Known Universe from invading Diaks.

A pigeon perched on the statue’s head, and the statue’s shoulders were frosted with pigeon crap.

“It’s about time!” The leader stepped forward, scowling at Curtis’s tardiness.

Curtis strained to recall his name and then gave up—who cares. Two live traps set by security the day before were tripped and stacked behind the man.

“You know that’s a misdemeanor,” Curtis nodded toward the traps. “The air handlers can’t process pigeon dust and feathers. They’re vermin and they carry a shit-load of diseases.”

“Bull! The scrubbers can handle the pollution from one little pigeon, or we’d all be dead by now.”

“You tell ‘em, Darryl,” someone from the crowd yelled.

Darryl nodded and continued. “The only reason you want to do away with Preston is because you’re embarrassed he got in past the environmental scanners.”

He nailed it. The bird appeared in the bazar one morning from nowhere. The technicians swore no way it got past their scanners. But here it perched. Soon after its arrival, more serious events pushed ridding the station of the unwelcomed guest to the bottom of a long list. The delay provided the residents time to become attached and to formalize a movement to protect it.

“We’re not killing it, we’re sending it to a better home—a pigeon farm where it can fly free,” Curtis said, his sarcasm wasted on Darryl.

Encouraged by his cohorts, Darryl persisted. “No one believes that. There’s no good reason we can’t keep it here. It’s not hurtin’ anybody, and you’re a little pissant.”

“Yeah, you’re nothing but a sneaping, swag-bellied, pissant.” The last came from a woman standing in the back of the crowd. A mantle of white-blonde hair intensified the chill of icy blue eyes that dared him to rebuke her.

Everyone except Curtis laughed, their moods changing in an instant from challenging to good-humored. The level of noise rose as members of the crowd repeated the insult and applauded its author.

Curtis raised his arms and patted the air for them to quiet. “Okay, okay, everyone calm down. Marching and yelling abuses won’t solve anything. Darryl, I’ll have my office arrange a meeting between you and our new chief of administration.” He cast the woman a snide look, cracking the knuckles of one hand except for the middle finger. “It’s her responsibility anyway, and she can make the final decision. In the meantime, the pigeon can continue shitting all over Travis Barnes—the man who saved all your asses. Now, break it up.”

The group broke, heading in different directions, congratulating one another on their temporary win. Only the woman remained. Holding a satchel and wearing a smirk, she leaned casually against the effigy.

Chapter 2: Sar Mode

On Mass Primary, Sar Mode luxuriated in her human, flexing his muscles and the digits at the end of each long appendage. He’d served her well. She’d once judged the race to be weak-minded and soft, but reversed her opinion after testing. Upon closer examination, humans proved to be ideally suited as Diak hosts to an extent well beyond other races. Despite her initial mischaracterization, she found the human species the most astonishing of the hundreds previously encountered. From her first sampling, she marveled at the elegance and simplicity of their external design: efficient, agile, adaptable, and even graceful. More importantly, on a cellular level they proved surprisingly complex. Their memories were exquisite. And humans held a secret; one she must guard for her scheme to see fruition.

She’d planned well for this moment, not knowing when or in what form it would take. The Diak sought survival at all cost—their purpose. But that purpose lacked an essential component. Each Diak felt it, but none could identify it. And so it remained unspoken. But with all Diak this illusive component hung suspended on an invisible thread at the edge of awareness. Easily forgotten but for a turn of the head and a fleeting glimpse from the corner of an eye (or whatever visual appendage the host sported, if any). It appeared and then vanished, only to be found again, then again and again.

Humans proved the catalyst to bring the missing element from the shadows into the light of perception. Minute kernels of unsatisfied expectation carried over the centuries finally bloomed. Life flourished beyond mere survival.

Sar Mode disrobed to study her human in better detail. A male, its reproductive organs hung unassuming and supple at the confluence of the being’s trunk and lower extremities. She’d scrutinized those human memories that demonstrated multiple uses for the organs, many of which appeared to end in an element of pain. Certain questions remained unanswered about the species, but further experiments must wait.

Soon I will have all the time in the universe.

One of the many advantages of a human host proved to be its longevity. Humans lasted longer than hosts from other species, though short of their natural life expectancy. The race to slow or stop the rate at which devices transmuted biological cells would soon be lost. A limited supply of human hosts remained. The Council awaited her. By her own edict, issued soon after her first sampling, Diak were forbidden to take human hosts. No one could see her as such other than her personal attendants. But they were ignorant of Diak motivations and the politics of the Spread.

A Fahdeen glared from its cage with large yellow eyes. Such an angry being. Though she cared little, Sar Mode might soon learn what made the Fahdeen so angry. The willowy Pothlill who’d delivered the disagreeable little creature, stood motionless in its corner, awaiting further orders. Sar Mode sighed and nodded haphazardly in the Pothlill’s direction.

Her human form slowly collapsed as a silvery strand of nanites emerged from it. The strand flowed effortlessly across the deck toward the Fahdeen’s cage as if transported on thousands of miniature ball-bearings. The closer the silver strand came, the larger the Fahdeen’s eyes grew in contrast with its diminutive body. Rarely topping five feet and reedy thin, the Fahdeen little resembled their distant cousins, the Bahdane. Covered in long, permanently tangled red hair instead of the Bahdane’s short glossy fur, and with rat-like snouts and ever-visible gnashing teeth, only their dangling, spindly ears hinted at a shared ancestry. Sar Mode’s psyche cringed in virtual disgust when the silver strand came in contact with the Fahdeen body.

The Pothlill, lacking appendages but for one tentacle, its length equaling its height, glided gracefully toward the human remains on millions of cilium. It wrapped its tentacle around the discarded host and dragged it from the compartment. A second Pothlill, indistinguishable from the first, entered to take its post.

Now inside the cage, Sar Mode commanded it open and stepped back into her quarters. She would remain in this body as long as necessary. But it is repulsive. Needing solace, she flicked through her database of memories to a favorite and replayed it in the time left before the meeting.

~ ~ ∞ ~ ~

The Council members had long pestered Sar Mode for shorter respites between invasions in order to meet ever-escalating turn cycles. To use a vulgarism she’d learned from her previous host, they’d fucked themselves . . . again.

Standing before them now, she noted none in the room occupied the same host race. The least of them, perhaps compensating for his minority status, sported a Bahdane. Its bulk commanded a space at the Council table normally allotted for two beings. But the chairman chose to inhabit the body of a slug; the name of its race long forgotten by Sar Mode. How odd.

While the five argued over moving up the invasion deadline, she pondered the ultimate fate of the Diak race, deadline or no. Diak engineers worked without relief to inhibit the turn process. Often until their host bodies dropped from exhaustion. Why do they think they can find answers now, after so much time and so many failures?

Messages received from two settled colonies included petitions to rejoin the Spread, their need for hosts outpacing the conquered species’s breeding cycles. Many colonies, some already extinct, found themselves forced to transfer to younger and younger hosts well before they reached reproductive maturity. The same fate would befall all colonies eventually—lost to the near exponential leaps in efficiency of their devices. Hosts that once continued for many thousand orbits, now lasted a few hundred, and soon, too soon, would complete the turning after only a few dozen.

What to do? The Council wanted to know. Sar Mode, as the appointed principal tasked with re-provisioning the Mass, must meet their ever greater demands. Can I alone foretell the evitable? No—the Council of Superiors saw; they refused to accept. She set the Council’s short-sidedness aside.

From the top of the conference table instead of seated behind it, its host body depositing a sticky residue as it wriggled about, the Council head spoke. “The wormhole will soon be stabilized. Only a few orbits remain. The armada must relaunch its attack against the five aligned planets in this Known Universe, as you say they refer to their collective. Obviously, their knowledge of the universe is limited.”

Sar Mode’s personal goal persisted contradictory to that expressed by the Council. She must stall them a little longer. “Certainly. We are as eager as each of you for the invasion to commence. We are refining the specifics of our strategy now. To conduct separate but simultaneous attacks against five planets, and still preserve as many alien lives as possible, requires precision timing.”

“You speak of ‘we’s’ and ‘our’s.’ It is only you, Sar Mode. And you have failed us once.” The chairman said; his threat thinly veiled.

The other council members murmured, grunted, and hummed their agreement, depending upon their individual forms. The threat appeared unanimous.

Sar Mode bowed low in submission and backed slowly from the room. Once she would have joyfully shared her discovery about the humans with the Council. No longer. Certain the final report from her engineers would confirm continuing the Diak Spread to be insupportable, the humans were her salvation and hers alone. She fondled the amulet that hung about her neck. Her fingers caressed the inscription engraved in a long-abandoned Diak calligraphy: We will not die today.

Chapter 3: Apparition

When the last member of the Audubon Society disappeared, Curtis pointed at the grinning woman leaning against Travis Barnes’s statue. “You! Come with me.” He turned and headed toward the transport conveyer without checking to see if she followed.

Neither one said anything as they entered the compartment. She appeared to study the lighted map on the back of the conveyer door. The pulsing green dot moved in sync along their route. Curtis’s chuckle disrupted the silence. The chuckle turned to a laugh. Then he laughed harder, wiping his eyes.

“Sneap, sneaping . . . what? Sneaping swag-balled . . . did you really say swag-balled?” He bent forward, clutching his side and snorted.

She laughed along with him now. “Not balled, bellied, swag-bellied.”

That sent him into further spasms. She tried to say something more, but managed only to spit down her shirtfront. With a choked half-scream, she crossed her arms over her stomach.

When the door opened at Security HQ, Kyle Drubber, Curtis’s dayshift commander, stood framed in the doorway staring at the two of them. This propelled them into further convulsions. Curtis gasped for air, giving Kyle a weak wave. A signal for help, or to assure him they were okay? Kyle would never know. The door closed once more, leaving him standing openmouthed.

When the conveyer stopped on the mezzanine, Curtis led her to Number 42, the mezzanine tavern. His breathing, and his disposition, now approached normal. Rarely one to smile, Curtis couldn’t recall the last time he’d laughed out loud. The scene as much as her absurd insult, prompted his unnatural outburst. He stood on a deep space trading station, addressing an unruly group who’d formed an Audubon Society chapter to protect one fucking pigeon. And this apparition—and his new co-chief—made such a bizarre slur.

“What’s your drink?” he asked in a curt tone. He didn’t want her to misconstrue his laughter as congeniality.

“Whatever’s on tap,” Hargreaves said.

They found seats toward the back and he entered their drink orders. Earth Space Force personnel filled the bar. Temporarily stationed on Spud, the asteroid anchoring Dark Landing, the battalion would eventually move to the new, joint military station being built in the Zeta Quadrant. On a construction fast-track, the new station would accommodate combat battalions from each of the five Alliance planets.

Curtis extended his hand across the table. “I’m Curtis Walker, Chief of Security . . . in charge here.” Back to his unsociable self, he gave her a fish-eyed stare meant to suggest, correctly, what he’d left unstated: I am not glad to meet you.

“Austen Hargreaves, please call me Austen. Good to meet you.” She shook his hand with a firm grip, her smile open and warm.

His eyes narrowed. “You weren’t expected until tomorrow.”

“I prefer the unexpected.” She winked.

Curtis failed to understand her inference, but he winked back anyway. “I’ll make a note of that.” Is she flirting with me? He dismissed the thought. Her early arrival might work to his advantage. “When we finish our drinks, I’ll show you to your quarters and take you to med-lab to meet Doc Jameson. My day commander, Kyle Drubber, the guy standing in the conveyer door with his mouth open, can give you a station tour tomorrow.” By palming her off on Kyle, he could avoid schlepping her around the station himself, and it would establish her lesser command standing. Dark Landing fell under the triumvirate rule of its chiefs of security, administration, and medical, but security took the lead.

“Thanks, I’m looking forward to meeting Dr. Jameson. But I’ve been here several hours now, and I poked around a bit on my own. I guess by tomorrow I’ll have full access?”

Curtis nodded, and added “sneaky” under “unpredictable” on her list of traits. “Yep, we can go to HQ and make your arrival official before heading to med-lab, if you’d like.”

“I would like. By the way, how did that pigeon get past the environmental scanners?”

“Well, that’s your problem now,” he said, with an air of smug authority.

“At least tell me which came first, the pigeon or the statue?”

A rhetorical question, Curtis silently added, “must have the last word,” to his list.

~ ~ ∞ ~ ~

Two days later, Austen welcomed Victoria Windsor, the new Muck enforcement officer for Zeta Quadrant. The Multi-world Coalition for Travel and Trade, formed by the Planetary Alliance to enact and enforce travel and trade regulations throughout Alliance space, also served as the off-world police force for each of the five member planets.

After a brief introductory meeting with the three chiefs, Austen offered to show Windsor the docks and warehouse levels. They’d scheduled a meeting later in the day for Windsor’s first audit of traffic records and the collection of MCTT regulatory fees. Chief Walker and Dr. Jameson showed no interest in tagging along on the tour.

Pleased at how effortlessly she’d slipped into the chief of administration position, Austen suspected her co-chiefs could give a pigeon-livered bull’s pizzle about how she did her job, as long as she did it. Walker had exerted minimal effort to conceal his annoyance at her arrival. But they behaved as expected, based on her review of their psych evaluations. Jameson proved self-involved, and Walker habitually annoyed.

After inspecting the two docking sub-levels, she escorted the Muck enforcement officer toward the warehouses. At late morning, those levels were hectic and noisy. No one would question them moving away from the bustle to speak in private.

Austen entered her access code and palmed the conveyer panel. The warehouse levels were only open to station employees. She’d briefly trained for the mission on Deep Light station. Owned by the same co-op, all trade stations in Zeta Quadrant followed one blueprint.

She tapped her implant and let her warehouse manager know they were on their way. He greeted them as they exited the conveyer. Austen made a show of trying to speak above the din, and the manager took her hint. He escorted them to his sound-proofed office and left, looking grateful to be excluded from the discussion.

When the office hatch closed, Windsor asked in unaccented English, “Did I see an Earth bird in the bazaar?” A series of soft, pleasurable hums underscored her question. Should anyone who spoke Bahdane be present, the hums represented a translation of the English words in the native Bahdane language. Fluted tongues and four active vocal cords allowed Bahdaneians to speak two languages simultaneously, as long as one was Bahdane.

Austen laughed. “How the pigeon got there and what to do about it is my first official undertaking as chief of administration.”

The Bahdaneian’s snout twitched and her whiskers ruffled in a smile. Covered in black, glossy fur with long drooping ears that brushed their shoulders, Bahdaneians, though larger in stature than humans, appeared soft and cuddly at first sight. Their usually stern demeanor quickly dispelled such notions.

Austen opened the discussion, “From what I’ve seen so far, frequent communications between the two of us won’t be flagged as unusual. There’s no need for elaborate cloak-and-dagger devices. It’s normal for us to be chatting, especially since we’re both new to our jobs. We should develop a code, though it doesn’t need to be sophisticated. Curtis Walker’s a little paranoid and might snoop for a while, but I don’t think he has a long attention span.”

“Upon review of his file, I agree with your assessment. I will report weekly to our contact at the Earth Technology Oversight Commission, and relay the ETOC’s orders back to you. Do you expect difficulties interacting with the target?”

“None,” Austen said. “We’ve already established a cordial relationship. It won’t be hard to cultivate it.”

“Good. Then we should complete our tour and proceed to my audit meeting.” Windsor rose from the chair behind the warehouse manager’s desk, signaling the end of their assignation.

“How about lunch?” Austen asked.

The Bahdaneian’s snout wrinkled. “I don’t wish to offend, but I’ll wait and dine on my ship. Earth food does not digest well, and the results of your race’s attempts to prepare Bahdane cuisine have proved . . . disappointing.”

With no reason to prolong her visit, upon the completion of the records audit, Victoria Windsor departed the station. Just late afternoon, Austen made a swing by the bazaar to check the traps. She’d met with the leader of the Audubon Society the day after she arrived, and agreed the pigeon could stay as long as Doc Jameson declared it germ-free. Walker hadn’t exaggerated. Pigeons carried a bucket-load of diseases.

Preston fluttered in one of the traps. He tipped his head and gave her the evil eye. “Gotcha—you dull-brained measle.” She picked up the cage and proceeded to med-lab, ignoring the nasty looks from passersby.

Chapter 4: Carrier Pigeon

Doc Jameson read Myra’s message a second time. Her apartment-mate throughout their residencies, and her best friend, Myra held an executive position with the Global Center for Disease Control at their Johannesburg headquarters. Her position at the GCDC afforded her unrestricted access to the criminal databases of Earth’s governing agencies, and thousands of local enforcement jurisdictions.

At Doc’s request, Myra’s research into the possible whereabouts of Earth Governor Eleanor Fitzwilliam-Bennett wouldn’t be questioned since the governor conspired with the Diak to spread their nanoid virus throughout the Alliance. If even a remote possibility existed that Fitzwilliam-Bennett might still be alive, the GCDC would want to know. And Myra had no reason to question Doc’s interest, since the conspirators coordinated their scheme to aid the Diak invasion from Dark Landing. The late Martin Fitzwilliam, the governor’s brother and co-conspirator, held the chief of administration position on the station during the Diak threat.

Myra’s latest report confirmed her earlier ones: No clues were found leading to the governor’s whereabouts, and officials had given up looking for her. Most believed she’d crawled into a hole and hid to escape authorities, either on Earth or some off-world outpost. Or, when the Diak cut their transmission to the nanoids, she’d died along with the other infected victims. Tammy never wholly accepted the latter theory, but though a fair detective at diagnosing rare diseases, she had no idea where to look next. Perhaps she chased mythical Camdu sprites after all. Still, she clung to her reasoning for believing Fitzwilliam-Bennett might still be alive.

No proof existed the Governor was ever infected with the alien nanoids in the first place. She’d never been scanned. Known and unknown nanoid carriers literally exploded when Travis Barnes closed the Diak wormhole into Alliance space, initiating the loss of transmissions. More than 800,000 died as a result of nanoid infection, and of those, only five hundred humans and aliens remained unaccounted for. Not all of the missing were assumed dead as result of nanoid contamination, but certainly many of them had met that fate. Fitzwilliam-Bennett counted among the missing humans.

Tammy wanted the nanoids, not the governor. But the nanoids disintegrated outside their live host. Even if the governor still lived uninfected, to continue searching for her wasn’t entirely pointless. She might have valuable information. If infected, how could the Diak single out and spare one individual from the thousands who perished? Why would they? What further service would the governor be to them? Still, Doc hoped.

Frustrated, she welcomed the interruption when Austen, carrying a cage holding Preston the pigeon, knocked on her open door. “Close display,” Doc commanded, rising to greet Austen. “Let’s take him to my private exam room.” She motioned at the door to the immediate right of her office.

Forewarned that she would be examining the bird, Doc had researched pigeon diseases. If her co-chiefs wanted the pigeon removed from Dark Landing, no doubt Doc would find evidence to support their wish.

Doc put on gloves and removed Preston from the cage. She wrapped gauze around its wings, securing them to the body, and then placed the helpless bird on the exam table. As she watched the scan results scroll by, Doc chatted with Austen. “Muck’s enforcement officer, Victoria Windsor, seemed a bit too stiff for me, but I’m prejudiced. The previous officer was a darling . . . well, at least until things got weird. He’s gone now. It’s so sad. What’s your opinion of the new gal?”

The scanner dinged, and a second later a red alert tag scrolled into view. Austen answered her question but Doc wasn’t listening. She stopped the scroll and went back to the alert tag. Not possible! As she studied the item, the scanner dinged a second time and she restarted the scroll. A second alert tag entered the display confirming the first anomaly.

Austen obviously picked up on Doc’s anxiety. “Doc? What is it? Is something wrong?”

“No . . . or, I’m not sure. I’m not a vet.” Uncharacteristically curt, Doc turned away from Austen to hide her shaking hands. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. I’m listening to you and reading the scan results at the same time. It aggravates me. I used to be better at doing two things at once.” She smiled back over her shoulder at the admin chief—at least she hoped she’d smiled. Every nerve ending in her body arced with the electricity of discovery, including her facial muscles.

“I need to do more research,” she said, then grasping at the first avian contagion that came to mind, “He’s carrying histoplasmosis. A respiratory disease transmitted through its droppings. If contracted and left untreated it can be fatal to humans. He’ll be in isolation here for a couple weeks.” Words spilled from her like marbles from a bucket. She made a conscious effort to slow down.

“Doc, are you sure you want to go to all this trouble . . . isolation for a pigeon . . . really?” Austen asked.

“We want to keep the locals happy, don’t we? The station could use a mascot.” Doc tried for upbeat and smiled again, more sure of herself this time. She continued in a controlled voice. “In the interim, clean the bazaar area of droppings. Later, it’ll have to be kept clean.” The nanoids could only be transmitted through bodily fluids, but for all Doc knew, the bird might also carry histoplasmosis.

“Now I’m not sure I want to go to all this trouble. Should we cage it?”

“Well . . . the droppings would at least be contained to a small area, but you’d still have to clean the cage daily.”

Austen cocked her head to one side—a good imitation of Preston the pigeon—and grinned. “Sounds like cleaning up pigeon shit is the perfect job for that artless, bald-pated head of the Dark Landing Audubon Society.”

~ ~ ∞ ~ ~

As soon as Austen left, Doc collapsed onto her exam stool. Tears of excitement streamed down her cheeks. It’s fate. I’m meant to do this. She bit her bottom lip, concentrating on a list of supplies and equipment needed to turn her exam room into a laboratory. The scanner dinged in a quick, continuing sequence. Doc glanced at the display. Preston appeared in distress; its vitals spiking. She’d left it gauze-wrapped and immobile too long. Not now . . . I can’t lose you now.

“Poor baby,” she cooed as she removed the gauze and placed the bird back in the small trap. “What you need is a larger cage, don’t you sweetheart?” She added a pill cup filled with water and set the trap under the exam table, commanded the lights lowered to a soothing twenty percent, then returned to her office.

The bird’s nanoids were inactive. How it became infected wasn’t an issue. It could have picked them up from any morsel of food contaminated with saliva from a human carrier—perhaps even one of the three prostitutes that first introduced the alien nanoids to the station. Were they inactive when the bird acquired them, or did they become inactive because of incompatibility with the Diak’s specifications and the bird’s physiology—or is that even significant? As far as she knew, Preston carried the only existing nanoid samples in the K.U. And she had them. It took enormous effort to rein in her excitement and maintain focus.

In infected humans and aliens, the nanoids eventually transmuted the hosts’ organs, including the brain, and replicated them with indestructible nanoid versions which performed the necessary life functions. The individual’s intellect and personality were preserved—at least at first. Experts disputed how far the transmutation might have gone, over what period of time, if the hosts survived. But Tammy had seen the thing Fitz became. Once the gifted chief of administration on Dark Landing, he’d turned into a solid block of nanoids; its surface undulating occasionally, but nothing more. In the end, he . . . it . . . disintegrated.

The more she thought about it, unlike humans and aliens, pigeons wouldn’t have the mass to provide the electric charge necessary to jumpstart the nanoids after contamination. Because the pigeon’s nanoids were inactive, they never received Diak transmissions and were unaffected when those transmissions ceased.

The nanoids were difficult to study. If active, they disintegrated when removed from the host and upon the host’s death. Inactive nanoids were shielded. Attempts to breach the shields also resulted in disintegration. They might have overcome these limitations in time. Medical professionals and scientists agreed on one thing: If the nanoid transmutation could be directed and controlled, it would render its host immune to disease and non-fatal injuries—making the host virtually immortal.

Since learning of the nanoids and their potential for humanity, Jameson fantasized about being the one to fulfill that potential. She’d envisioned herself accepting the Nobel Prize and a multitude of other honors and tributes for her unparalleled contribution to humanity and alien-kind. Her dreams outweighed her fears of personal exposure.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Robin Praytor spent her corporate days drafting legal documents and creating training materials. To distract from the deadlines and to-do lists that kept her awake at night, she thought up stories. Those complex and quirky stories demanded written versions. Thus, the Dark Landing series finally saw daylight. A Michigan native, Robin now lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her patient and long-suffering husband. She is a card-carrying geek and Comicon aficionado.

Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
Dark Landing is a space station at the edge of the known universe. Other than a few scattered mining operations and sparsely populated scientific bases, it's the last station in the trade relay. Somehow adventure always manages to find its way there.

Next in:
Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
The Turncoat
When Hate Is Skin Deep
Imperfect Memories
A perfect memory turns deadly.
SHADOWED BY DEATH: AN...
Even a reluctant assassin is deadly