Jack Devries scanned the alien landscape from the overhang that concealed his tiny starship. Chigran Callnir Four looked like a combination of a rocky highland and a jungle. He saw heavy vegetation, or at least things that resembled trees and plants, though they apparently didn’t shed leaves or branches since they grew out of gaps in the naked red rocks nearby with no sign of detritus.

DeVries didn’t know anything about the planet except that it was one of the open worlds, meaning it could have picked up a settlement or two, provided there wasn’t some deadly menace hiding among the rocks. DeVries didn’t care much one way or the other. He just had to hang low for a few Earth Standard Months until the space force gave up searching for him. And whatever might be out there, he figured he was probably deadlier.

The last operation had been a messy one. He’d gotten away with the AI core just as planned. The only snag had been that he’d had to kill fifty-seven citizens to do it. Eight of them with his bare hands. DeVries did not look particularly strong or threatening, but that just added to his effectiveness.

DeVries slipped a water sensor out of his Veer skinsuit and gave the horizon a quick go over. He frowned. Nothing special out there, but at least he detected a large water source within three kilometers. There was also a speckling of water on the readings in his PV, which could be smaller pools or creatures largely composed of water. From his experience, they looked like Terran-sized collections of water, but he could not be sure.

He pocketed the scanner and made his way down the rocky hillside. A homogenous batch of plants dotted the way. Each had a thick trunk emerging from the rocks, which split into three branches, then each of those split again into three more until finally sprouting out into a flower or complex leaf that looked like a patch of green hair.

The plentiful plant stalks eased his descent, providing him with dozens of ready handles to steady him as he scrambled down the sharp rocks. Each of the stalks originated from a deep fissure in the rock along with ten or twenty others. If he did fall, he felt his suit would protect him as long as he didn’t smash his head.

I wonder if the lack of accumulated leaves or branches on the ground is because something eats it all. But then I’d expect to see a bed of dung.

He peered into a hole where many stalks emerged. It was too dark to see inside.

Maybe the rain washes everything down these holes. Oh well. What do I care?

A red ribbon wrapped around a plant just ahead caught his attention. The strip of color shifted. DeVries struggled to resolve the image. The creature was half red and half diaphanous, resembling a snake or eel. Its translucent parts made it hard to see as it shifted position, fooling the eyes. It was much larger than it first appeared. DeVries was instantly wary.

He pulled out a light plastic dagger and altered course.

No point in messing with it unless it’s coming after me.

The creature flowed to the top of its plant, then rose up even higher. Its upper body waved half a meter into the air as DeVries sidetracked it. He couldn’t see any eyes or a mouth, but obviously it had detected his approach.

Danger display? Or is it just curious?

He could not help but compare it to similar creatures he knew about: large snakes and eels. He thought of constriction and poison. He considered drawing the stunner, but instead he simply kept moving steadily, climbing to one side. DeVries knew he had at least one thing going for him: whatever that thing’s natural prey was, chances were he did not match its appearance or behavior. That meant the feeding action of the animal most likely would not trigger on him.

Unless that thing just eats everything that moves.

The tense moment passed as he put several stalks between himself and the creature. It relaxed back into its previous pose, wrapped lazily around a plant or two. DeVries left the thing behind as he slipped the rest of the way down from the formation that concealed his ship. Then the ground angled back up again, toward the side of the next long, rocky hill. A line of vegetation limited his view down toward the valley he had examined from above. The water source was higher, between two hills.

He walked up the draw, remaining wary. He hopped from rock to rock trying to avoid the plants and thus hopefully the fauna as well. A cliff rose on his right, starting as a small cleft in the rock then rising meter after meter until it was a sheer rocky barrier.

DeVries found a cave entrance in the side of the cliff. When he stopped to examine it, he quickly noticed the entrance had been carved smooth. A ceramic grating of an odd design blocked the way. The grating had about a dozen strong vertical bars, with about eight centimeters of space between each one. The bars were only about four centimeters wide, but very deep. The openings extended about thirty centimeters to the far side. He resisted the urge to try and stick his arm through one. The other side was dark, and he didn’t feel like finding out what danger might lurk there.

DeVries grunted. Apparently, the water wasn’t his alone.

Unless whoever made this is long fallen to dust. Could be a ruin.

He accessed his scanner over his link. Without taking the device out of his pack, the scanner had a limited range, but DeVries just wanted to check for nearby danger. The scanner picked up some anomalies ahead. DeVries carefully cleared a rise of spiky rock and tried again.

Lifeforms. Humans. Now he was sure.

Can’t be the space force. This has to be colonists. Out here in the middle of nowhere? Oh, of course. They must be here for the water, same as me.

DeVries took stock of his gear. He had two weapons: a PSG stunner and a Veer Industries plastic knife. A laughable arsenal by his standards, but of course he had had to keep a low profile to escape. He squeezed the knife in his iron grip, as if flexing his need to kill. He felt half inclined to carve on whomever he found one by one just to pass the time. But he was curious, too, so he decided to talk it out first.

He put away his knife but loosened the clasp holding his stunner in place. Then he climbed a little farther. The wall on his right had a tunnel carved into it. There was a spot for another of the ceramic grates, but the grate had been pulled out and set to one side. He would have to crouch a bit, but the tunnel was clearly passable for Terrans. It had rough red walls with gaps where the rock had split and cracked. DeVries walked into the tunnel.

He heard voices. The urgent rhythm of the hissed whispers told him they had detected him.

“I come in peace,” he called out. “I am only one man.” His voice echoed ahead. He estimated there must be many chambers and passageways.

“Please leave us be. We’re not with the space force,” replied someone.

DeVries’s heart rate increased.

How could they possibly know I’m concerned about the space force? They can’t.

He took a few more steps forward. The outside light filtered in through another of the large gratings in the ceiling of a small, square room. The far side had a low wall built around its corner, which made DeVries think of a well. Four men in robes stood by the wall with blue plastic containers. Two of the men wore reddish robes, the color of the rocks outside, and two of them wore yellow. DeVries had to double check that they were men, wondering if two of them might be women. But they all looked male. Three had short, dark hair. One was bald. The robes made them appear simple, but he reminded himself they could have any kind of equipment under the plain coverings.

“What makes you think I care about the space force?” asked DeVries. His voice was calm, soothing even. He knew most people found his appearance nonthreatening.

“You’re their enemy, correct? You’re from the UED?”

“No. What makes you think the UED would be here? Oh. You’ve been cut off, haven’t you? United Earth Defiance lost the war.”

“That does not concern us. But we have seen UED forces here recently.”


“A squadron of marines. We assumed you were one of them.”

Wow. Small universe. At least it seems that way when everyone flocks to rocky planets in the habitable zone.

“I’m a free agent,” DeVries said carefully. “How about yourselves?”

“We’re here for an amazing denizen of this world, the Konuan.”

“Never heard of it. Is it valuable? You’re hunters?”

“The Konuan. They used to live here by the thousands. Maybe the millions. They created a city here. The water you must have detected is from one of their cisterns.”

“What happened to them?”

The man shrugged. “It’s another mystery. Like so many other civilizations that fell into dust, on Earth and elsewhere.”

“If they’re gone, then what do you care about them?”

The man smiled. “The Konuan had their secrets,” he said. “Every race has its wisdom. Our sect seeks to collect these insights across all the intelligences in the galaxy. By examining the spiritual knowledge of every race, we can deduce the truths that bind them all together. The truths that are constants in the universe.”

Oh. He’s a buckle bulb. Thinks he can glean the meta information of the universe by studying the religious beliefs of all races everywhere.

“Their secrets probably died with them,” DeVries said, careful not to contradict the fanatic statements.

“There is one left. We serve it,” another of the men said.

DeVries looked at the others. Their faces were pinched and weathered. They did not move to deny the statement.

“We are its disciples,” echoed another man. He must have seen DeVries looking for repudiation.


“Whoa. You serve it? You’ve seen it?”

“Yes. You can, too, if you wish. It is amazing,” said a bald man, stepping forward carefully.

“What does it look like? Do you talk to it?”

“We’re still learning to communicate. It will be happy to see you, if you would like to join us. We can learn together.”

“I really just need some water…” DeVries hesitated; then his curiosity got the better of him. “What does it look like?” he asked again.

“You really need to see it for yourself. It can be the size of a man, but it’s thin. These vents all around,” the man pointed at the ceramic grille above, “are its doorways. It can easily move through them.”

DeVries considered the grille again. The spaces were tight. Only his arm could slip through one of the openings. If the creature could slip through there...

“It’s like an amoeba? Or is it…rigid? Really that thin?”

“The Konuan is like a moving carpet,” said the closest man. “Its underside has a thousand little legs scattered all across it. The top is covered with sensitive antennae and a fine fur.”

DeVries nodded. “Are you absolutely sure it’s intelligent? The space force wouldn’t have made this an open world if they knew there was a sentient creature here.”

“Judge for yourself,” the bald man said. “Stay and learn with us, if you like.”

DeVries felt the touch of fear in his gut when he considered the alien monster, the Konuan. Their description sounded kind of alarming. DeVries didn’t like the sound of a thin creature with countless legs on one side of a pancake-flat body. Still, he felt interested in it. He wouldn’t have come out to the edge of Terran space without a streak of wonder about the universe.

“Where? You know where it is?”

“Yes. Down below,” said the bald one. He pointed to a tunnel. The entrance was ringed in black vegetation. “Past the blackvines.”

DeVries stared at the blackvines. His face tightened into a frown. He had seen them once before since landing, growing in the formation that hid his ship. They didn’t sit there like proper plants, oblivious to everything around them except the sun. These things were always twitching and keening in response to a passerby or sending tendrils after alien vermin in a nearby crevice. They were presumably blind yet remained aware of things going on around them.

“All right. Are you coming?”

“I will accompany you,” the man said, stepping forward.

“You know what? I’d like to check it out myself. Thanks, though,” he said. DeVries often tried to avoid traps by doing the opposite of what someone he didn’t trust suggested.

Did they lead me into this? Is it a trap?

DeVries looked back at the disciples. They didn’t seem nervous. DeVries ran a program in his link. In a split second the link computer examined his cache of the last conversation and analyzed the strangers. The result was encouraging: no hostile intent detected.

DeVries’s hand briefly rested on his stunner.

No trap. I’m the predator here. These are sheep.

DeVries steeled himself to the blackvines and walked through.

The tunnel beyond felt truly ancient. Dust and bits of debris littered the smooth tile floor. His nose caught a new smell: a whiff of ammonia.

Maybe the aliens didn’t have bathrooms. No, that would be long gone by now. Probably the disciples have been pissing in here somewhere.

The tunnel opened into a large, square room. Like the rest of the place, it was carved from the dusty red rocks. A single ten-liter water container sat in one corner. It was a rugged type of container used by the space force, colonists, and core world survivalists. DeVries saw more of the grilles on each wall and the ceiling. He saw one had been removed to allow him to enter. It leaned against the wall next to the entrance.

This place is locked down tight. Impossible to get anywhere without breaking through those things. And I don’t think the grilles were made by humans. The space force wouldn’t lock down each room from the other with a thick ceramic barrier. Konuan doors? Maybe that buckle bulb knows at least part of what he’s talking about.

The middle of the room held a huge vat. It was a circular depression about two feet deep at the center. The vat was empty except for a few pieces of straight gray debris. DeVries’s first thought was of bones. If it was a skeleton of some kind, he decided it probably wasn’t human.

Since there was no unblocked exit, DeVries decided to try to remove a grille himself. He approached the one opposite his entrance tunnel. It looked heavy, but apparently the disciples had been opening them up so they could move about in the ruins. DeVries prided himself on his animal strength. It had helped him dispatch many of his victims. He grasped the obstacle and gave an experimental pull. It did not budge.

“Not even close,” he said to himself. The grille felt like it was fused in place.

DeVries heard a soft scraping from his right. He turned toward another grille. Suddenly his heart started slamming against his rib cage. He drew the stunner from his belt by reflex. He had long ago disabled its requirements for target logging; the weapon would shoot at anything and everything DeVries ordered it to.

Is that the Konuan?

A yellow line appeared between two bars of the grille. It looked like foam at first; then DeVries saw the edge of it: a black border to the yellow. Dozens of tiny yellow claws grasped the outside edge of one bar, all on one side.

Yes. All its legs are on one side. It’s climbing sideways to get through the grille. Must be.

DeVries aimed his stunner. The Konuan shot out of the grille like a whip. It opened to envelop DeVries at the last second. He pulled the stunner’s trigger in shock, but the thing was already on him.

Thousands of tiny claws scraped at his head and face. A powerful, acrid smell hit him. Ammonia. He fell back from the impact, losing his balance.

DeVries opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came out. Instead he coughed spasmodically. The ammonia smell was overwhelming. He struck the floor, but he had lost all sense of direction or caring about anything but the need to escape. His hands tore at the outside of the creature covering his torso, but he couldn’t get a grip on any part of it. He thrashed violently in the hands of animal panic. His eyes burned. His legs kicked.

Merciful oblivion came seconds later as he lapsed into unconsciousness.

Chapter 1

Magnus sat comfortably in a swivel throne with his feet propped up on an opulent marble desk. Judging from the size and decor of the office that surrounded him, few would have guessed he sat in a spacecraft. The smart chairs arrayed before him adjusted to their occupants and could even serve drinks or drugs. The ceiling rose to twice his height. A shoji screen framed his chair, with scenes from worlds he had visited flitting across its panels.

Vovokans know how to travel in style. Magnus smiled. Given the size of Shiny’s house, the huge ship must have seemed tiny to the alien. But to Magnus, it was a flying mansion. And they had all had time to pray up a few amenities for the new transport before they left. A marble statue of Magnus occupied one corner; a similarly beautiful sculpture of Telisa stood in the other. The sculpture caught his imagination and memory for the hundredth time. Since they had been able to pray up almost anything since finding the Trilisk AI, Telisa and Magnus had enjoyed many romantic encounters, both real and virtual.

I wonder how Shiny ever survived being cooped up in the Iridar. It must have felt like a concentration camp to him. Yet he said nothing.

He shifted in his seat as a preamble to action. Then he opened an obfuscated channel to Jason Yang. The reply offered Magnus a video and audio feed so he took them both. Jason’s face appeared in his mind’s eye.

“How’s progress?” Magnus asked, getting right to the point.

“I have the three new ships you wanted,” Jason said. “The prices were high. The market has been affected by the industrial load of the space force orders for its new grand fleet. We need pilots and crew.”

“I’m going to find people for it. I have to figure out where we stand with the local government before I can get back there. But you could help by going ahead and collecting a solid pool of candidates. Hundreds if you want. I can cull them down.”

“No sign of anything wrong here,” Jason said. “What do they want you for?”

“Trespassing, basically. It was a misunderstanding,” Magnus lied.

“Well, with the aliens after us, I doubt they care about you anymore.”

“Let’s hope so. What do you mean, ‘with the aliens after us’?”

“You know, the Seeker. The war? You don’t follow the news out there?”

“There was an incident. Not a war.”

“Then why is every colony making a defense network? Why are the core worlds assembling a grand fleet?”

“Because everyone finally realized there are living aliens out there, not just dead civilizations. But I knew that all along. So did Telisa. It stands to reason. The galaxy is just a big place. Of course, the UNSF loves being able to use it as an excuse to build up.”

“You think they made it all up?”

“No…I believe there are live alien civilizations out there.”

“But you don’t think they are getting ready to attack us?”

“I doubt it. But anything’s possible. There’s no war yet though, okay?”

“Fair enough,” Jason admitted. He actually sounded disappointed.

“You know if there is a war, we’ll probably lose, right? We’re pretty new to FTL travel.”

Jason nodded. “Yeah,” he said, getting a bit more serious. “It must be hard, living out there on the frontier,” Jason said. “There must be few amenities out that far. And you’re so removed from everything that’s happening.”

Jason had no video feed of Magnus, so he couldn’t see the interior of the Vovokan ship. Magnus scanned the ultra-luxurious office. He thought of the swimming pool, his workshop, his giant sleep web, and his training center lying just beyond the walls around him.

“Yes, Jason, it’s hard. But someone has to be out here, taking the risks, learning what we can. And, of course, making the big finds that are financing the revival of Parker Interstellar Travels.”

“Yes! Yes, that’s true. You’re not afraid the aliens will find you?”

“The aliens?” Magnus echoed distractedly. Then he seemed to return to focus. “By the Five, we’re out here looking for the aliens!”

Jason nodded. His face showed only idolatry.

“I just need you to hang in there for a while longer until we can return and fire things back up,” Magnus continued. “I’ll contact you again later this month. For now, just continue your studies and hold down the fort.”

“Will do.”

Magnus cut the connection. He leaned back in the throne and wondered.

Am I really interested in ever coming back?

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