Click on image to enlarge.
eBook by Mari Atherton
eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: Marianthia ... A beautiful planet with an incredible, living technology. If traveling salesman Aviv Gerbo can just get this technology to the rest of the galaxy, he will be rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he is an alien and.... Aliens are not permitted on Marianthia. But Aviv is unable to leave. He is stranded on the planet when a giant, telepathic fungus eats his spaceship. Hunted by the brutish Secures, he is rescued by Merari, who was born into the Surrogate class. However, Merari does not meet the physical specifications for that class. She is a deviant and... Deviants are not permitted on Marianthia. And now both Merari and Aviv are hunted by the Secures. They escape to Unity, a hidden community on the far side of the planet, but when terrorists launch an attack against the Surrogate class Merari must make a frightful decision. Should she stay in safety with the man she loves? Or should she return with the information that will save her class, knowing that if she returns she faces a certain, horrible death.
eBook Publisher: Swimming Kangaroo Books, Published: 2006, 2006
Fictionwise Release Date: June 2007
* * * * CHAPTER ONE
5 Reader Ratings:
Ruva's mind drifted through space. Routine perimeter duty. The most boring job on Marianthia. Nothing to do but focus on the defense screens around the planet and make sure they were maintained. There never was. Not even so much as a flicker for the last fifty years. A bright flash from the sun caught her attention so she reached out for a closer look. It was just a solar flare. Ruva probed but felt no danger. Although close to the star, they weren't near enough for danger. She circled the sun and swung by the moons, Pippa 1, 2, 3. All was as it should be. Quiet. Peaceful. Boring. With one part of her mind she sought the time. Still several hours to go on her shift.
With a sigh she made one more loop around Pippa 3 and started another routine defense sweep. It did not require her full attention so she was able to turn part of her mind to personal matters, such as what she should wear to the head astrophysicist's party that evening. She became so engrossed in planning her jewelry that she almost missed the small tug at the corner of her mind.
"Intruder," the Synthesis informed her politely.
Ruva instantly gave it her full attention, quickly suppressing her leap of excitement. A ship of some type, she noted, her mind busy sorting through the information that was flooding into it. This was a remote area of space. Ships seldom passed by. She had never had one on her shift before. She searched through the links but could not find a similar ship on record so she began creating a new pathway for it.
Ruva increased the shields in the area through which the ship, unaware of her and her sensors, progressed. Ruva smiled. This day was turning out to be all right after all. She and her friends had been waiting for an opportunity like this. For just a second, she wondered if she might risk trying to contact the ship but no, she felt the gentlest touch at her mind and knew someone else had joined the link. She didn't dare take the chance.
Suddenly she frowned. Something was wrong with the little ship. A mechanical breakdown of some kind, she surmised. Now it was emitting some kind of signal. Ruva recorded it carefully while at the same time she generating a jamming field to block the signal from escaping the system.
"Yes, B-3," Ruva replied dutifully. Her supervisor was the one who was monitoring her link. It was a good thing she had not tried to contact the ship.
"What is happening?"
"Just a ship, B-3. It's having some kind of trouble. I'm tracking it."
"Just make sure it doesn't find out you're there."
"No, B-3. Of course not."
The touch vanished, and Ruva knew she was alone again. She narrowed her focus on the small ship. It was still trying to send its message, which she realized must be some kind of automated distress call. Quickly she adjusted the jamming field to cover all the available frequencies. She had let one of the calls through, and she dared not risk more.
She probed deeper to try to figure out what was wrong with the ship but it was beyond her understanding. All metal. No life to it at all, although she could sense the life form inside. She could also sense a rapid build-up in temperature. Whatever was wrong with the little ship, it couldn't last much longer. Maybe it would explode and take its life form with it.
Something was happening, though. The ship was splitting in two. The large part was still heating up while the smaller part was rapidly moving away. The life form was in the smaller section, she noted. Ruva watched it carefully as an idea started to take hold in her brain. Could she get away with it? It would be risky, but maybe it would be possible.
She barely drew her mind back before the explosion. The large ship sprung apart, debris hitting the smaller ship and knocking it spinning. Some of it hurtled toward her screens and she fortified them in the appropriate spots, making a game of bouncing the debris from one spot to another. She didn't lose track of the smaller ship, but at just the right moment, thinned her screens enough for him to slip through, then snapped them back to full strength. Once inside, she could no longer track it on her extra-planetary sensors, but she sent a hurried message on what she hoped was still a private pathway. She had done what she could. Now it was up to the unknown life form in the smaller ship, and her friends on another part of the planet.
Drawing her shoulders up, Ruva prepared her final report for B-3. She carefully explained everything leading up to the destruction of the small ship, leaving nothing out except for the part about the ship splitting into two. "The ship exploded," she said finally. "Some of the debris bounced against our screens but was completely destroyed."
B-3 cut in. "Have you totally scanned the debris?"
"All right. Good work. Ruva. Go ahead and file the report."
Ruva nodded and sent her report along the appropriate pathway. Then she moved her mind back out to the perimeter, waiting for the next thing to come along, knowing that she may never learn what happened to the unknown life form she had allowed to slip through the screens. * * * * CHAPTER TWO
"Oh, I've got a mule and her name is Sal!" Aviv Gerbo hollered tunelessly, no longer wondering, as he used to, what the words to the ancient song meant. "Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal!"
This was a new area of space for him. Charts on this sector were sketchy. Aviv was always eager to open new markets, and if he could find a nice new planet or two full of eager buyers, it would be worth going a little bit out of his way.
Granted the area where he was right now didn't offer much in the way of prospective customers, but three days' travel ahead was a group of four planets all in the same system. Surely at least one of those planets would be eager for the technology he had to sell. As leading salesperson for Space Technologies, Inc. for four years running, he had a record to uphold, and, although he was still in first place, that new kid from the asteroid belt was nipping at his heels.
"She's a good old worker and a good old pal!" Aviv leaned back and propped his feet on the console. Life wasn't too bad. Here he was in a brand new spaceship, outfitted with the latest technology STI had to offer. Heck, the stuff practically sold itself, and in the meantime he got to travel all over the galaxy in ease and luxury. He pulled up his new star chart on the holo-screen again. The latest, most up to date chart available in glorious 3-D, and there, just a few days travel away were four virgin planets ripe for the picking.
"We have a problem, Aviv," Albert E, his on-board computer, the one piece of equipment he had insisted on keeping from his old ship, interrupted his thoughts. "We are about to explode." The technicians had laughed at his insistence on keeping his reliable, obsolete computer model with its old-fashioned conversational mode, and had laughed even more when they learned he had personalized the computer by giving it a name. Everyone nowadays was using the new models with neuronic processing and nobody, but nobody wanted their computer to sound like their best friend. Except for Aviv. He had maintained that when alone in space for long stretches of time, he needed to hear a friendly voice, even if it was only from his computer.
Now, however, he wasn't so sure. Albert E's casual tone was completely at variance with its foreboding message. "What!" Aviv scrambled upright and looked at all the indicators. Sure enough, they were all flashing ominously. "Albert E, what's the problem?"
"There is an infusion build-up in the micro-reverse alternative generator. All systems will fail within five minutes."
"What the hell does that mean?" Aviv sputtered and then held out a hand as Albert E obligingly started to explain. "No, don't tell me," he said. "I'm a salesman, not an engineer. But, this is a brand new ship. How can there be a problem in the generator?"
"It is possible there is a design flaw or there may have been a human error during construction," Albert E hypothesized obediently.
Aviv's head spun. "Well, fix it!" Damn R&D department. They had probably sub-contracted out to that Jovian Construction Company. Everyone knew they couldn't be trusted to make a paper airplane much less an interstellar spaceship.
There was a pause and then Albert E said. "The malfunction cannot be repaired in flight conditions."
Aviv swore under his breath, and then swore out loud since there was no one around to hear him. So much for STI's latest engine design.
"Recommendations?" he asked.
It was starting to get hot. Aviv wiped the sweat off his brow and waited. Fortunately Albert E was fast (although the technicians had assured him that the new neuronic processing models were faster still). "You could escape to the evacuation module," the computer suggested.
"No sooner said than done," Aviv said, swinging through a small hatchway. "Albert E, please set an automatic distress signal."
Before the door closed behind him, he heard the start of the distress message. "Hi. This is Aviv Gerbo. If you can hear me, I'm in trouble, so I'd appreciate a little help. The computer will tell you where I am, so hop to it." Aviv winced. He had recorded that message as a joke, intending to replace it with a more appropriate message when he had the time. He'd never expected to actually have to use it.
"Explosion in thirty seconds," Albert E interrupted his thoughts.
Aviv quickly adjusted all the controls in the escape module and ejected the module from the main ship. "Let's hope this module works better than that piece of junk," he muttered as he maneuvered the module at maximum speed away from his ship. He wasn't as far away as he'd liked to have been, when the ship exploded, spinning him around in space with stomach-twisting speed.
"Whoa!" Aviv set the stabilizers. "Albert E, continue to broadcast distress signal."
"I'm sorry, Aviv, but I cannot do that."
"Why not?" Aviv squirmed around, trying to find a comfortable position in the cramped module.
"There is too much interference."
"What kind of interference?"
"I am not quite sure."
Aviv sighed. "Very well. Keep trying. And head for the nearest planet. Earth-type," he corrected quickly.
He watched as the computer set a course and checked it against his own knowledge of the sector. "Albert E, where are you headed?" he demanded, inwardly groaning. "Don't tell me you're malfunctioning too!"
"No. I am fine."
He could have sworn the computer sounded huffy.
"I set the course for grid locator 159-b-theta in sector theta-l," Albert E added.
Aviv punched a button and his brand new map popped into place on the miniature holo-display pad. Aviv rolled his eyes. "Albert E, there's no planet there."
"Yes there is."
"No there isn't," Aviv shouted. "Look at the map." He jabbed his finger at the appropriate grid locator. "There's nothing there!"
"Your map is wrong." Albert E said placidly. "My map shows a planet at the location I indicated."
Aviv struggled to remain patient, not an easy task when his state of the art spaceship had exploded practically around him and his obsolete computer insisted on taking him to a phantom planet that was not on the charts. "Show me your map." He leaned over to peer at the holo-pad. There it was, a map just like his, except for one difference. Where his map showed empty space, the computer's map showed a planetary system.
"How old is your map?" Aviv demanded. "Mine is supposed to be the latest map available of this sector."
"I found this map in my memory banks. It is from S.E. 868."
"That was over three hundred years ago!"
"Three hundred thirty-three."
"So why isn't this planetary system on my map?"
"System was removed after two hundred years of no contact."
"No contact? Did it ever occur to you that there's been no contact because it isn't there anymore? It probably exploded or something, like my ship just did," Aviv suggested in a withering tone of voice.
"Advanced long range scanners show minor distortions in space. It is possible the system is screened."
Aviv raised his eyebrows and peered at the computer's map again. "Why would anybody want to screen an entire system?"
"I don't know."
"What information do we have about this system?"
Albert E paused. "Those memory banks have been erased, but I believe I can retrieve some of the information."
"Then retrieve it."
"This is a one-star system with five planets. The second planet from the sun was colonized by Earth in S.E. 378."
"That is all the available information."
"I don't like this," Aviv muttered. "This is awfully spooky. Albert E, can't you locate a better planet?"
"Life support systems will run down before another planet can be reached."
"That's ridiculous! This capsule is supposed to maintain life for weeks, if necessary. That's why it's called a survival capsule." Aviv leaned forward to look at the indicator lights. Sure enough, they all glowed an alarming shade of red.
"There is a malfunction in the life support system."
"What's wrong with it?"
"I can't tell. It appears to be a problem with the oxygen sustenance hyper-onerator."
"Great!" Aviv muttered. "All right. If you can find that phantom planet, take us in."
"There appears to be a force field of some type, however, I have located a weakness in the force field."
"Well aim for it!" Aviv urged.
"Penetrating force field now," Albert E said obligingly.
There was a slight shudder and then the system popped into view.
"Computer, can you locate any communications signals?"
"Okay. Keep trying. And broadcast a distress call, in several Earth languages. If they're an old Earth colony they might be able to understand some of the languages. Ask for permission to land."
"I am unable to send the distress call."
"There is a dampening field from the planet."
"What the hell kind of planet is this anyway?" Aviv sputtered.
"Sensors indicate that it is an earth-type planet--"
"I didn't mean that literally!" Aviv snapped. He looked out the viewport at the planet. "Lots of clouds," he muttered. "Could they be the source of the disruption?"
"No. Sensors indicate they are normal clouds."
Aviv pounded his fist on the console in frustration. "Albert E, isn't there any indication in your memory of why we lost contact with this planet?"
"No. As I told you, most of the information has been erased. I can just find snippets of it here and there."
"Well tell me what snippets you have," Aviv said patiently.
"Rebel ... contamination ... inter-class ... off-worlders evacuate ... xenopho..."
Aviv mulled over the phrases. "That's not much to go on."
"I told you it had been erased," Albert E said reproachfully.
"So you did." Aviv leaned back and watched as the planet rapidly grew larger in the module's tiny window.
"We are entering planetary atmosphere," the computer reported.
"Are you still trying to send a distress signal?"
"Yes. The dampening field is still in effect."
Suddenly a voice crackled over the radio. The first part of the message was garbled as the translator struggled to handle the strange language. "...land and wait for help. Watch out for the Secures."
Aviv lunged forward as the message faded and slapped a button on the communications console. "Hello! I didn't quite catch all that! Can you repeat your message?" he called.
There was dead silence for several minutes. Just as Aviv began to fear he would not hear the strange voice again, the radio crackled. "We're sending someone to pick you up. Watch out for the Secures."
"What do you mean? What do they look like?"
"End of transmission," Albert E reported.
"What do you mean end of transmission? Why didn't you translate all of it?"
"Although the message was in what was originally an earth-language, there has been an extreme amount of language drift. It took a while to establish the parameters."
"Well can you get them back?"
"No. The dampening field has been re-established."
Aviv sighed. Here he was out in the middle of nowhere, his capsule hurtling toward an unknown and definitely weird planet, and his super technology equipment was doing him no good whatsoever. He'd certainly have a few things to say to the R&D people when he got back to civilization.
"Planet fall in sixty seconds."
Aviv braced himself for the landing.
"Fifty ... forty..." Albert E reported.
Aviv leaned back and closed his eyes, expecting a major impact but after all the equipment failures he had experienced, the landing was surprisingly soft.
"We have landed," Albert E said unnecessarily.
"Is it safe to go out?" Aviv asked tentatively.
"This is an earth-type planet," Albert E reminded him.
Aviv checked the environmental sensors, wanting more reassurance than his normally efficient and reliable computer could provide. Something about this planet gave him the willies. The sensor readings, however, were all within normal range, although the humidity levels were rather high.
Aviv sighed, unable to put it off any longer. He opened the doors and stuck his head outside. He might as well see where he had landed. * * * * CHAPTER THREE
The first thing Aviv noticed was the stench. The air smelled like the Jovian Mining Colony Soccer Team's locker room after a losing tournament. Huge warm drops of rain splattered on his head and shoulders as he stepped out of the capsule and looked around. He had landed in a verdant clearing ringed by stalwart trees with branches stretching up into the overhanging mist. Looking up he could see clouds milling in the air above the clearing, with beautiful colors dancing lazily among them. The ground beneath him was covered, not with grass, but with a lumpy, green, porous substance that was soft and springy beneath his feet, not unlike a mushroom. Aviv took an experimental step. He felt as though he were walking on unbaked yeast dough.
"Aviv, I have a problem." If Albert E'd had a throat, he would have cleared it politely.
"What is it now?" Aviv didn't bother turning around. He was too busy admiring the beauty of the planet.
"I think I am being eaten."
That did get Aviv's attention, and he quickly turned to look at his ship. It was slowly dissolving into the green fungal carpet.
"Can you lift off?"
"No. I am unable to leave the planet surface. At this rate, I will be completely destroyed in ten minutes."
Aviv shuddered. "Recommendations?"
"Take out as much equipment as you can carry, and leave the ship. I can transfer my functions to the belt clip-on module."
"Do it." Aviv dove back into the ship and scrabbled for supplies. He fastened the module to his belt, stuffed several food packets into his pockets, and hefted a sting gun in his hands. "What else should I take?" he asked aloud.
"First aid kit," the computer suggested. "And radio."
"I wasn't talking to you," Aviv muttered. "I was talking to myself." He shoved the first aid kit into his pocket and grabbed the radio. He had a strange sensation that he was sinking, and looked down to see that the floor of the escape capsule had totally disintegrated. The fungus was creeping up the sides of the capsule. Aviv watched in hideous fascination as his chair dissolved under the onslaught.
"I think you should get out of here," Albert E suggested.
Aviv didn't have to be told twice. He bolted through the door of the capsule and moved over to stand by one of the trees, watching as the last of his ship dissolved, leaving no trace behind.
"Whew!" he said, shaking his head. "What is this fungus stuff anyway?"
"It is a fungal life form," Albert E reported helpfully.
"Gee thanks. I wouldn't have guessed. I hope it doesn't start eating me like that." Aviv shook his head and then asked, "Are you still trying to send out a distress signal?"
"Yes, but I am still being blocked. However, there are some life forms approaching."
"There are? What are they?"
"They appear to be humanoid, although extremely large."
"Large," Aviv said thoughtfully. That strange voice he had heard had also used that word. "Watch out for the secures," it had said. "Large."
"Albert E," Aviv said uneasily. "I think we should get out of here. I don't know who these guys are that are coming our way but I don't think I want to find out, either."
"Expedience would probably be prudent," Albert E concurred.
Aviv ducked into the trees and found a screen of bushes to hide behind, and not a moment too soon. "Wow!" Aviv let out a low whistle. "It looks like a giant is blowing snot bubbles."
"Those are air cars," Albert E reported.
Four large spores-like bubbles descended into the clearing. They hovered over the ground and a slit appeared into the side of each one. Two of the largest, most brutish creatures Aviv had ever seen emerged from each one. The creatures slogged through the fungoid ground cover, away from the spores, which continued to hover. "They look like Godzilla!" Aviv whispered to Albert E. "Are they reptilian?"
"No," Albert E replied after a moment. "They are humanoid."
"Well they're the ugliest humanoids I've ever seen," Aviv stated.
The newcomers tromped around the clearing, leaving thick depressions in the fungus where they walked, their lizard-like eyes peering unblinkingly in every direction. A shiver of fear ran down Aviv's spine just from looking at them, and he instinctively knew that he did not want to end up in their hands. Two of them knelt down and scrutinized the spot where his ship had been eaten. They ran their fingers over the ground, and Aviv found himself hoping the fungus would eat them too.
He didn't notice the other two creatures until they were almost upon him. They had circled around and come up from behind him, as though they knew he was there. Just in time, Aviv heard the squnch of their footsteps. He drew out his sting gun, took aim, and fired.
The brutish figures continued to walk toward him, and Aviv fired again, certain that he had missed the first time. The aliens drew closer and closer and Aviv tensed to run. He had to have hit them, there was no way he could miss a target that big at such a short range. His gun must not be working properly, just like everything else in his spaceship. One of the aliens lunged and reached out an arm that was as big as a tree trunk, clamping a gloved hand on Aviv's shoulder and wrenching it painfully.
Then, with a massive groan, the alien keeled over onto the ground with an earth-shaking thud. His companion also keeled over and they lay in a stunned heap.
"I did hit them," Aviv muttered.
"Yes. They are so large that it takes a while for the sting to take effect," the computer agreed.
They had drawn the attention of the other aliens who turned to look at them. One drew a weapon of some kind and fired. Aviv felt a blaze of pain searing through his leg. He aimed his sting gun and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. "It's drained! Aviv muttered. In desperation he tried to run, but his leg wouldn't move. It just wobbled and throbbed painfully. The aliens fired their weapons and ran toward him, their heavy footsteps shaking the ground. They were lousy shots, their beams struck harmlessly at the trees around Aviv. He looked wildly around for something, anything he could use to defend himself. His good foot struck one of the fallen aliens and he noticed the alien's weapon was just out of his reach. Dragging his useless foot he crawled to just within reach of the weapon and grabbed it. Barely taking time to aim, he fired. The brutes kept coming, unfazed. Cursing, Aviv looked at a switch on the handle and with his thumb, switched to what he hoped was a higher setting, moving the lever as far as it would go. He fired again, and this time they all keeled over, falling to the ground with thunderous crashes.
Aviv surveyed his handiwork, his heart thudding in his chest. His leg throbbed angrily. He bent his head to look and grimaced at the ugly burn that snaked down the length of his thigh. His shoulder hurt too where the alien had grabbed it. He reached for the radio at his belt. "Albert E, we've got to try to get a hold of our mysterious friends!" At least he hoped they were friends. Looking at the unconscious bodies around him, he figured that they had to be friendlier than this bunch. He pulled the radio up and then groaned. It had been destroyed by the same blast that had injured his leg.
"Great! What do we do now?" A sudden thought struck him. "Albert E, are you okay?"
"I am fine, Aviv."
Aviv heaved a sigh of relief. At least his computer had not been injured. Aviv kicked at the tree in front of him and moved out to examine one of the fallen bodies. It was breathing peacefully, a slight sneer on its face.
Aviv fumbled for the medical kit and ran the scanner over his throbbing leg. "It was some kind of phased energy bolt," Albert E said helpfully.
"No kidding!" Aviv snapped.
"It appears to have injured your muscles. You'll need a crutch or something to walk."
Aviv injected some painkiller into the wounded area and then looked around for a suitable crutch. Using his good arm, he took his knife and cut a small branch off one of the nearby trees. "That will have to do," he said through clenched teeth. The painkiller did not seem to work very well.
One of the aliens at his feet stirred. Aviv frowned and shot him again. "Maybe that will keep them out a little longer," he sniffed.
"I think it would be a good idea to get away from this place before they wake up," Albert E suggested.
Aviv nodded. "Yeah, let's get the heck out of here." Leaning heavily on his crutch, he hobbled through the trees, trying to put as much distance between himself and the aliens as possible. The spongy substance underneath his feet made walking difficult. Every time he put his crutch down, it got stuck and he had to pull it out, with a wet, gloppy noise each time. Still he plodded onward. His unknown friends, if they were indeed friends, would just have to look for him.