The Prologue to Question Zero (Predator Space Chronicles VI). Coming in June!

The draft prologue to Question Zero (Predator Space Chronicles VI).  Let me know what you think.  This page will be up till the book is published.

Best,

Craig

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Prologue

“It looks like the broken end of the Galaxy,” Amir Tarkos whispered.  He shook his head in consternation.  As one of the only humans in the Harmonizer Corp, he had seen many strange things during his years as a warrior defending all life in the Galactic Alliance.  But somehow the Galaxy never stopped surprising him.pHis partner and commander, the bear-like Sussurat he called Bria, huffed in agreement.  They sat side by side in the cockpit of their ship, a predator cruiser.  The view out of the front made them both stare in amazement:  the cluster of ships before them could constitute an armada, if only the ships were spaceworthy.

 

Their cruiser had come into orbit above the Shroudworld, a huge rocky planet orbiting a bit close to its small g-class star.  Before them rose the pinnacle station of a space elevator towering from a vast island in a blue sea on the planet’s equator.  But a thick cluster of ships, tethered together in a spiky mass, hid the terminus station of the elevator.  It looked to Tarkos like a frayed beehive left at the top of a tree after being abandoned years before.  Of course, that made him wonder if any of the ships could still sting.

 

He turned the magnification up, and the view revealed a conglomeration ancient and huge:  massive structures arranged in no discernible pattern, a veritable penrose tiling of mad shapes incongruously thrust together.  And when he turned the magnification even higher, he had to catch his breath.

 

“There are ships of every kind,” he said.  Next to him, his commander Bria blinked in agreement.  They could see ancient gray Kirt ships, crystal Neelee ships, tissue-thin Rinneret ships, and encrusted old OnUnAn ships.  It seemed that sentient beings from every race in the galaxy had abandoned a ship here, at some time.

 

“Wait,” Tarkos said, pushing a finger against the window before them.  “Is that… that ship looks like a spacegnasher.  An Ulltrian ship.”

 

“Yessss,” Bria said.

 

Tarkos shook his head.  “Even some Ulltrians have come to this planet and stayed.  Why?  Why would all these ships be here?”

 

“Plot course,” Bria said, always eager to push Tarkos back onto their task at hand.

 

“Aye, Commander,” Tarkos said with mock solemnity.  “Only, how the hell do you get through that?”

 

“Find entrance.”

 

Tarkos plotted a close turn around the cluster of ships, hoping to find some gap in it.  There had to be some way to get to the terminus station, so that they could begin their negotiations with the gatekeepers for the planet below.

 

They found the entrance on the far side of the cluster, a few degrees to the planetward side of the sphere.  A gap in the agglomeration of tethered ships left a tunnel a kilomeasure in diameter that led toward the elevator’s pinnacle.  Bria took the controls, and they dove into the dark.  The cruiser’s computer began to chatter, struggling to find a protocol it could share with the transmissions coming from the station ahead.  The computer made a sighing noise in a minute, having found some way to negotiate with the dock.

 

They let the ship guide them in the last few kilomeasures.  Space was clear around the station and the ribbon of the space elevator, so that they had a view of both as they drew near.  The ribbon of the space elevator had three times the width of Earth’s elevator, topped by a terminus station shaped like a disk a kilomeasure in diameter.  Sunlight streamed through the cluster of ships, leaving a dappled pattern of shadow and bright reflections on the station.  Two gray metal doors parted like a mouth on the disk’s side, to let their cruiser enter.  They slipped in slowly, cautious of the nearby walls, and kept an orientation with their ventral hull facing the planet below.  Bria told the ship to extrude its landing gear.  As they neared the deck, electromagnets pulled the ship down.  A gentle clang announced that the landing gear locked down to the deck.

 

Tarkos pulled up a rear view.  The doors of the dock closed behind them, a narrow band of stars and ships shrinking to a sliver and then disappearing.  The doors fit closed with no visible seal, so that behind them now the exit seemed as impenetrable as the other three walls of the dock.  A pale, yellow light suffused the room, emitted from the eight corners of the space.

 

“They’re pumping in atmosphere,” Tarkos said.  “I guess we had better suit up.”

 

Bria huffed and blinked.

 

_____

 

Tarkos and Bria exited the ship wearing their vacuum armor.  Single file, with Bria leading, they pushed off the top of the door frame of the cruiser’s starboard airlock, to force themselves toward the deck.  They floated slowly down in the microgravity.  Electromagnets in their boots locked to the hull when they touched it.  With clanking, halting steps, they walked forward until they stood side by side before the nose of their cruiser.

 

The dock was a narrow room, just large enough for the cruiser to sit with a dozen measures of space on each side.  No doubt, Tarkos thought, this station had docks of many sizes, to allow for differently sized ships.  Still, it impressed him that they pressurized the room.  His suit registered the atmosphere as equal parts nitrogen and oxygen, but with very little carbon dioxide.  Breathable, but he and Bria kept their helmets fixed.

 

A round door before them irised open.  A dark figure loomed in the opening, visible only in silhouette.  It seemed shapeless, mutable.  It stepped over the airlock threshold and into the light.

 

Tarkos had never seen a being of this kind.  He frowned, confused by what he saw.  It had partly translucent skin, so that he could see into it where red blood pulsed through pale organs.  It appeared to be naked, but for a belt around its waist that carried several black pouches.  Rotund and laterally symmetric, it stood on two legs, and had two arms with which it several times touched the floor as it approached.  Tarkos suspected it could move equally well on four or two legs.  It lumbered forward, waddling slightly as it approached, making its flesh jiggle.  It walked as if under gravity, and Tarkos wondered how it managed to keep its feet on the hull.  Two huge eyes, yellow but for a tiny star-shaped iris, gave its flat face a surprised appearance.  The mouth was a slit, proportionally small for the big face, and over that its nose was a long lambda that opened and closed as it breathed laboriously.

 

“Human, Sussurat,” it said, speaking heavily accented Galactic at a high pitch.  It stopped a pace away.  “This atmosphere is suitable for both of your species.”

 

Tarkos looked to his commander.  After a moment, Bria reached up and removed her helmet, a hiss of atmosphere coming from the seals.  Tarkos followed her example.  Bria would not like to expose them to an untested atmosphere, but she must have judged that taking off their helmets would be a required courtesy and show of trust.  She set her helmet on the deck, and sat back on her haunches, her armor clanking against the metal floor.

 

Cold air hit Tarkos in the face as he twisted his helmet off.  He put his helmet under his left arm.  He breathed cautiously.  The air smelled of metal and was very dry.  The creature before them smelled of wet earth and pond water.  Tarkos closed his eyes and let the DNA sequencers in his nose and brain analyze the stray cells that he inhaled.  The result was strange:  this thing before them contained nothing familiar, nothing that he recognized, in its DNA.  This perplexed him.  He flared his nose and breathed deeply, hoping for a better sample, but the result was the same.  How could there be an intelligent species that he, a Harmonizer, had not at least seen in the textbooks and surveys?  And how could there be one with a genetic code so alien to his understanding?

 

“I am the Guide,” the creature said.  “You seek asylum?”

 

“No,” Bria said.

 

The creature looked at her.  “You came in a Neelee ship.  We observe it orbiting our sun, three hundred thousand kilomeasures from this location.  It does not approach.  It is a large ship.  You flee the Neelee?  You seek asylum from the Neelee?”

 

“No,” Bria said.

 

The creature blinked its huge twin eyes.  Their tiny, star-shaped irises seemed to drill into him when the creature looked his way.

 

“You come to test yourself against the truth?”

 

“No,” Bria said.

 

The creature seemed to ripple in frustration.  “All who come to the Shroudworld seek asylum, or the tests of truth.  Why do you come?”

 

Tarkos was relieved when Bria turned and looked at him.  Sometimes she liked to let him do the talking.  Complete sentences always seemed so superfluous to her.  He, on the other hand, had less patience than his partner.  He was glad to talk quickly and to elaborate their point.

 

“We seek to bring a group of five Galactic Alliance citizens to the surface of the Shroudworld,” Tarkos explained.  “We will be two of the five citizens.”

 

“For asylum?” the Guide said.

 

“No,” Tarkos said.  “We want to talk with the Ontonomers.  To ask them some questions.”

 

The creature blinked.  Tarkos found it disconcerting to see the creature’s blood pump through nameless organs as it considered them both.  He could not be sure, but it seemed to Tarkos that its blood surged more quickly when he had said ‘Ontonomers.’

 

“Questions are the test of truth,” the Guide said.  “Therefore you seek tests of truth.  It would be wiser to seek asylum.”  It leaned towards Tarkos and its pupils expanded.  “Human of world Earth, your species will likely be exterminated in the coming war.  You can serve your clade by accepting asylum here, on the Shroudworld.  This would guarantee that one of your kind continued to live.  Here you can live without fear.  Asylum would be preferable, and we offer it to you now.  We would appreciate the opportunity to have in our community the last human.”

 

Tarkos frowned at this.  There were ten billion humans and more on Earth, and a few thousand spread through the Galaxy in service to the Alliance.  It seemed a crass insult to claim they would all die in the war.  But he did not say this.  Instead, he told the strange alien, “Guide, I am here as a member of the Harmonizer Corp, not as a representative of humanity or of the Earth.”

 

The creature stuck out a very long tongue of translucent white flesh and licked first its left eye, then its right eye.  After it pulled the tongue back into its mouth, it said, “The Harmonizers also will likely be destroyed.  We offer asylum to you as a Harmonizer.”

 

Tarkos looked to Bria in exasperation.  Uncharacteristically, Bria rose to help him.

 

“Five citizens,” Bria said.  “Seek talk with Ontonomers.  Then return to Neelee ship.  No asylum.”

 

The Guide looked at Bria now.  “Sussurat,” it said.  “No Sussurat has ever joined the Shroudworld.”

 

Bria flared her nose, approving of this pronouncement by the Guide.  No doubt, Tarkos thought, Bria would have been infuriated to hear claim that any Sussurat had shirked her duty and hid on the strange world below.

 

“Here you could live as your ancestors,” the Guide said.  “Here life is as you would seek to make it.  Would it not be better to hunt in the great forest of the Shroudworld, running after prey, than to die in the cold of space?”

 

Bria tilted her head and showed her teeth.  Tarkos could not help but think of how easily her long dagger fangs could bite through the gelatinous flesh of this strange creature.

 

“Five citizens,” Bria said.  “Seek talk with Ontonomers.  Then return to Neelee ship.”

 

The Guide’s pupils expanded and shrank, pulsing.  “The forests of the Shroudworld are vast.  Prey animals from many of the worlds of the Galaxy live in them.  Often they overbreed.  A Sussurat could find no better hunting grounds.”

 

When Bria did not answer the Guide looked at Tarkos.  “Perhaps it would shame you to join us, with the human watching?  You could kill the human first, if that facilitates consideration.  We could wait while you ate it.”

 

When Bria did not reply, the creature reached to a pouch on its belt.  It pulled out a small black box.  “If you prefer, I could kill the human for you, and then you could eat it.”

 

Bria lowered her nose and hissed.  She said, “Seek permission.  Five citizens.  Go to surface, talk to Ontonomers, return to Neelee ship.”

 

The Guide’s big watery eyes turned to Tarkos.  “You fear the Sussurat?  We can guarantee protection if you seek asylum.  You could survive as a free being on the Shroudworld, where this Sussurat could not harm you.  The Shroudworld is large.  The Harmonizers have no power here.  Or we could kill the Sussurat if you prefer no witness that you sought asylum.”

 

Tarkos wanted to tell the Guide to put the weapon away, whatever it was.  He couldn’t tell if it aimed at his head or Bria’s head.  Most likely it was a laser with internal targeting systems and it now targeted both of them.  It could decapitate them both in a millisecond, if so.

 

Tarkos forced his voice to be calm as he said, “Together we seek permission for five citizens of the Galactic Alliance to take the elevator to the planet surface, where we will seek to ask questions of the Ontonomers, before returning to our ship.”

 

The creature licked its eyes again.  After a long while, it put the black box back into its pouch.  “Understand, it is our law to offer asylum to each visitor.”

 

“Passage?” Bria asked.

 

The Guide shivered.  “Most of us are inclined to grant passage.  But there remain many of us who would prefer to test you further now.  It is interesting to know if perhaps one of you would truly prefer asylum on the Shroudworld.  So we debate.”

 

Tarkos frowned.  How did the creature know what the citizens of the Shroudworld wanted?  It must have implants, and be receiving messages from some representative body of leaders from this strange Shroudworld.  Tarkos’s own implants detected a broad range of signals, a constant background chatter such as you would find in a dense city.  He could see no machinery in the Guide’s translucent flesh, but that meant little.  The gray brain, pulsing behind the clear skull, could have machines buried deep in its opaque folds.

 

“If you come with questions, then it is the test of truth.  I am required to explain the dangers, as the Guide.”

 

“Thank you,” Tarkos said, taking this to be near to granting permission.

 

“The Ontonomers are dangerous,” the Guide said.  “They often keep the heads of visitors, for their gallery of minds.  If you seek asylum, you need not talk to the Ontonomers.”

 

Tarkos and Bria waited in silence.

 

“To get to the Ontonomers, you must cross either the realm of the Mad Machines, or cross the ruins of the Nihilnauts.  Both are dangerous.  But those who choose asylum are permitted entry to the Serene Zones, where there are no dangers.  Asylum would therefore be a safer alternative, once on the planet surface.  Asylum will remain available to you only as long as you are in the Serene Zone.”

 

Bria said, “Seek permission.  Five citizens.  Return after.”

 

The Guide sat back on its shaking, fatty hind parts.  It stuck its tongue into its nose, digging around with noisy slurping sounds.  Then it said.  “Returning visitors are rare.  Most of your party will likely die.”

 

Bria blinked.  “Alliance will not retaliate.”

 

The creature’s two eyes parted ways, so that one fixated on Bria, and the other on Tarkos.  After a long moment of scrutiny, it said.  “Five citizens of the Galactic Alliance will be allowed onto the Shroudworld.  You will be two of those.  No security will be provided.  You may bring weapons but no antimatter.  This synthetic organism will be your guide.”

 

Tarkos nodded, realization dawning.  This Guide had struck him as biologically inscrutable because he had assumed it evolved in one of the known clades.  But it had been manufactured.  A synthetic organism.  He had never seen one so sophisticated-indeed, he had never known of one larger than a microorganism.  The Alliance frowned on the production of any form of artificial sentience.

 

“You may return with your landing group to this dock,” the Guide added.

 

Bria huffed once, loudly, and picked up her helmet.  She walked back to the airlock to the cruiser.

 

“Thank you,” Tarkos said to the Guide.  He followed Bria.  They turned off their magnetic boots and jumped into the airlock together, which only just fit the two of them after its heavy door lowered closed.  They put their helmets back on while the ship cycled out the foreign air and then, after a moment of sustaining a near vacuum, pumped ship air into the small space.  Tarkos called up an exterior ship view on a screen in the airlock, and watched the Guide waddle over to the door it had entered through.  After it lumbered to the other side of the portal, the door irised closed.

 

“Atmospheric pressure dropping outside,” the ship told him.

 

The interior airlock door to the cruiser opened.  Tarkos and Bria stepped through into their ship.  They both took their helmets off.

 

“That was very strange,” Tarkos said.

 

Bria blinked in agreement.

 

“I’m a little insulted that it didn’t ask me if I wanted to eat you.”

 

“Flat teeth,” Bria said, as her armor opened to let her step out.

 

Tarkos reached up and touched the square ends of his molars.  “Omnivores get no respect.”

 

He told his armor to open.  He stepped out of it.  It closed up and followed Bria’s armor, walking to the back of the ship to stow itself.

 

“Well, in any case, I’m glad you didn’t want to kill me and eat me.”

 

“Already ate today,” Bria said, pulling herself toward the cockpit.  “Not hungry.”

 

The story will continue in Question Zero.