Paradise 21 ONLY
$5.99

a New Dawn novel by Aubrie Dionne

Aries has lived her entire life aboard mankind’s last hope, the New Dawn, a spaceship traveling toward a planet where humanity can begin anew—a planet that won’t be reached in Aries’ lifetime. As one of the last genetically desirable women in the universe, she must marry her designated genetic match and produce the next generation for this centuries-long voyage.

But Aries has other plans.

When her desperate escape from the New Dawn strands her on a desert planet, Aries discovers the rumors about pirates—humans who escaped Earth before its demise—are true. Handsome, genetically imperfect Striker possesses the freedom Aries envies, and the two connect on a level she never thought possible. But pursued by her match from above and hunted by the planet’s native inhabitants, Aries quickly learns her freedom will come at a hefty price.

The life of the man she loves.

 

Information:

Title: Paradise 21 (A New Dawn, #1)
Author: Aubrie Dionne
Genre: Sci-Fi Romance
Length: 248 pages
Release Date: August 2011
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-937044-02-2
Print ISBN: 978-1-937044-03-9

 
 

Pricing is not guaranteed

 
 
 

Excerpt:

© 2011 Aubrie Dionne

Chapter One

Descent

 

Aries sped through space in her escape pod as if she fled the event horizon of a dying star. The controls blinked warnings around her, but she ignored them, pressing the touchscreen to fire the engines to full capacity.

Let’s see how fast this antique can go.

Her sweaty palms slipped on the cold metal as she clutched the restraining bar across her seat. Freedom intoxicated her, coursing through her veins like she drank liquid fire.

She squeezed her eyes shut and screamed, releasing raging emotions held back from years of conforming and keeping her true thoughts silent. Many times Aries had thought her head would implode from the pressure, but instead she’d schemed, plotting the day of her departure down to the last water bottle. As the sound of her voice dissipated, she opened her eyes and peered at the stars as they blurred into streaks of shimmering light.

The time flashed on the screen in fluorescent green: 1638. Aries committed the numbers to memory. She’d have at least three hours before the ceremony and reception ended and her fellow Lifers began searching for her. Her shipmates would check her cell first, then activate the locator embedded in her arm. When they realized she’d jumped ship, they’d stop the engines and count the escape pods. By then, Aries would be a parsec away from the New Dawn.

Maybe they wouldn’t come. Giddiness bubbled in her throat with the thought of the ship coursing away without her, but she knew better. They’d turned the New Dawn around before, and knowing Lieutenant Barliss, he’d have it no other way. Not only was he a high-ranking officer, but she was his chosen mate, scheduled to be bound to him in ceremony next month. Her escape would prevent Barliss from passing on their combined genetic code. There was no doubt that a man who followed the Guide to the letter would come after the woman whose DNA he needed.

The orange bulk of Sahara 354 claimed the horizon on the main sight panel. Aries soaked in the sight of the small, forgotten planet, like the first time she’d seen pictures of old Earth. Although the conditions of life on Sahara 354 were reportedly bleak, to Aries it looked like a haven. Blue and red lights flashed on the panel in front of her, warning her of the change in trajectory as the pod entered the planet’s gravitational pull. Aries shut off the thrusters and allowed the vessel to sail into orbit. She glided in space, using the pod’s sensors to complete a full scan of the surface, searching for signs of resources or life. Although she had enough food and water for days, they’d only delay an inevitable death if she couldn’t find further sustenance.

Time ticked away, seconds she knew she couldn’t waste. The New Dawn traveled much faster than an escape pod, and she needed time to fake her own death and disappear. The vast wasteland stretching before her only had small pockets of water and plant life. If she didn’t choose her landing spot wisely, she’d be plummeting to a real demise.

The sight panel for the exterior cameras beeped, letting her know the pod now glided close enough to visualize the surface. Aries drew up the suggested location with the tip of her finger. The screen displayed a smear of sand cut with jagged protrusions of rock, but the life-form locator told her more. A conglomeration of several beings inhabited the area, and not mere insects or microscopic fungi: human-sized creatures. She dismissed the thought of Outlanders; the New Dawn had traveled too far, too fast, for any straggling humans to have made it to this planet ahead of her. Whatever form the creatures took, if they could survive down there, then so could she.

Aries triple-checked her readings before entering the coordinates. She wasn’t going to make the same mistake as the last escapee. She blocked a vision of Tria’s grotesquely dehydrated skin from her thoughts. Her friend had made a run for a different planet without testing it for compatibility. In Tria’s mad rush to get away, she’d landed on a barren rock with a vacuum atmosphere that had sucked her lungs dry in seconds. The New Dawn had gone all the way back to find a corpse.

With a nervous touch on the control panel, Aries retested the quality of the atmosphere, the pull of gravity, and the radiation levels. Scouts had explored the territory centuries before astrophysicists had fused together the first chrome plates of the New Dawn. Their historical readings had proven accurate for other planets, but Aries still verified the findings for herself. The 354th known desert planet ranked close enough to Earth. Not adequate to sustain a large population or major colonization effort, but adequate to keep a 120-pound woman alive.

Taking a deep breath, she punched in the coordinates. The panels went wild, compiling the information. The computer estimated a new trajectory, and she turned on the thrusters once again. The engines rumbled, pounding deep within her stomach.

The inside of the pod rattled. Lifers never used or maintained the flight pods, so she felt lucky the one she’d chosen worked at all. Would the metal skin on this pod hold together as she entered an alien atmosphere?  She could either take the risk, or circle this planet until the New Dawn came back to get her–the New Dawn with Lieutenant Barliss aboard. Holding her breath, Aries activated the final landing sequence. Even if the descent killed her, she’d rather perish on an alien planet than complete her ceremonial obligations.

The restraining bar of her chair shook violently, and she lost feeling in her arms. The air boiled in the small compartment, and her face burned. If she didn’t disintegrate, then her head would burst from the pressure. Tears flicked backward from her eyes while she held on, gritting her teeth. An alarm sounded, reminding her to release the parachute. She tried to move, but the force of gravity glued her hand to the armrest, stretching her skin taut. After counting to three, she took a breath and grunted as she yanked her arm up and pressed the touchscreen, hoping the chute would work.

A bright flash of light blinded her, and splotches exploded under her eyelids. The pod hit the ground, and her world went black.

*****

Disappointment weighed down Lieutenant Astor Barliss’ shoulders as each member of the congregation filed in. No one knew the whereabouts of his intended. After the first speaker took the stand, Barliss’ displeasure turned into astonishment at her absence. She played the game meticulously, like he did, appearing at all the events, performing her job at optimum capacity and sitting in the first pew of the congregation without deviation. How could she miss the pairing of Commander Gearhardt’s great-granddaughter with the general’s son? An anxious dread settled in his chest as he wondered what conclusions they’d draw about him and his own, absent bride-to-be.

Stars glittered on the sight panels around them as the ship sped toward Paradise 21. Even an important ceremony such as this wouldn’t slow or hinder their optimum flight speed. The speaker’s voice echoed off the glass, resonating throughout the domed chamber. Barliss focused on the preprogrammed flickering of the candles on the altar, something that could be controlled, instead of the vast unknown stretching in all directions.

The ceremony drew out until he felt like a wound coil waiting to spring. The close proximity of the congregation stifled him―too many people to keep tabs on, too many to control at once. As the couple recited their final vows, he breathed a sigh of relief, eager to stand up and move around the room, ready to talk to the right people and make the right impressions. After the usual applause, everyone rose and gravitated toward the trays of food.

Smoothing one stray hair into the gelled-back hairstyle he wore perfectly, Barliss pushed through the congregation. The throng of bodies cluttered the main deck, each one carrying a delicate champagne glass with bubbling liquid, vintage stuff from old Earth. If it were any other day, he’d allow himself one glass for appearances, but the absence of his intended from such an important occasion made him sick to his stomach.

As Barliss worked through the crowd, he dodged stray comments from his lower officers, ducked underneath a tray of miniature breaded zucchinis, and cut through the couple’s extended family, all to give his formal congratulations to the bride and groom. The digital numbers on his wristband accumulated, but he knew better than to leave a ceremony without giving his well wishes. Especially this one. To gain favor with the higher command would put him in a position of advancement. It was all part of the political game, the single sport he excelled at. Only after paying his respects could he start looking for his intended.

“Lieutenant, it’s always a pleasure to see you.” A man in a white tuxedo broke through the crowd to cuff his shoulder. Barliss gauged the timing of the line. Another ten people waited before him to pay their respects, so he could spare a moment for his old friend.

“Gerald, I trust you’re doing well with your new bride. How long’s it been? A month?”

“Seems like five years to me.” He chuckled, but darkness tinged the corners of his eyes. “How can computers be wrong, eh?” He downed his glass of champagne in one desperate gulp. “You have your own ceremony coming up soon, right?”

“Yes, I do.” Barliss stifled his excitement, straightening his collar so his gold lapel pin caught just the right amount of light, and the New Dawn’s insignia of a seventeenth-century ship cutting through water rested above his right bicep.

“How you ever got paired with such a beauty…” Gerald trailed off as his own designated life partner came up and clutched his arm.

Barliss sized her up. Thick makeup covered her ruddy complexion, but nothing could cure her limp brown hair and bony nose. No matter how she stuffed the dress, the front would never be filled out in the right places. Not well enough for Barliss’ taste, anyway. Her beady eyes always had reminded him of the bats in the loading bay.

“Hello, Tilda.”

“Lieutenant Barliss, you look stellar today.”

Barliss’ eyebrows rose, questioning her appraisal. He made it a point to look stellar every day. He didn’t spend fifteen hours a week weight training for fun and games. “So do you, Tilda, my dear,” he lied, playing the game.

She giggled and squeezed Gerald’s arm.

Gerald winced as if she’d grasped him too tightly. Tilda waved to someone in the crowd and placed a wet kiss on her husband’s cheek, smearing her lipstick before slinking away. Gerald gave her a little wave and turned back to Barliss. “Like I said, you’re the lucky one.”

The compliment was not entirely welcome. Too much attention to his pairing might raise suspicions. Aries embodied beauty itself. With hair like old Earth’s sunset, unblemished skin, and curves in all the perfect places, Aries was a prize. Not only that, but her parents reigned as the top two astrophysicists on the New Dawn. Barliss’ mouth watered just thinking of all the connections he’d attain. He bowed to Gerald. “My apologies. I must take my leave to give my respects to the new couple.”

“Of course, my friend.” Gerald saluted him by waving the champagne glass in his hand. Drips flung across the room and Barliss stepped to the side swiftly, careful not to get any on his pristine, white, ceremonial uniform.

Gerald called over his shoulder. “I’ll be seeing you at the celebration after-party, correct?”

Barliss nodded, but his eyes strayed. “If I can get back to the main deck in time, yes.”

It took forever for the line to move forward. Everyone inched over to talk with him concerning his own impending ceremony, asking embarrassing questions about his intended’s absence. He reached the end of the receiving line, feeling like a schoolboy who’d forgotten to bring his homework. Damn Aries for this humiliation.

“Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Byron Locke. You two make quite the outstanding pair.”

“Thank you. Lieutenant Barliss, is it?” The way his name fell off the bride’s tongue made him feel like an inconsequential fly. He resisted the urge to squeeze her hand too tightly as she offered it, instead kissing it properly before letting go.

“Yes, appointed five years ago by your great-grandfather, himself.”

She scanned the crowd behind him, already losing interest. Barliss scrambled to find a topic to prolong the conversation, to make himself memorable and perhaps win a meeting with the commander.

“Such a lovely ceremony–”

“You’re the one paired with Aries Ryder, aren’t you?”

He fidgeted with his lapel pin, as if hailing Aries now would make her appear. “That’s correct.”

“Where is she? I was so looking forward to seeing her today. She was my mentor, you know. She did everything she could to help me prepare for my engineering exams.”

“She’s…” He paused, loosening his collar. “Not well.”

The new Mrs. Locke’s face turned cold. “She’s never missed a day of work in her life.”

“Like I said, she’s not well.” His answer came out more curtly than he intended. Mrs. Locke stepped back as if he’d hit her and wrapped her fingers around her new husband’s arm. Mr. Locke whispered something in her ear. She gave the lieutenant a brusque nod and turned away.

The next pair of guests pushed by him to greet the bride and groom, and his opportunity slipped away. Damn it! This was all Aries’ fault. Frustration boiled inside him like hot mercury. Throughout the whole ceremony, all he’d been able to think of was the future, a future he’d carefully engineered through many years of slippery politics and hard work, a future that granted him Aries as his intended. He had to find her to put her in her place, to remind her being his partner came with certain obligations.

Barliss quietly walked out of the main hall, then picked up the pace, sprinting down the main entry shaft to the personal cells at the rear of the ship. The corridors had an eerie stillness to them, as if the commander had evacuated the vessel and Barliss was the last one left to roam the decks, eternally alone.

Of course, his imagination sped on hyperdrive. Everyone was here, clustered on the main deck, attending the ceremony as dictated in the Guide. Everyone except Aries. Barliss’ worry turned to anger, hardening like crushed steel inside his stomach. She’d better have a good reason for her absence. As his future partner, she’d stained both their reputations.

He reached her cell in a record amount of time, his ten-mile morning runs paying off. He pressed the hailing panel and waited for a response.

The corridor lay as silent as deep space. He buzzed again.

“Miss Ryder, this is Lieutenant Barliss. Are you well?”

He shifted his stance to lean against the door, as if he could hear through the thick, chrome wall. Except for the ever-present hum of the lights, silence insulted his ears. He looked at his wristwatch: 1638. The ceremony had started just after 1500 hours, so she’d been missing for almost two hours.

He pressed his lapel pin, paging the main control deck, tapping his foot as he waited. It took long moments for someone to answer. Everyone was enjoying themselves at the reception.

“Yes, Lieutenant.”

“Activate Aries Ryder’s locator immediately and inform the commander. She’s been missing for two hours.”

“Affirmative.”

He buzzed the door again, wishing he’d taken the time to talk with her at breakfast instead of strengthening ties with the upper command. She’d seemed distant these past few weeks, shoving her food in her mouth to avoid talking. Their meals together ended quickly. Barliss had been thankful for the silence at the time. After all, a woman’s frivolous banter didn’t interest him.

“Sir.” The lower officer’s voice startled Barliss from his musings. He didn’t like the tone of voice or the pause at the end.

“What is it?”

“Her locator. It’s not onboard.”

“How can that be?” Barliss’ tone questioned the subordinate’s capacity.

“Either she’s taken it off and ejected it, or gone with it, but in any case, it’s not onboard.”

Those final words resonated in Barliss’ head, and he fell back against the chrome wall, stunned.

“Why didn’t the alarm sound?”

“I don’t know, sir. She must have tampered with the energy cell.”

Barliss narrowed his eyes “Well, turn it back on. Try a different frequency. Have someone check the escape pods.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m not finished.” His voice snapped on the last syllable like a rubber band. He hadn’t suspected Aries had been scheming to escape, because she embodied the epitome of civility, apologizing for her silence during their meals and blaming her distraction on an accumulation of work. She’d taken up that hot chick Tria’s workload―too bad that one had been stupid enough to get herself killed.

He adjusted his collar, struggling to keep his tone even. “Notify the commander. We’re going to have to reverse direction.”

Chapter Two

Life-Forms

Aries awoke to flashing lights and smoke. A wailing siren sounded in her ear, each surge aching in her head. Coughing, she pushed a panel to bring up the screen, but the panels remained blank. Trying to control a jolt of panic, she unbuckled the belt across her stomach and heaved herself up, feeling like a supply container was sitting on her chest. She gasped in dismay as she ran her fingers across a jagged crack slicing the main control board in two pieces. The impact had destroyed the mainframe processor, ruining the escape pod.

She’d known the landing would destroy the pod, but that didn’t quell a feeling of vulnerability from washing through her. Aries had stranded herself in a foreign land with no way home. The thought of her parents and the ceremony she’d missed in order to escape flickered briefly in her mind. If her friends and family ever found out what she did, she hoped they would forgive her. To live her life for them would make her miserable; she had to invent her own destiny.

Laughter rumbled up from her gut, light at first, then deepening into triumph. She was free. Halfway stuck in a dune on Sahara 354 was exactly where she wanted to be.

A new light blinked beside her, distracting her from the condition of the pod. Aries brought up her arm to check out the locator. A light on the wide cuff flashed bright green, and she wished she could rip it off. Someone in the New Dawn had found a way to reactivate it.

The pod’s display had died, but Aries checked the time on the locator itself: 1721. She’d been unconscious for only a few minutes, but still long enough for the locator to complete at least one cycle of transmission.

If they’d remotely activated it, they knew she was missing. The signal had obviously penetrated deep space, although she’d hoped it wouldn’t. The ship would have the exact coordinates of the escape pod’s landing. That’s how they’d found Tria. Besides, Sahara 354 was the only planet in light years that had any signs of life. Barliss knew her well enough to guess she’d planned ahead.

Aries pulled the energy cell out and the flashing stopped. The crash coordinates had been sent, but at least no more would go out as she explored her new home planet. She dropped the energy cell on the dashboard and watched it rattle to a halt underneath the cracked glass of the sight panel. If she left it there, they’d know she’d taken it out. It would be better if she brought the energy cell with her and reactivated the locator when she found a life-endangering situation, like quicksand. If she found a way to remove the whole device without tearing off a chunk of her arm, she could throw it in, and they’d have to assume her body had gone with it. They’d stop looking for her once their retrieval machine pulled it out.

Aries shoved the energy cell in her pocket and grabbed the backpack she’d spent months filling with all the right supplies. She hit the pod’s manual eject button, and the lid of the craft popped open, smoking and wheezing.

The heat hit her in a tidal wave. She gasped for breath, thinking of poor Tria. The air scorched Aries’ lungs, and she waited for her skin to crinkle or her body to burst. She squeezed her eyes shut to brace for the worst, but she remained conscious. Each intake of breath burned like fire, but then again, she’d only ever breathed regulated air. She had to trust the historical reports. The atmosphere on Sahara 354, although parched, must be adequate.

As the hatch lifted, blinding sun poured in like a thousand laser rays, blazing into her pale skin. She’d read about the sun on Earth and had felt the flames of a lighter on her fingertips, but she’d never experienced such a rush of raw elements. The radiating light infused her with awe, as if a higher power touched her directly.

Shielding her eyes, she peered at the sky, a canvas of cerulean and gold. She’d always wondered what it would be like to stand in an atmosphere. It provided a sense of protection in a blanket spreading above her head, shielding her from the harsh elements of deep space. At the same time, the world felt open and endless compared to the claustrophobic corridors of the New Dawn.

Aries stepped out of her broken pod, and orange sand stained her pristine space boots. Her white uniform ruffled in the breeze. Thank the Guide, she had long sleeves covering her arms from the burning sun. The light microfiber repelled heat. As her eyes adjusted to the bright glare, she could make out the plateau of rock from the image on the viewing screen. The pod had landed exactly where she’d told it to. Now all she had to do was get as far away as possible, find a place to ditch her locator, and hide.

After one last look at the steaming wreckage, she secured the clasps on her pack and took the first steps forward. Her boots sank into the ground as if lead lined the soles. Trudging through the sand was cumbersome compared to bouncing along the metal walkways of the New Dawn in light gravity. She felt like a toddler again, flailing her arms as she learned how to balance and stand. Although the increase in gravity and uneven terrain made her body work harder, the stretching of her muscles felt good and oddly natural, as if she’d missed a certain pleasure all her life.

Drunk on freedom, she trekked on. A brutal wind hit her face, sending sand particles in her eyes and mouth. Aries coughed and spit on the ground. Her tongue stuck in her mouth like sandpaper.

As a little girl, she’d stood in front of the ventilator, feeling her hair fan out as the air had rushed past the back of her neck. The natural wind on Sahara 354 blew much stronger, a violent force beyond man’s control. Being exposed made her feel weak and vulnerable, but also excited.

She dug in her backpack, found her water bottle, and took a swig of mineral water, trying to get her bearings and adjust to the new levels of gravity and temperature. Her eyes stung and her skin burned, but she was free. Bracing herself against the gale, she ripped off a piece of her uniform and tied it around her nose and mouth. Thank goodness she’d cut her hair to shoulder length. Barliss had fought against the new style, until she’d fooled him into thinking she wanted to make the change so the upper command would take her more seriously, to move up the ranks with him. Only then had he allowed her to chop it off.

The wind swirled mini tornadoes in the sand, erasing her tracks. The pod glinted as a silver spot on the horizon. She’d walked far, but the monotonous terrain provided nowhere to hide. Miles and miles of craggy ridges surrounded her, sand heaped in drifts nearly up to their peaks. A look at her water rations told her she was draining her supply faster than she’d planned.

The sun set, just as a new sun rose on the horizon behind her. Perpetual sunlight. She remembered reading about it when she’d targeted this forsaken place, but only now did she understand the relentless heat. How could she hide in the blazing light of eternal day?

Aries grew angry with herself for not planning her landing better. The New Dawn would come and the search crews would find her easily with their scanners. She was the only life-form for miles around. She desperately needed to find those human-sized beings and hide among them. Then, maybe she’d have a chance of being overlooked.

Aries dug a hand-held device out of her backpack and clicked it on. The glare of the sun reflected off the plastic screen, making it impossible to read. Sitting in the sizzling sand, she took out her sleeping bag and unraveled the fabric. She draped the cloth over her shoulders like a cape and leaned her head over the mini computer. With her arms outstretched, she shut out the majority of bright light.

The readings didn’t make sense. Perhaps the landing had damaged the scanner. The device registered several life-forms approaching, the first only meters away.

Aries poked her head out of her makeshift cover and saw only endless dunes of sand shifting under the gusting wind. She consulted the device again and got the same readings, only now the fluorescent dots crowded closer, surrounding her in a circle. The blinking lights on the screen were spaced with perfect symmetry. She gulped down bile. Whoever they were, they were hunting her and closing in.

She searched the hazy horizon and saw nothing. Crazily, she thought of ghosts, specters from a failed colonization attempt, but of course, ghosts wouldn’t register as breathing life-forms on her scanner. Fingers shaking, she packed up her sleeping bag and the device. She cursed herself for not bringing any weapons. Why had she thought the only bad guys were on her ship?

At least she had her pocketknife, something she often used to rewire circuit boards. She switched open the blade and held it out in front of her. It felt like a miniscule defense compared to such a vast land.

“Hello?” Her voice broke on the word, and fear twisted its way up her spine. “Is anyone out there?”

The wind ripped through Aries, sending another wave of grit into her face. Before she could clear her eyes, the sand exploded around her, as if bombs erupted at her feet. Human-shaped beings leaped from holes in the ground. They wore layers of rough hides on their bodies and wrapped around their heads. Carved bones with slits covered their eyes. They towered over her, pointing spears at her neck and ribs.

Aries clutched the knife. The blade shook in her grasp. “I mean you no harm.”

The creatures jabbed their spears at her nose.

“I’m just trying to get away from my ship…”

One creature stepped forward. Two stubby horns protruded from the animal hide around his head. He hissed, a primitive, insect-like sound cutting through Aries’ inner ear. Her hope for intellectual communication dwindled. She gazed into the bones covering their eyes, half of her not wanting to know what kind of eyes stared at her, but the slits were too narrow to see through.

The others echoed the apparent leader’s hiss as if in affirmation of their intended quarry, and adrenaline shot through her limbs. Iridescent scales covered their bodies, shimmering vermillion in the sun. The urge to run bubbled up inside her as she eyed the sharp tips of their spears. Three-pronged claws grasped the weapons. One of them lunged, and she backed right into another. It threw its skinny arms around her and squeezed.

Aries dropped her knife. She thrashed and screamed, kicking her legs, but the creature only held her tighter. The others, however, rather than attacking her, rummaged through her pack, so Aries gave up her energy-sapping struggle. Fighting would achieve nothing, only make her too tired to run if the chance came up. They pillaged her belongings and tossed aside important survival gear like trash. So much planning…spilled into the sand. One creature stepped on her only water locating device, cracking the screen and kicking sand over the circuits. Another ripped her sleeping bag open. Feathers fell to the ground, white on orange sand, as if the creatures had shot a bird from the heavens. Their comrades danced on top of the discarded items and thrust their spears in the air in excitement.

“Stop, you lizard bastards!” Now she would die of hunger and thirst in the middle of a desert, her perfectly packed bag stolen by primitive lizard men. Maybe Tria had had it easy.

The creatures didn’t let her go. They signaled to each other in strange swings of their heads and tugged her forward. Aries struggled as she watched the first few disappear into the tunnels underneath the sand. The rest dragged her with them.

“No, no, no.” She felt like she was stuck in some twisted bedtime story with a moral to scare small children:  never run away from home.

A high-pitched squeal erupted from the dunes behind them. The creatures froze, then hissed in unison, but this time there was urgency to the sound, a sense of alarm. Twisting their necks at an impossible angle, they peered behind Aries to the dunes. Aries followed their gaze. She focused her eyes until her head hurt. The desert moved on the horizon, a ripple in an ocean of crimson-orange waves.

Not wanting to find out what was causing that disturbance on the horizon, Aires took advantage of the distraction and elbowed the creature holding her. He flew backward, landing on his tail in the sand. Although his wiry body consisted of lean muscle, she outweighed him, so the power of the impact left him stunned. She braced herself for another fight, but his comrades scurried into the tunnels.

She looked around for her pack, but they’d taken it. Before she could decide whether to follow them to steal it back, the ground opened next to the fallen creature. A mound of glittering scales unfurled before her like a giant spring. Choking on a stench that reminded her of the waste depository, she stared as a worm the size of a ventilator shaft rose above her head, casting an ominous shadow on the land.

The lizard creature clawed the earth in an attempt to get away, but the worm lunged, opening its mouth. Ridges of serrated teeth lined the pink, muscular opening. Its mouth clamped down on the lizard-creature’s torso. The worm lifted its head, bringing him upward to the sky. The lizard man waved his thin arms and dropped his spear before the jaws loosened and the worm swallowed him whole.

Aries watched, transfixed. The bristles protruding from each scale on the worm’s long throat flexed as the lizard man’s body traveled down.

Run, you fool.

Her legs shook and buckled underneath her. Aries scrambled down a drift of sand. She tumbled, head over boots, and rolled down a steep incline. Sand was everywhere, in her mouth, in her hair, and she couldn’t tell which direction she’d come from. Behind her, she heard the now-familiar squeal of the sandworm, so she scrambled ahead, sprinting blindly in the opposite direction of the call. The sun beat down on her, mocking her feeble plight as she spent her last ounce of energy.

Gazing fearfully over her shoulder, Aries searched the sand mounds for movement, but the landscape remained placid. Why wasn’t the worm following her? Was it taking a shortcut underneath her feet?

She wasn’t going to take any chances. Aries regained her feet and staggered until the sand dunes ran together in an endless tide, until she collapsed, disoriented and dehydrated. She opened her mouth to gasp in air, and her lips cracked, letting trickles of blood seep into the sand. As she closed her eyes, precious beads of sweat evaporated instantly from her forehead.

At least I died free.

Chapter Three

Striker

 

Striker shielded his eyes and crouched near the sand, listening to the wind. As the only human on this godforsaken planet, he’d learned in the past five years to rely on his other senses when the sandstorms obscured his vision. He sniffed the tangy scent of minerals in the air. A spring of underground water rippled through a vein in the earth. Reaching into his backpack with calloused hands, he drew out a long metal stick and thrust it into the ground. He waited, perfectly still, while the rod sank down and the wind whipped his long, black cloak behind him.

When he pulled out the rod, moist sand crusted the tip. He wiped the end on his palm and smoothed the granules between his fingertips. After a moment’s consideration, he untied the wrap around his mouth and tested the taste of the wet sand on his tongue.

Today the stars were on his side. Placing his backpack down, he began to untie the knot holding his shovel.

A call sounded across the dunes like the wail of a suffering banshee, rousing him from his fortune. Sandworm.

“Damn. Not now.” Weighing his options, he calculated the proximity and direction of the sandworm. It wouldn’t be worth the risk to stay and dig.

He squinted at the horizon. Large packs of raiders attracted sandworms. He wondered what had drawn their attention, but curiosity in this case could mean death in a sandworm’s stomach.

Turning away, he collected his belongings and prepared for the hike home. He’d slid halfway down the dune when a familiar sound sailed on the wind. He froze in mid-step, the sand collapsing around his high boots. Not much fazed him these days, but this call stirred emotions he’d long buried. It was a sound he hadn’t heard in years:  a human scream.

“Damn it to hell.” He had no choice. Humans were damned scarce in the universe, unable to live on most planets. They’d wrecked old Earth centuries ago and had existed ever since in space, floating around in giant colony ships or clustered on the few hospitable rocks they’d stumbled across. To hear another human’s voice on this desert planet was more than he could have hoped to encounter. Pulling his hood around his face, he grabbed his water-seeking rod, clutching it with both hands as a weapon, and bolted in the direction of the scream.

He could hear the hiss of the raiders on the other side of the dune, wheezing like a dozen steam pipes. Swallowing his disgust, he crawled up the incline of rippling sand until he peered over the ridge. There was a sandworm, all right. A big one. Raiders were fleeing like ants into their tunnels. The scene was everything Striker should be running from, with one unavoidable reason to stay:  a young woman, staring up at the hairy beast like a princess in an evil fairy tale.

He couldn’t yell to her, because he knew better than to distract a sandworm while it devoured a meal. Before he could think of another way to get her attention, the woman suddenly sprang into motion, sprinting away. As she disappeared over the adjacent ridge, Striker followed, making sure to give the sandworm a large berth.

His caution wasn’t enough. The pounding of his boots in the sand roused the beast from its digestion. It stiffened as if it felt the vibrations, raising its head and turning toward Striker. He froze in place, squeezing his palms around his metal rod.

“Come on, you sucker.” He’d never come this close to one before, but he had a plan. He always had a plan.

The worm plunged into the sand. It charged at him like a shark cutting through water, the sand shifting above its path in heaping mounds.

There was no sense in running. Not now. He’d seen the worms overpower the raiders, and their skinny lizard legs could sprint far faster than any man’s. He held up the rod and waited.

Just as he’d expected, the worm reemerged four feet away, bursting through the sand with its jaws open, ready to swallow its prey whole. The beasts had excellent distance judgment but weren’t one hundred percent accurate. As it snapped its jaws shut on nothing but air, Striker drew his arm backward, then threw the rod at its hide.

To his satisfaction, the pointed end of the stick pierced the outer layer. He’d only seen them from afar and had been guessing at the thickness of the hairy skin. He ran toward the worm, grasped the end of the rod, and pushed it in harder, applying his weight.

The worm flailed in the sky above his head, letting out a high-pitched screech. The rod stayed lodged in its throat as Striker let go, falling to the sand as the beast teetered over him. He rolled on his side and came to his feet as the worm lunged in the direction of his attack, its open mouth gulping for air.

He dived toward it and pulled out his rod, calculating another strike. The sandworm retreated, disappearing into the hole. Before he could attack again, it tunneled through the deep sand, stirring up dust and leaving a foul stench in its wake.

Striker shook his head and let the adrenalin ride through his body until it dispersed. It felt good to finally stab one of the monsters. Triumph soared in his chest, yet he reminded himself he might not be as lucky next time.

Had the young woman made it out in time? He hoped the raiders hadn’t caught her. If they’d found her, there’d be no hope of rescue. At least not by his one-man show.

Securing the metal rod to his pack, he raced in the direction he’d last seen her.

*****

Barliss’ anger radiated off his body like rays from a newborn sun. Underneath his lieutenant’s hat, the gel on his sleek, blond hair practically melted. He clenched his teeth together until his jaw hurt and watched out of the main sight panel on the bridge as the New Dawn entered the atmosphere of Sahara 354.

His fiancée’s attentions had all been a charade. He, of all people, should have known. There’d been so many mornings of coy smiles over coffee and afternoon walks on the starboard viewing decks. She’d played the game like an expert craftsman, so well she’d led them all to believe she was the model Lifer, the woman others looked up to, and the perfect future mate.

Barliss felt cheated. He hadn’t spent years of doing favors and manipulating the system for a runaway bride. She was a key part of his plans for his future, and he wasn’t going to let her get away.

Barliss’ collar buzzed. He cleared his throat and pressed his lapel pin. “Yes.”

“We’ve located the last coordinates of the escape pod, sir. The commander is preparing the search and rescue crews. He’s put you in charge of the first landing party.”

“Excellent. I’ll be down on the landing decks shortly.”

Barliss moved to shut off the communication but the subordinate’s voice came on again, full of kindness and sympathy.  “And, sir, I like to offer my deepest apologies. I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding.”

“It’s none of your business,” Barliss growled. “Just do your job and let me do mine.”

There was a moment of silence before the young man replied, his voice empty of emotion. “Yes, sir.”

Barliss switched off his lapel pin so hard, he pinched the skin of his fingers. He changed into his camouflaged combat uniform, then sleeked back his wavy hair and rubbed a radiation-blocking lotion into the hard ridges of his face. He packed his laser gun, a tracking device, and an ultrasonic tranquilizer ray, setting the power to optimum. He stormed out of his room and headed for the docking bay.

The members of the search and rescue team had already belted themselves in their seats on the retrieval vessel when Barliss arrived on the loading dock. A hoverchair, with a white head poking out from its top, buzzed near the operations tower. Commander Gearhardt himself was surveying the operation. Panic and excitement rose in Barliss’ throat, and he swallowed it down. Sequestered in the control console for months on end, the commander rarely attended functions. The task of unplugging the various tubes and wires connecting his brain to the mainframe computer took two hours and three medics.

Barliss approached the wispy-haired man in reverence, trying not to stare at his hoverchair or the tiny input holes drilled into his forehead. His skin looked as thin as rice paper and as white as a bride’s dress. The man was of the third generation, the grandchild of the founding colonizers.

“Commander Gearhardt.” Barliss bowed so low, his lips could have kissed the floor. “My thanks for your help in this matter.”

The commander gestured for him to rise. “My dear, loyal Lieutenant Barliss. You have worked diligently these past months, and you will be rewarded. You do not deserve to suffer from another’s transgressions.”

Barliss stifled a smile, attempting to look modest. Finally, some recognition and assurance this awful turn of events wasn’t his fault. These sentiments, coming from the commander, of all people, made him feel as though he’d graduated into sainthood.

The commander reached forward from his chair to put a veined hand on Barliss’ shoulder. “This is the second one in a year, Lieutenant. Their impulsive, self-destructive actions trouble me. We’re going to have to take extra caution in the future. We’re losing too much of our gene pool.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll see to that personally.”

“I’m sure you will.” The commander’s thin lips pulled in a wiry smile. Barliss feared the ancient man’s fragile skin would tear.

“Thank you, Commander. I won’t rest until she’s found.”

The commander pulled a tiny lever near his wrist, and the hoverchair turned. “I’ve given you the best men the New Dawn has produced. I’ll be watching your progress.”

“I hope you do, Commander.” Barliss waited until the hoverchair disappeared in the elevator shaft before he walked up the ramp to board the small retrieval vessel. The crew members watched him with anxious eyes, some with fear stretched taut in their faces. For many of them, this was the first time in their lives they’d left the ship. It was like severing an umbilical cord. Barliss relished in their weaknesses, feeding off their dread.

He smoothed his uniform and addressed the team, projecting his voice as far as he could, making it echo in the far reaches of the hull. “My fellow Lifers, we are the keepers of humanity’s history and the preservers of its future. We transport the last remnants of a once great and mighty civilization. Our cargo is integral to the survival of our species. We carry our memories, our technologies and, most importantly, our genetic code.”

Barliss watched their faces, gauging their reactions. He’d struck a vital chord with his words. Some of the men’s fear had turned to anger and determination. Resolution shined in their eyes.

Barliss continued, delivering the pitch that would send them searching like a cleaning droid after a puddle of milk. “Aries Ryder’s disappearance threatens the success of our mission. With an ever-dwindling gene pool, we cannot carry on the diversity of our species. Whole genetic strands will be lost. Our mission is to locate Aries Ryder, and I want her alive and well.” He stared them down. “You have my permission to shoot anything that gets in your way.”

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