Chapter One

 

 

 

Operation: Snow Eclipse

Planet: Frebu

Star System: Anu Het, Outer Spiral

 

Agent Lilline Renault ignored the shadow slinking along the ice cave wall. She tore a strip off the dead guide’s hyperchromium snow jacket and threw it onto the fledgling fire. Blood-stained fabric snapped and crackled, struggling to ignite.

     “I know you’re there,” she said, huddling close to the orange flames. The blaster holster at her hip shifted as she knelt deeper to tend the kindling.

     Hot fabric sizzled and popped. Jagged shafts flashed into existence in the fissure sheltering her from the storm. Lilline gazed at the fire’s reflections. Narrow spindles danced in rhythmic patterns on the glacial ice. Whatever she’d seen a moment earlier had vanished.

     “Yuk!” She coughed, the stench of volatile chemicals singing her nostrils. As if in riposte to the human intrusion, the cavern sent her voice bouncing back.

     At least the smell of burning fabric wasn’t as nauseating as the stink of the Dendari guide’s entrails. Those lay a kilometer back on the treeless white expanse, spilled out in oozing yellow and crimson streaks from their face-down and soon-to-be frozen corpse. The hairy bipedal species native to Frebu thought her an easy mark, a foolish academic with no idea of the dangers that accompanied the illicit smuggling of rare gems and minerals. Her wrist-action blade had told the fanged and bulbous-eyed opportunist otherwise, penetrating all three layers of protective clothing to gut its furry hide in a single swipe.

     Lilline had left the guide naked, sprawled out like a blemish on white skin. She’d stopped a short distance uphill in the snowy void to view the scene. Under the shadow of Frebu’s towering glacier, staring at the mess of blood and organs, a line of verse had bubbled up. She’d tweaked and refined it on the march to the temporary shelter until it fit into a poetic box.

 

                                   A chef in the kitchen,

                                   bowl of stew too heavy.

                                   Across a white-tiled floor,

                                   see them teeter, totter.

                                   Slip, slip, slip, splash and slide.

                                   Crash and bang!

                                   It spills under belly.

 

“Total crap,” she said and tossed another strip of the jacket into the flames. Shadows cast on the rippling ice grew as the fabric caught. Nothing besides the fire’s reflection danced in a steady rhythm, yet she knew that the lurker remained in the cave, unseen. Call it occupational intuition or a human’s sixth sense. Either way, another presence shared the haven of the icy refuge.

     The poem didn’t improve her mood. She’d done it again. A septet stanza with five lines of hexameter syllabic verse broken with one trimeter line. Derivative. Embarrassingly so. A classic parody of Den-shi. All her poems sounded like Den-shi. The editors who sent rejections said it. The friends she read them to said it.

     “You need to find your voice,” her peers in the poetry group repeated, ad nauseam. “Let go. You’re trying so hard it shows.”

     Of course, she was trying. And how dare they? It’s not like they’d found their poetic voices. Those amateurs spouted out trite musings while hiding behind flashy meter and rhyme. Their poems were as superficial and predictable as the trendy media entertainment churned out by companies like Oui-tech, Paragon, and Gonzo Games. Fast-paced distractions that dazzled audiences for a season, maybe two, before slipping away to be forgotten when the next shiny and amusing diversion whet consumers’ appetites. Every galactic cycle an industry broadcast, game, or book of poems had a meteoritic rise in popularity that passed like a shooting star’s brief but attention-turning flash in the night sky. How many people could recite a poem by any of those whose names and faces were streamed on tech-boards and projected through the commercial channels and public spaces in the galactic commons?

     So, her poetry sounded like Den-shi. Weren’t you supposed to emulate the greats when learning the craft? None rivaled the degree of worship attained by the contemporary master of words. Den-shi, that anonymous poet whose populist verse tantalized the eyes and ears of billions going on forty cycles. The one literary star that fell from the sky of fame and fortune without losing poetic brilliance. A voice to emulate indeed.

     “Yours will come in time, Lilli,” Granny Kissy told her again and again. Lilline wasn’t sure. She was starting to—

Movement on the cavern wall drew her eyes. The rogue shadow reappeared among the flickering reflections of firelight.

     The poetic self-critique would have to wait.

     With performed nonchalance, Lilline tore more strips off the jacket and added one to the flames. It ignited, the warm glow sending a wave of heat over her cold cheeks and lips. She lifted an arm and covered her nose as toxic smoke belched from the fire.

     “I don’t know who you are,” she said, between hacking, “but I imagine you must be as screwed as me out here tonight.”

     Lilline lowered the hood on her jacket and kneeled closer to the flames. She blew to encourage the growing fire. Just enough additional oxygen to boost the starter sticks so they glowed long into the cold Frebu night. Too much and she’d collapse the fragile stack and smother them. If that happened, she was done for, like the Dendari guide lying dead out in the snow.

     Too bad about that. She liked playing a professor of mineralogy obsessed with rare gems. It made for amusing personality quirks, and the diatribes about extraordinary geological occurrences and alluring, yet-to-be uncovered precious stones had made for challenging exercises in memorization. They’d also helped fill the uncomfortable silence on the trek across the tundra from where the two landed the Hyler Explorer Pod. Not that she sought anything related to gems or minerals at the coordinates programmed into her handheld comm-sat. On the contrary, she was after something more valuable: information.

     It would have been entertaining to keep up the performance but with the guide out of the picture, Lilline could go back to being herself. Whoever that was.

Like a vampire gazing in a mirror, her identity cast no reflection. She could see it in her mind: the database ID bar blinking red in an error code. No wonder she couldn’t find her poetic voice.

     “Don’t want to talk?” she asked, without turning.

     No response.

     Fine.

     Lilline leaned in and blew to encourage the growing flames. With the starter sticks glowing hot, the smoke rose higher, trailing up and away along the ceiling into the glacier’s deeper interior reaches. Across from her on the ripples of blue ice, the mystery shadow lingered still.

She glanced at the pile of clothes next to her to gain a wider peripheral view. Nothing appeared in her field of vision to that side. The unknown visitor had to be behind her. Her hands sifted through the red and white fabric on the icy floor. Most of the Dendari’s jacket was left to burn, as well as their heavy snow pants and undergarments. If she were prudent with the portions, it should last through the night.

     A strand of shoulder-length black hair dropped in front of her face and dangled close to the flames. She pulled off a glove and tucked it behind the wedge of brown skin over her right ear. The tress fell off. Lilline repeated the gesture in practiced response, pushing the hairs down into the seam over the canal’s opening.

Five cycles since the Bukki tiger had taken that ear on Hesh-9 with a near-fatal bite to the head. She knew it would be easier to cut her hair short. Everyone back at HQ had been telling her so. That alone was enough to keep her from chopping it off.

     Still no response or sound of movement behind her. Only the gusting winds slamming into the glacier’s sheer face. The gales hit the ice wall like a giant’s fisted blows against city buildings on far-off planets where less foolish citizens lived safe and routine lives.

     That had never been Lilline’s road. Her small taste of the mundane after graduating mandatory schooling was more rank than the smoky stink rising from the fire. Even the Dendari’s entrails didn’t come close to her disgust of ordinary life with a chipped identity, registered name, and twenty days of paid vacation meant to cover the burden of existence on an annual cycle.

     She much preferred anonymity and license to deceive, bypass galactic law, and when the opportunity allowed, kill. Assassination wasn’t murder when its purpose saved lives, not according to her employer’s ethical philosophy. Her role was to be a piece on the board. She did what she needed, when she needed, to do the job. The greater good had no idea how hard she worked to keep them safe.

      A gentle crunch behind her interrupted the tempest’s pugilistic blows. Lilline drew her blaster and held it up by her side.

     “We really going to do this? If you’re here for the Starex crystals I hate to disappoint you, but you’ve followed a set of tracks to a dead end.”

Another crunch. Judging by the shadow’s height across the fire, she guessed whoever or whatever it was made its way prone. That would be smart. On a quick turn, a shooter would expect to confront a standing figure. Except that the reflection gave them away.

Amateur.

     “I’m really tired, chump.” She grabbed another strip of the jacket and tossed it into the flames.

     “And frustrated,” she whispered. If the Dendari guide hadn’t smashed her portable comm-sat unit with a boot kick in their struggle, it wouldn’t be an issue. Because of their lame attempt to subdue her and access bogus map coordinates leading to a non-existent horde of Starex crystals, it was.

     Idiot.

     All night in this cavern tending the fire and then she’d have to walk out far enough from the ice wall to send a location pulse before trekking back to the Hyler. That meant calculating the bounce-back trajectory to and from orbit which required math. Difficult math.

Applied mathematics was a nuisance in the field. Calculations slowed you down or got you killed. Worse, advice based on numbers wreaked of analysts who sat with their noses in statistics and so-called protocols. They had no idea of what it took to survive in the chaos of the galactic fray.

Pure mathematics was another story. A special kind of beauty and freedom of discovery lay in abstract numerics. That field of study shared a kinship with Lilline’s weapon of choice: intuition. She kept it loaded with rounds of well-honed instinct.

     Right now, her rational, equational mind was screaming out to turn around. Intuition told her not to… not yet.

For over ten cycles on the job, Lilline’s abstract impulses hadn’t failed her. Well, except for the time with the Bukki tiger but there were mitigating circumstances to that one. Namely, an opponent with better instincts.

     Pop!

Compressed gas in the burning fabric sent a flash of light through the cave. The urge to turn and shoot lost out to discipline. She remained motionless; blaster raised at her side. Cold metal stung her trigger finger as she pressed down onto curved steel, readying to fire.

     Crack!

     The flames spit out another burst of light. A whoosh of air passed her missing ear. The shadow expanded, casting a blanket of darkness over the wall. Lilline rose to a knee and aimed the blaster. The mystery intruder landed on the cave floor. Its shadow diminished to a life-size replica.

     “I almost shot you,” she said and tossed the weapon onto the ice. Shivering fingers pulled off her other glove. She lifted both hands to the fire, rubbing them together to get the blood flowing. Her steamy breaths pulsed in waves inside the frigid cave. “I’ve read about you,” she said. A rush of cold air from the storm shot through the cavern’s narrow opening, fluttering the flames. “Don’t blame you for coming in.”

     The owl paced back and forth, wings expanded, casting an angelic shadow. Lilline made out the distinct gray circle on its snowy white breast common to the species riding the glacier’s edge, the Ice Ranger. It was thought that the owl’s pattern mimicked Frebu’s solitary moon, Eroton.

     Another part of the job she enjoyed. Learning vital facts that might save your life undercover, rendered useless after the completion of a mission. Except for dinner parties and cocktail receptions where trivia and small talk led to charming party successes or one-night stands. Lilline didn’t do social, not off the clock, but she was a master of conversation on the job. Sex was another matter and she had different tactics that avoided lengthy chatter and chase. Intuition, as it turned out, was much better than logic for that enigmatic social game.

     “Well,” she said, watching the owl fold its wings and strut back and forth. The familiar sound of crunching snow returned as it strode across the icy floor. “If you’re willing to share a fire with a secret agent who can’t find her poetic voice, be my guest.” Lilline threw what was left of the Dendari’s jacket into the flames.

     Screw it.

     She lay back on the cave floor. Plumes of smoke rose to the ceiling as the large swath caught fire, casting firelight onto blue ripples. Her brown eyes followed the spiraling streams as they bounced off the ice and snaked deeper into the cavern. Where the narrow interior passage led, she didn’t intend to find out. There were creatures more dangerous and deadly than a Bukki tiger in Frebu’s glacial labyrinths.

     She’d ride out the night here in relative safety at the cavern’s entrance and get back to the Hyler at dawn.

Without remote navigation equipment or visible tracks after the night’s storms blew the snowy tundra clean it wouldn’t be easy. It never was. In her twelve cycles as a field agent, she’d never completed a mission without at least one hiccup.

     That didn’t matter, not tonight, nor tomorrow morning. Her priority was to send out a signal at first light. HQ didn’t appreciate radio silence.

     The information she sought eluded her, yet again. With no Dendari guide and the comm-sat crushed and broken, her chances of reaching the coordinates marking the source of the signals were near impossible. Not to mention the risk of injuring herself in a solo climb up the glacier that might leave her immobilized and stranded. Dendaris were experts at arctic climbing. Their bulbous eyes contained a natural layer of enhanced UV filters that gave them specialized vision for spotting soft and hard snow and ice. That, along with centuries of knowledge on how to read Frebu’s mercurial weather patterns, made them essential for exploration in its remote polar regions.

     She shifted an arm onto her belly. Fingertips stung with cold as they came to rest on the silver belt buckle containing her emergency backup pulser. The crude piece of equipment afforded her no more than a general ping to a satellite connecting to Yutu SS orbiting along Frebu’s equator. That hub networked to the Anu Het system mainframe and channeled back to a GAM-OPs sub-station four star systems away. The pulse wasn’t a rescue call, only a “still alive” update and “track me please, if you can.” Out here, with the planetary angle at the southern pole, even that possibility was doubtful.

     She ran her fingertips over the buckle’s edge and stared at the reflections of firelight on the cavern’s ceiling. Lying on the hard floor, her soft and steady caress of steel sanded the edges of the howling gales pounding the glacier. It was the same rhythmic motion she used to calm Hiko. Light cycles away and part of what felt like another lifetime, the cunning feline she’d befriended outside her Domus-unit on Tavi-Prime had taken no time at all to warm to her. Lilline pictured the Nok-cat’s yellow eyes glittering between flashes of red and blue air traffic lights on the wet pavement in the alley. Standing in her pajamas, plate in one hand and utensil in the other per usual dinner routine, she’d coaxed him closer with bits of her quick-meal. It had taken less than a week to have him on her lap and enjoying the same ebb and flow strokes she ran over the buckle at her waist.

     As much as she preferred petting Hiko’s silky coat to stroking cold steel, seeing the Nok-cat meant she was off the clock. Nothing was worse than being grounded. Out in the field, she had action and excitement, frustration, and obstacles to overcome, the allure of disguise, and the rush of danger. Most important of all, it offered poetic inspiration.

     Life on Tavi-Prime entailed sedentary work at HQ. That consisted of administrative tortures and nagging superiors. Her Domus-unit provided neither retreat nor refuge, only a mirror’s empty reflection amplified to a silent scream. Unless she turned up with some intel worth sharing soon on Operation Snow Eclipse, she’d be back to quick-meals and snuggle time with Hiko. Four expeditions to out-of-the-way star systems seeking answers. So far, a mysterious rise in radio-wave frequencies on remote planets had yielded nothing solid.

     She’d insisted on Frebu to her superiors as the last possibility. Her evidence was a thin pulse, a final thread in a trail of fraying links based more on conjecture than hard proof. Call it half desperation to succeed and half a desire to avoid being grounded, but she had a hunch. That wasn’t something that Lauden, her boss back at HQ, liked to bet on.

     And this time the kismet knife twisted deeper. Fate was going all-in to convince her this was a wild goose chase.

Lilline lifted her hand from the belt buckle and splayed her arm out next to her, fingers finding the handle of her blaster. She took the weapon in her grip, the cold metal of the trigger re-introducing itself to her index finger.

Maybe she was following a false lead. Lauden was itching for an excuse to sentence her to a boring, run-of-the-mill GAM-OPS post somewhere in the labyrinthine sub-levels of headquarters on Tavi-Prime. Ordinary wasn’t an option. A desk job? Lilline would rather walk into a Frebu whiteout than return empty-handed on this one and face down that future. Despite what the chorus of naysayers at HQ declared, something was happening across the galactic commons. Lilline had been in the spy business long enough to know when something was worth the push and the pursuit.

     If she was proud of one thing, it was her tenacity. She’d gotten that in her hereditary line from the most famous agent ever to grace the stage in the espionage game of galactic cat and mouse. For over ten cycles, Lilline had carried the familial torch well. Not anywhere near the legendary status of her Granny Kissy, but enough to become the go-to operative for top priority missions. Younger recruits might be quicker and stronger than her these days, but she was relentless. That made the wins, when they came, more substantial and satisfying. And memorable.

Uncovering imminent danger to humanity and solving the puzzle of how to stop it was what built the reputation of GAM-OPS. For hundreds of cycles the covert organization had kept the commons running with civility, avoiding innumerable threats and disasters. GAM-OPS had lived up to its acronym: a galactic agency maintaining order, peace, and security for a diverse range of species across hundreds of star systems.

     When and if this current mystery reared its ugly head, Lauden and the other bigwigs at HQ would thank themselves for her tenacity. She might even get a sculpture outside the Octagonal Club to pair with Granny Kissy’s. Heck, maybe they’d put a Den-shi poem on her plaque. Or, one of her own compositions. Wouldn’t that be something?

     Tonight, however, Lilline would take what she could get: shelter, a fire, and as Frebu fate would have it, an owl as a companion. After today’s turn of events, that suited her just fine.

     She stretched her legs out on the ice and settled in for the long, cold night. The flames burned bright, chewing up the hyperchromium jacket. So, she’d be uncomfortable. It wouldn’t be her first rough night in the field.

     Through tired eyes, the trail of rising smoke blurred. The howling chorus dulled to a haunting, distant lull. She battled closing eyelids as flickering firelight played visual tricks on the fissure’s ceiling. Despite her best effort, the world went dark.

     The problem was, she hadn’t yet closed her eyes.

 

Lilline flipped onto her belly and aimed the blaster in a two-handed grip. With practiced precision, her finger released the safety and switched on the infrared barrel light. Triangular green beams shot across the cavern. She scanned the weapon left and right, searching for a heat signature.

     Squawk!

     Out of the dark behind her came the familiar whoosh of flapping wings. The glitching form of the Ice Ranger passed through the IR’s rays. The bird banked hard into the cavern’s narrow exit and vanished. A second screech echoed as it rode the howling winds of Frebu’s nightly storm.

     “Who are you?” Lilline shouted, warm breath pulsing white static into the IR field. She shifted around, staying prone, and scanned the interior. Her grip tightened, trigger finger ready. The beam passed over the pile of hyperchromium clothes and across the cavern to—

     “What the?”

     She aimed the blaster back at the stack of starter sticks and what remained of the Dendari’s jacket. No more than a faint outline indicated a clump of physical objects on the icy floor. Her breath continued to interrupt the IR beam with white light. No malfunction. The blaster’s scope was working but the fire was out and left no traces of residual heat.

     “Not good,” she whispered.

     Is it chemical? Or worse, radiation?

     The slow creep of fear sent a chill up her spine.

     Training took over. With disciplined cycles of inhalations and exhalations, she steadied her breathing. To wield her favorite weapon, she needed clarity and calm.

     The pounding in her chest softened. Lilline narrowed her eyes and stared down the barrel of the blaster. You’re mine. And when I—

     A sound pricked up her ears. Underneath the gale’s mighty blows pelting the glacier, a humming rose. Vibrations rattled her stomach, thighs, and toes inside her snowsuit and boots. Deep and low, a sonorous presence lurked.

Lilline lowered her head to the frosty surface. She ignored the burning cold of ice against her skin where the Bukki tiger had taken the earlobe and listened.

     It’s coming in waves.

     The anomaly rose and fell, like a pulse. She wouldn’t call it mechanical, but it didn’t sound like anything natural, either. The odd thing was, she felt it as much as she heard it.

     The signal wouldn’t land. Like a pod circling in dense fog at a docking port, it sought the runway lights – or in this case, a linguistic destination. The problem was she didn’t have one. More than that, Lilline’s whole system – mind, body, even her “sixth sense” – told her this was beyond a deficiency in vocabulary.

     It’s a connection… and it’s abstract.

     She lifted her head from the floor and scanned the walls a second time. Something flashed into view to her right.       She swung around, aiming the blaster across the extinguished pile of fabric and starter sticks.

     “Who’s there?”

     Nothing shone in the beam’s light.

     “I know you’re out there!”

     A flicker of movement disturbed the IR field. She directed the weapon at it and caught sight of a long, thin shadow before it vanished.

     The vibration in the ice grew intense, rattling her as if a mild electric shock ran through her body.

     She searched the walls in vain.

     “Sh-sh-ow yo-yourself,” she said.

     With a crunch, her ears popped. Her skin pulled against flesh and bone. Streams of vertical cracks appeared in the blue ice like a 360-degree mirror shattering. A symphony of buckling echoes bounced through the cavern.

     Oh no…

     Inward pressure squeezed her organs and muscles. She gasped for breath. Her heart thumped like a giant drum, sending an alarm pounding through her body.

     The blaster dropped from her hands. Her skull screamed with pain.

     The cave began to fade from view.

     Boom!

     A flash of light turned everything white.

     In the momentary blindness, she felt the pressure release.

     Lilline coughed and gulped in breaths, lying flat on her belly. Her ears picked up the crackling of the fire. She confirmed it burning steadily though blurry vision a few feet to her side. Nothing other than the howling gales outside competed with the sound of the flames.

     Instinct, her primary weapon, made its long-anticipated entrance. That mysterious human awareness stepped up and tapped on her psychic shoulder.

     Look up, it said.

     Even prone, Lilline’s stomach dropped.

     Something was on the ceiling.

     She weighed options in the time frame of a single heartbeat: Stay still or dash for the entrance? The latter would be the logical thing to do. The voices of analysts during basic training rang in her ears: “When an unknown threat poses a risk, and they have the higher ground…”

     Lilline thought of the jacket she’d thrown onto the fire, ignoring prudence. And reason.

     Screw it.

     She grabbed the blaster, rolled over, and aimed it up at the fissure.

     Her instinct had been right. And wrong. Something was there but it wasn’t on the ceiling. It was in it.