QSFer Fletcher DeLancey has a new FF sci fi book out, book seven in her Chronicles of Alsea series: Resilience.
As the first Alsean to serve aboard a Protectorate warship, Rahel Sayana thought her empathic sense would be an advantage. She never imagined it could be a weakness.
Captain Ekatya Serrado has her hands full with a new empathic officer, an attempted murder, and a missing cargo ship. Finding the lost ship only adds to her problems: its crew lies dead amid signs of alien predators. When those signs appear on her own ship, she must find a solution or face a similar fate.
The clock is ticking, but Ekatya has a resource she never had before. Rahel’s weakness is also her strength, and she will stand between danger.
Ekatya watched the red dots on the holographic model of the Tutnukenhovering above the table. Lieutenant Kitt was on the bridge, working to break into the computer and download the captain’s and navigation logs. One security officer watched over her. The rest of the team had split into two groups of three to search for the ship’s crew.
“This section still has environmental controls,” Korelonn reported. His team’s three dots had crossed into the engine room. “But not gravity.”
“That’s strange.” Zeppy caught Ekatya’s eye. “That means it wasn’t a power loss to the section. It was something that specifically targeted the gravity plating.”
“Lieutenant,” a security officer said. “I’ve got blood.”
“Blood as in, someone scraped their hand on equipment? Or blood as in—oh.” Korelonn’s video feed now showed the same thing his teammate’s did: perfectly round globules floating through the air.
“That’s a lot of blood,” Dr. Wells said. “Those aren’t droplets, they’re blobs. You need consistent flow to get something that size. You’re looking for someone with a punctured artery or major vein.”
“So, dead?” Korelonn asked.
“Unless they got immediate help from someone who knows how to seal a bleeder.”
“You could have just said ‘yes,’ Doctor,” Ekatya murmured.
Dr. Wells glanced over. “Do you want accuracy or not?”
“I think what the doc meant was ‘probably.’” Commander Cox looked far too pleased.
“The chief surgeonmeant what she said,” Dr. Wells said curtly. “That ship has a medic on the crew manifest. If whoever lost that much blood got to the medic in time, you’re not looking for a corpse. But you do need to be looking in their medbay.”
“Not necessary, Doctor.” Korelonn had rounded a bank of carbon dioxide scrubbers reaching from the deck to the ceiling. Floating behind them was a man in brown coveralls. At least, Ekatya thought it was a man based on the body shape. Given the condition of the head and neck, it was hard to tell.
Cox leaned forward. “That doesn’t look like any weapon I’m familiar with.”
“I don’t think it was a weapon.” Korelonn held up his light, this time set to the laser pointer. The bright green point settled on an area of the ravaged neck that showed—
“Are those teethmarks?” Cox blurted.
“Lieutenant, please focus in on that,” Dr. Wells said.
The helmet cam zoomed in, filling the display with a gruesomely close look at melted and torn flesh. The wound was so deep that the severed ends of veins and arteries were visible, as well as a gleam that Ekatya thought might be the trachea.
“A little tooclose,” Shigeo muttered. He looked slightly green.
Ekatya checked to see how their newest officer was handling this. Rahel was intent on the display, her face showing nothing but curiosity.
“That does look like teeth marks around the edges,” Wells concluded. “But from small teeth.”
“From whatever crawled out of those crates?” Korelonn asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine. The melted tissues—that’s consistent with a highly potent acid. What I find interesting is the lack of blood in the wound. In zero gravity, the blood would adhere to itself and the surrounding tissues. What’s floating was jettisoned under pressure. Once that pressure ran out—” She pressed her lips together in thought. “The most obvious reason would be that it was removed.”
Kade Jalta appeared nearly as green as Shigeo. “You’re saying something with small, sharp teeth tore open his neck and drank the blood?”
“Can we see his face, please?” Wells frowned and pushed her head forward, as if trying to get a closer view. “What the Hades isthat? It looks like some kind of glue.” She sat back, shaking her head. “If that’s impermeable to air movement, he would have been unconscious in a few minutes and dead in a few more, even without the blood loss.”
The dead man’s face was hidden beneath splatters of a pearlescent whitish substance. One spread across his eyes; another covered most of his lower face. His mouth was wide open but still sealed, as if he had tried desperately to breathe through the slime.
Ekatya took a deep breath in unconscious reaction, imagining what it would have been like to have both nostrils and mouth sealed off. Her skin crawled at the thought.
“Captain, I’d like to autopsy this man,” Dr. Wells said.
“Absolutely not,” Cox snapped. “The risk is—”
“Mine to decide.” Ekatya shot him a hard look.
He snapped his mouth shut with a flash of irritation, then took a visible breath as Ekatya stared him down. “My apologies, Captain. It’s my opinion that the risk is far too great to bring anything aboard from that ship. Especially when we have no idea what did that. It could be inside him, for all we know.”
“Which is my point,” Wells said in an exasperated tone. “We won’t know anything until I can autopsy the victim. If there’s anything inside him, level ten isolation procedures will keep it there. Just like it does for highly contagious diseases.”
Next to her, Rahel frowned across the table at Cox, clearly unimpressed with his assumption of authority. Ekatya was too, but she had already slapped him down and besides, she agreed with him.
“I understand your position, Dr. Wells, but at this point in time, there’s no pressing reason to take the risk. Lieutenant Korelonn, tie off that body so it doesn’t drift and mark the location. We might want to come back for it. See if you can locate any of the other crew members. But the moment Lieutenant Kitt is done with her download, I want you all back here. Let’s get answers from those logs before we go poking into any more dark corners.”
“Yes, Captain.” Korelonn’s camera pulled back and his gloved hands were immediately busy in the frame, hooking a length of cable through the dead man’s belt.
Cox leaned back in his chair with a triumphant expression but had the sense to keep his mouth shut.
“Captain,” Wells began.
“I hope you’re not going to ask me to reconsider.”
“No. I understand you’re putting the safety of this crew first.” She pointed at the display. “But whatever did that is nothing we’ve seen before. If I can’t autopsy the body here, I’d like to do it over there. They have a medbay, and an envirosuit is the equivalent of level ten isolation anyway.”
“Not if something with sharp teeth tears open your suit,” Cox said. “Or melts it with acid.”
Rahel did not move, but her eyes spoke volumes. Ekatya had a feeling that if she approved Wells’s request, she’d have to approve intensive envirosuit training for Rahel as well.
“I’ll take your request under advisement. Let’s see if the logs tell us anything first. Lieutenant Kitt?”
“I’m through the main security wall and into the navigation logs,” Kitt said without waiting for the question. “The captain’s logs will take a little longer.”
“Thank you. Sorry to add more to your list, but we’d like the medical logs as well.”
“No problem, those are under the same level of security as the nav logs.”
Kitt was as good as her word, reporting both the nav and medical logs downloaded five minutes later. While she worked on the captain’s logs, Korelonn’s group went to the medbay and found a second victim on a bed, also with the asphyxiating goo sealing her eyes, nose, and mouth. But her throat was intact.
“Bizarre.” Kade Jalta had gotten over her initial horror and was showing the curiosity that Ekatya expected from her chief of science. “This makes me think we’re looking at a predator that uses asphyxiation to neutralize prey. Which would make the throat wound a means of consuming it. So why not consume this one? Did it get interrupted? Was it storing the food until later?”
“Could have been an opportunistic kill,” Lokomorra suggested.
“Um…” Rahel cleared her throat nervously. “What if it’s not about prey? What if that’s a defensive measure?”
Everyone looked at the image on display. The woman’s mouth was open as wide as the man’s had been, a vivid sign of her panicked final moments.
“Defensive measures that kill?” Jalta said thoughtfully. “It’s not the norm, but it does happen. You think we’re looking at a prey species, rather than a predator?”
Rahel glanced at Ekatya, who nodded. “You’re a senior officer, First Guard. That gives you a voice here.”
“Thank you. I, um, I don’t know what kinds of things are out here, but in Wildwind Bay we have a fish species that can squirt mucus from glands on its body. It clogs up the predator’s gills, and the fish gets away while the predator is trying to get rid of the mucus. Fishing crews hate it because if they catch it by accident, it contaminates their nets and turns their decks into a slippery mess. This just…” She waved at the display. “Reminds me of it.”
“That might tie in with the holes we saw in the crates,” Dr. Wells said. “This species could produce different compounds for different purposes. Acid, to dissolve certain objects, and mucus, to plug others.”
“This is total speculation,” Cox began.
“Captain Serrado?” Lieutenant Kitt’s voice interrupted. “I have all the logs.”
“Excellent. Lieutenant Korelonn, get your team together and come home. Maximum decon protocols.”
No other crew members had been found, though there had not been sufficient time to check every room of the ship. Nor was there any sign of the creatures that had killed at least two crew and probably more. Ekatya had more questions than answers, a state of affairs she hated.
She didn’t breathe easily until the shuttle had cleared the cargo ship and was safely on its way back to the Phoenix.
Fletcher DeLancey is an Oregon expatriate who left her beloved state when she met a Portuguese woman and had to choose between home and heart. She chose heart. Now she lives in the sunny Algarve, learning the birds and plants and trying every Portuguese dish she can get her hands on. (There are many. It’s going to take a while.)
She is best known for her science fiction/fantasy series Chronicles of Alsea, which has so far collected an Independent Publisher’s Award (2017 bronze medal), a Golden Crown Literary Society Award, a Rainbow Award, and been shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award.
Fletcher believes that women need far more representation in science fiction and fantasy, and takes great pleasure in writing complex tales with strong, believable women heading up the action. Her day is made every time another reader says, “I didn’t think I liked science fiction, but then I read yours.”