Outpost

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DAW BOOKS, Feb 20, 2018 - Fiction - 432 pages
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From the bestselling co-author of the People novels comes a riveting science fiction adventure on a planet with danger around every corner

Donovan is a world of remarkable wealth, a habitable paradise of a planet. It sounds like a dream come true. But Donovan's wealth comes at a price.

When the ship Turalon arrives in orbit, Supervisor Kalico Aguila discovers a failing colony, its government overthrown and the few remaining colonists now gone wild. Donovan offers the chance of a lifetime, one that could leave her the most powerful woman in the solar system. Or dead.

Planetside, Talina Perez is one of three rulers of the Port Authority colony--the only law left in the one remaining town on Donovan. With the Corporate ship demanding answers about the things she's done in the name of survival, Perez could lose everything, including her life.

For Dan Wirth, Donovan is a last chance. A psychopath with a death sentence looming over his head, he can't wait to set foot on Port Authority. He will make one desperate play to grab a piece of the action--no matter who he has to corrupt, murder, or destroy.

Captain Max Taggart has been The Corporation's "go-to" guy when it comes to brutal enforcement. As the situation in Port Authority deteriorates, he'll be faced with tough choices to control the wild Donovanians. Only Talina Perez stands in his way.

Just as matters spiral out of control, a ghost ship, the Freelander, appears in orbit. Missing for two years, she arrives with a crew dead of old age, and reeks of a bizarre death-cult ritual that deters any ship from attempting a return journey. And in the meantime, a brutal killer is stalking all of them, for Donovan plays its own complex and deadly game. The secrets of which are hidden in Talina Perez's very blood.

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1.

An exhausted Talina Perez watched the sunrise on Donovan. They still called it sunrise, even if the "sun" was officially named Capella and lay some thirty light- ears from Earth. This particular morning began as a brilliant spear of light behind the craggy black silhouette of the Blood Mountains. Donovan rotated in the same direction as Earth, so sunrise was still in the east.

Aching with fatigue and possessed of a pervading sense of futility, Talina would have preferred to be back at Port Authority. She would have awakened this morning, rested and energized from a full night''s sleep. Instead she stank of sweat, her feet and legs spotted with dried mud, her overalls filthy and smudged. Her skin stung from thorn punctures that she hadn''t been able to avoid in the darkness.

As the first light spilled through the distant gap, she desperately wanted to believe the morning myth, to lower her guard and yawn. Maybe let her mind wander.

Except that she''d seen too many sunrises play across the rictus on a freshly dead man''s face.
Donovan did that, destroyed illusion with brutal regularity.

As the dawn brightened, its light softened the angles and contours of the canyon--sifted shadow and form from the darkness.

She crouched on a precarious trail, body tense, the heavy rifle tightly gripped in her slim and tanned fingers. Her dark eyes shifted constantly, desperately searching the shadows. The charge was almost depleted in her thermal scope. Overhead, two of the drones scoured the canyon sides, the hiss of their fans barely audible.

Capella''s first rays caressed her face, warming her high cheeks and straight nose as they gave a golden cast to her bronzed skin. They illuminated her ancestral features of Spanish hidalgo mixed with classic Maya. Descended from sun gods and conquistadors, their spirit flashed in her sable eyes as she stalked the wild and rocky trails of another world.

Talina Perez hunted a killer.

She pursed her full lips and brushed back a strand of black hair where it had come loose from her long braid. Hair that adopted a bluish raven tint in the full morning light.

Warm air drifted down the canyon, carrying the odor of dry dirt and the cloying scent of musk bushes. The silence seemed to intensify as Capella''s light accented the parched surface of cracked and tumbled stone with pale lavender; high above, it bathed the shredded cirrus clouds in purple and orange streaks where they stretched across the northern sky.

Invertebrates whizzed and chirred in the tangles of brush beneath the sandstone outcrops. To her right the canyon dropped away to a stone-and-sand-choked streambed some twenty meters below.

She swallowed nervously and snugged the rifle butt into her shoulder. Her gaze searched the cap rock above for any irregularity. Then she turned her attention to the narrowing gap where the trail climbed the canyon wall and emptied out onto the flat tableland above. Dotted with aquajade trees and ferngrass, the plain extended to the distant Wind Mountains where they rose some twenty kilometers beyond.

"Where the hell are you?" she whispered.

She tried to still her pounding heart in order to hear even the faintest sound. Changing her focus, she gave careful scrutiny to the ground, looking for scuffed soil, a displaced rock, a broken thorn, or a bruised leaf on one of the plants.

Because of a dead battery in a motion sensor, the quetzal had come undetected in the night, crossed the defensive ditch, unhooked the gate latch, and slipped into town. That was the thing about quetzals, they were intelligent. Learned from their mistakes. This one obviously had previous experience with humans and knew the defenses. After the creature made its kill, it had known how to escape, charging headlong for the uplands. That was another thing about quetzals: for short distances they could run faster than an aircar.

The planet hosted an endless variety of different and deadly beasts. Bems, though solitary and slow, relied on extraordinary camouflage and deadly claws to capture prey. The creature they called the nightmare inhabited the tropical jungle stretches just south of Port Authority. Also a master of camouflage, it mimicked the surrounding vegetation and invoked a special kind of horror: it first impaled and then devoured victims from the inside out. Fortunately nightmares almost exclusively lurked in mundo trees down south. Smaller threats like the slugs, spikes, and semisentient stinging, poisonous, and predatory plants filled out most of the rest of the known dangerous flora and fauna.

"Talina? You on the trail?"
Allenovich''s voice came through her earpiece.

She shifted her rifle, eyes still on the thornbushes as they rotated their branches to expose night-weary leaves to the rising sun. "I''m maybe three hundred meters from the head of the canyon."

"Still got tracks?"

Talina filled her lungs, hating the way her heart was hammering at her breastbone. "No. They vanished about fifty meters back."

"Shit." A pause. "You watch your ass."

"Yeah," she whispered and wished for a drink of water.

"Trish here. I''m on the rim just across the canyon from you, Tal. Iji says the drones are reporting that nothing broke out onto the flat up ahead. It''ll take a while to recall them. I''m scanning the canyon with the IR. With the morning sun, that slope you''re on is a patchwork of heat signatures. You sure it''s there?"


"Yep." She swallowed hard, the rifle up, her pulse racing. "I can almost . . ."

A trickle of dirt broke loose to cascade from above.

Talina dropped to one knee, the rifle lifted for a snap shot as she stared through the optic.

What?

Where?

The buzzing of the invertebrates changed; the chime shifted as if a whole section of them had gone quiet. Odd, that.

A pebble clicked and bounced down through the rocks and into the scrubby thorn brush above.
Quetzal? Or just the morning sun expanding the eroded soil?

Damn, I hate this!


Her muscles remained bunched like knotted wire. Something about the invertebrates . . .

"Trish?" she barely whispered. "See anything above me?"

Why the hell couldn''t humans have eyes in the backs of their heads?

The morning air had grown heavy, oppressive.

"Can''t make out anything definitive, Tal. Be damned careful. We don''t want to bury you, too."


"Affirmative on that."

The quetzal had prowled the town, tracks indicating where it had avoided adults--aware of their weapons--and skirted the lighted areas. Sticking to the shadows and back ways, it had made its way to the personal quarters, stopping only long enough to peer into the domes and try the doors.

At Allison Chomko''s it had found safe prey, had watched her leave her house on an errand. Then the creature had raised the unlocked latch before entering to make its kill. It had escaped, gone before anyone knew.

A running quetzal made an incredible sight with its flared collar membranes spread for thermal regulation. Its mouth gaped wide to expose serrated jaws, which acted as a sort of ram-air intake. Pushed into three separate lungs, oxygen supercharged the blood. As air was channeled through the body core, it picked up heat and was exhaled, or vented, above the powerful legs and along the tail. All six meters of the animal would turn blaze-white for better radiation. A quetzal running in panic across flat terrain could hit one hundred and sixty kph for short periods of time.

But it came at an incredible cost in energy; and here, in the canyon, it had gone to ground. By now it would have digested the infant girl it had taken from Allison Chomko''s cradle. Before it could run again, it had to eat, to replace those depleted resources.

Talina could sense the quetzal''s hunger, sense the creature''s three shining black eyes as they studied her. As if the gaze were somehow radiant.

The invertebrates began another chime--like a mutual wave of sound that passed from critter to critter. Talina was barely aware as it rolled slowly up from the canyon''s mouth.

The fine hair on the nape of her neck rose.

How can a creature that big turn invisible?


But that was the way of so many of Donovan''s creatures: masters of camouflage, all of them.

Arguments raged in Inga''s tavern. Were quetzals--in their way--as smart as humans? They hunted with uncanny ability, manipulated locks, doors, and tools--but made none of their own.
Here, in the canyon, the predator''s cunning permeated the very air. A metaphysical odor borne on the currents of the soul.

One small slip, Talina. That''s all it takes. Stay crisp--or you''ll die here.


Talina took another step, senses at high pitch. People had stepped on quetzals before, oblivious to their presence until that shift of slippery flesh beneath a misplaced foot. For their part, the creatures had learned that a human could be efficiently eliminated by a strike to the head, chest, or neck. All it took was a pistonlike blow from one of their clawed, three-toed feet.

Nerve sweat trickled down Talina''s cheek. Capella was a full hand-width above the horizon now, its heat beginning to radiate on the canyon wall. The chirring of the invertebrates swelled, covering any sound--as if the "bugs" were cheering the quetzal on.

Let it go! Just back away!


But she