A Deadly Threat, Unseen and Unknown
Life on Porthiant Station with her plurapod companion Les suits Seetha Deergatcha just fine. Hard work on an aqua-farm orbiting beyond Jupiter.
Calvin Seuma spends his days tending the fisher fleet on distant Ajar 12. Working the seas with his plurapod friend Bel and aquatic Ajarans.
A strange harvest awaits. One with ancient and dangerous origins.
Can they survive a threat from light years beyond the origins of humanity?
Join a gripping adventure into new worlds and unknown alliances.
Empire Revealed: Book One
Seetha – Porthiant Station
If Seetha tilted her head just right and squinted, the light on the water looked almost natural.
At an angle, and with a good bit less detail, rows of sunflower yellow lights overhead blended into one glittering reflection. She couldn't see the edge of the aqua-farm on Porthiant Station this time of the day-cycle. The tide was even coming in, long and regular moss-green waves building up depth every minute.
Seetha propped her hands on her hips, palms slipping on the stiff, water-resistant white fabric. Hardly fashionable, but standard issue for humans on this level. She leaned back as far as she could, sighing when her spine and breastbone crackled. She leaned forward to brush her pruney fingertips on the textured plas-wood pier, weary muscles stretching all along her back.
She reached behind her head and squeezed the plastic clip loose, watching waves of chestnut brown hair slip free around her boots. Such an indulgence, her mother said, a mane on an aquaculture station orbiting between Jupiter and Saturn.
Seetha straightened as slowly as she could. A week of shipping out the harvest and bringing in seed for the next was catching up with her.
A cold, damp breeze, rich with brine and vegetal seaweed aromas, kicked up enough to push her hair behind her shoulders. Massive turbines at the distant rim of their tank helped the waves do their work. Technology convinced the creatures under the surface that night was different from day.
Could still be an Earth ocean, though. Especially if she squinted.
The water was barely two meters under her feet and rising fast. The circular dock stood at the center of a sprawling web of piers, intersecting paths like spokes of old Earth bicycle wheels across the water. The heavy salt content would never erode kilometers of tough plas-wood or even fade the bright yellow.
But the tide would cover Seetha's way back home if she didn't head out soon.
That or the gradually fading lights would dim enough to leave her wandering all night-cycle long. Machinery and engineering varied the tides on a natural Earth schedule, even without an orbiting satellite to pull the water. Seetha wished the designers had added waxing and waning moonlight anyway.
She sank cross-legged to the chill surface, groaning when her thigh muscles stretched as thoroughly as her back. Her growling stomach wouldn't be satisfied with anything less than the traditional harvest feast, but she plucked a meal kit from her gear pack. Not much left in the shiny silver packet but seaweed crisps.
The flavor was pleasant enough, a perfect balance of salty and mineral earthiness, engineered with every nutrient a human needed. Seetha loved these as a girl, marveling at such a delicacy coming from space instead of the oceans of Earth. No matter where in the galaxy she'd roamed with her diplomat parents, these crisps were a reminder of home.
Living where this seaweed was grown, harvested, and processed—and constantly available—turned a treat into tedium.
Still, she crunched and chewed, watching the horizon. Her work partner Les got grumpy when Seetha took off early, though both were perfectly capable of getting home on their own. At nearly a billion kilometers beyond Earth orbit, friendship was everything. Even between species.
Seetha glanced up at a low rumble, detected more in her bones than her ears. Even after more than ten years and five levels below the solid metal surface, the habit persisted. No one on the station could see a massive interstellar transport arriving or leaving.
Each of the hundreds of growing stations orbiting between Jupiter and Saturn held a shipping, customs, and immigration platform close by. The vibration was probably the harvest pushing off, hitching a ride with some random diplomatic ship.
She told herself glancing up at something she couldn't possibly see was a silly remnant of her Earth origins. Same as glancing down at similar rumbles from within the station. Movements from the pure water core were rare compared to transports, but her body always knew the difference.
Seetha wondered if human children born up here ever developed that location instinct. Not that she had plans or prospects in that department. She often thought Les, like all dual-gendered plurapods, had the better design for happiness. They didn't even grow their sets of reproductive organs until they mated for life. Those bothersome organs caused humans no end of trouble no matter how much technology advanced.
An odd pattern of ripples caught Seetha's attention. They ran from behind and to her left, cutting across the slow, regular tidal waves now a meter beneath her. Only Les's restless, anxious drumming on the surface created such an irregular result on the highly regulated aqua-farm.
She stood, catching sight of her friend right away. Les had already surfaced three of hir limbs as ze approached the central dock. Two deep orange tentacles floated on the water, retracted to nearly as thick as Seetha's thigh, leaving one to the back. Seven slender red appendages at the end of each twitched and vibrated nearly too fast for Seetha to follow.
Les couldn't give hir agitated mood away the way humans so often did. Plurapods, like most ConSpace species, imitated their companions as best they could. With humans, that meant standing upright whenever possible and presenting a "face" to the world.
Even after over ten Earth-years working together, that face was as unreadable to Seetha as it was fascinating.
The broad central mass connecting Les's seven limbs held around a dozen pseudopods, changing number, size, and location depending on what senses ze needed. They didn't resemble any sort of Earth creature eyes, but Seetha always focused on the ones with the largest black tips.
In the center of the ever-changing sensory organs sat a shallow black pouch as long as Seetha's two hands. Plurapods who routinely spoke to humans and other land species learned to cup water over their vocal organs.
Seetha had long ago gotten a permanent sensory implant to translate the trilling, musical tones. She quite liked the gold disc, only a few millimeters across, in front of her left ear. Even her mother agreed the implant was as lovely as her own traditional nose stud, and far more practical than an uncomfortable chunk of plastic shoved into her ear canal.
Seetha stepped to the edge of the dock, not sure if Les sensed her yet. When Les was distressed enough to drum the water like that, ze'd usually gotten hirself into quite a distracted state.
Before Seetha could decide to wave or to stay still and wait, Les extended one limb. The tentacle slowly thinned, the pebbly, dull surface smoothing out to flat and shiny. Les was still more than two meters from the dock when hir hand touched Seetha's.
The central five fingers, tips crimson and loaded with more sensory cells than a human's whole body, pressed against each of Seetha's fingertips. The remaining two encircled her wrist, soft and cool. Seetha breathed in the rich cucumber and pepper scent of her closest companion for most of her adult life.
"Well met, Les."
"Well met, Seetha. Thank you for waiting."
Seetha waited for Les to break contact before she grabbed her gear pack. Her long family history of ConSpace diplomacy taught her to be courteous, even if she had no desire to continue that exceedingly social line of work. Body-straining labor that helped feed billions of humans and plurapods, especially combined with isolation from nearly all of them, suited her just fine.
Les submerged to dart under the dock, demonstrating the waterborne speed Seetha so envied, then waited for Seetha to circle around the vital heart of their tank. The central control pod provided storage, holding areas for shipments, and their portal to the station-wide mag-drop system. Gut-twisting velocity or not, it was the only way in or out for anything, or anyone.
All transport inside the domed tank was either on foot or in the water. The remarkably old-fashioned routine of walking to work on a state-of-the-art artificial world pleased Seetha greatly.
"The harvest has departed?" Les said.
"Sounded like it. Reseeding going well?"
Fourteen appendages vibrated again before sinking under the surface. For the first time, Seetha would have sworn her friend looked nervous—each soft, pliable facial pseudopod stiff and trembling. Even hir vocal pouch was rigid.
"I fear it is not. We have much to talk about, Seetha."
Calvin – Ajar 12
Calvin Seuma waded in hip-deep water, trailing his fingertips along the greenish surface. With the tide going out, the waves in sheltered Calys Bay were low and regular. Perfect for boat maintenance. An incoming tide meant constantly struggling for footing on the slick, pebbled seabed.
He knew the ring of tree-covered hills around him was full of other humans as well as Ajarans, but he couldn't hear or see anyone. That was exactly why Calvin always volunteered for the mid-day maintenance cycle.
Peace and quiet, with everyone else inside and asleep after heavy meals.
Even humans born on other planets tended to run on Earth's twenty-four hour day cycle, so Ajar 12's thirty-two hour cycle created benefits and challenges. Calvin was content to chew spicy and sweet oranjar rinds until time for his later evening meal, creating his own schedule for much-needed solitude.
The water was cool this time of year with the warm, rainy season coming on, but not nearly so frigid as only a few weeks before. Calvin had shed the thick, rubberized waders that covered him from his armpits to his feet. No matter how icy the air and water got, he always felt overheated in those.
Today he wore his long brown hair caught back in a neat braid, and only the human version of the Ajaran's native garb. The close-fitting tan jacket and pants were woven out of local seagrass, tough and light as air even when it was soaking wet.
Ajarans were all too happy to adjust the suits from six limbs down to four, remove the space for their short tails, and make the torso narrow enough for humans. Now they could weave the suits year-round instead of only in preparation for their own summer molting season after the spring rains.
He walked in a slow arc around the harvest fleet, taking his time, noticing as many details as he could before he got to work. The boats never seemed to vary much no matter where he went here on Ajar 12 or in any other local system.
The current group of nine were only about ten of his paces long, empty with the curved bottoms sitting high out of the water. Trees from the hills behind him bent easily and cured into hulls without a whole lot of effort. Most Ajarans and humans alike left the natural deep green-tinted lafar wood untreated. Anything made from it only seemed to get tougher the longer it stayed in Ajar's salty seas.
Satisfied with his first look, Calvin waded in closer to the first vessel. The only identifying mark was an intricate carved and painted shape high on the front hull. He recognized the red and purple symbols for the Pyones family, one of the first human families to settle in the Ajar system. Dal Pyones never hesitated to bring her boat into the closest anchor point her family status offered.
Calvin took in a deep breath, letting the briney air clear his nose for the work ahead. The massive seas and waterways covering the northern half of the planet were starting to wake up from one of the coldest seasons he or anyone else could remember. That meant new growth on everything from boat hulls to docks to fishing equipment.
Something that smelled wrong was often the first hint of trouble.
A warm breeze kicked up as he ran his hands along the curved bottom of the boat. Too warm for the water he was standing in. Light rain later, and good fishing tomorrow. His fingers brushed a leafy lump caught between strips of lafar wood.
Calvin plucked it out. Paler green than the wood, soft, smelling like the sea with a touch of mint. Common seagrass, nothing to worry about.
The rest of the Pyones boat checked out as usual, well-built and well-maintained. He pulled out his work comm unit, a waterproof cylinder a bit longer than his hand. He tapped out the sequence for that specific boat and the condition, sending it back to Ajar Marine Central.
Most of the native Ajarans and many of the human immigrants didn't trust or even like technology. Calvin respected that as long as it didn't keep him from doing his job. He wasn't about to take twice as long just to adhere to some centuries old traditions, no matter who muttered about it.
He moved on to the next craft, this one painted a jarring bright yellow. He didn't need to see the marking on the front to recognize one of his own uncle's fleet. Number five out of at least fifteen, and all of them that same blinding hue. The vibrant green protective tarp—woven so tightly that no rain would get through even during the seasonal storms—was neatly rolled up and secured inside the curved rim.
Uncle Tana claimed the fish got curious and had to investigate anything so bright. Calvin figured with that large a fleet, the man had to be doing something right.
The hull checked out just fine, but his fingers sank into a slimy mass around the underwater propellers at the back. Calvin frowned, hoping the props hadn't tangled with one of the meters-long jellies—or worse, a plurapod tentacle. Neither of those would be an easy or pleasant cleanup.
Even worse would be figuring out whether his uncle or a grouchy plurapod had been responsible for the collision.
Calvin groaned when he brought a handful of the mass out of the water. Not jelly or plurapod, this resembled nothing more than a pink stained lump of shredded paper. Too soft to be actual old Earth wood-based paper, as if anything so ancient or rare would mysteriously be out in the oceans on a distant planet.
He steeled himself and leaned in for a sniff. He jerked back, nearly dropping the mess back into the water. Thick, overly sweet, but laced with a rotten undertone. And ammonia, like the leavings of the wild felines that hung around the docks waiting for fish guts.
Wherever his uncle had been fishing that morning was not a healthy waterway.
Calvin had never seen or smelled anything quite like this on Ajar 12 or anywhere else. He rubbed the lump between his fingers, frowning at the slick and slimy texture. There were bits of grit inside, too big to be sand.
He reached into the boat for something to hold the smelly gunk in, not wanting to drop it into the bay. A blood red bucket held the whole thing, and the buoyant design let Calvin float it nearby. He leaned over to see how much was left.
Both propellers were jammed full, to the point that he wondered how they'd turned at all coming in to dock. Uncle Tana may have brought it in under sail instead.
Calvin pulled as much as he could loose, but the prop blades still felt lumpy and covered with slime.
Whatever it was didn't want to let go.
Calvin brushed his fingers clean and dry the best he could against his dive suit, then pulled his comm back out. He had no idea what this stuff was, but he knew who to ask for help. Making this call wouldn't be nearly as unpleasant as calling to report a lost plurapod limb would have been.
He tapped in the code for a restricted vessel and the fleet ID first, wanting to make sure this boat didn't go back out for the evening fish with another crew. Calvin wanted this one out of the water as soon as possible for a closer inspection.
He could only roll his eyes when he realized the boat had been piloted not by his uncle, but by Resym, his trusted crewmaster. Somehow Calvin knew that would be worse.
And still, angry as his uncle would be, the last thing he'd want would be to spread whatever this was throughout the seagrass fields between the bay and the deeper sea fishery.
Calvin filed the report, then pulled up his contacts. No one would be better than a plurapod at working this out, and his long-time friend Bel was the best of all the plurapods at species identification. No matter how strange the species.
At least three hours before Bel could make it in from hir own work, around the time this fleet would want to be heading back out. Plenty of time for Calvin to get the affected boat out of the water, finish his inspections, and deal with his uncle.
He sent the message and got back to work.