SUSAN’S GIFT

by Roxanne Smolen ISBN: 0-7443-16231-6 Look for Book 3: Watery Deep Copyright 2008 by Roxanne Smolen All Rights Reserved Published by SynergEbooks http://www.synergebooks.com

CHAPTER 1
PLANET 327-01 DG TAURI B Ice exploded like a shot, filling the air with crystalline shards. Trace Hanson dove behind an outcropping, drawing his stat-gun. The cavern was large and laced with passages, slicked over with ice glowing blue with trapped gas. Ledges rose in levels from the curved floor. Nothing moved. He leaned forward, searching. A blast shattered the frozen ridge, stinging his face. He ran for a tunnel and pressed against the wall. Who? Where? The cavern was filled with places to hide. Think. Think. Ice blew apart above his head. Trace ran. The weight of his footsteps jolted his body as he thundered through the tight corridor. This was ridiculous. He was a Colonial Scout, trained in first contact situations. If someone was shooting at him, he needed to take control. He arrived on this world the day before, dropped onto the middle of a glacier by an Impellic ring, a programmable wormhole. He had three days to prove the planet worthy of colonization—and he didn’t want to activate the ring prematurely. An explosion rang his ears. Wet slush struck his cheek. Trace ducked and fell, sliding down a steep tunnel, arms and legs flailing, fighting for

purchase. He came to rest against a blue-splotched embankment. He looked back. No movement. Get up. They might be following. Who might be following? Struggling to his feet, he crept along the new passage, wiping gloved hands over his dripping face. He pulled his mask down from atop his head and snapped it into place, keying the mike with his tongue. “Davrileo, what’s your position?” Only static. Trace winced. Why had he listened when Davrileo suggested they split up to search the caves? He was team leader—his partner’s safety was his responsibility. Leave it to him to screw up his first command. “Davrileo! Come in!” “Right here, boss,” said Davrileo Mas. Trace sagged in relief. “Where are you? Are you all right?” “Why wouldn’t I be?” “Someone’s shooting at me. An energy weapon.” A pause, then, “That doesn’t add. I’m seeing evidence of a primitive race. Nothing to indicate high-level weaponry.” Trace scowled at a bad taste. “I’m telling you, your primitives are armed.” He shook his head. “Look, just get back to the mouth of the cave. Keep your eyes open.” “Roger, that.” The com clicked off. Trace continued walking, eyes darting, shoulders hunched, cursing himself for his cowardice. As a Scout, it was his job to certify a planet safe. As team leader, he was expected to be equal to any challenge. He’d wanted this mission to be perfect, wanted to impress his superiors, show them what he could do. But most of all, he wanted to impress Impani. Trace groaned. Impani had already been named team leader three times. She embraced each new planet like a fascinating puzzle. The way he should be doing—instead of running away. He slumped against the wall, body aching. Beneath the skinsuit, his skin crawled with sweat. Growing circles of fog marred his faceplate. He lifted his mask. Cold. So cold. His nostrils crackled. Breath hung in a frosted cloud. Pulling off his gloves, he wiped his eyes and breathed the warmth of his fingers. He imagined steam rising from his hood. The ceiling shattered. Trace dodged into a narrow passage, running full out with arms over his head. Ice pelted his back as blasts rang behind. The tunnel twisted. His feet shot from beneath him, and he skidded on his backside into a large cavern, the gun clattering from his grasp. Movement caught his eye. He looked up at a scrawny, hairless alien swaddled in strips of fur. The alien watched him, mouth open.

Gasping, Trace scuttled backward, boots slipping on the slick floor. He fumbled blindly for his gun, not willing to take his gaze from the alien. The ice felt hot against his bare palm. It felt wet, as if melting. Cracking and popping, the ground burst into slush beneath his hand. Trace froze as if time had ended. Ice. Trapped gas. The ice exploded beneath his hand. Realization thudded against his stomach. The blasts started after he removed his mask. No one had shot at him. His body heat caused the gas in the ice to explode. He stared at the alien, saw the beaded necklace about its neck, saw the emptiness in its hands. Then he saw Davrileo Mas step from a tunnel across the cavern, raising his gun. “Wait!” Trace cried too late. Davrileo’s shot illuminated the alien, encasing it in a bright aura, holding it upright. Its body was whisper thin. It fell in slow motion. Time released him. Trace leapt to his feet, rushing toward the fallen alien. Scorch sizzled in its back. He turned the body over, searching for signs of life, not knowing where to look for a pulse. “You told me they were shooting at you,” Davrileo said, his voice sharp with recrimination. “You said they were armed.” Trace looked at him, words caught in a knot. It was a mistake. A terrible mistake. No one had shot at him. His thoughts settled on Impani’s mantra—we aren’t here to butcher the locals. *** PLANET 1186-9 HH30 How can things go so wrong? Impani wondered, gazing over the turbulent lake. Driving rain pounded her body. Her partner climbed beside her. “You can’t be serious.” She looked at him. Behind his rain-streaked faceplate, his eyes were large and black. Anselmi was humanoid—two arms, two legs, one head—but so pale he was silver, so thin he appeared brittle. People said that he and his kind were telepathic. Not many other Scouts wanted to work with him. But Impani liked having a partner who knew her thoughts. Until now. “You said it yourself. There is nothing here,” she shouted over the rain. “We have to cross the lake.” “It’s too wide. Even our resonators can’t reach the other side.” She turned, staring behind them at the craggy, scabrous land. No animals. No plants. A paradox. I’m team leader, she thought, and I make the decisions. Then she wondered if he heard her. “Impani, not every mission has to be spectacular,” he said.

True, she thought. But she had gained a reputation as a risk-taker who always learned something extraordinary—and she found that she liked being the rogue. “I’m going,” she said, switching on her jet pack. Its power rattled her teeth. “Why?” shouted Anselmi. “Why is it so important?” “Because there is air,” she shouted back. “An m-class oxygen atmosphere. There must be plant life to support that. And I intend to find it.” Revving the pack, she lifted from the rough bank. Rain lashed at her as if to push her back to ground. Keeping one hand on the control pad at her waist, she rose over the churning water. Within moments, the land disappeared as if it had never been, obliterated by the sheeting storm. Impani felt enveloped in gray fog. She felt that she could fly for days and not see anything. No visibility. No resonance scans. What was she doing? She thought again about being a rogue. She knew not everyone admired her for it, even suspected that several of her peers avoided her. Reckless, they said. It didn’t matter. She didn’t need anyone’s approval. But then Anselmi pulled alongside, hanging like a shadow, and immense relief washed over her. The com clicked in her ear. “Something is there,” Anselmi said. Impani squinted through the rain. A jagged shadow loomed ahead. Rocks on the opposite shore, she thought. Then it moved. “Look out!” yelled Anselmi as a huge tentacle splashed down between them. Impani reeled to one side, caught in its wake. She struggled for altitude, felt a sickening drop as the pack sputtered. Before her, a massive balloon-like body broke the surface of the lake— and part of her thought, this is new, we haven’t seen a giant squid before. It appeared transparent in the dark water. Tentacles waved and rippled. Reaching for her. Impani screamed. She mashed the controls of her jet pack, kicking her feet as if she would run away. With horrifying slowness, a tentacle curled about her chest. Constricting. Impani couldn’t breathe. She arched her back, clawing at the crushing pressure. Flashing stars encroached upon her vision. A spear of light shot through the haze. The grip about her slackened. Impani wheezed, gulping air. Glancing up, she saw Anselmi fire again. Tentacles thrashed. For a dizzying moment, Impani felt herself hoisted upward. Then the creature plunged her into the water as it dove beneath the surface.

CHAPTER 2
Trace stood at a window on the ninety-fifth floor of the Colonial Bureau home base staring at the sparkling spires of surrounding buildings and the ribbon of yellow cabs gliding between them. In his mind, he saw the furclad alien encased in bright aura falling in slow motion to the cave floor. He wished he could blame Davrileo Mas, wished he could shrug the incident away as an unfortunate accident. But Trace knew that, as team leader, the mission had been his responsibility, and he took full blame for it at the debriefing. “Heard you had to ring home early,” someone said behind him. Trace winced, recognizing the voice. It was Robert Wilde, the person he least wanted to deal with right then. Keeping his voice level, he said, “The planet was occupied. There was no reason to stay.” “Still. Losing an ice world with all that potential water.” Wilde stepped to the window, gazing out. “Won’t look good on your record.” “I explored the planet, found out what we needed to know,” Trace said. “The mission was a success.” Wilde sniffed. “Your first and doubtless last mission as team leader.” “At least, they gave me a chance. How many times have you been chosen?” Trace cut himself off. He hated rising to Wilde’s taunts—hated the constant competition between them, the snide remarks. He wished they could work together. For in truth, Robert Wilde was an excellent Scout. He had an uncanny intuition that made him quick to understand an alien environment. Trace felt that they might have been friends—if not for that one thing between them. “She doesn’t love you, you know,” Wilde said, leaning close. “She’s just using you to make me jealous.” “Give it up,” Trace said. But Wilde was already walking away. Trace watched him, frowning. He knew Wilde had no chance with Impani. Just as he knew that he didn’t either. For Impani would never truly love either of them. She was in love with the job.

The thought broke like a wave of helplessness. He saw her before him—green eyes flashing with excitement as she described the planet she’d just seen, her nose crinkling with laughter as she recounted this daring escape or that grand discovery. She was so alive, so—brilliant. It was enough for him to bask in her light. And as he looked out at the bright blue day, he hoped that wherever she was, she and her partner were having better luck than he’d had. *** Impani gazed upward as the squid-like creature dragged her under the lake. Murky water enveloped the light. The filters of her mask closed. She had only what air remained inside, only minutes to decide what to do. If she activated the Impellic ring while still in the squid’s stranglehold, the creature would be transported with her back to base. But if she waited too long, she would either suffocate or be squeezed to death. Part of her quailed in panic, yet a larger part appraised the situation calmly, and she surprised herself by hoping she’d sealed her backpack—she carried a small picture of Trace and didn’t want it to get wet. A streak of light jarred her thoughts. Anselmi had followed them down, still firing his stat-gun. The energy arced over the squid’s massive body to no lasting effect—but Impani felt awash with electric pinpricks. Her ears popped, and she knew the creature was taking her deeper. Anselmi fired again, but the shot sputtered and the beam died. With odd clarity, Impani remembered that stat-guns were powered by static in the air. Underwater, they would hold only a residual charge. “Go back!” she yelled into the open com. Before her partner could move, the creature struck out with its many tentacles, swatting him. Anselmi flipped end-over-end, and then drifted into darkness. “Anselmi!” Impani shouted. Where was he? She struggled to break free. The creature thrust ahead. Its hold about her shifted. Squirming, Impani pulled her gun from her belt. She felt a jerk as if she were being reeled in, caught a glimpse of tentacles gyrating around her. She saw a beaked mouth opening and closing. Coming closer. Impani fired. The shot hit inside the mouth. The body flashed and froze. Energy waves radiated outward, encasing Impani, and she thrashed in heated pain, nearly blacking out. Lights crowded her vision. She was aware of movement in the dark. Running out of air, she thought. Tensing for recoil, she shot again. The squid released her. With a single stroke, it darted away. Impani heaved a heavy breath, grasping her chest. She turned to look for

Anselmi—and the lights around her swam. For a moment, all thought ceased, and she stared, mesmerized at the beings surrounding her. Their faces were fish-like with the frowning expressions of largemouth bass. Dark fins ran down their backs. Their bodies tapered into scaly tailfins, but their front flippers were elongated into arms and fingers. Each creature held a glowing spike of phosphorescent coral. First a sea monster, now mermaids. Impani shook her head. Had the squid run from her or from them? She wished she could stay longer, wished she had thought to explore the lakes in the first place. But she had only moments of breathable air left. She had to find Anselmi and ring home. Kicking hard, she swam in the direction she had last seen her partner. The mer-people flanked her, keeping their distance. She turned on a flashlight, clipping it to her wrist, although its light did little to dispel the dimness. “Anselmi,” she gasped into the com. “Do you read?” No answer. A sob crested her throat, and she fought it down. Which way was the current flowing? How far would he drift? Then she saw him, his body eerily green in the lamplight, limp and sinking deeper. Impani’s eyelids fluttered. She fought a sudden lethargy, forcing herself to focus. Her arms and legs felt numb, her chest crushed with lack of oxygen. Propelling forward, she pulled her partner close and activated the Impellic ring. Immediately, she sensed the ring spiral nearer, felt its tug within her stomach. She took one last glance around—and saw a phosphorescent city upon the lake bottom. Shining domes clustered together like glowing bubbles. Shadows of mer-people swam about. Forests of seaweed waved in the current—the plant life she’d expected to find. Then the ring enclosed her, pulling her from the watery world into the void of the wormhole. She closed her eyes against a sensation of extreme velocity, her body wrenched by vertigo, her numb arms wrapped, unfeeling, about Anselmi’s slight form. Was he dead? she wondered. Did he die trying to save her? She shouldn’t have tried to cross the lake. If only he hadn’t followed her into the water. Light seared her senses. Something hard struck her legs. She dropped to her knees amid a great splash of water. A claxon sounded. She heard a voice over the loud speaker. “Hazardous Materials crew to Impellic Chamber 110B.” Impani clawed off her mask, gasping and retching, nearly blinded by the mirrored room. They were home. They made it. She leaned over Anselmi. His mask was askew, the hinge broken, and his face swam in lake water. He wasn’t breathing.

CHAPTER 3
Impani pulled off Anselmi’s mask. His face was gray. She shook him, thinking how do you perform CPR on an alien when you don’t know where his vital organs are? With power born of panic, she thumped him hard upon the chest. A fountain of water gushed from his mouth. Anselmi sat without warning, knocking her back, coughing. She grasped his shoulders. “Are you all right?” “Yes. Quite all right,” he said. Tears bubbled up her throat. “I thought you were dead.” He looked at her with his fathomless eyes, and then offered a slow smile. “My species can access a vestigial float sac. I could have remained dormant for some time.” She leaned back, sodden with relief. “Where is this sac?” He rubbed his chest, wincing. “Right where you hit me.” With a crash, the Haz-Mat crew burst into the Impellic Chamber. They wore orange disposable jumpsuits with silver masks and pushed a cart of chemicals. Impani stammered, “It’s only water. We were in a lake.” “Then you should have waited until you left the lake before you activated the ring,” a man said. He opened a panel in the reflective wall, exposing a flexible hose. Two others walked about the room, tossing out handfuls of powdered disinfectant. Their boots splashed the puddled floor. A woman approached the Scouts, her voice muffled by her mask. “Should I call for a medic?” “No.” Anselmi grunted as he stood. “We’re leaving.” He pulled Impani to her feet. They left the Chamber, walking down a narrow hall toward Decontamination. Impani felt unsteady. Her head ached, and her ribs were sore. She kept telling herself that Anselmi had not been in danger, but a voice behind her thoughts wondered—what if he had been?

The hall ended at two waiting doors. Impani offered her partner a wan smile as he entered the room to the left. She took the adjacent door and, wrinkling her nose at an antiseptic smell, entered a small featureless cubicle. She hated this part, believed that decon was unnecessary. In all the years of the Colonial Scout Program, only once did a virus survive the Impellic field to infect the base. The light turned pink, and a mist fell over her like rain. Impani took off her equipment. Stretching out her arms, she looked up into the shower. Moisture ran down her face, tasting like medicine and burning the corners of her eyes. She ran her fingertips down the triple seam of her skinsuit, opening it to her waist, and then shrugged out of the sensors upon her sleeves. She crossed her arms over her chest. A voice from the wall said, “Arms up, Impani.” It was the female tech who watched her on the monitor. With a sigh, Impani lifted her arms straight up. Being a Scout meant that she gave up certain privileges—privacy, possessions, a chance for a real home. Impani never had a home—she’d been born on the streets and lived homeless until the Scouts recruited her. She didn’t bemoan these restrictions, but she wished she could have kept her hair. The disinfecting chemicals had a depilating effect, removing her hair, her eyebrows, smoothing the smallest imperfection from her body—the techs wanted nothing between her and their sensors. Sliding the skinsuit over her hips and down her thighs, Impani tossed it aside. With a hiss, the shower turned into steam. She breathed deeply. Closing her eyes, she imagined the tension in her neck rolling down her arms and off her fingertips. The air cleared. Impani stepped out into a dressing room. A screen broke the room into two, and she could hear Anselmi moving about on the other side. Again, she saw his lifeless face behind his flooded mask. She pushed the image away. She enjoyed being team leader—loved feeling that she was in control, that she was free of orders or opinions. But what if Anselmi had died? They’d become close friends since graduating from the academy a year ago. Behind the screen, Anselmi said, “What did I miss? How did you defeat that creature on the planet?” “I didn’t,” she said. “You scared it away.” “Is that so?” Impani heard the amusement in his voice and knew he had caught her in the lie. She tugged a shapeless tunic over her head. “You shouldn’t have come in after me. You might have been killed.” “You also might have died.” “Nonetheless, procedure dictates—”

“Procedure?” he snapped. “If you were following procedure, you would not have crossed the lake.” “It was a calculated risk.” “We weren’t there to take risks.” His words echoed. Impani pursed her lips. Don’t let him get to you, she told herself. He’s reading your thoughts. Anselmi knocked on the screen and peeked over the top. He was head-and-shoulders taller than she was. He once told her that the gravity was so light on his home planet of Veht everything grew tall and willowy. He spent his free time working out in the gym to keep his new-found weight from crushing him. “Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to scold.” Impani nodded, avoiding his gaze. So she’d broken a few rules, she thought. Rules were only guidelines. She pulled on a pair of soft-soled slippers. “We’d better get to debriefing before they wonder what happened to us.” *** The Game Room was not busy, but the sounds welcomed him in. Trace stood in the doorway for a moment, enveloped in the laughter of computers, their odd, discordant music. Tables huddled like mushrooms beneath softly lit globes. A bank of windows opened onto night. He walked to the drink dispenser, ran his spotcard over the reader, and selected that week’s special—Health Nut, a thick brown liquid in a tall glass. It tasted like a pecan smoothie. He nodded and took another gulp. The gaming machines beckoned to him. They were loud both in sound and in appearance. A few dealt with ability, others with mere chance. He watched two Scouts take turns pitting their skill against a computer, trying to weave a ship through a nebula without imploding in the process. One of them looked familiar—dark skin, stocky build. He nodded at Trace, laughing. Yes, he’d seen him before. Trace wished he could remember his name. Sitting at a nearby table, Trace watched the two players, silently rooting for the nameless Scout because he had seemed friendly. He took another swallow of his drink. “Hi,” said a voice. “I looked for you in the cafeteria.” Trace glanced up as Natica Galos sat at his table. Natica was Impani’s best friend, so Trace was nice to her—although her pushiness often irritated him. He shrugged. “I’m not hungry.” “Whatcha drinking?” She took the glass from his hand and sipped. “Oh!” She laughed, making a face. “You really must be depressed.” “I’m not depressed.”

“Then why are you sitting here alone?” “Tough mission,” he said, taking back his glass. “So I heard,” she said. “You had to ring home early.” He stared at her. “Does everyone know?” “What’s the big deal? It happens. Impani ringed home early, too.” “She’s back?” “Came in with a big splash.” Natica grinned. “Pond water or something. Had the Haz-Mat crew going crazy. She and Anselmi are in debrief now.” Trace frowned. He had never known Impani to return before the three-day auto-retrieve. “You going to run off looking for her?” “If the mission was that difficult, she’ll want to be alone for a while.” He looked pointedly at Natica, but she didn’t seem to catch on that he was also referring to himself. “Good.” She leaned toward him across the table. “What do you say you buy me a cold drink and we play a game?” “One drink, no games,” Trace said, standing. “What would you like?” “Anything but that.” She gestured at his glass. He brought back a Liquid Sunset for her and another special for himself. She stirred the layered fruit gels with a straw. “So, tell me about your mission.” He hesitated. “Pretty standard.” She prodded him with her gaze, so he described the glacier and the caverns, and how the ice glowed blue. The more he talked, the easier it became. So he told her how the ice shattered with his body heat, and how he thought he was being shot at, running through tunnels with explosions at his head. But when he got to the alien, he stopped. She seemed to guess his thoughts. “Did you find any indigenous life forms?” “One,” he said. “Primitive. No threat to us. But I had already told Davrileo that I was being targeted. He crept up behind the guy and shot him in the back.” Natica gasped. “I’m so sorry. You must feel horrible.” He looked at his glass, surprised that she was consoling him, that he had told her at all. “Trace, it was an accident,” she said. “You can’t blame yourself.” “I can imagine how Davrileo feels.” “I know him. He never worries about anything.” She deepened her voice. “Self recrimination is wasted energy.” “I wish I could feel that way.” “How about another drink? I’m buying this time.” “Thanks, but no,” he told her. “I think I’ll get some sleep.”

“Rest well, for we never know what we’ll face tomorrow,” Natica said with mock decorum. She smiled. “Why don’t you meet Impani and me for breakfast in the morning?” “I’ll be there,” Trace said, and left the arcade. The corridor was brightly lit and held the usual bustle of people. Day or night had little meaning at the base. Scouts came in from missions at any hour, and the building was staffed around the clock. Trace turned down a less traveled hall on his way to the sleeping quarters. Vac-rats whirred along the baseboards, polishing the floor, their electronic noses twitching as their sensors followed his footsteps. Windows gave a nighttime view of the city’s lights, looking like a holo he’d once seen of deep space—and he thought how ironic it was that he’d visited so many planets yet had never seen space. The hall dead-ended, and a large sign warned that he entered a quiet zone. Trace stepped onto the sound-dampening floor of the sleeping quarters, waiting while his eyes adjusted to the darkness. He ran his gaze up a honeycombed wall, searching for an empty bunk. The lower compartments were filled. He saw the tops of heads and occasional reading lamps. But a few berths on the fourth row were open. He climbed a ladder set in the wall, his slippers gripping the rungs, rising above the sounds of slumber. At the fourth row, he slid feet first into a compartment. The bedding was still warm from the previous occupant. Lying on his back, he reset the temperature to thirty degrees Celsius. A mini touch screen scrolled through videos and books. He switched it off. In darkness, he thought of Natica. He was glad he told her about the alien. It was as if a burden had lifted, as if she shared his pain. He had never been able to confide in Impani that way. Natica’s parting words—rest well for we never know what we’ll face tomorrow—was jokingly thought of as a benediction given to Scouts at the end of debriefing. Lying in his bunk, unable to sleep, Trace wondered what tomorrow had in store for him.