Okay, so I don’t have a title yet. This latest entry is the result of six months of brainstorming and debate. It is the first chapter of my fifth novel. It follows the adventures of Fernwyn Rylie, a Solar Police Officer who returning readers will recognize from The Tarantula Nebula and the first part of Bitter Arrow.
Though Fernwyn’s previous adventures are well documented in canon, this new work will only reference them as exposition. The story itself will be original.
It was a gorgeous day for a wedding, and in less than an hour, almost everyone would be dead.
Ferwyn Rylie sat on one of the many verandas of Castle Tarsus, the ancestral home of the Umberian royal family. She was watching the sun creep toward the horizon in the starkly idyllic mountain valley where the impressive stone structure had been placed. It was a warm mid-summer day in the southern hemisphere, though far more agreeable here than in lower elevations. She was nursing a cocktail of some sort and all but ignoring the other guests, most of whom were strangers to her anyway. Her fiancée, Marek, was more familiar with the crowd, and was milling about somewhere else at the moment. The whole thing wasn’t really her scene, but it was tolerable, and the drinks were free.
Fernwyn was also trying to avoid running into the bride’s parents and cousins. Driven off of Umber during the Zendreen invasion eleven years ago, they had settled in the tropical region of Misrere Prime. There, like so many other humanoid settlers, they had chosen to pick up Mektite symbiots. The spider-like creatures averaged two hands-breadth in size and attached themselves to the back of the neck of the host. They could only communicate with humanoids while attached to a host, and it was considered normal by the locals to swap symbiots so that they could introduce themselves. It was also recognized that many people would find this act disturbing, so it wasn’t considered rude to decline. Fernwyn was in the latter category and just wanted to avoid the situation altogether.
Fortunately, the bride herself did not have a symbiot. Viere Tarsus had been left behind on Umber during the occupation, and had only been reunited with her parents a year ago. She must have been shocked to see the symbiots, but seemed to adjust to their presence easily enough. She and her new husband, another native Umberian by the name of Giclas Stackpole, had been making the rounds between clusters of guests after the ceremony, and swapped Mektites as necessary. The process was supposedly safe for the temporary host, and sanitary, as the symbiots did not share the host’s bloodstream.
Out of the corner of her eye, Fernwyn spotted Marek emerge from the castle. She was initially relieved that he had come to find her, and involuntarily recoiled when she noticed the Mektite attached to his neck. Recovering quickly, she smiled and waved him over.
“I see you made a new friend,” she said.
“Hi, Fen, having fun out here?” he replied casually.
“I can’t wait to take this dress off.”
“Neither can I. Anyway, please let me introduce you. Fernwyn Rylie, meet Belano Chuli, symbiot companion of Aran Tarsus.”
Fernwyn nodded self-consciously at the creature. Aran Tarsus was the father of the bride, and had been a research scientist for the military before the war. She had met the man about a year ago, after the liberation of Umber, and worked with him during the reformation, so she had also already met Belano.
“Of course, how are you?”
Marek held up his hand with his fingers and thumb pressed together, and pointed it at the symbiot. It was a gesture that the Mektite, not the host, was speaking.
“Miss Rylie, you honor us with your presence. Aran and Viere have the utmost confidence in you, and your efforts to rebuild our relationship with the Solar Police Force. I would like to talk to you personally about that, if you have the chance.”
Marek lowered his hand. “Now is a good a time as any.”
Fernwyn’s heart sank, but her smile didn’t waver. Marek had teased her about her reluctance to merge with a symbiot. She resolved herself to get back at him for this, somehow.
“That’s fine, sir. How do we, uh…”
Reaching behind his neck, Marek simply picked up Belano and held him out towards her. Fernwyn held her breath as the creature scurried onto her shoulder. It extended its proboscis to the base of her neck, and she felt a warm sensation cascade down her spine. In an instant, she felt another presence in her head, and all of her anxiety melted away.
She knew Belano as well as she knew herself. All of his experiences and memories merged into her own, and she trusted him implicitly. In a flash she reviewed his life, from his earliest moments as a hatchling in the swamps, to his first joining with a humanoid, and through his decade with Aran as his host. Her feelings about Aran changed as well; she had always respected the man, and liked him well enough, but now she also trusted him like family. Belano spoke, his thoughts clear and quiet in her head, though without any actual sound.
“I had always heard about your fantastic adventures,” he began, “but now to see them for myself, they are truly amazing. You have certainly earned the title of Hero of Umber.”
“I was in the right place at the right time.” Fernwyn spoke the words out loud, realizing a moment later that it was unnecessary.
Marek grabbed a drink from a passing hostess, and sat down at the nearest table. He winked at Fernwyn, something she barely registered, and began to hum tunelessly to himself.
“He loves you, even if he does enjoy testing your patience on occasion.”
Fernwyn smiled, sincerely this time. “If I give you back to him, he’ll be sure I feel the same way.”
A wave of pleasure washed over her, and she intrinsically knew it was the Mektite’s way of laughing. She found it remarkable that creatures so different from humanoids would have the same range of emotions.
“We used to be little more than mindless animals,” said Belano, responding to her musings, “but after centuries of our symbiotic relationship with Misrerians, we evolved.”
“Will I keep all of your memories after you detach from me?”
“No, a symbiot must remain attached to a host for at least seven years for our memories to become permanent. Thus is the privilege of a dedicated host. If we were to remain bonded for a few days, however, you would gradually gain access to the memories of Aran Tarsus as well.”
“I must remind myself to apologize to Marek. I’m very glad I decided to merge with you, Mister Chuli.”
“Likewise, Miss Rylie. Perhaps if you could help me find Aran, I can leave you to enjoy the rest of the reception with your fiancée.”
Fernwyn turned to Marek, and after finding her voice again, said, “We’re going inside to look for Viere’s dad, do you want anything from the food cart…”
Something in the sky had distracted her. A bright, scintillating point of light had appeared almost directly overhead, and stood out from the normal ship and aircraft traffic. Marek followed her gaze.
“What the hell is that?” he asked detachedly.
A broad, light red beam shot down from above and impacted a hillside about half a kilometer away. A thunderous roar echoed through the valley as the beam began to drill into the rock, kicking up dust, smoke, and debris. Fernwyn and Marek stared in shock for several seconds. Marek bolted upright and knocked over the table.
“What’s going on?” he bellowed over the din.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she shouted back. “It’s too close, whatever it is! Signal an evacuation of the castle, I’ll call it in.”
Fernwyn pulled out her PDA and called the Umberian Planetary Defense Force while Marek began to yell at the other guests. The call failed to go through, and she looked at her device like it had just turned into a giant slab of Wolrasi beef. It didn’t take her long to determine that there was a complete communications blackout. Marek ran inside, along with most of the people on the veranda. The gravity of what was happening hit her, and she screamed at the guests who were still transfixed in horror.
“We’re under attack! Get the hell out of here!”
Without waiting for any acknowledgment, Fernwyn ran inside the castle. The interior had rapidly turned into complete pandemonium. There was little to speak of as far as a security detail, and the staff wasn’t equipped to deal with anything like this. People would have responded calmly to a fire alarm, but there was no way anyone could process this. In the main gathering hall, everyone was rushing to find their loved ones and get out. Fernwyn desperately looked for Marek as she dodged the masses on her way to the women’s dressing room.
Inside, several women jostled with each other as they tried to retrieve their belongings from individual storage lockers. Fernwyn found hers, and struggled to enter her security code in the midst of the chaos. On her third try the locker opened. She kicked off her dress shoes, grabbed her trousers, hiked up her dress, and hurriedly donned them. She shoved on her boots and strapped on her pistol belt. She stopped by the nearest window and confirmed that the beam was still boring into the hillside. The rumbling was getting worse, and dust began to shake loose from the ceiling. Pulling out her PDA again, Fernwyn tried to connect directly to Marek’s device. The connection went through, but he didn’t answer. Swearing, she grabbed her credentials and held them above her head.
“Planetary Defense!” she yelled. “Evacuate to the landing pad!”
Fortunately, this had the reaction she had hoped, and most of the women paid attention to her. She ushered them out into the hall, and had soon gathered a group of about forty guests to follow her. The power fizzled, faltered, then quit, casting the hall into shadows. She led them through a short series of dark, twisting hallways out to the main courtyard, where there was a clear path through the battlements to the landing pad. A young Umberian girl of about four stumbled in front of the surging crowd, and Fernwyn smoothly scooped her into her arms. The girl gripped her shoulder tightly and continued screaming for her mother.
Fernwyn arrived at the sprawling landing pad south of the castle grounds. The mass of frightened guests had mostly stopped panicking, and were making their way to their respective vehicles. Some were spacecraft and some were atmosphere-only, but they were all capable of vacating the area rapidly. The whine of engines spooling up filled the air, just barely discernable above the cacophony. Somewhere nearby, an ancient air raid siren began to howl. Fernwyn scrambled a few feet up the nearest berm to get a better look at the pad. She still couldn’t find Marek, Viere, or anyone else she knew. She tried to hand off the girl to another Umberian, but she was ignored, and the girl only gripped her more tightly.
The beam continued its relentless assault on the hillside. The smoke had turned from gray to black, and the rumbling was getting worse. Belano’s voice echoed in her head.
“There’s nothing more you can do here. Get to your ship.”
Fernwyn spoke out loud. “I’ve got to find Marek!”
“He knows where your ship is parked. He will find you there.”
There was a tremendous crack. Magma began to spew from the hillside, and the beam ceased. Chunks of flaming debris arched through the air in all directions. The crowd lost all sense of decorum, and there was a mad rush to get inside the ships. Fernwyn was finally beginning to lose her composure as well, and she sprinted toward her own craft. Fortunately, it was parked nearby at the periphery of the pad. The little girl continued to cling to her as she flung open the cockpit and jumped inside. She wrenched her from her body and placed her in the rear seat. There was still plenty of room for Marek, if he would just get his stupid ass there. Fernwyn powered up the engine and did a quick systems check. As expected, her ship was fine.
The hillside exploded. Fernwyn watched in terror as a pyroclastic flow ebbed forward and began to consume everything in its path. The wave of super-heated gas and rock moved ahead at hundreds of miles per hour, enveloping the castle within seconds. Her hand hesitated over the key to close the cockpit; she had spotted Marek. He was a couple of hundred yards away, and their eyes met. He might as well have been half a world away.
The shock wave hit him, and he disappeared. Fernwyn closed the hatch, and the curtain of fire hit her ship. Immediately it seemed like every warning buzzer went off at once, and her training kicked in. She almost mindlessly shut off the atmospheric engine intakes, switched the heat shields to re-entry mode, and pushed the throttle to the firewall. Her gimbals were gyrating like exotic dancers, and her altimeter might as well have been counting off chocolate coated truffles, but she grabbed the stick and pulled back. Her visibility was zero and her proximity alarms were already blaring at her to pull up. She adjusted for the valley the best she could, her rudder slipping under her feet, and hoped she wouldn’t slam sideways into the southwest hillside. The ship’s laconic computer rarely spoke, but it felt it meet to tell her,
Exterior high energy radionuclide levels exceeding recommended levels. Maintain minimum safe distance of 2.75 nls immediately.
“No fucking shit,” she grunted.
Her ship seemed to hover in midair. The little girl in the back seat gave up screaming, only making the warning klaxons seem louder. The exterior temperature was in excess of 2,000 krewsh, creeping beyond the tolerances of the superstructure. Her engine began to shudder in protest as well, with no way of shedding its own heat output. Fernwyn realized she would break apart if she didn’t stop fighting the wave. She took a sharp breath, and relaxed her vise-like stance on the rudder pedals. Relying only on what her inner ear was telling her, she steadied the rudder and pulled the stick slightly to the left. Sensing forward movement again, she pulled back and let up on the throttle. Feeling the ship level out, she coasted forward for two or three seconds, then once again slammed the throttle forward, almost breaking her own wrist.
They were free. The ship leapt ahead and the instruments seemed to be heading back to functional. With a jarring snap, her elevators suddenly began responding again, and she rocketed toward the stars at well over the recommended velocity. Even as the pyroclastic flow faded behind them and the sky appeared, the external temperature continued to rise. This time it was friction that was her enemy. Her gravitational meter sprung back to life, and registered 14 Gs. Fernwyn’s world began to fade to black around her, and she desperately throttled back. It was too late.
Her last act before passing out was to jab clumsily at the autopilot key, and whisper a short prayer.