About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Another dark, humid, stinking alley. Another nil-tech planet. What a surprise.
Commander Jorie Mikkalah cataloged her surroundings as she absently rubbed her bare arm. Needle pricks danced across her skin. Only her vision was unaffected by the dispersing and reassembling of her molecules courtesy of the Personnel Matter Transporter—her means of arrival in the alley moments before.
The ocular over her right eye eradicated the alley's murky gloom, enhancing the moonlight so she could clearly see the shards of broken glass and small rusted metal cylinders strewn across the hard surface under her and her team's boots.
Another dark, humid, stinking, filthy alley. Jorie amended her initial appraisal of her location as a breeze filtered past, sending one of the metal cylinders tumbling, clanking hollowly.
She checked her scanner even though no alarm had sounded. But it would take a few more seconds yet for her body to adjust to the aftereffects of the PMaT and for her equilibrium to segue from the lighter gravity of an intergalactic battle cruiser to the heavier gravity of a Class-F5 world. It wouldn't do to fall flat on her face trying to defend her team if a zombie appeared.
She swiveled toward them. "You two all right?"
Tamlynne Herryck's sharp features relaxed under her short cap of dark-red curls. "Fine, sir."
Low mechanical rumblings echoed behind Jorie. She shot a quick glance over her shoulder, saw nothing threatening at the alleyway opening. Only the expected metallic land vehicles, lighted front and aft, moving slowly past.
Herryck was scrubbing at her face when Jorie turned back. The ever-efficient lieutenant had been under Jorie's command for four years; she knew how to work through the PMaT experience.
Ensign Jacare Trenat, however, was as green as liaso hedges and looked more than a bit dazed from the transit.
"Optimum," replied Trenat when Jorie turned to him, straightening his shoulders, trying hard not to twitch. Or fall over.
Jorie bit back an amused snort of disbelief and caught Herryck's eye. A corner of Herryck's mouth quirked up in response. They both knew this was Trenat's third dirtside mission, perhaps his sixth PMaT experience.
After eight years with the Guardian Force, Jorie had lost track of how much time she'd logged through the PMaT, having her molecules haphazardly spewed through some planet's atmosphere. She'd seen stronger officers than the broad-shouldered ensign leave their lunch on the ground after a transit. The itching and disorientation would drive him crazy for a few more trips.
At least it was a standard transit and not an emergency one. Even she was known to land on her rump after one of those.
"Are we where we're supposed to be, Lieutenant?" she asked as Herryck flipped open her scanner.
The screen blinked to life with a greenish-yellow glow.
"Confirming location now, sir."
Jorie glanced again at the scanner she'd kept in her left hand through the entire transport, power on, shielding at full. If it beeped, her laser would be in her right hand, set for hard-terminate. Recent intelligence reported the chilling fact that some zombies had acquired the ability to sense a Guardian's tech, even through shields.
That's why she and her team were in this stinking filthy alleyway, on this backward, nil-tech planet the natives had aptly named after dirt.
They were hunting zombies.
Because zombies were on the hunt again.
"Confirmed, Commander." Herryck squinted at the screen with her unshielded eye. "Bahia Vista, Florida state. Nation of American States United."
A subtropical area, according to the Guardian agent on active hunt status here for three planetary months. An agent whose reports had ceased without explanation two days ago. Jorie knew from experience what that could portend. She'd seen it before with agents and trackers who thought they could solve a rogue-herd situation alone. One tracker against one zombie had a chance. An agent with basic tracker training might live long enough to escape. But if there was more than one zombie or if the agent was caught unawares . . . It was the latter she feared.
She'd known Danjay Wain for more than a dozen years—he was one of her older brother's closest friends and had flown as her gunner on her last few missions with the Interplanetary Marines during the Tresh Border Wars. For the past three years on the Sakanah, he'd worked as Jorie's active hunt agent a half-dozen times. In spite of his teasing, prankster ways—he and her brother, Galin, were so much alike—he was a conscientious man with a quick mind and an insatiable curiosity about tracker procedures.
She dreaded now that, during their many sessions over a wedge of cheese and a brew in the crew lounge, she'd either taught him too much about her job—or not enough.
"Think he's alive, sir?" Herryck's quiet question echoed her thoughts. No surprise, that. Danjay Wain was Herryck's teammate, her friend as well. The jovial agent's sudden silence bothered Herryck as much as it bothered Jorie.
She huffed out a short breath. Even as a marine, Danjay could be impetuous. But she'd never thought him stupid. "I hope so. Any response from his transcomm?"
Herryck squinted at her screen, tapped the query code again, then shook her head. "Still no answer."
Damn. She so wanted the problem to be one of distance, of the ship in orbit, atmospheric interference. Anything but what her gut told her might be true: Danjay's impulsive hotshot streak might have finally won out over his common sense. "How far are we from his last signal?"
"Twelve point two marks, sir."
Twelve marks? Jorie directed a scowl upward, even though there was no way the PMaT chief on board the Sakanah could see her. All right. I can deal with another stinking alley, she railed silently at the chief. I know we can't materialize anywhere we want without setting the native nil-techs on edge. But, damn your hide, Ronna, twelve marks? On foot? Let's forget the fact that this is a time-critical mission. Let's forget the fact that we have an agent missing. Do I look like I'm dressed for sightseeing?
She was in standard hot-weather tracker gear: sleeveless shirt, shorts, knee-high duraboots, socks, and a right-arm technosleeve so she could multitask her units if she had to. Two G-1 laser pistols were shoulder-holstered left and right. A Hazer micro-rifle slanted across her back. In the side of her right boot rested a sonic-blade. Not to mention her utility belt with her MOD-tech—her Mech-Organic Data scanner—and transcomm. Her headset with its adjustable ocular and mouth mike striped her hair like a dark band. She'd need that to target the zombies once a warning sounded.
Hot-weather gear notwithstanding, she was definitely not dressed for a leisurely twelve-mark sightseeing stroll.
"We have to acquire transportation." She took a few steps toward the alley's entrance, then stopped. Ronna needed to recalibrate her tiny seeker 'droids to provide landing coordinates better suited to humanoids.
As for Trenat . . . "Relax, Ensign." In the light of the almost full moon overhead, she could see the stiff tension in the young man's shoulders under his tracker shirt. He hadn't taken his hand off his G-1 since they arrived. "There's not a zombie within fifty marks of this place."
Yet. But there would be. There were close to three hundred on the planet, per Danjay's last report. It was the largest herd the Guardians had found to date. The zombies' controller, their C-Prime, had to be straining its capabilities to direct all the drones.
That also meant the zombies' sensenet was large. They'd probably already detected the energy from her team's PMaT and were alerted to an off-world transport. But PMaT trails faded quickly. As long as her team's MOD-tech stayed shielded, they should be safe.
"Transportation." Herryck thumbed down Danjay's data on her scanner screen. "Land vehicles powered by combustion engines. Fossil petroleum fueled. Local term is car."
Jorie had read the reports. No personal air transits—at least, not for internal city use. Damned nil-techs. A four-seater gravripper would be very convenient right now. She resumed her trek toward the alley's entrance, waving her team to follow. "Let's go find one of those cars."
"City population is less than three hundred thousand humans," Herryck dutifully read as she came up behind Jorie. "The surrounding region contains approximately one million."
In her eight years as a Guardian, Jorie had worked cities larger and smaller. Six months ago, Kohrkin—a medium-size city on Delos-5—held seven hundred thousand humanoids. A herd of eighty zombies reduced the population to three hundred fifty thousand by the time the damned council heads alerted the Sakanah. Jorie, Herryck, and two other commanders went dirtside with a full battle squadron. Their mission was successful. But the lives of those she couldn't save still haunted her.
She thought she'd seen death as a pilot with the Kedrian Interplanetary Marines fighting in the Tresh Border Wars, ten years past. That was civilized warfare compared to what the Guardians faced with the zombies.
Unless you were a pilot taken prisoner by the Tresh. Jorie's fingers automatically rose to the long, bumpy scar just below her collarbone as Herryck continued to recite the facts Danjay had provided. And, as always, Jorie's stomach clenched. A memento—a very special one she couldn't afford to think about now. She had other problems. Serious ones, if something had happened to Danjay.
The stickiness of the air and the sharp stench of rotting garbage faded. Jorie paused cautiously at the darkened alley entrance, assessing the landscape. The street was dotted with silent land vehicles, all pointing in the same direction, lights extinguished. Black shadows of thin trees jutted now and then in between. The uneven rows of low buildings were two-story, five-story, a few taller. Two much taller ones—twenty stories or more—glowed with a few uneven rectangles of light far down to her right.
Judging from the brief flashes of light between the buildings and tinny echoes of sound, most of the city's activity appeared to be a street or so in front of her. At least Ronna's seeker 'droid had analyzed that correctly. Materializing in the midst of a crowd of nil-techs while dressed in full tracker gear had proven to be patently counterproductive.
A bell clanged hollowly to her left. Trenat, beside her, stiffened. She didn't but tilted her head toward the sound, curious. As the third gong pealed, she guessed it wasn't a warning system and remembered reading about a nil-tech method of announcing the time.
She didn't know local time, didn't care. Unlike the Tresh, humanoids here had no naturally enhanced night sight. It was only important that it was dark and would continue to be dark for a while yet. She and her team needed that, dressed as they were, if they were going to find out what had happened to Agent Danjay Wain.
The bell pealed eight more times, then fell silent. A fresh breeze drifted over her skin. She caught a salty tang in the air.
". . . is situated on a peninsula that is bordered on one side by a large body of water known as Bay Tampa." Herryck was still reading. "On the other . . ."
Gulf of Mexico, Jorie knew, tuning her out. Data was Herryck's passion.
Zombie hunting was Jorie's.
But first she had to appropriate a car and locate Danjay Wain.
"Trust me, this is truly weird." Ezequiel Martinez's voice held an unusual note of amazement.
Homicide Detective Sergeant Theo Petrakos followed his former patrol partner through the cluster of crime-scene technicians poking, prodding, and prowling around the living room of the small bungalow a few blocks from Crescent Lake Park and downtown Bahia Vista. The whir-click of a digital camera sounded on his left. He recognized Liza Walters, her blond head framing the familiar piece of equipment.
Zeke stopped and pointed to a nearly shredded green plaid couch. "There."
Theo stepped around overall-clad Sam Kasparov, who was diligently dusting a broken lamp for prints, then came to a halt in front of a body next to the couch.
"Well?" Zeke looked at him expectantly. "Weird, right?"
Theo shoved his hands into the pockets of his slacks and nodded mutely in answer. He wasn't sure weird was sufficiently descriptive of the dead, withered body of the man sprawled faceup on the floor. His skin looked like crisp parchment that had been shrink-wrapped over his bones. His T-shirt lay loosely on his frame; his sweatpants seemed overlarge. His red hair, though, was thick, full, and healthy. Not sparse, like the mummy the dead man resembled.
Worse, his eyeballs were still moist. They bulged from his face like two large, wet, dimpleless golf balls.
Theo had never heard of a mummy with wet eyeballs. But then, this man was no mummy.
Mummification of a body took at least a couple of months under normal circumstances in Florida's warmer temperatures. Yet the landlord had last seen the deceased—one Dan J. Wayne, according to the documents Detectives Zeke Martinez and Amy Holloway had found in a kitchen drawer—alive and well two days ago.
Theo had heard of spontaneous combustion. But spontaneous mummification?
He made a mental note to make sure Zeke checked the Centers for Disease Control database.
Judging from comments by the crime-scene techs, they were puzzled too.
They couldn't even definitely say that this was a murder.
All they did know was what the landlord—an affable, ruddy-faced French-Canadian who lived next door—had told Zeke and Amy: he was walking his rat terrier after the six o'clock news when he noticed the broken front window on his rental property. He peered in. Then, voice shaking, Monsieur Lafleur had called the police on his cell phone. The first officers to arrive on the scene found clear signs of a struggle in the overturned, broken furniture and torn draperies.
But the struggle didn't seem to leave any corresponding injuries to the dead man on the floor. And there was no evidence of who—or what—he struggled with. If anything.
For all Theo could tell, the dead man had run around like a whirling dervish, demolishing his own living room before falling to the floor in a mummified state.
That would fit with the pattern of shattered glass from the window. The window hadn't been broken by someone coming in but by something—which included a portion of a wooden end table, from all appearances—going out.
Theo hunkered down on his heels next to the body and snagged a pair of protective gloves from a nearby evidence kit. Carefully, he plucked at the neck of the man's T-shirt, then the sleeves.
"Maybe you shouldn't get too close to Mr. Crunchy." Zeke leaned back as if Theo's touching the corpse might cause it to burst, sending lethal chunks splattering against the guayabera shirt that was Zeke's trademark outfit. Tonight's selection was navy blue with a wide white strip up the front.
"Might be some kind of virus. Contagious. A new SARS strain or something."