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Anteros
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ISBN-10: 1-77115-386-5
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Science Fiction/Fiction/Adventure
eBook Length: 153 Pages
Published: October 2017



From inside the flap

Isolated on a tropical world with thousand-foot trees, two years from Earth, Chief Safety Officer Ben Porterfield is truly alone. He’s responsible for over five-hundred colonists of the newly-arrived Third Anteran Survey, and is not prepared for a job he hadn’t expected, with far more danger than he’d thought. Struggling with a past police career that had left him with nothing but guilt and traumatic memories, he now strives to keep his group alive, as people start to be consumed by an alien rainforest, taken by a predator never seen before. When the white star orbits behind the large red subgiant, Ben realizes that a new terrifying ecosystem emerges with the deep crimson sky. He battles his own self-doubt while pushing forward into ever-increasing fear and horror, desperately trying to be a protector for his people, and, unsure during his final battle with a monstrous beast, if the pain in his past has turned into a death wish.

Anteros (Excerpt)


Chapter 1: Understory

Once a month, Ben's sleeping thoughts would defy a very sharp, subconscious command and plunge him into the nightmare. He'd never been able to remember that much of it, certainly not to the detail of subjects or behaviors or storylines. There were people in it, appearing only as gray shadows against the black backdrop. He was watching a theatrical play with all of the stage lighting turned off. These wispy, ghost-like beings danced around in near silence. They were singing to him, but he could never hear their message. Whatever they were trying to convey was important, this he knew. The only words he ever recalled were his own just as the terror was about to suddenly start. He screamed in such an agonized and distorted way that he didn't even know it was himself at first.

"OH MY GOD, I'M CUT IN HALF!"

Ben Porterfield threw himself back into the world. Lying on his back, he was immediately pounded by that hot, deep humidity from all sides. A thick film of salty sweat was sandwiched between his back and the bed sheets. Every morning he awoke soaking, since the air conditioner was mostly rebuilt, but not enough to actually get the damn thing running. His own shriek in the dream still echoed in his ears with such intensity that he could hear it as clearly as if it had been spoken right next to him. But this time it wasn't just the monthly night terror that bothered him, it was that they were getting worse -more horror, more extreme personal pain. His current job certainly had the possibility of injury, which could be the reason for the faster tempo. And then there was that awful disappearance, Bill Paginot, who'd turned up missing two days ago on the trail that passed right in front Ben's house. To add to the anxiety of it all, he was practically the only safety officer on the planet.

In the mirror he looked at the middle-aged man and felt even older than that at times. He'd spent eighteen months in some kind of frozen sleep, and for the rest of that time he was wandering around that cruiser looking for something to do. Ben needed to lose twenty-five, maybe thirty pounds, the weight gained on the trip, and it was really starting to present itself, since there just wasn't much to keep an insomniac active when cooped up on a transport. He was only forty-three, and a quarter of his light brown hair had already turned grey -not a good sign. There were always meds, one pill would take care of the hair for an entire year, but what the hell was the point? He looked at the expressionless reflection staring back at him and realized again that every day he recognized himself less and less. The most important part of his life was that he was married to someone who did, and always would.

Police uniforms differed from state to state, colony to colony, depending on the terrain. In North Dakota, it was a standard Army-looking dessert kaki pattern. Here, it was dark blue, with a similar jacket and cap. The NAS State Department's Settlement safety office must have been smoking something when mandating a jacket here, he thought, because in this kind of heat, it was impossible to wear. This morning, Ben wore it for all of ten seconds before tossing it into a pile of clothes in the closet and rolling up the sleeves of the light blue shirt. In the absence of a jacket, he clipped the circular badge onto his belt. It was the best he could do, and the nearest auditor was quite some distance away.

Also on his belt was a holster with two guns. He had the Chambers 4.25 millimeter, something he'd never used on anyone in his twenty years of law enforcement. From its fifty-round magazine, it electromagnetically propelled a medium-high fragmenting bullet made from a carbon-laced-steel core to a velocity of around four thousand feet per second. It was an 8-inch-barrelled, hand-held railgun that theoretically was accurate up to twelve hundred yards, not like that meant anything in a rainforest. And then in the holster aft of the pistol he had the shorter six-inch stun gun. Pretty effective -it created a narrow-beam neuro-electric pulse that could bring a moose down for a minute or so, but that was all it had been designed to do.

He stepped out onto the front porch, surprised by the kaleidoscopic walls of blue and green flora that exploded into his field of vision. Trees and flowers were everywhere, yet none of them familiar. AN ALIEN PLANET! He longed for the dry and cool town of Grand Forks. He had grown up reading books and newspaper articles about living on other worlds, an endeavor not all that spectacular any more. For many decades people had journeyed from Earth to its twenty nearest star systems, with hundreds of different mining or green house colonies to choose from. But these planets were barren of air and life. Most of Earth's interstellar colonial networks possessed hot planets like Mercury, or places wrapped in blankets of CO2 like Venus, or gaseous monsters like Jupiter and Saturn. Before the discovery of this world, there had been nothing similar to the Earth, with a breathable atmosphere. People had gotten used to the idea of thick and bulky pressure suits, encasing men and women as they clumsily bobbed up and down on some gray, cratered surface, devoid of oxygen and water, from one life support bubble to the next. But not here, since this planet had air.

A hundred and ten years ago the Gorgon Nebula had been discovered, a vast region of space thick with gas and dark matter. Hidden behind it was a magnificent binary white-red star system, hosting twelve planets in orbit. It had taken the unmanned U.S. Astro Space explorer Bolthor twenty years to get here, and it discovered that the fourth planet in orbit was covered with a lush bluish-green verdure. Bolthor, with its primitive, century-old fusion-matter expulsion drive, had returned to Earth over forty years after it had departed, carrying its treasure trove of computer information on a planet later to be christened Anteros.

And then the First Survey came, followed by the Second, the people who had first set foot here. These trailblazers had been the builders and geologists, and with their pre-fab kits had put up hundreds of structures and houses that now comprised their home. But more than half of the first people who'd colonized Anteros had disappeared, a horrific fact that had been only revealed to Ben two months earlier when he landed with the Third Survey. The people had been consumed by the rainforest, but not even the remaining survivors knew what had become of them. When Ben and the rest of his group of colonists arrived, they found a nearly-empty, decaying town, left to the whims and mercy of the jungle. The man who was supposed to have been his boss had been presumed killed long ago. Although it hadn't been stated in his original job description, Ben was now the chief safety officer, and it was his job to figure out what happened to these people, and how to prevent it from happening to the Third Survey. But now another person was lost, someone he'd known.

Ben looked at the trees, vines and flowers. The panorama of his front yard made the memory of North Dakota seem like that of a desert. His former home had been wheat-brown and quiet. Its early morning sounds consisted of the distant electric hum of cars whizzing along inside a glass-enclosed highway, two-hundred floors below where Ben had stood on his open balcony. Voices from down there could not be heard. There were interstate birails -long cylinders that stretched to infinity in both directions -channels for silent trains going thousands of miles an hour. Stratohoppers, the disc-shaped, wingless hovercraft, could have shattered the very foundation of his apartment building with their thunderous noise, but they engaged their magnetic generators at such an altitude that they, too, were almost without noise.

On the planet Anteros, the voices were numerous and very loud. There was the chattering of crickets and beetles, the warbling of enormous, unseen birds, and the suspicious rustling of tropical brush by the unknown animals that roamed the surface of this very odd world. The wood making up the two-by-fours on the porch floor was white with a bluish tint, a strong timber that had been used in the construction of the entire house. Ben walked down the steps, listening with dissatisfaction as they squeaked and moaned beneath his weight. The front yard was a small one, leading out thirty feet before intersecting a muddy bike trail carved out of the brush. Trees reached up like so many titan fingers pointing up at the sky, most higher than nine hundred feet. Pinnacles, as they were called, were the tallest trees any human being had ever laid eyes on. They formed a tight mesh of branches at the top, effectively absorbing most of the sunlight with their circular, massive leaves.

When Ben reached the trail he turned around to gaze at his house from a distance. He was too much of a perfectionist and had a bad habit of nitpicking, having slaved behind manual hammers and hand saws for two months in what little spare time he had since the interstellar lander had dropped down from orbit and deposited him there. He had rebuilt a good part of this dwelling, using blue wood panels and gray wood for molding. He looked down the dark and gloomy trail, which would accommodate hovering transports, light bikes and pedestrians, but nothing larger. Then he heard creaking on the porch and light thumps on the stairs. Janice Porterfield had been working in the back yard and saw that he was up.

Her bright red hair was a lovely contrast to the surroundings, advertising "I'm here!" Thirty-six years old, Ben thought, and hasn't changed at all since college. The only time Ben ever used the words "love" and 'beautiful' was when he thought of his wife. Her kindness coupled with sarcasm made her so. She was wearing another very neutral gray jump suit. She'd always loved the yellow one, but discovered that the Anteros-equivalent of moths were also partial to this color, and changed her habits begrudgingly. These new outfits still revealed her slender physique. She had a prominent smile that was, it seemed, a contrast to the world at times. Her hair flowed like a river half-way down her back, but she refused to compromise on this, even if the red also attracted insects. She just sprayed more. Some things just can't be changed. Her feet sank into the moist soil as she made her way over to him, her sincerity the only friendly thing in this environment.

"Good morning," she said, wrapping her arms around his waist. He was large, a foot taller than her, and was now over twice her weight.

"Morning, Jan," he answered. "I had that dream, the nasty one."

Her smile diminished. "I guess it's over for a while longer. You'll be able to sleep better knowing that. Still like before?"

"The subject, if you can call it that, is the same. But it's getting more severe, I guess. I woke up with a pretty sharp pain in my stomach. That's never happened before."

"That was from me to you for hogging the bed," Jan smirked. Ben smiled.

"You're so nice, gentle, too." She looked a bit more serious.

"A missing person case doesn't help. A lot of missing persons, really, but this one just happened. How long has it been since you had to work something like this?"

"Oh, years. Years and years, but I always had to keep looking until I understood what had happened. That will be how it is now. I'll find out what's going on."

"I know you will, my love."

They both looked at the house, originally built by the construction crew who had since vanished or left when that massive, wonderfully-air-conditioned stellar hotel that had once been above returned home. Ben and Janice received permission to move into this dwelling, which was half-collapsed at the time and had tropical vines and branches poking into every window. It took many weeks of off-hours work, but it was starting to be habitable again. The front porch stretched across the entire facade, but the one-by-ones supporting the bannister were unevenly spaced enough so that it was very noticeable. They both looked up at the porch roof. It was crooked, standing eight feet above the porch on the right side, and eight and a half on the left. If they were looking at it from five hundred feet away, it would still look askew. Janice started to laugh.

"Dammit," Ben solemnly said. This made her really laugh. "This is just dumb. Nobody puts on a roof that bad."

"I know a couple of people who did," Jan broke in, "working in the dark and getting romantic. Guess that took our minds off carpentry."

"To hell with it. I think it looks fantastic."

"So do I."

"Let's go to town."

"Let's." Ben started walking toward the small garage, but Janice stepped onto the path. "I want to walk, Treefall is only ten minutes away."

"Thirty seconds by light bike." But Janice turned and brought her arms around him in a hug.

"Ben, I really want to get to know this place, and seeing the trees and animals zipping by in a speed blur doesn't do anything for me. We were in hibernation or otherwise stuck on that ship for two years to get here, and you've been working constantly since we landed. You gave yourself three whole hours off this morning before going back, so let's just take a real stroll. Anyhow, you need the exercise, you're getting a little tubby." Ben felt his smile stretching his face.

"Please, don't sugar-coat it like you usually do, let me know how you really feel." They both laughed. Janice was the most honest person he'd ever known, but they had settled on a planet that swallowed up new-comers. HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO RELAX? Ben had just left a very difficult life behind him. He made a mistake once twenty years ago, and the ghost of it followed him wherever he went, even to Anteros.

They had always planned on having the two-child maximum on Earth, and Ben could think of no potential parent better than she would be, with her profoundly thoughtful and brilliant nature, just someone who had "people-smarts." In all the time he'd known her, she had never even raised her voice, nor did he. For twelve years they had planned it out back home, and for those years their apartment remained devoid of the small feet of children running around with their high-pitched screams of joy and pain and growth. Now, Benjamin Porterfield was retired, his old life trillions of miles away. It was time to finally enter the most important phase of their marriage and lives, this was very true.

They started walking down the trail.

"I told Dean Ervin we'd pick him up at the clinic for brunch," Jan said, knowing that would bring out a politely negative response from Ben. He slouched a little.

"That's good."

"You don't really care for him, I sense that every time I even mention his name. He really is a very, very nice person, Ben. You just need to get to know him."

"I like the guy and think he's okay, I'm just tired of getting an earful of his life's story every time I get within a hundred yards of him. He wants to be everyone's friend, always too eager to please, and just seems kind of pretentious. I'm just not sure about him." Janice did not like hearing this. She had stopped by Doctor Ervin's office several times, occasionally with her allergies, but in her last visit, which was definitely a more a severe case of anemia, she had been almost instantly cured. The good-natured Dean, with a joke and a dermal pad, removed the problem and the fear. She had developed an extremely good friendship with him.

"You'll need him around some day. You'll break a bone in your foot or get some parasite inside of you or get bitten, and then you'll need him professionally. He can be counted on, Ben, to help out in a bad time." He looked at her, and she continued. "And not just a bad time in a medical sense. Trust me, you two are going to be really good friends before long."

"Could happen."

"People change." He felt a twinge of denial that. I HAVEN'T, IN TWENTY YEARS! He had hoped that some of his memories of Earth, like a radio signal passing through the soupy Gorgon Nebula, would become distorted and unreadable. Many messages were painful, but Ben now realized that they were being transmitted as clearly as though coming from a broadcasting towersitting right next to his sloppily assembled cabin.

They walked. It hadn't rained much and the trees were shedding unnecessary weight, dropping their thick, heavy leaves. Most of them were dark blue on top and pearly white underneath, with thick veins throughout. If one of those leaves landed right, Ben thought, it would wrap completely around my head. They plummeted to earth quickly, and after falling for hundreds of feet, made quite a racket when they struck the ground. Janice looked up while she walked and smiled.

"I can't see the moon." Ben looked up. The tropical rain forests, like any found on Earth, were dark, and here the branches were so high up Ben couldn't see them individually. Sunlight poked through holes and crevices so that the upper canopy was more like a pin cushion with brilliant light streaming through a few openings. "Every time I'm in town and see that moon, it rattles me a little, even though I've seen it now a few hundred times," she continued. The moon, Pallor, was red and heavily cratered, and three times the size of Earth's moon. Its orbit also held it very close to Anteros.

"We'll see it in Treefall," Ben answered. A lunar eclipse on Earth was a rare event, to be studied with a vengeance every few years. Anteros had one almost every week, lasting for several hours.

To the left and right of them were trees. It was more than a mere forest, since the trunk diameters of pinnacles were over a hundred feet. They walked alongside one, barely able to make out its curvature. It was more like strolling past a great wooden wall, with thick layers of moss covering its smooth bark. Ben felt small and insignificant next to this wooden mammoth. This tree had been standing there since before the Druids had constructed Bluestone Circle on Earth; it had been pummeling the surface with colossal leaves before the birth of Christ. For thousands of years this very tree had formed an immense home, motel and sanctuary for countless species of animals and insects. No one knew just how old these titans could get, but there were several growing near the settlement that dated back to the Earth's Stone Age.

In between there was darkness, the sunlight obscured by their shadows. There were maybe twenty yards of clear visibility, but beyond this were animal noises, none of them familiar. Ben felt a queasy dread just looking into this blackness -something could spring at him before he could react. Maybe that was how the other colonists had met their end. But Janice knew the tropics, having spent years in the Amazonian Tropical Rain Forest Reserve, not to mention the parks in Costa Rica and Ecuador. Diving into dense, unknown brush was her forte. In fact, it had been her job at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute that brought her and Ben to Anteros. Staring into the void between two trees, she sniffed at something, and then deeply inhaled. She suddenly jumped off the trail.

"Follow me," she said.