Beyond the Rim of Light
by Alex Stone
Captivated by the beauty of the planet Arden, xenobiologist and survey team leader Marissa Latham wants to preserve it and its dominant species, the rheodactyls (rheos). However, a treaty between the Usian Confederation and the Delphian Empire requires the clearing of Arden despite Marissa's insistence the rheos are sentient. Unsupported by others, she is determined to reverse that decision when a rheo attack on the survey team closes the planet to all. Angered by events, Marissa takes action that has unexpected results. Exiled beyond the edge of the universe, she is transformed.
From the unsuspected warp and weft of the universe to the pleasure world of Satina IV, Marissa fights to save Arden, the Rheos, and the friends who were condemned along with her.
Prologue - The Lamp
“Our lamp is spent, it’s out!”
-Antony and Cleopatra, IV 15
Clambering out of the shallow depression in the cave under Orm’s Monolith, Marissa Latham crept toward the flickering light. Pausing, she stared, unable to hope, to believe. On a rock ledge, a lamp wavered and popped. Carved, with layer upon layer of filigree, the lamp had two chambers, one encasing the other. At the heart of this intricate sculpture, a small flame danced on a wick that floated in a pool of shiny liquid.
She couldn’t identify the material of the lamp. It resembled stone, largely green with veins of gray. As she reached out to touch it, the light sputtered and died in a sudden cold breeze.
Lunging forward in the darkness, she grabbed for the ledge. Her fingers inched along it until her right hand touched the smooth, still warm lamp. A lamp, more than a mural, an artifact to take back with her, offered proof positive of rheo intelligence.
Something grabbed her wrist. She gasped and struggled.
Someone or something tore the lamp from her hand.
Jerking backward, she came free and fell to the cold stone floor. From the blackness, a loud shriek rent the air and echoed from the walls. Shrill trumpeting almost deafened her.
Her heart pounding, Marissa scrambled backward. Away, away from whatever inhabited the cave. Then she stopped. The lamp. She needed the lamp.
“Wait,” she cried to the faceless, nameless presence.
Echoes and then something like a whispered hiss answered her. The thing in the darkness threatened. Her muscles refused to move. Time stopped.
Another stealthy sound.
Fear foremost, she turned and ran. Her pulse raced and drove her toward the safety of the glowing lumina in the previous chamber.
With one quick grab, she scooped up the light along with her pack. Marissa sprinted toward the daylight certain a creature writhed through the cave after her. At the last moment, she remembered to stoop to avoid the low ceiling of the corridor entrance.
On her knees, she crawled as fast as she could toward the growing sunlight. Outside, she raced along the streambed. A hasty glance back revealed nothing followed her. She slowed, but off to her right, across the plain, a dark herd of rheos massed. At least a dozen of them galloped toward the Monolith at breakneck speed.
Desperate and breathing hard, Marissa raced back to where she had left her crew. She scrambled up the talus pile between the stream and the armored vehicle, dislodging scree and stones. As she crested the other side, she saw more rheos in the south, approaching even faster than the first group. Tesde, N’Bert, and Tad worked on the Monolith face, unaware of the threat.
Sliding down the talus, Marissa ran toward the three. “RHEOS!” She pointed across the fields.
About fifteen hundred meters from the scouter, the galloping rheos bore down on them. Tesde and Tad stared at her a moment before they too saw the approaching herd. When they did, they just stared. Marissa raced toward them. She tried to shout, but she had too little breath for it.
At last, she reached them. She shoved them toward the armored transport. “Inside! Now!”