Dex studied the terrain around him a little more closely as he continued to run, but still couldn’t find any possible hope of escape. The moon was small, the gravity and abrupt horizon told him that. He could run in huge bounds, the smartsuit keeping him level. It was cold, also, and dark. Dex found the fact that both the gas giant and the sun were on the other side of the moon from him a mildly amusing example of the way his luck had been running lately. Of course, he thought, Torx might have planned it that way.

Even so, before he melted it he could see that Zexan had actually been damaged by the Triss Lancers’ plasguns. There was a deep rent near the base of the cabin sphere, where it met the long cylinder of the pha/slip drive coil. One of the heat radiators had been slagged off, accounting for the list when Zexan landed. Torx must have been in a lot of pain.

The terrain continued on uniformly flat and about ten clicks from the crash site Dex started encountering the boulders. He had trimmed the smartsuit’s infrared signature as low as he could get it and was running with only passive infrared to see by. Any sort of light emitted by him would blaze in the Triss’ detect tech, and that would be it for our hero.

The first of the boulders took him by surprise, coming up quickly as he leaped across the desolate landscape in search of any kind of shelter. Dex didn’t bother to wonder where the boulders had come from and why they seemed to be nearly the same basic size and shape, ovals about a meter tall and two and a half meters long. He could jump them easily in the insignificant gravity, when he saw them. Their temperature was pretty much the same as the basic background temperature, and in the dark, that made them almost invisible to him. They were useless as cover, so he kept running.

With the smartsuit’s IR cut-outs it would take the Triss a while to tune down to him, so he had time, but not much. Eventually, they would pick him up, moving or standing still, on high ground or low, and they’d take him out from orbit . . . if he was lucky. If he wasn’t, and he hadn’t been lately, they would land and take him prisoner first.

The Triss didn’t like human mercs much to begin with, especially ones who fought against them and told their dirty little secrets. But the particular Triss who followed him to Vignette didn’t like him, personally. Dex had stolen one of his Lancers and turned it on the Triss’s weasely Castill allies. The Castill had one of Dex’s units pinned down hard on Fortuno, even though they’d signed as neutral when Fortuno went over to the Sovs. The Triss didn’t like a Sov revolt so close to one of their mining colony strings—the Rhii Strand—so they muscled, as Triss were apt to do, and the Castill turned. Dex lost a lot of good men that day.

He’d known the Triss who worked the Rhii Strand. They called him Observer Twenty-third Rill, and he was a bastard. Observer Twenty-second Rill had been Dex’s boss on the Androm job, and Castill aside, Dex knew Twenty-third wouldn’t stop until he found him. Dex’s only hope was to find some sort of neutral territory and make it a fight, sign on with a merc unit if need be, even make it a bar brawl. Dex didn’t want to get burned down in free space, or on a clean ball like Vignette. He didn’t want to be just a target. He wanted people to know who killed him and why.

*   *   *

It didn’t hurt when his toes clipped the top of a boulder and sent him sprawling. The gravity was light and the smartsuit compensated. Dex swore when he hit ground because he was angry at himself for letting his mind wander. He rolled onto his back and brought the melter up, but there was no one there. He sat up even as the suit told him everything was okay, environment sealed, temperature stable, ready for another nutri-shot?

Dex looked at the boulder, and for the first time, maybe because it was the first time he’d stopped since first seeing one, he saw it move. It wasn’t fast, not at all, but it moved. It was cold, same as the ground, but it was alive. Dex stood and the sun rose behind his back, and in less than a second it was daylight. The smartsuit’s faceplate compensated, but Dex felt as though he should squint anyway.

He turned around and looked at the small, distant sun, red and dim, but as good as a spotlight. The Triss would have him soon. He swore to himself, but turned and ran anyway.

“Just one mountain range. . . .” he said out loud. “On this whole crappy ball, could there be just one damn mountain?”

*   *   *

Observer Twenty-third Rill took three small inhales of Calm to keep his adrenaline down. He had Dexter Willis pinned, and the criminal human would not get away. He gave the disengage order and the forward sections of the three Lancers fell away from the long, forward-swept-winged bodies of their pha/slip coil hulls. The heat radiators glowed red in Twenty-third’s aft view as any remaining heat energy was spent into space. The pha/slip hulls would be waiting for them when Dexter Willis was dead.

The fight pods were the heart and minds of the Triss Lancers. Three individual canopies covered the sealed compartments inhabited by the Triss crew. Triss always traveled in threes. Lancers were crewed by an Observer, a Driver, and a Technic. The drugs they used were gaseous, resulting in the need for separate compartments. Twenty-third took a deeper inhale of Calm before linking to the Drivers of all three Lancers.

“They hard fell,” he said. “Split to search one-one-one. Target is sheathed in a smartsuit with an IR cut out. Scan motion and shadow.”

All three Drivers came back in the affirmative and split off into three different orbits of Vignette. The net was cast and Twenty-third tuned his view to the smooth surface of the little moon and observed.

“When we find Target?” Observer Thirteenth Yoll asked over the secure tight-beam from his polar orbit.

“Report,” Twenty-third clarified. “Track. Stand by.” He stopped short of another breath of Calm, then set the mix for Intuit. Breathing evenly, he finished, “He’s for me.”

*   *   *

Everything Dex knew about Triss detect tech ran through his mind. The blank spaces were big, but there was some useful information. He could live on Vignette, alone in his smartsuit, for about a week. After that the suit would start telling him he was running out of nutri, water, heat, everything. It would be a slow and unpleasant death, but faster and more pleasant than what the Triss surely had in store for him. Still, he actually considered giving up as he sat there on the soft ochre moss and watched the slow path of one of the boulder animals. It left a trail of mostly bare soil behind it that stretched back to the abrupt horizon. As far as Dex could guess, the things just slid along the ground eating out paths in the moss.

The realization almost made Dex swoon. He hadn’t seen the boulders at first, not with passive light accumulation. The hard armored shells were the same ambient temperature as the ground. The only way he would have seen them was if he’d stopped and looked for movement. Even then they were slow, but in daylight, they had shadows. The words came together in his mind like a skimmer wreck: movement and shadow.

He swore to himself and lay face up on the soft ground. He tried hard to approximate the size and shape of the boulder animals. He wasn’t big enough around the middle, or tall enough. He tried several positions and had to admit that there was no way he was going to be mistaken for one of the boulders. Even then, what would he do if he eluded the Lancers? If they left the system thinking he died in Zexan, he’d still only have that week, then he’d die. If he gave himself up, would he at least have a chance?

“No,” he said to himself, “I need to get them down.”

“I’m sorry,” the smartsuit answered, “I don’t under—”

“I’m not talking to you,” he hissed, then made himself stop thinking out loud. He didn’t sit up, but he thought a lot.

Until movement to his left shook him alert. He brought his melter up and said good-bye to himself. There was still enough of a soldier in him to check his target, though, and before he fired he saw it wasn’t a Triss.

The animal looked indigenous. It had the same cool temperature, barely above background, but it was smaller than the crawling boulders, like a little ball, half a meter in diameter at most. It moved by pushing out little gray appendages that looked more like tongues than legs that made its spherical body roll in any direction. All around it were a couple dozen suckerlike orifices—the source of the tongue-legs.

The ball rolled quickly up to the boulder animal that had by then passed him by three meters. Dex watched, still sitting, as the ball hopped up onto the boulder and latched on for dear life. There didn’t seem to be any reaction from the boulder, but the ball began to pulsate madly.

“Exterior sound,” Dex demanded and there was the thin rush of wind in his ears. The boulder made no sound, but he could hear a crack, like splintering wood from between it and the ball. As it sat there and throbbed, the sucking sound made Dex turn off his microphones.

“Target Willis.” The voice in his head was wiry and difficult to hear. Dex could feel his gums peel back and the smartsuit try to level off his heart rate.

“Observer . . .” he started, but couldn’t finish.

“Observer Twenty-third Rill,” the Triss’s voice finished for him. “Come to meet with you in regards to a matter of some importance.”

“Where are you?” Dex managed to ask, looking in all directions even though he knew he shouldn’t move.

“I’m on my way,” was the Triss’s answer. “I found Torx and his Zexan. Unfortunate. It was my understanding that this symbic was rather efficient with high-rev—”

“Enough!” Dexter screamed, jumping to his feet. “Just get it over with.”

“I will, in time,” Twenty-third promised. “Continue speaking.”

It was homing in on his signal. “Oh, no,” Dex said and he started pushing buttons. The smartsuit couldn’t keep up with everything he was trying to do.

“Comm!” Dex screamed. “Communications, damn it!”

“Comm link severed,” the smartsuit reported.

He had to get away. He looked again in every direction and in every direction there was nothing. Movement again caught his eye and he saw the ball roll gently off the boulder, trailing a thin line of violet semi-liquid. The ball was bigger, bloated. Dex suppressed a gag, then got an idea.

He had no clue how long it would take for Twenty-third to at least guess as to his position from the signal. He couldn’t run or jump fast enough, even in such marginal gravity, to get far enough away. Dex knew they would only be able to narrow down the area by the comm link signal, that they’d still have to lock in on him by movement and shadow. If he ran, he’d be dead.

Flipping over the boulder was considerably easier than he thought it would be. There were certain benefits to a little gravity and a lot of adrenaline. Underneath, the shell was essentially empty. There were only a few traces of the thing’s guts left. Everything else had been reduced to sticky, viscous violet juice.

“Liqui-something,” he whispered as he crawled under the shell and let it fall over him. Everything went black and he remembered the word, “Liquivore.”

The little ball had pierced the boulder animal’s shell with one of its tongue-legs and injected some kind of acid that liquefied the boulder’s insides. The ball then sucked the liquid back up and ingested everything neat and easy, without having to use anything as unwieldy as a stomach.

Inside the shell, Dex could feel the liquid all over him. “Status?” he asked the suit.

“Functioning within safe limits. Hazardous materials subroutine has been initiated.”

He couldn’t feel anything, but Dex knew the smartsuit was coating itself with a shielding chemical paste that would keep the liquivore’s leftover acids from reacting with the suit. All he had left to do was wait.

*   *   *

Observer Twenty-third Rill breathed deeply of the newly diffused mixture of Calm and Intuit and started tracking the boulders. The highly tuned detect tech that crammed his cabin almost didn’t recognize them as living organisms. They were outwardly cold, obviously protected by some sort of exoskeleton, and they barely moved at all, and even then only in straight lines.

A few smaller indigenous life forms were picked up, a few even vaporized from orbit by the other two Lancer fight pods. Nothing big enough to be Dexter Willis had been tracked, but Twenty-third had reason to be optimistic. He had actually managed to engage Target Willis in a wide spectrum communications link. The search had been narrowed and Twenty-third couldn’t help but be impressed by how much ground the human had covered from the bright white blotch that marked the remains of Zexan.

Even though he was sure Dex wouldn’t fall for it again, Twenty-third kept transmitting.

“Target, Target,” he said to no one. “Even I know you can not remain living more than a third of a tenth-cycle in your smartsuit. How will you get off this little rock?”

There was, of course, no reply.

“Target Willis,” the alien hissed. “Let me make it easier . . .”

*   *   *

Dex felt the thud more than he heard it. He hoped it was Twenty-third, or any other Triss. He hoped the aliens were stupid enough to land and leave their fight pods. He hoped they were stupid enough to give him a way off Vignette. He braced his left hand against the top of the empty shell and cradled his melter in his right hand. He was ready. Ready to throw off the shell and melt all three Triss before they could get their claws on him. It was a crap plan and he knew it, but it would have to do until a better plan came along.

Dex reactivated the exterior microphones and heard a scraping noise. There was definitely something moving on the outside of the shell. The tongue entered his palm and thrust in past his wrist before he could jerk his hand away. When he tried, pain leaped through his body. His hand was stuck to the shell.

“Oh, no,” he said, and the burning feeling started right away. “Oh, no . . .”

The pain was blinding. He couldn’t manage a deep breath. His lungs, his insides, quivered. He managed to hit the comm link key with his right hand as the smartsuit began filling with a hot, thick, violet semi-liquid that used to be his left arm. It took a long time for him to get enough breath in to say anything. In that same amount of time, the little ball had sucked his arm out through the suit and the shell, and the tongue probed deeper, and there was so much pain.

“Observer!” he screamed.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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