EXCERPT from Inner Diverse, Book 2 of The Splintered Universe Trilogy: In a desperate attempt to find the Ancient One—the key to the mysterious killings—Detective Rhea Hawke steals a Vos ship and the Vos leader, forcing the terrorist A’ler at gunpoint into taking her to Upsilon-3.
Upsilon-3 is a desert planet with a thin atmosphere, heavy gravity and highly fluctuating temperatures—uncomfortable for any species, save its indigenous small creatures and the blenoids who eat them. Upsilon-3 is one of the moons of Upsilon b, a ringed gas giant. The moon is about Earth-size, an arid wasteland that diurnally shifts between extreme temperatures. During the height of midday, it easily reaches 45ºC, an Azorian’s dream, and in the deep of night it is often below freezing, an Azorian’s nightmare. And speaking of mad blenoids, the planet is full of them…Rhea knows first hand:
I’d been there before. I’d tracked and dispatched an Azorian assassin to the small ephemeral town there once—but at the cost of a blenoid attack. In his desperation, the Azorian had fled the ghost town into the arid wilderness, and if I hadn’t shot him, the blenoids would have torn him apart. If they hadn’t, he would have died a horrible death of severe hypothermia. As it turned out, my shot infuriated a pack of sleeping blenoids and I became the subject of their fury instead.
Ferocious and unpredictable, with dull brains and razor sharp teeth, blenoids were the galaxy’s most dangerous predators; but beneath their tough hide, blenoid meat was considered a galactic delicacy, so long as you stayed away from their organs. Their eating habits made them akin to the seagulls of Earth; they ate everything and anything, including their own and what came out of them. And they were prolific. Blenoids weren’t very large. They stood about a meter long and almost that high but with the anatomy and mad tenaciousness of a pit bull and the rough ochre hide of a rhino.
Adapted to the arid heat of the Upsilon desert, they resembled hyenas with extremely large ears and paws to increase surface area and promote heat loss. Five beady eyes, two on either side of their massive head and one centrally located, were adapted to the harsh bright sunlight of the Upsilon 3 dessert. Their massive powerful jaws contained three layers of razor-sharp teeth. Once they bit down on a prey, the jaw locked into a vice-like grip that either ground deeper or tore out deep muscle. Blenoid saliva contained a powerful narcotic and poison that dulled its victims and caused severe infection that spread swiftly. My grandmother was right; most blenoid attack victims died from shock. Those who’d survived, and there weren’t many, had only done so due to drastic measures like having a limb immediately severed to save the rest of their body. Blenoids attacked anything, no matter what its size and tore it to shreds. They were even known to rip one another apart in a frenzy of aroused anger or if they sensed any weakness. It was natural selection at its cruellest, I considered…
The Galactic meat-traders didn’t stay beyond the time it took to hunt and prepare the blenoid meat for galaxy-wide sale. Apart from the Gnostics who’d claimed one cluster of the ancient alien buildings as their temple of worship, no one lived here—except the Ancient One, that is. So, between the Venik slave traders, the blenoid meat traders, the Gnostic priests and the Nihilists, this backwater planet was actually getting crowded.
As A’ler banks the ship to the arid planet, Rhea observes the vast expanse of open desert:
I gazed down at the waved pattern of cresent-shaped dunes, obviously formed by a constant wind. It was a harsh and miserable environment, I thought.
“Barkhans,” A’ler offered, pointing to the dunes and breaking her taciturn silence. “That’s the West Ghouroud. No one’s ever crossed it and lived.” She eyed me with a dismissive look of disgust as much as to imply, especially a puny human like you.
I didn’t respond and let my gaze stray back to the dune sea. The dunes looked like the capped waves of a red ocean, the deep ochre of their shaded slipfaces contrasting with the harsh bright windward sides, still baking in the sun. The dunes looked small, but I guessed that some were at least three hundred meters high.
When they reach their destination—an enclave of strange buildings built by some ancient civilization—Rhea is hit with the harsh environment:
A’ler opened the hatch and a blast of furnace-hot air knocked me gasping and recoiling…Even at sunset, I could feel the stifling heat as we awkwardly disembarked. I inhaled a cloyingly sweet fragrance, reminiscent of cabbage, sewage and rotting flesh: blenoids, I concluded. And remembered; they stank… I followed her gaze and let mine take in the wide expanse of shifting red sands, dotted with islands of low creeping grey-green scrub. My gaze settled to the east.
Upsilon Andromedae sat poised over the horizon. I could manage only a glance at the large bluish sphere of Upsilon b above the sun, its huge-diameter ring extending vertically down beyond the horizon and cutting a knife-sharp blade through the sun that cast a long shadow of the ring across the russet expanse. I stared, struck by the terrible beauty of this harsh landscape and just made out what looked like a dust storm on the horizon.
When both her Vos enemy and she are abandoned in the open desert, Rhea must use all her skills to survive the beating heat of the sun, wild blenoids, quicksand, sinkholes and killer plankton as they journey toward a far settlement, hoping for reprieve.
We’d left the flats of the playa and were heading toward rougher terrain. By tomorrow we would enter the desert proper, the ghouroud, with its massive barkhans that I’d seen from A’ler’s ship. I could already see them looming in the distance. I heard their low stuttering roar as the wind sang through them. And dreaded the crossing. Not only would it be treacherous with more possible quicksand traps, but it would serve a tortuous climb for A’ler up the slipface of the barkhans then down the soft sand on the other side…
The desert became a frozen sea, red clouds of sand rising off huge cresting waves that boomed and creaked like an old boat pitching at sea. The wind whistled like a chorus of laughing witches, hurling red grit into our faces. Our pace slowed to a crawl as our wading steps in the hot yielding sand turned to stumbles and falls.
When they finally reach a settlement, they collide with sadistic meat-traders. There Rhea will learn the grim truth about blenoid physiology, ecology and behaviour—and herself.
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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.