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The mission to planet Quofum to investigate unknown flora and fauna is supposed to be a quickie for Captain Boylan and his crew. The first surprise is that Quofum, which seems to regularly slip in and out of existence, is actually there when they arrive. The second surprise is Quofum’s wild biodiversity: The planet is not logical, ordered, or rational. But the real shock comes when the crew members not only find a killer in their midst but discover that their spaceship is missing–along with all means of communication. Of course, the marooned teammates know nothing about the Great Evil racing toward the galaxy, or about Flinx, the only person with half a chance to stop it. Nor do they know that Quofum could play a crucial role in defeating the all-devouring monster from beyond.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Quofum

Chapter One

Like everyone else on the Dampier, Tellenberg was a volunteer and a polymath. With a full crew of only half a dozen there was no room on the low-budget expedition for specialists. At least among the scienti?c complement, everyone had been chosen for their ability to do work in several disciplines. Tellenberg hoped he would have the opportunity to exercise all of his considerable range of knowledge. Like the others, his greatest fear had been that they would emerge from space-plus to ?nd that the world they were charged with surveying and exploring was nothing more than a myth.

If it accomplished nothing else, the mission had already put that particular worry to rest.

Quofum was there, a thickly cloud-swathed world situated between the orbits of the system’s second and third planets, exactly where the much earlier robot probe had predicted. As the Dampier decelerated toward its destination, he hurried forward to catch a ?rst glimpse of the new world through the sweeping port that dominated the bridge. Screens in his cabin and the lab could have provided much more detailed representations. But experiencing a new world in the form of a projection as opposed to viewing it in vivo was not the same thing. In this manner Tellenberg had previously been privileged to experience ?rst contact with two newly discovered planets. Quofum would be his third and, if the preliminary survey turned out to be valid, the most unusual.

An unusual world ?t for an unusual researcher. Twenty years ago Esra Tellenberg had suffered the loss of both arms and both legs in a laboratory accident. Only the telltale darkening of his skin below the shoulders and the knees marked him as a multiple regenerate. From research devoted to studying echinoderms skilled gengineers and doctors had long ago learned how to manipulate genes to induce severely damaged human beings to regrow lost limbs. A far better and more natural option than mechanical prosthetics, these bioengineered replacements were indistinguishable from the appendages they replaced–except for one unanticipated difference. No matter how hard the cosmetic biologists worked at solving the problem, they always had a dif?cult time matching melanin.

Tellenberg’s own body had regrown his arms and legs, but from shoulder and knee down his ?esh was noticeably darker. Body makeup would have rendered hues the same. Being a scientist and not a fashion model, he disdained their use. Thus clearly and unashamedly colored as a regenerate, it was to be expected that he would be nicknamed “star?sh.” He wore the label amiably, and with pride.

He was the last to arrive on the bridge. With a full complement of six, it was not crowded. Though its intensity and size had been greatly diminished by changeover and the drop back into normal space, the luminous violet of the posigravity ?eld projected by the ship’s KK-drive still dominated the view ahead. As the Dampier continued to decelerate, the ?eld’s strength steadily moderated, revealing the rest of the view forward and allowing them a ?rst glimpse of their destination.

“Pretty substantial-looking. Not like something that would go popping in and out of existence.”

While he was a master of multiple skills who could lay claim to several specialized credentials, Salvador Araza simply preferred to be called a maintenance tech. As well as a way of showing deference toward those from whom he had learned, it was also an honest expression of modesty. Tall, slender, and as dark as Tellenberg’s regenerated forearms, he tended to keep to himself. So much so that the xenologist was surprised to hear the expedition’s jack-of-all-trades venture an unsolicited opinion. More expressive even than his face, Araza’s hands were by far his most notable feature. Tellenberg had seen them loop alloy he himself could not even bend, and in the next moment exhibit the skill of a surgeon while realigning components under a technician’s magnifying scope.

Araza was standing just behind Boylan. In the case of the Dampier, the captain was the crew. Appointed though he was, he was still almost a ?gurehead. Interstellar KK-drive vessels essentially ?ew themselves, their internal operations and requisite calculations being far too byzantine for mere human minds to manage. Still, on any expedition someone had to be in charge, if only nominally. That responsibility fell to the gruff-voiced Nicholai Boylan. With his ?aring black beard, deep-set eyes, stocky build, and an occasionally distressing lack of personal hygiene, he struck Tellenberg as an eventual candidate for brain as well as body regeneration.

Contrastingly, the stunted and Neanderthal-looking captain was quite an accomplished amateur microbiologist.

Moselstrom N’kosi (everybody called him Mosi) stood as close to the port as the sweeping instrument console would allow. He also hovered as near as he dared to his fellow xenologist Tiare Haviti.

Tellenberg didn’t blame him. When opportunity allowed, he endeavored to do the same. It was always a delicate dance when single men and women were compelled to share the limited, enclosed space on board a small interstellar vessel. Given the uncertain and potentially risky nature of their destination, it was an application requirement that every potential crew member be unattached. All being mature adults, everyone knew their limits. When a fellow researcher was as alluring as Haviti, however, time tended to produce an accelerated compression of those limits. Aware of her unavoidable attractiveness and as adult and worldly as her male colleagues, she knew how to handle the inevitable attention. Proximity was tolerated: indeed, within the limited space on the ship that was allotted to living quarters it was inescapable. But that was all.

Haviti, Tellenberg found himself re?ecting, was not unlike plutonium. Though potentially dangerous it was also heavily shielded. With care, one could get quite close. Actual contact, however, might prove physically injurious. Having previously lost and subsequently been obliged to regrow four major appendages, he had no intention of risking any others. There was also the daunting and very real possibility that she was smarter than any of them. Wielded by the right tongue, lips, and larynx, a word could be as damaging as a whack.

Of the ?ve males on board, she let only Valnadireb get physically close to her. This intimacy occasioned no jealousy among Tellenberg and his colleagues. Not because Valnadireb was anything other than a virile adult male in his physical prime, but because their fellow xenologist was thranx. Though intellectually simpatico, Valnadireb and Haviti were as biologically incompatible as a chimp and a mantis, the latter being the Terran species to whom his kind’s appearance was most often compared. A bit over a meter tall when standing on all four trulegs and the front set of foothands, rising to a meter and a half when standing on trulegs alone and utilizing both foothands and truhands for purposes of digital manipulation, the insectoid Valnadireb completed the ship’s complement. Like the rest of the ship, the air on the bridge was permeated by the delicate perfume that was the natural body odor of his species.
Surrounded by colorful hovering projections both statistical and representative, a busy Boylan grunted a response to Araza’s observation.

“It’s there, alright. Every reading, she is coming back normal. Iron core, stony outer shell, breathable atmosphere, tolerable gravity. Lots of liquid water she has in her oceans. All normal.” For an instant his crusty demeanor gave way to a twinkle in both eye and voice. “Except for that remarkable alcohol content in the seas.”

“Nine percent,” Mosi reiterated unnecessarily. Unnecessarily because each of them had committed to memory every known fact about their objective since long before their departure from Earth.
“Maybe the place was originally discovered by a wandering race of long-lost master distillers,” a deadpan Haviti commented. Though not unanticipated, the joke still generated a few chuckles on the bridge.
Tellenberg shared the captain’s phlegmaticism. Gazing at the slowly rotating image of the solid globe ?oating before them, it was next to impossible to imagine something so large and substantial suddenly not being there. He tried to imagine it winking out of existence in the blink of an eye. To further the metaphor, he blinked. When he opened his eyes again, Quofum was still there.

Instrumentation malfunction, he told himself con?dently. There was no question about it, could be no other explanation. All down the line that had been focused on this world, there had occurred a succession of instrumental malfunctions.As Boylan methodically recited aloud one hard, cold, incontrovertible reading after another, Tellenberg felt increasingly con?dent he would be able to set his regenerated feet down on the target planet’s surface without having to worry about them abruptly passing through it.

Having concluded the not-so-insigni?cant business of con?rming the world’s existence, he was now eager to explore its surface to study the profusion of life-forms that the initial survey probe had insisted were there. It was an anticipation and excitement he knew was shared by his colleagues. This being such a small expedition there could well be ample discovery (and subsequent professional kudos) to go around.

“I will run a ?nal prep on shuttle one.” As Araza turned to go Boylan put up a hand to halt him.

“Not so fast, my friend. You know the procedure.” He let his gaze touch on each of those present. “You all know the procedure.”

The captain’s declaration gave rise to a chorus of groans that was more resigned than resentful. Everyone knew you just didn’t settle into orbit around an entirely new, unexplored world and dash down for a ramble. First, a prescribed number of observations and measurements would have to be made from orbit.

These would then have to be analyzed and their results approved by the ship’s AI, the latter not being susceptible to complimentary words or physical blandishments by folks in a hurry to set foot on unfamiliar ground. Boylan would then review the ?nal breakdown. If approved, only then would the anxious scientists be permitted to crowd into the shuttle with their equipment and their expectations and allowed to descend to the alien surface.

Though as impatient as any of his colleagues, Tellenberg understood the need to follow procedure. Especially at a new site with as unusual a background as Quofum. With every orbit, the world below became more and more familiar to the team and to the ship, less and less potentially bizarre.

With the exception of its unusual potent oceans and pink-tinged atmosphere, they saw nothing from orbit to mark the globe as anything out of the ordinary. Viewed from high above, it boasted nothing as dramatic as the frozen seas of Tran-ky-ky or the endless metropolitan hive that was the thranx world of Amropolous, both of which Tellenberg had visited. There were mountains and valleys, rivers and deserts, islands and peninsulas, volcanoes and icecaps.A slightly larger pink-tinged Earth.Hopefully the ora and fauna would offer a bit more excitement than anything they were able to discern from orbit.

A week later the always reluctant, ever-circumspect Boylan grudgingly allowed as how it might ?nally be safe to go down and have a look around.

Anxious as the scientists were to commence their research, everyone knew that the first order of business was to choose an amenable location and establish a base camp. Lively argument ensued over whether to do this on the edge of a desert, mountain, riverine, or oceanic zone. Using his vote, Boylan settled the matter by opting for a temperate zone set-down where a sizable river running through native forest entered a shallow sea, a physical location that hopefully addressed as many requests as possible at the same time. Not a single member of the expedition’s scienti?c team was entirely pleased with this choice, which showed that the captain had made the correct one.

Even though all the essential equipment was prefabricated and compacted, it took several round-trips in the shuttle to convey all of it safely to the surface. Arriving in a much larger vessel than the Dampier, a normal-sized expedition would have been equipped with a proper cargo shuttle. Still, the team managed. Only when the last tool, the last wall panel, the last section of roofing and self-routing sealant had been landed according to regulations, did Boylan give the go-ahead for construction to begin.

It was hard. Not because the trio of largely self-erecting buildings proved dif?cult to put up, but because as soon as they set foot on Quofum, every one of the scientists was overwhelmed by the incredible fecundity of their surroundings. It took an effort of will on the part of every member of the crew in addition to continuous cajoling by an exasperated Boylan to get them to attend to the business of putting together a place to sleep, eat, and work. Everyone wanted to explore the alien forest or the alien beach or the alien river.

There was life everywhere. Mosi N’kosi, who thought he had been on bountiful worlds, avowed as how he had never seen anything like their new planetfall. Haviti was visibly overcome by both the opportunities that surrounded them as they worked to erect the camp and by its beauty. Being thranx, Valnadireb had never lived on worlds that were anything other than tropical in nature, but even he had to confess that for sheer richness of biota Quofum surpassed any place up to and including the incredibly lush thranx mother world of Hivehom. For its part, what the researchers initially took to be the more advanced native life-forms appeared as interested in the new arrivals as they did in them.

It took less than a week to set up the tripartite portable facility: living quarters in one extended rectangular structure, lab in another, equipment and gear storage in the third–all laid out like the spokes of an incomplete wheel around the domed main entranceway and biolock. Each successive day they spent on Quofum without succumbing to local bacteria or other infectious microbiota, the less necessary the formal double entrance became. Still, no one suggested doing away with the additional security. Just because they had not yet encountered any hostile life-forms did not mean they did not exist. As experienced xenologists, they knew better.

They also knew that since there were only four of them in addition to Boylan and Araza, it was necessary to stay and work closely together until they had a far better conception of their surroundings. While having four researchers go off on four different tangents might prove to be individually gratifying and scientifically productive, it could also prove singularly fatal. So for the present they restrained themselves.

At least there were no arguments over what to do with the skimmer.None of the scientists requested its use.With a lifetime of work easily accessible within walking distance of the camp, none of the researchers felt a need to make use of the long-range vehicle.

While Boylan and Araza stayed behind to finalize and set up the remainder of the camp’s internal components, everything from the food processing gear to the research lab, the energized scientists paired off. Haviti and Valnadireb chose to focus on the life in and around the river while N’kosi and Tellenberg elected to study the transition zone where forest met the coast.

Appropriately equipped and armed, the two men restrained themselves from stopping every meter to spend an hour collecting samples of local vegetation. Had they chosen to so indulge themselves, they could have spent weeks without passing beyond view of the camp. This exploratory conservatism would have pleased the ever-cautious Boylan, but not so the sponsors of the expedition. So both men hiked a straight line through the foliage to the beach, resolutely resisting the urge to stop and take samples of blue-orange blossoms and elegantly coiled growths whose trunks glistened like pale green plastic beneath a cloud-scrimmed sun.

It did not take them long to reach the shore of the alien ocean. In the absence of a moon, there was hardly any wave action. To the alarm of his shorter companion N’kosi, the very first thing Tellenberg did was wade into the shallows, dip a sampling tube, and instead of sealing it and replacing it in his backpack, take an experimental sip of the liquid he had bottled. It was bad science. Still, the host of expressions that played across Tellenberg’s face showed that at least one portion of the initial survey probe’s report had been right on the mark.

“Nine percent seems about right.” Tellenberg grinned at his concerned colleague. “I expect you could get good and proper drunk on it. But you’d have to like your drinks with a good dose of salt.” Wading back to the beach, the lower third of his eld pants drying rapidly, he extended the tube toward his partner.

Raising a hand, N’kosi demurred. “No thanks. If you don’t mind, I’ll wait until we’ve had a chance to analyze the contents. See if it contains anything interesting besides alcohol. Swarms of parasitic alien foraminifer, for example.”

Tellenberg made a face as he slipped the tube into its waiting receptacle slot. “You’re no fun.”

“Alien parasites are no fun. Horrible, painful death is no fun,” N’kosi countered.

“Like I said, you’re no fun.” A stirring at the foot of the alien growths that grew right up to the edge of the beach drew Tellenberg’s attention. “Are those worms?” Disagreement immediately forgotten, the two men climbed the slight slope in the direction of the movement.

Inland, Valnadireb slowed as he and Haviti approached the river. Though not large or deep, it continued to ow swiftly out of the foothills to the east. Like most of his kind Valnadireb had an instinctive fear of any water that rose higher than the breathing spicules located on his thorax. Furthermore, lacking the large expandable air sac/swim bladders their human friends called lungs, a ailing thranx would sink if immersed over its head. Though some thranx were known to participate in water activities, they were universally considered worse than mad by their contemporaries.

So Valnadireb held back while Haviti walked down to the river and took samples. At her urging and with her encouragement he edged closer and closer, until he was standing just behind her and to one side. There he was able to assist in storing and cataloguing the water samples she dipped from the shallows. The involuntary quivering and barely perceptible buzzing of his vestigial wing cases was the only visible evidence of his unease. The chitinous thranx, of course, did not sweat.

“I know that was difcult for you,” she told him as they moved away from the rushing water and back toward the edge of the forest. While she was perfectly fluent in symbospeech, she did not hesitate to speak in terranglo. Her thranx colleague was equally uent in both, and certainly more at ease with her language than she would have been attempting the clicks, whistles, and glottal stops of Low Thranx.
The valentine-shaped head with its golden-banded compound eyes swiveled around almost a hundred eighty degrees to focus on her as she used both hands to adjust the pack that was slung across his upper abdomen.

“Water is for drinking and ablutions,” he declared firmly. “I can never watch humans voluntarily submerging themselves without incurring distress to my digestive system.”

Grinning, she stepped away from him and adjusted her shirt. The air was pleasantly warm: a bit cool for a thranx, perfect for her kind. Abruptly, the grin vanished and she froze.

As sensitive to exible human expression as he was to the intricate multiple limb and hand movements of his own kind, Valnadireb instantly dropped a truhand toward the small pistol that resided in his thorax holster.

“You see something that provokes anxiety. Where?”

Raising one arm, the now wholly serious Haviti pointed. “To the right. Between those two large red-orange growths.” She stood motionless and staring.

“I have no idea what it is,”she concluded,“but I do know that it’s looking straight at us.”

- About the author -

Alan Dean Foster has written in a variety of genres, including hard science fiction, fantasy, horror, detective, western, historical, and contemporary fiction. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Star Wars: The Approaching Storm and the popular Pip & Flinx novels, as well as novelizations of several films, including Transformers, Star Wars, the first three Alien films, and Alien Nation. His novel Cyber Way won the Southwest Book Award for Fiction, the first science fiction work ever to do so. Foster and his wife, JoAnn Oxley, live in Prescott, Arizona.

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— Published by Del Rey —