Alien safari, p.21
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       Alien Safari, p.21

           Robert Appleton
 
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  ***

  He walks barefoot, against his better judgment, on fine sand the color of old book pages. It’s surprisingly cool given its proximity to the equator, only a few hundred miles north. He makes fists with his toes. Cool becomes cold as the grains compact in the sensitive places between his toes. A pleasant sensation. Though not everything about the beach is pleasant. Natural flotsam, red and rubbery, resembles a long fathom line made up of deflated innertubes knotted together. It forms a miles-long seaweed barrier past which the crashing sea can’t reach. In its knots, colonies of sharp-shelled creatures crunch and scrape together, fighting to feed off nutrients inside the red rubber. He checks his footing. None of the little bastards has made it this far inshore.

  It’s the first time he’s been here, to her new island digs in the west equatorial keys. For months he’s imagined how it might look, and what she’d be doing when he finally got to surprise her. He’s not far wrong on both counts.

  The compound is little more than a small, three-building site surrounded by electrified fencing. It lies some thirty meters off the beach, overlapping the edge of a dense forest of scorched, hollow trees. There’s been a fire here recently, big but controlled, several acres of woodland around the compound. He suspects she started it. The island may have been overgrown, the nutrients in the soil insufficient to support so much vegetation. A helluva way to kick-start her xenobotanical studies. Torching trees.

  There’s a filthy vicar in the compound, and a shuttle, squeaky clean. She’s flown the latter very recently, maybe to fetch equipment from Echo Outpost, her previous home. Apparently Echo has a new tenant, a greenfingered greenhorn even more qualified than her. Poor sap. Does he know what he’s in for? He must’ve heard the stories.

  And there she is! On the westernmost edge of the scorched woodland. Crouched with her back to him, wearing a purple tank top and short khaki shorts, the nick of her behind on full view. The Med Lake surgeons and the Fleece and the Herculean sun over the equator have done a fabulous job between them this past year: she’s lithe, athletic, her skin’s a healthy dusky hue.

  Breathing in the mask takes him back to faster times, high stakes times. He’s often relived that chase across the Hesp, the whole case, in fact, to keep the truth of it alive. His official report omitted the vast majority, changed most of the rest. No one else will ever know what really happened to Saul DeSanto and his Phi posse, or to the two fugitives, Finnegan and Polotovsky, who prompted the deadly manhunt. Malesseur might suspect, but he’s got enough to worry about, still trying to extradite his daughter from the stubborn Iolchians.

  He approaches her without a sound. He’s shocked at how white his legs are compared to hers. Jesus, maybe he shouldn’t have rolled his trouser legs up like this.

  His stunted shadow slips over her shoulder, touches the scorched ground near where’s she working. Black on black. She drops her specimen collector thingamajig, and after a pause, says, “Oh, it’s you.”

  She cuts like cold steel. A part of him wants to walk away and teach her a lesson in manners, but he knows it’s just her way. Prickly on the outside.

  “If this isn’t a good time, doc...” He steps away, drawing his shadow with him. Pricking her right back.

  “Hey, don’t—” She spins around and rises to her feet in one swift motion. Her momentum throws her forward, off balance, straight into him. He catches her by the arms. Their masks clash. She recoils. “I—I didn’t hear you land.”

  “I landed on the east shore. Thought I’d surprise you.”

  “Congratulations.”

  A dog barks far up the beach. Stopper—another islander he’s waited a long time to see. This place must be paradise on so many levels for a curious canine. He can’t wait to share it. Four months of bureau-funded leave is more than he’s ever taken in all his years of service combined. It starts right here. Right now.

  “Oh my God. Vaughn, he’s found one.” She turns to run back to the compound, changes her mind, then looks both ways. Caught in two minds.

  “What’s he found?”

  She faces him, her beautiful Latin features bunched into a cute, flustered scowl. “Oh, you—damn you, mixing me all up at a time like this.” She shouts up the beach, “Hang on, Stopper, darling! Don’t go near it without me.”

  “Jan, what—”

  She motions for him to be silent. “Vaughn, try something for me, will you? A quick experiment. It’s important.”

  “I need to—”

  Again the silencing gesture. He nods reluctantly.

  “Good. Take a deep breath, and don’t let it out until I say so.”

  He frowns, at the same time realises he trusts her completely. That irritates him. He’s waited for this moment for so long, and she can’t wait to get rid of him? He holds his breath for the hell of it.

  She immediately lifts his mask off. Sweat drips from where the rim suckered hotly to his skin. An easy breeze feels at the open pores in his face.

  “That’s better,” she says, and snatches her own mask off.

  Before he can react, she lands the most dizzying, promising and warmly, wonderfully breathless kiss he’s ever been a part of. He doesn’t have chance to reciprocate as well as he’d like before she pulls away, affixes his mask and then hers, and says, “Um, now would be a good time to inhale, Vaughn.”

  He does breathe, but he needed the reminder.

  She removes her glove and presses her bare palm to his chest. What’s she doing? Feeling for a heartbeat? Gauging his reaction to the kiss the way only a doctor would think of? Clinically? But her smile grows to a big, goofy, girlish grin that he hopes to see always, and often.

  She’s suddenly distracted by the dog’s bark and dashes off up the beach. “Well, don’t just stand there,” she calls back. Her old limp has vanished. She’s as spry as a teenager.

  The sea crashes ashore. Never past the red flotsam barrier. He glances all around him, fascinated. He’s forgotten where he is and what he’s supposed to be doing. Then he sees her footprints in the sand. And Stopper’s. He chases them at full sprint until he’s passed five large, black volcanic rocks sticking up out of the beach.

  On the other side, he stops. Shudders through a flashback of another island—one shrouded in mist and dripping with dread. He’s afraid to go any further. There’s a giant, bulbous mass heaving its way out of the water up ahead. It resembles an enormous, veiny eyeball, only it’s more oval and has flippers and tentacles and God knows what else to drag it across the sand.

  This isn’t a flashback. This isn’t a dream. He’s back on Hesperidia, and his safari’s only just getting started.

  Stopper looks back at him, tail wagging, then bounds around the beached leviathan with infectious excitement. His mistress, who should never want to go near another alien creature as long as she lives, gets so close to the colossal interloper it beggars belief. Marveling. Studying.

  She’s in her element, where humans don’t belong.

  Where other laws apply.

  He looks down into the sand. Strange, that. He swears he can read, in those myriad sunkissed grains glinting inside her footprints...

  THIS WAY, GENIUS.

  About the Author

  Robert Appleton is an award-winning author of science fiction, steampunk, and historical fiction. Based in Lancashire, England, he has written over two dozen novels and novellas for various publishers, most recently Carina Press and Samhain Publishing. In his spare time he hikes, kayaks, and reads as many Victorian adventure novels as he can get his hands on.

  Website: https://robertappleton.co.uk

  Twitter: https://twitter.com/robertappleton

  Also available in this series, the adrenaline-fueled prequel to Alien Safari...

  BORDERLINE

  Alone. Double-crossed. Pursued across thousands of miles of alien desert on his beloved hoverbike, Finnegan is holding onto two things dearer than life itself: the priceless biotech prize he’s stolen, and the opportunity for revenge a
gainst the treacherous employer who left him for dead. He’s never met her, but he knows all about her family, the most ruthless criminal syndicate of the inner colonies.

  But when he finds a beautiful stranded woman badly wounded in the middle of nowhere, claiming to be Lori Malesseur, his employer, he has to make a choice. Either take her across the border and accept her offer of a huge reward, or leave her for dead. She claims she was on her way to warn him when she was ambushed and shot. But can she really be who she says she is?

  Trusting one’s enemy is not something either of them knows how to do, but when the stakes are this high, going it alone might not be an option. The race for survival is on in this high-octane action adventure that puts the pedal to the metal and doesn’t look back.

  A selection of standalone books set in the same universe as Alien Safari and Borderline, also available in all ebook formats:

  Sparks in Cosmic Dust

  Pyro Canyon

  Cyber Sparks

  Alien Velocity

 
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