They're closer than you think...
A guard discovers an unusual lifeform on her remote moon outpost. She disregards protocol to investigate it, with catastrophic consequences.
The parasitic alien wears its victims' skins and adopts their personalities. It's a perfect disguise, and allows the creature to spread without being detected. By the time humanity realises it's facing extinction, a third of its six hundred space stations have already gone dark.
As the alien's ruthless progress collapses communication networks, wipes out defences, and leaves hundreds of stations to fend for themselves, a handful of remarkable individuals must find a way to battle the greatest threat the universe has ever encountered.
Release date: August 6, 2016
Publisher: Black Owl Books
Print pages: 416
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Parasite: An Alien Horror Novel
Jen snapped her helmet into place, enjoying the quiet hiss and click that told her it was locked. A lot of outpost staff complained about having to wear the thick suits during routine patrols, but Jen liked them. They made her feel secure, as though nothing could get to her.
Carly locked her gloves into place. She wiggled her fingers experimentally then shot Jen a grin through the tinted glass of her helmet. “Damn, but I’ve been looking forward to getting out of this joint.”
Jen had never asked exactly what Carly had done to get herself condemned to their tiny station on Perros’s second moon, and Carly hadn’t volunteered the information—but it must have been bad. People didn’t end up on Station 331 by accident, and out of the three of them, Carly was the least suited to endure the isolation and monotony.
Jen checked her wrist controls to ensure everything was airtight. Carly was already at the door, hopping from foot to foot and swinging her arms. “C’mon, let’s do this already.”
A quiet voice buzzed through the helmet’s speakers. “Jen, I’m ready for your all clear.”
Jen turned towards the plexiglass window. Alessicka stood behind it and leaned over the control panel, her delicate face tensed in concentration. She was the only one of their three-woman team who kept her hair long, and it fell like a sheet down one side of her thin neck to brush over the panel.
“All clear,” Jen said, shooting her two thumbs up as added reassurance.
Alessicka gave Jen a small smile then looked towards her companion. “Carly, how are you doing?”
“If I were any more ready, I’d explode.” Carly swivelled in a semicircle to face the window. Her eyes were huge, and the need to be free was etched into every line of her face.
There was a pause.
“Carly, your monitor says your helmet isn’t locked properly.”
There was a tremor in Alessicka’s voice. She hated arguing with Carly, but Jen knew her too well to think she would overlook any problem she found, no matter how minor. It was both a blessing and a curse; they were sometimes stuck in the airlock for an hour or more as she troubleshot problems… but at least Jen knew she wasn’t going to be sent out in substandard conditions.
Jen’s partner didn’t share her view. Carly let out a string of curses and kicked at the airlock doors. “We’ve been over this before. A half dozen times. It’s a problem in the feedback or whatever. I promise you, the helmet is locked.”
Alessicka stared at the readings on the screen. Jen could see sweat beading on her face as she braced herself. “I’d like to run some diagnostics on… on… it.” She trailed off at the murderous look on Carly’s face.
“I swear, Lessi, you delay this patrol for another minute, and I’ll murder you in your sleep tonight.”
Alessicka’s face blanched, and Jen decided it was time to intervene. “That’s enough, Carly. Don’t make jokes like that.”
“Who said I was joking?”
Jen held up a hand to quiet her partner then turned to the woman behind the console. “Lessi, I’m going to override you this time. We’ve checked out the helmet before, and you said it was probably a feedback glitch. Besides, it’s been months since we’ve seen anything more exciting than sludge. I doubt Carly’s going to need to test her helmet’s seal today.”
Alessicka gave a small nod and began pressing buttons on the console. “Prepare for gate unlock in twenty seconds.”
“Finally,” Carly groaned.
Jen stepped up to join her partner beside the door. They each took one of the stingers from the rack bolted to the wall and turned them on. Stingers were their main weapon against what lived outside the station. They looked like rifles with extended barrels, but the tip was shaped into a large metal needle. The idea was to push the needle into any unwanted creatures they found on their moon and pull the trigger. The stingers released a shot of neurotoxins directly into the lifeform’s body, killing it within seconds.
That was one of their jobs on Station 331: keep the moon clean of hostile beings that came off comets or space debris. Some of the newer stations got more exciting infestations of aggressive creatures like parydonas and crawling Helens and had to call for backup from their ward planets, but even though Station 331 was on a remote moon near the edge of the system, the staff rarely had to deal with anything worse than poppers and sludge.
“External gate unlocking,” Alessicka said through the helmet, and the metal doors in front of them hissed and parted.
“Yes,” Carly moaned as she sprinted as quickly as her bulky suit would allow onto the surface of the moon. She took three steps then kicked the powdery ground, sending herself flying nearly ten feet into the air before gliding down to land in a billow of red dust. Jen followed at a slower pace, enjoying the sensation of weightlessness from the lower gravity outside the station.
The moon wasn’t ugly, but it was dull. Its uneven surface was pocked after millennia of being beaten by asteroids and space rubble. Composed of four small living rooms, one airlock, and one control room, the station had been built into a sheltered indent. Red rock surrounded it on three sides, so it got only four hours of natural sunlight each day.
Carly was sprinting ahead, stinger held in both hands, as she searched for a target to unleash her pent-up frustration on. She disappeared over the lip of a crater, and a moment later, Jen heard a sharp pop through her headset, followed by a cackle of delight. Carly had found her first victim.
Jen went in the opposite direction and circled around the back of the base. Before long, she found a target of her own; a sludge was clinging to a rock formation just metres from the front door. The human-sized clump of coal-black slime undulated as its organs worked to convert the moon’s minerals into nutrients.
Sludges weren’t dangerous, but they could be a nuisance if they got out of control. They would clog doorways, damage equipment, and given enough time, even eat through metal. Jen forced the tip of her stinger through the sludge’s leathery skin, flicked the safety lock, and pulled the trigger. The gun kicked into her shoulder as it injected its poison, and she stepped back to watch as the sludge writhed and coiled in on itself.
Scientists said the sludges were no more intelligent than a plant, but Jen still hated seeing the creature thrash as its flesh bubbled and split. She stood with it until it was completely still, then she unclipped one of the hooks from her belt and snagged a corner of the sludge’s frothing flesh.
She dragged it back to the waste disposal unit behind their station—low gravity had its benefits—and while she was feeding it through the slot, she heard another crack in her headset as Carly bagged her second target.
“Jen, Carly,” Alessicka’s voice said, “I’m getting a reading of a living shape by the weathervane. It looks like a sludge, but it’s a big one.”
“On it.” Carly sounded breathless, but Jen couldn’t tell if it was from excitement or overexertion.
Jen scouted around the perimeter of the station, making sure it was clean, before widening her loop. She could hear Carly humming as she made her way to the weathervane, which was located on an outcropping a kilometre away from the base. Twice, Carly stopped to use her stinger on creatures she found along the way, and once, she swore loudly, apparently having stubbed her toe on a rock. Jen started to tune her out as she focussed on her job—injecting another sludge and a couple of thick, veiny plants that were struggling to survive on the barren moon—so she almost didn’t hear Carly say her name.
“What’s up?” Jen asked, clipping a sludge to her cable and beginning to pull it towards the waste disposal.
“This thing by the weathervane—it’s not a sludge. It’s… hell, I have no idea what this is.”
“Describe it,” Alessicka said.
“It’s… like… big. Maybe four times as large as I am. Black and lumpy, with red veins running all over its body.”
“Red veins?” Alessicka asked. “Not yellow, like a creeping Helen?”
“No, definitely red. They’re pulsing. And there are these… tendril things coming out at its base. Like roots. I think they’re moving, but very slowly.”
There was a pause, and Jen could hear Alessicka typing. “I haven’t heard of a creature like that,” she said, “and the system isn’t bringing up any matches. Should I call Perros, Jen?”
Calling Perros, their ward planet, essentially meant asking for backup. Technically, that was the correct protocol for when they found an unidentifiable alien lifeform, but hardly any station followed it.
“Aw, hell no,” Carly said. “It looks harmless. It’s actually managing to move less than a sludge. I’ll just inject it real quick, and then we can get back to our damn jobs.”
Alessicka’s voice was tight with anxiety when she replied, “Don’t proceed. You don’t have clearance.” She hesitated then added, “She… she doesn’t have clearance. Does she, Jen?”
Jen sighed. Calling Perros was a huge inconvenience for everyone involved. Support wouldn’t reach them for nearly twenty-eight hours, and if Carly was right and the lifeform was vegetation or low-risk, they wouldn’t be happy about having their time wasted.
“Stay where you are, Carly. I’ll come to you, and we can deal with it together.”
“Sure you don’t want me to get it now? It’s an ugly son of a—”
“No.” Jen unclipped the sludge from her belt. “Just stay put.”
“Fine,” Carly huffed, and Jen thought she heard a relieved sigh from Alessicka in the background.
Jen bounded across the moon’s surface, her boots kicking up puffs of dust with each step. Perros rose over the horizon to her left, and she could see one of their sister moons, 384, to the right. There wasn’t any proper day or night on 331, so the moon felt perpetually suspended in twilight; the atmosphere cast a red glow over the already-bronze landscape, dimming the sun’s light and casting strange, leaping shadows.
Jen was still a few minutes from the weathervane when she heard Carly inhale sharply.
“What happened?” she asked at the same moment Alessicka said, “Carly?”
Carly laughed. “Oh, wow. I didn’t expect that. I poked it, and it started moving.”
“Yeah, these tendril vine-like things are stretching out and waving all over the place. Are you sure we have to kill it? It’s the most interesting thing we’ve had on this moon in months.”
Jen kicked against the ground to leap over a rocky ridge. “Damn it, Carly. Stay away from it until I get there. We don’t know how dangerous it is.”
“Relax,” Carly drawled. “It can’t reach me. I don’t even think it can see. It’s—” She gasped sharply.
Jen heard scraping and rustling, then Carly shrieked.
“Carly?” Jen called. She increased her jog to a run, moving her legs as fast as the thick suit and low gravity would let her. “What happened?”
“Damn it,” Carly said over more scuffling. “It’s got me, Jen. I dropped my stinger, and I can’t get it off—” She grunted in pain then yelled something incoherent.
Fear spiked through Jen as she raced for the weathervane. She could hear Carly panting, interspersed with snapping noises. “I’m about two minutes away, Carly. Hang on.”
Then Carly’s screams filled Jen’s helmet, drowning her in the rawness of the other woman’s terror. Jen called to her, but Carly either didn’t hear or couldn’t respond; she kept screaming and screaming. The shriek’s pitch rose…
Then there was silence.
“Carly?” Jen panted into the stillness. “Carly, can you hear me? Carly!”
“Her… her helmet’s disconnected—” Alessicka’s voice was thin with horror. “Audio’s g-gone completely.”
“Damn it!” Jen couldn’t move fast enough, as if she were stuck in a nightmare where no matter how hard she ran she couldn’t move any closer. Then she cleared a ridge and finally saw Carly’s monster.
Clinging to the rocks at the base of a crater was a massive mess of black tendrils with pulsing red rivulets running down them. They were probing outwards, feeling along the ground, seeking something to grip. Jen stopped well out of their reach and started sidestepping the creature, searching for the white suit that held her partner. She couldn’t see it.
“Lessi, can you tell me anything? Do you have any reading on Carly?”
“No.” She sounded as if she were hyperventilating, but her fingers were hitting the keyboard at an incredible speed. “I-it’s like her helmet has been separated from the suit. I can’t get any stats at all.”
“Okay.” Jen’s pulse pounded in her head as she weighed up her options. “I’m going to try to sting it. If anything… goes wrong, don’t come after me, but send a message to Perros immediately.”
Alessicka made a strangled sort of noise. “Don’t. Please, Jen. Please don’t—”
The creature’s limbs were tapping at the ground and seeking contact, but they seemed to be slowing their pace.
“I’ve got to try to find Carly. Under no circumstances are you to leave the base. That’s a direct order, Lessi. Do you copy?”
Jen began sliding down the incline that led to the lifeform. Two of the tendrils stretched towards her, apparently sensing the motion. Jen hoped that if she could sting it and get enough neurotoxins in it to kill it, she might still be able to find Carly. She didn’t want to think about the state the other woman would be in, though; the air on 331 was toxic. If she lost her helmet…
One of the arms shot out at an impossible speed and snagged Jen’s ankle. She gasped and tried to jump back, but the creature was too fast. Before she could understand what was happening, she was in the air, held upside down, while another tendril wrapped around her chest.
She swung her stinger towards the nearest tendril. It missed its mark. A new arm came up and wrapped around Jen’s helmet, blinding her. She heard cracking noises as the black pulsing limb strained to separate the helmet from its suit.
Is this what it did to Carly?
She could feel the creature becoming frustrated. She had only seconds before it tried a new method of killing her; she aimed blindly, felt the stinger’s steel needle puncture something resistant, and pulled the trigger.
A horrific wailing noise rose around her, and Jen found herself plummeting to the ground. She twisted around in midair in time to see she was headed for a crop of jagged rock, which would certainly puncture her suit, but at the last second, one of the thrashing arms batted her aside. She skidded over a dusty patch of ground and rolled to a stop.
The creature had gone wild. Its limbs waved in every direction, as though it were trying to fight an invisible attacker, and the bestial wailing noise filled her head. The arms seemed able to stretch to impossible lengths, and Jen realised she wasn’t safe where she was. She began scrambling backwards, up the incline of the crater, not daring to take her eyes off the waving, slapping arms until she was over the top of the lip and running for the base.
The terrible noise followed her. The poison had hurt the lifeform, but it wasn’t dead; a single injection probably wasn’t enough for a beast that size, and there was no way Jen was going back to have another go at it—especially now that she knew for certain Carly couldn’t have survived. The creature had tried to pop Jen’s helmet off, just as it must have done to Carly. Jen’s had only stayed on because it wasn’t faulty.
Tears stung her eyes, and she blinked them back furiously. The guilt was crushing; she’d used her power as the team leader to override Alessicka when she’d tried to do her job, and now her partner was dead. This is what you get for cutting corners. This is what happens when you don’t take your job seriously.
She squinted and ran faster. All she wanted, more than anything else, was to be inside the safety of the double-walled metal station. She would never complain about how small it was again.
“Jen?” Alessicka breathed in her ear. She sounded terrified. “A-Are you t-there?”
In her rush to get away from the monster, Jen had forgotten to tell her remaining partner that she was okay. Alessicka had heard the fight, but nothing afterwards, and Jen had left her hanging in terrible suspense.
“I’m here,” Jen said, fortifying her voice. “I’m fine, and I’m coming back now. Carly… isn’t.”
“Okay,” was the only thing Alessicka managed to say. She sobbed quietly and discreetly the entire time Jen was jogging back to base. She was young, and Jen didn’t think she’d ever lost a team member before.
Relief spread across Jen’s chest when the hulking metal structure came into view. She approached the airlock doors and asked Alessicka to open them. The girl must have been waiting with her hand poised over the button; they drew apart immediately, and Jen entered the airlock.
They looked at each other through the thick plexiglass screen that separated the airlock from the control room. Alessicka’s face was pale and covered in tear tracks, but she kept her voice from breaking as she stepped Jen through the protocol they’d followed so often that it was like second nature. This time was different, though. This time, Jen stood alone as she waited for the chamber to be filled with breathable air, stepped out of her suit, and stored her equipment.
“Central doors unlocking,” Alessicka said at last as the metal doors separating them parted. Jen stepped into the control room, and Alessicka threw herself onto Jen. Trembling, she hugged her fiercely, and Jen patted her hair until she pulled back. The girl’s red eyes searched Jen’s face, and for a moment, Jen was frightened Alessicka would blame her—tell her it was all her fault for ignoring the warning about Carly’s helmet—but instead, she said, “What do I need to do?”
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