As WWIII rages on Earth, War Correspondent Dax Rigby travels to the savage planet Arcadia to investigate and report on the Western Alliance’s mission there. Soon, he fights not only to save two intelligent alien species from extinction, but also to rescue a dying human outpost threatened by a mysterious disease.
Facing assassination attempts, seduction from a passionate pilot, and his own mysterious powers of resurrection, Dax struggles to maintain his loyalties and complete his mission. The fate of two worlds hangs in the balance. Will he find a way to redefine both his identity and his destiny in time?
Welcome To Paradise
Dax left the ship and stepped into madness.
First there were the cheers and then the blinding tropical sun as he moved out onto the ramp. Fumbling in his pocket, he hurriedly donned his sunglasses and looked out at Base Camp, humanity’s only foothold on the planet Arcadia. In front of him, other passengers froze in their descent, stunned by the heat and their reception.
At least two dozen in the camp had turned out to welcome them, shielding themselves with umbrellas against the sun. Dax saw men and women in ragged shirts and shorts shouting up at them. They all looked shrunken and withered, yet riveted by the ship’s arrival.
Why were they out in this terrible heat? Dax figured they must be damn happy to see their replacements. The ship’s arrival was proof they were finally going home. Otherwise, why risk death by heatstroke?
Feeling someone press against him from behind, he moved forward with his gear and descended the stairs. When he reached the ground, he adjusted his hat and scanned the area.
Base Camp consisted of thirty sorry units. According to accounts, they’d been here only three years. They looked faded and worn, bludgeoned by the planet’s heat. In just minutes, Dax was drenched with sweat and a bit woozy, too. He took a step and swayed on his feet.
“Easy, son, this heat’ll do it to you.”
He turned. Merriwether, the vice-captain of their ship. The man’s ancient eyes widened, as if to impart some secret.
Dax blinked, realizing the cheers had died. “We just got here, and you go back tomorrow?”
“Yes, and most of them do, too. Including the toughest ones who signed up for three years instead of one or two.” Merriwether rubbed his gray beard and gazed at the camp’s population, who mingled enthusiastically with the passengers. Dax heard laughter, and someone brayed, “Man, are we all glad to see you!”
“I hope you’re successful investigating the Hopper and Flyer war,” Merriwether said. “Even if you find out why they hate each other so much, how can it possibly help us beat the Eastern Alliance?”
Good question. He reached for his handkerchief and mopped his face. “I don’t know.” He didn’t say his major task was to discover why the WA—the Western Alliance—was so interested in the creatures in the first place. “By the way, I’m supposed to report to Major Campbell. Do you know where her quarters are?”
“I’m afraid not,” Merriwether said. “You might ask one of the camp members.”
After Merriwether left, Dax approached an emaciated, unshaven man with a parasol and asked him.
The other pointed theatrically. “Behold.”
Dax turned, seeing a faded plastic silver shack fifteen meters away. While the archaic word implied a stately sight, this battered prefab with its droopy awning looked indistinguishable from its fellows. Dax swung back to see if the man referred to another structure. The stranger, though, still pointed at the silver shack to emphasize his pronouncement.
“The major awaits your pleasure,” his informant said and limped away.
Left behind, Dax felt lost and abandoned. He’d studied Arcadia’s harsh conditions in advance, but it hadn’t fully prepared him for being here. Dax was convinced he’d been picked up and dropped in the most godforsaken backwater of the universe. This feeling intensified as the meeting of the incoming and outgoing crews rapidly became a boisterous party totally oblivious to him. Unless he was mistaken, it would soon disintegrate into an orgy.
Dax heard coarse laughter and witnessed the pouring of libations. And those funny-looking sticks going around—he’d smoked a few of them himself. A man and woman embraced, the woman a scrawny, beef-jerky greeter of her plump guest. She clutched the pudgy man, seeming to drain the life from his body. Glancing around, Dax realized most of the outgoing crew looked more than exhausted and physically depleted. Judging from their expressions, they were desperate as well.
What could have done this to them? And perhaps equally important, why didn’t any of the reports he’d read mention this?
Though only twenty-three, Dax knew how to size up places quickly. Water, food, and the climate were reportedly safe on Arcadia. However, something seemed wrong. He was tough, having brought himself up by sheer guts and determination after his mother, his only parent, had died when he was ten. But he already felt—or imagined he felt—this world creeping into his bones, draining his spirit.
He raised his eyes and gazed out past the camp. Though the land had been cleared for a dozen meters beyond, the rain forest crouched on all sides, waiting to pounce. The lush fertility, the towering green trees, and glorious, multicolored flowers seemed ominously excessive. Dax wondered if they drew their vitality from the withered souls they surrounded.
The thought was a little dramatic for him. Yet he shivered in the heat and wondered about the fatality rate.
Shouts. He turned to see a bottle being passed around. Why didn’t Major Campbell stop this behavior, or at least control it? The question made him remember his mission here, and he lowered his bag to the ground. Reaching in, past the plastic holo of his girlfriend, Lexis, he took out one of his minicams and thumbed a button.
“This is Dax Rigby reporting for TransWorld,” he said, sighting around at the camp. “Today, July Nine Standard, we landed at Base Camp on Arcadia after a journey of thirty-one days. My initial impressions of the place are—”
An especially loud outburst of laughter made him press the Stop button. He watched as several groups dispersed for the privacy of shacks. When things settled down, he pressed the Record button and opened his mouth.
No words came out.
He knew he should discuss Arcadia’s oppressively hot beauty and the unusual reception they’d received. He should speculate as to why the Flyers and Hoppers fought, and even more, why it mattered. Why, in short, had the WA bankrolled an extended mission to this remote sweltering outpost, and what in hell did they hope to accomplish here? For some reason, though, Dax didn’t say anything. Instead he squirmed, pulling at his clothes. His shirt stuck to his skin with sweat, and his underwear had wedged up tight in the crack of his buttocks.
He remembered how Jarret, his bureau chief, teased him concerning this assignment. “Sorry there’s no high tech there. Boy, I know you love your comforts. Take my advice and look on it as a challenge.”
Dax stopped adjusting his clothes. There were no vids and foam mattresses here, and worse, perhaps no AC either. Jarret was right. Dax did enjoy his comforts. Still, he could take it, heat and sweat and all. He could take anything this place threw at him because it represented his golden opportunity.
Golden opportunity? Those had been Jarret’s words. Sweating in the sun, Dax realized how his employer had manipulated him, playing on his poverty and curiosity, his hunger to succeed. “Son, be our War Correspondent on Arcadia. If you can find out why we’re there, it’ll make your fortune. You can write your own ticket!”
And the reward included marrying his daughter Lexis, whom Jarret, a snob, did not want Dax to marry. Oh yes, Dax saw now how skillfully Jarret had pushed his buttons, waving the banner of fame and fortune. Young and hungry, confident in his abilities, and fascinated by the opportunity to further his study of this mysterious planet, Dax had been unable to resist the challenge and had let Jarret send him nine hundred light-years from Earth.
A bittersweet memory struck: Lexis with her beautiful, almond-colored face, begging him not to go, flashing eyes fixed on him, and her slender, voluptuous form tense with fear. “It’s my father’s way of getting rid of you.” She’d sobbed. “You’ll never come back, and I’ll never see you again!”
“I have to go, Lexis,” he’d said. “It’s for our future. I have no choice!”
“I don’t need you to be rich, Dax. I need you!”
He’d shaken his head. “I’ve been poor all my life, Lexis. Believe me, it’s worth anything to have money. Besides, I feel I’ll be successful.”
“And I feel you’ll die on Arcadia, Dax. Please—stay on Earth!”
Glancing at the hot, miserable camp, Dax felt his illusion crumble. This place didn’t belong on the beautiful green and blue globe he’d seen on the ship’s display screen. God in Space, why had he come here?
A full month already gone… By now, Lexis could have found someone else. Men were attracted to her as ants to sugar. Even if he survived Arcadia, his assignment here lasted for a full year. And even with hyper-jumps, by the time he returned, at least fourteen months would have passed.
Don’t think of home. Dax swatted away one of the pesky drill flies and pocketed his cam. There’d be time later to record his first impressions of this place. He’d better wait until after he reported to the CO.
Wiping his face with his handkerchief, he picked up his bag and headed toward Major Campbell’s office.
Suddenly he heard an unearthly roar, a weird, piercing bellow. He whirled, searching without success for the source. Those who were still in the open froze in horror. The sound must have been a Hopper. He recognized its distinctive sound from a vid he’d seen.
The roar came again. This time it was louder, filling the sky and the world. Dax, with his reporter’s instincts, yanked out his cam and held it up to capture the sound.
The roar rose and fell, reminding him of…a crazed hippo. The roar’s dark modulations, the way it ululated and made the air vibrate…
In the camp, most ran for cover. A lone pair of new arrivals clutched each other. Dax watched them break for the nearest hut.
Where was Major Campbell? Why didn’t she get off her ass and do something?
Before Dax headed for cover himself, the roar faded and died. Trembling, he put the cam back in his bag. What luck! Ten minutes after he got here, he’d already recorded one of the warring monsters. For some reason, though, he didn’t feel much elation. The creature had sounded so creepy, so bone-chillingly eerie. Its cry continued to resonate inside him.
Dax shook it off. Come on, get a grip. More important, get a story.
Inhaling the hot air, he headed toward Major Campbell’s shack. He stopped at the door, reading the two signs on it.
The first was a steel plate. It read: Major Shade Campbell, Base Commander.
Below it, the other sign made him blink. It was done in what appeared to be red paint. The block letters were uneven and had dripped down the door, the color of fresh blood.
Welcome To Paradise.
Dax swallowed, raised his hand, and knocked.
The voice sounded muffled. Dax wiped his face and lifted the latch.