It never failed to amaze Devi, coming out of Drift. The sensation, visual and mental, of time and space returning to their normal flow, of planets, stars, and the black expanding to their normal size. The tiny feeling of relief that he’d made it through.
Devi’s route through the Drift had taken just under three days. Even though it was quite rare for Drift voyages that short to encounter disaster, ships traveling in Near Space still occasionally disappeared. Triune’s miraculous space highway had done wonders for the Pact Worlds, opening new planets and cultures for all, but using it wasn’t without risk. During his trip, he’d seen swirling black holes, ancient debris from long-wrecked spaceships, and the far-off silhouettes of creatures with more eyes and tentacles than he could count, but nothing directly threatened his ship and making it safely still felt especially good.
He piloted a heavily modified Ringworks Wanderer he’d gotten for an amazing deal at an underground auction in an off-the-grid port in Akiton. Devi had asked no questions and the ysoki auction runner had named no names. Devi liked to think there was honor among the same species, but even so, he’d personally gone over the ship to make sure there were no problems and after installing a custom Drift engine and new pilot controls to fit his height, the Winding Jaunt was fit for interstellar travel. She could hold a crew of three—her ideal crew size—but Devi could never seem to hold onto crewmates. That’s probably why he hadn’t yet risen high in the Starfinder Society. After life in an overstuffed warren under the eyes of innumerable relatives, he liked traveling alone. It was better that way, out in the black with nothing but his thoughts and the far-off stars.
The Winding Jaunt drew closer to her destination, the orange and purple-tinged planet growing larger on the front display screen. An unexplored planet around a yellow sun, one of the few that could support organic life. One of countless worlds on the edges of Near Space, just outside the unknown edges of the Vast. Devi had listened to a crusty vesk spacer talking about its coordinates while he’d been in port buying supplies to send back to the warren weeks ago.
Devi was glad he’d followed up on the pirate’s drunken boasts. There the planet was, sure as daylight. And if the readings Devi was getting were any indication, this world was filled with all kinds of biodiverse lifeforms. Large bodies of water. Breathable atmosphere, too, at least with the right adjustments to his suit. Some heavy thaumic surges, but an overall stable reality field. This could be his ticket to promotion in the Starfinder Society, crew or not.
As the Jaunt entered atmo, Devi initiated the ship’s landing sequence and set the computer scanners to find a suitable landing zone—a clear field near a forest, but with enough sightlines that he’d see anything overtly dangerous approaching his ship and have enough time to respond. After reviewing scans of several possibilities, Devi chose an open clearing near a lightly wooded area, just a couple of clicks from one of the planet’s oceans.
The Jaunt descended, adjusting its pressure, wards, and shielding so the vessel wouldn’t burn up as it let gravity do some of the ship’s work. Devi used the next hour to review his own supplies. Enough food and water for a few weeks. His weapons and armor were primed and charged, his AI ocular implant set to record and catalog all new forms of life he came across. He even had some trinkets, coins, and other useful items should he come across any sapient species looking to trade. Though that seemed unlikely. So far, the ship’s scanners had detected no trace of technology or sentient-made shelters. With a final push from its thrusters, the ship landed in its chosen clearing and made a scan of the perimeter.
“So far, so good,” Devi murmured to himself and his AI. This was one of his favorite parts. The moment before stepping outside into the unknown. A chance to learn new things, discover key mysteries of the universe. It was like a fine wine or cheese, to be savored for as long as possible.
Devi lowered himself from the ships platform and took a step out into a whole new world. It was more wonderous than he’d allowed himself to imagine. Purple and orange light filled a lush, open forest, covered with vegetation that—at least according to his AI—were not catalogued in the Society’s archives. He could hear far off grunts and screeches, reminding him of birdsong or mammalian apes. The ground felt solid. The atmosphere, with a few minor adjustments, tasted sweet.
The planet was beautiful. Pristine and untouched. He must do his best to keep it so during his exploration. He began to walk toward the trees. It wasn’t long before he encountered his first new species. His AI ran through its database and could find no matches. It bore some similarities to various types of gecko, but it carried its young in a pouch, an adaptation usually reserved for mammalian life.
He watched in fascination as the lizard-like creature pulled a bulbous-looking fruit from a nearby branch and fed it to the young one in its front pouch. Though Devi had taken care to stay upwind from the creature, it must have heard his quiet footfalls in the grass, for the creature quickly turned to face him.
Fleshy pink antennae extended from either side of the creature’s head behind its large eyes and pointed themselves at him. Devi felt a presence in his mind. Although he had never experienced it before, it seemed similar to what he had learned about how telepathy and psychic magic worked. The message in his mind was primal, instinctual.
Prey / notprey?
Hunger / nothunger?
I-not-food. No-food-me. Look-other-place.
The last bit was accompanied by a gentle push on his mind. Devi had not been thinking of the fascinating creature as food, but felt sure that if he had been considering eating it, the influence from the creature may have convinced him, or at least a creature of lesser intelligence, to leave it alone.
“Instinctual telepathy,” muttered Devi to himself. Perhaps his own mind, or his AI, had translated the mental push into words. “Remarkable.”
The creature grew alarmed at his continued presence. Both antennae expanded.
Without meaning to, Devi almost took a step back, only stopping himself mid-gesture as he realized the creature had pushed him to do so. Now the creature and its brood looked terrified. Devi tried to calm the creature with his own thoughts, but it only shifted its face quizzically
No-sky-thinker, Devi heard back in his mind. After pondering this a moment, he realized sky meant above, higher-up, that the creature couldn’t parse his… words? He’d need to use something other than words to reassure it.
Devi was no xenodruid, who drew power and magic from the cycles of the natural world, though he’d heard stories of them while still a youngling in the warren. Kasathas debating philosophy with the animals of the forest. Elves disappearing into living trees and emerging from different trees half a world away. Nature priests living for a thousand years or more in an ongoing cycle of rebirth. What would they do, in this moment?
Closing his eyes, Devi tried to think in pictures. He thought of himself eating plants, of gently petting the creature. He thought of his den mothers in the warren, of safety, comfort, and a warm thermal blanket. When he opened his eyes, he saw that the creature had drawn closer to him, the muscles in its body less tense, the ridges on its back no longer standing erect.
Not-prey-not-death, the creature emoted to its child in what felt like a happy croon. Safe-friend.
Devi nodded. The creature’s antennae retracted into the sides of its head and it wandered off, though not before brushing against Devi’s leg in friendship.
Overhead, several winged creatures zipped through the air, moving almost too fast for Devi to see them. Luckily, his AI recorded them through his ocular implant, so he could review the footage later at his leisure. Right now, Devi was more interested in the giant megafauna he saw sipping water from a nearby stream.
Fascinated, he stealthily approached the herd, continuing to record footage through his ocular implant. Their thick hides were dark blue and green, with long tentacles slowly undulating out from their maws and necks. The large creatures took slow gentle sips from the lake they’d gathered around, some pausing to munch on the green grass at their feet. Slow, calm, not too bright. They seemed like peaceable herbivores, so Devi sent a command to his AI to scan them more thoroughly and record all the data. It was something of a surprise when the herd all raised their tentacles, the air about them rippled like water, and the creatures vanished before his eyes.
Devi studied the edges of the lake for some trace of the creatures. It wasn’t until he heard ground-shaking footsteps behind him that he looked over his shoulder. There the megafauna stood, regarding him with strange, solemn eyes. Devi backed away slowly, keeping his eyes on them, but his arms spread wide to show he was no threat.
Had they teleported? There was no sign of such magic. But… he checked his AI’s chronometer to find it was acting strangely. He looked at the ground where the creatures had stood. No foot prints. No recently eaten bare patches in the tall grass.
Had they… but that was… Devi almost thought impossible, but then he remembered all the wonders he’d heard about when joining the Starfinders. Nothing out near the Vast was impossible. Only undiscovered.
If these readings were right, then it hadn’t been his imagination. The creatures had apparently traveled back in time, just several seconds, in only their individual timelines, to the point before they’d reached the lake, just so they could see if he was a threat. Perhaps their tentacles were somehow able to unravel the quantum threads of localized time…
Instinctive, short-range time travel as a natural defense. The Society wouldn’t believe this. The possibilities were staggering. He wondered how far back their range went. Seconds? Minutes? If technomancers were able to synthesize how the creatures could achieve this affect…
The sun began to set beyond the far-off amber sea by the time he finished noting all he could about the creatures. Daylight passed quickly on this world, it seemed. Devi knew it was time to get back to the Jaunt. Two giant moons began to glow in the lavender twilight above. Devi would have to take notes and study just how they affected the sea’s tides, or if they pulled at the planet’s natural magical and life forces.
Back in his ship, Devi powered up the defensive shields and settled into his bunk. He thought about all he’d seen today. His findings would get him several accommodations. This planet was a wonder—and still in Near Space for all that! And its native life! These creatures had adapted to escape and survive in such astounding ways. Instinctual telepathy and short-range temporal travel. It just showed how amazing evolution was.
Only as he started to drowse off to the night-sounds outside the ship did the question occur.
Just what had they evolved to escape from?
For the first time since leaving the warren, Devi found himself wishing he had a crew. Wide awake now, he didn’t think he’d get much sleep tonight. Outside, the sun sank beneath the purple sea and darkness covered the planet. The wilderness grew quiet, as if waiting for something to emerge.
About the Author
Patrick Hurley has had fiction published in Galaxy’s Edge, Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, Abyss & Apex, New Myths, Arcanist, Aurealis, Frozen Wavelets, The Overcast, and The Drabblecast. He is a 2017 graduate of the Taos Toolbox Writer's Workshop. In 2018, he was a finalist for the Baen Fantasy Award. Patrick lives in Seattle and is a member of SFWA and the Dreamcrashers. He still can’t quite believe he has the good fortune to also be an editor at Paizo.
About Tales from the Drift
The Tales from the Drift series of web-based flash fiction provides an exciting glimpse into the setting of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game. Written by members of the Starfinder development team and some of the most celebrated authors in tie-in gaming fiction, the Tales from the Drift series promises to explore the worlds, alien cultures, deities, history, and organizations of the Starfinder setting with engaging stories to inspire Game Masters and players alike.