It’s barely light—just after dawn—and my heart is pounding, hammering in time with the pahtra war drum’s rhythm. The visceral stomp of heavily armored boots and the jagged crackle of automatic rifle fire roil around us all. The vesk move awkwardly, still clumsy and off-balance in gravity that’s far weaker than what they’re used to. They carry their laser weapons with pride, firing sleek lines of light through the trees, and I find myself baring my teeth in a disdainful snarl. The magnetic storms of Vesk-6 make laser weapons risky even at the best of times, but the azimuth laser rifle is the standard-issue armament for the Veskarium army, and so the vesk carry them. My hands tighten on my own rifle, adrenaline surging as the war drum urges us forward. I take to the shadows behind a trio of ancient trees, waiting for the right moment to leap into the fray.
Is this what my forebears felt, some 300 years ago, fighting against the vesk invaders intent on reconquering a world they knew they had once controlled? Or even longer ago, before the Gap, when the Veskarium first came to Pulonis and claimed it as Vesk-6, the newest part of their empire?
But this isn’t a war. We aren’t a guerilla team fending off an invasion—it’s a training exercise, and the vesk in the clearing are as much my teammates as the other pahtras in the trees around me. The largest and boldest vesk in our unit leads the way, with just over a half-dozen others not far behind her. One vesk for each pahtra in our unit. Usually we train side-by-side, learning from one another, but today we’ve been divided up, pahtras against vesk. My own vesk partner stands firmly in the center of his unit, holding his rifle steady and firing careful blasts. It’s a typical vesk tactic, all stoic and solid and focused on formation, while my half of the unit has split up, each of us blending into the trees and utilizing the tactics that work best for us.
It makes Major Koboratash furious, our disregard for formal strategies. It’s also how we’ve won the last six of these mock battles. I wonder what she’s trying to accomplish, dividing us up into Team Pahtra and Team Vesk when the high despot’s program has us training side by side in the first place. I know some of my teammates think the major is secretly training the vesk to fight some of the pahtra resistance cells active near Leapfang Bay. I hope they’re wrong.
I wait for my chance to leap into the fray, watching for an opening, a distraction, an opportunity. My gaze settles on Jaskenayo, a particularly stodgy vesk with dark green scales, and the fur down the back of my neck suddenly stiffens. A shiver runs down the length of my spine. Something here is... wrong. I can’t say what or why or even how I know, but something about him has me deeply unsettled. His movements aren’t quite in step with the others, the tracking of his beady eyes just a little jerky. Like he’s watching the skirmish and reacting just a nanosecond too slow to be real. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and the tension along my spine grows so tight it’s painful. Something here is deeply, terribly wrong.
I slip back into the shadows. Make my way around the simulated firefight, slinking along the underbrush, until I’m off to one side, almost opposite our war drummer. Slowly, careful not to draw attention to my movements, I dump the blanks from my rifle and swap in the magazine of live ammunition from my belt. We all carry it, as a precaution against the countless predators of Vesk-6, since you never know when a sky viper might turn a training exercise into a life-or-death fight. Somehow, even though I can’t say why, I know this is one of those times.
The headstrong scrapper of my unit gives me the opening I need, rushing in to take on the frontline vesk with her bare hands like the reckless brawler she is. I lift my rifle, take careful aim. Breathe out. Pull the trigger.
Jaskenayo goes down so easily. He hadn’t seen me, and I was so close my single shot punched right through his overplate. He falls with a strangled cry.
Chaos breaks out. Of course it does—these training exercises aren’t supposed to be lethal. Everyone is shouting, and eight standard-issue Veskarium laser rifles swing around to focus on me, sharp clicks ringing out as they, too, are switched to a lethal setting. The hammering rhythm of the war drum falters, and then ceases altogether. My pahtra teammates stare, aghast. I feel my vesk partner’s eyes on me, betrayed and furious.
My fear—that creeping sensation of wrongness—dissipates almost as soon as Jaskenayo’s body hits the ground. But it’s immediately replaced by a different kind of fear, less visceral and much more intellectual, as Major Koboratash’s outraged shouts resound through the jungle. Demanding to know what just happened. What I thought I was doing. And I realize, really realize, what I’ve done. I just killed my teammate. Our war drummer’s partner. My partner’s childhood friend.
The major stomps up to me, and I hand over my rifle. I try to explain myself, but I don’t have the words for it. I have no proof, no justification—I just knew something was wrong. She doesn’t believe me, of course. She sees a recruit killed by friendly fire. A personal vendetta turned lethal.
I can’t even pretend it was an accident. They’ll court-martial me, and I’ll be discharged, dishonorably, without the Soldier’s Due.
Then, behind the major, Jaskenayo’s body twitches. I flinch back, and the major spins around as the dead vesk body jerks and shudders. Then, horribly, his body seems to deflate as a slick, bulbous ooze slithers out from beneath his armor.
I understand, then. I hadn’t encountered one of the indigenous oozes before, but I knew about them. Like how they eat away at a host’s organs and replace them, puppeting them around in pursuit of goals no one has ever been able to understand. And that some pahtras have something of a sixth sense for hymothoas, when most other species have no way to detect them other than with extensive medical scanning—something almost impossible here given our planet’s unpredictable magnetic storms.
The major snaps out an order, and suddenly eight azimuth laser rifles are firing on the thing with lethal force. When I blink away the afterimage of eight laser beams, all that remains of the hymothoa is a damp patch on the leafy jungle floor beside Jaskenayo’s now-unmoving form. I begrudgingly admit to myself that the vesk weapons have some benefits after all—my own rifle would have been far less effective against an amorphous foe.
Major Koboratash looks back at me, scowling. “You knew?”
I nod and stammer, trying to put into words the gut feeling, the absolute certainty that things weren’t the way they should be. Childhood tales flit through my mind, warning of the bogeyman oozes, but I can’t use a ghost story as a justification. My heart is hammering louder than the war drums had before. She can still court-martial me. Have me discharged. Order the squad to turn their laser rifles on me and fire—the Army of the Veskarium certainly has no overabundance of mercy.
But she cuts me off with a snarl and a sharp gesture. “That was well done, Gunner Sehvet.”
I shut my mouth. The major looks between me and the unmoving corpse on the jungle floor. I wonder what the ooze had hoped to accomplish by parasitizing Jaskenayo. Probably nothing good—for all their inscrutability, the creatures seem to have as much resentment of the vesk occupation of our planet as the most deeply entrenched pahtra resistance cells.
The major barks new orders. She turns north and leads the way as if nothing unusual had happened. We all leap to comply, vesk and pahtra alike. Lines form as we pair up with our counterparts and begin the strict, regimented march back to Command 6. My vesk partner falls into place beside me, and I can feel his uneasy eyes watching me, but now isn’t the time for chatter. I don’t know what I’d say anyway, because I have a sinking feeling this is just the beginning.
About the Author
Lyz Liddell is a designer for Pathfinder Second Edition at Paizo. She writes adventures and rules for Pathfinder and Starfinder, plus an abundance of independent fantasy and science fiction in various stages of editing and querying. You can find Lyz and learn more about her innumerable hobbies on Twitter at @LyzMayTweet.
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.