The earth shook. To Iphra, the rumbling sounded like a passing heavy transport. She realized she wouldn’t maintain her footing. Iphra fired her jump jets. Being in the air stabilized her enough to avoid a nasty fall from the ridgetop she had been standing on.
The tremor passed.
“Sergeant Udrinnel, report. End.” It was Lieutenant Markalane from the shuttle a couple miles away, her voice calm but insistent.
“I’m fine. That was a good one, eh, lieutenant? End,” said Iphra.
“Affirmative, sergeant. Our engineer clocked it at a solid six on the imperial scale. Deploy your final booster and return to the shuttle. Aftershocks are anticipated. End.”
“Acknowledged. End,” said Iphra.
Her mind wandered. She ignored Markalane checking in with other scouts. Iphra thought of the engineer, Winya, a gosclaw. Long, supple, feline—a real pro. Winya’s briefing had warned of quakes on Grodrum, but this one was the first the survey team had experienced.
Iphra looked for the safest way to descend the ridge, glancing at the map on her visor’s head-up display. Her final deployment marker lay half a mile away in a valley to the east. The landscape was barren, but it wasn’t boring. Minerals and crystals on Grodrum—the reason the survey team came here—gave the planet a multihued aspect that could be breathtaking.
Equally stunning was the Locus, an eerie, starlike body that illuminated this system. The briefing had said it was magical, not a “real” star, whatever that meant. Iphra turned to face it. The Locus hung low in the sky, shedding its white light through the thin atmosphere. Grodrum’s long day was dwindling.
Iphra began her descent, using her jump jets to avoid treacherous gaps. About halfway down, the ground shuddered again. A crashing sound to Iphra’s right sent her heart into her throat and activated her instincts. She fired her jump jets and leapt. Part of the ridge slid away under her, and she descended onto moving rock. Iphra fired her jump jets again.
“Come on! Come on! Come on!”
The second leap threw her clear of the slide zone. Iphra took cover on the downhill side of a solid-looking outcropping and crouched, leaning against the rock. She closed her eyes and caught her breath. Then, as she opened her eyes again, she spotted it: a jagged, beautiful pinnacle of white crystal jutted from the valley below. It hadn’t been there before. Iphra looked at her deployment marker and saw that the crystal wasn’t too far from it. A little north.
“Sergeant Udrinnel?! Please respond! End!”
Iphra realized she must have missed a communication from the lieutenant.
“Udrinnel here. Uh, I’m good. A little landslide, but we’re good. Uh… and lieutenant, a mass of crystal erupted from the planet’s surface near my deployment marker. Sending you a visual. Any change in my orders? End.”
“Stand by. But keep safe, sergeant. End.”
Iphra descended toward the deployment marker as she waited. When she reached level ground, she turned and looked back up the ridge, standing in the shadow of the hills. The landslide had revealed a fissure in the rock, or the quake had cracked the slope.
“Sergeant, proceed as planned. I’ve been advised the booster you’re deploying will still allow us a detailed scan of that crystal from our location. The concern is the area near the crystal might be unstable. Get it done and return to the shuttle. Let’s call it a day. End.”
“Aye, lieutenant. End,” said Iphra.
Disappointment rose. It would’ve been nice to see that crystal up close. To touch it. That sort of thing makes being a scout one of the best jobs in the imperial military. But orders were orders. Besides, Iphra supposed she might have another chance, after scans verified the area’s stability and geological content. She turned, stood, and gazed. The crystal’s tip glistened in the waning light of the Locus.
“Contact, contact!” The voice of Sergeant Enosh, another scout, erupted over the comm. Assault rifle bursts were audible in the background.
Iphra recalled the mission brief. Orbital probes had shown Grodrum bore only simple surface life. Nothing should be here to shoot at. Still, Iphra unslung her rifle as Lieutenant Markalane’s voice broke in over the comm again.
Iphra heard only the start of that exchange. In her peripheral vision, something massive, amorphous, and multilimbed emerged from the shadow on the rocky slope to her left. It struck Iphra three times before she could react. She fell. The impact knocked the wind out of her. Pain along her flank suggested broken ribs. Environmental force fields kicked on, patching cracks in the armor on her left arm and side.
The creature loomed over her, blocking the sky. It slid its malleable arms around her. Numerous orbs that glowed with white light focused on her, burning with malevolence. Were they eyes? Was this thing sapient?
The thoughts came unbidden. Iphra raised her rifle, levering it into automatic mode by muscle memory more than intent. She pressed the trigger. Horrid shrieking drowned out the rifle’s reports.
The monster recoiled. Unhindered even if it was injured, it lifted Iphra with it and squeezed. Sergeant Iphra Udrinnel’s vision went white with searing pain, then collapsed to black.
“Look alive, squad! The L.T. will be here shortly.”
Markalane heard the baritone bark as she rounded the corner into the palace’s parade yard. She folded her hands behind her. Pausing, she took in the troopers before her. The dominus, her lord, had assigned her soldiers, the expendable kind, for the next stage of her assignment.
In the yard, tromlins formed two neat lines. Bloodseekers, theropadal bipeds, stood alongside quadrupedal ceratopsid hardshells. These dinosaur-like people formed the rank and file of the dominus’s Alien Cohort. A barrel-shaped figure in light military plate, the rank of sergeant marked on his gorget, paced before them. The sergeant’s head, pale-furred and ursine, looked too small in the armor.
Illustration by Yun Huai Huang from Starfinder Adventure: The Liberation of Locus-1.
Markalane recognized this gathol—Sergeant Narg. Underneath the armor, she knew, Narg’s body was massive, covered in the same pale fur and several stonelike plates. His people were among the few in the Cohort tough enough and willing to keep fractious tromlins in line.
Turning to continue inspecting the squad, Narg spotted Markalane. He paused. Then, in the same sharp baritone, he said, “Officer on the field! Attention!”
Every soldier snapped into a formal stance. Markalane strode around the squad in silence, glaring at each soldier in turn. None moved. None dared return her gaze.
“We’ve been assigned a special mission,” she finally said. “We’re taking a mining team to a new system to recover a unique mineral. You are to keep order during this operation. Good Azlanti scouts died to make this mission possible, troopers. Honor them, me, and yourselves by performing your duties well. I expect no less.”
“Yes, lieutenant!” replied every tromlin in unison.
“Aye, Lieutenant Markalane?”
“The selected troopers must be ready to fly by oh seven hundred. Mining droids, security equipment, and remaining gear must be secured aboard the shuttle and ready for inspection then as well. That’s on you, this squad, and the other field sergeants. Got it?”
“Good. Get it done.”
About The Author
Chris S. Sims is an RPG industry veteran. Starting in 2001, he has worked with or for numerous companies from Paizo and Wizards to Monte Cook Games and Undead Labs. This piece is his first flash fiction. Chris is American but currently lives in Austria with his wife, two daughters, and two cats. He recently made an RPG called Draculola with those daughters. When he isn't doing freelance writing or editing, Chris avoids sleep by cooking, meditating, playing games, playing with his kids, or something else entertaining. You can find out more about Chris and how to contact him at chrisssims.com.
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.