WELCOME! Welcome to my blog's stop on the Escapist Book Tour for Kenai! Looking for a science fiction novel, that will have you on the edge of your seat on a strange planet? Strange happenings your thing? Secrets, and danger? Then this book? Yeah, this one right here...is one to grab and dive into. Keep reading for my review, more details about the book and where to buy!
Series: Standalone (same future setting and timeline as Daros, but no overlap)
Genre: Science Fiction (Space Opera)
Intended Age Group: Adult
Published: May 24, 2023
Publisher: Dave Dobson Books (Self Published)
Shown on Page (things clearly told to the reader):
Alluded to (things only mentioned in passing or hinted at):
A planet steeped in mystery...
Jess Amiko is long past her days as a space marine, with all the glory of that time tarnished beyond repair by what came after. Trying to rebuild from the ashes, she's taken a job as a security guard on Kenai, a lonely world far from the Council systems. It's supposed to be easy duty - quiet and peaceful, on a docile world with no real threats, watching over an archeological dig at a site built by a race long vanished.
Betrayed and attacked by forces unknown, and finding that nothing on Kenai makes sense, Jess is plunged into a desperate fight for survival that leads her deep into the mysteries of Kenai's past, and deep into the hardship and paradox the planet imposes on all who call it home.
Jailhouse Rock • Have Suit, Will Travel • Tree’s Company
Everything was fine on Kenai until that bird died all over Welk.
I mean, mostly fine. And it wasn’t the bird’s fault. It got a raw deal, too, same as us. It wasn’t even a bird, although with xenobio, you kind of go with whatever’s close. It’s just human nature to lump things into familiar categories. But that bird marked the time the whole thing turned from a peaceful jaunt on a world full of feathery red and gray plants and trees, fun little animals, and crumbling ruins, to a pile of skog. A big pile.
Welk had gotten up like he always did, eager to dig. I’d been awake for a couple hours, of course. Sleep comes hard, especially on planet, although there wasn’t supposed to be anything dangerous on Kenai. The megafauna were all herbivores, and there weren’t many of them. The sentients were long dead, and Kenai itself was at the ass-end of Council space. That’s why I took the job. Distance, peace, and isolation. All recommended, after what I had been through. Doctor’s orders.
Anyway, Welk had gotten up, like I said. Drank some of the coldbrew I’d set brewing the day before. Thanked me. All polite and proper, these scientists. Ate a biscuit left over from last night, then went to pee and shower. The shower I still thought was funny. I couldn’t count the number of worlds I’d been to, often for months at a time, with nothing but a couple of ZestiWipes to keep the grime at bay. But Welk used the water condenser and shower every day, all before just going to dig in the dirt. At least he smelled nice. Better than my usual gang of grunts, that’s for sure.
He came back from the shower, running his blue and white towel over his curly black hair. “Better get to it,” he said. Always cheerful. That was nice. The guy wasn’t stressed about anything, and he was at home out here in the field. Maybe it had something to do with the showers. “Did I tell you? I saw a couple lizardoids yesterday getting some sun on the stones of the wall. They kind of matched the shapes we saw carved in the big stones over at the first site I visited. I think the carvings might be representational.”
“Great, chief.” Unlike some of what he said, I followed this.
“I told you, you don’t have to call me chief.”
“Proper respect for ranks and titles is kind of a thing for me, sir. And you’re running this show, right?”
He sighed. “Yeah, well. Such as it is.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. The whole operation seemed pretty elaborate. Eight dig sites, ten paid staff, plus a healthy bankroll for transport, bots, provisions, nanites. And me and a few others like me. Security. Which was kind of a joke, because I hadn’t even met a biting insect on Kenai yet, much less something to shoot. Somebody was paying a lot of credits to get us way out here. We’d gotten a ride with a long-range Patrol ship, one outfitted with Hlojeng coils, because the Kenai system didn’t have a jump gate. On account of nobody lived here. Or hadn’t, not for a couple dozen millennia.
“You going to excavate today, chief? Finally?” Over chili last night, he’d said he thought he was ready to set the bots and nanos up for the first dig. The seismics, LIDAR, and diffraction beams had revealed the foundations of the structure we were here to unearth. It was all scanned and mapped and reconfirmed. He’d shown me on his personal console – his “con” – a fancy model with a big holo and lots of add-ons. He wanted to hit the main chamber of the sunken building. Do the most interesting spot first.
Welk smiled. “You excited?”
I snorted. “Excited is bad in my line of work, sir. When things are exciting, people are generally shooting at you. Or bleeding on you.”
“Well, Jess, we’ll just try to keep it tedious.” He poked me in the arm of my mechsuit. “You’re not the least bit curious about what’s down there? I mean, a major structure, built of stone and mortar? When the bigger cities are all complex alloys and synthetics? This might well have been built by the ancestors of the folks who built the cities. A precursor culture to the Kenai empire. Their Stone Age, as it were.”
“Not denying the importance, chief. And anybody’s curious what’s in a hole. That’s how holes work. Human nature.”
Welk laughed. “You play like you’re a big tough warrior woman, but I can tell you’re with me. This is going to be cool.” I didn’t reply. He was right. I was trying to be tough and detached, like I always did. That was stupid with Welk. He was a genuinely nice guy, and I had nobody to impress or scare off out here. And of course, I was out of the marines and out of the Razors, and past a bunch of other stuff I’d rather not talk about. But it was ingrained after five tours and then the merc work and what came after. Just a way of life.
Welk folded his towel and put it over the bar affixed to his tent. Next to the lounge chair. Say what you will about the guy, but Welk hit the field in style. He put on his sun hat, a big floppy mesh thing. Rodan Alpha, the local star, didn’t put much hard stuff out, at least not much that didn’t get stopped by the atmosphere, but I guess it was nice to keep the heat off. My suit kept me cool, or I’d have brought something similar. Maybe less floppy, though. A cool bandana, or a field cap, maybe. One had some dignity, after all. Welk adjusted the towel one last time, then pointed toward the dig site. “Shall we?”
“Sure, chief.” The servos in my suit whined as I moved over to pick up my rifle. Although my pistol would have been enough. Heck, a sharp stick or even a firm expression of displeasure would probably be enough. There was nothing here. But better to be ready. That’s what they were paying me for. “You need me to carry anything?”
“Not your job, Jess. I’ve got it. Or Wizzie will.”
That set the bot going. “Please state your command, Joran.”
“It’s Jordan, you confounded gearbox.” Welk was easygoing, but the name thing really set him off somehow.
“Yes, Joran. As I said, Joran. Please state your command.” The bot’s voice was exceedingly pleasant and well-mannered.
Welk bared his teeth. “Bring three packs of nanites and a C-class power cell and follow me to the dig site.” He frowned. “And get some standard rations. The spicy chicken with the pepper relish. And the water cooler, and two beers. I don’t want to come back for lunch.”
“Right away, Joran.” The bot rolled over to the supply dump and began rearranging things.
Welk looked after it for a bit, scowling. Then he turned to me. “Spicy chicken OK with you?”
“You know it, chief. I could live on that pepper relish.” The meals here were a step up from Patrol rations. More like a few flights of steps. I had eaten something called Protein, Brown for a couple weeks straight back on Entan IV. You don’t forget something like that.
Welk set out down the path, and I followed. We’d been here less than a week, so it was less a path and more a matted-down trail of weeds. Welk’s operating procedure was to keep the camp away from the site, to avoid contamination, he said. And maybe to make it feel like you were able to go home from work, even if it was just forty meters or so. As we came around a wide tufted tree, the crumbly walls of the site emerged before us. A rough and incomplete square of stone blocks, most of them shaped into irregular rectangular chunks. Welk had shown me the tool marks. Funny to think of the Kenaians, whoever they were, using crude tools to bash things, just like the early humans did back on Earth. Nothing more universal than hard labor, I guess.
Some of the stones still sat on top of others with bits of mortar showing in between. Others had fallen or been moved out of place, but it was obvious they were part of the site. Toward the center, just outside the tallest surviving wall, was our big scanner console, about two meters wide by one high and one deep, covered with holo displays and control screens. Welk went over to it, but I couldn’t help but check sightlines and do a perimeter walk, full circle, both directions. When you see grunts die in front of you, you get habits. Just rituals, maybe, but they help.
By the time I’d finished, Wizzie arrived, rolling up and converting to his standing mode, both sets of wheels close together. The bot laid everything out in a row next to Welk. That was stupid, both because a row of random items was silly, and because that’s right where Welk wanted to dig. But Welk didn’t notice. He was too busy flipping through information on the scanner unit. I saw his fingers flying over the console. His face was set in a frown. Bad news from the overnight data processing, maybe? Not my business, but I sort of hoped we’d still be able to dig. That would be more exciting than just watching him tap the console all day.
I stepped over the wall, moving towards Welk. “Wizzie, head back to camp. Notify me if there’s anything out of the ordinary, as I defined yesterday.”
“Yes, Jess.” The bot converted to travel form and whined its way back along the path.
“Something not right, chief?”
Welk let out a sigh, then pointed at a holo display. “See that?”
I followed his finger. “Looks like the red line’s got a bad attitude, sir.”
Welk laughed. “It’s an age estimate. And it’s wrong. Or at least, I think it has to be.”
Welk looked at me. “It’s way too young. The stratigraphy model has to be wrong, but I can’t figure out why.”
“Sorry. You know the ruined cities on the planet here?”
“Yeah. I saw a few up in the northern hemisphere as we were flying in. Looked like major urban centers, but weird. All built up on top of themselves, even though there was lots of room.”
“That’s right. You’d expect less building density for a place like that, one that had room to grow. At least, for human cities, with similar high-grade construction materials.” Welk sounded like he was ready to rip up into a lecture. That was all right. He was paying the bills.
“The buildings are advanced?”
“Yes, a lot more advanced than what’s here. They include complex metal alloys, processed materials, remnants of electronics and circuitry, although that’s long corroded and useless. Even some bits of advanced self-propelled vehicles.”
“Maybe they were just hypersocial and loved living all together. Like a happy commune or hive or something.”
Welk smiled. “That’s possible. We don’t know much at all about their culture. We’re the first research team, and study here has only just begun. The world was only surveyed less than a year ago.” I knew that. It had all been in the briefing. Kenai, named by the survey team. The lead surveyor traced her cultural roots to Earth, to Alaska, and in her culture, Kenai meant flat land. That seemed accurate. The briefing said there wasn’t a lot of volcanism or tectonics here, and it rained a lot, so not many significant mountains that weren’t worn down and tree-covered. There was also another Class M planet in the system, which was really unusual. Hardly ever see two. The surveyor had called that one Ninilchik. Place of the lodge. Only it had no evidence of settlements, and this one did. That bugged me a little, but naming planets wasn’t part of my operations order sheet.
Welk waved a finger. “I don’t like the hive angle, though. Another idea, one I like maybe a little better, is that they just made most of their buildings out of biodegradable material. So the center of the city, the dense parts, are metal and stone, while the outlying buildings are of degradable materials that have vanished. We know there’s lots of wood and resin here, although there hasn’t been an official biological survey. Just the original scans.”
“Advanced race, building out of wood? When better stuff is available? Not how it goes on most other planets.”
Welk frowned. “Could be aesthetics or tradition that kept them using that stuff. Fashion. And biodegradable materials would explain the apparent concentration of the cities, if the wooden buildings rotted away.”
“You sounded like the cities had something to do with the bad age estimate.” Sometimes you had to get these intellectuals back on track. Mission focus first and foremost.
“Yes. So, the cities almost all date from about fifty thousand years ago, give or take.”
“Isn’t that weird? Seems like it would be spread out over longer.”
“If you look at Earth history, people created nearly all the major industrial cities within a few centuries.” He was sounding a little more pompous now. Or if I was generous, enthused. “So that’s not so strange. When you get agriculture working well, and population can grow, you can have a population boom, accompanied by an urbanization boom. Then big cities pop up all at once.”
“You sure of that, or making it up?”
Welk chuckled. “Making it up. We don’t know much at all about these folks and their history, other than it seems like it may have been pretty short. That’s why we’re out here looking for older construction. Trying to figure out how the culture developed.”
I knew that. He said it every couple of hours. “So what’s wrong with the ages?”
“This skogging machine says this site is twenty-two thousand years old.”
“That’s way after the cities.” Even I could do that math.
“Right. Which is why it’s wrong, I think.”
And that’s when the bird showed up. Fell out of the sky, more like, in pieces. And it was a big bird, maybe a two-meter wingspan. One of the larger pieces hit Welk in the shoulder on the way down, leaving a trail of blood and hairy stuff down his freshly-showered body. Yeah, the birds here were hairy. Forgot to mention that part.
“Amiko! Bring the ARP over here!” Juno’s voice was tense. Understandably. We’d been told the rebels were disorganized, poorly funded, a rabble full of nature-loving free-spirit types. Now, we were down four from our squad. Only eight of us left, and the rebels had energy weapons. And a sniper. I still couldn’t fathom that Kenzi was gone. Not possible.
“Set it there and get us some covering fire. Now, Jess.” Juno’s voice was tight. She fired a burst of four at the dirt mound across from us, in front of the mud building. The smoke from the building was starting to wrap around the mound. That kind of cover would help them, not us.
I set the ARP on the ground and pressed the deployment control. Its two squat feet popped out, and its holo sight came online. It wasn’t seeing any heat, though. Not through the dirt mound. And the planet Vega was close to body temperature here, anyway, so no contrast. I hit the dirt behind the ARP and triggered the gunner shield. Not that it would stand up to a sniper rifle that cut through our body armor. But it might keep off some of the blasters.
Torqueda rolled over to give me more room. The ARP had a pretty wide swing. “We should just call down orbital fire.” His mouth split into a grin under his stupid mustache.
“Cut the chatter, soldier.” Juno didn’t think Torq was funny. Of course we couldn’t call down orbital fire. That was forbidden under Council law. Outbound only, for planetary weapons. Anybody could fire up, but nobody can fire down. Not a bad rule, given humanity had almost offed itself entirely a few centuries ago. By doing things like firing on planets from orbit.
I let loose at the mound with a burst from the ARP. The energy bolts smacked into the dirt. I aimed at the top, so the hot melted soil would spill down on whoever was behind. Didn’t want them popping up to fire at us. I knew from experience that incoming ARP fire was scary, and I wanted to be scary.
“We could use a tac drone right now.” Torq was bitter this time.
“Didn’t bring any, dumbass.” Juno looked through her sight. She had it digitally periscoping so she could maintain cover. “This was supposed to be a growler.”
Growler. Where we show up and act scary, and then everybody agrees that we could kill anybody we wanted to, and dying wasn’t really cool, so they’d give up on whatever they were fighting about. That was our usual mission. Fly in, growl, get paid, leave.
And now Kenzi was dead. I knew that was true. And in the abstract, I knew that my heart was on fire inside, so much that I might well be dying myself. I would become utterly devastated, shattered in ways that would never come back together. I knew this. But I couldn’t feel it. The combat stims were keeping me from that reality. All I had was just a buzz of something not right, something that occasionally stirred to hint at the horror behind the chemical curtain.
Author Bio & Information:
A native of Ames, Iowa, Dave loves writing, reading, boardgames, computer games, improv comedy, pizza, barbarian movies, and the cheaper end of the Taco Bell menu. Also, his wife and kids.
In addition to his novels, Dave is the author of Snood, Snoodoku, Snood Towers, and other computer games. Dave first published Snood in 1996, and it became one of the most popular shareware games of the early Internet. His most recent project (other than writing) is Doctor Esker's Notebook, a series of puzzle card games in the spirit of escape rooms.
Dave taught geology, environmental studies, and computer programming at Guilford College for 24 years, and he does improv comedy every week at the Idiot Box in Greensboro, North Carolina. He’s also played the world’s largest tuba in concert. Not that that is relevant, but it’s still kinda cool.
Facebook (Inquisitor’s Guild series page): https://www.facebook.com/FlamesOverFrosthelm
Author Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DaveDobson
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