This second installment in the Petri Dish Chronicles finds Petri and her friends traveling from planet to planet in Daji’s spaceship, the Ruba, searching for a new home. But it’s a challenge for Petri to find a place where she can be confident that the dangerous secrets she carries within her will remain hidden, and Daji is losing patience with her indecision. As tensions between Petri and Daji reach critical mass, the most frightening part of Petri’s past catches up with her, and the question facing the motley crew changes from, “where will they live?” to “will they survive?”
*Please note: it is strongly recommended that this series be read in order, starting with book one, Rainbow Dreams.
*Please note: this story contains adult themes and material and is not intended for readers under the age of 18. If violence or explicit sexual content offends you, this may not be the book for you.
Dust and grit swirled around Petri as she lifted a hand to shield her eyes from the harsh glare of the star that the planet she was currently on orbited. In truth, it was one of three stars, but by far the largest. The other two had nearly burned themselves out and were well on their way to becoming black dwarves. They did little more than light the night sky enough for most beings to navigate easily. It was rarely completely dark on this world.
Which was good, she reflected as she gazed out across the desolate landscape, since the remaining star made daytime travel difficult. It dried the lone planet that circled it and its older sisters to a world-spanning desert and created convection currents in the atmosphere strong enough to ensure that the parched soil remained suspended in a perpetual, whirling cloud. That is, when the dirt wasn’t busy coating anyone hapless enough to be out in it.
Sighing, Petri raised the scarf she wore to protect her airways over her mouth and nose and stepped away from the building she had just exited. It had been almost three days since she had been outside its walls, and she half-expected that her friends would have left her here. It was what they wanted, after all.
Thinking about Chessie and Sadaka, Petri grimaced. She wasn’t being fair to them. They just wanted her to stop arguing with Daji so much. Which made sense, considering that they only lived by his good graces. Still, he made her so angry sometimes she couldn’t help lashing out. Sighing again as a nearly overwhelming exhaustion washed over her despite the way she had just glutted herself and her power, Petri remembered how frustrated she was the last time she saw him. That had been right before she had stalked off his ship in a fit of temper. Sometimes she thought he was deliberately refusing to try to understand her point of view.
Stopping suddenly, she looked around again and realized the swirling dirt had disoriented her and she was going in the wrong direction. She peered through the haze trying to discern enough landmarks to make her way back to where she hoped the Ruba would still be waiting for her. It wasn’t easy, since there were several large, low-lying buildings in the small township, and they all looked the same; low to the ground, with no sharp edges, and coated in the ubiquitous pale gray sand. Most structures only had their entrances above ground, as the constant erosion from the airborne grit wore down anything built on the surface.
The shipyard was similarly underground, with a landing panel that was only exposed to the elements long enough for ships to land on and take off from it. The rest of the time, the landing strip was sheltered beneath a structure that was indistinguishable from half a dozen similar buildings in the area. Huffing, Petri acknowledged that the planet was named appropriately.
It was called Sheol, after an ancient human mythological afterlife full of shadowy souls who ate clay and lacked self-awareness. Petri couldn’t remember all the details of the myth; devoting time and attention to learning extraneous trivia was still a new concept for her and she hadn’t quite mastered it. But what she did recall certainly seemed to describe this planet with astonishing accuracy. Even down to the lack of sentience in the local residents.
She couldn’t blame them; this place was deadly dull, and she’d go brain-dead too if she had to spend a week here, never mind years. That was why she couldn’t understand Daji’s motivations and determination to leave Chessie, Sadaka, and her on a planet like this. The thought of it was enough to set her temper off again and start a cold ball of panic building in her stomach.
Petri could understand him wanting his ship back. They took up space and it cost money to feed them. That was one of the reasons she spent so much time in the building she had just left; a local bar and flophouse, where a new dolly was a novelty and much welcomed by the locals. Even after she gave the owner of the establishment his cut, her pockets jingled with hard currency, evidence of her popularity. She intended to give it to Daji to cover at least part of the cost of their passage and board.
But what she found maddening was that every time she suggested a planet for him to leave them on, he rejected it. Petri wanted a developed, well-populated world; one with cities that were big enough for her and her friends to lose themselves in. As a trader, Daji traveled to a variety of planets, many of which would satisfy Petri’s criteria.
But the kind of world that Petri was thinking about inevitably had a sophisticated bureaucracy with reams of laws regarding who could immigrate to their worlds, what background information was required from applicants, and extensive health testing and communicable disease prevention precautions. It was the health and disease testing that was the sticking point for Daji.
Chessie had the diddling skills to create new profiles and backgrounds for the three of them that would satisfy the bureaucrats, and Daji had no problem with that type of rule breaking because, as he said, it didn’t endanger anyone. But he insisted the health and disease tests couldn’t be faked.
The tests were no problem for Chessie or Sadaka. As humans, they would sail right through without so much as raised eyebrow from any of the medics. But as a human/Arcanum hybrid, Petri couldn’t allow her DNA to be scrutinized by anyone in authority. If she did, she would at best be executed, and at worst be turned into a research specimen.
She shuddered at the thought. One scientist on Upworld had discovered her secret and she’d had the misfortune of spending a few hours in his custody. She still had nightmares from the experience.
Daji’s solution to that problem was a world like Sheol, a backwater, sparsely populated planet that lacked the resources and bureaucracy of the more developed systems. On such worlds, there were often few, if any, laws regarding who could immigrate or what standards they had to meet. The only problem was, a planet like that was Petri’s own personal idea of Hell.
The idea of being stuck in a place like this made her skin crawl. She had no idea how to survive on a world with as few people as this one had. Yeah, since she was new she had attracted a lot of business over the last couple of days. Novelty went at a premium in such places. But she wouldn’t be a curiosity for long, and then what?
Would she be able to make enough as a dolly on such a world to survive? Because she didn’t know how to do anything else. Chessie had her diddling skills, but how much demand for those could there be on a planet that lacked even a central global network? Hell, this place still ran on a cobbled together system built off satellites! Petri had lost track of the number of times the lights and air filters failed over the last couple of days thanks to the finicky power grid that was the best the local government could afford.
And what about Sadaka? The girl needed to be in school, and the educational opportunities in such a place were limited at best. In all likelihood, the child would grow up to work in whatever industry had necessitated that a settlement be founded on the world they settled on. Here, that meant she would grow up to be a miner, working in dangerous conditions to extract the rare mineral, trefoil, that was used to make the shielding in spaceship hulls. She would rarely be allowed out of the mines; her life would be lived in darkness, breathing recycled air. That wasn’t what Petri wanted for the kid she had come to feel responsible for.
Worst of all, what if the people here discovered Petri’s secret? A thrill of terror ran down her spine. There was no place to run. No crowd to hide in. If anyone ever suspected what she was and she was trapped on a planet like this, she would be dead.
Petri had tried to reason with Daji. First, she had argued that Chessie and Sadaka could go through the health screenings, if he insisted, and that she, herself, was in perfect health. She couldn’t bring disease to a planet because she wasn’t sick. He had insisted there was no way for her to know for sure that she didn’t have some latent infection, and that it wasn’t just other people’s safety he was concerned for. Every world had its own diseases, and part of the screening process involved inoculating new arrivals against whatever endemic diseases were in residence.
He had pointed out that given where she and her friends had lived, they might have been exposed to any number of microbes and toxins and that, when combined with the microflora of a new world, might turn lethal. And that was especially true of her with her hybrid physiology. The only way to ensure everyone’s safety was to go through the immigration health protocols.
There hadn’t really been any way for Petri to argue the point with him; no one, least of all her, knew what surprises her unique biology held. So, she had shifted the conversation to the fact that planets like Sheol didn’t have the resources to combat new diseases the way more developed worlds did. That by coming to a place like this, she would put people in more danger, not less. That was when the conversation had devolved into a shouting match.
Daji had started babbling about something called “population density” and how it affected the way “emerging infections” spread and whether they took hold in a population or burned out. Apparently, the more people there were living in close quarters, the more likely a new disease would be to infect and kill new people. At least, that’s what she thought the gist of his lecture had been about. It had been over Petri’s head and she had felt stupid for not understanding something he obviously considered common knowledge. It made her angry, and she had stormed out and gone in search of a decent meal for her power.
That was another reason she had been so short-tempered. With her new-found control, she had been able to feed from Daji on a regular basis without draining too much of his energy and endangering him. It was enough to sustain her and keep her power from getting out of control, but feeding in such a way left her feeling constantly hungry. The fact that Daji shared his food with them, and she had enough to eat for the first time in her life helped, but it wasn’t enough. She needed to feed her power.
Knowing that her stay on this planet would be short and that she wouldn’t be feeding on any of her clients here more than once, she’d had no qualms about feeding deeply from them. The first few may have felt a little tired and in need of a good night’s sleep and a meal when they left her, but nothing worse than that. After she had taken the edge off her hunger, the rest wouldn’t have felt even that much of a drain. And they all left completely satisfied with her services.
Being fed on by Petri made her prey feel amazing. Daji described it to her as an orgasm that touched every cell in his body and left him floating for hours. And being full again felt just as incredible to Petri. After the last couple of days, her body sang with her power and she felt like she might just have the energy to tackle all the reading Daji and Chessie wanted her to do.
Having time and resources to devote to anything other than getting the basics needed for survival was a new state of affairs for Petri. Her entire life before this had been devoted to getting enough money to put food in her belly, a roof over her head, and protecting herself from those who wanted to take what little she had. Now, she had leisure time and Daji and Chessie were determined to help her fill it.
Chessie lived with her father as a child, and so had a little more security than Petri in her early years. Since she hadn’t had to scramble to survive, she’d had the opportunity to learn to use the rainbow. Those skills eventually developed to make her into the diddler she was now, but she had also learned to enjoy learning. She didn’t have any formal education, almost no one did in Under City, but she had learned how to research and find things out for herself. Now, she was determined to help Petri learn as well. And Daji cheered her on.
It wasn’t just Petri they were after; they both gave Sadaka a mountain of data to process, as well. But the little girl was incredibly smart and took to the education like fur to a Paka. She delighted in telling Petri about what she learned, which only made Petri feel even worse about her own abilities.
Because of her power, Petri had trouble focusing in the virtual world and controlling her surroundings enough to navigate through the material Chessie and Daji determined to be most critical. And the weird resonance that existed between her power and the digital environment made it extremely hard for Petri to concentrate. Not being able to fuel her power properly had only exacerbated the problem.
Sighing, Petri pushed those thoughts aside. Her power was now fully sated, and it was time she found out if she was stranded on this hellish world. She didn’t think so. Daji might have been angry enough to leave her, but she knew that Chessie would never abandon her. Still, if he had incapacitated the older woman in some way, it was possible Petri would have to find another way back to civilization.
After studying the town for a few more minutes, Petri thought she had the right building identified. Ducking her head against the ever-present wind, she hurried to find out if she still had a ride.