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“Somebody get us the hell out of…”
This is the last transmission received from Caitlin Palamara’s audit team. What could never happen is now a terrifying fact. The five-person crew of the ISEA audit ship jack-a-dandy has vanished during a routine skip from sector ship Graywand to the planet Sierra. Palamara and the others find themselves stranded on a hostile, undeveloped planet that bears no resemblance at all to Sierra. They’ve lost communication with Graywand, and their drive system is dead. Just when it seems that things can’t get worse, John Wheeler, who feels a connection with a mysterious alien presence, wanders off and stumbles upon the sprawling ruins of an ancient city. The others have no choice but to go after him. The place is more than a little spooky. But there’s no real danger, right? The city is long dead, abandoned eons ago. Right?
For Caitlin Palamara’s small audit team, it’s the end of their comfortable routine, and the beginning of the interstellar nightmare that becomes known in ISEA archives as The Tartarus Incident.
Arlo Triplethorn doesn't match the holo-vid image of a contract courier. Short, scrawny, and unremarkable in every way, he suffers from recurring nightmares about his one disastrous encounter with the cobra. The bloodiest war in human history was fought with the cobra, an alien race prone to senseless aggression and unrestrained violence. Although the cost was devastating, the cobra were eventually exterminated. Or so Arlo believes.
Everything changes for Arlo when he is hired by the International Space Exploration Agency to acquire a mysterious alien artifact and deliver it to their headquarters on Sierra. The artifact is a fist-sized crystal found buried on a Fringe world. It's clearly of alien origin, and it gives Arlo a bad case of the jitters when he first gazes into its amber depths. A strange thought comes unbidden to his mind: There's something alive in there.
Things go downhill fast when Arlo discovers that a ruthless underground organization known as Isterbrandt also wants the crystal. Pursued by both Isterbrandt and corrupt ISEA officials, Arlo escapes to Earth with the crystal. There, in the ruins of a sprawling city once known as Los Angeles, Arlo learns the truth about the crystal from a small band of mutated humans who are the only remaining inhabitants of Earth. Now he knows why the two most powerful organizations in humanspace are chasing him. But the worst is yet to come, and it steps straight out of Arlo's nightmares. Not all the cobra were exterminated, after all. One of them has been living among the crumbled ruins of the city, waiting patiently for the return of the amber crystal. Now that it's back, the cobra's patience has morphed into the single-minded goal of acquiring the crystal at any cost. Only Arlo Triplethorn stands in its way.