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Sneak Peek

Star Cruise: Marooned (Veronica Scott)

Posted: 30 June, 2015 at 1:36 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Release date: 22-June-2015
Publisher: Self
Available formats: Mobi, Epub
Price: $0.99
URLs: Get the book at Amazon | Get the book at iTunes | Get the book at B&N

CHAPTER ONE

The shuttle broke out of the cloud layer and swooped over a breathtaking vista of pink and green foliage, practically glowing in the vid screens. The rainforest spread across the planet as far as the scanners could detect. Clouds of multicolored birds flew above the treetops, drawing the eye to their wheeling movement across the turquoise sky. Here and there, rainbows curved from puffy clouds, where seasonal showers had added moisture to the air. As Meg walked through the cabin, offering refreshments to their guests, she attempted to direct their attention to the view of the planet. Anchored by trees soaring hundreds of feet from the surface, the foliage and avian wildlife were something never seen on the highly civilized worlds where these people lived and worked. Although they’d paid a staggering amount of credits to be taken to this site, neither the primary guest, nor the people he’d brought, seemed to care. Drinking, playing cards, and indulging in sexual innuendo took all their attention.

Not much changed from cruise to cruise with the rich and powerful, despite Meg’s best efforts to share the simple pleasure she found in the surroundings at each port of call.

At the rear of the main cabin, she found at least one passenger watching the screen above her seat. “How are you doing?”

Callina Finchon Bettis took her attention from the view for a moment, giving Meg a little wave. “Fine, smooth ride so far. When can we see the Falls?”

Soon. The pilot likes to swoop in from the front, as if we’re going to splash right through the water.” Meg leaned closer. “But don’t worry, he veers to the side at the last moment.” She placed an iced fruit drink at the woman’s elbow. “Maybe five more minutes.”

As Callina murmured thanks, Meg retreated to the galley, where she found the only other crew member besides the pilot.

Passengers all happy now?” he asked, raising one eyebrow.

I don’t think this bunch is ever happy,” she said. “You’ll find generational billionaires rarely are, when you’ve done more of these private charters. But at least I’ve supplied them with feelgoods.” She slid the drink tray into the chiller. “Did you need something?”

Simon ‘Red’ Thomsill held up his hands in mock surrender. “I know, this is your territory and I shouldn’t be here, Guild rules. But the pilot wanted coffee.”

Hands on her hips, Meg smothered an impatient sigh. “First of all, he should have buzzed me for it, and secondly, he knows perfectly well only guests are entitled to genuine Terran coffee.”

Wow, are you this dedicated to rules all the time?” He leaned against the emergency portal and studied her, one eyebrow raised as if he might be trying to tease her.

Two internal call signals pinged, one right after the other. From the cabin, she heard female passengers swearing at each other. She straightened her tunic as if gathering determination, and headed out to mediate whatever the problem was now. “No tip is going to be big enough,” she said under her breath. Pausing on the threshold, she glanced at Red. “I’m responsible for the coffee inventory on this shuttle, and it comes out of my pay if the weight is short.”

I didn’t know.”

Yeah, there’s a lot you don’t know, rookie. But Drewson does. The synth stuff crew members drink is over there.” Pointing at the proper carafe, she left the galley as more voices joined the clamor in the passenger section.

One of the scantily clad women had spilled her beverage all over another’s ample cleavage, staining both the woman’s skin and skimpy bikini top. The agressor was pulling the other’s hair and screaming insults, while her victim tried to land some blows anywhere she could reach. The primary guest laughed and made bets with the two men seated next to him, wagering on which woman would prevail.

Meg waded into the fray. “Ladies, please, we’re about to land. You’re required to be in your seats before we can make our final approach.” She caught the second woman’s elbow. Modulating her voice to a soothing tone, Meg said, “I can remove the stain, Ma’am, no problem.”

The women paused in their altercation, gazing beyond her with wide eyes. A moment later, both fluffed their hair.

Without turning, Meg knew Red had followed her. She’d observed his effect on females more than once already on this cruise. Something about his 6’4” height, the heavily muscled biceps, the chiseled features, the sparkling green eyes…Well, okay, to be honest, he had the same effect on her, but she wasn’t about to let him know. Been there, done that with a tempting crewman or two on her early tours. Crew romances were nothing but trouble when the first attraction inevitably flamed out.

Although Red was more tempting than anyone she’d met in a long time.

Second Officer Drewson asked me to come and make sure the accommodations and the service are satisfactory,” he said, his voice deep and slow.

Oh, yes, we’re fine.” The girl with the stained top brushed at her skin, accentuating her ample chest with the gesture, and smiled as if she hadn’t been screeching obscenities a moment prior.

So nice of you.” The other batted her three eyes at Red, green lashes sweeping her cheeks. She held out her arm. “I think I might have a scratch.”

I’ll get the medkit while Miss Antille helps Sharmali,” he said, leaning close to inspect the tiny red mark on the passenger’s creamy skin.

Fine.” Meg was pissed and she planned to let him know it. What the seven hells did he think he was doing, interfering with her care for her passengers? He was crew, not service. She wasn’t the rookie here. Following Sharmali to her seat, Meg drew the cleaning pod from her belt and passed it a few inches above the woman’s skin and the orange and purple fabric of the bikini top. The pod hummed and the stains lifted in a rain of reverse droplets, absorbed into the cleaner, leaving no trace.

Not bothering with thanks, Sharmali practically shoved Meg out of the way to return to where Red was patting soothing ointment on the second passenger’s face, having already bandaged the red mark on her arm. Moving past the seat where the first aid was occurring, Meg rolled her eyes. The mark was so tiny, it didn’t merit discussing, much less treatment. Or his holding the woman’s hand as she hyperventilated.

Irritation at the cozy scene flooded Meg’s nerves, making her voice a bit on the shrill side. “Don’t you have to return to the flight deck, Officer Thomsill?” Technically, she outranked him when it came to passenger care.

He gave her an enigmatic look, gathered the medical supplies, and headed for the galley behind her. “You’re welcome,” he said as she keyed the privacy screen between them and the passenger seats.

Listen, I didn’t ask for your help and I don’t need it. You made me appear incompetent just now.” Grabbing the medkit from him, she stuffed it into the proper niche, slamming the compartment door.

Eyebrows raised, he rocked back on his heels. “That wasn’t my intention.”

We’ll be landing in three minutes, folks.” Drewson’s voice on the com was authoritative. “The Falls is coming into range on your vidscreens. Officer Thomsill, you’re needed on the flight deck.”

Saved by the pilot, or I’d be giving you a piece of my mind,” Meg said, shaking her finger at Red. “Don’t forget his synth coffee.”

Red reached past her to grab the carafe. Leaning close, invading her personal space, he said, “We’ll continue this conversation later.”

As he ascended in the one level gravlift to rejoin the pilot, she took a deep breath, pasted on her professional expression, and returned to the cabin to ensure the passengers were seated for landing and could perhaps be cajoled to spare a moment to glimpse the extremely expensive view.

Took you long enough,” Drewson said as Red reached the cockpit.

Here’s your synth,” he answered, more than a little annoyed. He suspected Drewson had set him up.

The pilot guffawed as he accepted the steaming drink. “Miss By-The-Book wouldn’t give you the real stuff, would she? Didn’t think she would.”

Red sank into his chair, rubbing the back of his neck. Yeah, his trip to the cabin had sure gone well. He’d managed to annoy Meg twice in ten minutes. Third time and he’d be a total write-off as far as she was concerned. Good intentions didn’t get him too far. Need to up your game, Thomsill. Meg was the only reason he’d signed on to this outfit. One glance at her, sitting at the next table in the Guild canteen on Sector Hub and he’d been a goner. Something about her sweet face and sparkling hazel eyes stuck in a man’s memory.

When he heard there was an opening on this ship for a Third Officer, he’d put his other opportunity on hold, entered his bid, and apparently the captain liked his experience. But this was next to the last stop on the charter and so far Meg barely gave him the time of day. If she spoke to him at all. The other officers and crew members said she kept to herself and never dated co-workers. Which was smart of her, but didn’t help him much. The Sectors was a galaxy-wide civilization, the cushy job on hold for him with the CLC Line wouldn’t wait forever, and he might never see her again if he let this opportunity fall through.

He’d never had much of a problem getting to know a woman before. Of course, none of them had mattered to him as much as Meg did. Desire to impress her made him self-conscious and fall over his own big feet.

Every time.

Told you she’s impossible,” Drewson said. “I tried on our first cruise together, but she shut me down hard.”

Well quit ‘helping’ me, okay? I can screw this up enough on my own.” Red hid his frustration under a light tone.

Gonna miss you, rookie, if you don’t sign on with us again. It’s been a treat watching you try to make an impression on Meg. You should have gone after the Chief Stewardess. She’s been eyeing you, in case you haven’t gotten the message.”

Except he wasn’t the least bit interested in anyone but Meg. Red gave himself a mental shake. He could plan complex operations in the field, improvise on the fly under the worst conditions, and had the medals to prove it—why couldn’t he manage to establish some kind of less than antagonistic relationship with Meg Antille? See if there was any potential for something between them? Not for the first time, he berated himself for being an idiot, following a woman he’d only barely met across the Sector…but somehow a chance with Meg seemed worth it.

Drewson fiddled with the controls. “Check the atmospherics, would you? Make sure those storms are tracking out to sea.”

Yes, sir.” Glad to be distracted, even for a moment, Red gave his attention to the instruments.

True to Meg’s prediction, Drewson took the shuttle in through the iridescent spray thrown off by the Rainbow Falls, and executed a smooth landing on the small landing pad next to the beach. As she triggered the door to allow the passengers to exit for their excursion today, Meg said, “We’ll be here for four hours, so you have plenty of time to stroll along the beach, enjoy the view, and relax. It’s safe to swim in the lake, but please, no further out than the marker buoys where the sonic barrier begins. The crew and I’ll be setting up your pavilion and amenities, and serving the requested lunch in about an hour.”

The music the Falls was famed for thundered outside. The water was effervescent, filled with bubbles of all the colors of the rainbow, having leached minerals from the planet’s surface as the river flowed toward the solitary ocean. The way the liquid poured through the cliff’s rocky channels and crevices produced constantly changing crystalline “music.” Meg loved it here. Dantaralon was one of her favorite spots. She stepped outside for a moment herself, before the work had to begin again. The air was warm, redolent with scent from the many flowering plants.

Wow.” Red descended the short ramp to stand beside her, staring at the waterfall in the distance. “Impressive, like the brochures promised.”

We specialize in conveying our passengers on a tour of exotic natural wonders,” Meg said. “This part of Sector Thirty is full of amazing sights on so many planets.”

Seen one waterfall, seen them all. Come on, let’s get this done before the Primary starts complaining.” Drewson left the shuttle, jumped off the ramp, and went to open the cargo hold.

Mr. Finchon and his guests have the place pretty much to themselves,” Red said, eyeing the empty landing pad, which held only one other shuttle, parked at the other end of the grid. “He should appreciate the exclusivity of the situation. Is this place usually so deserted?”

Meg paused to take a second look. Red was right, there was only one set of charter cruise passengers already on the beach. She recognized the TDJ Lines banner flying from their gaudy turquoise pavilion. “Odd, while this isn’t peak season, we usually have to share with more neighbors than this.”

Can we cut the chitchat?” Drewson activated the three stubby robos inside the now-open hold. One after the other they trundled down their ramp, moving smoothly onto the terrain on their antigrav. The pilot tossed the control to Meg. “All yours.”

She’d done this routine many a time. Directing the robos to the beach was simple. Once there, the biggest unfolded itself into a pavilion similar to TDJ’s, if less colorful, and the other two disgorged lounge chairs, her cooking apparatus, and more necessary equipment.

Red brought the food and drink module, parking it next to Meg. “Are you sure you don’t need help? Shouldn’t the Chief Stew have come along today?”

Yes, ideally, but she said she had a headache.” Meg was busy unwrapping the precooked hors d’oeuvres. “It’s only a beach picnic, half the passengers didn’t come. I can deal. And she’s going to work ahead on décor for dinner, consult with the chef, all the arrangements the guests will never even notice. Will you go set up the flotation devices and the net for games, in case anyone actually wants to play?”

Aye aye.” He gave her a mock salute and trotted closer to the lakeshore, where the guests were settling into their comfortable chairs.

Meg followed to take drinks orders. The next hour or so was busy, but she enjoyed the pace. Made the time pass.

Moments before she was ready to serve lunch, Red checked in with her again.

Anything else you need?”

She realized her party hadn’t cleared their presence yet with the park rangers. Pushing her bangs off her forehead, she said, “Yes, can you do me a favor and run to the ranger station on the far side of the landing field? Usually, someone would have come by to check our permit, but maybe there’s a staff meeting running long or something. Tell the person at the desk our permits are in order, and I can show them after I’ve served lunch. Our line has a good reputation, so the ranger should be okay about it.”

No problem.” Despite his cheerful answer, he hesitated. “What does Drewson do on these trips ashore?”

As little as possible, believe me. Privilege of rank, or so he says. Actually, he’s not too good with the guests, so his absence is probably better for all of us, as far as the size of the tip at the end of the voyage.” Meg hoped she hadn’t said too much to the rookie, but her frustrations with Drewson grew every time he was assigned as the pilot bringing her ashore with passengers.

As Red walked away, she served the buffet luncheon, which met with approval from their guests. The Far Horizon featured one of the Virochol Lines’ most experienced gourmet chefs—he shipped out as a package deal with their Captain, so her ship was much sought after for charters.

Red came to report in the middle of lunch service, a puzzled frown on his face.

What did the ranger say?” Meg asked, plating more mini sandwiches.

Shaking his head, Red said, “No one there.”

What?” She paused in the middle of drizzling artful condiments on the individual Azrigone beef patties. Laughing, thinking perhaps he was kidding, she said, “Are they out to lunch or something?”

Place is all closed up. I knocked, on the off chance someone was left as a caretaker, but the station shows all the signs of being abandoned.” He ran one hand through the dark maroon hair that gave him his nickname.

Impossible. The rangers and their families live here year round. I’ll go check for myself later.” Annoyed at his failure to complete the simple task, she said, “Mr. Trever asked to go fishing, and that’s your job.”

Any hints on the best spot?” Red surveyed the lake.

I never paid much attention. I think there’s a sand bar off to the left. Try there.” She gestured vaguely. “The fishing gear is in the boat module, which you’ll have to bring from the shuttle.”

Red departed to handle the task and she kept serving lunch and drinks. A few minutes later, she heard the purr of the small boat’s motor and raised her head long enough to watch Red skippering three guests onto the beautifully colored lake.

Finishing the lunch service, she had a bit of free time before the mid afternoon snack. Mingling with the passengers held no appeal for her. She wasn’t working charters to try and snag a generational billionaire or intergalactic businessman. Meg sent as many of her credits as she could to her family, on their home world, to buy more land for the Antille spice farms. Scanning the beach for a moment, she considered the primary guest and the men he’d brought along on this cruise. A mix of businessmen like himself and faded celebrities to fawn over him and impress the men he wanted to do deals with. Shaking her head, she couldn’t wait to see the last of this bunch.

Taking a glass of the refreshing faquilada fruit drink, she wandered toward the TDJ pavilion, hoping she knew a few of the cruise staff or crew. A woman in the other line’s uniform came to meet her, waving cordially. Delighted, Meg recognized Sallira, a casual acquaintance in the Guild. Their circle of mutual friends was wide, so catching up on gossip took a few minutes. Then Meg said, “Hey, what’s the deal with the ranger station? My guy said it was closed. Did you see anyone official when you landed?”

Sallira shook her head. “No, he’s right, the staff is all gone.” Making a funny face of regret, lips scrunched, she sighed. “Too bad, I had a flirtation going with the senior ranger last time I was here.” One eyebrow raised suggestively, she sipped her drink. “I was anticipating more fun and games this trip, if you know what I mean.” She nudged Meg in the ribs with her elbow. “Harmless fun, but he sure was cute.”

Meg stared at the Falls and then the lake. The park gave the appearance of order, serene and beautiful as always. Maybe the Sector Thirty government had decided to cut costs by eliminating the rangers? But then why hadn’t she seen a bulletin to that effect? The captain gave her the permit token before the shuttle left the Far Horizon this morning, so he must not have known the permanent staff was gone either.

There was a shout from the TDJ pavilion. One of the crew was hustling their obviously bewildered passengers toward Meg and Sallira, while a second man ran ahead, sprinting for the landing field as if he had a major predator on his heels. The other cruise staff member was matching him stride for stride, but skidded to a stop in the sand next to Sallira, breathing hard. “We gotta go, right now.”

Eyes wide, the woman’s jaw dropped. “What are you talking about?”

Captain called, emergency channel, said get our butts up to the ship immediately.”

Sallira twisted her hair into a knot as she prepared to return to work. “I guess gossip time is over, sorry, Meg. I’ll go pack the gear—”

But the other TDJ woman was shaking her head, pulling her by the elbow. “No, the captain said leave everything. Run before the pilot leaves us.”

Is there something I should know?” Meg asked. No one ever abandoned the expensive robots and gear. Unease stirred in her gut.

I don’t know, captain didn’t give any details. We’re out of here.” The staffer grabbed a dawdling child who was digging a hole in the sand, and hurried to the incline leading to the shuttles.

Guess I better go,” Sallira said. “Maybe you should check with your captain, might be a solar flare or something.”

Her crewmates were yelling and gesturing for Sallira to hurry so she didn’t linger for any more chitchat, taking off at a fast pace, leaving Meg alone on the beach. Moments later, the TDJ shuttle lifted straight from the pad and shot into the azure sky. Meg rubbed her elbow, suddenly feeling goose bumps. The beach wasn’t as welcoming anymore, despite the bright sun and the ethereal music from the Falls. The forlorn pavilion and humming equipment bothered her.

What’s with them?”

She jumped, turning to find Red standing behind her. This time it was a bit comforting to have him by her side. “I don’t know.”

Is the other crew coming back later for their stuff?” His face was set in serious lines.

I-I don’t know.” Meg walked toward their own set up. “The TDJ staff member in charge said their captain got on the com from orbit about some emergency and recalled them.”

Did we get any bulletins?” Red asked. “Storms? Warn offs?”

She shook her head. “Not that I heard of. You’re ship’s crew, you’re more likely to know than I am. Think I should ask Drewson to check in with the Far Horizon?

He scanned the beach, eyes hooded. “Yeah, I think you’ve got a good idea. I’ll cover things here.”

Meg handed him her empty glass. “Do you mind turning off their power grid?”

Eyebrows raised, he gave her an incredulous stare. “The TDJ staff left the equipment running?”

Not bothering to answer beyond a distracted nod, she made her way to the landing pad. The shuttle portal was locked, which seemed like excessive caution on Drewson’s part, but of course she had the override code. The cabin was empty, but she heard sounds from the rear, where there was a luxurious private bedroom. Reluctantly, she walked aft. Drewson and at least one of the passengers were obviously enjoying themselves, from the exclamations and noises she was overhearing. Maybe he wasn’t as bad with interpersonal relations as she’d believed.

She knocked on the thick Zulairian mahogany door, another of the many expensive touches on their shuttle. Luxury all the way, was the Virochol Lines’ boast.

No answer, but the voices inside the room had gone silent.

She rapped her knuckles on the door again. “Drewson, it’s Meg. I need to talk to you—we may have a problem.”

The door opened a crack, enough for her to see her fellow crew member’s naked body. Averting her eyes, she said, “Have you heard anything from the ship?”

Of course not. Why would I?” Drewson’s smile was more of a leer. “I’ve been busy.”

There’s something weird going on—”

I’m waiting,” said an impatient female voice from further inside the room. “You don’t want me to get cold, do you?”

The Second Officer turned his head a fraction. “I’ll warm you up again, baby, no problem.”

Meg tamped down her irritation. He was risking his job, not to mention the tip the entire crew worked for, if he got caught screwing a guest while on duty, but he was her commanding officer right now. He could make a lot of trouble for her. She wasn’t going to yield on her demand, though. “I think we need to check with the ship.”

All right,” he said, a rough edge of anger in his voice. He shut the door in her face and opened it open a moment later, extending his hand, the control panel token dangling on the chain of his suskadi-foot lucky charm. “You know how to open the coms; you call if you’re so damn worried. Tell them I’m attending to passenger relations, understand? And barring war breaking out between the rangers and us, do not interrupt me a second time.” The threat was clear.

Yes, sir.”

The door slammed in her face. Meg turned and walked slowly to the bow, where the gravlift to the cockpit was located. Doubt assailed her. There were bound to be awkward questions why she was calling the ship. Maybe the TDJ crew had a problem with their vessel, nothing at all to do with anything affecting their own situation. In the galley, she paused, swinging the little good luck charm. “Am I overreacting?” Red didn’t think so, but then he was a rookie. Although rumor had it he was retired military, Special Forces or something, a drifter now, bumming his way through the galaxy pleasure spots. Maybe his opinion did count more than most rookie crew members’. Chewing her lip, she sank into her jump seat. But the passengers were her responsibility right now and the TDJ crew had abandoned a lot of pricey hardware in their haste to leave.

Okay, I’ll pretend I need clarification on dinner tonight, something the Primary might have asked.” Plan in mind, she left the chair to take the gravlift into the cockpit.

All kinds of lights were flashing and there was a loud klaxon sounding. Hands over her ears, Meg rushed to the com panel, which she’d received cursory cross-training on, early in her stint as a cruise staff member. Hesitating for a moment, she flipped the controls to off. Then she swallowed hard and opened the link to their ship in stationary orbit above.

Hello, Far Horizon, shuttle calling—”

Where the seven hells have you been? Where’s Drewson?” The voice she heard was so strained she could barely recognize the First Officer.

She drew breath to speak, but was cut off.

Never mind, tell him everything’s—”

There was a funny sort of crackle from the link and then silence. She waited a few moments, then tried closing and reopening the connection. Nothing. Ship to space atmospherics could be a chancy thing. Drewson had made it clear he would not appreciate her interrupting his private party twice, and anyway, right now there was no talking to the ship.

The panel indicated someone else had entered the shuttle. Callina’s voice came over the internal com. “Meg? Are you here?”

She flipped the switch. “I’m in the cockpit. What do you need?” The last thing she wanted was the woman going near the private bedroom.

Mr. Thomsill sent me to get you and the medkit. Sharmali’s been bitten by some kind of eel thing and she’s bleeding really bad.”

I’ll be right down.” Meg rose, staring at the now quiet com board. She decided to leave the ship-to-ship and general hailing frequencies open. With mischievous amusement, she piped the links directly to the luxury cabin, set at high volume. If the ship did call again, Drewson was going to know it. He could make his own excuses when he answered. She could always claim she’d forgotten how to adjust the volume.

When the gravlift deposited her in the galley, Callina was waiting, shifting from foot to foot, tears on her cheeks. Rushing to tell her news, the passenger’s words tumbled out. “Sharmali was in the water and this thing grabbed her, pulled her under. Mr. Thomsill rescued her. I’ve never seen anything like it, outside the adventure trideos. He was amazing, the way he fought the beast in the water with his knife. But she’s screaming and there’s so much blood.”

He didn’t get bitten too, did he?”

Callina shook her head. “I don’t think so. He was acting normal.”

Deciding at most Sharmali had fallen afoul of a non-venomous water snake, because the sonic barrier kept the serious predators at bay, Meg grabbed the medkit and handed it to Callina. More of the female passenger’s drama over nothing. “Here, there should be all the equipment and medicines he needs to treat Sharmali’s bite. I’m sure the wound can’t be too bad. Tell him I’ll be right there.”

Sniffling, Callina sprinted for the exit. Meg looked around, anxiety making her queasy. Where was she going to leave the precious control panel token? Of course Drewson could operate the shuttle without it—there was a backup hidden where only he knew—but he’d be angry if she kept it. Guild rules and all. Deciding to stash it in his coffee mug, she stepped to the left when something caught her eye—an unmarked, sealed compartment where the officers’ weapons were held. Did she dare? Yes, today she did. Things were definitely going awry and getting scarier. Drewson could give her hell later, but if one of the deadly eels had somehow gotten inside the barrier on the beach, other predatory creatures might be in the vicinity as well. Her passengers could be in jeopardy.

It took only a moment to unlock the panel with Drewson’s token, and withdraw the two small blasters. After resealing the cabinet, she stuck the weapons in a bag meant for cleaning supplies, threw the token into Drewson’s coffee mug as planned, and ran from the shuttle. The door sealed shut after her.

On the beach, there was chaos. An eel, easily two feet in diameter and eight feet long, lay convulsing on the sand, Red’s hunting knife buried to the hilt in one eye. The crewman had the medkit open beside him and was struggling to staunch the blood flow from Sharmali’s lower leg, while she lay on a red-stained towel and moaned. Callina was standing beside them, trying to help. The other men and women milled on the beach nearby, drinking and talking in too loud voices. As Meg headed for the injured passenger, the Primary intercepted her.

Miss Antille, I demand to know how something like this could happen.” Purple in the face, he waved a hand at Sharmali. “I paid top dollar, if not an exorbitant price, for a safe, enjoyable cruise for myself and my guests, and now the poor girl’s had her foot eaten!” He was so upset he was spitting.

On behalf of the Line, I certainly apologize, sir. We do everything we can to ensure the safety of our guests under all circumstances, but if she swam beyond the sonic barrier—”

She was standing in three inches of water right next to me,” Finchon said. “That monster could have just as easily gotten my foot.”

The barrier’s off,” Red informed her, not glancing up from his task. “Can you argue with him later? I need your help.”

Meg ran to his side, the Primary matching her step for step, yelling at her about lawsuits and refunds. She tried to stem the tide of his vitriol so she could concentrate. “Sir, please, let us assist Sharmali, and then I’ll be happy to discuss the legalities.”

Trever, the retired pro athlete, came forward and took his host by the arm, shoving a drink into his hand and drawing him aside. Meg took a deep breath of relief and knelt beside Red. “What do you want me to do?”

Apply pressure to the wound for a minute while I see what antivenom we’ve got.”

Gulping against her nausea, Meg set her hand on the makeshift bandages and pressed hard. “You said the barrier was off?”

Must be. There was more than one of these things right in the shallows at the beach. We were lucky no one else got attacked. I got her out of the water as fast as I could so the blood wouldn’t attract other predators.” He sat on his heels, frowning, holding an inject. “This is only a generic. Will it work on eel venom?”

It’s all we’ve got on the shuttle. It’ll have to hold her until we get to the ship’s sick bay.”

As he gave Sharmali the inject, Meg eyed the wound with deep misgiving. The woman’s leg was definitely swelling and there were ugly purple streaks advancing toward her knee. “This is my fault,” she said.

How do you figure?” Red applied a light tourniquet.

I should have known if the ranger station was closed, the barriers might be shut off, but I didn’t check.”

Well, keep your voice down, the Primary is pissed off enough right now. Don’t add fuel to his fire. We’d better get her to the shuttle and hustle offplanet, to the ship. What did you find out?” He turned to take more towels from Callina with a murmured thanks and wrapped the oversize, gaily colored fabric around Sharmali. “She’s going into shock, gotta keep her warm.”

Drewson said he hadn’t heard anything. I called the ship myself, but we got interrupted. Signal failed or something.” Meg rose as he did, admiring the smooth manner in which Red lifted the injured woman, not jostling her.

We’ll know soon enough.” He shifted Sharmali to lie more comfortably against his chest and walked away as if her weight was nothing to him. “Guess it’s our turn to leave the equipment behind, at least temporarily.”

Oh, Lords of Space, of course.” Meg grabbed the cleaning supplies bag, since the blasters were in there, thankfully unneeded. She detoured to flip the switch turning off the power grid, dropped the bag inside the nearest robo’s storage cavity to leave her hands free, and then caught up to the guests at the base of the walkway leading to the landing pad.

The rumble of the shuttle’s engines caught her by surprise. How could Drewson possibly know about the emergency? As she decided he must have checked the beach-facing vidscreens for some reason, the tenor of the sound changed from warmup to full power. In disbelief, she saw the shuttle rising from the pad.

What the seven hells is he doing?” Red yelled.

Stay clear, don’t get caught in the backflare,” Meg screamed, pulling at the guests. Most shrank away from the landing pad, but the Primary strode up the ramp, shaking his fist and yelling curses at the pilot. Red set Sharmali in the sand and sprinted to tackle Finchon before he got crisped. The two men rolled on the ramp, the ungrateful host trying to punch Red.

As the crewman laid their passenger out with a swift right hook to the jaw, the shuttle cleared the trees and shot into the sky, leaving them behind in the blink of an eye.

Now what?” Callina said, shielding her eyes with one hand as she watched the shuttle grow smaller and smaller in the sky. “He won’t forget to pick us up later will he?”

Of course he won’t,” Meg said, fear making it hard to enunciate. The captain would send Drewson or someone to collect them. He wouldn’t abandon half his passengers and two of his crew, would he?

What do we do now?” asked one of the female passengers in a shaky voice.

Realizing the entire group was all watching her with varying degrees of puzzlement, fear, and annoyance, Meg cleared her throat. “I think Mr. Thomsill and I need to see if we can get the ranger station open. Sharmali would be better off there while we wait for the shuttle to return, than lying on the open beach. But if you’d like to resume your picnic, there’s no reason not to. We’re scheduled to be here for two more hours. I’m sure the crew’ll come pick us up on time.”

Where are Lindy and Sam?” someone asked, voice rising in alarm.

And Pirankai?” said Trever, scanning the faces around him, forehead wrinkled in a frown.

Pirankai was on the shuttle, um conferring with Mr. Drewson,” Meg answered, rapidly, remembering that the retired athlete had been quite cozy with the lithe blond passenger for the last day or so. She hoped he didn’t put two and two together about what Drewson and Pirankai might have been doing, or the entire crew’s tip might be diminished. Counting heads, all worries over the eventual tip fled as she realized she’d failed in yet another duty. Two of her passengers were missing and would have been left behind temporarily if the rest had gone in the shuttle with Drewson. “We’ll have to find them,” she said. “Does anyone remember what direction Lindy and Sam went?”

Right now, we have other priorities,” Red interrupted. “The two of them’ll probably come wandering in of their own volition soon enough. I’m sure if we searched we’d find them, uh, admiring the scenery someplace close by, which would be embarrassing for everyone concerned. Okay, folks, I think Miss Antilles had an excellent idea—you might as well relax, and follow the original plan for now.”

Can I get two volunteers to help us get Sharmali settled at the ranger station?” Meg asked. “Keep an eye on her?”

Well, don’t look at me,” Harelly said, as several of the other guests glanced in his direction. “I only play a doctor on the trideo shows. The sight of blood makes me ill.”

Callina and her husband, Peter, volunteered. As the other passengers slowly hiked through the sand to their pavilion by the lake, Meg, Red, and the volunteers headed for the ranger station on the far side of the landing pad.

What about him?” asked Bettis, who Meg remembered was Finchon’s employee, a personal assistant or something. He and his wife filed past the groggy charter Primary, who was sitting now, holding his jaw.

I’ll deal with him later,” Red said.

He’s gonna be pissed. He’s gonna sue you and your company for every credit,” the man predicted, excitement in his voice. “He’ll probably end up owning the whole cruise line before he’s done.”

Not my problem right now.” Red’s voice was cheerful.

Meg admired his attitude. She was dizzy with anxiety and worry, happy to follow his lead for the moment. What in the seven hells had Drewson been thinking, taking off without them?

The ranger station was ominously quiet. The storm shutters were latched and the usually immaculate landscaping had become overgrown, weeds running riot, untrimmed vines establishing a foothold on the ornamental fence, and even scaling one wall.

How long do you guess the rangers have been gone?” Meg said, eyeing the building. She glanced at the living quarters to the left, noticing the same general run down air. The three small houses were tightly sealed, as if hunched against a coming storm.

The forest grows fast,” Red said. “Probably not more than a few months. I wonder why we weren’t warned, though.”

Warned?” Callina Bettis picked up on his remark. “Are we in some kind of danger?”

Red and Meg exchanged glances. “He means we should have been notified there wouldn’t be any immediate help onsite,” Meg said, forcing herself to speak the lie calmly. “In case of an emergency, like the unfortunate bite Sharmali suffered.”

Setting the injured woman on a picnic table, Red went to the front door of the station, Meg on his heels. She tried activating the portal to no avail, punching the tabs hard. “You think the last person out would have left it set to open, general access, in case anyone needed help the way we do.” She thumped her fist on the door.

Unless the staff didn’t expect anyone to be here,” Red said. “Are you sure there’s not something you forgot to tell me?”

I swear, you know as much as I do.” She leaned closer and lowered her voice. “Drewson was boning Pirankai in the private cabin when I got to the shuttle, coms off, so if there were any bulletins, he missed them.”

Idiot.” Red retreated a step or two, eyeing the door. “Well, nothing for it.”

Are you going to break it down?”

Eyebrows raised, he gave her a glance. “Thanks for the compliment but it’d take a battle robo to get through this storm portal by brute force.”

What then?”

He stepped to the keypad, flipping open the cover, and entered a series of numbers and symbols so rapidly she had no idea what the sequence might be.

You’ve been here before?” Meg asked.

He shook his head. “Special Forces, Team Twelve. We each have a special access code enabling our entry into any door, ship, vault, or facility in the Sectors.”

The storm door jerked away from the threshold and then began to roll into the roof recess. The window shutters on all four sides of the building followed suit a moment later. Meg knew her mouth was hanging open. Biting her lip, she tried to make sense of this new information. “You’re on active military duty, but working as crew on a charter ship? Are you undercover or something?”

Retired. Wasn’t sure my code would work, but we have a saying in the Teams—no one is ever completely released from service.” He grimaced. “Not until we die or the Mawreg have been erased from the Sectors. I should live so long.” He pushed the inner door open. “Let’s see what we have here. Stay behind me.”

The lights didn’t respond to voice command or their physical presence. “I guess the rangers powered down before departing. Shutters must be on auxiliary. I’ll have to check the situation out later,” he said, pausing on the threshold. “At least the windows let in enough ambient light for now.”

How long do you think we’re going to be here?” Meg was disturbed by his mention of later.

Depends on what the problem in orbit is.” He stopped, giving her a hard look. “Anything like this ever happen before?”

No. Drewson is an idiot, but he’d never abandon us. And Captain Jonsle certainly won’t maroon us.”

He may not have a choice. I don’t want to alarm you, but we could be in a bad situation here. I hope not, but just between the two of us, I’m not feeling too positive. Whatever spooked the TDJ captain into recalling his people had to be damn serious. I don’t want to alarm our passengers because panicked people are hard to handle. Drewson’s takeoff seems like the act of a panicked person.” He studied her face, the expression on his serious. “You’re not going to panic, are you?”

Of course not.” She straightened her spine, irritated he would even ask.

He squeezed her shoulder. “Good. I didn’t think so. Stay here, let me check the rest of the place, and then we’ll bring Sharmali in.”

Moving so quietly she couldn’t hear his footsteps, Red left her. Meg sank onto the nearest chair, resting her head in her hands. If she and the people she was responsible for were in survival mode, even for a short time until someone sent help for them, she had to reprioritize her thoughts. By the time Red returned to the small lobby, she was on her feet, pacing, and making lists on her personal AI.

Nothing left behind but the furniture as far as I can see,” Red reported brusquely. There’s a big conference room or maybe it’s a dining room, and a small kitchen, couple of offices.”

Right. We’ll bring Sharmali in here, lay her on the couch. If you can’t get the power going, we can build a fire for tonight. The temperatures plummet after dark and the wind rises. There’s a fireplace in the conference room too, right?”

He nodded. “Plenty of wood stacked out back. We can do the rustic thing. Maybe the guests will enjoy the novelty of camping out tonight.”

Hope so, as that’s their only choice. I think we leave the guests in blissful ignorance for now, until the Primary asks about missing the deadline for retrieval. It’ll dawn on them soon enough we’re marooned, if we truly are.” Meg checked his reaction. “Seem okay to you?”

His calm face betrayed nothing. “Yes, Ma’am. But eventually they’re going to get upset. Especially the Primary, Mr. Finchon. He has a short fuse.”

He’s not in charge anymore, I am.” Meg dropped her AI into a handy pocket. “This is a survival situation and I’m the senior crew member.”

She half expected him to protest, but his eyebrows lifted in mock surprise and he agreed with enthusiasm. “Yes, you are. And I’m here to back you to the hilt.”

“Hey, what’s going on in there?” Bettis, the male passenger, peered into the lobby. “Can we bring Sharmali in or not?”

“Yes, we’ve got a nice couch to put her on, make her comfortable.” Red moved to join him, saying to Meg in a low voice as he passed, “You and I need to talk more, later.”

Red arranged Sharmali on the couch, Meg and Callina covering her with the large, soft beach towels. As she tucked the cloth over Sharmali’s shoulders, touching her clammy skin, Meg was alarmed by her condition. The woman was hypothermic and nearly unresponsive. The purple streaks had progressed beyond her knee into the fleshy thigh area on her injured leg when Meg checked.

“Whoa, the bite looks disgusting,” Bettis said over her shoulder. “And painful. Glad I didn’t go wading.”

“If you and Mrs. Bettis can sit with her, Red and I need to supervise activities on the beach,” Meg said, ignoring his unspoken question.

“Yell for me if there’s any change,” Red added

“I’m no expert on bite wounds.” Doubt radiated from the man.

“I just came along to be out of the sun,” Callina rubbed her bare shoulders. “I never had any first aid instructions or anything.”

“If she gets agitated, or feverish, or if the appearance of the injury changes,” Meg said, forcing herself rein in her impatience. “Call us.”

“Right.” Bettis dragged a chair next to the couch for himself and another for his wife, as Meg and Red departed.

Not talking, the two of them crossed the landing pad and descended to the beach. To Meg’s relief, Mr. Finchon was seated, drinking a large glass of pure whiskey, judging from the translucent bronze color. As Meg approached, he stood, glaring at her, swirling the drink in the heavy crystal goblet. The other passengers gathered nearby, whispering to each other.

“I’m going to start packing up here,” Meg said.

“I’m pressing formal negligence charges against you both, as soon as we return to the ship,” their Primary guest said, voice quiet and deadly. “And suing the charter company. I’ll be transmitting the claims to Sector Hub immediately upon setting foot on the Far Horizon.”

“Fine, you do whatever you think you need to do,” she answered, happy to hear how steady her voice sounded, despite the sinking sensation in her gut. “In the meantime, Mr. Thomsill and I have duties to attend to. Does anyone want another drink or a snack before I close the robos?”

Trever, held up one hand. “Throw me another, but not that swill I endorse. I drink enough of that for the commercials.” He guffawed.

Meg fished a high end premixed drink from the robo’s storage container and tossed it to the athlete underhanded. He snatched it from the air, reflexes not much diminished from his glory days on an All Sectors professional ball team.

A few other people came forward and she and Red served them. Then the passengers drifted away for the most part. Meg turned her back to the lake and leaned toward Red.

“The Primary’s going to be major trouble in about an hour, when the deadline passes with no shuttle arriving,” her fellow crew member said before she could utter a word. “Nothing I can’t handle easily, as long as the others stay scared sheep.”

“I can help with crowd control.” She grabbed the bag she’d been guarding, setting it on her prep surface.

He fingered the edge of the cleaning supplies label. “Why do I have hope you’re not talking about brushes and mops?” he said, moving closer, his body shielding them from casual view.

Opening the bag in such a way as to conceal the contents, she showed him the blasters. “I grabbed these when I went to talk to Drewson.”

As he palmed one, Red gave her an awestruck look. “Ma’am, my respect for you has climbed to a whole new level.” Efficiently, he checked the charge.

His praise warmed her a bit and settled her nerves. “Taking the weapons was an impulse, but a good precaution, given how strangely the TDJ crew behaved. Don’t you want both of them?”

“Do you know how to shoot?”

She nodded. “I’ve had the basic course.”

“Then you keep the other. You’re in command here.” He slid his blaster into a deep side pocket of his utility pants. “I suggest we keep this advantage our secret until or unless we need to use them, okay?”

“Okay.” Following his example, she dropped the second into the pocket of her own pants, sealing the flap.

“Civilian pop guns,” he said, “But much, much better than bare fists.”

“Is Sharmali going to die?” Meg voiced her biggest fear.

Eyes steady on hers, he nodded once. “I used the only anti-venom inject in the kit already. You saw for yourself how ineffective the dose was. Even if we could get her to the ship in the next half hour, it might already be too late.” He touched her elbow lightly. “There’s nothing you can do about it. And stop beating yourself up over the sonic barrier in the lake. There was no way for you to know it was off. We all expected it to be on.”

Meg disagreed about her own negligence, but now wasn’t the time to argue. Squaring her shoulders, she breathed in, counting to ten. Exhaling, she nodded. “Okay, in an hour, when the deadline passes, plus a margin for error, I’m gathering the group and telling them we believe we’re temporarily marooned. Then I want to put them to work. We’ll gather all the supplies, including what TDJ left, and we’ll move everything to the ranger building. It’ll be sunset in a few hours, and I think we’d better spend the night there, don’t you?”

“Absolutely.” He gestured at the lake. “I assume we can drink this water?”

“Some of the trace chemicals aren’t good for humans if we drank it for the rest of our lives, but yes, fine to consume over a short period of time.”

“Lock the feelgoods in the bar robo now,” he suggested. “I’ll go do the same in the TDJ pavilion. Less chance of me having to shoot someone if we don’t let the situation degrade to where one or more people are drunk or high.” Eyeing the passengers, most of whom were in a tight circle, talking animatedly, he said, “Well, more inebriated than a couple of the men—Trever for one—already are.”

“All right.” Shading her eyes with one hand, she observed her passengers, her responsibility. She noted with relief that the wandering Sam and Lindy had returned unharmed from their hike, and were the center of the excited circle as the others tried to talk over each other, telling the newcomers the unusual events they’d missed. “I hope at least a few of them are going to pull their own weight.”

“People want to eat, they work. Simple as that.” Red jogged in the direction of the TDJ site.

 

CHAPTER TWO

Sharmali died in the middle of the night, quietly, never drawing another breath after one deep inhalation. Meg, who was in the chair next to the couch, drowsing, didn’t realize at first her passenger had died. The venom had worked its way through Sharmali’s entire body, turning all her veins and arteries a startling black and she’d been breathing shallowly for most of the evening. Meg briefly considered doing CPR, and decided there was no use, given the way the poison had affected the poor woman.

Draping a beach towel over Sharmali’s face, Meg sat, head in her hands. There wasn’t any point in waking anyone else. Sharmali had no close friends among the passengers. Apparently, she and most of the other women had been hired by the Primary for entertainment thinly veiled as companionship during the cruise. The men were clients and business contacts of Mr. Finchon’s, with several of his high level employees along as backup, should any of the discussions delve into business. The Bettises, who’d helped with Sharmali earlier in the day, were the only married couple in the party.

A few passengers had remained aboard the Far Horizon, declining the beach party adventure.

Meg glanced to where Mrs. Bettis slept next to her husband. She was Finchon’s stepdaughter from his first marriage. Her mother was deceased, but apparently the generational billionaire had promised his late wife to raise her.

As Meg was contemplating what life must have been like for Callina, Red materialized out of the dark, coming inside the lodge from doing a patrol of the grounds. Glancing at the towel over the now deceased passenger’s face, he grimaced. He squatted next to Meg’s chair. “We’ll bury her in the morning,” he said, resting his hand on her arm for a moment. “You doing okay?”

She nodded. “You should get some rest,” she whispered.

“No worries, I’ll cat nap.” He rose, stretching from side to side.

She caught his sleeve. “Are you expecting trouble tonight?”

He hesitated. “Honestly? I don’t know what to expect. I do know the map in the ranger office shows sonic screens embedded to protect this whole place, which says to me there are land-based predators equivalent to the eel thing I killed earlier. And all of the defenses have been rendered inoperative, apparently during the withdrawal power-down when the rangers left.”

“Could be native fauna worse than the eels,” she said, trying to remember details from previous visits. The company played down the dangers, for fear of scaring away passengers. The rangers kept the tourist site safe, or used to. “But I don’t mean the flora and fauna, I’m talking about why we’ve been marooned here, why our ship hasn’t returned for us.”

Red’s answer wasn’t comforting. “All the things I can think of, based on my previous experience, would be your worst nightmares. Let’s just say for now I’m happier patrolling in the dark, and will be ecstatic when the sun rises.”

“We were so busy late yesterday, you and I didn’t have time to talk privately, or make plans,” she said.

“Yeah, we need to figure out our next move, where we go.”

“What do you mean? Why can’t we stay here? This is where a rescue expedition will expect to find us.” Meg wrinkled her brow, trying to comprehend his intentions. “We’ve got good shelter—we can even open the houses with your special access code. There are edible fish in the lake to supplement my stores, fresh water, all the amenities.”

Trever, sprawled atop a stack of beach towels on the floor nearby, rolled over groggily. “Will you two please take it somewhere else so a guy can get some sleep?”

“Sorry, buddy.” Red extended his hand to Meg. “Got any real coffee in those robos?”

“Of course.” Realizing there was nothing else she could do for Sharmali, she allowed him to draw her to her feet. He led her through the sleeping passengers into the hall and to the kitchen at the rear of the building. Earlier, he’d found a few emergency lamps left in a cupboard, so he flipped one on, setting it on the counter as she activated the robo to brew coffee. “We’re marooned now, so there is no crew versus passenger,” she said. “All consumables are share and share alike at my discretion.”

“All right then, as long as no one is docking my pay.” He took the mug with a laugh. “I’ve missed the real stuff since I left the Teams. Special Forces gets their own allotment. Too pricey to drink much in my new civilian life.”

She acknowledged the shared joke from yesterday with a raised eyebrow, and sipped her coffee, but refused to be distracted. “Talk to me. Why are you urging me to move these people somewhere else? And where would we go?”

He leaned against the counter. “We can assume whatever reason the TDJ captain had for leaving was compelling.”

She nodded.

“And no sign of Drewson returning.” He sipped the hot drink. “The two facts together suggest to me our ship is gone.”

“Gone? You mean jumped into hyperspace?”

“Could be.” He paused. Meg thought he seemed to be struggling with some inner decision whether to share more of his concerns, so she waited. After a moment, Red said, “The Far Horizon could have been destroyed by hostiles.”

“An enemy incursion in this Sector?” Meg blinked, trying to assimilate the concept. “Last time I heard any news, the Mawreg were at least two Sectors away, and being pushed back all along the front.”

“I don’t have any current intel, been out of the Teams too long, but the government never tells civilians the full story about anything.” He shook his head. “The fact that the rangers were pulled out of here says a lot to me. And the Mawreg don’t usually come in first. The overlords prefer to send one of their client races; the cannon fodder do the heavy lifting of first invasion.”

Mind reeling with grim possibilities she’d never considered, Meg pounced on a hole in his logic. “But why attack this planet? It’s got no value other than the scenic beauties. No indigenous population. No particularly valuable minerals, despite the pretty colors they add to the water and the tree leaves. Nothing special here to covet.”

He drained the last drop of the precious coffee and set the mug on the counter. “I found some kind of research station on one of the maps in the ranger office. Maybe this world has more to it than we know.”

This was certainly news to Meg. “Was the research station active? Maybe the staff there can help—”

“Mothballed several years ago according to the note, but it would make a good place for us to wait out our forced shore leave. It’s deep in the forest, probably several days walk from here.”

“I don’t understand why you want us to hike through the undergrowth to reach another abandoned place like this station,” Meg said. “Why not stay here in relative comfort?”

“If hostiles are planning to take over this planet, the landing pad and ranger station are visible and vulnerable, too exposed. I’d have preferred to start for the research complex this afternoon, but the idea wasn’t workable with the bunch of pampered civilians we’ve got. When we move out, I’ll take or destroy all the maps or references here showing our potential destination. We’ll be able to hide there. Once I get you and the others safely established at the site, I’ll come back to this area and keep a covert watch for a rescue or the resumption of normal civilian traffic. My best hope is there might be active coms gear at the station so we can call for extraction.”

Meg took a shaky breath. “What you’re saying makes me want to wake the passengers now and move out in the dark.”

Red laid his hand over hers on the counter. “Hey, I’m probably overreacting. Even if hostiles took out the two ships, or were sighted in the vicinity of the system, the enemy might not have any interest in searching for a few stray humans on the surface.”

Drawing comfort from his touch, she allowed the contact between them for a moment before withdrawing her hand. Needing to do something with all the nervous energy after this unsettling discussion, she set about packing the robo. “Tell me something, are you normally given to overreacting?” She shot him a glance over her shoulder.

“No.”

His answer was what she’d expected. “All right then, let’s plan to get organized and hike out of here by noon. I anticipate some serious complaints and foot dragging from the guests, don’t you?”

“We’ll tell them the truth. And again, the food goes with us, so if the passengers don’t relish hunting for their own—”

“Which this crowd is highly unlikely to do.” She laughed, guessing he was trying to lighten the atmosphere. As he turned to exit the galley, she said, “Hey, Red?”

“Yeah?” Turning to her, he cocked his head as if he expected some criticism.

“I’m glad you’re here with me.”

Smiling, he flashed her a sketchy salute.

The guests were a quiet, cowed bunch when Meg woke them at dawn. Serving a bare minimum of food for breakfast, she announced the need for a burial detail to inter poor Sharmali, whose body Red had carried into one of the side offices after their late night chat. The Primary sat in a corner of the conference room, away from the others, Callina fetching food for him. Chewing on a feelgood stick, he scowled, but said nothing.

“Mr. Thomsill and I believe we need to relocate further inland, to another facility we’ve identified, for our safety,” Meg launched into her agenda for their day after all the passengers had plates and were devouring the food she’d measured out. “We’ll start hiking there today. After breakfast and the service for Sharmali, I’ll need help dividing the supplies into makeshift packs.”

The expected uproar took place, with people throwing questions and accusations alike at her.

Oddly enough, Mr. Finchon quelled the discussion before Red had to intervene. The Primary stood and his entourage went quiet as if he’d yelled at them. “I’m taking detailed notes on all of this, for my eventual lawsuit, which I guarantee is going to drive your employer into bankruptcy and ruin the two of you financially for the rest of your lives. You’ll never work again, I assure you both.” He raised one hand as Red opened his mouth. “Let me finish, Mr. Thomsill. I only want to say this once. I agree with your logic about moving to a less visible location, in case our difficulties of the moment are due to hostile action. Speaking on behalf of my guests and my employees, we’ll co-operate with you to the full extent until help arrives.” He sat and there was silence for a moment.

“All right then,” Meg said, “As soon as breakfast is over, the burial detail goes with Mr. Thomsill and the rest help me pack.”

“You guys go ahead and I’ll be right out.” Red lingered for a moment, stepping close to Meg. Lowering his voice so only she could hear, he said, “Don’t lose any sleep over that blowhard’s threats. Clearly the situation here falls outside normal cruise conditions and anything he tries to file a lawsuit over will get blown out of court. Force majeure and all the old Terran legalese.”

Appreciating his concern, she relaxed her tense shoulders and gave him a smile. “Thanks for the reminder. I did know he was blowing smoke, but if thinking about ways to sue us keeps him co-operative, I’m content.”

“I should’ve known you’d be on top of it.” Red squeezed her elbow and was gone.

But when she stepped outside with the others later, braced to say a few words over the grave since she was in command, Meg paused on the threshold and scanned the sky.

“Problem?” Red was at her side.

She realized she was getting used to him being there when she needed him. The idea was more comforting than she would have believed possible a few days ago. Pointing with her chin, she said, “See those gray clouds, low on the horizon?”

He followed her line of sight and whistled. “Big storm coming. We were tracking some nasty cells when we landed, but the prevailing winds were blowing out to sea.”

“Must have been a shift in the weather then because we’re definitely in for it. My landing party was caught here in a freak storm three years ago. It was so bad we couldn’t launch. We had to sit it out in the ranger station. Blew for twelve of the longest hours of my life.” She didn’t add that storms freaked her out, ever since she was a kid.

“On the positive side, we know the ranger station can withstand the winds,” he said.

“But we’ll never survive in the open. We can’t leave today.” Meg was surprised to find how much she wanted to get away from the vulnerable facility.

“Well, if the weather’s going to be as bad as you’re telling me, no one’s going to attack us today, either.”

The passengers were assembled, so she walked to the flower bed in front of the first small house, which Red had determined was the best spot. Taking a deep breath to calm the fluttering in her gut as she stood by the freshly dug grave, Meg said, “None of us present knew Sharmali Dalgien as anything but a fellow traveler. I’ve been told she was a good companion, a pleasant person to be with and she didn’t deserve to perish here, in such a sad manner. May the Lords of Space speed her on her way and grant her peace.”

“Peace,” her audience echoed. One or two bowed their heads, praying to their own deities. Lindy, the girl whose face Sharmali had scratched during their spat in the shuttle the day before, wept noisily, although her sobs sounded forced to Meg.

Callina placed hastily plucked wildflowers at the head of the grave.

Harrelly recited a short speech from one of his recent trideo roles, where he’d played a priest in some mythological religion. He took a bow at the end, seeming disappointed no one asked for more. Meg remembered his character had been long-winded in the entertainment feature and supposed they were lucky he gave them one of the briefer, more or less relevant passages.

Much to Meg’s surprise, Callina sang, doing a surprisingly professional a capella rendition of a popular ballad. The haunting lyrics about a journey and lost love resonated well for the somber occasion. There was applause when she finished the last verse, and then the mourners’ attention turned to Meg and Red for direction.

“We can’t leave today after all,” she said, explaining about the oncoming storm. Just in the time of the brief ceremony, the ominous cloud bank had advanced noticeably closer and a breeze was picking up and eddying the leaves in the yard. “Mr. Thomsill is going to button up the storm shutters pretty soon. For safety reasons, it’s essential no one remains outside. We will be setting out promptly at dawn tomorrow, so rest today as much as you can.”

Meg tried to prepare them for what the storm would be like, but the ferocity of the winds far exceeded her ability to describe. Lindy became practically catatonic, curled in a chair in the middle of the room, her head covered with a towel, crooning to herself and cringing at the bursts of thunder. The others napped, played desultory card games with the decks Meg had brought on the ill-fated picnic the day before, or else amused themselves with their personal AI’s. Callina and her husband sat curled up together on a couch against the far wall, probably happy that while the storm raged, her stepfather couldn’t make demands of either one. The sturdily built ranger station rocked under the most ferocious gusts, but despite creaking and groaning, the walls and roof stayed intact.

There was no conversation because it was impossible to be heard over the howling winds.

Meg served lunch when her wrist chrono indicated it was time to eat, and brought dinner later. At least there was no worry over food and drink yet, between her stores and what TDJ had left behind. She fed the crowd a bit extra, hoping the treat would give their spirits a boost.

The Primary played cards with Trever and Harelly for the most part, but occasionally she’d glance up from the book she was merely staring at on her AI, not really reading, and discover Finchon was fixated on her. Eyes glittering, he watched her every move. Finally, she relocated to the kitchen and sat alone. Red checked on her at regular intervals, as he prowled the entire building, on the alert for anything.

He’d been unable to restore full power to the station, telling her the day before several vital parts were missing, apparently removed when the place was abandoned. An independent auxiliary system kept the locks, storm shutters and limited ventilation operational.

Eventually the storm blew itself out, as she’d known it would, but not before there was a crash at the rear of the building that literally shook the ground. Heart pounding, she remembered there’d been an old growth tree shading the station, which evidently had failed to weather one more storm. Lucky it didn’t land on the roof or we’d all be dead.

sneakpeek-cover-starcruisemaroonedAs the winds faded in intensity toward evening, she walked into the conference room to check on her passengers. While distributing snacks, she said, “We should be fine now, since the storm is blowing further inland, away from us. Get some sleep and be ready to leave first thing in the morning.”

She spent a few moments conversing with Lindy, the woman who’d had such a terrified reaction to the storm, bringing her a cup of tea. After making sure no one else required any special attention, Meg gave Red permission to open the storm shutters on the windows because the ventilation system wasn’t working too well and the air had grown stuffy inside the building. He ventured outside and reported there was a great deal of debris on the ground from the winds. The large tree had indeed fallen against the rear of the station, but overall the situation was good.

The night passed without incident. Meg woke at dawn and set out a buffet breakfast, Callina and Red assisting her. As the passengers ate, she said, “I’m going to get a head start on shutting down my robos. We’ll be leaving as soon as everyone’s done eating breakfast.”

“Do you need help?” Red was always attentive.

Callina crammed the remainder of her stale sandwich into her mouth, mumbling something about wanting to pitch in with the chores.

“Don’t rush, no need to choke on your food,” Meg said with a smile. “We’ve had enough emergencies for one trip. This is routine, done it a million times, but thanks for the offer of help, both of you. It’ll take me five minutes or less, promise.”

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