Planet of the Dead

Commander Kate Daniels expected to find incompetency when sent to assess the terraforming progress on Primos. She didn’t expect a saboteur to force a crash landing, stranding them at the mercy of the hungry creatures roaming the planet. If she and her crew can’t find a way off Primos, they will die there. And rise again…

Excerpt

September 14, 2253

18:40

“Commander?”

Kate Daniels looked up from the datapad in her hand to fix dark eyes on the navigation officer. “Yes, Lt. Pope?”

“I’ve scanned Primos as you requested.”

When the lieutenant trailed off, licking his already cracked lips, she waved a hand. “And?” Her forceful tone must have spurred him to find his voice.

“There aren’t any life signs, Commander.”

She rose from her seat, taking a step toward the Nav station without thought. “What?”

Dillon shook his head, stirring his overly long brown hair. “I’m detecting some movement on the surface of the planet, but there aren’t any measurable human life signs.”

Upon realizing she had been charging to the Nav station, Kate froze. She struggled to maintain a calm exterior. “According to GeneTech’s representative, there should be more than two hundred workers and their families down there.”

“Yes, ma’am.” His eyes slipped to the datapad by his terminal, as if unconsciously reminding her he had been fully briefed, like all the crew of the Remmick.

Her cool façade cracked enough to let her voice betray a trace of anger. “Get Beck Randall to the bridge PDQ, Lt. Pope. GeneTech’s company rep has some explaining to do.”

As Dillon reached for the intercom button, a roaring sound filled the ship, followed by a vibration that shook Kate off her feet. She grasped the base of her chair as the ship continued to shudder. “Preston, what’s happening?”

The pilot was frantically trying to control the ship’s movements. She didn’t look up when replying. “Our main engine is overheating.”

“Shut it down.”

“Yes, ma—”

Before Trina could complete her sentence, a loud boom announced the engine had overheated beyond its endurance. The sound reverberated through the ship, enclosed in the titanium walls separating them from the cold silence of space.

The intercom beeped, followed by the engineer’s voice. “Commander, the main engine has exceeded heat limits and blown the exhaust ports. I had to shut down the reactor to prevent a meltdown.”

Kate finally gained her feet and walked over to her chair, depressing the intercom button. “Imari, I need to know what’s happening back there.”

“I don’t know. The engine hit a critical point before sensors detected a problem. I didn’t have time to cool it down.”

“Goddammit.” Kate ran a hand through her long hair, worn in a braid as her Nez Perce ancestors had done. “Do you think it was sabotage?”

Imari hesitated, and her silence offered her answer, despite her more diplomatic words. “It’s too soon to say, Commander.”

“What is the ship capable of without the main engine?”

“The auxiliary engines will give us steering control, but are malfunctioning too. Without power, the Remmick will assume a decaying orbit until we hit Primos’s atmosphere. We have to set down while we still can, before the auxiliary engines go as well.”

Kate swore again, though under her breath this time. The mission’s protocol called for observation from a distance, to see what the GeneTech people were really up to, before landing on the planet and announcing their presence. Well, the best laid plans, and all that. “See what you can do to preserve the auxiliary engines.”

“Yes, ma’am.” A brief crackle of static was the only indication the engineer had signed off.

Kate gestured to the pilot. “Preston, prepare to land on the surface.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

With what she hoped was more composure than she felt, Kate returned to her chair, sitting erect. “And get Randall up here. I want to know what to expect.”

They were on the dark side of the planet, so the screen offered nothing but an endless vista of space, broken only by one side of a darkened planet, with two shadowy rings, and no moons. Unconsciously, Kate clenched her hands around the arms of her chair, betraying anxiety at their landing. She had expected to find things not as GeneTech presented them on Primos, but her gut told her the situation was even worse than she had anticipated. Something didn’t add up, and the only man with the answer was Beck Randall. Since GeneTech paid his salary, she didn’t trust him at all.

June 8, 2253

19:43

“I don’t like it, Tom.” Kate shook her fist for emphasis.

“I never would have guessed.” The perpetually jolly expression of his chubby face was a marked contrast to the sarcasm dripping from his tone.

“You can’t just spring another crew member on me. I’m the commander, and it’s within my authority to choose who serves with me.”

“Calm down, Kate.” He leaned back in his chair, causing the leather to squeal with protest at his bulk. “That’s true, usually, but—“

“No buts, for fuck’s sake. It’s undermining my authority to put this Lt. Ford on the roster.”

General Harrison shrugged. “Tough, honey.”

She ignored the sexist endearment, knowing Harrison was a man three centuries out of time and firmly entrenched that way. “What right does the Homeland Affairs Agency have to put him on an ECA mission? They have no authority over Earth colonization.”

Harrison shrugged again. “You should know as well as anyone who runs this planet, Kate. HAA can do whatever they please. It doesn’t matter if they have no jurisdiction at ECA. All that matters is they own the people in the places who can get them whatever they want.”

She acknowledged the truth of his words with a terse nod. “So, what is Ford’s purpose on my mission?”

“That, I don’t know. He’s not under your authority, but neither are you under his.” Harrison grimaced. “I was told to think of him as a hitchhiker. He has confidential matters to handle on Primos, and you’re the one stuck giving him a ride.”

She let her shoulders sag, knowing she could complain until her face turned blue, but nothing would change. Harrison had no power to remove Ford. Should he risk it, he might be branded a traitor and shipped off to serve a stint at the Homeland Affairs Agency Reeducation Center in nearby Guantanamo Bay. Translated, his wife would never see him again, or if she did, he would be a vastly different man from the crass, sexist, jovial man he was upon entering the prison.

“Is everything all set otherwise?”

She nodded. “We’re ready to launch at oh-five-hundred tomorrow, General.”

Harrison’s customary grin shone through. “Why the hell are you dicking around with an old man like me when you could be home with your husband, enjoying your last few hours together?”

A reluctant smile freed its way from Kate’s pursed lips. “I don’t know, sir.”

Harrison waved a hand. “Get out of here. That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir.” She snapped a smart salute and got to her feet, walking to the door. As she grasped the handle, his voice made her hesitate.

“Watch your back out there, Kate. Things don’t add up on this one.”

She gave him a quick nod, but didn’t reply, knowing the general hadn’t expected her to say anything. He was merely voicing what she felt instinctively. GeneTech was hiding something about their terraforming operation, and it was up to her crew to figure out what.

20:14

The scent of roast beef wafted to Kate when she pressed her palm to the pad below the doorbell to open her front door. As she stepped inside, she noticed the dim lighting and candles lining the staircase. David had obviously put a lot of work into tonight. She brushed aside a hint of annoyance, thinking she’d rather sleep than indulge in a romantic evening. Guilt assailed her at the thought, and she forced a soft smile when Daniel came out of the kitchen carrying two plates. He took them to the cloth spread out before the fireplace in their living room before coming to greet her with a kiss.

Kate snuggled against him, allowing a bit of the day’s tensions to drain from her taut frame. This was the reason this man was so perfect for her. Despite their many differences, his comforting touch had a magical effect. With a sigh, she broke the kiss, laying her head on his shoulder.

“Rough day?”

“Um hmm.” She didn’t elaborate. If David wanted to know, he’d ask. She didn’t expect him to, knowing how he felt about the forthcoming mission.

“I made your favorite. Roast beef and cheddar on sourdough triangles.”

Her mouth watered. “You’re so good to me.”

“Come on.” He stepped far enough away to hook an arm around her waist and lead her to the stone fireplace. David knelt on his knees and patted the space beside him. “It’s too warm for a fire, but it’s so romantic.”

It was at that. Many nights, their arguments had culminated in makeup sex in front of a blazing fire. Tonight, she hoped they could skip the argument and go straight to the sex.

She sat beside him, surveying the spread. All of her favorites were on the blanket. Caviar, baklava, and fresh fruit shared a glass tray divided into sections. Crystal flutes awaited filling, and there wasn’t any sign of silverware. He must have planned a tactile eating experience.

David lifted two bottles. “Cristal champagne or the Clos du Bois 2195 we bought on our honeymoon in Sonoma?”

“Cristal. We’ll save the Clos du Bois for my return.” She saw the way he grimaced, holding her breath while she waited for the explosion. To her surprise, he didn’t say anything as he set to work opening the Cristal. When he handed her a bubbling glass, she was more than ready to drown the day’s woes, draining the flute in one long gulp.

She looked at him sheepishly. “Refill?”

He topped off her glass. “May we have a toast this time?”

“Yes.”

“To us. Forever.”

She touched her flute to his, inspired by the simple toast, because his sincerity was so apparent. Even in their toughest times, David never considered quitting on their marriage. He never showed signs of doubt or moments of hesitation. Did he ever have times where he wondered if their union had been the right decision, as she did? If so, he hid them well.

She lost herself in a hedonistic ritual of food, champagne, and flirtatious touching, temporarily banishing all thoughts of the mission from her mind. David became the sole focus of time and space, the only thing in her world. As the caresses changed from teasing to serious, she couldn’t imagine a more perfect moment.

When David entered her, joining their bodies as one, she held tight to him, matching the rhythm he set. As she stared deep into his blue eyes, partially obscured by the long strands of his black hair falling over his forehead, she wondered if she was wrong. Should she withdraw from the mission, and resign her commission, as David had asked of her? This close to making captain and receiving a commission to lead a colonization group, should she throw it all away to stay home with David and have the baby he was pressuring her to give him?

An orgasm washed over her, and as the fog of passion cleared her mind, she dismissed her doubts. At forty-one, she had another two decades of childbearing ahead of her. It would be foolish to throw away her career by turning down a seven-month assignment her husband didn’t want her to accept. David would be here when she returned. He might be angry when she left, but he loved her. He would always love her, and he would understand. He had waited before. He would wait again.

21:24

“I believe he’s asleep, Mr. Randall.”

Beck nodded. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t get away from the office any sooner.”

The nurse frowned at him. “I know Morris wanted to see you. He left a message for you this afternoon.”

He ignored the veiled criticism that suggested he didn’t make enough time for his disabled father. He wouldn’t deny the accusation if she stated it boldly, because it was true. Beck didn’t make his father a priority, having never been a priority for Morris in his childhood. “I came as soon as I could. I’ll be five minutes.” He walked past Sheridan, the dragon-faced old hag who was both Morris’s nurse and companion. She might want to protest, but wouldn’t, knowing Morris had summoned him.

As he walked up the staircase, Beck kept his eyes focused forward, determined not to meet the gazes of any of his ancestors forever frozen in portraits. From past experience, he knew looking at them would give the experience of peering into a long hall of mirrors, with the same face reflected back, only subtly distorted in each mirror. All of the Randall men had the same elegant bone structure, patrician noses, and thin lips. The only variances were in hair and eye color. Even those varied little. Beck himself had inherited the same blond hair as his father, along with the drab blue eyes that never blazed with emotion, no matter how passionate, angry, or fired up he felt.

His father, stubborn as he was, refused to move from the master suite on the second floor of the rambling Boston manor. Morris seemed determined to pretend as if life was as it had always been, and that he hadn’t been paralyzed for fifteen years from an accident that had ended his career. A network of automated walkways and lifts accommodated his wheelchair on the few occasions he left his room, and Beck stepped onto the second floor walkway.

In seconds, he was at the double doors of his father’s room. He rapped once before opening the door. Beck entered quietly, but needn’t have bothered. Sheridan had been mistaken in thinking Morris slept. He was sitting up in bed, tensely watching the door with sharp blue eyes, undimmed by age or the myriad infirmaries plaguing him.

“I thought you weren’t coming.” The words levied a stark judgment against Beck’s sense of family obligation.

He shrugged it off, used to the condemnation. For fifteen years, since Morris lost his sole purpose in life—his career—and remembered he had a son, he had expected Beck to be at his disposal. He had soon learned he was destined for disappointment, but hadn’t given up trying to foster what he expected from his only child. “I had a lot to do at GeneTech. I’m leaving in the morning for Primos. You might have received my vidmail about the assignment.” He walked toward the bed, stepping into the circle of illumination provided by the antique table lamp his father preferred to the ambient light provided by solar energy panels. The same hard-backed chair that was always there awaited him, and he sat in it reluctantly. It was lower than the bed, giving his father the appearance of a king lording over his subject. Beck didn’t like to concede anything in their unspoken power struggle.

“Why do you think I wanted to see you?” As he spoke, Morris’s haughty expression crumbled, showing barely contained fear behind the façade. “You can’t go, boy.”

Beck started at the use of “boy” as much as the command not to go. “Excuse me?”

“Don’t go to that planet.”

“I have to. I’m the company liaison to the ECA crew investigating our operation. The CEO of GeneTech assigned me personally. You remember Jerry Hawthorn, don’t you?” Beck frowned at the way his father’s hands trembled. “He said you were once involved with the TF project on Primos.”

“Resign if you have to, but don’t go.” Morris’s face was pallid, and the shakes had spread from his hands to his entire body. “Listen to me, Beck. Don’t go.”

With a sigh of irritation, Beck smoothed his slacks. “I don’t have time for this. I still have paperwork to review before I leave in the morning.” He stood up, coming to the bed with the intent of leaning down to kiss his father on the cheek. He paused when Morris’s hand fastened around his wrist with surprising strength.

“I didn’t think you’d listen to me without proof. Get that box off my writing table and read through it.”

He could feel the minutes flying past. His plans for a relaxing evening at home with his fiancée were fading away. Beck went to the writing table to pick up the plastic box holding an assortment of files. Theresa always encouraged him to spend more time with his father, so he hoped she would understand why he was going to be delayed.

He took the box back to the bed, sat in the chair, and looked at his father. “What am I looking for?”

“Read it.” Morris reached into the box with an age-spotted hand, lifting out the top folder. When he opened it, several photos spilled out. “Read it all, and then tell me you still want to go.”

As he stared at the pictures, confused, Beck began to read. And read. By the time he had digested the last scrap of information more than an hour later, his hands were trembling almost as badly as his father’s had been. What was he going to do?

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