I have a bad feeling about this planet run, and it’s not just because we’re going to steal a corpse.
Let me count all the ways this could go wrong. For starters, Earth Federation Space Fleet has no jurisdiction on this planet, not any longer. Sure, my team discovered HF-47T and did its initial survey, but as soon as we reported that it was human-compatible, seemingly uninhabited by an advanced sentient race, and potentially a Grade A habitable world, we were off the case, and we moved on to the search for the next planet.
Petosa Exploration won the settlement contract for HF-47T. They renamed the planet Michelina (the head of Petosa, Micheline Petosa, likes to stamp her name on everything), and they sent in an exploratory team to assess the terrain.
Which is where things went wrong. Last night, we received the news burst. Every single member of the Petosa team was dead of mysterious causes (no further details available), and Michelina had been placed under a ten-year interdict.
Ten-year interdicts are not good news. Something went so badly wrong that no one is allowed to step foot on the planet for ten years.
In other words: Don’t go to HF-47T, not unless you want to risk dying a horrible death far from home.
Except we’re Space Fleet. Risking death on a strange planet far from home is practically our job description. Plus, and more importantly, one of the dead people on Petosa’s team was ours. Garen Hillcraft had retired two years ago, but prior to his retirement, he’d been a xenobiologist on my crew.
I’ve been a Space Fleet soldier for fifteen years. I have one cardinal rule. We don’t leave people behind. Not when they’re alive; not even when they’re dead.
Garen was a good person. He deserves a funeral.
In the shuttle bay of my ship, I survey the all-volunteer team. Like Garen, Hera Lenexa is a xenobiologist. Bella Ortiz is primarily a geneticist, but she also keeps us from going crazy. Thom Carney and Sarit Sukkasem are soldiers, there to keep the scientists out of trouble. “This is off the books,” I warn them, not for the first time. “If Fleet Command finds out, we’re all going to be in trouble.” So much trouble. “If Petosa Exploration finds out we trespassed on their planet, it’ll be even worse. They will get us fired, they will fine us into bankruptcy, and they will ruin our lives.” I’m not exaggerating. Micheline Petosa is widely known to be a vindictive bitch. “You don’t have to come; I can go alone.”
Hera lifts up her chin, steel in her dark eyes. “Garen was my friend,” she says flatly. “I’m coming.”
Thom nods in agreement. “I appreciate the warning, Captain Hearne. But Fleet Command doesn’t keep us alive. The code does. We leave no one behind.”
They cannot be dissuaded. Stars knows I’ve tried. I take a deep breath. “Very well. Let’s get going.”
HF-47T (I refuse to call it Michelina) has a breathable atmosphere, and human-friendly temperatures. You think that among billions of stars, that would be fairly common, but no. It’s a rarity. We’d been lucky to find it.
Even so, the planet isn’t exactly safe. No planet is, really. The flora and fauna looked unlike anything we’d seen before. It had a feel about it. It had felt dangerous.
We head down to the surface in a pod. To be safe, we land two kilometers away from Petosa’s site, and make our way to their installation on foot.
Walking through a jungle in full protective gear is no fun at all. The last time we were here, we’d dispensed with the heavy-duty stuff fairly quickly. This time, we’re taking no chances. Call it caution, call it paranoia. Either fits. I’m excruciatingly aware that Petosa Exploration sent thirty people down to HF-47T’s surface and they’re all dead.
Bella checks the instrumentation readings as we walk. “The levels are within range, Captain,” she says to me. “We could take off our helmets.”
I shake my head. “Not yet.” I hate being helmeted. I’m ever so slightly claustrophobic, and it always fills me with relief when we get the all-clear and I can take it off. But it’s too risky. Petosa encountered something that made them slap a ten-year interdict on this planet. We can’t take any chances. “They stay on.”
We arrive at the Petosa site. The layout is Space Fleet standard. A protective dome encloses the entire compound. Inside, the various buildings are arranged in a hub-and-spoke model. Crew quarters are located on the periphery, and the command station is in the middle.
I lead the way to the nearest airlock, the others behind me. The news report had no details on how the explorers had died. They could be anywhere. But protocol dictates that if there’s a threat, you fall back to the dome and reassess.
Garen’s body is most likely in the compound. I hope. If he’s out there in the jungle, we’ll have no way of finding him.
The dome is unsealed, which sets the hair on the back of my neck on edge. Something really doesn’t feel right here, but I can’t put my finger on what it is.
Cycling through the airlock, we make our way to the crew quarters. They’re empty, all of them. I exchange a glance with Thom, and he jerks his head toward the command room. I nod agreement. We walk in single file down long gray plastrete corridors, making our way to the command room. As we get closer, I start to smell something. It’s not the chemical whiff of the filtration system.
No, this is something else. I smell bodies. Decomposing bodies.
Hera squeaks, a small sound of distress. I glance at her. “Are you okay?” I ask gently. The xenobiologist is young. She’s only been in the field for two years. This will be hard for her. “There’s no shame in waiting outside.”
She gulps. “I’m fine, Captain.”
I survey her for a long second, and then nod. “Onward.”
We find the scientists in the command center.
They’re dead. I knew they would be, but seeing their bodies sprawled on the cold plastrete floor of the room brings it home somehow. They’re not all wearing helmets, but all of them are in protective suits.
Not that it did them any good. The bodies look desiccated. As if something sucked them dry.
Sarit and Thom move to flank the exits, their hands on their energy weapons. Hera’s face wobbles for a second, and then her training takes over. She starts to methodically scan the room for alien lifeforms.
Bella bends to examine the body closest to her. She beckons to me, and I walk over. “Something doesn’t seem right about this, Captain,” she says, her voice thoughtful. “The crew is suited. If they felt unsafe, why stick around? Why not evacuate and reassess?”
Sarit overhears the conversation. “They took shelter here,” she says. “But from what?”
I don’t know. Atmosphere readings are normal. Hera’s scanners aren’t beeping warnings. What went wrong here?
“I found Garen,” Hera calls out from a corner of the room, her voice vibrating with shock. “Over here. Captain, you’re going to want to see this.”
I hurry over, notice what she’s staring at, and almost lose the contents of my stomach.
Garen’s body has been torn open, and thousands of wriggling green worms are greedily sucking on his flesh. Each one is as thick as my thumb and as long as my arm, and they are feeding on my friend.
Fury tears through me. I grab the audio frequency transmitter. “Shields up,” I warn my team, and then I turn it on. A pulse of sound, beyond the human threshold of hearing, rolls through the room.
It has no effect on the humans, but it does on the worms that are devouring Garen’s body. They hiss and wriggle agitatedly, and then they flee, pouring away from him in neon green waves.
Thom raises his energy weapon, his face grim, and he aims it at them. A flash of blue light fills the room, and they die. “Captain, I recommend we get out of here,” he says. “Before we encounter more of those worms.”
I stand in the middle of the room for one long instant. Emotions assault me from every direction. Garen was a good friend. Nobody believed that the daughter of miners from Robben could grow up to be a Space Fleet captain. When I’d been promoted, there had been a lot of resistance, but Garen and the rest of my crew had been steadfast voices of support, right from the start.
And now he’s dead.
I didn’t want to leave his body behind. I wanted to make sure he received a proper funeral. But now that I’m here, in the middle of the Petosa Command Center, I realize I owe Garen more than that. I owe it to him to find out what happened here.
“Bella, Thom, please load Garen’s body on a stretcher,” I order, moving to the central computer. “Dr. Lenexa, we didn’t see those worms when we were here before. Please get a sample.”
I slide a datastick into the nearest port. A pixel display materializes in mid-air. “Access code required,” an AI voice says in Universal.
I plug in a standard Space Fleet access code. “Denied,” the AI responds.
Argh. So much for doing this the easy way.
I was hoping not to risk ship-to-surface comms on this mission, but there’s no choice. The data here could be important. I slap my comm and connect back to the Prestige. “Arten, are you there?”
My ship’s technical specialist responds in less than thirty seconds. “Captain Hearne. What do you need?”
Arten isn’t supposed to know about this mission, but I realized a long time ago that attempting to hide information from the hacker was pointless. “I can’t get into this computer. You wouldn’t happen to have a list of Petosa access codes, would you?”
Arten has an answer; he usually does. “Sending them to you.”
“Thanks.” I disconnect the call and plug in the most likely code into the computer. “Access granted,” the AI trills. “What can I help you with?”
I start to download the logs from the past two months. The screen shows the progress bar. It feels agonizingly slow. I shift from foot to foot as I wait, my feeling of unease coalescing to dread.
That’s when the worms start dropping from the ceiling onto our hair.
There’s no time to ensure the data download is complete; whatever I’ve managed to retrieve is going to have to do. I grab the stick, and we run.
Anders Duran, the second-in-command, is pacing the shuttle bay when we dock. “Thank fuck you’re back,” he breathes. “Captain Hearne, Admiral Greyson wants to talk to you. I told him you were doing repairs on the exterior of the Prestige and couldn’t be interrupted, but you better comm him right away.”
My heart leaps to my throat. Melkor Greyson doesn’t like me, so this isn’t a social call. I’m overdue for a promotion, but it’s been three years and he hasn’t promoted me, so I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.
It’s got to be about our unscheduled trip. How did he find out?
I call the Admiral from my personal quarters. “Admiral Greyson, you wanted to talk to me.”
“I wanted to talk to you two hours ago,” he replies icily.
Thank stars for Anders’ quick thinking. Exterior maintenance of a deep space vessel is one of the few things that take priority over my commanding officer. “My apologies, Admiral Greyson. I was—”
“I don’t care,” he interrupts. “I have an assignment for you. It’s something a little different from what you’re used to. As you’re undoubtedly aware, Nefrid is rapidly becoming uninhabitable. Getting their citizens resettled has been difficult.”
“Yes, Sir.” That’s an understatement. Nobody wants the humans from Nefrid. Earth Federation has had to plead, threaten, cajole…
“However, we got lucky. The Geharrim agreed to take ten thousand refugees.”
“The Geharrim?” I don’t understand. Nefrid is a human world. The Geharrim are an alien race.
“It is unorthodox,” he admits. “But the Geharrim have plenty of space, and we are running out of options. Which brings me to your assignment. For whatever reason, the Geharrim are displeased with their current Ambassador, and have asked him to leave their territory. Diplomatic Corps is short-staffed and needs time to find a replacement. They approached Space Fleet for help. I suggested you.”
“Me? But I don’t know anything about the Gehar Empire.”
He glances down at my file. “It says here that you trained with some Geharrim at Fleet Academy.”
I’d done more than train with Jehan D’arana. So much more. Fifteen years ago, I had an intense, torrid affair with him. An intense, torrid, secret affair. I’m pretty sure Admiral Greyson doesn’t know about it. “The interspecies program only had one person from Gehar,” I reply calmly. “And that was fifteen years ago. I don’t think it qualifies me to—”
He dismisses my concern with a flick of his hand. “You can learn,” he says. “All the information you need will be sent to your tablet.” He stares at me. “I’m counting on you, Captain Hearne. Taking ten thousand refugees is a good start, but it’s not enough. I need you to convince the Geharrim to take ten thousand more.”
“The Gehar Empire has nine sparsely populated outer planets. Nine stable, human-friendly worlds. You know what a prize that is. Earth Federation desperately needs this alliance to work.”
If this is such an important alliance, why send me? I am totally unqualified for this job.
He leans forward. “As you know, there is a vacant Vice Admiral post. Get the Geharrim to take the additional refugees, and that promotion is yours.”
He doesn’t need to say anything more. I’ve been in Space Fleet for fifteen years; I understand how it works. It doesn’t matter if this is a task that I’m completely unequipped to do. If I fail, I will be discredited.
“Take a fast ship to Kissura right away. They’re expecting you in three days.” He’s about to end the communication when he remembers something. “Oh, by the way. There will be a cat waiting for you when you get there.”
I’m not sure I’ve heard him correctly. “A cat, Sir?”
“Yes,” he says impatiently. “A cat. We need all the help we can get, and I’ve heard that the Empress of Gehar is fond of them.” His expression says that he doesn’t understand the attraction. “Good luck, Captain Hearne.”
When he’s gone, I take a deep, steadying breath. Admiral Greyson is playing politics, and I’m his pawn. If I succeed in getting the Geharrim to accept the refugees, it’s a huge win for Space Fleet, and for him. A way for him to one-up Diplomatic Corps. On the other hand, if I fail, he can push me aside. “I didn’t really think she could do the job,” he’ll say. “I mean, she is from Robben, after all.”
I wasn’t lying about one thing. I know nothing of the Geharrim. Jehan didn’t talk too much about his people—we’d been too busy having hot, amazing sex.
I wonder where he is now. I wonder if I’ll meet him while I’m there. Then I laugh at myself and dismiss the thought. There are millions of people in the Gehar Cluster. What are the odds that I’m going to run into the one guy I knew fifteen years ago?
I’m so ready for vacation; I can practically smell the beach.
I’ve already made my plans to foil the press. If I stayed on the core worlds, the paps would follow me around endlessly. Any woman I hooked up with would be subject to persistent and outrageous privacy intrusions. And so, I’m going to take a shuttle to the mercenary stronghold of Zabala. The scandal-hungry ghouls won’t follow me there—everyone in the core planets is terrified of entering Tadej D’elim’s territory.
A month on the beach. Catching up with Tadej. Finding a willing woman to fuck. Nothing but good times await.
Then my comm flashes a message from the Empress. “Lord D’arana, could you meet me right away?” An address follows.
The Empress knows my shuttle leaves in a few hours. We talked yesterday; the two of us had grabbed a drink together. I told her my plans. After trying to discreetly pump me for information about Tadej—the two of them have a love-hate thing going on—she’d told me to stay out of the tabloids as much as possible. I promised her I’d try.
So why the summons now?
Seema is my cousin. We grew up together. If she’s using my formal title, then it’s official Empire business. And if she comms me right before my shuttle leaves… Whatever it is, it’s a problem.
My plans crumble into red dust.
I am the Second Shield of Gehar. The tabloids might believe that I have been chosen to that post for my good looks and because I provide constant entertainment for the masses, but they are wrong. I was forged in fire. When it comes to matters of the Empire, I don’t shirk my responsibilities.
“Fine,” I write back. “But you owe me a drink.”
The address Seema sent me is a human eatery in the innermost ring of Mihwar. How very strange.
A year has passed since Dimek spoke the words of courtship to Mina Vardin. A lot has happened in that time. The human contingent has been given permission to relocate from the unstable moon of Yzad to Kissura, one of the three core planets of the Gehar Cluster.
Most of them have settled in Mihwar, the capital city. There are almost two thousand of them here, mostly traders. Some human corporations have set up exploratory offices here as well, all of them jockeying for Gehar favor. Three eateries have opened, focusing on human food.
This one is called Dongbei. I enter the luxurious premises and walk up to the human hostess. She recognizes me, of course. “Your Excellency,” she says, with a flutter of her eyelashes. A wide smile covers her face. “Welcome to Dongbei. This way, please.”
She shows me to my table, her hips swaying seductively. Her body language signals that she’d be interested in spending time in my bed. Any other time, I wouldn’t be opposed to it, but today, I regretfully have to pass up the opportunity to flirt. The Empress awaits.
Dongbei might serve human food, but its architecture is all Gehar. The structure is low to the ground. Rectangular corridors arranged in a maze that encloses several small private courtyards. Jasmine scents the air, and soft music is piped in from hidden speakers.
The hostess leads me to one of these courtyards, festooned with decorative lanterns. Seema, Empress of Gehar, is already there. At her side is her Chief of Staff, Hakan Abiri.
Hakan Abiri is ferociously competent, cunning, clever, and ruthless. He’s perfected the art of receding into the background, and most people overlook him, which is a colossal mistake, because Hakan is quite possibly the most dangerous person in all of Gehar.
The moment I see him there, my chances of going on vacation sink to zero. If Hakan is in attendance, it’s serious.
I walk up to the two of them. “This looks like a peaceful dinner. Why do I have a bad feeling about it?”
Seema’s lips twitch. “Sit down, Jehan,” she invites, gesturing to the empty chair at her right. She turns to the hostess. “We’re waiting for a few more people,” she says. “Could you have the kitchen send us a pot of tea while they arrive?”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
The woman bows and disappears. I take my seat and lean forward to look at Hakan with a raised eyebrow. He meets my gaze blandly. No doubt Abiri is planning something, but from experience, I know he’ll tell me what’s going on when he’s ready and not a moment sooner.
“I’m quite excited to try this place,” Seema comments lightly. “They serve all sorts of dumplings, Mina tells me. Soup-filled dumplings, pan fried, momos, and spiced buns. Everything sounds delicious. I don’t know how I’m going to choose.”
“You’re the Empress of Gehar,” I point out. “Order everything on the damn menu, if it’ll make you happy.”
“I don’t believe in wasting food,” Seema replies primly.
The round table is set for five people, so we’re expecting two more guests. This is a human restaurant, which means our guests are likely Earth Federation officials. Hakan is here, so this isn’t a social gathering; the Chief of Staff is incapable of making small talk and abhors society functions. What’s this about then?
I scan my memory, trying to remember the last communication from Earth Federation. It had been something about yet another planet that they’d managed to fuck up. The Federation had begged for Gehar assistance with refugee relocation.
By the Mother, I hope I’m not giving up my vacation to dine with Ambassador Winchester. The man is insufferable.
A waitress arrives with our tea. She fills the small brazier with pellets of fragrant charcoal and sets them alight. She sets the teapot on the flame, and then she bows again and retreats. I wait for the leaves to steep, and then lift it to pour. “My shuttle is supposed to leave in a couple of hours.”
Seema gives Hakan a small nod. “Tell him.”
Hakan lifts up the cup of tea I place in front of him. “Last week, we agreed to accept ten thousand human refugees from the Earth Federation planet of Nefrid.”
Ah. I’d been surprised there for an instant, but then Hakan mentions the origins of the refugees, and it makes sense. Nefrid is Mina’s home planet. When Mina married Dimek, her people became our responsibility. When they need us, we will respond. This is the Geharrim way.
Most humans don’t understand us. They don’t realize that we would have offered them shelter without negotiation. Hakan would have taken full advantage of their ignorance. “What did we get in return?”
A fleeting expression of surprise washes over Hakan’s face, and then a self-deprecating smile tugs at his lips. “For the moment, we believe that the Earth Federation’s gratitude is sufficient payment.”
I glance at Seema. “You didn’t let him set a price?”
“Mina will be happy if her people are here,” she responds. “That’s all the payment we need.” She gives the man at her left an amused glance. “Hakan is very annoyed with me. It will pass.”
Hakan shakes his head in exasperation. “I’m not annoyed with you, Your Majesty, and you know it.” He takes another sip of his tea. “Ambassador Winchester was not helpful to the discussions,” he continues. “He has been recalled by the Earth Federation, and they’ve sent a temporary replacement. Unfortunately, the new Ambassador was attacked on her way to the Gehar Cluster. This is from an hour ago. This information stays between us, of course.”
He sets a memory cube on the table and activates it. The scene projects into the air in front of us. A small Earth Federation transport is beset by almost a dozen armed fighters. “That’s the Earth Federation Ambassador?” I ask, surprised by the lack of ceremony. “Where’s her escort?”
“There isn’t one. She came alone.”
She’s different from her predecessor then. Winchester needed a five-speeder escort to go to the bathroom.
I squint at the yellow and black attacking ships, trying to make out their markings. It can’t be… “Those are D’elim ships.”
“They are indeed.” Seema’s voice is hard. “I spoke to Tadej as soon as we received this. He gave me his word that he isn’t involved. Someone’s trying to frame him. He’s investigating.”
A pair of attackers fire at the transport. The Earth Federation ship dives out of the way, and weaves through the energy beams.
“My spies confirm Tadej’s story,” Hakan says. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t help us. Someone tried to kill the Earth Federation Ambassador in Gehar space, and we don’t know who it is.”
The Ambassador is a skilled pilot. She dodges the attacks with speed and precision. A couple of mercenary ships get themselves blown up in the crossfire, debris flying everywhere. Unfortunately, there are still at least eight more ships left in the fight, and her shuttle has taken more than six direct blows on its shield. Its hull won’t hold up for long…
Help finally arrives in the form of a hulking StarShark warship. It doesn’t fire on the attackers; it doesn’t need to. The moment it shows up, the attackers flee for their lives. The cube powers down.
I lift my head up. “Do you have any suspects?”
“The usual,” Hakan responds wearily. “There are people on both the Gehar side as well as on the human side that don’t want our alliance to succeed. Some are isolationist; they believe that the Gehar Cluster is for Geharrim alone. Others want to undermine the Empress.” His eyes harden. “Whoever it was, I will find them, and they will regret this attack.”
“What do you want me to do?”
Seema gives me a bright smile. “Isn’t it obvious, Jehan? He wants you to guard the Ambassador.”
Now I’m just confused. “I thought you said you wanted to keep it quiet. Having a Shield of Gehar, even me, hover over the Ambassador will mean—”
“You’re correct. You can’t be her bodyguard.” Hakan leans back in his chair. “You’re going to pretend to be her lover.”
I almost spit out my mouthful of tea. “What?”
Before anyone can respond, the hostess walks in, trailed by two people. Poppy Rilfort is in the forefront. She’s Earth Federation security.
Then the woman behind her comes into view.
Shock jolts through my body.
Reddish-brown, shoulder-length hair, thick and wavy. Dark eyes framed by gloriously long eyelashes. Full, lush lips that are made to be kissed. Fuck that, her entire body is made to be kissed, and I would know that because for one glorious three-month period, fifteen years ago, I’d done exactly that.
By the Mother, it’s her. The woman against who I measure every woman who enters my life. The woman against who every other woman falls short.
Kae is the Earth Federation Ambassador? My brain struggles to understand. When I knew her, she’d been so clear about what she wanted, and that was to join Space Fleet.
When did she change her mind? The Keomi Hearne I knew was direct and straightforward. She had no patience for political maneuvering. Why did she decide to be a diplomat?
I rise to my feet automatically. The Empress beams at the two humans. “Ambassador Hearne, welcome to Gehar,” she says. “Thank you for joining me at such short notice.” She inclines her head toward Hakan. “This is my Chief of Staff, Hakan Abiri.” She turns to me. “And this is my kinsman, Jehan D’arana, Second Shield of Gehar.”
Keomi’s head snaps up in shock, and her gaze collides with mine. My heart stops. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Hakan bite back a smirk. He knew. The asshole knew that Keomi and I have history.
I force a smile on my face. “Hello, Kae.”