|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)|
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By D.B. Reynolds, Allison Collins, Candace Havens
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 D. B. Reynolds
All rights reserved.
The Year 4668, Earth Reckoning, United Earth Flagship James T.
Amanda Sumner shifted her weight slightly, trying to ease the pain in her right thigh without letting her opponent see she was injured. He caught the movement anyway and grinned. Amanda bared her teeth in response. She wasn't a small woman, but Chief Petty Officer Angel Falzone was a very large man. He had a hundred pounds and at least three inches of height on her. She was faster. Or she had been before he'd delivered a side kick that would have broken her leg if they'd been fighting for real.
She saw his next attack coming and stepped into it, shifting her weight onto her sore leg, swallowing a groan as the muscles screamed in protest. She turned her body, letting gravity do her work for her. She felt the momentum shift and grinned, knowing she had him.
Amanda found herself flat on the mat, crushed beneath more than 250 pounds of sweaty male, and desperately trying to breathe. Her chest spasmed, trapping her scream of pain in lungs that no longer wanted to work. She pushed frantically at Falzone, whose eyes widened in dismay as he realized what was happening. He levered himself up onto both arms, and her chest expanded slightly, permitting the first hiss of precious air. Falzone rolled completely away, and Amanda squeezed a second breath through unwilling bronchial tubes, concentrating on the next one and the one after that.
A hand appeared in her field of vision, and she grasped it automatically, coming briefly to her feet before leaning forward to rest her hands on her knees. Her chest wheezed with every sucking inhalation, and the ship's recycled air had never tasted so sweet.
"Bad form, Sumner." Master Chief Jansson's barking voice broke through her pain. "If you can't concentrate when someone calls your name in a gym, how the hell are you gonna be able to focus in a combat situation? You think everyone's going to stop what they're doing so you can have a quiet conversation? Do I need to bust you back, Lieutenant? Teach you the basics of hand-to-hand all over again?"
"Sorry, Master Chief," Amanda wheezed. "No, Master Chief." She gave all the right responses, and hoped he'd keep talking long enough for her to catch her breath before she actually had to assume an upright position and pretend that nothing hurt. She swiped a quick hand across her eyes, wiping away tears that had nothing to do with pain and everything to do with her body's automatic response to a lack of oxygen. Or so she told herself.
"— briefing with Admiral Leveque."
Amanda caught the master chief's final words and straightened too quickly, nearly stumbling as she widened her stance to keep from falling over and embarrassing herself any further.
He gave her a disgusted look. "Do I need to repeat myself, Sumner?"
"No, Master Chief," she said quickly.
He shook his head and walked away, already intent on drilling a new asshole for some other unfortunate soul who'd had the temerity to schedule gym time during his rotation. Technically, Amanda outranked Master Chief Jansson. No way would she remind him of that. Not on his gym floor, and not in this lifetime.
She looked up at Falzone and gave him a weak smile, shaking her head. "It was a fair throw, Angelito." The nickname was a joke between them — little Angel, hah! "Thanks for the match," she said and started for the exit before turning back to ask, "Uh, you didn't happen to catch the time of that Leveque briefing?"
He laughed. "You got less than ten minutes."
"Fuck!" Amanda swore and ran for the exit. She ripped off her T-shirt as soon as she hit the locker room door, then grabbed a bottle of water and poured it over her face and shoulders as she headed to her locker. Drying herself quickly, she jammed the wet shirt into the laundry chute, zipped her lightweight uniform jacket directly over her sports bra, and dashed for the lift, punching up Deck 5. Her fingers shook slightly as she ran them through her long hair, re-braiding it as neatly as possible in the space of the one-minute lift ride. When the doors opened, her heart still raced with an adrenaline rush that was only partly due to her headlong dash from the gym.
The fleet had taken up orbit around an uncharted, uninhabited planet three days ago. Except that the planet turned out to be neither of those things. No sooner had they dropped out of warp speed than they'd picked up the loud squawk of a distress beacon, shouting its message with all its puny power. It was an ancient design, engineered to last hundreds of years, and used primarily by the first wave of old Earth colony ships, usually in a last ditch effort to let someone know where they'd gone down.
Admiral Nakata had ordered the deployment of an unmanned probe, and Amanda had already spent hours devouring the data it had sent back before being mysteriously destroyed. These probes weren't designed to last forever, but this one had burned up rather spectacularly shortly after entering atmosphere. Fortunately, it had managed to record quite a bit of information during its short life. And that information was beyond exciting. There were people living on this planet — human colonists who'd had no contact with Earth in almost five hundred years. That meant a specialized First Contact team would be going down there, followed by a full science contingent. And Amanda wanted to be among them.
Unfortunately, Admiral Leveque was pretty much in charge of deciding who would get to go. And she was about to show up stinky and late for his meeting.
The guard standing outside the admiral's conference room gave her a quick once-over when she approached, followed by a miniscule nod of approval as he murmured into his throat mike and tapped the door controls. Amanda breathed a sigh of relief.
"You're the last one, Lieutenant," the guard said in a low voice. "Better pick it up, though. The admiral's walking through the door."
She smiled her thanks at him, and stepped into the back of the crowded conference room just as Vice-Admiral Randolph Leveque strode in from his adjoining office. Everyone stood to attention while Leveque took up a position at the head of the table. He scanned the twenty or so people assembled, finally focusing on her, and taking in every detail of her appearance with pursed lips.
"Good of you to join us, Lieutenant Sumner. Be seated," he added to the room at large.
"Thank you, sir," Amanda replied, taking the nearest chair.
"Perhaps we'll leave the door open," Leveque said, with a delicate sniff. There was humor in his smooth voice when he said it, and there was nothing specific to indicate he meant her, but her face burned with embarrassment. Leveque hadn't liked her from the moment they were introduced, though she'd never figured out why.
Forcing herself to relax, she clasped her hands on the table and waited, watching the admiral peruse the several reports his aide was calling up on the two separate datapads in front of him. Another aide hovered nearby, making a ritual out of pouring tea into a delicate cup with the Leveque family crest. The aide finally set the cup on the conference table at the admiral's elbow, sighing with relief as if she'd delivered his firstborn son instead of a stupid cup of tea.
Leveque ignored the woman with the ease of someone used to having servants around, then looked up and smiled, his perfect white teeth gleaming against an equally perfect tanned and handsome face. "You've all heard about our lost colony, of course."
Amanda's heart skipped a beat as she joined her voice to the general chorus of "Yes, sir," that responded.
"Lieutenant Sumner, perhaps you can summarize what we know. In fifty words or less," he added.
Everyone laughed dutifully. It was well-known that Leveque's knowledge of anything scientific was exceeded only by his lack of interest in same. He'd been with Nakata's fleet less than a year, and both his exalted rank and his position on this ship had more to do with his family's fortune than any singular achievement on his part. The fleet was in search of profit, and no one understood profit better than the great industrial families of Earth.
"Yes, sir," she responded, trying to figure out how to compress countless terabytes of data into a single paragraph. "The colony ship was launched out of the old European Union, a Spanish and Irish joint venture, with no name designator. Data download indicates they made a critical landing approximately 485 Earth years ago after a general system failure, cause unknown. Comm has made repeated attempts to contact the colony via various bands with no success. There is, however, a definite human, colonial presence, and a fair level of development using what appears to be a solar power source."
Leveque raised his eyebrows, as if surprised she'd managed to be coherent. "Solar," he repeated. "Its use is a function of the electromagnetic anomaly we've detected, I assume. The same anomaly which caused the probe's destruction?"
"That's our working assumption. Yes, sir."
Leveque scanned a few more pages on his datapad, before looking up. "Unfortunately," he said, "this planet offers nothing in the way of natural resources." He tossed the datapad onto the conference table. "Which I shouldn't need to tell you is the primary mission of this fleet."
There was a general intake of breath when he said this. Ancient law, going back to the wet navies of Earth, required all aid and assistance be rendered to any ship in distress. And that certainly included the so-called "lost" colonies, even if they didn't have anything profitable to offer. Surely the admiral wasn't suggesting they move on without contact?
Leveque was clearly aware of the reaction, and he paused long enough to rake the room with an arrogant glance. "Nonetheless," he continued, "Fleet Admiral Nakata has decided that we will pay them a visit. Daylight over the main settlement is in two hours, at which time First Contact will drop for a meet and greet. Let's hope the locals are early risers. Commander Wolfrum will be heading up that team. Barring complications, we'll drop the science contingent a day later, and that's all of you, ladies and gentlemen. You have forty-eight hours to prepare. Dismissed."CHAPTER 2
The Planet Harp
Rhodry Devlin de Mendoza stared at the piece of fine writing paper, and read the few lines of elegant script for the third time. Or maybe the fourth. It didn't matter which, because no matter how many times he read the words, their meaning stayed the same.
Cristobal Martyn, the Ardrigh and current ruler of Harp, wanted Rhodry in the capital. It was phrased formally, a summons to serve in the Ardrigh's guard, which was the duty of every man on Harp. The formal language wasn't even half the story.
"It's those damn Earthers," his cousin Aidan said from across the room. He stood glaring out the window, as if expecting an Earth invasion to drop from the sky at any moment.
"Probably," Rhodry agreed. It had been only yesterday that he and Aidan, along with almost everyone else, had witnessed the fiery passage of the Earth fleet's unmanned probe through Harp's sky. Rhodry and his mountain clan had barely accepted the fact of Earth's rediscovery of their small planet, and now this summons from the Ardrigh had arrived, calling him away.
"Cristobal only wants me," Rhodry observed, reading the letter once more. "He's pretty clear about that. No cousins are welcome."
Aidan snorted. "As if he could stop us from coming. He hasn't the power or the right. You're the de Mendoza clan chief. We're not going to let you visit that place with no one to guard your back."
Rhodry didn't say anything. He shared his cousin's concerns. On the other hand, he understood Cristobal's reasoning, too. Being the de Mendoza clan chief meant something on Harp. While the Ardrigh's city might hold the larger population, the fiercest warriors on the planet came from the five mountain clans. And of those clans, de Mendoza was the largest by far. They might squabble among themselves, but when push came to shove, they all looked to de Mendoza for leadership.
Cristobal Martyn wanted to greet these Earth visitors — or invaders, depending on your perspective — with a united front, and the might of the clans at his back. He wanted Rhodry to stand with him as a symbol of that united front. He did not, however, want a critical mass of clansmen to come along with him.
The de Mendozas had ruled all of Harp for generations before the Martyns took over, and there were some who had never abandoned the possibility of a de Mendoza on the throne once again. Rhodry himself had no desire to take up the Ardrigh's crown. It was a largely bureaucratic position, and involved dealing with far too many of Harp's most difficult citizens. Rhodry was willing to let the Martyns have it. Although not everyone agreed with him. And not everyone believed him, either. Which gained him distrust from both sides of the political spectrum.
As it stood, however, he had no qualms about standing with his Ardrigh in confronting these Earthers. Separately, they were Martyns and de Mendozas — together they were all men of Harp. And all of Harp would have to stand together if they were to weather this new and largely unwelcome development. They would need one face, one purpose, to deal with these unexpected visitors and, most importantly, to ensure that Harp's secrets remained just that.
"I'll leave within the hour. The hover that brought the summons is waiting to take me back to the city."
Aidan turned from the window to stare at him unhappily. "He's eager to get you there, isn't he?"
There were only two of the solar-powered hovercraft on all of Harp, and they were reserved for only the most necessary travel. Harp was a small planet, with a small population, and only one major city. Traveling with a few companions and moving fast, it would have taken him just two days to reach the city. Cristobal didn't want to wait that long.
"The Earthers must have made contact already." It was the only explanation for Cristobal's urgency in getting him to the capital.
"Aye, well, I don't care what Cristobal Martyn says, you're still not going to the city alone."
"There might not be room on the hover for more than me, what with the escort he sent."
"You mean guards. Let's call 'em what they are. And I don't care if one of them has to stay behind and walk himself back to the capital to make room for me. I'm going with you."
Rhodry grinned at his cousin, feeling more than a little relief. He was fully capable of watching his own back if he had to, but he wouldn't mind having a friendly face there instead. "You're just curious about the Earthers."
Aidan shrugged cheerfully. "You never know, Rhodi lad. There might be a pretty female or two wanting to test the virility of their long-lost cousins. Can't leave them to those city dandies. They'll give Harp a bad name."
"If the Earthers send a landing party —"
"You mean when."
"When they send a landing party," he agreed, "it will be a scientific mission. I suspect brains will count more than beauty among its members."
"Nothing says you can't have both. They might just surprise you."
Rhodry frowned. He wasn't looking for any surprises, whether they came wrapped in pretty packages or not. The Earthers brought danger to Harp ... danger not only to its people, but to its very survival.CHAPTER 3
The Flagship James T., in geosynchronous orbit over Harp
Amanda barely noticed the brief interlude of weightlessness as the shuttle slid through the big, open doors of the launch bay and into the black of space. Maneuvering thrusters kicked in with a jolt and gravity was restored. She'd been born in space, had grown up on one ship or another, moving every few years until finally her mother had been named chief medical officer for Admiral Nakata's expeditionary fleet. They'd taken up residence on the admiral's flagship, the James T., and there they'd stayed for just over ten years now.
Excerpted from Shifter Planet by D.B. Reynolds, Allison Collins, Candace Havens. Copyright © 2015 D. B. Reynolds. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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