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Ex-Red Baron Margarita King heads to the colorful and peaceful planet Weegan for ship repairs. But the Weegans warn her off. Refuse to let her land near their village. Margarita’s unerring nose for trouble won’t let her move on until she discovers the reason why. A gripping tale of high stakes on a distant planet in the galaxy, Deadly Cargo delivers another action adventure with space pilot Margarita King.
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Also by Charley Marsh
About the Author
Margarita King placed her ship, the Junkyard Dog, in low orbit and set the controls to auto. Beneath them Weegan’s rainbow landscape slowly flashed by. Orange deserts, blue water, green jungles, purple, red, and white mountains made Weegan the most colorful planet in the galaxy. Weegan’s population mirrored that color in every way and always put a smile on her face.
She wasn’t smiling now.
Rita had not set out to visit Weegan after a frightening—and almost deadly—encounter with some unusual creatures on the planet Harmos, but the Junkyard Dog wasn’t working up to her exacting standards and needed some tender loving care. She knew no one better than the ship repair crews on the planet beneath them.
She hated to admit it, but she could use a little TLC herself. She didn’t bounce back quite as quickly at thirty-one as she had at twenty years of age. Years of dance and martial arts classes followed by more than a decade of intense physical training kept her body conditioned and her reflexes sharp, but once depleted, her reserves now needed an extra day or two to recover.
That irritated her to no end. She was the oldest, and the best, pilot in the Mars-based Red Barons elite force—ex-Red Baron—Rita reminded herself bitterly as she looked down at the snow-capped red peaks of Weegan’s southern mountain range. She had worked hard to keep on top of not only her physical condition but also the changes in technology in order to stay at the top.
Unfortunately some of her co-workers, and possibly a superior or two, had resented her hold on the position as top pilot, and one of them—more than one?—had sabotaged her ship right before she went out on a dangerous mission, fully expecting her to die.
Fortunately for Rita they had failed. But her ship had sustained damage and it was time to see to getting it repaired.
She stood in the clear nosecone of the Dog and stroked Darwin’s wiry fur. Darwin, a young shadow-creature who had adopted her after her ship crashed on a desolate planet, watched the landscape passing beneath their feet with avid curiosity.
Until Darwin, Rita had believed that shadow-creatures existed only in myth. They were rarely seen, and consequently very little was known about them.
To Rita they resembled a botched evolutionary experiment. With his chunky dog-body, two tails, and the triangular cat face of an Old Earth tiger, Darwin looked like a mad scientist had taken two very different animals and smashed them together into one odd creature.
Over the past few months she had learned that the shadow-creatures were the most docile and harmless of animals—until you riled one up. Then you’d better run for your life. She had seen Darwin in full attack mode several times now and had been relieved to have him fighting at her side and not against her.
On rare occasions a shadow-creature befriended another species the same way Darwin had befriended her. Only then did you learn about their hidden power, the power to communicate without words through telepathy.
“We should have heard from Trax by now, Darwin.” Rita turned away from the planet passing beneath the ship and returned to her console. She frowned down at the silent communicator as she set Darwin on the deck.
He scampered over to his open drawer, one of many cleverly built into the Dog’s interior, and leaped into it. The drawer had been converted to a berth for Darwin when Rita realized he intended to stay with her.
After a few circles and rearranging of bedding, Darwin lay down with his head and one paw resting over the edge so he could keep an eye on Rita.
Rita slid into her gel pilot’s chair. The chair instantly molded to her body. She had taken an active role in designing the Viking-class ship’s interior, basing most of it on Old Earth sailing ships. The clever use of space employed by the old ship builders fascinated her. Not an inch of interior space was wasted with everything neatly tucked together like pieces of a puzzle.
Rita accessed the communication panel and keyed in Trax’s frequency. A small worry tugged gently at the back of her neck. She had contacted Trax three days before and was told he had plenty of room in his schedule to repair the Junkyard Dog.
But when they spoke upon her arrival at Weegan he had hemmed and hawed and tried to make her leave.
That was very unlike Trax. Hell, it was very un-Weeganlike. The inhabitants of Weegan were an unusually friendly and easy-going race. They welcomed strangers as if they were family and bent over backwards to give their guests what they wanted and needed. To be turned away was unprecedented.
Rita could easily leave orbit and head for the next repair station, but that niggling worry squeezing the back of her neck wouldn’t let her. She had a soft spot for the people of Weegan and if they had a problem she would do her best to help them deal with it. She flipped open the comm.
“Trax, are you there? Rita here. I need a berth and repairs. I cannot make it to the next repair station. Repeat, cannot leave Weegan without repairs.”
Several moments slid by. She was about to repeat her message when Trax’s whispery voice came through.
“Rita. I-I can’t take the Dog into my repair shop. Do you remember the old landing field? Hide your ship inside the far end hangar and wait for me. I’ll meet you there as soon as I can. Do not come into the village.”
The transmission cut off.
“Trax? Blast it, Trax, what’s going on?” There was no answer.
Trax had whispered. That alone sent alarm bells ringing in Rita’s brain. Trax had a booming voice that could blast someone out of their boots with no effort. Whispering for him would be like expecting a gatorsnake to chew their prey slowly and gently instead of shredding them to gory bits.
“We’re going down, Darwin. Something is definitely wrong. Where the devil is that landing field?” Rita pulled up the charts for Weegan on the big display screen and searched for the abandoned base.
If Trax hadn’t taken her there on an earlier visit she never would have found it. The landing field had been built by an alien race that had left their mark on the Milky Way galaxy tens of thousands of years before and then disappeared without a trace.
No one knew where the aliens came from or why they vanished. Other than small outposts like the abandoned base on Weegan, nobody knew anything about them at all.
The base was invisible in the thick jungle unless you knew to look for it. She located a short, thin, silver line on the chart—the old alien runway—and keyed in the coordinates.
She strapped herself into her chair and lowered all the screens so she could watch their descent through the nosecone. Deep blue water flashed by followed by orange desert. Two minutes later they were skimming along the brilliant green tree tops of the jungle.
The Dog glided along on autopilot until Rita switched the flight controls to manual and gently set the ship into a slow decent when she spied an opening in the jungle ahead.
The trees became more distinct beneath them: the monstrous mallow trees with their puffy, mushroom-like white fruit, the fat-leaved, banana-like spectar trees, and the deadly magdalenas with their emerald green leaves and beautiful but poisonous cherry red berries.
Cautious because of Trax’s strange behavior, Rita hovered over the landing base and looked for signs of life. The base appeared to be deserted and the ship’s scans picked up no life forms other than the small creatures that inhabited the jungle surrounding the base.
She lowered the ship until it hovered just above ground level and cruised down the line of hangars that spread along the landing strip end to end.
The last hangar stood open and empty. Rita pivoted the bullet-shaped ship and backed inside, set it on the ground and waited. She had no intention of shutting off her engines until she knew there was no danger.
Twenty minutes passed. Convinced they hadn’t been seen, Rita shut down the ship. The cabin filled with the faint pings and ticks of cooling metal.
She remained in the pilot’s chair, waiting for what she wasn’t sure, but she couldn’t shake the uneasiness she’d felt since Trax’s message. Darwin, on full alert now, sat erect with his long tail curled around his body, ears forward, amber eyes sharp.
No one there.
Rita looked over at her companion. “Are you sure?”
In answer, Darwin leaped down from his drawer, padded into the clear cone, and sat. Rita sighed and unclipped her harness. She had learned to trust the little shadow-creature. He had a way of knowing if any threatening life forms were nearby.
The large hangar consisted of two flat sides that met in a steep peak. Both ends were open. There was room for another Dog-sized ship inside the hangar. Behind them loomed a wall of solid green jungle.
The Dog faced the landing strip, a smooth runway constructed of a pale gray stone, the same stone that the aliens used to construct the hangars.
Despite sitting in the jungle for millennia, the runway and buildings remained pristine. The jungle plants grew right up to the edges and not a millimeter farther. It was as if the stone gave off some essence that discouraged growth.
The jungle showed no such restraint with the other abandoned buildings and villages inside its boundaries. Unless beat back daily, the jungle reclaimed its territory seemingly overnight. Whatever magic properties the stone held, they had never been duplicated by any other civilization.
An hour passed and Rita saw nothing unusual outside the ship. It was time to stretch her legs and give Darwin a chance to run around and exercise.
Rita traded her comfortable flight shoes for her sharkskin-kevlar boots. Between her mud-brown bodysuit, made from a spider silk stronger than steel, and the boots, she could face any danger short of a fusion bomb with confidence. She wasn’t as indestructible as the super heroes in the Old Earth comics she enjoyed reading, but close enough.
She grabbed her throwing disc and laser pistol, hesitated, then grabbed her father’s Old Earth Bowie knife and strapped its sheath to her thigh. Feeling well-armed, she headed out the airlock with Darwin perched on her shoulder.
Rita stood beside her ship for several minutes without moving. Except for the cooling and settling of the Dog, the hangar was silent. The hangar floor was free of debris, its cool gray surface smooth as polished glass but without reflective properties, which was strange now that she thought about it. Shouldn’t a smooth surface reflect light?
One more odd fact about the unknown aliens, called Graystones for lack of a better term, to question and wonder about.
Satisfied that no one lurked in the immediate vicinity, Rita made her silent way to the landing strip edge of the hangar. She plucked Darwin from her shoulder and set him down. He stood beside her, sniffed the air, and then darted around the hangar and into the jungle.
She knew the shadow-creature wouldn’t go far. Darwin had saved her life several times since adopting her and seemed to be always connected to her in his strange, shadow way.
She remained just inside the edge of the hangar and scanned the remaining hangars, landing strip, and wall of green jungle carefully. Seeing nothing to alarm her, she decided to get a little exercise herself.
She stretched her arms overhead and touched her toes several times to limber up her stiff body, then set out for the far end of the gray strip at a brisk pace. She knew better than to walk into the jungle. Without a knowledgeable guide it was too easy to get turned around and lost.
Trax had warned her that leaving hash marks on trees as a guide, something she had learned to do while vacationing with her parents on Old Earth, wouldn’t work here. The Weegan jungle trees healed themselves within minutes, leaving no sign of any mark on their bark.
Rita increased her speed and began to run in a clunky, uneven gait. She forced the heavy, damp air into her lungs and concentrated on smoothing out her stride, ignoring the aches and pains in her still bruised body. By the time she reached the far end of the landing strip and started back she found her rhythm.
Seven hangars lined the runway. All empty, all mysteriously untouched by the jungle. She crossed to the opposite side of the landing strip and ran along the jungle’s edge, where the overhang of tree branches would hide her.
The jungle made a solid green wall along the landing strip as abrupt and solid as a wall in a room: trees, hanging moss, thick green vines, leafy shrubs—impossible to see into. Birds flitted in the dense growth and called to one another, and ground creatures of unknown size and shape dug into the litter on the jungle floor.
It made her uneasy, the knowledge that a large prey animal could be mere inches from her and she couldn’t see it, would run right by it unless it decided to reach out and grab her.
Rita veered back to the line of hangars and put on more speed, working out the last few kinks, feeling her power return. When she reached the final hangar she found Trax inspecting the Junkyard Dog’s hull with Darwin at his heels.
She walked circles outside to cool down before interrupting Trax. The Weegans had a tendency to be single-minded and focused and didn’t take interruptions well. They had been known to walk off a job if bothered too often.
The natives of Weegan were small in stature—the top of Trax’s head barely reached Rita’s waist—and they came in many colors, matching the Weegan’s various biomes. Their unusually elongated fingers and toes and natural curiosity made them ideal for performing complex manual tasks.
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