“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.”
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.”