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Authors: Katherine Allred

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Close Contact (18 page)

BOOK: Close Contact
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Spreading it across the chest so it wouldn’t get mussed, I took out the other two everyday outfits and inspected them. Again, the workmanship was wonderful, and I picked the emerald green one for today. The red one I’d save for tomorrow. To think, when I’d first started this mission I thought two outfits would be more than enough. Now I’d been here an eightday with no end in sight. It just showed how naive I had been a mere week ago.

But I’d changed, I realized. I wasn’t even as worried about wild bugs as I’d been before.

Well, not much, anyway.

Gathering up my clothes and a towel, I headed for the shower. It came as no surprise to discover Peri had exited my room via the window and beat me to the privy. She fluttered
eagerly outside the door, sending me images of cascading water with suds flying in all directions.

“Yeah, yeah. You couldn’t wake up enough to fly home, but you’re bright-eyed and enthusiastic the second I think about taking a shower.”

She agreed with a happy chirp.

By the time I stripped and stepped into the shower stall, she was dangling from the pull rope, doing her best to get the water going. Since she weighed maybe one and a half kilograms, or three pounds, on her fat days, it wasn’t working.

Reaching over her, I gave it a tug, fastened it to the hook on the wall, and then stood under the tepid trickle, letting it soak me while Peri splashed vigorously at my feet. I took my time so she could get her fill, but she still sulked when I finally released the rope to turn the water off.

“Even you can’t stay in the shower all day,” I told her. “You’d look like a big purple prune with feathers.”

Ignoring me, she found a perch on the sink and began the task of fluffing and drying her plumage. I returned the favor by taking care of my own morning rituals, and we finished at about the same time.

The day was bright and warm by the time I headed back to the house so I could leave my soiled clothes, although there were clouds gathering in the west. Looked like we might get some rain by nightfall.

“Don’t go too far away,” I told Peri as she headed off in the direction of the nearest flowers. An uneasy feeling was creeping over me. I glanced around casually, but no one was in sight.

Maybe I was getting paranoid. Of course, knowing Losif Strand was out to get me was a fragging good reason to start looking over my shoulder every few seconds. While we’d never been introduced, gossip had it that everyone in the
Federation Council mistrusted the man. He was diabolical, evil, and brilliant.

Shaking off the chill bumps that crawled over my skin, I entered the house and went to my room. Cammi must have worn Marcus out, because there was still no sound coming from his room. I contemplated waiting for him, then my stomach and the scents wafting from next door made me decide against it.

Bim had just arrived to take up his post when I headed for the Terpsichore, and he fell into step beside me with a nod of greeting. His solid presence was welcome today since I was still jumpy.

The kitchen was bustling with activity as usual, and I sniffed appreciatively as Leddy handed me a cup of hot coffee.

“Sit down, I’ll bring your plate to the table.”

“Thanks, Leddy.”

Treya and the other women were already eating when I pulled out a chair, careful not to spill a drop of the coffee. “Good morning,” I told them.

All of them replied in kind except Treya. She stopped eating to look over at me. “How was your supper with the king last night?”

“It was fine, very interesting.”

“We heard you held your own sparring with Durtran. You didn’t hurt my clothes, did you?”

“No, I didn’t hurt your clothes. I’ll have them cleaned and returned to you.”

She nodded. “See that you do. And don’t forget you’re dancing tonight. I’ve already spread the word, so we’ll have a good crowd.”

Leddy slid a plate full of food in front of me before I could answer, and I dug in. “Don’t worry about finding a costume for me. I had one made. I’ll wear it tonight.”

“I hope it goes with your coloring. Pale colors would wash you out.”

“It does.”

Leddy hovered near me, clutching the coffeepot. When I glanced at her, she nervously refilled my cup. “I haven’t seen Marcus yet this morning. He hasn’t left on another trip, has he?”

“No, he’s just sleeping in today. I think the king kept him late last night.”

“Oh, in that case, I’ll keep his breakfast warm.”

Treya gave me a knowing smirk as the older woman hurried away, but she kept her mouth shut.

I was just finishing up my food when the musicians came in, so while the other women served the customers in the common room, I waited on the guys and helped Leddy dish up eggs, ham, biscuits, and coffee.

Things were starting to slow down when Marcus finally showed up, a sheepish expression on his face. I merely arched a brow at him and pointed. “Leddy saved you some breakfast. Since the crowd is thinning out, there are some things I need to take care of at the house.”

“Of course.” He took the plate full of food and sat down. “Just be sure Bim goes with you.”

The sun was approaching midday as I crossed the yard with Bim, and the clouds were closer, piling up like white fluffy mountains in the sky. Peri zipped by me with a chirped greeting before angling toward another bed of flowers.

When we reached the house I paused with my hand on the backdoor. “I’m going to take a nap,” I told Bim, just in case he grew some curiosity and peeked in the bedroom window.

Moving quickly, I snuck into Marcus’s room and rummaged until I found what I wanted, then went to my own
room, hid the bundle, and stretched out on the bed. When I was comfortable, I pulled the image of Gaia from my memory. The pages ruffled, there was a mental click, and suddenly I was in the same small room where I’d seen the girls before. There was a table this time, holding two plates, one of them untouched, the other empty.

Both girls sat on the bed, staring at me. The smaller of the two, Banca, looked much better this time. There was color in her cheeks and the black circles were gone from under her eyes.

“Are you going to help us this time?” Gaia asked hopefully.

“I wish I could,” I told her. “But I still don’t know where you are.”

“Then how did you get here?”

Good question. So how did I answer it in a way that would make sense to a child?

“That’s a little hard to explain. You see, I have this special talent that lets my spirit go places my body can’t go. So even though you can see me and we can talk, I’m not really physically here.”

She nodded sagely and then looked worried. “You aren’t a Gloom, are you?”

I frowned. What the scritch was a Gloom? It didn’t sound pleasant, so I made a judgment call. “No, I’m not a Gloom.”

“That’s good. We don’t like Glooms.”

I glanced at the other girl, only to be met with that vacant stare. “Banca looks better. Is she still sick?”

“No.” Gaia shot an uncomfortable look at the girl she called sister. “She ate.”

“You should eat, too,” I told her, remembering only one of the plates had been empty.

“Oh, I did.”

Okay, this was getting weird, but at least the girls weren’t being starved into submission. Strand probably wanted to make sure they were healthy enough to wield the Sumantti’s power when the time came. Which brought to me one of the reasons I’d come.

“Gaia, do you know why those men brought you here?”

“No. They just keep telling me to shut up when I ask questions.”

“Well, I won’t tell you to shut up. They want you to do something bad. You see, they stole this big black crystal, and because only special girls can use it, they’re going to try and make you or Banca use it for them.”

“Why?”

I wasn’t sure if she were asking why it had been stolen, or why only special girls could use it. Both at once, I decided.

“Because the crystal is very powerful. It’s inhabited by an alien life form with great psychic ability. This stone is so strong it can destroy worlds.” I took a tentative step forward, relieved when I found I could actually move.

“But there’s something they won’t tell you, Gaia. The girls who use the crystal have to be prepared in a very unique way or they’ll die.”

She went a shade paler. “Can’t you fix it so we can do what they want?”

“No, I’m afraid not. The only way to prepare someone is to take them to a planet very far away from here. Those men aren’t going to let that happen. What you
can
do is stay as far from the crystal as you can get, and whatever happens, don’t touch it. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

I glanced at the smaller girl. “Banca, do you understand?”

“She does,” Gaia answered hastily.

Again, I frowned. There was definitely something odd
about the other child. Even the way she looked at me, with no expression whatsoever, made me uncomfortable. Enough so that I turned away from her gaze.

I wasn’t a coward, I assured myself. There was just one more thing I wanted to try before I popped back into my body.

“What are you doing?” Gaia asked as I moved across the room.

“I’m going to try and walk through the door. If I can, maybe it will give me an idea of where you are.”

She watched with interest as I took a deep breath and stepped forward. And slammed into the door like I was in my physical body.

Backing off, I stared at the wood in perplexity. This should have worked. While I expected some limitations on my ability, I
had
put my hand through a solid wooden bedpost the first time, and later started to sink through Dr. Daniels’s floor. So why couldn’t I walk through the door?

There had to be something else going on here. I thought hard for a few minutes, sorting it all out in my head, and then motioned for Gaia. “I need you to come stand by the door.”

Obligingly, she slid off the bed and walked to my side.

“Okay, stand right there and don’t move. If this works, I’ll be right back.”

This time, I went through the door like it wasn’t there and knew I’d found one limitation. I could only get a few meters away from whomever I’d locked on to, which meant exploring the castle in my “spiritual” ghost form was out of the question.

But at least I could check out the immediate surroundings.

It was dark in the hall I’d entered, with just enough ambient light to let me see stone walls, damp in large patches from trickles of water that oozed between the cracks. As
far as I could tell, the passageway extended equally in both directions, with blacker squares that indicated more doors along its length.

I was contemplating checking another of the rooms when a scraping sound came from my left, followed by the murmur of low voices. Panic shot through me. Someone was coming, and I didn’t dare get caught here. Quickly, I went back to the girls’ room.

“I have to go,” I told Gaia. “Someone is coming.”

“Wait!” She tried to clutch me, but her hand went right through my skirt. “When will you come back?”

“As soon as I can. Gaia, I promise I’ll get you out of here somehow. Just be patient and give me time.”

She nodded slowly. “I don’t even know your name.”

From outside the room came the sound of voices. I could see a glimmer of light through the cracks in the door, and hear the jangle of keys. My time was up.

“It’s Echo,” I told her, right before I jumped back into my body. “Echo Adams.”

I
opened my eyes and then lay very still, listening hard to insure I was still alone. The only thing I heard was Bim shifting restlessly from foot to foot as he stood watch.

The sun was high enough in the sky that it made a mere puddle of light on the floor beneath the window of my room, so it was a bit after midday. That meant I hadn’t been gone long.

Good, there were a few more people I needed to visit.

First, Losif Strand. I wanted to know if he was still on Madrea and what he was up to.

I closed my eyes and tried to bring his image into focus. I didn’t want to appear in front of him, but I did want to “see” him. Nothing happened. No page ruffling, no click, no daydream, nothing.

Hmm, interesting. I’d locked onto Thor’s DNA while I was in spirit form, but not Strand’s. Eavesdropping must not count, I realized. I had to “be” in the room and close to the person to get a lock, not just listening. And while I’d been in the “room” with Strand back on Centaurius, apparently I’d never been close enough to get a lock on his DNA.

Next on my list was Chine. Since I figured he would
notice if I started following him around all day in my ghost form, this was going to make it difficult to get close enough to Braxus to gather his DNA.

However, I
could
take a peek and see what Chine was up to.

I let his image float into my mind, hazy and insubstantial, leaving his surroundings vague. He was holding a tray, I thought. A tray with dishes on it.

The daydream snapped into clarity as he addressed a man with his back to the room. “I’ve brought your lunch, Your Highness.”

I recognized the space immediately. It was the library filled with real paper books, where I’d found Reynard poring over the text on GEPs.

“Put it there.” An obscenely deformed hand emerged from the sleeve of a hooded robe and gestured, giving me a glimpse of an open book in front of him. The thick brown robe prevented me from really seeing him, but unlike his bent form and misshapen hands, his voice was smooth and cultured.

Chine deposited the tray and then stepped back. “The new crate of books arrived from Strand a few moments ago. I told some of the men to bring it up after lunch.”

“Good, good. Has Strand finished loading his ship yet?”

“No, sire. It will take several days. He also wants to be here to see your plans set in motion.”

“As he should, since he was instrumental in bringing them to fruition.” Ignoring the tray of food, he turned a page. “Is everything in place?”

“Word has spread that she’ll dance tonight. The man has been instructed and is prepared.”

“Excellent. It won’t be long now, Chine. Soon I’ll be whole, able to rule Madrea in my brother’s stead.”

“A happy day that will be, sire.”

“Yes. Before you go, hand me that book on increasing crop yields. I believe it’s on the back of the left center shelf.”

“Yes, sire.” Chine turned and moved to the shelf, vanishing behind the stack of books.

This could be my chance, I realized. Maybe the only one I’d get. I just hoped Chine wasn’t so far away that my psychic tether wouldn’t reach to Braxus.

Quickly, I pushed the daydream farther, felt the pages ruffle and then the click. I was standing halfway between Braxus and the shelf that hid Chine, and knew I had to be fast.

Silently, I glided closer to Braxus, careful to stay behind him so he wouldn’t see me. Just as I came within range, felt the click that locked his DNA in place, he went still.

“How many times have I told you not to sneak up on me?” His voice was laced with annoyance.

“Sire?” Chine’s voice obviously came from behind the shelf, and Braxus stiffened.

Schite! Somehow the man knew I was back there. I had to get out. Now.

He was already turning when I slid back into my body. Had he seen me? I couldn’t be sure.

Lifting a shaky hand to my forehead, I wiped away the light sheen of sweat that had formed. It would be a disaster if they discovered I could listen in on them whenever I wanted.

But it was what I’d heard that had really shaken me. They were going to put their plans for me in motion tonight.

I chewed on my lip for a second, thinking about the ramifications. If I told Marcus and Reynard, they’d not only keep me from dancing, they’d probably try to lock me up somewhere. It wouldn’t work, of course, but they’d try.

So I wouldn’t tell them. I’d just be extra watchful. It was
only one man after all, and truthfully, I was better equipped to handle any attack than they were.

That decision made, I sucked in a deep breath, held it, and then released it slowly to calm myself. There were still some things I needed to do, and panic wouldn’t help.

When my heartbeat was back to normal, I concentrated on making a daydream of Zeller. It was easier this time, like practice really did make perfect.

He was in a tent, facing a man I assumed was Lowden, leader of the Bashalde, since he was the right age and so richly dressed. The man was shorter than I’d expected, and very slender, although he had the dark coloring normal for the majority of the Bashalde.

“I don’t trust him, Zeller.” He paced the length of the tent and back. “Strand has his own agenda, and he’s not the kind of man to let anything get in his way, not even his allies.”

“Then we’ll watch him more closely.”

Lowden made a dismissive noise and stopped, hands on his hips as he looked at Zeller. “It doesn’t matter how much you watch a snake. They’ll always find a hole to crawl through.” His brow furrowed in a frown. “Tell me again what he plans for the woman.”

“He didn’t go into details, just said to assure you that he would take care of her.”

“I don’t like involving a woman in this. It’s wrong, and I don’t care who she is or what she can do. I will not tolerate her being hurt.” He turned away and scrubbed both hands over his face. “When Strand first came to us, I agreed to help because I wanted to open trade between Madrea and the Federation. What happened, Zeller? When did this idea begin to go so badly wrong?”

“When Braxus became involved. The man’s mind is as
twisted as his body. He actually believes Strand has some way to make him whole again so he can depose Politaus and take his rightful place on the throne.”

“Invet help us all if that should come to pass.” Over his shoulder he shot Zeller a piercing look. “And what of you, my friend? Where do you stand in all this?”

Zeller arched a brow. “My loyalty has always been with you, Lowden. You know that.”

“Do I?” He dropped a hand to the hilt of his sword. “Be very careful, Zeller. Betray me and you’ll regret it for a very long time before you die.”

With those words, Lowden left the tent and Zeller watched him go, a feral smile playing at the corners of his lips.

Opening my eyes, I sat up and swung my feet off the bed. Suddenly my mind was whirling with so much information I could barely process it.

Lowden didn’t know about the Sumantti or the girls.

But Zeller did.

I’d really thought Lowden was the instigator here. Now, I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Oh, he wasn’t innocent by a long shot. At the very least he was guilty of conspiring with Strand to have the ban lifted. But that was a Madrean law, not a Federation mandate. And I had to give him big points for not wanting to hurt me.

I needed to talk to Lowden as soon as possible, warn him about Zeller and Strand. Since it was apparent he already knew I was a Federation agent, I wouldn’t be giving anything away, and it might just cause Strand and Braxus a few problems.

Unfortunately, I’d have to go through Jancen to get to Lowden, and that would put the older man right in the line of fire.

I sighed and pressed my thumb and index finger against
my eyes. Any action in that direction would have to wait until after tonight so I could deal with the imminent danger to my person.

Abruptly, I frowned. They knew I was a Gertz GEP, knew what I could do. Why were they only sending one man? An ordinary man stood no chance at all against me. I could break the strongest of them in half and not even breathe hard.

Even a normal GEP couldn’t hurt me. At least, not enough to put me out of action. Assuming one got in a lucky shot, I’d heal so fast it wouldn’t even slow me down.

So what were they planning that one man could accomplish?

I tried to put myself in their shoes, think it through from their perspective. They didn’t need to kill me, I realized. They only needed to stop me long enough to allow them free use of the Sumantti.

Because they were afraid I could control it.

After all, I was created by Simon Gertz, just like Kiera Smith, the woman who became Shushanna to the Limantti. If she could control the stone, it made sense that I could, too.

But the only way to keep me from controlling the crystal would be to keep me unconscious. With drugs, maybe? I had no idea how a knockout drug would affect me. Since I wasn’t going to oblige them by standing still and letting them give me one, it was a moot point. And just to be on the safe side, I’d take no food or drink tonight.

“What are you doing?” Lillith asked me. “You haven’t moved in an hour.”

“Thinking,” I told her, and then gave her a rundown of everything I’d found out.

“You should tell Marcus,” she advised me.

“Why? So both of us can worry about it?”

“No, as a witness when I have to tell Dr. Daniels why I’m returning with your dead body,” she snarled.

“Sheesh, Lillith, don’t hold back. Tell me how you really feel.”

She continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “You’re not invincible even if you are a Gertz GEP, and you’d better remember it. You’ve only considered one possibility, when my probability program indicates Strand’s choices number in the thousands, many of which could be fatal.”

“Like what?” I asked her indignantly.

“Do you honestly think that just because technology is banned on Madrea that Strand doesn’t have an arsenal on his ship? How hard would it be to dress one of his men in Madrean clothing and send him to the Terpsichore with a blaster? Can you dodge the beam from one of those?”

“Oh,” I murmured, embarrassed I hadn’t thought of that.

“Yes,
oh
. Now, don’t make me come down there. You
will
tell Marcus.”

“Fine!” I threw my hands up. “I’ll tell him.”

“Tell me what?” Marcus asked from the door. “Lillith said you wanted to talk to me.”

“Yes, apparently I do. Tattletale,” I added under my breath.

“I heard that,” the ship said.

“You were
meant
to,” I shot back.

“Are you two going to fight all day, or will someone tell me what’s going on?” Marcus asked.

Giving in less than gracefully, I repeated everything I’d found out and added my own thoughts on the matter. Marcus’s expression became grimmer and grimmer as I talked. When I was done, he turned on his heel and marched out of the house.

“So much for that,” I told Lillith.

I barely got the comment out before he was back. “Bim is sending someone to fetch the commander,” he told me. “We’re going to need his help.”

Well, it wasn’t like that came as a surprise. I’d expected it. Didn’t men always call for reinforcements when things went bad? It was like they wanted to share the fun so they’d have someone to chat with about their parts in bringing glory to mankind long after the battle had ended.

I bit off a snort of amusement and got back on topic. “While we’re waiting, I have to try and contact the Sumantti again, reassure her that we’re still here and trying to get her free,” I said with a great deal of reluctance. The last time, I’d passed out from the force of her anger. I wasn’t anxious to repeat the experience, but I really had no choice. If I didn’t reassure her occasionally, she might decide to do something drastic. Like blow up the solar system.

I pulled the Imadei from the neck of my top and cradled it on my palm while I buttressed my defenses, both physical and mental. When I was ready, I dropped my gaze to the stone and reached for the Sumantti.

What met me was a deep, brooding, pulsing anger, and I hesitated, a sense of foreboding washing over me. She’d changed since I’d first contacted her, pulled into herself more. No longer did the crystal seem childlike. It was an extremely powerful alien entity bent on destruction.

I’m here
, I sent.
Will you talk to me?

There was no response, not so much as a hint that she knew I was speaking.

I know you can hear me
, I told her.
Please don’t give up hope. We’re working hard to free you from those men and we won’t stop until you’re back where you belong
.

A force unlike anything I’d ever felt before slammed into my mind like a battering ram, throwing me back into my
own head so hard my teeth rattled. If not for the Imadei’s protection I doubt I would have survived.

My entire body trembled with terror when I looked up. “We’re in trouble, Marcus. She’s become more alien, and far more desperate. I don’t think she cares if she kills those children. She doesn’t care if she kills us all. As a matter of fact, I think she plans to do just that. She won’t talk to me, and she won’t listen to anything I tell her.”

His face went a shade whiter. “But you have the Imadei; you should be able to control her.”

I shook my head. “I’ll try. I’ll try as long as there’s breath in my body. But when the Mother Stone made the Imadei, I don’t think she had a clue what her daughter would become. At this point, I’m not sure even the Mother Stone could stop her. Give the Daughter Stone a few more days, and she’s going to be powerful enough break loose from the stasis box. We’re running out of time.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

“Pray for a miracle,” I told him. “That may be the only chance we have.”

Voices sounded from outside just as Peri zipped in through the open window, dodged Marcus and then hovered in the main room, chittering expectantly at the back door.

“Reynard must have arrived,” I said. “Let’s go open a bottle of wine before I have to repeat this again. I’m getting dry from all the talking.” We both followed the dragon bird just as the commander stepped into sight.

BOOK: Close Contact
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