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Authors: Katherine Allred

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General, #Romance

Close Contact (5 page)

BOOK: Close Contact
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“Go!” Lillith’s urgent whisper got through to me and I darted through the tube and down the stairs she’d extended.

The stairs withdrew, the doors closed, and the ship silently lifted from the ground. Before I could blink twice she was gone, leaving me all alone in the dark with no company except a tiny dragon bird.

“You aren’t alone.” The ship’s voice came from the chip behind my ear.

“What? You’re a mind reader now?” I subvocalized. My eyes were straining to pierce the darkness around me and my skin was clammy in spite of the chill night air.

“I don’t have to be. I know you. There’s nothing to worry about. The only life forms nearby are so small they’ll be more afraid of you than you are of them.”

Life forms? Eeek! I whipped around wildly, trying to see anything that might be creeping up on me. From off to my left came the sound of a splash and I jumped high enough to nearly make it back on board the ship.

“What was that?”

“A fish. There’s a pond in that direction.”

I tried desperately to slow my heartbeat. “Ew. You mean a real, live slimy fish? Not the kind that comes on a plate?”

A sigh sounded in my ear. “None of them start out on a plate. Now take a deep breath and try to relax.”

Following her advice, I inhaled deeply and then coughed. “Good grief. What’s that smell?”

“It’s called fresh air,” the ship told me caustically.

“Yeah? I’ve heard of that.” I took another sniff and wrinkled my nose. All kinds of unknown odors assailed me, and I didn’t know what to make of them. Some of them were kind of tangy and intriguing. Others were damp and nasty. I tried hard not to breathe those last in, and concentrated on my surroundings.

“Why is it so cold? I thought you said it was late spring.”

“It is, but you’re at a higher elevation, where the nights are still cool.”

Right. I knew that.

I reached for my cloak, but before I could get it unfurled Peri took off, the dark closing around her immediately. Hastily, I whipped the cloak open and swung it around my shoulders. “Peri? Peri, you come back here right this minute!”

She popped out of the night right in front of my nose, and I recoiled in surprise before she cooed at me in reassurance. “Don’t do that again,” I scolded her. “You scared me. Until I can see where we are, you stay on my shoulder.”

“It shouldn’t be long now,” Lillith said as the dragon bird returned obediently to her perch. “The sun is coming up.”

My eyes were finally getting used to the dark, and I realized she was right. The tree trunks were now visible as ghostly black hulks against a deep gray background. I huddled inside my cloak, taking comfort from Peri’s presence, and waited quietly.

Overhead, the sky went from black and star filled to a midnight blue, then gradually lightened until the stars faded
away. Fog swirled around my feet, adding an eerie quality to the setting I could have lived without.

Abruptly, the top edge of the sun appeared over the hill in front of me and fired golden beams of light into the valley. I blinked in surprise at how close the trees were and how small the clearing was. It was a miracle Lillith had managed to squeeze into the space.

Squaring my shoulders, I set off gingerly through the dew-drenched grass. Peri launched herself from my shoulder and hovered above a patch of flowers, humming in pleasure before she dived in and delicately sipped nectar from a blossom.

Walking carefully to spare my sandals, it took the better part of an hour to reach the top of the hill, and by then the hem of my skirt was damp and sagging. I held the material away from me so the morning breeze could dry it a bit as I paused on the summit to look out over the land below.

The downward side of the hill was rockier than the climb up had been, and the trees were smaller and fewer in number. At the base, the land sloped into green pastures interspersed with cultivated fields and areas of forest. Here and there I saw large animals grazing, and way off to my right, there was a small cottage with a wisp of smoke coming from its chimney.

The air was pristine, with no smog or dirt to hinder the view. Far to the north, sunlight sparked off the tops of battlements and towers that glittered as if they were jewel encrusted.

“Lillith? Why does the castle sparkle like that?” I asked.

“Quartz,” she replied in an ominous tone. “The stone for the castle was cut from it.”

Great, just great. That meant the Sumantti would try to colonize the building. “Can you tell if any of it is infested with the life form that inhabits the Orpheus crystals?”

“Not without examining a sample under a molecular microscope. Besides, I doubt the Sumantti has been here long enough to send her colonies out very far. Are you picking up anything from the Imadei?”

I pulled the stone from under my top and curled my fingers around it, eyes shut to enhance concentration. Nothing happened.

I opened my eyes and tucked it away. “No, not a thing. I haven’t felt anything from it since it indicated the Sumantti was on this world. The crystal could be anywhere.”

“Well, the castle is the most logical place, and you have to start somewhere. Now get a move on. Time is wasting.”

Peri whizzed by me, her iridescent feathers flashing shades of blue and green amidst the purple as she flew. She was radiating happiness at finding so many flowers. Even though Lillith had stocked a good supply of nectar in hope that Kiera’s dragon birds would visit so she’d have an excuse to contact Max, Peri apparently preferred finding her own food.

I went down the slope after her, giving a couple of small, nasty looking lizard-like creatures a wide berth. It wasn’t easy navigating the loose gravel while keeping a wary eye on them in case they attacked. Sliding as much as walking, I was soon out of their reach. It didn’t take long after that to reach the bottom, and when I was on solid, relatively flat ground, I reached into my pouch and took out a high energy Zip Bar, eating it as I walked, my nose wrinkling with every bite. If it hadn’t been covered in chocolate, I couldn’t have swallowed the nutritious gunk.

By noon, I’d shed the cloak. I folded it into my pouch when I stopped to pull out the water skin and take a drink. So far, I hadn’t met any people, but signs of civilization were becoming more frequent. I’d crossed several dirt lanes, and stumbled across a rock building that must have served as a
barn, from the smells it emitted, hidden among a grove of trees. Animal shelters became more frequent, too, and unlike the first barn, the stables were occupied. I could hear snorts and the shifting of large bodies inside.

From the data Lillith had, the Madreans relied on horses for transportation and heavy work. I suppose it made sense to keep them close to the city.

I’d often escorted dignitaries and their families to the Earth Zoo on Centaurius, so I knew what horses looked and smelled like. And I knew that where there were stables full of horses there had to be handlers, but so far, I’d seen no humans.

The sun was going down when I finally entered the outskirts of Bastion City, and I was getting hungry again. I’d only brought one Zip Bar because it wouldn’t do to let a local get their hands on the Federation rations, and the scent of cooking food drifting on the air made my mouth water.

Setting my hunger aside, I looked at the buildings with interest, surprised at how neat they all looked. They were small but well built, with stone walls rising to thatched roofs. Flowers of all colors and shapes lined the fronts on each side of the doors, making Peri hum with excitement.

Oddly, the houses weren’t lined up with any symmetry. It looked like some giant had gathered them in his fist, given them a few shakes, and then tossed them to the ground, letting them fall where they may. And that was where they still sat. Narrow cobblestone streets wound around and through the city like pebbled snakes. The effect was strangely agreeable to the eye and made me feel like I’d been dropped into a fairy-tale kingdom.

It took a few seconds for me to realize there was an eerily still quality about the city. I could hear low voices inside the homes, but no children were outside playing, no men coming and going, no women visiting with neighbors.

A sudden rash of goose bumps crawled down my arms, and I rubbed them to soothe the sensation. “Lillith, what’s going on? Why aren’t there any people out?”

“I don’t know. Something isn’t right.” She paused for a second. “Maybe there’s a danger I don’t perceive. There are too many soldiers on patrol in the streets. It might be a good idea to avoid them until we find out what’s going on.”

“Any suggestions on how I’m supposed to do that?” I called Peri back to my shoulder, afraid she’d attract unwanted attention.

“There’s a building with no heat signature and a recessed door not far from your location. Turn left at the next intersection, then right. The building is three down. Wait there until it’s full dark.”

I followed her directions and found the building with no problems. It was a huge edifice, made of square-cut stone, and it dwarfed the houses around it. Even in the twilight it had a dark and eerie feeling. The front of the building faced away from the setting sun, so the entry was full of shadows. Moving all the way to the back of the entryway, I took my cloak from the pouch. It was a dark blue and would help conceal me.

Pausing in the act of putting it on, I stared at the face etched on the door. It was a woman—a beautiful, devastatingly sad woman. A cowl covered her hair, leaving only that perfect face to draw the eye.

“What is this place?” I asked Lillith, unsettled because it felt like the woman was watching me in sorrow.

“I believe it’s a church,” she answered. “There are dozens of similar buildings scattered throughout the city.”

“I don’t remember seeing anything about religion in the files.”

“That’s because you skipped that part. The original colonists practiced Catholicism, but over the centuries, the father and son got left behind. Now they only worship the mother.
The sociologists believe it evolved in that direction because men outnumbered the women settlers by five to one. The balance between the sexes is still skewed on Madrea, so motherhood is revered as the highest calling a woman can have, with girl children being highly prized. The Bashalde practice a totally different type of religion. They have so many gods it’s hard to keep track of them.”

Maybe I should have studied the files a little more, I thought, trying to get comfortable in spite of the woman looking down on me. I’d barely settled when Lillith’s voice whispered in my ear. “There are two soldiers coming your way. Don’t move.”

My breath froze in my lungs and I did my best to shrink into the wall. Time seemed to stand still as I waited for them to discover my hiding place.

They sauntered into view and I lowered my gaze, unwilling to take a chance they might feel my stare. But I’d seen enough to know they weren’t acting like men expecting trouble. Both were dressed in tight black pants, knee-high boots, and ocher tunics topped by brown leather vests. The only weapons they carried were swords attached to belts around their waists.

One made a low-voiced comment and the other laughed. Neither slowed nor so much as glanced at my refuge as they went by, and my puzzlement deepened.

The sound of their footsteps faded into the distance, and as soon as I was sure it was safe, my breath whooshed out in relief and muscles I’d tensed went limp.

“None of this makes sense,” I told Lillith. “It’s like they’re out for an evening stroll.”

There was no answer.

“Lillith?” Incipient panic tinged my voice.

“Wait.” She was silent for another second as the twilight deepened. “I think I know what’s happening.”

“You want to clue me in?”

“A ship just came out of hyper-drive and is approaching the planet. No Federation markings, and the outer lights are off. It’s armed to the teeth.”

Alarmed, I straightened. “Can they see you?”

“No. I’m parked beside a large asteroid. If they used detectors, they’d think I was part of the rock. But so far, they haven’t scanned the area. I’m betting King Politaus ordered everyone to stay inside tonight so they wouldn’t see the ship land.”

“The soldiers will see it.”

“Yes, but he can control them better than he can the entire population. He probably wants to keep rumors to a minimum. Unless he’s stupid, which I doubt, he must know the Federation has spies in the city. The good news is, the soldiers don’t expect anyone to be out, so their guard is down. If you stay in the shadows, they’ll never see you. Now, go right.”

I slipped away from the door, clinging to walls and darting across the open spaces in the descending darkness. Twice more I had to dodge soldiers, one pair coming so close my cloak fluttered in the wake of their passage.

Long before I reached the castle, full night arrived, and the huge building was more something I felt than saw. It loomed over me, deeper patches of darkness indicating the many angles and ells that made up its exterior.

Instead of approaching the front, with its wide stone steps, colonnades, and well-lit massive doors, Lillith directed me to the western side. At this point, my only plan was to get inside and hope the Imadei would let me know where the Sumantti was hidden. With that in mind, I tiptoed along the wall, searching for an unlocked door.

“The ship landed,” Lillith told me.

I paused in a pool of shadow, a locked door behind me.
“Did they unload any cargo?” For a fleeting moment, I wondered if they might be bringing the Sumantti, but they couldn’t be. The Imadei wouldn’t have indicated this star system if the stone hadn’t been here yet.

“No cargo. Three men and two female children got off. They entered the castle through a door in the back. Without a full medical scan I can’t be one hundred percent positive, but it appears that the larger girl was drugged. She wasn’t unconscious, but acted dazed and sluggish, as if she’d just awakened and was still disoriented.”

I pondered the information, not sure what to do with it, if anything. Before I could reach a conclusion, the door behind me swung wide and a man stepped out, flooding my hiding place with light. Blind panic swept over me as he halted, his gaze locked on mine. His mouth opened to yell, but he didn’t get the chance.

BOOK: Close Contact
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ads

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