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Authors: Katherine Allred

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

Close Contact (8 page)

BOOK: Close Contact
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I expected him to reach for the stone, but he didn’t. He leaned over the chair arm and gazed into the inky depths for what seemed liked ten minutes. And the longer he stared, the more my head ached.

Abruptly, I couldn’t take any more. I curled my fingers around the Imadei, hiding it from his view, and with the other hand massaged my temple.

Marcus blinked like a man coming out of a trance, and then frowned. “Put it back on and never let anyone see it again. And if you value your life, don’t allow it to be touched unless you trust the person implicitly. For better or worse, the stone is linked to you now, and until you learn to control it, rough handling of the Imadei could either kill you or destroy your mind.”

I stared at him as my headache eased. “How do you know that?”

“When you’ve lived as long as I have, you pick things up here and there.”

Abruptly, my internal radar went on high alert. “Exactly how old are you?”

“Six hundred and twenty-eight cycles.”

My mouth gaped and I had trouble forming a sentence for a second. “You’re a super GEP.”

He smiled and shook his head. “Not on the same level as Kiera Smith, or you, apparently. But Gertz wasn’t the first to experiment with GEP DNA. He just took it further than most.”

If he was that old, how long could
I
expect to live? My brain spun even though I was still in shock. “What are your abilities?”

“Extremely good health and a long life.”

“No psi abilities?”

“None whatsoever.” He hesitated and then shrugged. “What I have is an innate skill at deductive reasoning and all those years of experience to draw from. Sometimes that’s enough for intuitive leaps in logic that others might miss. But there’s one thing I know that doesn’t have to be guessed at. Braxus has to be stopped, and you’re the only one who can do it.”

So much for not cleaning out the privy. Because if solving this problem depended on me alone, we were up to our eyeballs in shit with no shovel in sight.

T
he first rays of sunlight stabbed my tightly closed eyelids with knife-like precision, and with a groan I pulled my pillow over my head. Just ten more minutes would do me, or even five. But there was no getting around the fact that I was awake and suddenly conscious of a feeling of dread that blanketed me for no apparent reason.

Until I remembered where I was and the conversation I’d had with Marcus the night before.

With a sigh, I tossed the pillow aside and sat up, blinking at my surroundings. The room was smaller than my quarters on board Lillith, with just enough space for a single bed and a chest. The one window was wide open, panes of wood-framed glass pulled back against the plaster of aged yellow walls to allow perfume-laden air to circulate.

It kind of freaked me out, knowing there was no barrier between me and the wild bugs sneaking around outside. I’d lain awake for hours staring at the window, trying to make sure they weren’t about to jump me. And yes, I knew they were there during the day, too, but I was awake and ready for them then, not asleep and vulnerable.

Peri was nowhere in sight, but without even concentrating I could feel her satisfaction as she gathered nectar. For such a small creature she sure spent a lot of time eating. But then, I guess it took a lot of flowers to supply enough food to sustain her. On Madrea she’d hit the jackpot. There were flowers everywhere.

Rubbing my eyes, I swung my legs off the bed and then reached for my cloak. I needed a shower and I didn’t want to put on my last outfit until I’d had one. The cloak would keep me from shocking the neighbors witless when I traipsed across the yard to the privy. Clutching my bag in one hand and holding the cloak tightly closed with the other, I left my room.

There were snores coming from the other side of the house as I tiptoed through to the back door, and I envied Marcus the ability to sleep late. Of course, his room didn’t have the sun shining through a window at this Zin-awful hour, either.

I wasn’t the first person up, though. Already the scent of cooking wafted from the large stone building next door, and I could hear the chatter of voices mixed with the clatter of pots and pans.

Although I’d made a trip to the privy the night before, it had been dark and the small sunstone lamp I’d carried hadn’t illuminated much more than the crushed stone path. This morning I took a better look around.

Marcus’s home and business were separated by a white wooden fence lined with flowers. Both yards were neat and clean, but where his home yard contained only the privy, there was a building with three doors at the back of the business, and another, even longer, two-story building with numerous doors situated at the back of the lot.

The front one had to be privies for the customers’ use, but the back one looked like apartments of some kind. Even as
I watched, a roughly dressed man carrying a hoe emerged from the end door, ran his gaze over me curiously, and then went to work in one of the dozen flower beds.

Okay, guess the building was living quarters for Marcus’s employees.

With that burning question answered, I continued to the privy, joined by an enthusiastic Peri, who’d figured out I was going to bathe. I made sure the door was latched and then shed my cloak. The building was divided into two parts. One side contained an old-fashioned gravity-flow toilet and a sink; the other was a walk-in shower with a drain in the floor. A large tank on the roof, heated only during the winter months, I’d been informed, supplied the water.

“Lillith, did you contact Dr. Daniels and tell him what was going on?” I stepped into the shower, pulled on the rope hanging down, and moved under the tepid sprinkle of water that resulted, scrubbing vigorously with the cake of soap I’d found on a shelf. It smelled like flowers.

Peri landed at my feet, flapping energetically in the water and suds that pooled around the drain, slinging droplets to all corners of the stall.

What was it with this place and flowers? I made a mental note to ask Marcus about it later.

“Yes,” Lillith responded to my question. “Plus, it’s all going into my archives. Dr. Daniels is going to check into any reports on missing girls, but he said the chances of finding out anything about the ones brought to Madrea are extremely slim. It’s a big universe and children go missing from all over, every day. However, he does find it interesting that King Politaus is allowing ships to land, given his attitude toward anything that smacks of the Federation.”

“Yeah, that occurred to me, too. Marcus thinks Braxus is behind the Sumantti being stolen and the girls being brought here, but at the least the king has to know about and condone
the ships. He’s the one who gave the order to keep people inside so they wouldn’t see them land.”

“At least we can be relatively sure the Sumantti is somewhere nearby. Otherwise, there’d be no need to bring the girls to Bastion City.”

I rinsed quickly and shut the water off, grabbing a drying cloth from a shelf. “Is the ship still here?”

Peri tiptoed out of the stall, jumped to the sink edge, and began drying her feathers.

“No. The three men got back on board and it lifted off an hour before sunrise. As soon as it was away from Madrea’s gravitational field it went into hyper-drive. The girls weren’t with them.”

With a sigh, I toweled the excess moisture from my hair. “So, what now? If I get caught sneaking around the castle again, they’ll know something is up. I don’t think they’ll believe I could get lost there twice.”

“Now we bide our time and lie low until you learn to use the Imadei. Once you do, you should be able to pinpoint the exact location of the Daughter Stone. You’ll still have to go get it, but knowing where it is will minimize the risk. And, it would help if we knew what your psi ability is.”

“Regardless of what the tests say, I’ve never shown any indication of an ability. And what’s more, I don’t want one.”

“Sooner or later you must face the fact that you have psi talent and learn to use it. You won’t have a choice in the matter.”

“Yeah? Well, you just watch me. We always have a choice.”

Staring at my reflection it dawned on me that I had no way to fix my hair. No dryer, no styler, nothing. I was lucky I had the comb Marcus was loaning me. Maybe there was a reason Kiera Smith constantly wore her hair in a braid.

Well, if she could do a braid, I could at least do a ponytail. Using my knife, I stripped a piece of leather from the flap on
my pouch and then pulled the comb through the heavy mass to smooth out the snags. It took me three tries to get the hair pulled back and the tie around it, and when I was done, what I had was an off-center, tangled mop of hair with drying tendrils escaping in every direction.

Okay, maybe I couldn’t do it.

I shook my head and watched my hair go crazy, one fat lock falling to hide my left eye while the rest fluffed up like each individual strand had its own force field that repelled all the other strands. Wonder what Reynard would think of my new wild-woman do?

Instantly, a mental image of the commander formed in my mind. He was sitting at a long table with other men, all in the uniforms of the king. The table groaned with the weight of food, and there was much laughter and talking.

My eyes drifted closed as I inspected him minutely. Damn, he was one fine-looking man. In spite of being hungry again, it sure wasn’t the food that had my mouth watering.

Suddenly Reynard went tense, his head lifting alertly as he scanned the room.

My eyes popped open. Wow, talk about an imagination. I shook my head again and the image vanished. I really needed to stop daydreaming. There simply wasn’t enough time. I had lots to do, like getting dressed, finding something to eat, and then lying low.

Yeah, I could do that. At least I was pretty sure I wouldn’t screw up the getting-dressed-and-eating part. How hard could it be, after all? I’d been doing it my whole life.

Lying low, however, might be a problem.

I pulled my last skirt and top from the pouch and put them on. The belt and halter were a silvery sage that made my eyes stand out. Not my first choice in color, because I preferred bright vivid shades, but I had to admit, the hue looked good on me.

After tidying the privy, I made my way back to the house, Peri abandoning me for the flowers again. Once inside, I returned my pouch to my room and straightened the bed. By the time I finished, Marcus was up and waiting for me. He blinked at my hair, but was too polite to comment.

“Ready for breakfast?” he inquired mildly.

“I passed ready an hour ago,” I replied, following him out the back door. “So, what exactly are my duties going to be while I’m working for you?”

He clasped his hands behind his back as we strolled across the yard, aiming at a gate set in the white fence. “You’ll take orders from customers and deliver those orders back to them. At least twice a night you’ll dance. And most important of all, you’ll keep your ears open. The soldiers let their guard down when they’re relaxed and drinking, and we need all the information we can get.”

“No problem.”

Peri fluttered by with a chirp of greeting for Marcus as we went through the gate, and then hovered over another batch of flowers before making her selection.

“You do know how to dance, don’t you?”

I gave him a satisfied smile. When you’re created for the Department of Protocol, knowing how to dance is incorporated in your DNA. “Yes.”

Truth was, one of the first things I’d been taught in the crèche was all the traditional dances of the Federation member planets, and I was a quick study. According to my instructors at Alien Affairs, my ability to dance was part of what made me so good at hand-to-hand combat.

My dance repertoire was vast and spanned several centuries of culture. Give me a beat and I could move to it. If pressed, I could even carry a passable tune, although I didn’t think it would be smart to try that here. At least, not until I learned some of their songs.

“Excellent,” Marcus said. “We’ll need to get you a costume before tonight, but you and Treya are about the same size, so that shouldn’t be a problem. You can borrow one of hers until we get something made.”

“How many people work for you?”

He tilted his head a moment to think. “I believe there are twelve now, but the numbers vary with the seasons, and most of my regulars do several different jobs.”

We reached the back of the Terpsichore just as the blonde woman from the vid I’d watched my first day on board Lillith stepped outside. Even taking into consideration the five cycles that had passed since the vid was shot, she was beautiful.

She stopped the second she saw us and her gaze swept over me, a frown marring the smooth skin between her emerald eyes. “What have you brought me now, Marcus?”

“Treya, this is my ward, Echo. She’s going to be working at the Terpsichore with us.”

“I see.” She circled me slowly, assessing my worth. “A bit on the slim side, but well toned.” When she stopped in front of me, we were eye to eye. “Smile, girl.”

I bared my teeth at her.

“Good, although when you’re working, try to put more feeling into it.” She glanced at Marcus. “Her hair is extraordinary. The men will all want to get their hands in it.”

Huh? My hair was a mess! Maybe the men on Madrea were all frustrated beauticians.

To my surprise Marcus was nodding agreement. “I’ll make sure Bim keeps an eye on her when she’s working the tables.”

I opened my mouth to tell him I could take care of myself, and then closed it again. On this world, I wasn’t
supposed
to take care of myself and I needed to remember that.

But Treya wasn’t finished yet. She motioned with one
hand. “Walk to the door and back so I can see how you move.”

I did as she asked, putting an extra swing into my hips just because she got on my nerves.

“Excellent!” She clasped her hands together and smiled at me. “Fluid and natural, with just enough curves to be delicately feminine. I know just the costume for her.”

Maybe she wasn’t so bad after all. She was obviously a connoisseur when it came to the female form. If her taste in clothes was on a par with mine, we were all set to be best buds.

“Now go, eat.” She made a shooing motion. “When you are done, we will work on your dancing.”

“Treya is in charge of all the dancers,” Marcus said, ushering me into a huge bustling kitchen.

Heat rose from three large cast-iron stoves tended by a short, slim woman wielding a spatula. She glanced around long enough to beam at us, her brown eyes sparkling, red hair standing on end from the steam rising out of bubbling pots.

A long table capable of seating dozens was positioned to one side, away from the work area. It was currently populated by three women dressed like me, a giant of a man shoveling in food with a single-mindedness that was awe inspiring, and four normal-sized men ranging in age from early twenties to late fifties.

All of them but the giant stopped eating to stare at me while Marcus made the introductions. The women were my counterparts, both servers and dancers. The four men were musicians. The giant was the aforementioned Bim, Treya’s brother and chief head banger when the customers got a little too merry. The cook was named Leddy and she obviously had a letch on for Marcus, fussing over him until even I got
embarrassed. But when I tasted the food she slid in front of me, I forgave her.

There were perfectly cooked eggs, thick slices of ham, gravy, and fluffy biscuits the size of my fist. I’d be willing to bet there wasn’t a synthesized protein on the plate. And best of all, there was real coffee—hot, black, and strong. I wondered if they realized how rare coffee was in the rest of the universe. Probably. No doubt they’d made a fortune on it before the king closed the planet.

Silence descended while everyone chowed down, and once again my thoughts strayed to Reynard. Only this time I pictured him outside the castle, frowning at the door I’d torn from its frame.

“We may have a problem,” Lillith told me.

I banished Reynard’s image and swallowed hurriedly. “What?”

“The commander is examining the door you tore out last night.”

BOOK: Close Contact
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