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Speculative Fiction

Mayan Summer
Brenda Cooper

The Ystrelan Ambassador
Barbara Davies

Spell, Book and Candle
Catherine Lundoff

Scales
Martha J Allard

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Alarm klaxons derailed Erika's train of thought.

"What now?"

She threw down the security report she had been reading, turned to her console, and keyed in a command. A schematic of Rigil One appeared on the screen. Red lights flashed over the space station's bow end.

"Clamp malfunction," read the legend arrowing to Docking Bay 12. "Loss of seal between ship's hull and docking sleeve. Emergency pressure doors closed."

She checked her watch. Wasn't the Ystrelan Ambassador's ship supposed to be docking about now? Hell!

According to the duty roster, Sanjiv Takeri and his team were overseeing Ambassador Kekkek's arrival. She thumbed her wristcom and raised it to her lips. "Takeri. What's the situation with Docking Bay 12? Over."

"Here, Chief," came the deep voice of her second-in-command. "Things went a bit nuts here for a moment, but everything's under control now."

As if in confirmation, the klaxons fell silent. She glanced at the schematic. "Seal re-established," read the legend. "Pressure returning to normal." The tension in her shoulders eased. "What happened?"

"A docking clamp came loose. The Ystrelan's ship started swinging. It broke the seal and for a moment we were venting atmosphere."

"Any damage?"

"Scraped paintwork, that's all. The dock workers got a replacement clamp in place fast."

"Casualties?" She held her breath.

"One of the dock workers stubbed his thumb." She could hear the smile in his voice. "Apart from that, negative."

"Thank God!"

" . . . and pressure suits," added Takeri.

Erika blinked. "The Ambassador was wearing his?"

"Him and his assistant . . . I see she's human, by the way. What's up with that?"

"Someone has to interpret for him." Erika rubbed her jaw. "Any crowd control issues?"

"Negative. There are a few sightseers, hoping to snatch the odd feather for a souvenir. Oh, and a TV crew's been lurking about all morning. But so far everyone's friendly and keeping their distance."

"Let's hope they stay that way. OK, do some digging into what happened, will you, and report back?"

"You've got it, Chief. Takeri out."


The door to the C-in-C's office slid open. Erika straightened her uniform jacket, tugged down her cuffs, and stepped through.

She stood to attention. "You wanted to see me, Commander?" Garner had interrupted her lunch and refused to say why over the open comlink. She hoped it wasn't anything serious.

He leaned back in his chair and gestured towards the office's other occupant. "Ms. Hirsh," he said, "this is my Chief of Security, Erika Lundquist."

The woman in the turquoise trouser suit rose from her seat in front of Garner's desk. She was a head shorter than Erika, and her long, dark hair was tied back in a French plait. Sun-freckled cheeks showed she must be a recent arrival on the station.

"Adriane Hirsh. Ambassador Kekkek's interpreter. Pleased to meet you." She held out a hand.

Erika stepped forward and grasped it. "Likewise."

"Ms. Hirsh is an empath," said Garner.

The hairs on the back of Erika's neck rose. Feeling suddenly exposed, she released her grip.

The empath smiled. "How else do you think I can interpret what the Ambassador is saying?"

"I thought you spoke Ystrelan."

"Even our best linguists are struggling. In time, maybe we'll get somewhere. It's only been a year since First Contact after all . . . But that wasn't why I disclosed that I'm an empath." Adriane glanced at Garner. "May I tell her, Commander?"

Garner nodded and picked an imaginary speck of lint off his, as always, immaculate sleeve.

"It's about what happened this morning."

"In Docking Bay 12?" asked Erika. "That was unfortunate. I hope it didn't upset the Ambassador too much. According to the report, the clamp was old, in need of repair--"

"It wasn't an accident," said Adriane.

"What?"

"While it was happening, I felt the emotions of the saboteur. Satisfaction at first, then frustration." A glint of steel entered the grey eyes. "And no, Chief Lundquist, I didn't imagine it. Whoever arranged for the docking clamp to fail was there, watching."

Erika flushed. That was the trouble with empaths--too perceptive by half. So someone had tried to kill the Ystrelan Ambassador. On her watch. Damn!

Commander Garner held Erika's gaze, his expression sombre. "I want you to take personal charge of Ambassador Kekkek's security, Lundquist. There's already a question mark over Rigil One's future. The last thing we need is an interstellar incident. Clear?" He waited.

"Of course, sir. Understood."


"You realise the saboteur could have been targeting you as well as Kekkek, Ms. Hirsh? Without an interpreter, his activities would be severely curtailed."

They were heading for the Ambassador's living quarters, situated in the wealthiest sector of the station. Gravity there was slightly more than that on Ystrela, and Kekkek had been offered a low-G suite closer to the axis, but he had opted for living among humans. It made sense, given that his ambassadorial brief was, as far as Erika could make out, limited to mingling and reporting back anything of interest.

"Call me Adriane, please." Adriane smiled at her. "Kekkek has an excellent grasp of Universal. Though he can't speak it, he understands it. If anything happened to me he would be inconvenienced, that's all. And I would soon be replaced."

"By another empath?"

Adriane arched an eyebrow. "Only an empath can do this job."

"Sorry . . . And please call me Erika."

They walked on a few paces in thoughtful silence, broken only by the strains of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony wafting along the corridor toward them.

"The feelings you felt when the docking clamp failed," said Erika. "Were they human?"

"Of course." Adrian gave her a surprised look. "I wasn't aware there were any non-humans besides Kekkek on board."

"If you discount pets and livestock, there aren't. I'm just covering all the bases." They continued on a few more paces. "Male or female?"

"No idea. Sorry."

Erika sighed. It would have narrowed things down a bit. "Is there anything I should know about the Ambassador that isn't in his dossier?" Kekkek's file was skimpy verging on nonexistent.

"Such as?"

They turned a corner. The music was much louder now.

"I don't know. Something that might reveal a motive to kill him."

"Unfortunately, much about the Ystrelans in general and Kekkek in particular is still an enigma. And will probably remain so." Adriane sounded frustrated. "They haven't allowed our anthropologists on their home world yet."

Erika glanced at her. "Think they're hiding something?"

"Could be. Or maybe they just think humans are so far beneath them, they can't be bothered educating us about themselves or their culture." She sighed. "It's chastening to think that nothing we have to offer seems to interest them."

"Except classical music," said Erika.

"Except that," agreed Adriane, halting outside Kekkek's living quarters. "Ambassador, it's Adriane," she shouted into the intercom grille. "I've brought the Chief of Security. May we come in?"

Erika wondered if Kekkek could hear them above the music, but a second later the music stopped and the door slid open. She followed Adriane inside, then halted. The Ystrelan was standing just inside the doorway, and pictures and TV footage hadn't prepared her for his sheer presence.

He was seven foot tall, at least, and his golden eyes gleamed with intelligence. An intricately tooled, tan leather tunic fell to knee length. It was well cut; only the slightest of bulges about his shoulders and upper back betrayed the presence of the wings beneath. Matching leather boots covered taloned feet.

Kekkek's eyes pinned her and she swallowed. What had the dossier said Ystrelans ate? She tried not to imagine that great, hooked beak tearing into prey.

"He won't hurt you," murmured Adriane.

The talons made her reluctant to shake his hand, so she gave him a half bow instead. "A pleasure to meet you, Ambassador," she said. "I can only apologise for this morning's unfortunate incident. From now on I shall be personally overseeing your safety."

The beak opened and a series of croaks, chirps, twitters, and trills emerged. Adriane nodded and turned to Erika. "He asks whether you can stop that TV crew from dogging his every step."

Erika blinked in surprise. "Well . . . I can certainly get them to keep their cameras at a distance. And restrict them to certain areas. Unfortunately, I can't ban them completely, Ambassador, as they aren't breaking any station regulations. Besides, it might have an adverse effect. People are curious about you and they'll satisfy that curiosity one way or another."

Kekkek turned away and wandered through to the next room. Seconds later the Eroica resumed.

Erika glanced at Adriane and shouted above the music, "Have I offended him?"

"Not really. He's displeased but prepared to accept the situation."

"That's a relief. I'd hate to fall out with him at our very first meeting."


Erika studied the grainy pictures taken from vidcam footage. They showed two men and one woman, members of the Dockworkers' Guild, who'd had access to the docking clamp in the run up to the Ystrelan Ambassador's arrival.

"Alibis?"

"Solid so far," said Takeri.

"Motives?"

"Weak." He pointed to the middle-aged man in dockworker's overalls with hands the size of small hams. "He hates the Ystrelans for selling Earth their star gate technology."

"Because they charged us too much?"

Takeri grinned. "No, though in my view they did. Because they've ensured that our space stations will eventually be obsolete and his job along with them."

"He has a point." Erika cocked her head and studied the bearded face. "But sabotaging a docking clamp would get him barred from every colony and station between here and Earth anyway, which rather defeats the object."

"Mm." Takeri pointed to the next suspect, a stocky young woman with a broad, rather plain face and bad teeth. "She's a former Sister of Ystrela."

"One of the First Contact cults?" The revelation that Humanity was not, after all, alone had proved traumatic for many. They had coped in different ways.

Takeri nodded. "The one that believes Ystrelans are really angels."

She rolled her eyes. Casting the indifferent Ystrelans as Humanity's saviours was something of a stretch. "Former?"

"She became disillusioned and left."

Erika raised her eyebrows. "And now she wants to kill Ystrelans?"

He shook his head. "And my gut tells me she's not the type anyway."

Erika ran a hand through her hair, then pointed at the final picture: a scruffy looking young man with long hair and tattoos. "And how does he feel about Ystrelans?"

Takeri's teeth gleamed white against his dark skin as he smiled. "As long as they don't steal his beer and women, he couldn't care less."

Erika laughed then sighed. "So. No convincing motive for any of them. And the fact they're on video is also a point in their favour." The exterior cameras had been, too conveniently for it to be coincidence, out of order. "To be sure, though, you'd better bring them in for questioning, and get Adriane Hirsh to scan their thoughts."

"Will do."

"Are they our only suspects?"

"There's one other possibility, Chief." Takeri reached over and tapped a key on her console. An all too familiar face replaced those of the dockworkers.

Carl Schmidt.

Erika glared at the self-satisfied smile, the close-set eyes, the expensive suit that the conman wore in the mistaken belief that it conferred respectability. "What makes you think that lowlife had anything to do with--"

"The Vector's passenger manifest," said Takeri promptly.

"What?" The star liner had departed for Proxima Station half an hour after the attempt to kill Kekkek.

"Schmidt bought himself a one-way ticket back to Earth, Chief. Could just be a coincidence, of course. But it puts him in the vicinity of Docking Bay 12 during the incident."

The conman's loathing of Ystrelans was well known--he didn't like humans much either. And in his younger days he'd been a dockworker. "I'll contact Proxima Station," said Erika, "and get them to detain and question him."


The TV crew, identifiable by the Day-Glo green TV station logo on their jackets, were keeping well back, Erika noticed with relief, as she followed Kekkek and Adriane toward the Market Place. Those controlling the hovercams, especially that tall, scowling man with the moustache, evidently weren't happy, but what else were zoom lenses for? And if they hadn't forgiven her for barring them from last night's Commander's Dinner, well, they'd get over it.

With Adriane's help, she'd ruled out the three dockworkers as suspects, which left Schmidt. The evidence against him was thin at best, though. If Erika had had her way, the Ystrelan Ambassador would be confined to quarters until she received confirmation one way or another of Schmidt's involvement, but Kekkek insisted on seeing all Rigil One had to offer. Last night's formal dinner with a restricted VIP guest list was one thing, but this . . . She grimaced.

As they neared the teeming square, with its cafés, bars, and traders' stands, heads turned towards Kekkek and eyes widened. Some people edged away, others strained to touch him.

"Freaking aliens," muttered someone who evidently shared Schmidt's xenophobia. "Why don't they go back where they came from?"

Erika's security team was kept busy making sure people kept their distance. Hovercams whirred, capturing every little detail for their viewers.

"This is where people come to meet and relax," Adriane was telling her employer, her hands gesturing expressively.

With a jolt, Erika realised she was admiring the empath's figure and remembering the clinging black dress Adriane had worn to last night's dinner. Wool gathering on the job was bad enough, but knowing that Adriane must be able to sense her feelings--

Erika took herself firmly to task. Concentrate.

The Ambassador bought two Mozart chips at a music kiosk then moved on to a stall selling souvenirs. He reached out a taloned hand, but ignored the scale model of Rigil One, grabbing instead a small action figure with poseable limbs. It was meant to be an Ystrelan, Erika realised, but the resemblance was crude: the head too big, the beak too small. It did however capture the large, golden eyes.

Kekkek's beak opened and closed, and when he tossed the toy back, it was minus its head.

"Hey!" The trader's cheeks flushed an angry red. "You break it, you pay for it." But the Ambassador was already walking away.

Adriane threw Erika a rueful glance then dug in her pocket. "Sorry," she told the man. "Here. This should cover it." The credits she held out were double what the toy would have cost. He grunted and accepted them.

A cacophony of cheeps and flapping wings made them turn. The Ambassador had halted next to a stall selling songbirds. There was a hungry gleam in his eyes.

"Oh dear!" Adriane hurried to his side.

As Erika joined her, she saw that the colourful caged birds were trying to get as far from the Ystrelan as they could.

"You're scaring my birds!" protested the trader.

Kekkek spoke to Adriane, who listened intently then nodded. "Do you give a discount for bulk purchase?" she asked the man.

His expression became cunning. "Depends. How many does he want?"

"All of them."

So that's what Ystrelans eat, thought Erika.


The com system's insistent chime woke Erika from a sensual dream about Adriane.
"Yes," she said grumpily. "What is it?"

"You have a message," said the system's cool female voice. "Do you wish to accept?"

"What time is it?"

"3.30 am."

That early? Uh oh! "Lights. Low." The bedroom lights came on, and Erika sat up and ran a hand through her hair. "OK." She yawned. "Accept."

The comscreen blinked into the life, and a second later Adriane's face had replaced the station ident. She looked haggard. Grim-faced med techs were milling about behind her and Erika recognised the backdrop immediately: Med Lab One.

"Erika." Voices and the bleep of machines almost made the empath inaudible. "Kekkek's been poisoned and they don't know whether he will pull through. I thought you should know." She nodded to someone off screen then turned back to look at Erika. "Sorry. I have to go."

The station ident reappeared, then Erika's wristcom beeped. She grabbed it from the bedside table and held it to her lips. "Lundquist."

"Takeri here, Chief. Sorry to wake you, but we have a situation. The Ystrelan Ambassador's--"

"Been poisoned," she completed. "I just heard. Where are you?"

"Securing Kekkek's quarters until forensics can get here."

"Let me know what they find. I'll be in Med Lab One if you need me."


The Med Lab door slid open and Erika entered and made straight for ICU.

"Will he live?"

Dr. Kristof looked up from the datapad he was studying. "I hope so. It's too soon to say." He issued instructions to a med tech, who nodded and hurried away.

Adriane was sitting next to Kekkek's bed, her shoulders hunched, her face the picture of misery. The unconscious Ystrelan seemed . . . smaller somehow. Erika rested a comforting hand on Adriane's slim shoulder, but the other woman seemed unaware of it.

"We just don't know enough about Ystrelan anatomy," continued Kristof. "The antidote I've given him should be effective, but--I've asked the Ystrelan home world for more information, but it could be some time before I receive a reply. If I receive one." He sighed. "He's young and strong, though. That should help."

"He was poisoned?"

Kristof nodded and showed the datapad to her. The tiny screen was crammed with graphs, analyses, and medical jargon.

She grimaced and said, "The layman's version?"

He smiled. "From the way he was vomiting, I'd say it was something he ate. I found traces of a contact poison harmless to humans but not to Ystrelans. It's unstable, breaks down quickly." He paused before adding, "Heat destroys it."

She frowned. "But don't Ystrelans usually cook their food?"

The beep of her wristcom interrupted them. "Sorry, Doc. I'd better take this." She raised the wristcom to her mouth. "Lundquist. Go ahead."

"Takeri here."

"What have you got for me?"

"Forensics have been checking out what's left of the songbirds in Kekkek's quarters. It seems someone painted poison on their skin, beneath the feathers, Chief. Must've been quite a messy, fiddly job."

"Ah," said Dr. Kristof, who had been listening. "That explains it." He glanced at the silent interpreter. "Adriane told me Ystrelans consider our songbirds to be a rare delicacy, best eaten raw."

Erika frowned. This was a far more sophisticated attempt than the docking clamp sabotage. "Whoever did this knows a lot about Ystrelans." And it also put Schmidt in the clear. Back to square one, then. At least this time there was an obvious place to start.

"Takeri? That bird trader from the Market Place--"

"Way ahead of you, Chief." Her second-in-command sounded smug. "He's being detained as we speak."


"It wasn't me," protested the trader. "I swear to God it wasn't me." His hands were trembling, his face shiny with sweat.

Erika placed her palms flat on the table and leaned towards him. "They were your birds."

"They're just songbirds, for God's sake! I sell them as pets. If the Ystrelan ate them that was his lookout. I can't be held responsible."

"Who's your supplier? When did you take delivery?"

"I got this last batch two days ago. From Paradise Birds on Proxima Station." He swallowed audibly. "I've had no trouble with them before. They're a reputable company, you know. Branches on most stations. You must have heard of them."

Erika had. So, the poison must have been applied sometime after that. "Who looks after the birds? Feeds them?"

"I do." The trader frowned. "Why?"

"No one else has access?"

He shook his head.

"Did you deliver them to Kekkek's quarters yourself?"

His eyebrows shot up. "Of course not. I don't have the muscle for an order that size."

Erika's interest quickened. "So you hired someone to deliver them?"

The trader's eyes brightened as he saw a way out. "Yes!"

"Who?"

He told her.


The next interrogation went much more quickly due to Adriane's presence. Erika had been reluctant to drag the empath from Kekkek's bedside while it was still touch and go, but, much to their joint relief, the Ambassador was going to be all right. No thanks to the Ystrelan home world, though, which still hadn't replied to Dr. Kristof's medical query. Fortunately, the Chief of Surgery's gamble with the antidote had paid off.

When Takeri brought in the woman who had delivered the songbirds to Kekkek, Adriane glanced at Erika and shook her head.

Damn!

Questioning elicited the fact that the woman, a big-boned ex-dock worker who wore her grey hair stubble-short, had been delayed picking up the cages of birds.

"Delayed?" Erika pricked up her ears. "By how long?" The bird trader's security was non-existent. If his stock had been left unguarded for several hours . . .

"Two hours. Maybe three. Does it matter?"

"It might. What happened?"

The delivery woman drummed her fingers on the table that separated them. "Lift got stuck between levels."

"Which one?"

"Cargo lift 8." The woman pulled a face. "That freaking piece of crap is always breaking down on me. Got to use it though . . . for my fork lift."

Erika looked at her second-in-command and jerked her head towards the exit. "Check out her story."

Takeri nodded and left the interrogation suite. The vidcam records of the corridor adjoining the cargo lift would soon show if the woman was telling the truth.


This was a lousy idea," muttered Erika, feeling for the pulse weapon holstered at her hip and hoping she wouldn't have to use it.

The vidcam records had backed up the delivery woman's story. Back to square one again. It bothered Erika on several levels that she had yet to get a lead on whoever was making these attempts on the Ambassador's life. It bothered her also that he showed so little concern for his own safety.

"Kekkek insisted," said Adriane. "What could I say? Dr. Kristof gave him the all clear and said some gentle exercise would do him good."

They were standing on one of the Low-G launch platforms, along with several dozen tourists. Thousands of feet below them--though "below" was a relative term at Rigil One's axis--curved farms, parks, and industrial complexes. Erika was accustomed to the vertiginous view, but Adriane's face was pale and the knuckles gripping the handrail were white.

The brown uniforms of Erika's men contrasted with the garish shorts and t-shirts favoured by the tourists drawn here by the light pedalplanes that could be hired by the hour. The TV crew were here too, and their hovercams were bobbing around, filming the only figure flying under his own wing power.

For the first time since she'd known Kekkek, he looked in his element, skimming and gliding, swooping and soaring beyond the range of the safety nets, which the hangar crew had opened to let him through.

The Ambassador flew even further away from the launch platform.

Erika rolled her eyes. "Is he trying to make my job more difficult?"

Beside her, Adriane stiffened. "Oh no! The killer's here."

"What?" Erika drew her pistol and charged it. "Who is it?"

The empath gave her a helpless look. "I can't tell."

Erika raised her wristcom to her lips. "Security alert. Eyes peeled, everyone. The suspect's here. I repeat, the suspect's here."

She scanned her surroundings, looking for someone or something out of place. Nothing. Except that one of the hovercams was floating much nearer to the Ambassador than had been agreed.

She holstered her pistol and grabbed the nearest pair of binoculars. They happened to be dangling from the neck of a tourist. Ignoring his strangled squawk of protest, she trained them on the errant hovercam.

That lens looks odd. More like a--Shit!

She let go of the binoculars, drew her pulse pistol, and fired . . . just as the camera emitted a burst of dazzling light. The laser beam missed Kekkek by several inches, then Erika's plasma burst knocked out the hovercam's motors. The effect wasn't quite what she'd intended.

"Look out!" she yelled, as it began to smoke and spin, the laser spinning with it.

Tourists screamed and ran for cover as the beam sliced through a pedalplane's wing. It swung towards Erika and Adriane.

"Down." She shoved the empath to the platform, took careful aim, and squeezed the trigger again.

This time the hovercam exploded and the laser winked out of existence.

Erika lowered her pistol and began searching for whoever had been controlling the hovercam.

"It wasn't me," cried a cameraman, torn between raising his hands and continuing to film.

"Erika, look," called Adriane.

Erika followed the kneeling empath's pointing finger and saw a handset lying abandoned further along the launch platform along with a discarded jacket bearing the TV station's logo. A memory of its owner surfaced: a tall, discontented looking man with a moustache.

A pedalplane was drawing away from the platform, its pilot pedalling furiously. The triangular wings shadowed his face, but he was heading for the gap in the safety nets beyond which Kekkek was still flying.

She holstered her pistol and dashed towards a just docked pedalplane, brushing past the hangar employee helping its pilot to disembark and scrambling into the pilot seat.

"Cast me off," she yelled.

The man's jaw dropped but he released the plane's painter.

She began pedalling. The plane responded sluggishly, and she swore. Already her quarry was thirty feet away from the platform. She stood up in the saddle and put her back into her pedalling until her calves ached. Then it was her turn to negotiate the gap in the nets.

Ten feet . . . Nine . . . Eight. She was gaining on him. The zzzt of a pulse weapon charging made her realize why. The pilot had stopped pedalling so he could take aim.

The plasma burst left afterimages on her retina and she blinked to clear them, her heart pounding at the harsh, alien cry that Kekkek had emitted. Had he been wounded . . . or worse? As her vision cleared, she saw to her relief that the Ystrelan was still airborne, though his tail feathers looked a little singed on one side. Gone was the leisurely flying of earlier, though. Now Kekkek was executing a series of high speed dodges and sudden drops with an agility that amazed her and which meant the would-be assassin's next plasma burst didn't even come close.

Teeth bared, she pedalled faster. Six feet . . . Five . . .

Launching herself into the void, hands reaching, she hoped she had built up enough momentum to cover the gap between the two planes. As she barrelled toward him, the other pilot turned toward her, bringing up his hand. Muzzle flash dazzled her and she threw herself to one side.

The edge of the plasma bolt seared her shoulder, and the pain made her cry out. Shock made the next few seconds muzzy, and she was acting on instinct when she crashed into her attacker and began to grapple with him.

She prised his fingers from the pistol stock and pitched it over the side, then tried to pin his arms. He cursed her and lashed out. The next thing she knew, they were falling.

Gravity might be low here at the axis, but it was enough to start them on their long descent to the curving surface thousands of feet below. She shoved her assailant away from her, trying to ignore the agony in her shoulder, and looked for something to grab hold of. The pedalplanes and safety nets were out of reach.

The man with the moustache's flailing around had speeded his descent, and he was now several yards below her. She wouldn't make the same mistake. Maneuvering until she was face down, she spread-eagled her arms and legs to provide maximum wind resistance. As she did so, she caught a glimpse of someone standing on the launch platform watching her, a hand clasped to her mouth.

Adriane.

Her vision was beginning to grey at the edges and she glanced at her shoulder. The blast had cauterised some of the wound but not all.

Losing too much blood.

Then a rush of air on her back and neck made her twist round.

Something was swooping down on her. Something large, and winged, with talons outstretched. It yanked her out of the air, wrenching her wounded shoulder in the process.


"Why the hell is my leg broken?" Erika eased herself back against the pillows as best she could with one arm in a sling and monitor wires festooning her. "I thought I was shot in the shoulder."

Her glare didn't faze Dr. Kristof in the least. "That's something you'll have to take up with Kekkek. Ms. Hirsh says he dropped you onto that launch platform from ten feet up."

"Probably wanted to see if I bounced." She paused. "Adriane was here?"

"Until I swore you were going to be all right."

"Hm."

Erika found that thought gratifying. She wondered, not for the first time, whether to risk rejection and ask Adriane to dinner. As always, though, the idea of having a relationship with an empath was daunting. On the one hand, there would be no risk of her ever having to complain: "My girlfriend doesn't understand me." On the other . . . Do I really want someone who knows every little thing I'm feeling? She sighed, tabled the decision for later, and gave herself a mental kick for cowardice.

"My shoulder itches." She threw Dr. Kristof a plaintive look.

"Of course. It's new skin," he said offhandedly. Then he added, "Don't scratch!" He was studying her readouts. After a moment's more scrutiny, he gave a satisfied grunt and turned his full attention back to her. "If it's any consolation, Erika, Kekkek dropped your attacker from an even greater height."

"Serves him right." She sniffed. "Should have splattered his insides all over Rigil One, but then he wouldn't have been able to answer our questions." She held his gaze. "Talking of which, I need to get out of here, Doc. Any objections?"

He raised his eyebrows. "Would anything I say make any difference?"

She shook her head and began to peel off the wires.

He sighed. "All right." He fetched her a crutch. "But take it easy on that shoulder and leg, Erika. Those bone knitters are going to need a few days to do their job."


"Erika!" Adriane looked surprised then pleased to see her. "I was going to pop in to Med Lab after I got through here and see how you were doing."

"I'm a lousy patient. I'd much rather be here, doing something useful."

She glanced through the one-way glass of the interrogation room, pleased to see that Takeri had started without her. The suspect's face was bruised and swollen behind his moustache, and his wrists were manacled. She felt a grim satisfaction that both his legs were splinted.

"Here." Adrian shoved a chair toward her with her foot.

Erika shook her head. "Thanks, but I'd rather stand for a bit." She shifted her weight to her good leg. "Will you pass along my gratitude to Kekkek, by the way?"

"No need. He says he enjoyed it."

Erika blinked. "Glad I was able to alleviate his boredom!" She tore her gaze from Adriane's face and gestured toward the suspect. "Do we know who he is yet?" She should have been asking Takeri these questions, but she wanted to keep talking to Adriane.

"He claims to be Merin Prosser, hovercam operator, but Takeri's men found four different sets of papers in his quarters . . . And a pouch full of diamonds." The empath gave Erika a puzzled look.

"Harder to trace than credits," she explained. "Has he admitted to the earlier attempts?"

"No. It's strange, but he seems to believes, if he hangs on long enough, someone's going to get him out of here."

Erika rubbed her itching shoulder. "Why would he think that?"

Her wristcom beeped. "Chief Lundquist?" came Commander Garner's voice. "Where are you? I'm at Med Lab One but you're not."

She raised her wrist to her lips. "Sorry, sir. I'm in the interrogation suite."

He grunted. "Is the suspect with you?"

"Affirmative."

"Good. I want him on the next starliner for Ystrela."

Erika blinked. "Ystrela? But we haven't finished questioning him yet, sir."

"Irrelevant." Garner sounded testy. "The Ystrelans have made representations at the highest levels. They want to deal with this matter themselves."

"On what grounds?" asked Adriane, who from her expression was as startled as Erika by this development.

Garner heard and answered her question. "On the grounds that it's an internal matter, Ms. Hirsh, and they wish to deal with it privately."

Erika exchanged an outraged glance with Adriane. "But, Commander, what about the attempt to kill me? That doesn't come under Ystrelan jurisdiction, surely?"

"It stinks," agreed Garner. "But Earth has agreed to the Ystrelan request." There was finality in his tone. "My hands are tied and so are yours. The suspect's on the next ship to Ystrela. Clear?"

Erika exhaled then spoke through gritted teeth. "Of course, sir," she said. "Understood."


It was two days later and Erika was eating breakfast in her favorite diner when Adriane crossed the floor toward her table. The empath was wearing faded blue jeans, and had left her long hair loose. She looked sexy as hell.
"I got your message," said Adriane, taking the seat opposite her. "Kekkek's having a lie-in so he won't be needing me for a while." She looked at Erika. "You were very cryptic. Did you manage to find an explanation? It's been driving me crazy not knowing."
Erika nodded and finished off her mouthful of croissant before answering. "Through unofficial channels, and it took some doing. I had to call in every favor I'm owed."

A waiter came over and Adriane ordered poached egg on toast and a cup of coffee. When he'd gone, she glanced under the table as if searching for something then straightened up and looked a query at Erika. "No crutch?"

"Don't need it any more."

"That's wonderful . . . Now. Tell me what you've found."

Erika gathered her thoughts. "You were right about the Ystrelans being an enigma. It seems there's been a little . . . cultural misunderstanding."

"Oh?"

"They don't accord their Ambassadors the same respect we do."

Adriane blinked. "Really?"

"Mm. Put simply, no one wanted the job so someone had to be forced into it. Kekkek was assigned to us as a punishment not a reward."

"Nice to know they think so highly of us." Adriane's brows scrunched together. Then her eyes widened. "Punishment? For what? He's not a murderer, is he?"

Erika shook her head. "As far as I can make out, he didn't commit anything humans would consider a crime. Whatever it was, though, it put some Ystrelan bigwig's nose--or should that be beak?--out of joint."

"What about the assassination attempts?"

"I'm coming to those. Apparently, an ambassadorial posting to Rigil One wasn't considered enough of a punishment, so the bigwig put out a contract on Kekkek. There were two attempts on his life before he even left Ystrela, though no one bothered to inform us."

"Considerate of them," said Adriane wryly. "So you're saying Prosser was hired by an Ystrelan?"

Erika nodded. "Since Kekkek is living among humans, it made sense to hire a human hit man."

The waiter returned with Adriane's breakfast. "Thanks." She picked up her knife and fork. "Does that mean there'll be more attempts? I don't like the idea of being in the firing line."

"No. The contract's been rescinded. It didn't have official Ystrelan government approval, and as soon as they learned of its existence . . ." Erika shrugged. "Heads have rolled, apparently, and they've assured Earth it won't happen again."

"That's a relief." Adriane dabbed egg yolk from the corner of her mouth with a napkin then grimaced. "So I'm an interpreter for a disgraced Ystrelan, am I? That'll look great on my CV."

Erika smiled. "I don't see that it changes anything material. Kekkek's still the Ambassador. He hasn't been recalled."

"If he had been, I'd be booking my passage back to Earth." Their eyes met and Adriane studied her, her gaze suddenly hooded. "Would that have bothered you?"

Erika shifted in her seat. "Should it have?"

Adriane tutted. "Never try to hide your feelings from an empath."

Her heart began to race. "What does that mean?"

"What do you think?" The empath indicated the breakfast table. "It's not dinner but it's a start."

Erika wondered if her cheeks were as red as they felt. She took a breath then let it out. "How long have you known?"

"How you feel about me?" Adriane's eyes crinkled at the corners. "Since the first day we met. How I feel about you? Since you went flying without a pedalplane."

As her meaning sank in, anticipation began to prickle up and down Erika's spine. "Dinner tonight then?" She strove for nonchalance.

Adriane laughed. "I thought you'd never ask."

(c) 2008 Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company