/ Language: English / Genre:sf, / Series: Wild Cards

Double solitaire

Melinda Snodgrass

Melinda M. Snodgrass

Double solitaire

Chapter One

Baby was gone.

All that remained was the retinal imprint of the amber and purple lights as they had elongated, and given a final burst of colored fire as the living spaceship shifted into ghost drive. Aboard that ship were Tachyon’s grandson, Blaise, the Morakh killer Durg, and Tachyon’s body. How many million miles from Earth were they by now? wondered Tach, and then the emotions hit, beating at the confines of her skull like terrified birds slamming against a window: anger, fear, loss, and a grief so deep it manifested as a physical pain. The screens that lined the Turtle’s shell gave back images of stars, gem bright against the blue black velvet of the upper atmosphere.

The silence inside the Turtle’s shell was like a living presence. Tommy was looking at her. Tachyon couldn’t meet his gaze, and now, as the urgency of the chase faded, Tachyon was horribly aware of the close confines within the Turtle shell. Necessity had placed her in Tommy’s lap, his arms around her waist, his thighs a warm pressure against her buttocks. She slid onto the floor at his feet, wedged herself against a console as she tried to escape his male heat. Tachyon could feel her heart beating in her stomach, and each pulse brought a burst of nausea.

With a moan she bent over the fecund swell of her belly and murmured, “No.”

“Ah, hell, we’re practically in fucking orbit.” Tommy’s head swung from screen to screen. All of them gave back the same black picture except the cameras mounted on the base of the shell. They showed the Earth. A long, long way down.

The shell gave a sickening lurch, tipped until it was edge on to the thinning atmosphere, and began to fall. Tommy let out an inarticulate yell of terror. Tachyon’s own problems paled to insignificance when measured against the current problem of immediate survival.

The Turtle “flew” by telekinetic power. He pictured himself “pushing” or “pulling” against something. Until a few seconds ago he had been clutching Tachyon’s living spaceship with teke fingers. Then Baby had made the transition to ghost drive and was now flying in regions that could only be described as the edges and cracks of reality. Tommy had nothing “real” to cling to.

Their speed was increasing with each second, becoming a headlong plummet that would end in death. No, end far sooner than that, Tach corrected herself.

Forcing a calm she did not feel, Tachyon said pedantically, “We are in what is commonly called in the spaceman business a catastrophic reentry. You must slow our rate of descent, Tommy, or we shall be cremated, or form a rather large crater somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard.”

Tom had his hands over his face, muffling his voice. “I can’t. I’ve got nothing to grab hold of!”

“There’s a very large planet directly below us. Push against that.” A tiny thread of panic set some of the words to jumping. Tach wiped sweat and froze halfway through the gesture. “Tommy, we are running out of time!”

“I can’t.”

“The man who outfoxed Bloat’s Wall can think of something!” It was becoming difficult to speak as G forces built inside the welded steel walls of the shell.

Her child’s mind quested, groped at the edges of her mother’s thoughts, trying to understand. Tach blocked Illyana, not wanting the baby to read Tach’s growing panic. “Goddamn you! If you kill my baby, I’ll never forgive you!”

Tach glanced at the screens. Most had gone dark, burned out by the rising skin temperature. Only two threw back an image. Flames. Tach tore Turtle’s hands from his face, gripped his chin, and forced his head up and around.


Turtle gave a moan of terror and dismay and assumed an even more fetal curl in the big upholstered chair.

Bad idea.

Tachyon pulled back her arm, her elbow brushing a metal console. It burned her skin. Plastic was beginning to melt and run, the smell catching like acid at the back of the throat. No, they wouldn’t burn up first, they’d die from asphyxiation – plastics were highly toxic. She swung, and her hand connected with Tommy’s cheek and ear in a furious slap. He yelped and looked up.

“How do you fly? How do you do any of the things you do? Tell me!”

“I pi-picture things like b-big hands or something.”

She gathered the front of his T-shirt in her hands. Sweat squeezed from the material to coat her fingers. “Then do it now. Wings. Big, beautiful wings. Like Peregrine’s. Spreading out. Catching the air. Slowing our descent.” Tommy’s eyes closed. His plump jaw tightened with concentration. “We’re gliding now.” Tach groped for more metaphors. “A parachute. Gigantic.”

The shell gave a jerk that sent her sprawling. Like a spear her elbow drove into a screen, shattering it and coating her arm with blood.

“Shit, are you okay?” asked Tom.

“You did it, Tommy, you did it!” She laughed into his frightened brown eyes.

“You’re bleeding.”

“It’s nothing.”

“So what do you want to do now?”

She looked at the final remaining screen. New York formed crystal-and-steel spines on the northern horizon. Exhaustion hit, slamming into her chest like a falling sandbag.

“Take me home, Tommy. Take me home.”

Manhattan. They were approaching at sunset, and the buildings thrust like stone lances at a bloody sky. Landmarks began flashing past. Soon they were over the leprous growth that was Jokertown. It was a wild flight with only a single camera; they were flying virtually blind. Tachyon stared into that single monitor, expressionless and passionless. There was no sense of homecoming, just a bone-sapping weariness. She had lost everything. Any hope of returning to her true home. Any hope of returning her lost soul to its true form.

The clinic came into view. The camera mounted on the belly of the shell gave her a fleeting glimpse of the stone lions that flanked the front steps. Then they were over the roof, and settling gently onto the tar-and-felt surface.

Turtle opened the hatch, and Tach climbed out. The August setting sun was beating down, giving the roof a gelatinous texture. Her tennis shoes stuck to the tar, making the impossible climb up the curving side of the shell even more impossible.

Tommy stepped out of the shell, forcing a protest from Tachyon.

“Tom, no, you might be seen.”

The ace didn’t reply, just held her gently around the waist and boosted her up onto the back of the shell. They stared at each other for a long moment, then Tom said simply, “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“Failing you.”

The scene in the street soon became chaotic. Doctors and nurses poured from the doors of the clinic. Patients craned out windows. Traffic stopped. Turtle had returned to Jokertown. Rumors were flying. He’d brought word that Tachyon hadn’t died at all. He’d returned to Takis, and died there, and now Turtle had a Takisian princess with him who was Tachyon’s widow and mother to his yet-unborn child.

Bradley Finn, the clinic’s only joker doctor, pranced in the street. The nervous clatter of his hooves on the sidewalk sounded like a bad flamenco troupe warming up. Troll, chief of security for the hospital, laid a shovel-sized, horny hand on the centaur’s withers. The palomino skin shivered, and Finn quieted.

Tachyon, seated on the top of the shell, studied the faces of her people. Suddenly Dr. Cody Havero strode through the doors of the clinic, and ice talons closed around Tachyon’s heart. Long ago, in another lifetime, Tachyon had loved this woman. Now she felt only shame.


Silence, punctuated only by the normal sounds of the city. In the distance a siren wailed – drawing closer. For the cops, any gathering in Jokertown was a potential riot. Tachyon realized she had to get the crowd dispersed and order restored before the police arrived. She swung her leg over, and slid off the shell.

Cody reached her first. Tachyon glanced briefly up, but she couldn’t meet the level gaze from Cody’s single dark eye. She turned her back on the older woman and walked toward Finn and Troll.

“Take me to my office. Tell me what terrible things the jumper did in my place. Then take me home.”

Cody was at her elbow. “You haven’t got a home. We thought you were dead. We let the apartment go.” She shrugged dismissively, but Tachyon could sense the pain she was hiding.

“Softer might be better,” suggested Finn softly to Cody as he joined them. His eyes kept drifting to, then jerking away from, the swell of her pregnancy, and Tachyon felt a bone-gnawing need to break something… kill something.

“Better just to get it all out,” replied Cody stubbornly.

“Better for whom?” asked Tach.

Cody’s one eye stared at her with the desperation of a dying animal. “I couldn’t help. They held me for months. Chris thought I was dead. They stuck my kid in a foster home.” Tachyon couldn’t tell if Cody was looking for comfort or just babbling randomly. “Then Blaise told me he’d killed you. I believed him. I didn’t mean to fail you.”

In a low, flat voice Tachyon said, “I cannot handle you. Your presence. Your words. Deal with my clinic, deal with your own pain, and leave me alone.”

It was said without a glance to the stricken woman. Cody stiffened, wrapped herself in her pride, and walked back into the clinic. Troll and Finn stared at Tachyon.

Troll said quietly, “She’s been through some terrible times.”

“And she deserved better. Yes, I know. I cannot provide it. I cannot face her… I cannot help her… any more than she helped me.”

Tach suddenly turned and bolted back to Turtle. Laid her cheek against the steel plates of the shell.

“I’m frightened.”


Tach nodded and walked back to join her staff.

“Then Cody vanished – missing/presumed dead, and you – well, we thought it was you -” Troll corrected himself. “Retreated into a bottle and eventually resigned from the clinic. We limped along. Then suddenly Cody returned with word you’d died, and the fake Tach vanished. I wanted to go to Ellis Island and search -”

“Only by then it was called the Rox, and nobody could get there,” Finn broke in.

“Oh, you can get there,” Tachyon said softly as she remembered the lonely, frightened, dreaming boy who held sway over the joker kingdom that now occupied Ellis Island. “It’s just a little like never-never land… Her voice trailed away.

“Never more than now. A fucking castle has appeared out there. This Bloat’s issued a statement to the American government that he and all the jokers are seceding from the United States. You know what happened the last time somebody tried that? It was called the Civil War,” Finn said.

“Who cares about all the political shit? I want to know what happened to the Doc.” Troll pressed. “What did happen – after Blaise kidnapped you, I mean?”

Tachyon sat silent until Finn said uncomfortably, “It’s a little obvious, isn’t it?” Troll glowered. Strain was definitely showing among the staff of the Renssaeler Clinic.

Seven months of hell passed with sickening ease through her memory. The kidnapping, Blaise, the transfer of her soul and mind into the body of a sixteen-year-old girl, the rape. Weeks of utter darkness in a basement cell. Another rape. The pregnancy. The aborted escape attempt, and yet another rape. Finally rescue. And now despair.

“Who’s the father?” Finn asked.

Tachyon rose. “My charming and psychotic grandson, Blaise.” As their faces registered shock and disgust, Tach smiled thinly. “Don’t look so shocked. Incest is an ancient and revered tradition on Takis.”

“It ain’t much, but it’s home,” Finn said as he tossed the keys onto a table in the entryway.

“It’s a penthouse,” Tachyon protested.

“Yeah, well, it sounds good even if it’s not true.” Tach followed the young man into the living room. “I’m a joker. Daddy’s a rich Hollywood producer-director, I figure I’m entitled to a few perks.”

The room was spacious, and furnished almost entirely with large throw pillows. There was one sofa.

“A concession to two-legged critters,” Finn said, following her gaze.

Curious now, Tach peeked into the kitchen. About what one would expect from a kitchen, but the cabinets and counters were all set much lower than the standard.

Back in the living room Tach discovered the bar. She stood and contemplated a bottle of Courvoisier with the hungry eyes of a starving refugee.

“No, boss,” came Finn’s voice from behind her. “Try this instead.” She turned, and he proffered a glass of milk.

“No, thank you.”

“Drink it.” He pressed the glass into her hand.

“I hate it,” Tachyon said. “When you fuss. When you force me to take care of myself. When you make me feel that this” – an accusing finger pointing at her belly – “is more important than I am.”

“It is you.”

Tach stared up at Finn. She touched her face, lightly combed her fingers through her hair. A feather-like brush across the swollen belly. “This is not me. It’s not, Bradley.” Her voice was tight with strain.

Finn guided her to the sofa, pushed her down. “Boss, it’s gotta be said – this may be you. What I mean is the femaleness, not the pregnancy. Blaise is gone. Your body’s gone. If it can’t be recovered, you may have to spend the rest of your life -”

The rest of this hideous, rational, and perfectly logical speech was lost to the ringing of the doorbell. Finn trotted away to answer and so didn’t notice when Tach began to shiver. The glass slipped from her numb fingers, spilling milk across her lap. Pressing both hands to her head, Tach gasped for air. Clammy sweat was breaking out at her hairline and along her upper lip, and her vision seemed to be narrowing to a tunnel with blackness to either side. Cool fingers gripped Tach’s wrist and felt for the pulse point.

Her eyes snapped open, and she stared up into Cody’s lovely, beloved face. Embarrassed on a host of levels, Tach looked away, but in that brief glance Tach noticed the wisps of silver among the ebony cap of Cody’s hair, and that the lines about her single eye had deepened. Clearly the suffering of the past months had not been limited solely to Tachyon. There had been plenty of grief to go around.

Tachyon, when she had been a he, had desperately wanted to make love with this woman. The emotion, the desire was still there, but there was no testosterone to fuel that drive, no penis to deliver on the passion.

“Don’t!” shrilled Tachyon. She struggled wildly to get up off the sofa, cursed with vexation when her ungainly body refused to cooperate.

“Anxiety attack,” said Cody calmly. “Get my bag,” she threw over her shoulder to Finn. He complied, and as she fished out the hypodermic, she said conversationally to Tachyon, “I’m going to give you a light sedative. I don’t normally approve of this for a woman as advanced in pregnancy as you are -”

“Get away from me! You shame me! I am humiliated beyond all measure! I cannot live like this! I will not!”

Cody reached up and straightened the black eye patch that covered her missing eye, sighed, and said, “Let me in, Tachyon. Stop closing me out.” Cody’s calm, husky, womanly tones set a sharp contrast to Tach’s girlish soprano. She filled the hypo. “And by the way, you may not have the luxury of a choice.” She slid the needle beneath the skin of Tach’s upper arm and depressed the plunger.

“So I should just lie back and enjoy it?”

“You know goddamn well I’m not suggesting that. Look, I’m sorry, we’re all sorry, for what happened to you. But being female is not the big tragedy you’re presenting. And maybe while you’ve got this opportunity for an in-depth analysis of the female condition, you might want to take a few notes!”

“What are you saying? That I am insensitive to women?”

“Yes. People always got sidetracked by your flamboyant dress and the ease with which you displayed emotion. They assumed you were a wimp or a puss boy… The truth is that you were the ultimate boy’s boy, and a real goddamn prick sometimes. Women have always been objects for you. Sex objects, ideals of romantic love, mother comforters, potential wives, potential brood mares. What we’ve never been are people.”

Tach swallowed past the lump that had hardened in her throat.

“People, I’m scared. I can’t live like this.”

Finn’s arms closed about her. “I know, baby, I know.”

Since the rapes she hadn’t been able to tolerate physical contact with a man. Gently, trying to avoid panic, Tach disentangled those confining arms. Stood and looked at Cody. Suddenly Cody’s hand shot out, and she steadied Tachyon. The sedative and the tumultuous events of the day were catching up with her, and she was literally swaying on her feet.

“Go to bed,” said Cody softly, and pushed her gently to Finn.

Finn led her to the guest room. “Do you want me to stay? I can get somebody else to do late rounds for me.

“No, take care of my clinic. And I… I want to be alone.”

The snick of the door closing behind him was loud in the shadows. Tach eyed the bed. Remembered many nights of fervent swordplay with a variety of lovers. Their names were forgotten, but their bodies… Rage and loss filled her.

Bad dreams brought her awake. Blaise was still walking through her mind, the memory of his mental and physical rapes like an oozing wound. Terror had set her heart to hammering, each wild beat bringing a surge of nausea. By the time Tachyon was fully awake, she was out of the bedroom and was standing shivering in the living room.

So she could now add sleepwalking to her list of night terrors.

She went searching for relief. Finn’s liquor cabinet revealed him to be something of a wine snob, but there were also bottles of brandy, fine whiskey, and vodka.

The residue of the sedative was still in her system, making her head like cotton wadding and dragging at her limbs, and she knew as she uncapped the brandy that she shouldn’t be doing this. But it had been a haven for too many years, and she wanted to turn off her head.

Tach had made a substantial dent in the level of brandy in the bottle before an over-full bladder sent her staggering into the bathroom. It had a traditional toilet, but there were also an oubliette in the French fashion. A rather large hole in the floor.

How did Finn manage at the clinic? Back into a stall, lift his tail, and hope his aim was good? Tach wondered.

The bath had also been altered. It was an enormous sunken affair with heavy frosted sliding doors.

She realized she had never before considered the difficulties Bradley had to face. The realization shamed her, adding to the already deep depression that seemed to have a palpable presence.

After relieving herself she stood and stared at her thickening body. I’ve become a joker. A stranger in a deformed body. Lifting the hem of the long T-shirt, Tach ran an experimental hand across her swollen belly. She was a trained physician. It wasn’t hard to locate Illyana’s head.

What a burden to grow up knowing you were conceived during a violent rape. That in your veins runs the blood of a madman, a killer. How can I ever explain it to you? What will I tell you when you ask about your father? A pleasant little story maybe? He was called the Outcast, and he was a lonely prince who went away long, long ago.

Her laugh was a bitter yelp, a cry of pain. You’re an accident. Blaise became my child in a spray of blood. You were conceived in blood. You’ll be born in blood. What’s to keep you from being a monster too? To keep you from feeding on me the way he did? The way you already have.

The physician-trained part of Tachyon’s mind was screaming like a siren trying to penetrate the drug-, alcohol-, and exhaustion-induced depression. Over the long, pain-filled years Tach had always managed to battle back from the weary surrender. This time she didn’t care to try. Illyana’s emotions wove a frantic counterpoint about Tachyon’s wear bitter thoughts. It was like holding a small dying creature.

We’ll die together, baby, Tach thought as she rummaged through the medicine cabinet.

Bradley was an old-fashioned boy. The mother-of-pearl grip on the straight razor glittered in the lights. With clumsy fingers Tach pulled out the blade. She cut the pad of her thumb badly, but it didn’t seem to hurt. Methodically she spun the spigots, filling the tub with hot water. Settled onto the toilet to watch it fill.

Will you understand, baby? asked Tachyon as she studied first the razor, and then the tub. I hope so, because I have to do this. I’m so tired. I cannot go on.

It was filled. She stripped out of the T-shirt and walked down the steps into the water. The heat of the water stung her toes. Slowly she lowered herself into the water. Lifted an arm from the water, drew the blade down the length of her wrist. There was cold and pressure, and then pain. The blood was running down her wrist, warm and a little sticky. Switch hands and repeat the process. She had two good hands again. She could do surgery.

Cutting out the life, she thought dreamily as she rested her head against the edge of the tub.

Warm, so warm. The blood flowed from her wrists, mingled with the water, and was carried away in ever-widening eddies. Sunsets over oceans. Flower petals dancing away in the chop of a mountain stream. Lethargy tugged at her. Soon even the light faded.

Chapter Two

“I’m having second thoughts about your plan.”

Durg looked up and met the boy’s flat black stare. He hadn’t lived longer than two hundred years without learning how to read through bravura, and he could see the panic huddled in the back of Blaise’s eyes. He was also a Morakh; trained not only for combat, but for diplomacy and counsel. He arranged his features into an expression of warm attention.

“May I know why, lord?”

Blaise cast a nervous glance about the control room of the ship. Durg was seated on an extruded bench against one of the curving, pearlescent walls. The boy took Durg’s arm and tugged the Takisian into the center of the circular room.

In a low whisper (as if it would do any good if the Ishab’kaukab decided to listen) Blaise said, “Sooner or later he’s gonna wake up.” A head jerk toward Kelly, who sprawled unconscious in the big canopied bed. “And when he does, Baby’s going to know that’s not Tachyon and head straight back to Earth.”

“Your point?”

“Why don’t we handle it now? Turn around, head back -”

“And go where?”

“Tahiti, Tibet… Why does it have to be Takis?”

“Anyplace you can run on Earth, your grandfather can run too. And what of Bloat? A creature that can warp and bend reality will not be discouraged by a few thousand miles.” That blow struck home. Durg saw it in the slight widening of the eyes. Blaise shuddered and allowed his fear to emerge a bit farther from the shadows. “The joker adores your grandfather. He will not rest until he sees you punished.” Durg paused a suitable few seconds, then added softly, “And I thought you wished to be a prince?”

Blaise leapt on that. “Yeah, it sounded great when I was running the jumpers and ruling my piece of the Rox, but I’ve had a lot of time to think in the past day, and I’ve remembered a few little points that Granddaddy told me which you’ve carefully omitted.”

“Such as?”

“I’m an abomination on Takis. Unplanned breeding is like the greatest sin. As soon as I set foot on the planet, I’m going to be killed.”

Durg cautiously placed an arm around Blaise’s shoulders. The young man tolerated the contact. So, he wants to be a little young today, coddled a little. Durg guided him back to a bench and pushed him down.

“You are discounting three things. One which you cannot know. Two which you have forgotten. Beneath all of our flowery oaths and honor and blood ties there is a strong streak of practicality in all Takisians. We are the ultimate pragmatists. You will be bringing a great gift to the Vayawand.” He turned and pointed at the prone Tachyon body. “The heir to the House of their greatest enemy. You also possess an extraordinary power. I have been bred to resist mind control. You can control me. We shall use that. Believe me, however disgusting your pedigree, they will not waste your talent. The first hours will be critical, but if we can survive, I think you have the potential to become a great ruler.”

Blaise flung his arms around the Morakh’s thick waist and buried his head against Durg’s massive chest. “You won’t leave me alone, will you?”

“I am your blooded man. Only your rejection or my death will end my service.” Durg allowed a slight smile to cross that elfin, beautiful face. “And we Morakh are not only killers of kings, we are also their advisers.”

Lifting his head, Blaise said, “Uncle Claude taught me how to be a revolutionary.” He sounded very young.

Durg laid a hand on the top of the boy’s brush-cut red hair. “And I shall teach you to be a prince.”

It still didn’t seem like a spaceship. First, it had a name… Baby – whoever heard of a spaceship named Baby? Second, it didn’t look like a spaceship. The walls were curved and fluted, and glowed with a pearlescent light that made Kelly feel as if he were living inside a seashell. And the central feature of the control room was a great canopied bed. No captain’s chair, no helm, no banks of blinking computers – just a bed. Third, there was the fact that the ship talked and sang… and wept. And only Kelly could hear her. And this was the final thing he had learned from the sorrowful voice that filled his days and tormented his dreams. Baby was a female.

Blaise had turned back to the screen that Baby had obligingly telescoped open on the floor and wall.

“So that’s it,” said Blaise, and despite his best effort his voice was filled with wonder.

Kelly wanted to go and look, but his head was pounding. There were millions of minds ahead, and the pressure of their thoughts closed about Kelly’s brain like a vise.

It had been a journey from hell. Once Kelly had regained consciousness, the ship had realized this wasn’t her master. Rejecting this impostor in Tachyon’s skin, she had bolted for Earth. Blaise had mind-controlled the poor, terrified creature and then begun a deadly stalk. As he hunted Kelly about the confines of the living quarters, the young man, a mad light dancing in those black eyes, had carefully explained aloud to the ship about the kidnapping and the jump and the rapes.

Then Blaise sprang upon Kelly, and he couldn’t help himself – Kelly screamed. Only to have the sound die in a desperate gurgle as Blaise had closed his hands about Kelly’s throat.

“So you see, Baby, if you don’t do what I want, I’ll kill this body, and Grand-pиre will never be able to recover it. He’ll be trapped forever, and it will be your fault.”

Baby was very docile after that, but she wept most of the time, and the sound of that psychic weeping was slowly driving Kelly mad.

Durg stirred, an act as startling as if an Easter Island effigy had stood. The squat, heavily muscled body had a monolithic quality, and the delicately beautiful head set atop the broad shoulders only made it worse.

“Better take control of her,” grunted the Takisian. “Her instinct will be to bolt for the Ilkazam platform. Let it happen and we’re all dead.”

Incredulous, Blaise demanded, “It’s been almost fifty years. How the fuck can she still remember?”

“She is an Ishab’kaukab. They do not forget.”

Blaise nodded, and his eyes took on that flat, unfocused stare that meant his power was being utilized. Baby’s mournful mutterings cut off abruptly. Kelly felt Blaise’s mind control, wrapping about the soul of the ship like poisonous tentacles. Trapped and no way out.

Kelly understood the emotion. It had filled every waking hour as she grew up in the small Oklahoma town. Shit-kicker heaven, was how she still thought of it. Three thousand people, one movie house, four restaurants where you could get a mess of poke, and some biscuits and red-eye gravy. But Kelly, reading her romance novels in the heat of a summer night as the bugs formed a shade for the naked light bulb, dreamed and wondered what coquilles St. Jacques tasted like.

Everybody at her high school said she was really pretty. Model pretty. Actress pretty. And home was dust, and bugs, and chores, and Mom and Dad, who didn’t appreciate how different, how special, she was. There had been fights, and problems, and then one day she had stolen the egg money and bought a bus ticket to New York.

All the way to Manhattan she had comforted herself and silenced the rumblings of her empty belly by dreaming about her modeling career – the clothes, the fame, the money. But mostly she’d dreamed of the triumphant homecoming. Momma in tears, and Daddy all hangdog, sorry now because he hadn’t realized what was growing up in the old clapboard house in the Baldy Hills. And Eugene Pelz would be sorry he hadn’t taken her to the senior prom even if she was only a freshman.

The reality of Manhattan was very different from her fantasies. The tall buildings cut off the meager winter sun, creating a world of shadows, slush, and city dirt. After the songs of frogs and crickets, birds and cattle, the noise of the city was a scream that assaulted the ears. Buses were disgorging passengers like steel whales belching out schools of frantic fish. Kelly noticed there were a lot of young, blond, frightened-looking girls. And she noticed the men who closed on them like sharks. One approached her, offered her a place to stay. Charm oozed like rancid sweat from his pores. Kelly belted him in the knees with her suitcase and fled. The following days were a blur of streets, crowds, shelters, assaults, panhandling for enough to buy a hot dog from a street vendor. And the glass and chrome and stone faces of the buildings mocked her. Behind those facades was the world of the wealthy, the famous, the powerful, and that world was not going to open for a fifteen-year-old from Atoka, Oklahoma – no matter how pretty she might be. She called home once, but her daddy refused to accept the collect call, and Kelly had stood sobbing in a pay-phone booth while no one in New York noticed.

Eventually she had met David, and he had brought her into the center of the jumper family. It had been fun back then, and David had promised that soon she would make her initiation. Blinded by love and admiration, Kelly had waited and prayed she might lose her virginity to the charismatic young man, but it had never happened. There had been limousine rides and money, but there had also been robbery and murder and terror. Then David died, and there were no more limousine rides. There was just terror. She was a second-class wannabe jumper without a protector.

Until Blaise. He was David and more: handsome, charismatic, fearless, dangerous, and possessing an ace’s power. But it came from a far more exotic source. This was no wildcard infection. Blaise was an alien, or at least a quarter so, grandson of the famous and flamboyant Dr. Tachyon. Kelly wanted to be his girl, and he’d sort of encouraged her, but eight months ago she had learned her true status – dupe, tool, weapon. Blaise had kidnapped Tachyon and terrorized Kelly into participation in a bizarre triple jump that left Kelly in the alien’s body, and him in hers.

Now that body lay twenty-three light-years away, and Tachyon was about to experience the deepest moment of woman’s life as he gave birth to the child that Kelly’s body carried.

And Kelly is slowly going crazy, thought the false man as the assembled minds of Takis beat at his brain.

Chapter Three

There was sand underfoot, black and fine. A cold wind lifted it into puffing little dust devils like smoke in the harsh dry air. The sand marched to meet a sky of gun-metal gray. No feature broke or softened the knife-cut line of the horizon. It was an utterly desolate place.

“Your life.” Blaise’s voice seemed to come whispering from all directions. “This is what it’s become. How it’s going to stay.” The wind seemed to shiver with a cold, evil laughter.

Tachyon whimpered and covered her ears with her hands. “No, you’re gone. You can’t hurt me anymore.”

“Sure I can. I’m twined around your dreams, I hide in the dark places of your soul.”

“Leave me alone.”

“No problem. You haven’t got anybody now.”

She had to force out the words. “I have my friends.”

“Really? Is it an act of friendship to tell you that you’ve lost yourself forever? That you have to resign yourself? In other words, shut up, stop whining, and let us get on with our lives. We’re sick of you and your problems, Tachyon.”

“They are not saying that.”

“They’re thinking it,” retorted Blaise.

“No! I would know.”

“You know nothing! You’re no telepath. You’re a crippled excuse for a telepath.”

“Finn,” cried Tachyon in desperation. “He is my friend.”

“He was thrilled to have you gone. It was a chance at last for him to excel and be recognized. And it’s more just that a joker should run the Jokertown Clinic. Not you, an arrogant, bigoted fool who has secretly despised your damned and deformed stepchildren.”

“Don’t! Don’t. Stop, please!” Tach dropped to her knees, bent at the waist until she was brought up short by the swell of pregnancy.

“Look at you. What a laughable sight. A man… trapped in a woman’s body, and pregnant. Bloated, ugly. Neither you nor that child are loved. You’re an embarrassment, and she’ll be an even greater one once she’s born. Blaise’s crazy bastard.” The scorn was evident in the ghostly voice.

But there was a point of light, a burning fire that struggled valiantly against the creeping cold that was gripping all her limbs. It was music, and the scent of sunlight in a girl’s hair, and the touch of silk. It was life.

“Illyana,” Tach murmured.

She came striding across the sand. Where her feet touched, the black shattered into rainbow colors. Her wild mane of golden red hair formed a nimbus about her face. She had her mother’s mouth with that cute little porpoise smile, and Tachyon’s features, all sharp angles and pointed chin.

She leaned down and took Tach by the hand. “No, PapaMom. It’s not fair.”

Shaklan came drifting by and gathered his granddaughter into his arms. “House Ilkazam doesn’t breed cowards,” he said as they whirled away to a lilting three-quarter-time song.

“No!” The shout brought Tachyon fully awake.

The water was a deep rose, and very cold. She gripped the edge of the tub and tried to stand. The Formica was icy cold, and slick with blood and water.

Strain shivered through the muscles. With a gasp she fell back into the embrace of the water.

Rolling heavily onto her knees, Tach began crawling for the steps of Finn’s sunken bath. Her hair trailed like seaweed behind her. It was an effort to keep her mouth and nose above water. First step. Second. Her head was on the top step, the tile clammy against her cheek. Hair wrapped like tentacles about her arms and throat. She was dimly aware of the water lapping at her buttocks. Mostly she was aware of numbness.


Not the self-composed young woman who had come to her in death’s dream. Terrified child. My child. It was horribly uncomfortable lying on her stomach. Tach heaved herself up, crawled free of the grip of the water. She dragged down one of the towels and cinched a clumsy tourniquet about one wrist.

The doorjamb served as a crutch. Tach climbed shakily to her feet, tottered for the phone. She passed a full-length mirror on that thousand-mile journey. The red-streaked body with the distended belly was a fearsome sight. Collapse on the bed. Dial Cody’s number.

It seemed to ring for a long, long time.

“This better be good.” Cody’s sharp tones were as welcome as a symphony to Tachyon.

“Cody. I’m hurt, badly… badly. Help me.”

“Who is this?”


“On my way.”

The phone gave back the flat nasal buzz of a disconnected line. Tach lay back in the bed and tried to stay conscious.

“You know, this is only the second time I’ve seen you in seven months, and you’ve managed to wreck my mood both times.”

A brief smile flickered across Tach’s lips. “Once by being a bastard, and once by being a Juliet.”

“That remark is just as confusing as the pronouns that are applicable to you.”

The curved suture needle darted like an eager fish back and forth across the gash; It was fascinating to watch the pale skin pulling closed over the moist red of the muscles and capillaries.

“You sew better than anyone I know,” said Tachyon.

Cody smiled up at her. “Cut pretty well too.”

“Yes.” Tach sighed, and glanced up at the I.V. dripping plasma back into her blood-starved system. The local anesthetic Cody had administered made her forearms feel like blocks of wood. “Guess I cut pretty well too. I can’t believe I did that.”

“Everybody’s got a breaking point.”

Tach watched Cody wind the bandages about her arms. “People will see them and know that I tried to kill myself.”

“You did.”

“I don’t want people to think I’m weak.”

The long fingers caressed each instrument as Cody laid them in their velvet-lined case. “Is this the first time in your life you’ve ever tried suicide?”


“And in forty-odd years on Earth, you destroyed the mind of a woman you loved, were deported, slid into alcoholism, came close to getting killed – I don’t know how many times – and now this.” She gestured the length of Tach’s body. “If this really is the first time you’ve ever attempted suicide, I’d say you’re made out of twisted blue steel and dynamite. And if you need even more to pat yourself on the back about, remember – you stopped yourself.”

Tach laid a hand over her belly. “Illyana stopped me.

“Illyana,” mused Cody. “Pretty name.”

“Named for my maternal grandmother eight times removed,” replied Tach. Cody sank back to sit cross-legged on the carpet at Tachyon’s feet. Impulsively Tachyon held out her hand to the older woman. “I ask your pardon. My behavior toward you has been inexcusable.”

“There was a lot of anger in you today. Was it directed toward me?” Cody’s single eye was serious. Tachyon couldn’t face that level gaze. She fidgeted, glanced about the room, twined a piece of her long gilt hair between her fingers.

“You are a physical reminder of all I have lost.”

Now it was Cody’s turn to look away. She laughed, but there was a huskiness in the sound as of unshed tears. “Damn it. I should have slept with you last year.”

Tach scraped back her hair with both hands. “You humans and your taboos.”

Cody stood and took a turn around the room. When she completed her agitated little circuit, she settled uneasily onto the sofa next to Tachyon.

Cody spoke first. “Do you… do you… still want me?”

“No. Apart from the fact that I’m pregnant, and my sex drive is decidedly reduced, there are those troublesome hormones. Estrogen, progesterone. You’re not making any bells ring.”

“But a man?” asked Cody softly.

Tach ran a hand across her mouth and chin. “The body feels the attraction.”

“And the mind?”

“I am Tachyon.” Her mind’s eye suddenly gave her a blinding picture of a decaying old room, the smell of mildew from a rotting mattress, Blaise – Tach closed her eyes, felt the skin between her eyes pucker with her frown.

“What?” asked Cody softly.


“I’m your friend. I maybe can’t understand – thank God – but I can listen. And I can care.”

She beat her hands together, a nervous tic. Cody reached out and folded her hands over Tachyon’s.

“I’m free now. Why does it still unnerve me so?” Tach’s voice was breathy with fear.

“There’s a reason why there are rape crisis centers, and counseling, and support groups. This is the most violent of all violent assaults. The most demeaning, Cody said softly.

Hair flew as Tach shook her head. “I… should be able… to… to handle… this.”


She panted, trying to draw air into her stricken lungs. “I’m… I’m a man -”

“So that’s supposed to make you tougher? Have you ever met a male rape victim? Well, I have. The emotions are the same no matter what your plumbing happens to be. You go through the same shame and rage, guilt, the enormous fear, the depression.” Cody couldn’t control it. Her eye slid down to the bandages that cuffed Tachyon’s wrist. Cody stripped off her surgical gloves, removed the I.V., closed her case. “Do you want me to stay?”

“Yes, please.”

Cody’s arm around her waist was a welcome support as they walked to the bedroom. There was a brief moment of awkwardness, then they both noticed the blood staining the sheets.

“That won’t do…”

“I’ll get fresh linens…” they said simultaneously. It was a strangely cathartic action… making a bed together. Sheets billowed tentlike, corners were tucked. Then abruptly Cody asked, “Have you cried once since this happened?”

“Which part of it?” retorted Tach wryly.

“Take your pick.”

In a low voice she said, “I wept after the first rape. Then he came a second time, and all the tears died.”

“It’s a release you need.”

“It’s an escape I used too often, I think… in my old life.”

Cody tossed the down comforter onto the bed. “Don’t be a tough guy.”

“I’m not,” said Tach shrugging out of her robe. “I’m not trying not to cry. I just can’t. All the pain has jammed up somewhere, and I can’t let it out.”

They curled up beneath the comforter. Sleep had almost claimed Tachyon when Cody’s voice pulled her back, saying softly, “It’s not quite how I envisioned my first time in your bed.”

Tachyon levered herself up on one elbow, leaned over, and gently kissed Cody on the cheek. “I do love you…”

They put their arms around each other, huddled close.

“What are you going to do now?”

“Go after Blaise.”

Chapter Four

The monastery nestled like a bamboo-and-rice-paper pearl in a setting of verdant green hills. Gnarled pines held poses against the pale blue sky like tortured, yet graceful, Kabuki dancers. As Tachyon trudged up the road toward the front gates, spume from a small waterfall was carried to her cheek by a short-lived puff of wind. Then the sleepy August heat returned. Crickets droned dully in the trees and bushes. Tach struggled to keep her eyes open. And her sense of misuse deepened. Fortunato would agree to a meeting at precisely the time she most desperately needed her afternoon nap.

A monk was waiting at the gate. In his dark robe he had seemed just another huddled root at the foot of a gigantic pine. Tach swallowed a gasp as he suddenly unfolded from his meditative pose and stood up.

The welcoming, toothless smile metamorphosed into a frown of confusion.

“I’m here to see Fortunato,” said Tach slowly. She touched her breast. “I am Tachyon.”

The monk brightened at the sound of her name, but then a distressed murmur of Japanese began. The little man’s ears were large and stood out from his almost completely bald head like flaring mushrooms. Like semaphores they made it very clear that she was not entering the monastery, as the old man vigorously shook his head.

“Look, I am Tachyon. I know you were probably expecting a man, but I promise, your virtues are quite safe with me.” The man was still shaking his head. Tach’s patience snapped like a tightly wound guitar string. “Look! I’ve had a really difficult four days. I would have been here two days ago, except a moron at Tomlin wouldn’t let me on the plane because my passport picture was a little out-of-date.” She briefly covered her eyes with a hand, reliving the humiliation of the moment. “Like the wrong sex. And I’ll tell you right now – long airplane rides are hell on pregnant women.” Communication was not occurring.

“And you’re not understanding a word I am saying, are you? Maybe you’ll understand this… if you do not let me through this gate, I’m going to… “ Her voice trailed away as a plan bloomed.

Cupping her hands around her belly, she said, “Fortunato! I must see him!”

The old man’s eyebrows began waggling as furiously as his ears. Panic was added to the jumble of emotions that warred for control of his face. He pointed to her stomach. Tach nodded. The old man opened the gate and indicated a pathway of carefully raked white sand. Tach started walking. And, soon reached a small bridge, which arched like a springing fawn across a tumbling white-water mountain stream. It was a startling design, however, for the bridge made a perfect ninety-degree turn in the center, then resumed its leap for the far side. Tach paused for a moment in the center of the turn, gripped the handrail, and stared down into the churning water. The water and the wind through the pines formed a harmony as delicate as a sigh. Dropping her head onto the backs of her folded hands, Tach simply listened and breathed for a long moment. This was a good place to be. But it could be delayed no longer. However lovely the setting, soothing the moment, it was not her place or her fortune to rest here. Fortunato had that luxury, she did not. Firmly she raised her head, squared her shoulders, and trying not to waddle, she walked off the bridge and into the heart of the Zen garden.

Fortunato was waiting on a stone bench set artistically before a small pagoda. The gravel of the path crunched beneath her feet, but the ace continued to read, not deigning to acknowledge her arrival. A thin thread of anger coiled like a worm in the center of her heart as Tachyon studied that long, spare face. There were more lines about the narrow, bitter mouth and the slanted oriental eyes, and his cocoa hair held a tinge of gray. The years were passing, and their passage had left a permanent record on Fortunato’s face.

“Hello, Fortunato.” The sound of her soft soprano brought his head up like a spooking horse. It has been a while.”

They studied each other. Gray eyes locked with black. It didn’t require a lot of imagination to see the line of fire arcing between them.

“Tachyon.” And Fortunato’s voice fairly purred with satisfaction.

“You’re the first person to recognize me must be the telepathy.”

“I’ve given all that up.”

Her disbelief showed. “I’m sure.”

“It’s true.” The ace set aside his book. “I just recognized the look in the eyes.”

“Somehow, I do not think that is a compliment.”

“Glad to see you haven’t lost that rapierlike keenness and understanding.” Tach remained silent. “Looks like you’ve got trouble.”

“I’ve got trouble,” acknowledged the alien.

The wind and the crickets replaced human conversation. It was capitulation, but Tach had to break the silence first.

“May I sit down? My back…” she added.

“Yeah, sure. Take a load off.”

And then it became too much for the ace. The lines at either side of Fortunato’s mouth deepened as he fought the grin, but it couldn’t be controlled. White teeth dazzled against the dark skin. The smile became a laugh. Three sharp snorts of amusement. Pain shot from the hinge of Tachyon’s jaw into her head as her teeth ground together. “I am so glad you find this a laughing matter. For me it is rather more serious,” she declared in a voice gone shrill with anger.

“I think it’s funny. What can I say?”

“You could show a little concern.”

“Why? I didn’t like you when you were the faggot from outer space. Why should I like you now that you’re the brood mare from the Bronx?”

“That is an incredibly, insensitive and disgusting thing to say. I suppose that’s the way you felt about Peregrine when she carried your child. You couldn’t see the woman. Just the bloated, distended body. Sex is the only thing that’s ever mattered to you. You haven’t even seen your child, have you?” His silence answered her question.

“You’re a fine one to be giving me a lecture on feminism. You weren’t exactly Mr. Sensitive.”

“I was never a pimp. And I would never have denied my child. But I don’t know why I expected anything different from you. The Ideal granted you great and potent powers. But you never understood that with great power comes great responsibility. You’ve abandoned anyone who’s ever had a claim upon you. Your mother, your women, your child… It is not the action of a grand seigneur.”

“Yeah, because I’m not one. I’m a half-black, half-Jap bastard who fought for everything I ever had, and I didn’t ask for any fucking favors.”

Looking into those angry black eyes, Tachyon considered rather belatedly that when one comes seeking favors, one ought not get on one’s high horse. She plaited a fold of her loose blouse. Pride was an unpalatable morsel to swallow. “I’m sorry” said Tach stiffly. “I should not have lectured you.”

“That’s one you’ve gotten right.”

They stared at each other for a long moment. The hormonal shifts within Tachyon’s borrowed body were causing a fire storm of emotions. Fury wrestled with despair, but even the traumas of pregnancy could not pierce the ice dam that held her tears. Something in Tach’s arid stare rattled Fortunato. Uncomfortably he asked, “Aren’t you going to bawl now? Every time I saw you, you were sniveling. Now at least you’re the right gender to get away with it.” Tach just stared at him. After a lengthy silence the ace asked, “Why the hell did you come here? You’re a reminder of all the shit I left behind.”

“How nice for you. Some of us cannot run away.” Illyana kicked, and Tach’s hand went instinctively to her belly. Closing her eyes, she twined her thoughts about the baby’s. The emotions were like colored ribbons. She was softly smiling when she again opened her eyes. “It is a rare place where the only sensation is love.”

“I can think of one other,” said Fortunato, very dry.

“No, sex is far more complicated. It is warfare, and obligations, and games, and tests.” Tach straightened resolutely and met Fortunato’s frowning gaze. “I have come to you for help.”

“I don’t give abortions.”

It was deliberately cruel. Tach was unmoved. “My body has been stolen from me. And I believe the thief has taken it to my home world. I must go after them. And for that I need you.”

The receding hairline gave the ace a lot of forehead to furrow and knot as a frown of Jovian proportions crossed his brow. “I don’t get it. As far as I know, you’re the only person who owns a spaceship instead of a dog.”

“How do you think they got off the world?”

Something flickered deep in Fortunato’s eyes. It was gone before Tach could identify the emotion that drove it. “You really are fucked.”

Tach dropped her gaze. “Will you help me?”

“I still don’t see what I can do.”

“It has been forty-four years since Jetboy failed over Manhattan. I have seen you all, treated most of you. You are the most powerful ace ever to live. I think your powers are sufficient to cross even light-years. Send a message to my family on Takis.” It was more impassioned than she wanted, but desperation was beginning to chew at the edges of her fragile control.

“I don’t have any powers. I had to give them up when I entered here.”

“Your powers are intact. It’s written in your DNA. You can play self-deluding games, but you are a wild card. You will die a wild card.”

“You know how my power worked.” Fortunato threw out his long arms, indicating the peaceful garden. “You see any way for me to awaken the Kundalini?”

The words had to crawl from a mouth gone desert dry. “Yes… use me.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, you are desperate.”

“You will never know how much,” said Tach, so quietly that the ace had to lean in to hear her. His body odor was fresh, citrusy. Tach fought back vomit.

She had prayed it would not (but feared that it would) come to this. Like most aces Fortunato relied upon a psychological crutch to use his wildcard powers. Peregrine believed she could not fly without her wings. In fact they were useless – she flew using an elaborate telekinetic power. Turtle’s teke power would not work unless he was safely armored in his shell. And Fortunato could not use his awesome telepathy unless he had sex immediately before utilizing his powers. It had been an elaborate joke in Jokertown. “May I charge you up?” had become a euphemism for fucking.

Tachyon wondered if the fear was evident on her face. She toyed briefly with the notion of telling the ace that she had been raped. No, he would only think she was whining. There would be no sympathy from that quarter – only disdain.

“Stand up.” Startled, Tachyon obeyed. “Now, turn around.” A long thin forefinger twirled in the air.

Tach pivoted slowly. His gaze seemed to have weight and substance. Heat licking across her face, down the length of her bare arms. The pale golden hairs on her forearms stood up.

“Now the hair,”

“What?” Her hand flew to the French braid that contained the heavy blond mane.

“Take it down.”

The bow resisted her shaking fingers. She thought he would help her, but Fortunato sat, arms folded across his chest, his long legs stretched out before him, showing through the slit in his kimono. At last it came down, and she shook it loose from the braid. It formed a cloak across shoulders and breast.

“Now the blouse.”

“Why are you doing this to me?” She felt like a limp and helpless victim. Visions of Blaise flashed about the corners of her consciousness. The first flickers of a conflagration that would destroy her with terror.

“I want to see what I’d be getting. I used to audition all my girls. You’re very graceful. Hand movements are nice – a little clumsy -”

“Fear has a way of doing that,” shot back Tach, anger driving back the fear.

“You’re afraid,” Fortunato repeated as if the concept were a new one, the emotion unknown to him.

“Yes,” was the curt reply.


“No, I won’t give you that.”

“You’re about to offer me all of you. Why balk at a little confidence?”

“I am using you,” Tach cried. Rage threw caution to the wolves.

“Thank you. That’s what I was looking for… a little honesty, a little admission that this is all about you… precious you, wonderful you… you… you.”

“I humbled myself and came to you for help. And if asking is not strong enough, then by the Ideal, I’ll beg!”

“So start… I’m waiting.”

“Damn you! How much groveling is required before you can grant me a simple favor?”

“I’ve given up my powers.”

“I’ll give them back to you! You’ve fucked me often enough psychologically and metaphorically. You may as well complete the goddamn cycle!”

Echoes of her shrill diatribe shattered against the mountain’s side. The crickets fell silent. Fortunato’s eyes narrowed to calculating slits. He studied her. Then slowly shook his head. “No… I don’t think I want to do that.”

“You bastard.” Her voice was shaking as hard as her hands. A button twisted off as she tried to close her blouse. “Nothing matters to you but yourself. This is not just about me… about a lifetime trapped. Blaise is going to Takis. My people are going to suffer… perhaps die because you can’t be bothered to help.”

“Aliens,” said Fortunato, edging the word with ice.

It threw Tachyon completely off stride. She faltered, gaped. “What?”

“Aliens. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the sufferings of faggots from outer space. Your people brought the wild card to Earth. What was the toll on Wild Card Day? Sixty thousand dead? Let this Blaise do his worst.” Fortunato was talking to her back. A vise had closed around her chest as the guilt slammed home. Mental wails were coming from Illyana as she tried to absorb, understand, buffer against the fire storm of emotions that tore through her mother. It was almost a flashback. The peaceful garden became Central Park. The screams of the dying and the deformed. And the smell – smoke and feces and vomit. Wild Card Day. September 15, 1946.

“Hey, Tachyon.”

She kept walking.

“I’ll give you this much – Jube the Walrus isn’t a joker. In fact, he’s not even human.”

That got her. Frowning, Tach turned back to face the ace. “You’re mad.”

“No. I’m the most powerful ace in the world, remember?”

“Even if it’s true, how does that help? What in the fuck am I supposed to do with that?” Tachyon walked back to the bench, glared at the ace.

Fortunato stood and smoothed the folds of his kimono, glanced down into Tachyons bitter face, shrugged. “Hey, you’re not my problem. It’s not my responsibility to take care of you.”

“Or anyone else.” Tight and low the words had to fight their way past her lips.

“I thought you would have gotten that by now.”

“Oh, yes, I got it. Now get this!”

It was an effort to keep her balance, but Tach managed, and watched with satisfaction as the toe of her shoe impacted squarely with Fortunato’s crotch. He clutched himself and dropped, groaning, to his knees. The twilight bird song was punctuated with the sounds of gags and retching. Tach watched dispassionately as vomit and spittle decorated the grass.

“There must be a thousand women who wish they could have done that,” said Tach pleasantly. “I’m glad it got to be me.”

As she walked back across the bridge, Tach couldn’t help reflecting how soothing the sounds of a Zen garden could be.

“You went to Japan for a day?” The customs officer was a hirsute individual with a five o’clock shadow at ten o’clock, and brows that looked like knotted bird nests. “And you’ve got no luggage?”

“Yes… and yes.”

The line behind Tachyon was becoming restive. The Japanese might be patient about queues back home, but not in New York. They wanted to reach the fleshpots of Manhattan and find a blond cutie – rather like the one holding up the parade. Despite Tachyon’s fecund condition she had been groped five times on the flight back to the States. The fifth assailant had earned himself a black eye.

Resigning herself to the necessity of explanations, Tach began, “I went to Japan solely for a meeting. You have my passport with a letter from Senator Kennedy. It should be apparent what has happened to me.”

Cody was no doubt waiting beyond customs. It made Tach crazy to be so close to home, and to be stalled by an officious -

There were suddenly two men on either side of her. Dark suits, white shirts. Every thread of their polyester screamed federal cop.

“Dr. Tachyon, if you could come with us please.”

She took one last longing look at the sliding doors cycling open and closed, disgorging people into freedom. The man on her left closed a hand around her upper arm. Resistance melted under the hot breath of fear.

Chapter Five

Interrogation rooms the world over have the same look and feel and smell. Tachyon had experienced them in France, Germany, and Spain. Had spent several memorable days in New York’s Tombs in the early sixties fighting off nightmares born of the d. t.’s. So, although the smiling General Zappa might describe this as a “debriefing,” Tach knew better. It was rubber-hoses time again.

Only the man wielding the hose would be the civilian representative of the United States government. She glanced again at Phillip von Herzenhagen’s blood-suffused face and took tighter rein on a mount called terror. The special assistant to Vice President Quayle was fat and pink like a marzipan bonbon, and he had entered the room just brimming with jocularity and bonhomie. Then he decided to interpret Tachyon’s ignorance for intransigence, and his mood had shifted.

Tach’s eyes roved the room, seeking inspiration from the cinder-block walls. There had been cinder blocks in her basement cell on the Rox, she recalled. Zappa was seated across a scarred wooden table from her. The scrape of chair legs against the concrete floor pulled her attention back to her inquisitors.

Von Herzenhagen strode across the room and yanked up the venetian blinds. Bloat’s castle bulked fantastic against the sky.

“How the hell does somebody create that?”

Tach shrugged. “You know as much as I do. It’s called wild card.”

“This creature is the most dangerous threat the United States has ever faced. Power like that -”

Resting her palms on the table, she leaned in intently. “- is paltry when compared to that of a Hitler, a Pol Pot. We’re talking about a boy, a desperate boy who is doing his best to protect and care for his people. If you would stop throwing soldiers at him and try talking -”

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists!”

“Since when did jokers become terrorists?” Tach shouted.

Zappa stepped in as peacemaker. “I’d call the jumps an act of terrorism.”

“You’re lumping two very diverse groups with competing interests into a single entity. Bloat – Teddy – represents the jokers, is trying to protect them, and the Ideal knows they have suffered at your hands.”

“How many jokers are on that island?” von Herzenhagen demanded.

“How many times do you want to hear the same words? I don’t know.”

“How the hell could you not know? You were on that fucking rock for seven months!”

Tach was furious now at his tone, the hardness of the wooden chair, the whole damn situation. “And for the first five months I was locked in a basement, and the remaining two in an attic! I wasn’t given a guided tour!”

“A guess,” Zappa said soothingly.

“A lot – thousands maybe.”

“You’re lying.” Von Herzenhagen’s face was inches from hers. Tach’s heart gave a skip, and nausea clawed at her guts. “Ellis Island is a quarter of a mile of ship ballast.”

His hand closed on her wrist, and her slender control snapped. Tach jerked hard to the left, sending herself and the chair careening to the floor.

“Holy Christ!” Zappa’s voice distant and above her.

Both the men dropped to their knees next to her. The male heat washed off them in waves. She could smell the stale cigarette smoke on von Herzenhagen’s breath. He gripped her shoulders, and Tach began screaming, a thin, tearing sound shattering off the brick was.

“Don’t hurt me! Ancestors, please don’t hurt me!”

“Then tell us what we want to know,” von Herzenhagen said.

“Jesus shit, Phil,” Zappa snapped. “She’s… he’s scared to death.”

“Tell me!”

“There are… caverns… miles and miles… of them. Please, please, don’t hurt me,” Tach whimpered. She had curled into a fetal position, arms folded protectively across Illyana.

With a forefinger Zappa pushed up her sleeves, lightly touched the bandages. “Phil, lay off her now, okay?”

The slamming of the door was the reply.

The accommodations were nicer than the Rox, but it was still a cell. The window gave her a view of Ellis Island, and Tachyon wondered if that was deliberate. She whiled away the hours watching military aircraft cut the skies over New York Harbor.

The sun went down, and the castle glittered with lights. Like stars peeking through massed thunderclouds. An Ab screamed past and disturbed from their rest a flock of winged creatures; they exploded off one of the tower battlements like wind-torn smoke.

Which would win in the coming conflagration? Tach wondered. Fantasy or technology? Oh, Teddy, they are going to destroy you and your poor little fairy-tale kingdom.

She half expected a reply. For months she and the joker governor of the Rox had maintained first a dream, and then a true telepathic communication. He had loved her and wooed her and finally found the strength to help engineer her escape. Too bad the freedom had lasted only five days. A lot of people had died to secure that brief interlude.

Gathering her feeble powers, Tach actually did reach out and mind-search for the Outcast. The telepathic signal seemed to be reflected back to her. The increase in Bloat’s powers had closed his mind as well as his kingdom to her. And, realistically, what could he do to aid her this time, this mammoth mountain of oozing flesh topped with the head and torso of a nineteen-year-old boy?

With a sigh Tach abandoned the view and returned to her bed. They at least kept her supplied with books, newspapers, a television. The drawback was she could count the passing days in the changing dates. She read until sleep dragged at her lids, then snapped out the light and fell headlong into what she hoped would be a night of forgetfulness.

The snick of the lock brought her bolt upright, bile clawing at the back of her throat. Moonlight glinted off the soldier’s belt buckle. This was it then. They had come. Blaise. Rape…

A shadowy form darted past the guard, carrying something. Tach screamed, shrill and desperate. Light exploded in her eyes, leaving floating red dots imprinted on the retina.

“Shit, Tachy, shut up! They’ll have my nuts!” A harsh whisper. A familiar voice. Digger Downs. Sleazy reporter for a sleazy rag called Aces.

Tach raked back her hair with a trembling hand. Climbed up off the floor. Air trickled back into lungs, and Tach tried to stop shaking. Digger snapped another picture.

“God, this is great. Could you turn sideways?

Humiliation gnawed at Tach’s guts like a frenzied animal, and she wanted to kill something. “So who’s the father? Inquiring minds want to know.” Digger grinned at her, the smile deepening as he saw her hands closing into fists. “Can’t make me pour brandy over my head now, can you, Tachy? So, how’s it feel?”

It surprised her, how fast she moved despite her ungainly bulk. The back of the metal chair slid easily into her hands.

“Goddamn you!” Three quick steps, heft, swing. “You son of a bitch!” Bring the chair down firmly on the top of the head.

“Owwww!” Digger’s camera went flying. Tach had to give the reporter points for doggedness. He went scrabbling on hands and knees across the floor for the fallen camera. Tach whacked him again, hard, across the back this time. “Shit!”

“You could have helped me. Instead you shame and humiliate me!” The word spiraled into a shriek as Tach flung the chair at him.

Digger recovered the camera, scrambled to his feet, and went barreling for the door with Tach running awkwardly after him. The guard was in a panic at the noise and uproar. The wad of bills peeping coyly from his shirt pocket wasn’t enough to get busted for. He stiff-armed Tachyon, his palm taking her hard in the chest. The blow knocked her to the floor. She was on her back, legs open, belly thrust aggressively for the ceiling. Digger took a final picture.

“Even better than a profile,” he said.

The door slammed shut.

“I am an American citizen. You cannot hold me without cause. I demand that I be released.” Tach was discovering that stiff speeches delivered in soprano voices don’t have much impact.

The office was a thrown-together affair. Metal desk, a very nice leather executive’s chair, filing cabinets of three different colors. Headquarters of an army on the move, thought Tachyon.

Von Herzenhagen didn’t respond. He just stubbed out his cigarette in the overflowing ashtray on his desk and swiveled his chair to face a filing cabinet. He began rooting through the files while Zappa said, “You’re a necessary resource during this crisis.”

“What resource? I have no powers to assist you. I have told you all that I know about the situation on the Rox. You have to let me go.” Silence. “There are laws in this country, and you are breaking them.”

Von Herzenhagen emitted a sound of satisfaction and swiveled back to face Tachyon and Zappa. He was holding a piece of computer printout. With a snap of the wrist he unfolded it. It was a very long piece of paper. Offered it to Tachyon.

The heading read, KELLY ANN JENKINS. Under it was an impressive array of charges. Accessory to armed robbery. Accessory to kidnapping. Accessory to assault and battery. Accessory to murder. It was quite a rap sheet.

Tach tossed it back onto the desk with a disdainful flick of the fingers. “So? What has this to do with me?”

“You are Kelly Ann Jenkins,” von Herzenhagen said.

“Fascinating. And I thought I was here because I am Dr. Tachyon.”

“Fingerprints say you’re Kelly Ann Jenkins.” Von Herzenhagen smiled from the teeth out. “I don’t think you’re in any position to make demands, Doctor. Now be a good boy, and maybe we won’t put you in the county jail. Inmates are very hostile toward jumpers. You won’t like your treatment there, and sometimes the guards are just a little slow responding to screams.”

Tach stared down into that round, pink face and felt the walls of her prison close even tighter about her.

Chapter Six

French braiding was every bit as hard as it looked – harder. Tachyon was trying to while away the long hours by mastering this esoteric skill, and so far was failing miserably. It made her crazy that as accomplished a surgeon and violinist as herself could not plait dead protein.

As she frowned into the mirror, a retina-searing flare of golden light suddenly filled the room, reflecting off the glass.

Explosion! Big one! The first panicked reaction was to dive for cover. Then she saw him hovering outside the barred window.

“Starshine!” Tach cried, and ran for that fantastic figure in its formfitting yellow costume, green trunks, boots, and gloves, a sunburst blazing on his massive chest.

He turned an ireful green eye upon her. “Well, I see that muckraking little excuse for a journalist was correct. But why he feels he must utilize his talents in this kind of cheap sensationalism.

From the hallway came the sounds of running feet, orders being shouted. Tach lost the thread of Starshine’s diatribe.

“If this is a rescue, could you… “ She made a tumbling motion with her hands. “Could you… get on with it?”

“Take cover.”

Tach darted around the bed and huddled between it and the wall. She risked one glance as Starshine unleashed a flaring yellow sunbeam from his hand. Tach ducked and covered her head, and the outer wall of the building exploded into the room. Coughing, wiping plaster dust from her face, Tach tripped and dodged fallen bricks to the hole. The snap and snarl of weapons fire had now been added to the chaos. Bullets went whining off Starshine’s energy field.

The ace landed lightly in the room, dropped the field, and lifted Tachyon into his arms. Looking up into that handsome square-jawed face crowned with a nimbus of waving blond hair, Tach reflected that Starshine was, physically, at least, the perfect rescuer for a damsel in distress. Unfortunately his touch had bile rising in the back of her throat.

“Doctor, I hope the graveness of your present situation has finally brought home to you the dangers attendant with unregulated scientific research.”

The door was swinging open. “How about the dangers attendant in guards with guns?” Tach squeaked.

Starshine sniffed, raised his energy field, and shot out the ragged hole. Tach looked ahead and saw a pair of Apache helicopters chewing their way toward an interception. Starshine put on a burst of speed that pressed Tach deeper into the man’s arms, and they were past the choppers.

“Where are you taking me?”

“I would have thought you would have had enough of men making decisions for you.” They dived abruptly, using the warehouses that lined the Jersey coast as a screen from both visual and radar sighting. “I’m doing you the courtesy of treating you as a fully realized woman with the capability to make decisions for yourself.”

“I am not a woman.”

Starshine looked down at her in disgust. “How typical. You have been given this chance to explore the life-affirming power of the female, and you reject it. I’ve done a poem on this very subject.” He sucked in a breath, opened his mouth, Tach cut in.

“Before you start quoting yourself, could you please direct us to Hook Road in Bayonne? There’s an abandoned junkyard there. Right on New York Bay. We’ll be safe there.”

“Incredible. I wonder what psychological problems this reveals, comparing your female state to garbage.”

“Fly,” Tach said wearily. She was even too tired to remonstrate as Starshine declaimed his latest ode.

Thomas Tudbury was an overweight man in his forties, and Tachyon and Starshine were standing in his kitchen. Thomas Tudbury was also supposedly dead. His alter ego, the Great and Powerful Turtle, lived on, and thus far his secret hiding place was known only to Tachyon and Joey Di Angelis. Which explained his present fury and consternation. Starshine had folded his arms across his chest and was eyeing Tom with Olympian disdain. Tach knew that was part of the problem. It wasn’t helping Tom to have this Adonis in his face.

“Jesus, Tachy, why did you have to come here?”

“If you’re scared, you don’t have to worry. We weren’t traced,” Starshine said. “I saw to that.”

“Hey, dumbshit -” Tom began.

Tach quickly interrupted. “Where else could I go? They’ll be watching the clinic, my friends. They locked me up, Tommy. I can’t take being locked up anymore!” Her voice had gone all ragged and stretched.

Tom slumped into a chair. “Christ, Tach, you just tumble from one crisis to another.” He scrubbed at his face with a hand, took a pull on his beer. “Anybody want anything?”

“Do you have any Perrier?” Starshine asked.

Tom rolled an eye, grabbed Tach by the wrist, and pulled her out of the room.

Hurriedly Tach said, “He’ll only be here for, oh, maybe another twenty minutes.”

“If he’s going to leave, couldn’t he do it now?”

“He’d have to become somebody else, and I’d rather have him become the person he truly is -”

Hands on her shoulders, he halted her nervous pacing. “Are you okay?”

“Yes… no. I’ve got to get to Manhattan. Please, Tommy, just let Mark stay here. As soon as I’m back, we’ll both go away, and you can be comfortable again.”

Tommy scrubbed his face with both hands, sighed, said, “You want somebody to go with you?”

“No, alone is better.”

“You’re not going to the clinic, are you?”

“No. I need to break into someone’s house. And for that I need Jay Ackroyd.”

“The dame entered my office. She moved with an aggressive waddle that let me know right away she was trouble. I waited. How would she come on to me? The ever-popular ploy of the pregnant woman – the flood of tears? The premature labor -”

Tachyon had a feeling that Jay Ackroyd was going to continue in this irritating vein for a good long while. So she poured his coffee in his lap. The stream of bad prose became a stream of invective. Ackroyd yanked tissue from the box on his desk and mopped at his crotch.

“Motherfucker! I just got these back from the cleaners.” Jay looked up, aggrieved. “And you could have burned my willie off.”

“A small loss,” said Tachyon, and she carefully settled into a chair. It was apparent from the banner headline – TACHYON’S TORMENT: WHO’S THE FATHER? – and the photo on the cover of Aces magazine why Jay was so sanguine about her appearance. Also piled on the desk were five newspapers. CIVIL WAR? queried one headline. WAR IN THE BAY? asked another. Tach shivered and looked away.

“Is there some reason why you’re here, or did you just feel an overwhelming need to take it out on a convenient man for the predicament you’re in?”

“I wish to hire you.”

“First, a question. How’d you get off Governor’s Island?”

“I escaped,” Tachyon replied.

“Great.” Jay swiveled around in his chair and peered through the venetian blinds at the street below. “Is there an army of goons right behind you?”

“No. I was careful.”

“So what’s the job? Look for a runaway father?”

The only thing that kept her from going down the detective’s throat was the knowledge that wisecracking was as natural to Jay Ackroyd as breathing. Even when it would result in a lot less pain, the private investigator couldn’t resist shooting his mouth. It usually ended with a fist in said mouth, but Jay persevered. He was either very brave or very stupid. Tachyon still hadn’t decided which.

“I want you to teleport me into Jube’s apartment.”

“When he’s not there?”

“Of course when he’s not there,” snapped Tach, exasperated. “If he was there, I would just knock on the door.”

“So why don’t you do that?”

“It would be rude to search a house with the owner present.”

That boosted Ackroyd out of his chair. He took a nervous turn about the small office. “I’ve never been in Jube’s apartment. I can’t teleport if I haven’t been there.”

“Liar.” It was a moment that called for succinctness. “You were busy entertaining Finn and Dutton with tales of Jube’s exotic sculptures.”

“Jesus, is nothing private in this crappy town?”

“No. Now will you do as I ask?”

“Look, do this much for me. At least give me a fucking reason. I like Jube.”

Tachyon unconsciously massaged the peak of her belly with her palm. The bigger she got, the better it felt. It was Jay’s fascinated stare that made her aware of what she was doing. Flushing, she quickly dropped both hands into her lap and gripped them tightly.

“I have reason to believe that Jube is not a joker.”

Ackroyd goggled at her. “Meaning?”

“Well, if he’s not a joker, and he’s not a nat… you’re the detective, figure it out.”


Tach nodded.

“That’s crazy. They don’t make aliens that look like that.”

“How would you know?” pointed out Tach logically.

“Well, you should know.”

“It’s a big universe out there.”

The detective ran a hand through his brown hair. He looked distracted.

“Will you help me, Jay?” asked Tach, for the first time allowing a little of her desperation to creep into her voice. “Jube may be my last hope.”

“Oh, shit.”

The stench of rotting meat was overpowering. Tach clapped a hand over her mouth, ran for the john, and vomited up the contents of her stomach. After rinsing her mouth, she plucked several tissues from a box. Holding them over her nose, she cautiously reentered the bedroom.

A bare mattress covered the floor, and a hot tub filled with icy water occupied one corner. A window air conditioner was set on high, and it had obviously been blowing for a long time. The temperature in the room was arctic.

Breathing through her mouth in quick pants, Tachyon stepped into the living room of the basement apartment. The source of the stench was pans filled with steaks, all cheerfully turning green on the top of a battered old card table. But all this strangeness paled before the fantastic device that occupied the center of the room.

Jay had described it as a sculpture, modern art created by a demented mind. But it was actually future technology, built by an inventive alien mind. Tachyon watched in fascination as the tachyon transmitter seemed to shiver, and a flare of St. Elmo’s fire ran the length of it.

She now had a pretty good idea what she was looking for.

Twenty minutes later she was still looking. Somewhere the Network vacu had a monitoring station. A place to spy upon this unsuspecting little world. A place to prepare the contracts that would ultimately deliver the humans into bondage.

“No,” she said aloud to the interior of the closet she was inspecting. “This is my world. I will protect it.” The fifty or so Hawaiian shirts were unimpressed with this impassioned little whisper.

From the front room there was a click of a well-oiled bolt snapping back. It might have been the fall of a guillotine. Tach huddled among some baggy black trousers, tried to still the frantic beating of her heart. Stomach acid raced up the back of her throat. Illyana yammered.

No, baby, thought Tach miserably, this is not a good place to be.

Maybe he wouldn’t find her. Maybe he’d drop off his paper, check his phone machine, leave for a dinner with friends. But luck was not favoring the heir to the House Ilkazam. Heavy footsteps entered the room. Jube let out a belch reminiscent of a bus backfiring.

The closet door was pulled completely open. Flight was impossible. Was it too much to hope that Jube was hopelessly nearsighted?

“Jesus Christ!”

Hope withered with a tiny whine. Tach gathered dignity and outrage about herself like a queen wrapping herself in ermine. Stepped to the door. Jube had a rotting steak in one hand, and a Hawaiian shirt in the other. Tach stared at the six nipples lining the broad black chest like dainty yellow pimples. The shirt dropped to the floor, and a fat, three-fingered hand closed tight around Tach’s wrist. Jube yanked her unceremoniously from the closet.

“How typically Takisian,” said Jube, and it didn’t sound like a compliment.

“How much more like a Network vacu,” spat Tachyon. “I at least came openly to these people. You live in secret among them, waiting for the proper moment. How much do you stand to make on this transaction, soul seller?”

“How did you find out?” demanded Jube. Seen this close, his tusks looked threatening. “I know damn well you didn’t figure it out for yourself. I’ve been fooling you for twenty years. And I don’t think a body shift suddenly boosted your IQ.”

Tach felt the flush rising from her neck to the point of her widow’s peak. Insults stood poised to fly, but she only managed to get her mouth open before there was an urgent knocking on the door.

“Go away!” yelled Jube.

“Open the goddamn door,” came the voice of Jay Ackroyd. “You got my client in there, and he… she… shit… hasn’t paid yet.”

Jube favored Tachyon with another glare, as if involving the ace had somehow deepened her sin, and waddled ponderously to the door. Jay slouched in.

“You blew the punch line, Jay,” Jube grumbled. He then turned a sour eye on the detective. “And what a way to repay me for my great hospitality, sneaking her in here.”

“Sorry, but she’s got this crazy-assed idea that you’re an alien…

“I am,” Jube said so quietly that Jay missed it.

He sailed on. “I should have known it was just hysterics or something.”

“Are you listening to him? And by the way, I am not hysterical.”

“You’re pregnant out to here.” Jay demonstrated. “Of course you’re hysterical. I’d be hysterical What did you say?”

“I am,” Jube repeated.

Jamming his hands into his pockets, Jay took an abrupt turn around himself. “Great. That’s just fucking great.”

Tachyon could understand the emotion, the terrible sense of betrayal. “If you’d really been a joker, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But all the time you were laughing at them.” Distress made her choke a little on the words.

It seemed to distress Jube almost as much. The jowls seemed to lengthen and quiver with sadness. “That’s not true. On this world, in this place, I am a joker. I understand.”

“No, you don’t. You can’t. However horribly they may treat you, whatever abuse – verbal or physical – is directed toward you, you have the ultimate comfort. You know you are normal. For all I know, you’re a thing of beauty on your home world. You will never understand deformity.”

“And you can, little prince?” The sarcasm edged the words like acid. Jube tossed the steak back onto a plate; it landed with a wet splat. “Well, shall we get down to business?” Tach cringed. “There’s only one reason for this little surreptitious social call. You want a message sent.”

Tach eyed the joker – no, Network operative, she corrected herself – from beneath lowered lashes. “You would send one?”

“Of course.”

Tachyon almost stepped into the pause, but the words died in her mouth as Jube added, “For a price. Everything has a price, Tachyon,” Jube concluded in answer to her look.

“That, more than anything, convinces me you are Network.”

Ackroyd stepped in. “Let’s pretend for a minute that I’m just a guy. A nice, human guy who doesn’t know what the fuck you’re both talking about.”

“What are you?” Tach asked, ignoring Jay.

“Glabberan.” The pronunciation made it sound like Jube had ripped loose a tonsil.

“Gesundheit,” Jay said. “So how the hell did you end up here?”

“The Network brought him,” said Tachyon.

“That again.”

“Them,” corrected Jube. His voice swelled with pride. “One hundred and thirty-seven member races working -”

“For domination and oppression. Their contracts are so unconscionable, the bargains so hard, that people are crushed beneath them,” Tach said.

She spoke from knowledge. Eight thousand years ago the Takisians had staggered beneath burdensome payments. The Network had been more than happy to sell the fledgling space-farers’ ships, but without the knowledge or the technology to repair them or build more. There was always a hitch in a Network contract. Then the Takisians had discovered the lshab’kaukab, and bred them to serve their needs. The Network had resented this loss of a market, and a vicious war had been fought. Eventually the Network withdrew, but the Takisians had never forgotten the cost in blood and wealth. They had also never forgotten the shame of their economic servitude.

“Now, Jay, having heard the skewed Takisian view of the universe, will you give me equal time?” Jay shrugged his assent. “Yes, we’re traders, yes, we drive a hard bargain because for us the highest law is the contract. But unlike them” – a point to Tachyon – “any race is free to join the Network, and we don’t care how distasteful your personal habits might be.”

Tach couldn’t stand it. “They have no honor. No sense of right or wrong. They just grub for advantage. For eight thousand years they’ve been trying to regain their hold on Takis – and for eight thousand years they’ve been failing.”

“Guys… uh, people. I’m not getting paid by the hour on this one.” To Tachyon he added, “I was hired to pop you in here so you could find out if Jube was an alien or not. He is, so I’ll be going, and you two can trade insults all afternoon.”

“Don’t you care at all that your world is under siege?”

“I see one fat guy in a really tacky Hawaiian shirt. Doesn’t look like the front wave of an invasion to me.”

“Then you’re an idiot.” Tach turned her back and folded her arms, resting them on the bulge of her pregnancy.

“Bye.” Jay waggled his fingers at the alien pair.

“Wait.” Jay turned inquiringly back to Jube. I must have your solemn promises that you will not reveal my secret.”

“I don’t have to drink any blood or anything, do I?” Jay asked.

Jube frowned, puzzled. Tach bit her lip in vexation. “No,” the Glabberan replied.

Jay nodded thoughtfully. “And if I don’t promise?”

“I make no deal with her.”

Jay and Tach measured glances. The alien acquiesced with a sharp little bob of the head.

“You got my word.”

She had to force the words. “By Blood and Bone I swear.”

Jay left.

Jube picked up the remote control to his television and waddled into his bedroom. Tachyon waddled after him. She watched as the Network agent entered a complex series of numbers onto the remote. As the last digit was struck, the bare brick wall at the back of the apartment seemed to dissolve. Sixty years ago it had been a coal cellar. Now it was a beachhead for a poisonous invasion force. Pushing aside her repulsion, Tachyon forced herself to concentrate. The back wall held a gigantic holocube. A horseshoe-shaped console curved about that cube, and nestled in the center was a chair contoured for Jube’s squat bulk. More machines lined the walls. Some Tachyon could identify. Most she couldn’t.

Jube walked past her and settled with a grunt into his chair. He looked back inquiringly at Tachyon. Gnawing nervously at the inside of her cheek, the Takisian dithered.

Yes, her predicament was desperate, but did she have the right to endanger Takis for one hundred and twenty pounds of male flesh?

“Are we doing this?” asked Jube, shattering her thoughts and sending them skittering in all directions. Tach nodded mutely.

There was a place on the console where Tach could sit. It wasn’t terribly comfortable, but Jube showed no inclination to offer his chair. The sausagelike fingers caressed the keypad. He glanced up at Tach. Like most people his eyes kept drifting to the swell of her belly. Tach steeled herself for the inevitable question. But Jube surprised her. Instead of the irritating bleat of “How does it feel?” the alien said wistfully, “I haven’t had a child yet. May never get to now. One of the trade-offs for taking up Network service.”

“Yes, I suspect there isn’t a Glabberan female within twenty light-years.”

Jube busied himself with the keypad before answering. “I could impregnate myself.” The joker smiled at Tach’s eye-widening reaction. “We Glabberan are hermaphrodites. But I had a feeling that me fetching up pregnant was going to be tough to explain in terms of the wild card. It would stretch even your credulity.”

“Is that how I seem to you? Credulous?”

A form flickered to life on the holocube. The language was unfamiliar, the form was not. Tach had read enough contracts in her life to recognize one. She could feel depression crawling down her body like men on a treacherous, icy cliff.

“It’s a function of your upbringing. You Takisians measure everything by your cultural imperative. You can be incredibly murderous and devious, but overall you’re an endearingly forthright race. You take honor and vows and blood debts and all that baggage very seriously.”

Tach indicated the holocube. “And all this time I thought a contract was sacrosanct to the Master Traders. If you’re telling me it’s not, I shall have to rethink these negotiations.”

The big head shook ponderously from side to side. “Oh, no, you don’t have to worry about that. We’ll honor the letter of the law… it’s just sometimes the spirit that escapes us.” And Tach thought she heard an echo of regret in the joker’s voice like half-heard summer thunder. “You Takisians will put yourselves through oceans of shit to fulfill a vow. Well just find a new way to interpret a clause and spare ourselves a wade in the shit.”

Tachyon’s names – both the Takisian and the human nom de guerre – appeared in the lines of alien prose as startling and incongruous as icebergs in a goldfish pond. Jube’s hand dropped into his lap, and he looked up at Tach out of small pouched eyes.

“Okay, what exactly do you want?”

“More to the point – what is this going to cost me?”

“I thought we should settle on an open contract. Payment to be made later.”

Outrage made her voice a squeak. “I am not so stupid as to sign a blind contract with you.”

Jube rubbed thoughtfully at his upper lip. “Tell you what, in memory of an old friendship – I’ll let you exclude anything you want.”

Tach eyed the other alien suspiciously. “How will you show a profit?”

“I’ll manage. Now what am I selling you?”

“Passage to Takis.”

Again that head shake like a statue waking. “No can do. I’m not a captain. All I have at my disposal is a slightly jury-rigged tachyon transmitter.”

“So you’re telling me I have to haggle with you over the price of a message, and again with some rapacious ship’s captain for passage?”

“Yes, that’s what I’m telling you.”

“You really are the most disgusting bloodsuckers.”

“Deal or not, Tachyon. It’s not my belly expanding with each passing day.”

“Very well.” She began to tick off on her fingers. “I won’t give you the clinic.”

“Don’t want it anyway,” grunted Jube as he began to type.

“My holdings on Takis are exempt.”


“You can’t have Baby.”

“You don’t have her either,” pointed out the joker with irritating logic.

With as much dignity as she could muster, Tach looked down her nose and said, “I will… just as soon as you can send a message.”

“Anything else?”

“My bank accounts, investments, personal possessions.”

Jube shrugged dismissively. “Paltry to a Master Trader.”

There was something in the joker’s eyes that raised warnings like the skirt of a hurricane approaching shore. Tach almost stuttered in her haste to add, “And me. Either this body or the other. You can’t have them.” Jube nodded and typed in the condition. “Or any portion of them. My brain is not going to end up running a mining operation on some outer moon.” Tach canted her head back and considered. The effort of trying to outguess, outthink, outmaneuver the Network was summoning a prickling headache that settled low in her forehead with all of the irritating persistence of too-long bangs.

“My knowledge, work, research on the wild card, or any related genetic research.” Hastily she added, “Nor will I submit to experimentation to try to determine the source of our telepathy.”

“In short we can’t have a piece of body, soul, or mind.”

“Correct. This body, or the real one.”

Jube cocked his head, eyed her curiously. “Why so protective of this body? You’re just renting, so to speak.”

“I feel a certain… obligation,” said Tach slowly. “I must guard her future encompassed by this body… And there is… our child.” Tach stared down at her hands.

“I just hope she’s being as careful with mine.”

“Anything else?”

“What?” Tach lifted dazed eyes, pulling herself almost by main force back to a limbo world of regrets and fears and might-have-beens.

“The contract,” Jube prompted gently. “Is there anything else you’d like to exclude?”

Tach wearily shook her head. Jube hit a key with an aggressive little finger. From the maw of another unidentifiable contraption, a silvery paper was expelled. It was cold and slick in Tachyon’s fingers like mercury made solid and rolled as cellophane. The words (in English now) were etched into its surface, starkly red against the silver.

“Very interesting color choice,” she said dryly. “Do I sign in blood too?”

“Nothing so exciting,” grunted Jube. “And there’s nothing significant about the color. This is mycar, virtually indestructible, but a bitch to read. The red shows up better.”

“Certainly gets your attention,” Tach agreed as she carefully perused the document.

It contained the usual whereofs and theretos, and parties of the first part and parties of the second part. It was a party that Tachyon would rather have missed. But stripped down, the legal flesh boiled away until only the bones remained, it basically said that Jhubben of Glabber, representative of the Network, would send a message summoning a fast ship to Earth. In consideration for this service Tachyon, aka Prince Tisianne of the House Ilkazam, agreed to pay Jube an unspecified amount, or perform some service to be determined at some later, unspecified date. It made Tachyon crazy even to contemplate signing it.

So of course she signed it. What other choice did she have?

“Are you going to send the message?” asked Tach.



“Just as soon as you’re out of my apartment,” came the patient if rude reply.

“You don’t trust me?”

“No,” said Jube firmly as he got a hand under elbow and assisted her off the console. “Jube the Walrus and Dr. Tachyon trusted each other. Prince Tisianne and Jhubben of the Network -”

“Are implacable enemies.”

Chapter Seven

“Jube will use you as our message drop.”

“Oh, goody.” Jay was canted back in his chair, feet on the desk, sucking on coffee. “So added to aiding and abetting a felon, we have consorting with aliens and smuggling aliens… The damn INS is going to love me.

Tach ignored him. “It will be at least a week before the ship arrives, but I will check with you every day just to be on the safe side.”

“And where will you be staying?”

“In New Jersey. That is all you need to know.”

“And how are you going to get back there?”

The detective’s bland face was even more bland than usual. Tach eyed him suspiciously. “What? What have you heard? What do you know?”

“City’s been sealed.”

This is not a big problem,” was the acerbic reply. “I assume at some time you have been to New Jersey?”

“Yeah, but the only place I remember really well is a nightclub in Jersey City.”

“It will do.”

Jay formed the fingers of his right hand into the shape of a gun, pointed at Tach.

The owner of the nightclub was very annoyed. He thought Tach was a runaway who had been sleeping in his club. He also thought she was drunk; actually a front-heavy Tach was trying to overcome the effects of the teleport. Balance regained, she took a quick glance about the shadowed and silent club. It was pretty sleazy, but then this was New Jersey… and Jay.

“I’m callin’ the cops!”

“Please do. I’m with the Department of Health and Public Safety. We’re making an undercover sweep, and let me tell you, a night exploring your kitchen and bathrooms…” The owner blanched.

“We’ve had some help problems,” the man whined.

Tach was heading for the front door. “Well, get them fixed!”

She found a pay phone a block from the club. Dialed the junkyard.

Tachyon was resting in a recliner, a pillow supporting the small of her back, feet up to relieve the swelling in her ankles. The pressure of two pairs of eyes finally penetrated her darting, whirling thoughts. She looked up, meeting Tom Tudbury’s concerned look, and Mark Meadows’s thoughtful gaze.

“What?” she asked.

“It’s, like, really weird watching you, man. At times you’ve got this faraway peaceful look like you’re telling the world, ‘I’m pregnant, so you and your problems can just go piss off.’ And other times I look in your eyes, and it’s pure Tachyon.”

She stared at the lanky human. His six-foot-four-inch frame was too long for the sofa, so his remarkably big feet hung over the end of the couch like moving crates that had suddenly taken a mind to wearing tennis shoes. Ragged ends of hair just brushed the back of his collar. Once it had hung below his shoulders.

Tach sighed and let go of the past. “Ideal, I’m losing my self.”

“Much of what we are is defined by our biology,” Mark reminded her.

“How depressing.” She sat silent for a moment, then asked, “I’m curious – how did you know to rescue me?”

“They, like, read in Taos, New Mexico, too. I’d joined a commune -”

“There still are some?” It was the first thing Tommy had said in hours.

“Yeah, a couple. Anyway, we went into town for groceries, and I saw the headline on Aces. So I came.”

A strange expression twisted Tommy’s face, regret and guilt. Because he didn’t come for me? Tach wondered. Aloud she said, “You shouldn’t be here, Mark. It’s too dangerous.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve gotten pretty good at this. I know how to buy fake ID. I can spot tails… well, most times,” he amended, and the pale blue eyes blinked rapidly behind the thick lenses of his glasses. It was a brief glimpse of the man he had been.

“I miss my sweet Mark. My innocent one,” said Tach softly.

“Mr. Bush’s meaner and crueler attitude toward wild cards sent him away,” Mark said in a feeble attempt at a joke.

It was a bizarre set of events which had turned the former flower child into a fugitive from federal justice. Mark’s ex-wife had returned after years of absence and demanded custody of the couple’s retarded daughter, Sprout. Kimberly based her case on Cap’n Trips’s unfitness as a parent because he was a wild card. The court agreed but didn’t find the former Mrs. Meadows too tightly wrapped either. They removed Sprout to the care of New York’s foster services. Mark objected strenuously to this and, enlisting the aid of his “friends,” broke his child out of the juvie home. That made him a criminal. It was a mad world, Tachyon decided.

“Anyway, I’m here, Tachy, and I want to help. So tell me what you need,” Mark concluded.

She laughed. “Blood and Ancestors, where to start. She sobered.

“Go on,” Tom prodded her out of her abstracted silence.

“I haven’t been home in almost fifty years, and I’m coming home at a distinct disadvantage. I don’t have my powers. I have to prove who I am, reclaim my place, and then I can start worrying about locating Blaise and my body. And how do I force Blaise to make the switch? And what if he kills my body to stop me? What if he’s already killed my body?”

“First answer me a question,” Tom said. “Why do you believe Blaise is on Takis?”

“Because of the company he took. My ship, my body… and Durg.”

A slap couldn’t have hit Mark harder. His fingers scrabbled at the back of the sofa, and he came bolt upright.

“Durg. I left him standin’ on the side of the road. K.C. was dead, Blaise was on our trail, and about half a thousand cops right behind him. I didn’t want Durg in trouble with the law. I was trying to protect him.”

“Leaving him was the worst thing you could have done. He’s Morakh. They’re bred for only two purposes – killing and loyal service. A Morakh cannot exist without a master.” She sighed.

A delicate shivering was running through Mark’s hands. “So I caused this.”

Tach stood, crossed to him, and closed her fingers briefly around his. “No, Mark, no. Assigning blame at this late date is quite useless, and anyway, the original sin is mine. I brought Blaise into my world in a spray of bullets and blood.”

“He never knew you killed his guardian,” Tom said.

“Some things, maybe, are sensed by the soul.”

Tom set aside his beer and, propping his elbows on his knees, regarded her over the top of steepled fingers. “Are you planning to ask for some help?”

Stiffly she said, “I would not so impose. Besides, I can handle matters myself.”

“Damn stiff-necked Takisian. You’d put your head in a noose just to prove it’s a pretty necklace.”

“The point?” she gritted, eyeing him down the length of her upturned nose.

“From what you’ve told me, you’re going back to a pretty Byzantine and poisonous environment. You’re going to need bodyguards.”

“Tommy, I could not ask it of you.”

“You’re not. I’m offering.”

“Oh, man.” Tachyon had never seen it outside of a movie screen, but Mark actually slapped his forehead. “I’m so dense. Now I remember you. You’re the Turtle!”

“Yeah, I’m the Turtle. An embarrassed and red-faced Turtle. I should have been the one to break her out of Governor’s Island.”

“No, man, you’re, like, a hero. You don’t break the laws. Me” – he shrugged – “I’m already a fugitive from federal justice. What’s another count on the rap sheet?”

Tom’s face clouded at the memory of the last time he’d faced off with Mark Meadows – or rather one of Mark’s “friends.” J. J. Flash, Esquire, had firmly and comprehensively kicked Turtle’s armored behind. Mark remembered at precisely the same moment and sucked in air in a quick little hiccuping gasp.

“An… uh, I’m real sorry about Flash, but I had to get my kid.”

“Forget it.” Tommy waved him off.

Tachyon reasserted control over the conversation. “Gentlemen, I thank you for your most generous offers, but this -”

“Makes perfect sense. Me and my ‘friends’ would be happy to go. Give Turtle here some backup.”

Tach nibbled at a forefinger, studied them from beneath her lashes. Two middle-aged men, and a more incongruous pair could not be imagined. Mutt and Jeff. And, Ideal, she loved them both so much… and could use them so much.

Slowly she said, “Aces would do more than provide me with protection. If I was to return with you two in tow, it would improve my standing immeasurably.” She smiled humorlessly. “On Takis reality is often shaped more by appearances than by objective fact.”

Tom suddenly stood and took a turn about the living room. His plump cheeks had gone pink, and his brown eyes were shining.

“Another planet. Shit, I’ve hardly been to another state except New York. My whole life I’ve been waiting for this. When I was a kid, I’d stand at my bedroom window and watch the ships passing down the Kill. Just shadows and lights in the dark, going someplace wonderful. I wanted to be on those ships so bad.”

Tach held out a hand to him. “Now you will be.”

They were seated in a diner in Bayonne. Since Jube had traveled via Ackroyd’s finger, it was another charming establishment worthy of Jay’s low-class tastes. Jube’s colorful shirt flared like an abstract painting against the tattered red plastic booth.

“It’s been set. White Sands in three days’ time.”

Her mouth suddenly gone dry, Tach took a quick gulp of her vanilla shake. “How… how ironic,” she said, and remembered her arrival forty-seven years before at those same White Sands. “The area is much more heavily guarded than it was in 1946. Are you sure this is wise?”

“This is a Network ship. Nothing can detect it.”

“A slight exaggeration. You’ve been trying to run the Takisian sensor net, and failing – spectacularly, I might add.”

Jube brought his broad three-fingered hand down hard on the table. Glasses, salt and pepper shakers, and Tach, all jumped. “I haven’t been doing squat about invading or infiltrating, or infecting Takis. I’ve been settled on Earth studying a most admirable group of aliens who have been royally fucked over by you.”

Shame set her to plucking nervously at the strands of hair that had broken free from her braid.

“I am sorry Jube. Old hatreds make mockery of recent friendships. We are not representatives of our respective cultures, are we?” She turned strained and desperate eyes to Jube.

Taking her hand, Jube said softly, “If it’s any comfort to you, I’m not a negotiator. I’m a scientist, an anthropologist, that’s all. And I do love these people… at least as much as you do.”

Tach nodded. Her throat suddenly hurt too much to talk. Jube’s words had reminded her of just how much she was leaving, and the responsibilities she couldn’t help but fear she was evading. The sealing of the city could only mean that another attack on the Rox was imminent, and Tach wondered if this time Bloat could survive. She should stay and try to help, but the ship was arriving, and there wouldn’t be another. She did calculations and decided that if the Ideal favored her, she could be restored to her body, and back on Earth in two months. Could Teddy hang on that long?

“White Sands, three days. Well, I’d best get planning.” She drained her shake and slid out of the booth.

“Tachyon.” She stopped and looked back. “In memory of the old joker news vendor who told bad joker jokes, take this, and don’t think too harshly of me,” Jube said.

He placed it on the table. A tangle of wires topped with a yellow-green crystal. Tach’s eyes widened slightly.

“Thank you, Jube. It will help.”

“Cool,” breathed Trips as the heavy sunken door swung up to reveal the Turtle shell.

“You’re sure you’ll be all right?” Tach asked again nervously.

Tommy nodded. “Yeah, I got sandwiches.” He hefted the wicker hamper. “Plenty to drink.”

“Don’t get pulled over,” Mark said seriously. “I bet there’s an open-bottle law for turtle shells too.” He then allowed a delighted smile to crease his cheeks. Tom and Tach just stared up at the big ace, then began laughing.

“What a team,” Tom said. “Your relatives haven’t got a prayer, Tachy.”

“They could not withstand us before,” the girl replied. She stepped forward and gave the ace a quick hug. Tom started to close his arms around her, then abruptly dropped them.

“Like, go in peace, man,” Trips said, flashed Tom the peace sign, then vigorously shook the smaller man’s hand.

Tom entered the shell. Trips and Tach stepped back and watched the great armored shell slide silently out into the night. It dwindled quickly as it climbed. Their last sight of it was as it crossed like a small, self-propelled shadow across the face of the moon.

“Awesome,” Mark sighed.

Jay and Mark were waiting for her in a corner booth. The nightclub was jumping at nine o’clock with a bad salsa band making conversation virtually impossible. It wasn’t deterring the patrons, however. The rumble of three hundred voices provided a bass counterpoint to the wailing singer.

“How’d it go?” Mark asked. Under the colored strobe lights his face seemed to dissolve and reform every third second. It was sickening.

“Not so well,” Tach said. The memory of Cody’s tears gnawed at her. “She wanted to come with me. Impossible of course. A woman of childbearing years. Impossible.” She sat down at the table and briefly buried her face in her hands. “I love that woman. And I have brought her nothing but pain.” Tach threw her hair back. Turned to Jay. “So have you completed the arrangements for our journey?”

“Yeah.” He pushed three tickets across the table.

Tach stared at them. Blinked and looked again. They had not changed, they were still… “Bus tickets?” Tachyon finally said.

Jay threw out his hands palms up. “Hey, they’re watching the airports, trains don’t go anywhere close to where we need to be -”

“I thought you would charter a plane or something.”

“With what?” Jay asked. “You got no money. I got no money. He” – jerk of a thumb at Mark – “sure as hell ain’t got no money.”

“But a bus? I’m pregnant. The last time I rode a bus was from Lisbon to Amsterdam in 1953 It was awful.

Jay just shrugged. Mark laid a hand soothingly on Tach’s shoulder. Withdrew it quickly as she tensed. “Doc, it’ll be okay. They’re a lot more comfortable flow.”

“There are three tickets here.” Tach eyed the detective suspiciously.

“I’m coming with you. Make sure you get there safe.”

“Are you sure this isn’t merely a ploy to drive up your fee?”

“Bitchy, bitchy. Watch it, you’re going to give motherhood a bad name.” Jay checked his watch. “We better get rolling. The bus leaves at ten.”

Hours later she leaned against the window, her head pillowed on Mark’s rolled-up jacket, and watched the night ratchet past. Jay was snoring loudly in his seat. Mark was as silent as a statue. Tach could sense he was awake.

He whispered to her, “Scared, baby?”

“Yes. I am no one. I live nowhere. Belong no place. I wish someone could find me again.”

“Someone will. You.”

Chapter Eight

As the doors to the office swung closed behind him, Durg again wondered if his line carried a recessive for insanity. He had been stolen from this House at age twelve. Now, one hundred and ninety-six years later, he was returning. His boot heels drew music from the harmonically sensitive floor. It seemed an entire symphony’s worth of walk to the great desk.

Durg knew his attention should have been focused upon L’gura, Raiyis of House Vayawand. But there had been three rulers of the House since Durg’s kidnapping, and of greater and more terrifying interest was the Morakh who stood behind and slightly to the left of the Raiyis’s chair. Yes, she was standing absolutely still, but there was the poised quivering of a recently shot arrow. She was ready to fight. To kill. Her honey brown hair had been twisted up into an elaborate knot like a temple chhatri. Down, it would probably stretch to her knees. She was very beautiful.

Lighter-boned than a Morakh male, she was still massive when measured against her master. L’gura was thin to the point of emaciation, and his chalk white skin set off the green and blue of the jewels implanted in his cheeks and beneath his brows. He was placidly watching Durg’s approach.

It is a mark of his confidence in his Morakh that they leave the guards outside, Durg thought. And almost too late he reacted to her slashing attack. Too long among humans. Too long on a world where guests enter unarmed into rooms.

Durg tucked into a tight ball, thus missing the larynx-crushing blow. The roll was supposed to take her in the shins. She was too fast. She sprang lightly over him, delivering a vicious thrust kick to the kidneys as she passed. Ignoring the pain, Durg snapped onto his back and caught her by the ankle. Threw her hard into the far wall. He regained his feet just in time to counter her next attack. He now had his objective. He endured two punishing blows in order to close with her. He drove his heel down hard on her instep and speared her in the throat with his right elbow, while with his left hand he drew the ceremonial sword swinging in its scabbard at her side. He used her own momentum to send her stumbling past him, and he quickly ran to L’gura, knelt, and offered the sword and the back of his neck.

“Malika, enough!”

At that shouted command from her master, the woman skittered to a stop inches from Durg’s unprotected back. The aching between his shoulder blades diminished to a mere itch.

L’gura stood and threw the sword back to his Morakh. “It seems he is worth enough to let him live.”

“He is still a traitor and tainted,” Malika replied.

“But so interesting. A renegade Morakh who returns home in a stolen Ilkazam ship with an Ilkazam noble and an abomination in tow.” L’gura resumed his seat. “If your story is intriguing enough, I’ll let you live long enough to complete it.”

Durg omitted nothing. He told of his theft by a raiding Ilkazam party led by Prince Zabb. His years of service to House Ilkazam. The journey to Earth to evaluate the success of the Ilkazam Enhancer experiment. His secret command to locate and kill the heir to House Ilkazam, Prince Tisianne. His defeat at the hands of a woman touched by that Takisian Enhancer. His abandonment, and his years on Earth. How by the grace of the Ideal a powerful weapon had been delivered into his hands.

“Two, in fact,” Durg amended. “And I realized I had a coin valuable enough to buy my return to the House of my birth and blood.”

L’gura said nothing, just stroked his upper lip thoughtfully. Malika, having ascertained she would not interrupt her master, stepped in. “Why now? Why in all these long years did you decide that now was the moment?”

“I wished to breed. I heard you were available.”

L’gura laughed at his Morakh’s outraged expression. “Durg at’ Morakh bo…” The Raiyis of House Vayawand raised his brows inquiringly.

“Blaise,” Durg supplied the name of his master.

“…bo Blaise, you are a most unusual Morakh. Tainted, yes, but very interesting. Now, tell me of this coin, and why it is valuable to me.”

“Will it buy me back into my House?”

“If it is valuable enough.”

“Is the heir to House Ilkazam worth anything to you?”

L’gura leaned back in his chair. Spoke to the ceiling. “If you actually held Tisianne.” He snapped suddenly forward and pinned Durg with a look. “But you do not. You possess a body animated by the mind of a mudcrawling girl-child.”

“True, but the Ilkazam won’t know that.”

“And what happens when the real Prince Tisianne arrives and proves us all liars?”

“He will not. The human mudcrawlers are primitive. Years ago they attained their moon, then lost their will and nerve for space travel. They have no ships capable of crossing the void. The only ship was Prince Tisianne’s, and we have removed that means of escape.”

L’gura sighed. “I have no interest in gene money. I wish to defeat Ilkazam.”

“As do we. We are not proposing a kidnapping, a hostage situation. My master suggests that it might be more to your benefit if Tisianne brant T’sara seems to have willingly switched his allegiance.”

“It has never happened,” Malika said.

Durg shifted to look at her. “Then how much more impact this betrayal will cause.”

“No one will believe it,” L’gura said.

“They will. They will hear my young master speak, and he has the power of words.”

“Not enough to keep him alive. He is a half-breed horror.”

“Again, you are correct, but surely it is enough to keep him alive a few days?”

“You’re bargaining with me, Morakh. Are you sure you weren’t stranded among the Network vacu instead of mudcrawlers?”

“The question is… are you buying?”

L’gura stared at Durg for a long, long time. Durg knew the man was regretting the genetic manipulations that had left the Morakh completely opaque to even the most powerful telepath. When you were certain of your pet’s loyalty, it was not a problem. When you weren’t

Durg smiled inwardly but allowed no hint of his internal pleasure to show on his face.

“Three days for your half-breed.”

“That should be enough for him to prove his usefulness.”

“There will be no reprieve,” L’gura warned.

“As you say, Most Bred.”

And Durg bowed his way out of the office.

“We have little time,” Durg said softly to Blaise.

“Do it,” Blaise ordered, and Kelly closed his eyes and contacted Baby.

And the ship swallowed the Vayawand guard left on duty until the arrival of the House shuttle. Durg spared a moment to ponder the communication that had sprung up between the ship and the bogus Tachyon and regret it, but it was serving its purpose now, and soon Kelly would be separated from the other stolen female.

“I’ve bought you three days, but don’t trust it. Treachery is the great Takisian art form. They’ll try to kill you before the deadline and take Kelly for themselves.”

“So I’ll jump this L’gura guy -”

“No! We save that.”

“So how the fuck do I convince this guy not to croak me?” Blaise paced a few nervous steps away, and back again. “I knew we shouldn’t have come here.”

“You are an abortion, afterbirth, the most filthy thing they can imagine. Which means they will underestimate you. I will select the target and upon my command use your mind control. Strike when they are unaware. Kill them quickly.”

Durg had already selected the target – Malika, the Morakh guard. Perhaps it was a quirk of Blaise’s madness coupled with his freakish mind-control power, but the young man had found the key to a Morakh’s mind. At their first encounter Durg had repelled the mental attack, but Blaise had come close to scratching the surface of that opaque mind. Months of practice had provided Blaise with the secret. Now all their lives depended upon whether the knack would translate from Morakh to Morakh.

The boy’s shrill objection pulled Durg back. “And then they’ll kill me!”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. Are you brave enough to risk the roll of those dice?”

The young man stared down into Durg’s eyes. There was fear there, and Durg remembered Blaise was only sixteen. But House Tandeh had been founded by just such a “boy.” Then that wild, fearsome smile touched Blaise’s lips, and Durg felt something akin to a chill pass down his spine.

“What the hell. I’ve always been lucky.”

“The greatest danger in Vayawand lies in the fact that the revolutionary energy of the masses will be dissipated in spurts, in isolated explosions. Our task as the founders of the Committee of Action consists of unifying the masses and investing them with the greatest possible force. With that titanic power behind us we will sweep to power, not only in Vaya, but across the whole of the planet.”

The Most Bred and the Tarhiji (Kelly had discovered that meant the mind-blind bulk of the population) servants – sat enthralled. Kelly stifled a yawn. One servant let out a small hiccup of sound, an aborted cheer. He was quickly shushed, but then Sekal leapt to his feet and lifted his wineglass to Blaise.

“It is wonderful! It is… brilliant, it is… it is…”

“But what does it mean?”

It was a soft and languid voice, and it belonged to an extremely elderly, extremely precious nobleman by the name of Bat’tam. From the moment of their arrival he had been a constant visitor at their suite, but the attraction wasn’t Blaise. In fact, this was the first time Bat’tam had ever addressed a word to the young man. No, Bat’tam came for Kelly – or rather to lust after the flesh that Kelly currently inhabited. It made Kelly crazy

Blaise stared down into Bat’tam’s sagging, wrinkled face. “What does it mean?” the young man repeated softly. His purple black eyes swept the dinner table, and the now-silent nobles. “It means I shall make you the rulers of Vayawand… and the conquerors of Takis.” And then he began to sing in a rich baritone.

The sound drowned out Bat’tam’s plaintive query of “How?”

“Arise, ye prisoners of Vayawand! Arise, ye wretched of Takis, for justice thunders condemnation, a better world’s in birth. No more tradition’s chains shall bind us, arise, ye slaves; no more in thrall! Takis shall rise on new foundations, we have been naught, we shall be all!”

The tune was stirring, the words simple. Several of the nobles, and a few of the Tarhiji servants, tried it out on the chorus. Durg slipped down the table refilling wineglasses. Bat’tam lifted his and then locked eyes with the Morakh.

“I hope your master can fight as well as he can talk,” Bat’tam said.

Durg blinked slowly several times, then finally said, “He doesn’t need to. This battle’s already won.”

Chapter Nine

A small avalanche of white gypsum sand heralded Mark’s return.

“No sign of the army.” He slapped energetically at his pants legs, and sand hopped like terrified fleas from the material.

“What a relief,” Jay said. “I was sure worried that a bunch of jeeps and tanks and helicopters were gonna come sneaking up on us.”

Mark’s face crumpled.

“POPINJAY,” boomed Turtle through the speakers set into his shell. “IF YOU’RE GOING TO BE AN ASSHOLE, WHY DON’T YOU JUST CLIMB BACK IN THAT RENTAL CAR AND LEAVE?”

“Because I want to see the spaceship. And don’t call me Popinjay, damn it.”

“They’re metal. They’re not beautiful like our ships,” Tach murmured, speaking almost more to herself than her companions.

Mark knelt and began rooting through the luggage. There wasn’t much. While Jay had gone to rent a car Mark and Tach had bought a few changes of clothing in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Tach had also added a deck of cards and a traveling Scrabble set to her meager belongings. Mark and Tommy were so excited about this journey that Tach hadn’t had the heart to tell them how stone-cold boring space travel could be.

The snap of the latches was loud in the desert darkness. Flicking on a pocket flashlight, the tall ace once again surveyed his stash of powders.

“They haven’t changed since the last time you checked – four hours ago,” Jay said.

Mark rocked back to squat on his heels. “I know. I just keep wishing I could have made more. I’ve got four of everybody. That’s it.”

“Mark, we have pharmaceuticals on my planet,” Tach reminded him.

“Yeah, but it’ll take time to get the proper chemical equivalents, and if things get hot, we may not have it.” He shook his head and shut the case.

“Well, let’s just hope the Network baggage handlers didn’t train at Tomlin International,” Jay said. “Otherwise your dope is history.”

Mark grinned. “I think this qualifies as carryon.”

Tach was listening with perhaps half an ear to the humans’ conversation. Mostly she scanned the explosion of light that was the Milky Way. A star dislodged itself from its fellows and began a slow arcing fall toward Earth.

“There, Mr. Ackroyd, there’s your spaceship.”

Jay frowned up the line of her arm. “Uh-uh, shooting star.”


The star continued its descent. Jay gnawed at his lower lip. “Okay, airplane then.”


“I don’t know about you. Me, I’m getting two hundred bucks a day.”

Lifting her wrist, Tach checked the sweep hand on her watch. No, it wasn’t an illusion; the pilot of the Network vessel was descending at terrifying speed. Then suddenly Turtle and Popinjay’s bickering was drowned under the crash of an enormous sonic boom.

“Holy shit,” Jay breathed, and they all followed his gaze. “Twenty billion dollars spent on Star Wars, and they can’t even detect that.”

A ship was slipping down a wash of moonlight. The shape was triangular, the regularity broken by a light-filled dome that topped the vessel – a moonstone mounted in a silver setting. After the clarion announcement of its arrival, its landing was virtually soundless, but some braking force was in operation, for whirling dust devils of white gypsum sand went coiling and twining toward the ship like beckoning fingers. Gypsum flakes chattered hysterically against Turtle’s metal sides, and Jay, Tach, and Mark covered their eyes and gave their backs to the stinging sandstorm.

The ship settled, three great landing pylons sinking with a crunch into the sand. It was the first sound directly attributable to the arrival of the alien vessel, and Tachyon noticed that even the desert night birds remained undisturbed. Their fitful cheeping still pierced the darkness. Suddenly a large spot sprang to blinding life and pinned the foursome like bugs on a needle of light.

“Are you sure Blaise is headed for Takis?” asked Jay softly.

“It seems the most likely guess,” Tach answered.

“I’d hate to be climbing aboard that thing for a guess.”

“THEN I GUESS ITS A GOOD THING YOU’RE NOT COMING,” Turtle boomed through his speakers.

Tach was eyeballing the ship, trying to estimate its interior capacity. The answers she was coming up with weren’t very encouraging. The sleek little flying pie wedge was fast, but it was small. Obviously only a scout ship. Turtle seemed to suddenly bulk much larger beside her.

A ramp extruded tonguelike from the side of the ship, the motion accompanied by a soft humming. It dropped with a soft thud onto the sand, and they heard the sound of boot heels rapping metallically in the night. The bird song cut off abruptly. At her side Tach heard Mark draw in a sharp breath and hold it.

They’re about to see an alien, she thought. Naturally they’re frightened.

The Network contact reached the base of the ramp. It was still in the shadow of the ship, so Tachyon couldn’t determine the species. It stepped forward, and moonlight lit the tips of the white blond hair, seemed to etch the tipped-up gray eyes with kohl. It smiled down at her.

Darkness crashed over Tachyon like a wave.

Chapter Ten

“Shit, what the fuck’s wrong now?” were the dulcet words Tachyon heard when she regained consciousness.

Mark was patting first her hands, then her cheek, then going back to her hands. Her head was propped in Jay’s lap. She knew because the smell of cheap aftershave was overwhelming.

“I always have this devastating effect on women,” drawled a new, yet horribly familiar voice.

The accent was light, lilting, rather like a Rumanian crossed with a Swede. Tachyon talked the same way – when she remembered to affect the accent. Only one other race would speak English with that particular cadence. Tach opened one eye, risked another glance. No, nothing had changed. It was still a Takisian. It was still her wicked cousin Zabb.

“JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP,” Turtle growled.

Zabb turned his attention to the looming bulk of the Turtle shell. It was a long three seconds as he carefully scanned the armored surface. “Don’t tell me you built another one of these ugly horrors? And I gave you such a perfect opportunity for a redesign.”

Five years before, a ship from House Ilkazam had rather belatedly returned to Earth to evaluate the results of its botched experiment. Of lesser priority was to determine the fate and the whereabouts of the heir to the House. Zabb had captained that ship, and he’d been searching for Tachyon in order to kill him. In that effort he was foiled by Tom Tudbury, but he had managed to jettison Tommy’s shell during the fracas. Tommy obviously hadn’t forgotten. He lifted a few feet off the ground, and Tach shrilled out, “Get me up! And Turtle, calm down.”

“Yes, mushroom, sit!” Zabb ordered, and then laughed.

With Mark’s supporting hand beneath her elbow, she started to struggle to her feet, only to have a pair of finely manicured hands close about her waist, swing her up, and set her lightly on her feet.

The touch of his telepathy was glass sharp, as cold as icicles. Tachyon looked up into the beautiful, laughing face of her cousin.

My, how you’ve changed, purred her tormentor.

Tachyon slammed up her primitive shields, more to shut off the sound of his mental laughter than any desire to protect her mind’s secrets. Zabb lifted her hand, dropped gracefully to one knee before her, and lifted his face expectantly. Angrily she snatched back her hand.


Because I’ve been such a bad boy? Zabb asked blandly, as he climbed to his feet.

Because you dishonor me. Greet me properly.

I take reality as I find it. You can’t really expect me to salute you man to man?

You know what I am.

I know who you are. What you are is rather evident for the stars to see.

He lifted her hand again and this time spoke audibly. “Tis, what a fascinating predicament you’ve gotten yourself into this time.”

“I take it you’re acquainted,” Jay said, then added, “Here I was waiting for E.T., and I get another comic-opera Takisian. Swell, just great.”

Arching one brow, Zabb jerked his head at the fulminating human. “Who is this… person?”

“One of my protectors.” The shrillness of her voice betrayed her nerves, and Tach angrily bit at her lower lip.

“Since when?” Jay whispered, and she could have slapped him.

Zabb turned his attention to Meadows, and despite his every effort a frown sank the arrogantly upraised eyebrow.

“Peace, man.” The ace made the gesture, but his tone and the set of his shoulders made a mockery of the sentiment. “Like, it’s really good to see you again.”

“What is this? Is the whole fucking universe the size of New Jersey?” said Jay. “Does everybody know everybody?”

“Mark got a particularly edifying view of Zabb’s tail as he turned it and ran from me and my ship a few years back.”

“Don’t get too cocky, Tis.” Zabb jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “That’s my ship. It’s only by my say-so that anyone flies on her. You need me…” His eyes dropped, and he stared insolently at the bulge of her belly. “Obviously.”

Jay cut through the round of escalating pleasantries. “Could we get on with this? I have to catch a plane in El Paso at eight-forty.”

Zabb pulled out a pocket computer and began entering data. “The message said you wanted passage to Takis.”

“If you please,” said Tachyon.

“For just you?”

“And two others.” She indicated Mark and Tom with a nod of the head.

Zabb favored her with a limpid, humorous glance. “You always did inspire such loyalty… in dogs and servants.”

“Probably because I can be trusted,” Tach said.

“Why do you want to return home?” the Takisian asked.

“That is none of your affair.”

Zabb snapped shut the computer. “All right, I’ll take you.”

“What’s the price?”

“You remain silent about my activities during our reconnaissance of Earth.”

“Kib’r Benaf’saj is dead, Hali is dead, your ship lost, and you are on a Network vessel. I think the family will draw their own conclusions.”

“Not if you give them the true story.”

“Which is?” asked Tach with growing weariness.

“About how the Swarm attacked, but I valiantly fought them off at enormous cost to ship and crew. The ship, much of her sentience destroyed in the battle, fled into deep space. Where I was discovered by the Network. And…” He shrugged. “What could I do? The bloodsucking bastards insisted I pay for my rescue.”

Confused, Tach shook her head as if the action would organize her mind better. “Why, Zabb? You can never return home. What does it matter what they think of you?”

His expression clouded. “I will die under unfamiliar stars, but if I leave my ancestors at peace, I will be satisfied.”

Tach made a moue, drew the end of her long braid over one shoulder, and began idly plucking off split ends while she regarded her cousin. The expression was noble, the tone sincere, pain lurked in the corners of those gray eyes – and she didn’t believe him for a minute. He read the thought and flashed her an ironic smile.

“I’ll have time to convince you during the voyage.” The cold gray eyes studied Turtle speculatively. “And you, little man, are you willing to crawl out of your shell?”

“WHAT?” Tom asked.

“This is a scout ship. Virtually no hold space. What we do have is taken. I’ll carry the flesh, but no more.”

Silence seemed to wrap the shell. It had become a darker hole in the darkness. Tach felt her stomach take a fall of several stories. After all her proud words about not requiring help, it was very comforting to have that help. And Tach sensed her support was wavering. She wanted to say something to Tom, find some way to starch his backbone.

“Uh… Doc, could I talk to you for a minute?” asked Trips. “Privately.”

Zabb crossed his arms over his chest. Laughter seemed to be lurking about the corners of that mobile mouth, hiding in the drooping brush of his full mustache.

“What’s so goddamn funny?” Jay demanded.

“You… all of you. I can read minds.”

Tach smiled, a slow, teeth-baring expression. Slipped a hand into her pocket and closed her fingers gratefully around the device that Jube had given her. Pulled it out, unfolded her fingers like a flower blossoming. Fury crashed across Zabb’s face.

Tach beckoned to Trips and Jay. They stepped away a few feet. Turtle continued to squat on the sand. Mark looked questioningly back at him.

“Turtle?” the gangly ace said. The shell seemed to shiver as it flew the few feet to join them.

Tach flicked her nail beneath the edge of the jewel. The device began to hum, and St. Elmo’s fire ran chuckling through the wires. Instantly a headache slammed like a vise around her temples.

“What in the hell is that thing?” asked Jay.

The crystal was pulsing, throwing a putrid green light in a three-foot circle around them. Most of the shell was outside the protective glow. Just another reminder of how useless that encasing pod of steel was proving to be. Why did I ever think he could come with us, or that he could be any help? Tach wondered. Then forced herself to answer Jay’s question.

“A mentat barrier. Periodically the Network tries to annex Takis by dealing with the mind blind. Rather recently, as we measure time, there was a little spat that we won because Takisians can fight like cornered ferrets when we need to, and to a Master Trader a Pyrrhic victory is bad business. But we also won because we’re telepaths. The Ly’bahr developed this little toy to block our powers.” Tach squeezed her eyes shut and sucked in a deep breath. “They’re reasonably effective because they hurt like hell, but enough sufficiently determined telepaths can punch through it.”

“Can this Zabb guy?” asked Jay.


That assurance acted on Trips like a starting gun. Words poured urgently out, and he stuttered in his haste and concern.

“This is c-crazy, Doc. Five years ago this guy tried to kill you. His whole purpose in life is to kill you. You can’t get on a ship with him for a couple of weeks and expect to arrive on Takis with your parts intact.”

“However sincere or insincere the emotion, Zabb wants to be vindicated in the eyes of the Ajayiz. He won’t kill me until I’ve met my part of this bargain.”

“And on Takis?” Mark asked.

“He won’t be on Takis. He’s signed a service contract with the Network. They take their contracts very seriously. Breach one, and they will hunt you to death and beyond. Zabb will deliver us and resume his duties.”

“Forgive me, Doc, but I think you’re being naive.”

“What other choice do I have!” Anger and desperation edged her words like razors.

“Wait for another ship.”

“Don’t you understand anything. I’ve been saying? This is the Network. Everything costs. Everything is extra. If I reject this transport, we’ll have to renegotiate, and the price will only go up. And I suspect I have already sold my soul.”

“What was the price?” asked Trips.

“Open contract, payment to be tendered later.”

“Dumb,” was Jay’s only comment.

“What else was I supposed to do?” She clutched at her temples. “Damn this thing. It hurts.” And she turned away and vomited the contents of her stomach across the powdery white sands.

Trips flipped off the barrier, put his arm supportively around Tach’s shoulders. Jay offered a handkerchief, and she gratefully wiped her mouth.

“Okay, we gotta do it.” Trips shook his head. “We’ve just gotta be awful careful.”

Serious glances all around. Tach gave a sharp nod and started back to Zabb.

“TACHY!” Tom’s voice was stressed as if it had been scored with sandpaper. “I CAN’T……NOT WITHOUT MY SHELL.” Tears blurred the final word.

There was an ache in her throat. Tach crossed to him and pressed her cheek to the cold iron. “Tommy,” she managed.

Mark joined her. He stroked the metal with gentle fingertips as if handling a hurt animal. In some ways he was. “Oh, come on, man. You want it so bad. This is it, Burroughs and Clarke, ‘Doc’ Smith, remember like we talked that night… The Lensmen?”


“Terrific, another cherished illusion blown to hell… the Great and Powerful Turtle is a weenie,” Jay grunted.

“Don’t pay any attention to him, Tommy,” Tach said quickly.


“I understand, Tommy, it’s all right.”

There was a long moment of silence, then Turtle blurted, “I WANTED TO GO SO BAD.” The shell rose and flew a few feet away. Suddenly a tall dune flattened beneath the force of Turtle’s grief.

Mark looked seriously down at Tachyon. “We’ve got problems. I gotta sleep sometime. There’s gotta be two of us.”

The thought hit both of them simultaneously. They pivoted slowly to face Jay.

“No, oh no,” said the detective, holding out his hands as if to ward them off and retreating backward a few steps.

“It makes perfect sense,” Mark argued.

“Bullshit it does. You’re asking me to climb on board that spaceship and go to another planet, where you can display me like a prize trout to a bunch of his… her relatives who may all want to kill her, except that I’m supposed to stop them.”

“Yes,” Tach said succinctly. “That sums it up.”

“You’re nuts,” said Jay Ackroyd equally succinctly.

“You can let him down – lots of people have – but the Doc’s always been there for us. He’s going to a dangerous place, and she’s in a tough condition to deal with violence and killing. So, I’m asking you for her. Will you help?” Trips asked.

“Hell, if the crazy Takisians don’t kill me, the fucking pronouns will.” Jay unlimbered a hip flask and took a swig. Jay slapped the cap back onto the flask and thrust it back into his coat pocket. Sauntered over to Tachyon. “Okay, but I get time-and-a-half for other planets.”

Tach couldn’t find a phrase, a word, or an entire army of words crushing enough for the detective. Instead she spun on her heel and returned to Turtle. Laying her cheek against the cold metal shell, she whispered softly, “Goodbye, Tommy.”

“COME BACK.” Even through the distortion of the speakers she could hear his pain. Her throat ached in sympathy.

“I promise.” Whirling she half ran, half staggered through the deep sand until she stood face-to-face with Zabb. “I accept your terms, Trader Captain,” she said with great formality. It served to remind Zabb of his current status. The point was not lost upon the Takisian, but he merely indicated the ramp with his usual graceful courtesy.

“Then let us be off.”

At the foot of the ramp there was a paranoid little quadrille as Zabb tried to get Tachyon and the humans to precede him into the ship.

Tach glowered up at him. “I think not. I want you where I can see you.”

Zabb bowed. “My motivation exactly. You have a most alarmingly attractive derriere.” He shrugged and chuckled at Tach’s smoldering expression. “But pleasure postponed is pleasure savored.”

The quick rap of boot heels, and he was consumed in the brilliant light pouring through the open hatch. Tach drew a breath, squared her shoulders. Mark suddenly turned and waved cheerfully back at Turtle like a happy vacationer about to set sail on a cruise ship. Jay dropped his head briefly into his hand.

Then flanked by her two incongruous paladins, Tachyon entered the enemy ship.

Chapter Eleven

They say the Morakh lack all mentatic skills, but there is a humming in the brain, a shivering along all the nerves, which tells a Morakh that dying is about to start. Durg was feeling it now. He signaled Blaise. There was a widening of the pupils, no more, to indicate he understood. Durg allowed himself a brief moment to hope that Blaise was finally learning subtlety.

Their current danger existed because of Blaise’s phenomenal oratorical skills. The boy had presented his plan for the domination of House Ilkazam. He had spoken as if addressing an auditorium of the Tarhiji, and even the psi lords had been affected. Now Blaise was a danger, and the time for betrayal had come.

L’gura was once more behind his desk. There were three other of the Zal’hma at’ Irg, and Malika, with him. Blaise was seated, facing L’gura. Kelly was on one side, Durg on the other.

“Your groundling ways have some interest, but I think we prefer to handle our affairs in the Takisian manner,” L’gura said.

Durg snapped his fingers, indicating Malika, and then petitioned the ancestors. The woman’s eyes widened in terror. She suddenly ripped her blade loose and, driving it deep into her belly, ripped upward.

Blaise released her and pounced on the shocked Vayawand. Had their defenses been fully in place, he would never have captured them, but they were in total shock – the mudcrawler had controlled a Morakh. Then the three nobles were down, writhing on the floor, slowly suffocating. Durg flashed across the intervening space and yanked Malika’s pistol free, tossed it to Blaise. The boy snatched it out of the air, grabbed Kelly by the arm, jerked the smaller man onto his lap, and tangled the barrel of the gun in the red curls at the Takisian’s temple.

Grotesque choking sounds filled the office as the nobles’ autonomic functions shut down. L’gura stared placidly at the desperate men as they flopped like hooked fish. Dark blood from Malika’s gutted body was spreading across the floor. It touched the edge of the Raiyis’s shoe. He calmly moved his foot. Durg had to admire his sangfroid.

“Is this enough virtu for you? A sufficient demonstration of my value? Or am I still just a miserable mudcrawler?”

Blaise thrust Kelly off his lap and gave the older man a boot to hurry his trajectory toward the floor. Kelly fetched up almost nose to nose with one of the dying. The bogus Tachyon let out a whimper and scuttled away.

L’gura steepled bone white fingers before his mouth. “Enough. They’re too well-bred to waste.”

“Really? They look pretty useless to me. But have it your way.” Blaise released the three men from the killing grip of his mind control. During his desperate struggles one had ripped out several of the inset jewels that adorned his cheeks. Blood flowed sluggishly from the gouges.

“Welcome to my House, Blaise brant Gisele. I think you will prove to be a most excellent addition.”

Durg released a breath he hadn’t even been aware he’d been holding. The dice had fallen well. He was home.

“Oh Shit!”

The shout penetrated her nightmare-laced sleep and sent Tachyon rolling out of the narrow bunk and scuttling for cover. She was dragging some of her own with her – the light, yet warm black fabric that served as sheet, blanket, and comforter. Her eyes finally focused, and in quick, snapping images like a stuttering slide show, she took in the situation.

A chunk of wall had peeled back, and the head and thorax of a Kondikki worker wove hypnotically back and forth as the clusters of tiny eyes searched for the source of all the noise. The embedded ceiling lights reflected off the creature’s shiny greenish black chitinous exoskeleton.

Jay was backed against the fold-down table, and his wildcard trigger finger was coming to bear.

“Jay! No!” Tach screamed. And flung her blanket. It tangled about his arm and hand, there was a soft pop, and the blanket vanished. The Kondikki was, mercifully, still present.

“It belongs here,” Tach yelled.

“Not in my bedroom it doesn’t!” the ace shouted back.

“Look.” The alien, its segmented body wiggling like a child’s toy, was climbing the wall. “It’s just replacing a light.”

Jay followed her pointing finger and spotted the burned-out panel.

Legs suddenly gone weak, Jay dropped to the floor. “Shit.” He mopped sweat with the back of his hand. Tach crawled to him and wrapped her arms briefly about his shoulders, then scooted back out of reach.

“I’m sorry I should have warned you.”

“No kidding.” He drew in a breath, wiped his mouth. “Secret alien spies, UFOs, and now giant bugs. Is it too late to go home?”

“Way, way too late.”

The door slid open, and Trips entered, paused and blinked at the huddling tableau on the floor. The private investigator pointed. Head craned back, hands propped on his hips, Mark grinned up at the Kondikki, its flexible mouth tendrils busily replacing the light.

“Aren’t they cool? There are thousands of them, way smaller than that one, down at the end of the corridor.”

Jay combed his hair with his fingers. “I didn’t need to hear that. And no, I don’t want to see ’em.”

“Where did you send the blanket, Jay?” Tach asked sternly.

He looked sheepish. “When I don’t really have time to figure out a destination, I usually just go for the scoreboard at Yankee Stadium.”

Tach stared at him in growing fury. “You were going to pop a Kondikki worker to Yankee Stadium?”

“Hey, it’s in the Bronx. They’re used to big cockroaches up there.”

“Jay, you are my ace in the hole,” Tach said, accepting Mark’s offer of a hand up. “You must be more cautious about so frivolously using your power.”

“Frivolous! There was a giant bug in the room. And I don’t know why you’re sweating it – how far away from Earth are we?”

“Several light-years, I’m not sure.”

“I’m good from L. A. to New York. Light-years… I doubt it. The bug would never have made it.”

“First, it’s not a bug. It’s a sentient creature. So the idea of your leaving it floating in space does not comfort me. Second, I think you underestimate your power. I doubt it is impeded by the normal laws of the space-time continuum.” She cocked her head to the side and considered for a second. “On the other hand, I don’t wish to test the theory.” Tach walked to her bunk and sat down. If you are both rested enough, we must begin your instruction and training.”

“In what, and for what?” asked Jay. The set of his jaw was belligerent.

“Language, customs, most important, attitudes.”

Mark pushed Tachyon onto her back on the bunk. She let out a gasp, and the ace quickly retreated a couple of steps, holding out his hands placatingly. “Easy. How about a foot massage?”

“All right,” was the dubious reply. Mark seated himself and pulled her feet into his lap. Slipping off her shoes, he began to rub. Tach gave a tiny groan of pleasure.

“So lecture,” Jay ordered.

“Ideal, where to start?”

She chewed on her lower lip, but before she could launch in, the lights in the cabin dimmed twice, and they felt an odd prickling over their skin.

“Oh, Christ, what was that?” Jay asked, in a voice gone suddenly breathy.

Tach was as flummoxed as the detective. The phenomenon was repeated. Mark knitted his brows in a contemplative frown. “I think it’s, like, maybe the… doorbell?”

“Who the hell’d be visiting us?”

“We could, like, open the door and find out,” Mark suggested.

Jay hurried to the portal, touched the keypad, and it slid open to reveal an extremely tall, lovely woman. Well, not woman exactly. She was an upright biped, and she was a mammal as evidenced by the impressive pair of breasts curving the material of her shift, but she was eyeless, and what Tach had at first taken for hair she realized were twining sensory organs. She was also the whitest creature Tach had ever seen. Her clothing was simple in the extreme – a plain blue shift, sandals. Her only ornamentation was an elaborate leather belt both inlaid and embroidered with jewels and metal threads, supporting a gem-encrusted pouch that hung at her left side.

She smiled and said in halting English, “Wel… come to my… uh, ship. I am Nesfa.”

“Pleased to meet you. Jay Ackroyd.” The detective held out his hand, then shot Tach a pained and embarrassed look. Tach was not the least bit surprised when Nesfa unerringly took the ace’s hand.

“Oh, groovy, are you part of the Network?” Mark asked. “Hi, I’m Mark Meadows.”

“Pleased to face you… no, see you… no.”

“Meet you,” Mark corrected with a happy smile.

“I learn your… language only a little from my captain.”

“Zabb?” Tach suggested.

“Yes.” She “looked” back at Mark. “We are Network, but very… new.”

“You just joined?” Jay amplified.

“Yes. We Viand search for new… places… to live. We… buy ship.”

“But you don’t know how to operate her?” Tach asked.

“No,” Nesfa replied.

“Typical,” Tach said bitterly.

“I come only to say… hello. No to bother. Ship is… as yours.”

She smiled again, and it was so warm and pretty that the travelers were beginning to forget the lack of eyes. Of course they’d all had practice. Before its destruction they’d all drunk at the Crystal Palace and been served by the eyeless bartender, Sascha.

“Bye-bye,” she said, and left.

“Boy, we gotta get out more,” Jay gusted. “What a doll.” Mark and Tach exchanged glances and burst out laughing. “What? What is it?”

“What an ambassador you’d make,” Mark said.

“But only if the aliens are all women,” Tach added. Jay was continuing to stare at the closed door. “Jay, you can pursue your gonads’ imperative at a later time. We must resume.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Tach must have looked lost, because Mark prompted her. “You were gonna talk about the customs in the Houses.”

“Oh yes. Just quick background. There are seven great Houses. The Ilkazam, the Vayawand, the Alaa, the Ss’ang, the Tandeh, the Jeban, and the Rodaleh. Then fifteen or so modest Houses, and finally a few tiny holdings. About thirty total, though the numbers can fluctuate due to war or treaty.

“Once you pass through the walls of my family compound – or any compound, for that matter – you will be living between the covers of a flamboyant novel. While it is true that we rule the mind-blind – sometimes with a ferocity that’s appalling – we are also the primary consumers of the luxuries and services produced by the Tarhiji. We’re their primary source of entertainment too. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we strut through life with the bombastic quality of performers in an Italian opera.” Tachyon frowned and considered the human’s nondescript face. “In order to succeed in Takisian society, it is essential that you possess йlan. In your case, Jay, it is unfortunate that you look so ordinary, but your smart mouth will offset that liability.”

“Gee, sorry, if I’d known, I’d have had a nose job.”

Tach shot back. “It would require an entire body sculpt.”

“Walked right into it,” groused Jay.

“Mark carries a similar burden, he’s not at all handsome, but his great height will make him unique – assuming they don’t view him as a freak and deformed.”

“This is kind of disturbing. Is your entire society this shallow?” asked Mark.

It stung, and a flush blossomed in her cheeks, but there was enough truth in the accusation and enough innate honesty in Tachyon to give her pause. She sighed. “Yes, and no. Yes, because your breeding is in your face and your form, and we do breed for beauty. No, because the Takisians can be very astute and see past mere appearances.” Tach stopped, considered. “But that’s an oversimplification too. You see, on Takis appearances are everything. A false appearance of power, of virtu, can make a man a king as easily as a true one.”

“That’s not astute, that’s gullible,” said Jay.

“No, cautious,” Tach corrected. “The man who struts and preens may be a bombastic buffoon, or he may be every bit as dangerous and powerful as he claims. You don’t attack until you’re certain. That’s why you must hide your powers, Jay, but at the same time flaunt them. Drop mysterious hints about the nature of those powers, leave the impression that they are awesome, terrifying, and probably mental in nature.”

“Trips may be able to pull that off. He can reveal a few of his friends and even suggest that there are a lot more waiting in the wings, but that’s going to do fuck-all for me. They’ll have my head open in a second, and then they’ll know I’m no mind-powered ace.”

“Are you listening to me?” snapped Tach. “They won’t risk that until they are certain of your powers, and your allies.”

“So far as I can tell, our only allies are sitting in this room.”

“As recent as five years ago my uncle Taj was still loyal to my line. There may be others.”

Jay continued to argue. “And just how will you prove that you are who you say you are?”

“Open my mind.”

“Great,” said Jay bitterly. “That’s really hiding the football.”

“Jay, if I suddenly started telling you my life story – as quickly as I could, and in no logical order – how much would you actually absorb?” The ace considered that, tugging on a shaggy bit of hair that was just brushing his collar. “Memory, in both humans and Takisians, is laid down in chemical codes on various synapses with a great deal of repetition, and no particular order.” She swiveled to face Mark. “Do you remember when I had to force open Rabdan’s mind?” Mark shuddered. “I had to peel his mind layer by layer, laying bare the memories, and destroying his mind in the process. And this wasn’t accomplished in a minute.”

“It took you seven hours,” said Mark. “And you were almost unconscious by the end.”

“So when you read a mind, what are you getting?” asked Jay.

“First, just the surface thoughts, and it’s very confused, a constant running babble. We’re trained to break it out, enforce grammatical order so it’s understandable. Deeper memories are harder, you have to dig a little. It’s like searching through an encyclopedia for the proper reference. Let’s say I’m searching your mind to determine how you cowed Digger Downs. I might have to turn over a whole series of buried memories – stealing a dime from the little girl in first grade, striking out with your date at the senior prom -”

“Hey!” Jay exploded. Mark chuckled.

“So telepathy is not as simple as it seems. And it becomes more difficult when you’re dealing with a trained mentat. They’ll have alarms to warn them of interlopers, and if they’re powerful enough, traps to destroy the weak or unwary.”

“Zabb twigged to you pretty fast,” said Mark.

“That’s because he knows me very well. There is a signature, a taste, if you will, to each mind. Each is unique.”

“So old friends or close relations will believe you instantly,” said Jay.

“And if by some dismal chance none of those happy few remain, I’ll have to convince related strangers with a dazzling display of knowledge that no impostor could possibly possess.”

“And then?” asked Jay.

“And then we find Blaise and recover my body.”

“It sounds so simple,” Mark said.

“It won’t be,” said Jay. “How the hell do we find two people when they have an entire planet to hide in?”

Trips contemplated his dealings with Blaise – dealings that had left one woman dead and almost cost Mark his daughter. He sighed and said, “If Blaise is on Takis, I’m sure he’s, like, made his presence felt.”

Chapter Twelve

Back home in Oklahoma they’d had a cat. A lanky orange critter with a crooked tail – legacy of a fight with a neighbor’s Labrador – and haunted, feral gold eyes. For six years it had slunk about the house, grabbing at food when it was set before it, but otherwise ignored and despised. That was Kelly’s status in House Vayawand.

Sometimes he wondered if Takisians possessed invisibility as well as telepathy. He had certainly become transparent. A few times he’d forced the issue – placed himself like a small stone in the midst of a rushing stream, greeted someone as they broke and eddied past. But he’d gotten this look, which sent him folding in on himself like the leaf of a touch-me-not, and been whirled away by the rushing currents of people. He then lowered his sights. Obviously the lords and ladies of House Vayawand thought he had cooties. Okay, he’d try servants. It made no difference. Even the servants were snotty.

So here he was sliding through the door of a… mess hall? family cafeteria?… ready to make another snatch-and-run food raid. He picked an empty table near the door to the kitchens. It was noisy with servants hurrying past, and smoky each time the doors swung open. It was not elegant dining. Which was why it was deserted. No self-respecting Takisian would sit in such an inferior position.

Only a very inferior bogus Takisian, thought Kelly sadly as a plate of soup was slid very carefully and very quietly under his nose.

The servants might look at him as if he were dirt, but their behavior was always excruciatingly polite. Because he had the face – borrowed though it was. He might be an impostor, but the face bestowed power and an aura of danger. Not that there was a lot of physical difference between the mind-blind majority of the planet and their telepathic overlords. They were all fair – the darkest hair color Kelly’d seen was a sort of mink brown – on the small side, but the Tarhiji tended to plumpness, whereas the carefully inbred psi lords possessed a refinement, and an almost tooth-aching beauty, which combined with their ancient eyes into a terrifying presence. And each time those eyes were turned on Kelly, he felt as if his bones had been replaced with ice.

I share so much with you, Kelly cried inwardly to the bowed head of the young man who served him. I’m as terrified of them as you are. Talk to me!

And once again his random ability to tap into the telepathic gift that lay dormant – but dangerous – in his borrowed mind stirred to life. The young man heard Kelly’s thoughts and jumped like a frog on an electric wire. The pale brown eyes fluttered nervously up to meet Kelly’s gaze. The servant placed his hands briefly over his ears and shook his head.

“But why?” asked Kelly aloud.

It was an effort to say the words, but the young man forced them out in a grating whisper. “You are trouble. Great trouble.”

He was gone, swallowed up by the clatter and steam of the kitchen.

“No, I’m in trouble. Big trouble,” said Kelly to the empty space left by the waiter’s precipitous retreat. With a sigh he lifted his spoon and began to eat.

There was an eddy of movement at the main door. Four guards, their bodies forming a protective square, sailed into the room. At their center, nestled like a precious jewel in a living setting, walked a lavishly overdressed Takisian. This one Kelly recognized – Ke’elaa, head of Vayawand security. Kelly couldn’t pull his gaze away from the martial parade. In that strange overworld where his uncontrollable telepathy periodically carried him, Kelly perceived Takisian thoughts as dancing rainbow colors. Now there was a swirling black storm eating at the edges of those oblivious colors. Kelly shook his head, trying to clear the weird feeling.

Then he realized: Blaise. Blaise was in this room. Someone had been jumped.

One of the guards hesitated, frowned, and looked back toward the soldier at the rear of the phalanx. But the reaction, the premonition of danger, came too late. The heavy pistol was out of its holster, the barrel jammed into the back of Ke’elaa’s head. Cooked brains and congealing blood were suddenly flying from the hole in what had been Ke’elaa’s face.

Reflexes Kelly hadn’t even known he possessed kicked in, and he took a low, long dive that carried him through the shuttering lens of the kitchen door. He came to rest against the lower legs of a waiter, who tottered, skittered, danced, to no avail. Food pattered down, a vegetable rain, followed by the mind-numbing sound of shattering china. It almost drowned out the screams, curses, and the snarl of weapons fire from the dining room. Self-preservation was still the paramount drive for Kelly. Crawling from beneath the half-stunned servant, Kelly surrendered to the urge that was pure Kelly Ann Jenkins. He howled like the teenage girl he really was. That need satisfied, he clutched the stump of his right arm against his chest and bolted.

The house was seething like a disturbed anthill. To Kelly’s fevered imagination, hours seemed to pass until he at last stumbled past Blaise and Durg serenely playing cards, and into the haven of his bedroom.

Pillow clutched desperately against his aching stomach, Kelly rocked backward and forward in an agony of fear and shock. Blaise sauntered in. There was a sated, well-fed feeling surrounding him. He sat on the edge of the bed and asked in a soft voice, “What’s wrong?”

“You know damn well what’s wrong. You killed Ke’elaa, and now everybody’s killing everybody out there.” His voice caught on a sob.

“It wasn’t me. These Takisians kill each other all the time.”

Kelly wanted to smash the hypocritical smile off his face. “I felt you.”

Blaise pushed back the sweat-matted bangs from Kelly’s forehead. “But you’re not going to tell anybody, are you?”


“Then we haven’t got a problem. We’re no threat to anyone, simple little groundlings that we are.”

The bed shifted as Blaise removed his weight. He smiled down at Kelly. Walked out. And Kelly remembered how once, briefly, he had loved him.

Chapter Thirteen

Jay felt like a curmudgeon, but after only a few days he decided just one thing could be said for space travel – it was achingly, stultifyingly boring. At least on an airplane there was the occasional burst of turbulence, but the Milky Way was behaving with perfect gentility – not a single asteroid field to dodge, unknown space anomaly to elude, space pirate to defeat.

Tachyon’s face had been a study in disgust, amazement, and condescension when Jay had offered this opinion. “Asteroid fields? We’re light-years from the nearest system. And do you have any comprehension of how big space really is? As for pirates… we’re traveling with the closest thing to them.”

“Then I guess I’ll go looking for some captive princesses. Maybe they’ll be more appreciative than the humorless bitch I’m stuck guarding.

“I should hope Nesfa would have better taste!” Tach shot back.

Another problem with spaceships – you can’t slam the doors when you’re pissed. Jay grumbled to himself, Dumb-ass Takisian. Couldn’t she recognize sarcasm when she heard it? and went wandering again.

Tachyon had been sticking tight to the stateroom. Scared of Zabb, wary of Nesfa and her people. As for Zabb, he’d been notable only by his absence. Trips insisted that someone be with Tachyon all the time, and since Jay wanted to spend time with the amazing Nesfa, that put most of the burden on the hippie. Jay knew he was shirking, and that only added to his lousy mood.

As planned, he ran across Nesfa. She was hurrying down a corridor carrying a potted plant. It looked like attenuated bamboo, but of a startling purple hue. “I’m prettying the lounge. Come and help.”


This was a new room for Jay. A few low sofas, a clear table. Multicolored lights crawled randomly through the piece. Jay couldn’t decide if it was the Network version of a lava lamp, or a video game. Nesfa crossed to a corner and deposited the purple bamboo. Then Jay spotted the most exciting feature yet – a port.

“Hot damn, the observation car” Jay laughed for the sheer relief of it. A weight of claustrophobia he hadn’t known he was carrying suddenly blew off his shoulders. “So how do we get a view?”

Nesfa’s white brow furrowed. Her hair swept forward, scanning the wall. She then crossed and pressed a section. The black rolled away, and Jay frowned as roiling gray, like dirty cotton wool being torn by hurricane winds, showed beyond the port.

“What the hell is this? No stars!” Jay yelped, feeling cheated.

“Of course there are no stars,” Tach snapped from the doorway. “We’re not in reality as you know it.” She was in one of those moods, her mouth drawn down, gray eyes dark with a secret pain.

Jay had never liked being lectured by Tachyon when the little shit was a man. Now the soft girl’s voice made it doubly hard to take – memories of a finger-wagging mother or sister.

“Gee, so sorry you finally decided to crawl out of your cave.”

“You… fight?” Nesfa asked hesitantly. Damn, the girl was quick, picking up human emotional nuances that well.

Mark stepped hurriedly in. “But, Doc, I could see stars when we were aboard Baby.”

“We weren’t traveling at light-speed, Mark.”

Why did Tachyon have that sharp tone only when she addressed him? Jay wondered. Talking with Mark she fairly cooed.

Tachyon continued, “That was just a little high-speed chase around the solar system.”

“Which you would never have won if my ’Cat hadn’t been damaged from our earlier encounter with the Swarm,” said Zabb conversationally from another doorway.

Mark’s hand was in his pocket. Jay was willing his to stay there. But the Takisian made no move even to enter the room, and Jay felt the hair on the back of his neck start to lie down again. There was something predatory in the way Zabb was eyeing Tachyon, and Jay began to think that maybe Meadows wasn’t totally paranoid. Maybe this smiling man really did intend to kill Tachyon.

“Forgive my laxity as a host. I’ve had a ship to run.

Zabb said something to Nesfa in an unknown language. She responded in the same clicks and pops. He crossed to her and ran a hand softly across her belt and gently cupped the hip pouch. The familiarity made Jay want to hit him.

“I didn’t want your society, Zabb, just your efforts as a carter,” replied Tachyon with a fine hauteur that set oddly on her very youthful features.

Zabb laughed. “Oh, cousin, you do that very well, but you chastise me for becoming a laborer while you have spent the past forty years ministering to filth?” He propped his shoulders against a wall and included Mark and Jay in the conversation. “On my world saints are suspect. Only the mad act without a hefty dose of self-interest. So I think my cousin is mad. Or hopelessly tainted. After all, he has become an Earth-woman.” Again that laugh.

“I think we ought to get back to our room,” said Mark.

Jay agreed, but another, less wise, part of himself hated to be routed by this supercilious, smiling bastard.

“An excellent idea, but leave my kinswoman. We have need of private conversation,” Zabb said.

“Now, you didn’t strike me as stupid,” said Jay conversationally. “Arrogant, and maybe a little too inclined to lead with your chin – most of you military types have that problem – but not stupid. Why do you think we’re along on this little party? It sure ain’t for the great view or the superb accommodations.”

“You’re not seeing the Doc alone.” It lacked the wit and panache of Jay’s remarks, but it got the point across.

Zabb sighed, a heavy, studied sound of noblesse oblige oppressed by gaucherie. “How very tiresome you humans are.” He turned to Tachyon. “Cousin, are you afraid?”

Jay squeezed his eyes shut. Praying, but doubting that Tach had the self-control to ignore that red flag.

“Afraid of you?”

Here it comes, Jay almost moaned aloud.

“Of course I am.” The ace’s eyes snapped open, and he stared in amazement at that queenly little figure with its rampantly out-thrust belly. “But I repose my faith in my friends and the strength of your word. My friends I’m sure about, your word… “ Her voice trailed off significantly, and she gave a little shrug of the shoulders that said a book-full.

Zabb may have tossed a flag, but Tach had jabbed in a poniard. A dark flush rose in his cheeks. The Takisian spun on his heel and exited. Tach slumped suddenly.

“I shouldn’t have come out. I shouldn’t give him a chance at me.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’ve said all along. Come on, baby, I’ll take you back,” Mark said softly. “Jay?”

“I… uh, think I’ll stay here and help Nesfa with the planting.”

Mark’s blue eyes were very knowing behind the thick lenses of his glasses. Jay flushed and wondered if his growing sexual need was apparent to everyone.

“So, here we are. Just the two of us.”

Nesfa looked up from the bamboo. “Yes.”

“So, are you married?”


“Married. Got a husband? Mate?” The concept didn’t seem to be penetrating.

“I don’t… understand.”

Jay decided words were getting in the way. He bent and kissed Nesfa lightly on the lips. Her face brightened. “Ah, you wish to exchange.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s it.” God, what an ambassador he’d make.

Nesfa stood and led Jay to a sofa. This was becoming more promising by the minute. She ran her hands around his waist and frowned in perplexity.

“Where is your #@$** amp;#**?”

Jay leered. “A little lower.” He unzipped, and, by damn, she was a fast learner. Her hand had him out in a second, caressing and exploring his penis.

Jay began kissing her. Nesfa seemed to like that. So did he, once he got used to the strangeness of her taste, sort of pepper and lemon. Her hair was twining and coiling around his head, tickling his face. There was a new, moist weight on his arm. Jay opened his eyes and looked down. A wormlike thing was oozing out of the jewel-encrusted pouch, wrapping itself about his arm, climbing. Its torpedolike head was dripping gore.

Jay screamed hoarsely and threw himself backward off the couch. Nesfa was sitting like a sack of abandoned laundry. The lovely face had gone slack and empty. The worm was quivering, casting its head in small circles, searching for Jay.

It began to undulate its way back into the pouch. Jay jumped to his feet, gripped the top of the shift in both hands, and ripped. It fell away to hang like tattered seaweed over the heavy belt. There was a hole in the pouch. A hole in the shift. A hole in Nesfa. The worm thrust its head back into the woman’s body. The light and animation came back into her face.

“Jay, what is wrong? You do not wish to exchange?”

Jay stared down at his now-limp penis hanging through his fly. He shuddered as he remembered another crawling parasite: Ti Malice. With shaking hands Jay stuffed himself back in his pants and ran.

Chapter Fourteen

“Am I the only person who’s not bothered by this? These people are full of bloodsucking worms!”

Cap’n Trips ran one long, bony forefinger through a pile of Scrabble tiles. “And I suppose we could be described as people full of shit. Aliens are different, Jay, that’s why they’re aliens.”

“That’s sorta what Tachyon said, only she was a lot snottier.”

Jay returned to a glum contemplation of his tiles. A sharp cry of terror from the Doc drew the detective away to investigate. Jay crossed back from the bunk. The tiny whimpering sounds had ceased. Settling back into his chair, Jay jerked a head toward the sleeping Tachyon. “She seems all right now.”

“I think the nightmares are getting better,” said Mark.

“I think you’re dreaming.”

“I was hoping.” Mark looked back at the tiles. The selection hadn’t improved. Nothing suggested itself.

“Has he got anything in that bag of tricks to help?” Jay indicated the medical bag.

“Can’t… the baby.”

“Oh yeah…” A pause while Jay frowned at his tiles. “How do you spell titillate?” Mark spelled it.

“Shit. I need another l.”

Jay spelled out tit. Mark carefully recorded the detective’s three points.

TRY hung alluringly off on the left side of the board. Mark gathered up his tiles and spelled out tryptophan.

“What the fuck is that?” Jay yelped.

“It’s an amino acid.” Mark had hit a triple-word score, and double points on the y. He now led Jay by a hundred and eighty points.

Jay collected two new tiles, leaned back, folded his arms across his chest, and eyed Mark. “What did happen out on the Rox?”

Mark shrugged. “He got jumped.”

“By who? With who?”

“She hasn’t told you?” Jay shook his head. “It’s, like, really private to her, you know? So I probably shouldn’t…”

“I’m trying to do a job here, Meadows. A little information would help.” Mark remained stubbornly silent. “Look, from the performances she puts on every time she goes to sleep, I gotta figure her current condition isn’t due to her catlike Takisian curiosity to experience sex from the other side.”

“No.” Mark mournfully admitted.

“Judging by the way she reacts every time one of us touches her, I’m figuring she got raped.” Mark just kept staring, giving away nothing. Jay’s next words sent the comforting little delusion of his poker face fleeing. “By Blaise, right?” Mark tried to control the reaction, but his head snapped up. Jay smiled humorlessly. “You may be kicking butt in Scrabble, but don’t ever gamble with me.”

“Okay, so now you know.”

Jay shook his head. “It’s really disgusting.”

“It wasn’t the Doc’s fault!”

“Really? She’d probably disagree with you. So would I.”

Anger has a taste, almost a physical presence. Mark could feel it battering against the back of his teeth. “Oh, why?” He wanted it to sound casual, instead emerged in sharp razorlike exhalations.

“Tachyon had me searching for Blaise a year ago because she was scared to death of the little shit. And after my investigations I could see why.” The detective glanced back toward the bunk. “All and all I don’t know if Tachy is such a great candidate for motherhood… shit, fatherhood… fuck it – parenthood. He sure screwed up with Blaise.”

Mark hadn’t noticed when he’d picked up the Scrabble tile, but suddenly it was there, and he was twisting it through his fingers. “Blaise is crazy! Certifiably, clinically crazy. For years Doc tried to provide a stable and normal home environment. He tried with love to undo twelve years of sickness. And yeah, it’s a bummer he failed, but at least he tried.”

“He should have gotten some qualified help, but he’s so damn arrogant… I guess he thought he could be a kid shrink too.”

“That’s not fair!” Mark cried. “It’s real easy for you to sit there and throw stones, but you were partly to blame.” The flush appeared in Jay’s cheeks so fast he might have been slapped. The tile between Mark’s fingers snapped, and both men jumped. Suddenly horribly self-conscious, Mark tossed away the shards of the tile.

“How do you know about Atlanta?” Jay demanded. He was breathing hard.

Mark ducked his head. “The Doc told me. Not too bright, taking a thirteen-year-old off to play detective. Course you couldn’t predict that Ti Malice creature would possess him, and then use Blaise’s mind control to kill that poor joker, or that Blaise would enjoy it so much. Any more than Doc could predict how his spoiling would fuck with the kid. You guys were trying to care. It just all went funky and triggered the craziness.”

Jay didn’t say anything, just sat for a long moment with his head bowed. “Meadows,” he said finally. “I apologize. I was royally out of line.”

Mark cleared his throat selfconsciously. “Hey, I didn’t mean to rant at you. He’s just my closest friend… and personally, I think the Doc will make an awesome parent. She adores kids.”

“He must, otherwise she wouldn’t have let this one get her stretched out to here.” Jay demonstrated, then shook his head. “How do you suppose she’s handling it? If I suddenly got switched… had something growing inside me…”

“I don’t think Takisians are as hung up about gender as we are. Kids are also, like, the wealth of the family. And there’s the telepathy. If you had bonded mind to mind with your baby, could you kill her?”

“Probably not.”

Mark swallowed hard, past the question that lay like a lump in the center of his throat. “Hey, man, I don’t mean to be nosy, but I gotta ask it.” Jay nodded assent, but warily. “Why are you along on this trio

“I need to have my head examined.”

“No… seriously.”

The detective sat silent, his face an unmoving, uncommunicative mask. It went on for so long that Mark was beginning to writhe with embarrassment. Finally Jay sighed, and Mark also exhaled in relief.

“I don’t know,” Jay said in so serious a tone that it hung oddly on his lips. “Not out of friendship, like you. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I like Tachy well enough, but…” The shrug said it all. “Maybe it’s a funny kind of chauvinism. For years they’ve been sneaking in on us, manipulating us, watching us. Now we’re coming. Taking it home to them.”

Jay stared down at the backs of his hands. Turned them palms up, either startled to find they moved, or searching for meaning in the creases and lines. Mark tried and failed to resolve the very ordinary man he saw with the individual living inside that skin.

“And what about you?”

Jay’s question pulled him back. Mark fitted the broken tile together. Pressed hard. Laid the pad of one finger against it and pulled. It was still broken.

“I read them all… Clarke, Asimov, ‘Doc’ Smith. My dad flew state-of-the-art test planes. He was too old for astronaut training. I was all… wrong. No stomach for regimentation, the wrong attitude for the academy. They would have eaten me. He founded Space Command. His son couldn’t pass the evaluation for the airforce academy. Maybe it broke his heart… I don’t know. We don’t talk much… never have.”

Mark paused, remembering the last time he’d seen that erect, iron-haired figure, his hands resting on the shoulders of his granddaughter, sending his son out on the run from the government the general had sworn to defend. No, they hadn’t talked, but somehow Marcus had understood.

Softly Mark resumed. “Now I’m going. Now I finally have something I can share with him.”

“So you’re into this for everyone but you.”

“No,” Mark shook his head. “I’m looking…”

“For what?” Irritation sharpened Ackroyd’s tone. It seemed Ackroyd wasn’t a man with a lot of patience for soul searching.

“I don’t know.”

She knew she was driving them slowly mad. Even Mark was showing rebellion in the tight line of his lips, or the annoyed inhalations each time she refused to acknowledge their remarks. Unless they were couched in Takisian, of course. Then she listened and responded, but in the careful, simple phrases of a parent to a precocious five-year-old.

She joined them at the table carrying several articles of clothing. Jay sighed. “Benaji, sala’um, wai’r’sum -”

“No,” Tach interrupted in English. “Today we move on. You’ve learned Sham’al – loosely translated, industry speak. Now you have to get a taste of Ilkazal in the public mode.”

“Time out.” Jay gave the sign.

Before the detective could get wound up, Mark intervened. “We don’t have time to learn every language spoken on Takis, Doc.”

“I’m not expecting you to, but all you’ve learned is the lingua franca, if you will. The language of commerce, and communication to the lower classes. There is a diplomatic tongue, Amlas, used only between Houses. Then there is the language of each House, private and public. You don’t need the private – you haven’t wives or children to address. I doubt you’ll need Amlas – why should you be negotiating with the rival Houses on behalf of the House Ilkazam? But if you don’t have at least a nodding acquaintance with Ilkazal, you’ll be dismissed as mere servants or aliens.”

“We are aliens,” pointed out Mark.

“There are aliens and then there are aliens. I want you in the ship category. Able to speak Sham’al and know a bit of Ilkazal.”

“So we can’t parlay vous in English at all?” Jay asked, totally confusing the issue.

“Not at all. Like the ships, you have your own private language -”

“We’re not going to have to learn ship talk too, are we?” asked Mark hastily.

She said reassuringly, “No, it’s far beyond humanoid understanding. It’s telepathy based on complex mathematics. When broken down and made audible, it resembles music more than anything else.”

Mark’s homely face became almost handsome as he smiled in delight. “Awesome, man, the music of the spheres. Maybe old Sir Thomas wasn’t so far off.”

Tachyon chuckled, the first laugh she’d enjoyed in weeks. The image of one of Baby’s relatives hanging in the sky and singing softly to a British poet was irresistible.

Jay pulled her back. “So let me get this straight. As allies you’ve got your ships and that’s it?”

“And the Network has one hundred and thirty-seven member races.” Jay shook his head. “I think we’re playing in the wrong league.”

“You’re not playing in any league at all,” said Tachyon. “You’re still a farm team.”

“And who calls us up is still in doubt?” asked Mark.

Tach just nodded. She never did get to return to her dissertation on Takisian linguistics. The door to the cabin opened, and Zabb entered. Her reaction startled and dismayed her. The Tachyon mind cried out for her to assume a fighter’s stance, prepare for attack. The body responded by placing a hand protectively over her belly. Fortunately, Mark and Jay were more practical. They shifted quickly, Mark shielding her with his body, Jay hanging by her left shoulder.

“Sit, hounds.” Zabb patted soothingly at the air with his palms. “I’ve not come to harm my cousin, merely invite” He broke off abruptly, his mouth twisting in a crooked half smile that fifty years ago Tachyon had learned to resent and distrust. “Dear me, sweet Tisianne, what do I call you? English is such a primitive and cumbersome language. Are you a he, a she, or an it? Pronouns, I believe they’re called… slippery things.”

“Not half so slippery as you,” said Tachyon bitterly.

Overall she’d made peace with her temporary gender change, and the sidelong looks from her friends and her enemies affected her very little. Until Zabb. Before him she knew humiliation, and the corrosive anger at her ludicrous situation became an actual pain in the center of her chest. Illyana, rightly perceiving the anger as being directed at her small baby self, shifted nervously and sent out a telepathic begging cry to her mother.

Reminded of her duty and obligation, Tachyon made a conscious effort to bury the anger, sent waves of comfort and love washing across the baby’s unhappy little mind until she was rocked back into the peaceful dream state of the womb.

Wonderful, I’m turning my child into a codependent even before birth.

It raised an interesting question she had never before considered. Telepathic mothers could in fact begin imprinting, affecting their children long before their physical appearance in the world. But Tachyon’s mind was male. So what behavior and thought patterns was Illyana absorbing?

“Hello, Tis? Are you with us?” Tach’s head jerked back up, and she stared consideringly up at Zabb. “Will you come walking or no? And without them. I must speak with you privately.”

A chorus of nos met his statement. Zabb’s lips narrowed almost to invisibility beneath the sharp, elegant line of his mustache.

“Don’t be such an idiot, Zabb. We’ve both spent our lives surrounded by guards. Why should it bother you? Unless you’re afraid of my particular guards?”

“Burning Sky! You think you could present me with anything I would fear? Bring them if you think my word is not enough.”

Tachyon stared at him. Heard the bravado echoing in the first sentence. Sensed the pain in the second. What a strange relationship we have, she thought. You taught me to ride and let me take the reins of the sleigh on Crystal Night. I’ve eluded your assassins, felt the cut of your blade as we dueled to the death. And each time I’ve cheated you. You are my adored enemy.

“Stay here,” she heard herself saying. “I will walk out with my cousin.”

“You’ve lost your fucking mind,” said Jay.

“Perhaps… but I don’t think I’ll lose my life.” She glanced back over her shoulder at the two humans. Smiled. “And if my judgment is poor, and his words dishonored, I’ll trust you to kill him for me.”

“I don’t know about you, but I really hate that guy,” Jay said conversationally as the door closed. “And I’m not going to let him waltz off with Tachy. Time for a little snoop-and-poop action.”

“I’ll snoop and poop with you.” Meadows was busying himself with the briefcase.

“Meadows, I’m a detective. Taking you along is like taking a fucking semaphore -”

Jay didn’t see which vial the gangly ace took, but suddenly there was a whirlwind, and blankets went sailing off the bunks like hysterical chickens. The little figure shrugged herself free of the cocooning blankets, and Jay felt his jaw drop.

Jet black hair fell like an ebony waterfall down her back. The black jumpsuit hugged every curve of her lovely body. The white yin/yang symbol on her chest drew the eye to her perfect breasts.

“You’re living inside Mark Meadows? Holy shit, I’m going to be a lot nicer now.”

“As we speak, our quarry eludes us,” she said in a soft, pretty voice. There was a hint of censure in the words, and the remark was offered with a modest dropping of the eyes.

“Uh… yeah, right. Who the hell are you?” Jay asked plaintively, as they stepped through the door.

“Isis Moon… Moonchild.”

Once in the corridor, Moonchild dimmed the lights. Shadows dripped from the walls. She stepped into one of them and promptly vanished. Jay briefly wondered how she’d feel about divorce work. He almost lost her several times, but each time a small hand reached out from the shadows, lightly touched his wrist, and led him on.

Down a left-branching corridor they heard voices: Zabb’s clear tenor, and Tachyon’s bell-like tones. Jay pressed himself against the wall and craned until he could peer around the doorjamb. It looked like an armory, with racks of weapons hung on the walls and several spacesuits hanging from hooks.

Tachyon was fiddling with the arm of a suit. She sighed, dropped it, and turned to face her cousin. “Are you still worrying about that damn throne? If it’s any comfort to you… I don’t want it.” She shook her head. “And Zabb, it’s over. Whether I want it or not, you can’t have it either.”


“We’ve each made our choices. Mine was set fifty years ago when I went in pursuit of Ansata and the virus to try to prevent a holocaust. Your course was set five years ago when you betrayed your House and sold yourself to the Network. Takis may be a stop for each of us, but it can never again be home.”

“You’re the most self-righteous little vacu,” Zabb returned angrily. “You pretend it was necessary for you to deal with the Network in order to protect Takis. Abortion! It was self-interest, pure and simple. Why don’t you admit that all this altruism is really just a pose to cover your pathetic grandstanding for attention?

“You couldn’t hold your own in the true Takisian fashion – no aptitude for command, and no stomach for war. Even your science – you were a synthesizer, not an innovator. You didn’t invent the Enhancer project, you could only build on the work of others.

“You destroy everything you touch, Tis. Poor damned Ansata who carried the virus to Earth. If you’d let him carry out his mission, the death and suffering among those groundlings would have been much reduced. But you got to be a ministering power, the noble lord bountiful.

“And what about your own world? You damn near destroyed the family by your noble posturings. You left me to face our enemies.” Zabb ripped open his tunic, and revealed the left side of his body. It was a mass of puckered white scar tissue. Tach threw out a hand and backed away.

So far as Jay could tell, Zabb didn’t do a damn thing, but suddenly Tachyon threw her hands over her face, let out a scream, and collapsed.

Chapter Fifteen

“I win… and guess what? You lose.” Blaise’s voice held that excited, joyful lilt that always left Durg itching to slap him.

The effect it had on the Raiyis of House Vayawand could only be guessed at, for L’gura had himself well in hand. The strain of the past weeks had written their passing on his face. Where once he had been gaunt, the face was now skull-like, but Durg had to admire the force of will that kept the prince erect and serene even as he faced his executioners.

There was no hope of escape, and L’gura knew it. Those most loyal to him had long since been jumped and then killed or discredited by Blaise. The guards observing the tableau would not embrace death on behalf of this wounded wolf.

No blame could attach to the Raiyis for not suspecting, understanding, or knowing how to counter Blaise’s powers. The fatal error had been basing their test of wills on Blaise’s oratorical skills. L’gura should have selected a Takisian forum in which the native could excel. Instead the Raiyis had allowed Blaise (coached carefully by Durg) to goad him into a public debate and to make the throne the prize to be won.

Demagogue, thought Durg dreamily. It was a word without equivalent in Takisian, and Blaise had used this alien power to exhort and thrill until the members of House Vayawand were roaring their support and enthusiasm. A few hot and gusting words, and they fancied themselves the rulers of Takis. The decision of the House was plain – they wanted Blaise to lead them to this new order. But it would be Durg who would translate words into reality.

“You’re an excellent argument for the wisdom of a controlled breeding program,” said L’gura conversationally.

A flush blossomed in the boy’s cheeks, and Durg held his breath. The internal struggle was obvious. Reason conquered anger, and Blaise shrugged. “My dear old granddaddy used to say that one healthy outcross was worth a thousand line-bred fools. For once he was right about something.”

L’gura scanned the nobles arrayed around his desk. “You are all quite determined on this?”

Elidan nodded. “The Raiyis sighed and leaned back. “It can be painless,” Elidan said.

“No, I’d rather have it messy.” The sharp gray eyes were turned to Blaise. “You should have to clean up the chair.”

Durg moved, but he was too late to stop the flick of the forefinger across a seam on the arm of the chair. The wingback detonated, exploding L’gura’s head. Fragments, both organic and inorganic, pattered across their faces like a disgusting warm rain. The body collapsed forward, the ruined head continuing to bleed onto the surface of the desk.

With a jerk of his head Blaise indicated to Durg. The Morakh crossed to the chair and threw aside the body. Blaise followed and, swinging out the chair, seated himself. The Vayawand nobles watched in horrified fascination as blood and brains smeared into the boy’s dark red hair.

“Impressive, half-breed. But your mistake was assuming I would allow a mongrel like you to rule the House Vayawand,” Elidan said.

“I never assume anything, Elidan,” Blaise replied.

Several things happened very quickly. Blaise slumped, almost losing consciousness. Elidan grabbed the crystal wine goblet on the desk and shattered it. Durg signaled the guards, whose loyalty had been carefully purchased days before, and they, together with Durg, held the other nobles at gunpoint while Elidan proceeded to cut his throat with a jagged piece of glass.

Blaise was screaming. “No, no! He’s killing me! Ancestors, save me!”

When the windpipe was severed, Blaise again slumped, gripped the arms of the chair to still the shaking of his hands, and watched as Elidan choked and bubbled on the floor before him. A few more seconds and it was over. The shaken nobility of the House Vayawand eyed their creation, and Sekal slowly bowed to Blaise.


Blaise accepted their homage with appropriate grace. Durg was relieved – it would have been so like the young monster to gloat. The men filed silently out of the office, and Blaise held out a hand to Durg. The Morakh assisted him to his feet.

“The hardest thing is enduring the pain… concentrating through it to time the return jump,” said Blaise as he shoved a toe under Elidan’s body and rolled him over. The neck wound yawned up at Durg like a ragged, toothless grin.

Blaise suddenly lifted hooded lids and gave Durg the full force of those strange dark eyes. “My dear pet,” he said using the Vayawand diminishing word for a Morakh. “You haven’t given me proper obeisance yet.”

It startled Durg. His entire focus had been directed toward making Blaise Raiyis of House Vayawand. Having succeeded, it hadn’t occurred to him the boy would take it seriously. A lack of imagination was a terrible impediment to a Svengali, Durg thought as he felt, like the briefest lick of a whip, the touch of Blaise’s coercive mind control.

Durg hurried to his knees and noted that the pleasure in his victory had gone sour.

Chapter Sixteen

“What did he do to you?”

Tachyon turned her head to the wall. Jay repeated the question – louder. Moonchild was suddenly between them, sliding like a cloud between sky and sun. Using just her fingertips, she removed Jay’s hand from Tachyon’s arm. “That is not the way, Mr. Ackroyd. Step back please. You threaten by the mere fact of your presence.”

Stung, Jay retreated. Watched as Moonchild shook back her long hair, seated herself on the bunk, and drew Tachyon into her arms. Jay waited for the usual reaction. It didn’t come. Instead Tach sighed and relaxed against the slim Korean woman. Jay figured it out – while intellectually Tachyon knew this was “Mark,” the smell was of jasmine and sandalwood, the fingertips were soft, the body a place of rest and peace, not an instrument for pain. Jay suddenly regretted Tachyon’s decision not to bring Cody.

“Doctor, you must speak with me,” Moonchild said. “I was present at your collapse, and our captain took no physical action against you. Am I to infer from this that his assault was mental in nature?”

Tach pushed her hair back. The black and white and blond strands intermingled, and Jay thought he’d never seen a more beautiful pair of contrasting broads. One silver, one ebony. They could have been the queens on a living chess set. The romanticism of the thought embarrassed him, and he jammed his hands into the pockets of his brown slacks.

Tach shuddered. “He held up a mirror,” she said so softly that Moonchild had to bend down to hear her.

“I do not understand. What does that mean?”

“There’s a fairy tale among my people about a man so evil and honorless that his ancestors gathered and resolved to curse him so that each mirror he gazed into would show him his soul. Eventually it drove him mad, and his servants found his bloody body in the midst of shattered mirrors. Zabb took me on a time journey – the past and future all woven into one, and I nearly strangled in the threads of my selfishness. And then I realized I am the man of that story.”

Jay felt the anger rising again. “Zabb knows he can’t touch you physically. He can’t even hurt you emotionally or mentally except that you’re letting him. We haven’t got time for you to indulge in an orgy of self-pity and self-doubt. You’ve hauled Meadows and me across half a galaxy. You owe us. You’ve got to look out for us the same way we’re looking out for you. And that means teaching us all these stupid languages, and not making us crazy worrying about the state of your head. We’ve got enough problems trying to preserve your attractive little ass and recover your original skinny little ass,” Jay concluded.

“Zabb was there when my father was injured. He thrust the memory into my mind,” Tach flared back at Jay. “I smelled the coppery sweet scent of his blood, the stench of flesh burned away by high-energy weapons, screams, the crack of lasers cutting the air, explosions, falling masonry.” As she spoke, she assumed the thousand-mile stare that gave Jay the creeps. “Shaklan is rappelling down a tower, leading a counterassault of Ilkazam warriors against the Vayawand troops huddled behind parapets. A Morakh warrior whirls, fires from the hip. The laser peels back the side of my father’s skull, revealing brain – boiled and charred from the heat of the laser. The long fall to the roof. The screams,” Tach concluded in a remote voice.

“You’ve got a shit load to worry about, I know that,” Jay said. “But we’ve got to pick our worries in order of descending magnitude, and you flippin’ out about something that happened years and years ago isn’t going to help.”

“We are strangers and wanderers,” Moonchild said. “We do not understand your culture. Therefore, diplomacy must be your arena, and for that you need your wits. You must find your center. Our task is one of steel and strength. We can handle your enemies, Doctor. We cannot handle you.”

Jay had a feeling it was Moonchild’s calm good sense, and the comfort of her arms, that relaxed the shivering Takisian. Tough love clearly wasn’t a winning technique for dealing with Tachyon right now.

“Don’t leave me,” Tach whispered to the ace.

Moonchild nodded and lowered Tach gently back onto her pillow. Arms entwined, Tach’s head rested on Moonchild’s shoulder, and the ace’s hair formed a dark blanket for them both. Feeling very much the outsider, Jay retreated to the table and let the females bond. Eventually Tachyon drifted into another of her nightmare-wracked sleeps, and Moonchild slipped away from the girl.

A few minutes later Moonchild vanished and Mark returned. He gazed down at Tachyon and shook his head. “I heard about cases like this back from the last days of the Summer of Love. Too much dope, too much tear gas, too many riots – overload. I have a feeling that for the Doc it’s just all too much. Forty-four years of too much.” He sighed. “I wish she could cry. I think the release would really help.”

Jay shuffled cards. “I don’t know, it’s kind of a relief. Tachy was always blubbering about something.”

“You don’t think this is worth a few tears?” Mark gestured at the sleeping girl. The thrust of the pregnancy weighing down that delicate girlchild body. Tach let out a whimper, and Jay felt like a real schmuck.

Meadows crossed to the table and sat down. Cupped his chin in his long bony hands and seriously regarded Jay. “This is only going to get harder,” Meadows said softly.

“You think I don’t know that,” grunted Jay.

Again the head shake. “This isn’t about palace intrigues or alien warriors. The Tachyon mind wants to concentrate on the problems at hand. The Kelly body knows it’s got one big problem to face. The Doc’s gonna be at war with himself… er, herself.”

Jay looked at him in annoyance. “Meadows, just when I think I’ve reached my nadir, you find something else to really kick the shit out of my mood.”

“I thought you might enjoy witnessing our arrival, Princess Tisianne,” said Zabb without turning around.

“Cram it up your ass, Zabb,” replied Tachyon.

It almost toppled Jay, so slangy, uncouth, so human. He’d never imagined such words in Tachyon’s mouth. It was almost as startling out of this little girl. It obviously flustered the shit out of the Takisian. Zabb swung around, and it was evident he hadn’t intended to. Tachyon smirked, Zabb frowned. It was such a tiny victory in the mind war they were waging, yet Jay could see Tach savoring the moment.

It was the first time Jay had seen the bridge, and he looked about curiously. Nesfa and five of her people were manning the consoles, readouts, and panels. Jay gave the woman a sickly smile, and a little finger wave.

“This isn’t an Aevrй bridge,” Tach said.

“No, the ship was built… exactly for the… apexs… no, hands of Captain Zabb and our leased body partners,” Nesfa said.

“Leased?” Jay yelped. “You mean you don’t normally look…”

“No, no. On our home world our body partners are four-legged… um, grass eaters. Only, very…” Nesfa pinched her fingers together several times. “Clumsy hands.”

“The deal they struck with the Master Trader provided them with a ship, a ship handler, and bodies more suitable for exploration,” Zabb said.

“And what are they exploring for?” Meadows asked.

“A planet with more useful body partners, so the Viand can build a true interstellar culture. They possess the brains. What they require is brawn.” Zabb suddenly cocked his head to the side in a parody of a man having an idea. “I should have thought of it; Earth would be perfect.”

Jay tensed, took one stiff-legged step forward. Tachyon laid a hand briefly on his shoulder. His brains reasserted control over his testosterone levels.

“Oh, man, then the Network are slave traders.” Meadows’s voice throbbed with grief.

It was sort of depressing, Jay reflected, to discover that all the aliens in the universe seemed to be assholes.

Zabb shrugged. “They’re business beings. Profit is the driving force in their culture.”

The Takisian touched a panel, and the cameras on the exterior hull of the ship threw the image of Takis up on the screen. If Earth was sea green and white, a beryl, this world was an opal. Large polar ice caps, seas of shimmering aquamarine, and those clouds. A riot of color.

“That’s it? Really it?” Meadows breathed.

“That’s it, groundling. Magnification factor three. We’re about a million kilometers out,” Zabb said.

Knowing this was the real McCoy brought Jay’s attention back to the screen. The clarity of the picture made it look like an astronomical rendition at a planetarium – flat, lifeless fantasy. But there were people living beneath those iridescent clouds that banded the equator.

“How far?” Meadows asked.

“From what? Relative to what?” There was a little sneer lurking in the words. Jay wanted to clout Zabb.

“Sol,” said Trips.

“Twenty-three light-years, and change.” Zabb flashed a quick smile at Jay, and for the first time the human realized just how grotesquely handsome he was. Son of a bitch, thought Jay. “As Mr. Ackroyd would say. Interesting human phrase… I like it.”

“I know a lot of others. Like, ‘kiss my ass,’ and ‘up yours.’ Too bad you won’t be staying around to let me coach you in the subtleties.”

Zabb seated himself at one of the computer stations and entered a numerical code. There was a soft pressure through the soles of their feet as the ship’s engines fired, braking and adjusting their course. Takis seemed to be swimming away from them like an iridescent crystal globe in the ink sea of space.

A large moon crept coyly into view like a child peeping around a doorjamb. As they passed low over its crater-pocked surface, Jay saw low domes hugging the feet of craggy mountains. It looked as if a school of soap bubbles had broken free from a child’s bath and deposited themselves on this harsh and unwelcoming surface.

Jay indicated the lunar settlement with a jerk of the chin. “Ilkazam?”

“No,” said Tachyon. “Alaa.”

“Who are they?” asked Mark.

“Enemies,” was Zabb’s laconic reply.

“Don’t Takisians have any friends?”

“No,” said Tach simply, and left it at that.

Jay felt a little queasy.

They passed over the edge of the curving horizon and were once again in the blackness of space. Takis was much closer now. As was a second, smaller moon – a moonlette really – which raced slightly behind its larger companion like a greyhound running at the flank of a charger. What seemed like hundreds of points of winking light banded the planet. Jay frowned, trying to fathom the twinkling display.

He was trying to decide if satisfying his curiosity was worth looking like a dumb shit. He’d just about decided it was when Mark took the idiot’s lead. “What are those?”

Tachyon looked momentarily confused. Jay pointed, amplified. “Over there, looks like somebody lost a string of Christmas lights.”

“Sunlight reflecting off platforms, satellites, weapons.” The words dried up. It didn’t seem as if she were trying to snub the humans, it was more as if she’d forgotten how to talk. Unblinking, she stared at the screen. Jay would have given a lot to know what was going on in that little head. Again, it was Meadows who dared to voice what Jay was only thinking.

He held out both hands closed into fists. “Pick a feeling.”

Tachyon studied the backs of Mark’s hands. They were ropy with blue veins, and a few age spots were starting to show. Tach reached out and delicately tapped the left one. Jay noticed that her nails were carefully maintained in that look known as the French manicure. It was strange that he hadn’t noticed before now. Strange that Tachyon would take such care with this borrowed body. Then he thought about Tachyon’s personality, and suddenly it made perfect sense.

“You really are one vain little son of a bitch,” murmured Jay to himself.

Mark’s hand was now extended palm up. Tach lightly brushed her fingers across the soft skin. “Happy.” She paused, then some internal spur set the words flowing again. “When I left all those long years ago, I thought I’d be returning in a matter of weeks. Then I thought I’d never see home again. And now…” The sentence trailed off.

Mark opened the other hand. “And this one?”

Again that featherlike brush. “Fear… because now I’m afraid I’ll never see home again.” The smile was crooked.

“We’ll get you back, Doc.”

The keying on a console brought Jay’s head around in time to see Zabb place a communication headset over his gilt hair, pull the thread-thin mike to his lips. In Sham’al he said, “This is Network *** amp;$%#@* number nine two seven five seven wanting…” (No, that couldn’t be right, thought Jay. Ah, requesting!) “Standard ** amp;%^ $#’.”

There’s something very frustrating about hearing a language with which you have a passing acquaintance. You want to understand, you ought to understand, ultimately you don’t understand. Comprehending one word in three was driving Jay nuts. He stepped in and tapped Tachyon on the shoulder. She jumped like a scalded cat. Turned to look at him with a blank, fixed stare that seemed to communicate that she couldn’t recall who he was or why he was there.

“Hello, translation please.”

There was a leitmotiv of Takisian broadcasting on an open channel. Tach listened, shook her head.

“It’s just standard landing protocols -”

“I want to hear it.”

She shrugged. “Okay. We read you – I can’t translate the Network word. I think it’s the ship’s name – you are cleared for docking at hangar bay twenty-three.” Zabb warbled back. Tachyon repeated in English. “Transferring computer control to station beacon.”

More singing from the station, and Tachyon gave a short gurgle of laughter, then translated, “Your accent is passable, shopkeeper, I congratulate you.”

Zabb glared, and the words came in a sudden glissando. “It’s better than passable, you childless, motherless ass. What a diplomat you’d make.”

Jay realized that Tach had added the final remark as a sarcastic commentary on Zabb’s social skills. It had the expected result – Zabb’s glare shifted to Tachyon.

“Get off my bridge,” Zabb ordered, but Tachyon wasn’t listening.

Her expression held all the joy of a Bernadette the first time she saw the virgin. “Listen!”

Jay listened. Meadows was listening so hard, he held his breath. Jay heard himself breathing, the subtle humming of the equipment.

“What?” he whispered. “Am I listening to?”

“Ships… singing… telling stories… Ancestors, I really am home.” Joy rang in the words, but then she swayed like a stalk of blowing wheat. Jay got an arm around her, supported her until the faintness passed. She drew a thumb across her hairline – so disconcerting, it was a Tachyon gesture – nodded thanks, and scuttled out of the circle of his arm.

The ship altered course again, obedient to the invisible reins of data transmitting from the Takisian station. The station slid into view from the bottom of the screen. Jay knew up and down were relative terms in space. He knew the ship was moving, not the station – (well, but wait, the station was also moving around the planet – too confusing) – but it still had a Jaws-like quality of an attack from below, a gaping maw opening to receive the little silver minnow. The image was reinforced by the organic quality of the station. No right angles here, no sharp edges or glitter of metal. Whatever this thing was, it had been grown, not welded, into place.

“That’s not an overgrown ship, is it?” Trips asked.

“No, the ships are a separate sentient race, although rather substantially genetically altered by us. This is nanotech at its apex.” She flashed that little porpoise smile. “We’re cultivators, not mechanics.”

“And every family has one of these mothers?” asked Jay.

“Yes, but not so large.”

“Then this isn’t Ilkazam?” Trips asked.

“No, this is the Bonded station. It was primarily built as a buffer for the Network, but we use it to do business House to House as well.” Again the smile. “We don’t like tourists on our turf.”

Jay asked the logical question. “So what about us?”

“I’ve adopted Trips, which makes him family.”

“And you’re invited,” put in Zabb. He stretched, stood, and crossed to them with that grace that always had Jay thinking nervously of the white tiger in the Central Park Zoo. “The only absolute prohibition is against any member race of the Network.”

“Or any individual who has sworn service to the Network,” Tach added, and from the looks she and her cousin were exchanging, Jay had a feeling that a lot more was being exchanged than mere words.

“You’ve really got a hard-on about these Network dudes,” Jay said.

“We despise them only somewhat less than we hate the Swarm,” drawled Zabb.

“And you’re the only Takisian to have done business with both,” Tach said, and sweet malice dripped off the edges of the consonants.

Zabb returned Tach’s smile. “I’m quite a legendary fellow.” And to Jay’s surprise Tachyon gave a sudden yip of laughter like a fox’s cry.

Trips was frowning. “So we might run into some Vayawand?”

Tach sobered. “Entirely possible.”

“Isn’t that, like, a problem?”

“Bonded means peace as well as money. This is the one place all the families can come together at any time and do business without threat of violence. An insurance consortium holds bond money from each family, and it would bankrupt a House if they violated the peace.”

“We’re violent, but pragmatic,” Zabb added.

Braking jets fired, and the ship gave a lurch as it settled onto the floor of the docking bay. Tachyon stumbled, and Zabb threw out a hand to steady her. She jerked away, and he jerked back his hand before contact could be made. Jay decided it was a good thing they were saying adios to the Takisian just real soon now.

Meadows broke into his worried thoughts about the little Takisian soap opera. “Jay, we’ve done it. We’ve made it. We’ve reached another planet!”

“Yeah… swell.”

Chapter Seventeen

At the foot of the ship’s ramp Tachyon felt anxiety fall away like snow sliding off a roof. It still wasn’t solid ground underfoot and open sky overhead, but at least she was off that ship. Away from him. She looked back at Zabb and inclined her head regally.

“Thank you for your services.”

“The pleasure was mine.”

She led the two humans toward the bay doors, then became aware of the steady rap of Zabb’s boot heels on the floor behind her. She whirled. Nesfa and her people were eagerly tumbling out the lock, chattering in their own language.

“Zabb, you’ve done your job. You’ve delivered me to Takis. Now go away.”

“It’s a free station. I’ve a mind to buy a new hat. Besides, you aren’t home yet.”

“And just what does that mean?”

He shrugged. “Also, I have to keep an eye on my happy groundlings on an outing.” He jerked a chin toward the giggling Viand.

Chewing down irritation, Tach resumed her stately waddle for the door. They were on the perimeter of the station – little to see but maintenance vehicles, automated loaders, an occasional mechanic – both genetic and mechanical. Tach realized she didn’t want to hike all the way to the central hub, and she was sick of listening to Zabb and his mudcrawlers march after her. She reached a pedestrian strip and slid a hand across the wall. A schematic of the station appeared, delicate veins of color running beneath the skin of the wall. She traced a travel path and keyed the strip to move. The strip moved slower than a walking man. Zabb waved as he passed them. The Viand observed the gesture, looked at each other, waved.

Fifteen minutes later they were in the heart of the bustle. The central hub combined the beauty and reverence of a Gothic cathedral, the manic energy of the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and the conspicuous consumption of a stroll down Rodeo Drive. The walls arched toward a tapering point hundreds of feet overhead. The ribbed material softly glowed, throwing an iridescent light over the throngs of people strolling across the glass-like floor, entering and exiting the exotic buildings, pausing by carved fountains to exchange greetings, supping in the cafйs, examining the bounty of a hundred worlds laid out in elegant, eye-tempting display.

Two of the Viand were carrying laden plates to a table. Nesfa and several of her crew were inspecting elegant handguns in the window of a nearby gunnery. True to his word, Zabb was in a hat shop arranging a long-tailed, shining cap on his fair head. He spotted Tach, swept off the hat, and gave her a bow so low and so flourishing as to male a mockery of the courtesy.

Takisians, both Tarhiji and Zal’hma at’ Irg, were everywhere, and Tach viewed them with growing alarm. Almost fifty years had sent fashion careening to the opposite extreme. There was still a lot of lace and layers, but the new look among the younger breed was the speed-skater look. Tight spandex caressed every curve and angle. Eye-confusing colors swirled, dotted, or splattered the one-piece suits, and the biotech that had grown this cloth was keyed to galvanic skin responses. Colors shifted and swirled in response to the wearer’s mood and whim. Hair had also adapted to the new look. In place of long curls, peach fuzz across the nearly naked skulls, or a river of straight silk as long as it could be coaxed. Tachyon’s old body was sadly out of fashion with its naturally curly love-locks. Tach’s borrowed body fit right in – or would if it hadn’t been female… and pregnant.

“Nice,” Jay said. “Be nicer if there were a few more babes around to model the spray-on look.”

“We are getting, like, some weird looks, man,” Trips whispered hoarsely.

A scent, rich and spicy, assailed Tachyon’s nostrils, and she froze as the smell crossed time and triggered memory. Mark’s concerns and alarms seemed unimportant, overshadowed as they were by the play of images behind her closed lids.

“You okay?” Jay asked.

“Fritter cakes,” said Tach, swallowing the saliva that filled her mouth.

“Yeah, they smell great. If we had some money, we’d buy some.”

Ignoring him, she continued. “I must have been ten or eleven. Jadlan and I slipped into the private kitchen and made them. The smell woke father, and we thought he would kill us. Instead he laughed and made hot ikadah. We talked until almost dawn.” She bowed her head and lightly touched her stomach. “I never saw Jadlan again.”

“Why is it you’re never happy unless you’re miserable?” growled Jay.

“Guys, we really are in the shitter,” Trips said urgently.

Tach pulled her attention from the past and gawked at the seven Takisian men who had fanned out and were advancing on the trio. They halted just out of arm’s reach, and their demeanor was decidedly hostile. One of the men stepped forward. Two long braids hung at each temple. Beads had been worked into the pale hair, each marking a significant moment in the life of this noble of the House Alaa. The rest of his hair formed a tangled cloud across his shoulders.

“Intaye, do you require aid?”

Tach was confused. “No.”

The man peered closely at her. “Are you of House?”

For a moment the question took her aback. Of course she was of House, the greatest and most puissant house on the Crystal World. Fortunately Takisian caution overrode Takisian pride. It would not do to reveal to strangers the return of the heir to House Ilkazam. Then it finally penetrated – these men were not concerned with her noble pedigree, or her mission. They saw a breeding female. A strange enough sight even among the shops and homes of the Tarhiji. Unheard of among the Zal’hma at’ Irg. And it was obvious this little body had enough grace and beauty to make them question her station.

Tach evaluated her two paladins. Only Jay could effectively pass as a member of the majority population, that ninety-seven percent that actually engaged in industry and agriculture and supported the elegant, telepathic overclass.

Tach shrank shyly against Jay’s side. “No, lord.”

Their interest in her vanished like steel shutters falling behind their eyes. They transferred their attention to Mark, towering head and shoulders over the diminutive Takisians that surrounded him. “And what, by the Ideal, are you?” drawled the Alaa nobleman.

Mark flipped them a peace sign. “Terran, human, from the planet Earth. Peace, man.”

Jay leaned in to Tach and whispered, “He’s gonna say it. I know he’s gonna say it.”

“Like, take us to your leader, man.”

“He said it.” Jay shook his head.

The Takisians exchanged puzzled glances, and Tach felt a smile growing like a sunburst. The Most Bred, the Zal’hma at’ Irg, don’t like jokes they don’t understand. Particularly when they suspect they’re the brunt of the joke. A few black looks were bestowed on the trio, and they dispersed.

“Meadows, you are one crazy fucker.” Jay shook his head again. “Wish I’d thought of it first.” Mark smiled shyly.

“Let’s find a phone. I want to get home.”

“Phone?” queried Jay.

She fluttered her hands like a person waving off flies. Jay stayed stubbornly in place. “Link stage. Okay?”

Fingers flying across the keyboard, Tach tried another combination of numbers. The stage remained stubbornly gray; then the flowing red script appeared, instructing her either to present her credit crystal, or to give a valid account number.

“Maybe they changed my access code,” said Tach. She leaned back and chewed nervously on her lower lip.

All three of them were squeezed into a link booth that consisted of a keyboard and a concave desktop.

“Maybe you don’t have an account any longer,” suggested Jay. “It’s been over forty years.”

“It was my money.”

“Yeah, well, maybe they figured you didn’t need it any longer.”

Mark offered tentatively, “Will they accept a collect call?”

“Would you?” shot back Jay.

“No,” Mark admitted. The ace considered for a moment. “We could, like, cruise around until we spot someone from House Ilkazam.”

Tach was already shaking her head. “Won’t work. Juniors are always assigned to hub duty. These children probably wouldn’t know me in my own form, much less as I am now. No, I need someone who will recognize my mental signature.”

Jay glanced back through the doors of the booth. “Are there panhandlers on Takis?”

Tach ignored him and tried another combination of numbers. Suddenly an arm reached over her shoulder and deposited a black crystal on the keyboard. Silver and red lines crawled through the facets like sluggish lightning.

“Allow me to be of service, cousin,” Zabb drawled. Coolly Tach lifted the crystal and dropped it into the cradle. “Let’s hope no one’s raided your assets.”

Zabb smiled. “No one would dare. In my case the family knew I’d be back.”

The screen flashed once and went black. Tach typed in the link destination. Commandant, platform Ilkazam.

An instant later the six-inch-tall figure of a Takisian appeared in the concave bowl. He wore the gold and white of the Ilkazam officer corps, and there was a certain facial resemblance to Zabb, and to Tachyon as he had been.

“Bazzakra brant Kazz sek Najah sek Mimjal! Blood and Line, this is the first good fortune I’ve had.”

The hologram of the man smiled politely, but wary puzzlement hung about him. “Intaye, are we acquainted?”

Zabb leaned in, his hand resting lightly on Tach’s shoulder. “Surely you remember me, Baz.”

The reaction from Tachyon was instinctive. Teeth bared, Tach brushed Zabb’s hand from her shoulder.

The reaction from Bazzakra was equally instinctive. He rejoiced at the sight of his old commander. “Zabb! We thought you dead.”

“Thought Tis was dead too,” smiled back her cousin. “But here he, er rather she, is. In another predicament as usual.”

“You’re serious? This girlchild is the Heir?”


Suspicion darkened the gray eyes as Tach frowned up at her cousin. “Why are you doing this? I should have thought you’d be delighted to destroy my chances.”

“No, dear cousin, someone must return home to lead our family.”

“Then you know,” Bazzakra said.

“Know what?” Tach demanded.

But the officer’s mind had jumped to a new consideration. Plucking at his lower lip, he frowned off into space. “I must consult Taj. If it truly is you, Tis, you haven’t lost your flare for a dramatic entrance at the final hour.”

Tach beat the palms of her hands on the desk. “What is happening to my home and House?”

“Not over a public link,” warned Zabb. “You have been among the mudcrawlers too long.”

A second later another figure flickered to life on the holostage. He was dressed in the more elaborate finery that the two humans associated with Tachyon at his flamboyant best. His face was heavily lined, gray streaked his temples, and one long brush of silver ran from a pronounced widow’s peak back over the top of his head.

“Finally, an old geezer,” Jay said. “Too bad he looks like a geriatric skunk.” Mark gave the detective an urgent nudge with his elbow.

Taj studied Zabb’s handsome and arrogant face, the thin lips curved in a slight, scornful smile, and ran a hand wearily over his face. “I know from long experience, Zabb brant Sabina sek Shaza sek Risala, that wherever you are, there dwells trouble. What is it this time?”

“Is this link secure?” asked the younger man.

“Yes. World Link is no doubt raving, but by the time they realize the scramble was deliberate, not technical failure, we will have concluded our business. Whatever that business might be.”

“Tisianne and her two servants require a shuttle.”

“Fascinating.” It was a gift to be able to fill a single word with so much disdain. Zabb flushed. “Are you drunk or insane?”

It was time Tach took a hand. She dreaded it – the look and then either shock or amusement. Sucking in a deep breath, she said, “No, uncle. I am Tisianne. And I need your help. Worse than I did the night I’d been out whoring in the city over the absolute prohibition by father, and he force-locked the entire compound just to catch me. You overrode and slipped me back into the palace.”

The old man seemed to shrink. “Ancestors! It can’t be.”

Tach leaned forward intently. “It is. I can tell you more. The day your sister – my mother – died. I had crawled under her arm, but she was so cold -”

“Stop! Baz, get these… travelers down here. Now.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And make inquiries. You understand?”


“So he believes you?” Mark asked.

“He doesn’t know what to believe,” Tachyon replied. They were waiting outside one of the docking bays. “Any good telepath could have pulled those memories from the real Tachyon’s mind.”

“Zabb did vouch for you.”

“Given our family history, that could end up damning me more than helping me. After my father was… injured, Taj has served as regent to the House. Protecting my throne until my return. Protecting it most notably against Zabb.” She sighed. Her back was aching abominably, and indigestion set her stomach to roiling. “And it won’t take Baz long to discover that Zabb is captaining that Network ship.”

“So we’re really in a ‘have you stopped beating your wife yet?’ situation,” Jay said.

“Not that hopeless. Once me meets me, our bona fides will be established.”

“Yeah?” Jay asked aggressively. Tach simply tapped her temple. “Oh… yeah.” The ace walked a tight, nervous turn. Jay jammed his hands into his pockets. “Some kind of Takisian ordure is hitting whatever passes for the fan on this planet.”

“What makes you think that?”

Jay simply tapped his temple. Zabb, Nesfa, and several Viand arrived.

“I came to say farewell,” said Zabb as if in answer to a question Tachyon hadn’t posed.

“It can’t be soon enough.”

“And I to tell you… goodbye,” Nesfa twinkled at Jay.

Jay’s eyes widened in alarm, his Adam’s apple worked convulsively, and finally a single word emerged. “Great.” He took up a position safely behind Mark Meadows.

Tach returned to a contemplation of the amber lights running in complex patterns over the lintel of the air lock. A voice warned them softly in Takisian that a ship was arriving, and it was unsafe to open the inner door until docking was complete. There was a soft ringing like the chime of a glockenspiel, and the lights went blue.

The lock cycled open, and Bazzakra, flanked by five soldiers, stepped through. The guards quickly fanned out. Their weapons were still holstered, but tension vibrated in the silence. A couple of the Takisians eyed Zabb respectfully, and Tach realized that her rival had been gone only five years. Her absence spanned over forty. Who would remember Tisianne?

Baz was staring at her, mostly at her most obvious physical feature. Feeling as awkward and ungainly as a blimp, she stepped forward and made a quick, sweeping gesture across her forehead.


She felt the delicate probe like the brush of a feather across a fingertip. It fell away at the same moment Bazzakra took a step backward.

“Burning Sky! It is you.”

For an instant he seemed bereft of words. Here in the presence of so many powerful telepaths, Tach was discovering that her feeble skills seemed augmented. She could catch whispers, shadows of the thoughts around her. Bazzakra’s were of total confusion, a man trying to make sense out of too many horrifying factors.

Finally he shook his head and limited himself to a fervent, “The blood is well and truly flowing now.”

“Take me home, Baz. We’ll sort it out later.’

“If it can be,” Zabb offered cheerfully.

Baz’s face closed down. There was regret in the blue eyes, but also contempt. He turned to Zabb. “You understand, my lord -”

“That I’m an impotent bastard without a pedigree, and I can never, ever, ever go home. Yes, I know” He crossed to Tachyon and lifted her hand. “Goodbye, Tis. I hope you have a safe delivery. Whether back into your own form, or into the exalted ranks of motherhood.”

He leaned in and gave her the kiss between relatives, first on the forehead, then the lips. She was too clumsy to elude the embrace, and the contact left her shivering, her stomach reduced to a tight knot. Tach dragged the back of her hand across her mouth.

The soldiers closed ranks around Baz and the three travelers, and they moved swiftly through the lock. Tach noticed the guards never turned their backs on the Viand. She was certainly home. It was depressing.

The ship was a small, quick passenger shuttle. Bred for boring, repetitive work, it lacked the wit and sparkle of a ship like Tachyon’s stolen Baby. But its thoughts were welcoming, and it extruded more benches to accommodate the newcomers.

They began the uncoupling procedure. Tach sagged on a bench and tried not to fall asleep. Tried to plan. Tried to shut out Illyana. Tried to stop wondering what color her child’s eyes would be.

It was an alien emotion, but as the lock cycled shut, Zabb felt a fist close around his chest. He forced aside the homesickness, the sense of abandonment, and counted down the seconds. Far enough, but not too far. What he was about to try was utterly, totally, completely insane, but it would be a death to be sung, and whether he succeeded or failed, he would be out of the hands of the Network. He was going home.

Zabb drew in three panting breaths through his mouth, sucked in a lungful of air, and, drawing his weapon, blew out the lock. Alarms began sounding, the edges of the rift secreting material as the station fought to heal itself and stop the hemorrhage. None of this really registered with Zabb. He kicked off hard, like a runner at the start of a race. Across the floor of the docking bay. The mad sprint was burning air, but it couldn’t be helped. He needed the inertia. The outer hull lock was slowly shuttering closed.

Zabb hit the edge of the bay and jumped. The abrupt loss of gravity set his stomach rolling. He focused on the gray, rough hull of the Takisian shuttle to ease the nausea. He measured his progress toward that surface against his remaining air. The calculations were not encouraging.

Tachyon was jerked awake by the ship.

Master, an explosion has breached the integrity of the platform. Should I recouple?

No! On visual.

The ship obligingly offered them a view of the slowly retreating docking bay. Where the lock had been, there was a ragged hole. Tachyon lurched to her feet as she spotted the small figure in Network mufti diving slowly after the departing ship.

“Jesus Christ,” Jay breathed. “He’ll never make it.”

“No,” Mark said. “Inertia will carry him. If he can hold his breath long enough.”

The Viand were firing now, using their newly purchased weapons. They were lousy shots. High energy beams pulsing through the bay, light claws scratching at the fabric of space. Nothing came even close to Zabb.

“Motherless mudcrawlers! Fire on my ship! On a Takisian! Return fire!” Baz ordered.

Lasers lashed from the ship, and one of the Viand went down. Its pouch convulsed wildly, and the worm crawled free. There was an audible thump as Zabb hit the side of the ship.

Tach clutched Baz’s arm. “Don’t let him in.”

She “heard” Zabb’s preemptory command to the ship. Its acquiescence. Admiration for Zabb and a desire to obey Tachyon warred on Baz’s face. His hesitation made the decision for him. There was no time to countermand the order to the ship. The inner door flowered open, and Zabb tottered through. Collapsed.

Baz issued a telepathic command, and the ship leapt like a startled cat. Front heavy and awkward, Tach teetered, staggered backward. The bench caught her in the back of the knees, and she sprawled.

“Remember all that blood that was going to start flowing?” she said bitterly. “Well, it certainly will now. And it’s all going to be mine.”

Baz ignored her. In fact they all ignored her. Mark dropped to his knees beside the prone man and rolled him onto his back. Baz moved for a first-aid kit while Jay watched with bemused fascination. It was as piping female tones had no power to penetrate, the words held no meaning.

Regaining her feet, Tach walked over and stared down at the unconscious man. Zabb’s face was a brilliant red from burst capillaries. Blood flowed sluggishly from nose and ears. An array of complex emotions clawed at her – hate, fear, love, the memory of a childhood hero worship… admiration. She was still a Takisian, and not even four decades on an alien world could blunt her acceptance of that quintessential Takisian attitude known as virtu. To try to succeed brilliantly and flamboyantly. To try to fail brilliantly and flamboyantly. It was all the same to a psi lord, so long as his actions had an effect. This exploit would ring through the halls of the House Ilkazam. And all Tach had managed to do was get kidnapped and knocked up. She returned home a victim. Zabb a hero.

Baz administered an injection designed for just such mishaps – though normally such accidents occurred because of spacesuit failure. The compound was designed to carry oxygen more efficiently through the bloodstream. Seconds later the drug kicked in. Zabb shivered and began dragging in great, gasping lungfuls of air.

A moment later his eyes snapped open. He seemed confused, disoriented. Loudly he announced, “Consider the business relationship between the Network and myself to have been terminated.”

“A simple ‘I quit’ wouldn’t do?” muttered Jay. “Little drastic, I’d say.”

“How else do you renege on a lifetime contract except by running?” whispered Trips.

Baz assisted Zabb onto a bench. Tach leaned in, gathered the front of his Network uniform in both hands, and yanked him up until they were almost nose to nose.

“My sin was bringing the Network here in the first place.” She enunciated each word with exaggerated care, biting off the consonants as if they were enemies to be crushed between her teeth. “But you have compounded the transgression by ensuring that they shall never ever leave until we deliver your lifeless body to them.”

Zabb twisted his hand into her hair and pulled her even closer. “You’re welcome to try, cousin.”

Chapter Eighteen

Meadows kept talking. It was like listening to Carl Sagan on ludes. Relative mass, elliptical orbits, low density, probably metal poor, tossed and bumped like rudderless boats in the sea of technobabble pouring from the old hippie’s mouth. It didn’t mean jack shit to Jay. All he wanted was to look out the window (or whatever the hell it was on this low-flying ship critter) and watch the scenery flash by.

It was better than the observation cars on the old Broadway Limited of Jay’s youth. He’d loved to ride the trains, especially when his dad had taken a sleeper car. Lying in the upper bunk, swaying to the rhythm of the train as it raced down the track. The monotonous clicking of the wheels on the rails. The sudden flash of lights across the black glass of the window as they whipped through some small town. Jay always wondered who lived in those towns. How their lives differed from his. Well, that curiosity had carried him a shit load farther than the old Broadway Limited Chicago to visit Grandma.

And there weren’t going to be any ice-cream sundaes when they arrived, either. All he had was Mark Meadows aggressively proving that eggheads really were incredibly stupid, and Tachyon staring out the window with that blind, lost expression that made Jay crazy, and two male models who were twittering to each other like a pair of baritone pigeons on a phone line.

Turning back to Tachyon, Jay studied that delicate and very beautiful profile. Wondered if Tachyon had any plan past the obvious imperative to get home. Her dear old chum Baz had sure transferred his loyalty to Zabb once he saw the condition his prince was in. Maybe this Taj guy would be some help. Jay had liked the look of the older man.

“The tectonic stresses and activity must have been incredible to have pushed the plates into such vertical positions.”

Jay swiveled his head and stared at Meadows. “If you mean they’ve got really high mountains here, yeah, you’re right. They’ve got really high mountains here.”

The pale blue eyes behind their thick lenses blinked rapidly several times. Jay felt as if he’d kicked a puppy.

“I’m just trying to understand the planetary development, and how it might have affected the culture,’ Meadows said.

“And I just want to admire the view. And it’s a lot more fun when you have someone to share it with. For example, I’d say, Wow, look at that mountain. And you’d say, Yeah, it’s really high, and look at those amazing glaciers! And I’d say, The sun on the ice makes rainbows. Boy, that’s really beautiful.”

“I see your point.” Mark cleared his throat, his prominent Adam’s apple jerking like a bobbin on a fishing line. “Boy, those mountains are really lovely.”

Jay sighed, returned his attention to the view. National Geographic would love to get a chance to do the first photo layout of Takis, combining as it did the best of the Swiss Alps and the Himalayas. Snow-tipped peaks thrust through the opalescent clouds like jagged talons reaching for the belly of the tiny ship. Then the clouds would suddenly part and reveal deep valleys verdant with vegetation. In other valleys the mountains fell away to lakes of an eye-aching blue. The great peaks drowned their feet in the still, deep waters, the reflections forming double visions of mountains and sky.

There began to be signs of civilization. Houses perched dizzily on rocky outcroppings, tile-roofed farmhouses, cable cars connecting peaks and valleys. The ship flashed over a final peak, and they were flying across a bowl surrounded on all sides by mountains.

Mark leaned forward eagerly. “A caldera. Probably the site of an ancient volcanic erup -” He broke off guiltily and rolled an eye toward Jay. “Sorry.”

Jay wasn’t interested in geology. A city nestled like a starling in the circle of mountains. The predominant impression was of towers. Towers of all types and descriptions. Round towers, pointed towers, bell-like cupolas, some of them actually twisted like blown glass. And the colors. Jay couldn’t tell if they’d been painted or if the stone actually came in these bewilderingly brilliant shades. There was a clear delineation where the older section ended and modern architecture began. The styles remained the same, but there was more glass in the newer buildings.

Finally there was some reaction from Tachyon. She let out a funny little hiccuping cry, but whether of grief or joy Jay couldn’t tell. “The music center. It’s gone.” She spoke English. Jay knew it was unconscious. Knew it would drive her crazy if she knew.

Zabb had that smile that Jay had learned to distrust. It meant something really unpleasant was about to emerge from between his teeth, and it was always directed at Tachyon.

In his heavily accented English he said. “I’m afraid it was one of the casualties of the Vayawand assault.”

“They attacked the city?” The concept seemed to completely shock Tachyon. Jay didn’t know why. Wasn’t that what war was all about?

“Unfortunately a number of House were attending a concert. Fortunately I wasn’t. After your father turned himself into a vegetating hulk, someone had to lead the defense. Fifteen families arrayed against us.”

Only you could have defeated those odds,” Bazzakra said in Takisian.

Ass kisser, thought Jay, and Why is asshole number two speaking English? The ace then looked at Tachyon, her eyes drowned in misery, and he understood. Zabb wanted the humans to know he was tormenting his cousin, wanted to see if they would react. Was daring them to react. As Jay watched, a spark of fury burned away grief in the girl’s gray eyes. “I will not be burdened with this guilt.”

’Bout time, thought Jay.

“I wasn’t here. Perhaps I should have been, but my presence wasn’t going to lessen the damage done to Ilkala.” She indicated the city with a wave of a hand.

“The damage was foredestined when we initiated the ill-conceived experiment.”

“If you’d allowed us to test the virus properly -”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference!”

“That’s excusatory crap!” Zabb shouted. “The meta-Takisian powers that the virus would have provided us, coupled with our psionic gifts, would have made us the undisputed rulers of Takis.”

“No, she’s right,” said Mark softly. “On Earth we’ve had the wild card for almost fifty years, and guns and bombs are a match for any ace. It’s like John Lennon said, man, we’ve just gotta give peace a chance.”

“Taj and my father should have seen this attack coming,” Tachyon argued. “Our culture is poised on a knife’s edge of malice, rivalry, and self-interest. You threaten to upset the balance of power that completely, and of course the other families are going to attack.”

Baz broke in with an agitated burst of singsong. Pissed, Jay decided, because he couldn’t understand. Tachyon and Zabb twittered back, but there were sudden odd pauses, and Jay realized it was because they had switched to House talk, which relied rather heavily on telepathy. Jay just hoped that Zabb wasn’t stealing the family farm from Tach’s weakly shielded human brain. Over the years Tachyon had kept stressing that there was a very strong code of etiquette governing telepathic eavesdropping, but Jay didn’t trust Zabb. A month with the guy had left no doubt – he was a total dickweed.

Tach turned back to her human companions, pressed a hand against the swell of her pregnancy as if holding back nausea. “Baz says there’s a claimant to the Raiyis’tet who is trying to end the regency. I really did return just in time.” The soft chin stiffened. “And now that I am home, it is time I dropped the groundling name and assumed my proper identity. I am Tisianne brant Ts’ara sek Halima sek Ragnar sek Omian. Prince of House Ilkazam.”

“Okay, man, like, I’m with you.” Mark nodded several times for emphasis, then glanced back out the window, and his breath caught with all the wonder of a four-year-old coming downstairs to find the Christmas tree up and the presents waiting. “Oh, it’s so cool!”

Jay pressed his nose to the window, eager to see. During the talk they had flashed across the basin of the caldera and were now back in the mountains. The ship raced through a winding canyon, careful to remain below the level of the cliffs, and coming far too close to the rock walls for Jay’s taste. Carved out of the stone were dwellings. At least Jay assumed they were dwellings – if not, someone had gone to a lot of trouble to cut pillars and lancet windows for an elaborate facade. They rounded a final curve, and suddenly a house lay revealed, coiling like a crystal-and-marble dragon’s tail across a high mountain meadow. Like the first structures they’d seen, part of it was carved from the rose-colored cliff face.

Below that frowning fortress the land had been terraced to form pretty gardens filled with flowers, blossoming trees, and fountains. Despite the flowers, Jay had a feeling it was late autumn in Ilkazam. The leaves of the trees flashed winter fire and lay like colorful scattered scarves on the grass.

Bordering each garden were more buildings with no interlinking architectural style. Most of them were colorful with plenty of windows. Most extended no higher than two stories.

With one awesome exception. A single tower, which looked as if it had been built from smoky crystal, pointed warningly toward the sky, and as he stared down the length of that narrow valley, Jay decided he never wanted to experience a windstorm in the needle. The cliffs had to create a hellacious wind-tunnel effect, and that building would be swaying like a ten-dollar hooker on six-inch heels.

A wall surrounded this improbable edifice, and it seemed like a pretty archaic and wimpy way to hold back enemies in a spacefaring culture. Jay said as much, and Mark nudged him with an elbow, indicating guard posts on the cliffs. Jay looked closer and saw the blunt muzzles of weapons thrusting like alligator snouts from the cracks and fissures in the cliff wall.

“Lasers,” whispered Mark. “Big ones by the look of it. Missile silos, and there’s a flickering in the air over that wall – maybe a forcefield?”

“Fairy-tale palace with great big horror-movie teeth,” grunted Ackroyd. “Clad we’re invited. I’d hate to crash this party.”

“Burning Sky, you are Tisianne,” Taj said, and there was no joy in the words.

The regent of the House Ilkazam dropped his head into his hands and tugged nervously at the hair over his temples. Tisianne had known his uncle a long time. For this terribly refined, terribly controlled man, this was the equivalent of hysterics.

What was it Jay had said about invited guests? thought Tisianne. But the invitation was most grudgingly offered. The kind of invitation you issue to unexpected drop-ins and shirttail relatives. Somehow my arrival here has made a bad situation worse.

There had been no honor guard, just a single equerry with a couple of Tarhiji soldiers to whisk them through back doors and forgotten hallways to the office of the Raiyis. The pair of guards flanking the elaborate double doors had insisted the travelers be scanned even though Tis told them repeatedly it wouldn’t do any good. The three human bodies were outside the genetic mapping of Takis. Jay had taken it with ill grace, yelping loudly at the pinprick as blood was withdrawn from his wrist, and had spent the next few minutes muttering about alien poisons and precious bodily fluids. Finally the infrared trip wires, which flashed across the door at random and ever-changing heights and angles, were disconnected, and they entered.

Though opulent, the office was clearly a space designed for a busy man to work, and work efficiently. For an instant Tis wondered if her human companions were disappointed. Then she forgot all about them and their reactions. It struck hard and deep as a blow that nothing in the room had changed since Tis had stood here before his father forty-four Earth years ago and shouted bitter defiance into that beloved face. They were the last words they had ever spoken to each other.

On one wall hung a portrait of Tis and his mother done just before her death. On the desk a shifting holograph filled with pictures of Tisianne – riding, dancing, skating, reading. There was also a starkly simple flower arrangement. The petals and leaves reflected back the lights and stung Tisianne’s eyes. As a youth Tis had excelled at the art of flower arrangement. That had been his last creation for his father. Shaklan had had the flowers freeze-dried and lacquered to preserve this final gift from a rebellious child.

And now Taj had unwittingly brought home her sin and her loss by playing patient caretaker to a mausoleum in memory of a half-dead man.

What kind of a Takisian are you, Taj brant Halima sek Ragnar sek Omian, thought Tisianne, that you have no ego?

And that was the thought which had apparently elicited the outburst from Taj. It was very embarrassing for Tisianne. She knew the mentatics training she had force-fed this borrowed body was marginal at best, but she hadn’t even known she was being scanned.

Taj raised his head and waved them toward chairs. Zabb sprawled with elegant, mocking ease. He wore his Network uniform like a defiant shout. Trips sidled crabwise toward a heavily carved high-back chair. Once seated, he perched stiffly and uncomfortably upright as if caged. Jay was as cool and insouciant as ever. He sat down, relaxed, and waited – it was the detective’s gift. Tis selected a comfortable settee. None of these aggressively masculine chairs seemed designed to accommodate a pregnant woman’s unique physique, and she saw no reason to suffer.

The computer screen inset in the polished desktop sprang to life. Taj bent and read, and the light flowing up from below accentuated the lines of strain and turned the eye sockets into dark hollows. With a sigh he pushed back from the desk and swiveled in his chair to face Tisianne.

“Your mind is Tisianne’s, the body contains not a platelet of Takisian blood. But the child you carry is not only part Takisian, but carries the genetic markers of House Ilkazam.”

“It’s a rather long and complicated story.”

“I’m in no hurry.”

Tis was. Her teeth sketched at her lower lip. “Please, I must know, is Blaise here?” Taj gave her a look. She subsided.

The older man turned to Zabb. “If I didn’t have larger problems to deal with, I’d chastise you with a laser whip. Your little stunt sent that Network ship careening into our space, violating the boundaries established by treaty.” Zabb started, surprised. “This behavior was easily discouraged, but the precedent set is unfortunate.”

“But they were discouraged?”

“They’ve withdrawn to the Bonded platform.” Taj smiled humorously at Zabb’s expression. “Did you think they’d go meekly home? You’ve breached a Network contract, and we’ve fired shots – the first shots fired against a Network vessel in over eight thousand years. For all I know, we may be at war again. All because of you.’,

“I have always had a remarkable effect on people,” Zabb drawled, and Baz choked.

Taj quelled the lesser noble with one slitted glance. “Get back to Ship Home. I want extra patrols flown. Keep a watch on that Network vacu.”

Baz nodded quickly and exited.

Taj drummed fingers on the desk, the overlong nail on his left thumb hitting with a sharp click as he studied the humans. “And what do I do with you?”

Tis moved to stand between Jay and Trips. “They don’t know House Talk very well. Try Sham’al. And you needn’t do anything with them. They are my bodyguards, and one is of my line. I adopted him.”

“How… like you.” Taj pushed back his hair, folded his hands as if to keep them still. “They carry the Enhancer in the pattern of their genes.”

Enhancer threw them. Tis explained that it meant the virus. Trips had nothing to say to that. As usual Jay did.

“We call it the wild card,” said Jay. The English term sounded strange coming at the end of a burst of Takisian.

“Wild card?” Taj looked to his nephew for amplification.

“It’s a term from an Earth card game called poker. It’s meant to imply randomness, something that strikes without warning.”

Taj nodded, absorbed this, then, cocking an eyebrow at Tis, said, “I’m still waiting to hear how your soul came to reside in this pretty pregnant vessel, and I’m most intrigued to discover how you managed to impregnate yourself.”

“The father of the child is Blaise, my grandson.”

“So you’re carrying your great-granddaughter?”


“Fascinating. An incest for which there is no name.”

“It was a subtle revenge.”

“This grandson of yours sounds very Takisian.”

“If that’s synonymous with crazy, you’d be right,” Jay said. Tis and Trips winced. For the first time Taj really seemed to focus on the detective.

“For a mudcrawler you are very fearless… or foolish.”

“A little of both actually. Can I ask a question?” Taj nodded assent. “You’re the first old geez – uh, older person I’ve seen here. How old are you?”

“Nine hundred and twenty-three.”

“Jesus Christ! Does everybody live to be nine hundred?”

“Barring unforeseen… er, accidents, which is rather difficult to do,” Zabb drawled. “We can live much longer.”

Taj looked significantly at Tisianne. “Well, I’m waiting.” Tisianne opened her mouth, closed it. Her uncle sighed. “Yes, Tis, your situation is ludicrous, but I don’t see how talking about it will make it any worse. And I cannot help – you or the House – unless I know precisely with what I’m dealing.”

Slowly at first, then with growing animation, she told the tale. The last great fight with Shaklan when Tisianne had begged his father to halt testing of the Enhancer on a small, insignificant planet filled with genetic doubles of the Takisians. His pursuit of the test ship, its destruction, and the release of the virus.

She recalled the early days when ten thousand people had died in Manhattan, when hideous and twisted jokers had wandered like living scars on the face of the city. She spoke of the few, the lucky few who were blessed with metahuman powers – the aces. Taj glanced with interest at the two humans. It didn’t take a genius to conclude that they possessed these metahuman powers. If there was a Takisian racial flaw, it was unbridled curiosity. It was already beginning to eat at the regent.

Tis glossed over the terrible days of the McCarthy witch hunts, her deportation, the years of drunken wandering. It was then he had sired a daughter. Taj’s expression grew thunderous, and she blanched a bit. Hurried on to the founding of the Jokertown Clinic to care for the victims of the wild card. The discovery that he had a grandson: a quarter-Takisian boy who had been raised by vicious revolutionaries and possessed not an ounce of pity or morality. The outcrossing of genes had somehow produced a mind-control power of terrifying dimensions. She touched on the enemies and crises she had faced – the Swarm invasion, the Astronomer, the jumpers, Bloat – and her great nemesis, Blaise.

“There was an ace, his wild card was to bestow this jumper power on adolescents. Blaise became a member of this gang, and to revenge himself upon me, he switched me into the body of this girlchild. He held me prisoner, and he… he… he would…”

Her voice had started to jump, and strength drained from her body. She felt her knees buckling. Zabb reached her first. Swung her up in his arms and carried her to the settee. Her vision cleared. Taj stared down at her, white-faced with shock. Obviously her emotions, the memories, had been too strong. They had forced themselves past the shields that the old man was maintaining for politeness’ sake. Even Zabb, who would cavil at nothing, was shaken.

“This piece of rotting afterbirth raped you?” Zabb shouted. Tis shrank from his anger.

“Hey, guys, yeah, it’s a lousy thing, but we’re all adults here,” Jay said. “It’s not like it never happens -”

“Not on Takis!” Taj interrupted.

Zabb whirled on the humans. “It is an act of total depravity, a sign of insanity. It is abomination.” Zabb turned back to the regent. If this creature is on Takis -”

“He is with the Vayawand,” Taj said.

“Then let me lead a raid -”

“No.” Tisianne sat up, and rising, she moved with what grace she could muster to the desk to seat herself in her father’s chair.

The humans were oblivious to the symbolism. The lines at the corners of Taj’s mouth deepened, whether a smile hidden or anger suppressed, Tisianne couldn’t tell. Taj had ruled this House for over thirty years. Did he resent her usurpation? But it wasn’t usurpation; it was hers by right.

Only one man could challenge that right. Implacably she met his gaze. Zabb smiled. Unconsciously he brushed at his mustache with the tip of a forefinger, his manner that of a man surveying an hors d’oeuvre tray. Taj inclined his head. Zabb did not.

“You are dismissed,” Tis said to her cousin.

“He is the commandant of the House,” Taj said.

“I have not made him so. And you must have been using someone else in his absence.”

“Not as effectively,” was the dry reply.

Zabb rested his palms on the desk and leaned in on her. “I am the best man for the job, cousin.”

“For whatever job I decide to give you. Not one of your own choosing, cousin. And certainly not for the job you are eyeing.” Anger made her breath short, and Illyana jerked in her womb. Tis pressed a hand against her stomach and longed for a handful of Rolaids. “Now, go.” Zabb bowed, so respectfully, so politely, so reverently that it made a mockery of the obeisance, and withdrew.

“We’re going to have to use him,” Taj said.

“Maybe, but Ancestors be damned if I’m going to let him assume anything.”

“What are your orders, Raiyis?”

“Contact the Raiyis of House Vayawand. Inform him of my return, my situation, of the… crime committed against me. Demand extradition, but lead the troops yourself – I don’t trust Zabb -”

It finally penetrated that Taj had been gesturing at her, trying to stop the urgent flow of words. “What?”

“This is all very lovely, nephew, but for one tiny flaw – Blaise is the Raiyis of House Vayawand.”

Chapter Nineteen

Ballooning was definitely a rad experience. Slipping along, just another colorful cloud among all the other colorful clouds. Unlike a human outing there wasn’t a lot of noise of conversation, but that was because most of the people were using Vayet, and fully half the conversation was telepathic. There was a Tarhiji orchestra performing at the stern of the amazing carved-and-painted gondola, but they kept it soft so a person could appreciate the magical silence of this mode of travel.

There was one constant noise that Kelly found very disturbing – the clap of wings followed by a piteous shriek as another small bird or animal was caught and killed by the plunging birds of prey being flown by the nobles in the bow. Blaise was up there where he could really hear their cries and smell the blood. Kelly liked it just fine in the stern, thank you. And he knew the cure for discomfort – more wine.

He signaled, and the wine washed like liquid amber into the goblet. The scent of the servant’s per fume filled Kelly’s nostrils. He snatched up the glass so quickly that the servant spilled a few drops on the embroidered tablecloth. Kelly grinned apology at the pretty girl and gulped down half the glass. Cold sweet fire. Whatever else could be said about the Takisians, they made bitching wine. The girl smiled back. There was a startling reaction from Kelly’s borrowed body, and he half rose from his chair. The horizon wobbled, and Kelly realized he was more than a little drunk.

“The body leads, the mind must follow,” said Bat’tam.

The elderly noble had drawn a chair close – too close – to Kelly’s. The lost human blinked owlishly at him. The embedded jewels had begun to sag like collapsing houses into the wrinkles networking Bat’tam’s face, and his long silver hair reminded Kelly of cobwebs. The older man’s gaze dropped, and Kelly slid a hand to his crotch to hide his rampant erection. Bat’tam stood, waved off the girl, placed a hand on Kelly’s shoulder, and urged him back into his chair.

“There, there, Ilkazam, don’t distress yourself.”

“I’m a little confused about my role right now,” Kelly slurred, and hiccuped his way into a little sob.

“What does it matter? Man or woman, you are dear to me.”

“I thought you were only nice to me so you could get close to Blaise.”

Bat’tam laid a hand across Kelly’s mouth, stopping the angry, bitter words. “I avoid charismatic young men with fire in their eyes, and a hunger in their heart. That’s how I’ve lived to be so old. No, Ilkazam. You are -” Bat’tam broke off abruptly, and frowned at the small, fast shuttle that was falling like one of the hunting birds on the bloated mass of the balloon.

The ship braked, and hovered beside the gondola. Everyone’s attention shifted to the new arrival.

“It must be serious if they interrupt the Raiyis at his play,” Bat’tam said.

Kelly’s focus was on the flock of pretty little gray-and-lavender birds that had just been released. “Run,” he said under his breath. “Fly fast.” The little birds went fluttering in all directions. Several of the large raptors spread their brilliantly colored wings and shook them urgently as they sensed their prey escaping.

A man was suspended in thin air, being propelled by some unseen force from the door of the shuttle to the deck of the gondola. He hurried to the party surrounding Blaise and dropped to his knees.

“My lord,” the man said.

Blaise smiled tightly down at him and rolled an eye to Durg. The Morakh stepped ponderously forward. “Der’et, one of our intelligence officers from the Bonded station.”

“This better be good. You’ve interrupted me.”

“Perhaps in private, master,” Durg said softly.

“Fuck that,” Blaise said in English.

“A Network ship docked today. Tisianne brant Ts’ara and Zabb brant Sabina were aboard. They were taken to Ilkazam, and there have been shots exchanged with the Network vacu.”

Durg watched the color drain from the boy’s face. “Oh no. No. How? How did he get here?”

Hesitantly the spy offered, “The Network, Raiyis.”

Blaise turned on Durg. “Why didn’t you tell me? You said we’d be safe. He couldn’t get here!”

“Calm yourself.”

It was an inauspicious recommendation. It lit the fuse of Blaise’s fury, and he went plunging like a linebacker through the diminutive Takisians clustered about him.

Durg didn’t have time to deal with Blaise’s tantrums at the moment. The news of a Network encroachment into Takisian space was alarming. Glancing down at the huddled spy, Durg said, “Return at once to the station and monitor the Network. Apprise me of any movement or messages.” Durg started away, then looked back briefly. “And I suggest you not take formal leave of the Raiyis.”

There was a sudden murmur of sound from the stern of the gondola, and a wavelike movement as the crowd reacted like an amoeba touched with a finger. With mounting concern Durg rolled through the crowd.

Saw Kelly, running like a maddened jebali, screaming Durg’s name. The man slammed into his chest, and the extent of the disaster came into focus in sharp, hard-edged images – a white-and-red-coated bone splinter sticking through the skin of Kelly’s forearm.

Durg grabbed Kelly and shook him. The man screamed. Broken ribs, Durg registered.

“Where is Blaise?”

“He’s going to kill him! He tried to save me! He’ll kill me!” Kelly babbled.

Durg kicked into a run. Through the ranks of shocked Zal’hma at’ Irg. “Go,” the Morakh roared at the assembled nobles. They went.

Blaise was a frozen statue, but great beads of sweat were squeezing through the skin on his forehead, matting in the red sideburns, rolling down through the blood on his cheek. Bat’tam, armed with a broken, blood-drenched goblet, was slowly gnawing through his lower lip. Blood was beginning to run down his chin.

Kelly crept past Durg to Bat’tam’s side. The elderly noble put an arm around Kelly’s waist, held him close – but gently, so gently. A part of Durg’s mind registered this development and wondered if the boykisser was going to be a problem requiring a permanent solution.

“Release him,” Durg ordered.

An alien emotion ran like a furtive animal through his guts. Then Durg tensed, and as Bat’tam’s desperate mind control relaxed, the Morakh swiftly slapped Blaise across the face. “Are you mad? You rule House Vayawand. How can you fear a pregnant female?”

“I don’t want there to be even a chance that Tachyon can recover his body. She” – Blaise’s out-thrust arm was so taut that it shivered with strain as he pointed at Kelly – “is useless to us now. I want her dead.”

“Useless?” Bat’tam’s fingers tightened briefly on Kelly’s waist. The man’s nervousness jumped in each syllable. “My lord, in this body reposes ten thousand years of planned breeding. The finest genetic legacy the Ilkazam could create. This is a treasure not to be wasted.”

“You don’t give a shit about irreplaceable genetic material, you just want to fuck my granddaddy,” Blaise spat. Bat’tam bowed his head. “Get out of here, faggot.” Bat’tam hastened to obey.

Durg allowed the silence to stretch into an agonizingly long minute. Gave the killing frenzy time to die. “Perhaps his motives are not the most pure, but if the reasonable argument does not appeal… consider how it would complicate Tisianne’s life if we raided the Ilkazam gene pool,” Durg said softly.

The final flicker of insane fire faded from Blaise’s dark eyes. He tugged thoughtfully at his lower lip and regarded Kelly. “What did you have in mind?”

“Marriage is a very useful institution.” After a moment’s hesitation Blaise began to laugh.

There was nervous shifting from the nobles all huddled in the bow of the gondola. Blaise’s face darkened. “Are any of them spying on me?”

Durg shrugged. “It’s possible. I’m the wrong person to ask.”

“I can’t trust any of them.”

“You have the sworn personal loyalty of every Morakh in House Vayawand. The Zal’hma at’ Irg need not concern you.”

Blaise was shaking his head, sending sweat and blood droplets flying. “I think we ought to get the hell out of here. I’ve got to have support…

Durg held himself in close control. Watched the careful facade of nerve and competence he had constructed and coached into this boy crumbling like an avalanche. Sought a solution. Then softly he said, “My lord, the psi lords are not the only people on Takis.”

Chapter Twenty

“How the hell does a sixteen-year-old kid become a king in six weeks? A month? Whatever it’s been in Takisian time?” Jay blurted.

“I was hoping you would enlighten me,” Taj said.

“What does it matter?” Tis said bitterly. “Now it will require a war to dislodge him. I’ll have to use Zabb, I can’t trust him, and he may kill both Blaise and my body.”

“Hey, man, like don’t forget about us,” Mark said with a significant lift of the eyebrows, and an obvious head jerk to Jay.

Sadness washed across the old man’s face. “Over the weeks I’ve watched the well-bred of House Vayawand kill each other like maddened sinde. It culminated with L’gura’s suicide. Ancestors know I hated that bloodless bastard, but he deserved to be ruined by a gentleman, preferably me.” Taj smiled, but the momentary flash of humor died fast. “Not manipulated by a piece of unplanned afterbirth.” Taj sighed. “Well, his death shall be avenged. Now that I know this is a mentatic phenomenon, it can be countered.”

“With difficulty,” Mark warned.

In painfully slow, excruciatingly bad English, Taj said, “Adversity is a state I understand. Achieving the impossible commonplace. What is merely difficult should be easily achieved.”

There was a soft chime, and Tis keyed the desk. A holo of the door guard sprang to life on the desk. The man’s face registered shock, and he couldn’t seem to say a word.

“Yes? What is it?” Tis asked. Nothing. Irritated, Tis pushed. “You interrupt me, it must be something.”

Taj stepped to her, laid a hand on her shoulder. “They don’t know you, and he’s never seen a woman in that chair.”

Relieved at seeing Taj, the man reported that Zabb was requesting an audience.

Taj glanced at Tis. She nodded wearily. “Let him in.

Zabb entered in his usual sweeping style. “We’ve got trouble. Remember that claimant Baz mentioned? Well, they’re attempting to ram through an elevation before any of us can react. I think we had best react.”

“Curse that motherless Egyon,” Taj said. “I wonder what spooked him.”

“Probably me wandering about the halls,” Zabb said. “And you know a palace, rumors pump like bile through the halls. The word must be out that Tisianne has returned. Either one of us has a superior claim to the Kou’nar line.”

Taj summoned the guard, who wrapped themselves like a protective cloak about the Takisians and the humans and hustled them through the corridors of the sprawling House.

While they walked, Tisianne explained how her entire plan rested on her ability to command the troops of the House Ilkazam. “If I lose the Raiyis’tet, it’s a sure bet that the new Raiyis won’t help me recover my lost body. If he does, he costs himself the throne.”

They kept nodding sagely, but Tis wondered how much they had really grasped. Ideal! She wondered how much she had grasped. It was all happening too quickly. There was no time for her to ease back into the life of a world she had left half a lifetime before.

She didn’t know how to conspire anymore, she didn’t want to. Resentment and weariness chewed at her. She wanted to react to the familiar faces she saw throughout the ranked bodies of her armed guards. She wanted to savor childhood memories brought back with painful vividness by the scent of baking pastries, or a particular tapestry. She didn’t want to be thrust willy-nilly into the battle. She wanted someone to bring her her stolen body and put her back where she belonged. She wanted to be at peace for the first time in forty-four years.

Illyana sent a wave of warmth and love from the womb to her mother’s mind. Tisianne’s breath caught at the overwhelming sweetness of it. At three months the baby had been little more than a sensory sponge. Now at seven and a half months she was becoming an individual. And the problem, you little demon, Tis sent to her daughter, though she knew the ideas were too complex for the baby’s developing mind to comprehend.

I love you and I want you, but I don’t want to birth you. I’m frightened – of the pain, of the entire experience… Ancestors! I don’t have time for these thoughts, I have to preserve my House, my station. I have to be warrior, not woman. No, that’s not right. Cody would be quick to jump down my throat. Women can be fighters. Mother then, my mind more on life than death… Hush, Illyana, sleep, baby, don’t distract me now.

Through the doors, and into an elaborate audience chamber. Tis remembered it being much larger. Had it shrunk or had she somehow grown? A knot of people were gathered about the platform holding the chair of the Raiyis of Ilkazam. It seemed to have been carved from a piece of glacial ice, filigreed with snowflakes. It was in truth constructed of an almost obscene number of diamonds supported on a platinum frame. Such conspicuous consumption on a planet so mineral poor. We’re psi lords, mentats, Most Bred, the Zal’hma at’ Irg, Tis reminded herself. It didn’t do much to assuage the guilt. Too long on Earth, she thought.

The pretender could be recognized by his sulky, disappointed expression. He had been rushed into his festival finery, for the cloak was caught up in the waistband of his ballooning trousers. Tis noted in shock that the boy still wore a mother badge twined about his left wrist. Not yet twenty – a baby! – and someone had made him a target.

Tis raked the rest of the assembly, searching for the Svengali. Egyon, Taj had said. Yes, that would fit. Zabb’s thought concurred with her conclusion. Tis also had to admire Taj’s intelligence sources. The personal guard of the Sennari line well outnumbered the more ceremonial escort protecting the Kou’nar conspirators.

Tis ignored the boy with his spun caramel hair dressed to form two horns rising from above each ear. Instead she addressed his trainer.

“Not yet, I think, vindi. There are still three lives between you and your ambition.”

Egyon pivoted elegantly to face her. He was dressed in fencing leathers dyed in multicolored squares, and his pale brown hair was clasped with a knife-and-sheath barrette. Obviously he had been caught unawares, but Tisianne had to grudgingly admire the speed of his response.

“Three, Tisianne brant Ts’ara sek Halima sek Ragnar? Are you counting that unplanned abortion you’re carrying?” Egyon asked sweetly.

The need to do murder flickered once like a whipping snake’s tail. Tis buried the urge. “Your powers must be failing, Egyon. This is a girlchild. And you forget my father, who is not dead yet.”

“As good as!” flared the pouting child.

“Quiet!” Egyon ordered.

“Yes, quiet, little one,” Tisianne agreed. “I’m trying to save your life.” The boy’s eyes widened slightly. “Yes, consider that. Do you really feel you have the experience to lead this House?”

There was an instant of silence, then Zabb showed his teeth and said softly, “No, that’s not a good idea.”

Her cousin had read the boy’s mind. Tisianne his body language, but she understood nonetheless.

“Zabb’s my heir,” Tis said. “You could put him in command of your troops, but will he fight the Vayawand or usurp you?” She shrugged eloquently.

“We have no proof this is Tisianne,” Egyon said. “Just the unsupported word of the regent. You’re all Sennari seed. You’d do anything to keep the Raiyis’tet from falling to the Kou’nar.”

“Test her,” said Zabb, and Tis took a quick, sidling step away from her cousin. He reached out and caught her above the elbow, held her still. “But not you, Egyon. This poor little human mind can’t protect itself well enough, and I’m not going to have my cousin conveniently die from a brain aneurysm.”

Relief suddenly removed the clog from her throat, and Tis quickly followed Zabb’s lead. “I’ll submit to an examination by the full Ajayiz. That should establish to anyone’s satisfaction that I am Tisianne.”

Zabb threw back his head and shouted, “And you can’t tell me you old beldams aren’t monitoring this little drama. So get in here, and let us do it.”

“Zabb,” said Taj warningly.

“They’d rather be amused than defend the House. Better to sit in the ashes and stir them with the stumps of their arms than miss one moment of emotional turmoil from their descendants.” In a more moderate tone he said to Taj, “Sorry, vindi, but I’ve always thought they were manipulative old spiders.”

“There’s no need to convene the Ajayiz. It was already decided that Onyze should ascend -”

“The situation’s changed, Egyon, you’ll have to do better than that,” Tis said.

Suddenly the House rang with a tone so high that it pained the ears and vibrated in the bones. The exterior manifestation of that call was painful enough – for the telepaths it was almost unbearable. The Takisians staggered, and Taj, who was a powerful and subtle telepath, was driven almost to his knees. Tisianne held up better than any of them because of the feeble abilities of her borrowed human body. But she felt it, drawn like a knife across her nerve endings. Only the Tarhiji guards and the humans were unaffected.

Mark, kind to the last and always concerned, supported Taj, even checked the old man’s pulse. The final aching harmonics died away, and the Takisians recovered. Taj pulled abruptly away from Mark, leaving the ace blinking in hurt confusion. Taj noticed. Glancing back, he said gruffly, “Your kindness was appreciated if unnecessary.”

Mark brightened perceptibly, and Tis was reminded again how much he loved this fine old man. Taj truly was a grand seigneur.

“Is that the Takisian version of a dog whistle?” asked Jay.

Zabb gave a short bark of laughter. In a manner of speaking, yes.”

“It is the Council Call,” Taj said, irritated by their flippancy.

Zabb’s grin became even broader. “Little cousin, you are more troublesome and get a bigger reaction than a swarm of scissor wings. They’re actually coming down.”

Panic took a brief run around the pit of her stomach like a frightened rabbit seeking its burrow.

“You can take some credit for this,” Taj said gruffly. “Pulling in the Network on us -”

“Which makes him a renegade and a traitor,” Egyon said with that tight, prissy voice that lawyers use when addressing a jury. “A perfect candidate for the Raiyis’tet.”

“Zabb is not the issue here, I am,” flared Tis.

“You’re bickering like the blind,” Taj exploded. “We now all wait on the decision of the Ajayiz, which will be several hours in coming. I suggest we adjourn to wait in more comfortable surroundings.” He paused and eyed the two humans: Jay dressed in his brown slacks and sports jacket, Mark in jeans, tennis shoes, and a T-shirt. He shuddered slightly. “And get something decent for these stirpes to wear.”

“Go away, Egyon,” Tis said softly. “Taj is still regent of House Ilkazam… and despite his courtesy I don’t think that was a request.”

Out-and-out warfare is rare in a Takisian noble house. Murder, when it occurs, is accomplished in shadowed corners, cloaked in the trappings of an accident.

This was how Blaise did it, thought Tisianne. If I possessed the jump power, I could take Egyon, manipulate the puppet body to attack, and jump back as the guards killed him.

But Egyon obeyed, and she didn’t possess the jump power, so she regretfully watched as the Kou’nar filed obediently from the audience chamber. Well, since no new and arcane powers were available to her, she would have to rely upon those fundamental Takisian talents – conspiracy and treachery.

Mark’s touch on her shoulder pulled her out of her reverie. “You should rest,” he said.

“No.” She shook her head. “First I must find a toilet. Then I must see my father.” She forced a casualness into her voice which she didn’t feel.

Zabb and Taj both looked at her sharply, and Zabb took her by the elbow and walked her forward until they stood at the base of the dais looking up at the throne. He seemed uncomfortable, like a man who was picking up and inspecting words to find the ones with the least potential for pain. At last Zabb said, “You’ve been warned what you’ll find.”


“You can do a scan?”

“With Taj’s help.”

“Then you know what to do.”

Zabb turned and walked away, and Tis watched him go with hatred growing in her heart.

When Zabb’s hand fell like a stroke of doom on his shoulder, Mark wanted to shrug it contemptuously away. He could tell by the Doc’s expression that her cousin had again delivered some emotional body blow, but rudeness didn’t come easily to the gawky ace, and he secretly feared that he couldn’t carry off the gesture with anything approaching aplomb. Mark had looked ridiculous too many times in his life for it to be an unfamiliar sensation, but close association with the emotion didn’t make it any more welcome.

It took a quarter second for all these random, regretful, and scattered thoughts to shoot through Mark’s head, and then Zabb was saying, “Come, I need you with me.”


A flicker of a smile briefly relieved the intensity of the Takisian’s expression. “As incredible as that might seem… yes. Your grasp of our language is better than the noisy man’s, and in your case I am acquainted with your powers.”

“My friends,” Mark corrected softly. “And don’t assume you’ve met them all.” It was a gently couched warning, and Zabb didn’t mistake it.

“You may believe me when I tell you that at this moment my cousin has nothing to fear from me,”

Zabb was walking toward the door, and Mark said to his back, “Because right now you need something from her.”

The alien looked back. “Quite astute of you, groundling.”

“Wait a minute.” Mark knelt, snapped open the case, and removed five of the vials. Slipping them into the leather pouch at his belt, he crossed to where Tis was expostulating with Jay Ackroyd.

“Hey, man, watch this for me. Okay?” He handed the case to Jay and hurried back to join Zabb.

On this walk, with only a pair of guards as escort, and without the accompaniment of a frenzied explanation from Tachyon – Tisianne – Mark had the leisure to inspect his surroundings. Judging from the striations in the stone walls of the audience chamber, it was located in the ancient section of the house which had been carved from the rock of the cliff. Now they had entered the newer sections of the sprawling villa. The range of decorations was bewildering to the eye, and jarring to the mind. In some areas paintings and tapestries adorned the walls; in others just the polished stone; in still others there were inlaid mosaics.

“I take it that Takisians don’t believe in a coherent decor.”

Zabb laughed. “To understand Takis, you must first understand how territorial we are.”

“Yeah, I know. All the different families and Houses…”

“Yes, but that extends in-House as well. Each breeding line stakes out a section of palace for their own, and that includes the corridors.”

“So they get to decorate it as they please.”

“And maintain it at their own expense. It’s a way for the Raiyis to cut costs.”

That raised a new thought for Mark. “Money. How do you get it?”

“Investments, taxes, theft.” The alien laughed at Mark’s expression. “No, nothing so romantic as you are thinking. When we battle, the winner doesn’t cart away the treasures of a House. Our theft is of the electronic variety.”

“But when you absorb a smaller House -”

“It happens very rarely. Nothing fights like a cornered Takisian, so out-and-out victories are costly. Also, if we reduced the number of Houses…” He paused, considered. “Well, it wouldn’t be as interesting or challenging.”

“Then you like to fight.” A wealth of flower-child disapproval was ladled onto the words.

Zabb’s quick pace slowed, and he cocked his head curiously at Mark. “Yes, we’re a warrior culture. There’s glory in warfare, very little in peace.”

“That’s a lot of crap. A sincere and dedicated pacifist is braver than any soldier. Look, I don’t particularly like the Network – too profit oriented, and money’s never meant much to me, but, like, they’ve got the right idea. You don’t squander your energy in war, you direct it out – for exploration, scientific research. You’ve had space flight for a hell of a long time, and you’ve got only a few colonies and no alien allies. I think that’s sad, and really wasteful.”

Zabb stopped before an elaborately carved door. He laid a hand on the cut-crystal knob and quirked a smile up at Mark. “One could argue we are even now forging a unique alliance with you humans.”

Mark stared seriously down at him. “No… you despise us.”

There was the briefest of pauses, then Zabb nodded abruptly. “Yes.”

As Mark watched the alien step through the door, he had to admit to a certain grudging admiration. A human would have expostulated, temporized, weaseled. Takisian honesty was as brutal as their politics.

Mark checked just on the threshold. “This is your room,” he said.

“Very perceptive.”

Mark surveyed the collection of weapons on the wall, the series of paintings featuring animals that resembled a cross between giraffes, horses, and impalas. A large stained-glass window depicted a hunt, but the riders were mounted on enormous flying creatures of a genus so alien that Mark couldn’t even think of an earthly comparison.

“Nobody touched it in five years?”

Again that flashing smile. “They knew better.”

“And the Doc’s? Is his… her room still intact?”

“No.” Zabb turned from where he was fiddling at the contents of an elaborate desk with etched crystal fronting each of the drawers. “I made sure it was assigned to others… oh, it must have been twenty or so years after my little cousin’s precipitous departure.”

Mark seated himself on the corner of a table and swung a leg. “Are you so shitty to the Doc because you’re trying to bury the fact you really do like her?”

The Takisian had a funny expression. “Very… very perceptive. Is that why you agreed to accompany me and leave my cousin with only a single protector?”

“Yeah. And she would have stopped me if she’d thought it was wrong.”

“Tis and I each have a mission to accomplish.”

“And you need me if you’re going to succeed.”

“I could probably achieve it alone, but remembering how difficult you… er, your friends can be, I thought your involvement might simplify matters.”

“What is it you want me to do?”

“Help me kill a man.”

Hands up, palms out as if the words alone had the power to damage him, Mark backed off. “No, oh no, no way.”

Zabb pressed in, driving Mark around the opulent room like a drover with a skittish horse. “Then she’s dead.”

“That can’t be true. She’s got guards, she’s got us. Besides, there’s no reason to kill this kid. The Doc is the Doc, and once her bona fides have been established, the kid will just get shunted aside.” Zabb didn’t answer. He just began filling a pipe from a twisted blown-glass humidor, never taking his sardonic, cold eyes off the sweating ace. “Killing that boy won’t accomplish anything,” Mark continued. “There’ll always be a replacement waiting to…” Marks voice trailed away.

The images parading past his mind’s eye were those from human mythology. Of dragons’ teeth being sown into the plowed earth, and soldiers springing up like foul weeds.

“Precisely, which is why I want to remove Onyze in a way that will implicate Egyon and sow the seeds of distrust among the remaining members of that line. It’s a very effective way to discourage pretension and treachery. And it will work. Oh, not for all time, but for a score of years, perhaps there will be peace.”

“The peace of fear,” Mark said defiantly.

“The best kind I know,” was the imperturbable reply.

“Then I’m sorry for you.” And he found that it was true.

Zabb hunched one shoulder. He picked up a lighter and drew on his pipe until he had it burning to his satisfaction. “Tisianne understands the harsh necessity that presently drives us. Even now she is taking an action that tears her soul. But she will act. Will you?”

“Not this way.”

Zabb tried another tack, still in that same sweetly sane tone. “Have you never in your life acted to defend the helpless?”

Indignation edged the words. Mark sounded as harsh as an old crow next to Zabb’s mellifluous arguments. “This is not a case of self-defense, and all the sophistry in the world isn’t going to make it self-defense!”

“Perhaps I failed to express myself clearly. It is not incumbent upon either you or your ‘friend’ to kill Onyze. I will handle that, but I need full intelligence to succeed. I need a – in your culture I believe it is called a ‘bug’ – planted.”

“It makes me an accessory to murder, and I won’t do it!”

“Does your friend also share in your charming if totally unrealistic belief?”

Suddenly wary, Trips asked, “Which friend?”

“That blue fellow who can walk through walls.” In a burst of regretful reminiscence he added, “By the Ideal, he nearly drove my poor Hellcat mad.”

“Traveler.” Mark turned away, wrapped his bony arms around himself as if the act could somehow comfort. The scent of the alien tobacco was sweet in his nostrils.

Zabb was continuing. His voice was low, calming, eminently reasonable. “You have chosen a philosophy for yourself. A foolish one by my lights, and one I cannot understand, but you are the one who must face the shame of your descendants, and the rage of your ancestors. But how can you make the decision for this other individual? He might be willing to help me. To help Tisianne.”

With a tongue suddenly too thick for his mouth, Trips managed to mutter, “I do care… and he won’t help. He’ll be too afraid.” He paused, considered. “Maybe he’ll even believe it’s wrong.”

“How nice for you if he does. How fatal for Tisianne.” Zabb dropped the pipe into an ashtray with a clatter. “And then there’s the infant…”

Trips found words beyond him. He let out a sound that was half curse, half sob, and pulled out the small vial of blue powder. Downed it. As the transformation began to take hold, he faintly heard Zabb saying, “Don’t take it so to heart. You can always ease the conscience with the comforting argument that it wasn’t you. You were right, sophistry is the other great Takisian art.”

“Made any more progress?” Tisianne asked, as she shut off the computer and turned to face Taj. They were in the medical labs of House Ilkazam.

Not by the flicker of an eyelash did the older Takisian indicate that he read the wealth of fury and sarcasm behind the four words. “A little. It hurt us when we lost our two best researchers.”

“Ansata’s death was his own choice. A simple surrender was all that was required.”

“Or you could have released his ship.”

Tis wasn’t going to buy one instant of guilt. She buried the brief flash that tried to surface. “That was never an option. I weighed fifteen lives against the thousands on Earth. Ansata lost. And as for my absence – I was unavoidably detained.”

Jay surprised Tisianne by speaking up. Obviously he understood Takisian better than he spoke it. “If your ship hadn’t been damaged, would you have stayed?”

Slowly she said, “Probably not. I was very young, and I was making a grand gesture in the best and grandest Takisian style. You were just faceless masses who were going to be so very, very grateful. Only later did I learn to love you.”

“You have reason to be grateful, groundling,” Taj said. “You obviously have received some great and potent power, or you would not be a companion to Tisianne.”

Jay didn’t have to climb down the alien’s throat, Tis did it for him. “Grateful! Grateful! The Ideal curse you and leave you childless. Is Jay’s power worth tens of thousands of lives? Is it worth the damage to his life, concerned as he must be over the fate of any children he may sire? Is it worth the loss of all that I am? What was conceived in this room I am now carrying to fruition.”

She spun away and tried to regain control of her ragged breaths. The fury, the anguish helped propel her to a cabinet. It kept her from thinking too much about the purpose of the drug she was loading into an epispray.

“I see you haven’t lost your flare for impassioned speeches. Do you still favor desperate causes?” Taj asked.

He was trying to fathom the mind of a person who would run off to save the inhabitants of an alien world. Trying to see if she regretted throwing away her birthright and her future. Tis thrust the epispray deep into her pocket and looked her uncle straight in the eye.

“I’d do it again… in a second…”

His expression softened. “That’s my Tisianne. Your father would be proud.”

“Did he ever forgive me?”

“No… but he missed you to the end.”

“It’s time I saw him.”

The infirmary was almost empty. There was one young man floating in a biogerm bubble. The bubbles hung from the ceiling by long filaments that monitored the injured body, but it did look as if the patient had been swallowed by a Portuguese man-of-war. Tis also thought of them as placenta pods. They served the same function as the womb, growing a healthy body, and the individual floating in their soothing soup often seemed to revert. Like the man before them, curled on his side, his thumb in his mouth, eyes squeezed shut, and nutrient feeds stabbing his body at a hundred different points.

“Gross,” Jay said, but Tis wasn’t certain whether he was reacting to the bubble or the horrendous wounds that raked the man’s flesh, laying bare the various levels and colors of a Takisian body.

At the far end of the ward lay a pair of heavy plasteel doors like the entrance into a security vault. And it was a safe of sorts; it was designed to protect the most precious and powerful of the House Ilkazam as they healed. The guards took up positions at the door to the infirmary, and about the vault doors. Taj stood before the access panel, an abstract piece of appliquй art with multicolored silicon crystals, each of them flashing with white lights. Taj sent the telepathic code, and order became chaos. Crystals flashed with clashing and discordant colors, and then the doors slid slowly open with a soft whine.

“Do you want me to wait outside with the hired help?” Jay asked.

Tis couldn’t force words past the lump in her throat. She shook her head and entered. Jay followed.

Shaklan was also floating in a biogerm bubble, also curled into a fetal position, but there was no sense of the healing infant. This was a breathing, excreting husk. Rollers had been placed in the palms of each clawlike hand to prevent them from closing into permanent fists. The hip bones thrust like knife blades against the gray skin of the pelvis, and the bones of the rib cage fell away to a shrunken belly. Long, long hair floated like seaweed about the shriveled body.

Tisianne evaluated the vital signs being constantly monitored from the control panel. The monitors certainly supported the general consensus that the mind and soul of Shaklan brant Fleva sek Agem had fled.

“You still want the scan?” Taj asked.


She keyed the panel, and the nutrient bath began to drain away. An examination table rose out of the floor and gently received the desiccated body. Pulling aside the gelatinous bubble, Tis stared into the face of this half-dead thing and tried to reconcile it with the face of her father. It had the proper shape. That was all.

Taj gathered her hand in his, physical contact helping him to capture and augment her own feeble mental powers. They went searching and found nothing. The flesh breathed, the mind was gone.

She paced, felt as if something were battering at the top of her skull. Found her hand thrust deep into her pocket clenching the epispray. She marched all the arguments through her head. The conclusion was inescapable.

She forced herself back to her father’s side. Laid a hand against a hollow, stubbled cheek.

“Daddy…” She was a little embarrassed using the human word, but she had always liked it. It spoke of warmth and affection, and the Takisian High House equivalent didn’t suggest intimacy, much less love. “I’ve come home. I’m sorry for the things I said. I… love you…” sound died as if strangled, and she walked away.

Taj followed and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Do you want me to…?”


Tis held out her hand, and Taj laid a pair of tiny golden scissors on the palm. The hair was lank and wet as she separated out a strand and snipped it off. Carefully she wrapped this token of her father around one wrist.

Shaklan’s lips held a hint of warmth, and it almost shattered her resolve. Then courage, pragmatism, love, and selfish need spurred her, and Tis pulled out the epispray. Laid it against her father’s arm.

Jay’s fingers closed on her wrist, and the pain forced her to drop the epispray.

“What are you doing?” The enunciation was ice careful.

Tisianne’s eyes fluttered up to meet his. What she read there made it impossible for her to speak.

“Freeing him,” Taj said softly as he gently freed Jay’s fingers from around Tis’s wrist. “From a death in life.”

“You’re going to put your own father to sleep?”

“I have to,” Tis said so quietly that she wasn’t even sure the words were audible. “He’s been kept alive as a pawn. Now his presence is no longer necessary. In fact it’s a hindrance.”

“That’s what Zabb was laying on you. Remove that last life standing between you and your goddamn throne. Jesus, I can’t believe you.”

His scorn hurt. It struck her skin like a lash, and she almost quailed. She went searching for anger and found a thimbleful. It would suffice in lieu of courage. “I expect neither your understanding nor your approval. I expect you to do the job I hired you for,” Tis spat out.

Jay’s face shut down like shutters slamming closed. Jammed his hands into his pockets and turned away. Tisianne sucked in a deep breath, held it, and depressed the key. Twenty seconds later Shaklan’s chest seemed to collapse with the exhalation of his final breath.

Sweeping up her hip-length hair, Tis flung it across the body to form a golden shroud. From deep within her a shriek formed, drove upward, punching through her throat like a geyser of acid. The sound that emerged was like nothing human or Takisian. It was the cry of a wounded and dying animal.

For Shaklan, Raiyis of the House Ilkazam, was dead.

Chapter Twenty-One

If God is a woman, She looks like that grand old dowager seated in the center.

It was an irreverent thought, and it sent Mark back to an embarrassed contemplation of his thumbnails. Jay Ackroyd was sleeping, supported only by his tailbone and the back of his head in the uncomfortable little chair. Mark figured he’d let the detective sleep unless he started snoring.

While this might be the most critical hurdle Tisianne had yet scaled, for the humans it was stone-cold boring. The entire affair was being conducted in Ilkazal in the private mode, so that an audible word exploded into the tense silence maybe only once or twice a minute.

The hall felt like a rococo courtroom. A mosaic tile floor showed some glorious scene from Ilkazam history, and a skylight faceted like a giant diamond formed most of the roof. The moonlight streaming through those facets broke into its component colors, and rainbows danced and clashed with the assembly’s gaudy clothes.

The seven old crones stared down from their curving dais at Tisianne. They should be passing an eye back and forth, Mark thought, for their gray hair and cold expressions reminded Mark of the Greek legend of the Graeae. Mark wondered why the Doc didn’t collapse beneath the weight of that hostile scrutiny, but she remained a proudly erect little figure with a rainbow snagged in her pale blond hair and dyeing the fabric of the elaborate clothing that had somehow been produced in only a few hours. Mark had a feeling there was some heavy nanotechnology at work here.

There had been a couple of uncomfortable moments dealing with the House tailor. Jay had been loud and crude in his rejection of any suggestion that he forgo the pleasure of wearing a sports coat and slacks. The tailor had retorted that it was beneath his dignity to design for a Tarhiji. Jay had retorted that the guy was a Tarhiji, so what was his fucking problem. And besides which he was better than any damn mincing fairy. Tachyon – no Tisianne, damn it, he had to remember that – had yelled at both of them. Then Taj had entered and gotten results.

Mark glanced over at Ackroyd. His outfit was nice but in no way matched the magnificence of Mark’s suit. The tailor had been overwhelmed by Mark’s size and designed to accentuate the length of the ace’s lanky body. The colors were great, but the little hat kept dropping tassels into Mark’s eyes, and the fluttering ribbons made Mark feel like a cornstalk bedecked to ward off birds.

Zabb came sliding down the row to join them. Mark flinched, and his hand shot down next to his chair to reassure himself of the presence of the blessed briefcase. Mark did another quick count. It hadn’t changed since the last frenzied count an hour before – Four Starshine, four J. J. Flash; three Moonchild, four Aquarius, three Cosmic Traveler.

Traveler had acceded to Zabb’s request and had even joined in the spirit of the plot and improved on the original plan. It was a real bummer that this most cowardly of Trips’s “friends” was forming a bond with this most charming of enemies. Now, with the elaborate pin delivered to Onyze’s suite, Mark just had to wait for the other shoe to drop – for Zabb to kill the kid.

Given that Zabb had tried to destroy Mark’s home planet, it was sort of jarring to be working with him. But goddamn, Zabb could be charming, and he’d certainly thrown his support behind the Doc’s bid to regain his throne and his body. Like early in the evening. Zabb had arrived, taken a look at Tis’s outfit, and vanished again. When he returned, he was carrying a pair of elaborate hair combs that appeared to be cut out of solid emeralds.

“They’re mine,” he explained. “They wouldn’t have suited your coloring in your former guise. In your current one they suit you very well.”

And Mark realized that with their pale, almost white blond hair, Tisianne in her borrowed body and Zabb looked very much alike. Tis was wearing the combs now, the hair caught up over each ear.

Remembering the combs set another synapse firing, and Mark began to worry again about Jay. Ever since the detective’s return with the Doc, he had been sullenly silent, and the lines about his mouth were driven deeper as if he were holding back some raging anger. Trips had probed and had his nose bitten off and spit back at him. All Ackroyd would say was, “Ask our little princess,” in a tone so bitter that it sent Mark’s stomach scurrying for cover against the back of his spine. He hadn’t asked Tisianne – she had enough to deal with, and there was a haunted look in her eyes that made the peaceful, gentle ace want to hit someone as if that could somehow transfer the pain she was feeling.

Zabb slid into the chair beside Mark, slipped an arm through his. I guess we’re buddies now, thought Mark.

“I think we’re in very good shape,” Zabb whispered into Mark’s ear.

Mark nodded, tried to unobtrusively pull his arm free. Just an uptight American, he thought. I can’t get used to all this touching, especially between men.

“I mean, after all, they can’t deny she’s Tisianne.”

“So what happens? They say she’s the Doc, and then she’s ruler of the House?”

“Not quite, they will wait to be advised.”

“As to whether the consensus in the House is to make her Raiyis?”


“You’re making this sound almost like a democracy.” That laugh like a wolfs yip. “Not hardly. Basically it’s a precaution to make certain the choice isn’t so unpopular that we end up with a family blood feast.”

“That’s coming anyway,” Trips said, depressed and tortured with guilt over Traveler’s involvement in a planned murder.

“You’re far too pessimistic.” Zabb gave Mark an encouraging buffet on the shoulder. Then his attention was drawn to something telepathic that was transpiring on the dais.

The oldest of the old crones folded her hands carefully on the table before her and bowed her head as if in deep and profound thought.

Lifting her head, she began, “Distaffs and sword sides, stirpes and domestics.” It was audible speech, and her focus was over the heads of the nobility, and on the servants clustered about the back wall. “Before we come to the matter before us, it is my sad duty to inform you of the death of the Raiyis.”

A murmur moved like a moaning wind through the crowd, and Mark whipped his head around so hard to stare at Tisianne that he thought he’d snapped his neck. The Doc stood perfectly still, and the blankness of her expression was the giveaway.

“My God, now he’s got to live with that too,” Mark murmured, in his distress losing control of his pronouns.

“Life on your planet has finally given Tis a spine. I’m impressed. I didn’t think she could do it,” Zabb said. His voice redolent with satisfaction, he added, “And it certainly caught Egyon on the hop. That he did not expect out of us.”

The old lady was continuing. “Tell your families, and honor Shaklan with your grief. The city and House will observe three days of mourning beginning tomorrow… May his spirit draw near and guide us.”

“May we do honor for him,” came the litanous response from the assembly.

Briskly the old lady said, “So we dispense with the dead and resume our march to the future.” The sharp old eyes were bent again on Tisianne. “It is clear you are Tisianne, however altered. Welcome home.”

“Thank you,” Tis said, bowing as deeply as her pregnancy would permit.

“On the issue of your elevation this council will convene at midnight and hear the decision of the swords. In the meantime, Taj, you will continue to serve as regent.” The old man rose and bowed, crossed to Tisianne, tucked her arm beneath his, and led her toward the door. The meeting was obviously over.

Mark stood, relieved to have his six-foot-four-inch frame out of a chair designed for midgets, and grabbed convulsively for his briefcase.

“What the hell is a sword?” Jay asked.

“The male head of each distinct breeding line within the family,” Zabb explained.

The crowd eddied about them. Little conversation knots formed and broke, servants threw open doors, accepted a pair of gloves from a passing master, and continued smiling, always smiling. Mark wondered if the Tarhiji were really that happy, or just terrified.

“There are women here,” said Jay suddenly.

“Yes,” Zabb answered,

“And not just the old broads and servants.” Mark winced.

Zabb chuckled. “Yes, so?”

“So where’s the harem?”

“Rarrana is not included in the tour… Unless you’d like to alter your plumbing in exchange for a peek?”

“No thanks, but how come these -”

“They’re sterilized. We don’t keep women in seclusion because they’re women. We keep them there because they’re breeding.”

Zabb swung a chair around with his foot and straddled it. Pulled out the Takisian equivalent of a cigarette case and offered it. Both humans declined. Zabb shrugged, placed the cigarette between his lips, and a servant seemed to come boiling up from beneath a chair to light it.

“Assassination attempts are rarely directed at men. We just settle for them because they’re usually all we can reach, and it’s a convenient way to vent spleen. No, pregnant females are the preferred target. Kill one, and you’ve ruined hundreds of years of careful genetic planning.”

“Gee, the girls must be really touched to know they’re so important.”

“We do value our women,” Zabb said, stung by the sarcasm in the detective’s voice.

“Yeah, as brood mares.”

“Do you ever get to marry for love?” Mark asked.

“We marry for power, we breed for posterity, we love… only rarely.”

“Great culture you got here,” Jay grunted.

They were settled in Tisianne’s old suite. Servants were still arriving with arm-loads of stored furniture, paintings, a computer, musical instruments, holostage. There was at least a lull in the politicking. Tis was slumped on the window seat, staring up at the moonlit glacier crawling like a frozen waterfall over the edge of the cliff. Taj had just entered, and she was giving him her profile.

Coldly she said, “I see you didn’t see fit to preserve my room.”

“I was extremely annoyed with you,” was the unfazed reply. “And as for your father’s office – we went back a lot of years. Also, I was maintaining the illusion he was going to get well someday.”

Tis drew a hand across her forehead. “I’m sorry. Irritability seems to be the domain of pregnant women. Is Skatt coming?”

“On his way.”

“What approach do I take with him? Ideal,” she pushed back her hair, stood, and began to pace. “I don’t know any of these swords. Half of them were children when I was here.”

“There were a lot of deaths forty years ago. A lot of vacancies to fill with too-young candidates. And you’re just a memory, or a figure in a tale to most of them.”

“So they don’t fear me.”

“And you’re not precisely intimidating now.”

Jay looked up from where he was switching channels on the holo. “We could give her a bazooka to hold. The Madonna of the AK-47.”

Tis ignored him. “Where’s Zabb?”

“Delivering a thinly veiled threat to Pshara.”

Tis shook her head. “I wish I could really trust him.” She sighed. “But back to the problem at hand. How do I handle Skatt?”

“Offer him Revenue. He likes money, and he doesn’t respond well to threats.”

“That will annoy Rad’gar.”

“He’s one of Egyon’s pack. Nothing we do will make him happy.”

“And we don’t want him handling the finances anyway,” Tis concluded.

Mark was hanging about the edge of the conversation. At the lull he pushed to her side and took her hand.

“You should, like, take a break. We could… talk.”

She didn’t need to be a telepath to understand his drift. “It’s too fresh to even look at, much less discuss.” She pulled free and walked away.

“It won’t stay bottled up forever,” the ace warned.

“It’s down there with all the other ghouls in the basement. They’ll keep each other occupied until such time as they all break out at once, and I go stark raving mad.”

“Sorry to add to your burdens, your princess-ship,” Jay said. “But just in case I run into Blaise on the street, I better have someplace to send him other than Yankee Stadium. Have you got jails here? Dungeons, whatever? Or will you take deliveries here?”

Tis looked to her uncle. “Do we still have the holding cells in the labs? Where we tested the Enhancer on prisoners?”

“Yes. We still occasionally use them,” Taj said.

“Take Mr. Ackroyd there. Let him see the cells.”

“May I ask why?”

“No,” Tis said shortly.

There was a tap on the door. They both glanced toward it.

“You can handle Skatt without my guidance?” Taj asked.

“I think I can manage.”

Taj bowed and led Jay out another door of the suite.

Tis nodded to a servant, and the carved double door was opened. Arranging her features into a smile of welcome, Tis moved with what grace she could muster to greet him. Evaluated the warmth of admiration in his green eyes as he studied her physical charms. Pretty warm. She gave his fingers a slight squeeze and drew him toward a settee. She was definitely getting the hang of this body.

“This is really charming and intimate. Dinner in an airplane hangar with five or six hundred of your closest relatives.”

“It’s prettier than that,” Mark protested.

“Okay, dinner in a baroque barn. Jesus, do they have to feed this herd at every meal? Doesn’t anybody have a hot plate in their room? Wish I had a hot plate in my room.”

“The Doc needs us here.”

“Bullshit. Even our little princess for a day couldn’t wrangle us a seat at the head table. If shit starts happening, Tachy’s toast.”

Mark wasn’t having any part of Jay’s bad mood, and that pissed the detective off even more. Placidly the gawky ace took another bite of highly spiced meat and mumbled around the mouthful, “You’ll have her out of harm’s way in an instant. I’m not worried.”

“Glad one of us isn’t.”

“I think this is pretty impressive,” Mark said, indicating the dining room.

“What, that they can flop food on the table three times a day? Then I’m really impressed with the Jokertown Soup Kitchen. They probably feed a thousand derelicts a day.”

Mark surveyed the glittering crowd. Musicians performed softly in a recessed alcove set high in the wall. The balconies overhanging the room were filled with a gaggle of very young Takisians peering down at the diners. Nearby stood sentries, rifles cocked across their chests. Servants slipped through the hall clearing dirty plates and replacing empty entrйe dishes with full ones. Service was family-style Chinese. A myriad of dishes to sample, all highly spiced, or very sweet, laid on a bed of a grainlike substance. It had a nuttier flavor than rice and a chewier consistency, and from the way Jay was frowning and pushing it around his plate, it didn’t sit any better on his palate than it did on Mark’s.

“I think I’ve figured out the food,” Mark said.

Jay grunted. “Good, when you figure out where I can get a patty melt and a beer, let me know.”

“This is a cold planet. People in colder climates tend to crave heavily spiced or gamy food and sweets. I’m a little surprised that the ruling class had an ideal of beauty which favors the slender. Usually plumpness is valued in harsher climates… indicates you’ve got wealth. Still, the ordinary folks do tend to be kinda pudgy -”

“Thank you, Professor. Will there be a quiz tomorrow?”

“I’m sorry, I’m doing it again. It’s just… just so interesting.”

Jay was frowning at a languid noble who had dispensed with a chair and instead reclined on a settee by the table. His eyes were closed, and a beautiful young woman hunkered next to him on the floor and carefully fed him morsels from the plate she held in her lap.

“I’m surprised at you. This society hardly embodies the values of the Summer of Love. It’s violent, and these psi lords are a bunch of drones.”

“The highborn aren’t totally useless. The medical advances are, like, a direct result of the research done by the Houses.”

“But it’s done only for their own reasons.”

“Well, yeah, but, like, why quibble with the result?”

Jay checked his watch. It was a reflexive and totally useless glance; it was still set for New York time. “We ought to be getting close to the witching hour. I think it’s time for Tisianne to get control, muster an attack, and take Blaise and this girl. I’m ready to blow this Popsicle stand.”

“I don’t think the Doc has a clue about what to do once he has control of the House. If these Vayawand dudes are guarded like this place, it isn’t going to be all that easy to dislodge Blaise, especially now that he’s the Raiyis.”

The annoyance seemed to sprout like a weed, taking root somewhere in the pit of Jay’s stomach and blossoming in the back of his throat. “Meadows, you know what your ace power is – it’s to be boring and -”

But there was a commotion at the head table, and Meadows’s face had gone a strange, sickly green white color. Jay jerked around and stood so fast his chair crashed over backward. But it wasn’t Tisianne. Instead it was the pouty boy Onyze who was on his feet, hands clawing at his throat, and emitting a thin, tearing scream that was really awful to hear.

Jay had to hand it to them. Takisians were stone-cold calm in a crisis. Guards encircled their charges, there was the piercing hum of lasers being charged, or cocked, or whatever the hell one did with a coherent-light weapon. But no panic, no mass stampede for the exit. In fact the only people running seemed to be Trips and he, and they were headed toward the trouble instead of away from it.

“Dumb,” Jay muttered as he bounded up the steps onto the dais holding the head table.

Zabb had his hands on Tisianne’s shoulders, holding her in place. There was a cold, Medusa-like look on the Doctor’s face, but her body arched toward the suffering young man, yearning to go to his aid: Takisian and human conditioning at war with each other. It was Zabb’s steel grip that decided the outcome.

Egyon reached his boy puppet and ripped open his elaborate vest and shirt. There was a thing, some kind of crystalline insect, attached to the base of Onyze’s throat. Wielding a knife, Egyon flipped the creature off. It hit the table with a brittle sound, skittered a few steps, then froze, and as Jay watched, its structure began to rearrange itself until it resembled a jeweled pin in the design of the sword crest – identical to the one nestled in the lace at Egyon’s throat.

The creepy crawler might be off Onyze’s throat, but it was clearly too late for the young man. Some powerful poison was at work. The death rattle was loud as Egyon lowered the Ilkazam pretender to the floor. Jay expected some kind of respect for the dead, but Egyon sprang to his feet, leaving the sightless eyes staring fixedly up at the painted mural on the ceiling. His hand was in his pocket, and Jay somehow suspected he wasn’t jacking off.

“This is murder. You’ve broken House Peace,” Egyon said.

Zabb laid dainty fingertips against his chest. “I?” He glanced around the circle of nobles. “I think a more useful question is who gave Onyze the ankatai’li?”

Silence like the grave. The eyes of the Kou’nar slid toward Egyon. Anger gave way to confusion gave way to belligerence.

“What?” he demanded truculently.

“My lord,” said one of the nobles. “It was you who placed the badge on Onyze’s lace.”

“Impossible! I didn’t see the boy until we gathered here.”

A bitshuf’di, one of the neutered women, spoke up. “I saw you, my lord. Do you call me a liar?”

Meadows looked like a man who’d had the crap kicked out of him. Jay didn’t exactly understand how Meadows’s ace power worked, but he had a very strong feeling, honed by years of careful observation, that one of the gawky ace’s “friends” was behind the tragic demise of young Oinky and old Eggy’s current predicament.

“A rather drastic way to signal the transfer of your support to Tisianne,” Zabb goaded.

And Egyon bit, firing directly through the material of his pants pocket at Tisianne.

Only Tisianne wasn’t there. A split second before the destructive thread of light could strike her, Zabb flung the girl into Jay’s arms. Her balance was lousy, front heavy as she was. Jay had one foot on the dais, the other down a step. The conclusion was foregone. They went tumbling down the steps to the parqueted floor of the dining room. It suited Jay fine. Overhead he could hear the roar and snarl of weapons fire. And Jay hated guns. Any kind of gun. So he unlimbered his. Making a gun out of his finger, he pointed it at Tisianne.

She grabbed his forefinger and bent it painfully back. “No!” Her voice was a harsh whisper. “Don’t reveal your power. Save it for a real emergency.”

“I’d say this qualifies,” Jay spat as a bullet threw chips off a marble tile.

Guards had formed a protective wedge about the detective and their princess and were blazing away. Jay spent half a second worrying about Trips, hoping the gawky ace had the good sense to keep his head down – he couldn’t stand it. Curiosity won out over his very rational fear of guns and the people who used them. Jay abandoned Tisianne in the center of her nest of guards and went crawling back up the steps to the dais. He was half-afraid she’d follow, but apparently the sex change had endowed the alien with some brains.

Ackroyd cautiously poked his head above the level of the top step in time to see Taj snatch up a rifle from a fallen guard, blow the back of Egyon’s head off, and duck back into cover beneath the table. Zabb, a few feet away, frowned in annoyance. “?***@^? you, I wanted to kill him.”

“I didn’t have time for your posturings,” grunted Taj.

Jay wanted to cheer the old man. The detective didn’t know Tachyon particularly well, but even on short acquaintance there had been so many times when he’d felt the same irritation with all the Takisian bullshit. Taj was a Takisian, but apparently his bullshit threshold was as low as Jay’s.

“Did you arrange this?” Taj asked as he bounced up and snapped off another shot.

On the other side of the dining room a man screamed, clutched his gut, and pitched onto his face. Jay might like Taj, but he was going to be really pissed if the old guy turned out to be a crack shot. Then he comforted himself, there were so many tracers, both laser and bullet, that there was no telling who’d shot the poor dumb bastard.

“Naturally,” Zabb replied, and he fired. Zabb was a crack shot. Of course, thought Jay.

There was no sign of Meadows.

Then, rising on a pillar of flame like a Hebrew phoenix, came an amazing figure, short, wiry, with bright red hair and a sharp, sardonic face. The skintight orange jumpsuit bordered with flames and cut down to the navel was a shout of bad taste – except on Takis.

Jumpin’ Jack Flash opened both hands with an unfolding lotus gesture, and gouts of flame washed from his palms, down the length of the head table. The effect of this apparition on the Takisians was profound. The gun and laser fire stuttered to a halt, there were a few seconds of silence, then whispers ran like playing children around the large room.

“Burning Sky,” breathed Taj, and Jay thought it was an appropriate exclamation.

“Ancestors, how many are there?” Zabb said.

J. J. Flash, twiddling his feet like a faggy ballet dancer, descended to where Tisianne lay huddled in the center of her guards. The heat of his passage was like a sunburn across Jay’s back. Flame dripped off his fingertips, and sparks danced in his red hair.

Hovering over Tisianne, he lifted one hand and bestowed a kiss on the soft skin on the inside of her wrist. “Hey, princess, heard there was a damsel in distress. What dragons would you like slain?”

“You could start by killing the people who are shooting at us,” gritted Tach as she snatched her hand back.

“Sounds like a plan,” and Flash was gone, propelled by a gout of fire that left a singe on the rose marble floor.

The appearance of this fire elemental in their midst had taken the fight out of all but the most dedicated Kou’nars. The rest of the Takisians seemed to have decided that if Tisianne and his cadre had this kind of fire power, they would probably like to be on Tisianne’s side.

A few shots were directed at the flying ace. The bullets affected him not at all, and the lick of laser fire he positively enjoyed, giggling as if it tickled. One bright Kou’nar thought to pick up a pitcher of water and fling the liquid toward the ace. It was a good idea – badly executed. Flash encased him in a suit of fire, reducing his attacker to a cinder.

Taj glanced over at Zabb. “Are you responsible for him?”

Zabb hesitated, grinned. But whatever he said, it was too fast and too complicated for Jay’s rudimentary Takisian. He became aware of Tisianne yelling.

“Jay, tell them to stop congratulating each other about how brilliantly the experiment succeeded and get control!”

Jay yelled back. “Come up here and tell ’em yourself.”

“I can’t. They won’t let me.”

That got his attention. Sure enough Tis was being forcibly but gently restrained by a pair of guards. She looked mad enough to bite nails, and Jay thought that if she really were a woman, he’d hate to be the man who married her.

Nobody seemed to be shooting anymore, so Jay risked a brief sortie into the erect position. “Hey!” he shouted in English. Zabb’s head whipped around. “Her princess-ship wants you to shut the fuck up and take the fuck control of the bad guys.”

The council had reconvened. There was a much larger crowd this time, partly because the rulership of their House was to be decided, but mostly because Takisians were actually a lot like humans. The ones who’d missed the momentous dinner party were pissed and wanted to get at least a taste of the excitement. And who could tell… maybe the fire creature would appear again. Maybe there would be more bloodshed.

Jay circulated through the room while they waited for the seven old broads to show. From the snippets of conversations he could hear and understand, the citizens of the House Ilkazam were positively misty-eyed over the success of their pet virus and regretted that the experiment had not been carried to fruition. Jay had seen the same expression in the eyes of retired Vietnam generals – if only we’d been allowed to really fight. For the Takisians the argument was – if only we’d known how successful the field test had been. We’d have used the virus. We’d rule Takis now.

With a ninety percent fatality rate, Jay wished they had used the damn wild card. He wasn’t feeling too terribly generous toward Takisians in general, and Ilkazam in particular right now.

His perambulations brought him back to where Tisianne and Meadows sat in hunched misery. Their hands were tightly clasped as if the support would somehow help, but they were both drowning, and they knew it. Jay didn’t feel a lot of sympathy.

“He played it so well. The cadets and swords may suspect that he was behind Onyze’s death, but they can’t prove it. Mark” – she reached up and pushed back a straggling tendril of dirty blond-gray hair – “you should never have let him manipulate you so.”

“They were going to kill you, Doc. You and the baby. What was I supposed to do?”

“Let Zabb do his own dirty work -”

“Or you,” interrupted Jay. “You’re pretty good at doing the expedient thing too.”

He hadn’t meant to say it, but the memory of that pitiful, shrunken creature being callously put to sleep rose up and gagged him. Folding his arms across his chest, he started to sit down.

With a sweep of a foot Mark kicked the chair out from under him. Jay landed painfully on his tailbone and found himself staring up and up at the immensely tall ace. There was a light in Meadows’s mild blue eyes which Ackroyd had never seen.

“Don’t be so fucking self-righteous. So you haven’t killed… yet. Maybe you just haven’t faced the time when… like, someone special is in terrible danger, and you’ve gotta… well, you’ve just gotta do… things.” Meadows’ voice trailed away into silence, and Jay was acutely aware that his eyes behind their distorting lenses were awash with tears.

Tisianne’s voice was dead level, but anger hummed along the edges of each word. “If it will make you any happier, Mr. Ackroyd, I can assure you that I am suffering.” She contemplated some internal vision, and it was not a happy one. After several moments she gave herself a shake and resumed. “You can despise me, Mr. Ackroyd, I’m not paying you for your friendship or your approval. I’m paying you – both of you – to protect me, and for you to succeed in that task, you must work together. So at least call truce.”

“Let’s see if I can boil down the flowery Takisian bullshit into plain English. So I can be bitched off at you, but I have to be nice to Meadows?”


“That I can handle,” Jay concluded as the crowd settled, and the council resumed their chairs.

Responding to a telepathic call, Tisianne left her place in the audience and walked front and center. After a few minutes twenty-three stern-faced men joined her, Taj among them. Despite the portentous expressions it was tough to take any of it seriously. They were all so tiny, and so improbably dressed. Jay kept expecting them to burst into song like the Mayor of Munchkin Land welcoming Dorothy. It actually wasn’t a half-bad analogy, the detective mused, Tachyon as Dorothy.

“Meadows is definitely the scarecrow,” Jay muttered. “I’ll be the tin woodsman. Too bad the cowardly lion didn’t have the stones to board the ship.”

Trips speared him with an elbow, and Jay realized Taj had begun speaking.

“Shaklan is dead. A direct-line heir has returned. I have served as caretaker to the honor and power of this House, but a grave crisis faces us. The time for caretakers is past. I relinquish my office to Tisianne brant Ts’ara.”

“How say the swords?”

It was like high-stakes bidders at a Las Vegas blackjack tournament. A single finger would be lifted, an eyebrow raised, but no words spoken. Jay didn’t know if they were just an uncommonly surly lot, or if they didn’t want to be formally on record.

The old lady gave a wintry smile. “Twenty ayes and three??* amp;##*.” It was a word Jay didn’t understand, but since it didn’t sound like the various forms of negatives he knew, he assumed it meant abstentions. “An unprecedented display of unanimity for the Ilkazam,” she said. “We must be in very grave trouble.”

Nobody responded to her gallows humor. In fact the swords all stood staring down at their toes like unruly little boys faced with an indignant mother. The seven old ladies leaned in toward one another. With their gray-and-white heads and the silver-and-gray dresses, the effect was like watching Stonehenge monoliths gathering for a conference. The confab didn’t last long. The spokeswoman swept the crowd with imperious eyes, then bent that quelling gaze back on Tisianne.

“Tisianne brant Ts’ara, the regency being at an end, and the council having previously established your identity, we place in your hands -”

Meadows slewed around to face Jay. A huge smile split his face, and he gave the detective a thumbs-up signal. Jay forgot how pissed he was. He felt the smile coming and raised his hand -

“Excuse me.” Zabb was sauntering up the central aisle.

“Oh, fuck,” moaned Mark.

“This is no longer Tisianne the son of Ts’ara. This is Tisianne the daughter of Ts’ara.” There was a sharp murmur throughout the watchers. “The position of Raiyis is barred to women. Theirs is a higher purpose. One that my cousin is manifestly fulfilling.” And Zabb laid a hand tenderly on Tisianne’s swollen belly.

The slap rang loud in the silent room.

Tisianne, her hand still upraised, stood quivering with unleashed fury. Zabb kept smiling. Kept his hand on her stomach.

Taj jerked forward, anger and shock making him clumsy. “You miserable abortion. Tisianne is a man.”

“Have you ever seen a pregnant man?” To the council he said, “I agree, the mind is male, but the body… You’ve all borne children. You know where her focus is.” He slapped her belly. “Do you want her leading this House when we are on a war footing?”

“She’ll recover her rightful body,” Taj objected.

“And when she does, I’ll be happy to allow her… er, him, to resume his station.”

“You monster.” Tis’s voice was husky, shaking with emotion. “Without the power of this House I can never recover myself. Congratulations, Zabb, you have what you’ve always wanted, and you didn’t even have to kill me for it.”

Softly Zabb said, “Which is precisely why I arranged it this way.” The nobleman faced the council. There was a manic light in the pale gray eyes. “Rule, Kib’r, is it a man or a woman?”

Jay could see the answer even before the old woman spoke. “Woman.”

“And who is now direct heir?”

“Wait!” yelled Taj. “I am the regent -”

“You abdicated that position,” snapped back Zabb.

“Rule, Intayes! Who now has the right to rule House Ilkazam?”

“You.” No emotion crossed that lined face. It could have been a death mask.

Zabb swung Tisianne up into his arms. Jay expected the alien to start spitting and fighting. Instead she seemed stunned. Zabb started walking for the door. Mark, dragging his briefcase, went blundering in pursuit, barking his shins on chairs, tripping with agitation. Jay followed. They caught Zabb at the door. Pissed as he was at the little shit, the blank look in Tisianne’s eyes frightened Jay. He wondered if this latest blow had snapped her mind.

Zabb held up a restraining hand, palm out. “No, gentlemen. I am taking my sweet cousin to quarters more appropriate for her sex and condition. And unneutered males are not permitted.”

There must have been a telepathic summons, for suddenly the two humans were caged by a ring of guards.

Trips remembered late-night and drunken conversations with Tachyon when the alien had talked of the murder of his mother. Of the plots and counterplots that swirled about the harem, and he called out desperately to Zabb’s retreating back, “She’ll be killed there.”

Zabb paused, glanced back. “Oh, I think not. After all, she has family there too.”

“Then she really hasn’t got a prayer, you miserable fuck!” Jay said.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Takisians, or at least the Vayawand, don’t throw flowers. Instead they throw birds, clutching flowers in their little beaks. Out of windows, and off the bridges that spanned the hundreds of canals crisscrossing the capital city Vaya, the birds dived on the Vayawand nobility and dropped their flowers like floriated bombs.

They were a flotilla – seven sleek pleasure craft complete with banquets, awnings where one could seek refuge from either the sun or the rain, dance floors, and orchestras. Each boat was playing a different tune, so the cacophony of sound intermingled and rolled across the water. But this was a Takisian celebration, so guards were very much in evidence. Guard ships floated overhead, and more guards walked the footpaths at the sides of the canals.

Kelly hung over the gunnel and stared down at the little flowers rocking in the chop from the passing ships. He couldn’t bear to look at the covered dais where Blaise was enthroned with his bride-to-be. The little Tarhiji girl had the stunned and joyful expression of a person witnessing a miracle, and all Kelly could think was you poor little thing.

“Come away, child.” Bat’tam’s voice pulled him from his contemplation of drowning flowers. “You’re driving me to fidgets hanging about like that. What if you pitch overboard?”

Kelly turned to face Bat’tam, shrugged. “Doesn’t matter, I can swim.”

The elderly nobleman shuddered. He had shuddering down to a real art. There was the shudder to indicate the wine wasn’t up to par. The shudder for dismay at a person’s style sense – that one Kelly still hadn’t figured out. All the clothes looked ugly and garish to him. The shudder at a note misplayed. But Bat’tam never shuddered when faced with Blaise. He never shuddered with fear. Kelly admired that. Thought the old man was crazy, but admired it.

“Come, sit. Drink some wine. Eat some food. Be happy.” Kelly obeyed. “How are the ribs? The arm?”

Kelly gave an experimental twist. “Fine. You guys got bitchin’ medicine.”

“Bitchin’” Bat’tam seemed to be tasting the word. “Another strange groundling word.”

Kelly poured himself a glass of wine. “Nobody on this boat seems very happy.”

Kelly scanned the glum faces of the Zal’hma at’ Irg. Only Blaise was upbeat, and he was positively giddy – stealing kisses from his shy little bride, waving to the crowds that lined the streets and bridges and hung from windows. After his elevation to the Raiyis’tet, he’d had the skin around his eyes and under his brows inlaid with diamonds and jet. With his black leather jumpsuit and high black boots, he was a striking figure.

“Indeed, they are not. For if our manic young Raiyis succeeds in galvanizing the Tarhiji, there will be a new social order.”

The remark fell into the center of the conversations occurring around them with all the elegance of a dropped turd. The voices of the nobles stuttered to a halt. Kelly noticed Durg listening.

“Shhhh!” he hissed urgently.

Bat’tam looked around, quite unperturbed. Nodded to the Morakh. Durg moved to them, and the Vayawand nobles thought of other activities in which they could involve themselves. Soon they were isolated in the bow of the boat.

“I thought you weren’t political?” Durg asked.

“I’m not.”

“Confine your interest to the hostage Tisianne body. It would be much safer for you, boykisser.”

“You and your handler have been at great pains to disguise from House Vayawand the actual effect of all these radical suggestions.” Bat’tam paused and sipped wine. “But this recent act has violated our most basic and immutable law. What makes you think the family will allow this?”

“Fear. And greed. They want to rule Takis.”

Durg lifted his head like a coon hound testing the wind. The boat was sliding into a dock. He held out a hand to Kelly. “Come, it is almost time for you to play your part.”

The central star-shaped plaza of Vaya was awash with Tarhiji. It had taken a tremendous investment of time and men, but every building overlooking the speaker’s platform had been searched and sealed by Blaise’s Morakh guard. If trouble began, the populace were trapped and could be shot like… Durg paused. A human phrase seemed most applicable. “Fish in a barrel.”

Blaise, the bride, and Kelly, together with a phalanx of Morakh, were on the platform. Knowing the hair-trigger nature of his charge, Durg elected to wait until after Blaise made his speech before informing the young man of the growing danger from Bat’tam. This had to be the speech of his life. Nothing should be allowed to distract him. A final glance about the plaza. Holocams were in place. The Tarhiji were excited and attentive. All seemed ready. Durg returned to the dais and nodded to Blaise.

The young man uncoiled from his chair and moved to the podium. His height, the heavily muscled body, the shocking choice of color for his clothing, all combined to make him an arresting figure. Blaise lifted his arms, and the crowd, so well trained, fell silent.

“Look at me. I’m an abomination. And I rule House Vayawand!” He paused and allowed his eyes to scan the absolutely silent crowd. “I’m going to marry this Tarhiji lady and breed an abomination. And he will rule Takis!

“We’ll do it, my people, but it will take all of us – Tarhiji and Zal’hma at’ Irg – working together. Together we can build a Takis where there are no masters and slaves, only Takisians, and the rest of the galaxy will look on us in wonder.

“I call you my people because I know your secret hopes, your hidden dreams. For generations you have served the psi lords, and in return they have given you peace and plenty. But it’s not enough. Not anymore. It’s time you shared in those powers that made them your masters, and I’m going to give them to you. From this day forward the laws regarding interbreeding are repealed. Each noble of House Vayawand shall be required to marry not only a woman of his class, but a member of the Tarhiji.”

An avalanche of sound rolled over the speaker’s podium. Blaise was right, thought Durg, for a thousand generations they have been envious. The cheering lasted a full five minutes. When they at last quieted, Blaise continued.

“You’ll share more than the powers. You’ll share the longevity of the Zal’hma at’ Irg. They’ve shared with you a fraction of the medical advances that have bestowed upon them lives many times longer than yours. You have lived three, four hundred years. Now you’ll live a thousand. Beginning tomorrow members of the Tarhiji need only present themselves at the gates of House Vayawand, and they will receive the injection reserved, until now, to the Most Bred.”

Durg felt a jolt through his gut. This had not been part of the prepared and rehearsed speech. The crowd began to cheer. It was certainly playing well.

“You may wonder why House Vayawand has joined with me in this great endeavor. Aren’t they part of the class structure? Aren’t they part of the problem?” Blaise paused for dramatic effect. “Yes, they were, but they have listened, learned, and understood that stagnation is death. We will shake this culture to its foundations and rebuild a just society, a workers’ paradise.

“There will be those who will resist us. We will fight the oppressors and offer to their mind blind the same rights given to you. They will join us, and their Houses will become ours. One House in particular has been too proud and too evil to see and accept the right in what we do.”

It was Kelly’s cue. He continued to stare blankly off into space, and Durg wondered if he’d been right to place the man in such a permanent alcoholic haze. A thumb jabbed hard into a shoulder blade brought Kelly back to the present. He scrambled from his chair and walked forward to join Blaise.

“They too will fall,” called the bogus Tisianne. “People of Takis, House Ilkazam, hear me. The old ways are dead. A new society dawns before us. I went first to my clan, my House, and offered them the chance to lead this revolution. They rejected and vilified me. Fleeing for my life, I went in search of men of greatness, men brave enough to lead us into that new society. I have broken all custom, all tradition – I have abandoned my House and given allegiance to another. Because I found that brave man.” Kelly laid a hand on Blaise’s shoulder.

Durg could see the hesitation, the minute shrinking away from contact with Blaise. The Tarhiji would miss it. With luck most Zal’hma at’ Irg would as well.

Blaise resumed. “Today I have issued an ultimatum to House Rodaleh. They have until tomorrow to merge with Vayawand. If they refuse, we will carry the revolution to them. Are you with me?” Blaise thrust a fist high into the air, and the assent was deafening. “Then go to the registration centers. Join the House army. Prepare for the fight. All of Takis is the prize. May the Ideal guide and bless us.”

Blaise spread his arms in a final embrace to the crowd, stepped back to Durg’s side. His face was flushed with excitement, his dark eyes glowing. Durg dropped a cloak over the boy’s shoulders.

“Very well played, my lord, but was it wise to raise the longevity point?”

“Hey, it worked great.”

“Yes, but there is no magic serum. The Most Bred live longer because they are bred to live longer.”

“By the time the sheep figure out we’ve lied to them, we’ll rule Takis. That should mollify them. If not, we can kill them.”

Durg bowed his head in assent. “As you wish.” They started down the steps of the platform. “There is another matter. Bat’tam brant Sandiqy sek Buad sek Jul grows too close to the false prince.”

Kelly hesitated at the top of the stairs. Analyzed the remarkable effects of alcohol. It made you both dumb and brave because here he was standing five feet from Blaise trying to read Blaise’s mind.

There were a lot of minds in the plaza of Vaya, but Kelly had gotten better at this telepathy shit. The pressure of minds no longer hurt like dagger pricks against the surface of his brain. They were just irritating, like a chorus of a thousand of cicadas in the bodark trees back home. He had to sift through them all to find Blaise even though Blaise was terrifyingly close to hand.

Kelly had discovered that visualization helped, so he pictured his grandmother bent over the scarred wooden table in the kitchen of the Oklahoma farmhouse, squeezing the trigger of a battered old flour sifter while brains popped through the narrow screen.

Once located, Blaise’s mind was unmistakable. It had a buzz-saw quality. It was primal force with no grace or elegance. It just was. The deeper thoughts were hidden beneath opaque shields, but the surface thought was too strong to be hidden. Blaise was thinking about killing. Killing Bat’tam.

Chapter Twenty-Three

“Touch him, bitch, and I’ll cut off your nipples and feed them to your baby!”

Tis hadn’t remembered fainting. Actually she didn’t remember much past the time when they reached the heavy doors of Rarrana. It was then that she panicked, fought, beating at Zabb’s chest and face.

And now she was waking to a threatening voice echoing with the yowl of a back-fence cat warning off interlopers. Raising a hand, she lightly touched her forehead. Felt the residual signature of Zabb. No, not a faint, a coerced sleep. He had subdued her the way a man would tranquilize a frightened animal. Is that how the humans felt when I used my power on them? she wondered.

The sound of receding footsteps, the slam of a door. More distant and less distinct sounds began to force their way to her consciousness. Babies crying, children laughing, squalling, calling to each other in play. The yap of excited hounds romping with the children. Sounds of adult activity – the muted melody of water falling softly into fountain basins, a string quartet rehearsing, the drone of an announcer on the holo commenting on the action in a sporting competition.

There was a prickling sense that let her know that she was surrounded by people – female people by the delicate scent of their perfumes – and then one particular fragrance struck like a belly blow, and for one flashing, painful moment Tis was five years old again. Pillowed on his mother’s breast, screaming mentally because the telepathic communication that he had shared with his mother almost since the moment of his conception had been brutally and suddenly broken. In the background had been the same busy sounds of Rarrana. It had been Roxalana who had gathered him into her arms then.

It was Roxalana who gripped Tisianne’s shoulders now and pulled her into a sitting position. Disoriented by the strength of the memory, Tis murmured, “You’re wearing mother’s scent.” Tisianne opened her eyes.

Roxalana looked not very much different than Tis remembered. She had their father’s tipped-up eyes; they gave her a wicked, calculating look that was undeserved. She was as direct as a knife blade, and often as painful.

But it was Pandasala who jumped in with the sharp, acerbic comment. “For only the past forty years. Outstanding that you finally noticed.”

It was perfectly in character for her. It was said that life with Pandasala had prepared her husband for (or driven him into) the highly dangerous sport of agma hunting.

“Of course you have been gone,” said Cillka.

“Without sparing a thought for your poor sisters,” added Tri’ava.

“And we were supposed to make a baby together,” Melant said.

“We took a terrible drop in prestige when our nearest male relative was a mere regent.”

“Now maybe you’ll understand our plight,” finished Shi’tha.

And there was that rustling, the sideways glances that women exchange when they are hiding tolerant amusement at the foibles of men. Despite Tis’s forced sex change, it was apparent that in the eyes of her sisters arrayed about her that she was still a moronic male. Tis scanned the six delicate faces – Roxalana, Melant, Tri’ava, Pandasala, Shi’tha, Cillka.

They were all varying shades of blond, from the deep burnished bronze of the eldest, Roxalana, to the new minted gold of Cillka, the baby until Tach had come along ninety years later. Tis realized that since her body switch she finally looked like one of the family, an offspring of Shaklan and Ts’ara. She was even the right sex. After seven daughters the House Ilkazam had begun to despair of the Raiyis ever siring a boy child. They had even suggested that Shaklan break his unnatural fascination with his primary wife and try fathering a child on some other appropriately pedigreed woman. Shaklan refused and eventually Tisianne had arrived – male and redheaded, an oddity. Now Tis fit… On the whole she would just as soon have remained a changeling.

Other details were coming into focus. They were in the great star-shaped central courtyard of Rarrana. Directly in the center, beneath a domed skylight, was a bathing pool. Naked women dandled their children in the water or played silly water games. Like all pools on Takis, it was shallow. Takisians were notoriously bad swimmers. For a distance of four feet from the pool the ground was inlaid with beautiful mosaic pictures, most of which were hidden beneath bodies where more women lounged, enjoying the warmth of the heated tiles. Tarhiji servants slipped through carrying food, drink, towels. La’bs both male and female were very much in evidence, massaging the bodies of their mistresses, kissing them, feeding them, reading to them from holos floating comfortably at eye level. Nearby a couple was copulating, and Tis felt her cheeks go red. She quickly looked away and cursed Earth for turning her into a prude.

The jagged walls of the room were pierced with doors like tiny mouths. These were the least desirable quarters in Rarrana – noisy, no private garden, the least defensible if an enemy should penetrate the women’s quarters. Tis glanced up at the catwalk circling the bathing pool and counted seven guards.

She then looked back to her sisters. Four of them were pregnant. Five if you counted Tisianne. She chuckled humorlessly. “Well, we Sennari are a fertile lot, aren’t we?”

“Burning Sky, Tis, how did you end up in such an absurd situation?” Roxalana exploded.

It wasn’t really a question. It was an irritable exclamation of how troublesome their little brother was – and Lani ought to know. It had been her task to raise him after their mother’s murder.

Tis’s heart seemed to be expanding, filling her chest with an emotion so strong, the small body didn’t seem able to contain it. There is a closeness among telepathic people even when their shields are up. A constant leak of low-level, unimportant thoughts like the chuckling of a brook. It’s very comforting, and to be without it is like placing a normal human in an isolation tank. To find herself now in the midst of telepaths who loved her and had lowered all barriers so that affection could flow through was indescribable. Tisianne held out her hands to her sisters. Murmured their names as they each came forward and gave her the kiss between close relatives.

The love fest lasted about three minutes, then Roxalana called them to order. “Shi’tha, Cillka, circulate and see who’s talking to whom. Who’s suddenly decided to visit their wives. Which fathers have suddenly been seized with an overwhelming desire to contact their daughters.” The two women nodded and left.

“Come.” Lani helped Tis to her feet.


“Zabb left strict instructions. You’re getting the best suite in Rarrana.”

“How… condescending of him. Should I be grateful?”

“Probably,” said Pandasala. “It may save your life.”

“You think they’ll try to kill me?”

“You have been away a long time,” Melant called back over her shoulder as they hurried down switch-backed halls. “The Kou’nar have several deaths and a blighted hope to avenge.”

They reached a doorway, and Roxalana keyed the telepathic lock. It was an impressive set of rooms. Deep spider-silk carpets covered the marble floor, insulation to keep out the biting cold of Takis. In one corner there was a ten-foot-tall tiled stove-fireplace. Sofas, chairs, several tables. A card table near the stove, and a ka’et. Set atop the polished surface of the instrument was a re’ba’bi.

Tis crossed to the instruments, stroked the keys of the ka’et, and experimentally plucked the strings of the re’ba’bi. She set it carefully back down atop the ka’et, then slammed her hands down on the keyboard. The discord made Melant jump.

“This is my fucking instrument! He had this planned all along!” Nobody asked for a translation of the English word. A curse in any language seems to communicate.

Tri’ava turned back from her contemplation of the moonlit gardens and twitched shut the draperies over the double glass doors. “Interesting you should mention Zabb. I think he’s as much of a threat as the Kou’nar.”

Roxalana shook her head. “He could have had Egyon do the job for him. Why wait?”

“Lani’s right. I think he’s just enjoying the sight of me helpless and imprisoned,” Tis said.

The bitterness couldn’t be masked, the Tis realized it was not just for herself, but for her sisters as well. Had Earth affected her so much that she now questioned the basic tenets of her culture?

“This is for your protection, remember?” Pandasala said. “We women are so precious.” A sneer trembled at the edges of the word.

So even Takis breeds malcontents, Tis thought.

Melant flung herself into a chair. “I think Panda regrets not being bitshuf’di.”

There was a touch of spite in the words. Roxalana made a slashing gesture before Pandasala could respond to the goading. “Both of you go. Tis doesn’t need to be agitated by your sniping.”

Melant pouted. “But I wanted to discuss our baby. The genetic work-ups were so encouraging, Tis. When you do recover your body, please loan it to me for a night.”

Tis tried to mask the hurt but knew she didn’t succeed very well. She was a very poor telepath, and she threw off emotions like sparks off a spinning firework. “My track record with children hasn’t been very good so far. Perhaps you should stick with Baiyin.”

Melant paused at the door. “He’s not going to be Raiyis.”

“Right now neither am I.”

Pandasala placed her hands in the middle of Melant’s back and shoved. Tri’ava gave a little wave and closed the door carefully behind her. For a long moment Roxalana and Tis regarded that closed door, then cautiously returned their scrutiny to each other.

“They’re angry. You’re all angry with me,” Tis said softly.

“You abandoned us, and now you’re back, but not as an asset, an ally to help us further our goals, promote our projects, advance our children. Instead you’re a burden. It isn’t enough that we have to protect ourselves, our children still in tails. We have to protect you as well.”

“Then don’t! I have my humans, and Taj, and though my mentatic skill is all but gone, I still have my wits.”

“Oh, no, Tis. We’ll protect you. Even finding you in this ridiculous scrape is better than believing you were a traitor – but you still leave us in a most untenable position. If you die, we suffer. The new Raiyis may decide that a living Sennari is a threat – more than a conspiracy. I don’t want to see my children die. I don’t want to see my sisters die.” She paused, and the severe lines around her mouth relaxed. It wasn’t quite a smile. “I don’t even want to see my little brother die.”

“The two humans -”

“May have formidable powers, but for the moment they’re useless to us. You’ll need guards, but leave the selection to me. You haven’t enough telepathy to weed out even the most obvious assassin.”

Tis hung her head. She had been so proud of the telepathy she had force-fed the borrowed human body. Once home, she realized just how rudimentary and useless it was.

“So you’re keeping me alive in the faint hope I might recover my body and leadership of the House. Other than that I’m useless.”

“You are inhabiting the body of an inferior groundling. Carrying a half-breed abomination. You’re not precisely an asset. But you are Tisianne, and…”

She whirled and left the room. But the thought lingered like the scent of her perfume. I do care for you.

“I want to see her.”

Mark was leaning over the desk, hands braced on the polished surface. They were in the office of the Raiyis, and Zabb looked very much at home as he lolled in the padded chair and swung lightly from side to side.

“Lilistizkar is the traditional visiting day. You’ll just have to wait.”

“And when is this lillyshit?” asked Jay. “Sometime in the next century?”

“Only three days.”

“I want to see her now.” Mark tried to sound threatening. Ended up sounding pleading.

“Quite impossible. Only husbands have unlimited visiting rights.”

“Then I’ll marry her.”

“Jesus,” muttered Jay.

Zabb’s smile deepened. Then, arranging his features into one of somber consideration, he said gravely, “I’m afraid as Raiyis I must refuse your offer for my cousin’s hand.”

“Come on, Meadows.” Jay took Mark by the arm and tugged. “He’s just fucking with us and enjoying the hell out of it. Don’t be a toy for him. We’ll just have to wait until visiting hours at the zoo. Maybe they’ll even let us feed the girls, bring them some grapes, chocolate…

“You have no conception of life within Rarrana. It is not a prison.”

“Can Tachyon leave?”

Zabb’s silence provided all the answer they needed. A chime indicated an incoming call. Zabb keyed the stage. The image of his secretary appeared.


“Sir, Captain Nesfa,” the man said.

“Abyss take the woman!” Zabb said. “What part of no doesn’t she understand?”

“Will you speak with her, my lord?”

“No. Thank her for her continued interest in my well-being, but tell her I must decline her invitation due to responsibilities at home.” With a vicious jab Zabb killed the holo. “Now, where were we?”

“I was going to ask you if I can blow this Popsicle stand, go into town, check out the fleshpots of Takis,” Jay said.



Jay expected Mark to react with that little wince with which the other ace met all of Jay’s more outrageous remarks. But the hippie seemed to have withdrawn into some kind of fugue state, maybe an LSD flashback.

“If that is all…” Zabb began.

“Women are permitted in Rarrana without restriction?” Mark said.

Jay wondered if a space voyage had dropped Meadows’s IQ.


“Cool.” Meadows knelt and snapped open his briefcase. Pulled out the black-and-silver powder. A few seconds later, and Moonchild stood before them.

“Now, I would wish to see the Doctor.”

Jay was expecting Zabb to refuse, but there was a faint smile at the corners of that thin-lipped mouth. He didn’t seem to mind being trumped. “By all means. Just be out before the change. I would hate to have to kill you.,’

“Yeah, we feel that way about you too,” Jay said.

“He changes into a woman,” Roxalana mused. “What a useful man. We might have some hope of understanding between the sexes if more of them could do that.”

“Wish someone would give me the power to move in the other direction,” Pandasala said.

And Tisianne made a mental note that if she ever did escape from her current predicament, she would find some way to free Pandasala from hers.

“How beautiful she is,” Cillka breathed, and gently touched a strand of Moonchild’s jet black hair.

Moonchild bowed. “Thank you, gracious lady, but my time is limited, and we must reach a decision concerning the Doctor’s safety before I must leave.”

“Why can’t you stay to guard Tisianne?” Shi’tha asked.

“I exist for only an hour in human time.”

“Unfortunate,” Melant said.

“Yes, very. I have sought some way to free all of the individuals who make up Mark Meadows so that we might each pursue our own karma, our own futures, but so far I have been unsuccessful.”

“Your offer is generous, groundling,” Roxalana said. “But I can select guards for my brother.”

“Without offense, lady, I must say I would feel better if one of the guards was Mark.”

“Mark is a man,” Melant said with that careful patience one reserves for stupid children and animals.

“So are most of our guards,” Tisianne said suddenly. “The key is that they are neutered.” She gathered Moonchild’s hands in hers. “A vasectomy is easily performed. Easily reversed for my people. If you’ll do it, you can stay with me.”

“Zabb will not permit it. He has already refused to allow Mr. Ackroyd to leave the House. I think he fears that Mr. Ackroyd might find a way to kidnap Blaise. He will use every means to neutralize our powers.”

“Go to Taj. He has sworn allegiance to Zabb, but this in no way compromises that oath. He cares for me. He will help,” Tis said.

“My brother is correct,” Roxalana said. “And use my son Rowan to send us word when you are coming. We’ll see that your arrival causes as little comment as possible.”

“Moonchild, thank you.”

“We will be back soon.” The ace slipped through the door, into the shadows, and vanished.

Mark had set the telepathic damper on the table in Tisianne’s old quarters. Ackroyd’s hand shot out and caught his wrist before he could turn it on.

“Hey, doesn’t that thing, like, cause headaches, and give hemorrhoids, and cause telepaths to pick up mariachi stations on their fillings for a hundred-mile radius? In short, isn’t this really going to piss off the Takisians if we fire it up, and aren’t they going to come and pound us into the ground like tent pegs?”

Mark folded his lips in a tight line. Parted them just enough to say, “I’m in the mood to piss off Takisians. One Takisian in particular.”

Mark then outlined Tisianne’s plan. He should have predicted Ackroyd’s reaction. “You are crazy! Fucking crazy!” Jay ran agitated hands through his hair and took a sharp turn around himself.

“The issue is that you can’t be a fertile male -” Mark argued.

“I thought you were crazy when you offered to marry the bitch. Now you’re offering to have your dick chopped off?”

“These aren’t, like, primitives, man. This is a really medically sophisticated society. Hell, vasectomies are reversible on Earth. The Doc says it’s a cinch to fix here.”

“They have harems so you won’t fuck their women.”

“No. They have harems to prevent assassination and unplanned pregnancies. Sex is fine. The Doc told me they have toys – both the men and the women – beautiful neutered sex partners. A snip, and we’ll be no threat, we can stay with the Doc.”

“What’s this we, white man? I am not going to become a eunuch for Tachyon. That was not part of the deal!”

He was arrested at the door by Mark saying, If we don’t keep the Doc alive, there’s no return ticket.”

That almost got him. Almost. “Uh-uh. No. No way. This is a nice little planet. Maybe I’ll put down roots, open an office, get back into divorce work – if Takisians get divorces. Take a wife. Raise some kids.”

All the while he was talking, he was edging for the door. Hand on the knob, out the door, into the hall. Unfortunately sound carries. And you can’t not listen. Can’t not understand.

“I don’t know why you’re so upset.” Mark’s voice pursued him like a restless spirit. “You’re dickless already, Jay.”


The slap took both of them by surprise. Roxalana for administering it, Tisianne for receiving it. They stood staring at each other, then Tis slowly lifted a hand to her cheek.

“All the years of my childhood you never hit me.”

“I left that to Melant. She was my designated hitter.” Roxalana turned away and straightened a vase that didn’t need straightening. Tis couldn’t help it. Outraged dignity, hurt feelings were forgotten. She laughed. “What?” demanded her sister with some truculence.

“It has a very different meaning on Earth.”

Roxalana lifted the meaning and the ludicrous image from Tisianne’s mind. Melant in a Yankees uniform, arranging her bat with that butt wiggle that is unique to baseball players.

“Seems like a silly game.”

“It’s a lovely game. If I ever get out of here, I’m going to introduce it on Takis.” Tis walked to the window and looked out. “But as hopeless as things seem now, I may have to settle for a ladies’ softball league.”

“Is that necessarily so inferior?”

“It’s not the future I envisioned for myself.” Standing was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Tis retired to a lounging sedan and arranged her bulky body. “I don’t think I can survive in here. The boredom and paranoia are going to kill me.”

“I seem to recall the beginning of this little squabble was an offer of employment from Segath. You have more firsthand experience with the virus than any member of the research team living or dead. Get back in the laboratory and share that experience.”

“I will not work on the virus – nonnegotiable, don’t raise it again.” Tis eyed the ceiling where guards patrolled on the hidden catwalk, watched the two women through monitors. Softly Tis continued. “For half my life I’ve been free from this scrutiny. I came as I pleased and went as I pleased. I asked permission of no one. Do you know how wonderful aloneness can be? We think we ignore them.” She jerked her head toward the unseen guards. “But we don’t. We’re always aware of them. The worst for me was when I was sick. I didn’t mind fucking, snoring, crapping, eating, farting, belching in front of them, but puking… you’re at your most vulnerable and unattractive in that moment.”

“Try birthing,” was the unsympathetic reply.

It was a topic Tisianne wished to avoid. She turned onto her side, away from that disapproving presence.

“I can’t tolerate self-pity and tantrums, Tis. You got to go on a decades-long lark while the rest of us did our duty – and almighty irksome were those duties, let me assure you. So don’t expect me to regret your lack of freedom. It was purchased at great cost by the rest of us.

Their father’s death lay between them.

“And finally I’m sick of you denigrating the accomplishments of this segment of the House. Why is an action by a woman less valued in your eyes? You’re bored because you don’t feel the work we are doing here is worthy of your attention, much less your participation. Shi’tha’s research in ghost-gate theory may enable us to fold space and so cross the galaxy in the time it currently takes us to reach Ship Home. I have a class of very promising youngsters about to exit Rarrana and begin their higher education. I taught them… and I taught them well. The girls I send out today will return in thirty years ready to be mothers, and teachers, and researchers, and painters, and composers.

“You’re a doctor – well, stop pouting in this room and get out and doctor. Or if that’s not to your taste, volunteer for cradle duty. You value freedom so much – free up some busy mother for her work. Ideal knows you could use the experience. A little primer before you birth your daughter. That’s where your focus should be – on your child. Not on politics, not on the breakdown of Takisian society. We build society here – one child at a time. You’re part of the process now.”

Tisianne laid a hand on her belly. Felt the joyous leap of Illyana’s mind as she greeted her parent. That parent realized with some guilt that she had been virtually ignoring the baby by blocking Illyana’s questing thought tendrils.

Swinging her legs off the lounge, Tis moved to her sister, hugged Roxalana close. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid your little brother, despite his skin change, hasn’t learned very much. He’s still an idiotic male.” Roxalana’s hand was soft on her hair, stroking, pulling apart the slight tangles with her fingers. “All right, let me doctor. I have two good hands. I should be grateful for that.”

All briskness again, Roxalana held her at arm’s length. “Let me make amends for hitting you.” Moving swiftly to the door, she called back over her shoulder. “Here is the bodyguard you’ve been missing.”

The door opened, and Mark Meadows grinned sheepishly down at her.

Chapter Twenty-Four

There was a quality reminiscent of the little boy as Jay Ackroyd stood with his nose pressed against a floor-to-ceiling port and watched the Takisian ships go about their mysterious and shiply business. Tisianne seemed inclined to ignore the detective, but Mark gave her a nudge and jerked his head at Jay.

“You should, like, introduce Jay to your sisters.”

Tisianne turned wide gray eyes on him. “Why?”

Despite the solemnity of the occasion Mark couldn’t fully suppress the little smile that tugged at his mouth. “’Cause when he gets a load of your sisters, it’ll, like, bum him out big time that he rejected Rarrana.”

“I like that,” said Tis, and led the little band of Sennari women over to the human.

Lurching along behind them, Mark felt like a particularly ungainly basset hound mothering a clutch of baby chicks. At first he’d been surprised that the women were allowed out of Rarrana, but Roxalana had pointed out it was only the children of the late lamented Shaklan. Even for the funeral of the Raiyis, Ilkazam wasn’t going to risk most of its breeding females.

It took a light touch to the shoulder to draw the detective’s attention away from the vista of stars and ships.

“Jay, I wish you to meet my sisters. Sisters, Jay Ackroyd.” The six Sennari women acknowledged the detective with regal little inclinations of their golden heads.

“We had despaired of ever meeting you,” said Roxalana, as always the spokeswoman for the sisters.

Jay regained control of his jaw and forced out, “Yeah, well, when Tachy’s out in the wide world, I’m there to guard her.”

“How very noble of you.”

“I also wanted to see a Takisian funeral.”

“Somewhat less noble of you.”

In this time of danger it wasn’t prudent to empty the House for Shaklan’s funeral, but there still seemed to be a lot of people milling about Ship Home, both Zal’hma at’ Irg and Tarhiji.

The Ilkazam orbital platform was not only a military installation, it was the breeding facility for the living ships. Hence the name, hence the hundreds of ships of all sizes, shapes, and ages drifting about, grazing on the stellar dust, and huddling close to the platform as if seeking to say farewell to their former Raiyis.

Tis and her sisters went off to prepare the body of heir father. Mark joined Jay at the port. Ships were still arriving. Through a secondary port set in the lock, He could watch the ships actually enter the docking bay. There was already a ship at rest there, a ship without lights or ornamentation. Mark could see the white wounds where the decorations had been removed. As each ship flew back out of the bay, it made a point to brush sides with the funeral ship – for so Mark assumed it had to be. Mark suddenly flashed on a memory of Egyptian pharaohs, and he hoped the faithful steed didn’t have to share the fate of its master. It seemed kind of barbaric for the Takisians, but they were such an odd mix of violence and elegance that you never knew.

The last mourners arrived, and the outer lock cycled closed. In answer to some telepathic message the crowd entered the bay and formed double ranks with those closest in relationship to Shaklan nearest to the ship. Taj then came walking down the center carrying the body of his brother-in-law. At various points he would pause, and family members would place tokens – mostly folded bits of foil, but occasionally very valuable pieces of jewelry – in the folds of the corpse’s clothing and whisper into its ear.

Each of the sisters had some small object. Tisianne only leaned in and kissed the cold lips. Taj stared hard at her. Tis waved him on. The old man vanished into the ship.

Pandasala leaned in. “No gift, no proof of virtu for our father?”

Tis’s faced seemed shuttered. “Nothing I could give him would forestall the curse – if he decides to curse me.”

Taj emerged moments later, his arms empty. The corpse had been left in the ship. The mourners retreated behind the lock, and the outer door cycled open. Silently the dark ship lifted off and flew out into the blackness of space.

“Where are they going?” Jay asked.

Tis remained silent, staring out at the stars.

Roxalana’s brow twitched briefly in a small frown as she regarded her brother, then she answered. “No one living knows. The ship that carried them in life carries them in death and takes them… somewhere.”

“They don’t, like, commit suicide by diving into a sun or something, do they?” Mark asked, eager to have that concern assuaged.

“No, no,” Roxalana said. “The body is preserved by the cold and vacuum of space. We want our dead to know where their bodies rest.”

“Why?” Jay asked.

Pandasala replied, “A ghost without a body to return to will take up residence in a living descendant – or so the superstition holds.”

Cillka spoke up. “A crash, fire, any accident that destroys the body is almost a worse tragedy than the death itself.”

“And the little gifts?”

“All our actions are designed to either appease or find favor with the ancestors. As one of those ancestors heads out, we like to remind them of how wonderful we are. So compositions, poetry, a novel, a scientific achievement, artwork, we send something along.”

“Christ, if you could find the cosmic cemetery, a grave robber would have a field day,” Jay said.

“I think the ships would prevent that,” was Melant’s rather dry reply.

“Ships.” Jay snapped his fingers. “Hey, I better not miss my bus. Catch you later.”

“What an extraordinary man,” Roxalana murmured.

“Is that a compliment?” Mark asked.

“Hardly.” She laid the tips of her fingers on his wrist. “Vindi, you may escort me to my ship.” As they moved away, she added very quietly, “I am very pleased that you are guarding my brother.”

Jay had picked a crowded shuttle with more than the normal complement of Tarhiji aboard. It had the virtue of being away from Zabb, and none of the watchdogs the Takisian had placed on Jay wanted to ride with the hired help, so for the moment Jay was free from surveillance. It was the first step in his plan to escape Ilkazam and head for Vayawand. Somebody had to stop farting around and snatch Blaise. Otherwise he and Meadows had become permanent residents.

The ship landed in the great courtyard in front of House Ilkazam, and most of the Tarhiji headed for the gates ready to return home after a long day of pampering the shitheads. So far luck was favoring him. Jay’s fruitbar clothes were a little fancy for a servant, and he was a little tall to pass easily, but his coloring was pure Tarhiji, and nobody really looks at servants. Right? Or so he hoped as he ducked his head and scuttled sideways into the shelter of a number of other bodies.

Several more shuttles had landed, and Jay spotted a couple of his bird dogs looking frantically about for him. They didn’t look at the gaggle of servants heading for the tram.

Slick as snot off a hog’s back, he thought as they passed through the gates and the great panels slid shut behind them.

“The calnite, please,” Tisianne said, and indicated a syringelike device. Cap’n Trips gingerly plucked the instrument from among its fellows and placed it in Tisianne’s hand.

“Is this going to hurt?” asked the grubby, tear-stained six-year-old whose broken arm was the object of Tisianne’s attention.


“That’s what Manka said when she told me to jump… but it did.”

The lower lip thrust pugnaciously forward, but the effect was somewhat marred by an unhappy wobble.

“Maybe now you won’t do silly things just because people tell you to.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t do this.”

“Maybe you would like a swat?” Tis asked severely.

There was a screen up which prevented the child from seeing how his arm had been peeled open, skin and muscle laid back to reveal the broken bone. Tisianne had already fitted the ragged ends back together. Now, bending in close, she delicately placed the tip of the syringe at the juncture and sent the genetically altered bacteria into and onto the bone. There it would follow its genetic mandate and grow bone.

“Do you guys clone? You gotta know how. Your technology’s advanced enough,” Mark suddenly asked.

“We can, but we don’t.”

“Why not?”

“When a culture is more concerned with fitting old minds in young bodies, and loses interest in young minds in young bodies, that culture is dying.” She flashed Mark a quick smile. “We grow children the old-fashioned way. Also, you clone enough, and genetic read errors creep in.”

“A copy of a copy of a copy.”

“That’s right.” Tis finished sealing the soft tissue with a sterile fixative that left only a pale pink line.

Tach touched a panel, and the screen flashed once and vanished. Grunting a bit with effort, she lifted her little patient off the table and set him on his feet. The cradle mother was waiting outside the cubicle.

“As good as new,” Tach said as she handed over the boy.

“I was afraid you’d say that,” sighed the other woman.

The child was staring down at his arm with excitement and wonder. “Look, it isn’t pink no more. My line is white. Maybe Momma won’t ever know.”

“There’s a wonderful human phrase that applies in this situation. Say ‘fat chance,’” Tis said.

Mark and Tis went strolling. Rarrana was huge, and Mark sensed he’d only seen a fraction of it.

“Zabb’s put a big negatory on giving me a lab,” Mark said.

“He’s hoping you’ll run out of drugs. Then you and I will both be without friends, and he can kill me with impunity.”

“I’m tellin’ you, man, Zabb doesn’t want you dead.”

“Mark, you are gullible, naive, and sweet. You think everybody has a touch of goodness in them.”

“I know Blaise doesn’t,” Mark defended. “And I know Zabb doesn’t want you dead.”

They had reached an intersection of several corridors. One wall looked out of place, breaking the symmetry of the architecture. Tis suddenly stopped and stared at that wall for a long, long time. Mark reached hesitantly out and touched her hair.


“This is where my mother died.”

The ace’s head swung back and forth like a puzzled crane’s. “I thought she, like, fell down stairs or something?”

“There used to be a stairway here. Father had it destroyed… the entire wing walled off. Her suite was down there.”

So much of Takisian life, particularly a Takisian woman’s life, seemed centered indoors. It heightened Mark’s sense of claustrophobia. And this place was really giving the ace the creeps.

“Hey,” he blurted. “Let’s go outside while there’s still some light left.”

Tis shook herself free of her reverie. “While there’s still some autumn left. It will be winter soon.”

They went to the private garden off Tisianne’s suite, an odd diamond-shaped plot of ground that seemed to have been created more by architectural oversight than any plan. High walls in four different styles and three different colors peeped coyly through the leaves and trumpet-shaped flowers of a climbing vine. It was like a fat woman hiding her physical shortcomings behind gauzy veils and hoping the covering would distract the eye.

As usual there was a fountain making water music, but a sharp wind was warping the shape. Dark clouds were scudding across the sun like a nightmare’s mane dulling the crystal fire of the crushed-quartz path that wove through the parterre flower gardens and trees. Since their last walk it had been raked back into its curving pattern, and now here they went raping the perfect symmetry with crude footprints. It made Mark a little crazy. Every day he wrecked some person’s life work, and yet he never saw the phantom raker.

They came to roost on a bench beneath what Mark had dubbed the grape arbor for lack of a better phrase. It was an arbor, there was fruit growing on it, and the smell was very alluring, but a sampling produced effects like a shot of bad Mexican water. Mark knew, he had succumbed to temptation.

Tis sighed heavily, leaned back on one hand, and rested the other high on the bulge point of her belly. Sunflower, Mark’s wife lo these many years ago, had assumed just such a position when she’d been pregnant with Sprout. Maybe all pregnant women did. A universal in any culture. In any species. On any planet.

“I haven’t asked before, but, like, are you handling this?”

“No, I never thought it would get this far. I was sure Kelly would have to handle, well… the messy bits.”

“It’s about a month away, right?”


“You want to talk about, like, uh, how you’re feeling?”

Tis laughed, a hollow sound devoid of humor. “I’d almost rather talk about my father, and that walloping load of guilt.” Mark opened his mouth, but she forestalled him with an upraised hand. “Just kidding. Fear is easier to face than guilt. And that’s what I’m feeling. I’m absolutely, totally terrified. I don’t want to have this baby. Somebody else has got to have this baby for me.” She levered herself to her feet and paced nervously up and down in front of him. “I have been shot, beaten, poisoned, slashed, and raped. Pain is an old companion to me. But this pain terrifies me. I’ve seen women in hard labor…” Her voice trailed off, and she stared out at the eastern sky where the first evening stars were just beginning to show. “Maybe Jay will come ambling back with Blaise and my body in tow.” She turned back to Mark. “I have that fantasy a lot. Stupid, isn’t it?”

Very slowly, for the words cost him, Mark said, “I used to go to sleep at night and think that if I just hoped long enough or prayed hard enough, when I woke up in the morning, Sprout would be all right. She wouldn’t be retarded. We all have crazy fantasies.”

Even an imagination as fertile and creative as Jay’s couldn’t turn Ilkala into New York City. No self-respecting New Yorker would build office buildings in pale lavender, lime green, dusty rose… the list of offensive pastel colors went on and on. And while the Takisians built tall, they built tall wrong. The multistory buildings couldn’t really be called skyscrapers, they were too spindly for that. Meadows, in another of his endless, fucking lectures, had explained that too. Something about how Takis had a relative mass about one-third? Two-fifths? – some damn number or other – of Earth norm, so the gravity was less, and buildings could look anemic.

And everybody could be a flit, thought Jay sourly as he surveyed his fellow passengers on the tram. It seemed a prosaic description for an impeccably clean means of conveyance which had no apparent means of propulsion. It hummed lightly up the deep valley to within a mile of the House Ilkazam, depositing servants, and the occasional slumming psi lord, and went humming back to the city. If the New York subway system was a tenth this nice – He cut off the thought ruthlessly. He didn’t want to like anything about Takis in his present mood. The seats. Yeah, the seats were way too small. Not comfortable at all.

Mollified by finding fault, he returned to a sour contemplation of his physical surroundings. He had no idea where to exit the tram. The rush of events hadn’t left him with much time to peruse the guidebooks. What were the sights and attractions of Ilkala? Did Takisians write guidebooks? Did Takisians take vacations? He tried to picture the Takisian equivalent of a Hawaiian shirt and failed utterly. Some things man was not meant to see.

At least there was a bizarre familiarity to the entire commuting ritual. In place of briefcases the business people possessed wafer-thin laptop computers that were attached by fine filament wires to a throat patch. Jay presumed they were all dictating information to the critters rather than typing. Seemed sort of cumbersome. Other people read (the books were shimmering projections at eye level, which adjusted for a shift in your posture) or listened to music on tiny radios disguised as ear clips. The competing musical styles formed whispers in the air. Apparently Takis had avoided the boom-box phenomenon.

Yeah, as cranky as they all are, they’d come over and beat the crap out of you for infringing on their ear space, Jay mused.

The number of young moms and young dads with babies and toddlers in slings or glider prams were about equal. Apparently child rearing was an equal-opportunity task among the Tarhiji. And then there were the old, all of whom were treated with the gravest courtesy.

The tram sighed to a stop, and about half the passengers rose and began to disembark. Though they were clearly in a financial and business district, Jay decided to go with the flow. He joined the mass exodus.

“Excuse me,” Jay said in halting Sham’al. The woman turned and looked at him with an expression of polite inquiry. “What is this office that you’re going into?”

“Jhaconda and Stirpes. We’re providers of @^ amp;*.” Static again. Jay shook his head. She tried to explain. “We guarantee objects against loss or damage. People too.”

She vanished into the building, and Jay accosted another worker well dressed, at least by Takisian standards. And got the same answer. Again. And again. He’d either hit the wrong street, or everyone on Takis was either a pooftah or an insurance salesman. It was really depressing. Jay was beginning to wish he’d followed the young moms and dads, or the old grandmas and grandpas shopping or wherever they were going.

Interspersed with the office buildings were shops of various kinds. Jewelry, shoes, clothes, electronic gadgets. As he strolled and gawked, certain facts pummeled their way past the resistant barriers in his mind. The streets were very clean. No garbage in the gutters. No graffiti marring the pastel walls. There were lots and lots of tiny parks complete with the obligatory Takisian fountain, flowers, grass, and trees. And no homeless people sleeping in them. No homeless huddled like shapeless sacks in doorways or shuffling down the sidewalks accosting passersby for money.

Maybe they kill ’em and eat ’em.

Or maybe there weren’t any. It didn’t jibe with the implicit and (in his brief experience) the fucking explicit cruelty of the culture, or the elitism of the psionic overclass. Then Jay reflected on his brief acquaintance with Tachyon – the paternalistic attitude the alien held toward humans in general and jokers in particular. The whole noblesse oblige act. Probably the motive was pride – there aren’t going to be any hungry or homeless people in our cities, by damn – but the result was good, grudging though Jay’s admission of that fact might be.

They think they’re so goddamn special, Jay thought resentfully, though no psi lord was in view to trigger the reaction. And it’s just a fluke of genetic mutation which could be a universal gift if the elegant lords and ladies would deign to mix their precious bodily fluids with some of the lower order.

No, that wasn’t the problem. Metaphorically and literally speaking, the telepaths would fuck the mind blind with the greatest alacrity. They just wouldn’t breed with them.

Jay wished he had someone with whom to share these thoughts and revelations, and then suddenly the emotion that had been tugging at the edges of his mind like a shy child came clearly into focus. He was lonely. He didn’t have a damn soul on Takis to talk to… come to that, he didn’t have a damn soul to talk to back in Manhattan. He had an inflatable sex doll that doubled as a receptionist. He knew a couple of sympathetic waitresses at the Java joint who served him patty melts and coffee and let him ramble, but he realized he knew nothing about them beyond their names. His one deep friendship with Hiram Worchester had sorta gone down the shitter when Jay helped unearth the evidence that Hiram was a murderer – however exonerating the circumstances.

Jay’s thoughts went back to Vi and Flo at the seedy Times Square coffee shop, spurred no doubt by the aromas floating through the open door of the Takisian equivalent. Jay hesitated a few more minutes. Then a pretty woman, carrying an armful of cut flowers, came whisking through a back door and began filling the empty vases on the fifteen tables.

Like most of the Tarhiji she was on the zaftig side, but her soft hair looked like spun caramel, and the pure oval shape of her face reminded Jay of a painting he’d seen in one of his catechism books – the Madonna of the Cherries. It was the only picture of the Virgin he’d ever liked. Instead of looking sappy the Virgin looked sensual, and she seemed genuinely thrilled to be kissing her baby.

The woman sensed his scrutiny, looked up, and frowned. “Are you eating? Or rusticating?”

“It’s a little early for lunch,” said Jay, amused at her acidity.

“Then move out of my doorway so you don’t block the paying trade.”

That decided it. Jay walked in and settled at a table. Nodded toward the empty vase.

“I haven’t got a flower yet.”

The lips parted, were folded back into a tight line. The woman searched through the bouquet until she located one rather sickly, wilted bloom and placed it in the vase. Her velvet brown eyes challenged him. Jay just laughed. She completed her preparations, returned to Jay’s table, and stood, arms akimbo, staring at him.

“What?” the human asked.

“Are you eating or are you still rusticating?”

“Gimme a menu, and I’ll order. I’m not a mind reader.”

Sighing like a mother confronted by a backward child, she lightly touched an indentation in the lip of the table. The menu sprang to life in the air above the table. The squiggles looked like worm trails in the dust.

Jay shot her a sheepish look. “I forgot… I speak Takisian, I don’t read it.”

“Don’t speak it very well, either.”

“You always this nice to everybody who comes in?” She stared, a wall of unblinking hostility filming her eyes. “I’m surprised you have any customers at all.”

“I have the kind of customers I like.”

“And I take it I’m not among the select. Well, you want to translate this for me? Got anything on there that resembles a patty melt?” he added.

She didn’t. And the explanation didn’t help much. Too many of the words were unfamiliar. He finally settled on something that appeared to have cheese and bread in it – maybe it was a sandwich – and a bowl of soup. There weren’t too many ways to wreck soup – he hoped.

It was an open-face sandwich made of something that resembled raw spinach stirred with cream cheese and nuts. It was way too yuppie for Jay’s taste.

“You got anything with burnt pieces of animal flesh in it?”

“You don’t want this?” she indicated the sandwich.


“Are you going to pay for both?”


“Is the soup to your satisfaction?”

Jay didn’t mistake the polite words for politeness. There was a sting on the edge of them.

“Yeah, the soup’s great.”

It was a thick, dark concoction with tiny blue beans that looked like a cross between lentils and pintos. Floating in it were dried yellow critters that gave it a sharp, citrusy taste. And it was really good. Jay wondered if he could get the recipe for Hiram. He told the woman about his friend and the restaurant, and how he’d really love this soup.

“Only problem,” Jay said, “the produce delivery is going to be a bitch over twenty-three light-years.”

He thought that might get some reaction out of her. How often did you meet an alien? Up until a month ago he’d met only one. In retrospect he decided one would have been enough. His revelation didn’t impress her.

“What are you doing off the Bonded station? We don’t permit aliens on the Crystal World.”

“Would you believe I’m a close personal friend and bodyguard to the heir to House Ilkazam?”


Jay studied that pretty face, the soft, rich swell of her bosom beneath her blouse. Dispensed with the notion of trying to impress her. He’d settle for getting to know her.

“Have you got a name?”


“Does that translate to mean you’re married?”

The question seemed to strike a nerve. There was the briefest flicker of pain in those dark eyes. “No, I’m not marriageable material.”

“Lot of my dates have said that about me. Hi, I’m

Jay Ackroyd.” She stared at the out-thrust hand with the air of someone who couldn’t identify the appendage. Oh, that’s right, you Takisians don’t shake hands. You all seem to move straight to the kissing. Great custom as long as I’m not meeting a man.” He was babbling. He knew it. It embarrassed him. He couldn’t stop. It was her, she made him nervous.

Her dark eyes had gone wary. She studied him, and Jay had the feeling that she was actually seeing him for the first time. “How did you get here?”

“That’s a really long story.”

She turned away. “Then I don’t want to hear it.”

“You’re pretty fucking cool about meeting up with an alien. Aren’t you gonna call the cops, or get scared?”

“I’ve been up to the Bonded station to look at aliens.”

“You make it sound like a trip to the zoo.”

“Isn’t it?” It wasn’t actually a smile, but a dimple did appear briefly in her left cheek.

Jay grinned in delight. She was really pretty when she stopped frowning. The door to the restaurant opened, and three men entered. The detective and the woman turned, and Jay didn’t need his hostess’s reaction to tell him these were cops – it was depressing to discover “The Look” transcended light-years.

“You will come with us please.”

“And if I say no?”

He felt another mind closing like a vise around him, and too late he realized that although these goons were dressed in the less opulent Tarhiji fashion and their hair was brown, they were psi lords.

“Okay, okay, okay!” he stuttered out just before the compulsion became overwhelming.

Two of the men took his arms and marched him to the door. Jay grabbed the jamb and managed to call back. “I have a feeling we’ll be seeing each other again.”

The spokesman for the trio tossed a credit jewel to the proprietress. “Bill it to the House.”

Jay’s last sight was of the woman deliberately crushing the crystal under a heel.

Out in the street they released him. Jay twitched his coat straight and pushed back his hair. “How the hell did you find me so fast?”

It wasn’t hard. We just had to look for a ridiculous foreigner asking stupid questions.”

The crackle of the foil as it was wadded into trash by Taj’s fist was a very strong clue that Jay had again managed to walk straight into the middle of a cow patty.

“I do not think a friendship with this woman is the wisest course you could pursue. I foresee a dark outcome.”

“You read tea leaves too? What, are you telling my fortune here?”

“I’m not concerned about you, Mr. Ackroyd. I am concerned about not reawakening an old shame in this House -”

“There is one really annoying habit that all you Takisians share. You can’t cut to the chase. Just say it. Straight.”

“Hastet benasari Julali attracted the attention of a young nobleman, and they began a clandestine love affair. She should have known better. He certainly did. If he desired the woman, he needed only to petition to bring her into the House as a La’b.” Jay correctly translated that as toy. It pissed him off. “My young relative sired a child on her – an act absolutely forbidden by our law and custom. Because of her extreme youth, and the early stage of her pregnancy, her life was spared.”

“What did you do to her?”

“The child was aborted. Hastet neutered.”

“That’s what she meant about not being a marriageable commodity.”

“Our culture places a great value on children, Mr. Ackroyd.”

“Yeah, I can tell.” Taj either missed or chose to ignore the sarcasm. “What happened to the dickweed who knocked her up?”

“He was of the Most Bred.”

“Translate… nothing. I think she got the raw end of this deal.”

“She is lucky to be alive.”

“I’m going to see her again.”

“I would prefer you not.”

“Where’s the harm? She’s a little low-class nothing. I’m a little low-class nothing.”

Jay realized that, for whatever reason, he amused Taj. The old man suddenly smiled. “I suppose it will do no harm.”

“And as long as we’re gettin’ along so great – tell Zabb to call off the fuzz. Since it seems Meadows and I have become permanent citizens, I’d like to get a look at the real estate.”

“I’m uncertain for whom that is a greater tragedy.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

The most notable thing about the aftermath of battle is the stench. Acrid smoke catching in the back of the throat. The sickly sweet smell of blood, roasted flesh. Next is sound. The ears slowly recover from the screams and the discharge of powerful weapons. Then you hear the hopeless whimperings of the wounded and dying.

Blaise had handled his first battle well, and Durg was pleased. The first blooding was always the most critical. Of course, his fears had been slight. The boy took an almost evil delight in inflicting pain. The question had been whether he was a coward as many bullies tended to be. He wasn’t.

Only one small doubt niggled and worried at the edges of the Morakh’s mind and spoiled his pleasure in the victory. The boy had not confided in Durg the most essential part of his planned assault on House Rodaleh.

The memory still made Durg’s mouth go dry as he remembered how at the height of the battle Blaise had flung away his weapons and, using a throat mike and button speakers to amplify his voice, exhorted House Rodaleh’s Tarhiji troops to join with him.

And they had!

So the dice had fallen well, but the action told Durg more plainly than a conversation that Blaise had begun to believe his own press. Invincible, invulnerable.

And mad, Durg thought as he came around the garden wall and stopped to consider the eerie sight before him. Blaise standing on the back of a downed ship, while the Tarhiji, ranked seven or eight deep, stood gazing in silent wonder up at him. The rising sun at his back seemed to wash his trademark black clothing with blood, and Fel’k, the larger moon, threw its waning light across his face, deepening the eye sockets and heightening the jutting cheekbones and square chin. He was an imposing figure.

“Hear me, my people. We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, and a thousand years from now men will still say this was their finest hour.”

Durg motioned to his fellow Morakh, and they shoved the ruling line of House Rodaleh forward to meet their conqueror. The Tarhiji fell back like snow touched with a hot blade.

Blaise jumped down from the back of the dead ship and stared down into the face of Aleh, Raiyis of House Rodaleh. Beads of sweat suddenly popped out on Blaise’s upper lip. So the man was prepared, and his shields were up, thought Durg. There wasn’t time for a long, drawn-out mentatic battle with the blind watching. Durg forced the Raiyis to his knees before Blaise.

“I have your House, Aleh brant Agat sek Vereem,” Blaise said. “I don’t need to offer you a second chance, but I’m a reasonable man, so I’m going to give you that chance. Will you join with House Vayawand?’

Silence. Durg jabbed Aleh with his thumb. “Answer.”

“I do not speak with abominations,” Aleh said, and by speaking to a Morakh he had made it clear he considered Blaise even lower.

With a regretful shake of his head, Blaise drew his sword and offered it to a nearby Tarhiji. He then indicated the captured nobles of House Rodaleh with a sweep of his hand. “These are yours to do with as you please. I know what would please me.” Blaise shoved Aleh toward the Tarhiji Blaise had armed.

The man lifted desperate brown eyes. Blaise nodded encouragingly. “Remember, you have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Hate replaced confusion, and the Tarhiji buried the blade in Aleh’s chest.

Blaise laid a hand as if in blessing on the Tarhiji’s sweat-matted hair. “You may keep my sword. A gift of thanks from the Raiyis of House Vayawand.”

A cheer tore the air, and then the frenzy struck all the blind, and they rolled over the remaining Zal’hma at’ Irg. Durg wasn’t sure if at the end they were using weapons at all. A cold finger traced a line down the length of the Morakh’s back.

More to banish his unease than any real desire to discuss the event, Durg said, “Rodaleh was well into festival preparations. We can use their goods in place of House Vayawand’s. It should save us substantial expense.”

They moved from the gardens into the House. Tarhiji servants filled the doorways, anxious for a glimpse of the conqueror. Blaise bestowed offhanded smiles and waves on them.

“Great, but I’m still not going to this little party.” Blaise stepped over a body crumpled in the center of the hall.

Durg kicked it aside. “You must, you are Raiyis, and it is our most holy, most important celebration.”

“My grandfather’s going to be there!” Raw panic edged the words.

Closing his eyes in pained reaction, Durg prayed for patience. “What can he do? Female, pregnant, and our spies report that my Lord Zabb has wrested the House from her grasp. She is helpless.”

Blaise was shaking his head violently. “You don’t understand how tricky he is. He’ll get to me somehow. I’ve told you to kill him, but you won’t do it! I won’t be safe until he’s gone!” The boy’s voice was spiraling upward, and Durg was horribly aware of the listeners.

“Hush, don’t show your fear!” The glimmerings of a plan began to form. “And my lord, there is a way to neutralize your grandfather. And one which I think will give you pleasure.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

“Hi. You got stuck for my lunch. I know you won’t take money, so try these.” Jay thrust out the bouquet of flowers and smiled down at Hastet. He peered past her shoulder to the room beyond. It was an occupational hazard of detectives.

The view was heartening. She was a slob just like him. The room was a cluttered mess. A pair of shoes cocked shyly across each other as if ashamed of their position in the center of the room. Brightly colored pillows spilled off a sofa and onto the floor. There was a plate with a half-finished meal on the floor among the pillows. It was apparent that Hastet was not a furniture sitter. She sought the low ground.

The holo was on. At first he thought it was a newscast of a bunch of psi lords. Then he realized they weren’t pretty enough, or delicate enough. They were half-starved Tarhiji actors prancing around pretending to be psi lords. Unfortunately it didn’t look like a satire. Another piece of the puzzle about the relationship between ruled and ruler clicked into place.

Hastet was still eyeing the flowers. “You really are hopeless,” she finally said. “You don’t give flowers to one of the bitshuf’di. And an odd number of flowers are either for your wife or your mother. When you’re courting, it’s an even number. And you never bring red – that’s the color for the dead.”

“You people are opaque. Is anything simple in this culture?”

“Only dying.”

She was still blocking the door. “May I come in?”


“I want to apologize.” That didn’t seem to be winning any points. “I want to understand.” That got her. Curiosity replaced hostility.


Jay sucked a breath past his teeth, prepared, spoke. “Let me be up front about something – I’ve been snooping. So I know a little about you.” The pupils widened until the warm brown eyes seemed an implacable black. “And knowing what I know, I don’t understand,” he gestured toward the holo. “Why are you watching a soap opera about the trials and tribulations of a psi lord? Why don’t you just rise up and kill them all?”

“They read minds. Or have you forgotten? And what are you doing off your leash?”

“I got a dispensation from big daddy Taj.”

Probably because the news out of Vayawand just kept getting scarier, Jay reflected, and they probably figured he wasn’t going to head off to Vayawand on his own. They had figured right.

With a quick flick of the wrist, Hastet threw the door fully open, pivoted, and walked back to her pillows. It was grudging, it was unspoken, it was an invitation. Jay accepted and entered.

Just as his knees were buckling to drop him onto the pillows, a critter stuck its head straight up out of the cushions and let out a hiss like a tire deflating. It looked like a cross between a ferret and a feathered snake, with teeth that wouldn’t be out of place on a moray eel. Jay dived one way while the critter dived back into the safety of the pillows.

“Please excuse Haupi. She’s a little shy,” Hastet said, her voice catching on a chuckle. Despite his alarm, Jay had to admit that a smile became her. The lines about her mouth and between her brows softened, and there was that dimple again. Jay was a sucker for dimples.

“You don’t get many visitors,” Jay correctly deduced.

“No,” Hastet admitted.

“Takisians just keep getting dumber.”

The presence of so many guards had Jay’s wee-wee trying to run for cover. It was the first time he’d actually entered Rarrana since Tisianne’s seclusion. It was Lillyshit day, or whatever the hell they called it, so supposedly it was okay for him to be there, but it still put him in fear for his dick.

Tisianne was arranging flowers and taking a long time about it. Jay’s idea of flower arranging was a jelly jar and water. He had to admit the results so far were really pretty. Tis picked up one blossom, and the air was filled with a gentle chiming.

“Oh cool, is that the flower?” Meadows asked.

“Yes.” Tis offered it to the ace.

Jay reached out and lifted a blossom from the table. Several of the guards tensed. Jay cringed back into his chair and folded his hands in his lap. There was a smile lurking at the corners of Tisianne’s mouth as she tossed him a flower. Jay hid his embarrassment by studying the lilac and white blossoms. They were hard, and the stamens apparently acted like the clappers of a bell. He noticed wounds on the stem.

“They pulled off the thorns.”

“Yes,” Tisianne said. “They don’t do that for the men who enjoy this art. It’s funny because men are really far more vulnerable than women.” She selected another flower from an overflowing basket. “What news from the wide world, Jay?”

“You’ve heard as much as I have, and it’s all shitty -”

Zabb walked through the doors of the suite, and Jay, Mark, and Tis all stiffened.

“Cousin,” Zabb said, and gave Tisianne a buss on the cheek.

“Is there some reason that you are allowed to annoy me with impunity?” Tis asked in that sharp, snotty tone that always made Jay’s teeth ache.

Zabb smiled sweetly down at his cousin. “I’m the Raiyis. All women are my daughters… potential wives. I can see you whenever I choose in whatever manner I choose.”

“And I may choose to put that grandiose fiction to the test,” Tis challenged.

“Let’s not disturb the beldams again, shall we?” Zabb dropped with a sigh into a chair.

“Then leave me alone. Haven’t you done enough to me?”

“You’re lucky I didn’t -”

“Kill me.” Tisianne selected another bloom from the overflowing basket. Continued in that same sweetly soothing voice. “Yes, every day as I look about me, consider my situation, I am again struck with how much I owe you.”

Meadows stepped in. “Hey, man, it’s like you said. You can visit us anytime. We only get to see Jay once in a while. Why don’t you split and come back later?”

“I need to discuss the Crossing Festival with my cousin.”

“I will not attend,” Tis snapped.

“You will!”

Jay watched as Tisianne’s fingers tightened convulsively at the rap of command in that cold voice, and the delicate stem snapped. She regarded the drooping flower with annoyance.

“He’ll be there. The Ideal knows what he might try,” Tisianne argued.

“It’s Festival, you’ll be safe.” Zabb helped himself to a piece of fruit from the bowl on the table. “And speaking of your so-charming grandson, I want to discuss the speech he delivered.”

“What about it?”

“Taj and I were wondering if this power is a side effect of this jumping power? It is having an electrifying effect on the Tarhiji planet-wide.”

“Maybe because it’s hitting home some truths?” Jay said.

Zabb ignored him. “And you heard what happened at Rodaleh. We cannot fight if we cannot trust the troops at our backs. You said Blaise possesses a powerful mind control. It is possible it can sway thousands? Work across a bounce/cast?”

Tis shook her head. “You are looking for a magic explanation. Jay is right, the truth is he has found our Achilles’ heel and is exploiting it.”

“If you want to hang onto your own people, you better start offering them a mentat in every pot, and a chicken in every garage,” Jay said.

Zabb frowned, confused. Mark stepped in. “You know, how a politician will promise anything just to get elected.”

Zabb was staring at them both as if they’d suddenly begun speaking in tongues. And then it hit Jay. On Takis nobody got elected to nothin’. The art of the stump had never been invented. There was no demagoguery on Takis because there were no demagogues.

That was Blaise’s secret power. Not wild card, not the jumper skill, not his quarter Takisian blood. In a fit of excitement Jay explained his sudden insight. Tisianne looked sick, Mark thoughtful. Zabb was still confused.

Meadows slowly shook his head. “This is fucking awesome, Blaise is bringing down an entire planetary culture with the power of the Lie.”

“Well,” Jay grunted, “he better get a new speech writer. At Rodaleh we heard Roosevelt and Churchill.”

Zabb shook his head like a horse afflicted with flies. “Well, here is my truth. We will not mix our blood with that of the Tarhiji.”

“Then I guess we better start studying Vayet,” Jay grunted.

That pissed him off, and Zabb left with only another reminder that Tisianne would be attending Festival, and he’d send over her mother’s jewels.

Tis sighed and settled into a chair. Meadows fluttered around her nervously. “You okay? He didn’t get to you, did he?”

“No, no. Right now Zabb’s machinations, Blaise’s political posturings, the fate of the planet, and the future of Takisiankind are very secondary to my child.” She laid a hand on her stomach. “Personally I hope Zabb and Blaise beat each other to death with their respective peni.”

“What is this Festival shit?” Jay asked.

“It’s the holiest and most important celebration on Takis. It celebrates our passage through darkness to find and settle the Crystal World.”

“But Blaise is going to be there?” Mark asked.

“Yes. Everyone will be there.”

“What, every House?” Jay asked.

“Every House. Every member of every House.”

“Well, shit.” Jay shoved his hands into his pockets and started pacing. “This solves -” He broke off and looked to Meadows. “You got the jammer?”


“Fire it up.” Meadows located the Network device and did so. “So Blaise and the body will be at the hop?”

“Yes. How many times do I have to -”

“So I pop them both here -”

“No.” Tis’s eyes had gone dark with some undefined emotion.

“What do you mean, no?”

“First, you won’t be there. You’re not family.”

Jay waved that aside. “So I sneak in. I’ve got a Ph.D. in hiding in bushes.”

“The Festival is held on the South Pole.”

“Oh fuck.” Jay kicked a chair. “So I stow away.”

“On a living, mind-reading ship?” Meadows asked logically.

There was some sort of internal struggle going on in Tisianne’s soul. Jay could read it in the conflicting emotions washing across that little girl’s face.

“We can’t,” she finally said. “We swear peace at Festival. No one’s ever broken it. I can’t do this. I can’t let you do this.”

“I can end this thing in about two seconds -”


“You’ll have your body back -”


“Meadows and I can go home -”


“And you’re not going to let me do it because it’s Christmas?”

It cost her. Her teeth gently sketched at her lower lip, then her expression hardened. “That is correct.”

Jay checked just inside the kitchen door. Both big ovens were fired up, and all the burners on the stove. Steam formed worm tracks on the window in the back door. Hastet was alternating between making sugar flowers on a multitiered cake, and giving an occasional stir to a bubbling sauce.

A young man, his plump face red with exertion and heat, was creaming butter in a giant ceramic bowl. Haupi went hissing and rollicking across the floor. Her wings were up, but she seemed to have about as much lift as a dodo.

“Jesus, are we entertaining the army tonight?”

Hastet pushed back a hanging strand of hair and left a pink smudge on her damp forehead. “I suppose I have you to thank for this.” She didn’t sound real happy.

“What? What did I do?”

“The House called yesterday. I’m to prepare desserts for Festival.”

“It is a great honor, genefemme,” the young man said.

There were a mountain of flaky cookies with pink icing. Jay snitched one. The sweetness of the frosting contrasted with the almost tart flavor of the dough. He snitched two more.

“Shut up and stir,” Hastet ordered. “No, better yet, go to Wan’se and buy me some more sithi beans. I’m almost out.” The boy grabbed his coat and vanished, along with a cloud of steam, into the alley out back.

Hastet caught Jay with his hand on the cookies, smacked him with her pastry gun, and decorated his shirt with green icing.

“Thanks,” Jay said. Scraping it off with a forefinger, he daubed it on her nose like war paint.

“I won’t be able to have a booth at Festival now. I’ll be too damn tired,” Hastet complained.

“Nice of the lord and lady poobahs to let you guys party along with them. Even if you’re not good enough to go to the big polar hop.”

“I wouldn’t want to be there. We have more fun here.” She had these incredibly serious eyes, and when she turned them on him, Jay felt as if it were X-ray vision to the soul.

“Is that meant to be an invitation?” Jay asked.

She turned away and stirred sauce. “I would like it.”

He took the whisk away from her and put his arms around her. She let him, and he felt as if someone had opened a bottle of champagne in the center of his chest. “I’d like it too.” She glanced over at her cooking and gently freed herself from his arms. Jay perched on the marble pastry table. “So what’s this party like?”

“It’s outdoors with lots of food and drink and music and dancing.”

“And cops and fights?” Jay suggested.

Hastet looked at him oddly. “When we Takisians fight, we fight for real. People die.”

Jay remembered Hiram remarking, after a return from overseas, that the most violent cultures tended to have the most elaborate system of manners, the greatest degree of politeness; it was a way to keep the violence in check. Takisians seemed to be no exception.

“And besides, this is Festival,” Hastet added.

“Yeah, I’ve heard too much about how peaceful everybody is at Festival.”

Hastet resumed her cooking. She had an ability, rare in many women, to be perfectly comfortable with silence. Jay ate cookies and watched as the elaborate confection took shape. And slowly a plan also began to take shape.

“How’s all this stuff getting to the pole?” Jay asked.

“Servants from the House will pick it up tomorrow.”

“So it goes in a day ahead of time?”


“Waiters, bus boys, too?”

“No, Tarhiji are not permitted. The Zal’hma at’ Irg serve themselves at Festival.”

“Do they use living ships?”

“Only to tow the freight barges.”

“And who unloads once they reach the pole?”

“Tarhiji who have ridden with the foodstuffs. Why?” she asked suddenly suspicious.

“I just figured out how to crash that party.”

“Not in my desserts you’re not.”

“Let’s talk about it.” And he drew her arm gently through his.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Twelve thousand years ago (or so legend had it) all the families had banded together to build Festival Hall on the edge of the polar continent. The Crossing Festival was always held on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, to symbolize the blackness of space as the Takisians made their crossing and emerged into the sunlight of the Crystal World. It was the only time when for a brief count of hours the ruling families of Takis set aside rivalry, plots, and murder and celebrated together.

Everyone attended Festival. The old (not too many of those in a psi lord family), the infirm, the very young (there seemed to be about twenty million crying babies in this shuttle), and everyone in between. But no guards. The Tarhiji were not permitted at Festival.

“Perfect time to drop a tactical nuke,” Jay had remarked to Trips as he watched the tailor fit the lanky ace for the Festival. Mark couldn’t remember what he’d said. Maybe nothing. There really wasn’t anything to say when Jay was on the prod.

Mark sighed and wished the detective were here now, but Jay was a mere guard, not adopted, not one of the family like Mark. Maybe that was what had made him so crabby, and why he’d vanished for a day. Probably pissed. If Jay was regretting missing the party, Mark would cheerfully have changed places with him. The ace didn’t want to see Blaise – too many bad memories. And speaking of memories, how the hell is the Doc going to handle this? wondered Mark.

She was in her usual position – head averted from the women and children, gazing out the portal. Or was the port only an illusion projected by the living ship? Trips had never quite worked that out.

This late in the pregnancy Tisianne’s face had grown puffy, but overall she looked pretty good. Her maid had dressed her hair in an elaborate upswept style that made her seem older and far more regal. The dress wasn’t so good. Its bizarre color combinations were shocking to human sensibilities, and the cut was designed to accentuate rather than minimize the belly. Then there was the bare neckline screaming for jewelry, but Tis had remained adamant and refused to wear her mother’s jewels. Mark foresaw an unpleasant scene with Zabb.

Mark sidled over to her. Peered out the port. It was a tight fit, and their cheeks brushed. Heat rolled off her skin. Worried, he laid a hand on her forehead.

She brushed it aside. “Nerves. I’ve always had the power to make myself sick. Maybe someday I’ll do it up really right and end up dead.”

There was nothing to say to that. They returned to their contemplation of dark water, icebergs, and ice floes. What had seemed a puzzling white line on the horizon resolved itself into a wall of ice several hundred feet high. The sea battered against those crystal ramparts – white spume and white ice. Occasionally the patient chew of the water broke free a chunk of ice the size of a train car. The roar of falling ice seemed like a cry of despair while the ocean boomed in triumph. And then the patient millennium-long dance began again.

Tis jerked her chin, and Trips saw it. Building seemed too mundane. Palace was incorrect since this structure stood empty all year long except for this one night. Victorian absurdity, was the best he could do. And enormous! It appeared to be constructed entirely of glass. Probably some sort of high tensile plastic to be able to resist the polar storms, Mark amended, and he was damned if he knew what held it up. There were no struts in evidence, no obvious bearing walls.

The arrival time seemed to be inviolable. As the Ilkazam ships, flying in tight and elegant formation, dived toward the hail, Mark saw other brilliantly lit ships also sweeping in. There was a sense of show-off in the formations the ships assumed as they landed, and then it struck him – this wasn’t at the bidding of their masters, this was pure ship vanity.

Tis slumped back. “No Baby. They would be too afraid she’d bolt. Ideal, I’d probably bolt with her.”

“You can’t give up, Doc.” He laid a tentative, comforting hand on her shoulder.

“I should have agreed to Jay’s scheme,” she said, and her expression was as bleak as the landscape.

The hours had passed in surprising comfort. Food was certainly not a problem, and Jay hadn’t even had to sleep on the floor. This glass cat house came equipped with everything. It was an easy guess what the secluded little rooms containing only beds were for, but Jay didn’t think his performance would be too hot. He’d be too aware of those transparent walls. Further snooping revealed game rooms with decks of cards and score pads at the ready. There were board games of indeterminate goals. Holographic video games. A nursery filled with cribs and toys for children.

A long ramp led deep into the polar ice, and to a great room carved entirely out of that same ice. There was a skating rink. And a track. Jay wondered what ran on it. Then he found the stalls, and he and some critter that looked like a cross between a giraffe, an impala, and a horse scared the bejesus out of each other. As he stumbled back, the detective wondered what kind of people would pack up food for seventy thousand, their kids, and their animals, and take an evening stroll to the pole? The closest analogy he could think of was the Super Bowl.

For the Takisians, though, the big event wasn’t sport, it was dance. The central focus of the great building was the ballroom. The floor was black, and twinkling in its depths were thousands of tiny lights. As he stared at them, Jay realized they seemed to form a stellar map. Spiraling out of the floor like coiling smoke were crystal pillars – clear, amethyst, blue, topaz – frozen jewels or flowers, Jay couldn’t decide which.

On a high podium rested the orchestra’s instruments. Jay walked up the stairs and softly touched the strings of a harp. The single note shivered in the air. Jay thrust his hands behind his back and, though he was not a fanciful man, felt as if he’d stumbled into a fairy tale. It was eerie. The instruments laid aside as if the orchestra had only paused for a break, the plates and cups arranged and waiting on the buffet, the food steaming softly, and there was not a soul in the place.

“Just one lost little soul,” Jay said aloud.

Suddenly the silence was broken by a loud boom. Jay knew that sound. Something large and very fast had hit the speed of sound. The party was about to begin. He flexed his right forefinger several times like a man checking the action of his pistol and went in search of a hiding place.

“Killed them all.” Gabru, Raiyis of House Ss’ang, sighed. He shook his harlequin head. Each contrasting strand of hair had been separated from the rest, lacquered, and swept up, until they resembled knife blades thrusting out from the skull.

“There are only a handful of women left from the entire House,” Ruek, Raiyis of House Alaa, said.

“A tragic loss,” offered Hazzal, ruler of House Jeban. “Rodaleh had a very powerful strain of psi healers. We’re going to see a lot more insanity with the loss of this gift.”

“All the insanity we could ever imagine has arrived and is dancing,” grunted Gabru. All the men turned to watch Blaise.

Zabb didn’t offer an opinion or a comment on the topic under discussion. Instead he just watched that tall black-clad figure and calculated. Sooner or later he would face this young man in combat, and he would glean what he could of Blaise’s psychology in the thirteen hours available to him.

The bounce/cast hadn’t fully captured the sheer size of the half-breed. Zabb was accounted a giant among the Takisians. He was dwarfed by Blaise. It made him uncomfortable. He had a sudden vision of Tisianne naked and tiny beneath the brute force of that massive body. Stomach acid climbed up his throat.

“Every Rodaleh Tarhiji soldier who participated in this outrage will have to be killed,” grunted Zujj, the military commander of House Alaa.

“I don’t think terror is our most effective weapon right now,” Zabb said softly. “We’ll only play into the Abomination’s hands.”

“We have to do something?” Quar’ande, military commander of Ss’ang, said.

Taj arrived with Yimkin, the Raiyis of House Tandeh.

“Agreed,” Zabb said. “So what say we repair to a more private venue and discuss what that something should be?”

Zabb dropped back and fell into step with Taj. Softly he asked, “Zaghloul?”

Taj shook his head. “Khuechen brant Chuea is eagerly spreading jam with what he perceives as the winning side.”

“Mongrel,” snapped the Raiyis.

At the door to the gaming room Taj checked and looked up at Zabb. “Is it wise to leave Tisianne alone?”

“She’ll do well enough. She has her groundling Paladin.”

You remember how I told you I was going to give you another one just as soon as this one is born?” Blaise rubbed her belly like a man with a Ho Tai good-luck figure. Tis searched the crowd desperately for Mark, or Taj, or, ancestors help her, even Zabb. They were not in evidence. Tisianne ran through a desperate litany of her sisters’ names. They failed to appear.

Someone rescue me!

Rescue yourself! another part of her snapped back.

But she couldn’t. She’d lost the knack for coherent speech.

Blaise leaned in, hands propped on the arms of the chair, pinning her in place. “Well, I’m going to. They’re all flocking to me. They saw what happened to Rodaleh. They don’t want to be next. I’m coming for you, Granddad, closer every day.”

Fear has a taste, sharp and sour on the tongue. It’s a driving pain deep in the gut. Steel fingers on the throat. The ballroom was lit only by the double moons, and the pattern of tiny lights in the floor. Cold, corpse light that deepened the hollows in Blaise’s face, giving him a gargoyle’s look. The sound of the revelers and the music of the orchestra faded to distant hummings. The only sound seemed to be her own harsh breaths.

“But you haven’t formally met Kelly.” Blaise straightened just before she screamed. He gestured, and out of the crowd he came.

All night Tisianne had avoided this, playing a little game with herself. Not looking for her body. Trying not to go mad from the wanting. Now it was coming, jerking forward with a marionette’s stiff gait. Mind controlled!… Just to show me he can do it.

Her body did not look well. Shadows beneath the lavender eyes. Skin a little too white, a little too pasty. A thin sheen of sweat on the upper lip. And a developing paunch. She wanted to beat the girl for so abusing her dwelling place. Then she correctly interpreted Kelly’s expression as he gazed at her body, now eight months pregnant.

Neither one of us has done such a good job as renters, thought Tis.

“Kelly Jenkins, meet my granddad.” The manic grin deepened. “Meet your baby. No, our baby. Don’t you love these family gatherings?”

she/lovesonly/you, doesn’tknow/me/at/all.

The communication of the slaves, conducted beneath the twitching nose of the overseer. Kelly and Tis stared at each other. Their telepathy blended, coalesced; linked as one mind, they explored the mind of their child. And all the bitterness melted away.

Illyana, meet your mother, sent Tisianne.

Total confusion from the baby.

Indulgent chuckles from the parents.

“Hey, bug out, man!” Mark’s sharp tones jerked Tis from her mind dance.

Tis recognized Zabb’s quick step approaching from behind her. Zabb’s gaze coolly raked Blaise from the top of his head to the soles of his feet and back again.

“While it is forbidden for us to kill you tonight, we’re certainly not required to endure either your company or your conversation.” Zabb turned back to Tisianne. “Cousin, will you walk with me?” He held out a hand and assisted her from the chair.

Blaise smiled, bowed with practiced ease, but his glittering eyes promised payback – real soon. He grabbed Kelly by the elbow and dragged him away.

The trio watched Blaise move away. Tis realized she was shaking. She realized that the warm grip of Zabb’s fingers around hers was comforting. She glanced up at him in confusion. He was frowning after Blaise.

“Some gentlemen and I require your expert advice.” Zabb looked to Mark. “Will you trust her with me for a few minutes?”

“If the Doc says it’s okay.” Mark looked down at her. Tis nodded.

In two hundred and two years of living, how many Crossing Festivals had he attended? Probably one hundred and ninety-seven of them, though his earliest memories didn’t begin until around age four. At that particular festival, he and Nandi had discovered that the punch tasted truly wonderful. They had retreated to a staircase and downed glass after glass of the sweet golden beverage. Later they discovered they couldn’t stand. Giggling, they had clung to one another under the disapproving eye of Nandi’s sister. That was the last Festival they had spent as comrades. By the next year she was old enough to know he was a Morakh, and she had learned to despise him.

Durg moved down the refreshment table like a grazing bull. A tidbit from each tray, not bothering with a plate, to the evident disapproval of the masters manning the buffet. The emotion was a little difficult to classify, but Durg knew that he enjoyed seeing them – the Zal’hma at’ Irg – providing the music, filling the glasses, cooking and serving the food. If they were going to party without their faithful servants, they had to pay the price.

“Why did you do it, man?” The sad tones of Mark Meadows shattered his reverie.

Durg took his time, selected and chewed down another sandwich before he turned to face the tall ace. And his answer when it came wasn’t a direct response. “Do you realize that this room is littered with my former masters?”

“Doesn’t say much for your loyalty.”

“Or theirs. My switch in allegiance always seems to stem from abandonment. The Vayawand left me and a half dozen other children on a roadside when Zabb attacked. I transferred my loyalty to Lord Zabb. My lord deserted me among primitives on an alien world after my defeat by Isis Moonchild. I transferred my loyalty to Lady Moonchild. Then Moonchild abandoned me – once again on a roadside. Synergy having been achieved, perhaps that will be my last abandonment.”

The blue eyes were suspiciously moist behind the thick lenses of his glasses. “I’m sorry, man. I didn’t realize. I wanted you to have a chance to be free. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry.”

“That’s the difference between them” – a jerk of the head to indicate the celebrating Takisians – “and you. They are never sorry. And their way is better. You expect nothing… you receive nothing… you are never disappointed.”

Jay was not finding this as easy as he’d hoped. He hadn’t fully absorbed just how many people were going to attend, and finding two people out of thousands was a daunting task. Blaise was going to be relatively easy; he’d be taller than all the Takisians present, and if he continued his pattern, he’d be dressed all in black. Jay remembered Hiram telling him how Tachyon would never wear black because that was the color for common laborers. Ergo it was a safe bet no Takisian was going to be wearing black. So now he just had to find the kid. As he surveyed the shifting crowds, Jay reflected that it was going to be like looking for a raisin in a bowl of fruit salad.

“Child, child, we should not be meeting like this.” Bat’tam rolled an eye toward the bed. “It tempts me far too much.”

“I didn’t meet you to fuck, I met you to talk.” Something of Kelly’s urgency must have communicated itself, because Bat’tam lost some of his prissy, precise attitude. A quick touch opaqued the walls with a blinding kaleidoscope of rainbow colors.

“What are you doing here?” Kelly demanded.

“It’s Festival. Everyone attends Festival.”

“When you vanished last week, I thought you’d gotten smart and split…” Bat’tam was frowning in confusion. “You know, run away from Blaise,” Kelly amplified. “He’s gonna kill you.”

The urbane, cynical mask dropped back into place like a presidium curtain falling. “I had rather apprehended that. That’s why I’m making a protracted stay in Vayam.”

“You’ve gotta go a lot farther than Vayam if you’re going to be safe from Blaise!”

“My sweet one, Zal’hma at’ Irg do not transfer alliance from House to House. I am Vayawand.”

“Then you’re dead, and that’s really stupid. Go to Ilkazam. Maybe you can help them. Somebody’s got to stop Blaise.”

He gnawed at his lower lip. “It’s never been done.”

“A lot of shit is happening that’s never happened before,” Kelly countered. “Run goddamn it, run!”

Bat’tam caught Kelly by the shoulders. “If I do, it will leave you without a friend in House Vayawand.”

“That’s okay. I don’t think he’s going to kill me -” Kelly’s mouth twisted in a rueful smile. “At least not yet. Your suggestion about my precious bodily fluids got him thinking, and he’s got some big something planned.”

“Bravery sits oddly on you. From where did this sudden resolve arise?”

Kelly shrugged. “You can’t be scared all the time. After a while you just stop feeling anything. Besides, you’re the only person who’s ever been nice to me – even if you are doing it for the boy you saw dancing sixty-five years ago, and not really for me. I could at least pretend it was for me. I’m pretty good at pretending… But anyway, I don’t want you dead, so please go.”

Bat’tam’s hand closed on his sharply pointed chin, and Kelly could feel the nobleman rummaging about in his mind. The probe was withdrawn, and the old man ran his palms down the other man’s smooth cheeks.

You know, girl, for the first time I’ve actually seen you.”

There was nothing romantic in the kiss. Lips, a little dry and very wrinkled, pressing hard against his. Tongue forcing its way past the barrier of his teeth.

Would Tachyon have minded? Analyzing that question and trying to unsnarl his tangled emotions kept Kelly motionless.

Bat’tam paused at the door. Glanced back, grinned. “That doesn’t quite make it all worth while… but it helps to ease the pain.”

She checked slightly on the threshold, and Zabb smiled to himself. Had he finally succeeded in impressing her? And it was an impressive display. Oh, not the numbers… a mere five Houses meeting with House Ilkazam… but the power represented by those Houses.

Probably because they have the most to lose, came Tisianne’s thought. Still, it was a diplomatic coup on Zabb’s part. I didn’t think he had it in him.

Zabb leaned in close to her and whispered, “Thank you.” He knew the ease with which he read her mind would rattle her. It did.

Zabb added his telepathy to her feeble power so she could read the surface indigestion bubbling off the minds of the five Raiyises and their military commanders. Old Yimkin’s was the worst, though some of his distress wasn’t just worry over the Abomination. It was grief at seeing Tisianne in her current predicament.

If one could be said to have friends of a rival, Raiyis Yimkin would qualify. The histories of House Ilkazam and House Tandeh were strewn with a series of brief but lucrative treaties. One of Tisianne’s sisters had in fact been married into Tandeh. That the marriage ended tragically was no the fault of Yimkin. At Jadlan’s funeral, the bluff, sunburned seaman had carried a grieving fourteen-year-old Tisianne away and wrapped the weeping boy in a tight embrace.

“We are discussing the feasibility of an alliance,” Zabb said.

“I’m delighted to see it,” Tis replied. “And though I’m honored by the confidence, I wonder at my inclusion. I’m not a soldier – wasn’t then, am certainly not now.”

But you know Blaise,” Taj said. “His strengths and weaknesses.”

“So how do we minimize the first and exploit the second, cousin?” Zabb asked.

“His strengths are rather evident – several hundred Morakhs -”

“Our wits have gone begging,” Yimkin interrupted. He shook his head, setting the bells braided into his full beard to ringing. “Here, child, take a seat.” He rose and offered his.

Watching the flush blossom in her cheeks, Zabb knew how much the courtesy irritated her, but she took the proffered chair. Tisianne had always preferred comfort over principle.

Until that last wild gesture, Zabb corrected himself. He had plucked small memories of Earth from her mind, and most were either sad or terrifying. No, fifty years in the mud had taught Tis to suffer.

“The Morakhs aren’t enough to ensure his safety. Burning Sky, what’s the matter with the Zal’hma at’ Irg?” Quar’ande exploded.

“The same thing that would be wrong with any of us,” Taj replied. “He has empowered young cadet lines within the House. He’s promised them conquest, and he’s delivered.”

“But he’s an abomination,” Gabru wailed.

“He’s successful,” Tisianne broke in. “For the moment that is all that matters. Oh, they comfort themselves with the argument that once Takis is theirs, they’ll remove him -”

“But it won’t happen,” Zabb interrupted. “He commands the will and the loyalty of the Tarhiji.”

“But how?” Yimkin asked.

Zabb smiled grimly. “I defer to my cousin. She seems to have a somewhat better grasp of this matter than I do.”

Zabb had heard much of this before, and he could request amplification once they were back home, so he paid only scant attention to the briefing.

Instead he sat and watched Tisianne. The emotions darkening or sparkling in the wide gray eyes. The mobile little mouth with its absurdly short upper lip. The soft voice concisely and without elaboration detailing the personality of her tormentor. She was careful to touch on none of the horrors she had endured. Was that pride or fear? That she was desperately afraid of her grandson there was no doubt. Tisianne in male form was a volatile little man. He spoke almost as much with his hands as with his voice. Tisianne in female form kept her hands clasped lightly in her lap, but Zabb saw the delicate trembling. Once, only once, did she execute a sharp, punctuating gesture. There was a flicker of reaction from Yimkin and Gabru.

She should have worn gloves, Zabb thought. Hide those scars. I wonder who stopped her. Or did this new, stronger Tisianne stop herself? I certainly can’t ask her, and is it worth thought theft?

“If you thwart Blaise, be certain you are ready for the reaction. He will lash out at whatever is convenient, and with a barbarity that will shock even us,” Tis said.

She fell silent. Zabb looked at the other men.

“Questions? Comments?” Head shakes all around. “Thank you, cousin. Can you find your way back to your stirpes without escort?”

“Yes.” She stood and shook out her skirt. Walked to the door. Paused. Looked back at all of them. Desperation was etched in the tendons of her neck, the lines about her mouth. “Please… please, don’t kill him. He is my only way home.”

Zabb just pushed her gently back through the door.

After her abrupt ejection from the meeting, Tis felt very much at loose ends. She was afraid of running into Blaise. Mark seemed to have vanished. Her sisters were all celebrating with their husbands and children. No one wanted her fear or her unhappiness near them. There was only one person who shared them both.

It took an hour, but once the contact was formed, there was never any doubt they would rendezvous. Illyana was the anchor, telepathy the chains, and Kelly and Tisianne were safe, for Blaise was brain deaf.

For years after, Tisianne would remember the conversation as a series of sound bites or MTV pulses. Kelly had done an impressive job self-teaching himself mentatics but lacked control. Tisianne offered hurried pointers…

And then they ended up back on Illyana. Delighting in her mind.

Kelly warned Tisianne of his body’s numerous drug allergies. Tis countered that natural childbirth is mandatory among the telepathic class. Survival of the fittest and all that…

And then they ended up back on Illyana, wondering about her eye color.

Kelly hesitantly and rather shyly told Tisianne about Bat’tam.

I remember now. It was Crossing. He danced with me.

Guys dance with each other?

This is a guy’s dance. Amusement at the groundling’s shocked sensibilities. A very pretty, energetic dance called the Condala. You’ll see it tonight. A cross between Russian and Middle Eastern styles. It’s very intriguing. A beau who’s nursed a crush for sixty-five years. Perhaps a suitor to make an honest woman of me.

I think he’s heading for Ilkala.

Impossible, Tis demurred. No one abandons House.

And they ended up back on Illyana, wondering how she would cope with her bizarre parentage – assuming any of them ended up back where they belonged.

Switching back to audible conversation, Tis warned, “I will not give her up.”

“I understand. Just so I can see her now and then.”

Before Tisianne would reply, Zabb screamed through her head like a five-alarm fire.


There was this swell hidden gallery running the entire circumference of the ballroom. The discovery had come quite by accident. Jay had seen clumps of psi lords cruising into this tiny cul de sac carrying candles and emerging minutes later sans candles. They sure as hell weren’t leaving them in the hall, so Jay had snooped, watching as they opened a secret panel in one of the pillars.

When there was a lull in the traffic, Jay tried it, and felt like a turd being flushed. Whatever it was, it wasn’t an elevator – more like one of the old pneumatic tubes that used to grace department stores in the twenties. The dizzying ascent slowed, and he found himself suspended in midair in front of a door.

Stepping out (or did one step off thin air?) seemed the wisest thing to do, so he did, and found himself in the gallery. It was creepy at first. There were hundreds of little candles flickering at the foot of those crystal pillars. Only instead of lights embedded in the crystal, there were people. Jay wondered what you had to do to get buried at the pole? Fuck up big? Or score big?

It made him nervous staring at those serene faces. As if they might wake up and start screaming impostor, burglar, thief, like in Alice in Wonderland. Resolutely Jay turned his back on the corpses and walked to the edge of the gallery. And that’s when he realized it was swell because he had a view of the entire ballroom, and… there was Blaise.

Jay carefully formed the forefinger of his right hand into a gun, and drew a bead on that powerful black-clad man.

– And had his hand twisted to point at the floor by an inexorable grip.

“No!” said Mark Meadows.

Kelly and Tisianne exchanged concerned glances.

“I’ll take you,” Kelly said as he assisted the Takisian from her chair. Keeping a supporting arm lightly about her waist, he escorted her to Zabb.

We’re a behavioral psychologist’s wet dream, Tis mused as she considered the roles they were falling into by virtue of their respective biologies.

They were the center of attention as the crowd swept back to make way for their passage. Waiting in a cleared area in the center of the ballroom were Zabb and Taj. They were ranged on one side with Blaise and Durg on the other. Tis wondered if she and Kelly were supposed to have brought the ball for the tip-off?

“You have disrupted this Crossing Festival on an obscure point of protocol. It had better be worth it,” Taj was growling as they arrived.

Blaise smiled slow and long, giving the impression of a killing beast stretching after a long sleep. “Oh, it will be.” He raised his voice. “But before we address these troublesome matters, I wish to share a bit of joy.” He gestured, and Durg held out a hand. A woman emerged from the crowd.

She was beautiful in that way only creatures bred for beauty can possess. Jewels completely covered the bone beneath her brows and swept up and away toward her hairline like wings. With that weight of ice she was certainly of the highest born. Her hair had been cropped short and was just beginning to grow out, indicating she had recently rotated back from space-platform duty. Where it was red, it was so intensely dark, it would probably appear black in some lights. But it was also stippled with white streaks. The Ss’ang bred for that piebald look, so she was some kind of outcross. She was also one hell of a mentat, for as she passed, Tis read nothing. It was as if there were a blank space, a psychic black hole walking past.

“Prince Tisianne, stop making time with that other woman and come meet your bride,” said Blaise with hearty bonhomie.

For an instant Tis was afraid that Kelly would faint. Tis gripped Kelly so tightly that she felt her nails puncture the fabric of his sleeve and hit flesh. Kelly shook it off, but his eyes were desperate.

Tis forced rubbery legs to move and placed herself inches from Blaise. “Blaise, my child, never ride a scam past its useful life. Fully half the people in this room know my psi signature. They know that’s not me.”

“It’s enough you where it counts. Between the legs.”

“I won’t! It’s gross!” Passion throbbed in the words. Tis winced. The teenage girl’s hysterical reaction delivered in a baritone voice was embarrassing.

Blaise stepped around Tisianne. Squared off with Zabb. “It’s the first step in the amalgamation of House Ilkazam into the new order.”

“The only one,” Zabb said softly.

“Are you fucking crazy!” Jay spluttered. “Look, I’ve got ’em all. Blaise, the body… even Tachy if we want to send her home fast too.”

The detective struggled fitfully, but Meadows had succeeded in locking both his hands behind his back. “You can’t. It’s Festival.”

“What is this crap? When did you become Takisian?”

“Jay, there’s, like, two of us, and probably a hundred thousand psi lords. Do you really want to piss them off by violating their customs and traditions this way?”

Taj was shaking with anger, his hands opening and closing spasmodically. “You mudcrawler, you rotting abortion, this is Crossing. You denigrate our traditions -”

“You want tradition?” Blaise snarled. He grabbed for Tisianne, but Zabb yanked her away so Blaise’s fingertips only grazed the skin of her arm.

Even that brief touch made the edges of the room, the people, vanish into a red haze. Only Blaise’s face remained clear. Leering down at her. Peering up from between her legs. The pounding. The pain deep in her body.

“This woman is carrying my child. That makes her mine. And on that point I believe your customs, traditions, and protocol agree.”

Ruek of Jeban stepped forward. “What custom decrees is that the child should die. It’s an abomination…just like you.”

Blaise’s eyes widened. “You’ll be next,” he promised softly. So great was Blaise’s power and the touch of his madness that Ruck took an involuntary step back. The watching families didn’t miss it.

Raising his voice, Blaise said, “No half-breed dies in my holdings.”

“So you use your new laws when it suits you, and the old when that works best,” Taj said sarcastically.

“Our Raiyis writes new laws and will build a new world,” said Sekal, one of the Vayawand nobles who surrounded Blaise. Pride and adoration filled his words.

“In other words, I use whatever works.” Blaise added and smiled engagingly. It was horrifying.

There are times in life when you know that doom is rolling toward you. Tisianne had felt it when he had waited for the decision of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. She had felt it again as she had stood before the Ajayiz, and Zabb had banished her to Rarrana. She felt it now. Which is why Taj’s passionate advocacy had no power to move her. He was going to fail.

Taj tried. He raised every imaginable objection, and a few that made no sense at all. When he saw he was losing the battle, he switched to delaying tactics – agreeing that Blaise could have her, but only after a genetic match was run to establish paternity. That didn’t work either.

The decision of the Families was clear, and it had nothing to do with custom and protocol, and a hell of a lot to do with the fact that the Vayawand and their young Raiyis were scaring the crap out of everyone.

There never was anything so overt as a vote, but suddenly the crowd was dissipating like wind-torn smoke, and Blaise was walking toward her, his hand outstretched.

“They’re going to give her to him,” Mark choked out, and Jay realized the gangling ace was crying.

“Okay, that’s it, party’s over.” Jay fashioned his gun.

It wasn’t conscious. It wasn’t even a decision. It was instinct and survival. Tisianne snatched a knife from the buffet table and flung herself at Blaise.

There was a whirlwind of motion, and Durg was between them. The knife cut through his finery and bit deep into the chest.

A gasp like a thousand winds in a thousand pines swept the hall, and several nobles from House Vayawand bore their Raiyis to the floor. The music stuttered to a halt. Silence. And tension as everyone waited to see if the violence would escalate.

Jay and Mark hung over the railing. Jay was cursing fluently and monotonously because he’d lost his bead on Blaise. Tisianne began backing slowly away from Durg. Blood was staining the front of the Morakh’s shirt. Tis looked down at the knife in her hand as if surprised to find it there, dropped it. The sound of the blade hitting the floor was deafening in the unnatural silence.

Zabb suddenly strode forward and dealt Tisianne a powerful backhand blow across the face, knocking her to the floor. Then a broad-shouldered Takisian with a chest-brushing beard made an intricate sign with his right hand, spit between his fingers, and deliberately turned his back on the fallen woman. By twos and threes, and then by the hundreds, the assembled lords and ladies did the same.

Zabb walked back to where Taj stood. He had been joined by Tisianne’s six sisters. They weren’t spitting at her yet, but it was clear they were all as shocked as the other families.

Durg moved to Tisianne and swung her up in his arms. Carried her toward the knot of men surrounding Blaise.

“Now, Jay, do it now.”

With a soft pop Tisianne vanished.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

There were about three seconds of total silence. Then the ballroom erupted in pandemonium. Durg was staring at his now-empty arms in amazement. Zabb started toward the Morakh, was caught and pulled away by Taj.

“Come on, you motherfucker!” Jay screamed. “Surface!” Blaise remained obdurately out of sight.

Then both Jay and Mark bowed beneath the imperative call from the Ajayiz of House Ilkazam. The House was shamed. They were withdrawing from Festival.

Mark shook himself free of the last lingering effects of that telepathic summons. “Look, I gotta split. I’ll let it seem like I’m the one who popped the Doc.”

“What about me?” Jay asked.

“Guess you go home with the dirty dishes.”

“Gee, thanks. Do I get a little appreciation for saving the day? Shit, no.”

“I’m very appreciative. And extremely impressed,” came a voice from behind the two men.

The humans whirled. Mark taking a tighter grip on his briefcase. A brief examination of the man, and Mark felt himself relax. The jewels inset in his face proclaimed his House, but he was elderly, and the elaborate eye makeup, lipstick, and powder made it pretty clear he was a fairy. Also, if he’d wanted to fuck with their head, he would have done it before now.

“I am Bat’tam. Lately of House Vayawand. I am desirous of traveling to Ilkala, but travel is so fatiguing, and I was wondering if you might be kind enough to remove me the way you removed Tisianne?”

“Why should we?” Jay asked.

“Oh, no particular reason. I was just hoping to avoid being killed by Blaise brant Gisele.”

Jay rolled an eye to Mark. The ace stared at the Takisian for a long moment. “Go for it.”

Tisianne leaned against the door of the cell and cursed Jay. He’d seen her suite. Did he send her there? No, he sent her to a cell. The house was deserted. The Zal’hma celebrating, the Tarhiji freed from their duties and celebrating.

With a groan she slid down the door and with gentle fingers explored her aching face. The eye was swollen almost shut, and one of Zabb’s rings had gouged her cheek.

There was a soft pop, and a man appeared in the cell. Tis screamed. He yelled. They both eyed each other. He looked familiar. Tis tried to recall from where. The man knelt and offered his mind the way a hound shows throat as a gesture of good faith. Bat’tam, Tis read.

“Oh, Ideal, you.”

Bat’tam didn’t make the mistake of reading the emphasis as complimentary. He stood, brushed off the knees of his pants, and peered down at her. Eventually he said, “So that’s what she really looks like.”



“I’m going to kill Jay.”

“Don’t agitate yourself. I asked him to send me – fascinating mode of travel – legacy of the Enhancer?… Oh, yes, I’m switching allegiance.”

“You’re babbling. You’re also insane.”

“No, Kelly made an excellent point. The unthinkable becomes commonplace when the world is collapsing. Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?”

“I’m cold, may I have your coat?”

“A pleasure.” He covered her. “Would you like to rest your head in my lap?”

“I think not,” Tis said stiffly. Then angrily added, “Ideal, it’ll be hours before we get out of here!”

“No. Ilkazam had just been ejected from Festival when I left. Shouldn’t be too long.”

Tisianne groaned. “Oh, Ancestors, I ruined everything.”

“Well, let’s just say you had a rather stunning effect on the proceedings.”

Rescue hadn’t been long in coming. Bat’tam had been left in the cell. Mark had rushed Tis back to Rarrana and into her suite, where they were now tensely awaiting the inevitable arrival of Zabb.

“Here, try this,” said Mark. Supporting her head, he held the glass to her lips. She swallowed with difficulty. Suddenly Tis stretched out a hand to Mark. The ace was pleased to see it. As a man Tisianne had needed a lot of physical contact – a need that on Earth had driven most of Tis’s male friends to distraction. Now as a woman she could scarcely tolerate it.

And who could blame her? Repeated rapes and beatings. I wonder if she’ll ever be right. I wonder if she’ll be right even if we get her back where he belongs.

Mark assumed the good old smiling Mark Meadows face, took Tis’s hand, and gave her a kiss on the forehead.

“What’s that expression mean?” Trips asked.

“I am trying to imagine you kissing me… I mean me, me. I’m failing.”

Hooking a chair with a foot, Trips settled, folded his arms on the edge of the bed, rested his chin on them. “It was a really dumb move, man.”

Tis sighed, shifted, searched for a comfortable position. “I know, but at the time my good sense was being subsumed by raw panic.”

“I can dig that, but Jay was ready. We weren’t going to let him take you.”

“That’s all very well, but I didn’t know Jay was there.”

“Besides, Zabb had a backup plan. He was going to use one of my friends to rescue you.”

Her laugh was more like a yelp of pain than humor. “Rescue me? Oh, that’s rich. I’m certain his rescue would have been as assiduous as his attempts to recover my body.”

“Don’t be an idiot, cousin,” Zabb said from the doorway. He sauntered into the room and dropped into an available chair, lounging comfortably. “Of course I’m not going to help you. You become male – we become enemies again.”

“What makes you think we’re not now?”

“That still does not mean I wish to see you in the hands of that madman -”

“No, you’d like to see me dead,” Tis accused.

“With every breath you accuse me, but every breath you draw is a gift from me. If I wanted you dead, you would be dead. And by the way, you can be a real bitch.” Zabb held up a restraining hand. “No, don’t reply, we have more important matters to discuss. Your little… performance has shattered my painstaking and carefully constructed alliance.” He cocked his head reflectively. “Ilkazam versus every other House on Takis. What a delightful situation.”

“I don’t care. He’s never touching me again.”

Mark nodded in vigorous concurrence.

“I understand that. I would never let you go back to him, but Blaise’s ‘touching’ thus far has been quite sufficient to place us in a most contradictory position.”

Mark didn’t understand. He looked to Tisianne for clarification, but she had the same confused expression that he suspected was on his face. Zabb stared at the mound of the woman’s belly, raised one brow. Mark watched as all the color drained from Tisianne’s face. The ace catapulted out of his chair and tried to grab her hand. She fended him off.

“No… oh, no.”

Zabb leaned in for the attack. “Blaise has to legitimize his attack on us. This experiment in alien social engineering is one excuse – House Ilkazam is all that stands between the Tarhiji and the coming of the Ideal. But that abomination you’re carrying is a rallying point. I am keeping a man from his child. I am now the outlaw. It’s a simple, emotional issue easily understood by the mind blind, and easily exploited by the Zal’hma at’ Irg.”

“You’re going to give the baby to Blaise?” Mark asked. Disbelief sent his voice careening into a higher octave.

“Ideal, no.” Zabb turned back to Tisianne. His eyes were soft, his tone wheedling. “Come, Tis, you’ve been doing so well. You understood the necessity of removing Shaklan. This is -”

“My father was already dead! There was no future, just continuance! My baby -”

“Is defective.”

“No! There is nothing that puts her beyond genetic norms -”

“Except her breeding! If we have any hope of rebuilding an alliance, it will be with the most conservative Houses, people terrified of the changes Blaise is wreaking on our world, our culture. If this child lives, you are supporting Blaise’s position. Politically she is a total liability. Do it, Tis, for the House, for the family!”

“If the survival… of Takis… depended upon… my killing… my baby… well… you’re all dead!”

It wasn’t sobs that broke the words. It was a horrible choking that cut deeper than tears. Tisianne drove her fists over and over into the mattress, then threw back her head until the tendons were etched in her throat and began ripping at Zabb. The foulest, cruelest epithets were hurled at him. Most hit.

No one can hurt us like family, was Mark’s inane little thought as he tried to figure out how to take command of the situation.

There was no warning. Something just snapped. A lunging stride, and Zabb had Tisianne gripped by the throat and had yanked her half out of the hospital bed. Her shrill scream of terror didn’t even slow Zabb.

He shouted down into her face, “I was going to make this easy. Not now. You’ll birth this monster. I’m going to stand there and watch, and then I’ll take the creature bloody from between your legs and kill it then and there!”

Trips gripped Zabb’s hands. Exerted pressure between the Takisian’s thumb and forefinger. With a shout of anguish, Zabb released Tisianne. She slumped onto the pillows like a broken bird.

Maintaining the punishing hold, Mark began backing Zabb toward the door. “Get out of here… Get out of here now, or I’m going to kill you. I don’t even need my friends to help me do it. And there’s no mind control strong enough to push through the hate.”

Mark would always wonder what the Takisian saw in his face, for Zabb yanked free, whirled, and plunged through the door.

Mark’s long legs went scissoring in a stork-like, awkward run back to the bed. He gathered Tis into his arms, rocking, stroking, murmuring endearments into her hair. The husky little voice when it emerged from the folds of his coat staggered him with the depth of its calm.

“Mark, find Jay. Summon Lani, and bring the psi block. We have a great deal of planning to do.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

“So… one of them needs my help. Ironic.”

Jay shifted uncomfortably. Stared at Hastet’s uncompromising back. Tried to interpret that oh, so careful, oh, so neutral, tone. Decided it wasn’t encouraging. So far this meeting wasn’t going as he’d expected – as he’d promised his fellow conspirators it would go.

“Tisianne isn’t really one of them. Not anymore. Not after all the years on Earth.”

Hastet bent, gathered up her pet. Only then did she turn to face Jay, and her expression was bitter. “My life’s already been ruined by them. But at least I had my life. Now you’re asking me to risk that too.”

“Hastet, you will be safe. No one will ever know that Tisianne was here. Hey, they didn’t know you slipped me into the big hop.”

“That’s because such an act was… was beyond comprehension. This! You must slip her from the House, you must travel into the city.” Jay was making wild scissoring motions with his arms like a referee trying to call a foul. “Into my house. The Mentatic Intelligence Service could be eavesdropping. And how am I to explain this infant? Burning Sky, I couldn’t birth her – they saw to that, and the neighbors know it too.”

“Okay, forget Tisianne. Forget about helping him… her. How about the baby? She sure as hell isn’t one of them. Doesn’t she deserve a chance to live? Isn’t it worth a little risk to give her that chance?”

“You’ve been with them too long. You’re starting to play mind games.” Her eyes had narrowed to calculating slits. She knew it would hurt him. He tried to ignore it. But damn it, it hurt.

Stung, he cried, “That’s not fair.”

“Isn’t it? You are using the life of this infant, hoping I will associate its plight with that of my own dead child. That I will make a blow for freedom.” Her mouth twisted in a humorless smile. “To quote Blaise brant Gisele. Well, it’s a terrible trick, and I won’t be part of it.”

“Part of what?”

She’d gone prim. “Keeping a man from his child.”

She started to walk away, but before she’d traveled two steps, Jay had her by the arm and had swung her back around.

“You want to hear how that man sired his child? First he transferred your prince’s soul into a female body, and then he raped her. Comprende rape? He sexually assaulted her.” Her face had gone white, the dark eyes like a pair of bruises against her chalky skin. “Over and over again. Blaise is crazy, can’t you understand that? Hell, everybody on this planet is crazy. Zabb’s going to murder a baby for political advantage. Blaise is leading a revolution to get his hands on his grandfather so he can continue to rape her and impregnate her until it kills her. He doesn’t give a shit about the freedom of the Tarhiji, or the custody of this kid. He’s just destroying everything that Tisianne loves in this bizarre vendetta. You say you won’t be part of it – okay, fine! But I’ll be damned if I’ll be part of this shit either.” He whirled and went stomping for the door. “I’ll find somebody to help us.”

“How will you remove her? The House is heavily guarded.” The soft question froze him faster than a shout.

“Nobody’s going to see her leave, because she’ll travel here instantaneously.”

He broke off, frustrated by her expression. Decided it was time for a demonstration. He formed the fingers of his right hand into a gun and leveled on Haupi. With a soft pop the creature vanished from Hastet’s arms and reappeared in Jay’s arms. Where she promptly bit him on the thumb, wriggled free, and vanished like an animated feather boa beneath the cushions of the couch. Cursing, Jay flapped his hand wildly, paused, squeezed blood from the two puncture holes. It still hurt. He flapped it some more. Hastet had backed up against the wall, her hand at her throat.

“Gods and Ancestors, what are you?”

“A wild card.”

“Next time warn me. I hate surprises.” She hugged her elbows, pacing. “So you’ll send the princess by this fascinating mode of travel?”

“That’s the plan.”

“And once here?”

“She has the baby. We take the baby and leave.”

“To where?”

Haupi made a lightning raid from beneath the sofa and bit down on the toe of Jay’s boot. “Th-the neutral space station,” he stuttered as he shook her free. “We’ll travel to Alaa and use the elevator – whatever the fuck the elevator is – but that’s how Tachy says we gotta do it. Elevator to Alaa station Alaa station to Bonded station.”

“Can’t you do…?” She formed the forefinger of her hand into a gun in imitation of Jay.

He shook his head. “I was only on the station a short time, and I didn’t pay close attention. I have to really memorize a place before I can pop someone. Otherwise they might end up… well, let’s just say I don’t want to take that risk.”

“And once we’re there, do we live on air and charity?” Hastet asked.

“Money’s already been transferred.” Jay held up the credit crystal.

Hastet flopped down onto the sofa, pulled a pillow into her lap, and hugged it tight. “Your little princess has thought of everything.” There was so much bitterness in the words that Jay remained prudently silent. Hastet was frowning at images only she could see. With a shake of the head she returned to the present. “So all that remains to make this lovely plan a reality is my participation?”

“That’s about it.” Jay thrust his hands into his pockets.

“Tell me one more time why I should do this.”

She was leaning urgently forward, her brown eyes shadowed with pain and an old anger that refused to fade. Jay shook his head.

“If I’m honest, I can’t think of one damn reason.” The silence seemed to collect in the corners of the room and hang in the shadows thrown by the lamps.

“Why are you doing it?” Hastet asked.

“I was hired -” He stopped himself. This had nothing to do with money, or the job he was originally contracted for. It was because… “I want to spit in the eye of the assholes who’d kill an innocent baby. And because Tisianne’s lost so much in his life. If he loses this, I think…” Jay made a helpless gesture.

“Is this duty or friendship?”

Jay hesitated. When he began this strange odyssey, he hardly knew Tachyon – Tisianne. In a lot of ways he didn’t like Tisianne. Now -


Hastet clasped and unclasped her hands several times. Flung aside the pillow. “All right, I will do it.”

“This is final, last chance. You come now.”

Zabb glanced to the holostage, where a five-inch-tall figure of Nesfa was fulminating. Then back to the intelligence reports on Vayawand troop movements. No,” he said, drawing out the word into several syllables. “I think not.”

“Then we… leaving!” She made it sound like a threat.

Zabb stilled a laugh. “My, how… terrible. Anything I can do to speed you on your way?”

“This is not… hearing the last of this… matter.”

Zabb cut the communication and briefly wondered if he had been too quick to reject Taj’s advice that they offer some sop, make some face-saving gesture to the outraged Viand. But what did mudcrawlers understand of dignity?

Hey, you’re the one who said there was probably no limit to my power.

That was theory. This is my child we’re discussing!

It was a bizarre mode of communication. The closest analogy was mental seasickness. Jay had experienced telepathy – the voice in the head. This was more like telepathyvision. He could actually see all the parties to this confab. Some of the discomfort he attributed to the fact that several of the sisters had thrown up mock telepathic conversations to serve as screens. He couldn’t really hear them, but he was aware of them like an itch he couldn’t reach.

Meadows and Tisianne were in a garden. Snow was falling. With Mark in his Takisian comic-opera military togs, and Tisianne in a white fur cloak and fur hat, they looked like refugees from between the covers of War and Peace. Meadows looked really stupid, but to be fair, Jay had never seen the ace wear anything that actually suited that gangling form. Then there was Tisianne. It had been several days since Jay had seen the alien, and he was stunned at how big she’d gotten. He wondered if they were going to have time to pull off this little caper. There was telepathic reassurance from one of the sisters. He groped for a name, gave up. He couldn’t keep them straight.

Look, I really know the emergency room of the clinic. We send the kid, Cody will know what to do.

What? Do we pin a note on her? Dear Cody, this is my baby. Be home soon, love Tach? This discussion is closed. We are not going to experiment with Illyana. We stick with the original plan.

So Hastet gets to be in danger. Great.

She’ll have you, sent back Tisianne.

She should be honored by the trust, averred one of the sisters. Jay was glad Hastet wasn’t around to hear that.

Jay sighed and rubbed a hand across his face.

Okay, but a question – how do I pull off my end of the caper? It was like tasting a question mark. No words, just the emotion. Jay explained to the puzzled sisters. I’ve gotta see her to pop her.

You are seeing her now. That imperious soul he recognized – Roxalana. Cut to Roxalana in her sumptuous quarters. Looking out of her eyes at the image in the mirror as a Tarhiji servant brushed out the long golden hair.

Jay hung tenaciously onto his tumbling sense of place. See her in all her burgeoning, fecund, fertile flesh. The flash of irritation like a punch in the nose Jay correctly identified as Tisianne.

Cut to Tisianne. Didn’t most of your practice consist of sleazy little divorce and custody cases? Tisianne asked, oh, so sweetly. I should think skulking in bushes should be second nature by now.

Back to Roxalana. Tis, don’t squabble. This is a real problem, and we must address it.

For a long time Jay sensed brows wrinkling. For a long time they evaluated the multiplicity of means of ingress to Rarrana. Unfortunately it took even longer to count all the guards. Another long, dismal stretch of mental constipation. Finally one of the sisters slowly said, He is a little attractive.

Cut to Cillka. She was more than a little attractive. She was a testicle-warming knockout.

Bring him in, came the thought from Roxalana.

I’ve always been a girl who likes toys.

Their fading laughter held more than a little feminine revenge. None more so than Tisianne’s. Jay wondered if it was too late to back out.

He extended the epispray to her. Tisianne just looked at it. Mark’s wide eyes got wider with confusion. How to explain to him? How to say, I’m scared. I don’t want to go through this. I have to go through this. I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want you with me. I want it all to be… different.

The barrel of the epispray was cold against her fingertips. Inside enough hormone to induce labor. Tisianne laid her free hand against her stomach, sought and touched the reassuring love flowing off Illyana. In the past week the baby’s movements had virtually ceased. From the changes in her borrowed body, and the clinical experience of monitoring some five hundred pregnancies at the Jokertown Clinic, Tisianne knew that the baby’s head had slipped down into the birth canal. So whether she did it now, or did it later, Illyana’s debut could not be denied. She was coming, and only Tis’s actions this day could assure her a chance at life.

I love you, baby. Don’t hurt me too badly.

She depressed the keypad. Raised her eyes to meet Mark’s. Wondered if she looked as terrified as he did. Ideal knew she felt it.

Chapter Thirty

“I feel like a total idiot,” Jay said.

Mark paused and glanced up from where he was tying the big bows that adorned Jay’s glittering boots.

“I’m sure the Doc feels a lot worse.”

“I hope it’s a long labor. I hope that little asshole…”

Jay couldn’t think of anything awful enough to equal the humiliation he was about to undergo. Grimacing, he faced the mirror again.

He felt as if he were doing a Fruit of the Loom commercial, only in this version he got to be a cherry bonbon. He had been padded to help sell the idea he was one of the Tarhiji. Though why it was necessary, he couldn’t imagine. The stupid suit alone made him look like a balloon. Layer on layer of pink and rose and cherry and orange and white. Each layer falling free with the pull of a ribbon. He trailed more streamers than a New Year’s Eve party the morning after.

Meadows removed this thing from a box and headed toward him. Jay dodged, tottered and teetered on his high-heeled boots. His first impression had been correct, it was a hat – like a cross between a poke bonnet and a propeller beanie. His awkward bobble had cost him. Meadows managed to plop the thing like a roosting gooney bird onto his head and tied the bow rakishly under one ear.

That was it. Jay went on strike. He dropped into a chair, folded his arms mulishly. “I’m not wearing the hat.”

“With that hat on do you think anybody will look at your face?”

Why did Meadows always have to be so goddamn reasonable?

“Does Cillka always tart her toys up like this?”

“She has a reputation for enjoying opening a man like a Christmas present. Pull a string, another layer falls away.”

Jay smirked. “Maybe with enough practice I could train Willy to spring through my fly like a jack-in-the-box. Bet Cillka’d like that.”

Meadows flushed a dull red. Jay savored the moment. Meadows unfortunately bounced back. Reaching into a pocket, he emerged with a silver-filigreed object too big to be a ring, too small for a bracelet. The other ace twirled it lightly around one long index finger.

“Well, whip it out.”


“Don’t brag if you can’t produce.” Mark forced it into Jay’s hand and folded the detective’s fingers around it. “Now put it on.”

“Are you telling me that I have to thread my dick through that?”


“No.” Curiosity got the better of him. “And why?”

“It means you’re sterile.”

“What? They’re going to inspect?”

“They might.”

Jay turned away, groped through the layers, pulled himself free. The ring settled snugly just behind the head of his cock. “Three hundred bucks a day is not enough.”

With total ennui the guards at the door glanced at his penis and waved him through.

“What a swell job,” Jay gritted. “Like the V.D. patrol in the army. These guys must get really sick of inspecting penises -”

“Even as sterling a representative as yours?”

“Shut up. Now if they got to check out the women -”

“They do.”

Jay forced his mouth closed. “Where do they get to look?”

“The left nipple is pierced.”

“Oww… Wait a minute, why are women coming into a harem?”

“Takisian boys don’t leave until they’re fourteen. Also,” Mark gave the shorter man an ironic glance. “Takisians aren’t as fucked up about sex as we are, man.”

Jay tried to picture Tisianne – male or female – in the midst of a lesbian orgy. Found it wasn’t that hard a stretch. Now that he was actually inside the forbidden zone, Jay found it wasn’t all that exciting. That wasn’t to say that the women weren’t exciting. Whatever else might be said about the psi lords of Takis, they sure as hell bred Miss America beauty queens. Unfortunately, an awful lot of them had shapes more reminiscent of overstuffed armchairs than bathing beauties… but those faces. Maybe it was just the result of an overactive imagination, but Jay felt as if he were being damned with every look. He was glad they thought he was a eunuch. A fertile man might be in danger of his life.

“Are they ever not pregnant?” Jay whispered.

Meadows looked at him in surprise. “Most of the time. Otherwise they’d be up to their eyebrows in baby Ilkazams.” Mark eyed him shrewdly. “You’re disappointed.”

“I guess I was expecting the shiver of beaded curtains, eunuchs slipping past with poisoned goblets, or on some secret mission -”

“Don’t we qualify?”

Meadows had him there. The tall ace paused at a door and lightly knocked. Cillka answered. Quick assuring nods were exchanged.

“Right, then.” When she smiled, she had a habit of catching her lower lip between her teeth. It gave her a vixenish, impish look. Reaching out, she tugged a ribbon. The embroidered vest released and slithered to the floor. “All in working order.”

Taking Jay by the lapels, she tugged him through the door. It didn’t take much urging. “You.” A light finger to Meadows’s chest. “Better get around to Tis.”

“Is she all right?” Alarm quickened the normally hesitant voice.

“Fine… well, as good as can be expected.” Mark stood in the hail like an orphaned puppy. “We’re monitoring. I’ll have our magician to the suite when Tis gives the word.”

Meadows wandered disconsolately away. Cillka turned that smile back on Jay, pushed the door closed with a suggestive wrist flick. Jay’s mouth went dry.

“Disrobe, dear one, while I get dressed,” she said.

“I thought the idea was to undress.”

Her head snapped around. “You’re not neutered. I would never consider it. I am Zal’hma at’ Irg of the House Ilkazam. I do not mix my blood with that of inferior beings.”

And suddenly she wasn’t so beautiful anymore. Jay’s ardor dropped like his softening penis. He dropped into a chair muttering, “’Scuse me, massa, for a minute there I almost forgot I was a nigger.”

“How you doin’?”

Tis paused in her slow, careful pacing back and forth across her suite. “Not too badly.” In a dry, pedantic tone she added, “Did you know the average labor lasts sixteen hours?”

“Don’t be clinical, talk to me.”

“And what should I tell you? It hurts? Well, it hurts. I know it is going to hurt a hell of a lot more before very much longer.”

“So should we go now?” Mark was nervously wringing his hands. Tis wanted to scream at him to stop it.

“No, it has to be hard labor.” She gripped her elbows, walked again. “I would not wish to impose upon the hospitality of Jay’s lady for too long.”

“You’re really weird, man, when you get all Takisian and toplofty.” Mark moved to her, placed his hand on her shoulders. “What is it you’re really saying? Really feeling?”

Lightly she traced the bony arch of his beaky nose. “This woman is my subject. The first I’ve been permitted to see since my return. And I’m embarrassed. I come to her rolling in the straw like a birthing farm animal. Ideal take it, I’m her prince. How can I rule her without her respect?”

“What makes you think you’re going to lose it? Jeez, Doc, there’s not many men who’d do what you have to protect their child.”

“Most men don’t end up in such a ludicrous position.”

“Doc, if you were an ace, getting into weird scrapes is, like, definitely your superpower.”

“How very disheartening. Where do I go to cash it in?”

Her breath suddenly seemed to get pinned somewhere between chest and mouth as a particularly sharp contraction rippled through her belly. There was a nervous, questioning blast of confusion from Illyana. Tis wanted to scream at the infant to wait. I’m not ready yet. Do we have to do this? But the body, urged by the drugs, had begun its autonomic function. Neither of them could back out now.

Tisianne forced a rictus of a smile. “Shouldn’t be too long now.”

Something touched his neck. Jay bellowed, flopped like a hooked fish in his armchair. Snorted awake. The fringes of the nightmare were receding like wind-torn clouds. Cillka was bending over him.

“It’s time.”

“Goddamn, it’s about damn time.”

Getting out of the chair revealed aches and cricks in muscles he didn’t even know he possessed. Jay groaned, stretched, shook back a sleeve to check his watch. Two A.M. or the Takisian equivalent thereof. He knew the days were slightly shorter on Takis. It was too frustrating to figure out. Maybe it meant he was living longer to have extra -

The memory of the preceding night and day finally penetrated. Memories of bone-aching boredom. Meals had been the highlights. He thought he’d eaten eight just to pass the time. Guiltily he recalled that Tisianne probably hadn’t had such an easy, boring day and two nights.

“Poor little thing. Isn’t this kind of a long time?”

“The body’s small, it’s the first, and… he’s resisting.”

She led him into the corridor. Pandasala and Tri’ava fell in behind like flanking guards. They looked tired. Cillka snatched the query from his mind. “No one is due to birth tonight. We’re having to block Tisianne’s pain from the women’s quarter lest someone alert Zabb. It means we absorb it. It’s not easy.”

“Yeah, and you get to divide it six ways. How much more pleasant for Tisianne.”

The doors to Tisianne’s suite opened when they were a foot away. Roxalana playing door guard. Only a single lamp was lit. In the shadows Jay heard a desperate panting. He remembered rabbit hunting with an uncle one autumn. He had wounded a doe and trailed the blood into the woods. The sounds emerging from beneath the bush were very reminiscent of this.

The other three sisters abandoned him. Roxalana softly closed the door. Jay found his knees were shaking as he approached the bed. Mark had his arm around Tisianne’s shoulders as if he’d just assisted the girl onto the edge of the bed.

Jay wanted to say something, but the words seemed to be jammed up somewhere in the back of his throat. Tisianne looked awful. Her face had gotten very puffy in the final weeks of the pregnancy, and with its current ashen color it looked like three-day-old dough. The pale eyes were bone dry, but rimmed by red, and the gilt hair had lost its glitter. It hung like dirty cobwebs around her shoulders. Jay did some mental arithmetic and figured that the alien had been in labor around thirty-seven hours. Small wonder she looked like shit.

Roxalana plucked a package from a table. It had been wrapped in a glistening rainbow paper and tied with gold and silver ribbons.

“She’ll need clothes. There are also several changes of diapers, and a breast pump and self-heating bottles.” Jay swallowed hard. His part in this was suddenly starting to look a lot more complicated.

Mark accepted the bundle and shifted Tisianne’s medical bag to his other hand. “Send me first,” he instructed Jay. “I can make sure things are ready for the Doc. Give me, say, five.”

“Got it. Sure hope Hastet is still waiting. She expected us last night.”

Tisianne’s unresponsiveness was starting to scare the detective. She just kept staring off into space, her arms clutching her belly.

“If this Tarhiji doesn’t know her duty, she at least knows what’s good for her,” was Roxalana’s cold reply.

Again Jay was seized with a dislike so intense it was almost physical. Then Tisianne let out this horrible grunting sound. In a lot of ways a scream would have been easier. Anxious to do anything, Jay popped Meadows.

“My,” was Roxalana’s terribly well-bred reaction. “What a very useful skill. I have longed for it at particularly dull parties.”

“Unfortunately I can’t do it to myself,” Jay said as he watched the sweep hand on his wristwatch.

“What is the range?”

“I don’t know” And then Jay remembered the hideous parasite Ti Malice, and that place, and wondered how far away nightmares lived. Decided he really didn’t want to know – he was afraid it was no farther than the floor beneath his bed. Just thinking about the place was giving him the cold sweats. Time. Jay teleported Tisianne.

Once she was safely away, he asked, “This is taking a lot longer than I expected. Are we likely to have any little surprise visits from Zabb?”

Roxalana shook her head. “I expect this House to be under attack within the month. That should hold his attention more than tormenting Tis.”

“Why didn’t we involve Taj?”

“Because he would not support our actions. He believes the child should die.”

“So why are you involved? You ladies have always struck me more as the Furies than the Graces.”

The smile was as calculating as the light from your average computer. “Because however flawed and inferior this child might be, she still carries my brother’s blood, and mated to a properly bred Ilkazam, she could produce a valid claimant to the Raiyis’tet. And knowing she lives will make Zabb sleep less easy at night, and may… may keep us alive. I am a mother too, Mr. Ackroyd. I wish to see my children thrive. And now we must see you safely through the doors of the quarter.”

Back in Cillka’s room Jay donned the five layers he’d removed through that interminable night and day. As he stood, swinging his ridiculous hat by its ribbons, the woman suddenly reached up and mussed his hair, pulling a lock down onto his forehead. Her smile was pure mischief.

“If you had really spent this many hours in my bed, you would not look so tidy.”

“If I’d spent thirty hours banging you, I’d need a wheelchair, and you wouldn’t be awake.”

She arranged his hat and tied it in place. “You humans are the most awful braggarts -”

Whatever other insults she was going to offer got lost as she got that poleaxed expression that Jay had learned meant a heavy-duty telepathic message coming in. Whatever she heard it was bad. She pressed her hands against her mouth, yanked them down, and blurted, “My husband!”

“Oh, great!” Jay groused. “My nuts just became sweetbreads.”

“He doesn’t care about toys. The problem is he’ll recognize you.”

“And realize that I’m not a toy!” That aspect of the situation hadn’t struck her. When it did, her reaction was all that he could hope for. Cillka panicked and went screeching about the room like a frenzied hen.

“Look, I majored in ‘hide’ in detective school. You got a closet? Under the bed?”

“He’ll scan. Read your mental signature.”

“Too bad I was sick the day we did ‘invisible to telepaths.’ Okay, get out in the hall, distract him. I’ll -”

“He’s got guards. They’ll have surrounded the suite.” Cillka began to cry.

“What, is a conjugal visit to a Takisian wife like sleeping with a black widow? Hubby’s got to come armed for the fucking?”

“Help!” Cillka suddenly screamed. It didn’t do a thing for Jay’s already raw nerves.

“I’m trying!” Jay shouted back, then he realized that she’d simply voiced a telepathic all-points bulletin.

Roxalana, Melant, and Pandasala answered the call. Several connecting doors opened, and the three women came flying through, shedding clothes like trees losing leaves in an autumn storm. As Roxalana hauled Jay toward the bed, the other two applied themselves to physics of