THE CITY OF SILVER LIGHT IN JAIPAR, PLANET BORKO
Toemeka quickened her pace, certain now that the man was trailing her. He’d followed her ever since she’d left the Military Development Center. When she glanced back and caught a glimpse of him among the shabby Jaiparian pedestrians, he immediately stopped and bought a drink from a street vendor. Had he seen her turn in his direction?
An armed Talon guard posted at the street corner watched her. She slowed down, knowing her work visa was in order, but still uneasy because Jaipar was under military occupation.
Between the shadows of the deteriorating skyscrapers, cars flew over the congested streets at different elevations, spitting out a metallic smell. A siren wailed, drowning out other traffic noise as an emergency vehicle soared past.
At a dilapidated fountain, a skinny boy cupped his hands and drank the murky water on the bottom of the marble bowl. Toemeka drew out a coin to give the waif, but when she stepped forward he fled.
While standing in the shadow of the fountain, she scanned the crowd, looking for the spook. She couldn’t spot him. Where was he? She shifted her awareness to a point above the crowd and slid free of her physical body. In her Light Body she looked down on the pedestrians from a bird’s-eye viewpoint. She soon spotted him as he dashed across the street and headed toward her. Negative energy swirled around him.
Toemeka returned to her body, wondering why he was following her. Who could have hired him? Had her project at work brought her under scrutiny or had they discovered she was an undercover operative? She considered her best options: confront him, try to lose him, or contact her partner Erling.
Toemeka merged with the crowd. Buildings across the street still lay in rubble from the bombings that accompanied General Bhandar’s invasion ten years ago. In the middle of the next block, she stopped at a display window, feigning interest in the evening dresses as she waited for the spook to catch up.
He looked like a professional who was hired to follow her and wouldn’t want her to know it. She counted on him walking by without stopping. While she waited, a piece of trash blew against her legs and swirled by.
Finally an image of him appeared, reflected in the glass. His left cheek was scarred and his ear was a stump, as if it had been shot off. She watched him walk past and down the block, then she slipped into the store and hurried to the back where it opened into a hallway.
She boarded a tube car and set the coordinates. It shot to the left a short distance then rose up a floor. On the skyway connecting two buildings, she gazed out the window at the street below. The one-eared man retraced his steps, checking doorways, and then disappeared into the clothing store.
Toemeka pulled out her communicator and punched in Erling’s name. A message appeared on the screen: No signal. Frustrated she tossed her communicator back into her satchel. Erling was meeting a contact at The Twisted Sisters bar. She’d have to track him down there.
Discordant music boomed from the archway of The Twisted Sisters and smoke cast a haze over the room, fouling the air. People danced under strobe lights to a live band. Toemeka wove her way through the seedy clientele, scanning the crowd for Erling, whose height usually made him easy to find.
Toemeka stepped into an adjoining room and looked around, concerned when she saw booths. It would be harder to spot Erling if he were in one.
She clutched her satchel to her side and glanced into the nearest one. Two heavily armed mercenaries argued over a pile of gems that gleamed in the light. Not wanting to be noticed, she jerked back and glanced toward the entrance. The one-eared man was just walking in. Condor’s Blood! She thought she’d lost him.
She slipped into a nearby restroom. At the sink, a woman combed her red-streaked hair; the heavy fragrance of her perfume filled the air. The woman’s eyes met Toemeka’s in the mirror as she casually tossed a pill into her mouth. Toemeka shed her tattered coat and stuffed it into her satchel. She’d worn a black sorgtee, a slip-like garment, to work because it was comfortable under her lab coat. Now it would suffice for a dress. She unclipped her barrette and her long hair tumbled over her shoulders.
The woman staggered into a stall, too high to realize she’d left her handbag on the vanity. Toemeka glanced at the stall before rummaging through the bag to create a disguise. Inside was a tube of hair enhancer and she squeezed the point of the tube along her center part. A shimmering liquid flowed down individual strands of her black hair, coloring it violet and adding sparkles. She found eyeliner and drew butterfly wings on both sides of her face before applying dark lipstick and gold eye shadow.
The toilet flushed. Toemeka quickly threw the makeup back into the woman’s bag and slipped out the door. She hurried toward the main area, intent on disappearing into the crowd.
Near the dance floor, a bald man with a gold ring around his neck gave her a licentious smile. “Want to dance, Pet?”
“Find yourself a different pet.”
“No one turns me down.”
“I just did,” she snapped, annoyed at the delay.
“Not here. Here you do as I want,” he said, pointing to himself.
Toemeka’s eyes narrowed. “Apparently you’re too dense to realize I’m one of Samrat Condor’s priestesses?”
He gasped, slack-jawed. “You’re a priestess!”
“I’ve had men put to death for lesser offenses.”
“Sorry, look . . . I don't want trouble with Samrat Condor.” He backed away and merged into the crowd.
A baritone laugh rumbled behind her. Toemeka turned and exclaimed, “Commander Rochambeau!” Then she wondered if she was mistaken. Rochambeau, her department head, normally dressed in a crisp military uniform and polished boots. This man wore a weathered jacket and scuffed boots, and had a gun belt slung on his hips.
His eyes lit with recognition and he smiled. “Aren’t you Toemeka Ganti, the electrical engineer from Mithra that the MDC just hired?”
She nodded, sorry to have run into him at such a disreputable place. It might make him suspicious of her.
“You’ve transformed,” he said.
“As have you.”
He shrugged his massive shoulders. “I get tired of wearing a uniform and the angry looks it brings. I came over to offer my assistance when I saw that man harassing you. So you’re a priestess . . . that wasn’t in your file.” He cocked an eyebrow, awaiting her reply.
“A newly acquired position.”
“Conjured for the moment, no doubt. Impersonating a priestess might be considered blasphemy by some.”
“Is it by you?” If he worshipped Samrat Condor, he might well think it was sacrilegious to impersonate one.
Rochambeau ignored her question as he surveyed the room. “A table just opened up. Let’s sit down.” He pressed his hand against the small of her back, guiding her through the horde of rowdy patrons to the table.
Up close she got a whiff of his musky aftershave. “I don’t have time for a drink. I'm here to meet someone. Thanks for checking to see if I needed help.”
“You’ll never find your friend in this crowd.”
Toemeka tensed, the spook was now at the bar, talking to the bartender. He’ll be less likely to recognize me if I’m with the commander, she thought, dropping into the chair.
A lamp in the center of the small table cast a blue glow on Rochambeau’s large, but attractive, features.
“You could be trained to be a priestess,” he said. “You have some of their mysterious abilities and are beautiful enough.” He smirked. “Though they usually don’t have violet hair.”
She winced at the reference to her disguise. “I have no interest in being a priestess. I believe in science, not faith.”
“You didn’t use science when you figured out how the oscillator could be developed.”
How does he know? she wondered. “What makes you think that, Commander Rochambeau?”
“Don’t be so formal. Call me Cadmus. It’s to your advantage to get to know me.”
“Men often think it’s to my advantage to get to know them. I rarely find it so.”
A vein pulsed on his temple. “You’re certainly direct.” He smiled, but his eyes remained steely. “It’s refreshing. Most women are intimidated by my position and the power I hold.”
“I judge a person’s worth by things other than position.”
Before she could answer, the server arrived, a green-skinned humanoid of the Starlean race. His round gold eyes with a vertical oval in the center shifted nervously from the commander to Toemeka, and then back. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Commander Rochambeau.” He spoke with a heavy accent. “What will be your pleasure tonight?”
“Two glasses of Koro.”
“As you wish.” The server wove through the mass of people headed to the bar.
Toemeka almost called him back, irritated that Rochambeau had ordered for her.
“Those creatures are disgusting,” Commander Rochambeau said. Then he leaned closer. “How do you like your new job?”
“It's stimulating and challenging.”
“Where did you work before this? “
“I worked on advanced shield design at Kaldare.” What does he really want to know? He must have read her file before she was hired and know her background ─ her fabricated background.
“I find that hard to believe you that worked there,” he said.
“Why do you find it hard to believe?” She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Where was Erling when she needed him?
“I’ll tell you in a moment. Our drinks are here.”
The server set two small glasses on the table. The gills on the side of his head opened and closed as he gave Toemeka a warning glance. She breathed in the spicy aroma of Koro as she reached for her satchel.
Rochambeau shook his head. “It’s on me.” He dropped a brockda into the server’s hand.
“I’ll be happy to pay,” she said, not wanting to be indebted to the commander. He was the kind of man who would expect some form of payment.
“No, I insist.”
Not pushing the issue, she looked around the room for Erling, worried that he’d already left. She retuned her attention to Commander Rochambeau
He held out her glass. “Try the Koro. It’s exquisite.”
She took a sip and a bittersweet taste exploded in her mouth. It was good Koro, exceptionally good. She took another swallow, savoring the flavor, then emptied the glass. Her stomach twisted. Something wasn’t right. She felt strange and her mind tracked oddly. Everything seemed to slow down and the colors in the room intensified.
Then it hit her. Oh God, I’ve been drugged! Rochambeau must have slipped something into her drink when she was scanning the room for Erling. “I have to go,” she said, standing.
He jerked her arm and she fell back into the chair. “We need to talk. A colleague of mine who works at Kaldare said he’s never heard of you.”
“It’s a big company. No one there knows everyone. I’m sure the MDC verified my work history before hiring me.”
“Files can be faked. Moreover, you broke regulations by discussing your project with Erling Fenian. He doesn’t have clearance.”
“He doesn’t?” She tried to focus. “I thought everyone working at the MDC had clearance.”
“He has clearance for some things, but not this project. We’ve been trying to develop the oscillator for years and you claim to already have the key to making it work. What makes you think you can succeed where we’ve failed?”
“Well . . . I.” Her senses felt overloaded and she couldn’t concentrate.
A dark-skinned trader ambled up to a nearby table. As Toemeka watched him, the scarf around his neck started to move, changing into a serpent.
“Look, a snake!” Toemeka gasped.
“There aren’t any snakes here.” Rochambeau stood, scraping his chair against the floor. “Let’s get out of here.” He pulled her out of her chair and started pushing his way through the rough crowd, dragging her behind him.
Caught up in this nightmarish experience, the room seemed alive to Toemeka. The walls breathed in and out, keeping time with the pulsating music.
Once outside away from the strobe lights and discordant music, she felt a little better. Night had descended and streetlights formed golden circles on the sidewalks. As she stared at them, they started changing colors and she realized she was hallucinating.
Rochambeau clutched her hand tightly as he pulled her down the street to a speedrider station. Before long the track began to vibrate as a bullet-shaped vehicle approached. It hovered for a moment before easing onto the gravity track.
“Get on,” Rochambeau said.
“Where are we going?”
“To the Talon Military Compound. I’m taking you in for questioning.”
“You have no right. I’m a Mithrian citizen protected by the agreement between our countries.”
“Not if I think you’re a threat to national security.”
“I’m not a threat!” She tried to wrench her hand free from his grasp and he yanked her arm. She cried out in pain as he twisted it behind her. A nearby man glanced toward them. His unusual violet eyes met Toemeka’s for a moment before he looked away.
Rochambeau growled into her ear, his hot breath sending shivers down her spine. “If you try to escape, I’ll break your arm. Your disappearance will be unfortunate, but then anything can happen to a woman alone in the city. Get on the speedrider.”
He stood just behind her and Toemeka kicked backwards with the heel of her boot, aiming for his knee. He jumped back and she dug her spiked heel into his shin instead, and scrapped it down his leg. He grunted and then shoved her onto the steps of the speedrider. Trapped, she boarded the grimy vehicle. People in faded clothes filled the torn seats or stood in the aisle, holding onto handrails.
Commander Rochambeau flashed his pass to the android driver before joining Toemeka toward the back of the speedrider. He shoved her into a vacant seat and sat next to her. The vehicle shot forward and lifted a few feet into the air.
Toemeka’s head spun as the city lights raced by. She wondered what the commander had given her, concerned it might cause permanent brain damage. She closed her eyes. Bright red flashes and florescent yellow lights swirled before her. Then she heard a popping sound and found herself out of her body. Under a green-streaked sky, she stood on a high balcony where General Bhandar and a dark-haired man fought with occult weapons. Talon guards surrounded them and a deep concern for the dark-haired man filled her. More images appeared: guards dropping to the ground with blood pouring from their mouths and noses. A broken railing. Beating white wings.
Toemeka felt a grip on her arm and abruptly returned to her body.
“Get up,” Rochambeau ordered. “It’s our stop.” She recoiled from him, pressing back into the seat. When the speedrider lowered onto the track and stopped, he wrenched her up and pulled her out a side door.
Storm clouds filled the evening sky. She noticed that the sidewalk ran along the speedrider track at the bottom of a steep embankment. They followed it until they reached a high escalator. As they rode up, Toemeka wondered how to escape from the commander. If they tortured her, sooner or later she’d break and reveal her team members and their mission. She’d rather die than put her team in danger.
They stepped onto a platform at the top of the hill overlooking the city. Toemeka shivered in her thin sorgtee as she desperately looked around. Sixty feet away, guards flanked the walled Talon Military Complex front gates. To the left was an airfield.
Suddenly, a man leapt out from behind a thick bush and aimed an energy gun at Commander Rochambeau. The commander reached for his blaster and Toemeka gave him a shove then wrenched free. The energy gun flashed. Rochambeau clutched his chest and collapsed. Toemeka fled toward the airfield, afraid she’d be shot next. Footsteps pounded on the pavement behind her and she forced a burst of speed. The attacker caught up and raced beside her.
A Talon guard yelled, “Stop or we’ll shoot!”
They kept running as energy beams tore up the tarmac around them.
“Keep low,” the man said. He pulled Toemeka behind a spacecraft and fired at the guards and soldiers who chased them.
Toemeka’s head spun from the remains of the drug still in her system. “Who are you?” she asked.
“Michio. I’m a friend of the Kameets.” He pointed to a Viper aircraft. “That’s my ship. Let’s go!” Together they dashed across the airfield toward the two-man ship. He pushed a keyless remote and the Viper’s engine roared to life as its canopy opened.
Toemeka stopped, realizing it was dangerous to trust a complete stranger. “Why are you helping me?”
“There’s no time to explain. Run!” An energy beam shot by her head and she raced for the Viper.
“Get in!” Michio yelled.
She glanced wildly around her, trying to catch her breath, wondering if she could escape from the soldiers on her own. Guards and soldiers raced across the airfield, toward them as Michio fired from behind the ship.
“Get in!” he yelled again. Deciding Michio posed less of an immediate threat than the soldiers, she scrambled into the cockpit. Michio jumped in the other side and the canopy closed over them. An energy beam hit the side of the ship and flames shot up.
“The right engine is on fire!” Toemeka screamed. “Put out the fire!”
To her surprise, the ship computer answered. Order acknowledged. Foam shot out, covering the engine, extinguishing the fire.
“Get ready for takeoff,” Michio said. His hands flew across the control panel.
A helmet automatically dropped down from the canopy and onto her head. Toemeka fastened it and clicked her seat belt into place. Moments later the ship shot into the sky, pressing Toemeka into the seat.
Soon yellow lights appeared in the darkness below them.
“We’re being followed!” Toemeka exclaimed as the yellow lights took the form of five Talon fighters.
A missile is locked on us, the computer said.
“Shoot it down, ZB!” Michio ordered the computer as he evasively dodged laser fire coming from the fighters.
The computer shot a missile to intercept the one coming toward them, but the Talon missile slipped by and exploded against the side of the Viper, violently shaking Toemeka and Michio.
“Any damages, ZB?” Michio asked.
Negative. The ship’s deflector shield held.
“Calculate for a jump,” Michio ordered.
A second blast rocked the ship.
“Get us out of here, ZB!”
Ready to commence phase one.
The ship vibrated and a high-pitched whine filled the cockpit as the spacecraft jumped into hyperspace. The piercing sound hurt Toemeka’s ears and she lost consciousness, sliding into a world of drug-induced illusions.
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