Amid the Stars
119 pages
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119 pages
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Description

Terrified, and in fear for her life after her husband, an undercover cop, is killed, Melanie Ross has nowhere to hide. A squadron from a far planet visiting Earth on a reconnaissance survey prepares to leave, without one of their members who is dying of a virus. Irena must remain on Earth, so seeks a replacement to take her craft back to the other side of the Universe. Seeing Melanie’s predicament she offers her an escape. Reluctantly Melanie agrees. Conquering her fears, she must learn to live among a superior race on Qindaga. Reve, commander of the star ship circling their planet, bears an inexplicable resemblance to her dead husband. Passion flares amid the stars, but can love with an alien flourish?

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Publié par
Date de parution 19 novembre 2015
Nombre de lectures 1
EAN13 9781771458092
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0032€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.

Exrait

Amid The Stars
 
By Tricia McGill
 
Digital ISBNs
EPUB 978-1-77145-809-2
Kindle 978-1-77145-810-8
WEB/PDF 978-1-77145-811-5
Print ISBN 978-1-77145-812-2

 
Copyright 2015 by Tricia McGill
Cover art by Michelle Lee Copyright2015
 
All rights reserved. Without limiting therights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publicationmay be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system,or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic,mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without theprior written permission of both the copyright owner and thepublisher of this book
Chapter One
 
 
Alone! Alone! Alone!
Like a bizarre chant the one wordreverberated in Melanie’s brain.
Sorrow, like a great weight, pressed down onher, making her heart feel as if it was being crushed.
“I can’t say how sorry I am.” Pete Marchanttook her arm, as together, they walked along the stark corridor ofthe morgue—their footsteps echoing off the walls.
Melanie shuddered, almost tripping as anotherwave of sickness swept over her, and he tightened his hold. Shakingher head, she stared mutely up at the man at her side. Pete hadbeen Chris’s partner for the last three years.
This wasn’t happening. It would prove to be aterrible nightmare, and soon she would wake to find her life as itwas just a few hours ago. Comfortable, if not exciting.
But she had just seen her dead husband, sowasn’t in the midst of a dreadful dream.
“I…I have to sit down.” Her legs threatenedto give way and she wavered. Pete led her to a wooden bench. “Whatam I going to do?” she wailed, running shaking fingers through herhair—hair she guessed was unkempt.
“I’ll help all I can, Mel. Chris was my bestfriend as well as my partner. You know that.” Pete squeezed herhand. Melanie barely felt it; she was too numb.
“Yes, I know.” Melanie tried for a smile, buther face felt like a piece of cardboard. She doubted she’d eversmile again.
“H…how did it happen? The Chief said he wasfished out of the bay.” Choking back another sob, she bit hard onher lower lip. It was as numb as the rest of her. Except for herheart. That organ felt as if it was being cut in two. “My God!”
Although they’d done a good job of cleaninghim up, Chris’s handsome face was a mess. Those bastards must havedone him over well, before dumping him.
“How will I sleep nights thinking how he musthave suffered before he died?” Barely aware of Pete’s arm about hershoulders, Melanie buried her face in her hands. “I can’t believethis.” She moaned on another shuddering sob.
“I know how you feel.” His voice was threadedwith bitterness. “They won’t get away with it. You can depend onthat.”
From tear-heavy eyes Melanie lifted her faceto stare at him. “Do you have any idea who it was?” she asked in awhisper.
“Oh yes.” His normally soft eyes took on aflinty coldness and his jaw was clenched so tight she could almosthear his teeth grinding. “We’d been working undercover for monthson this case. I’ll carry on though. Don’t worry. We’ll catch themonsters.” He squeezed her hand again. “Chris won’t have died invain. Have no fear.”
Fear in her heart Melanie stared at him.“Please be careful,” she pleaded with trembling lips, gripping hisarm. “You have Lucy and the kids to think of. I don’t want them tohave to go through what I’m going through right now.”
“I will.” Pete glanced about, frowning.“Look, I hate to leave you like this, but I have to go. Will you beall right now? One of the boys will give you a lift home. Ah,here’s Jackson. He’ll look after you.” Pete signaled to theblank-faced policeman who stood just inside the double glass doorsat the end of the corridor. “Make sure Mrs. Ross gets home safe andsound, won’t you,” he called. The policeman nodded.
“I’ll come and see you tomorrow, all right?Try and get some sleep.” Pete gave her a look packed with sorrowbefore handing her into Jackson’s care.
 
 
* * *
 
 
Muttering weakly, Irena put a hand to herhead. She must move. But her limbs felt as if they had turned tothe soft mud found on the shoreline at the foot of the mountainsTolus and Tepiri back on her home world of Qindaga.
Moisture covered her body and she found ithard to draw breath—every intake of air sent pain through her upperbody. This fever was slowly taking away her powers. Never in herlife had she felt so weak. Every muscle was being pulled to itslimits, and the pain in her head was unbearable. Nausea, strong anddebilitating, racked her. The illness had attacked her suddenly.One moment, in fascination, she was studying Earth people, the nextshe had been struck down.
Touching her wristband, she tapped in thenecessary code for recuperation; soon all would be well and shecould go on with her investigative tasks.
But the minuscule screen flashed a negativeresponse. How could it be? Growing frantic, she reset the code andtried again.
Negative again. This time it beeped awarning. By the great Bodka, what was happening here?
“Come in, ship zero five,” a voice cameclearly over her inter-com unit. Frowning, with her fingertrembling so much she had trouble keeping it on the button, Irenapressed the message return pad.
“Zero five responding,” she answered. Hervoice shook uncontrollably, along with her hands, as she waited forthe Squadron leader to answer.
“Prepare for take-off, Irena. Instantly! Thisis my last order. We must leave immediately. I repeat, immediately.This virulent Earth virus will annihilate you if you stay longer.”His order brooked no argument.
Irena pressed a hand to her aching temple.Dizziness made her feel faint. “I fear I have already succumbed tothis virus strain they call influenza, Shan. I have not thestrength to recuperate.”
“Fool of a woman!” He bit out his favoritecurse, sighed deeply and then used a few more strong oaths to tellher succinctly what he thought of her stupidity. “I told you not todally on Earth a moment longer than necessary. We must leave now.Farewell. You know what your duty is.”
“Yes, I know, Shan.” Irena’s voice quivered,and much as she tried to remain stoic, her mouth began to tremble.She was more than a fool.
“Farewell.” His voice was abrupt, and silencefollowed the disconnection.
With a sob of despair Irena sank back ontoher couch. Of course Reve had sensed disaster would befall her onthis mission. With his powers of insight he’d known. Why did shefoolishly disregard his forecast? He’d wanted her to withdraw herapplication to be part of this expedition, and as commander incontrol of the Starship Victus, circling the home planet ofQindaga, he possessed the right to prohibit her from going. Butthey had both known he would not assert his prerogative. Had bothknown she was far too obstinate to forego the chance to fulfill herdream.
Although he was her superior officer, andmore importantly her mate, she would have not, even for him or allthe stars in the universe, given up this chance.
She’d made her thoughts clear. “It’s simply areconnaissance of this young planet Earth. I want to go. I haveworked long and hard for the chance to go to the far planets, andnothing will stop me now I have this chance,” she had told him.
“But I have this uneasy feeling,” Reveargued.
Irena was far too strong-willed andambitious, and certainly made no secret of her yearnings to be partof the discovery team. A yearning superseding all others, and withher since graduating from training school.
“You are known for your uneasy feelings,Reve.” With a toss of her head, she’d proclaimed her disdain forhis premonitions.
“Yes, and usually they prove well founded.”Not usually, but definitely. Even this knowledge would not diverther from her path. A path leading to destruction.
“Perhaps. But, what can go wrong?” Hershoulders lifted in an indolent shrug. “We have explored farplanets for many hundreds of megnums now. This is merely a routinetrip.”
With his sigh Reve proved that of course heknew. Knew he stood little chance of directing her along a pathother than the one she’d chosen.
Now Irena felt a great sadness overcome thepain as she recalled his parting words.
“Be careful, my sweet one. That’s all I ask.If you won’t heed my warning, then go with my blessing.” Whatthoughts went through his mind as he watched the squadron of fiftyvessels taking off on one of the many missions undertaken tocollect data from the far planets?
It was imperative they find a planet suitablefor their habitation within the next twenty megnums. The waterlevel rose on Qindaga each year and soon the planet would beentirely beneath the oceans. The two mountains, Tolus and Tepiri,were the only land remaining above water. Soon, they too would bebelow the seas. It was becoming a mammoth task to build andmaintain retaining walls around the shafts giving access to themines beneath the mountains. Mines containing kota, the precioussubstance required for manufacturing the fuel to drive their airships.
Even knowing Reve’s premonitions were to berelied on, short of incarcerating her, he’d had little choice butto go along with her wishes. And now all that he dreaded had cometo pass.
This strange planet of Earth intrigued her somuch. These people were so primitive with odd means ofcommunication. Their many modes of transport were noisy,cumbersome, and all smelled vile. The thing that beguiled her morethan anything was the endless stretches of land. Vast continents ofsuch variety. What little ocean there was lapped against golden orrocky shores or crashed violently onto jutting headlands andcliffs. Earth’s seas would surely not encroach any further on thelandmasses for many megnums.
The cities were spread out over vast areas.Some houses clustered together in large blocks, but most set outwith natural gardens surrounding them. There were hugeconstructions that seemed to reach the sky. These had so manywindows they appeared to be made of the transparent substance theycalled glass.
And the animal life! So many species, morethan one could count in a life span. Creatures called giraffes,elephants, and rhinoceros, proved the most intriguing. And thesmall furry creatures that had been domesticated were even allowedinto sleeping chambers by some Earth dwellers.
So many things drew her attention. Endlessbizarre pastimes and occupations went on here. Tennis, bowling, anda seemingly useless game called football, where an orb was kickedfrom one end of a field to the other, baffled her. The watchingcrowds seemed to go into a kind of frenzy over these pastimes.
Using the power enabling her to concealherself, she was able to look in on the lives of these alienpeople, some who labored each day over desks and workbenches,instead of leaving the heavy work to robots.
She was certain life here wouldn’t suit herforever. There was little doubt she would miss the culture andstrict discipline of Qindaga. But, oh how she desired to lingerjust a while longer.
This had been her downfall.
Her craft must be made ready for its returnto Qindaga. It must go without her. She could not carry the virusback to her planet—would not risk the lives of her people. Strivingto pull her wits about her, she struggled up from her couch andstared out of the vision shield at the Earth below her—so colorful,so varied. How she had enjoyed this, her first and last mission toa far planet.
She sighed. At least her life-long vision wasaccomplished. Of that she could be very proud. At three megnums,she was young to be allowed to join such a squadron. Most did notgain such an honor until perhaps their fourth or fifth megnum.
No sense in wallowing in self-pity. She’dvied for the place and won. Now she was about to lose. With eyesshut she sank onto her reclining seat again. Desolation filled her.She must begin the process of making the ship ready for its longvoyage, but her strength was dissipating with every breath.
Her mind, already losing some of itsfaculties, began to hallucinate and formulate an idea. What if shefound someone to take her place? What if she sought an Earth womanto send back home? It would be easy enough to find a replacement.The difficulty would be finding a suitable one in the timeavailable. At least by this action she might redeem herself inReve’s mind. To have an Earth specimen to study, as well as thedata gathered, would perhaps compensate in some way for herstupidity.
Delving to the back of her failing mind,Irena recalled a story one of her group mothers told her about amale brought from a far planet megnums ago, who had beensuccessfully reprogrammed.
Whoever she sent back would be able to giveher people much information about Earth.
Her mind made up, Irena found renewedstrength. Pushing herself up, she prepared to de-visualize for thetransportation back down to Earth.
 
 
* * *
 
 
Irena hovered above the structure where theEarth people laid out their dead. Her sensory powers brought her tothis place, Sydney, on the land mass called Australia. The womanshe had chosen was quite plain by Qindaga standards; with aroundness to her figure Irena found endearing, though strange. Nowoman on her planet had any excess of fat on their bodies.
The Earth woman was short, with bright hairthe same shade as the sand washing up on most of the shores of thisplanet. The woman was now alone in the world. Irena’s telepathicpowers easily ascertained this fact.
A perfect specimen. With her partner now deadand no close kin to worry about, the woman would have nothing tokeep her in this place. All Irena needed to do now was convince hershe would have everything to gain by returning to Qindaga inIrena’s place.
Another wave of sickness racked her and witha hand to her stomach she breathed in deeply as it passed over herin a deadly surge. She must make haste.
 
 
Chapter Two
 
 
Melanie let herself into her apartment andclosed the door. With a stifled sob of despair, she leaned her headagainst the cool wood and looked about. The apartment seemeddesolate and empty. Although she’d spent many hours here alone inthe past without feeling lonely, now she felt like the lastsurvivor after a holocaust.
Pushing herself away from the door, shetossed her keys on the small table by the door and wanderedlistlessly over to the television. After she switched it on, astiff-faced announcer told everybody about the death of a detectiveworking undercover, one Christopher Ross, who died in the course ofperforming his duty.
That was it. No explanations, no details, nota word about the awful job he had and why he’d met an untimely end.No word of his horrific injuries. They showed a black and whitephoto that made him look like an escapee from the worst prisonever. Remembering how they’d laughed together over the stupidphotograph, before he took it in as his identification picture, shelet out a sob. How ghastly he’d looked laid out beneath the sheetin that awful place. She doubted she would ever get that scene outof her mind and shook anew with grief and horror.
With an angry curse she switched off the TV,and kicking off her shoes, sank onto the sofa. She ran her handover its soft upholstery. The previous night, he’d come in late, asusual, and she’d made him an omelet when he’d professed to notbeing very hungry. Then they’d made love right here, before Chrispicked her up in his strong arms and carried her sleepy body tobed.
“Oh Chris!” she moaned, picking up thecushion and burying her face in it. She fancied she could smell thescent of his body on the fabric. How would she live withouthim?
She’d been alone in the world until meetingChris. An orphan, who was mostly on her own since turning sixteen,after running away from the last of a string of foster homes. Thefather, a gross man who always stunk of onions, had started to takefar too much of an interest in her budding figure. The last strawcame when he cornered her in the laundry. Bile still rose in herthroat years later when she recalled the feel of his great sweatypalms on her body.
At twenty two, she must now get used to beingon her own again. The thought filled Melanie with dread andfear.
The shrill ring of the phone made her jump.She could leave it unanswered. Who could be calling her at thistime of night? The officer in charge of the case assured her shewouldn’t be called on. Pete was the only one likely to be ringingso late. Perhaps he wanted to make sure she arrived home allright.
Sniffing, she picked up the receiver.“Hello,” she said quietly.
“Mrs. Ross?” The voice was strange, and therewas something oddly frightening about the soft question.
She could put the phone down withoutanswering, but then she shrugged. It could be one of Chris’s chiefscalling to offer some form of condolence. “Yes, that’s me.”
“So sorry to hear about your husband.” Hisvoice held no hint of sorrow. In fact Melanie swore there was atouch of merriment in the sadist’s tone. Definitely not a superiorof Chris’s.
“Who is this? Do I know you?” She began totremble again, but this time with a fear she couldn’t explain.
The caller laughed and her blood ran cold atthe sound. “No, but you will, my pet, you will,” he insisted.
“Who is this?” She strove to keep the fearfrom her voice. The innocuous statement was filled with menace.
“Let’s just say I’m one of the many enemiesyour dear departed made. He had too much inquisitiveness for hisown good, you know. See what happens when someone gets too nosy?”He chuckled again; a terrible sound.
“You killed him, didn’t you?” Melanie cried,feeling violently sick. Dear God, what sort of sadist was this?“I’ll see you put inside for the rest of your life, you bastard.Don’t think you can get away with this. Don’t worry, Chris knew whoyou were.” Too late she bit her tongue. Pressing her fingers to herforehead, she groaned soundlessly.
There was a short silence on the other end ofthe line. “So, your dear husband told you my name did he?” hertormentor asked icily. “That was the silliest thing he ever did.And let me tell you he did some foolish things, my dear. Trying toexpose me was one of the craziest.” He let out a string of vileobscenities. “So now you’ll have to go too. Have you told anyone ofyour suspicions yet?” His voice held sinister softness.
Melanie swallowed a sob. How stupid could shebe? “No!” she bit out in a tormented whisper.
The line went dead.
Cursing softly, she almost threw the phoneaway from her and onto its cradle. What an absolute fool she was.Chris would never have left her so wide open to these killers bytelling her what he was doing. Oh, she’d known he workedundercover. He’d had to give her an explanation of his casualclothes that sometimes bordered on scruffy, but always tried tomake her believe there was little risk involved. Chris tried toprotect her, tried to convince her he was involved in unmaskingpetty criminals. But she knew differently. This world was not thepretty place Chris always tried to convince her it was. Now, herewas her proof of that.
Rising unsteadily, Melanie went to thecupboard at the bottom of the dresser, and bent to open it. Shestared at the shoebox Chris put there only last week with anadmonishment she never touch it, except in an emergency. Pulling itout she returned to the sofa and placed the box on her knee.
Well if this wasn’t an emergency, she didn’tknow what was. Perhaps Chris was trying to warn her somethingreally bad was coming up. Had he known his life was in danger?Possibly.
Now she had time to think about it, there wasa kind of desperation in his lovemaking last night. Could he havesensed it might be the last time they were together? At the timeshe’d thought it a little strange; Chris had never beenover-emotional; never been quite as wild and unrestrained in hisloving. She was baffled by his almost savage avowals of love. He’dnever before been so lavish with his affections. In fact he oftenleft her feeling frustrated by his lack of emotion. Would the newheights attained have gone on? Now she would never know.
Sometimes she suspected there was somethingwrong with her. Had wondered if she was perhaps frigid, for she’dalways felt something was missing in their lives and alwayssuspected Chris of holding back.
Until last night.
Breaking down on another sob, Melanie pressedher face into her palms and wept as she repeated his name over andover. After a while she sniffed as the tears subsided, leaving herdrained. Brushing at her wet eyes with a knuckle and then blowingher nose, she lifted the lid off the box. Chris hadn’t ever putthings in a locked box for he’d known he only needed to tell her toleave it be and she would. She’d always obeyed him to theletter—even down to wearing only the clothes he chose for her.
When they first met, a year ago, she wasdressed in the plainest clothes she could find, convinced it washer fault she’d drawn the attention of the man who was supposed tobe her guardian at the time. Chris took her shopping, chose herclothes, selected her make-up, and even decided she should wear herblonde hair in a short bob framing the face she saw as nothing outof the ordinary.
Melanie sniffed again as she turned herattention to the contents of the box. The first thing she picked upwas his passport. Unable to stem more tears, she pressed his phototo her breast as she cried. How he hated this blessed picture ofhimself. “Reminds me of an undertaker,” he said of the stiff-jawedand solemn man who stared back at her.
“Oh Chris, I miss you already.” Gazing aroundat the walls, she shivered, although it wasn’t the least bitcold.
Beneath the passport she found a fewdocuments. One was a copy of his will. She knew he’d made it just afew months back. Another sign she should have taken notice of.Unable to bear looking at it she put it to one side and pulled outa long buff envelope. Melanie turned it over in her fingers.
On its front were the words: To be opened bymy superior officer in the event of my untimely death. It wassigned in Chris’s almost indecipherable scrawl. A teardrop fellonto the signature, smudging it.
“You fool,” she mumbled, as she sat staringat it while minutes ticked by, not sure what to do. Then, not quiteknowing why, Melanie went to the drawer and took out a knife.Pausing briefly she ran the knife along the envelope, openingit.
Chris was gone and her duty was to follow hisorders, but she’d be damned if she wouldn’t see who had betrayedhim. Surely proof of his murderers would be in here.
The letter contained, as she expected, thenames of many suspects. The chief of operations was well known inSydney society, so well-known Melanie gasped at the knowledge.Surely Chris told someone of his suspicions. Perhaps Pete kneweverything. But why hadn’t Chris taken this information to hisboss? It was a mystery.
Pete told her earlier that he thought the guythey call the Baron must have found out they were closing in on hisoperation.
Justin Pederman!
His name jumped out at her from the paper.She gasped. He attended her and Chris’s wedding. A fellow copMelanie hated on sight. For some reason he made her flesh crawl andshe hadn’t been able to explain why. His eyes were horrible. Theywere what alerted her first to him. Those eyes, like a snake’s,followed her every movement, and when Chris introduced her to him,Justin clung to her hand much too long and stood far too close forgood manners.
The phone rang and she jumped again as itjangled, her nerves at breaking point.
She lifted the receiver. The same voice spokebefore she had a chance to open her mouth. “A little bird tells meyou have proof of my identity, as well as a few of my associates.Sorry, but that clinches it; you’re a gonna, slut!”
Melanie drew a breath to respond, but theline went dead. Dear God! How did he know about the list of names?What could she do now? Sobbing on a gasp of fear and dread she putthe box aside and got up to pace the floor.
Pete. Yes, he’d help her. Chris and he werepartners. Pete would help her. He would tell her what to do. Theline was busy when she dialed his number. Frantically she chewed onher lip, waited a while and then dialed again.
“Hello.”
Melanie sighed her relief. “Pete? It’sMelanie. Sorry to trouble you.”
“No trouble hon. What can I do for you?” Hisvoice sounded so ordinary she fought the tears again.
“I’ve received a couple of calls from the manwho killed Chris. He’s threatened me.” Her voice wobbled. “I founda letter too, Pete. It incriminates people. One of them is in theforce.”
Pete swore and then apologized profusely.“Sit tight! I’ll organize a watch on your place. You’ll be safethere. Don’t move until I contact you in the morning. Okay? As longas you stay put no harm can come to you. Now, get some sleep if youcan. I know it’s a big ask, but try. In the morning we’ll get itall sorted out. Don’t worry about the names. I know all ofthem.”
“Oh Pete, are you sure I shouldn’t tell thepolice I have this letter and have the name of Chris’s killer?”Desperately she clutched at the receiver.
“No. Whatever you do, keep quiet. If theybarge in now the whole thing will blow sky high and then we’ll missout on some of them. D’you hear me, Mel?” His voice held an edgethat confused her.
But Chris trusted him explicitly, so now shehad to. “All right, if you say so. But I feel so scared. Are yousure they’ll be able to watch over me?”
“Quite certain.” He paused, and she felt asif he was going to add something about the list. But then he said,“Go get some shuteye, if you can. Leave it to me.”
“If you’re sure, Pete.” She ran her handuncertainly through her hair.
“I’m positive. Please don’t show the letterto a soul, Mel. Otherwise Chris will have died in vain. Now be agood girl and go to bed. Goodnight, see you in the morning.”
Melanie stared down at the phone clutched inher hand. A strange feeling trembled through her. Why was Pete soinsistent she not show the letter to anyone? If Chris had adamantlyinstructed she take it to his superior, why had Pete gone againstthose wishes? Could Pete be a traitor?
Pacing backwards and forwards on the carpet,she twisted her hands together. Terror, like nothing she’dexperienced before, ate at her, making her shake all over until shefelt as if she might faint with it.
Should she follow Pete’s orders and keepquiet or should she go to their chief officer? Indecision worriedat her. If Pete was telling the truth, and she would throw aspanner in the works by producing names at this stage, how wouldshe forgive herself if he was to meet the same fate as Chris? Petehad a young family and a likable wife.
Exhaustion caught up with her. Stripping offher pantyhose, she tossed them to a chair, then went through to thebedroom and stretched out on the bed she had shared with Chris. Fora while, wondering what life held for her, she stared up at theceiling. Her eyes closed as she turned her face into the pillow—hottears wetting the soft cotton.
 
 
Chapter Three
 
 
Irena gazed about her at the strangefurnishings, in particular the peculiar seating arrangements. Therooms seemed cluttered and oppressive. These Earth people had themost interesting habits and homes. If only she had the time tospend here to discover more of their ways and behavioral patterns.The squadron managed to collate many facts, but so many detailsremained a mystery.
The woman she had chosen was asleep—her facetwisted as if in agony. Irena knew of her inner turmoil and terror,had watched and listened long enough to be assured she had selectedthe correct candidate for her plan.
“Melanie Ross.” She called the name in hermind. The woman would hear.
“Yes?” The word trembled on the palelips.
“I know of your troubles, and your grief. Iam sorry for all you have suffered at the hands of these viciouspeople who destroyed your mate, along with your peace of mind.”
“How do you know these things? Who are you?”Agitation clear in her whole manner even though her eyes remainedshut, the woman shifted on the bed.
“I am called Irena. I come from the distantworld of Qindaga. My home is on the far side of your universe, aplanet so far undetected by your scientists.” It would never bedetected either, as long as the shields were in place. Theseprimitives would not discover such distant planets for hundreds ofmegnums at the pace they moved. “I have contacted the dreaded virusyou call influenza, and I am dying.”
“Don’t be silly. Few people die of the flu.You need some antibiotics and it will go away in a few days,”Melanie Ross assured her with a lift of her light brows.
“Unfortunately, it is not so simple.” If onlyit was, and the antibiotics she referred to could cure her. “I amnot immune to Earth’s diseases. I have little time left. I know youare alone in the world and I ask a favor of you.”
“Me? Why would you want a favor of me? Idon’t even know you.” Her full-lipped mouth twisted in a smallgrimace.
“You could learn to know me. Perhaps as wellas you know yourself, Melanie Ross,” Irena insisted.
“I don’t understand. This is some sort oftrick. Who are you, and why are you here? And how did you find outmy name?” The fair brows puckered as she tossed in her sleep. Irenawas fully aware of her bewilderment. These people possessed astrange habit of resting in their garments. It must surely beuncomfortable.
Feeling as if every muscle in her body wouldcollapse at any moment, she sat on the side of the sleeping couch.Every sinew was pulled so tight they were ready to snap. The painin her head had grown steadily worse, until she thought she woulddie before she completed this mission.
“I have limited time, Melanie Ross.” No morethan minutes in Earth time. “I need your help. I know you haveproblems. I know your partner is dead and your own life has nowbeen threatened. I can help you if you would be willing to helpme.”
“Help you? Don’t be ridiculous. How can Ipossibly help you?” The frown on her pale forehead deepened.
“I need someone to return my craft to myhome. Shan will warn my people that if they overstay their time onthis planet they will succumb to Earth’s viruses and diseases, butif you go, my ship and all its data will be saved fromdestruction.” It was a lie, but if the Earth woman realized she wassimply sending her back as a specimen for study she would surelyrefuse without question.
“Shan?”
“He is the leader of the squadron I came herewith.” Irena swayed. Time was running out. “We must hurry. Pleasemake your decision.”
“Why can’t you communicate with them? Givethem a call. If you’re advanced enough to travel such a distance,why can’t you contact them, and they can pick up your ship?” Shesounded querulous.
Despite her sickness, Irena laughed weakly.“You have no idea of what you speak. My home planet is not withincalling distance. It is many moons traveling time away from here.No, my ship must go back. I have chosen you to go with it.”
“Go to hell! Send your ship back on its own,if you’re so smart.”
Irena had to admire her defiant spirit.Perhaps she had chosen unwisely after all. “You wish to stay and beat the mercy of the man who wants you dead?” Irena winced as shestared down on the woman. “I think you have no idea the danger youface. Are you not aware you are going to die if you remainhere?”
Her hands clenching to grip the sheet beneathher, the woman flinched as if struck. In her throat, she made asound of protest like a groan of misery. “You have no idea whatyou’re talking about.” Her pallid features creased with intenseemotion as she fidgeted as if in agony.
“Mark my words well, Earth woman. You will bedead within two of your moons if you stay here. I have powersbeyond anything you can imagine. I have been tracking you and knoweverything about your problem. Your partner could not stand againsthis enemies. How do you hope to do so when he failed?”
The fair head tossed restlessly on thepillow. “No,” she moaned repeatedly in denial.
Irena had reached the end of her bargainingtime. “I will make a pact with you,” she said, pressing a hand toher temple where the pain throbbed, the almost unbearable achemaking her falter momentarily. Time was almost up. She must movefast and convince this woman to go along with her wishes. “If yourefuse me I must know soon. I need time to find another candidate.”That was another lie, for she had no time.
“What’s your bargain?” the woman askedhesitatingly, as if her curiosity was too hard to repress.
“If you return to my home, deliver my craftsafely, I guarantee Reve will return to this planet with you totake revenge on your partner’s killers. At least he can help youexpose the traitors so they can receive their punishment. You mustlet me know your answer. Now.”
 
 
* * *
 
 
Melanie grimaced at the bitter taste in hermouth as she forced her eyes open. What a strange dream. Was it adream? It seemed so real. Although unable to recall what the womannamed Irena looked like, she could clearly remember her voice,could remember her outrageous offer. She hadn’t had such vividdreams since she’d moved in with Chris.
Chris!
Remembrance came back in force and she letout a long groan of sadness and misery. How was she ever going tomanage without him?
A noise made her jump with fear, and sheturned startled eyes towards the direction it had come from.Someone was trying to open the balcony windows in the living room.Putting a fist over her mouth to suppress a scream, Melanie easedfrom the bed and made her way with faltering steps out of thebedroom and towards the sliding door. Turning off the light, shepeeped through the gap in the drapes. And swallowed a yelp ofterror.
There was someone out there, and this someonewas huge. For a moment she thought her fear may be causing her tohallucinate. But on second thoughts he was too solid to be conjuredup by her imagination. It was definitely a he. No woman could be sobig.
Should she run? Where would she escape to? Ifthey’d managed to get as far as her balcony they would be watchingthe doors to the block of units for sure. Dear God! Where was thepolice guard Pete promised? Looking around frantically for aweapon, she saw the lamp on the coffee table. It was so heavy sheneeded two hands to lift it. She wasn’t going down without afight.
“Help me, dear God, please help me somebody,”she silently prayed.
A touch as soft as a butterfly’s wingsbrushed across her face. It was so light she barely felt it, butsensed more than anything she wasn’t alone.
“I will help you. Put your life in my hands,and I will assist you,” the voice from her dream said in hermind.
Was she going mad? Perhaps the events of thisnight had sent her over the edge. That was the only plausibleexplanation. “I’ll do anything,” she whispered. Sweat poured fromevery pore in her body, even while she felt frozen with fear. “Justhelp me if you can.”
“You will go to my home? You will entrust mewith your life?” the voice asked faintly. Despite the terror almostimmobilizing her, Melanie realized it was growing dimmer and seemedto be coming to her as if muffled by a blanket.
As if to catch hold of the strange presence,she opened her arms and let the lamp fall to the carpet with athud. “I will do anything you ask. Just get me away from herebefore they kill me,” she pleaded, as the door began to slowlyglide open and the drapes moved.
Melanie heard her scream echoing around inher head even while she felt herself begin to fall. Only she wasn’tcollapsing to the floor, but floating down a long tunnel of light.A giggle she knew sounded like the laugh of a hysterical woman onthe brink of madness burst from her throat. Would she, like Alice,encounter a white rabbit at the end of her fall?
 
 
* * *
 
 
Melanie had stopped falling. Movingstealthily, she felt around her sides. She was reclining on aluxuriant bed, with padding as soft as swan’s-down, surrounding herbody. With a soft sigh she snuggled down, not wanting to come outof this surreal dream.
If she opened her eyes she would return tothe horror of being stalked by a killer. Another moment and sheknew she would have been dead. But here, wherever here was, wassafe.
Warm, secure and safe.
Melanie swallowed, grimacing at the bile inher mouth. A taste brought on by terror. She moved her head on thesoft padding.
“You may open your eyes,” the now familiarmild voice ordered. “You are secure now. Do not panic as you becomeaware of your surroundings, Melanie Ross. Nothing, or no one, canharm you here.”
Melanie followed the instructions. The voicewas so coaxing. Somehow she knew there was nothing to fear. As hereyelids slowly lifted, the first thing she saw was a blank graywall. Steel perhaps. There was nothing but this blank wall to beseen and a feeling close to panic hit her.
“Where am I?” she croaked, moving her head tothe right and seeing nothing over there but the same plain greysheet of steel. “Am I in an elevator?”
Melanie hated the things. Had, since, as aten year old she’d been trapped in one for hours with twelvesweaty, panicked people. Trying to lift her head a dizziness sweptover her and she flopped back down with a small groan. “Please, letme out. I hate it here.” The sense of well-being and security fledlike a puff of smoke blown away by the wind.
“How can you hate something you have noknowledge of?” the voice queried faintly. “I will give you asedative soon. It will calm you down. But first we have to be sureyou are still willing to accept the challenge and go back to myhome. I have very little time. We must be quick.”
“Where are you?” Melanie cried. “Why aren’tyou in here with me?” Once again she lifted onto her elbows andstared about. The chamber was about eight feet by ten feet and hermouth went dry. She began to tremble and fear over-rode all otheremotions.
“You have no reason to be afraid, MelanieRoss. Relax,” the coaxing voice urged.
“Easy for you to say.” Melanie twisted to puther legs over the edge of the strange bed. She felt light-headed,but at least the dizziness had dissipated. “You might be used tobeing trapped in this coffin, but I hate it! Get me out!” Her voicescreeched.
That same light touch drifted over her browand suddenly all panic fled. A feeling of contentment began to fillher as she looked about. “Please. Show yourself.”
“Ah, Melanie Ross, unfortunately I cannot dothat. My powers are fading fast. If you do not agree to my proposalsoon, we will be out of time and I will have to put you back onyour planet, leave you to face the dangers awaiting you there.” Thevoice was filled with utter sadness.
“No! No, please don’t do that,” Melaniepleaded, reaching out as if she could touch the alien entity. “Allright. I agree. What else can I do? But would you kindly explainwhere I am and what is going to happen to me.”
Stretching her toes towards the floor onunsteady legs, she stood. As she moved away from the bed, the wallsseemed to move with her and recede so the room seemed bigger. Orwas her imagination playing strange tricks? Perhaps she was alreadydead and this was a stopping station on the way to theafter-life.
“No, you are still very much alive,” thevoice assured her. “I convinced your mind the chamber is largerthan it really is, just to temper your panic.”
“How did you do that? How did you know what Iwas thinking?” Melanie demanded, uneasy. But at least the panicthreatening to engulf her before was gone.
“My people have the power of what you calltelepathy. I can understand all your feelings and read all yourthoughts, after I convert them to my language. That is how I tunedinto your fear on Earth and guessed you might willingly go alongwith my plan. Now, as to where you are. You are in the controlcapsule of my craft. I have programmed the robots to return thevessel to Qindaga. By the time you dock there, you will beconversant with the knowledge needed to acclimatize to our planet’sways.
“As to why you cannot see me, I am almostgone. The influenza virus practically immobilized all of myfaculties and I cannot waste energy on visualizing. The last of mystrength will be used to put you in a state of nirvana for thejourney to our planet.”
“Your planet.” Melanie was very nervousagain.
“Yes, it is on the outer rim of the universe.While you are in a trance, you will be instructed in the ways of mypeople so you will not feel too disorientated when you arrive. Youwill also be given the vital instructions needed to land thecapsule.”
“Oh my God.” This was all too much to takein. These things only happened in movies.
“You must warn them of the dangers inherenton Earth. Emphasize the warning Shan will already have delivered.Two of your days and nights is the longest period it is safe for usto stay. I dallied for a few hours more than I should have. Thiswas my undoing.”
“Were you the only female in thisexpedition?” Melanie asked, as she tried to come to terms with whatthis voice was telling her. This must be a bad dream. There werepeople who believed in inter-galactic travel and UFOs, and evensome who claimed to have been taken into space ships byextra-terrestrials, but she’d always pooh-poohed such nonsense.
Touching the soft couch she pulled backsharply. The fabric had the feel of leather and the look of suede,but was neither.
“No, the squadron consisted of equal malesand females. It was the proudest day of my life when I wasselected.” Distress clouded the fading voice. “Now, Melanie Ross itis time. Please, you must return to the couch. Lie back, relax, andfear nothing. When next you awake, you will be in the outer orbitof Qindaga and programmed to set the capsule down and then live asa Qindagan. Reve will be waiting for you.”
“Reve?” Melanie asked as she lay back, herlimbs shaking.
“Yes, Reve. He is the commander of ourStarship, Victus. He will be the person you will report to.”
This spirit, alien, or whatever she was, musthave put her under some sort of spell already, for suddenly Melaniefelt light-headed, worry-free, and quite prepared for whatever lifeheld in store for her.
 
 
* * *
 
 
The woman had succumbed to the trance. Irenafed the last set of instructions into the remote panel and then seta message on the screen for Reve’s attention. By the time thisMelanie Ross got to Qindaga, she would be acquainted with the ways,customs, and appropriate data, to enable her to make the easytransition. She would be well able to exist on Qindaga. The robotwould set the capsule down when it reached its destination. ThisEarth woman would gain the knowledge needed to perform many tasksshould they be necessary.
Irena’s work was done.
With one last look at the woman and a glanceto ensure all was set in motion for her craft’s return to Qindaga,Irena prepared to dematerialize and return to Earth. She would diebeneath the waters of the largest ocean and end her life in theenvironment where Qindagans felt most comfortable.
“Farewell, Earth woman,” she said, as sheleft her craft for the last time.
 
 
Chapter Four
 
 
Melanie blinked and stretched her limbs.Peering around at the small chamber where she’d gone to sleep, shewondered just how long she’d been out. It seemed no more thanmoments. It was disconcerting, but she instantly knew by theinformation fed into her brain that months had passed.
Putting her feet to the floor, she pressed abutton at the side of the couch. With a faint whirring sound oneentire wall slowly slipped back to reveal a scene that made herinsides lurch; revealed a world that grew larger by the second asthe craft neared.
Qindaga.
Irena’s home. Her new home. If onlytemporarily. With a soft gasp she looked down. Her outfit was madeof soft leather-like material. The fabric hugged a figure any womanwould be proud of. Melanie ran her fingers over a slenderwaistline. Not a smidgen of the plumpness of before remained. Herbreasts were still as full, but now were up-tilted and firm. Andher legs! She stared down at limbs at least a foot longer thanthey’d been. This space-traveling business had some good points.Threading her fingers through her hair she pulled a tress forwardto see the most beautiful titian mane. It flowed in silky waves toher waist.
Could she have taken on Irena’s physicalfeatures? Perhaps there were distinct advantages to temporarilybeing a Qindagan; her diminutive height and her far from glamorousappearance were the bane of her life. And she’d wanted long hairfor as far back as she could remember. Her numerous foster parentsall persisted in cutting it to an unflattering crop. Even Chrisinsisted she get it trimmed regularly.
Glancing about, she looked for the consolethat would have the switches needed to land the craft safely, andto open up the walls of the capsule to give her access to the restof the craft. With little trouble she followed the procedure.Everything seemed so simple. Of course the robot did most of thework. She merely had to set it in motion with a few well-placedjabs.
Melanie looked again to the window, and tothe world she approached at a startlingly rapid rate. Qindaga waspractically covered by water. Although she’d learned this, it stillcame as a shock to see no land. The high structures were theplatforms housing the Qindagan population. She caught sight of oneof the mountains—the only land left on the planet. From here itlooked arid and colorless.
After she depressed a button near her hand, ascreen appeared at eye level on the opposite wall to the window.Lettering came up on the screen and then a whining drone heraldedthe cut out of the engines. Slowly, and with startling grace, theship drifted towards a gaping hole in the top of a massive vesselthat was the star-ship Victus, largest and most important of theplanet’s ever-circling stations, where she would dock. Victus wasabout as big as ten aircraft carriers and looked nothing like anyof the spacecraft she’d seen in the movies. Numerous arms stuck outlike tentacles from the main body and gave it the appearance ofsome monster.
In a matter of moments the whine became asoft drone and with the barest thud her craft made connection witha platform in the central hangar of Victus. With a touch of herprevious hesitation, Melanie watched as her ship was made secure.It hit her like a thump in the middle just what she’d done. LittleMelanie Ross from Sydney, Australia, had actually traveled to thefar side of the universe. It seemed inconceivable.
For a moment everything went dark and herinsides flipped over as the craft was lowered deep into the bowelsof the Starship. The activity on the landing platform came intoview. It was all eerily familiar.
Another soft whine heralded the last thrustof the engines and then all went quiet.
Taking a deep breath, she walked on feet thatmoved of their own volition to the panel beside the small screenwhere she depressed one of the myriad buttons. The door slid backeffortlessly and then she was on the ground beneath the ship. Aslight touch of nausea attacked her. She had experienced her firstgo at self-transportation.
“Welcome to our planet, Earth woman.” A man,at least a foot taller than she and with copper colored hairreaching his shoulder blades, held out his hand. Melanie hesitateda moment before some sense told her it was Shan, leader of thesquadron that left Irena back on Earth. His features were strikingand he reminded her vaguely of a Herculean warrior she’d seen in arecent television mini-series.
“You succeeded in getting Irena’s craft backsafely. Reve will be elated.” He didn’t look too overjoyed withthis feat. In fact he appeared to be eyeing her with downrightsuspicion. But this was to be expected. Melanie was still coming toterms with the fact he was so handsome, not what she would haveexpected an alien to look like at all. In the first moments ofconsciousness, she’d experienced a deep sense of panic as shevisualized all sorts of weird creatures inhabiting Qindaga. Everyscience fiction movie she’d seen in the past flashed before hereyes. At least he resembled an Earthman and didn’t have a pointedhead, no ears and round piercing eyes.
“I presume you know the facts about me,”Melanie said, taking his outstretched hand and touching palms withhim in the Qindagan greeting.
He removed his hand hurriedly and bowed hishead, then took a pace back. “It is not for me to discuss this.Reve is most anxious to see you immediately.” His slight hesitationbefore speaking alerted her to his search for the right words touse.
“Where will I find him?” She looked about,feeling nervous and more than a little scared.
Everywhere there was activity. Ships ofvarying sizes were being loaded and unloaded, cargo being packedand stacked by robots over seven feet tall. These robots had nofaces, but a flat surface on the front of the head like a TVscreen. Melanie knew by the knowledge installed in her brain, thesewere scanners, picking up information and passing it on to theinner mind of the robots. Well, it was a computer. Obviously nomechanical object could have a brain.
Large machines, rather like front endloaders, were moving great containers. More craft than she couldcount were lined up, parked on piers. The noise was deafening,making it clear why Shan and all the other workers woreear-pads.
“He is in the administrative office. Whereelse? Reve will be aware you have landed and be expecting you. Iwon’t keep you. You know the way?”
“Yes.”
Already he had his ear-pads on. With a smallnod of his head, Shan left her and headed towards anothercraft.
She swallowed as the old Melanie resurfacedfor a moment, but then the new persona she’d adopted pushed heraside. For now, to all intents and purposes, she was an inhabitantof Qindaga and would act accordingly.
 
 
* * *
 
 
Stretching out her hand, Melanie tentativelypressed her palm over the iridescent panel. Silently the doors slidopen and she marched through into the quietness of the interioroffice. She passed banks of computerized control screens whererobots worked diligently at their places. These robots were smallerand more compact than the ones in the loading bay and had twoopenings on their head, more like eyes. One or two of the sixsupervisors looked up and a distinctly wary expression passed overtheir faces, but other than that no one paid her muchattention.
She’d noted with surprise that every maleshe’d seen so far had flowing hair of copper or gunmetal grey.Every female, and she’d seen only two in the loading dock, andthree on the way here, had the same titian hair as her own. Anotherdisquieting fact was they were all beautiful specimens. Not adisfigured, ugly, or even plain face amongst them.
As she stepped through the door opening, oneof these copper-haired men turned from a screen he’d been studying.For just a moment, his face looked ravaged by despair—his eyes coldas they assessed her thoroughly.
With a small cry of distress Melanie put ahand to her throat. “Chris!” Her dead husband’s name burst from herlips.
This man she k

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