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Arms locked into position, grip tight on the flexisteel rod, I swung into a perfect handstand and poised for a split second, my body a curve in the air. Before gravity could kick in, I jackknifed, reversed my grip on the fly, and let the force of my body hitting the lower bar carry me into a tuck-and-roll somersault, my hands grasping the upper bar on the way down.
I'd watched holovids of the old Olympics, and it always amazed me how well natural humans did on the uneven bars. Too bad the games had died out with the advent of Genetically Engineered Persons. But anything a Natural could do, a GEP could do better and faster. I guess it made the games seem rather pointless.
It had also caused a lot of hard feelings and no small amount of prejudice toward GEPs in the beginning. Theoretically, all that changed when the Galactic Federation Council passed the Equality Edict, but in reality, no law can do away with bigotry. It just goes into hiding.
I know because I've been on the receiving end of some Naturals' intolerance. Not only am I a blonde bombshell, I'm also one of the luckiest GEPs ever made. My creation was commissioned by the Bureau of Alien Affairs, and my boss, Dr. Jordan Daniels, is a real sweetheart of a Natural. Not only is he an expert at untying the knots of red tape that governments create, he always treats me like a lady.
It's at his insistence that I record the following events in my own words, for posterity, and so historians will have the facts straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak, above and beyond what the official records show. Unfortunately for him, I'm more of a doer than awriter.
The upper bar twanged as I released it and made a two-point landing on the floor mat, arms extended. "How was that?"
From his position on the weight table, Crigo sneered, and then went back to licking his paws.
"Yeah? I'd like to see you try it."
He ignored me, of course. We both knew his lack of opposable thumbs would severely hinder his chances of gripping the bar.
Crigo's a rock cat, so called because his kind inhabits the rocky hills of his home planet. He's been with me since my assignment in the Alpha sector several cycles ago. I've never understood why he decided to come along when I left his world, since our relationship is, at best, an uneasy one. It goes something like this: if I promise not to compromise his dignity by petting him, he promises not to rip my arm off at the elbow. No mild threat, that, since he weighs more than I do and reaches the middle of my thigh in height.
In return for the food he consumes while we're on board Max, my ship, he keeps me humble by following me around, making derogatory feline comments about everything I do, and turning his back when I talk to him. But he's living, breathing company, so I put up with him.
Besides, he's gorgeous, a fact of which he's well aware. His coat is russet colored with black stripes zigzagging down his sides like dark lightning bolts. His eyes are a pale shade of amber that reflects an intelligence unusual in rock cats. Most of them are dumb as posts.
I snagged a towel and headed for the lav, wondering if he'd adopted me because his own species bored him stiff. It was a distinct possibility. Plus, he knows I understand him like no one else can. I'm an empath, an enhancement the boss keeps out of my personnel records, along with a few other things no one needs to know. It's a talent that comes in handy when one of the big trade companies tries to pull a fast one on the sentient species of a planet they're interested in exploiting.
That's my official job. After a new species is located and studied by a team of scientific experts, I go in and make sure they know their rights according to the Equality Edict. I also help them negotiate deals for marketing their resources with the independent trade companies. If the culture is too primitive to understand their rights, I have two options. Taking the scientific reports into consideration and weighing them against my own observations, I can either ask the bureau to set up a protectorate, or I can close the planet to all further commerce until such time as the bureau deems the race capable of handling its own affairs.
It's also my job to root out breaches of the edict and bring the trade companies involved to justice. So, because of me, more than a few have lost their privilege licenses and had their ships impounded, and some owners have even ended up on Inferno, the prison planet.
Needless to say, I'm not the independent companies' favorite person. Occasionally, one of them will get ambitious and put a hit out on me. Not the way to get on my good side, as I really hate disposing of bodies. Too messy for my tastes, not to mention time consuming.
On the bright side, I promised Crigo he could have the next assassin who comes along. He does love new toys.
Thanks to the boss, Max was currently parked dirt side on a small tropical planet with a low population density and lots of sunshine. Dr. Daniels had insisted I take a vacation after my last job, in spite of my protest. So we had a tiny island all to ourselves, with gentle surf, white sand, and lots of weird ocean life for Crigo to pile at Max's entry hatch. We also had tons of fresh water in the form of a mist-shrouded waterfall spilling into a pool near where we were parked.
After two weeks of enforced idleness, I had a great tan, gorgeous white streaks in my light blonde hair, and sand in places I didn't like to think about. Good thing all that fresh water was handy. Showering three times a day can drain a ship's tank real fast, even with recycling.
I was going stir-crazy, and even Crigo was looking a little desperate as each new ocean wave swept in a fresh batch of crawly things. A rock cat can only do so much hunting and pouncing, and he'd reached his limit a week ago. As a result, I spent four hours a day exercising in Max's gym instead of my usual two. It kept Crigo and me from killing each other.
The hot water felt good, so I stayed in the shower longer than usual after my workout on the uneven bars. I was almost asleep on my feet when the water suddenly turned icy cold.
"Max!" With an indignant yelp, I scrambled to exit the shower. "What in the thirteen hells did you do that for?"
"To wake you up." The computer voice was male, smooth and mellow. "Dr. Daniels wants to speak with you."
"Why didn't you say so?" I grabbed my emergency robe and shoved my arms into the sleeves. Having been raised in the crèche, nudity didn't bother me, but I knew Naturals were funny about things like that, and I didn't want to embarrass the boss.
"Transfer the call in here, will you, Max?" I stepped into the exercise room and belted my robe while the boss materialized in front of me. Even Crigo sat up and paid attention. He knew authority when he saw it.
"Kiera, my dear, I didn't intend to interrupt your shower. Max should have waited."
"Max knows I would have dismantled him chip by chip if he had." Hope for a reprieve from my boring vacation bubbled inside me as I pushed a lock of wet hair away from my face. "What's up?"
"As much as it grieves me to cut your vacation short, I have an assignment only my best agent can handle."
Boss was a nice-looking man, even at his advanced age, tall and wellClose Encounters. Copyright © by Katherine Allred. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.