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When I woke up, it was in the oddest of circumstances. I was crammed into a very small space, with my legs tucked in and my shoulders pressing against what felt like a tiny console. I opened my eyes and found two small, slimy faces close to mine. "Who are you?"
"Rilken." One of the diminutive aliens reached out and prodded me with a sticky finger. "You Terran?"
"Uh-huh." I tried to sit up, found I couldn't, and swiveled onto my stomach instead. I was inside what had to be the smallest vessel I'd ever seen. A lavatory on the Sunlace was ten times bigger. "Why am I here?"
"We purchase you from Bartermen." One of the little guys went to an equally tiny helm and initiated some engines. "Prepare for launch."
"Wait a minute." I managed to hunch over and sit up, and immediately felt like Gulliver. I filled up half the passenger compartment, which had been designed for beings less than half a meter in height. "Where are we going?"
"We are leaving Oenrall," the other pip-squeak said. "We are mercenaries. You will be returned to the Hsktskt for blood bounty."
Midget mercenaries. Well, why not? "You're friends with the lizards?"
He shrugged his tiny shoulders. "The Hsktskt offer more credits for you."
The tiny vessel lifted off and entered the upper atmosphere. Before the mercenaries could initiate their flightshield, something struck us.
"What is it?" The one guarding me ran up to the helm.
"A Jorenian ship, firing on us." Fear ran through the Rilken's voice. "They have disabled our stardrive."
Considering the size of the ship, Xonea must have used a peashooter. I crawled up behind both of them, and felt for the syrinpress I'd been carrying in my tunic pocket. It was gone, so I'd have to use more creative measures.
"Nighty-night, boys." I knocked their skulls together once, then watched them slide to the floor. I looked around me. "That's it? I don't get shot, stabbed, poisoned, whipped, burned, or anything else?"
The Rilkens didn't make a response.
Clunking them was certainly easier than using their communications array. I had to use one of my fingernails to operate the control panel. At last I raised the CloudWalk to let them know I was in control and all right.
"It is good to see you, council representative," the Jado ClanLeader said, and smiled. "There are two others here who wish to relay their happiness, as well."
He stepped aside, and the welcome sight of my husband and daughter appeared on the vid screen.
"Cherijo." My husband looked very relieved. "You escaped the Bartermen by yourself?"
"Mtulla helped. By the way, if you ever want to get kidnapped, pick Rilkens. Very easy species to overpower. Marel could do it." I thought of the peace talks. "Have I ruined everything for Captain Teulon?"
"No, it appears the negotiations are a success. The Torins retrieved Alunthri from the Jxin, and it has convinced the Taercal that your cure is a divine intervention, and that their god refuses to allow them to suffer, as was prophesied."
"About time." I moved one of the sleeping Rilkens out of my way and sat back against the interior hull wall. "Well, I think that wraps it up here. I'd really like that vacation now, please."
"Come and get us."
Reever told me how to fly the Rilken vessel to rendezvous with the Jado ship, then touched the screen with his hand. "I'll be waiting for you, Waenara."
I matched my fingertips to his. "Not for long, Osepeke."
Those last words we exchanged would come back to haunt me. I just didn't know it yet.
Because the shot from the Jado had wrecked the stardrive, I could only coax limping speed out of the propulsion system. I set the helm on autopilot, tied up the Rilkens so they wouldn't cause any more trouble when they woke, and tried to make myself comfortable by stretching out my legs on the deck. I'd always felt like a shrimp compared with most other beings, so it was kind of a novelty to experience for once what it was like to be a giant.
I didn't expect ClanLeader Jado to send a launch to meet me, so when one appeared on the exterior viewer, I reached for the dinky console to send a signal. "Reever told me how to use the ship's position to navigate to the CloudWalk, Captain. I won't get lost."
No one responded, and when I peered at the console, I saw several warning lights blinking. Someone was jamming my transceiver, which wasn't a good thing. Neither was the launch, the design of which wasn't Jorenian, but League.
I tried another signal, this time opening the relay so it could be picked up by the other vessel. "League transport, identify yourself, and your reasons for approaching my vessel."
A harsh voice responded with only four words. "Prepare to be boarded."
"Prepare my ass." I swung around and crouched over the console, taking it off auto control and changing course to evade the League transport.
I dodged them for a while, but their engines were working perfectly, as was their pulse array. They fired twice and took out what was left of the Rilkens' propulsion system, then used a third to destroy my transceiver.
I couldn't see the CloudWalk on the viewer, but I knew they were out there and monitoring my progress, as was the ship belonging to my adopted family, HouseClan Torin. They'd definitely pick up the pulse fire on their scanners. Any attack on a member of a Jorenian HouseClan resulted in a declaration of ClanKill, which meant my adopted kin would devote themselves to hunting down my assailants and subjecting them to an instant and painful death by manual evisceration.
"You guys are going to be so sorry you did this," I muttered as I looked around the cabin for weapons.
The Rilkens had a couple of pistols and rifles, but they were too small for me to handle comfortably. I settled for a dagger I took off one of my unconscious abductors, although I had to wrap the hilt with some plastape until it was large enough for me to grip. I staggered as the deck rocked; the viewer showed the transport's docking clamps engulfing the little ship.
I put my back against a wall and watched the upper access hatch. Energy crackled through the air, and then something knocked me away from the wall and threw me to the deck.
I crawled, my teeth still chattering from the power surge they'd sent through the hull, but there was no place big enough for me to hide. A pair of League boots appeared in front of my nose, and I raised my head to look into the business end of a pulse rifle.
"Colonel Shropana sends his compliments," the soldier said just before he reversed the weapon and slammed the stock into my face.
Into whatever houses I enter, I will go for the benefit of the sick. – Hippocrates
Hippocrates never had to deal with a patient like mine, or he'd have said to hell with his oath and run for the hills.
As I was currently on the Sunlace, a Jorenian interstellar star vessel, I didn't have hills or that luxury. What I did have was a body on the exam table in front of me: Terran, adult female, petite, thin, pale-skinned, and dark-haired. Uninjured but unconscious, waiting to be awakened, to be healed, to be saved.
Standing there in the cold, sterile brightness of the medical assessment room, dependent on the kindness of a bunch of strangers, I could relate.
Visually speaking, the patient did not appear to be a sterling example of her gender or her species. I'd never call her pretty, shapely, vibrant, or attractive. She didn't have the benefit of physical symmetry; her long-fingered, narrow hands appeared overly large for her bony wrists; her long torso seemed at odds with her short legs. Her translucent skin didn't have a mark on it, which made it look like a too-tight envirosuit, and displayed in outline a bit too much of her skeletal structure. Although I knew her to be in her midthirties, at first glance I'd have guessed her to be a moderately undernourished adolescent.
I picked up her chart. "Not much to look at, is she?" The herd of tall, blue-skinned Jorenian interns and nurses gathered around the table didn't respond. "Until we open the really boring package, and get a look at all the prizes inside."
"Healer, what say we summon your bondmate?" That came from a gorgeous female nurse whose name I didn't know. She wove her fingers through the air as she spoke in the eloquent hand gestures her species used as part of their language. "He would wish to be present."
I watched her white-within-white eyes, which were not at all as blind as they appeared. "Do you think I need my husband to hold my hand while I assess this patient, Nurse?"
She was two feet taller than me and a hundred pounds heavier, and could probably snap my neck with one jerk of her beautiful blue wrist, but she shuffled her feet and ducked her head like a scolded kid. "No, Healer."
"Good answer." I turned my attention back to the patient. "The Terran female here presents with a genetically enhanced immune system which renders her impervious to infection and disease," I said, not bothering to read from the chart. "Any injury she sustains, including the life-threatening variety, heals in a matter of hours. Her brain capacity is estimated to be several hundred times that of an average Terran, and includes exceptional intelligence, eidetic memory, and select superior motor skills." I glanced at the dismayed faces across from me. "Any of you know how she was created?"
This time one of the male interns spoke up. "Her parent replicated his own cells and genetically enhanced them to change her gender as well as her physiology."
"That's correct. You get to skip the pop quiz I'm giving later." I placed the chart back in the holder at the end of the exam table. "The end result was Dr. Cherijo Grey Veil, cloned and refined and engineered from birth to be the perfect physician. Would anyone like to take a stab at diagnosing her current condition?" I showed them some of my teeth. "I'm dying to know what it is."
"She is violating an order of bed rest," a low voice said from behind me.
I glanced back at the Senior Healer. Three-armed, one-legged, pink-hided with a bald head and a nest of white, thin, prehensile, meter-long gildrells around his mouth, the Omorr surgeon was my best friend and one of my oldest colleagues.
Judging by the flush currently darkening his features, he was also as pissed off as I was.
"Don't forget appropriating medical staff and using diagnostic equipment without proper authorization," I reminded him. "Nice to see you, Senior Healer. They told me you were on Joren." Although how he got there, I had no clue.
"I was. I jaunted out on a scout to meet the ship. Leave us," Squilyp said to the others as he hopped around to stand on the opposite side of the table.
Suppressing various expressions, gestures, and sounds of relief, the interns and nurses almost trampled one another trying to get out of the entry panel.
The Omorr smelled a little like bile, and looked tired, or older—or maybe both. A lot of things had changed, and I didn't know why, but I was about to find out.
"How many transitions did it take for you to get here," I asked, "and how many times did you puke?"
"Seven jumps," he said. "I vomited twice. What are you doing?"
"I'm putting together a workup on Dr. Grey Veil here." Or, at least, the dimensional image of her. I was the original, the prototype, the living, breathing version of the simulated woman who currently lay on my exam table, naked and flat on her back. My back. Whatever. "I thought it might be helpful in finding out what the hell is going on, since no one is telling me anything."
He started to say something, and then changed his mind. "You were advised to stay in your berth."
"I'll be happy to do that. Just as soon as I know how I got on this ship, where it is, who swapped out the crew, and what happened to my injuries."
"You don't remember?"
I folded my arms. "What do you think?"
"What have you been told?"
"Basically? Nothing. Every time I ask, they railroad me with some nonsense about psychological trauma. They removed nearly all the entries from my chart, and I've been locked out of the medical database." I brushed aside a thick section of her/our hair, creating a part along one side of her/our head. "Is this where I got conked? How bad was it?"
"I cannot say." He glanced at the simulation to avoid looking at me. "We were not present when you were injured, and the damage healed before you were recovered."
Obviously, or now I'd be leaking blood or brain matter all over the deck. "Then show me what you extrapolated from my scans after you took me back from the League."
"I do not have all the details on the incident—"
"Goddamn it, Squilyp." The last shred of my patience finally parted ways with my temper. "Tell me what the hell happened to me."
Shouting at him stiffened his gildrells into icicles—a sure sign he was offended—but he only addressed the control console. "Display program variation C–1."
Like an invisible killer with an unseen ax, the imager erased a good chunk of my twin's skull, vaporizing the bone and exposing the brain tissue. It was such a brutal injury that for a moment I forgot to breathe.
How could I have survived this? I felt ready to puke myself now. Thanks to my enhanced immune system, I could physically survive almost anything, but mentally…emotionally…"That's what that League pirate did to me?"
"Based on the initial head series I performed, and the few details we were able to garner from one eyewitness, this approximates the wound you sustained after your transport crash-landed on the surface of Akkabarr."
I glanced up. "What are you talking about? I wasn't anywhere near Akkabarr. I was on that dinky Rilken ship. One of Shropana's jackasses boarded it before he smacked me in the head with the end of a pulse rifle." I regarded the simulation again. "There's no way he did this much damage, unless he kept bashing my skull in after I fell unconscious."
"That is the last thing you remember?" he asked. "Being assaulted on the Rilkem ship?"
"That's the last thing that happened to me." I didn't like the careful way he was talking to me. "Right?"
"Ah, no." His gildrells coiled into knots of agitation. "You were abducted and taken to Akkabarr by a League operative, but the atmospheric conditions caused your transport to crash on the surface. There you were attacked by a group of natives, and shot." He touched the control panel, creating a second, independent image of the brain and projecting the ruined organ above the body, where it slowly revolved. "Due to the weapon being fired at almost point-blank range, it caused considerable damage to the brain center, as well as significant vascular trauma and a substantial amount of tissue destruction."
I resisted the urge to touch my head. "You're telling me that after this League ship I was on crashed, the natives dragged me out of the wreckage, shot me in the head, and blew out half of my brains." He nodded, and I took in a shaky breath. "Any particular reason why?"
"As it was explained to me," he said, "they wished to kill and partially dismember you in order to collect a bounty from their masters."
"Partially dismember?" I almost shrieked.
"They skin the faces of unauthorized intruders," he explained, "which they trade for various rewards from their masters."
"Remind me never to jaunt to Akkabarr again." Not that I'd wanted to go in the first place. I took another good look at the holoimage. "What happened after that?"
"I cannot be certain," he said, not looking at me again, "but scans indicate that the tissue and bone spontaneously regenerated, probably within a matter of days. It was during that time that, I believe, you entered the primary phase of an extended dissociative fugue state."
"Getting shot in the head gave me an identity disorder." I snickered. "Sure. Who did I think I was? A P'Kotman with clogged mouth pores?"
"No." He seemed to be searching for words again. "Cherijo, do you recall anything else? Anything at all? Do you remember where you were or what you saw after the League soldier attacked you?"
"I woke up here, in Medical." His expression and my lack of wounds told me that couldn't be correct. "Squilyp, just how long was I unconscious?"
He had to try three times before he could speak. "I regret to say that you were abducted and taken to Akkabarr nearly five years ago."
All the strength went out of my legs, and I groped for a stool. Not five days, or five weeks. Not even five months. Five years.