It seemed a hundred years since Reina had last stepped into her tiny cubicle. She made a face at the comm unit's insistent bleat as she threw her bag onto her bunk. No time to unwind yet. They couldn't even allowed her time to unpack from her last assignment.
Frack. She couldn't ignore the waiting message. By some strange chance it might be Niall. With a quick look at her disheveled image in the mirror, she took a deep breath, smoothed her frown, and then faced her room's monitor.
A groan nearly escaped her when an especially dour-faced Farnsworth abruptly appeared. Her boss was never one for pleasantries, but at the moment he looked near explosion. Anyone near would regret his or her proximity.
"Estes, report to my office immediately." He bit off each word like it cost him personally. *Uh oh, gotta duck this one.*
"Sir, I just got back from Mars colony--"
"I realize that. Be here in thirty minutes. That's an order."
Before she could protest, the Corps logo replaced his taut face. She raked her hands through her already wild hair. After the difficulties on Mars, she wanted nothing more than to sleep for a week. Instead, she took a quick sonic shower, donned a fresh uniform, and left for headquarters.
Reina damped her apprehension and strode toward the chief's office. His curt summons had surprised her. Usually he merely requested her presence, rather than ordering her to report. Despite her fairly junior status, she had already earned a reputation for success.
Once inside the building, Farnsworth's agitation bled through her tight shields. She nearly stumbled at the unexpected assault. He must really have an asteroid in his jets to let his guard down. Reina hurried down the hall, then stared at the stark lettering on the heavy door before she entered.
MURGATROYD FARNSWORTH, CHIEF, EARTH ESPER CORPS.
She shrugged her uneasiness off and opened the door. His long-time secretary, Marda looked up at her in surprise.
"I thought you just got back?" Marda frowned and held up a hand. "Don't tell me. It's an emergency."
Reina gave a rueful smile. She remained standing while Marda disappeared behind the inner door to announce her. As she waited for admittance, Reina's stomach clenched at the possibility for his abrupt manner.
Had he found out about her dreams? Unless she took sleepers the last few months, Magoria haunted her at night. The first few times she wrote them off as too much work and not enough R & R.
However, as the dreams continued almost every night, she reluctantly admitted she recognized the intense, almost sensual images. Since basic training three years ago, she'd poured over the limited unclassified information she could get her hands on.
What she learned startled her. Magoria's population consisted of highly psychic humanoids. Living on a class M planet in the red/yellow binary Eridani system, their apparent freedom from stricture brought into glaring contrast the Esper Corps' rigorous regimentation.
Farnsworth must have picked up some of her dissatisfaction. At the last briefing, he brought up Magoria as a trouble spot. In five years the Corps had lost seven people on assignment in the sector, the last two agents the previous year. From the veiled warning, she wondered if the chief had broken the strict rule against such surveillance and invaded her thoughts at night.
Marda returned. She rolled her eyes as she motioned Reina through the heavy plasti-glass door. Farnsworth looked up from the paperwork on his desk with a fierce scowl.
"Estes. It's time for you to solo. This'll be a tricky one, but your team supervisor assures me you can handle it." He nodded to a corner behind Reina.
Her quick glance in that direction revealed Niall standing in the shadows. She kept her face still, then looked back at Farnsworth with a nod. He pursed his lips.
"Yes. Well, for both your sakes, I hope he's right. There's a lot riding on this mission and we can't afford to botch it." Farnsworth looked at her expectantly.
"You know I'll do my very best, chief." She stood stiffly, concentrating on his collar device to hide her excitement.
"Good. Here's your assignment. Melopuolon III in the Alpha-Centauri system recently requested our help. We're to locate dissidents and their cohorts for exposure and execution."
Reina's lips thinned in distaste. Melopuolon III's despot had stripped his once ore-rich world and held his people and their culture in a stranglehold. She didn't look forward to helping his sort keep the status quo.
"With all due respect sir, why? Our government doesn't support Ramses' psychocrat regime."
"True. However, possible repercussions from his overthrow outweigh his disgraceful governing techniques. If his psychic amplifier's technology were deregulated and allowed exportation..." His voice trailed off. Reina's imagination filled in the rest.
"Any planet whose ruler wished to control the population to his or her benefit would have complete control." She didn't like helping Ramses, but she didn't relish the idea of such an amoral device spreading either.
"Right. Do you feel up to taking this task on?"
"Take this. Study up on Melopuolon III and Magoria, your jumping off point. I've upgraded your security clearance to Cipher level since sources report a pack from the latter may be involved. You're to identify and infiltrate them." Farnsworth handed her a disk. "This includes your cover story."
She took the disk and saluted him. On her way out she gave Niall a slight smile. Her first solo! Misgivings about the chief's reasons for sending her nibbled at her, but she pushed them down. Later she'd have to thank Niall in a very personal way for his endorsement.
First, she went to Medical for a quick-learn enhancer shot. Next, she made a rare stop to see her parents and younger brother. Reina didn't tell them her reason for calling. However, she realized the scarcity of her visits gave away something. Her chagrin and regret deepened at the uneasiness her kin exuded around her. She spent only a few hours with them, saddened by their distrust.
In the next few days she crammed every available byte of top secret information about the two planets into her memory. When she learned why Magoria needed no external defenses, her already avid curiosity peaked and pushed aside her lingering melancholy.
A Magorian never killed intentionally, but could evoke a psychic stasis. Magorians called forth stasis only when physical or psychic danger threatened. This provided planetwide protection against exploitation or invasion. Reina realized she would have to tread carefully in her work.
Her last night on Earth seemed particularly painful. She bid a quick farewell to her teammates, then made her way to Pacifica's spaceport. The sterile little cubbyhole she called home wouldn't miss her.
At the terminal she went through the usual pre-flight procedures, papers in order, personal effects check, and passage to Magoria. When the spaceport's personnel finished with her, Reina noticed she had about twenty minutes before boarding.
Glad for the time alone, she sought the rest area and the relaxer chambers provided for inter-planetary travelers. She settled back into the form-fitting couch with a sigh. The computer whirred and a pleasant, quiet female voice spoke.
"Welcome. Please indicate your wishes."
"Fifteen minutes. Old Muir forest, northern Pacifica." Her eyes closed. The device brushed her face with dappled sunlight and pine-scent laden breezes. Before she could begin her relaxation, she sensed she had a visitor.
Reluctantly, Reina opened her eyes and focused on Niall. She hadn't seen much of him since she received her orders. His aura radiated such anxiety and confusion she quickly terminated the atmosphere adjustment. She sat up and invited him to sit beside her. He joined her, and after a quick look to make certain they were unseen, took her hand.
"Reina, please be careful. Something doesn't feel right about this." He cut off her protest. "Magoria can be dangerous. I know you'll do well, but... I wish your first solo were someplace less tempting. There are so many pitfalls for a sensitive." He leaned forward to kiss her. She allowed the brief touch of his thoughts and lips then drew away.
Niall gripped her hand convulsively. Though Reina wanted to reassure him, she held herself back. How could she tell him of the strange force drawing her to Magoria? In some ways, she wished he could go with her on this trip. He would keep her on an even keel, making sure she wouldn't let Magoria seduce her.
Then, memories of his fury at the few agents who had managed to escape chilled her. She couldn't trust Niall with her restless desire for more freedom. With a forced smile, she gave him her scrupulously rehearsed lines.
"Don't worry, I'll be careful. I'm not going in blind. I've studied every holotape and disk on Magoria 'til I swear I could recite them in my sleep." She touched his face. His concern and fears poured over her. Because she wanted to comfort and ease his mind, she made a wild promise. One she doubted she would ever redeem. "When I get back, we can seal. If you still want me."
Niall said nothing, but tears brimmed in his eyes. With a groan, he crushed Reina against his chest. She wanted to weep, too. For years he had asked her to marry. Already somewhat disgruntled with her servitude to the Corps, she had refused further ties. His surge of wild joy at her words troubled her. If she disappeared, it would cause him terrible pain.
Flickers of misery licked at her. Though he might wish to follow her, he would only do so if ordered. For all his brave words and kind actions toward her, Niall was the Corp's man. He would never jeopardize his position to trail her if she failed, no how deep his personal involvement.
Reina shivered. A cold, persistent voice reminded her of his passionate hatred of Corps deserters. No, she was wrong. He would pursue her, but only to terminate a defector. She squelched her dread while returning his kiss, hardly aware of the hot tears streaking her face. He wiped them gently from her cheeks and cupped her face.
"Remember, our connection's far more than friendship. Come back to me, Reina."
The impersonal voice of the spaceport's public address system announcing her flight drowned out her reply. They rose, gathered her carryall and walked to the boarding area. Niall remained at her side until the last possible point. Reina's walk to the ship's main hatch seemed endless. When she turned to wave, Niall's expression blurred in the shadows. His returned gesture appeared a hazy, indistinct movement.
Reina's heart pounded in reaction. She would be truly alone on this one. The heavy hatch clanged shut behind her with finality. An impatient crewman hurried her along the corridor to her berth. Once assured she knew basic safety standards, he left her to her own devices.
The ship primarily carried grain and seed to Magoria and returned to Earth with Magorian uranium-rich ore. Human comforts were minimal and passengers rare. Reina gave a lop-sided smile at the tiny, barren cubicle and shook her head. No expense spared for Corps personnel.
The captain's rough voice barked out orders to prepare for lift-off. Reina stowed her gear in the small cupboard, then strapped herself in with a grimace. Even with shared technology from the other, more advanced sentient races, physical stresses caused by liftoff's G-force remained space travel's most unpleasant aspect.
Reina began her relaxation techniques, welcoming the semi-trance state. The engines roared, then began a high-pitched whine against gravity's pull. Her mind stayed with the captain. following the other woman's flying fingers over the multicolor coded buttons and levers as the officer piloted the ship through the atmosphere into the velvet of space.
Freed of atmospheric drag, Reina's body pushed against the netting. The weightlessness continued until the ship's computer established artificial gravity. Reina breathed a sigh of relief and stretched. Other than a few tight muscles, she felt sure her discomfort was much less than that of her fellow passengers. She rose and checked her gear, then went to the mess for supper.
The crew consisted of the captain, a copilot, an engineer, and a navigator. The latter, a burly lupine Rigellan, doubled as cook. He growled at her for her order, then proceeded to punch up the proper combination on the servo kitchen computer. Reina couldn't suppress a groan. The creature glared balefully at her.
"This ain't some fancy liner, fem. Everything you humans need is in this stuff. And it's cheap."
Reina nodded with a weak smile and accepted the multiflavored, colored putty, shaped to look like real food. Space rats. God, she'd hoped for better this time. At least this would be a fairly short trip. And she could look forward to landing on a planet with a reputation for highly edible and tasty food. She sighed and dug into the disgusting stuff.
Once she finished, Reina rose to return to her cabin. The young copilot offered to show her around. She thanked him, but refused his offer. Her cover story wouldn't allow her any friendships onboard. Foresight of a lonely flight had prompted her to bring reading material along. The average travel time between Magoria and Earth was two weeks. On this tub, they were sure to be a long two weeks.
Before Terrans equipped their ships with hyperdrive, the Magorian trip took three years on a fast ship, six on a slow one. Stasis chambers had allowed travel without aging crew or passengers. Reina shook her head as she passed a full bank of them on her way to her room. They gave evidence to hulk's age. More modern ships only maintained one or two for critically ill or injured personnel.
Back in her berth, she dug out the precious artifact she had brought along. Among the disks and holotapes in Esper Corps'
resource room, Reina had unearthed an actual book. Though transcribed onto disk, Reina begged the librarian to keep the real thing.
The woman checked the records, then agreed, only because there was no account of its existence. Reina accepted with a grim smile, reading rank fear and distaste from the shrinking woman. She probably expected Reina to coerce her into giving up the book.
Once more Reina opened the crumbling leather-bound volume. The first-in scout to Magoria had written the account over seventy-five years ago. It beckoned to her, as had no other chronicle. She poured over the familiar words, still fascinated by the world presented. Despite the volume of material on the planet, a great deal of Magoria hid behind a veil of mystery. She read until her eyes burned with fatigue. With great care, she returned her treasure to its hiding place, then slept, her dreams filled with tantalizing visions of her destination.