Overall Reina found it a boring and routine flight. Her only diversions were an exercise session in the morning and three-dimensional chess and checkers in the evening. The last two ended in about a week. Someone leaked to the others Reina's esper status and her journey's purpose. Though she wondered how they found out, she didn't mind them avoiding her. She spent most of the time in her berth, meditating and reviewing her notes.
The day the ship was due for planetfall, Reina concentrated on her leads about the Magorian group. The operative had only provided the name 'Colos' and the location of a place they frequented. Whether the name was a code word, a location, or a real person remained uncertain. Reina's job would be to ferret out that information and more if possible.
Colos. The name tickled her memory. She kept seeing a giant red-bearded man with a booming voice. There were others, too, but she refused to accept her dreams as any indication of reality. She would do her job and not let her imagination pull any dirty tricks.
The warning klaxon jolted her reflections. The captain called for landing precautions. Reina scrambled to collect and stow her scattered belongings, then strapped herself into the gee-webbing. Through her bunk, she felt the engines' rumble change as they strained to slow the bulky ship.
Reina knew Magoria's gravity would allow even this old vessel to land without much of a problem. Still, she gripped the therm blanket with sweaty fingers. Before she could begin her relaxation techniques, black dots floated before her eyes, then the whole room darkened.
When she came around, her ears roared. Pinwheels and stars danced before her eyes. She hadn't passed out like that since her first few liftoffs. Disoriented, she lay still for a few moments until she heard the unmistakable sounds of spaceport hook-up. When she unstrapped and sat up, her head threatened explosion. She fought off waves of nausea, grabbed her pack, and made her way to the main hatch.
The others began emerging from their berths and flight compartments. Reina thanked the captain and crew before she left. Although not the most comfortable flight she had taken, she didn't wish risking the crew's alienation. Especially if she returned to Earth on the same ship.
Magoria's twin suns slanted low across the sky, glaring into Reina's eyes as she debarked. The throbbing in her head grew with each step. At this rate she'd be blind. Once in the spaceport she looked for a med station. The attendant politely took her history and complaint, then gave her a low-level analgesic shot. Within seconds her pain eased. The man gave her a copy of the treatment record.
"Effects should wear off in a couple of hours. Most visitors have no problems. Unless they're espers." He gave her a quizzical look.
"I'm a telempath. Is that a problem? Will it happen again?"
"Shouldn't. There's a low frequency psychic barrier around most of our world. Only time it bothers anybody is during take-off or landing."
"Great. Thanks for the warning. Is there anyway I can avoid this murderous headache when I leave?"
The attendant shrugged and handed her a vial. "Take these meds along. Try one about a half-hour before take-off."
Reina thanked him again, then asked for directions to the inn the contact had suggested. The suns had nearly set by the time she left the spaceport. Her route took her past the ever-present saloons. This district, frequented by space travelers from all worlds, had every class and kind represented. All sorts of creatures ogled and beckoned her lasciviously. Annoyed, but unsurprised, she evaded them.
In spite of her cropped blond hair and rumpled spacesuit, she knew any passable female humanoid would focus attention. Few reputable ones would venture anywhere near the often-questionable establishments. Only a few desperate or diseased human women haunted the places. Usually the patrons avoided them, preferring the safer company of brothel-monitored employees.
She managed to hurry past without incident and in the increasing gloom, find the address. The hostelry's faded, cracked paint and crooked sign indicated its better days had passed. Though she could get plenty of funds if needed, because of her cover, the Corps decided she should stay here. Her cover was another sore point.
Reina knew Magorians considered a companion respectable employment. However, it indicated money problems and a certain amount of desperation. According to her instructions, only such a miserable lodging would prevent difficult questions. Hidden among the other run-down buildings, this wreck also proved useful because it lay near Diepa, the major city.
When she entered, she steeled herself for the worst. The seedy-looking desk clerk matched his surroundings. After he perused her papers, he grunted noncommittally and led her to her 'room.' He handed her the key, shot her a sharp, appraising glance, then shuffled back down the rickety stairs.
Reina stared at his retreating figure with an acute sense of discomfort. She couldn't read him. She hoped it wasn't a bad omen. Usually her special "feelers" never failed her. His look had nothing of the off-worlders' leers, yet there was an eerie air of knowing which troubled her. She shook her head, entered her assigned space, then peered around the gloomy cubicle. When she flicked on the lights, the glare confirmed what she feared. Worse than the cubby she called home on Earth. The place's nearly tangible miasma of stale air and unwashed bodies almost overwhelmed her.
Nauseated, she stumbled to the small, grimy window behind filthy, tattered curtains. She forced the protesting sash open, then stuck her head out to breathe in the cool evening air. At last she turned her attention to the bed. The stained and rumpled bedding gave her stomach another turn. If she couldn't find the group...
She shuddered at the thought of spending even one night here, but unless she got started it might take several nights. Resolutely, she brought out her only change of clothing, then stowed her pack in one of the shabby cabinets.
After the dimness of her room, the hall lights glared. Her eyes slitted against them while she searched for a refresher station. She found a surprisingly clean facility at the dingy passageway's very end. After a sonic shower, she changed into the bodysuit Niall had picked up on Proxima Centauri. He'd given it to her on her last birthday, but she'd never felt comfortable wearing it.
Azure blue, the remarkable creation gave tribute to Proxima's clothing industry. The material visually resembled Terran silk, but one could fold it into a square no larger than two centimeters. When worn, the satiny stuff clung to the body as if a second skin and hid very little from others. Reina didn't want to attract any further attention and this suit would be sure to do just that.
When she asked the clerk for a place to buy clothes, he eyed her again. She shrugged it off and followed his map. The store boasted reasonable prices and she found a flowing dark blue Magorian cloak for a small sum. Tired and hungry, she headed for the caf?here the group hung out. As she passed a shop window she caught a glimpse of herself.
Her appearance startled her. When she'd stepped onboard the ship two weeks before, she'd appeared a neat, regulation Terran esper. Now she looked the part of a Magorian companion. Her hair had grown somewhat and the outfit emphasized her figure, even with the cloak. The metamorphosis made her uneasy. She tried to dismiss the feeling and strode toward the caf?
Reina found the place without much difficulty. Frequented by Magorians and off-worlders, its atmosphere evoked a combination of Magoria and Terran Europe. When she entered, her gaze met a familiar scene. Smoke from various types of cigarettes, pipes and other kinds of apparatus wafted through the room. This thick, somewhat noisome cloud obscured what little lighting came from yellow-glassed lamps hanging from the darkened ceiling.
Tables littered the floor while booths snugged against the walls and dimly lit corners. A variety of species met, drank and played games of chance here. A rather blowzy brunette in a gaudy outfit made her way over to the door and offered to seat Reina. Reina asked for a booth if possible, then followed the waitress as she wended her way through the crowd to one of the secluded corners.
Reina ordered a Saurian brandy to nurse along while she waited. When the brunette left to get it, she gave Reina a smug, keen glance. A shiver rippled through Reina. Was it that her profession as a companion stood out or had someone exposed her mission?
A cold pit of fear clutched at her stomach. God only knew what would happen to her if the mission were common knowledge on Magoria. When the girl returned and set the drink down, Reina cleared her head and managed a nod. The brunette returned to her other customers without repeating the strange look. Reina began to think her paranoia was getting the upper hand.
She scanned the smoky, noisy room unobtrusively as possible. The jumbled, occasionally violent emotions and thoughts made her head whirl, but none fit the pattern for her mission. While she stared into the golden liquid before her, she allowed herself to follow the ebb and flow of transmissions. The flickering lights and background noise mesmerized her.
A sudden surge of excitement on all levels, like a ripple on a pond, almost brought her to her feet. Mingled with the near electric currents came a sense of awe. Her gaze pulled toward the door. A large, well-built man had entered. He quickly scanned the room, then made his way across the floor. To Reina's horror, he headed straight for her table, as though she'd set a beacon for his attention.
Too soon for her to hide, he stood before her. She met his gaze, captured by his remarkable eyes. A deep booming laugh erupted from him. Her alarm must have communicated itself to him. He leaned down and whispered softly to her.
"You have nothing to fear here, my dear." His eyes crinkled with amusement. She couldn't help her annoyance at her unguarded reaction.
Added to that irritation was a great attraction to the giant. His flame red hair, splendid physique, and shocking green-gold eyes set him apart from the dark Magorians around him. Those eyes captured her interest most. Green as Earth's hills, flecked with the gold of Earth's sun. His gaze reached out and filled her with a warmth and security she'd never known before.
Enfolding was the best way she could describe the emotion he directed toward her. Such a man could lead her anywhere and she would follow willingly. She felt no fear and no apprehension. Part of her spoke and bid him sit beside her. Her mind refused to function properly. He easily swept away all her carefully laid plans and shields.
"Well, my dear Queenie, are you truly going to work with the ore extractors?"
Reina stared at him, numb with shock. Not only did he know her cover, but he also used her parents' diminutive of her name. She didn't know how to answer him except to state the practiced cover story she told at the spaceport.
"I'm Reina Estes, and yes, I'm here to be a companion."
Colos shook his massive head in disbelief. Magorian ore extractors took raw urillianium from the matrix by psychic means. Rather vegetable intellects otherwise, they still had physical and emotional needs. Magoria actively sought telempaths on all worlds to assuage these and pour positive sensations into them to prevent breakdown. They had no slave labor, but the volunteers burned out easily without an empathatic companion. The talents didn't last long, either. Thus, the need.
"Why do you lower yourself to pleasuring those nut crackers when you have so much to give for better purposes?" He took her hand, engulfing it with his huge paw. "Why not join us instead?"
Reina studied his large hand with a strange detached interest. In spite of their size, his finely boned fingers wrapped around hers gently. A squeeze from those appendages recalled her with a start. He smiled at her, then beckoned to the brunette at the bar. Reina worried at the connection between the two. She felt totally defenseless against the Magorians. No secrets would survive around them. The brunette smiled a lazy smile. Colos rumbled a chuckle.
"Queenie, this is Rhael. She is one of us. A natural psycho-distort and a telepath. You see her now as a rather plump, unsophisticated woman, but... Rhael, give Queenie here a glimpse of your real self."
Before Reina's eyes the woman's form wavered. The rather peasant-like tart became a sleekly dressed, feline woman. Just as quickly the other image reappeared. All that remained was the same the catlike smile she gave Reina as she sauntered back to the bar for another customer's order.
Reina's mind reeled at the implications. Rarely did psycho-distorts emerge from human stock and to maintain such a complex image for such an extended time indicated Rhael was an accomplished one. Colos' laughter boomed again at her perplexed look. What had she gotten herself into? Had she traded one sort of controlled life for another?
Cold uncertainty gripped her. For a moment she wanted desperately to go home to Niall and the Esper Corps. She clamped down on her panic, reminding herself she had a job to do.
Colos rose and motioned to another, somewhat inconspicuous girl. He introduced her as Faerie. The young woman smiled shyly. Reina couldn't help liking the quiet, mouse-brown little thing. Colos looked over at Rhael, who joined them.
"It's time for us to get home. Rhael's off now, so we can leave together. Please, join us." His entreaty pulled at her until she finally nodded her agreement.
Reina hadn't intended on going into the proverbial lion's den quite so soon. However, she sighed with relief at the thought of not having to return to her likely vermin invested room. She mentioned her pack at the hostelry to Colos and he nodded to Faerie. The tiny girl left quickly before them as Colos, Reina, and Rhael made their way through the crowded place.
When they got outside, Faerie was nowhere in sight. Reina looked up at the darkening sky. A faint trace of the magnificent sunset still lingered, painting it maroon and rose near the west. The air held a chill even her cloak couldn't fight off. She shivered against it, then felt Colos' large, warm arm around her shoulders.
"We must bide here for just a few moments. Faerie will return soon."
Within seconds, Faerie returned with Reina's small pack in her hands. Reina shuddered again with more than cold. She felt as if enmeshed in something in which she was only a beginner. Here she was the child, instead of the adept. Rhael and Faerie, picking up her distress, sent her non-verbal reassurances.
The group began wending its way home. The others formed a protective circle around Reina. Quickly and silently they walked through the darkened streets. Like a barrier against the night, Colos wrapped Reina in his great cloak to shelter her from Magoria's cold winter evening.