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Groundties: Excerpts
The First Ever Scene
A Character Moment
Meet the Spacer Cast

Meet the Recons
Making an entrance: Stephen
Making an entrance: Wesley

The First Ever Scene: This is the first scene I wrote for the series. It was published virtually unchange, but with ever so much more meaning in the final product.

At the push of it button, 1810 appeared in the lefthand corner of her office viewscreen, bright amber against the blue-black shadow of HuteNamid's night side.

Any second now . . .

As though on cue, a red security alert blinked above the time. Cantrell chuckled and touched another button on the console.

"Yes, Lexi."

"He just passed us, sir."

"Thank you."

The alert disappeared and with a final glance at HuteNamid, she flipped the viewscreen off. No sense aggravating the situation further.

A blinking entrance request and (she was amused) a pounding on the office door announced the Arrival.

Another button released the door, and before the entryway cleared, Stephen was through it and across the room, and a printout was on her desk, obscuring half her monitor. Holding the sheet flat with the palm of his hand, he leaned across the wide surface and demanded, "Are you going to explain this?"

She lifted his hand, set it down again. "Looks like a transfer order to me."

"You have no right . . ."

"Haven't I? Check again, lad. Civilian you may be, but when you signed on for this trip, you put yourself under my command right along with everyone else aboard."

"Blast it, no! This wasn't part of the deal!" Stephen slammed her desktop, then jerked around so that all she could see was his slender, tensely rigid back. Not an unpleasant view--hell, the boy hadn't a bad one--but not the one she cared to look at just now, either.

"What 'deal'? There's no deal involved here, Stephen, just a job: an important job which at the moment you're the only one qualified to do."

The hand hanging at his side clenched spasmodically before he half-turned to gaze at her out of the corner of one eye, his face little more than a deeply, shadowed profile.

"And once down there? People don't come back from Planetary 'Tank assignments, admiral, and I didn't spend the better part of my life studying my tail off with the toughest bastards in the galaxy to waste it on some back-system world trying to get some half-rate fool to explain a computer system he probably just happened to fall into in the first place! You're not putting me down there!"

He broke off, shoulders heaving, and even the profile disappeared.

She leaned back in her chair and tried to catch a glimpse of his reflection in the darkened viewscreen. "I'm not stranding you. This transfer's not permanent, though it may read that way. It's cover, lad, that's all. To get you close to Smith."

The stiff shoulders relaxed a degree.

"Smith's balking. What else am I going to do to get you to him? Arrest him and haul him up here? Fine atmosphere for academic discussion that would be."

No answer.

"What's really eating you, Stephen?"

A further yielding of the silent back.

"ThinkTank this may be, boy." She heard his breath hiss: that boy was guaranteed to raise any twenty-year-old's blood pressure. "But remember what that means--what sort of person gets assigned to such institutions. Wesley Smith's no fool, and neither is anyone else in the HuteNamid 'Tank. If you approach them with that at-ti-tude of yours, they'll bounce you out on your ass, no questions asked. --And that . . ." she added thoughtfully eyeing the portion of his anatomy in jeopardy, ". . . would be such a waste."

Stephen turned full about. "Dammit, admiral, don't . . ."

But his anger collapsed in the face of her indifference. He sighed and dropped into a chair, thrusting his legs out and leaning his head on one hand.

"I just can't do it, admiral," he said tonelessly. "I've--never been planetside before."

Who do you think you're lying to, boy--me? or yourself? Aloud, she said, "High time, then, isn't it?"

"No!" Another slip of the self-restraint. "I mean, I never expected to. People just don't--" She raised an eyebrow, and he at least had the sensitivity to blush. "Well, not unless they're GravityWell SciCorps or planet-busters or--"

"Watch that term. Most indigenes don't take kindly to it, and many of those we're dealing with here are second, even third generation. Tunica's a capital city of a thriving nation now. Call them indigenes, even colonials, but not--"

"Don't you understand? It doesn't matter! I'm not going down there! I'm not going near those people! I'm not here to--"

"Also . . ." She tapped the thick report on her desk next to his transfer order. ". . . this indigene group's different from any other IndiCorps I've worked with. I assure you--"

"You don't understand--"

"--I assure you--" She knew what he was trying to pull, and she'd have none of it. "--I intend to explore those differences. Ethnic Recon groups can be touchy, particularly where it regards their customs, but these Amerinds . . ."

"Dammit, I don't care! I don't care." He leaned forward and gripped the edge of her desk. "Amerind, Reconstructionist, planet-buster---it's all the same. And it's not my field!" His voice broke. He struggled to continue, tongue-tied, then slapped the desktop in frustration and threw himself back into the chair to stare sullenly at the floor. "The less I know about them, the happier I'll be."

It appeared Danislav had done his job well. It would appear that Ridenour was nothing more than a Recon academy-clone with a special problem with Recons. She couldn't conceive of a more useless combination. But she still had a job to do. He did.

"Never mind. I'll give you the brief on them and you can read it or not. Let's say their unusual reactions to our presence disturb me enough that I'm going down with you and check out the situation personally. You may stay down there a few days and you may not."

He shrugged, scowling. "And I may not go at all."

"I'm pretending I didn't hear that, boy."

His fist slammed down on the chair arm. "Dammit, I'm not a boy! For years, I've aimed at a 'Tech position--in space. I'm not a--a sociologist, not a diplomat. I'm not good at misleading people. That--" he waved his hand toward the transfer, "--isn't my job, and they told me--promised, dammit--that Smith would be brought up here. That I wouldn't have to go planetside."

In the damn-fool department . . . Who promised him that? But she didn't ask. It didn't matter. What mattered was the fist spasmodically clenching and relaxing on the chair arm.

Finally, he asked, in an undertone, "Tell me, admiral, are you doing this because of what happened in SecCom?" His silver eyes rose to meet hers, steady, but intensely anxious. "Is this my punishment for Accessing? Exile? Without a trial?"

Of a sudden, she remembered that look as he'd left SecCom. He'd been awaiting the repercussions ever since. Maybe his resistance had its basis in sheer terror.

"No, Stephen. Not at all. This--" She held up the transfer order. "--was always a contingency. Whoever promised otherwise, lied. I'd hoped not to have to use it, but--"

"You don't understand . . ." The ancient cry of youth coming from a no-longer-sullen boy. She pressed her advantage.

"It's you who doesn't understand. Smith categorically refuses to deal with us. According to this response he transmitted up--" Finally, damn him! "--we've no business here. His job is to, quote: . . . publish ideas, not recruit new researchers. Let him--meaning you, son,--come down and check the place out for himself. If he can't manage that, he certainly can't manage to live here, and he can go to hell or back to Vandereaux, whichever he prefers."

Stephen winced, and again she found herself doubting the academy clone image. Damn Smith for a stubborn fool anyway.

"Smith says, personally, he'd prefer hell," she said, softening her voice, trying for a smile. He just winced again. "Stephen, short of my placing him under arrest and hauling him up, the only way you're going to do your job is for you to go to him. --And that means going planetside."

"But . . ." A small sound, a bit plaintive, but it was a response.

"Look, Stephen, I've a bit more of a problem here than originally anticipated. Besides the data dropout I've got an IndiCorps diplomatic crisis brewing, I've had to order a local 'Net shutdown . . . I don't have time for school-boy histrionics."

"But . . ." Louder this time, stronger: her barb finding its target.

"I must be able to trust you to handle Smith. His research is still your primary purpose here, but the whole business with the indigenes is out of hand. And of the two, diplomatic stability has far more call on my time and energy. The 'Net is your problem. It's broken and you're going to fix it."

He tried again. "But I've never had the immune-shots or even been tested for--"

"Dr. McKenna's waiting for my call right now." He stared sullenly at her from under his brows. She proffered the transfer order. "So shut up, go see the doc, and be ready to leave with me at 0900 hrs."

The sullen glare was far easier to handle than what he'd been radiating moments ago. She quirked the eyebrow and he relented. His lips twitched into a lifeless smile as he leaned forward to accept the paper. "All right, admiral. I suppose I can avoid the 'busters and do the social thing at the 'Tank for a few days. Only don't expect any--"

She grasped his wrist before he could lean back. forcing him to look at her. "What's that supposed to mean?"

A puzzled frown. "What does what mean?"

" 'Avoid the 'busters.'"

"Just what I said. I'll go down with you, talk with Smith, check out the system, his notes . . . admiral, please let go of me .. . everything you and Councillor Eckersley want. And I'll stay out of the way of your ignorant indigenes. There's no need . . ."

"Ignorant indigenes?" She challenged him scathingly. "Smith's assistant happens to be indigene. So is Lexi."

His voice rising: "Lexi's civilized."

She clenched her teeth, biting back sarcasm, remembering what he was. "I certainly didn't expect to hear--that--from you, of all people," she said, challenging that facade openly. A challenge he refused--or didn't hear.

He pulled against her hold. "Please let go, admiral."

"When I'm ready. I don't want you to run off without the other part of your assignment."

"What 'other part'? --Dammit, let go of me!" His hand jerked this time--hard.

She tightened her grip. "Certainly . . . when you're ready to listen to reason. I need someone on the inside. Someone with a legitimate reason to be there. Someone to get to know these people--SciCorps and IndiCorps alike--to listen to them. To find out why some of them are agitating for independence. To find out who--"

"No." Flat and final. "I'm no spy."

"We all do what we must. For God's sake, Ridenour, don't make me pull rank on you. I'd prefer your willing participation, but that isn't necessary--not in the least."

"Let--me--go!" His fist clenched, tendons creating iron hard ridges beneath her fingers.

"You'll be given a guest liaison for the first few days, Anevai Tyeewapi, the governor's own daughter--"

"I don't wan-need any liaison. Just get me to Smith!" His hand jerked again--strong little bastard--but she wouldn't allow him to turn away again. She didn't know what his problem was,

but he'd damn well better solve it now. "Stephen, just talk to her. Get to know her. Get her to talk about her people. We're not playing games here. They suspect my staff. They suspect me. You'll be in a unique position down there. If you hear anything I ought to know--make sure I do

know."

He was no longer listening to her. His belligerence had disappeared, the pulling ended, though the wrist beneath her fingers remained rock hard. His already pale skin had turned deathly

white.

The boy was terrified. Downright panicked. Of what? Her--?

"--Admiral, please don't ask me to-to . . ." His whispered plea faded on a shaking breath. "P-please . . . let . . . g-go . . ."

What the hell's the matter, boy? she thought. Rising slowly to her feet, she leaned across her desk, easing him back into the chair before releasing his wrist. He buried his face in shaking hands, then raked long fingers back through his hair, struggling to regain obviously shattered composure.

She studied him a moment in silence, then crossed to the wall bar under the viewscreen and poured him a Scotch. With water: he had blood tests coming up.

One large gulp. A second.

She asked quietly, "Well?"

Give him credit, he didn't ask Well, what? He said, "I-I have a-problem--with 'busters."

"Obviously."

A fingertip pushed an ice cube through amber liquid. He licked the finger, then sipped the drink. She didn't rush him. Sometimes, a body just had to think.

Eventually, he murmured, without moving, "There's really no other way?"

"None."

Steady, expressionless eyes met hers. "What clothes should I pack?"

A Character Moment : This scene was nearly lost to the great god BookTooLong. I fought for it because it's the first time we see Stephen in his comfort zone...and how fragile that zone is.

Stephen one-handed the RotaRing as he shot by, timing his twist so that momentum carried him in a smooth arc around the virtually frictionless universal joint. He closed his eyes and let his body swing in perfectly rhythmic rotations.

God, it was wonderful!

Some uncounted rotations later, he released his hold, still without opening his eyes, and flew across the room, knowing his vector to the millimeter. He counted to the rhythm of the room and on the fourth beat opened his eyes and reached with both hands to catch the curved side of the five-bar. He laughed aloud as his toes hit the cushioned wall, absorbing momentum, changing his vector.

Take that, Dr. Phillips!

He bounced back and forth between the vector walls surrounding the five-bar, challenging himself, making each pass more complicated than the last, choosing rec-pads totally at random.

He'd forgotten how much sheer fun the ZeroG gym could be. Every gym contained a beat all its own, 'NetStan gravity levels notwithstanding, and Cetacean's, was the liveliest he'd ever been in, strong and predictable, like the heartbeat of the massive vehicle surrounding it. The equipment was in ideal condition, the spring in the walls exquisitely calibrated: you could pick your colorblock and know the exact recoil to expect . . .

In the middle of a triple-twist Rolani with a half turn on the rip, applause echoed through the supposedly empty cavity. He missed his catch; a toe hooked on the ripple bar sending him in an uncontrolled tumble out into the middle of the gym. The accolade ended as abruptly its it had started, and someone shouted his name.

He ignored it. Heard instead Coach Devon's calm voice. Don't panic! Panic wastes energy. Blows thinking. He concentrated on his vector, spotted the RotaRing--just out of reach. A twist put his foot to the wall in place of his head--one of the high recoil pads. He used that rebound, plus a kick-off, to aim a controlled attitude dive toward a catch-ring beyond the main entrance.

As he passed that opening, a half-seen arm reached out and snagged him. He shouted No! but the arm kept its hold and somehow cushioned his bounce off the wall. He grabbed for his would-be rescuer and together they spun to a halt at the end of a magne-tether.

Breathing hard, his heart racing, he blinked his eyes clear of sweat and discovered his deliverer was none other than the admiral's own bodyguard, Sgt. Fonteccio. He blushed violently and did his best to avoid her gaze--not easy, floating nose to nose.

She caught her own breath, grinned at him, said, "Sorry 'bout that."

He said on a--damn he was out of shape--breath, "Hardly your fault, was it, Sgt Fonteccio? It was my foot caught the bar, not yours."

"After I was stupid enough to startle you. But that was quite a demonstration."

He blushed again, not knowing what to say. "I was the stupid one, sergeant. No way I should have let so minor a sound disrupt my focus." He met her smiling eyes then. "My old coach would have had my hide."

"Call it even on stupidity, eh?" She winked. "And it's Lexi to my friends, Stephen. You ready to go in?"

He nodded. She turned off the mags and tugged the line, starting them in a gentle drift toward the entrance as the 'tether reeled them in.

An over the speakers announcement called her to the admiral's office and she tugged again, harder this time. A moment later they were in the corridor, the 'tether coiled into its chamber.

Lexi released him with a See you later, then dived down the corridor for the lift, whipping neatly around and through the opening with a one-hand to the door 'ring. The hand waved at him, then disappeared, narrowly escaping the closing panel.

He stared after her, bewildered. This wasn't the first time she'd appeared to save him from his own stupidity, although in general the rescues were rather less dramatic. How did she know? More importantly, why did she bother?

She was the admiral's bodyguard: he understood that. And Recon, which he didn't understand.

He didn't know why she bothered--

The light above the elevator shaft flashed green; the door slid open.

--but he was increasingly thankful for her quiet interventions.

He shook his brain clear of progwuzzles and tapped easily off the ledge and toward the lift. He hesitated at fifth-level, then got out, forcing the twist in his gut to leave.

He reached under his sweats and tightened the shoulder brace with a touch: the greater G here would put an altogether different strain on it, and he'd best take precautions. That shortness of breath in ZG was a warning: he was out of shape--

--and this was no time to get careless.

Meet the Spacer Cast:

The preliminaries were over, the remnants of the appetizers removed. Good friends, goodfood and a pleasant buzz well underway from the best wine to touch her palate in over two years.

The waiter arrived with the recommended shalimba filets, and Loren Cantrell closed her eyes to savor the aroma. As host of the small party, she received hers last, which gave her nose ample time to prepare her tastebuds.

The waiter's presence passed behind her and she controlled her reflexes with less effort than it had required two glasses of wine ago. He positioned the plate in front of her--filet at lower left, the seven-vegetable crescent an artistic curve above. She smiled. The waiter smiled back. A cool Thank you, met a warmer You're very welcome, admiral, and she laughed.

It was an old game, one the young man played to perfection. He'd get his tip; he was an excellent waiter. But style and a good--personality--wouldn't lower it.

With an impish grin and a wink, he gathered up his tray and stand and glided back to the kitchen, nonchalantly avoiding collision with an outbound dessert. He disappeared behind intricately carved panels, and Cantrell turned back to her companions to find the two females in the party gazing at the panels with equal appreciation. Don looked--resigned.

Smothering amusement behind her glass, she sipped her wine, set it down, and was reaching for her fork when her personal pager buzzed in her ear.

"Damn." If she didn't have the implant, she could ignore it. As it was . . . She held up her hand, forestalling questions as she tapped a query, listened for the encoded response.

--Station Security Com: Albion consul/Stat: Kurt--

"I don't believe this! Kyla, Don, Sharon, excuse me a moment. I've got to find a Secure Line. Please don't wait for me. I've no idea how long this will take. No sense in all our dinners going cold." And with a final, longing glance at the filet: "So help me, if this is anything short of intergalactic war, Kurt Eckersley may not survive the night."

***

A roar went up in the Security Club bar as the ball shot through the pocket. Dead center: a three-pointer, no question.

The revised score flashed on the screen. TJ Briggs leaned back in his chair, licked foam from his upper lip, and smirked at the security officers crowding up behind him.

"One more, gentle-folk, and it's mine--all mine. Thought the old man would be out of touch, didn't you? That's why God invented the 'Net. I've seen all the games. No way those academy kids can beat Joharan's lot. And it's their serve now."

The red-head sharing his chair leaned her elbows on the table, rested her chin glumly in her hand. "Yeah, Teej, but who would have thought a bunch of belt-miners' brats could beat Vandereaux's Best? Let alone by thirty points."

Briggs twisted to grab a handful of popcorn and grinned at her. "You ever watch miners' rug-rats in ZeroG? You've got to--"

A buzz in his ear. No! They wouldn't. Couldn't!

A second roar from the crowd unfortunately failed to drown out a second signal, this one persistent enough to wake the dead.

If the corpse happened to be one TJ Briggs.

Desperately hoping for a replay, he queried the System with discreet taps at the implant. On the bar's vid screen, a foul being reviewed--and in his ear a god damned Priority call from Old Man Morley in Central Security.

"Shit!" he growled, then yelled above the din, "Look out, troops, I'm coming through!--Terry, I need a 'Line. Now!"

Another uproar in the bar: whether from colleagues outraged at him or at something on the screen, Briggs didn't know and didn't dare take time to inquire. He stepped from his chair to the tabletop, then over the crowd, fellow officers lending shoulders and hands as stepping-stones.

By the time he reached the floor, the barkeep had the back room cleared and a Security Line standing-by.

***

Alexis Fonteccio carefully lifted the top layer of pasta. Steam rose: at least it was hot.

She sniffed hopefully--

--and let the pasta fall.

She'd hoped--she'd truly hoped she would find something somewhere in the much-vaunted Vandereaux Station which wouldn't make her gag. This--purported lasagne--was not it. She suspected that their 'imported chef' had indeed been imported--from the seagoing salt processors of Venezia. No wonder stationers got such strange notions about Recons: no Venezian--not even cousin Michaelino--would eat this garbage.

A managerial inquiry tapped into the electro-menu roused a form display:

Regret unavailable at this time.

Please log complaint for queued review.

For complaint list, enter L.

With a sigh and a sip of mediocre red, Lexi leaned her chin on her hand and replaced the inquiry with the Bracketball game. Tiny players bounced in random (to her eyes) chaos across the screen. Another button displayed the score:

TJ should be happy. One more goal and she reckoned the pot was his.

She chewed half-heartedly on a bread-stick that tasted of stale plastic and wondered how to forego the rest of her leave. Three months stuck on Vandereaux Station while Cetacean and her crew were off doing outer-system maneuvers was not her idea of a good time. But Adm. Cantrell had insisted her personal staff get the same time off as herself, and she personally had not had the heart to tell her commanding officer she'd rather scrub pots in Cetacean's galley than spend a week in this hive of NeoDarwinists.

Lexi stuck the plastic breadstick into the plastic lasagne, pushed the plastic plate across the plastic table, signed the plastic register chit and tossed it in the plastic cashier-slot on her way out the plastic door.

"Hold it right there!"

Unmistakable, that Tone. She curbed hostility before turning back. A real-live HB: 'Cashier,' according to his name tag. "Yes?"

"What's the problem?" Low and brisk inquiry from a third party. 'Manager,' his name tag read. Funny thing--not so 'unavailable' as advertised.

The cashier held up the chit. "She's Recon. sir."

The manager eyed the signature, eyed Lexi up and down. She turned so her Cetacean patch and the security badge were clearly visible.

The Look didn't change.

Maybe it was the way she walked.

Not a word spoken. None necessary. She handed them a ten-credit piece Cash. They handed her the change--less a tip for nonexistent service: The Green Olive 'employed' electronic menus and robotic servos.

Lexi turned her back on the Olive's plastic people and headed aimlessly down the row of so-called ethnic restaurants, working her way through the crowd, side-stepping noisy children and pulling a drunk from the path of a speeding VipCab.

Lexi turned her back on the Olive's plastic people and headed aimlessly down the row of so-called ethnic restaurants, working her way slowly through the crowd, side-stepping noisy children and pulling a drunk from the path of a speeding VipCab. Garish colors and raucous music assaulted her senses from all sides. Men and women in ill-fitting replicas of ancient clothing styles accosted passers-by, enthusiastically urging them to try a 'new taste sensation.'

Busy place. Ironic: Vandereaux, undisputed center of the Separatist movement, boasted the largest, most elaborate EthnoStrip of any station in the Nexus ComNet Alliance. But then. what better way to reinforce your own sense of superiority than by sporting a parody of a parody of a Reconstruction of the Real Thing?

And she had three months of this to look forward to.

She could, she supposed, get a downworld passage, but somehow she doubted it would be any different there. The entire Vandereaux system was too old--and too completely in Councillor Shapoorian's pocket--to give a visiting Ethnic Reconstructionist anything but an ulcer, and while the admiral kept including her in Councillor Eckersley's plans for downworld excursions, tours of CentralSec and Capitol Station, Lexi foresaw nothing but an endless repetition of tonight.

At times, Adm. Cantrell had the most incredibly naive notions how far she could bend the system.

The change from the ten covered a hot dog and chips from a stand. Mustard was extra. She splurged, smothered the Mystery Meat into edibility and headed down-rim in quest of a phone.

With luck, the admiral would understand.

Meet the Recons

HuteEtu drifted through the trees to lie, mottled and golden, in the arms of his lover, Yoluta, who . . .

"Oh dear," Anevai Tyeewapi sighed as a toski-bug lighted on the flower in front of her nose. "I'm afraid what we have here is a lover's triangle."

A second sigh. She rose to her knees, tucking her notebook away in a back pocket. "I'll never get it right, now."

Ruthlessly plucking the perfect flower from its patch of sunlight, she added it to the pile already in the basket, then watched the blue-spotted insect flit away on the spring breeze. "Mmmm. Fickle, fickle lover, Lady Yoluta. You must settle for old Etu after all."

A screaming boom shattered the morning quiet. Atmospheric entry.

Oh, shee-it. Anevai glanced skyward, then at her watch. It was later than she'd thought. Dad would have her hide if she missed the landing.

Because this time Adm. Cantrell herself was coming down. Adm. Cantrell was personally shepherding a new researcher. A new researcher who was so fragile he had to have a personal escort to keep the big bad Recoils away from him.

Shee-it. Such an honor. Such a delight!

--Such a hassle.

She grabbed the basket, flipped the lid and headed toward home at the ground-eating pace she could hold for hours, trusting moccasined feet to instinctively adjust to the irregularities of rocks and winding roots in the path.

She had at least an hour before she had to be at the spaceport. She could leave the flowers for Benah--she'd know what to do with them. That would leave her time for a shower and a quick--

The basket went tumbling as a flying body tackled her from the side. The next instant, she found herself flat on her hack with a very sharp knife at her throat and a very large, very heavy shadow between her and the sun.

"Better work on those reflexes, olathe. Your next attacker might not be quite so friendly." At which the shadow began getting friendly indeed.

Never one to ignore sensible instructions, she brought her knees up in a move not as unfriendly as might have been and rolled the shadow over her shoulder, coming to her feet and taking possession of his knife in one swift movement--a movement he'd taught her.

"You've got a lot of nerve, friend. If just one flower's bruised, you're going to replace it! Cantrell's shuttle's coming in and I've got exactly forty-five minutes to get to the airport."

Nayati Hatawa, still sprawled in the dirt, grinned up at her, raised a finger and sneered, "Who cares? Let the spacers fend for themselves for once."

" Pro-to-col."

The grin changed to a scowl as Nayati gathered himself up off the ground. "Protocol be hanged," he growled, brushing at his backside. "Tell them to go--"

"Drop it, Nayati. We've more than enough trouble without adding your brand of insult to the fire. Besides . . ." She flipped him the knife; he caught and sheathed it without taking his eyes from her. "I'm liaison for the new researcher."

Nayati snorted. "If he's a researcher, I'm from Alpha--"

"Yeah, right. He's a spy. Nayati, why don't you give it up? Why should they bother? We're new, we're quiet. Let's keep it that way."

"I still don't like it. What did Smith say about him? Checked his stats, didn't he?"

"I don't know exactly. Hono was there when Wes looked up the records, but he was arrested before I could talk with him. I haven't talked with Wes--haven't seen hide nor hair of him for the last couple of days, actually."

"Maybe you should have found out before you volunteered to be the spy's escort."

"I didn't volunteer! And quit calling him a spy when you don't know anything about him."

"I know SecOne cruisers don't shuttle researchers to and fro for the hell of it."

"And how would you know? Besides, it's not just delivering this Ridenour. They're doing some records checks and I--"

"What sort of records?"

"I don't know! Something's screwed up on the 'Net, and this Adm. Cantrell asked to look over some originals. It happens. Nayati."

Nayati looked decidedly ill at ease. She hadn't paid much attention to her father last night.

Maybe she should have.

"I've got to get a move on. Calling a Warrior meeting?"

"Yes."

"When?"

"Tonight. In the barn."

"Fine. See you." Rescuing the basket, she turned to go.

"Annie!"

She froze and glared back at him. "Don't call me that. You know I hate it."

He shrugged. "I heard from Hononomii this morning."

"You heard from him? Why didn't you say something sooner? Is he all right? Why did he call you? How?"

"Via the WinTap." Nayati's voice was grim. Justifiably so: the 'Tap was for emergency only use. Especially with the Alliance ship insystem. "Tell your father he's . . . gone. You'll hear the rest tonight along with the others."

"Gone? Gone how? Nayati, what's happened?'"

"I said I'd tell you the rest tonight. Just tell your father not to trust this Adm. Cantrell any farther than he can throw her."

The wicker handle bent in her fist. "You can't expect me to leave it at that. He's my brother. What's happened?"

"Settle down, woman. He'll be all right. We've ,just got to get him back."

"Gone how?" But Nayati remained stubbornly silent. She pressed her lips together and turned to go. Sounded more like another of Nayati's numbers. Just like him to drop an implication like that and not explain it. And lately he'd say anything to get the Warriors' Society fired up against the Alliance. How bad could Hononomii be if he'd managed to get at--and use--a base to contact Nayati? And of course he'd use the 'Tap if he didn't want everyone aboard ship to know he was calling.

"And, Ah-nehv-ai."

She stopped and scowled at him over her shoulder.

"Make sure the new guy sees you leave tonight."

"Whatever for?"

"Just do it!"

She opened her mouth to protest, then flung her hands up in disgust. "I've got to go."

***

"Scuze me." The admiral reached past Stephen to flip the cover up on the window, and light flooded into the cabin. He winced away, squinting. "First time down, you don't want to miss."

"Don't 1?"

She grinned broadly at him. "Trust me."

He shuddered (not entirely in jest) glanced back at the window only to wince again at the brightness. He fumbled in his carry-on kit for the dark glasses the admiral had handed him before they left Cetacean . . .What are these for--? Trust me, Stationer-lad, you'll need them! . . . and with a deep breath, he took his first look.

A single glance, at which his stomach heaved in protest. He closed his eyes, fought nausea while his brain registered what he'd seen. It was no different from vids. He could think of it that way, framed as the view was by the port.

Cautiously, he opened his eyes again. . .

. . . on a lush, green and blue surface white-stippled with clouds, on textures and colors no holo could reproduce.

But those textures and colors weren't right. They weren't right!

Stephen gasped as reds and golds overlaid greens and blues in a dizzying, fractured mosaic. He removed the glasses and rubbed at his eyes, startled when his hand came away damp.

Adm. Cantrell said something to him, but he couldn't hear through the roaring in his ears. Her hand on his arm shocked him back to the present and he said quickly: "I was dizzy for a moment. It was the height . . ."

She smiled, said something about 'getting used to it' and 'over soon.'

He muttered a noncommittal answer, and tured back to the window, forcing the disturbing image into an out-of-focus blur . . . .

#

Final approach, a few hundred meters above the highest snowcovered peaks and dropping rapidly. Their flight-path headed them over rugged foothills to the lush, green valley where the landing field was located.

Stephen grasped the armrests until his fingers ached. What had been harmless-looking wrinkles and folds of velvety green and brown were growing with each passing moment into larger and sharper rocks and crevices.

Studying and believing the theory of flight was one thing. Trusting that theory to keep you from falling into very solid-looking mountains, which until now had also been highly theoretical planetary geology, was quite another matter.

A hand patted his. He glanced arund, ecountered an understanding look on a face which, for a moment, he couldn't, for the life of him, recognize. . . .

(His notebook and bag cutting into trembling hands. Himself pressing into the corner of seat and wall, terrified he would get in someone's way the instant he moved. The crew rushing about the cabin, checking systems, stowing unidentified packets in the overheads, pulling equally strange things out.

(Tears gathering in his eyes, blurring the images but not allowed to fall. Mama had left him at the Spaceport and told him to do as he was told. To be good and use the brain the good Lord gave him, because she and Papa were going somewhere he couldn't. And now he was in Space--he knew that because he'd watched his home shrink outside his window and turn into a strange round thing--where Mama and Papa couldn't come.

(I'm trying, Mama. I'm trying to be good, but they haven't told me anything. Maybe no one remembers I'm here. Maybe no one can see me anymore. Mama, am I an invisible and you didn't want me to know?

(Is that why you sent me away?)

***

White against blue against white. Iridescent gleam of heatshielding.

The shuttle drifted elegantly through broken clouds, sleek, sweeping lines very different from ordinary jets or their own station's clunky cargo shuttles. Moments before touchdown, the stabilizers glided forward into landing config, making her outline less alien but no less beautiful.

If it weren't for the presence of the Alliance Security designation on the shuttle's side, Anevai would have welcomed this opportunity to stand by her distinguished father and greet the visitors. As it was, all she felt was bitterness and resentment.

The craft eased to a precise, on the marks--military--stop. The Alliance Security force might claim to be a 'police agency' rather than military, but she'd sure like to know where they made the distinction. Their own Tribal police would never bring a ship in like that. No Tunican police officer would stand at attention while waiting for the hatch to open and the gangway to extend.

Police officers were loose. Relaxed. Friendly. People you could go to when it was late and the tubes were down, to get a lift home so the parents wouldn't skin you alive. They didn't arrest VOSsy dreamers like Hononomii and drag them into space and leave them there.

These men of Cantrell's made her nervous. They were fighters--like Nayati was a fighter. Quiet movers. Friendly. And always on. Just because formally declared war in space hadn't existed for centuries didn't mean there was no army. And while the ship floatiing somewhere above them might not be called a 'warship,' it carried more firepower than any planet could boast. Not an army--?

It made her teeth ache.

And because of this non-military peace-loving admiral's arrival, the whole place felt like a mausoleum. To 'avoid further incidents,' her father had ordered the east terminal closed for the duration of Cetacean's presence insystem. For the admiral's convenience he'd shunted all regular traffic to the other side of the city--never mind the convenience of a quarter of a million Dineh.

"Nituna, have you the schedules and the lists of equipment and personnel the admiral requested?" Sakiimagan Tyeewapi's voice resonated through her thoughts, shattering them into a thousand brittle pieces and pulling her back to the business at hand. Nituna: 'eldest daughter'. (Never mind she was his only daughter.) So, formal--mode had begun.

"Yes, father, it's all here," she said, patting the briefcase in her hand and echoing his formal Voice as best she could. Not an easy skill, but a valuable one to learn.

"Is Dr. Ridenour's suite ready?"

"Yes, father."

He said, without taking his eyes off the parked shuttle, "It would be best if his check-in happened to be delayed. His specialty--if the 'Net is to be believed, is the ComNet itself--"

She glanced at her father in surprise. "A 'NetTech?" Why, if she was supposed to watchdog him, hadn't anybody bothered to tell her that? Or was that why her father had flung this task her way? "Did you want me to--"

He frowned, the slightest tension between his straight black brows. "Your job is to guide him, Anevai, to keep him out of trouble, not to question his veracity."

So much for parental confidence. "So you want Wes to check him out before he turns him loose on the system?"

The frown line eased. "Precisely. And since Dr. Smith is discussing the current situation with the department heads this morning, he won't be available until later."

And they all knew what current situation he was talking about. She asked, formality slipping, "Dad, can't we do something to get Hono back? He didn't do anything. And he's your son. Doesn't that count for anything?"

"He did indeed 'do something,' Anevai. He did a very stupid something." Sakiimagan's tone, his impassive face, belied the criticism. In some ways, she suspected, he was proud of his son's actions. If, on the other hand, it had been his daughter who had willfully attacked a security officer, she'd have been on bread and water for a week. "But he didn't hurt anyone, and I have every confidence we'll get him back--if we do nothing to antagonize this Cantrell, and if we raise no further suspicions."

"But Nayati says--"

"I fail to see how Nayati can know anything for certain, but he said himself that Hononomii will--and I quote what you told me--'be all right.' If that's the case, we would do best to work within this Cantrell's realm and not encourage her to investigate ours more deeply. The best way for us to get Hononomii back is to be cooperative and get the admiral's authority working with us, not against us. According to Paul, she could be a powerful ally if we don't alienate her. Do I make myself clear, nituna?"

Dr. Paul's been here twenty years, she thought. How well can he really know her after all that time? But she closed her mouth firmly on another protest. "Perfectly, father. --Will you come to the meeting tonight?"

"I'm certain my presence will be required with our guests." He smiled down at her. "You will be my surrogate in your brother's absence. Nayati may be over-reactive to Hononomii's incarceration, but he's nothing you can't handle." His near eye narrowed: a half-wink. "I doubt I shall be disappointed."

"I'll do my best, father," she said, Dutiful Daughter. Blast it, she was nineteen 'NetStan--twenty planetary--and any way you looked at it, legally, physically, or emotionally, an adult. Her father had a hard time seeing that, especially with mum gone . . . . but as soon as the Cetacean people left, mum'd be back and things could get back to normal. She shifted her weight to ease an itch in one foot. As soon as Cetacean left: that couldn't happen too soon for her.

Making an Entrance: Part 1
Stephen

"Disappearing data?" Lexi couldn't believe she was hearing correctly. "A whole person? As in gone? As in off the 'Net? I thought that was impossible."

"Supposedly it is." Cantrell seemed perfectly serious.

"Just one person?"

"Two that we know of," TJ replied from his side of the document-strewn table. Security documents. Not on file on the 'Net. Maybe not on the Secured Line Transmission. "Both researchers. How many others is one of the things we hope to find out."

"How did they discover the-- "How did you refer to something that couldn't happen? "--dropouts?"

"In the general investigation of this notorious Smith's postgraduate production, a piece of an archived file the balance of which was not on the 'Net put them onto the problem. Followup got no information, period, on one Barbra Liu. No personal files, no professional; nothing. Council's hardcopy SciCorps register showed them what researchers should appear on HuteNamid records, which turned up William Bennett's absence. As far as the experts can tell, the glitch is confined to HuteNamid files, but the error glitched outward, somehow got through the 'Net and into local ReaITime memory files."

"But you can't . . ." Lexi shut her mouth. Fast. This went way beyond SecFive. You didn't talk about the 'Net losing things. You didn't ask the question she'd been about to ask.

"The 'Net does things," Cantrell said carefully, "for reasons you have to ask somebody who understands NSpace communications better than I do; and even then you won't get a straight answer. Personally, I don't think they really know. Officially, we're not assuming it goes beyond HuteNamid."

"But it already has, admiral," TJ objected.

"Quite," Cantrell said drily.

The file fallout could well explain why the Council had released a SecOne StarShip on this particular RecRun, but:

"What about Smith's paper, admiral?" Lexi asked, her earlier question suddenly achieving far greater significance. "What's it about? Does it have anything to do with the glitch?"

Cantrell shrugged, scattering a bead-glitter throughout the small conference room. "Meeker never mentioned it. Danislav seems to have determined it's worthless; perhaps Council agrees. Obviously, this Ridenour kid thinks it's valid. As for the 'Net Authority . . . who knows what the 'NetAT thinks?"

"The 'NetAT's been all too retiring in this for my taste," TJ growled.

A second scattering glitter. "They're never prone to overt participation."

"But why in hell are they sending this green kid? We're not talking ordinary RecRun here. What's wrong with an experienced secured 'NetTech? Hell, what do we pay Chet that big salary for? He's one of the 'NetAT's own. He could--"

"He's backup, for sure. But Chet's also very much on Record--both his association with the 'NetAT and Cetacean. Maybe that's why we're being sent."

"Ridenour's handling it, but Chet's the real rep?"

"Maybe. And maybe the 'NetAT doesn't take the whole problem any more seriously than Danislav does. He calls Smith a prankster and Ridenour a gullible fool. He says Ridenour's off-course entirely."

"Then Danislav's the fool. If Ridenour's off-course, why the Council's involvement? Why Cetacean?"

"Could the 'NetAT have engineered the whole thing?" Lexi ventured. "Maybe created the glitch? Maybe even steered Ridenour toward Smith's paper?"

"They could have," TJ said, "but, why?"

Good question. She had no answer, but Cantrell did:

"Ridenour."

"What about him?" TJ asked.

"Kurt called him 'special.' Danislav implied he's not exactly swift--in fact, made a point of it. Say Kurt knows something Danislav isn't admitting. Say this Ridenour's really a wiz-kid. Right now, Danislav controls him, legally and psychologically. Maybe the 'NetAT wants him free and this is a way to bust him out. It's like Kurt: if all goes well, create it position for the boy--give a bright Recon kid at break: maybe even help get him into the 'NetAT program, if it ends up that's what the kid wants." She laughed humorlessly. "That'd give Shapoorian a seizure. now, wouldn't it? The 'NetAT's one entity she can't control. And a Recon DProg? Does boggle the mind."

TJ said: "Or it could be Kurt's just getting old and sees a chance to win one against Mialla Shapoorian. --So we're going to have to trust a kid's judgment in this whole damnable mess to make Eckersley look good?"

"'Bout have to, won't we? past a certain point? We've got Chet. He'll keep tabs on Ridenour as well as anyone can, but any good 'NetTech's got an effective security clearance higher than God. If one goes bad--"

"--You better shoot him," TJ said: and Lexi thought:

Fast.

Cantrell nodded grimly. "It's worth making real good friends with this Ridenour. Help him have a pleasant trip."

TJ said, "Wonder how much Council really thinks it knows."

"Council has to rely on the 'NetTechs, ultimately," Cantrell said. "Ultimately, so do we. So we don't use them for target practice before we know what they've done to the 'Net."

TJ said, "I'd like to know why Eckersley never mentioned this kid before."

"I'd like to know the same thing. I'll tell you, it doesn't do a whole helluva lot for my confidence in anything else Eckersley's done and said over the years. I thought we were on the same side." The admiral rose and handed a security packet to Lexi while TJ gathered the reports from the table. "Read up. If Danislav's right and that kid is unstable because of his background, you're likely to be our best hope of gluing him back together if he blows."

She opened the packet, saw the diary within. "Ridenour's?"

Cantrell nodded.

"Admiral, if his background is SecOne, does he knew that we know he's Recon? I mean, if the students knew . . ."

"Good question." Cantrell frowned. "Hell, don't mention it until he does."

"What's his official story?" Lexi asked.

"According to Danislav, Del d'Buggers usually approach the researcher in question very quietly. Legalities. Officially, Ridenour's along as Cetacean's tech advisor and as a possible transfer to the HuteNamid 'Tank. Ostensibly, he's along to check out the facilities, to see whether he wants to join that team. Since he's in Smith's field, that will allow him to approach Smith discreetly. Smith gave no cites whatsoever in his paper; he must be expecting questions."

"Does Ridenour know about the missing records?"

"At a student's security level? Unless he's deeper in this than we've been told, he doesn't know anything yet about missing records. Not even Danislav knows that. Just 'discrepancies' and that only as a cover story for his investigation of Smith's paper."

TJ said slowly, "If Ridenour lives in this universe, he sure doesn't think transporting him is our only reason for going. Eventually, this kid is going is going to start asking Lexi's question, isn't he? Maybe start to think his cover's not a contrived story and maybe understanding a whole lot more than we're going to figure. Danislav called Smith Designer material. Academies don't just hand out doctorates to twenty-year-olds. The 'NetAT doesn't take personal interest in just any student 'Tech. Get Ridenour and Smith together and we don't know what in hell's going to shake out."

Cantrell nodded. "I don't discount the possibility that our wiz-kid--if he ever makes it here--might just find a connection between that paper and the fallouts once he gets with Smith. I don't believe in coincidence on this scale. If it's a prank, it's damned unfunny. No, if that kid's legitimately what they want for the 'NetAT, that brain lives in NSpace, and we'd better hope he wants whatever bribe Kurt offered real bad."

"Maybe we'll luck out," TJ said. "Maybe he's one of those that can't match his own socks, and we won't have to worry about his motives."

"I don't care if he wears his socks on his head, we keep on our toes dealing with him.--As for why Cetacean: we're on a training run and this RecRun is an opportunity to do some mechanical shakedown. We don't say 'erased files.' That can't happen. On Shapoorian's personal orders it can't."

"Yeah," TJ said. "Right."

***

The lounge outside the security room was packed now to overflowing. Cetacean bridge crew were draped on chairs and in each other's laps in varying degrees of inebriation, surrounded by bags of purchases which absolutely had to be hand-carried aboard. Heaven forbid they should trust their precious new toys to the cargo crew, who would only see them safely crated and painlessly transported to Cetacean.

Cantrell shuddered to imagine the chaos which must reign at the ZG transfer tubes where the bulk of Cetacean's personnel were gathering. The rotating shore-leave meant eighty percent of her crew were wandering Vandereaux Station-Main or any of its six subsidiaries, all of them being tracked down, their leaves cut short, and the lostlings herded back aboard. They all had beepers installed in their heads, but some became amazingly hard-of-hearing under certain--recreational conditions.

For some, like herself and her personal staff, leave had just begun, and only the crew now onboard had had their full, promised, two weeks.

They were going to be such a happy ship.

Suddenly, from down-rim, the irritating chime of an AutoCab on an emergency run. People and carriers scattered in all directions as the blinking light atop the vehicle drew closer. And closer. And lurched to a halt at gate G-35A.

"Why did I suspect as much?" TJ muttered at her shoulder.

Out of the cab, perfectly composed, apparently oblivious to the havoc he'd created, stepped a slender, dark-haired young man. Definitely not the awkward, painfully-out-of-place Recon she'd been led to expect. Every hair and every creased seam was very much in place. The kid was as identifiably Academy as Meeker had been Council.

"Good God." Another TJ mutter as the Academy Clone cast a cool glance around the lounge, and the AutoCab released two enormous suitcases (and a trunk?) to a RoboPort. "What does he think we are? A cargo hauler?" And as the young man's gaze fell on them: "If he dressed himself this morning, we're in deep shit."

Ridenour--it had to be him--started toward them, the RoboPort at his polished heels.

"What do you mean?" Lexi's murmur from her other side.

"Adm. Cantrell?" The fashion plate's voice was silky-smooth, his accent pure A-ca-de-my. He held out a perfectly manicured hand. "I'm Stephen Ridenour."

And TJ, in a voice meant only for Lexi and herself: "His socks match."

Making an Entrance: Part 2
The Wesser

They heard the music and the laughter, smelled the food, long before they turned down the hall leading to The WateringHole. Wes still hadn't returned to his office--no surprise: Wesley had sworn to avoid Ridenour as long as possible--and since this was the best food and drink to be had on all HuteNamid, Anevai was willing to bet he'd be here.

She paused in the doorway, giving her eyes time to adjust to the low light. Beside her, Stephen asked, his voice low and unsteady, "Are you sure it's safe in here?"

"Huh?" Elegant, Tyeewapi, real elegant. "Ridenour. it's only a pub!"

But his worried look remained.

What did he think would happen here? The researchers told tales of places on stations, places along the docking bays which harbored all sorts of rough individuals: free traders, drug dealers, merchanters and such; dark bars where weapons (such as could be detected) were appropriated at the door; but how much resemblance could they possibly bear to The Watering Hole?

"Hey, relax, okay?" she said. Standing on tiptoe, she scanned the crowded room, waving to one person and another. Finally: "Looks like you beat the odds, Ridenour. There he is.--Hey, Wesley!" she yelled out, waving one arm above her head and jumping up and down. She felt Stephen start, then draw back into the shadows as the whole room seemed to turn toward the door.

Everyone except (the tode) Wesley, who was standing over by the bar, nose buried in his beer, and his backside stubbornly to the door. He either hadn't heard: unlikely, was too busy flapping his mouth: distinct possibility; and/or was flat ignoring her: almost undoubtedly.

And Stephen received the message, loud and clear. He ducked his head and turned away from the restaurant door, mumbling, "Let's go. I'll talk--"'

"Forget it, Stevie-lad. He's just approximating an ass. C'mon." Anevai darted through the packed room, dodging waiters and tables with practiced ease.

"Look out, Ridenour!" She swayed away from an overloaded tray floating through the air on one upthrust hand. She glanced back to ensure Stephen's safety--and he wasn't there.

The spacer was still standing back at the entrance, making a major production of the removal and storage of his sunglasses. A surreptitious survey of a room gone private again, and his shoulders visibly relaxed.

Suddenly, his actions made it bizarre kind of sense: Stephen didn't like being the center of attention--for whatever reason. But that wouldn't work in this roomful of egos and curiosity. If he wouldn't go to Wes, the Wesser would simply have to go to him. Easy done: all she had to do was get the Wesser to look up.

She worked her way the last few steps to the bar and grabbing Wes by the shoulder, shouted in his car, "Wake up, Doc! Time to go to work."

He yelped and jumped away from her, tripping over the stool next to him and managing to lay his hands all over its shapely occupant in his resultant fight for balance. Tracy, long since immune to him, just grabbed his elbow with one steadying hand, and sipped foam from her mug with the other.

"Wesley, knock it off, will you?" She wanted her lunch and she sensed potential trouble brewing in Wesley's hyperactive RAM.

Wesley scowled at her and turned to Tracy, pulling her around to kiss her soundly. She indulged him until she'd swallowed her mouthful of beer, then pulled away, patting him on the cheek. "Go to work, dear. You have to earn your keep somehow."

The scowl deepened and he muttered, "I earn my keep just fine. Don't need no stinking grad-ii-ates from Van-dy-roo screwing my computer."

If she didn't know him better, she might believe he was serious.

"Hey, Wes, he's okay. And he's a nice boy. Shy. Take it easy on him, will you?"

She followed his glance to the deep shadows beside the doorway into which Stephen had melted. But--dammit--Stephen was A-ca-de-my again.

"Right." Wesley said sourly. "A Vandy-roo pretty-boy: vaporware for brains and virtualware for--

"Wesley. "

He shrugged and turned back to the bar. "Just what we don't need. Well, screw him."

She grabbed his arm and hissed in his car, "Dammit, Wes, you're not being fair! C'mon."

He glanced at her over his shoulder. "No? Let's find out, shall we?" And turned back to his beer.

"Wes, what're you--"

"Trust me."

"The hell I will!" She tightened her grip on his arm, started to pull.

Suddenly, he yelled, "Help! Rape!" And leaning across the bar, grabbed the far side.

"Wesley, what--" He winked at her. Oh, shee-it. Jonathan Wesley Smith, what are you up to? Whatever it was, he wasn't getting away with it-- "Nigan! Grab his other arm!"

And Nigan Wakiza, bless his homely heart, helped her drag Wes away from the bar, quite literally kicking and screaming, while the crowd cheered them on--them or Wes. Pretty soon, they'd be laying bets.

"Dammit!" their victim gasped, pulling hard. "Lemme go! Them's m'workin' arms!"

Someone shouted over the answering roar, "Don't you fret, Wes, old man. You can always type with your toes, like any good anthropoid!"

She spotted Stephen over Nigan's shoulder. For it split instant, his face mirrored dismay, and she couldn't blame him for wondering: Wesley certainly wasn't acting much like the brilliant researcher he claimed he was.

Wesley's backside was aimed straight at Sarah Metcalf, who was eyeing the view with open appreciation. With a meaningful glance at Nigan, Anevai released her hold. Nigan, following her cue, did the same, and Wesley staggered backward onto Metzky's lap. Metzky obligingly wrapped her arms about him and kissed his open mouth soundly before he had it chance to escape.

Not that an escape attempt was likely.

When it became obvious Wesley wasn't about to break the clinch, Anevai shrugged and headed back toward Stephen yelling at the top of her lungs, "Guess we better leave, Ridenour. Look like he's down fer th' count."

Wesley yelped and jumped up, rubbing his posterior and glaring with injured pride at his assaultress, who had already resumed her lunch. His shoulders heaved. He placed a hand on his heart and declared himself wounded for life--that a hermit's life was the only choice left for him--and staggered, hangdog, for the door--

--straight into a startled Stephen, who caught at his arms, jarring him to a halt. It was truly one of the Wesser's better performances, albeit undermined by rude remarks and ribald laughter from his audience.

The shuffling walk continued for several more steps, going nowhere, pressing Stephen's elbows to the wall behind him. Finally, the shuffling stopped. Sun-bleached hair in front of Stephen's nose tipped back and Wes (the wretch) said breathily, "Hi, there. New in town?"

Stephen stared back, spook eyes a bit crossed at the close focus, his mouth slightly open. C'mon, Ridenour, call his bluff. Don't just stand there.

Wesley's hands crept to 'new in town's' sides and up under the loose sweater. Stephen, his back against the wall, seemed to freeze.

"Oo-oo, leather." Wesley crooned, and hid an over-the-shoulder wink to the crowd under a pii'chum-like rub of his head against Stephen's chest. "Kin-ky."

The brace: Anevai was not amused.

Stephen quite obviously was not.

Panic. Mindless, irrational panic: she'd seen it too often in animals not to recognize it. But Stephen was no animal. And--dammit--he'd been making such an issue of meeting Wes--well, here he was. Call his bluff, ya damnfool!

Finally, Stephen licked his lips and swallowed visibly. Closing his eyes for a split instant, he whispered in it constricted tone, "Dr. Smith, I . . ."

She exchanged a disgusted look with Nigan, moved up behind Wes, grabbed his elbows and pulled back. "--Knock it off, hotshot! This is a nice boy. --A nice boy, hear?" She grew less and less amused as Wesley, his hands held out of action, began to press bodily up against Stephen, whose face was no longer red but deathly white.

She hissed in Wesley's car, "Dammit. Smith, that's enough! You're not funny anymore!"

Wesley sighed heavily enough to make Stephen blink and stir his curls, and straightened up. He accepted the napkin someone handed him and delicately wiped the lipstick from his face, ran a hand casually through his mop, miraculously transforming it into hair, and extended his hand as though nothing had happened.

"How do you do, Dr. Ridenour. I'm Wesley Smith."

Stephen eyed the hand, the calm, professional demeanor, then looked desperately at her. She shrugged and turned to Nigan standing next to her. You're on your own now, Ridenour.

But she kept an eye on him, all the same.

He stepped away from the wall, got the open door at his back, which seemed to help, then wiping his palm covertly on his slacks, smiled hesitantly at Smith, and took the proffered land, saying in his soft voice, "I've been waiting a long time to meet you, Dr. Smith. Ever since I read your paper."

Wesley looked an I-told-you-so at her, then asked Stephen, "Which was that? The Consumer Dynamics of Infopropogation? Econometric Systems as Pertains to 'Netly lntercource--"

"N-no, sir. Although I d-did read the D-Dynamics as well." He was blushing again, she could hear it in his voice, though she couldn't see it in the pub's low light. "I was s-speaking of H-Harmonies of the 'Net."

Well, I'll be . . .

Stephen winced as Wesley's hand closed convulsively on his, and Wesley, marginally sane at last, relaxed his grip but continued to hold on, studying Stephen through narrowed eyes. Stephen blinked, but otherwise held steady. After a long moment. Wesley grinned, clapped him on the shoulder, and drew him toward the bar, the crowd dividing to let them through.

As they passed her, Wesley called somewhat wistfully, "You sure he's a 'nice boy?' ?"

 

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