The Feline Imperative, Part 3
by Sharon Best (with editing by JH)
(Author's note: The Feline Imperative setting is about four decades earlier than the 2050AD story line that is running concurrently on the AU)
As we left Bottega Borgata, Gina grabbed my arm and cooed, "I was really looking forward to an evening with you." She squeezed my firm bicep to emphasize the last two words, while staring with her own half-lidded eyes straight into mine. "I'll keep in touch," she whispered.
A spark of heat flashed through me, and then my training took over. "I'm not easy to find. Let me contact you."
"Don’t wait too long,” she purred back. "Or I'll come after you."
After a quick trip to the roof, Daina and I launched ourselves into the air at a leisurely Mach .75 and then started jitterbugging our speed down and up for a while to confuse any radars. Once we were safely in the ionosphere, we set course for Hermosa Beach and arrived, gloriously naked again, just as the sun was setting into the Pacific. I signaled her to do the jitterbugging again, and when the coast was clear around my apartment, we soared in through the window too fast for anyone to see – I hoped.
Ordinarily, after outfitting Daina and giving her a quick orientation to L.A. and Terra, I might have taken her out clubbing or perhaps to a party. But Daina’s eyes were still listless and void of energy, even though the fullness of her breasts indicated that she had the energy to move a mountain or two. She never asked anything, just listened to me, and did whatever I suggested. So, after giving her the high-speed course on blending in and pointing out a couple of helpful data cubes that she might want to review, I took her to my closet and threw a couple of outfits at her. We were about the same size, except for her Protector-sized tits. She might look as if she were trolling for johns, but she’d get by until Kara got back. Fortunately, she didn’t need a bra.
Even while she was trying on my stuff, Daina remained detached and passive. So, I pointed out the guest bed and suggested that she might want to lie down and either nap or absorb the information. Without a word, she nodded and went straight to sleep.
. . .
Over on the other side of the continent, Kara was boogieing away at a small club in “Alphabet City,” a grungy area of Manhattan popular with the 25-year-old men and women from Europe and Asia drawn to New York’s funky club scene. Her companions were Forghed Ditt and four of his staff, all fashionably dressed in black shirts and parachute nylon pants. Although she was playing the role of Ditt’s bodyguard, he was spending most of his time fending off younger men with buffed bodies. Most of them, though, had the pale drawn faces that betrayed too many nights using “Empathy,” the designer drug of the moment. Ditt’s current nemesis, an olive-skinned Greek who had modeled a few underwear ads, was angling in whenever he had the chance to brush hips or bump rumps with the Scalantran magnate.
Finally, the bartender warned that the 4 a.m. closing time had come and the waitresses passed whispered the address of an after-hours club around the corner in the cellar of an abandoned pickle factory. Clothing there would be definitely optional. While Kara normally would have continued partying on, she couldn’t let go while trying to maintain Daina’s air of zombie-like detachment, and her new boss had been making a point of stroking the insides of her arms and her trim waist for the last half-hour, when he wasn’t ostentatiously licking his lips. Ditt threw a few hints to his minions, and soon he and Kara were speeding back to the Royal Suite at the Plaza in the rear of a hired limo, where he continued his off-handed seduction. Although he was going through the motions of arousing her slowly, and doing so with high skill, there was an oddly mechanical feeling to his foreplay, as if he were following some kind of script.
<“Shall I draw you a bath, Pompanom?”> his female valet asked as they entered the suite.
<“No, Carletna, Daina and I will just go to bed. You may leave.”> Ditt hustled into the master bedroom, beckoning Kara to follow. As she entered the room, he opened his arms to embrace her and ordered “Undress me.”
Kara’s arousal from the partying and Ditt’s foreplay vanished with that remark. The Scalantran saw Daina as another acquisition, a whore, courtesy of the Council of Velor, which once again was treating a Protector as a useful instrument. Still, at least she was the one in the bedroom instead of an inexperienced Protector who might take the humiliation to heart. She could love him quickly, efficiently, with a minimum of emotional content, and send him to sleep. As she stepped into his arms, she glanced through the fabric of his pants. He had been enhanced, a bit more than the minimum, probably because of multiple partners. At least she wouldn’t have to hold back completely. As she reached for his shirt, she began thinking of her last session with a Messenger, weeks ago. Like Forghed Ditt, he was tall and well-muscled, almost free of body hair and like Ditt, he was not terribly concerned with her feelings. Still, his physicality and energy had ignited her passions and swept them both up into a whirlwind of loving on the far side of the moon. Warmth surged through her as she remembered and her passion ignited.
By now, the Scalantran’s clothing was on the floor, and Kara’s pheromones were taking effect. <“Take, . . . STRIP now!”> he barked.
Still in her reverie, Kara let the order pass and imagined she was stripping in front of the departed Messenger. Her deceptively delicate hands first slid down the sides of her tight shirt, smoothing it and emphasizing the rise of her breasts. As they reached her waist, she twitched her hips back and forth, and then gently pulled the pants down a trifle, just below her hips, baring her tanned, flat midriff to his sight. Ditt’s eyes were riveted on her. Now, her hands returned to the bottom of her shirt, and she began lifting it, swaying her body back and forth, making her breasts swing gently in time with the movements of her arms. Reaching the underside of her breasts, she paused to stare directly into the Scalantran’s eyes, letting her tongue roll over her lips.
<“Don’t stop,”> the trader breathed.
Eyes twinkling with the realization that she was taking control, Kara raised her shirt a bit more, exposing her broad areolas and firm nipples. Forghed Ditt reached out tentatively, questioningly, toward them, hoping to grasp their proud firmness. With a twist of her body, Kara evaded him, and then continued pulling up the thin shirt, turning and posing as she did so, until she had lifted it from her body. Letting the shirt drop to the floor, she reached out to hold his hand gently in her hands, fingers stroking gently over his cheekbones while she listened to the rush of his breath and the rapid pulse of his heartbeat. He moaned, lifting his hands now to the blonde silkiness of her hair and brushing them through its softness.
<”You’re hot,”> Kara whispered, almost hypnotically. <”You want me. You’re hard for me. You need me.”> As she intoned those words, she began relaxing herself, softening herself for the entry of an enhanced man as she had so many times before.
“Uhh.hhhh,” was the Scalantran’s only response, transfixed by her body and pheromones.
<”Look at me. Look how hot I am for you. Let me feel your body against mine,”> Kara murmured. With Ditt’s eyes locked on her, she let her body weave and ripple in time with her words, further entrancing him as she backed toward the bed with its satin sheets. A quick seduction, she thought, and then, perhaps, she would look around the empty suite for some compromising information.
Stretching her arms above her head, Kara leaned backward and drifted down to the bed, completely open to the trader’s gaze. By now he should be completely entranced, ready to do anything as long as he thought it would lead him into her secret depths.
<“No,”> said the Scalantran in a dazed tone. <”Not that way.”>
Kara looked up in mild confusion. <”What? You don’t want me?”> she whispered.
<”You know what I want, what I’ve waited for. Get up on your knees.”> His voice was becoming harder, more certain.
Floating off the bed, Kara rolled in mid-air and settled back down to the bed, head facing away from the Scalantran. <”Like this, lover?”> she replied complaisantly.
<”Yeah, like that. Now take some of your love honey and lube up your asshole, like you’re supposed to.”>
<”No ‘whats.’ Remember your instructions. I am Forghed Ditt, and you are going to please me with your ass.”>
Velorians were not strangers to anal sex, but rarely indulged, mainly because the rewards of straight sex were so overpowering for them. In a world without sexual repression and with bodies so perfectly adapted to pleasure, only a very few found anal sex exciting enough to bother with. Kara had only experienced it once, captured by Arions; a biker friend had tried it with her on Terra when she was hanging with them, but he was unable to force himself in far enough. With his enhancement, Forghed Ditt might be able to penetrate her, but if she spasmed, he would no longer be a man.
<”I’m not ready for you – you could get hurt,”> she objected, starting to turn toward Ditt.
<”Your enhancement took just fine. Just remember your instructions, and listen to Forghed Ditt,”> he intoned in an annoyed voice. <”Come on, I’ll lube myself up too.”> He stepped over to a bedstand and removed a tube of lubricant. He tossed it to her, saying <”You do it,”> and sat on the bed next to her.
Sitting back on her thighs, Kara played for time by squirting out some of the thick lotion into her palm and reaching for his erect manhood. An expert handjob might satisfy the Scalantran for now, and then she might be able to find out what Daina’s “instructions” required. Daina’s enhancement had, at least, taken well. He was harder than steel to her touch, very long and thick. A deep, musky smell came from him, which ordinarily would have brought even more of her pheromones out. Her distaste for the Scalantran’s arrogance and the failure of her seduction, though, precluded any arousal on her part. For his part, Ditt seemed indifferent to her mechanical, reluctant attitude – that’s what he’d get from the real Daina, Kara realized.
A few minutes later, Ditt was ready for action, thrusting his hips roughly at Kara and growling under his breath. Although she had used every skill in her repertoire, from vibrating her palms to pressure that could shatter diamonds, the Scalantran’s erection remained rampant. Realizing that he probably had received hypno-conditioning or some other technique to prevent coming, Kara decided to bring him off with her mouth. As she leaned forward to do that, though, Ditt growled again, <”Not with your mouth. In your ass.”>
<”I do it a lot better up front.”>
<”No, dammit! Do what you’re told, or go back to Velor! I AM FORGHED DITT!”>
Stars, what an egomaniac, thought Kara. Nevertheless, she could either obey or refuse and break the Velorian treasury. How low could the Council go, she thought bitterly, as she leaned forward onto her forearms and then reached back with a glob of lubricant to ease the Scalantran’s entry.
With a triumphant howl, Forghed Ditt mounted her, stabbing his rigid member toward Kara’s tiny opening. Below him, she urgently ran through her relaxation exercises, loosening herself as much as she could.
<“Aarrrungh!”> His bulbous head pushed through her outer ring, and a stab of heat and pain ran through her ass. Encouraged, he pushed with all his weight against her, but to no avail. Reluctantly, Kara resorted to one of her least favorite training exercises, a hypnotic trigger to completely relax her body and mind, letting her fall into an almost unconscious daze. Succeeding, she dimly heard the Scalantran’s groans of passion as he pushed and pulled himself through her unresisting rear passage. Finally, with a roar, he exclaimed <”I did it!”> and came in her ass.
. . .
About 10 a.m., I finally tore my eyes away from my computer screen. I was developing a small but effective network of Terrans who were willing to at least pretend that I might be a friendly alien who needed their eyes and ears. Keeping it going, though, required a lot of attention and a couple of dozen e-mails a day. Some of the men, in particular, were very insistent about face-to-face (or closer) meetings. Worse, #everybody# wanted more information on Superfemme and where she hung out.
Daina was gone. I was a little peeved that she hadn't asked for any advice about fitting in on Terra or keeping my secrets, but she wasn't going to get hurt, and I knew how alluring that warm, yellow California sun was after time on a spaceship. After securing my things, I headed for a semi-secluded beach myself.
As soon as I returned to my apartment that evening, I found out my nonchalance was misplaced. My credit card companies had left phone messages that I had blown through my limits and they were suspending my cards on suspicion of fraud. A quick scan of my things confirmed that the three cards were missing, and there were no signs of a break-in. Daina might look like a spaced-out party girl, but her P1 intelligence had certainly remembered every word of Gina's credit card lecture and she probably had aped my signature precisely. Nevertheless, I had to call back the card companies and tell them the charges were mine, to keep them from going after Daina.
In the process, I got the list of places and dates she had used the cards. The progression was interesting. It had started with her buying a $20 pair of flats at Paymini Shoe Stores in Huntington Beach; followed by a $75 sports outfit in Long Beach an hour later, a $195 designer swimsuit in San Pedro five minutes later, a $1,100 tennis bracelet and rings in Palos Verdes Shores (10 miles up the coast) about 20 minutes later; a $90 sushi lunch in Venice Beach (another nine miles) 5 minutes later, a facial and spa treatment in Marina del Rey a half hour later ($350), drinks for an entire bar in Santa Monica almost as soon as she left the spa, a cabana at the Chateau Marmont for the afternoon, and then a trek up and down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills until the cards melted down around six o’clock, when she had maxed all of them out for cash advances. Logically, the next stop was the nightlife in West Hollywood, and so I took to the air without even a moment for a snack.
Two hours later, high above Sunset Boulevard, I was getting frantic. Early on, I’d spotted Daina at a fairly wild het bar on Fairfax, but she had left the place with a friend, a bouncer explained, while I was fighting my way through the crowd. Since then, I hadn’t got a glimpse of her: she probably had noticed me and had gone to ground. About 10:00, I gave up and flew for home.
By then, Daina was line-dancing up a storm at “Cousin Fred’s,” a country and western bar off of Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. All of the men and even a few of the women had their eyes fixed on her, waiting for her to leave the line and become available, but after two hours, she was fresh and limber. When the band finally began a slow ballad and the lines dispersed, a dozen men instantly converged on the bright-eyed blonde.
“Would-ya like a drink, sugar?” “You sure were the purtiest dancer out there, darlin’.” “You done rode away with my heart, ma’am.” “How’d you get to be so hot, woman?” and “I bet we could have a ride to remember, baby.”
Daina hardly listened to the gathering men until she heard a soft Southwestern drawl.
“You know, you look so much like Superfemme that you’ve got to be her.” She turned to the man, appraising him from head to foot. Then, she reached out to grab his hand, asking, “Is there a place we can sit a talk for a few minutes?” The lucky man beamed and led her over to a quiet table.
He was a tall, lanky Missourian named Randy, with a Western drawl, sky-blue eyes under his sandy hair and some significant muscles on his 190 cm (6’3”) frame. He had come to L.A. with visions of stardom and had actually got his union card on the strength of some featured appearances as a lifeguard on a soap opera. Right then, though, when he wasn’t lifting in the gym, he was eking out a living as a coffee barista.
With no cover identity ready, Daina spent her time evading Randy’s simplest questions.
“What do you do?”
“Oh, a lot of things.”
“Like what? Someone as beautiful as you must be doing something really special.”
“Just this and that.”
“Do you model? You must be a model, at least.”
“A little. A friend of mine does some too, and she told me about it. Why are you asking me so many questions? I’d like to hear something about you.”
“Aw, forget it. I’m nothing special.”
There was a long silence.
“Are you all right? Are you listening to something?” Randy eventually asked Daina.
“Look, if you’d rather go someplace quieter, we could take a walk, or even go to my place.”
“I can go to your place.”
If Daina could read minds, she would have seen Randy’s light up in four colors, flashing “Jackpot!!!” He had barely enough functioning brain cells to respond. “Holy . . . er, of course. I’d be honored to have you visit my apartment.” They piled into his pickup and headed out Ventura.
. . .
Outside a gold field, most Velorians can go without sleep. That was the only good thing about the rest of Sunday night. When I wasn't practicing my "elevator pitch," or trying to speed-read another job-hunting advice book, I was glancing at the all-L.A. news channel on the HDTV. Was that helicopter view of the freeway tie-up a clue to Daina's whereabouts, or were the arrests for public sex at a nightclub a sign that she had been partying there?
About 11 pm, I had the brainstorm of setting my home computer to monitor the news feeds. In the first 10 minutes I was interrupted by alerts for a riot in a Finnish women's prison led by a blonde, a new exhibitionist web site, a rumor that a blonde teenage diva had lost her virginity to her movie co-star and a new posting to a female muscle site in England. Once again, Earth's technology was just too primitive. I returned to my cramming for a couple of more hours until I slumped back in the chair in frustration. With only four hours before I had to be driving to Irvine, I dragged myself to the bed for a short yoga session before showering, makeup and dressing.
Advanced Components and Micro-Electronics had gone from zero to two hundred million in sales in only seven years – and it had stayed there for the last three. It occupied a non-descript white concrete building in an office park off I-5, and when I arrived precisely 10 minutes before the appointment, I found that what was inside was just as uninspiring. When you walk into some tech companies, even without Velorian senses you feel excitement, purpose or energy. Advanced had the verve of a law firm. After I stewed in the reception area for 20 minutes, a woman about my age strutted out and barked, “Sharon Best?” We shook hands, she introduced herself as Arletta Narr, from human resources, and we sat down in a small conference room for my first chat.
[A picture of me that day from a security camera. SB]
Arletta was equipped with a clipboard and a four page checklist, and her idea of an interview was to keep her eyes riveted to the little boxes and mark them off as she recited questions. “I see here that you majored in languages and history. (Courtesy of my cover story.) Could you tell me how your degree prepared you for a marketing position?”
“I learned a lot about working with people from different cultures and backgrounds, and what interests them,” I began. “For example . . . ”
“I see.” She scribbled, “no relevant course work,” and continued, “All right, tell me about your first job after college. What skills did you acquire?”
“You might say that my job found me,” I replied, trying for a light touch. “I was walking down Pacific Coast Boulevard when a modeling rep called me over, and asked me if I wanted to have some pictures taken of me.”
Arletta’s face resembled cold granite. She didn’t seem happy at the idea that I could get a modeling job just by walking down the street. And as she wasn’t so bad looking herself, it probably was the idea that I didn’t go through an HR person to get it. She picked up her pen and drew a line through a name on the top sheet – Makema Sidarahe, Senior Director: 10:30. Returning to me, she continued, “Yes, we understand that you had a modeling career. But we don’t do fashion. ‘Our mission is to develop cutting edge integrated hardware solutions for componentized OEM challenges.’”
“Yuck,” I thought.
“Now how does your prior experience qualify you for the marketing assistant manager’s position?”
“A top model, like me, is a one person marketing campaign,” I snapped back. “I have to know the product, figure out, with the help of the photographer and the ad agency, how to express the emotions they want to associate with the product, adjust myself almost constantly to new ideas and concepts as a shoot goes on, and then I represent the product practically every day, either wearing it or using it, or just how I present myself in public. If I want, I’m in contact with practically everyone who works on the campaign, and the senior executives almost always work with me for some period of time.” I was proud of that reply. I even managed to get that last phrase out without being too arch. A few of the execs really did deal with me on a business level, but most of them had their eyes on my body.
“Really,” she sneered. “And while you were working with those executives, did you ever do any marketing research? With customers, that is.” She paused a moment to peer at her clipboard. “And what was your exposure to market stratification?”
From what I had read, market stratification was a structural concept, not something that I could be exposed to. But, Ms. Narr was the gatekeeper here, and pissing her off would sink me. In fact, she was scribbling again, “no relevant work experience.”
“I’ve worked with customers in industries from bathing suits to bulldozers,” I replied. I know what makes people tick and a lot about what motivates them, and I pick up new concepts very quickly. I have the energy and charisma to inspire people to work with me, and I’ve overcome a lot of tough challenges.” It was no use. Her pen was moving again, lining out another appointment -- Ken Whitehall, Deputy Chief Evangelist: 11:00. My eyes started to sparkle with heat, so I glanced away from her. A stray burst of infrared burnt a 15 cm diameter brown spot on the wall behind her head.
And so it went for the next 15 minutes. The only time she looked carefully at me was while she was filling out the diversity checklist, as if she had to make sure that I was a blonde. Three more appointments got lined out, and as we finished, Arletta attempted an expression of sorrow. “I’m very sorry, but several of the people who really wanted to meet you were called away for an urgent meeting. But you will have the chance to speak with Nancy Wah. She’s been here for about two months now in a similar position, and she can give you a good idea about what working here would be like for you.”
“And who else will be speaking with me?”
“Just Nancy, but we’ll consider your qualifications carefully, and get back to you after we’ve had an opportunity to review them.”
Translation: I had lost the duel with the checklist. Arletta was already on the phone calling Nancy in, and my eyes started sparkling again as I struggled to quell my rage at this excuse for a human being. Another quick burst of heat vision escaped, but my aim was better: I directed the beam into the air vent before she finished the call, and except for a faint scorched smell, there was no more damage. When Nancy appeared, Arletta gave me a quick introduction that ended with her inserting her hand in mine for less than a millisecond, and then she fled through the door. Nancy was open, bubbly, and clueless about where the company was going. “The people here are nice but nothing seems to happen.” By 9:45, a half-hour after I had arrived, it was time to go.
Arletta left me at the guard’s desk in the lobby. “We appreciate the effort you made in preparing for this visit to our dynamic company, and the enthusiasm you have projected toward our opportunity. Of course, we will only initiate further contact in the event that the relevant decision-makers take a pro-active position on your candidacy.”
“Yuck,” I thought. I lingered there until she flounced away in impatience, after fixing the guard with a cold stare that almost shouted, “Don’t let her hang around.” Fortunately, he had an eye for women, and with only a couple of sotto voce grumbles, he deigned to call my friend Jim. A few minutes later I was two floors higher, walking into my friend’s office.
“Sharon! I didn’t think you would stop by before your interviews.”
I had enough tact not to start off with a negative. “It’s really great to see you, Jim. How was the rock climbing last weekend?”
“We took it easy,” he replied with an exaggerated drawl. “Just seventeen hundred vertical feet or so, a nice easy ascent.” A few weeks before, looking for a challenge and some good-looking women, I’d joined a group of climbers. While the exertion was trivial for a Vel, planning routes up a cliff while holding myself to Terran limitations was harder than I’d thought, and I got in close with some very fit men and women for my troubles.
A pudgy man with a line of sweat already beading his forehead was now standing in the door. “Sorry to interrupt your time with your friend, Jim, but we’ve got to talk about that low margin strategy.”
“This is business, Dave. Meet Sharon Best, who’s interviewing for that open slot in product management. Sharon, Dave Kaplan, SVP marketing.”
“Yeah, Arletta wrote me something that you had recommended her for an interview. Nice to meet you, Ms. Best.” He looked me in the eyes, not at the tits, which at least meant he had a work ethic.
So, I still had a shot. A few minutes with Dave, a modest dose of my pheromones – he clearly hadn’t socialized with any woman in my league for decades, if ever – and I’d be in.
“You mentioned low margins, Dave? I’ve been thinking about a strategy that could address that for you. It also could retake some of those markets you’ve been losing.”
What was I doing? The whole plan was to get Dave away from Jim and turn on the scent, not get into a debate about strategy with people who had no reason to trust me. Amazingly, though, Kaplan was looking at my face again with a look that wasn’t quite respect and not quite surprise either.
“Sit down with us, Ms. Best. Let’s hear what you have in mind. Jim doesn’t recommend people lightly.” I settled slowly into the nearest chair, trying to give myself a few more tenths of a second to pull my thoughts together. I’d spent all that time on Sunday night researching A.C.M-E., and it looked like my subconscious had decided I was ready to play corporate strategist instead of naïve jobseeker.
Dave pulled up a chair to face me and sat, leaning forward. This was it.
“Thank you, Mr. Kaplan.” A bit formal, but never get too informal too quickly, the job books said. “Your 10-K says that your margins on storage devices are getting squeezed by East Asian product that’s less capable but that’s lower priced. Your manufacturing costs are higher than the competition’s on the low end products and you risk losing the market before you can outsource effectively or re-engineer the items at lower costs.”
“That’s about the size of it,” replied Kaplan. “There’s some other stuff that hasn’t made it to the public reports yet, but you don’t need to know it to understand the problem. And call me Dave. We save the ‘Mr.’s. and ‘Ms.’s for the finance department.”
“O.K, Dave. You’ve also got a pile of mid-price storage device inventory that you can’t move because the ME 47-X you’re about to introduce will have three times the performance at 110% the cost. You’ll end up discounting it or landfilling it, just like IBM used to do.”
“Sam’s been looking at that,” Jim interjected. “The overhang’s also impacting our lower-end products – OEM’s figure we’ll dump the ME-36’s and are holding off on purchases.”
“Careful,” murmured Dave. “The lawyers will go berserk if new information gets out of the company.”
“I think it’s an opportunity. Repackage the 36’s as your new low end product. Cripple some of the mid-level features so that you don’t cannibalize your mid-level stuff. Price the repackaged 36’s aggressively – you were going to trash them anyway, and even disabled, they’ll have more features and quality than the Asian competition’s. You’ll increase your market share. Use the breathing space to implement the new strategy.” I took a breath and waited for the reaction.
Jim didn’t seem to have the “not invented here” disease, but what about the rest of the executives in this clueless company? And besides, even in the Scribes Institute they warned us about doing all the talking; here I was, chattering away as if I had all the answers rather than asking questions and listening. Damn it, girl, hadn’t you learned to stay in the background yet?!
Kaplan was still silent. He was staring at me now, waiting for my next mistake. I decided to wait him out. Finally, he spoke.
“Finance wouldn’t like it. They’d want to see a profit.”
Wait a moment, he wasn’t saying I was wrong.
Jim piped up. “We’d also have to think about a new shell and the time we need to reposition. Manufacturing will have a say.”
“Hold your horses, there, Jim,” Dave said calmly. “It’s not that simple. “But Sharon, you’ve done some good thinking. I’m not scheduled to see you, but be sure to tell Arletta that you should stop by my office for a talk when you’re done with the rest of your interviews.” The sweat was gone from his forehead.
Fuck, he was about to go, and I hadn’t aroused myself enough to go the pheromone route. When all else fails, they say, try the truth, so . . . “Actually, Dave, why don’t I go with you now? Ms. Narr only set up one interview, and that’s done already.”
“You’re done? It’s only 10 o’clock; how could you possibly have finished interviewing? Who did you see?” asked Jim.
“The e-mail had you down for three or four people all morning,” Dave interjected.
“She just had me speak for 15 minutes with Nancy Wah, and then she took me to the exit,” I replied.
Dave shook his head. “Arletta’s up to her tricks again. If you don’t precisely match her profile for the job, she cancels all the significant appointments and scoots you out the door. Hell, Jim, we almost lost Ray Washington, except that he had an ‘in’ with a buddy from his college football team and got back in.
“Sharon, come along with me for about a half hour and try to convince me that Arletta’s wrong, and that’ll give Jim some time to get his thoughts together about that strategy. If it works out, my admin will get you in to see some other people.”
▪ ▪ ▪
A little after 8 p.m., I stumbled into my Huntington Beach apartment, exhilarated at my success but strung out from a whirlwind of meetings, tours and a congratulatory trip with Jim to a very noisy bar. I had a great offer, without resorting to pheromones, and tonight was the night to consider it. Out of habit, I tuned the holo-tv to a news broadcast and slumped down in a sleek leather chair I had just bought.
“Meanwhile, in the Middle East, a suicide bombing and a military retaliation dealt another setback to the peace process.” This was news? My doorbell washed out the anchorman’s drone before I could have any more sarcastic thoughts. A tachyon scan as I walked to the door gave me a real surprise – it was Gina, wearing a form-fitting black dress, some pearls and not much else. She almost burst through the door as I opened it.
<“Sharon, sweets, I just couldn’t wait to see you again,”> she bubbled in Velorian while embracing me in a tight hug. Before I could respond, she was planting a very moist kiss on my lips. The small black bag she was carrying thumped heavily against my hip.
<“I know, I know, ‘what am I doing here?’,”> she rattled on. <”I suddenly found myself all alone in New York, without a bit of business to do, so I thought I’d look up my favorite Scribe and get a closer look at what makes you tick.”>
“Let’s keep to English, Gina,” I parried. “I like to stay in character. And I’m just amazed at how quickly you found me.” Aghast was more like it. Was I that obvious?
“Well, darling, you know that old Ditt-sy spends giga-credits on intel, after all. And with him out of the way, it only took a few minutes to get your address.” Her eyes gave off a predatory gleam.
“’Out of the way,’ Gina? What happened to him?”
“Well, I’d found these absolutely marvelous pictures of these gorgeous Himalayan cats, you know, and they were just perfect, so I passed them along yesterday to Kallis’tra, you remember her, sweet, the mousy-looking one, and told her where the Himalayas were, and she just ran with it – such initiative, you see.”
Passing a hot idea to a colleague? That wasn’t very Scalantran at all.
“So Ditt-sy and the whole entourage, including that ann-droid Daina of yours, such a wet quilt, don’t you think, are off to Nepal to check out the cats. Is that how you say it, ‘wet quilt?’”
“Wait a second. There aren’t any Himalayan cats in the Himalayas, Gina. It’s just a name.”
“Really, sugar, is that so? What a terrible mistake for Kallis’tra to make, poor, poor girl. And she was so anxious to shine with the Pompanom. Terrible, isn’t it, sweets?” I caught a flash of all of Gina’s teeth, as she smiled. I could swear they were pointed.
“But, as they say, even a bad solar wind can blow some good, so I’m here to cheer you up. You could use some cheering up, couldn’t you, darling?” Her tongue caressed her lips and she stepped forward.
“I’m really not up for” I started to reply before I was muffled by a long, hard kiss from Gina. Her right arm reached around and began caressing my lower back, just close enough to my ass to be suggestive without being vulgar. Her left arm stared creeping up my side toward my breasts. I noticed something else: Arcturan musk. It wasn’t quite as effective as our pheromones, but her perfume still was exciting me. I certainly wasn’t pushing her away.
“Darling,” Gina sighed, “you’re just making me wet for that gorgeous body of yours. Turn off that boring news and come sit with me, hmmm?” Her left hand was now caressing my breast, softly, sensuously. My own arms were now lifting, starting to stroke the ivory-white skin of her arms. I deserved a bit of cheering up, after all.
“Now, sweetness, just give me a moment to freshen up a bit, and we can continue this,” she purred, gently disengaging herself from me. I nodded toward the bathroom, and she took the hint. As she headed for the bathroom, I took a tachyon glance at that strangely heavy bag of hers. It was stuffed with four sets of gold bracelets and chains, a gold choker, several tubes of creams, some cosmetics and a Vendorian steel vibrator. No wonder it had thumped against my hip.
“And this just in from Cleveland,” the anchorman said in his “here’s something ominous” voice, causing me to turn toward the tv. “A small group of terrorists attempted a daring attack at a cat show in downtown Cleveland about an hour ago. Rapid response by local police and security guards prevented any casualties, but three of the terrorists escaped. Nothing is known about the group or its intentions except for a demand shouted out at the scene.” A videoclip showing three men jumping from the floor of the chaotic cat convention to a balcony flashed on the screen, with the smallest yelling something like, “Free the Bay Ten!”
“The Ohio Highway Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security have no record of any terrorist or other group known as the ‘Bay Ten,’ or why the terrorists would target a cat show. However, Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Vincent Alexander speculated that it might be a cover name.”
Gina flounced back into the room and ostentatiously stood in the center of the holo-tv image, causing it to automatically mute the volume. “Uh-uh, my treasure, we’re not going to let some ridiculous Terran news get in the way of our evening.” She grasped my arms again, pulling gently. “Let’s see how your bedroom compares with mine.”
. . .
A few hours before
Subcommander 17 was looking out the window of a battered, grimy Ford pickup, hoping to find a parking place in downtown Cleveland, Ohio and feeling miserable. Instead of a runny nose, he was suffering from a sore rear end and aching kidneys, thanks to a three and one-half hour drive. The potholed, two-lane Pennsylvania highways, the ancient pickup truck Daimmlar had repaired (unfortunately, the sergeant hadn't had the opportunity to fix the suspension) and riding as the third man in the cramped, fragrant cab only reinforced his grim suspicions. From the far end of a wormhole Terra might look like a desirable conquest, but the fabled home of humanity could be unpleasantly primitive. His discomfort was interrupted by Corporal Bannler’s triumphant cry – he had found a parking space. Only five minutes and two dents (one in the rear bumper, the other in a light pole) later, the three alighted from the cab and walked to a large, non-descript, concrete mass hosting the Cuyahoga County Cat Congress.
As he entered the convention hall, Subcommander 17 was surprised most by the noise. The hum of the several thousand humans present was overlaid by the cries of hundreds of cats, mewling their irritation. Worse, because Betan hearing ran up two octaves higher than the Terran, he was assailed by high-pitched cries the Terrans never heard. In short, instant headache. With a grimace, he turned to Ensign Swensen and snapped in English, "Well, Swensen, have you detected anything?"
"Code names, Jim," Swensen whispered back.
"All right, SPOCK. Are you sure that's a common name here?"
"It's on the tele . . . ." The remainder of Swensen's reply was drowned out by a roar of applause for the best-in-breed finalists. As the applause subsided, the subcommander urged his companions forward. "Remember, this is just a recon mission.” He turned to the third member of the team. “Keep close to Spock, ‘Bones,’ he’s got the sensors. Just stay inconspicuous.”
“In-con-what?” replied Corporal Bannler, who was almost 200 cm (6’7”) tall and weighed well into the 150 kilo range.
“Inconspicuous. Not obvious,” replied his superior.
“Don’t . . . do anything . . . to make . . . the Terrans . . . notice . . . you.”
“Oh. That’s no problem.”
The subcommander looked again at Bannler, who was 43 centimeters (17”) taller than he, and sighed before addressing his science officer. “All right, Spock, what are your readings?”
“Just a moment, Jim,” chirped Spock, and walked over to a large table facing the SciKitty cat food exhibit. Opening a large briefcase, he extracted a laptop computer, a tangle of cables, and several black and gray boxes with antennas, small dishes, and apertures. Pushing some flyers out of the way, he began connecting the boxes, muttering under his breath until Jim interrupted.
“Spock. Spock! SPOCK!”
“Uh, yes, Jim?”
“This man here says this is his exhibit table and that we have to leave.”
“I’ll only be another minute or two, Jim,” mumbled Spock, staring at a connector that wouldn’t mate with any of the remaining sockets.
“Hey, guys,” interrupted the sales rep, “the Star Trek convention isn’t for another three weeks. Now clear out and put my stuff back, or I’ll have to get the guards.”
“It’s just a simple sensor array,” replied Spock, oblivious to the threat.
“I never saw anything like that on the original show. Is that from TNG or Voyager?”
“Actually, it’s from Dell, but I modified . . . .” Spock’s explanation was superseded by Bones, who placed his weighty hand on the sales rep’s shoulder.
“Look, fella, my friend here just needs another couple-a minutes. You doan-wanna make my friend angry at ya, do ya?
“Well, no,” yelped the sales rep. “Just as long as he’s out of here soon.” He grinned inanely at the big man gripping his shoulder.
“I promise, we’ll be gone soon.”
“That’s okay, then,” the rep chattered, and tried to walk away. The hand still held him in place. Bones looked surprised for a moment, and then released his hostage.
“Never saw anybody who looked less like the Enterprise crew than those three,” mumbled the sales rep to himself as he crept away, left arm crossed over his chest so he could massage his sore right shoulder. Meanwhile, Bones had a question for his leader.
“Was that inconspicuous enough, sir? Bones asked humbly.
“That was fine, Ban—Bones. Where did you learn that tactic?”
“That Star Trek show?”
“No, sir. That one had something called the Vulgan Nerve Pinch. But every time I tried it, the Terran’s collarbone would shatter. I got this from ‘Sopranos’ reruns.”
“I’ve got something, sir!” Spock turned to face his leader with a triumphant expression. “There’s a Prime in the room!”
“Shut up, you idiot. He’ll hear you,” Jim whispered as he stepped forward to look at the laptop’s screen. Behind him, Bones leaned way down to do the same, almost hitting Jim’s skull with his blunt chin. The series of graphs on the screen blinked away as he did, replaced by a weave of pulsating red and blue lines, randomly filling the entire screen.
“Hmm, very good,” murmured Jim. “Haven’t seen anything like that before, though. Umm, er, Spock, are you using a Vobrownot algorithm to estimate energy levels?”
“A Vobrownot algorithm? Oh, a Vobrownot algorithm. That’s right, Jim,” he hurried on, “a Vobrownot algorithm. Notice the concentration of flux lines in the left corner. Er, the center right.”
“Erm, I think I see that, but can you fill me in a bit more, Spock?”
“You know,” Bones remarked, “that looks like the screen saver on my girlfriend’s Terran computer.”
Spock’s face flushed, and he quickly tapped a key. The gyrating lines vanished and were replaced by a screen titled “Energy Levels” with a map of the hall. A hot spot appeared near the dais. “There, sir, 21 meters away. You can see him near the ‘WCLV-TV Welcomes Movie Star Anita Bonita’ sign.”
Indeed, he was a burly, black-haired man standing behind and to the side of a tall, brown-haired woman. She wore a form-fitting knit dress that made the best of her somewhat less than Supremis-level attributes.
“All right, Spock,” Jim whispered. “Bones and I will ease forward and flank him, while you pack up and try to get closer. When you are ready, give me the sign and I will arrange a distraction while you focus the listening device. Remember, don’t engage the Prime. We’re just going to shadow him and collect information. If you think he’s on to you, break off and return to the vehicle. Understood?”
While Jim attempted to worm his way through the crowds waiting for Ms. Bonita’s autograph, Bones easily elbowed his way to the left, and soon was standing only a meter and a half away from the black-haired man. Only a tower of electronic equipment marked “Our New SUPER HDTV Mobile Unit” and a mass of electric wires separated the two. The electrical fields were strong enough to raise Bones’ sparse body hair on end. The Prime’s entire attention was fixed on the movie star and the crowd filing toward her; he didn’t even seem to notice the high frequency caterwauling that was still plaguing the Betans. Spock had finished packing up and was approaching the Prime from the front, gripping the black listening device in his right hand. Maybe the Prime would say something worthwhile once the diversion started; he certainly wasn’t saying or doing anything now.
Spock now flashed the signal to Jim: a wave of the left hand, two fingers raised. No response. Jim was trapped in a scrum of celebrity watchers and probably couldn’t see anything beyond the nearest bodies. Spock repeated the signal and got the same lack of a response. Concluding that his commander was unable to provide a diversion, the science officer decided to make the best of things, raised the device in his right hand and pointed it toward the dais.
The black-haired man burst into movement, bellowing “Armed man, six o’clock center!” into his lapel, leaping toward Ms. Bonita and driving her to the floor. For a Prime, he was very slow – more like a Betan or a Terran. Security guards at the doors snapped alert and started rushing toward the center of the hall, while a number of spectators began looking around wildly for the cause of the commotion. Bones considered attacking the Prime, who was now on hands and knees, shielding the brown-haired woman as they crawled toward a backstage exit, but decided that getting Spock out before the Prime returned was the better course of action. Tensing his muscles, he leaped high into the air and soared over 20 or 30 spectators before landing on top of two middle-aged men near Spock. Muscling his way to his comrade’s side, Bones knocked a half-dozen more Terrans to the floor.
<“Come on, sir, it’s time to abort!”> cried Bones in Arion.
< “What’s happening?”> responded Spock in the same language. <“I was all ready to start.”>
<“They saw you, sir! Give it up!”> Further discussion was ended as two security personnel arrived to face them, guns raised. The nearby Terrans shouted “Terrorists!” “They have guns!” along with similar warnings and started shoving their way toward the nearest exit – unfortunately, right toward the trapped subcommander. The biggest of them, a burly, black-haired man over 195 centimeters tall, plowed straight for him.
Rattled by the screams of “Terrorists,” the nearest rent-a-cop lunged for Spock’s right arm, hoping to retrieve the gun and make the front page of Monday’s Cleveland Plain Dealer. Although he had not excelled in his hand-to-hand combat training, Spock’s reflexes and strength were still almost five times Terran normal, and he easily flipped the guard over his shoulder and into a stack of cat cages. Doors sprang open and cats leaped to freedom, followed by exhibitors chasing them and shouting for help. The other guard lowered his weapon, fearing to discharge it while civilians were streaming around the two terrorists.
Four more security guards had penetrated the disturbance and decided to rush the unarmed corporal before he could aid his comrade. Spinning at the last second to face them, Bones stretched his massive arms outward, grabbed the collars of the two outside assailants, and propelled them into the others by sweeping his arms toward the front. There was an audible “crack,” as the four guards’ heads smashed together. They fell in a pile to the floor.
The remaining security guard, an imposing 190 cm tall himself (6’3”), decided that the thin guy was the more sensible target. While Spock admired his corporal’s technique, the guard stepped up to him, gun pointed at the Betan’s ear, and applied a chokehold with his free arm. “Now just drop that pistol thing of yours and call your goon over there off, and you’ll live. Otherwise, sonny, urrrRPP!” Spock had jammed his free elbow into the guard’s ribs, causing him to double up in pain and drop his revolver. Because the guard’s arm was still desperately wrapped around the ensign’s neck, this meant that Spock was now supporting the entire 110-kilo (240 lb) weight of the guard from his neck. While his neck was able to handle the strain, it put him hopelessly off balance, and he staggered backward, lurching into one of the few remaining spectators.
While this was going on, the crowd was forcing Jim towards a doorway clogged with people, and he lost his footing as the tall, black-haired man shoved past him. In danger of being trampled, the subcommander scrabbled at the shoulders of the nearest man to him and then vaulted to stand on his shoulders. Before the man could react or collapse, Jim stepped onto the next pair of shoulders and skipped rapidly toward his companions, hardly seeming to touch the astounded Terrans who reeled and fell as his weight bore on their shoulders. Moments later, he leaped from the last shoulders and landed just behind Spock, whose face was now chartreuse and who was shuddering under the load. Jim grabbed the semi-conscious guard’s thighs and heaved upwards. The guard flew over Spock’s head, somersaulting in mid-air and landing in a heap at Bones’ feet.
“Dad! Look, it’s Jackie Chan!” a child exclaimed, pointing at Jim.
“Come on!” growled his father, refusing to look back and dragging his son along.
“I want his autograph!”
“He doesn’t even look Chinese,” said the father, forced to look. “He’s just a stuntman.”
“But he does his own stunts!” the boy wailed back.
Another squad of gun-toting security guards now surrounded the three Betans. Their leader, who was aiming a sawed-off shotgun at Bones, demanded that the three surrender. Instead, Jim aimed a sweeping kick at his crotch. Although the kick was intentionally short of its target, the shotgun-wielding guard instinctively moved the gun to address the threat, giving Bones an opening. He lunged for the guard’s knees, diving below the lines of fire from the others’ pistols, and knocked Mr. Shotgun off his feet and into the side of the guard to his right. That guard in turn flew backwards, arms spread wide, and clotheslined a third security guard, incapacitating him.
Giving the remaining three guards no time to recover, Jim brought his leg backwards from the kick. His heel, propelled at five times normal force and almost hard enough to resist bullets, smashed the kneecap of the fourth guard, who went down screaming. Instead of attacking the last two guards, though, he dived to the floor as they fired their pistols and their shots zinged over his head. Before they could aim their weapons lower, the subcommander pushed off with his hands, sending him instantly to a standing position out of the line of fire. While the two guards waved their pistols ineffectively, trying to find him, Jim leaped ten feet into the air, spinning his body to land directly behind them. With two strikes of his right arm at their necks, he sent the bewildered guards to the floor.
By now, the Cleveland police were entering the doors and sirens could be heard over the crowd’s hysteria. Jim’s high-pitched voice ordered a retreat in Arion. <“Out of here, now!”>
Scrambling to assemble the last of his cables and components, Spock shoved the laptop into Jim’s hands, while Bones plowed into the crowd heading for the nearest exit. His comrades followed. Just as they were about to step under the mezzanine overhanging the exit, though, a SWAT team appeared at the doors. < “What do we do?”> yelled Bones.
<“Up there,”> responded Jim, pointing to the balcony five meters above them.
<”I can’t make it!”> Spock objected.
<”I’ll grab you,”> said Bones, kneeling and then sweeping his arms forward and up, leaping the full six meters over the railing and onto the balcony. Moments later, he leaned over the edge, extending his arm downward.
<”Get going,”> Jim barked, and, when Spock still hesitated, he grabbed the hapless science officer’s belt. Responding, Spock bent his legs and sprang upward while Jim boosted him into the air. Still holding his equipment in both arms, Spock wobbled upward, seemingly doomed to fall again, until a shoulder came just into reach of Bones’ hand. Grabbing that shoulder, Bones lifted the ensign bodily over the railing and let him fall into the aisle, while he spun to assist the subcommander. Jim now sprang into the air, grabbing Bones’ extended hand near the top of his trajectory and allowing the corporal to ease him over the railing. As they collected themselves to race up the balcony stairs, a young voice drifted up from the main floor.
“See, I told you it was Jackie Chan. He even talks Chinese!”
Spock lingered, leaning on the railing, and shouted in English at the top of his voice into the chaos below, “Free the Betans!!”
<“Move it!> chorused Jim and Bones, and the three raced for the exit.
 Pronounced “KAI-uh-haw-guh,” first syllable rhyming with “eye.”[JH]