Starlight Child

 
  • Publisher: Belgrave House
  • Series: The Light Years, Book 3
  • Release Date: Oct 30, 2010
  • Genre: Science Fiction Romance
  • Available Formats: eBook

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On a desperate mission to save a baby kidnapped by terrorists, psychic Mara Hendricks and Cmdr. Deke Sage discover a powerful passion that distracts them from their goal.

When terrorists kidnap the Great Healer’s daughter, Mara Hendricks offers her extrasensory powers to help rescue the child. She joins Cmdr. Deke Sage on a journey to the distant planet Yanura, but their mutual passion threatens to distract them from their goal. Sage is unwilling to open himself completely to this tempting woman–until he realizes that without her powers their mission will fail.

This title was originally published by Dorchester and written as Nancy Cane. The digital edition has been revised and includes a bonus glossary.



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Reviews

“Sensual and adventurous! STARLIGHT CHILD is a captivating story of life and love in the vastness of space.” — The Paperback Forum

“NANCY CANE has penned yet another brilliant and unforgettable tour de force futuristic romance.” — The Talisman

“Explosive and stimulating!” — Rendezvous

“Superb!” — Affaire de Coeur

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Excerpt


Copyright 1995 by Nancy J. Cohen

STARLIGHT CHILD

Nancy J. Cohen

Chapter One

A woman’s high-pitched screams of anguish tore through the night. The piercing cries lanced into Mara’s sleep-numbed mind and awakened her.

Sitting up abruptly in bed, she listened acutely. Dead silence filled the room.

Her dark eyes swept the bedchamber, resting upon her modern built-in shelving unit with its holovid array, the chest of carved wooden drawers from her home planet Tyberia, and the display case with her collection of sculptures. The room’s illumination had brightened automatically when she sat up, but still her heart raced and her spine chilled with fear.

Could the awful sounds have come from Hedy? An urgent need to check on her roommate propelled her out of bed, but a glimpse of the petite brunette sleeping next door reassured her that all was well.

After a hasty search of the rest of the apartment, Mara concluded she’d been dreaming. Letting out a breath of relief, she grabbed a wrap from her chamber and told herself to calm down. But the agonized cries kept reverberating in her mind as though they were real, and she couldn’t dismiss the uneasy feeling that something was wrong.

Trying to shake off the remnants of her nightmare, she strode to the fabricator in the living area to conjure a warm drink, hoping it would soothe her sensitized nerves. She stood watching the alcove in the wall as her beverage materialized in a large ceramic mug. Drinking a cup of wagmint tea always calmed her when she felt tense, and it had been a particularly aggravating day at work. Maybe that was why her sleep had been disturbed.

As soon as the notion came to her, she dismissed it. She hadn’t awakened because of insomnia. A woman’s screams had torn her from the fabric of slumber. They had sounded as real to her as the mug felt in her hand. Although it had been synthesized from a molecular matrix, the mug was solid. She believed the sounds she’d heard were just as substantial. It couldn’t have been a dream! And if not, then whose distress was so great that it had touched her in her altered state of consciousness?

She was just raising the cup to her lips when a loud chime shattered the heavy silence.

“Computer, open channel,” she said, her voice trembling. “Hello? Who is it, please?” Holding her breath, she waited for the response.

“It’s Sarina.” Her friend’s tone was tense with anxiety. The video was off, so Mara couldn’t see her face. “Can you come over?”

Her throat constricted. “It’s two-thirty in the morning. What’s wrong?”

“I… can’t explain over the commlink. Oh God, Mara, what am I going to do?” Sarina’s voice cracked. “Please, come quickly!”

“I’ll be there.” She terminated the link, set her mug down, and obtained a set of lace underwear and a plum stretch jumpsuit from the fabricator. As she pulled them on, she wondered what could have happened.

Her imagination ran wild with all sorts of ominous possibilities, making her fingers quake so badly that fastening her jumpsuit required a major effort.

Sparing a brief glance at the reflector to straighten her long hair, she strode into the foyer. Her shiny black boots were where she’d left them beside the door. As she shoved her feet inside, she composed a voice message for Hedy. Normally her roommate slept as soundly as a hibernating bear, but Mara didn’t want Hedy to worry should she awaken alone.

Outside, the dark sky above the biosphere’s crystal domed ceiling was studded with stars. Breathing in the cool, crisp air, she focused on determining the quickest route to Sarina’s. They lived some distance from each other even though Bimordus Central was relatively compact.

Taking an airbus or a people mover meant she’d have to change vehicles along the way. It might be more expedient to walk three blocks to the transport terminal and requisition a speeder.

Making her decision, she strode at a fast pace along a paved walking path dimly lit by low footlights. Her surroundings faded into the background of her preoccupied mind. Wrinkling her brow, she wondered what could have happened to cause Sarina such anxiety.

Was her daughter ill? Seven months old, the pretty blond-haired, blue-eyed babe already showed signs of her exceptional heritage. Jallyn Diana bore the sacred sign of the circle on her palm in the same manner as her gifted mother.

Although Sarina was the legendary Great Healer, Mara knew that her healing power was limited. She hoped Jallyn hadn’t been stricken with a disease Sarina couldn’t cure. As the child’s godmother, she felt very close to her.

Moisture pricked her eyes and she sought to divert her own concern by examining different possibilities. Perhaps Jallyn was not the cause of Sarina’s trouble. Could Sarina herself have been attacked? She’d made her share of enemies while becoming the Great Healer. Briefly, Mara reviewed the story that had become nearly as familiar to her as her own history.

Sarina had been abducted from Earth by Captain Teir Reylock of the Coalition Defense League. As ordered, Teir had delivered her to the High Council on Bimordus Two for her marriage to Lord Rolf Cam’brii. Through this union, it was believed Sarina would fulfill an ancient prophecy and become the Great Healer.

Mara could hardly believe that a mere two annums had passed since the horrible plague called the Farg had swept through Coalition space, followed by the dreaded Morgot conquerors. The Great Healer had been their only hope for salvation.

The Morgots had sought to stop the prophecy’s fulfill¬ment. They hired Cerrus Bdan, a Souk slave trader, to capture Sarina and Teir, who was acting as her bodyguard. When Bdan failed in his objective, he was executed. Sarina became the Great Healer when she fell in love with Teir. He was her destined mate, not Lord Cam’brii. With her newly activated power, she eradicated the Farg and helped chase the Morgots from Coalition territory.

Beside the Souks and the Morgots, who else would have reason to resent Sarina’s interference in their affairs? Mara supposed former councillor Daimon could be considered a contender. The powerful statesman had been a leader of the Return to Origins faction, a secessionist movement that had gained favor during previous crises.

Daimon tried to have Sarina and Lord Cam’brii assassinated to prevent their marriage from taking place, fearing the legend’s fulfillment would strengthen Coalition unity. When Sarina became the Great Healer, Daimon was forced to resign in disgrace. Mara had heard his followers were active on other worlds.

As she mulled over the alternatives, her gut feeling told her that none of these pertained to Sarina’s current distress. Something else was involved here.

Sighing, she decided she’d just have to wait to learn the answers.

Twenty minutes later, she stood at the entrance to Sarina’s residential tower, a spiral structure made from glittery pink stone and white marbelite. An unusual number of security personnel patrolled the well-lit perimeter.

A middle-aged man with a stern visage caught her eye as she neared the entrance.

“Excuse me, can I help you?” He blocked her passage. The man wore a nondescript khaki jacket but his stiff military posture and firm voice proclaimed his authority.

“I’m here to see Sarina Reylock.” She laced her frozen fingers together in an effort to calm herself. A stranger might not recognize anything as being different, but she’d been here before at night and had never encountered any resistance.

“You are?” The man fixed her with a piercing glare.

“Mara Hendricks.”

He scanned a file on his hand-held datalink. After a moment, his face brightened, and he looked up with a smile. “Got your name right here. The Great Healer expects you. I’ll let you in.”

A few moments later, she entered a short foyer. To her left rose a spiral staircase. Up ahead was an atrium with a glass lift. A couple of men were running a sensing device over a portion of the floor by the stairs. Bent in concentration, they didn’t bother to look up at her entrance.

Her feeling of dread deepening, she entered the lift. “Fourteen,” she intoned, and the door slid shut. The conveyor began to rise. She watched the different levels pass by in a blur as the lift sped upward. By the time it reached the fourteenth floor, her knees were shaking.

A pair of guards stood in front of Sarina’s door, frightening her with their fierce expressions. One of them announced her arrival over the comm unit.

Inside, Sarina rushed to greet her. “Mara, I’m so glad you’re here.”

After giving her a brief hug, Mara stood back, regarding her friend’s tear-streaked face and disheveled appearance. Sarina’s gray eyes were wide with shock. Her blond hair was in rumpled disarray, her nightclothes haphazardly covered by a crimson drape. A faint, sickly sweet odor was in the air. The casements were wide open, letting in a cool breeze that ruffled the hairs on Mara’s skin.

Her stunned gaze swept the living area, alighting on a tall, bearded figure seated on a double lounger in front of a black crystalline table. Glotaj, the supreme regent, was here!

Standing in front of the holovid entertainment center, studying the flashy dials, was Lt. Wren, one of Teir’s crew. He was on medical leave, having been injured on a recent mission.

Great suns, had something happened to Teir that they were both here? The captain was away on assignment. Why else would Glotaj and Wren have come together if not to deliver bad news?

“What’s happened?” Her heart thudded in her chest. “Teir, is he—” She couldn’t get beyond the two words.

Sarina shook her head. “It’s Jallyn. She’s been kidnapped.” Sinking onto a chair, the Great Healer covered her face with her hands.

Mara’s jaw dropped. “What?”

Glotaj rose from the lounger to greet her. “Mara,” the older statesman said, regally inclining his head. Wings of gray fanned his temples, flanking a forehead creased with worry lines. A pair of dark, piercing eyes met hers. Without preamble, Glotaj launched into an explanation.

“Someone showed up at Sarina’s door pretending to deliver a bouquet of flowers. She thought they were from Teir and opened the portal, wherein the delivery person disabled her with a noxious fume sprayer.

“When her life-form readings dipped, the automated sentry sent out an alarm. A security team found her out cold on the floor. We’ve already done a sweep of the apartment. Traces of quantum resolution activity were found in the baby’s chamber.”

He scowled as though that had a significance Mara didn’t understand. “The other results won’t be available for a few hauras yet,” Glotaj continued. “The team’s in the foyer. They’ve picked up unusual readings by the stairs.”

“I saw them,” Mara acknowledged. “Who do you suspect is responsible?” Her friend’s look of anguish pierced her and she wavered between talking to Glotaj and rushing to Sarina’s side.

“Speculation can wait,” Sarina snapped, making the decision for her. “Will you do a separation, Mara? I… I have to know if Jallyn’s all right!”

She nodded, eager to comply. As a Tyberian, she possessed extrasensory ability, but her power went beyond the norm for her people. She could actually separate her spirit from her body and jump into another person’s life space.

This allowed her to see what the other person saw; to experience their viewpoint as events unfolded. It was a gift she was loath to use because it had caused her an unhappy childhood, but in this case, she would do anything to help Sarina.

To ease her mind in preparation, Mara let her gaze roam the living area, artfully decorated in ivory and teal. Various ornaments collected on Sarina’s travels to different planets in the galaxy were displayed. They would be meaningless to her friend if her beloved daughter was lost.

“I need an object that’s touched Jallyn,” she reminded Sarina gently.

“Of course.” Rising, Sarina rushed from the room, return¬ing a moment later holding a lavender woven blanket.

Mara took it from her and clutched it to her chest. Her eyes closed, and she began the inner flight along the astral plane. As she concentrated, a vibration hummed through her body, expanding outward. A buzzing noise rang in her ears.

She felt herself lighten as the sound altered, changing to a rushing noise like water gushing through a narrow gorge. All at once, her essence separated from her body and floated upward. She hovered a moment, feeling as airy as a feather. It was an incredible sensation and she wanted to savor it, to remain immersed in the peace and warmth of her new state.

Unencumbered by a physical body, she could go any¬where. Freedom beckoned her. The dimensions of time and space didn’t pose any restraints to her spiritual being. She still had a form of sorts, but it was different, like an energy signature of what she had been.

She focused her thoughts on the baby, on the pretty blond-haired child who’d be frightened and bewildered without its mother. She could feel its vibrations emanating from the blanket, guiding her. Almost instantly, she was with Jallyn, popping into her head.

Confusion struck her. Seeing through the baby’s eyes, it was difficult to make out the view in Jallyn’s perspective. She was lying on her back, squirming, her diaper wet and uncomfortable. Overhead a bright light shone in her face. When her head twisted to the side, rows of painted wooden strips obstructed her view. Beyond the slats was a curved metal wall.

Footsteps sounded. A woman’s face appeared, peering at her with a frown. Jallyn saw a large set of violet eyes, a pale complexion, brown hair knotted in a low bun. As the face neared, the nose seemed to expand, threatening to jab into her. She began to cry.

“Not now,” Mara whispered to herself. She couldn’t see well enough through the moisture in Jallyn’s eyes.

Huge hands grasped her pudgy legs, raised them, removed the wet diaper. She was roughly dried and powdered, then rediapered. As Jallyn was turned onto her stomach to have her back rubbed, Mara glimpsed a small round casement set high in another metal wall. A viewport, and outside all was dark.

Having seen enough, Mara separated. Instantly, she found herself in Sarina’s apartment being sucked back into her physical body.

Slowly, she opened her eyes. The feeling of weight¬lessness, of freedom, was gone, but the serenity she’d experienced remained. Once more encumbered by her physical being, she took a moment to adjust.

“Jallyn is lying in a crib. A woman is caring for her,” she told Sarina, trying to keep the emotion from her voice.

Seated on the lounger, Sarina stared at her, wide-eyed. “Thank God someone’s looking after her.” Her composure shattered, and tears streamed down her face. “Jallyn… Oh, dear God, what am I going to do?” Her face paled, and she slumped back.

“She needs a medic,” Mara said in alarm. “Let’s call Hedy.” With the supreme regent’s permission, she gave Wren the coded signal that would trigger Hedy’s bedside alarm. Her roommate, a respected physician, could be relied upon for discretion.

Reassured that Hedy was on her way, Mara obtained a sedit beverage from the fabricator and handed it to Sarina.

“Drink this. It’ll help.” Watching her friend drain the contents, she wondered if she should conjure a restorative for herself. It might help stem the flood of tears that were perilously close to overflowing. She couldn’t bear to see Sarina so upset.

“What else did you notice?” Glotaj asked.

A shudder racked her body and she struggled for control. “A viewport and a metal bulkhead.”

“What?”

Mara sank onto the lounger next to Sarina. She described her additional perceptions.

“By the moons of Agus Six! That sounds like a ship.” The supreme regent narrowed his eyes. “Computer, open channel. Get me the control center for Spaceport Opera¬tions.” When the connection came through, he identified himself. “I want the manifest checked for all departures within the past two hauras.”

“I’ll get right on it, Your Excellency,” said the controller. “Do you wish to wait?”

“No, call me back.” Abruptly, he terminated the link and turned around. “If Jallyn isn’t on Bimordus Two, it will take us longer to find her, and the Elevation Ceremony is scheduled for sixty days hence. It will be disastrous if Jallyn fails to appear. We must keep this whole thing under wraps until she’s found.”

“I agree,” Wren said in a quiet voice. He’d been listening off to the side but now walked over to join them. “If Jallyn’s abduction becomes public knowledge, it will frighten the Auranians. They’ll fear they are still in danger from those who would oppose them.”

Glotaj nodded solemnly. “They might be deterred from revealing their legacy for another millennium. Jallyn has to be found so she can make her scheduled appearance.”

Mara considered his words. The Auranians were a people of ancient descent who’d been persecuted because of their ability to mentally manipulate the aura surrounding living matter. Forced to flee their home planet of Shimera, they’d scattered among the stars, hiding their heritage to avoid further repression.

Sarina’s ancestors had been Auranians who’d landed on Earth. Teir was thought to be of Auranian descent as well. Ever since their joining, Auranians had been coming forward to claim their legacy. To these people, Jallyn’s birth symbolized the reemergence of their race. The Elevation Ceremony had been set to recognize their right to freedom of expression, and Mara prayed Jallyn would be found in time to be there.

“Do you think Jallyn was taken because someone wants to discourage the Auranians from making a comeback?” she asked, puzzled. She didn’t think the Auranians would pose a threat to anyone. Those who had come forward were learning long-forgotten skills based on Sarina’s experience. They’d become healers, albeit on a more limited scale than Sarina.

“Who would be against us?” Sarina’s voice rose barely above a whisper. “My people just want to live in peace.” Her fingers plucked at her crimson drape, opening and closing the folds in a nervous, repetitive motion.

Mara gripped Sarina’s cold hand in her own to offer reassurance. “Why else would someone take Jallyn? Do you think Sarina is in danger, too?” she asked Glotaj. A weight settled in the pit of her stomach at the possibility.

Glotaj shook his head. “The abductors had the perfect opportunity to take her, but she was left untouched. No, it was Jallyn they wanted.” The supreme regent paced the room, his hands folded behind his back.

Wren swept a sympathetic glance toward Sarina and Mara, and she drew strength from his presence. A strong, confident male, Wren was a Polluxite who served as Teir’s navigator aboard the Valiant. Like his captain, he ignored military convention and opted to wear leather breeches and a white shirt half open at his muscular chest.

Her gaze scanned his liquid hazel eyes and rose to his layered eyebrows. A white streak was sandwiched between two chestnut layers darker than his head of brown hair. Combined with the rugged angles of his face, the unusual brows gave him a striking appearance.

Beside her, Sarina gave a long tremulous sigh. Mara shot her a sharp glance, wishing Hedy would hurry up and get there. She squeezed Sarina’s hand, willing her to be strong. Her own heart fluttered rapidly in her chest. Jallyn… the poor child.

“Does Teir know?” Mara rasped.

“He’s on special assignment with the Valiant and can’t be reached,” Glotaj said, facing her. “They’re on orders to observe radio silence.”

A cry of grief escaped Sarina’s lips. The empty cup slipped from her fingers, falling onto the carpeted floor. Mara caught her by the shoulders just as she slumped to the side. “By the faith, she’s passed out.”

Wren hurried over. With his big arms, he scooped the Great Healer into his protective embrace. “She’s had a terrible shock. I’ll put her on her lounger until Dr. Te’larr gets here,” he said, using Hedy’s formal name.

As he headed for the sleeping chamber, Mara wiped her moist eyes with the back of her hand. An emptiness stole into her heart, partly from fear for the missing child and partly from sharing her friend’s anguish. She felt powerless when events were unfolding so fast and wished there were more she could do to help.

“I think we should consider different angles,” Wren said when he’d returned, his expres¬sion somber. “Jallyn could have been taken for reasons other than the Auranian issue.”

His nervousness was betrayed by the large set of muscular wings that suddenly sprouted from his back. With a grimace of annoyance, he forced them to fold and retreat.

“Personally, I think it’s the Morgots making another stab at Sarina. We know their leader, K’darr, tried to capture her before she became the Great Healer. He could be trying to gain through the infant what he failed with her mother.”

“Which is what?” Mara leaned forward. “To twist her power to his own uses?”

Wren nodded. “The extent of Jallyn’s ability is unknown at this stage. She may not even possess the healing gift despite the sign of the circle on her palm.”

“Jallyn does have the gift. I’ve sensed it in her, and she might be capable one day of doing more than healing. The light of the aura is strong in that child.”

“Revenge could be a motive for either the Morgots or the Souks,” Glotaj cut in, his face pensive. “They both have reason to resent Sarina’s opposition to their goals.”

“I doubt the Souks are involved,” Wren protested. “After Lord Cam’brii’s secret mission to Souk last annum, the pashas who gained power have been friendly to the Coalition.”

“Where is Rolf?” she asked, aware that Lord Cam’brii and his bride had become good friends to Sarina and Teir.

“He and Ilyssa are visiting his family on Nadira,” Glotaj answered. “They know nothing about this. The fewer people who hear about it, the better.” His icy blue gaze stared at her meaningfully.

“What about former Councillor Daimon? Could he be making a replay for dominance?” Mara felt compelled to discuss all the possibilities. Even though she felt something else was at stake here, the others might come up with an angle she hadn’t considered.

Glotaj stroked his bearded jaw. “I don’t see how stealing Sarina’s baby would fit into his scheme of things. The Return to Origins faction is a secessionist group.”

“I’ve got it.” Wren’s eyes lit up. “It’s a ransom demand.”

“That’s absurd.” Mara’s head throbbed, and she rubbed at a pulsating point on her temple. “Sarina and Teir don’t have a lot of credits. What would someone stand to gain? In my opinion, you’re both off track. There’s something else here we’re missing.”

“Yes, we’re missing Jallyn.” Glotaj’s shoulders slumped.

It disturbed her to see the supreme regent so stressed. Normally the elderly leader’s demeanor was calm and poised, as it had been through all the crises that had afflicted the Coalition so recently. It proved how much he cared for Sarina that he felt so deeply for her and let it show.

The chime from the comm unit broke the silence.

“Computer, open channel,” Glotaj thundered. “Greetings. This is Glotaj speaking.”

“Spaceport Operations online; Controller Brecch here. I have the information you requested, Your Excellency.”

“Go ahead.”

“Three ships have launched within the past two hauras,” Brecch’s gruff voice spoke over the comm unit. “One belongs to Fromoth Trun and the Yanuran delegation. They’re returning to their home planet, Yanura. Another is Gregorski’s, a pilot who applied for mining rights to the Doby asteroid belt; and the third is Ambassador El’Rik’s ship. He’s returning to the Minx system.”

“That’s very helpful. Controller. Thanks for your assis¬tance.” Glotaj signed off, his brows furrowed in thought.

“I’ve been representing the Yanurans before the Admis¬sions Committee,” Mara mentioned. “Their departure was expected.”

Glotaj nodded absently. “I’d like to have a private conversation with Adm. Daras Gog. I’m sure Sarina won’t mind if I use her upstairs office.”

While he was gone, the door chime rang and Hedy was admitted. Her haste in getting there was apparent in her disheveled appearance. She wore a pair of leggings and a pullover sweater, and she’d fastened her brown hair into a ponytail.

“Thank the stars you’re here,” Mara cried, rushing to her. Quickly, she filled Hedy in on what had happened. Hedy’s face paled and her lips compressed. When Mara finished, she rummaged in her bag for her medscan unit.

“I’ll tend to her right away,” she said, her voice quietly competent. Turning on her heels, Hedy headed into Sarina’s sleeping chamber.

Wringing her hands, Mara paced the living area. Her mind filled with the issues they’d discussed. Had anything been left out, any item of small significance that would apply to the situation?

A thought struck her, and her heart raced. “Lt. Wren!”

Wren was at the holovid unit, scrutinizing Teir’s new image crystallizer. At her call, he glanced up.

“The kidnappers knew Sarina would open her door to receive a bouquet of flowers, yet Earth isn’t advanced enough to be a member of the Coalition. First contact hasn’t been made. How would they know about the Earth custom of delivering flowers? It would have to be someone like me who’s studied their culture.”

Wren raised his layered eyebrows. “Has anyone consulted you recently on the subject?”

She regarded him thoughtfully. She worked as a cultural attaché for the Department of Interstellar Relations in the Diplomatic Affairs Bureau, representing new alien cultures applying for admission to the Coalition. In addition, she attended interdisciplinary team rounds at the wellness center, offering her knowledge of alien customs as they pertained to medical care.

“I don’t recall anyone mentioning Earth cultural practices. Then again, the database in the study center is open to all.”

The main library on Bimordus Two had a huge directory, receiving input from over five hundred worlds.

“This could be an important clue,” Wren remarked, his voice a pitch higher with excitement.

“What could?” Glotaj descended the spiral staircase. When Mara explained her idea, he nodded his agreement. “You’re right. On Bimordus Two, we consider it a sacrilege to snip blooms and deprive them of their short lifespan. The kidnappers used a specific knowledge of Earth customs to trick Sarina. We’ll have to look into this more thoroughly.”

He strode down the last few steps. Though dressed casually in a short tunic and trousers, his lined face, sharp gaze, and proud posture displayed his status as a member of the royal House of Raimorrda.

Teir also claimed lineage from that respected ruling family, Mara remembered. Was it possible the baby had been abducted by someone working against the Raimorrdans?

No, it couldn’t be. Destroying the Elevation Ceremony would harm Auranians, not those of Raimorrdan blood. She was grasping at straws. Hanging her head, she felt discouragement wash over her.

“I notified Adm. Gog about the traces of quantum resolution activity found in the nursery,” Glotaj announced, staring at a Carellian thorn vase displayed on a pedestal.

Mara followed the direction of his gaze. Pink veins high¬lighted the translucent white vase, while thorny prominences decorated the curved upper edge. It was one of the best pieces she’d ever created. The day when Sarina and Teir had accepted her gift with lavish praise had been one of her proudest moments.

Her eyes wandered to the holographic image of Jallyn fixed on the wall. The baby was gurgling with laughter, her tiny hands and feet waving with uninhibited joy as the camera had captured her. She remembered how Sarina had beamed with pride when she showed her the picture, and her eyes misted.

Pushing aside her emotions, she focused on what Glotaj had said. “What’s the significance of quantum resolution activity?” she asked, breaking the silence in the room. It was easy for them all to be lost in thought on such a sorrowful occasion.

Glotaj’s mouth tightened as he moved closer to where she stood. “It means the abductors used transporter technology to escape. We’ve determined there were two of them, but our scans are inconclusive for further details.”

Her jaw dropped in astonishment. Transporter technol¬ogy? As far as she knew, their scientists were only able to transport a roomful of objects from one location to another, but they hadn’t perfected the technique enough to transfer people.

Transporter technology was not related to the molecular alteration process that ran their fabri-cators or allowed shuttles to be disguised in different configurations.

She stared at Glotaj. “How is this possible?”

“We know of several nonaligned species who possess tech¬nical knowledge in advance of our own,” Glotaj said, his face grim. “The Rakkians, Fire Weavers, and Bolons come to mind.”

“They should all be checked out,” Wren stated, frowning. “One thing I don’t understand—why the ruse with the flowers if the abductors could have gotten in using the same transporter method?”

“Apparently they arrived downstairs in the lobby. They must have been uncertain as to the location of Sarina’s apartment. But once they found it and gained entry, they beamed directly out.”

“Is there any way to trace the pattern to learn where they went?” she asked.

Glotaj sighed. “We don’t have the instrumentation avail¬able. We do know she was taken aboard a ship. Adm. Gog is sending patrols after Boris Gregorski and Ambassador El’Rik. The Yanuran delegation is another matter. Their situation requires a closer look, so I’m sending a special team to Yanura.”

At Mara’s look of puzzlement, he explained. “The Yanurans have applied for admission to the Coalition. You’ve been helping them with the application process, Mara, so you are more familiar with their situation. But Wren may not know the details.”

He directed his attention to the Polluxite. “Fromoth Trun, the Yanuran leader, has offered a miracle age-preserving drug derived from seaweed as a trade incentive. The data seems conclusive, but the Admissions Committee requires a fuller investigation before reaching a decision.”

“The Yanurans don’t need a trade incentive to enter the Coalition,” Wren said.

“They’re demanding immediate access to our technology instead of having to wait the usual probationary period of one annum. That can only be allowed if they’re granted special trade status.”

“What’s their hurry?”

Glotaj shrugged. “We’re not sure. That’s why we need a closer look at their situation.”

“If you ask me,” Mara interrupted, “the Admissions Committee is looking for an excuse to deny their appli¬cation. No one likes their smell, and I think that’s why the committee is delaying its response.”

The Yanurans exuded a fishy odor and she felt that prejudiced the committee against admitting the amphibian race to the Coalition. After her personal experiences with preju¬dice, fighting intolerance had become her passion in life. She was particularly adamant about the Yanurans. They were being discriminated against without reason¬able cause.

Glotaj compressed his mouth. “I’m sending a team to Yanura regardless of your views, Mara. The mission will be to confirm the data regarding the drug Vyclor and look into Jallyn’s disappearance.”

“Then I’m going,” she insisted. “I’ve been working with Fromoth Trun for the past five weeks, and I’m familiar with his habits. You won’t find anyone else better acquainted with Yanuran culture.”

“Agreed,” Glotaj said cheerfully, as though he’d expected her to volunteer. “Lt. Wren, you’ll join the group as navigator. Consider your medical leave canceled.”

“A medic.” She bounced on her heels excitedly. “Ask Hedy to go.”

A small smile cracked the supreme regent’s face. “Very well. Lt. Ebo, a Sirisian, will serve as communications officer. He’s also a qualified engineer. Adm. Gog sug¬gested him.”

“Who’s in command?” Wren asked curiously.

Glotaj’s smile grew broader. “Lt. Comdr. Deitan Sage will be pilot and mission leader.”

“Commander Sage?” Wren’s eyes widened. “He’s a diving specialist in the SEARCH Force. We’ve worked together before.”

“What’s the SEARCH Force?” she asked, unfamiliar with that particular branch of the Defense League.

“SEARCH stands for Sea & Aerospace Command Detachment,” Wren answered. “It’s a commando unit whose operatives are trained to function in all types of environments. Comdr. Sage joined our crew last annum for a mission on Souk. We had to get two prisoners off the Isle of Spears in the Scylla Sea.

“He was dropped forty kilometers offshore. The commander swam to the island, did a quick recon, and laid out the laser markers to guide in the rest of us. We came in with our chutes. Luckily for us, Sage had taken out a squadron of Hortha guards that would have pinned us on the beach and wiped us out. Those beasts are nasty fellows. I don’t know anyone else who could have taken them on single-handedly without leaving one of them alive to sound the alarm.”

“Great,” she muttered. Just what they needed: a gung-ho soldier in charge of a mission requiring diplomacy and tact. She knew the best way to deal with the Yanurans, and muscle power was not the approach of choice. Hopefully, Comdr. Sage was an intelligent man who would respect her opinions. But if he took an aggressive stance, she’d have to deal with him in the only way he might understand.

She loved a good fight, as long as the weapons were words.

STARLIGHT CHILD

Nancy J. Cohen

Chapter One

A woman’s high-pitched screams of anguish tore through the night. The piercing cries lanced into Mara’s sleep-numbed mind and awakened her.

Sitting up abruptly in bed, she listened acutely. Dead silence filled the room.

Her dark eyes swept the bedchamber, resting upon her modern built-in shelving unit with its holovid array, the chest of carved wooden drawers from her home planet Tyberia, and the display case with her collection of sculptures. The room’s illumination had brightened automatically when she sat up, but still her heart raced and her spine chilled with fear.

Could the awful sounds have come from Hedy? An urgent need to check on her roommate propelled her out of bed, but a glimpse of the petite brunette sleeping next door reassured her that all was well.

After a hasty search of the rest of the apartment, Mara concluded she’d been dreaming. Letting out a breath of relief, she grabbed a wrap from her chamber and told herself to calm down. But the agonized cries kept reverberating in her mind as though they were real, and she couldn’t dismiss the uneasy feeling that something was wrong.

Trying to shake off the remnants of her nightmare, she strode to the fabricator in the living area to conjure a warm drink, hoping it would soothe her sensitized nerves. She stood watching the alcove in the wall as her beverage materialized in a large ceramic mug. Drinking a cup of wagmint tea always calmed her when she felt tense, and it had been a particularly aggravating day at work. Maybe that was why her sleep had been disturbed.

As soon as the notion came to her, she dismissed it. She hadn’t awakened because of insomnia. A woman’s screams had torn her from the fabric of slumber. They had sounded as real to her as the mug felt in her hand. Although it had been synthesized from a molecular matrix, the mug was solid. She believed the sounds she’d heard were just as substantial. It couldn’t have been a dream! And if not, then whose distress was so great that it had touched her in her altered state of consciousness?

She was just raising the cup to her lips when a loud chime shattered the heavy silence.

“Computer, open channel,” she said, her voice trembling. “Hello? Who is it, please?” Holding her breath, she waited for the response.

“It’s Sarina.” Her friend’s tone was tense with anxiety. The video was off, so Mara couldn’t see her face. “Can you come over?”

Her throat constricted. “It’s two-thirty in the morning. What’s wrong?”

“I… can’t explain over the commlink. Oh God, Mara, what am I going to do?” Sarina’s voice cracked. “Please, come quickly!”

“I’ll be there.” She terminated the link, set her mug down, and obtained a set of lace underwear and a plum stretch jumpsuit from the fabricator. As she pulled them on, she wondered what could have happened.

Her imagination ran wild with all sorts of ominous possibilities, making her fingers quake so badly that fastening her jumpsuit required a major effort.

Sparing a brief glance at the reflector to straighten her long hair, she strode into the foyer. Her shiny black boots were where she’d left them beside the door. As she shoved her feet inside, she composed a voice message for Hedy. Normally her roommate slept as soundly as a hibernating bear, but Mara didn’t want Hedy to worry should she awaken alone.

Outside, the dark sky above the biosphere’s crystal domed ceiling was studded with stars. Breathing in the cool, crisp air, she focused on determining the quickest route to Sarina’s. They lived some distance from each other even though Bimordus Central was relatively compact.

Taking an airbus or a people mover meant she’d have to change vehicles along the way. It might be more expedient to walk three blocks to the transport terminal and requisition a speeder.

Making her decision, she strode at a fast pace along a paved walking path dimly lit by low footlights. Her surroundings faded into the background of her preoccupied mind. Wrinkling her brow, she wondered what could have happened to cause Sarina such anxiety.

Was her daughter ill? Seven months old, the pretty blond-haired, blue-eyed babe already showed signs of her exceptional heritage. Jallyn Diana bore the sacred sign of the circle on her palm in the same manner as her gifted mother.

Although Sarina was the legendary Great Healer, Mara knew that her healing power was limited. She hoped Jallyn hadn’t been stricken with a disease Sarina couldn’t cure. As the child’s godmother, she felt very close to her.

Moisture pricked her eyes and she sought to divert her own concern by examining different possibilities. Perhaps Jallyn was not the cause of Sarina’s trouble. Could Sarina herself have been attacked? She’d made her share of enemies while becoming the Great Healer. Briefly, Mara reviewed the story that had become nearly as familiar to her as her own history.

Sarina had been abducted from Earth by Captain Teir Reylock of the Coalition Defense League. As ordered, Teir had delivered her to the High Council on Bimordus Two for her marriage to Lord Rolf Cam’brii. Through this union, it was believed Sarina would fulfill an ancient prophecy and become the Great Healer.

Mara could hardly believe that a mere two annums had passed since the horrible plague called the Farg had swept through Coalition space, followed by the dreaded Morgot conquerors. The Great Healer had been their only hope for salvation.

The Morgots had sought to stop the prophecy’s fulfill¬ment. They hired Cerrus Bdan, a Souk slave trader, to capture Sarina and Teir, who was acting as her bodyguard. When Bdan failed in his objective, he was executed. Sarina became the Great Healer when she fell in love with Teir. He was her destined mate, not Lord Cam’brii. With her newly activated power, she eradicated the Farg and helped chase the Morgots from Coalition territory.

Beside the Souks and the Morgots, who else would have reason to resent Sarina’s interference in their affairs? Mara supposed former councillor Daimon could be considered a contender. The powerful statesman had been a leader of the Return to Origins faction, a secessionist movement that had gained favor during previous crises.

Daimon tried to have Sarina and Lord Cam’brii assassinated to prevent their marriage from taking place, fearing the legend’s fulfillment would strengthen Coalition unity. When Sarina became the Great Healer, Daimon was forced to resign in disgrace. Mara had heard his followers were active on other worlds.

As she mulled over the alternatives, her gut feeling told her that none of these pertained to Sarina’s current distress. Something else was involved here.

Sighing, she decided she’d just have to wait to learn the answers.

Twenty minutes later, she stood at the entrance to Sarina’s residential tower, a spiral structure made from glittery pink stone and white marbelite. An unusual number of security personnel patrolled the well-lit perimeter.

A middle-aged man with a stern visage caught her eye as she neared the entrance.

“Excuse me, can I help you?” He blocked her passage. The man wore a nondescript khaki jacket but his stiff military posture and firm voice proclaimed his authority.

“I’m here to see Sarina Reylock.” She laced her frozen fingers together in an effort to calm herself. A stranger might not recognize anything as being different, but she’d been here before at night and had never encountered any resistance.

“You are?” The man fixed her with a piercing glare.

“Mara Hendricks.”

He scanned a file on his hand-held datalink. After a moment, his face brightened, and he looked up with a smile. “Got your name right here. The Great Healer expects you. I’ll let you in.”

A few moments later, she entered a short foyer. To her left rose a spiral staircase. Up ahead was an atrium with a glass lift. A couple of men were running a sensing device over a portion of the floor by the stairs. Bent in concentration, they didn’t bother to look up at her entrance.

Her feeling of dread deepening, she entered the lift. “Fourteen,” she intoned, and the door slid shut. The conveyor began to rise. She watched the different levels pass by in a blur as the lift sped upward. By the time it reached the fourteenth floor, her knees were shaking.

A pair of guards stood in front of Sarina’s door, frightening her with their fierce expressions. One of them announced her arrival over the comm unit.

Inside, Sarina rushed to greet her. “Mara, I’m so glad you’re here.”

After giving her a brief hug, Mara stood back, regarding her friend’s tear-streaked face and disheveled appearance. Sarina’s gray eyes were wide with shock. Her blond hair was in rumpled disarray, her nightclothes haphazardly covered by a crimson drape. A faint, sickly sweet odor was in the air. The casements were wide open, letting in a cool breeze that ruffled the hairs on Mara’s skin.

Her stunned gaze swept the living area, alighting on a tall, bearded figure seated on a double lounger in front of a black crystalline table. Glotaj, the supreme regent, was here!

Standing in front of the holovid entertainment center, studying the flashy dials, was Lt. Wren, one of Teir’s crew. He was on medical leave, having been injured on a recent mission.

Great suns, had something happened to Teir that they were both here? The captain was away on assignment. Why else would Glotaj and Wren have come together if not to deliver bad news?

“What’s happened?” Her heart thudded in her chest. “Teir, is he—” She couldn’t get beyond the two words.

Sarina shook her head. “It’s Jallyn. She’s been kidnapped.” Sinking onto a chair, the Great Healer covered her face with her hands.

Mara’s jaw dropped. “What?”

Glotaj rose from the lounger to greet her. “Mara,” the older statesman said, regally inclining his head. Wings of gray fanned his temples, flanking a forehead creased with worry lines. A pair of dark, piercing eyes met hers. Without preamble, Glotaj launched into an explanation.

“Someone showed up at Sarina’s door pretending to deliver a bouquet of flowers. She thought they were from Teir and opened the portal, wherein the delivery person disabled her with a noxious fume sprayer.

“When her life-form readings dipped, the automated sentry sent out an alarm. A security team found her out cold on the floor. We’ve already done a sweep of the apartment. Traces of quantum resolution activity were found in the baby’s chamber.”

He scowled as though that had a significance Mara didn’t understand. “The other results won’t be available for a few hauras yet,” Glotaj continued. “The team’s in the foyer. They’ve picked up unusual readings by the stairs.”

“I saw them,” Mara acknowledged. “Who do you suspect is responsible?” Her friend’s look of anguish pierced her and she wavered between talking to Glotaj and rushing to Sarina’s side.

“Speculation can wait,” Sarina snapped, making the decision for her. “Will you do a separation, Mara? I… I have to know if Jallyn’s all right!”

She nodded, eager to comply. As a Tyberian, she possessed extrasensory ability, but her power went beyond the norm for her people. She could actually separate her spirit from her body and jump into another person’s life space.

This allowed her to see what the other person saw; to experience their viewpoint as events unfolded. It was a gift she was loath to use because it had caused her an unhappy childhood, but in this case, she would do anything to help Sarina.

To ease her mind in preparation, Mara let her gaze roam the living area, artfully decorated in ivory and teal. Various ornaments collected on Sarina’s travels to different planets in the galaxy were displayed. They would be meaningless to her friend if her beloved daughter was lost.

“I need an object that’s touched Jallyn,” she reminded Sarina gently.

“Of course.” Rising, Sarina rushed from the room, return¬ing a moment later holding a lavender woven blanket.

Mara took it from her and clutched it to her chest. Her eyes closed, and she began the inner flight along the astral plane. As she concentrated, a vibration hummed through her body, expanding outward. A buzzing noise rang in her ears.

She felt herself lighten as the sound altered, changing to a rushing noise like water gushing through a narrow gorge. All at once, her essence separated from her body and floated upward. She hovered a moment, feeling as airy as a feather. It was an incredible sensation and she wanted to savor it, to remain immersed in the peace and warmth of her new state.

Unencumbered by a physical body, she could go any¬where. Freedom beckoned her. The dimensions of time and space didn’t pose any restraints to her spiritual being. She still had a form of sorts, but it was different, like an energy signature of what she had been.

She focused her thoughts on the baby, on the pretty blond-haired child who’d be frightened and bewildered without its mother. She could feel its vibrations emanating from the blanket, guiding her. Almost instantly, she was with Jallyn, popping into her head.

Confusion struck her. Seeing through the baby’s eyes, it was difficult to make out the view in Jallyn’s perspective. She was lying on her back, squirming, her diaper wet and uncomfortable. Overhead a bright light shone in her face. When her head twisted to the side, rows of painted wooden strips obstructed her view. Beyond the slats was a curved metal wall.

Footsteps sounded. A woman’s face appeared, peering at her with a frown. Jallyn saw a large set of violet eyes, a pale complexion, brown hair knotted in a low bun. As the face neared, the nose seemed to expand, threatening to jab into her. She began to cry.

“Not now,” Mara whispered to herself. She couldn’t see well enough through the moisture in Jallyn’s eyes.

Huge hands grasped her pudgy legs, raised them, removed the wet diaper. She was roughly dried and powdered, then rediapered. As Jallyn was turned onto her stomach to have her back rubbed, Mara glimpsed a small round casement set high in another metal wall. A viewport, and outside all was dark.

Having seen enough, Mara separated. Instantly, she found herself in Sarina’s apartment being sucked back into her physical body.

Slowly, she opened her eyes. The feeling of weight¬lessness, of freedom, was gone, but the serenity she’d experienced remained. Once more encumbered by her physical being, she took a moment to adjust.

“Jallyn is lying in a crib. A woman is caring for her,” she told Sarina, trying to keep the emotion from her voice.

Seated on the lounger, Sarina stared at her, wide-eyed. “Thank God someone’s looking after her.” Her composure shattered, and tears streamed down her face. “Jallyn… Oh, dear God, what am I going to do?” Her face paled, and she slumped back.

“She needs a medic,” Mara said in alarm. “Let’s call Hedy.” With the supreme regent’s permission, she gave Wren the coded signal that would trigger Hedy’s bedside alarm. Her roommate, a respected physician, could be relied upon for discretion.

Reassured that Hedy was on her way, Mara obtained a sedit beverage from the fabricator and handed it to Sarina.

“Drink this. It’ll help.” Watching her friend drain the contents, she wondered if she should conjure a restorative for herself. It might help stem the flood of tears that were perilously close to overflowing. She couldn’t bear to see Sarina so upset.

“What else did you notice?” Glotaj asked.

A shudder racked her body and she struggled for control. “A viewport and a metal bulkhead.”

“What?”

Mara sank onto the lounger next to Sarina. She described her additional perceptions.

“By the moons of Agus Six! That sounds like a ship.” The supreme regent narrowed his eyes. “Computer, open channel. Get me the control center for Spaceport Opera¬tions.” When the connection came through, he identified himself. “I want the manifest checked for all departures within the past two hauras.”

“I’ll get right on it, Your Excellency,” said the controller. “Do you wish to wait?”

“No, call me back.” Abruptly, he terminated the link and turned around. “If Jallyn isn’t on Bimordus Two, it will take us longer to find her, and the Elevation Ceremony is scheduled for sixty days hence. It will be disastrous if Jallyn fails to appear. We must keep this whole thing under wraps until she’s found.”

“I agree,” Wren said in a quiet voice. He’d been listening off to the side but now walked over to join them. “If Jallyn’s abduction becomes public knowledge, it will frighten the Auranians. They’ll fear they are still in danger from those who would oppose them.”

Glotaj nodded solemnly. “They might be deterred from revealing their legacy for another millennium. Jallyn has to be found so she can make her scheduled appearance.”

Mara considered his words. The Auranians were a people of ancient descent who’d been persecuted because of their ability to mentally manipulate the aura surrounding living matter. Forced to flee their home planet of Shimera, they’d scattered among the stars, hiding their heritage to avoid further repression.

Sarina’s ancestors had been Auranians who’d landed on Earth. Teir was thought to be of Auranian descent as well. Ever since their joining, Auranians had been coming forward to claim their legacy. To these people, Jallyn’s birth symbolized the reemergence of their race. The Elevation Ceremony had been set to recognize their right to freedom of expression, and Mara prayed Jallyn would be found in time to be there.

“Do you think Jallyn was taken because someone wants to discourage the Auranians from making a comeback?” she asked, puzzled. She didn’t think the Auranians would pose a threat to anyone. Those who had come forward were learning long-forgotten skills based on Sarina’s experience. They’d become healers, albeit on a more limited scale than Sarina.

“Who would be against us?” Sarina’s voice rose barely above a whisper. “My people just want to live in peace.” Her fingers plucked at her crimson drape, opening and closing the folds in a nervous, repetitive motion.

Mara gripped Sarina’s cold hand in her own to offer reassurance. “Why else would someone take Jallyn? Do you think Sarina is in danger, too?” she asked Glotaj. A weight settled in the pit of her stomach at the possibility.

Glotaj shook his head. “The abductors had the perfect opportunity to take her, but she was left untouched. No, it was Jallyn they wanted.” The supreme regent paced the room, his hands folded behind his back.

Wren swept a sympathetic glance toward Sarina and Mara, and she drew strength from his presence. A strong, confident male, Wren was a Polluxite who served as Teir’s navigator aboard the Valiant. Like his captain, he ignored military convention and opted to wear leather breeches and a white shirt half open at his muscular chest.

Her gaze scanned his liquid hazel eyes and rose to his layered eyebrows. A white streak was sandwiched between two chestnut layers darker than his head of brown hair. Combined with the rugged angles of his face, the unusual brows gave him a striking appearance.

Beside her, Sarina gave a long tremulous sigh. Mara shot her a sharp glance, wishing Hedy would hurry up and get there. She squeezed Sarina’s hand, willing her to be strong. Her own heart fluttered rapidly in her chest. Jallyn… the poor child.

“Does Teir know?” Mara rasped.

“He’s on special assignment with the Valiant and can’t be reached,” Glotaj said, facing her. “They’re on orders to observe radio silence.”

A cry of grief escaped Sarina’s lips. The empty cup slipped from her fingers, falling onto the carpeted floor. Mara caught her by the shoulders just as she slumped to the side. “By the faith, she’s passed out.”

Wren hurried over. With his big arms, he scooped the Great Healer into his protective embrace. “She’s had a terrible shock. I’ll put her on her lounger until Dr. Te’larr gets here,” he said, using Hedy’s formal name.

As he headed for the sleeping chamber, Mara wiped her moist eyes with the back of her hand. An emptiness stole into her heart, partly from fear for the missing child and partly from sharing her friend’s anguish. She felt powerless when events were unfolding so fast and wished there were more she could do to help.

“I think we should consider different angles,” Wren said when he’d returned, his expres¬sion somber. “Jallyn could have been taken for reasons other than the Auranian issue.”

His nervousness was betrayed by the large set of muscular wings that suddenly sprouted from his back. With a grimace of annoyance, he forced them to fold and retreat.

“Personally, I think it’s the Morgots making another stab at Sarina. We know their leader, K’darr, tried to capture her before she became the Great Healer. He could be trying to gain through the infant what he failed with her mother.”

“Which is what?” Mara leaned forward. “To twist her power to his own uses?”

Wren nodded. “The extent of Jallyn’s ability is unknown at this stage. She may not even possess the healing gift despite the sign of the circle on her palm.”

“Jallyn does have the gift. I’ve sensed it in her, and she might be capable one day of doing more than healing. The light of the aura is strong in that child.”

“Revenge could be a motive for either the Morgots or the Souks,” Glotaj cut in, his face pensive. “They both have reason to resent Sarina’s opposition to their goals.”

“I doubt the Souks are involved,” Wren protested. “After Lord Cam’brii’s secret mission to Souk last annum, the pashas who gained power have been friendly to the Coalition.”

“Where is Rolf?” she asked, aware that Lord Cam’brii and his bride had become good friends to Sarina and Teir.

“He and Ilyssa are visiting his family on Nadira,” Glotaj answered. “They know nothing about this. The fewer people who hear about it, the better.” His icy blue gaze stared at her meaningfully.

“What about former Councillor Daimon? Could he be making a replay for dominance?” Mara felt compelled to discuss all the possibilities. Even though she felt something else was at stake here, the others might come up with an angle she hadn’t considered.

Glotaj stroked his bearded jaw. “I don’t see how stealing Sarina’s baby would fit into his scheme of things. The Return to Origins faction is a secessionist group.”

“I’ve got it.” Wren’s eyes lit up. “It’s a ransom demand.”

“That’s absurd.” Mara’s head throbbed, and she rubbed at a pulsating point on her temple. “Sarina and Teir don’t have a lot of credits. What would someone stand to gain? In my opinion, you’re both off track. There’s something else here we’re missing.”

“Yes, we’re missing Jallyn.” Glotaj’s shoulders slumped.

It disturbed her to see the supreme regent so stressed. Normally the elderly leader’s demeanor was calm and poised, as it had been through all the crises that had afflicted the Coalition so recently. It proved how much he cared for Sarina that he felt so deeply for her and let it show.

The chime from the comm unit broke the silence.

“Computer, open channel,” Glotaj thundered. “Greetings. This is Glotaj speaking.”

“Spaceport Operations online; Controller Brecch here. I have the information you requested, Your Excellency.”

“Go ahead.”

“Three ships have launched within the past two hauras,” Brecch’s gruff voice spoke over the comm unit. “One belongs to Fromoth Trun and the Yanuran delegation. They’re returning to their home planet, Yanura. Another is Gregorski’s, a pilot who applied for mining rights to the Doby asteroid belt; and the third is Ambassador El’Rik’s ship. He’s returning to the Minx system.”

“That’s very helpful. Controller. Thanks for your assis¬tance.” Glotaj signed off, his brows furrowed in thought.

“I’ve been representing the Yanurans before the Admis¬sions Committee,” Mara mentioned. “Their departure was expected.”

Glotaj nodded absently. “I’d like to have a private conversation with Adm. Daras Gog. I’m sure Sarina won’t mind if I use her upstairs office.”

While he was gone, the door chime rang and Hedy was admitted. Her haste in getting there was apparent in her disheveled appearance. She wore a pair of leggings and a pullover sweater, and she’d fastened her brown hair into a ponytail.

“Thank the stars you’re here,” Mara cried, rushing to her. Quickly, she filled Hedy in on what had happened. Hedy’s face paled and her lips compressed. When Mara finished, she rummaged in her bag for her medscan unit.

“I’ll tend to her right away,” she said, her voice quietly competent. Turning on her heels, Hedy headed into Sarina’s sleeping chamber.

Wringing her hands, Mara paced the living area. Her mind filled with the issues they’d discussed. Had anything been left out, any item of small significance that would apply to the situation?

A thought struck her, and her heart raced. “Lt. Wren!”

Wren was at the holovid unit, scrutinizing Teir’s new image crystallizer. At her call, he glanced up.

“The kidnappers knew Sarina would open her door to receive a bouquet of flowers, yet Earth isn’t advanced enough to be a member of the Coalition. First contact hasn’t been made. How would they know about the Earth custom of delivering flowers? It would have to be someone like me who’s studied their culture.”

Wren raised his layered eyebrows. “Has anyone consulted you recently on the subject?”

She regarded him thoughtfully. She worked as a cultural attaché for the Department of Interstellar Relations in the Diplomatic Affairs Bureau, representing new alien cultures applying for admission to the Coalition. In addition, she attended interdisciplinary team rounds at the wellness center, offering her knowledge of alien customs as they pertained to medical care.

“I don’t recall anyone mentioning Earth cultural practices. Then again, the database in the study center is open to all.”

The main library on Bimordus Two had a huge directory, receiving input from over five hundred worlds.

“This could be an important clue,” Wren remarked, his voice a pitch higher with excitement.

“What could?” Glotaj descended the spiral staircase. When Mara explained her idea, he nodded his agreement. “You’re right. On Bimordus Two, we consider it a sacrilege to snip blooms and deprive them of their short lifespan. The kidnappers used a specific knowledge of Earth customs to trick Sarina. We’ll have to look into this more thoroughly.”

He strode down the last few steps. Though dressed casually in a short tunic and trousers, his lined face, sharp gaze, and proud posture displayed his status as a member of the royal House of Raimorrda.

Teir also claimed lineage from that respected ruling family, Mara remembered. Was it possible the baby had been abducted by someone working against the Raimorrdans?

No, it couldn’t be. Destroying the Elevation Ceremony would harm Auranians, not those of Raimorrdan blood. She was grasping at straws. Hanging her head, she felt discouragement wash over her.

“I notified Adm. Gog about the traces of quantum resolution activity found in the nursery,” Glotaj announced, staring at a Carellian thorn vase displayed on a pedestal.

Mara followed the direction of his gaze. Pink veins high¬lighted the translucent white vase, while thorny prominences decorated the curved upper edge. It was one of the best pieces she’d ever created. The day when Sarina and Teir had accepted her gift with lavish praise had been one of her proudest moments.

Her eyes wandered to the holographic image of Jallyn fixed on the wall. The baby was gurgling with laughter, her tiny hands and feet waving with uninhibited joy as the camera had captured her. She remembered how Sarina had beamed with pride when she showed her the picture, and her eyes misted.

Pushing aside her emotions, she focused on what Glotaj had said. “What’s the significance of quantum resolution activity?” she asked, breaking the silence in the room. It was easy for them all to be lost in thought on such a sorrowful occasion.

Glotaj’s mouth tightened as he moved closer to where she stood. “It means the abductors used transporter technology to escape. We’ve determined there were two of them, but our scans are inconclusive for further details.”

Her jaw dropped in astonishment. Transporter technol¬ogy? As far as she knew, their scientists were only able to transport a roomful of objects from one location to another, but they hadn’t perfected the technique enough to transfer people.

Transporter technology was not related to the molecular alteration process that ran their fabri-cators or allowed shuttles to be disguised in different configurations.

She stared at Glotaj. “How is this possible?”

“We know of several nonaligned species who possess tech¬nical knowledge in advance of our own,” Glotaj said, his face grim. “The Rakkians, Fire Weavers, and Bolons come to mind.”

“They should all be checked out,” Wren stated, frowning. “One thing I don’t understand—why the ruse with the flowers if the abductors could have gotten in using the same transporter method?”

“Apparently they arrived downstairs in the lobby. They must have been uncertain as to the location of Sarina’s apartment. But once they found it and gained entry, they beamed directly out.”

“Is there any way to trace the pattern to learn where they went?” she asked.

Glotaj sighed. “We don’t have the instrumentation avail¬able. We do know she was taken aboard a ship. Adm. Gog is sending patrols after Boris Gregorski and Ambassador El’Rik. The Yanuran delegation is another matter. Their situation requires a closer look, so I’m sending a special team to Yanura.”

At Mara’s look of puzzlement, he explained. “The Yanurans have applied for admission to the Coalition. You’ve been helping them with the application process, Mara, so you are more familiar with their situation. But Wren may not know the details.”

He directed his attention to the Polluxite. “Fromoth Trun, the Yanuran leader, has offered a miracle age-preserving drug derived from seaweed as a trade incentive. The data seems conclusive, but the Admissions Committee requires a fuller investigation before reaching a decision.”

“The Yanurans don’t need a trade incentive to enter the Coalition,” Wren said.

“They’re demanding immediate access to our technology instead of having to wait the usual probationary period of one annum. That can only be allowed if they’re granted special trade status.”

“What’s their hurry?”

Glotaj shrugged. “We’re not sure. That’s why we need a closer look at their situation.”

“If you ask me,” Mara interrupted, “the Admissions Committee is looking for an excuse to deny their appli¬cation. No one likes their smell, and I think that’s why the committee is delaying its response.”

The Yanurans exuded a fishy odor and she felt that prejudiced the committee against admitting the amphibian race to the Coalition. After her personal experiences with preju¬dice, fighting intolerance had become her passion in life. She was particularly adamant about the Yanurans. They were being discriminated against without reason¬able cause.

Glotaj compressed his mouth. “I’m sending a team to Yanura regardless of your views, Mara. The mission will be to confirm the data regarding the drug Vyclor and look into Jallyn’s disappearance.”

“Then I’m going,” she insisted. “I’ve been working with Fromoth Trun for the past five weeks, and I’m familiar with his habits. You won’t find anyone else better acquainted with Yanuran culture.”

“Agreed,” Glotaj said cheerfully, as though he’d expected her to volunteer. “Lt. Wren, you’ll join the group as navigator. Consider your medical leave canceled.”

“A medic.” She bounced on her heels excitedly. “Ask Hedy to go.”

A small smile cracked the supreme regent’s face. “Very well. Lt. Ebo, a Sirisian, will serve as communications officer. He’s also a qualified engineer. Adm. Gog sug¬gested him.”

“Who’s in command?” Wren asked curiously.

Glotaj’s smile grew broader. “Lt. Comdr. Deitan Sage will be pilot and mission leader.”

“Commander Sage?” Wren’s eyes widened. “He’s a diving specialist in the SEARCH Force. We’ve worked together before.”

“What’s the SEARCH Force?” she asked, unfamiliar with that particular branch of the Defense League.

“SEARCH stands for Sea & Aerospace Command Detachment,” Wren answered. “It’s a commando unit whose operatives are trained to function in all types of environments. Comdr. Sage joined our crew last annum for a mission on Souk. We had to get two prisoners off the Isle of Spears in the Scylla Sea.

“He was dropped forty kilometers offshore. The commander swam to the island, did a quick recon, and laid out the laser markers to guide in the rest of us. We came in with our chutes. Luckily for us, Sage had taken out a squadron of Hortha guards that would have pinned us on the beach and wiped us out. Those beasts are nasty fellows. I don’t know anyone else who could have taken them on single-handedly without leaving one of them alive to sound the alarm.”

“Great,” she muttered. Just what they needed: a gung-ho soldier in charge of a mission requiring diplomacy and tact. She knew the best way to deal with the Yanurans, and muscle power was not the approach of choice. Hopefully, Comdr. Sage was an intelligent man who would respect her opinions. But if he took an aggressive stance, she’d have to deal with him in the only way he might understand.

She loved a good fight, as long as the weapons were words.

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Previous Edition: Dorchester, ISBN: 978-0-5055-2019-7, April 1995

 

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