Diana Santee # 3: Tanderon

Chapter One

"Ringer, I want out of here," I insisted, wrapping my hand around the bed's safety rail. "Two weeks in a hospital bed are enough to drive someone crazy!"

"You have nothing to worry about," Ringer came back with a faint grin from the chair he sat in. "Only sane people are in danger of going crazy."

"That's not funny," I told him, rising up onto my knees. "If you can't talk Val into signing me out then do it yourself, but just get it done! I've had enough of this place."

Ringer's sharp, black-eyed stare moved to me fast, showing how pleased he was with my tone, but he didn't answer immediately. Instead he took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it, exhaled smoke in my direction, then got out of the chair.

"Valdon is not going to be signing you out," he said at last, standing himself right next to the bed. "You've been off the pain killers for less than a week, and if you've forgotten how badly hurt you were, he and I haven't. You don't move out of that bed until a doctor gives his permission, and I don't care how bored you are."

The growl in his voice was flat and final, leaving no room for argument, but I'd known Ringer a long time. It's not always possible to argue with him, but sometimes he's vulnerable to reason.

"Do you really think I've forgotten how bad it was?" I asked, wrapping my arms around myself as my mind touched fleetingly on the memory of the beating I'd gone through. Cause and effect, like the chicken and the egg question, usually comes down to a matter of which brings what about.

Do I always get the problem assignments because I'm a Special Agent, or do my assignments grow complications because a Special Agent is involved? Either way, my last assignment had been purely routine until a painful complication arose, and even years of experience in ducking at the right time hadn't helped. I'd been in a bad way when I was brought to the hospital section of Xanadu Orbital Station, but even if I would not be forgetting it for a while, I had to separate Ringer from the memory.

"I'm not as irresponsible as you like to picture me," I went on, meeting Ringer's eyes in a quiet, reasonable way. "Having been a Federation agent for twelve years has given me some idea about what I can and can't do. Don't you think I'd stay here if I really needed to?"

Ringer took a drag on his cigarette and shifted his short, pudgy body very slightly, a thoughtful look on his face. Ringer, Chief of Agents for our Federation, looked like he might be a salesman of something unimportant. He was short, stout, conservatively dressed in a dark green four-piece business suit, usually unsmiling and usually annoyed about something.

Possibly, Ringer's brown hair was a trifle too long for your everyday salesman, his black eyes a trifle too hard, his movements too well balanced and coordinated. Even so, few people would have taken him for a Special Agent who had lived to be promoted to Chief of Agents.

Ringer's pudgy look was almost all camouflage, hiding bands of muscle that hadn't been given a chance to go soft, and he hadn't forgotten any of the skills he'd acquired as an agent. I'd worked for Ringer for nine years, ever since he'd been given the job, and I'd never seen him back down from a threat or apologize when giving out assignments.

Ringer's eyes moved over me slowly as he considered my words, and it took an effort to remember what he now saw. My normal self-image is of a thirty-year-old woman, brown hair and eyes, tall, better than average figure, a Special Agent for nine of the twelve years I'd been an agent. But that wasn't what Ringer saw, not after another little mishap I'd had which involved getting sent on a one-way trip to nowhere. The disabled ship I'd been trapped on had been stopped by members of a humanoid race my own people had no idea existed. I'd ended up helping them with a problem they'd had, in order to say a proper thank-you for the rescue.

And since the help had included needing my physical appearance changed, what Ringer now saw was a fifteen-year-old girl who had long, bright red hair, blue eyes, a gorgeous face, and the same good figure. I knelt on the bed I'd been in for so long, the hem of the blue hospital gown not quite touching my knees, my hands on the bed's side rail, undoubtedly oozing innocence, youth, and vulnerability.

I'd once thought that looking teenage, innocent, and very beautiful would be an asset in my job, something that would produce the unbeatable combination of supposed inability hiding deep experience, but things weren't working out as well as I'd planned. Two weeks of chewing at the problem had brought me to the conclusion that I'd be better off going back to the way I'd originally been. The first step on that road, though, was getting out of the hospital section of Xanadu Orbital Station.

Under normal circumstances I'd be able to sign myself out, but looking as I did - not to mention that I registered just as young on a bio-detector - I needed an "adult" to do the signing. Needless to say, that fact alone was enough to annoy the hell out of me.

"You know," Ringer mused, the thoughtful look having left his face, "I nearly forgot who I was talking to. Do you really think you can con me, Diana?"

"Con you?" I echoed, still sticking with reasonable. "What would I get out of conning you?"

"What do you ever get out of it?" he countered, exhaling another lungful of smoke. "The last time you signed yourself out of a hospital before you were officially released, your wound was bleeding again the very next day. I can't blame you for the way you feel about hospitals, but this time you don't have the excuse of an assignment waiting that can't afford to wait. You'll stay in that bed until you're told you can leave, and that's an order."

I had the very strong urge to tell him what he could do with his orders, but that wouldn't have gotten me very far. He continued to watch me just as closely as he'd been doing all along, waiting for an explosion, so I decided not to disappoint him.

"Damn it, I'm all healed!" I shouted, grabbing the bed rail and shaking it. "The surroskin is completely bound to my back, and these bandages on my wrists are the next thing to decoration! Do I have to take on everyone in this place hand to hand before you'll believe me?"

"Believe you?" He barked out a laugh. "You've got to be kidding. You stretch the truth whenever you feel like it, but I'm all through with listening to you. For once you won't be having everything your own way, and that's an experience you've been needing for years. Scream all you like, but no one will be signing you out."

He poked a finger at me to emphasize his point, turned away, walked to the door, and left without another word. I was so annoyed I could have shaken that damned bed apart, but not because Ringer's attitude was unexpected. It would have been handy having him sign me out of there, but I hadn't thought he would. He had his own reasons for wanting me locked up in a hospital room, and the state of my health was only one small part of it.

I glanced over at the door before stretching out flat on my back on the bed, then held up my bandaged wrists in front of my eyes. Although the bandages were more than the decorations I'd told Ringer they were, my wrists were healed well enough to be no more than an annoyance. If Ringer had had an assignment for me he wouldn't have hesitated long enough even to remember my wrists, let alone pester me about them. But assignments weren't supposed to be coming my way for a while. Ringer and the Federation Council had something else in mind for me, plans I'd had the time to do a lot of thinking about over the past two weeks.

Due to the small mishap I mentioned, I ended up discovering an entire Confederacy of humanoids previously unknown to anyone in my Federation. They had known about us, though, and I'd helped out with a problem they'd had, acquiring, in the process, the new face I'd thought would do me so much good. They'd then sent me back home with an introduction from their central government to mine, suggesting that our two civilizations begin friendly negotiations.

I'd brought a man of their civilization back with me, but not because Val was their choice of a representative. Valdon - plus a long list of other names - had been my own choice as a candidate for swapping, as he possessed what was called original Absari blood. That means his gene makeup lets him change his features and voice and build to match anyone he's ever seen, a talent worth having in my line of work. I would have been able to make good use of Val while he partnered with me, but his pig-headed stubbornness had wrecked things right from the very start.

Val didn't care much for taking orders from me, and when I'd gotten myself into an unpleasant situation he'd ignored everything I'd told him and had come charging to my rescue. The gesture may have saved me some pain, but he came that close to getting the two of us killed and when the Council heard about it they'd needed emergency first-aid.

Since the Council had already started moving on establishing friendly relations with Val's people, they hadn't been happy about what had nearly happened. They'd pictured themselves having to announce Val's death at the first conference, had nearly had apoplexy over the vision, then had turned around and blamed me for what Val had done.

Everyone was insisting that I hadn't given Val enough information to work with, thereby putting him in danger of nearly losing his life, but I knew Council methods and practices better than that. If any of the Council members had really been after my head they would have sent investigators around to compile data for a closed hearing, then would have hit me with it all at once. The fact that no investigators or hearings were involved meant the Council knew damned well they couldn't make the charges stick, but unimportant facts like that didn't seem to be interrupting their sleep much. They'd gone blithely along with everything Ringer had suggested about keeping me tied down, and had probably grinned while doing it.

A good ten minutes had gone by since Ringer had exited stage right, so I sat up in the bed, pressed the switch that lowered the safety rail, then climbed out onto the floor. Standing up didn't take much effort anymore, but my body still echoed faintly to the memories of the past two weeks. I could have used somewhere quiet and unofficial for another week or so, but cutting myself loose from ties and tails had a higher priority.

Ringer, with the Council's blessing, was sending me back to the training facilities on Tanderon as a cadet, a punishment none of them would have thought of if it hadn't been for my new, young look. I'd also be traveling as a minor for as long as they got a kick out of it, supposedly waiting patiently to get back into their good graces, and that was one of the things that bothered me most. If they'd really thought I was guilty of what they were charging me with, they would have been within their rights to do anything they pleased, even if I was, in truth, innocent.

What put a bad taste in my mouth was the fact that they knew I was innocent, but were jumping on me anyway. I'd worked for the Council a long time, and although I'd never asked for or expected their thanks, I should have been entitled to more than a fast shuffle.

I crouched down beside the bed in an effort to get some of the stiffness out of my leg muscles, at the same time thinking about the second point that bothered me in that mess. Val, my brand-new partner, the one I'd had such high hopes for, was more than not working out in a simple way. It was bad enough that he refused to take my orders and spent most of his time trying to protect me. What was infinitely worse was the conviction I had that he was after something, a something that amounted to more than the casual bed-sharing we'd been engaged in for the past couple of months.

At first, I'd been sure that he understood there couldn't be more with a Special Agent, not with the string of question marks my life expectancy was composed of. The problem was, that stubborn streak in him tended to ignore what it didn't want to see. Somehow, during the two months traveling time we'd spent alone together coming back to Federation space, he'd gotten to me. I was … used to being held in his arms, his lips warm and alive on mine, his body giving me more than I'd ever before had from a man…

To me, of course, it was nothing beyond that, nothing but pleasant, casual sex, but Val seemed to be trying to read something more into it. I had to show him he was wrong as fast as I could, and one way of doing that was separating myself from his company. By the time I got back again from the Confederacy outpost where I would be changed back to normal, both he and the Council should have forgotten all about the axes they'd been grinding.

I stood straight again and pulled off the hospital gown, tossed it onto the bed, then lifted the mattress and retrieved the nurse's uniform I'd liberated during the last "night" shift. If Ringer had signed me out I wouldn't have needed the uniform, but it never hurts to be prepared.

The uniform was slightly too big on me, but as far as potential witnesses are concerned, that's better than having it be too small. After the uniform was closed and belted, I got my makeup kit, carried it over to the table and chairs arrangement across from the bed, then got down to the important part of the disguise.

Knowing Ringer, the Station's computer was already alerted to be on the lookout for me, and a Station's computer has too many eyes for someone to be able to avoid them completely. If I'd just tried to walk out of my room, even in a nurse's uniform, I wouldn't have gotten very far. It would have taken all of three steps beyond the hospital area before alarms went off and Station security men were sent running from their various posts. Security is usually tight with a computer on watch, but having just a little basic information on a subject sometimes gives you what you need to circumvent even the tightest of security systems.

I had a friend whose specialty is computers, and that friend had once told me a bit about how Station computers see. The one point that had stuck in my mind was an odd fact that only a few people know. Ordinary tritium foil tends to disrupt a computer's vision, and the computer is therefore programmed to ignore the disruption in order to protect the balance of its visuals. And since tritium is used almost exclusively inside things rather than outside, the problem wasn't one anyone had searched to find a more permanent answer for.

So I'd had no trouble collecting small amounts of tritium foil from sugar packets and the like, and had shredded it up into the smallest size manageable. Now the shredded material was ready to be mixed with my liquid face makeup, which I quickly proceeded to do. I wasn't sure the dodge would work the way I wanted it to, but there was only one way to find out.

When I was all through applying the mess, the effect was better than I'd thought it would be. The amount of foil was enough to cover most of my face, and mixed in with the makeup it looked as though I had a bad acne condition. Close-up inspection would have shown what the real story was, which meant it was up to me to see that any inspectors stayed at a distance. I packed up the makeup kit and put it away, rinsed the mess off my fingers, then got out the wide headscarf some of the nurses wore. Red hair will attract notice of its own, so I shoved all ends under the scarf for a flat, unkempt look, gave the room one last glance, then got the show on the road.

The area beyond my room was corridor wide, with no more than a cleaning cart with its usual paraphernalia against a wall across the way. There was a nurse's station to the left, with two nurses standing behind the counter and a third standing in front of it. The three were so deep in whispered conversation, though, that they didn't notice me as I turned to the right and walked up the corridor. There were five or six rooms to pass before I got to the door that led out of the area, but most of the rooms were empty. Because of all the emptiness and distraction, no one saw me as I strode into the outside corridor that led to the rest of the Station and then turned left.

Orbital stations are all built along the same lines, so knowing the layout of one means knowing them all. The corridor I entered was carpeted in green, rich carpeting but the sort to withstand foot traffic without fraying too quickly. There was usually plenty of foot traffic along that corridor, caused by the fact that it led from the huge docking areas, past the registration alcoves, past the hospital area, to the Station's eating and amusement areas. A number of people strolled along taking their time, a few others hurried either to or from the docking area, and all in all no more than a glance or two came my way. I moved along with the rest of the walkers, matching their pace, a reserved, almost icy expression on my face as I held myself aloof from all contact and conversation.

The artificial gravity field of a station being what it is, drop chutes are impossible to use. With walking the only alternative to elevators, people used elevators on Stations without any complaints. I pushed the elevator call with impatience, looking up to see what level the car was on, but the action was just part of the role I now played. A young couple stood to the right of the doors, obviously also waiting for the elevator, but just as obviously completely wrapped up in each other.

No one else seemed to be stopping at the elevator, happily making the position a fairly safe one, but I found myself hoping hard that Ringer had gone on to lunch the way he was supposed to. I had some preliminary work to see to before I got down to seriously looking for a way out. Having Ringer show up at the wrong time and place would do more than produce complications.

When the elevator doors opened, three well-dressed people stepped out of it and walked past me toward the dining rooms. I gave the docking area a last, wistful glance before getting into the elevator and pressing Ringer's room level, but the glance was just wishful thinking. As young as I looked and registered right now, stealing a liner ride would have been just about impossible. Too many questions come at youngsters traveling alone, and there's no way to bluff your way past a bio-detector. The only direction left open to me was taking care of the preliminaries and then playing it by ear, watching closely to see what developed.

The young couple got into the elevator with me, but they got out on the very next level. I listened to the soft, relaxing - and boring - music for one more level worth, then got out myself and started to check door numbers. The walls on this level were prettily papered, the doors were of a solid blue to match the blue and white walls, and the carpeting was just a little more plush than the corridor carpeting above.

A station's residential area is always better- furnished than the public areas, but better comes in many grades. Ringer had taken a single room in the medium-priced category, and as I stopped in front of his door I made a mental note of his touching care with departmental funds. Most Special Agents aren't that careful, so nine years of being out of the thick of things had obviously changed him. The slim and rounded pieces of metal I'd had the foresight to bring with me let me into his room, and I immediately began looking around to see if he'd changed in more important ways.

Ringer's clothes were all unpacked and put away in drawers and closets, but he hadn't slipped so far that his credentials were anywhere in easy reach. I took his bag out of the closet and opened it to find nothing, then pressed the sides and top in the correct sequence. The special compartment slid open to show the bulky set of official credentials, letting me nod in satisfaction as I removed it and put the bag back where I'd found it. Ringer hated to carry all those papers in his pockets, so he usually left them where they would be safe but out of the way. I still didn't know precisely what I'd be doing, but having those credentials out of Ringer's hands would make everything a good deal easier.

On the way out I relocked Ringer's door, then called the elevator again. The suite I shared with Val was one level down, better appointed and therefore more expensive. Val and I had been trying to show a good-sized credit balance when we'd first arrived, and the end of the assignment hadn't prompted him to move to more modest quarters. Of course, Ringer and the Council had let Val stay just as he was to impress him, but the times he'd visited me in the hospital section hadn't shown him particularly impressed. He'd taken to chuckling over the trouble I was having with the Council, and seemed to be looking forward to being senior in rank to me once we reached Tanderon, the planet where the agent training facilities were located.

The Council had decided to honor Val with the rank of Agent First Class, so my being made a cadet again would have left him as senior even though he was scheduled for a procedures course at the facilities. Val kept insisting that the Council was punishing me for the scare they'd had over my nearly being killed, but that was ridiculous. That hadn't been the first time I'd come close to dying, or even the hundredth; I hadn't been able to have Val cover me during the operation, and if anyone had asked me I might have told them why. But no one had bothered asking, just the way most people didn't bother, and I'd long since gotten out of the habit of volunteering what most people couldn't be bothered with listening to.

Walking into my own suite was the riskiest part of the operation, due entirely to the fact that Val's people had somehow attuned him to me when we were working together in his part of space. If Val were in the suite he'd know immediately that I'd come in, but don't ask me how. All I knew was that he could somehow sense me a good distance away, and the number of walls between us apparently made little difference.

I eased the suite door closed behind me just in case noise or the lack of it turned out to make a difference, then began to glance around. The sitting room was gold, cream, white, and empty, and after quickly making sure about the empty part I heard the faint sound of the shower going in Val's bathroom. I'd originally planned to stash Ringer's papers before going after what I needed from Val's room, but the opportunity was too good to miss. I strode straight into Val's room, found his papers on top of a low dresser, took what I needed, then hurried back through the sitting room into my own bedroom.

It took no more than a minute or two to hide my prizes, and then I was able to relax. I washed the makeup off my face, got rid of the uniform, then put on a shirt and shorts outfit. The shower sound from Val's bathroom had stopped about halfway through my dressing, but Val hadn't come bursting into my room with thunder and lightning blazing in his eyes. That meant the next move was mine, so I went back out to the sitting room to see what would develop. I stopped to light a cigarette, then curled up at the end of the white velvet couch.

I hadn't taken more than two or three very satisfying drags on the cigarette before the door to Val's bedroom opened, only it wasn't Val coming through the doorway. A well-stacked blonde appeared instead, her short hair fluffed, her low cut, long-skirted lounging dress crisp and new, her makeup freshly applied. She started to show a slow, sexy grin, but when she caught sight of me the grin turned to a frown and she stopped where she was.

"What do you think you're doing, waiting in line?" she demanded, annoyance sharp in her tone as her small fists went to her hips. "If so, don't waste the time. In this suite there's no one in line but me, and that's the way I intend to keep it."

I exhaled the smoke in my lungs while letting my eyes move over her fast enough for her to miss it. So Val was going to be waiting for me when I got out of the hospital, was he? From the appearance of the hippy, busty blonde, it looked like he was well enough equipped to stand a wait of months. I didn't begrudge him a little entertainment any more than I would have begrudged myself, but the temptation to add my own touch to the situation was more than I could stand.

"What would I be waiting in line for?" I asked, all young and innocent and wholesome. "I just live here. Isn't Val in?"

"No," the blonde answered with a different frown, looking me over again with a hand to her hair, suspicion creeping into her eyes. "Val was called away a little while ago… I've been coming here regularly for days now. If you live here, why haven't I seen you before?"

"I've been in the hospital," I told her shyly, having put my cigarette into an ashtray so that I might look down at my hands in discomfort. "I was - badly beaten." I raised my gaze slightly to see that she was suddenly looking at my bandaged wrists, and when the strained expression I'd been waiting for crossed her face I added hastily, "But Val had nothing to do with it - honest! He wouldn't hurt me. He likes having me around."

The tone of voice I'd used had more wishful thinking in it than conviction, and it wasn't wasted on the blonde. The odd look on her face grew even more peculiar, but before she could say anything the hall door flew open and I turned to see Val striding in. He paused briefly to stare at me as he ran his hands through his dark black hair, then he began to come toward me again. His black eyes were filled with anger and another emotion I couldn't quite identify, and he ignored the blonde completely.

"You move too damned fast," he growled as he came up to the back of the couch. "I would have been all over this station if I hadn't known where to find you, and now you can get off that couch and get moving again. If you aren't back in that hospital area in five minutes flat, I'll knock your head off!"

I stirred uncomfortably as he stared down at me, recognizing the no-arguments tone of voice he used. I'd had trouble with that tone more than once before, and then I discovered that my reaction wasn't the only one - or the most major. The blonde we'd both forgotten about gasped when she heard Val's threat, not realizing how much it would take for anyone to knock my head off. All the woman saw was a grown man threatening a young girl who had already been badly beaten once, and to my surprise and her credit she didn't hesitate.

Her gasp had brought Val's attention to her, and he watched her march herself around the couch and over to him. She had a grim, outraged expression on her face, but he didn't seem to have the slightest idea of what was coming. The girl stopped in front of him, feet planted wide and fists on hips as she stared up into his face. Then she hissed, "You dirty creep! I'm reporting this to the station authorities!" and slapped him so hard she almost took his head off. I flinched a little at the enthusiasm she put into it, then watched as she marched herself out of the suite, slamming the door behind her. Val stood with one hand to his cheek, staring after her, a bewildered look on what I could see of his face.

"What's wrong with her?" I wondered aloud, more to keep myself from laughing like a maniac than for any real purpose, but it was the wrong thing to say. Val turned slowly back to look at me, and I could see the entire outline of a hand on his cheek.

"You set me up again, didn't you?" he demanded, the look in his eyes hardening as his anger grew. "What did you say to her?"

"I didn't say anything," I answered with a shrug, holding back a grin. Then I leaned both arms and my chin on the back of the couch and added, "If you have peculiar taste in women it isn't my fault. Aren't you glad to see me back? You haven't even said hello."

The hardness in his gaze increased as he remembered what he'd been about when he first came in, and he moved closer to the couch to lean on it with both hands as he bent down toward me.

"You have no business being here," he stated in that single-minded way of his. "Clinicians have the final word on health matters, and none of them gave you permission to leave that bed."

"Clinicians are called doctors here, and I'm not going back," I told him, sitting up straight to meet that stare. "There's nothing wrong with me, and I'm tired of sitting around doing nothing."

"I don't care how tired you are of it!" he growled, closing those big fingers of his on the couch back. "If I've learned nothing else about you, I've learned how careless you are with your own well-being. That means you're going back even if I have to carry you, just to make sure you go all the way to being as healthy as possible. We have some unfinished business pending between us, and this thing with Marcie will be added to it. As if it needed anything to be added."

He stood straight again, looking down at me with that special look of his. Val had had two weeks to think over the various ways I'd set him up, and it seemed the more he thought about it the angrier he got. He'd apparently made up his mind to teach me not to con him ever again, and refused to see that if he hadn't constantly been in my way there would have been no need to con him.

I was just about to start that particular argument all over again when the 'phone chimed, interrupting before I could do more than open my mouth. Val turned away from me and went to answer it, pausing in front of the screen to impatiently flip the accept switch. Just past his right arm I saw Ringer's face form on the screen.

"Have you found her yet?" Ringer growled to Val, his whole bearing showing just how mad he was.

"You bet I found her," Val answered, glancing over his shoulder to send me another of those looks. "She's here right now, up to her old tricks, and insists she isn't going back. If you want to see how much good that will do her, watch while I carry her to that bed and tie her down."

Ringer's expression turned thoughtful, and his diminutive image held up a hand.

"Since she's found and being watched we can afford to wait a few minutes," he decided. "Just keep an eye on her and I'll be right there."

The screen blanked just before Val flipped the cutoff switch, and I could see from his movements that he wasn't pleased with Ringer's orders. He turned back to stare at me in that dark-eyed way of his, undoubtedly wondering why Ringer hadn't agreed with sending me straight back to bed. I just made myself more comfortable on the couch, retrieved what was left of my cigarette, and waited patiently for what would develop next.

Ringer made it to the suite in a matter of minutes, and when Val let him in Ringer headed straight for the couch I sat on. He sat himself down on the other end, then looked me over with very little approval. He didn't seem to be in much of a hurry to speak, but once Val had gotten himself situated in a gold chair opposite us, Ringer shook his head at me.

"If you ever learn to obey orders, I'll probably pass out from the shock," he said by way of preamble, then narrowed his eyes to demand, "How did you get out of that hospital area? I had the station computer watching for you."

Most accomplishments are worth at least a small smile, so I gave Ringer a small smile and said, "I mugged a nurse then turned invisible. It's part of my job to get in and out of places without getting caught - remember?"

I felt kind of mellow, but Ringer clearly shared nothing of my mood. He growled low in his throat, controlling his temper with difficulty, then he pulled a cigarette out of his jacket, jabbed it into his mouth, and lit it. The first lungful of smoke seemed to calm him down, and he leaned back to look at me with nothing resembling friendliness.

"There's very little about you I care to remember," he rasped, answering my rhetorical question. "Since you refuse to tell me how you got out of the place you're supposed to be, suppose I tell you about the way you're going back to it."

"Don't waste your breath," I returned with a snort, aware of Val's annoyance even though I now looked only at Ringer. Val didn't like to hear me saying no to direct orders - his or anyone else's - but I've never learned to take them. Order-takers have a habit of waiting for orders when they should be making decisions, and in my line of work that's tantamount to suicide.

"Damn it, Diana, I'm tired of arguing with you!" Ringer roared, leaning toward me to emphasize his anger. "You know as well as I do that you belong under medical care!"

"The hell I do!" I snapped back, deciding it was time to lose some pleasantness. "What I do know is that I'm at least as fit as you are, and you know it. And while we're discussing it, would you like me to count the number of times you've pulled me out of a hospital bed because you had an assignment that needed a Special Agent? But now suddenly things have changed! It couldn't be you have some other reason for wanting me under wraps, could it, Ringer?"

Ringer's face darkened at the double jab I'd hit him with, but he couldn't bring himself to say anything. He really had very little idea about how fit I was, but he did know why he wanted me locked up in a small room somewhere. He might also have been thinking about the various times he'd pulled me out of a bed half healed in order to hand me a new headache - for instance, the time he'd referred to earlier when he'd visited me.

It was true I'd signed myself out before I should have, and it was true I was bleeding again the very next day. But it was also true that Ringer had come by before I'd done anything at all, and had told me about the problem he had. He hadn't been hard to find once I was out of that hospital bed, and he hadn't refused to give me the assignment he'd spoken about. I still don't know whether he knew how really bad off I was, but it wouldn't have been hard for him to have checked on it.

But Ringer hadn't checked, because the survival of one agent isn't as important to him as getting the job done. I have no argument with that point of view; I just don't like temporary and personally motivated reversals.

Ringer didn't seem prepared to continue the argument, but that was only half the battle. The other half stirred in his chair with the annoyance he clearly still felt, and then he decided to put in his four bits worth.

"We're not getting anywhere with this back and forth," Val said, leaning forward to put his forearms on his thighs. "None of us can do more than offer opinions, so why don't we get a doctor up here to decide it one way or the other?"

Ringer blinked, obviously liking the idea, but I was all set to turn thumbs down on it before a sneaky thought hit me. A doctor in the suite might be just the key I needed to unlock the door to freedom.

"Diana doesn't seem to agree," Ringer observed, looking me over in a calculating way. "I, on the other hand, think it's the best idea I've heard yet. If she's as fit as she claims, we'll sign her out and keep her here. But," and his hand holding the cigarette came up to point two fingers at me, "if she still needs looking after, back she goes whether she likes it or not."

"That gives me one hell of a great chance," I complained, putting a suitable amount of bitterness into my voice. "You call in a doctor who remembers what shape I was in when I first got here, and I'm supposed to expect that he'll turn me loose? All he'll be seeing will be the necessary healing time, not whether or not I've already healed. Sorry, Ringer, but I think I'd rather pass on that."

Val opened his mouth, obviously to argue what I'd said, but Ringer held up a hand in his direction.

"Just a minute," Ringer told Val, his tone reasonable as well as thoughtful. "Diana has a valid criticism, so let's see if we can deal with it. Diana, suppose we call for one of the doctors who has never seen you? Whatever gets decided then will be completely unbiased."

It was amazing how Ringer now played right into my hands, but I couldn't afford to appear too eager. I drew my legs up under me with a deliberate look of frustration on my face, then tried to temporize.

"He's bound to know something about me, so how unbiased can he be?" I demurred. "And why should a doctor be necessary in the first place? Why can't we - "

"Forget it," Ringer interrupted very flatly, the look in his eyes growing hard again. "Whatever it was you were going to suggest, just forget it. The only choice you have is between going back right now, and seeing that doctor. Which will it be?"

I made a sound of annoyance at his tone, then got to my feet.

"I'm sure as hell not going back," I told him, having no trouble holding his gaze. "That doctor you bring had better know the sight of a healthy female better than you two do, or you're going to have a fight on your hands."

And then I walked between them toward my bedroom, feeling their eyes in my back until I'd closed the door behind me. Once the door was safely shut I leaned on it and nodded, pleased with the way things were progressing. I should be able to make use of whichever doctor turned up, but it still remained to see just how far I'd be able to take it. Everything depended on the man or woman's sympathy quotient, how much he or she disliked getting involved, and how susceptible he – if it was a he - was to large blue eyes.

My bedroom was well furnished, with an oversized double-double bed, light mock-wood furniture, ice-blue carpeting, ice-blue bed cover, and ice-blue drapes around the vu-cast window. I considered the drapes for a minute, then got a cigarette lit and carried it to the silver, deep-furred comfort chair the room provided.

A small hand table with an ashtray on it stood next to the chair, so I sat down and hung my legs over the arm after making sure the ashtray was in easy reach. It was time to relax and think about what might be a reasonable approach to an unsuspecting doctor. Putting together a lucid-sounding story wasn't difficult, but my mind kept going back to what was hidden in the folds of the drapes. Ringer and Val would have a fun time if the doctor bought everything I told him or her, and I wondered how Val would react to it.

Ringer, having once been an agent himself, would probably give at least grudging admiration to the way he'd been mouse-trapped, but Val wasn't likely to look at it in the same way. It would probably make him feel completely betrayed, but that was one way of teaching him I wasn't someone to get serious over, wasn't it?

The sort of jokes I'd played on him had always been enough to keep other men from pursuing their mistaken interest, but with someone as stubborn as Val it was obvious that stronger methods were becoming necessary. Once he came to his senses he'd probably thank me, knowing that what I'd done had been for his own good. I wasn't the sort of woman any man should have serious thoughts about, and once Val learned that, things would go a lot better between us.

It took only twenty or twenty-five minutes for a doctor to get there, and by then I was all set. When Val ushered the man into my room, I already sat with feet flat on the floor, hands clasped in my lap, head slightly down, and face expressionless. I didn't look up as the footsteps came closer, but I couldn't have missed the sound of Val's voice.

"There she is, Doctor," Val introduced me to the newcomer. "If she gives you any trouble, just call me. I'll be delighted to take care of it."

The speech was Val's way of warning me to behave myself, but that wasn't the way it came across. I raised my eyes to see the doctor frowning at the remark, and he didn't turn all the way to face me until Val had left and closed the door again. He was a tall, spare, balding man, fortyish with tired brown eyes and sandy hair, and he stared at me quietly for a moment, then put his bag down.

"How are you feeling, young lady?" he asked, his voice gentle. "I'm told you consider yourself well enough to be discharged from our care."

I gave him a pleading look and opened my mouth to speak, then closed it without saying anything. I shook my head and looked away from him again, and the action crystalized the suspicion that had been in his frown.

"Maybe you'd better explain what's going on," he said tightly, then gestured toward the door. "What did that man mean by the remark he made? I thought he was your guardian."

"He is," I said in a hopeless voice. "Please don't ask me about it, Doctor. I can't involve you in my troubles."

The statement was hook number one, and he bit immediately by coming closer to bend down.

"You listen to me," he said, taking my chin in his fingers and turning my head gently toward him. "I became a doctor to help people. If that help lies beyond the realm of medicine, well, I'll just have to see what I can do. Now, tell me what's wrong, and that's an order."

There was no getting out of obeying a direct order, of course, so I sighed deeply and asked, "What did they tell you about me, Doctor?"

He frowned again and said, "As I understand it, you came here with your uncle and went down to tour Xanadu. Somehow, a maniac kidnapped you and beat you badly before the Pleasure Sphere Management got you away from him. Your uncle brought you back up here for treatment, and that other gentleman joined him a few days later. Isn't that what happened?"

I shook my head miserably. "That's almost the way it happened, but a few things are left out."

Truthfully, more than a few things were left out. I'd gone down to the Pleasure Sphere for the sole purpose of executing a death warrant on a slaver named Radman. I'd managed to put him away, but one of the Pleasure Sphere customers had decided I was just what he wanted for his next birthday and got annoyed when I didn't cooperate. He'd cut my back to ribbons with his cane before Val broke in and killed him, and the bandages over the new skin growing on my wrists were due to his tying me to a bedpost with rope.

Since Ringer doesn't believe in advertising the activities of his agents, I'd had to make sure what story he'd put out. It wouldn't do to have my version contradict what "facts" were known.

"What really happened was this," I continued in a dead voice. "When my mother was - gone (my mother was always going one place or another), this man Valdon Carter showed up claiming he was my uncle. He had some sort of papers, and the authorities said I had to go with him.

"Then he brought me here to Xanadu Orbital Station, and arranged for us to go down to the Pleasure Sphere. He was constantly talking to the other men there, telling them how young and innocent I was, and how attractive."

I blushed here, then hurried on.

"He had almost come to some sort of an agreement with one of the men, when another of them grew angry and kidnapped me and beat me. That man was stopped by the Pleasure Sphere Management, and then they insisted that my uncle take me away. They said something about not wanting competitors, but I don't understand what they meant."

The doctor was becoming more and more grim, but he didn't interrupt.

"When I woke up here on the Station," I continued, "my uncle warned me not to say a word to anyone about what had happened. He's … punished me before, so I was afraid to try to get any help. Then that man Ringer came, and I think my uncle works for him. They're going to do something horrible to me, I just know it, but what can I do? I ran away from the hospital because I'm frightened, but they found me and brought me here. I insisted I was all right because I can't face going back to that bed, to just lie there and wonder what's to become of me! So you see, Doctor, there's really nothing you can do."

I looked away again, as if I had no more tears left to cry with.

"We'll see what I can and can't do," the doctor growled as he straightened up, quietly furious. "We have excellent security people on this station, and I'm sure they'll be very interested in hearing your story."

"Oh, no," I protested with shy despair. "You can't tell the security people. My uncle still has those papers, and they'll be forced to turn me over to him again. I can't bear to think what he'd do to me then."

That part of it wasn't a lie. If I ever had to face Ringer and Val in front of security people, I'd be lucky to get out of it still alive.

"But I can't just walk away and leave you here!" the doctor returned with seething frustration, running a hand over the top of his head. "There must be something that can be done!"

"If only I could get to Barancelle," I sighed, letting my gaze turn far away. "Mother - I - have relatives there. I'm sure they would protect me, especially if the security force held those two people here for a few days. But I have no way of buying a ticket … I have no money and I'm a minor, so I might as well forget about it."

I put my face in my hands wearily, but I felt like holding my breath instead. Hook number two was dangling in front of him.

"Don't you worry about the price of the ticket, young lady," the man bit hard, patting my shoulder comfortingly. "You just leave everything to me. Barancelle sounds like just the place for you, and I'm going to see that you get there."

I raised an unbelieving face to him, then let some hope show through.

"Do you really mean that, Doctor?" I asked, wide-eyed. At his smiling nod, I shook my head just a little. "I don't know how I can ever thank you for this."

"You needn't even try," he told me with a smile, patting my hand this time. "If every cure required of me was as easy to manage as this one, I'd be the most famous doctor in practice. Are you sure you have no leftover aches or pains?"

"None at all," I assured him, discounting the tiredness I felt. Even if I hadn't gotten back to tiptop, peak condition yet, I had no need to be fussed over in a hospital bed. Doctors being doctors, he had to have a look at my wrists, but as bad as they'd been they'd also been the easy part, and were obviously well on the way to being healed. He replaced the old bandages with new ones, repacked his bag, then gazed at me thoughtfully.

"You know," he mused, "it would be easier to get you on the liner if you came back to the hospital area with me now. What do you say? Are you willing to tell them you're not feeling as well as you thought?"

The idea was an attractive one, but that was one thing I couldn't do. I'd made such a stink about not going back, Ringer was sure to get suspicious if I suddenly changed my mind and meekly followed the doctor out. If I calmed Ringer's curiosity and went back under protest, the doctor was sure to start wondering. I let my shoulders sag a bit, and put a pale smile on my face.

"I'd love to go with you," I said wistfully, "but if I did they'd know something was wrong. I suppose it will just be too hard for you to get me to the liner from here. I thank you anyway. I know that you tried."

"Don't you start giving up so quickly, young lady," he ordered gently, picking up his bag. "I'll think of something to get you out of here. You just leave it all to me and don't worry. You'll be on Barancelle before you know it."

I thanked him sincerely and reminded him to tell Val and Ringer I was fine, otherwise those two desperate characters might have me moved to other hospital facilities and I would be lost. He agreed, said a warm goodbye, and left. I heard him speak briefly to Val and Ringer, and then he left the suite.

I went back to my chair and sat, then hung my legs over the chair arm again. According to the information I'd gathered from unsuspecting hospital personnel, the liner to Barancelle was due to dock in about four hours. If my luck held and the doctor was as competent as he seemed, I'd be on that liner when it left. One day's run and I'd be on my way, and Ringer and Val, together with the entire Council, could fold their orders till they were all corners and - augment them. I settled more comfortably into the chair, looking forward to being really alone for a while. I needed to give my mind a chance to forget about everything that had so recently happened, but right now I had to spend some time thinking about what would soon be going on. And, hopefully, going on successfully…

No more than fifteen minutes could have gone by before the door to my room opened again, and Val and Ringer walked in. I'd been mentally listing possible approaches to key Barancelle personnel and locations, but the looks on my visitors' faces jolted me out of the planning and into the present.

Ringer was coldly furious, and Val's anger had nothing cold about it. I didn't say a word and neither did they, but Val closed the door while Ringer walked to a low dresser near where I sat. Ringer then produced the sort of miniature receiver I usually use on the job, and activated the playback part of the wiring section. I listened to just enough of it to be sure he'd gotten the whole conversation I'd had with the doctor, then covered my eyes with one hand. I still had one hope, but it was a slim one. Ringer had been a good agent in his time, but if he was just a little slow I might get away with it yet.

"It's the duty of every prisoner of war to escape," I said with a shrug, looking up again. "What are you going to do, shoot me? I tried and missed. Better luck next time."

Ringer turned off the playback and slowly shook his head. "I know you better than that, Diana," he said. "If that doctor had gone with your story to the security force, all it would have taken to stop any trouble would have been to show my credentials as a representative of the Council. I know it and you know it, so I checked my room. My credentials are gone, Diana. Where did you put them?"

"Don't be ridiculous, Ringer," I scoffed, leaning back in my chair. "What would I do with your credentials? You must have just mislaid them. You know how careless you are."

"Don't be cute!" Ringer snapped, taking an angry step toward me. "You were heading for the shipyards on Barancelle. If you'd made it you would have stolen a ship and gone back to Dameron's base. But you never would have had a chance if I had my credentials to cancel out your fairytales, so you must have taken them! I have to get to the security force before that doctor does, so give me those credentials!"

I'd glanced at Val during Ringer's speech, but what I'd seen wasn't very encouraging. Val was big, broad-shouldered, wide-chested, and narrow in the hip - in other words, a fighting man in his prime - and he leaned against the closed door of my room with his arms folded across his chest. His face, that broad, masculine, ridiculously handsome face, was tight in the jaw, the blaze from his dark black eyes coloring the rest of his expression. He hadn't yet had enough time to understand that what I was doing was for his good as well as mine, so all he felt was angry. I almost started to tell him not to feel betrayed when he found out about the rest of it, but that would have been stupid. Betrayed was how I wanted him to feel, even if something went really wrong and I had to watch him feeling that emotion.

"I don't know anything about your credentials," I said to Ringer, sticking to my story as I took my attention away from Val. "If you're so desperate about it, call the Council and have them issue another set."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Ringer growled, slamming the wire recorder-receiver down on the shiny surface of the dresser. "I'd look great when they found out you'd stolen the original set from under my nose after I'd assured them you were safely in the hospital. No, Diana, you're going to come up with the original set and you're going to do it fast, or you'll be sorrier than you've ever been in your entire life."

Ringer wasn't even trying to hide his rage, but that was no reason to back down. I took my legs off the chair arm and got slowly to my feet, then cocked my head to one side.

"Why don't you try truth drugs?" I suggested in a drawl. "Since you don't like my answers, you might find ones you like better that way. Or have you got your heart set on hot irons?"

"The only truth drugs that would work on you are too far away to help me," Ringer returned, his right fist closed tight and held before him. "Hot irons is closer to what it'll be if you don't start talking. I don't have much time, so I can't afford to waste any. This is your last chance."

I just stood there staring at him so he nodded slightly, understanding I'd said all I was going to, then he moved away from the dresser toward my left.

"Now, Valdon," he said softly, and Val left the door and began to move off to the right. With a 9 rating in hand to hand combat I could have held my own with either one of them, but the two of them being what they were I didn't stand much of a chance against the combination.

Doctrine says that if you're facing two opponents, you attack quickly and viciously and put one out as fast as possible, then give the other your undivided attention. If they'd been a couple of ordinary strong-arm types I wouldn't have had a problem; they both would have been unconscious in no time.

But with these two the question became: which one did I kill? If they'd been after my life I wouldn't have hesitated, but they weren't going to kill me. They just meant to see how close they could come, and unfortunately for me, that made all the difference. I went into standard attack-defense position, and got set to do what I could.

Ringer and Val approached me slowly and warily, both knowing better than to treat me as an easy mark. I hadn't put shoes or boots on when I'd dressed, but that wasn't the disadvantage it might seem. A successful attack or defense depends on the body's movements, knees bent to assure proper balance, arms and hands held to check an opponent's movement or begin one of your own, mind alert to every danger or opening. The carpeting was soft under my feet but didn't promise very stable footing, and I wondered how long the adrenaline in my bloodstream would keep me going.

Ringer suddenly came in from my left, showing how fast he could move, his right leg flashing in a circle toward my ankles, trying to knock me off my feet. I jumped the leg and kicked out, catching him painfully on the thigh, and he grunted at the blow and staggered off balance, his body automatically shifting his weight to keep him from going down.

Ringer isn't the sort of opponent you can give partial attention to, but I couldn't afford to forget about Val. I swung out of the kick I'd given Ringer just in time to kick a second time at Val, who had moved up much too close and was reaching for me. Val was obviously expecting the kick, though. His hand grabbed for my foot, caught it and twisted, sending me down hard on my right shoulder.

The next move was to roll fast to keep from getting pinned or stomped, but slamming into the floor, even with the carpeting to cushion the impact, caused the memory of agony to flash through my body. The breath was driven from my lungs, leaving them to struggle with vacuum, and a deep, blurry gong boomed for an instant in my ears. The reactions were only split-second, not even lasting long enough to really be felt, but they lasted long enough to throw off my timing. I began to move as soon as it was possible, but it was also too late. Val and Ringer were both already on top of me, holding me down with their weight.

I struggled against being held, trying to fight my way free, but the adrenaline was gone and so was most of my strength. I panted and sweated from the few seconds of exertion, cursing the two weeks of inactivity that had so destroyed my endurance, but the men holding me weren't even breathing hard. Val had his arms wrapped around my arms from behind, his hands clamped to my wrists, and he moved his head closer to put his lips next to my ear.

"You'd better tell him what he wants to hear," he murmured in my ear. "You'll be saving yourself more than you know."

"I don't know what you're talking about," I answered, determined to see my plan through. There were only a limited number of things Ringer could do to make me talk, and if I could hold out long enough that doctor might make an early call on the security people. Ringer knew as well as I did that the worse shape I was in when the security people saw me, the more likely they would be to ignore anything he had to say. The safety of his own neck depended on the safety of mine, and that was the best way to have it.

There were no more words out of either of them after that, just actions. I was forced to my feet between them, held close by their bodies to keep me from being able to move against them at all, and then my steps were directed by them toward the bed. Val still held my arms and wrists and Ringer had me around the waist, and there was no question about whether or not I would go. Val was hurting my wrists through the bandages, but that was only a minor consideration. Ringer knew as many ways of causing pain without leaving marks as I did, and I began to wonder which of them he would use. I could stand the pain of most of them, but there were a few…

I must have been too engrossed in grisly guesswork to pay as much attention as I should have to what was happening around me. One minute I was being forced toward the bed and the next I was already there, but not down on it. Val was seating himself on a corner, Ringer was letting go of me, and then I was off my feet and face down across Val's lap.

I shouted, "No!" and really began to struggle, but it was already too late. Val had forced my wrists behind me, holding them one-handed, while his other hand kept me from kicking my way free. I could feel his leg against my stomach, his hand warm against my bare thigh, and I cursed at the fates for doing this to me again.

"Do you have it?" Val asked Ringer as soon as he was settled on his corner of the bed.

"Right here," Ringer answered. I turned my head to see what they were talking about, then pulled so hard that Val had to tighten his grip on my wrists to hold onto me. Ringer needed his answers rather badly, so he'd supplied Val with a hard, nasty-looking hairbrush. And that also told me Ringer had considered the matter of how they would look to the security force. Not like two men torturing a woman for information, but two indignant guardians punishing a disobedient little girl.

I'd faced a lot of threats during my time as a Special Agent and most of them had been faced calmly if not insolently. But this time the sweat broke out on my forehead, my mouth turned dry, and my knees would have been weak if I'd been standing on them. Maybe that was because Val was a true believer in not sparing the rod, and had a lot of things to get even for. Maybe it was just that I could remember so clearly the other spankings my partner had found it necessary to give me. Val leaned the cold, hard, back end of the hairbrush against my thigh, and moved his lips close to my ear again.

"Don't say you didn't ask for this," he told me, keeping his voice low so that it didn't carry to Ringer. "You may have forgotten what I told you about learning to behave, but I don't think you'll forget again."

I snarled and struggled against being held, but it still didn't get me anywhere. I could have kicked myself for ever having gotten mixed up with him, but kicking myself wasn't going to be necessary. Val was ready to do a better job on me, and Ringer couldn't have picked a more willing accomplice.

"Change your mind yet?" Ringer asked pleasantly from the chair he'd pulled over closer to the bed. I turned my head to look at him and licked my lips, but didn't answer because I couldn't. Aside from wrecking everything I'd already done, talking now would guarantee that Val would very quickly find out about the detail that involved him so intimately. Then it occurred to me that it might not be so bad if I could make Val back down a little.

"You can't be serious about this, Val," I said, my voice shakier than I wanted it to be. "You know how I feel about getting even."

I'd been trying some oblique threatening of my own, but it went over about as well as the rest of my plans had gone.

"Yes, I do remember that," Val answered in a strange voice, as though he'd just remembered what he'd gone through the first time because of me, and the next minute it began in earnest. I tried to ignore the whole thing, but that brush was hard and Val wasn't taking it particularly easy.

Now, I'd been beaten on Xanadu, strung up by the wrists and beaten by James with his cane till my back was a bloody ruin. But though I still choked with terror over the memory of that beating, I could look back on it and know there was no comparable damage being done to my dignity. I could not, however, look back on the spankings Val had given me and think the same thing.

There's no way to see the kicking and howling produced by his hand swatting my bottom as being in the least dignified no matter how you look at it. This time, with him using the hairbrush, it was a hell of a lot worse. I held out as long as I could then gave in to yelling and struggling, wishing they'd used hot irons after all.

What felt like at least an hour passed before Ringer finally interrupted.

"Hold on a minute, Valdon," he said, leaning forward to put his arm on his knee. "What do you say now, Diana? Have you had enough, or should he continue?"

From the flaming ache in my backside I knew I'd had more than enough, but how could I tell him? I lifted my head to look at him, and let my desperation show through.

"Ringer, please - " I began, but his face was solid granite.

"Might as well get on with it," he told Val as he leaned back again. "We could be here for hours."

"No!" I said as fast as possible, positive I could hear Val's arm lifting into the air. They'd simply keep it up until I told them, so it made no sense to take any more. Even if the security force suddenly appeared in the room, the picture would show nothing but two indignant adults teaching the brat in their charge some manners. I'd lost, and I might as well admit it. But that other thing… "It's pinned to the middle of the drapes in front of the vu-cast window, low down on the left."

Val started to let me go, but Ringer snapped, "Keep her like that until I check. She isn't known for her simon-pure honesty."

Val tightened his grip again while Ringer got out of the chair and went to the drapes to begin the search, leaving me to pray as hard as I could. Maybe he wouldn't find it. If he found it, maybe he wouldn't understand. If he understood, maybe he wouldn't tell Val. If he told Val, maybe Val would be less bothered than I expected… I let my head drop as I ran out of maybes. I didn't have the chance of a weed in Eden.

"Found it!" Ringer exclaimed at the drapes. "But wait a minute - what's this?"

I stared at the carpeting and held my breath while Ringer looked at what he'd found, but shouldn't have wasted the effort. He left the vu-cast window with heavy steps, and walked close to wave a paper in my face.

"That was a nice touch, Diana," he said, all granite again. "I'm proud of you! I've got to admit it passed me right by."

"What is it?" Val asked in a puzzled voice while I closed my eyes.

"Our girl is really good," Ringer growled, almost in a fury. "Even without my credentials I might have managed to talk the security people into letting me call the Council, so she didn't take any chances. This is the origins section of your papers, and would have been one of the first things they checked. When they found it missing they'd have gotten a copy of it from the computer from when you first registered here, and checked it out thoroughly.

"These papers are good because our people made them up carefully for you, but they'd never stand up to the kind of inspection they'd get from suspicious security people. As soon as the report came back that you were unknown at your supposed place of origin, they'd put that and her story together and decide they had slavers or pirates on their hands. At that point we'd really be in for it. They'd sweat us for days, and use every truth drug ever mixed to find out what we were supposedly up to. I don't know about you, but only special drugs work on an agent and I used to be an agent. That would really have added the icing."

"I don't think your drugs would have worked on me either," Val said in a very soft voice. "We're specially prepared for our jobs, too. Are you finished with her yet?"

"I suppose so," Ringer growled, shoving the bulky set of credentials into an inside pocket of his jacket. "You can let her up."

"I … don't … think … so," Val said slowly, and I knew without doubt that he also looked down at me.

"What - are you going to do?" I asked unsteadily, very much afraid that he intended to tell me how disappointed he was before letting me up. Hearing it would be hard, but being held like that gave me no choice at all.

"I'm going to finish the job I started, and this time do it right," he said, shifting where he sat to get a better grip on me. "My way of applauding your effort, you might say."

"No, Val, please!" I blurted, appalled at the way he was reacting. He should have been disillusioned enough to walk away, not interested in punishing me! "I can't take any more of being treated like this!"

"That's the whole idea, Diana," he said in the same soft voice. "It's supposed to make you so eager to avoid a repetition of the treatment, that the next time you get a bright idea you drop it without a second thought. Let's see if it works."

"All right, I promise not to do it again," I said very quickly, trying to find some way out of that corner. Strangely enough most of the things I tried on Val seemed to backfire, and it was definitely time to make an effort toward cutting my losses. "I'll even promise to be good and listen to everything you say," I added, just to sweeten the deal.

At that point I would have been willing to promise to turn inside out, but I quickly learned that he wasn't equally willing to listen. He started to apply that hairbrush again, only this time with more enthusiasm than he'd been using. I was already sore from the first dose, but it looked like he'd only been warming up.

"Ringer, make him stop!" I screamed, feeling every swat as it reached me. "He's killing me!"

"Sorry, Diana, but nobody listens to me around here," he said with a chuckle as he settled himself back in his chair. "If anyone should know that, it's you. It's just too bad this idea didn't come up nine years ago, when you first started to work for me. It would have saved me a lot of trouble."

I hate to think about how long Val kept it up. When he reached the point of apparent satisfaction and let me up, I couldn't move. I'd been crying really hard for a while without being able to stop, and it was all real tears. Val lifted me off his lap and put me face down on the bed, then the two of them walked out of the bedroom and closed the door behind them. I'd managed to make a few mistakes in my life, but that one had proved to be one of the best. With a fistful of bedspread in each hand I lay as still as I could, dizzily trying to figure out why everything had gone so wrong.