Diana Santee # 4: Tristesse-Book1

Chapter One

I followed Ralph down the hall of Blue Skies toward his office and examining room, but was so far out of the real world that he stopped and I kept going. I know I hate being in Blue Skies, the Federation's most active special hospital, and I had other, more distracting things to think about. But hatred and distraction are stupid reasons for ignoring your surroundings, no matter where you are. The action can sometimes be dangerous, and always makes you look like an imbecile.

"Diana!" Ralph's voice floated after me. "I'm over here."

Hearing my name pulled me out of the depths of my own thoughts and I stopped abruptly, then looked around to see where I was. The tan and chrome walls stood around me like the halls of forever, neat and tidy and untouchably distant. Ralph waited about ten feet back, right next to the door that read, "Ralph Madison, M.D."

No one's name plate said any more than that, but it wasn't lack of titles that kept the plates so short. In Blue Skies standing was achieved by other means than how many diplomas they'd managed to collect. I shrugged to myself over the imbecile matter, then turned back to see if I could repair some of the damage.

"Well, I almost made it," I said with an outer shrug as I came up to him, then patted his shirt pocket. "The theory was that if I kept moving you might not have noticed."

"Fat chance," he returned with a snort, smacking my hand away from his shirt. "I've had to wait long enough to get my hands on you."

"Why, Ralph!" I blurted with a gasp, all wide-eyed and innocent - not to mention unwilling to let an opening like that pass by unnoticed. "I didn't know you cared!"

The shot hit home just the way I knew it would, and Ralph blushed furiously.

"Very funny," he grumbled, knowing how embarrassed he looked but helpless to do anything about it. "You should have been admitted at the same time Teddy Hughes was and you know it. The next time you come back from an assignment in this area, I'm going to drop a net on you."

Being reminded about the assignment I'd just completed brought back awareness of the pain and exhaustion I'd managed to forget for a while. It hadn't been a really long while and I hadn't really forgotten, but how I felt wasn't something to mention to a doctor like Ralph. Pain and exhaustion are as much a part of my job as a lunch break is part of a nine-to-fiver's, but Ralph wasn't one to look at it like that.

"Net-dropping's been tried before, and it didn't work then either," I reminded him, faintly amused by his annoyance. "And I can't see why you're getting so worked up about this. I've been a Federation agent for twelve years, and we both remember times when I had to be carried in here. I not only made it on my own this time, but all I really need is a lot of sleep. Sleeping I can do anywhere, even at 2."

By then his embarrassment had disappeared completely, and he glanced up and down the peopled hall before putting his hand on my arm.

"2 is equipped to train agents," he murmured, reaching behind himself to open the door with his free hand. "It is not equipped to handle a problem like the one you've got. Come in here."

He moved inside and pulled me in with him. The room was half office and half examining room, the desk, chairs, and bookcases to the right, the examining table and medical paraphernalia to the left. But I just glanced at those things while I turned to him and frowned.

"What problem?" I demanded, wondering how something could be wrong without my knowing about it. "What are you talking about?"

He closed the door and leaned on it, then looked at me with weariness and sympathy.

"The tests we ran on Teddy show she has a bad infection," he said with a sigh, commiseration etched into the lines of his face. "Unless those Flowerville men did nothing but look at you, you probably have it too."

I closed my eyes for a moment as I turned away from him, then opened them again to walk to the nearest chair and collapse into it. The men of Flowerville. A shudder passed through me as I remembered how filthy they'd been, them and their town. They wore raggedy old suits and sported cheap bangles around their necks, and had laughed through dirty beards every time they raped Teddy and me. I could still feel their rough hands and hairy bodies, could still smell the stench of their breath as they forced their lips on mine, could still feel the pain and fear when they'd - I was just short of throwing up the way Teddy had done, and I had to force the images out of my mind.

"That's what comes from not specifying what sort of men you want before and assignment starts," I muttered, leaning forward in the chair to put my face in my hands. "How long am I going to be stuck here this time?"

"That depends on you," Ralph answered, and then I heard him walk to the chair behind his desk and sit in it. I raised my head to look at him, and his gaze was calm and no longer concerned.

"Okay, let's have it," I told him with a sigh, leaning back in the chair again. "How does it depend on me?"

"This way," he responded, keeping his gaze on me. "I can use our standard treatment and solemnly promise to have you locked up if you try to leave before it's finished, or I can use CV-9. With CV-9 it would only be about two weeks, so the choice has to be yours."

So that was why he was staring at me: to see how happily I greeted the choice he'd offered. I made a sound of disgust and shook my head, thinking back to the time I'd needed CV-9 to shake something nasty I'd picked up in the jungles of Murkin. I'd found out then that the stuff was so strong I would have been happier keeping the bug. I'd been taken half way to hell, but then they'd only used it for less than a week. Now I hated to think about what two weeks of it would be like.

I shifted around in the chair, examining the alternative to CV-9, and didn't like that any better. Ralph knew me really well, and if he went so far as to promise to lock me up then it sure as hell would turn out to be necessary. I'm not built for staying in one place too long, and I'd probably wind up driving everyone as crazy as I would be going. I really didn't know which choice would be best - until I remembered about Val.

At that point I felt like a real imbecile, but that wasn't very surprising. What I'd just gone through with Val had turned my thinking inside out, and I had to get back to him as soon as possible to see what could be salvaged of my sanity. I had no idea what I felt for him and knew just as little about what he felt for me, and on top of that didn't know what difference either of those things made in the long run. I shook my head again, but at least my choice was made. Even two weeks would be too long, but it had to be done.

"We'll go with the CV-9," I said to a patiently waiting Ralph, who didn't look particularly surprised. "Let's get started now."

"I'm glad to finally see you so anxious for medical attention, but I do have to examine you first," he countered dryly, still not looking surprised as he stood. "I know you probably consider it unnecessary, but I like to feel that my years in medical school weren't entirely wasted."

"Don't be sarcastic, Ralph, it doesn't suit you," I advised mildly, making no effort to leave my chair as I realized again how much I enjoyed teasing him. He had absolutely no sense of humor where medical matters were concerned, and it annoyed the hell out of him that I'd folded my arms and stretched my legs out in front of me to cross them at the ankles.

"Arguing with you doesn't suit me," he came back, leaning the knuckles of one hand on his desk. "I want you up on that examining table so I can have a look at you."

"But what for?" I asked in complete innocence. "You gave me a physical less than three weeks ago."

"That was three weeks ago!" he exploded, his long face angry. "With the sort of work you do, three days is usually too long!"

"Ralph, your face is getting very red," I observed aloud with deep concern. "You really shouldn't excite yourself like that."

The red of wrath strengthened just a little, then he made a visible effort to control his temper. He took a deep breath while keeping angry brown eyes on me, then he leaned down a bit more.

"Diana, I'm very tired of this," he informed me in a somewhat choked voice. "If necessary, I'm willing to shout at you the way your partner did a few minutes ago. I don't know if I can be as loud as he was, but I'll try anything I have to to get you to listen to me."

"It won't do you any good," I said with a smile, amused at the idea. "Decibel level won't make you him."

"Then maybe I ought to get him in here," Ralph mused, standing straight again to fold his arms. "What was that he said to you about a beating?"

I could see that Ralph wasn't more than half serious about calling Val, but suddenly all the fun was gone from provoking the man. I hadn't found it possible to cope with Val at all a few minutes earlier, and the passage of those few minutes hadn't done anything to change the situation. If Ralph ever did decide to call him …

"Let's not be hasty," I muttered, then reluctantly got to my feet. "Val was busy talking to Ringer when we walked away, so we'll probably be best off not disturbing them."

I leaned against Ralph's desk to take my boots off, finding that easier than doing it sitting down. I ached almost all over, and getting in and out of a chair was harder than simply standing. It took only a minute, but when I straightened up again I saw Ralph's frown and stare.

"This is going to sound crazy," he began, also sounding hesitant as he continued to stare. "It makes no sense, but - you almost sound as though you're afraid of your partner. Knowing you, that couldn't be … could it …?"

I stood with my hand on the stay-tab of my jumpsuit, tempted to leave it at that just to avoid explanations. The only problem was, I couldn't stand the stricken look Ralph was trying to hide. It really would have bothered him to believe I was involved with a man I feared, and I was much too fond of Ralph to want him disturbed in that particular way. So I let go of the stay-tab with a sigh and shook my head.

"I'm not afraid of him, Ralph," I said with firm assurance, giving him something of a grimace. "It's just that right now he has me at a disadvantage … After what I did to him on the liner I find I can't hurt him, which is probably the only way I'd be able to keep him from being … firm with me. If you call him and tell him I've been giving you a hard time, he may very well … give me something in return."

"I find that hard to believe," Ralph protested, this time looking bewildered. "I know he's nearly the largest man I've ever seen, but you're a Special Agent! I remember the time a couple of years ago when you threw Freddy Drummond all over the gym, and Freddy's nearly your partner's size."

"Size doesn't enter into it any more than shouting ability," I said with another sigh. "Freddy's a great guy and I like him a lot, but I could put him away in about two minutes or less. Val is another story."

"I must be missing something," he muttered, shaking his head, then his gaze came back to me. "Would he really beat you?"

I knew that particular question would come up eventually, but it still annoyed me.

"Val doesn't beat me," I told Ralph shortly, bending down to my boots again. "What he does is worse. Do you have some place safe for me to put my knives?"

"What do you mean, worse?" Ralph persisted, watching as I took one knife from its boot sheath and the other from the sheath down my back. I admire persistence, but not under all circumstances.

"I'd rather not discuss it," I said, holding out my favorite weapons. "A place for the knives? I wouldn't want anyone walking off with them."

"Who would want to?" Ralph countered with a frown, finally letting himself be sidetracked. "Those things are sharp enough to take an arm off."

"What good would they be if they were dull?" I countered. "And they'd disappear in a minute if any other hyper-A came across them. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't even care to leave them in the path of an Agent First Class. They're not match weapons, but anything better would have to be forged to specification."

"I'll take your word for their appeal," Ralph said with distaste. "But as far as any other Special Agents go, you're the only hyper-A in the place right now. And you can put them in here, in this cabinet. Only my assistant and I have keys, and he wouldn't touch them any more than I would."

I shook my head over Ralph's provincial attitudes, but didn't pursue the subject. As the saying goes, agents are born, not made. Once my knives were safely tucked away I opened my jumpsuit and got out of it. Ralph's eyes were on me as I tossed the suit onto a chair, but he wasn't looking at me the way almost any other man alive would have.

Under normal conditions I'm a thirty year old brunette with a pretty face and a curvy, attractive body. Under the circumstances now surrounding me, I look like a fifteen year old redhead, a beautiful face accenting the same curvy and attractive body. Another man would have been noticing how bright my blue eyes were, how full my breasts are, how nicely my waist curves in then flares out into rounded hips.

Ralph, though, frowned as he spotted the bruises I'd picked up in Flowerville and the long scratch on my thigh from when I'd carried Teddy Hughes out of Flowerville and into the woods. He also noticed the still visible scars on my wrists from the assignment I'd had before Flowerville, on Xanadu. For some reason I almost felt like hiding from that inspection, but instead walked to his examining table and climbed up onto it.

Ralph's hands were as gentle as ever, but he still had that knack for finding every ache plaguing me. I didn't make a sound when he hit a sore spot, but that doesn't mean he didn't know about it. His expression turned blacker the further he went, and when he began to mutter to himself I shifted my attention from his face to his office.

The room had warm brown paneling around the shelves holding real books rather than microfilm, brown and gold tweed carpeting, and leather and wood furniture. Considering the nature of Blue Skies I knew that Ralph didn't often use the room for examinations, but I also knew that he used it when he could.

Most candidates for Blue Skies were agents who had been brought back in larger or smaller pieces and who required immediate attention in the emergency stabilization and resuscitation sphere. The sphere is a large, square section of the building that's sealed to normal traffic and is antiseptic and sterile, and I'd always wondered why a square was called a sphere - when I'd been in any condition to wonder about anything at all. I much preferred the relaxed, unofficial atmosphere of Ralph's office … when he wasn't muttering to himself.

There was a thin cloth cover over the leather of the examining table, soft, transparent and replaceable and meant to take the discomfort from lying on the table. As far as my specific comfort went, they might as well not have bothered. There's a peculiar helplessness in being under a doctor's hands, your body telling him or her things it has usually withheld from you, your mind braced to hear the worst but still not really prepared.

I looked at the relaxing colors of his office again, then wondered why tan and chrome had been chosen for the rest of Blue Skies. Aside from the soullessness of the combination, red, black and gold are the official colors of the Federation. But the only place those colors show up in Blue Skies is on the I.D.'s of convalescing Special Agents.

Agents First Class use I.D.'s of just black and gold, and a favorite joke among them is to talk about "getting in the red." Most agents are anxious to earn the red of a Special Agent - and the bio-matched I.D. that goes with it - but with Ralph's hands poking and probing at me it was difficult to remember just how great an honor the position is. I'd lost count of the number of times my highly desirable job had put me into his hands, conscious or otherwise, and would probably lose count of the future times we would associate. Lying down had made me truly aware of how tired I was, deep-down, bone-weary tired, and no matter what I'd said to Ralph earlier I knew the tiredness would not be forgotten after a good night's sleep.

I shifted around on the table, got a growl from Ralph that translated into an order to lie still, then admitted to myself that I'd been avoiding thinking about the one subject I was now most concerned with. Val. Big, broad, ridiculously handsome Val, black hair, black eyes, orders and anger. That was Valdon … plus a long string of other names.

To say I'd never met a man quite like him wasn't saying much. Before I'd had trouble on an assignment and fell over him and his people, no one in the Federation had ever met a man like him. It turned out that his Confederacy had known about my Federation, though, and when I headed back to Federation space I'd brought two things back with me: an introduction from his central government to mine, and Valdon himself to look around for the personal point of view.

While our respective governments worked feverishly toward establishing friendly relations Val and I had established friendly relations of our own, but not in the midst of peace and tranquility. Val was given the nod to work with me as an agent, and that was when my troubles and problems began to increase geometrically.

I've gotten used to finding trouble wherever I go, but I'll never get used to seeing someone else put in jeopardy because of my actions. When I came that close to using one of my knives on Val I decided it was time for him to go home, but wasn't foolish enough to mention the decision out loud. Val is 95% stubborn mule where most things are concerned, so it seemed a much better idea to put him in a position where going home would be his decision.

My plan worked out really well - until he started to think about what was happening and my flimflam was uncovered. At that point he came after me, ran me down at Blue Skies, then proceeded to shake my teeth loose until I'd confessed all. Which made him so mad all over again that there had been no arguing with him about whether or not I'd put myself in Ralph's tender care.

I sighed deeply over all that, thereby earning another scowl from Ralph, but scowls were the least of my concerns. I normally had no trouble associating with men, but Val's presence threw normal associations right out the window. I knew he wanted something from me, but I couldn't figure out what that was. It couldn't be sex, because he'd already had that and no matter how much he enjoyed it it was hardly worth the difficulties that working with me prerequired.

It had to be something else, but very little else is possible with a Special Agent and Val ought to know that. What could he possibly be thinking of that he'd be willing to put up with my sort of life in order to obtain it? He'd said something about "proving" things to me, but what they could be was another thing I couldn't figure out. My mind whirled around and around, so I barely noticed the smears and assorted samples Ralph took until the process was over and he stripped the symtex gloves from his hands.

"I'll never understand how Ringer can let you put yourself through these things," he said, his disapproval and anger much deeper than it had been. "And you've been eating so poorly lately that you're just short of malnutrition, so I'll have to arrange for a special diet for you. You can get dressed now, and I'll have admissions assign you to a room."

He threw the symtex gloves into the room's disposal slot and headed for the 'phone on his desk, either not seeing or not caring about the face I'd made. I didn't like the sound of that special diet business, and was already regretting the necessity for being at Blue Skies altogether. I sat up and rubbed at my side, about to argue the diet business, but the 'phone beat me to it. Ralph was a handspan away from activating it when it began to chime on its own, and he blinked at it in surprise then pressed the button to accept the call. I couldn't see the screen from where I sat, but had no trouble seeing the smile that warmed Ralph's face.

"Yes, Joanne," he said to the screen. "Did you want me?"

"Not this time, Ralph," Dr. Joanne Perona's voice came from the 'phone. "I understand that Diana Santee was with you. Do you still have her, or has she managed to disappear again?"

"Keeping her in one place is no problem," Ralph answered with a laugh, glancing over to where I sat. "All it takes is an armed guard outside the door with orders to shoot to kill."

"I would not rely on that if I were you," Dr. Jo replied with a laugh of her own. "I've seen reports filed by agents who have worked with her, so I think you'd better put her on while you still can."

Ralph nodded and looked toward me, but I'd already gotten off the table and was on the way to the chair behind his desk. Once I sat down I was able to see Dr. Jo's face on the 'phone screen. Her streaky gray hair was as messy as ever, but the short range of the screen hid the fact that she no longer had a waistline. Her hands were folded on the desk in front of her and her light brown eyes were mild, but that didn't mean she wasn't studying me.

"I know," I said to her image. "You've called to tell me you made a mistake a couple of weeks ago and I have gone over the edge after all."

"At times it's difficult to tell with you," she came back immediately, an amused expression crossing her face. "I want to see you in my office as soon as Ralph is finished with you."

"That figures," I said with a sigh, leaning back in Ralph's chair. "After the scene I just had with Val everyone thinks I'm crazy anyway. My walking into the Chief Psychiatrist's office won't even raise any eyebrows."

"Put a paper bag over your head if you have to, but be here!" she snapped, amusement changing quickly to annoyance. "I have a few things I want to discuss with you."

I'd known Dr. Jo for a lot of years and really liked her, but I have this thing about being ordered around. Ask me to do something and you have a better than even chance of getting it. Order me to do it and you might as well forget about it.

"Oh, yes, ma'am!" I answered in a sober and very impressed way. "I'm always at the beck and call of someone with some time to waste. Sorry, but I'll be busy making arrangements to run away from home."

Someone else might have gotten angry at that point, but Dr. Jo knew better than to waste her time. Recognition flared briefly in her eyes, showing that she now realized my personality hadn't been changed along with my face, and then she nodded.

"Think about Teddy while you're packing," she commented, leaning back in her own chair. "She's one of the things I want to discuss."

Mentioning Teddy Hughes got Dr. Jo my attention just the way she knew it would, and after a very brief hesitation I matched her nod.

"You should have said that in the first place," I said, acknowledging the point scored. "I'll be right there."

"Stop to get dressed first," Dr. Jo advised before I could cut the call, her eyes moving over what she could see of me. "Not everyone in this hospital was raised nudist the way you were."

"That's their loss," I responded with a shrug, faintly amused by the upset she tried to hide. She would have died by torture rather than show disapproval of something other people considered normal, but she'd never been able to overcome her earliest training. She'd been taught for many years that going unclothed was wrong, and intellectual acceptance of the custom hadn't become emotional acceptance. Most people looked at nudism that way, but it didn't bother me at all. As far as I'm concerned, they're the ones who are wrong. Dr. Jo opened her mouth as though she meant to protest further, but I interrupted with a smile and a wave of my hand.

"Okay, okay," I conceded. "I'll get dressed this time, but don't expect it every time. In the last few weeks I've been getting very homesick."

"I think I can understand that," she murmured, a faint smile in her eyes. "I'll be waiting for you."

I nodded and switched off just as she did, then got out of the chair to retrieve my jumpsuit. While I'd been busy with Dr. Jo Ralph had been messing with whatever samples he'd taken from me, but when I had the jumpsuit on he put his work aside to look me over.

"Don't get lost when you've finished talking with Joanne," he said, a large measure of his displeasure having returned. "I want to start those treatments as soon as possible."

"If I'm not there, start without me," I muttered, paying attention to pulling on my boots before looking up at him. "Where do you think I'm going with this kind of infection? Right now there's only one thing that might distract me, but even that one thing is ruled out. I wouldn't let Val near me even if he wanted to risk it."

I stood straight again to find Ralph's eyes on me with curiosity sticking out in spikes.

"Considering his size and your problem, how would you stop him?" he asked. "You'd probably have no say in the matter."

"Oh, I can stop him," I assured Ralph, finding some of the sourness he'd lost. "As you pointed out earlier I'm more than capable of doing it, and I'd rather see Val bent a little than infected. Bent is easier to treat."

"In other words, you could hurt him to protect him, but not to protect yourself," he summed up in a slow voice, then shook his head. "That doesn't make any sense."

"Tell me about it," I muttered, reflecting that it might be a good idea to talk to Dr. Jo about the problem. Then I added, "Call me in Dr. Jo's office when you decide where you want me."

Ralph nodded with an encouraging smile and saw me out the door and into the hall. I gave him a wink before he closed the door behind me, then headed right up the corridor toward the intermediate stand of elevators, upchutes, and drop-shafts.

The people who walked the halls around me all wore picture I.D.'s attached to whatever else they wore, and I nodded to familiar faces without really seeing them. Blue Skies always affected me strongly, producing an unreasoning urge to turn around and get out fast, fighting my way out if that's what it took. There were no windows in the tall, ugly pile that was Blue Skies, but my reaction had nothing to do with claustrophobia.

It was more a matter of what Blue Skies stood for, the pain and mutilation and death I'd always associated with it. Anywhere else pain and death were no more than part of my job, something to be risked if the assignment was to be completed. In Blue Skies the pain was a large part of my life, touching me deeply in memory, bringing back the screaming and the agony I'd managed to forget. I'd come close to the death part of it too, more than once, and there's no way to explain the experience to anyone who hasn't gone through it.

The raging torture of a wound is bad enough, but the fear really grabs you when all you feel is numb. You know the blood is running out of you in streams, you see the pale faces of the people working on you, you try to move some part of you to prove to yourself that you're still alive - but all that happens is that consciousness begins to fade. In panic your mind grabs in all directions for a handhold, finds none, and slips even farther away from you.

The doctors and nurses are working frantically now and you want to say you don't give a damn anymore, but you can't force the words out and it isn't true anyway. You sink down into the black, cursing and crying, all memory ceases - and the next thing you know you're waking up in a bed, at first not realizing that you made it through again after all. The days and weeks I'd spent in that place…

I took a deep breath and straightened my shoulders, pushing the morbid thoughts back where they belonged, in the dead and longgone past. I paused at the guard post in front of the elevators long enough to show my I.D., then chose a nice slow elevator for the ride up. I prefer to use upchutes only when I'm in a hurry and feeling less like exhaustion about to happen, and besides all that I seemed to be in an introspective mood.

I leaned an arm on the elevator's handrail as I waited for the doors to close, thinking about Ralph's attitude toward my job. It was an attitude shared by a lot of people, but as crazy as it sounds I like my job. Thoughts of pain and death don't often come to me when I'm not in Blue Skies, and the life of a Special Agent seems to suit the questing part of my nature, the side that always gives me such trouble about staying in one place very long.

Some people seem to think the unbelievable salary the job pays has a lot to do with its attraction, but I don't need the money and never have. And if the money was such a lure, there would be considerably more people applying for the job of Agent First Class, the necessary stepping stone to the portal of Special Agent.

No, the money had nothing to do with it and the prestige wasn't seen the same everywhere, and the much publicized glamour was practically nonexistent. The job had a different appeal for me and the other hyper-A's who held it, and the closest any of us could come to agreeing on a single point was to say that it let us live the way we preferred while we searched. What we were searching for was impossible to define, but most of us did seem to be searching.

The elevator doors closed silently and the car began to rise smoothly and evenly. The acceleration increased almost imperceptibly, carrying me upward toward the fortieth floor and Dr. Jo's office. I began worrying at what I might say to Dr. Jo to broach the subject of Val, but worrying at it didn't give me any ideas. Maybe I could ask her why some men got so wild when they thought they were being protected by a woman.

As far as I could make out from his shouting, that seemed to be the second biggest thing getting Val mad. First, of course, had been the way I'd set him up for walking away, but second had definitely been the thought of my protecting him. He didn't mind the thought of having to protect me, but turning it around didn't sit as well with him.

I watched the floor numbers light briefly in passing, letting the calm sequential action cool my annoyance. There weren't many people around - male or female - who would resent having a Special Agent keeping a protective eye on them, but Val obviously fell into a different group. Somehow it was annoying and more than annoying, just as though he were setting up some odd double standard. I didn't care for it much, but I had more to think about than old fashioned behavior.

The elevator stopped, the doors opened, and three guards stood waiting for me to step out. They tensed very slightly when they saw I wore nothing in the way of photographic I.D., and it took the full check checkpoint routine before they relaxed again.

My I.D. went into a slot on their checkpoint console, my fingerprints and retinal patterns were cleared through the computer outlet, and then I was required to put my hand flat on the console, covering the blinking green light. The green light on the console showed that my I.D. was a true bio-sym, and placing my hand flat on the console increased the contact correlation between my nervous system and the I.D.'s half-living circuitry. If the card had not been cultured for me I would have burned where I stood, flaming instantly into a living torch.

As it was I experienced a very mild shock, but that was nothing more than normal. The fact that no one but a Federation scientist having an accident had ever been able to produce bio-matched I.D.'s made identification of Special Agents a sure thing and let other people know who they were dealing with. Someone else touching my I.D. would feel it begin to grow warm and then increasingly hot, only my taking it back serving to cool it down again.

The overhead lights were bright enough to let the three guards see me clearly and easily, but they still stared hard as the nearest of their number gestured me into reclaiming my I.D. Part of the stare was caused by their need to know anyone who came as close as I was then to ward K, and part of it came from my appearance. The appearance part was annoying but acceptable; people saw a teenager when they looked at me, and there was nothing I could do about it. The ward K part was less palatable, but only because of the nature of the place.

I kept my I.D. in my hand instead of putting it away, knowing I'd need it again on that floor. After leaving the checkpoint, I walked up the corridor straight ahead and then turned right. It was necessary to flash my I.D. at every guardpost I passed, just as it was necessary to ignore the frowns of confusion on the guards' faces. Last but most necessary was pretending I didn't see the left-hand branching behind one of the guardposts. Up that branching and behind locked doors lay ward K, the end of the line for agents who were unlucky enough to find their mental breaking point rather than their physical one.

Most broken bodies can be mended, but once an agent goes over the edge a point of no return is reached. The slender thread of reason is ruptured, and a sense of meaning behind actions is gone forever. All agents have killed at one time or another, and the sort of personality which allows for a rational control of what is literally the power of life and death does not allow for the mending of a serious breach in that personality.

I tried to stop a shudder at that thought, didn't make it all the way, then said to hell with it. I'd recently come so close to taking up permanent residence in that place that I was still having bad dreams about it. The thought of dying has never bothered me terribly much, but I'd never be able to stand being locked up, totally bereft of a true sense of reality, thinking myself sane when there was no sanity left. I held up my I.D. again, saw a reflection of my thoughts in the eyes of the guard who looked at me, and quickly reburied the ideas that had pushed their way up to where I could see them. Thoughts like that are better reserved for solitary consideration when a good supply of drinkables is at hand.

I passed a last set of guards and turned into Dr. Jo's office, one of a series of five offices on that side of the building. A pleasant looking older woman with a warm smile sat at the secretarial desk in the reception room, so I gave her my name. The woman wasn't the same secretary who had been there the last time I'd come by, but it wasn't Dr. Jo's fault that there was a constant change in personnel.

She herself was rather easy to work for, but once a secretary really understood what she shared the floor with she didn't usually stay very long. Most agents learn to be rather good at escaping confinement, and ward K residents have been known to exercise that talent when least expected. It didn't happen often, of course, but even once is too often for people who have a delicately balanced sense of peace of mind. If it happened once it can happen again, and living with that knowledge gets fraying very quickly.

The woman told me Dr. Jo was waiting for me after adding reassurance to her smile, then she walked me to the door that stood behind and to the right of her desk. A knock took us inside, and once I'd crossed the threshold the door was closed quietly behind me.

"You don't look much better than the last time I saw you," Dr. Jo remarked from behind her lightwood desk, her eyes moving over me in a professional way. Her entire office was decorated in light and easy colors and shades, up to and including the three buff colored leather chairs standing in front of her desk. I went to one of the chairs and sat in it, then gave her a tired smile.

"Your candor reminds me of Ringer's," I told her, crossing my legs to get comfortable. "Yesterday he said I looked like hell, which makes me think I'm losing my indefinable allure."

"Allure, garbage," she returned with a sound of ridicule, leaning back in her chair and picking up a stylus to play with. "You look physically exhausted and hurt on the inside, but nothing seems to affect that overall sexiness you project. Is there anything that needs discussing with a psychiatrist - or an old friend?"

I studied her roundish face and calm eyes for a moment, then shook my head.

"Not right now," I denied, telling myself I wasn't being a coward. After all, I'd come here for another purpose. "You wanted to talk about Teddy?"

"Yes, I did," she replied, her nod making no effort to argue with my decision. "I've had a couple of brief sessions with Teddy, but I'll have to have more. She has naturally been affected by what you two went through in Flowerville, but I have the feeling that that isn't all there is to it. There's something hidden beneath the cynical acceptance she sits behind, and I wondered if you knew what it was."

I hesitated briefly as Dr. Jo waited, but there was no sense in not speaking up. Teddy hadn't really told me what she had in confidence, but even if she had Dr. Jo would make better use of the information than I had.

"I probably do know," I said, pulling a cigarette out of my jumpsuit and lighting it. "It has to do with Wiger, the leader of the club we became involved with."

"Ah," Dr. Jo breathed, satisfaction lighting her eyes. "Teddy reports that she killed the man for the way he brutalized her, but there's no guilt or pleasure evident over the fact. I could understand the lack in an experienced agent, but not in a young girl on her first assignment."

"Maybe she can't decide which to feel," I offered, exhaling blue-gray smoke. "Wiger led the first attack against her and then raped her a second time, and afterward she said he reminded her of her father. Seems her father had also raped her once, and I thought her killing Wiger would even the score on both counts. If a mistake was made, I guess it was mine."

Dr. Jo's gaze sharpened and came to me fast, and I admired how quick on the uptake she was.

"That sounds like there's a story behind it," she commented. "What do you know that Teddy doesn't?"

"I'm the one who killed Wiger," I said with a shrug. "I let Teddy think she did it because she seemed to need it so badly. I'll tell her so if you want me to, or you can tell her yourself."

"No," Dr. Jo murmured, shaking her head absentmindedly. "Her father is the key to this whole thing, and I'd rather go at it from a different direction. By the time she leaves here, she'll hopefully know what she's feeling and be able to talk about it."

Dr. Jo's expression lost the faraway look as her gaze fastened itself to my face, and she leaned forward to put her forearms on the desk.

"Now that that's taken care of, there's something else I've been waiting to talk to you about," she stated. "What are Valdon's people like, and how much of his Confederacy did you see?"

The sharp-voiced questions caught me totally off guard, but I'm not in the habit of blurting out answers in surprise even if the subject broached is one I've been trying to introduce myself. I exhaled another lungful of smoke, more in self defense than anything else, then cocked my head to one side.

"Dr. Jo, you're not supposed to know about that," I said, finally getting some idea why she'd been so patient about my smoking near her. "Half the Council would have fainted dead away if they'd heard you mention it."

"Don't be an idiot," she said, an untypical annoyance showing in her gesture of dismissal. "Did you really think I could talk to him for hours with him as upset as he was, and not find out about it? He gave me a brief idea of what the situation is between you two, but I want some details."

"Why don't you ask Ringer?" I temporized, wanting to talk about it but not yet convinced. "I reported to him in detail when I got back with Val, and I do work for the man."

"I don't care who you work for!" she snapped, sitting straighter in her chair. "I want to hear the story from you, not third or fourth hand."

Dr. Jo was an old friend, but as I've mentioned before I tend to react negatively to forcefully voiced orders. I suppose she must have seen the answer on my face, but instead of climbing more steeply onto a high horse she shook her head in self-annoyance. Then she took a deep breath and ran her fingers through her shaggy gray hair.

"Diana, I apologize," she said with a sigh before relaxing back into the chair again. "I know I have no right to speak to you like that, but this is very important to me. The opportunity is of the once-in-a-lifetime sort! I have the chance to evaluate an entirely unknown culture, and Valdon is my key! You have no idea how … distraught he was. Is the reaction typical of the members of his society, or is this some special instance? I promise I won't lose myself again if you'll just answer my questions!"

She sat back in her chair but looked more rigid than relaxed, while showing an expression of intense desire on her face. I took a slow drag on my cigarette, flicked the ashes into an ashtray, then shook my head.

"Would you like to tell me what this is all about?" I suggested instead of laughing in her face. "You've never lost yourself in your life, and today is no exception. You may be the best psycher in the business, but your acting leaves a lot to be desired. That expression makes you look like a love-sick virgin cow seeing the bull coming her way."

For an instant her expression went scandalized, then she really settled back looking disgusted.

"Don't be so smart," she grumbled, the annoyance real this time. "I know I don't have your expertise, but it couldn't have been as bad as you're describing it. I'm not entirely unskilled."

"You should have seen it from this end," was all the comment I allowed myself. "Is this your new way of escaping boredom, or did the try have a different motivation?"

I saw a brief struggle going on inside her, then she moved her eyes to me and lost the annoyance.

"We're worried about you," she admitted, something of reluctance and true concern in her voice. "Ringer is worried, Pete is worried, Ralph is worried, and I'm worried. I did find out about Valdon by talking to him, and when Ringer came to ask me why you'd trick Valdon into going home rather than walking away from him yourself, I could understand his concern. I decided against the open approach and chose instead to give you what I thought would be irresistible options: the chance to flaunt the authority of the Council, and the opportunity to grant a life's ambition to an old friend. You resisted both with admirable restraint, which means I obviously don't know you as well as I thought I did."

Her tone had gone dry and sarcastic, but she was still in there pitching.

"Bullshit," I said, quoting another old friend. "I don't cross the Council just to have something to do, and I never have. As far as granting life's ambitions goes, you've had yours for years - or at least a big part of it. Do you have any other dodges you'd care to try?"

"Stop putting me on the defensive," she muttered, then shook her head in renewed annoyance. "You have no idea how odd it is, sitting here looking at a child yet hearing her adult counterpart's verbal parries. The child I'm looking at should have responded favorably to the stimuli provided, and I still find myself surprised that she didn't. Whatever possessed you to allow yourself to be made a child again?"

"The fallacies of logic," I answered in disgust, crushing out the cigarette with more force than was necessary. "In other words it seemed like a good idea at the time, and if you think it's odd from your end you ought to try it from mine. Everyone, up to and including Ringer who ought to know better, treats me as nothing but a pain-in-the-neck teenager. I'm beginning to hate the number fifteen."

"Understandable," she said with a nod, reaching for the stylus again. "But what about Valdon? Does he treat you that way too?"

"I can't decide," I said, twisting in the chair to put both of my arms on the left chair arm. I wanted to bury my face in my arms, and Dr. Jo saw it.

"Tell me about it from the beginning," she urged in a gentle voice, her tone filled with understanding. "I already have the story from Ringer, but I'd still like to hear it from you. There's no breach of security involved."

Her mentioning security stung me, and although I felt sure she knew it I couldn't help but respond. Security should be kept in its place rather than having a fetish made over it, and I found myself beginning the story to keep the odor of fetishism away. It began slowly and then picked up speed, and I went all the way from when I first met Val at the Confederacy's outpost, through the time on Tildor, through the Xanadu assignment and the Tanderon episode, eventually arriving at the present. By then my thoughts were pure confusion again and my groping dialogue showed it.

"So he caught you tricking him and called you on it," Dr. Jo summed up at last. She hadn't said a word during my narrative, but when I'd mentioned Val's ability to change his features she'd moved around just a little, as though dying to ask for details on the point but not caring to distract me. "And he was angry about being tricked?"

"Angry!" I echoed, laughing without humor. "He's had very unpleasant experiences with being set up, and all of them have been due to my efforts. He actually threatened me after the time on Xanadu Orbital Station! Can you believe that?"

"Apparently you find something wrong with the idea," she mused, her gaze thoughtful. "Is it that unusual for a man to resent being set up by someone?"

"Dr. Jo, you're not looking at it right," I groped, trying to find a way to explain. "Look, let me put it this way: would you threaten a Special Agent? Under any circumstances?"

"No, I wouldn't," she agreed with a wry smile. "As well as I know the bunch of you, I also know how bad an idea that would be."

"You and just about everyone else in the Federation," I said with a headshake. "Except Val. He threatens me, and what's even worse he carries through on the threats."

Her eyebrows rose at that, and I could see the confusion reaching out its tendrils in her direction. I still felt reluctant to talk about it all, but I had to talk to someone and holding it back at that point would have been harder than letting it out.

"You asked me before about how Val sees me," I began, waiting for her nod before continuing. "I said I couldn't decide and that's the truth, I wasn't being evasive. He told me that he's trying to understand me, so he watches everything I do. When we're on the job together he watches me in a neutral way, strictly business. When we're alone together or relaxing off the job, there's nothing neutral in the way he looks at me. We've slept together for months, but that look never changes."

I paused at that point so Dr. Jo put in, "Then where sex is concerned he treats you as a woman."

"Nothing but," I agreed, taking a strand of my hair to mess with. I sat cross-legged in the chair and slightly bent forward, and the posture seemed to help me get my thoughts together. "Having sex with him is pure surrender, since he'll accept nothing less. When he takes me in his arms I'm a fully grown woman with no confusion to the matter."

"Then what makes you unsure?" she asked, her voice no more than a murmur.

I looked around at the muted colors of her office, colors that were meant to calm the excited, soothe the agitated, ease the tortured. They didn't do a damned thing for my peace of mind, and not saying it wouldn't have helped. I glanced at Dr. Jo where she sat patiently waiting for an answer, then looked down at my hands.

"The doubt comes in when I get him mad," I mumbled, watching my fingers pull at each other. "I've had men get mad at me before and a couple have even managed to cause some harm, but none of them has ever reacted the way Val does. When he gets really mad at something I've done, he … spanks me."

A suspicious choking noise came from Dr. Jo, but when I lifted my head fast to look at her I saw her face as calm and serene as ever.

"And that's why you think he sometimes considers you a child?" she asked in a perfectly neutral tone. "Because he has a tendency to punish you like that?"

"What else could it be?" I demanded. "And it's more than a tendency. With him it's practically a sworn oath! When he gives me his word he keeps it, and the last time he gave me his word I couldn't sit down for the rest of the day! Almost every other man I've ever known turned pale when he found out I was a Special Agent, and none of them ever saw me work. Since I met Val I've killed in excess of twenty people, two of them with bare hands, and on top of that I've almost killed Val twice! But does any of that bother him? If it does, he's an expert at hiding it! Any time he gets really mad he comes for me with that look in his eyes, the look that says I'm about to be turned bottom up! Now I ask you - is that a rational reaction?"

I was so upset I was nearly shouting, but none of the noise ruffled Dr. Jo's calm. She smiled and shook her head slowly, shifting slightly in her chair.

"I'm afraid I can't agree with your interpretation of his actions," she said. "Obviously you're not aware of the fact that many men consider spanking the only acceptable way of striking a woman. Seeing it in that light, Valdon doesn't necessarily consider you a child when he punishes you."

I opened my mouth to argue the point bitterly, but since I really couldn't decide which point I wanted to argue Dr. Jo got her addenda in first.

"But that's not what's really troubling you, is it?" she pursued. "There's more involved than whether or not Valdon sometimes thinks of you as a child, isn't there?"

"Of course there is!" I blustered, sitting up straighter. "You yourself said you'd never threaten a Special Agent, and Val does lots more than threaten. By anyone's standards he has to be crazy!"

"That's not it either," she stated, a sudden sharpness having entered her tone. "Diana, you sound totally outraged over Valdon's behavior, and all because you purportedly believe he refuses to acknowledge your status as a Special Agent. I've known you for many years, and if there's one trait you lack it's being a showoff. It has never mattered to you whether other people showed you the quote respect due your position unquote or not. Being what you are is important to you, not having other people acknowledge it. Isn't that true?"

She sat waiting for an answer again, but this time I couldn't give it to her. I lowered my head to look down at my lap, and bit at the skin on the back of my finger.

"You're upset because he isn't afraid of you," she said, her voice having grown soft again. "Not being afraid means he sees you only as a woman, and seeing you that way means he might want more than just a business relationship and more than just sex between assignments. Isn't that what's really bothering you?"

"That's even more insane than the way he treats me," I choked out, still not looking at her. "Special Agents don't retire, they accept one assignment too many. He hasn't been here long enough to learn that, and I've been a Special Agent too long to give it all up even if it were possible."

"Then why don't you go back to working alone?" she hounded me, not letting me rest. "Why don't you have Ringer assign him to partner with someone else?"

"I can't!" I burst out, raising pleading eyes to her face. "I tried to make him leave me because I can't leave him! And not because he said he'd never let me run from him! I thought I wanted him to go home, but when he said he wasn't going I experienced relief the likes of which I've never felt before! He's the only man I've ever met who makes me feel fifteen again not just look it, and I can't walk away from the involvement!"

Well, I'd finally said it all and Dr. Jo's face showed she knew it. She rubbed wearily at her forehead, undoubtedly looking for some reassurance to give me, but we both knew there was none to give. Nothing could come of whatever attraction I felt for Val, and the sooner I got over him the easier it would be on me. I'd chosen my style of living a lot of years earlier, and it was much too late to think about changing it.

"Maybe this course of action is wisest," Dr. Jo decided, gazing at me thoughtfully. "It's often true that familiarity breeds contempt. Does Valdon have any habits that will eventually become too annoying for you to stand?"

At least I was able to laugh at that as I leaned back in the chair.

"What do you mean, eventually?" I asked with a sound of ridicule. "Have I somehow given the impression I enjoy getting spanked? And the way he expects me to listen to him!"

I shook my head in disgust, more than ready to add to the list of annoyances, but my having admitted that the partnership would continue brought to mind a problem I hadn't considered before.

"What's the matter?" Dr. Jo asked, narrowing her eyes as she noticed my expression.

"Annoyance number three," I said heavily while pulling out another cigarette and lighting it. "Val goes out of his way to protect me, but doesn't look kindly on having the courtesy returned. I can't wait until our next assignment together … He'll be busy protecting me, I'll be busy pretending that I'm not protecting him, and between the two of us we just might manage to get ourselves killed."

The frown completed its convolutions on Dr. Jo's face.

"I hadn't considered that," she said. "You must have had a difficult time on the liner this afternoon. He worked with you on that, didn't he?"

"He certainly did," I agreed, still busy looking over the gloomy picture I'd painted for myself. "But that assignment wasn't a problem, not in the way you mean it. I told him what to do and he did it, so everything went smooth and easy and professional down the line."

I took another drag on the cigarette, still too wrapped up to notice more than tangentially that Dr. Jo's frown was gone.

"He took orders from you?" she asked with faint confusion. "I thought you said he was insisting that you listen to him."

Her confusion was understandable, since that was the least of what I felt.

"He says that when we're working I'm boss," I offered, gesturing vaguely with one hand. "By everything that's happened so far he seems to mean it, but that doesn't cover the time when we're not working. He's nominated himself for boss during off hours."

"And you don't find that an equitable division?" she put, leaning back in her chair again to study me. "Usually taking turns at something is considered completely fair."

"I give him orders while we're working because I have more experience than he does, not to mention a higher rank," I pointed out, surprised that I had to spell it out. "And working covers only a small part of the time, don't forget. He wants to run things the rest of the time, which isn't my idea of equality. You see it differently?"

"Well, you might say he has more experience with living normally," she suggested, her expression bland. "With that in view, maybe he should be giving the orders during your off time. You could use the practice."

"For what possible future situation?" I countered with a snort. "In my line of work I never live normally, so why would I want to waste time getting practice at it?"

"Maybe you'll need it for work some day," she suggested, then changed the subject to ask about Val's quick-change abilities. Since my knowledge of them was limited to what I'd observed with my own eyes, handing over the details didn't take very long.

Dr. Jo was fascinated despite the lack of essentials, so fascinated that she continued to ignore the fact that I was smoking near her. She'll never criticize someone during what she considers business, but I'd never seen her that patient before when business was over. We chatted on for a while despite the fact that I was rapidly running out of motive power, but then she finally called a halt to the time.

"Diana, you really do look exhausted," she said, interrupting herself in the middle of another question. "I can see I shouldn't have kept you this long, and I apologize. Has Ralph made arrangements for you?"

"I guess so," I yawned in answer, crushing out my latest cigarette. "He admitted he can't wait to get his hands on me, so he must have arranged something."

"I wonder if you would do me a favor," she said, her smile at my comment no more than on the surface. "I know your rank entitles you to a private room, but Teddy is all alone in the room they've given her and solitude isn't the best thing for her right now. Do you have any objections to sharing her accommodations and keeping her company?"

"None that I can think of," I replied with a shrug, levering myself out of the chair to stand and stretch. "As long as I have to be here it doesn't much matter where they put me, and Teddy should be company for me as well."

"Good," she approved with a smile of thanks, moving a paper aside on her desk before standing up. "Teddy is in room 2724 and I'll have Ralph meet you there. Do you know where it is?"

She caught me in the middle of another yawn, but I was still able to snort.

"I know where everything in this place is," I reminded her. "I've spent enough time here to be able to draw a detailed map."

"Which would undoubtedly include the alarm circuitry and all means of ingress and egress," she acknowledged with a grin, coming around her desk to stand next to me. "Someone listening to you would never dream you'd been the prime mover in designing the latest security system. Those people from Flowerville were able to breach it only because they had the details of it."

"Designing the security system was the easy part," I said with a headshake. "Showing how bad the old system was was the part that took talent, since with that one the Flowerville people wouldn't have needed the details to breach it. Do you remember how many times I had to break in here without letting anyone catch me? I must have left a million 'Diana was here' notes before it occurred to me to put them in the men's bathrooms in a spot too prominent to have them ignored. That was the trick that did it."

"I do remember that," she said, laughing as she leaned back against her desk. "Dr. Raymond was so upset he nearly had hysterics when he told Pete what was going on. You're lucky Pete didn't have you hunted down."

"Pete always has had a soft spot in his heart for me," I said with some amusement of my own. "He just didn't realize it until very recently, but you already know all about that."

"I certainly do," she agreed, losing some of her own amusement. "I don't know how wise you are letting him think of himself as your father, though. He's never been a father, and most of his reactions will be textbook typical. It won't be easy."

"I've already noticed that," I admitted with a sigh, then folded my arms with a shrug. "No one has ever accused me of being wise, but I do know how to recognize the necessary. As long as I continue to look the way I do, it's going to be necessary."

"I suppose you're right," she grudged, letting her eyes move over me in appraisal. "Colonel Peter Rodriguez could never tolerate an infant hyper-A, but considering her his daughter would make a big difference. He could admire her and be proud of her, but still feel he had some control over her."

"And he could also be her friend," I added. "Which is more to the point if not the whole point. I'll never have so many friends that I'll be willing to give one up without a fight."

"And you claim you aren't wise," Dr. Jo chuckled, beginning to lead the way to the door. "Under normal conditions I might agree with you, but not in this case. You remember what room Teddy is in?"

I kept myself from saying anything, but when I closed my eyes and sighed I got a quick apology from Dr. Jo. She was only reacting to what her eyes told her, but I hadn't missed on specific information since I was an agent-in-training.

I muttered something about not being sure how long my sanity would last, and Dr. Jo laughed it off before patting my shoulder in a gesture of comfort. I told her I was only kidding and let her see me to the door, then retraced my way to the elevators while her promise to "visit" me during my stay echoed in my mind. If I knew her she was planning a professional visit, and I couldn't decide how to feel about that. After showing my I.D. for the final time and stepping into the elevator, I decided I didn't give a damn one way or the other. If she certified me as wacky, at least my problem with Val would be solved.