Diana Santee # 2: Gateway to Xanadu

Foreword


To the reader:

By the time I finished restoring this book, I understood one of the reasons for DAW wanting to cut it: it was very long.

That fact, however, doesn't change the equal fact that they did a really horrible job of cutting. The woman who did copyediting for DAW wasn't all that good until then, but the word was she went off the deep end at about this time and ruined five of the books she was working on, mine included. No one noticed what was going on until the books were in print, so the ruined books were just left ruined.

I'll be the first one to admit that some of the copyediting was done right, and that I haven't changed. If some part that was taken out really needed to be taken out I didn't put it back. I did put in changed words here and there, though, because the replacement words simply weren't words or phrases I could accept. All such alterations are indicated by being in bold text.

The only real changes I made to the original text that appeared in print are cosmetic in nature: typos are fixed, wrong words are corrected, commas in the wrong place - or left out - are either removed or put in, and very, very, very long paragraphs are shortened. Those long paragraphs should have been shortened by that wonderful copyeditor, but she never said a word about them and I was still learning my trade. At the time I didn't know any better.

I really had to grit my teeth to keep from "fixing" the way I told the story, but for the most part I left it all alone. I may know better now, but I didn't know better back then and what I wanted to do was restore the book, not rewrite it. Not everything I put back in really needed to be back, but I still included it. Since I'm not using paper for this version, I didn't have to worry about how long the book runs.

But one thing I did do: I put one section of chapter 13, Diana and Val's time in the heart of the Pleasure Sphere, into a separate area. That part is really very gruesome, and if you don't care to read it I won't be offended. When you get to that section of the chapter, you'll be provided with a link to the alternate version of the chapter. If you click the link, you'll be directed to the alternate version which starts at the gruesome part. After the bold text is the rest of chapter 13 and a link to chapter 14. If you ignore the first link you'll get the original published part followed by the rest of chapter 13 and a link to chapter 14. Then you can read the chapter whichever way your mood suits.

There might be some mistakes, like words missing, here and there throughout the original text, and for that I apologize. Scanning in the book caused the losses, and I tried to catch them all but that's hard when you know what should be there. Hopefully there won't be all that much missing, and also hopefully you'll enjoy the parts that are restored. You sure as hell will understand some of the scenes better.

Love and hugs,

Sharon




Chapter 1


By the time the gentle chime sounded that was obviously supposed to wake me, I was already up and dressed. I didn't have much in the room that needed putting together, and that was mostly done, too. Which was definitely a good thing, since I didn't know how to turn that gently chiming alarm off. It must have been set by Val before he left, and waking up to find him already gone had surprised me. As excited as I felt about going home, I wouldn't have believed it possible for someone to leave that room without waking me. If I'd slept alone the night before, I probably wouldn't even have slept.

I stuffed my spare ship's suit into the small monolon bag, smoothed the bag closed, then turned to look over the blue-green, brown and white room one last time. I didn't really expect to see anything I'd accidentally left behind, and I didn't; I hadn't shared the room long enough with Val. The last look around was a good-bye to most of the strangeness I'd run into there in the Absari base around Tildor, a volume of space no one in my Federation knew anything about.

I'd bumped into the Absari Watchers of the backward planet Tildor, had helped out with a chore on the planet, and now was heading back to my Federation with a "Hi, there, neighbor!" letter of self-introduction from the Absari upper echelon. If everyone on the Federation Council didn't faint dead away at being contacted by a previously unknown, star-faring humanoid race, their expressions would be worth seeing. At least two-thirds of the Council considered the possibility of meeting equals an amusing fictional notion, something to have fun with while watching it on tri-v, but nothing to take seriously. I couldn't wait until they got a look at Val.

Sudden inspiration hit me at thought of Val, so I went back to the low, wide couch-bed we'd shared the night before, sat down on it, then stood up again. The chiming cut off immediately, bringing me a satisfied grin. Absari ways weren't Federation ways no matter how much the Absari looked like us, but a little common sense sometimes helped bridge the gap between alien cultures. That was something I'd have to remember during the next standard year, the time period Val would be partnering with me as an agent for the Federation. A little common sense - and a lot of delicate, judicious handling - and his talent could be put to use for the benefit of the Federation.

Or, at least, one of his talents. I sat back down on the couch-bed and stretched out across it, folding my arms above my head and grinning. Val's ability to change his features and appearance to match anyone he cared to was a result of his original Absari blood; I'd have to ask him if his bed talent came from the same source. I'd miss it when his year was up and he went back home, but I'd be able to look around for an adequate replacement once I came back to the Absari Confederacy to work my own year for them. If that particular talent really was in the blood, I'd have one hell of a wild time during that -

The chiming started again so abruptly that I jumped, and it wasn't as sweet and mellow as it had been the first time. I'd never before heard an annoyed alarm clock, but I knew damned well I was hearing one then. I muttered a few words describing the personal habits of that alarm as I rose from the bed, then included Val in for setting the damn thing in the first place. My eagerness to get going had gotten me up but I could still feel the drag of minus sleep beneath that eagerness, gluing shut my eyelids and making me yawn.

I hadn't slept very well in the days I'd waited for the Absari rep Phalsyn to get there, and during that time I'd kept Val on the opposite side of the room with the well-known cold shoulder - and a sincere promise to break off any extremities of his that I happened to find in grabbing distance. He'd grinned at the promise, and had told me he could wait - which he did until last night, when he made up for the wait. I couldn't honestly describe the time as wasted, but I'd needed the lost sleep more.

I yawned again and shook my head, then grabbed up the monolon bag and headed for the door. I'd get all the sleep I wanted or needed once we were on our way, and what I really needed right then was a cup of coffee. The door slid open in front of me, giving me access to the hall of the residential section, which led to the work area, which in turn led to the docking facilities. I didn't know how really early it was in the base day until I walked past the offices in the work area and found most of them empty, no more than the usual skeleton crew in the comm room.

The small sounds of the base's life-support systems bracketed the whisper of my deck shoes along the corridor carpeting, and the two men in the comm room didn't even look up as I passed. I wondered if the early departure time had been Phalsyn's idea, the intent being to get rid of the alien and the guinea pig with the fewest number of people watching, keeping the gossip to a minimum. The base people would know Val and I were gone but they would not know where, at least until the formal talks started, and maybe not even then. If you think long it takes most people to accept even the new family a few doors down, the idea of keeping as much as possible secret for as long as possible begins to look a lot less unreasonable.

The docking area seemed just as empty as the office area had been until I spotted Dameron leaning against the hull of my ship, right beside the access hatch. The big man had his arms folded across the chest of his dark blue base commander's uniform, studying the floor in front of his feet, the same preoccupied air holding him that had held him the night before. Not until I stopped in front of him did his eyes rise to my face.

"You're here sooner than Valdon thought you would be," he said, his broad face showing a hint of a smile. "He only just entered the ship himself."

"Probably to double-check the work he did on it," I said, giving more in the way of a smile than I was getting. "I don't blame him for not wanting to find out if he screwed up the hard way. Why don't you come aboard and get your final good-byes said while I start the departure check?"

"They've already been said," he answered with a sigh. "All I have left are yours, along with a request or two. You don't mind a request or two from a friend, do you?"

His dark eyes were studying me in a very sober, worried way. Considering the fact that Dameron knew more about what my line of work entailed than anyone else there, his worry had to be on behalf of my new partner.

"If you don't mind, I'd like to hear what those requests are before I agree to them," I said, putting my fist on my hip. "I'm not as silly as some people, who commit themselves before they know what they're committing themselves to."

"Don't rub it in!" he growled, looking annoyed, but then he grinned and laughed softly. He'd been so eager to do me a favor that he hadn't first asked what favor I had in mind, a silliness he'd be regretting for some time to come. When you a habit of keeping your word, you really should take a look around before giving it.

"Okay, okay, so I deserve to have it rubbed in," he said, one broad hand ruefully rubbing the back of his neck. "That doesn't mean I also deserve to be haunted by this thing for the rest of my life. I'd like to know just how deep a pit I dug for Valdon - and how good his chances are of climbing out again all in one piece. He's one of the best field agents I've ever had, but I don't know if he's good enough to survive at the level you seem to operate on. I still don't understand how you survive."

"That's easy," I told him with a wave of my hand. "I have the worst luck you've ever seen, always picking the wrong side to bet on. Any time I'm about to get a really hairy assignment I make sure to bet someone that I'll finally get it, so I don't. Works every time."

I grinned, but the good commander wasn't in the mood for a laugh. The look in his dark eyes hardened as he began straightening himself in annoyance, so I waved my hand at him again.

"Come on, Dameron, let's be intelligent about this," I coaxed, letting some of the tiredness I felt come into my voice. "I worked a long time at my job to get good enough to qualify for hyper-A assignments; you can't really believe they'll let Val share them just because he's giant size and has all those pretty muscles. He'll have to earn the right to put his neck on the line just like the rest of us, and by then it will probably be time for him to come home. Chances are you'll have less cause to worry about him than you would if you sent him back down to Tildor."

"But - you two are supposed to be partners," he protested, still seeming upset. "If you get one of those assignments then he'll get it, or at least he'll decide he has it. He won't sit back and let you do it all yourself, and you're crazy if you think he will."

"Are you under the impression that I don't know what he's like?" I asked, a bit belligerently. "Have you forgotten all the time we spent together down on Tildor? When I want Val out of the way I'll have him out of the way, whether it makes him happy or not. On Tildor he had all of the advantages, but in the Federation we'll be on my stamping grounds. I'm even willing to bet on it."

"I thought you always backed the losing side," he retorted, but a shadow of his old humor was back, along with a fading of some of the worry. "I don't feel as much confidence as you seem to, girl, but for some reason I also don't feel as bad as I did. You're sure your people won't let him have any of these-hyper-A assignments?"

"Positive," I answered, grinning briefly at the way Dameron pronounced 'hyper-A'. We were speaking his base language, and there was no one-to-one translation for the phrase. "Hyper-A is short for 'high percentage risk agent,' a nickname for Special Agents. It means that if the computers rate the possibilities of success on an assignment at 99 percent or more against, that assignment is given only to a hyper-A. We're the ones who have already proven we can survive against odds like that by doing it, and the doing takes some doing. Val won't have the necessary time - or the opportunity. For the most part I plan to use him as a distraction while I do the actual work, either with his talent in full play or just as he is. A little less masculinity to his face, and he'd be downright pretty, and I can think of a lot of ways to use something like that. I wonder if he could change himself to directions."

"You've lost your mind, girl," Dameron interrupted my ranging thoughts, hauling me back to where we were standing. He was looking straight at me, and his expression couldn't be interpreted as anything but ridiculing. "I thought you said you knew Valdon," he demanded. "If you think he'll stand for being a flower boy in the background while you run around drawing fire from the enemy, you're out of your mind. What do you think he is?"

"I thought he was the one you were so worried about," I retorted, staring at the base commander. "Have you suddenly changed your mind, or am I going senile in my old age? I thought you wanted him out of the line of fire - or haven't you decided yet what you want?"

"I do know what I want," he muttered. "But what I want isn't necessarily what he'll want. Or what either of us would consider acceptable. Maybe I don't know what I want after all." He pulled his hand through his hair with a harried gesture, then turned to me. "What exactly do you think of Valdon?"

"What's to think about him?" I asked with a shrug, privately wondering if Dameron had started to lose the marble game. "He's big, good-looking, has a talent I intend making use of - Hell, Dameron, I barely know him. The only things we've really done together so far are argue and fight. I'll be able to do a better job of giving an opinion if we ever manage to exchange more than a dozen words before the fur starts flying."

"But you've still let him bed you," the Commander pointed out, a flatness in the words. "That doesn't jibe with the lack of opinion you claim to have. Or not have. Do you make a habit of spending bed time with men you scarcely know?"

"Usually," I answered with a slow nod, now almost convinced the leash was slipping. "How many men do you think I get to know well in my line of work? And what difference can a little sex make? Just because a man's good in bed doesn't mean you'd trust your back to him. Sex is nothing more than an exercise for two - or three, or five, or however your tastes run. Haven't you learned that yet?"

"That particular outlook doesn't necessarily come about through mature experience," he said, a gentleness and something that seemed to be pain looking out of his eyes. "Some people are raised to consider it a good deal more than casual exercise, more than something to be indulged in even between virtual strangers. If you ever get to the point of gaining true mature experience, you might learn that."

"Do you mean I'll learn that some men consider a roll in the hay the equivalent of a life commitment?" I asked, letting most of the friendliness drain out of my tone. "I've already learned that, friend, and also learned to stay away from that sort. The only thing I'm interested in committing to is what I've already committed to, and there's no room in that sort of life for distractions. The -'level I operate on' makes other commitments impractical, especially long-term ones. My body has certain needs, and I see to them whenever I like the looks of available partners; if you're thinking about telling me that Val has kept himself pure waiting for his one true lady love, you have a shock coming. No man ever got to his level of expertise by abstaining, and please note that we're not discussing opinion. I've had to acquire a certain level of expertise myself to satisfy certain of my job requirements, and I can assure you that I know what I'm talking about."

"I don't doubt that," he answered, amused now. "And I didn't mean to imply that Valdon was a sheltered innocent. The reactions of the field team girls he paired with made that clear enough."

"Then what were you implying?" I asked, genuinely curious. If there was a point to the conversation I'd been a part of for the last few minutes, it would have been nice knowing what it was.

"What makes you think I was implying anything?" he answered, more amused, calmly folding his arms again. "I just happened to be taking the opportunity to voice a couple my own opinions. I didn't say they had anything to do with Valdon. You'll see to it, then, that your people don't let him get in over his head?"

"Cross my heart and hope to spit wooden nickels," I promised, holding up my free hand. "Was that all you were looking for, a promise to protect your delicate little former second, and a true, unvarnished declaration on my philosophy of life? No sworn blood oaths that I return him as sweet and untarnished as I'm getting him?"

"Your penchant for sarcasm must find you almost as much trouble as your line of work," Dameron remarked, looking down at me with less than friendliness, and then the twinkle came back. "No, I don't need an oath like that from you about Valdon; I already have one from Valdon about you. Some of us still believe in the basic premise that women are there to be looked after and protected."

I stared at him in a disbelieving way for a minute, then burst out laughing. His dark brows lowered over his eyes in a frown that showed lack of understanding, causing me to laugh even harder, then shake my head at him.

"That's a hell of a sentiment to be coming from the man who deliberately set me up to be attacked by sword-swinging baddies," I pointed out when I could, still chuckling. "Not to mention the enslavement part. Are you sure you're not talking about Val this time?"

"Maybe I am," he agreed very quietly with a small, sad smile, his dark eyes now unreadable. I cursed myself for an idiot and for having such a big mouth, but the damage was already done. I'd been well-enough aware of the guilt Dameron had felt over what had happened to me down on Tildor, but I'd thought he'd managed to put it behind him. Telling him I didn't blame him would probably only have made it worse, but I was about to try exactly that when he threw off the dark mood and straightened again.

"At any rate," he said as if there had been no interruption, "Valdon has those papers Phalsyn told you about, and the two of you can convert the time measurement in them to something your people will understand. As a final request I'm going to ask you to try to stay out of trouble and to take care of yourself, but I have a feeling that's one request you won't grant."

"I always take care of myself," I answered, still bothered by the way I had hurt him. "There's rarely anyone else around to do the job for me. As for staying out of trouble, most of the people I know consider the accomplishment in the same category as avoiding death and taxes. Dameron…"

"Don't worry, girl, I'll get it worked out after I see you safely on your way back home," he assured me with a faint smile. "I'll just remind myself that whatever trouble you find with Valdon you asked for, freely and without any pressure from me. You'd better get aboard now, so I can start evacuating the air from this dock."

"Wait a minute!" I protested as he took my arm to head me toward the airlock. "What are you talking about? What trouble with Val? I don't plan on having any trouble with Val."

"Then maybe you won't have any," Dameron said with a shrug, his hand moving me right in front of the airlock before leaving my arm. "If you're a good girl and behave yourself with him, Valdon certainly won't start any trouble. Have a good trip home, girl, and be sure to stop by if you're ever in this neighborhood again."

He patted my shoulder a couple of times before he turned and headed for the dock exit, ignoring the "Hey!" I sent after him as though I hadn't uttered a sound. I hefted the monolon bag I still carried, momentarily tempted to drop it and go after him, then said to hell with it and turned back to the airlock. I didn't know what game he was playing, but calling him on it wouldn't have accomplished anything. It was a safe bet even he didn't know what he was talking about and I had better things to do with my time than waste it trying to find sense where there wasn't any.

Once I had stalked past the double open doors of the lock and hit the switch that closed them, I made my way deeper into the small ship. The two cabins, salon area, shower and exercise area, and galley were all ranged together after the airlock and before the control room, so I stopped briefly to toss my monolon bag into my cabin before continuing on to the pilot's console. I also stopped in the galley to fill a mug with coffee, but obviously made too little noise performing those chores. Val was moving around in the second cabin, probably stowing whatever he'd brought with him, and didn't even stick his nose out to see who had come in. I shrugged a little over such blind trust, still too annoyed with Dameron to be interested in making small talk with Val, and carried my coffee into the control room.

The departure check I started the computer on was longer and more detailed than your average departure check, but I wanted to be sure that everything really was on the green before I kicked off into the deep black. Dameron and Val seemed to be talented in the repairs department, but they still had been working on an alien ship with no more than alien wiring diagrams and inspired guesswork to guide them. An all-systems check is boring only when your life doesn't hinge on that check, and even so it doesn't take forever.

I was just finishing up when the wide metal doors of the dock slid invitingly open, showing that Dameron had evacuated the air from the dock, giving me access to the departure tunnels. My course computer clicked contentedly as it waited with infinite patience to be meshed into the drive unit; every light on my board blinked green, and sets of parallel blue lines lit up along the dock wall and extended out into the departure tunnels. I raised the ship on secondary breaking jets, nudged us toward the open door, then followed the pretty blue lines until it was time to leave them and the tunnels behind.

Tildor showed briefly in my screens, barely noticed in the midst of the departure question-and-answer routine I was involved in with the computer, and then it was a good distance behind us, its moons no longer even visible. I stayed at the board until the entire solar system was behind us, then got out of the pilot's chair to stretch. Everything from then on until destination - barring emergencies - was automatic, and I was free to play passenger.

I dropped off my empty mug in the galley on my way to the salon, plopped down on the nearer of the two couches, put my feet up as I lay back, then closed my eyes. Although it hadn't seemed like it while it was happening, the departure from Dameron's moon base had taken better than three hours, including the time it took to clear the solar system. Under normal circumstances everything after rising from the surface of the moon would have been handled by the computer, leaving me free to watch, worry, or even walk away, but I'd had a private project that needed programming that had to be done then or not at all.

I'd gone through a lot waiting for Dameron to program my course computer, and even with Phalsyn's papers handed over for delivery, I still hadn't been allowed to watch the course and quadrant data being fed in. To say I'd been annoyed would be to say the sayer didn't know me; I usually prefer getting even to getting mad. I'd asked the main computer to rig up a double-check tape run on its less intelligent cousin the course computer, and had waited and watched to see if the run did what I wanted it to.

We were just at the fringes of Tildor's system when the double-check clicked in, running a ninety-second-lag playback of where we'd just been. I couldn't copy the set-in course without purging the entire program, but there was nothing to from recording where I'd been - up to and including the time of my arrival at destination. All I'd have to do at that point would be to reverse the run tape, and the breadcrumb trail leading back to Dameron's base would be in my hot little hand. I might never need it, but it never hurts to hedge your -

"All finished with starting us on our way?" a voice asked abruptly, startling me half up off the couch before I realized it was Val, speaking the Federation Basic he'd been given, most likely for practice. I wasn't used to having company on that ship, and settling back into old habits had nearly given me heart failure at the first of his words.

"Don't do that," I grumbled at him where he stood by the second couch, about five feet away, then sank back down to sitting on my own couch. "Just until I get used to having someone else aboard, I'd appreciate it if you stomped or sang or in some other manner made your presence known before you came into a room where I was. If you don't, I'm not going to last very long."

"From the way you came up off that couch, I don't think you're the one we have to worry about," Val came back, his voice dry, his deep black eyes looking down at me where I sat. "You would have ended up facing away from me if you hadn't stopped yourself, and I have a feeling that would have been only part of the move. What comes after that?"

"Oh, just a little screaming, a little jumping, nothing very special," I answered with a gesture of dismissal, smiling some to distract him. Telling him he'd almost been the proud possessor of a reverse crescent kick followed by a roundhouse kick, both to the face and head, would have probably started another argument; Val had already run into a couple of my offensive techniques, and hadn't liked them much.

"Nothing but a couple of mild surprise reactions, is that it?" he asked, ignoring my smile as he settled himself on the neighboring couch, stretching his big body out in a relaxed sprawl. "Are you sure that's all it was?"

"What else could it have been?" I asked with mildly curious and very innocent reason, at the same time wondering if he could have found out about the double-check run. "It's embarrassing to admit, but I'm afraid I forgot you were here."

I showed my embarrassment in my smile, but he still wasn't paying any attention to it. His dark black eyes continued to stare at me out of an expressionless face under dark black hair, and he didn't seem to be as relaxed as his sprawl might suggest. He was still wearing his cobalt blue base uniform, but that wasn't a likely reason for what seemed like discomfort.

"Are you sure you forgot I was here?" he asked very quietly, keeping those eyes on me. "Are you sure it wasn't more a matter of remembering all too well? Didn't you see that I took the other cabin?"

"I don't understand," I told him. "Why would I say I forgot when I remembered? And what has cabins got to do with anything?"

"I'm trying to tell you that you don't have to worry about my being here," he said very gently. "Whatever happened between us at the base doesn't have to happen here, not if you don't want it to. Our being alone together doesn't mean you have to think about defending yourself from me. I won't be doing anything that needs to be defended against."

He was still staring at me, but now there was a very definite expression on his face: a sincere entreaty for belief and trust. To say I was stunned would be putting it mildly; Val thought I was afraid to be alone with him!

I leaned back against my own couch still more wide-eyed open-mouthed than I'd been in a long time, but the reason for what he'd just said wasn't hard to figure out. Val was a man in whom the ancient male hunter could be seen by any woman he turned those eyes on, the sort of man who traditionally took whatever he wanted, most especially the use of females. Women in ancient times feared men like that, but they were also used to them; whole cities were pillaged, and rape was a natural concomitant.

Modern times brought about the advent of civilization, and women weren't expected to put up with that sort of nonsense any longer - but every once in a while a hunter turned up anyway. Val had been raised to be considerate of the feelings of women, to understand how fragile and helpless they were, but the hunter still looked out of his eyes. He'd been taught to feel like hell every time a woman cringed back from his appraisal, and he'd learned to make very sure of full agreement before letting his basic nature take over. He bent over backwards to reassure the females around him, most especially at the first sign of nervousness at his presence.

I didn't know if he'd been brooding over the point since he first came aboard, or if my aborted attack in self-defense had triggered the thought, but most likely a combination of the two had produced the statement of intended chastity. That he hadn't learned to know me better over the last few days was annoying, but not nearly as annoying as being lumped in the "fragile, helpless" category. I'd thought I'd taught Val the hard way just how well I liked gentlemanly condescension, but it was clear the lesson hadn't taken. It looked like it was time for another lesson.

"You really understand the way a girl feels, don't you?" I said at last with pretend relieved gratitude. "I can't say how much better I feel now, to know that we'll have separate cabins. You're an absolute doll, Val."

I beamed at him as I stood up from the couch, pretending not to see the way he flinched at my complete agreement with his offer. We had a decently long trip ahead of us, and hunters don't make very successful eagle scouts. Still beaming, I kicked off the deck shoes I was wearing, then opened my ship suit and started to wriggle out of it. Those black eyes were on me instantly, sliding over every curve I had, the look in them saying they still liked what they saw, and then memory returned of what had been committed to. If it hadn't been so far from his nature, I think Val would have started blubbering then; the muscles tensed all over his body, his face went expressionless, and swallowing turned his voice hoarse.

"What are you doing?" he demanded as he looked up a me. "I don't understand what you're - Diana, you're taking your clothes off."

"Sure," I agreed with a smilingly innocent nod, tossing the ship's suit in the general direction of my cabin. "It's so warm in here you don't really need clothes, but I couldn't take them off until you said what you did. I never wore anything on the trip out."

Which, although calculated, was nothing but the complete truth, except for the stated reason. I wore nothing of clothing on the trip out because I was born and raised on one of the only two nudist worlds in the Federation, and I revert to going natural every time I can. Val's face had taken on an appalled, desperate look, as though he were trying to imagine living with a naked woman for two months without touching her, but I made sure not to notice that look either. I turned away from him and headed for the galley, humming happily in a soft voice.

"It's going to be great having someone to talk to," I enthused over my shoulder as I stopped in front of the food synthesizer to refill the mug I'd left there earlier with coffee. "I enjoy my own company well enough, but there's such a thing as too much of that sort of enjoyment. How about a cup of coffee?"

Without waiting for an answer I filled a second mug, then carried them both back to the salon area. Val was still sitting on his couch, one big hand rubbing at his face, a harried expression in his eyes. He waited until I'd put the mug into the slot meant for it in the front of the couch's armrest, shifted a little on the couch, then cleared his throat.

"Diana, you're not being fair," he said, no more than a trace of the hoarseness left in his voice. "I'm trying to be considerate of you, but you're not doing the same for me. I promised I'd do nothing to make you feel it necessary to defend yourself, but I wasn't picturing you walking around like that. You have to put your clothes back on."

"Why?" I asked, sipping gingerly at the hot coffee. "It isn't as if you've never seen me naked before, Val. You've seen me naked lots of times."

"I know I have," he answered through his teeth. "I know I've seen you naked lots of times, but that was when I could - Never mind. Just get into your clothes."

"I've got a better idea," I said with sudden inspiration, laughing in delight and nearly clapping my hands. "Instead of me getting back into clothes, why don't you get out of yours? Then we'll both be naked, and you won't be bothered anymore. Come on, Val, do it!"

I was still enthusiastic as I went to my couch to put my coffee down, and by the time I turned back to him, Val was on his feet. Looking at him, it wasn't hard guessing why he'd stayed seated so long; I was considered big for a woman, but Val was big for a man. You couldn't quite make two of me out of him, but if you tried you wouldn't be short by all that much. He'd known exactly how menacing he'd look to the poor little female if he was upright, but at that point he was beyond considerations of that sort. He couldn't possibly accept what I'd just suggested, not and keep his sanity along with his word; he had to start being firm, and those black eyes said he was more than ready.

"Stop dancing around like that!" he growled, coming toward me where I stood between the two couches. "You're acting as if you want to be attacked, and I'm just about ready to oblige you! Get back into those clothes, or I'll-"

At that point he made the mistake of reaching for my left arm with his right hand, just as I knew he would. He'd done the same thing once before, reaching out to grab me in anger, but that lesson hadn't stayed with him any more than the other one had. As his hand closed around my arm just above the wrist I stepped toward him instead of away, turned my hand aim upward, and moved even closer.

I slipped my left hand out of the forced looseness of his grip, continued to turn his hand to the left with the added assistance of the back of my left hand fingers pushing against the trapped fingers of his right hand, and simultaneously stepped back and twisted around. With a squawk of astonishment and some small amount of pain, the great big dangerous hunter went down flat on his back, totally helpless. Before Val knew what was happening he had hit the carpeted deck hard, and lay there with my bare heel on his throat.

"Or you'll what?" I asked very mildly, looking down at him where he twisted a little in an attempt to ease the pressure on his arm and shoulder, his expression totally disbelieving. "The last time it was partially Bellna, but this time it's all me, which should explain why you're not hurting as much as you did then. If I shift my weight onto my heel you're a goner, friend, or I could simply kick you hard enough in the side of the head to put your lights out for a while. As I said earlier, I forgot you were here; that doesn't equate with deliberately forgetting out of desperate fear of you. If you're smart, you'll start considering being afraid of me. Despite many opinions to the contrary, it is possible to rape a man, and I know how. And I haven't given my word not to."

I turned him loose then, taking my heel away from his throat so that I could step over him on the way to my couch. I sat down and got a cigarette out of the couch-arm dispenser and lit up, then picked up my coffee mug to sip at it, only then noticing that Val was still on the deck. When he saw my eyes on him he sat up slowly, rubbing at his right arm with his left hand, a strange expression in his deep black eyes.

"I don't think I've ever been told a woman wasn't afraid me with quite that much conviction before," he muttered, raising his knees so that he could hang his forearms on them. "I assume I'm to take it that if I do something you don't like, you'll let me know about it. Do you think you can catch me with that sort of thing more than once?"

"There's a lot more where that came from," I snorted. He seemed to be relieved that I wasn't afraid of him after all, but he hadn't liked being roughed up in the proving of it. My previous good intentions were down the drain, but I'd had to settle the question of fear the most direct way possible. Some men turn protective around women who are afraid of things, and Val and I were slated to work together. If he did his job slap-dash because he was worrying about me, it could get us both killed.

"What happens if I do manage to get the upper hand?" he pursued, perversely trying to dent the lack of fear he had been so relieved to see. "Once I have you in a position where you can't do me any harm, what's to stop me from doing anything I like to you?"

"Nothing," I admitted calmly, exhaling smoke at him. "You're bigger than I am, stronger than I am, and might manage to take me before I could finish you off. But if you did, you'd have something of a problem. You would not be able to let me go afterward, because if I ever got free I'd have your heart - and a couple or three other things to keep it company. To avoid that you'd have to finish me, and then you'd find yourself all dressed up with no place to go. At the other end of the course tape is my Federation, a volume of space you don't know your way around in. Assuming you have the proper coordinates you can always turn around and head back to Absari space, but once you got there your people would start asking about that conference they're expecting to have with my people. No matter which way you turned you'd have problems, and all because of your resentment against my harmless little demonstration. If that's the way you want it, go ahead and take your best shot."

"Harmless little demonstration," he snorted. "If that was a harmless little demonstration, I'm a - " He broke it off and stared at me for a long minute, then snorted again with something more like amusement. "You think you have it all figured out. What would happen if I did take you - and afterward you discovered you liked it? Instead of coming after me, you'd end up begging not to be turned loose."

"If you were curious to know how likely that would be, you should have checked with the Tildorani slavers before we left," I said, giving him a grin with a lot of wolf in it. "After I lost my patience with them, they couldn't hand me over to Clero fast enough. In case you hadn't noticed, I'm not very good slave material."

"That you definitely are not," he agreed with sudden pleasance, picking himself up off the deck to stretch. "And now that we have that settled, you have a choice to make, too." He stepped over my legs to sit down next to me on the couch, then looked down at me. "You can either get back into clothes, or start showing me how much you know about raping a man. I can tell you right now that if you don't do one or the other, I won't be responsible for what happens. I've discovered that looking at you does something strange to my normal restraint, which was the reason I started this in the first place. In a situation like this, with only the two of us and a lot of empty time ahead of us, it's best if we both where we stand."

"I don't think I understand you at all," I said with a good deal of confusion and total honesty. "How could you not know where we stand after all the time we spent together? We weren't playing cards or swapping jokes during that time, Val. Why would things be any different now?"

"We were in the middle of the base with a lot of other people around us then," he answered gently as he smoothed my hair with one big hand. "It so happens I was in this general situation once before, sharing a bed with a woman among other people, then suddenly being alone with her in a place where no one could interrupt us and neither of us could walk away. The first time I put my hand on her shoulder she had hysterics."

My first reaction was to tell him he was making that up, but one look at the flinching vexation in his eyes told me he wasn't. You hear a lot about women's traumatic experiences; it looked like some men got raked over the coals just as badly.

"She must have been a neurotic," I decided aloud, pretending I hadn't noticed the way he'd sighed. "I've never heard of anything that mindless."

"It wasn't mindless, and she wasn't neurotic," he denied, a faint smile curving his lips as he looked down at me. "She was a seasoned fighter from one of the field teams, and hadn't gotten particularly upset even the times she'd been wounded. When I finally got her calmed down, she was terribly embarrassed and insisted on explaining why she'd done as she had. It seems that I had the same appeal for her that her job did, lots of excitement, lots of adventure, lots of danger. Being in the base had been like being part of her team, the mere fact of their proximity enough to keep the danger from becoming overwhelming. Once we were alone, though - All she could think about was how 'big' and 'dangerous' I was, how I might do anything I cared to to her, and the really horrifying possibility that she might come to like that anything. She'd seen fully trained female slaves on Tildor, you see, and had been just as fascinated as she'd been repelled. Those slaves served their men's every want and whim, and loved doing it. She was afraid she would love doing it, and that I would make her love it. She found it totally impossible to stop trembling."

"Neurotic," I repeated firmly to those very black eyes watching me. "So that was the reason behind all those strange suggestions of yours; you wanted to get the possibilities said and considered before I thought of them on my own. Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, friend, but it's just as I mentioned earlier: as far as slavery goes, I've tried it more than once and still don't like it. Do you think you might stop watching for the screaming and fainting now?"

"I stopped watching for that about ten minutes ago," he said with a stronger grin, letting his eyes move briefly over me. "You may not be terribly impressed with my size and abilities, Diana, but you're the only woman I ever met who wasn't. Do you understand now why I'd like to hear from you about where we stand?"

"Yes, I can understand it now," I agreed judiciously. "I'll be glad to give you a statement concerning my views." I took a final sip of my coffee before returning it to its slot, then lifted both legs and swung them across Val's lap. "As I see it," I told him, "I've been promised that nothing would be done to me that would cause me to want to defend myself. I was told that by someone who tends to keep his word, you see, which turns out to be a very good thing. Even with the master matter converter, disposing of bodies in a ship like this to be hard work, and I'm not in the mood for hard work."

"What are you in the mood for?" he asked, and again I was struck by the difference between the softness of his words and the look in his eyes. His big hand had raised to my hip, and now stroked slowly down my thigh and leg.

"Truthfully, the thing I could use most right now is a few hours of sleep," I answered, tucking my hands behind my head. "How's that for an idea?"

"Lousy," he said with that faint grin back again, both of his hands going to my waist to pull me more completely into his lap. "I have a much better idea."

His hands moved over me as his lips lowered to mine, and it didn't take very long before I had a better idea, too.