Authors: Sharon Green
Tags: #Fantasy, #Science Fiction
“Ringer, I want out of here,” I insisted, wrapping my hand around the bed’s safety rail. “Two weeks in a hospital bed are enough to drive someone crazy!”
“You have nothing to worry about,” Ringer came back with a faint grin from the chair he sat in. “Only sane people are in danger of going crazy.”
“That’s not funny,” I told him, rising up onto my knees. “If you can’t talk Val into signing me out then do it yourself, but just get it done! I’ve had enough of this place.”
Ringer’s sharp, black-eyed stare moved to me fast, showing how pleased he was with my tone, but he didn’t answer immediately. Instead he took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it, exhaled smoke in my direction, then got out of the chair.
“Valdon is not going to be signing you out,” he said at last, standing himself right next to the bed. “You’ve been off the pain killers for less than a week, and if you’ve forgotten how badly hurt you were, he and I haven’t. You don’t move out of that bed until a doctor gives his permission, and I don’t care how bored you are.”
The growl in his voice was flat and final, leaving no room for argument, but I’d known Ringer a long time. It’s not always possible to argue with him, but sometimes he’s vulnerable to reason.
“Do you really think I’ve forgotten how bad it was?” I asked, wrapping my arms around myself as my mind touched fleetingly on the memory of the beating I’d gone through. Cause and effect, like the chicken and the egg question, usually comes down to a matter of which brings what about.
Do I always get the problem assignments because I’m a Special Agent, or do my assignments grow complications because a Special Agent is involved? Either way, my last assignment had been purely routine until a painful complication arose, and even years of experience in ducking at the right time hadn’t helped. I’d been in a bad way when I was brought to the hospital section of Xanadu Orbital Station, but even if I would not be forgetting it for a while, I had to separate Ringer from the memory.
“I’m not as irresponsible as you like to picture me,” I went on, meeting Ringer’s eyes in a quiet, reasonable way. “Having been a Federation agent for twelve years has given me some idea about what I can and can’t do. Don’t you think I’d stay here if I really needed to?”
Ringer took a drag on his cigarette and shifted his short, pudgy body very slightly, a thoughtful look on his face. Ringer, Chief of Agents for our Federation, looked like he might be a salesman of something unimportant. He was short, stout, conservatively dressed in a dark green four-piece business suit, usually unsmiling and usually annoyed about something.
Possibly, Ringer’s brown hair was a trifle too long for your everyday salesman, his black eyes a trifle too hard, his movements too well balanced and coordinated. Even so, few people would have taken him for a Special Agent who had lived to be promoted to Chief of Agents.
Ringer’s pudgy look was almost all camouflage, hiding bands of muscle that hadn’t been given a chance to go soft, and he hadn’t forgotten any of the skills he’d acquired as an agent. I’d worked for Ringer for nine years, ever since he’d been given the job, and I’d never seen him back down from a threat or apologize when giving out assignments.
Ringer’s eyes moved over me slowly as he considered my words, and it took an effort to remember what he now saw. My normal self-image is of a thirty-year-old woman, brown hair and eyes, tall, better than average figure, a Special Agent for nine of the twelve years I’d been an agent. But that wasn’t what Ringer saw, not after another little mishap I’d had which involved getting sent on a one-way trip to nowhere. The disabled ship I’d been trapped on had been stopped by members of a humanoid race my own people had no idea existed. I’d ended up helping them with a problem they’d had, in order to say a proper thank-you for the rescue.
And since the help had included needing my physical appearance changed, what Ringer now saw was a fifteen-year-old girl who had long, bright red hair, blue eyes, a gorgeous face, and the same good figure. I knelt on the bed I’d been in for so long, the hem of the blue hospital gown not quite touching my knees, my hands on the bed’s side rail, undoubtedly oozing innocence, youth, and vulnerability.
I’d once thought that looking teenage, innocent, and very beautiful would be an asset in my job, something that would produce the unbeatable combination of supposed inability hiding deep experience, but things weren’t working out as well as I’d planned. Two weeks of chewing at the problem had brought me to the conclusion that I’d be better off going back to the way I’d originally been. The first step on that road, though, was getting out of the hospital section of Xanadu Orbital Station.
Under normal circumstances I’d be able to sign myself out, but looking as I did – not to mention that I registered just as young on a bio-detector – I needed an “adult” to do the signing. Needless to say, that fact alone was enough to annoy the hell out of me.
“You know,” Ringer mused, the thoughtful look having left his face, “I nearly forgot who I was talking to. Do you really think you can con me, Diana?”
“Con you?” I echoed, still sticking with reasonable. “What would I get out of conning you?”
“What do you ever get out of it?” he countered, exhaling another lungful of smoke.
“The last time you signed yourself out of a hospital before you were officially released, your wound was bleeding again the very next day. I can’t blame you for the way you feel about hospitals, but this time you don’t have the excuse of an assignment waiting that can’t afford to wait. You’ll stay in that bed until you’re told you can leave, and that’s an order.”
I had the very strong urge to tell him what he could do with his orders, but that wouldn’t have gotten me very far. He continued to watch me just as closely as he’d been doing all along, waiting for an explosion, so I decided not to disappoint him.
“Damn it, I’m all healed!” I shouted, grabbing the bed rail and shaking it. “The surroskin is completely bound to my back, and these bandages on my wrists are the next thing to decoration! Do I have to take on everyone in this place hand to hand before you’ll believe me?”
“Believe you?” He barked out a laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding. You stretch the truth whenever you feel like it, but I’m all through with listening to you. For once you won’t be having everything your own way, and that’s an experience you’ve been needing for years. Scream all you like, but no one will be signing you out.”
He poked a finger at me to emphasize his point, turned away, walked to the door, and left without another word. I was so annoyed I could have shaken that damned bed apart, but not because Ringer’s attitude was unexpected. It would have been handy having him sign me out of there, but I hadn’t thought he would. He had his own reasons for wanting me locked up in a hospital room, and the state of my health was only one small part of it.
I glanced over at the door before stretching out flat on my back on the bed, then held up my bandaged wrists in front of my eyes. Although the bandages were more than the decorations I’d told Ringer they were, my wrists were healed well enough to be no more than an annoyance. If Ringer had had an assignment for me he wouldn’t have hesitated long enough even to remember my wrists, let alone pester me about them. But assignments weren’t supposed to be coming my way for a while. Ringer and the Federation Council had something else in mind for me, plans I’d had the time to do a lot of thinking about over the past two weeks.
Due to the small mishap I mentioned, I ended up discovering an entire Confederacy of humanoids previously unknown to anyone in my Federation. They had known about us, though, and I’d helped out with a problem they’d had, acquiring, in the process, the new face I’d thought would do me so much good. They’d then sent me back home with an introduction from their central government to mine, suggesting that our two civilizations begin friendly negotiations.
I’d brought a man of their civilization back with me, but not because Val was their choice of a representative. Valdon – plus a long list of other names – had been my own choice as a candidate for swapping, as he possessed what was called original Absari blood. That means his gene makeup lets him change his features and voice and build to match anyone he’s ever seen, a talent worth having in my line of work. I would have been able to make good use of Val while he partnered with me, but his pig-headed stubbornness had wrecked things right from the very start.
Val didn’t care much for taking orders from me, and when I’d gotten myself into an unpleasant situation he’d ignored everything I’d told him and had come charging to my rescue. The gesture may have saved me some pain, but he came that close to getting the two of us killed and when the Council heard about it they’d needed emergency first-aid.
Since the Council had already started moving on establishing friendly relations with Val’s people, they hadn’t been happy about what had nearly happened. They’d pictured themselves having to announce Val’s death at the first conference, had nearly had apoplexy over the vision, then had turned around and blamed me for what Val had done.
Everyone was insisting that I hadn’t given Val enough information to work with, thereby putting him in danger of nearly losing his life, but I knew Council methods and practices better than that. If any of the Council members had really been after my head they would have sent investigators around to compile data for a closed hearing, then would have hit me with it all at once. The fact that no investigators or hearings were involved meant the Council knew damned well they couldn’t make the charges stick, but unimportant facts like that didn’t seem to be interrupting their sleep much. They’d gone blithely along with everything Ringer had suggested about keeping me tied down, and had probably grinned while doing it.
A good ten minutes had gone by since Ringer had exited stage right, so I sat up in the bed, pressed the switch that lowered the safety rail, then climbed out onto the floor. Standing up didn’t take much effort anymore, but my body still echoed faintly to the memories of the past two weeks. I could have used somewhere quiet and unofficial for another week or so, but cutting myself loose from ties and tails had a higher priority.
Ringer, with the Council’s blessing, was sending me back to the training facilities on Tanderon as a cadet, a punishment none of them would have thought of if it hadn’t been for my new, young look. I’d also be traveling as a minor for as long as they got a kick out of it, supposedly waiting patiently to get back into their good graces, and that was one of the things that bothered me most. If they’d really thought I was guilty of what they were charging me with, they would have been within their rights to do anything they pleased, even if I was, in truth, innocent.
What put a bad taste in my mouth was the fact that they knew I was innocent, but were jumping on me anyway. I’d worked for the Council a long time, and although I’d never asked for or expected their thanks, I should have been entitled to more than a fast shuffle.
I crouched down beside the bed in an effort to get some of the stiffness out of my leg muscles, at the same time thinking about the second point that bothered me in that mess. Val, my brand-new partner, the one I’d had such high hopes for, was more than not working out in a simple way. It was bad enough that he refused to take my orders and spent most of his time trying to protect me. What was infinitely worse was the conviction I had that he was after something, a something that amounted to more than the casual bed-sharing we’d been engaged in for the past couple of months.
At first, I’d been sure that he understood there couldn’t be more with a Special Agent, not with the string of question marks my life expectancy was composed of.
The problem was, that stubborn streak in him tended to ignore what it didn’t want to see. Somehow, during the two months traveling time we’d spent alone together coming back to Federation space, he’d gotten to me. I was … used to being held in his arms, his lips warm and alive on mine, his body giving me more than I’d ever before had from a man…
To me, of course, it was nothing beyond that, nothing but pleasant, casual sex, but Val seemed to be trying to read something more into it. I had to show him he was wrong as fast as I could, and one way of doing that was separating myself from his company. By the time I got back again from the Confederacy outpost where I would be changed back to normal, both he and the Council should have forgotten all about the axes they’d been grinding.
I stood straight again and pulled off the hospital gown, tossed it onto the bed, then lifted the mattress and retrieved the nurse’s uniform I’d liberated during the last
“night” shift. If Ringer had signed me out I wouldn’t have needed the uniform, but it never hurts to be prepared.
The uniform was slightly too big on me, but as far as potential witnesses are concerned, that’s better than having it be too small. After the uniform was closed and belted, I got my makeup kit, carried it over to the table and chairs arrangement across from the bed, then got down to the important part of the disguise.