Randy Sane looked through the Takanori Port Authority files he had spent the day hacking into. "Bingo," he whispered to himself. One Catclaw had docked in Jalvall approximately thirteen hours before, using Union military clearance. "You're on the trail, Amos, but how close are you?"
There came a knock at the door.
"Open," the doctor ordered. The doors swung open, revealing Natasha Kira in an evening gown. Her fiery-red hair was put stylishly and her stunning face had been made up to perfection.
Dr. Sane smiled. "Commander, you look lovely."
Kira smiled back. "Thank you," she said modestly. "You don't think it's too much? I told Tor there was no need to dress up and-"
"You'll be hearing no complaints from Tor, that's for sure."
"Right. Well, it doesn't really matter," she said, her voice slightly higher and faster than usual. "I'm not dressed like this for him anyway. He won't think I did this for him, will he?"
Randy blinked. "Well, *I* can tell what your intentions are."
Natasha licked her lips and nodded, distractedly. "Have you seen the High Commander?"
"Fletcher? He stepped out to buy some food rations for the trip. In case, quote, 'Luciem's cooking doesn't get any better.' Unquote. I have no idea what he's talking about, that LCM makes a mean butter burger."
"Okay, if he asks, tell him I went to see the show." She turned to leave.
"Commander?" Randy called. She looked back at him. "You'll keep an eye out for Rernum, right?" His voice was more even and mellow. "You'll be sure he's guarded and safe, correct?"
Natasha nodded. "I'm packing my gun, Doctor. Your friend will be fine."
"Oh, and bring me some Supernova Spirit in a thermos. I need a little pick-me up."
"Sure, Doc, it's your funeral." She grinned and left, closing the door behind her.
Sane turned back to the screen at the desk, still uneasy. He'd had a hard enough time getting the hotel servers to infiltrate a government database, he'd never get it to track a single man. His own trail had gone cold. "Where are you, Amos?" he asked, miles away.
"Is it all translated?" High Commander Talna asked, wiping doughnut crumbs off his goatee.
"All that was received, sir," the linguist said, fingering the handle of his teacup. "As you know, it starts in the middle, suddenly goes toward the beginning, plays backwards, skips forwards, and somehow plays *sideways.* It's indecipherable when you first see it, horribly mangled, that's why it took so many hours."
"But you're done now?" Talna's voice hardened. He was annoyed at his crew's excuses.
"Yes, here's the transcript, rearranged in what we think is the proper order." The linguist slid a piece of paper across the diner table, as respectfully as he could. He didn't want to instigate the wrath of Talna.
Amos read it over carefully, his green eyes attentive and studious. They narrowed in thought. The linguist ordered another tea from the faceless waitress.
Several minutes later, the tea was nowhere in sight and the linguist was annoyed. The green eyes of his captain widened, "Elves alive!" he breathed, using an expression dropped several decades earlier across the galaxies. "The Mythos file!"
"What about it, sir?" the linguist asked.
"Kailey has a copy of the Mythos file! An electronic copy!" Suddenly, the Catclaw's captain raised his head and looked around the diner, suspiciously studying the faces of the customers. "Let's go, we've been here too long. Get your communicator ready, we're going to call the crew."
"But my tea-"
Talna didn't care an ounce for the diner's tea and made it clear by leaving no tip. He left, walking briskly, forcing his linguist to follow, grouchily. His mind focused on the information he had in his hand. Another piece of Elven literature existed in the Intergalactic Union and Rernum Kailey held the access code. High Commander Talna was determined to have it in his own personal files before the second hour of the next day.
"You sure this isn't too flashy?" Tor asked, looking at himself in the mirror.
"For the last time, no!" Seth crossed his arms and shook his head. "You're a marvel. The ultimate playboy."
"Very chique," Luciem added.
"I don't want to be a playboy. She said I didn't have to dress up."
"You're not dressed up," Seth pointed out. "You're stylized."
"Did I need this much hair gel?"
"Yes," Luciem said flatly.
"Does the suit have to be this…purple?"
"*Yes,*" Seth said, exasperated. "Now will you get out of here? You're gonna be late!" He grabbed his friend's shoulders and pushed him toward the hatchway.
"Knock 'em dead, Tiger," Luciem said, and Tor pictured him winking.
The doors slid open and the ramp slid to the ground. James walked down and waved at Seth who gave him a thumbs-up. "Don't worry about us, we'll be fine. We still have seven more Sound of Music songs to sing along with. Hell, we don't expect you until tomorrow morning anyway!" He laughed good-naturedly and the doors shut.
Tor sighed. He felt suddenly alone as he made his way to the street, where he called a taxi.
She was there when he was dropped off, as punctual as a military officer was trained to be. Tor's jaw almost dropped when he saw her in her blue dress, striking and beautiful. He had never seen her out of uniform, not even on previous ground missions. After the shock, he felt relief. It was okay that he dressed up. Then he felt shame. She was "stylized" and he looked like something that had evolved lungs for the sole purpose of breathing in a poisonous atmosphere and becoming extinct.
She smiled when she saw him and greeted him warmly. "Huh-hi," he replied.
"I like what you've done with your hair," she said, eyeing the hardened brown locks. "Though I like your usual style more."
"Ruh-really? What about the suit?"
She chuckled, almost giggled. "Seth put you in that, didn't he?"
"Yeah," Tor sighed.
"Well, now we've proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has no fashion sense. Some good came of it."
"Well, yuh-you look stunning." Tor tried his best to control his tongue.
"Ah, it's nothing. It was collecting mothballs anyway, in that locker on the ship."
Tor grinned. "There are no moths in space."
Natasha laughed and outstretched her arm. Tor's brain panicked momentarily, unsure of what to do. Seconds later, it came up with an idea and he hooked his own arm through hers. She seemed to find this satisfactory and his brain congratulated itself on a job well done.
Arm in arm, looking like the oddest movie couple this side of the galaxy, they walked to the back of the long line. Natasha blinked and stood on her tip-toes trying to see the entrance of the tent. "Wow, lots of people came. Do you think lines usually take this long?"
Before Tor could shrug, a shrill voice came from the snake-haired man in front of them. "Not this long, nope, not ever. Tonight they have some weapons detector thing. They're making sure the audience isn't packing heat. Ridiculous! Stupidity, I say!"
Natasha's eyes widened. She gripped Tor's shoulder and whispered, "Tor, I have my gun!"
James blinked. "Well, that's okay, you're an officer. You're carrying your license, aren't you?"
"Yeah." She said, breathing a sigh of relief. "I'm so glad you can keep on a straight head when others panic."
Tor felt glad they hadn't gone out during the fifth phase of the Takanori moon. In light that strong, she would have seen the blush spreading over his face. That and the feces on his shoe. He didn't care to know what species, he was just glad it didn't leave any odor in particular.
The pair finally walked up to the weapons detector. Tor stepped in first without incident. Natasha followed. Lights flashed brightly and sporadically, as the machine immediately screamed, "THIS PERSON HAS A GUN! THIS PERSON HAS A GUN! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!"
Most of the customers did just that, those who had legs. Those who didn't have legs didn't do much of anything but wait in line, seeing as how the machine hadn't said anything that applied to them.
The gatekeeper was the same Aleen who had been guarding the entrance the day before, and he didn't look any friendlier. He outstretched a blue hand. Natasha grimaced and reached under her dress for the gun strapped to her leg. As she removed it from hiding, she tried to explain. "It's okay, I'm military. A Commander." She pointed to the Union flag on her gun, signifying that it was registered to an officer. Grunting in exasperation, she took out her military license. "Here, look."
The Aleen just shook his head.
"I have a right to carry this gun anywhere I please!" Natasha yelled.
The Aleen said two words. "No gun."
Tor stepped forward, wishing he knew the guard's language. "We're friends of *Dr. Sane,*" he said slowly. "He knows Mr. Kailey. I realize you've increased security and all, but we're here to *protect* him. Understand?"
Apparently he didn't.
"We even have special seats." Tor looked at Natasha.
"Yeah, see?" The commander reached in her purse again and took out the tickets. The guard took them and looked them over. He looked back at the two, nodded, and handed the tickets back.. "Guest seats. Pass."
Natasha smiled and outstretched her hand.
Kira stamped her foot. "Well, then how are we going to protect him?!"
Someone screamed from the crowd. "If you don't get going, *you're* going to need protecting from me!"
Murmurs of agreement rose from the angry customers. Most had returned with lead vests.
"End of show," the burly guard said. And he stuck the gun in his pocket.
Natasha sighed. Tor placed a hand on her shoulder. "Let's go, Commander. It looks like they have it under control, anyway."
Natasha stepped toward the entrance, an unpleasant look on her face. "I just feel so naked without my gun."
Again, Tor didn't let his mind wander with that statement.
They entered the tent, going through the tunnel, which was now lined with bright, colored lights. The roar of the audience could be heard loudly, almost as if they were in the stands. At the entrance to the ring was a box droid, which was nothing more than a robotic cube made for material transactions. "Riclup, faran," it asked in Dero.
Tor blinked. "Sorry, what was that?"
"Yeah, now what do you want?" Natasha snapped. She was obviously still upset over the loss of her gun.
"Tickets, please." Lights alongside a slot on the droid blinked rapidly. Kira shoved the tickets in, hoping to choke the droid to malfunction, but received the tickets without complaint. A tray slid out of the cube, bearing two earpieces.
"What are those?" Commander Kira asked.
"Translators," Tor and the box droid said simultaneously. Tor picked one up and placed it in his ear. The crowd's screams suddenly ceased to be indecipherable, foreign words and became indecipherable English. Natasha followed suit, but understanding the crowd didn't make her feel any better.
"Go around to the opposite side of the tent and you'll find your seats," the droid informed. "They are the last available ones in the front row."
"Thanks," Tor said.
"You're welcome. Enjoy the show."
"Go to hell." Natasha pushed forward and walked toward the seats. Tor shrugged at the droid, but remembered that the model didn't have visual sensors and followed his companion. As he took his seat beside her, he could feel fear grip his heart and beat it fiercely. The result of this was shortness of breath, sweaty palms, and a splitting headache. Any doctor would have concluded that he was going into cardiac arrest.
*Not a heart attack," Tor thought. *First date nerves.* He looked over at the glaring beauty at his side. *If it is a date.*
Natasha glanced at James's face and sighed, her expression softening. "I'm sorry, Tor. I know I'm acting like a bitch, but that scene at the entrance was so humiliating." She put a hand on his knee. "I'll try to mellow. Forgive me?"
Tor cleared his throat. "Nuh-no need. Puh-perfectly understandable."
Kira tilted her head to side. "Is anything wrong, Tor?"
The engineer shook his head.
"Oh, it's just…" She paused and frowned, as if searching for the right words.
"The stutter. It comes and goes. Used to be worse."
She smiled softly. "You know, I think in the past week we've spoken more to each other than we had over the course of this whole trip."
She looked as if she were going to say more, but music suddenly flooded the ring as spotlights ran from one end to another, blinding several creatures with sensitive eyes. An announcer's voice boomed in English, courtesy of the translators in their ears. "And now, ladies, and gentlemen, get ready to experience the most amazing extravaganza in your life. Put your hands, tentacles, or flippers together for…RERNUM KAILEY AND HIS CIRCUS OF MYSTIQUE!"
Hoards of circus performers flooded the stage, all different shapes, sizes, and races. The orchestra (which was actually just a conductor droid at an audio synthesizer) played beautiful notes as the entertainers danced individual dances and sang individual songs. Nothing was in sync, but it was astounding and pleasing to the eye nonetheless. Streams of light flooded the tent, like shooting stars, and holographic creatures suddenly appeared floating gracefully in the air.
Tor gasped as he saw a creature extremely similar to the Starbird in Dr. Sane's files, flying past his face, transparent and ghostly. Natasha said nothing, believing Tor's gasp to be one of sheer amazement at the spectacle before them. The singing rose to a thunderous chorus of mismatched lyrics and notes as the tent cover suddenly blew open. A platform floated downward, supporting the green-skinned circus master, Rernum Kailey.
"How is my wonderful audience feeling this marvelous night?" he asked, his voice amplified by a headset and translated into perfect English by the earpieces. "Are we mystifying enough for your hungry eyes?"
The audience screamed a gleeful "Yes!" and the ViperX crewmembers found themselves joining in. Natasha's bad mood had disappeared completely.
Rernum Kailey grinned. "Excellent, my dear friends, excellent! Let me assure you, you have witnessed nothing yet!"
There was a loud BOOM, and a collective gasp from the audience as they drew back from the sparks showering across the ring. The circus people were gone, as if they had suddenly turned invisible or teleported away. The announcer's voice filled the air again, "And now the comedic antics of Limbo, the One-Legged Clown!"
Fortunately for him, Limbo was born with one large leg protruding from his waist and it was perfectly normal for his species. Fortunately for the audience, he was quite funny and only one person threw a bottle at him. Limbo kissed him on the lips. The clown was followed by a toxic acid drinker, a fifteen-armed juggler, the amazing shape shifting woman, the amazing shrinking man, and Puglo the Ugly, who really had no special talent, other than being nasty to look at.
In between each act, Rernum Kailey would come in, say many words, and disappear mysteriously. Each time he did, James and Kira would be on edge, fearing the vanishing was not scheduled each time. After Puglo's act, the circus master appeared to blow up like a balloon and pop, causing the two to stand in horror.
"Ha-hah! Fooled you!" Rernum Kailey emerged once more, bowing and waving gracefully.
Tor sighed and collapsed in his seat with relief, followed by Natasha. Commander Kira gritted her teeth. "He's going to kill me."
"Not if I keel over first," James said softly. He didn't mention that the beauty next to him had as much chance of scaring him to death as the showy circus master.
"Now, our final act tonight," the announcer said. "The wonderful acrobatics of the Visila family!"
Soft, soothing music filled the tent as the after-image trapeze artists from before appeared, performing various flips, contortions, and splits. At least five of each Visila could be seen at once, frozen in time for a split second. The audience was hushed at the marvel before them.
Tor found the performance beautiful and relaxing and he used his eyes to enlarge the view and get a close-up of the amazing images. Suddenly, he felt something soft land on his shoulder and turned to see a close-up of Natasha Kira's nose. Stifling a yelp, he reduced the sight to normal and saw his companion's soft locks of hair spilled over his arm as she rested her head on his shoulder, viewing the act through half-lidded eyes. She was obviously a little drowsy from the drinks.
Tor gulped and his heart rate quickened. He'd never had a beautiful woman on his shoulder before, and he wasn't quite sure what to do. Tentatively, he placed his arm around her, adjusting her into a more comfortable position. Natasha sighed, looked up at him, and smiled.
He smiled back, cautiously. If this was a dream, he wasn't even going to pinch himself, because it was the best moment of his life thus far, and he'd have been crazy to interrupt it in any way. He wouldn't have traded this for a real pair of eyes. Maybe not even for a real family.
The circus master walked on, bowing gracefully and waving with enthusiasm. His face grew solemn as the applause died down and he said softly, "Now, ladies and gentlemen, I must bid goodbye to you. This is always such a sad event and it breaks my heart to see you leave. But I am consoled by a sense of satisfaction. My partners and I have worked long and hard to-"
Gunshots interrupted Kailey's speech. The entertainer dove out of the way as bullets smashed into his circular stage. A long, sinister blade ripped through the fabric of the top of the tent, already full of bullet holes. Kira and James stood up, horrified. Circus people rushed to aid their boss, who sat on the ground, dazed.
But before they could reach him, a figure draped in black fell through the top of the tent directly on top of Rernum Kailey. Tor caught the man jabbing a needle into Kailey's shoulder with his bionic eyes. Rernum's glazed over.
Gripping him around the neck, the assaulter stood up and held the circus master, brandishing his knife. Behind a mask that revealed nothing but dangerous eyes, the intruder spoke.
"If the city wants its most popular star, I suggest you go to Dr. Benjamin Sane for help. It's his fault we came after your beloved ringmaster. If Sane does not give himself up before sundown tomorrow, the Circus of Mystique will be no more." And then, the assailant's black boots rose up, propelled by small rockets emerging from the heels. Rernum Kailey was out of sight.
The audience screamed and wept. The circus folk stood petrified, unsure of what happened or what to do. Natasha cursed the guard for taking her gun. "I could've shot him before he had the chance to injure Rernum!"
Tor bit his lip, much like Fletcher did when stressed. Images of the Raleva Convention Center bombing flashed in his mind. "Would've, could've, should've," he muttered.
"What'd you say?" Kira asked.
"Nothing. Stay here." And suddenly, Tor started running toward the nearest exit.
"Tor!" Natasha screamed at him. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Taking action!" he called, pushing past a sobbing woman.
"James, you come back here! That's an order!"
But the engineer was gone.
His eyes didn't see any more molecular residue in the sky that propulsion flames would leave behind after about two feet. He'd gone by foot from that point. The mechanical eyeballs confirmed this, highlighting footsteps and the drag marks that Kailey's own feet had left behind.
The city was silent as Tor trailed the kidnapper. Jalvall wasn't like most capitals at night. Non-humans had the sense to sleep at a reasonable hour. That was why nocturnal crime and crime in general was so low on Takanor. Non-humans were just reasonable compared with the dominating race.
Who in that circus tent really expected an attack on the great Rernum Kailey? Even he had been lulled into a sense of security after watching the magnificent acts. On Takanor, acts like those were unthinkable, unspeakable. Which was why no one but he had stayed frozen in horror.
Tor had narrowed the suspect to one species: human.
The footsteps veered toward a public parking place. Making sure to stay out of the way of streetlights and the light of Takanor's two moons, he neared a black van. Then, he heard distinct voices. Diving behind a truck, he focused on hearing them.
As a child, he'd been temporarily blind, waiting for technology to make a significant leap and give him his sight back. As with most people who had the misfortune of losing a sense, the others were sharpened. James had never lost his attentive powers of sensual observation.
"Where'll we stick him, High Commander?" asked a particularly annoying voice.
"In the trunk, idiot." It was the gripping voice of the kidnapper. "Quick now, before we get one witness too many."
"Why didn't we wait until he was alone?" asked another of the man's cronies.
"Because then Sane wouldn't show himself."
"But Kailey has the information as well."
"I want Sane." The High Commander's voice was icy.
Tor's heart rate quickened and his breath became shallow. The doctor had been right. This was Amos Talna and part of his gigantic Catclaw crew.
A loud thump followed Talna's chilling wish and then came the sound of metal falling upon metal, followed by the clicking of the auto-lock.
"Let's go," Talna ordered.
Doors opening, doors closing, and the unmistakable hum of automobile engines. Tor took a chance and peered at the van, which was hovering above the marked grass. Thinking fast, he glanced at the identification plate on the bumper and used his eyes to decode the data on its surface.
Normally such technology was only available to law enforcement units and was capable of reading everything from registration to year purchased from an ID plate. Tor's eyes had the scanning capabilities of a squad car and stored the information in a selected part of his brain. Shoving electronic data into his organic computer gave him a splitting headache, but it was worth it.
Because now Talna could be trailed.