"Xora 3: Shell Game"

by Brandy Dewinter


(c 2003, All rights reserved)



Chapter 1 - "Wishful Thinking"


Be careful what you wish for - you just might get it. I should have paid more attention to that old saying. After I had been sent out on two missions without proper training - and complaining about that a lot - my boss had finally arranged for me to, um, 'experience' full-scale Federation Field Agent training. Lucky me.

"This isn't so bad. We've been through worse," the voice inside my head said. That was the result of another wish that had come true. With very unexpected . . . consequences.

"Consequences, am I? Well, you, too, and the horse you rode in on!" the voice - my symbiont Titania - snapped at me.

"You wish!" Then I had to giggle. "You have got to learn a few more idioms. That one is getting stale."

I suppose laughing at yourself is as good a way as any to improve your attitude, and laughing at Titania was indeed laughing at myself, for we were joined as tightly as any two beings can be. Not that I would have it any other way.

"Thank you," Titania said. "Apology accepted."

"Oh, Ti, you know I'm just frustrated," I pouted.

"I can have you out of this in no time," she offered. The 'this' was the problem that was frustrating me.

"Not without the technician finding out about you," I countered "He's been staring at me, um, us ever since I walked in the door. I don't think he's even blinked."

Escape Training

He's been staring at us ever since we walked in the door.
 

"Walked?" snickered Titania. "Is that what you call what you did? Hula dancing has less of a hip roll."

"That's because of the ludicrous heels you make me wear," I claimed. I don't think she was convinced. Unfortunately, neither was I. However, further discussion was interrupted by an even better way to improve one's attitude.

The most beautiful blonde in the galaxy walked into the room, and all the air vanished like a force field had blown into hard vacuum. At least, that's the way it seemed. Then she smiled at me. Now that has a wonderful effect on one's spirits. Mine at least.

Even better, it distracted the hovering tech's attention as fully as it did mine. Best of all, it did not distract Titania.

The blonde snickered and said, "Starshine, Xora, you really are into this bondage thing, aren't you?"

With her words, the binders that had been frustrating me fell from my wrists, courtesy of Titania finally being able to pick the locks without the tech noticing her tendrils. I wondered if he would even notice that he hadn't breathed since Tryx - the aforementioned galaxy's most beautiful blonde and the, ah, second most successful symbiont pairing in the Federation - had entered the room. Before or after he passed out, that is.

"Don't blame this on me," I demanded. "Jonesy scheduled me for the escape course. I think he gets off on the idea of me being tied up."

"Um, hmm," Tryx smirked, batting her huge blue eyes. "And of course, Xora dear, you expect me to believe that."

"It's true, damnit!" I insisted, blushing when I realized she was just teasing.

Then I laughed and said, "Besides, it probably is true. The horny old goat."

"You're right," Tryx agreed. "Speaking of which, that horny goat wants to see us right away."

"You mean I'm not going to be able to complete my escape artist training?" I whined. "Oh, that is such a disappointment!"

"I'm sure it is," Tryx said. "But duty calls and all that."

Picking the cuffs off the floor, I held them out to the still-gaping tech. His eyes were rolling in independent circles as he tried to take in both Tryx and myself at the same time, unable to decide where to look among all the opportunities. He hadn't said anything since Tryx came into the room - like I said, I wasn't even sure he had breathed. Come to think of it, I didn't remember him saying anything since I had showed up, either. A few stammers, maybe, but nothing with much semantic content.

After a second when he still hadn't moved despite my offer of the wrist bands, I winked at Tryx and stepped close to him. "You might want to breathe now and then," I whispered huskily in his ear. "And blink. It's not good for your eyes to dry out."

I kissed him on the cheek and stepped back, wondering how long it would be before he noticed the binders were now on his wrists. Tryx's crystalline giggle triggered my own richer laugh tones - thank you, Titania - and we slipped through the whisking door together.

As we strolled along the corridors - in all honesty, it would be better to say we strutted - Tryx and I resumed our unofficial but perpetual competition. Her blonde mane flowed like captive sunlight around her shoulders, and even I had to admit she had a better figure, if you like that sort of . . . extreme. Personally, I thought she was over the top.

"Do I detect a hint of jealousy?" teased my symbiont.

"Of her? Don't make me laugh." Just because she had the tiniest waist in human history, offset by the biggest . . . I was not a bit jealous.

Whispering, I said to my over-curved rival, "You know, if it weren't for Bee holding you together, you'd break in half. What are you down to, 35 centimeters?"

"Thirty-two and a half, thank you very much," the breathtaking blonde replied. Then she countered, "You've been playing with your hair again, haven't you?"

"Not much," I claimed, fluffing my thick, sable mane. "Just a bit sleeker, and shinier. Tumbling curls are okay on a mission where things are . . . undisciplined, but in the base, I think smooth is more appropriate."

Then I blushed and said, "Oh, I didn't mean . . . "

Tryx interrupted me with a laugh, even if it did seem a bit forced. Running her fingers through her own - very curly - locks, she said, "Oh, well done, Xora dear. That was wickedly catty."

If she'd have been really angry, I'd have really apologized, but the humor lurking in her eyes took the sting out of her words. So of course I counterattacked instead of backing down.

"We brunettes have to do something to keep up with you blondes."

"Yeah, right, like anyone notices your hair color after you wiggle what's at the top of all those legs," she snorted. "Talk about 'throwing someone a curve.'"

"I'll have you know, I never throw myself at anyone. I don't have to."

"That's not what that inspector on Teton said," she claimed. Lying, of course.

"Like you're any better," I snapped. "Any time you breathe, you're throwing around more mass than most small moons. Twice as much, to be exact."

"Jealous?" she asked smugly, unknowingly repeating an accusation. "At least I chose to be this way. My Bee would never make any changes without my consent."

"Oh, that's too bad. It can be . . . interesting. Besides, Ti has my consent," I claimed. "Eventually," I thought to my hidden symbiont.

"I'll remember that," Ti claimed.

"Uh, oh," I grimaced, but I kept it internal.

Any further, ahem, 'friendly' chit chat was interrupted by our arrival at Jonesy's office. I let Tryx duel with the robosec and slid into Jonesy's inner office just ahead of my blonde colleague.

The admiral's eyebrows never were going to reach his hairline - the shine from the overhead lights showed way too much forehead for that - but the bushy caterpillars above his eyes still made their impossible attempt every time I saw him.

Just to throw him off pace (okay, and Tryx, too) I stopped at the doorway and hit a rigid brace, saluting crisply. I guess Titania and I were becoming fairly well adapted at that, because when I snapped my heels, together - the real heels, the actual back part of my feet - she arranged for a sharp little click that for sure hadn't come from the spindly needles I walked on.

"Lieutenant Commander Xora, reporting as ordered, Sir!" I barked out sharply.

Admiral Jones didn't know quite what to say. He had made it clear he wasn't big on that sort of formality. But he also knew me well enough to look for the hidden hook in that seemingly-proper gesture.

The first hook in it was when Tryx blundered into my suddenly stationary back. That was good in lots of ways. First off, I'd been trying for some time to find a way to get close to those minor planets she waved around. Having them pushed into my back was, um, interesting. In the second place, it made her look clumsy in front of the boss. That's not really cruel. Some, ah, uninformed people thought she was the best agent he had. She was certainly damned competent and Jonesy knew it. Besides, anyone who watched her move for more than ten seconds would NOT consider her clumsy. Photons, that girl could melt hull metal with a smile so distracting people didn't notice she moved like flowing water. Well, some people might not. But my, um, counter to her spectacular figure, not to mention the attention that blondes always attract, was my admittedly more sensuous motion. Making my moves look graceful while hers looked less so was part of the game.

However, Jonesy was wise to look beyond that little ploy for something directed at himself as well. So, he nodded slowly (neither one of us should really be saluting indoors, with no caps), and took the issue on directly.

"Okay, Xora, we both know you don't usually salute when you enter the office. What are you really after?"

My answer was delayed just a heartbeat or two. Or fifty. I lost count because Tryx was no fool herself and though she couldn't stop herself from bumping into me, she figured out what was going on before her soft pillows were done cushioning her collision with my back. Reaching her hands out in an ostentatious attempt to steady herself, she caressed the taut globes of my derriere even as she rubbed her softer globes against my shoulder blades. I swear I could feel the erect nipples, so hard I thought they'd tear my jumpsuit - well, scratch Titania.

On the other hand, even fifty heartbeats at the suddenly accelerated rate her touch triggered in my heart took only a second to two. Forcing my consciousness back to the front . . uh, to my front . . . I mean, to what was in front of me. Damnit, forcing my attention back on Jonesy, I said, "Just wanted to make the point that I was a trained Federation officer, Sir."

"From which I presume you thought that was somehow in question," he replied. Then he snorted and said, "Drop that silly salute and sit down. You, too, Tryx."

Very few things Tryx did were accidental and I had no illusions about the pinch she gave my cheek - the lower one, of course - as she moved to her seat. It was very deliberate, and a promise as clear as if she had used words. But the smile in her eyes gave me credit for a point scored, and she took her seat silently so that I could continue my discussion with Jonesy. I swayed around the other seat and twirled to present my back to Jonesy, my long hair swirling about like a cape. Placing my wrists together behind me, I said, "Since you seem to like having me tied up so well, why don't you just do it yourself?"

Of course, I was looking over my shoulder when I said it, so I could see the wave of red heat flow up his forehead and over the shiny pate. After pausing just long enough to make the point, I turned back around and slid smoothly into the remaining seat.

"Or maybe, just maybe," I continued, putting a fetching pout on the full, glossy lips Titania had given me, "we could decide that after being bound on my last two missions - my only two missions - including some sessions with the expert jerks on Machovia who have turned that into a planetary fetish, I can be considered trained in how to escape from ordinary confinement."

"With my help," my hidden partner claimed.

"Of course, Ti," I admitted silently. "But we can't let him know that."

"Oh, I know," she admitted in her turn. "I just wanted to keep your head from swelling much more than it is."

"My head is not swelling," I said, then not for the first time I gasped as she tweaked my still-erect buds (after all, Tryx had just been rubbing her . . . self on me and the effects . . . lingered) with a lick/caress/squeeze sensation that took my breath away.

"Gotcha!" she crowed internally.

"Stop that!" I demanded. Of course, that just caused a repeat, but this time I was ready for it - at least as ready as I could be - and all that showed on the outside was a sudden little twitch.

"Ah, the escape course," Jonesy said, interrupting my internal turmoil. While there was still a hint of flush on his scalp, there was a smirk in his eyes as well. "Well, you were the one who wanted normal field agent training."

Before I could respond, not that I really knew what to say since he was right, he tapped a notepad and said, "Let's see. Yes, I think we can consider the escape course passed by demonstration. Next, you still have the field investigator course to take . . . "

"Perhaps my, um, investigation on Teton can be used for that requirement," I offered. "It turned out fairly well." "With your help," I added silently to my tormentor, ah, partner. She took the peace offering and stopped her distractions. Which was a distraction of its own as I tried to decide if that were good news or bad.

"I thought you said your part was minor," Tryx offered unhelpfully.

"Well, admittedly discovering the clue that led to breaking up the abduction ring didn't seem like a big thing at the time," I replied. "Perhaps I should just say that I was, um, lucky." ("I'll say you got 'lucky'. Darius was a major stud!" "Shhhh!") "On the other hand, that sort of luck seems to be a part of successful symbiont pairings. Don't you think so?"

"Oh, definitely," Tryx agreed.

Jonesy nodded and flicked at his pad. "Very well, we'll mark that one off, too. Communications were okay from your, ah, previous assignment, and so are your piloting skills. Most of the rest of this doesn't seem to apply to symbiont pairings, except . . . . hand phaser qualification?"

"Wanna bet I can put five shots with a needle phaser, shooting offhand, into a smaller group than you can manage shooting from a rest?" I challenged him.

Tryx supported my claim. "Trust me, Jonesy, Xora will hit what she aims at, if it becomes necessary."

"Very well," he said. "We'll dispense with the rest of the training program. It probably won't be necessary on this mission anyway."

"Where have I heard that before?" Titania cautioned, and I knew exactly what she meant.

"A mission? For her?" Tryx asked quickly.

"For both of you, actually," Jonesy said. Before he explained further, he ordered, "Both of you, stand up please, and move over here."

He directed us to a reasonably clear space in his office, then started to walk around, examining us in a way that was simultaneously insulting and . . . highly flattering. After a moment, he started to explain. "You both have shown an amazing ability to interact with your symbionts, particularly in the area of modifying your appearance."

Tryx nodded curiously, provoking such interesting secondary motions that I forgot to make any sort of acknowledgment of my own. Not that Jonesy needed any.

"And the specifics show that you can work with things like styling on hair and clothes, even color, quite quickly. Is that correct?"

Tryx jiggled again, and I managed to grunt something affirmative.

"So," Jonesy asked, dropping his bombshell, "could you make yourselves look like . . . each other?"

"You want me to look like her?" we both asked in such perfect, plaintive unison it sounded rehearsed.



Chapter 2 - "Similarities . . . and Differences"


Our mutual protestations were interrupted before they were truly begun. "Stop!" Admiral Jones ordered. "Not another word from either of you!"

"Since you made such a big deal about being a trained officer, Xora," he continued, resuming his circular orbit of inspection. "Stand at attention! Both of you!"

That quickly became an order I had no choice but to obey. "Not now, Titania," I begged silently as I felt my body take on a rigidity no cadet had ever matched. I hated it when she did that lockup thing. Then I realized we weren't really stationary. She had apparently decided we were once again competing with Tryx - or more specifically, with her symbiont rival Bee.

"What are you doing?" I demanded.

"Just making us a little more . . . impressive," claimed my so-called partner.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tryx seem to shrink - no, not there - I meant in height. After a second I realized it was because I was getting taller - or more specifically, my heels were.

"Damnit, Ti, I can hardly walk now! You can't make my heels any higher!"

"You're not trying to walk. You're at attention," she smirked.

Then she started in on other . . . enhancements. Or perhaps it would be better to say she enhanced further in areas she'd already enhanced. And yes, this time I did mean those areas.

"That is enough!" I shouted silently. "I am not turning into some big-boobed clone of that blonde bimbo. Do you hear me, Titty!?"

"Bimbo?" Titania repeated. "Should I tell her, through Bee, that you think she's a bimbo?"

"You wouldn't dare!"

Before Titania could respond, I decided I'd better put a little counter-incentive to that, or she'd tell Bee all kinds of things - only some of them even true - and I'd be in a world of hurt with my nominal colleague. "If you tell Bee anything, I'll tell Tryx you like to be called Titty."

"Ha! She wouldn't believe it."

"Ha, yourself. The way you're inflating these puppies, she'd believe me in a heartbeat. Wanna bet?"

My internal partner's silence was deafening, as they say. But I felt my bosom stabilize. If the 'girls' were a couple of sizes larger than before, they were still a couple of sizes smaller than those Tryx flaunted, so at least in comparison they didn't look as . . . . outrageous. Ha, like they hadn't looked incredible even before we entered Jonesy's office.

"You're welcome," Titania said smugly.

"That was not meant as a compliment," I snapped.

"Yeah, like you even believe that yourself," she retorted. "You know you love the way I've made you look."

The truth hurts, sometimes, but I learned a long time ago you can't lie to your symbiont partner. "Oh, Ti, most of the time, I do like it. I know that. But, well, there are limits."

"And you're standing next to the girl who defined them," claimed Ti unrepentantly.

Jonesy interrupted my mental argument by coming around to stand in front of us. He wore his own smug expression, perhaps because for the first time in a long time he had managed to keep Tryx and I quiet for a while. He probably should have quit while he was ahead. Tryx used the change in situation as a sign that his prohibition on speaking was over.

"I am NOT going to grow my hair down to my butt just to look like this walking wetdream here," she claimed.

"Give me a break," I demanded. "You bounce your boobs all over the base, and you accuse me of being blatant?"

"Jealous?"

"In your dreams!"

Jonesy's gravelly voice stepped on our . . . discussion. "Do I have to order you to silence again?"

Before we could reply, unless one considered our silence to be our reply, he continued. "I want to know the facts on this. Can you or can you not make yourselves look like each other?"

After a moment, I admitted, "It would take a while to make my waist that small. At that size, there needs to be a fair amount of internal organ, ah, rearrangement."

"Is this true?" Jonesy challenged Tryx.

The impossibly curvy blonde nodded. Then she made her own admission. "I don't think I could move as . . . gracefully as Xora does. My, um, balance is a bit different. Even if I took that hypnodisk, there would be some differences."

"Why, thank you, Tryx," I said in surprise.

"It's only fair," she replied, smiling. Then she spoke to Jonesy again. "And she's a bit taller. That would be even harder."

Jonesy offered a resolution. "Actually, it's not just looking like you each do now that I'm interested in. I want to know if you can appear in several guises - both of you. Some sort of compromise for your basic, ah, shape would be fine, with hair color and features variations. Something that would blend into a crowd."

I had to laugh at that. Once upon a time, I would not have stood out in any crowd. I was as thoroughly average as any human in the Federation. Now, it, um, tickled my sense of humor, and I let an invitation peek from my eyes as I purred, "Why Jonesy, do I - do we - look like we would blend into a crowd? Of course, I suppose that depends on the crowd. Just what will the people be doing? The ones we're supposed to, ah, blend with?"

Tryx picked up on that and smiled a wicked little smile that I was going to have to learn to copy. Letting crystal bells tinkle in her pure voice, she said, "I am somewhat . . . noticeable. I'm sure you often find that to be the case as well, right, Xora dear?"

I just raised an eyebrow at Jonesy. Well, that's not quite true. I also took a deep breath, slid my hips out of my formal 'attention' position, and slowly licked my lips.

His head lit up again, and Jonesy carefully looked at the mementoes on the shelf beyond us for a moment. When his bald head had paled back to a more normal color, he took his own deep breath. "Very well, we won't expect, ah, invisibility. Perhaps that would be better anyway. We're going to want you to, ah, make the, ah, acquaintance of a man, and if you are, um, noticeable then that will likely be easier."

"Would you like to explain that further?" I asked suspiciously.

Jonesy's embarrassment showed again, but he frowned - with an undercurrent of concern that didn't seemed focused on my personal feelings - and he looked directly at me. "I had the impression that you were not totally averse to the idea of a . . . relationship with a man."

"What sort of relationship?" I demanded, then my attention was diverted.

"Damnit, Ti, don't do that!"

"Not me, partner. You're doing all that yourself."

The 'that' to which we both referred was a very distracting responsiveness I felt in my own nipples and in a moister, darker place as well.

"Well, damp it. I can't have them thinking I'm aroused at the idea of a 'relationship' with a man?"

"Why not?" she asked with supreme innocence. "After all, it's obviously true."

"Later," I ordered, and if one can grit one's teeth in a mental conversation, that's what I was doing. Titania must have picked up on my real distress because all external signs of my . . . interest faded. Unfortunately, I still felt some most distracting tingles where they didn't show.

Jonesy didn't answer my question. If he had intended to, his chance was lost when Tryx asked a question of her own.

"With whom?" asked Tryx. "And why do you want us to look like each other?"

Jonesy's answer started out as a non-sequitur. "Are either of you familiar with a drug called, 'thionite?'"

"Only from the training material," Tryx replied. Which put her one up on me. Another training course I hadn't had yet.

When I didn't answer, Jonesy explained. "It's a phenomenally addictive drug, one dose and the users seem to be hooked forever. It's a psychological addiction which doesn't dissipate with time. Users will sell all that they possess for another dose, no matter how long it's been since their prior experience. Physically, it's a simple powder - purple in color - and the required amount is very small. As a result, it's an extremely profitable business."

He frowned, then shrugged in an admission of disappointment. "Unfortunately, we don't even know where the thionite comes from."

"And we're going to end up looking like each other because . . . . ?" prompted Tryx .

"Because we do have one line on the source of supply," Jonesy continued, leaning back on his desk, then tapping a notepad to call up a picture on his viewscreen. "It's a man named Oslo Mordant. His security is excellent, which is part of the reason we don't know his source of supply. It would appear his only weakness is . . . "

"Obvious," I finished for him.

In the viewscreen was a tall man, casually dressed, but wearing a shirt that had the slightly uneven look of real, natural silk - making it ten times as expensive as any fabric I'd ever worn. That wasn't the, ahem, weakness Jonesy referred to, though. The man in the viewscreen was surrounded by several astonishingly beautiful women, all of whom seemed focused exclusively on him.

"We might fit into that crowd after all," Tryx murmured.

"Indeed," Jonesy concurred. "But that's another reason we need you two on this one. We think he might have used thionite on these women in order to control them."

"If so, it doesn't seem to have had any adverse effects," I observed.

"It's not physically debilitating," Tryx explained, "just psychologically. However, Jonesy, your point is valid. My, um, our symbionts can protect us from that drug if he tries to get us hooked on it. But you still haven't explained why we need to look like each other."

"Well, there is a weakness - a specific one - in Mordant's security."

"I think I can figure that out," I interrupted, then I turned to Tryx to answer her question. "We're going to be in two places at the same time, because the only person with the freedom to wander around is whomever he, ah, takes as his favorite."

"That's pretty close," Jonesy admitted. "We do indeed want you to infiltrate his entourage. But it's not clear that he takes any one girl as his favorite, at least not for long. However, what surveillance we have managed indicates that he does apparently restrict their freedom to move about, especially the ones who are not, ah, enjoying his favors at the moment. While he is occupied with one of you, the other will use the passport of being her apparent twin to do a little snooping around."

He continued, "Also, if public surveillance is required, the fact you can change your appearance will allow either of you to be near him without being noticed . . .," he held up his hands in silent surrender when Tryx and I simultaneously bristled at that. " . . . at least not noticed as someone he's seen before. You should be able to follow him unobserved, um without attracting attention, ah, without making him suspicious."

Jonesy walked around and sat in his chair. The psychological distance caused by his intervening desk made it clear he was past the discussion stage and into giving us operational orders.

"You are to establish yourself in Mordant's entourage, and determine where he gets his thionite. It's more important to find his source than to find evidence to convict Mordant himself, but of course I expect you to do that, too."

His eyes roved over us once again, and though he tried to make it seem as though it were a professionally military inspection, he revealed more than he intended when he subconsciously licked his lips.

"You two are the most spectacularly beautiful women I have ever seen. There is something . . . distinct about you, yet shared, as though you were the light and dark sides of the same dream. It's more than just appearance. Perhaps you emit some pheromone or something. ("Ti, have you . . . ?" "Just a little. I've been practicing." "Well, tell me about that sort of thing, okay?" "I was going to . . . eventually.") I'm sure you'll be . . . irresistible to Mordant, yet utterly convincing as each other if the need arises."

"However," he continued. "You are going to have to work out some sort of compromise in your, ah, dimensions. To that end, Commander Tryx, I think it might be easier to, ah, blend in if your figure were a little less, ah, dramatic. Don't you think?"

"Damnit, Jonesy," she protested. "I worked hard for this waist."

Titania snickered in my ear. "I think Bee did all the work."

"Quiet, Ti, we're about to win this one."

"And you can get it back, just as soon as the mission is over," Jonesy declared implacably. "Consider it an incentive to complete the mission quickly."

Tryx's fabulous face showed an unflattering frown for a moment, then she transformed that into a heart-stopping pout of her own. She undulated over to the side of his desk and the clear tones of an angel sang from her soft voice. "But Jonesy, I thought you wanted us to be noticed. I . . . attract you, don't I?"

"Uh, oh," I thought to Titania. "We may not win this one after all."

"Wanna bet?" she challenged.

Not that I needed her challenge. I was already flowing around the other end of Jonesy's desk. Leaning forward so my, ahem, assets showed for a moment, then were - mostly - hidden by a cascade of liquid night as my silken hair flowed over my shoulders, I let a husky note into my own voice that was a sharp contrast to Tryx's angelic tones when I said, "Why, Admiral Jones, surely you're not going to imply that my own . . . attributes are inadequate."

I admit it. If it would have been necessary, I'd have leaned forward and blown in his ear. Just before Tryx would have done the same, of course. But it didn't turn out to be necessary. He pushed his chair back and held up his hands to keep us away. "Save it for Mordant. I'm not so much of a fool that I'd let myself be caught in the middle of your little competition. Tryx, keep your figure close enough to the normal range that your waist and other, uh, features are not so unique you can't sell your disguise. Xora, for once, stop your silly competition with Tryx about shoes and lose enough heel to match her in height, and if you don't get your voice and your . . . backbone under control, you'll stand out just as badly."

Tryx was a good loser, not that I'd admit my figure was any real loss of course, and she giggled as she stood back. "First time I've ever heard the way we, ahem, stand out called, 'bad.'"

"Oh, I don't know," I purred, still teasing Jonesy even though I'd won - more or less. "Sometimes being 'bad' can be very, very good, don't you think?"

Tryx laughed again and agreed, "Definitely! Have I told you about the time I . . . ?"

She interrupted herself (winking at me where Jonesy couldn't see) and linked her arm in mine to lead me out of his office. "I guess ol' Jonesy wouldn't be interested in that. Too bad. We'll just be going."

I thought he was going to dismiss us, but that look of concern showed in his eyes again. "There is one more thing, Xora. The psychs are . . . interested in your, ah, changes. Even if I certify you as trained, they won't release you for the mission until you pass some sort of test. Frankly, I don't care if you hear voices in your head and see pink elephants in tutus. I'm only interested in results. But I have to obey orders, too. While Tryx works to quit looking like, ah, something from an 'Invasion of the Wasp-Women' vid, go arrange for them to take a look between your ears."

"Why, what's wrong?" I asked in alarm.

Now Jonesy looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "But the, ah, changes you chose to incorporate into your new appearance are not just to be a, um, more attractive form of yourself, as Tryx has done." He interrupted and looked at her in a half-hearted attempt at humor. "Or overdone as the case may be. The shrinks are concerned there are . . . deeper issues with you. I'm sure you'll do fine, though."

The last part of what he said barely registered. Titania was shouting in my ear about being found, like that wasn't on my own mind as well. What would we tell the shrinks? Are you crazy if there really is a voice in your head? Especially if you can't tell them why?



Chapter 3 - "Two - or Three - Against One"


"I never expected to be here again," I thought, looking at the door to the infamous Room 17. Titania just, um, shrugged internally in whatever way she did that. After all, Room 17 had not been a surprise to her. It was me who had never expected to be invited into the room even once, let alone twice. And this time it was to get my head examined. "Probably should have had that done first."

"Do you wish you'd never accepted that other invitation?" Titania asked.

"Of course not!" I replied, and while the words were silent, the accompanying snort of derision was definitely audible, prompting a strange look from a nearby tech. Well, stranger than usual anyway. My unladylike sound at Titania's ludicrous comment was as out of place coming from a beautiful woman as talking to myself would have been.

"Speaking, um, that is, thinking of, um, talking to myself, you need to be quiet in there, you know," I cautioned my symbiont partner.

"Why?" she asked defensively.

"Well, they may have someone who can read minds, or whatever it is that some races can do. Empathy, telepathy, whatever-athy, if they can literally peek inside my head - and find you - we're really in trouble."

"Oh," she said quietly. Then I felt the strangest sensation.

It was as though I had suddenly gone deaf - only I could still hear everything around me. But it was flat and . . . hollow, as though something critical had been taken away from the nature of the sound. Then I realized it wasn't just sound. The air was stale, the lights wan and pale. Something . . . vivid had been taken away from everything around me, in fact.

"Ti!" I screamed mentally, panicked.

The strange emptiness faded, to be replaced by a depth and richness of sensation that made the prior dullness seem even worse. "I'm still here, Silly, just being quiet, as you said."

"Quasars, Ti, don't do that to me without warning. It felt like, well, it felt bad."

"Miss me?" she teased.

"Damn right," I said, too shaken by that awful emptiness even to pretend it wasn't true.

Titania picked up on that. She had been pretty good at finding vulnerabilities from the first five minutes we were together. But this time, instead of gloating in her power she was contrite. "I'm truly sorry, Xora. If it helps any, I found the sensation of isolation . . . unpleasant as well."

"Why did you damp everything out like that?"

"I didn't," she claimed. "That's the way things really are, to your unaided senses."

"No," I denied her claim. "There wasn't anything like that when you first . . . when we first joined."

"No, there wasn't," she agreed. "But that was before I understood what we - together - can do. Since then, I've been, ah, 'tuning' our relationship." She tried to lighten the mood a little with a snicker. "It seems you've been taking me for granted again, Xora dear."

"Hardly, but you snuck all that in on me. I can't believe how much you improved things." Then it was my own time to snicker - at myself. "Now that was an understatement of, ah, cosmic proportions."

"Glad you think so," Ti said lightly, but I could hear her pride as well. Then the tone in her mind sombered. "I'll have to be quiet again. Just remember. I'll always be here. You can get past this. Whoever is in there won't have a chance against the both of us, even if they only know about you."

"Oh, Ti, I hope so," I sighed, then I reached for the buzzer button - before my nerve failed - and almost missed the growl of permission to enter in the haze of wrongness that descended on me when Titania withdrew again. Dithering wasn't an option, though. I was going to have to be cool, confident, and clearly competent - regardless of how I felt on the inside.

The tableau in Room 17 was similar to my first visit, yet very different as well. The couch was still there, and there were still two occupants; Professor Inchbod and a beautiful woman.

But Inchbod was the only element that was truly the same. There was no deceptively innocent black blanket draped over the couch, and while the woman was attractive, she was not really in Tryx's class - not that any unaided woman could be. She was certainly fit and trim, with dark hair that she had pinned up neatly, but her nose was a little too, ah, dramatic for her otherwise fine features. Yet she was captivating. It was all in her eyes; huge, gentle pools that invited and accepted and encouraged without judgment. She had the most welcoming eyes I had ever seen. For perhaps the first time, I could see how a woman could be beautiful without being especially pretty.

Inchbod was much the same as before though, and welcoming was not the impression he gave. A tight scowl showed on the harsh planes of his lean face, an ascetic rejection of softness confirmed in his thin frame. Actually, I found that encouraging. It was clear that no one - least of all himself - met his standards. He would be intensely fair, and since he was already sure I would be found inadequate in some way or another, he would excuse as predictable any minor concerns that might come up. Besides, he was a man - and I had weapons of spectacular effectiveness against men. In fact, I had already cheated in that game. My makeup (actually Titania's tinting of my face) was well into the 'glamour' mode - frankly overdone for a daytime business situation - and my dress celebrated my curves without hiding any of them. I intended to be as sensually feminine as any woman Inchbod had ever met.

Influencing the woman was another matter. One glance into those warm, caring eyes and it was clear she truly wanted to help me. However, if she decided that the help I needed was confinement for some serious head-shrinking, I might never get away from her oh-so-tender care. The old Xora had never been able to, ah, communicate well with women, and my new 'weapons' were - well, I guess I shouldn't categorize this woman before we even spoke - but my new appearance was less likely to appeal to her than to old Inchbod, at least statistically. So she was doubly dangerous to me. Or triple, or whatever. Too ready to 'help' me right into a mental ward, too beautiful to be swayed by my own beauty, and too 'woman' for me to understand very well - and anyone who grew up as a man who thinks 'he' understands women . . . well, that's about all the proof you need that person is a fool.

My assessment of them took only a heartbeat and without apparent hesitation I strolled into the room. While I didn't put any extra sway in my walk, I didn't make any particular effort to control it, either. After all, at least one of my interrogators was a man, and if he still had a pulse, I had tools to use now that I hadn't had before . . .and this was no time to play fair.

The interview was like walking the tightrope my swaying stride mimicked. I needed to downplay the drama of the change, while not trivializing it to the point I'd have to explain why I hadn't changed back or tried something else. In other words, I had to justify a single yet major change in my appearance and behavior without making it seem I had been trying to satisfy some deep-seated psychological distress. It was easier to handle Sstton's little game. There all I faced was rape and murder. Here, they might try to do . . . . anything to me. Maybe even try to take T . . . my symbiont away from me.

"Professor Inchbod," I said, smiling brightly as I held out my hand - palm down and inviting a kiss more than a handshake, "how nice to see you again."

"Hrmmphh," he replied, or at least something like that. He shook my hand brusquely and dropped it. "Lieutenant Commander Xora, this is Counselor Ardala," he said, waving his hand vaguely back and forth between us to imply the invitation was supposed to be enough for both of us.

"Counselor," I said formally.

A smile every bit as welcoming as those incredible eyes danced on her face as she said, "Please, Ardala will do, or even just Dala. And may I call you Xora?"

"Of course," I said, trying to match her smile. The combination of those eyes and that smile triggered an old cliche in my mind. She could call me anything she wanted, as long as she called me. I wished I could match that look. It was amazingly effective, even on a face that had, um, a challenge to overcome.

"Sit, sit," Inchbod ordered, interrupting my distracted musing. I eased myself into the chair in a primly languid motion. Does that sound like a contradiction? It certainly wasn't the only one in my life. But the corset, collar, and towering heels I wore forced me to maintain perfect posture, while the . . . movements I had learned gave me a fluid grace that made even casual actions seem to flow in a timeless, unhurried way. Of course, the toss I gave my heavy mane of hair was quick, but that was just to keep it out of the way, not any sort of dramatic gesture to call attention to the sensuous silk. Not a bit.

The chair was surprisingly comfortable - not like those in the waiting room - and I let my elbows rest easily on the arms while I folded my hands in my lap, not coincidentally displaying long ruby nails. Then I just sat quietly, looking at Inchbod.

It was all the invitation he needed, if he needed any at all. "You transformed yourself into a woman."

I did nothing. Well, almost nothing. I had to breathe, right? And the corset held my waist, so I had to lift my . . . shoulders to get some air. It wasn't my fault that lifted the, ah, proof that I did indeed look like a woman. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a smirk appear on Dala's face, and I swear I saw a quick nod of approval - except I didn't really seem to see her move so much as just get the impression she approved.

"Well?" Inchbod said, interrupting my musing once again.

I nodded my head demurely, then let a throaty tone into my voice that was not at all 'girlish' for all that it was intensely feminine.. "Thank you, Professor. A girl likes to feel her efforts have been . . . noticed."

"But . . . " he started, then frowned, then started again, "why did you change yourself into a woman?"

I let an eyebrow arch, and matched it with a tone of challenge that said I was verging on irritation. "Why not?" Before he could answer I followed up. "Are you saying that becoming a woman has somehow . . . diminished me? That a woman can't be as good as a man?"

I stood up, turned to a quartering angle that showed all my, ahem, features and ran my hands slowly down my curves. "Are you saying that you don't find my new body more desirable than my old one?"

Desirability
Is my new body more desirable than my old one?

Inchbod's terse, no-nonsense manner collapsed before the attack on his open-mindedness and proper social tolerance. Not to mention his control of his libido. "Well, ah, of course, I mean, you're very attractive, of course, and a woman is just as good, I mean, for some people, it's just fine, but . . . "

Counselor Ardala bailed him out, as only a woman could. "Being a woman is fine, of course, but so is being a man. Why did you decide to change?"

I shimmied back into my seat and looked at her. Her smile was just as welcoming as before, but I was sure I saw approval there as well. Apparently, she found the old stuffed shirt as trying as I did, and didn't mind at all seeing him flustered. Yet, her responsibility was to evaluate me and I had known she was the greater challenge from the moment I stepped into the room.

I called attention to my long, sleek legs by crossing them slowly, then tugging ineffectually at the tiny skirt I wore. "I guess the answer again is, 'why not?' I've been a man, and when I realized it was possible to . . . adjust my appearance, I just decided to try something really challenging."

"So being a woman is just a challenge, not a, oh, call it a 'need' within you?" she asked.

"Now that I am one, I can certainly say it's a challenge," I replied, smiling and tossing my hair. "But I have to admit, it's an interesting one as well."

"So, you don't think you'll change back?"

"I didn't say that," I said, shaking my head. "Well, I guess I don't see myself as changing back into the old, sedentary Xora, but I may become a man again, or . . . "

"Or?" she prompted.

I chuckled and said, "You know, I considered changing into a female form to be about the biggest challenge I could imagine - and Lord knows the physical elements have been the least challenging parts - but I just realized that I have hardly begun. I could, oh, grow wings, or, well, I just don't even know. I haven't really thought about it. I've been busy on my missions, and on, um, exploring what I've already done. Maybe tomorrow I'll grow a tail. I don't know."

"So, becoming a woman was not some lifelong ambition for you?" Inchbod asked, finally getting back into the conversation.

"Not at all," I said easily. "I never thought I'd have the chance to do it so . . . . well, and I wasn't that dissatisfied with who I was before. Now that I am one though, like I said, I'm, ah, finding it interesting."

"You mentioned growing a tail?" Inchbod repeated.

"Maybe," I said lightly. "Or pointy ears, or fur all over my body, or . . . I don't know. Maybe nothing. Maybe I'll stay like this for years. There's nothing wrong with the way I am - at least, I don't think so. It's just that something else may become even more interesting, or appropriate for a particular mission."

"So you're not so much - in your own self-image I mean - a woman as a, um, 'shape-shifter,'" he offered.

"Well, true shape changes take long enough that it's more than just a 'shift,'" I explained. "I find it easier to have a, um, baseline appearance, and right now that is female. And part of the challenge is to make the new identity vivid and three-dimensional, with mannerisms and voice to match the appearance. I guess I'll say that I am a woman now, inside and out, but I don't feel limited by that. And since I've, um, adapted to this shape so . . . comfortably, I may find other shapes can be comfortable as well. Maybe even that of a man." The last was delivered in a condescending tone that made it seem very unlikely to occur. Then I laughed to make it clear that I wasn't really disdaining men, either.

"Why are you blocking your emotions?" the Counselor asked abruptly. I looked back at her to find that same welcoming smile on her face, but a much sharper look in her eyes. She wasn't angry, just intently questioning.

"I didn't know that I was," I replied innocently. "What do you mean?"

"You seem to have some sort of block up," she claimed. "There are no, ah, emanations that would confirm the calm confidence you show on the surface."

"So," I said, keeping the conversation on questions to her. "Are you a telepath?"

"With some species," she confirmed. "With others, more of an empath. I can sense emotions, but not necessarily specific thoughts."

"And you're telling me that you can't sense anything from me?"

"No. It is as though you were an android."

Grinning, I turned back to Professor Inchbod. I let my eyes get heavy-lidded, licked my lips (like I said, I wasn't interested in playing fair), and launched a smile at him. "Tell me, Professor. Do I look like a machine to you?"

That could have been dangerous. If Counselor Ardala thought I was dodging the question, she might have gotten suspicious. But I caught a sense of amusement from her, and she said nothing as we waited for Inchbod to answer.

He took refuge in his notepad, consulting it carefully before replying - without looking up. "Your records are clear. You are obviously not a machine."

I let my lips purse in a pout and sighed. "Oh, dear, I do so hate being . . . 'obvious.'"

Counselor Ardala broke her own professional mien with a charmingly relaxed giggle. Before she could lose that mood, I offered her an explanation that was the truth and nothing but the truth - though not quite the whole truth.

"I'm sure it's got something to do with my symbiont. As you know, sh . . . that is, the symbionts can filter out harmful radiation. They can also provide a camouflage appearance. Apparently that includes control over - what did you call them? - mental emanations."

"'Apparently?'" repeated Inchbod. "You mean, you don't fully control the symbiont?"

Now there was an understatement of 'cosmic proportions.' "Let's just say," I offered, "that we're a, um, symbiosis. We've worked out a way to, um, to work things out."

"How do you communicate with your symbiont?" asked Ardala.

Another dangerous question. Even if she couldn't sense my emotions directly, I was concerned that the Counselor would be able to tell if I lied outright. What truth could I give her? Not the whole truth, that was for sure. Perhaps I could give her a lot of little truths instead.

"In various ways," I answered. "I'll be thinking of something, or considering some problem, and things will . . . happen. Like when we took Professor Inchbod's tests. One test involved a very hot room, and T . . my symbiont formed a heat-resistant exterior. Oh, what else? Sometimes I get cravings, and that seems to provide whatever my symbiont needs."

"So, you don't converse with it directly?" Inchbod asked.

"What, like voices in my head?" I countered with a laugh, carefully not answering the question.

Inchbod seemed to accept that as an answer and moved on. "Now, about your control of the symbiont. Can you give us a demonstration?"

My first impulse was to be cautious, but that wasn't the persona I was, um, enacting. I needed them to think that I had nothing to hide. Right. Not a thing, nobody in here but me, and I was (drum roll) Xora, the best - and most sensuous - field agent in the galaxy. Right. Well, it was a role I had learned to play.

With no apparent hesitation, I purred, "Why, Professor, what did you have in mind?"

That prompted another giggle from Ardala, and the first real, honest-to-goodness blush I had seen on Inchbod's stern visage. He made his grunty little hrmpph sound again, then said tersely, "You mentioned camouflage. Can you change your hair color?"

I gathered some of my hair in my hands, put a pout on my lips again, and said, "Don't you like my hair, Professor?" Before he could answer, I let an image of pale ash blonde hair form in my mind even as I complained, "I'm not sure what my hair color has to do with this examination."

The color seemed to drain from my hair like ink pooling away into nothingness, then I tried an empty-headed giggle - surprisingly easy - and said, "Oh, there goes 20 points of IQ. Of course, as a blonde, I won't miss them."

That prompted an answering snicker from Ardala. Our eyes met and we were sisters in our dark-haired struggle against the man-crazy blondes of the world - even though at that moment I definitely looked like I belonged in the latter category. Of course, most of the time I acted like I belonged in it, too.

I giggled again, as bubbly and shallow as I could make it. Then I leaned back in my chair, imagined my hair dark again, and lifted a taunting eyebrow at him.

Counselor Ardala smiled and stood up. "Let the record show," she said with a smile, "that Commander Xora appeared calm, confident, and comfortable throughout the interview. It is my opinion that her merging with her symbiont has resulted in a well-integrated - though distinct - personality. Do you agree, Professor Inchbod?"

"Hmm? Oh, yes, of course," he said quickly, standing as well.

That was enough cue for me, so I swayed to my own towering heels and smiled at them. "I'm glad to hear it."

Ardala walked around the desk to shake my hand. At first, I thought the lack of sensation might have been part of the same phenomenon as the general lack of vividness in my world with T . . . in that condition. But it was more than that. There was a thin, but impermeable covering where Ardala was touching me - reinforcing the protection against mental probing. Ardala noticed, but the only sign was a slight increase in the pressure of her hand, and an easy smile.

"Let me escort you to the door," she offered, and slipped her hand through my arm. Again, wherever she touched had a slightly stiff feel, as though there were a barrier between us. She looked over her shoulder at the still-standing Inchbod and said, "I'll be back in a minute."

She didn't let go of my arm, though. Not when we reached the door. Not even when we had passed through it and were walking down the corridor. "We need to talk," she declared.

My mama didn't raise anyone foolish enough to volunteer anything in that situation, so I just let myself be led to a small alcove.

Her warm eyes were dancing with humor when they met my own gaze. I was trying for innocence, but I suspect there was far too much wariness in my expression. Ardala let me sit for a minute, the smile in her eyes offering challenge and support at the same time. Then, she surprised me with a non sequitur.

"Have you ever read, 'The Country of the Blind,' by H. G. Wells?"

I shook my head. "I seem to remember the author's name, though. Didn't he write, what did they call it, science fiction?"

Ardala nodded. "He was one of the first great science fiction writers. Many of his stories turned out to be amazingly prophetic. Why do you suppose that was?"

"I'm sorry," I said tentatively. "I'm afraid I don't know."

"Perhaps it deals more with my specialty than with yours," she offered. "I think Wells had some very good insights into the human mind - and so could see how people would react to situations, even those that hadn't arisen yet."

I nodded, not that I really knew what I was agreeing about, and let a mixture of interest and patience show on my face. No volunteering for this girl.

Ardala laughed easily and nodded a point to me. "You know, your careful reticence actually works to confirm my hypothesis," she claimed.

"And what hypothesis would that be?" I asked, figuring it would be better if she were answering questions than asking them.

"That gets back to the story," she explained. "Wells talks of an explorer who finds a hidden mountain valley. In it, all the people are blind due to some strange disease, and have been blind for so many generations the very idea of sight has been forgotten."

"Did I miss a hypothesis in there?" I asked with a smile.

She grinned and said, "I'm coming to that. The explorer thinks to become king of the little valley, since he can see. But they are well-adapted to their situation and his eyesight brings him little advantage within their society. In the end, they think him crazy to claim to see, and their solution to his insanity is to demand that he give up his eyes."

"How horrible!" I gasped.

"Indeed," Ardala agreed. "He chooses to flee the valley, dying in the surrounding mountains rather than submit to being blinded."

"I can understand that," I said.

"I'm sure you can," she said firmly, so firmly that there was obviously a deeper message in her statement.

"Let me offer you my hypothesis," she continued. "Suppose that someone found themselves with a special ability, one that was wonderful but couldn't be shared. Suppose further that some of the . . . attributes of this ability were, ah, similar to those of a disability. I imagine in that situation, it might be reasonable to conceal much of that ability. Don't you?"

"I suppose," I agreed cautiously.

Ardala laughed easily and stood up. "Don't worry, Xora. If it were to turn out that, hypothetically speaking, your symbiont was a lot more capable than you've let on, I wouldn't suggest you 'give up your eyes.' After all, my empathic ability would seem much the same to many people. I would like to talk with you about it sometime, if you're comfortable with that, but in the meantime let's just say that I'm on your side."

Then the beautiful counselor with the unimportant flaw of a too-dramatic nose reached out to touch my thick, dark hair. She leaned close to giggle vacuously in my ear. "We dark-haired girls have to stick together against the blondes, right?" Then she stood straight and her expression became serious again. "And we need to watch out for the stuffed-shirt intellectuals who think that anything they don't understand and can't share must be a problem, not a blessing."

I'd have been disappointed to see her go since I had hardly expected to find an ally in that examination, except that with her departure, Titania flowed back into my senses and the world was vivid again.

"Sweet starlight, I missed you, Ti," I told her, sagging in my seat as much as the corset allowed.

"I was always here," she claimed, and of course I knew that it was true, just as she knew my sense of relief was also genuine.

I stood up to go back to my own quarters, then nearly stumbled when Titania asked with seeming casualness. "Do you really want to grow a tail?"

"Don't even think of it!"

"I'm trying to decide between a horse tail that would match your hair, and a bushy sort of fox tail thing. What do you think?"

I had this really, really sick feeling in my stomach - one that I'm sure Titania enhanced just to be ornery. "Don't you dare!"

"Or maybe a cat-tail," she mused. "With or without a little tuft on the end, like a lion?"

"Oh . . . bat guano," I moaned.



Chapter 4 - "Blondless Ambition"


Something felt different when I woke up the next morning and my first reaction was, um, 'concern' that Titania had done something else to me. Correction: I could tell she had done something, but I couldn't tell just what she had done. After our conversation of the day before, I couldn't help myself and I squirmed my, ahem, tail on the bunk to see if I had, well, grown a tail. Titania found that hilarious.

"Gotcha!" she crowed.

"What did you do to me this time," I growled, reaching to see if my ears were pointed, or I had fur or something.

What I found when my hand pushed a swirl of hair into my line of sight was honey-blonde, not sable-dark.

"Dammit, Ti, I don't want to be blonde!"

"Why not? Blondes are very well received in your society."

"Blondes are a lot of things in this society. Do you know what the mating cry of the blonde is?"

"What's that?" she asked, and I knew her question wasn't really a straight line, but I gave it to her anyway.

"Next!"

"What?" she asked in confusion, then she 'got' it and laughed again. "Ooh, that's -what did Tryx call you? - wicked! I like that one, and the horse it rode in on, too!"

I sat up, or tried to. My waist was even tighter, which was no real surprise. Any excuse for a tighter corset was good enough for Titania. When I managed to get to where I could see myself in the mirror, though, it wasn't me. The woman in the mirror was even more beautiful than I had ever been. Her lips were even more full, her face more heart-shaped with an elfin chin and huge, almost-glowing eyes. In short, it was Tryx - or at least Tryx with even longer, thicker hair. Very, very blonde hair.

"Dammit, Ti, change me back. Again."

"Would you at least let me explain," she asked. "Bee and I agreed to do this. It's a compromise. Your waist . . . "

"It is not!"

"Close enough," she insisted. "And your hair. . . "

Before I could argue with that point, too, she continued, "Yes, it's Tryx's hair color, but your hair length and thickness and shape. So there."

I pointed at the mirror, and couldn't keep the wail out of my voice even as I was . . . fascinated. "But it's not me!"

"No, it's mostly Tryx's face, but you keep going on about how pretty she is."

"Well, she is, but . . ," and this time, my voice fell to a whisper, "it's not. . . me."

Ti was not particularly sympathetic. In fact, she snorted in a most unsympathetic - not to mention unladylike - way. "Like the other one was. Have you forgotten what you looked like before we met?"

"Well, no, but . . . it was mine, or ours, or whatever. Me."

Titania's voice took on a little softer tone, and she said, "Well, now this one is you, at least for a while. Actually, it's more of a . . . reference shape that both you and Tryx can use as a basis for variations. That way you will be distinct, yet both stay close enough to be, um, traded easily."

Any further discussion - that's not actually the right word, but it will do - was interrupted by the door chime. I was too distracted to realize granting admission would be revealing myself - my new self - to the outside world so I waved automatically at the door and it whisked open.

Or transformed itself into another mirror. That seemed almost as likely, for a moment. My mirror image showed in the doorway, and if one Tryx in the universe was heartstopping, three were beyond belief. My eyes flicked between the real Tryx, the real mirror, and the real me so fast I got dizzy.

The shocked look on Tryx's face was almost worth it, but she recovered faster than I did.

"Lookin' good, girl," she laughed.

"Love what you've done with your hair," I managed to counter, regarding the now waist-length tresses that tumbled down her back.

"Oh, and yours, too," she replied with elegant condescension, then spoiled it by giggling. "You do like playing with your own style, don't you?"

Before I could respond again, she got serious and said, "That's something we need to talk about."

An arched brow and glance asked for an invitation to sit, and despite fearing I'd break in half if I bent over ("It is not that tight!" "How would you know? You're on the OUT side.") I motioned her to my sitting area.

"While you were having your head examined," she began, smiling to show sympathy and congratulations at my success, "I did a little research on Mordant, looking for patterns in those he picks for paramours." "To begin with," she said smugly, "they all have excellent figures. Not all are as, ahem, blessed as we are, of course, but all are trim, yet shapely."

"We certainly qualify for shapely," Titania snickered in my ear. "Trim? Well, that's another story."

"Nobody to blame but yourself," I retorted, then paid for my lack of, ah, respect with something that was becoming as bad as the lockup trick. Maybe my new corset-equivalent was a good thing, because it stifled the gasp that would have followed Titania's hidden caress. Or whatever it was that she did.

Instead of telling her to stop, which wouldn't have done any good anyway, I tried to concentrate on what Tryx was saying.

"Most are, well, I guess 'adolescent male fantasies' would do as well as anything to describe them."

Titania snickered in my ear again, and said, "You'll fit right in!"

I ignored her. Yep. Paid no attention at all. Not to her voice, not to her caress, not to any part of it. My eyes started to cross for an entirely different reason that I just don't remember.

"There is, however, no real pattern of preference in hair color," Tryx continued.

"Good," I blurted, but for once I was grateful for Titania's distractions because I didn't have enough breath for the words to be heard.

"I'll remember that," she promised.

"So will I," I promised in return. Something in my, well, 'tone' is funny for a thought, but whatever. Something in the tone of my thought got Titania's attention and she eased off on her . . . attentions. So help me, I wasn't sure if I were pleased or disappointed.

"I'll remember that, too," she promised.

"Be quiet," I demanded, recovered at least enough to try making a demand. Not that I expected it to do any good.

Tryx pushed on as though she hadn't noticed. "There doesn't seem to be a pattern to personality types, either. He probably chooses the prettiest girls since he has his pick of whomever he wants. Sometimes he picks on a blatantly sensual type . . . "

"Perfect for you!" Titania decided.

"Better for Tryx," I countered.

" . . . . and sometimes he likes to, ah, deflower a, um, maiden," concluded Tryx.

"Neither one of us meet that criterion," I observed dryly.

"Oh, not literally," she explained. "Stars, that really would be unusual in the circles Mordant frequents. But an impression of quivering innocence is sometimes interesting to him."

Her appraising glance made it clear she was considering me for that role.

"I don't quiver."

"Oooh, girl, how can you say that with a straight face? All you do is quiver, and shimmy, and slither, and glide, and . . "

I couldn't help a little thrill. "She noticed!"

Titania answered, "Like anyone could miss it, hula hips."

Returning to the less opinionated party to the conversation, I said, "I most certainly do not slither!"

Tryx's giggle didn't really agree, despite her words. "Well, maybe not, but you can do the shocked innocence look a lot better than I can. It doesn't fit my . . . "

"Features?" I supplied. "Well, I've got the same ones, now."

"Not really," she disagreed. "You don't use them the same way I do, but we'll work on that. In any event, unless there's a specific reason to pretend to be each other, you'll be 'innocent' and I'll be, ah, 'challenging.'"

"Like hell!"

Tryx pointed to her high, stiff collar - and particularly to the emblems of rank. "See these pips? Wanna count 'em?"

"You're pulling rank on me?" I asked in shock.

"Yep," she declared unrepentantly. "Besides, you really can do that innocent thing well, certainly better than I do. Stars, if I hadn't found out about your boyfriend on Teton, I'd figure you were still a virgin for real. That 'my body is too sensual to control, but my heart is really sweet and naive' thing you do is just devastating. I'll have to practically throw myself at the target in order for him to notice me at all. Not that I'd mind doing that. That man looks moderately devastating himself."

"I hadn't noticed," I sniffed.

"Liar!" "Liar!" Both Tryx and Titania charged simultaneously.

Before I could defend myself - before I could figure out how to defend myself, for that matter - Tryx resumed her business demeanor. "Okay, we need to work out our roles and things. Ask Titania how long it would take her to change you back to your, ah, 'old' appearance."

"Old? I don't look a day older than her, and I never - that is, we never did!" Titania snapped.

"Lighten up, Titty," I snickered, glad for once to see her being the one who felt . . . picked on. "She means the one before this one, and answer the question."

"About an hour," she replied grumpily.

When I had reported that, Tryx said, "Right, okay, let me touch your hand and try something."

Holding hands with Tryx was not the most difficult assignment I'd had, but I was surprised when Titania started talking to me.

"Okay, Bee says that Tryx wants us to work out some compromise things. Bee says that Tryx says she wants us - that is, you and I - to change to an appearance we can get to in ten or fifteen minutes, so we need to back up to our previous look a little. Let's go to the mirror."

Tryx came to stand beside us, and it's a good thing that Titania was focused on her task because I'd have spent the rest of the millennium just looking at those spectacular images. But in a few minutes my face started to blur in a way that nearly made me nauseous.

"Hang on," Titania ordered. "It won't be much longer."

I was surprised at how much change Ti was able to work in just those ten minutes, and yet it still wasn't really me. Beautiful, and distinct from Tryx, but not really me - except for one thing.

"Oh, good," I blurted out when my hair shimmered into its proper deep sable color.

Tryx snickered and said, "Oh, don't be so damn sensitive about that. Blondes really do have more fun, you know."

"Yeah, right," I said. "Blondes have it made. Brunettes don't have an excuse to act stupid."

Tryx's eyes widened, then narrowed as she took up the challenge. "Do you know what brunettes use for birth control? Their personalities!"

I glanced disdainfully at her legs and said, "You really should introduce your right knee to your left . . . since they've never met!"

I suppose it could have gotten out of hand, but Tryx's inherent good nature - and Titania's raucous hidden hilarity - made it seem suddenly silly instead of insulting. I dissolved into giggles and Tryx caught the highly contagious condition. She waved her arms in artificial surrender and moved over to the computer terminal.

"We better get back to work. I found out Mordant has a private moon not too far from Mistfall."

"Mistfall? That's the resort planet, right?"

"Yes, and if that's a legitimate question because you've never been there, then you're in for a treat," Tryx promised. "That's where we're going. There's some sort of festival there in a few days and Mordant always attends. We'll be on the liner heading there tomorrow. That'll just give us time to get in some serious shopping."

"Shopping?" I asked. "For what?"

"Clothes, of course," Tryx replied.

"Titania meets my needs," I declared.

"Thank you," she said silently.

"Thank you, Ti," I answered. "One of the many great things about you is that I don't have to shop for clothes any more."

"I thought, I mean, from Tryx I got the impression that all women love to shop."

"Well, maybe I'm not all woman," I snapped, surprising myself with a truth I didn't expect.

I didn't get a chance to figure that out immediately. Tryx was adamant and her plan did not make me look forward to the opportunity. "Xora, dear, Titania can't provide the volume for girly-girl sweetness. I want lace and ruffles galore! Besides, it's fun to shop."

Oh, joy. Lace and ruffles.

We embarked on our expedition, armed with Jonesy's credit chit. It had crossed my mind that Tryx had decided I needed all that . . . complexity in clothing just because the volume would be beyond Titania's ability to simulate. Then I saw myself in a mirror in my new clothes and . . . well, it had never been deliberate, but I could see what Tryx meant. My, ah, uncertainty in those ultra-feminine outfits showed, and it made me look a lot more innocent than I really was. Really. Until I moved. Then, well, like I said, I could see what Tryx had meant. It was as though there were a simmering pool of sensual lava bubbling just beneath a delicate crust, just waiting to . . .

"Whoa, girl, calm down. Now you're making me hot!" claimed Titania.

"Like you need any help," I sniffed, but I couldn't look away from the mirror. "Have I mentioned - lately anyway - that you are a real artist?"

"Don't be silly," she replied. "Do you think that I understand human sexuality well enough to craft something that beautiful on my own? I may be the tool, but I'm just building on what you imagine."

"I never imagined myself like this."

"Maybe not consciously, but the images were there, and so vivid I, well, you remember when we got started. I may have wanted to find a feminine appearance for us, but your own dreams were so powerful that I thought you wanted it, too. And like Tryx says, even if she took that call girl hypnodisk training, she wouldn't move as sensuously as you do. That's not me, either."

"That doesn't make things any better."

"Doesn't it?" she asked. "I would think knowing that this is - and always has been - part of you would reassure you. I won't try to explain it, but 'that person' is definitely you."

"But . . . ," I stammered, trying to find the words, "I never, that is, the old Xora never was so . . . outgoing, so. . . so proud."

"I'll believe you," she replied. "But I don't think you want to go back, do you?"

"Of course not!"

"Then accept it, partner," she suggested. "Maybe you were suppressing a lot of things, or maybe your perception of your previous physical . . . limitations became self-fulfilling. Whatever the reason, I promise you, you're not diminished now."

Though our mental conversation had taken only a few seconds, Tryx had noticed the lag if not the reason for it. "Earth to Xora: Stop admiring yourself and get a move on, we still have to find a dozen outfits before tomorrow."

"Hmm? Oh, right."

Eventually, we found enough outfits to satisfy Tryx's sensibilities. She insisted the clothes fit properly, of course. Or improperly. In any event, as tightly as when all I wore was Titania, except in the areas that ballooned out to billow with every movement. Other than the fluffy parts, it looked like I might indeed erupt right out of clothes challenged beyond containment by all that 'bubbling lava.'

Tryx got some new clothes, too, of course, and some other things that were totally unnecessary, but in doing so she showed me things about being a woman that I would never have figured out on my own.

"That's hardly surprising," Titania laughed.

"Oh, I know. It's just that . . . "

"That you envy her?" offered Titania. "Wanna bet that in some ways she envies you?"

"Tryx? Don't be silly."

"Name your stakes, girl. By the time this mission is over, Tryx is going to prove to you that she wishes she had some of your . . . experience."

"Oh, of course. Right after Hell freezes over."

One of the reasons (among many) that I doubted my partner was that Tryx was so comfortably proud of her femininity. It showed in little ways that were both subtle and devastatingly effective. To this day I don't know if it was conscious or just something she did naturally, but she continually demonstrated the difference between looking pretty and being pretty. We were at a cosmetics counter, which wouldn't seem to make any sense at all. Bee was as good ("He is not!" "Okay, 'almost' as good.") at simulating her cosmetics as Titania was with mine, but that didn't stop Tryx from buying lipstick. Then I found out it wasn't about what color her lips were anyway. Watching her smooth that creamy gloss on her lips, watching them pout out, and then delicately rub together, watching was . . . intense. Her beauty was so much more than the sort of thing that showed in a mirror. It was a sense of self, a sense of glory that was pleasure too pure to need confirmation from anyone else in the universe. It was what she was, and how she looked was only the surface of something much more important.

I was convinced. Definitely. So I bought some lipstick of my own and started learning how to, ahem, 'use' it effectively. Unfortunately, that meant I now had things to carry around with me all the time, and for the first time I actually needed a handbag. Needless to say, once the need was established, we got several. About the only things we didn't buy were shoes. On that topic, Titania was adamant. In truth, I couldn't imagine manmade shoes - of any height - being more comfortable than what Titania provided.

"You're welcome," she snickered.

"That doesn't mean you have license to make them any taller! Even if they're, um, okay to stand in, I still can't walk normally in the stilts you make for me."

"You wouldn't walk normally if you were barefoot on a beach," she laughed. "Not any more."

Before I could say anything, she got in the last word with a declaration that even I had to admit was true. "And you wouldn't want to if you could."

When we got back to my quarters, Tryx's mood was as effervescent as ever. She pulled me from my distraction with an announcement. "I'll leave you to pack."

"Oh?" I replied, not particularly concerned with whether she stayed, but curious as to why she made such a point that she was leaving.

I should have known. This time, it was me handing her the straight line, or at least enough of an opening for her to get in her parting shot.

At the doorway, she grinned at me and asked, "Do you know what a brunette misses most about a great party?"

Uh, oh. Oh well. "No."

"The invitation," she said, laughing as the door whisked shut behind her.

"Is she going to a party?"

"No," I replied. "She was just teasing again."

I'm sure she was. Really. She wouldn't leave me behind, not on our last night before the mission. Would she?



Chapter 5 - "Just Friends?"


We had decided - that means Tryx, of course - that she and I would not 'know' each other before we met Mordant. That way, we wouldn't be together all the time and so we'd have twice as many chances to meet him. The practical result of that decision, on the liner trip before we reached Mistfall, was that Titania and I had some time alone.

The impractical result of that decision was that Titania decided our mission, ahem, 'required' of us that we 'practice' with different appearances. We - that means, Titania, of course - had great fun being a brunette in a red jumpsuit walking one way down a ship's corridor, then ducking into a convenient alcove or something before becoming a redhead in a green mini walking back the other way. Okay, I admit it. I thought it was fun, too. We got a quite . . . satisfying array of second looks with that similar-yet-not-quite-right yank on people's attention. Well, to be honest, we always got second looks, and third and fourth looks from people. But the looks were different - definitely different - the second time we passed.

At least Titania didn't make us blonde. Very often.

That 'innocent' game changed with a seemingly-casual touch from Tryx soon after we arrived at Mistfall..

"Bee says that Tryx says that we, that is, you and I . . ." Titania reported, or started to report.

I interrupted her. "Look, Ti, if we get a message from that contact thing you do, I can pretty much figure out that it came via Bee. And why don't you cut to the chase and just assume if you tell me she wants me to do something, that it will include you? It's not like there's any option."

"Not that I want one," I quickly added. I don't know if she'd have had her feelings hurt at an implication that being separated from her could be a desirable 'option'. Besides, it bothered me to contemplate it anyway. Maybe that extra thought was as much for me as for her.

"Thank you, dear," she said, eavesdropping on my thoughts as always. "But what is this, 'cut to the chase' thing?"

"Oh, that's . . . you know, I don't know. It's an expression but I don't know where it comes from. Something from old vids, I think. In any event, it means get to the point without a lot of unnecessary buildup. Anyway, what did Tryx have to say?"

"Oh, yes, well, it seems she's gotten a communication from Admiral Jones, or actually, I guess it was from one of Admiral Jones' agent here on Mistfall since of course he's not here and we can't use the communicator for messages since we're undercover - oh, would that be one of those 'cut to the chase' things?"

"Yes," I sighed. "You don't need to tell me things I already know."

"But what if I don't know what you already know. I mean, we've had miscommunications before and . . . "

"Ti! What did Tryx say?"

"Oh, right. Well, apparently she has some new information about Mordant's preferences, and we're to meet in her room in ten minutes to go over it."

"Ten minutes from when?" I teased. "From when she gave us the message, or from when you finally got around to giving it to me?"

"But, but, you're the one who kept interrupting me!"

"Would I do that?" I asked innocently.

"Never tease your symbiont," she warned, then . . . tweaked me in a way that had me staggering against the bulkhead.

"You are NOT a nice person," I charged.

"I believe I told you that the very first day we met," she loftily replied. Well, in this case, she was right. Not that it made it any more fair.

Somehow, I managed to make it to Tryx's room, and on time. My flushed look and panting were excused by my hurry and my tight corset, of course. Nothing to do with what Titania was doing to me. Not at all. Thankfully, she relented when we actually got to Tryx's suite.

"I am still your partner," Titania said.

"Remind me to go over our partnership agreement with you, sometime," I requested carefully as I touched the admittance chime. If I could have lied to my symbiont, I'd have used it to hide my disappointment at losing a stimulation I hadn't even wanted in the first place.

"Ha!"

"Quiet, Titty!"

Tryx was poring over some printed-out data when we entered, and acknowledged us with a brief smile of welcome before returning to frown at the information.

"I've received some more background on Mordant's, ah, 'conquests' from the last year," she said, waving her hand over the spread out sheets. "I'm looking for any further indication of preferences, and I also thought we might be meeting some of these girls so we should both be familiar with their backgrounds."

"How many are there?"

"In the last year, half a dozen. Apparently he picks up new ones every three or four months."

That math wasn't too hard, and I picked up on a key element. "Every three or four months and half a dozen in a year? Then he, um, acquires more than one girl at a time."

"Exactly," Tryx confirmed. "Which is why it might actually be better for us to know each other after all."

She had the data sorted out into piles, and quickly summarized the six girls. The first was 'Breen', and my initial impression was a pixie Tryx - on giggle juice. The mind boggles. The data showed Breen was several inches shorter than Tryx, but she actually approached Tryx's figure as close as any normal woman could, and had the same golden blonde hair. Her photo displayed a mischievous smile that promised giggles were lurking perilously near the surface. Oh, and she had freckles, too. At the same time Mordant had recruited Breen, he had picked up 'Cheya', a redhead who, according to her dossier, had been in two fights in the three days she had been in Mistfall before joining Mordant. Touchy as anti-matter, apparently.

A few months later, Mordant had acquired a ghost - a living, walking, presumably talking ghost. 'Eloi' was white-blonde with pale gray eyes and translucent skin. She favored white clothes according to the photos, and seemed as fragile as the fine porcelain her skin resembled. Mordant's second conquest at that time had been 'Kyla' who was the other side of the same coin that defined Eloi. Kyla had blue-black hair with matching eyes. She was taller than average for Mordant's devotees, and thinner though she had that lean look of an accomplished athlete. Actually, she was not particularly notable among the rest of Mordant's acquisitions and it wasn't clear to me why she had been chosen.

"Ha!" Titania interrupted my musings. "That girl is more the 'almost you' than Breen is the 'almost Tryx'. And you, my dear, are most definitely 'notable'. You're just being catty."

"I am not catty."

"Meow, meow, meow," Ti replied snidely.

"Quiet," I demanded. "We have work to do."

"Pffzzzztt!" hissed Ti, and she sent me a sensation of being scratched so vivid I reached for my cheek.

"What's wrong?" Tryx asked at my sudden movement.

"Don't get me started," I said, but only to myself. Well, to myself and my hidden tormentor. Outwardly, I just shook my head and looked back at the data.

The next file was on 'Trislini', a dancer, and noted for the erotic sensuality of her dances. All the photos showed her light-brown hair bound up in a fairly formal style. Her body was even trimmer and more athletic than Kyla's. Trislini's companion was 'Laran', another blonde with a light-ash color halfway between Eloi and Tryx. The photos showed a nearly Tryx-class beauty with hair as long as mine. The information accompanying her pictures gushed about her cheerful personality and sharp wit. The agent complying the dossier had obviously fallen for her.

"Let's see," Tryx mused. "Three blondes, counting the one with white hair, and two brunettes, with one redhead. Does that mean he like blondes, or is he ready for another redhead to round out his, ah, stable?"

"Tall and short, thin and, ahem, shapely. Not much of a pattern," she continued.

Something was nagging at me. "Does he always pick two? I mean, half a dozen acquired in three visits could have meant a three and one combination or something, but this seems to indicate he always picks up two new girls every trip."

"Seems so," Tryx confirmed. "That's why I said we may need to stay together."

I started thinking out loud. "Let me get this straight. On a romantic resort planet, six beautiful women drop everything in their lives to go with Mordant, and not one of them brought a boyfriend along?"

"Still fixed on men, are we?" chided Tryx.

"Speak for yourself," I countered. "But how many women go to Mistfall to sit in the sunsets alone?"

"Maybe they weren't alone?" Tryx offered. "Gentlemen, if there are any of those around any more, might have, ah, accepted defeat gracefully."

"Gentlemen, or. . ." I asked as an insight came to me, "ladies?"

Tryx snickered and said, "Keep your panties dry, girl. Not everyone in the galaxy gets horny on an hourly basis with anything that breathes. If these women were oriented toward women, why would they interest Mordant?"

"For the challenge," I replied.

"What challenge?" she countered. "He gives them a whiff of his drug and they're history."

"Ah, but that's the point. Wanna bet that Mordant thinks it's his charm that conquers these women, not his drug?"

"Yeah, right."

"Trust me," I insisted. "I'll bet he thinks he's the galaxy's greatest lover. And the ultimate fantasy for men is to be so . . . desirable that they can seduce a lesbian away from her . . . her lover? Oh my god, he's getting both of them!"

"What?"

"Mordant considers himself the universe's greatest lover," I explained. "His ego discounts how much the thionite is really the cause of the women's desire. He likes to break up lesbian pairs. Women who are already in love, and in fact don't even like men, are the greatest challenge and therefore fitting for the galaxy's greatest lover."

"Do all men think like that?" Tryx asked.

I shrugged, but the message that mattered was written on my face.

I couldn't tell if the answering grin on Tryx's face was due to my embarrassment, or due to anticipation of what was to come. "Xora, dear," she said, "we're going to be more than acquaintances. We're going to be 'an item.'"

It was silly of me not to see that obvious conclusion, but all of the sudden a lot of things I had been suppressing were unavoidably brought to the surface - that bubbling lava thing again - and like lava, they brought along a lot of heat.

"Us?" I asked stupidly.

"Am I so . . . unappealing?" she challenged.

"Good god, no, you're . . . "

"Stars, lover-to-be," she laughed, "are you blushing, or is that Titania?"

"Ti, you should be helping me, not feeing that fire!"

"I am helping," Titania laughed. "She thinks it's charming."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it!"

Titania sighed and said, "I thought we had been through that 'lying to your symbiont' thing."

I resurrected whatever tattered shards of concentration I could muster and made a not-too-successful try at a casual shrug. "Let's just say that we can work something out," I told Tryx, but the message was to Titania as well.

Despite the effect the prospect of a 'more than acquaintances' relationship with Tryx had on me, it didn't seem to be very interesting to Tryx.

"Don't kid yourself. I can sense her pulse and she is H-O-T-T HOT!"

"Is she? It doesn't show."

"Bee is, ah, helping her, but I can tell."

"Oh, you mean, he is a good partner?" I snipped.

"Nope," Titania said smugly. "Just a nicer one."

"Our job," Tryx interrupted my internal conversation, "will be to catch Mordant's attention, and based on your insight, we'll have to seem totally infatuated with each other while we do it. Then we'll 'allow' ourselves to be corrupted by him. Think you can handle it?"

"I can handle anything you can," I declared.

"Promise?" Tryx challenged, then took a deep breath - which stopped my own breathing flat, not to mention my heart and whatever passed for my brain.

She dissolved into giggles before I passed out, then sent my overworked imagination off into another spiral when she said, "Showtime, girl. From now on, you are my devoted lover. Start swooning every time I smile at you."

"Smile nothing," Ti chided. "You're near to swooning every time she breathes."

I felt yet another fire light my cheeks, which brought a heart-stopping smile to Tryx's face. God help me, when she really turned up the wattage, she was . . .

"That's a good start," Tryx snickered. Then she damped down on her radiance and said, "Look, Xora, this can be fun. You are the most sensuous woman - the most sensuous person - I have ever met, and you are just fabulous as the quivering ingenue. I'm looking forward to this, aren't you?"

My blush was not about to diminish, and I was hardly suave as I stammered, "I'm not sure, ah, it would be . . . an act."

She didn't make things any easier when she leaned forward to whisper huskily in my ear, "Good. Stars, but you keep me hot. I was beginning to think I'd lost my touch!"

"No, not . . . at all."

Titania was clamoring for her own share of my attention. "Go for it! You know you want to."

"Yeah, I do," I admitted. "Maybe too much."

"Worry about that later. Duty calls!"

"Yes, but . . "

"But nothing," Titania interrupted. "Like she said, it's 'showtime.'"

"Yes, but," I repeated. "I can't believe I'm going to be her little lover-toy."

Titania did not share my concern. "Right. Hanging on her, cuddling with her, walks in the moonlight on a beautiful resort planet. I can see how you'd hate that."

"That's not what I mean."

"Then what do you mean? What's wrong with having Tryx for a lover? You haven't been able to breathe right any time Tryx is in the same room with you since the first time you saw her - and you're complaining?"

Then Titania's mental tone took on a worried element. "Unless . . .you're exclusively interested in men now, after Darius? Have you switched over completely?"

"No!"

"Gotcha!" Titania crowed. "I knew that, of course. Your body gives you away, but I wanted you to face it yourself. She gets you hot - and don't blame a bit of that on me, girl. By the First Morph, I think you'd complain if you were suddenly made queen of the universe."

"Don't want the responsibility," I claimed, but I had to laugh. Ti was right ("Told you so!") and I had certainly had worse assignments. Besides, we were still on a mission and Tryx was professional. Surely she wouldn't let things go . . . too far. Surely that nova-bright smile was just . . . part of the assignment.

Yeah, right.



Chapter 6 - "Lipstick and Lace"


Despite the . . . redefinition of our relationship, Tryx left no doubt that she was still in charge and that meant she still got to use me as her full-size dress-up doll. In particular, now that we were officially 'together', she insisted that I wear ultra-feminine clothes with floppy lace cuffs and lacy jabots below frilly, stand-up collars. In white, of course, though the main part of my dress was a deep red that . . .

Okay, so my complaints were pro forma. The combination of white lace and scarlet woman was . . . amazing. Every time I saw myself in the mirror - and even Titania got tired of teasing me about how often I looked - I saw what Tryx meant about innocent sensuality.

So did she. I didn't know if her interest in me was an act or real, but every time she looked at me there was so much naked lust in her eyes that when I saw it . . . Well, I decided I might as well just quit trying to breathe and let Titania handle it, because there was no way I could manage such complicated tasks on my own, not when Tryx looked at me that way.

"Always glad to help," Titania whispered in my ear, her husky tones a perfect reflection of the driving need I felt. I needed to think about something else. If I could.

Tryx, on the other hand, dressed in an almost masculine way. No, that's not right. There could not, even on a dark night at a distance - in a fog - be any doubt she was spectacularly feminine. It's just that the secondary elements of her outfits had an intriguing element of masculinity. Her skirts were every bit as short as my dresses, but she wore skirts that had a more-or-less masculine belt (if you discount the fact no adult man ever had a waist so tiny). Her blouses had a high, almost formal collar, but it was plain, without the ruffles and lace of mine. Her cuffs contrasted with the color of her blouse, but they were perhaps the most masculine feature of all with a French fold and golden cufflinks. Taken by herself, she was undeniably beautiful, but the contrast with the delicacy of my own clothes made her look dominant and controlling as well. 'Challenging', just as she had said.

We went out to see and be seen, walking beside a moonlit beach (three moons, two of significant size and above the horizon) on a path that just coincidentally passed under the verandah of the villa that Mordant had occupied. For once, my heels were even higher than Tryx's because we wanted to emphasize the differences in our heights rather than disguise it. That shortened my stride to match hers - somehow 'stride' doesn't seem quite right for all the secondary motions that were involved - and we strolled along with the easy grace of paired pumas, the dance of light on rippling hair and shining legs proclaiming our beauty with every pace.

We were lucky. We only had to pass the villa twice before Mordant stepped out onto the shaded verandah. He was the same as his photo, complete to the accessories of a beautiful girl dangling from each arm as another hovered behind.

I wasn't sure if Tryx had seen him or not, so I pulled her to a stop and 'forced' myself to look into her deep, shimmering blue eyes. "You forgot part of your outfit, Commander," I whispered in her ear.

"What?" she asked, whispering in return.

"You forgot your collar pips, Commander," I teased. "So you'll have to excuse me if I forget - every now and then - that you're a senior officer and I'm only doing this because you ordered me to cuddle with you."

"Is that some sort of crack?" she asked suspiciously, so I was pretty sure she hadn't seen Mordant yet.

I ignored her question blithely and sighed, "I suppose it's for the best. I'm not as good an actress as you are. If I just, mmm, forget myself in your arms; that would look the most natural right? That's what the mission requires, after all."

For the first time, I saw a real, honest-to-goodness blush on Tryx's features. Cooing softly I asked, "Why Tryxie, are you blushing, or is that Bee?"

She stiffened in my arms and said, "I don't like that, ah, nickname."

"Uh, oh," Titania said.

"Oh, yeah," I replied. The grin in Titania's mental voice told me she wasn't really concerned for poor Tryxie, even though she knew I was just the girl to use an unliked nickname against someone.

"You can say that again," she snickered.

"Why? Didn't you 'hear' me the first time, Ti?"

"Hey, you're the one who told me how people use that expression!"

"If you say so," I replied, but my attention was really on Tryx.

"Not even from your sweet, innocent little, um, companion?" I asked as I used a long-nailed finger to tickle her chin. "Hmm, Tryxie-wixie?"

"Don't overdo it," cautioned Titania.

"She asked for it," I replied. "If she tells me she doesn't like it, then I'll stop."

As if in response to that offer, Titania said, "Tryx says - and I'm not making this up - that having a little fun is fine, but tone it down a little until he sees us."

I kept my eyes focused on Tryx's blue pools and told Ti, "Ask her how we'll know when that happens, if we're staying focused on each other."

Something let Tryx in on what I had already noticed. She moved so that she could see Mordant on his balcony.

"You told her!" I accused my partner.

"Of course!" she replied unrepentantly.

"Why?"

"For all four of us, of course," declared Ti, and Tryx showed that she was right.

Grinning lasciviously, the curvy blonde let a thrilling huskiness into her voice and whispered, "Well, any errors should be on the side of caution, of course."

"And in this case, caution means . . . ?"

"You know damned well what it means, and I can play this game at least as well as you can," she declared, and then she kissed me.

Moonlit Kiss
. . . and then she kissed me."

"Oh, god, it's been too long since I've kissed a woman," I moaned to my partner. Even as I said it, I knew I'd NEVER kissed a woman like that.

Ti was not impressed by my observation. "From here, it seems like she's doing most of the kissing. You need to catch up."

"Oh, um, right."

Titania's next observation was much more complimentary. "Ahh, now that's much better."

"Shut up, Titty, I'm busy!"

She didn't. Shut up, that is. And her next, carefully neutral - at least in tone - observation was nearly enough to distract me from Tryx's kisses.

Okay, so that's a lie. But it was surprising.

"Bee says you do that pretty well. Tryx is, ah, impressed, and it seems she's something of an expert."

"You're comparing notes with Bee?!"

"Don't worry. You don't have anything to be ashamed about."

"You're a damn voyeur!"

Titania laughed in my ear and said, "You're just now figuring that out? Careful, or I'll turn you blonde so you have a reason to act so foolish."

My hidden partner may have said something else. Frankly, I was well on my way to tuning out all distractions, except for a nagging desire to find someplace a little more private. With each heartbeat, the amount of additional privacy I would have settled for got less and less. Until I suddenly wanted a LOT more privacy because we were interrupted.

I heard a step crunch on the path, and while I'd have been willing to ignore it - very, very willing - Tryx apparently was not. She stepped back to regard the source of the sound and we saw a man so toad-like that at first I thought he was not human stock. It wasn't clear he had any neck at all, and watery eyes bulged above the widest mouth I'd ever seen on a man.

"Hello," he said, his nasal tones a sharp contrast to the bass croak I expected from his thick throat.

Tryx nodded with minimal politeness, pointedly not releasing me from her embrace.

"Please excuse the interruption, but my employer, Oslo Mordant, would like to invite you up to his villa to join a party he is hosting."

I was already beginning to move that way when Tryx's arms tightened about me in warning. Her words were not what I expected.

"Tell your Mister, ah, Mordant thanks, but we have another engagement for the evening."

I sent a quick message via Titania asking what was going on. This is exactly what we had been trying to arrange and Tryx was turning it down!

"She says we don't want to be too easy," Titania reported. "Besides, we have better things to do."

With that, Tryx pointedly ignored the toad-like man by kissing me again, and since I didn't need to take care of impossible things like breathing at a time like that, I didn't die - for all it seemed I had made it to heaven.

Then I got the sense through the link of a more serious message. "We want to meet him for the first time in public. While our symbionts can protect us from his drug, he may bring other . . . pressures to bear if he gets us in a private place; things that may require us to reveal our special abilities. I want to delay that until after there are public witnesses who know we're going with him. That should keep him, well, cautious at least."

The embrace that accompanied her observation was a shared intimacy that shut out the rest of the world, and . . . well, one thing led to another and if she had anything further to say, neither one of us - none of the four of us, for that matter - cared. Unfortunately, we were too public for more than an appetizer. And by the time we got back to our rooms, it was time to get ready for our 'engagement', which turned out to be gambling. Not surprisingly, the resort had a casino. Less surprisingly, Tryx liked trolling for boys in elegant surroundings, even if we were officially off the market.

The outfit she decided she would wear was certainly elegant, sleek and shiny in her favorite eye-matching royal blue. It hugged every delectable curve from throat to knees, then flared out in a wide skirt that accented every move she made. I was a bit conflicted about the style since it was very close to what I had worn on Teton and that had resulted in . . . varied memories. After all, I had ended up kidnapped and dumped in a swamp.

There wasn't any conflict in my feelings about the dress she expected me to wear.

"Damn it, Tryx, I am NOT wearing a tent! Let alone a PINK one!"

"It's not a tent," she claimed. "It's very stylish on, um, Palmus IV."

"EVERYthing is fashionable somewhere in the Federation. That doesn't mean it looks good. If you think it's so great, YOU wear it."

"Now, Xora, we've already discussed this. I'm going to be the femme fatale, and you're going to be . . . naive. That way we can maximize our chances of getting Mordant's attention."

"We already GOT his attention, and you turned it down!"

"Don't make me pull rank again," Tryx warned.

I was about to tell her where she could put her rank - and offer to help her put it there - when Titania did that stupid lockup thing on me again.

"Damn it, Titty, don't YOU start on me, too!"

"Take it easy. I have an idea."

"You're going along with her?"

"Not on a bet," she promised. "There is no way I'm going to let Bee look better than we do. But this . . . 'tent' has given me an idea. Do you remember when we first joined, when I told you I wasn't as nice as Bee?"

"How could I forget," I snapped. "That has got to be one of the classic understatements of the century."

That earned me one of her patented pinch-tickles, but a giggle as well. "And don't you forget it. But this time it's for your own good."

"Uh, oh."

"Oh, hush and listen to me. Tryx is not, um, subtle."

"I stand corrected. THAT has to be the understatement of the century - hell, of the millennium."

THAT earned me a wiggle in an entirely inappropriate location.

"Damn it, Titty, STOP THAT!"

"Quiet, and let me finish," she ordered. "Tryx wouldn't know subtle if it slapped her in the face, and Bee just goes along with whatever she wants. I, on the other hand, have greater, ah, insight."

"Greater arrogance, you mean," I countered, but to forestall another of her . . . intrusions, I quickly added, "but you definitely have my attention."

"Okay," she explained, "this 'tent' as you say, is layers and layers of very light, sheer material. One layer would be little better than going nude, but by the time you get them all on, it's not only opaque, it's basically formless."

"Exactly. What's your point?"

"Suppose we . . . left out a few layers."

"I want to look good, Ti, not cheap."

"Oh, you'll look good. Trust me."

Like I had any choice. Titania was basically my 'skin' all the time anyway. If she pigmented to look like a tight uniform, it was really no more coverage than if she looked like bare flesh. I had been trusting her for clothes since, well, since the first day we had joined.

I had something else I could trust as well. Her competition with Bee was not diminished by our success on our own missions. If anything, it was intensified since the only real challenger to our reputation was Tryx. Whatever Titania had in mind, I knew it would be dramatic and effective at making us look good. I wasn't nearly as confident it would be 'subtle'. Still, I sighed and shrugged.

The whole conversation took only a heartbeat, and all Tryx knew of it was the concluding shrug. Trying, not very successfully, to conceal her smirk of triumph, she handed me the tent and swayed to the mirror for some unneeded primping. She glanced at my garment and at the clock, sending me an even clearer message that nearly got her a face full of fabric.

"No, Xora!" Titania said. "Just go along. Let's go to our room and I'll show you what I have in mind."

When we got to our room, I started to paw through all those acres of sheer material in an attempt to figure out how to wear the thing.

Titania said, "Oh, throw that monstrosity away."

"Not that I don't want to, but . . . just how many layers are you going to leave out?"

"All of them, of course," she snickered. "Go stand in front of the mirror."

I had never gotten used to the image I saw there, not really. It wasn't a . . . surprise any longer, exactly, but I felt something every single time I saw my reflection, something . . .

"Oh, quit," Ti laughed at me. "You're aroused by the way you look, and well you should be."

The protest I felt I should make died in my throat - or my mind, or wherever it was forming. There was enough of the old male Xora in me that I was attracted to the image in a way that was beyond simple emotion - certainly beyond objective self-assessment.

The, ah, leftover part of the old Xora woke up and howled when Titania made the clothes I had apparently been wearing vanish. In my forebrain, I knew there wasn't any real difference in how much I was covered, but that intellectual knowledge was . . . irrelevant when the deeper parts of my mind saw that sleek alabaster tower. My . . response was obvious in ways that had never shown on the old Xora, which was some sort of compensation for the response that was no longer there to show. Good thing I didn't need to breathe any more. Not that my 'lungs' weren't moving in . . . arresting ways.

"You're welcome," Titania said dryly. "Now be still. This is going to take some concentration."

"What is?"

"Hush."

At first, I didn't see any changes. I was, ahem, studying the image in the mirror quite carefully - only to see what Titania had in mind, of course. The arousal shown by my new feminine 'attributes' wasn't diminished noticeably when a blush of embarrassment was added to it. But I moved to step back from the mirror when I realized I was fogging the glass with my overheated breath.

Or at least I tried to move back. "Damn it, Ti, don't DO that to me!" I hated it when she did the lockup thing.

"Be still," she repeated. "The mirror is fine."

In fact, even as she spoke I realized it wasn't my hot breath that was interfering with the image in the mirror. A quick glance down showed that the fog was real, a shimmering mist that floated about my disappearing form. In moments, it had obscured everything from my shoulders to my ankles.

"Very impressive, but we might as well be wearing that tent," I snipped.

"Would you prefer pink?" she challenged.

"Or course not, but silver-white is . . . "

"Just walk over to the door and back," she ordered.

During the walk away from the mirror, the gown - or fog, or whatever it was - took on a glowing pearlescent hue that seemed to be radiating a soft light in all the colors of the spectrum.

"That's not really true," Ti said, picking up on my perception. "I'm just using a little moisture to bend the light that's already there. It works best when you're moving."

"It's beautiful," I said in honest appreciation.

"Now walk back to the mirror," she suggested, and the smirk in her tone told me I had another surprise in store.

"How do you DO that?!" I gasped when I saw the moving image.

The . . . effect she had created truly did resemble fog, right down to the tendency to linger in place instead of moving when I moved. While it did not ever - quite - become transparent, it seemed to drift like the bit of wisp that it resembled, thinning down to a scandalous, figure-caressing film that threatened to dissipate behind me at any instant if I moved just a bit more quickly. When I stopped, it more or less caught up, but the curves revealed when I moved disappeared only gradually as the mist drifted back into an obscuring cover.

"You like it?" Ti asked smugly.

"It's fabulous. How do you do that?"

"Call it, 'surface' tension'," she suggested. "I've, ah, absorbed some water molecules, and bind them in a matrix that's . . . attracted to your form."

"That's not the only thing that's going to be attracted to this form," I predicted.

"Told you so," Ti gloated, and I joined her in her snicker. Stars, but Tryx was going to be livid!

"Make sure you're standing still when she 'approves' your gown," suggested Titania.

"Oh, yeah," I agreed, a predatory grin reflected on my erstwhile pouting lips.

Schooling my features carefully into neutrality, I peeked through the doorway. Tryx was still primping and I grinned again as I saw her hairstyle smooth into a sleeker mass more like my own current style. More importantly, the mirror she regarded did not reflect the doorway to my own room, so I slipped into the common area and stood quietly. When the fog effect had settled around me into the requisite tent shape, I demurely asked, "Is this okay?"

Tryx twitched in surprise, and a flush lit her cheeks for a moment as she realized she'd been 'caught' in her hairstyle exploration, but to her credit she quickly suppressed that.

"She had help, and needed it," Titania whispered to me, and I had to fight to keep my modest smile.

Tryx interrupted any further internal communication with an observation. "You changed the color."

"The pink just didn't suit me," I said lightly. Whatever else she may have said about the color was lost as she looked more closely at my 'gown'.

"How did you change the material like that?"

I just smiled again. And she blushed again at the obvious answer to the question.

"Is that really all Titania?"

"Well, some of it is me."

"I know that," she said. "I meant, are you wearing any clothes beside what Titania provides?"

"She meets my needs very well," I replied smugly.

"Indeed."

I could see a bit of irritation in her eyes, but her innate sense of humor accepted the fairness of my . . . improvisation. Little did she know . . .

Nodding, Tryx turned to the door and gathered her purse from the nearby table. "Ready?"

I nodded in turn and moved to pick up my own small bag.

"Oh. My. God!"

"Oh, do you like the way this gown moves?" I asked with wide-eyed innocence.

"You're shameless," accused Titania.

"You're one to talk."

"That is . . . how can . . . is that really Titania?" gasped Tryx.

"Well, some of it is me," I repeated with a smirk. "You can probably tell which parts."

"Damn, girl, that is positively wicked," Titania giggled.

"Quit bragging," I retorted.

"I was talking about what you said," she replied. "You're not nice at all."

"Yeah, right, like you didn't know that already."

"Okay," she admitted, "but I've got a feeling Tryx didn't know. Not really."

"Yep," I gloated.

Tryx interrupted our mutual back-patting with a wry observation. "Men from far stars will be panting after you tonight. That's hardly the look of a naive innocent."

"Well, I'm hardly a naive innocent," I countered. "But it is different from what you're wearing, so we'll have more than one 'choice' for Mordant. Isn't that the point?"

Tryx smiled and nodded. "Score one for you. Remind me never to try to upstage you again."

"Like you have anything to worry about - even if you don't cheat."

"Now I'm not so sure." But she asked again, "Ready?"

I nodded, and 'demurely' let her escort me out the door.



Chapter 7 - "Gambling for High Stakes"


To say we made an entrance into the casino would be another of those monumental understatements. And despite my, that is, Titania's recent victory in the apparel contest, Tryx showed she was not going to place second to anyone. With a grace so natural even I would have considered it a coincidence if it had been anyone but Tryx, she managed to flip her shiny gold mane at the exact second she passed under a convenient light. It was like a photo flash had gone off, bright enough to catch every eye in the room. Most of which lingered for a second look.

That, on the other hand, was to my advantage. With equally careful 'luck' I happened to step up next to her just as all those eyes locked onto us. Take that, Blondie.

Tryx's hand slipped over to hold mine. The smile of pride in her face was not consistent with the message she sent through our symbionts. "Damn it, girl, you are NOT here to troll for a new lover. You're supposed to be in love with me!"

I let my eyes widen in surprise. "Why, Tryxie, of course I only have eyes for you."

Titania chose that moment to add a private comment of her own. At least, I hoped it was private. "You'd have a lot more than eyes for her, if you could find a quiet corner."

"Shhh," I demanded. "Oh, now look what you've done."

"Not me, Miss Demure. Those little, ahem, advertisements are all your own doing."

"You're the one who made me think of Tryx. Think of her like, um, 'that', I mean."

"Yeah, right, like you've ever stopped thinking of her like 'that'."

Before I could reply further, Tryx used the hand she still held to pull us away from the entrance spotlight into the bustling energy of the casino floor. That added yet another experience to my formerly limited life. Gambling had never interested me - in fact it didn't really interest me then, either - and I had never studied the popular games. I was a bit surprised not to see anything like poker, or for that matter any card games at all. Tryx noticed my confusion and snickered.

"Did you think your, ah, partner would give you an advantage in reading your opponent?" she whispered.

"Um, maybe," I admitted.

"Sensing technology is so good - and so easy to hide - that there's little point to secrecy. You can't bluff when your opponent can sense your physiology, and probably even see your cards. Poker is something that can only be played among friends who trust each other."

"So what do you suggest?"

"Smile a lot and keep moving," she replied, glancing down at the gauzy mist surrounding me.

"I mean for the games," I sniffed.

"So do I," she smirked. "At least, the kind of game that outfit says you want to play. You picked it, now work it."

Strictly in the line of duty, of course, I had to agree that the best way to attract our prey was indeed to keep moving. The wispy fog surrounded me like a tent, but only when I stood still. Tryx moved off to some game with a complicated randomizing element involving a wheel and a ball, but I decided I'd just . . . drift.

"Oh, that's . . . disgusting," Titania groaned.

"What is?"

"That - what did you call it, a pun? That's really low humor."

"Oh," I said innocently. "Don't you like puns, Titania love?"

"I most certainly do not!" she snapped.

"I'll have to remember that," I murmured. Innocently.

Before I had even completed a circuit of the room, let alone absorbed any understanding of all the ways there were to lose money, I was interrupted by Mordant's Toady, stepping directly into my path.

"If you had mentioned your evening engagement was here," he said, "Mr. Mordant would have been pleased to escort you."

"Good for him," I said dismissively. I didn't move off, though. I wanted to get away from this underling and the need to contact Mordant be damned, but his eyes were drilling into my . . . what had Titania called them? - my 'advertisements' and I felt uncomfortable giving him an even better show by moving away. The fog effect thinned to 'why bother' when I moved too quickly, and moving slowly was a 'why bother' of another sort when I was trying to get away from someone.

"Why didn't you tell me it made you that uncomfortable?" asked Titania.

"I don't know. I guess I got so caught up in the stupid competition thing with Tryx that I didn't really think about it."

"You know I can thicken things up, or do what looks like a full-coverage jumpsuit under the mist."

"I know. For that matter, I know the jumpsuit I, um, we usually wear is not really any more clothes than this. It's just . . . the way he looks at me makes me feel . . . unclean."

Toady's leer did not diminish despite my deliberately unhidden lack of interest. I looked around in the hope that Tryx might rescue me, but I saw her laughing as she won some sort of prize. At least my towering heels kept me well above my unwelcome companion - a psychological distance he was quick to remove by forcing my attention back to his own topic.

"Mr. Mordant will be here shortly. I'm sure he will want to meet you."

"Good for him," I repeated tersely. My guardian angel anticipated my need to keep any physical reaction hidden at the news our quarry was en route. Things were working out just as Tryx had planned. We had managed to get our prey out of his den - or at least soon would.

That news required that I talk with Tryx, so despite my misgivings about Toady's intrusive inspection, I moved smoothly to where she was playing. A pout of disappointment formed on my lips when I realized she was four rows deep in avid attendants - and that pout was in turn replaced with a smile when the men parted like the fog I seemed to wear as I approached. Even Tryx noted my arrival quickly, mostly because the man who dropped his chips when he saw me bumped into her as he tried to pick them up. By the time we were all sorted out, I had a hand on Tryx's elbow and she knew our target was on the way.

None too soon, because there was another mass attention swing as the entire casino noted the entrance of a pair of beautiful women and their obvious patron. In the better light of the casino entrance, I could see Mordant's pictures didn't do him justice. He was lean in a way that had none of Sstton's cadaverous thinness. On him, it looked good - really good - an effect emphasized more than hidden by a perfectly tailored suit. His dark brown hair was just wavy enough to emphasize his vibrant health despite a touch of gray at his temples. That added a distinguished element that seemed comfortably mature without in any way being aged.

"It's a fake," Titania informed me.

"Hmm?"

"Wake up, Xora. You're not in his bed, yet. I told you that the gray in his hair is faked."

"Oh, um, yeah, um, if you say so," I said, realizing I did indeed need to stay focused.

"You were focused, all right," chided Ti. "Just not on business. In any event, the gray is faked. I've worked on your own hair color enough that I can tell."

"I'll take your word for it," I promised, but found myself still watching Mordant's smooth glide toward us.

That was business, of course. Our mission absolutely required that we study our prey. Closely.

Then I found myself distracted anyway, as I began to absorb the identities of his entourage. "He's not particularly subtle," I observed wryly.

Titania asked a silent question, but it wasn't an argument. Since her normal approach was way off the subtle scale too, it wasn't surprising she didn't immediately catch on.

"Look who's with him," I prompted. "Breen and Kyla. As you said, Kyla is as close to me as anyone in Mordant's current entourage, just as Breen is a scaled-down Tryx. Wanna bet they're his second line of attack? If Tryx and I are attracted to each other, then he's brought substitutes for both of us to draw our attention away."

"No bet," Titania murmured, seeing the validity of my insight at last.

The girls were jockeying for position, but their focus was on Mordant. They were quite . . . shameless actually. ("Look who's talking!" "I'm not talking, I'm thinking, and besides, relative to them I'm quite demure." "Xora! Warn me before you tell a whopper like that! I need a chance to set myself before the lightning strikes!" "Oh, hush.") They draped themselves over him, rubbing their bosoms on his arms, just . . . disgusting.

"Envious?" asked Titania.

"Actually, no," I claimed. "I think it's demeaning."

"Of course it's demeaning," snorted Titania. "That's the whole point, isn't it? You said he takes happy, comfortable women and turns them into helpless sex slaves."

"Well, knowing it and seeing it are just . . . different."

"Ha! Next you'll tell me you wouldn't want those beauties to be draped over you that way."

I didn't have time to respond - which was probably a blessing since that might have been just a bit too close to the truth - because Mordant had made it to a position directly in front of me.

He didn't waste any time. Shrugging off the girls who clung to him, he took my hand and said, "Angel or Devil?"

"Excuse me?"

"You are supernaturally beautiful," he declared. "So that makes you either an angel or a devil. If you're an angel, then you must help me in my distress. If you're a devil, well, that can be interesting, too."

"Distress?" I repeated, careful to keep my tone neutral.

"Most assuredly," he said, 'suave' dripping from every word. "Having seen you I will surely die if you won't have dinner with me."

"I'm already with someone," I said, turning to look at Tryx. Apparently it took some time to extract herself from her complicated game. Turning back to Mordant, I said, "Besides, I don't even know you."

"Oh, of course. How rude of me," he said, frowning in a way that implied the rudeness was really on my side. It was, of course. He was famous, and I had insulted him by not knowing of his celebrity status. Too bad. He was just too . . . smooth for me.

Tryx finally managed to get free of her game and joined me just as Mordant said, "Oslo Mordant, at your service."

"If you're Mordant," I snipped, "then you already know who we are. Your, um, assistant has already approached us. Twice."

"Indeed," he grinned unapologetically. "I am found out. Let me apologize to you, Xora, and to Tryx for my subterfuge by buying dinner for you both."

I was ready to turn him down again, but apparently Tryx had decided we would accept his invitation this time. She smiled and said, "We would be glad to join you."

Offering an arm to each of us, he smiled grandly and led the way to the resort's principal dining room. In another well-planned coincidence, there was a table prepared. The bubbly blonde Breen ended up seated next to me, while the tall, dark Kyla ended up next to Tryx. Surprise, surprise.

The meal was one of those overly fancy multi-course things that seemed to be based on the assumption that one's appetites were so jaded only outrageous tastes were interesting. We proceeded from a dish with enough spice to etch glass, to something sweet to sour to cold to hot and then started back again. If it weren't for Titania's able assistance, I'd have been sick.

"You're welcome. Again," she laughed in my ear.

"Thank you. Again," I belatedly expressed the gratitude that had been lurking in my thoughts.

Tryx was apparently enjoying the meal a lot more than I was. She laughed demurely and glowed with each confusing bite, monopolizing Mordant's conversation. I felt like I wasn't holding up my end of things and was about to try and re-enter the competition when my legs locked up under the table.

"Ti . . . ," I began warningly.

"Sorry, Xora, but Bee has snaked a tendril out to contact me and I need to make sure you don't break the link."

"Try just asking me," I snapped, but she didn't seem to notice my tone.

"Tryx says this is working out fine," Titania reported. Yeah, right, for Tryx things were working out fine.

"No, really," confirmed Titania. "She says Mordant is pleased by her attention and challenged by our lack of it. She expects him to send in the second wave on you any minute."

Well, it wasn't a subtle tactic, so I wasn't surprised that Tryx had picked up on it, too. Nor was I surprised in a short while when Mordant spoke to Breen with a seemingly innocuous suggestion that he thought she and I might have something in common.

"Oh, what would that be?" I asked politely.

"Here we are on one of the great resort planets of the galaxy," Breen gushed, "and I find that I don't know how to swim."

"But, um, I do know how to swim," I said.

"Oh, well, that's even better," Breen replied, then showed she was similar to Tryx in subtlety - or lack of it - as well as appearance. Leaning forward to brush the soft mounds of her breasts on my arm, she said, "You can teach me."

"Teach you to swim?" I said - frankly it was such a blatant come on I was confused, looking for the hidden hook.

Which meant I fell for it, of course, offering her as good a straight line as she could want. Lowering her voice to a husky whisper, she said, "Teach me anything you want, Tall, Dark, and Gorgeous."

She was good. The sex she poured into that whispered comment could have come from Tryx herself, and the allure of my blonde colleague had never needed the excuse of a mission assignment to be effective with me. Breen looked and acted enough like Tryx that she could push a lot of buttons Tryx had already set in place, and my response to the smaller blonde's suggestion was immediate, obvious, and unambiguous.

"Thanks a lot, Titty," I snapped silently.

"Look who's talking about tits," Titania chortled in reply. "And you know as well as I do that I'm not helping that particular reaction in any way."

"That's the point! I could use a little help - to keep these puppies under control."

"Oh, I don't know," she said blandly. "They always say, 'It pays to advertise' and partner, you are advertising."

As though it were necessary, Breen confirmed it. She breathed in my ear and said, "Oh, good. I see you don't find me. . . .unattractive after all."

"Um, no, not at all," I admitted. "But, I mean, you're beautiful, but, I'm with . . .um. . . "

"Her name is Tryx," Breen giggled in my ear. "And if you can't remember it, then you'll have to work harder to convince me you're not interested."

I was 'rescued' from my predicament by an unlikely savior. Mordant himself announced the termination of our meal with a declaration that didn't include room for argument. "We'll all head back to the villa now."

And so we did. Tryx had supplanted Breen on Mordant's arm, and the easy way she accepted Kyla on the other side said that they were becoming increasingly comfortable in each other's presence as well. That left Breen rubbing herself against me. I hadn't expected to be put to the test so soon after expressing my . . . disappointment in the way the girls had earlier hung on Mordant. But I have to admit to being at least a little gratified that my disappointment hadn't gone away when I was indeed the one 'enjoying' a beautiful woman's blatant admiration.

"Why is that?" Titania asked. "She's beautiful, and sensual, and it's very human to be flattered by the attention of someone like her."

"It's only flattering if you value it," I replied.

"And you don't? Why not?"

"I guess it's because, well, because she doesn't value it. How can you respect a woman with so little self-respect?"

"Ah, interesting insight," mused Titania. "Your own esteem depends on the, um, quality of your friends?"

"In part, I guess."

"So you don't find these girls attractive?"

I nodded mentally. "They're pretty enough, and that's the first dimension of attractiveness, but they're diminished from what they should - or at least, could - be."

"What about Mordant? When he came down the stairs, I thought you were going to throw yourself at his feet."

I grimaced internally, but I had to agree with her. "I guess that's the opposite side of the same problem. It didn't take long to see he's so full of . . . himself that there's no room for anyone else. He's good looking, but there's nothing to build a relationship on."

Toady - I had never found out his real name - had transports waiting and we were whisked efficiently to Mordant's villa. Tryx was laughing gaily, snuggling closer to Mordant's arm, but I was still disturbed by the heavy-handed nature of the scene. As soon as we were safely within the privacy of his residence, Mordant addressed my lack of enthusiasm directly.

"Xora, you seem, ah, distracted. Would you like a little help to relax?"

Tryx's frown was hidden from Mordant, though obvious to me, as was her accompanying order to play along. Well, she was playing her way, but I was going to play the game by rules of my own. Pouty face, not quite petulant, definite boredom - what have you got to interest me?

"Relax?" I asked. "What did you have in mind?"

"Oh, I have a, ah, private pharmaceutical that has proven quite effective, right Breen?"

If I were disgusted before, all I had room for then was pity. The naked desire in Breen's eyes seemed . . . less than human, less even then a reasonably well-treated dog. She nodded, quickly, distinctly, and repeatedly, while her eyes remained locked on a tiny ampoule held by Mordant.

"I don't think I'm, um, comfortable with unknown . . . medications," I stalled. "Please don't take offense."

"Of course not," Mordant's lips said, but his eyes told a different story. Well, playing 'hard to get' had been a staple of feminine wiles for longer than space travel. I kept my lips pouty and full, waiting for his next move.

"Perhaps a demonstration would be in order," he mused, and his cruelty became more apparent when he looked around the room. Some inexplicable signal must have gone out, because all the beauties in his harem seemed to appear out of nowhere, all hungrily lusting for the drug he was holding. "But first, I think there should be a different sort of demonstration, something . . . "

He looked at me, and then at Tryx, and said, "It would seem that Tryx is more, ah, 'open-minded' about some things than you are, dear Xora. Perhaps arousing your interests can best be done by . . . proxy."

As though that were a well-understood concept, Kyla and Breen moved together to the middle of a cushioned area on the floor, stripping their clothes as they went. The other girls backed off to give them room, but they still couldn't seem to tear their eyes away from Mordant - or at least what Mordant held.

In a bemused tone, Mordant explained. "You wouldn't know it, but until a few months ago, Breen and Kyla had never met. Now they are, ah, 'relaxed' enough in each other's company to enjoy sharing their pleasure. In fact, they do so eagerly, with no thought of reward, right girls?"

"Yes, Oslo," they each replied, not quite in unison but chillingly mechanical nonetheless.

"Of course," he said easily. "However, because it pleases me to see people happy, I will let them have a little of my powder after they give someone else pleasure. Whoever climaxes first gains her pleasure that way, and whoever is so devoted to her partner's pleasure that she, ah, holds out gains the pleasure of my little . . . relaxer."

Pulling Tryx into his arm, he led her to a wide, overly ornate seat that looked like nothing so much as a throne. Then he looked at the two naked girls and said, "You may begin."

It was way beyond demeaning. I expected some sort of girl-girl love scene, and certainly it was girl-girl, but there was little love to be seen. It was more of a no-holds-barred wrestling match. Breen and Kyla each first strove to protect their own pleasure centers from too-easy stimulation, then worked to stimulate their 'partner'. Kyla's longer arms were offset to some degree by Breen's quickness, but it was not a race, it was a wrestling match. In moments, Kyla's strength won out and she was licking and sucking at Breen's nubbin, while holding Breen away from her own. Even though Kyla's intimacy was hopelessly out of reach, Breen strained toward it with her protruding tongue, desperately trying to win a greater prize than her own sexual stimulation.

Her distraction was not enough protection from Kyla's ministrations, and after a scene that was erotic enough to awaken my own too-visible responses despite my sense of horror, Breen came with a keening wail that seemed more pain than pleasure for all that her response was unmistakably a sexual climax. No sooner was she released by Kyla though, then Breen was back at my side. With amazing composure, she said, "You really should try the powder, Xora. It's truly wonderful."

It would have worked better if she had stayed focused on me when she said it. But I saw her eyes flicker toward Mordant to see if her continued attempt to help him seduce me would gain her any further consideration. Apparently it did, as Mordant upped the ante.

"Why, Breen, that is generous of you," Mordant said smugly. "I'll tell you what. If Xora will try my little potion after your pretty entreaty, I'll give you some powder, too. All three of you girls can share the experience."

At that, Breen exploded in a paroxysm of begging. "Oh, God, Xora, please, please, you have to, please, just give it a try. I promise, you'll enjoy it, and later, well, you'll enjoy that, too. I can really, really, make you feel good, and the powder is even better. Please?"

This time, Tryx's visual order was even more clear, but I had about decided it was time to relent anyway. No one who dressed like Tryx and I did could pretend to be innocent or demure, even aside from choosing to vacation on a romantic resort planet. It would have been out of character - not to mention counter to our assignment - to refuse to try a new experience. Shrugging with casual disinterest that implied boredom was as great a motivation as anything, I nodded.

Mordant reached into his pocket and extracted two more ampoules. Handing all three to the hovering Kyla, he said, "You know the rules, each of you gets one dose. I'll know if Xora doesn't get hers. In the meantime, Tryx was telling me she had learned some fascinating techniques for . . . well, we'll just go experiment a little. The rest of you are dismissed until morning."

Kyla and Breen both grabbed one of my arms, hurrying me with naked urgency toward one of the many rooms of Mordant's villa. They were already nude and they wasted no time in pulling at my fog in a futile attempt to undress me as well.

"How do you take that thing off?" Kyla asked petulantly.

"It's a, um, field effect," I explained. "You don't, um, take it off, you turn it off."

"Then turn the damn thing off so we can get started," Breen ordered brusquely - after checking to make sure Mordant was gone and couldn't hear her lack of hospitality.

Titania responded and I joined them in apparent nudity. The other two flopped down without ceremony on the cushions of the room. Kyla offered only a brief explanation as she passed out the ampoules. "Just inhale the powder. You'll enjoy it. But you might, um, discharge a little fluid, which is why we take off our clothes."

Breen didn't wait for even that terse explanation. As soon as Kyla handed her the ampoule, she broke it open under her nose and drew the powder deeply into her lungs. Kyla soon followed her, and then followed her as well into a rigid muscle-lock that looked as fierce as anything Titania had ever inflicted on me. I could have merely stood up and walked out of the room, for all that they would know.

"Better not," Titania warned. "I'm betting that Mordant has this place monitored. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he's watching it himself, with Tryx. He's got to get her to try the powder too, and showing her how it works would help."

"Good point," I agreed. "Are you sure you can handle this?"

"Yes," she said confidently. "I've shut down all intake through your nose and mouth. We're breathing through our skin - which is me, of course- and I'm only passing pure oxygen. Rejecting poisons is one of the things my race does best, and I can treat this as a poison even if the girls think it's something wonderful."

"Okay, here goes," I said, then broke the ampoule under my own nose.

There was surprisingly little powder in there, milligrams at most. I pretended to inhale it, wondering how Titania was working the airflow without letting any actually into my system. Then, despite all her promises, I found myself locking up rigidly.

"Titania, that better be you, and you better quit it right now!" I demanded. But I didn't get an answer. "Titania!" I screamed silently as the room went dark.



Chapter 8 - "Dark Blonde"


"Calm down," Titania ordered smugly. "There's no need to panic."

The condescension in her mental voice did NOT reduce my irritation, but I was so relieved to hear the humor in it that I nearly forgot my anger. Well, forgot some of my anger. A little of it.

"Don't do that to me, Titania. It was not funny."

"It wasn't meant to be funny," she claimed. "I was busy taking care of that powder and didn't have time to explain."

"You had time to do the lockup thing," I pointed out. "And why did you take away my sight?"

"There was no way you could fake the rigidity the other girls showed, and you know it. And if you'd have been paying attention, you'd have noticed that the girls closed their eyes. I was just making sure we looked right."

I sighed and let it drop. She was . . . well, the bad thing is she was probably right, and the worse thing was that it wouldn't have mattered if I had been right. She was not likely to relent in thinking she could just make those sorts of decisions about us, regardless of any argument I might make. And the worst thing was . . . I knew I often did the same thing.

Instead of arguing, I asked, "What did you find out about the drug?"

"Not much, yet," she admitted. "Mostly I've been careful to keep it out of our system. I encapsulated it and moved it into one of your 'storage volumes.' But I haven't been able to determine what it does."

"What about the other girls? Can you tell from them?"

"Oh, good idea," Titania said, but then she did nothing.

She picked up my thought and explained, "I'm slipping a tendril out to each of them, and I'll take blood samples. Maybe I can tell from that."

It was a long, frustrating wait while she did her work. There had been a lot of times since we had joined when I had felt . . . ineffective, but I hadn't felt as helpless even when we were sitting in that nasty swamp on Teton. I was essentially blind, paralyzed, and, well, useless.

"No you're not," Titania assured me. "Even if it's just your mind that's helping, that's valuable. After all, you're the one who suggested I check the other girls."

"What did you find?"

"Not much, so far," she admitted again. "I can make a pretty good guess on how long they'll be out, though. It should last most of the night, based on how quickly their systems are metabolizing this stuff."

"Good. That gives us a chance to do some snooping around."

"Ah, well, yes and no," replied Titania. "I don't think you can snoop around. But Tryx could."

"Tryx is busy with Mordant," I reminded her.

"Yes, but you're not."

"I thought you just said . . . oh." Well, sometimes I'm a little slow.

Titania informed me of another development. "Okay, the lights just went out in the common areas. I think that probably means everyone has gone to bed."

Her giggle was deliberately lewd and had its expected effect on me when she said, "Some of them may even have gone to sleep."

Sensing my reaction, she laughed again. "Girl, you should have agreed to go with Mordant. You need to get yourself a little action. You are way too horny."

"Tell me about it," I replied through the mental equivalent of gritted teeth. "I could use a little help, here."

"Why don't you just go find that toady guy? I'm sure he'd, ah, 'help' you all you want."

Well, that was effective. The thought of sex with that unpleasant man took care of my arousal in a hurry.

"You're welcome," Ti said, smugly claiming credit for my recovery.

I stifled what I wanted to say in return and got back to business. "Okay, if the villa is dark, let's get moving."

"Just a minute," Ti replied. It was more than that. How much more was hard to say as I lay there in my rigid, dark, prison. But eventually the room went from pure black to merely darkened and I was able to move again.

Only, as expected, it wasn't me. In a nearby mirror - Mordant had a lot of those around, and what they said about his ego was obvious - I saw Tryx sway smoothly to her feet. That resurrected my arousal between one heartbeat and the next. The blonde in the mirror was more beautiful than any woman had a right to be in the dead of night, but what really made the image . . . distracting was the accenting emphasis of stockings, a miniscule thong panty, and a half-cup bra that offered up her, ah, my 'girls' as blatantly as, well, as blatantly as Tryx's personality seemed to demand. Starburst, those puppies were even bigger when you were wearing them!

Sneaky
Those puppies were even bigger when you were wearing them!.

"Not a word, Titty. Don't you say a damn word," I demanded. Not that it helped. Her amusement at my . . . discomfort came through just fine without any words at all.

"I presume there's a reason for this?" I asked, waving my hand at the - well, 'clothes' is probably too generous - that I seemed to be wearing.

"That's what Tryx had on under her dress," Ti explained. "The dress itself is too restrictive to move in easily, but you shouldn't be impeded much by her lingerie."

"Is this really what she was wearing under her dress?" I asked.

"Yes," confirmed Titania, "only hers were real. Not part of Bee, I mean."

"Why would she do that? It seems sort of . . . needless, and risky. Real stockings that sheer would be too easy to damage."

"I think that's the point," Titania observed. "The sense I get from Bee is that Tryx likes to dress in, um, fragile clothes when she's trying to be particularly seductive. The need to be extra careful makes her move in a dainty, gracefully feminine way."

More of that 'being' pretty as well as 'looking' pretty thing. I'd have to think about that.

"Oh, I expect you'll be thinking about it a lot," Ti snickered. "Tryx has always had that effect on you."

I was once again saved from the need to find a suitable response by an external situation. I had been moving through Mordant's villa as she spoke, carefully trying doors without opening any of them. That was sort of the point. If the door were unlocked, I figured there wasn't anything important in the room behind it, at least, not something important to the mission. Interior doors in personal residences didn't open automatically as you approached them, of course. Like a lot of really rich people, Mordant liked to hide ultra-modern convenience behind a veneer of antiquity. Room temperature was computer controlled and you could have lights just by asking for them, but the doors to each room had old-fashioned knobs you actually had to work by hand. That was good news for me, because I could carefully test each handle to determine if it would turn. Those that turned were unlocked, and I moved on as soon as I checked.

But as Titania was making her unnecessary reminder that I would be thinking of Tryx in her scanties - a lot - I found a doorknob that wouldn't turn. The unwanted expertise with locks we had gained on Machovia was finally useful and it only took a moment for Titania to have us inside.

"Paydirt," I exclaimed.

"The room is clean," Titania observed in confusion.

"Another expression," I explained tersely as I moved to the desk in what was obviously an office or study. In a few minutes, it was also obviously a dead end. The place was too sterile to provide any clues. There wasn't even a computer terminal, except a standard vid. Maybe Tryx, the real Tryx, had known this villa was too temporary to have any important clues about Mordant's organization. If so, she hadn't told me and I had wasted a good sneak.

Then it didn't seem like quite so good a sneak when I was caught halfway back to the room where the drugged girls were.

"What are you doing here?" a sharp voice demanded. Turning, I saw the girl I knew was Cheya, the touchy redhead.

"Looking for the, ah, powder room," I claimed nonchalantly as I took an unnecessarily deep breath. After all, Tryx's philosophy was: If you got 'em, flaunt 'em. I most certainly had them and there wasn't any better way to assert my 'Tryx-ness' than by being, ah, proud. "I didn't want to disturb Oslo by using the one by the bedroom."

"How thoughtful of you," she sneered while she tried unsuccessfully to drag her eyes back up to look at my face. "Usually it takes a new girl three or four doses of thionite before she's that focused on pleasing him."

"So that's what it's like when people talk to your boobs," I snickered silently.

"Like you didn't know already," Titania laughed. "What's the matter? Feeling a little jealous are we? I can make them permanent, you know."

"Don't even start. My back is already hurting from lugging these things around."

"I can fix that too," Titania offered, and my invisible corset stiffened even further.

"Thionite?" I asked Cheya, trying to get back on the mission. Supposedly, I didn't know what that was.

"His powder," she explained, then showed she was in its thrall as much as anyone when her eyes gleamed as she said, "It's . . . wonderful."

Her eyes tightened and she said, "But there's not really enough to go around. You and your dark-haired girl-toy should leave. Now."

"Why? You can have your silly powder, for all I care. I'm having fun with Oslo without it. He's quite a man."

"He's a man," Cheya spat. "And like all men, he's disgusting."

"Then why do you stay?"

"It's worth it." A hunger gleamed again in her eyes. "There's nothing in the universe like thionite. Now, do like I told you and leave, or . . ."

"Or what?" I asked countering the menace in her tones with careful nonchalance in my own.

"Or I'll . . . . convince you to leave. The hard way," the redhead replied, no ambiguity in her threat now.

"Not that I couldn't roll you up in a ball and stuff you down a disposal chute," I made my own threat, "but I don't think that's what Oslo wants. Just tell me where the ladies' room is, or I'll find it on my own."

"Who are you trying to fool?" asked Titania. "She looks like she eats women like you for breakfast - and enjoys it."

"I'm trying to fool her, of course," I snapped. "Now shut up or help."

"Help how?"

"If you don't know, then start by leaving me alone!"

Cheya was, well, it looked like she was swelling up. It was probably just her muscles tightening, but it made her look like a coiled spring under a lot of tension. I was trying to decide how to respond to the impending attack, respond in some way that didn't get either one of us hurt, when my partner intruded on my concentration again.

"Shake her hand," Titania said.

"What?"

"Shake her hand," my symbiont repeated, and then I understood when I felt my hand become very stiff.

"Look, um . . . I don't think I got your name . . . neither of us want to upset Oslo. Why don't we just shake hands and be on our way?"

I stuck my hand out to the glowering redhead, and I could see the calculation in her mind. I looked pretty delicate in my dainty stockings and silly excuse for a bra, and Cheya's disdain for man had enough undertones of envy for them that even I picked up on it. She clearly thought a 'manly' test of strength would be a good way to intimidate me without doing anything Mordant could fault. Gripping my hand firmly, she started to squeeze.

That, of course, did no good at all. Titania had made my hand as hard as a bar of hull metal, and Cheya could have stood on it without leaving an impression. After a few minutes of fruitless struggle, Cheya stepped back in anger. Before she could do anything else, I let a growl into my - that is, Tryx's - normally dulcet tones and made my own threat.

"Next time, Red, it'll be my turn to squeeze."

Then I turned my back on her, trusting Titania for any warning we might need, and ostentatiously opened the nearest door. Sometimes, luck happens and it actually turned out to be a powder room. I was in with the door closed before the shakes started.

"Fix that, will you Ti?" I asked. She did, flushing the excess adrenaline from my system until the tremors stopped.

"You really were scared," Ti observed.

"Yes."

"I don't understand how I missed that," she said. "I was monitoring, of course, but I thought you were about to attack her, not that you were scared."

"Sometimes, the difference is razor-thin," I said, knowing it to be true. "I'd have been better off - physically - if we had actually fought, like what we had to do with Sstton's goons on Teton."

Titania considered that for a moment. Then with an invisible shrug, she deliberately tried to lighten the mood. "Well, at least one thing went right."

"Pray tell, what could that be?"

"Looking like Tryx, of course," she claimed. "Cheya obviously knows you - that is, you as Xora - got some of the drug. If you had been found wandering the halls as yourself, the whole mission might have - what is the expression? - gone down the tubes. But Cheya accepted you as Tryx with no question."

"I should hope so, with the way I've been waving these bad boys around all night," I replied, but of course she was right. That's why Jonesy paired us on this mission in the first place. In truth, it wasn't the worst fate I could imagine. And my imagination started running around in excited circles at the idea of looking like - of being - Tryx.

"Advertising again?" Titania teased.

I didn't dignify that with an answer. Well, beyond the all-too-obvious one, or two as the case may be. "We need to be getting back to the room with the cushions. Is Cheya still out there?"

"No, I don't think so," Ti reported. "I'm pretty sure she's not, in fact."

Carefully opening the door confirmed Titania's perceptions, and we made our way back to the room with the still-rigid blonde and brunette. I placed myself as nearly as possible like I had been before we went on our fruitless scouting expedition, and reluctantly let Titania lock my limbs into matching stiffness. At least this time, she let me close my own eyes.

After a few minutes - at least, what I assumed was only a few minutes, though it was hard to tell in my isolated state - Titania made another report. "Okay, your appearance is back to normal, and I've reinserted my probes into Breen and Kyla. They're good for another hour or so, anyway. Based on the fatigue elements in their blood, they are going to be very, very tired when they recover from the drug itself, so they'll probably fall into a natural sleep after that."

Sleep seemed like as good an idea as any, so I let what little perceptions remained drift away. My next sensations were very much more pleasant.

"Did you sleep well?" Tryx asked, and I awoke to find my head cradled in her arms, my lips near the nipples exposed by her delicate bra. Her outfit was indeed the one I had appeared to wear the night before.

Even as I was trying to keep my eyes from crossing - and my tongue from lunging out of my mouth - Titania was working with Bee to share our mutual reports. After catching up on my nighttime excursion, including that the needed evidence on Mordant was probably not in his villa, Tryx informed me that she and I would be breaking up. It wouldn't be 'official' for another day or so, but she had let Mordant believe he had already replaced me in her affections. Things had worked out well, as far as she was concerned. Mordant had moved me immediately to the drug-controlled dependence, while she had convinced him she was with him due solely to his manly charms.

However, despite his apparent acceptance of my attitude, he was angry with me. I had made him face the fact that not all women found him desirable. True to form, he was going to punish me for revealing the lie in his life, just as he was going to reward Tryx for supporting it. Part of my 'punishment' was to be disguised as a gift - and the other girls would certainly consider it to be one. I was due for another dose of the powder that evening.

"How did that go?" asked Tryx via our link.

"Titania handled it," I reported. "If you get a dose yourself, the thing to remember is that you need to go into a rigid muscle lock for at least a couple of hours. Bee can, ah, help you with that. Afterwards, you fall asleep."

"What's the effect?"

"I don't really know. Titania walled it off very carefully. But based on the, um, condition of my . . . companions, there must be some sexual stimulation involved."

Breen stirred and I changed tracks by responding to Tryx's spoken question. "I slept very well." Then I decided a further response was in order. "Oooh, that powder is wonderful! We have got to get some for ourselves."

Tryx let a look of worry show on her flawless face, coupled with a flush of embarrassment. "We'll have to talk about that later," she said. "For now, I just wanted to check up on you, and let you know I'm going to be spending the day with Oslo."

"With Oslo?" I whined, on cue.

Tryx responded to my whine with bubbly enthusiasm. "Oh, yes. He's a very interesting man. We talked for a long time last night."

"Talked? Is that what she's calling it?" sniffed Titania.

"Why Titania, I think you're jealous," I teased.

"Hardly. But you'd think that Tryx would be a little more honest, at least with you."

"Oh, of course. We're just undercover Federation agents on the trail of a big-time drug smuggler, with who knows how many people eavesdropping on us. Of course every word she speaks will be honest."

"Why are you defending her?" demanded Titania.

It was a good question, actually. "Maybe now that I've been her, at least for an hour or two, I feel more sympathy."

"I think Counselor Ardala might want to talk about that with you," she cautioned. "Be careful you don't identify too closely with her."

"Not much chance of that. She's . . . well, I've said it before. She's the most beautiful woman in the galaxy. I could do worse."

"Even though she's blonde?" Ti challenged me.

"Okay, now that's a good argument against being Tryx," I laughed, trying to defuse a discussion that threatened to go a lot deeper than I wanted right then.

Tryx sent another silent message with a warning. Mordant had been interested in my background, more than she had expected, and since we hadn't set up a deep cover story for either of us, Tryx had stayed pretty close to the truth on our past. Supposedly we were Federation bureaucrats, not Field Agents, which was a standard cover set up by Admiral Jones. For anything else, we needed to keep the story simple, and therefore rely on what had really happened. The last thing Tryx sent through the link was even more ominous. She said that Mordant was planning something more for me, but she didn't know what it was.

The other two girls were stirring, and the look of contentment on their faces was almost justification for their dependency. Almost. But that gentle look had barely appeared when it was replaced by a hunger that seemed undiminished from the night before. Now that Tryx had done her duty to her supposed lover, she swayed gracefully to her heels and left me with them - a memorable exit since the, ah, view from behind was as spectacular as the one I had seen as I awoke.

In other circumstances, the image of three beautiful women sprawled nakedly across soft, inviting pillows would have been inescapably erotic. That would not have been my first impression at encountering the scene, though. The other two girls had been so . . . consumed by their experiences that they had lost any sense of refinement or glamour. They had drooled on themselves, and their arousal had dripped down their legs to create a musky pool on the cushions. From the acrid scent, it wasn't only feminine lubrication that had escaped from them. The combination was not even desirable, let alone erotic. And as I stirred on my own cushions, I realized I had made my own contribution to the . . . ambiance of the room.

"Thanks a lot, Ti," I grumped.

"Just taking care of business," she replied unrepentantly. "I couldn't let you look, ah, suspicious, could I?"

"Right now, I'd prefer suspicious," I said, not at all impressed with her thoroughness.

It did, however, establish my membership within the sisterhood of thionite addicts. Breen and Kyla shook their own tangled manes and stretched to relieve the aches and pains of their extended rigidity. It wasn't hard to keep up with them - neither was moving very quickly - and without much in the way of coherent conversation we ended up in what was obviously a communal shower and changing room. Showering with beautiful women was, to be honest, one of my adolescent fantasies, but the plodding, mechanical way they cleaned themselves kept it from measuring up to my dream.

Breen was a bit more cheerful than Kyla though, part of her naturally exuberant personality. She was at least willing to point out some robes that would allow me to cover a nudity that seemed not to bother her much at all. My pace through the showers was a bit faster than theirs and so I was able to take advantage of Titania's magic on my makeup instead of pretending to use the real cosmetics that were in generous supply around the room.

The changing room was as much ladies' lounge as bathing facility and there were couches and comfortable chairs scattered about, with plenty of mirrors. I was - literally - distractingly beautiful, even to me, and so while I was waiting for the other girls to finish, I decided to have a, um, 'planning' session to keep my mind focused. It's really convenient when your partner 'lives' with you - all the time.

"Why, thank you, Xora dear. Sometimes it seems you think I'm a terrible burden."

"Sometimes I do, Titty babe," I said, laughing to let her know I was teasing. "But you're a convenient burden, and every now and then you're worth it."

"Oh," she said archly. "Like now?"

Well, I asked for it. She did her lick/nibble/caress thing, and then she did the 'tweak the entirely inappropriate place' thing, and then. . . . well, I decided to surrender gracelessly with an internal screech at that last one. And no, I'm not going to tell what it was.

"So, Xora dear, you were saying?"

"I . . .am . . . going . . . to have . . . to figure out . . . how to get . . . you for that," I gasped.

"Not on your best day, and my worst," she promised smugly, and she was probably right. "Now, do you want to tell me why you started that?"

"Seems to me that you started it," I muttered, but before she could respond again I went on. "I don't know. Maybe at some level I wanted a reassurance that you were still there, still . . . you. I was really frightened last night when things went dark after I opened that drug, and it was pretty serious business after that. I'm glad to see you're still your . . . polite self when you, um, let your hair down."

"But more than that," I continued, "I think it's that we did a good job last night. While Tryx was playing games with Mordant, we found out that we'll need to get an invitation to his private moon - or at least confirmed it since I always thought it was likely. And we managed to - well, this one was really you - managed to masquerade as Tryx pretty well. Maybe it's just that last night we were more effective than Tryx. Anyway, I was feeling pretty good now that we're cleaned up, not naked, and looking as pretty as you have made us."

"Goodness, girl, the competition was supposed to be between Bee and myself, not between you and Tryx. Are you saying you want to show her up, too?"

"Damn right. I've been thinking about, um, about us. You and me, and what we can each do. Tryx may have the advantage of a lifetime of sensual femininity, but that may be a weakness - or at least a limitation - as much as a strength. I - we- have a unique perspective on things and I'll bet that ends up being an advantage of our own. Together we'll knock her socks off."

"Sheer stockings, lacy garter belt, and all," Ti confirmed.



Chapter 9 - "If It Were Easy . . . "


I was not the only distractingly beautiful sight that morning. Whatever disappointment I had felt at the way we looked when we woke up after our drug-induced dissipation was eliminated quite effectively when Kyla and Breen emerged from the swirling fog of their showers, looking like - well, looking like that old adolescent fantasy said they were supposed to look. It was a challenge to keep from drooling all over myself again.

Meeting that challenge - not drooling - was not enough to conceal the hunger that must have shown as I watched them don their own flimsy robes and start to work on their hair and makeup.

"Stars, Xora," Breen snickered at me, "you act like you'd never been in a girls' locker room before."

Well, no sense denying the obvious. A counterattack seemed in order, or at least an unrepentant excuse. "Girls, maybe, but from where I sit, you two are prime time women, not girls."

"Why, thank you, dear," Kyla smirked, fluffing her own dark hair. "However did you get yours to dry so quickly?"

"Oh, just lucky I guess," I replied blandly.

"You're welcome," Titania said, tweaking my already-aroused nipples.

"Of course," I replied. "And stop that."

"Of course," she replied in turn - and did it again.

Breen turned away from her own preparations and offered, "If you're hungry, you can go get something to eat. The replicators aren't particularly creative, but they get the job done well enough for breakfast."

"I'll wait, I guess," I said. "I, um, well, what's . . . going to happen, um, next?"

"To you?"

"Yes, and to Tryx."

"May not be the same thing," Kyla muttered.

"Excuse me?" I prompted.

The dark haired girl sighed and turned to face me again. "Look, Xora, nothing personal but you have to understand, we're not particularly glad to see you. Either of you. I'd do anything for more thionite - anything - and Oslo has made it clear that if we, um, give each other a hard time we're out in a heartbeat so I'm not looking for trouble. But he also likes to keep only a half a dozen or so girls around. If you and, um, Tryx stay, that means some of us are . . . through."

I remembered that I had never heard the name of the powder before, not that they knew of anyway, so I asked about it first. "Thionite? Is that the powder?"

They both nodded, and even the thought of that concoction brought the look of hunger back to their eyes.

"So, maybe he'll just . . . tell me to leave instead?"

"Not likely," Breen said, smirking. "I was with Oslo when he saw you and Tryx kissing on the path by the beach. Holy heartthrobs, girl, I felt the heat from here! He's not going to let you two get away."

Kyla picked up the explanation, "But you're not, ah, playing the game very well. Tryx is making him feel like he's the most fascinating man in the galaxy - and of course he thinks he is. You're not showing any interest in him. Did you really just take the thionite last night out of boredom?"

This was an obvious cue, so I let a look of desire into my own eyes when I replied. "Oh, um, maybe, in the beginning . . ."

She nodded, and continued for me, "But now you'd do anything for some more."

"Well, maybe not . . . anything."

"I would," Breen admitted, standing as she finished her own cosmetic enhancements. "I don't even wish I'd never been . . . never started. I just hope that Oslo kicks someone else out instead of me."

Kyla stood as well, and she waved an arm to invite me to come with them. "There aren't many who fall for Oslo himself, like Tryx has. Maybe she doesn't have much experience with men, because frankly, he's not all that good as a lover. Most of us have gone through what you're going to go through instead. He's going to make it . . . difficult for you for a while, unless you start acting like you love him regardless of the drug."

"I supposed you could say that he's being fair," Breen offered. "You can just leave at any time. If you don't want to do as he asks, he won't make you."

Kyla concluded, "You just won't get any more thionite."

In the dining area we met the rest of the current harem. I had already known them from their dossiers, of course, so I was able to keep them straight. I found that I had made one major mistake in my prior assessments, though. It wasn't on red-headed Cheya, who was as bitter in the daylight as the nighttime version I had met as Tryx. Trislini was distant, not so much cold as living in another plane that only artists could experience. Laran was a minor disappointment, pleasant and polite, but distracted in an edgy way that made me think she might have been at a bad point in her monthly cycle.

"Why Xora, that's quite sensitive of you," Titania said.

"Hmm? Oh, no, not really. I learned the rules a long time ago."

"Rules?"

"For dealing with women. You always have to be aware of the possibility of PMS, but you never, ever suggest it as a cause for . . . moodiness."

"But you just did. Suggest it, I mean."

"Not out loud, and I'm not stupid enough to do it even when I look like one of them."

"Just 'look' like one of them?"

"In this case, yes, and thanks to you that's all the closer I have to get to that particular experience."

Titania couldn't resist teasing me, of course. "I could arrange it, if you want. You might benefit from, ah, 'that particular experience.'"

"No, thank you," I replied, and hoped she was truly only teasing and not really threatening. Her lurking laughter did not exactly soothe my worries on that topic. To get both our minds off the subject, I considered the last of the girls I had just met.

Eloi was the surprise. She was not the ghost I had expected. Eloi was just as pale, just as ethereal, and moved with a drifting grace that might indeed have belonged to a bodiless spirit. But there was nothing about her that carried with it the sense of lingering death or horror associated with ghostly spirits unable to depart this existence. She was a vibrantly living being of clouds and sunlight, as close to an angel as I was ever likely to meet. The pale robe she wore fastened at one shoulder and draped casually in a way that might expose her breast with any motion, but the effect was not lewd tease. Instead it seemed to be a leftover innocence from before the fall of Man, when Eve had not thought there was any shame in nudity.

"Careful, Xora, Tryx will be jealous."

"Tryx is with Mordant," I snapped.

"Oooh, now you're the one that's jealous," she chided.

"Don't be silly," I said, then moved quickly back to an external conversation.

"What are Tryx and, um, Oslo doing?"

"Gathering up your stuff, I'm sure," Cheya said tightly.

Kyla offered a more complete explanation. "It's clear that Oslo has accepted you and Tryx. He's taken her to pack your belongings so that you can go with us."

"Oh, where are we going?"

"Now that you've been, um, selected, we'll go back to his moon," answered Kyla. "At least, most of us will."

I didn't want to dwell on the fact I was going to be the cause of someone being left behind, so I let a gasp of surprise into my voice and gushed a little. "He has his own moon?"

"Well, a large asteroid," Kyla said. "It's a couple of stars over in the Sigma Delphinus system."

"Why do I have the feeling it's named, 'Mordant'?"

Breen laughed, but denied my guess. "Bzzz! Wrong. It's actually called Dariabar, after some old legend."

"But that's just because he didn't find it, he bought it," Trislini said, finally joining the conversation.

Her words seemed to be a trigger for the last of the group to join the conversation as well. Laran said, "Who do you think it will be?"

Her cryptic question was apparently well understood by the others. Guilty, but sharply assessing looks flew around the room. Without a word, a consensus appeared, focused on the too-quiet Trislini, and the too-agitated Cheya.

"Damn it!" Cheya snarled. "I've done everything he asked of me. EVERYthing!"

"I know, hon," Laran gentled her. The ash-blonde girl seemed relieved the 'vote' had not gone against her, and she was showing a little more of the friendliness the agent had indicated in her background information.

"I've never been able to, um, enjoy it either," Trislini said, tears forming in her eyes.

I was trying to buy time to figure out what was going on by fading into the seat behind me - without using any of Titania's abilities to enhance that, of course - but it didn't work and Cheya turned on me.

"It's your fault, you and that damned, big-boobed blonde floozy you came with. Does she really think Mordant will fall for her stupid pretense? He's just like all men, and sex with him is . . . disgusting!"

"That's been your problem all along, Cheya," Breen said, and I remembered they had been a couple before encountering Mordant. "You can be the most loving, most giving person in the galaxy, and you'll protect those you cherish with your life. I know, you've done it for me. But you've never been able to, um, enjoy the attentions of men. And you can't fake it, not to Mordant."

"Let that be a lesson to you," Trislini said, bitterness in her own tone. "Have you had any experience with men or are you exclusively oriented toward women?"

"Not, um, much," I replied, an answer to the first part of her question providing a response to the second as well.

"Well, Mordant will give you a little time - and a few doses of thionite - to, um, 'adjust' your attitudes. If you don't . . . "

"You'll join Tris and me, and all those who came before us," Cheya snarled, running from the room.

Breen went after her, while the rest of the girls crowded around to console the inconsolable dancer, Trislini. It was almost as though the girls themselves got to choose who would be dismissed from the harem, though it would clearly be Mordant's choice. But there wasn't any doubt, and even if there had been some it would quickly have been banished when the toady man stepped into the room.

"What is it, Drem?" asked Laran, and in so doing I learned his name.

"Mr. Mordant wants Trislini to pack her things," he reported.

It was brutal. Drem left Trislini and Cheya very little time to gather their few possessions, then moved my things, and Tryx's into the rooms they had vacated. That was apparently a sign that Mordant would soon return, and the girls scrambled to make themselves presentable for their lord and master - or at least the remaining girls did. The ultimate brutality of that cruel moment was that Tris and Cheya were gone before the girls were ready for Mordant, and in the uncompromising focus of their existence that meant they couldn't even take the time to say good-bye to their departing sisters.

I nearly walked out on the whole, sordid situation. I would have, and duty be damned - at least my duty to Admiral Jones and the Federation - but I couldn't let that . . . abomination continue. Regardless of assigned mission, I wasn't leaving until I had found a way to put Mordant out of business. In one way, I became like the other girls. I would do anything, ANYthing, to get what I wanted. Thank God it wasn't the thionite I needed.

"And thank you, Titania," I whispered to my secret guardian.

She gave me a gentle, hidden hug, in sympathy and in agreement, yet her resolve came across in unspoken words and was as firm as my own.

I needed to get ready myself, and for some reason ("You know very well what the reason is." "Quiet, Titty.") I decided to snoop through Tryx's scanties until I found stockings and a garter belt, and a lacy black thong panty. I didn't even try to find a bra to fit, of course. Those dainties went under one of my scarlet-and-white-lace, sensuality-and-innocence outfits. Unfortunately, the short skirt to my dress barely concealed the tops of my stockings, and only then if I stood very carefully.

"As if you didn't know that would happen," sniffed Titania. Well, she was probably right. Again. But I had a feeling it would turn out to be . . . useful later.

It was actually quite a bit later. Though we were all casually nearby when Mordant swept in with Tryx on his arm, he virtually ignored us and headed back to his own rooms. It was only after another meal at suppertime that we were all invited into his presence back in the throne - I mean, common - room.

It was immediately obvious that the main program for the night involved me.

"Xora, dear," Mordant said heartily. "Have you enjoyed your time with my friends?"

"Yes, um, Oslo," I said carefully.

"Oh, good," he continued grandly. "I do so like for my guests to be happy. Don't I girls?"

"Yes, Oslo," they all declared dutifully.

"And my little powder?" he turned back to me and asked. "Did you enjoy that, too?"

I decided a little more enthusiasm would be in order. "Oh, yes, Oslo. It was a . . . wonderful experience."

"Quite," he said smugly. "I suppose you'd like to try it again?"

"Oh, yes! I would like that very much," I gushed.

"Well, you know my rules, don't you?" he asked, then moved on without waiting for an answer. "I like pleasing people and I think it's only fair that if I please someone, well, that someone should please others. Don't you think that's fair?"

"Of course, Oslo," I agreed promptly, though I deliberately let a little suspicion into my voice. I knew something unpleasant was coming, and I was pretending to be hooked on his drug, not stupid.

"Good, good," he said. "Tryx has been telling me a bit about you."

"She has?" I offered the straight line. This time it was even more likely that I would have some undertones in my voice, and I chose concern.

"Yes. She says you're not very experienced with men, but that you are . . . excellent at pleasing women."

"I'm, uh, gratified to hear that."

"Oh, yes," he confirmed, squeezing Tryx in a proprietary way that claimed her as his prize, and therefore showed his skills had supplanted even mine.

"So I have decided it would be fair for you to use your excellent . . . talents to please someone - and in so doing it would please me to give you more of my thionite. Would that be okay with you?"

"Oh, um, sure. I would be happy to, um, spend some time with Tryx again," I agreed, knowing that was not likely to be what he had in mind.

"Oh, no," Mordant laughed. "I didn't mean Tryx. She wouldn't like that anyway, would you babe?"

I didn't need to fake the shock I felt at that statement, though Mordant misunderstood the cause. I knew Tryx was pretending to have fallen for him - at least, I hoped she was pretending - but I wasn't sure even she was a good enough actress to respond, ah, in character to being called a 'babe'. In other circumstances, that would have resulted in at least a broken jaw.

But giggling like the prototype of all ditzy blondes she twirled her long fingers in Mordant's wavy hair and said, "Well, Xora can be fun, of course, but she's not really all that . . . memorable, if you know what I mean."

Mordant's answering laugh was directed at me, not with her, as he made the point he wanted. "No," he said to me, "I think you should share your, ah, talents elsewhere."

He scanned the room in apparent consideration, but I could tell from his smirk that he had made his decision well before. "Eloi," he called. "I think you look a little down this evening. Why don't you see if Xora can cheer you up?"

Well, the ethereral angel would actually have been my second choice, and though I had frankly hoped my first, um, girl-girl memories would include Tryx, I was required by my, um, duty to 'suffer' with a different gorgeous blonde.

Shrugging, I put a carefully unconvincing smile on my face and held out my hand to Eloi. "I seem to remember that the cushions in the room over there were quite comfortable."

"Oh, no," Mordant said, and the smile on his face hid none of the cruelty in his eyes. "It wouldn't be fair to deprive the other girls of your famous techniques. We can't let you go hide them away."

"You want me to make love to her right out here?" I asked in surprise. Well, at least I hoped it seemed like surprise. Disgust was real close to the surface.

"Of course," he confirmed, pointing at the pile of cushions that had served as a wrestling pit the night before. "Except, I never said anything about making love. I only require of you that you give her pleasure. In return for pleasure - the pleasure of thionite."

Eloi had known it was coming - all of it, I'm sure - and she moved in her graceful glide to the soft pillows, dropping her white robe as she did so. Her face showed a brief flicker of apology to me, and embarrassment, but none of that covered the hungry anticipation that was also displayed. I wouldn't have thought she was that . . . needful.

"Needful is right," Titania said, "But the need is for the drug Mordant will give her afterwards, not for your, ah, attentions."

"Oh, of course," I said, and the flush that filled my cheeks fit right in with my character, for all that once again it was not due to the cause Mordant expected.

"Xora," Titania asked, "can you do this? I mean, we've never . . . been with a woman before."

"I can get by," I claimed. "It won't be my first time to please a woman. And, um, in the, uh, way that I'll have to use this time."

Kneeling between Eloi's spread legs, the situation was beyond demeaning, and the worst was not about me. What was happening to Eloi was profane in a way that didn't rely on faith in supernatural beings. Eloi was . . . gentle, with a fragility that belonged in sunlit gardens amid soft-eyed does, not sprawled lewdly under the gaze of a lecherous human animal. It was obscene in a very visceral way to see those porcelain legs spread lasciviously in a public situation. All I could do though, was add yet another mark to the score against Mordant - a score that I had already sworn I would settle regardless of the cost to myself. Bending to my task, I was interrupted before I had begun.

"Xora, dear," Mordant called.

"Yes, Oslo?" I replied, turning to look at him.

"You intend to please Eloi, don't you?"

"Yes, Oslo. I'll do my best."

"I'm sure you will," he said, and his smirk showed he was setting me up again. "And I'm sure Eloi will be pleased. And do you know what will happen when she is pleased?"

"Um, yes. I think so?" I responded, letting a question in my voice give him the excuse to explain his point.

"Apparently not," he chided me. "Our Eloi is a quite . . . juicy morsel when she is aroused."

I didn't know what to say, but it wasn't really necessary because he was rolling to his conclusion. Or at least the conclusion of this part of my ordeal.

"It would be a shame to ruin that lovely dress you're wearing," he explained. "Rise and take it off. Laran will help you."

Laran's 'help' involved more than undoing a few buttons. She fondled every inch of me as she ostentatiously hunted for hidden fasteners. By the time she was done, my little signal flags were flying - diamond hard and aching.

"Thanks a lot, Titty," I growled.

"You're welcome," she said blandly. "I didn't figure you were a good enough actress to fake that on your own."

Any response I might have had to that . . . torment was buried beneath a most gratifying gasp as my Titania-supplied bosom was revealed to be high and firm, not needing any support, ("You're welcome." "Shut up. Right now you're not thanked.") followed by another as my tiny waist was shown to be, ahem, 'natural'. Then I was rewarded once again, though with a different flavor of breath, as Tryx recognized the source of the gossamer wisps of black cobweb that had been concealed by my dress.

"Serves her right," Titania said, giggling. I didn't have any trouble stifling my own amusement.

"Oh, lighten up," Titania ordered. "You're about to make love to a gorgeous woman. There are worse fates."

Mordant interrupted her with his own observation. "My, you are a healthy girl, aren't you, Xora? We may have to take advantage of that."

I decided the best way to respond to that threat was to ignore it, so I once again knelt between the legs of the waiting blonde. My thong panties made me feel even more exposed than if I'd been nude, and the constant tug of my garter straps on the taut stockings was . . . well, in other circumstances I'd might even have made some progress on that 'being pretty as well as looking pretty' thing.

Leaning forward and carefully pulling my long hair to one side, I took the first, delicate taste of my . . . target.

"Eeew," I thought, and Titania echoed it. "Doesn't that girl ever douche?"

I had recoiled at the extremely unpleasant taste, triggering a loud guffaw from Mordant. "What's the matter, Xora dear? Not to your liking?"

Then his voice got very serious and the ugliness peeked out from beneath his urbane veneer. "You can always leave, you know. Drem can have your things packed in minutes and you can be on your way. Of course, if you leave Eloi so disappointed, it wouldn't be fair for you to receive any pleasure of your own - any thionite."

Titania interrupted any response I might have made with a report. "That was artificial."

"What? His offer? Oh, I'm sure we could leave - but it's obvious he was waiting for a chance to deliver his ultimatum."

"No. I meant the taste. I've analyzed it, and in fact she has douched, but with something that tastes - well, you tasted it. In any event, she's artificially foul."

Ti was herself interrupted by a comment from Tryx. "Come on, Xora. You never minded doing that with me." Her tone was sensual, and she gave a shimmy so suggestive even Mordant was distracted. But that distraction had a purpose and while his attention was on her hips, she was frowning at me with an order to proceed.

"I can block the taste, you know," offered Titania.

"Good," I said, and knelt once again to a task that was literally as well as figuratively distasteful.

This time my lingual probe met with only the sensation of fluid slickness though, and I tried to remember what had worked well the last time I had been, um, in that position. It had been a long time.

"I modeled you on Tryx, you know," Titania said.

"What?"

"Your own internal . . . arrangements are a copy of Tryx. I wonder if Eloi is, well, I wonder how close Eloi is to that . . . geometry."

My concentration wasn't helped by Titania, um, looking over my shoulder, so to speak, and it was clear Eloi was not impressed.

"Xora, you don't seem to be living up to your reputation," Mordant called. I didn't look up, but I tried to be more, um, effective.

"Maybe you would like a different taste," Titania offered, and all of the sudden it seemed like I had my tongue in a pool of chocolate.

"Oh, god, no, Titania. Not chocolate. Not so close to her . . . well, I do NOT need to think of something brown and sticky at a time like this."

"Oops, sorry," she apologized, and my tongue was bathed in cleansing Earth strawberries, then in mistberries from Omicron 3, then in cloudfruit from Zeta 6. I didn't even have to say anything - or think it consciously in any event - because when Titania got to my favorite fresh taste, my enjoyment was obvious. That helped with the larger problem as well, because I was a lot more, ah, enthusiastic lapping at that flavor than I had been.

Eloi started to provide evidence of my success, squirming in place and beginning to breathe a lot more dramatically. I didn't figure I was living up to Tryx's advance billing, though.

"I can help with that, too," Titania offered. "Remember, soft tissue is easy, and there aren't any bones in the tongue."

I wasn't sure what she meant, but she made it clear in a most-dramatic hurry. My hidden tongue felt like it grew two inches, and became so marvelously sensitive it was almost as though I could see with the end of it. I began to probe the recesses of my objective and my reconnaissance revealed some particularly effective, um, vulnerabilities.

It didn't take long after that. Eloi's breathing began to stop altogether for long periods, broken by little screams that didn't have enough air for volume. She surprised me again when she, ah, when I achieved my objective, though. For such a slight, delicate girl, she was really strong! She lifted me right off the cushions when her back arched in a moment of frozen eternity, then collapsed utterly.

At first I thought she had passed out, and I think Mordant did also. Not that he was concerned for Eloi, but his silence had enough respect in it that I knew I had made an impression. The speculative glances from the rest of the girls - and from Tryx herself - were even more interested.

I ignored them as best I could and bent to Eloi. Her eyes fluttered and then opened slowly.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"You're very welcome," I whispered back, and despite the setting it did indeed please me to have provided that fragile angel with a brief moment of enjoyment. I helped her to her feet and gathered up our strewn clothes as she approached Mordant.

Eloi never had a lot to say, and this time her eloquence was expressed in an arched brow and gentle smile. Even Mordant was impressed by her composure, or perhaps it was that angelic innocence that could stand calmly nude after being forced into a demeaning exhibition. In any event, he handed her two ampoules without comment.

This time it was Eloi who urged me to the side room, the hunger she had successfully concealed from Mordant very evident as soon as she turned away with the drug in her hand. I followed her, but as I did I glanced back at our cruel host. I knew I had just scored another point with him - in the negative category - by rising so far above the problem he had thought would test me. Our eyes met in what I had not intended to be a challenge, but which was certainly received that way. His anger was covered by bluster and an ostentatious announcement that he and Tryx would adjourn to his bedroom, but even his drug slaves saw through that - and he knew it.

Eloi's tugging hand pulled me along to what was apparently the official site for drug 'enjoyment' and handed me my own dose of the poison - that is, the powder. She was oblivious in an instant, but I remained aware until Titania had carefully encapsulated the foul substance. Then I once again surrendered to a period of enforced immobility and darkness.



Chapter 10 - ". . . Anyone Could Do It."


I woke in the arms of Tryx. Again. Some assignments, or at least some parts of assignments, are definitely worse than others. If I told Jonesy about that particular aspect, he'd probably make me count this whole trip as vacation - once his dirty little mind started working again.

"Ha! Like your 'little mind' is so pure," Titania laughed.

I loftily ignored her, giving Tryx my attention instead.

"Hmmm, I could get used to this," I cooed, lips inches from a delicious swell inside the not-quite-sheer robe she wore.

Tryx laughed, then took an especially deep breath. It was . . . spectacular, and even more so from my particular point of view. I wasn't quite sure what reward she expected, but if it were in my power she got it. I blushed. I gasped. I nearly fainted. And she giggled.

Leaning close to my ear, she whispered. "What did you do to Eloi last night? The girls say she's almost impossible to arouse. Even Kyla, who was her lover before they met Mordant, says Eloi enjoyed making love but seldom achieved her own completion. There was even speculation that's why Mordant keeps Eloi around, so that he can break the confidence of the girls-only girls like, ahem, you. Yet you had her most of the way to Mordant's moon!"

I grinned up at her and said, "I'm afraid I couldn't possibly explain. I'd just have to show you."

Bam! That got her own nips so hard, so fast, I nearly got an eye poked out.

"I'd have taken care of you," Ti snickered.

"You'd have pushed me right into 'em," I countered.

"Exactly!" agreed Titania.

My so-helpful partner's distraction had given Tryx time to recover some of her own composure, but she was still distracted enough to decide to change the subject. "We're making progress. We all go to Dariabar this afternoon. I've packed for you except for one outfit you can wear on the way."

"It better not be a pink tent," I warned her.

"It's not," she promised, and in her grin it was clear that her choice was not likely to be very concealing at all. Oh, joy.

Leaning to whisper again, Tryx said, "According to the others, after a couple of doses of the powder most girls are thoroughly dependent and will do absolutely anything for more."

"Why do I think I heard a little special emphasis on 'most' in that sentence?"

"You've never been, ah, average," she replied with a smirk. "And your reputation does not do you justice."

"Why, thank you. But you know what they say about hearsay . . ." I interrupted myself before I revealed too much about her real situation. Hopefully.

Apparently it was okay, because she leaned forward to whisper but did not seem upset. "Mordant is a bit of a voyeur and certainly has the rooms set for visual observation. But he doesn't seem to want to listen in. As long as we keep our voices low, we can say whatever we want." She added a key bit of data, "In this room, he just observes until the girls take their drug, then switches to other rooms. After all, it's not a lot of fun to watch when the girls are passed out and rigid."

I nodded, but frowned as well. "Do you think he'll, um, test me again this evening?"

"I'd count on it," she said.

"I think I'll, ah, fail the test tonight," I decided.

"Why?"

"We'll be on Mordant's moon, right? And while his security has seemed lax here, that's likely to be because there isn't anything here to protect. But on his moon, there must be something. If I'm not pretending to be drugged, I can move about less suspiciously. I can even claim that I couldn't sleep because I didn't get my dose."

"But you still won't be able to go through papers and things, at least, not unless no one knows you're there."

"Maybe not," I admitted, "but for the first night, we just need to find out where things are."

Then I put something like a leer on my face and in my voice. "Besides, you will be, um, occupied with Mordant, so you can't do it."

She blandly ignored my not-too-subtle opening. "Won't it be suspicious if you refuse, after already agreeing to . . . what's happened?"

"I'll do anything I've already done, or something similarly unpleasant. But I expect he'll raise things to a level I can refuse without making it look inconsistent."

"There may be consequences to that. He's already seeing you as the greatest challenge to his ego he's faced since he got control of the drug."

"Jonesy never assigns me easy ones," I sighed. Then I had to laugh at myself - before Titania beat me to it - and I snuggled a bit in Tryx's embrace. "Not that this is all bad, of course."

Tryx laughed herself, then dumped me unceremoniously on the cushions. "I just came in here to let you know about your clothes," she said in a normal voice. "And to make sure Mordant's powder wasn't harming you. I suppose that's partly guilt, since he and I are together now. I hope you're not too broken-hearted."

That was a pretty clear cue, so I shrugged and said, "You don't know what you're missing. I'll take the thionite over Oslo any day."

Tryx let a careful frown show on her flawless brow, dutiful concern for a friend she no longer loved. Then she also shrugged and used a casual flip of that flowing negligee to accent her departure, showing petulance even in the midst of matchless grace.

"You can match her," Titania said. "Surpass her, in fact. She may have the prettiest face - when we don't copy it - and she's still flaunting bigger boobs, but you have more grace."

"Why, thank you, Ti. My, you're in a good mood this morning."

"It's because I can sense that you're in a better mood yourself," she explained.

"Well, perhaps you're right. I guess I'm feeling useful. We're making progress, and things seem to be centered more on my - on our - activities than on Tryx. That's . . . satisfying."

"Xora, girl, don't you ever give me a hard time about my competition with Bee," ordered Titania, but she laughed and I had to laugh with her. Okay, so I did have one or two competitive bones in my body.

"This one?" asked Titania. "Or maybe this one?"

"Those are NOT bones, Titty," I gasped, leaving her the last laugh. As usual.

For an instant I was afraid I'd spoken out lout, but it must have been my unstifled gasp - or maybe she was just waking up naturally - in any event, Eloi chose that moment to move. Her enforced immobility had left her stiff and uncomfortable even though it was followed by a more natural sleep. She stretched, and then clutched at her snowy hair as she realized she was as disheveled as I no-doubt appeared myself.

She looked guiltily away, but the guilt didn't seem to be caused by our appearance. I didn't want to pry, exactly, but she was such a fragile thing I thought I ought to see if something was wrong - something other than waking up from a drug-imposed stupor.

"Good morning," I said gently as a compromise opening.

"I'm sorry," she said in return.

"For what?"

"Mordant makes us," she sighed, and corrected herself, "makes me usually, since I'm the one he uses for new girls, makes me . . . use something that tastes . . . unpleasant. I'm sorry, but you just don't know, I mean, the thionite . . . "

"I'm beginning to find out," I said, smiling. "Don't worry about it. I knew right away it was artificial ("You mean, I knew right away." "Of course, Ti.") and around this place, that means it was Mordant's idea. I never blamed you."

"I tried to fake arousal, so that it would be over as soon as possible," Eloi claimed.

"Was that a fake?"

She sighed and this time she grinned with real humor. "Oh, Lord no. You were amazing! I've never, even with Kyla . . . "

"Glad to hear it," I said, then I let a little smirk into my smile - but as something shared between friends. "A girl always tries to do her best."

"Well, your best is pretty awesome," she offered, then drifted to her feet in a way that seemed almost weightless. I scrambled to my own heels to go with her.

"You call that a 'scramble', Slinky?" teased Titania. "If it weren't for me, you'd have dislocated three vertebrae with that swing."

"But I do have you, Titty," I replied unrepentantly. Not a good idea when your partner knows your innards even better than you do. I gasped and had to lean against the wall for a second.

"Are you all right?" asked Eloi.

"More or less," I managed to say. What I wanted to say - what I wanted to think would just have gotten me in more trouble ("You got that right."), so I just followed Eloi to the shower/lounge.

It was late enough when we finished cleaning up that there wasn't time to eat before we departed to Dariabar. So Eloi and I went to our nearly empty rooms to dress and that's when I saw what Tryx intended for me to wear.

It could have been worse. The outfit was white lace and scarlet leather. Well, Tryx had never been subtle. The blouse was not quite transparent, in a lace design that hinted at everything without actually revealing anything. The red leather skirt was very short ("Ha! That's the length you wear all the time anyway." "Only because you make me, Titania."), almost too short to cover the tops of white lace stockings that looked fragile enough to snag on a passing moonbeam. The obvious accessory was a pair of steepled red heels high enough even Tryx would be challenged - which Titania gleefully supplied. All in all, about typical for what my life had become.

"Oh, quit grumping," Titania demanded. "You'll look spectacular, and you know it, and you love it."

"So?" I asked righteously. "If I can't complain to myself, then who can I make feel sorry for me? Certainly you won't."

"Do you really feel sorry for yourself?"

"Of course not, Ti, except in that I wish I had a bit more control over my own life. Between you and Tryx, I feel like a puppet sometimes."

"But a gorgeous one," I added quickly, and let a smile into my message. "No way I'd change things, if that meant I'd lose you."

Titania gave me a little secret hug and we joined Eloi on the way to the shuttle. When we got there, it was clear that Mordant like to do his own piloting. That left the harem in back, including Tryx and I. The other girls pestered Eloi and me about what had happened the night before, but I just smiled and Eloi just blushed. Even Tryx looked a little envious at times, and of course I was the very essence of genteel humility in not noticing. Not at all.

Our would-be lord and definite master allowed us the rest of the day to get settled in our new residence - a huge, sprawling expanse of tunnels and great open spaces left over from a completed mining era. Just walking between rooms could take several minutes since the chambers were placed where ever pockets of minerals had justified cleaning out more volume than the tunnels themselves. That evening though, things were back to 'normal'.

Unlike the Mistfall villa, in the chambers of Dariabar there were signal lights that summoned the harem into 'the presence' when Mordant so desired. After a light meal attended by all but Mordant and Tryx (and Drem, who was never seen unless on an errand for Mordant - thankfully) all the girls were called into the common area which in this case was unambiguously a throne room complete with the requisite cushioned exhibition pit. Mordant lounged on the gaudiest, most ostentatious chair I had ever seen. It was big enough for three or four people - if they were friendly - and had no trouble at all supporting the two very friendly people who occupied it. Mordant and Tryx were avidly kissing and he was pawing at her 'assets' like he owned them. They ignored us for several minutes and apparently this was not unusual because the other girls just stood there quietly until he deigned to notice us. When he did, his first comment was to Eloi.

"Eloi, child, you seemed to enjoy yourself last night."

"Yes, Oslo," she agreed, then made it clear what she found most pleasant. "I deeply appreciate the privilege of thionite, whenever you choose to grant it to me."

He swelled up with the affirmation that she considered him the source of her greatest pleasure, in fact the only pleasure worth mentioning. That his leverage was artificial, in the form of a drug, was secondary to knowing I had not undermined his control regardless of the effectiveness of my technique.

"Technique, am I?" Titania asked archly, but the snicker in her mental voice was clear.

"Never try to lie to your symbiont, dear," I told her. "Not even when it's a false sense of outrage."

"Lie? Would I lie to you?" she asked in more pretend outrage. I didn't bother to answer, but I really needed to find some sort of leverage into her, like she did when she wanted to, ah, tweak me. Using her favorite nickname wasn't enough, and it would have even less effect if I overused it. There was something . . . something that had bothered her, something associated with her name though not just that . . . but I couldn't quite decide what it was.

Even as I tried to find that lurking thought, I realized it was a mistake to remind Titania of her own . . . opportunity, but she just giggled in my head and let it pass. For once.

"You're welcome," she said.

Mordant finally turned to me, and in so doing ostentatiously turned away from Tryx. He didn't quite dump her on her shapely bottom, but a deft hip nudge and a lean forward interposed his shoulder in a way that literally as well as figuratively put her behind him.

"You seem quite accomplished with your lovers, Xora," he observed.

"I, um, do my best, Oslo," I said, demurely looking down so that my long, dark lashes accented my eyes. ("Demure? Ha!" "Quiet, Ti.")

"Are you that skilled with all your lovers?" Mordant asked nonchalantly, but the warning flags started going up at the glint of cruel pleasure I saw in his eyes.

"I try, Oslo."

"Let's see, shall we?" he suggested. "Come with me."

Ah, so that's the game for the evening. Well, it was just a matter of time, and it would seem even Tryx's, ah, 'charms' would not satisfy him forever. But it was also just the sort of escalation I needed to justify a refusal.

"What do you want?" I asked, letting more than a hint of fearfulness into my tone.

"Why, I want you, of course," he replied, and though his tone was casual, the frown on his face was not.

"I, um, please don't, um, take this personally, Oslo, but . . . I'm not . . . .comfortable with men."

The frown on his face elevated to a full-fledged glower, but his tone remained civil and friendly. "Well, Xora dear, we certainly don't want to do anything to make you uncomfortable."

He settled back into his throne, but he still didn't seem to notice Tryx was also there. "Of course," he continued, "if you're not interested in pleasing others, then you shouldn't expect to receive pleasure yourself."

"I'm sorry, Oslo. I'd really like to please you. I'd really, really like some more thionite, but . . . " A carefully studied pout pursed my lips - one that I had copied from Tryx. I might not have her experience, but I learned quickly.

"Because you memorize every moment you're with her," Titania observed.

"And your point is . . . ?" I challenged unapologetically. For once, my secret sister had nothing to say, since I knew she paid very close attention to Tryx herself - though upstaging Bee was a different motivation.

Tryx tried to help me - and regain Oslo's attention. "Oslo, honey, she just needs a little more time. She's had some . . . bad experiences with men and just wouldn't appreciate you right now, especially not like I do. You're fascinating, and an incredibly impressive man, but she's just not . . . interested in men. Yet. I'm sure once she gets to know you a little better, like I do, she'll be more than happy to . . . please you."

"Indeed," Mordant replied, but he wasn't really paying attention. Still, it provided him an opportunity to recover his loss of face, so he leaned back on his throne and mused aloud. "Hmm, perhaps we can find some other service that Xora can do for us. It won't be enough to warrant a helping of my little powder, but perhaps it will . . . help her make up her mind."

"Girls," he said expansively, "I think you've all been working too hard. From now on, our reluctant Xora will be your maid."

Focusing on me he asked, "Is that okay with you, Xora? If not, you can go to the shuttle and Drem will take you back to Mistfall."

"Oh, no, Oslo, I'd be glad to help out," I said quickly.

"Good, good," he nodded. "Let's see . . . I think Laran should be the one to help you with your costume."

"Costume?" I asked in confusion. Apparent confusion, I should say, because I expected something more than simple maid service would be involved.

"Well, let's just call it your first costume," he replied, then waved his hand dismissively.

I found out a short while later that Mordant was something of a traditionalist. His idea of a proper maid's costume was right out of corny old fantasies, something called a 'French Maid' outfit. That consisted of a tight little black dress cut low enough that a deep breath would let my own . . . assets pop right out, with a tiny little skirt fluffed out by layers and layers of petticoats. Dark fishnet stockings and spindly heels completed the black components. Accents in white included an apron, a silly little cap, plus collar and cuffs that weren't attached to anything that needed a collar and cuffs. Laran helped me figure out where all the pieces went, and briefed me on the rest of my 'duties'.

I had a secret weapon, though, and I intended to use it. Titania and I worked out an advantage I didn't think he'd expect, and when we got back to the throne room, I dipped into the curtsy I had been briefed to make. When I was well down, I took that deep breath the top was designed to prevent. Or at least, to exact a price.

However, Titania had a better hold on the top to that dress than the designers had expected. As a result, though I bulged quite dramatically, nothing - quite - exploded. Mordant's eyes took on a bulging look of their own and confirmed once again that clothes - the right clothes - can be more arousing that simple nudity.

"Nothing about your nudity is 'simple'," declared Titania.

"Tell me about it," I replied wryly.

I continued to hold my pose and I wondered if he would ever release me. Eventually, he did, but only when his own need to breathe distracted him from the imminent disaster my over-tight bosom promised. Gasping audibly, he shook himself a little and then tried to cover it by leaning back with feigned nonchalance.

"I've always known an implication was more effective than an outright show," he claimed grandly, as though he had invented the concept. "You are indeed a healthy girl, Xora dear."

Some gesture or expression must have been the clue to the other girls, because Breen took that moment to say, "Xora, dear, would you go get my brush? I think I've got a tangle in my hair."

For the rest of the night I was 'Xora, dear', and it seemed that all of the girls had some errand that needed doing. If it weren't for Titania, my feet would have been broken wrecks after running all over in those ridiculous heels.

"Always looking out for my partner," she claimed. "See how much all that practice with heels has helped?"

"Don't get me started," I warned. "You don't inflict those on me for valid reasons and you know it. If Bee had bonded with some macho guy, you'd have me wearing combat boots."

"Oh, no, not on a bet," she claimed, and for once I believed her.

Mordant probably thought he was being subtle in the way he treated Tryx that evening. After demonstrating he could arouse her at the time the rest of us entered his august presence, he virtually ignored her for the rest of the night. It seemed even the incomparable Tryx could not keep his interest for more than a few days - or nights as the case might be. That didn't really fool anyone because his breathing stayed synchronized with hers. Or perhaps asynchronous would be more correct, since every time Tryx took a deep breath, Mordant stopped breathing entirely.

"Like you're any different," Titania laughed in my ear.

"I'm breathing. See?" I asked innocently, and Mordant stopped breathing again. So did Eloi and Laran, a fact Mordant noticed.

He pulled out an ampoule of his drug and idly rolled it through his fingers. "I had expected Xora would want this tonight, but it seems she doesn't."

That was an obvious cue, so I jerked and started to speak, then sagged in defeat.

"Do you want some of my powder?" asked Mordant, forcing the issue.

"Yes, Oslo, very much," I 'admitted'.

He just kept twirling it in his hands, but I refused to take the offer, keeping my own eyes downcast.

Turning to Tryx he asked, "How long have you and Xora been . . . friends?"

"Oh, quite a while now," Tryx answered vaguely, but precision was not Mordant's goal.

"I suppose you might consider, ah, 'consoling' Xora tonight, since she's not going to receive the pleasure she denies to others."

"I, um, might," Tryx admitted, not sure what the right answer was supposed to be.

"But then, you don't really know what she's missing, do you?" Mordant asked, springing his trap.

"No, I don't suppose I do," replied Tryx.

"I have truly enjoyed your company, these last few nights," Mordant said smugly, "but I think I've, ah, satisfied myself with blondes for a while."

Pulling out another capsule, he tossed them both to Breen. "Take Tryx and show her what Xora has so callously refused," he ordered.

Before they had a chance to leave, even though Breen was very interested in her own dose of the drug and was pulling on Tryx, he called to Kyla. "Join me, tonight."

I couldn't tell if Mordant noticed, but I certainly noticed Eloi's eyes go to me, and a look of hunger warred with the envy that had showed when Breen received Mordant's favor. Then I could indeed tell that Mordant noticed, because he wasn't going to let Eloi choose her own companion for the evening.

He held out the arm that was not claiming Kyla and said, "Eloi, why don't you join us also? You're so pale you hardly qualify for blonde anyway."

Over his shoulder, as he left the room, he said, "Xora, you can clean up since you seem to enjoy that sort of service so much more than your alternatives. I'm sure the other girls will want to sleep."

The only 'other' girl who had not been committed for the evening was the ash-blonde Laran. Mordant's comment amounted to an order for her to go to bed - alone. Tryx and Breen would be in their drug-induced stupor until morning, and Mordant would command the attentions of Laran and Eloi for as long as he wanted.

Laran shrugged and turned to her room, leaving me to address the detritus that I had earlier been ordered to accumulate. That was fine with me, though. It meant that I could prowl around a bit, which was the whole point of refusing Mordant's advance in the first place.

"Not all of it," Titania said. "He's odious."

"You got that right," I agreed, bending to my task. But I knew it was only a matter of time before my tasks would be even less pleasant than maid duty. Probably more time-consuming too, because it wasn't long before I had the place straightened up enough the housebots could take care of the rest of it. Then it was time for some serious snooping.



Chapter 11 - "Jingle Bells"


It was my turn to wake up Tryx the next morning, though she was actually awake when I entered the room. She stirred as soon as I stepped through the doorway and stretched with a motion that was so intensely sensual I nearly had to leave and try again.

"Good morning," I said as I took advantage anyway and cradled her head in my lap. It wasn't quite the same. The stiff petticoats I wore under the silly maid's costume were a poor substitute for the gossamer film she had worn the day before.

"Still about your maidenly duties?" she asked with an innocent tone and a not-at-all innocent smirk.

"It's about the only maidenly thing about me," I said disgustedly. "Actually, Mordant hasn't come out of his room yet so I don't know if I'm forgiven or not."

"How did you keep those pettis so full after wearing that thing all this time?"

"Oh, this isn't the same costume. I replicated another one so it would look, well, it's hardly 'nice', but you know what I mean."

"Nice it's not," she agreed, "but catering to his, um, interests today is a good tactic. Always keep him guessing. Hot and cold - well, in your case, molten and stellar core temperatures are all you have, so call it, 'obedient and rebellious' - so that he doesn't quite know what to expect from you."

I nodded, and then leaned to whisper softly. "Well, Boss, I have good news and bad news."

She pretended to snuggle closer - well, actually she did snuggle closer, and quite nice it was indeed, but she was pretending that she wanted to snuggle. Or maybe she was pretending . . .

"Cut to the chase," ordered Titania. "You're dithering."

"You'd dither, too, if Tryx hugged you like that."

"She is hugging me like that," Titania pointed out. "But we have work to do."

"Spoilsport," I snipped back at her, but I did get back to business despite the distraction.

"I think I found the place we need to get into," I reported. "But I couldn't get into it."

"Why not?"

"It had a biometric lock. I think it was some sort of palm lock, but I couldn't figure it out."

"You have Mordant's palm print," Tryx pointed out. "All it takes, at least for one of us, is a handshake."

"Oh, you're right," I said. "How stupid of me."

"If you've never faked one before, it's probably just as good you didn't try," Tryx said pensively. "Depending on the particular lock, it may need the actual pattern of skin whorls, or it may need pressures from specific muscle and bone configurations, or it may even need an oil secreted from the skin. Could you tell which kind it was?"

"No," I admitted. "I never even knew there were so many kinds of biometric lock. I guess my expertise has been more with mechanical locks."

"From your primitive world assignments," Tryx confirmed. "I guess there were a few things in Federation Agent training you needed after all."

"More than a few," I replied. "So, what do we do now?"

Tryx sighed and sat up. "It would take too long to explain how to beat that lock, and without some practice you'd be too likely to set off an alarm. I think I'll need to take it on myself."

I nodded. "The important room, the only one with a lock I couldn't get past, was in Tunnel 11."

"Okay. Did you find out anything else?"

"Not really. The corridors on either side of the shuttle pad are full of store rooms, but none behind any locks that matter and I couldn't find anything suspicious."

"Thionite is so potent that a year's supply for a major drug lord could fit in a coffee cup, so it's not likely to be left lying around in an open store room."

"That's what I thought. Like I said, the only room I couldn't get into was behind that palm lock thing."

"Well, I guess I know what I'll be doing tonight," Tryx said as she stood up.

"Um, maybe," I cautioned. "According to Laran, you're likely to be, um, entertaining Mordant again tonight. He's flattered that you chose him voluntarily and, well, you are the galaxy's most beautiful woman - at least for a blonde. But the fact it was your choice to go to bed with him means you could 'unchoose' him at any time. That's why he started you on the drug. He doesn't want you thinking you're in control."

"Well, it's true that I can control any man I want, drugs or no," she claimed, patting her carefully-tangled hair and stretching out a sleek, supple leg before dissolving into giggles.

"I believe you," I said, laughing in return, though I was highly aware of how much truth there was in her statement, "and apparently even Mordant is aware of the, ah, possibility. In any event, he wants it both ways. He wants your voluntary . . . company, and he wants you hooked on the drug so that you won't ever tell him no. According to Laran, that means you get a dose every now and then, but not as often as I did."

"So what happens tonight? Do you get the drug again?"

"Maybe. Kyla seemed to think I have another day or so of penance, though. Mordant wants to be sure I say yes the next time he asks, so he's going to teach me a lesson - something demeaning during the day and no drug tonight."

"So, you'll be free tonight, like you were last night, and I'll be occupied with Mordant."

I nodded. "That's the way it looks."

"Well, maybe I can sneak out on him," she mused.

"Maybe," I agreed. "When I did that the other night, Cheya caught me and she didn't think it was that unusual for, um, for you to be out."

"Oh, that's right," Tryx remembered. "You were, ah, you had my appearance at that time, didn't you? How did that work?"

"No problem," I said, grinning. "I just remembered to act like my IQ was down twenty points and I was very convincing."

She laughed and poked me in the arm, but there were wheels turning behind her shining blue eyes. Then her expression became more serious. "Just how, um, how much of a problem would it be for you to go with Mordant - to go to bed with him?"

"Oh, it wouldn't be fun, but I expect I could handle it. Titania can keep things from getting too unpleasant. Unless . . . does he have any, um, special interests?"

"Not extreme ones, at least, not that he's shown so far. He must have been breast fed as a child, though. Or not. Whichever way it is that results in an oral fetish. Can you, um, well, could you do that?"

My reply was not to her, though my response was not hidden. "Titania, that is NOT helping!" I thought.

"Not me, girl. You're just remembering Darius."

"Yes, but Tryx doesn't know that."

"She does now. At least, she does unless she's blind."

Since the answer to Tryx's question was obvious, I decided I might as well admit it. "I, um, expect I could . . . manage."

She smirked at my hard little tattletales and nodded. "With some enthusiasm it would seem."

"I guess I just enjoy pleasing my lovers," I said.

"I'm sure Eloi would agree," Tryx pointed out. Before I could comment she continued. "But that could be the solution to our problems. If Mordant wants Tryx in his bed tonight, yet I have to be free to move about . . ."

Well, it was for that reason that Jonesy had assigned us both to this mission. I guess I had been avoiding that same conclusion, but it was obvious as soon as she brought it out in the open. It was also a bad idea, but for a reason none of us had anticipated.

"I can't let you do that, Tryx," I said.

"Why not?"

I sighed and told her the rest of it. "When Laran said I still had some penance to do for Mordant, well, she didn't exactly say it would be, um, 'demeaning.'"

"Tell me the rest of it," she ordered.

"He's likely to dream up something really unpleasant," I sighed. "Maybe even, um, some sort of bondage. It wouldn't be right for you to take that instead of me."

"So that's why you wanted that job," she laughed, then anger replaced the amusement in her eyes. "Do you think spending time in bed with that slug is something I enjoy? I'll take being tied up any day over that."

"Oh, um, sorry. I didn't . . . I shouldn't have assumed . . . "

"No," she said firmly, "you shouldn't have assumed." Then the laughter was back in her eyes as she said, "But I'll take it as a compliment to my acting ability that you thought my interest in the sack of . . . 'processed porcine feed' was real."

I blushed and ducked my head, remembering once again that Tryx was Jonesy's best Field Agent.

"Hey, what about us?" interjected Titania.

"Right now, 'us' are out of our class," I replied. Then I shrugged in a dual-purpose gesture for both my internal and external partners, and said, "I guess I'll just have to, um, try to sustain your reputation."

"Stars, girl, NO one can match my reputation, not even me," Tryx laughed. "Just pretend like he's the center of your universe and that whatever he wants to do is the greatest idea ever invented. It will work fine. After all, he's a man."

"Indeed?" I replied archly. "I was never that way."

Tryx didn't reply to that. She didn't say a word, anyway. Shaking laughter that echoed off the walls is not a word. After a moment - maybe two, she wasn't in any hurry to stop laughing at me - she said, "Enough, Xora, let me ask you one question. If it weren't for this punishment that Mordant might have in mind, is there any other reason we shouldn't change identities tonight?"

I just shrugged. "When do we switch?"

Tryx looked at the still-slumbering Breen and said, "Well, we don't know if we'll be alone any time later today, so . . . "

I nodded and started stripping out of my maid's costume. Even as I dropped the apron and dress, my hair was turning blonde and my, um, girls were swelling until they wouldn't have fit in the costume anyway. Before my eyes, the stunning blonde Tryx became . . .

"Do I really look like that?" I asked my hidden helper. A mirror just wasn't the same.

"Well, you could use a better smile like the one she's showing, and you definitely need to spend some time working on those little attention-getting gestures. She can do as much with her hair and hands as you do with your legs and derriere, but all in all . . . yes, you really look like that."

"Gee, thanks," I said, disappointed at the list of my shortcomings.

"You asked," Titania pointed out, and of course she was right.

There was one good thing about the switch. Tryx had to wear even higher heels in order to simulate my height, and I lost a few inches in my own footwear. When we walked from the room, she was taller than me, but only from the ankles down. On the other hand, I had to remember to lose those twenty points of IQ.

"What is your thing about blondes and brains?" asked Titania. "Tryx is a highly intelligent agent."

"Oh, I know she is, Ti," I admitted. "But I need something to tease her about. Besides, that's the way she's been acting anyway. Even Mordant knows gorgeous blondes are not likely to be rocket scientists. She's been acting ditzy, even though she's not. So I'll have to do the same."

"How convenient," Titania replied sarcastically.

"Tryx thought so," I countered.

My dark-haired doppelganger and I split up then. Tryx - as Xora - went to find something to clean, and I had my borrowed appearance to clean up since I was simulating a night of drug dissipation. Again.

We didn't really need the confirmation that the locked room was important, but Mordant provided it anyway. On our first full day back in his moon, he secreted himself away in there most of the day. He emerged only for the evening festivities, and that's when I found out what my punishment was to be for refusing him. Of course, Tryx was going to have to serve it.

I was just one of the girls when he entered the room - blonde and beautiful but no longer hanging on his arm as his favorite. That didn't last long either. He called me - well, he called Tryx but that was me . . .

"Cut to the chase, Xora," Titania grumped. "For now, you're Tryx to Mordant, just as Tryx is Xora. Deal with it."

"Me, Tryx? Oh, Lord, no! Anything but that!"

"Xora . . . " she warned, then followed it up with a pinch that was not preferable to her normal, ah, demonstration of petulance.

"Ow!" I shouted, but silently. Titania had, however, accomplished her objective. I 'cut to the chase', at least on the identity thing.

Anyway, Mordant called me to his side, and of course I sidled up like I wanted it more than anything I could imagine. I even managed to put on one of Tryx's incredible smiles.

"Tryx, honey," he began, "you truly are a kind and generous person."

"I'm glad you think so, Oslo," I purred in his arms.

"Oh, I think it's undeniable," he said. "After all, you've put up with the selfish Xora for quite some time now, haven't you?"

"Um, well, we've been together for a while," I agreed cautiously.

"But one of my goals in life is to add pleasure where ever I can," he claimed grandly. "Right, girls?"

His drug-enslaved chorus confirmed his claim. "Yes, Oslo."

"So I've decided we should give Xora a chance to demonstrate she's not selfish. Don't you think that would be fair?"

He hadn't said a word to Tryx-as-Xora yet, at least not directly. On her behalf, I asked, "What did you have in mind?"

He finally turned to 'Xora' and said, "I noticed that you're still wearing your maid's costume and that you've been helping the housebots out today."

"Yes, Oslo," she said meekly. (Tryx. Meek. And I had thought she was a good actress before!)

"I expect you noticed that the tunnels run quite a distance through this old rock," he suggested.

She nodded, and he didn't wait for any further confirmation. Mordant grinned as he set the first stage of the challenge before her. "I think it's much too far for the other girls to walk. You could show you aren't selfish by helping them get around."

"You mean, like, carry them?" Tryx asked in surprise.

"Goodness, no," he claimed. "You're a healthy girl, but carrying someone your own size is a bit much to ask, don't you think?"

"If you say so, Oslo."

"Of course I say so," he confirmed. "But I found out something else about you that seemed perfect for this problem," he said with a casual tone, but obviously what was coming was neither simple nor innocent. Turning to me, he said, "You told me, didn't you, that she had been on Machovia?"

I nodded, but I didn't say anything. Tryx had told me Mordant wanted to know my background but she hadn't provided the details of what she had said. I couldn't embellish my simple agreement with any specifics. Not that he wanted any.

"I did some checking up this afternoon and I found out that a little while ago there was a girl named Xora who competed in their ponygirl races on Machovia. And even won against their champion. Could you be that same Xora?" he asked her.

It was a trap, of course, but what could she say? He might have received enough of a description to make denial impractical, and it didn't really matter anyway. He had obviously made up his mind on what penance 'Xora' would pay.

Tryx shrugged, and confirmed his supposition with a nod.

"So there you have it," Mordant said in satisfaction. "The girls need some help getting around Dariabar, and we have an experienced ponygirl to take them where they need to go."

He looked sharply at 'Xora' and said, "You wouldn't mind, would you Xora? If you think that's unfair, just say so. Drem can have you on your way to Mistfall in no time."

Tryx shuddered, but she shook her head. "Please, Oslo, I'd rather stay."

"Even as a ponygirl?" he prodded, forcing her to acknowledge her debasement.

She nodded again.

"Good, good," he said smugly. "I knew you had it in you to be pleasant instead of selfish. In fact, I was confident you'd see the, ah, the error of your ways, and so I've had Drem put together a few things to help you learn how to please others. Isn't that thoughtful?"

"Yes, Oslo," she said meekly.

Drem was either listening or there was a signal I didn't see, because on the heels of Mordant's words, the servant entered the large chamber, pulling a cart. He dropped the cart poles and stepped away. Tryx moved to take his place but when she reached for the poles, Mordant stopped her.

"Now, Xora, that wouldn't be right. Ponies don't pull their carts with their hands, do they?"

"I don't suppose so," she said resignedly.

Drem stepped forward with a pair of wrist manacles in red leather trimmed with gaudy gold edging. Pulling her wrists behind her, he linked them with a few inches of golden chain. Now there wasn't any obvious way for her to pull the cart, so she just stood there looking down at it.

Mordant had other challenges in mind, of course. At first they weren't too bad. After a moment of spectacular nudity, Tryx's French Maid costume was exchanged for an incredibly tight corset and thigh-high boots, with a high neck collar to force her to keep her head up, all in that gold-trimmed red leather. None of that was a problem for Tryx, since her unique version of the Federation uniform already included similar elements.

"Not unique any more. Yours is just like it." Titania reminded me.

"Not by my choice," I claimed.

"Don't quibble," she countered, laughing silently.

"This is not funny, Ti. I should never have agreed to let Tryx do this in my place."

"As I recall, it was her idea," Titania pointed out. "And as you were just thinking, Tryx wears much the same sort of clothes by choice so it's no hardship for her."

"That corset only covers half her boobs," I growled. "She doesn't usually run around with her nipples hanging out"

It was an irony only Tryx and I could share that her middle was getting squeezed so soon after surrendering her matchlessly small waist for the mission. It was another that we both knew the only reason she hadn't been running around with her nipples hanging out all day - and mine the night before - was because our symbionts had a hidden hold on the skimpy maid costume's top. I was incensed at Mordant's adolescent humiliations, but I also knew Tryx was enough of an exhibitionist to find the whole thing more than a little amusing.

With the corset in place, it turned out there was also a way to pull the cart. Drem raised the cart poles and bonded some sort of pad to the front of the corset, then attached that to a fitting on a crossbar between the poles.

There was also a, um, 'feature' my Machovian ponygirl costume had not included. Drem attached a thong bottom that provided at least a modicum of modesty to the corset, and from the thin strip of material at the base of Tryx's spine, a thick tail - literally, a 'ponytail' bounced saucily. It was a deep midnight black perfectly matched to the cascade descending her back. Of course, the way Tryx was swinging her hips around didn't make it any less intriguing.

"She's just trying to copy the way you slither, Slinky," Titania claimed.

"I am not that blatant," I argued.

It's very hard to argue rationally with someone who is laughing too hard to think straight.

The laughs ended pretty abruptly when Drem brought out the bridle, complete with bit and reins. This was something I had endured on Machovia, and I had hated it passionately. I tried to send Tryx a message of encouragement, but I couldn't get close enough to touch her and she was no longer able to look around for eye contact.

Unfortunately, Mordant still wasn't done. Drem was standing in front of Tryx, seemingly by accident but blocking her path while Mordant pretended to turn his attention to the rest of us.

"You know what this place needs?" he asked rhetorically. "We need cheerful sounds. I think we should have, oh, bells ringing or something. In fact," and now he turned back to "Xora', "I think it would be very pleasant if our pony wore some bells so we could all hear her jingling her way, happily pleasing others. Don't you all agree?"

The agreement wasn't really necessary, and ignored as meaningless even as the chorus provided it. They - we - all watched with fascinated horror as Drem brought out what thankfully turned out to be the last of his torments for Tryx. But what a torment it was. Golden bells provided the required light jingling sound, though they were only the excuse for the most vicious part of what should have been my ordeal.

"I wonder where we can find to hang those delightful little bells," Mordant mused.

Drem answered that, with an option that nearly had me losing my composure entirely. In his hands were golden rings and a piercing tool. And the leer in his eyes made it clear where he intended to place them.

"I am NOT going to let him do that to her!" I shouted internally.

In fact, I would have moved to stop it, but Titania locked me into immobility.

"God damn you, Titania, Let me GO!"

"Wait just a second, Xora, and let me explain something."

"Explain later," I snarled. "I am not going to let that animal put those things on her."

"He can't," Titania declared bluntly.

"He's sure as hell looks like he's going to," I yelled.

"No, he's going to put them on Bee," Titania said. "He can't really touch her unless Bee allows it."

"What?"

"Calm down and think, Xora," Ti ordered. "Bee has, ah, enhanced Tryx in a few areas, too. All that Drem will touch is Bee, and even Bee won't actually be pierced by those rings."

Even as my internal anger had raged, Drem had approached Tryx with the set of golden rings that were obviously intended for her exposed nipples. Only the knowledge that their turgid response was . . . unreal kept me from screaming within my rigid prison.

In moments it was done. Tryx sported two nipple rings from which hung those diabolical little bells. It was almost anti-climactic when Drem ran thin gold chains from the rings to her bridle so that every time she moved her head - or someone pulled on a rein - the bells would ring. It was ludicrously redundant since they also rang with every step she took, and every breath she took, and every, well, everything.

Ponygirl

They rang with every step she took,
and with every breath she took . . .


"Now we're making progress," Mordant said in satisfaction. "In fact, I think we're ready to try it out. Who should go first?"

His proprietary gaze swept over the arrayed bevy of beauties, before settling with seeming randomness on Laran. It was only after a moment that I remembered Laran's rooms were the furthest from the common area. At a wave of Mordant's arm, she climbed carefully into the seat of the cart, trying to keep it balanced.

"Why don't you go get that little 'toy' I gave you a month ago?" Mordant suggested. Of course it was really an order. The blonde girl's eyes showed sympathy for her charge, but determination as well. It was obvious that her own opportunity for a dose of thionite required her to be party to Tryx's humiliation, and there was no doubt where Laran's priorities lay. Mordant waved his hand and sent them on their way, the jingling of bells indeed carrying back a report of their progress. It was only after the sound faded that Titania released me. Then it was my turn to face Mordant's depraved amusements.



Chapter 12 - "You Did What?!"


I managed to sneak out on Mordant, but it was so late it was early when I did. Heading to the locked room, I found the door open and Tryx inside. Jingling.

"Surely you don't like those things, do you?" I asked. Then I noticed she still had a tail, too.

Tryx laughed and said, "If he'd have tried to do that before I had a symbiont, I'd have killed him right on the spot - and Drem, too. But Bee protects me from any pain, and, well, I do sort of like the jingle. And look what else I can do."

She stood and gave a little hip shimmy that made even my backbone ache, but the long, dark tail flipped from side to side and any man with a pulse - hell, any human, alien, or undecided - would have ignored a supernova in favor of watching that ripple.

"I told you Tryx can work her hair better than you do," Titania reminded me.

"I never disagreed," I reminded her in turn. "But I never expected the same sort of magic with a tail!"

"Me neither," Ti admitted. "We'll have to practice."

"Do NOT even think of it," I demanded, but I couldn't keep the back of my legs from twitching as I reflexively checked to see if she had decided I needed my, ah, 'practice' right away.

At least her laughter was silent. Tryx's, on the other hand, was just about as loud as she could get away with and not alert the whole moon. Something to do with the expression on my face, I'm sure.

Then she shrugged - and jingled - and said, "Eloi was my last, ah, passenger, and she said Mordant had given her permission to release my arms and take off the bridle - I really did hate that - but that I had to leave the bells and tail on until he decided otherwise. It's no big deal."

I nodded doubtfully, then looked around what was obviously an office. "What did you find?"

"Too much," she said wryly. "I've been going through these books most of the night, and I know more than I want about the underlings but nothing about the guys Mordant works for."

"Well, at least that takes care of the proof of Mordant's drug dealings. But he can't be the top of the whole thing. Where does he get the thionite?"

"That is the megacred question, indeed." She sighed and stepped toward the door. Looking down the corridor, she said, "We'd better be getting back. I'll have to try again tomorrow night."

"Uh, oh," I said. "I think that will be a problem."

"I was afraid of that," Tryx said, pulling a handful of liquid night over her shoulder. "Let me guess. Tomorrow night is Xora's turn to be amazed and enthralled by the galaxy's greatest lover."

"Yeah, well you got one thing right. Tomorrow, um, actually that would be 'tonight' is Xora's turn. The 'amazed' works, too, I suppose, since I was amazed at the size of his ego - and the lack of justification for it."

"Not impressed, huh?"

It was probably a good thing that Tryx couldn't hear Titania's answer. "After Darius, we may always be disappointed."

My response to Titania's comment was not so well hidden.

"Oh, so you did enjoy yourself," Tryx said, grinning.

"Not with Mordant," I claimed quickly, then headed off any further comments from Tryx with one of my own.

"You better teach me how to bypass that palm lock so that I can take over tonight."

"There is a simpler answer," Tryx said. Then she swished her tail and gave a little bounce that added a clear-toned jingle.

"Oh, no . . ."

Titania pointed out my hypocrisy with typical ruthlessness. "Just last night you were so incensed at the thought of Tryx taking your punishment that you were ready to take on the whole galaxy. Was that just for show, since you knew you didn't really face that challenge?"

"No, I was, well, I was ready to fight, but this is just . . ."

"Just what the mission requires. Or are you not as committed to your duty as Tryx is?"

"Damn it, Titania, that is NOT fair!"

"Isn't it? Why not? She not only took your part, but she's strong enough to find humor in the experience."

Tryx's argument was even more effective. She did nothing. She didn't even smirk at my obvious distress. She just stood there while I argued with myself and let that most effective of foes do her work for her. At least, that's all she did until I looked at her again. Then she pointedly looked at the clock.

"All, right, damn it," I said to both my opponents. "How do we get those damn rings in my . . ."

"You can say, 'nipples,'" Tryx said dryly. "After all, it's just us girls, right?"

"Answer the question, Tryx," I grumbled. "I may have to do this, but I don't have to like it."

"Actually, you do," Tryx observed. "If you're too bitter, then Mordant will be suspicious. After all, you can always just leave. You've got to make him think you don't mind doing this, if it pleases him."

"Well, I'll work on it," I replied. Knowing she was right didn't make it any easier.

Tryx answered my earlier question by demonstration. Reaching up she pulled on one of the bells and the ring pulled through her protruding nipple to pop free.

"Oh, god, didn't that hurt?"

"You need to learn to trust your symbiont, Xora," Tryx said.

"Indeed. You have just embarrassed me in front of Bee," Titania grumped. "As though I would let something like that hurt you."

"I'm sorry, Titania. I guess this is all just too . . . extreme for me. That seems like . . . mutilation."

"I wonder what Mordant would call what I did to your, ah, plumbing." mused Titania.

"That's different . . ," I started to say, then spluttered to a stop. Titania didn't even bother to claim her victory. She just let me stew in my own stupidity.

"Oh, lighten up, Xora" my symbiont urged. "Maybe it's even a compliment, in a sort of roundabout way, that you are so comfortable with what I do that you don't think of it anymore."

"Thanks, Ti, for offering me an easy way out. Now just help me with the stupid things."

Maybe the worst thing about that whole mission, even worse than watching in horror as the golden rings sank into my own nipples, was the fact I was so distracted that I hardly noticed Tryx had taken off all her clothes - what there were of them - and stood before me in glorious nudity.

"That's your body, braggart!" Titania chortled in my ear.

The fire in my cheeks was answer enough. Then it got even worse when Tryx's form . . . flowed. In moments, the room held the galaxy's most beautiful blonde. Twice.

Tryx saw my fascination and giggled, then she let the most amazingly vapid expression form on her face and said, "Back to blonde. Good-bye intellect. By the way, Xora, do you know what they call a blonde with half a brain?"

"Um, no," I said cautiously.

"Well, then, you better change yourself back to a brunette. I don't want to have to explain the joke twice."

Even I didn't think blondes were that bad, and she knew it. But her humor finally pricked the bubble of outrage I had wrapped myself in and I had to laugh, too.

"The answer is, 'gifted,'" Tryx reported as I made my own modifications. I chuckled again and shook my head.

"Startburst, Tryx, but it was harder to simulate your bimbo mode than to keep up with your, ah, prowess in bed."

"Oooh, do tell. What did that involve?"

"Um, no time," I claimed, then tried a distraction. "Can you help me with this corset?"

I paid a price for that distraction. Never, ever, offer to let Tryx tighten your corset. Especially when she's a bit . . . unhappy with you. I, um, succeeded in putting off her question though, at the cost of a tail and jingling bells. Once I had them, um, personally, I couldn't not try them out.

"Damn, girl," complained Tryx, "I spent half the night figuring out how to swish that tail, then you take two steps and it looks like it grew there naturally."

"Oh, yeah," Titania snickered.

"Oh, no," I growled silently. "No way. Forget that idea right now!"

"Hmm? What are you worried about?" asked Titania with an innocence that I didn't buy for a heartbeat. I wasn't about to say - or think - anything she might consider to be a suggestion. Or an excuse, since she didn't suffer from a lack of, ah, creativity on her own.

It really was getting late enough that we needed to get back into less suspicious areas of the moon. I jingled my way toward the common area so that I would be easy to find if Mordant relented on my remaining penance items. Tryx, who had been up all night, went to her room to catch up on a little sleep. My tactic bore fruit first.

Mordant strolled through the area like he owned the place, which of course he did, and laughed smugly when he saw my bells. "My dear Xora, you seem to be contributing some cheer to the ambiance this morning. Are you finding that bringing pleasure to others is something you enjoy now?"

Since it was clear I was in for another bout of unpleasantness, the other girls who were there tried to fade into the cushions. At first I thought I should show respect by standing at attention or something, but I remembered Tryx's attitude and took another tack instead. It didn't dislocate anything when I threw the tail around, but only because my hidden partner kept a better hold on my bones than mere human sinews.

I made sure my bells rang clearly as well, then put a pout on my scarlet lips and said, "Yes, Oslo. I'm very sorry it, um, took me so long to learn that lesson."

"But you have learned your lesson?" he pushed.

"Yes, Oslo. I'd be, um, happy to do whatever you think would bring pleasure," I murmured, slowly licking my lips. Well, Tryx's observation that he had an oral fetish had been confirmed by my own experience - as Tryx - and subtle would have been wasted on the pompous fool.

"For myself as well as my friends?"

Dreck, this sack of fermented bat guano ("Goodness, Xora, that's a good one!" "Well, he deserves it." "Oh, I quite agree.") just wouldn't quit. I'd show him what would please me all right, just as soon as we had what we came for. But on the outside I just nodded my head in abject submission. Well, I nodded vigorously enough to send jingles throughout the room, but that just added to his satisfaction - as I knew it would.

"I'm glad to hear it," he said imperially. "I suppose you found it a bit . . . challenging to sleep with your little adornments?"

"A bit, Oslo," I answered. With the bells in front and the tail behind, it would have been virtually impossible to sleep even aside from the pain of freshly pierced nipples. I added the obvious follow up, "But I didn't, um, don't mind."

"And they are so becoming to you," he mused, arrogantly wallowing in his power to decide if I would continue to be so 'adorned'. After a pause long enough to make his point even to the most obtuse blonde he had ever met, he smiled beneficently and said, "You can take them off now. The bells and the tail both. Unless you'd like to leave them on?"

He was fishing for another obvious reply, so I gave it to him. "Whatever you want, Oslo."

"Why thank you, Xora. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. Tell you what, let's compromise. You can take off the bells and the tail, but why don't you leave those pretty rings in? And wear something that shows how pretty they are. Would that be fair?"

"Of course, Oslo, if you say so."

His smirk went from smug well over into fatuous as he strolled grandly back toward his private office. Eloi came over to help me gently remove the bells, then offered to loosen the corset.

"Thank you, Eloi, but if you'll just remove the tail, I guess I'll leave the rest on. Oslo seemed to like it."

"You know what he intends for tonight, don't you?" she asked.

"I expect so," I sighed. "But . . . "

"I know," she said. "It seems like a long time since I've had any thionite, too."

"You've had some since I have," Laran said sourly. "And as I recall, after Xora was quite . . . pleasing to you."

"It's not zero-sum, Laran," the gentle Eloi pointed out. "Oslo might give us all some tonight, or none of us."

"You're right, Eloi," Laran said. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry that Trislini got left behind, and I'm sorry that we are so dependent on Mordant for the thionite. But I want some more of it, too."

I had also been up all night and most of the day as well. It wasn't for the reason Mordant thought, though he'd been with me most of the time. He just didn't realize I'd been there with him. His assumption about my sleep deprivation provided me with a good excuse anyway and I took advantage of it to go to bed. Alone.

Of all the ways there are to be awakened, having a naked, beautiful woman slip under the covers with you is hard to beat.

"I'll bet Darius could, ah, top it," smirked Titania.

"Who?" I asked blandly, but I didn't need any enhancements from Titania to reveal my . . . interest in that suggestion.

"By the First Morph, Xora, but you are hard to please. In bed with the woman of your dreams and you're thinking about someone else instead."

"Hey, you brought him up."

"Oh, that's atrocious," she groaned in my mind.

"What did I do now?"

"'Brought him up?' Is that supposed to be cute?"

I laughed enough that Tryx giggled in response - though I don't think she knew the real reason for my humor. "Yep, I brought that bad boy up a few times at that, didn't I?"

"Braggart," snapped Titania, but I ignored her with regal dignity.

Tryx snuggled into my arms - a very nice distraction indeed. ("Nice? Ha!" "Okay, a 'good' distraction. Lighten up!") Under the cover of her physical closeness, Tryx whispered into my ear.

"Stars, Xora, what did you do last night? Mordant himself treated me with respect this morning - well, at least treated me politely - and two of the girls walked right up and gave me a huge hug and a hot kiss!"

"Oh, Tryxie-wixie," I snickered, "you know I couldn't just tell you. It's not something that can be described, you know."

"Are you, um, offering a demonstration?" she asked quietly.

"Are you asking for one?" I asked in return.

She let a soft hand trail down my corseted side - somehow I could feel the heat even through the leather - and said, "Well, it would seem to be . . . prudent. After all, I may be asked to, um, repeat the performance." Then she laughed and tugged on one of my new adornments.

Any immediate answer I might have made was literally swallowed up in her full, ripe lips. After a long, delicious moment, I pulled back. "I . . . we, um, we don't really have to do this. I think we could . . . work something out, maybe. Using our symbionts to, ah, transfer the . . . "

"Shut up, stupid," Tryx ordered softly. "Why do you think I came to your bed - and left my clothes behind?"

Then she kissed me again. She convinced me.

Eventually I moved to a position between her supple legs. As I bent to my task, Titania managed to distract me even at a moment like that - almost making me laugh out loud.

"What flavor do you want this time," she asked helpfully.

***************************.

I should have done that before. ("You can say that again!" "Quiet, Ti.") It turned out that Tryx was almost a screamer. She made the most endearing, soft little cry when she . . . went super-nova. Strictly in the interests of the mission, of course, I should have simulated that the night before in Mordant's orgy.

"With what you did to the others, no one was paying much attention to your own responses," Titania reminded me.

"Just trying to maintain Tryxie-wixie's reputation," I claimed nobly.

"Right now, you should try to maintain her consciousness. I think she's . . . elsewhere."

"I know," I agreed - and even I could hear the smugness in my thought. Well, this time I thought I'd earned it. I slid up beside her and cradled her head in my arms.

"She'll probably agree, when she can think again," Ti said, equally smug. Well, that was fair, too. She'd certainly had at least an equal part to play.

"Thank you, dear," Titania replied, "but I'm beginning to understand humans and their tools. I was just a tool this time, and you were the artist."

"Mutual admiration later," I said, but I sent a thought of thanks as well.

Tryx's eyes fluttered, then opened, but it was another moment or two before they focused on mine.

"Wow," she whispered.

"You're welcome," I giggled.

"Where have you been all my life?" she asked, then didn't give me a chance to answer. It wouldn't have been polite to bite her tongue, after all.

"That was . . . amazing," Tryx reported after, um, thanking me. "Is that what you did with the other girls?"

"Well, each girl is sort of . . . special. It's more a case of paying attention to what, um, works, than a specific . . . recipe."

"It certainly works," confirmed Tryx, still a bit breathless.

"Bee should loosen her corset a little," Titania observed judiciously.

"Yeah, right, like that's ever been something that concerned you," I sniffed.

"You've never let me squeeze you as much as Bee does for Tryx," claimed Titania, and I didn't argue - but I certainly didn't agree, either.

Tryx got a sly look on her face, and sent shivers all the way to places only Titania knew about when she licked at the side of my neck. Then she whispered, "Well, if the, um, technique is that, ah, complicated, perhaps I need another . . . demonstration?"

"Stars, girl, your reputation does not do you justice," I snickered.

"Stars, girl," she mimicked me, "we're just getting started. After you, um, after I learn your technique, it would only be, ah, prudent if I, um, tried it for myself, right?"

"Wow, partner, careful where you throw those rings," laughed Titania. "I nearly lost my hold on them when your little glass-cutters got so hard."

"Shut up, Titania," I said, but I took any anger out of my words, then giggled as I slid down again. "This time I want dewberries from Pegasus 4."

************************.

I don't think she really needed that second demonstration. By the time she decided she was ready for her . . . checkride, she was adding in embellishments I had never considered. But she did. Twice. At least. Things got a little fuzzy in there for a while.

"A little 'fuzzy'?" Titania repeated. "Half the time you weren't even in this galaxy!"

"Ooh, don't I know it," I replied, too satisfied to argue.

"That should just about cover what you did to, ah, impress Eloi and Kyla and Laran," Tryx said smugly after my eyes refocused and my breathing became less impossible.

I just nodded, and smiled the thanks I was still too . . . scrambled to put into words. Then a frown marred Tryx's porcelain brow and it seemed like nothing in the world was more important than making it go away.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Oh, it's just . . ," she started, but she didn't finish that sentence. Instead, she changed the subject.

Tryx leaned back on the bed and said, "Men are s-o-o-o easy to manipulate. There are lies you can tell them that they will absolutely, no-question believe."

"Hey," I started to remind her of my, ah, special background, but her grin said she hadn't really forgotten.

"You don't believe me," she said. "Let me prove it to you. I'll bet that any man, any where would believe what you told Mordant last night."

"What I told Mordant?" I repeated in confusion.

"Sure," she said. "Laran told me what you said, and I guess the way Mordant treated me confirms that you snowed him completely."

"What, that I wanted to be with him? That I was you? What lie?"

"Oh, no, none of those," she laughed. "Those are specific. I'm talking about the big sorts of lies, the ones any man will believe."

"Like . . . ?"

"Like, 'I know it's tight back there, but would you please try again?'"

"Eeeuww," I groaned. "I never said that to him. I never did that with him."

Tryx giggled and said, "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it, girly. But I'm glad you didn't, ah, stretch things quite that far."

"Eeeuww," Titania groaned in her turn. "How can she say something like that?"

I shuddered a little myself and said, "I guess Tryx is just more, um, experienced than we are."

"I didn't mean that," Ti sneered. "I meant that horrid pun. 'Stretch' indeed."

I didn't have time to laugh at her distress because Tryx was still teasing.

"So you think you wouldn't have bought that one," Tryx mused with a giggle. "Back when. . . . you know what I mean. Okay, how about, 'I'd like to go down on another girl. Wanna watch?'"

Now it was my turn to giggle and say, "Stars, girl, I never had a chance for that one. He didn't wait for any suggestions like that from me."

"So no girl ever used that line on you?" prompted Tryx, then she laughed and said, "I guess you weren't the same as the men I've met, but I think we already knew that."

Looking more sharply at me, she said, "But I don't think even I could tell the whopper you told, at least not with a straight face. Did you really tell him that you, 'liked the taste,' and then swallow so . . . willingly?"

"But I did like the taste," I protested. Then I started laughing almost too hard to speak. Gasping out, I continued, "After Titania got done, um, adjusting the flavor, that is."

"Oh my god," Tryx gasped, then broke into laughter of her own. "I never thought of that. I'll have to have a word or two with Bee."

Titania's crow of triumph at having surpassed Bee almost drowned out the idea that had finally come to me. Now I knew why Tryx had frowned - and she had only seemed to change the subject.

"Too bad you won't let me show you what I did with Mordant, too."

"I don't have the right, um, equipment," she sighed, but that wasn't really the problem she made it seem to be. And we both knew it, even if only I would admit it.

"Trust your symbiont, Tryx," I suggested with my own smirk. We were intertwined so thoroughly that Titania had no trouble conveying the proper . . . advice to Bee. Tryx's eyes got very wide, and then a very strange look twisted her features and she squirmed under the covers. The contours of the sheet were showing a shape that was all the proof one might need, but she had to check for herself, first with a shy hand, then with unbelieving eyes.

"Oh my god," she gasped.

"Do you still want a, um, briefing on what we did with Mordant?" I asked. "Strictly in case, ah, the mission requires you to know?"

"That would seem to be the, ah, responsible approach," she agreed.

"Ohh, yeahhh" whispered Titania softly, and this time I think it was her response that showed in our little tattletales as much as mine.

"You wouldn't mind?" asked Tryx, but her eyes begged me to agree.

"Of course not," I assured her. "It's not like Mordant is particularly, um, challenging."

I have to admit, it was strange to see a well-remembered . . . shape as a part of her. Once upon a time ("You mean, before you met Darius." "Of course.") I would have been horrified at the thought of what I was about to do, but somewhere along the line ("You mean, when you met Darius." "Quiet, Titty, we're wasting time.") I had realized that pleasing my lovers was pleasing to me, and the specific geometries didn't really matter.

Titania disagreed. "It mattered with Mordant. You didn't like pleasing him at all."

"He wasn't my lover, Ti. He was just my user."

But Tryx was someone I truly wanted to please. I did have one regret as I knelt once more between her flawless legs. "If I'd have known I was gonna spend all afternoon bent in half, I'd have let Eloi loosen this corset."

**************.

"Thank you, Xora," Tryx said a bit later. "I've always . . . wondered."

"Glad to be of service," I said with renewed smugness.

Tryx reached out to stroke my dark locks and asked, "Do you ever, um, regret . . . what happened?"

"Not really," I said, honestly. "There are some things I, um, miss, but overall it's been wonderful - much better than I could ever have imagined."

"Being a woman?"

"That's part of it, but the plumbing isn't what's important. I was a . . . geek, who worked at a computer terminal and for pleasure played computer games in a holodeck. It was an artificial life."

"I would have thought you considered this to be artificial."

"Well, I suppose in the sense of being a product of 'artifice', I guess it is," I admitted. "But that's plumbing again. What really matters is that I'm a Federation field agent. That's incredible! And thrilling, even when it's, um, challenging as well. I'm more alive than I've ever been."

I grinned and reached out to tweak one of Tryx's tight little buds and said, "And I'm in bed with the galaxy's most beautiful blonde. The old Xora never would have had a chance with you."

"I'm afraid not," admitted Tryx. "I'd like to think that I can see a little deeper than surface attractiveness, but . . . . you really were a geek."

We giggled together for a few, special moments, sharing in ways that didn't need words and weren't driven by our bodies - except that we were so in tune with our bodies, more than anyone else had ever been, that we could add each sensation, each touch, each texture to our sharing as well.

It was a purely loving moment that became even more special when Tryx said, "So, you said sometimes you, um, miss it?"

I shrugged. "Sometimes."

"So. . . ?" she asked, and laughter danced in her eyes.

Titania shouted in my ear with an unnecessary observation. "Don't just sit there, dolt! She's offering to make love with you! With you as a, well, you know."

"I most certainly do know, partner," I said. "But I believe the next step is mostly up to you."

"Oh, right," Titania replied, and I could hear the chagrin in her mental voice even through the excitement.

It didn't take long, not even when I realized . . .

"Oh my god," Tryx whispered reverently.

I sighed and said, "This is Titania's idea of a joke."

"Darius?" Tryx guessed.

"Yes," I said. "Give me a second to get my partner's low sense of humor under control, and I'll, um, take care of it."

"Oh, no," Tryx said quickly. "Don't, um, I mean, I don't mind. That will be, um, fine."

"Damn sight more than fine, as I recall," snipped Titania.

Well, I had to admit to some rather fond memories of that particular, ah, geometry myself. It wouldn't be fair not to share them, would it?

****************************.

That time, I guess I'd call the experience mutual. Neither of us was particularly cognitive after we finished. In fact, only the alerting chime summoning us to Mordant's imperial audience chamber roused us from our satiated somnolence.



Chapter 13 - "Are We In Trouble, or Really Deep . . . ?"


"I wonder if Darius would like to have you all quivering and helpless like this," mused Titania a little while later. As expected, Mordant had 'offered' me a chance to demonstrate my new-found willingness to please him - with my body.

"Darius had me quivering any number of times, and he didn't need manacles and chains to do it," I snapped back. "Besides, I am NOT helpless."

"Mordant thinks so," Titania pointed out.

"Well, Mordant thinks he's the galaxy's greatest lover, too."

He might have had some justification, at least for the first part of that. I had 'pleased' him by continuing to wear the ponygirl corset, boots, and collar, and as a reward, he had added the bells back to my costume. ("To your nipples, you mean." "I know where they are, Ti.") My rings ("Your nipple rings, you mean." "Shut up, Titty.") were also anchored to oh-so-convenient hooks on the bed. The addition of the wrist manacles had seemed anti-climactic after that, and I found myself kneeling on the bed while Mordant played stallion behind me. Meanwhile - aside from Titania's distractions - I was going over multiplication tables in my head. That was better than the alternative, because if I'd really been paying attention to Mordant I'd have had Titania grow me a long, sharp fingernail, then gelded the would-be stud.

"If you don't start paying attention, he's going to get suspicious," warned Titania.

"Him? First off, he's not paying attention to anything but himself. Second, he couldn't care less about whether I was getting anything out of this. And third, well, he's the galaxy's greatest lover. How could I not be thrilled."

"You were a lot more responsive last night."

"I was Tryx last night - experienced and eager. Tonight I'm Xora, and Mordant will be more than satisfied once he finally 'helps' me overcome my inhibitions. What greater demonstration of his prowess could there be than arousing a reluctant, innocent, shy . . . "

"Oh, stop or I'll throw up!"

"You can't throw up, Ti. Only I can do that."

"Exactly," she threatened. Not at all subtle, my symbiont.

Then there was another distraction for me, and this was one I did not want to capture any of Mordant's attention. However, I had taken some precautions about that. When we had entered his rooms, I had been shy and nervous and just a little less graceful than usual.

"You clumped around like a cow!"

"It's these heels," I simpered. "They're so terribly high and all."

"They're lower than the ones you wear in the base!"

"And whose fault is that?" I asked.

"The chase, Xora. You're getting off track again."

Anyway, in my shy, nervous state ("Do you want to throw up?" "Quiet, Ti.") I had stumbled and accidentally pulled the signal plug from the terminal in Mordant's bedroom. That was the good news. The bad news, as I had just discovered, was that you could see the terminal in his sitting room through a tricky little combination of reflections among the mirrors he had everywhere.

"You can see it, but he can only see it if he puts his head where yours is," observed Titania.

"Or if he puts his head who knows where else in this room and catches another mirror combination."

"Oh, yeah."

The worse news was that the terminal in the study had lit up with a flashing warning and a map that showed an intruder alert. You can guess where that was, and who the intruder was. The computer only sounded an audible warning at Mordant's location - or at least, that was the way it was supposed to work. Unfortunately (for him), due to my clumsiness the terminal where Mordant was didn't work right then.

Well, the reason I was there was to keep his attention on me until Tryx finished what she was after. Once I knew for sure she had made her escape, I could, ah, take care of my own unfinished business.

"Do you really want to geld him?"

"Why not? It's not like he uses that thing effectively." I snarled.

"You really have crossed over to the other side," Titania said. "I can't imagine the old Xora - the male Xora - wishing that on any man."

"What makes you think Mordant is a man? It's certainly not that puny excuse for a . . . "

"Lighten up, girl. It's not really that bad."

"Oh, I know, Ti, but it's so damn degrading. Tied down and used like an animal."

"While your partner - your outside partner - is getting the goods that will put him and his whole organization out of business."

"I know, Ti. Get off my back."

"No room for me," she snickered. "Mordant is all over yours."

"I know that, too," I said, but I had to snicker a little, too. Sometimes I forgot Titania wasn't an, I don't know, a hovering angel instead of, well, on the inside.

"Thank you, Xora love."

I just sent her the mental equivalent of a hug and got back to business. I figured it had been long enough for shy, innocent Xora to become aroused by Mordant's matchless sexual prowess, so I started to move a little more sensually to meet his rutting.

"Oh my god, Oslo, that's . . . I mean . . . it's never been . . . like that before." Thank God.

"Ooh, Oslo, whatever you're doing it's just . . . just . . ." Disgusting.

To show how thrilled I was, I started to move back to meet his . . . 'thrusts' is entirely too flattering . . . even though it, ah, rang my chimes as the chains pulled on my nipple rings. His decadence ratcheted up another notch when he made it clear he had been waiting for me to do that. As soon as the bells tinkled, he reached around me to pull their chains taut and ring them even more vigorously.

"Ohhhhh," I moaned, but the slow wriggle I added made it clear that was not a complaint.

"I knew I could conquer you," he grunted.

I think he took the quiver that his words provoked as good news. At least he didn't recognize it was suppressed laughter.

Unfortunately, the most challenging acting job of my career was mostly wasted when Drem came running into the room only moments later anyway. "Mr. Mordant, there's someone in your office!"

"Tryx," Mordant snapped, guessing accurately. Not that it was a particularly difficult deduction.

He, ah, spared me the final act and quickly dressed, leaving me bound to the bed, desperately moaning in my awakened need.

For about six seconds.

Then I had those cuffs off and the damn nipple rings loose. I shucked the ponygirl outfit and had Titania form me a jumpsuit in shadowy camouflage colors, then headed out to see what I could contribute to the situation.

My first contribution was confusion - and it was mostly mine as I almost stumbled on a frantic Mordant. Only Titania's camouflage magic kept him from seeing me, even though I was close enough to hear his communicator squawk with a message from Drem to his master.

"Xora was seen in Corridor 8 a couple of minutes ago."

That obviously wasn't me, so Tryx must have decided on another shell game. "Good idea," I told Titania. "With my figure, she'll be able to see her feet so she doesn't stumble around."

"See her toes, maybe," snickered Titania. "But apparently it didn't work. She, ah, stumbled on someone anyway."

"That bitch," snarled Mordant. "She must have gotten free. Or . . . damn, she's part of it. They're in it together. I should have known Tryx gave up that incredible brunette too easily."

"All right," he continued after a moment. "I want them both alive, but I don't care if they're fairly close to the edge. Let me know if you see them."

I waited until he scurried on his way before I even breathed. Then I talked to myself a little. Luckily, there was someone there to answer.

"Why do you think she's in Corridor 8? That's further from the office than the shuttle port."

"Which is exactly where Mordant will expect her to go, right?" she offered.

"Of course, but we don't really have any choice. The shuttles are the only way off this rock and we'll have to go there eventually."

"Well, it won't do any good if we get captured, even if Mordant doesn't want us dead - at least not immediately."

"That much I had already figured out, Ti," I grumped, but it was as much at my own frustration as at her. "Where would you go, if not to the shuttle port?"

"I don't know. This is not really my sort of environment," she reminded me. "I'm a lot better at natural enemies."

"Oh, Mordant and I are natural enemies. You can be sure of that," I declared, but fell in to frustrated silence again.

"I wonder why she's in Corridor 8," Titania mused, and just like that the answer fell into place.

"The store rooms!" I exclaimed, and started heading that way as I explained. "I just assumed she had been seen passing from one place to the next, but she might be headed for the store rooms themselves."

"Why?"

"Hellooo, Titty! With the galaxy's second best chemical engineer at her beck and call, just think of what she could do with, oh, cleaning supplies and nutritional supplements."

"Oh, I see, I think," she said doubtfully.

"Trust me, Ti. You'll see what I mean when we get there."

"But that's where Mordant is."

"Likely so, but we're pretty good at hiding in dark places," I said dryly.

It wasn't quite as easy as my nonchalant attitude indicated. At times, Ti did an instant freeze on me and for once I didn't complain. At others the only way I survived was through her skin magic, because I didn't dare breathe for long moments. But in the end, we managed to make it from the frying pan into the fire.

The first thing we discovered when we got to the store rooms area was that Bee was no slouch at camouflage himself. I had walked right past a rough section of tunnel wall, only to hear an amused giggle behind me.

"Stars, girl, if swung my tail like that, I'd be in traction for a month."

"Tryx!"

"Accept no substitutes, not even from the Federation's second best agent," she said, a grin appearing in a reverse Chesire cat trick that even impressed Titania.

"I could do that," she muttered.

"I'm sure you could, now that you know it can be done," I agreed, then dropped the zinger. "The trick is being the one creative enough to see the need."

She didn't seem to have any answer to that, for once, and I was wise enough not to push the issue.

"So, Tryx," I said with a falsely casual tone. "Are we in trouble here, or in really, really deep . . . "

"Moderately deep," she admitted. "But I think I got what we were looking for. I found his stash of thionite and a few references in some hidden papers. Have you ever heard of 'Trenco?'"

"No. Who or what is that?"

"Well, actually I don't know," she admitted. "But I found out his thionite comes from Trenco, and there is someone or something called Boskone involved. With Jonesy's resources, I'm sure we can get a line on those names."

"If you say so," I didn't disagree. "But don't we, um, have to get to Jonesy with the information first?"

"Details," she said airily, though she didn't seem to have any immediate ideas. "But surely there's something around here we can use."

Our planning was interrupted by an ominous, distant boom, heralding a breeze that hadn't been there before. Titania's report on the situation was interrupted by a raspy voice echoing from multiple speakers.

"Xora, I know you're in there," Mordant's voice said. "And I expect Tryx is there, too. You've got about 5 minutes to surrender. After that, even modern medical technology won't be able to save you. Oh, did I mention that we're evacuating all the air from this whole corridor?"

His voice took on an increasingly tinny tone as the air pressure dropped, and he concluded with his offer. "Come to the end of the corridor with your hands empty and we'll spare your lives - while you still have them."

"Well, that puts a bit of focus on the problem," mused Tryx.

"Indeed," I agreed. Then Titania picked an extremely inappropriate time to make an extremely inappropriate mod to my prior enhancements.

"Damn it, Ti, I do NOT need this now!"

"Actually, you do," she countered. "Where else do you want to store oxygen, your hips?"

"Store oxygen?" I repeated stupidly.

"Trust your symbiont," she teased. "Though, by the time we're done, I expect your hips, your arms, your legs and your back will all be rather . . . dramatic, also."

"Everything but my waist?" I teased back, but I was more than a little relieved to have her handling the problem.

Tryx was, ah, experiencing an expansion of her own attributes, but either she was not surprised or she recovered a lot faster than I did. We couldn't talk about it anyway. As the air pressure dropped, our symbionts had formed face masks to retain what air we had, cutting off speech. We didn't need to talk anyway and Tryx was already on her way into one of the store rooms. I picked another one just to expand our search opportunity, and this time it was my turn to be successful first.

"Cleaning supplies and - what did you call them? - nutritional supplements," repeated Titania. "I should have known you meant bulk organic chemicals. I can indeed do something with these. What do you want?"

"A fair size explosion, and a means to trigger it," I declared.

The details of what she did were confusing even as I watched her do it. It might as well have been magic the way she had me pour something into my palm, after which something very different dripped from the back of my hand. But in moments - much less than the time Mordant had allowed us - she had a pasty goo that she promised me would make a most satisfying bang a few minutes after one last tweak by an extruded black tendril.

Then it turned out we weren't all that far in advance of Tryx after all. When we moved back into the corridor with our bomb, we found Tryx with a bottle of milky fluid in her own hands. She was pleased to see our own success and used our symbionts as a conduit for her plans.

"One bomb should be placed where Mordant will trip it," Titania reported. "She wants to know if we can make ours pressure-activated."

"Well?"

"Of course," Titania sniffed.

"What about her stuff?"

"She's going to put that where it will blow a hole from this corridor into the shuttle bay. In the confusion, we'll be able to get away."

"Sounds like a plan," I agreed.

In the end, it wasn't quite that simple. Not that either of us expected it to be. ("Hey, I knew it, too." "Okay, none of the four of us expected it to be simple. Stars!") The only room that backed up against the shuttle bay corridor, as best we could determine, was completely empty - exposed enough that we wouldn't be far from the blast.

"Can we set it off by timer?" I asked through Titania.

"It's not that sort of explosive," she explained. "Tryx was expecting to set it off manually - hers is pretty unstable and all it would take is a good rap - but we can't do that from the other side of the door."

I looked around for inspiration and found it in Tryx's huge thighs.

"Meow!" Titania teased. I ignored her implication. Tryx did have huge thighs. At least, right then.

Anyway, Tryx's, ah, expanded fundament reminded me of our trip down the mountain in Teton, and that gave me an idea for the solution to our problem, one with which I was unfortunately familiar.

"Tell her to crouch down and then have Bee freeze her like you do with me," I said. "You can cushion us against the blast, and we can ride it out even if we get bounced around a little."

It turned out we didn't have time for anything more sophisticated anyway. In much less than the promised five minutes, we felt an explosion at the entrance to the corridor.

It takes a fair amount of explosive to send a rumble through a solid moon. ("You're welcome." "Yeah, well, this old rock is probably not that solid anymore anyway. But you did good.") There wasn't enough air for sound, and the converse worked as well. The explosion of Tryx's fluid was probably a lot less dramatic - for someone a hundred yards away. We were up close and personal though, and it seemed quite impressive to me. It was also quite effective. We were suddenly engulfed in a whirling roar.

"More air left in here than I thought," I muttered.

The hole she had blown was large enough for half a dozen people to walk through - or barely enough for our two bulbous bodies to carom through.

"We're being pulled toward the shuttle bay," I realized in shock.

It wasn't long until we found out why. Bouncing along like soap bubbles in a breeze, we were nearly sucked out into the void.

"Oh, that's what's going on," I thought with a strange sort of fatalistic calm.

"What?" asked Titania.

"Mordant has turned off the force field for the shuttle bay. It's open to space. He probably figured we wouldn't be able to get through the vacuum."

"Lucky you had me around," smirked Titania.

"Very, very lucky, love," I agreed warmly, wondering if our association would end up with us slowly drifting in space as our air ran out.

Once we had safely skidded to a stop - short of the open port - I had a greater appreciation for the irony that Mordant's own strategy became our salvation, since if he hadn't pulled so much air from the storeroom corridor we might indeed have been blown right off the moon. As it was, we found ourselves virtually at the boarding hatch for Mordant's luxury yacht.

Since we were in pretty hard vacuum at that point, Tryx just pointed at the hatch and I gracefully swept my arms in a gesture that she should precede me. Well, it would have been graceful if my arms weren't the size of watermelons and my 'girls' so big she could only see the gesture from the elbows down.

"Quit complaining and get inside so we can deflate," Titania ordered.

There wasn't any reason to argue with that, so I squeezed through the opening behind Tryx's huge derriere. ("Ha! Like yours is any better!" "Hush, Titty, I'm enjoying this while I can.") If there'd have been any air, I'd have laughed at the comedy of errors as we tried to fit both our huge figures - definitely figure '8's - into the tiny airlock. We actually had to spill a little of our stored air to get the door closed, but by then it didn't matter.

"Oh, Xora, if Darius had only seen you in, um, in all your glory," Tryx chortled as soon as the lock cycled and we could talk.

"Tryxie, dear, if you ever even hint at what we looked like to Darius, I'll . . . "

"You'll what?" she asked innocently.

"I'll have Titania start giving Bee ideas," I threatened with a theatrically ominous tone.

"Oh, no, anything but that!" she cried, recoiling in alarm - a response unfortunately undermined by her pealing giggles.

The flight deck had another of those palm locks, but Tryx bypassed that readily enough. Thanks to Mordant's generosity in, ah, leaving the door open for us, we soon launched out into the void and completed our escape.



Chapter 14 - "Happy Tails To You"


Jonesy was off doing 'Admiral' things when we got back to base, so it was the next morning when Tryx and I rendezvoused outside his office for our report. It was immediately apparent that she had taken advantage of the overnight delay.

"That's gotta hurt," I thought, wincing at sight of a waist so sharply defined. Tryx's contours seemed more dramatic than ever, and even if all she had done was regain where she was before, that was a real challenge for a single night.

"Oh, it's not that bad," Titania protested.

"It's worse," I snapped uncompromisingly.

Any further comment was forestalled by Tryx. She must have noticed my concern at her apparent discomfort. Instead of agreeing with it though, she laughed and counterattacked.

"You know why brunettes are so good at keeping their figures?" she asked mockingly.

I knew I was being set up, but I couldn't refuse to answer her, so I gave her the straight line.

"No, but I'm sure you'll tell me."

"Because no one else wants their figures," she delivered the punch line with a laugh.

I just shook my head ruefully, not at all convinced. While her tiny waist was clearly the most dramatic statement she made with her appearance, it was not the only one. What she called her uniform (though there was nothing 'uniform' about her unique costume) had been modified yet again. The top was skin-tight with a high, stiff collar and deep décolletage, but that was more or less normal for her. That was essentially all there was to it, though. Below her waist there was a barely-more-than-thong that left her legs exposed nearly to her . . .

"Nothing is really exposed, you know, any more than what looks covered is actually fabric," Titania pointed out.

"Who cares what's real?" I snorted silently. "She looks like she's about to, um, peek out of that little strip of material at any second, and those boots . . . !"

Tryx wore thigh-high boots with staggering heels and flashy cuffs. The combination was about as close as she could come to the ponygirl outfit and still be legal in public, except that it was in her favored royal blue color instead of Mordant's preferred scarlet and gold.

"She didn't even need a hypnodisk to learn your hip swivel," Titania pointed out.

"I don't jerk my hips around like that," I insisted. "I glide with sensuous grace. Everyone says so."

Titania made a rude . . . something that was a sound and a touch and even a nasty smell.

Well, I couldn't pretend not to notice Tryx's attire, so I said, "Love your boots, but didn't you forget something?"

"What have I forgotten?" she asked with concern. Tryx not perfect? Perish the thought!

"You don't seem to be as, ah, musical as you once did," I pointed out - literally pointing to where she lacked a pair of bells.

"With the pair she's got I don't think anyone would think she lacks anything," Titania snickered.

"Lacking in taste, maybe," I offered.

"Taste? I thought you liked her taste."

"Now that's tacky," I replied, then before Titania could point out the proof that I considered Tryx a tasty morsel indeed - my body was certainly offering all the proof she could need - I covered with a compelling argument. "Besides, she's blonde and you know what they're like!"

Well, at least it had the merit of tickling Titania's sense of humor. She laughed loudly enough I wondered if it could be heard on the outside. Then I paid a price anyway when she decided I needed some tickling, too.

My own laughter did bubble up and out, but Tryx joined in it as a way to cover a bit of embarrassment. She leaned close to whisper, "They were sort of . . . fun, weren't they?"

"Considering yet another leading edge fashion statement?" I asked, not really answering a question I didn't want to look at too closely.

"Not here in base, but you never know," she teased, winking before twirling with breathtaking grace in her impossible heels to head toward Jonesy's office.

"I thought you said she was jerky," Titania reminded me.

"What? Oh, yeah. Of course. Not at all, um, . . . "

Titania's laugh drowned out my thought, which wasn't really going anywhere anyway.

Then the corridor started to shrink a little - yet again - as Titania jacked my own heels up another notch, or two, or three.

"Damnit, Titania, that's not necessary."

"I am not going to have her be more . . . noticeable than us," she insisted. "I told you a simple black jumpsuit wasn't good enough."

"You call this simple? Spray paint would be less revealing, and the shine lets everyone in three planets track my pulse," I countered. "But you're missing the point. I don't want Tryx to upstage us either. You're just going at it the wrong way."

"What?"

"Ridiculous heels are her trademark," I said. "Just like that impossible waist. We don't want to compete by her rules."

"I am not letting you go in there wearing flats."

"Goodness, Titty babe, there is nothing flat about this body - not anywhere." Before she could respond I continued, "But I'm not saying we can't have heels, only that we don't need to make that the measure of how we compete."

"Then what do we do?"

"What else is missing from Tryx's ponygirl costume - besides the bells?"

"I thought you hated the bridle thing."

"Ti, Ti, when are you going to think about our strengths? Think!"

"The only other thing was . . . By the First Morph, Xora, you don't want a tail do you?!"

"Why not?" I said, and let a little deliberate smugness into my thought. "We do move more sensuously than she does, and what better way to call attention to it?"

"But . . . you don't like it when I make changes to you."

"You're right. I don't like it when you make unilateral changes to me, Ti, but I love it when you make changes for me - for us. I wouldn't go back to the old Xora for anything. I'd just like to have a bit of say in what the new one looks like."

She didn't respond, at least, not with words, but I could feel her concentration like an echo of a headache. Then I could feel something else.

"What are you doing?" I demanded.

"Just what you asked for," she claimed. "I'm growing us a tail."

"This doesn't . . . I mean, this feels . . . different." The sensation was not at all like the feel of the tail that had hung from the back of Mordant's ponygirl outfit. In the first place, it . . . itched where it was . . . attached? I looked back and saw the same flowing waterfall of darkness that I had, um, worn before, but . . .

"Well, since I'm growing it - as opposed to just attaching something - I decided it might as well work," explained Titania with an unsuccessful attempt at innocence laid over a renewed humor.

"Work?" I repeated with more than a little trepidation.

"Yep," she said smugly. "Try it out as you catch up to Tryx."

As usual, our internal discussion had taken only a few seconds, and it took only a few more for my longer strides to catch up with my blonde colleague. In those few strides though, I felt a silken whisk brush the back of my legs - courtesy of Titania's sensitivity despite the boots I also apparently wore. This time the motion in my tail was not caused only by the movement of my hips. It swung . . . on its own. Really. On its own. Even when I didn't move at all, it still flicked back and forth, causing the ends to fly up and, um, caress my, um, flanks. I could control it, sort of, at least if I concentrated, but as soon as I forgot, it was as likely to twitch into a new ripple as not.

"What did you do?" I asked again.

"I just . . . grew you a tail," Titania snickered. "It's an extension of your own vestigial tail structure. Your 'tailbone' as you call it was most convenient. Even the, ah, reflexes were already wired into place . . . mostly."

I decided it would not be a good idea to pry too deeply into what 'mostly' meant in that context. Besides, we had reached Jonesy's office. I had deliberately stayed just a little behind Tryx so this time she was the first one to enter Jonesy's inner office. I was ready for her to stop in the doorway as I had done the last time, but she was smart enough to know that wasn't likely to work on me. She did stand at attention in front of Jonesy's desk - that was obviously so that he could see the features of her new uniform design. It gave me a chance to take a place next to her and, um, take advantage of my own . . . enhancement.

Jonesy was ostentatiously finishing up something at his computer. That was just as obviously so that he could show who was in charge. Unfortunately, the wait was long enough that I focused on him for a second - and lost control of my tail again. I never could tell if it were just my typical luck or whether Titania caused it - she never admitted anything of course - but the silky mass flicked up on the side Tryx was on and it was her flank that got brushed instead of mine. That started a cascade of disaster that began with Tryx's startled EEEP! and continued through Jonesy's abrupt rise from his chair.

"Just what in all the nine hells of Valeria is going on here!"

Defeating Tryx's attempt to snatch my tail was my first - and successful - priority. Once I got it back where it belonged, I realized she and Jonesy were expecting an answer to his question, and from me.

"Well," I said slowly, then finished more quickly when the response came to me. "I figured we had a, um, 'tale' to tell, so . . ."

The trio of groans was appropriately horrified, Titania's loudest of all. We will carefully not speculate on any potential that the hollow space between my ears had some sort of amplifying effect.

"Do not ever do that again!" demanded Titania.

"Do what?" I asked innocently. Well, maybe I didn't make the innocent part work very well.

"Those horrid plays on words. I hate them. They are like . . . like . . . "

All of the sudden, the pieces fell into place in a new configuration. "Like when you do your lockup thing on me? Like when you . . . pinch me? Like when you . . . . Titty babe, I always thought you hated your nickname because of the physical connotations. But you really hate puns!"

"I most certainly do," she snapped. "I told you that already. I worked hard to learn your language," she claimed loftily. "To hear it twisted like that . . ."

"Titty, you're a snob. Puns can be fun! But I will most certainly remember your, ah, reaction," I said with deliberate menace in my tone. "You may just have to deal with . . . disappointments every now and then, hmmm?"

"You wouldn't dare," she declared, realizing I had not promised to respect her sensibilities.

"Why not? What can you do to me . . . that you don't already do?"

"I'll stop," she promised.

"Don't try to lie to your symbiont," I told her, catching an underlying tone in her voice that contradicted her words.

"Well, I mean, unless you really need . . ," she started, then interrupted herself in an embarrassed giggle as the silliness of her caveat tickled her own sense of humor.

By this time, Tryx and Jonesy were done with their own expressions of disgust at my pun. I expected Admiral Jones to renew his demand for an explanation of my tail, but he realized there are some things he was better off not knowing. He covered his confusion by walking around his desk and ordering Tryx to report. While she was talking, my stupid tail kept flicking up to brush at my side - or at hers - every time I forgot about it for a second. It wasn't my fault, though. It had a natural, automatic motion without any reinforcement from my hips.

"Ha! Not much you mean."

"I'm just standing here!" I claimed.

"Yeah, and for you, standing without a sensual wiggle every now and then is about like Tryx standing without waving her minor planets around."

"Well, a girls gotta breathe, doesn't she?" I snickered, defending Tryx from a charge that was nearly as applicable to me.

"You two don't," Titania pointed out, countering both justifications. "And if you don't keep your tail under control, I'll give you some help."

"You're the one who gave me this silly thing in the first place!"

"Because you asked for it," she crowed triumphantly. Well, I really had walked into that one.

Then it was my turn to distract Jonesy with a not-quite-stifled 'eep.' And it was for the same reason that Tryx had lost her composure earlier. Something hairy had brushed my leg - and this time it wasn't my tail.

It was hers.

Even as she had been reporting to Admiral Jones, she'd been growing a flowing cascade of blonde tail for herself. And, like the capabilities Titania had, ah, discovered in my vestigial components, the one Tryx sported seemed to have a mind of its own.

"Copycat," Titania sneered at Bee. He couldn't hear it, but her disdain probably bridged the gap between us by sheer force of will.

"I seem to remember pointing out that the real trick is in being the one creative enough to see the need," I reminded her.

"What are you trying to say?" asked Titania. "Was that you or me?"

"It was us, silly," I answered.

Once Tryx finished her part of the report and turned the floor over to me, her tail seemed to become especially obnoxious - fluttering up to tickle at the back of my legs, at the front of my legs, at, well, at any place it could reach. And it was a loonnng tail. I couldn't really grab at it, not there in Jonesy's office, so I sent my own tail off in her direction, whipping across her in a way that might have hurt if the thing weren't softer than silk. But hurting her wasn't really what I had in mind. Just the opposite, in fact. If the way hers felt to me was any indication of the way the caress of mine felt to her, it was almost sinfully distracting.

"I think we can take that as a yes," Titania reported smugly after an especially dramatic quiver showed that Tryx was having trouble breathing. And yes, once I allowed myself to look at her . . . breathing I could see some other signs of . . . interest as well.

Then it was my turn to forget about such complicated things as breathing for a timeless moment as Tryx managed to send her tail where . . . well, where it was impolite. At least impolite. Of course, my dear, helpful symbiont did nothing to protect me from the sensation.

"Let me get this straight. You're complaining because I've made your body - especially the good parts - so wonderfully responsive. Is that right?"

I didn't answer her. Like I could have anyway. Instead, I gasped and nearly lost my balance, clutching at Tryx to keep my suddenly weak knees from collapsing. That was actually a good idea, because once I had a hold of her I was able to turn her so that her tail didn't reach quite as well as mine did, and then I counterattacked.

As did she. In seconds, we were wrestling for a position of advantage, only to be interrupted by another stentorian bellow from Admiral Jones.

"That's enough! Both of you, stand at attention."

Caught in mid . . . tussle, we both stared at him for a second before rearranging ourselves.

Ponytails

Caught, we both stared at him for a second.

"Both of you, get that competitive idiocy under control. Save it for the bad guys. I want to see you both show some sign of . . . being professionals, dammit. And colleagues."

"What, you mean like . . . kiss and make up?" I asked throatily, letting my eyes half close and languidly licking my lips.

That sent Jonesy's eye-caterpillars on yet another hopeless quest to reach his distant hairline, and prompted a sensual purr from Tryx that made my knees weak all over again.

"If you two weren't so damn effective, I'd send you both to study fermenting swamp gasses - at close range!"

"Been there, done that," I muttered, prompting a snicker from Tryx.

He sighed like the weight of the entire galaxy was on his shoulders, and I felt just a bit of sympathy for him before I saw he was stifling a grin of his own.

"Stall for just a second," Titania said.

"Why?"

"Don't you trust me?" she asked innocently, but I could tell from her tone that she really thought I'd approve.

Hiding a sigh of my own, I slid an arm out to wrap around Tryx's tiny waist, and said, "But, Jonesy, kissing Tryx would be like kissing my sister, wouldn't it?"

"I'll show you 'sister,'" Tryx promised, snaking her own arms around me, then she distracted herself (dammit!) by exclaiming, "Oh, Xora, that's so sweet!"

'That' was Titania's little surprise. She had changed my tail, or at least the color of it, to match the golden glory flowing from Tryx's . . . um, from Tryx. In a moment, Tryx had made the reciprocal gesture and her tail matched the dark richness of the hair that still draped to my waist.

"Get out of here, both of you," ordered Jonesy. "I'll have regular agents follow up on this Trenco thing, and figure out who or what Boskone is."

"Um, Jonesy?" I asked with a bit more, ah, decorum. ("Not very much more." "That's what I said.") "What happened to the other girls, and, well, I mean, did you catch him?"

"Oh, yes," he nodded, then archly declared it was our fault he had forgotten to tell us. "If you hadn't been so . . . distracted, I'd have told you what happened. Mordant himself got away, but his henchman - this 'Drem' you reported - was apparently killed in the explosion that you set off to cover your escape. Or I should say, Mordant got away for a little while. But apparently, when it was clear he had no more thionite for them, the women in his, ah, harem turned him in to the Federation. He's claiming he doesn't know anything about Trenco or Boskone, beyond the names themselves, but whether he talks or not, he's not going anywhere for a long time.":

"I could make him talk," I offered sharply, all humor gone at the thought that poison would continue to destroy lives.

"He's in Federation custody," Jonesy said, "and we don't coerce our prisoners."

"What he did was evil," I insisted, "not only to the girls, but to everyone else who came in contact with that foul drug. We can't let that continue."

The admiral was adamant. "I don't like it any better than you do, but we can't lay a hand on him."

Tryx picked up on my idea with a way to overcome that constraint. "B . . um, the symbiont race has encountered some really nasty creatures in the galaxy, and we . , um, I could simulate that. Wanna bet I could get him to talk without laying a single, ah, tentacle on him?"

"That's not good enough," I growled. "The drug is the problem, and that's the threat we should use. Let me take some thionite down there. I'll get him to talk."

"We can't addict him to thionite," Jonesy insisted.

"Watch me," I snarled.

"The Federation does not threaten our prisoners," Admiral Jones snapped with equal intensity.

"You know that, and I know that . . ," I said suggestively. "Besides, it wouldn't be a threat. It would be a promise."

"Oh, yeah," Tryx confirmed. "We wouldn't actually have to threaten him . . . exactly. We could provide a very convincing demonstration, then wave a fake powder around."

"It wouldn't need to be fake," Titania silently informed me.

"You mean you could make some of that poison?" I asked in disbelief.

"No," she said. "But I kept some of it. I don't understand how it works, and that worries me. I decided I needed to keep a sample to study, so I held back a little when we turned in the rest."

"Without telling me?"

"That way you wouldn't have to lie," she explained.

"We are definitely going to have to discuss my feelings on 'plausible deniability,'" I growled to her. "But as much as I might like to, I wouldn't really use that stuff on anyone, not even Mordant."

"As you wish," Titania agreed, but the undertones of her mental voice were as implacably angry as the ones I knew echoed in my own. It was frightening, yet reassuring at the same time - as long as she was on my side.

"Always, partner," she promised.

"Oh, I know that, Ti. Though you do sometimes have a funny way of showing it."

Admiral Jones realized he was contemplating our offer a little too willingly, and with a visible shake of his head he brought the discussion to a close. "No. Neither of you are to go anywhere near him. As Tryx surmised, I'm sure we'll get a line on the drug lords even with just the names Trenco and Boskone to work with. That's the end of this discussion."

"What about the girls?" I asked. And no, reminding him of the victims was neither accidental nor a real change of subject.

At this his gruff face softened. "We've offered them help with their addiction, treating it like other psychological problems - similar to addictions to gambling or holodecks. Or like the most pernicious aspects of alcoholism. They may never really get over it, but we hope to help them take things one day at a time and regain useful lives."

"Sometimes, I'd like to take those who rant about 'victimless crimes' and put them through that," Tryx said with shocking bitterness. Then she shook herself and pasted a not-very-convincing smile on her lips. "But I'm sure the women will get the help they need. Trislini and Cheya, too, of course, and any of the earlier ones we can find."

I already had my arms around her, but this time my embrace truly was a sharing of sisterly affection, not an invitation to eroticism.

"Ha! You'd be on your back in a heartbeat if she offered."

"I never denied it," I said. "But I can enjoy hugging her even without sex, Tart!"

"You're calling me a tart?" challenged Titania. "Do you want me to remind you of how your body reacts to the very thought of Darius? Or for that matter, any time you see Tryx breathe?"

"Careful, Titty babe, or I'll find some way to, ahem, 'punnish' you."

"Oooh, you're gonna pay for that," she promised, but before she had a chance to retaliate, Tryx gave a little hip dip and we found ourselves side to side, heading for the door.

"And do something about those tails," Jonesy ordered as we left. "I get enough reports about you two now. I don't need another dozen people in sick bay with neck strain from watching you strut."

"We don't strut, Jonesy," I claimed - lying, of course, but with a rationale. "We slither. You said so yourself."

"Actually," whispered Tryx, "I'm the one who said that to you. But I am impressed."

"Impressed?" I whispered back.

"You actually said 'we don't strut' with a straight face! Now that is Federation-Field-Agent-class lying. Wait'll I tell Darius."

"Say one word to him, and . . and I won't let you . . . enjoy his gift again," I threatened.

"Oooh, now that is harsh," she claimed, but her silver giggle lit up the corridor. Then she sighed and said, "Believe it or not, I have another meeting. I need to get Bee some more training in explosives. That paste you guys came up with was way better than our fluid. I think I'll need some rather more specialized, um, training later though. Are you . . . free?"

"No, but I rent cheaply," I claimed, and laughed away Titania's sputtering expostulation about the sanctity of her matrix.

Tryx's laughter seemed to hang in the air like delicate perfume even after she had extracted herself from my arms and turned toward her appointment. I sighed and headed toward my own quarters. I didn't bother to tell Tryx, but I had scheduled some training myself - in electronic locks, with a special emphasis on biometric keys like palm prints. I just hadn't judged how long our meeting with Jonesy would last as well as she had.

"You might as well get rid of my tail," I suggested to Titania. "But it was a nice idea."

"Can we keep it for just a little while longer?" she wheedled, struggling for a lighter tone herself. "I think it's fun."

"Well, okay," I said indulgently, "but just until we have to report for our training." Then I giggled and admitted, "I sort of like it too, but change it back to black."

Titania snickered at my visceral discomfort with the thought of being blonde, and I knew I'd pay for that vulnerability later, but it was worth it. The deep, rich color of my tail bounced saucily behind me as I walked along, and if an observer would have had a hard time determining whether the sway was because of my, ahem, graceful movements or independent of them, well, I didn't care.

Titania enjoyed my jaunty attitude. "If you got it, flaunt it - and baby, you got it!"

I met Counselor Ardala on the way to my room, in a coincidence I didn't believe for a second. Titania started her fade into hiding, but I interrupted her.

"Stay, Titania, please," I said. "I won't, um, announce that you're here, but I think we can trust Ardala not to . . . cause any trouble."

"Are you sure?"

"No," I admitted. "But I don't like it when you're gone. Or hiding. Whatever. I just don't like it."

"Good," Titania whispered to me in a way that seemed more . . . secretive than her normal manner. She was still there, and the world was still vivid, but there didn't seem to be as much . . . leakage from her. It was probably a good compromise, especially since I didn't have time to talk with her about it.

Ardala greeted me warmly. "So, Xora, you really did grow a tail."

"Do you like it?" I asked lightly.

"I can't imagine anyone else who could carry it off, and so sensuously," she said. "But for you, it's great."

"That's because you haven't met Tryx," I suggested.

"Ah, yes. The other high-order pairing," she said. "I'm looking forward to meeting her. I think it will be interesting."

"Indeed," I agreed, then snickered at the thought of the two strong-willed women getting to know each other.

"Ha! You could give both of them lessons in stubborn," claimed Titania in my ear.

"Stars, Titania, look who's talking!"

Her response was interrupted by a question from Ardala. "I understand you were successful in your mission. How did it go?"

Who could pass up an opening like that? I gathered up my tail in one hand and with the other pulled forward a handful of the dark mass that spilled around my shoulders, then said, "Well, it did get a little hairy at times."

"Ooh, I should have seen that coming," Ardala claimed, laughing as she nodded and walked away. Apparently I had passed whatever tests she had in mind.

She was barely out of sight when I felt Titania start pulling on the strings only she knew about. "I told you what would happen if you kept up with those puns."

"Titty, give me a break. We'll be late for our training," I gasped.

"They'll wait for the galaxy's best agent - and I'll make sure you have a smile on your face when you get there!"

Then the secret strokes - and licks and squeezes and . . . things stopped abruptly.

"Never try to lie to your symbiont," Titania warned me. "Even in your thoughts. You wanted me to do that!"

"Would I do that?" I gasped, then surrendered to the waves of pleasure when she started up again.




Finis



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