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The Quibell Abduction

By Lillian Sheperd
Page 1 of 24

The xeno-gardens spilled their exotic scents into the warm breeze blowing from the dark, rippling lake. The leaves, branches, stalks, plumes, fronds, tendrils and flowers, imported from a score of worlds, rustled together in whispers even softer than the lapping of the water on the shore. The breeze had, no doubt, been bribed from Weather Control, Security Captain Drew Patel thought cynically, as had the clear sky, so brilliant with stars. Even so, that bribe would have been insignificant compared to the cost of the coloured glo-globes, drifting in their programmed patterns about the garden, and a fraction of the price of the double shell of Len Boler's beach house, shining softly with pink light, perched on the cliff above him.

      Drew pulled impatiently at the collar of his dress uniform. He decided that he hated these parties of Boler's. Boler was one of the most powerful businessmen on Ararat, and Ararat was rich, the biggest manufacturing world in this Sector and a trading centre for half the known worlds. Drew suspected that Boler himself was no longer sure how many companies he owned, but all of them were profitable. One of the reasons why they remained profitable was Boler's monotonously regular party giving. These were business affairs, with his managers as regular guests and his customers, potential customers, and anyone else who might do him any good as floating ones. Drew was none of these, but protocol - and political expediency - required that Boler invite the head of Federation Security Forces on Ararat, who was Drew's boss, who was Katrin Shaw, who was a woman and therefore, because of Ararat's vestigial customs, needed an escort, and whose escort normally turned out to be Drew. As Drew himself came from a society whose restrictions on women were considered barbarous by the rest of the Federation, he rather approved of this minimal display of feminine decency. It was one of the few good things about Ararat. At home on Indus now...

      He sighed. Katrin said that these parties were a good way of discovering what was going on behind the scenes on Ararat, but he thought that she just liked gossiping, getting out of uniform and eating Boler's superb food. Which he had to admit was the best that he had ever tasted. And that was another thing. Katrin could get out of uniform; why couldn't he? Regulations stated that they both had to wear uniform but for her to have done so would have been an insult to Araratian sensibilities and so she had an excuse to bend the rules. As usual, she did not bend the rules for her subordinates.

      Drew sighed again. Maybe he should have tried for the Space Service after all. That branch of the Federation armed forces at least saw action. All he and Katrin did lately was act as glorified customs police...

      His attention was suddenly caught by a figure outlined in light on a terrace above; a woman, dressed in firesilk. Not many women could afford that incredible fabric, shimmering with the metamorphic colours of flame, and even fewer could both afford it and be flattered by it. This woman was. The long dress hugged tightly to her slim, flawless figure, but flowed out behind her, as if constantly caught in a high wind. Her hair was a million bronze and copper strands woven into a dazzling net, like a living reflection of the firesilk. She had a fragile beauty that glowed outward across the whole garden. Vulnerable. Warm yet distant. Almost without realising what he was doing, Drew began to make his way towards her.

      A small group of men and women had joined her on the terrace and now a baton drum took up a soft, accelerating beat, the signal for the gern-dancers to take up their positions on the floodlit lawn below. Gerns were carnivores native to the eastern flood plains. Long, sinuous and russet-furred, they rippled along on their pseudo-limbs, twisting in and out of the legs of the naked men and women as they undulated across the sea-moss, winding their snaking bodies about their human partners in strangely erotic movements. The people of Ararat considered gern-dancing one of the highest art-forms; Drew thought it was obscene. He hoped that the woman in firesilk thought that it was obscene, too, but she was smiling a little as she watched, her arm through that of her male companion.

      Drew's eyes flickered appraisingly over him. Brown skin and hair, both of the same light fawn colour, except that the hair was beginning to turn grey. Just over medium height. Medium build. Nondescript, Drew told himself. He must have money, though, or the woman in firesilk would not be with him. Then Drew had the happy idea that she might be a young female relative of his, which made him feel better.

      "Pretty, Captain, but just a little expensive for you," purred a voice in his ear. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's personal assistant."

      Drew did not recognise the reference, but he did understand the implication. He risked a glance at the man beside him. Golsten's narrow, handsome face was, as always, impassive. Drew reminded himself that Golsten was one of the most malicious gossips that he had ever met and that he saw anyone, man or woman, who was better looking than himself as a potential rival. He was also unavoidably reminded that Golsten was, invariably, accurate.

      "Who is she?" he asked.

      "Lenore Wing. She's the P.A. of the man wearing dark brown. He's Ras Quibell. From Mjolnir."

      "Mjolnir? Any connection with Terraformers Incorporated?"

      "Probably. Boler's Strophel Company has just completed an order for him. Our Len, of course, hopes for more. This is the first time that Terraformers have bought equipment outside the inner systems and they're a large market."

      "And Lenore Wing is Quibell's personal assistant?"

      "Very personal." Golsten allowed himself a snigger. "And more decorative than talented, I'd say. Then again, it's possible that she does have talent... in other ways."

      Drew somehow stopped himself from telling Golsten to shut his mouth. It would not have been becoming for a Federation officer and, anyway, would only have encouraged Golsten. Instead, he excused himself and worked his way upward through the spectators to stand behind Lenore - as he already thought of her - and Quibell.

      By the time he reached them, the dancers were taking their bows. Quibell and Lenore were talking to Boler himself and a small group of Strophel managers and engineers. The subject of their conversation seemed to be a small, wooden figurine, which was being passed from hand to hand.

      "Odd," Boler was saying. "The wood is local - aubra - but I've never seen anything like this before. Some very strange influences there."

      Quibell retrieved the carving and slipped it into a side pocket.

      A dark woman who Drew did not know said, "Well, I wouldn't like to own it."

      Quibell looked at Lenore and they smiled as if sharing a private joke. "It has a certain... personal significance," Quibell said. He had a good voice, firm and educated.

      Lenore gave a tiny, entrancing chuckle.

      Drew felt a stab of jealousy. He knew that he was falling in love with Lenore Wing. Katrin would laugh and say that he fell in love with every pretty woman he met - but Lenore was different; he was certain of that.

      Soft dance music filled the terrace. Intricate patterns began to form. Boler bowed to Lenore and offered her his arm, but she smiled and shook her head. "I dance poorly, I am afraid."

      "That can't be possible, surely," Boler smiled back.

      Drew didn't think that it could be possible, either, but Quibell said, "It is. Lenore has no sense of rhythm; perfection is always slightly flawed."

      "Thank you, Ras." Drew could not tell if Lenore was being ironic or not. He decided that she was not, but he liked the dancing mischief in her dark-honey eyes. Her beauty was even more remarkable now he could see her closely. She had flawless creamy-gold skin and her features were exotically unusual, while holding a gentle expression.

      "But you must go ahead and dance, Ras," Lenore went on. "I will watch. It is very beautiful."

      Quibell raised an eyebrow at her, then offered his arm to Boler's wife, Jessa, who looked smug as she accompanied him onto the dance-floor to join the intertwined circles. The rest of the group followed them, leaving Lenore alone, sipping her drink.

      Drew moved quickly to stand beside her, content to watch her watch the dancers. After a moment she appeared to become aware of him, and turned. Her eyes widened a little, as if she was startled. He gave her his best disarming smile, the one that he had discovered quickly overcame the first impression a Federation Security uniform always caused. "Hello. I hope you won't mind me introducing myself. I'm Drew Patel." On Indus, a man who spoke so to a woman would have been quietly castrated by her family, and there was still a small tremor in his stomach as he spoke, though he knew the rest of the Federation thought his fellow colonists slightly insane. He decided that he did too and, to confirm his own resolve, he added, "I think that you're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."

      "Flattery is said to be sweet," Lenore replied gravely, "yet I do not find it so."


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