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Inside Deal

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Too early, Liz Parker told her sleep-addled brain. No thinking. Sleep. Ignore noise. Go back to sleep.

The intrusive sound sloshed against the inside of her skull with a repetitive wet thud. Her head felt heavy. And what did she smell? Bleach . . . and something sickly-sweet . . . maybe strawberries past their prime. Someone must have done a shoddy job cleaning the milkshake machine.

Her mind seized the explanation and grappled for a hold on continued unconsciousness. The machine's agitator needed proper rinsing after every use. Otherwise, slimy little bits slithered into all the wrong places. Given that the motor overheated with increasing frequency, she'd come to regard berry bits as her personal nemesis.

Maybe her father should just give up and replace the stupid thing. At this point, its long and faithful service demanded death with dignity. How could she hear it from bed, though? The errant data point threatened her fragile dozing. Had he brought it upstairs? Better to accept the inevitable than drag it out of the restaurant to take it apart. Still, she didn't hear him muttering cheesy fake curse words at it, at least not yet. Some hope remained.

If he tried to replace the agitator without a second pair of hands, he'd bend the stabilizing arm. She suspected he'd appreciate her help, but her head felt too muzzy. She refused to wake up before her alarm sounded. She tried to roll over, to better ignore the smell of cleaning products and overripe fruit. Her muscles screamed their protest.

The fight with Kivar swam in her head. Hadn't Max healed her bruises? She rubbed her eyes, and jolted awake as a strange rubbery thing fell into her face.

She swatted at the thing, but it flailed right back at her. She jerked upright, all but toppled over, and almost missed that her mysterious attacker disappeared. The room swayed like a carnival ride, which she could have dealt with, more or less, if not for the bigger problem. Instead of her bedroom above the Crashdown, she found herself in some sort of lab, surrounded by gleaming metal equipment.

She didn't remember getting captured by the FBI. She didn't remember anything after the fight at all, and -- they'd drugged her! Blurry vision, headache, the muzzy feeling -- her hand flew to the IV line in her arm the moment she spotted it. She squashed the instinct to yank it out in blind panic. Calm, she ordered herself. She closed her eyes and took a breath. Then she gingerly peeled the tape away from her skin.

Her gray skin.

Gray, wrinkled skin on her long, skinny arm.

With long, skinny fingers.

And not quite five to a hand.

What.

Oh.

Oh no. No, no, no.

She tried to rub her eyes in disbelief, only to suffer a second attack of strange rubbery thing to the face, thanks to the unsettling sensation of rubbing those disbelieving eyes with long alien fingers.

Her heart hammered in a strange rhythm that felt all wrong in her chest. She stared at her hands. Ava's voice echoed in her memory. Max healed you and now you're different. With effort, she forced her attention to the rest of her unfamiliar body. Her head felt huge. She'd mutated, finished the changes she'd started before Vermont. Dammit, why did she think she could just go ahead and use her alien powers? She couldn't hide this. And now they'd caught her.

But they who? Medichem had burned to the ground. The Skins were dead. And Nasedo had put an end to the Special Unit -- her initial suspect -- over a year ago. Were they back, or was this some strange new enemy? Regardless, Max and the others were in danger as well. Maybe they were even here. She hoped not, but she couldn't just sit and wait, she had to check.

Liz clambered down off of the metal table on unfamiliar legs. She needed clues. Or an escape route. Both, actually. This scenario clashed harshly with the way she had envisioned spending her life in a lab -- twelve hours a day as an overachieving bio major at Harvard or Northwestern or Cornell, yes, but as a captive specimen in the clutches of rogue government agents, not so much.

Gleaming tools covered the counter. Several sharp-looking knives hung on the wall above it. She banished all thoughts of alien autopsies and focused on the positive. Potential weapons strewn about meant they didn't expect her to wake up yet, so she had some time. The other non-bed -- she struggled against labeling it an autopsy table -- stood empty. Another positive -- she hoped it meant that they'd captured her alone, and her friends were safe.

She lurched toward the sloshing noise that sounded so much like a broken milkshake machine, steadying herself against the warm stone wall. She caught a glimpse of crimson sky through a high, round window. Evening, then, but of the same day? No, she thought, rejecting such a hasty assumption. She couldn't tell sunset from sunrise at this angle. She shoved a metal lab cart up against the wall, tested it for sturdiness, and climbed up to look out the window.

Everything looked red. Everything. From the burnt orange sky to the scattering of chestnut pebbles on the beach, everything blended into an artificial uniformity. Even the water shimmered in a shocking crimson red. She stared at the shoreline. A blood-red ocean? Maybe her mutated eyes had more rods, or fewer cones. Maybe aliens suffered from colorblindness. No, of course not. She scolded herself for the sloppy theory. She could see plenty of white and green, not to mention gray, inside the room. A tinted window, then, but how did the water move that way?

Liz reached up with one finger to tap on the glass, but froze mid-action at a distant metallic clink. She yanked her eyes away from the jerky, unnatural motion of the waves, and listened harder.

Footsteps. Someone was coming.

In her hurry, she crashed painfully to her knees and sent the lab cart careening into a table. The gauzy medical gown she wore tangled and ripped. Some kind of noxious-smelling liquid splashed across the floor. With some help from the wall, Liz scrambled to her feet and rushed along the edge of the room, desperate for a hiding place. If they weren't headed her way before, she'd definitely attract attention with that racket.

A tapestry hung on the far wall, and she hurried to hide behind it. She grabbed the trailing hem of her torn gown, and kept the other hand on the wall, lest she trip again on these unfamiliar legs. Behind the wall hanging, the stone felt different in one spot. When she paused, it behaved strangely as well, tugging at her hand with some phantom force. She waved her hand over the surface, then fell gratefully into the tunnel that opened before her.

Any doubts as to her whereabouts ended. The wall closed off behind her like seawater -- normal seawater anyway -- pouring into a hole in the sand.

The knowledge calmed some of her fears before it had a chance to kick off a multitude of new ones. She leaned back against the smooth stone, and waited for her eyes to adjust to the sudden darkness. At least her body hadn't mutated. Good news, provided she ever saw it again. She fought to contain manic laughter at the biological impossibility of her first assumption. This wasn't her body at all.

Absurdly, she thought about the interview she had scheduled with Northwestern University's recruiter. The appointment seemed impossible to keep now. The high school guidance office was one heck of a commute from the Whirlwind Galaxy.

That's where she was, she knew now -- trapped in a cloned alien body meant for Isabel Evans, on the planet Antar. It must have happened during the fight. When she shoved Kivar into the transportation portal, she must have gotten caught up by it as well.

Noises filtered through the rock wall -- high pitched shouts in a language she didn't speak, and the crash of metal against stone.

Kivar was hunting for her.

Liz ran.


***


Dremea arranged the queen's meal on the platter. She marveled again at the idea of eating such things. This queen was a puzzling creature in more ways than one. Her alien appearance and dietary choices paled beside the true mystery: her political ambitions. Seating Queen Ava on the throne of Antar might stop the wars, but Dremea knew the risks behind that plan. Even if they could pull it off, many feared the queen would break her promises.

Those who opposed the planned alliance said Queen Ava had already betrayed King Zan. Why should his people trust her now? But Kivar wanted her dead, and that gave the Inwallers reason enough to protect her. Besides, her strange young son was the rightful prince. If they established a regency in his name, they could get Ava to support Traedon as Imperial Chancellor. Then the people would finally have their voices heard. Things would improve.

What other choice remained to them? King Zan's return might never come.

Before opening the door to the queen's room, Dremea signaled her intention with a gentle glow, for the sake of respect. Courtesy mattered, even if the other party might stab you in the back at next mooncross.

"Come in," Queen Ava called, her accent thick and her voice pitched strangely high for a woman. She always said it, even though people would enter whether she did or not. She played her role in the courtesy, and never tried to refuse them as some other guests had in the past. Like that old palace guard before his unfortunate death.

"I've brought your evening meal, Your Highness." Dremea set the platter on the table.

"Thank you." Queen Ava's mouth still seemed far too large, although Dremea had seen it many times. The Inwallers had studied the old reports from the planet called Earth for years. They'd included images of Earth people's facial expressions. Queen Ava unsettled her all the same. Earthlings had such wide mouths. Ava's long rows of bright white teeth brought to mind the fearsome predators that lurked beyond the desert.

Dremea looked away from the queen and instead focused on the baby in the cradle beside her. The prince had yet to grow the teeth that made his mother look so threatening, but he shared her coloring. Earth people had ocean-red blood, which was visible through the baby's thin, pale skin. It gave him a pinkish hue. Young Zan was plumper than Antarian babies, but grew at a slower rate. His short, stubby legs still could not carry his weight. She hoped he'd outgrow that weakness.

"Has Kivar returned to his body yet?" The queen picked up a foodstick and began her customary slow examination of her meal.

Officially, Queen Ava wasn't supposed to know Kivar had left his body in the first place. Then again, neither was anyone else on Antar, herself included. Secrets were fickle things in these trying times. Dremea answered with the truth. "We don't believe so. The palace ordered floaters for the Night of Three Moons, but Kivar's second delayed the invitations."

"There are plenty of reasons to delay party announcements," the queen said. "Maybe Kivar wants to avoid hosting offworld guests. Specific slights would draw ire, of course. Late invitations en masse are different. The strategic execution of some unfortunate party planner would soothe any hurt feelings."

"True." The theory made perfect sense. Dremea wondered if anyone else had considered the implications.

The Inwallers lacked the strength to challenge Kivar alone. Support from one of the other worlds could change everything. Kivar's regime spouted generic xenophobia to the masses as a matter of course. But if this dose of paranoia sprang from actual fact, the details could prove useful. Maybe they should question a few key contacts. Dremea decided to bring the matter up with Traedon.

"I'd like to see the final guest list," Queen Ava said. "It should prove revealing."

Dremea agreed, both with the thought and the request, although she'd need to get permission to share intelligence. She wondered just how much Queen Ava knew about the political situation, in light of her long absence. Her shrewdness bore watching.


***


Liz crouched in the dark tunnel, one hand pressed against the smooth stone wall, and listened. Her borrowed muscles ached from the jarring end to a history of disuse. She doubted the clone had ever stood on its own two legs before. The panic-driven blind sprint through the narrow, twisting passages of this labyrinth had taken its toll. The resulting collisions with its unforgiving stone walls had left their mark as well. As far as narrow, twisting passages went, she liked this particular one the best. At least its dime-sized hole in the wall let in some light.

When she peered through it, she got a distorted birds-eye view of a large room full of curved tables. The translucent object wedged into the hole resembled a prism, not a proper window, and the play of light strained her eyes. She'd found it hard to focus at first, but she found comfort in the angle of the view. Whomever had installed her peephole had set it well above the eye level of anyone on the other side.

Two aliens engaged in an urgent conversation below her. The language was foreign to her ears, but their aggressive postures looked argumentative. Or so she guessed. Maybe aliens just lacked a sense of personal space. Kyle had said that about Tess often enough.

Rule one, she reminded herself, assume nothing. Letting her Earth-based cultural biases cloud her observations could lead to mistakes. The situation was bad enough without getting captured and tossed in some alien dungeon. She'd faced life or death situations before. She liked to think she'd even gotten pretty good at handling them, but getting stranded on an alien planet reached a whole new level of risk.

She'd told herself to remain calm so many times today that all meaning had faded from the concept. She measured every movement, every breath, worried some small noise would draw their attention. Her luck held, and neither alien so much as glanced in her direction.

So far, she hadn't seen anyone within the tunnels themselves.

Logic said she'd circled back on her own tracks more than once by now. Plus, they vastly outnumbered her. Either Kivar's forces couldn't get into the tunnels, or they didn't know she could. Lucky either way. Maybe she'd hit a real jackpot, and they didn't even know the tunnels existed. She scolded herself for such wishful thinking.

She needed a plan. A real plan. But to form one, she needed more information than none. At least she knew how she'd ended up here. During the fight in the desert, the transportation portal had mistaken her for Isabel. She should have figured it out when she remembered the fight, yet nothing after it.

Maybe she could cut herself a little slack, considering she'd woken up on the wrong planet. Not to mention drugged. That sort of thing would confuse anyone.

With enough time, she could figure out the equipment in the lab. She could send herself home. The first obstacle was to figure out how to keep everyone else out of the lab long enough. On a world where she didn't even know how the doors worked, that might prove difficult. Then again, she'd managed to open the doorway to these tunnels.

Liz tried to remember how she'd done it. It had felt like the wall had drawn her hand to the right spot, but if it was that simple, they should have caught her almost immediately. Something had let her in, but not the others. Had she stumbled upon the secret combination purely by accident? Had she used alien powers without even realizing it? No, of course not, she realized. It wasn't anything she did at all.

Just like the pod chamber back on Earth only opened for aliens -- and now that she thought about it, likely only for specific aliens -- it seemed likely that the tunnels only opened for the royal family. They were the original occupants of this palace. Since she currently occupied Isabel's clone, she had the right DNA.

At least she had one advantage. She just had to find a way to put it to use. If only she could speak the language, she could march out there, claim Isabel's royal title, and start ordering people around. After all, Kivar had wanted Isabel as his queen badly enough to visit Earth twice now to steal her away. One would assume he planned to actually make her queen, even if in name only, and not just toss her in a dungeon. Any dungeon-tossing plans would have prioritized Max as a target. And also involved a lot more violence and rather less ham-fisted seduction.

Maybe Liz could learn the language. Or pretend to have amnesia. Not that she could communicate the amnesia story without knowing the language. Damn it. If only real life was a little more like Star Trek -- if everyone spoke English, this would be a heck of a lot easier.

One of the possibly arguing aliens crossed the room and pulled aside a hanging tapestry. Liz tensed. If he knew of an entrance to the tunnels -- but no, he turned on a rectangular screen with rounded corners, about the size of a serving tray. A computer, maybe, or a communication device. She wished she had a better view -- she'd take any clue she could get about how to work the technology here. For that matter, she'd settle for knowing what her current body ate.

The screen showed a series of images, some in bright colors, and others in a muted gray. When Liz recognized the lab where she'd woken up, her stomach -- or some internal organ, anyway -- sank. The building had security cameras. She forced herself not to run, and watched for an image from the tunnels. When none appeared, not even a fuzzy view of darkness that might be a tunnel, she relaxed just the slightest bit. That proved one hypothesis -- if they knew about the tunnels, they'd have cameras in them.

She tried to make sense out of the other images. Unfortunately, she could neither identify any particular alien -- clues she would have taken for granted on Earth, like clothing, meant nothing to her here -- nor deduce much about the rooms themselves. She'd landed in a whole new civilization, with different technologies and concepts of design. She couldn't even tell a bedroom from a kitchen unless she happened to spot someone cooking in it. Provided she even recognized food. The entire situation gave new meaning to the term culture shock.

One of the aliens pointed to the screen and said something. Liz strained to hear, only to gain another reminder of the language barrier. Could aliens cry? She felt like putting that question to the test. They could feel dizzy and shaky, or at least she did. She discovered they couldn't bite their lips, and forced herself to take a calming breath.

She knew one thing anyway. Aliens breathed with something resembling lungs. As in humans, breathing was an autonomic function that nonetheless could be consciously controlled. And bipedalism, that was another point in her favor. She already knew how to operate a pair of legs for locomotion. Sight, hearing, a sense of touch. Opposable thumbs . . . she looked down at the cloned hands . Okay, not quite as adept at swinging from the trees as those she'd inherited from her own simian ancestors. But still, close enough. The same features that made Antarians choose Earth years ago worked to her advantage now.

The biology worked, so it wasn't all bad. She could learn all the cultural stuff, or at least enough of it for her purposes. She wasn't planning to settle here and raise crops, she just needed some lab time --that was her ticket home. Liz had plenty of practice sneaking into places. Back in Roswell, she'd just learn the lab's schedule, then make her move during a lunch break, or in the wee hours of the night. Here, she couldn't even read the clocks to establish a schedule, and for all she knew, it was night now. Hidden tunnels weren't big on windows.

Another calming breath. She needed to stop looking at the big picture, and take this situation one step at a time. First, learn something of the technology, since they were kind enough to use it in her line of sight. That way, when she got back to the lab, she could make the most of it. She focused on the viewscreen, and tried to work out how they controlled it. It didn't seem to involve telepathy, so that was a plus.

She'd worried about operating the telepathic controls on the transportation device. Evidence that telepathic control wasn't the default for the technology here gave her hope. With luck, she'd find a manual override.

Fortunately, various aliens -- she had to stop thinking that way, technically Liz was the only alien here -- various people had reason to use the viewscreen as Liz watched. Besides security camera feeds, it also provided access to written information. Sometimes it displayed screens of text in the language Liz recognized from the alien book. If only she'd learned to read it. They had Alex's translation, after all, she could have made the effort.

Too late now. Her priorities had made sense at the time, and regret was useless. Besides, she had studied all the science she could, especially the physics that might relate to interstellar travel. She knew a little about alien technology. She'd make that count for something. All she had to do was learn to run that computer. She settled in for the most important computer science class of her life.

Hours later, she'd learned three things. She knew which dial on the wall turned the computer screen on, and which direction to turn it. She had a pretty good idea of how to use the touchscreen to switch between security camera images. A swish, not a tap. Most importantly, she knew how to mute the loud noise that accompanied some the device's functions, particularly the scrolling text that she guessed was a news feed.

The flow of aliens -- people -- in and out of the room she watched seemed to have slowed. When someone turned off the computer and let the tapestry cover it, Liz decided to find her way back to the lab. If she found it empty, she could test her working hypothesis, and proceed from there. Just as she turned away, the light from her peephole flickered and brightened. She returned her attention to spying.

Kivar strode into the room, and Liz realized with a start that she knew this was Kivar. Strange, since she'd never seen him in person. His possession of two different humans -- first Denny Ridgeley and later Kyle Valenti -- didn't count. She studied the face she hadn't laid eyes on before this moment, and wondered why it looked familiar. He did walk like he owned the room, and the other people in it seemed to agree. Maybe she could blame her subconscious for the observation. But it felt like more. It felt like she knew him.

Isabel knew him. The clone had memories, Liz realized. Before she finished pondering her right to rifle through them, she remembered that Kivar knew about the tunnels. Or at least one particular tunnel.


***


Liz ran. She knew exactly where Kivar would look for Isabel -- or rather Vilandra -- first. She also knew where that tunnel would lead him when he failed to find her. She needed to get to the lab and transport herself home before that happened. Once she'd lost her hiding place, she'd be lucky to ever leave the palace again, let alone the planet.

She remembered the horror of the palace coup. The terror of watching people she'd known her whole life die.

The stoic old captain of the guard, patient victim of so many childhood pranks, had fallen first. The shock on his face that night played again in her mind's eye, forcing Liz to battle back a powerful wave of nausea. Not my memory, she told herself, but her words were hollow.

She could see Zan -- Max -- slumped brokenly in the doorway of his bedchamber. She could smell his thick black blood pooling on the floor. She could hear the last labored gasps from Ava, on the floor behind him, clutching her own gory wound as her life poured out between her fingers.

Part of the household had been away. The Queen Dowager had taken a delegation on trade negotiations only hours before. Lucky, in that they'd escaped the carnage. Unlucky, in that a full battalion might have stopped it.

Vilandra's memories flooded over her. The crushing shock of Kivar's betrayal slammed into her like a tidal wave. When it retreated, it left frothy guilt in its wake. The pain of a discarded lover who should have seen it coming. Who should have chosen more wisely.

But Liz could swim against the tide of those emotions. She was not Vilandra, and she had never loved Kivar. She'd known him only as the villain of the piece. It was the image of King Zan -- her beloved Max -- hunted down in his own home, that made Liz burn with rage. Her shaking hand made it hard to find the door seal.

Focus.

The door melted open. She stumbled into the room, stunned the only occupant with a wave of her royal hand, and turned on one of the lab computers. Text filled the large screen. She'd skimmed half the menu with panicked impatience before she caught herself reading the so recently incomprehensible Antarian script. Thank you Vilandra. A few swishes, and she knew exactly how to go home.

Whoever had designed the program and equipment had done so with Kivar in mind. Even a man of such limited scientific knowledge could run the hands-free telepathic interface. She just hoped she had the incubation pods straight -- she wanted to wake up in her own body, not Kyle's.

Once she examined them, she realized she needn't have worried. With the doors open, even her untrained eye could see the differences between the two gleaming metal chambers. Kivar's had an artificial curtain of sorts, and only a rudimentary organic pod. Her own had a thicker membrane, with an abundance of blood vessels. Unlike the one created only for the transporter, it had nurtured the clone during its years of growth.

For Liz's purposes, she could skip the long process of reconnecting the life support functions. If the clone survived, it would only make it that much easier for Kivar to continue pursuing Isabel. Perhaps losing it would force him to give up. Not that she wanted to kill it, but she wouldn't delay her own escape with any extra effort to protect it. Without that concern, she only needed to step inside the chamber, once she set up the control unit.

First, though, she needed to secure the room. If she got interrupted during the transfer process, she feared she wouldn't survive. The lab's main door opened by sliding, so she rejected her Earth-based instinct to pile lab equipment in front of it as useless. Could she melt it closed?

Finding out became imperative, because judging from the banging and clanking sounds in the hallway, she had company.

She held her hand against the wall, but paused -- an experimental blast seemed just as likely to melt the door open. Bad plan, and she had run out of time. To hide her intentions, Liz flipped the computer screen to another application. She raised her hand, prepared to blast anyone who came through that door. The image of Zan's body rose again in her mind, and she half-hoped Kivar himself led the way.

The door glowed. She started to back away, but then Vilandra's memory translated this to Liz as the Antarian version of a polite knock. She was starting to get the hang of having two sets of memories. Polite knocking as a prelude to recapturing a prisoner didn't reconcile with either one.

"I'm not properly dressed," she said, speaking Antarian in a low-pitched voice, rusty from disuse. An old trick on either planet, but she hoped it would do.

"I have some gowns for you, Princess Vilandra, as well as your jewels. I'm to be your new handmaiden. Will you allow me to enter?"

She sorted through Vilandra's memories, and took a gamble. "I will require my betrothal gown. My reunion with my beloved Kivar demands ceremony." She paused, and heard the servant's unconvinced silence through the door. "Nothing less will do."

"But Princess, I've brought up a rack full of new -- "

"I want the betrothal gown. Was it not preserved for me?"

"Of course, all your gowns are in the vaults, but -- "

"Do as I say," Liz snapped. A memory -- her own this time -- of a certain diamond heist played in her head. She flung the same attitude she'd used that day at the unfortunate servant. "I will not have my orders questioned by a handmaiden. Go now, and see that I am not disturbed before you return. I will not be seen in this appalling rag."

"As you wish, Princess."

Liz sighed with relief -- figuratively, anyway. In her current body, her 'whew' sounded more like a soft whistle, and meant something else entirely. Good thing nobody heard her. Relief, on the other hand, felt the same on any planet. She hoped it would take the poor bullied handmaiden a while to hunt down a fifty year old dress in the bowels of the old castle. By the time she did, Liz would be safely back on Earth, in her own body. She turned to the computer to begin the process, and froze.

The image of a baby, a human baby, filled the screen. The headline dubbed him 'Ava's Abomination' and Kivar had put a price on the child's head. Killed or captured, he'd buy someone a life of leisure. Not to mention priceless favor with the throne. Every opportunist on the planet would jump at that bait.

Her hand hovered over the keyboard. She longed for her comfortable bed above the Crashdown. Her future depended upon her interview with Northwestern. College, the people she loved, Maria, Max . . . her whole life stretching before her . . . all just a few keystrokes away. The handmaiden could return at any time. So could Kivar's forces.

Or even Kivar himself.

Liz closed her eyes, a shudder running through her at a sound from the hallway. She swallowed her fear and tried to think. Do the practical thing, she told herself, what other choice did she have? Her hand twitched on the keyboard.