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Inside Deal

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"She's still unconscious?" Maria rushed through the door of Michael's apartment and made a beeline for the couch. "How is she still unconscious?"

Max shrugged, barely sparing Maria a glance. "I thought she'd wake up by now."

"Well she looks pale," Maria snapped. "Are you keeping her warm enough? Why haven't you healed her?"

"I tried," Max said. "Nothing happened."

"What do you mean nothing happened?"

"I couldn't find anything to fix. Her pulse is steady, nothing's broken, and she doesn't feel sick. She just won't wake up."

"Are you sure your powers are working?"

"I healed her bruises," he said. "And Michael's. I'll get to test them again when Kyle gets here."

Maria fussed with Liz's blanket and felt her forehead. "Maybe we should take her to a doctor."

"Too risky. And what would they do anyway, if her powers caused this?"

"Is that what you think?"

"It's the first time she used them the way she did this morning. I think she overloaded her abilities."

"We have to do something. We can't just -- " Maria waved an arm at Liz. "We can't just sit here."

"I'm game for anything that doesn't end with Liz strapped to a table in a secret government lab."

"What about that guy Jesse called for Isabel when you . . . " Maria let her words trail off. Max's recent death remained a sore subject with him, despite its temporary nature.

Max sighed. "I don't know how to reach him, although Isabel might when she gets back. I'm not even sure he could do anything more than we have. It's not as if he can restore her secret alien powers."

"Has anything like this ever happened to you?"

"Last Christmas," Max said. "After Michael dragged me out of that hospital, I passed out. I woke up the next morning, groggy and with a headache, but none the worse in the long run. I think Liz will recover too, if we give her time, so let's not panic yet. It would do more harm than good at this point."

"That makes sense," Maria admitted. She hated seeing her best friend this way, but she'd hate seeing her locked up in an FBI laboratory even more. "But at least get her another blanket, she's freezing."


***


Liz felt her hand twitch on the keyboard. With a sigh, she drew it back and turned to close the pod. She had no choice.

Earth could wait. Max's son could not.

Liz spent the valuable time she'd planned to use for her escape doing pretty much the opposite.

First, she dealt with the unconscious Antarian. For Kyle's sake , she rejected the idea of shoving the man into Kivar's pod. She stashed him underneath one of the not-an-autopsy-table tables instead. That accomplished, she scrolled through old news reports on the lab console. Maybe she could find a clue as to the whereabouts of Tess and the baby. She also needed more local knowledge to continue playing Vilandra.

The more she read, the more she remembered about Vilandra's life. Any moral reservations she held regarding the privacy of the dead princess got shoved aside. Vilandra was essentially Isabel, and as much as Isabel valued her privacy, Liz had to believe she would prioritize her nephew's safety.

The door glowed.

Liz shut down the computer. "My gown?"

"As you requested, Princess."

"Then please enter."

She allowed the handmaiden -- whose name she learned was Prill -- to help her dress. It was expected, and her nerves made the elaborate clasps impossible to work anyway. More detailed memories of the garment, with all its complicated history, returned in spurts.

She remembered arguing with her mother, or rather, Vilandra's mother, about the flashy style. Once the dress hung safely in her wardrobe, she had capitulated, and agreed to save it for another event. Instead, she agreed to wear her mother's choice of gown to her dreaded betrothment party. Rath didn't deserve this dress, Vilandra had thought at the time. She'd meant it for Kivar's eyes when she chose it.

Liz dragged her mind back to the present. She played the role of a lovesick and spoiled princess. Despite that role's inconsistency with Vilandra's memories, it fit the situation. A continuous string of questions about her suitor seemed the best way to expand her knowledge without raising suspicion. "Has Kivar courted anyone during my absence?"

"He's completely loyal to you," Handmaiden Prill said. "At official functions, he always keeps an empty seat beside him in your honor. Some people say it's only for show, an excuse to avoid making a tie to any particular noble family. Of course that's foolish gossip. Nobody who matters would say such things, and everyone in the palace knows of his efforts to bring you home."

Liz counted the talkative handmaiden as both a blessing and a curse. She needed all the information she could gather. Then again, anyone loyal to Kivar could prove dangerous. Her memory dredged up another potential complication -- the identity of Kivar's original betrothed.

The young woman came from an influential family, with close business ties to both the royal family and Kivar's father. She had remained in the dark about their clandestine relationship, with good reason.

"What about Tervalewa?" Liz asked. "Will her claim trouble me, or has she settled for another?"

"But Princess Vilandra, you must know more than I. You attended her wedding!"

Crap. "I guess my memory still has a few holes." With effort, she dimly recalled a tense evening with Rath under the watchful gaze of half the planet. Hardly a unique memory, she realized. While Isabel loved Michael as a brother, Vilandra's relationship with Rath was . . . complicated. "When I first woke up," Liz continued with an ironic honesty. "I remembered nothing. It terrified me. That's why I hid."

"You woke up earlier than expected. Kivar is not pleased with the court physician."

Liz cringed. A displeased Kivar could prove dangerous to the physician's health. "I hope he hasn't . . . " murdered him horribly " . . . dealt with him too harshly."

"I daresay the doctor will retain his post, but why trouble yourself over such trivia? Your beloved awaits."

Liz forced a smile.

"Oh dear, do you feel ill, Princess?" Prill reached for her arm. "Do you need to recline?"

Crap. Aliens didn't smile. "I'm fine," she stammered. "I was just -- " She pointed at her mouth. "It's a . . . " Vilandra's memory couldn't help her with the language when the words she needed didn't exist. " . . . Earth thing. I'm just excited to see Kivar again and I lived on that blasted planet too long . . . "

"How dreadful it must have been for you, Princess, trapped in one of those strange bodies. When Ava returned -- " The woman gave a shudder.

Liz wanted to know more about Tess and the baby, but she quelled her desire to ask. Open that Pandora's Box, and she might spill more information than she gained. Did Tess's fugitive status mean Kivar still considered her loyal to Zan? Did people know what happened between Tess and Max on Earth? Now was not the time to learn more. "I hope these distasteful Earth habits won't last long, now that I'm home. How do I look?"

"Very lovely, Princess."

Liz looked down at the dress. Even as she stood motionless, the layered white skirts swirled about her feet. The folds of fabric that had felt so heavy as they fell into place now seemed as light as gossamer. The high bodice changed color in slow waves, ranging from the softest greens to the boldest of blues.

The technology which created the effect had caused a great stir during Vilandra's lifetime. Older generations felt it threatened to replace traditional ways. Yet the cut of the dress remained rigidly old-fashioned. Antarians had worn similar gowns for generations. To Liz, it felt at once quaintly medieval and imaginatively futuristic -- Renaissance Fair meets Crash Festival. And it was beautiful. No Oscar gown could hold a candle to it.

"Shall we choose your gemstones?" Prill lifted a small box, and Liz almost reached for it, expecting jewelry. Then the handmaiden turned a dial, revealing a small hologram of Vilandra.

The tiny three dimensional image moved as she did, and Liz had to suppress an urge to beg Obi Wan Kenobi for help.


***


Liz tried to call up Vilandra's pre-death memories of Kivar, but the cloned brain didn't work like a database. It fixated only on Kivar's cruel black eyes the night of the coup. She tried to block the images, and her own brain -- or soul, or however the body-swapping thing worked -- instead spewed out fairy tales and bits of television shows. The gown, the palace, the handmaiden whispering of castle intrigue -- she found it all very high fantasy, albeit with a high-tech veneer.

Liz almost felt like a character in a glossy sci-fi adventure show. But Antar was far more alien than anything ever depicted on television, even with the quasi-medieval trappings. She waited in a palace sitting room and tried not to compare it to the guidance office at school. She was supposed to be waiting for a college recruiter about now.

Instead, she sat on Antar, her arms and waist draped in Vilandra's strange jewels. The scientist in her wanted to study the stones in more detail.

Geology had never been her particular interest. Even so, she knew several of the stones she wore proved Earth's periodic table was far from complete. Vilandra's memories included detailed knowledge of each gem, and not just its place in high fashion, but details like tenacity and crystalline structure. Like Isabel, Vilandra had concealed a sharp mind, as well as a kind heart, beneath a fashionably frivolous persona.

Only when Vilandra had grown close to Kivar had she shared her hidden self with anyone. No doubt that contributed to Isabel's guarded nature in her next life. As if Liz needed another reason to hate Kivar at the moment. Then again, the boiling anger helped with the fear.

The syncopated pounding of the heart in Liz's borrowed chest still felt disorientingly misplaced. She tried to concentrate on calming it. Even with Vilandra's memories, Liz had far too many gaps in her knowledge. Kivar would not prove as easy to fool as Vilandra's servant. Even if she could cover for the gaps in her knowledge, plenty of other details could betray her. Some unknown-to-her autonomic function of alien physiology might even reveal her nerves to Kivar.

Maybe their noses grew when they lied, like Pinocchio. She swallowed her nervous laughter. This body barely had a nose. Did aliens -- Antarians -- blush? She tried to sort through Vilandra's memories for the answer. The lack of an immediate recollection couldn't prove a negative. She stared at the gray skin of her arm, and decided the biology ruled out the possibility.

A servant opened the door. "The King is ready to dine, milady."

Liz almost thanked him. Then she squelched her manners to snarl at the inadequate honorific instead. Vilandra would not brush aside such a slight. Especially this version of Vilandra, who would marry Kivar despite her brother's gruesome murder. "You will address me as Princess Vilandra, at least in the immediate future. I will soon be your queen."

She followed the man through a glowing doorway and into an enormous banquet hall. Spectacular tapestries -- the priceless antiques Vilandra remembered from her childhood -- hung on the walls, protected from the ravages of time by airtight force fields.

Kivar sat behind a raised banquet table, his expression unreadable to Liz. Her grasp of Vilandra's memories proved unequal to the task of greeting this man in the expected fashion. Her own instincts screamed with an urgent desire to blast him into a bloody smear against the far wall.

What Vilandra's memory finally chose to flicker into her consciousness failed to quell the urge. She froze at the onslaught of images. Borrowed memories of anyone's intimate encounters would be awkward under even the best circumstances. Imagining Kivar's murdering hands on her body . . . Liz clutched the table for support against the wave of nausea that slammed into her.

Lovesick princess, Liz tried to remind herself. Spoiled. Demanding. Ambitious. Inexplicably in love with this monster of a man. To pull this off, to rescue the baby and somehow get back to Earth, she had to play this role. She couldn't hold Kivar accountable for his extensive inventory of crimes against her family. Not even in her own mind. Not now.

Nor could she fall on her face.

"Kiv dear," she heard herself say. Vilandra's natural instinct for courtly power-plays asserted itself by withholding his title. "Is all this formality necessary?"

"The people have awaited your return for far too long, my darling princess." Kivar ran his fingers down her arm. "They want to see you by my side. It would hardly do to invite them to watch a picnic."

"What's one more day, after so many years?" Liz's mind rebelled against her body's reaction to the man's touch, even as the thrill of it worked to her advantage by lending authenticity to her words. "I'd rather have you all to myself."

"That will come soon enough," he said. "I've waited a lifetime to have you in my arms again."

Liz silently prayed that she'd escape before then. If she killed him it would blow her cover, and she couldn't see the scenario he promised ending any other way.

"My darling, are you ill?"

"I'm fine," she said, out of habit. Then she cursed herself for nearly throwing away an opportunity. "But maybe I should talk to the doctor about the transfer process, when time allows."

"That time won't come soon," Kivar said. "The doctor's recent failings have necessitated his replacement."

"Certainly he can answer a few simple questions."

"I think he might find that rather difficult right now." Kivar whistled the Antarian equivalent of laughter. "He's currently learning an important lesson about the consequences of failure."

Liz jerked away from the trajectory of his arm, then cringed as his cruel gaze fell upon her. Crap. Bad move. She had to grab the upper hand right now, or she'd share the doctor's fate. "The throne has made you cruel. I hope it has not made you foolish as well."

Kivar aimed a penetrating black stare at her. "My darling -- "

Liz swallowed her fear with a firm shake of her head. "Scientists who are given reason to fear failure soon stop producing scientific advancements. Whatever the doctor's error, he should be praised for the fact that I'm here at all."

"Earth has made you soft, my darling Vilandra."

"No, Kiv dear, Earth has made me wise."

They stared each other down for a long moment. Liz knew if she flinched, she lost. Vilandra had always spoken her mind to her illicit lover. That is, before he assassinated her family and stole her brother's throne. That kind of thing changed a relationship. But to maintain her cover, Liz needed to remain bold, despite Kivar's power. To survive, she needed to gain the upper hand. Somehow.

Several kitchen servants bustled into the hall with steaming trays of food. It broke the tension, and Liz looked out over the small crowd assembled at the lower tables. Using Vilandra's memory, she identified a few token members from elite families. Potential allies, however, proved scarce. Liz realized she hoped to see Larak, the only Antarian she'd met who might be on the planet. Vilandra's mind supplied her with a face, but she didn't spot him among the guests.

The smell of the food made Liz remember her hunger. She wondered about the safety of gobbling down an entire meal with a body that had never eaten before. Not that she had a choice. At any moment some little detail could blow her cover, so she needed to eat while she could. She glanced around, hoping to glean etiquette clues from others at the table. Instead, she found them all watching her.

"We're waiting, my darling." Kivar glowered at her meal.

A trap. Liz gulped. He suspected her, and wanted to see if she knew how to use the chopsticks beside her plate. She reached for them, searching for the right memories. Instead, memories of her first date with Max flashed through her mind. The chopsticks, the pool cue, the warmth of Max's body as she helped him line up the shot.

No. Focus.

Chopsticks felt all wrong in Vilandra's long fingers, and the food didn't compare to anything ever served at Senior Chow's. The pieces looked too big to lift. Liz froze, aware of the many eyes taking in her ineptitude. The prying eyes of guests and media alike proved the least of her worries, though. Kivar's silent glare sent another wave of nausea through her body.

She knew in her borrowed bones that if she took a bite, she would seal her own fate. Kivar, and the entire royal court, stared with palpable impatience. She needed to act, but fumbling with these strange utensils would make the food as good as poison.