The second year of their partnership finds Alex and Praed on the farming planet, Tallis, hunting for Talon, a particularly nasty but elusive terrorist. They have a lead: Randall Hamish, a drug dealer, has contacted Talon to help him clear the settlers off the planet.
Posing as a convicted felon, Praed infiltrates Hamish’s gang while Alex is sidelined in the farming settlement as his contact. When the meeting with Talon’s second in command takes place, Praed learns there is more to the terrorist than anyone realizes. Then Hamish discovers Praed’s deception, and Talon is anxious to take delivery of the operative as part of the deal with Hamish.
With Praed’s capture, Alex must choose: Does she disobey Henry Davison’s orders and go after Praed? Or does she wait for backup?
But Alex can’t begin to anticipate the events that follow, and the final outcome is staggering.
Targeted Age Group:: +18
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Talon’s Touch is the second novel of a Science Fiction Series about Mark Praed, a half-human half-alien operative working with the Commonwealth’s counterterrorist task force. I love these writing about these characters; that’s what keeps me writing.
How is writing SciFi different from other genres?
I can let my imagination run wild in ways I can’t in other genres.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I’ve been writing about these characters for years; they are now a part of me. They are evolving and I’m enjoying the trip.
Alexandra Lansing hurried down the corridor to her superior’s office. Not because she was late: Alex took pride in the fact that she was never late. In fact, she was usually early. Praed always said she was genetically incapable of being late, but it was simpler than that. Henry had said the matter was urgent and that was enough to arouse her curiosity. She didn’t dawdle.
Nevertheless, she was unprepared for the surprise waiting in Henry Davison’s office. Her partner, Mark Praed, was already inside.
The surprise was his presence. If she was incapable of being late, Praed was incapable of being on time. His lack of punctuality to meetings and briefings was a running gag with the other teams on the task force and a continual source of rancor with their superior. Regardless of how often Henry complained, Praed’s tardiness remained unchecked. Worse, he rarely gave an excuse and only occasionally apologized. Over the past year of their partnership, Alex had, on numerous occasions, heard Henry lecture him on the subject.
Concealing her astonishment, she poured herself some coffee from the old-fashioned machine behind Henry’s desk. Cup in hand, she sat next to her partner and stared at him with raised eyebrows. “How did you manage to get here so early?”
“I was in the neighborhood when the page went out.”
With a woman. Alex felt a pang of jealousy, but hastily banished the feeling before he could pick it up. Praed was her partner; their relationship, although not strictly a business one, was not romantic either. It was Alex’s own firm and steadfast rule: she did not become sexually involved with co-workers. Praed had never tested her, but because of it she decided long ago that his love life was none of her business. But as always, in the back of her head, she wondered if being a mind reader made him a better lover.
“Sorry I asked,” she said rolling her eyes. “Where’s Henry?”
His sea-green eyes rested on her for a moment. “I haven’t seen him yet this morning. But then as you pointed out, it’s still early.”
The door hissed open startling her, and Henry Davison entered, making straight for the coffee machine. No one could ever accuse Henry of being a snappy dresser but Alex thought he appeared more rumpled than usual. His trousers and jacket looked as if he’d slept in them. Then he faced them and she realized she was wrong about that. Whatever he’d been doing, it wasn’t sleeping. Dark circles under reddened eyes confirmed it.
“My, what a surprise,” he said, staring at Praed. “I don’t think I remember how to start a briefing on time.”
Alex sighed inwardly. If Henry wanted Praed to change his habits this was not the way to go about it. She believed that Praed’s tardiness was a reaction to the way Henry treated him. Since his transfer to the task force from the Commonwealth Intelligence Service the year before, Henry had been less than friendly. He didn’t approve of Praed, partly because he was half-Kyreen and Henry had certain prejudices against aliens. Of course it didn’t help that Praed could read minds. But Henry resented Praed more because he had taken his place as Alex’s partner.
For two years Henry worked with Alex until an injury put him behind a desk. Alex had always looked on him as a big brother. But she was coming to understand that his feelings, although never expressed aloud, were of a different sort and not necessarily those of a brotherly nature.
Praed probably knew this better than anyone, she realized with a sudden jolt of enlightenment. After all, he had the ability to read Henry’s thoughts. Was that why he chose to remain silent during the tirades rather than defend himself?
Even now, he showed no sign that the derisive comment hit home. He set his mug on Henry’s desk and regarded Davison with a vague air of expectancy.
Alex cleared her throat. “You said the matter was urgent?”
“Uh, yes,” Henry said and pulled up his chair. “We may have finally come up with a lead on Talon.”
She exchanged raised eyebrows with Praed. For the past ten months, nearly every terrorist incident within and against the Commonwealth had Talon’s name attached to it in some way, but the individual proved to be very elusive. No one knew much about Talon; his real name, what he looked like, which planet he called home or his reasons for committing the acts of terror.
Alex felt a familiar tingle of excitement. “Where do we find him?”
“First things first,” Henry cautioned. “This is going to sound a little circuitous, so bear with me.” He reached for his tab’, and Alex noticed he keyed in the request rather than use voice command. That meant the operation was coded top priority. “The military installation on Space Station Alpha XVI received a request for aid from the settlers on Tallis in the Theta III System,” Henry began, reading from the small monitor. “Tallis is a former mining planet that’s come under the Commonwealth’s reclamation program. The idea is to restore it for human habitation by establishing it as a farming planet. That particular quadrant is expected to double its population over the next decade and food will be in great demand. The process began some time ago with the usual preparations; they’ve started filling in the mines, soil was tested and reconditioned, water located, etc., etc.
“A settlement was set down nearly four months ago with their farming supplies and equipment. Within ten weeks, they began having trouble with a group of squatters—raiders they called them—who just suddenly appeared on the planet. These raiders took to terrorizing the settlers; tearing up their crops, burning their houses, diverting water, and generally causing a tremendous amount of damage.”
“Talon’s people?” Alex broke in impatiently.
“No, but I’m getting to that. After the first two attacks the settlers contacted Station Alpha XVI and were told that they’d have to file a formal complaint with the Office of Planetary Settlement. As you know, they have their own police force. The settlers did so, but to this date there’s no record of any action taken by the Office.
“The raids continued and the settlers radioed the space station again and got the same response. Finally, during an attack, one of the settlers was killed and another assaulted. This motivated the military into sending an investigating team, and while they were on-site the raiders struck again, killing two more settlers and one of the investigators.”
“That got someone’s attention, I’ll bet,” Alex said dryly.
“Naturally. The station immediately sent six of their best people to comb the planet with scanners looking for the raiders’ hideout,” Henry said. “But they came up with nothing.”
“Underground,” Praed commented.
“Probably, although the scanners should be able to pick up the body heat of a group of people within thirty meters of the surface. But parts of the planet are still crisscrossed with tunnels and gorges and pits from mining. Some are very deep, and only about two thirds of that area has been filled in.
“The force even waited in the settlement for another attack, hoping to follow the raiders back to their hideout. But when they did, the attackers used an ilysium bomb and blew up one of the dwellings. Four of the raiders were captured, but the rest got away taking two settlers with them. One is a male in his early teens, the other a woman, ten weeks pregnant.”
“Hostages?” Alex inquired.
“That’s the strange part,” said Henry. “There have been no demands, either for money or for an exchange of prisoners. The settlers are understandably upset.”
“Why weren’t the settlers evacuated until these raiders could be found and arrested?” Praed asked.
Henry faced him. “They’re financed for the most part by the Corporation.”
Alex again exchanged glances with Praed. The Corporation was a multi-planet farming cooperative that avoided being labeled a monopoly due only to the maneuvers of its legal department.
“Their Board of Directors is anxious to keep them in place so they can maintain their claim to the planet,” Henry continued. “The settlers themselves wish to remain since they’ve devoted so much time, energy, and a substantial portion of their own money to the project.”
“What about the raiders that were captured?” Alex said, getting back to the main point. “Anyone important?”
“The leader was not among them if that’s what you mean, although we know who he is.” He pecked at the display activating the holo-projector.
“Randall Hamish,” Henry said as Alex studied the holo. She saw a man edging into his middle thirties with long, blond hair and faded blue eyes. The readout on him was short. Thirty-four years old, 1.76 meters in height, eighty-five kilos in weight. Born on an ill-conceived farming colony, he’d been orphaned at the age of fourteen, and hitched from one planet to another via freighters. Before the age of twenty-one, he’d been arrested four times, spending twenty months in a rehabilitation center. Obviously, he hadn’t been incarcerated long enough because several arrest warrants were pending, the charges varying from robbery and arson to drug possession and sales.
“Sources tell us he’s currently a small time bliss dealer,” Henry was saying, “and although he’s wanted on three planets, no one has managed to arrest him. Now, according to the people who were captured on Tallis, he’s hoping to go to work for Talon.”
Alex’s eyes locked with his. “Doing what?”
“No one knows, or at least no one’s talking. The Corporation is making waves as well, and that’s why the military and CIS have asked for our help. They want to know if Talon is moving into the business of dealing bliss which implies narco-terrorism, and how Hamish fits in to Talon’s plans. The idea is to find Hamish and let him lead us to Talon.”
“Have we discovered the location of Hamish’s base on Tallis?” asked Praed. “Were his people questioned under truth serums?”
Henry made a face. “Their lawyers successfully argued against it. As you know, the Rights for Criminals lobby filed a motion before the Commonwealth’s High Court that would disallow any confessions or evidence gained while defendants are under the influence of truth serums. Until that dispute is settled, the lower courts are unlikely to admit such testimony, and so far we haven’t gotten permission to use the stuff. Hamish’s people—one woman and three men—have already been tried; two for murder—they were actually identified as holding the weapons that killed the investigator and the two settlers—and the other two as accessories. All have been convicted, regardless of confessions from truth serums. As for Hamish’s base, we have very little to go on.”
“We’re not going to have to search the entire planet, are we?” asked Alex. “You’ve already said the military couldn’t find them with a half-dozen people. How do you expect the two of us to do it?”
Henry was smiling and for some reason she found his expression disturbing. “I expect one of his men to lead you to it, or rather, lead Praed to it.”
Praed leaned back in his chair and regarded Davison over tented fingers. “Surely you don’t mean to let one of them escape?”
“That’s exactly what I mean to do. Only you’ll be with him. In fact, you’ll be helping him. I’m sending you to prison.”
Alex stared at her superior. “I’m not sure that’s very intelligent.”
“On the contrary,” Davison said to her, “it may be our only chance to get a lead on Talon. In eight days time the man Bell is being transferred from Station Alpha XVI where he stood trial to the rehabilitation colony on Nigel’s Planet. Praed will help him steal a ship, one which we will make available, and together they’ll escape from the station. In his gratitude, Bell will take Praed to Tallis and Hamish, and from there, we hope, Hamish will take him to Talon.”
“Or he may blast Mark the moment they clear the station,” Alex commented.
“No he won’t,” Henry said smugly. “He doesn’t know how to pilot a spacecraft.”
“I see some thought’s been put into it,” Praed said. “I assume he is not one of the convicted murderers.”
“We’d never get permission for this if he was. He’s not even on our list of known criminals. He’s young; only nineteen, and probably hooked up with Hamish for bliss. However, that doesn’t mean you turn your back on him. The fact that he’s going to Nigel’s Planet for rehabilitation says something.”
Alex refrained from making a snide remark. The rehabilitation colony on Nigel’s was notorious for the sorts of prisoners housed there, most of which were classified as psychotic or sociopathic. Only a small percentage of the prison population was classified as ‘normal’. She looked at Praed but he was regarding Henry with interest.
“Are you sure he’ll go back to Hamish?” he asked. “It would be the first place any searchers would look for him. And will Hamish welcome him, especially with a stranger?”
“Where else would he go? He’s a drifter from what we found on him; he has no family and no friends. As far as Hamish is concerned, I expect you to ingratiate yourself into his group. You’re an experienced pilot and you’ll have a ship. If he’s dealing bliss, he’ll need all the transport he can get.”
“What about the hostages?”
“Our interest is Talon,” Henry said with a half-hearted shrug, “but I don’t want to put any limits on the brief. Do what you can. There’s a very good chance they’re already dead.”
Alex looked from one man to the other. “Wonderful. Mark goes off with a possibly drug addicted youth, and what do I get? The woman?”
“That would be too much of a coincidence, and anyway she’s already been transferred to a rehabilitation colony on the other side of the Commonwealth. No. This time my dear, you’re taking a back seat. You’ll be in the settlement with a transceiver as Praed’s contact. He’ll feed you the information and you’ll pass it along to me. Once we have Talon in custody, I’ll send in a force to pick up Hamish’s group and the two of you can leave Tallis.”
“Henry, this isn’t fair,” Alex complained. “I’ll be bored stiff if I have to spend all my time sitting around.”
“Probably,” he agreed. “With luck it won’t be for very long. Our information is that Hamish has already made initial contact to meet with Talon. If Praed can find out where this meeting is scheduled to take place, we’ll have him. However I doubt if things will work out that easily.”
“Load up your p’comm with lit files and catch up on your reading,” Praed said soothingly to Alex. “You’ve been complaining you haven’t had enough free time lately.”
“I see you’re very happy about this,” she countered, only half joking. She and Praed had spent the past year bickering like an old married couple. Generally she enjoyed it since it tended to exasperate him, but now she felt left out. “You like the idea of working without me.”
He rolled his eyes. “I’m hardly going to be without you since you’ll be within p’comm distance.”
“Can we get on with this briefing?” Henry interrupted before she could retort. “I’ve still got a few things to tell you before you go up to Identification for your travel documents and cover stories.” His eyes passed from one to the other and when he had their attention, he continued. “First off, we’re not going to use the usual personal communications device on this operation.”
“Good,” Praed said with a sigh. “I’m always concerned I’m going to lose the damn thing.”
“Well, that’s one reason. The other is that at the range we’re discussing, we need something a little more powerful. Luckily, Research and Development has come up with just the item.” He held up a narrow cylinder, roughly two centimeters long, perhaps half a centimeter in diameter.
Alex gaped. “Something that small will transmit and receive at long distances?”
“Up to one hundred thousand kilometers,” Davison said and the pride was evident in his tone. “On one channel only, of course. Its transmitter is voice activated.” He handed the device to Praed. “It will transmit as long as there’s vocal activity and as long as the transceiver is operational. Alex will even be able to signal you. It pulsates instead of emitting a noise which should make it safer when you’re not alone. There’s no need for you to be able to directly signal her. As soon as someone speaks—anyone—it transmits.”
“It’s so small. How do you avoid losing it?” Alex wanted to know.
“It goes under the skin, am I right?” Praed asked, examining the device. With Henry’s confirming nod, he grinned at her startled expression.
“Not yours,” Henry told her. “Dr. Novotny will insert that into Praed’s upper arm. I told you; you’ll be in the settlement with the transceiver. You’ll have a monitoring system that will automatically record any conversation that Praed is involved in. The vocal range is four meters, which means Praed should be able to overhear conversations without actively participating. The device shuts down automatically after ten minutes of vocal silence. And if you shut down your transceiver, or if you lose power, it’ll also shut down.”
“There goes my privacy,” Praed remarked idly, turning the instrument over in his fingers. “How do I get it past the scanners at the Space Station? I understand they scan prisoners rather carefully for drugs, weapons, and p’comms.”
“There’s a special casing around it that will make it invisible to the prison scanners,” Henry explained. “It’s been tested against our own scanners and passed with flying colors.”
Praed nodded and handed the device back to him. “When do we start?”
“Alex, you’ll leave the day after tomorrow. You’ll find a ship waiting for you on Alpha XVI for the trip to Tallis. We’ve alerted the settlement to look for your arrival, but they won’t know exactly why you’re there. They’ve been told only that we’re making a play for Hamish. Nothing has been said about Talon and you’ll have to keep it that way. For all we know, Talon has a spy planted in Hamish’s gang, or even in the settlement itself. The settlers may push you to help them especially if there’s another attack, but don’t let them sidetrack you. I don’t have to tell you to make sure the transceiver stays out of the raiders’ hands.”
His eyes returned to Praed. “You’re to report to our detention facility by noon tomorrow. From there, you’ll be escorted to Alpha XVI by an official from the military’s Division of Corrections. The escort will be told only that you’re a convicted arms dealer being transferred to Alpha XVI in order to rendezvous with the regular prison shuttle to Nigel’s Planet. You should know that because of the nature of this operation, very few people will know who you work for. There’s a possibility that Talon or even Hamish has a spy on Station Alpha XVI, so no one there will be clued in. It’s up to you to make good the escape.”
“Let me understand you,” Praed began slowly. “While posing as a prisoner, I’m supposed to assist a convicted felon escape from a detention facility run by military personnel, steal a ship from a busy space station, and if by some miracle I actually get the thing past the port defenses and into space, no one there will know not to blast me? If it all goes wrong and they don’t kill me you will be able to get me off Nigel’s Planet, won’t you, Henry?”
Davison’s face flushed to an unsightly red. He rose and came round his desk. “I’ve been hearing a lot about these Kyreen powers of yours,” he said, glaring at Praed. “That’s why you were chosen for this operation, against my better judgment I might add. You’re supposed to be able to second guess the guards in the facility as well as Bell. My superiors were adamant that you were the ideal candidate to pull this off. Are you saying you can’t do it?”
Alex remained absolutely still, but her eyes flew to Praed’s. His were slowly changing color, from their normal sea-green to violet, darkening as she watched. It told her how angry he was. Henry, if it even registered, would know it too. She held her breath, waiting tensely.
But the blow-up never came. “I have explained this before,” Praed said, his voice level and controlled, although his eyes continued to deepen in hue. “Because I was raised on Earth, I had no formal training in the use of my Kyreen abilities. I can draw on perhaps a tenth of their potential. What I can do is certainly not normal by human standards, but I’m hardly super-human.”
“So you can’t do it,” Henry said with satisfaction and returned to his chair.
Alex saw Praed’s jaw tighten and his eyes went a shade darker, but his tone didn’t alter.
“I didn’t say that. I can probably manage it, but it would be nice to have a fall back plan if something goes wrong; something outside my control. It might be a good idea, for instance, if the commandant at Alpha XVI is briefed. If he isn’t and he somehow discovers we’ve planted an operative inside his detention facility to assist a convicted felon to escape . . . well, it could backfire politically against the task force.”
There was a pause, and Alex held her breath. Praed was right, of course. Diplomatically it made sense to inform the commander of the space station that an escape was to be engineered by the task force. There was already a good deal of animosity between the military and the various intelligence and law enforcement groups within the Commonwealth. Why create more? Alex also knew that Henry might find it hard to admit that Praed had a point.
Henry however, appeared to be mulling it over. “I’ll mention it to my superiors. They might consider it worthwhile. But even if it is decided to inform the commandant, don’t expect any help. The escape has to seem real.”
“If the kid is only nineteen,” Alex commented, hoping to ease the tension between the two men, “I imagine he’ll be so scared anything will seem real to him. Are we sure he wants to escape?”
No one spoke, but in her mind Praed murmured, “Good question.” He’d never sent her a message during a briefing before, although they’d used that method of communication on the occasional operation. Startled, she looked at him.
But he only smiled at her, and she saw that his eyes were already returning to their normal color.
“Given the opportunity to avoid Nigel’s Planet,” Henry was saying, “wouldn’t you take it? Any other questions?”
About the Author:
For P. E. Sibley (a.k.a. Pat Sibley) writing is a passion, or perhaps a compulsion.
She was born, raised, and educated mostly in Orange County, California. A voracious reader as a child, she became interested in writing early on. She wrote her first short story in second grade about an ant. It ended rather abruptly when the ant was smashed by a foot.
By the time she reached her mid-twenties, she was living a near-gypsy existence, moving from one city to another. She traveled to Europe several times (Scotland is the preferred destination) and to the Middle East, and tried numerous occupations including climbing telephone poles, picking oranges on a kibbutz in Israel, and managing a bookstore. She went back to school for a Teaching Credential from Cal State University, Long Beach, doing her student teaching in Hampshire, England.
She moved numerous times more—mostly eastward and northward to San Francisco and then Sierra Nevada mountains—and now resides in rural Eastern Washington State with her husband, a wolf-canine mix, a cattle dog, and a cat that believes she is really a dog.
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