It was a party on an alien planet in a galaxy far, far away.
It should have been the most freaking interesting party Doc--Delilah Oliver Clementyne--had ever attended. They were in the fabulous, alien-equivalent-of-marble reception hall. There was good food and soft music. There were pretty aliens in pastels and Earthlings in camouflage to provide contrast and conflict.
Both sides were humanoid, but that was the only thing they seemed to have in common--well, other than their mutual obsession with the mysterious and ancient outpost on the planet of Kikk. Doc was interested in it, too. She liked weapons and the outpost was supposed to be loaded with them, but she couldn't think of any reason she'd get the chance to play with them. She sighed, her gaze skimming the room again.
Maybe partying with ET was only fun in the movies. Maybe it was her fault. She didn't party well with others, though she could fake it when necessary. This wasn't necessary. And it made her antsy to be out and about without a clear objective. Knowing what to do, knowing how to act, having a purpose created a safe zone even when what she was doing wasn't remotely safe.
There were worse things than dying.
She should blend and mingle, not prowl around the perimeter, but it took more than great food and pretty aliens to keep them at bay. They circled inside her head, their usual menace mixed with something new. She'd have rubbed the back of her tingling neck, but that was a giveaway move. She didn't do giveaway moves--particularly when her camo wasn't camouflaging. In their drab garb the Earth delegation stood out like the specters at this very pretty feast. What had General Halliwell been thinking when he ordered them to dress down?
Her gaze tripped over the General--the head specter at the feast.
He was a big man, and burly, with the rock-like countenance and aggressive stance of the seasoned military man. He owned his personal space and appeared to have no problem casting a blight well outside that space. His personal staff had to stick with him. Everyone else gave him a wide berth as he stalked around the room, stopping now and then to glare and stare.
Halliwell hadn't arranged a face-to-face meet with her when she transferred aboard the Doolittle, and looking at his stony visage, she wasn't sorry. She bet there wasn't a diplomatic cell in his whole body.
Doc wasn't a diplomat either, though she was attached to the diplomatic team on the Doolittle, courtesy of her oft-used--or abused--cover as a United Nations doctor. It said something about human nature that no one had thought to wonder why a UN doctor had been sent into space. It did explain why she'd ended up at the party. Porter Rockley, head of the diplomatic team, had tried to put as many diplomatic bodies as possible between the General and the Gadi.
He'd have done better to go with a squad of well-armed Marines.
This was the first time anyone on the expedition had been invited into Gadi home world orbit, let alone been dirt side there, and the General still looked pissed. Was that the Gadi Leader he was glaring at?
The current object of his displeasure wasn't wearing pink, the official color of the Leader, and his body language didn't shout, I'm the Leader of most of the galaxy, so she doubted it. Though she'd heard Helfron Giddioni was skilled at projecting everything from goof ball to menacing, and he'd given up wearing pink--at least around the Earth expedition. A good strategic move, but it was a pity. Doc liked pink, probably because it had been missing in her life. Her mum had been against anything that smacked of gender typing. Doc had gone a bit nuts over pink when she started buying her own underwear. And she might again, once she got back to Earth and she didn't have to be military regulation from the skin out.
She paused her thoughts to nibble at the last something on her plate, almost sighing as the exquisite blend of flavors caressed a palate depressed by over a year of subsisting on MREs. When she'd deployed with the Nimitz she had expected to return to Earth when it did. Instead, she'd been transferred to the Doolittle and sent even further into space. It would have been nice to know why, but her new orders hadn't caught up with her yet. One thing she knew, the Major hadn't sent her here to party with the aliens.
She put her plate on a passing tray and then paused in front of a small orchestra, studying the instruments as well-bred elevator music filled any lulls in the muted conversations between the Gadi and the Earth expedition. In the two-plus years since first contact they still didn't know that much about them beyond the whole pretty vibe they had going. It wasn't her mission to parse the Gadi, but that didn't stop her from being curious about them. She tried to think of something that did stop her curiosity and couldn't. Well, dying would.
Her gaze inadvertently intersected with one of the Gadi men and he crossed to her side.
"I am called Naman." He extended a hand.
Doc met him halfway. "Doctor Clementyne." It made her twitchy to use her real name, but she didn't let it show. That was a giveaway, too.
He lifted her hand to his mouth, pressing it with his lips, his appreciative gaze holding hers through the whole exercise. Doc kept her smile, even though she didn't like to be touched. She got it from her mum. And her dad. It surprised her they'd managed enough touching to produce two children.
He studied her with a puzzling male appreciation. Oh, she knew she wasn't hideous, but it wasn't her hotness factor that earned her the nickname "Morticia." And she was dressed like a guy. Was he pinging on her like a laser guided missile because he liked her looks or because she was with the delegation?
She didn't like anyone pinging on her for any reason she hadn't made happen, but if he wanted to do it, she'd turn the ping back on him. She tipped her head to the side, the angle mathematically configured for flirtatious effect. Her hair shifted, falling in a neat line as she added a tiny curve to the edges of her mouth. Her lashes drooped to a careful half mast to hide the calculation in her gaze while her brain processed his reaction and made minute adjustments. One didn't want to over--or under--mess with his head.
Next to him stood a server holding a tray of glasses. Naman seized two glasses and handed her one with a slight flourish. It seemed she wasn't the only one who calculated effects, though he might not realize he was being calculating.
"Thank you." She deepened her smile and added warmth to her voice. His response was in the expected range of her output. She could have calculated how many cc's of blood had left his brain if she'd wanted to. Did it bother men to be vulnerable in that way? It would bother her. She lifted the glass and pretended to take a sip. Even a small amount of alcohol put her concentration at risk, and the Gadi concoction had more than a small amount.
"This is a remarkable space," she murmured, because small talk was an expected part of this social ritual. She used the tip of her tongue in a swipe across her upper lip and sent a few more cc's of his blood heading south. She didn't want him to notice her small talk was really small.
"Is it?" Naman sounded as dazed as she'd wanted him to.
Doc looked around, glad to break eye contact for a few seconds. It didn't take this much pretty to please the Earth delegation, not after several months in space, but the Gadi wouldn't know that. Or maybe they did and they'd still pushed out the boat. They wanted access to the Kikk Outpost pretty badly.
"I am surprised, though." She paused with intent to distract.
He arched a perfect brow and leaned toward her, bringing his personal scent in range of her nostrils. Lucky for her it wasn't unpleasant. Unlucky for him, it did nothing to her heart rate or cognitive processes. She'd been called a cold bitch more than a few times. It was a fair assessment. It could be the scientist at her core that focused too much on analyzing and not enough on feeling. It could be them snapping at her heels.
Or she was just a cold bitch.
"What surprises you, Doctor?"
"Well, I would have expected a beautiful staircase for more dramatic effect, I suppose." And why no chandeliers? She'd been sure there'd be chandeliers. The Gadi and chandeliers seemed made for each other. She made some vague hand movements to go with her words.
It wasn't a shock when his gaze followed her hands, since that's why she did it.
"The arrival of your delegation was quite dramatic."
If he hadn't smiled after he said this, she'd have suspected he was being ironic.
"A big flash and then a bunch of olive drab. It needed work." She shrugged, adding a hint of rueful into the calculated movement.
He laughed. No surprise it sounded pretty, too. "Whereas we arrived via the lift."
He indicated what she'd thought were floor-to-ceiling panels at the end of the room.
"I would like to have seen that." This comment had the benefit of being both small talk and true.
He edged closer. Doc shifted, her gaze holding Naman's, as she maintained the distance status quo. One thing Doc had in common with the General, she didn't like people in her personal space. She'd once done the shift/retreat all the way around the desk of a target, until she got tired of it and kicked his ass. That technique wouldn't work here. Kicking ass at a party wasn't diplomatic. Even she knew that. If the guy got too persistent she'd ask for directions to the ladies room. She might learn something, even if it was only that Gadi women peed, too.
She was unprepared for the chill that snaked abruptly down her back, like a finger tip tracing a path from spinal tip to base. The hairs on her body stirred, and then lifted, but still not in flight or fright. She was well acquainted with both. Her heart sped up. Her breathing tried to, too. She fought that. Panting was passe at a party. The struggle to control her breathing created a kind of roaring in her ears. Her hands tightened around her glass, as if it could provide the stability she needed.
Someone was watching her.
She'd been watched, studied, assessed many times in her thirty-plus years, but not like this. It wasn't creepy.
It was new.