IT CAME ON a blur of shimmering wings, a thin, finger-long body tipped with triangular jaws strong enough to sheer through metal, to penetrate the toughest hide. It ripped through the plastic of the room, poised for a moment in the corner, then swept toward where the couple sat.
Dumarest saw it barely in time. The Lady Seena was very close, her perfume an enticing scent in his nostrils, the warm, white velvet of her flesh radiating its feminine heat. She was attentive and had a trick of staring into his face as if seeing there something special to herself. Cynicism kept him detached. Such a woman would be sated with empty flattery and the easy conquest of desirous males. She was only amusing herself, unable to resist the challenge of his maleness, playing an age-old game with tired indifference.
So he told himself and managed to negate her charm.
"In your travels," she said softly, "you must have met many women. Tell me of them."
"Is that an order, my lady?"
"No. You will tell?"
"No. I—" He sensed rather than saw the darting shape and reacted by pure instinct. "Down!"
She screamed as he threw himself against her, knocking her from her chair, sending them both to the carpet. There was a thin whine, a faint plop as the thing hit the wall behind them, merging instantly into the background with a chameleon-like change of protective body-tint.
"Guards!" She thought that he had attacked her, that he was intent on rape. He rapped a command.
"Shut up! Listen!"
He rose, crouching, eyes scanning the wall. A patch of color flickered and he flung himself down, throwing his weight hard against the woman, rolling her over the carpet. Again came the thin, spiteful hum, the soft plop of landing. His ears caught the sound and directed his eyes. He reached behind him and groped for a chair. He found one and clamped his fingers around the backrest.
Something flickered on the wall.
He swept up the chair, holding it as a shield as he lunged toward the woman. Something tugged at his hair. He spun, feeling sweat bead his face, eyes searching the wall. He caught a glimpse of a jeweled eye before it vanished into the background. He watched the spot. The thing was fast—too fast for the eye to follow once it was in flight. The only chance was to intercept it before it struck.
"What is it?" Seena half rose from her knees, her initial fear forgotten. "I can't see—"
He caught the shift of color and jerked the chair up just in time. The thing hit the seat, drilled through, scored a deep groove across the backrest and caromed off the metal fabric of his shirt. Wings a tattered ruin, it thrashed on the carpet then scuttled forward on multiple legs.
Dumarest crushed it beneath the heel of his boot.
"A phygria," said Melga. The physician was very pale. She had come running at the heels of the guards. "You recognized it?"
"No." Dumarest looked at the chair still in his hand. The scar on the backrest almost touched his skin. He set the chair down and looked at the corner of the room. A hole gaped in the plastic. "I saw something move," he explained. "The rest was instinct."
"You must have very unusual reflexes," said the physician thoughtfully. "The attack speed of a phygria is over fifty miles an hour. That would give you,"—she paused, measuring the room with calculating eyes—"about a third of a second to see it, recognize its danger and take necessary action based on that recognition. You know of them?"
"That would account for your subconscious recognition. You simply didn't have the time for conscious thought." She stooped, picked up the crushed body in a pair of forceps, and examined it through a glass. "A female, gravid, searching for a host." Her lips tightened. "A human is not its natural host. That means—"
"It was primed," said Dumarest harshly. He looked down at his hands; they were trembling a little from reaction. He remembered the tug at his hair, the scar close to his hand. Death had twice come very close. "It was primed," he repeated. "We all know what that means."
He looked at the beauty of the girl and wondered who wanted her dead.