CHAPTER ONE

When Maryellen woke she was aware something out of the ordinary was happening. She seemed to be cursing - at least it sounded like cursing -in a moderately deep, but not unpleasant baritone in words she couldn't understand.

At the same time she knew she the source of the voice. It was inside her. She could feel her lips move, yet the deep, telltale vibrations in her chest were too resonant to be her own. It was rather horrifying. When she tried to open her eyes she found they wouldn't work. Like someone or something was holding down her eyelids.

Maryellyn was still too foggy with sleep to give over to total panic, but even so, she knew this was not her voice. She had a rather charming speaking voice and, when she chose to use it, a particularly seductive purr that had been known to drive a few men crazy.

But this angry sound was not female. Even though it seemed to be coming from right inside her.

Mercy, she thought groggily, what was going on? If it was a dream, it was a strange one, complete with infuriated words in a language that was not like anything Maryellyn had heard before.

Then, quite suddenly, the voice said in perfect English, "Damn, I'm in this squalid place again! And if there's anything I hate in this rotten backwater solar system it's planet Styrex Three. Those clowns in the transport system ought to be chained to the rocks of a K403 moon for screwing me up like this!"

At this point Maryellyn was horrified to feel what was obviously her own hand, although just as obviously not under her control, move down her arm and across her chest, exploring.

"Eeeeek," she whispered as it investigated her left breast thoroughly. She hardly dared breathe.

There was a pause. Then the voice burst out, "Hell, it’s a WOMAN! of all the - I've landed in a woman's body!"

Maryellyn heard what sounded like a snarl of exasperation. Then the plainly masculine voice burst out. "Court martial! I'll have every damned one of them up on charges for this! You can't convince me this is just another sloppy mistake by that crowd in Intergalactic Travel. It has all the earmarks of deliberate sabotage!" To Maryellyn it said, "Stop squirming. I have to find out what your body is like while I assess the situation."

Assess the situation ? Maryellyn tried to take a deep breath, in spite of the insistent probing of her thumb and forefinger around her nipple.

It was some sort of early morning nightmare, she told herself shakily. A nightmare that didn't seem to want to go away. Aaagh! Now her hand was exploring places she definitely didn't want explored!

"Stop that!" she cried. She was determined to break free from this ghastly dream and open her eyes. "Take my hand off my - uh, down there!" She struggled to lift her eyelids. "I mean, what's going on? Why am I doing this?" She gritted her teeth, willing herself to lift her arm, with little success. "I'm taking my hand back, do you hear me?

"Go right ahead," the voice said, "I'm through, anyway."

Released from the strange power, Maryellyn's arm flew up, smacking her in the forehead.

"Relax, I'm not interested in Styrex Three's cultural emphasis," the voice continued rather blandly, "on female virginity. Just put it down to a little - ah, personal curiosity."

Maryellyn's eyes suddenly flew open.

Whatever nightmarish power that had held her had relaxed its grip. She could make out the normal surroundings of her bedroom, her four poster bed, the pale sun of midtown Manhattan streaming through window blinds that disguised the apartment’s view of the air shaft.

It took a long moment before she could get her wits about her to think What a terrible way to start the day! What a really stupid nightmare! On the other hand, she consoled herself, everything was all right. There was, after all, nothing so reassuring as to find oneself in familiar, undisturbed surroundings. It was just an extremely bad dream, that was all.

"No you didn't," the voice said. "It's no dream, it's one hell of a mess. At least for me. Your situation, if you cooperate and don't lose your head, is a purely passive one."

Maryellyn screamed.

She threw back the covers, jumped out of bed and ran for the bathroom. There she grabbed the door and slammed and locked it.

The mirrored wall behind the bathroom sink reflected a wild-eyed young woman with curly brown hair literally standing on end. She was gasping for air like a stranded goldfish.

It occurred to Maryellen that if she didn't stop gasping she'd probably hyperventilate. Perhaps even pass out on the floor of the bathroom. But she couldn't stop. She grabbed her hair wildly with both hands. The image in the mirror did the same.

It wasn't possible that there was something inside her that had seemingly taken possession of her body, was there? A something that spoke in a deep, macho male voice about transportation systems and intergalactic travel? Or was she having some sudden, terrible psychosis that had just this minute attacked her, and that would ultimately ruin her life and destroy her career?

People in advertising, she she told herself, were always having nervous breakdowns. It was sort of an occupational disease. Just last year the art director at the Robinson Foote Agency had flipped out right at his desk, yelling that he was a pigeon and was quitting his job to go live with the rest of his family in the park behind the New York Library. The art director had tried to jump out of his office on the 44th floor, but of course all the windows in skyscrapers now were sealed. Everybody in the ad business knew that.

Maryellyn leaned up against the cabinet, despairing sobs welling up inside her. In her case, going bonkers thinking there was some voice or something inside you was even worse than wanting to join the NY Library pigeons! Besides, ad agencies regarded commercial artists as pretty flaky; she could just hear them now. Poor Maryellyn Caswell. Just woke up one morning in the middle of work on a four color layout of Calvin Klein underwear and went all to pieces. Right in the bathroom. Flat on the floor.

"This is very interesting," the voice inside her said, "with all the mirrors in a place essentially for sanitary functions. And do you always sleep in the nude?"

Maryellyn clutched at herself. Her face in the mirror wall looked as though she were seeing a ghost.

"Aaagh!" she cried. She lunged for the bathroom door, unlocked it and hurled herself back into the bedroom. She took a flying leap into the bed, screaming, and pulled the covers over her head.

The voice was right there under the covers. It immediately said, "Don't act like an idiot. You have a very nice Styrex Three-type body. I fail to see why you're running around making terror noises just because I happened to view it without any wrappings."

Maryellyn pulled the sheet back from her face. "I don't think I can stand this! A nervous breakdown at my age! I'm only twenty-six, I have a brilliant career ahead of me, everybody on Madison Avenue says so." Her voice rose to a wail. "Now I'll end up living in doorways, eating out of dumpsters, taking free medication every week where they line up at the Bellevue psychiatric outpatient clinic!"

"Preposterous," the voice inside her said, irritably. "You're not having a nervous breakdown, which is not a valid medical term, anyway, even on this benighted planet. Now, I'll explain the situation if you'll give me half a chance."

"I don't want to hear it," Maryellyn cried, pulling the sheets back over her head. "I'm going crazy, I'm - I'm - having hallucinations, I wish you'd stop talking to me!"

Her own hands pulled the covers away. "Now listen," the voice ordered. "Are you listening? It's difficult enough when we're both trying to talk at the same time. I am Ur Targon, sub commander of - " He stopped abruptly. "Actually there's no need to go into all that, let's just say I come from a place you've never heard of. I landed here by mistake, or so my cohorts would have me believe," he added ominously. "And in a woman's body, which may be somebody's idea of a joke. But I've been effectively put out of commission for a few Styrex Three days." The voice paused, thoughtfully. "Frankly, it looks as though I've been set up. My work doesn't exactly generate a lot of close friends."

"Your work?" Maryellyn asked in spite of herself.

"I'm chief investigator of potentially subversive government agencies." There was a note of satisfaction in his voice. "I track down burgeoning treason in bureaucracies and eliminate them. In your culture, something like the secret police."

"In our culture," Maryellyn felt obliged to say, "we don't have secret police."

He snorted. "Of course you do. Every government has them. My division is an elite cadre renowned all over the - " He stopped again. "Nevermind that, either. Let's get down to the business at hand. I need to find myself a more suitable host body and you, I take it, need to do the things you usually do in the morning. Naturally you'll need some measure of privacy. Just hold still for a moment while I temporarily detach myself from you."

Before Maryellyn could say, or do, anything she felt a slight tugging all over her body, as if her skin were shifting, then a deeper, even more disturbing sensation of something inside her stirring and slipping away. She gasped.

She gasped again when she saw him. Her nightmare had materialized in a sitting position on her wicker slipper chair, his legs and arms crossed, looking very comfortable in spite of the fact that he was big, and the slipper chair was small.

His size was not the important thing. He was shaped like a human being, she saw with a rush of relief. When it could have been something far worse.

Maryellyn had to strain her eyes to see because he was covered in a luminous aura, rather like gold-colored Dayglo paint. Under it - or rather, through it - he seemed to be wearing skintight clothes like a spandex jumpsuit. The face was hardest of all to see, it projected so much of the golden glow, but Maryellyn thought he had fairly even, not unattractive features. And shoulder length, glowing gold hair.

Still, the whole effect was rather insubstantial, as though she could put her hand through all that pulsing bright shimmer and see it come out the other side.

No doubt about it, whatever it was, it was something out of a science fiction movie. One of the better, high-budget special effects ones.

Maryellyn got to her knees, dragging the sheet from the bed and wrapping it around her. She lurched off to the bathroom. She was thinking, as she closed the door, that if she didn't look at him her hallucination might go away. Because it was an hallucination, she kept telling herself. When she started seeing golden hunky bodies that looked like something out of old Fifties movies she knew it was her brain that was malfunctioning, not reality.

Maryellyn took the telephone extension off the bathroom wall and dialed her sister's condo number on the East Side. There was a moment of uproar in the background before the maid could get Felicia to come to the phone.

"Maryellyn?" Her sister's voice projected loudly over the mayhem. "My God, it's not seven o'clock yet. Get down, Damian, sweet, and don't climb on mommy, you're getting oatmeal all over me! Mel, can't you call me back later"

"Felicia," Maryellyn cried, not even sure she could be heard on the other end, "you've got to help me! I've got an alien in my bedroom."

There were howls as Felicia apparently handed the baby to Juana, the maid. "Of course I'll help you, sweetie," her sister said, "but I hope it's really, really important. This is not a good time to call, you know? I'm still trying to get the kids off to school and Stephen's being a bear because he can't find his notes for some damned director's meeting, and of course the baby's just smeared me with what's left of his breakfast. What kind of alien is it?"

"Felicia," Maryellyn almost shrieked, "will you listen to me very carefully? I have an emergency, I think I'm having a nervous breakdown. In fact, I'm sure of it! I woke up this morning and there was an alien in my body talking about how much he hated being on this planet and that somebody had messed him up by sending him here! He was really very nasty about it. Felicia, he was talking right inside of me, and now he's sitting in the bedroom in my wicker slipper chair waiting for me to get through in here!"

"He?" the voice on the other end of the line said almost before Maryellyn finished speaking. "Melly, you didn't go out last night to a bar or anything like that and let a man buy you a drink, did you? They've got this drug that men put in girls' drinks that sends them out of their minds, these sex fiends can do anything to them, haven't you been watching Geraldo? Listen, is this rapist bastard still in your bedroom? Hang up right away, I'll call 911 - "

"Felicia," Maryellyn screamed back, "I don't need you to call 911! I haven't been to any bars, I'm too busy working for that, and there's no rapist in my bedroom! I'm just having an ordinary nervous breakdown like people who wake up hearing God telling them that they ought to take off all their clothes and make a speech in front of the United Nations. Remember the art director who wanted to be a pigeon in the park behind the public library?" She hesitated, envisioning her older sister, indestructibly chic and beautiful in spite of the early morning chaos in Felicia's Trump Tower condominium, and how all this must sound. In fact, there was a prolonged silence, now, on the other end.

"Felicia?" she said weakly.

"Honey, I'm still here," her sister's voice reassured her. "I don't know what's wrong, but you're not the type to wake up in the morning claiming there are aliens in your bed. I'm taking all this very seriously. Frankly, I think you've been working much too hard, you hardly stick your nose out of that studio, and God know you don't have any social life since you broke up with George Parker. You know what I think about these three-year engagements where you live togather and are always planning the wedding, and then the guy decides he doesn’t want to get married after all. But okay - if you say you think you're having a nervous breakdown, I believe you. What we need to do is look up a good shrink. I'll call around and ask the girls and see who's being recommended this week."

"Do you really think I ought to see a shrink?" Maryellyn said, doubtfully. "I mean, there's only been this one episode, maybe it's a hallucination that's already gone away."

"First, lunch," her sister said. "You feel better after that. We'll do lunch at Twenty-One, it's old and quiet and I'll tell the maitre d' to put us in a corner at the back. And I'll make an appointment for you with the psychiatrist, and you can spend all afternoon telling him about your alien. If you ask me, Mel, I don't think it's going to amount to anything more than some sort of fatigue syndrome that hit you when you weren't expecting it."

Maryellyn clung to the bathroom telephone. Felicia had a marvelous way of reducing problems to reasonable proportions. It did make her feel better when her sister talked about a civilized lunch at 21, then spending an afternoon with a psychiatrist, telling him all the details of her problem.

"Honey, do me a favor." Felicia's voice came crisply over the wire. "Are you on the bathroom extension? Okay, open the door very, very carefully, and look into the bedroom and tell me if the alien is still there."

Maryellyn hesitated. It was an eminently practical suggestion. She cracked the bathroom door and put her eye to it.

Her slipper chair was empty. She quickly searched the rest of the room, opening the bathroom door a little wider. The bedroom was empty unless Sub Commander Targon was hiding under the bed. And Maryellyn didn't think he would do that.

"I can't see him," she whispered into the receiver. "Felicia, can you hear me? The alien or the hallucination or nervous breakdown or whatever it is, is gone!"

"I still think we should have lunch," her sister responded, "and let me make an emergency appointment for you with some good East Side shrink. Don't say no - suppose you wake up and find the thing is there in bed with you tomorrow morning? Let's make it Twenty-One at noon. Promise?"

"I promise," Maryellyn said, and hung up.

"I thought you'd never get off the phone," the all-too-familiar voice said inside her.

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