Catherine Asaro has won numerous awards for her Saga of the Skolian Empire novels, including the Nebula Award and two Romantic Times awards for Best SF Novel. Combining cutting edge scientific theory with grand romantic adventure, this series represents space opera at its finest.
The Final Key is the second half of the story arc known as Triad, which began in Schism. Schism ended with the Skolian Empire torn asunder by personal conflict within the royal family. With The Final Key, the Skolian Empire comes under all-out assault from its nemesis, the Euban Concord, who have undermined the Empire via subterfuge and assassination, leaving it ripe for conquest. The Skolian Empire's only hope? A young woman barely out of her teens who hasn't even complete her training as a cadet.
About the Author
CATHERINE ASARO received a doctorate in physics from Harvard University, has published a number of papers on theoretical physics and was a physics professor until 1990, when she established Molecudyne Research. A former ballerina, she has performed with ballets and in musicals on both coasts. She lives with her husband and daughter in Columbia, Maryland.
Read an Excerpt
The Final Key
Part Two of Triad
By Catherine Asaro
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2005 Catherine Asaro
All rights reserved.
Soz considered them the sexiest subject at DMA, the Dieshan Military Academy. Full-color holos of an inversion engine rotated above the media table. She highlighted the fuel selector in purple, the cooling coils in green, and the engine column in white. Her course in Jag engineering was sheer pleasure. It almost let her forget the threat of war that loomed over her people.
"Look at you," Soz crooned. "Beautiful engine."
A laugh rumbled nearby. "Maybe if you treated your dates that way, you'd have more success with men."
She looked up with a jerk. Jazar Orand was leaning against a console with his muscular arms crossed and his dark hair sleek against his head. At nineteen, he was a year older than Soz. Last year they had entered the Dieshan Military Academy together, but since then she had skipped more than a year ahead. With him giving her such a cocky look, she was tempted to tell him that he had to salute her now that she was an upper-class cadet. But, of course, they were in the library. The DMA powers-that-be had ruled the library exempt from that regulation because it interfered with the ability of the younger students to study.
"My dates aren't as sexy as this engine," Soz said. Or as sexy as Jazar, but she was trying not to think about that. At the academy, fraternization was grounds for expulsion.
Jazar laughed amiably. "You know, I've always wondered why someone as good-looking and well-connected as you has so much trouble with men. It's no wonder, if you go around telling your dates they aren't as desirable as a bunch of machinery."
She crossed her arms. "Did you come here to analyze my love life?"
His grin flashed. "No, but it wouldn't take long."
"Jaz, I swear —"
He held out his hands in surrender. "Don't attack."
Soz glared at him.
"You have a visitor," he added. "A girl."
She couldn't think of any girls who would visit her. "Where?"
"In one of the common rooms. I asked around. People said she came to see you. I offered to let you know."
She considered him warily. "Jazar Orand, I am sensing ulterior motives here."
"Well —" He scratched his ear. "I was hoping you would introduce me."
"Oh for flaming sakes, Soz, you really are dense sometimes."
"Yes, well, I'm densely not going to introduce you to my visitor." Apparently this "girl" was older than she had thought. She told herself she wasn't bothered by his interest. At least arguing with Jazar was better than dwelling on the bigger reason for her loneliness, the unwanted isolation she had endured since her father had disowned her. In such a close-knit family, it was like having a part of herself cut away. She feared she would never again see her home or the members of her family that lived there.
"Come on," he coaxed. "Tell her I'm your great friend."
"Why? Who is this person?"
"I've no idea. She's star-jazzing gorgeous, though."
"Oh, well, that tells me a lot." Soz had never been a judge of beauty in women. Men were another matter. A frustrating matter, but that had nothing to do with Jazar's request, which was annoying her far more than it should. So what if he thought this woman was gorgeous. Pah.
"She's gold," he added. "Hair. Eyes. Everything."
That got her attention. Could it be who she thought? Her hope surged. To cover it, she grinned at Jazar. "You want me to introduce you? Why, Jaz? Going to ask her out?"
He squinted. "Why is that funny?"
Soz just shook her head. She couldn't be certain who had come to see her. She feared to hope too much. So she just went with him out of the library.
Cadets were everywhere on the pathways outside, mostly quiet. A subdued atmosphere had settled over the academy since the attack on Onyx Platform, a military base that supported millions of people in a cluster of space stations. Soz's brother, Althor, had flown one of the Jag starfighters that rebuffed the attackers. His bravery had saved uncounted people at Onyx — and cost him his life. Although his ship had resuscitated him, his brain activity had stopped by that time. He lay in a hospital now, brain dead. Even if some technological miracle could have healed his cortex, the result wouldn't be her brother. His personality, his intellect, his memories: all were gone. Now the Imperialate teetered on the edge of war, and every cadet here knew they could end up in combat within a few years.
Lower-class cadets saluted Soz as they approached, extending their arms straight out at chest height, fists clenched, wrists crossed. They always passed on her left, as per regulations. Soz returned the salutes, but she didn't stop or greet anyone. She had spamoozala duty later today, cleaning AI sewers full of the interminable flood of junk holomail that swamped the meshes.
Soz grimaced. She was going to be in spamoozala hell for the rest of her life. She had achieved two distinctions at DMA: she was going through her studies faster than any other student, and she had more demerits than anyone else at the academy. She might be one of the smartest cadets at DMA, but she was also, apparently, the worst behaved.
"You're quiet tonight," Jazar said.
Soz tried to smile. "Just tired."
"I'm not surprised." He hesitated. "Is it true what I heard, that you've got a tour of duty on a Fleet battle cruiser?"
Soz squinted at him. "Where did you hear that?"
"It's all over."
"How? I only told my roommates."
Jaz cocked an eyebrow at her. "Guess your new ones aren't as discreet as your old ones."
"Guess not." She and Jazar had roomed together their first year, along with Grell, another female cadet, and Obsidian, the top cadet in the second-year class now that Soz had moved up. Although Soz had known male and female cadets might be in the same quarters, it had flustered her back then. In combat, Jagernauts worked in squadrons of four. They lived, fought, and survived together, and they had to get used to it now, when their lives didn't depend on whether or not they could deal with the situation.
Soz wondered what her father would do if he knew she had bunked in the same room as two men. Probably have heart failure. He wouldn't believe the truth, that they had neither the time nor the energy to look cross-eyed at one another, let alone misbehave. Sure, some cadets had liaisons, but it was a lot rarer than most outsiders believed. Soz tried not to think of her father. He had disowned her when she came here after he forbade it. It had been over a year since she had seen him. He hadn't written, answered her letters, or even acknowledged her existence.
That wasn't the worst of it. Eubian Space Command, the Trader military, had breached the supposedly impregnable defenses of her home world, and an Aristo called Lord Vitarex Raziquon had captured her father. They had rescued him, but not before he nearly died from the torture. The monster Raziquon had left him blind and crippled. Although the doctors saved her father's life, his body couldn't incorporate the new eyes or legs they gave him. He would never walk or see again.
After that, he refused to see anyone. Soz knew he turned away from his family because he didn't want the people he loved to see him in such a condition. She even knew why he had disowned her: he couldn't bear to think of her going to war and suffering at the hands of someone like Raziquon. Instead, the Traders had caught him, and now he thought he had nothing left to give his family. He was wrong, so very wrong, and she missed him more than she could say.
Eventually she and Jazar reached the dormitory. They entered through dichromesh-glass doors polarized to mute the sunlight and through a lobby that displayed historical objects such as Jumbler guns used by early starfighter pilots. The common room beyond had blue couches and white walls with holomurals of the Dieshan sky, sometimes pale blue, sometimes hazy red. Soz's visitor was standing across the room, gazing out a window, a rose-hued dress clinging to her dancer's body.
Soz's pulse leapt. She hadn't been wrong. It truly was who she had hoped.
Jazar elbowed her. "Introduce me."
Soz slanted him a look. "You want to get to know her, eh?"
"She's already spoken for."
His disappointment showed. "She's married?"
"To my father."
His mouth fell open. "That's your mother?"
Red flushed his cheeks. "Oh."
She smiled. "It's all right, Jaz. You aren't the first to react that way." Her mother, Roca Skolia, looked as if she were barely in her twenties, her youth preserved by nanomeds within her body, but she had actually lived for more than eight decades.
"Uh, hmmm." Jazar cleared his throat.
Roca turned around and her face lit up. "Soz!"
At that moment Soz forgot her probation, her appalling social life, and this odd business about a tour on a battle cruiser. Suddenly she was home in rural Dalvador on the world Lyshriol. Her mother brought memories of suns and warmth, laughter and love. Soz wished she were small again and could run to her for comfort. She couldn't, but seeing Roca meant more than she knew how to say.
"My greetings, Mother." Soz heard how formal she sounded, as if she were thirteen again, that year she had hardly spoken to her parents, using grunts or one-word sentences — not for rudeness, but because she had needed to stop depending on them when she felt so uncertain about her life. She went forward — and then she and Roca were hugging. She hadn't realized until this moment that she had questioned whether she would see her mother again.
Finally they let each other go. Soz smiled awkwardly, aware of Jazar a few paces back. Roca appraised her with a firm gaze. "You aren't eating enough. And are you going to bed on time? You look tired."
Soz laughed shakily. "Mother, I'm eighteen. Not ten."
A rosy blush stained Roca's gilded cheeks. "I know that."
Soz beckoned to Jazar. "This is my friend, Jaz."
He came forward and bowed deeply. "My honor at your company, Your Majesty."
Soz almost groaned. She had convinced her friends to treat her like everyone else, and usually they forgot her royal heritage. The glamour fast disappeared when you woke up every morning with bleary eyes or stumbled off the training fields covered in sweat. Soz appreciated that Jazar offered her mother honors; Roca descended from the dynasty that had ruled the ancient Ruby Empire and she was the second heir to the Ruby Pharaoh. She had also won election as a Councilor in the modern Assembly that governed Skolia. But Soz hoped no one saw Jaz bowing. At DMA Soz was just another cadet, and she wanted it to stay that way.
Roca smiled. "A friend of my daughter's is a friend of mine."
"Thank you, ma'am." He regarded Soz with a question in his gaze. She felt what he didn't ask. Did she want him to leave?
Soz glanced at her mother, but Roca had guarded her mind. After living in a family of empaths, they all knew how to keep their emotions private, and her mother was showing courtesy by holding back her preferences. Although Soz enjoyed Jazar's company, she wanted to catch up with her mother in private, especially on news of her father. Realizing how much she missed her mother made her father's absence that much more painful.
Jazar was watching Soz's face. Then he spoke to Roca. "It was a pleasure to have met you, Councilor."
Roca inclined her head. "A pleasure shared."
"I better go study," he told Soz. "I've a test in Kyle space theory."
"Yes, of course." She sent him a mental glyph of gratitude. "I'll talk to you later."
"Sounds good." He bowed to Roca and withdrew.
Roca was watching Soz with veiled amusement. "He's charming."
Soz scowled. "He's a rogue."
"A handsome one."
"Don't tell him that," Soz said, alarmed. "I'll never hear the end of it."
Roca's smile seemed strained. "Ah, well."
Soz's mood dimmed. "Did you see Althor?"
"Yes." That one word, full of sorrow, told Soz more than any description of her brother's condition. He hadn't improved.
Roca spoke in a low voice. "Althor's doctors want to know if we wish to keep him on the machines."
"Don't take him off." Soz's voice caught and betraying moisture threatened her eyes. "Please don't."
"Don't cry." Roca looked as if she wanted to shelter Soz the same way she had years ago, when scraped knees or night terrors had darkened her child's life. She hugged Soz again, and somehow it seemed a little better. To Soz, her mother's beauty had nothing to do with her face or form. It came from within, from a woman whose heart held boundless warmth for her family.
But Soz couldn't run to her the way she had as a small child. Those days had passed. She pulled back, unable to reveal her emotions for long, and spoke more formally. "It's good to see you."
"And you, Soshoni." Her mother paused. "I'm not alone."
"Did Denric come?" Of all her siblings, he was the only one Soz could imagine leaving their home. Next year he would go to the university on the world Parthonia. Her sister Aniece or her brother Kelric might have come, but they were probably too young.
"Not Denric." Roca hesitated. "He's in the other common room. He wasn't sure if you wanted another visitor."
Soz suddenly realized who she meant. Her brother Eldrin. He was eldest of her nine siblings, twenty-four, a father with a young son, her nephew Taquinil. She was a terrible sister! Normally he lived on the Orbiter with his wife, the Ruby Pharaoh, but he had been here for the past year, since the attack on their father had ripped apart their lives.
Soz wasn't certain what had happened to Eldrin; he kept it to himself. But she knew his mind had been unusually sensitive to the torture their father had experienced, perhaps because Eldrin was the most like him of all the children. Taquinil was an even more sensitive psion, and Eldrin hadn't been able to stop him from experiencing his nightmares. To protect his son, Eldrin had come here, which meant he had been living by himself for the past year at the Ruby Palace high in the Red Mountains.
It was only a short ride by flyer to the palace. Soz had little free time, but DMA did grant the cadets leave. She could have visited Eldrin. With all her demerit duty, she lost track of things. He hadn't contacted her much, either, but he knew their father had disowned her, and he might think she was angry or uncomfortable about seeing any of the family.
"Yes, of course," Soz said. "I'd love to see him."
Roca looked relieved and a little confused. The doorway to a second common room was across from where Soz had entered this one. As she and her mother walked to its archway, Soz thought about how she would apologize to Eldrin. She should confess she had demerit duty. It would be mortifying, since he would ask why, but better he knew the truth than he thought she had been ignoring him.
They entered a wood-paneled room. Eldrin was standing on the other side, dressed in a white shirt and blue pants, with dark knee-boots. He was studying a portrait of their grandfather. Soz hesitated. Had he lost weight? He seemed ... odd. She recalled his shoulders as broader and his legs as longer. It worried her how tired he looked. His wine red hair was longer, almost to his shoulders. It had a streak of gray she didn't remember. And why was he wearing spectacles —
Soz drew in a sharp breath. It wasn't her brother.
It was her father.
Lord Valdoria, the Bard, a leader among his people and the consort of a Ruby Dynasty heir, turned around — and froze.
Soz felt as if her world stopped.
His voice caught. "My greetings, Soshoni."
She wanted to answer, but the words caught in her throat. He leaned forward as if to take a step, but then hesitated and looked from her to her mother, his forehead furrowed.
The dam within Soz broke open. "Father! You're — you're standing."
He didn't answer. Instead he leaned on his cane, a staff of blue glasswood with an animal head at the top. Then he stepped toward her. Soz held her breath. He walked with such care, she feared he might fall. But he was walking.
"Hoshpa." For the second time this afternoon, she wanted to cry. "You can see, too."
Still he made no response. His concentration seemed absorbed in his walk, and he leaned heavily on his cane. She waited while he took step after resolute step, resting between each with his weight on the staff. Finally he reached her and regarded her with an uncertain expression. She wanted to throw her arms around him, but she wasn't certain how he would respond.
He took an audible breath. "I practiced what I would say to you for many hours during the trip here. Now it seems I have forgotten everything." He hesitated. "If you will forgive my clumsy words, which lurch and stumble as much as my legs — I — I hope — you will always want to come home." He reached out his free hand to her. "You are always welcome, Soshoni."
Soz felt as if a wind blew through her heart, cleaning out the debris of the last year. She took his hand and he pulled her into a hug, dropping his cane. A sob caught in her throat.
"Always welcome," he whispered.
It was a while before she drew back, slowly, so he wouldn't fall. She picked up his cane and handed it to him. "How?" she asked. "The last I heard, you would never walk or see again."
Excerpted from The Final Key by Catherine Asaro. Copyright © 2005 Catherine Asaro. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 - Reunion,
2 - The Dyad Chair,
3 - Bliss,
4 - The Claret Suite,
5 - The Ruby Palace,
6 - Firestorm,
7 - A Leviathan Fallen,
8 - Pico Assassins,
9 - Spikes,
10 - Starliner Drop,
11 - Aristos,
12 - Code One,
13 - The Snarled Mesh,
14 - Corridor of Ages,
15 - Key to the Web,
16 - The Ocean of Elsewhere,
17 - The Blue,
18 - The Choice,
19 - Baylow Station,
20 - Ballad of Sunrise,
21 - Gaps,
22 - The Viewing Chamber,
23 - Sunrise Eyes,
Tor Books by Catherine Asaro,
"A monumental work." — Publishers Weekly,
Family Tree: RUBY DYNASTY,
Characters and Family History,
About the Author,