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The Skolian Empire rules a third of the civilized galaxy through its mastery of faster-than-light communication. But war with the rival empire of the Traders seems imminent, a war that can only lead to slavery for the Skolians or the destruction of both sides. Destructive skirmishes have already occurred. A desperate attempt must be made to avert total disaster.
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
Primary InversionA Novel in the Saga of the Skolian Empire
By Asaro, Catherine
Tor BooksCopyright © 1996 Asaro, Catherine
All right reserved.
Island of Sanctuary
Although I had known about Delos since I was a young woman, this was my first visit to the planet. Delos is a member of the Allied Worlds of Earth, who steadfastly maintain neutrality in the war between the Traders and my people, the Skolians. Despite die fact that all of us are human--Allieds, Traders, and Skolians alike--we have little in common. So Earth declared Delos a neutral zone, sanctuary, a place where Trader and Skolian soldiers could walk together in harmony.
Harmony was their word, not ours. You'd never have caught one of us walking with a Trader soldier, in harmony or otherwise.
But Delos was the planet easiest to reach from the region of space where my squad had been running flight drills to integrate Taas, our newest member, into the group. So Delos was where we came for our well-earned rest and relaxation.
The evening was warm as the four of us walked along the Arcade. A hodgepodge of stalls and shops stretched the length of the boardwalk, eaves hung with wooden chimes that clacked in the wind, and with streamers dyed green, yellow, blue, and plump-pod red. At the apex of each turreted roof a pole reached toward the sky. Metal plates hung from the poles, clanking heartily as gusts tossed them against one another, their chatter melding with the voices of the people who strolledamong the shops and games. It was a place of festival and laughter, a haven for the bright women in their flutter-yellow skirts, and for the strapping young men in billowing trousers who pursued them.
As we strolled along the boardwalk, its nervoplex surface shifted under our feet, making me grit my teeth. I had never understood why most people liked the stuff. No, that wasn't true. I understood, I just didn't share that fondness. Nervoplex supposedly heightened comfort and pleasure. The network of molecular fibers and nano-sized computer chips woven into it reacted to the distribution of weight it experienced, letting the boardwalk analyze and interact with the pedestrian traffic almost as if it sensed their moods.
In an open area on our right, people clustered around a pair of wrestlers in red and green outfits who were putting on a demonstration. As the crowd milled and stamped, the nervoplex rippled in response, magnifying their enjoyment of the show.
The four of us--Rex, Helda, Taas, and myself--walked alone. The boardwalk around us was stiff and motionless. I wished we had civilian clothes. We weren't on duty, after all. But all we had were our Jagernaut uniforms: black pants tucked into black boots, black vests, black jackets. In the bright crowds, our unrelieved black drew attention like rocks falling into water. The river of pedestrians split around us as if it were a waterway parted by boulders. They were mostly Earth citizens, people not likely to have seen even one Jagernaut in person before, let alone four of us.
Rex glanced at me, his handsome face flashing with a wicked grin. "You should start yelling and foaming at the mouth, Soz. That would clear this place out fast."
I glared at him. The "Jagernaut runs amok" plot was a favorite in the holomovies. We were bioengineered fighter pilots, elite officers in the Space Command of Skolia. The prospect that one of us would go crazy and attack everyone in sight had made a lot of holomovie producers annoyingly rich.
"I'll foam your mouth," I grumbled.
Rex smiled. "That sounds interesting."
Helda spoke in her throaty accent. "You remember Garth Byler?"
Rex glanced at her. "He entered the Dieshan Military Academy as a cadet the year I graduated."
Helda nodded. She was as big as Rex, towering over both Taas and me. Her hair hung around her face like honeycorn straw. "He went to a heartbender."
The nervoplex under my feet stiffened. I slowed down, trying to relax. There was no need to tense up; "heart-bender" was just the slang we used for the psychiatrists who treated Jagernauts who broke under the strain of a war that had gone beyond the capabilities of normal humans to fight it. But if one of us did snap, and it happened more often than Space Command admitted, we usually did it quietly. Any violence was almost always directed inward, not at other people.
"What happened to him?" Taas asked.
"Went to the hospital," Helda said. "Then he retired."
I rubbed the back of my hand across my forehead, unable to concentrate on die conversation. My pulse and breathing had speeded up, and sweat garnered on my temples, dampening curls of my hair. What was the matter with me?
Then I saw it. Across the Arcade, two people were watching us, a young man and woman dressed in imported jeans and glittery hotshirts. They looked like students, maybe lovers out for a stroll. Neither of them was smiling. They just stood staring at us, their snack-sticks dangling forgotten in their hands.
Tightness constricted around my chest like a metal band. I stopped walking and took a deep breath. Block, I thought.
I didn't get the response I expected. All I should have seen when I gave the Block command was a psicon, a small picture similar to die icons on a computer, except that psicons appeared in die mind. It should have flashed and disappeared. Instead, the image of a computer menu formed in my mind. I closed my eyes and the menu wavered like die afterimage of a bright light on my eyelids. When I opened my eyes, my perception shifted so that I saw the menu hanging in the air in front of me like a holographic image. It showed me three commands:
* * *
* * *
The letters were in my personal font, which made them look as if they were carved out of amber. Next to the word Block I saw the picture of a neural synapse with a wall between the axon and dendrite. That picture was the Block psicon I had expected to flash in my mind. Instead it sat here, floating in the air, part of a big menu waiting for my attention. Rex and Helda had stopped next to me and were talking to each other, oblivious to the list of words I saw superimposed on them.
The people from Earth had a good saying for times like this. Frigging rockets. Better yet, flaming frigging rockets. What was this menu doing, hanging in the air? No, that was the wrong question. I knew why it was there. The computer node implanted in my spine had produced it when I sent a command by thinking the word Block. It accessed my optic nerve to make the menu appear in front of me.
Except it shouldn't have happened. I had set up my systems to bypass this procedure. It was far too inefficient--not to mention distracting--to go through the whole process every time I gave a command to my spinal node. The only response I should have seen to my Block command was the flash of the synapse-and-wall psicon letting me know the node was working.
I just thought of the computer in my spine as "the node." I named most computers I worked with, but not this one. It would have been too much like calling myself by someone else's name, as if I were doubling or splitting my personality.
I formed another thought for the node. Switch to Brief mode.
Its response came into my mind as if it were my own thought, but phrased in the node's usual bone-dry verbiage. Recommend Verification mode. Too much time has passed since you last confirmed blocking operations.
So. It wanted to run a check. I knew die routine; the node would show me every step it followed to execute my Block command. Usually die process went at close to the speed of light, which was the limit to how fast signals could travel along the fiberoptic threads in my body. But right now it wanted me to plod through the whole excruciating routine to make sure there were no errors in it.
All right, I thought. Do the check.
The menu faded. Then the node produced a new image.
This one also hung in the air like a holo, a blue silhouette of the two students who were still staring at us. The node overlaid the silhouette on them so that they looked as if they were glowing with blue light.
Input from these two sources exceeds safety tolerances, the node thought.
I know that. For an empath like myself, their "input" was their fear: I felt it so intensely that sweat had formed on my temples and was running down my neck.
Block their input, I thought.
I am releasing a drug that will inhibit the action of psiamine on the neurons in the para centers of your brain, including attachment to P1 receptors. Inhibition will continue until external input drops below your default safety tolerances.
I grimaced. Can't you just say you're blocking them?
I am blocking them, the node obliged.
The onslaught of fear receded. As my shoulders relaxed and my heart beat slowed, I thought, Procedure verified. Now switch to Brief mode.
Brief mode entered.
Finally. I glanced around at the others. Taas was standing next to me, staring at the turreted roof of a stall. The students' fear radiated off him like heat off a red-hot ingot.
I laid my hand on his arm. "Shut diem out."
He didn't move. His face was pale under its usual olive color.
"That's an order," I said. "Initiate blocking."
Taas jerked. Then he closed his eyes. After a moment he looked at me, his color returning.
"You all right?" I asked.
"Yes." He winced. "It was so intense. They caught me off guard."
Rex glanced from me to Taas. Then he turned to the students and I felt him block their input. Although I couldn't pick up Helda as easily, her brief glazed look told me she too had accessed her spinal node. None of them took more than an instant to do the block; apparently their nodes weren't harassing them with verification procedures today.
Well, maybe harassing wasn't a fair word. After all, I was the one who had told it to warn me when too long went by without a check.
Taas spoke in a low voice. "I don't know why I slipped up like that."
"It's this damn nervoplex." I motioned at the boardwalk. "It interacts with the crowd like a mood enhancer." Taas and I were more sensitive to the effect, he because he was the least experienced member of the squad and I because I was the strongest empath.
Helda motioned toward the students. "Why do those two over there get so upset? What do they think we do to them, anyway?"
Rex turned back to us, speaking in a strangely quiet voice. "I get tired of evoking that reaction." He pushed his hand through his hair, mussing up the black locks. No, not black. More and more white showed at his temple every day.
But now what was this? Why did Taas have that odd smile? "What's so funny?" I asked.
He flushed. "Ma'am?"
"Why are you grinning like that?"
He immediately stopped smiling. "Nothing, ma'am."
I laughed. "Taas, you don't need to say ma'am." In a group as tightly knit as ours, it made no sense to be so formal. "What was funny?"
He hesitated, then motioned toward the students. "That boy had a different reaction to you than he did to the rest of us."
"Different?" I blinked. "How?"
"He thinks you're--uh..."
I waited. "Yes?"
Taas reddened. "He thinks you're sexy."
I felt my own face flush. "I'm old enough to be his mother."
Helda laughed. "Ya, but you look like a youngster, Soz."
I smiled. "I do not." In truth, she wasn't the first to tell me that.
Rex grinned, and I felt Taas relax. Our group tension trickled away. As Rex started to speak, his gaze shifted to a point beyond me--and his smile vanished like a door slamming shut. I turned to look.
Of course they didn't call themselves Traders. They were Eubians, members of the euphemistically named Eube Concord. There were five of them, all dressed in gray uniforms with blue piping on the pants and crimson braid on the sleeves. Although it was hard to make out the color of their eyes from this far away, I didn't think any of them had the red eyes of an Aristo, a member of the highest caste in the rigid hierarchy of the Concord. One of them did have an Aristo's finely chiseled features, the black hair, even the arrogant stance. And his hair glinted. But it didn't have that liquid shimmering quality so distinctive of an Aristo.
Perhaps they were an Aristo's bodyguards. It was one of the more prestigious positions allowed members of the lower Trader castes. My guess was that they were taskmakers, children born from the pairing of an Aristo with a lower caste Trader.
They stood across the Arcade staring at us. The crowds continued about their business, bustling along the boardwalk between our group and the Traders.
An odd fear grabbed me, one with a nurturing intensity mat, though appealing, wasn't familiar. As my pulse leapt, I looked around and saw a woman hurrying several children away from the area. She glanced at the Traders, then at us, then urged her charges to speed up. The smallest boy balked, trying to head for a stall where sugar candles hung on a wire, the inviting treats dripping sugar instead of wax. The woman pulled him away, ignoring his loud protests as she hurried him through the crowd.
Taas scowled at the Traders. "They can't just come here and walk around."
"What, you want them to get a license?" Helda asked. Then she added, "We're harmonizing, remember?"
"They could be spying," Taas offered.
Rex was watching me. "What's wrong?"
I swallowed. "That tall one. He looks like Tarque."
Rex stiffened. "Tarque is dead."
Long dead. Ten years dead. I had killed him.
"Who is Tarque?" Helda asked. "It sounds Aristo"
Somehow I kept my voice steady. "It is."
Rex nudged my mind. After years of working together he and I were close enough so that I could catch his thoughts if he directed them at me with enough force.
Are you all right? he asked.
I took a breath, struggling to keep my pulse steady. Yes.
"Where you know this Tarque?" Helda asked me.
"I went undercover on Tams Station ten years ago."
"Tams?" Taas asked. "You mean the Trader planet?"
I nodded. "I got--caught."
"They broke your cover?" he asked.
"No. I don't mean caught that way." It was a moment before I could continue. "Ten years ago the Traders installed an Aristo governor on Tarns, a man called Kryx Tarque. His people were making sweeps through the cities, selecting servers for his estates." "Server" was the generic term the Aristos used for lower castes, which as far as they were concerned included everyone in the universe who wasn't an Aristo. "I got caught in a sweep."
Taas stared at me. "You've been a Trader servant?"
"No." I spoke with a calmness I didn't feel. "A provider."
Taas blanched, and Helda's muscles bunched up along her shoulders, making her jacket shift position. "Provider" was one of the Aristos' euphemisms, one I never wanted to think about again.
Helda rolled her shoulders like a fighter trying to ease out knotted muscles. "How you escape?"
I just shook my head. I couldn't talk about it. Across the Arcade, the Traders were talking among themselves, still watching us.
Taas spoke awkwardly. "I'm sorry, Primary Valdoria. About Tarns."
I tried to make my voice light. "Taas, call me Soz, all right?" I had told him that so many times I had lost count.
He reddened. "Yes, ma'am."
Helda's thought brushed my mind, far weaker than I had felt from Rex: I also am sorry. Then, more lightly: Give Taas time. You scare the bejeebs out of him.
Taas bunked. Bejeebs?
Rex sent them a mental grin. Is that living or inanimate?
I tried to smile. I knew Rex was trying to defuse the tension. And I should have been pleased; it was the first time Taas had succeeded in linking with us without help from the hardware in our ships. But I couldn't stop staring at the Traders. They started to walk again, keeping watch on us as they moved away into the crowds.
"Looks like we bore them," Helda said.
Taas shifted his feet back and forth like a ball player waiting for his opponent to make a move. "We can't just let them walk away."
"What justification would you give for doing anything else?" I asked.
"They're Traders," Taas said. "Isn't that enough?"
I tilted my head toward the Allied police officers who had gathered in the area, their blue and silver uniforms easy to spot among the crowds. "I doubt they would agree."
Taas scowled. "If it wasn't for us, the Traders would have taken over their Allied Worlds a long time ago. They should be grateful we're here."
"If it wasn't for the Traders keeping us occupied," I said, "we might have taken over their Allied Worlds a long time ago."
Taas's forehead creased. "Don't you hate the Traders?" He hesitated. "Especially after--"
"Brawling in the street won't serve any purpose," I said. "It also happens to be illegal here."
Helda shrugged at Taas. "We have better ways to occupy our time, hoiya. I would like a drink, myself."
I had never quite figured out what hoiya meant in Helda's language, but I thought it was something like "sweet young one." Taas had yet to realize it was more than a nonsense word she threw into her sentences. It was going to be interesting to see her try to explain herself when he realized she was calling him a sweet boy.
Rex grinned. "Heya, Helda, hoiya, you want to get drunk?"
"Hoiya yourself," Helda grumbled. But then she smiled. "Maybe a few drinks, heh?"
"I wouldn't mind a drink," I said. A strong one, the kind that obliterated memories.
* * *
Night had been pressing down on die sunset for over an hour, darkening the reddish-purple streak of sky along the horizon. A day here lasted sixty-two hours, making the sunset go on and on as if it resisted giving up the light. The Arcade was even more crowded now, people taking advantage of the respite from the heat. With thirty hours of sunlight a day, it was usually only cool enough outside for humans to be comfortable during the evening, night and dawn hours.
Overhead the sky was a deep violet. The Delos sun emitted more purple light than average for human habitable planets and the thin atmosphere scattered it less. It gave a purple tinge to the sky as if we were high in the mountains instead of at sea level. Clouds streaked the horizon, their lower edges rimmed with a brilliant pink that deepened as the sunset withdrew behind the Arcade roofs.
We walked through the twilight along a line of bars. Holosigns lit up the dusk: a shocking pink flower suspended over a door, gilded insects flying in ellipses, a cluster of blue-green planets orbiting dose to a blue giant star that in reality could never have supported such a solar system. Hologram screens also sided most of the bars, spawning holos everywhere, so that poles of light rotated between buildings, swirling with gaudy purple and red stripes, and arches of light spanned the roofs. Scampering animals sparked and popped like firecrackers as they ran up and down the sides of buildings, or morphed into different species.
Music jangled at us, raucous tunes mixing with seductive melodies. Sounds jumped out as we approached and receded into the general buzz after we had passed. Hawkers called out from doorways, using a slew of languages. The ones I understood were trying to entice customers with promises of liquor and smoke-sticks, and seeds of the oilweed plant that could set you to dreaming, or to making love for hours. The smell of cooking meat and spices filled the air.
I couldn't read most of the holosigns. Pulling down a translation menu in my mind, I overlaid it on an elegant sign that said constantinides.
Translate, I thought.
Greek, the node answered. Translation: Constantinides.
"That helps a lot," I muttered.
"Where you want to go?" Helda asked.
I pointed to a rusty building. One pole topped its roof with a few desultory circles that clanked in the wind. The holosign above the door was in English, which was the only language I had seen among the bars so far that I could read without a translator.
"jack's place," I said.
Rex peered at the bar. "It sounds vintage Earth."
Helda snorted. "It look vintage wreck."
"Come on, Helda." Rex laughed. "Be brave."
"Why you want to go to this place?" she demanded.
"Because," Rex said, "it looks like it has authentic old Earth atmosphere."
"This is good thing to have?" Helda asked.
I smiled. "Let's give it a try and see."
So we went in, pushing open the door under the sign. Inside, a counter stretched along one wall, its black top pitted with age. Stools lined the counter, each upholstered in a red material that shone from use. Tables covered by red and white cloths filled the room. A man stood behind the counter polishing a glass, stains showing on his cloth and on the white apron tied across his big stomach.
A band was playing on a raised stage in one corner. The instruments were unfamiliar: gourd-shaped boxes with strings pulled tight across the box, gold horns with handles that moved in and out, fat drums. The music had a compelling rhythm, mixing in a sensual blend of sound that made me want to dance with the young man who was singing. Garish cartoon holos flickered in front of the panels that lined the stage.
A woman in a short skirt was waiting on the tables. Taas watched her with a smile. "I like this place," he said.
Rex grinned his agreement. "Let's sit at a table."
Helda smiled at Taas and tilted her head at the waitress. "Nice, hmm? But we better not fight. Save that for Traders. I'm too much bigger than you anyway."
Taas blinked at her. "What?"
"She doesn't want to fight you for the waitress," I said.
"Why would Helda and I fight over the waitress?"
I shrugged. "Beats me." I was no judge of beauty in women. Now in men, that was different. But to me the waitress just looked like a too-young girl in a too-tight skirt. The thing had to be cutting off her circulation.
Rex laughed. "Maybe the three of us should offer ourselves and let her pick."
I smiled. "What makes you think she'd pick any of you?"
"The three of us?" Taas asked.
Helda leaned toward him. "Me, you, Rex. Got it?"
Taas turned bright red. "You like women? Not men?"
"Of course," Helda said.
"Oh." Taas scratched his chin. "Well, you may be bigger than me, but I have more style."
The waitress came over and spoke shyly to Rex in English. "Would you like a table?"
Rex answered in Skolian, giving her his wicked grin. "I have no idea what you're saying, but it sounds beautiful."
"She wants to know if we like tables," I said. Whatever that meant. I pulled down my translation menu. It hung superimposed over the waitress, who was looking from me to Taas to Helda. I knew I probably had the same glazed expression I saw on their faces.
Waiting, my spinal node prompted.
Rex smiled at the waitress. "They're meditating," he said in Skolian.
She blinked at him, then looked around for someone who could help her.
Translate 'We would like to have drinks and food,' I thought.
The waitress spoke to Rex. "What can I do for you?" The Skolian translation of her words came into my thoughts, interfering with my attempt to translate what I wanted to say into English. Meanwhile die waitress was turning redder and redder.
"Pah," I muttered. My spinal node was optimized for combat, not translation. Maybe I should have that diplomacy mod added after all. It would augment my social skills and upgrade my language capability. But my spinal node was loaded to capacity with combat mods and libraries, and I had no intention of removing even one. My life might someday depend on it. I didn't want to enlarge the node again, either. My biomech system had reached the limit of what was considered safe even with state-of-the-art bioengineering technology.
Besides, it wouldn't hurt me to practice my English without a computer "whispering" in my ear. Program end, I thought. As the menu vanished, I spoke to the waitress in the best English I could muster without help. "Is okay there we sit?" I motioned at a booth next to the far wall.
"Certainly." The red color receded from her face, and my own cheeks cooled. She glanced at Helda and Taas, who both looked normal again, and her shoulders lowered slightly. The muscles in my shoulders relaxed as well.
She took some big cards from a nearby table and headed for the booth. When we followed her, she looked back at Rex and blushed again.
Following her glance to Rex, I noticed how tightly the pants of his uniform fit. They clung to his well-muscled legs like supple black leather, menacing and sexy at the same time. And those big hands. How did they feel when they--
"Why are you staring at me?" Rex asked.
"What?" I flushed. "I wasn't." Block, I thought. As the Block psicon flashed in my mind, the waitress's reaction to Rex receded in my thoughts. His pants looked normal again. Well, almost normal. She was right; it was sexy the way they fit him. I had never noticed it before, at least not consciously.
"Always," Helda muttered as we walked to the booth.
"Always they want him."
"You mean Rex?" Taas asked.
"Ya. Always." She tilted her head at me. "The boys always want her."
I laughed. "I seem to remember a few of them wanted Rex too."
At the sound of my laugh, the waitress jumped like a skittercolt. She stopped at the booth and fumbled with the cards she had brought, dropping them onto the scratched tabletop. Then she stood bunking at us. So we all stopped and watched her, waiting to see what she would do next. After a moment she turned pink again.
"She wants us to sit down," Taas decided.
"So let's sit." Rex squeezed past her, putting his hand on her tiny waist in the process. Her face went from pink to bright crimson. Then the rest of us sat down.
The waitress spoke to Rex. "Would you like a drink?"
He answered in Skolian. "That voice of yours makes me want to hold you all night."
"If you get bored with him," Helda added, "you can have us." She motioned at Taas, who sat across the table. "Me and him. He's got style, I've got muscles."
"Excuse me?" the waitress asked in English.
"Leave her alone," I said. I picked up one of the cards she had put on the table. The heading on it was made from clear tubes filled with a fluorescent yellow gas. jack's place, it announced. Projection holos floated above speckled patches on the card, each 3D image displaying a dish of food. When I turned the card, the holos showed different views of their offerings.
My translation program gave "synthetic meat sandwich" as the meaning of Hamburger. I tried Hot dog and got "synthetic meat sandwich." When Beef Bliss came up as "synthetic meat sandwich," I gave up. Didn't Jack serve anything else? I looked at the others. "What do you want?"
"Ale is fine," Rex said. Helda and Taas nodded agreement.
I spoke to the waitress in English. "You ale do?"
She peered at me. "I'm sorry. What did you say?"
"Ale," I repeated. "Got any?"
"You mean beer?"
I squinted at her. "I think."
"Dark or light?"
What did that mean? "Any kind. You prick." No, that wasn't right. She was turning red again. I made another try. "You pick" I waved my hand at the others. "Four beers."
"All right." And off she went, but not before she gave Rex another one of her shy smiles.
Across the room, the door opened. A group came into the bar--and this time when my shoulders went rigid it was my own reaction, not anyone else's.
Traders. There were six of them now, the five we had seen earlier plus a man they were guarding. A man with shimmering black hair and red eyes.
As soon as they saw us, the Traders stopped. We all stared at one another. The bartender quit polishing his glass and set it under the counter.
Don't you hate them? Taas had asked. Hate was too mild a word. I saw the Aristo and my brain felt hot with my memories of Tarque, the Aristo governor on Tams. Three weeks of torture. This Aristo stared at me with his perfect ruby eyes, his perfect black hair shimmering and his perfect body relaxed. I wanted to break every perfect bone in his perfect face.
Steady, I told myself. Steady.
One of the Aristo's bodyguards leaned toward him and spoke. I didn't need to be a telepath to know he suggested they find a bar with a higher class of clientele. But the Aristo shook his head. Then he settled down on a stool at the counter.
"I can't just sit here and watch them drink." Taas was crumpling his menu in his hands. "I can't do it."
Rex nodded. "Let's go."
Helda stood up.
"Sit down," I said.
They all stared at me. Then Helda sat.
I felt Rex nudge at my mind, but I kept the door closed. My thoughts about Traders were private, even from Rex. To say I had no desire to stay at the bar now was the understatement of the century. It was also irrelevant. "Aristos don't come to Delos for vacations," I said. "He must be here for a reason. Our job is to find it out."
A muscle in Rex's cheek jerked. He had had that twitch ever since he saw what Tarque did to me on Tams, saw me so rigid with shock and fear that I couldn't speak.
Helda fingered her belt where her holster normally hung. But none of us were armed with more than small hidden knives. Even without a diplomacy mod, I knew how threatening it would have looked for us to stroll along the Delos boardwalk with Jumbler guns on our hips.
Neither had the Traders been armed when we had seen them earlier. But now they had someone to protect, someone apparently high enough in their social hierarchy that it compelled them to carry burn-lasers, complete with power-packs clipped to their belts.
"Just watch them," I said. "See if you can pick up anything."
The waitress reappeared at our table and set a drink in front of me, a glass filled with amber liquid. I didn't know much about Earth distillation processes, but I knew liquor. What she gave me wasn't ale, it was rum.
My English must have been even worse than I realized. I shook my head at her. "We beer have." I motioned at the others. "Beer. For all."
She swallowed. "It's a--" Her voice squeaked. "The man--he ordered it for you."
She nodded toward the Aristo. "Him."
I stared at her. Then I gave her back the glass of rum. I had to make a conscious effort to keep myself from shoving it back in her hands so fast that it spilled.
Rex stood up and took the glass from her. He slipped his hand under her elbow and walked her to the bar, where he set down the rum. Then he drew her to the back of the room and took her out a door that I guessed led to the kitchen. I understood why he wanted her out of sight; if she was having the same effect on the Aristo that she had made on our group, she could be in trouble.
But the Aristo hadn't even glanced at her. I was the one he was watching. I felt like bugs were crawling on my skin.
Taas was twisting his menu, making the holes distort into weird mishmashes of color. "What do you want us to do?"
"Note everything you can about them," I said. "What they're wearing, how they sit, how they move, how they speak. Store it in your memory and back it up. We'll feed it into the Net later and see what we come up with."
Helda motioned toward some hologames in a corner of the room. "From there I get a different view."
I nodded. "Go."
Across the room, the musicians finished their song. They stood on the stage and looked at the Traders, then at us, then at one another. The drummer said something to a horn player, and a sudden urge to get out of here made the muscles in my legs contract as if I were preparing to run. I had to make a conscious effort to sit still.
Then again, maybe sitting wasn't the best choice. The stage had a good view of the Trader group.
"I can keep this side of the room covered," Taas said.
"Good." I smiled slightly. "I think I'll go for some music appreciation."
As I walked across the room, I felt the Aristo watching me. When I reached the stage I spoke to the singer, a man with dark hair. "Can you a song play?"
"What would you like?" he asked.
He nodded, but I had a feeling that what he really wanted was for all of us to leave, both my squad and the Traders. I didn't blame him.
The band started to play again, a slower piece with a sweet melody. The man sang in a well-trained baritone. Had the situation been different, I would have enjoyed it.
I watched the Trader group with my peripheral vision. So I saw it when the Aristo stood up and came toward me. As he neared, I turned to face him.
He stopped in front of me and spoke in perfect, albeit accented, Skolian. "It's pleasant, isn't it?" The accent was Aristo, pure Aristo from the elite Highton caste, the aristocracy of die aristocracy, die overlords in the Aristo hierarchy.
It was all I could do to keep from pulling out the knife hidden in my boot. "What do you want?"
"To meet you."
He hesitated. "I meant no offense."
That didn't fit. I had met many Aristos, usually over long-range communication but also in person during the sporadic and consistently failed attempts at peace we and the Traders had made. They always spoke with arrogance, often outright scorn. This one seemed to have missed his training in how to act superior.
But his guards missed nothing. They stood in formation by the bar with their guns drawn, looking ready to detonate The Aristo must have ordered them to stay put; otherwise if they would have never let a Jagernaut talk to him alone. Block, I thought. Their hostility receded, but the Block psicon kept flashing in my mind, warning that my systems couldn't keep out the full onslaught of their emotions. To do so would have required my brain to release so much of the drug that inhibited the psi specific receptors on my neurons that it would have interfered with my ability to think.
Jack's other patrons had either left or moved to the back of the bar. Rex was back, holding a massive knife he must have taken from the kitchen. Taas and Helda also had knives out, smaller ones like the blade I wore in my boot. There were five Traders with lasers and only four of us with knives, but we had an advantage; the Aristo was easily within my reach. His perfect self would make a perfect hostage.
"Why do you want to meet me?" I asked him.
"It's your hair." His expression brightened. "I've never seen anything like it."
I stiffened. Tarque had told me the same thing. My hair was black and curly, a little more than shoulder length. But about two thirds of the way down it shaded into a dark wine color and at the ends it turned gold. It had fascinated Tarque. Was this Aristo also looking for providers? He was young, not much more than twenty, but that was more than old enough. Aristos usually took their first providers when they reached puberty.
But something about him didn't fit. I couldn't figure it. The chiseled features of his face had the look of a Highton. His accent fit perfectly, his stance fit perfectly, his voice fit perfectly. Yet something was wrong.
"What do you want with my hair?" I asked.
"It's pretty." He shook his head. "You're so beautiful. Why do you want to be a soldier?"
In my mind I saw that image again, the one that haunted my memories: Tarque raising his long finger to point at me. That one. I want that one.
I had to struggle to keep my voice even. "And I suppose you would be happy to show me my other options in life, right?"
He smiled. "Perhaps for this one evening? This is Delos after all. Here we can, at least for one night, meet each other as friends."
Right, I thought. Aristos socialized only with their own caste. Period. Their only use for the rest of us was as objects for barter. Did he really think I would walk off into the night with him? I'd never see my freedom again.
"No thanks," I said. "I'm busy tonight."
He looked disappointed but unsurprised. "Perhaps someday." Then he bowed and walked back to his group. As I watched, his guards closed around him and hurried him out the door.
It wasn't until they were gone that his bow fully registered on me. Aristos only did that with each other, as a sign of respect. None I knew would be caught dead bowing to one of us.
Rex came over to me, still holding his monster knife. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," I said.
"What did he want?"
I spread my hands. "He was trying to pick me up."
Rex tensed. "Did he threaten you?"
"No. Not at all. I've never heard an Aristo like him. He sounded normal. Very polite."
Helda and Taas came up on my other side. "You think it was a trick?" Helda asked.
"I don't know." I exhaled. "But if I hadn't had experience with Traders, he might have convinced me to go with him."
"We should warn the Arcade police," Taas said. "Before he does get someone around here to go off with him."
I nodded. Taas was right, of course. But somehow I didn't think the Aristo would talk to anyone else. Something about him didn't fit, it just didn't fit at all.
Copyright 1995 by Catherine Asaro
Excerpted from Primary Inversion by Asaro, Catherine Copyright © 1996 by Asaro, Catherine. Excerpted by permission.
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