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Aurora in Four Voices (collection)
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Aurora in Four Voices (collection)

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Author: Catherine Asaro
Publisher: ISFiC Press, 2011
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Book Type: Collection
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Alternate/Parallel Universe
Psychic Abilities
Galactic Empire
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Synopsis

Contains Nebula Award-winning Novella "The Spacetime Pool" and Nebula-nominated Novella "Aurora in Four Voices"

The Nebula-winning Novella "The Spacetime Pool" can be read online here:

"A Poetry of Angles and Dreams" can be read online here


Excerpt

The City of Cries

Chapter I - The Vanished

The flycar picked me up at midnight.

Black and rounded for stealth, the vehicle had no markings. I recognized the model, a Sleeker, the type of transportation only the wealthiest could afford--or the most criminal. If my client hadn't told me to expect such a sight, I would never have gone near that lethal beauty. I just wished I knew who the hell had hired me.

The Sleeker waited on the roof of the building where I lived. As I approached, an oval of light shimmered in its hull. A molecular airlock. Why? A vehicle needed that much protection only if it intended to go higher than most. Hell, we could be headed anywhere on the planet or even to a ship in orbit.

I had no wish to leave town. I had a good setup here in Selei City on the world Parthonia, capital of an empire, the jewel of the Skolian Imperialate. Droop-willows lined graceful boulevards and shaded mansions under a pale blue sky. It was far different from the city where I had spent my girlhood, a place of red deserts and parched seas.

The luminous oval on the flycar faded into an open hatchway. A man stood there, tall and rangy, wearing a black jumpsuit that resembled a uniform, but with no insignia to indicate who or what he served. He looked efficient. Too efficient. It made me appreciate the bulk of the EM pulse gun hidden in a shoulder holster under my black leather jacket.

The pilot watched me with a hooded gaze. As I reached the vehicle, he moved aside to let me step up into its cabin. I didn't like it. If I boarded, gods only knew where I would end up. However, this request for my services had come with a voucher worth more than the total income for every job I'd done this last year. I'd already verified the credit. And that was purportedly only the first payment. Of course I'd accepted the job.

However, certain types of clients didn't like questions. if I asked too many, this pilot would leave. Credits gone. No job. I could walk away from this, but I needed the money. I didn't even have enough to pay the next installment on my office loan.

And I had to admit it: I was curious.

I boarded the Sleeker.

Selei City rolled below us. We were high enough up that individual towers or magrails weren't visible, just a wash of sparkling lights. I reclined in a seat with smart upholstery that adjusted to ease my tensed muscles with a finesse only the most expensive furniture could manage. It didn't help.

I was the only passenger. The cabin had ten seats, five on my side separated by a couple of meters from the five seats on the other side. The white carpet that covered the deck glinted as if dusted with holographic diamonds. Hell, maybe they were real. The flight was so smooth that had I not known I was in the air, I would never have guessed.

Flycars usually had a pilot and co-pilot's seat in the main cabin. This one had a cockpit. It had irised open for the pilot and he left it that way. So I could see him. He slid into his chair, and its silver exoskeleton snapped around him. If it worked like most, right now it was jacking prongs into his body. They would link to a person's internal biomech web, which usually included a spinal node with as much processing capability as a ship's mesh system. Few people had them, only high-ranking military officers, the inordinately wealthy, and top criminals.

"Hey," I said.

He looked over his shoulder. "Yes?"

"I was wondering what to call you."

"Ro."

I waited. "Just Ro?"

He regarded me with unreadable dark eyes. "Just Ro." his face remained impassive. "You had better web in, ma'am."

Ma'am. So he used titles. Interesting. "Where we headed?"

No answer. I hadn't expected one. Nothing in the message delivered to my office this afternoon had hinted at my destination. The recording had been verbal only. No name signed. Nothing. Just that huge sum of credit that transferred to my account as soon as I accepted this enigmatic job.

I pulled the safety mesh around my body. I was a slender woman, more muscle than softness, and the webbing had to tighten from whoever had used it before me.

"Ready?" the pilot asked. He was intent on his controls; it took me a moment to realize he had spoken to me rather than into the comm.

"Ready," I said.

The g-forces hit hard, like a giant hand shoving me into the seat . The chair swiveled and the cushions did their best to compensate, but nothing could gentle a kick that big. And I heard it, a noise I wouldn't have believed if it hadn't come clearly even through the hull. Rockets had just fired. This "flycar" was a damn spaceship.

The pressure went on until black spots filled my vision. The webbing pushed against my lower body, countering the effects, but I felt nauseated.

After interminable moments, the g-forces eased. Pinwheels spiraled in my vision and bile rose in my throat. As soon as I could speak, I said, "Where the blazes are we going?"

"Best relax," the pilot said. "We'll be a few hours."

Hours? I didn't know how fast we were traveling, but given that rocket blast, we had to be moving at a good clip. Even now we were accelerating, less than before, but enough for me to feel the effects. A few hours of this could take us deep into the solar system.

I regarded him uneasily. "I don't suppose this little flycar has inversion capability?" It was halfway to a joke. Starships went into inversion to circumvent the speed of light, and as such they could end up anywhere in space, light years from Parthonia or any other planet I knew.

The pilot looked back at me. "That's right, ma'am. We'll invert in six minutes."

Flaming hell.

The City of Cries stood on the shore of the Vanished Sea on the world Raylicon. The empty sea basin stretched in a mottled red and blue desert from the outskirts of Cries to the horizon. I knew that desert. I knew the city. I had grown up in Cries and lived here later as an adult--and I had damn well never intended to return.

The Sleeker hummed through the night. The pitted ruins of ancient starships hulked on the shore of the Vanished Sea, their hulls dulled over the last five thousand years. They were shrines, enigmatic reminders that humanity hadn't originated here on Raylicon, but on a blue-green world called Earth.

It mystified me. Six thousand years ago, during the Stone Age, an unknown race of beings had taken humans from Earth, left them on Raylicon, and disappeared with no explanation. Our historians wanted to believe a calamity befell them before they completed the project they had begun with their captive humans. Whatever the reason, they had stranded my ancestors here.

Primitive, terrified, and confused, those lost humans had struggled to survive. The aliens left behind nothing but their ruined starships. However, those ships contained the library of an ancient, starfaring race, and my ancestors learned the fundamentals of its use. Over the centuries, they had gleaned enough from those records to develop star travel. They went in search of their lost home then, at a time when humans on Earth were still living in caves. They never found Earth, but they built the Ruby Empire, scattering colonies across the stars.

Unfortunately, with such shaky technology and the curse of passionately volatile politics, their empire soon collapsed. The ensuing Dark Age lasted four millennia. My ancestors only gradually rebuilt civilization, but they did finally regain the stars. They split into two empires then: the Eubian Traders, who based their economy on the sale of human beings, and my people, the Skolian Imperialate. Eventually our siblings on Earth also developed space travel. They had a real shock when they reached the stars and found us already here, busily building gargantuan and bellicose empires.

The flycar banked over Cries, a chrome and crystal city glinting in the desert. I could make out the ruins of the ancient city beyond, the original Cries built during the Ruby Empire. Beyond those crumbling buildings, mountain peaks jutted starkly against a sky pierced with stars.

We landed on the roof of a structure high in the mountains. Crenellations bordered it in patterns of mythical beasts, with teeth gaping and horns sharp. Onion towers rose into the sky, topped with golden spires. Sweat ran down my temples despite the climate-controlled cabin.

As I released my webbing, the pilot disengaged his exoskeleton. I wished I could place his background. He had the black hair, smooth skin, and upward tilted eyes of Raylican nobility, but that made no sense. A nobleman wouldn't be working as a private pilot no matter how upscale the mode of transportation.

The noble Houses descended from ancient lines that traced their heritage back to the Ruby Empire. Now an elected Assembly ruled the Imperialate; the Houses no longer held the power they had wielded five millennia ago. The days when warlike matriarchs had kept their men in seclusion were gone; in this modern age, both women and men held positions of authority. Hell, the Imperator was a man. He commanded the four branches of the military and descended from the Ruby Dynasty. Some noble Houses retained the ancient customs, but they kept to themselves. In their rarified universe, the rest of us didn't exist. They wouldn't bring in a stranger to deal with their problems, especially not a commoner. Far more likely, a crime boss had engaged my services. She wouldn't be the first to cover her operation with a phony aristocratic sheen.

When I disembarked, hot breezes ruffled my hair around my shoulders. No lights shone on the roof. I could see the stars but nothing else. It had been a long time since I had breathed the parched air of Raylicon. Seven years in the gentle atmosphere of Selei City had spoiled me; the air here felt hot and astringent on the membranes in my mouth and nose. It smelled dusty. Fortunately, the nanomeds in my body could deal with the minor differences. They also gave me the health and appearance of a woman in my late twenties, though I was well into my forties.

"This way, please," the pilot said behind me.

I hadn't heard him approach. My trained reflexes took over and I spun around, ready to strike. I could have stumbled in the lower gravity, but my body compensated. I also pulled my blow in time, even as he raised his arms to counter my instinctive move to defend myself. He was unnaturally fast. Interesting. It was another indication he had biomech in his body, which would include high-pressure hydraulics, modifications to his skeleton and muscle system, and a microfusion reactor for energy. It could give him two or three times the strength and speed of an unaugmented human. Given his speed, he obviously had a top quality system.

Mine was better.

"My apologies." The pilot lowered his hands. "I didn't mean to startle you."

"No harm done." My thoughts hummed with warnings. Biomech webs cost as much as Jag star fighters and weren't available to civilians. I got mine when I served in the Pharaoh's Army. Either this pilot had been a military officer or else he worked for someone with illegal access to military technology. Damn.

We crossed the roof and entered an onion tower through an arch shaped like a giant, antiquated keyhole, the type you would see only in a museum. Inside, stairs spiraled down the tower, nothing mechanical, no modern touches, just antiquated but beautifully designed and preserved stairs. Lights came on as we descended, however, golden and warm. Tessellated mosaics inlaid the ceiling in gold, silver, and platinum. The place reeked of wealth.

At the bottom, we entered a gallery of horseshoe arches. Our footsteps echoed as we walked through a forest of columns tiled in precious metals. I saw no tech, but golden light continued to pour around us and it had to come from somewhere. We left the gallery through an archway half a kilometer from where we entered and followed halls wide enough to accommodate ten people abreast. Mosaics patterned the walls, blue and purple near the floor, shading up through lighter hues, and blending into a scalloped border near the high ceiling. The low gravity, sharp air, and exotic decor saturated my mind. The place was a flaming palace.

As we forged deep into a maze of halls, my spinal node created a map. We walked in silence. I tried to talk with the pilot, but he never responded. Finally we climbed a wide staircase that swept up to the balcony of a colonnade. At the top, we passed two wide archways and went through the third. In the study beyond, shelves lined three of the walls. And they held books. Not holobooks, mesh cards, or VR disks, but real books, the type of ancient tome usually found only in museums. One lay open on a table. Artistic glyphs in glimmering inks covered its pages, which were edged in gold. I had never seen even one such book, let alone a room paneled in them from floor to ceiling.

Our footsteps were silent on the carpet, another antique in red and gold. The door swung on ancient hinges that should have creaked but in this unreal place were so well oiled they didn't even whisper. A dark-haired woman stood across the room gazing out an arched window, her hands clasped behind her back.

The woman turned.

Her presence filled the room. She stood two meters tall and had a military bearing. Her dark hair swept back from her forehead, with gray dusting the temples. Her chiseled features could have been on a statue, the high cheekbones, straight nose, and black eyes that tilted upward. The elegant cut of her dark tunic and trousers showed no hint of flamboyance. She could have been any age from forty to one hundred and forty; she no doubt could afford the best treatments to delay aging.

The woman inclined her head to the pilot. "Thank you, Captain. You may go." She spoke with a rich, husky voice in Skolian Flag, a language adopted by diplomats and others who interacted with many different peoples. Her pronounced Iotic accent almost sounded authentic. Almost no one spoke Iotic anymore except scholars, noble Houses, and pretenders who wished to sound cultured.

The pilot bowed deeply and left the study as we had entered, in silence. I wondered if my host expected me to bow as well. I didn't. Deferential behavior wasn't one of my strong points.

The woman considered me. "My greetings, Major Bhaajan."

I nodded to her. "I'm afraid you have the advantage of me, Lady." I didn't know if she truly carried that title, but it was more tactful than, Who the hell are you?

"Matriarch," she murmured. "Not Lady."

Hell and damnation. I quit hoping she was a crime boss. Her Iotic accent was almost authentic, it was genuine. This was no phony palace. I had come to the real thing.

"Which House?" I asked. Blunt maybe, but finesse had never been one of my better qualities either.

Her gaze never wavered. "Majda."

I felt the blood drained from my face. Majda. Wrong again. I wasn't facing nobility. This was royalty. Genuine, bone chilling royalty.

She indicated a brocaded couch with gilt-edged arms and legs built from wood. And Raylicon had no trees. "Let us sit," she said in that terrifyingly rich voice.

I didn't know how to behave with royalty. However, the Majda Matriarch was also General of the Pharaoh's Army, commander of that branch of the military. And she had referred to me by my military title, though I had been out of the army for over a decade. Military protocol I could handle. So I said, "Thank you, General."

She inclined her head, accepting the title. I sat on the couch and she settled on a brocaded wingchair. A table tiled in red and gold mosaics stood between us. Majda crossed her long legs and light glinted on her polished boots.

"Would you care for a drink?" she asked. "I have a bit of Kazar brandy."

Would I ever. Right now, I'd give an extra decade of life for genuine Kazar, the stronger the better.

"Thank you, yes," I said.

Majda touched the scrolled end of the arm on her chair. A circle the size of her fingertip glowed blue, but nothing else happened.

Then we sat.

I had no idea what to do with the silence. She would set the conversation or lack thereof. So I waited, racking my brain for all that I knew about the Majdas. Five millennia ago, the Ruby Dynasty had ruled an empire, led by the Ruby Pharaoh, Matriarch of the House of Skolia. The Pharaoh no longer governed, but even now the dynasty held power. After the Skolias, the Majdas were the most influential House. Although they were royalty in their own right, they no longer ruled any province; now their empire was financial. They controlled more wealth than the combined governments of entire planets.

During the Ruby Empire, Majda had supplied generals to the Pharaoh's Army. Today, they dominated the two largest branches of the military, the Pharaoh's Army and the Imperial Fleet. Majda women served as officers. Only the women. Of all the noble Houses, even more than the Ruby Dynasty, Majda followed the old ways. They kept their princes rigidly secluded, never seen by any woman except members of their family.

Majda considered me. "Did you have a good flight, Major?"

"Yes." These days, I wasn't used to hearing my military title.

A man in dark garb entered the room carrying a tray with two crystal tumblers. Gold liquid sparkled in them. He set the tray on the table and bowed to Majda.

She inclined her head. "Thank you."

He left as silently as he had come. I stared after him. No one had human servants any more. Robots were less expensive, more reliable, and required less upkeep.

Majda indicated the tumblers. "Please be my guest."

"My pleasure," I said.

We both took our glasses. The brandy swirled in my mouth like ambrosia, went down with exquisite warmth, and detonated when it hit bottom. I sat up straight and let out a long breath. The nanomeds in my body would keep me sober, but I was half-tempted to tell my spiral node to let me get drunk.

"That's good," I said. Understatement was my forte today.

Majda sipped her drink. "You have an interesting reputation, Major Bhaajan."

I took another swallow of killer ambrosia. "You've a job for me, I take it. "

"A discreet job."

Discretion was my specialty. No messes. "Of course."

"I need to find someone." She considered me. "I'm told you are the best there is for such searches and that you know Cries."

"I grew up here." I left it at that. She didn't need to know I had been a dust rat. "I'll need all the details you can give me about this person and how she disappeared. Holos, mesh access, character traits, everything oil her habits and friends."

"You will have the information." Her voice hardened. "Be certain that you never misuse it."

That didn't sound good. "Misuse how?"

"He is a member of this family."

"What happened to him?" I asked.

She tapped the arm on her chair and the room dimmed. Curtains closed silently and smoothly over the windows. The wall across from us turned a luminous white screen and a holo formed in front of it. A man.

He stood in a room similar to this one, but with wood paneling and tapestries on the walls instead of books. He looked in his early twenties. Luxuriant dark hair curled over his forehead and ears, and he had the Majda eyes, large and dark, tilted upward. His broad shoulders, leanly muscled torso, and long legs had ideal proportions. He wore a rich tunic of russet velvet and red brocade, edged in gold, and darker red trousers with knee hoots. The word gorgeous didn't begin to describe him. He was, without doubt, the most singularly arresting man I had ever seen.

He wasn't smiling.

"His name is Prince Dayjarind Kazair Majda," Majda said. "He is my nephew. No woman outside this family has ever seen him in person." She paused. "Save one."

Good gods, had he run off with a lover? I spoke carefully. "Who?"

"Roca Skolia."

That wasn't what I had expected. "You mean the Pharaoh's sister?"

"Yes."

Well, well. Roca Skolia was heir to the Ruby Throne, first in line to the title of Ruby Pharaoh. She not only held a hereditary seat in the governing Assembly, she had also run for election and won a seat as an Assembly delegate, then risen in its ranks until she became Foreign Affairs Councilor. She was known as one of the most powerful and astute politicians in the Imperialate. If this Majda queen expected me to investigate Roca Skolia, she had a far higher estimation of my skills than even I did myself. And that was saying a lot.

"Your Highness," I said. "I cannot force a member of the Ruby Dynasty to return your nephew."

"He is not with Roca. They were betrothed. Almost." A thinly concealed disdain edged her voice. "Two years ago, Roca broke that agreement to marry some barbarian king." Then she added, "Reparations were offered. Eventually my House accepted them." Her tone implied that acceptance hadn't come easy. "I had thought the matter settled. Then five days ago, Dayj ran away."

"How did he leave?" It wouldn't surprise me if this Prince Dayj had better security guarding him than some heads of state.

"We aren't certain." She set her drink on the table. "I have always viewed my nephew as a pleasant and good-natured but rather vain young man without depth. I may have underestimated him."

"Do you have any idea where he went?"

"None."

"What do the authorities in Cries say?"

Her voice cooled. "Majda has its own police force."

"But they can't find him?"

A pause. "They haven't exhausted all possibilities."

"It would be almost impossible to take him from here even with his cooperation," she said coolly. "And we've received no ransom demand." Her gaze darkened. "Even if he left of his own free will, which we believe, he knows nothing about survival outside this palace. He can read and write, yes, but beyond that he has no experience in taking care of himself."

"On his holopad." Her voice sounded strained, as if she were in pain but trying to cover it. "It said, 'I can't do this any longer. I have to go. I'm sorry. I love you all.'"

Such a simple message with such a world of hurt. Yet she had mentioned only a broken agreement with Roca Skolia from two years ago. "And you think he's upset about the betrothal after all this time?"

Majda snorted. "Hardly. He never wanted to marry her."

"Then why do you mention it?"

"Because he said almost exactly the same thing after she broke the betrothal. Except not that sentence about having to go."

"Has he ever talked about leaving?"

Majda waved her hand. "He never says much, just male talk. Inconsequentials."

I could already see plenty of reasons why Dayjarind Majda might run off, but I doubted it would be politic to mention them. So I said only, "General Majda, if he can be found, I'll do it."

"No measure is too extreme, Major." She leaned forward. "Whatever you need, we will provide."

Copyright © 2011 by Catherine Asaro


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