|Series:||The Saga of the Skolian Empire: Book 1|
|Sub-Genre Tags:||Space Opera|
|Avg Member Rating:||
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.
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 strolled among 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.
Copyright © 1995 by Catherine Asaro
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