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Authors: Catherine Asaro

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Primary Inversion (Saga of the Skolian Empire) Paperback

BOOK: Primary Inversion (Saga of the Skolian Empire) Paperback
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Primary Inversion

Skolian Empire, Book 1

Catherine Asaro

1995

 

 

 

Contents
Part
I: Delos

Island of Sanctuary

Tams Station

Psibernaut

Lucifer’s Legacy

Denials

Zabo Squad

Aftermath

Part
II: Forshires Hold

A Time to Search

A Time to Weep

A Time to Heal

A Time to Speak

A Time to Plant

Part
III: Diesha

Fist of the Web

Mind of the Web

Chains and Silk

Heart of the Web

Until Tomorrow

I. Delos
1. 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 the 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 nanosized 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 they 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; “heartbender” 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 the conversation. My pulse and breathing had speeded up, and
sweat gathered 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 the
icons on a computer, except that psicons appeared in the 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 the 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:

Transfer

Block

Exit

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 the routine; the node
would show me every step it followed to execute my Block command. Usually the
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 them 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.”

“Me too.”

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.

Traders.

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 that,
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.

BOOK: Primary Inversion (Saga of the Skolian Empire) Paperback
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