Skyfall

Saga of the Skolian Empire (Volume 9 of 11)

Catherine Asaro

Tor Science Fiction


1
 
Roca
 
Her son was going to start a war.
Roca paced in the starport lobby, trying to ignore the hail that battered the glass wall to her left. Outside, a storm raged in the night. She felt like raging herself. She had eluded her bodyguards and escaped their trap, only to be caught on this backwater world by something as absurd as the weather. Most ports could easily operate under such conditions, but this one gave new meaning to the word “dilapidated.” All ships were grounded until the storm cleared. If she could have used normal travel lines, she wouldn’t have had to come through here, but the same modernization that made most ports so convenient also made it that much easier for Kurj’s guards to catch her.
Kurj.
Her son.
Roca stopped at the window and pressed her palms against the glass as she stared into the storm. Its driving force reminded her of Kurj. Strangers often assumed he was her uncle or a much older brother, but in fact he was her firstborn son, her sole child. Although he was only thirty-five, he had already become a modern-day warlord, commander of the J-Force in the military. He had earned his rank by being the smartest, hardest, most versatile pilot in the J-Force. Roca had no doubt he did his job well, but neither the ambition nor the aggression that drove him were moderated by the wisdom of age.
Restless, she paced to a waist-high column with a holo above it that listed departures. No ships were leaving, not even freighters. The reports scrolling below the display predicted the storm would last for days. She couldn’t believe that, in this progressive age, such an ancient problem could stop a port from sending out vessels.
Thunder cracked and a burst of rain pounded the window-wall behind her, as if to mock her thoughts. Frustrated, she crossed her arms. She had to get off this world. Soon. If her layover lasted much longer, she would miss the upcoming session of the Assembly. Her presence there shouldn’t have mattered; Kurj had her proxy to cast her votes.
But it did matter.
In this session, the Assembly would vote on whether or not to invade the Platinum Sectors. Roca’s people claimed that region in space, which abounded with ore-rich asteroids, but the Eubian Traders had taken control of it and refused to negotiate.
Roca wished now she had stayed on Parthonia, the world where the Assembly met. But it hadn’t been unusual when she received an invitation to the inauguration of a premier on the world Irendela. As Foreign Affairs Councilor, she often represented the Assembly at such events. This wasn’t the first time she had asked Kurj to cast her votes; he attended almost every session, more than her parents even, and though she and Kurj didn’t agree on some issues, she had always trusted him. He was, after all, her son.
She wasn’t certain what had made her suspect Kurj arranged the invitation so she would miss the upcoming Assembly session. She had no reason to believe he could have foreseen that the Irendela premier would request Roca stay longer to help mediate a political dispute. Whatever spurred her intuition, she had delved deeper into the tangle of links between Irendela and Parthonia. Her son had left no hard evidence, but she recognized his methods; he had deliberately manipulated events on Irendela to delay her return. He wanted her to miss the Assembly session because he intended to cast her votes for instead of against the invasion. To cast them herself, she had to appear in person; Kurj could block any web signal she used. And with the ballot so close, her votes could be the deciding factor.
Now, after all her work to escape Irendela, she was stuck. How could it be that she lived in one of the greatest interstellar civilizations ever known and she couldn’t find a single ship out of here? If she didn’t reach the Assembly in time, her son would start a war their people could never win.
Lost in thought, Roca just barely noticed the man headed toward her, his gaze downcast, his manner preoccupied. In the same instant she dodged out of his path, he looked up, saw her, and jumped to the side. They ran smack into each other.
Roca stumbled back, her face heating. “My apologies.”
The man stared at her, a flush spreading across his face. “I’m terribly sorry.”
She managed to smile. “Please don’t be.”
He cleared his throat. “I’m always clumsy around gorgeous women.” Then he winced at his own words.
Roca shifted her weight. “Thank you.” She knew she sounded chilly, but she had never been good at moderating her tone when she felt ill-at-ease. Alone here, with no bodyguards, she had lost the sense of emotional insulation she usually experienced.
However, she was also an empath. The fellow’s mood was so strong, it came through the mental barriers she raised to protect her thoughts and respect the privacy of others. He felt mortified by his statement, convinced he sounded like an idiot.
“It’s all right,” she added, trying for more warmth.
He hesitated. “You look familiar. Do you act in holovids?”
Roca answered quickly. “I used to be a dancer.” She hoped he hadn’t realized her actual identity. Although it wasn’t a secret, she preferred it kept quiet. Now, on her own, she particularly didn’t want to be recognized. But perhaps her assumed identity as a performer would sidetrack him.
“The Parthonia Royal Ballet!” He snapped his fingers. “Of course. I saw you in Harvest of Light. You’re Celina Lesson.”
It took her a moment to recognize his pronunciation of her pseudonym, Cya Liessa. Then relief flowed over her. “Yes, I did Harvest of Light a few years ago.”
“Excellent.” He peered at her. “Do you know, I’ve never seen any thing like that metallic gold color of your hair and eyes. In the performance, I thought it was makeup. But it’s real.”
Roca flushed. “Yes. It is real.”
“Amazing!” He beamed at her. “I’m glad to have met you.”
“You are kind, sir.” She tried not to sound stiff.
After they parted, Roca breathed more easily. It felt odd to speak with a stranger; her bodyguards usually formed a bulwark separating her from the rest of humanity. Nor did she perform much now. She had to conserve her energy. She still had her youth; top-of-the-line nanomeds in her body delayed her aging, making her look twenty, though she was in her fifties. But the constraints on her life imposed by her duties as an Assembly Councilor left little time or energy for other pursuits.
She wasn’t going to be performing any duties, political or otherwise, if she didn’t reach Parthonia in time. More determined than ever, she went to a row of consoles against one wall. She took her ID chip out of a pocket in her jumpsuit and slid the small disk into a console. The holo of a pleasant-looking woman appeared above a horizontal screen, though the grainy quality of the image washed out details.
“Good evening,” the fuzzy holo said. “What can I do for you?”
Roca squinted at it. “I need a flight out of this starport. As soon as possible. Now, in fact.”
“I am sorry, Gentlewoman Liessa.” The holo simulated regret. “No ships can leave the port.”
“Surely you can manage something.”
“I am sorry. No ships can leave the port.”
“I would like to speak to a person.”
“I will forward your request.”
Roca knew what that meant; they would file and forget it. Right now, the port authorities probably had hundreds of such requests, as stranded travelers scrambled to make arrangements.
“Run code I4DE,” she told the holo. It would find 14DE on her ID chip. Nice code, that. It could crack open the port security and erase the record of her inquiries.
As the holo vanished, a neutral voice said, “Cleanup done.”
Roca retrieved her chip, then glanced around to make sure no one could overhear. Seeing she was alone, she turned back to the console and inserted a new ID chip. The holo reappeared—and bowed. “My honor at your presence, Your Highness.”
“My greetings,” Roca said. “I would like to meet with the person who schedules outgoing ships.”
“One moment, please.” After a great deal more than one moment, the holo said, “Director Vammond can see you. His assistant will meet you in the lobby. Look for a tallbot.”
“Thank you.”
“You are welcome, Your Highness. Can we do anything else for you?”
“No, that’s all.” Relieved, Roca erased her interaction with the system and pocketed her chip.
A humanoid robot was approaching from across the lobby, its body scuffed and dented. When it reached her, it bowed. “Please come with me.” Its voice had no inflection.
They headed into a nearby corridor, the tallbot walking slowly at her side, its joints creaking. Roca sincerely hoped the ships in Director Vammond’s port were in better condition than his assistants.
* * *
Vammond greeted Roca in an office barely big enough for the two of them. Consoles and shelves crammed it. He was standing behind a table covered with light-pens, palmtops, thread-cable, and machine parts. Gray streaked his brown hair, and he carried far more weight around his middle than would someone who could afford the treatments that kept people thin regardless of what they ate.
He bowed to Roca as the tallbot held the door open for her. “You honor my humble port with your presence, Lady.”
“Thank you, Director Vammond.” Roca heard the coolness in her voice. It wasn’t what she intended, but she felt too tense to add more warmth.
He waved ruefully at the clutter. “I would offer you a chair, but I’m afraid I have no place to put one.”
“Please don’t worry.” She waited until the tallbot closed the door, leaving her and Vammond in private. “Director, I would rather my identity remain confidential.”
“Certainly.” He hesitated. “I wouldn’t have expected you to be traveling alone.”
Roca felt the tickling in her throat that came when she was afraid. She shouldn’t be traveling alone. She tried to project a lack of concern. “It isn’t unusual, given how closely my staff monitors my itinerary.” In fact, no one had any idea where she had gone. It was the only way to prevent Kurj from tracking her. His intelligence network spread across the Skolian Imperialate. She dreaded what he would do when he found out she had escaped his guards, but she was damned if he was going to manipulate her into letting him start a war.
Vammond didn’t press the matter. He beckoned her to his console, moving aside so she could read the screen. “I think we can do something for you.”
* * *
Roca ran to the freighter through torrential rain. The ship was in a remote location with no covered walkways or robot sleeves to take her to its hatch. Rusted equipment had blocked the magcar that brought her here. She didn’t care. It mattered only that she had a way off this planet.
The freighter had no stairs for boarding. She hurried up a pitted ramp, but it ended a meter below the hatchway. Someone reached out of the hatch. Unable to see clearly in the rain, Roca grabbed the offered hand, and its owner hauled her into the ship. She stumbled forward, rain cascading off her jumpsuit. She didn’t even have a jacket. Her hair had tumbled out of its roll and fell in heavy, soaking lengths to below her hips, plastered against her body.
“You’re getting my deck wet,” an irritated voice said.
Wiping rain out of her eyes, Roca peered at the person who had pulled her up, the captain apparently, since this freighter had no other crew or passengers. From the voice, she had expected a man, but it was a woman—a brawny, weathered, annoyed woman. Half a head larger than Roca, she stood over six feet tall. She wore her blond hair in a spiky cut, and her faded coveralls looked even older than her beat-up ship.
Roca pushed back her streaming hair. “My greetings. And my apologies for the mess.”
The captain didn’t crack a smile. “Right.” She grabbed Roca’s arm and hauled her into the bridge, though that seemed a generous description. The pilot’s and copilot’s chairs were crammed in the front, facing screens that had seen better days. Equipment covered the walls, obviously scavenged from other ships and cobbled together.
The captain shoved her toward the copilot’s seat. “Strap in. We’re leaving.”
“Welcome to you, too,” Roca muttered.
“Listen, honey.” The captain looked her over as if Roca were an overpriced piece of equipment. “I don’t know who you are, and I don’t care who you fucked to get this favor. I’m taking you for one reason and one reason only; it gets me out of this hellhole. Don’t expect special treatment here.”
Roca stared at her, water dripping off her body. “I didn’t have sex with anyone.” She took a breath, reminding herself she needed this person’s goodwill to reach the next port. “And I appreciate your willingness to take me.”
The captain jerked her hand at the copilot’s chair. “We won’t be going anywhere if you don’t strap in.”
Roca bit back her tart response and squeezed into the seat. It took her several embarrassing moments to figure out what to do; this seat had none of the aides or automatic functions she took for granted on her yacht. She had to pull the safety webbing around her body and fasten it herself.
The captain wedged into her own chair and began her preflight checks. She seemed intent on her controls, but she spoke as if she had seen Roca’s every move. “Haven’t you ever strapped in before?”
Roca flushed. “Of course.”
The other woman snorted. “You ready to go?”
“Yes.” In truth, Roca didn’t want to go anywhere in this ship. It was a wonder it continued to operate. But the captain had been willing to take off even knowing the weather blinded the port’s outdated and poorly maintained safety systems. The freighter could take her to Skyfall, a backwater world in the hinterlands of settled space. Two days later, a supply shuttle was scheduled to put in to Skyfall. That ship would take her to Metropoli, one of the most heavily populated worlds of the Imperialate. From there, she could catch a flight to Parthonia, where the Assembly met.
Skyfall. Roca had never heard of it. Neither, it seemed, had anyone else. She and Vammond had been unable to dig up much about the planet except a schedule for the supply shuttle.
Unexpectedly, the captain grinned. It made her look like a predator. “We’re off.”
Roca managed a smile. “Great.”
As the launch sequence started, Roca waited for the tower to give them clearance. When it remained silent, she tensed. From what she understood, the captain barely had time to make this side trip to Skyfall and still rendezvous with the buyers for her cargo. Any delays, and she might cancel the trip to Skyfall. Roca was desperate enough to buy the cargo herself or commandeer this craft, but that meant she would either have to access her personal funds or else convince the captain she had authority to take the ship. Either would require revealing too much about herself, a risky proposition that left her open to trouble, including kidnapping and assassination.
Roca could see the captain preparing to lift off. Hopeful, she said, “Has the tower cleared us?”
The other woman continued to concentrate on her controls. “What, are you a copilot now?”
“It’s important we leave on time.”
The captain glanced at her. “I’m not your servant, girl.”
Roca stiffened. “It isn’t necessary to be insulting.”
The captain’s voice fell into an exaggerated parody of Roca’s lotic accent. “Oh, well, do please hurry. I must be waited on and catered to.”
Roca stared at her. “Why are you so angry?”
“We’re leaving.” The captain pulled on the stick. “Now shut up and let me do my job.” The engines roared and—and the ship leapt off the tarmac into the pounding storm.
Roca had traveled all her life, but she had never experienced such a takeoff. G-forces slammed her into the seat, which had minimal cushioning and no smart-sensors to protect her body. She could barely breathe. The pressure seemed to go on forever, until spots danced in her vision and she wondered if she would suffocate.
The pressure stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Grateful, Roca gulped in air.
“You all right?” the captain asked.
Roca took a shuddering breath. “Yes. I am fine.”
“Gods almighty.” The captain made an incredulous noise. “You sound arrogant even when you’re gasping.”
“I don’t understand why you are angry.”
The captain remained intent on her controls. After a long silence, Roca tried again. “Did the port clear us for takeoff?”
The captain was reading a holoscreen above her head. “No.”
Roca clenched the arms of her seat. “It’s illegal to take off without clearance.”
“Well, isn’t that a shame.”
The last thing Roca needed was to end up in legal custody. “You can’t just break the law.”
The captain jerked around to her. “Listen, rich girl. You wanted out of that port. We left even though they couldn’t ensure our safety. That’s breaking the law, honey. You think they’re going to give us clearance and implicate themselves?”
“Oh.” That made sense. “I see.”
“Good for you. Now shut up.”
Roca scowled. “Just think, if I hadn’t put you to such inconvenience, you could have stayed in that lovely port, no doubt for days.”
To her surprise, the captain laughed. “Got some spunk in you, eh?”
Roca was too annoyed to answer.
They fell quiet after that, the other woman intent on her controls. For all its decrepitude, the ship worked amazingly well. Roca had to admit the captain knew what she was doing.
“You’ve a good ship,” Roca finally said.
“She goes.” The captain sat back in her seat. “Probably nothing like what you’re used to.”
“It isn’t polish that makes a ship valuable.” Roca thought of her son’s Jag starfighter, what many had called the fastest, deadliest, most aggressive craft in the J-Force. “It’s the character it develops after years with the same pilot.”
The captain considered her. “I wouldn’t have expected that from you.”
“Why?”
She shrugged. “You don’t seem the type to notice old drums like this.”
An alarm blared, warning of a malfunction. The captain immediately turned her attention to jury-rigging a repair. Sitting back, Roca silently urged fate to let her survive this trip. She was uneasy enough to lower her mental barriers and let the captain’s mood wash over her. Normally Roca recoiled from opening her mind so much; it exposed her to mental injury and trespassed on the privacy of others. As much as she disliked it now, too much depended on the success of this mission for her to take chances in her judgment of the captain’s intentions.
Her companion wasn’t a psion of any strength, so it was hard to pick up much, but a sense of her thoughts came through. She resented Roca but would honor her word. She believed the cover that Director Vammond had created to protect Roca’s identity. Roca flushed, already knowing the story; Vammond had described her as a runaway wife who had tired of her aging but wealthy husband and wanted to see her lover. It was a dismal tale, but if it helped her reach the Assembly in time, she could live with it.
Roca thought of her first husband, Tokaba Ryestar, an explorer who had scouted new worlds. Her parents had arranged the marriage in her youth. Roca resisted it at first, but she and Tokaba had soon discovered they suited each other. Kurj’s birth overjoyed them. For the next six years they had lived a contented life.
Then tragedy hit, when Tokaba’s ship crashed on a world he was exploring. Roca had never forgotten the devastating night they brought his body home. Nor had Kurj; at the age of six, a bewildered, heartbroken child had lost his beloved father to a violent death the boy couldn’t understand.
It had taken a long time to recover, but eventually, several years later, Roca had remarried, this time choosing for herself. Darr Hammerjackson had been handsome and charming, everything a lonely widow could want. Roca swore to love him forever, certain she and Kurj had found an end to the loneliness.
The first time Darr had hit her, she hadn’t believed he meant it. She learned the hard way how wrong she had been. Roca flinched at the memory, the flash of his hand, his incomprehensible fury. The impact of his rage on her mind had been even more debilitating than the blows. But Ruby Dynasty heirs didn’t divorce. No public disgraces were allowed; they kept their private hells out of sight. In private, she had done everything she could to stop the violence, and when nothing worked, she had tried for over a year to accommodate the nightmare.
Then he had beaten Kurj.
That night, Roca had taken her nine-year-old son and left Darr. Nothing swayed her: no excuses, no promises, no threats. No one—no one—hit her son. She began legal proceedings the next day. In the years after, as she had recovered her sense of self-worth, she came to realize she should have protected herself with the same ferocity she protected her child, regardless of what five millennia of tradition dictated about the behavior of Ruby heirs.
Kurj had never revealed what Darr said to him that day, when the two of them fought. But it had changed her son. And that was only the beginning. As a Jag pilot, he had lived far too many horrors in the constant, undeclared shadow war between the Skolian Imperialate and the Eubian Traders. Over the years it had turned him into a hardened stranger. Now he was a phenomenon, the towering warrior prince respected by his officers, admired by women, and feared by many. But beneath his square-jawed, golden exterior, his rage festered, threatening to explode. In that, he had become like Darr, with an outward self-possession that hid his seething anger.
Roca exhaled. Dwelling on the past would help nothing. This looming threat of all-out war was insanity. Kurj was wrong if he believed they could win. He knew what they risked—and he welcomed that specter. If her son couldn’t defeat his inner demons, he would expend his fury leading two empires into a star-spanning conflict that would tear them apart.
 
Copyright © 2003 by Catherine Asaro