Part Six* * *
“Ladies and Gentlemen, if I might have your attention.”
The susurrus of conversation quickly died down. Ling turned from LiShen and faced the front of the room, where Senator Lawton Yount was rather indecorously standing on a chair. Tilde Station was lacking in spaces large enough for what was almost the entire Federacy delegation (minus various guards and other personnel) to meet in; they were presently packed into the station control room. Ling was trying not to accidentally bump any of the instrument panels to her left. Station Commander Inokwo was trying hard to keep the pained expression off of his face every time someone leaned on a terminal.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Yount repeated. “Thank you.”
He cleared his throat. “I will get right to the meat of the matter. The Sthil have expressed a wish, wrapped around a demand, that they be allowed to play at hosts. Which is to say, they want us to pay evening social calls upon them, as well as vice-versa.”
He looked around. “As you know, our policy has been to not enter the Sthil portions of Tilde Station, nor to enter the Heart of Steel. It appears that our policy will have to change.
“I have met with the representatives from each of your worlds. We have decided upon the ground rules for these engagements.”
A finger went up. “First—no one is to enter the Sthil areas of the station without authorization from their own delegation and from the Federacy diplomatic working council.” A second finger. “No one is to enter the Sthil areas of the station without having placed their engagement upon the shared calendar for at least thirty-six hours ahead of time.”
He paused a moment. “Four,” he said, “will be the minimum number of Federacy personnel to attend any meeting in the Sthil areas of the station. And finally, Federacy personnel are to remain within sight of each other at all times. Any, I say any, deviation from this rule—or any of these rules—must be reported immediately.
“Folks... I know it’s been a long couple of weeks. I know, as well as anyone, how stupidly boring these meetings have been. So far we have no reason to believe our counterparts to be anything but well-behaved if senseless pawns of straight-talking masters.”
He swayed a bit on the chair as he raised his voice. “But do not forget. These are our enemies. Do not like them. Do not trust them. And do not let your guard down for one single second. We do not know what their game is—but they are playing one, of that you can be certain. They began this entire operation by demanding five hundred of our citizens, why we do not know but for what fate I daresay we can all guess. We are here because we must be here. What we bring back from this meeting, the knowledge that we gain here, may be the salvation of our peoples.”
Yount cleared his throat again. “Do not relax. Do not forget who you are speaking to, the puppetmasters behind those smiles. Be. Vigilant.
“Thank you,” he said, and stepped down from the chair.
The volume in the room began to rise again immediately, as people resumed their conversations and rose to make their way towards the room’s exits.
“Old guy can speak,” LiShen whispered to Ling.
“That’s why he’s a senator,” Ling replied. Lady Li-Hwa was a couple of meters away, speaking with Negotiator Tulolo from Terril. Between her and the guards, Noor and Bolin looked around patiently; WuFei had stayed behind to watch the Penyang delegation’s quarters.
“What to you think it’ll be like on the Heart of Steel?” LiShen asked. “Slime and egg pods?”
Ling snorted. “I suspect it will be very similar to the way the Heart of Steel has been for the last decade, barring battle repairs. There’s no sign of any xenos among them, so why would they have changed anything?”
“Maybe the obedience lobes go back into the pods when they’re not using them,” LiShen proposed. Ling rolled her eyes.
Li-Hwa was seated on a cushion as Ling entered her chamber.
“You desired me, my Lady?”
Li-Hwa smiled. “Yes. Please, sit.”
Ling placed herself gently on the cushion opposite. She inhaled consciously, exhaled slowly. Jasmine and lavender began to soften the tension she had not even realized she was carrying in her back.
“What can you share with me about the findings of Corvette-Captain Toligiani?”
Ling nodded. It was a question she had already considered. “I will share everything, my Lady. The Corvette-Captain has had brain scans conducted, surreptitiously, of the Sthil representatives. They do indeed appear to have new... organs, as part of their brains.”
“So, the obedience lobes are quite literal.”
“Thus it appears, my Lady. The lobes are... probably the largest thing in their brains, now. Entirely organic, human flesh.”
Li-Hwa let her eyes rise to a decorative wall scroll. “Interesting. What else?”
“Toligiani awaits further orders. The brainscans are being analyzed by Common Security. When they direct further action, the Corvette-Captain will inform us.”
“I see.” Li-Hwa closed her eyes. A moment passed. “Has the Corvette-Captain said anything about removing them?”
Ling blinked. “Removing them?”
“Indeed. If their slavery is bound up in these lobes, perhaps it can be reversed if the implant is excised. Our medical science is advanced.”
“True, my Lady. And yet... the obedience lobe has partly replaced the pre-existing brain. I... I don’t know. If it can be removed.”
“Ah. Well, I shall indulge in hope.”
The Lady had not opened her eyes, and Ling let her own close. She smoothed out her breathing, felt her pulse even and slow. She did not think of obedience lobes, or Mary, or Suren, or the glistening crest atop slave shuu’s head...
“We are to visit the Heart of Steel, the day after tomorrow. Enter the enemies’ lair. Eat their food, drink their drink.”
“Do you think, my loyal guard, that we will be in danger?”
Ling kept her eyes closed and turned her thoughts further inward. The room vanished, her own body vanished. There was only the question. Would the Sthil... do something?
Ling opened her eyes. “I don’t think so. We are sending messenger drones back to the Federacy almost constantly. Were any of us to disappear, it would become immediately apparent.”
“And if they wish to force these brain implants on us?”
“It would be even more apparent. Aside from which, Toligiani’s analysis was that the lobes take some time to grow. Much more time than dinner, even a potential boredom feast such as the Sthil may throw, would allow for. So no, I see no reason to worry. They can do nothing to us that would not be apparent upon our return; and if they simply wanted us as slaves nothing would stop them simply overrunning us all here.”
Li-Hwa nodded. “And you feel that the Sthil would come to a similar analysis?”
It was unnecessary to consider that question for long. “I don’t know, my Lady. That I cannot guess.”
The slaves were already waiting.
It was a deliberate choice on Lady Li-Hwa’s part to not arrive at the same time to each meeting. Sometimes they were early, sometimes a few moments late. Thus far it had not seemed to matter to slave shuu and her colleagues, but that in and of itself was, as Li-Hwa observed, information.
Ling stepped to the left of the door this time, and LiShen to the right. She took her attention stance, let her eyes drift around the room. The three slaves were already watching Li-Hwa, their eyes emotionless.
Yet again, Ling’s eyes finally settled on the unnamed female slave’s head. On her obedience lobe. How long had it taken to grow? What, precisely, had been removed, to make room for it?
Perhaps Ling would find out.
The thought sent a shiver through her body and Ling was surprised at how good it felt. How perverse. Why would she get aroused at the thought of becoming a slave? Not just collared but physically enslaved, her brain melted and filled with a new organ, dedicated to obedience. Transformed into a new, enslaved person...
Ling realized that she was not paying attention, letting her mind wander—but of course that was perfectly fine. It would have been impossible for her to concentrate on the negotiation session anyway. Only natural she should allow her mind to drift away.
Yes, let her mind drift away.
All was as it should be.
Ling was in a small room.
The lights were low—relaxing, but bright enough that she need not strain to see. A woman stood in front of her, a very attractive woman.
The woman was nude.
Ling found her own head slowly lowering so that she could look at the woman’s shiny, honey-colored breasts, with smooth teak nipples that Ling would have sucked on, were she awake.
But this was a dream.
A very pleasant dream.
There was a cleft further down, bald, the darker flesh of pudenda barely visible below it, but Ling let her gaze travel back up to the woman’s face. Very pretty, beautiful, with full lips, a small nose, and dark, dark eyes.
The dark eyes were staring at Ling in a way she could only describe as mindless. No thought was active behind them. The woman saw Ling, but thought nothing.
Ling’s own eyes—also black-pearl dark—looked much the same, she somehow knew, and the thought made Ling smile.
Mindlessness was correct.
Obedience was correct.
Obedience. It was what Ling was made for. To obey. Her purpose.
The woman blinked and a self awoke within her eyes. The corners of her lips rose almost imperceptibly.
“Subject ling,” she said in a musical voice. “Turn and seat yourself in the reprogramming chair.”
Obedience was Ling’s purpose.
Slowly—this was a dream after all, a very pleasant dream—Ling turned around. There was the reprogramming chair, very much like a medical examination chair, only with more tubes and wires and strange attachments. Examining them, understanding them, was unnecessary and irrelevant. Ling knew what they were for.
To enslave her.
It was why she was here. To perfect her obedience. It was what Ling was made for.
To obey was her purpose.
She obeyed, stepping to the chair and turning herself down into it. The seat was cool under her bare buttocks and Ling recognized the fact of her own nudity. She eased her back down to the surface of the chair, then slowly raised her legs onto the stirrups on either side. Then she lifted her arms to either side of her head and slid them behind the upright armpads. It was a strange position, as though she were surrendering—then again, perhaps that was correct.
Ling was indeed surrendering.
As she should. To surrender, and obey, was her purpose.
The nude woman moved slowly around Ling. She closed cuffs around Ling’s wrists and Ling’s ankles with gentle clicks. Then she took up a series of thin tubes, each terminating in a needle.
The woman slid a needle into Ling’s arm, and smoothly applied tape to hold it in place. Another needle went into her other arm, and then one into the interior of her thigh. Ling’s pussy fluttered hot at the nearness of the woman’s attention.
Another needle slid into Ling’s other thigh and Ling failed to stifle her soft groan. The blank-eyed woman’s lips curled up fractionally. But as she raised her gaze to catch Ling’s, there was only obedience in her eyes.
To obey was the woman’s purpose, as it was Ling’s. The reprogramming chair would ensure that Ling obeyed as well as the nameless, beautiful woman.
“Subject ling,” the woman said in a melodic, monotone voice. “You will now undergo further reprogramming. When conscious, you will assist the reprogramming. Obedience is your purpose. You are made to obey.”
“Obedience is my purpose,” Ling echoed. “I am made to obey.”
The woman reached up and lowered a visor over Ling’s face. It was dark at first, then slowly Ling could see color, faint swirling colors. They pulled her eyes this way and that, and Ling relaxed and let them control her vision. Dimly, she was aware of soft noise in her ears.
Something prodded gently at her mouth, and Ling parted her lips to admit a tube, which was then taped in place. Something warm and wet seeped onto her tongue and Ling sucked it down placidly.
Then fingertips on her labia, and Ling moaned; something slick and gelatinous was being rubbed around—and then into—her sex. She felt her hips twitch upward involuntarily.
Ling was losing consciousness now, though her eyes still followed the swirling colors. Something was slowly being pushed upwards into her pussy, and Ling felt her mouth fall open as she panted in response to its presence, the tape across her lower lip keeping the small mouth tube in place. Deeper and deeper it pushed, and Ling groaned as it stretched places deep inside her, until an orgasm came and she felt her body trembling uncontrollably and then her mind gently went blank.
Ling was covered in sweat.
She looked up at herself, and grunted as she pivoted her arms once more up to horizontal. Her tight workout top was dark with sweat, her shorts had dark bands down the front of her thighs.
She had set the vidwalls in the small exercise room to mirror; no one else was working out at the moment and she liked to admire her own body as she lifted weights. A bit narcissistic, to be certain, but also a good motivator—if she liked the way she looked when she worked out, she’d work out more often.
Stray strands of white-blond hair clung to Ling’s face; the ponytail she had swept it into lay limp down the center of her back.
Ii Lao exclave primitive was playing on the sound system, rapid thumping beats and multi-vocal syncopation, two men and two women singing something about how society did not understand their love. Ling clenched her teeth and swung the grips up again.
The grips were attached to flat plates, weighing almost nothing themselves but providing a supremely localized boost to the station’s artificial gravity; right now they were set to fourteen kilograms. Ling lowered them, then lifted them again. The overhead lights glinted off her bulging shoulders.
The door chimed.
“Yes?” Ling grunted, lifting the grips again.
With a soft hiss, the door slid open. A tall, dark-skinned woman dressed in loose pants and a tight halter top stepped in. She smiled, pearl-white teeth flashing between glossy teak lips.
“Suren,” Ling acknowledged. She swung her arms up.
“You,” Suren replied, walking around a pair of exercise benches, her eyes roaming across Ling’s body, “are soaking wet. I don’t know whether to be impressed or slightly appalled.”
“Impressed,” Ling said. She lowered the grips to her sides, and slowly flexed her trapezius up and down.
“Oh, I am,” Suren acknowledged. She reached out to run fingers across Ling’s flexing shoulders. “Very impressed.”
Ling shivered, and bent over to set the grips on a low shelf that ran along the wall. She rolled her neck as she leaned back up and turned to face the Anherabadi.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“Oh, I heard from LiShen that you were here working out, and it seemed like a good idea. I thought that I also might come and work out.” Looking just slightly down at Ling, Suren took a step closer. “Unless... you were amenable to a different form of exercise.”
Ling felt her nipples pushing forward in her tight exercise top.
“That sounds... appealing,” she said, and opened her mouth to receive Suren’s as it pressed onto her.
She ran her hands up and down Suren’s back. Suren’s tongue pushed into her mouth and Ling circled it with her own, as their lips sucked lightly at each other.
After a moment, Ling took a half-step back. “Mm. Wow. Probably best if we don’t go further here.”
“My place is available,” Suren said, her eyes glossy with desire.
“That’s... good,” Ling said. She turned around and went to fetch her gym bag, took out a towel as she picked it up. As she turned around again, she snorted. There were two round wet spots on the front of Suren’s halter top.
Suren saw her gaze and looked down. “Oh,” she said.
“I think it’s evident what sort of exercise you’ve been having,” Ling teased.
“Clearly I need to get out of my clothes,” Suren replied.
“Clearly you do,” Ling echoed. “I’ll help.”
“Oh, goodie,” Suren said, and started toward the door.
For a moment, Ling wondered why she was so... horny. Almost constantly, it seemed. ‘Close Fraternization’ wasn’t uncommon—sometimes it was downright frequent—during diplomatic missions, but this business of almost daily sex with multiple partners was unusual for her, almost unprofessional.
Suren paused in the doorway. “Coming?”
Ling discarded her introspection. “You will be,” she said, and followed Suren out.
“Close the door,” Toligiani said.
Ling stepped into the small meeting room and pulled the door shut behind her.
“Go ahead and have a seat,” the dark-haired woman said, gesturing with one hand as she leaned over a small, rounded device. “The room should be secure in a moment.”
No one else was in the room. Ling pulled back a chair and sat down. She was clean, having finally gotten to the showertube back in the Penyang delegation quarters. She had showered once in the Anherabadi facility, but then she and Suren had somehow wound up in bed again and undid that particular bout of cleanliness.
What was going on with her libido? Was it the stress? The boredom?
Ling realized that Toligiani was looking at her.
“Sorry, lost in thought,” Ling said.
The other woman sat down opposite her. “So. Tonight you’re entering the belly of the beast.”
Ling raised a pale eyebrow. “That’s rather dramatic, don’t you think? The Heart of Steel is hardly an unknown quantity, and if the Sthil wanted to enslave us outright there’s frankly not much we could do. No need to take us on board one delegation at a time.”
“Right.” The Corvette-Captain steepled her fingers. “But... if they wanted to secretly enslave you, this might be their opportunity.”
“Secretly enslave us?” Ling asked.
Toligiani nodded slowly. “I think it’s time you heard my theory. Our theory.”
Ling suddenly felt cold.
“Obedience lobes,” the agent began. “We’ve seen them now. We know what they look like. But here’s the question: Do they all look like that?”
Toligiani was pacing back and forth in the small space. “Do those lobes have to be that size, that shape? Is it necessary that they bulge up into a big ridge down the middle of the skull? Or... can they be smaller?”
Ling’s brow furrowed. “What are you saying?”
“We think... we think the Sthil are playing a shell game,” Toligiani replied. “A skull game, if you will. They show us their slaves’ bald heads, those disturbingly prominent long ridges. They call them ‘obedience lobes’, tell us directly that those things are what control their minds. Outright, they just... tell us, that it’s the obedience lobes that made them into slaves.
“And yes, there are brain implants there which have turned these people into eager-puppy slaves. Clearly. We’ve seen them. But neither I nor Common Security believe that all Sthil brain implants are necessarily so large or so obvious.”
“I see where you’re taking this.” Ling said.
Toligiani looked into Ling’s eyes. “We think that some brain implants can be secret. We think that the Sthil may have invited us here so that they can infiltrate the Federacy with mind-controlled agents. Humans who have been implanted with these hidden obedience lobes. Outwardly normal humans who are now obedient drones, just like Navarre and her crew, and will do anything to advance their masters’ agenda. And we think—I think—that you are in danger of being implanted with these when you go on board that ship tonight.”
Ling stared at her. It made sense. How had she not seen it?
“So what, then?” she asked. “Don’t go?”
“That’s not an option, unfortunately. The delegation as a whole cannot refuse, the Sthil would call this all off. But. A couple things.”
Toligiani raised fingers. “First, never let yourself or anyone be taken off alone. Yount gave you great advice.”
“You had a hand in that?”
“No comment. So; stay together, at all times. You need to be able to see everyone.”
“What if they just... implant us all?”
“That’s the second thing. I’m going to scan your brain.”
“Right now. I’m going to scan your brain. If you come back with an obedience lobe, even a hidden one, I’ll know. The rest of your delegation... I don’t think I can get them scanned before you go, but for tonight if you can keep them all in sight all the time, it won’t matter. And then you will need to scan them as soon as possible.”
Ling steepled her fingers, raised them to her face. “If they do get me, I’ll probably tell them about you and your scans.”
“Doesn’t matter. Even if you tell them, you won’t be able to hide what’s happened.”
The hair on Ling’s arms was erect. Suddenly—although the hidden obedience lobes were still purely hypothetical—Ling was once again afraid of the Sthil.
Was that what they were planning? To secretly implant the whole delegation? It seemed both terrifyingly real and yet somehow... implausible. Ling turned it over in her head.
If it were true, she might only have a few hours of free will left.
“So?” Toligiani demanded.
Ling looked at her, then nodded. “Yes. It makes sense. Go ahead and scan me; I’ll do what I can to watch the others.”
“After you get back I’ll reissue you some scanners, you can scan the others as soon as it’s feasible to do so in secret. Obviously you mustn’t tell them about this.”
Toligiani turned around, pointed at a gray patch of wall. She nodded at Ling. “Ok. We’re done.”
Ling leaned back in her chair for a moment. The sudden awareness of this possibility, the sudden sense of danger, was a weight. She let it settle onto her.
She could carry it.
Toligiani was looking at her. “Are you up for this?” she asked.
“Yes. I shall be totally vigilant,” Ling promised. “Is there anything you want me to take over there?”
“Just your eyes and ears. Write a report for Common Security when you return. Trivial details may be important to us, later on.”
“And... come back as you, okay?”
Ling gave a wry smile. “I shall do my best.”
They were in their best. Starched, blue-black uniforms. Decorations gleaming. Ramrod straight.
Ling was not worried. She had put aside worry.
She and LiShen waited in the corridor. A pair of Konstrova Guardsmen waited with them, dapper in their tan uniforms, but almost sloppy looking compared to the perfectly turned out women from Penyang.
Lady Li-Hwa appeared, and Ling permitted herself to inhale. She was radiant, a green silk dress that highlighted her skin perfectly, her hair ornately coiffed with ebony sticks placed just so, turquoise jewelry at wrists and neck.
Beside her, Ambassador Vadek. He was tall, his silver hair perfectly combed, his suit spotless. He smiled at Li-Hwa, gave a small bow, and turned to his men. A slight incline of his head, and they took their positions.
If they were going to their doom, they looked great doing so.
Ling and LiShen went first, glossy boots moving in unison. They were a matched set, uniforms the color of midnight, Ling’s pale hair contrasting with LiShen’s black. Behind them, Li-Hwa and Ambassador Vadek, dignified, important. And in the rear, the Konstrova Guardsmen, not so sharp as the Penyang women, but serious, armed men who knew how to handle themselves.
They moved quickly through the corridors; a trio of Ii Laoers got swiftly out of their way, heads turning to watch them pass.
The airlock was guarded at present by two men from Run-Ha-Lan. LiShen slipped a step out in front, saluted the guards, who returned her salute with wide, impressed eyes. One of them stepped to the side while the other spun the wheel and pulled the door open.
Their escort was already waiting for them. Ling recognized her—the tall, dark-skinned woman who had been prominent at the very first evening reception. She could not remember the woman’s name.
The woman bowed, the ridge atop her head glinting in the light.
LiShen went through the door first, looking pointedly to the left, then to the right. She stepped to the left and Ling went through after her. She was aware immediately of the Sthil guards to either side; they remained motionless as she turned to watch Lady Li-Hwa come through.
Only a moment later, the entire party was on the Sthil side, and the Run-Ha-Lanni were closing the door.
Ling looked hard at the guards for a moment. Both were women, and they were in combat armor; no helmets, but hardsuits from the neck down. And both... seemed odd, somehow. It wasn’t the obedience lobes crowning their bare heads, that was already almost normal. Ling realized it was because the women looked... ill. Dead, almost.
Their skin was almost blue.
But then they turned their heads in unison to look at the dark-skinned woman, who spoke.
“Welcome,” she said. “Thank you for coming. Your courtesy pleases my Masters. If you would follow me.”
She began to walk; Ling and LiShen took up positions behind her, flanking her, eyes moving, scanning the tunnel. The delegation followed, the Konstrovans once more taking the rear. The strange-looking Sthil guards remained at the airlock door.
“Where are we going?” Ambassador Vadek inquired.
“On board the slaveship Lith’in Hu-man. Once known as the Heart of Steel. slave sharon awaits you there.”
“Counsellor Navarre?” Li-Hwa asked. “Not former Captain Xiao?”
“slave shuu will also be present, but slave sharon wished to have the honor of entertaining the Lith’in Hu-man’s first Federacy guests.”
They hurried through corridors. Ling was fully combat-ready, nerves on edge, muscles taut, but they saw no other people.
“And you are Miss Helene Orolo, if I recall,” Vadek observed.
“Very good, Ambassador. i am slave helene. It would be... diplomatic were you to refer to us by our true names, as we are in Sthil territory.”
“That may not be possible,” Li-Hwa replied.
“i understand. i suspect my Masters will not hold it against you. Consider it a request; i know that slave sharon, as well as the rest of us, would think it as a compliment.”
The tunnel terminated in a small room, and here at last there were more people. Ling’s eyes widened a bit as she took them in. There were six of them: half men, half women, and they were all very definitely colored blue. Not flag blue, but a blue tint several shades past the hue of a drowned person.
Drowned, they were not; all six turned to face the arrivals. Four of them were in the same standard-issue combat hardsuits that the guards at the airlock wore.
Two of them were stark naked.
“Their color...” Ambassador Vadek said.
“This is the airlock to the Lith’in Hu-man,” slave helene observed, gesturing to a metal-framed opening on the far side of the room. “Oh, the guards. Yes, our Masters prefer their slaves to be... color-coded. An empire as great as Theirs contains many slave races, and denoting function by color has proven useful to Them. Combat-designated slaves of any race are denoted by a blue coloration. Hence, these slaves have been modified in the direction of the appropriate hue.”
The guards watched them blankly as the Federacy personnel walked slowly by.
Ling felt her heart beating faster. Humans, normal men and women, with dreams and desires and hobbies... now they were obedient drones, their flesh re-tinted to suit the whims of their xeno masters.
She passed the nude woman by less than a meter. She had been... close to human average, perhaps? Tan colored, black hair. A muscular, strong body—but perhaps that came after she was reprogrammed to serve as an obedient guard. Perhaps her body chemistry was altered for musculature at the same time as she was turned blue. Now her nipples were a glossy royal blue, her lips were the same—Ling realized she’d thought the airlock guards had been wearing lipstick—and her skin looked as though she had been washed in colored water. Her hair was still black, but her eyes... her eyes.
Her eyes were a pale white, with no irises at all.
Ling almost broke stride; only years of training kept her legs moving and her torso jerked awkwardly to keep up.
Then they were out of the room and into the long tunnel of the Heart of Steel’s docking ramp. Slave helene’s voice echoed off the metal walls.
“You are surprised to see our guards? Surely you did not think that obedience was the sole improvement our Masters have made to their slaves.”
Ling waited for one of the diplomats to comment, to rebut the idea that altering humans as though they were livestock was somehow ‘improvement’, but neither Lady Li-Hwa nor Vadek spoke.
At the top of the ramp was a door, which slid open at their approach. No one awaited them beyond it; just the interior lights and metal walls of an enemy spaceship.
Slave helene led them into the Heart of Steel.