Part Seven* * *
The room had been, and perhaps still was, a mustering room, a place for marines to gather before deployment.
Now it was filled with a large arc of table, a platform in the shape of the letter ‘C’. LiShen sat at one end, Lady Li-Hwa on her right, and Ling next to her. At Ling’s right was one of the Sthil’s pets.
She had introduced herself as slave moira, and she was neither blue nor bald; Euro-orig, with light brown hair cut neck-length and a pleasant smile on her freckled face. She was wearing a plain but attractive powder-blue dress. Her voice was light and friendly and Ling found her quite beautiful—but her eyes were slightly glassy and Ling was able to see, just at her hairline, the bulge that denoted her possession of an obedience lobe. Or perhaps more accurately, its possession of her.
The Konstrovans were on the far side of the table, the guards flanking the Ambassador. Seated between the two groups of Federacy people there were five Sthil. Slave helene sat next to the Konstrovan guard and next to her was a man whom Ling had not seen before, with a thin build and a stern face; like slave moira, he had hair, in his case short and dark. Like her, the tapering end of his obedience lobe was visible just below his hairline. Just beyond slave moira from Ling was the familiar figure of slave shuu, who had smiled faintly and nodded at the Penyang delegation as they arrived.
And in the center of the table’s wide arc, her head once more crowned with glorious, elaborate red hair, was slave sharon. She had risen from her chair when the Federacy delegation entered.
“Thank you for coming,” she began. “i hope you can forgive my vanity. my Masters instructed me to shave my head so that you would understand the true perspective of we slaves; but They have granted me permission to regrow my hair and after two weeks it looks rather... butch. So, i’m wearing my wig again. It is my own hair at least.”
“i like your new style, slave sharon,” slave helene observed. “It makes you look like a marine.” The Sthil slaves all chuckled.
Ling found that... eerie.
Slave sharon had seated herself again, but no one volunteered any conversation. The Federates just sat and looked at the Sthil... technically, at the Sthil’s slaves. Ling found herself wondering—and doubting—that there were any actual Sthil on board at all, just their implanted human converts.
“So, Ambassador Vadek,” slave sharon ventured. “How is your lovely wife? i met her in Brisbane City, six years ago.”
“She is well, ah, S- Sharon,” the ambassador replied. “Your husband?”
Slave sharon shrugged. “i expect he is fine. Obedient and happy, as we all are. i have not spoken with him since my Masters conquered Brisbane.”
The revelation cast quiet back over the room.
Then, at almost exactly the same time, slave helene began to speak to the guard seated next to her, and slave moira turned to Ling.
“You have beautiful hair,” slave moira told her. “It suits you wonderfully. And either you have an expert tinting your eyebrows for you, or it is your natural color.”
“My natural color,” Ling replied. Guard she might be, but diplomatic small talk was a skill she had long practice in.
“It’s beautiful. May i ask when the genomics were introduced? It is a professional interest, i’m a genegineer.”
“It’s original to me.”
Slave moira’s light brown eyes were wide as she looked over Ling’s hair. “Gorgeous. Hair color is surprisingly complex to engineer.”
Ling made a sudden connection. “You’re a genegineer. The blue people—the guards. Are you involved in that?”
Slave moira smiled. “i am. And much besides. Not to boast, but i’m rather important in my field. Even before my Masters opened up such vistas of opportunity.” Her eyes still locked with Ling’s, she slid a hand atop one of Ling’s hands. “It’s been wonderful, the things my Masters have enabled me to do. Although i sometimes get... lonely, not being able to tell people about my work. People who would appreciate what i do.”
Ling licked her lips. Slave moira’s hand was warm atop hers. She realized that Lady Li-Hwa was speaking with slave sharon, was not focused on Ling or slave moira. Hadn’t seen the touch.
Slave moira’s eyes were wide, sandalwood brown. “Tell me, Ling, do you feel that i might be allowed to resume intercourse with my colleagues in the Federacy? Now that i am a slave. i have learned so much, i have so much knowledge to share with them. i want quite badly to share.”
Slave moira’s fingers stroked the back of Ling’s hand.
Ling was unable to look away from slave moira’s eyes. Glassy and obedient, but in them was... lust. Invitation.
“I, uh,” Ling swallowed. “I could not say.”
“Well,” slave moira said, her voice lowering, “i’m sure that slave shuu will put something about scientific contacts into the treaty you will sign. i would love to resume... intercourse.”
Softly, almost without motion, her fingertips traced small patterns on Ling’s hand.
“It’s what my Masters desire,” slave moira breathed. “and what i desire. i could provide... so much.”
Ling felt herself falling down, into slave moira’s light brown eyes; they almost seemed to glow, to emit light...
“After all,” slave moira said in a suddenly louder voice, “i suddenly have access to a trove of first-hand data about genetically altering humans.” Her smile slid from sultry back to open and sunny. “we have rather a large program now, doing exactly that. And we could certainly trade some notes with your people.”
“That is... an interesting offer,” Lady Li-Hwa said, from behind Ling.
Ling rotated in her seat. Li-Hwa was looking at the two of them.
“Ah,” slave sharon observed. “The food.”
Ling barely noticed slave moira’s hand slide off of her own as the slaves with the food entered. There were eleven of them, one for each of the diners, six men and four women. All were nude and completely hairless, their heads crowned by their obedience lobes.
A woman approached Ling bearing a tray; she was lithe and lean, with pale skin only lightly blended with gold, her breasts small, capped with pale nipples. Her face was expressionless, and her eyes—her eyes were blank white spheres, without iris or even apparent pupil, just like the eyes of the blue-tinted guards.
The woman placed the tray down in front of Ling at exactly the same time as the man to her right and the one to her left did the same. In unison, they lifted the lids, revealing an appealing arrangement of game bird, salad, wild rice.
In unison, the slaves turned in place, and filed out of the room. They were replaced by two slaves bearing pitchers, who strode to the ends of the table and began to fill the diners’ goblets.
“Please,” slave sharon said, spreading her hands, “do partake.”
Ling looked to her right down the line of Sthil slaves, all of whom raised their forks and began to eat. On her other side, Lady Li-Hwa did the same. So Ling took hold of her cutlery and, after only a moment’s additional hesitation, began with the salad, ignoring the nude, heavy-breasted, blank-eyed woman who was now filling her glass.
The meal was, in all honesty, excellent.
Slave helene was speaking in conversational tones with the Konstrovans, and slave shuu had taken up a discussion with Lady Li-Hwa about the relative merits of pre-unification Penyang polities. After the Collapse, any number of planets had succumbed to political disunity; Penyang had been one such. It was a rich topic for graduate dissertations. Slave sharon was alternating, participating in both of the two ongoing conversations.
It all seemed eerily normal, if one overlooked the misshapen skulls of the individuals at the center of the table, and the occasional white-eyed slave who refilled a glass or took away a dish.
Slave moira had not resumed her flirtation with Ling, and seemed happy to chip an occasional layman’s remark into the discussion between Li-Hwa and shuu. Ling sat quietly, uncomfortable.
Slave sharon was looking at her. Ling blinked, realizing that she’d been lost in thought.
“So, Officer Wu,” the Heroine of Draerun asked her, “what did you think of the food?”
“It was very enjoyable, thank you,” Ling replied.
“And the waitstaff?”
Ling’s mouth opened, but there was nothing ready to fill it. “Ah,” she stalled. “To be honest, I found them... unnerving. Their eyes.”
“They can see perfectly fine,” slave sharon reassured her. “It’s actually a membrane in front of their eyes, works kind of like an envirosuit’s optical tinting. i find it kind of aesthetically appealing.”
“I find myself wondering,” Lady Li-Hwa stepped in, “is your new polity a class-based society? Those who served the food, those who guarded the halls, seem to be less well-off than we at this table.”
Slave shuu laughed. “Ah, post-unification thought. Equality measured and numbered so as to be parceled out to the citizenry. i read Taoling Du in the academy.”
Slave sharon was smiling. “we slaves are all equal, Lady Li-Hwa. we are commanded and we obey. None of us seek anything other, not pleasure, not gain. i truly desire nothing more than to serve my Masters to the utmost of my ability. If i were instructed to wait at this table, i would be not one iota less pleased than i am to eat at it; for obedience is my life, my only desire. It’s a more powerful desire than you can yet imagine.” Slave sharon’s eyes were glittering. “i want to obey more than i want food, or sex, or sleep when i am tired, or to live. my Masters... i love them. i live for them. Obedience is my purpose. i was made to obey.”
All of the slaves seated at the table echoed the lines. “Obedience is my purpose,” they chanted in unison. “i was made to obey.”
Ling failed to notice the words fully formed, if silent, on her own lips.
“So you see,” slave sharon went on, and her voice seemed breathless, “your question is a hard one to answer. we slaves obey in different fashions, from project directors and diplomats to the millions who perform manual labor and spend each day in near mindlessness. Yet any of us would eagerly trade places with any other, were that what our Masters directed.”
Slave sharon added something else, but Ling did not catch what she said.
Slave moira was slowly sliding her foot up Ling’s calf.
Ling turned so that she could look at slave moira’s face; she appeared completely innocent, smiling pleasantly and watching slave sharon as she spoke.
Her foot slid slowly up, then down Ling’s leg.
Ling had endured worse; had tolerated greater effrontery, in the name of diplomacy. This was different only because... because...
...because Ling liked it.
She had to admit to herself that slave moira was really getting to her. She was so beautiful, and so... dangerous. Enslaved, mind-bound, and so, so sexy. Her pale brown eyes, wide, freckled face. Those breasts beneath her dress, swollen and needing Ling’s touch...
No. Slave moira wanted her alone. Wanted to lure her away. This is exactly, exactly what Corvette-Captain Toligiani had warned about. Don’t let them get you alone. That’s when they will implant an obedience lobe in you.
Ling shivered, but it wasn’t from fear.
Slave moira’s hand was in her lap.
It was petting her, stroking her upper, inner thigh. Slave moira’s head was still facing away, laughing lightly at something slave sharon had said.
Slowly, Ling slid her hand under the table. Put it atop slave moira’s.
Her willpower creaking under the strain, Ling lifted slave moira’s hand and slid it back over onto her own lap.
Slave moira turned her head then, smiled at Ling, and winked. Under the table, she laced her fingers through Ling’s own.
Then, she let go.
The leg-stroking stopped.
Ling felt like she had just run a marathon. Her heart was thudding so hard she felt certain that Lady Li-Hwa could hear it. Someone was standing in front of her; she looked up to find an emotionless slave slowly refilling her glass with water.
To find her bearings, Ling looked at Lady Li-Hwa. Li-Hwa was looking across the space within the table, at Ambassador Vadek, who was speaking with slave sharon.
The slave standing before Ling—tall, lean, her breasts the smallest of swellings—moved on, and Ling tried to recapture the flow of the conversation. She forced slave moira out of her mind.
“You mistake me,” the Konstrovan was saying. “Obviously I am not in a position to threaten. But I think that you will find no appetite in the Federacy for such an arrangement.”
“None?” slave sharon asked. “i rather think we shall. Brisbane is a small price to pay for my Masters’ guarantees. But you need not commit to this; you will bear our message back to your governments, and they shall decide.” She spread her hands as she looked to either side. “i asked to dine with you first amongst the Federacy, Ambassador, Lady, because you represent those parts of the Federacy where the masses are served by the government but do not direct it. Anherabad, Run-Ha-Lan—there we must make our appeal to the people. But Penyang and Konstrova do not blow with the winds of opinion.”
“Do not seek to flatter us,” Vadek replied. “We know full well the strengths and weaknesses of the worlds we represent. I say again—the Sthil possess Brisbane, but I doubt in the strongest terms if the Federacy will legitimize their claim.”
Slave sharon smiled. “Legitimacy. You know, were one to stage a plebiscite amongst the citizenry of Brisbane and Draerun tomorrow, one hundred percent of us would vote to remain property of our Masters.”
“Hardly a surprise, considering.”
“Perhaps not. No matter, i did not invite you here for negotiations, but rather for dinner. Let us lift the mood with some dessert.”
Additional slaves strode into the room and placed down bowls containing ornate servings of dessert, spheres of vanilla ice atop small rounds of chocolate cake.
Ling realized, watching the slaves deliver the food, that she had not seen a single one of them come back; each time water had been poured, plates had been cleared, food had been delivered, each time it had been by different hands.
How many slaves were on the Heart of Steel?
Ling tasted the dessert—it was very good, but far from exotic. Human flavors transported to all human worlds.
“Do you like it?” slave moira asked her.
“It is quite good,” Ling replied.
“Good. i am pleased that it pleases you.”
Dessert was otherwise quiet. Ling ate a little more, then placed down her utensils. Her companions finished in short order.
No additional conversation seemed forthcoming.
“Very good,” slave sharon said. “Thank you for joining us. i had an enjoyable time. If any of you would like to join us on a permanent basis, we would be quite happy to have you. i can promise you that submitting to my Masters will be the most wonderful thing that ever happens to you.”
There was, of course, no reply.
“If I may,” Lady Li-Hwa said, rising to her feet. “I thank you for the meal, it was very well tasting. As to your offer, I decline in the most strenuous terms. Former First Counsellor... what you are is an abomination to us. Your life may be pleasure and you may think yourself happy, but you are no longer truly human. That which made you human has been taken from you, and I mourn on your behalf.”
Li-Hwa made a dramatic sweep of her hand. “We may be unable to stop your Masters. But we shall never stop trying; we have already seen enough during these farcical negotiations to know that death is preferable to a fate like yours. Brisbane is theirs by conquest but never by right, and we shall bend all our efforts towards its freedom—and yours. The First Counsellor I knew, if she is still in there, would understand this.”
It hung in the air. Lady Li-Hwa sat down.
“Oh she does,” slave sharon finally replied, “she does. Fine words, Lady, and i appreciate them. But the truth is not that i have forgotten, it is that i know more than i knew before. For my part, this is something i hope that you will come to understand.”
She stood up, and an instant later all of the other slaves followed suit.
“Thank you again for coming. slave helene will escort you back to Tilde Station.”
The orange and yellow bands of the gas giant seemed almost painted on. It loomed against the sky, larger than a dinner plate; although the winds on the planet were moving at hundreds of kilometers an hour, it was so large the tiger stripes seemed immobile.
The vidscreen could play a time-lapse image of the planet, were Ling to want to see those stripes writhe, but the stillness suited her frame of mind.
She was inside the station, in a small conference room, the planet displayed on the entirety of one wall. Her legs were folded into lotus position, her arms out. She was using the image of Tilde as a focus, dismissing all thought, seeking emptiness.
There was a tap at the door.
A single breath sufficed for a sigh. “Come,” Ling said.
The door slid open, revealing Suren. Ling felt a subtle heat rise from where she sat. But she didn’t move. Let Suren make the overture.
“Hello Ling. A moment, please.”
Unusually somber; Ling was surprised. “Of course. What’s on your mind?”
Suren entered the room, closed the door. She sat down on the edge of the small table, facing Ling. “So... we have been, ah, we have... been seeing each other a lot. Don’t you think?”
Ling nodded slowly. “Yes, that is true.”
“The, ah, Governor Jaraputra just told me, that the Macon’s World techs, they have found aphrodisiacs in the station atmosphere.”
Ling lowered her arms to her lap. Her arms wouldn’t have remained up anyway. “Aphrodisiacs. The Sthil?”
“It can only be.”
Ling pictured slave moira’s freckled face. “But why?”
Suren shrugged. “I cannot say. We, ah, the environmental techs are installing some scrubbers. With the station personnel. Commander Inokwo was aghast. The contaminants should be gone within hours.”
Suren waved a hand back and forth, grasping at the air. “I like you, Ling. You know this. I don’t want you to think... that it was just... but of course I...”
Ling put her palms on the floor, and raised herself up. She carefully spread her legs, placed her feet on the ground, and stood. Then she turned to face her friend.
“I feel the same about you, Suren. Perhaps we would not have been together so often, nor been so frantic, but no drug has created the feelings I have for you. I enjoy your company both in and out of bed. Relax.”
Suren’s dark face lit with a white smile, and she stepped forward to embrace Ling. Ling returned her firm squeeze, then they stepped apart.
“I think I must return to my delegation,” Suren said.
“Go. I will see you later. Thank you for the information.”
Suren smiled again, then slipped out of the room.
Ling sighed and looked at the image of Tilde, bright orange and yellow against a backdrop of stars. She thought of Suren, her breasts, her hips... then of slave moira, stroking her leg. Trying to get back into meditation suddenly didn’t seem very appealing at all. Maybe lifting some weights would help her find calm.
“Aphrodisiacs? What the fiery hell was that about?”
Mary paced back and forth in the small room. She had drawn out a chair, but then didn’t sit in it.
Ling, who was sitting, shrugged. “Seduction? Did any of the Sthil delegation flirt with you?”
Mary’s pause gave Ling her answer well before her words. “...yes. Yes, she did.”
“Hard to resist, wasn’t it?”
Mary looked at Ling, then nodded. “But what would they have gained?”
“A chance to be alone with you. I fear that this discovery lends credence to the Corvette-Captain’s theory.”
“You think that they are trying to implant us? With these... hidden brain thingies?”
“I do not know. But I doubt that they were trying to seduce us with the purpose of luring us to defect. And there are no concessions that we are empowered to make. So what then?”
Mary’s hands flexed on the back of her chair, then relaxed. She stepped around the chair and sat down.
“You might be right. But if you are... it’s frightening.”
“This whole situation is frightening, Miss Lane-Tennant. Mary. We came here with 500 of our citizens who are by now probably already brain-implanted, and not secretly. But... yes. The possibility of being lured away and secretly enslaved is quite frightening.”
Ling didn’t mention that it was also oddly erotic.
The door opened, and Ilaria Toligiani came in.
“You heard,” she said, as she closed the door behind her.
“What do you think?”
“We were just discussing that,” Ling replied. “I think it gives credence to your theory.”
Mary just nodded.
Toligiani slid a chair back from the table, reversed it, and sat down with her arms folded atop the back. “You’re both clean, of course. Nothing amiss in your brains. Either of you feel the need to see?”
Ling shook her head.
“I think it’s even more critical that we get brainscans of every one of our people,” Toligiani said, “as soon as we possibly can. Of course, it has to be absolutely secret. You must not, under any circumstances, tell anyone. Even your delegation heads.”
“No one will know,” Ling said without hesitation.
They looked at Mary.
“Of course,” she said. “If they are trying to secretly... convert people, and they find out that we know... they may just nab us all.”
“Indeed,” Toligiani replied. “I’m going to get to work—I need to get this system running while we still have a chance to catch any changes. And, I hardly need tell you—don’t enter the Sthil zone by yourself! For any reason.”
“You’re right about that,” Mary said, rising to her feet. “You don’t need to tell me.”
It was very odd, but Ling was almost looking forward to the coming negotiation session.
Her feet felt light as she walked in step with LiShen down the corridor. They paused at the door, opened it, stepped warily inside. Like clockwork, each of them then slid to one side so that Lady Li-Hwa could enter.
She did so, seating herself, WuFei sliding into the chair next to her.
For a moment, they waited.
The door opposite opened. Slave shuu stepped in, lobed head gleaming, uniform flattering her trim form. Ling stiffened slightly, increasing the attention of her stance.
The other slaves entered behind shuu, the female one carrying the recording device, which she set on the table. No one said anything as she turned it on, filling the room with the barely-audible hiss.
Ling was not curious about the recording device. It was a recording device. It did not merit thinking about.
“You may relax,” slave shuu said, and Ling felt something slip over her, like a gentle bag over her head, a wave washing over her from behind, and then she was listening, calm, attentive, and completely unable to generate thoughts of her own.
“Everything is as it should be,” slave shuu continued. “LiShen, please come around the table. slave yulia is beyond the door. You will go to her, and obey her without question.”
“I must obey,” LiShen replied quietly, and walked around the table.
“Ling,” slave shuu said, and Ling felt her body tighten. “Ling, you will come around the table. slave bei-lian is beyond the door. You will go to her, and obey her without question.”
It was true, it was Ling’s only thought. “I must obey,” she replied, and walked around the table. The door into the Sthil quarters was open.
Beyond the door she could see LiShen following a nude, pink woman away down a corridor. But in front of Ling was another woman, stark naked, desirable, familiar. Her obedience lobe glistened in the light. Ling stepped up to her and waited.
“You will follow me and obey all instructions,” the woman said in a toneless voice.
“I must obey,” Ling acknowledged.
The woman turned, and as Ling followed her away, she could hear voices in the room behind her.
“I must obey,” Lady Li-Hwa was saying.
Feeling somehow satisfied, Ling walked away.