|Tourist Trap (first Chapter)
Zhaim looked at Tyndall's graduating class on the
platform, and struggled to keep his features neutral. All of the graduates were
crossbred, and most were R'il'noids. Many, like Zhaim, showed that heritage in
their similarity to Zhaim's father, Lai—delicate features and eyes that clearly
showed the metallic tracery common among R'il'noids, even at this distance.
Zhaim himself, he was proudly aware, could have been his father's twin, black
haired and bronze skinned, differing only in that Zhaim's eyes were ice and
silver while Lai's were gold-veined green.
had no problem with the class second, his own son Xazhar, beyond the fact that
Xazhar should have been class first. But the—thing—that was class first ....
Empaths were necessary, he supposed, but they were not suited to rule. And his father's
preference for his bastard, slave-reared son over legitimate and properly
socialized R'il'noids was going to destroy the Confederation if something
brat didn't even look R'il'noid—more like its Human dam. Yellow eyes that
showed their gold flecking only if the light was just right, and white hair
that marked him as carrying the gene that had prevented Lai's lover from ever
being approved for the crossbreeding project. It should have been aborted, or
killed at birth, but its dam had bolted before that could happen. And not only
had Lai accepted it, it had actually proved to have a Çeren index higher than
Zhaim's—replacing Zhaim as Lai's heir.
glanced sideways at the only two R'il'nians in the school auditorium—the only
two survivors of their species. Lai and Marna. Weak survivors. Far too easily
swayed by sentiment, too sensitive to the emotions of others. Marna especially,
and her red-gold hair and dark ivory skin didn't even look like the R'il'nai he
was used to, though her silver-veined dark blue eyes were typical enough.
Someone was going to have to do
something, Zhaim thought, or the whole Jarnian Confederation was going to
collapse around their heads. Over a hundred thousand years of R'il'nian rule,
with the assistance of the part-human R'il'noids like himself, and all about to
be torn down because his father refused to face reality. When—not if—Zhaim, as
the ranking R'il'nian-Human crossbred, replaced his father, the Jarnian
Confederation would be ruled properly, not allowed to drift as his father had
let it. His eyes went back to young Roi, standing as class first at the far
left of the platform. Somehow, he had to get rid of the bastard empath that had
usurped his position as Lai's heir. The Confederation needed a strong leader,
not a jumped-up slave.
wouldn't agree with that, of course. In fact, Zhaim thought, he'd have to make
damn sure his father never even suspected anything. But if they really let the
bastard go off-planet on that idiotic vacation trip it wanted ....
never was sure, afterward, just when he had crossed the line between wishful
thinking and planning.
he's not even eighteen yet," Marna said. "A manhood Challenge?"
winced inwardly. Most of the time he enjoyed the way Marna had all but adopted
him since his own mother had never been found, but there were times when her
concern was downright smothering. He glanced pleadingly toward his father, Lai,
and Lai's half brother, Derik.
Lai said quietly, "he's R'il'noid, not R'il'nian. Half Human. And Humans mature
a lot faster than the R'il'nai."
hasn't," Marna snapped back, and Roi was hard put not to cringe. That was his
own worst nightmare, that he might become like Zhaim, treating others as things
rather than people. Some of his former owners, like Derik, had become good
friends since he had been recognized as his father's son, but he still had no
reason at all to trust Zhaim, and very little inclination to let his older
half-brother near him.
the moment," his father replied, "I'd say Roi is considerably more mature than
Zhaim in his attitude toward other people, even if he is several centuries
younger in chronological age. And it shouldn't be too difficult a Challenge.
He'll have his slave friends with him, and an experienced guide." His
soon-to-be ex-slave friends, Roi hoped. Derik had given him his three closest
companions two years ago. He wasn't comfortable about owning slaves, having
been a slave for so much of his own life, but right now they were no more ready
to make their own way through the world than was Roi himself.
of fact," Derik said, "they'll have the same guide Coryn did two years ago. You
commented yourself on how much good the trip did Cory. As for the challenge
aspect, over half of the planets in the Confederation have some kind of test or
challenge before granting adult status. Thanks be they now recognize each
other's tests! My first adjudication was on a planet with a manhood test based
on surviving an encounter with a particularly nasty specimen of the local
wildlife. They wouldn't even listen to me 'til I passed the challenge, and they
weren't really happy about the way I did it."
fought back a grin. He hadn't heard of that particular incident before—a lot
had happened in Derik's fifteen centuries, and he hardly expected to know all
of it. But he knew his uncle well enough to guess that Derik, by far the best
xenotelepath among the R'il'noids, had handled the challenge by using his
talent to make friends with the critter—whatever it was.
who'd moved in with Derik a year ago, winked a chocolate eye at Roi. Like
Derik, she gave the impression of being monotone—skin, hair and eyes the same
color. But where Derik was all golden brown, she was the color of milk
chocolate, and small enough to fit under Derik's arm. Not that there was
anything small about her personality!
Lai said, "are you picking up any precognitive warnings of trouble for Roi?"
shook her copper-gold head. "No," she said, almost reluctantly. "And I've
certainly tried hard enough. Maybe you're right, and I'm just being
overprotective. If Roi really wants the Challenge, I'll withdraw my objections.
But Roi, promise you'll keep in mind-touch with us, and don't push this
Challenge to the point that you're in serious danger."
the advantage of a Challenge journey on Falaron," Derik put in. "If the guide
or the Company decides they are at real risk—say due to an unusual incident
like an earthquake—they'll give them extra help. The Challenge is more sheer
endurance in relatively primitive conditions than anything else."
they would let him take the Challenge, after all. Lai had given him the trip as
a graduation present yesterday, but he and Marna had both balked initially when
Roi had said he wanted to take the full Challenge journey. Derik had backed Roi
from the start. He'd been rather careful not to comment on how the Challenge
aspect of the trip would help Roi's reluctance to make decisions that affected
others, for which the young R'il'noid was grateful. He disagreed with Derik on
that—if his decisions affected others, those others had a right to influence
miss his son Wif, now three and a half. But the kind of traveling they'd be
doing was no place for a child Wif's age, even if Wif's mother Feline had
wanted to go with them—which she emphatically did not. Leaving Wif with the
child's overly possessive mother did bother Roi, but his own parents—he thought
of Marna as a second mother now—would keep her from doing too much damage. His
own mother ....
hadn't been able to find what had become of her, though he said he'd tried, and
Roi had no reason not to believe him. She'd been sold, he said, not long after
Roi had been sold away from her, and while he had tracked her through several
owners, he had eventually lost the trail.
days to pack and be ready to go. And now Marna had finally given her
permission, they could really start packing. Roi had been wanting this trip
ever since Cory had taken a similar trip—without the Challenge aspect—and he'd
already set up the parameters. They would be dog sledding, hang gliding, riding
horses, whitewater rafting, and rock climbing. Sailing, too, but that was
really because Timi had insisted on it. They were all good at riding and hang
gliding, and since the Challenge did not absolutely forbid the use of esper
talents, Roi had little doubt of his ability to control the dog teams. The
rafting would be the only thing really new, and he looked forward to that.
your packing finished?" Roi asked, on the eve of their departure.
flinched a little as he turned to answer. "Except for a few things I can't put
in 'til the last minute," he replied. "I just want to take a walk around the
corridor system before we leave. Alone. Do you mind?" He knew his tone was sarcastic,
but these meetings, exhilarating as they were, frightened him, as well. The one
thing he could not be was relaxed and casual—and he could hardly explain that
owner looked at him, a slight frown wrinkling his forehead. "I wish we could just
be friends, like we used to be," Roi said.
were slaves together, then, instead of slave and owner," Timi replied. "Maybe
when I'm free ...."
nodded. "Have a good walk, Timi," he said as he turned back to his own packing.
almost ran into Amber as he turned toward the corridor. She jumped back,
laughing, and repeated Roi's question: "Got your packing done?"
but the last-minute stuff."
tipped her blond head and looked hard at him. "You don't look very excited. I
mean, how many slaves get to go on a trip like this? Even Derik said he wished
he had the time for that kind of thing."
month on horseback? I can think of things I'd rather be doing."
wrinkled her nose at him. "Well, the rest of us like riding. And we'll be
sailing, too. You're good at that. I hope Flame and I don't get seasick."
forced a laugh and headed on down the corridor. They weren't really corridors,
of course, but small rooms with jump-gates at each end. He had started early,
afraid of interference, and he deliberately chose a long route to his
destination, walking by windows that opened on late-evening scenes varying from
seacoast to mountains. Most were too dark to see anything without pressing his
face against the windows, and he strolled unseeing, trying to understand his
own attraction to the R'il'noid he was going to see.
was dangerous. He understood that, from what Roi had told him. Zhaim was Roi's
half brother, but the two had as little as possible to do with each other. And
Timi remembered all too clearly the time when Zhaim had tried to force Roi to
sell him. Could he really believe Zhaim's more recent assurances that he had
simply felt Timi was being wasted in Roi's hands? Zhaim had gotten Timi that desperately wanted
conditional acceptance to the Space Academy, when Roi hadn't managed—or perhaps
hadn't wanted—to do anything. Oh, Roi's tutoring had helped, but that same
tutoring somehow left Timi feeling hopelessly stupid at times. Everything came
so easily to Roi! And Roi was so complaisant. Even if Roi found out about this
evening, Timi thought, the worst he would do was look hurt. If Zhaim cared
about anyone, he would care enough to kill.
turned into a side corridor that led directly to the guest garage, pushed open
the door, and looked for Zhaim's silver and gray skimmer. There was supposed to
have been an Inner Council meeting tonight, though Roi had been let off his
usual observer status, and Zhaim, who was blocked against teleporting into the
Enclave complex, should have come by jump flyer. Sure enough, the skimmer was
in its usual place, with Zhaim swearing into an open access hatch.
hesitated a moment, and Zhaim looked up. "Timi!" he said. "You know something
about these things. Why won't it start?"
relaxed in a glow of pleasure as he walked over to peer into the opening. "It
was all right on the way in?" he asked.
but now it acts like someone else is trying to start it up."
moved around to where he could see the status panel of the little craft. "Try it
again," he suggested.
status panel confirmed that the finger panel was recognizing Zhaim, but the
start command was getting only about halfway through the system. Timi thought
for a moment, mentally going over the starter circuit. There were a couple of
places where something could have been jarred loose.
Zhaim said, "what's this I hear about your getting a vacation?"
grimaced. "We're all going to Falaron for a couple of months. We'll be
traveling from the Spine Range down to Safeport along the Surprise River. Roi
wants to make it a Challenge journey, so it's not exactly going to be a
vacation." He opened a side access panel, finding and tightening a loose plug.
"There's the problem, I think. Try it now."
machine purred into life, and Zhaim swiveled sideways in the driver's seat.
"Good job, Timi. You've got a real talent with electronics." His expression
said a Challenge? That sounds a bit on the dangerous side." Zhaim's voice was
concerned. "Timi, I worry about you. Roi's just too reckless where his friends
are concerned. I know it sounds silly, but—will you accept a small gift from
me? A luck piece? And keep it hidden. Roi's still pretty prejudiced toward me."
hesitated. He knew perfectly well that Roi would not approve—but he was sick of
looking for Roi's approval. Zhaim might frighten him, but there was a thrill in
defying that fear that Timi found increasingly difficult to resist. Then Zhaim
reached into a pocket and pulled out a pendant carved of some translucent
flame-orange material. A cat-like creature, with slanted slits of eyes and one
paw lifted in warning—not an expensive piece, he thought, but one that appealed
greatly to him. Timi's hand went out, almost of its own accord, and Zhaim
smiled as he dropped the braided leather cord over Timi's head.
your eyes," the R'il'noid said with a smile as he turned in his seat. "Have a
good trip, Timi."
until he was back in his own home did Zhaim allow himself to gloat over his
success. Not only did he know roughly where on Falaron Roi and his friends
would be for the next couple of months—a piece of information he had been quite
unable to worm out of his father or anyone else who knew—he had planted a
locator beacon and control circuit in the party. That was certainly worth
pulling a plug loose to put the brat in the right frame of mind to accept his
Challenge journey. He had assumed that Roi would be closely guarded during his
vacation, but on a Challenge journey the group would be very much on their own.
This could be an opportunity he would be a fool to miss. Zhaim owned a hunting
lodge on Falaron, more as a matter of prestige than anything else. Officially,
the place was closed for the season, but that would be easy enough to get
around. And from the lodge, it shouldn't be too difficult to eavesdrop on the
Company communications. Maybe he could even get a tap on the finders the party
would be carrying, as a backup for the beacon on the slave.
was not particularly good at long-range precognition. But over the last two
years he had discovered that he could use his considerable short-range talent
to affect the precognitive warnings of others. He had used this ability for
over six months now to hide any precognitive warnings of danger to Roi.
Evidently he had been doing a good enough job that Lai had been willing to
accept the Challenge journey.
still did not dare attack Roi directly while Lai or Marna were anywhere near.
But if they were both called out of the Central system ....
he arrange that, somehow, without attracting any suspicion to himself?
was the situation in the Kablukolelli Cluster. He had been amusing himself for
some time now by egging on the most extreme religious leaders of the four
stellar systems that made up the cluster. It wouldn't take much to start a holy
war by now, and since the four systems had entered the Confederation
separately, any such war would require the immediate attention of a
Confederation mediator. If he manipulated his puppets right, Zhaim thought, the
situation could rapidly become so explosive that Lai would have to handle it
he himself left any tracks? No, he had been very subtle in his manipulations.
And he would continue to be just as careful that nothing pointed to any outside
He didn't understand Marna as well as he did his father—but he knew better than
even to consider attacking Roi the way he wanted to if Marna were anywhere
close enough that a mental scream from Roi could reach her. But how could he
lure her far enough away that Roi could not reach her without the boosting he'd
be unable to find on Falaron? The bastard had barely learned the basics of
using his esper talents to protect himself, but Marna was so attuned to her
apprentice's mind that Roi could probably reach her on Central from Falaron—the
wilderness planet was only about ten light years away, after all—and maybe a
good deal farther than that.
walked down the corridor to his bioengineering laboratory as he thought,
planning to check his latest experiments with the virus he had been
engineering. If he could manage the side effects, he thought, this would be his
greatest triumph yet. A planet where no food animals could survive, and he had
not only worked out the cause, he had found a solution. Of course the side
effects of immediate application would result in killing most of the planet's
population, but he was sure he could find a way of preventing that. And then—he
half closed his eyes, seeing himself watched anxiously as he released the
virus, and then the adulation, the population of the planet shouting his
praise, even the Inner Council once again giving him his proper admiration ....
latest experiment only confirmed the others. If he released the virus now, the
result might as well be a plague.
was a Healer. A planetary plague was one kind of bait Zhaim doubted she could
it worth giving up his triumph for a chance to destroy his rival?
if his father ever suspected ....
shuddered a little, remembering a lecture delivered several centuries before,
the first time he had tried to justify doing what he wanted by the fact that
planetary laws did not apply to High R'il'noids. Zhaim considered that a minor
recompense for his labors for the Confederation. His father ....
don't apply because there have been cases where we couldn't do our jobs without
running afoul of some ridiculous local regulation," Lai had exploded. "It's
been justified because we save millions of lives, and we can't do that if we're
dead. I don't ever again want to hear of your perverting that to suggest that
you have a right to kill people at your pleasure because you've saved other
of others thought that way, Zhaim thought resentfully. After the lecture he'd
kept his hobby well hidden from his father until the bastard's explorations had
brought it to the old R'il'nian's attention. And if the old fool could get as
upset as he had about the deaths of a few slaves, how would he react to the
death of half the population of a planet?
couldn't trace it to him, he thought. He hadn't even mentioned this particular
research project to anyone, because if he failed, he didn't want it known. He'd
leave it to Marna to handle the side effects. Once Roi was dead, he might even
help handle the crisis. He'd be a hero—not as much of a hero as if he'd taken
care of the side effects before he'd released the virus, but certainly not a
plague spreader. He looked at the culture vat, considering the best way of
getting the virus to its intended host.
if it didn't work right away, a Challenge journey had all kinds of
possibilities for accidents. Playing with the weather would be safest, he
thought, if not nearly as much fun as actually getting his hands on the party.
He looked at the culture tanks, seeing clouds swirling on a planet ten light
years away, and smiled.