Catch the Lightning (The Saga of the Skolian Empire)

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9780312860431: Catch the Lightning (The Saga of the Skolian Empire)

The author of Primary Inversion returns to the interstellar Skolian Empire to tell the story of a young girl from present-day Earth taken into the future and made the focus of a murderous plot to bring down the empire.496 pp.

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About the Author:

Catherine Asaro, science fiction and fantasy author, grew up near Berkeley, California. She earned a PhD in chemical physics and an MA in physics, both from Harvard, and a BS with highest honors in chemistry from UCLA. The Quantum Rose won the 2001 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and The Spacetime Pool won the 2008 Nebula Award for Best Novella.

Anna Fields (1965-2006), winner of more than a dozen Earphones Awards and the prestigious Audie Award in 2004, was one of the most respected narrators in the industry. Trained at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, she was also a director, producer, and technician at her own studio, Cedar House Audio.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Night Thunder
I last saw Earth in 1987, when I was seventeen. The years since then have brought so many changes that the girl I was in Los Angeles seems like another person. But my memory, bio-enhanced now, remains vivid.
I felt the city that night. Although LA never fully slept, it was quiet, wrapped in its own thoughts. Drowsing. Waiting for a jolt to wake it up.
Joshua met me when I finished my shift at the restaurant, and we walked to the bus stop. It had drizzled earlier and a slick film covered the street, reflecting the lights in blurred smears of oily water. Above us a few stars managed to outshine the city lights and pollution, valiant in their efforts to outdo the faint amber glow that tinted the darkened sky. Sparse late-night traffic flowed by, sleek animals gliding through the night, intent on their own purposes.
I could see Joshua's good mood. It spread out from him in a rose-colored mist that shifted with vague shapes, the form of unspoken words. It sounded like waves on a beach, smelled like seaweed, tasted like salt. I was used to seeing and hearing people's emotions, even feeling them on my skin, but smells and tastes came less often. I knew nothing about Coulomb forces then, but it didn't matter: experience had taught me the effect decreased with distance; I would experience it until he moved away. Or until the intensity of his mood faded. I didn't tell him, of course. I didn't want to sound crazy.
We sat at the bus stop and Joshua put his arm around my shoulders, not like a boyfriend, which he had never been to me, but like the best friend I had known for six years, since 1981, the year Jamaica became the fifty-first state and the Hollywood sign burned down in the hills above LA. Tousled curls fell over his forehead and brushed the wire rims of his glasses. He was my opposite in many ways, his blond curls sun-bright compared to my waist-length black hair. His eyes had always seemed like bits of sky to me, blue and clear where mine were black.
A harsh sensation punctured the bubble of our mood. I had no idea where it came from, only that it cut like a knife.
"Tina, look." Joshua pointed across the street.
I looked. A red sports car was turning off San Carlos Boulevard into a side street. "What about it?"
"That was Nug driving."
Hearing Nug's name was like being hit by ice water. "He can drive down the street if he wants."
"He was watching us." Joshua looked past my shoulder and his face relaxed. "The bus is coming."
As we stood, the bus came alongside us. I got on and glanced back at Joshua. He waved, his hand disappearing from sight as the driver closed the door.
During the ride I sat by myself, leaning against the window. The few other passengers seemed lost in their own thoughts. I wondered if they were going home to their families, to a world they understood.
As hard as I tried to fit, Los Angeles was alien to me. I had grown up in the Zinacanteco village of Nabenchauk on the Chiapas plateau in southern Mexico. I missed its cool evergreen forests, its dry winters and rainy summers. My earliest memories were of my mother, kneeling barefoot at her metate, grinding maize in the predawn hours. In many ways, she was a traditional Maya woman. So how, at fourteen, did she get pregnant with me by an artist from Mexico City who visited Nabenchauk to paint the village?
When I was eight, my uncle and aunt died in one of the earthquakes that hit the highlands, leaving behind their eleven-year-old son Manuel. After years of struggling with the decision, my mother decided to look for my father. She took Manuel and me down the Pan American Highway to Mexico City, what I thought then was the edge of the universe. We never did find him. Eventually we ended up here, in the city of sleepless, fallen angels.
The bus stopped on San Carlos Boulevard a few blocks from where I lived. The drugstore on the corner was closed and deserted. I had hoped Los Halcones would be around so I could ask someone to walk me home. My cousin Manuel had died the previous year, just before my seventeenth birthday, and since then Los Halcones had looked out for me. I could almost see Mario jiving with my cousin: Oye, vato, let's go the show. And Manuel: Chale homes. I want to go cruising and check out some firme rucas. No one was there that night, though.
The Stop-And-Go down the block was still open. I could call Mario. But I would have to wake him up, and I knew he had been getting up early, trying to find a job. The last thing he needed was for me to drag him out of bed at one in the morning.
It was only a few blocks to where I lived. I knew the neighborhood well and most everyone knew me. So it was that I made the decision that changed my life. Maybe I knew, on a level below conscious thought, that something was different that night. Perhaps a neuroscientist could have mapped out the neural processes that prodded my decision, or a physicist could have calculated the changes in the electromagnetic fields produced by my brain. Whatever the reason, I decided to walk home.
I headed down a side street. Old buildings lined the road, tenements and weathered houses. Although most of the street lamps were dark, a few made pools of light on the sidewalk. Cracks in the concrete jagged everywhere, overgrown with grass. Debris lay scattered: chunks of rock, plaster, newspapers, candy wrappings, empty cigarette boxes, fast-food trash blowing along the street or caught up against a building. Somewhere curtains thwapped in the breeze. The smell of damp paper tickled my nose.
When my mother first brought us to LA, we lived in one of its more meager outlying areas. Although we didn't have much in terms of material goods, she gave us a stable home and more than enough love. After her death, Manuel and I moved here, where we could better afford the rent.
As I walked home, I became aware of an odd sensation. A trickle. It ran over my arms like the runoff from a torrent of warm air rushing by in a nearby caon. But the canyon was in my mind, not in the city.
Two blocks later I saw him.
He stood about a block away, facing the road, a tall man with curly hair. I didn't recognize him. The one working lamp on that stretch of the road was only a few feet behind where I stood, so as soon as he turned he would see me. I knew I should leave, but what he was doing was so odd, I hesitated, stopping to watch.
He held a box that hummed and glittered with color: red, gold, blue, green, purple, silver. Holding it in front of his body, he turned in a circle, his attention fixed on it. From the way he dressed, I would have expected him to be robbing stores instead of playing with gadgets. But then, when Manuel ran with Los Halcones, he dressed that way: sleeveless vest and pants tucked into his boots. This man's clothes were black, though; Manuel had preferred T-shirts and faded jeans.
Thinking about Manuel brought me back to my senses. I backed away, intending to be gone before this guy saw me. But it was too late. He stopped turning and looked up. At first he just stood there, staring. Then he started toward me, his long legs devouring the space that separated us.
That's it, I thought. I spun around and ran.
" Espérate," he called. " Habla conmigo."
I wasn't sure why his terrible Spanish made me turn back. I could barely understand him. His voice was strange, too. On habla it rumbled with a deep note, like a low tone on a piano. But the warmth I had felt was stronger, flowing over my skin, a river now instead of a trickle.
He had stopped again and was watching me. I watched back, ready to run if he came closer.
He tried again. " Preguntar mi tu decir."
His grammar made no sense. "¿ Qué?"
" Despierto mi." He paused. " Yo espaol mal."
He Spanish bad? That was an understatement. "How about English?"
"Yes." Relief flickered across his face. "Much better." His English was accented, but easier to understand. Every other sentence or so, his voice made that odd sound, like a musical note. They ranged through about an octave, one down low on a piano keyboard.
"What do you want?" I asked.
He held out his palms as if to show he had no weapons. It wasn't reassuring. He could have a knife or a gun hidden anywhere. And he still had the box in his hand.
"Lost," he said. "Help can find you me?"
He paused, his face blanking like a cleared computer screen. Then he said, "Can you help me? I'm lost."
"Where were you going?"
"Washington, originally."
I tensed. Nug and his men hung around Washington's liquor store. They all wore black, and wrist guards too, like this guy. I backed up a step. "You're a long way from Washington's."
"Yes." He paused. "I decided not to come down in a continental capital."
Did he mean Washington, D.C.? I wondered if he was on anything. He didn't sound like it, though; his words weren't slurred or wandering, he just didn't speak English that well.
"What's in Washington?" I asked.
"A reception."
I almost laughed. "You're going to a party there dressed like that?"
"This is my duty uniform. My dress uniform is on the ship."
I wondered if he realized how strange he sounded. I hadn't heard of anyone like him in the neighborhood. "What's your name?"
It sounded like a nickname. All of Nug's men took one, though most of them were less creative about it. "You mean Thor? The guy with the hammer?"
"I'm sorry, but I don't know to whom you refer,"
Whom? I didn't know people existed who actually used that word. Despite my wariness, I was growing more and more intrigued. I motioned at his box. "What is that?"
"Transcom," he said.
"What does it do?"
"Transmits and receives waves. Right now I scan radio signals." He came closer, showing me the box, and I backed away. As I stepped into the halo from the street lamp, he stopped and stared as if he had just seen me. In a sense he had, since I had only then moved into the light.
"Gods," he said. "You're beautiful."
I kept backing toward the drugstore.
"Don't go." Althor started toward me again.
As soon as he moved in my direction, I took off running.
"Wait," he called.
I stopped. Turned. Looked at him. Why? Something about him was familiar, but for the life of me, I couldn't place it. I felt it too, like tendrils of mist coming off a river. A sense of warmth. Affection, almost. So I hesitated, ready to run but waiting to see what he would do.
Althor backed up to the street lamp so I could see him better. He was tall, about six-foot-four. His eyes were dark, black it looked like, though it was hard to see in the dim light. He had fair skin and curly hair that, as far as I could tell, was the same color as the bronze bracelet my mother gave me before she died. I had to admit he was nice looking. Strange, but handsome. Just because he was handsome, though, didn't mean he was all right.
"You run with Nug?" I asked.
"Nug. You know."
"I do not know."
"You must've seen him around. Tall guy. Anglo. Blue eyes. Buzz hair."
"I don't know this man." He considered me. "You don't recognize my uniform, do you?"
"I've never seen no uniform like that." I winced. "Any uniform." Even now, when I speak seven languages, I sometimes forget to avoid the double negative in English. It seems a strange language, not allowing you an extra negative to make a point.
"I am ****" he said.
He said the word again and it still sounded like gibberish.
"I don't understand," I said.
"Literally I think it translates as 'Jagernaut Secondary.'"
He nodded. "Secondary is similar to what you call a naval captain." He paused. "Actually, it comes closer to your air force. Major, maybe."
"You're a soldier?"
"Pilot. ISC Tactical Fighter Wing."
A pilot! Wariness followed my initial excitement. He didn't look like a fighter pilot. "What's ISC?"
"Imp--" He hesitated. "Space Command."
At the time, I was sure he was a nut case or stoned, or else that he thought I was stupid enough to believe him. "Yeah, sure."
"Why do you think I make this up?"
"Well, I don't run into many fighter pilots on my way home."
Althor smiled. "I guess not."
His smile caught me by surprise. No cruelty showed in it, nor was it a false smile, or the too easy smile of someone who never had reason to cry. It had history to it, complicated history.
I relaxed a bit. "So how come you're in LA?"
He considered me, as if trying to decide whether or not I was a threat. It was funny, really. Five-foot-two me in a fluffy miniskirt threatening six-foot-four him. When he finally answered, I figured that same thought had occurred to him. I had no idea then of the true reason he chose to trust me, nor of the extensive calculations that went into his decision.
"I'm in the wrong place," he said. "Actually, it looks like the wrong time. According to positions of the stars, the date is exactly as I expected. But everything is different." He pointed to the streetlight. "For one thing, I never knew this, that Los Angeles had such lamps."
I blinked. The street lamps were the same as everywhere else in LA: tall antique poles, each ending in a scalloped hook. The glass lamp hanging from the hook was shaped like the bell on an old Spanish mission. Books about California never failed to show them.
"They're angel bells," I said.
"Angel bells? I have never heard this before."
"You really must be new. They're as famous as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco."
Althor frowned. "I've studied American history. If these bells are as famous as you say, I would recognize them."
"Maybe your teacher didn't know LA that well."
"My 'teacher' was a computer chip. It had no record of these bell-lamps." He looked around at the debris-strewn street, the broken windows in the building closest to us, its crumbling steps. "You live here?"
I didn't like him asking where I lived. When I didn't answer, he said, "Why do you live like this?"
I gritted my teeth. "Because I do."
He jerked, as if my anger had struck him. "My sorry. I meant no offense."
After an awkward silence, I said, "So where are you from?"
"Originally, Parthonia."
"Parthonia. The seat of the Skolian government."
"Never heard of it."
"After everything else I've found here, or not found, I'm not surprised." He sat on the steps of the building next to us and poked at his box. "Everything is wrong. The only transmissions I find are at radio frequencies."
I stepped closer to see the box. As h...

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