The Zentarins had just probed him, injected him and microscopically studied him. They had even placed an implant in his brain. Yet Captain Ryandus Brill of the Cortierran space service was walking on air because his lifelong dream was about to be fulfilled.
To fly like a Zentarr...
He couldn't really do that, of course. Not ever. Any illusions to the contrary had been crushed during his orientation that morning, when he had learned more details about these mysterious Zentarins. He had known that their eyes offered added protection in high-radiation quadrants, but apparently their peripheral vision was also enhanced. And they had a remarkably evolved sense of balance, enabling them to maintain course in almost any turbulence.
But Ryan had also learned that his score on hand-eye coordination tests had surpassed the highest ever achieved by a Zentarin. Apparently their fancy mercury-pool eyes--so effective in shielding them from radiation--hadn't brought the rest of their bodies along for the ride. He never would have suspected that, having always secretly regarded the silver eyes with great awe.
His mood was euphoric. After endlessly petitioning their Elder Council for the privilege of training with Zentarin pilots, he had suddenly--almost magically--been granted permission, thanks to the patronage of a councilmember named Alberus.
You're my hero, he assured his benefactor silently. I hope you're at this reception, because I can't wait to shake your hand.
"Captain Ryandus Brill! Wait up."
Ryan turned to see a huge Zentarr in full-leather uniform bearing down on him. Hoping that the guy wasn't going to deport him for some infraction of their inscrutable penal code, he planted his feet firmly. "Can I help you?"
The Zentarr grinned. "It is I who can help you. You are headed for the reception, are you not?"
Ryan couldn't help but smile at the guy's friendly attitude, so different from the aloof efficiency he had encountered thus far. "That's the plan."
"The plan." The Zentarr nodded. "I am Lieutenant Sol-Nagurri. You will be training with my squad tomorrow and I always look out for my comrades. So I am willing to attend the reception with you. To watch your back."
"Yeah?" Ryan chuckled. "Sounds good. I can't afford to make any mistakes. It took me a year to get this posting."
Nagurri laughed too. "We could not believe our ears when we heard they were allowing a Cortierran to step foot on Zentarus. And to train with us? It is shocking. You must be the most skillful pilot on your planet."
"Hardly," Ryan drawled. Then he added quickly, "But I'm one of the best. Lucky for me, Elder Alberus recognized that."
"Do not waste too much gratitude on him. He was also the one who blocked you for many, many months."
Nagurri shrugged. "If it means anything, Zentarin pilots aren't usually up to his standards either. So it makes sense that he'd see you as inferior. But the GES doesn't care about any of that. We embrace all pilots as brethren."
Ryan scowled. He had been subjected to these backhanded compliments since the moment his fighter had touched down on this crazy planet. These silver-eyed elitists really believed they were superior to Cortierrans.
He was willing to admit they had some advanced piloting techniques. But socially? Cortierra could at least match if not exceed them. Didn't the Zentarrs succumb to some sort of freakishly primal mating ritual? Thank God Cortierra had evolved past that. And what about music? Literature? Imagination?
Stop thinking that way, he commanded himself. If they want to believe they're far above you on the evolutionary track, just indulge them. It's a small price to pay for training with pilots that leave Cortierra in their space dust.
As the two pilots fell into step with each other, Nagurri provided a quick overview of the Galactic Exploration Service, or GES--the branch of the Zentarin military with which Ryan would be training. According to Nagurri, all military applicants were screened, and the best went to GES.
"And by best," he hastened to add, "I mean the most adventurous. And the most tolerant of offworlders. We actually want to interact with other cultures--not exactly a common Zentarin trait, believe me."
"So non-adventurous candidates go into the Zentarin Defense Service?" Ryan guessed, remembering the quick rundown of the various branches of service he had gotten during orientation.
"Correct. ZDS pilots are brave and talented, but more paranoid. Almost xenophobic, and definitely heliocentric. Of course, they claim they are the true patriots, and they label GES pilots, like you and me, as reckless."
Nagurri interrupted himself to point to an ornately columned building looming in their path. "The Council chambers. Where the Elders legislate and provide judicial remedies. And where your reception is being held." He eyed Ryan's blue Cortierran uniform. "They should have issued you a GES outfit. It would make a stronger impression."
Ryan bristled. "I'm proud to wear this one. And they gave me this GES insignia to wear on my sleeve, right? Seems like a good compromise to me." Regretting the sharp tone, he was about to apologize--or at least make a joke at his own expense--when a shapely young Zentress in a revealing red dress appeared on the steps of the Council building.
"Wow. That's one Zentarin who really is superior." He greedily studied her long, bare legs and bare shoulders. And from the look of things, he'd be getting an eyeful of full breasts as soon as they got closer, given the plunging design of the dress's neckline. Even her long black hair--thick with dramatic curls and red ribbons--wouldn't be enough to obscure her chest from his probing gaze.
She's like the Red Vixen, he decided, recalling Cortierra's most famous myth. Or at least, it was Ryan's favorite. As a boy, he had been enthralled by visions of battles between the mythical Storm King and the Star Prince, made more exciting--not to mention more provocative--by the playful beauty who kept the war going by luring warriors from both sides into deadly traps, right up until the day when she fell in love with the Prince and gave up her naughty ways.
"Don't get any ideas," Nagurri said, interrupting the fantasy. "When you want companionship, you can choose any unattached female who hasn't entered her lust cycle. Any female but that one. She does look good though, doesn't she? I wonder why she's out of uniform."
"Who is she?"
"Captain Mar-Tessa. A ZDS pilot. And Councilmember Mar-Alberus's granddaughter. She's out of your reach, trust me."
Ryan shrugged. "They all are. I'm inferior, right? Plus, I want to concentrate on piloting for the six months I'm here, so I already decided to give up girls. They're too distracting."
Nagurri smiled. "Casual coupling helps us concentrate. I will take you to a lust gathering soon. Some of the younger Zentresses attend them, to see what it's like before their cycle starts. It's the perfect place for someone like you."
The girl in the red dress disappeared into the building, and Ryan unconsciously quickened his pace, all the while reminding himself that his decision to stay celibate on Zentarus had been a sound one. And even if he did eventually weaken, Nagurri was absolutely right. It couldn't be with this particular female.
Mar-Tessa--a modern-day Red Vixen. But Ryan wasn't about to fall into her trap. Not after all he'd gone through to secure this posting.
Forget about her, he told himself sternly. You're about to meet Alberus--the man who can make or break you. So get your head back in the game or you'll be on your way home before you've even set foot inside a Zentarin glider, much less flown one.