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THE stolen airboat followed its preprogrammed course, flying ten meters above the pink veldt of Sook, toward the distant blue mountains.
Ruiz Aw watched the control panel. All seemed to be well; the engines hummed, the compass was steady, the communit was blessedly silent. His Pharaohan passengers had fallen asleep, exhausted by the previous night's violent events. He turned and regarded them. He took particular pleasure in watching Nisa, who slept with her head tipped to the side, a strand of black glossy hair caught in the corner of her rich mouth. Three Pharaohan men with tattooed faces slept in the other acceleration seats; a fourth sat chained in the hold below, still wearing his explosive slave collar and suffering from culture-shift psychosis.
Ruiz felt an odd mixture of cheerful lassitude and anticipatory terror.
On the one hand, he was putting distance between himself and the slaver Corean Heiclaro, which was very good. On the other hand, he expected her to call the boat presently—and that was very bad. She would be expecting to speak with her lieutenant, an ancient cyborged pirate named Marmo, whom Ruiz had disabled and dumped from the boat as they fled across the veldt, or to Banessa, her giant enforcer, whom Ruiz had killed in the course of capturing the boat.
Corean would soon be very angry with Ruiz, and Corean was a person whose rages were to be feared. Ruiz had seen her dispose of substandard slaves with no more emotion than an ordinary person would display at the uprooting of a weed.
Still, his fortunes had undeniably improved. The previous night he'd been a prisoner in the airboat's hold, tethered among his fellow slaves. This morning his neck was pleasantly unconstricted. Even though he couldn't alter the boat's course, he could adjust its speed, and he was almost certain that he could cause it to land if an alternative means of escape presented itself. He believed that he had disabled the boat's remote handling circuits, so that Corean couldn't regain control—though he couldn't be sure, since the boat was equipped with an unfamiliar biomech guidance system.
TIME PASSED AND the communit remained quiescent. Ruiz gradually relaxed. The blue mountains grew closer, and it became obvious that they were headed for a notch between two craggy peaks.
He had almost surrendered to a cautious optimism by the time the communit lit up and sounded a soft chime. Terror returned immediately, even though he was almost sure that the boat was unequipped with a remote destruct. Almost.
He had considered and rejected the idea of attempting to conceal his capture of the boat. He could have disabled the video and degraded the voice transmission, but he assumed Marmo and Corean employed some code phrase to establish identity under such circumstances. By immediately confronting the slaver with his deed, he thought it possible she might be usefully startled.
Ruiz reached out with a trembling finger, touched the channel-open switch.
The vidscreen bloomed into life, a swirl of primary colors that swiftly resolved into Corean's perfect face. For a long instant she stared into the pickup, motionless, apparently stunned to see Ruiz Aw looking back at her. Her wonderful eyes widened slightly, her skin went pale, and then her mouth writhed. "You," she said, loathing distorting her voice. "You. I should have killed you the first moment I saw you."
"Probably so," Ruiz said, in as agreeable a voice as he could manage.
"I don't know why I ever thought you pretty," she said. "You're a worthless creature. I'll never make such a mistake again."
"Probably not," Ruiz said, and sighed. Corean owned a face designed by one of the pangalac worlds' greatest linea-mentors; even the ugly emotions struggling across those marvelous features couldn't wholly conceal the artist's brilliant work. There was, Ruiz thought, something terribly perverse about a woman so lovely that he couldn't help admiring her, even when she was wishing him a painful death.
She regained control. "Where is Marmo?"
"Somewhere on the veldt."
"I don't know," Ruiz answered, and smiled with as much charm as he could muster. "Does he bounce?"
She turned whiter, and for an instant her eyes burned incandescently. She muttered a Dobravit curse under her breath.
Ruiz waited, wondering if he dared provoke her further. Why not? "But Banessa's dead, if that helps. I strangled her with this." He held up the explosive-collar controller by its ribbon.
She laughed, though there was no trace of humor in that harsh sound. "I'd have liked to see that ... but I think you must be lying, Ruiz Aw. She was a mountain, too strong even for you. How could any unaugmented person best her? You're tricky. I'll remember that when I have you back." She jerked at some control, just out of sight, and to Ruiz's horror, the airboat staggered and swooped in response.
The others woke, made various sounds of fright, and clutched at their restraining straps.
Flomel, the Pharaohan conjuror, shouted in a voice breaking with panic, "Lady Corean! I had nothing to do with it, I'd have warned your henchmen, had I known what this wild beast was up to."
Ruiz glanced over his shoulder, saw Dolmaero whack Flomel across the mouth with a meaty hand. "Shut up," said Dolmaero calmly. The conjuror stared at the Guildmaster, shocked speechless by this insubordination.
Ruiz gave his attention to the controls. They were still dead, but he was momentarily pleased to see that they didn't respond accurately to Corean's attempts to redirect the boat. It wobbled to the left, away from the arrow-straight course they had been pursuing, but it showed no sign of reversing directions, as was apparently her intent.
In the vidscreen Corean's face reflected several emotions: triumph, then puzzlement, then frustration. She swore again, wrenched at her remotes again, which only served to produce a more pronounced drift to the left and a sickening motion, a combination of pitch and roll that had the other passengers moaning.
Ruiz looked out and saw that the boat was no longer heading for the pass through the blue mountains, but was instead rushing toward a sheer cliff. He grabbed at the velocity yoke, slowing the boat until it hung in the air over a talus slope, still shimmying with the eccentric motion Corean had given it.
"Make it stop," Nisa said, in a small careful voice.
Corean had apparently heard, because an ugly smile floated on her lips. "He can't," she said. The boat jerked and shuddered, then darted forward, directly at the cliffside. "If I can't have you back, then I'll have to do the best I can."
Ruiz waggled the yoke, but now the boat seemed completely out of control. He stared out at the onrushing stone as the boat accelerated. From the corner of his eye he could see an avid look on Corean's perfect face, as if she hoped the communicator would survive the impact long enough for her to take a leisurely delight in Ruiz's destruction.
For an instant his mind was empty, and then he saw a ruined body in the wreckage of the boat. Not his. Nisa's.
He pushed the image from his mind's eye. For some reason, he thought of poor mad Kroel, once a master conjuror of Pharaoh.
With the thought came an impulse, and he acted on it instantly. He raised the collar controller, which he had previously set to Kroel's resonance. He'd intended to use the sedative ject if Kroel became dangerously agitated; now he thumbed the detonator switch.
A dull thump came from the hold, and the note of the engines changed, shrieking up the scale, louder and higher, until they seized with a final shuddering crunch—and the boat was filled with silence. Ruiz clutched at the arms of his chair and hoped for the best.
Just before the boat dropped and hit the talus, Ruiz glanced down at Corean's image in the vidscreen. The slaver was watching him with a luminous intensity, and Ruiz thought she had never looked more beautiful and more terrible.CHAPTER 2
BY great good luck the airboat struck the talus slope in a nose-up attitude, pancaking into the loose detritus and bouncing up toward the base of the cliff. The initial impact almost tore Ruiz loose from his chair, but he managed to hang on. He hoped the others had braced themselves, but in any case, the acceleration webbing would protect them as long as the boat remained intact.
The boat slid upward, raising a cloud of dust, hull screeching against the rubble of the slope. It slowed, crunched into the ledge at the top of the slope, and stopped.
For a moment the boat rocked unsteadily, and Ruiz feared it might roll back down. He wondered how far the slope dropped. Had the slope ended at the top of another precipice, which then had dropped into a deep valley? He couldn't quite remember; all his attention had been concentrated on Corean and her vengeful face.
But then the boat became still. Ruiz could hear nothing but the retching sounds Flomel was making. The vidscreen was a dead gray, and the control board was dark.
"Well," Ruiz said. "We're still lucky." He turned to look at the others.
Nisa clutched at the webbing, her face pale and serious.
Molnekh smiled crookedly and pulled the hem of his tunic away from Flomel, who was making a mess. Dolmaero was impassive, staring out the port.
Flomel gained control of his stomach. "One day you'll be sorry, casteless one," he said, gulping air. "Now you've wrecked the Lady Corean's miraculous vessel and we're stranded in the wilderness."
Ruiz sighed. "Flomel, must you be so devoted an idiot? Don't you understand that Corean was trying to smash us into that cliff?" He pointed out the forward viewscreen at the dark sandstone.
Flomel glared at him. "Nonsense. It's your meddling that's at fault. If not for your meddling, we'd still be traveling safely and comfortably toward our goal. If you think I don't see through you and your lies, then you greatly underestimate me."
"Don't worry, I don't underestimate you. But I'll agree that in one respect things would be better, had I not 'meddled,'" Ruiz said wearily. "You'd still be safely tethered in the cargo hold."
A short silence ensued. "Speaking of the cargo hold, what of Kroel," Dolmaero asked, a bit hoarsely.
Ruiz shrugged. "I'm sorry," he said, but none of the others seemed to understand his meaning. "Kroel is dead."
"But, how do you know?" asked Molnekh, looking stricken.
Ruiz stood. "I killed him. I couldn't think of any other way to save us."
THE EMERGENCY LOCK was sufficiently intact that Ruiz and Dolmaero were able to manually crank it open. The others fled past Kroel's headless corpse, but Dolmaero lingered with Ruiz for a moment, staring at the small jagged hole in the engine compartment bulkhead, torn open when Ruiz had detonated Kroel's collar. Dolmaero turned his gaze to Ruiz. "How did you think to do this?"
"I don't know. A lucky whim. For us, anyway—though I suppose Kroel would be dead with the rest of us, otherwise, so he's no worse off. Here, help me with these food packs. The boat carried enough food for another day, but there are fewer of us now, so it should last several days, with care."
Dolmaero hung the packs from one broad shoulder. "Kroel wouldn't have lived much longer, anyway. His soul had already fled." He shrugged and turned away. "You're an odd man, Ruiz Aw—though I hope you'll take no offense at my saying so. You kill your enemies as easily as another man might swat blood-bugs. Then you regret the death of poor Kroel, who meant nothing to you. But I fear for your remarkable luck. Can it last?"
"We only have to get off Sook. If my luck lasts that long I won't ask any more of it."
OUTSIDE, RUIZ EXAMINED his little group of survivors. They clustered around the airlock, all wearing unhappy faces, except for Nisa. Ruiz's susceptibility to her beauty had been responsible for most of his recent difficulties ... but there were compensations. He took a moment to admire her smooth pale skin, her great dark eyes, her long black hair, thick and soft and glowing with coppery highlights, and her graceful long-limbed body. Her loveliness complemented a quick intelligence and an admirably strong character.
He smiled at her. She gave him a sweet melting look in return, at which Flomel scowled and made a grunt of disgust.
Ruiz considered Flomel, a stringy middle-aged man with a hard face and a self-important manner. The tattoos of a senior conjuror were prominent on his shaven skull. Flomel had been as much a prisoner as the others, but unshakable arrogance compelled him to regard his captivity as a form of protective custody. He had yet to be convinced that Corean had intended to sell his troupe to the highest bidder.
Ruiz judged him a dangerous man, and he was certain that Flomel was hatching some treachery. Ruiz shook his head. What was wrong with him that he could not simply kill the conjuror, as common sense dictated?
Molnekh stood beside Flomel, looking about curiously. He was tall, gangly, and thin to the point of emaciation. Molnekh also wore the tattoos of a conjuror, and had assisted Flomel in performing the masterful illusion-plays that had made the phoenix troupes of Pharaoh so valuable in the pangalac worlds. Ruiz felt a certain admiration for Molnekh, with his optimistic acceptance of his changed circumstances. He couldn't help contrasting Molnekh's resilience with the fatal brittleness of Kroel, who had been reduced to comatose panic by the strangeness of Sook.
Finally there was Dolmaero, a stout somber man, tattooed in the spiky red and green patterns of a Guildmaster. He had been the leader of the troupe's supporting crew—the dozens of scene setters, animal trainers, gowners, carpenters, surgeons, and other specialists whose expertise beneath the stage made possible the conjurors' miraculous tricks. His position was subordinate to the conjurors, on Pharaoh ... but on this new world he was evolving toward a more dominant role. Dolmaero took his responsibilities to his people seriously, Ruiz thought, and his was a supple, clever mind. When Corean's catchboat had scooped up both the phoenix troupe and Ruiz Aw from the harsh world of Pharaoh, Ruiz had believed his disguise a near-perfect one. But Dolmaero had been the first to notice that Ruiz was not a Pharaohan.
Dolmaero had never attempted to use this knowledge against Ruiz, and Ruiz was still grateful. He felt a degree of cautious friendship for the Guildmaster, despite their disparate origins—and despite the risks inherent in friendships formed under such precarious circumstances.
Dolmaero's brooding eyes fixed on Ruiz. "You seem cheerful; I envy you your light heart. Too many questions burden mine."
Ruiz regarded Dolmaero uneasily. In Nisa's case, affection ruled him—but his responsibilities to the other prisoners seemed less well defined. Perhaps, however, he owed Dolmaero some degree of explanation. "I'll tell you what I can," he said to Dolmaero. "What do you want to know?"
Dolmaero sighed. "I fear I don't know enough about our situation even to ask the right questions. Still ... where did Corean mean to send us, before you killed her giant henchwoman and disabled the machine man? Do you know?"
"Yes." The subject filled Ruiz with unpleasant sensations—a crawling sensation along his spine, a queasiness in his stomach, a sudden film of sweat on his forehead. In the depths of his mind, the death net twitched, reminded him that it would kill him if he fell into the tentacles of the Gencha. He shuddered. "Yes. Corean was sending us to the Gencha, so that we might be made safe."
"Made safe?" Dolmaero looked dubious, as if he felt certain that Ruiz Aw could never be rendered harmless.
"The Gencha ... they're aliens, much stranger than the Pung who ran the slave pen. They're repulsive creatures, but that's not the reason I fear them. They've devoted centuries to the study of human mentation. They know us too well; they can make a person do or be anything."
"And for us?"
"The process is sometimes called deconstruction. If we're taken down into the Gencha enclave, they'll tear down our minds and rebuild them in a form that would make us perfect slaves. Our primary loyalty would no longer be to our selves, but to Corean—or to whoever purchased us from her."
"It sounds complicated," Molnekh said. "Surely there are less troublesome ways of controlling slaves. On Pharaoh we manage well enough. If a slave is rebellious, we crucify him, or stake him out in the waste, or use him in an unsanctified Expiation. The other slaves watch and learn."
Ruiz frowned. Sometimes he forgot that the others came from a primitive client world, that their cultural matrix was alien. He found it especially disturbing that Nisa was nodding her lovely head, apparently finding Molnekh's statement reasonable and obvious.
Excerpted from The Emperor of Everything by Ray Aldridge. Copyright © 1992 Ray Aldridge. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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