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Authors: Elizabeth A. Lynn

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BOOK: The Sardonyx Net
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“My Starcaptain!” Rhani said.

But Zed shook his head. “I think not, Rhani-ka. He's newly a slave; he's not used to it yet. If he met a runner or some Hyper he knew, he might try to escape.”

“I wouldn't want that,” Rhani said. I
tell him what happened to Binkie, she thought. He needs the warning. “You can't do it, Zed-ka?”

“No.” He perched on the arm of her chair. “I'm not an outsider, but I'm too well known to be of use. No runner or dealer would discuss drug business with the Net commander. But there's Jo Leiakanawa, my second. Remember the year the Net had a pilferage problem? Some crew member was stealing dorazine—”

“From the Net supplies,” Rhani said, “and bringing it back to Abanat, where it was sold to dealers who turned around and resold it to Gemit or to the city, making a double profit. I remember. You sent me a ‘gram from Enchanter.”

“That was it. We never found out the identity of the thief. But Jo talked to the dealers, and the stealing stopped.”

Rhani said, “I could write to her.” She frowned. “But even if I call the mail service to send a special bubble for the letter, it will sit in Abanat a day before it's delivered.”

Zed said, “Even if you wrote to her, she might say no.”

Rhani raised her eyebrows. “If
asked her?”

Zed spread his hands; his voice grew apologetic. “I know, you're her employer. But she and I have worked together for so long, I think she thinks she's working for me.”

“But you said she might help.”

asked her. I could fly back to Abanat and find her, request her to find Sherrix.”

Something in his voice warned her. She walked to him and touched his thigh. “If you don't want to do it, Zed-ka, then don't.”

He looked up at her, and then rested his right hand lightly on hers. “No, I'll do it. Not today, though. I'd like two more days with you.”

The simple words reverberated in both their minds. Rhani looked away from his face.
Give us two more days!
he had pleaded with their mother, the afternoon that Isobel had realized how truly close they had become and decided to separate them, and send Zed to Nexus, and Rhani to Sovka. He had been fifteen; Rhani, seventeen. I should have told her no, Rhani thought, tormented by an ancient guilt. I was older. We
have stayed together. I
have said I wouldn't go.

But she had not, and now it was long past, and Isobel was dead. If we had not separated, Zed would not have gone to Nexus, studied medicine, become a pilot, be what he is. She remembered him as he had been; gentle, loving, focus of her heart, as she was of his. So what if they had—as Isobel feared they might—gone to bed together? Who would it have hurt? While now ... But Rhani did not want to think about now. Zed was no longer gentle, and no longer the focus of her love.

“Two more days,” she agreed. “And hurry back.”

He smiled. “I won't linger in Abanat.” He rose. “And now I'll let you be. Your work doesn't stop just because I come home, and I know it.”

“I wish it could,” she said.

He walked to the door and turned back. “I don't suppose you ever heard from The Pharmacy about your offer to buy the dorazine formula.”

She shook her head. “I don't see why they would want to sell. As long as it keeps making money—”

“What if it were legal to transport dorazine inter-sector?” he said. “Perhaps it's time to approach the Federation with that proposal.”

“Not if Michel A-Rae is typical of current Federation attitudes,” Rhani said.

Zed said, “Do you think he is?”

Rhani shrugged. “How can we tell? They appointed him to the job.” She sat in the wing chair. “I'm sick of him, Zed-ka. Go away, let me read that report you spent the morning telling me about.”

He laughed, and went. For a moment, she was tempted to call him back, tell him to wait a week, a month, before leaving. But she told herself not to be silly, that the errand had to be done, and that he would come home soon.

She curled into the big wing chair. It was true that she had to work: she wanted to read the Net report, to review the minutes of the last Council meeting, to review the Federation directives on drug trade. And the latest mail delivery had contained five pages of closely handwritten material from the Yago Family spy at Gemit. Her mother, she thought, would never have wasted half a morning talking to a good-looking slave. Thinking of her mother suddenly made her think about her long-dead grandmother, Orrin Yago. Isobel had been a strong but cold woman, unyielding as the Abanat ice. Orrin had been passionate, about Chabad at least. Isobel used distance to threaten and protect as other folk use force, ruling the Yago interests from the haven of the estate.

But Orrin had built the estate to remind her daughter and her daughter's children that there were other places in the universe. She had seen them. Isobel had not.

Domna Orrin Yago had fought the Federation of Living Worlds and won. Before the construction of the Net, ships from Belle, Sabado, Ley, and Enchanter had brought their prison populations to the Chabad slave pens, where the Chabadese drugged them and readied them for Auction. Then, as now, off-world tourists came to watch, titillated by a condition that their own laws would not permit. Some of them even purchased slaves, and took them back to those home worlds. They were shocked to discover that, on their worlds, their slaves were slaves no more.

Cries of fraud and double-dealing rose all the way to Nexus Compcenter, seat of the Assembly of the Federation. By its own rules, the Assembly was bound not to interfere with local regulations. But export of slaves from Chabad was a non-local concern. A bill was proposed in the Assembly to ban slavery on Chabad, and the Chabad Council was invited to send a representative. They sent Orrin Yago. Rhani imagined her as she must then have been: a lean, small woman, deep-voiced, amber-eyed, her thick, short hair prematurely white. She would not, then, have needed her cane. She rode a starship to Nexus—she had never been offplanet before—to listen to the heated debate. Finally, she rose to address the gathered representatives of fifty-six inhabited worlds.

Outside, in the trees, the birds were singing. Orrin Yago had never heard live birds.

“I propose this,” she said. “Sector Sardonyx will retain the practice of slavery. However, we will severely limit the participation of non-Chabadese. Any non-Chabadese wishing to own a slave must agree to remain on Chabad for the duration of any slave contracts held by her/him. Slave contracts shall be null and void off Chabad. No slave may be removed from Chabadese soil. Only beings arrested and convicted of criminal activities within Sardonyx Sector may be subject to slavery, and only the worlds of Sardonyx Sector may offer prisoners to the slave auction, understanding that when they do so, these criminals, whatever their crimes, talents, and places of origin, may serve out their sentences to become citizens of Chabad with all due rights, privileges, and responsibilities.”

Children in Abanat schools learned that speech by heart. So had Rhani. She heard it now in her head. The debate had broken out again, still hot. Slavery itself was illegal, considered immoral on many Federation worlds.

But the Federation had bound itself not to interfere with local custom, and the other worlds in Sardonyx Sector supported Chabad. They looked for Orrin Yago to tell her that she had won, and found her sitting on a bench in a dusty park, listening to the birds.

I'm like my mother, Rhani thought. I hide here; I hate to travel. I even hate Abanat.

But she was like Orrin Yago, too. Domna Sam had said so. “You learned to be a Yago from your mother,” she whispered, leaning up on one elbow to stare at the younger woman out of her huge silken bed. “But you're not like Isobel. You're like your grandmother, you even look like her, small and tough. You're like the shell of a nut, and inside the shell there's fire. Don't stare at me, girl! I know it's there, even if you don't. Someday you'll know it, and when you do, Rhani Yago, you'll be twice as hard and twice as dangerous as your mother ever was. Twice as dangerous as you are now, and now you're very dangerous. But not as much as I am. You remember that: the Dur crest is the axe, lifted to strike, and if you oppose the axe, it cuts.”

She had rambled on, mumbling threats and promises, and Rhani had ceased to listen. Poor Domna Sam, she thought. She stretched. I wonder if she was right. If Michel A-Rae continues in his hostilities, I shall need to have the toughness of Orrin Yago.

She pictured herself in the Assembly of Living Worlds on Nexus, requesting that the Federation legalize the sale of dorazine. She did not think they would agree to do it. There were too many people in the eight sectors who agreed with Michel A-Rae.

She glanced toward the secretary. “Binkie?”

He turned to her, attentive as always. “Yes, Rhani-ka.”

“Have any reports about Michel A-Rae come in yet?”

“Not yet, Rhani-ka.”

“Please tell me when they do. What have you done about tracing the Free Folk of Chabad?” She made a face at the name.

“I wrote a letter of inquiry about them to the Abanat police.”

“Thank you.” She smiled her gratitude at him. “You know, Bink, I think Family Yago would fall apart without you here.”

He bowed his head, coughed, stammered something, and looked away.

“Let me have the Gemit report,” she said. He fished among the papers and brought it to her. “
To Domna Rhani Yago
....” The handwriting was abominable. She scowled at it, wishing the Gemit spy could have taped his report. But the Gemit security forces undoubtedly would have discovered any tape.

She sighed, and drew her legs up in the chair. “Tell Cara I'll want lunch here,” she said.

“Yes, Rhani-ka,” said Binkie.

Sweet mother, Rhani thought, he's written on the back as well! “Binkie!” she said. “Dinner too, probably.”

But by dinnertime, she had finished deciphering the report. She ate with Zed in the small dining alcove on the first floor. It looked into the garden. The moon was gibbous, and brilliant overhead; by its light, the dragoncats moved silently, weaving feral patterns among the shadows and beneath the trees.

“There's something going on at Gemit,” she said.

“They ran out of gold,” suggested Zed.

“No. I wouldn't want that—I think. No, it's internal. One of their researchers has come up with a new twist in the refining process. It will halve the time it takes to separate the pure metal from the ore, but the initial outlay of money to equip is enormous. The Dur accountants think it's a waste of money and refused to authorize the funds. The head of the research department resigned in protest. They're fighting.”

“How nice for them,” said Zed.

“Maybe,” Rhani said, “that's what Ferris Dur wants to talk with me about.”

“To ask your advice?”

Rhani grinned. “Not likely, no.”

“What possible interest would
have in the Gemit mines? Open interest, that is.”

“Maybe he wants to trade,” Rhani said. “I get an executive power struggle; he gets a cageful of dead kerits.”

“You think he knows about that?” Zed speared the last bits of meat from his plate and pushed it from him. Amri took it.

“He must. I'm sure he has spies in Sovka, just as I do in Gemit. Not good ones,” she added, “I hope.” She turned in the chair. “Amri, tell Immeld to make egg tarts for tomorrow's breakfast.”

“Yes, Rhani-ka,” called the girl, and Zed smiled. He was a glutton for Immeld's egg custard tarts.

“You know,” Rhani went on, “if the Hype cops do chase all the runners out of Sector Sardonyx, we'll have to make arrangements to use another drug, one of the dorazine derivatives, for the Net. We might even be able to buy the patent from whoever owns it.”

“None of them works very well,” said Zed.

“But they're better than nothing.”

Zed managed to look both thoughtful and doubtful. “The best of them is pentathine.”

“I'll tell Binkie to find out who owns the patent.”

“But I think you overestimate Michel A-Rae.”

Rhani brandished her fork at him. “You said he was a fanatic, dedicated!”

“He is. But the Hype drug cops have to cover eight sectors, and there are a lot of illegal drugs in the Living Worlds. He can't spend all his time and funds concentrating on dorazine. He's been at his job a few months, and while he may have shut down traffic here, it's got to be thriving elsewhere. The other sector worlds aren't going to like that, and pretty soon one or more of them is going to complain.”

BOOK: The Sardonyx Net
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