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Authors: Elizabeth A. Lynn

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BOOK: The Sardonyx Net
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“Tough shit, Ramirez. Calling
Cholla
, Hello,
Cholla
...”
 

Lying on his bunk, half-asleep, Dana grinned as the pilots bickered and snapped at each other across the spaceways. He rubbed his eyes. He'd slept since the Jump out of hyperspace into spacetime normal. Crossing the ship to the control console, he pulled a food bar from the unit and sat in the pilot's chair to add his own voice to the chatter. “
Zipper
calling Flight Tower.
Zipper
calling Flight Tower.”
 

There was a lag, then a voice crackled, “Flight Tower to
Zipper
. Identify, please.”
 

Dana pursed his lips. Of course they did not know him, as they knew Juno and Ramirez and the pilots of the passenger liners. He said, “
Zipper
, MPL-48 Class, home registry Nexus, pilot and owner Starcaptain Dana Ikoro. Request permission to berth.”
 

Control's impersonal voice softened, momentarily respectful. “Permission granted, Starcaptain. Welcome to Chabad.”
 

“Welcome,” said a woman's voice. “Juno in
Seminole
here.”
 

“Thank you, Juno,” Dana said.
 

The other pilots echoed her, offering him welcome. Control broke in: “Starcaptain, please lock your computer in for descent.”
 

Dana snorted. Pointedly, he said, “Wipe your own ass, Control.” But Control was already bitching at someone else.
 

His ship's computer yapped silent numbers to itself. They flowed across the compscreen. There was no need for him to be awake; nothing ever happened during descent that a ship's computer could not handle. Nevertheless, Dana watched compscreen and vision screen, listening with one ear to the reports from the other approaching ships. All pilots did that; it was automatic.
 

He wondered: Why the crush? The din of voices reminded him strongly of the landing approach to Nexus. Then he remembered, as Ramirez said sarcastically, “Control, if you keep us out here much longer, I'll have to tell my passengers they're going to miss the Auction.”
 

“The Auction's not for another twenty-seven standard days,” snapped Control. “Tell them to go to sleep.”
 

“Oh, sorry, Control,” said Ramirez sweetly, “didn't mean to upset you.” The other pilots chuckled.
 


Mirabelle
,” Control grated, “inform your passengers that you'll be landing in one standard hour.”
 

“Control,” Dana said, “this is
Zipper
. Request landing ETA.”
 


Zipper
, this is Control. Your landing ETA is approximately six hours.”
 

“Thanks, Control,” Dana said. Sighing, he switched the audio to off/alert. If anything changed, Control could signal the ship's computer and a warning light would flash on. He hunted through his tapes for something quick, light, and distracting; he was beginning to feel anxious about going planetside.
 

He found Stratta's “Two-Part Invention in C Major.” With music making background to thought, he told the computer to show onscreen everything it had stored about Chabad.
 

He scanned the marching array of facts. He was not trying to learn any of it; rather, he wanted to get a feel for this place he was descending toward.
Chabad had been a member of the Federation of Living Worlds since Year 72 AF
. Fine.
Abanat was its capital and its only city
. Great.
There was a Hyper bar in Abanat called The Green Dancer
. That was good to know; he would undoubtedly stop there in his efforts to line up a dealer and intercept Lamonica.
Politically, Chabad was a representational oligarchy, run by a Council
.... Dana skipped the political stuff.
The temperature in the temperate latitudes often rose as high as 62 degrees Celsius.
Sweet mother, it was hot.
Products for export included gold, silver, platinum, glass, paper, kerit fur, seaweed, apton
—
a kind of cloth
—
and Osub RNsub
(
small p
),
which the computer identified as a rare blood
-
type
.
 

Enough. Dana turned the compscreen off, wondering what kind of music they listened to, and if anyone there had heard of Vittorio Stratta. The computer could not tell him that. He doubted it: the only places he knew of which had tapes of Stratta's compositions were Nexus and Old Earth. Someday, he wanted to go to Terra, to Florence, the city in which Stratta had lived. Indeed, he thought, for all he knew he was near it, insofar as any place in spacetime normal was close to any other place. On the Hype map, it was not close at all; Terra was in Sector Alizarine, and though it might be only ten or twelve light-years distant, by non-hyperdrive speeds that was very far away. But Hype routes and the distances of spacetime normal were seldom congruent. To get from Chabad to Old Earth, Dana would have to return to Nexus Compcenter and map a route from Nexus through Alizarine Sector to Terra.
 

It was strange to gaze at the sky and know that the stars you saw might have worlds you would never go to. The pathways to the Living Worlds flowed through an inside out, topsy-turvy universe where there were no suns or planets or inhabitants at all, only shipbound pilgrims who could not stop.
 

The theme of the music changed, interrupting his musings. Dana glanced at the vision screen. He was still quite far from Chabad's moon, but for a frightening moment he thought
Zipper
had somehow tumbled into a collision course with another ship. A wheel of silver loomed across the screen. A space station, he thought, and realized that no, it couldn't be a space station; Chabad had no need for one. Few worlds did—and anyway, this was clearly a ship, he could see the fusion thrusters bulging from a segment of the rim. He stretched a hand to the audio control to hear what the pilots' chatter might tell him—and drew it back as he realized what the wheel-like ship had to be. It was Chabad's property, the Sardonyx Net, returning to the planet, he guessed, after its journey through the sector.
 

He suppressed a tremor of distaste. The contract-slave system into which Sector Sardonyx impressed its criminals was no better or worse than methods in other places. There were worlds where criminals were brain-wiped. And anyway, dorazine runners could not afford scruples. The slaves on Chabad were his market, so to speak; the system which created them had created him. He'd better approve of it.
 

He listened to Stratta's “Invention” until it ended, and then slept again, after setting a four-hour alarm. When it woke him, he checked the screens and then turned on the audio link. So far he'd seen no sign of the Hype cops, and it made him wonder if Monk could have been mistaken. The pilots bickered with Control. He was close enough to the moon's surface to see the domes of LandingPort Station. There was nothing for him to do but watch and listen. It was only in the shifts and changes of hyperspace that the course of a ship could not be directed by a machine. The swirling currents of ruby dust were unpredictable, unfathomable, inaccessible, some said, to any but an organic intelligence.
 

Shut in his round, metal canister, Dana hurtled toward LandingPort Station like a thrown stone.
 

The Flight Field, where he landed, was outside the living domes. Before leaving the ship, Dana touched his dark, straight hair with silver glitter and put his ruby earrings in his ears. He was damned if he was going to be mistaken for some gawking, tranquilized tourist. He called a bubble from Port and inserted his Starcaptain's medallion in its control slot, intending to tell it to go straight to the shuttleship port.
 

But as it rose from the surface, it changed directions, detouring, and deposited him at the lock of an inspection portal. Dana scowled, and stepped through. A hard-faced official greeted him. “Welcome to Chabad, Starcaptain Ikoro.”
 

“Thanks,” Dana said.
 

“What's your purpose in coming to Chabad?” the official inquired.
 

“Who wants to know?” Dana said.
 

The man pulled out a certificate I.D. NARCOTICS CONTROL, it said.
 

“I see,” said Dana. The man repeated his question. Blandly, Dana responded, “Tourism. I've berthed my ship; I'm going planetside. I've never been to Chabad before, as I'm sure your records will tell you. I came to see the Auction.”
 

The official looked skeptical. “Are you carrying cargo?”
 

“No.”
 

“If you're carrying cargo, we need a cargo roster. Chabad interdicts certain substances: glass, paper, silver, platinum, living cargo of any kind, unless previously cleared...”
 

“I'm not carrying cargo. I'm just a tourist.”
 

“We'd like to do a check.”
 

“On what grounds?” Dana demanded, putting up the fuss a tourist would make.
 

“Section D, Article 49307 of the Federation Code: ‘When any vessel or owner of said vessel is suspected or has previously been suspected of being or having been in violation of the Illegal Substances Ordinance—'”
 

Dana held a hand up. “All right.”
 

The official opened a panel in the wall. “Key us in, please.”
 

Dana inserted his I-disc into the unit's slot. This unit was specifically designed to make contact with the Flight Field, and could, if necessary, direct individually or en masse every berthed ship. Dana tapped out the code which would permit the Port inspectors to enter
Zipper
.
 

The official nodded primly. “Thank you.”
 

Grimly, Dana said, “If your inspectors damage my ship, I'll personally wring your neck.”
 

The official sniffed. He then inserted a second disc and punched out a code which registered the Port's guarantee that the inspection would be orderly and nothing on
Zipper
would be disturbed.
 

Hell, Dana thought, this is silly. No one smuggles drugs to Chabad this way. Besides, if the Chabadese ever decide to uphold Section D, Article 49307 of the Federation Code, the economy of the whole damn planet'll fall apart.
 

“Are you finished?” he said. “May I go?”
 

The official said coldly, “LandingPort Station takes responsibility for the safety of your ship until released by you, except in cases of uncontrollable accident, malice, fraud, insurrection, or act of god. Directions within Port are available from any Port employee and from the wall panels. Corridors are color-coded; please follow the arrows and do not pass beyond designated points. The blue stripe will lead you to the shuttleship loading port.”
 

“Thanks,” said Dana. He thought, His mother probably runs dorazine on the side.
 

“You're welcome. Enjoy your stay on Chabad.”
 

“Up yours, too.”
 

Glaring, the man slapped the wall plate, releasing the door lock. Dana smiled at him. At the corridor's end he turned right, following the pathway traced by the blue stripe.
 

The Yago Net arrived at Chabad's moon on time.
 

In Abanat the clocks were striking five. Zed Yago stood by a pilot's vision screen, looking—his eyes said
down
but his training said:
No, not down
—at his planet, itself in phase relative to the position of its moon, a white and blue and orange quarter. Abanat lay in shadow. If it were daylight, he would even now be talking with Rhani. In the corridors he heard voices, orders, the shuffle of feet. The transport of nearly four thousand slaves from the Net to the Barracks in Abanat, by shuttleship, had begun. It would take five days. At the end of those days, he and Jo and Genji Kiyohara, the chief pilot, would leave the Net, and a cleaning crew would board her. Zed disliked these days of transition; the functions of Port, the arrival of the tourists, had long ceased to interest him. He wanted to get home.
 

He gazed at the bright, thick crescent of his world, irritatedly willing it to turn.
 

“Zed-ka.” Jo had come up behind him. Of all the Net crew, she alone called him by his first name. To everyone he was “Commander;” to the other medics he was “Senior Yago.” She had been his second for nine years, as long as he had been the Net's commander.
 

“Yes.”
 

“There is a direct-line call for the commander of the Yago Net from a police officer by the name of Michel A-Rae.”
 

“The—” Jo was nodding.
 

“The very same.”
 

Zed scowled. Every five years or so the Federation gave the job of head of drug control to someone else. This was the latest holder of the job. “What does he want?”
 

“I don't know,” Jo said.
 

Zed stepped to the com-unit, touching a button to blank the distracting vision screen. He tried to recall what he knew of the man, but came up with nothing except the memory of a blurred image from a PIN transmission. None of A-Rae's predecessors had ever called the Net. “I'll take it.”
 

Maybe, he thought, A-Rae was about to tell him where all the dorazine had gone. The compscreen image cleared. Zed felt Jo move to gaze over his shoulder. There was a soft whisper through the room as the pilots heard what was going on. Zed said to the image, “I'm Zed Yago, Net commander.”
 

BOOK: The Sardonyx Net
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