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.