Throwing herself from the autocab, n'Rilla glanced over her shoulder, checking that it continued on its path. For the moment it was still moving; she only hoped it would be enough to throw off whoever might have been sent after her.
Running down the block of grey Plasment apartments as she searched for somewhere to hide, n'Rilla wished for the twentieth time that she was one of those few who possessed the Talent of Teleportation. Being the only mode of transportation that couldn't be traced it would come in handy about now. Spotting a ventilation duct, n'Rilla pried off the grate; after scanning the gloomy interior she eased herself inside. Pipes ran to and fro above her head, but once she squeezed herself around another group of pipes, which almost blocked the opening, she found herself in a small hollow.
Satisfied she was alone, n'Rilla allowed herself a moment to consider her situation. She had successfully secured the pencil disk she had been after, but if she was caught with it, well, she wouldn't think of that. n'Rilla rolled the small cylinder end over end through her fingers. She knew she had to hide the disk, but where? Swallowing it wouldn’t work, because pencil disks didn't always hold up well to stomach acid, even if she could manage to gag it down. Her vagina was the first place they would search, and her anus the second.
The solution was clear but it was always a difficult decision. It took so much concentration, and sometimes she blacked out, which could be dangerous. There wasn't any other answer though, so she focussed all her thoughts, concentrating her energy on a spot on her forearm, about an inch square. She brought out her ankle dagger, a thin blade with a needle sharp point. Quickly she made an incision within the square, which drew no blood. She inserted the pencil disk between the skin and muscle layer, pressing gently to reduce the bump it would make. There were beads of sweat on her forehead, and the hand still holding the dagger shook. Taking a deep breath she concentrated deeper. Slowly the incision began to close; in a few moments there was only a light scar to mark its presence.
n'Rilla leaned back, allowing her mind to relax, the tension to flow out of her body. Too bad her Talent only worked on herself. What a bundle she could make if she could do this for other people! She had always wondered how different her life might have been, had she been born with the power to read minds, or control people's emotions, rather than the power to heal herself. Those Talents were in demand, now that the people who had them were no longer considered Freaks. Sure, the ability to heal herself came in handy, but it wasn't a skill she could hire out, or use to secure a good life for herself. That's what you got for having only one parent who was a Freak, she thought. All that non-Freak blood watered down the potency, leaving you with a half-assed Talent.
With the pencil disk as safe as she could make it, she emerged from the ventilation duct. There was no one on the pedestrian belt so maybe the autocab ruse had thrown them off. She approached the autocab request center warily; dialed in the personal code she used when on a 'mission', and her request. The cab arrived in less than two minutes, and in ten more she was opening the door to her Plascube.
"Full lights!" she commanded the autosystem, fearing that someone might be lurking in the darkness. She saw no one. "Dim to one quarter."
The bump on her arm was beginning to throb, reminding her again of the danger in inserting unsterilized objects into her body. She entered the bathroom to her right, and ran cold water over her forearm.
"Bath please,” she said, and water started to fill the large tub behind her. Going to the dispenser on the wall, to the right of the sink, she ordered a medikit. No sense over-exerting herself again when she could just as easily do this with a local anesthetic.
The disk was out in short order, and she applied a stimulant to speed up the healing process. Then she took a large dose of antibiotic, to ensure that any lingering germs wouldn't infect her. She couldn't afford to get sick, with the price of real medicine what it was.
With the disk in her possession, her main concern now was to hide it. She had installed a secret safe in the floor under her sleeping platform, and now she pushed back the bed to reveal it. She entered the code cautiously, knowing that if she punched in a wrong number, the security system would automatically emit an electrical shock strong enough to kill her. The panel slid back, and she added the pencil disk to the seven others there. Almost enough, she thought. Almost enough.
Half an hour later she was climbing out of the tub when her door chimed. Wrapping herself in a thick towel she hurried to her communit. It showed her the silver hair and glowing emerald eyes that were characteristic of the race known as Phebans. It was Zair.
"Did you get it?" Zair asked, as soon as the door was closed.
"Yes, I got it. I always do!" n'Rilla answered.
"I know you do,” he said, taking her in his arms, "but I always worry about you anyway."
"Worry about me? You don't!" n'Rilla laughed. "You just worry that you won't be able to fill your orders, and then someone will separate your head from your body!"
"That's not true,” he denied, running his hands down her arms. When he felt the bandage, he lifted her arm to inspect it, real concern showing in his eyes. "You put it in you again? You said you wouldn't!"
"I thought I was being chased, what was I supposed to do?"
"Throw it away! If you're ever caught with one of those..."
"I know,” n’Rilla said, interrupting, "I know what will happen. But I won't get caught."
"So sure of yourself, aren't you?" Zair laughed. "They'll catch you one of these days."
n'Rilla moved away from him, not wanting to dwell on that possibility. She knew what they did to you, she'd seen it happen to friends, and it wasn't pretty. Or painless. They didn't kill you, they just implanted a shocker in your brain, and if you thought against the programming, it zapped you full of enough pain that you didn't let yourself think for days.
"You've exhausted yourself again, with all your mind-bending,” Zair chided, leading her to the sleeping platform. "Sleep now, I'll watch you,” he promised, pushing her down and pulling the covers to her chin.
n'Rilla awoke to the sound of voices. Zair was standing in front of the communit, arguing with an unfamiliar face. n'Rilla, pretending she was still asleep, was shocked by what she heard.
"Yes she got them, but I'm not sending her out again." Zair refused emphatically. "Someone was following her, and she put it in herself again. No I don't know how she does that,” he answered, although n'Rilla was too far away to hear whom he was talking to.
"I refuse to send her, she's drained herself again, I just won't do it!" There was a pause, and then Zair's exasperated reply. "I know how important this is to you, of course I know. It's important to me, too, but I won't risk her! She means, well, she means more to me than you know." And Zair disconnected the discussion.
He came slowly to the platform, so she pretended she had just woken up. She smiled at him, but his look was preoccupied. She sat up, and he buried his face in her chest. The embrace was momentary, and then he was asking how she slept.
"Would you like something to eat?" he asked, "I could synth you up something."
"No, thank-you,” n’Rilla declined, remembering all too well that what was palatable to Zair was disgusting to her. "I can make something myself."
The first time she had tasted Pheban cuisine had been after their first successfully completed 'mission', and Zair had offered to cook them a celebration dinner. She hadn't known that Phebans were among the few races that still consumed animal flesh, and for a while she couldn't even to talk to Zair. The close bond she and Zair shared had eventually overcome her disgust, but to this day she refused to let him cook for her.
"Nonsense,” Zair insisted. "My meals are wonderful!"
Slipping out of bed, n'Rilla rolled her eyes at him. "Not where I come from! We don't eat animals, we cherish them."
She stretched, feeling a little guilty about the desire she knew she kindled in Zair. When he reached out a hand to touch her breast, she playfully knocked his hand away.
"None of that, you,” n’Rilla laughed. "You know that gets you nowhere fast."
Their relationship was platonic, mostly because their parts weren't compatible, but in ways they were closer than lovers were. At times she sensed Zair's frustration at their inability to join, but her own selfishness caused her to ignore it. Their relationship was necessary for her at the moment, and she was reluctant to sever it.
When they had first been introduced, there had been sexual attraction for both of them. As the night had progressed the attraction had grown. Zair's silver hair and emerald eyes had caught her attention first; he would be considered handsome on many worlds, but his intelligent questions and humorous responses were what captivated her. And he talked of danger. Of doing things against the law which you would never be caught doing.
They had been dancing, a slow chant of a song, their bodies throbbing with more than just music. He had run his finger across her lips, and asked her if she wanted to be rich. Her violet eyes had held his steadily, and he knew her answer. They had left the building quickly, and ended up at her plascube.
Neither of them had given a thought to the other's species, or whether they were compatible, until their clothes were off. It was only then they realized their desire was futile.
She had discovered that Zair had a holo program of them making love, and in the holo their parts fit well enough indeed. She had at first been surprised by it, and had watched as their bodies twined together in passion. Her long violet hair contrasted sharply with his silver mane, and she could almost feel it as he caressed her thigh. Her body in the holo was a little fuller than in reality; Zair had emphasized her breasts and hips, making her more provocative than she was comfortable with. He had perfected her face though, catching the high cheekbones and startling violet eyes.
n'Rilla had stumbled across the holo by accident while she was trying to access a certain file he wanted. It surprised her that in the holo Zair had given himself a humanoid physique, rather than changing n'Rilla's. She still hadn't told him she knew about it, and didn't think she ever would. His fantasies were his own, and n'Rilla only wished she hadn't seen that particular one so vividly.
n'Rilla felt much better after a substantial breakfast of what Zair considered glop, and she called her mother's special cereal recipe. The tangy fruit stimulant that she had with it had served to restore her energy, and she was now interested in finding out who Zair had been talking to.
"So who's the buyer this time? Same guy?" she asked.
"Yes,” Zair replied, "same guy."
"Does he want more?"
"You know he does,” Zair answered. "They always do."
"Do you have more to give him?"
"Not at the moment, no. I have a lead on some, but I don't want a repeat of last night, so I'll wait until I'm sure."
"Zair, what are you saying?" n'Rilla questioned. "You don't want to send me, or what?
He turned to look at her. "You think I don't realize how dangerous it is to get into the Infocentre and steal personal codes, don't you? You think because all I have to do is tap into certain files, which tell me where to send you, that I'm ignorant of the danger I put you in. It's easy for me, yes, but I know it's dangerous for you. Today was yet another reminder of just how dangerous. I won't send you out again."
"Oh Zair, it's not so dangerous,” she lied. "I know exactly when, and to which terminal the new batch of I.D. numbers come; it's simple to steal them. "
"You've had two close calls already,” he stressed, "no more!"
She realized that he wouldn't be persuaded, that he wouldn't tell her any more locations. They had made a good living at first. He would tap into the Infocentre computer, which distributed I.D. numbers to certain new immigrants, babies, and species that found their way onto the planet Boltan. If you knew when and where these numbers were being distributed, it was easy to be there in time to steal as many as you could store on a pencil disk. Then they sold them to buyers, who in turn sold them to those people who needed I.D. numbers, for whatever reason.
n'Rilla had also insisted that one batch of numbers out of ten were distributed to the children on Boltan who were born over the quota limit. Population Control allowed only a select group of couples to have children; those who had money, power, or connections made up most of this group. If those who were considered unsuitable for parenting did have children, they were considered over the quota limit and couldn't be registered. A few parents had tried to force the issue when the mandate had first come out, only to have their children taken away. Those who weren't registered couldn't receive I.D. numbers, and it was impossible to function on Boltan without one. Even the simplest technology required an I.D. number to access it. Giving stolen numbers to those children unfortunate enough to be born over the quota was n'Rilla's way of justifying what she was doing; a means to quiet her conscience.
At first it had been easy to steal the numbers, but now those at Main Center doing the distribution had caught on to the thefts, and had managed to give each new number it's own security system. They were now doing random checks, and monitoring the activities of certain numbers. When the activities didn't correspond properly to what were expected from the intended owner, Main Center did a round up. Chances were that someone among those that were brought in would give them information on who had sold them the numbers. That they now monitored numbers was making things increasingly difficult; people were less willing to take the risk of buying a stolen number. So far Zair hadn't been able to access information on whom the numbers were intended for, so that they could match numbers with suitable buyers.
She had known the last time she was almost caught that their present method of stealing the numbers was no longer viable. She just didn't want to admit it to herself. Without the extra income it brought her, she would be reduced to selling herself into slavery, a thought she didn't relish.
She pushed herself out of her chair. "Okay, you win, you always do. So what now?"
"I have enough credits saved for a while; something will come up before they've run out."
"For you, maybe, but what do I do, Zair?" n'Rilla asked.
"You were included in the last statement." He answered. "I have enough for both of us.”
n'Rilla was thrown by his answer. They were close, yes, but what was Zair thinking? The way he was looking at her made her think he knew more than she did about her future; that worried her.
"Let's just forget this, shall we?" n'Rilla offered, in an attempt to avoid that look in his eyes. "I have some shopping I need to do, would you like to come?"
He shook his head, and answered her by storming out of her plascube.
Within a half-hour n'Rilla had showered, dressed, and was on her way to the central market. The market was a large area free from the rows upon rows of dingy grey plascubes that characterized the neighborhood around it. Merchants of all kinds put up stalls wherever they could find space. Sometimes it was just as interesting to watch the merchants as it was to rummage through their many wares.
n'Rilla liked to add real fruits and vegetables to the synth food that made up most of her nutrition. There were many stalls in the market which sold produce, but only a few sold the quality that n'Rilla insisted upon. They were expensive, but she considered the taste worth it. Her favorite was the tubers that could be steamed so as not to lose their crispness. She also chose a few tart andoles, which she liked for their chewy flesh and lush juices. She wandered around adding a few more things to her basket, not wanting to return home, and not really needing anything.
Suddenly there was a group of armed men around n'Rilla, jostling her and pushing her to the side. Her heart raced alarmingly at the sight of their stunners, which were normally kept out of view. She was sure that somehow she had been identified. They passed her by just as quickly, but her heartbeat didn't return to normal for another few minutes. Then she thought her reaction was silly, because there was no way anyone could have identified her, and there were always guards rushing around the marketplace.
She decided to go home, admitting to herself that the episode had frightened her. She hoped Zair would drop by, but she didn't expect him to, judging by the mood he had left her in. Still, she would rather be at home, alone, than here with all these strangers.
As she neared the block of Plascrete apartment cubes that housed her own, she found herself glancing around nervously. She approached her apartment warily, determined to walk by it if she sensed trouble. Nothing was apparent though, so she entered her passkey.
The moment the door opened she was grabbed by the arm and wrenched into the apartment. The lights were out, and someone clamped a hand over her mouth.
"Shhh." It was Zair. "One of my connections says they're close to finding us. We have to leave now."
n'Rilla wondered how Zair had managed to get in without her passkey. Security was one thing everyone could be fairly certain of. As far as she knew, no one knew how to duplicate a passkey. The thought vanished as she realized the danger they were in, and the necessity of haste. She packed a few things, then indicated she was ready to leave.
"Stay here while I check the halls,” Zair motioned. "I'll come back when I know it's safe."
Moments later he was back; they walked as normally as they could out and away from the building. Both expected to be pursued, but for the moment they were undetected. When they were out of sight of the building she turned to Zair.
"We check out my place,” he answered. "Then we go on a little vacation somewhere."
"Why?" n'Rilla asked, alarmed. "Do you really think they know who we are?"
"I have reason to suspect that one of our clients turned us in. There was another gathering the other day, and a few of the people who got numbers from us were among those caught."
n'Rilla wondered how it could have come to this. It had seemed so easy at first. So safe. It almost hadn't seemed illegal. Now here they were, running away from someone who might not even be after them. She shook her head, disgusted with herself. No good getting paranoid, she thought.
There were guards outside Zair's building, so they didn't even bother stopping. Instead they went to the nearest Helistation, requesting a Helijet to take them to the nearest safe area they could think of; a small fishing village three hundred kilometers from the settlement. They had been in flight over five minutes when the Helijet changed directions. n'Rilla realized instantly where it was heading.
"It's taking us to the Main Center, Zair!" she exclaimed.
"I should have known they'd have tracked our phony I.D. numbers by now. It was stupid to use them,” Zair returned. "Now all we can do is wait."
Within ten minutes the Helijet was landing in the containment area of the Main Center, which housed their local prison, judicial courts, as well as government facilities. The entire center was circular, with the heavily guarded prison in the middle. The buildings on the outside of the circle were bright and well maintained. The prison, which no one saw, was run-down and grungy. The plasment had turned brown-grey from the atmosphere; everywhere there were barbed fences that closed off walkways, exercise areas, and containment areas.
n'Rilla and Zair were escorted out by two enormous armed guards. They were females from the planet Ooer, which was famous for the savagery of its citizens. They were often employed in prisons and work camps, where their strength and brutality were considered assets. The two accompanying n'Rilla and Zair were the largest females of the species she had yet to see.
The guards led them to a small brightly-lit room, forcing them roughly through the doorway. One of them swung the door shut, and there was the sound of the lock being activated.
Minutes later the door reopened to admit a short balding man. His portly frame gave evidence to the high position he enjoyed; only the rich could afford to be fat.
"I see the two of you have been stealing Identity Numbers,” the Pheban began, glancing over the documents he had brought with him. "We at Main Center do not take kindly to this sort of thing."
"You allow children to die!" n'Rilla accused. "Without I.D.'s they can't get food, go to school. They can't exist."
"The children I presume that you are referring to would not die if their parents would adhere to our Quota laws,” he returned. "We provide free sterilization to those who don't qualify as parents, but they insist on bearing unwanted fruit. We cannot be held responsible for this."
n'Rilla glared at him. She had heard this same garbage before; it was what they told you when they explained why you couldn't have children, that you weren't among the chosen few. She made a move towards the Pheban, but Zair restrained her.
"n'Rilla don't. You can't hurt him, so don't try."
"Ah," the Pheban replied, "you my boy are very correct. I am quite safe here with you, as we are being monitored constantly. Any move from you will bring our two Ooen friends in. You would not like that."
n'Rilla forced herself to swallow the anger building in her throat. "What will you do with us?"
"With you it has not yet been decided. Your friend Zair, however, has an influential father who has pleaded with us to allow him to discipline his son. To this we have agreed. We thought perhaps you would bring a good price; indeed you are quite beautiful."
She was to be sold as a slave! "And what discipline does his father have in mind for him?" she questioned sharply.
"Why, nothing short of death,” the man chuckled. "His father has asked that he be allowed to punish his son with death."
Zair looked at her; his usually glowing eyes dull. "It is our way, to punish our own. If they did not allow it they would dishonor my father." He turned to the Pheban. "Promise,” here his voice caught, “Promise to take the best care of her."
The Pheban nodded his agreement, and then the door was being opened. Before she could say anything, she was being pushed from the room. Zair turned for a moment; as the door swung shut, their eyes locked briefly, then he was gone.
She began to struggle, but the guard had a firm grip on her upper arm, and resistance only caused pain. She gave it up as futile, but was determined to run whenever she saw the chance. The chance never came though, because she was taken directly to a waiting transport shuttle, and moments later she was on her way.
The shuttle itself was computer driven, but try as she might she couldn't access its programs. It was, after all, a security class shuttle, so she wasn't surprised. You'd have to be a genius to break through its defense core. She had no idea where she was going, even if she did manage to change the program. She could very well be hundreds of feet under water, and more than likely she would end up killing herself in the effort. She settled into her seat, determined to meet her fate bravely.
Forty-five minutes later the shuttle began to slow. She still had no idea where she was, because security shuttles had no windows and were kept at a constant air and pressure level. She had lost track of how many turns and twists the small craft had made. The door swung open, and she found herself outside a large cruiser, which was docked to her left. There were no guards in sight, so she got out slowly.
The cruiser was larger than most she'd seen, and obviously belonged to someone wealthy. The colors on the titanium shell were vibrant, not the usual grey. To afford such luxury on the outside meant infinitely more wealth on the inside. The ovoid length shone dully, and n'Rilla wondered why she had been brought here.
She was just about to run when the door to the pleasure cruiser opened, and an unfamiliar Pheban came out to greet her.
"Come, join us please," the Pheban invited. "The sister of Zair welcomes you."
"Sister of Zair?" n'Rilla questioned.
"Yes, he comes shortly. Please join us,” she returned, indicating the open door.
n'Rilla entered cautiously, still bewildered by what was happening. How had she managed to get here? A security shuttle was only ever programmed to take you to another detention center. Surely they would notice any odd programming?
She was led to a room at the middle of the craft, where Zair's sister indicated she should wait.
"Zair comes shortly." She was assured.
n'Rilla looked around her, surprised by the richness of color and texture that had been used to decorate the room. Burgundies accented deep royal blue, and emerald green. The walls themselves appeared to be material of a velvety texture. The effect was one of pleasing warmth, although n'Rilla wished she were at ease enough to enjoy it.
The door opened, and Zair rushed in, seizing her and swinging her around. She couldn't understand his exuberance, and was angry that he appeared so happy.
"What are you doing?" she cried.
"I'm sorry you had to go through that, but it was the only way." Zair explained.
"What are you talking about?"
Zair glanced at her, sensing her anger and confusion. "I mean being sold. I'm sorry you thought you would be sold as a slave."
"Well I was, wasn't I? I'm your slave, aren't I?" she accused.
"Of course not,” he denied, chuckling with delight at her suggestion. "I'm dead, I cannot own property. My father purchased you. For me of course..."
She hit him then, with all the force that her recent fright had built up in her. Her fist connected with his jaw and sent him sprawling to the floor. He looked at her in amazement and stopped laughing, which satisfied her a little.
"I thought you would at least be thankful,” Zair said, rubbing the red mark on his chin ruefully.
"Thankful! You don't even consider what I want, and you expect me to be thankful?" n'Rilla replied angrily.
Zair looked at her, all joking gone from his face. "I thought that to escape would be enough for you. I'm sorry if my choice displeased you."
n'Rilla felt somewhat guilty, but her anger goaded her on. "Well, you got me into this in the first place. And now that you've got us here, what's next on your agenda?"
"You're right,” Zair admitted. "The fault was mine from the start. But now we can start over on Phebe, where I should have stayed as my father has always said. Perhaps I was meant to leave, so I could find you."
He got up gracefully and moved to embrace n'Rilla, who allowed it grudgingly. She was still angry that he had not allowed her a choice in the matter, but as soon as they reached Phebe her choices would be unlimited. There was time for her to work out her own set of plans; although she had always wanted to visit Phebe, there were other places she could go, too. This time Zair wouldn't have a say in the matter.
She broke away from his embrace, and went to stand by the viewing screen, taking her last look at Boltan. Her gaze remained fixed on the screen, but in her mind she was already running.