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Chapter Nine

As he watched Parmley Station growing in the screen, Hugh Arai shook his head. The gesture combined awe, amusement, and wonder at the inexhaustible folly of humankind. Hearing the little snort he emitted, Marti Garner eyed him sideways, from her casual sprawl on the chair in front of the viewscreen. She was the lieutenant who served as his executive officer, insofar as the command structure of Beowulf's Biological Survey Corps could be depicted in such a formal manner. Even Beowulf's regular armed forces had customs which were considered peculiar by the majority of the galaxy's other armed forces. The traditions and practices of the Biological Survey Corps were considered downright bizarre—at least, by those few armed forces who understood that the BSC was actually Beowulf's equivalent of an elite commando force.

There weren't many of them. The Star Kingdom's Office of Naval Intelligence was probably the only foreign service whose officials really understood the full scope of the BSC's activities—and they kept their collective mouths tightly shut. The tacit alliance between Manticore and Beowulf was longstanding and very solid, for all that it was mostly informal.

The Andermanni knew enough to know that the BSC was not the innocuous-sounding outfit it passed itself off to be, but probably not much more than that. The BSC didn't operate very extensively in Andermanni territory. As for the Havenites . . .

It was hard to be certain what they knew or didn't know, although it hadn't always been that way. Indeed, there'd been a time when the Republic of Haven had been almost as well connected with Beowulf as Manticore, but that had ended over a hundred and forty T-years ago.

For the most part, Beowulfers had been less than overjoyed when Haven officially became the People's Republic after the Constitutional Convention of 1750, but it was the Technical Conservation Act of 1778 which had effectively put the final kiss of death on the once cordial relationship. By making it a crime for engineers or professionals to seek to emigrate from the Peoples' Republic for any reason, the Legislaturalists had pushed Beowulf's meritocracy-worshiping public opinion beyond the snapping point. The PRH had responded to Beowulf's highly vocal criticism by launching a vigorous anti-Beowulf propaganda campaign (Public Information had been an old hand at such tactics even then), and relations between the two star nations had nosedived.

Military cooperation between the PRH and Beowulf had been dwindling well before 1778, of course, but it had terminated completely after the Legislaturalists passed the TCA. By this time, the Beowulfers were pretty sure that the regular armed forces of the Republic of Haven thought the Survey Corps was exactly what it passed itself off to be: a civilian outfit, but one which, given that it often ventured into the galactic equivalent of rough neighborhoods, was pretty tough. Nothing compared to a real military force, of course.

But that might not have been true of Haven's State Security, back in the days of the Pierre Saint-Just regime. And just how much of StateSec's institutional knowledge had been passed on to the succeeding intelligence outfit—which had also been one of its executioners—was an open question.

However, it probably didn't matter that much. Beowulf's Biological Survey Corps had never spent much time in Havenite space.

First, because that had become . . . impolitic following the collapse of Haven-Beowulf relations. But, second, because there was no reason to, given Haven's longstanding hostility to genetic slavery. Say what one might about the Legislaturalists—and, for that matter, the lunatics of the Committee of Public Safety—their opposition to slavery had remained fully intact. Personally, and despite a personal partiality for Manticore, Hugh had always been prepared to cut Haven quite a bit of slack in other areas, given its aggressive enforcement of the Cherwell Convention. He was pretty sure most of his fellows in the BSC shared his opinion in that regard, as well, although certain other branches of Beowulf's military might feel rather differently. The Biological Survey Corps' primary mission could best be described as that of conducting a secret war against Manpower, Inc. and Mesa, however, which gave its personnel a somewhat different perspective. Theirs, after all, was a pragmatic, narrowly defined purpose—a point Hugh was cheerfully prepared to admit with absolutely no trace of apology. Beowulf's continuing galactic prominence in the life-sciences affected all aspects of Beowulfan culture, including that of its military, and that was especially true of the BSC. Assuming you could have gotten any one of the combat teams to discuss their activities at all—not likely, to say the least—they'd have probably said something to the effect that a person shoots their own dog, when the critter goes rabid.

As the centuries passed, most of the galaxy had forgotten or at least half-forgotten that the people who founded Manpower, Inc., had been Beowulfan renegades. But Beowulf had never forgotten.

"What in the name of God was he thinking?" Arai murmured.

Marti Garner chuckled. "Which God are we talking about this week, Hugh? If it's one of the more archaic Judeo-Christian-Islamic varieties you seem to have developed a completely incomprehensible interest in lately, then . . ."

She paused and looked to the team member to her left for assistance. "What's your opinion, Haruka? I'm figuring the Old Testament maniac—excuse me, that's 'Maniac' with a capital 'm'—would have commanded poor old Michael Parmley to build the screwball station to demonstrate his obedience."

Haruka Takano—he'd have been described as the unit's intelligence officer in another armed force—opened his eyes and gazed placidly at the immense and bizarre amusement park that was continuing to swell in the screen.

"How am I supposed to know?" he complained. "I'm of Japanese ancestry, if you remember."

Garner and Arai gave him looks which might charitably have been described as skeptical. That was perhaps not surprising, given Takano's blue eyes, very dark skin, features which seemed more south Asian than anything else—and the complete absence of even a trace of an epicanthic fold.

"Spiritual ancestry, I'm referring to," Takano clarified. "I'm a lifelong and devout adherent to the Beowulfan branch of ancient Shinto."

The gazes of his companions remained skeptical.

"It's a small creed," he admitted.

"Membership of one?" That came from Marti Garner.

"Well, yes. But the point is, I have no idea what some deranged deity from the Levant might have said or done." He raised himself from his slouch to peer more closely at the screen. "I mean . . . look at the bloody thing. What is it? Six kilometers in diameter? Seven?"

The fourth person on the ship's command deck spoke up. " 'Diameter's a meaningless term. That structure doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to a sphere. Or any rational geometry."

Stephanie Henson, like Hugh Arai, was on her feet rather than sprawled in a chair. She pointed an accusing finger at the object they were all studying on the screen. "That crazed construction doesn't resemble anything outside of a hallucination."

"Not true, actually," said Takano. "When he built the station, over half a century ago, Parmley was guided by some ancient designs. Places back on pre-Diaspora Terra named Disneyland and Coney Island. There's nothing left of them materially except archaeological traces, but a number of images survive. I spent a little time studying them."

The station now filled most of the screen. The unit's intelligence specialist rose to his feet and began pointing to various portions of the structure.

"That thing that seems to loop and wind all over is called a 'roller coaster.' Of course, like every part of the station that isn't contained inside the pressure hull, it's been adapted for vacuum conditions. And, at least if I'm interpreting the few accounts of the station I could track down correctly, they incorporated a number of micro-gravity features as well."

He pointed to the one and only part of the huge structure that had a simple geometric shape. "That's called a 'ferris wheel.' Don't ask me what the term 'ferris' refers to, because I have no idea."

"But . . . what does it do?" asked Henson, frowning. "Is it some sort of propulsion mechanism?"

"It doesn't exactly do anything. People climb into those pressurized cabs you can see and the wheel starts—that much of the name makes sense, at least—wheeling them through space. I guess the point is to give people the best view possible of the surroundings. Which, you have to admit, are rather spectacular, in orbit around Ameta and with Yamato's Nebula so close."

"And what's that?" asked Garner, pointing to yet another portion of the station they were approaching.

Takano made a face. "It's a grotesquely enlarged and extravagant, absurd and preposterous—the terms 'insensate' and 'ludicrous' spring to mind also—version of a structure that was part of ancient Disneyland. The structure was a very fanciful rendition of a primitive fortified dwelling called a 'castle.' It went by the name of 'Fantasyland.' " He pointed to a spire of some sort rising from the station. "That's called a 'turret.' In theory, it's a defensive emplacement."

The com beeped, announcing an incoming message. Arai made his own grimace, and straightened up from the chair.

"Speak of the proverbial devil," he said. "Wait . . . let's say seven seconds, Marti, and then answer the call."

"Why seven?" she complained. "Why not five, or ten?"

Arai clucked his tongue. "Five is too few, ten is too many—for a slovenly crew engaged in a risky enterprise."

"That took just about seven seconds," Takano said admiringly.

But Garner was already starting to speak. She didn't bother making any shushing gestures, though. Despite its battered and antiquated appearance, the equipment on the Ouroboros' command deck was like the rest of the ship—the product of up-to-date Beowulfan technology, beneath the unprepossessing exterior. No one on the other end of the com system would hear or see anything except Marti Garner's face and voice.

Her response to the signal would, needless to say, have appalled any proper military unit.

"Yeah. Ouroboros here."

A man's face appeared on the com screen. "Identify yourselves and—"

"Oh, cut the bullshit. Check your records. You know perfectly well who we are."

The man on the other end muttered something that was probably a curse. Then he said: "Hold on. We'll get back to you."

The screen went blank. Presumably, he was consulting whoever was in charge. In point of fact, there would be no records of the Ouroboros on Parmley Station—for the good and simple reason that the ship had never come here before. But Arai's team had gauged that the erratic and unstable manner in which the slavers who used the station kept it staffed, insofar as you could use that term at all, meant that the absence of records would just be attributed by the current overseers of the operations there as the product of sloppiness on the part of their predecessors.

Parmley Station was a transshipment point of convenience for freelance slavers, not one of the depot ports Manpower itself maintained on a regular basis. That corporation, as powerful and wealthy as it might be, was still a commercial entity, not a star nation. Manpower directly managed the core portions of its operations, but its activities were much too far flung—not simply throughout the immense reaches of the Verge but even through large parts of the Shell—for it to personally supervise all of them. So, just as it often farmed out paramilitary operations to mercenaries, Manpower also farmed out many of the fringe aspects of the slave trade to independent contractors.

A few of the larger independent slavers maintained their own regular transshipment stations, here and there. But most of them relied on an ever-shifting and informal network of ports and depots.

Those weren't very hard to find. Anywhere in the Verge, at least. The accounts of human expansion into the galaxy related in history books made the phenomenon appear far neater and more organized than it really had been. For each formally recorded colonizing expedition and settlement—such as the very well documented and exhaustively studied one that had created the Star Kingdom of Manticore—there had been at least a dozen smaller expeditions that were recorded poorly if at all. Even in the era of modern electronic communication and data storage, it was still true that most of human history was only recorded verbally—and, as it always had, the knowledge faded away quickly, with the passage of two or three generations. That was still true today, even with the advent of prolong, although the generations themselves might be getting a little longer.

If anything, the records of Parmley Station were more extensive than the records for many such independently financed and created settlements. That portion of the galaxy which had so far been explored by the human race measured less than a thousand light years in any one direction. As tiny as it was compared to the rest of the galaxy—much less the known universe as a whole—the region encompassed was still so enormous that the human mind had a hard time really grasping its extent and everything it contained.

"Less than a thousand light-years" is just a string of words. It doesn't sound like much, to human brains which almost automatically translate the term into familiar analogs like kilometers. A person in any sort of decent physical condition could easily walk several hundred kilometers if they had to, after all.

Astronomers and experienced spacers understood the reality. Very few other people did. The rough and uneven approximation of a globe which marked the extent of human settlement of the galaxy, in the two millennia that had passed since the beginning of the human Diaspora, contained innumerable settlements that no one had any knowledge of beyond the people who lived there and a relative handful of others who might have reason to visit. And for every such still-inhabited settlement, there were at least two or three which were now either completely uninhabited or inhabited only by squatters.

Such obscure settlements were the natural prey of the independent penumbra of the slave trade. The slavers avoided any settlements which were heavily populated or possessed any sort of military force. But that still left a multitude which were either uninhabited completely or inhabited by groups small enough and weak enough to be exterminated or forced to cooperate.

Slavers preferred cooperation, though, for the same reason they generally stayed away from completely deserted installations. Such places deteriorated rapidly, once all humans abandoned them—and the last thing any slaving contractor wanted to be bothered with was repairing and maintaining what amounted to nothing more than a way station for them, especially since it could be temporary. Slavers often found it necessary to abandon such way stations, if they came to the attention of one of the star nations that took the Cherwell Convention seriously.

As best as Arai's team could piece together the fragmented data, it seemed that Parmley Station had fallen into the hands of the slave trade about three decades earlier. There had apparently been some initial resistance put up by the people who inherited Michael Parmley's foolish enterprise, but so far as Takano could determine, those people had either been driven off or killed.

"Is that turret the only place the slavers maintain operations?" Stephanie asked.

Haruka shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. I'd say . . ."

"Probably," Hugh concluded for him. "As far out into space as it extends, that turret is big enough to hold a large number of slaves."

Marti cleared her throat. "Uh . . . speaking of which, boss."

"What? Already?" He gave Garner's feet a glance. "You haven't even put on the spike-heeled boots yet."

"They're too hard to fit into a vacuum suit." She gave him a leer. "But I can certainly put them on after the operation, if you're in the mood."

Henson shook her head. "Don't tell me the two of you are back at it again. Isn't there something in the regulations about excessive sexual congress between team members?"

"No," said Garner. "There isn't."

She was quite right, as Stephanie knew perfectly well—given that she and Haruka were enjoying a sexual relationship themselves at the moment. The customs and traditions of Beowulf's military, especially its elite commando units, would have made the officers of any other military force turn pale. And, in fact, probably only people raised in Beowulf's unusually relaxed mores could have handled it without disciplinary problems. For Beowulfers, sex was a perfectly natural human activity, no more remarkable in itself than eating. The members of a military unit shared meals, after all, not to mention any number of collective forms of entertainment like playing chess or cards. So why shouldn't they share the pleasure of sexual activity also?

Their relaxed habits on the matter worked quite well, especially given the long missions which characterized the teams of the Biological Survey Corps. It did so because the Corps' teams also followed the Beowulfan custom of making a clear and sharp distinction between sex and marriage. Beowulfan couples who decided to marry—technically, form a civil union; marriage as such was a strictly religious affair under the Beowulfan legal code—quite often chose, at least for a time, to maintain monogamous sexual relations.

Neither Hugh nor Marti answered Stephanie's question, which was rhetorical anyway. She hadn't expected an answer. Not surprisingly, one of Beowulf's most ingrained customs was thou shalt mind thine own damn business. As it happened, Arai and Garner had stopped having sexual relations almost two months earlier. There had been no quarrel or hard feelings involved. The relationship had been a casual one, and they stopped for the same reason someone might stop eating steak for a while. It was quite possible they might resume again before too long, if the mood came upon them.

There had not, however, been any spike-heeled boots involved. Beowulfan customs wouldn't have found that abhorrent, assuming both parties were consenting adults. It just so happened that both Hugh Arai and Marti Garner had conventional tastes, when it came to sex. Conventional, at least, in their own terms. Plenty of other cultures would have been aghast at what passed for "normal sex" on Beowulf.

The com unit came alive and the same man's face appeared. "Yeah, okay. We can't—well, we figure you're okay. What do you got for us?"

"The cargo's not too big. Eighty-five units, all certified. Mostly heavy labor units."

"Pleasure units?"

"Just two, this trip."

"Male or female?"

"Both female."

The heavy face broke into its first smile. "Well, good. We can use 'em."

Henson rolled her eyes. "Oh, great. I've got to put on the act again."

"I'll pass the word to June," said Haruka.

Stephanie Henson and June Mattes were the two female members of the team who usually served as would-be pleasure slaves on these operations. Both of them, especially Mattes, had the sort of flamboyantly female physiological characteristics that suited the roles. For the same reason, Kevin Wilson and Frank Gillich played the roles when males were needed. The tactic worked because slavers receiving the cargo were almost invariably gripped by their own lusts, so they rarely thought to check the cargo's certifications until it was too late. A very attractive appearance was usually all that was needed.

The same was not true, on the other hand, for the team member who always played the role of a heavy labor unit. The moment any slaver's eyes caught sight of Hugh Arai, they wanted to see his tongue sticking out. The man was huge and so muscular he looked downright misshapen. There was no way they were going to let him near them, no matter how many chains he was laden with, until they saw the Manpower genetic marker. Even from a bit of a distance, that marker was effectively impossible to disguise or mimic.

Arai stretched. The small command deck seemed to get even smaller. He smiled at his comrades and, lazily, stuck out his tongue.

There was no need to fake a Manpower genetic marker. It was right there on the top of his tongue, as it had been since he came out of the Manpower process that substituted for birth.


"F" indicated the heavy labor line. "23" was the particular type, which was one designed for extremely heavy labor. "xb" instead of the usual "b" or "d" for a male slave indicated an experimental variety—in this case a genetic manipulation aimed to produce unusual dexterity along with enormous strength. "74421" indicated the batch, and "4/5" noted that Hugh had been the fourth of five male babies "born" at the same time.

"Which outfit do you want to wear this time, darling?" Marti asked. "Rags soiled, rags torn, or rags stained by unknown but almost certainly awful fluids?"

"Go with the fluids," said Haruka. He waved at the screen. They had almost arrived at the docking bay. Only a portion of Parmley Station could be seen any longer in the screen. That portion, not surprisingly, looked old and worn down. But it also looked just plain dirty, which wasn't at all common for vacuum conditions. That was probably a side effect of the nearby moon's plasma torus. "The damn thing looks like it needs a scrubbing."

The com unit squawked again. The squawk was a completely artificial effect, the product of Beowulfan electronic ingenuity. It would resonate back to the slaver's unit and make a suitably run-down impression.

"Use Dock 5."

"Right," said Garner. "Dock 5 it is." She switched off the com.

"And a scrubbing it's about to get," said Henson. "Fluids included."

Arai nodded. "The human body holds five to six liters of blood. Even slavers, who have no hearts."

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