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Chapter 4

The labor tech units started arriving in ten minutes. The slaves shuffled into the compartment, their heads down and their eyes on the floor. Two of the slave ship’s crew members herded them along with deactivated—for the moment—neural whips. The slavers were rather lackadaisical about it, though; clearly they weren’t expecting any sort of trouble. The people being channeled through the compartment were genetic slaves who’d been born, bred and shaped by bondage. They had learned long ago that resistance simply led to suffering.

The expressions on their faces weren’t so much despairing as simply blank. Despair was an emotion, after all—and Manpower’s slaves discovered as children that emotions were dangerous to such as they. Those looks made Nancy furious, but she let no sign of her anger show on her own face.

After the first batch of slaves passed through the compartment, a green light on the box started flashing. While they’d been waiting for the slaves to arrive, Anderson and Tsang had programmed the box to record the right number of slaves for one chip.

“Go ahead,” said Nancy. Gingerly, the Ramathibodi’s captain reached into the box and removed one of the chips.

One chip only—and she was careful to lift that one out with just her thumb and forefinger. If the box sensed that more chips were being removed than had been properly accounted for, the lid would slam down and make sure the chips stayed inside—along with the hand that held them.

* * *

When the slaves arrived at the open hatch that led into the rest of the Station, the two guards from the Ramathibodi relinquished control to three people from Parmley Station’s contingent. Two of them were equipped with the same neural whips; the third was outfitted as a medical technician. She was there to give each arriving slave an examination to make sure no defectives were being pawned off on them.

She went about the business in a quick, almost perfunctory manner, giving each slave a scan with the medical detection device in her hand before they passed into the personnel tube beyond. The device would catch anything obvious, like a contagious disease or late-stage cancer.

It wouldn’t spot more subtle problems, but those weren’t of much concern. The sort of medical chicanery involved in passing off immediately defective units as healthy slaves was avoided in the slave trade as bad business. Contrary to the popular saw there is no honor among thieves, illegal or extra-legal transactions actually required a more punctilious attention to dealing in good faith—for the good and simple reason that no recourse to the courts was possible in the event of a dispute. That meant that such disputes were usually settled violently, which made everyone involved stay away from petty chiseling.

The other reason the medical technician didn’t pay much attention was even simpler. Given the nature of Manpower’s production methods, it was a given that a high percentage of their slaves would have some long-term medical problems. The sort of radical genetic engineering that created such slaves often produced unwanted side effects. A slave bred for great strength might have a severe blood pressure problem, for instance, or be prone to renal failure.

As a rule the lifespan of genetic slaves was shorter than that of most humans, even leaving aside the fact that such slaves were almost never given prolong to extend their lifespan. According to the Bible, The days of our years are threescore years and ten. Manpower, Inc., perhaps not wishing to seem presumptuously equal to the Lord, figured fifty or sixty years was plenty good enough for their products.

Once the medtech nodded her approval, each slave passed through the hatch into the personnel tube leading to their new quarters aboard Parmley Station. The two guards waiting inside shepherded them along. More precisely, lounged against the walls and occasionally waved them along in as perfunctory a manner as the medtech did her duties. They weren’t worried about rebellion. The slaves knew perfectly well that a station like this one would have the same forced evacuation mechanisms that all slave ships did. If they rebelled successfully here in the compartments and corridors, someone in the inaccessible control room would just push a button and they’d all be expelled into vacuum.

* * *

Lieutenant Colonel Ayibongwinkosi Kabweza and her team passed a total of eight hatches along the way before they finally arrived at a hatch that Ayako told them led into the crew’s quarters. According to Ayako, at least six of the compartments they’d passed held slaves.

If she was disturbed by the fact that Kabweza made no effort to open those hatches and free the slaves therein, she gave no sign of it. She seemed quite intelligent; enough, probably, to realize that freeing slaves for the sake of it before the ship was secured would be counterproductive.

“This is it,” she whispered, touching the hatch with a forefinger. “It’ll be locked.”

Damewood sneered—an expression which was wasted, because of the faceplate.

His fingers worked at his device. Less than five seconds later, he stepped back from the hatch.

“At least this one got some maintenance.” He motioned Kabweza and her team forward with a hand gesture at the same time as the hatch started opening.

It was gorilla time now. A hatch sliding aside couldn’t be broken off its hinges, of course, but the lieutenant colonel did as good an imitation of smashing down a door as was possible under the circumstances.

The compartment she found herself in was small; empty; not more than five meters long—just an entry tube. There were open hatches to the right and left at the end opposite the one she’d entered. Through the auditory-enhancement that was built into her armored skinsuit, she could hear the sound of voices coming from the hatch on the left.

Two seconds later she was passing through that hatch, her flechette gun at the ready.

Three members of the slave ship’s crew were sitting at a table in a small mess hall, playing cards. Shocked by her sudden appearance, the two who were facing her—one male; one female—stared at her openmouthed. The man sitting with his back toward her was starting to turn in his seat.

Colonel Anderson had made it clear she wanted live slavers for questioning. One of the Torch soldiers in the section, Private Mary Kyllonen, was armed with an old-fashioned stun gun for precisely that reason. But since Kabweza hadn’t known what they would be facing when they broke into the crew’s quarters, she’d left Kyllonen in the rear—and there was no time now to bring her forward before the slavers sounded the alarm.

A bit disgruntled by the silly business of taking prisoners but obedient to orders, Kabweza fired at the lower legs of the man sitting in front of her. The shot shredded the limbs below the knees so badly that they’d have to be amputated. But with quick care he’d survive and he didn’t need legs to talk.

She strode forward two paces and drove the table into the wall behind it with a powerful thrust of her foot, crushing the female crew member between them. That broke a number of the woman’s ribs, one or more of which were almost certainly driven into her lungs. She gasped but made no other sound. Quick care, again; she’d survive; and she could talk in a whisper for a while.

Almost simultaneously, the lieutenant colonel slammed the butt of her weapon into the forehead of the third and final crew member. She tried to keep the impact light enough to simply stun the man, but . . .

That was hard to do, wearing an armored skinsuit in combat. She was pretty sure she’d broken his skull. He might survive, he might not—but Colonel Anderson seemed like a sensible commander, even if she was occasionally given to foolish whimsy. She had enough experience to understand the realities of close quarters assault.

The whole thing hadn’t taken more than a few seconds. Best of all, it had been done fairly quietly. The flechette gun’s knife-edged projectiles moved at high subsonic velocities, without the betraying cracking sound of a pulse rifle’s supersonic darts. The man she’d shot in the legs had screamed in agony, but not for more than two seconds. Private Kyllonen had come in right behind Kabweza and silenced him with the stun gun. Neither of the other crew members had been able to call out a warning and the rest of the noises were muffled enough that there was a good chance they hadn’t alerted anyone else in the ship. Even that one short scream probably hadn’t done more than cause someone in the bridge to be puzzled. A brief sound, no matter how loud, tends to be dismissed if it isn’t followed by anything else.

Kabweza didn’t care much anyway. She was already passing through a hatch at the far end of the mess, with her section closely following. This really wasn’t going to take long.

* * *

Nancy Anderson’s com unit buzzed softly. She held up a finger, indicating to the Ramathibodi’s captain that she needed a moment to take the call.

“Yes, what is it?” Her tone was mildly annoyed.

Sorry to bother you, Chief, but I thought you should know that the Hali Sowle seems to be returning to the Station.”

Nancy had the unit on loudspeaker, so Captain Tsang could hear both sides of the exchange.

“Oh, good grief. What does that maniac want now?”

“I have no idea, Chief. They haven’t sent any messages yet. And I may have misread their change of course, although I can’t think of anything else they’d be doing except coming back here.”

“All right. She probably just wants to yell at us some more, but just to be on the safe side get the point defense units ready. The laser clusters’ll be more than enough to deal with that piece of crap.”

She thumbed off the com. “That’s probably overkill,” she said to Tsang. “I doubt if that tub has any military hardware worth talking about. Still, we may as well play it safe. The Hali Sowle’s skipper really isn’t playing with a full deck.”

Tsang grinned. “Better she’s your headache than mine.” She glanced down at the device in her hand. “Unless you’ve come up with a different reading than I have, all the labor techs we’re selling have been accounted for. You’re paid up, except for one more chip.”

“I concur.” Anderson nodded toward the open box, which was again showing the green light. “Go ahead and take it out.”

Tsang did so. “All right, that business is done. What do you want to do next? Dicker over the the pleasure units or deal with the heavy labor ones?”

The message about the Hali Sowle’s return had been a code. Parmley Station’s control center had gotten a very brief encrypted signal from Loren Damewood, notifying them that Kabweza’s team was inside the slave ship and had started their assault. Things would start moving very quickly now.

“Let’s handle the pleasure units first,” said Anderson. The moment they brought out the BSC people posing as Manpower pleasure slaves, Tsang and her people would get distracted and let their guard down a little further.

“Okay with me.”

* * *

One of the members of the section stayed behind in the mess hall to tend to the prisoners. Kabweza didn’t really need the whole unit for the assault itself. There wasn’t room for them anyway, in the cramped quarters they were passing through. She’d rather keep the XO and his special gear and skills with her than leave him behind to carry out simple medical tasks.

And they were simple. All that was needed was to keep the three prisoners alive. In good health was a moot point, and consciousness would have been a nuisance.

Corporal Bohuslav Hernandez started by applying automatic tourniquets to the mangled legs of the man Kabweza had shot, since he was the one whose injuries most needed immediate attention. He then examined the woman with the half-crushed chest and the man who’d been struck on the head.

He decided the woman would be able to breathe well enough if she were sedated. He injected her with a drug that wouldn’t paralyze her or render her completely unconscious but would leave her unable to act or think coherently, much less call out any warnings to anyone else.

He was tempted to do the same with the unconscious man, but he wasn’t sure of the extent of the damage done to his brain. From the feel of it, he thought the man’s skull was broken.

Hernandez decided it was best to leave well enough alone. There was no chance the man would regain consciousness before the action was all over and any warning he might make would be a moot point.

* * *

Takahashi Ayako had stayed with the section, since they were still in a part of the ship she was familiar with. When they got to the next closed hatch, the freed slave made agitated motions with her hands.

That’s the crew quarters, she mouthed silently.

Kabweza nodded. Like Loren’s earlier sneer, the gesture was not really visible because of the shielded faceplate. But it didn’t matter. Damewood had read Ayako’s lips also, and was already working at his special equipment.

Overriding the security on internal hatches was child’s play for someone like Loren. After a few seconds, he held up a hand, all his fingers open. Then, quickly, closed his fist and opened them again. The signal indicated that he was about to open the hatch.

Kabweza took half a step back. Behind her, so did the other remaining members of her section. Takahashi scuttled aside.

The hatch started sliding open. Kabweza went in and—

Nothing. The corridor was empty. To the left, three hatches—all of them open—led into sleeping compartments. None of them were occupied. All of them were unkept and messy.

When Ayako came into the corridor, she looked at one of the compartments and the pinched look came back to her face. Quickly, she looked away.

“Where to now?” Ayibongwinkosi asked softly, the volume on her helmet speaker turned down very low.

Takahashi looked uncertain and made a little shrug. “I’m not really sure,” she whispered. “This . . .” She paused and took a little breath. “This is as far as I ever . . . that they took me.”

She pointed to a closed hatch at the very end of the corridor. “But from things they said, I think that leads into their headquarters. The ‘bridge,’ is that right?”

“Okay. You stay here. The rest of you, follow me.”

Takahashi shuddered slightly. “I don’t want to stay here. I really don’t.”

Ayibongwinkosi hesitated a moment. Then: “Come with us, then. But stay behind and don’t get in the way.”

Five seconds later, she and her section were ready at the hatch. The XO started working his magic again.

* * *

Hearing some small noises behind her, Nancy turned her head and saw that two of her people were at the hatch on her side of the cargo bay. One of them said: “We’ve got ’em here, boss.”

Anderson turned back to the Ramathibodi’s captain. “Okay, we’re ready to start negotiating over the pleasure units. You can transfer the credit chips, if you’re so inclined.”

Tsang gestured at one of her subordinates to take the small bag of credit chips they’d already acquired for the labor techs onto their own ship.

“Not that we don’t trust you or anything,” Tsang said to Nancy. “Still, it’s like the old song goes: ‘better safe than sorry.’ ”

“An ancient saw on Old Earth said it better. ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ ”

Anderson and Tsang exchanged slightly derisive smiles. The derision wasn’t aimed at each other so much as at the universe in general. Slave traders have an outlook on life that a fanciful poet—or literary critic, more like—might call expansively ironic.

This sort of dickering in stages was common in their business. Indeed, it was considered politesse for the purchasing party to allow the seller to periodically move their newly acquired funds to a safe place before proceeding.

Once the Ramathibodi’s crewman with the bag of credit chips had left, Anderson made a motion to her own people to bring the pleasure units onto the cargo bay.

There were three of them, one female and two males. All three, as one would expect, were exceedingly attractive. Unlike most slaves, they didn’t keep their eyes down and their gaze on the floor. Their gazes were level, just . . . vacant.

Tsang smiled and rubbed her hands together. “Well, now!”

* * *

When the crewman carrying the bag of credit chips arrived on the bridge—sauntered onto the bridge, it would be better to say—his first words were:

“Hey, guys, look at this! We did better than . . . what the fuck?

* * *

Showing a surprisingly limited lexicon for people whom a literary critic might call expansively ironic, Captain Tsang used the same words when Anderson and her two people suddenly drew their sidearms. Simultaneously, the tribarrel mounted on a bulkhead in the cargo bay swiveled to bring its deadly muzzles to bear on the Ramathibodi’s contingent. And—a final insult—the three pleasure units drew tiny pistols from who-knows-where on their scantily clad persons.

“What the fuck?”

* * *

In the end, they captured all but two of the slavers alive.

The man whose skull had been bashed by Kabweza died eighteen hours later without ever regaining consciousness. Anderson made no criticism, though. Given the difficulty of the task and the training of Torch assault troops, having only one fatality was a minor miracle.

The lieutenant colonel was less philosophical about the matter. “I’ll never live this down,” she predicted.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Ayi,” said Anderson soothingly. “One fatality isn’t bad.”

“It’s better than nothing,” Kabweza replied. “But I’m still going to be the butt of everyone’s jokes when the rest of our people find out. Kindergarten playgrounds have more dangerous so-called ‘assault troops’ than we turned out to be.”

* * *

The death of the second slaver could not be placed at the feet of the assault troops, unless you wanted to accuse them of negligent homicide—which Anderson didn’t even consider, once the circumstances were explained to her.

When the section left the mess hall, Takahashi Ayako picked up a kitchen knife that was lying on a counter. It was just a paring knife, having a blade no more than nine centimeters long. One of the assault troops spotted her doing it, but his only reaction was amusement.

“Hey, look, I just thought she was cute,” Sergeant Supakrit X later explained to the battalion commander. “There she was, surrounded by apes armed to the teeth and armored to boot, but she still insisted on getting a weapon herself. If you can call a glorified toothpick a weapon.”

“Cute,” said Kabweza, looking disgusted.

Supakrit X made a face. “Look, Chief, I’m sorry. I misjudged.”

“Cute,” Kabweza repeated. “Glorified toothpick.”

* * *

The four slavers on the bridge had surrendered as soon as Kabweza and her soldiers burst in. None of them had been armed except the com officer, Ondøej Montoya, whom Captain Tsang had left in charge while she went aboard Parmley Station. And Montoya’s sidearm—in a holster with the flap closed—would have been useless against the heavily armed assault troops’ armor.

After they surrendered, Kabweza ordered all four slavers to stand against one of the bulkheads, leaning far forward and forced to support their weight on their hands. That rendered them not quite as helpless as if they’d been handcuffed, but Torch assault troops didn’t carry restraining gear because they weren’t usually given sappy, sentimental orders to take prisoners.

Still, they were pretty helpless. Takahashi obviously thought so. No sooner had the four slavers assumed the position than the freed slave screeched pure fury, raced forward and stabbed one of them in the kidney with her little paring knife.

The wound was not fatal. Given modern medicine, it wasn’t even very serious. But the shock and pain was enough to cause the slaver to jerk back, whereupon he tripped over Takahashi and the two of them went down—the large slaver on top of the small slave.

Ironically, he’d have done better if their positions had been reversed. If Ayako had been on top, she would have stabbed him with full force; very dramatically, her hand rising above her head before she drove down the blade. She would have cut him up quite nicely, but the assault troops would probably have hauled her off before she could have done any lethal damage.

As it was, with her underneath, Kabweza and her people couldn’t get to her. And since she was now driven by necessity she eschewed any dramatic stabbing and just pushed the blade as far as she could into the closest target, which happened to be the man’s left eyeball.

Nine centimeters is not very long—but the skull of a human male isn’t much more than twenty centimeters across in the long axis from front to back. Driven by the sort of rage possessed by Takahashi Ayako, the blade went almost halfway into the slaver’s brain. And then, shrieking and cursing, she twisted and drove the blade back and forth and up and down.

It took the Torch soldiers no more than four or five seconds to get the slaver rolled over and haul Takahashi off him, but by then she’d pretty well transformed a third of his frontal lobes into hash. The autopsy ’bot later reported that she’d carved up part of the limbic system as well.

Modern medicine is not actually miraculous, although the term is often used. For all practical purposes, the man was gone before any aid could be given him.

Or as now-corporal Supakrit X put it with great satisfaction over the troops’ evening meal, “I’m telling you, that fucker was dead-dead-dead.”

He wasn’t especially upset by his lowly new rank. For one thing, he knew his demotion had been mostly done as a matter of principle, rather than because Kabweza was really mad at him. He figured he’d get his rank back soon enough.

Besides, the way he looked at it, he’d been busted in a good cause. It wasn’t like getting demoted for being drunk and disorderly.

“And I still say she’s cute,” he added. “Although you’d really want to be on your best behavior on a date.”

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