Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 01

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.


Lt. 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 counter-productive.

“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 open-mouthed. 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.