Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 02

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 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.

Over-riding 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 unkempt 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.