Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 03


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 side-arms. Simultaneously, the tri-barrel 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.”