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 meitocracy-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 State Sec’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 collpase 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 braches 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 its 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 an 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.