A few of the larger independent slavers maintained their own regular transshipment stations, here and there. But most of them relied on an ever-shifting and informal network of ports and depots.

Those weren’t very hard to find. Anywhere in the Verge, at least. The accounts of human expansion into the galaxy related in history books made the phenomenon appear far neater and more organized than it really had been. For each formally-recorded colonizing expedition and settlement — such as the very well documented and exhaustively studied one that had created the Star Kingdom of Manticore — there had been at least a dozen smaller expeditions that were recorded poorly if at all. Even in the era of modern electronic communication and data storage, it was still true that most of human history was only recorded verbally — and, as it always had, the knowledge faded away quickly, with the passage of two or three generations. That was still true today, even with the advent of prolong, although the generations themselves might be getting a little longer.

If anything, the records of Parmley Station were more extensive than the records for many such independently-financed and created settlements. That portion of the galaxy which had so far been explored by the human race measured less than a thousand light years in any one direction. As tiny as it was compared to the rest of the galaxy — much less the known universe as a whole — the region encompassed was still so enormous that the human mind had a hard time really grasping its extent and everything it contained.

“Less than a thousand light-years” is just a string of words. It doesn’t sound like much, to human brains which almost automatically translate the term into familiar analogs like kilometers. A person in any sort of decent physical condition could easily walk several hundred kilometers if they had to, after all.

Astronomers and experienced spacers understood the reality. Very few other people did. The rough and uneven approximation of a globe which marked the extent of human settlement of the galaxy, in the two millennia that had passed since the beginning of the human diaspora, contained innumerable settlements that no one had any knowledge of beyond the people who lived there and a relative handful of others who might have reason to visit. And for every such still-inhabited settlement, there were at least two or three which were now either completely uninhabited or inhabited only by squatters.

Such obscure settlements were the natural prey of the independent penumbra of the slave trade. The slavers avoided any settlements which were heavily populated or possessed any sort of military force. But that still left a multitude which were either uninhabited completely or inhabited by groups small enough and weak enough to be exterminated or forced to cooperate.

Slavers preferred cooperation, though, for the same reason they generally stayed away from completely deserted installations. Such places deteriorated rapidly, once all humans abandoned them — and the last thing any slaving contractor wanted to be bothered with was repairing and maintaining what amounted to nothing more than a way station for them, especially since it could be temporary. Slavers often found it necessary to abandon such way stations, if they came to the attention of one of the star nations that took the Cherwell Convention seriously.

As best as Arai’s team could piece together the fragmented data, it seemed that Parmley Station had fallen into the hands of the slave trade about three decades earlier. There had apparently been some initial resistance put up by the people who inherited Michael Parmley’s foolish enterprise, but so far as Takano could determine, those people had either been driven off or killed.

“Is that turret the only place the slavers maintain operations?” Stephanie asked.

Haruka shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. I’d say . . . ”

“Probably,” Hugh concluded for him. “As far out into space as it extends, that turret is big enough to hold a large number of slaves.”

Marti cleared her throat. “Uh . . . speaking of which, boss.”

“What? Already?” He gave Garner’s feet a glance. “You haven’t even put on the spike-heeled boots yet.”

“They’re too hard to fit into a vacuum suit.” She gave him a leer. “But I can certainly put them on after the operation, if you’re in the mood.”

Henson shook her head. “Don’t tell me the two of you are back at it again. Isn’t there something in the regulations about excessive sexual congress between team members?”

“No,” said Garner. “There isn’t.”

She was quite right, as Stephanie knew perfectly well — given that she and Haruka were enjoying a sexual relationship themselves at the moment. The customs and traditions of Beowulf’s military, especially its elite commando units, would have made the officers of any other military force turn pale. And, in fact, probably only people raised in Beowulf’s unusually relaxed mores could have handled it without disciplinary problems. For Beowulfers, sex was a perfectly natural human activity, no more remarkable in itself than eating. The members of a military unit shared meals, after all, not to mention any number of collective forms of entertainment like playing chess or cards. So why shouldn’t they share the pleasure of sexual activity also?

Their relaxed habits on the matter worked quite well, especially given the long missions which characterized the teams of the Biological Survey Corps. It did so because the Corps’ teams also followed the Beowulfan custom of making a clear and sharp distinction between sex and marriage. Beowulfan couples who decided to marry — technically, form a civil union; marriage as such was a strictly religious affair under the Beowulfan legal code — quite often chose, at least for a time, to maintain monogamous sexual relations.

Neither Hugh nor Marti answered Stephanie’s question, which was rhetorical anyway. She hadn’t expected an answer. Not surprisingly, one of Beowulf’s most ingrained customs was thou shalt mind thine own damn business. As it happened, Arai and Garner had stopped having sexual relations almost two months earlier. There had been no quarrel or hard feelings involved. The relationship had been a casual one, and they stopped for the same reason someone might stop eating steak for a while. It was quite possible they might resume again before too long, if the mood came upon them.

There had not, however, been any spike-heeled boots involved. Beowulfan customs wouldn’t have found that abhorrent, assuming both parties were consenting adults. It just so happened that both Hugh Arai and Marti Garner had conventional tastes, when it came to sex. Conventional, at least, in their own terms. Plenty of other cultures would have been aghast at what passed for “normal sex” on Beowulf.

The com unit came alive and the same man’s face appeared. “Yeah, okay. We can’t — well, we figure you’re okay. What do you got for us?”

“The cargo’s not too big. Eighty-five units, all certified. Mostly heavy labor units.”

“Pleasure units?”

“Just two, this trip.”

“Male or female?”

“Both female.”

The heavy face broke into its first smile. “Well, good. We can use ’em.”

Henson rolled her eyes. “Oh, great. I’ve got to put on the act again.”

“I’ll pass the word to June,” said Haruka.

Stephanie Henson and June Mattes were the two female members of the team who usually served as would-be pleasure slaves on these operations. Both of them, especially Mattes, had the sort of flamboyantly female physiological characteristics that suited the roles. For the same reason, Kevin Wilson and Frank Gillich played the roles when males were needed. The tactic worked because slavers receiving the cargo were almost invariably gripped by their own lusts, so they rarely thought to check the cargo’s certifications until it was too late. A very attractive appearance was usually all that was needed.

The same was not true, on the other hand, for the team member who always played the role of a heavy labor unit. The moment any slaver’s eyes caught sight of Hugh Arai, they wanted to see his tongue sticking out. The man was huge and so muscular he looked downright misshapen. There was no way they were going to let him near them, no matter how many chains he was laden with, until they saw the Manpower genetic marker. Even from a bit of a distance, that marker was effectively impossible to disguise or mimic.

Arai stretched. The small command deck seemed to get even smaller. He smiled at his comrades and, lazily, stuck out his tongue.

There was no need to fake a Manpower genetic marker. It was right there on the top of his tongue, as it had been since he came out of the Manpower process that substituted for birth.


“F” indicated the heavy labor line. “23” was the particular type, which was one designed for extremely heavy labor. “xb” instead of the usual “b” or “d” for a male slave indicated an experimental variety — in this case a genetic manipulation aimed to produce unusual dexterity along with enormous strength. “74421” indicated the batch, and “4/5” noted that Hugh had been the fourth of five male babies “born” at the same time.

“Which outfit do you want to wear this time, darling?” Marti asked. “Rags soiled, rags torn, or rags stained by unknown but almost certainly awful fluids?”

“Go with the fluids,” said Haruka. He waved at the screen. They had almost arrived at the docking bay. Only a portion of Parmley Station could be seen any longer in the screen. That portion, not surprisingly, looked old and worn down. But it also looked just plain dirty, which wasn’t at all common for vacuum conditions. That was probably a side effect of the nearby moon’s plasma torus. “The damn thing looks like it needs a scrubbing.”

The com unit squawked again. The squawk was a completely artificial effect, the product of Beowulfan electronic ingenuity. It would resonate back to the slaver’s unit and make a suitably run-down impression.

“Use Dock 5.”

“Right,” said Garner. “Dock 5 it is.” She switched off the com.

“And a scrubbing it’s about to get,” said Henson. “Fluids included.”

Arai nodded. “The human body holds five to six liters of blood. Even slavers, who have no hearts.”