Chapter Ten

Brice Miller worked the brakes, easing the cab to a gentle stop. The brakes were an antique design, relying on hydraulic principles, but they worked well enough. Brice was rather fond of them, in fact. Like much of the station’s jury-rigged equipment, it took some actual skill to make it work.

There was a small group waiting for him at the terminus. He waved at his cousins James Lewis and Ed Hartman and tried not to scowl openly at the third and fourth members of the party.

Those two were Michael Alsobrook and Sarah Armstrong. They were in their twenties, not teenagers like James and Ed and Brice himself.

Twenties going on fuddy-duddy, Brice thought sourly. The cab came to a halt and he clambered out.

“Stop glaring at us,” Sarah said. “You know the drill — and it’s Ganny’s drill anyway, not ours.”

“‘Course, I agree with her,” added Alsobrook. “The last thing we need in a delicate situation is hormones running loose with pulse rifles.”

“Easy for you guys to be so blasé about it,” James said. Like Brice himself, he was looking enviously at the pulse rifles cradled by Alsobrook and Armstrong.

“Yeah,” chimed in Ed. “We’re the ones gotta crawl around in air ducts without so much as a pocket knife for self-defense.”

“Self-defense against what?” said Michael, his voice edged with sarcasm. “Rats?”

A bit defensively, Brice said, “Well, there are rats in those air passages.”

Sarah looked like she was about to yawn. “Of course there are. Weren’t you paying attention to your biology tutor? Rats and cockroaches — humanity’s inescapable companions in the Diaspora. By now, the relationship is practically commensal.”

“For them, maybe,” said Hartman.

In truth, the occasional rats he’d encountered in the vents had scurried away as soon as they caught sight of Brice. He imagined the rodents might pose a danger if someone was weak and incapacitated — but, in that case, what difference would it make if the person had a weapon or didn’t? His real gripe was just that — that —

Teenage male hormones were practically shrieking that he needed a weapon! When he sallied forth against the foe. Dammit.

Alas, older if not wiser heads prevailed. Sarah reached into the small bag she had slung over a shoulder and began pulling out the com units. The units themselves were small enough she could have fitted all three into her hand, but the wire and clip they each came with made them quite a bit bulkier if not much heavier.

“Here you go, guys. I just tested them and they’re working fine.”

There being no point in further argument, Brice took one of them and stuffed it into a pocket. “Usual place?” he asked.

Alsobrook nodded. “Yeah, there’s nothing fancy going on. Just another slave ship coming in to transfer the cargo.”

Brice made a face. “The cargo.” It was more than a little disturbing, the way familiarity with evil calloused the soul over time. Even the clan had fallen into the shorthand habit of referring to the hideous merchandise by the slavers’ own parlance. Perhaps that made it a bit easier to just watch while dozens of human beings were forced from one set of shackles to another. Watch — and extend their hand for a pay-off.

He’d written a poem about it once. The fact that it was probably a really lousy poem hadn’t made it any the less heartfelt.

But . . . there was nothing he could about it. Any of them could do about it. So he just headed off toward the air vent that led into the ducts they normally used for their lookout posts. His cousins James and Ed followed.

By the time all three of them were in place, they’d be able to provide the clan with direct observations of what was happening with the transfer. They used antique methods for their signals, attaching the clips to wires that the clan had painstakingly laid in many of the station’s air ducts. That probably made their transmissions undetectable, at least with the sort of equipment slavers were likely to have.

If anything went wrong, their assignment was simply to flee the area after making a report. Older clan members with weapons would then move in to deal with whatever needed to be dealt with.

Nobody was really expecting any trouble. Brice had only been two years old the last time violence erupted between the clan and the slavers. Two slavers who’d been part of the station’s staff, both male, had been irritated because the latest cargo to arrive had contained no pleasure units. No female units of any kind, in fact. So, after getting drunk, they’d decided to make good the loss by searching out a female from the clan.

It had all been over very quickly. The clan left the corpses in the same compartment that was always used for pay-offs, along with a recording from Ganny El demanding punitive damages. Well, punitive pay, anyway. You couldn’t really call it “damages” since the only ones damaged had been the two slavers shot into barely-connected shreds.

The slaver who’d been the station boss at the time hadn’t argued the point. Those two clowns had probably been a pain in the neck for him anyway, and the amount Ganny demanded was enough to make the point but not enough to be a real burden. After all these years, the slavers who used Parmley Station knew full well that it would take a major and costly war to exterminate the clan — and, short of that, the clan could make their lives very miserable indeed if they chose to do so. The station was enormous, labyrinthine, and nobody knew it the way Ganny’s people did. After the first fight with slavers, Ganny had had all the schematics and blueprints in the turret erased, except for those relevant to the turret itself. Then she’d had all the schematics and blueprints anywhere in the station erased except for a small number which were hidden away — and the computers which held them couldn’t be hacked into because they were kept entirely offline.

So, the slaver boss had paid the wergild, and there’d been no further repetitions of the incident. Still, you never knew. The only difference between the slavers and the rats and cockroaches who also infested the station was that the rats and cockroaches were smarter — shrewder, anyway — and had way, way higher moral standards.

* * * * * * * * * *

Alberto Hutchins and Groz Rada perked up when they saw the two slaves following closely out of the personnel tube behind three of the crewmen from the Ouroboros. Both were indeed female — and both were just as good-looking as pleasure slaves always were. One of them was downright voluptuous.

Their pleased expressions faded when they caught sight of the slave following them. The creature’s body exuded physical power. Not menace, exactly, since he was festooned with chains and a lifetime of hard labor and strict discipline would have certainly made him docile. Still . . .

Rada cleared his throat and hefted his flechette gun slightly. “The big one doesn’t come any closer until –”

“Oh, for God’s sake, relax,” said the female crewman who seemed to be in charge of the contingent from the ship. She turned her head and looked at the crewman who was holding the huge slave’s chains. More to the point, since he couldn’t possibly have restrained the brute with his own muscles, he held a slave prod casually in his other hand. The device was a distant descendant of the cattle prods used on Earth in pre-Diaspora days. Far more sophisticated in its design and capabilities, if not in its basic purpose.

The crewman gave the monster a casual jab. The heavy jaws opened and out came his tongue.

Hutchins and Rada relaxed, and Rada’s flechette gun lowered. Hutchins had never bothered to unsling his in the first place. While he did not possess unlimited faith in the goodness of his fellow men’s souls (since, after all, his own contained very little of that quality), this was a routine operation. Something he and Rada had both done at least two dozen times in the four years since they’d come to the station. Besides, the tribarrel-armed weapons turret on the cargo bay bulkhead, controlled from the slavers’ command center in the amusement park’s turret, was a far more effective deterrent than any mere flechette gun, in his considered opinion.

“Okay, then,” he said. “Let’s make the transfer.”

He gestured with a thumb toward the battle steel box mag locked to the bulkhead to one side of the tribarrel, and the Ouroboros’ crew leader nodded. Normal electronic fund transfers were entirely out of the question for an illegal transaction like this one. Despite all the ingenuity and sophistication of the current generation’s practitioners of the ancient art of “money laundering,” normal fund transfers left too many electronic footprints for anyone to be comfortable about. Besides, slavers — like smugglers and pirates — were not natively trusting souls.