Fortunately, it wasn’t always possible to rely on normal electronic transfers, even when both parties to the transfers in question were as pure as the new fallen snow. Which was why physical fund transfers were still possible. As the female crewmember stepped forward, Hutchins punched in the combination to unlock the battle steel box, and its lid slid smoothly upward. Inside were several dozen credit chips, issued by the Banco de Madrid of Old Earth. Each of those chips was a wafer of molecular circuitry embedded inside a matrix of virtually indestructible plastic. That wafer contained a bank validation code, a numerical value, and a security key (whose security was probably better protected than the Solarian League Navy’s central computer command codes), and any attempt to change the value programmed into it when it was originally issued would trigger the security code and turn it into a useless, fused lump. Those chips were recognized as legal tender anywhere in the explored galaxy, but there was no way for anyone to track where they’d gone, or — best of all from the slavers’ perspective — whose hands they’d passed through, since the day they’d been issued by the Banco de Madrid.

The crewwoman didn’t actually reach for the credit chips, of course. That sort of thing simply wasn’t done. Besides, she knew as well as Hutchins did that if she’d been foolish enough to insert her hand into that box, the automatically descending lid would have removed it quite messily. Instead, she produced a small hand unit, aimed it in the direction of the chips, and studied the readout. She gazed at it for a moment, making certain that the amount on the readout matched the one Hutchins’ superiors had agreed to, then nodded.

“Looks good,” she said, and held out her hand.

Hutchins laid the remote for the mag lock release in her palm. With that in her hand, she unlocked the box — which closed again, automatically — from the bulkhead, then spoke into her mike. Rada and Hutchins couldn’t hear the words, since they were shielded, but they knew she’d be confirming with someone still on board the Ouroboros that the funds were in her possession. She listened for a moment, then looked over her shoulder at her fellow crewmen.

“Okay, we’re clear. Let’s get them moved.”

“Beginning with the two in front,” said Rada cheerfully, and the crewwoman snorted in obvious amusement.

Rada and Hutchins both grinned at her, but, truth be told, their real attention was mostly focused on the two pleasure slaves. In its own way, the activities they’d soon be engaged in with those slaves was as routine as the transaction itself. But it was a lot more enjoyable than the rest of their work and was one of the real perks of being a slaver.

The male crewmen handling the two pleasure slaves poked them forward with his own prod. “Here you go, boys. And I can tell you from personal experience that they’re just as good as they look.”

The very buxom one turned her head to look at him. Hutchins thought for a moment she was actually going to glare at her handler, as unlikely as that was. Pleasure slaves were trained into even greater docility than heavy labor ones.

But then he realized that her look was simply one of intent focus, and was even more surprised. Because of that same training, pleasure slaves spent most of their lives in something of a mental haze.

The crewman from the Ouroboros wasn’t looking at the slave, though. He’d lifted his prod and was studying the gauge on the handle. Catching sight of it for the first time, Hutchins was surprised again. Slave prod gauges were pretty simple things, as a rule. But this gauge looked like something that belonged in a laboratory.

“Hey, what –”

“Clear,” said the crewman.

Hutchins started to frown, began to wonder what the man meant, but he never finished either process. Indeed, the few remaining seconds of Alberto Hutchins’ life passed in something of a blur. Somehow, the other pleasure slave had her chains around his neck, the busty one kicked his legs out from under him, and on his way down the slender one used the chains and his momentum to crush his windpipe and break his neck.

Rada lasted a little longer. Not much. As soon as she kicked out his partner’s legs, the buxom slave lashed his hands with her own wrist chains and sent the flechette gun flying. That hurt, and he yelped. The yelp might have alerted the command center and roused the defensive tribarrel turret . . . if, that was, every one of the compartment’s cameras and sensors — and the ones in the passage beyond, for that matter — hadn’t been spoofed by the various nonstandard items built into that complicated looking slave prod. Rada wasn’t really thinking about that at the moment, however, and the yelp was cut short anyway by a paralyzing jab from the male crewman’s slave prod. That really hurt.

By then, moving much faster than Rada would have thought possible, the heavy labor slave was there. Somehow, his chains had come off. He seized Rada by the throat — actually, the creature’s immense hand wrapped around his whole neck — and slammed his head against the nearby wall. The impact would have been enough to render a gorilla unconscious. Rada’s skull was shattered.

* * * * * * * * * *

Perched in his hiding place in the air duct, Brice was shocked into paralysis for a few seconds. The mayhem in the corridor below had erupted so suddenly, and been so violent, that his mind was still scrambling to catch up.

In his earpiece, he heard James Lewis exclaiming — just a noise, wordless; he’d probably done the same himself — and, a moment later, what sounded like retching from Hartman. Ed’s position placed him closest to the scene, which was horrid enough even from Brice’s viewpoint. The slaver who’d had his head slammed against the corridor wall . . . .

Brice closed his eyes for a moment. Some of the man’s brains weren’t in his skull any longer. The strength of the slave who’d killed him was incredible.

But this was no time for being muddle-headed. Brice gave a very quick summary of what had happened to Michael Alsobrook and Sarah Armstrong, concluding with: “You’d better tell Ganny.”

He heard Alsobrook mutter: “Hey, no kidding.” But Brice wasn’t paying much attention to him any longer. Having done his required duty by quickly and accurately reporting what had happened, Brice was now free to use his own judgment concerning what he should do next. So it seemed to him, anyway. He saw no reason to muddy the waters by asking older and supposedly wiser heads what they thought he ought to do.

He peeked through the vent and saw that the crewmen from the Ouroboros had moved down the corridor six or seven meters in the direction of the slavers’ command center in the station’s big turret. Which was to say, six or seven meters closer to Brice himself.

So much was cause for caution, but no more than that. Well, possibly a little more than that. Most of the crewmen were carrying flechette guns — the modern descendents of the ancient Old Earth shotgun — and they were specifically designed for use aboard ship, where pulsers’ hyper-velocity darts’ ability to punch right through bulkheads (and other things . . . like life support systems or critical electronics) was contraindicated. Flechette guns were unlikely, to say the least, to blow through the ceiling of the corridor and strike Brice or his two companions hiding in the air ducts above. The military-grade light tribarrel which had somehow appeared and found its way into the heavy labor slave’s hands was another matter entirely, of course. It was designed to punch through armored skinsuits, and it would experience no difficulty at all in turning Brice Parmley into finely ground hamburger.

It seemed unlikely to Brice that anyone was likely to begin blazing away with that sort of artillery inside any orbital habitat unless he absolutely had to, so its presence didn’t really worry him that much. He told himself that rather firmly. What did produce some definite alarm, however, was that the people from the Ouroboros had stopped in order to inspect one of the maintenance hatches that gave access to the air ducts.

He heard the female crewman say: “I wish to hell we had schematics.” In response, the heavy labor slave shrugged his massive shoulders. Well, he probably wasn’t really a slave, in light of recent events. In fact, he seemed to be in command of the operation, from what Brice could glean from subtleties of the crewmen’s body language.

“Even if we had them, we couldn’t count on them,” he said. “A station as immense as this one that’s decades old is likely to have had a lot of modifications and alterations — damn few of which would have made their way into a new set of schematics.”

The woman scowled. Not at him, but at the hatch above her. “At least there’s nothing tricky about the latches. Just straightforward manual ones, hallelujah. Hoist me up, Hugh.”

The huge “slave” set down his tribarrel, bent over, grabbed her hips, and lifted her up to the hatch as easily as a mother might lift a toddler. The woman fiddled with the latches for a moment, and the hatch slid aside. Somehow or other — he seemed to be able to move astonishingly quickly for someone with that gorilla physique — the “slave” now had her gripped by her knees and he hefted the woman halfway up into the air duct. From there, she was easily able to lift herself into it.

By the time she did so, Brice had quietly scurried around a bend in the duct, so he was out of her sight. He planned to get at least two more bends ahead of her before he stopped. Behind him, he heard some soft noises which he interpreted as the sound of another crewman being hoisted into the duct. And, very clearly, he heard the female crewman say: “Give us five minutes to get into position.”