By now, Brice was pretty sure the people from the Ouroboros were planning to take out the slavers who currently occupied the turret. And given the ruthlessness with which they’d dealt with the first two slavers, he was also pretty sure that “take out” was a phrase which, in this instance, was not going to be combined with soft-hearted terms like “prisoners.”

He didn’t spend much time chewing on that issue, though. Brice didn’t care, when it came right down to it, how ruthlessly the newcomers dealt with the people who currently controlled slaving operations on Parmley Station. The killing of the two slavers he’d just witnessed had been shocking, certainly, because of its violence and suddenness. Beyond that, however, it had no more effect on him than witnessing the slaughter of dangerous animals. Brice’s clan maintained practical relations with the slavers, but they loathed them.

The really important issue, still unsettled, was: who are these people, anyway?

He re-attached the com unit to the wire strung in the passageway. Ganny Butre’s voice came into his ear. “Who are they, boys? Can you tell yet?”

Ed Hartman was the first to respond, not surprisingly. Brice liked his cousin a lot, but there was no denying that Ed had a tendency to go off half-cocked.

“They gotta be another slaver group, Ganny, trying to muscle in,” he said confidently. “Poachers. Gotta be.”

James’s voice came next. “I wouldn’t be so sure of that . . . ”

Brice shared James’s skepticism. “I’m with Lewis,” he said, as forcefully as possible when you were trying to whisper into a com unit. “These people seem way too deadly to be just another batch of slavers.”

He added what he thought was the clincher. “And one of them is a slave himself, Ganny. Well . . . was a slave, anyway. I saw his tongue markers.”

“So did I,” said James. “Ed, you had to have seen it too. You were the closest.”

Brice wondered where Lewis and Hartman were right now. Like him, they would have scurried out of sight once they realized some of the people from the Ouroboros were coming into the ducts. Also like him, they’d be cautious but not overly worried about the matter. There were many kilometers of air ducts running all through Parmley Station — and the only blueprints and schematics still in existence were hidden away. If you wanted to pass through the ducts, you either had to move slowly and constantly check your location with instruments, as the crewmen from the Ouroboros were doing, or you had to have memorized the network — as Brice and his cousins had done, over the years. Even they only knew part of it. There was no way the newcomers could catch them, once they were in the ducts.

Ed’s reply was a bit slow in coming. That would be caused by nothing more than Hartman’s reluctance to tacitly admit that, once again, he’d used his mouth before his brain. “Yeah, okay. I saw it too.”

“Well, ain’t that sweet?” said Michael Alsobrook. “Ganny, we’re screwed. They gotta be from the Ballroom.”

Brice had already considered that possibility. And if so . . . The clan could very well be in serious trouble. Ballroom killers on what amounted to an extermination mission weren’t going to look gently upon people who — at least, from their point of view — also profited from the slave trade, even if they weren’t slavers themselves. And they’d have no reason to keep the facility intact, either, the way slavers did. Even assuming Ballroom killers would observe the Eridani Edict, it only applied to planets, not space stations. They could just stand off and destroy the place with nuclear-armed missiles. Or, for that matter, rip it apart with their ship’s impeller wedge without even wasting the ammunition.

Brice heard Ganny mutter what he was sure was a curse, but in a language he didn’t know. Ganny knew a lot of languages. Then she added: “That’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question, isn’t it?”

Brice frowned. Ganny also used a lot of ancient and stupid old saws. What was a “dollar?” And why did the number sixty-four thousand mean anything?

He’d asked his uncle Andrew about it, once, after the first time he’d heard Ganny use the expression. Artlett’s explanation was that the expression dated from the days — way before the Diaspora — when the human race was still confined to one planet and mired in superstition. Dollars were maleficent spirits notorious for sapping the moral fiber of those foolish enough to traffic with them. The number sixty-four thousand had magical importance since it was eight squared — eight no doubt being a magical number in its own right — and then multiplied by a thousand, which, given the antediluvian origins of the decimal system, was surely a number freighted with mystic importance.

It was a theory. An attractive one, even. But Brice was skeptical. His uncle Andrew had about as many theories as Ganny had old saws, and plenty of them were just as silly.

Still . . .

“I’m not so sure, Ganny,” Brice said. “There’s something . . . ”


“I don’t know. I’ve never actually seen Ballroom assassins at work, but –”

“Damn few people have, youngster,” said Ganny. “At least, not ones who survived the experience.”

Brice winced. Ganny sometimes also had the habit of rubbing salt into wounds. Did she really need to say that, to someone who was sharing an air duct with possible Ballroom maniacs?

“Yeah, well. Ganny, these people just seem too . . . I dunno. They seem more like a military unit, to me.”

Alsobrook spoke up again. “Ganny, that just doesn’t make sense. Who’d be sending a military unit to Parmley Station?”

“I have no idea, Michael,” replied Ganny. “But don’t be so quick to dismiss the opinion of somebody who’s actually seen the people we’re talking about. Which, being blunt about it, you haven’t.”

Now, Ed spoke up again. “Ganny, they’re getting real close to the command center. The people from the Ouroboros, I mean.”

Brice tried to figure out which of the adjacent ducts Ed had to be in, to have seen that. Probably . . .

What difference did it make? Brice had come to the same conclusion, anyway. Staying ahead of the two Ouroboros crewmen who’d come into the air duct, he was now himself positioned almost over the slavers’ command center.

What to do? He was certain that all hell was about to break loose, and was torn between two powerful impulses. The first was simple survival instinct, which was shrieking at him to get out of the area now. The other was an equally powerful urge to observe what was about to happen.

After a mental struggle that lasted not more than five seconds, curiosity triumphed. With Brice, it usually did.

The question now became: From what vantage point could he watch the upcoming events without exposing himself too much?

There was really only one answer, which was the small maintenance compartment located in one corner of the command center. As was frequently the case with such maintenance stations, it was built directly into the air duct network.

There was a risk involved, though. Unlike the air ducts, that compartment was designed to be easily accessible. It wouldn’t take more than a few seconds for anyone in the command center who was seized by the urge to open the access panel and climb in. There’d be no need for a hoist, either, or even a stepladder. The maintenance compartment wasn’t elevated more than a meter from the deck of the command center.

So be it. Hopefully, in the event that happened, Brice would manage to scramble back into the air ducts in time.

* * * * * * * * * *

When he got there, he was disgruntled to see that Ed had gotten there ahead of him. And disgruntled again, not more than thirty seconds later, when James piled in too.

Disgruntled, but not surprised. For Hartman and Lewis, as for Brice himself, the survival instinct was usually trumped by curiosity. Uncle Andrew said that was because they were teenagers and so part of their brains hadn’t fully developed yet. Specifically, that part of the prefrontal cortex that gauged risks.

It was a theory. Plausible and attractive, like most of his uncle’s theories — but, also like most of them, probably flawed. The flaw in this case was the theorist himself — Andrew Artlett, who was of an age where his prefrontal cortex should certainly have been fully developed but who was notorious for taking crazier risks than anybody.

With three of them in there, the compartment was packed tight. And their ability to observe what was happening in the command center was going to be impaired by all three of them having to squeeze next to the entrance panel. Fortunately, the panel was more sophisticated than a simple mechanical one. Instead of narrow open air slits, it had a much larger vision screen. And the screen’s electrical shield, designed to keep insects from wandering into delicate equipment, also blurred anyone’s ability to look into the maintenance compartment from the command center.

Unless, of course, they turned off the shield so they could look inside for a quick inspection of the compartment without having to open the panel. That was part of the design, too — and the screen could be turned off with a flick of a finger.

So be it. Life was never perfect. Which was no doubt the reason that evolution, in its cunning, had seen to it that the prefrontal cortex of adolescents was not fully developed. If you looked at it the right way, that was simply a necessary adaptation to the invariant cruddiness of existence.

Across the large command center and off to the side, Brice saw the entry hatch begin to open.

James hissed softly. “Showtime.”