“Okay, kid. Who are you?”

Oddly, the monster’s voice was a rather pleasant tenor. From his appearance, you’d have expected a basso profundo with an undertone of gravel being poured down a chute.

The expression on his face was a surprise, too. There was more than a hint of humor in those heavy features. Relaxed humor, at that. Brice would have expected something more along the lines of what he thought a troll probably looked like, while glaring in fury.

“I’m, uh, Brice Miller. Sir. The two guys — kids — with me are James Lewis and Ed Hartman.”

“And where did you come from?”

“Uh . . . Well. Actually, we live here, sir.”

“Not here!” yelled Ed. Yelped, rather. He and James had come out of the compartment also, by then.

“No, no, no,” Brice hastily agreed. “I didn’t mean we live here. With the slavers.”

“The stinking dirty rotten slavers.” That was James’s contribution, spoken in a rush.

“We live . . . well, somewhere else. On the station, I mean. With Ganny Butre and the rest of our people.”

“And who’s Ganny Butre?”

“She’s, uh, the widow of the guy who built Parmley Station. Michael Parmley himself. He was my great-grandfather. She’s my great-grandmother.” He hooked a thumb at James and Ed. “Theirs too. We’re all pretty much related. Except for the people we adopted.”

“Those were slaves we rescued,” added Ed.

“From the stinking dirty rotten slavers,” said James. Again, in a rush.

One of the female commandos rose from her crouch. She was the buxom one who’d been passing herself off as a pleasure slave. Somehow or other, she’d gotten her hands on a flechette gun and looked like she knew how to use it. Raging fourteen-year-old hormones be damned. Brice wasn’t even tempted to stare at her bosom. The last two males who’d behaved offensively in her presence were now dead-dead-dead.

“Talk about the well-made plans of mice and men ganging aft agleigh,” she said. “What do we do now, Hugh?”

To Brice’s relief, the giant commando in front of him had lowered his weapon.

“I’m not sure yet,” said the man. He spoke into his com. “Hold off on the nukes, Richard. Turns out we got civilians aboard the station, after all.”

Brice couldn’t hear the reply. But a few seconds later the commando — Hugh, apparently — shrugged his shoulders. “Got no idea. I’ll ask him.”

“How many of you are there, Brice?”

Brice hesitated. “Uh . . . about two dozen.”

Hugh nodded and spoke into the com again. “He claims two dozen. Seems like a good kid, loyal to his own, so he’s almost certainly lying. I figure at least three times that. You ought to be able to find them with another search, now that you know there’s something to be found. And before you start whining, no, that’s not a reprimand. If the kid’s telling the truth and these are Parmley’s own descendants, they’ve had decades to conceal themselves. Not surprising we didn’t spot them with a standard search.”

Brice took a deep breath. He didn’t see any point in delaying the inevitable.

“Ah . . . Mr. Hugh, sir. Are you folks from the Audubon Ballroom?”

A smile spread across the commando’s face. It was a big smile, and it seemed to come very easily.

“No, we’re not — and that must be a relief.” He shook his head, still smiling. “Come on, Brice. Do we look stupid? There’s no way a whole tribe of you has been living here for more than half a century unless you worked out some sort of accommodation with the slavers. Probably took bribes from them to keep you from being a nuisance. Maybe did some of their maintenance work.”

“We never did a damn thing for them!” said Ed.

Hugh swiveled his head to look down at him. “But you took their money, didn’t you?”

Ed was silent. Brice tried to think of something, but . . . what was there to say, really?

Except . . .

“Unless we were going to die, we didn’t have any choice,” he stated, in as adult a manner as he could manage. “We’re broke. Have been since way before I was born. We had no way to leave and the only way we could stay was by making a deal with the slavers.”

“The stinking dirty rotten slavers,” added James. Brice thought that was probably the most useless qualifier uttered by any human being since the ancient Hebrews tried to claim the golden calf was actually there as a reminder of the evils of idolatry. And Yahweh hadn’t bought it for one second.

The commando just laughed. “Oh, relax. Even the Ballroom . . . ” He cocked his head slightly and glanced at Ed. “Did I understand you right, earlier? That you’ve adopted slaves into your group. And if so, where did they come from?”

“Yeah, it’s true. There’s about . . . ” He paused, while he did a quick estimate. “Somewhere around thirty, I figure.”

“Thirty, is it? Out of twenty-four total.”

Brice flushed. “Well. Okay, there’s maybe more than just two dozen of us, all told. But I’m not fudging about the thirty.”

“It’s thirty-one, actually,” said James eagerly. He seemed to have become addicted to useless qualifiers. “I just did an exact count.”

“And where’d they come from?”

Brice raced through every alternative answer he could think of, before deciding that the truth was probably the best option. The commando questioning him might be built like an ogre, but it was obvious by now that there was nothing dull-witted or brutish about his mind.

“Most of them come from way back — I wasn’t even born yet — before we’d, well, worked out our arrangement with the slavers. There were a couple of big fights then, and we freed a bunch of slaves both times. Since then, of course, some of them have had kids themselves, but I wasn’t including them in the thirty figure since they weren’t born slaves.”

Hugh scratched his heavy chin. “And who’d they marry? Or whatever arrangements you folks have. What I mean is, who are the other parents? Other slaves, or some of you folks?”

“Both,” said Brice. “Mostly some of us, though. Ganny encouraged it. Said she doesn’t want any more in-breeding than necessary.”

The commando nodded. “That’ll help. A lot, in fact. And where’d the rest of the slaves come from?”

“People who escaped later. There aren’t many of them, though.”

“Sure there are,” insisted James. “I count four, all told. That’s actually a lot, when you think about it.”

It was, in fact. There shouldn’t have been any at all, except the slavers who’d operated at the station were pretty sloppy about their work.

But Brice was intrigued by something the commando had said. “What did you mean? When you said, ‘that’ll help.'”

Hugh’s grin was back. This time, though, Brice didn’t find the sight all that reassuring. There was something about that cheerful-looking grin that was . . .

Well. Wicked-looking, actually.

“Haven’t you figured it out yet, Brice? The only way you folks are going to get through this is by cutting a deal with the Ballroom. Sorry, but there’s no way we’re going to allow this station to fall back into the hands of slavers. And there’s no way you people can stop that from happening on your own, is there?”

Brice stared up at him. Maybe the guy was joking . . .

Alas, no. “And we’re not going to take it over ourselves,” Hugh continued. “Not alone, anyway.”

“And who exactly are you?” asked Ed.

“I’ll leave that question unanswered for the moment,” said Hugh. “Just take my word for it that we’ve got no reason to take on the headache of keeping this white elephant intact and running. But I’m thinking the Ballroom might. More precisely, Torch might.”

“Who’s Torch?” asked Brice and James simultaneously.

The commando shook his head. “You folks are out of touch, aren’t you?”

The female commando named Stephanie supplied the answer. “Torch is the planet that used to be called Congo, when Mesa owned it. By everybody except them, anyway. They called it ‘Verdant Vista’ themselves. The swine. But there was a slave rebellion assisted by — oh, all kinds of people — and now the planet’s called ‘Torch’ and it’s pretty much run by the Ballroom.”

Brice was wide-eyed. “The Audubon Ballroom has its own planet?”

“Oh, wow,” said Ed. “I can see why they might want this station, then.” Stoutly: “Every planet should have its own amusement park.”

Hugh laughed. “It’s a bit far away for that! Still, I’m thinking . . . ”

He shrugged again. “Something Jeremy X mentioned to me, the last time I saw him. It’s a possibility, anyway.”

Brice was wide-eyed again. “You know Jeremy X?”

“Known him since I was a kid. He’s sort of my godfather, I guess you could say. He took me under his wing, so to speak, after my parents were killed.”

Brice felt a lot better, then. The idea of cutting a deal with the Ballroom still sounded dicey to him. Kind of like cutting a deal with lions or tigers. Or sharks or cobras, for that matter. On the other hand, Hugh seemed pretty nice, all things considered. And if he had a personal relationship with Jeremy X himself . . .

“Did he really eat a Manpower baby once, like they said he did?” asked Ed.

“Raw, they say. Not even cooking it.” That contribution came from James.

And if Brice — no, it’d probably take Ganny — could keep his idiot cousins from opening their fat mouths again . . .