With Ganny El, who knew? She might have learned enough about Jeremy to realize that he was more likely to be charmed by such as Brice Miller than he was to be offended by him. It was not as if the words “brash” and “impudent” had never been bestowed on him too, after all.

But all Hugh said was: “Okay, then. We’ll leave in twelve hours. That should give you enough time.” He used his own forefinger, which was almost half the size of Ganny’s entire hand, to point to two of his crewmates. “June and Frank will stay behind.”

“Why?” demanded Butre. “You think we need watchdogs?”

Hugh smiled. “Ganny, your negotiations might actually succeed, you know. In which case, why waste time? While we’re gone, June and Frank can start laying the basis for what follows. They’re both very experienced engineers.”

June and Frank looked a bit smug. The reason wasn’t hard to figure out. Judging from the way most of the Butre clan’s unattached men and women were gazing enthusiastically upon their very comely selves, neither one of them was going to be suffering from unwanted chastity over the course of the next few months until their crewmates returned.

To some degree, Hugh had chosen them for that reason. In point of fact, both June Mattes and Frank Gillich were experienced engineers, and they’d do a good job of laying the groundwork for modifying Parmley Station as needed, in the event Hugh’s scheme came to fruition. But he figured the process would be helped along by what you might call a lavish display of goodwill.

A Manticoran wit had once commented that Beowulfers were the Habsburgs of the interstellar era, except that they didn’t bother with the pesky formalities of marriage. There was enough truth in the remark that Hugh had laughed aloud when he heard it. He wasn’t a Beowulfer himself, by birth. But he’d lived among them since he was a boy and had adopted most of their attitudes.

All of them, really, except for their indifference to religion. There, although he professed no specific creed himself, Hugh retained the convictions of the people who’d raised him.

When he was very young, barely out of the vats, Hugh had been adopted by a slave couple. The adoption had been informal, of course — as, for that matter, had been the couple’s own “marriage.” Manpower didn’t recognize or give legitimacy to any relationship between slaves.

Still, there were practicalities involved. Even from Manpower’s viewpoint, there were advantages to having slaves raising the youngsters who came out of the breeding vats instead of Manpower having to do it directly. It was a lot cheaper, if nothing else. So, Manpower was often willing to let slave couples stay together and keep their “children.” With some lines of slaves, at least. They wouldn’t allow slaves destined to be personal servants — certainly not pleasure slaves — any such entanglements. But with most of the labor varieties, it didn’t much matter. Those slaves would be sold in large groups to people needing a lot of labor. It was usually possible to keep the families of such slaves more or less intact in the course of the transactions, since both the seller and the buyer had a vested interest in doing so. Having slaves raising their own children was cheaper for the buyer of the labor force, too.

Like most labor slaves, the couple who adopted Hugh had been deeply religious. Also like most labor slaves, the creed they adhered to was Autentico Judaism. Hugh had been raised in those customs, beliefs and rituals. And if he no longer maintained most of the customs and rituals and had his doubts about most of the beliefs, he’d never been able to shake the conviction that there was a lot more to it all than just superstition left over from humanity’s tribal ancient history, as many (although by no means all) Beowulfers believed.

“I’m ready to go right now!” exclaimed Brice Miller. “Me, too!” echoed his two companions.

Ganny glowered at them. “Is that so? You do know the voyage is going to last weeks, right?”

The three boys nodded.

“And you do know that although the Ouroboros was designed to look like a slave ship, even to someone who came on board and gave it a casual inspection, our friends here who still insist on keeping their identity unknown even though it’s blindingly obvious didn’t bother to disguise their own living quarters? On account of they’re a bunch of sloppy Beowulfers.”

Seeing Hugh’s attempt to keep a straight face, Butre curled her lip. “Think I was born yesterday?” She looked back at the kids. “You know all that, right?”

The three boys nodded.

“Right. So now I find out some of my great-great-nephews are morons. Where do you plan to sleep, night after night after night?”

The three boys frowned.

Hugh cleared his throat. “We’re not set up to accommodate guests, I’m afraid. And although June and Frank’s quarters will be available, that’ll hardly be enough for all of you. So you’ll have to clear out the supplies we’ve been keeping in some of the other sleeping compartments. That’ll take a while, on account of . . . well . . . ”

“Like I said,” interjected Ganny, “a bunch of sloppy Beowulfers.”

“Why don’t we just move into the slave quarters?” asked Andrew Artlett. “Sure, they’ll be awfully Spartan, but who cares? It’s only a few weeks.”

June Mattes shook her head. “There’s a difference between ‘Spartan’ quarters and bare decks. There was no way we’d let anybody who wanted to inspect us to get that far, so we never bothered to set them up. All we ever let anyone see were the killing bays, since that was all it took to establish our identity as slavers.”

The “killing bays” referred to the large compartments where slaves would be driven by nauseating gas, in the event a slave ship was being overtaken by naval forces. Once there, the bays would be opened to the vacuum beyond, murdering the slaves and disposing of their bodies at the same time.

It was a tactic that didn’t work if the overtaking naval forces were Manticoran or Havenite or Beowulfan, since those navies considered the mere possession of killing bays to be proof that the vessel was a slaver, whether there was a single slave on board or not. In fact, quite a few captains of such ships had been known to summarily declare the slaver crews guilty of mass murder and have them thrown into space without spacesuits right then and there.

That had been the fate of the crew of the slave ship Hugh himself had been on when he was rescued, in fact. The Beowulfan ship which captured the slaver had gotten there quickly enough to stop the mass murder before it was finished, so Hugh and some others had survived. But his parents had died, along with his brother and both of his sisters.

“Okay, then,” said Artlett. “Ganny can have one of the staterooms being vacated by June and Frank, and Oddny and Sarah can share the other. The rest of us will set up wherever you want us.”

Artlett now bestowed a very stern look on Brice, Ed and James. “One thing needs to be made clear, you ragamuffins. No stunts. No japes. We’ve got no guarantee these Beowulfers-pretending-to-be-whoever won’t jury-rig our living quarters with the same gas mechanism to drive us to the killing bays. Then the ogre here” — he hooked a thumb at Hugh — “can just push a button and out you go into the wild black yonder. Which would be fine, if you went by yourselves, except that me and Alsobrook will get sucked out with you.”

Miller and Hartman looked suitably meek. The third of the trio, though, looked unhappy.

“It sounds like it’s going to take us all twelve hours just to get ready,” said James Lewis. “When are we supposed to sleep?”

“On the voyage, dummy,” came his uncle’s reply. “You’ll have days and days and days with nothing to do except sleep or get into trouble. I vote for sleep.”

“We ought to bring along plenty of sedatives,” said Michael Alsobrook. He bestowed his own stern look on the three teenagers. “You know damn good and well they’re not going to sleep.”

“Sure we will,” said Ed Hartman. He made a flamboyant show of stretching and yawning. “Look, I’m tired already.”

Whatever else, it would probably be an interesting trip. Hugh got up and stretched also. Not because he was tired, but because a Hugh Arai “stretch” was something that, as a rule, really intimidated people.

The three boys made a flamboyant show of cringing and looking deeply worried.

Hugh sighed. He hadn’t thought it would work.