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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Wednesday, August 19, 2009 07:58 EDT



    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.



    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.”



    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.”

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