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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Monday, August 24, 2009 08:18 EDT



    Hugh Arai had seen no reason to dilly-dally about the business. They had to move quickly, in fact, or the simple and crude event-loop they’d reconfigured the camera and sensors to show would alert the slavers very soon, unless they were completely inattentive. So the BSC team went into the command center firing. Quite literally — Marti Garner, in the lead because she was the best marksman, had already shot two of the slavers in the center before she finished passing through the entrance.

    Bryan Knight, coming right behind her, tossed flashbang grenades into the two corners of the large compartment that weren’t in clear line of sight. Marti opened her eyes once the blast and flash were over, and quickly scoured the visible areas looking for opponents.

    There was one woman behind a desk, looking very confused. She’d have been close enough to one of the grenades to be affected by it. Garner disintegrated her head — spectacularly — with a tightly focused burst of flechettes.

    Hugh Arai was the third member of the team coming into the compartment. He was carrying a highly modified version of a tri-barrel pulser. The weapon was as close to a pistol version of a tri-barrel as Beowulf’s military engineers had been able to design. It was a specialty gun, almost literally hand-made. Only someone of Hugh Arai’s mass and strength could hope to use it effectively — or safely, for those accompanying him — and its ability to shred bulkheads might have caused some to look upon it askance in what amounted to a boarding action. The BSC was a great believer in providing for all contingencies, however. It was always possible that even slavers might have armored skinsuits available, after all, and despite its drawbacks, the weapon provided the unit with a scaled-down approximation of the sort of heavy weapons that a regular Marine unit would have carried.

    Arai took position in the center of the compartment, while Garner and Mattes and Knight quickly inspected every area where someone might have been able to hide. But the place was empty now, except for the three corpses.

    While they went about that business, Stephanie Henson sat down in front of the command center’s operations console and began bringing up the relevant schematics and diagrams. She was swift and expert at the work, and within thirty seconds, she’d found what they needed. Less than a minute later, she’d bypassed the security locks and keyed in the instructions.

    She leaned back in her chair. “Okay, Hugh. The command center is now sealed off from the rest of the turret, along with all of the surrounding air ducts. The power source is independent already, so we don’t have to worry about that.”

    Arai nodded. “What about slaves?”

    Stephanie studied the console for a moment, and then shook her head. “There are no signs of any occupants within five hundred meters of this command center except the eight people — maybe nine, if two of them are copulating right now — shown in the living quarters. One or more of them might be pleasure slaves, of course. No way to tell.”

    “No internal cameras?”

    “They’ve been disabled.”

    Hugh grunted. That wasn’t surprising. Nobody except military forces under tight discipline were going to tolerate active cameras in their living areas. The slavers had probably disabled those sensors decades ago.

    He wasn’t happy about the fact that he couldn’t absolutely confirm that there weren’t any slaves in the living quarters. But . . .

    It was unlikely, given the obvious eagerness with which the slavers had reacted to the news that the Ouroboros’ non-existent cargo had included pleasure slaves. And it was an imperfect universe. He wasn’t about to risk getting any of his people killed in the course of a direct assault, on the off chance there might be a slave mixed in with the other occupants.

He spoke into his com. “Take out the living quarters. Stephanie will guide the shots.”

    They all turned to look at the screens above Henson’s console which provided views of the turret from outside cameras. Stephanie began keying in locations. A short time later, the Ouroboros’ concealed lasers began firing. It didn’t take long before that area of the turret which contained the slavers’ living quarters was blown to shreds. They were able to spot only two bodies being expelled by the outrushing atmosphere. But there was no chance that any of the slavers could have survived, unless they were already wearing skinsuits or battle armor — and Stephanie would have recognized those in her readings of the sensors.

    “And that’s that,” said Hugh. He spoke into his com again. “Double-check the readings for any signs of life anywhere else in the station.”

    After listening for a few seconds, Arai nodded. “Okay, people. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else alive in this place. So we can save ourselves a lot of work.”

    Knight grinned. “I love nukes. I swear, I do, even if I know it’s wrong of me and I’m a bad boy.”

    Henson chuckled. “I can’t think of any commando unit this side of an insane asylum that doesn’t love nuclear warheads, Bryan — on those rare occasions they can use them.”

    Arai spoke into his com again. “Get the missile prepped. We’ll be back aboard the Ouroboros within five minutes.”



    Inside the maintenance compartment, three teenage boys took a deep breath in unison. That was almost enough to suffocate them, right there, as small as the compartment was.

    “Oh, shit,” whispered Ed.

    “Oh, shit is right,” echoed James.

    Brice’s mind was racing. There was no way to get in touch with Ganny without scrambling back through at least fifty meters of air duct. Their com units were designed for wire transmission, and the clan had never wired this maintenance compartment or any of the surrounding ducts. There’d been too great a risk of being spotted by the slavers.

    It was probably a moot point, anyway, since they had no way of knowing where the commandos had sealed off the ducts from the rest of the turret. And even if it could be done, it couldn’t possibly be done in time. Everything Brice had seen about this commando unit — whoever they were, which was still undetermined — indicated that they moved very quickly. In less than ten minutes, Parmley Station was going to be destroyed by a nuclear-armed missile.

    He wasn’t surprised that the Ouroboros’ sensors hadn’t picked up any signs of life in the station beyond the turret used by the slavers. The clan had spent decades carefully and systematically making sure that their whereabouts were kept completely hidden from any slavers who might be tempted to eliminate the need to pay the clan by launching a surprise attack on them. The Ouroboros probably had better sensors than anything the slavers possessed. But unless the people staffing those sensors had reason to think there was something to find, they weren’t likely to have done the kind of careful cross-checking of data that would have been necessary to detect the clan.

    In short, they were all going to be dead soon . . .


    Brice decided he had nothing to lose. He started unsealing the panel.

    “Hey, don’t shoot!” he yelled. Yelped, rather. “We’re just kids!”

    Ed and James would probably ridicule him for that later, assuming they survived. It would have been a lot more dignified to have called out something on the order of: Hold your fire! We are not your enemy!

    But Brice had a dark suspicion that top-of-the-line military units were prone to shoot enemies first and determine who they were later. Whereas even hardened commandos might hesitate before shooting kids.

    It was a theory, anyway. Best he could come up with on such short notice.



    By the time Brice came out of the compartment, more-or-less spilling onto the floor beyond, all of the commandos had gathered around.

    Well, not quite. One of them had “gathered around” — that was the one with the slave markings — while the others had their weapons trained on him from various positions of cover.

    On his hands and knees, he looked up at the huge commando. He didn’t really see him at first, though, because his gaze was immediately drawn to the barrel of the man’s weapon. Tribarrel, rather.

    The clan possessed exactly two tribarrels. Ganny kept them under lock and key. She’d only let Brice even look at them once.

    Abstractly, Brice knew that pulser barrels were actually quite small in diameter. But these looked huge. It was like staring at close range into three barrels of the sort of ancient gunpowder weapons Brice had seen in history books. Four thousand caliber, or something like that. He’d swear that small rodents could set up house in there.

    The sight was enough to paralyze him for a moment. The commando reached down, seized Brice by the scruff of the neck, and hauled him onto his feet. The sensation was more akin to being lifted by a power crane than a human being.



    “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 . . .

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