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Cauldron of Ghosts: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Saturday, December 21, 2013 22:34 EST



    Loren Damewood finished keying in the sequence he was using from his specialized software. Through his fingertips, he could feel the vibration of the locks opening. The sensations were very slight, of course, since he was wearing a skinsuit and gauntlets. If he'd been inside the ship instead of in the vacuum outside, that would have made an audible noise. Not a loud one, so it wouldn't be noticed by anyone aboard the Ramathibodi unless they were standing nearby. That was unlikely, though. Damewood had deliberately picked a cargo bay personnel hatch, and cargo bays tended to be big, empty, boring spaces unfrequented by crew people unless there was actual cargo to be transferred. And the only sort of "cargo" which would be transshipped at someplace like Parmley Station was highly unlikely to come from a standard bay like this one.

    Still, he was miffed. There shouldn't have been any noise, if proper maintenance had been done.

    But he wasn't surprised. "Proper maintenance" and "slave ship" were not terms that went together very often. There wasn't much difference between the sort of people who served on the crews of pirate ships and those who worked on slavers. A few pirate captains managed to maintain tight discipline on their ship, but most didn't even try. Neither did slaver captains.

    And there was a bright side. Cruddy maintenance usually went along with cruddy security, at least for anything except critical systems.

    The hatch that he and his companions were gathered around began to slide open. Damewood's program wasn't doing that directly. If it had, telltales would be showing on the bridge that someone was almost certain to spot. Instead, his specialized software had insinuated itself into the ship's own operating programs. The Ramathibodi was opening that hatch itself, with the added modification that it was doing so without triggering any telltales or alarms.

    "In we go," he murmured. To himself only, of course-all coms were silenced.

    He didn't lead the way into the ship. That would have been silly, with Ayibongwinkosi Kabweza and her people present. He was the tech expert in charge of disabling security, not one of the assault troop gorillas.

    The lieutenant colonel slipped through the hatch as soon as it had opened far enough to make that possible. The three members of her section had finished passing through before the hatch had time to fully open.

    Loren waited until the hatch finished moving before he entered the airlock behind them. "Trigger-happy gorillas," he murmured. To himself only, of course.

    Once they were in the airlock, they had to wait while Damewood's program cycled it through the process. It had been a vacuum when they entered; by the time they exited, the atmosphere would match that of the ship.



    In Parmley Station's number one cargo bay, Nancy Anderson and two members of her team faced the captain of the Ramathibodi. She'd brought five members of her own crew to the parley.

    The cargo bay was a big one for a station which had not originally been intended as a freight transfer point. Designed to accommodate the sometimes large equipment items required by a space-going amusement park, it was slightly over thirty meters in its longest dimension. The slavers had advanced a third of the way in before coming to a stop. They were now separated from the BSC trio by a distance of about seven meters.

    "What's your pleasure?" Anderson asked. "Full trans-shipment, partial-or are you just looking for supplies and R&R?"

    "What R&R?" That came from one of the slaver crewmen standing a little behind Captain Tsang. It was a sarcastic remark, not a question.

    "This is the biggest amusement park within fifty light-years." Nancy's lips twisted into a little smile. "Even if most of the rides don't work."

    "Shut up, Grosvenor," said the Ramathibodi's captain. To Anderson she said: "Partial trans-shipment. We've got more labor techs than we can sell, where we're going. May as well drop them off here."

    The fact that the Ramathibodi only wanted a partial transshipment set the tactical parameters of the situation. If they'd been looking for a full trans-shipment, the BSC team could have simply waited until all the slaves were off the ship before launching their attack. Instead, it would be more complicated.

    Anderson nodded. "Anything you want to pick up?"

    "Pleasure units, if you have any. Those are always easy to sell. Heavy labor units, too."

    "Heavy labor units, we've got. Pleasure units..." She paused, before smiling nastily. "That depends on what you're willing to pay."

    "I'd want to see 'em first."

    "Well, sure." Anderson gestured toward the heavy battle steel box attached to one of the compartment's bulkheads by a maglock. "But why don't we start with the labor tech transaction?"

    Tsang shrugged. "Whatever suits you."

    Anderson wanted to give Loren Damewood and Ayibongwinkosi Kabweza as much time as possible to get into position and prepare their attack. The dickering and exchanges needed to complete the first transaction should provide them with plenty.

    She and the Ramathibodi's captain moved forward to stand beside the steel box. For obvious reasons, the sort of electronic transfers that were the normal method of paying for goods and services were unsuitable for the slave trade, except in very secure locations like Mesa itself. Instead, recourse was made to more ancient forms of payment, involving the modern equivalent of cash transfers.

    Such transfers were sometimes needed in perfectly legitimate businesses, so a well-developed and secure method for conducting them had been worked out centuries earlier. The method relied on the use of credit chips issued by one or another recognized major bank, usually though not always a bank headquartered on Old Earth itself.

    Anderson keyed in the combination to unlock the battle steel box, and its lid slid smoothly upward. Inside were a large number of 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. 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.

    Captain Tsang leaned over far enough to examine the chips, but she didn't touch them. In fact, she was careful to keep her hands well away from the box. Any attempt to take the chips before the transaction was complete would result in a missing hand or two.

    She took out a small portable device and aimed it in the direction of the chips, still being careful not to let either her hand or the unit come any nearer to the box than was necessary for the immediate purpose. She spent a few moments studying the readout; not long, just enough to verify that the chips were legitimate and that there were enough of them to cover any transactions they'd be carrying out that day.

    That done, she turned to one of her subordinates and said, "Start bringing 'em out."

    She then glanced around, looking for the needed exit from the compartment.

    Anderson pointed to a hatch just to her left. "We'll file them through there."

    As each slave passed through the hatch, Tsang's hand unit would record the amount owed until enough was reached to remove one of the chips from the box. There shouldn't be any dickering needed, not for labor techs.

    Just to be on the safe side, though, she said: "We'll want standard Verge price."

    "Not a problem," said Anderson, nodding.

    Tsang took a couple of steps back from the box. The damn things made her nervous, even though she'd never heard of one malfunctioning.

    That done, she relaxed. This looked to be a simple, straightforward matter, now that the preliminaries were done.



    Trigger-happy gorillas or not, once they were inside the ship the small unit of assault troops waited for Loren to bring out more of his specialized equipment and scan the area.

    "That way," he said softly. His pointing finger steered the section down the corridor branching off to the right.

    The progress that followed was odd. The four assault troops moved forward quickly, leapfrogging down the corridor, one person providing cover while the others took more advanced positions. Meanwhile, in the rear-sometimes quite far to the rear-Damewood came up much more slowly. He wasn't precisely "moseying along," but an uncharitable observer might have used the term anyway.

    Neither Kabweza nor any of her subordinates would have done so, however. Indeed, the thought never crossed their minds. The XO had a reputation for being something of a wizard with his sensor gear. That ability could make a world of difference to the outcome of their mission. Torch assault troops might be the modern analog of Viking berserks, but analogy was not identity. More than three thousand years of civilization had elapsed, after all, since the legendary Ragnarr Loðbrók led his longships across the North Sea to plunder France and the British Isles.

    "Two hatches up, on the left," Loren said. "That'll let us into the slave quarters through a storage compartment. It's unoccupied."



    It also turned out to be very full, almost to the point of being impassable without hauling supplies into the corridor, which would have been too time-consuming.

    Not quite. It helped that the battle armor worn by the assault troops made it quite easy to crush whatever cartons, containers and cans needed to be crushed to clear a path.

    One of those containers, as it happened, contained some sort of bright purple fruit juice. So it was on a garish note that they emerged into the slave quarters, as if they had camouflaged themselves to blend into a psychedelic landscape.

    The compartment they entered was packed almost as full of people as the one they were exiting had been packed with supplies and equipment. The people were plastered against the walls, staring at them with wide-eyed alarm.

    Kabweza had been expecting that, so she'd had Sergeant Supakrit X lead the way. As soon as he entered the slave quarters the sergeant opened the faceplate of his armor and stuck his tongue out.

    Supakrit X was an escaped slave. His tongue displayed the genetic marker used by Manpower to identify their products. The marker was unique and difficult to duplicate-impossible, really, if it was examined at close quarters.

    Which his marker was, almost immediately. A small young female slave came up to him, quite fearlessly, and pried his mouth further open with her fingers. Supakrit, who was much bigger than she was, leaned over to help her in the project. She gave the marker on his tongue a short but intense examination and then stepped back.

    "It's real," she announced. "But they're not Ballroom, I'm pretty sure."

    Supakrit straightened up and grinned. "Bunch of maniacs. No, girl, we're from the Royal Torch Army." He hooked a thumb at Commander Damewood. "We're working with the Biological Survey Corps."

    Hearing that, one of the older male slaves grinned even more widely than the sergeant. Very few slaves had yet heard of the new former slaves' planet of Torch. But some slaves knew the truth-some of it, anyway-about the BSC. Apparently he was one.

    The young woman was scowling, however. "Don't call me 'girl.'"

    Kabweza moved forward. "Give us a name, then."

    "Takahashi Ayako. You can call me Ayako."

    The fact that she had a full name and was willing to use it publicly was significant. Manpower did not give names to its slaves. They were raised with the last three or four digits of their slave number serving the purpose. Over time, though, slaves managed to create a society of their own, with adoptive parents who took most youngsters into their shelter. Manpower's managers tolerated the practice, because it served their own purposes. It was simpler and cheaper to have slaves raise the youngsters who came out of the breeding vats instead of Manpower having to do it directly.

    But while they tolerated the custom of slave families-and even made an effort not to break them up if possible-they did not tolerate the slaves doing so openly. A first name could be used publicly, including one chosen by the slave herself. After all, even animal pets had names. But a slave who used the surname of their parents in public was considered to be a borderline rebel and was likely to be punished.

    Apparently, Ayako was such a borderline rebel-or someone acute enough to have realized almost instantly that Manpower's authority was about to be abrogated.

    Despite the Japanese name and the placement of the surname first, Takahashi didn't look the least bit Oriental. Her eyes were hazel, her hair was a sort of redbrick color, and her skin was several shades darker than that of most people from East Asia.

    But that wasn't atypical of human beings two thousand years after the diaspora from Earth began-even leaving aside the way Manpower's gengineers scrambled genetic lineages for their own purposes. One of Kabweza's trainers when she'd been in a Solarian Marines boot camp had been named Bjørn Haraldsson, despite to all outward appearances being of purely African descent.

    "Are you here to free us?" asked the man who'd grinned in response to Supakrit X's announcement.

    "Yes. But for the moment, we need you to just stay put," said Kabweza. After a very brief pause, she added: "Except for one of you who should come with us. That'll speed up the introduction."

    "Me," Takahashi said immediately. "I know everybody. It's because I'm so friendly"-she gave Supakrit a sharp glance-"except when people call me 'girl.' Well, and other stuff."

    She was an attractive young woman. She'd probably drawn the unwelcome attention of some of the slaver crew if there hadn't been enough pleasure slaves aboard.

    Judging from the skeptical expressions on the faces of several of the slaves in the compartment, Takahashi's claim to superb friendliness was not universally shared. But if nothing else, the woman wasn't shy. That ought to be enough. Heavily-armed and very dangerous-looking people who arrive to free people from bondage don't really need much in the way of a friendly introduction, after all.

    "Come with us, then." Ayibongwinkosi moved toward the hatch at the opposite end of the compartment. "The rest of you, like I said, just relax. This will all be over pretty soon."



    Kabweza's progress was slow. Not only was the compartment packed with people, but the same armor that had made it so easy to plow through containers required her to move carefully here. It would be easy to crush flesh and even break bones without hardly noticing.

    Once at the hatch, she waited for Damewood to come up. Loren fiddled with his equipment for a few seconds. What exactly was he doing? Ayibongwinkosi didn't know and wasn't about to ask.

    Click. The sound of the locks drawing back was quite audible.

    "Slobs," muttered Damewood.

    The likelihood that the slight sound had alerted anyone on the other side of the hatch was low. Still, Kabweza passed through the hatch by rolling and coming to a crouch, her flechette gun covering the area.

    Clear. Still in a crouch, she swiveled the other way.

    The corridor was clear there also.

    She gestured, waving the rest forward.

    Takahashi was the last one to emerge. "Which way to the crew quarters?" the lieutenant colonel asked her softly. "Do you know?"

    Ayako nodded and pointed in the direction Kabweza had first covered. "That way."

    "Are you sure?"

    The young woman got a pinched look on her face. "Yes," she said curtly. "I'm sure."

    Ayibongwinkosi didn't inquire further. She nodded to Supakrit X and he took point.

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