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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Twenty Six

       Last updated: Saturday, April 9, 2005 09:57 EDT



    Berry was getting a little desperate. She'd been certain she could elude her captors, once she got into the ventilation ducts. She knew very little about air circulation systems on large space stations, and nothing at all about the specifics of this one. But the man who’d adopted her had once been a yard dog for the Manticoran Navy. Since Berry found everything interesting, she'd managed on several occasions to get the normally taciturn Anton Zilwicki to talk about his experiences. And she could remember him telling her that, second only to the electrical network, there was nothing as convoluted in a large space habitat as the ventilation system.

    Unfortunately, she was discovering, abstract knowledge was not the same as concrete familiarity. She realized now that she'd been too quick to assume that the ventilation system of The Wages of Sin would be like her well-remembered Chicago underworld. But the difference was that she knew that underworld and its passageways, and didn't know this one.

    So, she'd lost time, guessing at which route to take and—twice!—finding herself in a cul-de-sac and forced to retrace her steps. Retrace her crawls, rather. And frustrated, over and again, by the fact that the ventilation covers in the space station had not been designed to be easily opened from the inside of the ducts. So, time after time, she'd had to pass by inviting but impossible avenues of escape back into the main corridors of the station.

    She could hear the scuffling sounds of her pursuer not far behind her. Piss-poor design philosophy, anybody wants my opinion, she thought crossly. They should have taken into account the possibility that somebody masquerading as a princess might someday be crawling through these ducts trying to escape a slavering maniac.

    The humorous edge to the thought reassured her, though. She was still steady, still calm. She couldn't really remember a time in her life when she hadn't been. Berry had little of the sheer athleticism of her sister Helen, and none of the martial arts training. But she could remember Helen once telling her: If I ever met anyone with nerves of steel, Berry, it's you.

    Maybe it was true. All Berry knew was that she was an expert on only one subject in the universe—survival—and you didn't survive by getting rattled.

    So, she crawled on, using her smaller size and relaxed ease in cramped passageways to offset the fact that her pursuer—she'd caught a glimpse of him, once—had the superior reflexes and agility of a Scrag. Even if she hadn't been able to find an actual escape, she seemed to be able to stay ahead of him. And she remembered something else her father Anton had told her:

    A stern chase is a long chase.



    Staring at the carnage in Tube Epsilon, the two Imbesis appeared to have lost some of their usual composure. Naomi's freckles stood out in sharper relief than ever, against a skin that seemed drained of blood. And even Walter, with his many more years of experience, had a grim expression on his face. Victor couldn't see the faces of the six armored guards from the space station's special weapons unit—they'd finally arrived, too late to do any good—but from what he could sense of their body language, they were just as shocked as anyone. Coming on top of the gruesome scene in the main gaming hall, this latest scene of mayhem was probably overwhelming them a bit. Even well-trained security guards don't expect to see their place of employment turned into a slaughterhouse.

    Web Du Havel was less visibly shocked, but he did appear subdued. He'd arrived in the gaming hall just as Victor and the Imbesis had started to leave, looking for the spot where the special weapons unit had reported finding Templeton's body. Du Havel had insisted on accompanying them, once he was assured Ruth Winton was safe. Web was not only very fond of Berry herself, but was obviously feeling guilty that he'd been resting in his room when the attack was launched. Not that it would have made the slightest difference if he'd been there, other than to have probably gotten murdered himself.

    "For the love of God," Walter muttered, "what did she use on them? A sledgehammer?"

    Victor was able to study the scene with more in the way of clinical detachment. But even he was a little shaken. It was a bit odd, perhaps, since the gore and blood left in the main gaming hall was actually far worse than this. But one expects to see gore and blood when pulsers come into play.

    He looked, again, at the corpse of Abraham Templeton, lying prone on the floor. The back of his head had literally been caved in; the occiput not simply broken but splintered—and then the pieces driven a centimeter or more into the brain.

    "Just her hands and feet and elbows," he said quietly. "I really don't think you understand what she is, Walter."

    "She's a freak," hissed Naomi.

    I have had enough of you! Victor began to snarl something in reply, but Walter cut him off.

    "Shut up, Naomi," her uncle snapped. "There's no such thing as a 'freak,' when it comes to human beings. Except an actual sport of nature, like a mutant. But those are just objects of pity, and almost always die young anyway. This is... something else. Explain, Victor."

    Victor decided to ignore Naomi's sullen expression. Whatever attraction the woman had once had for him was gone now, anyway.

    "The thing is, Walter, that if the Mfecane worlds had remained isolated from the rest of the human race—say, maybe twenty more generations—they probably wouldn't have been part of the human species any longer. Not, at least, in the precise biological sense of the term 'species.'"

    The scions of Erewhon's great families were highly educated, so Walter understood the point immediately. "Part of the same gene pool, able to interbreed. The variation had diverged that much? In such a short space of time? Those worlds were only isolated for a few centuries, as I recall."

    As usual, an intellectual problem was enough to settle down Du Havel.

    "Over a full millennium, actually," he said. "Their ancestors were almost as lunatic as the original Graysons, if for somewhat different reasons, and they set out about the same time and had less distance to travel."

    The professor glanced around at the carnage, wincing. "Natural selection on those two planets was ferocious, Mr. Imbesi. I know a fair amount about the Mfecane worlds, as it happens, because they're one of the standard extreme cases used by theorists when we calculate the effects of genetic variation on political processes. The child mortality rate in the first few generations approached eighty percent. Worse than that, on Lieutenant Palane's home planet of Ndebele, which was the more extreme of the two environments. Combined with an isolated population, those are the classic conditions for rapid speciation. Plenty long enough, even leaving aside the genetic manipulations of the founding colonists. In fact, if the population had been one of simple animals, they probably would have become a separate gene pool. But that's always harder to manage, when the animals involved are intelligent. A lot harder. It's—ah—" He smiled, perhaps a bit ruefully. "The final step in speciation is always the development of a distinct set of mating rituals, and that's very hard to do with humans. We're just too bright not to be able to figure out how to screw around."

    He examined Templeton's corpse again. "So, she's still human, in all that matters. Still part of the same gene pool—as Manpower proved by incorporating so much of the Mfecane genotype into some of their breeding stock. For that matter, I'm sure you've heard of Duchess Harrington?"

    Both his listeners nodded, and he grinned crookedly. "The Salamander" was one of the very few Manties whose name had not become "Mud" in Erewhonese ears.

    "Well, she's not as extreme a case as Lieutenant Palane, but that's probably only because her ancestors managed to avoid an environment quite as extreme as Ndebele."

    Victor chimed in here. "When the Navy captured her—back before she escaped from Cerberus and blacked both of StateSec's eyes in the process—we were... motivated to assemble even more data on her. That's when we found out that she's descended from a genetic modification program which has a lot in common with Thandi's ancestors.

    "But Thandi's ancestral environment's taken it quite a bit further. For instance, her bones are much denser than those of most people's. Harrington apparently really enjoys swimming, but someone like Thandi Palane would have a hard time doing that without artificial aids, because her body won't float. For any distance, that is, although she could certainly sprint faster than most people. But, per unit volume, even with her lungs full of air, she's heavier than water. Her muscles aren't simply harder and stronger; like Harrington's, they have a different composition. A higher percentage of quick-firing cells, a—"

    He broke off. This was not the time for an extended lecture on human physiological variation. "It's a mixed bag, of course. These things always are. Gain here, lose there, there's no magic involved. She can break most people in half, including strong men—but put her in a concentration camp on starvation rations with a bunch of withered crones, and she'd be the first to die."

    "No endurance, you're saying?"

    Victor shook his head. "No, that's not it. As long as she's fed, her endurance will be phenomenal. Way better than yours or mine."

    Walter nodded, looked about at the bodies lying all over the floor of Tube Epsilon, and then glanced at Naomi. His niece's face was still tight with anger.

    "There will be no breeding in-round in my family, girl," he said in a low, cold tone. He turned back to Victor.

    "What are the possibilities for encouraging emigration from those worlds? Here to Erewhon, I mean. Unless I miss my guess, we're all in for 'interesting times' in the years to come."

    Victor grinned, like a wolf. "As it happens, that's just what I've been thinking about. It'll depend on the Ballroom, of course, but if they get their own planet..."

    Du Havel started. This was the first time he would have heard anything about Victor's long-range plans. His interest was obviously acute, but he managed to keep silent and simply listen.

    Walter matched the grin. "They'll have one of two choices. Keep it an exclusive little club—surest way in the universe to sink like a stone—or make it a beacon for the galaxy's despised and unwanted. With Erewhon—and its comforts—just a hop, skip and a jump away."

    Victor started to frown—so did Du Havel—but Walter pressed on. "No, no, I understand. We Erewhonese have our faults, but we're no lousy Solarian League, bleeding its colonies like a leech. There'd be no 'brain drain,' Victor. We'd have to devote a fair amount of our own resources to make Congo livable and attractive. Incentives for people to go back, after they got an education here. Still—"

    Du Havel grunted. "It'd work, Walter. If you're smart and think in the long term, anyway, instead of being stupid-greedy. And it's not just the Mfecane worlds, either. There are still Scrags scattered here and there all over the galaxy. Most of them are attached to Mesa, sure, but Lieutenant Palane's already shown that some of them can be broken loose. Another group of outcasts—and there are still others. Plenty of them. It's a big galaxy."

    The head of the Imbesi family turned his head away slightly, eyeing Victor out of the corners of his eyes. The way a man will, trying to gauge every side of a thing.

    "And that's what you've been angling for, isn't it?"

    Victor shrugged. "Mostly—no surprise—I'm trying to break Erewhon's allegiance to Manticore.” He snorted. “From what she’s said, Princess Ruth has certainly figured that much out by now! And, if possible, I want to lay the basis for an alliance with my own star nation, of course. But nobody—certainly nobody on Erewhon—is going to make that kind of decision simply based on a little secret-agent razzle-dazzle. The thing has to end—has got to end—with an objective situation that satisfies everybody. You don't just need a Congo that's been pried loose from Mesa, Walter. You need a Congo that’s three other things as well."

    He gave Du Havel a long, considering look. "I'd be interested to hear your opinion, Professor." Then, Victor began counting off on his fingers.

    "First, strong. Or, at least, tough as a nut to crack. A system that will fight tooth and nail on its own against any possible would-be conqueror."

    "Agreed," said Du Havel.

    "Second, prosperous and stable on its own terms—or that wormhole junction won't do Erewhon much good at all. Nobody wants to depend on a shipping route that passes through an area that's not only dirt-poor but, as usually happens, rife with instability and piracy."

    "Correct," said Du Havel. "Keep going, young man."

    "Third—this follows from the first two—a system that is an independent star nation. On close and friendly terms with Erewhon, of course, and with lots of objective reasons to stay that way. But not an Erewhonese colony or puppet. That has the further advantage, by the way, of making those wormholes an even less attractive attack route to Erewhon—because any enemy of yours would have to violate Congo's neutrality."

    "That's been done before," countered Walter, "often enough in history." But there wasn't much force to the words. The tone was more that of a man playing devil's advocate.

    Du Havel shook his head. "No, Cachat's got it right. Of course, it's certainly true that small and neutral nations have been trampled. Poor little Belgium, to use an example from ancient history. But—" Du Havel's grin was almost as wolfish as Victor's. "Belgium wasn't a nation founded by the Audubon Ballroom, much less with a heavy influx of immigrants from places like the Mfecane hell-worlds and the leftovers from Ukrainian bio-labs."

    Imbesi grunted, acknowledging the point. He was as well educated in ancient history as biology. "More like Switzerland, then. A neutral nation with strong natural borders—Congo's swamps and jungles to the Swiss mountains—and whose men had been Europe's most feared mercenary soldiers for centuries. So nobody messed with them, because it just wasn't worth the grief."

    Victor nodded. "There are other examples, and no historical analogy can be stretched too far in any event. But... yes. That's the deal, Walter." He gave Du Havel another long, considering look. "And I think you'd better start applying your mind to the matter also."

    Imbesi smiled thinly. "I'm not running the show here on Erewhon, Victor."

    "You will be soon enough, unless I miss my guess. Back in the middle of things, anyway. But it doesn't matter—and you know it. If you make the deal, Walter, and I come through with my end of it, then the families that are running the show won't renege."

    It was the perfect place for a stiletto, and Victor didn't miss it. "Sure, they're a little too cautious. But they aren't the Baron of High Ridge and Elaine Descroix and the Countess of New Kiev, either."

    Walter scowled. "Pack of scoundrels. A deal's a deal, dammit. It binds a whole family—a whole people—even if the one who made it was a screwball and you have to slap him down hard in private."

    He and Victor studied each other for a moment. Then, Walter struck out his hand. Victor clasped it, and the deal was made.

    When their hands fell away, Walter smiled. It was a sardonic expression.

    "Of course, all of this depends on whether your Amazon can keep the, uh, not-Princess alive. I'm only guessing, but I'm pretty sure your whole scheme depends on that."

    Victor's returning smile was on the pained side. "More than just my scheme, actually. Probably my life. Sooner or later, you know, Anton Zilwicki is going to be back. And if he finds out I got his daughter killed in the course of a political maneuver...."

    Victor glanced down at Abraham Templeton's shattered skull and grimaced. "Did you know that Anton Zilwicki still holds the record in the Manticoran Games—in his weight class, anyway, which is plenty big enough—for almost all the weight-lifting events? Leaving aside the fact that he was their champion wrestler, three games running."

    Du Havel chuckled. But the sound was more gloomy than humorous. "Oh, yes, I've been thinking about it myself—given that Anton Zilwicki will be none too pleased with me either. Not more than a day after he left the girls in my so-called 'care'—ha! But you neglected to mention the rest, Mr. Cachat. And he's got the brain of a Machiavelli himself, and he's got the soul of a Gryphon highlander vendettist. If his girl dies—even gets badly hurt—our ass is grass."




    At the moment, Lieutenant Thandi Palane was feeling more like a fish in a can than an "Amazon." Yes, the ventilation ducts were big enough—just barely—for her to crawl through. No, she didn't exactly suffer from claustrophobia. But the whole experience was still enough to leave her exceedingly unhappy.

    So were the women behind her, judging from their grumbles.

    "Shut up," she hissed. "You'll warn the Scrag we're after him."

    The moment the term left her mouth, she regretted it. She could sense, in the sudden silence behind her, hurt feelings as well as obedience.

    She sighed. Then, decided to break her own command.

    "All right, I'm sorry." Then, after a pause, hissing: "No, dammit, I’m not sorry. The pig is nothing but a 'Scrag.' That doesn't mean you are, but it does mean we need to come up with a different name. For you, I mean. I can't keep thinking of you just as 'my Amazons.'"

    Yana's voice drifted up from behind her. "What does 'Amazon' mean, anyway? You used the word once before."

    Thandi explained. When she was done, she could hear a low rumbling chuckle in the duct, coming from several throats.

    "'Amazon' it is, then," pronounced Yana firmly.

    Thandi frowned. "Not sure," she whispered. "There might be a decent male ex-Scrag coming along one of these days, you know. Decent enough, anyway."

    "So what?" replied Yana. "No problem. He can be an Amazonette."

    "Amazonix," countered Raisha.

    "Amazon-boy," offered Olga.

    The burst of laughter which echoed down the tube then would have been enough to waken the dead, much less alert a Scrag. But Thandi discovered that she didn't really care, any more.

    Yeah, that's right, superman. The super-bitches are hot on your tail. Which means you are dog food.



    The Scrag did hear the noise, in fact, but he'd already known he was being pursued by someone. His hearing was very acute, and he'd picked up the sound of bodies scuffling their way down the ventilation duct behind him some time earlier. At first, he'd assumed that was his own people coming to his assistance. But eventually, from subtle details in the soft sounds which he couldn't analyze consciously, he'd understood that the people behind him were women.

    That could only mean that, somehow, Abraham Templeton had been brought down. And that, whoever the women were following behind him, they were no friends of his. The fact that the recent loud burst of laughter had contained a confident edge—even a savage one—made him certain they were bitter enemies.

    So, as he continued his pursuit of the princess, he began thinking about his own options. He was almost certain there was really no point, any longer, to continuing that pursuit. He'd never really known what the Templetons had in mind when they planned this operation—this utter fiasco—but whatever their scheme had been, it was all a moot point now.

    For a minute or so, he considered breaking off the pursuit and simply trying to make his own escape. He was almost sure he could do so, at least as far as breaking through one of the duct covers and getting back into the main corridors of the space station. The princess had passed them by, because she wasn't strong enough to just kick the covers loose. But he was sure he could, with his genetically-enhanced muscles.

    Whether he could then manage to escape the station itself...

    Probably not. But he found that he didn't really care, anyway. Like so many Scrags, the one crawling through the ducts of The Wages of Sin was not entirely sane. Or, it might be better to say, the twisted history of his sub-culture gave him a death wish which resembled those of the ancient Norse berserks or the hardcore Nazis. Better to die heroically, in a glorious final battle, than to whimper away into oblivion in a universe ruled by sub-humans.

    All the more so if he could flaunt his contempt for the sub-humans before he died. Templeton and his religious fetishes be damned. Here at the end, the Scrag would return to his own faith. He'd raped women before, but never a princess. He could think of no better way, under the circumstances, to make the appropriate obscene gesture from his funeral pyre.



    Ahead of him, but no longer far ahead, Berry was beginning to despair. Not of her will, but simply of her body. She was young, true, but the unnatural and unaccustomed effort of crawling rapidly through the ducts had drained her strength. It had been years since she'd scurried like a mouse in Chicago's underworld passages—and, unlike her sister Helen, Berry had never been much attracted by physical exercise.

    If I survive this, she told herself firmly, I'll have Daddy get me a whole set of gym equipment.



    Victor's voice was back. "I need this one alive, Thandi. Don't argue with me, either. He's a Scrag, so Templeton wouldn't have let him know more than the minimum. And you've left enough dead bodies lying around here to satisfy even your precious captain."

    The last two words had a slightly different taste to them, Thandi thought. An actual flavor, instead of Victor's usual calm, relaxed, self-confident tone.

    Thandi savored the taste, for a moment. Savored it, because she recognized the flavor immediately. She'd tasted it herself, not so long ago.

    My, how interesting. I do believe Victor is feeling a bit jealous.

    It was a cheery thought. Also not a very sane one, since a romance between a Solarian mercenary officer and a Havenite spy would be a picture perfect illustration of the phrase "star-crossed lovers." Still, Thandi was cheered by it. And why not? She'd never found the universe to be all that sane a place to begin with.

    "Sure, Victor. But you'll need to define 'alive' for me. I warn you, my own definition is pretty stringent."

    Victor's chuckle, like his voice, was that of a tenor. Nothing boyish about it, though, just the same melodious male sound that had thrilled so many women through the centuries. Thandi being one of them, in this instance. Again, she forced a sudden florid fantasy out of her mind.

    "I can live with 'stringent,' Thandi. Just so long as he can talk. A croak will do, in fact."

    "Consider him croaked."



    When Berry turned the corner, she knew it was the end. She'd had to guess, at the last T-intersection, and she'd guessed wrong. This branch of the duct simply ended in a vent. There was no way she could break through the cover, even if she weren't exhausted.

    So be it. Now her only thought was to get out of the ducts. Whatever else, she didn't want to be captured like a mouse in a hole. The T-intersection behind her, like several she'd passed, was an actual room. Not a big one, no, but it would be better to face capture there than anywhere else.

    Summoning her last strength, she backed out as quickly as she could and, sighing with relief, slid out of the duct and plopped onto the floor of the little ventilation room. It was a tiny room, not more than three meters cubed—just enough to hold the air-circulation fans which filled a third of it, and still provide enough space for maintenance people to work. But, at the moment, it seemed like a glorious vista.



    The vista seemed just as glorious to the Scrag, a few seconds later, when he slid into the room from the duct he'd been following her down. The princess was a pretty girl, and looked well-shaped—all the more so with her fancy royal apparel torn and dirty and ragged, and her face flushed and sweaty.

    Lust came easily to the Scrag, never more than now. He didn't have much time, but not much would be needed. He wouldn't even bother to undress. He grinned down at the girl and opened the front of his trousers. He was already erect.

    Then, hearing a slight sound behind him, he began to turn. But the girl's voice cut his caution down, fluttering, like a knife cutting down a banner.

    "You're going to rape me with that? Ha! Do I look like a chicken? Good luck, you pathetic shithead! Maybe you can dig up a pair of tweezers around here someplace. You'll need a magnifying glass, too, just to find it."

    Rage came to the Scrag even more easily than lust. He took a step forward, raising his hand to strike her senseless.

    An iron vise closed over his wrist.

    "Not a chance." It was the voice of an ogre.

    Mezzo-soprano, oddly enough.

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