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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Twenty Eight

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



    As it happened, Thandi did get there in time. When she entered the main gaming area of the space station, Berry and her women in tow—they'd left the mangled Scrag in the hands of security guards, to be given medical attention—she saw that the huge hall had been almost cleared of people. Except for five people sitting at a table some distance away, everyone was gathered in the center. Two of the gaming tables had been pushed aside to make for an open space perhaps ten meters in diameter.

    Thandi couldn't really see who the five people were, at the table to the side. Three men and two women, but beyond that she couldn't make out their faces. The hall was very dark, except for the spotlights shining down in the center.

    "It's so dark," Berry whispered, glancing up at the ceiling far above. Thandi couldn't tell exactly how far above, because the ceiling was pitch black.

    Four men were sitting on chairs in the center of the hall. More precisely, they were shackled to the chairs: ankles to the chair legs, and their arms cuffed behind the back rests. The chairs were arranged in an arc, covering perhaps a third of a circle. Enough of an arc, Thandi realized at once, to enable them to see each other easily.

    She recognized those men, of course. Their faces, unlike those of the people at the table to the side, were brightly lit by the spotlights.

    Flairty, who was now one of the few survivors of Templeton's original group of Masadans and Scrags.

    Unser Diem, the roving troubleshooter—ha! Thandi jeered silently—talk about trouble!—for Jessyk Combine; and, effectively, Mesa's chief representative in the Erewhon system.

    Haicheng Ringstorff, who was officially a "security consultant" but was, in reality, Mesa's strong-arm specialist in the area.

    Thandi studied him for a moment, through slitted eyes. She knew Ringstorff was suspected by Lieutenant Commander Watanapongse of having been responsible for a number of major crimes over the couple of T-years, including:

    —the presumed massacre of two thousand religious colonists headed for the planet Tiberian;

    —an upsurge of piracy in general in Erewhon's galactic region;

    —the destruction of an Erewhonese destroyer sent to investigate;

    —and the ensuing attack on the Manticoran cruiser Gauntlet sent to investigate the disappearance of the destroyer.

    That last attack had gone awry, mainly because the captain of the Manticoran cruiser had proven to be ferociously more competent at his trade than the pirates who attacked him. It remained unclear exactly how pirates had managed to get their hands on naval cruisers in the first place, but Thandi had heard Watanapongse speculate that they’d probably gotten them from Technodyne Industries of Yildun.

    TIY's reputation for shady dealings wasn't quite in the same league as Jessyk's or Manpower's, but it was fairly impressive in its own right. Yildun's location, roughly a hundred and eighty-three light-years from Earth, put the A1 star almost exactly on the boundary between the ultra-civilized core planets of the original League and the more recently settled systems whose attitude towards things commercial (and sometimes military) remained rather more bare-knuckled than the satisfied worlds nearer the League's heart. Yildun was far enough off the main sequence to have no habitable planets, but the system was rich in asteroids and contained the second oldest known wormhole junction in the galaxy. It had only three termini, including the central junction, yet that had been more than enough to turn it into a central hub for shipping. Industry had followed, exploiting the incredible natural wealth of the system's asteroids, and, over the centuries, TIY had become one of the SLN's primary builders, with an in-house R&D division which enjoyed an enviable prestige.

    TIY was also one of the trans-stellars which had vociferously protested the technology embargo the League had slapped on the belligerents in the Manticore-Haven War. Which might have had just a bit to do with its habit of occasionally disposing of the odd modern warship under questionable circumstances. It was rumored that the Yildun yards routinely built five to ten percent more hulls than the SLN had ordered and either kept them off the books completely or else "lost" them in a maze of paperwork which eventually deposited them in some very strange places indeed. And it was a demonstrated fact—no rumor, this!—that dozens of warships TIY had purchased "for reclamation" had ended up in the hands of third and fourth-tier navies (and sometimes pirates).

    Of course, "losing" four almost-new Gladiator-class ships to a single customer would have been something of a new record, even for TIY. But given the whispers that Mesa and Yildun enjoyed a much closer relationship than either was prepared to admit officially, TIY seemed far and away the most likely source of the vessels.

    Wherever they'd come from,, there’d been very few survivors from the four pirate cruisers. Enough of their personnel had been captured on the surface of the planet Refuge, in the Tiberian System, however, for interrogation. And said interrogations had, apparently, provided evidence which suggested Ringstorff had been in overall charge of the affair. Unfortunately, the evidence hadn't been enough to bring any charges. And since Ringstorff enjoyed the official seal of Mesan approval and protection, he had to be handled with kid gloves, even on Erewhon.

    Thandi suppressed a harsh laugh. Kid gloves! In point of fact, she noticed, the man who was standing at the very center of the tableau—Victor Cachat, not to her surprise—was putting on a pair of gloves at that very moment. But they weren't kid gloves. Whatever substance they were made of, they were dead black in color; and the slow, careful way Cachat was fitting them on his hands was somehow incredibly menacing. Traditionally, she remembered reading somewhere, executioners always wore gloves to carry out their trade.

    The fourth man shackled to a chair was George Lithgow, Ringstorff's chief lieutenant. Also someone suspected of the foulest crimes. And also someone who enjoyed Mesa's approval and protection.

    Berry's thoughts must have been running tandem to Thandi's own. The girl whispered again:

    "I think Mesa's line of credit just ran out. Who's that guy standing in the middle?"

    "Victor Cachat," Thandi whispered back. "He's—well, he's from Haven, although he's supposedly just here on a private visit."

    Berry Zilwicki's jaw sagged. "But... I met him. This guy doesn't look... oh. I guess he is the same guy. But he sure doesn't look the same as he did at the funeral."

    The girl studied Cachat for a moment longer. Then: "He looks maybe fifteen centimeters taller, fifteen centimeters wider—I don't remember his shoulders being that broad—a lot older, and... oh, Jesus." The next words came in a whisper so low they could barely be heard: "I really feel sorry for those guys."

    "I don't," hissed Thandi.

    Their whispers must have been louder than Thandi thought, because Cachat turned his head to look at them. There was no expression on his face. In fact, Thandi could barely recognize him herself. The pale features under the spotlights were the same, true, but the eyes now seemed like black stones, and the face itself no longer seemed square so much as a block of marble.

    Cachat's eyes met hers. Still, there was no expression on his face, no sign of any recognition, or sentiment, or... anything. There was nothing. It was like staring into the darkened eyes of a statue—or a golem.

    Cachat's head swiveled away, bringing the eyes back to bear on the men shackled to the chairs. Despite their immobilization, the four of them tried to lean away from his gaze. Even the religious fanatic Flairty seemed to shrink like a slowly deflating balloon. Thandi could only imagine how menacing those black eyes must seem at close range, when you were their actual target.

    "He's really a pretty scary guy, isn't he?" whispered Berry. "I remember Daddy telling me that once, even though... well. He did save Helen's life. Mine too, maybe. It's hard to understand."

    For a moment, Thandi felt a vast gulf opening between her and the girl beside her. And, boiling out of that gulf, the magma of raw fury. She understood Victor Cachat in a way that Berry Zilwicki never would—no pampered rich bitch ever would—and—

    She drove down the rage and sealed the gulf. Forcefully, and feeling profoundly guilty as she did so. For all that Berry was now dressed like a princess and consorted with one, Thandi reminded herself that the girl had not been born into privilege. Watanapongse had sketched the girl's biography for her. In most ways, in fact, Berry's life had been even harder than Thandi's own. Or Victor's. Berry had just managed, somehow, to come out of that life with apparently none of the hatred and anger which had played such a role in shaping people like Thandi Palane and Victor Cachat. How'd she'd done so was a mystery to Thandi, but she realized in that moment—it came to her with a genuine sense of shock—just how unusual a person the girl truly was. Like a human diamond, untouched—unscratched, even—by a universe full of cruelty and indifference. As if, where other people specialized in skills and talents, she'd simply specialized in sanity.

    She felt Berry's hand sliding into her own, and gave it a little squeeze.

    "I'm pretty sure this is going to get ugly, Berry," she whispered. "Do you want us to leave?"

    "No," came the soft reply. "There's no point in running from things." The girl's face was creased with a little smile. "Besides, you make one hell of a terrific big sister."

    Thandi felt a glow inside. The feeling relaxed her, and she resumed her study of the rest of the scene. Victor Cachat was... Victor Cachat. She would deal with that, or she wouldn't, but whatever happened it could be put off for some future time.

    Other than Victor and the prisoners, there were eight men and three women at the center of the hall. Those were standing back a bit, facing the prisoners but leaving a space for Cachat. They were a peculiar mix.

    The three women, she knew: Inge and Lara, whom she'd left behind to follow Flairty; and Ginny Usher.

    Inge had no expression on her face, but Lara seemed very pleased with the whole situation. Thandi couldn't figure out why, until she saw the look which Lara bestowed upon a man standing not far from her. The look combined a sort of hard affection, none-too-veiled lust, and amusement. It bordered on being downright predatory.

    The man himself seemed a bit nervous—more than a bit, after he spotted Lara looking at him—and Thandi once again had to stifle a laugh. Her Amazons, she knew, had their own notions of proper courtship ritual—which usually came as a severe shock to the males at the receiving end. Thandi didn't really approve, but... it was hard not to find a certain poetic justice in the thing. Thandi had run across some ancient mythology in her studies. She was quite sure that the fellow was feeling like Europa would have felt if she'd been a man named Europe instead, and the great beast whose lustful eyes were upon him was a giant cow named Zeusa.

    She was a bit puzzled, at first, by the object of Lara's intentions. Whoever the man was, Thandi was sure he was a member of the Audubon Ballroom. Traditionally, the Ballroom and Scrags were the bitterest of enemies. But...

    In its own way, she realized, it made sense. Lara's sub-culture, of which the woman had shed some but not all the attitudes, had always prized a capacity for violence. And however much the Scrags had hated the Ballroom, they’d also feared them. They might sneer at other "sub-humans," but those who were the lowest of the low had demonstrated often enough that they were the equal of any Scrag when it came to sheer mayhem. So it was perhaps not really so strange, that once Lara realized she'd have to find a man from somewhere other than the ranks of the Scrags, she'd find a hard-core Ballroom member... quite attractive. Thandi wouldn't be surprised if a number of her Amazons started making similar attachments.

    Ginny Usher, on the other hand, seemed unhappy. Ginny's face, so expressive when Thandi had met her before, was now still and cold. Thandi wasn't sure why, at first, since the former Manpower slave would hardly be upset at seeing the four men shackled to chairs come to a bad end. They weren't simply the "representatives" of genetic slavery—they were the direct instruments of the evil itself.

    But then, seeing the way Ginny was gazing at Victor, she understood. Ginny Usher didn't give a damn about Mesan goons—had even, if not perhaps to the same extent as Berry, managed to put her past life behind her. But she did care, and deeply, about the young man standing in their midst. And was probably wondering—as Thandi had sometimes wondered, about herself—how often a human being could assume a role before the role itself became the reality. Before a man, or a woman, became the golem of their own creation.

    The eight men standing there, Thandi didn't know. But she was almost certain they were all from the Audubon Ballroom. Then, suddenly, she knew for sure. Cachat must have given some unseen signal—or perhaps it had simply been prearranged once he finished donning his black gloves.

    All eight of them—with Ginny following suit a second later—stuck out their tongues at the men shackled to the chairs. Stuck their tongues way out, exposing the Manpower genetic markers.

    The curtain rises. Thandi's thought was more grim than amused. We begin with the baddies in a very desperate situation. Manpower bigshots and goons, bound and helpless, surrounded by their victims. Eight of whom are killers dedicated to their destruction.

    Victor Cachat lifted the pulser out of its holster.

    And a very desperate situation just got worse.

    Way, way, way, way worse.




    Haicheng Ringstorff didn't doubt it at all. The black eyes staring down at him—then moving slowly across the faces of Diem and Lithgow and Flairty—seemed completely empty. It was like being stared at by a void. The pale, harshly-cut face had no expression Ringstorff could detect beyond, perhaps, a certain clinical detachment. They weren't even the eyes of an executioner. Just the eyes of a man conducting an experiment, the end result of which was a matter of indifference to him. Whether positive or negative, it would be simply data to be recorded.

    The voice, when it spoke, was the same. Nothing. Just words, sounding like surgical instruments.

    "Here’s how it will be. I require certain information from you. The information would be useful, but not essential. With the information, I can proceed with my existing plan. Without it, I’ll need to develop another one."

    The square shoulders shifted a little; it might have been a shrug.

    "I’m very good at developing plans. Still, getting the information from you would save me some time and effort. Not much. But perhaps enough to keep you—some of you, or just one of you—alive. We'll see. I can't say I care, one way or the other."

    Ringstorff could see Diem's face just as easily as he could the others. Lithgow's face seemed frozen—just as Ringstorff suspected his own did. The fanatic Flairty was glaring, although the glare was a washed-out sort of thing. Diem, on the other hand, was obviously on the verge of sheer panic. His eyes were swiveled as far over as they could be, staring at the five people sitting at the dark table some distance away. Ringstorff had spotted them himself, almost as soon as he'd been hauled into the room and forced into the chairs by security guards, although he'd never been able to recognize any features. The guards had departed, then, leaving it to the Ballroom terrorists to finish the work of shackling them.

    "What the hell are you doing?" Diem shrieked. "Goddamit, I know you're Erewhonese, whoever you are! Imbesi—are you there? Why are you letting this maniac—"

    There was the sound of a pulser firing, and the side of Diem's head was suddenly shredded. It wasn’t a fatal wound—not even an incapacitating one—but his left ear and a goodly chunk of his scalp was now gone. Blood began spilling down his shoulder.

    "I require information, not prattle."

    Ringstorff's eyes jerked back to the man with the black gloves, and saw him lower the pulser. Perhaps a centimeter or two. The hand holding the weapon seemed as steady as a statue's.

    "Prattle again, Unser Diem, and you are a dead man."

    Diem stared up at him, his eyes wild and open, his face showing all the signs of shock. Other than being gory and disfiguring, the wound wasn't really a serious one. But Ringstorff knew Diem was a stranger to personal violence. Unlike Ringstorff himself—and Lithgow and Flairty—Diem was a man who committed his violence at one step's remove. He'd certainly never experienced mayhem visited upon him.

    "Who the hell are you?" he whispered.

    "Just think of me as the man who will be killing you, and very soon." The pulser in the hand made a little sweeping motion. "You'd do better to give the surroundings a good look, than to ask pointless questions. This is where your life ends, Diem. At the moment, I'd give it a ninety percent probability. If you don't control your panic, the estimate goes to one hundred percent. And the time frame drops to seconds, instead of minutes."

    Ringstorff was amazed at the complete indifference in the man's tone of voice. He'd always thought of himself as "hard-boiled," but... this guy...

    What demon's pit did they dredge him up from, anyway?

    "First, I require the security codes to the Felicia III. It’s possible my estimate is wrong, and the Felicia is not a slaver in the employ of the Jessyk Combine. In that case, of course, you won’t know the security codes and will be useless. All of you will then die immediately. Beyond that—"

    Again, he made that minimal shoulder twitch. "But there's no point wasting time with what might come 'beyond that.' We probably won't get there anyway."

    He paused, and gave them all that slow, sweeping, empty-eyed examination.

    "I have neither the time nor the inclination to use interrogation drugs or torture. Neither is really all that reliable, nor do I see where it’s necessary. All that’s necessary is for me to establish clearly in your minds that I have no respect at all for your lives, and will kill any of you without a moment's hesitation."

    He raised the pulser, aimed, fired. A hole appeared between Flairty's eyes and the back of his head exploded. Flairty's body rocked back and forth for a moment in the heavy chair, and then slumped in the shackles.

    "I believe that’s now been established." The voice still had no tone at all. "But in case it hasn't—"

    The pulser swiveled again, to come to bear on Diem's head. "Do I need to make another demonstration?"

    Suddenly, a woman's voice interrupted. Ringstorff found that even more startling than the killing of Flairty. He'd forgotten anyone else in the universe existed except the terrifying monster in front of him.

    It was the slave woman. "He will do it. Don't ever think he won't. He’ll kill every one of you, and never blink an eye." The words were hard and bitter. "God, I hate you bastards. For that, more than anything."

    Ringstorff didn't doubt her for a moment—and he was not a religious zealot. The words practically spilled from his mouth.

    "I don't have the codes—neither does Lithgow—but Diem does." He swiveled his head and glared at the Jessyk Combine's representative. "Give him the codes, you fucking idiot!"

    But Diem was already talking—babbling, rather. The man with no name had to quietly threaten him again, in fact, before Diem could slow down enough for the codes to be recognizable. Then he repeated them twice, each time more slowly, while the slave woman made a record.

    "It seems you’ll all remain alive," the man said. Much as a chemist might record the results of a minor experiment. "For a time. I’ll require more information later."

    He turned his head and spoke the next words to the Ballroom killers. "Take them out of here—give Diem some medical treatment, nothing beyond the minimum—and lock them up. If any of them gives you any trouble, kill him. The further information they can provide would be useful, but certainly not critical."

    Moments later, rough hands were manhandling Ringstorff—still shackled, though no longer to the chair—toward one of the exits. It was all Ringstorff could do not to burst into hysterical laughter. Never in his life, not once, had he imagined he would be grateful to fall into the hands of the Audubon Ballroom. But he'd have welcomed the Devil himself, in that moment, if he'd just get him away from that empty, cold, human-shaped void. That golem.

    The Ballroom killer who was hauling Ringstorff away was the largest of them. A great hulking brute, showing all the signs of a slave bred for heavy labor. Ringstorff felt like a child in his huge hands.

    His voice was of a piece, heavy and hulking. "Quite a fellow, isn't he?" The chuckle which followed was even heavier. "And if you're still wondering if he's really a demon—oh, yes, indeed, he most certainly is. Though I will say he's gotten a bit less maniacal. The last time I saw him do this, he slaughtered a dozen of you swine."

    "What's his name?" choked Ringstorff. For some reason, he needed to know.

    But no answer came. Just another heavy, hulking chuckle. And so Ringstorff, as he was hauled down the corridors toward whatever fate awaited him, had plenty of time to reflect on the fact that falling into the hands of the Audubon Ballroom was really not all that much of a blessing.



    When the prisoners were gone, and it was all over, Thandi looked down at Berry. The girl's face still seem composed, although the little hand in her own was clutching it rather tightly.

    "You okay?" she whispered.

    Berry's face made a little whimsical twitch. "I certainly didn't enjoy it. But, yes, I'm okay."

    Her eyes came up to meet Thandi's. They were green eyes, but seemed darker in the dim lighting. Thandi was surprised to see what might be a twinkle in them.

    "Don't tell me. Is that the spy you've got a crush on?"

    Thandi didn't say anything, but the answer must have been obvious from her expression. Berry puffed out a breath; then, she made a little shrug. "You are one kinky lady. On the other hand...."

    The girl studied the figure of Victor Cachat with eyes that seemed much older than her seventeen years of age. "On the other hand... yeah. If you could trust him, I could see where you'd feel safe around him." She looked back up at Thandi. "And I can guess that you'd care about that. A lot."

    Thandi's returning squeeze of the hand was powerful. Powerful enough, in fact, to make Berry wince.

    "Sorry. I forget my own strength. More than that. I hate having to watch it all the time. And, yes, Berry, you're right. It probably is kinky, I don't know. It's not even so much that I need a man I feel safe around, as one that I know feels safe around me." Her dark eyes moved to Cachat, who was still standing silent and still at the center of the room, as if lost in his own thoughts. "Not even a monster woman is going to screw around with him."

    She was startled to feel Berry's hand jerk out of her own. Even more startled, when Berry reached up and slapped her.

    "Don't ever say that again!" The girl was genuinely angry, the first time Thandi had seen her be anything other than calm and composed. "Nobody calls you a monster to my face, not even you. Is that understood?"

    And that was the most startling moment of all. The way that such a small girl, glaring up at a woman twice her size and many times her strength, could command such instant obedience. As if she were a princess in truth.

    "Yes, Ma'am. Uh, Berry."

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