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Authors: David Weber,Eric Flint

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BOOK: Cauldron of Ghosts
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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.

Chapter 4

The labor tech units started arriving in ten minutes. The slaves shuffled into the compartment, their heads down and their eyes on the floor. Two of the slave ship’s crew members herded them along with deactivated—for the moment—neural whips. The slavers were rather lackadaisical about it, though; clearly they weren’t expecting any sort of trouble. The people being channeled through the compartment were genetic slaves who’d been born, bred and shaped by bondage. They had learned long ago that resistance simply led to suffering.

The expressions on their faces weren’t so much despairing as simply blank. Despair was an emotion, after all—and Manpower’s slaves discovered as children that emotions were dangerous to such as they. Those looks made Nancy furious, but she let no sign of her anger show on her own face.

After the first batch of slaves passed through the compartment, a green light on the box started flashing. While they’d been waiting for the slaves to arrive, Anderson and Tsang had programmed the box to record the right number of slaves for one chip.

“Go ahead,” said Nancy. Gingerly, the
Ramathibodi
’s captain reached into the box and removed one of the chips.

One chip only—and she was careful to lift that one out with just her thumb and forefinger. If the box sensed that more chips were being removed than had been properly accounted for, the lid would slam down and make sure the chips stayed inside—along with the hand that held them.

* * *

When the slaves arrived at the open hatch that led into the rest of the Station, the two guards from the
Ramathibodi
relinquished control to three people from Parmley Station’s contingent. Two of them were equipped with the same neural whips; the third was outfitted as a medical technician. She was there to give each arriving slave an examination to make sure no defectives were being pawned off on them.

She went about the business in a quick, almost perfunctory manner, giving each slave a scan with the medical detection device in her hand before they passed into the personnel tube beyond. The device would catch anything obvious, like a contagious disease or late-stage cancer.

It wouldn’t spot more subtle problems, but those weren’t of much concern. The sort of medical chicanery involved in passing off immediately defective units as healthy slaves was avoided in the slave trade as bad business. Contrary to the popular saw
there is no honor among thieves,
illegal or extra-legal transactions actually required a more punctilious attention to dealing in good faith—for the good and simple reason that no recourse to the courts was possible in the event of a dispute. That meant that such disputes were usually settled violently, which made everyone involved stay away from petty chiseling.

The other reason the medical technician didn’t pay much attention was even simpler. Given the nature of Manpower’s production methods, it was a given that a high percentage of their slaves would have some long-term medical problems. The sort of radical genetic engineering that created such slaves often produced unwanted side effects. A slave bred for great strength might have a severe blood pressure problem, for instance, or be prone to renal failure.

As a rule the lifespan of genetic slaves was shorter than that of most humans, even leaving aside the fact that such slaves were almost never given prolong to extend their lifespan. According to the Bible,
The days of our years are threescore years and ten.
Manpower, Inc., perhaps not wishing to seem presumptuously equal to the Lord, figured fifty or sixty years was plenty good enough for their products.

Once the medtech nodded her approval, each slave passed through the hatch into the personnel tube leading to their new quarters aboard Parmley Station. The two guards waiting inside shepherded them along. More precisely, lounged against the walls and occasionally waved them along in as perfunctory a manner as the medtech did her duties. They weren’t worried about rebellion. The slaves knew perfectly well that a station like this one would have the same forced evacuation mechanisms that all slave ships did. If they rebelled successfully here in the compartments and corridors, someone in the inaccessible control room would just push a button and they’d all be expelled into vacuum.

* * *

Lieutenant Colonel
Ayibongwinkosi Kabweza and her team passed a total of eight hatches along the way before they finally arrived at a hatch that Ayako told them led into the crew’s quarters. According to Ayako, at least six of the compartments they’d passed held slaves.

If she was disturbed by the fact that Kabweza made no effort to open those hatches and free the slaves therein, she gave no sign of it. She seemed quite intelligent; enough, probably, to realize that freeing slaves for the sake of it before the ship was secured would be counterproductive.

“This is it,” she whispered, touching the hatch with a forefinger. “It’ll be locked.”

Damewood sneered—an expression which was wasted, because of the faceplate.

His fingers worked at his device. Less than five seconds later, he stepped back from the hatch.

“At least
this
one got some maintenance.” He motioned Kabweza and her team forward with a hand gesture at the same time as the hatch started opening.

It was gorilla time now. A hatch sliding aside couldn’t be broken off its hinges, of course, but the lieutenant colonel
did as good an imitation of smashing down a door as was possible under the circumstances.

The compartment she found herself in was small; empty; not more than five meters long—just an entry tube. There were open hatches to the right and left at the end opposite the one she’d entered. Through the auditory-enhancement that was built into her armored skinsuit, she could hear the sound of voices coming from the hatch on the left.

Two seconds later she was passing through that hatch, her flechette gun at the ready.

Three members of the slave ship’s crew were sitting at a table in a small mess hall, playing cards. Shocked by her sudden appearance, the two who were facing her—one male; one female—stared at her openmouthed. The man sitting with his back toward her was starting to turn in his seat.

Colonel Anderson had made it clear she wanted live slavers for questioning. One of the Torch soldiers in the section, Private Mary Kyllonen, was armed with an old-fashioned stun gun for precisely that reason. But since Kabweza hadn’t known what they would be facing when they broke into the crew’s quarters, she’d left Kyllonen in the rear—and there was no time now to bring her forward before the slavers sounded the alarm.

A bit disgruntled by the silly business of taking prisoners but obedient to orders, Kabweza fired at the lower legs of the man sitting in front of her. The shot shredded the limbs below the knees so badly that they’d have to be amputated. But with quick care he’d survive and he didn’t need legs to talk.

She strode forward two paces and drove the table into the wall behind it with a powerful thrust of her foot, crushing the female crew member between them. That broke a number of the woman’s ribs, one or more of which were almost certainly driven into her lungs. She gasped but made no other sound. Quick care, again; she’d survive; and she could talk in a whisper for a while.

Almost simultaneously, the lieutenant colonel
slammed the butt of her weapon into the forehead of the third and final crew member. She tried to keep the impact light enough to simply stun the man, but . . .

That was hard to do, wearing an armored skinsuit in combat. She was pretty sure she’d broken his skull. He might survive, he might not—but Colonel Anderson seemed like a sensible commander, even if she was occasionally given to foolish whimsy. She had enough experience to understand the realities of close quarters assault.

The whole thing hadn’t taken more than a few seconds. Best of all, it had been done fairly quietly. The flechette gun’s knife-edged projectiles moved at high subsonic velocities, without the betraying cracking sound of a pulse rifle’s supersonic darts. The man she’d shot in the legs had screamed in agony, but not for more than two seconds. Private Kyllonen had come in right behind Kabweza and silenced him with the stun gun. Neither of the other crew members had been able to call out a warning and the rest of the noises were muffled enough that there was a good chance they hadn’t alerted anyone else in the ship. Even that one short scream probably hadn’t done more than cause someone in the bridge to be puzzled. A brief sound, no matter how loud, tends to be dismissed if it isn’t followed by anything else.

Kabweza didn’t care much anyway. She was already passing through a hatch at the far end of the mess, with her section closely following. This really wasn’t going to take long.

* * *

Nancy Anderson’s com unit buzzed softly. She held up a finger, indicating to the
Ramathibodi
’s captain that she needed a moment to take the call.

“Yes, what is it?” Her tone was mildly annoyed.


Sorry to bother you, Chief, but I thought you should know that the
Hali Sowle
seems to be returning to the Station.”

Nancy had the unit on loudspeaker, so Captain Tsang could hear both sides of the exchange.

“Oh, good grief. What does that maniac want now?”

“I have no idea, Chief. They haven’t sent any messages yet. And I may have misread their change of course, although I can’t think of anything else they’d be doing except coming back here.”

“All right. She probably just wants to yell at us some more, but just to be on the safe side get the point defense units ready. The laser clusters’ll be more than enough to deal with that piece of crap.”

She thumbed off the com. “That’s probably overkill,” she said to Tsang. “I doubt if that tub has any military hardware worth talking about. Still, we may as well play it safe. The
Hali Sowle
’s skipper really isn’t playing with a full deck.”

Tsang grinned. “Better she’s your headache than mine.” She glanced down at the device in her hand. “Unless you’ve come up with a different reading than I have, all the labor techs we’re selling have been accounted for. You’re paid up, except for one more chip.”

“I concur.” Anderson nodded toward the open box, which was again showing the green light. “Go ahead and take it out.”

Tsang did so. “All right, that business is done. What do you want to do next? Dicker over the the pleasure units or deal with the heavy labor ones?”

The message about the
Hali Sowle
’s return had been a code. Parmley Station’s control center had gotten a very brief encrypted signal from Loren Damewood, notifying them that Kabweza’s team was inside the slave ship and had started their assault. Things would start moving very quickly now.

“Let’s handle the pleasure units first,” said Anderson. The moment they brought out the BSC people posing as Manpower pleasure slaves, Tsang and her people would get distracted and let their guard down a little further.

“Okay with me.”

* * *

One of the members of the section stayed behind in the mess hall to tend to the prisoners. Kabweza didn’t really need the whole unit for the assault itself. There wasn’t room for them anyway, in the cramped quarters they were passing through. She’d rather keep the XO and his special gear and skills with her than leave him behind to carry out simple medical tasks.

And they
were
simple. All that was needed was to keep the three prisoners alive. In good health was a moot point, and consciousness would have been a nuisance.

Corporal Bohuslav Hernandez started by applying automatic tourniquets to the mangled legs of the man Kabweza had shot, since he was the one whose injuries most needed immediate attention. He then examined the woman with the half-crushed chest and the man who’d been struck on the head.

He decided the woman would be able to breathe well enough if she were sedated. He injected her with a drug that wouldn’t paralyze her or render her completely unconscious but would leave her unable to act or think coherently, much less call out any warnings to anyone else.

He was tempted to do the same with the unconscious man, but he wasn’t sure of the extent of the damage done to his brain. From the feel of it, he thought the man’s skull was broken.

Hernandez decided it was best to leave well enough alone. There was no chance the man would regain consciousness before the action was all over and any warning he might make would be a moot point.

* * *

Takahashi Ayako had stayed with the section, since they were still in a part of the ship she was familiar with. When they got to the next closed hatch, the freed slave made agitated motions with her hands.

That’s the crew quarters,
she mouthed silently.

Kabweza nodded. Like Loren’s earlier sneer, the gesture was not really visible because of the shielded faceplate. But it didn’t matter. Damewood had read Ayako’s lips also, and was already working at his special equipment.

Overriding the security on internal hatches was child’s play for someone like Loren. After a few seconds, he held up a hand, all his fingers open. Then, quickly, closed his fist and opened them again. The signal indicated that he was about to open the hatch.

Kabweza took half a step back. Behind her, so did the other remaining members of her section. Takahashi scuttled aside.

The hatch started sliding open. Kabweza went in and—

Nothing. The corridor was empty. To the left, three hatches—all of them open—led into sleeping compartments. None of them were occupied. All of them were unkept and messy.

When Ayako came into the corridor, she looked at one of the compartments and the pinched look came back to her face. Quickly, she looked away.

“Where to now?” Ayibongwinkosi asked softly, the volume on her helmet speaker turned down very low.

Takahashi looked uncertain and made a little shrug. “I’m not really sure,” she whispered. “This . . .” She paused and took a little breath. “This is as far as I ever . . . that they took me.”

She pointed to a closed hatch at the very end of the corridor. “But from things they said, I think that leads into their headquarters. The ‘bridge,’ is that right?”

BOOK: Cauldron of Ghosts
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