Cauldron of Ghosts – Chapter 02
“Well, it would have been nice if they’d given us another week or so to complete our preparations, but I guess you can’t expect too much from slavers.” Colonel Nancy Anderson tapped her bottom teeth a few times with a thumbnail, in an unconscious mannerism that her subordinates had labeled grief-unto-others.
The “others” not being them, however, they were not perturbed by the gesture. Anderson was something of a martinet compared to most officers in Beowulf’s Biological Survey Corps, but that wasn’t saying much. The BSC was an intensely disciplined organization, but that was scarcely evident to those more familiar with other military services. Despite the innocuous sounding name, the BSC was a military outfit — one of the galaxy’s elite special forces, in fact — but it had precious little time for the spit-and-polish formality so near and dear to conventional military minds. The BSC was quite capable of performing military theatre with the best of them; when it came to doing its actual job, however, its personnel were much more of the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-on-with-it suasion.
“How do you want to handle it, Nancy?” asked her XO, Commander Loren Damewood. He was lounging back in a seat at one of the com stations, studying the data on the screen more intently than his relaxed posture and lazy tone of voice would indicate. “Their transponder’s showing one of the flagged Jessyk Line codes. They’ve used it before — though maybe not this particular ship — when they did business here.”
Colonel Anderson understood his point. Slavers didn’t randomly show up at stations whose control was unknown to them. And just to make sure nothing had changed since they or another ship in their company last showed up, they’d use seemingly-innocuous transponder codes. Knocking at the door, as it were, with a special rhythm.
“They’ve got a cargo on board, then.”
Damewood nodded. “And that’s a two million ton ship, according to the sensors, so it’s probably a pretty big one.”
That precluded the simple and straightforward measure of disintegrating the oncoming slaver ship with Parmley Station’s disguised but very powerful grasers once it got close enough. “Cargo” was a euphemism, dealing with slavers. The term meant human beings, alive and… certainly not well, given the realities of their situation, but still very far from dead.
“Plan C?” suggested a third officer in the command station. That was Ayibongwinkosi Kabweza, the commander of the Torch army’s assault troops aboard Parmley Station.
Colonel Anderson took a moment to consider the question. She had no previous experience working with Torch military units and wanted to be sure she didn’t handle the issue improperly.
The Biological Survey Corps had asked the government of Torch to provide them with a battalion for service on Parmley Station once it became clear that their plans for the station simply needed more forces that the BSC itself could provide. For all its wealth and power, Beowulf was still a one-star system and a member of the Solarian League. While the Beowulf System Defense Force was unusually large and powerful for a League member system, thanks to the existence of the Beowulf Terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction, it had never needed — or maintained — a large army. Instead, it had concentrated on maintaining one whose quality was excellent, and its modest size had allowed it to be picky about the personnel it recruited and then equip them with the very best. Given the heightened political tensions of recent years, Beowulf had increased its military spending considerably, but the priority was to fully modernize its naval forces first. At least for the time being, Beowulf’s available ground and marine forces remained sparse.
They’d made the request for assistance from Torch a little reluctantly. The training, methods and tactics of Torch’s army units had been shaped by Thandi Palane and were based on those of the Solarian Marines, which were in many respects quite different from those of Beowulf’s military, especially the BSC. Not only that, but the Royal Torch Army was still very much a work in progress, feeling its way towards its own sense of identity and organic traditions.
With no real experience to go on, it was hard to assess how well the two forces would work together. To make things still trickier, like many newly-formed units, Torch’s assault troops were likely to have a chip on their shoulder when dealing with forces that had been long-established. They would detect patronizing attitudes in every careless or misspoken phrase.
If Colonel Anderson chose to employ Plan C, it would be Lt. Colonel Kabweza and her soldiers who would carry it out. Plan C had the nickname among her BSC agents of Plan Biggest Hammer Around. If the Torch battalion she commanded shared any of the traditions and attitudes of Solarian Marines — which they were bound to, since both Palane and Kabweza came out of that military force — they would apply ferocious shock tactics in a boarding operation. The Beowulfan military, like that of Manticore, was highly skeptical of the Solarian Navy’s reputation, especially that of Battle Fleet. Not so, however, of the Solarian Marines. Unlike Battle Fleet officers and crews, who could easily go through an entire career without seeing any combat at all, the Marines were a real fighting force.
It was tempting. Slaver crews, no matter how vigilant and well-armed, had no more chance of resisting a full-bore close assault by Torch units trained to Solarian Marine standards than vigilant and toothy mice had of resisting bobcats. There wasn’t even much chance that the cargo would get harmed, so swiftly and savagely would the attack be driven through.
Still, there was some chance. All it would take would be for one of the slaver ship’s officers on the bridge to trigger the slave evacuation procedures. The cargo would be forced out of their compartments by poison gas and expelled into vacuum. There would be no logic to doing so, since under the circumstances there was no way the slaver crew could pretend they hadn’t been carrying slaves. Some of the corpses would even be drifting in sight of the Station. But the slavers might figure that they were doomed anyway — not without some reason, being honest — and choose to commit an act of mass murder as a twisted form of reprisal. God knew the slave trade attracted enough sadists and sociopaths! Indeed, one might say that those were two of the trade’s more essential qualities.
But even if no harm came to the cargo, there was no chance that Torch assault troops would leave any of the crew alive. Their tactics, like those of Solarian Marines, would lean entirely toward eliminate the threat, not taking prisoners. Not to mention that the majority of Torch’s assault troops had once been slaves themselves, and somewhere around one-third were former members of the Audubon Ballroom. Their hatred for slavers would be personal and deep. No matter how well disciplined they were, their tendency would always be to give no quarter.
Anderson shook her head. “No, Ayi, I don’t think so. This will be our first operation since we transformed Parmley Station into a fortress. If possible, I want to get some intelligence out of it.”
The skepticism on the lieutenant colonel’s face was obvious, but Kabweza didn’t say anything. However prickly they might be in some respects, Torch assault troops had been trained by Thandi Palane. Unlike some Beowulfan units, they would not be inclined to debate orders they disagreed with.
“We’ll try Plan F,” said Anderson. “We may as well find out now just how effective our new counter-sensor techniques are.” Seeing the expression on Kabweza’s face, Anderson smiled and said: “Oh, fine, Ayi. If it’ll make you happy, we’ll use your people as backup instead of Loren’s usual crew.”
She cocked an eye at Damewood. “If that’s all right with you, XO.”
“Huh.” Damewood gave Kabweza a look from lowered brows. “A small number, Ayi. And nobody trigger-happy.”
“None of my people are ‘trigger-happy,'” said the lieutenant colonel. “We just don’t suffer from the BSC’s habitual slackness when it comes to smiting evil-doers.”
That got a laugh from everyone on the bridge. Kabweza waved her hand in what might have been called a conciliatory gesture. “I’ll head up the section myself, just to keep you from getting nervous.”
The ship’s captain and executive officer bestowed upon her the sort of look naval officers might give to a lieutenant commander who’d just announced she was going to assign some perfunctory duty to herself instead of an ensign.
“I need the exercise,” Kabweza issued by way of explanation.
That elicited another laugh. The lieutenant colonel looked to be as much out of shape as a lioness hunting on the savannah. She wasn’t nearly as big as Thandi Palane, but she’d passed through the same rigorous regimen in the Solarian Marines.
“It’s true,” she insisted.
Damewood rose from his chair. Unfolded from his seat, it might be better to say. The XO seemed to have a skeleton with considerably more bones than any member of the human species had a right to. There were rumors that he was the product of dark experiments done in complete violation of Beowulf’s code of biological ethics.
No one really believed the rumors. Still, they never quite died away.
“I’ll get my gear.” He glanced at a different com screen which showed another ship already docked to the station. “How about the Hali Sowle? They could make a useful diversion if Ganny’s willing to stick her neck out a little itsy-bitsy teeny tiny bit.”
“I heard that, smart-ass.” Elfride Margarete Butre — the “Ganny” in question — was slouched in a seat next to the bridge’s entrance in a manner that seemed even more boneless than the one Damewood had assumed. In her defense, despite looking like a woman in her late thirties or early forties, she was at least a century older than the XO.
The matriarch of the clan that had once owned Parmley Station rose to her feet and planted hands on her hips. “Just what did you have in mind, Loren?” she demanded. She was rather formidable-looking, despite being less than one hundred and fifty centimeters tall. “Exactly in mind, I’m talking about. None of your damn BSC hand-waving bullshit.”
Damewood smiled. “Nothing fancy, Ganny. It’d just be nice to have you pulling away from the station right as this new ship is arriving and cursing a blue streak on an open frequency. You could even directly warn the incoming people that they’re about to be fleeced by the greediest and most unscrupulous bastards this side of Betelgeuse.”
He paused, his eyebrows rising as if he’d been struck by a sudden thought. “You do know how to curse, don’t you?”
Her reply put to rest any doubts he might have had — or anyone this side of Betelgeuse, for that matter.
“Will you listen to this?” Ondøej Montoya, the Ramathibodi‘s com officer was grinning widely. “This kind of talent shouldn’t be hidden under a bushel.”
He pushed a button and the transmission he’d been receiving was broadcast into the bridge.
The ship’s captain frowned slightly. She found Montoya’s habit of using archaic references rather annoying. What the hell was a bushel? But the frown faded quickly enough, as she listened to the broadcast. Before long, she was grinning herself.
” — une vraie salope! And as for you, dickless, I wouldn’t wish you on a Melbourne humpmonkey! Although you’d probably do okay with my second cousin Odom — that’s short for Sodom; his family dropped the ‘s’ after his third conviction for fumbled rape, on account of he’d become an embarrassment to them — when he gets out of prison in maybe fifty or sixty years. I’ll make sure to tell him to look you up although I doubt you’ll still be alive by then, the way you swindle people.”
Captain Tsang chuckled. “What’s she so riled up about?”
Montoya shrugged. “Hard to tell, exactly. Near as I can make out, she thinks they overcharged her for everything and didn’t give her anywhere near a fair price for her own goods.”
Marième Tsang studied the image of the ship slowly receding from the huge bulk of Parmley Station. “She doesn’t look to be carrying our sort of cargo, although you never know. What’s the name of that ship?”
“The Hali Sowle.” The com officer shook his head. “I couldn’t find her registered in our data banks. But…” He shrugged again.
That didn’t mean anything. Vessels plying the slave trade — even those which weren’t carrying slaves themselves — did their best to stay off registries. From the look of the ship, she was just a tramp freighter who’d probably arrived at the Station more by accident than design. But as Captain Tsang had said, it was impossible to be sure without examining the vessel’s interior.
Captain Tsang wasn’t too worried about being swindled herself. Parmley Station was a known if unofficial transit hub for the slave trade, and the Ramathibodi was not a tramp. She was owned — not formally, of course — by the Jessyk Combine, one of Manpower’s many subsidiaries. The people running Parmley would no doubt drive a hard bargain, but they’d keep it within limits or run the risk of losing most of their business over time.
Which brought to mind…
“Who is running Parmley these days, Ondøej? We haven’t come through here in… what’s it been now? Two T-years?”
“More like two and a half.” Montoya worked at the console for a moment, pulling up another screen and scanning it for a few seconds. “According to this, the station is currently held by Orion Transit Enterprises. It says here that that’s a subsidiary of an outfit based in Sheba’s Junction named Andalaman Exports. For whatever any of that’s worth.”
“Not much,” grunted Tsang. Sheba’s Junction was hundreds of light years away, almost on the other side of human-occupied space. She didn’t know anything about the system beyond the name, and the only reason she knew that was because it was unusual.
By now, the Hali Sowle had moved far enough away from Parmley Station to no longer pose a traffic hazard.
“Get us a docking approach, Lt. Montoya,” Tsang ordered, shifting for the moment into formalities.
“Yes, Ma’am,” replied Montoya. One of the things the captain liked about the ship’s com officer, despite some of his annoying habits, was the fact that he didn’t abuse the slackness that characterized relations between officers and crew members on a slave ship.
The inevitable slackness, given the self-indulgence of slaver ship companies that was one of the perks of the business. “Running a tight ship” was simply impossible, under those circumstances. All a captain could aim for was to maintain the necessary competence at the work itself.
Montoya was competent. So was the Ramathibodi‘s pilot. Docking would take at least half an hour and Tsang wasn’t needed for any of it. So, she slouched back in the seat at her command station and pulled up her financial records. Studying them — basking in them, rather; gloating over them — was her favorite form of relaxation.