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Raleigh popped in, joining the main party. Down at this lower level everything remained open and functional, if not aesthetic, he decided. No artificial sky was here to give a false sense of expansiveness like in First Class. Instead, rafters, ventilation shafts, bare LEDs and open conduit snaked along the ceiling.

The hold had evidently been enhanced recently to accommodate the ship’s human cargo. The area directly in front of the elevators served as a large common room of sorts, with provision crates scattered about containing food. Dozens of cheap tables and chairs were spread around, all with trash from a recent meal.

Most of the indents watched their progress and waited with docile expressions. There would be no riots or mutinies so long as the biocollars remained in place.

Raleigh walked forward with the other two officers. They found a serving line with some open cartons of bland non-perishable foodstuff on tables for the servants to eat.

Maxwell reached into a box and grabbed something resembling sliced waffle bread. He bit off a piece, chewing experimentally.

“How’s it taste?” Granny said, unwilling to try it herself.

“Like cardboard. Scratch that. Cardboard has more taste than this stuff.”

Raleigh tilted up a side of the box and read the label. He said, “Soy wafers. Looks like they weren’t going to spend a lot on feeding the indents while they had them in transit.” 

Granny said, “Well, can’t say I blame ’em.” She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a cigar travel case, opened it and selected a new one.

By now the indents had gathered in the common area. All 800 stood in a rough semi-circle around the feeding center, watching the three officers and other crewmembers.

Raleigh cleared off a space on a serving table and climbed up onto it so everyone could see him.

He raised his voice and said, “As you probably know, there’s a war going on. As indentured servants formerly on the League side, you are now property of my company on the Republic side. Both systems honor contracts from the other, so your bonds are now subject to LuteNet and PLAIR control.

“We are diverting from this ship’s original course to the planet Lute. There your bonds will be placed on our indentured marketplace, and likely purchased by new owners on Lute or somewhere else.

“Until then, make yourselves comfortable. As Captain of the Ultima Mule and CEO of the ship’s corporation, I am now your interim bondholder. If you have questions about any order my crew gives you, or any other concerns, please address them to LuteNet, our AI system, and she will speak to you about it. Otherwise, hang tight until we get you to your new assignments.”

Raleigh stepped down from the table and said, “I’m headed to the engine room.”

He returned to the elevator without looking back. The door opened and a capsule whisked him away.

Granny and Maxwell followed, joining the other crewmembers. Somebody palmed the control panel, summoning another capsule. People crowded in. Maxwell went with them, giving a friendly salute to the Quartermaster before the door swished shut.

Granny and Roddy lingered, waiting for another capsule. They turned and looked at the mass of silver-clad humanity standing idly in the open space.

Granny said, “My heart aches that so many young women would give up part of their lives for this.”

Roddy said, “I don’t know. Thirty grand is a nice tidy sum. And they can send the first part of that to family right away. It’s not too bad a deal. Plus two-thirds is waiting for them on the other side. It’s helped a lot of people out of the gutter, you know?”

Granny frowned at him. She said, “There are other ways to make money, flyboy. Better ways.”

“That’s true, for some people. But it’s not all bad, is all I’m saying. They get a chunk of money, and there are protections in place to keep them from doing anything dangerous or unethical.”

“I know there are rules. I just don’t like it.”

She seemed miffed with the conversation. Another capsule arrived, and the elevator doors opened. Granny turned and walked in. Roddy decided prudence being the better part of valor, he would wait for another capsule.

The door closed behind her leaving Roddy in the hold, alone with the indents. Several hundred pairs of attractive eyes turned toward him.

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