by Phil Geusz
©2010 Phil Geusz

Home -=- #29 -=- ANTHRO #29 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

-= 1 =-

   I admit it: My heart was thump-thump-thumping like a wild thing as my classmate Hank and I stepped through Le Magnifique’s front door. “Spectrum Plumbing!” he sang out in a lower-class accent, while my nostrils twitched and wriggled. It’d been almost a year now, and I still wasn’t used to my new nose. “Anybody home?”
   “Thank god you’re here!” a more sophisticated voice replied as a head emerged from behind the counter. It belonged to an elegantly-dressed middle-aged man, clearly the proprietor. His name was Wilson—Jack Wilson, in fact, though we weren’t supposed to know that—and his deceptively-small solo establishment grossed almost thirty million a year. Mr. Wilson dealt in nothing but the best, and insisted on dealing with his clients personally. “It’s a shambles, I tell you! An absolute shambles!”
   My nose wriggled again as I looked blankly about the store, taking special note of the few nooks and crannies my team had been unable to holograph. Then, finally, I began to relax a little. It’s all right, I reminded myself. Everything’s going perfectly to plan. Le Magnifique was an upper-crust jewelry store, located in the most elegant part of town. Not at all the sort of place whose patrons would tolerate the ripe fragrance of a backed-up sewer. It was also early Saturday morning—the last Saturday morning before Christmas, in fact. A jeweler’s busiest day of the year. “Pheeew-eey!” Hank declared, donning his most vacuous smile and fanning himself theatrically with both hands. “I didn’t need nobody’s directions. Instead, I just followed my schnozz to this job!”
   Mr. Wilson scowled, eyeing the filth caking us both. Hank and I had been out laboring all night, plugging sewer lines and severing water pipes so that there wouldn’t be anyone else available to respond to this particular emergency call. Finally, however, he resigned himself to the inevitable. “It’s in the back,” he explained, pressing the little button under his counter that shut down the first of several security protocols. Now, anyone could come and go behind the counter without setting off an alarm.
   Hank grabbed my collar and gave it a good shaking by way of pointing me out. I staggered under the abuse, perhaps a bit more emphatically than was actually called for. Remade into a common labor-bunny, I stood little more than waist-high to my fellow student. He outweighed me perhaps three to one, as well. “This is Numbskull,” he explained. “He’s my gofer.”
   “Right,” Mr. Wilson agreed, looking me in the eye for the first time. I didn’t blame him for avoiding contact as long as possible; my normally-attractive charcoal-gray fur was matted here and there with human excrement. I looked almost as pitiful as I felt. “I understand—you’ll both need access.” Then he shook his head and sighed. “Just for god’s sake hurry, won’t you? I’ll pay you an extra hundred if you’re finished and gone by ten.”
   Hank’s eyebrows rose. “Well glory hallelujah!” he replied, his face lighting up as his seemingly-glacial mental processes slowly wrapped themselves around the offer. Then he looked down and cuffed me, hard. “You heard the man!” he ordered. “Flashlight, Numbskull! Plunger! Snake!” Then he swatted my bottom, for emphasis. “Go!”
   Hank and I already knew what was wrong with Mr. Wilson’s personal lavatory, of course. He and I had plugged the main drain at about four that morning. But Hank went through all the motions of diagnosis nonetheless, making certain that he offered both lengthy and colorful explanations to Mr. Wilson regarding even the most insignificant details of the process. Meanwhile I flew back and forth in a veritable blur of motion, stolidly accepting my cuffings when I brought the wrong tool. Sometimes I received the same punishment even when I brought the correct item but Hank had changed his mind. Soon Mr. Wilson had genuine pity in his eyes, so that when I accidentally-on-purpose tripped and fell into the back of his display case while carrying a large monkey wrench he helped me to my feet, smiled down at me in a kind manner, and patted me on the head despite the fact that, somehow, the wrench had smashed one of his little alarm-boxes. The very one, in fact, that was keyed to tiny microchips mounted in the jewelry itself, and would sound if they moved more than a few feet away. Then, instead of making a big fuss as anticipated—the plan was for Hank to beat me, then promise to pay for the damage—he simply put his finger to his lips and smiled again, indicating that he wasn’t going to tell on me. In that moment, I felt genuine shame. Then I reminded myself that this was whole exercise was just for school, and that everything would eventually be returned with interest.
   Unless we got caught, of course. Then we’d go to jail. For real. Flunking out was simply not tolerated!
   Eventually Hank determined that the drain auger was just what the doctor ordered. This was a very impressive piece of equipment indeed; it took everything both Hank and I had to wheel in the antique monstrosity. In fact, I suspect that we couldn’t have managed it at all if I hadn’t been physically augmented in the Tank. The drive-box was festooned with a long slimy hose that was still oozing slime from our earlier line-plugging operations, and out of the corner of my eye I caught Mr. Wilson’s jaw dropping at the mess we were leaving in his display area. Even as I watched, he snatched up his telephone. “Get me a carpet-cleaner!” he demanded. “Immediately! I don’t care which one!” This was excellent news indeed; the more people who passed through before the theft was detected, the better.
   Then, just as we fired our auger up, the elegant and expensively-dressed Margie appeared in the lobby. She was exactly on time. I didn’t even look up at her, however, as I raced back out to the truck carrying a filthy plunger. “…terrible inconvenience,” Mr. Wilson was saying to her as I flashed through. But, I heard no more.
   Now began the really tricky part of the operation. Mr. Wilson had long-since accustomed himself to my frantic comings and goings; in fact, now that he had a customer he was doing his best to ignore me altogether. Meanwhile, Margie was trying on bits of jewelry, one after the other. Standard jeweler security protocol called for the clerk to never take his eyes off of the piece, just as he should also never show two pieces at once. Unfortunately, Hank didn’t know a darned thing about security, and was also obviously too dense to understand that customers came first. Every couple minutes or so he emerged from the back, either cursing me and his old, inadequate equipment or else exclaiming that he’d never seen such a badly blocked pipe. And, while Mr. Wilson’s attention was diverted, trained-magician Margie would replace a fifty-thousand-dollar brooch with a holosynth substitute from her handbag. Then she’d pass the real one on to me…
   …so that I could promptly flush it down the toilet. Then our slightly non-standard drain auger gently wafted the precious items all the way down to our carefully-designed drain-plug, thus evading the front door’s security-scanner.
   Eventually Margie asked that a ruby brooch be set aside for her to pick up Monday and departed. Then, a few minutes later, Hank threw up his hands and declared that we needed to attack the blockage from the other end. We rolled the auger out onto sidewalk, then both recovered our boodle and fixed the sewer in one simple five-minute operation. Not only were we all packed up and ready to leave by the time the carpet-cleaners arrived, but Hank collected his hundred-dollar bonus to boot.
   “And that,” I declared to Hank as we slowly trundled away, dripping raw sewage behind us, “is that. Good enough for at least a passing grade, I should think.”
   He nodded sadly. “Still, I’m sorry it’s over.”
   My eyebrows rose. “Why, for god’s sake? We’ll finally be able to take a shower!”
   “I know,” he agreed, shaking his head. “And, I admit, that’ll be nice. But… You see, I’ve always dreamed of being part of the effluent society.”

-= 2 =-

   Our graduation ceremony was both simple and moving. Not that there was ever much chance of speeches or the like, what with there only being the three of us. But still, my sort-of-brother David blocked out an entire evening to spend with us. We sat and ate the finest of foods with him, and despite the fact that he was rich enough to own—and did in fact own—several planets, including the one we were sitting on, he treated us as family. Which I was used to, of course. But still, it was pleasing to share the intimacy with Margie and Hank.
   “…thank you so much for volunteering for the Special Executive program,” he finally said over dessert, working the subject of the conversation around to business at long last. “I’m very grateful to all three of you.” Then he turned to me. “Especially you, Jeb. Or should I say, ‘Numbskull’?”
   I smiled and blushed under my fur. It’d been David who, long ago, had dragged me home after finding me wandering starving and filthy on the street. I’d been five, and he twelve. My mother had been killed in a mugging, and I’d been wandering around lost ever since. I could barely remember either the incident or my mother. But, I’d never forget the moment when a defiant and angry David had paraded me before his father. Looking back, I could see that David had been expecting punishment. Instead, Mr. Wright had looked me over, established that I was indeed an orphan, and sent me into his own personal shower to clean up. When I got out there were clean clothes waiting for me, and I’d never wanted for anything since.
   “The Wright Company,” David continued, “has always depended heavily upon its Special Executive Corps.” He smiled again. “Were a true history of this company ever written—and, I assure, it’ll never happen!— the names of Special Executives would feature prominently on every page.” He shook his head. “It’s a pity, really. Such amazing adventures they’ve had! Such incredible daring and resourcefulness they’ve employed!” His smile faded. “And such terrible demands we shall be making upon the three of you.”
   He reached into his pocket, and a chill went up and down each of our spines as he pulled out three of the coveted orange company ID tags. “’Marge Devin’, “ he read off of the top one. Then he raised his eyes and smiled at her. “From Labor Relations, of all places.” He handed over her ID. “That’s a first. And, congratulations.”
   Her eyes sparkled as she accepted the badge. “I’m actually from the Employee Morale Division,” she explained. “I grew up in a company-owned circus family. That’s where I learned to do magic. And Morale is under Labor Relations. So, it’s not so strange.”
   David smiled. “That makes sense. And here I was hoping that I could put you in charge of all my high-risk performance evaluations.” Then he turned to Hank. “And you’re fresh out of our Executive Academy. Where you graduated number two in your class.”
   Hank blushed as bright-red as I had shortly before, but wasn’t nearly so good at hiding it. “I’m very proud of being number two,” he replied. “In fact, that’s how we came up with the sewer idea.”
   David face went blank for a moment, then he cringed. Meanwhile, I kicked my classmate under the table. “Well,” my semi-brother replied eventually. “The rumors you’ve heard are true. Many of our finest Special Executives over the years have come from the Academy, and many of them have also stood high in their class.” His face grew sober. “A Wright Company Special Executive is a determined risk taker, able to keep his head under pressure and improvise his way out of any difficulty. These are the same qualities that my family has long sought in all of our executives, not just our Special unit.” He tilted his head to one side. “You’d be amazed at how many of our Chairmen started out as a Special, right out of the Academy. Though of course the records are sealed.” He smiled again. “Henry Duggers,” he read from the nametag. “I expect to hear from you again.”
   I smiled at Hank as he accepted his orange ID, though his face remained thoughtful and serious. My ex-Academy room-mate had always dreamed of being Chairman someday; it was what sustained him through the tough regimen. And, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that someday he’d make it to the top. Unless some enraged bystander killed him over a pun first, that was.
   Then, finally, David read the last nametag. “Jebediah Wright,” he read. A single tear flowed down his cheek. “We’ve come a long way together, haven’t we?”
   Then my almost-brother and I were on our feet, hugging each other and crying. “I’m so grateful!” I finally whispered into David’s ear. “To you and Father both.”
   “Hush, now!” he answered. “He’d have been so proud of you!” I looked down first at my oversized feet, then back at the table where both Hank and Marge were on their feet, softly applauding. “I probably shouldn’t tell you folks this,” David said at last, pushing me gently away. “But my younger brother is making the rest of us look bad. He’s the not only the first Wright ever to graduate first in their class at the Academy, but the first to qualify as a Special Executive, as well.” He beamed. “Maybe we should’ve started adopting sooner.”
   “Heh!” Hank and Margie chuckled. Then, as if some kind of signal had been given, they climbed to their feet as well, and David shook their hands. Dinner was over, and the graduation ceremonies completed. It was time for my classmates to grant us siblings a little privacy. “Congratulations!” David said to each of them, shaking their hands with his powerful, friendly grip. “You’ve earned it!” Then, rather suddenly, they were gone.
   “Thank you,” I said again as my brother loosened his tie and took off his jacket. His wife Dierdre was off on yet another Arm-spanning art-buying expedition, so he was living alone for the moment. My own room was located next to his old one, two floors down. I kept offering to move out, but David wouldn’t hear of it. I wasn’t ever home enough for it to really matter, he claimed. It was probably true. “Thank you for everything.”
   He smiled and poured us each a scotch on the rocks. “De nada,” he replied for about the thousandth time. Then he handed me my glass and we walked down the hall to David’s study, where Father’s old desk sat with the papers still arranged just as they’d been the day he was assassinated. We sat down in the big leather chairs facing it, just as we had as children when Dad had wanted to speak to us both about something important. Then, as one, we raised our glasses. “To a truly great man,” my brother declared. As the elder and the blood descendant, it was his right to make the toast. Then we sat and sipped for a moment, savoring both fine whiskey and better memories for a moment before moving on.
   “You’re always thanking me, you know,” David said eventually, breaking the silence. “And yet, I have a lot to thank you for as well.” He gestured at me. “That fur-job, for example. Not a lot of people would’ve accepted that. Or the collar that goes along with it.”
   I fingered the ugly thing, scowling. “It’s not real. Though I have to admit that every now and again it’d be nice to spend a few hours without it.”
   “In some ways it’s not real,” my brother countered. “It lacks poison injectors, for example, and you can turn off the shock function whenever you like.” He crossed his legs and sighed. “But seeing you like that…”
   I smiled back and shifted in my chair. It’d been a lot more comfortable before I had a tail. “I’m just in disguise, is all,” I countered. “And a pretty damned effective one too, so far.”
   “So far,” David agreed, scowling. “And yet… “ He squinted at my collar. “You’re number 956WNGAAA. I mean, that’s really who and what you are, so far as the rest of the world is concerned. Except to a handful of us here, you’re a slave. It’s inconceivable, in fact, that you wouldn’t be.”
   I shrugged and took another sip. “I don’t feel like a slave,” I said eventually, when I was done letting the stuff roll around on my tongue. A lot of stuff tasted different, now that I was a worker-bunny. Fortunately, scotch wasn’t one of them. “Inside, I mean. Where it really counts. And nothing else matters.”
   David looked away. “I watched the films,” he said eventually. “When Henry beat you, I… I…”
   I looked down at my feet. “It hurt,” I admitted. “But we had to do it. To pull off the job, I mean.” I looked my brother in the eye. “We had to play our roles balls-out, all the way. Or else we wouldn’t have convinced anyone.” I tilted my head to one side. “That’s why you give Special Executives a criminal-type of graduation assignment in the first place, isn’t it? To make sure we can go all the way, without freezing up?”
   David nodded. “That, and to build your confidence.” Then he shook his head. “I need to tell you something, Jeb. I lied to you and your friends a little earlier—some secrets have to remain family-only. Father was rated a Special Executive once upon a time. I found this in his personal effects.” He smiled and pulled another orange ID out of his pocket and tossed it over to me. “It’s yours,” he said. “You deserve it far more than I do.”
   I caught the thing in my paws. “Abraham Wright,” it read. “I…” I spluttered. “I mean…”
   “You’re his son too,” David replied, looking deep down into his drink. “Every bit as much as I am. Even though in your heart you find it so hard to accept. He loved you, Jeb.” Then he nodded at the orange ID. “And, in some ways, you’re more like him than I am. Which is part of why I’m so afraid of the effect that that fur-job might have. And, even more, the collar. I can’t—the Wright Corporation can’t—afford to lose you. I’ve never seen so much executive potential in a single human being.”
   I sighed and set down my now-empty glass. “Obviously, you asked me to do the bunny thing for a reason. I mean, the cost alone… I’m unique, so far as I know. It must’ve cost millions to alter me like this.”
   “Not quite unique,” he countered. “But it’s been over a hundred years since we did anyone else.” David frowned. “Merging a human with an animal carries a life-sentence, these days. And merging one with a slave-species calls for death.” He smiled. “Yet, people used to have tails and such added as fashion accessories, believe it or not.”
   I nodded. “I know. It’s hard to believe people ever felt that way, with things as they are today.”
   His smile faded. “Then the workbunnies came along. And the lovekittens. And the farmhorses. And…”
   “The guarddogs and the gardendeer and the fisherdolphs.” I sighed.
   “The slave species,” David agreed, nodding. “They came along, and suddenly it was imperative to we humans that our humanity remain snow-pure. So that we might feel that we share nothing in common with our inferiors.”
   I shifted uncomfortably in my chair again. “So that we might convince ourselves that we’re better than them,” I finally replied. “Otherwise, the whole moral scheme comes tumbling down.”
   “Exactly!” David replied.
   I smiled back. “Try wearing a pooftail and a collar for a while,” I answered. “It offers one a certain insight.”
   David leaned back in triumph and crossed his legs again. “And now, perhaps, you understand why I’m so afraid that the fur and collar might ruin you. They’re changing you already.”
   I pressed my lips together into a narrow harelipped line and looked at Dad’s empty chair. “All right,” I said eventually. “Let’s get down to brass tacks here. You not only Tanked me, at terrible cost and risk, but deliberately did it before I went through Special Executive training, so that I could get some real-life experience. So, obviously, you’ve had something in mind for me all along.” I leaned forward slightly. “What? You can tell me; I volunteered of my own free will, you know.”
   David frowned, then stood up, clasped his hands behind him and began to pace back and forth just like his father before him. “I have a message I want to send,” he said at last. “Or, more correctly, the Wright Company and all it stands for has a message it wants to send—Father desperately wished to send it as well, you see. But he didn’t live to see the day.”
   I nodded. “It sounds simple enough.”
   “Ha!” David declared, his face hard and angular. Then he drained his Scotch to the dregs. “This particular message has remained unsent for decades, for lack of a proper messenger. As you were growing up, first Father and then I began to wonder if perhaps you might be the one we’ve been waiting for.” He smiled. “Just in case you’re wondering, you set a new record on your Special Executive final. Most classes rob liquor stores, or counterfeit a few thousand credits.”
   I gulped. Our take had been in the millions. And… The truth was, I’d done most of the planning. Apparently my instructors were aware of this.
   “Anyway… You may just be the one, Jeb. At long, long last. I certainly think so, at least.” He sighed and looked away. “There’s a thirty-percent chance you’ll die, my mission-planners say. And an even larger one that you’ll end up living the rest of your life as a slave-bunny—where you’re going, we may not ever be able to dig you out. Though I give you my word we’ll make every effort.”
   I nodded. “Before I accept such a risk,” I said slowly. “I think I’m entitled to know what the message is.”
   David smiled. “That’s the beauty of it, Jeb. I can’t tell you; it’s too sensitive. It’ll be implanted into your ear-chip. The recipients will know how to get it out.” Then his smile faded. “And there’s something else. I shouldn’t tell you this, or at least the mission-planners claim that I shouldn’t. But they’re not your brother, and I am.” He stepped around behind Dad’s desk, and for the first time since his death sat down in the big swivel chair. “I’ve lied to you about something very important. Specifically what, I can’t tell you—if I did, it’d ruin everything. But I’ve lied, and I’m going to hate myself for it for the rest of my life if you don’t make it back. ”

-= 3 =-

   The next few days didn’t offer me much time for dwelling upon lies that I might or might not’ve been told. The passenger liner Rangoon was scheduled to leave for Tiberius Station on the twenty-third, and the Wright Company wanted me aboard her. There was just time for me to brush up on my judo and do a few extra workouts before riding the Skystalk up to LaGrange Station. I’d been a large, powerful man, and didn’t care at all for having become physically so weak and unimposing. Yet, that was the lot of a slavebunny. We were kept small, primarily because of the effect on the psyche. While the other servile species were highly specialized in function and therefore relatively rare, bunnies were designed as generalists. There wasn’t any job a human could do that a slavebunny couldn’t at least in theory manage. As a result, on some planets the humans were actually outnumbered. Which made them very, very careful indeed. My body mods were intended to reinforce my spirits at least as much as to increase my odds in a fight, though of course the latter was welcome too. And, of course, they burned the secret message into my ear-chip as well. Even better, while they were at it they uploaded a small reference library filled with all sorts of odd and useful tips, just in case I might suddenly need to know how to bake a cake, for example, or the best way to clean windows both quickly and streak-free. The kind of stuff, in other words, that a slavebunny might need to know in order to get a better job than, say, being an assistant sewer-cleaner. Plus my private library offered all sorts of nice little hints on improvising weapons and explosives, picking locks, etcetera. The secret dataset was just the thing for a brand-new Special Executive—I wrote a memo before I left half-seriously suggesting all orange-card holders be ear-chipped! Then it was time to leave. David and I shared one last dinner together, where we competed to see which of was better at dealing with long, awkward silences. And then I was off.
   Travelling as a slavebunny wasn’t either so difficult or degrading as one might imagine. Or at least it wasn’t on Wrightworld, where our corporate headquarters were located. The Wright Company owned Wrightworld lock, stock, and barrel. This didn’t mean, of course, that we actually held title to the entire planet; rather, the Confederacy had officially recognized our economic predominance and given us the right to set things up pretty much the way we wanted them. Which in our case meant a parliamentary government and hands-off policy; Dad told me once that free planets are always the richest ones, and the freer Wrightworld and our other holdings remained, the richer our company would become. We didn’t have to spend much on security forces, for example, because the locals didn’t hate us nearly as much as they did most other planet-owners. That was a huge savings in and of itself. By keeping assessments low, we encouraged our people to innovate and develop the world’s resources. That in turn made both the locals and the Wright Company prosperous. The better-off and more educated people were, the more kindly they tended to treat their slaves. Which was the part of the equation that really mattered to me just then. So long as I kept my eyes lowered, didn’t try and use the public bathrooms and stayed out of people’s way, they gave me the benefit of the doubt and assumed that I was dutifully running an errand for my master or mistress.
   I’d decided to dress for the trip instead of going naked like most slavebunnies, and as I had while being “Numbskull”. He’d been a Class-C rabbit, with an IQ-equivalent of perhaps sixty-five. Such creatures were the lowest sort of slaves, able to comprehend only a limited vocabulary and perform the most menial tasks. To play him, I’d had to so encrust my collar in filth that no one could read the “AAA” in my serial number that marked me as something very different indeed. We AAA’s were the elite of the slavebunny world, possessed of fully human-equivalent intelligence. Generally both we and our owners were plenty proud of it, too—AAA’s cost between thirty and fifty times as much as even AA slavebunnies, and were mostly owned by companies that did things humans didn’t want to do themselves yet in which idiot-mistakes couldn’t be tolerated. Such as defusing live bombs, for example, or cleaning up fallout zones. AAA owners often gave their property clothing to wear, to help make them stand out. So, I’d decided to begin my journey wearing a pair of gray bib overalls that matched my fur and a ridiculous little porkpie hat equipped with two earholes. If one was going to be a slavebunny, I reasoned, why not be the very best sort there was? The fact that I was wearing clothing proclaimed my elite status at a glance.
   Mostly I was ignored or even sometimes treated with courtesy as I climbed down off of the roof of the commuter-bus—no slaves allowed inside!—and trudged the last half-mile to the base of the Skystalk. I stayed out of the little stores, so no one had any reason to accuse me of anything. And I waited patiently hat-in-paw at Security until there was a lull in traffic, so that I wouldn’t delay any busy, important humans. Then, finally, when there was no one else around I stepped forward to the counter and, without looking up, held out my ticket.
   “What you got there, boy?” a loud voice demanded suddenly—I knew from previous furtive glances that its owner was a gray-haired man, who weighed too much and had too few stripes on his arm for his age. I’d hoped he wouldn’t be the one I had to deal with, but such was the luck of the draw.
   “I’m catching the Rangoon, sir,” I explained, still holding up my ticket.
   “Where’s your owner?” he demanded.
   “On Tiberius Station,” I mumbled, making sure to mispronounce it. The more ignorant I seemed, the less Mr. Law-and-Order would feel the need to lord it over me. “I’ve been sold across the system.”
   “Look me in the eye when you’re talking to me!” the man in charge of ensuring safety demanded. “Don’t be so goddamned disrespectful!”
   I complied, knowing that if I’d done so before being ordered, he’d have shouted even louder. The guard’s face was all angry, sharp edges. “Boy,” he demanded, “what kind of master sends an idiot bunny to catch a spaceliner all by himself?”
   There wasn’t any answer to that that wouldn’t get me collar-shocked, so I just stood mute.
   So did the guard, as he scowled, examined my ticket, scanned my ear-chip, then matched it all up with my collar number. “Sure enough,” he said at long last. “You’re number 956WNG.” Then he added in a mocking tone. “AAA.”
   I let my eyes fall again—it seemed the right thing to do, even though I hadn’t been ordered. And it worked, too. He stamped my ticket, then slid it across the counter so that he’d not have to make physical contact with my “filthy” paw. “Throw your bag on the conveyor,” he ordered. “And let’s see what an AAA slave bunny brings with him when he’s sold.”
   I did as ordered, carefully opening the latches first so that there’d be no excuse whatsoever for breaking them. I didn’t have much of anything in my battered little suitcase—a picture allegedly of my dam, another carefully altered photograph of a group of humans and rabbits in assorted personal safety gear standing intermixed around a sign that read “Wrightworld Hi-Strength Acid Company.” One of the rabbits was me, of course, though I’d never been anywhere near the place. There were also a couple little bags of kibble to serve as traveling-food, another pair of coveralls, and some complicated-looking tools. “What’re these?” the guard demanded.
   “Titrating sensors,” I explained, not raising my eyes. “They measure the potency of acid in an industrial vat. I’ve been specially trained to service that model without shutting the process down. They were sold along with me, and I’m to deliver and install them.”
   “They look expensive,” a new voice commented. A woman’s voice, someone I hadn’t seen before. I pressed my lips together, knowing what was going to happen next. The ‘titrators” were in fact highly-complex gadgets that could be combined in various ways to make everything from a surprisingly-capable computer to a De Monsyne fabber. Keeping them indefinitely had always been too much to hope for—I’d accepted going in that eventually I was going to lose the things. But I’d hoped they’d at least make it onto the ship!
   Sure enough, when I went to collect my bag the locks were broken, the boxes of kibble were ripped open and spilling all over the place, and instead of the ‘titrators’ my spare coveralls were now wrapped around a brick. “Hey!” I cried out, forgetting myself for a moment and turning back towards the checkpoint. “My—”
   And that was as far as I got. Clearly, the gray-haired man had been ready for me, his finger waiting on the button. Suddenly my collar sparked and sizzled, and I collapsed onto the floor kicking and screaming and frothing at the mouth. All slavebunnies wore shock collars, and while I could disable mine it was a risky thing to do. No one could fake being shocked; if nothing else, the lack of burned spots in the fur were a dead giveaway. So I writhed and clenched my teeth just like all the rest of my brothers and sisters had to do until the punishment finally ended. Then I sat up…
   …and the bastard did it again, out of sheer spite. The first time I’d been able to hold back at least a little, to control my gyrations slightly and swallow part of my screams. But, not this time! I’d been shocked in training, but never twice in a row. I flailed as hard as my muscles allowed, screaming with everything I had. And this time when it was over, I found myself lying in a puddle of urine.
   “No!” the guard declared, shaking his finger at me and employing language suitable for a C-level bunny. “No, no, no! Bad!” He shook his head emphatically. “No entry from that direction!”
   I wasn’t about to argue, no siree! Not with the man who controlled that button! Very slowly I staggered to my feet, picked up my bag with all the dignity I could muster, and staggered off to find a private little hidey-hole since the rest rooms were off-limits. Finally, I found a spot behind a lottery-ticket vending machine. There I removed the brick from my fresh coveralls, used the non-saturated parts of the soiled ones to dry myself as best I could and, still reeking of pain and piss, slipped on the new ones. Then I reboxed my kibble, used a bit of what looked like old string but was in fact a synthetic cord strong enough to tow a ship to tie my broken bag shut, and headed off to find the freight-elevator which would lift me to orbit. There wasn’t anything to be done about the lost gear, not anymore.
   No one ever accepted a slavebunny’s word against that of a human.

-= 4 =-

   Fortunately, the freight tech wasn’t nearly so hard on me as the security folks had been. Like most Wrightworlders, she didn’t seem to carry a chip on her shoulder. “Hi!” I was greeted with a big smile as I limped slowly into the terminal. I’d torn something large and important in my right thigh while convulsing, and it was only now starting to make itself known. “Where’s your master?”
   I looked down and held out my ticket again. “Waiting for me at Tiberius Station,” I muttered, making sure to mispronounce it again.
   “That’s Ti-beer-i-ous,” the clerk corrected me. “You can say Ti-beer-i-ous, can’t you?”
   Involuntarily I looked up. The clerk was young, female, and smiling. Teri, her name-tag said, though I didn’t dare even dream of calling her that. But, I did smile back. “Tiberius,” I repeated, this time getting it right. “Thank you.”
   Her grin widened, then impulsively she reached out and tousled my ears. “I knew you could!” Teri didn’t keep me waiting any longer than it took to efficiently scan my ear-chip and ticket. “Our next lift is the big vacuum-cage,” she explained. “That means no air, so no bunnies.”
   I nodded soberly. Teri now knew that I was a triple-A, but continued to treat me like a child all the same. Probably, I knew in my heart, that made sense. A top-grade rabbit might be human-smart, but almost certainly wouldn’t be human-sophisticated. “Breathing is good,” I replied.
   “That it is!” the clerk agreed. “So…” she looked me up and down. “You came all the way here alone? Without a human?”
   I nodded and straightened my back, as if I were proud of myself. “Uh-huh! I’m considered very trustworthy.”
   Teri’s grin returned. “All right, then. I’m supposed to cage you up just as soon as you’re checked in. But it’s going to be over an hour, and…” her smile faded. “Rangoon is a Gray-Line ship. Out of Solstice. And even worse, their entire number-four hold is dedicated to slaves for the run home. For the factories there, you know.”
   I nodded. “It’ll be crowded?” I asked.
   Her face fell. “My guess is, unbelievably so. We stevedores rotate jobs, six weeks on the ground and six weeks out in the black. I’ve been inside that particular hold, and… “ She frowned. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, since I just promised to let you run free for a bit.”
   I smiled back. “I want to be on that ship,” I reassured her. “My new job is going to be even better than my old one. Don’t worry; I won’t try to run away.” Then I tilted my head to one side. “Say? You don’t maybe know of someplace I can wash up a little while I’m waiting, do you?”
   Sure enough, the freight area did have a cleanup area suitable for slaves; the booth where fouled transit cages were hosed off after every trip to orbit. There wasn’t any warm water, and shampoo should’ve been too much to hope for. But Teri just happened to have a bottle of the stuff under her counter. “Sometimes you bunnies get drop-sick on each other,” she explained. “Especially on the way down. If it’s someone’s personal servant or something, we’re supposed to clean them up.”
   I nodded and smiled, grateful enough for the chance to be clean that for the moment I didn’t think much about the fate of the poor creatures who weren’t personal servants. I’d been a bunny plenty long enough to know how miserable it was not to be properly groomed. Forty minutes later I emerged from the booth freezing cold, dripping wet, and with a brand-new appreciation for the erosive qualities of high-pressure water. There’d only been two settings; ‘on’ and ‘off’. But at least I was clean again, which made it all worth it. Even my thigh didn’t seem to hurt so much anymore as I sat and munched a little kibble to steady my nerves. Until, finally, Teri called my name. “Jeb?” she cried out, sticking her head around a corner. “Oh, Jebediah?”
   My ears rose instantly. “Yes, ma’am?”
   “It’s time, I’m afraid.”
   I smiled back at her, nodded, then got up and followed her around a corner…
   …where I came face-to-face with one of the cages I’d seen back in the cleanup area. A cage that I’d imagined was meant for one bunny, or perhaps two if they got along particularly well. This one, however, already held four. I looked at Teri and raised my eyebrows. She merely shrugged. “I told you it was going to be crowded.”
   “I… I…”
   “Come on!” she urged me, speaking as if to a child. “It’ll be all right! It’s just for a couple hours, till you get Upstairs.” She tapped the door. “Climb in, cutey-pie!” Meanwhile, her other hand drifted towards the shocker-button she wore hanging around her neck.
   And that was all it took. As if from a distance, part of me seemed to stand by and watch as the rest, robot-like, elbowed its way into the crowded cage. Meanwhile, my nose was going nuts. The air was redolent with bunny-odors—bunny terror, bunny-pain, bunny-misery, bunny-scat…
   …and yes, bunny-piss, I discovered as my left foot plopped down into a puddle of the stuff, which immediately began to soak into the sole-fur. “Siddown, stupid!” a booming voice declared—it belonged to a coal-black buck about half again my size, who was doubled over in what looked like a most uncomfortable position. He was the rabbit I was pressed up most intimately against. “We ain’t all got room to stand up at once, see? Half gotta be each way. And I sure as shit ain’t sitting, big as I am. So you’re elected!”
   I saw, all right. So I sat down in the urine-puddle, then folded myself up as small as possible so that the rest of my cage-mates had room to inhale. Meanwhile, Teri was locking the door behind me. The sound of the key turning was the most wretched, mournful sound I’d ever heard in my life. “It won’t be for long, guys!” she promised again. “Have a nice trip!”

-= 5 =-

   Riding the Stalk was normally a special treat for me. The elevator-capsules were plushly-appointed, or at least the first-class ones were, and there were big windows through which one could watch as the illusion of flat ground slowly gave way to spherical reality. In the exceedingly-unlikely event that one should find the spectacle boring, the windows became holotanks—one could either watch programming or play video games in them. And a wonderful leather recliner complete with heated massage-fingers made sure that after the journey you arrived fresh and rested.
   I missed that recliner sorely indeed as I sat in the piss-puddle with my knees in my ears, injured right thigh wracked by cramp after cramp. There was no way to stretch it, not even a fraction of an inch. I missed the windows too. All I would’ve had to stare at would’ve been the coal-black bunny-butt two or three inches in front of my face. If there’d been a single ray of light to see it by, that was; I’d been in caves with better natural lighting. But, most of all I missed something I’d never even noticed on my previous trips spacewards—the soundproofing!
   It was awful, the noise was! Just bloody awful! Our freight-cab seemed to be riding rails that hadn’t been greased in generations; we squeaked and squealed and rumbled and thumped as we made our ascent, all of this in addition to a potent, penetrating, omnipresent hum that seemed to bore with icepick intensity first down our earholes and then into our brains themselves. “No!” the rabbit at the far end of the cage squealed, before we’d gone a quarter mile. “Nononono! Make it stop, Nicky!”
   “Shaddap, Morton,” the big black bunny towering over me replied calmly. His collar had been turned the wrong way for me to read his serial number before the lights went out, but it was already apparent to me that he was a higher-intelligence rabbit. And tough as nails as to boot; the big buck had been standing doubled-over for I didn’t know how long already, yet hadn’t voiced a single complaint.
   “I… “ Morton replied, his voice breaking. “I… I…” Then a sort of pressure-flowed through the mass of rabbitry between me and him. “I…”
   “Shaddap, Morton!” the black buck repeated, his voice a bit softer and compassionate this time. “I know it hurts. But, it’ll be okay. Promise.”
   “Nicky says it’ll be okay?” the pathetic voice demanded.
   “Nicky says,” the buck repeated. For the first time, he shifted his position a little. “Eventually.”
   “You can lean on me, Nicky, if you’d like,” I finally said into the darkness. “Or even lay on me. I don’t mind. It hurts to see you all bent up like that.”
   There was a long, long silence. “I don’t usually let bunnies call me Nicky until they get to know me a little better,” he rumbled eventually. “But, seein’ as how you’re trying to be polite, I’ll let it slide just this once.” There was a short pause. “Truth is, I’m hurtin’ like hell. So, I’m comin’ down. Mighty neighborly of you, stranger.”
   And, sure enough, the next thing I knew a crushing weight was bearing down on me, wedging my already-abused legs and back into even tighter angles. “My name’s Jebediah,” I replied through gritted teeth. “But my friends call me Jeb. I’m a tech.”
   “Could see that by the coveralls,” Nick replied from somewhere that now seemed far, far above me. More fresh urine surged into the base of the cage, though fortunately Nick wasn’t the source. Had he been, I’d have been showered with the stuff. “I’m Nicholas. Nicky to you now, by the way. And I’m an overseer.”
   My expression hardened; even a lot of humans didn’t like slavebunny overseers. They supervised work-gangs, often via physical brutality. That was why they were so large; so they could bully the rest.
   “And I’m Richie!” a new, smaller voice added from the middle of the cage. “Don’t let Nicky scare you, Jeb—he’s a real softie. Lets us get away with murder, so long as the quotas are met.” He paused. “I’m a techie, too. AAA. Are you?”
   I blinked in the darkness. Was it luck, or was the most valuable property being shipped together? The latter most likely, I decided. “Great!” I answered. “I service acid titrators. How about you? And yes, I’m AAA.”
   “I’m a geek,” he explained, voice soft but proud. “A databunny, in other words. I used to help out a sysadmin, and twice I even filled in for her when she was sick. They let me make the decisions, because no one else could!” There was another pause “Tell me… Do you do any coding work with those titrator-thingies? If so, what language do they speak?”
   I pressed my lips together—Richie, like every other geek I’d ever met, was eager to talk shop. “Sorry,” I explained. “All I ever did was stick the datachip in my tester, and see if the light turned green. Most of our troubles were mechanical. So, I’m a lot better with a screwdriver than a keyboard.”
   “Richie’s weird,” a new voice complained. “Weird, weird, weird, weird, weird!”
   “Am not!” he countered. “Just because I like to learn about stuff doesn’t mean—”
   “Shaddap!” Nicky commanded, and instantly there was silence. “Richie’s right, Boris,” he said eventually. “It’s not weird to want to learn about things. At least not for AAA bunnies, it isn’t.”
   “Oh,” Boris replied, his voice small and low.
   There was another long silence. “We’ve all been sold to New Scranton Textiles,” Nicky explained eventually, his voice oddly hopeful. “We’re an office team, and we know just how lucky we are to be working there instead of out on the shop floor. Boris and Morton are janitorial, see? And Richie’s under me mostly because he hasta be under someone. But he works alone, and I never get no complaints about him. There’s more of my boys in another cage somewhere—three more janitors, two clerks, and a general helper-outer. I sure hope they let us all stay together.”
   “We’re a seasoned team!” Richie agreed. “Maybe you’re coming with us, too, Jeb?”
   I shook my head, what little bit the available space allowed. “No,” I answered, not certain where the sadness in my voice was coming from. “I’m going all the way to Tiberius Station, not getting off at Solstice.” I tried to brighten my tone a little and somehow failed. “There’s an acid vat with my name on it there, waiting for me.”
   “Well,” Nicky rumbled, after mulling over my words for a minute or two. “I think I like you, Jeb. If you wanna be part of our mob until then, I guess that’d be all right by me.”

-= 6 =-

   It was just as well that Nicky’d decided he liked me; my life might rapidly have become a burden to me if he hadn’t. A mere three hours after being unloaded at the top of the Stalk, a stevedore with a big cargo-handler came and carried us into Rangoon herself. We weren’t holding conversations anymore by then; all us bunnies were in severe pain from something or another. In my own case that something was my injured thigh. It had cramped and cramped until it could knot up no more, and now it felt like someone was running a propane torch slowly up and down my quadriceps. It was so painful, in fact, that I’d probably have howled and moaned like Morton and Boris if it hadn’t been for my pride. Neither Nicky nor Richie the geek-bunny were complaining, so I was damned if I would, either. Even though I could barely breathe, my eyes were rolled far back into my head, and my whole universe was reduced to practically nothing but me and my agony.
   Which was a shame, really, because I missed some interesting sights on the way back to Hold D. The stevedore for some reason drove us right through a passenger-holding area; even in my state I could feel as if from a great distance the thousands of eyetracks as the humans gawked and stared. “Look how crowded they are, Mommy!” a young voice cried out once. But not a single soul said a word about letting us out. Then, a little later a very special salty-sweet odor filled the air, one that made even a bunny with my kinds of problems blink and look up.
   “Does!” Morton cried, banging on our cage with a forepaw. “Does! A gajillion of them!”
   Suddenly all of us were gawking and turning our heads this way and that, trying to catch a glimpse of the forbidden beauties. Even I wasn’t left unaffected by such a powerful basic drive. Bucks outnumbered does at least a hundred to one in the slavebunny world, because males were stronger and could work harder. Females did nothing but breed and rear young, litter after litter of mostly bucks, and a very few lucky, near-ideal males spend their working lives covering them. The rest of us would probably never so much as scent a doe from adolescence onwards. Yet we were very much functional males— testosterone, after all, was good for the muscles.
   “Does!” Nicky echoed, inexpressible longing in his eyes. “Hey, honeys! Can ya hear me? My name is Nicky!” Then we were gone and out of range, though the scent persisted for a while longer.
   “I saw a patch of fur!” Boris insisted. “Through the door! It was brown, and looked soft, soft, soft!” He sighed and wriggled slightly, suddenly fidgety and uncomfortable. So were the rest of us, for that matter. A few lucky slavebunnies were gay. The rest of us led very unrewarding sex-lives indeed. Then we were through the door and into Hold Number Four…
   …and, quite suddenly, sex was the last thing on our minds. “Oh my god!” I whispered as my head swiveled back and forth in awe. “I’ve never…”
   “So many!” Boris agreed, his eyes wide. “So many, many, many!” There were cages everywhere, stacked four high so that they nearly touched the roof. They were lined up longways end to end, the endless rows separated by aisles so narrow that a normal human could barely squeeze down them. Large fans had been added to the ventilating system, but despite them the air stank even worse than the piss I was still sitting in. “So many!” Boris repeated, his voice low and hopeless. The cages, I noted were considerably larger than ours. But, they were still tightly packed—I estimated twenty or so occupants in each. One large, wide aisle remained; it was just big enough to accommodate the cargo handler. Along the way we got good looks at cageful after cageful of our fellows. Some stood and held onto the bars, looking out and sniffing eagerly at us as we passed by. Others simply sat and stared hopelessly off into space. One theme that repeated itself over and over again, I noted with a sinking heart, was that the cage’s litterboxes were all filled to overflowing and beyond. Our driver eased us down it at crawling speed to avoid hitting anything, then dropped us hard onto the floor. My thigh exploded into a fireball of agony. At long last, I screamed.
   “Sorry, guys!” the driver apologized airily. Then he hopped off of the handler and went through a little hatch.
   “Sorry, he says!” Nicky rumbled. “If I could, I’d—”
   But he didn’t have time to finish his statement. Suddenly our driver reappeared, along with someone in a ship’s uniform. “…last of them,” he was explaining, handing over a clipboard. “These are high-level, plus a couple morons. Sign here.”
   The Rangoon crewman scowled at us. “Damnit! I specified ordinary laborers for the last load!”
   Our stevedore shrugged. “You’ve got two. What more do you want?”
   “But…” Then he shook his head, sighed, and scribbled his name on the piece of paper. “Get out of here,” he ordered. “Before I file a formal complaint.” Then, once the stevedore was gone, the crewman peered in through the bars at us. Finally, his eyes settled on Nicky. “You!” he barked. “You’re an overseer?”
   “Yes, boss,” my big black companion replied, keeping his eyes down as best he was able.
   “A good one?” the crewman demanded.
   “I try, boss.”
   “That’s what you all say,” he replied, scratching his chin and scowling. Then his eyes narrowed. “I have almost five thousand small boxes and crates that need securing,” he explained. “In Hold Two. You’re in charge of taking care of that for me.” He gestured at us. “You and your gang, here.”
   Nicky gulped. “Jeb’s hurt,” he explained. “Bad, I think—from the trip. And Richie hasn’t ever—”
   “Good!” the crewman answered, cutting him off cold. “I’m glad you can handle it.” Rather ostentatiously, he showed us his shocking button. Then, moving slowly and cautiously, he opened our cage door. “I’ve always believed,” he commented airily, “that from time to time a triple-A rabbit oughta be made to work like any other.” He snatched me by the collar and dragged me out into the aisle, barely giving me time to snatch up my suitcase. “It’s good for the attitude, like.” Then he tried to lift me to my feet. But, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stand up on my own. Not only was my one leg damaged, but the other was so weak as to be useless as well. “You lazy AAA fuck!” the crewman complained as, for the third time, I fell flat onto the hard metal deck. “You’re not going to get out of this, boy! I promise you that!”
   Then, suddenly, Nicky was standing alongside me, supporting my weight. “He won’t get out of it,” my new friend promised the crewman. “I don’t like the arrogant bastard very much either.” Nicky grabbed my collar and shook it. “You hear me? The master has work to be done!”
   Suddenly I understood what Nick wanted, what he needed for me to do. Instead of trying to stand, I collapsed to my knees. “I’m sorry, Nicky!” I cried, bawling fake tears. Then I turned to the crewman. “And I’m so sorry, master! I’ve just got a little cramp, is all! I’ll move more packages than anyone else. S’help me, I will!”
   That satisfied him. Smiling, he turned back to Nick. “I see you’re a good overseer,” he said, patting the black bunny on the head approvingly. “You and me are gonna get along just fine. Go see my friend Bob in Hold Two, out the main hatch and to the right. He’s expecting you, so no fucking around along the way.” Then he turned back to me, and toed me with his pointed boot in a gesture that wasn’t quite a threat. “You’ll be all right too, I suppose. Once you stop your goddamn whining.”

-= 7 =-

   Fortunately, the job proved to be a lot more fun than expected. Oh yes, there were certainly a good five thousand boxes that needed to be stowed; no question of that. And Bob made sure to explain at length to us stupid slaves that the packages were fra-gile, meaning easily broken, and that humans were going to be very, very angry if they weren’t very, very carefully moved from the Skystalk lifting-crates to the onboard storage containers. Clearly, however, he’d never worked with AAA rabbits before, or at least never an ex-human one. I noticed right away that almost all the lifting-crates were addressed to Tiberius Station, the next stop after Solstice, where nearly all of us bunnies were getting off. Even better, since Solstice was Rangoon’s home berth, it was also the next stop after the entire crew would be relieved. “No one will ever know!” I explained to Nicky with a smile as I clambered up the side of the big cargo handler. It wasn’t easy, as stiff and sore as I was. “How can we possibly get caught?”
   I don’t know,” he replied dubiously, still hunched over and unable to completely straighten his spine.
   I settled myself in the seat, flipping switches just as rapidly as if I actually knew what I was doing. “Put Richie on lookout duty,” I suggested. “And have Morton and Boris start moving the Solstice-bound boxes by hand, like we’re supposed to do with all of them. Those do have to be right. I’ll take care of the rest.” I smiled extra wide and pretty- this was gonna be fun. “Trust me. I used to pour boiling-hot acid with a cargo-handler all the time.”
   And that’s how we did it, laughing and capering in glee as best our cramped-up bodies could manage, while I unceremoniously dumped one Skystalk container after another into the larger shipboard bins, accompanied each time by an almighty crashing and shattering sound. I’m not whining anymore, I pointed out mentally to the crewman who’d assigned us to the job. See? I’m a cheerful slave! Sometimes I even tamped the freight down with my heavy manipulator arms, so that the lid would close. Nicky was terrified at first, but before it was over even he managed to enter into the spirit of the thing. “Those bastards left us in that cage!” he observed at one point, picking up a box I’d spilled and crushing it into a corner where it didn’t quite fit. It had a Wright Company shipping label on it, which made me angry for some inexplicable reason. “When it wouldn’t have been hardly any trouble at all to let us out. I ain’t never been treated that bad before!”
   “Me, either,” I observed as I tamped down the container.
   We were almost finished when Bob came back to check on us; Richie gave us plenty of warning, so that when our supervisor appeared we were all clustered around the Solstice-bound container, the one we had to repack by hand anyway. Then, the instant he left, I was back aboard the cargo handler, getting the job done zip-zip-zip in precisely the manner in which it so eminently deserved to be done. Finally, when there were just a few packages left in the Solstice-bound gondola Nicky declared a break, and we rotated the guard while everyone else just threw themselves down on the floor and rested. “This trip is gonna be so bad!” Morton complained eventually. “Bad, bad, bad!”
   “Yeah,” Nicky agreed, uncharacteristically pessimistic. “I’m afraid that it is.”
   There was a long silence, then Richie spoke up. “All the crewmen are from Solstice,” he pointed out. “Where we’re going. What if all the other masters there are like them?”
   I shifted position uncomfortably—in point of fact, Solstice was about the worst place in the universe to be a slavebunny. They used actual, real whips there, and made horrid examples out of the ‘lazy’. It was so bad that the Wright Company had ceased doing business with CentraCorp, Solstice’s owner—in fact, one of the reasons I was aboard the Rangoon instead of another ship was because this was about the last place anyone might look for a Wright representative. Apparently the wretched situation on Solstice wasn’t common knowledge among the bunnies themselves; my guess was that once a rabbit set foot there, it could be taken for granted that he’d never leave again. I thought about it for a while, then decided it was only right to tell them the truth. “It’s rough, all right,” I said. “If you’re slow, they’ll beat you.”
   “Beat us?” Morton asked, his eyes wide. “You mean, like with a stick?”
   “With a rope-thing,” I answered. “It’s worse than being shocked, even.” Then I sighed and rolled over a little, to ease the situation of my still-throbbing thigh. It’s not your problem, a little voice reminded me in my head. The Wright Company’s supported the Abolitionist Party for over a hundred years—you’re not responsible for any of this mess, either personally or morally. It’s not your fault that the Abolitionists can never get enough votes. And besides, you have a message to deliver—that’s priority one, above all others. You should just keep a low profile, not get personally involved, and survive. For now, that means resting while you can. So, just lay still and shut up. The other bunnies were born to this; they’ll manage somehow.
   But still, no matter how I twisted and turned I couldn’t quite make the hurt in my leg go away.

-= 8 =-

   It was just as well that Morton and Boris and Nicky and Richie and I enjoyed ourselves while we could; otherwise, I doubt we’d ever have smiled at all for the next several weeks. When the time came for us to report back to Hold Four, they locked us all in what was clearly a special cage, one that wasn’t stacked up four high like all the rest. Several of the other rabbits inside were wearing coveralls, and two of them were pecking away at datapads. They were the rest of the shipment’s AA and AAA rated rabbits, all concentrated together in one place so that the most valuable property could be properly cared for. Boris and Morton ended up with us more via sheer luck than anything else; the two of them happened to be standing nearby when the cage door swung open, so they were shooed in. At first I worried about them, since they didn’t have much in common with the rest of us. But one end of our accommodations was pressed up flush against a cageful of lower-grade bunnies, so everything worked out all right. My two mentally-challenged cagemates spent most of their days huddled up with the other brute-laborers laughing at farts, endlessly telling and re-telling the crudest of jokes, and playing rock-paper-scissors.
   I’d like to be able to claim that we more sophisticated rabbits spent our days in a more uplifting manner, but it’d be a lie. Sure, our jokes were more intellectual. But they were filthier, too. And while we substituted card games—I’d brought several decks in my luggage—for rock-paper-scissors, I have to admit that we laughed pretty hard at farts ourselves. It was the one thing all sentient mammals seemed to share in common.
   We high-rankers were luckier than the others in many ways. Mostly this was because there were less of us, which eased the many ills caused by overcrowding. We could all lay down and sleep at once, for example, which doesn’t sound like much of a luxury until you’ve been surrounded by thousands of others who’ve been forced to stand in shifts for a few weeks. We were also far wealthier than the other rabbits. We had our decks of cards, as one example, but that was only the beginning. My suitcase was a bottomless pit of well-camouflaged goodies, including an old, battered vidscreen that I’d “obviously” salvaged from a trash can somewhere. It was loaded with dozens of videos, almost none of which my cagemates were familiar with. “Do the masters really live like that?” Richie asked one day, after viewing a movie about a rich and famous musician’s too-short journey through existence. “I mean, what do they do with all that stuff?”
   “Have us keep it neat and clean for them,” Nicky replied in an even deeper rumble than usual.
   We had other assets, as well. Two of the other AAA rabbits were, like Richie, databunnies. Sid and Gerard, however, were young and fresh out of basic training. In order to take advantage of the long trip, they’d not only been given advanced problems to solve as homework, but also portable machines upon which to solve them. Richie practically purred with delight at his first sight of the instruments, and had them hooked up—illegally, I was quite certain—to the ship’s network within minutes. Now we had the same level of computer access as the rest of the ship’s passengers. And, perhaps best of all, Richie was in databunny heaven. He spent his days teaching Sid and Gerard all sorts of lessons far more advanced than any they’d received as assignments, while his wide-eyed students worshipped him like a god.
   I was feeling a bit like a god myself, too. In the natural order of things Nicky clearly should’ve been our cage-alpha—he was certainly large, smart and strong enough to fill the bill almost anyplace else. And I was perfectly willing to stand aside rather than endlessly bicker with him; as the younger Wright of Wright Company fame, I didn’t feel a lot of insecurity regarding my personal level of power. But, rather to my surprise, Nicky actually went out of his way to put me in the hot seat in his stead. “You’ve got smarts,” he rumbled once, during the first awkward days when I was still trying to let him be in charge. “Smarts and guts both.” He shook his head. “I’d never have tried that stunt with the packages. Never!” Then he’d met my eyes dead-on. “That felt better than anything else I’ve ever done, Jeb. Maybe with you in charge, I’ll get a chance to do something like that again.”
   So it was that I, who wasn’t even really a slavebunny, ended up an alpha. It wasn’t a formal position, exactly—no one ever even put the fact into words. But when Boris got into a fight over a game of rock-paper-scissors and someone called him a ‘snothead’, it was into my arms that he came running for comfort, tears streaming down his face. I also was the one who worked out a rationing system when we used the data-boxes so much that their batteries couldn’t recharge themselves fast enough. In fact, word of my wisdom and leadership abilities spread so far and wide that soon I found myself engulfed in disputes involving cages as much as a hundred feet away, where apparently I’d achieved semi-legendary status as the King Solomon of slavebunny justice. Morton, who I habitually slept snuggled up against, bragged continually about the fact to his friends next door. All in all it seemed that I was doing a pretty fair job of rabbiting, for a human.
   As the weeks passed, things actually settled down enough to almost be tolerable in Rangoon’s Number Four hold. Sure, the litter-boxes weren’t changed nearly often enough, and you had to cover your eyes with your arms when you slept because the lights never went out. Nor was it a lot of fun when a fight broke out in another cage. Sure, the lower-grade bunnies got all excited and cheered on their favorite. But whenever we grew too rowdy the masters would turn on the sprinkler system, and then everyone’s teeth’d chatter for a couple days afterwards. So, my trip wasn’t by any means a luxury cruise. But still, it wasn’t all that bad.
   Until Basil, one of Morton’s best friends, began to sneeze. And couldn’t stop.

-= 9 =-

   At first I remained blissfully unaware of Basil’s problem, and even when it was brought to my attention it took a little while for the implications to sink in. I was playing chess with Nicky one day about five weeks out from Wrightworld when Morton wormed his way through the crowd and then stood before me, eyes lowered, waiting for me to notice him. “You can speak up if you’d like,” I explained for about the thousandth time, not letting even the tiniest trace of impatience reveal itself in my voice. It wasn’t Morton’s fault that he knew so little of equality even among slaves. “You can talk to me any time you want to; I won’t mind at all. You’re my friend.”
   He nodded, but didn’t raise his eyes. “Basil’s sick,” he said eventually. “I think it might be real bad.”
   I nodded back, continuing to study the board for a time. I wasn’t any great shakes at chess, so I didn’t have a lot of personal pride at stake. And, if any human (or, technically speaking, ex-human) in the universe had reason not to be an anti-slavebunny bigot, said ex-human was me. Yet it still bothered me at a very deep level that Nicky was beating me game after game after game, despite the fact that he’d only been playing a few short weeks. I could’ve handled being bested at a physical contest like tag, or even the simple luck-based card games like Crazy Eights and Old Maid that we’d taught our two slow-learners to help them feel more a part of things. But chess? Finally I sighed, toppled my king, and looked up at Morton. “What makes you think it’s serious?”
   My cagemate thought long and hard before answering, his face screwed up in concentration. “Basil’s been sneezing for two whole days!” he explained eventually. “It’s not going away.”
   I looked at Nicky, who immediately took over. “Two whole days?” he demanded. “Or are you exaggerating?”
   “No, no, no!” Morton insisted, shaking his head so hard with each syllable that his ears flapped. “He was already sneezing when they changed the litterboxes. We’ve slept twice since then.”
   Nicky’s features hardened. Then he turned to me expectantly.
   I gulped. A little alarm-bell was ringing somewhere in my head—something about rabbits and sneezing. But I couldn’t quite recall… “I hate the snuffles,” Richie eventually commented; he was leaning up against me on the other side due to the crowding. Every time he hit the ‘enter’ key on his little comp-box, his elbow dug me in the ribs. “One of my litter-mates died of them. A doe, she was. Boy, was the master upset!”
   I nodded back. As breeders, does were valuable property indeed. Then, his words truly sank in. My god, the snuffles! That was one of the deadliest rabbit-diseases there was—it started out like a cold, then turned into a deadly form of pneumonia. The snuffles spread through the air, and in such an overcrowded environment as this one…
   I turned back towards Nicky—he didn’t seem at all afraid. “Poor guy,” he said softly. “Most likely, he’s a deader.”
   I shook my head, then began putting my chess pieces away. “Go get Basil,” I ordered Morton. “Have him come to the end of the cage, where you visit with him. I’ll be there in a minute.”
   Nicky blinked, but waited until our cagemate had scuttled off before speaking. “He’s a deader,” the overseer repeated. “Haven’t you ever seen anyone get the snuffles before?” Clearly, he hadn’t the slightest inkling of the terrible danger we were all in. And if a bunny as smart as him didn’t understand about epidemics, then what about the rest?
   “Yes,” I lied, firing up the reference library in my ear-chip. “Of course. I was trained as a vet’s assistant before I worked in the acid plant, so I know all about this stuff.”
   “Really?” my big black friend asked, ears rising in surprise. “I’ve never heard of anyone working with a vet before.”
   “It was an experiment that didn’t work out,” I replied, trying to defer future questions on the matter—Nicky was too smart by half to swallow an inconsistent story, so the simpler my lies the better. “Now, give me a minute to sit here quietly with my eyes closed while I remember everything I know about the snuffles. In the meantime, keep everyone—and I mean everyone!—as far away from that end of the cage as you possibly can.”

-= 10 =-

   “…just awful!” Basil complained as he lay at the end of his cage awaiting my ministrations. He was considerably smaller than the average rabbit, and his fur was white with small black spots dappled all over his back. “I used to work in a big garden, full of flowers. Every day I was out in the sun, smiling and happy. All I had to do was keep everything nice and neat and weeded; nothing else. When I was done, I could do whatever I wanted to. My mistress was so nice!” Then his face screwed up. “But then she sold me because she didn’t have any money anymore, and ever since…”
   “I know,” I muttered, comforting the sick bunny whose universe had spun so badly off its axis as best I could. Even through the fur I could tell he was running a high fever. Not a good sign at all. His paws and forearms were covered with areas of dried and hardened yellow snot, the same stuff that was running so freely from his nose and eyes and even his ears. He had it bad, all right, no two ways about it. De-stress the victim, my ear-chip advised, and administer antibiotics immediately. But how could I de-stress Basil when he was living under such poor conditions, with other bunnies joggling his elbow all the time? And, where was I to obtain antibiotics?
   Suddenly Basil sneezed, showering me with yellow infected material, and I shuddered as I realized that I didn’t have any way to wash the stuff off. I’d be lucky to save myself, much less him. So, it was clearly time to do something that slaves throughout history have always avoided whenever possible—involve the masters.
   I did so at about four o’clock that afternoon, our regular feeding time. This was undoubtedly the best, most looked-forward-to moment of our day—by four, our bellies were rumbling and even the tasteless, bargain-basement kibble that was all Rangoon’s purser provided for us seemed heavenly. The task was accomplished by running little powered wheelbarrows up the narrow lanes between the cages. Each started out full of kibble, and every rabbit got a scoop in their personal bowl. When the wheelbarrow was empty, the stewards considered their day’s work done and simply left, whether all the rabbits had been fed or not. I’d put out word that it was a good idea to share with the bunnies down at the far end, where shortages always hit the hardest, and had even skipped a few meals myself in order to have my kibble passed paw-to-paw in the general direction of the unfortunates. I could only hope that at least some of it actually arrived there. At any rate, when my Big Moment arrived and a human hand reached out take my bowl, I did the unthinkable. “Master?” I asked, eyes averted. “May I speak?”
   The human, in his early twenties and clearly too unintelligent to find a higher station in life for himself, left me hanging for almost half a minute as he filled my cagemate’s bowls. “What does a silly bunny have to say to a master?” he replied eventually.
   I kept my eyes away from his, and my tone submissive. “One of us is sick in the next cage,” I explained. “Terrible sick, boss. I think he needs a vet.”
   The human’s eyebrows rose, then he looked to see. Basil was pretty much out of it just then. He lay trembling in fever, his face encrusted with filth. It was such an ugly sight that the master actually flinched a little. “Damn!” he whispered. “And this is my row, too.”
   I didn’t speak again, being unwilling to press my luck. Finally, the slow-turning wheels in the steward’s head ground out a solution. “I should call a vet,” he eventually said.
   Yes, you idiot! I didn’t say aloud. Days ago! Instead I tried to remain cheerful and helpful. “It’s the snuffles,” I explained. “Bad, bad, bad!”
   “Very bad!” the young man agreed, not correcting me for failing to ask permission to speak the second time. “Shit! I hope I don’t get in trouble over this!”
   An hour or two later, the ship’s vet arrived. He was an enormously fat man, so bloated that he had difficulty squeezing down the aisle. “Which one is it?” he demanded, peering into our cage.
   “No!” the steward explained, pointing out Basil. “Over here!” He licked his lips. “I called you just as soon as I noticed he was sick.”
   “Hmm,” the vet muttered, peering into the relative darkness. “That’s the snuffles all right—one of the worst cases I’ve ever seen. You did a good job on the diagnosis, and were right to call me.” He turned back to the steward. “Are there any others like this?”
   The young man’s jaw dropped; clearly, he hadn’t been bright enough to anticipate the question. “I don’t—- I mean, I haven’t…”
   “The snuffles are bad enough with regular rabbits,” the vet explained patiently. “With these gengineered jobs, it can spread like wildfire.” He shook his head. “Call your boss, and get some help down here. We need to find all the sick ones, and isolate them.” His eyes hardened. “Immediately.”
   It took three dozen crewmen and five cargo-handlers to do the job, but eventually fourteen sick slavebunnies were found and placed in a cage together. They were in various states of misery—some hardly seemed ill at all. But each and every one was indeed leaking the telltale yellow-orange mucous. I felt my chest swell a little, that I’d been able to get them decent care. “Yes,” the vet muttered, waddling around the cage with his arms crossed behind his back. “Yes indeed! This should make a clean sweep of things. Or at least as clean as we can manage, conditions being what they are. We’ll have to do this again before we make Solstice, however. Maybe more than once.” Then he turned around to the steward. “Put ‘em out the airlock and leave ‘em there to dry for a couple days. Once all the fluids boil off, everything’ll be nice and sterile. You can’t be too careful with the snuffles!”

-= 11 =-

   Three hours later, Morton was still weeping in my arms. “They put them out in space!” he wailed for perhaps the thousandth time. Pressed up close behind me, Nicky was doing the same for Boris. “Out in space, where there’s no air and it’s cold, cold, cold!”
   I nodded and hugged him tighter. There wasn’t much else I could do or say, considering that he was pretty much right on target. “Hush, now!” I whispered in his ear. “It’ll be all right.”
   “No it won’t!” Morton replied stubbornly. “It’ll never be all right again! They’re going to beat us with rope-things, and shock us, and work us until we get sick. Then, they’re gonna put us sick ones in cages, and… and…”
   “Hush,” I whispered again, closing my own eyes and trying to imagine the late Basil happily tending flowers in the sun instead of gripping the cage bars and screaming his diseased lungs out as they wheeled him away, eyes wide in terror. It wasn’t easy. His eyes had been locked on mine the whole time—apparently, he believed that I might somehow be able to stop the wretched thing that was about to happen to him. But I couldn’t. No rabbit could, not even an ex-human one. Eventually Morton wept himself to sleep, and then Boris and Nicky joined him in slumberland. Soon everyone was asleep, in fact, though judging by the way they kept moaning and kicking and whining, they didn’t sleep very well. But not me, no sirree! I didn’t think I’d ever sleep again. Or would ever want to, given the nightmares that were bound to come.
   So instead, I did what I always did when I couldn’t sleep. I picked up one the datalinks and began to read.
   I’d been so occupying myself for many hours by the time Morton stirred a little in my arms, signaling that my alone-time was nearly over. I scowled and switched off the reader, then leaned back against the bars and sighed. The subject matter was predictable enough, I supposed. I’d been studying up on the history of slavery. Not just the part everyone knew about, from when the first gengineered domestic animals were put to work, but the longer and wider history of the phenomenon that no one ever much liked to talk about. Humans had apparently been enslaving each other for as long as there’d been humans at all. The Pharoahs of Egypt would’ve instantly grasped a slavebunny’s place in society, as would the Caesars of Rome, the monarchs of Europe, many chieftains in various parts of Africa, and not a few Presidents of the United States. Everyone had kept slaves at one time or another, it seemed, and similarly everyone had been enslaved by everyone else. And yet, despite it being such a widespread practice, I couldn’t find a single case where the society involved had ever seen anything good come of it in the long run.
   I sighed and looked down at Morton, who lay asleep in my lap. A flood of pity washed through my heart—the poor little guy! He couldn’t help being who and what he was—a being born and bred to perform physical labor as cheaply and efficiently as possible, just bright enough to comprehend orders and sufficiently docile to obey them without question. Slavebunnies like him were twice-cursed—not only were they bought and sold like livestock, they really were livestock. Legally, he was no different than the rabbits he’d been slowly, agonizingly generation-by-generation uplifted from. His parents were owned, his grandparents owned, his great-great-great grandparents all the way back to who knew when had been owned and lived their entire lives in the service of humanity. And each step of uplift along the way was so tiny that no one questioned a thing. Morton was an animal, and like all other animals we humans used him as we chose without any regard whatsoever as to what was good for him. He was the perfect, ultimate slave; one whose humanity was never even for a moment in question. I’d just read that in the old United States slaves had for some purposes been counted as three-fifths of a person. I shook my head sadly; no one would consider counting Morton as anything for any purpose, any more than they would the cattle in the fields or the chickens in the barn.
   Not even a human-equivalent being like Nicky, who could beat me at chess nine out of ten games and rising.
   Morton stirred again and whimpered, then behind me Nicky mumbled something in reply. Morning was coming, and coming soon. So far I hadn’t learned much that I didn’t already know. And yet the information was different somehow, the once-dry facts full of rich meaning where once they’d been cold and sterile. I’d been sent out on my mission as a slave, because that was the way I’d attract the least attention. Going in, I’d known that slavebunnies were often abused, especially on other worlds. That I’d be abused, even. Kicked and cursed and made to crawl. I’d prepared myself for all of these things. And yet…
   I shook my head and turned my reader back on. Somehow, I’d never pictured myself looking a sick, harmless slavebunny in the eye as he was dragged off to be murdered, with him looking to me for salvation and me unable to offer any hope at all. I’d never imagined myself holding another rabbit’s head in my lap and weeping right along with him for hour after long hour. I’d never envisioned myself filled with white-hot anger and frustration, never thought that my fists would harden and my ears lower themselves and my teeth grind together in rage until…
   I shook my head and sighed. Then, I uploaded a whole new series of articles. There were more important things in the universe, I was beginning to realize, than messages. There were even more important things than the Wright Company. Or at least there were things that seemed more important to someone who’d himself once been five years old, cold, hungry, and afraid.
   I was lucky—it was almost another hour before the other bunnies began to stir, ruining all chance of further concentration on my studies. “Good morning, Jeb!” Morton finally said, blinking and sitting up. He yawned, then sniffed at my reader. “Who’s that master?” he asked, pointing at one of the pictures. “He wears funny clothes!”
   “Yep,” I agreed, smiling and turning the device off. “That’s because he lived a long time ago. Hundreds and hundreds of years. Before there were slavebunnies. And, he wasn’t exactly a master. Not by any measure!”
   Morton sniffed at the now-idle reader again, as if it somehow still held meaning for him. “Wow!” he said. “What was his name? And how could he be a human, but not a master?”
   I smiled again. “His name was François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, and he lived on an island called Haiti. He’s not a master because he was once a slave himself. He hated it so much that when his chance came, he freed all the slaves.”
   “Oh,” Morton replied. Then he yawned again. “You mean free as in, no more masters?”
   “Pretty much,” I agreed.
   My fellow slave looked puzzled for a moment, then smiled in a manner that quite deliberately exposed his teeth. “No more masters?” he asked again.
   I smiled back, showing my teeth as well. “No more masters.”
   He nodded, then hugged me. “Then I think I like François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture,” he said finally. “And you know what? I like you, too!”

-= 12 =-

   History, I soon came to realize, was littered with failed slave revolts. There were famous failures, like the one led by Spartacus, there were comic-opera failures, like John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, and almost certainly there were hundreds if not thousands of other failures lost to the record-books. All of them, however, shared one common thread. Each and every one of them ultimately failed. Except Toussaint’s, on Haiti.
   But slave ships, now, that was another story! Apparently there’d been revolts on about a tenth of all trans-Atlantic slave ship journeys, which with an estimated three-hundred-thousand sailings meant roughly three thousand such events in total. In at least three documented instances all or most of the slaves had managed to free themselves. That meant, on the surface at least, my fellow rabbits and I had roughly a one in a thousand chance of taking over the Rangoon. Maybe even better than a thousand to one, since no one would anticipate such behavior out of mere slavebunnies. With odds like those against us, how could we lose?
   I began by spreading rumors. The vet, I whispered to Morris, said that he planned to airlock more rabbits during the trip—this was actual truth, with many witnesses to back it up. But, truth has little to do with the palatability of a rumor. I added that in similar cases I knew of, all the does and kits had been airlocked as well because they got sick more easily. I also claimed that for a trained vet the first sign of the snuffles was a steady loss of weight, and that he’d certainly be looking this symptom next time around. Since we were all going short on food, the paranoia grew thick and strong.
   Then, I began to lay it on thick. Solstice, I explained, was secretly run by a special, carnivorous type of human, one that thrived on bunny flesh. They needed workers, yes—workers who’d live under the whip for the rest of their born days. But, most of those unlucky enough to be headed there were destined for the stewpots. Nicky tried to call me a liar regarding that last one—his former master had promised him he’d be supervising some sort of janitorial work on his new homeworld as well. “Maybe you will be,” I replied with a shrug. “But what about everyone else?”
   Within three days, Number Four hold reeked of lapine terror. Soon rumors even better than mine—like the one about the Solstice-masters hammering nails through everyone’s tongues— spread like wildfire. I hated having to tell my friends lies, but it was necessary—for their own good, even. When the Big Day came—and I grew ever more certain as time passed that it would—I’d need everyone behind me, no questions asked.
   Meanwhile, the masters seemed determined to play into my hands. Twice during this critical period some of the feeding-stewards failed to show up for their shifts, so that whole aisles of cages, already starving, received no rations. Plus, the lazy bastards practically quit changing out our litter trays. It was worst for those in the bottom cages, whose occupants had to put up with a continual rain of droppings and foul liquids from the occupants of the three cages above them.
   At the same time that I was spreading rumors, I put Richie to work cracking the ship’s astrogation systems. One of the most common causes of slave-ship rebellion failure, I learned in my researches, was the inability of the slaves to navigate the vessel after successfully taking it over. In some cases a tiny handful of nearly-dead slave-survivors had been found drifting aimlessly in mid-ocean. In others they’d tried to force the ship’s crew to take them home, but the masters had simply sailed them somewhere else instead without the slaves ever having a clue. It was highly desirable, in other words, that we be able to control our own fate. While my favorite databunny was eventually able to hack us a nice chart of the ship’s current course and position, it turned out that the main navigational controls were too heavily defended. So, when That Day arrived, I’d simply have to put a pistol to the Captain’s head and use Richie’s data to keep him honest. It was a less-than-optimal solution, but one I thought might work.
   Taking the ship itself, I believed, would be as easy as pie. Even the ship’s map available to mere passengers showed the location of the arms chest and all the other strategic points. Sure, the guns were kept locked up. But, in all bluntness, we bunnies didn’t need arms—not with our numerical advantage! The masters were the ones who needed the weapons. So all we had to do in order to win was take the immediate vicinity around the armory and hold it above all others until our victory was complete. Then I could remove a key from any of several corpses at my leisure.
   And, I was certain, there would be plenty of corpses. A lot of humans were going to die, if we slaves attempted a rising. Even more bunnies would lose their lives. The key difference was that we slavebunnies, or at least all of us except me, were going to die or worse anyway. So, we had nothing to lose. Part of me didn’t like the idea of sentient beings being killed. But then I’d think of the way poor sick Basil had screamed and looked into my eyes as they dragged him away, and my gut hardened. How many millions of times did something like that have to happen before rebellion became not just morally acceptable, but an ethical obligation? I won’t speak for anyone else, but just the once was enough for me.
   Then there were the medium-term problems to deal with, like how I was going to control thousands of horny slavebunnies once the does suddenly became available to them, or even keep basic ships’ services like air and gravity going. I thought and thought about these things, but there were just too many variables. So much depended on the specific turn of events that I couldn’t make any hard and fast plans. Much less could I come to grips with the long-term issues, such as where to take my bunnies once we were free, how to establish a stable, working society when the average IQ hovered around sixty-five and females were in such desperately short supply, etcetera.
   Well, I comforted myself one afternoon while looking at my favorite portrait of Toussaint, you had even less to work with than I do. If you succeeded, so can I. Rebellion by its very nature is a seat-of-the-pants operation led by amateurs. All one can do is surf the chaos as best one is able.
   Then, since all the planning that could be done was done, I shut down my computer and pulled the little lockpick out of the frame holding the picture of my alleged dam. It was a very good lockpick, one that I’d spent many hours training with. Then, I slowly elbowed my way to the cage door and began poking and prodding, getting the feel of the simple latch.
   When the Big Day came, I wanted to be able to move quickly and decisively.

-= 13 =-

   Our chance came about four weeks later, when we were just a month out from Solstice. It was sooner than I’d have liked; when your only medium of communication is the rumor mill, it’s not easy to unify a group or get them to agree to work together towards a single purpose. Given a choice, I’d have waited almost until the very last day. Fortunately, communication wasn’t the only unifying factor involved; the hungrier we grew, and the nearer to Solstice, the more restive we bunnies became. It’s a wonder our attendants didn’t notice the ever-increasing tension in the air. Or it would’ve been a wonder, rather, had they been worth two dung-pellets to begin with. By the time things finally boiled over these useless individuals had taken to rotating extra days off, so that every aisle was missing their feeding times now and again. Nor had anyone’s litter boxes been changed in at least ten days.
   It was Nicky who tumbled to it first, just as I’d always known in my heart that it would be. Well, Richie probably figured it out even sooner—he was at least as bright as I was, and by the very nature of things a databunny had to prepare a lot of the groundwork. But geeks will be geeks, whatever their species. I think my friend sort of lost sight of the forest for the trees as I assigned him task after task, cracking various ship’s systems and establishing the normal pattern of movement of her crew. He got into all sorts of things I didn’t ask him to, and his assistants were even worse. Sid and Gerard were absolutely incorrigible, once they got past the shock of not doing strictly what they were instructed to do and no more. They sat and giggled for hours as they explored our ship’s cyber-byways and cul-de-sacs, sometimes discovering the most remarkable things. “Did you know,” Sid once woke me up in the middle of the night to declare, “that the Purser only spent a quarter of his allowance for rabbit-food and spare litterboxes?”
   “Really?” I asked, trying to pretend interest even though I was extremely tired. Revolt-planning was hard work, I was learning.
   “Uh-huh!” Gerard agreed brightly from over Sid’s shoulder. “Even the Captain doesn’t know. The real ship’s books sat he spent it all.”
   “Wow,” I eventually replied, trying to sound surprised. “He’s not very nice, is he?”
   “No,” they answered in unison, their heads shaking. “And he looks at crappy porn, too!” Sid added.
   I’d expected my databunnies to have a great deal of trouble with their biggest, most important task—that of neutralizing our shock collars. But it was surprisingly easy- -simpler, even, than accessing the Purser’s porn. (And, as an ex-human male, I had to agree that the man had very poor taste indeed. If one is into S&M, one should at least insist that the models wear real leather.) Sure, there were elaborate safeguards and passwords preventing access to the control systems themselves…
   …but the shipwide network that our master’s little buttons connected to was part of the main computer system. Which could quite easily be shut down for a total reboot, and then rebooted again and again for as long as necessary, all truly vital systems having local backups. Clearly, somewhere along the line the masters had become complacent. Which was natural enough, I supposed, since we slaves were so obviously stupid, uneducated, and lazy.
   So, as I said, Richie had to know what I was planning, but he was so lost in the delightfully mischievous challenge of it all that it’s true import was probably lost on him. Nicky, however, was another story. One day while he was beating me at chess he suddenly brought the subject up. “I ain’t stupid, you know,” he said, as he took my queen’s rook. “You of all people oughta realize that.”
   I nodded slowly. “You’re nobody’s fool, Nicky.”
   He pressed his lips together into a thin, harelipped line. “You gonna kill them all?” he demanded. “Once you’re in charge, I mean.”
   “Not if I can help it,” I answered. “But yes, if I have to.”
   “Be hard to stop, once it gets started.” He jerked his head in the direction of Richie. “I never knew the computers were in charge of so much stuff. How’d you figure that out?”
   “We used computers at the acid plant,” I replied, eyebrows raised innocently. “They had to teach me about them so I could order parts and stuff. I learned a lot about how things work in the master’s world there.”
   “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” the overseer-bunny replied, waving off my words. “Next you’ll be telling me they taught you how to dance ballet there, too.” Then he sighed and looked away. “Until I met you, I never realized how much I don’t know.”
   I smiled. “You’re bright by anyone’s standards, Nicky. It’s not your fault you didn’t get a fair break. Or haven’t gotten one yet, rather.” Then I let my expression fade. “So, you’re in?”
   He snorted, then nodded. “Like you could pull it off without me?”
   My grin returned. “I counted on your help from the get-go.”
   “Good!” he agreed, looking a little more mollified. “I thought for a little while there that maybe you’d lost your mind or something. When the time comes, you give the orders and I’ll see they’re carried out. It’s what I’m good at. There’s not another overseer in this whole outfit gonna argue with me when I’ve got my dander up—I can promise you that.”
   I nodded slowly, then moved a pawn. “There won’t be much time,” I warned him.
   “When they’re feeling lost and afraid,” he replied, looking me directly in the eyes again, “they want to be led. Hell, I want to be led, or else why in the name of everything holy would I be listening to a lunatic like you?” He moved a bishop. “Check!” he declared, leaning back against the bars. “Mate in three! And I hope to hell you’re a lot better at planning mutinies than you are at playing chess!”
   Nicky and I discussed the mechanics of our planned rebellion many, many times, sometimes with the others listening intently over our shoulders, other times well into the night in relative privacy. Over and over again I kept re-emphasizing the importance of his role. “First barrier is the cages,” my right-hand bun observed one evening. “So we can only make our move when the keys are in here with us. Like, during litterbox changes. That’s a given. Second barrier is the hold door. Richie’s got that foxed, or so he says.” He shook his head. “That stuff’s all over my head.”
   “It’s in the bag,” I reassured him, leaning back against the cage wall. “And the third barrier is?”
   “The arms-locker,” he sighed, shaking his head. “That one’s mine. And, I’m worried as hell about it.”
   I smiled reassuringly. “They won’t be expecting a thing. Go over our plan. It’ll make you feel better. More confident.”
   Nicky shook his head again, then sighed before speaking. “You’re first out of the cage, I’m second. We kill the nearest masters. Morton and Boris follow us out, and I make sure that they’re steady on their feet, once the killing’s done.” He shook his head again.
   “Go on,” I encouraged.
   “I yank a corpse’s keys, and hand them to those two. They begin opening cages just as fast as they can, freeing more and more bunnies. This hasta happen before the masters have time to think. Instead of helping them guys, if all the humans are under control I make a big spectacle of myself. ‘Follow me! Kill them all!’ Like that. Then when the crowd around me is big enough, you’ll have Richie open the door and we’ll swarm out into the corridors, picking up anything that looks like a weapon and killing everything in our way.” He shook his head again. “This plan calls for an awful lot of killing, Jeb.”
   I nodded soberly. “Which worker-bunny are you gonna trust to watch the prisoners, Nicky? We’ve been over this before. There’s not enough A-or-better bunnies to go around.”
   He sighed again and looked away before continuing. “We take the corridor in front of the arms-locker, and hold it until you say we don’t hafta anymore.” He sighed. “That part, at least, I’m good for.”
   “Meanwhile,” I continued. “I take charge of the rest of the crowd, or as many as I can, and head upship for the bridge. It’s a fake—we’ll need the bridge eventually, but not right away. The crew will instinctively rush to defend the key point, hopefully taking some of the pressure off of you. That way, you won’t be fighting everyone at once. Then we veer to starboard and down to Bottom Alley, where we’ll drive the passengers and stewards into their own part of the ship. There, Richie will isolate them with areas of hard vacuum they can’t easily cross.”
   “So now, I control the arms locker and you control the rest of the ship, except the bridge,” Nicky agreed, nodding slowly. Then his eyes narrowed. “But… You say that we absolutely, positively need the bridge?”
   I nodded. “We have to have it, to navigate the ship. We can neutralize their controls, to a degree. But, the navigation gear itself is physically located there. Cutting us off from it will be the first thing they think of.”
   “Right,” Nicky agreed. Then, he looked directly into my eyes. “How in the world are we gonna take the bridge, Jeb? You make the place sound like a fort.”
   “It’s not quite that bad,” I replied. “Though the doors are armor-plated.” It was my turn to shake my head. “I have something in mind, okay? But I can’t tell you about it just yet.”
   “Why?” my friend demanded.
   “I have my reasons,” I replied evenly.
   Nicky didn’t like that. In fact, he didn’t like it at all. But he wasn’t quite brave enough to push the issue. Either that, or the more his stomach rumbled the less opposed he was to bloodshed. “All right,” he replied eventually. “We’ll leave it there.”
   And so we did. Until one day, quite unexpectedly, the vet showed up again.

-= 14 =-

   The roly-poly medical man arrived just before feeding-time, on a day when our litter-boxes should’ve been changed but of course weren’t. They were already a good week overdue, and the entire hold reeked of ammonia and worse. Our chief caretaker scowled and sniffed and put his hands on his hips as he looked about, taking in the vista of thousands of dropping-fouled slavebunnies, and for a moment I thought that perhaps he was going to do his job for once. But instead he shook his head, sighed, and began walking up and down the rows of cages. “You there!” he finally demanded of a steward, who was busily meting out kibble to his ravenous, drooling charges. “Where are the other attendants?”
   He shrugged, then returned to work. “It’s their day off,” he answered, after a sufficiently-long delay to express his contempt for authority. “If you don’t like it, talk to the purser. He’s the one we answer to. Not you.”
   The vet scowled. “And he’s an even bigger piece of work than you are.” Then he shook his head and sighed. “I’m sorry—I shouldn’t have said that. I know what game you’re playing here; I worked as a steward myself once, before med school. You guys wanna sneak in some extra lay-around-time, I’m okay with that. But I need to cull them again for the snuffles. It’s an all-hands job, and the incubation schedule calls for it to be done tonight. I don’t want to make waves—I need you people’s help, and I know it. So, how about instead of me calling the purser and telling him that only a third of his stewards are actually on the job and working tonight, you call enough of your friends down here to get the job done?”
   “Geez,” the steward answered, screwing up his nose. “We kinda hate to come down here at all anymore, y’know? This goddamn livestock stinks.” Then he met the vet’s eyes, shook his head, and resigned himself to the inevitable. “All right, doc. You win. I’ll go make some calls.”
   The fat man nodded, satisfied. “While you’re doing that, have someone get me a spare cage. For the infected ones. Please?”
   Reluctantly, the steward nodded. “Margaret!” he shouted across the hold, to where another crew-person was filling bowls with chow. “Hey, Margaret! We’ve gotta do another cull!”
   “Shit!” she cursed. “I’m going over to see Hank! I told him I’d be done early.”
   “You’re gonna be late,” the first steward replied. “I’ll call in the cavalry. How about you go get the vet a spare cage? For the deaders.”
   She frowned. “We’ve only got the one. And it’s still… still…”
   “Whatever! Just get going. The sooner we’re done, the sooner you and Hank can play hide-the-salami.”
   “Shit!” Margaret declared again. “Shit, shit, shit!” Then she slammed her scoop down into her chow-cart one last time…
   …and stomped away with it, leaving the rest of her charges unfed.
   “No!” I heard the next bunny in line wail, waving his bowl miserably. “No, no, no, no, no!”
   “No!” first a few, and then dozens of other equally hungry slavebunnies echoed. Perhaps a tenth of us had been fed, if that. After weeks of short rations. “No!”
   Then the vet strode over to look in on us, his special, high-value charges. First he walked back and forth a couple times, verifying our general health. Then he turned to Nicky, who to a human was obviously our leader. “Well, big boy!” he said approvingly. “I bet these morons are at least taking good care of you guys.”
   Nicky and the rest of us stared down at the ground. “We’re hungry,” he said finally. “Damned hungry. The stewards aren’t feeding any of us right, though we’re better off than most.”
   The vet’s eyebrows rose. He’d been expecting a meek “Yes, Boss!”
   “Look!” Richie declared, kicking at the overfull litter box. “Who’d make another living creature put up with this!”
   “And then complain that we stink, stink, stink!” agreed Morton.
   I shouldn’t have done it, shouldn’t have called the slightest attention to myself. After all, the lockpick was waiting hidden in my palm for the moment the vet turned his back. But, the temptation was too great. “So I guess culling us is easier than treating us?” I demanded. “Takes you away less from the ship’s social life? Or did you guys embezzle the antibiotics-money too, just like you did the food-money and litterbox-money?”
   The vet’s jaw dropped, and his hand dropped to the shocker button on his chest. “I…” he declared. “I…”
   Just then a rabbit wailed, then another and another until hundreds were keening in terror. The vet glared at me one last time, then looked away to see what the fuss was all about.
   So did I. And then, so help me, I rabbit-wailed too.
   A cargo-handler was coming down the aisle, carrying the ship’s one and only spare cage. A cage that was still partly full of the remains of our airlocked friends, their dessicated faces locked in grotesque expressions of pain and horror.
   “You idiot!” the vet began. “Why in god’s name—”
   “I tried to tell him!” Margaret replied from the driver’s seat. “But would he listen? No! The airlock’s on a dead end, see? And there’s no other way…”
   I never found out exactly what there was no other way to do, though from context I had a pretty good idea. Instead, while the vet’s attention was diverted I reached out and wedged my pick into the latch just-so. It released, just as it had a thousand times before during practice. Then I nodded at Richie. “Now!” I ordered.
   “Got it!” he answered, his normally easygoing features transformed into a ferocious mask. The lights flickered as the auxiliary system took over from the rebooting computer, so slightly that probably no one else aboard even noticed. “Confirmed!”
   Then I was out, certain that Nicky was at my back. The vet was bellowing at Margaret as I staggered up behind him, still stiff and sore from not having walked so far in such a long time. I kicked him behind the knee, and his overloaded frame collapsed like an imploding building. Then I hit him with my suitcase, which by no coincidence at all made a very serviceable club when filled with all the hard, heavy things I’d been able to accumulate over so many weeks. It took me three blows, but finally he stayed down. Then I looked up to see if Nicky needed any help. But, predictably, he’d been even more brutally efficient than me. Margaret no longer had a working throat, and would never play hide-the-salami again. By the time I was ready to assist, he was already digging the keys out of her pocket.
   There were three other stewards in Hold Four at the time of the rising—any one of them could’ve hit an alarm bell and ended it all. But, none did. One of them was still feeding the next aisle over as I raced up and gave her the same treatment as I had the overweight medical man, while another just stood and pressed his shocker button over and over again while I ran right up in front of him. By then I had help, and plenty of it—I’d barely knocked him down when he was swarmed and finished by a good dozen of my fellows. “Dead!” the slaves were screaming as I left them, intent on my next errand. “Dead, dead, dead, dead!” They didn’t leave much. And as for the fourth, I never learned exactly what happened to him. All I ever found was a big red stain. Later, I saw someone using a human tibia as a club. I can’t be certain, but I have my suspicions.
   Fortunately I hadn’t strayed very far from my cage, or else I might never have gotten back to it. The stewards had left a hopper full of chow near there, and my newly-escaped comrades were at least as famished as they were angry. I had to bite and kick to force my way through, and even then if Boris hadn’t seen what was going on and started yelling that the Big Boss needed through, I might’ve lost control. Finally I was able to climb up high enough to see that Nicky had assembled a sizeable party, perhaps fifteen hundred, near the big door.
   “Now!” I called down to Richie, mimicking the opening-motion with my paws. He was already typing furiously when I cried out, and for a heart-freezing thirty-seconds nothing happened. I found out later that the central computer was about to finish rebooting, and that he was busy just then making sure it never fully restarted. But finally he clicked on something and gestured to his assistant Sid, who began typing furiously as well. Then the big doors swung open and Nicky was on his way.
   Now my job began in earnest; Nicky had already pulled the easiest, most willing recruits for the top-priority job. That left me to woo the remainder away from the attractive food and the mindless excitement of running free up and down the aisles. “Does!” I cried out. “Does! I know where the does are!”
   A few of the hungrier ones didn’t even look up; they were pretty skeletal, and if they that starved then… Well, I could hardly blame them. Then Morton, bless him, remembered his part. He climbed up on a cage and pointed at me. “That’s the Big Boss!” he declared. “He’s smart, smart, smart!”
   “He’s the smart one!” Gerard agreed, not looking up for an instant from his flickering screen, one of the three that was keeping us alive. “He knows everything!”
   Suddenly a mob of slavebunnies began to form at my feet. “I know where the does are!” I declared again. “But we’ve got to go through a lot of masters to get to them.” Even at that moment, I felt a little self-conscious at what came out of my mouth next. But, now more than ever, I had to sound like a rabbit. “A lot, lot, lot, lot, lot of them.”
   “They’re snot-heads!” an unknown voice declared.
   “They said we stink!” another added. “When, when…” Clearly, he couldn’t finish.
   “Does!” a third added, and then everyone cheered.
   “All right!” I declared again, feeling much relieved. I’d thought that the promise of does would do the trick, but there hadn’t been any way to be certain. “Let’s go kill the masters! And then see the does!”
   A sort of guttural, savage sound of agreement exploded from the normally-placid bunnies. It was the ugliest sound I ever heard, or will probably ever hear. “Kill them!” I declared again. “Kill them all!”
   Then, quite calmly, I climbed down from the cage and led my own mob of perhaps a thousand rabbits out of Hold Four and towards the bridge.

-= 15 =-

   It was easy to tell where Nicky’s mob had passed, once we were out in the corridors. They’d behaved like a horde of giant locusts, stripping the walls, floors, even the ceilings bare of anything and everything that took their fancy. Which proved to be practically everything—even the corpses were stripped naked.
   For a good quarter of a mile or more we followed in our fellow rebels’ tracks, then I led my mob to the left where he’d taken his to the right. It was almost as if the branch in the corridor served as the gateway to another universe; now we were pouring into a part of the ship that still seemed unaware that an uprising was taking place. This area was where the crew was quartered; everything was still neat and orderly, in stark contrast to the chaos we’d just passed through. We went down a corridor, rounded a bend…
   …and came face-to-face with a group from Engineering, wearing grease-stained coveralls and carrying meal trays in their hands. For a long moment we just stared at each other, too shocked to move. Then, rather unexpectedly, Boris took over. “Food!” he cried out. Then my mob pushed forward so hard that I was carried along, right in the very front ranks. At no point did the engineers lift a finger to defend themselves; they went to slaughter with round, terror-filled eyes, never releasing the last meals which they would never eat.
   “Food!” more voices behind me echoed as the force of the crowd shoved me further down the corridor. “Food!” I caught only a brief glimpse of the crew’s cafeteria as I surged past the open door; remarkably, about half the diners seemed totally unaware of the uproar going on just a few feet away, while the rest, still seated, craned their necks trying figure out what on earth was going on. I didn’t have to give any orders. Without any direction at all, more bunnies surged into the little space than it could reasonably hold. Then there were screams, followed by silence. When the victors emerged, they were gorging themselves on handfuls of fruit, slices of melon, in one case even a ham sandwich. And, even better, many were carrying knives.
   “Spread out!” I ordered. “This is where they live! Find them all!” I hit the “open” button on a random compartment—it flashed red and remained shut, being locked. The next door opened, however, and I charged through the opening with teeth bared and suitcase-cudgel at the ready, prepared for anything. Anything turned out to be nothing, however; there was no one home. I was in a woman’s quarters, and a big stuffed bear sat on the neatly-made bed. In a flash a dozen other bunnies surged in behind me, opening drawers, smashing perfume bottles, ripping down the curtains. When I emerged half the bunnies seemed to be wearing an article or two of women’s clothing, especially the brightest-colored stuff, and one was hopping up and down and waving the bear as if it were an enemy battle-standard. Up and down the corridor most of my army was similarly engaged, while the late-arrivers beat on the locked doors with improvised battering-rams made from cafeteria tables. Clearly, it was time to move on—anyone left alive here was certainly in deep hiding, and probably wouldn’t dare emerge for hours. “Come on!” I urged my companions, bouncing up and down on my toes at the next intersection. “Come on! The does are this way!”
   The does weren’t that way, of course—my path through the ship was carefully calculated to offer not so much as a whiff of the gentler sex until the entire ship was carried. Next we surged through the bulk freight area to Bottom Alley, the only corridor in the entire ship that ran all the way from end to end. There wasn’t nearly so much here to excite the imaginations of my bunnies as there’d been back near the cafeteria, where more of my army had remained to loot and pillage than I’d have liked. Resolutely I led them upship towards the bridge, past bulkhead after bulkhead after featureless bulkhead. “This way!” I shouted over and over again, lest anyone grow bored and turn back. “We’re almost there!” Finally, far later in the game than I’d dreamed possible, the ship’s general alarm blared and red lights flashed. All around us airtight doors stirred…
   …then froze solid as, once again, Richie and his helpers saved our bacon.
   We were so close to the bridge before we came to a working security camera that I’d begin to fear my feint had been in vain; apparently Rangoon’s crew was too incompetent to be outfoxed. Eventually, however, a swivel-mounted box with a lens stirred, then swung around to point directly at us. “Come on!” I urged. “Run past that death ray before it can fire!” And so we did exactly that, running and screaming and hopping in what must have seemed like an endless blood-spattered furry tide directly toward the ship’s nerve center. “All hands!” I heard what was surely the captain’s own voice declare over the ship’s annunciator. “All hands to the bridge! Master’s Mate, secure the armory. I say again, all hands are ordered to the bridge, and the Master’s Mate is to secure the armory! All passengers, please report to your cabins, and lock your doors. This is a Code Four Emergency.”
   I wasn’t worried anymore about the Master’s Mate; someone wearing the traditional knotted-rope emblem of the office had been eating lunch in the cafeteria when we arrived. But still, the ship’s chief security officer had a squad of helpers who were now converging on Nicky and his rabbits. There wasn’t a damn thing I could do to help him, however, except to keep moving. We were so close to the bridge by then that there was only one branchway left that would take us across towards passenger country; we raced down it chanting “Does! Does! Does!” Finally, we came to the kitchen and food-storage area that separated the passengers from the rest of the ship. It was empty, already evacuated. “Stop!” I ordered, holding up my paws and turning around backwards to face my friends. “Stop!” And, to my vast relief, they did exactly that. So far I’d led them to victory after victory, and now they trusted me. “We’re going to let all the air out of here,” I explained. “So none of the masters can get through.
   “But… Food!” one of the larger slaves argued, sniffing theatrically. Clearly, he was an overseer bunny. Then he stamped on the deck angrily. “Good food!”
   “We’ll have food,” I promised. “You keep the others back. Boris, come with me.”
   The overseer looked confused for a moment, then swelled in self-importance. “Back!” he ordered the rest, directing a savage kick at one of the smaller slaves. “Big Boss says, back!”
   “I’m Boris!” my old friend complained, after nearly being clawed in the face.
   “Let him through!” I ordered.
   “Okay, Boss!” the overseer agreed, falling easily back into his former place in the pecking order. “Sure thing!”
   All spacecraft beyond a certain size are designed in segments, so that one catastrophic hull failure can’t compromise the integrity of the entire vessel. The kitchen, being so large, served as one of these compartments all by itself. “All right, Boris!” I instructed as we made our way in, ears low. “This is the passenger area. What’ve I told you about passengers? The humans not wearing uniforms?”
   “Good masters!” he answered. “Good, good, good, good! They didn’t starve us—didn’t even know.”
   “Right!” I agreed, pausing to pick up a large carving knife. Then, after the barest hesitation, I grabbed another and handed it to Boris. “We don’t kill them unless they try to hurt us.”
   “Don’t kill them,” he agreed.
   After making a hurried inspection trip during which we saw no one, I called Boris over to one of the three big airlocks separating the commissary off from the rest of passenger country. “Watch close,” I instructed him as I pressed and held the blinking red control light on the far-side door. This was Richie’s work; every airlock on the ship now believed that its motor was burned out and needed maintenance. Then the light blinked green, and I pressed it again. This time the door lowered. “See?” I asked. “It’s easy.”
   He nodded. “Just like a vacuum cleaner!” he agreed, smiling. “But one day my vacuum wouldn’t reset, even though I tried, tried, tried, tried, tried! Nicky had to—“
   “These’ll reset,” I interrupted my friend, placing a firm paw on his shoulder and smiling. “If they don’t, well… I’ll think of something. Go to the other two, and do just exactly what I did!”
   “Okay!” he agreed, clearly disappointed that he hadn’t been able to finish his vacuum-cleaner story. Then he was gone.
   He needn’t have hurried, as it turned out; it took me several minutes to find what I was looking for, though it was right in front of my face all of the time. Rangoon was equipped with first-class cabins, which meant that in addition to the usual automated stuff she carried a human chef and fully-equipped gourmet facilities. I didn’t recognize the cooktop when I saw it, as I was expecting something greasy and metallic instead of shiny and white and clean as newly-fallen snow. Once I found it, however, the rest was easy. In space the surest way to extinguish a fire is to expose it to vacuum, of which there is never a shortage. Because fires were such dangerous things on spacecraft, kitchens were always equipped with a last-ditch air-dump; this one was a five-inch pipe right behind the stove. Carefully I unwrapped the beat-up old string that was really a hawser from around my suitcase, then I pressed a little dark spot with a clawtip. Suddenly, the string went soft and stretchy. I tied one end to the manual-override lever, then played it out after me as I made my way back to the main exit. It wasn’t quite long enough—I ended up maybe ten feet short of the airlock. There, Boris was waiting for me, practically glowing at what he’d accomplished. “They both closed!” he exulted. “The lights turned green, and they closed!”
   “Good!” I replied, smiling. Then I turned to the overseer bunny. “And none of our bunnies went in there?”
   “No, Boss!” he answered, shaking his head so hard I was afraid it’d fall off. “Not one!”
   “Double-good, then!” I smiled, pleased with how inordinately well things were going. One of my worst nightmares was that a bloody melee would erupt here, so near passenger country, and that my rabbits would be impossible to control. I turned to the crowd and raised my voice. “There’s a loud noise coming!” I warned them. “Loud, loud, loud, loud! But it’s okay!” Then, after congratulating myself for having the presence of mind to allow a few seconds for the message to sink in before proceeding, I pressed the little black spot on my string again to firm it up. “Stand by the button,” I ordered Boris.
   “Ready!” he replied, standing straight and tall while the others stared at him in admiration.
   “Push it!” I ordered.
   He nodded and did so. “It’s green!” he told me after a few seconds.
   I nodded, and looked up at the top of the door. We were taking too many chances already, disabling so many perfectly-reasonable safety protocols while at the same time compromising so much of the ship’s airtight integrity, so I had to be certain that the door was actually descending before dumping the air. “Push it again!” I ordered, and with a big, dopey grin Boris did exactly as he was told. The door began to lower, I yanked my string, the air began roaring out of the five-inch dump…
   …and just then a small head popped out of a cabinet door maybe twenty feet into the kitchen area.
   “Mommy?” it asked.

-= 16 =-

   There wasn’t time to think, just to act. Or, more correctly, there wasn’t time to do anything at all; I knew before I took my first step towards the child that I didn’t stand a chance of pulling off a rescue, that we were both going to die horribly together, that this was the end of all things for me. But I ran towards the cabinet anyway, because some things in this world are worse than death and trying to live with myself after leaving a little one to strangle alone in hard vacuum was certainly one of them.
   I gave the effort my best regardless, more out of habit than anything else. In three long steps I was at the cabinet, where I fear I wasn’t at all gentle in snatching up the little girl from her hiding place, pivoting, and running like hell for the descending door. It was already three-fourths down when I made the turn. Too late! In desperation I bent over and tossed the child underarm, sliding the little girl across the well-polished floor. It was a very nearly-run thing but, shrieking, she spun underneath at the very last second.
   Then, the portal closed with a thud loud enough to be audible even over the shriek of vanishing air.
   For one of the very few times in my life, I was unsure of what to do next. I didn’t think I could get anywhere near the air dump without being sucked in—or at least not until the air was practically gone anyway, which was too late to do me any good. We’d closed only the far-side door on the other airlocks, so that if the passengers opened them they’d be forced to expose large areas of their refuge to vacuum. Besides, those escape routes led only to the passenger-side of the commissary. If the masters didn’t kill me on sight, at the very least they’d do so after the rebellion failed—which would be certain without my leadership. I gritted my teeth, then turned towards the door that had just slid shut in my face. It was an outer door too, which meant that every safety system in the book would have to be overridden before it could rise. My eyes were already stinging and my mouth tingling from lack of air pressure. If I could just remember the override sequence…
   I was still reaching for the button when, quite unexpectedly the door jerked into motion again. As it opened there was a huge rush of air into the partly-depressurized compartment, enough to blow my feet out from under me and cause me to land hard on my face. But then a veritable forest of paws reached out, and two of them, one gray and one brown, snatched me by the wrists before I could slide away.
   “Got him!” I heard a thin, vacuum-distorted voice cry out against the wind, then a wide-eyed bunny-face, half gray and half brown, was dragged onto my side of the door. “Hold me!” he screamed. Our progress into the rapidly-depressurizing zone was first arrested, then reversed as more bunnies piled on to help. Slowly I was pulled back onto the proper side of the airlock…
   …then the screaming gale was reduced to sudden silence as the door slid back down into place just an inch or two beyond my toes. For a little while I was too winded to do anything but lie there, helpless. Then a soft paw touched my shoulder. “I was scared, Jeb!” Boris declared. “Scared, scared, scared, scared!”
   “Me too,” I replied, slowly climbing to my feet. I could hear the little girl squalling somewhere nearby, now that all the sound-effects had been shut down. I rose up on my toes to look for her.
   “Guildersleeves is watching the baby,” Boris explained, his steadying paw still resting on my shoulder. “Just around the corner. He used to be a butler, and says he knows just exactly what to do.”
   I nodded; that was good to hear. Frankly, my chest was still heaving too much for me to take on yet another worry. A whole gaggle of bunnies was standing around me, I realized suddenly, including a two-tone brown and gray with very familiar paws. I smiled and hugged him, while his ear-linings turned dark-red in embarrassment. “What’s your name?” I demanded.
   “Ezekiel,” he replied softly.
   I looked deep into his eyes for a moment and hugged him again. “Thank you, Ezekiel,” I eventually said when we were done. He twisted away wordlessly then, and vanished back into the crowd, where the hugs and backslaps continued.
   Then I turned to Boris. “Did you get Richie to override the airlock?” I demanded.
   He shook his head. “No, silly! We don’t have a talkie-thingie.”
   I pressed my lips together and nodded my head—one of our biggest weaknesses was lack of communications. If I hadn’t been seriously rattled, I’d never have asked such a dumb question. “Then, how did you…”
   Boris’s expression hardened, then he stamped his left foot once in frustration. “I tried to tell you! Tried, tried, tried, tried, tried!”
   I sighed and looked down at the deck for a moment, as I always did when an extra helping of patience was called for. “What did you try to tell me?” I asked.
   “That these controls are just like the ones on our vacuum cleaners!” he explained, as if to a particularly slow learner. “Remember?”
   Vaguely I did. “Yes.”
   He nodded, looking a bit more satisfied. “Anyway… One day mine broke and wouldn’t reset. So Nicky had to call a master. He explained to us that when that happens there’s always one last thing you can try. You can push and hold the button just long enough to sing ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’” His face grew stern. “But you have to sing it three times, not just once. And if you lose track of how many, you have to start over. Anyway, then, you let it up and press it again, and sing three more times. The vacuum will either make a really funny noise and start up again, or else it’s broken so bad that it’ll take a master to fix it.” He smiled and stood up a little straighter. “Everyone always called me to reset their vacuums. I’m the best vacuum-resetter we ever had! Everyone else only knows the first way, not the one for when things are really bad.”
   For a long moment I stood gaping at the so-proud Boris, whose unguessed-at technical abilities had just saved my life. Then I finally forced my mouth closed and hugged him even longer than I had Ezekiel. Next I turned to the overseer-bunny. “You stay here with five rabbits,” I instructed him, pointing into the kitchen. Inside, the vacuum was already doing interesting things to the ship’s main food supply. “Keep a sharp lookout. If any of you see masters in there, you send one rabbit running back to tell Richie, and another to find me.”
   He nodded and lowered his eyes. “Yes, Boss.”
   “They’ll be wearing funny-looking silver suits, if they come” I continued. Then I scowled and, borrowing a ball-pein hammer from a nearby bunny, smashed the control box into sparking ruins. “That’ll have to do for now, though we’ll weld it shut later.” I scowled and handed the overseer my carving-knife. “It won’t be easy for them to get through this door—not now, at least. But if they do, you know what to do.”
   He accepted the weapon and grinned, displaying bloodstained teeth. “Yes, Boss! I surely do!”
   “Good,” I replied, grinning back equally savagely. “If you have to find me, I’ll be somewhere near the bridge.”

-= 17 =-

   I really, truly did intend to go directly to the bridge—the sooner we laid siege to it, the readier we’d be when the crew attempted their inevitable sortie to retake the ship. But along the way an out-of-breath B-rated bunny named Elijah came running and collapsed at my feet, out of breath. “M-Message!” he gasped between long, ragged intakes of breath. “M-message! From N-Nicky!”
   I held up my column and waited for him to recover enough to speak. “Nicky… Says he’s… in trouble!” Elijah explained, doing his best to spit the words out. “Humans… have blasters!”
   “Right!” I agreed, nodding. Then I helped him to his feet. “Lead the way!”
   Sure enough, we hadn’t traveled more than a few hundred yards before the weapon’s characteristic zap and sizzle began to fill the air. I’d already known we were headed the right direction—the compartments were all looted, and human corpses lay naked everywhere. Plus, every now and again a dead rabbit could be found in the mix. I took this to be a rather ominous portent. Here, at least, our masters had fought back.
   My guide led me around one last corner, and as I watched a volley of blaster fire blazed across the next intersection, from right to left. “Shit!” I cursed, skidding to a halt.
   “Nicky was right here!” Ezekail wailed. “He was, he was, he was! I don’t know where he’s gone. But I was supposed to…”
   I reached out and patted the distressed messenger’s shoulder to comfort him. “I know,” I replied. “It’s all right. Probably, he’s trying to outflank them. Which sounds like a rather good idea, actually.” I smiled. “Find Nicky. Let him know we’re here, trying to help. Tell him to get around behind the masters, if he isn’t doing that already.”
   “Get around behind them,” the distraught rabbit repeated. Then he shook his head. “I’m sorry I screwed up, Jebediah! Really—“
   I didn’t have time to console him, much as I’d liked to. Instead I turned around and got my horde of bunnies running back the way we’d come. I made a left at the first corridor, then paused at the intersection, lowered myself to the ground and stuck my head out to see what was what. And sure enough, I found exactly what I expected—a half-squad or so of the master’s mate’s men, armed solely with their little handguns. One of them was turned towards me, but my appearance had caught her looking over her shoulder at the main fight. I pulled back behind cover before she saw me, then thought frantically. If we rushed them headlong as a mob we’d carry the day, sure enough. But we’d also maybe lose an awful lot of bunnies doing it. Surely a Special Executive could come up with a better plan than that?
   And I did, eventually. I borrowed my fellow-slave’s ball-pein hammer again, and gave it to Boris. “Run that way to the next corner and go left,” I instructed him. “You know ‘left’, don’t you?”
   He rolled his eyes. “I’m not stupid.”
   “Of course not,” I reassured him. “If I thought I couldn’t depend on you, I’d never ask you to do such an important job.” He smiled. “When you get there,” I continued, “don’t even try to stick your head around the corner. Instead, I want you to take this hammer and beat on stuff, making the loudest, scariest noise you can. All right?”
   He tilted his head first left, then right. Clearly he didn’t understand the point of it all. “I guess.”
   I smiled again. “Making noise is the most important job of all,” I explained. “I want to make them look towards you. Because if they’re looking in that direction, they can’t be shooting at us. That’s when we’ll charge them, you see.”
   A light went on, albeit dimly, behind Boris’s eyes. “Oh!” he answered, all smiles now. “I can handle that!”
   It took him less than a minute to get into position, once I’d stuck my head around the corner again and made sure no one was looking. The crewman’s rear guard proved to be every bit as incompetent as the ships’ stewards, vet, and command staff. When Boris began beating his hammer on what sounded like a metal frame, she actually turned completely away from her assigned sector and looked around the corner with the rest to see what the racket was all about. When my silent charge was finally detected I was less than ten yards away with several hundred angry followers at my back. And even then it wasn’t the lookout who finally saw us coming. The humans got off a smattering of unaimed shots, which didn’t really matter since they could hardly miss anyway. Then we were on them like a breaking wave, ripping and tearing and biting and clawing and stabbing. It was over in seconds. Before I knew it everyone was hopping up and down in place and hugging and hollering in joy. Including me—it’s impossible not to celebrate after attacking an enemy position with such wild abandon and being lucky enough to survive the experience.
   Still, I came back down to earth pretty quickly. Several of my rabbits had taken blaster-bolts to various parts of their anatomies during the charge; they sat or lay where they’d fallen, dull shock and pain shining through their eyes. It hurt me to look at them, but there wasn’t much I could do. The vet’s facilities were located right next to the does, and the moment word got out where the females were hiding my little rebellion would grind to a halt for who knew how long. Besides, I was probably the nearest thing to a doctor left to us bunnies, and I had to, simply had to, go secure the bridge—it’d been left far too long already. If I didn’t get things in hand there pretty soon, untreated blaster wounds would be the least of our worries.
   “Give me all the keys,” I demanded. “And all the guns, too.” I held up the blaster I’d personally torn from the lookout’s dying grasp, so as to be certain they knew what a gun was. “You can have everything else, but I need the keys and the guns.” Obediently the rabbits turned over seven sets of keys, plus a big red one that I was willing to bet would open the lock on the ship’s armory. But they only gave me five handguns, which left me scowling. Not only were the charges on my half-dozen weapons all drained to practically nothing, but there were two more corpses than I had guns. Had a couple of the Master’s Mate’s men been without weapons? Or were the other slaves beginning to disobey me already?
   I didn’t have time to worry about that for very long, though. For just then, Boris’s voice cried out in a long, mournful wail. “Noooo!” he cried out from his post just around the next corner. “No, no, no, no, no!”

-= 18 =-

   Boris and Morton were the only two “normal” slavebunnies that’d been assigned to my cage. Thus, they were the ones from whom I’d learned most of what I knew of the breed; the severity of their intellectual limitations, the depths of their ignorance, the warmth and nobility of their souls. In a very real way I was fighting this entire battle for the sake of Boris and Morton, or at least in my heart of hearts I was. So when Boris wailed out in such distress my legs sort of automatically carried me towards him, whether I was urgently needed elsewhere or not.
   “Noooo!” Boris repeated, his face all screwed up in pain and his big brown eyes leaking streams of tears. Part of me had already guessed what he’d found, and there was nothing in the universe I wanted less than to confront it. But this whole affair was of my construction, and therefore everything that happened as a result was my responsibility. There was no sense running from it. So I didn’t even slow as I jogged around the corner…
   …and looked down at the floor. Where Morton lay dead on the deck, wearing a frilly maid’s hat and half-shredded dress. His face was twisted in agony, and he was bent double around what’d clearly been an agonizing blaster wound to the gut. He hadn’t gone quickly, Morton hadn’t. Nor peacefully. “Nooo!” I echoed my friend. We’d perforce slept packed together in the cages, and Morton and I had usually ended up jammed alongside each other. He’d always been so courteous, even apologetic when he’d accidentally disturbed me. There wasn’t—hadn’t been—a mean bone in his body.
   Then I was weeping too, hugging Boris close as we consoled each other. I don’t know how long it went on before I finally became aware of a large dark presence standing respectfully a short distance away, head bowed. “We took the corridor all right,” Nicky eventually explained in a soft voice I’d never heard him use before. My overseer-friend was bleeding from where a blaster-bolt had creased his left lower arm—it must’ve hurt like hell, but he didn’t even seem to notice. “The one in front of the armory. And held it too! But eventually they came with the guns, see? And almost everyone ran away.” He gulped. “But not that brave little guy. Not him!”
   I nodded slowly, then reached down and lowered Morton’s eyelids. It was awful, just awful! But, I had to get a grip on myself. It was past time to get back to business. “How many rabbits do you have left?” I demanded.
   He shrugged. “Like I said, most of ‘em ran away. They’re rioting all through the ship by now, lootin’ and doin’ whatever else pleases ‘em.” He looked down at the deck. “I’m so sorry, Jebediah! I thought it’d be like chess. But—”
   “In real battles,” I interrupted him, “half the pieces move themselves. More than half, usually. And you can never predict for sure which ones you’ll control or what direction the rest are going to go, no matter how hard you try.” Then I smiled, and my number-two man looked a little better. “How many?” I asked again.
   Nicky looked over his shoulder at the pathetic remains of his once-formidable army. “Twenty-five,” he said. “Maybe thirty. But they’re the very best ones! The ones you can count on!” He winced. “Like poor Morton…”
   “Right,” I agreed, not allowing myself to become distracted again. “That’s plenty for what I need you to do.” I pressed the armory key into his hand. “This’ll unlock the arms chest, I hope. I want you take your rabbits and go get all three heavy blasters. Be sure to lock the place back up tight again when you’re done; we don’t want any untrained bunnies getting into the grenades. Got me?”
   Nicky nodded, scowling in concentration. I’d spent weeks instructing him on basic infantry weaponry, especially the types listed on the ship’s books as part of her equipment. There’d even been nice, convenient training manuals on file. Nicky studied them for hours, fascinated—he’d missed his true calling in life, having obviously been born to be a top sergeant in the High Marines. “Send them all to me, under a reliable bunny. I’ll be at the bridge entrance. “
   He nodded again.
   “Then… I want you to round up all the mechanically-trained rabbits you can. I don’t care what they do or how they’re rated—I’ll settle for carpenter’s assistants, floater-mechanic’s helpers—even plumber’s assistants, if you can find them. Especially plumber’s assistants, now that I think about it.”
   “Right,” Nicky agreed.
   “And all the tools you can find! Hammers, screwdrivers, saws—anything! I won’t be needing all of them, but it’s easier to just have the bunnies gather up anything that looks like a tool, rather than try to explain. That way, they can spread the word around themselves.” I looked down at the deck and sighed. “A functional welding rig is probably too much to ask for.”
   “Get the heavy blasters,” Nicky repeated. “Send them to you. All the tools and tradesbunnies, too. Especially a welder.” His ears perked up. “Plumber’s assistants?”
   “Yeah,” I answered. “Plumber’s assistants. I learned a little bit about plumbing back at the acid factory, you see. In-between ballet lessons.”
   Nicky chuckled and shook his head, despite himself.
   “Then, last of all, bring me one of the databunnies with a working terminal, whichever one Richie says he can spare. Escort him personally—don’t delegate that job to anyone else. We absolutely, positively cannot afford to lose a databunny.”
   He nodded. “Gotcha!”
   “Good,” I replied, turning towards our last unachieved objective. “Take your bunnies and go. I’ll see you at the bridge hatchway!”

-= 19 =-

   Rangoon was equipped with three heavy blasters, the kind that sat on tripods and were capable of doing serious damage to hull-metal. Piracy had ceased being a problem in space a generation ago. In practice, this meant that private vessels still carried guns just in case, but no one ever actually expected the things to be used. The first of the three arrived at the main bridge entrance not long after I shot out the security camera with one of my near-empty hand-blasters. I could’ve destroyed the camera in any one of a number of other less-wasteful ways, but this particular method sent a message. While I was prepared to kill every last crewman if I had to, it’d be better to negotiate. In shooting out the camera I was explaining to the crew in unmistakable terms, “Look! We have guns and know how to use them!” The more formidable we rabbits appeared to be, the less likely the masters were to attempt to retake the ship. I set up the first heavy blaster a few yards down the corridor from the burned stump, pointing directly at the bridge airlock. It was ironic, really—there was a specially-designed socket built into the floor intended for this same gun just about an equal distance on the opposite side of the closed, armored hatch. It’d been placed there to allow for fire-support of precisely the sortie I was attempting to defeat.
   Setting up the big gun was the work of only a few minutes; I placed my second one in a fallback position that covered the full length of Bottom Alley. The third I sent to the hatch where I’d almost been killed not an hour earlier, in order to deter any attempt by the passengers to break out. I say “deter” rather than “repulse”, because I couldn’t spare any rabbits just then who actually knew how to operate the thing. “Set it up just like this one!” I instructed. “But under a working camera. Then take turns sitting in the saddle and holding these two handles. No matter what, don’t push any of the red buttons.”
   “Got it!” one of Nicky’s handful of reliables answered as he and three others hefted the weapon back onto their shoulders.
   “Try to look really serious!” I added as they vanished through the hatchway. “Really, really, really, really serious! And scary, too!”
   Then, as if on schedule, tools and tradesbunnies began to appear. I posted a reliable sentry at the bridge-door and ran to see what I had to work with. Soon we had more tools than I’d ever expected, delivered by dozens and dozens of rabbits. I found out later that once word of a definite, important task that needed doing began to spread among the bunnies, they’d fallen back into line almost as if a switch had been thrown. Some even willingly left the does, whose quarters had long-since been located, to help out. I’d have bet serious money that a slavebunny would never do such a thing—it just goes to show you how easy and natural it is to underestimate the capabilities and character of a being perceived as an inferior.
   Anyway, soon hundreds of items vaguely resembling tools were arriving in the little compartment that’d formerly served as the crew’s radiation-badge room. It was amazing, the breadth and variety of what turned up. Sure, there were screwdrivers, wrenches, drills, and pairs of pliers. But there were also toothbrushes, hairdryers, shoe-trees, a baseball bat, and even a hedge-trimmer, though god only knew what that was doing out in deep space. One particularly small and quiet bunny proudly held up a personal vibrator in front of me. “I found this for you, Big Boss!” he declared. “And I brought it here all by myself!”
   “Yes,” I replied, though it took every ounce of willpower I possessed not to allow my beneficent smile to slip into a giggling fit. “I see!” Then I patted him on the head. “What an excellent job you’re doing! Thank you so much! Now run off and find something else, if you can!”
   Most of the tradesbunnies turned out to be carpenter’s helpers—they’d been sold as a team, and knew each other well. So I decided to let them work together, separating out the actual tools from the junk. “I especially need stuff to work with pipes,” I explained to their overseer, who was A-rated. “That’s what you’re looking for most of all.”
   “Pipes!” he replied, looking exasperated. “They didn’t sell any plumber-bunnies with us. From our old plant, I mean. I ain’t never worked with no pipes before. None of us has.”
   I smiled again and patted him on the shoulder. At least he’d have a good idea of what was and wasn’t actually a tool. “That’s okay,” I explained. “I’ve never led a slave revolt before, either. But I’m doing well enough so far, and I’m sure you’ll be fine too.” I pointed at the single, solitary pipe-wrench that’d turned up so far. “If it looks like that, set it aside. For that matter, if it’s that same color or even smells like that, set it aside for me. Also pick me out a good hammer, a few screwdrivers, and some pliers.”
   Cautiously, the carpenter-overseer sniffed at the pipe wrench. “Pheew-ey!” he complained, screwing up his face and fanning the offending odor away with his free hand. “That smells like… like…”
   “Exactly!” I answered, turning to leave. “Everything in a plumber’s toolbox stinks. So do plumbers, for that matter.” Then I smiled again. “When you get a decent outfit put together, bring it up to bulkhead thirty-three and post a guard on it so it doesn’t wander off. There’s a bunch of pipes that run alongside each other there, and it looks to me like they lead directly towards the bridge. I’ll verify that, just as soon as—”
   “Jeb!” a voice suddenly cried out. “Jeb! The big door’s unlocking!”
   “Shit!” I cursed, stamping my foot. I’d hoped to avoid a bloodbath, but… “Coming!” I screamed. Then I ran like a mad thing for the heavy blaster, which only I knew how to operate.

-= 20 =-

   I’d never have left my station for a second if I hadn’t known from past experience that armored doors with multiple bolts make loud noises before they rise, and move slowly even once unlatched. I hadn’t wandered very far, however, and so was behind the blast-shield arming my weapon before the bottom lip of the door was ankle-high. By the time it was knee-high, I was letting fly with all I had.
   It wasn’t a lot of fun, sitting there blowing the lower legs off of brave men and women with so impersonal a weapon. Then the legless bodies would collapse directly into my line of fire, so that in a few seconds I’d kill them once, twice, a dozen times. As the door continued its slow rise I swept my whiplash of fire steadily back and forth immediately under the bottom edge, killing row after row of tightly-packed crewmen. As I continued with my gory task, I shook my head to myself at how badly my opponents had mismanaged their end of things. If you ever have to try something like that, I made a mental note to myself, so as to mentally distance myself as much as possible from the continuously-roaring catastrophe that was my blaster, be sure and have a couple marksmen lying prone on the floor to provide covering fire the instant there’s a line of sight. And, don’t mass your men up tight against the door, not unless you know to an absolute certainty that your enemy doesn’t have you covered. Instead, have them waiting formed up in a side-corridor, out of the line of fire. Yes, it’ll require them to take a few extra steps before they make contact. But at least you’ll still have the bulk of your men alive to take those steps…
   It was a slaughter, a bloody, pathetic, useless slaughter. About the time the door was chest-high two of my enemies ducked down their heads and charged through the opening. One was carrying a small handgun like the master’s mate’s men—I shifted my fire slightly and blew him into bloody rags while his wildly inaccurate return fire spanged off of the walls and ceiling. The other had already lost a lower leg, but didn’t realize it yet. He waved his fire-axe threateningly, bellowed in rage, stepped forward…
   …and collapsed immediately onto his face. I didn’t bother with him anymore—instead I maintained a lively fire close enough over his backbone that all he could do was hug the deck for dear life. I kept it up long after there was no one except the cripple left to shoot at, directing bursts at anything that looked even vaguely like it might serve as a refuge for a desperate, frightened crewmen. I shot up cabinets, closets, anything with a door and what looked to be enough interior cubic space to conceal a human. Sometimes I heard faint screams over the rolling thunder of my muzzle, more often I wasted my ammo. Again, it was pure slaughter. But I wanted to win this fight unquestionably, once and for all, here and now. It wasn’t going to be easy for the haughty masters to surrender to their intellectual and even more importantly, their social inferiors. The harder I hit them, the sooner they’d accept the unacceptable and the more survivors there’d ultimately be. Finally, when I was quite certain that I’d done all the damage I could reasonably manage for the moment, I released the trigger and raised my head above the gunshield. “Go on!” I urged the crippled man, waggling my weapon’s muzzle threateningly in his direction. “Pull back, you idiot!” He looked up and met my eyes for an instant—his were big and round. Then he was scrambling backwards with his three good limbs, oozing gore from one part of his anatomy and something yellower and fouler from another. Then, blessedly, someone outside of my line of sight hit the button and lowered the armored door.
   For a long moment I sat there with my head lowered, staring down at the floor. The whole affair had taken only a few seconds, almost certainly half a minute or less. Yet, I already knew that for as long as I lived I’d never forget the unremitting muzzle-blast, the weapon’s grips vibrating in my paws, the hundreds of bolts searing home into unprotected flesh, the way the legless ones had tumbled again and again into my line of fire… When I finally looked up, the other rabbits were all staring at me as if I were some sort of alien creature, a monster wearing the skin of a rabbit. These same creatures, the very rabbits who still stood spattered in the blood of the victims they’d ripped apart with their bare claws, were shocked to the core by the sheer industrial-strength savagery of what they’d just witnessed. Clearly, it went beyond their wildest nightmares.
   “Holy Jesus!” I heard one whisper, his voice barely detectable through the ringing in my ears. He looked at me for just an instant, then turned away.
   “That was… That was…” said another. He too was unable to meet my eyes.
   “This is what it takes to be free and to remain free,” I explained, even though I was certain they wouldn’t understand. “The odds are stacked against us a hundred ways from Sunday; they’d do the same to us in a moment, given half a chance. This is how humans always fight their battles.”
   “Humans suck!” a third rabbit declared, stepping forward with a spare magazine for my big blaster. I swapped it out, even though I’d barely made a dent in the old.
   “Yeah,” I agreed as I struggled with the unfamiliar catch. “They suck, suck, suck, suck. There’s no crime so low they won’t stoop to it, and nothing so crooked that they can’t find a way to dress it up and name it a virtue. Trust me; if anyone oughta know about how awful humans can be, you’re looking at him.”

-= 21 =-

   It took a lot longer for the masters to try and contact me than I expected; in fact, I’d just laid down for a little nap after so many hours of fighting, improvising, and the nastiest sort of cramped, dirty plumbing work. I didn’t get any real rest even during the little lay-down time I had, nor did I expect to. Instead I just tossed and turned on the hard corridor floor, visions of torn and desiccated rabbit-corpses and an endless rain of legless crewman falling onto my deadly stream of fire playing themselves out in my exhausted brain. Far too soon a soft forepaw tapped my shoulder.
   “Unhh?” I demanded, tense and ready for battle. “Are they coming again?”
   “No, Jebediah,” Sid replied, looking away. He wouldn’t meet my eyes anymore—no one would, except for Nicky. He at least understood what it meant to be lonely. But my chief lieutenant was far, far away just then, manning one of the other heavy blasters. Sid looked tired too, as well he might. The databunnies were working at least as hard as anyone, bar none. “They’re not coming.” Then he smiled a little and held up the little datapad we’d shared for so many hours back in the cages. “But Captain Assad wants to speak to you, just like you said he would.”
   “Tell him I’m busy,” I replied, yawning and stretching on the hard, unyielding floor. My thick fur helped some, as did the many weeks I’d spent sleeping on an equally uncomfortable cage floor. But would it be too much for the other bunnies to swallow, I wondered, if their Big Boss were to requisition one of their former master’s bunks? “And remember, always keep the camera pointed towards a blank wall so he can’t see where I’ve been at the pipes.”
   “Right,” Sid agreed, typing briefly. “I’ve told him to wait.” There was a short pause. “Richie said to tell you that he’s still fighting with whoever the master’s system administrator is. They just keep trying, trying, trying! But we can hold ’em off. Playing defense is easier than he thought it’d be, he says.”
   I nodded back. It was easy to forget that the databunnies were fighting their own little war with the masters, one at least as vital as the more overt one that I was leading. Richie’d spent months learning the ship’s systems and sneaking all sorts of interesting little surprises into the code. What he’d labored so long and hard preparing wouldn’t be easily undone. Or so I hoped. “How’s the collar-cutting going?” I asked. That was my worst nightmare of all, that the masters would figure out how to stabilize their mainframe down long enough to press the single button that would inject us with deadly fast-acting poison.
   “Slowly,” he answered, involuntarily raising a paw to the worn spot on his neck where his own emblem of bondage had once ridden. “We don’t have enough saws. One of the carpenters is trying to use a grinding wheel. It doesn’t work very well.” He frowned. “I wish you’d let them cut off yours. Just in case, I mean.”
   “I can’t,” I replied. “I’ve got to go on video, and I don’t want the masters to see that it’s gone. Let ’em sink their efforts into fixing the collar-controls; by the time they’ve cracked the problem it’ll all turn out to have been wasted effort. And won’t that make them feel good?”
   The assistant databunny smiled tiredly. “We couldn’t have gotten this far without you,” he said softly. “We couldn’t even have come up with a plan. We’d still be sitting in the cages, filthy and starving and headed for a planet where the masters were going to whip us and work us to death.” He shook his head, the smile widening. “But because of you, I just now informed the most important master aboard this whole ship that we’ll get around to talking to him when we’re good and ready. It felt so good!”
   I smiled back, wordlessly.
   “Anyway… I just wanted to say that even if the masters win, even if we all die… For me at least, learning in these few hours what it means to be free is plenty enough to make it all worthwhile. Thank you, Jebediah. Thank you from the bottom of my soul.”
   I sat up and hugged Sid, then stood, stretched, and went for a quick walk to look over my plumbing work one last time. The task had proven to be far more difficult than I’d imagined, mostly because space liners are built to far tighter safety specs than are private residences. The plumbing systems are full of automated cut-offs, and there’s a lot of redundancy as well. Even worse, the redundant systems tend to be spaced widely apart, so that not all of them would be likely to suffer damage from a single accident. It took me almost two hours just to plan the modifications that I’d originally imagined to be so simple. But, with a little help from Sid regarding the automated safety gear and more from the carpenter-bunnies, I got the job done. Everything was in order, I decided as I strode leisurely around the work-area. There was a steady-looking bunny standing guard over each of the key valves, and nothing was dribbling or bubbling or making ominous sucking noises. But it was still much too soon to get back to Captain Assad, so I sent a rabbit down to the hold to grab me a quick snack of kibble, and then washed it down with a nice cool draught from the corridor drinking fountain. The big red placard posted above the spigot, which indicated that the facility was intended for humans only, just made the already-wonderful water taste even better. Certainly, it beat the warm, stale stuff I’d been subsisting on down in Hold Four. Then I sat and contentedly groomed myself for a bit before finally accepting the console from Sid and pressing the angrily flashing red ‘urgent communications’ button.
   “Where the hell have you been, boy?” the speaker exploded instantly. The captain was an older man. Probably a very dignified one as well, at least when he wasn’t scarlet-faced with rage and his hat didn’t have a big black scorch mark on it.
   “Around,” I answered, shrugging vacuously. Then I popped the one last bit of kibble I’d saved into my mouth, chewed slowly, swallowed, and belched.
   The captain forced calm onto his features. “Probably with the does,” I heard someone mutter in the background. He wasn’t wearing a uniform, and therefore was likely a passenger caught on the wrong side of the ship when all hell broke loose. I examined him carefully from under droopy, contented eyelids. His suit was of an excellent cut, every bit as expensive-looking as what I wore myself back on Wrightworld. Perhaps he was an executive of some sort, like me?
   “Probably,” the captain agreed, not even attempting to conceal the exchange from me. Then he smiled knowingly. “Is that where you’ve been, boy? Down with the does? God knows that’s where I’d be, if I’d had to do without for so long.” He winked knowingly.
   I merely smiled, not replying.
   “Anyway…” Captain Assad continued after the silence had drug itself out for a while. “I just wanted to tell you first of all that I don’t blame you rabbits for what you’ve done. Not one bit! That vet wasn’t worth a crap from day one—I protested signing him on, but they overruled me back at the main office. And the purser’s also owned up to what he did with the ration-money.” The commanding officer’s face grew sober and his backbone straight. “I’ve arrested him and clapped him in irons over it.”
   I nodded blankly as the captain stepped aside out of the view of the camera. Then a dark burly man was roughly shoved forward, very conspicuously wearing handcuffs. He glowered menacingly at the camera, and I noted how little he resembled the slim, blonde man pictured on the ship’s books. “Uh-huh!” I replied, once the camera was centered back onto the captain again.
   “Right,” the ship’s commander agreed, not quite sure what to make of my lack of enthusiasm. “Anyway, like I said. That’s the first thing I wanted to let you know, that I agree you bunnies haven’t been treated right. That I’d have done the same thing in your position. That I understand your situation, you see.”
   I inclined my head slightly to the right, but said nothing.
   “Anyway,” the captain continued, his eyes darting rapidly back and forth. “I think this is something we can work out, you and I. We’re both reasonable creatures, right? And you’re an especially smart bunny—you must be, to have done so well!” He leaned forward slightly, smiling. “You’re in charge of it all, aren’t you?”
   I nodded slightly. “Uh-huh!”
   “I knew it!” he declared. “It had to be a triple-A—you’re the smartest bunnies of them all! And your work record shows a history of long-term independent assignments. Not like the others!” His eyes narrowed slightly. “Not like all the others at all!”
   I felt the corners of my mouth twitch, but again said nothing. This was all so predictable!
   “Tell you what,” Captain Assad said eventually into the silence. “I’m going to lay my cards on the table, you being so smart and all. I mean, some folks think that even AAA-rated bunnies aren’t very bright, but I’m an educated, enlightened man. Not like most people, you see.”
   “Right,” I agreed.
   “You control most of the ship, including the computers. But I still hold the genuinely important parts—the bridge with its controls, and the engineering boom with the motors. So we need to work together, see? Reach some sort of an accommodation.”
   I looked down at the deck. A single nugget of kibble was laying there, one that I’d overlooked earlier. Very slowly and deliberately, I chewed and swallowed.
   “We’re still headed for Solstice,” Captain Assad continued. “We haven’t slowed down a bit. In fact, I’ve actually sped us up a little. Once we get there, well… You won’t be able to make nearly so good a deal for your friends.” His eyes narrowed again. “Or for yourself.”
   I nodded slowly. “What’s your offer?”
   Assad’s head rocked back slightly—he thought he was winning. “You can keep all the parts of the ship you already have,” he replied. “Except the computer—that you’ll hand back, so that we can safely navigate the ship. You’ll continue to leave the passengers in peace. Don’t think we haven’t noticed that you’ve kept them safe—that’s a big mark in your favor. And when we get to Solstice, we’ll issue every last one of you rabbits a full pardon, due to the unfortunate circumstances all around. Like I said, I understand fully why you did this terrible thing. And…” He leaned forward. “Are you alone?”
   I nodded, even though Sid was close enough to listen in on every word. “Of course. You just told me how smart I am.”
   “Well, then! Maybe even smarter than I thought!” His grin grew wider. “Because you’re so smart, we’ll make you a breeder-male! No more work for Jebediah! Just fun, fun, fun all the livelong day!”
   I did my best to conceal my anger, but felt my features harden anyway. “That’s quite an offer. But… How about we go somewhere else besides Solstice?”
   “Sure!” the captain agreed breezily. “Anywhere you want, just so long as we have enough stores and energy to get there. If you don’t trust Solstice’s pardon, that suits me just fine. Pick your destination, and I’ll show you the ship’s log every single day.” His face hardened again. “Have you really though this all the way through, Jeb?” he asked after a long silence of his own. “I mean, your bunnies must be running amok by now. Like animals, I mean. Do you think it’ll be long before they open an airlock or do something else equally stupid? How long will your food last, if everyone keeps making gluttons of themselves? Or, before they start fighting over the does?” He shook his head. “You can’t hold this rebellion together forever, Jebediah. And I know it as well as you do. If you don’t deal now, you’ll never get another chance.”
   I sat immobile, pondering my reply. I’d inspected the ship briefly just before my nap, and it was in far better order than I’d dreamed possible. Slavebunnies might not be very bright. But they were by nature neat, clean creatures, whose natural instincts for keeping their burrows habitable and getting along with each other had been reinforced by lifetimes of the strictest possible supervision. I’d expected to discover exactly the sort of mindless chaos the captain had described reigning everywhere, from stem to stern. Instead, I found dozens of rabbits busily working together at cleaning up messes and stacking bodies in the airlocks, which offered convenient storage. Yes, the kibble-hold was still a major center of disorder. However, the incompetent stewards had been so lazy and had shortchanged us on our rations so badly that we still had enough food left for months. Once everyone was past the throes of imminent starvation, I had little doubt that we’d get the dining situation under control as well. And as for the does… That was such good news that I decided to share it. “You know,” I said slowly, “You’re right. I have been down to visit the ladies.”
   “I’ll bet you have!” Captain Assad replied, leering again. “More than once, probably, you being such a healthy young buck. Healthy and randy and young, with a whole roomful of does to choose from… Heh! I can almost find it in my heart to envy you.”
   I blushed and looked down at the deck. “Well… It’s not like you might think down there. Sure, there’s a long line of males at the door, and sometimes they do try and cut in on each other, being so eager. But…” I shook my head in amazement. “All they want to do is snuggle with a doe. Not rape her.”
   Captain Assad blinked. “Really?”
   “Really! They want to touch her and smell her and rub her scent into their own fur, that’s all. None of the does are in season, you see. Each and every last one of them is pregnant. So, all the males want to do is treat their noses to a little soon-to-be motherhood. They’ve never been allowed to socialize with females, see? And it’s important to them; they miss it terribly. Besides, even if the does weren’t pregnant…” I shook my head again, having once again so badly underestimated my fellows. “So far at least, almost everyone’s being nice and sweet-tempered and polite. The ones that aren’t get cuffed into line right away; no one wants to expose the does and kits to that kind of boorish ugliness. I bet that if the vet were still alive, he wouldn’t be surprised at all by the way things have worked out. It’s the non-professionals who spread ugly, base rumors. Rumors, I’ll add, that reflect upon the rumor-mongers far more accurately than they do the intended targets. It’s called ‘projection’, I hear.” I smiled sweetly. “Don’t feel too ashamed of yourself over it—I‘ve been known to be guilty of the same thing myself. It’s just human, is all.”
   The captain’s mouth opened, then closed.
   “Now,” I continued. “You’ve acknowledged that I control the ships computer. What would you say if I were to tell you that I can accurately determine the ship’s position, as well?”
   “You can’t!” he replied. “No way. Not without the astrogational instruments!”
   “You lied about increasing our velocity to Solstice,” I replied evenly, crossing my arms. “Yes, we’re moving a little faster than we were. But it’s under two one-thousands of a percent of our current psuedovector, well within the range of the ship’s normal engineering irregularities. Two weeks ago we slowed by seven one-thousandths, and we still haven’t made that loss up yet. Knowing this, are you still willing to take us anywhere we choose?”
   Suddenly the captain’s face was a mask of rage, just as it’d been when I first signed on. “You miserable, filthy, flea-bitten—”
   And that was all the abuse I felt like taking just then. So I hit the switch, then refused to answer when the angry red ‘urgent’ beacon flared again. Which meant that things had come full circle; the captain and I were back to exactly where we’d started. Except that we knew each other a little better, of course. I sighed and stretched again, then looked at Sid.
   “Would they really have pardoned us?” he asked. “And made you a breeder?”
   “No,” I answered. “I’m afraid not. They can’t afford to let a single rabbit live that knows the masters can be beaten. Or who can even imagine that they might possibly be beaten.”
   “Yeah,” Sid replied, nodding slowly. “That’s kinda what I thought. So we’re going to have to kill them all anyway?”
   I smiled, then reached out and tousled my friend’s ears. “I certainly hope not,” I answered, rising slowly to my feet. “We’ve still got at least one more card to play.” Then I strode out into the middle of the nearest intersection, the one within sight of all my plumbing modifications. “Ho, rabbits!” I cried out, getting everyone’s attention. “Ho!”
   Suddenly everything was stillness.
   “Turn your first valves!” I ordered. “Turn them all the way on, just as fast as you can!”
   They did so, and the air was filled with a cacophony of ominous-sounding groans, wheezes, bubblings, and shudderings. I let two full minutes pass before taking the next step. “That’s enough!” I ordered. “Close those, and open the second ones!” The sounds repeated themselves, this time in reverse order and far more rapidly. Finally, the gurglings faded and a steady whistling roar took over. Then, finally, it too thinned out and faded to nothing. I smiled and laughed and danced a little jig at the beautiful sounds. Judging by them, my hard work hadn’t gone for naught. “This,” I declared, looking at the incredulous Sid, “is the most fun I’ve had in years!”

-= 22 =-

   The next couple of days proved to be very eventful and interesting ones indeed. For a long time after I unleashed my secret weapon nothing seemed to happen, and I began to worry that despite all the sound effects my jiggery-pokery had failed. Then, at long last, Richie sent me a message. “The telltales in every lavatory in the bridge zone indicate zero pressure,” he reported. “And a lot of the corridors as well, though they’ve still managed to maintain a contiguous zone of pressure. I therefore presume that they lost every passageway with a water fountain in it. In other words, congratulations. It worked.”
   I smiled and allowed myself a moment to celebrate, reaching out and hugging the nearest rabbit at random. Or maybe not-so-random, for it was Boris. Had it been anyone else, I’d probably have been less demonstrative. “Now they stink, stink, stink!” he observed, bouncing up and down happily. “Just like we did!”
   And it was true enough, I hoped. Whoever had designed the bridge did so with a clear understanding that, just maybe, the crew might someday have to hole up there just as they were doing now. Because of this, they presumably had designed in entirely separate air and water-systems for the crucial areas—at least the ship’s drawings led me to believe so. But then the actual builders decided to cut corners. For example, while poring over the schematics back in my cage I was rather surprised to learn that the bridge’s latrines all drained into the main ship’s sanitary sewer. Instead of duplicating such an expensive system, the builders simply provided chemical toilets for emergency use. And while the bridge had what was nominally a stand-alone independent water supply, it wasn’t truly independent at all. What had been done instead was add in a big cistern, which was continually topped off from the ship’s main supply so the water wouldn’t grow stale and foul. Sure, there was an isolation valve. A computer-controlled isolation valve, in fact. Richie had no trouble at all with it.
   Clearly, no one had ever envisioned what a rich world of possibilities this flawed design created. Or, at least, no one authorized to sign a construction indent had. Once the cross-connections and splices were in place, the ship’s pumps took care of the rest. First I reversed the sanitary system, pumping thousands of gallons of raw sewage at high pressure backwards up the main Bridge line. Then, once I was certain that every single drain in the place had spent two full minutes fountaining filth all the way to the ceiling, I isolated the bridge’s sewers from the rest of the sanitary system and opened the drains to vacuum. Meanwhile, Richie pumped the rest of the ship’s sewage supply into their cistern. Why no one ever foresaw such tactics is beyond me; maybe it’s because in space everyone is overly fixated on air instead of the other fluids that’re equally essential to life. At any rate, for a time the little red “urgent communications” light on Sid’s console went out, and I got to fretting that I’d pumped in too much sewage and shorted everything out. But finally it lit back up again, and I knew that all was well.
   I’d get back to the captain, I decided. Eventually. When I was good and ready.
   Meanwhile, there were a thousand tasks that demanded my attention. Gerard, our third databunny, finally managed to locate us a welder in the ship’s cargo—in the very same shipment, in fact, that we’d crushed so merrily during our first hours aboard. Fortunately its packaging was heavier-duty in nature than that of the items surrounding it, so it still worked just fine. After that, the collar-cutting went very quickly and smoothly indeed. I had mine removed last of all, in Hold Four, where I was surrounded by cheering bunnies who seemed determined to make an occasion of the event. But not for very long, however—there was work, work, work, work to be done! The wounded needed tending, our toddler-prisoner needed looking-in on, the environmental systems needed monitoring… All of this was vital, urgent, and utterly undelegatable. I sort of adopted Boris as my alter-ego—he had a knack for understanding what I wanted, then in turn making things clear to the other C-rated rabbits. “No, no, no, no, no!” he’d declare when another rabbit erred, waving his arms and shaking his head comically. “The Big Boss said do it this way!” And that would be the end of the matter, for I was the absolute authority, the final arbiter of everything. It was touching and frightening both, how quickly they came to depend on me.
   One of the nicer things we did was to convert the laundry-room into a public rabbitwash and water-park. We were all filthy with months of cage-crud and worse, and a dirty bunny is a miserable bunny. After a quick demonstration the carpenter-bunnies disconnected the banks of sonic washers from their water-supplies and installed a dozen long hoses, each soon wielded by a happy, giggling bunny. Even better, some of the laundry detergent turned out to make good ersatz shampoo as well. Soon we were once again fluffy and glossy, if still terribly thin and emaciated under the newly-cleansed fur. Then Sid had a brainwave and hooked up a computer-camera so that our good friends up on the bridge, sloshing knee-deep in sewage and growing thirstier by the hour, could watch and see just how much fun there was to be had with an unlimited supply of clean, fresh, delicious water.
   That same crowd made another attempt to break out about twelve hours after I cut off their water. It was a noble undertaking, one that deserved to end far better than it did. The outer skin of a ship in mid-hyperjump is nowhere for anything equipped with a backbone to be. It’s not just the radiation, though that’s bad enough. Rather, it’s the psychological effects of the stardrive that are truly dangerous. Unshielded individuals are subject to senseless fits of despair, violent rage, generalized terror, and the most vicious paranoia imaginable. Despite the impossible odds against them, the brave captain sent eight of what had to be his finest surviving crewman on a suicide mission to go clambering down the hull and try to cut their way into Hold One, which sat cold and empty. We didn’t tumble to it until Richie noticed a spike in the ship’s skin temperature at that point. Luckily I’d preplanned for such an eventuality, and the orders were ready on my tongue. We manned the cargo-handlers with a will, and managed to build a wall of heavy shipping containers five gondolas thick at the danger-point before the torch burned through and vented the atmosphere. Thus, when our brave enemies were done cutting their little manhole they confronted what amounted to ten more heavy-gauge steel walls they’d have to slice through one by one in order to get anywhere useful, not to mention the cargo inside said containers. There was no way their sanity’d hold out long enough to complete such a task, nor their torch batteries. So they tried burning another hole into a stateroom, which I promptly filled floor-to-ceiling with the sonic washers we’d removed from the bunnybath. At this second setback they turned around and trudged back all the long, endless way they’d come. But not before what must have been an insane and senseless stardrive-effect inspired fight broke out among them, leaving three of the heroes dead. The rest perished from radiation-poisoning a few weeks later. Or so I’ve heard.
   Still, it wasn’t until the passengers boarded the lifeboats and went into hibernation that I even considered answering the captain’s summons. I’d known all along that eventually the passengers would have to go to sleep, given that I’d cut them off from their food supply. So, it wasn’t any great surprise when they did. But while entering hibernation was safe and simple, revival required months of hospitalization. This wasn’t something that any passenger-carrying enterprise would lightly subject its paying customers to. So I took the move as a sign that our former masters were actually beginning to think the unthinkable, and grasp that just maybe their world had been turned upside down after all. I was glad they didn’t order a launch—interstellar space is huge, and once scattered by the stardrive’s dimensional turbulence a good many of the passengers might’ve drifted for the rest of eternity without ever being picked up. The captain, this once at least, was playing it smart. In any event, merely ordering all the civilians to sleep represented a profound recognition of the new reality that’d taken root aboard Rangoon.
   So once I was sure there was no boat-launch imminent, I sent Boris down to grab a sackful of kibble for me. Sid was waiting for me in exactly the same spot where I’d sat the last time the captain and I had enjoyed a little chat; I smiled and eased down alongside him, just like before. “Want some?” I asked, holding my sack out to my friend.
   “No,” he answered. “I’m finally starting to feel full again.”
   I nodded, this was good news as well. The sooner my rabbits’ hunger pangs faded, the sooner I could institute a new regime of rationing. But for now…
   I sighed, pointed the camera at my face, and pressed the little red button.

-= 23 =-

   This time it was the captain who kept me waiting, though I was kind enough not to berate him for it when he eventually appeared. He was an old man, after all, and hadn’t had anything to drink for a terribly long time. Fifty-three hours, in fact, not counting anything they might’ve just happened to have on hand, such as full coffee pots or juice-dispensers.
   “Errrrk!” he croaked after one of his crewman—the same man who I’d last seen impersonating the handcuffed purser—half-carried him to his chair. “Errrrrrrrk!”
   “I’m sorry,” I replied, shaking my head. This wasn’t the time to show the slightest hint of mercy, though I had to think of that awful cage full of vacuum-killed bunnies to hold my face impassive. “You’ll need to speak much more clearly than that. I can’t make out a word you’re saying.”
   There followed a long pause while Captain simply sat and glared at me with such hatred in his eyes that I feared he might drop dead on the spot. Then, someone in a formerly-white lab coat—everyone within my field of vision was so caked in filth that they might as well have bathed in the stuff—came sloshing forward with an equally fouled coffee-cup in his hand and offered it wordlessly to the captain. At first he tried to refuse the precious fluid, but eventually he allowed himself to be persuaded and drank deep. “Aaah!” he finally declared, looking a little more alive behind the excrement-stains on his cheeks. “That’s more like it.”
   I sat impassively, waiting.
   “Well,” Assad said eventually, after taking another sip. “When last we spoke, you convinced me that you’re able to determine the ship’s position with considerably accuracy.” He shook his head. “Remarkable. You must be doing it through the computer, but no one here can understand how that’s possible. How smart your people must be!”
   I answered him with more silence. If he wanted clues to help him find a way out of the box he was trapped in, he was barking up the wrong tree.
   “I see,” he finally said, shaking his head slightly. Then he sighed. “Look. Maybe we can do business after all.”
   My eyebrows rose, but once again I made no reply.
   “You haven’t hurt the passengers,” he repeated, as if reassuring himself. “Though we both know you could’ve slaughtered every last one of them. I’m grateful for that. Respect it, even. My duty…” He lowered his eyes again for a moment, and when he raised them again the blazing hatred had been replaced by something dead and hopeless, equally ugly in its way. “Are you a bunny of your word?”
   “I can be,” I replied.
   “All right, then.” Assad looked down at the sewage pooled around his feet, then his shoulders fell at long last. “Where do you want to go?”
   Our eventual understanding wasn’t quite that simple—not by half. That was because I was too cast-iron an asshole to allow it to be. Somehow the captain had gotten the strange notion into his head that I might turn his water back on in exchange for an alteration of course. What kind of rookie businessman did he take me for, anyway? I’d worked hard to create my little monopoly, and I intended to extract every last iota of profit from it—no stockpiling allowed! First, we established a barter system. I sent a gallon of fresh, clean water through a tiny pass-through airlock in exchange for each and every hand-blaster the crewmen surrendered to me. Then, when they claimed they were out of weapons I suspended trading. A few hours later, when Captain Assad was done cursing me for a heartless bastard, I exchanged another gallon of water for each remaining blaster, and established the same going rate for a space-suit helmet. After that, I bought all the hand-tools and everything else I could think of that might aid an insurrection. In all it was four more days before I finally offered the grand prize of twenty gallons of water in exchange for a verified course-change towards Kittyhawk, the Wright Corporation’s nearest outpost. By then Assad was merely the broken shell of a man, a miserable befouled creature that I viewed with far more pity than fear. He broke down weeping when I refused to up my course-change offer to thirty-five gallons, and the sight was so moving that two days later, far enough down the road that my prisoners wouldn’t connect the dots, I traded them an extra ten gallons for all their rank-emblems. I didn’t need the silly things, of course. Nor were the humans in further need of humiliation. But I couldn’t afford to be seen to give water away for free, and therefore needed an excuse to pass on what was really a gift. Keeping slaves was a terribly corrosive thing for one’s soul, I learned during the brief period when I was a master and held so many powerless lives in my hands. Such an unhealthy relationship between living beings corrupts everything it touches, even simple acts of mercy. Later on, again for humanitarian reasons, I similarly swapped medical supplies for the crew’s billfolds and all of their cash.
   It was still theoretically possible for the crew to retake the ship at that point, especially via undoing our databunny’s hack-job. But intense, unremitting long-term thirst, coupled with an omnipresent stench and the loss of all basic dignity, aren’t particularly effective aids to concentration. Over time, Richie and the rest reported, the cyber-based counterattacks first slowed, then died off entirely. Still, though, the databunnies worked hard and remained diligent through all the long weeks it took us to make Kittyhawk.

-= 24 =-

   My brother David wasn’t present when Rangoon arrived, nor had I expected him to be. Kittyhawk was after all our newest, rawest frontier-world, hardly the sort of place where an august chief executive’s presence might be required. He loved to hike up and down the Dayton Trail, which wound through the rugged Ohio Mountains and terminated at the famous Carolina Falls, where the family maintained one of the most valuable vacation-villas ever constructed. But now that Father was gone, duty bound him to remain far closer to the center of things. He’d told me once that he planned to go out of his way to hold Board meetings on Kittyhawk at least once every five years so that he could take a little time off to hike. But it was only a pipe-dream, I knew; he’d grow old and white-haired before the burden of too much power was lifted from his shoulders.
   His absence left me the highest-ranking man—or being, at the moment—in the entire system. Or at least in theory it did…
   The planet was almost as beautiful from orbit as she was from the surface, I decided as I stood gazing out through the tiny viewport in a cabin that’d once belonged to one of Rangoon’s minor officers, trying to decide what I was going to tell my brother when he called. It was an incredibly awkward situation; the instant the planetary-defense cruiser Flyer III surged alongside to investigate our unscheduled arrival, I used my Special Executive ID to establish who and what I really was. That kept them from sending across an armed boarding party the moment we matched vectors. The problem was, however, that I couldn’t show myself on video. Here I was, for all intents and purposes the owner of everything I surveyed, and yet I still had to hide my face. My brother, I hoped, would soon be able to straighten it all out. But still… I shook my head as a lightning-bolt of rage ripped through me. It was hard not to have any rights again, for no better reason than the fur on my skin!
   Finally the phone rang and David’s face appeared on the viewplate. He was developing wrinkles, I realized suddenly, and graying at the temples. He looked more and more like Father every day. “Thank god!” he greeted me, cutting to the chase as he always did when truly shaken up. “I’ve been so worried! Your ship’s weeks overdue—I’ve been sick over it!”
   I smiled back at him, and we spent a long half-minute just looking each other over and reassuring ourselves that we were both still alive and well. In theory I held the more dangerous job. But Father had been assassinated, and so was Mother long before him. So I had legitimate cause to worry as well. We wasted thousands of credits worth of dead-air time before I finally broke the silence. “Is this channel secure?” I demanded.
   “Of course,” he replied.
   “All right, then.” I came to cadet-attention, though a bouncy right ear spoiled the effect a little, and formally reported what had happened and what I’d done. “The message remains undelivered, I fear. I’ve failed completely. And possibly enmeshed us in an unnecessary conflict with Solstice and the rest of the Confederacy as well.” I looked down at the deck. “But… I had to do it, David! I just had to! If you’d been there and seen…” Suddenly I realized what I was doing and who I was formally addressing, and snapped back to attention.
   There was another long, expensive silence. “Yes,” he said slowly. “As a matter of fact, I probably would’ve. Or at least I like to imagine that I would’ve.” His eyes narrowed. “Your message,” he asked quietly. “Where was it to be delivered to?”
   “Tiberius Station,” I answered, trying to meet my brother’s eye and not quite managing it. I’d failed on my very first mission, after David had believed so much in me! And yet, yet…
   “Tiberius Station,” David answered, cutting off my thoughts, “is the Confederacy’s seat of government, is it not? It’s very heart and soul.”
   “Yeah,” I agreed. “People call it that.”
   He nodded, then picked up a stack of printouts and held them up to the camera. “Note the datelines,” he instructed.
   “Slaves Mutiny, Ship’s Crew Slaughtered!” one proclaimed; it was from New Constantinople, one of the Station’s larger cities.
   My brother flipped the page—the next was from Tiberius City. “Bloody Atrocities Aboard Liner Rangoon! All Passengers Feared Massacred in Slavebunny Uprising!
   “I like this one best of all,” David commented. “I’ve always enjoyed reading the New Roman Fiddler. They’re counterculture, by local standards. “Slavebunnies Free Themselves,” this one read. “Successfully Navigate Commandeered Vessel to Kittyhawk!
   My mouth closed—I hadn’t realized that it’d been gaping wide open. “That’s not quite right,” I objected. “We didn’t do our own navigating.”
   David smiled, laying the printouts back down on his desk. “They got the important part correct at least.” His eyes met mine across the light years. “The part about how you freed yourselves. And you know what, my beloved brother?” he asked.
   “What?” I replied, suddenly feeling very small.
   “You sent just exactly the message I was hoping you’d send, in even clearer and more unmistakable language than I dared hope for, to exactly the destination where it was meant to be delivered.” He shook his head and crossed his arms. “There’s going to be a big war over this, sure as can be. But I’ll be damned if the Wright Corporation will sanction slavery even a day longer than we absolutely must.” He shook his head. “This is only the beginning of a long stormy road, Jebediah. And we may yet lose this fight. But it’s a good beginning, and I have you to thank for it. Hell, the human race has you to thank for it.” He picked up the Fiddler headline again and brandished it. “Slavebunnies free themselves,” he paraphrased the headline, “then successfully navigate deep-space vessel.” He shook his head. “My hat’s off to you. I expected you to rebel somehow, yes. And you being you, I expected said rebellion to make headlines, which was the whole point of the exercise. But… Wow! Because of what you’ve done, humans everywhere are looking at their slaves with, yes, fear. However, it’s exactly the sort of fear that eventually breeds… Respect.”
   I’m afraid that I’d been under a great deal of stress for a very long time, and was maybe a little too drained to think as clearly as otherwise might’ve been the case. “You mean,” I asked dully, “there’s no message in my ear-chip?”
   “No, Jeb,” my brother replied. “The message was in your heart. And now all the universe has heard it.” He leaned back and shook his head. “You look like crap, you know. Your fur’s patchy, your eyes are red and dull… and I think I could count every rib.”
   “They starved us,” I explained, though I’d already told him. “For a long, long, long time!”
   David’s brow wrinkled at the childish expression, then he shrugged and continued. “Anyway, at least the collar’s finally gone. And that’s certainly to the good.” He paused and considered his next words carefully. “It’s obvious to anyone with eyes that you need a rest. I’d put you back in the Tank, except there’s no way to make it happen so far out in the sticks. You’re going to have to stay a bunny until we can get you back home. Which… complicates things.”
   I nodded wordlessly,
   “So… Hmm. I seem to recall assigning your ex-roommate out that way—he’s on a counterintelligence operation, but your situation is by far the more important. I’m going to pull him off that other thing. Immediately, in fact. As soon as I hang up. Expect him at your airlock within hours, even before you dock at the Stalk. He’ll take the best care of you possible under the circumstances. Which oughta be pretty damned good. And if you don’t move into our vacation chalet for a few months, I’ll kill you for being too stupid to be my brother.”
   I nodded again, this time smiling a little. David had been threatening me that way since I was small. It’d been a long time since I’d smiled and meant it, I realized suddenly.
   “Now,” David continued, his brow furrowing again. “That’s you taken care of. But what about all these other rabbits?”
   I winced. That was the real nub of the issue. “I suppose Solstice wants them back?”
   “Of course. Though I’d put them down myself before I’d let those thugs lay hands on them. It’d be more humane.”
   I nodded slowly, then groomed my whiskers. “I’m just going to disappear,” I suggested. “Right?”
   “Pretty much. I can’t see another exit strategy, after your part in all this.” He titled his head to the left, considering. “Wanna be shot attempting to escape? That’d be fitting, at least.”
   “Maybe,” I offered. There was another long expensive silence. “How about all of us?” I asked. “Could we maybe all disappear? Perhaps in some kind of accident?”
   David wasn’t equipped with whiskers. Or, at least, he wasn’t equipped with the same sort that I was. So he stroked his chin while he thought instead. “Hmm,” he replied, considering. “The Solstice folks won’t believe it for a second.”
   “You just said yourself that war’s inevitable over this. And I agree with you, now more than ever after what I’ve just been through. I mean, you wouldn’t believe…” Then I shook my head and got back on-subject. “Look. Obviously you’ve thought this all the way through. So you have to have given some consideration as to what a universe full of freed slaves is going to look like. Right?”
   David’s face clouded. “The experts say they can never be free. Not really. They’re just not intelligent enough, Jebediah. Or most of them aren’t, at least.”
   I felt my ears flatten in anger, then remembered who I was talking to. “They’re a lot more capable than people give them credit for,” I countered. “I mean, sure. It’ll take a lot more gengineering work before I trust a C-level to remove my appendix. Still, though… I think that they’ve actually got something resembling a viable society going.”
   David’s brows rose skywards.
   “I know of a triple-A who could teach most of our sysadmins a trick or two, and another who I’d trust to command the squad of High Marines sent to dig me out of the tightest hole there’s ever been. Barring prejudice, we could make rabbits like them citizens tomorrow, and before long they’d be swimming along just fine with the rest of us. But even the low-rankers…” I sighed and shook my head, thinking about what a valuable assistant Boris had become. Granted, in some ways he still wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. No matter how long or hard he worked at it, he’d never master any but the most elementary of polysyllables. Yet when confronted with a balky airlock in a life-or-death situation, he’d applied his problem-solving skills and successfully found a solution. Surely we could find a way to work with such good stuff as that? “I think that maybe there’s a lot more to intelligence than we really understand,” I explained at last. “Or at least more than most of us understand—the eggheads have a lot more time to sit and think about this kind of stuff than you and I do. These rabbits… They live in the same environment as we humans, and because of that a lot of their problems are just as complicated. How to read each other’s body language, for example, or comprehend what it takes to make fellow members of a social unit think well of you.” I scowled and let my ears droop, looking for the right words. “Those are the real basics of civilization, not how good one is at doing crosswords. Honestly, David—I think they’d all make fine citizens, given a little understanding and support. But let’s not take my word for it; instead, how about we set them up this particular batch of bunnies in a little top-secret town of their own, where the scientists can observe them and help things along when they get in trouble? Here on Kittyhawk looks to me like just as good a place as any. After all, there’s still plenty of empty acres to fill, and too many prying eyes.”

-= 25 =-

   Saying good-bye to my rabbit-buddies proved to be one of the hardest things I ever did in my life. It’s always hard on soldiers, when the shooting’s over and the battlefield-forged friendships must, for a time at least, be torn asunder. We slavebunnies were all veterans together, after a fashion. We’d fought side-by-side for our lives, literally tooth and nail. Even more we’d also suffered endlessly, so that we were brothers in deprivation, overcrowding, and neglect as well as in violence. It was so hard on me as I sniffed the familiar scents one by one, and wished their owners a happy, happy, happy new life. “Good bye, Sid,” I whispered into the ear of the friend who’d sat by me on the bridge and listened in on Captain Assad’s lies. “I hope you can get the network you and Richie and Gerard are so excited about up and running.”
   “It’ll be wonderful!” Sid replied, bouncing up and down on his toes in glee. And, even better, it was all the idea of the three databunnies. They were going to try and create a system suitable for use by even their dimmest peers. So far as I knew it was the largest and most ambitious project of its kind ever attempted; already, those few experts who carried sufficiently-high Wright Company security clearances to be “in the know” were filing for new patents based on the former slaves’ fresh approach. Even better, the revenue from said patents was going to end up in my bunny-friend’s pockets. Or eventually it was, once we arranged for it to be legal for them to have possessions. But, hey! A man can only take one step at a time.
   “Je-e-e-e-eb!”Boris screamed the instant he saw me approaching the little cottage that was now his private home. Then he raced out and hugged me tight, tight, tight for longer than I think anyone’s ever hugged me before. He’d wanted to become a gardener after spending so long vacuuming dingy offices, and I’d seen to it that he could spend the rest of his life doing nothing but planting seeds and helping flowers grow in the sun if he so chose. Back on the ship, there’d been a rough period during which I woke up two and three times a night screaming. Boris grew more and more worried about me until finally one morning I woke up with a teddy bear that I’d almost forgotten about tucked in neatly under my right arm. At first I didn’t understand how it’d gotten there, and for a little while after that I just felt plain old silly, glad that no one had caught me with the childish toy. Then I realized that I’d woken up normally for once after a restful night’s sleep, as opposed to screaming my lungs out in terror at being chased by a thousand legless demons. The stuffed bear smelled faintly of soon-to-be-mother doe; perhaps that was what made it work so well. But I not only still had the thing, I sometimes still slept with it when the nightmares returned. It didn’t take me long to figure out who was responsible for the gift, not after Boris started asking me disingenuous questions about how well the bear that “someone” had left me was working. It wasn’t until the third morning of waking up smiling instead of screaming that I fully appreciated what a wonderful, thoughtful gift Boris had given me. No, in some ways he wasn’t very bright, and as much one might wish that he could somehow be elevated to human-normal, it simply wasn’t going to happen. Yet despite his shortcomings, he was also far and away a more humane being than many a homo sapiens it’d been my displeasure to cross paths with. Particularly recently. The Wright staff assigned to our new bunny-colony was left in not the slightest doubt regarding Boris’s “special favorite” status, and my brother mandated that updates on his circumstances hit both of our desks like clockwork every Monday morning. He was to be pampered in every way and allowed to find his own destiny insofar as this was possible for anyone in his position. There was nothing more I could do to help. Though if there had been, I’d have moved mountains to accomplish it for him.
   Then there was Nicky. He was looking at me funnier than ever nowadays, and so help me I think he eventually figured out what I really was. He was easily the brightest and most capable of all us AAA’s, and I don’t except myself from the field. He too was on the “special treatment” list, though as the new Big Boss he wouldn’t be needing much in the way of extra pampering. “Just stand back and let him run things as he sees fit,” I typed in a letter to the professorial-type who was nominally in charge of the entire project. “I bet you’ll learn more from Nicky than you ever dreamed possible. If you and he should ever disagree about anything important, talk it out with him. If he still thinks you’re wrong after that, do it his way. That’s an order.” My former chess student hugged me almost as long and as thoroughly as Boris had, out in front of his four-room City Hall. “Gee, Jeb,” he said when we were done. “This is really it? I ain’t never gonna see you again?”
   I nodded wordlessly, having explained long since that the Good Masters needed me for other, more urgent work.
   “I guess it’s that acid factory again, eh? They figured out that they can’t stay in business without you? Or maybe they just miss you at the ballet recitals?”
   I felt my ears darken. “Nicky, if there was any way at all—”
   “Now, now, now!” the big black lapine interrupted me. He’d detected the frog in my throat even before I had, and was doing his best to spare me the embarrassment of blubbering in front of my ex-Academy roommate Henry. The human was doing his best to stay out of the way, but he stuck out like a sore thumb among us bunnies. “We wouldn’t want him to see you cry, now would we? You’re the one who told me once that you shouldn’t ever let a master see you sweat. Remember?”
   I smiled back. “He’s not a master. Nor would he want to be.”
   “Hmm,” Nicky replied, looking Henry over suspiciously. That was going to be the hard part, I realized, perhaps even an impossible part. Nicky and the others had done an awful lot of suffering at the hands of people who looked just like Henry; how where they to know that he was any different? Prejudice, I’d learned quickly during my months in Hold Four, cut both ways. It might be centuries before the final drop of poison was extracted from such a great psychic wound. “Whatever you say, Jeb.” Then he took me by the shoulders and looked deep into my eyes. “All I know is this. I owe you—we all owe you!—so much that there’s no point even trying to add it all up.” He squeezed just hard enough to make it hurt a little. “Even the dead owe you, Jebediah. For helping them to die free and proud, instead of screaming their helpless lives out in a cage of one kind or another. Never, ever forget that.” He shook his head. “You still don’t quite understand, I don’t think. Not deep down inside. That’s part of why I sometimes wonder…” Then he shook his head and skirted the forbidden territory. “Anyway, thank you. I hope the dances at the acid plant make you happy.” He waved eloquently at the little village. “And if not, you’ve made lifelong friends here. We’ll make a place for you, if you ever decide to come home to us.” His face hardened. “Whether the humans like it or not.”
   Then there was the big public farewell scene, where everybunny got together and waved me off as I clambered laboriously up the too-steep stairs. (That needed to be fixed right away, I noted mentally; this town belonged to the rabbits, even if it was true that ninety-nine percent or more of the time it’d be humans who used the floater-landing facilities. So, it should be designed for rabbits!) Then I sat down obediently in the rear seat of Henry’s personal aerospace plane and waved, even though I’d much rather have been in the pilot’s seat myself. “Good-bye!” I called out again and again, trying to meet the eyes of as many of my friends as possible. “I’ll miss, miss, miss, miss, miss you so much!” Then we were up and gone, headed to the chalet for a nice long rest and perhaps even a little carefully-arranged hiking and other touristy-stuff. For I loved Kittyhawk every bit as much as my brother did. Maybe even more, now that such a precious seed had been planted here.
   “Wow!” Henry observed from up front, once we were straight and level and on automatic. “It’s absolutely amazing.”
   “What is?” I asked.
   “Those bunnies,” he continued. “They’re so much more mature than ordinary slaves. Smarter, I mean. Confident. More capable. I mean, some of them were taking on pretty impressive jobs. Like that big black friend of yours—Mr. Mayor.”
   “So?” I asked guardedly.
   “Don’t get me wrong, Jeb” Henry continued. “I mean, I’d hardly be the one escorting you around if I believed in slavery. But, I mean… Wow!” he repeated. “It’s like they’re a whole ‘nother breed of rabbits. Something new under the sun.”
   “They are something new, I suppose,” I agreed after a little thought. “They’re the first large group of Uplifted beings ever to be set free. Or as free as they can be for now, I should say.”
   Hank shook his head. “It’s not just that. I mean, we sat together in Human Behavior 101. You remember those wild-release animals? The ones that they’d raised in captivity and then tried to set free? But instead they’d just keep coming back and climbing into their cages again, hoping to be taken back ‘home’?”
   I nodded. “Sure.”
   “I figger that if we went and freed all the slavebunnies, just unlocked their collars and told ‘em to jump for joy… Well, that’s how I think they’d act, sorta. It’s what I’d expect at least, given what they’ve always known. But these guys, they aren’t like that. Not at all!”
   We flew on in silence a bit longer, as I pondered Hank’s words. “You know,” I said eventually. “I think you’re right. There is something different about them.”
   “You’ve just been too close to see it,” he agreed. “Too close in more ways than you probably notice. Like… Wanna know what my first clue was?”
   “What?” I asked, leaning forward a little. Hank was nobody’s fool; what had he seen that I’d missed?
   “They all wear clothes, dummy, just like you! But, it’s even more jarring when you actually interact with them. They don’t look down at the ground when address you!” He shook his head again. “It’s the damnedest thing, how noticeable that is. Something so small, and yet so significant.” He turned around to face me. “It’s almost like they’ve never been caged at all. As if they were born to freedom.”
   “It’s because we beat the masters by our own efforts, I think,” I answered eventually. “At their own game, from a position of immense disadvantage. Once you’ve killed a few masters, or even just walked past their bodies in the corridors, well… It sorts of boosts one’s self-esteem a little, if you know what I mean.”
   “Yeah,” Hank agreed, as we raced across the clear, perfect sky. “I bet it would! So, what you’re saying is that no one set those rabbits free, like those scared animals we’re talking about. Instead, they freed themselves. With a little help, of course.” He turned around and grinned at me again.
   “Of course,” I replied, turning towards the window and gazing out at the unmatched splendor of the Ohio Mountains, which were just now rising up over the horizon. Hank was a genius sometimes, whenever he stopped punning long enough to use his brain for its intended purpose. And this time he was dead-on correct. Our village-rabbits had freed themselves, and that made all the difference in the world...
   Then I pressed my lips together and began scribbling on the little pad that some thoughtless former passenger had left in the seat-pocket in front of me. All the slaves needed to free themselves; I could see that now. Or else they might not recover for generations. Nor the masters, for that matter. The realization marked the effective end of my vacation, though I spent several weeks at the chalet to please David.
   It seemed that now I had a rather larger-scale revolt to plan…

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