This is a short bit, but I think the only way I'll get this section uploaded is to do it in segments. So take this snippet as a sign that the story is not dead and, for those who still care, more is to come! I'll probably add the new bits to this rather than uploading them as separate chapters.

This section follows directly after the last part which was posted um, a couple of centuries ago. So you might want to refresh your memory by taking a quick look at the last chapter.

Chapter 14: The Black Hole, Part 4a:

As Piranha prepared to leave for the "celebration," Vee hovered around him eagerly, taking hold of his shirt, vest, coat as Piranha took them off, brushing them, laying them out on the bed, even snatching the hat off his head. Startled, Piranha jumped back. Vee came after him and, pulling out a tiny, curved knife, grabbed for his head.

Piranha seized him by the wrist, forcing the knife out of his hand. "What the hell is going on with you?"

"Sir! I was just going to trim your hair!" As he clutched at Piranha's fierce clench on his wrist, Vee blushed – realizing belatedly that to Piranha it must have looked like he had come at him with a weapon. "That's not a knife! It's just a hair-cutter!"

"Trim my hair? What in metal tubing for?"

"To get you ready! For the performance! Doesn't the girl help you dress?"

"Good lord, no!"

"But your body slave—"

Piranha, still gripping Vee's arm, involuntarily jerked his other fist halfway to launch position. Then lowered it. He stood still for a moment, taking deep breaths. Then, none too gently, he half-led, half-carried the young man over to the table and inserted him into a chair.

"Vee. Get this. I don't need your personal services. Now sit. Stay."

Rubbing his arm tenderly, Vee sat on the wooden chair. He sat. He watched Piranha. He fidgeted.

"Sir, why are you putting on that shirt? It's full of holes!"

"That's why," Piranha said.

Unable to make any sense of this remark, Vee ignored it. "I saw a much better jacket in the closet. This one needs—"

Irritably, Piranha yanked the shirt over his trunk, aerating it further in the process. He wrapped his old armoured vest over it, then shrugged into a tattered coat. "Just dressing for the occasion, Vee."

Vee jumped out of the chair. "But First Mate, don't you realize what's going on tonight? It only happens when the Black Hole arrives! Not even once a year! The Boss will—"

Piranha cocked an eyebrow at him and paused in thought. Suddenly, his face lit up. He grabbed his hat, yanked out half its plumes, and scrunched it down onto his head in a state of enhanced crumple. "There," he said, smiling demurely. "That should do it."

Vee stared at him. Piranha's almost offensively good grooming was notorious on the ship. But now he looked as though he had just returned from a lengthy tour of the chief brawling district of some heavily alcoholic pleasure planet. All that was lacking was to dump a bumper of hooch over his head and smear dirt on his face.

Piranha smiled more at Vee's expression. "Anaconda told me to look like a real pirate," he said.

Vee grimaced. "I guarantee that's not what he meant."

"I know," Piranha replied, with satisfaction.

"Finally find a patron, then lose him before ever getting any patronage," Vee muttered sourly.

As he guided the re-blindfolded Vee back through the corridors of the Old Section, Piranha patted him on the shoulder. "Security precautions are a pain, aren't they? We'll find another place where you and Elly can practice, so you won't have to keep going through this rigamarole."

SHE goes out without a blindfold, Vee was thinking, unappeased. He didn't say it. What he said was, "Where – where do you think she went, sir? Should I look for her when we get out of here?"

"No, no," Piranha said. "She's probably thinking things over in one of the Old Section cabins. She'll be fine."

Under the bandanna, Vee made a face.

After emerging from the Old Section and removing Vee's blindfold, Piranha headed at a rapid stride for the elevator. Not receiving any particular discouragement, if no particular encouragement either, Vee tagged along. Although taller than Piranha and long-limbed for his size, he was having some difficulty keeping up.

Speeding down the hall, Piranha said, "Don't be alarmed if some disreputable-looking pirate shows up to fetch you in the next few days. It'll just be one of my men, to bring you for practice with Elly."

"How will they know where to find me?" Vee was panting slightly.

"They'll find you. They've seen you now." Piranha didn't so much as glance at him; the easiness of his manner in the cabin had evaporated. This was the First Mate. No doubt his men – probably some of those unpleasant brutes hanging around the Old Section entrance – would find him.

To Vee's relief, they arrived at the elevator. But Piranha didn't summon it. He glared at its door, scowling. "There's still some time before 21:00, I think," he muttered. "To hell with it."

Vee looked at the first mate inquiringly, but, still being ignored, he continued to scramble after the scraggly-plumed hat as it darted into the nearest staircase. Where was he heading now? The celebration would be on the lowest level. But Piranha seemed to want to go anywhere but there.

Momentarily glancing up at the dizzying spiral winding through ten levels of the ship, Vee wondered why Piranha had to insist on being so perverse about everything. Even as simple a matter as moving from one level to another. But he sighed, girding himself for far too much pointless work.

He couldn't help it – as Piranha had detected, he was curious.

Piranha seemed about to head up the stairs – then abruptly whirled and began clattering down, towards the lower levels. Vee followed, his enthusiasm diluting a bit. On the second and third lowest levels were the slave quarters. Vee preferred to avoid them as much as possible, often even managing not to sleep there. And right now, with the slave transfer going on... Well, if he stayed near the first mate, he should be safe enough from accidents.

Piranha passed the floor below the Old Section and continued to gallop down the flights, bypassing the two slave residential levels. That was good, but it meant that they were heading straight for the huge intake/docking area, not much of an improvement.

Arriving at the exit door from the stairwell, Piranha halted and turned abruptly to Vee.

"They're transferring the slaves to the Black Hole at this time, aren't they?"

A little taken aback, having been apparently invisible until now, Vee stuttered, "Yes, sir."

"Through the big intake level, I suppose?"

"Yes, where the ships are docked together."

Piranha turned back towards the door, hesitated. Something passed over his face – something not metaphorical, Vee would have sworn, an actual shadow. Then, with a resolute jerk of his body, he opened it. Vee, preferring to stay safe behind him, peered over his shoulder.

This entrance to the lowest level opened on a crude, twisting metal stairway that led down, with many sharp bends, quite a distance to the huge expanse of the floor. Stepping forward onto the small landing at the top of the stair, Piranha looked out over the entire level from above.

The enormous open space, broken only by rare supporting struts, was a bobbing, writhing, seething mass of human heads, a sluggishly moving current of human bodies. Slowly, like a flow of mud, they made their way across the space and up three enormous gangways at the end of the room, all converging on a giant platform leading to a single opening at least fifty feet wide: the exit from the Insurrection. Beyond that exit was the grey darkness of a tunnel.

At the other end of that tunnel must be the slave ship.

Around the perimeter of the room, as well as in strategically positioned clumps, hundreds of heavily armed robot guards stood motionless. Occasionally one or another would shove or kick a nearby captive he considered was out of line, but overall they seemed to feel their mere presence was sufficient. At the base of each gangway were five or six humans from Grouper's ship, each one accompanied by two or three robots from the Insurrection. All of these were evidently there to count and inspect the merchandise as it was loaded. The process was slow, with frequent squabbles and long hold-ups. The dense stream of slaves would coagulate into an apathetic clot, hanging listlessly until the blockage opened and the slow flow began again. None of them resisted. From where he stood, Piranha could not see any sign that they even cared whether they went to the slave ship or stayed. Something ancient and painful stirred in him, clenched like a fist.

He looked away from the platform to the thousands of beings milling about the floor.

There were faint sounds of crying, mostly from children. Some were being separated from their mothers or siblings, to remain on the Insurrection, presumably until they matured to a more saleable age. Some, a little older, cried with fatigue, boredom, fear, or hunger, while being shunted onto the slave ship in groups (not without fierce arguments from the Black Hole crew). But overall, the sound that arose from that immense mass of humans was only a sort of hollow, lifeless reverberation, a desolate echo, like the last pulsing of blood through the veins of something unconscious and dying.

Piranha took a long breath. He turned around, bumping into Vee. Roughly he pushed both Vee and himself back through the door. Vee shoved the door shut, with vehemence.

Piranha was motionless for a moment, leaning against the wall. His eyes were lowered. Then, with a jerk, he straightened. He glared at Vee.

"What did you think of all that?" he said, gesturing back at the door.

"Am I supposed to think of it?" Vee said.

"What, do you only have thoughts you're supposed to have? What did you think?"

"I think I'm glad that I'm up here and not down there."

Piranha smiled bitterly. "So am I." Then gave a short bark of laughter. "If this ship has any gods," he said, "– and after all it's been through, it must have by now – I only hope they're paying attention. Although ... somehow I get the feeling that human gods take a certain pleasure in that sort of thing."

"Human gods?" Vee repeated, lost.

Piranha looked at him with a bedraggled little smile. "Or robot gods. Well, I suppose I'd better get going. The Slave Lord mustn't be kept waiting. I think, Vee, you'd be wiser not to go there with me."