Government Confines

Chapter IV

The Auction

Casey had not been this clean in all her life. Preparing for the auction was at best an ordeal. She had been scrubbed, scraped and sponged almost until she bled. Even this basic courtesy was only for show, however. It was purposely made to be painful—she now endured a light acid scrub to wash away the top layer of her scales—to remind her that even though she and her fellows were being treated to this, they were still only slaves.

They and the other slaves had been taken to the auction sight, and then into an ornately rich room which had been divided into sections by an opaque curtain. Alice wondered if it were for privacy, or if it were for isolation. She heard the grunts and growls of other Digimon, and the voice of the Garurumon from the night before. He howled once, and then remained quiet.

Alice took the brutality in stride, though she chafed under the hostile glares from their washers. She wanted to shout and fight back. She abhorred the practice—she had been abused herself for many years. But unlike them, she had been able to work for her freedom from such humiliation.

All the while, the human asked how Casey could manage to endure it for so long. It was all the Digimon had ever known. She winced as a harsh scrub-brush raked over the stubs where Casey's wings had once been.

They cut them off when I was young, she told Alice. The law forbade slaves to fly, that they might escape, or fight back. The doctors had performed the surgery precisely and cleanly, as to cause no permanent damage. Even so, the nerves where her wings had once been seemed to catch on fire. I've never known anything else.

The washer dumped a bucket of hot water over them, rinsing them of the acid wash and giving them relief at last. Casey closed her eyes and held her breath, dipping her head below the water to wash any stray debris from her. When at last she came up, and opened her eyes, she felt Alice's amazement.

When they had met, Alice had taken great care to notice every detail, that she might record her perceived dream later. After she had realized it was no dream, that the monster in front of her was indeed real, she had taken even greater care to notice such details. That was why she had a hard time catching her breath after the washing—for when she had met Casey for the first time, her scales had been ebon black.

Now, in the light of the morning sun filtering through the windows, then taking on a softer light as it filtered through the curtains, the wash revealed her skin not to be black at all. Instead they were of a deep shade of blue, almost midnight, making her ivory claw tips and chest stand out starkly like a full moon.

In another section of the inordinately decorated room, Garth and his human guest underwent their own form of torture, finding themselves at the end of a coarse brush, yanking knots out of Garth's freshly washed fur. The Digimon winced as his captor yanked another knot out.

He took it silence, letting out only the faintest of yelps when the bulky Digimon grooming him accidentally stepped on his tail. More to his amazement though, was how quiet the human within was. It was as if he had suffered all his life, and had learned to defy his tormenters by stubbornly refusing to cry for mercy. In fact, Michael had hardly spoken all morning.

When we are free, Garth told him, tail twitching, we will never have to go through this again. And soon they would be free. Michael could not have been the only human in his world. After all, he was so young, he could hardly hope to win their freedom. So what was the purpose of sending such a small child to such a hostile world.

Michael could have wondered the same thing. But he had only a vague notion of the duties thrust upon him. Garth had only told him that he would be a hero, and that it would be hard work. Michael could do hard work. He had helped his mother all the time. Clean up this, she would say. Could you get that, she would ask. And Michael always would.

Even so young, he could tell when his mother was tired. She would pick him up from school, drive him home, and set to work on fixing dinner, even though she had been fixing other people's dinners all day. Michael never heard her complain, so why should he? So he would climb up on chairs, grab plates from the cupboard—trying his hardest not to let them slip out of his hands—and carefully set the table for two.

Somehow, though, he felt that was not what Garth had in mind. The furry Digimon had told him it was not that kind of work at all. When asked what kind of work it was, Garth had replied that it was also a matter of standing up to bullies; people who Michael knew all too well.

That was when Garth asked him why he was afraid. The Digimon knew something had struck a nerve. But Michael never elaborated. The human had only told him that he was not sure. Garth had not pressed him any further, but changed the subject.

You'll see lots of Digimon, he had said. Of course, Michael had already seen his fair share that night, as they came home. The hovel where Garth slept was full of Digimon, of many different varieties. Michael looked in wonderment at many of them, thinking some to be pretty, others to be not so much, and some even frightened him.

The Garurumon had laughed at that. No one there would dream of hurting anyone. He was not even sure they were capable of it. Most of his fellow slaves had the will to survive beaten out of them. Only a small few defiant ones, like him, were left with spirit enough to dream.

He dared them to try and break him. His new master, whomever that might be, would definitely test him—try to see how far he could push before Garth would push back. But he was a Digimon; he knew how to fight, how to bite and claw. And at the first opportunity, he would set himself free. This new master had no idea what he was getting into, buying Garth.

The city was not much of a city at all. A small wooden wall guarded it from any would-be invaders, but the desert was a much more formidable defense. The desert would leave any army attempting to cross it half-starved and twice baked before reaching the modest city wall.

Except those who had traveled prepared, and had proper business to conduct within the city, no one was allowed entry. Guards greeted Mech and his caravan coolly on the hot day as they approached the timber gates. Jerry found himself becoming nervous as the guards checked his partner's identification.

Mech had been there before, though, and had an excellent business record. The guards, realizing he was a major benefactor of the slave industry—buying up many for a handsome sum of money—let him through with little more hassle than it took to open the gates. The caravan waited in the outskirts, however.

The sun had already raised a third of its arc into the sky, signaling late morning, and that the auction would begin shortly. This will not be a pretty sight, Mech warned his partner. Many of the slaves have been disfigured. Others will be so downtrodden that the idea of freedom is unfathomable.

Jerry scowled at the thought. He abhorred the idea of buying people, even if it were to give them freedom. The notion of treating living, sentient beings as property made him nauseous. But, he had to remind himself, Mech had been doing this for years, quietly dwindling the slave supply—and managing to keep it secret.

Where did they all come from anyway? From what he had discovered of the Digital World's history—not much, to be sure—slavery was a recent development. Before DoyenGreymon had come on the scene, there was no such thing. So, he wondered, how were these Digimon selected for slavery? Aside from the obvious difference in species, Jerry saw no distinguishing features at all, that the authorities could use to justify their bonds.

They were born into slavery, Mech replied. Their parents were slaves, and their parent's parents were those that defied DoyenGreymon when he rose to power. The muddled history that the tyrant had spun said that they were violent dissidents, and that the only way to protect the population without wasting resources was to either kill them, or put them to work. Claiming slavery was more humane, he put them to work.

By now, they approached a cloister of wide, flat buildings made of clay and timber. According to the Digimon, this was the sight of the auction. Three of the wide structures formed three sides of a square, with a courtyard in the center, and a series of smaller buildings—shops of some sort—lining the left hand side of the courtyard and a little of the open side.

Another detachment of city guards patrolled the area, setting up a picket line to check the identification of all incoming traders. Again, Mech filed through with his heavy footfalls and presented the soldiers with his papers. Once examined to their satisfaction, the sentries handed them back and allowed the metal giant to proceed.

Immediately, Mech headed for the farthest of the three buildings. They will be preparing the slaves for auction in that building, he told Jerry. They had to duck, but managed to squeeze through the oversized door. Being mechanical, Mech's eyes adjusted instantly to the reduced light of the facility. Be prepared.

Jerry was not. The sight before him was of wash basins and scrub brushes, carried by professional groomers, who in turn set to work on scrubbing Digimon down. Many of the Digimon had been rubbed raw, some of them bleeding, others howling in pain. All of them bore scars of some sort, and none of them made eye contact—afraid incurring the wrath of a potential master.

How are you going to free so many? Jerry asked, amazed. He could not be sure, but he counted at least fifty in this building. There was no way he could—even with all his riches, the act of buying so many dozens would surely arouse the suspicions of the industry leaders.

I don't plan on freeing all of them, Mech replied. His tone seemed neutral, but Jerry heard a hint of sadness. The Digimon tried to remain professional, even in the midst of something as detestable as this, but Jerry felt his emotions. Even now, they were an inconsolable tide.

I have heard of a pair of slaves—their master is tired of them, Mech continued. I was told they were defiant. He inspected the contents of one cordoned off section of the building. Jerry peered over their muzzle as well, and found a draconic Digimon with midnight blue scales drying herself off. She looked up at them, smirking a knowing smile. She is one of them, Mech said.

"I'm for sale, too," she said. Casey continued her disdainful smile at the metal Digimon. There were two types of masters, she had explained to Alice. One would be so taken aback by her boldness to speak, that he would consider her too much trouble to buy. The other would be so enraged by it that he would buy her out of vengeance.

He looks like he could go either way, though, Alice said, somewhat shaken by her partner's flagrant display of insolence.

"What good would a slave like that do you," another voice asked. Mech and Casey turned to look at the interloper, a black clad figure with a silver helmet and yellow eyes. "Corbet is my name," he said.

"I've heard of you," Mech said, unimpressed. "You own a large plantation in District Seven. A BlackWarGreymon, yes?" If his information were accurate, the Digimon was indeed a powerful person, both in business and in physical prowess. Like Mech, he was a fully evolved Digimon. "You also have a prevalence for females…"

Casey glared at the black Digimon. "I'm afraid, sir, I would not do you much good either." She heard Corbet's teeth grate under his helmet and his claws click against the side of his black armor. She could follow orders, work fields, and even serve in a domestic function. But she drew the line there. "Try someone who wouldn't rather die," she said, jabbing her thumb toward the next cubical.

She is stubborn, Jerry said, a little surprised.

"Her wings are cut," Mech replied to the original question. "She could not escape, nor is she a match if she were to defy me." He sounded cold, unfeeling. But even he could not help but like this BlackExVeemon and her rebellious nature. If she could be brought into the resistance, she would be a very valuable asset.

Alice found herself horrified, however. Were the two actually talking about what she thought they were? Could they, would they engage in such a violent act? She felt herself shrink back inside Casey, trying to get as far away as possible. That Corbet was the type to seek retribution.

And still her partner continued. "I am incapable of defying either of you," she said, now turning her furious glower at the Machinedramon. She would long escape before either of them would have her. She may have lost her wings, but she was still faster on land than either of them in their bulky armor. "I can't defy you because you don't own me. And you never will."

The black Digimon stooped close to her, almost having to kneel, as he was head-and-shoulders above her, and looked into her eyes. He narrowed his and sniffed at her ever so slightly before he stood up to his full height again. The BlackWarGreymon growled as he stalked away.

I don't like him, Jerry said. He felt in his gut that if he were allowed to buy this slave, he would end her. He was a violent soul, used to having what he wanted without question. If someone were to refuse him, he would blame the nearest person to him, and take out his frustration until either he became exhausted himself, or his victim became still. Mech agreed.

Casey liked neither of them, though they had no choice in the matter. She had never heard of the black Digimon, nor had she heard of the Machinedramon. The way they spoke, though, sent shivers running down her spine. And then Corbet had sniffed at her. She wondered if he had smelled Alice inside her.

The machine Digimon at least had no way of knowing about Alice. But if she smelled different, out of the ordinary, like she were infected with something, it might tip off any number of potential buyers. All of them would want nothing more than to curry favor with the government.

"I intend to buy you," Mech stated bluntly. Then he turned and walked off in search of his next acquisition. She was unmistakably one of the Digimon of whom he had heard rumors. That BlackWarGreymon would cause him trouble though. He was a rich enough, powerful enough Digimon that he might even rival Mech.

His internal mechanisms whirred as he ran through the possible scenarios. Corbet would fail—his calculations proved that. But whether it was a hollow victory was another matter. Retribution against rivals in business, violent attacks against competitors, were not uncommon, nor were laws against it enforced. The strong conquered.

Mech pulled out a radio and tapped a control. "Take the caravan and resupply," he said into the speaker. The reply came out muffled, but Mech understood it well enough. He would rather risk traveling on his own than everything he had worked to build. The Digimon in his charge were workers; many of them knew little about defending themselves.

"Resupply and leave. Go back to District Eighteen," he ordered, and shut off the radio. They would follow orders; he was sure. It was in their interest to do so, and they knew that. His assets would be well protected in District Eighteen.

Jerry felt surge of worry and guilt rise up within his partner as Mech ordered his caravan to abandon them. It was more like Mech had abandoned them, however. He knew better though. Mech cared for them, despite what the Digimon might say. You did the right thing, Jerry reassured him.

Michael let out a sigh of relief. The grooming, which he and Garth had endured, finally ended and the attendants had left them alone at last. The still sat in the cubical, but the washbasin had been removed and the curtains that separated them from the outside world had been drawn open, leaving them exposed the scrutiny of possible masters.

Garth snorted, lying down with his back facing the intruding eyes of prospective buyers. He heard them stop, make their comments and ask any worker who happened to float by what the opening bid on him might be.

Disgusting, he thought sourly. Michael did not answer. Of course, the Digimon could hardly blame him. His explanation of the auction was just specific enough to satisfy the human. He hardly knew what was going on.

At least, he thought his partner was in the dark. Michael, though, was smart enough to know better. While not able to articulate himself well, being young, he was able to condense the smattering of phrases and words into terms he could wrap his mind around. He knew what happened to his mother and father, and he knew the situation he and Garth found themselves in.

And he heard everything that the Garurumon heard. Being a part of the Digimon had enhanced his senses, and his quiet observation of his surroundings gave him an ill feeling in the pit of his stomach. He quite agreed with his partner's sentiment. The way the passersby spoke as if they were invisible—he knew that attitude too well.

It was representative of someone who thought he owned the world. Indeed, much of them did believe they owned the world. He supposed, though, that it was only the little world they created in their minds. Michael imagined them all alone, surrounded by people who they saw every day, but had no real companionship with.

Do you think they have any friends, he asked suddenly.

Garth detected a note of pity in his partner's voice, though he could not understand why. No, I don't think so, came his answer. They were all far too absorbed in themselves to find time for any companionship beyond the physical. Why do you ask?

Michael shrugged their shoulders and sighed again. I think they're lonely. They bought and sold all day without ever stopping to have a conversation. He and his mother talked all the time. She would sit with him at dinner, and ask him about his day, what he did at school, if he had made friends. And she would tell him about her day and any of the funny anecdotes she picked up from the strangers she served.

At the park, he would play for a little while, then go and sit with his mother on the bench. One time she had asked him why he did not go play with the other children. Michael told her that she looked lonely. No one should be lonely, he said.

Garth had much less sympathy. Enduring years of hard labor and beatings, among other things, he had developed a loathing for their kind. He kept his feelings in check, though, under a gruff façade, much like a suit of armor. He refused to engage in pity for their loneliness. If they had decided to forgo friendship in the name of profit, it was theirs to face the consequences.

He answered Michael with stern "hmm" before shifting his weight. He had other things on his mind in any case. An abnormally large and armor-clad Digimon was roaming the booths—Garth could hear the metal footfalls and felt the vibrations they produced under the floor. Even now, they grew louder until, at last, the Digimon responsible, ceased his motion behind them.

Mech gazed silently, inspecting the lupine figure, unimpressed. The length and girth of the Garurumon was several percentage points lower than he had expected. He checked his data on the Digimon, confirming that this was, indeed, the one he sought. The documentation was correct.

Jerry might have sworn he heard Mech sigh, like an inward rolling of his eyes—a very human gesture, he thought. What's wrong, he asked. The Digimon looked fine to him. He lacked the scars of the others, seemed strong enough, and very docile.

"Customarily, it is proper for a slave to stand in the presence of a fully evolved Digimon," Mech said coldly. The Garurumon said nothing in in reply, though Mech caught sight of his ears twitch. "You will stand in the presence of your new master."

What are you doing, Jerry asked horrified. He had, with his partner, inspected many of the other Digimon up for auction, but they had passed them by quickly. Either they were too docile, or too cowardly, or were too weak. Many of them, Mech had explained, would not be sold at all, and would be put to death. But he had not spoken to any of them like this. I thought we were here to help him?

I must test him. He had heard rumors among the auction-goers, about this Digimon. He was a tempest wrapped in fur. His previous master had seemingly broken him at last, but recently he had begun to snip and bark at his fellow slaves. That had escalated to outright violence.

Mech had to be sure it the Digimon was merely strong-willed rather than psychotic. He may appear calm, but must determine whether he can adapt to freedom or not. Some, after years of servitude, have fragile minds. The slightest provocation can make them go mad.

So he would test them. The ExVeemon from earlier proved to be a stout individual. Jerry had seen that for himself. She would not doubt have very little trouble living under her own will. But going about testing potential candidates could be tricky. Mech had to be sure.

"I said, get on your feet!"

The Garurumon growled, but still did not move. Garth sat stubbornly, keeping his ears angled to hear any motion the metal interloper made. He will probably be the one to buy us, he told Michael. Garth had known enough slave owners to recognize the different archetypes by their demeanors.

This one was probably a rich trade baron. Thousands of slaves served him in the manner of a king, waiting on his beck and call. Those not fit to feed him his meals were sent out to slave away, doing his bidding by loading and unloading freight at all hours. And, he thought disgustedly, even the slaves had a hierarchy. Those serving the master inside were higher than those outside; and messengers were higher still.

As far as he was concerned, servitude—comfortable or not—was still slavery. Any Digimon who encouraged the practice was scum. So, he told himself, he would not give this potential "owner" the satisfaction of him standing.

He turned his head, hearing the Digimon bark the order once more. His eyes widened ever so slightly as he saw the silver-clad form of the Machinedramon. "I will not stand for you," he said simply.

We are in luck, Mech told his partner.

Somewhere over the din, a bell rang, shrill and brassy, to announce the start of the auction. Many of the auction's patrons had already filed out into the courtyard where workers had erected a large stage. The shops sold refreshments, and attendants to the slaveholders ran to and fro, fetching drinks and delivering messages.

Mech watched his step carefully to avoid any unnecessary mishaps as he and Jerry made their way to the pavilion. His internals read the ambient air temperature to be hotter than normal. That was to be expected, however, as the sun shown overhead without a cloud to temper it.

When is the auction starting, Jerry asked, impatiently. He was growing uncomfortable with all the hobnobbing, trying to keep up an appearance. Jerry had quite enough of that at home. Moreover, he failed to see why it was so important to his partner. For someone so obviously powerful, it should not have mattered. Yet he sensed it did, in a conflicted sort of way. You're an enigma. Do you know that?

Merely a complex variable, Mech replied. He felt his mechanisms pause momentarily, startled at his own reply. Was that humor or just a malfunction? He would have to perform a diagnostic—and soon. Humor was not part of his programming, and since meeting Jerry, his routine maintenance had fallen by the wayside. Not to mention the human had given him pause to consider a great many things about his programming.

The Machinedramon pushed the thought aside. He had business to attend to. That bell is sounded five minutes before the auction begins, he told his partner. We are interested in lots four and five. Once again, he felt the disgust rise up in Jerry. The human had no practical sensibility.

The two marched forward until they were only a half dozen paces from the platform—quite a ways, still, given Mech's massive gait. But their height and the relative shortness of the growing crowd gave them a reasonable vantage point. The goings on had settled down into organized chaos by now, and without the rumbling footfalls of several giant Digimon, the messengers found it much easier to go about their masters' business.

Currently, Mech spied one of them approaching his position. The bulbous head of an yellow reptile bobbed along underfoot, eyes lifted just enough to avoid bumping into any of the bidders. Finally he stopped at Mech's feet and bowed low so that he almost breathed in dust.

Mech grunted, signaling for the Digimon to speak. "Greetings," said the little Digimon, trying not to stammer. "My master bids you welcome District Twelve. He is the proprietor of the Kellogg Lounge."

The giant peered down at him, expressionless. I've heard of this Kellogg Fund before, he told Jerry. He had never visited though, not feeling the need to spend time in the presence of slavers any more than he needed to. His business was in freeing them, not condoning the actions of their owners.

"Tell your master that I have prior engagements," Mech said, returning his gaze to the platform. In any case, he had no need for such distractions. Even Corbet, whom he had developed a strong distaste for, rarely frequented the Kellogg. Many of his other business associates did, however, and habitually managed to stagger away.

The little Digimon grunted once, recapturing Mech's attention. "Beg pardon, sir, but my master has asked to meet you specifically. He would like to negotiate a business agreement with you, if possible."

Jerry barely heard him speak over the din of the growing crowd. It was thanks only to Mech's sensitive instruments that he perceived the Digimon's speech. He was bold, it seemed, but he carried himself like many of the slaves Jerry had seen in the holding pens.

The bearing was off. I don't think he's a slave. Look at his mannerisms. Not that the human was any expert on the subject, but he had a good mind for people: he knew them. His father had taught him to read behavioral patterns and body language from an early age—to know when someone was bluffing or when to push an advantage was a trick his lawyer father often employed. And even though the subject of his attentions was definitely not human, Jerry understood the brash connotations of the Digimon's insistence all too well.

With his perception once again focused, Mech took a more detailed scan of the Digimon. His heartbeat was slow and calm, his voice well-modulated to feign anxiety, and, though he stooped in a manner that suggested subservience, there was no trace of the fidgeting common to slave-messengers.

Your perception surprises me, he told Jerry. Even the most obedient of slaves would not dare to insist anything. But the Digimon was well practiced at simulating servitude. He is a former slave.

One of yours? The negative answer did not surprise Jerry. Mech would have recognized the Digimon without trouble if they had met. His partner, it seemed, was possessed of a photographic memory thanks to his mechanical nature. Then who freed him?

I intend to find out, Mech replied. Here was a quandary, a riddle that he had not expected. Aside from the promise of a delightful challenge to his mental faculties, Mech had also calculated the probability of an error in his memory banks. The chance of a malfunction was slim as far as mechanical issues went. A self-diagnostic on his programming revealed no errors.

That left only the possibility that someone else had encroached upon his empire. He and Jerry had much the same thought, as well. Whoever his master was, he might be a potential ally in the coming days. "Tell your master," Mech rumbled, "I will meet him after the auction." The Digimon lifted his head briefly and nodded to Mech before scampering off.

"I know that Digimon!" a familiar voice shouted. Inwardly, Jerry groaned as he spotted Corbet sauntering in their direction. The BlackWarGreymon stopped only a few feet from them and watched the yellow Digimon disappear in the crowd. "He works at the Kellogg…" Corbet turned his attention to Mech. "Though why you would be doing business there is a mystery."

"It is my business to conduct," the Machinedramon said tersely, avoiding eye-contact with his rival. The auctioneer was moving to the podium on the left of the stage, calling for quiet so he could begin. A pair of guards brought out the first lot, a pitiful, scrawny excuse for a Digimon.

The auctioneer welcomed them, jauntily, to the bazaar. Mech fazed him out, preferring to keep his attention on the Digimon still hovering close to him. This was a typical tactic used by veteran buyers, Mech explained to his partner. They will loom nearby to distract their rivals from the auction, then step in at the last moment and pick up the sale.

The method was shrewd, but effective. It's a little like sniping, Jerry remarked. In my world, people will sweep in at the last second of an auction to avoid a bidding war. Then again, if one had the means, a bidding war could also be an effective tool.

The first lot sold with a bang of the gavel. Corbet continued his effort to make conversation. "I know you said it was none of my business, but I'm still curious," he said, taking a moment to shine away a smudge on his armor. "What exactly do you plan to accomplish by going to the Kellogg?"

"To satisfy my curiosity." He sidestepped a pace, and looked back up to the dais. The second lot came out, feeble and infirm. The bidding was scarce on this one, and the gavel came down quickly, concluding the transaction and the slave was hauled away. "Were you planning on bidding?"

"Lot four is the only one I'm interested in," the black-clad Digimon answered. Mech knew he was interested only in proving his worth. This Digimon had a superiority complex. Mech found the idea absurd—Corbet was a strong, fighter-type Digimon, yet his interest was solely in the acquisition of wealth. It brought him to wonder why the BlackWarGreymon did not pursue a career in the arena, or in the military.

The gavel banged a third time as another sickly Digimon was escorted back to the holding pens. "Lot four," said the auctioneer, "is a fine example of an ExVeemon. She is a strong, lean slave, perfect for field work. We'll start at five hundred."

Corbet motioned for the bid. "Five hundred. Five-fifty?" The auctioneer acknowledged another bidder to the left. Corbet eyed Mech strangely for a moment before putting down another offer, who ignored him. "Seven-fifty," the auctioneer said into his microphone.

"One thousand," Mech said, raising his voice.

Casey looked down from the dais to metallic gleam in the center of the crowd. She nodded toward the Machinedramon and smiled briefly at him. The gesture elicited some excited oohs from the crowd as the auctioneer called for another five hundred credit increase. A fourth bidder put his claw up, and the machine Digimon trumped it again, bringing her price to three thousand even.

The sight caused Alice to grimace—she looked back and forth between the various Digimon, unable to decide who she liked least. Casey? What if he wins? That haughty black Digimon would make their lives unbearable. The idea made both of them sick.

They can't own us if we don't let them, Casey replied. She could eliminate most of them by increasing their desire. Eventually the bids would be so high only the most elite of Digimon could afford her. She reassured Alice with this and winked at one of the buyers.

"Forty-five hundred!" the auctioneer shouted. Mech volunteered the funds, easily outbidding the other two remaining bidders. Their numbers dwindled and the auctioneer asked for another bid. The previous bidder refused, though, and Corbet took up the offer. "Come on now? A prize like this is worth at least five thousand!"

"I will give five thousand, five hundred," Mech announced over the din. The BlackWarGreymon growled at him. He had other purchases to make—Mech had seen him browsing the other pens. A Digimon like him, intelligent and diligent in his work, would not hold out much longer for a single purchase. Corbet's limit would be fast approaching.

The machine Digimon leaned in a little closer to his rival and brought his voice down to a low rumble. "You are an intelligent person. And I understand you have other purchases to make. Save yourself the trouble and let me end this." Though he hated using the lives of other slaves in such fashion, he had no choice if he were to save this one. He sensed Jerry's disgust as well. They cannot be set free. The first rule you will learn in the Digital World is to pick your battles wisely.

Jerry recoiled. No! He never picked his battles wisely. But he was ruled the steady, if quiet whisper of his emotional nature. Maybe Mech really was a machine? But, he reasoned, he was still putting himself at risk doing this at all. It was certainly the logical way of thinking. You can't be serious? You're supposed to pick the battles worth fighting, not the ones you can win!

Mech shook his head. He had run simulation after simulation, researched each individual, and had come to the same conclusions each time: these two were the only candidates. There is a method to this, Jerry. Look at the others. They do not yearn for freedom, nor do they understand that they are even slaves anymore. They have resigned themselves to this fate. It left them unable to desire anything but their masters' wills. They were pitiful, weak, and incapable of defending themselves. They were broken.

He looked back to Corbet, who had not turned his gaze away yet. "Unlike you, my resources are inexhaustible. I have only this and the next lot to buy." The other began clenching his fists rhythmically, the tension in his eyes speaking louder than the auctioneer. "I could make your transactions very difficult." In the background he heard the auctioneer call for any last bids. Fifty-five hundred credits, Mech's last offer, was the standing bid.

Corbet grunted once, submitting at last. "Very well," he said through clenched teeth. He stomped off, turning back once. "You haven't heard the last of me."