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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Saturday, August 8, 2009 12:24 EDT



    A sizable percentage of the Maya System's original colonists had come from the planet Kemal. Like most of their fellow immigrants, they'd been none too happy with the planet and society they were leaving behind, but they'd brought their planetary cuisine with them. Now, four hundred T-years later, Mayan pizza—courtesy of the kitchens of Kemal—was among the best in the known galaxy.

    That point had particular relevancy at the moment, given the clutter of traditional delivery boxes and plates littered with bits and pieces of pizza crust scattered around the conference room.

    Luiz Rozsak sat in his place at the head of the table, nursing a stein of beer, and looked at his assembled staff. Captain Edie Habib, his chief of staff, had her head bent over a computer display with Jeremy Frank, Governor Barregos' senior aide. Lieutenant Commander Jiri Watanapongse, Rozsak's staff intelligence officer, was involved in a quiet side discussion with Brigadier Philip Allfrey, the senior officer of the Solarian Gendarmerie for the Maya Sector, and Richard Wise, who headed Barregos' civilian intelligence operations. That conversation, the rear admiral thought with an inward grin, would have caused an enormous amount of acid reflux back in Old Chicago if Watanapongse and Allfrey's ultimate superiors had been privy to its content.

    Brent Stephens and Donald Clarke sat to Rozsak's left and right, respectively. Stephens was on the large size, seven centimeters taller than Rozsak's own hundred and seventy-five centimeters, with blond hair and brown eyes. He was also a direct descendent of the first wave of Mayan colonists, whereas the black-haired, gray-eyed Clarke had been five years old when his parents arrived on Smoking Frog as senior managers for the local operations of the Broadhurst Group. Most places in the Verge, that would have made him a very poor fit for this particular little get together, since Broadhurst was one of the Solarian League's major transstellars, but this wasn't "most places." This was the Maya Sector, and the rules here were a bit different from those by which the Office of Frontier Security was accustomed to playing.

    And they're about to get a lot more different, the rear admiral thought coldly.

    "Can I take my file copy of our notes home with me, Luiz?" Clarke asked now, and Rozsak raised an eyebrow at him. "I'm headed off-planet this afternoon," Barregos' senior economic adviser explained. "It's Dad's birthday, and I promised Mom I'd be there for it."

    Rozsak grimaced in understanding. Michael Clarke was only ninety T-years old, which barely constituted middle age for a civilization with prolong, but he had developed a progressive neural disorder not even modern medicine seemed capable of arresting. He was slowly but steadily slipping away from his family, and he wasn't going to have very many more birthdays when he remembered who his son was.

    "He's out on Eden, isn't he?" the rear admiral asked after a moment.

    "Yeah." It was Donald's turn to grimace. "It's not like we can't afford it, but I don't think it's doing much good, either."

    Rozsak nodded in sympathetic agreement. The Eden Habitat was a low-grav geriatric center in geosynchronous orbit around the planet of Smoking Frog. It offered the very best medical care—care as good as anyone could have gotten back on Old Earth herself—and the most luxurious, patient-friendly staff and quarters imaginable.

    "If you take it with you, are you really going to get very much done, anyway?" he asked quietly.

    "Of course—" Clarke began just a bit sharply, then cut himself off. He looked at Rozsak for a moment, then inhaled deeply.

    "No, probably not," he admitted heavily.

    "I'm not that worried about the security risk, Donald," Rozsak said, mostly honestly. "I know you've got good security, and God knows Eden's people are going to make damned sure no one invades their patients' privacy! But we're not on that tight a time frame. You can take a few hours to spend with your parents."

    "You're sure?" Clarke looked at him, and Rozsak shrugged.

    "Your part's either already done, or else it's mostly going to happen once we get to Erewhon. We're talking nuts and bolts here, not financial instruments or investment strategies. Go ahead. Don't worry about it. It's more important that you're as close to rested as you can get when we head out than that we squeeze every single moment of utility out of your time before we leave."

    "I'll admit, I'd be happier leaving it under lock and key down here," Clarke confessed. "And you're right. Spending the time with them is important, too."

    "Of course it is." Rozsak looked at his chrono. "And if you're going to go off and celebrate a birthday this afternoon, I think you should probably head on home and see if you can't catch a few hours of sleep, first."

    "You're right."

    Clarke rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands, gave himself a shake, then pushed back his chair and stood, switching off his minicomp as he did.

    "Of course I'm right. I'm a rear admiral these days, aren't I?" Rozsak grinned up at the standing financier. "Go ahead—go!"

    "Aye, aye, Sir," Clarke said with a weary smile, nodded to Stephens, and left.

    "You did good, Luiz," Stephens said quietly as his colleague departed. "It's always worse for him when his father's birthday rolls around."

    "Yeah, sure. That's me. Philanthropist and general friend of mankind."

    Rozsak waved it off, and Stephens let him.

    "Well, if you don't want to talk about that, are you really confident that Carlucci's going to be able to come through on all this?"

    "Yes," Rozsak said simply. Stephens arched one eyebrow ever so slightly, and Rozsak raised his voice. "Jiri, do you think you could tear yourself away from Philip and Richard for a few minutes?"

    "Sure," Watanapongse said. He grinned at Allfrey and Wise. "All we're really doing at this point is making bets on the football championship while we wait for the rest of you people to call upon our incomparable services."

    "I think that's one of the things I like best about both you spooks," Edie Habib put in, not even looking up from her conversation with Abernathy. "Your modesty. Your constant air of self effacement."

    Watanapongse smiled at her, then crossed to Clarke's abandoned chair and sat back down, cocking his head inquiringly.

    "Brent is a little concerned over Carlucci's ability to make good on our discussions, I think," Rozsak explained. "Care to reassure him?"

    Watanapongse looked at Stephens thoughtfully for a moment, then shrugged.

    "The Carlucci Industrial Group has the capacity to build anything we need," he said. "It's all just a matter of willingness, figuring out how to pay for it, and time."

    "And how to hide everything," Stephens pointed out.

    "Well, yes, and that," Watanapongse acknowledged.

    "Frankly, that's what worries me the most," Stephens said. "I think I've got a better appreciation than most for the degree of expansion CIG's going to have to pull off to make all of this come together. If anyone's looking, it's going to be hard to cover that up. Shipyards aren't exactly unobtrusive."

    "No, they aren't. And neither are starships. But the idea is that we won't be 'covering up' at all. Edie came up with what's probably the best description for what we're doing from one of those old stories she likes to read, something called 'The Purloined Letter.'" Watanapongse smiled. "Everything we're doing is going to be sitting right there in plain sight… we’re just going to convince everyone that it's something else entirely."

    "Something else?" Stephens repeated very carefully.


    "And exactly how is all of this going to work out?" the industrialist inquired. "I've been concentrating on financing schedules and priorities from our end so far. I'm just taking it on faith that you guys are going to be able to use all of this at the other end. I know you've promised to explain everything on the trip, but I can't quite convince myself to stop worrying about it until we get there."

    "It's not too complicated, whatever it may look like at the moment," Rozsak told him. "Basically, it's sleight-of-hand. The Maya Sector is about to begin investing heavily in Erewhon, which—as the Governor will explain to anyone from back home who notices what we're up to—is not only practical but downright farsighted, given Erewhon's current estrangement from Manticore and the steadily worsening interstellar situation out here." He rolled his eyes piously. "Not only does it make sound economic sense for everybody here in the Sector, but it represents an opportunity to start wooing Erewhon—and its wormhole terminus—back into the loving arms of the League."

    Stephens snorted caustically, and Watanapongse chuckled.

    "Actually," Rozsak continued more seriously, "it really would make good economic sense, however you look at it. And Erewhon's in a logistical bind. After what happened on Torch, the Erewhonese have pretty much burned their bridges with Manticore. Well, actually, that's not really the best way to put it. I'm sure Manticore—or at least the Manties' queen—would be willing to welcome them back, but Imbesi and his friends dynamited the central span pretty damned thoroughly.

    "Anyway, as I'm sure quite a few people back on Old Earth are well aware, Erewhon's never built its own ships-of-the-wall. For that matter, it's bought most of its cruisers from foreign suppliers, as well. Back before they joined the Manticoran Alliance, the Erewhonese bought most of those ships from Solarian builders; since signing up with Manticore, they've bought Manty-built. But that source is going to be closed, especially once they get around to signing that formal mutual defense pact with Haven. On the other hand, Haven's not really in a position to sell them lots and lots of modern wallers, and even if Haven were, the Havenites' general tech base isn't as good—yet, at least—as Manticore's. For that matter, it isn't as good as the sort of 'Manticore lite' tech Erewhon has available on its own.

    "So it's going to make sense for Erewhon to begin expanding its own naval building capacity. They've built their own destroyers and other light units for a long time, so it's not as if they don't have the local expertise. They've just never felt able to justify investing in all the infrastructure that goes into building capital ships. Now, obviously, we'd prefer for them to buy Solarian for any wallers they might need." The rear admiral managed to sound as if he actually meant that, Stephens noticed. "Unfortunately," Rozsak continued, "we can't force them to do that, and I'm afraid they're not entirely happy about placing orders for such big-ticket items in Solarian yards. Some of them actually seem to cherish the dark suspicion that the League might hold up the delivery of their new ships in order to do a little judicious arm-twisting where the Erewhon terminus is concerned. Ridiculous, of course, but what can you expect out of a bunch of neobarbs?

    "But if they're not going to buy Solarian, and they can't buy Manty or Havenite, then their only alternative is to finally bite the bullet and begin building up the yard capacity to build their own. Obviously, no single star system is going to be able to build a lot of wallers, and it's probably silly of them to invest so much capital in a capacity that's going to be so seriously underutilized. But if they're determined to go ahead and do it, then we might as well invest in the project and help them build it. They're going to be buying a lot of what they need from us, so it'll be a shot in the arm for the Sector's business community. It's going to show its investors a tidy profit, too, and, like I say, it's also likely to give us—'us' in this case being the League as a whole, of course, as far as Old Chicago knows anything about—a toe in the door later on."

    "Okay." Stephens nodded. "So, as you say, it makes sense—or it's plausible, at least—for Erewhon to be expanding its naval building capacity. And I'm sure we can make our investment, or our official investment, at least, sound reasonable, too. But what happens when they start building ships for us?"

    "There are actually three things to consider there," Watanapongse said calmly. "First, they aren't going to be building any capital ships for us. All of the wallers are going to be being built to standard Erewhonese designs for the ESN. Surely you don't think a loyal sector governor would even be contemplating acquiring unauthorized capital ships of his very own? I'm shocked—shocked—by the very possibility that you might entertain such a thought! Of course, if anyone actually runs the numbers, they're going to realize the Erewhonese are building more SDs than they could possibly pay for—or, for that matter, man!—but it wouldn't be the first time a third rate, neobarb Navy's eyes got bigger than its stomach. If anyone asks, they're planning on putting the excess units straight into mothballs as a mobilization reserve, to be manned only if their navy expands in the face of an emergency situation. Given Battle Fleet's mobilization plans, that should make sense to the geniuses back on Old Earth, for a while, at least. Hopefully, by the time we're actually sending crews out to take possession of our part of the building program, it's not going to matter all that much if someone notices. Don't forget, we're talking at least two or three T-years down the road, where wallers are concerned, even after the yard capacity is built. Probably more like four or five years, minimum, to the first deliveries.

    "Secondly, we're going to bury a few 'official' light units of our own in the Erewhonese program." He shrugged. "Given how strapped for hulls Frontier Fleet always is, and given the worsening situation between Manticore and Haven, Governor Barregos obviously has legitimate security concerns. The Sector would make a pretty juicy prize, if any of the locals were gutsy enough—or crazy enough—to try and grab it. That's not likely to happen, of course, but it is likely that privateers and piracy are going to spill over onto our local interests. I mean, the Sector trades with Erewhon, Manticore, and Haven on a regular basis. Sooner or later, we're going to have to start thinking in terms of commerce protection."

    Stephens looked a little dubious, and Rozsak shook his head.

    "Trust me, Brent. When I get done writing my evaluation as Frontier Fleet's senior officer here in the Sector, everybody back on Old Earth's going to understand that we're critically short of the sort of light units—destroyers, maybe the occasional light cruiser—you need for commerce protection. Unfortunately, everyone's always short of light units like that. Most systems with the kind of economic clout we have are full members of the League, which means they can raise their own system-defense forces to provide that sort of protection. We can't; we're officially a protectorate. That means the only place we can get the escorts we need is from Frontier Fleet, but Frontier Fleet doesn't have them to spare. So, what I'll be doing, is using discretionary funds, plus additional 'special subscriptions' the Governor is going to screw out of the local merchants and manufacturers, to buy a few extra destroyers which will then become the property of Frontier Fleet. They'll be integrated into my own squadrons out here, they won't cost the Navy (or any of the other bureaucracies back home) a single centicredit, and when the situation out here finally calms down, Frontier Fleet will cheerfully transfer them somewhere else.

    "Or that's what they think will happen, anyway."

    Stephens could have shaved with Rozsak's smile

    "And they're also going to think that what we're building are only destroyers," Watanapongse added. "The 'light cruisers' are officially going to be Erewhonese units, not ours. We'll be 'borrowing' a few of them from Admiral McAvoy once the piracy situation starts getting out of hand out here. It'll be another example of how those silly neobarbs built more ships than they had the cash and manpower to keep operational, so in the interests of getting the League's hooks even more deeply into the Republic of Erewhon, we'll be providing naval assistance in the form of experienced officers to help the poor neobarbs find their way around. In the meantime, no one back home's going to realize that our new 'destroyers' are going to be the next best thing to the same size as our Morrigan-class light cruisers."

    Stephens frowned, and the lieutenant commander laughed.

    "Nobody back home seems to have noticed the… tonnage inflation that's been creeping into classes out here, Brent," he pointed out. "By this time, Manty and Havenite 'heavy cruisers' are damned near the size of small battlecruisers, and some of their light cruisers are closing in on the tonnage ranges for Solarian heavy cruisers. The same thing's been happening to their destroyers, too, for that matter. Well, obviously we have to be building ships that could face up to those outsized Manty and Havenite designs, don't we? Of course we do! Still, if no one back on Old Earth has noticed that sizes are creeping up amongst the local neobarb navies, I don't see any special reason why we have to tell them that ours are, do you?"

    His smile looked remarkably like Rozsak's, Stephens thought.

    "Edie and I are already working up the reports and correspondence," Rozsak said. "Officially, we're going to be describing our new units as 'modified Rampart-class destroyers,' for example. We just aren't going to get too specific about what the modifications consist of… or the fact that we're talking about destroyers fifty or sixty percent bigger than the original Rampart. I'm pretty sure the geniuses back at OpNav are going to assume that any modifications will result in decreased capabilities, given their view of Manty and Havenite technical capabilities. A view which Jiri's and my modest efforts have probably done just a bit to help shape. And since all of the official correspondence—governmental, as well as from the private builders and inspectors—from the Erewhon side is going to be understating tonnages by about, oh, forty or fifty percent, there's not going to be anything to tell Old Chicago differently. And the beauty of it is that we're not going to be falsifying any paperwork; we're going to be sending them file copies of the actual, official correspondence from Erewhon."

    Stephens pursed his lips silently as he considered that. Rozsak was right about how it would help cover their own actions, but the industrialist wondered just exactly how the admiral had convinced Erewhon to run that kind of risk. Eventually, someone back on Old Earth was going to realize they'd been systematically deceived by the Erewhonese (and the League's own official intelligence apparatus here in the Sector, of course), and the consequences of that could be severe—for Erewhon, not just Maya.

    On the other hand, if that sort of situation arose, it would mean all the rest of their plans had failed disastrously, so there probably wasn't a lot of point worrying about it. Although getting the Erewhonese to look at it that way must've taken some doing…

    "You said there were three things to consider," he said to Watanapongse after a moment, and the commander nodded.

    "The third thing, maybe the most important one of all," he said, his expression much more somber, "is that four or five-T-year window between now and the delivery of our first wallers. Even after the SDs start coming out of the yards, it's going to take a while for any sort of volume production to build up. We'll hide as many of 'our' wallers as we can in the flow going to Erewhon, of course, but the odds are good that we're going to have to start shooting at somebody before we have a real wall of battle of our own."

    Stephens felt a distinct stir of alarm, but Rozsak flashed him the lazy, white-toothed smile of a confident tiger.

    "Even with a four or five-year delay to our own first waller, we're going to be ahead of the curve compared to the rest of the League, Brent. A long way ahead of the curve. Trust me, the 'not invented here' syndrome is going to kick in back home even after they begin to figure out just how screwed any SLN ship is going to be going up against its Havenite—or, even worse, Manty—equivalent. So, what we're really going to need to tide us over is something that can kick the shit out of anything Frontier Fleet's likely to be sending out towards us with unfriendly intentions. Right?"

    "With the proviso that I think we need to do a little worrying about the Battle Fleet units that might be sent along behind that first wave," Stephens agreed a bit caustically.

    "Well, of course." Rozsak chuckled. "And it just happens we've come up with something that should let us do that, at least as long as nobody back on Old Earth is paying any attention to all of those ridiculous rumors about how Manticore and Haven have been sticking multiple drives into their missiles. Nonsense, of course! I'm sure those reports are just as exaggerated as Commander Watanapongse's diligent staff has consistently reported they are! Still, it's occurred to us that if someone were building multidrive missiles, and if they happened to have themselves a couple of dozen freighters—freighters that might happen to have military-grade drives, and maybe even sidewalls—that could carry, oh, I don't know, three or four hundred missile pods at a time, then they could probably do a lot of damage to a fleet equipped only with single-drive missiles, don't you think?"

    Stephens's eyes narrowed, and Rozsak chuckled again, more harshly.

    "That's one of the things Edie and I have been kicking around when we started thinking about doctrine and ship designs. And it's the real reason we're going to be building that extra tonnage into our light combatants. Most of it's going into fire control, not extra weapons."

    "And the beauty of it," Watanapongse said, "is that Carlucci already has a commercial design—they picked it up from some outfit in Silesia—for a freighter designed around plug-in cargo modules. It's one of those ideas that sounds really good on paper, but it hasn't worked out that well for the Sillies as a commercial proposition. It's actually less flexible, it turns out, than what you can do reconfiguring a standard cargo hold's interior. But that's not something that's going to be instantly evident looking at it from the outside, and the basic construction just happens to be something that's going to lend itself well to a 'merchantship' pod-carrier design. The Sector government is going to be buying quite a few of them—several dozen, at least—as part of our move to broaden our investment base in Erewhon. We've got a lot of short domestic cargo routes of our own, just like the Sillies, so if it works for them, it ought to work for us, right? And even if it turns out they aren't the most cost-efficient possible way to haul freight around, so what? It was still worth it just to get our toes further into the Erewhonese door."

    "And," Rozsak said quietly, "if it just happens that our new ships' plug-in cargo modules just happen to have exactly the same dimensions as the missile pods the Erewhonese Navy is going to be building for its own new ships-of-the-wall, well"—this time his smile could have liquefied helium—"it's a big galaxy, and coincidences happen all the time."

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