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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Five

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



January, 1920 PD

    "So," Zachariah McBryde asked, watching the head of foam rise on the stein he was filling with the precision of the scientist he was, "what do you think about the crap at Verdant Vista?"

    "Are you sure you want to ask me that question?" his brother Jack inquired.

    Both brothers were red-haired and blue-eyed, but of the two, Jack had the greater number of freckles and the more infectious smile. Zachariah, six T-years younger and three centimeters shorter than his brother, had always been the straight man when they were younger. Both of them had lively senses of humor, and Zachariah had probably been even more inventive than Jack when it came to devising elaborate practical jokes, but Jack had always been the extrovert of the pair.

    "I'm generally fairly confident that the question I ask is the one I meant to ask," Zachariah observed. He finished filling the beer stein, handed it across to Jack, and began filling a second one.

    "Well," Jack gave him a beady-eyed look. "I am a high muckety-muck in security, you know. I'd have to look very askance at anyone inquiring about classified information. Can't be too careful, you know."

    Zachariah snorted, although when he came down to it, there was more than an edge of truth in Jack's observation.

    It was odd, the way things worked out, Zachariah reflected, carefully topping off his own stein and settling back on the other side of the table in his comfortably furnished kitchen. When they'd been kids, he never would have believed Jack would be the one to go into the Mesan Alignment's security services. The McBryde genome was an alpha line, and it had been deep inside "the onion" for the last four or five generations. From the time they'd been upperclassman in high school, they'd both known far more of the truth about their homeworld than the vast majority of their classmates, and it had been a foregone conclusion that they'd be going into the… family business one way or another. But Jack the joker, the raconteur of hilarious stories, the guy with the irresistible grin and the devastating ability to attract women, had been the absolute antithesis of anything which would have come to Zachariah's mind if someone mentioned the words "security" or "spy" to him.

    Which might explain why Jack had been so successful at his craft, he supposed.

    "I think you can safely assume, Sheriff, that this particular horse thief already knows about the classified information in question," he said out loud. "If you really need to, you can check with my boss about that, of course."

    "Well, under the circumstances, partner," Jack allowed with the drawl he'd carefully cultivated as a kid after their parents had introduced them to their father's passion for antique, pre-diaspora "Westerns," "I reckon I can let it pass this time."

    "Why, thank you." Zachariah shoved a plate loaded with a thick ham and Swiss sandwich (with onion; they were the only ones present, so it was socially acceptable, even by their mother's rules), a substantial serving of potato salad, and an eleven centimeter-long pickle across the table to him. They grinned at each other, but then Zachariah's expression sobered.

    "Really, Jack," he said in a much more serious tone, "I'm curious. I know you see a lot more on the operational side than I do, but even what I'm hearing through the tech-weenie channels is a bit on the scary side."

    Jack regarded his brother thoughtfully for a moment, then picked up his sandwich, took a bite, and chewed reflectively.

    Zachariah probably had heard quite a bit from his fellow "tech-weenies," and it probably had been more than a little garbled. Under a strict interpretation of the Alignment's "need-to-know" policy, Jack really shouldn't be spilling any operational details to which he might be privy to someone who didn't have to have those details to do his own job. On the other hand, Zachariah was not only his brother, but one of Anastasia Chernevsky's key research directors. In some ways (though certainly not all), his clearance was even higher than Jack's.

    Both of them, Jack knew without false modesty, were definitely on the bright side, even for Mesan alpha lines, but Zachariah's talent as a synthesizer had come as something of a surprise. That could still happen, of course, even for someone whose genetic structure and talents had been as carefully designed as the McBryde genome's. However much the Long-Range Planning Board might dislike admitting it, the complex of abilities, skills, and talents tied up in the general concept of "intelligence" remained the least amenable to its manipulation. Oh, they could guarantee high general IQs, and Jack couldn't remember the last representative of one of the Alignment's alpha lines who wouldn't have tested well up into the ninety-ninth-plus percentile of the human race. But the LRPB's efforts to preprogram an individual's actual skill set was problematical at best. In fact, he was always a little amused by the LRPB's insistence that it was just about to break through that last, lingering barrier to its ability to fully uplift the species.

    Personally, Jack was more than a little relieved by the fact that the Board still couldn't design the human brain's software reliably and completely to order. It wasn't an opinion he was likely to discuss with his colleagues, but despite his complete devotion to the Detweiler vision and the Alignment's ultimate objectives, he didn't really like the thought of micromanaging human intelligence and mental abilities. He was entirely in favor of pushing the frontiers in both areas, but he figured there would always be room for serendipitous combinations of abilities. Besides, if he was going to be honest, he didn't really like the thought of his theoretical children or grandchildren becoming predesigned chips in the Alignment's grand machine.

    In that regard, he thought, he had a great deal in common with Leonard Detweiler and the rest of the Alignment's original founders. Leonard had always insisted that the ultimate function of genetically improving humanity was to permit individuals to truly achieve their maximum potential. Whatever temporary compromises he might have been willing to make in the name of tactics, his ultimate, unwavering objective had been to produce a species of individuals, ready and able to exercise freedom of choice in their own lives. All he'd wanted to do was to give them the very best tools he could. He certainly wouldn't have favored designing free citizens, fully realized members of the society for which he'd striven, the way Manpower designed genetic slaves. The idea was to expand horizons, not limit them, after all.

    There were moments when Jack suspected the Long-Range Planning Board had lost sight of that. Hardly surprising, if it had, he supposed. The Board was responsible not simply for overseeing the careful, continually ongoing development of the genomes under its care, but also for providing the Alignment with the tactical abilities its strategies and operations required. Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that it should continually strive for a greater degree of… quality control.

    And at least both the LRPB and the General Strategy Board recognized the need to make the best possible use out of any positive advantages the law of unintended consequences might throw up. Which explained why Zachariah's unique, almost instinctual ability to combine totally separate research concepts into unanticipated nuggets of development had been so carefully nourished once it was recognized. Which, in turn, explained how he had wound up as one of Chernevsky's right hands in the Alignment's naval R&D branch.

    Jack finished chewing, swallowed, and took a sip of his beer, then quirked an eyebrow at his brother.

    "What do you mean 'on the scary side,' Zack?"

    "Oh, I'm not talking about any hardware surprises, if that's what you're thinking," Zachariah assured him. "As far as I know, the Manties didn't trot out a single new gadget this time around. Which, much as I hate to admit it"—he smiled a bit sourly—"actually came as a pleasant surprise, for a change." He shook his head. "No, what bothers me is the fact that Manticore and Haven are cooperating on anything. The fact that they managed to get the League on board with them, too, doesn't make me any happier, of course. But if anybody on the other side figures out the truth about the Verdant Vista wormhole…

    He let his voice trail off, then shrugged, and Jack nodded.

    "Well," he said, "I wouldn't worry too much about the Manties and the Peeps being in cahoots." He chuckled sourly. "As nearly as I can tell from the material I've seen, it was more or less a freelance operation by a couple of out-of-control operatives improvising as they went along."

    Zachariah, Jack noted, looked just a bit skeptical at that, but he really didn't have anything like a need to know about Victor Cachat and Anton Zilwicki.

    "You're just going to have to trust me on that part, Zack," he said affectionately. "And I'll admit, I could be wrong. I don't think I am, though. And given the… intensity with which the operatives in question have been discussed over in my shop, I don't think I'm alone in having drawn that conclusion, either."

    He took another bite of his sandwich, chewed, and swallowed.

    "At any rate, it's pretty obvious no one back home in Manticore or Nouveau Paris saw any of it coming, and I think what they're really doing is trying to make the best of the situation now that they've both been dragged kicking and screaming into it. Which, I'll admit, is probably easier for them because of how much both of them hate Manpower's guts. It's not going to have any huge impact on their actions or their thinking when we get them to start shooting at each other again, though."

    Zachariah frowned thoughtfully, then nodded.

    "I hope you're right about that. Especially if they've got the League involved!"

    "That, I think, was also improvisational," Jack said. "Cassetti just happened to be on the ground when the whole thing got thrown together, and he saw it as a way to really hammer home Maya's relationship with Erewhon. I don't think he gave a good goddamn about the independence of a planet full of ex-slaves, at any rate! He was just playing the cards he found in his hand. And it didn't work out any too well for him personally, either."

    Zachariah snorted in agreement, and Jack grinned. He didn't know anywhere near as much as he wished he did about what was going on inside the Maya Sector. It wasn't really his area of expertise, and it certainly wasn't his area of responsibility, but he had his own version of Zachariah's ability to put together seemingly unrelated facts, and he'd come to the conclusion that whatever was happening in Maya, it was considerably more than anyone on Old Earth suspected.

    "Personally, I think it's no better than a fifty- fifty chance Rozsak would actually have fired on Commodore Navarre," he went on. "Oversteegen might well have—he's a Manty, after all—but I'm inclined to think Rozsak, at least, was bluffing. I don't blame Navarre for not calling him on it, you understand, but I wouldn't be surprised if Barregos heaved a huge sigh of relief when we backed down. And now that Cassetti's dead, he's got the perfect opening to repudiate any treaty arrangement with this new Kingdom of Torch because of its obviously ongoing association with the Ballroom."

    "Can you tell me if there's anything to the stories about Manpower having pulled the trigger on Cassetti?" Zachariah asked.

    "No," Jack replied. "First, I couldn't tell you if I knew anything one way or the other—not about operational details like that." He gave his brother a brief, level look, then shrugged. "On the other hand, this time around, I don't have any of those details. I suppose it's possible one of those Manpower jerks who doesn't have a clue about what's really going on could have wanted him hit. But it's equally likely that it was Barregos. God knows Cassetti had to've become more than a bit of an embarrassment, after the way he all but detonated the bomb that killed Stein himself and then dragged Barregos into that entire mess in Verdant Vista. I'm pretty sure that at this particular moment Barregos views him as far more valuable as one more martyred Frontier Security commissioner than he'd be as an ongoing oxygen-sink."

    "I understand, and if I pushed too far, I apologize," Zachariah said.

    "Nothing to apologize for," Jack reassured him… more or less truthfully.

    "Would I be intruding into those 'operational details' if I asked if you've got any feel for whether or not the other side's likely to figure out the truth about the wormhole?"

    "That's another of those things I just don't know about," Jack replied. "I don't know if there was actually any information there in the system to be captured and compromised. For that matter, I don't have any clue whether or not the Manpower idiots on the spot were ever informed that the terminus had already been surveyed at all. I sure as hell wouldn't have told them, that's for sure! And even if I knew that, I don't think anyone knows whether or not they managed to scrub their databanks before they got shot in the head. What I am pretty sure of, though, is that anything any of them knew is probably in the hands of someone we'd rather didn't have it by now, assuming anybody thought to ask them about it." He grimaced. "Given how creative its ex-property on the planet was, I'm pretty damn sure that any of Manpower's people answered any questions they were asked. Not that it would have done them any good in the end."

    It was Zachariah's turn to grimace. Neither brother was going to shed any tears for the "Manpower's people" in question. Although they didn't talk about it much, Zachariah knew Jack found Manpower just as distasteful as he did himself. Both of them knew how incredibly useful Manpower, Incorporated, had been to the Alignment over the centuries, but designed to be used or not, genetic slaves were still people, of a sort, at least. And Zachariah also knew that unlike some of Jack's colleagues on the operational side, his brother didn't particularly blame the Anti-Slavery League, genetic slaves in general, or even the Audubon Ballroom in particular, for the savagery of their operations against Manpower. The Ballroom was a factor Jack had to take into consideration, especially given its persistent (if generally unsuccessful) efforts to build an effective intelligence net right here on Mesa. He wasn't about to take the Ballroom threat lightly, nor was any sympathy he felt going to prevent him from hammering the Ballroom just as hard as he could any time the opportunity presented itself. Yet even though one difference between Manpower and the Alignment was supposed to be that the Alignment didn't denigrate or underestimate its future opponents, Zachariah also knew, quite a few of Jack's colleagues did exactly that where the Ballroom was concerned. Probably, little though either McBryde brother liked to admit it, because those colleagues of his bought into the notion of the slaves' fundamental inferiority even to normals, far less to the Alignment's enhanced genomes.

    "When it comes right down to it, Zack," Jack pointed out after a moment, "you're actually probably in a better position than me to estimate whether or not the Ballroom—or anyone else, for that matter—picked up a hint about the wormhole. I know your department was involved in at least some of the original research for the initial survey, and I also know we're still working on trying to figure out the hyper mechanics involved in the damned thing. In fact, I'd assumed you were still in the loop on that end of things."

    A rising inflection and an arched eyebrow turned the last sentence into a question, and Zachariah nodded briefly.

    "I'm still in the loop, generally speaking, but it's not like the astrophysics are still a central concern of our shop. We settled most of the military implications decades ago. I'm sure someone else's still working on the theory behind it full time, but we've pretty much mined out the military concerns."

    "I don't doubt it, what I meant was that I'm pretty sure you'll hear sooner than I would if anybody comes sniffing around from the Verdant Vista side."

    "I hadn't thought about it from that perspective," Zachariah admitted thoughtfully, "but you've probably got a point. I'd be happier if I didn't expect the Ballroom to be asking the Manties for technical assistance where the terminus is concerned, though." He grimaced. "Let's face it, Manticore's got more and better hands-on experience with wormholes in general than anybody else in the galaxy! If anyone's likely to be able to figure out what's going on from the Verdant Vista end, it's got to be them."

    "Granted. Granted." It was Jack's turn to grimace. "I don't know what we can do about it, though. I'm pretty sure some rather more highly placed heads are considering that right now, you understand, but it's sort of one of those rock-and-the-hard-place things. On the one hand, we don't want anybody like the Manties poking around. On the other hand, we really don't want to be drawing anyone's attention any more strongly to that wormhole terminus—or suggesting it may be more important than other people think it is—than we can help."

    "I know."

    Zachariah puffed out his cheeks for a moment, then reached for his beer stein again.

    "So," he said in a deliberately brighter tone when he lowered the stein again, "anything new between you and that hot little number of yours?"

    "I have absolutely no idea what you could possibly be talking about," Jack said virtuously. "'Hot little number'?" He shook his head. "I cannot believe you could have been guilty of using such a phrase! I'm shocked, Zack! I think I may have to discuss this with Mom and Dad!"

    "Before you get all carried away," Zachariah said dryly, "I might point out to you that it was Dad who initially used the phrase to me."

    "That's even more shocking." Jack pressed one hand briefly to his heart. "On the other hand, much as I may deplore the crudity of the image it evokes, I have to admit that if you're asking about the young lady I think you're asking about, the term has a certain applicability. Not that I intend to cater to your prurient interests by discussing my amatory achievements with such a low brow lout as yourself."

    He smiled brightly.

    "No offense intended, you understand."

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