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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Friday, August 28, 2009 01:11 EDT



    It took no more than three days in the presence of Elfride Margarete Butre for Hugh Arai to figure out how the woman had managed to keep her clan together for half a century, in the face of tremendous adversity. Not just intact, either, but reasonably healthy and well-educated — so long as you were prepared to allow that “well-educated” was a broad enough phrase to include very uneven knowledge, eccentric methods of training, and wildly imbalanced fields of study.

    Ganny El’s clan were probably the best practical mechanics Hugh had ever encountered, for instance, but their grasp of the underlying theory of some of the machines they kept running was often fuzzy and sometimes bizarre. The first time Hugh had seen one of Butre’s many grand-nephews sprinkle what he called an “encouragement libation” over a machine he was about to repair, Hugh had been startled. But, some hours later, after the mechanic finished with the ensuing work, the machine came back to life and ran as smoothly as you could ask for. And however superstitious the notion of an “encouragement libation” might be, Hugh hadn’t missed the underlying practicality. The “libation” was actually some homemade alcoholic brew that hadn’t turned out too well. Unfit for human consumption, even by the Butre clan’s none-too-finicky standards, the fluid had been set aside for the “encouragement” of cranky machinery.

    Hugh had asked the nephew — Andrew Artlett was his name — whether the “encouragement” was because the machine viewed the rotgut liquor as a treat or because it was an implied threat of still worse liquids should the machine remain recalcitrant. Artlett’s snorted reply had been: “How the hell am I supposed to know what a machine thinks? It’s just a lot of metal and plastic and such, you know. No brains at all. But the libation works, it surely does.”

    Ganny Butre would have made a pretty good empress, Hugh thought, if one given to some odd quirks. She’d have made a pretty good tyrant, for that matter, except she had an affectionate streak about a kilometer wide.

    There wasn’t any sigh of that affection right now, though.

    “– still don’t see why you” — here came a word Hugh didn’t know, but it didn’t sound affectionate at all — “can’t just go on your way and leave us alone. It’s not like we asked you to come here. What happened to respect for property rights?”

    “Parmley Station hasn’t really been your property for a long time, Ganny,” Hugh said mildly, “and you know it as well as I do. If we just leave, it won’t be more than six or eight months — a year, tops — before another gang of slavers has set up shop here and you have to accommodate them. Whether you like it or not.”

    Butre glared at him. It was an impressive glare, too, for all that it came from a woman not much more than a hundred and forty centimeters tall. What made the glare all the more impressive was that, somehow, Butre managed to convey the sense that she was a tough old biddy despite — going simply by her physical appearance — looking like a woman no older than her late thirties or very early (and well preserved) forties.

    That was the effect of prolong, of course. First generation prolong, that was, which stopped the physical aging cycle at a considerably later stage than the more recent therapies. Hugh knew that Butre’s own family had been quite wealthy to begin with and her husband Richard Parmley had made his first fortune as a young man. So, even with the expense involved in those early days of the treatment, they’d been able to afford prolong for themselves and their immediate offspring.

    But after her husband’s last financial debacle — it had been the third or fourth in his career, Hugh wasn’t sure which — and the long isolation of Butre’s clan here on Parmley Station . . .

    For all that it was generally a blessing, prolong could sometimes produce real tragedies. And Hugh knew he was looking at one, right here — with quite possibly a still greater tragedy in the making.

    Ganny El, the matriarch of the clan, would live for centuries. So would the two dozen or so relatives on the station who were her siblings, cousins or children, and who’d gotten the treatments before the clan fell on hard times. But the next generation in the clan, people of an age with Ganny’s great-nephew Andrew Artlett — there were at least three dozen of them — were simply going to be a lost generation, as far as prolong was concerned. Even if the clan could suddenly afford the treatments, they were already too old. Their parents — even their grandparents — faced the horror that they’d outlive their own offspring.

    And the same fate would fall on the next generation, if the clan’s fortunes didn’t improve. And they had to improve drastically, and most of all, quickly. People like Sarah Armstrong and Michael Alsobrook were already into their twenties, and twenty-five years of age was generally considered the outside limit for starting prolong treatments.

    If there was no real sign of Butre’s age in her face, there was in her eyes. Those weren’t the eyes of a young woman, for sure. They were colored a green so dark they were almost black, and when Ganny was in a temper they looked more like agates or pieces of obsidian than human eyes.

    Hugh had gotten to know her fairly well over the past several days, though, and he didn’t think Butre was really in a temper today. She was just putting on a act. A very well-done performance, true — she’d have made as good an actress as an empress — but still a performance. There was a practical streak in the woman that was even wider than affection, and a lot harder than any mineral. If Butre hadn’t been able to accept reality for what it was, her clan never would have survived at all. As it was, at least within the limits given, you could even say they’d prospered.

    A very scruffy sort of prosperity, granted, and one that couldn’t afford anything like prolong. But the absence of prolong had been the standard condition of the human race throughout its existence until very recently. All Hugh had to do was look at the little mob of enthusiastic and self-confident great-great-nephews and nieces who were always in attendance on Ganny to recognize that these were hardly people who’d been beaten down by hardships. Some of them, like Brice Miller and his friends, carried that self-confidence into outright brashness.

    “– so fine,” she concluded the little tirade she’d been on. “I can see that you’re not giving me any choice. You” — here came another word in a language Hugh didn’t know. It sounded like a different language altogether than the one from which she’d extracted a curse just a couple of minutes earlier. Ganny was an accomplished linguist, among her other skills. Hugh was a good linguist himself, but Butre was in a different league altogether.

    “You’re always welcome to cuss me in a language I know, Ganny,” said Hugh. “I’m really not thin-skinned.”

    “No kidding. You’re a troll.”

    She went back to glaring, but now at some of her great-great-grandchildren. “There’s no way I’m letting anyone else except me dicker with the Ballroom. If the murderous bastards are going to kill anyone, they can kill an old woman. And her most problematic offspring.”

    Her little forefinger started jabbing at the crowd. “Andrew, you’re coming. So are you, Sarah and Michael.”

    The finger moved on to point to a pleasant-looking young woman named Oddny Ann Rødne. She was the offspring of a marriage between one of the Butre clan’s women and an ex-slave who’d been freed in the first battle between the clan and the slavers, decades earlier. “Oddny, I’ll need a sane female to keep me from going batty myself. Stop pouting, Sarah, you’re already batty and you brag about it. And . . . ”

    The finger moved on and settled on a tightly clustered trio. “You three, for sure, or there won’t be a station left when I get back.”

    Hugh did his best not to wince. Brice Miller, Ed Hartman and James Lewis were not people he’d have chosen to include on a chancy mission to negotiate with the galaxy’s most notorious assassins. Less than a day after making their acquaintance, Marti Garner had bestowed upon them the monicker of “the three teenagers of the Apocalypse.” Nor would Hugh have included Andrew Artlett, whom Marti had singled out as the missing fourth disaster.

    Apparently, Butre was confident enough that she’d been able to cut a deal with the Ballroom that she was more concerned with removing the most rambunctious members of her clan from whatever havoc they could wreak in her absence, than she was about how Jeremy X would react to them. Although . . .



    With Ganny El, who knew? She might have learned enough about Jeremy to realize that he was more likely to be charmed by such as Brice Miller than he was to be offended by him. It was not as if the words “brash” and “impudent” had never been bestowed on him too, after all.

    But all Hugh said was: “Okay, then. We’ll leave in twelve hours. That should give you enough time.” He used his own forefinger, which was almost half the size of Ganny’s entire hand, to point to two of his crewmates. “June and Frank will stay behind.”

    “Why?” demanded Butre. “You think we need watchdogs?”

    Hugh smiled. “Ganny, your negotiations might actually succeed, you know. In which case, why waste time? While we’re gone, June and Frank can start laying the basis for what follows. They’re both very experienced engineers.”

    June and Frank looked a bit smug. The reason wasn’t hard to figure out. Judging from the way most of the Butre clan’s unattached men and women were gazing enthusiastically upon their very comely selves, neither one of them was going to be suffering from unwanted chastity over the course of the next few months until their crewmates returned.

    To some degree, Hugh had chosen them for that reason. In point of fact, both June Mattes and Frank Gillich were experienced engineers, and they’d do a good job of laying the groundwork for modifying Parmley Station as needed, in the event Hugh’s scheme came to fruition. But he figured the process would be helped along by what you might call a lavish display of goodwill.

    A Manticoran wit had once commented that Beowulfers were the Habsburgs of the interstellar era, except that they didn’t bother with the pesky formalities of marriage. There was enough truth in the remark that Hugh had laughed aloud when he heard it. He wasn’t a Beowulfer himself, by birth. But he’d lived among them since he was a boy and had adopted most of their attitudes.

    All of them, really, except for their indifference to religion. There, although he professed no specific creed himself, Hugh retained the convictions of the people who’d raised him.

    When he was very young, barely out of the vats, Hugh had been adopted by a slave couple. The adoption had been informal, of course — as, for that matter, had been the couple’s own “marriage.” Manpower didn’t recognize or give legitimacy to any relationship between slaves.

    Still, there were practicalities involved. Even from Manpower’s viewpoint, there were advantages to having slaves raising the youngsters who came out of the breeding vats instead of Manpower having to do it directly. It was a lot cheaper, if nothing else. So, Manpower was often willing to let slave couples stay together and keep their “children.” With some lines of slaves, at least. They wouldn’t allow slaves destined to be personal servants — certainly not pleasure slaves — any such entanglements. But with most of the labor varieties, it didn’t much matter. Those slaves would be sold in large groups to people needing a lot of labor. It was usually possible to keep the families of such slaves more or less intact in the course of the transactions, since both the seller and the buyer had a vested interest in doing so. Having slaves raising their own children was cheaper for the buyer of the labor force, too.

    Like most labor slaves, the couple who adopted Hugh had been deeply religious. Also like most labor slaves, the creed they adhered to was Autentico Judaism. Hugh had been raised in those customs, beliefs and rituals. And if he no longer maintained most of the customs and rituals and had his doubts about most of the beliefs, he’d never been able to shake the conviction that there was a lot more to it all than just superstition left over from humanity’s tribal ancient history, as many (although by no means all) Beowulfers believed.

    “I’m ready to go right now!” exclaimed Brice Miller. “Me, too!” echoed his two companions.

    Ganny glowered at them. “Is that so? You do know the voyage is going to last weeks, right?”

    The three boys nodded.

    “And you do know that although the Ouroboros was designed to look like a slave ship, even to someone who came on board and gave it a casual inspection, our friends here who still insist on keeping their identity unknown even though it’s blindingly obvious didn’t bother to disguise their own living quarters? On account of they’re a bunch of sloppy Beowulfers.”

    Seeing Hugh’s attempt to keep a straight face, Butre curled her lip. “Think I was born yesterday?” She looked back at the kids. “You know all that, right?”

    The three boys nodded.

    “Right. So now I find out some of my great-great-nephews are morons. Where do you plan to sleep, night after night after night?”

    The three boys frowned.

    Hugh cleared his throat. “We’re not set up to accommodate guests, I’m afraid. And although June and Frank’s quarters will be available, that’ll hardly be enough for all of you. So you’ll have to clear out the supplies we’ve been keeping in some of the other sleeping compartments. That’ll take a while, on account of . . . well . . . ”

    “Like I said,” interjected Ganny, “a bunch of sloppy Beowulfers.”

    “Why don’t we just move into the slave quarters?” asked Andrew Artlett. “Sure, they’ll be awfully Spartan, but who cares? It’s only a few weeks.”

    June Mattes shook her head. “There’s a difference between ‘Spartan’ quarters and bare decks. There was no way we’d let anybody who wanted to inspect us to get that far, so we never bothered to set them up. All we ever let anyone see were the killing bays, since that was all it took to establish our identity as slavers.”

    The “killing bays” referred to the large compartments where slaves would be driven by nauseating gas, in the event a slave ship was being overtaken by naval forces. Once there, the bays would be opened to the vacuum beyond, murdering the slaves and disposing of their bodies at the same time.

    It was a tactic that didn’t work if the overtaking naval forces were Manticoran or Havenite or Beowulfan, since those navies considered the mere possession of killing bays to be proof that the vessel was a slaver, whether there was a single slave on board or not. In fact, quite a few captains of such ships had been known to summarily declare the slaver crews guilty of mass murder and have them thrown into space without spacesuits right then and there.

    That had been the fate of the crew of the slave ship Hugh himself had been on when he was rescued, in fact. The Beowulfan ship which captured the slaver had gotten there quickly enough to stop the mass murder before it was finished, so Hugh and some others had survived. But his parents had died, along with his brother and both of his sisters.

    “Okay, then,” said Artlett. “Ganny can have one of the staterooms being vacated by June and Frank, and Oddny and Sarah can share the other. The rest of us will set up wherever you want us.”

    Artlett now bestowed a very stern look on Brice, Ed and James. “One thing needs to be made clear, you ragamuffins. No stunts. No japes. We’ve got no guarantee these Beowulfers-pretending-to-be-whoever won’t jury-rig our living quarters with the same gas mechanism to drive us to the killing bays. Then the ogre here” — he hooked a thumb at Hugh — “can just push a button and out you go into the wild black yonder. Which would be fine, if you went by yourselves, except that me and Alsobrook will get sucked out with you.”

    Miller and Hartman looked suitably meek. The third of the trio, though, looked unhappy.

    “It sounds like it’s going to take us all twelve hours just to get ready,” said James Lewis. “When are we supposed to sleep?”

    “On the voyage, dummy,” came his uncle’s reply. “You’ll have days and days and days with nothing to do except sleep or get into trouble. I vote for sleep.”

    “We ought to bring along plenty of sedatives,” said Michael Alsobrook. He bestowed his own stern look on the three teenagers. “You know damn good and well they’re not going to sleep.”

    “Sure we will,” said Ed Hartman. He made a flamboyant show of stretching and yawning. “Look, I’m tired already.”

    Whatever else, it would probably be an interesting trip. Hugh got up and stretched also. Not because he was tired, but because a Hugh Arai “stretch” was something that, as a rule, really intimidated people.

    The three boys made a flamboyant show of cringing and looking deeply worried.

    Hugh sighed. He hadn’t thought it would work.

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