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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, September 9, 2009 10:38 EDT



    “Welcome to Torch, Dr. Kare.”

    “Why, thank you, ah, Your Majesty.”

    Jordin Kare hoped no one had noticed his brief hesitation, but despite all of the briefings he’d been given before heading off to the Torch System, the obvious youth of the star system’s ruling monarch still came as something of a surprise.

    “We’re really glad to see you,” the monarch in question said enthusiastically, holding out her hand to pump his. She rolled her eyes. “We’ve got this wonderful resource here in the system, and none of us have a clue what to do with it. I sure hope you and your team can fix that for us!”

    “We’ll, um, certainly try, Your Majesty,” Kare assured her. “Not that this is the sort of thing anyone can give hard and fast time estimates on, you understand,” he added quickly.

    “Believe me, Doctor, if I’d ever thought it was, my ‘advisors’ here would have straightened me out in a hurry.”

    She rolled her eyes again, and Kare found himself hastily suppressing a smile before it could leak onto his face. Queen Berry was a healthy young woman, quite obviously, if perhaps a bit below average height. She had a figure that was slender without being skinny, and a full head of chestnut hair that was quite striking and attractive. He’d been warned before he ever departed Manticore that she was also what one of the Foreign Ministry types had described as “a free spirit . . . a very free spirit,” and nothing he’d seen so far seemed to suggest that description had been in error. From the sparkle he’d detected in her light brown eyes, she was fully aware of her reputation, too.

    “But I’m forgetting my manners,” she said, and half-turned to face the trio of people behind her. “Let me make the introductions,” she said, either blithely unaware or uncaring that ruling monarchs were supposed to have other people make introductions for them.

    “This is Thandi Palane,” Berry said, indicating the tall, very broad-shouldered young woman who’d been standing directly behind her. “Thandi is in charge of sorting out our military forces.”

    Palane had a very fair, almost albino complexion, with kinky silver-blond hair and beautiful hazel eyes, and although she was in civilian attire at the moment, she managed to make it look as if it were a uniform. Kare had been thoroughly briefed on her, too, although now that he’d laid eyes on her, he didn’t really think the warnings about her lethality had been necessary. Not because she wasn’t lethal, but because he was pretty sure only an idiot would have failed to figure that out on his own. Her carefully moderated grip was like shaking hands with a cargo grapnel. It could have picked up an egg if it had wanted to, or crumpled a solid block of mollycircs like foil. She couldn’t have looked more affable and friendly, either, but it was the sort of cheerful affability one would have expected out of a well fed sabertooth, and he definitely wouldn’t have wanted to be around when she decided it was feeding time.

    “And this,” Berry continued, “is Dr. Web Du Havel, my prime minister. While Thandi takes care of the military, Web is in charge of sorting me out.” The teenaged queen smiled mischievously. “I’m never sure which of them has the harder job, when it comes down to it.”

    Kare had seen HD coverage of Du Havel following his initial arrival in the Star Kingdom of Manticore two and a half T-years earlier. As a result, he knew all about the prime minister’s academic credentials — credentials, in their own way, even more impressive than Kare’s own. And he also knew that the stocky, physically powerful Du Havel was himself a liberated genetic slave who’d been intended by his Mesan designers as a heavy labor/technician type.

    Just goes to show that you never want to piss off anyone who’d make a good engineer, Kare thought as he shook Du Havel’s still powerful but considerably less scary hand. Du Havel may be the head of the “process oriented” branch of the movement, but I’ll bet there’s a bunch of people like him in the Ballroom, too. Although, come to think of it, if I were Manpower, this is one guy I’d rather have designing bombs to throw at me, if that kept him from concentrating on what he has been doing.

    “It’s an honor to meet you, Dr. Du Havel,” he said.

    “And an honor to meet you, Dr. Kare,” Du Havel replied with a toothy grin.

    “And this,” Berry said, her mischievous smile turning positively wicked for a moment, “is the famous — or infamous — Jeremy X. He’s our minister of war. But it’s all right, really, Doctor! He’s all reformed now . . . sort of.”

    “Oh, not so reformed as all that, lass,” Jeremy said, reaching past her to offer his hand to Kare in turn. He smiled lazily. “I am on my best behavior at the moment, though,” he added.

    “So I’ve heard,” Kare said with all the aplomb he could muster.

    Aside from Berry herself, Jeremy X. was the smallest person in the entire room. He was also renowned (if that was the proper verb) throughout the Solarian League as the most deadly terrorist, by almost any measure, the Audubon Ballroom had produced in many a year. Given the caliber of the competition, that was saying quite a lot, too. Like Du Havel, he was another example of Manpower having created a nemesis of its very own, although he and the prime minister had chosen very different ways to go about their nemesis-ing. Jeremy, who’d been designed as one of Manpower’s “entertainer” lines, had the compact, small-boned frame and enhanced reflexes of a juggler or a tumbler. Although he was undoubtedly on the small side, there was nothing at all soft or frail about his physique, however, and the reflexes and hand-eye coordination Manpower had intended him to use for sleight-of-hand or juggling crystal plates made him one of the most lethal pistoleers in the galaxy. A point he had demonstrated with enormous gusto to his designers over the years.

    Kare was well aware that, as the Kingdom of Torch’s minister of war, Jeremy had officially renounced terrorism in the kingdom’s name. As far as anyone back home in the Star Kingdom of Manticore was aware, he’d meant it, too. On the other hand, the man who’d planned and executed (Kare winced mentally at his own choice of verb) so many deadly and . . . inventive attacks on Manpower executives was still in there, just under the skin. One on one, Kare never doubted that Thandi Palane was more dangerous than Jeremy could ever be; as implacable forces of nature, though, he suspected there would be very little to choose between the two of them.

    Which suits me just fine, given the people the two of them are likely to be going after, he reflected grimly. Even if Rabbi McNeil does have a point about vengeance belonging to a higher power. After all, nobody ever said He couldn’t use any means He chooses to execute judgment.

    “I suppose I should introduce my own associates,” he said as he got his hand back from Jeremy, and indicated the tallish, undeniably shaggy strawberry-blond man to his left.



    “Dr. Richard Wix, Your Majesty,” he continued. “Who rejoices, for some reason I’ve never quite understood, in the nickname of the ‘Tons of Joy Bear.’” He grimaced. “We usually shorten it to ‘TJ,’ but I understand you have a very efficient intelligence operation here on Torch. If you can pry the origin of his nom de party out of him, I’d be delighted to know what it is.”

    “I’m sure if anyone can figure it out, it’ll be Daddy,” the queen said cheerfully, offering her own hand to Wix.

    “Forewarned is forearmed, Your Majesty,” Wix said. “Besides, it’s not really all that much of a secret. If Richard here ever stuck his nose out of the lab, he’d probably have figured it out for himself by now.” He gave the youthful monarch a conspiratorial look. “He doesn’t get out much, you know,” he added in a stage whisper.

    “And this,” Kare continued in the tone of a man rising above the slings and arrows of smaller-minded individuals, “is Captain Zachary, Harvest Joy’s skipper. She’s the practical-minded sort who’s going to keep us all straight while we get to work.”

    “I think you and Web are both going to have your work cut out for you, Captain,” the queen commiserated as she extended her hand in turn to the dark-haired, dark-eyed Zachary.

    “It’s not like it’s something I haven’t done before, Your Majesty,” Zachary replied with a slight smile, and Berry chuckled.

    “Well!” she said as she released Zachary’s hand and gestured at the comfortable chairs around the conference table in what had once been the office of the Mesan governor of what had once been Verdant Vista. “Now that we’ve got the introductions out of the way, why don’t we all find seats?”

    It was not, Kare thought, the sort of preplanned, carefully choreographed protocol one might have expected out of most people who ruled an entire star system. On the other hand, Queen Berry’s realm wasn’t quite like most other star nations, either. It was barely fifteen T-months old (counting from Berry’s coronation), for one thing, and it had been born in carnage, bloodshed, and all too often bloodcurdling vengeance, for another. The fact that the liberation of the planet now known as Torch hadn’t simply degenerated into a bloodsoaked chaos of massacre, torture, and atrocity was mostly due to the teenaged girl settling into her own chair at the table, and Kare found himself wondering, again, how such a cheerful-looking slip of a girl had done it. There was no question, according to Admiral Givens’ people at the Office of Naval Intelligence or their civilian counterparts that it had, indeed, been Berry who’d somehow convinced the liberated slaves to forgo the full, bitter dregs of the vengeance to which generations of savage repression and mistreatment had, by any fair measure, entitled them.

    On the other hand, the fact remained that she’d had to do that convincing to bring the bloodshed to an end, and it was the atrocities which had already been committed, however merited they might have been, before she managed to intervene which explained why Kare and his mission were only just now arriving in Torch.

    They all settled into their chairs around the circular table. Palane sat between Kare and Wix, and Du Havel sat between Wix and Captain Zachary, with Jeremy X. between Kare and Queen Berry, going the other way. There’d been no formal seating chart, but Kare found himself rather doubting that that neat spacing had occurred totally by chance.

    “First,” Berry said, without even glancing at Du Havel or Jeremy, “I’d like to start by saying that we’re all very grateful to Mr. Hauptman for assisting us this way. And to Prime Minister Grantville and Queen Elizabeth, of course.”

    Well, she’s got her priorities right, Kare thought wryly. He and Wix were officially here as privately paid consultants, on leave from the Royal Manticoran Astrophysics Investigation Agency. If it had been solely up to Klaus Hauptman, the financial backer of this expedition, the two of them would have been in Torch before the smoke had cleared, too. Unfortunately, and despite the Star Kingdom’s official recognition of the Kingdom of Torch, the “taint” of the Ballroom had forced the Star Kingdom to move rather more slowly, even after that idiot High Ridge’s ignominious departure from the premiership, than Kare was confident Elizabeth Winton or her new prime minister would have preferred. The Star Kingdom of Manticore understood more about the genetic slave trade and Manpower, Incorporated, than most star nations did, but even Manticore had been shocked by some of the HD footage which had come out of Torch. It wasn’t just foreign public opinion Elizabeth had been forced to worry about, either.

    There were more than a few Manticorans, even among those bitterly opposed to genetic slavery, who nursed serious reservations where the Ballroom was concerned. In fact, if Kare were going to be completely honest, he had a few reservations of his own. Not because he didn’t understand exactly what had produced the Ballroom’s ferocity, but because he was enough of a historian to recognize where that sort of ferocity could lead if something didn’t happen to . . . ameliorate it. And despite everything the Star Kingdom had already seen out of Manpower, there’d been sufficient public revulsion at how some of Manpower’s executives on Torch (and their families, in some cases) had died — and how gleefully they’d been tortured to death — before Berry Zilwicki’s adamant intervention ended the atrocities (or counter–atrocities, perhaps) to make the outlaw transtellar’s propaganda about the barbarism of the ex-slaves at least temporarily convincing to enough men in the street to put the brakes on any official cooperation between Manticore and Torch. Of course, that never-to-be-sufficiently-damned, overbred, under-brained, cretinous excuse for a politician High Ridge hadn’t needed a lot of convincing, given his own attitudes.

    Even now, though, the Grantville Government hadn’t officially signed off on the survey effort. For the record, it was a privately funded project, backed by the Hauptman Cartel, which was picking up the complete tab for it. As a matter of fact, Kare and Wix were both receiving comfortable — very comfortable — stipends from Hauptman, and although Harvest Joy was a Navy vessel, the Star Kingdom had “leased” her to Hauptman for the effort and Captain Zachary was officially on half-pay at the moment. Given what Hauptman was paying her, she was actually making close to twice what her salary as an active-duty Queen’s officer would have been, although that had very little to do with her presence in Torch. As the officer who’d commanded the survey voyage that led to the successful exploration and charting of the Lynx Terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction, she brought a unique level of experience with her. Besides, Kare had worked with her on that effort. When it had been made clear to him that the “private venture” in Torch was actually about as private as Mount Royal Palace, he’d known exactly who he wanted as his survey ship commander.

    “We’re delighted to be here, Your Majesty,” he said now. “It’s not all that often anyone gets to survey a wormhole. The number of people who’ve gotten to survey two of them — and do it in less than three T-years, at that — could probably be counted on one hand.” He grinned. “Trust me, it’s not going to look bad on our résumés!”



    “No, I don’t guess it is,” she agreed with a smile of her own. Then she glanced at Du Havel and Jeremy before looking back at Kare.

    “Obviously, we’d like to get started as quickly as possible,” she said. “For one thing, we’re not at all sure how much Mesa really does or doesn’t know about the wormhole.”

    “You didn’t find anything at all in their databases, Your Majesty?” Zachary asked.

    “Nothing,” Jeremy responded for Berry. Zachary looked at him, and he shrugged. “I’m afraid Captain Zilwicki isn’t on-planet at the moment, but if you’d like to discuss our data search with Ruth Winton we’ll be happy to make her available to you. For that matter, if you — or Dr. Kare or Dr. Wix — could provide any clues or hints that might help us spot something we’ve missed, we’d be delighted to hear about them.”

    He held Zachary’s eye for a moment, waiting until she gave him an ever so slight nod, then continued.

    “I don’t know how familiar you are with Manpower’s procedures, Captain,” he continued, and his voice had assumed a slightly distant tone, almost a professional chill. “Especially since the Ballroom started successfully attacking their depots whenever we — I mean, whenever it — could, Manpower’s gotten even more security conscious. By now, their practice is to restrict the data available to any of their operations to what they figure that particular operation is going to need — a strict ‘need-to-know’ orientation, you might say. And in the last couple of T-years, they’ve improved their arrangements for wiping data, as well.”

    He shrugged.

    “Although the initial claim to ‘Verdant Vista’ was backed by the Mesa System’s government, everyone knew it was actually a Manpower and Jessyk operation. Of course, everyone also knows that the Mesan ‘government’ is actually pretty much owned outright by the Mesa-based transstellars, so the Mesan Navy’s involvement probably shouldn’t have come as quite as much of a surprise as it did for some people.

    “At any rate, the management here in-system handled their data storage in accordance with Manpower’s established policies. I’m sure they never in their worst nightmares expected what Captain Oversteegen and Captain Roszak — excuse me, Commodore Oversteegen and Rear Admiral Rozsak — helped us do here, but we found several largish chunks of their computer banks slagged down when we finally got possession of them. So we don’t really have any idea how much effort they put into studying the wormhole here.”

    “Jeremy’s right about that,” Du Havel put in. “What we can tell you, though, is that we haven’t found anything outside the computers to suggest there was any ongoing survey effort. And none of the Mesan survivors who decided to stay on here ever heard anything about that kind of effort. In fact, several of them have told us they’d been specifically told by their superiors that it hadn’t been surveyed yet.” It was his turn to shrug. “Of course, none of them were hyper-physicists. Almost all of them were involved in pharmaceutical research, so it wouldn’t have been their area of expertise, anyway.”

    “As far as we can tell, though, Captain,” Thandi Palane said, “everything they’ve told us is the truth. We’ve got a few treecats of our own here on Torch these days, and they confirm that.”

    Zachary nodded, and so did Kare. That tracked with what his own briefings on Manticore had suggested. And he was relieved to hear the tone in which Du Havel and Palane had talked about the Mesan survivors in question. The fact that an entire research colony of Mesans — of scientists who weren’t Manpower or Mesa Pharmaceuticals employees and who’d actually treated the genetic slaves assigned to their efforts like human beings — had been not only spared but actively protected by those slaves during the chaotic bloodlust of the system’s liberation had been a not insignificant factor in the ability of Torch’s friends in the Star Kingdom to get this effort cleared. And he found the fact that the Queen of Torch and her senior advisors clearly thought of those scientists as fellow citizens, not dangerously suspect potential enemies, personally reassuring.

    “That’s interesting,” he said out loud. “Especially given the persistent rumors before the liberation that Torch was ‘at least’ a three-nexii junction. What you’ve just told us certainly agrees with everything official we’ve been able to find, but I can’t find myself wondering where that specific number — three, I mean — came from in the first place.”

    “We’ve wondered the same thing,” Du Havel replied. “So far, we haven’t found anything to suggest a reason for it, though.” He shrugged. “Given the fact that it really hasn’t made any difference one way or the other as far as our decision-making priorities go, though, it’s been mostly a matter of idle curiosity for us. We’ve been too busy clubbing alligators to worry about what color the swamp’s flowers are.”

    He grinned wryly, and Kare chuckled at the aptness of the metaphor, especially given how well it suited Torch’s biosphere.

    The F6 star now officially known as Torch was unusually youthful, to say the least, to possess life-bearing planets at all. It was also unusually hot. Torch, almost exactly twice as far from Torch as Old Earth lay from Sol, could be accurately described as “uncomfortably warm” by most people. “Hotter than Hell,” while less euphemistic, would probably have been more accurate. Not only was Torch younger, larger, and hotter than Sol, but Torch’s atmosphere contained more greenhouse gases, producing a significantly warmer planetary surface temperature. The fact that Torch’s seas and oceans covered only about seventy percent of its surface and that its axial inclination was very low (less than a full degree) also helped to account for its rain forest/swamp/mudhole-from-Hell surface geography.

    The star system’s original survey team had obviously possessed a somewhat perverse sense of humor, given the names it had bestowed upon Torch’s system bodies. Torch’s original name — Elysium — was a case in point, since Kare could think of very few planetary environments less like the ancient Greeks’ concept of the Elysian Fields. He didn’t know why Manpower had renamed it “Verdant Vista,” although it had probably had something to do with avoiding the PR downsides of turning a planet named “Elysium” into a hot, humid, thoroughly wretched purgatory for the hapless slaves it intended to dump there. Personally, Kare was of the opinion that “Green Hell” would have been a far more accurate name.

    And it would have suited the local wildlife so well, too, he thought with a mental chuckle. The chuckle faded quickly, however, when he reflected upon how many of Manpower’s slaves had fallen prey to “Verdant Vista’s” many and manifold varieties of predator.

    Another little point the bastards might have wanted to bear in mind, he reflected rather more grimly. People who survive this kind of planetary environment aren’t likely to be shrinking violets. Given where their settlement pool is coming from in the first place, the locally produced generations are probably going to be an even uglier nightmare for those bastards. Pity about that.



    “Well,” he said after a moment, “TJ and the rest of the team and I have already taken a pretty close look at the data you people have been able to provide. Obviously, you didn’t begin to have the instrumentation we’ve brought with us, so we weren’t actually in a position to reach any hard and fast conclusions about what we have here. One thing we have observed, however, is that the terminus’ gravitic signature is quite low. In fact, we’re a bit surprised anyone even noticed it.”

    “Really?” Du Havel leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. Kare looked at him, and the prime minister shrugged with a smile. “Oh, this certainly isn’t my area of expertise, Doctor! I’m fully prepared to accept what you’ve just said, but I have to admit it piques my interest a bit. I was under the impression that ever since the existence of wormholes was first demonstrated, one of the very first things any stellar survey team’s done is look very hard for them.”

    “That they do, Mr. Prime Minister,” Kare acknowledged wryly. “Indeed, they do! But, as I’m sure all of you are aware, wormholes and their termini are usually a minimum of a couple of light-hours away from the stars with which they’re associated. And what somebody who isn’t a hyper-physicist may not realize is that unless they’re particularly big, you also have to get within, oh, maybe four or five light-minutes before they’re going to show up at all. There are certain stellar characteristics — we call them ‘wormhole fingerprints’ — we’ve learned to look for when there’s a terminus in the vicinity, but they aren’t always present. Again, the bigger or stronger the wormhole, the more likely the ‘fingerprints’ are to show up, as well.

    “What we appear to have here, however, is a case of pure serendipity on someone’s part. My team and I have looked very carefully at Torch, and we’ve determined that it really does have most of the ‘fingerprints,’ but they’re extremely faint. In fact, it took several runs of computer enhancement before we were able to pick them out at all. That’s not entirely surprising, given Torch’s relative youth. Despite their mass, F-class stars are statistically less likely to possess termini at all, and when they do, the ‘fingerprints’ are almost invariably fainter than usual. That means nobody should have been looking for a terminus associated with this star in the first place, and, in the second place, that they shouldn’t have been looking just sixty-four light-minutes from the primary. That’s ridiculously close. In fact, our search of the literature indicates that it’s the nearest any terminus associated with an F6 has ever been located relative to its associated primary. Coupled with how faint its Warshawski signature is, that suggests to us that whoever found it in the first place must have almost literally stubbed his toe on it. He sure shouldn’t have been looking for it there, at any rate!”

    He paused and shook his head, his expression wry. In a properly run universe people like Manpower wouldn’t have the kind of luck it must have taken for them to stumble across a discovery like this one.

    Although, he reminded himself, I could be wrong about that. I’m pretty sure Manpower has to be gnashing its teeth over the thought that the goody they found has ended up in the clutches of a batch of anti-slavery “terrorists” like the Torches. So maybe what this really represents is the fact that God has a particularly nasty sense of humor where “people like Manpower” are concerned.

    That possibility, he reflected, was enough to warm the cockles of his heart.

    “In addition to making it hard to find in the first place, the faintness of this terminus’ Warshawski signature, coupled with its unusually close proximity to the primary, also indicates that it’s almost certainly not especially huge. Frankly, despite the rumors to the contrary, I’ll be surprised if there’s more than one additional terminus associated with it — it looks a lot like one end of a two-loci system, what we call a ‘wormhole bridge,’ unlike the multi-loci ‘junctions’ like the Manticore Junction. Some of the bridges are more valuable than quite a few of the junctions we’ve discovered over the centuries, of course. It all depends on where the ends of the bridge are.”

    The Torches at the table nodded to show they were following his explanation. From their expressions — especially Du Havel’s — the prediction that their wormhole was going to connect to only one other location wasn’t exactly welcome, though.

    “Even in a worst-case scenario, most wormholes are significant long-term revenue producers,” Captain Zachary put in. Obviously she’d seen the same expressions Kare had.

    “Unless the other terminus of this one is somewhere out in previously totally unexplored space — which is possible, of course — then it’s still going to be a huge timesaver for people wanting to go from wherever the other end is to anything close to this end,” she continued. “It’s only four days from here to Erewhon even for a merchant ship, for example, and only about thirteen days from here to Maya. And from Erewhon to the Star Kingdom’s only about four days via the Erewhon wormhole. So if the other end of your wormhole is somewhere in the Shell, anyone wanting to reach those destinations is going to be able to shave literally months off of her transit time. I’m not suggesting you’re going to see anywhere near the volume of traffic we see through the Junction, of course, but I’m pretty sure there’s still going to be enough to give your treasury a hefty shot in the arm.”

    “Maybe not a goldmine, but at least a silver mine, you mean?” a grinning Queen Berry asked.

    “Something along those lines, Your Majesty,” Zachary agreed with an answering smile.

    “Which probably wasn’t exactly a non-factor in Mr. Hauptman’s thinking,” Kare added, and chuckled. “From what I’ve seen and heard, he’d probably think backing this survey was a good idea even if it wasn’t likely to add a single dime to his own cash flow. On the other hand, I understand he’s going to be showing a nice long-term profit on his share of your transit fees.”

    “I think it’s what’s referred to as ‘a comfortable return,’” Du Havel said dryly. “One-point-five percent of all transit fees for the next seventy-five years ought to come to a pretty fair piece of change.”

    Several people chuckled this time, and Kare nodded in acknowledgment of the prime minister’s point. At the same time, the hyper-physicist really did feel confident Hauptman would have backed the survey effort, anyway. It was obvious to Kare that Klaus Hauptman regarded not making a profit for his shareholders whenever possible as a perversion roughly equivalent to eating one’s own young. He supposed no one became as successful as Hauptman without that sort of attitude, and he didn’t have any particular problem with it himself. But anyone who bothered to take a look around the Torch System would have been forced to concede that Hauptman also put his personal fortune’s money where his principles were.



    Anyone who knew anything about Klaus Hauptman and his daughter Stacey had to be aware of their virulent, burning hatred for all things associated with the genetic slave trade. By any measure one cared to use, the Hauptman Cartel was the Star Kingdom’s single largest financial contributor to the Beowulf-based Anti-Slavery League. Not only that, the Cartel had already provided the Kingdom of Torch with well over a dozen frigates. No serious interstellar navy had built frigates in decades, of course, but the latest ships — the Nat Turner-class — Hauptman had delivered to Torch were significantly more dangerous than most people might have expected. Effectively, they were hyper-capable versions of the Royal Manticoran Navy’s Shrike-class LAC but with about twice the missile capacity and a pair of spinal-mounted grasers, with the second energy weapon bearing aft. Their electronics were a downgraded “export version” of the RMN’s (which was hardly surprising, given the fact that they were going to be operating in an area where the Republic of Haven’s intelligence services had ready access), but the Turners were probably at least as dangerous as the vast majority of the galaxy’s destroyers.

    According to official reports, the Hauptman Cartel had built them at cost. According to unofficial (but exceedingly persistent) reports, Klaus and Stacey Hauptman had picked up somewhere around seventy-five percent of their construction costs out of their own pockets. Given that there were eight of them, that was a pretty hefty sum for even the Hauptmans to shell out. And according to the last word Kare had picked up before leaving Manticore for Torch, the Torch Navy had just ordered its first trio of all-up destroyers, as well. Even after they were completed, Torch would scarcely be considered one of the galaxy’s leading navies, but the kingdom would have a fairly substantial little system-defense force.

    Which just happened to be hyper-capable . . . which meant it could also operate in other people’s star systems.

    And the fact that Torch has officially declared war on Mesa isn’t going to make those Manpower bastards feel any happier when they find out the sort of capability the Torches are building up out here, the hyper-physicist reflected with grim satisfaction.

    When he’d mentioned that thought to Josepha Zachary on the voyage here, she’d nodded emphatically and added her own observation — that Torch obviously had a well thought-out, rationalized expansion program in mind. It was clear to her that they were using the frigates as training platforms, building up a cadre of experienced spacers and officers to provide the locally trained (and highly motivated) manpower to systematically upgrade their naval capabilities as time, money, crewmen, and training permitted.

    “At any rate,” he said out loud, “and returning to my original point, that’s why TJ and I were both a bit surprised that anyone ever managed to pick it up at all. Which, I suppose, could explain why Mesa apparently hadn’t gotten around to surveying it yet. They may have had enough trouble finding it in the first place that they simply hadn’t known it was there long enough.”

    “I hadn’t realized it would have been so difficult for them to detect, Doctor,” Jeremy said. “On the other hand, the fact of its existence had become sufficiently common knowledge that Erewhon, at least, knew all about it over two T-years ago. And, frankly, the Ballroom knew about it for at least six months before anyone in Erewhon realized it existed. Given what Captain Zachary’s just said, I’m a bit surprised someone like the Jessyk Combine didn’t get a survey crew in here sooner. If anybody in the galaxy would recognize the potential value to shippers, I’d think Jessyk would.”

    “Yes, TJ and I have kicked that around a good bit, too,” Kari replied, “and he’s come up with a theory for why they might not have surveyed it even if they’d known it was there all along, if anyone’s interested.”

    “I don’t know about anybody else, but I am!” Queen Berry said, and cocked her head at Wix.

    “Well,” Wix rubbed the mustache that was a couple of shades lighter than the rest of his rather unruly beard, “I hope nobody’s going to confuse me with any kind of intelligence analyst. But the best reason I’ve been able to come up with for Jessyk and Manpower’s trying to keep their little wormhole quiet is that they didn’t want to draw any more attention to what they were doing here on Torch.”

    Faces tightened all around the table, and Du Havel nodded thoughtfully.

    “I hadn’t really considered that,” he admitted, “and I should have. It’s the sort of propaganda factor the ASL’s tried to keep in mind for a long time. But you may well have a point, Dr. Wix. If this wormhole had started attracting a lot of through traffic, then there’d have been a lot more potentially embarrassing Solarian witnesses to the mortality rate among the members of their planet-side slave labor force, wouldn’t there?”

    “That’s what I was thinking,” Wix agreed. Then he snorted. “Mind you, that’s a pretty sophisticated motive to impute to anyone stupid enough to be using slave labor to harvest and process pharmaceuticals in the first place! Completely leaving aside the moral aspects of the decision — which, I feel confident, would never have darkened the doorway of any Mesan transtellar’s decision processes — it was economically stupid.”

    “I tend to agree with you,” Du Havel said. “On the other hand, breeding slaves is pretty damned cheap.” His voice was remarkably level, but his bared-teeth grin gave the lie to his apparent detachment. “They’ve been doing it for a long time, after all, and their ‘production lines’ are all in place. And to give the devil his due, human beings are still a lot more versatile than most machinery. Not as efficient at most specific tasks as purpose built machinery, of course, but versatile. And as far as Manpower and Mesans in general are concerned, slaves are ‘purpose built machinery,’ when you come down to it. So from their perspective, it made plenty of sense to avoid the initial capital investment in the hardware the job would have required. After all, they already had plenty of cheap replacement units when their ‘purpose built machinery’ broke, and they could always make more.”

    “You know,” Kare said quietly, “sometimes I forget just how . . . skewed the thinking of something like Manpower has to be.” He shook his head. “It never would’ve occurred to me to analyze the economic factors from that perspective.”

    “Well, I’ve had a bit more practice at it than most people.” Du Havel’s tone was dry enough to create an instant Sahara . . . even on Torch. “The truth is that slavery’s almost always been hideously inefficient on a production per man-hour basis. There’ve been exceptions, of course, but as a general rule, using slaves as skilled technicians — which would be the only way to make it remotely competitive with free labor on a productive basis — has had a tendency to turn around and bite the slaveowner on the ass.”

    He smiled again, chillingly, but then the smile faded.

    “The problem is that it doesn’t have to be efficient to show at least some profit. A low return on a really big operation still comes to a pretty impressive absolute amount of money, and their ‘per-unit’ capital costs are low. I’m sure that was a major element in their thinking — especially when you consider how much capital investment in slave-production facilities Manpower would have to write off if it were even tempted to ‘go legitimate.’ Not that I think it would ever occur to them to make the attempt, you understand.”

    “No, I guess not.” Kare grimaced, then gave himself a shake. “On the other hand, whatever the Mesans’ motives for leaving this particular wormhole unexploited, it gives me a certain warm and fuzzy feeling to reflect on the fact that when it starts producing revenue for you people, that cash flow’s going to find itself being plowed into your naval expansion.”

    “Yes,” Thandi Palane agreed, and her smile was even colder than Du Havel’s had been. “That’s a possibility I’ve been spending quite a bit of my own time contemplating. We’ve already managed a couple of ops I’m pretty sure have pissed Manpower off, but if we can get our hands on a few more hyper-capable ships of our own, they’re going to be very, very unhappy with the results.”

    “In that case,” Kare replied with a smile of his own, “by all means, as Duchess Harrington would put it, ‘let’s be about it.’”

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