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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Monday, September 28, 2009 19:00 EDT



    “You called?” Benjamin Detweiler said as he poked his head through the door Heinrich Stabolis had just opened for him.

    Albrecht Detweiler looked up from the paperwork on his display and raised one eyebrow at the oldest of his sons. Of course, Benjamin wasn’t just his son, but very few people were aware of how close the relationship actually was.

    “Have I mentioned lately,” Albrecht said, “that I find your extreme filial respect very touching?”

    “No, somehow I think that slipped your mind, Father.”

    “I wonder why that could possibly be?” Albrecht mused out loud, then pointed at one of the comfortable chairs in front of his desk. “Why don’t you just park yourself right there, young man,” he said in the stern tone he’d used more than once during Benjamin’s adolescent career.

    “Yes, Father,” Benjamin replied in a tone which was far more demure and chastened sounding than Albrecht recalled ever having heard out of him during that same adolescent career.

    The younger Detweiler “parked” himself and folded his hands in his lap while he regarded his father with enormous attentiveness, and Albrecht shook his head. Then he looked at Stabolis.

    “I’m sure I’m going to regret this in the fullness of time, Heinrich, but would you be kind enough to get Ben a bottle of beer? And go ahead and open one for me at the same time, please. I don’t know about him, but I feel depressingly confident that I’m going to need a little fortification.”

    “Of course, Sir,” his enhanced bodyguard replied gravely. “If you really think he’s old enough to be drinking alcohol, that is.”

    Stabolis had known Benjamin literally from birth, and the two of them exchanged smiles. Albrecht, on the other hand, shook his head and sighed theatrically.

    “If he’s not old enough yet, he never will be, Heinrich,” he said. “Go ahead.”

    “Yes, Sir.”

    Stabolis departed on his errand, and Albrecht tipped back his chair in front of the window with its magnificent view of powdery sand and dark blue ocean. He gave his son another smile, but then his expression sobered.

    “Seriously, Father,” Benjamin said, responding to Albrecht’s change of expression, “why did you want to see me this morning?”

    “We just got confirmation that the Manties’ survey expedition got to Verdant Vista six weeks ago,” his father replied, and Benjamin grimaced.

    “We knew it was going to happen eventually, Father,” he pointed out.

    “Agreed. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make me any happier now that it’s gone ahead and actually happened.” Albrecht smiled sourly. “And the fact that the Manties ultimately decided to let Kare head the team makes me even less happy than I might have been otherwise.”

    “One could have hoped that the fact that the Manties and the Havenites are shooting at each other again would have made them a little less likely to cooperate on something like this,” Benjamin acknowledged dryly.

    “Fair’s fair –” Albrecht began, then paused and looked up with a smile as Stabolis returned to the office with the promised bottles of beer. Father and son each accepted one of them, and Stabolis raised an eyebrow at Albrecht.

    “Go ahead and stay, Heinrich,” the senior Detweiler replied in answer to the unspoken question. “By this time, you already know ninety-nine percent of all my deepest darkest secrets. This one isn’t going to make any difference.”

    “Yes, Sir.”

    Stabolis settled into his usual on-duty position in the chair beside the office door, and Albrecht turned back to Benjamin.

    “As I was saying, fair’s fair. They aren’t really cooperating, you know. They’ve just agreed to refrain from breaking each other’s kneecaps where Verdant Vista is concerned, and we both know why that is.”

    “They do tend to hold their little grudges where Manpower is concerned, don’t they?” Benjamin remarked whimsically.

    “Yes, they do,” Albrecht agreed. “And that pain in the ass Hauptman isn’t making things any better.”

    “Father, Klaus Hauptman’s been pissing you off for as long as I can remember. Why don’t you just go ahead and have Collin and Isabel get rid of him? I know his security’s good, but it’s not that good, you know.”

    “I’ve considered it — believe me, I’ve considered it more than once!” Albrecht shook his head. “One reason I haven’t gone ahead and done it is that I decided a long time ago that I’d better try not to get into the habit of having people assassinated just because it might ease my blood pressure. Given the number of unmitigated pains in the ass there are, I’d keep Isabel employed full time, and it would still be a case of weeding the tomato patch. However many weeds you get rid of this week, there’s going to be a fresh batch next week. Besides, I’ve always felt restraint builds character.”

    “Maybe so, but I figure there has to be more to it than self-discipline were Hauptman is concerned.” Benjamin snorted. “Mind you, I agree about the asshole quotient of the galaxy, but he’s one asshole who’s demonstrated often enough that he can cause us a lot of grief. And he’s been so openly opposed to Manpower for so long that having him taken out in an obviously ‘Manpower’-backed operation couldn’t possibly point any suspicion in our direction.”

    “You’ve got a point,” Albrecht agreed more seriously. “Actually, I did very seriously consider having him assassinated when he came out so strongly in support of those Ballroom lunatics in Verdant Vista. Unfortunately, getting rid of him would only leave us with his daughter Stacey, and she’s just as bad as he is already. If ‘Manpower’ went ahead and whacked her daddy, she’d be even worse. In fact, I suspect she’d probably move making problems for us up from number three or four on her ‘Things to Do’ list to number one. An emphatic number one. And given the fact that she’d control sixty-two percent of the Hauptman cartel’s voting stock outright, once she inherited her father’s shares, the problems she could make for us would be pretty spectacular. This survey business and those frigates they’ve been building for the Ballroom wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket compared to what she’d do then.”

    “So take them both out at once,” Benjamin suggested. “I’m sure Isabel could handle it, if she put her mind to it. And she’s Hauptman’s only kid, and she doesn’t have any children of her own yet, which only leaves some fairly distant cousins as potential heirs. I doubt that all of them share the depths of her and her father’s anti-slavery prejudices. And even if they did, I imagine that spreading her stock around to so many people who’d all have legitimately different agendas of their own would end up with the family control of the cartel finding itself severely diluted.”

    “No,” Albrecht said sourly, “it wouldn’t.”

    “It wouldn’t?” Benjamin’s surprise showed.

    “Oh, having both of them killed would dilute the Hauptman family’s control, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, it would only hand that selfsame control over to another family we have reason to be less than fond of.”



    “I’m afraid you’ve lost me,” Benjamin admitted.

    “That’s because Collin just turned up something you don’t know about yet. It would appear our good friend Klaus and his daughter Stacey don’t want to see their opposition to Manpower falter just because of a little thing like their own morality. Collin got a look at the provisions of their wills a few T-months ago. Daddy left everything to his sweet little baby girl, pretty much the way we’d figured he had . . . but if it should happen that she predeceases him or subsequently dies without issue of her own, she’s left every single share of her and her father’s ownership percentage — and voting stock — to a little outfit called Skydomes of Grayson.”

    “You’re joking!” Benjamin stared at his father in disbelief, and Albrecht snorted without any amusement at all.

    “Believe me, I wish I were.”

    “But Hauptman and Harrington hate each others’ guts,” Benjamin protested.

    “Not so much anymore,” Albrecht disagreed. “Oh, everything we’ve seen suggests that he and Harrington still don’t really like each other all that much, but they’ve got an awful lot of interests in common. Worse, he knows from direct, painful personal experience she can’t be bought, bluffed, or intimidated worth a damn. And, worse still, the daughter he dotes on is one of Harrington’s close personal friends. Given the fact that he won’t be around anymore for Harrington to irritate, and given the fact that he knows she’s already using Skydomes’ clout to back the ASL almost as strongly as he is, he’s perfectly happy with the thought of letting her beat on Manpower with his money, too, when he’s gone. Which” — he grimaced — “makes me wish even more that our little October surprise on her flagship had been a bit more successful. If we’d managed to kill her, I’m sure Klaus and Stacey would have at least reconsidered who they want to leave all of this to.”

    “Damn,” Benjamin said thoughtfully, then shook his head. “If Hauptman and Skydomes get together, Harrington would have control of — what? The third or fourth biggest single individually controlled financial bloc in the galaxy?”

    “Not quite. She’d be the single biggest financial player in the Haven Quadrant, by a huge margin, but she probably wouldn’t be any higher than, oh, the top twenty, galaxy wide. On the other hand, as you just pointed out yourself, unlike any of the people who’d be wealthier than she’d be, she’d have direct personal control of everything. No need to worry about boards of directors or any of that crap.”

    “Damn!” Benjamin repeated with considerably more force. “How come this is the first I’m hearing about this?”

    “Like I said, Collin only found out about it a few T-months ago. It’s not like Hauptman or his daughter have exactly trumpeted it from the rooftops, you know. For that matter, as far as Collin can tell, Harrington doesn’t know about it. We only found out because Collin’s been devoting even more of his resources to Hauptman since his active support for Verdant Vista became so evident. It’s taken him a while, but he finally managed to get someone inside Childers, Strauslund, Goldman, and Wu. Clarice Childers personally drew up both Hauptmans’ wills, and it looks very much as if they decided not to tell even Harrington about it.” Albrecht shrugged. “Given the sort of tectonic impact the prospect of what would be effectively a merger of the Hauptman Cartel and Skydomes would have on the entire quadrant’s financial markets, I can see where they’d want to keep it quiet.”

    “And Harrington would probably try to talk them out of it if she did know about it,” Benjamin mused.

    “Probably.” Albrecht showed his teeth for a moment. “I’d love to see all three of them dead, you understand, but let’s be honest. The real reason I’d take so much pleasure from putting them out of my misery is that all three of them are so damned effective. And however much I may hate Harrington’s guts — not to mention her entire family back on Beowulf — I’m not going to underestimate her. Aside from being harder to kill than an Old Earth cockroach, she’s got this incredibly irritating habit of accomplishing exactly what she sets out to do. And while she may not be as rich as Hauptman is, she’s already well past the point where money as money really means anything to her. From everything we’ve been able to find out, she takes her responsibilities as Skydomes’ CEO seriously, but she’s perfectly satisfied running it through trusted assistants, so it’s not as if she’d be interested in adding Hauptman to Skydomes as an exercise in empire building, either. In fact, I sometimes think she’s at least partly of the opinion that what she’s got already represents too much concentrated power in the hands of a single private individual. Combining Hauptman with Skydomes would create an entirely new balance of economic power — not just in the Star Kingdom, either — and I don’t see her wanting to stick her family with that kind of power.”

    “So he’s planning on sneaking up on her with it and trusting her sense of duty to take it in the end?”

    “I think that’s what’s going on, but I think it’s really Stacey Hauptman who’s doing the ’sneaking up’ in this case,” Albrecht said.

    “Either way, it’s a fairly unpalatable prospect,” Benjamin observed.

    “I don’t think it’s going to make the situation fundamentally worse,” Albrecht replied. “It’s not going to make it any better, but I don’t expect it to have any sort of catastrophic consequences . . . even assuming Hauptman shuffles off before we pull the trigger on Prometheus.”

    Benjamin’s expression turned very, very sober at his father’s last seven words. “Prometheus” was the codename assigned to the Mesan Alignment’s long awaited general offensive. Very few people had ever heard the designation; of those who had, only a handful realized how far into the final endgame of its centuries-long preparations the Alignment actually was.

    “In the meantime,” his father continued more briskly, “and getting back to my original complaint, we’ve got to decide what we’re going to do about Kare and his busybodies. It’s not going to take them very long to complete their survey of the terminus. They’re going to figure out that something’s peculiar about it as soon as they do, and we really don’t need them making transit and finding out where it goes.”



    “Agreed.” Benjamin nodded, but his expression was calm. “On the other hand, we’ve already made our preparations. As you just pointed out, somebody like Kare’s going to realize he’s looking at something out of the ordinary as soon as he gets a detailed analysis. I doubt he’s going to have any idea just how ‘peculiar’ it is before they make transit, though, and once they do make transit, they’re not going to be in a position to tell anyone about it. I agree with Collin, Daniel, and Isabel, Father. The survivors are going to conclude that whatever it is that makes this terminus ‘peculiar’ is going to require a much more cautious — and time-consuming — approach before they try any second transit.”

    “I agree that’s the most overwhelmingly likely outcome,” Albrecht conceded. “‘Likely’ isn’t the same thing as ‘certain,’ however. And, to be honest, I expect someone like Hauptman to take his initial failure as a personal affront and push even harder.”

    “The only way to positively prevent that would be too take the star system back,” Benjamin pointed out.

    “Which we’re already planning to do . . . eventually,” his father pointed out in return, and Benjamin nodded again.

    “Should I assume you want me to be thinking in terms of bringing that operation forward?” he asked.

    “I’m not sure I want it brought forward yet,” Albrecht said. “What I do want, though, is to make sure we don’t fritter away our cover assets. Losing Anhur that way in Talbott last year was just plain stupid. And we’re lucky that idiot Clignet and his ‘journal’ didn’t hurt us any worse.”

    Benjamin nodded again. Commodore Henri Clignet’s ex-State Security heavy cruiser Anhur had been captured with all hands — or, at least, all surviving hands — in the Talbott Cluster the next best thing to six T-months before. Benjamin wasn’t going to shed any tears for Clignet and his fanatic cutthroats. In fact, he’d always considered the commodore one of the loosest of the loose warheads among the ex-SS personnel Manpower had recruited. On the other hand, he was also aware that his personal dislike for the entire strand of the Alignment’s strategy they’d been recruited to support might help to account for his less than hugely enthusiastic view of Clignet and his fellows.

    “At least he didn’t know who’s actually pulling the strings where he and the others are concerned,” he pointed out loud. “All he could really confirm is that Manpower’s provided a home for several of the Peeps’ waifs.”

    “True, but he confirmed that not just to the Manties but for Haven, as well.” Albrecht shook his head with a smile of rueful, irritated respect. “Who would’ve thought the Manties would hand him and his entire crew back to Haven in the middle of a shooting war?”

    “I wouldn’t have,” Benjamin admitted. “On the other hand, it was a damned smart move on their part. It left Haven with the responsibility of trying and executing them, which ‘just happened’ to wash so much of the People’s Republic’s dirty linen very much in public. And Pritchart and Theisman actually had to thank them for it.” It was his turn to shake his head. “Talk about a win-win solution for the Manties!”

    “Agreed. But it looks to us like neither the Manties nor the Peeps have any clear picture of exactly how many Clingets ‘Manpower’s’ managed to get its hands on. So I think it’s time for us to arrange a little discreet reinforcement for them. And I want to get Luff and all the rest of his ‘People’s Navy in Exile’ pulled in where no one’s going to be stumbling over any more of them.”

    “I’m not sure that’s the best idea,” Benjamin said, his tone thoughtful. “At the moment, Clignet’s basically demonstrated that he and his friends have become pretty much garden-variety pirates who’re simply being subsidized by Manpower. Everybody knows about the relationship now, but nobody’s got any reason to expect that they’re being recruited for a specific mission. For that matter, they don’t know that, when you come right down to it. As far as they know, they are just doing what they have to do to survive, and they aren’t looking more than a few months into the future at any given moment. They aren’t going to be doing that until we offer them our little . . . inducement for Operation Ferret, either.”

    “And your point is?” Albrecht’s question could have been irritated, angry, but it was merely curious, and Benjamin shrugged.

    “I know we’ve planned all along on reinforcing Luff, but I’ve never been comfortable with the notion — not entirely. It’s one thing for an ‘outlaw transstellar’ like Manpower to be subsidizing ships which more or less just fell into its lap; it’s another thing entirely for that same ‘outlaw transstellar’ to be supplying those pirates with newer, more powerful ships. That’s my first concern. The second one is that pulling them in from their independent operations is going to be an escalation. They’re going to know that we — or Manpower, at least — really have something significant in mind for them to do. Some of them aren’t all that tightly wrapped, as Clignet demonstrated. They may not like the idea of Ferret, and they may try to wiggle out of having anything to do with it. At least some of them are probably going to be opposed to the notion of attacking Verdant Vista, too. Collin and I both pointed out that possibility when the idea first came up, you know. Even the People’s Republic of Haven took its opposition to the slave trade seriously, and some of these people are likely to do the same thing.

    “And, finally, sooner or later, exactly how they prepped for any attack on Verdant Vista is going to come out. Somebody’s going to be captured somewhere else and talk, or they’re just going to drop a hint in the wrong place and it’s going to get back to Manty or Havenite intelligence. And when that happens, people are going to start wondering, first, just how Manpower came up with the ‘reinforcements,’ and, secondly, why Manpower was willing to put a bunch like Luff’s People’s Navy in Exile ‘on retainer’ — and pay them well enough to keep them there — for however long it takes.”

    “Agreed. Agreed to all of it.” Albrecht nodded. “On the other hand, if we actually mount the operation, then probably by the time anybody on the other side starts putting two and two together, they’ll have other things to worry about. Don’t forget that little surprise we’re putting together for Manticore out in Monica right this minute. In other words, I’d say the chances are considerably better than even that ‘Manpower’s’ relationship with this particular batch of ‘pirates’ isn’t going to be of any great burning significance after the fact.

    “Second, this wormhole survey expedition has me worried. If we wipe out the people mounting it, and turn the system into someplace that no longer has any habitable real estate, we should also reduce interest in a ‘killer’ wormhole that no longer goes anywhere interesting, anyway. Not to mention getting Jeremy X and his merry band of lunatics on Torch out of Manpower’s hair — and ours — as permanently as possible. And clearing the way for us to reassert sovereignty — after a decent interval, of course — over the system for ourselves.



    “Third, one way or the other, within the next few months, it’s going to start becoming evident that the Monican Navy ended up coming into possession of over a dozen Solarian battlecruisers, courtesy of Manpower, Technodyne, and the Jessyk Combine. That being the case, I doubt anyone’s going to be all that surprised if it turns out that we had — I’m sorry, that Manpower had — a handful of additional battlecruisers lying around and handed them over to a bunch of ‘pirates’ it could be pretty sure would use them against Manty interests somewhere else, maybe a little closer to home.

    “And, fourth, if we keep them somewhere handy, where we can keep an eye on them and they aren’t going to be flailing around the spaceways making potential problems for us, we remove at least one distracting element from the equation. And if it happens we decide never to mount the operation at all, then we simply detonate those little suicide charges none of them realize ‘Manpower’s’ put aboard their vessels. They all blow up simultaneously in a star system where nobody else is going to know anything about it, and our potential security problem goes away. For that matter, I’ve been increasingly inclined ever since Clignet’s journals surfaced to go with Wooden Horse anyway, if we do mount the operation.”

    Benjamin pursed his lips thoughtfully. The chance of any of their ex-StateSec puppets ever discovering the suicide charges which had been built into each of their ships during routine maintenance overhauls ranged somewhere between ridiculously minute and zero. Personally, if he’d been aboard one of those ships, he would have been going over it with a fine toothed comb, given all of the many sets of circumstances he could think of under which it would be convenient for ‘Manpower’ if their mercenary pirates simply . . . went away, as his father had put it. The fact that people who’d been StateSec officers didn’t seem to be even considering the possibility was only one more indication, in his opinion, of how far they’d fallen since Thomas Theisman’s restoration of the Old Republic had turned them into interstellar orphans.

    But, as his father had just pointed out, the fact that those charges were there was the underlying premise of Operation Wooden Horse. Once the ‘StateSec renegades’ had attacked Verdant Vista and carried out a flagrant violation of the Eridani Edict, every space navy’s hand would be turned against them . . . including that of the small Mesan Space Navy. On the other hand, the problem might never arise if a single Mesan vessel with the activation codes for those suicide charges should just happen to arrive at their post-Verdant Vista rendezvous and transmit them while all those nasty genocidal StateSec fanatics were in range.

    “Let me see if I’ve followed your devious thinking properly here, Father,” he said after a moment. “You’re thinking that we go ahead and mount Operation Ferret and use our reinforced StateSec refugees to take out Verdant Vista. They go ahead and blow out the defenders, then take out the planet itself. As soon as they’ve done that, we deliver their severance checks and all their ships blow up. The planet is so wrecked nobody in his right mind would ever want to live there again, so the only inherent value the system has any longer is the wormhole terminus, which has just been demonstrated to be exceedingly dangerous. At the same time, we take out a huge chunk of the Ballroom’s organized support and body slam its morale — and that of the ASL in general — throughout the galaxy. And because nobody’s going to have any interest on living on the planet, most of the galaxy probably won’t be too surprised — or get too worked up — if Mesa, not Manpower, presses its claim to what’s left. Most folks will probably figure that it’s just Mesa trying to recoup a little of the humiliation it suffered after being thrown out in the first place.”

    “More or less,” Albrecht agreed. “And even if it doesn’t work out with Mesa regaining formal sovereignty over the star system, it should throw things into confusion long enough for nobody to have possession of it — or be mounting any more survey expeditions — before Prometheus rolls over them.”

    “Neat,” Benjamin said, his eyes slightly unfocused as he considered permutations. “There is the little matter of the Eridani violation, though.”

    “We’ve talked about that before, Ben,” Albrecht pointed out. “Either there’s going to be evidence it was the StateSec renegades — who don’t have a star nation anymore — or else there are going to be too few survivors, if any, to identify the attackers at all. In the first case, obviously Manpower’s going to come in for the lion’s share of suspicion, especially after Clignet’s confirmation that it’s been recruiting StateSec mercenaries. That could be . . . unpleasant, but Manpower is only a transstellar corporation, not a star nation, and nobody’s going to be able to prove Manpower gave the order, anyway. That’s going to create enough ambiguity and confusion for our ‘friends’ in the League to derail any effort to apply the edict’s penalties against the star nation of Mesa. There may be demands that Manpower be punished by Mesa, but those can be obfuscated and delayed for however long we need them to be delayed. For that matter, the Alignment doesn’t really care what happens to Manpower at this point, and once a full-scale Prometheus is launched, punishing ‘Manpower’ isn’t going to be especially high on most people’s agendas come anyway. And then there’s the fact that the only actual star nation directly associated with these people, ever, is going to have been the People’s Republic of Haven. I suspect Mesa’s best tactic is going to be to argue that those nasty planet-killing renegades were initially created and enabled by Haven, and that Theisman’s failure in letting them escape with the Havenite warships in their possession is the real ultimate culprit in this whole tragic affair.”

    Father and son looked at one another for a moment, then Benjamin shrugged.

    “All right, Father. I’m still not sure it’s a wonderful idea, you understand, but you’ve managed to deal with most of my reservations. And, for that matter, you’ve got a pretty good track record for spotting and backing operations against ‘targets of opportunity’ most of the rest of us hadn’t noticed. I think we can go ahead and start organizing things, even if it turns out we never launch Ferret at all. Like you say, getting all of them into the same place will make cleaning up easier if we decide to just write the entire notion off, too. Before we actually start handing them modern Solly battlecruisers, though, I’d like to get Collin and Isabel’s input, though.”

    “By all means.” Albrecht nodded vigorously. “I’m inclined to think this is something we are going to have to take care of substantially sooner than we’d thought we were, but I’m not prepared to start rushing in without thinking things through first. We’ve come too far and worked too hard for too long to start taking foolish, unnecessary chances at this late date.”

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