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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Monday, October 5, 2009 20:13 EDT



    Luiz Rozsak felt his mouth watering in anticipation as he cut through the pastry “jacket” into the juicy center of the nicely rare Beef Wellington. Mayan “beef” actually came from “mayacows” — locally evolved critters that looked sort of like an undersized brontosaurus crossed with a llama. Unlike the Old Earth animal from whom it had taken its name (more or less) the mayacow was oviparous, and quite a few of the local population were partial to mayacow omelettes. Those had never really appealed to Rozsak, but he’d decided over the past several T-years that he actually preferred mayacow beef to Old Earth beef. There truly were enormous similarities, yet he’d discovered some delightful, subtle differences, as well. In fact, he’d invested a modestly hefty percentage of his own income in backing a commercial ranching venture on New Tasmania, Maya’s smaller continent. Unlike a great deal of the planet, New Tasmania was tectonically stable, remarkably lacking in volcanoes, and blessed with huge expanses of open prairie. Even today, there was plenty of room for operations like the Bar-R to grow and expand, and Rozsak was already showing a tidy profit on the new markets he’d opened up in Erewhon.

    He put the bite into his mouth, closed his eyes, and chewed slowly, with a self-satisfied pleasure he didn’t even try to hide from his dinner companion.

    “This is delicious, Luiz,” Oravil Barregos said from his side of the small dining table.

    The two of them were seated in Rozsak’s kitchen. Very few people realized that cooking was one of Rozsak’s favored hobbies, and he suspected that even fewer would have realized (or believed) that stern, driven, hugely ambitious Sector Governor Barregos actually enjoyed sitting down to an informal dinner, where he and his host served their own plates and poured their own wine, without hordes of servants hovering somewhere in the background. Or, at least, without hordes of supplicants plying him with food and wine in an effort to worm their way into his confidence.

    “I think the asparagus might be just a little overcooked,” Rozsak replied self-critically.

    “You always think something’s ‘a little’ something,” Barregos retorted with a smile. “And, frankly, I think it’s rather ridiculous, since you seem to be physically unable to stop ‘tweaking’ your recipes.” He shook his head. “I don’t think you’ve ever actually served me exactly the same dish twice; you keep fiddling with it so that there’s always something different about it.”

    “Perfect culinary consistency is a bugaboo of small minds,” Rozsak told him loftily. “And a bold spirit of experimentation shouldn’t prevent a true chef from recognizing where his efforts fall short — marginally, mind you, only marginally — of his expectations.”

    “Oh, of course! And such monumental shortcomings, at that. Last time, if I remember correctly, the guacamole was a bit too thin to be perfectly satisfying.”

    “No,” Rozsak corrected with a smile of his own. “That was time before last. Last time it was the Sauce Châteaubriand.”

    “Oh, forgive my faulty memory!” Barregos rolled his eyes. “How could I have forgotten? Something about the local shallots not measuring up, wasn’t it?”

    “Actually, it was my decision to experiment with that strain of shallots which has evolved on Erewhon.” Rozsak’s artful professorial manner would have fooled most people, since most people wouldn’t have been able to recognize the gleam of humor in his dark eyes. “It should have worked,” he continued, “but there was a degree of acidity I hadn’t counted on. Oh, the meal was satisfactory, of course. Don’t misunderstand me. Still –”

    “Given the fact that you’re the only person I know who makes Châteaubriand at all, and that your degree of fanaticism in the kitchen can be truly terrifying, I’m amazed to hear you saying something like that,” Barregos interrupted. “‘The meal was satisfactory’? You mean you’re willing to admit that? Dear Lord, the end of the universe is at hand!”

    Both of them chuckled, and the governor shook his head. It always amused him that Rozsak, supremely confident in so many ways, was never truly satisfied with his own culinary efforts. He truly was constantly experimenting, tweaking, tinkering with ingredients, and he was far and away his own sternest critic.

    Of course, he doesn’t have a lot of other potential critics, does he? Barregos thought. It’s not a side of him he shares with a lot of people, after all. I wonder why he keeps it so private? Because it’s the one real escape he allows himself and sharing it would make it less of an escape somehow? Because the domesticity of it would be so at odds with his hard-as-nails, tough-minded, cynical admiral public persona?

    “Well,” Rozsak said, almost as if he’d just read his guest’s mind, as he reached for his wine glass, “given the way things are heating up, I’ve discovered that I need to relax in the kitchen just a bit more than I used to.”

    “If one of the side effects is producing meals like this,” Barregos replied, keeping his tone light as he reached for his own wine, “maybe it’s a pity I haven’t kept you under more pressure all along.”

    “Oh, I think you’ve managed quite nicely in that respect,” Rozsak reassured him, and the two of them snorted almost simultaneously.

    “Speaking of Erewhonese vegetables –”

    “Roots, Governor. Roots,” Rozsak corrected. “Like onions.”

    “Speaking of Erewhonese plant life,” Barregos said with a stern look, “how are our other Erewhonese ventures coming?”

    “On the financial side, you really need to discuss that with Donald and Brent,” Rozsak said rather more seriously. “My impression is that so far we’ve had enough cash to cover everything.”

    An arched eyebrow and rising inflection turned the last sentence into a question, and Barregos nodded.

    “There’s actually turned out to be even more cash in the till than I’d expected,” he replied. “I don’t think we can siphon any more out of our official budget without risking questions from Permanent Senior Undersecretary Wodoslawski’s minions at Treasury, but it’s rather impressive how much some of the transstellars’ local management has been willing to kick into my ‘discretionary fund’ for those ’subscription ships’ of yours. And even better, Donald’s managed to arrange things so that a good seventy percent of our total costs look like — and are, for that matter — good, sound investment opportunities.” He shrugged. “We’re still racking up a pretty impressive debt, but Donald and Brent are both confident we’ll be able to service the interest and pay down the Sector’s own public debt within no more than five to ten T-years.”

    “I’m glad to hear it.” Rozsak cut another morsel of beef and chewed it slowly, then swallowed.

    “I’m glad to hear it, but unless I’m pretty badly mistaken, our expenditure curve is about to start climbing steeply. Chapman and Horton are ready to start laying down their first locally designed SD(P)s. Which means, of course, that we’re about ready to start doing the same thing. Discreetly, of course.”

    “Oh, of course,” Barregos agreed. He smiled tightly. “The first half dozen of those were factored into the numbers Donald and Brent discussed with me last week, though.”

    “They were?” Rozsak sounded surprised, and the governor chuckled.

    “Actually, we ended up owning a considerably larger chunk of Al Carlucci’s new shipbuilding capacity than we’d anticipated.” Barregos’ chuckle segued into a grimace. “Having Pritchart and Elizabeth go back to shooting at each other hasn’t helped the local economy. It probably wouldn’t have helped things anyway, but I don’t suppose anyone in Erewhon was really surprised when Manticore hammered them with that increase in transit fees.” He snorted. “Actually, I’d imagine that if anyone in Maytag was surprised by anything it’s that Manticore didn’t smack them on the wrist even harder.”

    “A seven hundred and fifty-percent increase in Junction transit fees, a seventy-five-percent duty on any Erewhonese product in the Star Kingdom, and a seventy-percent capital gains tax on any Erewhonese investment in Manticore strikes me as a pretty substantial ’smack,’” Rozsak pointed out dryly. “Especially given the fact that Manticore’s been Erewhon’s biggest single trading partner for decades.”



    “Agreed.” Barregos nodded. “And its hammered the hell out of the Erewhonese economy, too. Produced its own little system-wide recession, as a matter of fact. On the other hand, I think even Imbesi would be prepared to admit that some sort of Manty retaliation for all the technology that got handed over to Haven was in order, and it could have been a hell of a lot worse. Of course, they’ve managed to pick up at least some of their losses from increased trade with Haven, but they’re suddenly on the other end of the tech imbalance, which is kicking up more than a few problems while their industrial sector tries to retool and adjust. Not to mention the fact that they aren’t any too fond of Haven at the moment, either, given who actually fired the first shot that landed them in their current mess.

    “At any rate, right now, and not wanting to wish any additional unhappiness on our newfound friends in Maytag, it’s offering us quite a few interesting opportunities we probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. Among other things, CIG ended up needing a lot more capital investment from our side to get it up and running. That’s why we floated that new bond issue back on Old Earth, which is also one of the reasons we’re in better economic shape — and in a much better strategic position in Erewhon — at this point than we’d expected to be. Financially, the fact that the Sector was already so heavily invested in Erewhon gave us plenty of cover when the resumption of hostilities meant we had to raise additional capital from sources outside our immediate area. And Treasury was perfectly willing to sign off on the bonds — for the bureaucrats’ usual cut, of course.”

    He smiled evilly, and Rozsak raised both eyebrows in silent question.

    “Well,” Barregos told him cheerfully, “those same bureaucrats back on Old Earth insisted — positively insisted — that the bond issue in question be underwritten directly by the Treasury instead of the Sector administration. I think it had something to do with . . . bookkeeping issues.”

    Rozsak snorted harshly in amused understanding. He wasn’t at all surprised that the Treasury Department personnel in question wanted to handle the accounting as much in-house as possible, since it was so much easier to cook their own books (and hide their inevitable peculation) than it was to skim off of someone else’s cash flow without detection. But that was merely the Solarian League’s basic SOP, and he was still a bit puzzled by the governor’s obvious amusement.

    “And having them do the bookkeeping helps us exactly how?” the admiral asked after a moment. “Obviously it does, somehow, but I would’ve thought that having their fingers directly in the pie would be more likely to sound alarms at their end as we get further down the road.”

    “As long as the graft keeps rolling in, they aren’t going to care what we’re really doing with the money at this end,” Barregos pointed out. “That’s a given, and it’s been part of our strategy from the very beginning. But what else it does for us is to make the debt a charge on the Solarian League, not the Maya Sector, and it never occurred to me or Donald that we might be able to get away with that!”

    “And?” Rozsak asked.

    “And, Luiz, if the day should ever come — perish the thought — when we good, loyal Solarians out here in the Sector should find ourselves in less than full accord with Frontier Security HQ or the Interior Department in general, we won’t be the ones responsible for paying the bondholders off. As far as we’re concerned, all that dreadful debt — close to sixty percent of our total investment in CIG, will be owed to Solarian citizens, not anyone out here. And the obligation to pay off those bounds, Donald tells me, will also belong to the League Treasury. Which means that as far as we’re concerned it will just . . . go away. Poof.”

    He smiled beatifically, and despite his own monumental aplomb and self-control, Rozsak’s jaw actually dropped a half-centimeter or so.

    “And,” Barregos continued even more cheerfully, “I’ve just had a memo from one of Wodoslawski’s senior aides. He wants to know if it would be possible to interest the Erewhonese directly in floating additional bond issues in the League to support their military expansion. It seems reports about Erewhon’s concern — its worry about finding itself caught between its old allies and its new ones if things go really sour — has inspired certain individuals back on Old Earth to be thinking in terms of combining personal opportunity with foreign policy objectives. According to the memo, Treasury and State would like to acquire a bigger financial stake in Erewhon as a means of gaining additional leverage with the Republic down the road.”

    “Damn,” Rozsak said mildly, and shook his head. “Those poor bastards. They don’t even have a clue, do they?” Then he snorted. “Talk about history repeating! The whole thing reminds me of what Lenin had to say about capitalists selling rope to the proletariat!”

    “I don’t know about that,” Barregos replied. “Frankly, you’re a lot better student of pre-space Old Earth history than I am. I know who you’re talking about, but I’m not familiar with the specific comment you’re actually referring to. If he meant those idiots in Old Chicago are stupid enough to be paying for the pulser darts likely to be coming their own way, though, yes. I’d say it does sort of . . . resonate.”

    “You know,” Rozsak said thoughtfully, “I can’t say I was especially delighted when the Manties and the Havenites started shooting at each other again. To be honest, it seemed likely to make a lot of problems for us. Oh, I figured there’d be opportunities in it, too, of course, but I was more worried about the probable economic dislocation and what might happen if Erewhon got sucked into the fighting and took our investment plans with it.”

    “That,” Barregos conceded, “would really and truly have sucked from our perspective.”

    “Tell me about it!” Rozsak snorted. “Instead, it’s worked out so much in our favor that I’m starting to wait nervously for whatever bad news the karma department is waiting to hit us with by way of compensation.”

    Barregos nodded. The Republic of Erewhon had been both surprised and more than mildly irritated by the Republic of Haven’s decision to resume hostilities against the Star Kingdom of Manticore less than a T-month after Berry Zilwicki’s coronation on Torch. In fact, Erewhon had been downright pissed off about it. There’d been just time enough for Maytag and Nouveau Paris to ratify the brand-new self-defense treaty between their two republics before the shooting started up all over again, and despite how severely pissed off the Erewhonese had been with the High Ridge Government, it hadn’t cared at all for the position in which Eloise Pritchart’s decision had placed it.

    It was fortunate that the new treaty was defensive in nature, since, in light of the fact that Haven was clearly the aggressor this time around, that had at least obviated any requirement for Erewhon to sign on for active operations against its erstwhile fellow members of the Manticoran Alliance. On the other hand, as the Star Kingdom’s new economic policies had made painfully evident to Erewhon, Manticore was less than totally pleased by the technology transfers which had been part of the Erewhon-Haven agreements. Personally, Barregos felt confident that the real reason Manticore hadn’t been even less delighted (not to mention inclined to punish Erewhon even more harshly) was that the Manties were unhappily aware that Haven had probably captured enough even more modern Manty military technology in the course of Operation Thunderbolt to give the Republican Navy at least as much of a leg up as anything Erewhon could have handed over. It might have taken Shannon Foraker and Haven’s revitalized R&D establishment longer to capitalize on what they’d captured without the starting point Erewhon had given them, but Foraker was dismayingly competent from Manticore’s perspective. She’d have gotten there in the end on her own, eventually, and the Manties knew it.



    And, he reflected respectfully, Elizabeth Winton is smart enough not to forget that there’s always a tomorrow. I’m sure she’s pissed off as hell at Erewhon right now, but she also knows how much her own damned prime minister had to do with creating the new situation. And she’s pragmatic enough to roll with the punch of Erewhon’s tech transfers as long as Erewhon goes on refusing to participate in military operations against the Alliance. She doesn’t want to do anything that’s going to inflict irreparable damage on the possibility of future relations between the Star Kingdom and Erewhon.

    “It has offered us an even better opportunity to firm up our own relationship with Erewhon than I expected,” he said out loud. “Completely irrespective of how it’s helped our funding drives back on Old Earth.”

    “I’m afraid I’m a bit more focused on the hardware side of things,” Rozsak said. “Having Manticore and Haven shooting at each other again has given Admiral Chapman and Glenn Horton the perfect pretext for expanding their wall of battle just as fast — and as much — as they possibly can. Which, of course, is going to expand our own strength right along with theirs. And, frankly, I’m more than a little impressed with some of the tech transfers flowing the other way. Foraker and her crew have obviously been working hard on catching up with the Manties. And from what Greeley is saying over in the ESN’s Office of Research and Development, combining that with the Solarian tech we’ve been quietly feeding him is opening up some interesting possibilities of its own.”

    “Really?” Barregos looked thoughtful. “I hadn’t thought about that possibility,” he admitted after a moment, then shrugged. “I suppose I’ve been so well aware of how the Manties have been pushing the envelope that it didn’t occur to me that the League might have anything significant to offer Erewhon.”

    “I’m not sure the League would have ‘anything significant’ to offer Manticore.” Rozsak grimaced. “Even now, and even while I’m fully aware of how much that particular fact is likely to be working in our own favor in the not-too-distant, I’m still a little pissed off — well, irritated, at least — by the thought that the Manties are so far out in front of the SLN. It’s downright humiliating. Almost as humiliating as the realization that no one back on Old Earth seems to have the tiniest sliver of an awareness of just how bad things really are from their perspective. I’d like to think that someone in the Navy somewhere has at least the IQ of a gerbil!

    “But Erewhon isn’t Manticore,” he continued. “The Erewhonese’s tech base isn’t nearly as advanced as the Manties’ is, and I’d estimate that they’re at least a generation or two behind the Manties’ deployed hardware. How far behind the Manties’ R&D they are is something I’m not even prepared to guess about at this point, but there are a lot of ways in which Solarian tech is letting them downsize and improve on some of the stuff they’re getting from Foraker’s teams. And,” he bared the tips of his teeth, “under the circumstances and given the way Haven surprised them, as well as the Manties, with Thunderbolt, neither Greeley nor Chapman seems to feel any great need to fall all over themselves passing on their own improvements to Haven.”

    “I’m not really surprised to hear that,” Barregos said.

    “No, I’m not either,” Rozsak agreed. Then he frowned.

    “What?” Barregos asked, and the admiral shrugged.

    “I’ve just been thinking about the other opportunities — and risks — involved in our current complicated little political calculus out this way. Admittedly, so far it’s working out in our favor — in ways I never would have anticipated, as well as the ones we’d figured on all along. But the downside of it is, first, that despite everyone’s best efforts, the fighting could spill over onto Erewhon after all, which wouldn’t exactly come under the heading of a good thing from our perspective. And, second, that with Manticore and Haven so busy shooting at each other, we’re right back to where we were when it comes to dealing with any little interstellar situations that crop up in our neighborhood.”

    “Such as?” Barregos gave him a quizzical look. “I mean, I’m certainly not disagreeing with you, Luiz. God knows I trust your instincts! But from where I sit right this moment, it looks like any ‘little interstellar situations’ that come up are more likely to play into our hands than to create additional problems. After all, the more potential hot spots we can point to out here, the less likely anyone in Old Chicago is to get all hot and bothered about our ‘readiness campaign.’”

    “Oh, from that perspective, I agree entirely. That’s a win-win situation from our viewpoint. And Edie, Jiri, and I don’t have anything more solid in the way of worrying about potential ‘blow-up-in-your-face’ hot spots than what Brigadier Allfrey and Richard Wise are reporting. It’s not that I have any specific worries in mind, Oravil.”

    Rozsak didn’t use the governor’s given name very often, even in private conversation, and Barregos’ eyes narrowed slightly at the indication that his admiral’s concerns were serious.

    “It’s just that we’re still at a vulnerable stage,” Rozsak continued. “We’ve got a dozen of the new destroyers, and a couple of the new light cruisers, in inventory now, but we’re still well short of any significant increase in our overall combat power. And we’re also at a point where we can’t call on anyone else — except for additional Frontier Fleet units, which we both know is the last thing we want to do — if something comes along that we end up needing backup to handle. I know that’s not likely to happen, but one of my jobs is worrying about unlikely things, and I don’t like the feeling of being spread too thin to handle all of our obligations if something does fall in the crapper.”

    “I can appreciate that,” Barregos said after a moment. “At the same time, as you say, there doesn’t seem to be anything looming on the horizon.”

    “Well, that’s the problem with horizons, isn’t it?” Rozsak smiled crookedly. “You can never see what’s on the other side of one until it comes at you.”

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