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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Monday, October 12, 2009 18:49 EDT



March, 1921 PD

    “Come in, Jack. It’s good to see you again. Have a seat.”

    “Thank you. It’s good to see you again, too,” Jack McBryde said, mostly honestly, as he obeyed the polite command and settled into what he privately thought of as “the supplicant’s chair” in front of the desk in the office reserved for Isabel Bardasano’s use whenever she visited the Gamma Center.

    Bardasano smiled at him with an edge of sardonic amusement, almost as if she’d read his thoughts. Fortunately, telepathy was something even the Long-Range Planning Board hadn’t yet scheduled for inclusion into its carefully managed genomes, and he smiled back at her. He was one of the people who’d figured out long ago that showing fear — or even nervousness — in Bardasano’s presence, however reasonable those emotions might be, could be disastrous. Her own insouciance, even in the face of Albrecht Detweiler’s occasional temper tantrum, was famous (or infamous) among the uppermost echelons of the Mesan Alignment, and she would not tolerate weaklings among her own trusted subordinates.

    McBryde ranked high among those subordinates. He wasn’t quite in the very uppermost tier, because he hadn’t gone operational off Mesa, or even held supervisory authority over any off-Mesa operation, in over a decade. On the other hand, he reported directly to her (whenever she was in-system, at any rate) in his position as the Gamma Center’s chief of security, which was probably one of the half-dozen most sensitive of the Alignment’s security services’ posts.

    Personally, he was happier running the center’s security than he’d ever really been operating off-world, and he knew it. Unlike Bardasano, who actively enjoyed what was still referred to as “wet work,” McBryde preferred a position in which he was unlikely to have to kill people.

    “It’s good to be back,” Bardasano said now, then shrugged slightly. “On the other hand, I’ve been out of touch too long. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

    “Yes, Ma’am. I can see how that would be.”

    In fact, McBryde was more than a little surprised Bardasano was in a position to do any “catching up.” She’d been back on Mesa for less than forty-eight hours, but rumors of how spectacularly her operation in the Talbott Cluster seemed to have blown up in everyone’s face were already rampant within the Alignment hierarchy. The truth was that if anyone had asked him, this time around, and despite her impressive record of past achievements, he would have placed his own bet against her retaining her position as Collin Detweiler’s immediate subordinate. For that matter, he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t have betted against her even surviving, given the apparent magnitude of the debacle.

    Which would have been pretty stupid of me, now that I think about it, he admitted to himself. Whatever else may be true about Albrecht and Collin, they don’t throw away talent without a damned good reason. And while this operation may have gone south on her, her overall track record really is almost scary.

    “I’ve already viewed your reports on the Gamma Center,” she continued, and gave him a less amused and more approving smile. “My initial impression is that everything seems to have gone just a bit more . . . smoothly here at home than it did in Monica.”

    “That, ah, was my impression, too, Ma’am, if you’ll pardon my saying so.”

    “Oh, I’ll pardon it.” She snorted. “As far as we can tell so far, it was just one of those fluke things that pop up and bite field ops on the ass sometimes, no matter how carefully you prep ahead of time. But I’ve got to admit I hate investing that much time in an operation that comes apart quite as thoroughly as this one did.” She shrugged. “On the other hand, sometimes shit just happens.”

    McBryde nodded, and he had to admit she’d always borne that same point in mind where others were concerned. If you screwed up because you were stupid, or failed to execute your part of an op — on time and as planned — because of something you did, she would very quickly make you wish you’d never been born. And in her public persona as the Jessyk Combine’s, she had deliberately cultivated a “mad dog” mentality where the operatives who had no clue they were working for the Alignment were concerned. That bloodthirstiness and obvious belief in the motivating power of terror were both significant parts of her cover, and the failures she eliminated to “encourage the others” were a completely expendable, easily replaced resource.

    Still, there was an undeniably . . . vicious edge to her personality, one which enjoyed devising inventive punishments, even for Alignment Security personnel who screwed up too egregiously. But what very few people outside Security’s upper echelons grasped was that it was an edge she had firmly under control. And he was willing to acknowledge that the fact that that edge existed — and was generally known among her subordinates — was an extraordinarily effective efficiency motivator.

    “I don’t think we’re going to find any significant problems or necessary adjustments to your procedures,” Bardasano continued. “There are a couple of things we may want to tweak a bit, because — just between the two of us, and despite what just happened in the Talbott Cluster — we’re getting closer to Prometheus.”

    Her eyes, he discovered, were watching him very intently as she dropped the last sentence on him, and he felt himself stiffening. Only partly because of her suddenly closer scrutiny, too. Jack McBryde was one of the people who knew a great deal — almost everything, he suspected — about exactly what “Prometheus” implied, yet nothing had suggested to him that the culmination the entire Alignment had worked towards literally for centuries was as imminent as Bardasano seemed to be suggesting.

    “We are?”

    He made the question come out levelly, despite the undeniable, abrupt flutter of his pulse, and saw a flicker of approval in those intent eyes. Had she been deliberately probing to test his reaction to the news?

    “We are,” she confirmed. “In fact, my personal opinion is that we may well be closer to Prometheus than even Albrecht realizes at this point.” Despite himself, this time McBryde’s eyes widened, and she shrugged again. “I’m not talking about doing anything to jog his elbow, Jack! I’m simply saying my read is that events are accelerating — in some ways, along lines we hadn’t even guessed might present themselves during our preliminary planning. You know we’ve always anticipated at least some of that.”

    “Yes, Ma’am,” he agreed.

    “From your perspective,” she went on, “I think the most important implications are that it’s going to become even more important that the Gamma Center completes its various projects on time. I know!” She waved one hand as McBryde stirred and began to open his mouth. “R&D isn’t something that can be completed to a set schedule on demand. And even if it were, that’s not your end of the Center’s responsibilities. But what I’m going to need out of you is special attention to keeping those projects moving. Obviously, we need to go right on maintaining the highest possible levels of security, but at the same time, we have to be particularly aware of the need to avoid letting our security concerns get in the way of moving the various programs ahead.”

    “I see.” He nodded in understanding.

    “I know you’ve always tried to do that anyway,” Bardasano said. “I imagine having Zachariah as a sounding board hasn’t hurt in that respect, and I’m specifically authorizing you to go on doing that. I know the Gamma Center programs are only part of his responsibilities and that he’s not directly involved in the nuts and bolts on any of them. Try to keep him in the loop anyway, though. Use him as a conduit to the research directors — a way for them to ‘unofficially’ vent about any problems to someone they know can play advocate for them with the big, nasty ogre in charge of all the security restrictions getting in their way.”

    “Yes, Ma’am.” McBryde grinned crookedly. “I’m sure Zack will be just delighted to have even more of them crying in his ear, but he’ll do it if I ask him to.”

    “Useful things, siblings. Sometimes I wish I had one or two.” Bardasano might have sounded just a little wistful, although McBryde wouldn’t have cared to wager any significant sum on the possibility.

    “In the meantime,” she continued, her tone shifting to something considerably more somber, “I think we have one particular problem I’m going to need you to spend some additional effort on.”



    “Problem, Ma’am?”

    “Herlander Simões,” she said, and he grimaced. She saw his expression and nodded.

    “I know he’s been under a lot of strain, Ma’am,” he began, “but, so far, he’s been holding up his end of his project, and –”

    “Jack, I’m not criticizing his performance so far. And I’m certainly not criticizing the way you’ve handled him so far, either. But he’s deeply involved in the entire streak drive improvement program, and that’s one of our critical research areas. For that matter, he’s got peripheral involvement in at least two other projects. I think, under the circumstances, it’s probably appropriate for us to show a little additional concern in his case.”

    McBryde nodded.

    “Tell me more about how you think this is affecting him,” she invited, tipping back in her chair. “I’ve already read half a dozen psych analyses on him, and I’ve discussed his reactions — and his attitude — with Dr. Fabre. The people writing those analyses aren’t in charge of directly supervising his performance, though. I know you’re not either — not in the sense of being his direct superior — but I want your evaluation from a pragmatic viewpoint.”

    “Yes, Ma’am.”

    McBryde inhaled deeply and took a few moments to organize his thoughts. Bardasano’s penchant for demanding operational evaluations on the fly was well known. She’d always believed that what she liked to call “snap quizzes” were the best way to get at what someone really thought, but she also believed in giving her unfortunate minions time to think before they started spewing less than completely considered responses.

    “To begin with,” he said finally, “I have to admit I never really knew Simões — either Simões — in any sort of social sense before all of this came up. For that matter, I still don’t. My impression, though, is that the LRPB’s decision to cull the girl really ripped him up inside.”

    My, he thought. Isn’t that a bloodless way to describe what that man has been going through? And isn’t it just like those bastards over at the LRPB to have failed to consider all the unfortunate little social consequences of their decisions?

    Bardasano nodded, although her own expression didn’t even flicker. Of course, she represented one of Long-Range Planning’s in vitro lines, McBryde reminded himself, and one which had been culled more than once, itself. For that matter, at least one of her own immediate clones had been culled, and not until late adolescence, at that, if he remembered correctly. Still, while the culled Bardasano had been the next best thing to a genetic duplicate to Isabel (not quite; there’d been a few experimental differences, of course), it had scarcely been what the word “brother” or “sister” would have implied to a man like Jack McBryde. Like a lot — even the majority — of LRPB’s in vitro children, she’d been tube-birthed and crèche-raised, not placed in a regular family environment or encouraged to form sibling bonds with her fellow clones. No one had ever officially told McBryde anything of the sort, but he strongly suspected that lack of encouragement represented a deliberate policy on the Board’s part — a way to avoid the creation of potentially conflicting loyalties. So maybe this was simply too far outside her own experience for her to have more than a purely intellectual appreciation for Herlander Simões’ anguish.

    “I understand he tried to fight the decision,” she said.

    “Yes, Ma’am,” McBryde confirmed, although “fight the decision” was a pitifully pale description of Simões’ frantic resistance.

    “There was never much chance he was going to get a reversal, though,” he continued. “According to my information, the LRPB directors considered it a slam dunk, given the quality of life issues that reinforced the utilitarian ones.”

    Bardasano nodded again. Despite the qualifier on his own familiarity with the case, McBryde knew quite a lot about it. He knew Herlander Simões — and his wife, apparently — had lowered their emotional defenses when Francesca made it through the anticipated danger zone with flying colors. Which had only made the agony infinitely worse when the first symptoms appeared two years late.

    Having them turn up on the very day of her birthday must have been like an extra kick in the heart, and as if that hadn’t been enough, her condition had degenerated with astounding speed. On her birthday, there’d been no outward visible sign at all; within six T-months, the bright, lively child McBryde had seen in the Simões’ security file imagery had disappeared. Within ten T-months, she’d completely withdrawn from the world about her. She’d been totally nonresponsive. She’d simply sat there, not even chewing food if someone put it into her mouth.

    “I’ve read the reports on the girl’s condition,” Bardasano said dispassionately. “Frankly, I can’t say the Board’s decision surprises me.”

    “As I say, I don’t think there was ever much chance of a reversal, either,” McBryde agreed. “He didn’t want to hear that, though. He kept pointing at the activity showing on the electroencephalograms, and he was absolutely convinced they proved that, as he put it,’ she was still in there somewhere.’ He simply refused to admit her condition was unrecoverable. He was certain that if the medical staff just kept trying long enough, they’d be able to get through to her, reverse her condition.”

    “After all the effort they’d already put into solving the same problem in previous cases?” Bardasano grimaced.

    “I didn’t say he was being logical about it,” McBryde pointed out. “Although he did make the point that because this child had made it further than any of the others had, she represented the best opportunity the Board would ever have — or had ever had so far, at any rate — to achieve an actual breakthrough.”

    “Do you think he really believed that? Or was it just an effort to come up with an argument which wouldn’t be dismissed out of hand?”

    “I think it was a bit of both, actually. He was desperate enough to come up with any argument he could possibly find, but it’s my personal opinion that he was even angrier because he genuinely believed the Board was turning its back on a possibility.”

    And, McBryde added silently, because those brain scans were still showing activity. That’s why he kept insisting she was really still there, even if none of it was making it to the surface. And he also knew how little of the Board’s resources would actually be tied up in the effort to get her back for him. He figured the return to the Alignment in general if they succeeded would hugely exceed the cost . . . and that the investment would keep his daughter alive. Maybe even return her to him one day.

    “At any rate,” he went on aloud, “the Board didn’t agree with his assessment. Their official decision was that there was no reasonable prospect of reversing her condition. That it would have been an ultimately futile diversion of resources. And as for the apparent EEG activity, that only made the situation even worse from the quality-of-life perspective. They decided that condemning her to a complete inability to interact with the world around her — assuming she was even still aware there was a world around her — would be needlessly cruel.”

    Which sounded so compassionate of them, he thought. It may even have been that way, for some of them, at least.

    “So they went ahead and terminated her,” Bardasano finished.

    “Yes, Ma’am.” McBryde allowed his nostrils to flare. “And, while I understand the basis for their decision, from the perspective of Simões’ effectiveness, I have to say that the fact that they terminated her just one day short of her birthday was . . . unfortunate.”

    Bardasano grimaced — this time in obvious understanding and agreement.

    “The LRPB goes to great lengths to keep its decision-making process as institutionalized and impersonal as possible as the best way of preventing favoritism and special-case pleading,” she said. “That means it’s all pretty much . . . automated, especially after the decision’s been made. But I imagine you’re right. In a case like this, showing a little more sensitivity might not have been out of order.”

    “In light of the effect on him, you’re absolutely right,” McBryde said. “It hammered his wife, too, of course, but I think it hit him even harder. Or, at least, I think it’s had more serious consequences in terms of his effectiveness.”

    “She left him?” Bardasano’s tone made it clear the question was actually a statement, and McBryde nodded.



    “I think there were a lot of factors tied up in that,” he told her. “Part of it was that she seems a lot more in accord with the Board’s quality-of-life arguments. That’s the way he sees her attitude, at any rate. So at least a part of him blamed her for ‘abandoning’ the girl — and him, in a sense — when she wouldn’t support his appeals for a reversal. At the same time, though, my impression is that she wasn’t really anywhere near as reconciled to the decision as she seemed. I think that deep down inside she was trying to deny how badly the Board’s decision was hurting her. But there was nothing she could do about that decision. I think she admitted that to herself a lot sooner than he was prepared to, so she focused her anger on him, instead of the Board. The way she saw it, he was stretching out everyone’s pain — and whatever the girl was enduring — in what he ought to have known as well as she did was obviously an ultimately useless crusade.” He shook his head. “There’s room for an awful lot of pain in that sort of situation, Ma’am.”

    “I suppose I understand that,” Bardasano said. “I know emotions frequently do things, cause us to do things, when our intellects know better all along. This was obviously one of those times.”

    “Yes, Ma’am. It was.”

    “Is the wife’s work suffering out of all this?”

    “Apparently not. According to her project leader, she actually seems to be attacking her work with greater energy. He says he thinks it’s her form of escape.”

    “Unhappiness as a motivator.” Bardasano smiled ever so slightly. “Somehow, I don’t see it being generally applicable.”

    “No, Ma’am.”

    “All right, Jack — bottom line. Do you think Simões’ . . . attitude is likely to have an adverse impact on his work?”

    “I think it’s already had an adverse impact,” McBryde replied. “The man’s good enough at his job that, despite everything, he’s still probably outperforming just about anyone else we could slide into the same position, though — especially given the fact that anyone we might replace him with would be starting cold. The replacement would have to be brought fully up to speed, even assuming we could find someone with Simões’ inherent capability.”

    “That’s a short-term analysis,” Bardasano pointed out. “What do you think about the long-term prospects?”

    “Long-term, Ma’am, I think we’d better start looking for that replacement.” McBryde couldn’t quite keep the sadness out of his tone. “I don’t think anyone can go through everything Simões is going through — and putting himself through — without crashing and burning in the end. I suppose it’s possible, even likely, that he’ll eventually learn to cope, but I very much doubt it’s going to happen until he falls all the way down that hole inside him.”

    “That’s . . . unfortunate,” Bardasano said after a moment. McBryde’s eyebrow quirked, and she let her chair come back upright as she continued. “Your analysis of his basic ability dovetails nicely with the Director of Research’s analysis. At the moment, we genuinely don’t have anyone we could put into his spot who could match the work he’s still managing to turn out. So I guess the next question is whether or not you think his attitude — his emotional state — constitutes any sort of security risk?”

    “At the moment, no,” McBryde said firmly. Even as he spoke, he felt the tiniest quiver of uncertainty, but he suppressed it firmly. Herlander Simões was a man trapped in a living hell, and despite his own professionalism, McBryde wasn’t prepared to simply cut him adrift without good, solid reasons.

    “In the longer term,” he continued, “I think it’s much too early to predict where he might finally end up.”

    Willingness to extend Simões the benefit of the doubt was one thing; failing to throw out a sheet anchor in an evaluation like this one was quite another.

    “Is he in a position to damage anything that’s already been accomplished?”

    Bardasano leaned forward over her desk, folding her forearms on her blotter and leaning her weight on them while she watched McBryde intently.

    “No, Ma’am.” This time McBryde spoke without even a shadow of a reservation. “There are too many backups, and too many other members of his team are fully hands-on. He couldn’t delete any of the project notes or data even if he were so far gone that he tried — not that I think he’s anywhere near that state, at this point at least, you understand. If I did, I’d have already yanked him. And as far as hardware is concerned, he’s completely out of the loop. His team’s working entirely on the research and basic theory end of things.”

    Bardasano cocked her head, obviously considering everything he’d said, for several seconds. Then she nodded.

    “All right, Jack. What you’ve said coincides with my own sense from all the other reports. At the same time, I think we need to be aware of the potential downsides for the Gamma Center’s operations in general, as well as his specific projects. I want you to take personal charge in his case.”

    “Ma’am –” McBryde began, but she interrupted him.

    “I know you’re not a therapist, and I’m not asking you to be one. And I know that, usually, a degree of separation between the security chief and the people he’s responsible for keeping an eye on is a good thing. This case is outside the normal rules, though, and I think we have to approach it the same way. If you decide you need help, you need an additional viewpoint, you need to call in a therapist, feel free to do so. But if I’m right about how imminent Prometheus is, we need to keep him where he is, doing what he’s doing, as long — and as expeditiously — as we can. Understood?”

    “Yes, Ma’am.” McBryde couldn’t keep his lack of enthusiasm completely out of his voice, but he nodded. “Understood.”

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