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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Monday, November 2, 2009 01:13 EST



    In the event, the weeks that Brice Miller and his friends spent fretting over their upcoming encounter with the notorious Jeremy X, proved to be pointless. When they were finally introduced to the feared and ferocious terrorist, after they arrived on Torch, it turned out that the reality bore no resemblance to the legends.

    To begin with, he was not two hundred and twenty centimeters tall, nor was his physique that of an ogre. Quite the opposite, to Brice’s surprise and relief. The former head of the Audubon Ballroom and current Secretary of War for Torch was no more than a hundred and sixty-five centimeters in height, and his build was wiry and slender rather than massive.

    He seemed quite a cheerful fellow, too. Even puckish, you might say — at least if, like Brice, you had just recently encountered the term and been taken by it, but hadn’t yet read enough literature to realize that “puckish” was by no means the same thing as “harmless.”

    Jeremy X didn’t scowl, either. Not once. Not even after Hugh Arai — far more bluntly and precisely than he needed to, in Brice’s opinion — explained the manner in which Brice’s clan had stayed alive on Parmley station, for the past half century.

    Unfortunately, while Jeremy X didn’t scowl, someone else in Queen Berry’s audience chamber — that was what they called it, anyway, although Brice thought it looked more like a big office with no desk and not very many chairs — most certainly did scowl. And she made up for everything Jeremy lacked, and then some.

    Thandi Palane was her name. It turned out she was the commander of Torch’s entire military. Brice had been surprised to hear that. If anyone had asked him to guess at the woman’s occupation, he would have said either professional wrestler or enforcer for criminal enterprises. Uniform be damned. That woman was just plain scary. Even without the scowl.

    Thankfully, the queen of Torch herself didn’t seem to share her military commander’s attitude. In fact, she seemed very friendly. And after a few minutes, Brice realized that Palane’s scowl wasn’t directed at him anyway. She was apparently just scowling at the general state of the universe, moral failings thereof.

    By then, though, Brice had stopped caring what Palane thought or didn’t think. In fact, he’d become almost completely oblivious to her existence — and even the existence of Jeremy X. That was because it hadn’t taken more than five minutes in the presence of the queen of Torch before Brice had developed an infatuation for the young woman. A really, really powerful infatuation, the sort that drives all other thoughts from a teenage boy’s brain like a steam cleaner scours all surfaces.

    Also a really, really, really stupid infatuation, even by the standards of fourteen year old adolescent males. Brice wasn’t so far gone that he didn’t realize that, at least in some part of his brain. Big deal. He was providing neurologists with the most graphic evidence probably ever uncovered that the brains of adolescents — male adolescents, for sure — were not fully developed when it came to those portions that evaluated risks.

    From the slack-jawed look on their faces, he was sure that his friends Ed Hartman and James Lewis had been struck down by the same infatuation. And, alas — unlike Brice, who still had a few functioning neurons in his cortex — were now completely ruled by their limbic systems. You might as well have called them Amygdalum and Amygdalee. He could only hope they didn’t do anything really foolish. Too much too hope, of course, that they wouldn’t drool.

    It was odd. Brice was already self-analytical enough to realize that his points of attraction when it came to girls were . . .

    Being honest, not probably all that mature. Good looks came first, put it that way. And, prior to this very moment, he would have sworn that for his friends Ed and James, good looks came first, last, and everything in between.

    Yet the truth was that Queen Berry wasn’t actually pretty. She certainly wasn’t ugly, either, but about the best you could say for her thin face was that everything was in the right place, nothing was deformed, and her complexion was good in pale sort of way. She had nicely colored eyes, for sure. They were her best facial feature. A vivid pale green that almost made up for her mousy-brown hair. Glossy and healthy-looking mousy-brown hair, true. Still. Mousy-brown was mousy-brown.

    True, also, that her slender figure — quite evident, in the casual clothing she chose to wear, even sitting on her throne (which was really just a big, comfortable-looking chair) — was unmistakably female. Still. Various secondary sexual characteristics that normally loomed large in Brice’s assessment of female attractiveness and from what he could tell completely dominated that of his friends — big breasts, to name one — were markedly absent here.

    So why was he smitten? What was it about the young queen’s open and friendly countenance that seemed somehow dazzling? What was it about her certainly-healthy-but-that’s-about-it figure that was producing hormonal reactions way more powerful than any he’d ever experienced gazing upon the voluptuous figure of Cousin Jennifer?

    Part of the explanation was simply that Berry Zilwicki was the first unknown young woman that Brice Miller had ever encountered, aside from brief views of slaves being transported or the slavers overseeing the process, some of whom were also female. One of the many drawbacks of being raised as he had, part of a small clan of people very isolated from the rest of the human race, was that by the time boys reached puberty, they already knew every girl around. And vice versa, for the girls. There were no mysteries, no unknowns. True, the fact that some girls — for Brice, it has been Jennifer Foley — had suddenly developed in such a way as to stimulate new and primitive reactions from the opposite sex (or, sometimes, the same sex — Ganny’s clan wasn’t at all prudish or narrow-minded about such things) helped a bit. Still, while Cousin Jennifer’s ability to stir up fantasies in Brice’s mind was new, the cousin herself most certainly was not. He still carried a small scar on his elbow from the time she’d struck him there with a handy tool, in retaliation for his theft of one of her toys. And she was still holding something of a grudge for the theft itself.

    They’d been seven years old, at the time.

    The queen of Torch, on the other hand, was really new. Brice didn’t know anything at all about her, except for the bare facts that she was several years older than he was — irrelevant, at the moment — and commanded legions of armed and dangerous soldiers. Also irrelevant, at the moment. Everything else was unknown. That, combined with her friendly demeanor, opened the floodgates of fourteen-year-old sexual fantasies in a way that Brice had never encountered and against which he had few defenses.

    But there was more involved. Dimly, Brice Miller was beginning to grasp that sex was a lot more complicated than it looked. He was even verging on the Great Truth that most men were quite happy even when the Significant Other in their life was not especially good-looking. So perhaps Brice was not destined for a life of chastity after all. Given that his heretofore stratospheric standards seemed to be crumbling by the minute.

    “– the matter with you, Brice? And the two of you also, Ed and James. It’s a simple enough question.”

    The genuine irritation in Ganny El’s tone of voice finally penetrated the hormonal fog.

    Brice jerked. What question?

    Thankfully, James played the fool, so Brice didn’t have to. “Uh . . . what question, Ganny? I didn’t hear it.”

    “Have you suddenly gone deaf?” Butre pointed at one of the men standing not far from the queen. He was on the short side, and so wide-bodied he looked a little deformed. “Mr. Zilwicki wants to know if you’d be willing to spend a few months –”

    Zilwicki cleared his throat. “Might be as long as a year, Ms. Butre.”

    “Twelve counts as a ‘few,’ when you’re my age, young man. To get back to the point, James — and you too, Ed and Brice — Mr. Zilwicki has a job for you.” She gave Zilwicki a beady stare. “‘Somewhat’ dangerous, he says. A word to the wise, youngsters. This is one of those situations where the phrase ’somewhat dangerous’ is a lot closer to ‘a little bit pregnant’ than it is to . . . oh, let’s say the version of ’somewhat dangerous’ that a conscientious playground attendant says to a mother when her child is heading for the seesaw.”

    That began dispelling the hormonal fog. For the first time since he’d laid eyes on the queen, Brice focused on someone else in the room.



    Zilwicki. He was the queen’s father, or maybe step-father. And his first name was Anthony, right? Brice wasn’t entirely certain.

    Good fortune struck again. Thandi Palane frowned — the frown helped clear away still more of the hormonal fog — and said: “Are you sure about this, Anton?”

    “They’re awfully young,” added the queen doubtfully.

    That was a dash of cold water. She’d said “awfully young” in the manner that a protective adult refers to children. Not, sadly, in the way that . . .

    Well. That Brice imagined sophisticated older women spoke of young men to whom they were inexplicably attracted. Admittedly, he wasn’t sure of that, either. Seeing as how the situation had never actually happened to him.

    One of the other men in the room spoke up. He was a lot less striking than Zilwicki. Just an average-sized man, with a very square face. Very wide shoulders, too.

    “That’s the whole point, Your Maj — ah, Berry. Add them into the mix, as young as they are, and with neither the ship nor anybody on it having any connection to either Torch or the Ballroom — or Manticore or Beowulf or Haven — and they’ll be about as invisible as anyone can be, where we’d be going.”

    “And where it that, precisely?” demanded Ganny. “I can’t help but notice that you’ve made no mention of that so far.”

    The square-faced man glanced at Zilwicki. “Mesa. To be precise.”

    “Oh, well. And why don’t we sodomize all the demons in the universe, while we’re at it?” Elfride Margarete Butre glared at him. “What do you want us to do for an encore, Cachat? Circumcise the devil?”

    Good fortune again. Brice had forgotten that man’s name too. His first name was Victor, and he was from the Republic of Haven.

    Ca-chat. Silently, Brice practiced the name a few times. It was pronounced in the Frenchified way that Havenites often spoke. KAH-SHAH, rhyming with “pasha,” except the emphasis was on the second syllable instead of the first.

    It finally dawned on him to wonder what a Havenite was doing as part of Queen Berry’s inner circle. Especially given that Zilwicki — more memories came flooding back in, as the hormonal fog continued to lift — was from the Star Kingdom of Manticore. The somewhat haphazard and always intensely practical education given the clan’s youngsters didn’t spend much time on the fine points of astropolitics. But it wasn’t so sketchy as to have overlooked the most hard-fought, bitter and longest-running war in the galaxy.

    Haven. Manticore. And now . . . Mesa.

    Suddenly, Brice was excited. Excited enough that he even forgot for a moment that he was in the presence of the universe’s most wondrous female.

    “We’ll do it!” he said.

    “Yeah!” and “Yeah!” came the echoes from James and Ed.

    Ganny’s shoulders sagged a little, but her glare at Cachat didn’t fade in the least. “You cheated, you bastard.”

    Cachat looked more curious than offended. “How did I cheat?” Then, he shrugged. “But if it’ll make you feel better . . . ”

    He looked now at Brice and his two friends. “The mission we’ll be undertaking is in fact very dangerous. I don’t think you’ll be in much danger, yourselves, at least until the very end. You might not even participate in the ‘very end’ at all, for that matter, since you’ll mostly be there just as a backup in case things go wrong. Still, it can’t be ruled out — and the fact that something will have gone wrong if you do get involved means that it’s likely to be pretty dangerous.”

    “And when he says ‘pretty dangerous,’” Zilwicki chimed in, “he means ‘pretty dangerous’ in the sense that you’ve gone into the den of the most ruthless and evil people in the world and yanked on their collective beard, not ‘pretty dangerous’ in the sense that you’ve picked a fight in the schoolyard with some kids who are a bit bigger than you.”

    “So there’s no hard feelings if you decline,” concluded Cachat.

    “We’ll do it!” Brice said.

    “Yeah!” and “Yeah!” came the echoes from James and Ed.

    “You dirty rotten cheaters,” hissed Ganny. She point a finger at the three boys. “You know perfectly well their brains haven’t fully developed yet.”

    “Well, sure,” said Zilwicki. He poked his forehead with a finger. “Cortex is still a little unshaped, especially in the risk-assessment areas. But if it’ll make you feel any better, the same’s probably true for me, even at my decrepit age.” He hooked a thumb at Cachat. “For sure and certain, it’s true for him.”

    “Oh, wonderful,” said Ganny. Brice couldn’t remember her ever sounding so sullen.

    He, on the other hand, felt exuberant. He’d finally realized what was going on. The most wildly improbable fantasy, come true to life!

    The classic, in fact. Young hero, sent out on a quest to slay the dragon in order to rescue the princess. Well, very young queen. Close enough.

    The traditional reward for which deed of derring-do was well-established. Hallowed, even.

    His eyes flicked right and left. True, in the fantasies there was only one young hero — it being a solitary quest, given the nature of the reward—but Brice was sure he’d outshine his friends. And Zilwicki and Cachat didn’t count, because Zilwicki was the queen’s own father and Cachat was apparently hooked up with Palane and no man, not even one with no frontal lobes at all, would be stupid enough to try to jilt her.

    Then Ganny went and wrecked it all. “I’m coming too, then, Cachat, whether you like it or not.”

    Cachat nodded. “Certainly. The plan sort of depends on that, in fact.”

    “And my great-nephew Andrew Artlett.” She pointed to the individual in question, who’d been standing against a far wall.

    Cachat nodded again. “Makes sense.”

    Ganny now pointed to another person standing against the wall. A young woman, this time. “And Sarah.”

    “That’d be perfect,” agreed Cachat. He nodded toward two others standing nearby. Oddny Ann Rødne and Michael Alsobrook. “They’d be handy, as well.”

    Ganny shook her head. “We’ll need Oddny to take the news back to Parmley Station and help get everything organized. As for Michael . . . ” She shrugged. “Where would he fit in the scheme? Which is pretty obvious, I’d say.”

    “Obvious, indeed,” said Zilwicki. “You’re the matriarch in charge, Andrew and Sarah are married, and the youngsters are their kids.” He studied Brice and his friends for a moment. “Their ages don’t match, unless they were triplets, which they very obviously are not. But given the somatic variation involved, you could hardly claim any of them except James were the natural offspring of Andrew and Sarah, anyway. So two of them have to have been adopted.”

    “Oh, that’s gross,” complained Sarah. She glanced at Artlett, half-glaring. “He’s my uncle.”

    “Calm down!” barked Ganny El. “Nobody said you had to consummate the marriage, you nitwit. In fact, you don’t even have to share a cabin with him.” Butre’s eyes got a little unfocussed. “Now that I think about it . . . ”

    “Good idea,” said Cachat. He gave Sarah and Andrew a quick examination, his eyes flicking back and forth. “Given the age disparity, an estrangement would be logical. So if any Mesan customs officials decide to press a search, they’d discover a very good-looking young woman apparently on the outs with her husband. Even customs officials have fantasies.”

    “Oh, that is so gross,” complained Sarah. “Now you’re whoring me out to strangers!”

    “I said, calm down!” Butre glowered at her. “Nobody’s asking you to do anything more strenuous than bat your eyelashes. And as often as you do that, don’t even try to claim you’ll get exhausted in the effort.”

    Armstrong glared at her, but didn’t say anything. But Zilwicki was now shaking his head.

    “It’s sad, really, to see such a crude resurgence of sexism.”

    Cachat and Butre stared at him. “Huh?” she asked.

    “Not all customs officials are male, you know. Or, even if they are, necessarily heterosexual. If you want to create this little diversion — which I admit isn’t a bad idea — then you really need a male equivalent for Sarah. Which” — he glanced at Andrew Artlett, and spread his hands apologetically — “I’m afraid Andrew is not.”

    Uncle Andrew grinned. “I’m ugly. Not that it gets in my way, much.”

    Zilwicki smiled. “I don’t doubt for an instant that you’re a veritable Casanova. But we don’t actually want to get close to any Mesan officials, we just want to stir up their hindbrains.”

    Ganny was looking unhappy. “I don’t care. I want Andrew along, if we’re going to do this at all. He’s . . . well, he’s capable. Even if he is crazy.”



    A new voice came into the discussion. “Problem solved!”

    Everybody turned to look at a young woman perched on a chair at the back of the room. Brice had noticed her, naturally, when they first came in. First, because she was an unknown young female; secondly, because she was attractive, to boot. But his attention had soon become riveted on the queen, and he’d almost completely forgotten the presence of the other young woman.

    That was odd, in a way, because the young woman sitting at the back of the room was quite a bit better-looking than the queen herself. Still not someone you’d call a beauty, true, but by any standard criteria of pulchritude she had Berry beat hands down. Her figure was fuller, for one thing, although she was also slender. For another, her somewhat darker complexion and really rich chestnut hair were a lot more striking than the queen’s. And while her blue eyes were not as dramatic as the queen’s green ones, they were still attractive in their own right.

    What was her name? Brice tried to remember the initial introductions. Ruth, he thought.

    “Problem solved,” she repeated, coming to her feet. “I come along too — I might even help in the distract-dumb-males-or-lesbians department, although obviously not as much as Sarah — but I can pose as Michael Alsobrook’s wife.” She pointed at Brice. “We can claim him as a child, very plausibly, given his somatic features. Michael and I might be older than we look, given prolong. That only leaves James to be accounted for and that might even be an advantage even if it’s necessary at all which is probably isn’t because by now the human genome is so mixed up with so many recessive features that keep popping up that you never know what a kid might look like but even if somebody assumes there’s no way that Michael could be the father I could certainly be his mother in which case” — here she gave Alsobrook a gleaming smile that was simultaneously fetching, amused and apologetic — “I’ve either been cheating on my husband or I’ve got loose habits, either of which might intrigue a nosy customs official –”

    She hadn’t taken a single breath since she started the sentence. It was pretty impressive.

    “– although we’ve got to face the fact that if anybody does a DNA match the whole charade goes into the incinerator and it’s the easiest thing in the world to gather DNA samples.”

    “Actually, it wouldn’t,” said Ganny, whose spirits seemed to be perking up. “It might even help. The fact is that all of us except you are related — too damn ingrown, to be honest — and while your DNA won’t match, so what? There could any number of explanations for that. I can think of three offhand, two of which would certainly intrigue a nosy customs inspector with an active libido and an orientation toward females.”

    Zilwicki and Cachat practically exploded. “No!” they both said, almost in unison.

    Ruth glared at them. “Why?”

    Zilwicki’s jaws tightened. “Because I’m responsible for your safety to the Queen, Princess. Both queens. If you get even hurt, much less killed, Berry’s just as likely to skin me alive as Elizabeth Winton.”

    Princess, was it? Brice felt himself getting intrigued. That was less of a fantastical stretch than a young queen, after all — in fact, the more he thought about it, “queen” seemed rather stuffy — and the Ruth woman really was very attractive. Very talkative too, apparently, but that was okay with Brice. Seeing as how he’d probably be tongue-tied, anyway.

    The princess jeered. “Don’t be stupid, Anton! If I’m killed — even hurt — there’s no way you’re still going to be alive either. Not with this plan. So what do you care what happens afterward? Or do you believe in ghosts — and think ghosts can be subjected to corporal punishment?”

    Zilwicki glared at her. But . . . said nothing. Brice began to realize that Cachat and Zilwicki hadn’t been exaggerating when they said this mission was possibly dangerous.

    Cachat tried a different tack. “You’ll blow the mission.” Sorrowfully but sternly: “Sorry, Ruth. You’re a brilliant analyst, but the fact remains that you’re not really suited for field work.”

    “Why?” she demanded. “Too jittery? Too jabbery? And what do you think these three kids are? Suave secret agents? Who just somehow can’t keep their tongues from hanging out whenever they run into a female anywhere this side of nubile and short of matronly.”

    She flashed Brice and his friends a quick smile. “S’okay, guys. I don’t mind and I’m sure Berry doesn’t either.”

    Brice flushed. And made sure and certain his tongue was firmly inside his mouth. He had just encountered the second of the Great Truths, which was that a female intelligent enough to be attractive for that very reason, no matter what else, was also . . .

    Intelligent. Bright. Perceptive. Hard to fool.

    He felt a profound wish that a dragon might show up. Frightening, taloned, clawed, scaled, to be sure. But probably not very bright, and certainly not able to read his mind. Well. Read his limbic system. Being honest, there wasn’t all that much “mind” involved.

    “Besides,” Ruth continued, “you’ll need somebody on Ganny’s ship who’s a computer and communications whiz. Anton, you can’t be two places at once. If things do go into the crapper, probably the only chance you’ll have of getting out is if somebody in the backup getaway ship can substitute for your skills manipulating God-knows-what in the way of Mesan security systems. ‘Cause you’re not likely to have time to do it, what with all the guns blazing in the getaway and probably having not much more than a tin can and some wires to worth with even if you did. Have enough time, that is.”

    Now, she flashed that same quick smile at Uncle Andrew. “Meaning no offense.”

    “None taken,” he said, smiling back. “I’m a whiz with anything mechanical or electrical, and I’m even pretty good with computer hardware. But that’s about it.”

    Ruth looked back at Cachat and Zilwicki, triumphantly. “So there. It’s all settled.”

    “I’m for it,” said Ganny forcefully. “In fact, I’m making it a condition. Either the princess comes with us, or the deal’s off. I could give you all sorts of reasons for that, but the only really important one is that I’m getting even with you for playing tricks on my boys.” She gave Brice and his friends a look that could best be described as disgusted. “Taking advantage of their stunted forebrains! Ed, put your tongue back in your mouth. You too, James.”

    She said nothing to Brice. He felt very suave, although he’d have to double-check the dictionary to make sure the word meant what he thought it meant. Now that Princess Ruth was coming along, he had a feeling he wasn’t going to get away with his usual vocabulary habits. Use any long and/or fancy-sounding word you want, serene in the knowledge that your dummy cousins won’t know if you got it wrong.

    Didn’t matter. What he was already thinking of as The Great Adventure would probably be better with a smart princess along. Even if such a fantastical creature was completely absent from the classics.

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