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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Twenty Two

       Last updated: Friday, November 6, 2009 21:20 EST



    “I’m glad you decided not to get hardnosed about it, Jeremy,” said Hugh Arai, as he lowered himself into a chair in the War Secretary’s office. “Lowered” was the proper term, too. The chair didn’t look all that sturdy, and Hugh massed slightly over two hundred kilos. That weight was calculated Earth-normal, true, but Torch’s gravity wasn’t that much lower. Certainly not enough to make a difference.

    Jeremy watched the delicate process with a sardonic smile. “You really needn’t take so much care,” he said. “If you crush the miserable thing, maybe I’ll be able to get the State Accounting Office to authorize more suitable furniture. Not likely, though.” He took a seat behind the desk. “I’m sorry to say that the anal-retentive manias of the SAO’s officials is the clearest evidence I’ve ever seen that Manpower’s genetic schemes actually work according to plan. Most of them are J-11s.”

    Now sure that the chair would hold his weight, Hugh looked up and gave Jeremy a smile. J-11s were the “model” of slave that was supposedly designed to handle technical work of an accounting and record-keeping nature. Like all such precise Manpower designations, it was mostly nonsense. Manpower’s geneticists did breed for those skills, but genes were far more plastic than they liked to admit — certainly to their customers. There was no gene for “accounting,” nor was there one for “file-keeping.”

    It was true that slaves designed for a certain task tended to do it well. But that was far more likely the product of the slave’s training and — probably most important of all — the slave’s own self-expectation, than any genetic wizardry on Manpower’s part.

    That said . . . In Hugh’s experience, J-11s did tend to be anal-retentive. That manifested itself primarily in a certain sort of knee-jerk stinginess. You might as well try to get blood from a stone as squeeze money out of a J-11 was a common wisecrack among genetic slaves and ex-slaves.

    “As for the other,” Jeremy continued, waving his hand in an airy gesture, “I am magnanimous by nature. It is well known.”

    “It most certainly is not.”

    Jeremy shrugged. “Those gypsies aren’t the first people who’ve ever had to cut a deal with the devil in order to stay alive. Plenty of slaves and ex-slaves have done the same. But it was clear enough they didn’t go any further than they had to, and . . . The fact that they adopted so many slaves spoke in their favor.”

    He gave Hugh a beady eye. “As you knew it would, so you can stop pretending you weren’t trying to manipulate me.”

    “Manipulate the situation, it’d be better to say. I was just playing it by ear, so to speak. I wasn’t actually sure what use we could get out of Parmley Station, but I had the sense that there had to be something.”

    He smiled, perhaps a bit ruefully. “Mind you, I wasn’t expecting such an enthusiastic response as soon as we got here. Cachat and Zilwicki reacted like treecats discovering a bin full of celery.”

    Jeremy’s smile was definitely on the rueful side. “I’ve sometimes regretted the way we let those damn spooks run loose among us. I’m not sure who’s worse. Sometimes I think it’s Cachat, sometimes Zilwicki — and in my darkest moments I think they’re both playing a charade so I won’t notice that Princess Ruth is the one really running amok.”

    “I’m a little astonished that the Wintons agreed to let her stay here.”

    “It’s not really that odd, if you’re willing to stretch the definition of ‘public service.’ The Manticoran dynasty has always had a tradition that its youngsters can’t just lounge about idly.”

    Hugh shook his head. “In the nature of things, spying is hardly what you’d call ‘public’ service. And — being cynical about it — that’s mostly the purpose of having young royals displaying their patriotic merits, isn’t it?”

    Jeremy pondered the question, for a moment. “Actually, no. Not with that dynasty, anyway. With most it would be, true enough. But I think the main concern of the Wintons is with maintaining their own . . . call it ‘fiber,’ for lack of a better term. The big problem with letting young royals spend their time loafing is that eventually they became the royals, and then it won’t be long before the dynasty itself is a loafer.”

    He gave Arai another beady gaze. “I can tell you that our own founding dynast has stated any number of times that no kid of hers is going to be an idler.”

    Unwarily, Hugh said, “Well, good. But first she has to produce said kids.”

    Too late, he recognized the beadiness of the gaze. Jeremy hadn’t become one of the galaxy’s deadliest pistoleers if he hadn’t known how to keep his eyes on the target.

    “Exactly so. And for that, unless we opt for artificial insemination — and you really don’t want to hear the Queen’s opinion on that subject, trust me — we need a consort.”

    “Not a chance, Jeremy,” said Hugh, chuckling. “Leaving aside the fact that I barely know the girl, having just met her, I have my own career plans.”

    Jeremy X had an impressive sneer, as you’d expect. “Oh, right. I forgot. Hugh Arai plans to devote his life to the retail-trade slaughter of Manpower villains. ‘Slaughter,’ did I say? A better term would be ‘pruning.’ Very careful pruning, one tiny little slaver bud at a time. God forbid he should forego that grand opportunity in order to help forge an entire star nation of ex-slaves, which could actually do some ’slaughtering.’”

    “We both agreed on my career, years ago,” Hugh said mildly. “Godfather.”

    Jeremy glared at him. “I’m not your godfather, damn it! I’m your adviser — and my advice has changed. That’s because the situation has changed.”

    “I’m still not playing Bachelor of the Week, Jeremy. For Christ sake, I just met the woman! I’ve spent a total of maybe two hours in her presence, not one minute of which was taken up by a personal exchange between the two of us. Not even an exchange concerning the time of day, much less anything intimate.”

    Jeremy grinned impishly. “So? That’s what dates are for, don’t you know? Just say the word and I’ll set one up.”

    Hugh shook his head. “I see your persistence hasn’t changed any. Out of pure curiosity, though, where does a reigning queen go, on a date?”

    Jeremy’s grin was immediately replaced by a scowl. “With this queen? Damn near anywhere, the crazy girl. She has absolutely no sense of security, Hugh. I mean, none whatsoever.”

    Arai cocked his head. “This is coming from you? Mister I’ll Take Any Chance And Make Obscene Gestures At Security While I’m At It.”

    “It’s not funny, Hugh. She’s wide open for an assassination attempt — which you know, and I know, and everybody in the galaxy knows except her, Manpower would be delighted to carry out—and she refuses to take any serious precautions.”

    Hugh’s rubbed his chin. “None at all?”

    “Not really. That gaggle of ex-Scrags she’s had around her since the fracas on the Wages of Sin try their best to keep an eye on her. But you’re a security expert — used to be, anyway, before you got started on this commando silliness — and you know perfectly well that jury-rigged protection’s not really worth very much. The only way the Amazons can pull it off is by pretending they’re just accompanying Berry whenever she goes out in public because they’re devoted to her. Which is true enough that Berry’s willing to look the other way, even if she does sometimes get grumpy about it.”

    The impish grin came back. “That’s because she says having all those lady weightlifters around is scaring off potential boyfriends, most of whom are scared off anyway because of her silly titles. Her term, not mine — ’silly.’ But it occurs to me that you’d hardly be scared off by a bunch of genetically engineered female super-soldiers on account of Manpower already engineered you to bench press elephants.”

    “Very funny. I’ll admit the prospect of facing down a bunch of ex-Scrags does not fill me with terror. I’m still not doing it, Jeremy.” Hurriedly: “Even if I wanted to, there isn’t time. If this scheme Cachat and Zilwicki cooked up is going to work at all, I’ve got to get back to Parmley Station.”

    “Why?” Jeremy demanded. “Your team can handle the work of getting that station fixed up without you, perfectly well.”

    “Maybe so — but they can’t obtain the freighter. For that, we’re going to need serious financial backing and that means I have to report back to Beowulf.”

    “Oh, that’s nonsense. We’re not talking about a warship, Hugh — hell, we’re not even talking about a big freighter. Just something around a million tons. And as beat-up as we want it, we ought to be able to pick it up cheaply. Between them, Cachat and Zilwicki can come up with the money. Zilwicki could probably do it on his own, without even tapping into Havenite funds. His lady friend is one of the richest women in the Star Kingdom.”

    Hugh sat through the little speech with growing impatience. “Come on, Jeremy! Stop playing the innocent. You know perfectly well the issue isn’t money as such — it’s laundering the money so there’ll be no trace of it for Manpower’s agents to pick up. For that, nobody’s as good as Beowulf’s secret services.”

    Jeremy leaned back in his chair and bestowed a cool smile on Arai. “No, actually, they aren’t the best. I admit Beowulf’s very good at it — but you forget that we’re less than a week’s travel from the galaxy’s champion money-launderers. Who happen to be on very good terms with Torch.”

    Hugh opened his mouth, and . . . closed it. Then opened it again, and . . . closed it.



    “Ha!” Jeremy jeered. “Forgot about the Erewhonese, didn’t you? They’re not that many generations removed from outright gangsters, Hugh. And all that happened when they ‘went legit’ is that their money-laundering skills got even better. Had to, of course.”

    He looked out the window at the lush landscape three stories below. “All we have to do is set the problem before them — Walter Imbesi, that is, we don’t even need to talk to the official triumvirate — and you’ll have a tramp freighter delivered to you in less than two months with impeccable credentials — lousy ones, of course, but impeccable — and not a trace that any part of its origins had anything to do with either Torch or Manticore or Haven or Beowulf. Or Erewhon. And you’ve already got a crew that can’t be traced.”

    Slowly, Hugh got up and went to the window, thinking as he went. The truth was that Jeremy’s scheme was better than anything even Beowulf’s secret services would be able to come up with. Assuming that Cachat and Zilwicki decided to undertake this very dangerous mission — that was still unsettled, as yet — then they’d have as good a backup escape route as you could ask for.

    The Mesa System was home to a number of huge interstellar corporations, so it had a truly enormous amount of freight traffic coming in and out. Not as much as Manticore or Sol or a few of the other well-established old star systems in the League’s core, but close.

    True, Mesan security was pretty ferocious, but it was still forced to work within some limits. About thirty percent of Mesa’s population were freeborn citizens, and they had a wide range of rights and liberties that were enshrined by law and even respected, most of the time. Mesa’s government was not an outright dictatorship that could operate with no restraints at all. Like many rigid caste societies in history that had a large population of privileged free citizens — South Africa’s apartheid system was a well-known example — Mesa’s government was a mixture of democratic and autocratic structures and practices.

    The same democratic liberties were not extended to the remaining seventy percent of the population, of course. Slaves constituted about sixty percent of Mesa’s population. The remaining ten percent consisted of the descendants of slaves who’d been freed in the earlier periods of Mesan history.

    In its origins, Manpower had claimed that genetic slavery was actually “indentured servitude.” That fiction had been openly dispensed with centuries ago, when the Mesan constitution was amended to make the manumission of genetic slaves illegal. But that still left a large population of freed ex-slaves — legally second-class citizens (”seccies,” was the slang term used for them) — inhabiting all of Mesa’s large towns and cities, and even a number of villages in more rural areas.

    Periodically, calls were made to expel all seccies from the system. But, by now, the seccies had become an integral part of Mesa’s social and economic structure and provided a number of useful functions for the planet’s freeborn citizens. As had been true throughout history, once a large class of ex-slaves came into existence, they were hard to get rid of, for the same reason that a large class of illegal immigrants was hard to get rid of. People were not cattle, much less inert lumps of stone. They were intelligent, self-motivated and often ingenious active agents. About the only effective way to just eliminate such a large class of people was to adopt a political and legal structure that was sometimes described as “totalitarian.”

    For a wide variety of reasons, Mesa was not prepared to adopt that option. So, Mesa’s security forces simply kept a close eye on the seccies — insofar as they could. That wasn’t as easy as it sounded, though, because seccy society was socially intricate, often shadowy, and intermixed with that of Mesa’s freeborn citizens. Marriage was illegal, but despite all of Manpower’s pretensions to creating new types of people, human nature remained pretty intractable. There were plenty of personal liaisons between seccies and freeborn, regardless of what the law said or official custom prohibited and frowned upon.

    A large number of those liaisons were commercial, not personal. Mesa’s huge population of slaves needed to be supplied, and — again, despite all official Manpower pronouncements — it often proved most practical to have those needs supplied by slave sutlers. And there were even some luxury goods, as well. “Luxury,” at least, as slaves reckoned these things. Many of the slaves were allowed to work for themselves on the side, and use whatever income they garnered for their own purposes. That was a messy but useful way of keeping social antagonisms from becoming too explosive.

    Seccies were very much what their name implied — second-class, or lower, members of Mesan society, thoroughly excluded from the “respectable” professions and employment generally. The majority of them eked out their existences doing casual day labor, and they were generally non-persons as far as Mesa at large was concerned. Some of them, however, had amassed considerable personal fortunes from their positions as slave sutlers — who frequently also served as loan sharks, drug pushers, etc., servicing the “gray economy” of the slave community. Some of these seccy sutlers, especially the richer ones, even had silent freeborn partners.

    Naturally, some of the seccies had been co-opted into the Mesan security apparatus. In general, the authorities ignored the activities of the sutlers (which, accordingly, were not taxed), and in return, the sutlers were expected to help defuse tensions in the slave community — and to inform the authorities if they saw something in danger of getting out of hand. In fairness to them, one of the reasons seccies played the informant role as often as they did stemmed less from the rewards they received for it than their recognition that any sort of organized slave revolt on Mesa would be not simply totally futile but guaranteed to produce stupendous numbers of dead slaves. For all that they were frequently venal, it was still true that seccies identified more closely with their still enslaved brethren than they did with the rest of Mesa.

    It was that large class of seccies and the inherently complex and disorganized life they led that would be the key to open Mesa to Cachat and Zilwicki, if they decided to go. Hugh knew none of the details, and didn’t want to, but he was certain that the Ballroom had connections with many seccies on Mesa. Given the amount of traffic going in and out of the Mesa System, it really wouldn’t be that hard for Cachat and Zilwicki to disembark openly — as members of a freighter crew, perhaps — and then quietly vanish into seccy society. As long as they watched their steps — and the two were experts at this work — there really wasn’t much chance they’d be spotted by Mesa’s security agencies.

    As long as they didn’t do anything, that is. But the moment any alarms were triggered, the gloves would come off and Mesa’s ruthless and brutal security forces would come down on the seccy ghettos like a hammer. The real trick would be getting off the planet and making their escape afterward.

    Hence the tramp freighter and its Butre clan crew. They’d have absolutely no connection to Cachat and Zilwicki at all, so far as anyone on Mesa would be able to determine. Even if the security forces went so far as to do a DNA analysis of the crew — quite possible, actually — they’d not find anything to arouse their suspicions.

    Hugh started rubbing his chin again.

    Jeremy recognized the gesture, of course. He’d known Hugh since a frightened and bewildered five-year-old boy who’d just lost his entire family came off a Beowulfan warship and was greeted by a Ballroom contingent who took him and the few other survivors under their wing.

    “I knew you’d see the light of day,” he said cheerfully.

    Hugh smiled. “I’m still not available as a consort.”

    “Oh, come on. One date. Surely a fearless commando — gorilla commando, at that — won’t shy away from such a paltry thing. The girl’s barely twenty years of age, Hugh. What could be the danger?”

    Hugh brought up his memories of the queen from their one brief encounter. A plain-looking girl, really. But Hugh wasn’t impressed by such things. He’d been struck by her eyes.

    “Don’t play the fool, Jeremy. You know the answer perfectly well, or you wouldn’t have made her your queen in the first place.”

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