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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Twenty Three

       Last updated: Friday, November 13, 2009 22:30 EST



    “What’s on your mind?” Harper S. Ferry asked, when Judson Van Hale came into his office. The former Sphinx Forestry Service ranger was frowning and the treecat perched on his shoulder seemed unusually somber as well. “You’re looking disgruntled this morning.”

    Van Hale gave him a quick smile, but there wasn’t any humor in it. “Whatever happened to the background check you were going to do on Ronald Allen?”

    “Ronald who?”

    “He was one of the ex-slave immigrants who arrived here about two months ago. Genghis thought his mental — ‘taste,’ he calls it — was a little wrong. I brought the matter to your attention and you were going to do a more thorough background check.”

    “Yeah, I remember now. Hm. Good question, actually. I’d forgotten about it. Let me see what Records has to say.” Harper began keying entries into his computer. “Spell the name, would you? The last name, I mean.”

    “Allen. A-L-L-E-N, not A-L-L-A-N.” Judson drew a memo pad from his pocket and thumbed the entry he’d pre-selected. “Here. This is what he looks like.”

    Harper glanced at the screen in Van Hale’s hand and saw a tall man in a brown jumpsuit. Going by his appearance, he was probably one of what Manpower called its “general utility lines,” which they designated either D or E. That was a fancy way of saying that they hadn’t bothered to do much in the way of genetic engineering.

    A screen came up on Harper’s computer. After studying it for a few seconds, he hissed in a breath.

    Judson could feel Genghis tensing on his shoulder. The treecat was picking up the emotional aura Harper was emanating as a result of whatever he’d seen on the screen. “What’s the matter?” he asked.

    “God damn all business-as-usual clerks,” Harper said. “This should have been flagged and brought to my attention immediately.”

    He swiveled the screen so Judson could see it. The screen read:

    Background search
Allen, Ronald
scanning error

    “Oh, hell,” Judson said. “Where’s Zeiger? And what happened to Allen?”

    Harper S. Ferry was working at the keyboard again. After a moment he said: “Zeiger’ll be easy to find, thankfully. He’s a resident of Beacon” — that was the name the ex-slaves had bestowed on Torch’s capital city not long after the insurrection — “and, better still, he works for the Pharmaceutical Inspection Board. He’s a clerk, too, not a field agent, so he ought to be right here.” He gestured at one of the windows. “Well, just a few blocks away. We can be there in five minutes.”

    “And Allen?”

    Harper keyed in some final words. “Oh, wonderful. He also works in the pharmaceutical industry, but he’s a roustabout. He could be anywhere on the planet.”

    “Which company does he work for?”

    “Havlicek Pharmaceutics. One of the Erewhonese firms.”

    “Well, that’s a break. They’ll have good personnel records, unlike most of the homegrown outfits — and you didn’t hear me cast that aspersion upon our stalwart native entrepreneurs.”

    Harper chuckled, and pulled out his com unit. “I’ll see if I can track down Allen’s whereabouts, while I’m pulling up the scanning records. Meanwhile, trot over to the PIB and see what’s up with Zeiger.”

    Judson headed for the door.



    He was back in half an hour, with a stocky, balding, middle-aged man in tow. “This is Timothy Zeiger. Tim, meet Harper S. Ferry. Harper, his number checks out.”

    Without being prompted, Zeiger stuck out his tongue. Ferry rose from his desk and leaned over. There, quite visible, was the number at issue: D-17d-2547-2/5.

    Harper glanced at the treecat. “What does Genghis say?”

    “He thinks Tim’s kosher. A little apprehensive, of course, but that’s to be expected. Mostly, he’s just curious.”

    “I sure as hell am,” said Zeiger. “What’s this all about?”

    Harper didn’t answer him immediately. He’d resumed his seat and was studying the screen. “You’re pretty well-established, aren’t you? Married eighteen months ago — less than half a year after you arrived, congratulations — one child –”

    “And another on the way,” Zeiger interrupted.

    Harper kept going. “You belong to Temple Ben Bezalel. Hipparchus Club, center bowler for the club’s torqueball team, and you and your wife even belong to an amateur theater troupe.”

    “Yeah. So what? And I’m asking again — what’s this all about?”

    Harper leaned back in his seat and looked up at Van Hale. “What do you think, Judson?”

    “Same as you.” He hooked a thumb at Zeiger. “He checks out all across the board. What about Ronald Allen?”

    Ferry scowled. “He smells worse and worse the more I study him. He seems to have made no serious attachments since he got here. And he has no regular address.”

    “Being fair, most roustabouts don’t. And he hasn’t been here that long.”

    “True. Still . . .”

    Zeiger was obviously on the verge of exploding. Harper raised a calming hand and said, “What this is all about, Tim, is that somebody else was registered with your genetic marker number. Which, so far as anyone knows, doesn’t ever happen. At least, I’ve never heard of Manpower duplicating numbers.”

    “There wouldn’t be much point in it, anyway,” Judson said, shaking his head. “If we assume for the moment that there’s a covert operation involved. You’d run too much risk of the duplication being spotted, it would seem to me. Here on Torch, anyway. We’ve never kept quiet the fact that we require all ex-slaves to register when they arrive.”

    Zeiger had an odd look on his face. Whatever emotions were stirring in his head were enough to perk Genghis’ interest. The treecat was looking at him intently.

    “Uh . . . maybe not,” he said.

    “What do you mean?”

    “The way I got freed was something of a fluke. A Havenite warship intercepted a slaver convoy — this was about thirty-five years ago –”

    “Convoy?” Judson was a little startled.

    Ferry nodded. “It’s not unheard of. Usually slaver ships operate solo, but there are some exceptions. So what happened, Tim?”

    “Well, the Havenites sprang the trap a little too early. Most of the convoy was able to translate into hyper before they could be run down. The ship I was on was the last one and the Havenites destroyed it, just a couple of minutes before the slave ship ahead of it made the transition.”

    Harper pursed his lips. “So . . . they’d have seen your ship blow up, is that what you’re saying?”

    “Yeah. And according to the Havenites who rescued me, it was pretty spectacular. They were astonished to discover any survivors. There was just me and a girl and the two slaver crewmen who grabbed her and dragged her into a lifeboat. I scrambled in just before they closed the hatch. They were mad enough to beat me a little, but not much, since they were mostly desperate to get free. I guess we left the ship just in time.”

    For an instant, his heavyset face got savage. “The Havenites pitched the two slavers into space less than an hour after they rounded us up. Without skinsuits. So me and the girl wound up being the only survivors.”



    The expression on his face lightened. “Her name was Barbara Patten. The one she took, I mean, after we were freed. Patten was the name of one of the Havenite crewmen. She wound up marrying him a year or so later, I heard. But I haven’t had any contact with her in a long time now. Nice girl.”

    Harper and Judson looked at each other. “The proverbial hell’s bells,” muttered Ferry. “The slavers would have had records of their cargo, so they’d assume that Tim here just vanished. Perfect way to disguise an identity, without running the risk of faking a number entirely.”

    Zeiger was now frowning. “I don’t get it. If this other guy has the same number on his tongue . . . The way you guys check those numbers, there’s no way to fake them with cosmetics. They had to have been grown.”

    “You’re absolutely right,” Harper said grimly, rising from the desk. “Tim, don’t leave the city till you hear from us again. Judson, I found Allen’s current whereabouts. He’s in a camp not more than a three hour flight from here. What say we sign out an air car and go talk to him?”

    “After we pay a visit to the armory,” said Van Hale. On his shoulder, Genghis growled approvingly.



    God damn Jeremy. Hugh Arai’s thought was simultaneously irritated and amused. Since the very beginning of this second audience he was having with Queen Berry, he hadn’t been able to stop thinking of her as a woman instead of a monarch. Which, of course, was exactly the effect Jeremy had aimed for. The notorious terrorist was also a shrewd psychologist.

    The effect was pronounced, too. Hugh was discovering that the more time he spent in the presence of Berry, the more attractive she became. In his earlier audience with the queen, he’d had a hard time to keep from laughing at the all-too-evident way the three Butre boys had been smitten by the young monarch. Especially so, after Ruth blurted it out openly. Now, he was getting worried his own tongue might be starting to hang out.

    Figuratively speaking, of course. Hugh wasn’t that far gone.

    Still, the effect was striking. It had been a long time since Hugh had been this powerfully drawn to a woman.

    That was her personality at work, he knew.

    One thing being designed as marketable commodities did for genetic slaves was to make them automatically, one might almost say “painfully,” aware of the difference between outside packaging and contents. Pleasure slaves, for example, were specifically genengineered to be physically attractive because physical beauty made them more valuable, brought a higher price. Heavy-labor units, like Hugh himself, on the other hand, were often downright grotesque, by the standards of most humans, because nobody gave a good goddamn what they looked like. After all, they were really just vaguely human-shaped pieces of disposable machinery, weren’t they?

    That left scars, whether the slaves wanted to admit it or not. Obviously, it was worse for some than for others, and the Beowulf medical community had worked with enough slaves over the centuries to be well aware of that fact. Hugh had undergone the standard psychological evaluations and therapy himself, although he’d actually gotten out light in that respect, compared to altogether too many liberated slaves. Still, the ultimate consequence was that, for better or worse, genetic slaves as a group were as well conditioned as any humans in history to ignore physical appearances and concentrate on the characters and personalities of the people they ran across.

    The first impression most people would have of Berry Zilwicki was that she was a plain-looking girl. Attractive, overall, but only in the sense that any woman or man is attractive at that youthful age, assuming they are healthy and not significantly malformed in any way.

    But Hugh had barely noticed her outward appearance at all. Instead, he’d focused from the outset on her personality. That was also somewhat superficial, of course, since personality and character overlapped but were hardly identical. Still . . .

    If the human race held personality pageants the same way they did beauty pageants, Berry Zilwicki would surely be a finalist. Probably not a winner, because she just wasn’t quite flashy enough. But a finalist, for sure — and given that Hugh wasn’t partial to flashiness, that hardly made a difference.

    God damn Jeremy.

    Without realizing it, he must have muttered the words. Berry turned a friendly face toward him, smiling in that extraordinarily warm way she had. “What was that, Hugh? I didn’t catch the words.”

    Hugh was tongue-tied. Odd, that, since he was normally a fluent liar when he needed to be. Something about those bright, clear, pale green eyes just made dissembling to her very difficult. It’d be like spitting in a mountain stream.

    “He was cursing me,” said Jeremy, who was sitting near the queen — and not that close to Hugh at all. But Jeremy had phenomenal hearing as well as eyesight. The Secretary of War was trying not to smirk, and failing.

    Berry glanced at him. “Oh, dear. You should really stop doing this, Jeremy. Being elbowed by the galaxy’s most cold-blooded killer isn’t actually the best way to get a man to overcome his hesitations about asking a queen out on a date.”

    She turned back to Hugh, the smile widening and getting warmer still. “Is it, Hugh?”

    Hugh cleared his throat. “Actually, Berry . . . in my case, it probably is. But I agree with you as a general proposition.”

    “Well, good!” The smile was now almost blinding. “Where do you propose to take me, then? If I can make a recommendation, there’s a very nice ice cream parlor less than a ten minute walk from this office-pretending-to-be-a-palace. It’s got several small tables in the back where we’d even have a chance of enjoying a private conversation.”

    She looked over at two very tough-looking women standing not far away. Her expression got considerably cooler. “Assuming, that is, we can keep Lara and Yana from sitting in our laps.”

    The woman on the left — he thought that one was Lara, but he wasn’t sure — got a grin on her face. “Sit on your lap, maybe. No way I’m getting within arm’s reach of that cave man.”

    “He is sort of cute, though, Lara,” said the other woman. “Clean-shaven, even. He must have a really sharp stone ax.”

    Hugh took a deep breath. This was really not a good idea.

    “Sure,” he said.



    The Havlicek Pharmaceutics camp was larger than most such exploratory operations. That probably meant they’d found enough potential in the area to move toward setting up production facilities. The fact that they’d erected a permanent headquarters building instead of just using temporary habitats lent support to that theory as well.

    Harper and Judson found the camp’s director in an office on the first floor. His name was Earl Manning, according to the plaque on the open door.

    “What can I do for you?” he asked, as they came in. He didn’t look up from the paper on his desk. The question was posed brusquely. Not impolitely, just in the way that a very busy man handles interruptions.

    “We’re looking for Ronald Allen,” said Harper.

    That got Manning to look up. “And who is ‘we,’ exactly?”



    “Immigration Services.” Harper pulled out his ID and laid it on the director’s desk.

    Manning actually examined the ID. With considerable care, too, more than was really warranted given the rarity of identity theft on Torch. Judson got the impression the camp director was one of those people whose instinctive response to government authority was to dig in his heels.

    “Okay,” he said sourly, after about ten seconds. He handed the ID back to Harper. “What’s this about?”

    Manning’s attitude was triggering off an equivalent response from Ferry. “That’s not actually any of your concern, Mr. Manning. Where’s Allen?”

    Manning started to bristle. Then, made a face and jerked a thumb at the window behind him. “You’ll find him operating one of the extractors. On the south edge of the camp. If you don’t know what he looks like –”

    “We do know,” said Harper. He turned and left the office. Judson followed.

    Once in the corridor and after having walked most of the way to the outside door to the building, Harper muttered: “What an asshole.”

    Judson just smiled. He was quite sure that Manning had uttered — or at least thought — equivalent sentiments after Harper left his office.

    Genghis bleeked his amusement, confirming Judson’s guess.

    Once they were outside, they consulted a map of the camp that was posted on the wall of the building. It was hand-drawn, insofar as the term meant much given modern drafting equipment.

    “Close enough to walk,” Harper pronounced. He headed south, tugging lightly on the grip of his pulser to make sure it would come easily out of the holster. Judson followed suit. For the first time, it registered clearly on him that they might be on the verge of a violent incident. Despite his intensive training and proficiency with weapons, Judson’s work as a forest ranger back on Sphinx had been a lot closer to that of a guide and sometime emergency medical technician. SFR personnel were policemen, as well, and they took that part of their training seriously, but Judson had never actually found himself acting as a policeman.

    Not yet, at least.

    Harper S. Ferry didn’t have a policeman’s background either, of course. He had one that had been a lot more violent. Judson could only hope that the year and half which had passed since Harper gave up his old profession had placed at least a patina of restraint on the man.

    Something of his tension must have shown. Harper glanced at him and smiled. “Relax. I don’t intend to shoot the guy. Just find out why he’s got an identity number he’s got no business having.”



    It didn’t take them more than ten minutes to reach the south edge of the camp and find Allen working on the extractor. The machine wasn’t particularly big, but it was incredibly noisy.

    Noisy enough that Allen never heard them coming. The first he knew of their presence was when Harper tapped him on the shoulder.

    The man turned a control, placing the machine on idle and drastically reducing the noise. Then he turned his head and said: “What can I do for you?”

    He was quite relaxed. Then his gaze moved past Harper and fell on Judson, with Genghis perched on his shoulder.

    The treecat’s ears suddenly flattened, and Judson could feel his claws tightening on his shoulder. There were protective pads there for precisely this purpose. Judson knew that Genghis was readying to launch an attack.

    “Be careful –” he started to shout at Harper. But Harper must have spotted something in Allen’s stance or perhaps his eyes, because he was already reaching for the pulser on his hip.

    Allen shouted something incoherent and struck Harper with his fist. The blow indicated the immigrant had had some martial arts training, but was certainly no expert at hand-to-hand combat. Harper rolled with the punch, catching it on his arm instead of his rib cage.

    Still, the blow knocked him down. Allen was a big man, and very strong.

    A lot stronger than Van Hale, certainly. But between his own pulser and Genghis’ formidable abilities as a fighter, Judson wasn’t really worried.

    Allen apparently reached the same conclusion. He turned and darted around the extractor, heading for the nearby forest.

    He was fast as well as strong. Judson probably couldn’t have caught up with him, and he was reluctant to just shoot the man down when they still didn’t really know anything.

    But Genghis solved that problem. The ‘cat was off Judson’s shoulder and onto the ground and racing in pursuit within two seconds.

    It was no contest. Genghis caught up with Allen before the man had gotten even halfway to the tree line. He went straight for the big man’s legs and brought him down in two strides.

    Allen hit the ground hard, screeching. He tried to knock Genghis away but the ‘cat’s razor-sharp claws were more than a match for his fist. A human being in good condition and with really good martial art skills had at least a fair chance against a treecat in a fight, simply because of the size disparity. But it wouldn’t be easy and the human would certainly come out of it badly injured.

    Allen didn’t even try. He wriggled around onto his stomach. Then, oddly, he just stared at the trees for a few seconds.

    By then, Judson had reached him. “Hold still, Allen!” he commanded. “Genghis won’t hurt you any further as long you don’t –”

    He saw Allen’s jaws tighten. Then the man’s eyes rolled up, he inhaled once, gasped, gasped again . . . and he was unconscious and dying. Judson didn’t have any doubt of it. From his little screech, neither did Genghis.

    “What in the name of . . .” He shook his head, not sure what to do. Normally, he’d have begun CPR treatment, even though he was pretty sure there was no way to save Allen’s life at this point. But there was a nasty-looking greenish slime beginning to ooze out of Allen’s mouth, which he was almost certain was the residue or side effect — or both — of some sort of powerful poison. Whatever the stuff was, Van Hale wasn’t about to get close to it.

    Harper came up, cradling his arm. “What happened?”

    “He committed suicide.” Judson felt a bit stunned. Everything had happened so fast. From the time Harper tapped Allen on the shoulder to the man’s suicide, not more than thirty seconds could have passed. Probably less. Maybe a lot less.

    Harper knelt down next to Allen’s body, and rolled him onto his back. The former Ballroom killer was careful not to let his hands get anywhere near Allen’s mouth.

    “Fast-acting poison in a hollow tooth. What in the name of creation is an ex-slave immigrant doing with that kind of equipment?” He looked around, spotted a sturdy-looking stick within reach, and picked it up. Then, used the stick to pry open Allen’s mouth so he could look at the man’s tongue.

    “And . . . that’s a Manpower breeding mark, for sure and certain. No chance at all it’s cosmetic.”

    He straightened up from the corpse and rocked back on his heels, now squatting instead of kneeling. “What the hell is going on, Judson?”

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