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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Saturday, April 9, 2005 09:56 EDT




    The trip from Manticore to Erewhon was complicated but not all that difficult. There was no direct junction terminus connecting the Star Kingdom to Erewhon's solar system, but there was a connection via the Phoenix Cluster, the rather inaccurate name given to a three-star system republic (of sorts) which was home to the Phoenix Wormhole Junction. Compared to the Manticoran Junction, the Phoenix Junction scarcely deserved the term. The Phoenix terminus of the Manticoran Junction was associated with the Hennesy System, but the Phoenix "Junction"—which boasted only two termini and linked the Cluster to Erewhon—lay in the Terra Haute System. To get there, the Pottawatomie Creek had to first go to Hennesy via the Manticoran Junction and then make a five-day-long trip through hyper across the intervening twenty-five light-years to Terra Haute. Since junction transits were effectively instantaneous, it was the Hennesy-Terra Haute leg which accounted for virtually the entire length of the journey.

    Of course, if Phoenix had been inclined to be sticky about it, the Pottawatomie would have been unable to use the Phoenix Junction at all up to less than six T-months before. The cluster had closed its wormhole to all military traffic the moment war broke out between the Star Kingdom (and its Erewhonese allies) and the late, unlamented People's Republic of Haven. In the absence of a formal peace treaty between Manticore and Haven, Phoenix had declined to rescind the prohibition until quite recently. Rumor said that the initiative in dropping it had come from Erewhon, not Phoenix, but not even Zilwicki's sources were positive about that.

    Still, Anton's ship might have been allowed to transit even before the change in policy. She was a private vessel, after all, not a warship in the service of the Crown. But that didn't change the fact that she was also the equivalent of a frigate—in fact, she was a frigate in all but name, designed and built by one of the Manticoran yards which did a lot of naval construction. The Tor fortune made Cathy one of the few private individuals able to finance Pottawatomie's construction. Actually, not even she could have afforded such a project, but she'd been able to advance enough seed money to begin a subscription campaign which had rapidly tapped into a deep well of Manticoran opposition to genetic slavery—a well made deeper than ever by widespread public anger over the way High Ridge had been able to contain the damage done by Montaigne's files.

    Among that opposition, oddly enough, had been Klaus Hauptman. By far the wealthiest man in the Star Kingdom, Hauptman was not normally the sort who would have had any sort of truck with "terrorists," however noble their particular cause might be. But the man was a quirky individual, and one of his quirks was a detestation of genetic slavery. He'd made support for its extirpation one of the major philanthropic commitments of the Hauptman Foundation his father had endowed seventy T-years before and whose board his daughter Stacey now chaired. Hauptman himself had not actually participated directly in the subscription campaign, although Stacey had done so rather discreetly. But what he had done was even more valuable: he owned the shipyard which built the Anti-Slavery League's frigates, and he did the work for pure cost, with no profit and none of the usual padding which went into military projects.

    For all their expense, frigates were too small in this day and age to be really suitable for the navies of star nations. On the other hand, the vessels were very well designed and equipped to deal with the slavers and pirates who were their natural prey.

    Thus, one of the Pottawatomie's features was speed. But, given the passengers he was carrying, Anton saw no need to push any higher than the Zeta bands of hyper, so she made the trip in what was, for her, a rather leisurely amble.



    The three courier boats which were also on their way to Erewhon, on the other hand, were under no such compunction. In fact, although they'd lifted from Manticore several hours after Pottawatomie, two of them were specifically determined to get to Erewhon ahead of Anton, and they were well-equipped for the task. Effectively nothing but a hyper generator, a pair of Warshawski sails, and an impeller drive, they were designed to ride the ragged edge of the Theta bands, which gave them the next best thing to a forty percent speed advantage over Pottawatomie. So, although they actually made transit from Manticore to Hennesy after Anton's ship, they quickly overtook and passed her on the Hennesy-Terra Haute leg of the journey.

    The people on the third courier ship didn't even know about Anton's situation. But that vessel was making the entire trip in hyper-space directly from Haven, and the natural habits of a Havenite courier crew moving through what was technically hostile space—Manticore and the Republic were officially still at war, even if hostilities had been suspended—meant they weren't dawdling.

    As a result, by the time Anton Zilwicki and his companions arrived at Erewhon, the news of his impending arrival had preceded him—along with copies of Underwood's program—and several interested parties were studying the material.



    The Havenites had known nothing about it until they arrived the day before. Having made the trip directly from the Republic to Erewhon, they hadn't passed through the Manticore Junction and therefore hadn't picked up the broadcast. But they were no less interested than others.

    To put it mildly. Victor Cachat was even driven to a rare use of profanity.

    "What a fucking mess," he snarled, after Ginny turned off the recording. "Anton Zilwicki! The last person we want to see here."

    Virginia Usher eased back into the couch in their hotel room, crossed her very shapely legs and shrugged her very shapely shoulders—all the more shapely in that the sari she was wearing was designed to show them off. The garment bore only a passing resemblance to the ancestral style which had originated millennia before in south Asia. Ginny's sari wasn't quite as revealing as the version of it she'd worn in years past, when she'd worked as a prostitute after escaping from Manpower, but it skirted the very outer edges of anything which might be called suitable dress for polite company.

    Victor eyed the garment sourly. "And why are you putting on the act, anyway? There's nobody here but the two of us."

    Ginny gave him her patented grin. Like the sari, the expression wasn't quite as salacious as the one she'd once bestowed on prospective customers, but it came close.

    "Oh, stop sulking. Kevin would have a fit if he found out I broke cover on assignment. What if somebody should come knocking on the door—room service, maybe? Seeing me in the sweats I usually wear at home would play merry hell with my image as a slut. And after all the trouble Kevin's gone through to establish it! Me too, for that matter."

    Victor shook his head. There were things about his boss and mentor he'd never understand. The cheerful way Kevin Usher had his wife pretend to be a tramp was one of them. Part of it could be accounted for by Kevin's phenomenal self-assurance, true; but most of it, Victor was convinced, was due to the man's quirky sense of humor. Who else but Kevin Usher would get a chuckle out of the way most people derided his personal life? (In private, of course, not to his face.)

    When Kevin Usher had emerged from the shadows after the Theisman coup, to accept the Pritchart regime's request that he take over Haven's new internal police agency, he'd been faced with the problem of what to do about his wife. Heretofore, he'd seen to it that no one but a handful of anti-Pierre Aprilist conspirators had even known of her existence. Now....

    There had been no way to keep her a secret any longer, given the public exposure Kevin would have as head of the new Federal Investigation Agency. And that made Kevin very nervous. Granted, Eloise Pritchart was one of Kevin's oldest and closest friends—although not even she had known about Ginny, since there'd been no need for her to know—and she was now President of the new Republic. He trusted her completely, and was inclined to feel the same way about Thomas Theisman, the admiral who'd led the coup d'etat which had put her in power. But if Kevin Usher's whole life had taught him one thing, it was that political power in the Republic of Haven was a treacherous beast. You never knew when it might turn on you.

    So, Kevin had solved the problem in the way the man did everything—combining directness with cunning, and with not a smidgeon of concern for his own reputation. He assumed the public role of a cuckold the same way, in times past, he'd accepted the public role of a drunk. If worse came to worst and Usher underwent one of the dramatic falls from grace so common in Havenite politics—which, judging from the history of the past two centuries, might well end up before a firing squad—at least Ginny would likely be able to avoid it. Nobody views a promiscuous cheating wife as a threat, after all, to anyone but her husband.

    Victor could appreciate the professional artistry involved. The "Usher flair," as he thought of it. What he didn't appreciate—not in the least—was that Kevin and Ginny had immediately (and rather gleefully) appointed Victor as the cuckolder-in-chief. The young subordinate and protégé who was repaying his trusting boss by having an affair with his mentor's wife.

    "It's a classic," Ginny had pronounced.

    "It makes me look like a complete swine!"

    "Well, true," allowed Kevin, grinning at Victor. "Just think of it as part of your training, wonderboy. What kind of silly amateur spy worries about his 'image,' anyway?"

    "We're not 'spies' any longer," Victor groused.

    "Don't be so sure about that." Kevin shrugged. "Who knows what we'll be facing, in the years to come?"

    Victor might still have refused, except that Ginny cornered him. "Please, Victor," she'd pleaded, in that inimitable half-comic/half-serious way of hers, "it'll make my life so much easier. You're the one man I know that I won't have to be fending off in private after making eyes at him in public."

    That had been true enough. Victor was by no means immune to the temptations of the flesh, and there were times he found being in such close and intimate proximity with Ginny immensely frustrating. But his emotional relationship with her, in the time since they'd met on Earth, had settled into something very close to that of a younger brother and his older sister. He wasn't oblivious to Ginny's often well-exposed female figure. But it wasn't really much different from his life as a boy, growing up in the cramped slums of the Dolist quarters of Nouveau Paris, when he'd also been frequently exposed to the half-naked forms of his mother and three sisters.

    To be sure, neither his mother nor his sisters had been gorgeous, the way Ginny was, and they'd possessed none of her subtle skills at tantalizing a man—which Ginny, damn her black heart, insisted on practicing on Victor.


    Victor would admit that, in its own grotesque way, the gambit worked like a charm. By fitting himself, Ginny and Victor into flamboyant and well-established roles—older husband, besotted and foolish; young nymphomaniac wife, cheating on him right under his nose; unscrupulous and treacherous underling—Kevin had provided his wife and his protégé with a real measure of protection in case political life went sour again in the Republic of Haven.

    And since Kevin had never been a man who'd miss the chance to kill two birds with one stone, the same gambit allowed him to use Victor and Ginny as his special and informal investigating team. He could send them anywhere, at any time, to do anything—and all but a handful of people in the know would simply observe the phenomenon with a smirk.



    That explained why they were sitting in a hotel room in Erewhon's capital city of Maytag. The assassination of Hieronymus Stein had presented Haven's new president with a very awkward political situation, and, as often in her history, Eloise Pritchart had turned to Kevin Usher for aid and assistance.

    "Let's send Ginny and Victor," he'd immediately proposed. "Ginny's got a perfectly believable public excuse for going to pay her respects, since she's a former Manpower slave herself."

    Eloise interrupted. "What do you think, Kevin? Do you agree that Manpower was behind the killing? That seems to be the accepted wisdom, but my antennae aren't quite convinced of it."

    He shrugged. "Who knows? The odds are that it was Manpower, yes. If I had to put money down on it, that's the way I'd bet also. On the other hand..."

    He shifted in his chair across from the President's desk, as if uncomfortable. "Your instincts might just have something, Eloise. The whole operation was a bit too... flamboyant for me to be entirely happy with the notion, myself. Manpower Unlimited—the whole planet of Mesa, for that matter—is so convenient for so many powerful forces in the Solarian League that it's been able to thrive for a long time just by keeping slightly under the public horizon. Why run the risk of shaking up that well-established profitable situation with something as guaranteed to cause a huge public stir among Solarians as murdering the leader of the Renaissance Association?"

    "You're asking that question?" Eloise chuckled. "Kevin, in case you hadn't noticed, Manpower's been taking some hard hits lately—one of them being the hit you landed on them in Chicago during the Manpower Incident. Even cold-blooded slavers can lose their temper, you know."

    Kevin shrugged. "Sure. But why take it out on Stein and the Renaissance Association?" Eloise opened her mouth but Kevin forestalled her retort with a raised hand. "Yes, yes, I know Stein and the RA have been the main public voice denouncing genetic slavery in the Solarian League, other than the Anti-Slavery League itself. So what? Stein's been doing that for decades, and Manpower just shrugged it off. They know just as well as you or me or anyone with half a brain that the so-called 'democracy' of the Solarian League is a pure fiction, at least above the level of some of its planetary affiliates. The League is run—lock, stock and barrel—by its bureaucrats and commercial combines, and by and large those pigs-in-a-trough think Manpower and Mesa are just dandy things to have around. And since they've always been smart enough not to step too hard on the personal liberties of Solarian citizens on Earth and the older, well-established colony planets, the moral preachments of the Renaissance Association and the Anti-Slavery League have never made a dent in Solarian policy."

    Eloise eyed him for a moment. "What about you? Are you worried they might take out their irritation on you personally?"

    Kevin grinned. "Not after the way Zilwicki turned their strike force against Cathy Montaigne on Manticore last year into so much hamburger."

    Pritchart snorted. The sound combined sarcasm with something very close to pure glee. Like any old-style Aprilist, Eloise detested Manpower and all it represented. Granted, she had sharp differences and animosities with the Star Kingdom, but whatever else divided Prichard and Manticore's Queen Elizabeth, hatred of genetic slavery was not one of them.

    So Eloise had been savagely amused herself when Manpower's attempted retaliation on Montaigne had backfired so badly. In the years since Montaigne had returned to Manticore from Earth with her new-found lover, Captain Anton Zilwicki had spent his time and energy after his dismissal from service in the Star Kingdom's Navy building what was publicly passed off as a "security agency." The depiction had been accepted readily enough, given Zilwicki's skill at deception. He'd even managed to keep it intact after foiling the assassination attempt on Montaigne.

    Which had been... difficult, given that the grounds of the Tor estate had been littered with the corpses of would-be assassins. Not a single member of the large and well-organized assassination team had survived.

    Rumor had it that their bodies—pieces of them, anyway—had wound up being delivered by freight shipping to several of the large recruiting halls on Manpower's home planet of Mesa. Slavery was not Mesa's only profitable business. The planet was also the galaxy's largest center for free-lance mercenary outfits.

    The whole episode had been successfully passed off for public consumption as a murky and mysterious business. After a few days, it had faded out of public notice in the Star Kingdom; and had never been noticed much at all in the Solarian League, since Solarians always tended to be oblivious to anything happening outside of their own gigantic borders. Manpower Unlimited had not, obviously, accepted any public responsibility for the affair. And, for different reasons, neither "Zilwicki Security" and Catherine Montaigne nor—certainly!—the High Ridge Government had wanted the thing scrutinized carefully. But, soon enough, every serious intelligence agency in the settled portion of the galaxy had figured out the truth. Catherine Montaigne was now using her fortune and the talents of her new lover to finally give the Anti-Slavery League some real teeth—and Anton Zilwicki had just bared them, dripping with blood.

    Since then, from all anyone could determine, Manpower had kept a distance from Montaigne. If nothing else, after seeing two task forces shredded by Zilwicki—one in Chicago, and now another on Manticore—the sort of professional mercenaries who provided Manpower with their muscle would be demanding astronomical prices for any further such projects.

    Eloise smiled. "Am I to infer, Kevin, that you've set your own little mantrap in case Manpower ever decides to go after you? I'm not sure that isn't bending the spirit of the law which governs your Federal Investigation Agency, you know."

    "Bends it into a pretzel," agreed Kevin. "On the other hand, it keeps my people on their toes—and keeps Manpower off my back."

    Eloise didn't pursue the matter. She knew perfectly well that there was no way Kevin Usher wouldn't wander into gray legal areas in his new post. His current profession as Haven's chief cop was a set of clothing worn by an old and experienced conspirator, after all. But so long as he didn't break the new laws outright and refrained from "black ops," she'd look the other way.

    So, she brought the discussion back to the subject directly at hand.

    "I've got a problem here, Kevin."

    "That's one way of putting it," he chuckled humorlessly. "The Renaissance Association invited the Republic of Haven to send official representatives to the funeral, just like they did every other government in the galaxy. If we don't show up, all our preachments about political wickedness are going to look like so much self-serving prattle. But if we do show up, we're guaranteed to irritate—at best—most of the forces in the Solarian League that we're still relying on for tech transfer."

    Pritchart scowled. "God damn High Ridge. If the Manticorans would just sign a peace treaty with us, I'd cheerfully tell those Solarian scumbags to take a hike." She sighed heavily. "I don't suppose Foraker could..."

    "You'd have to ask Tom Theisman about that," replied Usher. "But I doubt very much if even Shannon Foraker can keep upgrading our military capability without a fair amount of tech transfer from the Sollies."

    He cocked his head and regarded Eloise. "That's why I'm proposing we send Ginny. Sure, it'd still be a 'private response,' not an official one. But...." He trailed off, thinking for a moment.

    "Might do the trick. Well enough, anyway. Everybody knows you and I are personally close, and since Ginny's my wife it won't take any brains at all for people to understand that you're making your own feelings clear in the matter—without doing it in a way that forces the Solarians to take public umbrage."

    "There's more to it than that, Kevin. We've been getting some odd—and very interesting—feelers from the Erewhonese lately. Both through Giancola's people and the Federal Intelligence Service."

    It was her turn to cock her head. "I see that doesn't surprise you any. Ha! Old habits die hard and all that." Mock-sternly: "Kevin Usher, you are not supposed to be in the foreign intelligence business any longer. You're a cop now, remember?"

    He didn't bother to respond to the half-accusation with anything more than a flashing smile. "So I am. But this here honest cop doesn't trust your Secretary of State Arnold Giancola any farther than I can throw him—neither do you, Eloise—and while I don't dis-trust Wilhelm Trajan, he's—ah, what's the word—"

    "He's a plodder," said Pritchart bluntly. "No dummy, mind you, but I wanted him in charge of the Federal Intelligence Service mainly because I knew he wouldn't use that post to start the usual kind of old-style Havenite political scheming. The way Giancola's been doing with the State Department, damn him."

    She ran fingers through her long platinum hair in a gesture that combined aggravation and weariness. "You and I both know that you'd have been ten times better than Wilhelm at running the FIS, Kevin. But what I really needed, more than anything, was someone I trusted completely on top of our new domestic police agency. A person can scheme all he wants, as head of the FIS, but he can't organize a coup d'etat. For that, you need the internal security forces."



    Kevin understood the logic. He'd understood it from the moment Eloise had first offered him the job. Nor did he disagree with Pritchart. Still, it left Haven with an intelligence service which was... under par. One of the first things Thomas Theisman had done after the coup d'etat he'd carried out against Oscar Saint-Just was smash into pieces the old State Security which had served the Pierre/Ransom/Saint-Just dictatorship and the Legislaturalist regime before them. However beneficial that might have been to Haven's political hygiene, it had wreaked real havoc in its intelligence service. If they were lucky, any members of StateSec even slightly tarred with Saint-Just's brush who'd survived the initial fighting which had toppled their master had been summarily dismissed from service. Some of the worst of them had been executed anyway, after scrupulously fair trials and only after being convicted of actually breaking even StateSec's own "laws." But by far the larger number of those who'd been arrested were now serving long prison terms. The only reason Theisman hadn't executed more of them outright was his concern that the new regime not give everyone the same blood-thirsty and brutal image that previous Havenite governments had done.

    "A pity, really," murmured Kevin, half to himself. "I can think of at least seven of those clowns sitting behind bars that I'd happily shoot myself."

    Eloise had no trouble following his skewed little train of thought. Her face lit up with a smile. "Only seven? God, did you lead a sheltered life! I'm sure I could list at least thirty without even trying."

    For a moment, the two longtime Aprilist comrades shared a look of pure satisfaction. They could live, easily enough, without sheer revenge. The fact remained that the bastards were finally behind bars.

    "Where they belong," growled Eloise. "And where they'll stay for the next sixty T-years... unless we get overthrown."

    Usher managed to keep his mouth shut. That was difficult, with Eloise Pritchart, in a way it wouldn't have been with almost anyone else. Their friendship was a very close and very long-standing one.


    Eloise, he knew, had a fierce determination to keep the new Haven regime of which she was President from committing the errors and crimes of previous ones. A determination so fierce, in fact, that Kevin thought she made mistakes because of it. Not many, but some. So, here and there, privately and without telling her, Kevin had quietly taken care of what was needed.

    Have no fear, Eloise. One of things the FIA is in charge of is running the maximum security prisons. Whatever happens, I've seen to it that the only way those StateSec ringleaders will ever get out of prison until they've served their sentence is in body bags. Every single one of their cells comes equipped with concealed poison gas containers.

    He shook off the grim satisfaction of that knowledge. Eloise would be upset if he told her. Strictly speaking, after all, those secret execution mechanisms were in violation of the law she was sworn to uphold.

    So, he kept his mouth shut. And pressed on with the subject at hand.

    "I know about the Erewhonese... 'feelers,' as you call them. And don't bother telling me I shouldn't know. You're not that much of a tight-ass, Eloise." He ran fingers through his own hair, dark where hers was silvery. "And I think what I suspect is exactly what you're thinking. High Ridge has been treating them like servants, the Erewhonese are having second thoughts about their alliance with Manticore, and now that Haven has a new government they're giving us a second look."

    She nodded. Kevin pursed his lips. "Guthrie's our ambassador on Erewhon, and that's not good. He's a second-rater at best. Nothing wrong with him, exactly, but not much really right either. A ticket-puncher, basically. The kind of guy who'd react to a tricky opportunity like this by worrying about how it might screw up his career."

    Pritchart nodded again. "And the officer in charge of the FIS mission there—Jacqueline Pallier, I don't believe you know her—is no better, trust me. Even Wilhelm Trajan is frustrated with her, and Wilhelm's not exactly possessed of lightning reflexes himself. Between the two of them, from what I can tell, Guthrie and Pallier have managed to dodge every feeler sent our way as if they were virgins dodging a lecher's gropes. By now, the Erewhonese probably think we're all a bunch of imbeciles."

    Usher grinned. "Odd you should use that term. I'll send Victor along with Ginny, of course, and I sometimes wonder if he's still a virgin."

    "You and your clever schemes! I'll give you this much, Kevin Usher, you're just about the only man I know who doesn't give a flying damn about the public image of your masculinity." A fond little smile came to her lips. "Not that you need to, I'll be the first to admit."

    For a moment, Usher shared that smile. Off and on, over the many years they'd known each other, Kevin and Eloise's relationship had included quite a bit of time spent in bed together. It had been a friendly sort of thing, not especially romantic, and was now all in the past since both of them had fallen in love with other people. But it did give their friendship an extra something; the kind of easy relaxation of people who have few secrets from each other.

    They savored the moment, but didn't dwell on it. Within seconds, Eloise was sitting upright at her desk again and her beautiful face was creased with a small frown.

    "Do you think Cachat's up to it? I know he's your favorite, Kevin, but he's awfully young for something like this."

    Kevin shrugged. "'Young' and 'incapable' are two different things. I grant you the kid still seems tied up in knots about sex, but on anything which involves his professional skills... He's good, Eloise. He's thoughtful in a way that damn few 'ops' ever are, but when he needs to be he can be as decisive and ruthless as anyone in the galaxy. Don't forget how beautifully he handled the situation in La Martine a while back, and he's had several years experience since then. Sure, he's still young—and so what? Every fighter's 'too young' until he steps into the championship ring. Victor's ready for it. I can't think of anyone who'd do any better, and he has the advantage of providing us with a ready-made cover."

    Pritchart spread her hands on the desk and leaned her weight on them. Kevin recognized the characteristic gesture. Eloise was a champ herself when it came to being decisive.

    "Good enough. We'll go with Victor. But—!"

    Now she was shaking a forefinger at him. "You make sure he understands—and that starts with you, Kevin—that I don't want any loose warheads here. None of your wild and woolly Usher tactics, you hear? And since you brought up La Martine, let me remind you that Victor's tactics there were about as wild and woolly as it gets. I want this done by the rule book."

    Kevin gave her a submissive smile.

    He hoped it looked submissive, anyway. Since he was pretty sure he'd be disobeying her and leaving the rule book in tatters.



    "Dammit, Ginny," grumbled Victor as he climbed into bed, "I don't see why you're so blasé about Anton Zilwicki being here on Erewhon. That man is too smart by half. He's got more brains in his over-muscled big toe than the whole Manticoran embassy here has put together."

    Ginny chucked him under the chin. "I'm not blasé about it, I just don't see the point in losing sleep over something we've got no control over." She yawned lazily, reached an arm across and drew him close. "Tomorrow'll be soon enough to worry about it. You need some rest, lover boy."

    "And that's another thing! How am I supposed to get any sleep with you draped all over me? Especially wearing that—what do you call it, anyway? That handkerchief-masquerading-as-a-nightgown."

    "S'a 'teddy,'" she murmured against his chest. "And don't you make wisecracks about it, either. It cost Kevin plenty, since I bought it just before we left at one of the fanciest boutiques in Nouveau Paris." Happily: "I'm sure there were at least two spies in the place, and God only knows how many remote spy-eyes. Just like there probably are in this room. You can't be too careful."

    Not likely, thought Victor. Not with the equipment I brought with me. By now, any spy-eyes in this room are so much fried junk.

    Just to prove her point, Ginny slid a bare and very shapely leg over his thighs. Which, Victor sighed, were covered by nothing more than the thinnest pair of pajamas he owned. Ginny wouldn't let him get away with anything else.

    Yet he didn't insist that Ginny sleep on her side of the bed. There was a carefully walled-away part of him that found the feel of her body against his... disturbing. But he was accustomed to it, by now. This was hardly the first time he and Ginny had shared a bed, after all, nor was it the first time Ginny had worn a "nightgown" that bore more resemblance to a stripper's outfit than anything else.

    What was more important was that Victor had long since come to understand why Ginny insisted on this somewhat silly routine. True, there was neither romance nor sex between them, and never had been. But Victor understood that in some peculiar way he'd come to be for Ginny the family she'd never had growing up in Manpower's slave quarters. The young brother she'd never been able to cuddle through that long darkness, come to her at last.

    It was a very warm thought, and, not for the first time, Victor drew strength and determination from it. He cupped his hand around her head, drew her closer still and gently kissed her hair.

    Within a few minutes, he was able to shed his frets and worries, and fell asleep himself. Wondering, as he drifted off, whether he'd ever find a woman of his own he cared for as much as he did for Ginny.

    Probably not, he concluded. Victor was pretty sure romance was something that was going to be absent from his life. In truth, he'd been pretty sure of that since he was fourteen years old and dedicated himself to the revolution. The only thing that had changed, since he'd met Ginny, was that now the knowledge bothered him.

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