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Torch of Freedom: Chapter One

       Last updated: Saturday, August 8, 2009 12:25 EDT




Late 1919 and 1920 Post-Diaspora.
(4021 and 4022, Christian Era)

    Beyond the Protectorates, starting at a distance of 210 light-years or so from Sol and extending for depths of from 40 to over 200 light-years, was the region known as "the Verge." The Verge was very irregularly shaped, depending entirely on where and how colony flights were sent out, and consisted of scores of independent star systems, many of them originally colonized by people trying to get away from the Shell Systems, which could be considered the equivalent of what were called "Third World nations" in pre-Diaspora times. Individually, very few of them of them had populations of more than one or two billion (there were exceptions), their economies were marginal, and they had no effective military power. Many of them had all they could do to resist piratical raids, and none of them had the power to resist the Office of Frontier Security and the League Gendarmerie when it came time for them to slip into protectorate status. There was a constant trickling outward from the inner edge of the Verge to the outer edge, fueled more than anything else by the desire of people along the inner edge to avoid the creeping expansion of the Protectorates. Indeed, some people living in the Verge were the descendants of ancestors who had relocated three or four or even five times in an effort to avoid involuntary incorporation into the Protectorates. Their hatred for the Office of Frontier Security—and, by extension, the rest of the League—was both bitter and intensive.

From Hester McReynolds, Origins of the Maya Crisis. (Ceres Press, Chicago, 2084 PD)

November, 1919 PD

    "Welcome back."

    Sector Governor Oravil Barregos, Governor of the Maya Sector in (theoretically) the Office of Frontier Security's name, stood and held out his hand with a smile as Vegar Spangen escorted the dark, trim man in the uniform of a Solarian League Navy rear admiral into his office.

    "I expected you last week," the governor continued, still smiling. "Should I assume the fact that I didn't see you then but do see you now is good news?"

    "I think you could safely do that," Rear Admiral Luiz Rozsak agreed as he shook Barregos' hand with a smile of his own.


    Barregos glanced at Spangen. Vegar had been his personal security chief for decades and the governor trusted him implicitly. At the same time, he and Spangen both understood the principle of the "need to know," and Vegar interpreted that glance with the experience of all those decades.

    "I expect you and the Admiral need to talk, Sir," the tall, red-haired bodyguard said calmly. "If you need me, I'll be out there annoying Julie. Just buzz when you're ready. And I've made sure all the recording devices are off."

    "Thank you, Vegar." Barregos transferred his smile to Spangen.

    "You're welcome, Sir." Spangen nodded to Rozsak. "Admiral," he said, and withdrew in the outer office where Julie Magilen, Barregos' private secretary, guarded the approaches like a deceptively demure looking dragon.

    "A good man," Rozsak observed quietly as the door closed behind Spangen.

    "Yes, yes he is. And yet another demonstration of the fact that it's better to have a few good men than hordes of not-so-good ones."

    The two of them stood for a moment, looking at one another, thinking about how long they'd both been working on assembling the right "good men" (and women). Then the governor gave himself a little shake.

    "So," he said more briskly. "You said something about having good news?"

    "As a matter of fact," Rozsak agreed, "I think Ingemar's tragic demise helped open a couple of doors a little wider than they might have swung otherwise."

    "Some good should come of any misfortune." Barregos' voice was almost pious, but he also smiled again, a thinner and colder smile this time, and Rozsak chuckled. There was something a bit sour about the sound to the governor's experienced ear, though, and he cocked an eyebrow. "Was there a problem?"

    "Not a 'problem,' exactly." Rozsak shook his head. "It's just that I'm afraid Ingemar's brutal assassination wasn't quite as 'black' as I'd planned on its being."

    "Meaning exactly what, Luiz?" Barregos' dark eyes hardened, and his deceptively round and gentle face suddenly looked remarkably ungentle. Not that Rozsak was particularly surprised by his reaction. In fact, he'd expected it… which was the main reason he'd waited to share his information until he could do it face to face.

    "Oh, it went off perfectly," he said reassuringly, with a half-humorous flick of his free left hand. "Palane did a perfect job. That girl has battle steel nerves, and she buried her tracks—and ours—even better than I'd hoped. She steered the newsies perfectly, too, and as far as I can tell, every single one of them drew the right conclusion. Their stories all emphasize Mesa's—and especially Manpower's—motives for killing him after he so selflessly threw the League’s support to those poor, homeless escaped slaves. The evidence could scarcely be more conclusive if I'd, ah, designed it myself. Unfortunately, I feel I can say with reasonable confidence that we've fooled neither Anton Zilwicki, Jeremy X, Victor Cachat, Ruth Winton, Queen Berry, nor Walter Imbesi."

    He shrugged insouciantly, and Barregos glared at him.

    "That's an impressive list," he said icily. "May I ask if there are any intelligence operatives in the galaxy who don't suspect what really happened?"

    "I'm pretty sure there are at least two or three. Fortunately, all back on Old Earth."

    The rear admiral returned Barregos' semi-glare levelly, and, gradually, the coldness oozed out of the governor's eyes. They remained rather hard, but Rozsak was one of the smallish number of people from whom Barregos didn't attempt to hide their hardness as a matter of course. Which was understandable enough, since Luiz Rozsak was probably the only person in the entire galaxy who knew exactly what Oravil Barregos had in mind for the future of the Maya Sector.

    "So what you're saying is that the spooks on the ground know we had him killed, but that all of them have their own reasons for keeping their suspicions to themselves?"

    "Pretty much." Rozsak nodded. "Every one of them does have his or her own motive for seeing to it that the official version stands up, after all. Among other things, none of them wants anyone in the Solarian League to think they had anything to do with the assassination of a sector lieutenant-governor! More to the point, though, this whole affair's offered us a meeting of the minds that, frankly, I never expected going in."

    "So I gathered from your reports. And I have to say, I never would've expected Haven to play such a prominent role in your recent adventures."

    As he spoke, Barregos twitched his head at the armchairs in the conversational nook to one side of an enormous floor-to-ceiling picture window. The view out over downtown Shuttlesport, the capital of both the Maya System and of the Maya Sector from the governor's hundred and fortieth-floor office was stupendous, but Rozsak had seen it before. And at the moment, he had rather too many things on his mind to pay it the attention it deserved as he followed the governor across to the window.

    "Hell with Haven!" He snorted, settling into his regular seat and watching the governor do the same. "Nobody back in Nouveau Paris knew what was coming any more than we did! Oh, the Republic's signed off on it after the fact, but I suspect Pritchart and her bunch feel almost as much like they've been run over by a lorry as anyone on Manticore. Or Erewhon, for that matter." He shook his head ruefully. "Nobody's told me so officially, but I'll be very surprised if Cachat doesn't wind up running all of Haven's intelligence ops in and around Erewhon. After all, given his recent machinations, he's probably the only person who really knows where all the bodies are buried. I don't often feel like I've been caught in someone else's slipstream, Oravil, but he's got to be the best improvisational operator I've ever run into. I swear to you that he didn't have any more notion going in of where this was all going to come out than anyone else did. And like I say, unless I'm badly mistaken, no one in Nouveau Paris ever saw it coming, either." He snorted again. "As a matter of fact, I'm pretty damned sure not even Kevin Usher would've turned him loose on Erewhon if he'd suspected for a minute where Cachat was going to end up!"

    "Do you think he's going to be a problem down the road?" Barregos asked, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, and Rozsak shrugged.

    "He's not really a lunatic, or even a loose laser head, for that matter. In fact, I'd say our friend Cachat has a good bit in common with a warmhearted rattlesnake, if the simile doesn't sound too bizarre even for me. Although, to be fair, Jiri's really the one who came up with it. It's apt, though. The man tries hard to hide it, but I think he's actually extraordinarily protective of the people and things he cares about, and his response to any threat is to remove it—promptly, thoroughly, and without worrying all that much about collateral damage. If you convince him you're going to be a threat to the Republic of Haven, for example, it'll almost certainly be the last thing you ever do. The only thing likely to get you killed quicker would be to convince him you're a threat to one of the people he cares about. Which, by the way, is a very good reason we should never, ever, in even the remotest back corner of our minds, think about eliminating Thandi Palane just to tie up the loose ends of Ingemar's assassination. I'll admit, I wouldn't want to do it anyway, but it didn't take me very long to realize that bad as Cachat's reaction might be, he wouldn't be anywhere close to the only enemy we'd make in the process. Trust me on this one, Oravil."

    His voice was unusually sober, and Barregos nodded in acknowledgment. Warnings from Luiz Rozsak were best heeded, as several no longer breathing people the governor could think of right offhand might have testified. Assuming, of course, that they hadn't been no longer breathing.

    "On the other hand," the rear admiral continued, "if you aren't a threat to someone or something he cares about, he's perfectly prepared to leave you alone. As far as I can tell he doesn't hold grudges, either—which may be because anyone he'd be likely to hold a grudge against is already dead, of course. And he recognizes that sometimes it's 'just business' even if interests he does care about are getting pinched a bit. He's willing to be reasonable. But it's always best to bear that image of a rattlesnake basking in the sun in mind, because if he does decide you need to be seen to, the last thing you'll ever hear will be a brief—very brief—rattling sound."

    "And Zilwicki?"

    "Anton Zilwicki is just as dangerous as Cachat, in his own way. The fact that he's got even better contacts with the Audubon Ballroom than we'd thought gives him a sort of unofficial, 'rogue' action arm all his own. It’s got a lot less in the way of a formal support structure than Manty or Havenite intelligence, but at the same time, it's less likely to worry about the sorts of constraints star nations have to bear in mind. It's a lot more likely to leave its back trail littered with body parts, too, and it's got one hell of a long reach. He's smart, and he thinks about things, Oravil—hard. He understands just how dangerous a weapon patience is, and he's got a remarkable facility for pulling apparently random facts together to form critical conclusions.

    "On the other hand, our initial appreciation of him was considerably more thorough than anything we knew about Cachat, so I can't really say he threw us any surprises. And the bottom line is that even with his links to the Ballroom and people like Jeremy X, I think he's less likely than Cachat to reach for a pulser as his first choice of problem-solving tools. I'm not saying Cachat's a homicidal maniac, you understand. Or that Zilwicki is some kind of choirboy, either, for that matter. Both of them are of the opinion that the best way to remove a threat is to remove it permanently, but at heart, I think, Zilwicki is more of an analyst and Cachat is more of a direct action specialist. They're both almost scarily competent in the field, and they're both among the best analysts I've ever seen, but they've got different… emphases, let's say."

    "Which, now that they're more or less operating in alliance, makes the two of them more dangerous than the sum of their parts. Would that be an accurate summarization?" Barregos asked.

    "Yes, and no." Rozsak leaned back in his chair, frowning thoughtfully. "They respect each other. In fact, I think they actually like each other, and each of them owes the other. More than that, they have a major commonality of interest in what's happening in Torch. But at heart, Zilwicki's still a Manty and Cachat's still a Havenite. I think it's possible—especially if the Star Kingdom’s and the Republic's foreign relations keep dropping deeper and deeper into the crapper—that the two of them could find themselves on opposing sides again. And that, trust me, would be… messy."

    "You said 'possible,'" Barregos observed. "Is that the same thing as 'likely'?"

    "I don't know," Rozsak replied frankly, and he shrugged. "What they have is a personal relationship and, I think—although I'm not sure either of them would be willing to admit it—friendship. And it's complicated by the fact that Cachat's hopelessly in love with Palane and Zilwicki's daughter's become Palane's unofficial little sister. So I'm guessing that the most likely outcome if the coin ever drops between the Republic and the Star Kingdom again would be that the two of them would give each other fair warning and then retire to their corners and try very hard not to step on each other. The wildcard, of course, is the fact that Zilwicki's daughter is also the Queen of Torch. The man's a Gryphon Highlander, too. He's got all the ingrained Gryphon loyalty to the Manty Crown, but he's also got that personal, almost feudal loyalty to family and friends. It may well be he'd give his primary loyalty to Queen Berry, not Queen Elizabeth, if it came down to an outright choice. I doubt he'd ever do anything to harm Manticore's interests, and I think he's equally unlikely to stand by and allow something to damage those interests because of simple inaction on his part. But I also think he'd try to balance Manticore's and Torch's interests."


    It was Barregos' turn to lean back, and he clasped his hands in front of his chest, leaning his chin on his thumbs while he tapped the tip of his nose gently with both index fingers. It was one of his favorite thinking poses, and Rozsak waited patiently while the governor considered what he'd just said.

    "The thing that occurs to me," Barregos said at length, eyes narrowing slightly as they refocused on Rozsak, "is that I don't think Elizabeth would've let Ruth Winston stay on as Torch's assistant chief of intelligence if she wasn't thinking in terms of establishing a sort of backdoor link to Haven. It's obvious she didn't exactly pick High Ridge as her prime minister, after all. I'm not foolish enough to think she's feeling particularly fond of the Republic of Haven—especially since that business at Yeltsin's Star—but she’s smart, Luiz. Very smart. And she knows Saint-Just is dead, probably along with just about everyone else involved in that whole op. I don't say I think knowing that's suddenly made her fond of Havenites in general, but I do think that, deep inside, she'd really like to see Pritchart and Theisman succeed in restoring the Old Republic."

    "That's my read, too," Rozsak agreed. "However much she may hate 'Peeps,' she's enough of a student of history to know the Republic wasn't always the biggest, hungriest hog in the neighborhood. And however little some parts of her personality might like admitting it, I think she recognizes that seeing the Old Republic come back would be a lot less strenuous—and dangerous—than going back to hog-killing time. Not that I'm prepared to even guesstimate how likely she thinks it is that they will succeed."

    "I imagine we're both rather more optimistic in that respect than she is." Barregos' smile was wintry. "Probably has something to do with our not having been at war with the People's Republic of Haven for the last fifteen or twenty T-years."

    "That's true enough, but I'm also inclined to think there's some genuine principle involved here—in Torch's case, I mean—too," Rozsak said. "The one thing Haven and Manticore have always agreed on is how much they both hate the genetic slave trade and Manpower, Incorporated. That's the only reason Cachat was able to put together his… energetic solution to the 'Verdant Vista Problem' in the first place. I think both Elizabeth and Pritchart have a genuine sense of having created something brand new in galactic history when they played midwife, whether they wanted to or not, to the liberation of Torch. And my impression from speaking to Prince Michael and Kevin Usher at the coronation is that both Elizabeth and Pritchart believe that even if relations break down completely again between the Republic and the Star Kingdom, Torch could provide a very useful conduit. Sometimes even people shooting at each other have to talk to each other, you know."

    "Oh, yes, indeed I do." Barregos' smile turned tart, and he shook his head. "But getting back to Ingemar. You think his arrangement with Stein is going to stand up now that he's gone?"

    "I think it's as likely now as I ever thought it was," Rozsak replied a bit obliquely, and Barregos snorted.

    Luiz Rozsak had never had the liveliest faith in the reliability—or utility—of anyone in the Renaissance Association even before the assassination of Hieronymus Stein, its founder. And his faith in the integrity of Hieronymus' successors was, if anything, even less lively. A point upon which, to be honest, Barregos couldn't disagree with him.

    There was no question in the governor's mind that Hieronymus had been considerably more idealistic than his daughter, Jessica, yet there'd been even less question, in Oravil Barregos opinion, that his last name should have been "Quixote" instead of Stein. All the same, as the founder and visible figurehead of the Renaissance Association, he'd enjoyed a unique degree of status, both in and out of the Solarian League, which could not be denied. It might have been the sort of status which was accorded to a lunatic who genuinely believed idealism could triumph over a thousand odd years of bureaucratic corruption, but it had been genuine.

    He'd also been the next best thing to completely ineffectual, which was one reason the bureaucrats who truly ran the Solarian League hadn't had him killed decades before. He'd fretted, he'd fumed, he'd been highly visible and an insufferable gadfly, but he'd also been a convenient focus for discontent within the League precisely because he'd been so devoted to the concept of "process" and gradual reform. The bureaucracy had recognized that he was effectively harmless and actually useful because of the way he allowed that discontent to vent itself without ever accomplishing a thing.

    Jessica, on the other hand, represented a distinct break with her father's philosophy. She'd allied herself with the Association's hard-liners—the ones who wanted fast, hard action on 'The Six Pillars" of its fundamental principles for reform. Who were so frustrated and angry that they were no longer especially interested in restricting themselves to the legal processes which had failed them for so long. Some of them were ideologues, pure and simple. Some were passionate reformers, who'd been disappointed just a few too many times. And some were players, people who saw the Renaissance Association's status as the most prominent reform-oriented movement in the Solarian League as a potential crowbar, a way those who weren't part of the bureaucracy might just be able to hammer, chisel, and pry their way into a power base of their own.

    Just as Barregos had never doubted Hieronymus' idealism was genuine, he'd never doubted Jessica's was little more than skin deep. She'd grown up in the shadows of her father's reputation, and she'd spent her entire life watching him accomplish absolutely nothing in the way of real and lasting change while his politics simultaneously excluded her from any possibility of joining the existing power structure. His prominence, the way the reformist dilettantes and a certain strain of newsies—what was still called "the chattering class"—fawned on him, kept her so close to the entrenched structure which ran the League that she could literally taste it, yet she would never be able to join it. After all, she was the daughter and heir of the senior lunatic and anarchist-in-chief, wasn't she? No one would be crazy enough to invite her into even the outermost reaches of the Solarian League's real ruling circle!

    Which was why she'd been so receptive to Ingemar Cassetti's offer to have her father assassinated.

    Barregos rather regretted the necessity of Hieronymus' death, but it was a mild regret. In fact, what bothered him most about it was that it didn't bother him any more than it did. That it was never going to cost him a single night's sleep. It shouldn't be that way, but Oravil Barregos had realized years ago that getting to where he wanted to be was going to cost some slivers of his soul along the way. He didn't like it, but it was a price he was willing to pay, although not, perhaps, solely for the reasons most of his opponents might have believed.

    But with Hieronymus gone, Cassetti—who, Barregos had concluded after mature consideration, had been the most loathsome single individual he'd ever personally met, however useful he might have proved upon occasion—had engineered a direct understanding and alliance between himself, as Barregos' envoy, and Jessica Stein. Of course, Cassetti hadn't been aware that Barregos was aware of his plans to quietly assassinate his own superior. Nor, for that matter, had Cassetti bothered to inform Barregos in the first place that Hieronymus' death was going to be part of the bargaining process with Jessica. Then again, there'd been several things he'd somehow forgotten to mention to his superior about those negotiations. Like the fact that while the alliance the lieutenant governor had concluded with her might have been in Oravil Barregos' name, he'd intended from the beginning to be the one sitting in the sector governor's chair when Jessica's debt was called in. It was evident from what Rozsak had reported from Torch that Cassetti hadn't even guessed Barregos had seen it coming from the outset and made his own plans accordingly.

    Ingemar always was more cunning than smart, Barregos reflected grimly. And he never did seem to realize other people might be just as capable as he was. For that matter, he was nowhere near as good a judge of people as he thought he was, or he would never have approached Luiz, of all people, about planting his dagger in my back!

    "I know you've never had much faith in the Association's efficacy," the governor said aloud. "For that matter, I don't have a lot of faith in its ability to actually accomplish anything. But that's not really the reason we want its backing, now is it?"

    "No," Rozsak agreed. "On the other hand, I don't think Jessica Stein is an honest politician."

    "You mean you don't think she'll stay bought?"

    "I mean the woman's a political whore," Rozsak said bluntly. "She'll stay bought, sort of, but she doesn't see any reason not to sell herself to as many buyers as possible, Oravil. I just don't think there's any way for us to even guess at this point how many masters she's actually going to have when the time comes for us to… call in our marker, let's say."

    "Ah, but that's when all that evidence Ingemar was so careful to preserve comes in," Barregos said with a thin smile. "Having her on chip planning her own father's murder gives us a pretty good stick to go with our carrot. And, when you come down to it, we really don't need that much out of her. Just the Association's blessing for our PR campaign when events out here 'force our hand.'"

    "All I've got to say on that head is that it's a good thing we don't need anything more out of her," Rozsak said tartly.

    "I don't disagree, but the truth is, Luiz," Barregos smiled at the rear admiral again, this time with atypical warmth, "that no matter how well you play the black ops game, at heart, you don't really like it."

    "I beg your pardon?"

    Rozsak's offended look was almost perfect, Barregos noted, and he chuckled.

    "I said you play it well, Luiz. In fact, I think you play it better than almost anyone else I've ever seen. But you and I both know the real reason you do. And"—the governor met Rozsak's eyes levelly, and his own were suddenly much less opaque than usual—"the reason you were so willing to sign on in the first place."

    A moment or two of silence hovered in the office. Then Rozsak cleared his throat.

    "Well, be that as it may," he said more briskly, "and whatever possible problematical advantages we may be able to squeeze out of Ms. Stein at some theoretical future date, I have to admit that entire funeral charade on Erewhon and the follow-up on Torch has landed us in a situation that's significantly better than I ever would have predicted ahead of time."

    "So I've gathered. Your last report said something about a meeting with Imbesi and Al Carlucci?"

    Barregos raised his eyebrows again, and Rozsak nodded.

    "Actually, Imbesi's main immediate contribution was to make it very clear to Carlucci that our talks had his blessing—and that Fuentes, Havlicek, and Hall were on board, as well."

    It was Barregos turn to nod. The government of the Republic of Erewhon wasn't quite like anyone else's. Probably because the entire system was directly descended from Old Earth's "organized crime" families. Officially, the Republic was currently governed by the triumvirate of Jack Fuentes, Alessandra Havlicek, and Thomas Hall, but there were always other people, with differing degrees of influence, involved in the governing process. Walter Imbesi was one of those "other people," the one who'd organized the neutralization of the Mesan intrusion into Erewhon's sphere of influence. His decision to cooperate with Victor Cachat—and, for that matter, Luiz Rozsak—had gotten Mesa evicted from what had been the system of Verdant Vista and was now the Torch System.

    It had also finished off, for all intents and purposes, Erewhon's alliance with the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Which, Barregos knew perfectly well, had been possible only because of the way the High Ridge Government had systematically ignored, infuriated, and—in Imbesi's opinion—fundamentally betrayed Erewhon and Erewhon's interests.

    Regardless of Imbesi's motivations, he'd once again restored his family to the uppermost niches of power in Erewhon. In fact, he'd become for all intents and purposes the triumvirate's fourth, not quite officially acknowledged member. And in the process, he had moved Erewhon from its previous pro-Manticore position into a pro-Haven position.

    "Is Erewhon really going to sign on with Haven?" the governor asked.

    "It's a done deal," Rozsak replied. "I don't know if the formal treaty's actually been signed yet, but if it hasn't, it will be soon. At which point Erewhon and Haven will become parties to a mutual defense treaty… and Nouveau Paris will suddenly become privy to quite a lot of Manty technology."

    "Which will piss Manticore off no end," Barregos observed.

    "Which will piss Manticore off no end," Rozsak acknowledged. "On the other hand, Manticore doesn't have anyone to blame but itself, and from Prince Michael's attitude at Queen Berry's coronation, he and his sister know it, whether anyone else in Manticore's prepared to admit it or not. That idiot High Ridge handed Erewhon to Haven on a platter. And"—the rear admiral's smile turned suddenly wolfish—"handed Erewhon over to us, at the same time."

    "Then it's settled?" Barregos felt himself leaning forward and knew he was giving away far more eagerness and intensity than usual, but he didn't really care as he watched Rozsak's expression carefully.

    "It's settled," Rozsak agreed. "The Carlucci Industrial Group is currently waiting to sit down with Donald, Brent, and Gail to discuss commercial agreements with the Maya Sector government."

    Barregos settled back again. Donald Clarke was his senior economic adviser—effectively the Maya Sector's treasurer. Brent Stephens was his senior industrial planner, and Gail Brosnan was currently the Maya Sector's acting lieutenant governor. Given the peculiarities of Maya's relationship with the Office of Frontier Security, Barregos was confident Brosnan would eventually be confirmed by OFS HQ back on Old Earth. At the same time, he was even more confident she would be the "acting" lieutenant governor for a long, long time, first. After all, his superiors had stuck him with Cassetti in the first place because they hadn't wanted Barregos picking his own potential successor. The fact that he trusted Brosnan would automatically make certain people back in… less than happy to see her inheriting Cassetti's old position. Those same people were undoubtedly planning on delaying her confirmation as long as possible in hopes that Barregos might have a heart attack -- or be hit by a micro meteorite or kidnaped by space-elves or something -- before they actually had to let her assume office. At which point they could finally get rid of the entire Barregos administration… including Brosnan.

    "Should I assume you've been invited to come along as an unofficial member of our trade delegation?" he asked.

    "You should." Rozsak smiled again. "I've already had a few words with Chapman and Horton, too. Nothing too direct yet—I figured we'd better be sure we had the civilian side firmly nailed down before I started talking military shop. But from what Imbesi said, and even more from what Carlucci said after Imbesi was 'unexpectedly called away' from our meeting, the Navy's ready to sit down with me and start talking some hard numbers. Exactly what those numbers are going to be will depend on how much we've got to invest, of course."

    He raised an interrogative eyebrow, and Barregos snorted.

    "The numbers are going to be higher than anyone in Erewhon probably expects," he said frankly. "The limiting factor's going to be how well we can keep it under the radar horizon from Old Earth, and Donald and I have been working on conduits and pump-priming for a long time now. There's a hell of a lot of money here in Maya. In fact, there's a hell of a lot more of it than Agatá Wodoslawski or anyone else at Treasury back on Old Earth even guesses, which is probably the only reason they haven't insisted on jacking the 'administrative fees' schedule even higher. I think we'll be able to siphon off more than enough for our purposes."

    "I don't know, Oravil," Rozsak said. "Our 'purposes' are going to get pretty damned big if and when the wheels finally come off."

    "There's no 'if' about it," Barregos responded more grimly. "That's part of what this is all about, after all. But when I say we can siphon off more than enough, what I'm really saying is I can siphon off all that we dare actually spend. Too much hardware floating around too quickly, especially out this way, is likely to make some of my good friends at the ministry just a bit antsy, and we can't afford that. Better we come up a little tight on the military end when the shit finally hits the fan than that we tip off someone back on Old Earth by getting too ambitious too soon and see the balloon go up before we're ready."

    "I hate balancing acts," Rozsak muttered, and Barregos laughed.

    "Well, unless I miss my guess, we're getting into the endgame. I wonder if any of those idiots back in Old Chicago have been reading up on the Sepoy Mutiny?"

    "I certainly hope not," Rozsak replied with a certain fervency.

    "I doubt anyone has, really." Barregos shook his head. "If any of them were truly capable of learning from history, at least someone would have seen the writing on the wall by now."

    "Personally, I want them to go right on being nearsighted as long as we can get away with," Rozsak told him.

    "Me, too."

    The governor sat thinking for a few more moments, then shrugged.

    "Do we have a firm date for this meeting with Carlucci?"

    "It's a week from here to Erewhon by dispatch boat. I told them I figured it would be at least ten days."

    "Is three days going to be enough for you and your people?"

    "My people are already two-thirds of the way into the loop on this one, Oravil. With the exception of that little snot Manson, most of them already know—or they've guessed, at least—exactly what's about to happen. I've already made arrangements to peel him off for a few days while the rest of us sit down and talk nuts and bolts and I think three days should be long enough for us to get most of the pieces lined up. Donald and Brent are going to have to be part of that, too, I suppose, but they'll be sitting in mostly as observers, to make sure they understand what it is we're trying to accomplish. It'll be time to get them involved in generating actual numbers after they're up to speed on the hardware side, and I'll have the transit time back to Erewhon to finish kicking things around with them. It'll do, I think."

    "Good." Barregos stood. "In that case, I think you should probably head on off to your office and get started talking about those nuts and bolts."

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