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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Twenty Four

       Last updated: Friday, November 20, 2009 00:26 EST



    It was a good ice cream parlor, in fact. Not as good as Muckerjee’s Treats in Grendel, the largest city of Beowulf.

    The planetary — and system — capital was the city of Columbia, of course, but Columbia, alas, was only Beowulf’s second largest city. In fact, it had been the system’s second largest city for right on five hundred T-years, now. There were moments when its population had surged, threatening to overtake Grendel at last, yet it never had. Whenever Columbia seemed on the brink of finally overtaking its rival, something always happened to give Grendel a sudden surge of its own. Indeed, the more conspiracy minded Columbians had muttered for generations that it was all a plot by some secret conspiracy to maintain the status quo. There’d never been any actual proof of that, mind you, but by now it was enshrined in Beowulfan legend that Grendel would always be bigger, more commercial — flashier in general. And, while Hugh would never want to appear overly credulous where such paranoid accusations were concerned, he’d once been curious enough to do a little research of his own . . . in the course of which he had discovered that Grendel’s zoning laws had, in fact, been modified to encourage accelerated growth on several . . . demographically significant occasions. And on very little notice — and with very little public debate — too.

    There were those (although Hugh didn’t think he counted himself among them) who went still further and asserted that the same nefarious population plotters had deliberately enticed the original owner of Muckerjee’s Treats into locating her emporium in Grendel. The parlor was certainly regarded as one of the city’s hallmark and legendary attractions, at any rate, and rumor had it that the city government had extended the current owners several very attractive tax breaks to keep it right where it was. And with good reason, too. No ice cream anywhere in the inhabited galaxy was as good as that to be found in Muckerjee’s Treats. Such, at least, was the firm opinion of Hugh Arai and every single member of Beowulf’s Biological Survey Corps except the notoriously contrarian W.G. Zefat — and it was perhaps no coincidence that Captain Zefat had been sent off on what was expected to be the longest survey mission in the history of the Corps.

    For that matter, the ice cream made in the parlor favored by the queen of Torch — J. Quesenberry’s Ice Cream and Pastries, it was called — wasn’t really as good as the ice cream made in a number of parlors in Manticore or any one of the inhabited planets in Sol system. Still, it was awfully good, and it had the great advantage over all other ice cream parlors in the galaxy of being the only one currently inhabited by Berry Zilwicki.

    After about one hour of conversation in the parlor, an idle remark made by Berry reminded Hugh that when he’d first met the queen he hadn’t taken much notice of her appearance. Healthy-looking, not otherwise striking, had pretty much summed it up.

    That seemed like the memories of early childhood, now. Vague, half-forgotten — most of all, amusingly childish. In the way these things happen, Hugh’s fascination with the young woman had completely transformed her appearance. His view of it, at least, and what else did he care about?

    This is still a really bad idea. He repeated that mantra for perhaps the twentieth time. With no more effect than the first nineteen self-reminders.

    “Jeremy more-or-less raised you, then?”

    Hugh shook his head. “No such luck, I’m afraid. And given his lifestyle at the time — wanted by just about every police force in the galaxy — there was no way he could have even if he’d wanted to. No, I spent the first few years after my rescue in a relocation camp on Aldib’s second planet, Berstuk.”

    “I never heard of Berstuk. Or Aldib, for that matter.”

    “Aldib’s a G9 star, whose official moniker is Delta Draconis. Despite being in the same constellation as Beowulf’s star, it’s not really that close. It’s about seventy-five light years from Sol. As for Berstuk . . .”

    Hugh’s expression grew bleak. “It’s named after the Wendish god of the forest. Who was a pretty evil character, apparently. Which I can well believe.”

    Berry tilted her head slightly. “Well-named because of the forest, or the evil?”

    “Both. The planet’s gravity is slightly above Earth-normal. There aren’t many oceans and those are small, so the climate is a lot worse. What they call ‘continental.’ Not unlivable, but the summers are bad and the winters are terrible.”

    “I thought you were rescued by a Beowulf warship.”

    “I was. But . . .” Hugh shrugged. “All things considered, I’m fond of my adopted homeworld, and Beowulf’s probably — no, scratch that, definitely — the most ferocious star nation in the galaxy when it comes to enforcing the Cherwell Convention. Still, Beowulf has its faults. One of them, in my opinion, is that it pretends the Solarian League is really a functional nation, not just a batch of self-satisfied, overly prosperous, basically self-centered, piles of shared interests tied together in an association of convenience.”

    Berry raised her eyebrows, and Hugh chuckled. The sound was not remarkably cheerful.

    “Sorry. The thing is, the ship that took out the slaver I was aboard happened to be operating in the territorial space of a fellow League star system. No one was ever able to prove anyone in that system had anything to do with the nasty slave traders, of course, but the local government insisted that the poor, liberated slaves be handed over to it so that it could personally see to their needs. The skipper of the cruiser — Captain Jeremiah — was a good sort, but he didn’t have any choice but to go along with the demands of the local, legally constituted authorities. So we got handed over.”

    “And?” Berry prompted when he paused.

    “And it’s a good thing Captain Jeremiah was a good sort, because he put in a call to Beowulf’s local trade representative. In the League, ‘trade representatives’ do a lot of the same things ‘commercial attaches’ do for relationships between independent star nations, so they’ve got more clout than the title might suggest. And the Beowulf representative made a point out of informing the local government that Beowulf felt responsible for the slaves it had liberated and would be expecting regular reports on their well-being. Which is probably the only thing that kept us all from getting ‘disappeared.’ Unfortunately, it didn’t keep those oh-so-concerned local authorities from dumping us with the Office of Frontier Security when it found out it couldn’t just make us all — poof, go away.” He grimaced. “So, we all wound up stuck on Berstuk. It took quite a while for even Beowulf to get us unstuck. Once it did, though, we were fast tracked for citizenship.” This time, he smiled. “The truth is, it’s not that easy to get Beowulfan citizenship. The professional associations have a lot of clout on Beowulf — too much, my opinion — and getting citizenship can take a long time unless you’ve got highly desirable professional skills or money or something else they find especially valuable. It can be done, but there are a lot of hoops to jump through, and it takes a while. Except for liberated slaves. Whatever else I might think about Beowulf, it really and truly hates Manpower’s guts. Which is one of the main reasons that liberated slaves get to jump the line over just about everybody else when it comes to getting citizenship.”

    “I knew some of that, thanks to Cathy and Daddy, even before Web and Jeremy got hold of me,” Berry said. “So you got citizenship?”

    “Yep. On the other hand, OFS isn’t especially fond of Beowulf, either. It didn’t exactly fall all over itself to cooperate with any expatriation requests. Even with the Anti-Slavery League pushing our case, Frontier Security was dragging its heels for all it was worth. Matter of fact, although Jeremy’s never admitted it, I’ve always suspected that the mysterious demise of at least one Sector Commissioner had something to do with finally breaking that particular log jam.” He shook his head. “Either way, though, it took six T-years to get it done, and I was already eleven, standard, before Beowulf managed to pry us back lose from Frontier Security.”

    “Oh. Why does that name, when you say it, seem to rhyme with Wicked Cesspool Demons of the Universe?”

    Hugh smiled. “It’s probably best to stay away from my opinion of the OFS. Or all the ice cream in this parlor might suddenly melt. Let’s just say that growing up in an OFS relocation center — call it refugee camp, which is blunter but a lot more accurate — is not an ideal environment for a child. If Jeremy — excuse me, I meant to say if whoever my anonymous guardian angel was — hadn’t been able to . . . expedite things in the end, I’m afraid to think what might have become of me.”

    The smile stayed on his face, but there wasn’t much good humor left in it. “By the time I was eleven, I was a real thug. With an eleven-year-old’s view of the world, but a body as big as that of most adult males. And I’m stronger than I look, too.”

    “Than you look?” Berry started to giggle, and covered her mouth with her hand. “Uh . . . Hugh. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it’s not actually an accident that my Amazons” — she nodded at the two ex-Scrags sitting at the next table — “call you either ‘the gorilla’ or ‘the cave man.’ ”

    “Well, yeah. That’s been pretty much a constant my whole life. By now, I’m used to it. But to get back to the point, by the time Jeremy — personally — turned up to tell me Beowulf was finally going to haul us out of there, I had a bright career ahead of me as a criminal. I wasn’t actually that happy to leave, to tell you the truth.”

    “I take it you changed your mind, eventually?”

    Hugh laughed. “Took about three months. Trust me on this one, Berry. The surest and fastest way known to humanity I can think of to get gangster attitudes nipped in the bud is to have Jeremy X as a godfather. That man makes any gang boss or criminal mastermind in the universe look wishy-washy and sentimental, if he sets his mind to a project. Which, in my case, was what you might call ‘the Reformation and Re-Education of Hugh Arai.’ ”

    Berry laughed also. “I can believe that!” She reached across the table and gave Hugh’s hand a squeeze. “I’m certainly glad he did.”

    Her voice got a little huskier, with that last sentence. And the touch of her hand — it was the first time they’d had any physical contact — sent a spike down his spine.



    This is SUCH a bad idea. But he brushed aside that shrilling inner voice of caution much as a moose might brush aside slender spruce branches. In rutting season. He probably had a sappy grin on his face, too.

    There was a little commotion at the door. Turning his head, Hugh saw that one of the Ballroom militants — ex-Ballroom, officially, although Hugh had his doubts — was trying to push his way into the parlor. He was having a tough time of it, but not because of any opposition being put up by Berry’s Amazons.

    Rather to the contrary. Lara rose from her seat, arms spread wide. “Saburo, honey! I wasn’t expecting to see you until next week!”

    No, the real problem was simply the population density in the outer and larger public room of the ice cream parlor. Every seat at every table was taken, and every square foot in between was jammed tight with people.

    That had happened within five minutes of their arrival at the parlor. Hugh had commented on it, at the time. “You weren’t kidding when you said this place was popular, were you?”

    Berry had looked uncomfortable. At the next table, Yana had laughed and said: “It’s popular, all right. But it’s only this popular when she comes in.”

    As a former security expert, Hugh was simultaneously pleased and appalled. On the one hand — what you might call, the strategic hand — the quite-evident immense public approval that Torch’s queen enjoyed was her greatest protection. It was no accident, after all, that for a public figure to be unpopular was the single most important factor in assessing his or her risk of being assassinated.

    On a tactical level, however, this expression of public approval was something of a nightmare. Hugh found himself automatically falling into old habits, continually scanning the crowd on the lookout for weapons or any sort of threatening moves.

    “Hugh!” Berry had exclaimed irritably, after a little while. “Do you always have the habit of not looking at the person you’re talking to?”

    Guiltily, he’d remembered he was officially on a date with the queen, not her bodyguard. Thereafter, he’d managed to keep his eyes and attention on Berry, for the most part — something which grew easier as the evening wore on. Still, there remained some part of him always on alert and periodically shrilling warnings.

    Saburo finally gave up trying to force his way through the mob. “Forget it!” he said, exasperated. “Lara, tell Her Way Too Popular Majesty that something’s come up. We need her at the palace. ASAP. That means ‘as soon as possible,’ not ‘as soon as Her Diet Unconscious Majesty gets around to finishing her’ . . . what is that thing, anyway? A banana split on steroids?”

    The whole parlor erupted in laughter. As densely packed as the place was, the sound was almost deafening. Berry made a face and looked down at her ice cream confection. It did look something like a banana split on steroids, in fact, even though whatever that fruit was it certainly wasn’t a banana. Hugh knew, because he’d had a real Earth banana once, when he visited the planet. Truth to tell, he hadn’t much liked the thing. Too squishy. Like almost anyone brought up on Berstuk, he was accustomed to fruit that was dense, hard and not too sweet — more like what Earth’s own inhabitants would have called nuts than fruit.

    “I guess we’d better go,” she said reluctantly.

    Hugh studied the confection at issue. There was still more than half of it left. The ice cream dish he’d ordered had vanished within three minutes. Manpower’s genetic engineers had designed his somatic type to be unusually strong even for his size. Although not to the same extreme as Thandi Palane, his metabolism was something of a furnace.

    “We might be able to take the rest of it back,” he said. Sounding dubious even to himself.

    “In this heat?” said Berry, smiling skeptically. “Not without portable refrigeration equipment. Which we don’t have, even if there are any such units on the planet at all.”

    Yana had come up to the table. “Sure, there are plenty of them. But they’re all out at the pharmaceutical sites. Why would anyone want the things here? A little stroll through the tropics is good for you.” She studied the half-finished confection disapprovingly. “And why do you always order that dish, anyway? You never finish it.”

    “Because they won’t make it half-sized for me, even though I’ve asked over and over. They claim if they don’t serve me what they call a ‘queen-sized’ order, they’ll look bad.”

    She gave Hugh a plaintive look. “Does that seem as silly to you as it does to me? Of course, most of this royal stuff is silly, in my opinion.”

    How to answer that? Hugh was cautious, even though on Torch lèse majesté couldn’t be any worse than a misdemeanor.

    “Well . . .”

    “Of course it’s not silly,” said Yana. “They must sell half again as much ice cream here as they would otherwise. What is silly are customers who let themselves get swindled like that.”

    “You order queen-size dishes yourself,” pointed out Berry.

    “Sure. I finish them, too. Come on, Your Mousety. Even with me and Lara and Mr. Human Iceberg leading the way, it’s going to be a tussle getting you out of here.”



    In fact, extricating themselves from the back room of J. Quesenberry’s Ice Cream and Pastries and getting onto the street outside proved to be quite easy. In some mysterious manner that Hugh was sure violated at least one of the laws of thermodynamics, the patrons in the place managed to squeeze themselves aside, just enough to leave a lane for Berry and her companions to pass through.

    That was further proof, if any was needed, of the queen’s high level of public approval. But the experience practically had Hugh screaming. One of the basic principles of providing security to a public official was to keep a clear zone around them. That gave the security force at least a chance — a pretty good chance, in fact, if they were properly trained professionals — of spotting an emerging threat in time to deal with it.

    From that standpoint, J. Quesenberry’s Ice Cream and Pastries might as well have been named Death Trap. In that press, literally dozens of people could have murdered Berry with nothing more complicated or high-tech than a non-metallic poisoned needle. And there would have been no way Hugh or Lara or Yana — or any bodyguard this side of guardian angels — could have prevented it. They wouldn’t have even spotted the threat until Berry was on her way down.

    And already dead, not more than a few seconds afterward. Hugh knew at least three poisons that would kill a normal-sized person within five or ten seconds. Of course, they wouldn’t actually die that quickly. Contrary to popular mythology that had been fed by way too many badly-researched vid dramas, not even the deadliest poison could outrace the passage of oxygen and fluids through the human body. But it hardly mattered. With any one of those three poisons, the person’s death was inevitable unless the antidote was administered almost simultaneously with the poison itself. One of them, in fact, a distant derivative of curare developed on Onamuji, had no known antidote at all. Luckily, it was unstable outside of a narrow temperature range and therefore not very practical as a real murder weapon.

    Once they were out on the street, Hugh heaved a sigh of relief that was loud enough for Berry to hear it.

    “Pretty bad, huh?”

    Lara jeered at her. “You think those midgets in there could have squeezed his lungs empty? Not a chance, girl. I was following him — much to my pleasure — and it was like following a walrus through a pack of penguins. Plenty of room. No, he’s obviously a security type — I can spot ‘em a mile away — and he’s sighing with relief that the security threat level to Your Average Heightness just dropped from Screaming Scarlet to Fire Engine Red.”

    Berry gave Hugh a reproachful look. “Is that true? Did you just accept my invitation — well, technically, you were the one who asked me out on a date even though like usual the girl had to do most of the work — because you were watching out for my security?” A trace of shrillness entered her voice. “Did Jeremy put you up to this?”

    Hugh had always been an adherent to the ancient saw that honesty was the best policy. As a rule, at least. And he’d already figured out that, with Berry Zilwicki, honesty would always be the best policy.

    “The answer is no, no, and he tried but I declined.”

    Berry got a little cross-eyed as she parsed that reply. “Okay. I think.” She took his elbow and began leading him back toward the palace. Managing, somehow, to make it seem as if he’d politely offered her his arm and he’d accepted.

    Which he hadn’t, in fact. His real inclination was to keep both hands free and clear, in case some threat materialized . . .

    “Gah,” he said.

    “What does that mean?”

    “It means Jeremy’s right. You are a security expert’s nightmare.”

    “You tell her, Hugh!” came Yana’s approving voice from behind them.

    “Yeah,” chimed in Lara. “You are the walrus.”

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