/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space / Series: Wages of Sin

Torch of Freedom

W David

Someone is assassinating the leaders of both the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the recently liberated former slave planet of Torch. Though most believe the Republic of Haven is behind the murders, Anton Zilwicki and Havenite secret agent Victor Cachat believe there is another sinister player behind the scenes. Queen Berry of Torch narrowly escaped one assassination attempt, and a security officer from Beowulf has been assigned to protect her, a task complicated by the young monarch's resentment of bodyguards, and the officer's growing attachment to her. Meanwhile, powerful forces in the Solarian League are maneuvering against each other to gain the upper hand, not realizing or, perhaps, not caring that their power struggle is threatening the League's very existence and could plunge the galaxy into war.

Once again New York Times best-selling authors David Weber and Eric Flint join forces in an exciting new novel in the Honorverse.

Cover Art by David Mattingly


David Weber & Eric Flint

Torch of Freedom

PART I

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)

Chapter One

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.

"Good."

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."

"Interesting."

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."

Chapter Two

A sizable percentage of the Maya System's original colonists had come from the planet Kemal. Like most of their fellow immigrants, they'd been none too happy with the planet and society they were leaving behind, but they'd brought their planetary cuisine with them. Now, four hundred T-years later, Mayan pizza—courtesy of the kitchens of Kemal—was among the best in the known galaxy.

That point had particular relevancy at the moment, given the clutter of traditional delivery boxes and plates littered with bits and pieces of pizza crust scattered around the conference room.

Luiz Rozsak sat in his place at the head of the table, nursing a stein of beer, and looked at his assembled staff. Captain Edie Habib, his chief of staff, had her head bent over a computer display with Jeremy Frank, Governor Barregos' senior aide. Lieutenant Commander Jiri Watanapongse, Rozsak's staff intelligence officer, was involved in a quiet side discussion with Brigadier Philip Allfrey, the senior officer of the Solarian Gendarmerie for the Maya Sector, and Richard Wise, who headed Barregos' civilian intelligence operations. That conversation, the rear admiral thought with an inward grin, would have caused an enormous amount of acid reflux back in Old Chicago if Watanapongse and Allfrey's ultimate superiors had been privy to its content.

Brent Stephens and Donald Clarke sat to Rozsak's left and right, respectively. Stephens was on the large size, seven centimeters taller than Rozsak's own hundred and seventy-five centimeters, with blond hair and brown eyes. He was also a direct descendent of the first wave of Mayan colonists, whereas the black-haired, gray-eyed Clarke had been five years old when his parents arrived on Smoking Frog as senior managers for the local operations of the Broadhurst Group. Most places in the Verge, that would have made him a very poor fit for this particular little get together, since Broadhurst was one of the Solarian League's major transstellars, but this wasn't "most places." This was the Maya Sector, and the rules here were a bit different from those by which the Office of Frontier Security was accustomed to playing.

And they're about to get a lot moredifferent, the rear admiral thought coldly.

"Can I take my file copy of our notes home with me, Luiz?" Clarke asked now, and Rozsak raised an eyebrow at him. "I'm headed off-planet this afternoon," Barregos' senior economic adviser explained. "It's Dad's birthday, and I promised Mom I'd be there for it."

Rozsak grimaced in understanding. Michael Clarke was only ninety T-years old, which barely constituted middle age for a civilization with prolong, but he had developed a progressive neural disorder not even modern medicine seemed capable of arresting. He was slowly but steadily slipping away from his family, and he wasn't going to have very many more birthdays when he remembered who his son was.

"He's out on Eden, isn't he?" the rear admiral asked after a moment.

"Yeah." It was Donald's turn to grimace. "It's not like we can't afford it, but I don't think it's doing much good, either."

Rozsak nodded in sympathetic agreement. The Eden Habitat was a low-grav geriatric center in geosynchronous orbit around the planet of Smoking Frog. It offered the very best medical care—care as good as anyone could have gotten back on Old Earth herself—and the most luxurious, patient-friendly staff and quarters imaginable.

"If you take it with you, are you really going to get very much done, anyway?" he asked quietly.

"Of course—" Clarke began just a bit sharply, then cut himself off. He looked at Rozsak for a moment, then inhaled deeply.

"No, probably not," he admitted heavily.

"I'm not that worried about the security risk, Donald," Rozsak said, mostly honestly. "I know you've got good security, and God knows Eden's people are going to make damned sure no one invades their patients' privacy! But we're not on that tight a time frame. You can take a few hours to spend with your parents."

"You're sure?" Clarke looked at him, and Rozsak shrugged.

"Your part's either already done, or else it's mostly going to happen once we get to Erewhon. We're talking nuts and bolts here, not financial instruments or investment strategies. Go ahead. Don't worry about it. It's more important that you're as close to rested as you can get when we head out than that we squeeze every single moment of utility out of your time before we leave."

"I'll admit, I'd be happier leaving it under lock and key down here," Clarke confessed. "And you're right. Spending the time with them is important, too."

"Of course it is." Rozsak looked at his chrono. "And if you're going to go off and celebrate a birthday this afternoon, I think you should probably head on home and see if you can't catch a few hours of sleep, first."

"You're right."

Clarke rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands, gave himself a shake, then pushed back his chair and stood, switching off his minicomp as he did.

"Of course I'm right. I'm a rear admiral these days, aren't I?" Rozsak grinned up at the standing financier. "Go ahead—go!"

"Aye, aye, Sir," Clarke said with a weary smile, nodded to Stephens, and left.

"You did good, Luiz," Stephens said quietly as his colleague departed. "It's always worse for him when his father's birthday rolls around."

"Yeah, sure. That's me. Philanthropist and general friend of mankind."

Rozsak waved it off, and Stephens let him.

"Well, if you don't want to talk about that, are you really confident that Carlucci's going to be able to come through on all this?"

"Yes," Rozsak said simply. Stephens arched one eyebrow ever so slightly, and Rozsak raised his voice. "Jiri, do you think you could tear yourself away from Philip and Richard for a few minutes?"

"Sure," Watanapongse said. He grinned at Allfrey and Wise. "All we're really doing at this point is making bets on the football championship while we wait for the rest of you people to call upon our incomparable services."

"I think that's one of the things I like best about both you spooks," Edie Habib put in, not even looking up from her conversation with Abernathy. "Your modesty. Your constant air of self effacement."

Watanapongse smiled at her, then crossed to Clarke's abandoned chair and sat back down, cocking his head inquiringly.

"Brent is a little concerned over Carlucci's ability to make good on our discussions, I think," Rozsak explained. "Care to reassure him?"

Watanapongse looked at Stephens thoughtfully for a moment, then shrugged.

"The Carlucci Industrial Group has the capacity to build anything we need," he said. "It's all just a matter of willingness, figuring out how to pay for it, and time."

"And how to hide everything," Stephens pointed out.

"Well, yes, and that," Watanapongse acknowledged.

"Frankly, that's what worries me the most," Stephens said. "I think I've got a better appreciation than most for the degree of expansion CIG's going to have to pull off to make all of this come together. If anyone's looking, it's going to be hard to cover that up. Shipyards aren't exactly unobtrusive."

"No, they aren't. And neither are starships. But the idea is that we won't be 'covering up' at all. Edie came up with what's probably the best description for what we're doing from one of those old stories she likes to read, something called 'The Purloined Letter.' " Watanapongse smiled. "Everything we're doing is going to be sitting right there in plain sight . . . we're just going to convince everyone that it's something else entirely."

"Something else?" Stephens repeated very carefully.

"Sure."

"And exactly how is all of this going to work out?" the industrialist inquired. "I've been concentrating on financing schedules and priorities from our end so far. I'm just taking it on faith that you guys are going to be able to use all of this at the other end. I know you've promised to explain everything on the trip, but I can't quite convince myself to stop worrying about it until we get there."

"It's not too complicated, whatever it may look like at the moment," Rozsak told him. "Basically, it's sleight-of-hand. The Maya Sector is about to begin investing heavily in Erewhon, which—as the Governor will explain to anyone from back home who notices what we're up to—is not only practical but downright farsighted, given Erewhon's current estrangement from Manticore and the steadily worsening interstellar situation out here." He rolled his eyes piously. "Not only does it make sound economic sense for everybody here in the Sector, but it represents an opportunity to start wooing Erewhon—and its wormhole terminus—back into the loving arms of the League."

Stephens snorted caustically, and Watanapongse chuckled.

"Actually," Rozsak continued more seriously, "it really would make good economic sense, however you look at it. And Erewhon's in a logistical bind. After what happened on Torch, the Erewhonese have pretty much burned their bridges with Manticore. Well, actually, that's not really the best way to put it. I'm sure Manticore—or at least the Manties' queen—would be willing to welcome them back, but Imbesi and his friends dynamited the central span pretty damned thoroughly.

"Anyway, as I'm sure quite a few people back on Old Earth are well aware, Erewhon's never built its own ships-of-the-wall. For that matter, it's bought most of its cruisers from foreign suppliers, as well. Back before they joined the Manticoran Alliance, the Erewhonese bought most of those ships from Solarian builders; since signing up with Manticore, they've bought Manty-built. But that source is going to be closed, especially once they get around to signing that formal mutual defense pact with Haven. On the other hand, Haven's not really in a position to sell them lots and lots of modern wallers, and even if Haven were, the Havenites' general tech base isn't as good—yet, at least—as Manticore's. For that matter, it isn't as good as the sort of 'Manticore lite' tech Erewhon has available on its own.

"So it's going to make sense for Erewhon to begin expanding its own naval building capacity. They've built their own destroyers and other light units for a long time, so it's not as if they don't have the local expertise. They've just never felt able to justify investing in all the infrastructure that goes into building capital ships. Now, obviously, we'd prefer for them to buy Solarian for any wallers they might need." The rear admiral managed to sound as if he actually meant that, Stephens noticed. "Unfortunately," Rozsak continued, "we can't force them to do that, and I'm afraid they're not entirely happy about placing orders for such big-ticket items in Solarian yards. Some of them actually seem to cherish the dark suspicion that the League might hold up the delivery of their new ships in order to do a little judicious arm-twisting where the Erewhon terminus is concerned. Ridiculous, of course, but what can you expect out of a bunch of neobarbs?

"But if they're not going to buy Solarian, and they can't buy Manty or Havenite, then their only alternative is to finally bite the bullet and begin building up the yard capacity to build their own. Obviously, no single star system is going to be able to build a lot of wallers, and it's probably silly of them to invest so much capital in a capacity that's going to be so seriously underutilized. But if they're determined to go ahead and do it, then we might as well invest in the project and help them build it. They're going to be buying a lot of what they need from us, so it'll be a shot in the arm for the Sector's business community. It's going to show its investors a tidy profit, too, and, like I say, it's also likely to give us—'us' in this case being the League as a whole, of course, as far as Old Chicago knows anything about—a toe in the door later on."

"Okay." Stephens nodded. "So, as you say, it makes sense—or it's plausible, at least—for Erewhon to be expanding its naval building capacity. And I'm sure we can make our investment, or our official investment, at least, sound reasonable, too. But what happens when they start building ships for us?"

"There are actually three things to consider there," Watanapongse said calmly. "First, they aren't going to be building any capital ships for us. All of the wallers are going to be being built to standard Erewhonese designs for the ESN. Surely you don't think a loyal sector governor would even be contemplating acquiring unauthorized capital ships of his very own? I'm shocked—shocked—by the very possibility that you might entertain such a thought! Of course, if anyone actually runs the numbers, they're going to realize the Erewhonese are building more SDs than they could possibly pay for—or, for that matter, man!—but it wouldn't be the first time a third rate, neobarb Navy's eyes got bigger than its stomach. If anyone asks, they're planning on putting the excess units straight into mothballs as a mobilization reserve, to be manned only if their navy expands in the face of an emergency situation. Given Battle Fleet's mobilization plans, that should make sense to the geniuses back on Old Earth, for a while, at least. Hopefully, by the time we're actually sending crews out to take possession of our part of the building program, it's not going to matter all that much if someone notices. Don't forget, we're talking at least two or three T-years down the road, where wallers are concerned, even after the yard capacity is built. Probably more like four or five years, minimum, to the first deliveries.

"Secondly, we're going to bury a few 'official' light units of our own in the Erewhonese program." He shrugged. "Given how strapped for hulls Frontier Fleet always is, and given the worsening situation between Manticore and Haven, Governor Barregos obviously has legitimate security concerns. The Sector would make a pretty juicy prize, if any of the locals were gutsy enough—or crazy enough—to try and grab it. That's not likely to happen, of course, but it is likely that privateers and piracy are going to spill over onto our local interests. I mean, the Sector trades with Erewhon, Manticore, and Haven on a regular basis. Sooner or later, we're going to have to start thinking in terms of commerce protection."

Stephens looked a little dubious, and Rozsak shook his head.

"Trust me, Brent. When I get done writing my evaluation as Frontier Fleet's senior officer here in the Sector, everybody back on Old Earth's going to understand that we're critically short of the sort of light units—destroyers, maybe the occasional light cruiser—you need for commerce protection. Unfortunately, everyone's always short of light units like that. Most systems with the kind of economic clout we have are full members of the League, which means they can raise their own system-defense forces to provide that sort of protection. We can't; we're officially a protectorate. That means the only place we can get the escorts we need is from Frontier Fleet, but Frontier Fleet doesn't have them to spare. So, what I'll be doing, is using discretionary funds, plus additional 'special subscriptions' the Governor is going to screw out of the local merchants and manufacturers, to buy a few extra destroyers which will then become the property of Frontier Fleet. They'll be integrated into my own squadrons out here, they won't cost the Navy (or any of the other bureaucracies back home) a single centicredit, and when the situation out here finally calms down, Frontier Fleet will cheerfully transfer them somewhere else.

"Or that's what they think will happen, anyway."

Stephens could have shaved with Rozsak's smile.

"And they're also going to think that what we're building are only destroyers," Watanapongse added. "The 'light cruisers' are officially going to be Erewhonese units, not ours. We'll be 'borrowing' a few of them from Admiral McAvoy once the piracy situation starts getting out of hand out here. It'll be another example of how those silly neobarbs built more ships than they had the cash and manpower to keep operational, so in the interests of getting the League's hooks even more deeply into the Republic of Erewhon, we'll be providing naval assistance in the form of experienced officers to help the poor neobarbs find their way around. In the meantime, no one back home's going to realize that our new 'destroyers' are going to be the next best thing to the same size as our Morrigan-class light cruisers."

Stephens frowned, and the lieutenant commander laughed.

"Nobody back home seems to have noticed the . . . tonnage inflation that's been creeping into classes out here, Brent," he pointed out. "By this time, Manty and Havenite 'heavy cruisers' are damned near the size of small battlecruisers, and some of their light cruisers are closing in on the tonnage ranges for Solarian heavy cruisers. The same thing's been happening to their destroyers, too, for that matter. Well, obviously we have to be building ships that could face up to those outsized Manty and Havenite designs, don't we? Of course we do! Still, if no one back on Old Earth has noticed that sizes are creeping up amongst the local neobarb navies, I don't see any special reason why we have to tell them that ours are, do you?"

His smile looked remarkably like Rozsak's, Stephens thought.

"Edie and I are already working up the reports and correspondence," Rozsak said. "Officially, we're going to be describing our new units as 'modified Rampart-class destroyers,' for example. We just aren't going to get too specific about what the modifications consist of . . . or the fact that we're talking about destroyers fifty or sixty percent bigger than the original Rampart. I'm pretty sure the geniuses back at OpNav are going to assume that any modifications will result in decreased capabilities, given their view of Manty and Havenite technical capabilities. A view which Jiri's and my modest efforts have probably done just a bit to help shape. And since all of the official correspondence—governmental, as well as from the private builders and inspectors—from the Erewhon side is going to be understating tonnages by about, oh, forty or fifty percent, there's not going to be anything to tell Old Chicago differently. And the beauty of it is that we're not going to be falsifying any paperwork; we're going to be sending them file copies of the actual, official correspondence from Erewhon."

Stephens pursed his lips silently as he considered that. Rozsak was right about how it would help cover their own actions, but the industrialist wondered just exactly how the admiral had convinced Erewhon to run that kind of risk. Eventually, someone back on Old Earth was going to realize they'd been systematically deceived by the Erewhonese (and the League's own official intelligence apparatus here in the Sector, of course), and the consequences of that could be severe—for Erewhon, not just Maya.

On the other hand, if that sort of situation arose, it would mean all the rest of their plans had failed disastrously, so there probably wasn't a lot of point worrying about it. Although getting theErewhonese to look at it that way must've taken some doing . . .

"You said there were three things to consider," he said to Watanapongse after a moment, and the commander nodded.

"The third thing, maybe the most important one of all," he said, his expression much more somber, "is that four or five-T-year window between now and the delivery of our first wallers. Even after the SDs start coming out of the yards, it's going to take a while for any sort of volume production to build up. We'll hide as many of 'our' wallers as we can in the flow going to Erewhon, of course, but the odds are good that we're going to have to start shooting at somebody before we have a real wall of battle of our own."

Stephens felt a distinct stir of alarm, but Rozsak flashed him the lazy, white-toothed smile of a confident tiger.

"Even with a four or five-year delay to our own first waller, we're going to be ahead of the curve compared to the rest of the League, Brent. A long way ahead of the curve. Trust me, the 'not invented here' syndrome is going to kick in back home even after they begin to figure out just how screwed any SLN ship is going to be going up against its Havenite—or, even worse, Manty—equivalent. So, what we're really going to need to tide us over is something that can kick the shit out of anything Frontier Fleet's likely to be sending out towards us with unfriendly intentions. Right?"

"With the proviso that I think we need to do a little worrying about the Battle Fleet units that might be sent along behind that first wave," Stephens agreed a bit caustically.

"Well, of course." Rozsak chuckled. "And it just happens we've come up with something that should let us do that, at least as long as nobody back on Old Earth is paying any attention to all of those ridiculous rumors about how Manticore and Haven have been sticking multiple drives into their missiles. Nonsense, of course! I'm sure those reports are just as exaggerated as Commander Watanapongse's diligent staff has consistently reported they are! Still, it's occurred to us that if someone were building multidrive missiles, and if they happened to have themselves a couple of dozen freighters—freighters that might happen to have military-grade drives, and maybe even sidewalls—that could carry, oh, I don't know, three or four hundred missile pods at a time, then they could probably do a lot of damage to a fleet equipped only with single-drive missiles, don't you think?"

Stephens's eyes narrowed, and Rozsak chuckled again, more harshly.

"That's one of the things Edie and I have been kicking around when we started thinking about doctrine and ship designs. And it's the real reason we're going to be building that extra tonnage into our light combatants. Most of it's going into fire control, not extra weapons."

"And the beauty of it," Watanapongse said, "is that Carlucci already has a commercial design—they picked it up from some outfit in Silesia—for a freighter designed around plug-in cargo modules. It's one of those ideas that sounds really good on paper, but it hasn't worked out that well for the Sillies as a commercial proposition. It's actually less flexible, it turns out, than what you can do reconfiguring a standard cargo hold's interior. But that's not something that's going to be instantly evident looking at it from the outside, and the basic construction just happens to be something that's going to lend itself well to a 'merchantship' pod-carrier design. The Sector government is going to be buying quite a few of them—several dozen, at least—as part of our move to broaden our investment base in Erewhon. We've got a lot of short domestic cargo routes of our own, just like the Sillies, so if it works for them, it ought to work for us, right? And even if it turns out they aren't the most cost-efficient possible way to haul freight around, so what? It was still worth it just to get our toes further into the Erewhonese door."

"And," Rozsak said quietly, "if it just happens that our new ships' plug-in cargo modules just happen to have exactly the same dimensions as the missile pods the Erewhonese Navy is going to be building for its own new ships-of-the-wall, well"—this time his smile could have liquefied helium—"it's a big galaxy, and coincidences happen all the time."

Chapter Three

Catherine Montaigne looked down at the very large suitcase on the bed. The look was not an affectionate one.

"Do you realize, Anton, what an archaeological relic this is? We're coming close on two thousand years since the human race left our planet of origin—and we still have to pack our own bags."

Anton Zilwicki pursed his lips. "This is one of those damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don't, and damned-if-I-try-to-keep-my-mouth-shut situations."

She frowned. "What is that supposed to mean?"

He pointed with a thick, stubby finger to the door which led to the personal services bay of the bedroom. "There is a household robot in there with a perfectly functional travel program. I haven't personally packed a bag myself in . . . oh, years. Can't remember how many, any longer."

She rolled her eyes. "Well, sure. You're a man. Three outfits to your name, leaving aside socks and underwear—identical socks and underwear—and the sartorial imagination of a pot roast. Meat, potatoes, carrots, what more do you need?"

"Like I said, damned any way I turn." He glanced at the door, as if seeking an escape route. "The last time I looked, our daughters Helen and Berry were both women. So is Princess Ruth. And not one of the three has personally packed a suitcase in years, either."

"Well, of course not. Helen's in the military, so willy-nilly she's been tainted by male attitudes. Berry grew up without a pot to piss in, and she still accumulates personal belongings as if she had the budget of a rat in the Terran warrens. And Ruth is just plain unnatural. The only member of the royal family in . . . oh, hell, ever, who wants to be a spy."

She straightened up and squared her shoulders. "I, on the other hand, retain normal female customs and views. So I know perfectly good and well that no fucking robot is going to pack my suitcase properly. Being fair to the critters, I'm still making up my mind what to put in the suitcase until it's closed."

"You're also one of the richest females in the Star Kingdom, Cathy. Hell, the Star Empire—for that matter, the whole damn galaxy, since the wealth of the Manticoran upper crust matches that of almost anybody in the Solarian League, damn their black and wicked aristocratic hearts. So why don't you have one of your servants pack your suitcase?"

Montaigne looked uncomfortable. "Doesn't seem right," she said. "Some things a person has to do for herself. Use the toilet, clean your teeth, pack your own suitcase. It'd be grotesque to have a servant do that sort of thing."

She stared at the suitcase for a few seconds, and then sighed. "Besides, packing my own suitcase lets me stall. I'm going to miss you, Anton. A lot."

"I'll miss you too, love."

"When will I see you again?" She turned her head to look at him. "Best estimate. You can spare me the lecture about the temporal uncertainties of intelligence work."

"Honestly, it is hard to know. But . . . I figure a number of months at a minimum, Cathy, and it could easily stretch to a year or longer."

"Yeah, that's about what I figured. Dammit, if I could . . ."

"Don't be silly. The Liberals' political situation on Manticore is far too critical for you to leave the Star Kingdom again once you get back home. As it is, you probably stretched it by staying here on Torch for so many weeks after Berry's coronation."

"I don't regret it, though. Not for one moment."

"Neither do I—and, for sure, Berry appreciated it. But while I figure you can afford one extended vacation"—he smiled as crookedly as she had earlier—"given that the occasion was the coronation of your daughter—you can't really do it again. Not until the political mess gets straightened out."

"It'd be better to say, 'political opportunity.' The repercussions of that quick trip you took back home a few weeks ago will have had time to percolate, by now."

Between the time Anton had returned to Erewhon from Smoking Frog with the critical information he'd found concerning Georgia Young and the time he'd had to help with the liberation of Torch, he'd been able—just barely—to return to Manticore and, with Cathy, confront Young and force her into exile. They'd also forced her to destroy the notorious North Hollow files that had played such a poisonous role in the politics of the Star Kingdom, before she fled.

"So they will," he said. "So they will."

* * *

When she was finally done packing the huge suitcase, Anton began to summon the household robot. But Cathy shook her head.

"Not a chance, buddy. I'm not about to risk my valuable possessions being hauled around by a mindless machine when I've got a personal weightlifter at my service." She gazed approvingly upon Anton's dwarf-king figure. He was a number of centimeters shorter than she was, and seemed to be at least a meter wider.

Cathy had once heard someone at a party remark that Anton's shoulders could double in a pinch as a parking lot for ground vehicles. Everyone present had disputed the statement, pointing out that it was absurd. But not before they'd spent several seconds studying the shoulders in question.

He picked up the suitcase by the handle on the end and lifted it onto his shoulder. The motion was as smooth and easy as if he'd been handling a broom instead of a valise that weighed well over fifty kilos.

Cathy slid her arm around his waist on the side opposite the suitcase. "Now let's be off—before our blessed daughter decides to launch yet another innovation in Torch royal custom. An eight-hour-long goodbye party for the royal mother, that'll leave me stuffed like a goose and wobbly with liquor."

On their way out the door, her expression became pensive. "I hadn't thought about it before now. According to Torch protocol, am I a dowager queen or something like that?"

"I doubt it, sweetheart. There's practically nothing yet in the way of royal protocol on Torch—and, given Berry, that's not likely to change much as long as she's still sitting on the throne."

"Oh, that's such a relief. The moment I spoke the word 'dowager,' I felt like I'd gained thirty kilos."

* * *

In the event, the "official royal leave-taking" was as informal as Cathy could have asked for. There were only a handful of people present in Berry's audience chamber to see her off. Berry herself, Princess Ruth, Web DuHavel, Jeremy X and Thandi Palane. Web and Jeremy were old friends, and while Ruth wasn't—prior to this trip to Torch, Cathy had only exchanged a few words with her at royal functions on Manticore—she felt quite familiar because of Cathy's long-standing ties to the Winton dynasty. Those ties had become politically strained over the years, but they were still personally relaxed.

Thandi Palane was the one true stranger to her in the group. Cathy had never met her prior to this trip. She knew a great deal about the Mfecane worlds which had produced Palane, because of their relationship to genetic slavery. Manpower used a lot of Mfecane genetic stock to produce their heavy labor lines. But she also knew perfectly well that she had no real knowledge of what it must have been like to grow up on Ndebele.

She'd gotten to know the big woman to a degree, in the course of her stay on Torch following Berry's coronation. She still couldn't consider her a "friend," though, in any real sense of the term. Palane had been friendly, to be sure, but there had remained a certain tight reserve in all her dealings with Catherine Montaigne.

That hadn't upset Cathy. First, because she recognized the phenomenon. She'd encountered it many times with genetic slaves recently escaped or freed from Manpower's clutches. No matter how well recommended Cathy was by other ex-slaves, and no matter what her political reputation was, there was simply no way that someone who'd recently come from the depths of genetic slavery was going to feel at ease in the presence of a wealthy noblewoman. And while Thandi Palane hadn't come from genetic slavery, being born and raised on Ndebele as what amounted to nothing more than a peon was close enough to produce the same reserve.

But none of that mattered, anyway. The other reason Cathy had a very favorable attitude toward Palane, however the woman acted toward her, was that she figured Thandi Palane was the single person in the universe most likely to keep Berry Zilwicki alive and reasonably intact in the years to come. The woman was the head of Torch's fledgling military, she was closely tied to Berry, and . . .

Utterly ferocious, when she needed to be.

Cathy looked around the room. Berry's "audience chamber" was actually just a hastily-remodeled office in the big building that Manpower had once used for its headquarters on Torch—"Verdant Vista," as it had then been known—and which the rebels had taken over and turned into a combination "royal palace" and government center.

"Where's Lars?" she asked.

Berry grinned. "He's taking his leave from his new girlfriend. Don't ask me which one. If he survives adolescence—and he's only got a few more months to go—he's got a surefire career ahead of him as a juggler."

Cathy chuckled, a bit ruefully. Once he got past puberty, Berry's younger brother Lars had turned into something of a Lothario. The secret of his attraction to young women remained mysterious to Cathy. Lars was a pleasant looking boy, but he wasn't really what you'd call "handsome." And while he certainly wasn't bashful, neither was he particularly aggressive in the way he approached and dealt with teenage girls. In fact, he was considered by most people, including Cathy herself, as "a very nice boy."

Yet, whatever the reason, he seemed to be a magnet for teenage girls—and more than a few women several years older than he was. Within a week after arriving on Torch with Cathy, he'd manage to acquire two girlfriends his own age and had even drawn the half-serious attentions of a woman who was at least thirty years old.

"Let's hope we manage to get out of here without a scandal," Cathy half-muttered.

Jeremy X grinned. Impishly, as he usually did. "Don't be silly. All the females involved are genetic ex-slaves. So are what pass for their parents—none, in the case of two of them—and every one of their friends. 'Scandal' is simply not an issue, here. What you should be worried about is whether Lars can get off the planet without getting various body parts removed."

He'd barely gotten out the last words before the lad in question manifested himself in the chamber. Nobody actually saw him come in.

"Hi, Mom. Dad. Berry. Everybody." He gave them all some quick nods. Then, looking a bit worried, said: "How soon are we leaving? I vote for right away. No offense, Sis—I mean, Your Majesty. I just don't see any point in dragging this out."

His stepmother gave him a stern look. "What is the problem, Lars?"

He fidgeted for a few seconds. "Well. Susanna. She's really pissed. She said she had half a mind to—" He fidgeted some more, glancing back at the entrance to the chamber. "It was kinda gross."

Cathy rolled her eyes. "Oh, wonderful."

Web DuHavel laughed softly. "The truth is, Cathy, I've never been one for drawn-out leavetakings myself."

"Me, neither," said Jeremy.

So, she hugged both of them quickly. Then, shook Thandi Palane's hand. Then, gave Ruth another quick hug, and then gave Berry a very long one.

"Take care, sweetheart," she whispered into her step-daughter's ear.

"You too, Mom."

* * *

At Cathy's insistence, Anton toted the monster of a suitcase all the way into the shuttle waiting to take her to her orbiting yacht.

There followed a very long hug, even longer than the one she'd given Berry, accompanied by the sort of intellectually meaningless but emotionally critical words by which a husband and wife—which they were, in reality if not in name—part company for what they both know is going to be a very long separation.

* * *

By the time Anton emerged from the shuttle, Susanna had arrived. She'd brought a bag of rocks with her.

Anton glanced back at Cathy's shuttle. Compared to any true starship, it was tiny, little bigger than a pre-space jumbo airliner, as most surface-to-orbit craft tended to be. It was a bit larger than many such, admittedly. It had to be to provide to the palatial—one might almost have said "sinfully luxurious"—accomodations one rightfully expected from a permanently assigned auxilliary of the yacht personally registered to one of the wealthiest women in the explored galaxy. Cathy had always referred to it as her "auxilliary bacchanalia pad," and Anton felt more than a bit wistful as he recalled some of the bacchanalia in question.

Despite its small size compared to a starship, however, it was still quite large (indeed, "huge" might not have been too emphatic an adjective) compared to any mere human. Even one so swelled and exalted by righteous adolescent fury as Susanna.

"His mother's stinking rich, you know, and that shuttle was built by the Hauptman Cartel's Palladium Yard," Anton said to the blonde teenager. She was quite attractive in a stocky and athletic way. "They build a lot of the Navy's assault shuttles and ground attack craft. Really knows how to armor a ship, does the Palladium Yard, and I doubt they spared any expense on her shuttle. As a matter of fact, I know they didn't, since I personally wrote up the design stats for it. The point being, I don't think those rocks are even going to dent the hull."

"Sure, I know that." Susanna dug into the bag. "It's the principle of the thing."

As Anton predicted, the hull wasn't so much as dented. Still, she managed to hit it twice. The girl had one hell of an arm.

Chapter Four

Thandi Palane closed the door of her suite in the palace behind her, and then moved over to stand next to the man sitting at a large table by the window overlooking the gardens below. He seemed to be studying the gardens intently, which was a bit peculiar. The gardens were practically brand new, with more in the way of bare soil than vegetation—and what vegetation did exist was obviously struggling to stay alive.

Most of the plants had been brought from Manticore by Catherine Montaigne. A gift, she said, from Manticore's Queen Elizabeth, plucked from her own extensive gardens.

Berry had appreciated the sentiment. Unfortunately, most of Torch's climate was tropical or sub-tropical, and the planet had its own lush and diverse biota, much of which was quite aggressive. Only the diligence of the palace's gardeners had managed to keep the imported plants alive in the weeks since Montaigne arrived. Now that she was gone, Thandi was pretty sure that Berry would quietly tell her gardeners to let the Manticoran plants die a natural death.

It was not a sight one would have thought would lend itself to the sort of rapt concentration the man at the table was bestowing upon it. But Victor Cachat's mind often moved in a realm of its own, Thandi had found. It was quite odd, the way such a square-faced and seemingly conventional man—which he was, in fact, in many respects—could see the universe from such unconventional angles.

"And what's so fascinating about those poor plants below?" she asked.

He'd had his chin resting on a hand, which he now drew away. "They don't belong here. The longer you study them, the more obvious it is."

"Can't say I disagree. And you find this of interest because . . . ?"

"Manpower doesn't belong here, either. The more I think about it, the more obvious it is."

She frowned, and began idly caressing his shoulder. "You're certainly not going to get an argument from me—anyone here—that the universe wouldn't be a far better place if we were rid of Manpower. But how is this some sort of revelation?"

He shook his head. "I didn't make myself clear. What I meant was that Manpower doesn't belong in the universe in the same way those plants don't belong in this garden. It just doesn't fit. There are too many things about that so-called 'corporation' that are out of place. It should be dying a natural death, like those plants below. Instead, it's thriving—growing more powerful even, judging from the evidence. Why? And how?"

This wasn't the first time that Thandi had found her lover's mind was leaping ahead of hers. Or, it might be better to say, scampering off into the underbrush like a rabbit, leaving her straight-forward predator's mind panting in pursuit.

"Ah . . . I'm trying to figure out a dignified way to say 'huh'? What the hell are you talking about?"

He smiled and placed a hand atop hers. "Sorry. I'm probably being a little opaque. What I'm saying is that there are too many ways—way too many ways—in which Manpower doesn't behave like the evil and soulless corporation it's supposed to be."

"The hell it doesn't! If there's a single shred of human decency in that foul—"

"I'm not arguing about the evil and soulless part, Thandi. It doesn't act like a corporation. Evil or not, soulless or not, Manpower is supposed to be a commercial enterprise. It's supposed to be driven by profit, and the profitability of slavery ought to be dying out—dying a natural death like those plants down there. Oh," he shrugged, "their 'pleasure slave' lines will always be profitable, given the way human nature's ugly side has a tendency to keep bobbing to the surface. And there'll always be specific instances—especially for transtellars who need work forces out in the Verge—where the laborer lines offer at least a marginal advantage over automated equipment. But the market should be shrinking, or at best holding steady, and that should mean Manpower ought to be losing steam. Its profit margin should be lower, and it should be producing less 'product,' and it's not."

"Maybe it's just too set in its ways to adjust," Thandi suggested after a moment.

"That sounds like an attractive hypothesis," he conceded, "but it doesn't fit any business model I've been able to put together. Not for a corporation which has been so obviously successful for so long. No one's ever had the chance to examine their books, of course, but they've got to be showing one hell of a profit margin to bankroll everything they get involved in—like their operation right here on 'Verdant Vista,' for example—and I just can't quite convince myself that slavery should be that profitable. Or still that profitable, I suppose I should say."

"Then maybe what they were doing here was them starting to diversity?"

"Ummm." He frowned for a moment, then shrugged again. "Could be, I suppose. It's just—"

The chiming doorbell interrupted him, and Thandi made a face before she raised her voice.

"Open," she commanded.

The door slid smoothly aside and Anton Zilwicki came into the room, followed by Princess Ruth. In a shocking display of topsy-turvy royal protocol, Queen Berry tagged along behind them.

"You can come out of hiding now, Victor," said Anton. "She's gone."

Berry came to the center of the room and planted her hands on slender hips. "Well, I think you were rude, I don't care what Daddy says. Mom's a really curious person and it drives her nuts not to have her curiosity satisfied. She never stopped asking about you, the whole time she was here. And you never came out to meet her even once."

"Curiosity may or may not have killed cats," replied Victor, "but it has certainly slaughtered lots of politicians. I was doing the lady a favor, Your Majesty, whether she wanted it or not and whether she appreciated it or not."

"Don't call me that!" she snapped. "I hate it when my friends use that stupid title in private—and you know it!"

Anton went over to sit in an armchair. "He just does it because for reasons I can't figure out—he's a twisty, gnarly, crooked sort of fellow—using flamboyantly royal titles in private scratches some kinky egalitarian itch he's got. But don't worry, girl. He doesn't mean it."

"Actually," Victor said mildly, "Berry's the one monarch in creation I don't mind calling 'Your Majesty.' But I'll admit I do it mostly just to be contrary."

He looked up at the young queen, whose expression was cross and who still had her hands on her hips. "Berry, the very last thing your mother needed was to leave herself open to the charge that she spent her time on Torch consorting with agents of an enemy power."

Berry sneered. Tried to, rather. Sneers were just not an expression that came naturally to her. "Oh, nonsense! As opposed to leaving herself open to the charge that she spent her time on Torch consorting with murderous terrorists like Jeremy?"

"Not the same thing at all," said Victor, shaking his head. "I don't doubt that her political enemies will level that charge against her, as soon as she gets home. It will get a rapt audience among those who already detest her, and produce a massive yawn on the part of everyone else. For pity's sake, girl, they've been accusing her of that for decades. No matter how murderous and maniacal people may think Jeremy X is, nobody thinks he's an enemy of the Star Kingdom. Whereas I most certainly am."

He gave a mildly apologetic glance at Anton and Ruth. "Meaning no personal offense to anyone here." He looked back up at Berry. "Consorting with Jeremy simply leaves her open to the accusation of having bad judgment. Consorting with me leaves her open to the accusation of treason. That's a huge difference, when it comes to politics."

Berry's expression was now mulish. Clearly enough, she was not persuaded by Victor's argument. But her father Anton was nodding his head. Quite vigorously, in fact.

"He's right, Berry. Of course, he's also now exposed as a piss-poor secret agent, because if he'd had any imagination or gumption at all he would have spent time visiting Cathy, while she was here. Lots and lots of time, to do what he could to make Manticore's politics even more poisonous than it is."

Victor gave him a level gaze and a cool smile. "I thought about it, as a matter of fact. But . . ."

He shrugged. "It's hard to know how that would all play out, in the end. There's a long, long history of secret agents being too clever for their own good. It could just as easily prove true, years from now, that Catherine Montaigne being in firm control of the Liberals—and with an unblemished reputation—would prove beneficial to Haven."

Anton said nothing. But he gave Victor a very cool smile of his own.

"And . . . fine," said Victor. "I also didn't do it because I'd have been uncomfortable doing so." His expression got as mulish as Berry's. "And that's all I'm going to say on the subject."

Thandi had to fight, for a moment, not to grin. There were times when Victor Cachat's large and angular pile of political and moral principles amused her. Given that they were attached to a man who could also be as ruthless and cold-blooded as any human being who ever lived.

God forbid Victor Cachat should just say openly that the Zilwicki family were people who'd become dear to him, Manticoran enemies or not, and he was no more capable of deliberately harming them than he would be of harming a child. It might be different if he thought the vital interests of Haven were at stake, true. But for the sake of a small and probably temporary tactical advantage? That was just not someplace he would go.

She wouldn't tease him about it, though. Not even later, when they were in private again. By now, she knew Victor well enough to know that he'd simply retreat into obfuscation. He'd advance complex and subtle reasoning to the effect that retaining the personal trust of the Zilwickis would actually work to Haven's benefit, in the long run, and that it would be foolish to sacrifice that for the sake of petty maneuvering.

And it might even be true. But it would still be an excuse. Even if Victor didn't think there'd be any long-range advantage for Haven, he'd behave the same way. And if that excuse failed of its purpose, think up a different one.

Judging from the Mona Lisa smile on Anton Zilwicki's face, Thandi was pretty sure he'd figured it out himself.

Anton now cleared his throat, noisily enough to break Queen Berry out of her hands-planted-on-hips disapproval. "That's not why we came here, however. Victor, there's something I need to raise with you."

He nodded at Princess Ruth, who was perched on the arm of a chair across the room. "We need to raise with you, I should say. Ruth's actually the one who broached the issue with me."

Ruth flashed Victor a nervous little smile and shifted her weight on the chair arm. As usual, Ruth was too fidgety when dealing with professional issues to be able to sit still. Thandi knew that Victor considered her a superb intelligence analyst—but he also thought she'd be a disaster as a field agent.

Cachat glanced at Berry, who'd moved over to the divan next to Anton's chair and taken a seat there. "And why is the queen here? Meaning no disrespect, Your Majesty—"

"I really, really hate it when he calls me that," Berry said to no one in particular, glaring at the wall opposite her.

"—but you don't normally express a deep interest in the arcane complexities of intelligence work."

Berry transferred the glare from the wall onto Cachat. "Because if they're right—and I'm not convinced!—then there's a lot more involved that the silly antics of spies."

"All right," said Victor. He looked back at Anton. "So what's on your mind?"

"Victor, there's something wrong with Manpower."

"He doesn't mean wrong, like in 'they've got really bad morals,' " interjected Ruth. "He means—"

"I know what he means," said Victor. Now he looked at Berry. "And I hate to tell you this, Your—ah, Berry—but your father's right. There really is something rotten in the state of Denmark."

Berry and Thandi both frowned. "Where's Denmark?" demanded Thandi.

"I know where it is," said Berry, "but I don't get it. Of course there's something rotten in the state of Denmark. It's that nasty cheese they make."

Chapter Five

January, 1920 PD

"So," Zachariah McBryde asked, watching the head of foam rise on the stein he was filling with the precision of the scientist he was, "what do you think about the crap at Verdant Vista?"

"Are you sure you want to ask me that question?" his brother Jack inquired.

Both brothers were red-haired and blue-eyed, but of the two, Jack had the greater number of freckles and the more infectious smile. Zachariah, six T-years younger and three centimeters shorter than his brother, had always been the straight man when they were younger. Both of them had lively senses of humor, and Zachariah had probably been even more inventive than Jack when it came to devising elaborate practical jokes, but Jack had always been the extrovert of the pair.

"I'm generally fairly confident that the question I ask is the one I meant to ask," Zachariah observed. He finished filling the beer stein, handed it across to Jack, and began filling a second one.

"Well," Jack gave him a beady-eyed look. "I am a high muckety-muck in security, you know. I'd have to look very askance at anyone inquiring about classified information. Can't be too careful, you know."

Zachariah snorted, although when he came down to it, there was more than an edge of truth in Jack's observation.

It was odd, the way things worked out, Zachariah reflected, carefully topping off his own stein and settling back on the other side of the table in his comfortably furnished kitchen. When they'd been kids, he never would have believed Jack would be the one to go into the Mesan Alignment's security services. The McBryde genome was an alpha line, and it had been deep inside "the onion" for the last four or five generations. From the time they'd been upperclassman in high school, they'd both known far more of the truth about their homeworld than the vast majority of their classmates, and it had been a foregone conclusion that they'd be going into the . . . family business one way or another. But Jack the joker, the raconteur of hilarious stories, the guy with the irresistible grin and the devastating ability to attract women, had been the absolute antithesis of anything which would have come to Zachariah's mind if someone mentioned the words "security" or "spy" to him.

Which might explain why Jack had been so successful at his craft, he supposed.

"I think you can safely assume, Sheriff, that this particular horse thief already knows about the classified information in question," he said out loud. "If you really need to, you can check with my boss about that, of course."

"Well, under the circumstances, partner," Jack allowed with the drawl he'd carefully cultivated as a kid after their parents had introduced them to their father's passion for antique, pre-diaspora "Westerns," "I reckon I can let it pass this time."

"Why, thank you." Zachariah shoved a plate loaded with a thick ham and Swiss sandwich (with onion; they were the only ones present, so it was socially acceptable, even by their mother's rules), a substantial serving of potato salad, and an eleven centimeter-long pickle across the table to him. They grinned at each other, but then Zachariah's expression sobered.

"Really, Jack," he said in a much more serious tone, "I'm curious. I know you see a lot more on the operational side than I do, but even what I'm hearing through the tech-weenie channels is a bit on the scary side."

Jack regarded his brother thoughtfully for a moment, then picked up his sandwich, took a bite, and chewed reflectively.

Zachariah probably had heard quite a bit from his fellow "tech-weenies," and it probably had been more than a little garbled. Under a strict interpretation of the Alignment's "need-to-know" policy, Jack really shouldn't be spilling any operational details to which he might be privy to someone who didn't have to have those details to do his own job. On the other hand, Zachariah was not only his brother, but one of Anastasia Chernevsky's key research directors. In some ways (though certainly not all), his clearance was even higher than Jack's.

Both of them, Jack knew without false modesty, were definitely on the bright side, even for Mesan alpha lines, but Zachariah's talent as a synthesizer had come as something of a surprise. That could still happen, of course, even for someone whose genetic structure and talents had been as carefully designed as the McBryde genome's. However much the Long-Range Planning Board might dislike admitting it, the complex of abilities, skills, and talents tied up in the general concept of "intelligence" remained the least amenable to its manipulation. Oh, they could guarantee high general IQs, and Jack couldn't remember the last representative of one of the Alignment's alpha lines who wouldn't have tested well up into the ninety-ninth-plus percentile of the human race. But the LRPB's efforts to preprogram an individual's actual skill set was problematical at best. In fact, he was always a little amused by the LRPB's insistence that it was just about to break through that last, lingering barrier to its ability to fully uplift the species.

Personally, Jack was more than a little relieved by the fact that the Board still couldn't design the human brain's software reliably and completely to order. It wasn't an opinion he was likely to discuss with his colleagues, but despite his complete devotion to the Detweiler vision and the Alignment's ultimate objectives, he didn't really like the thought of micromanaging human intelligence and mental abilities. He was entirely in favor of pushing the frontiers in both areas, but he figured there would always be room for serendipitous combinations of abilities. Besides, if he was going to be honest, he didn't really like the thought of his theoretical children or grandchildren becoming predesigned chips in the Alignment's grand machine.

In that regard, he thought, he had a great deal in common with Leonard Detweiler and the rest of the Alignment's original founders. Leonard had always insisted that the ultimate function of genetically improving humanity was to permit individuals to truly achieve their maximum potential. Whatever temporary compromises he might have been willing to make in the name of tactics, his ultimate, unwavering objective had been to produce a species of individuals, ready and able to exercise freedom of choice in their own lives. All he'd wanted to do was to give them the very best tools he could. He certainly wouldn't have favored designing free citizens, fully realized members of the society for which he'd striven, the way Manpower designed genetic slaves. The idea was to expand horizons, not limit them, after all.

There were moments when Jack suspected the Long-Range Planning Board had lost sight of that. Hardly surprising, if it had, he supposed. The Board was responsible not simply for overseeing the careful, continually ongoing development of the genomes under its care, but also for providing the Alignment with the tactical abilities its strategies and operations required. Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that it should continually strive for a greater degree of . . . quality control.

And at least both the LRPB and the General Strategy Board recognized the need to make the best possible use out of any positive advantages the law of unintended consequences might throw up. Which explained why Zachariah's unique, almost instinctual ability to combine totally separate research concepts into unanticipated nuggets of development had been so carefully nourished once it was recognized. Which, in turn, explained how he had wound up as one of Chernevsky's right hands in the Alignment's naval R&D branch.

Jack finished chewing, swallowed, and took a sip of his beer, then quirked an eyebrow at his brother.

"What do you mean 'on the scary side,' Zack?"

"Oh, I'm not talking about any hardware surprises, if that's what you're thinking," Zachariah assured him. "As far as I know, the Manties didn't trot out a single new gadget this time around. Which, much as I hate to admit it"—he smiled a bit sourly—"actually came as a pleasant surprise, for a change." He shook his head. "No, what bothers me is the fact that Manticore and Haven are cooperating on anything. The fact that they managed to get the League on board with them, too, doesn't make me any happier, of course. But if anybody on the other side figures out the truth about the Verdant Vista wormhole . . .

He let his voice trail off, then shrugged, and Jack nodded.

"Well," he said, "I wouldn't worry too much about the Manties and the Peeps being in cahoots." He chuckled sourly. "As nearly as I can tell from the material I've seen, it was more or less a freelance operation by a couple of out-of-control operatives improvising as they went along."

Zachariah, Jack noted, looked just a bit skeptical at that, but he really didn't have anything like a need to know about Victor Cachat and Anton Zilwicki.

"You're just going to have to trust me on that part, Zack," he said affectionately. "And I'll admit, I could be wrong. I don't think I am, though. And given the . . . intensity with which the operatives in question have been discussed over in my shop, I don't think I'm alone in having drawn that conclusion, either."

He took another bite of his sandwich, chewed, and swallowed.

"At any rate, it's pretty obvious no one back home in Manticore or Nouveau Paris saw any of it coming, and I think what they're really doing is trying to make the best of the situation now that they've both been dragged kicking and screaming into it. Which, I'll admit, is probably easier for them because of how much both of them hate Manpower's guts. It's not going to have any huge impact on their actions or their thinking when we get them to start shooting at each other again, though."

Zachariah frowned thoughtfully, then nodded.

"I hope you're right about that. Especially if they've got the League involved!"

"That, I think, was also improvisational," Jack said. "Cassetti just happened to be on the ground when the whole thing got thrown together, and he saw it as a way to really hammer home Maya's relationship with Erewhon. I don't think he gave a good goddamn about the independence of a planet full of ex-slaves, at any rate! He was just playing the cards he found in his hand. And it didn't work out any too well for him personally, either."

Zachariah snorted in agreement, and Jack grinned. He didn't know anywhere near as much as he wished he did about what was going on inside the Maya Sector. It wasn't really his area of expertise, and it certainly wasn't his area of responsibility, but he had his own version of Zachariah's ability to put together seemingly unrelated facts, and he'd come to the conclusion that whatever was happening in Maya, it was considerably more than anyone on Old Earth suspected.

"Personally, I think it's no better than a fifty-fifty chance Rozsak would actually have fired on Commodore Navarre," he went on. "Oversteegen might well have—he's a Manty, after all—but I'm inclined to think Rozsak, at least, was bluffing. I don't blame Navarre for not calling him on it, you understand, but I wouldn't be surprised if Barregos heaved a huge sigh of relief when we backed down. And now that Cassetti's dead, he's got the perfect opening to repudiate any treaty arrangement with this new Kingdom of Torch because of its obviously ongoing association with the Ballroom."

"Can you tell me if there's anything to the stories about Manpower having pulled the trigger on Cassetti?" Zachariah asked.

"No," Jack replied. "First, I couldn't tell you if I knew anything one way or the other—not about operational details like that." He gave his brother a brief, level look, then shrugged. "On the other hand, this time around, I don't have any of those details. I suppose it's possible one of those Manpower jerks who doesn't have a clue about what's really going on could have wanted him hit. But it's equally likely that it was Barregos. God knows Cassetti had to've become more than a bit of an embarrassment, after the way he all but detonated the bomb that killed Stein himself and then dragged Barregos into that entire mess in Verdant Vista. I'm pretty sure that at this particular moment Barregos views him as far more valuable as one more martyred Frontier Security commissioner than he'd be as an ongoing oxygen-sink."

"I understand, and if I pushed too far, I apologize," Zachariah said.

"Nothing to apologize for," Jack reassured him . . . more or less truthfully.

"Would I be intruding into those 'operational details' if I asked if you've got any feel for whether or not the other side's likely to figure out the truth about the wormhole?"

"That's another of those things I just don't know about," Jack replied. "I don't know if there was actually any information there in the system to be captured and compromised. For that matter, I don't have any clue whether or not the Manpower idiots on the spot were ever informed that the terminus had already been surveyed at all.I sure as hell wouldn't have told them, that's for sure! And even if I knew that, I don't think anyone knows whether or not they managed to scrub their databanks before they got shot in the head. What I am pretty sure of, though, is that anything any of them knew is probably in the hands of someone we'd rather didn't have it by now, assuming anybody thought to ask them about it." He grimaced. "Given how creative its ex-property on the planet was, I'm pretty damn sure that any of Manpower's people answered any questions they were asked. Not that it would have done them any good in the end."

It was Zachariah's turn to grimace. Neither brother was going to shed any tears for the "Manpower's people" in question. Although they didn't talk about it much, Zachariah knew Jack found Manpower just as distasteful as he did himself. Both of them knew how incredibly useful Manpower, Incorporated, had been to the Alignment over the centuries, but designed to be used or not, genetic slaves were still people, of a sort, at least. And Zachariah also knew that unlike some of Jack's colleagues on the operational side, his brother didn't particularly blame the Anti-Slavery League, genetic slaves in general, or even the Audubon Ballroom in particular, for the savagery of their operations against Manpower. The Ballroom was a factor Jack had to take into consideration, especially given its persistent (if generally unsuccessful) efforts to build an effective intelligence net right here on Mesa. He wasn't about to take the Ballroom threat lightly, nor was any sympathy he felt going to prevent him from hammering the Ballroom just as hard as he could any time the opportunity presented itself. Yet even though one difference between Manpower and the Alignment was supposed to be that the Alignment didn't denigrate or underestimate its future opponents, Zachariah also knew, quite a few of Jack's colleagues did exactly that where the Ballroom was concerned. Probably, little though either McBryde brother liked to admit it, because those colleagues of his bought into the notion of the slaves' fundamental inferiority even to normals, far less to the Alignment's enhanced genomes.

"When it comes right down to it, Zack," Jack pointed out after a moment, "you're actually probably in a better position than me to estimate whether or not the Ballroom—or anyone else, for that matter—picked up a hint about the wormhole. I know your department was involved in at least some of the original research for the initial survey, and I also know we're still working on trying to figure out the hyper mechanics involved in the damned thing. In fact, I'd assumed you were still in the loop on that end of things."

A rising inflection and an arched eyebrow turned the last sentence into a question, and Zachariah nodded briefly.

"I'm still in the loop, generally speaking, but it's not like the astrophysics are still a central concern of our shop. We settled most of the military implications decades ago. I'm sure someone else's still working on the theory behind it full time, but we've pretty much mined out the military concerns."

"I don't doubt it, what I meant was that I'm pretty sure you'll hear sooner than I would if anybody comes sniffing around from the Verdant Vista side."

"I hadn't thought about it from that perspective," Zachariah admitted thoughtfully, "but you've probably got a point. I'd be happier if I didn't expect the Ballroom to be asking the Manties for technical assistance where the terminus is concerned, though." He grimaced. "Let's face it, Manticore's got more and better hands-on experience with wormholes in general than anybody else in the galaxy! If anyone's likely to be able to figure out what's going on from the Verdant Vista end, it's got to be them."

"Granted. Granted." It was Jack's turn to grimace. "I don't know what we can do about it, though. I'm pretty sure some rather more highly placed heads are considering that right now, you understand, but it's sort of one of those rock-and-the-hard-place things. On the one hand, we don't want anybody like the Manties poking around. On the other hand, we really don't want to be drawing anyone's attention any more strongly to that wormhole terminus—or suggesting it may be more important than other people think it is—than we can help."

"I know."

Zachariah puffed out his cheeks for a moment, then reached for his beer stein again.

"So," he said in a deliberately brighter tone when he lowered the stein again, "anything new between you and that hot little number of yours?"

"I have absolutely no idea what you could possibly be talking about," Jack said virtuously. " 'Hot little number'?" He shook his head. "I cannot believe you could have been guilty of using such a phrase! I'm shocked, Zack! I think I may have to discuss this with Mom and Dad!"

"Before you get all carried away," Zachariah said dryly, "I might point out to you that it was Dad who initially used the phrase to me."

"That's even more shocking." Jack pressed one hand briefly to his heart. "On the other hand, much as I may deplore the crudity of the image it evokes, I have to admit that if you're asking about the young lady I think you're asking about, the term has a certain applicability. Not that I intend to cater to your prurient interests by discussing my amatory achievements with such a low brow lout as yourself."

He smiled brightly.

"No offense intended, you understand."

Chapter Six

Herlander Simões landed on the air car platform outside his comfortable townhouse apartment. One of the perks of his position as a Gamma Center project leader was a really nice place to live barely three kilometers from the Center itself. Green Pines was a much sought-after address here on Mesa, and the townhouse didn't come cheap. Which undoubtedly explained why most of Green Pines' inhabitants were upper mid-level and higher executives in one or another of Mesa's many business entities. A lot of the others were fairly important bureaucrats attached to the General Board which officially governed the Mesa System, despite the fact that Green Pines was a lengthy commute, even for a counter-gravity civilization, from the system capital of Mendel. Of course, Simões had realized long ago that having the long commute's inconvenience to bitch about to one's fellow government drones actually only made the address even more prestigious.

Simões had very little in common with people like that. In fact, he often felt a bit awkward if he found himself forced to make small talk with any of his neighbors, since he certainly couldn't tell them anything about what he did for a living. Still, the presence of all of those business executives and bureaucrats was useful when it came to explaining Green Pines' security arrangements. And the fact that those security arrangements were in place was very reassuring to people like Simões' superiors. They could hide the really important citizens of Green Pines in the underbrush of all those drones and still be confident they were protected.

Of course, he reflected as he climbed out of the air car and triggered the remote command for it to take itself off to the communal parking garage, their real protection was no one knew who they were.

He chuckled at the thought, then gave himself a shake and opened his briefcase. He extracted the gaily wrapped package, closed the briefcase again, tucked the package under his left arm, and headed for the lift bank.

* * *

"I'm home!" Simões called out five minutes later as he stepped into the apartment's foyer.

There was no answer, and Simões frowned. Today was Francesca's birthday, and they were supposed to be taking her out to one of her favorite restaurants. It was Tuesday, which meant it had been her mother's turn to pick her up from school, and he knew Francesca had been eagerly anticipating the evening. Which, given his daughter's personality, meant she should have been waiting right inside the door with all the patience of an Old Earthn shark who'd just scented blood. True, he'd gotten home a good hour earlier than expected, but still . . .

"Harriet! Frankie!

Still no answer, and his frown deepened.

He set the package carefully on an end table in the foyer and moved deeper into the spacious, two hundred fifty-square meter apartment, heading for the kitchen. Herlander was a mathematician and theoretical astrophysicist, and his wife Harriet—their friends often referred to them as H&H—was also a mathematician, although she was assigned to weapons research. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Harriet had a habit of leaving written notes stuck to the refrigerator rather than using her personal minicomp to mail them to him. It was one of what he considered her charming foibles, and he supposed he couldn't really blame her. Given how much time she spent with electronically formatted data, there was something appealing about relying on old-fashioned handwriting and paper.

But there was no note on the refrigerator this evening, and he felt a prickle of something that hadn't yet quite had time to turn into worry. It was headed that way, though, and he slid onto one of the tall chairs at the kitchen dining bar while he looked around at the emptiness.

If anything had happened, she would've let you know, idiot, he told himself firmly. It's not like she didn't know exactly where you were!

He drew a deep breath, made himself sit back in the chair, and admitted to himself what was really worrying him.

Like a great many—indeed, the vast majority—of the alpha line pairings the Long-Range Planning Board arranged, Herlander and Harriet had been steered together because of the way their genomes complemented one another. Despite that, they'd had no children of their own yet. At fifty-seven, Herlander was still a very young man for a third-generation prolong recipient—especially one whose carefully improved body would probably have been good for at least a couple of centuries even without the artificial therapies. Harriet was a few T-years older than he was, but not enough to matter, and the two of them had been far too deeply buried in their careers to comfortably free up the amount of time required to properly rear children. They'd planned on having several biologicals of their own—all star line couples were encouraged to do that, in addition to the cloned pairings the Board produced—but they'd also planned on waiting several more years, at a minimum.

Although the LRPB obviously expected good things out of their children, no one had pushed them to accelerate their schedule. Valuable as their offspring would probably prove, especially with the LRBP's inevitable subtle improvements, it had been made pretty clear to them that the work both of them were engaged upon was of greater immediate value.

Which was why they'd been quite surprised when they were called in by Martina Fabre, one of the Board's senior members. Neither one of them had ever even met Fabre, and there'd been no explanation for the summons, so they'd felt more than a little trepidation when they reported for the appointment.

But Fabre had quickly made it clear they weren't in any sort of trouble. In fact, the silver-haired geneticist (who had to be at least a hundred and ten, standard, Simões had realized) had seemed gently but genuinely amused by their apparent apprehension.

"No, no!" she'd said with a chuckle. "I didn't call you in to ask where your first child is. Obviously, we do expect the two of you to procreate—that is why we paired you up, after all! But there's still time for you to make your contribution to the genome."

Simões had felt himself relaxing, but she'd shaken her head and wagged an index finger at him.

"Don't get too comfortable, Herlander," she'd warned him. "We may not be expecting you to procreate just yet, but that doesn't mean we don't have a little something we do want out of you."

"Yes, Ma'am," he'd replied, much more meekly than he usually spoke to people. Somehow, Fabre had made him feel like he was back in kindergarten.

"Actually," she'd let her chair come upright and leaned forward, folding her arms on her desk, her manner suddenly rather more serious, "we really do have a problem we think you two can help us with."

"A . . . problem, Doctor?" Harriet had asked when Fabre paused for a handful of seconds. She hadn't quite been able to keep a trace of lingering apprehension out of her voices, and Fabre had obviously noticed it.

"Yes." The geneticist had grimaced, then sighed. "As I say, neither of you were even remotely involved in creating it, but I'm hoping you may be able to help us out with solving it."

Harriet's expression had been puzzled, and Fabre had waved one hand in a reassuring gesture.

"I'm sure both of you are aware that the Board pursues a multi-pronged strategy. In addition to the standard pairings such as we arranged in your case, we also work with more . . . tightly directed lines, shall we say. In cases such as your own, we encourage variation, explore the possibilities for enhancement of randomly occurring traits and developments which might not occur to us when we model potential outcomes. In other cases, we know precisely what it is we're trying to accomplish, and we tend to do more in vitro fertilization and cloning on those lines."

She'd paused until both Simões had nodded in understanding. What Herlander had realized, although he wasn't certain Harriet had, was that quite a bit of that "directed" development had been carried out under cover of Manpower, Incorporated's slave breeding programs, which made the perfect cover for almost anything the LRPB might have been interested in exploring.

"For the past few decades, we seem to have been hitting a wall in one of our in vitro alpha lines," Fabre had continued. "We've identified the potential for what amounts to an intuitive mathematical genius, and we've been attempting to bring that potential into full realization. I realize both of you are extraordinarily gifted mathematicians in your own rights. For that matter, both of you test well up into the genius range in that area. The reason I mention this is that we believe the potential for this particular genome represents an intuitive mathematical ability which would be at least an order of magnitude greater than your own. Obviously, that kind of capability would be of enormous advantage to us if only because of its consequences for the sort of work I know you two are already engaged upon. Long-term, of course, the ability to inject it into the genetic pool as a reliably replicatable trait would be of even greater value to the maturation of the species as a whole."

Herlander had glanced at Harriet for a moment and seen the mirror of his own intensely interested expression on her face. Then they'd both looked back at Fabre.

"The problem in this case," the geneticist had continued, "is that all of our efforts to date have been . . . less than fully successful, shall we say. I'll go ahead and admit that we still don't have anything like the degree of understanding we wish we had where designed levels of intelligence are concerned, despite the degree of hubris some of my own colleagues seem to feel upon occasion. Still, we feel like we're on the right track in this instance. Unfortunately, our results to date fall into three categories.

"The most frequent result is a child of about average intelligence for one of our alpha lines, which is to say substantially brighter than the vast majority of normals or even the bulk of our other star lines. That's hardly a bad result, but it's obviously not the one we're looking for, because while the child may have an interest in mathematics, there's no sign of the capability we're actually trying to enhance. Or, if it's there at all, it's at best only partially realized."

"Less often, but more often than we'd like, the result is a child who's actually below the median line for our alpha lines. Many of them would be quite suitable for a gamma line, or for that matter for the general Mesan population, but they're not remotely of the caliber were looking for."

"And finally," her expression had turned somber, "we get a relatively small number of results where all early testing suggests the trait we're trying to bring out is present. It's in there, waiting. But there's an instability factor, as well."

"Instability?" It had been Herlander's turn to ask the question when Fabre paused this time, and the geneticist had nodded heavily.

"We lose them," she'd said simply. The Simões must have looked perplexed, because she'd grimaced again . . . less happily than before.

"They do fine for the first three or four T-years," she'd said. "But then, somewhere in the fifth year, we start to lose them to something like an extreme version of the condition which used to be called autism."

This time it had been obvious neither of the younger people sitting on the other side of her desk had a clue what she was talking about, because she'd smiled with a certain bitterness.

"I'm not surprised you didn't recognize the term, since it's been a while since we've had to worry about it, but autism was a condition which affected the ability to interact socially. It was eliminated from the Beowulf population long before we left for Mesa, and we really don't have a great deal in even the professional literature about it, anymore, far less in our more general information bases. For that matter, we're not at all sure what we're looking at here is what would have been defined as autism back in the dark ages. For one thing, according to the literature we do have—which is extremely limited, since most of it's over eight hundred years old—autism usually began to manifest by the time a child was three, and this is occurring substantially later. Onset also seems to be much more sudden and abrupt than anything we've been able to find in the literature. But autism was marked by impaired social interaction and communication and by restricted and repetitive behavior, and that's definitely what we're seeing here.

"In this case, however, we think there are some significant differences, as well—that we're not talking about the same condition, but rather one which has certain gross parallels. It seems from the literature that, like many conditions, autism manifested in several different ways and in different degrees of severity. By comparison with what our reasearch has turned up about autism, what we're observing in these children would appear to fall at the extremely severe end of the spectrum. One point of similarity with extreme autism is that, unlike its milder form and other learning disorders, new communication skills don't simply stop developing; they're lost. These children regress. They lose communication skills they already had, they lose the ability to focus on their environment or interact with it, and they retreat into a sort of shutdown condition. In the more extreme cases, they become almost totally uncommunicative and nonresponsive within a couple of T-years."

She'd paused again, then shrugged.

"We think we're making progress, but to be honest, there's an element on the Board which thinks we should simply go ahead and abandon the project completely. Those of us who disagree with that position have been looking for a potential means of breaking the existing paradigm. We've come to the conclusion—or, at least, some of us have—that what's really needed here is a two-pronged approach. We've very carefully analyzed the genetic structure of all of the children in the entire line and, as I say, we think we've made substantial progress in correcting the genes themselves, the blueprint for the hardware, if you will. But we're also of the opinion that we're probably dealing with environmental elements that affect the operating software, as well. Which is what brings you to my office today.

"All our evaluations confirm that the two of you are a well-adjusted, balanced couple. Your basic personalities complement one another well, and you're clearly well-suited to one another and to creating a stable home environment. Both of you also have the sort of affinity for mathematics we're trying to produce in this line, if not on the level we're looking for. Both of you have very successfully applied that ability in your daily work, and both of you have demonstrated high levels of empathy. What we'd like to do—what we intend to do—is to place one of our clones with you to be raised by you. Our hope is that by placing this child with someone who has the same abilities, who can provide the guidance—and the understanding—someone intended to be a prodigy requires, we'll be able to . . . ease it through whatever critical process is going off the rails when we lose them. As I say, we've made significant improvements at the genetic level; now we need to provide the most beneficial, supportive, and nurturing environment we can, as well."

* * *

And that was how Francesca had entered the Simões' life. She didn't look a thing like either of her parents, although that was scarcely unheard of on Mesa. Herlander had sandy hair, hazel eyes, and what he thought of as reasonably attractive features, but he wasn't especially handsome, by any means. One thing the Mesan Alignment had very carefully eschewed was the sort of "cookie cutter" physical similarity which was so much a part of the Scrags descended from the genetic "super soldiers" of Old Earth's Final War. Physical attractiveness was part of almost any alpha or beta line, but physical diversity was also emphasized as part of a very conscious effort to avoid producing a readily identifiable appearance, and Harriet had black hair and sapphire blue eyes. She was also (in Herlander's obviously unbiased opinion) a lot more attractive than he was.

They were very much of a height, right at one hundred and eighty centimeters, despite the dissimilarity in their coloring, but it was obvious Francesca would always be small and petite. Herlander doubted that she was ever going to be much over a hundred and fifty-five centimeters, and she had brown hair, brown eyes, and an olive complexion quite different from either of her parents.

All of which only made her an even more fascinating creature, as far as Simões was concerned. He understood that fathers were genetically hardwired to dote on girl children, of course. That was the way the species was designed, and the LRPB hadn't seen any reason to change that particular trait. Despite that, however, he was firmly convinced that any unbiased observer would have been forced to admit that his daughter was the smartest, most charming, and most beautiful little girl who had ever existed. It was self-evident. And, as he'd pointed out to Harriet on more than one occasion, the fact that they'd made no direct genetic contribution to her existence obviously meant he was a disinterested and unbiased observer.

Somehow, Harriet had not been impressed by his logic.

He knew both of them had approached the prospect of parenthood, especially under the circumstances, with more than a little trepidation. He'd expected it to be hard to risk letting himself care for the girl, knowing as much as they'd been told about the problems the Board had encountered with this particular genome. He'd discovered, however, that he'd failed to reckon with the sheer beauty of a child—his child, however she'd become that—and the complete and total trust she'd extended to her parents. The first time she'd had one of the childhood fevers not even a Mesan star line was totally immune to, and she'd stopped her fretful crying and melted absolutely limply in his arms when he'd piecked her up, nestled down against him, and dropped into sleep at last, he'd become her slave, and he knew it.

They'd both been aware of the fact that they were supposed to be providing the love and nurture to help ease Francesca through the development process, as Fabre had put it. They'd been prepared to do just that; what they hadn't been prepared for was how inevitable Francesca herself had made it all. Her fourth and fifth years had been particularly tense and trying for them as she entered what Fabre had warned them was the greatest danger period, based on previous experience. But Francesca had breezed past the critical threshold, and they'd felt themselves relaxing steadily for the last couple of years.

And yet . . . and yet as Herlander Simões sat in his kitchen, wondering where his wife and daughter were, he discovered that he hadn't relaxed completely, after all.

He was just reaching for his com when it sounded with Harriet's attention signal. He flicked his finger to accept the call, and Harriet's voice sounded in his ear.

"Herlander?"

There was something about her tone, he thought. Something . . . strained.

"Yes. I just got home a few minutes ago. Where are you guys?"

"We're at the clinic, dear," Harriet said.

"The clinic?" Simões repeated quickly. "Why? What's wrong?"

"I'm not sure anything is wrong," she replied, but multiple mental alarms were going off in his brain now. She sounded like someone who was afraid that if she admitted some dire possibility it would come to pass.

"Then why are you at the clinic?" he asked quietly.

"They screened me just after I picked her up at school and asked me to bring her down. Apparently . . . apparently they picked up a couple of small anomalies in her last evaluation."

Simões' heart seemed to stop beating.

"What sort of anomalies?" he demanded.

"Nothing enormously off profile. Dr. Fabre's looked at the results herself, and she assures me that so far, at least, we're still within parameters. We're just . . . drifting a little bit to one side. So they wanted me to bring her in for a more complete battery of evaluations. I didn't expect you to be home this early, and I didn't want to worry you at work, but when I realized we were going to be late, I decided to screen you. I didn't realize you were already at home until you answered."

"I won't be for long," he told her. "If you're going to be there for a while, the least I can do is hop in the car and come join you. And Frankie."

"I'd like that," she told him softly.

"Well, I'll be there in a few minutes," he said, equally softly. "Bye, honey."

Chapter Seven

"I don't mean to sound skeptical," said Jeremy X, sounding skeptical. "But are you sure you're not all just suffering from a case of EIS?" He pronounced the acronym phonetically.

Princess Ruth looked puzzled. "What's 'Ice'?"

"EIS. Stands for Excessive Intelligence Syndrome," said Anton Zilwicki. "Also known in the Office of Naval Intelligence as Hall of Mirrors Fever."

"In State Sec, we called it Spyrot," said Victor Cachat. "The term's carried over into the FIS, too."

Ruth shifted the puzzled look to Jeremy. "And what is that supposed to mean?"

"It's a reasonable question, Princess," said Anton. "I've spent quite a few hours pondering the possibility myself."

"So have I," said Cachat. "In fact, it's the first thing I thought of, when I started re-examining what I knew—or thought I knew—about Manpower. It wouldn't be the first time that spies outsmarted themselves by seeing more than was actually there." He glanced at Zilwicki. " 'Hall of Mirrors Fever,' eh? I hadn't heard that before, but it's certainly an apt way of putting it."

"In our line of work, Ruth," said Anton, "we usually can't see things directly. What we're really doing is looking for reflections. Have you ever been in a hall of mirrors at an amusement park?"

Ruth nodded.

"Then you'll know what I mean when I say it's easy to get snared in a cascade of images that are really just reflections of themselves. Once a single false conclusion or assumption gets itself planted in a logic train, it goes right on generating more and more false images."

"Fine, but . . ." Ruth shook head. The gesture expressed more in the way of confusion than disagreement. "I don't see that as any kind of significant factor in this case. I mean, we're dealing with internal correspondence between people within Mesa Pharmaceuticals itself. That seems pretty straightforward to me." A bit plaintively: "Not a mirror in sight."

"No?" said Cachat, smiling thinly. "How do we know the person on the other end of this correspondence, back on Mesa"—he glanced down at the reader in his hand, then did a quick scan back through the report—"Dana Wedermeyer, her name was—"

"Could be a 'he,' actually," interrupted Anton. "Dana's one of those unisex names that ought to be banned on pain of death, seeing as how they create nothing but grief for hardworking spies."

Cachat and kept going. "How do we know that she or he was working for Mesa Pharmaceuticals?"

"Oh, come on, Victor," protested Ruth. "I can assure you that I double-checked and cross-checked all of that. There's no question at all that the correspondence we dug out of the files came from Pharmaceuticals' headquarters on Mesa."

"I don't doubt it," said Victor. "But you're misunderstand my point. How do we know that the person sending these from Pharmaceuticals' headquarters was actually working for Pharmaceuticals?"

Ruth looked cross-eyed. A bit cross, too. "Who the hell else would be sitting there but a Pharmaceuticals employee? Or high-level manager, rather, since there's no way a low-level flunky was sending back instructions like those."

Anton sighed. "You're still missing his point, Ruth—which is one I should have thought of myself, right away."

He looked around for someplace to sit. They'd been having this discussion in Jeremy's office in the government complex, which was quite possibly the smallest office used by a planetary-level "Minister of War" anywhere in the inhabited galaxy. There were only two chairs in the office, placed right in front of Jeremy's desk. Ruth was in one, Victor in the other. Jeremy himself was perched on a corner of his desk.

The desk, at least, was big. It seemed to fill half the room. Jeremy leaned over and cleared away the small mound of papers covering another corner of his desk with a quick and agile motion. Barely more than a flick of the wrist. "Here, Anton," he said, smiling. "Have a seat."

"Thanks." Zilwicki perched himself on the desk corner, with one foot still on the floor, half-supporting his weight. "What he's getting at, Ruth, is that while it's certainly true that this Dana Wedermeyer person was employed by Mesa Pharmaceuticals, how do we know who he was really working for? It's possible that he—or she, damn these stupid names and what's wrong with proper names like Ruth and Cathy and Anton and Victor?—had been suborned and was really working for Manpower ."

He pointed to the electronic memo pad in the princess's hand. "That would explain everything in that correspondence."

Ruth looked down at the pad. Frowning, as if she was seeing it for the first time and wasn't entirely sure what it was. "That seems a lot more unlikely to me than any other explanation. I mean, presumably Pharmaceuticals maintains some sort of supervision over its employees, even at management levels."

Victor Cachat sat a bit straighter in his chair, using a hand on one of the armchairs to prop himself up enough to look over at the display of Ruth's pad. "Oh, I don't think it's all that likely myself, Your Highness."

She turned her head to glare at him. "What? Are you going to start on me now, too, with the fancy titles?"

Anton had to suppress a smile. Just a few months ago, Ruth's attitude toward Victor Cachat had been one of hostility, kept in check by the needs of the moment but still sharp and—he was sure the princess would have insisted at the time—quite unforgiving. Now . . .

Once in a while, she'd remember that Cachat was not only a Havenite enemy in the abstract but was specifically the enemy agent who'd stood aside—no, worse, manipulated the situation—when her entire security contingent had been gunned down by Masadan fanatics. At such times, she'd become cold and uncommunicative toward him for two or three days at a time.

But, most of the time, the "needs of the moment" had undergone the proverbial sea change. Cachat had been present on Torch almost without interruption since the planet had been taken from Manpower, Inc. And, willy-nilly, since she was the assistant director of intelligence for the new star nation—Anton himself was the temporary director, until a permanent replacement could be found—she'd been working very closely with the Havenite ever since. Of course, Victor never divulged anything that might in any way compromise the Republic of Haven. But, that aside, he'd been extremely helpful to the young woman. In his own way—quite different way—he'd probably been as much of a tutor for her as Anton himself.

Well . . . not exactly. The problem was that Cachat's areas of expertise were things that Ruth could grasp intellectually but probably couldn't carry out herself, in the field. Not well, certainly.

Unlike Ruth and Anton, Cachat was not a tech weenie. He was adept enough with computers, but he had none of Zilwicki or the Manticoran princess's wizardry with them. And while he was an excellent analyst, he was no better than Anton himself. Probably not as good, actually, push came to shove—although they were both operating on a rarified height that precious few other spies in the galaxy could reach to begin with.

Victor's greater age and much greater experience meant that he was still a better intelligence analyst than Ruth, but Anton didn't think that superiority would last more than a few years. The princess really did have a knack for the often peculiar and sometimes downright bizarre world of the aptly-named Hall of Mirrors.

But Cachat's real forte was field work. There, Anton thought he was in a league of his own. There might be a handful of secret agents in the galaxy as good as Victor was in that area, but that would be it—a literal handful. And none of them would be any better.

Anton Zilwicki himself was not one of that theoretical handful, and he knew it. To be sure, he was very good. In terms of fieldcraft, as most people understood the term, he was probably even as good as Victor. Very close, at least.

But he simply didn't have Cachat's mindset. The Havenite agent was a man so certain in his convictions and loyalties, and so certain of himself, that he could behave in a crisis like no one Anton had ever encountered. He would react faster than anyone and be more ruthless than anyone, if he thought ruthlessness was what was needed. Most of all, he had an uncanny ability to jury-rig his plans as he went along, seeing opportunity unfold whenever those plans went awry where most spies would see nothing but unfolding disaster.

There was great courage there, also, but Anton had that as well. So did many people. Courage was not really that rare a virtue in the human race—as Victor himself, with his egalitarian attitudes, was quite fond of pointing out. But for Cachat, that level of courage seemed to come effortlessly. Anton was sure the man didn't even think about it.

Those qualities made him a very dangerous man, at all times, and a scary man on some occasions. With his now-extensive experience working with Victor, Anton had come to be certain that Cachat was not a sociopath—although he could certainly do a superb imitation of one. And he'd also come to realize, more slowly, that lurking beneath Victor's seemingly icy surface was a man who was . . .

Well, not warm-hearted, certainly. Perhaps "big-hearted" was the right term. But whatever you called it, this was a man who had a fierce loyalty to his friends as well as his beliefs. How Cachat would react if he ever found himself forced to choose between a close friend and his own political convictions, was difficult to calculate. In the end, Anton was pretty sure that Victor would choose his convictions. But that wouldn't come without a great struggle—and the Havenite would demand complete and full proof that the choice was really inescapable.

Princess Ruth probably hadn't parsed Victor Cachat as thoroughly and patiently as Anton Zilwicki had done. There were very few people in the galaxy with Anton's systematic rigorousness. Ruth was definitely not one of them. But she was extremely intelligent and intuitively perceptive about people—surprisingly so, for someone who'd been raised in the rather cloistered atmosphere of the royal court. In her own way, she'd come to accept the same things about Victor that Anton had.

Anton had once remarked to Ruth, half-jokingly, that being Cachat's friend and collaborator was quite a bit like being an intimate colleague of a very smart and warm-blooded cobra. The princess had immediately shaken her head. "Not a cobra. Cobras are pretty dinky when you get right down to it—I mean, hell, a glorified rodent like a mongoose can handle one—and they rely almost entirely on venom. Even at his Ming the Merciless worst, Victor is never venomous."

She'd shaken her head again. "A dragon, Anton. They can take human form, you know, according to legend. Just think of a dragon with a pronounced Havenite accent and a hoard he guards jealousy made of people and principles instead of money."

Anton had conceded the point—and now, watching Ruth's half-irritated and half-affectionate exchange with a Havenite agent she'd once detested, he saw again how right she'd been.

It's not that easy, all things considered, to hold a grudge against a dragon. Not for somehow like the princess, at any rate, with her horror of appearing silly. You might as well hold a grudge against the tides.

"Just trying to stay in practice," Victor said mildly, "in the unlikely event I should be presented at the Manticoran court in Landing. Wouldn't want to fumble with royal protocol, even if it is all a bunch of annoying nonsense, because it would undermine my secret agent suavety."

"There's no such word as 'suavety,' " replied Ruth. "In fact, that's got to be the stupidest and least suave word I've ever heard."

Victor smiled seraphically. "To get back to the point, Ruth, I don't happen to think it's likely myself that this Dana Wedermeyer person"—he pointed to the pad—"is anything other than what she or he seems to be. Which is to say, a very highly placed Mesa Pharmaceuticals manager giving orders to a subordinate. Or, rather, ignoring a subordinate's complaints."

"But . . ." Ruth looked back down at the pad, frowning. "Victor, you've read the correspondence yourself. Pharmaceuticals' own field people out here were complaining about the inefficiency of their own methods, and this Wedermeyer just blew it off. It's like she—or he, or whatever—never even looked at their analyses of her own corporation's labor policies."

For a moment, the frown darkened into something very harsh. "The murderous and inhuman labor policies, I should say, since they amounted to consciously working people to death. But the point for the moment is that even their own employees were pointing out that it would be more efficient to start shifting over to increased automation and mechanical cultivation and harvesting."

"Yes, I know. On the other hand, despite their complaints, Pharmaceuticals was showing a profit."

"But only because Manpower was giving them a discount rate on their slaves—and pretty damned steep discount, too!" Ruth argued. "That's one of the points their own managers were making—that they couldn't count on that discount rate lasting forever." She grimaced. "If it went out from under them, if they had to start paying the full 'list price' for their slaves, then the inefficiencies their people here on Torch were pointing out would have really come home to bite them! In fact, there was this one—"

She paged through the documentson her pad for a moment, then found the one she wanted and waved it in triumph.

"Yeah, this one! From what's-his-name," she glanced at the display, "Menninger. Remember? He was talking about Pharmaceuticals' overall exposure. They were already leasing their entire operational site here on Manpower, but they were counting on Manpower's giving them preferred slave prices, as well, and let's face it, Manpower transtellars don't have a whole lot of fraternal feeling for each other. Manpower's eaten quite a few of its Mesan competitors along the way, and this guy was worried they were setting Pharmaceuticals up for their next sandwich by putting them deep enough in Manpower's pocket they'd have to accept an unfriendly takeover or go bust!"

Jeremy X cleared his throat. "Let's not forget how closely most Mesan corporations collude with each other, as well, though. Sure, they've demonstrated a huge share of shark DNA over the years, but they do work together, as well. Especially when they're engaged in something the rest of the human race isn't all that likely to want to invest in. Openly, at least. And you can add to that the fact that we're certain that many of them are actually owned, in whole or in part, by Manpower. Like Jessyk."

Anton pursed his lips, considering the point. "You're suggesting, in other words, that Manpower was deliberately accepting a loss in order to boost the profits of Mesa Pharmaceuticals—in which they possibly have a major ownership share, even if they don't control it outright."

"Yes."

"Which was part of my point about wondering if this Wedermeyer might be working for someone besides—or, in addition to, maybe—Pharmaceuticals," Victor said. "If Manpower does have a hidden stake in Pharmaceuticals, then they may have been in a position to go on offering their 'discount rate' forever. As long as they were charging enough to cover their bare production costs, at least. I mean, there's nothing in the correspondence from this end that's concerned with humanitarian considerations. They're simply saying they could squeeze their profit margins upward, in the long run, if they started switching over. Even by their own analysis, it would have taken quite a while to amortize the equipment investment, especially assuming their outlay for slaves stayed where it was. They were more concerned about the long-range consequences of losing that rate—of having Manpower yank it out from under them, or threaten to, at least, at a time when it would give Manpower the greatest leverage with them. But there's nothing in the correspondence from the Mesa end to explain why the locals' analysis was being 'blown off,' to use your own charming term Ruth. Suppose Wedermeyer was quietly representing Manpower's interests? Wanted Pharmaceuticals deeper into Manpower's pocket . . . or simply knew there'd already been a quiet little off-the-books marriage between them? In that case, he or she could very well have been in a position to know they were worrying over nothing. That their 'discount rate' was grandfathered in and wasn't going to be going away anytime soon."

Ruth had her lips pursed also. "But what would be the point, Jeremy? Oh, I'll grant the possibility of Wedermeyer being working for Manpower. I doubt her own supervisors would have missed it if she was doing it against their interests, though. I mean, Pharmaceuticals has been around for two or three T-centuries, too, so it damned well knows how the game is played. Somebody besides her had to be seeing at least some of these memos, given the extended period over which they were written. The fact that she didn't even bother to come up with an argument—not even a specious one—for her position suggests she was pretty damned confident that she wasn't worried about getting hammered by one of her own bosses. That only makes sense if Manpower does own Mesa Pharmaceuticals, and what possible motive could they have had for hiding that connection, really?

"It's not like their position with Jessyk, where the legal fiction that Jessyk's a separate concern helps give them at least a little cover when they're moving slaves or other covert cargoes. There wouldn't be any point in maintaining that sort of separation from Pharmaceuticals, and there was certainly no legal reason they'd have had to hide that connection. And there are a lot of reasons why they shouldn't have bother. If thw two of them were already connected, they were at least doubling their admninistrative costs by maintaining two separate, divorced operations here on Torch. Not to mention everywhere else the two of them are doing business together. Why do that? Even assuming they are in bed together, and that Manpower is covering its production costs back home, despite the discounted rate, we're still looking at Peter robbing his own pockets to pay his flunky Paul. They were discounting their slaves to Pharmaceuticals by over twenty-five percent. Leaving aside all the other economic inefficiencies built into the relationship, that's a hell of a hit to the profit margin they could've made selling them somewhere else instead of dumping them here to subsidize Pharmaceuticals' inefficient—by their own field managers' estimate—operation!"

Victor nodded. "I agree, and that's exactly why I don't think there's any logical explanation except . . ."

"Except what?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. But we've already agreed that there's something rotten about Manpower that goes beyond their greed and brutality." He pointed to Ruth's reader. "So, for the moment, we can just add this dead fish to the smelly pile."

PART II

1921 Post-Diaspora.

(4023, Christian Era)

Because the Beowulfers imported a full, functional technological base, and because they were within such close proximity to Sol that scientific data could be transmitted from one planet to another in less than forty years, they never endured any of the decivilizing experiences many other colonies did. In fact, Beowulf has remained pretty much on the cutting edge of science, especially in the life sciences, for the better part of two millennia. Following the horrific damage suffered by Old Earth after its Final War, Beowulf took the lead in reconstruction efforts on the homeworld, and Beowulfers take what is probably a pardonable pride in their achievements. Beowulf's possession of a wormhole junction terminus—especially a terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction, which is the largest and most valuable in known space—hasn't hurt its economic position one bit. In short, when you arrive in Beowulf you will be visiting a very wealthy, very stable, very populous, and very powerful star system which, especially in light of the local autonomy enjoyed by members of the Solarian League, is essentially a single-star polity in its own right.

—From Chandra Smith and Yoko Watanabe, Beowulf: The Essential Guide for Commercial Travelers. (Gonzaga & Gonzaga, Landing, 1916 PD)

Chapter Eight

February, 1921 PD

Brice Miller began slowing the cab as he approached Andrew's Curve, often called Artlett's Folly by some of Brice's less charitable relatives. The curve in the roller coaster track was also a rise, which tended to fool the rider into thinking the centrifugal force wouldn't be as savage as it was if the cab went into the curve at full speed.

In the amusement park's heyday, the cabs had been designed to handle such velocities. But that had been decades ago. Age, spotty maintenance, and the deterioration brought on by the nearby moon Hainuwele's plasma torus had made a lot of the rides in the enormous amusement park in orbit around the giant ringed planet Ameta too risky for public use. Which, of course, just added to the downward spiral caused by the original folly of the park's creator, Michael Parmley, who had thought up this white elephant and poured both a fortune and his extended family into it.

Brice's great-grandfather, he had been. By the time Brice was born, the park's founder had been dead for almost forty years. The small clan he left behind in possession of the now-ramshackle and essentially defunct amusement park was presided over—you couldn't really use the term "ruled" to apply to such a contentious and disputatious lot as her multitude of offspring and relatives—by his widow, Elfride Margarete Butre.

She was Brice's favorite relative, except for his two cousins James Lewis and Edmund Hartman, who were the closest to his own age. And, of course, except for his very very favorite relative, the same uncle Andrew Artlett for whom the curve or the folly—it had been both, really—were named.

Brice loved his uncle's curve, although he always approached it very carefully since the accident. He'd been with his uncle when Andrew gave the curve its name. Coming into that section of the giant roller coaster at a truly reckless velocity, both of them whooping with glee, Andrew had managed to break the cab loose from the tracks. Not from the magnetic track, of course—it would probably have taken a shipyard tug or a small warship to do that—but from the magnetic grips themselves. The metal must have gotten fatigued over the long years.

Whatever the cause, the two grips had snapped as neatly as you could ask for. And there they were, a forty-two-year-old-going-on-twelve uncle and his eight-year-old-and-aging-rapidly nephew, in a cab not more than ten meters in any dimension, tumbling through space. The proverbially "empty" space, except this portion of the universe contained a lot of ionized particles vented from Hainuwele and swept into Ameta's magnetosphere, along with gases from Yamato's Nebula. They had no source of propulsion usable on anything except maglev tracks, and with only the meager life support systems you'd expect for an amusement park roller coaster cab which had never been designed to be occupied for longer than a few minutes at a time.

Still, they managed to eke out the air and power long enough to be rescued by the clan's grande dame, who came after them with the somehow-still-functional yacht that had been one of the many follies left behind by her husband. Fortunately, Elfride Margarete Butre had been a renowned pilot in her day, and the old lady still had the knack of flying by the proverbial seat of her pants. That was about the only way she could have managed to pull off the rescue before the cab's shielding was overwhelmed by the harsh and lethal radiation in Ameta's magnetosphere, given that the yacht's instrument systems were in the same parlous state of repair as just about everything owned by the clan of a material nature.

On the negative side, the same Elfride Margarete Butre had an acid tongue that suffered no fools gladly and suffered downright screwballs not at all. As it happened, the com systems on both the yacht and the now-adrift roller coaster cab had been among the few pieces of equipment still functioning almost perfectly. Nor, alas, could the com system in the cab be turned off by the inhabitants. It had been designed, after all, to pass on instructions to idiot tourists. So, the entire rescue was accompanied, from start to finish and with not more than four seconds of continuous silence, with what had gone down into the clan's extensive legendry as Ganny's Second-Best Skinning.

(The Very Best Skinning had been the one she bestowed upon her deceased husband, when she first learned that he'd died of a heart attack in the middle of attempting to recoup his lost fortunes in a game of chance—right at the point where he'd triumphed but before his opponents had turned over the purse. Leaving aside the expletives, the gist of it had been: "Forty years living on the edge, you put me through! And you couldn't hold on for four more seconds?")

Fortunately for Brice, his age had sheltered him from most of the ferocious diatribe. Still, even the penumbra of the vitriol poured upon Uncle Andrew by Ganny El had scarred him for life.

So he liked to think, anyway. The incident was several years in the past, and Brice was now fourteen years old. That is to say, the age when all bright and right-thinking lads come to realize that theirs is a solemn fate. Doomed, perhaps by destiny, perhaps by chance, but certainly by their exquisite sensitivity, to the tormented life of the outcast. Condemned to awkward silences and inept speech; consigned to the outer darkness of misunderstanding; sentenced to a life of loneliness.

And celibacy, of course, he'd told himself until three days earlier—whereupon his uncle Andrew piled misery onto melancholy by explaining to him the fine distinction between celibacy and chastity.

"Oh, cut it out, Brice. You're just in a funk because—"

He held up a meaty thumb. "Cousin Jennifer won't give you the time of day, and for reasons known only to boys who have been turned into hollow mindless shells by hormones—yes, I knew the reasons myself way back then, but I've long since forgotten since I stopped being a teenage cretin—your 'affections,' as they are politely called, have naturally settled on the girl in your vicinity who is probably the best-looking and certainly the most self-absorbed."

"That's not—"

"Point two." The forefinger came up to join the thumb. "You have therefore persuaded yourself that you are bound for a life of solitary splendor. If you can't have Jennifer Foley, you'll have no lass for a bride. Not that you've got any business daydreaming about brides, when you've got Tempestuous Taub riled at you for your dismal performance in trigonometry."

Brice scowled. His much older cousin Andrew Taub was the very least favorite of his cousins, at the moment. It was preposterous to expect a fourteen year old boy gripped by life's great despairs to attend to the tedious—no, leaden—dullness of sines and cosines and such. Even a teacher as anal-retentive as Andy Taub ought to realize that much.

"That's not—"

Remorselessly, the middle finger joined its fellows. "Point three. You don't care about marriage anyway. You're only telling yourself that because you're still"—he paused for a moment, his heavy features disfigured by a caricature of thought—"at least four months away, by my best estimate, from the liberating realization that you don't need to be married to get laid—which is actually what your Mongol horde of hormones has got you worked up about, when it comes to Cousin Jennifer."

"That's really not—"

But it was hard to divert Uncle Andrew once he was on a roll. The ring finger came up to join the others. To add to the unfairness of the moment, despite Andrew Artlett's anything-but-gracile appearance, he was actually very well co-ordinated. Coordinated enough to be one of those rare people who could lift his ring finger while leaving the pinkie still curled in the palm of his hand.

"Point four. Once that realization comes to you, of course, the relief will be only temporary—since it will also become obvious to you the first time you attempt to act upon your newfound knowledge that Cousin Jennifer has no more interest in humping you than wedding you." He bestowed a cheerful smile upon his nephew. "Whereupon you will suddenly realize you are condemned to a life of chastity—that means not getting laid—as well as a life of celibacy, which merely refers to remaining single."

Despite himself, Brice had been intrigued. "I didn't know there was a difference."

"Oh, hell, yes. Ask any churchman. They've been parsing the distinction for eons, the lecherous bastids. And don't try to interrupt me. Because it's at that point—"

Inexorably, the pinkie took its place. "—point five, if you've lost track—when you'll go completely off the deep end of early adolescence and start writing poetry."

Brice's protest died aborning. As it happened, he'd alreadystarted writing poetry.

"Really, really bad poetry," his uncle concluded triumphantly.

Sadly, Brice had already come to suspect as much.

* * *

Brice brought the cab to a halt at the very apex of the curve. He couldn't have done that with most of the roller coaster's cabs, of course. Even those which were functional—still more than three-quarters of them—had been originally designed for tourists. Tourists were a species of the genus imbecile. Hardly the sort of people any sane amusement park would allow to control the vehicles on the various rides.

However, despite the unfortunate results of Uncle Andrew's enthusiasm on that memorable day, Elfride Margarete Butre had not tried to impose tourist rules on her family. She had not remained the undisputed head of the clan because there was anything creaky about the old lady's brain. She knew perfectly well that preventing recklessness altogether, in a clan which had as many children as hers did—not to mention the childlike nature of some of its adult members—was impossible anyway. Far better to provide suitable channels for excessive enthusiasm.

So, although she'd rendered most of the roller coaster cabs dysfunctional, she'd seen to it that three of them were brought fully up to snuff—which included turning Uncle Andrew's jury-rigged controls into something approximating a professional design. And she'd imposed no restrictions on their use, except for the obvious rule that no one was allowed to ride the roller coaster without someone else in the control room—and not more than one cab at a time was allowed on the track. She went even further and enforced that last rule by re-engineering the track so that the power would automatically cut off if more than one cab entered it. Only the Mysterious Lord of the Universe knew how rambunctious teenagers could manage to stage races on a roller coaster, but Ganny El knew perfectly well that the youngsters in her clan would certainly give it a try if she let them.

She probably also knew that her great-great-nephew Brice Miller had managed, with his uncle's help, to circumvent the controls enough to allow the youngster to ride the track any time he wanted to, whether or not the requisite observer was present in the control room. But, if she did, she chose to look the other way. Elfride Margarete Butre, being a wise old woman in fact as well as theory, had learned long ago that rules were meant to be broken, so the savvy matriarch always makes sure to put in place a few rules for that very purpose. Let the children and would-be children break those rules, and hopefully the ones that really mattered would go untouched.

Besides, although she'd certainly never told him so and Brice himself would have been astonished by the news, the truth was that Brice was Ganny El's second most favorite nephew of all time.

Her most favorite was Andrew Artlett.

* * *

Brice spent perhaps twenty minutes just gazing at the splendid vista that his perch on the curve provided him. In the distance, serving as a backdrop, was Yamato's Nebula. It was actually a dozen light years away, but it looked much closer. Most of Brice's attention, though, was given to the giant planet around which the station revolved. Ameta's cool blue-green colors belied the fury that swirled in that thick atmosphere. Brice had spent enough time watching Ameta to know that the cloud belts and the periodic spots in them were constantly changing. For some reason, he found that continual transformation a source of serenity. Watching Ameta could remove for a time almost all of the fourteen-year-old angst that afflicted him.

Not all, of course. His two efforts to transfer that ringed glory into rhyme and meter had been . . .

Well. Disastrous. Truly putrid. Poetry so bad there was a good chance the spirit of ancient Homer had shrieked for a moment, back there on distant Old Earth.

About twenty minutes after arriving at the curve, all of Brice's momentary pleasure vanished. He'd finally caught sight of the vessel coming toward the amusement park's docking area.

Another slaver had arrived.

He'd better get back. Things were always a little tense when slave ships showed up to use the park's facilities. They had no legal right to do so, but there were no effective authorities out here in the middle of nowhere to enforce the law. Soon enough, anyway, to make any difference. The mining boom that Brice's great-grandfather had expected to develop on Hainuwele had never materialized, despite several false starts. The gas-mining operations that did take place in Ameta's atmosphere required far less labor than old man Parmley had counted on to keep his amusement park in business—and those miners were in no position to serve as the system's police force, even if they'd been so inclined.

Years back, the first two attempts by slavers to use the park's mostly-abandoned facilities as a convenient and free staging area and transfer station had erupted in pitched battles with the clan. The family had won both fights. But two of them was enough to make it obvious that they couldn't possibly survive many more—and they were now much too poor to abandon the park.

So, a combination truce and tacit agreement had developed between Ganny El and her people and the slavers. The slavers could use the park as long as they kept their activities restricted to specified areas, and didn't bother the clan. Or the tiny number of tourists who still occasionally showed up.

And paid something for the privilege. Fine, it was blood money, and if the Audubon Ballroom ever found out about it there'd probably be hell to pay. But the clan needed the money to survive. There was even a little bit left over after each transaction for Ganny El to slowly build up a kitty that might, some day, finally allow the clan to give up the park altogether and migrate somewhere else.

Where? Elfride Margarete Butre had no idea. On the other hand, she'd have plenty of time to think of a destination, as slowly as the funds accumulated.

Chapter Nine

As he watched Parmley Station growing in the screen, Hugh Arai shook his head. The gesture combined awe, amusement, and wonder at the inexhaustible folly of humankind. Hearing the little snort he emitted, Marti Garner eyed him sideways, from her casual sprawl on the chair in front of the viewscreen. She was the lieutenant who served as his executive officer, insofar as the command structure of Beowulf's Biological Survey Corps could be depicted in such a formal manner. Even Beowulf's regular armed forces had customs which were considered peculiar by the majority of the galaxy's other armed forces. The traditions and practices of the Biological Survey Corps were considered downright bizarre—at least, by those few armed forces who understood that the BSC was actually Beowulf's equivalent of an elite commando force.

There weren't many of them. The Star Kingdom's Office of Naval Intelligence was probably the only foreign service whose officials really understood the full scope of the BSC's activities—and they kept their collective mouths tightly shut. The tacit alliance between Manticore and Beowulf was longstanding and very solid, for all that it was mostly informal.

The Andermanni knew enough to know that the BSC was not the innocuous-sounding outfit it passed itself off to be, but probably not much more than that. The BSC didn't operate very extensively in Andermanni territory. As for the Havenites . . .

It was hard to be certain what they knew or didn't know, although it hadn't always been that way. Indeed, there'd been a time when the Republic of Haven had been almost as well connected with Beowulf as Manticore, but that had ended over a a hundred and forty T-years ago.

For the most part, Beowulfers had been less than overjoyed when Haven officially became the People's Republic after the Constitutional Convention of 1750, but it was the Technical Conservation Act of 1778 which had effectively put the final kiss of death on the once cordial relationship. By making it a crime for engineers or professionals to seek to emigrate from the Peoples' Republic for any reason, the Legislaturalists had pushed Beowulf's meitocracy-worshiping public opinion beyond the snapping point. The PRH had responded to Beowulf's highly vocal criticism by launching a vigorous anti-Beowulf propaganda campaign (Public Information had been an old hand at such tactics even then), and relations between the two star nations had nosedived.

Military cooperation between the PRH and Beowulf had been dwindling well before 1778, of course, but it had terminated completely after the Legislaturalists passed the TCA. By this time, the Beowulfers were pretty sure that the regular armed forces of the Republic of Haven thought the Survey Corps was exactly what it passed itself off to be: a civilian outfit, but one which, given that it often ventured into the galactic equivalent of rough neighborhoods, was pretty tough. Nothing compared to a real military force, of course.

But that might not have been true of Haven's State Security, back in the days of the Pierre-Saint Just regime. And just how much of State Sec's institutional knowledge had been passed on to the succeeding intelligence outfit—which had also been one of its executioners—was an open question.

However, it probably didn't matter that much. Beowulf's Biological Survey Corps had never spent much time in Havenite space.

First, because that had become . . . impolitic following the collpase of Haven-Beowulf relations. But, second, because there was no reason to, given Haven's longstanding hostility to genetic slavery. Say what one might about the Legislaturalists—and, for that matter, the lunatics of the Committee of Public Safety—their opposition to slavery had remained fully intact. Personally, and despite a personal partiality for Manticore, Hugh had always been prepared to cut Haven quite a bit of slack in other areas, given its aggressive enforcement of the Cherwell Convention. He was pretty sure most of his fellows in the BSC shared his opinion in that regard, as well, although certain other brahces of Beowulf's military might feel rather differently. The Biological Survey Corps' primary mission could best be described as that of conducting a secret war against Manpower, Inc. and Mesa, however, which gave its personnel a somewhat different perspective. Theirs, after all, was a pragmatic, narrowly defined purpose—a point Hugh was cheerfully prepared to admit with absolutely no trace of apology. Beowulf's continuing galactic prominence in the life-sciences affected all aspects of Beowulfan culture, including that of its military, and that was especially true of the BSC. Assuming you could have gotten any one of the its combat teams to discuss their activities at all—not likely, to say the least—they'd have probably said something to the effect that a person shoots their own dog, when the critter goes rabid.

As the centuries passed, most of the galaxy had forgotten or at least half-forgotten that the people who founded Manpower, Inc. had been Beowulfan renegades. But Beowulf had never forgotten.

"What in the name of God was he thinking?" Arai murmured.

Marti Garner chuckled. "Which God are we talking about this week, Hugh? If it's one of the more archaic Judeo-Christian-Islamic varieties you seem to have developed a completely incomprehensible interest in lately, then . . ."

She paused and looked to the team member to her left for assistance. "What's your opinion, Haruka? I'm figuring the Old Testament maniac—excuse me, that's 'Maniac' with a capital 'm'—would have commanded poor old Michael Parmley to build the screwball station to demonstrate his obedience."

Haruka Takano—he'd have been described as the unit's intelligence officer in another armed force—opened his eyes and gazed placidly at the immense and bizarre amusement park that was continuing to swell in the screen.

"How am I supposed to know?" he complained. "I'm of Japanese ancestry, if you remember."

Garner and Arai gave him looks which might charitably have been described as skeptical. That was perhaps not surprising, given Takano's blue eyes, very dark skin, features which seemed more south Asian than anything else—and the complete absence of even a trace of an epicanthic fold.

"Spiritual ancestry, I'm referring to," Takano clarified. "I'm a lifelong and devout adherent to the Beowulfan branch of ancient Shinto."

The gazes of his companions remained skeptical.

"It's a small creed," he admitted.

"Membership of one?" That came from Marti Garner.

"Well, yes. But the point is, I have no idea what some deranged deity from the Levant might have said or done." He raised himself from his slouch to peer more closely at the screen. "I mean . . . look at the bloody thing. What is it? Six kilometers in diameter? Seven?"

The fourth person on the ship's command deck spoke up. " 'Diameter's a meaningless term. That structure doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to a sphere. Or any rational geometry."

Stephanie Henson, like Hugh Arai, was on her feet rather than sprawled in a chair. She pointed an accusing finger at the object they were all studying on the screen. "That crazed construction doesn't resemble anything outside of an hallucination."

"Not true, actually," said Takano. "When he built the station, over half a century ago, Parmley was guided by some ancient designs. Places back on pre-diaspora Terra named Disneyland and Coney Island. There's nothing left of them materially except archaeological traces, but a number of images survive. I spent a little time studying them."

The station now filled most of the screen. The unit's intelligence specialist rose to his feet and began pointing to various portions of the structure.

"That thing that seems to loop and wind all over is called a 'roller coaster.' Of course, like every part of the station that isn't contained inside the pressure hull, it's been adapted for vacuum conditions. And, at least if I'm interpreting the few accounts of the station I could track down correctly, they incorporated a number of micro-gravity features as well."

He pointed to the one and only part of the huge structure that had a simple geometric shape. "That's called a 'ferris wheel.' Don't ask me what the term 'ferris' refers to, because I have no idea."

"But . . . what does it do?" asked Henson, frowning. "Is it some sort of propulsion mechanism?"

"It doesn't exactly do anything. People climb into those pressurized cabs you can see and the wheel starts—that much of the name makes sense, at least—wheeling them through space. I guess the point is to give people the best view possible of the surroundings. Which, you have to admit, are rather spectacular, in orbit around Ameta and with Yamato's Nebula so close."

"And what's that?" asked Garner, pointing to yet another portion of the station they were approaching.

Takano made a face. "It's a grotesquely enlarged and extravagant, absurd and preposterous—the terms 'insensate' and 'ludicrous' spring to mind also—version of a structure that was part of ancient Disneyland. The structure was a very fanciful rendition of a primitive fortified dwelling called a 'castle.' It went by the name of 'Fantasyland.' " He pointed to a spire of some sort rising from the station. "That's called a 'turret.' In theory, it's a defensive emplacement."

The com beeped, announcing an incoming message. Arai made his own grimace, and straightened up from the chair.

"Speak of the proverbial devil," he said. "Wait . . . let's say seven seconds, Marti, and then answer the call."

"Why seven?" she complained. "Why not five, or ten?"

Arai clucked his tongue. "Five is too few, ten is too many—for a slovenly crew engaged in a risky enterprise."

"That took just about seven seconds," Takano said admiringly.

But Garner was already starting to speak. She didn't bother making any shushing gestures, though. Despite its battered and antiquated appearance, the equipment on the Ouroboros' command deckwas like the rest of the ship—the product of up-to-date Beowulfan technology, beneath the unprepossessing exterior. No one on the other end of the com system would hear or see anything except Marti Garner's face and voice.

Her response to the signal would, needless to say, have appalled any proper military unit.

"Yeah. Ouroboros here."

A man's face appeared on the com screen. "Identify yourselves and—"

"Oh, cut the bullshit. Check your records. You know perfectly well who we are."

The man on the other end muttered something that was probably a curse. Then he said: "Hold on. We'll get back to you."

The screen went blank. Presumably, he was consulting whoever was in charge. In point of fact, there would be no records of the Ouroboros on Parmley Station—for the good and simple reason that the ship had never come here before. But Arai's team had gauged that the erratic and unstable manner in which the slavers who used the station kept it staffed, insofar as you could use that term at all, meant that the absence of records would just be attributed by the current overseers of the operations there as the product of sloppiness on the part of their predecessors.

Parmley Station was a transshipment point of convenience for freelance slavers, not one of the depot ports Manpower itself maintained on a regular basis. That corporation, as powerful and wealthy as it might be, was still a commercial entity, not a star nation. Manpower directly managed the core portions of its operations, but its activities were much too far flung—not simply throughout the immense reaches of the Verge but even through large parts of the Shell—for it to personally supervise all of them. So, just as it often farmed out paramilitary operations to mercenaries, Manpower also farmed out many of the fringe aspects of the slave trade to independent contractors.

A few of the larger independent slavers maintained their own regular transshipment stations, here and there. But most of them relied on an ever-shifting and informal network of ports and depots.

Those weren't very hard to find. Anywhere in the Verge, at least. The accounts of human expansion into the galaxy related in history books made the phenomenon appear far neater and more organized than it really had been. For each formally-recorded colonizing expedition and settlement—such as the very well documented and exhaustively studied one that had created the Star Kingdom of Manticore—there had been at least a dozen smaller expeditions that were recorded poorly if at all. Even in the era of modern electronic communication and data storage, it was still true that most of human history was only recorded verbally—and, as it always had, the knowledge faded away quickly, with the passage of two or three generations. That was still true today, even with the advent of prolong, although the generations themselves might be getting a little longer.

If anything, the records of Parmley Station were more extensive than the records for many such independently-financed and created settlements. That portion of the galaxy which had so far been explored by the human race measured less than a thousand light years in any one direction. As tiny as it was compared to the rest of the galaxy—much less the known universe as a whole—the region encompassed was still so enormous that the human mind had a hard time really grasping its extent and everything it contained.

"Less than a thousand light-years" is just a string of words. It doesn't sound like much, to human brains which almost automatically translate the term into familiar analogs like kilometers. A person in any sort of decent physical condition could easily walk several hundred kilometers if they had to, after all.

Astronomers and experienced spacers understood the reality. Very few other people did. The rough and uneven approximation of a globe which marked the extent of human settlement of the galaxy, in the two millennia that had passed since the beginning of the human diaspora, contained innumerable settlements that no one had any knowledge of beyond the people who lived there and a relative handful of others who might have reason to visit. And for every such still-inhabited settlement, there were at least two or three which were now either completely uninhabited or inhabited only by squatters.

Such obscure settlements were the natural prey of the independent penumbra of the slave trade. The slavers avoided any settlements which were heavily populated or possessed any sort of military force. But that still left a multitude which were either uninhabited completely or inhabited by groups small enough and weak enough to be exterminated or forced to cooperate.

Slavers preferred cooperation, though, for the same reason they generally stayed away from completely deserted installations. Such places deteriorated rapidly, once all humans abandoned them—and the last thing any slaving contractor wanted to be bothered with was repairing and maintaining what amounted to nothing more than a way station for them, especially since it could be temporary. Slavers often found it necessary to abandon such way stations, if they came to the attention of one of the star nations that took the Cherwell Convention seriously.

As best as Arai's team could piece together the fragmented data, it seemed that Parmley Station had fallen into the hands of the slave trade about three decades earlier. There had apparently been some initial resistance put up by the people who inherited Michael Parmley's foolish enterprise, but so far as Takano could determine, those people had either been driven off or killed.

"Is that turret the only place the slavers maintain operations?" Stephanie asked.

Haruka shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. I'd say . . ."

"Probably," Hugh concluded for him. "As far out into space as it extends, that turret is big enough to hold a large number of slaves."

Marti cleared her throat. "Uh . . . speaking of which, boss."

"What? Already?" He gave Garner's feet a glance. "You haven't even put on the spike-heeled boots yet."

"They're too hard to fit into a vacuum suit." She gave him a leer. "But I can certainly put them on after the operation, if you're in the mood."

Henson shook her head. "Don't tell me the two of you are back at it again. Isn't there something in the regulations about excessive sexual congress between team members?"

"No," said Garner. "There isn't."

She was quite right, as Stephanie knew perfectly well—given that she and Haruka were enjoying a sexual relationship themselves at the moment. The customs and traditions of Beowulf's military, especially its elite commando units, would have made the officers of any other military force turn pale. And, in fact, probably only people raised in Beowulf's unusually relaxed mores could have handled it without disciplinary problems. For Beowulfers, sex was a perfectly natural human activity, no more remarkable in itself than eating. The members of a military unit shared meals, after all, not to mention any number of collective forms of entertainment like playing chess or cards. So why shouldn't they share the pleasure of sexual activity also?

Their relaxed habits on the matter worked quite well, especially given the long missions which characterized the teams of the Biological Survey Corps. It did so because the Corps' teams also followed the Beowulfan custom of making a clear and sharp distinction between sex and marriage. Beowulfan couples who decided to marry—technically, form a civil union; marriage as such was a strictly religious affair under the Beowulfan legal code—quite often chose, at least for a time, to maintain monogamous sexual relations.

Neither Hugh nor Marti answered Stephanie's question, which was rhetorical anyway. She hadn't expected an answer. Not surprisingly, one of Beowulf's most ingrained customs was thou shalt mind thine own damn business. As it happened, Arai and Garner had stopped having sexual relations almost two months earlier. There had been no quarrel or hard feelings involved. The relationship had been a casual one, and they stopped for the same reason someone might stop eating steak for a while. It was quite possible they might resume again before too long, if the mood came upon them.

There had not, however, been any spike-heeled boots involved. Beowulfan customs wouldn't have found that abhorrent, assuming both parties were consenting adults. It just so happened that both Hugh Arai and Marti Garner had conventional tastes, when it came to sex. Conventional, at least, in their own terms. Plenty of other cultures would have been aghast at what passed for "normal sex" on Beowulf.

The com unit came alive and the same man's face appeared. "Yeah, okay. We can't—well, we figure you're okay. What do you got for us?"

"The cargo's not too big. Eighty-five units, all certified. Mostly heavy labor units."

"Pleasure units?"

"Just two, this trip."

"Male or female?"

"Both female."

The heavy face broke into its first smile. "Well, good. We can use 'em."

Henson rolled her eyes. "Oh, great. I've got to put on the act again."

"I'll pass the word to June," said Haruka.

Stephanie Henson and June Mattes were the two female members of the team who usually served as would-be pleasure slaves on these operations. Both of them, especially Mattes, had the sort of flamboyantly female physiological characteristics that suited the roles. For the same reason, Kevin Wilson and Frank Gillich played the roles when males were needed. The tactic worked because slavers receiving the cargo were almost invariably gripped by their own lusts, so they rarely thought to check the cargo's certifications until it was too late. A very attractive appearance was usually all that was needed.

The same was not true, on the other hand, for the team member who always played the role of a heavy labor unit. The moment any slaver's eyes caught sight of Hugh Arai, they wanted to see his tongue sticking out. The man was huge and so muscular he looked downright misshapen. There was no way they were going to let him near them, no matter how many chains he was laden with, until they saw the Manpower genetic marker. Even from a bit of a distance, that marker was effectively impossible to disguise or mimic.

Arai stretched. The small command deck seemed to get even smaller. He smiled at his comrades and, lazily, stuck out his tongue.

There was no need to fake a Manpower genetic marker. It was right there on the top of his tongue, as it had been since he came out of the Manpower process that substituted for birth.

F-23xb-74421-4/5.

"F" indicated the heavy labor line. "23" was the particular type, which was one designed for extremely heavy labor. "xb" instead of the usual "b" or "d" for a male slave indicated an experimental variety—in this case a genetic manipulation aimed to produce unusual dexterity along with enormous strength. "74421" indicated the batch, and "4/5" noted that Hugh had been the fourth of five male babies "born" at the same time.

"Which outfit do you want to wear this time, darling?" Marti asked. "Rags soiled, rags torn, or rags stained by unknown but almost certainly awful fluids?"

"Go with the fluids," said Haruka. He waved at the screen. They had almost arrived at the docking bay. Only a portion of Parmley Station could be seen any longer in the screen. That portion, not surprisingly, looked old and worn down. But it also looked just plain dirty, which wasn't at all common for vacuum conditions. That was probably a side effect of the nearby moon's plasma torus. "The damn thing looks like it needs a scrubbing."

The com unit squawked again. The squawk was a completely artificial effect, the product of Beowulfan electronic ingenuity. It would resonate back to the slaver's unit and make a suitably run-down impression.

"Use Dock 5."

"Right," said Garner. "Dock 5 it is." She switched off the com.

"And a scrubbing it's about to get," said Henson. "Fluids included."

Arai nodded. "The human body holds five to six liters of blood. Even slavers, who have no hearts."

Chapter Ten

Brice Miller worked the brakes, easing the cab to a gentle stop. The brakes were an antique design, relying on hydraulic principles, but they worked well enough. Brice was rather fond of them, in fact. Like much of the station's jury-rigged equipment, it took some actual skill to make it work.

There was a small group waiting for him at the terminus. He waved at his cousins James Lewis and Ed Hartman and tried not to scowl openly at the third and fourth members of the party.

Those two were Michael Alsobrook and Sarah Armstrong. They were in their twenties, not teenagers like James and Ed and Brice himself.

Twenties going on fuddy-duddy, Brice thought sourly. The cab came to a halt and he clambered out.

"Stop glaring at us," Sarah said. "You know the drill—and it's Ganny's drill anyway, not ours."

" 'Course, I agree with her," added Alsobrook. "The last thing we need in a delicate situation is hormones running loose with pulse rifles."

"Easy for you guys to be so blasé about it," James said. Like Brice himself, he was looking enviously at the pulse rifles cradled by Alsobrook and Armstrong.

"Yeah," chimed in Ed. "We're the ones gotta crawl around in air ducts without so much as a pocket knife for self-defense."

"Self-defense against what?" said Michael, his voice edged with sarcasm. "Rats?"

A bit defensively, Brice said, "Well, there are rats in those air passages."

Sarah looked like she was about to yawn. "Of course there are. Weren't you paying attention to your biology tutor? Rats and cockroaches—humanity's inescapable companions in the Diaspora. By now, the relationship is practically commensal."

"For them, maybe," said Hartman.

In truth, the occasional rats he'd encountered in the vents had scurried away as soon as they caught sight of Brice. He imagined the rodents might pose a danger if someone was weak and incapacitated—but, in that case, what difference would it make if the person had a weapon or didn't? His real gripe was just that—that—

Teenage male hormones were practically shrieking that he needed a weapon! When he sallied forth against the foe. Dammit.

Alas, older if not wiser heads prevailed. Sarah reached into the small bag she had slung over a shoulder and began pulling out the com units. The units themselves were small enough she could have fitted all three into her hand, but the wire and clip they each came with made them quite a bit bulkier if not much heavier.

"Here you go, guys. I just tested them and they're working fine."

There being no point in further argument, Brice took one of them and stuffed it into a pocket. "Usual place?" he asked.

Alsobrook nodded. "Yeah, there's nothing fancy going on. Just another slave ship coming in to transfer the cargo."

Brice made a face. "The cargo." It was more than a little disturbing, the way familiarity with evil calloused the soul over time. Even the clan had fallen into the shorthand habit of referring to the hideous merchandise by the slavers' own parlance. Perhaps that made it a bit easier to just watch while dozens of human beings were forced from one set of shackles to another. Watch—and extend their hand for a pay-off.

He'd written a poem about it once. The fact that it was probably a really lousy poem hadn't made it any the less heartfelt.

But . . . there was nothing he could about it. Any of them could do about it. So he just headed off toward the air vent that led into the ducts they normally used for their lookout posts. His cousins James and Ed followed.

By the time all three of them were in place, they'd be able to provide the clan with direct observations of what was happening with the transfer. They used antique methods for their signals, attaching the clips to wires that the clan had painstakingly laid in many of the station's air ducts. That probably made their transmissions undetectable, at least with the sort of equipment slavers were likely to have.

If anything went wrong, their assignment was simply to flee the area after making a report. Older clan members with weapons would then move in to deal with whatever needed to be dealt with.

Nobody was really expecting any trouble. Brice had only been two years old the last time violence erupted between the clan and the slavers. Two slavers who'd been part of the station's staff, both male, had been irritated because the latest cargo to arrive had contained no pleasure units. No female units of any kind, in fact. So, after getting drunk, they'd decided to make good the loss by searching out a female from the clan.

It had all been over very quickly. The clan left the corpses in the same compartment that was always used for pay-offs, along with a recording from Ganny El demanding punitive damages. Well, punitive pay, anyway. You couldn't really call it "damages" since the only ones damaged had been the two slavers shot into barely-connected shreds.

The slaver who'd been the station boss at the time hadn't argued the point. Those two clowns had probably been a pain in the neck for him anyway, and the amount Ganny demanded was enough to make the point but not enough to be a real burden. After all these years, the slavers who used Parmley Station knew full well that it would take a major and costly war to exterminate the clan—and, short of that, the clan could make their lives very miserable indeed if they chose to do so. The station was enormous, labyrinthine, and nobody knew it the way Ganny's people did. After the first fight with slavers, Ganny had had all the schematics and blueprints in the turret erased, except for those relevant to the turret itself. Then she'd had all the schematics and blueprints anywhere in the station erased except for a small number which were hidden away—and the computers which held them couldn't be hacked into because they were kept entirely offline.

So, the slaver boss had paid the weregild, and there'd been no further repetitions of the incident. Still, you never knew. The only difference between the slavers and the rats and cockroaches who also infested the station was that the rats and cockroaches were smarter—shrewder, anyway—and had way, way higher moral standards.

* * *

Alberto Hutchins and Groz Rada perked up when they saw the two slaves following closely out of the personnel tube behind three of the crewmen from the Ouroboros. Both were indeed female—and both were just as good-looking as pleasure slaves always were. One of them was downright voluptuous.

Their pleased expressions faded when they caught sight of the slave following them. The creature's body exuded physical power. Not menace, exactly, since he was festooned with chains and a lifetime of hard labor and strict discipline would have certainly made him docile. Still . . .

Rada cleared his throat and hefted his flechette gun slightly. "The big one doesn't come any closer until—"

"Oh, for God's sake, relax," said the female crewman who seemed to be in charge of the contingent from the ship. She turned her head and looked at the crewman who was holding the huge slave's chains. More to the point, since he couldn't possibly have restrained the brute with his own muscles, he held a slave prod casually in his other hand. The device was a distant descendant of the cattle prods used on Earth in pre-Diaspora days. Far more sophisticated in its design and capabilities, if not in its basic purpose.

The crewman gave the monster a casual jab. The heavy jaws opened and out came his tongue.

Hutchins and Rada relaxed, and Rada's flechette gun lowered. Hutchins had never bothered to unsling his in the first place. While he did not possess unlimited faith in the goodness of his fellow men's souls (since, after all, his own contained very little of that quality), this was a routine operation. Something he and Rada had both done at least two dozen times in the four years since they'd come to the station. Besides, the tribarrel-armed weapons turret on the cargo bay bulkhead, controlled from the slavers' command center in the amusement park's turret, was a far more effective deterrent than any mere flechette gun, in his considered opinion.

"Okay, then," he said. "Let's make the transfer."

He gestured with a thumb toward the battle steel box mag locked to the bulkhead to one side of the tribarrel, and the Ouroboros' crew leader nodded. Normal electronic fund transfers were entirely out of the question for an illegal transaction like this one. Despite all the ingenuity and sophistication of the current generation's practitioners of the ancient art of "money laundering," normal fund transfers left too many electronic footprints for anyone to be comfortable about. Besides, slavers—like smugglers and pirates—were not natively trusting souls.

Fortunately, it wasn't always possible to rely on normal electronic transfers, even when both parties to the transfers in question were as pure as the new fallen snow. Which was why physical fund transfers were still possible. As the female crewmember stepped forward, Hutchins punched in the combination to unlock the battle steel box, and its lid slid smoothly upward. Inside were several dozen credit chips, issued by the Banco de Madrid of Old Earth. Each of those chips was a wafer of molecular circuitry embedded inside a matrix of virtually indestructible plastic. That wafer contained a bank validation code, a numerical value, and a security key (whose security was probably better protected than the Solarian League Navy's central computer command codes), and any attempt to change the value programmed into it when it was originally issued would trigger the security code and turn it into a useless, fused lump. Those chips were recognized as legal tender anywhere in the explored galaxy, but there was no way for anyone to track where they'd gone, or—best of all from the slavers' perspective—whose hands they'd passed through, since the day they'd been issued by the Banco de Madrid.

The crewwoman didn't actually reach for the credit chips, of course. That sort of thing simply wasn't done. Besides, she knew as well as Hutchins did that if she'd been foolish enough to insert her hand into that box, the automatically descending lid would have removed it quite messily. Instead, she produced a small hand unit, aimed it in the direction of the chips, and studied the readout. She gazed at it for a moment, making certain that the amount on the readout matched the one Hutchins' superiors had agreed to, then nodded.

"Looks good," she said, and held out her hand.

Hutchins laid the remote for the mag lock release in her palm. With that in her hand, she unlocked the box—which closed again, automatically—from the bulkhead, then spoke into her mike. Rada and Hutchins couldn't hear the words, since they were shielded, but they knew she'd be confirming with someone still on board the Ouroboros that the funds were in her possession. She listened for a moment, then looked over her shoulder at her fellow crewmen.

"Okay, we're clear. Let's get them moved."

"Beginning with the two in front," said Rada cheerfully, and the crewwoman snorted in obvious amusement.

Rada and Hutchins both grinned at her, but, truth be told, their real attention was mostly focused on the two pleasure slaves. In its own way, the activities they'd soon be engaged in with those slaves was as routine as the transaction itself. But it was a lot more enjoyable than the rest of their work and was one of the real perks of being a slaver.

The male crewmen handling the two pleasure slaves poked them forward with his own prod. "Here you go, boys. And I can tell you from personal experience that they're just as good as they look."

The very buxom one turned her head to look at him. Hutchins thought for a moment she was actually going to glare at her handler, as unlikely as that was. Pleasure slaves were trained into even greater docility than heavy labor ones.

But then he realized that her look was simply one of intent focus, and was even more surprised. Because of that same training, pleasure slaves spent most of their lives in something of a mental haze.

The crewman from the Ouroboros wasn't looking at the slave, though. He'd lifted his prod and was studying the gauge on the handle. Catching sight of it for the first time, Hutchins was surprised again. Slave prod gauges were pretty simple things, as a rule. But this gauge looked like something that belonged in a laboratory.

"Hey, what—"

"Clear," said the crewman.

Hutchins started to frown, began to wonder what the man meant, but he never finished either process. Indeed, the few remaining seconds of Alberto Hutchins' life passed in something of a blur. Somehow, the other pleasure slave had her chains around his neck, the busty one kicked his legs out from under him, and on his way down the slender one used the chains and his momentum to crush his windpipe and break his neck.

Rada lasted a little longer. Not much. As soon as she kicked out his partner's legs, the buxom slave lashed his hands with her own wrist chains and sent the flechette gun flying. That hurt, and he yelped. The yelp might have alerted the command center and roused the defensive tribarrel turret . . . if, that was, every one of the compartment's cameras and sensors—and the ones in the passage beyond, for that matter—hadn't been spoofed by the various nonstandard items built into that complicated looking slave prod. Rada wasn't really thinking about that at the moment, however, and the yelp was cut short anyway by a paralyzing jab from the male crewman's slave prod. That really hurt.

By then, moving much faster than Rada would have thought possible, the heavy labor slave was there. Somehow, his chains had come off. He seized Rada by the throat—actually, the creature's immense hand wrapped around his whole neck—and slammed his head against the nearby wall. The impact would have been enough to render a gorilla unconscious. Rada's skull was shattered.

* * *

Perched in his hiding place in the air duct, Brice was shocked into paralysis for a few seconds. The mayhem in the corridor below had erupted so suddenly, and been so violent, that his mind was still scrambling to catch up.

In his earpiece, he heard James Lewis exclaiming—just a noise, wordless; he'd probably done the same himself—and, a moment later, what sounded like retching from Hartman. Ed's position placed him closest to the scene, which was horrid enough even from Brice's viewpoint. The slaver who'd had his head slammed against the corridor wall . . .

Brice closed his eyes for a moment. Some of the man's brains weren't in his skull any longer. The strength of the slave who'd killed him was incredible.

But this was no time for being muddle-headed. Brice gave a very quick summary of what had happened to Michael Alsobrook and Sarah Armstrong, concluding with: "You'd better tell Ganny."

He heard Alsobrook mutter: "Hey, no kidding." But Brice wasn't paying much attention to him any longer. Having done his required duty by quickly and accurately reporting what had happened, Brice was now free to use his own judgment concerning what he should do next. So it seemed to him, anyway. He saw no reason to muddy the waters by asking older and supposedly wiser heads what they thought he ought to do.

He peeked through the vent and saw that the crewmen from the Ouroboros had moved down the corridor six or seven meters in the direction of the slavers' command center in the station's big turret. Which was to say, six or seven meters closer to Brice himself.

So much was cause for caution, but no more than that. Well, possibly a little more than that. Most of the crewmen were carrying flechette guns—the modern descendents of the ancient Old Earth shotgun—and they were specifically designed for use aboard ship, where pulsers' hyper-velocity darts' ability to punch right through bulkheads (and other things . . . like life support systems or critical electronics) was contraindicated. Flechette guns were unlikely, to say the least, to blow through the ceiling of the corridor and strike Brice or his two companions hiding in the air ducts above. The military-grade light tribarrel which had somehow appeared and found its way into the heavy labor slave's hands was another matter entirely, of course. It was designed to punch through armored skinsuits, and it would experience no difficulty at all in turning Brice Parmley into finely ground hamburger.

It seemed unlikely to Brice that anyone was likely to begin blazing away with that sort of artillery inside any orbital habitat unless he absolutely had to, so its presence didn't really worry him that much. He told himself that rather firmly. What did produce some definite alarm, however, was that the people from the Ouroboros had stopped in order to inspect one of the maintenance hatches that gave access to the air ducts.

He heard the female crewman say: "I wish to hell we had schematics." In response, the heavy labor slave shrugged his massive shoulders. Well, he probably wasn't really a slave, in light of recent events. In fact, he seemed to be in command of the operation, from what Brice could glean from subtleties of the crewmen's body language.

"Even if we had them, we couldn't count on them," he said. "A station as immense as this one that's decades old is likely to have had a lot of modifications and alterations—damn few of which would have made their way into a new set of schematics."

The woman scowled. Not at him, but at the hatch above her. "At least there's nothing tricky about the latches. Just straightforward manual ones, hallelujah. Hoist me up, Hugh."

The huge "slave" set down his tribarrel, bent over, grabbed her hips, and lifted her up to the hatch as easily as a mother might lift a toddler. The woman fiddled with the latches for a moment, and the hatch slid aside. Somehow or other—he seemed to be able to move astonishingly quickly for someone with that gorilla physique—the "slave" now had her gripped by her knees and he hefted the woman halfway up into the air duct. From there, she was easily able to lift herself into it.

By the time she did so, Brice had quietly scurried around a bend in the duct, so he was out of her sight. He planned to get at least two more bends ahead of her before he stopped. Behind him, he heard some soft noises which he interpreted as the sound of another crewman being hoisted into the duct. And, very clearly, he heard the female crewman say: "Give us five minutes to get into position."

By now, Brice was pretty sure the people from the Ouroboros were planning to take out the slavers who currently occupied the turret. And given the ruthlessness with which they'd dealt with the first two slavers, he was also pretty sure that "take out" was a phrase which, in this instance, was not going to be combined with soft-hearted terms like "prisoners."

He didn't spend much time chewing on that issue, though. Brice didn't care, when it came right down to it, how ruthlessly the newcomers dealt with the people who currently controlled slaving operations on Parmley Station. The killing of the two slavers he'd just witnessed had been shocking, certainly, because of its violence and suddenness. Beyond that, however, it had no more effect on him than witnessing the slaughter of dangerous animals. Brice's clan maintained practical relations with the slavers, but they loathed them.

The really important issue, still unsettled, was: who are these people, anyway?

He re-attached the com unit to the wire strung in the passageway. Ganny Butre's voice came into his ear. "Who are they, boys? Can you tell yet?"

Ed Hartman was the first to respond, not surprisingly. Brice liked his cousin a lot, but there was no denying that Ed had a tendency to go off half-cocked.

"They gotta be another slaver group, Ganny, trying to muscle in," he said confidently. "Poachers. Gotta be."

James's voice came next. "I wouldn't be so sure of that . . ."

Brice shared James's skepticism. "I'm with Lewis," he said, as forcefully as possible when you were trying to whisper into a com unit. "These people seem way too deadly to be just another batch of slavers."

He added what he thought was the clincher. "And one of them isa slave himself, Ganny. Well . . . was a slave, anyway. I saw his tongue markers."

"So did I," said James. "Ed, you had to have seen it too. You were the closest."

Brice wondered where Lewis and Hartman were right now. Like him, they would have scurried out of sight once they realized some of the people from the Ouroboros were coming into the ducts. Also like him, they'd be cautious but not overly worried about the matter. There were many kilometers of air ducts running all through Parmley Station—and the only blueprints and schematics still in existence were hidden away. If you wanted to pass through the ducts, you either had to move slowly and constantly check your location with instruments, as the crewmen from the Ouroboros were doing, or you had to have memorized the network—as Brice and his cousins had done, over the years. Even they only knew part of it. There was no way the newcomers could catch them, once they were in the ducts.

Ed's reply was a bit slow in coming. That would be caused by nothing more than Hartman's reluctance to tacitly admit that, once again, he'd used his mouth before his brain. "Yeah, okay. I saw it too."

"Well, ain't that sweet?" said Michael Alsobrook. "Ganny, we're screwed. They gotta be from the Ballroom."

Brice had already considered that possibility. And if so . . . The clan could very well be in serious trouble. Ballroom killers on what amounted to an extermination mission weren't going to look gently upon people who—at least, from their point of view—also profited from the slave trade, even if they weren't slavers themselves. And they'd have no reason to keep the facility intact, either, the way slavers did. Even assuming Ballroom killers would observe the Eridani Edict, it only applied to planets, not space stations. They could just stand off and destroy the place with nuclear-armed missiles. Or, for that matter, rip it apart with their ship's impeller wedge without even wasting the ammunition.

Brice heard Ganny mutter what he was sure was a curse, but in a language he didn't know. Ganny knew a lot of languages. Then she added: "That's the sixty-four thousand dollar question, isn't it?"

Brice frowned. Ganny also used a lot of ancient and stupid old saws. What was a "dollar?" And why did the number sixty-four thousand mean anything?

He'd asked his uncle Andrew about it, once, after the first time he'd heard Ganny use the expression. Artlett's explanation was that the expression dated from the days—way before the Diaspora—when the human race was still confined to one planet and mired in superstition. Dollars were maleficent spirits notorious for sapping the moral fiber of those foolish enough to traffic with them. The number sixty-four thousand had magical importance since it was eight squared—eight no doubt being a magical number in its own right—and then multiplied by a thousand, which, given the antediluvian origins of the decimal system, was surely a number freighted with mystic importance.

It was a theory. An attractive one, even. But Brice was skeptical. His uncle Andrew had about as many theories as Ganny had old saws, and plenty of them were just as silly.

Still . . .

"I'm not so sure, Ganny," Brice said. "There's something . . ."

"Yes?"

"I don't know. I've never actually seen Ballroom assassins at work, but—"

"Damn few people have, youngster," said Ganny. "At least, not ones who survived the experience."

Brice winced. Ganny sometimes also had the habit of rubbing salt into wounds. Did she really need to say that, to someone who was sharing an air duct with possible Ballroom maniacs?

"Yeah, well. Ganny, these people just seem too . . . I dunno. They seem more like a military unit, to me."

Alsobrook spoke up again. "Ganny, that just doesn't make sense. Who'd be sending a military unit to Parmley Station?"

"I have no idea, Michael," replied Ganny. "But don't be so quick to dismiss the opinion of somebody who's actually seen the people we're talking about. Which, being blunt about it, you haven't."

Now, Ed spoke up again. "Ganny, they're getting real close to the command center. The people from the Ouroboros, I mean."

Brice tried to figure out which of the adjacent ducts Ed had to be in, to have seen that. Probably . . .

What difference did it make? Brice had come to the same conclusion, anyway. Staying ahead of the two Ouroboros crewmen who'd come into the air duct, he was now himself positioned almost over the slavers' command center.

What to do? He was certain that all hell was about to break loose, and was torn between two powerful impulses. The first was simple survival instinct, which was shrieking at him to get out of the area now. The other was an equally powerful urge to observe what was about to happen.

After a mental struggle that lasted not more than five seconds, curiosity triumphed. With Brice, it usually did.

The question now became: From what vantage point could he watch the upcoming events without exposing himself too much?

There was really only one answer, which was the small maintenance compartment located in one corner of the command center. As was frequently the case with such maintenance stations, it was built directly into the air duct network.

There was a risk involved, though. Unlike the air ducts, that compartment was designed to be easily accessible. It wouldn't take more than a few seconds for anyone in the command center who was seized by the urge to open the access panel and climb in. There'd be no need for a hoist, either, or even a stepladder. The maintenance compartment wasn't elevated more than a meter from the deck of the command center.

So be it. Hopefully, in the event that happened, Brice would manage to scramble back into the air ducts in time.

* * *

When he got there, he was disgruntled to see that Ed had gotten there ahead of him. And disgruntled again, not more than thirty seconds later, when James piled in too.

Disgruntled, but not surprised. For Hartman and Lewis, as for Brice himself, the survival instinct was usually trumped by curiosity. Uncle Andrew said that was because they were teenagers and so part of their brains hadn't fully developed yet. Specifically, that part of the prefrontal cortex that gauged risks.

It was a theory. Plausible and attractive, like most of his uncle's theories—but, also like most of them, probably flawed. The flaw in this case was the theorist himself—Andrew Artlett, who was of an age where his prefrontal cortex should certainly have been fully developed but who was notorious for taking crazier risks than anybody.

With three of them in there, the compartment was packed tight. And their ability to observe what was happening in the command center was going to be impaired by all three of them having to squeeze next to the entrance panel. Fortunately, the panel was more sophisticated than a simple mechanical one. Instead of narrow open air slits, it had a much larger vision screen. And the screen's electrical shield, designed to keep insects from wandering into delicate equipment, also blurred anyone's ability to look into the maintenance compartment from the command center.

Unless, of course, they turned off the shield so they could look inside for a quick inspection of the compartment without having to open the panel. That was part of the design, too—and the screen could be turned off with a flick of a finger.

So be it. Life was never perfect. Which was no doubt the reason that evolution, in its cunning, had seen to it that the prefrontal cortex of adolescents was not fully developed. If you looked at it the right way, that was simply a necessary adaptation to the invariant cruddiness of existence.

Across the large command center and off to the side, Brice saw the entry hatch begin to open.

James hissed softly. "Showtime."

Chapter Eleven

Hugh Arai had seen no reason to dilly-dally about the business. They had to move quickly, in fact, or the simple and crude event-loop they'd reconfigured the camera and sensors to show would alert the slavers very soon, unless they were completely inattentive. So the BSC team went into the command center firing. Quite literally—Marti Garner, in the lead because she was the best marksman, had already shot two of the slavers in the center before she finished passing through the entrance.

Bryan Knight, coming right behind her, tossed flashbang grenades into the two corners of the large compartment that weren't in clear line of sight. Marti opened her eyes once the blast and flash were over, and quickly scoured the visible areas looking for opponents.

There was one woman behind a desk, looking very confused. She'd have been close enough to one of the grenades to be affected by it. Garner disintegrated her head—spectacularly—with a tightly focused burst of flechettes.

Hugh Arai was the third member of the team coming into the compartment. He was carrying a highly modified version of a tri-barrel pulser. The weapon was as close to a pistol version of a tri-barrel as Beowulf's military engineers had been able to design. It was a specialty gun, almost literally hand-made. Only someone of Hugh Arai's mass and strength could hope to use it effectively—or safely, for those accompanying him—and its ability to shred bulkheads might have caused some to look upon it askance in what amounted to a boarding action. The BSC was a great believer in providing for all contingencies, however. It was always possible that even slavers might have armored skinsuits available, after all, and despite its drawbacks, the weapon provided the unit with a scaled-down approximation of the sort of heavy weapons that a regular Marine unit would have carried.

Arai took position in the center of the compartment, while Garner and Mattes and Knight quickly inspected every area where someone might have been able to hide. But the place was empty now, except for the three corpses.

While they went about that business, Stephanie Henson sat down in front of the command center's operations console and began bringing up the relevant schematics and diagrams. She was swift and expert at the work, and within thirty seconds, she'd found what they needed. Less than a minute later, she'd bypassed the security locks and keyed in the instructions.

She leaned back in her chair. "Okay, Hugh. The command center is now sealed off from the rest of the turret, along with all of the surrounding air ducts. The power source is independent already, so we don't have to worry about that."

Arai nodded. "What about slaves?"

Stephanie studied the console for a moment, and then shook her head. "There are no signs of any occupants within five hundred meters of this command center except the eight people—maybe nine, if two of them are copulating right now—shown in the living quarters. One or more of them might be pleasure slaves, of course. No way to tell."

"No internal cameras?"

"They've been disabled."

Hugh grunted. That wasn't surprising. Nobody except military forces under tight discipline were going to tolerate active cameras in their living areas. The slavers had probably disabled those sensors decades ago.

He wasn't happy about the fact that he couldn't absolutely confirm that there weren't any slaves in the living quarters. But . . .

It was unlikely, given the obvious eagerness with which the slavers had reacted to the news that the Ouroboros' non-existent cargo had included pleasure slaves. And it was an imperfect universe. He wasn't about to risk getting any of his people killed in the course of a direct assault, on the off chance there might be a slave mixed in with the other occupants.

He spoke into his com. "Take out the living quarters. Stephanie will guide the shots."

They all turned to look at the screens above Henson's console which provided views of the turret from outside cameras. Stephanie began keying in locations. A short time later, the Ouroboros' concealed lasers began firing. It didn't take long before that area of the turret which contained the slavers' living quarters was blown to shreds. They were able to spot only two bodies being expelled by the outrushing atmosphere. But there was no chance that any of the slavers could have survived, unless they were already wearing skinsuits or battle armor—and Stephanie would have recognized those in her readings of the sensors.

"And that's that," said Hugh. He spoke into his com again. "Double-check the readings for any signs of life anywhere else in the station."

After listening for a few seconds, Arai nodded. "Okay, people. There doesn't seem to be anyone else alive in this place. So we can save ourselves a lot of work."

Knight grinned. "I love nukes. I swear, I do, even if I know it's wrong of me and I'm a bad boy."

Henson chuckled. "I can't think of any commando unit this side of an insane asylum that doesn't love nuclear warheads, Bryan—on those rare occasions they can use them."

Arai spoke into his com again. "Get the missile prepped. We'll be back aboard the Ouroboros within five minutes."

* * *

Inside the maintenance compartment, three teenage boys took a deep breath in unison. That was almost enough to suffocate them, right there, as small as the compartment was.

"Oh, shit," whispered Ed.

"Oh, shit is right," echoed James.

Brice's mind was racing. There was no way to get in touch with Ganny without scrambling back through at least fifty meters of air duct. Their com units were designed for wire transmission, and the clan had never wired this maintenance compartment or any of the surrounding ducts. There'd been too great a risk of being spotted by the slavers.

It was probably a moot point, anyway, since they had no way of knowing where the commandos had sealed off the ducts from the rest of the turret. And even if it could be done, it couldn't possibly be done in time. Everything Brice had seen about this commando unit—whoever they were, which was still undetermined—indicated that they moved very quickly. In less than ten minutes, Parmley Station was going to be destroyed by a nuclear-armed missile.

He wasn't surprised that the Ouroboros' sensors hadn't picked up any signs of life in the station beyond the turret used by the slavers. The clan had spent decades carefully and systematically making sure that their whereabouts were kept completely hidden from any slavers who might be tempted to eliminate the need to pay the clan by launching a surprise attack on them. The Ouroboros probably had better sensors than anything the slavers possessed. But unless the people staffing those sensors had reason to think there was something to find, they weren't likely to have done the kind of careful cross-checking of data that would have been necessary to detect the clan.

In short, they were all going to be dead soon . . .

Anyway.

Brice decided he had nothing to lose. He started unsealing the panel.

"Hey, don't shoot!" he yelled. Yelped, rather. "We're just kids!"

Ed and James would probably ridicule him for that later, assuming they survived. It would have been a lot more dignified to have called out something on the order of: Hold your fire! We are not your enemy!

But Brice had a dark suspicion that top-of-the-line military units were prone to shoot enemies first and determine who they were later. Whereas even hardened commandos might hesitate before shooting kids.

It was a theory, anyway. Best he could come up with on such short notice.

* * *

By the time Brice came out of the compartment, more-or-less spilling onto the floor beyond, all of the commandos had gathered around.

Well, not quite. One of them had "gathered around"—that was the one with the slave markings—while the others had their weapons trained on him from various positions of cover.

On his hands and knees, he looked up at the huge commando. He didn't really see him at first, though, because his gaze was immediately drawn to the barrel of the man's weapon. Tribarrel, rather.

The clan possessed exactly two tribarrels. Ganny kept them under lock and key. She'd only let Brice even look at them once.

Abstractly, Brice knew that pulser barrels were actually quite small in diameter. But these looked huge. It was like staring at close range into three barrels of the sort of ancient gunpowder weapons Brice had seen in history books. Four thousand caliber, or something like that. He'd swear that small rodents could set up house in there.

The sight was enough to paralyze him for a moment. The commando reached down, seized Brice by the scruff of the neck, and hauled him onto his feet. The sensation was more akin to being lifted by a power crane than a human being.

"Okay, kid. Who are you?"

Oddly, the monster's voice was a rather pleasant tenor. From his appearance, you'd have expected a basso profundo with an undertone of gravel being poured down a chute.

The expression on his face was a surprise, too. There was more than a hint of humor in those heavy features. Relaxed humor, at that. Brice would have expected something more along the lines of what he thought a troll probably looked like, while glaring in fury.

"I'm, uh, Brice Miller. Sir. The two guys—kids—with me are James Lewis and Ed Hartman."

"And where did you come from?"

"Uh . . . Well. Actually, we live here, sir."

"Not here!" yelled Ed. Yelped, rather. He and James had come out of the compartment also, by then.

"No, no, no," Brice hastily agreed. "I didn't mean we live here. With the slavers."

"The stinking dirty rotten slavers." That was James's contribution, spoken in a rush.

"We live . . . well, somewhere else. On the station, I mean. With Ganny Butre and the rest of our people."

"And who's Ganny Butre?"

"She's, uh, the widow of the guy who built Parmley Station. Michael Parmley himself. He was my great-grandfather. She's my great-grandmother." He hooked a thumb at James and Ed. "Theirs too. We're all pretty much related. Except for the people we adopted."

"Those were slaves we rescued," added Ed.

"From the stinking dirty rotten slavers," said James. Again, in a rush.

One of the female commandos rose from her crouch. She was the buxom one who'd been passing herself off as a pleasure slave. Somehow or other, she'd gotten her hands on a flechette gun and looked like she knew how to use it. Raging fourteen-year-old hormones be damned. Brice wasn't even tempted to stare at her bosom. The last two males who'd behaved offensively in her presence were now dead-dead-dead.

"Talk about the well-made plans of mice and men ganging aft agleigh," she said. "What do we do now, Hugh?"

To Brice's relief, the giant commando in front of him had lowered his weapon.

"I'm not sure yet," said the man. He spoke into his com. "Hold off on the nukes, Richard. Turns out we got civilians aboard the station, after all."

Brice couldn't hear the reply. But a few seconds later the commando—Hugh, apparently—shrugged his shoulders. "Got no idea. I'll ask him."

"How many of you are there, Brice?"

Brice hesitated. "Uh . . . about two dozen."

Hugh nodded and spoke into the com again. "He claims two dozen. Seems like a good kid, loyal to his own, so he's almost certainly lying. I figure at least three times that. You ought to be able to find them with another search, now that you know there's something to be found. And before you start whining, no, that's not a reprimand. If the kid's telling the truth and these are Parmley's own descendants, they've had decades to conceal themselves. Not surprising we didn't spot them with a standard search."

Brice took a deep breath. He didn't see any point in delaying the inevitable.

"Ah . . . Mr. Hugh, sir. Are you folks from the Audubon Ballroom?"

A smile spread across the commando's face. It was a big smile, and it seemed to come very easily.

"No, we're not—and that must be a relief." He shook his head, still smiling. "Come on, Brice. Do we look stupid? There's no way a whole tribe of you has been living here for more than half a century unless you worked out some sort of accommodation with the slavers. Probably took bribes from them to keep you from being a nuisance. Maybe did some of their maintenance work."

"We never did a damn thing for them!" said Ed.

Hugh swiveled his head to look down at him. "But you took their money, didn't you?"

Ed was silent. Brice tried to think of something, but . . . what was there to say, really?

Except . . .

"Unless we were going to die, we didn't have any choice," he stated, in as adult a manner as he could manage. "We're broke. Have been since way before I was born. We had no way to leave and the only way we could stay was by making a deal with the slavers."

"The stinking dirty rotten slavers," added James. Brice thought that was probably the most useless qualifier uttered by any human being since the ancient Hebrews tried to claim the golden calf was actually there as a reminder of the evils of idolatry. And Yahweh hadn't bought it for one second.

The commando just laughed. "Oh, relax. Even the Ballroom . . ." He cocked his head slightly and glanced at Ed. "Did I understand you right, earlier? That you've adopted slaves into your group. And if so, where did they come from?"

"Yeah, it's true. There's about . . ." He paused, while he did a quick estimate. "Somewhere around thirty, I figure."

"Thirty, is it? Out of twenty-four total."

Brice flushed. "Well. Okay, there's maybe more than just two dozen of us, all told. But I'm not fudging about the thirty."

"It's thirty-one, actually," said James eagerly. He seemed to have become addicted to useless qualifiers. "I just did an exact count."

"And where'd they come from?"

Brice raced through every alternative answer he could think of, before deciding that the truth was probably the best option. The commando questioning him might be built like an ogre, but it was obvious by now that there was nothing dull-witted or brutish about his mind.

"Most of them come from way back—I wasn't even born yet—before we'd, well, worked out our arrangement with the slavers. There were a couple of big fights then, and we freed a bunch of slaves both times. Since then, of course, some of them have had kids themselves, but I wasn't including them in the thirty figure since they weren't born slaves."

Hugh scratched his heavy chin. "And who'd they marry? Or whatever arrangements you folks have. What I mean is, who are the other parents? Other slaves, or some of you folks?"

"Both," said Brice. "Mostly some of us, though. Ganny encouraged it. Said she doesn't want any more in-breeding than necessary."

The commando nodded. "That'll help. A lot, in fact. And where'd the rest of the slaves come from?"

"People who escaped later. There aren't many of them, though."

"Sure there are," insisted James. "I count four, all told. That's actually a lot, when you think about it."

It was, in fact. There shouldn't have been any at all, except the slavers who'd operated at the station were pretty sloppy about their work.

But Brice was intrigued by something the commando had said. "What did you mean? When you said, 'that'll help.' "

Hugh's grin was back. This time, though, Brice didn't find the sight all that reassuring. There was something about that cheerful-looking grin that was . . .

Well. Wicked-looking, actually.

"Haven't you figured it out yet, Brice? The only way you folks are going to get through this is by cutting a deal with the Ballroom. Sorry, but there's no way we're going to allow this station to fall back into the hands of slavers. And there's no way you people can stop that from happening on your own, is there?"

Brice stared up at him. Maybe the guy was joking . . .

Alas, no. "And we're not going to take it over ourselves," Hugh continued. "Not alone, anyway."

"And who exactly are you?" asked Ed.

"I'll leave that question unanswered for the moment," said Hugh. "Just take my word for it that we've got no reason to take on the headache of keeping this white elephant intact and running. But I'm thinking the Ballroom might. More precisely, Torch might."

"Who's Torch?" asked Brice and James simultaneously.

The commando shook his head. "You folks are out of touch, aren't you?"

The female commando named Stephanie supplied the answer. "Torch is the planet that used to be called Congo, when Mesa owned it. By everybody except them, anyway. They called it 'Verdant Vista' themselves. The swine. But there was a slave rebellion assisted by—oh, all kinds of people—and now the planet's called 'Torch' and it's pretty much run by the Ballroom."

Brice was wide-eyed. "The Audubon Ballroom has its own planet?"

"Oh, wow," said Ed. "I can see why they might want this station, then." Stoutly: "Every planet should have its own amusement park."

Hugh laughed. "It's a bit far away for that! Still, I'm thinking . . ."

He shrugged again. "Something Jeremy X mentioned to me, the last time I saw him. It's a possibility, anyway."

Brice was wide-eyed again. "You know Jeremy X?"

"Known him since I was a kid. He's sort of my godfather, I guess you could say. He took me under his wing, so to speak, after my parents were killed."

Brice felt a lot better, then. The idea of cutting a deal with the Ballroom still sounded dicey to him. Kind of like cutting a deal with lions or tigers. Or sharks or cobras, for that matter. On the other hand, Hugh seemed pretty nice, all things considered. And if he had a personal relationship with Jeremy X himself . . .

"Did he really eat a Manpower baby once, like they said he did?" asked Ed.

"Raw, they say. Not even cooking it." That contribution came from James.

And if Brice—no, it'd probably take Ganny—could keep his idiot cousins from opening their fat mouths again . . .

Chapter Twelve

It took no more than three days in the presence of Elfride Margarete Butre for Hugh Arai to figure out how the woman had managed to keep her clan together for half a century, in the face of tremendous adversity. Not just intact, either, but reasonably healthy and well-educated—so long as you were prepared to allow that "well-educated" was a broad enough phrase to include very uneven knowledge, eccentric methods of training, and wildly imbalanced fields of study.

Ganny El's clan were probably the best practical mechanics Hugh had ever encountered, for instance, but their grasp of the underlying theory of some of the machines they kept running was often fuzzy and sometimes bizarre. The first time Hugh had seen one of Butre's many grand-nephews sprinkle what he called an "encouragement libation" over a machine he was about to repair, Hugh had been startled. But, some hours later, after the mechanic finished with the ensuing work, the machine came back to life and ran as smoothly as you could ask for. And however superstitious the notion of an "encouragement libation" might be, Hugh hadn't missed the underlying practicality. The "libation" was actually some homemade alcoholic brew that hadn't turned out too well. Unfit for human consumption, even by the Butre clan's none-too-finicky standards, the fluid had been set aside for the "encouragement" of cranky machinery.

Hugh had asked the nephew—Andrew Artlett was his name—whether the "encouragement" was because the machine viewed the rotgut liquor as a treat or because it was an implied threat of still worse liquids should the machine remain recalcitrant. Artlett's snorted reply had been: "How the hell am I supposed to know what a machine thinks? It's just a lot of metal and plastic and such, you know. No brains at all. But the libation works, it surely does."

Ganny Butre would have made a pretty good empress, Hugh thought, if one given to some odd quirks. She'd have made a pretty good tyrant, for that matter, except she had an affectionate streak about a kilometer wide.

There wasn't any sigh of that affection right now, though.

"—still don't see why you"—here came a word Hugh didn't know, but it didn't sound affectionate at all—"can't just go on your way and leave us alone. It's not like we asked you to come here. What happened to respect for property rights?"

"Parmley Station hasn't really been your property for a long time, Ganny," Hugh said mildly, "and you know it as well as I do. If we just leave, it won't be more than six or eight months—a year, tops—before another gang of slavers has set up shop here and you have to accommodate them. Whether you like it or not."

Butre glared at him. It was an impressive glare, too, for all that it came from a woman not much more than a hundred and forty centimeters tall. What made the glare all the more impressive was that, somehow, Butre managed to convey the sense that she was a tough old biddy despite—going simply by her physical appearance—looking like a woman no older than her late thirties or very early (and well preserved) forties.

That was the effect of prolong, of course. First generation prolong, that was, which stopped the physical aging cycle at a considerably later stage than the more recent therapies. Hugh knew that Butre's own family had been quite wealthy to begin with and her husband Richard Parmley had made his first fortune as a young man. So, even with the expense involved in those early days of the treatment, they'd been able to afford prolong for themselves and their immediate offspring.

But after her husband's last financial debacle—it had been the third or fourth in his career, Hugh wasn't sure which—and the long isolation of Butre's clan here on Parmley Station . . .

For all that it was generally a blessing, prolong could sometimes produce real tragedies. And Hugh knew he was looking at one, right here—with quite possibly a still greater tragedy in the making.

Ganny El, the matriarch of the clan, would live for centuries. So would the two dozen or so relatives on the station who were her siblings, cousins or children, and who'd gotten the treatments before the clan fell on hard times. But the next generation in the clan, people of an age with Ganny's great-nephew Andrew Artlett—there were at least three dozen of them—were simply going to be a lost generation, as far as prolong was concerned. Even if the clan could suddenly afford the treatments, they were already too old. Their parents—even their grandparents—faced the horror that they'd outlive their own offspring.

And the same fate would fall on the next generation, if the clan's fortunes didn't improve. And they had to improve drastically, and most of all, quickly. People like Sarah Armstrong and Michael Alsobrook were already into their twenties, and twenty-five years of age was generally considered the outside limit for starting prolong treatments.

If there was no real sign of Butre's age in her face, there was in her eyes. Those weren't the eyes of a young woman, for sure. They were colored a green so dark they were almost black, and when Ganny was in a temper they looked more like agates or pieces of obsidian than human eyes.

Hugh had gotten to know her fairly well over the past several days, though, and he didn't think Butre was really in a temper today. She was just putting on a act. A very well-done performance, true—she'd have made as good an actress as an empress—but still a performance. There was a practical streak in the woman that was even wider than affection, and a lot harder than any mineral. If Butre hadn't been able to accept reality for what it was, her clan never would have survived at all. As it was, at least within the limits given, you could even say they'd prospered.

A very scruffy sort of prosperity, granted, and one that couldn't afford anything like prolong. But the absence of prolong had been the standard condition of the human race throughout its existence until very recently. All Hugh had to do was look at the little mob of enthusiastic and self-confident great-great-nephews and nieces who were always in attendance on Ganny to recognize that these were hardly people who'd been beaten down by hardships. Some of them, like Brice Miller and his friends, carried that self-confidence into outright brashness.

"—so fine," she concluded the little tirade she'd been on. "I can see that you're not giving me any choice. You"—here came another word in a language Hugh didn't know. It sounded like a different language altogether than the one from which she'd extracted a curse just a couple of minutes earlier. Ganny was an accomplished linguist, among her other skills. Hugh was a good linguist himself, but Butre was in a different league altogether.

"You're always welcome to cuss me in a language I know, Ganny," said Hugh. "I'm really not thin-skinned."

"No kidding. You're a troll."

She went back to glaring, but now at some of her great-great-grandchildren. "There's no way I'm letting anyone else except me dicker with the Ballroom. If the murderous bastards are going to kill anyone, they can kill an old woman. And her most problematic offspring."

Her little forefinger started jabbing at the crowd. "Andrew, you're coming. So are you, Sarah and Michael."

The finger moved on to point to a pleasant-looking young woman named Oddny Ann Rødne. She was the offspring of a marriage between one of the Butre clan's women and an ex-slave who'd been freed in the first battle between the clan and the slavers, decades earlier. "Oddny, I'll need a sane female to keep me from going batty myself. Stop pouting, Sarah, you're already batty and you brag about it. And . . ."

The finger moved on and settled on a tightly clustered trio. "You three, for sure, or there won't be a station left when I get back."

Hugh did his best not to wince. Brice Miller, Ed Hartman and James Lewis were not people he'd have chosen to include on a chancy mission to negotiate with the galaxy's most notorious assassins. Less than a day after making their acquaintance, Marti Garner had bestowed upon them the monicker of "the three teenagers of the Apocalypse." Nor would Hugh have included Andrew Artlett, whom Marti had singled out as the missing fourth disaster.

Apparently, Butre was confident enough that she'd been able to cut a deal with the Ballroom that she was more concerned with removing the most rambunctious members of her clan from whatever havoc they could wreak in her absence, than she was about how Jeremy X would react to them. Although . . .

With Ganny El, who knew? She might have learned enough about Jeremy to realize that he was more likely to be charmed by such as Brice Miller than he was to be offended by him. It was not as if the words "brash" and "impudent" had never been bestowed on him too, after all.

But all Hugh said was: "Okay, then. We'll leave in twelve hours. That should give you enough time." He used his own forefinger, which was almost half the size of Ganny's entire hand, to point to two of his crewmates. "June and Frank will stay behind."

"Why?" demanded Butre. "You think we need watchdogs?"

Hugh smiled. "Ganny, your negotiations might actually succeed, you know. In which case, why waste time? While we're gone, June and Frank can start laying the basis for what follows. They're both very experienced engineers."

June and Frank looked a bit smug. The reason wasn't hard to figure out. Judging from the way most of the Butre clan's unattached men and women were gazing enthusiastically upon their very comely selves, neither one of them was going to be suffering from unwanted chastity over the course of the next few months until their crewmates returned.

To some degree, Hugh had chosen them for that reason. In point of fact, both June Mattes and Frank Gillich were experienced engineers, and they'd do a good job of laying the groundwork for modifying Parmley Station as needed, in the event Hugh's scheme came to fruition. But he figured the process would be helped along by what you might call a lavish display of goodwill.

A Manticoran wit had once commented that Beowulfers were the Habsburgs of the interstellar era, except that they didn't bother with the pesky formalities of marriage. There was enough truth in the remark that Hugh had laughed aloud when he heard it. He wasn't a Beowulfer himself, by birth. But he'd lived among them since he was a boy and had adopted most of their attitudes.

All of them, really, except for their indifference to religion. There, although he professed no specific creed himself, Hugh retained the convictions of the people who'd raised him.

When he was very young, barely out of the vats, Hugh had been adopted by a slave couple. The adoption had been informal, of course—as, for that matter, had been the couple's own "marriage." Manpower didn't recognize or give legitimacy to any relationship between slaves.

Still, there were practicalities involved. Even from Manpower's viewpoint, there were advantages to having slaves raising the youngsters who came out of the breeding vats instead of Manpower having to do it directly. It was a lot cheaper, if nothing else. So, Manpower was often willing to let slave couples stay together and keep their "children." With some lines of slaves, at least. They wouldn't allow slaves destined to be personal servants—certainly not pleasure slaves—any such entanglements. But with most of the labor varieties, it didn't much matter. Those slaves would be sold in large groups to people needing a lot of labor. It was usually possible to keep the families of such slaves more or less intact in the course of the transactions, since both the seller and the buyer had a vested interest in doing so. Having slaves raising their own children was cheaper for the buyer of the labor force, too.

Like most labor slaves, the couple who adopted Hugh had been deeply religious. Also like most labor slaves, the creed they adhered to was Autentico Judaism. Hugh had been raised in those customs, beliefs and rituals. And if he no longer maintained most of the customs and rituals and had his doubts about most of the beliefs, he'd never been able to shake the conviction that there was a lot more to it all than just superstition left over from humanity's tribal ancient history, as many (although by no means all) Beowulfers believed.

"I'm ready to go right now!" exclaimed Brice Miller. "Me, too!" echoed his two companions.

Ganny glowered at them. "Is that so? You do know the voyage is going to last weeks, right?"

The three boys nodded.

"And you do know that although the Ouroboros was designed to look like a slave ship, even to someone who came on board and gave it a casual inspection, our friends here who still insist on keeping their identity unknown even though it's blindingly obvious didn't bother to disguise their own living quarters? On account of they're a bunch of sloppy Beowulfers."

Seeing Hugh's attempt to keep a straight face, Butre curled her lip. "Think I was born yesterday?" She looked back at the kids. "You know all that, right?"

The three boys nodded.

"Right. So now I find out some of my great-great-nephews are morons. Where do you plan to sleep, night after night after night?"

The three boys frowned.

Hugh cleared his throat. "We're not set up to accommodate guests, I'm afraid. And although June and Frank's quarters will be available, that'll hardly be enough for all of you. So you'll have to clear out the supplies we've been keeping in some of the other sleeping compartments. That'll take a while, on account of . . . well . . ."

"Like I said," interjected Ganny, "a bunch of sloppy Beowulfers."

"Why don't we just move into the slave quarters?" asked Andrew Artlett. "Sure, they'll be awfully Spartan, but who cares? It's only a few weeks."

June Mattes shook her head. "There's a difference between 'Spartan' quarters and bare decks. There was no way we'd let anybody who wanted to inspect us to get that far, so we never bothered to set them up. All we ever let anyone see were the killing bays, since that was all it took to establish our identity as slavers."

The "killing bays" referred to the large compartments where slaves would be driven by nauseating gas, in the event a slave ship was being overtaken by naval forces. Once there, the bays would be opened to the vacuum beyond, murdering the slaves and disposing of their bodies at the same time.

It was a tactic that didn't work if the overtaking naval forces were Manticoran or Havenite or Beowulfan, since those navies considered the mere possession of killing bays to be proof that the vessel was a slaver, whether there was a single slave on board or not. In fact, quite a few captains of such ships had been known to summarily declare the slaver crews guilty of mass murder and have them thrown into space without spacesuits right then and there.

That had been the fate of the crew of the slave ship Hugh himself had been on when he was rescued, in fact. The Beowulfan ship which captured the slaver had gotten there quickly enough to stop the mass murder before it was finished, so Hugh and some others had survived. But his parents had died, along with his brother and both of his sisters.

"Okay, then," said Artlett. "Ganny can have one of the staterooms being vacated by June and Frank, and Oddny and Sarah can share the other. The rest of us will set up wherever you want us."

Artlett now bestowed a very stern look on Brice, Ed and James. "One thing needs to be made clear, you ragamuffins. No stunts. No japes. We've got no guarantee these Beowulfers-pretending-to-be-whoever won't jury-rig our living quarters with the same gas mechanism to drive us to the killing bays. Then the ogre here"—he hooked a thumb at Hugh—"can just push a button and out you go into the wild black yonder. Which would be fine, if you went by yourselves, except that me and Alsobrook will get sucked out with you."

Miller and Hartman looked suitably meek. The third of the trio, though, looked unhappy.

"It sounds like it's going to take us all twelve hours just to get ready," said James Lewis. "When are we supposed to sleep?"

"On the voyage, dummy," came his uncle's reply. "You'll have days and days and days with nothing to do except sleep or get into trouble. I vote for sleep."

"We ought to bring along plenty of sedatives," said Michael Alsobrook. He bestowed his own stern look on the three teenagers. "You know damn good and well they're not going to sleep."

"Sure we will," said Ed Hartman. He made a flamboyant show of stretching and yawning. "Look, I'm tired already."

Whatever else, it would probably be an interesting trip. Hugh got up and stretched also. Not because he was tired, but because a Hugh Arai "stretch" was something that, as a rule, really intimidated people.

The three boys made a flamboyant show of cringing and looking deeply worried.

Hugh sighed. He hadn't thought it would work.

Chapter Thirteen

February, 1921 PD

"Welcome to Torch, Dr. Kare."

"Why, thank you, ah, Your Majesty."

Jordin Kare hoped no one had noticed his brief hesitation, but despite all of the briefings he'd been given before heading off to the Torch System, the obvious youth of the star system's ruling monarch still came as something of a surprise.

"We're really glad to see you," the monarch in question said enthusiastically, holding out her hand to pump his. She rolled her eyes. "We've got this wonderful resource here in the system, and none of us have a clue what to do with it. I sure hope you and your team can fix that for us!"

"We'll, um, certainly try, Your Majesty," Kare assured her. "Not that this is the sort of thing anyone can give hard and fast time estimates on, you understand," he added quickly.

"Believe me, Doctor, if I'd ever thought it was, my 'advisors' here would have straightened me out in a hurry."

She rolled her eyes again, and Kare found himself hastily suppressing a smile before it could leak onto his face. Queen Berry was a healthy young woman, quite obviously, if perhaps a bit below average height. She had a figure that was slender without being skinny, and a full head of chestnut hair that was quite striking and attractive. He'd been warned before he ever departed Manticore that she was also what one of the Foreign Ministry types had described as "a free spirit . . . a very free spirit," and nothing he'd seen so far seemed to suggest that description had been in error. From the sparkle he'd detected in her light brown eyes, she was fully aware of her reputation, too.

"But I'm forgetting my manners," she said, and half-turned to face the trio of people behind her. "Let me make the introductions," she said, either blithely unaware or uncaring that ruling monarchs were supposed to have other people make introductions for them.

"This is Thandi Palane," Berry said, indicating the tall, very broad-shouldered young woman who'd been standing directly behind her. "Thandi is in charge of sorting out our military forces."

Palane had a very fair, almost albino complexion, with kinky silver-blond hair and beautiful hazel eyes, and although she was in civilian attire at the moment, she managed to make it look as if it were a uniform. Kare had been thoroughly briefed on her, too, although now that he'd laid eyes on her, he didn't really think the warnings about her lethality had been necessary. Not because she wasn't lethal, but because he was pretty sure only an idiot would have failed to figure that out on his own. Her carefully moderated grip was like shaking hands with a cargo grapnel. It could have picked up an egg if it had wanted to, or crumpled a solid block of mollycircs like foil. She couldn't have looked more affable and friendly, either, but it was the sort of cheerful affability one would have expected out of a well fed sabertooth, and he definitely wouldn't have wanted to be around when she decided it was feeding time.

"And this," Berry continued, "is Dr. Web Du Havel, my prime minister. While Thandi takes care of the military, Web is in charge of sorting me out." The teenaged queen smiled mischievously. "I'm never sure which of them has the harder job, when it comes down to it."

Kare had seen HD coverage of Du Havel following his initial arrival in the Star Kingdom of Manticore two and a half T-years earlier. As a result, he knew all about the prime minister's academic credentials—credentials, in their own way, even more impressive than Kare's own. And he also knew that the stocky, physically powerful Du Havel was himself a liberated genetic slave who'd been intended by his Mesan designers as a heavy labor/technician type.

Just goes to show that you never want to piss off anyone who'd make a good engineer, Kare thought as he shook Du Havel's still powerful but considerably less scary hand. Du Havel may be the head of the "process oriented" branch of the movement, but I'll bet there's a bunch of people like him in the Ballroom, too. Although, come to think of it, if I were Manpower, this is one guy I'd rather have designing bombs to throw at me, if that kept him from concentrating on what he has been doing.

"It's an honor to meet you, Dr. Du Havel," he said.

"And an honor to meet you, Dr. Kare," Du Havel replied with a toothy grin.

"And this," Berry said, her mischievous smile turning positively wicked for a moment, "is the famous—or infamous—Jeremy X. He's our minister of war. But it's all right, really, Doctor! He's all reformed now . . . sort of."

"Oh, not so reformed as all that, lass," Jeremy said, reaching past her to offer his hand to Kare in turn. He smiled lazily. "I am on my best behavior at the moment, though," he added.

"So I've heard," Kare said with all the aplomb he could muster.

Aside from Berry herself, Jeremy X. was the smallest person in the entire room. He was also renowned (if that was the proper verb) throughout the Solarian League as the most deadly terrorist, by almost any measure, the Audubon Ballroom had produced in many a year. Given the caliber of the competition, that was saying quite a lot, too. Like Du Havel, he was another example of Manpower having created a nemesis of its very own, although he and the prime minister had chosen very different ways to go about their nemesis-ing. Jeremy, who'd been designed as one of Manpower's "entertainer" lines, had the compact, small-boned frame and enhanced reflexes of a juggler or a tumbler. Although he was undoubtedly on the small side, there was nothing at all soft or frail about his physique, however, and the reflexes and hand-eye coordination Manpower had intended him to use for sleight-of-hand or juggling crystal plates made him one of the most lethal pistoleers in the galaxy. A point he had demonstrated with enormous gusto to his designers over the years.

Kare was well aware that, as the Kingdom of Torch's minister of war, Jeremy had officially renounced terrorism in the kingdom's name. As far as anyone back home in the Star Kingdom of Manticore was aware, he'd meant it, too. On the other hand, the man who'd planned and executed (Kare winced mentally at his own choice of verb) so many deadly and . . . inventive attacks on Manpower executives was still in there, just under the skin. One on one, Kare never doubted that Thandi Palane was more dangerous than Jeremy could ever be; as implacable forces of nature, though, he suspected there would be very little to choose between the two of them.

Which suits me just fine, given the people the two of them are likely to be going after, he reflected grimly. Even if Rabbi McNeil does have a point about vengeance belonging to a higher power. After all, nobody ever said He couldn't use any means He chooses to execute judgment.

"I suppose I should introduce my own associates," he said as he got his hand back from Jeremy, and indicated the tallish, undeniably shaggy strawberry-blond man to his left.

"Dr. Richard Wix, Your Majesty," he continued. "Who rejoices, for some reason I've never quite understood, in the nickname of the 'Tons of Joy Bear.' " He grimaced. "We usually shorten it to 'TJ,' but I understand you have a very efficient intelligence operation here on Torch. If you can pry the origin of his nom de party out of him, I'd be delighted to know what it is."

"I'm sure if anyone can figure it out, it'll be Daddy," the queen said cheerfully, offering her own hand to Wix.

"Forewarned is forearmed, Your Majesty," Wix said. "Besides, it's not really all that much of a secret. If Richard here ever stuck his nose out of the lab, he'd probably have figured it out for himself by now." He gave the youthful monarch a conspiratorial look. "He doesn't get out much, you know," he added in a stage whisper.

"And this," Kare continued in the tone of a man rising above the slings and arrows of smaller-minded individuals, "is Captain Zachary, Harvest Joy's skipper. She's the practical-minded sort who's going to keep us all straight while we get to work."

"I think you and Web are both going to have your work cut out for you, Captain," the queen commiserated as she extended her hand in turn to the dark-haired, dark-eyed Zachary.

"It's not like it's something I haven't done before, Your Majesty," Zachary replied with a slight smile, and Berry chuckled.

"Well!" she said as she released Zachary's hand and gestured at the comfortable chairs around the conference table in what had once been the office of the Mesan governor of what had once been Verdant Vista. "Now that we've got the introductions out of the way, why don't we all find seats?"

It was not, Kare thought, the sort of preplanned, carefully choreographed protocol one might have expected out of most people who ruled an entire star system. On the other hand, Queen Berry's realm wasn't quite like most other star nations, either. It was barely fifteen T-months old (counting from Berry's coronation), for one thing, and it had been born in carnage, bloodshed, and all too often bloodcurdling vengeance, for another. The fact that the liberation of the planet now known as Torch hadn't simply degenerated into a bloodsoaked chaos of massacre, torture, and atrocity was mostly due to the teenaged girl settling into her own chair at the table, and Kare found himself wondering, again, how such a cheerful-looking slip of a girl had done it. There was no question, according to Admiral Givens' people at the Office of Naval Intelligence or their civilian counterparts that it had, indeed, been Berry who'd somehow convinced the liberated slaves to forgo the full, bitter dregs of the vengeance to which generations of savage repression and mistreatment had, by any fair measure, entitled them.

On the other hand, the fact remained that she'd had to do that convincing to bring the bloodshed to an end, and it was the atrocities which had already been committed, however merited they might have been, before she managed to intervene which explained why Kare and his mission were only just now arriving in Torch.

They all settled into their chairs around the circular table. Palane sat between Kare and Wix, and Du Havel sat between Wix and Captain Zachary, with Jeremy X. between Kare and Queen Berry, going the other way. There'd been no formal seating chart, but Kare found himself rather doubting that that neat spacing had occurred totally by chance.

"First," Berry said, without even glancing at Du Havel or Jeremy, "I'd like to start by saying that we're all very grateful to Mr. Hauptman for assisting us this way. And to Prime Minister Grantville and Queen Elizabeth, of course."

Well, she's got her priorities right, Kare thought wryly. He and Wix were officially here as privately paid consultants, on leave from the Royal Manticoran Astrophysics Investigation Agency. If it had been solely up to Klaus Hauptman, the financial backer of this expedition, the two of them would have been in Torch before the smoke had cleared, too. Unfortunately, and despite the Star Kingdom's official recognition of the Kingdom of Torch, the "taint" of the Ballroom had forced the Star Kingdom to move rather more slowly, even after that idiot High Ridge's ignominious departure from the premiership, than Kare was confident Elizabeth Winton or her new prime minister would have preferred. The Star Kingdom of Manticore understood more about the genetic slave trade and Manpower, Incorporated, than most star nations did, but even Manticore had been shocked by some of the HD footage which had come out of Torch. It wasn't just foreign public opinion Elizabeth had been forced to worry about, either.

There were more than a few Manticorans, even among those bitterly opposed to genetic slavery, who nursed serious reservations where the Ballroom was concerned. In fact, if Kare were going to be completely honest, he had a few reservations of his own. Not because he didn't understand exactly what had produced the Ballroom's ferocity, but because he was enough of a historian to recognize where that sort of ferocity could lead if something didn't happen to . . . ameliorate it. And despite everything the Star Kingdom had already seen out of Manpower, there'd been sufficient public revulsion at how some of Manpower's executives on Torch (and their families, in some cases) had died—and how gleefully they'd been tortured to death—before Berry Zilwicki's adamant intervention ended the atrocities (or counter—atrocities, perhaps) to make the outlaw transtellar's propaganda about the barbarism of the ex-slaves at least temporarily convincing to enough men in the street to put the brakes on any official cooperation between Manticore and Torch. Of course, that never-to-be-sufficiently-damned, overbred, under-brained, cretinous excuse for a politician High Ridge hadn't needed a lot of convincing, given his own attitudes.

Even now, though, the Grantville Government hadn't officially signed off on the survey effort. For the record, it was a privately funded project, backed by the Hauptman Cartel, which was picking up the complete tab for it. As a matter of fact, Kare and Wix were both receiving comfortable—very comfortable—stipends from Hauptman, and although Harvest Joy was a Navy vessel, the Star Kingdom had "leased" her to Hauptman for the effort and Captain Zachary was officially on half-pay at the moment. Given what Hauptman was paying her, she was actually making close to twice what her salary as an active-duty Queen's officer would have been, although that had very little to do with her presence in Torch. As the officer who'd commanded the survey voyage that led to the successful exploration and charting of the Lynx Terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction, she brought a unique level of experience with her. Besides, Kare had worked with her on that effort. When it had been made clear to him that the "private venture" in Torch was actually about as private as Mount Royal Palace, he'd known exactly who he wanted as his survey ship commander.

"We're delighted to be here, Your Majesty," he said now. "It's not all that often anyone gets to survey a wormhole. The number of people who've gotten to survey two of them—and do it in less than three T-years, at that—could probably be counted on one hand." He grinned. "Trust me, it's not going to look bad on our résumés!"

"No, I don't guess it is," she agreed with a smile of her own. Then she glanced at Du Havel and Jeremy before looking back at Kare.

"Obviously, we'd like to get started as quickly as possible," she said. "For one thing, we're not at all sure how much Mesa really does or doesn't know about the wormhole."

"You didn't find anything at all in their databases, Your Majesty?" Zachary asked.

"Nothing," Jeremy responded for Berry. Zachary looked at him, and he shrugged. "I'm afraid Captain Zilwicki isn't on-planet at the moment, but if you'd like to discuss our data search with Ruth Winton we'll be happy to make her available to you. For that matter, if you—or Dr. Kare or Dr. Wix—could provide any clues or hints that might help us spot something we've missed, we'd be delighted to hear about them."

He held Zachary's eye for a moment, waiting until she gave him an ever so slight nod, then continued.

"I don't know how familiar you are with Manpower's procedures, Captain," he continued, and his voice had assumed a slightly distant tone, almost a professional chill. "Especially since the Ballroom started successfully attacking their depots whenever we—I mean, whenever it—could, Manpower's gotten even more security conscious. By now, their practice is to restrict the data available to any of their operations to what they figure that particular operation is going to need—a strict 'need-to-know' orientation, you might say. And in the last couple of T-years, they've improved their arrangements for wiping data, as well."

He shrugged.

"Although the initial claim to 'Verdant Vista' was backed by the Mesa System's government, everyone knew it was actually a Manpower and Jessyk operation. Of course, everyone also knows that the Mesan 'government' is actually pretty much owned outright by the Mesa-based transstellars, so the Mesan Navy's involvement probably shouldn't have come as quite as much of a surprise as it did for some people.

"At any rate, the management here in-system handled their data storage in accordance with Manpower's established policies. I'm sure they never in their worst nightmares expected what Captain Oversteegen and Captain Roszak—excuse me, Commodore Oversteegen and Rear Admiral Rozsak—helped us do here, but we found several largish chunks of their computer banks slagged down when we finally got possession of them. So we don't really have any idea how much effort they put into studying the wormhole here."

"Jeremy's right about that," Du Havel put in. "What we can tell you, though, is that we haven't found anything outside the computers to suggest there was any ongoing survey effort. And none of the Mesan survivors who decided to stay on here ever heard anything about that kind of effort. In fact, several of them have told us they'd been specifically told by their superiors that it hadn't been surveyed yet." It was his turn to shrug. "Of course, none of them were hyper-physicists. Almost all of them were involved in pharmaceutical research, so it wouldn't have been their area of expertise, anyway."

"As far as we can tell, though, Captain," Thandi Palane said, "everything they've told us is the truth. We've got a few treecats of our own here on Torch these days, and they confirm that."

Zachary nodded, and so did Kare. That tracked with what his own briefings on Manticore had suggested. And he was relieved to hear the tone in which Du Havel and Palane had talked about the Mesan survivors in question. The fact that an entire research colony of Mesans—of scientists who weren't Manpower or Mesa Pharmaceuticals employees and who'd actually treated the genetic slaves assigned to their efforts like human beings—had been not only spared but actively protected by those slaves during the chaotic bloodlust of the system's liberation had been a not insignificant factor in the ability of Torch's friends in the Star Kingdom to get this effort cleared. And he found the fact that the Queen of Torch and her senior advisors clearly thought of those scientists as fellow citizens, not dangerously suspect potential enemies, personally reassuring.

"That's interesting," he said out loud. "Especially given the persistent rumors before the liberation that Torch was 'at least' a three-nexii junction. What you've just told us certainly agrees with everything official we've been able to find, but I can't find myself wondering where that specific number—three, I mean—came from in the first place."

"We've wondered the same thing," Du Havel replied. "So far, we haven't found anything to suggest a reason for it, though." He shrugged. "Given the fact that it really hasn't made any difference one way or the other as far as our decision-making priorities go, though, it's been mostly a matter of idle curiosity for us. We've been too busy clubbing alligators to worry about what color the swamp's flowers are."

He grinned wryly, and Kare chuckled at the aptness of the metaphor, especially given how well it suited Torch's biosphere.

The F6 star now officially known as Torch was unusually youthful, to say the least, to possess life-bearing planets at all. It was also unusually hot. Torch, almost exactly twice as far from Torch as Old Earth lay from Sol, could be accurately described as "uncomfortably warm" by most people. "Hotter than Hell," while less euphemistic, would probably have been more accurate. Not only was Torch younger, larger, and hotter than Sol, but Torch's atmosphere contained more greenhouse gases, producing a significantly warmer planetary surface temperature. The fact that Torch's seas and oceans covered only about seventy percent of its surface and that its axial inclination was very low (less than a full degree) also helped to account for its rain forest/swamp/mudhole-from-Hell surface geography.

The star system's original survey team had obviously possessed a somewhat perverse sense of humor, given the names it had bestowed upon Torch's system bodies. Torch's original name—Elysium—was a case in point, since Kare could think of very few planetary environments less like the ancient Greeks' concept of the Elysian Fields. He didn't know why Manpower had renamed it "Verdant Vista," although it had probably had something to do with avoiding the PR downsides of turning a planet named "Elysium" into a hot, humid, thoroughly wretched purgatory for the hapless slaves it intended to dump there. Personally, Kare was of the opinion that "Green Hell" would have been a far more accurate name.

And it would have suited the local wildlife so well, too, he thought with a mental chuckle. The chuckle faded quickly, however, when he reflected upon how many of Manpower's slaves had fallen prey to "Verdant Vista's" many and manifold varieties of predator.

Another little point the bastards might have wanted to bear in mind, he reflected rather more grimly. People who survive this kind of planetary environment aren't likely to be shrinking violets. Given where their settlement pool is coming from in the first place, the locally produced generations are probably going to be an even uglier nightmare for those bastards. Pity about that.

"Well," he said after a moment, "TJ and the rest of the team and I have already taken a pretty close look at the data you people have been able to provide. Obviously, you didn't begin to have the instrumentation we've brought with us, so we weren't actually in a position to reach any hard and fast conclusions about what we have here. One thing we have observed, however, is that the terminus' gravitic signature is quite low. In fact, we're a bit surprised anyone even noticed it."

"Really?" Du Havel leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. Kare looked at him, and the prime minister shrugged with a smile. "Oh, this certainly isn't my area of expertise, Doctor! I'm fully prepared to accept what you've just said, but I have to admit it piques my interest a bit. I was under the impression that ever since the existence of wormholes was first demonstrated, one of the very first things any stellar survey team's done is look very hard for them."

"That they do, Mr. Prime Minister," Kare acknowledged wryly. "Indeed, they do! But, as I'm sure all of you are aware, wormholes and their termini are usually a minimum of a couple of light-hours away from the stars with which they're associated. And what somebody who isn't a hyper-physicist may not realize is that unless they're particularly big, you also have to get within, oh, maybe four or five light-minutes before they're going to show up at all. There are certain stellar characteristics—we call them 'wormhole fingerprints'—we've learned to look for when there's a terminus in the vicinity, but they aren't always present. Again, the bigger or stronger the wormhole, the more likely the 'fingerprints' are to show up, as well.

"What we appear to have here, however, is a case of pure serendipity on someone's part. My team and I have looked very carefully at Torch, and we've determined that it really does have most of the 'fingerprints,' but they're extremely faint. In fact, it took several runs of computer enhancement before we were able to pick them out at all. That's not entirely surprising, given Torch's relative youth. Despite their mass, F-class stars are statistically less likely to possess termini at all, and when they do, the 'fingerprints' are almost invariably fainter than usual. That means nobody should have been looking for a terminus associated with this star in the first place, and, in the second place, that they shouldn't have been looking just sixty-four light-minutes from the primary. That's ridiculously close. In fact, our search of the literature indicates that it's the nearest any terminus associated with an F6 has ever been located relative to its associated primary. Coupled with how faint its Warshawski signature is, that suggests to us that whoever found it in the first place must have almost literally stubbed his toe on it. He sure shouldn't have been looking for it there, at any rate!"

He paused and shook his head, his expression wry. In a properly run universe people like Manpower wouldn't have the kind of luck it must have taken for them to stumble across a discovery like this one.

Although, he reminded himself,I could be wrong about that. I'm pretty sure Manpower has to be gnashing its teeth over the thought that the goody they found has ended up in the clutches of a batch of anti-slavery "terrorists" like the Torches. So maybe what this really represents is the fact that God has a particularly nasty sense of humor where "people like Manpower" are concerned.

That possibility, he reflected, was enough to warm the cockles of his heart.

"In addition to making it hard to find in the first place, the faintness of this terminus' Warshawski signature, coupled with its unusually close proximity to the primary, also indicates that it's almost certainly not especially huge. Frankly, despite the rumors to the contrary, I'll be surprised if there's more than one additional terminus associated with it—it looks a lot like one end of a two-loci system, what we call a 'wormhole bridge,' unlike the multi-loci 'junctions' like the Manticore Junction. Some of the bridges are more valuable than quite a few of the junctions we've discovered over the centuries, of course. It all depends on where the ends of the bridge are."

The Torches at the table nodded to show they were following his explanation. From their expressions—especially Du Havel's—the prediction that their wormhole was going to connect to only one other location wasn't exactly welcome, though.

"Even in a worst-case scenario, most wormholes are significant long-term revenue producers," Captain Zachary put in. Obviously she'd seen the same expressions Kare had.

"Unless the other terminus of this one is somewhere out in previously totally unexplored space—which is possible, of course—then it's still going to be a huge timesaver for people wanting to go from wherever the other end is to anything close to this end," she continued. "It's only four days from here to Erewhon even for a merchant ship, for example, and only about thirteen days from here to Maya. And from Erewhon to the Star Kingdom's only about four days via the Erewhon wormhole. So if the other end of your wormhole is somewhere in the Shell, anyone wanting to reach those destinations is going to be able to shave literally months off of her transit time. I'm not suggesting you're going to see anywhere near the volume of traffic we see through the Junction, of course, but I'm pretty sure there's still going to be enough to give your treasury a hefty shot in the arm."

"Maybe not a goldmine, but at least a silver mine, you mean?" a grinning Queen Berry asked.

"Something along those lines, Your Majesty," Zachary agreed with an answering smile.

"Which probably wasn't exactly a non-factor in Mr. Hauptman's thinking," Kare added, and chuckled. "From what I've seen and heard, he'd probably think backing this survey was a good idea even if it wasn't likely to add a single dime to his own cash flow. On the other hand, I understand he's going to be showing a nice long-term profit on his share of your transit fees."

"I think it's what's referred to as 'a comfortable return,' " Du Havel said dryly. "One-point-five percent of all transit fees for the next seventy-five years ought to come to a pretty fair piece of change."

Several people chuckled this time, and Kare nodded in acknowledgment of the prime minister's point. At the same time, the hyper-physicist really did feel confident Hauptman would have backed the survey effort, anyway. It was obvious to Kare that Klaus Hauptman regarded not making a profit for his shareholders whenever possible as a perversion roughly equivalent to eating one's own young. He supposed no one became as successful as Hauptman without that sort of attitude, and he didn't have any particular problem with it himself. But anyone who bothered to take a look around the Torch System would have been forced to concede that Hauptman also put his personal fortune's money where his principles were.

Anyone who knew anything about Klaus Hauptman and his daughter Stacey had to be aware of their virulent, burning hatred for all things associated with the genetic slave trade. By any measure one cared to use, the Hauptman Cartel was the Star Kingdom's single largest financial contributor to the Beowulf-based Anti-Slavery League. Not only that, the Cartel had already provided the Kingdom of Torch with well over a dozen frigates. No serious interstellar navy had built frigates in decades, of course, but the latest ships—the Nat Turner-class—Hauptman had delivered to Torch were significantly more dangerous than most people might have expected. Effectively, they were hyper-capable versions of the Royal Manticoran Navy's Shrike-class LAC but with about twice the missile capacity and a pair of spinal-mounted grasers, with the second energy weapon bearing aft. Their electronics were a downgraded "export version" of the RMN's (which was hardly surprising, given the fact that they were going to be operating in an area where the Republic of Haven's intelligence services had ready access), but the Turners were probably at least as dangerous as the vast majority of the galaxy's destroyers.

According to official reports, the Hauptman Cartel had built them at cost. According to unofficial (but exceedingly persistent) reports, Klaus and Stacey Hauptman had picked up somewhere around seventy-five percent of their construction costs out of their own pockets. Given that there were eight of them, that was a pretty hefty sum for even the Hauptmans to shell out. And according to the last word Kare had picked up before leaving Manticore for Torch, the Torch Navy had just ordered its first trio of all-up destroyers, as well. Even after they were completed, Torch would scarcely be considered one of the galaxy's leading navies, but the kingdom would have a fairly substantial little system-defense force.

Which just happened to be hyper-capable . . . which meant it could also operate in other people's star systems.

And the fact that Torch has officially declared war on Mesa isn't going to make those Manpower bastards feel any happier when they find out the sort of capability the Torches are building up out here, the hyper-physicist reflected with grim satisfaction.

When he'd mentioned that thought to Josepha Zachary on the voyage here, she'd nodded emphatically and added her own observation—that Torch obviously had a well thought-out, rationalized expansion program in mind. It was clear to her that they were using the frigates as training platforms, building up a cadre of experienced spacers and officers to provide the locally trained (and highly motivated) manpower to systematically upgrade their naval capabilities as time, money, crewmen, and training permitted.

"At any rate," he said out loud, "and returning to my original point, that's why TJ and I were both a bit surprised that anyone ever managed to pick it up at all. Which, I suppose, could explain why Mesa apparently hadn't gotten around to surveying it yet. They may have had enough trouble finding it in the first place that they simply hadn't known it was there long enough."

"I hadn't realized it would have been so difficult for them to detect, Doctor," Jeremy said. "On the other hand, the fact of its existence had become sufficiently common knowledge that Erewhon, at least, knew all about it over two T-years ago. And, frankly, the Ballroom knew about it for at least six months before anyone in Erewhon realized it existed. Given what Captain Zachary's just said, I'm a bit surprised someone like the Jessyk Combine didn't get a survey crew in here sooner. If anybody in the galaxy would recognize the potential value to shippers, I'd think Jessyk would."

"Yes, TJ and I have kicked that around a good bit, too," Kari replied, "and he's come up with a theory for why they might not have surveyed it even if they'd known it was there all along, if anyone's interested."

"I don't know about anybody else, but I am!" Queen Berry said, and cocked her head at Wix.

"Well," Wix rubbed the mustache that was a couple of shades lighter than the rest of his rather unruly beard, "I hope nobody's going to confuse me with any kind of intelligence analyst. But the best reason I've been able to come up with for Jessyk and Manpower's trying to keep their little wormhole quiet is that they didn't want to draw any more attention to what they were doing here on Torch."

Faces tightened all around the table, and Du Havel nodded thoughtfully.

"I hadn't really considered that," he admitted, "and I should have. It's the sort of propaganda factor the ASL's tried to keep in mind for a long time. But you may well have a point, Dr. Wix. If this wormhole had started attracting a lot of through traffic, then there'd have been a lot more potentially embarrassing Solarian witnesses to the mortality rate among the members of their planet-side slave labor force, wouldn't there?"

"That's what I was thinking," Wix agreed. Then he snorted. "Mind you, that's a pretty sophisticated motive to impute to anyone stupid enough to be using slave labor to harvest and process pharmaceuticals in the first place! Completely leaving aside the moral aspects of the decision—which, I feel confident, would never have darkened the doorway of any Mesan transtellar's decision processes—it was economically stupid."

"I tend to agree with you," Du Havel said. "On the other hand, breeding slaves is pretty damned cheap." His voice was remarkably level, but his bared-teeth grin gave the lie to his apparent detachment. "They've been doing it for a long time, after all, and their 'production lines' are all in place. And to give the devil his due, human beings are still a lot more versatile than most machinery. Not as efficient at most specific tasks as purpose built machinery, of course, but versatile. And as far as Manpower and Mesans in general are concerned, slaves are 'purpose built machinery,' when you come down to it. So from their perspective, it made plenty of sense to avoid the initial capital investment in the hardware the job would have required. After all, they already had plenty of cheap replacement units when their 'purpose built machinery' broke, and they could always make more."

"You know," Kare said quietly, "sometimes I forget just how . . . skewed the thinking of something like Manpower has to be." He shook his head. "It never would've occurred to me to analyze the economic factors from that perspective."

"Well, I've had a bit more practice at it than most people." Du Havel's tone was dry enough to create an instant Sahara . . . even on Torch. "The truth is that slavery's almost always been hideously inefficient on a production per man-hour basis. There've been exceptions, of course, but as a general rule, using slaves as skilled technicians—which would be the only way to make it remotely competitive with free labor on a productive basis—has had a tendency to turn around and bite the slaveowner on the ass."

He smiled again, chillingly, but then the smile faded.

"The problem is that it doesn't have to be efficient to show at least some profit. A low return on a really big operation still comes to a pretty impressive absolute amount of money, and their 'per-unit' capital costs are low. I'm sure that was a major element in their thinking—especially when you consider how much capital investment in slave-production facilities Manpower would have to write off if it were even tempted to 'go legitimate.' Not that I think it would ever occur to them to make the attempt, you understand."

"No, I guess not." Kare grimaced, then gave himself a shake. "On the other hand, whatever the Mesans' motives for leaving this particular wormhole unexploited, it gives me a certain warm and fuzzy feeling to reflect on the fact that when it starts producing revenue for you people, that cash flow's going to find itself being plowed into your naval expansion."

"Yes," Thandi Palane agreed, and her smile was even colder than Du Havel's had been. "That's a possibility I've been spending quite a bit of my own time contemplating. We've already managed a couple of ops I'm pretty sure have pissed Manpower off, but if we can get our hands on a few more hyper-capable ships of our own, they're going to be very, very unhappy with the results."

"In that case," Kare replied with a smile of his own, "by all means, as Duchess Harrington would put it, 'let's be about it.' "

Chapter Fourteen

"So what's on the agenda today?" Judson Van Hale asked cheerfully as he walked into the office.

"You," Harper S. Ferry replied repressively, "are entirely too bright and happy for someone who has to be up this early."

"Nonsense!" Judson gave him a broad, toothy smile. "You effete city boys simply have no appreciation for the brisk, bracing, cool air of dawn!" He threw back his head, chest swelling as he inhaled deeply. "Get some oxygen into that bloodstream, man!" he advised. "That'll cheer you up!"

"It would be a lot less strenuous to just kill you . . . and a lot more fun, now that I think about it," Harper observed, and Judson chuckled. Although, given Harper S. Ferry's record during his active career with the Audubon Ballroom, he wasn't entirely certain the other man was joking. Pretty certain, but not entirely. On the other hand, he figured he could rely on Genghis to warn him before the ex-Ballroom operative actually decided to squeeze the trigger.

Unlike Harper, Judson had never personally been a slave. Instead, he'd been born on Sphinx after his father's liberation from the hold of a Manpower Incorporated slave ship. Patrick Henry Van Hale had married a niece of the Manticoran captain whose ship had intercepted the slaver he'd been aboard, and, despite the fact that Patrick had been young enough to receive first-generation prolong after he was freed, he'd still had the perspective of Manpower's normally short-lived slaves. He and his new bride hadn't wasted any time at all on building the family they'd both wanted, and Judson (the first of six children . . . so far) had come along barely a T-year after the wedding.

Both Patrick and Lydia Van Hale were rangers with the Sphinx Forestry Service, and, although as a citizen of Yawata Crossing Judson had scarcely been the backwoods bumpkin he enjoyed parodying, he had spent quite a lot of his time in the bush during his childhood. His parents' employment explained most of that, and Judson had fully intended to follow in their footsteps. In fact, he'd completed his graduate forestry classes and his internship in the SFS when the liberation of Torch changed everything.

The fact that he'd never personally been a slave hadn't diminished his hatred for Manpower in any way, and he and his family had always been active in supporting the Anti-Slavery League. Judson's parents had never subscribed to the Ballroom's approach, however. They believed that the Ballroom's atrocities (and, even now, Judson figured there was no better word to describe quite a few of the Ballroom's operations) played into the hands of slavery's supporters. That wasn't a point on which Harper would have agreed with them, and truth to tell, Judson himself had always been a bit more ambivalent about that than his parents were. He'd wondered, sometimes, if that was because he felt as if he'd personally had a "free ride" where slavery was concerned. If he was more willing to see violence as the proper response because he felt hypocritical condemning those who resorted to violence against an abomination they'd experienced firsthand . . . and he hadn't. He'd escaped it before he'd even been conceived, after all, and the Star Kingdom of Manticore was one of the few star nations where no one really cared, one way or the other, if someone was an ex-slave or the son of ex-slaves. You were who you were, and the fact that you'd been designed as someone else's property was neither stigma nor a badge of victimhood.

In that respect, Judson knew he would never be able to fully share his parents' attitude. Both of them were fiercely grateful to the Royal Manticoran Navy for his father's freedom and equally fiercely loyal to the Star Kingdom of Manticore for the safe harbor and opportunities it had given him, but Patrick Henry Van Hale also remembered being a slave . . . and he'd been designed as a "pleasure slave." Even though he'd been only around nineteen T-years old when he'd been freed, he'd already undergone the full gamut of what Manpower euphemistically called "training." Lydia Van Hale hadn't . . . but she'd been the one who'd spent years helping him deal with—and survive—the dehumanizing trauma of that experience. In ways they would never be able to escape, Patrick's slavery still defined who both of them were, and it was an experience Judson had never shared. They'd never harped on that, never indulged in the "if only I'd had it as good as you do" school of child rearing, yet he'd become only increasingly aware of that difference between them as he'd grown older. And as he'd also become increasingly aware of the lifetime scars they both carried with them from his father' experience, his hatred for Manpower and all things Mesan had only grown.

Which, he knew, was another reason he'd found it ever more difficult to shed crocodile tears for the Ballroom's "victims."

Yet he'd been his parents' son, and whatever he'd felt, he would never have been able to justify signing on with the Ballroom. Which was why the liberation of Torch changed everything.

His Forestry Service training had included eleven T-Months at the Royal Law Enforcement Center in Landing, which had given him a firm grounding in law enforcement and investigative techniques, and his childhood on Sphinx and the time he'd spent in the bush had accounted for his adoption by Genghis. As far as Judson was aware, only one ex-slave had ever been adopted by a treecat, but there were probably half a dozen children of ex-slaves who had been, and he was one of them. When the Kingdom of Torch had sprung into existence, Judson had realized immediately that it was going to need people with his skill set just as badly as it was going to need people with Harper's skills. In fact, Torch was probably going to need people like Judson even more, if only because there were so few of them.

When Jeremy X. renounced the Ballroom's "terrorists" tactics on behalf of Torch, Judson's only qualm had evaporated. He'd been on the next ASL-sponsored transport to Torch, with his parents' blessing, and Jeremy and Thandi Palane had been delighted to see him . . . and Genghis.

He'd encountered a few ex-Ballroom types (and some he was pretty convinced weren't all that ex- about their relationship with the Ballroom) who seemed to regard him as some sort of Johnny-come-lately. Almost as a dilettante who'd sat around on his well-protected ass in his cushy Manticoran life while other people did the heavy lifting which had eventually led to Torch's existence. There weren't many of them, though, and as pissed off with them as Judson sometimes was, he didn't really blame them for it. Or he was at least able to maintain enough perspective to cope with it, at any rate.

He figured he owed a lot of that to Genghis' influence. The 'cat had been with him for over fifteen T-years, and he'd been Judson's best sounding board for that entire time. That had turned into an incredibly rich and satisfying two-way communication street since the two of them had mastered the sign language Dr. Arif had devised with the assistance of the treecats Nimitz and Samantha, and Genghis had stepped on more than one temper flare in the T-year they'd spent here on Torch. It was hard for a man to lose it when his treecat companion decided to smack him down for letting things get out of hand.

And it was Genghis' ability to communicate fully with Judson which made his telempathic abilities so valuable to Torch. At the moment, they were officially assigned to Immigration Services, although Thandi Palane had made it quite clear to Judson that that assignment was in the nature of a polite fiction. Their real job was to keep an eye on people who got close enough to Queen Berry to pose a potential threat to the teenaged monarch.

It'd help if Berry were willing to let us put together a proper security detail for her, he thought now, with a familiar sense of disgruntlement. One of these days she's going to have to figure out that she's making it a hell of a lot harder to keep her alive by being so stubborn about it. And if she weren't such a lovable kid, I swear I'd snatch her up by the scruff of the neck and shake some sense into her!

The thought gave him a certain degree of satisfaction . . . which was only slightly flawed by Genghis' bleeking chuckle from his shoulder as the 'cat effortlessly followed the familiar thought through its well-worn mental groove.

"Brooding about Her Majesty's stubbornness again, are we?" Harper inquired genially, and Judson scowled at him.

"It's a sorry turn of events when a man's own 'cat rats him out to such an unworthy superior as yourself," he observed.

"Genghis never signed a word," Harper pointed out mildly, and Judson snorted.

"He didn't have to," he growled. "The two of you have been so mutually corrupting that I think you're developing your own 'mind voice'!"

"I wish!" Harper's snort was only half humorous. "It'd make our job a lot easier, wouldn't it?"

"Probably." Judson walked across to his own desk and dropped into his chair. "Not as much easier as it'd be if Berry was only willing to be reasonable about it, though."

"I don't think anyone—except Her Majesty, of course—is likely to argue with you about that," Harper observed. "On the other hand, at least you and I have it easier than Lara or Saburo."

"Yeah, but unlike Lara we're both civilized, too," Judson pointed out. "If Berry gets too stubborn with her, Lara'll just sling her over a shoulder, unlike either of us, and haul her off kicking and screaming!"

"Now that," Harper said with a sudden chuckle, "is something I'd pay good money to see. And you're right—Lara'd do it in a heartbeat, wouldn't she?"

It was Judson's turn to chuckle, although he wondered if Harper found it quite as ironic as he himself did that the closest thing to a personal bodyguard the Queen of Torch would accept was a Scrag.

Well, an ex-Scrag, if we're going to be fair about it, he reminded himself. And given that Lara's one of Thandi's 'Amazons,' I think it would be a very good idea to be as fair as possible in her case.

Still, it was a bizarre sort of relationship, in a lot of ways. The Scrags were the direct descendants of the genetically engineered "super soldiers" of Old Earth's Final War, and an awful lot of them had found themselves in the service of Manpower or working as mercenaries for one or another of Mesa's outlaw corporations. Given the way most Scrags clung to their sense of superiority to the "normals" around them—and the reciprocal (and, in most cases, equally unthinking) prejudice most of those normals exhibited where the Scrags were concerned—it wasn't as if the majority of Lara's relatives found themselves with a lot of lucrative career opportunities. So, over the centuries, many of them had drifted into various criminal enterprises—which, of course, only strengthened and deepened the anti-Scrag stereotypes and prejudices. It had been only a short step from there to the role of Mesan enforcers and leg breakers, especially since Mesa was one of the few places in the galaxy where "genies" were regarded as an everyday fact of life. All of which meant that the Scrags and the Ballroom had shed an awful lot of each others' blood.

Yet, despite all that, here were Lara and her fellow Amazons, not simply accepted on Torch but full citizens trusted with the protection of Torch's queen.

And thank God for them, he reflected rather more soberly.

"Well," Harper said after several seconds, still smiling with the echoes of his mental vision of a squalling, kicking Berry tossed across Lara's shoulder and hauled off to safety somewhere, "I'm afraid that rather than giving our lives in the defense of our beloved—if stubborn—Queen, our day is going to be one of those less scintillating moments of our life experience."

"I always get worried when you start trotting out extra vocabulary," Judson observed.

"That's because you're a naturally suspicious and un-trusting soul, without one scintilla of philosophical discernment or sensitivity to guide you through the perceptual and ontological shallows of your day to day existence."

"No, it's because when you get full of yourself this way it usually means we're going to be doing something incredibly boring, like counting noses on a new transport or something."

"Interesting you should raise that specific possibility." Harper smiled brightly, and Judson eyed him with a suspicion that rapidly descended into resignation.

"Oh, crap," he muttered.

"That's not a very becoming attitude," Harper scolded.

"Oh, yeah? Well let me guess, O Fearless Leader. Which of us have you decided to assign as doorman this afternoon?"

"Not you, that's for sure," Harper said with an audible sniff. He watched Judson from the corner of one eye, timing his moment carefully. Then, the instant Judson started to brighten ever so slightly, he shrugged. "I've assigned the best qualified person to the job, and I'm sure he won't object the way certain other people might. Of course, despite all of his other qualifications, Genghis will need you along as interpreter."

Judson raised one hand in an ancient (and very rude) gesture as his traitor treecat's bleeking laughter echoed Harper's obvious amusement. Still, he couldn't fault the other man's logic.

Somebody had to be in charge of the reception, processing, and orientation of the steady stream of ex-slaves pouring into Torch on an almost daily basis. The news that they finally had a genuine homeworld to call their own, a planet which had become the very symbol of their defiant refusal to submit to the dehumanization and brutality of their self-appointed masters, had gone through the interstellar community of escaped slaves like a lightning bolt. Judson doubted that any exile had ever returned to his homeland with more fervor and determination than he saw whenever another in the apparently endless stream of ASL-sponsored transport vessels arrived here in Torch. Torch's population was expanding explosively, and there was a militancy, a bared-teeth snarl of defiance, to every shipload of fresh immigrants. Whatever philosophical differences might exist between them, they were meaningless beside their fierce identification with one another and with their new homeworld.

But that didn't mean they arrived here in a calm and orderly state of mind. Many of them did, but a significant percentage came off the landing shuttles with a stiff-legged, raised-hackle attitude which reminded Judson of a hexapuma with a sore tooth. Sometimes it was the simple stress of the voyage itself, the sense of traveling into an unknown future coupled with the suspicion that in a galaxy which had never once given them an even break, any dream had to be shattered in the end. That combination all too often produced an irrational anger, an internal hunching of the shoulders in preparation for bearing yet another in an unending chain of disappointments and betrayals. After all, if they came with that attitude, at least they could hope that any surprises would be pleasant ones.

For others, it was darker than that, though. Sometimes a lot darker. Despite Harper's deliberate humor, he knew as well as Judson that any given transport was going to have at least one "Ballroom burnout" on board.

Harper was the one who'd coined the term. In fact, Judson doubted that he himself would ever have had the nerve to apply it if Harper hadn't come up with it in the first place, and the fact that the other man had only made Judson respect him even more. Harper had never discussed his own record as a Ballroom assassin with Judson, but it wasn't exactly a secret here on Torch that he'd long since forgotten exactly how many slavers and Manpower executives he'd "terminated with extreme prejudice" over his career. Yet Harper also recognized that too many of his Ballroom associates had been turned into exactly what the Ballroom's critics insisted all of them were.

Every war had its casualties, Judson thought grimly, and not all of them were physical, especially in what was still called "asymmetrical warfare." When the resources of the two sides were as wildly unbalanced as they were in this case, the weaker side couldn't restrict itself and its strategies on the basis of some sanitized "code of war" or some misplaced chivalry. That, as much as the raw hatred of Manpower's victims, was a major reason for the types of tactics the Ballroom had adopted over the decades . . . and the revulsion of many people who rejected its methods despite their own deep sympathy with the abolition movement as a whole. Yet there were more prices than public condemnation buried in the Ballroom's operations. The cost of taking the war to something as powerful as Manpower and its corporate allies in ways that maximized the bloody cost to them was all too often paid in the form of self brutalization—of turning oneself into someone not only capable of committing atrocities but eager to.

The Ballroom had always made a conscientious effort to identify itself and its members as fighters, not simple killers, but after enough deaths, enough bloodshed, enough horror visited upon others in retaliation for horrors endured, that distinction blurred with dismaying ease. All too often, there came a time when playing the role of a sociopath transformed someone into a sociopath, and quite a few Ballroom fighters who fell into that category turned up here on Torch unable—or unwilling—to believe that a planet inhabited almost exclusively by ex-slaves could possibly have renounced the Ballroom's terrorist tactics.

Judson didn't really blame them for feeling that way. In fact, he didn't see how it could have been any other way, actually. And he'd come to feel not simply sympathy, but a degree of understanding for the men and women who felt and thought that way which he would flatly have denied he could ever feel before his own time here on Torch. He'd seen and learned too much from hundreds, even thousands, of people who—like his own father—had experienced Manpower's brutality firsthand to blame anyone for the burning depth of his hatred.

Yet it was one of the Immigration Service's responsibilities to identify the people who felt that way, because Jeremy X. had been completely serious. And he'd been right, too. If Torch was going to survive, it had to demonstrate to its friends and potential allies that it was not going to become a simple haven for terrorism. No one in his right mind could possibly expect Torch to turn against the Ballroom, or to sever all of its links to it, and if Jeremy had attempted to do anything of the sort, his fellow subjects would have turned upon him like wolves. And rightfully so, in Judson's opinion. But the Kingdom of Torch had to conduct itself as a star nation if it ever meant to be accepted as a star nation, and a home for ex-slaves, built by ex-slaves, as an example and a proof of ex-slaves' ability to conduct themselves as a civilized society, was far more important than any open support for Ballroom-style operations could ever have been.

For all the vocal sympathy others might voice, from the comfort of their own well fed, well cared for lives, for the plight of Manpower's victims, there was still that ineradicable prejudice against slaves. Against anyone defined primarily as a "genie." As a product of deliberate genetic design. It wasn't even as if some genetic slaves didn't have their own variety of it, he thought, given the attitude of all too many of them towards Scrags. In his darker moments, he thought it was just that every group had to have someone to look down on. That it was an endemic part of the human condition, however that human's genes had come to be arranged in a particular pattern. Other times, he looked around him and recognized the way the vast majority of people he personally knew had risen above that "endemic" need and knew it was possible, in the end, to exterminate any prejudice.

But however possible it might be, it wasn't going to happen overnight. And in the meantime, Torch had to stand as the light for which it was named, the proof genetic slaves could build a world, and not just a vengeance machine. That they could take their war with Manpower with them and transform it in ways which proved that, in fact, they were not inferior to their designers and oppressors, but superior to them. And just as they had to prove that to the people whose support their survival required, they had to prove it to themselves. Had to take that ultimate vengeance upon Manpower by proving Manpower had lied. That whatever had been done to them, however their chromosomes had been warped or toyed with, they were still human beings, still as much heir to the potential greatness of humanity as anyone else.

Most of them would have been incredibly uncomfortable trying to put that thought into words, but that didn't keep them from grasping it. And so when someone who couldn't accept it arrived on Torch, it was Immigration's responsibility to recognize him. Not to deny him entry, or to threaten him with arbitrary deportation. The Torch Constitution guaranteed every ex-slave, and every child or grandchild of ex-slaves, safe haven on Torch. That was why Torch existed. But, in return, Torch demanded compliance with its own laws, and those laws included the prohibition of Ballroom-style operations launched from Torch. Despite everything else, Torch would not imprison people who refused to renounce the Ballroom's traditional tactics, but neither would Torch allow them to remain or to use its territory as a safe refuge between Ballroom-style strikes. Which was why the people whose own hatred might drive them to do exactly that had to be recognized.

And, as much as Judson personally hated the duty, there was no question that Harper was right. Genghis' telempathic sense, his ability to literally taste the "mind glow" of anyone he met, made him absolutely and uniquely suited to the task.

"All right," he said out loud, "be that way. But I'm warning you now, Genghis and I will expect tomorrow afternoon off."

He kept his tone light, but he also met Harper's gaze steadily. However well suited to the task Genghis might be, wading through that many mind glows, so many of which carried their own traumas and scars, was always exhausting for the treecat. He'd need a little time away from other mind glows, a little time in the Torch equivalent of the Sphinx bush, and Harper knew it.

"Go ahead," he said. "Twist my arm! Extort extra vacation time out of me!" He grinned, but his own eyes were as steady as Judson's, and he nodded ever so slightly. "See ifI care!"

"Good," Judson replied.

* * *

Several hours later, neither Judson nor Genghis felt particularly cheerful.

It wasn't as if the arriving shuttles were steeped solely in gloom, despair, and bloodthirsty hatred. In fact, there was an incredible joyousness to most of the arrivals, a sense of having finally set foot on the soil of a planet which was actually theirs.

Of being home at last.

But there were scars, and all too often still-bleeding psychic wounds, on even the most joyous, and they beat on Genghis' focused sensitivity like hammers. The fact that the 'cat was deliberately looking for dangerous fault lines, pockets of particularly brooding darkness, forced him to open himself to all the rest of the pain, as well. Judson hated to ask it of his companion, but he knew Genghis too well not to ask. Treecats were direct souls, with only limited patience for some of humanity's sillier social notions. And, to be honest, Genghis had a lot less trouble accepting and supporting the Ballroom's mentality than Judson himself did. Yet Genghis also understood how important Torch was not simply to his own person, but to all of the other two-legs around him, and that much of its hope for the future rested on the need to identify people whose choice of actions might jeopardize what the Torches were striving so mightily to build. Not only that, Torch was his home, too, now, and treecats understood responsibility to clan and nesting place.

Which didn't make either of them feel especially cheerful.

<That one.> Genghis' fingers flickered suddenly.

"What?"

Judson twitched. So far, despite the inevitable emotional fatigue, today's transport load of new immigrants had contained few "problem children," and he'd settled into a sort of cruise control as he watched them filtering through the arrival interview process.

<That one,> Genghis' fingers repeated. <The tall one in the brown shipsuit, by the right lift bank. With dark hair.>

"Got him," Judson said a moment later, although there was nothing particularly outwardly impressive about the newcomer. He was obviously from one of the general utility genetic lines. "What about him?"

<Not sure,> Genghis replied, his fingers moving with unusual slowness. <He's . . . nervous. Worried about something.>

"Worried," Judson repeated. He reached up and ran his fingers caressingly down Genghis' spine. "A lot of two-legs worry about a lot of things, O Bane of Chipmunks," he said. "What's so special about this one?"

<He just . . . tastes wrong.> Genghis was obviously trying to find a way to describe something he didn't fully understand himself, Judson realized. <He was nervous when he got off the lift, but he got a lot more nervous after he got off the lift.>

Judson frowned, wondering what to make of that. Then the newcomer looked up, and Judson's own mental antennae quivered.

The man in the brown shipsuit was trying hard not to let it show, but he wasn't looking up at the crowded arrival concourse in general. No, he was looking directly at Judson Van Hale and Genghis . . . and trying to make it look as if he weren't.

"Do you think he got more worried when he saw you, Genghis?" he asked quietly. Genghis cocked his head, obviously thinking hard, and then his right truehand flipped up in the sign for "Y" and nodded in affirmation.

Now, that's interesting, Judson thought, staying exactly where he was and trying to avoid any betraying sign of his own interest in Mr. Brown Shipsuit. Of course, it's probably nothing. Anybody's got the right to be nervous on their first day on a new planet—especially the kind of people who're arriving here on Torch every day! And if he's heard the reports about the 'cats—or, even worse, the rumors—he may think Genghis can peek inside his head and tell me everything he's thinking or feeling. God knows we've run into enough people who ought to know better who think that, and I can't really blame anyone who does for not liking the thought very much. But still . . .

His own right hand twitched very slightly on the virtual keyboard only he could see, activating the security camera that snapped a picture as the brown shipsuit sank into the chair in front of one of the Immigration processors. However nervous the newcomer might be, he was obviously at least managing to maintain his aplomb as he answered the interviewer's questions and provided his background information. He wasn't even glancing in Judson and Genghis' direction any longer, either, and he actually managed a smile when he opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue for the Immigration clerk to scan its barcode.

Some of the ex-slaves resented that. More than one had flatly refused when asked to do the same thing, and Judson found it easy enough to understand that reaction. But given the incredible number of places Torch's new immigrants came from, and bearing in mind that the mere fact of ex-slavery didn't necessarily mean all of them were paragons of virtue, the assembly of an identification database was a practical necessity. Besides, the Beowulf medical establishment had identified several genetic combinations which had potentially serious negative consequences. Manpower had never worried about that sort of thing, as long as they got whatever feature they'd been after, and that lack of concern was a major factor in the fact that even if they were ever fortunate enough to receive prolong, genetic slaves' average lifespans remained significantly shorter than "normals' " did. Beowulf had devoted a lot of effort to finding ways to ameliorate the consequences of those genetic sequences if they could be identified, and the barcode was the quickest, most efficient way for the doctors to scan for them. There wasn't much that could be done for some of them, even by Beowulf, but prompt remedial action could enormously mitigate the consequences of others, and one of the things every citizen of Torch was guaranteed was the very best medical care available.

Given that no slaveowner had ever bothered to waste prolong on something as unimportant as his animate property, much less worry about things like preventative medicine, that guarantee was one of the kingdom's most ringing proclamations of the individual value it placed upon its people.

"Is he still nervous?" Judson murmured, and Genghis' hand nodded again.

"Interesting," Judson said softly. "You may just make him that way because he's one of those people who doesn't want anyone poking around inside his head."

This time, Genghis nodded his head and not just his hand. Treecats were constitutionally incapable of really understanding why anyone might feel that way, since they couldn't imagine not being able to "poke around" inside each other's minds. But they didn't have to be able to understand why two-legs might feel that way to grasp that some of them did feel that way, and if that were the case here, it would scarcely be the first-time Genghis had seen it.

"Still," Judson continued, "I think we might want to keep an eye on this one for at least a couple of days. Remind me to mention that to Harper."

Chapter Fifteen

"You called?" Benjamin Detweiler said as he poked his head through the door Heinrich Stabolis had just opened for him.

Albrecht Detweiler looked up from the paperwork on his display and raised one eyebrow at the oldest of his sons. Of course, Benjamin wasn't just his son, but very few people were aware of how close the relationship actually was.

"Have I mentioned lately," Albrecht said, "that I find your extreme filial respect very touching?"

"No, somehow I think that slipped your mind, Father."

"I wonder why that could possibly be?" Albrecht mused out loud, then pointed at one of the comfortable chairs in front of his desk. "Why don't you just park yourself right there, young man," he said in the stern tone he'd used more than once during Benjamin's adolescent career.

"Yes, Father," Benjamin replied in a tone which was far more demure and chastened sounding than Albrecht recalled ever having heard out of him during that same adolescent career.

The younger Detweiler "parked" himself and folded his hands in his lap while he regarded his father with enormous attentiveness, and Albrecht shook his head. Then he looked at Stabolis.

"I'm sure I'm going to regret this in the fullness of time, Heinrich, but would you be kind enough to get Ben a bottle of beer? And go ahead and open one for me at the same time, please. I don't know about him, but I feel depressingly confident that I'm going to need a little fortification."

"Of course, Sir," his enhanced bodyguard replied gravely. "If you really think he's old enough to be drinking alcohol, that is."

Stabolis had known Benjamin literally from birth, and the two of them exchanged smiles. Albrecht, on the other hand, shook his head and sighed theatrically.

"If he's not old enough yet, he never will be, Heinrich," he said. "Go ahead."

"Yes, Sir."

Stabolis departed on his errand, and Albrecht tipped back his chair in front of the window with its magnificent view of powdery sand and dark blue ocean. He gave his son another smile, but then his expression sobered.

"Seriously, Father," Benjamin said, responding to Albrecht's change of expression, "why did you want to see me this morning?"

"We just got confirmation that the Manties' survey expedition got to Verdant Vista six weeks ago," his father replied, and Benjamin grimaced.

"We knew it was going to happen eventually, Father," he pointed out.

"Agreed. Unfortunately, that doesn't make me any happier now that it's gone ahead and actually happened." Albrecht smiled sourly. "And the fact that the Manties ultimately decided to let Kare head the team makes me even less happy than I might have been otherwise."

"One could have hoped that the fact that the Manties and the Havenites are shooting at each other again would have made them a little less likely to cooperate on something like this," Benjamin acknowledged dryly.

"Fair's fair—" Albrecht began, then paused and looked up with a smile as Stabolis returned to the office with the promised bottles of beer. Father and son each accepted one of them, and Stabolis raised an eyebrow at Albrecht.

"Go ahead and stay, Heinrich," the senior Detweiler replied in answer to the unspoken question. "By this time, you already know ninety-nine percent of all my deepest darkest secrets. This one isn't going to make any difference."

"Yes, Sir."

Stabolis settled into his usual on-duty position in the chair beside the office door, and Albrecht turned back to Benjamin.

"As I was saying, fair's fair. They aren't really cooperating, you know. They've just agreed to refrain from breaking each other's kneecaps where Verdant Vista is concerned, and we both know why that is."

"They do tend to hold their little grudges where Manpower is concerned, don't they?" Benjamin remarked whimsically.

"Yes, they do," Albrecht agreed. "And that pain in the ass Hauptman isn't making things any better."

"Father, Klaus Hauptman's been pissing you off for as long as I can remember. Why don't you just go ahead and have Collin and Isabel get rid of him? I know his security's good, but it's not that good, you know."

"I've considered it—believe me, I've considered it more than once!" Albrecht shook his head. "One reason I haven't gone ahead and done it is that I decided a long time ago that I'd better try not to get into the habit of having people assassinated just because it might ease my blood pressure. Given the number of unmitigated pains in the ass there are, I'd keep Isabel employed full time, and it would still be a case of weeding the tomato patch. However many weeds you get rid of this week, there's going to be a fresh batch next week. Besides, I've always felt restraint builds character."

"Maybe so, but I figure there has to be more to it than self-discipline were Hauptman is concerned." Benjamin snorted. "Mind you, I agree about the asshole quotient of the galaxy, but he's one asshole who's demonstrated often enough that he can cause us a lot of grief. And he's been so openly opposed to Manpower for so long that having him taken out in an obviously 'Manpower'-backed operation couldn't possibly point any suspicion in our direction."

"You've got a point," Albrecht agreed more seriously. "Actually, I did very seriously consider having him assassinated when he came out so strongly in support of those Ballroom lunatics in Verdant Vista. Unfortunately, getting rid of him would only leave us with his daughter Stacey, and she's just as bad as he is already. If 'Manpower' went ahead and whacked her daddy, she'd be even worse. In fact, I suspect she'd probably move making problems for us up from number three or four on her 'Things to Do' list to number one. An emphatic number one. And given the fact that she'd control sixty-two percent of the Hauptman cartel's voting stock outright, once she inherited her father's shares, the problems she could make for us would be pretty spectacular. This survey business and those frigates they've been building for the Ballroom wouldn't be a drop in the bucket compared to what she'd do then."

"So take them both out at once," Benjamin suggested. "I'm sure Isabel could handle it, if she put her mind to it. And she's Hauptman's only kid, and she doesn't have any children of her own yet, which only leaves some fairly distant cousins as potential heirs. I doubt that all of them share the depths of her and her father's anti-slavery prejudices. And even if they did, I imagine that spreading her stock around to so many people who'd all have legitimately different agendas of their own would end up with the family control of the cartel finding itself severely diluted."

"No," Albrecht said sourly, "it wouldn't."

"It wouldn't?" Benjamin's surprise showed.

"Oh, having both of them killed would dilute the Hauptman family's control, that's for sure. Unfortunately, it would only hand that selfsame control over to another family we have reason to be less than fond of."

"I'm afraid you've lost me," Benjamin admitted.

"That's because Collin just turned up something you don't know about yet. It would appear our good friend Klaus and his daughter Stacey don't want to see their opposition to Manpower falter just because of a little thing like their own morality. Collin got a look at the provisions of their wills a few T-months ago. Daddy left everything to his sweet little baby girl, pretty much the way we'd figured he had . . . but if it should happen that she predeceases him or subsequently dies without issue of her own, she's left every single share of her and her father's ownership percentage—and voting stock—to a little outfit called Skydomes of Grayson."

"You're joking!" Benjamin stared at his father in disbelief, and Albrecht snorted without any amusement at all.

"Believe me, I wish I were."

"But Hauptman and Harrington hate each others' guts," Benjamin protested.

"Not so much anymore," Albrecht disagreed. "Oh, everything we've seen suggests that he and Harrington still don't really like each other all that much, but they've got an awful lot of interests in common. Worse, he knows from direct, painful personal experience she can't be bought, bluffed, or intimidated worth a damn. And, worse still, the daughter he dotes on is one of Harrington's close personal friends. Given the fact that he won't be around anymore for Harrington to irritate, and given the fact that he knows she's already using Skydomes' clout to back the ASL almost as strongly as he is, he's perfectly happy with the thought of letting her beat on Manpower with his money, too, when he's gone. Which"—he grimaced—"makes me wish even more that our little October surprise on her flagship had been a bit more successful. If we'd managed to kill her, I'm sure Klaus and Stacey would have at least reconsidered who they want to leave all of this to."

"Damn," Benjamin said thoughtfully, then shook his head. "If Hauptman and Skydomes get together, Harrington would have control of—what? The third or fourth biggest single individually controlled financial bloc in the galaxy?"

"Not quite. She'd be the single biggest financial player in the Haven Quadrant, by a huge margin, but she probably wouldn't be any higher than, oh, the top twenty, galaxy wide. On the other hand, as you just pointed out yourself, unlike any of the people who'd be wealthier than she'd be, she'd have direct personal control of everything. No need to worry about boards of directors or any of that crap."

"Damn!" Benjamin repeated with considerably more force. "How come this is the first I'm hearing about this?"

"Like I said, Collin only found out about it a few T-months ago. It's not like Hauptman or his daughter have exactly trumpeted it from the rooftops, you know. For that matter, as far as Collin can tell, Harrington doesn't know about it. We only found out because Collin's been devoting even more of his resources to Hauptman since his active support for Verdant Vista became so evident. It's taken him a while, but he finally managed to get someone inside Childers, Strauslund, Goldman, and Wu. Clarice Childers personally drew up both Hauptmans' wills, and it looks very much as if they decided not to tell even Harrington about it." Albrecht shrugged. "Given the sort of tectonic impact the prospect of what would be effectively a merger of the Hauptman Cartel and Skydomes would have on the entire quadrant's financial markets, I can see where they'd want to keep it quiet."

"And Harrington would probably try to talk them out of it if she did know about it," Benjamin mused.

"Probably." Albrecht showed his teeth for a moment. "I'd love to see all three of them dead, you understand, but let's be honest. The real reason I'd take so much pleasure from putting them out of my misery is that all three of them are so damned effective. And however much I may hate Harrington's guts—not to mention her entire family back on Beowulf—I'm not going to underestimate her. Aside from being harder to kill than an Old Earth cockroach, she's got this incredibly irritating habit of accomplishing exactly what she sets out to do. And while she may not be as rich as Hauptman is, she's already well past the point where money as money really means anything to her. From everything we've been able to find out, she takes her responsibilities as Skydomes' CEO seriously, but she's perfectly satisfied running it through trusted assistants, so it's not as if she'd be interested in adding Hauptman to Skydomes as an exercise in empire building, either. In fact, I sometimes think she's at least partly of the opinion that what she's got already represents too much concentrated power in the hands of a single private individual. Combining Hauptman with Skydomes would create an entirely new balance of economic power—not just in the Star Kingdom, either—and I don't see her wanting to stick her family with that kind of power."

"So he's planning on sneaking up on her with it and trusting her sense of duty to take it in the end?"

"I think that's what's going on, but I think it's really Stacey Hauptman who's doing the 'sneaking up' in this case," Albrecht said.

"Either way, it's a fairly unpalatable prospect," Benjamin observed.

"I don't think it's going to make the situation fundamentally worse," Albrecht replied. "It's not going to make it any better, but I don't expect it to have any sort of catastrophic consequences . . . even assuming Hauptman shuffles off before we pull the trigger on Prometheus."

Benjamin's expression turned very, very sober at his father's last seven words. "Prometheus" was the codename assigned to the Mesan Alignment's long awaited general offensive. Very few people had ever heard the designation; of those who had, only a handful realized how far into the final endgame of its centuries-long preparations the Alignment actually was.

"In the meantime," his father continued more briskly, "and getting back to my original complaint, we've got to decide what we're going to do about Kare and his busybodies. It's not going to take them very long to complete their survey of the terminus. They're going to figure out that something's peculiar about it as soon as they do, and we really don't need them making transit and finding out where it goes."

"Agreed." Benjamin nodded, but his expression was calm. "On the other hand, we've already made our preparations. As you just pointed out, somebody like Kare's going to realize he's looking at something out of the ordinary as soon as he gets a detailed analysis. I doubt he's going to have any idea just how 'peculiar' it is before they make transit, though, and once they do make transit, they're not going to be in a position to tell anyone about it. I agree with Collin, Daniel, and Isabel, Father. The survivors are going to conclude that whatever it is that makes this terminus 'peculiar' is going to require a much more cautious—and time-consuming—approach before they try any second transit."

"I agree that's the most overwhelmingly likely outcome," Albrecht conceded. " 'Likely' isn't the same thing as 'certain,' however. And, to be honest, I expect someone like Hauptman to take his initial failure as a personal affront and push even harder."

"The only way to positively prevent that would be too take the star system back," Benjamin pointed out.

"Which we're already planning to do . . . eventually," his father pointed out in return, and Benjamin nodded again.

"Should I assume you want me to be thinking in terms of bringing that operation forward?" he asked.

"I'm not sure I want it brought forward yet," Albrecht said. "What I do want, though, is to make sure we don't fritter away our cover assets. Losing Anhur that way in Talbott last year was just plain stupid. And we're lucky that idiot Clignet and his 'journal' didn't hurt us any worse."

Benjamin nodded again. Commodore Henri Clignet's ex-State Security heavy cruiser Anhur had been captured with all hands—or, at least, all surviving hands—in the Talbott Cluster the next best thing to six T-months before. Benjamin wasn't going to shed any tears for Clinget and his fanatic cutthroats. In fact, he'd always considered the commodore one of the loosest of the loose warheads among the ex-SS personnel Manpower had recruited. On the other hand, he was also aware that his personal dislike for the entire strand of the Alignment's strategy they'd been recruited to support might help to account for his less than hugely enthusiastic view of Clinget and his fellows.

"At least he didn't know who's actually pulling the strings where he and the others are concerned," he pointed out loud. "All he could really confirm is that Manpower's provided a home for several of the Peeps' waifs."

"True, but he confirmed that not just to the Manties but for Haven, as well." Albrecht shook his head with a smile of rueful, irritated respect. "Who would've thought the Manties would hand him and his entire crew back to Haven in the middle of a shooting war?"

"I wouldn't have," Benjamin admitted. "On the other hand, it was a damned smart move on their part. It left Haven with the responsibility of trying and executing them, which 'just happened' to wash so much of the People's Republic's dirty linen very much in public. And Pritchart and Theisman actually had to thank them for it." It was his turn to shake his head. "Talk about a win-win solution for the Manties!"

"Agreed. But it looks to us like neither the Manties nor the Peeps have any clear picture of exactly how many Clingets 'Manpower's' managed to get its hands on. So I think it's time for us to arrange a little discreet reinforcement for them. And I want to get Luff and all the rest of his 'People's Navy in Exile' pulled in where no one's going to be stumbling over any more of them."

"I'm not sure that's the best idea," Benjamin said, his tone thoughtful. "At the moment, Clinget's basically demonstrated that he and his friends have become pretty much garden-variety pirates who're simply being subsidized by Manpower. Everybody knows about the relationship now, but nobody's got any reason to expect that they're being recruited for a specific mission. For that matter, they don't know that, when you come right down to it. As far as they know, they are just doing what they have to do to survive, and they aren't looking more than a few months into the future at any given moment. They aren't going to be doing that until we offer them our little . . . inducement for Operation Ferret, either."

"And your point is?" Albrecht's question could have been irritated, angry, but it was merely curious, and Benjamin shrugged.

"I know we've planned all along on reinforcing Luff, but I've never been comfortable with the notion—not entirely. It's one thing for an 'outlaw transstellar' like Manpower to be subsidizing ships which more or less just fell into its lap; it's another thing entirely for that same 'outlaw transstellar' to be supplying those pirates with newer, more powerful ships. That's my first concern. The second one is that pulling them in from their independent operations is going to be an escalation. They're going to know that we—or Manpower, at least—really have something significant in mind for them to do. Some of them aren't all that tightly wrapped, as Clinget demonstrated. They may not like the idea of Ferret, and they may try to wiggle out of having anything to do with it. At least some of them are probably going to be opposed to the notion of attacking Verdant Vista, too. Collin and I both pointed out that possibility when the idea first came up, you know. Even the People's Republic of Haven took its opposition to the slave trade seriously, and some of these people are likely to do the same thing.

"And, finally, sooner or later, exactly how they prepped for any attack on Verdant Vista is going to come out. Somebody's going to be captured somewhere else and talk, or they're just going to drop a hint in the wrong place and it's going to get back to Manty or Havenite intelligence. And when that happens, people are going to start wondering, first, just how Manpower came up with the 'reinforcements,' and, secondly, why Manpower was willing to put a bunch like Luff's People's Navy in Exile 'on retainer'—and pay them well enough to keep them there—for however long it takes."

"Agreed. Agreed to all of it." Albrecht nodded. "On the other hand, if we actually mount the operation, then probably by the time anybody on the other side starts putting two and two together, they'll have other things to worry about. Don't forget that little surprise we're putting together for Manticore out in Monica right this minute. In other words, I'd say the chances are considerably better than even that 'Manpower's' relationship with this particular batch of 'pirates' isn't going to be of any great burning significance after the fact.

"Second, this wormhole survey expedition has me worried. If we wipe out the people mounting it, and turn the system into someplace that no longer has any habitable real estate, we should also reduce interest in a 'killer' wormhole that no longer goes anywhere interesting, anyway. Not to mention getting Jeremy X and his merry band of lunatics on Torch out of Manpower's hair—and ours—as permanently as possible. And clearing the way for us to reassert sovereignty—after a decent interval, of course—over the system for ourselves.

"Third, one way or the other, within the next few months, it's going to start becoming evident that the Monican Navy ended up coming into possession of over a dozen Solarian battlecruisers, courtesy of Manpower, Technodyne, and the Jessyk Combine. That being the case, I doubt anyone's going to be all that surprised if it turns out that we had—I'm sorry, that Manpower had—a handful of additional battlecruisers lying around and handed them over to a bunch of 'pirates' it could be pretty sure would use them against Manty interests somewhere else, maybe a little closer to home.

"And, fourth, if we keep them somewhere handy, where we can keep an eye on them and they aren't going to be flailing around the spaceways making potential problems for us, we remove at least one distracting element from the equation. And if it happens we decide never to mount the operation at all, then we simply detonate those little suicide charges none of them realize 'Manpower's' put aboard their vessels. They all blow up simultaneously in a star system where nobody else is going to know anything about it, and our potential security problem goes away. For that matter, I've been increasingly inclined ever since Clinget's journals surfaced to go with Wooden Horse anyway, if we do mount the operation."

Benjamin pursed his lips thoughtfully. The chance of any of their ex-StateSec puppets ever discovering the suicide charges which had been built into each of their ships during routine maintenance overhauls ranged somewhere between ridiculously minute and zero. Personally, if he'd been aboard one of those ships, he would have been going over it with a fine toothed comb, given all of the many sets of circumstances he could think of under which it would be convenient for 'Manpower' if their mercenary pirates simply . . . went away, as his father had put it. The fact that people who'd been StateSec officers didn't seem to be even considering the possibility was only one more indication, in his opinion, of how far they'd fallen since Thomas Theisman's restoration of the Old Republic had turned them into interstellar orphans.

But, as his father had just pointed out, the fact that those charges were there was the underlying premise of Operation Wooden Horse. Once the 'StateSec renegades' had attacked Verdant Vista and carried out a flagrant violation of the Eridani Edict, every space navy's hand would be turned against them . . . including that of the small Mesan Space Navy. On the other hand, the problem might never arise if a single Mesan vessel with the activation codes for those suicide charges should just happen to arrive at their post-Verdant Vista rendezvous and transmit them while all those nasty genocidal StateSec fanatics were in range.

"Let me see if I've followed your devious thinking properly here, Father," he said after a moment. "You're thinking that we go ahead and mount Operation Ferret and use our reinforced StateSec refugees to take out Verdant Vista. They go ahead and blow out the defenders, then take out the planet itself. As soon as they've done that, we deliver their severance checks and all their ships blow up. The planet is so wrecked nobody in his right mind would ever want to live there again, so the only inherent value the system has any longer is the wormhole terminus, which has just been demonstrated to be exceedingly dangerous. At the same time, we take out a huge chunk of the Ballroom's organized support and bodyslam its morale—and that of the ASL in general—throughout the galaxy. And because nobody's going to have any interest on living on the planet, most of the galaxy probably won't be too surprised—or get too worked up—if Mesa, not Manpower, presses its claim to what's left. Most folks will probably figure that it's just Mesa trying to recoup a little of the humiliation it suffered after being thrown out in the first place."

"More or less," Albrecht agreed. "And even if it doesn't work out with Mesa regaining formal sovereignty over the star system, it should throw things into confusion long enough for nobody to have possession of it—or be mounting any more survey expeditions—before Prometheus rolls over them."

"Neat," Benjamin said, his eyes slightly unfocused as he considered permutations. "There is the little matter of the Eridani violation, though."

"We've talked about that before, Ben," Albrecht pointed out. "Either there's going to be evidence it was the StateSec renegades—who don't have a star nation anymore—or else there are going to be too few survivors, if any, to identify the attackers at all. In the first case, obviously Manpower's going to come in for the lion's share of suspicion, especially after Clinget's confirmation that it's been recruiting StateSec mercenaries. That could be . . . unpleasant, but Manpower is only a transstellar corporation, not a star nation, and nobody's going to be able to prove Manpower gave the order, anyway. That's going to create enough ambiguity and confusion for our 'friends' in the League to derail any effort to apply the edict's penalties against the star nation of Mesa. There may be demands that Manpower be punished by Mesa, but those can be obfuscated and delayed for however long we need them to be delayed. For that matter, the Alignment doesn't really care what happens to Manpower at this point, and once a full-scale Prometheus is launched, punishing 'Manpower' isn't going to be especially high on most people's agendas come anyway. And then there's the fact that the only actual star nation directly associated with these people, ever, is going to have been the People's Republic of Haven. I suspect Mesa's best tactic is going to be to argue that those nasty planet-killing renegades were initially created and enabled by Haven, and that Theisman's failure in letting them escape with the Havenite warships in their possession is the real ultimate culprit in this whole tragic affair."

Father and son looked at one another for a moment, then Benjamin shrugged.

"All right, Father. I'm still not sure it's a wonderful idea, you understand, but you've managed to deal with most of my reservations. And, for that matter, you've got a pretty good track record for spotting and backing operations against 'targets of opportunity' most of the rest of us hadn't noticed. I think we can go ahead and start organizing things, even if it turns out we never launch Ferret at all. Like you say, getting all of them into the same place will make cleaning up easier if we decide to just write the entire notion off, too. Before we actually start handing them modern Solly battlecruisers, though, I'd like to get Collin and Isabel's input, though."

"By all means." Albrecht nodded vigorously. "I'm inclined to think this is something we are going to have to take care of substantially sooner than we'd thought we were, but I'm not prepared to start rushing in without thinking things through first. We've come too far and worked too hard for too long to start taking foolish, unnecessary chances at this late date."

Chapter Sixteen

Luiz Rozsak felt his mouth watering in anticipation as he cut through the pastry "jacket" into the juicy center of the nicely rare Beef Wellington. Mayan "beef" actually came from "mayacows"—locally evolved critters that looked sort of like an undersized brontosaurus crossed with a llama. Unlike the Old Earth animal from whom it had taken its name (more or less) the mayacow was oviparous, and quite a few of the local population were partial to mayacow omelettes. Those had never really appealed to Rozsak, but he'd decided over the past several T-years that he actually preferred mayacow beef to Old Earth beef. There truly were enormous similarities, yet he'd discovered some delightful, subtle differences, as well. In fact, he'd invested a modestly hefty percentage of his own income in backing a commercial ranching venture on New Tasmania, Maya's smaller continent. Unlike a great deal of the planet, New Tasmania was tectonically stable, remarkably lacking in volcanoes, and blessed with huge expanses of open prairie. Even today, there was plenty of room for operations like the Bar-R to grow and expand, and Rozsak was already showing a tidy profit on the new markets he'd opened up in Erewhon.

He put the bite into his mouth, closed his eyes, and chewed slowly, with a self-satisfied pleasure he didn't even try to hide from his dinner companion.

"This is delicious, Luiz," Oravil Barregos said from his side of the small dining table.

The two of them were seated in Rozsak's kitchen. Very few people realized that cooking was one of Rozsak's favored hobbies, and he suspected that even fewer would have realized (or believed) that stern, driven, hugely ambitious Sector Governor Barregos actually enjoyed sitting down to an informal dinner, where he and his host served their own plates and poured their own wine, without hordes of servants hovering somewhere in the background. Or, at least, without hordes of supplicants plying him with food and wine in an effort to worm their way into his confidence.

"I think the asparagus might be just a little overcooked," Rozsak replied self-critically.

"You always think something's 'a little' something," Barregos retorted with a smile. "And, frankly, I think it's rather ridiculous, since you seem to be physically unable to stop 'tweaking' your recipes." He shook his head. "I don't think you've ever actually served me exactly the same dish twice; you keep fiddling with it so that there's always something different about it."

"Perfect culinary consistency is a bugaboo of small minds," Rozsak told him loftily. "And a bold spirit of experimentation shouldn't prevent a true chef from recognizing where his efforts fall short—marginally, mind you, only marginally—of his expectations."

"Oh, of course! And such monumental shortcomings, at that. Last time, if I remember correctly, the guacamole was a bit too thin to be perfectly satisfying."

"No," Rozsak corrected with a smile of his own. "That was time before last. Last time it was the Sauce Châteaubriand."

"Oh, forgive my faulty memory!" Barregos rolled his eyes. "How could I have forgotten? Something about the local shallots not measuring up, wasn't it?"

"Actually, it was my decision to experiment with that strain of shallots which has evolved on Erewhon." Rozsak's artful professorial manner would have fooled most people, since most people wouldn't have been able to recognize the gleam of humor in his dark eyes. "It should have worked," he continued, "but there was a degree of acidity I hadn't counted on. Oh, the meal was satisfactory, of course. Don't misunderstand me. Still—"

"Given the fact that you're the only person I know who makes Châteaubriand at all, and that your degree of fanaticism in the kitchen can be truly terrifying, I'm amazed to hear you saying something like that," Barregos interrupted. " 'The meal was satisfactory'? You mean you're willing to admit that? Dear Lord, the end of the universe is at hand!"

Both of them chuckled, and the governor shook his head. It always amused him that Rozsak, supremely confident in so many ways, was never truly satisfied with his own culinary efforts. He truly was constantly experimenting, tweaking, tinkering with ingredients, and he was far and away his own sternest critic.

Of course, he doesn't have a lot of other potential critics, does he? Barregos thought. It's not a side of him he shares with a lot of people, after all. I wonder why he keeps it so private? Because it's the one real escape he allows himself and sharing it would make it less of an escape somehow? Because the domesticity of it would be so at odds with his hard-as-nails, tough-minded, cynical admiral public persona?

"Well," Rozsak said, almost as if he'd just read his guest's mind, as he reached for his wine glass, "given the way things are heating up, I've discovered that I need to relax in the kitchen just a bit more than I used to."

"If one of the side effects is producing meals like this," Barregos replied, keeping his tone light as he reached for his own wine, "maybe it's a pity I haven't kept you under more pressure all along."

"Oh, I think you've managed quite nicely in that respect," Rozsak reassured him, and the two of them snorted almost simultaneously.

"Speaking of Erewhonese vegetables—"

"Roots, Governor. Roots," Rozsak corrected. "Like onions."

"Speaking of Erewhonese plant life," Barregos said with a stern look, "how are our other Erewhonese ventures coming?"

"On the financial side, you really need to discuss that with Donald and Brent," Rozsak said rather more seriously. "My impression is that so far we've had enough cash to cover everything."

An arched eyebrow and rising inflection turned the last sentence into a question, and Barregos nodded.

"There's actually turned out to be even more cash in the till than I'd expected," he replied. "I don't think we can siphon any more out of our official budget without risking questions from Permanent Senior Undersecretary Wodoslawski's minions at Treasury, but it's rather impressive how much some of the transstellars' local management has been willing to kick into my 'discretionary fund' for those 'subscription ships' of yours. And even better, Donald's managed to arrange things so that a good seventy percent of our total costs look like—and are, for that matter—good, sound investment opportunities." He shrugged. "We're still racking up a pretty impressive debt, but Donald and Brent are both confident we'll be able to service the interest and pay down the Sector's own public debt within no more than five to ten T-years."

"I'm glad to hear it." Rozsak cut another morsel of beef and chewed it slowly, then swallowed.

"I'm glad to hear it, but unless I'm pretty badly mistaken, our expenditure curve is about to start climbing steeply. Chapman and Horton are ready to start laying down their first locally designed SD(P)s. Which means, of course, that we're about ready to start doing the same thing. Discreetly, of course."

"Oh, of course," Barregos agreed. He smiled tightly. "The first half dozen of those were factored into the numbers Donald and Brent discussed with me last week, though."

"They were?" Rozsak sounded surprised, and the governor chuckled.

"Actually, we ended up owning a considerably larger chunk of Al Carlucci's new shipbuilding capacity than we'd anticipated." Barregos' chuckle segued into a grimace. "Having Pritchart and Elizabeth go back to shooting at each other hasn't helped the local economy. It probably wouldn't have helped things anyway, but I don't suppose anyone in Erewhon was really surprised when Manticore hammered them with that increase in transit fees." He snorted. "Actually, I'd imagine that if anyone in Maytag was surprised by anything it's that Manticore didn't smack them on the wrist even harder."

"A seven hundred and fify-percent increase in Junction transit fees, a seventy-five-percent duty on any Erewhonese product in the Star Kingdom, and a seventy-percent capital gains tax on any Erewhonese investment in Manticore strikes me as a pretty substantial 'smack,' " Rozsak pointed out dryly. "Especially given the fact that Manticore's been Erewhon's biggest single trading partner for decades."

"Agreed." Barregos nodded. "And its hammered the hell out of the Erewhonese economy, too. Produced its own little system-wide recession, as a matter of fact. On the other hand, I think even Imbesi would be prepared to admit that some sort of Manty retaliation for all the technology that got handed over to Haven was in order, and it could have been a hell of a lot worse. Of course, they've managed to pick up at least some of their losses from increased trade with Haven, but they're suddenly on the other end of the tech imbalance, which is kicking up more than a few problems while their industrial sector tries to retool and adjust. Not to mention the fact that they aren't any too fond of Haven at the moment, either, given who actually fired the first shot that landed them in their current mess.

"At any rate, right now, and not wanting to wish any additional unhappiness on our newfound friends in Maytag, it's offering us quite a few interesting opportunities we probably wouldn't have had otherwise. Among other things, CIG ended up needing a lot more capital investment from our side to get it up and running. That's why we floated that new bond issue back on Old Earth, which is also one of the reasons we're in better economic shape—and in a much better strategic position in Erewhon—at this point than we'd expected to be. Financially, the fact that the Sector was already so heavily invested in Erewhon gave us plenty of cover when the resumption of hostilities meant we had to raise additional capital from sources outside our immediate area. And Treasury was perfectly willing to sign off on the bonds—for the bureaucrats' usual cut, of course."

He smiled evilly, and Rozsak raised both eyebrows in silent question.

"Well," Barregos told him cheerfully, "those same bureaucrats back on Old Earth insisted—positively insisted—that the bond issue in question be underwritten directly by the Treasury instead of the Sector administration. I think it had something to do with . . . bookkeeping issues."

Rozsak snorted harshly in amused understanding. He wasn't at all surprised that the Treasury Department personnel in question wanted to handle the accounting as much in-house as possible, since it was so much easier to cook their own books (and hide their inevitable peculation) than it was to skim off of someone else's cash flow without detection. But that was merely the Solarian League's basic SOP, and he was still a bit puzzled by the governor's obvious amusement.

"And having them do the bookkeeping helps us exactly how?" the admiral asked after a moment. "Obviously it does, somehow, but I would've thought that having their fingers directly in the pie would be more likely to sound alarms at their end as we get further down the road."

"As long as the graft keeps rolling in, they aren't going to care what we're really doing with the money at this end," Barregos pointed out. "That's a given, and it's been part of our strategy from the very beginning. But what else it does for us is to make the debt a charge on the Solarian League, not the Maya Sector, and it never occurred to me or Donald that we might be able to get away with that!"

"And?" Rozsak asked.

"And, Luiz, if the day should ever come—perish the thought—when we good, loyal Solarians out here in the Sector should find ourselves in less than full accord with Frontier Security HQ or the Interior Department in general, we won't be the ones responsible for paying the bondholders off. As far as we're concerned, all that dreadful debt—close to sixty percent of our total investment in CIG, will be owed to Solarian citizens, not anyone out here. And the obligation to pay off those bounds, Donald tells me, will also belong to the League Treasury. Which means that as far as we're concerned it will just . . . go away. Poof."

He smiled beatifically, and despite his own monumental aplomb and self-control, Rozsak's jaw actually dropped a half-centimeter or so.

"And," Barregos continued even more cheerfully, "I've just had a memo from one of Wodoslawski's senior aides. He wants to know if it would be possible to interest the Erewhonese directly in floating additional bond issues in the League to support their military expansion. It seems reports about Erewhon's concern—its worry about finding itself caught between its old allies and its new ones if things go really sour—has inspired certain individuals back on Old Earth to be thinking in terms of combining personal opportunity with foreign policy objectives. According to the memo, Treasury and State would like to acquire a bigger financial stake in Erewhon as a means of gaining additional leverage with the Republic down the road."

"Damn," Rozsak said mildly, and shook his head. "Those poor bastards. They don't even have a clue, do they?" Then he snorted. "Talk about history repeating! The whole thing reminds me of what Lenin had to say about capitalists selling rope to the proletariat!"

"I don't know about that," Barregos replied. "Frankly, you're a lot better student of pre-space Old Earth history than I am. I know who you're talking about, but I'm not familiar with the specific comment you're actually referring to. If he meant those idiots in Old Chicago are stupid enough to be paying for the pulser darts likely to be coming their own way, though, yes. I'd say it does sort of . . . resonate."

"You know," Rozsak said thoughtfully, "I can't say I was especially delighted when the Manties and the Havenites started shooting at each other again. To be honest, it seemed likely to make a lot of problems for us. Oh, I figured there'd be opportunities in it, too, of course, but I was more worried about the probable economic dislocation and what might happen if Erewhon got sucked into the fighting and took our investment plans with it."

"That," Barregos conceded, "would really and truly have sucked from our perspective."

"Tell me about it!" Rozsak snorted. "Instead, it's worked out so much in our favor that I'm starting to wait nervously for whatever bad news the karma department is waiting to hit us with by way of compensation."

Barregos nodded. The Republic of Erewhon had been both surprised and more than mildly irritated by the Republic of Haven's decision to resume hostilities against the Star Kingdom of Manticore less than a T-month after Berry Zilwicki's coronation on Torch. In fact, Erewhon had been downright pissed off about it. There'd been just time enough for Maytag and Nouveau Paris to ratify the brand-new self-defense treaty between their two republics before the shooting started up all over again, and despite how severely pissed off the Erewhonese had been with the High Ridge Government, it hadn't cared at all for the position in which Eloise Pritchart's decision had placed it.

It was fortunate that the new treaty was defensive in nature, since, in light of the fact that Haven was clearly the aggressor this time around, that had at least obviated any requirement for Erewhon to sign on for active operations against its erstwhile fellow members of the Manticoran Alliance. On the other hand, as the Star Kingdom's new economic policies had made painfully evident to Erewhon, Manticore was less than totally pleased by the technology transfers which had been part of the Erewhon-Haven agreements. Personally, Barregos felt confident that the real reason Manticore hadn't been even less delighted (not to mention inclined to punish Erewhon even more harshly) was that the Manties were unhappily aware that Haven had probably captured enough even more modern Manty military technology in the course of Operation Thunderbolt to give the Republican Navy at least as much of a leg up as anything Erewhon could have handed over. It might have taken Shannon Foraker and Haven's revitalized R&D establishment longer to capitalize on what they'd captured without the starting point Erewhon had given them, but Foraker was dismayingly competent from Manticore's perspective. She'd have gotten there in the end on her own, eventually, and the Manties knew it.

And, he reflected respectfully, Elizabeth Winton is smart enough not to forget that there's always a tomorrow. I'm sure she's pissed off as hell at Erewhon right now, but she also knows how much her own damned prime minister had to do with creating the new situation. And she's pragmatic enough to roll with the punch of Erewhon's tech transfers as long as Erewhon goes on refusing to participate in military operations against the Alliance. She doesn't want to do anything that's going to inflict irreparable damage on the possibility of future relations between the Star Kingdom and Erewhon.

"It has offered us an even better opportunity to firm up our own relationship with Erewhon than I expected," he said out loud. "Completely irrespective of how it's helped our funding drives back on Old Earth."

"I'm afraid I'm a bit more focused on the hardware side of things," Rozsak said. "Having Manticore and Haven shooting at each other again's given Admiral Chapman and Glenn Horton the perfect pretext for expanding their wall of battle just as fast—and as much—as they possibly can. Which, of course, is going to expand our own strength right along with theirs. And, frankly, I'm more than a little impressed with some of the tech transfers flowing the other way. Foraker and her crew have obviously been working hard on catching up with the Manties. And from what Greeley is saying over in the ESN's Office of Research and Development, combining that with the Solarian tech we've been quietly feeding him is opening up some interesting possibilities of its own."

"Really?" Barregos looked thoughtful. "I hadn't thought about that possibility," he admitted after a moment, then shrugged. "I suppose I've been so well aware of how the Manties have been pushing the envelope that it didn't occur to me that the League might have anything significant to offer Erewhon."

"I'm not sure the League would have 'anything significant' to offer Manticore." Rozsak grimaced. "Even now, and even while I'm fully aware of how much that particular fact is likely to be working in our own favor in the not-too-distant, I'm still a little pissed off—well, irritated, at least—by the thought that the Manties are so far out in front of the SLN. It's downright humiliating. Almost as humiliating as the realization that no one back on Old Earth seems to have the tiniest sliver of an awareness of just how bad things really are from their perspective. I'd like to think that someone in the Navy somewhere has at least the IQ of a gerbil!

"But Erewhon isn't Manticore," he continued. "The Erewhonese's tech base isn't nearly as advanced as the Manties' is, and I'd estimate that they're at least a generation or two behind the Manties' deployed hardware. How far behind the Manties' R&D they are is something I'm not even prepared to guess about at this point, but there are a lot of ways in which Solarian tech is letting them downsize and improve on some of the stuff they're getting from Foraker's teams. And," he bared the tips of his teeth, "under the circumstances and given the way Haven surprised them, as well as the Manties, with Thunderbolt, neither Greeley nor Chapman seems to feel any great need to fall all over themselves passing on their own improvements to Haven."

"I'm not really surprised to hear that," Barregos said.

"No, I'm not either," Rozsak agreed. Then he frowned.

"What?" Barregos asked, and the admiral shrugged.

"I've just been thinking about the other opportunities—and risks—involved in our current complicated little political calculus out this way. Admittedly, so far it's working out in our favor—in ways I never would have anticipated, as well as the ones we'd figured on all along. But the downside of it is, first, that despite everyone's best efforts, the fighting could spill over onto Erewhon after all, which wouldn't exactly come under the heading of a good thing from our perspective. And, second, that with Manticore and Haven so busy shooting at each other, we're right back to where we were when it comes to dealing with any little interstellar situations that crop up in our neighborhood."

"Such as?" Barregos gave him a quizzical look. "I mean, I'm certainly not disagreeing with you, Luiz. God knows I trust your instincts! But from where I sit right this moment, it looks like any 'little interstellar situations' that come up are more likely to play into our hands than to create additional problems. After all, the more potential hot spots we can point to out here, the less likely anyone in Old Chicago is to get all hot and bothered about our 'readiness campaign.' "

"Oh, from that perspective, I agree entirely. That's a win-win situation from our viewpoint. And Edie, Jiri, and I don't have anything more solid in the way of worrying about potential 'blow-up-in-your-face' hot spots than what Brigadier Allfrey and Richard Wise are reporting. It's not that I have any specific worries in mind, Oravil."

Rozsak didn't use the governor's given name very often, even in private conversation, and Barregos' eyes narrowed slightly at the indication that his admiral's concerns were serious.

"It's just that we're still at a vulnerable stage," Rozsak continued. "We've got a dozen of the new destroyers, and a couple of the new light cruisers, in inventory now, but we're still well short of any significant increase in our overall combat power. And we're also at a point where we can't call on anyone else—except for additional Frontier Fleet units, which we both know is the last thing we want to do—if something comes along that we end up needing backup to handle. I know that's not likely to happen, but one of my jobs is worrying about unlikely things, and I don't like the feeling of being spread too thin to handle all of our obligations if something does fall in the crapper."

"I can appreciate that," Barregos said after a moment. "At the same time, as you say, there doesn't seem to be anything looming on the horizon."

"Well, that's the problem with horizons, isn't it?" Rozsak smiled crookedly. "You can never see what's on the other side of one until it comes at you."

Chapter Seventeen

March, 1921 PD

"Come in, Jack. It's good to see you again. Have a seat."

"Thank you. It's good to see you again, too," Jack McBryde said, mostly honestly, as he obeyed the polite command and settled into what he privately thought of as "the supplicant's chair" in front of the desk in the office reserved for Isabel Bardasano's use whenever she visited the Gamma Center.

Bardasano smiled at him with an edge of sardonic amusement, almost as if she'd read his thoughts. Fortunately, telepathy was something even the Long-Range Planning Board hadn't yet scheduled for inclusion into its carefully managed genomes, and he smiled back at her. He was one of the people who'd figured out long ago that showing fear—or even nervousness—in Bardasano's presence, however reasonable those emotions might be, could be disastrous. Her own insouciance, even in the face of Albrecht Detweiler's occasional temper tantrum, was famous (or infamous) among the uppermost echelons of the Mesan Alignment, and she would not tolerate weaklings among her own trusted subordinates.

McBryde ranked high among those subordinates. He wasn't quite in the very uppermost tier, because he hadn't gone operational off Mesa, or even held supervisory authority over any off-Mesa operation, in over a decade. On the other hand, he reported directly to her (whenever she was in-system, at any rate) in his position as the Gamma Center's chief of security, which was probably one of the half-dozen most sensitive of the Alignment's security services' posts.

Personally, he was happier running the center's security than he'd ever really been operating off-world, and he knew it. Unlike Bardasano, who actively enjoyed what was still referred to as "wet work," McBryde preferred a position in which he was unlikely to have to kill people.

"It's good to be back," Bardasano said now, then shrugged slightly. "On the other hand, I've been out of touch too long. I've got a lot of catching up to do."

"Yes, Ma'am. I can see how that would be."

In fact, McBryde was more than a little surprised Bardasano was in a position to do any "catching up." She'd been back on Mesa for less than forty-eight hours, but rumors of how spectacularly her operation in the Talbott Cluster seemed to have blown up in everyone's face were already rampant within the Alignment hierarchy. The truth was that if anyone had asked him, this time around, and despite her impressive record of past achievements, he would have placed his own bet against her retaining her position as Collin Detweiler's immediate subordinate. For that matter, he wasn't sure he wouldn't have betted against her even surviving, given the apparent magnitude of the debacle.

Which would have been pretty stupid of me, now that I think about it, he admitted to himself. Whatever else may be true about Albrecht and Collin, they don't throw away talent without a damned good reason. And while this operation may have gone south on her, her overall track record really is almost scary.

"I've already viewed your reports on the Gamma Center," she continued, and gave him a less amused and more approving smile. "My initial impression is that everything seems to have gone just a bit more . . . smoothly here at home than it did in Monica."

"That, ah, was my impression, too, Ma'am, if you'll pardon my saying so."

"Oh, I'll pardon it." She snorted. "As far as we can tell so far, it was just one of those fluke things that pop up and bite field ops on the ass sometimes, no matter how carefully you prep ahead of time. But I've got to admit I hate investing that much time in an operation that comes apart quite as thoroughly as this one did." She shrugged. "On the other hand, sometimes shit just happens."

McBryde nodded, and he had to admit she'd always borne that same point in mind where others were concerned. If you screwed up because you were stupid, or failed to execute your part of an op—on time and as planned—because of something you did, she would very quickly make you wish you'd never been born. And in her public persona as the Jessyk Combine's, she had deliberately cultivated a "mad dog" mentality where the operatives who had no clue they were working for the Alignment were concerned. That bloodthirstiness and obvious belief in the motivating power of terror were both significant parts of her cover, and the failures she eliminated to "encourage the others" were a completely expendable, easily replaced resource.

Still, there was an undeniably . . . vicious edge to her personality, one which enjoyed devising inventive punishments, even for Alignment Security personnel who screwed up too egregiously. But what very few people outside Security's upper echelons grasped was that it was an edge she had firmly under control. And he was willing to acknowledge that the fact that that edge existed—and was generally known among her subordinates—was an extraordinarily effective efficiency motivator.

"I don't think we're going to find any significant problems or necessary adjustments to your procedures," Bardasano continued. "There are a couple of things we may want to tweak a bit, because—just between the two of us, and despite what just happened in the Talbott Cluster—we're getting closer to Prometheus."

Her eyes, he discovered, were watching him very intently as she dropped the last sentence on him, and he felt himself stiffening. Only partly because of her suddenly closer scrutiny, too. Jack McBryde was one of the people who knew a great deal—almost everything, he suspected—about exactly what "Prometheus" implied, yet nothing had suggested to him that the culmination the entire Alignment had worked towards literally for centuries was as imminent as Bardasano seemed to be suggesting.

"We are?"

He made the question come out levelly, despite the undeniable, abrupt flutter of his pulse, and saw a flicker of approval in those intent eyes. Had she been deliberately probing to test his reaction to the news?

"We are," she confirmed. "In fact, my personal opinion is that we may well be closer to Prometheus than even Albrecht realizes at this point." Despite himself, this time McBryde's eyes widened, and she shrugged again. "I'm not talking about doing anything to jog his elbow, Jack! I'm simply saying my read is that events are accelerating—in some ways, along lines we hadn't even guessed might present themselves during our preliminary planning. You know we've always anticipated at least some of that."

"Yes, Ma'am," he agreed.

"From your perspective," she went on, "I think the most important implications are that it's going to become even more important that the Gamma Center completes its various projects on time. I know!" She waved one hand as McBryde stirred and began to open his mouth. "R&D isn't something that can be completed to a set schedule on demand. And even if it were, that's not your end of the Center's responsibilities. But what I'm going to need out of you is special attention to keeping those projects moving. Obviously, we need to go right on maintaining the highest possible levels of security, but at the same time, we have to be particularly aware of the need to avoid letting our security concerns get in the way of moving the various programs ahead."

"I see." He nodded in understanding.

"I know you've always tried to do that anyway," Bardasano said. "I imagine having Zachariah as a sounding board hasn't hurt in that respect, and I'm specifically authorizing you to go on doing that. I know the Gamma Center programs are only part of his responsibilities and that he's not directly involved in the nuts and bolts on any of them. Try to keep him in the loop anyway, though. Use him as a conduit to the research directors—a way for them to 'unofficially' vent about any problems to someone they know can play advocate for them with the big, nasty ogre in charge of all the security restrictions getting in their way."

"Yes, Ma'am." McBryde grinned crookedly. "I'm sure Zack will be just delighted to have even more of them crying in his ear, but he'll do it if I ask him to."

"Useful things, siblings. Sometimes I wish I had one or two." Bardasano might have sounded just a little wistful, although McBryde wouldn't have cared to wager any significant sum on the possibility.

"In the meantime," she continued, her tone shifting to something considerably more somber, "I think we have one particular problem I'm going to need you to spend some additional effort on."

"Problem, Ma'am?"

"Herlander Simões," she said, and he grimaced. She saw his expression and nodded.

"I know he's been under a lot of strain, Ma'am," he began, "but, so far, he's been holding up his end of his project, and—"

"Jack, I'm not criticizing his performance so far. And I'm certainly not criticizing the way you've handled him so far, either. But he's deeply involved in the entire streak drive improvement program, and that's one of our critical research areas. For that matter, he's got peripheral involvement in at least two other projects. I think, under the circumstances, it's probably appropriate for us to show a little additional concern in his case."

McBryde nodded.

"Tell me more about how you think this is affecting him," she invited, tipping back in her chair. "I've already read half a dozen psych analyses on him, and I've discussed his reactions—and his attitude—with Dr. Fabre. The people writing those analyses aren't in charge of directly supervising his performance, though. I know you're not either—not in the sense of being his direct superior—but I want your evaluation from a pragmatic viewpoint."

"Yes, Ma'am."

McBryde inhaled deeply and took a few moments to organize his thoughts. Bardasano's penchant for demanding operational evaluations on the fly was well known. She'd always believed that what she liked to call "snap quizzes" were the best way to get at what someone really thought, but she also believed in giving her unfortunate minions time to think before they started spewing less than completely considered responses.

"To begin with," he said finally, "I have to admit I never really knew Simões—either Simões—in any sort of social sense before all of this came up. For that matter, I still don't. My impression, though, is that the LRPB's decision to cull the girl really ripped him up inside."

My, he thought. Isn't that a bloodless way to describe what that man has been going through? And isn't it just like those bastards over at the LRPB to have failed to consider all the unfortunate little social consequences of their decisions?

Bardasano nodded, although her own expression didn't even flicker. Of course, she represented one of Long-Range Planning's in vitro lines, McBryde reminded himself, and one which had been culled more than once, itself. For that matter, at least one of her own immediate clones had been culled, and not until late adolescence, at that, if he remembered correctly. Still, while the culled Bardasano had been the next best thing to a genetic duplicate to Isabel (not quite; there'd been a few experimental differences, of course), it had scarcely been what the word "brother" or "sister" would have implied to a man like Jack McBryde. Like a lot—even the majority—of LRPB's in vitro children, she'd been tube-birthed and crèche-raised, not placed in a regular family environment or encouraged to form sibling bonds with her fellow clones. No one had ever officially told McBryde anything of the sort, but he strongly suspected that lack of encouragement represented a deliberate policy on the Board's part—a way to avoid the creation of potentially conflicting loyalties. So maybe this was simply too far outside her own experience for her to have more than a purely intellectual appreciation for Herlander Simões' anguish.

"I understand he tried to fight the decision," she said.

"Yes, Ma'am," McBryde confirmed, although "fight the decision" was a pitifully pale description of Simões' frantic resistance.

"There was never much chance he was going to get a reversal, though," he continued. "According to my information, the LRPB directors considered it a slam dunk, given the quality of life issues that reinforced the utilitarian ones."

Bardasano nodded again. Despite the qualifier on his own familiarity with the case, McBryde knew quite a lot about it. He knew Herlander Simões—and his wife, apparently—had lowered their emotional defenses when Francesca made it through the anticipated danger zone with flying colors. Which had only made the agony infinitely worse when the first symptoms appeared two years late.

Having them turn up on the very day of her birthday must have been like an extra kick in the heart, and as if that hadn't been enough, her condition had degenerated with astounding speed. On her birthday, there'd been no outward visible sign at all; within six T-months, the bright, lively child McBryde had seen in the Simões' security file imagery had disappeared. Within ten T-months, she'd completely withdrawn from the world about her. She'd been totally nonresponsive. She'd simply sat there, not even chewing food if someone put it into her mouth.

"I've read the reports on the girl's condition," Bardasano said dispassionately. "Frankly, I can't say the Board's decision surprises me."

"As I say, I don't think there was ever much chance of a reversal, either," McBryde agreed. "He didn't want to hear that, though. He kept pointing at the activity showing on the electroencephalograms, and he was absolutely convinced they proved that, as he put it,' she was still in there somewhere.' He simply refused to admit her condition was unrecoverable. He was certain that if the medical staff just kept trying long enough, they'd be able to get through to her, reverse her condition."

"After all the effort they'd already put into solving the same problem in previous cases?" Bardasano grimaced.

"I didn't say he was being logical about it," McBryde pointed out. "Although he did make the point that because this child had made it further than any of the others had, she represented the best opportunity the Board would ever have—or had ever had so far, at any rate—to achieve an actual breakthrough."

"Do you think he really believed that? Or was it just an effort to come up with an argument which wouldn't be dismissed out of hand?"

"I think it was a bit of both, actually. He was desperate enough to come up with any argument he could possibly find, but it's my personal opinion that he was even angrier because he genuinely believed the Board was turning its back on a possibility."

And, McBryde added silently, because those brain scans were still showing activity. That's why he kept insisting she was really still there, even if none of it was making it to the surface. And he also knew how little of the Board's resources would actually be tied up in the effort to get her back for him. He figured the return to the Alignment in general if they succeeded would hugely exceed the cost . . . and that the investment would keep his daughter alive. Maybe even return her to him one day.

"At any rate," he went on aloud, "the Board didn't agree with his assessment. Their official decision was that there was no reasonable prospect of reversing her condition. That it would have been an ultimately futile diversion of resources. And as for the apparent EEG activity, that only made the situation even worse from the quality-of-life perspective. They decided that condemning her to a complete inability to interact with the world around her—assuming she was even still aware there was a world around her—would be needlessly cruel."

Which sounded so compassionate of them, he thought. It may even have been that way, for some of them, at least.

"So they went ahead and terminated her," Bardasano finished.

"Yes, Ma'am." McBryde allowed his nostrils to flare. "And, while I understand the basis for their decision, from the perspective of Simões' effectiveness, I have to say that the fact that they terminated her just one day short of her birthday was . . . unfortunate."

Bardasano grimaced—this time in obvious understanding and agreement.

"The LRPB goes to great lengths to keep its decision-making process as institutionalized and impersonal as possible as the best way of preventing favoritism and special-case pleading," she said. "That means it's all pretty much . . . automated, especially after the decision's been made. But I imagine you're right. In a case like this, showing a little more sensitivity might not have been out of order."

"In light of the effect on him, you're absolutely right," McBryde said. "It hammered his wife, too, of course, but I think it hit him even harder. Or, at least, I think it's had more serious consequences in terms of his effectiveness."

"She left him?" Bardasano's tone made it clear the question was actually a statement, and McBryde nodded.

"I think there were a lot of factors tied up in that," he told her. "Part of it was that she seems a lot more in accord with the Board's quality-of-life arguments. That's the way he sees her attitude, at any rate. So at least a part of him blamed her for 'abandoning' the girl—and him, in a sense—when she wouldn't support his appeals for a reversal. At the same time, though, my impression is that she wasn't really anywhere near as reconciled to the decision as she seemed. I think that deep down inside she was trying to deny how badly the Board's decision was hurting her. But there was nothing she could do about that decision. I think she admitted that to herself a lot sooner than he was prepared to, so she focused her anger on him, instead of the Board. The way she saw it, he was stretching out everyone's pain—and whatever the girl was enduring—in what he ought to have known as well as she did was obviously an ultimately useless crusade." He shook his head. "There's room for an awful lot of pain in that sort of situation, Ma'am."

"I suppose I understand that," Bardasano said. "I know emotions frequently do things, cause us to do things, when our intellects know better all along. This was obviously one of those times."

"Yes, Ma'am. It was."

"Is the wife's work suffering out of all this?"

"Apparently not. According to her project leader, she actually seems to be attacking her work with greater energy. He says he thinks it's her form of escape."

"Unhappiness as a motivator." Bardasano smiled ever so slightly. "Somehow, I don't see it being generally applicable."

"No, Ma'am."

"All right, Jack—bottom line. Do you think Simões' . . . attitude is likely to have an adverse impact on his work?"

"I think it's already had an adverse impact," McBryde replied. "The man's good enough at his job that, despite everything, he's still probably outperforming just about anyone else we could slide into the same position, though—especially given the fact that anyone we might replace him with would be starting cold. The replacement would have to be brought fully up to speed, even assuming we could find someone with Simões' inherent capability."

"That's a short-term analysis," Bardasano pointed out. "What do you think about the long-term prospects?"

"Long-term, Ma'am, I think we'd better start looking for that replacement." McBryde couldn't quite keep the sadness out of his tone. "I don't think anyone can go through everything Simões is going through—and putting himself through—without crashing and burning in the end. I suppose it's possible, even likely, that he'll eventually learn to cope, but I very much doubt it's going to happen until he falls all the way down that hole inside him."

"That's . . . unfortunate," Bardasano said after a moment. McBryde's eyebrow quirked, and she let her chair come back upright as she continued. "Your analysis of his basic ability dovetails nicely with the Director of Research's analysis. At the moment, we genuinely don't have anyone we could put into his spot who could match the work he's still managing to turn out. So I guess the next question is whether or not you think his attitude—his emotional state—constitutes any sort of security risk?"

"At the moment, no," McBryde said firmly. Even as he spoke, he felt the tiniest quiver of uncertainty, but he suppressed it firmly. Herlander Simões was a man trapped in a living hell, and despite his own professionalism, McBryde wasn't prepared to simply cut him adrift without good, solid reasons.

"In the longer term," he continued, "I think it's much too early to predict where he might finally end up."

Willingness to extend Simões the benefit of the doubt was one thing; failing to throw out a sheet anchor in an evaluation like this one was quite another.

"Is he in a position to damage anything that's already been accomplished?"

Bardasano leaned forward over her desk, folding her forearms on her blotter and leaning her weight on them while she watched McBryde intently.

"No, Ma'am." This time McBryde spoke without even a shadow of a reservation. "There are too many backups, and too many other members of his team are fully hands-on. He couldn't delete any of the project notes or data even if he were so far gone that he tried—not that I think he's anywhere near that state, at this point at least, you understand. If I did, I'd have already yanked him. And as far as hardware is concerned, he's completely out of the loop. His team's working entirely on the research and basic theory end of things."

Bardasano cocked her head, obviously considering everything he'd said, for several seconds. Then she nodded.

"All right, Jack. What you've said coincides with my own sense from all the other reports. At the same time, I think we need to be aware of the potential downsides for the Gamma Center's operations in general, as well as his specific projects. I want you to take personal charge in his case."

"Ma'am—" McBryde began, but she interrupted him.

"I know you're not a therapist, and I'm not asking you to be one. And I know that, usually, a degree of separation between the security chief and the people he's responsible for keeping an eye on is a good thing. This case is outside the normal rules, though, and I think we have to approach it the same way. If you decide you need help, you need an additional viewpoint, you need to call in a therapist, feel free to do so. But if I'm right about how imminent Prometheus is, we need to keep him where he is, doing what he's doing, as long—and as expeditiously—as we can. Understood?"

"Yes, Ma'am." McBryde couldn't keep his lack of enthusiasm completely out of his voice, but he nodded. "Understood."

Chapter Eighteen

"Arsène, my man!" Santeri Laukkonen half-shouted (necessary, if anyone was actually going to hear him over the bar's background noise), and reached out to slap the blond, gray-eyed man on the shoulder. "Haven't seen you for a while! Business been good?"

Arsène Bottereau, late—very late, in his case—citizen commander in the service of the People's Republic of Haven's Office of State Security, tried not to wince. He was not outstandingly successful. First, because Laukkonen was a physically powerful man who hadn't pulled the blow in the least. Second, because Bottereau had been concentrating on keeping a low profile for a long time, now. And third, because he owed Laukkonen money . . . and wasn't there to pay it. Which was one reason he'd arranged to meet the fence and weapons dealer in a public bar rather than a quiet, discreet little office somewhere. Now he steered the other man to a corner booth—the sort of corner booth where waiters left one alone because they worked in the sort of bar where business discussions were likely to require an additional degree of . . . privacy.

Laukkonen's bodyguards were as accustomed as the bar's wait staff to keeping their noses out of their employer's business as much as possible, and they peeled off to flanking positions, close enough to hover protectively, yet far enough away to avoid overhearing anything which was none of their affair.

"Not so good as all that, Santeri, in answer to your question." Bottereau told him a small smile, once they were seated. "Now that people are shooting at each other out this way again, pickings are getting slim."

"I'm sorry to hear that." Laukkonen's tone was still genial, but his brown eyes had hardened noticeably.

"Yes, well, that's one of the reasons I wanted to talk with you," Bottereau said.

"Yes?" Laukkonen encouraged so pleasantly that an undeniable shiver ran down Bottereau's spine.

"I know I still owe you for that last load of supplies." The ex-Peep had decided going in that frankness and honesty were the only way to go. "And I'm pretty sure you've figured out that the reason I haven't come calling on you sooner is that I don't have the cash to pay for it."

"The suspicion had crossed my mind," Laukkonen allowed. His lips smiled. "I'm sure you wouldn't be thinking about stiffing an old friend, though."

"Of course not," Bottereau said, with total honesty.

Attempting to cheat Santeri Laukkonen was not what one might consider a career enhancing move. It was a big galaxy, and it was entirely possible a man could run fast enough and far enough to get away with something like that, but Arsène Bottereau wasn't about to risk finding out that it wasn't. Big as the galaxy was, people like Laukkonen tended to have contacts in the least likely of places . . . and people in his line of work tended to do one another favors. Even if they hardly knew one another. Letting someone get away with cheating any of them was bad business, and if word got around that someone had done that to someone else, the offender had a distressing tendency to end up dead. Professional courtesy (after all, one day they might need a favor in Laukkonen's area), combined with the need to make it clear deadbeats did not prosper in their neck of the woods, saw to that.

"I'm relieved to hear it," Laukkonen said, still pleasantly. "On the other hand, I have to wonder exactly why you wanted to see me if it wasn't to pay me?"

"Mostly because I want to avoid . . . misunderstandings," Bottereau replied.

"What sort of 'misunderstandings'?"

"The thing is, I can't pay you right now, and to be honest, the way both the Manties and Theisman—and Erewhon, for that matter—are escorting their convoys in the area, things are getting too hot for Jacinthe. She's only a light cruiser, and we're beginning to see heavy cruiser escorts—even a couple of battlecruisers, out of Theisman." Bottereau shook his head. "I'm not going to get your money by ramming my head into that kind of opposition, and the stuff sailing independently around here right now is strictly low-end. It's not going to pay the bills, either."

"And this matters to me because . . . ?" Laukkonen's expression was not encouraging.

"Because I've got an . . . opportunity elsewhere. It's for a big paycheck, Santeri. Enough to let me finally retire, actually, as well as paying you everything I owe you."

"Of course it is."

Laukkonen smiled thinly, but Bottereau shook his head.

"I know. Everybody in my line of work is always looking for the big score."

It was his turn to smile, and there was absolutely no humor in it. He hadn't seen a lot of options when the People's Republic went down with Oscar Saint-Just, yet if he'd realized then what he was getting into . . .

"I won't lie to you," he went on, looking Laukkonen straight in the eye. "There's nothing I'd like better than to be able to get the hell out, and this may be my chance to do just that."

"Unless, of course, something . . . unfortunate happens before you get to that retirement check," Laukkonen pointed out.

"Which is one reason I'm having this conversation with you," Bottereau said. "I know these people are good for the money. I've worked with them before, although I have to admit this time they're talking about a lot bigger paycheck than before." He grimaced. "On the other hand, what they're talking about sounds like a straightforward merc operation, not commerce raiding." It was interesting, a corner of his own mind noted, that even now he couldn't bring himself to use the word "piracy" in conjunction with his own actions. On the other and, it never even occurred to him to mention anything about the People's Navy in Exile to Laukkonen. Mostly because he was certain it would absolutely convince the arms dealer he was shooting him a line of pure shit. "It's a single in-and-out op, and the amount they're talking about, completely in addition to anything we might . . . pick up along the way, would clear everything I owe you—and everyone else—and still leave me enough to set up somewhere else in something legitimate."

"And?"

"And I want you to understand that in order for me to get from where I am now to that paycheck—the one I'm planning to pay you out of—I'm going to need some time."

"How much time?" Laukkonen asked frostily.

"I'm not absolutely positive," Bottereau conceded. "Probably at least three or four months . . . maybe even a little longer."

"And just exactly what are you planning to operate on in the meantime?" Laukkonen's skepticism was plain.

"We're not going to be operating 'in the meantime,' " Bottereau replied. "This is something big, Santeri. To be honest, I'm not sure how big, but big. I do know they're going to be pulling in a lot more than just Jacinthe for this one, though, and it's going to take a while to get everything assembled. That's why I can't tell you exactly how long it's going to be. But they'll be picking up our regular maintenance and operating costs while we wait for the entire strike force to assemble."

Laukkonen leaned back on the other side of the table, regarding him thoughtfully, and Bottereau looked back as levelly as he could. For a change, just about everything he'd just told the other man was true. Obviously he hadn't explained every single thing that was involved, but everything he had said was the stark, absolute truth. He hoped that unusual state of affairs was apparent to Laukkonen.

"You're not just trying to get a head start, are you, Arsène?" the fence/arms-dealer inquired finally.

"The thought had occurred to me, before this came along," Bottereau admitted. "On the other hand, I know all about your contacts. I figure there's no more than an even chance—if that—that I could stiff you and then disappear so completely nobody ever caught up with me. Frankly, I don't much like those odds, and even if I could pull it off, I imagine spending the next several decades wondering if I really had wouldn't he especially pleasant, either." He shrugged. "So, instead, I'm telling you ahead of time why you aren't going to see me for a while. I don't want you putting out the word so I get myself killed when I'm actually on my way back to Ajax to settle up with you."

Laukkonen still looked skeptical, but he folded his arms across his chest, frowning ever so slightly as he considered what Bottereau had said. Then he shrugged.

"All right," he said. "All right, I'll give you your three or four months—hell, I'll give you six! But the interest rate's going up. You do understand that, don't you?"

"Yes," Bottereau sighed. "How much did you have in mind?"

"Double," Laukkonen said flatly, and Bottereau winced. Still, it wasn't as bad as he'd been afraid it might be, and what Manpower was promising him would still be enough.

"Agreed," he said.

"Good." Laukkonen stood. "And remember, Arsène—six months. Not seven, and sure as hell not eight. You need longer than that, you damned well better get me a message—and a down payment—in the meantime. Are we clear on that?"

"Clear," Bottereau replied.

Laukkonen didn't say anything more. He simply nodded curtly, once, and walked out of the bar, picking up his bodyguards on the way.

* * *

"Have a seat, Herlander," McBryde invited as the sandy-haired man with the haunted hazel eyes stepped into his office.

Herlander Simões sat in the indicated chair silently. His face was like a shuttered window, except for the pain in those eyes, and his body language was stiff, wary. Not surprisingly, McBryde supposed. An "invitation" to an interview with the man in charge of the Gamma Center's entire security force wasn't exactly calculated to put someone at ease even at the best of times. Which these most definitely were not for Simões.

"I don't imagine it made you feel especially happy to hear I wanted to see you," he said out loud, meeting the situation head on, and snorted gently. "I know it wouldn't have made me happy, in your place."

Still, Simões said nothing, and McBryde leaned forward behind his desk.

"I also know you've been through a lot, these past few months." He was careful to keep his tone gentle and yet professionally detached. "I've read your file, and your wife's. And I've seen the reports from the Long-Range Planning Board." He shrugged ever so slightly. "I don't have any kids of my own, so in that sense, I know I can't really understand how incredibly painful all of this has been for you. And I'm not going to pretend we'd be having this conversation if I didn't have a professional reason for speaking to you. I hope you understand that."

Simões looked at him for a few seconds, then nodded once, jerkily.

McBryde nodded back, maintaining his professional expression, but it was hard. Over the decades, he'd seen more than his share of people who were in pain, or frightened—even terrified. Some of them had had damned good reason to be terrified, too. Security specialists, like cops the galaxy over, had a tendency not to meet people under the most favorable or least stressful of conditions. But he couldn't remember ever having seen a human being as filled with pain as this man. It was even worse than he'd thought when he'd spoken to Bardasano about him.

"May I call you Herlander, Dr. Simões?" he asked after a moment, and the other man surprised him with a brief, tight smile.

"You're the Center's security chief," he pointed out in a voice which sounded less harrowed than it ought to have, coming from a man with his eyes. "I imagine you can call any of us anything you want!"

"True." McBryde smiled back, easing carefully into the possible, tiny opening. "On the other hand, my mother always taught me it was only polite to ask permission, first."

A brief spasm of pain seemed to peak in a Simões' eyes at the reference to McBryde's mother. It obviously reminded him of the family he'd lost. But McBryde had anticipated that, and he went on calmly.

"Well, Herlander, the reason I wanted to see you, obviously, is that there's some concern about how what you've been through—what you're still going through—is likely to affect your work. You've got to know the projects you're involved in are critical. Actually, they're probably even more critical than you realize already, and that's only going to get more pronounced. So the truth is that I've got to know—and my superiors have to know—how well you're going to be able to continue to function."

Simões' face tightened, and McBryde raised one hand and waved it gently in a half-soothing, half-apologetic gesture.

"I'm sorry if that sounds callous," he said levelly. "It's not meant to. On the other hand, I'm trying to be honest with you."

Simões gazed at him, then shrugged.

"Actually, I appreciate that," he said, and grimaced. "I've had enough semi-polite lies and pretenses out of all those people so eager to 'save' Frankie from how terrible her life had become."

The quiet, ineffable bitterness in his voice was more terrible than any shout.

"I'm sorry about that, too," McBryde told him with equally quiet sincerity. "I can't undo any of it, though. You know that as well as I do. All I can do, Herlander, is to see where you and I—and the Gamma Center—are right now. I can't make your pain go away, and I'm not going to pretend that I think I can. But, to be brutally frank, the reason I'm talking to you is that it's my job to help hold the entire Center together. And that means holding you together . . . and recognizing if the time ever comes when we can't do that anymore."

"If the time ever comes?" Simões repeated with a heartbreaking smile, and despite his own training and experience, McBryde winced.

"I'm not prepared to accept just yet that it's inevitable," he said, wondering even as he did if he truly believed that himself . . . and doubting that he did. "On the other hand, I'm not going to lie to you and tell you I'm not going to be making contingency plans in case it does come. That's my job."

"I understand that." For the first time, there was a flicker of something more than pain in those hazel eyes. "In fact, it's a relief. Knowing where you're coming from, and why, I mean."

"I'll be honest with you," McBryde said. "The last thing I really want to do is to get close, on a personal level, to someone who's in as much pain as I think you are. And it's not as if I'm any kind of trained counselor or therapist. Oh, I've had a few basic psych classes as part of my security training, of course, but I'd be totally unqualified to try and cope with your grief on any sort of therapeutic basis. But the truth is, Herlander, that if I'm going to feel confident I understand you, and the security implications you present, you're going to have to talk to me. And that means I'm going to have to talk to you."

He paused and Simões nodded.

"I don't expect you to be able to forget I'm in charge of the Center's security," McBryde continued. "And I'm not going to be able to promise you the kind of confidentiality a therapist is supposed to respect. I want you to understand that going in. But I also want you to understand that my ultimate objective, however we got where we are, is to try to help you stay together. You can't complete the work we need completed if you fall apart, and it's my job to get that work completed. It's that simple. On the other hand, that also means you've got at least one person in the universe—me—you can talk to and who will do anything he can to help you deal with all the shit coming down on you."

He paused again, looking into Simões' eyes, then cleared his throat.

"On that basis, Herlander, let's talk."

Chapter Nineteen

Rear Admiral Rozsak looked up as someone knocked lightly on the frame of his office door.

"I think I may have something interesting here, Luiz," Jiri Watanapongse told him. "Got a minute?"

"Just about," Rozsak replied with an undeniable sense of relief for the interruption as he looked up from the paperwork which obviously reproduced by cellular fission. He leaned back in his powered chair and beckoned for Watanapongse to step into the office and let its door slide shut behind him.

"And just what new interesting tidbit have my faithful espionage minions turned up for me today?" he asked after the commander had obeyed the silent command.

"I haven't been able to confirm this yet," Watanapongse said. "I know how much you just love hearing things that 'can't be confirmed yet,' but I think confirmation for this one's probably going to be a while coming. Under the circumstances, I thought you'd want to hear it anyway."

"And those circumstances are?"

"You remember Laukkonen?"

"How could I forget?" Rozsak said sourly.

Santeri Laukkonen was one of those unsavory sorts people who were all too often involved in the basically unsavory sorts of business the Office of Frontier Security sometimes had to deal with. Not even Rozsak was positive where Laukkonen had come from in the first place, although if he'd had to guess, he would have put his money on an origin somewhere in the bowels of the Solarian League Navy's Office of Procurement. For a Verge gunrunner, the man was extraordinarily well tapped in when it came to "surplus" Solarian weaponry, at any rate. And not everything he handled came in the form of the legally licensed "export varieties" approved for extra-League sale, either. Not by a long chalk.

For the last several years, he'd been operating out of the Ajax System, whose proximity to the Maya Sector made it of more than passing interest to the people in charge of Maya's security. Over those years, he and Luiz Rozsak had found themselves involved in some extremely discreet—and very much arms-length—transactions. The most circuitous of all had involved supplying munitions to a "liberation movement" in the Okada System. The order for that operation had come all the way from Old Chicago itself, and the liberation movement in question had provided the pretext for Frontier Security's urgent need to extend its benevolent protection to the unfortunate citizens of Okada.

And I still don't understand why the hell they wanted to do it, he thought sourly now. It's not like it's the first time people got killed—in relatively large numbers—in the furtherance of some sort of half-baked strategy, but they didn't even hang on to the system afterward! Oravil's right—I really don't like black ops very much, but if I've got to carry them out for a bunch of Old Earth assholes anyway, I'd at least like for them to make some kind of sense afterward. It doesn't even have to be good sense.

Actually, he'd come to the conclusion that Frontier Security itself had been played in this case. The "reform government" OFS had installed had just happened to be tailor-made to allow Admiral Tilden Santana to trade in his admiral's uniform for the presidential palace. And President for Life Santana appeared to be making some substantial contributions to the personal accounts of two senior bureaucrats back in Frontier Security's HQ.

"So, what about Laukkonen?" he asked, shaking himself back up to the surface of his thoughts.

"Well, he's in the favor-trading business, and he knows how we like to keep track of anyone whose  . . . operational interests might intrude into the Sector. In fact, I might as well admit that we went ahead and hinted as much to him."

"And just how much of an investment did we make in this 'hint' of yours?" Rozsak inquired dryly.

"As retainers go, it's not really all that much," Watanapongse replied. "Actually, it's pocket change for him, as well as for us. What he's really after is maintaining access, staying in our good graces, in case another instance of mutually advantageous backscratching should arise."

"All right." Rozsak nodded. "I can understand that. So what tidbit has he thrown our way?"

"One of the points I've hinted to him we'd like to be kept particularly well-informed on is the operation of any StateSec holdouts in our area."

Rozsak nodded again. Any renegade StateSec ships had been smart enough to stay out of the Maya Sector, but he'd known at least some of them were operating just beyond the Sector's borders.

"Well, I'd say it's pretty obvious Laukkonen has been one of their suppliers. At any rate, it seems evident to me that he's got an even better feel for where they've been and what they've been doing than he wants to admit even now. But according to him, a 'very reliable source'—which I take to be one of his StateSec customers—has informed him that several ex-StateSec ships which have been working around this area of the Verge have been pulled off of active operations. Apparently, they're being concentrated for some sort of special op—something his 'reliable source' described as more of a merc operation than run-of-the-mill piracy."

"Really?" Rozsak's eyes narrowed. "I don't suppose our good friend Laukkonen was able to tell us exactly what the object of this hypothetical 'special op' might be?"

"No." Watanapongse shook his head. "On the other hand, it occurred to me that the evidence Manpower's been recruiting ex-StateSec units might suggest who was behind it. And if Manpower has an objective in this area, where do you suppose it might be?"

"Exactly what I was thinking," Rozsak said a bit grimly. "Did Laukkonen say anything which might suggest how soon the op's likely to kick off?"

"Nothing definitive. Probably not for at least another three or four months; that was the best estimate he could give us."

"If they're calling them in from individual operational areas, that's probably an underestimate of how long it's going to take to get them concentrated," Rozsak thought out loud. "And after operating solo for so long, even StateSec types are going to see the need for at least minimal training and drill before they try squadron-level operations again. Bearing that in mind, I'd say five months, maybe even six, would be more likely."

"I was coming up with the same guesstimate," Watanapongse agreed.

"All right," Rozsak decided. "I think we have to take the possibility that Laukkonen is onto something real seriously. On the other hand, we can't start redeploying our available units on the basis of pure speculation. See what you can do about confirming this. I don't expect you to be able to nail it down absolutely, of course, but beat the bushes. See if we can shake out anything else to support Laukkonen's version of things. And do your best to get us some kind of realistic time estimate if it looks like there's really something to it."

"Yes, Sir."

Watanapongse nodded and turned back towards the office door, then halted and raised an eyebrow as Rozsak raised an index finger at him.

"I've been thinking," the admiral said.

"About—?" Watanapongse asked when Roszak paused.

"About Manson," his superior said, and the intelligence officer grimaced.

Lieutenant Jerry Manson was a fairly capable intelligence officer who, unfortunately, both thought he was much smarter than he actually was and possessed the loyalty quotient of an Old Earth piranah. Either of those failings might have been acceptable by itself; in combination, they were anything but.

Manson had been planted on them originally by Ingemar Cassetti—a fact of which, he undoubtedly believed, Roszak and Watanapongse were both unaware. They'd kept him in place because it was always easier and safer to manipulate the spy you knew about rather than inspire one's adversaries to plant spies you didn't know about, but they'd never entertained any illusions about his loyalty or lack thereof. He'd been quite useful on several occasions, too, yet that usefulness had always had to be balanced against the need to keep him completely in the dark where the Maya Sector's true plans were concerned.

That had still been manageable, if increasingly difficult, but now that Cassetti had been removed from the equation, there was no need to "manage" his chosen spy. And even if there had been . . .

"You've read my memo, I take it?" Watanapongse said aloud, and Rozsak snorted.

"Of course I have! And I agree. As long as he was just an orphaned little grifter, with no replacement master to call his own, the situation was workable. Now, though?" The admiral shook his head. "If he's sniffing around opening some sort of covert channel back to Old Earth, the time has come to cut our losses."

Watanapongse nodded. He was quite confident Manson didn't even begin to suspect how closely and tightly all of his communications had been monitored ever since he'd joined Rozsak's staff. If the lieutenant had ever suspected the truth, he would never have risked sending his own message back to Frontier Fleet HQ on Old Earth. It seemed evident that he'd finally come into possession of at least a few fragmentary clues about "the Sepoy Option," though. He'd been careful to keep them to himself when he drafted his message to Commander Florence Jastrow (who happened, herself, to be one of the more loathsome people Watanapongse had ever met, which undoubtedly explained why Manson would have thought of her), but he'd also made it clear to her that he suspected his superiors in the Maya Sector were up to something they shouldn't have been doing.

Unfortunately for Lieutenant Manson, his message had been not only intercepted but quietly removed from the queue. On the other hand, he was bound to start wondering about that in the next few weeks. At the moment, he was undoubtedly expecting a reply from Jastrow; when one never came, on the other hand . . .

"How do you want to handle it?" Watanapongse asked now.

"We're sure we've shortstopped all of his fishing expeditions?"

"As sure as you ever can be in this sort of game. Which is to say, almost certain."

"Then that'll have to do." Rozsak thought for a moment, then shrugged. "An accident, Jiri. Something as far removed from us or anything related to his official duties as you can manage."

"He's scheduled to go grav-skiing Friday," Watanapongse observed.

"Really?" Rozsak leaned back in his chair, expression thoughtful, then nodded. "I do hope he's careful," he said.

It was Watanapongse's turn to snort, then he nodded and headed back out of the office. Rozsak watched him go, lips pursed in silent thought for several minutes, then shrugged and returned to his unending paperchase.

* * *

"Would you like some more potatoes, Jack?"

"Um? Ah, I'm sorry, Mom. What did you say?"

"I asked you if you'd like some more potatoes." Christina McBryde smiled and shook her head. "Your father and I are delighted your body could join us for dinner tonight, of course, dear, but it would be kind of nice if your brain could keep it company next time."

Jack snorted and raised both hands in chuckling surrender.

"Sorry, Mom—sorry!" He extended his hands in front of him, wrists together. "Guilty as charged, officer. And I can't even argue that my parents didn't teach me better when I was a sprout."

"I'd heard you'd had a proper upbringing," his mother told him, dark eyes glinting. "I have to admit, though, that until just a second or two ago, I would have found the rumor hard to believe."

"Ease up a little, Chris," Thomas McBryde intervened with a chuckle of his own. "The accused has admitted his guilt and thrown himself on the mercy of the court. I think a little clemency might be in order."

"Nonsense!" Zachariah put in from his end of the table. "Throw the book at the bum, Mom! Off to bed with no dessert!"

"Oh, I couldn't do that to him," Christina replied. "We're having carrot cake with butter cream icing."

"Oh, my. Your carrot cake?" Zachariah shook his head. "That would constitute cruel and unusual punishment."

"Yes, it would," Jack agreed emphatically.

"Why, thank you," his mother said with a dimpled smile. Then her expression sobered just a bit. "Seriously, Jack, you've been distracted all night. Is it something to do with your job, or can you talk about it?"

Jack's blue eyes warmed as he looked across the table at her. Christina McBryde was a sculptress and a painter, one whose light sculptures, in particular, commanded high prices not just here on Mesa, but in the Solarian League's art markets, as well. She'd never really wanted him to go into law enforcement, far less into Alignment Security. That was a job she knew someone had to do, but she'd been afraid of what a career in AS might cost her older son's soul along the way. She hadn't stood in his way, especially when all of the LRPB's aptitude tests confirmed how good he'd be at it, but she'd never liked it.

His father had been more supportive, although he'd had more than a few reservations of his own. He himself was a senior administrator in the Department of Education, and he'd never made any secret of the fact that he'd been both relieved and happy when his and Christine's oldest child, JoAnne, had decided to go into childhood education. Their second daughter—and their youngest child—Arianne had turned out (not surprisingly) to share Zachariah's scientific bent. She was a chemist, and despite her relative youth (she was only forty-nine T-years old) she'd recently become a scientific advisor to the CEO of the Mesa System government. The McBryde family could take solid, quiet pride in its contributions to the Alignment and to its homeworld (which weren't always the same things), yet there was no denying that both of Jack's parents worried about him.

And with good reason, he thought. He managed to keep his own expression light and semi-amused, but it was difficult. Just as it was difficult to realize that barely a T-month had passed since his first conversation with Simões. It didn't seem possible that he could have become so aware of—and oppressed by—the other man's pain and its inevitable final outcome in so short a period. Yet he had . . . and with the becoming, for the first time in a long time, he understood exactly why his mother had wanted him to do something else with his life.

"In some ways, Mom," he told her, "I really wish I could talk about it with you. I think you'd probably be able to help. Unfortunately, it does have to do with work, so I can't discuss it."

"You're not in any sort of . . . trouble?" she asked quietly.

"Me?" His laugh was at least three-quarters genuine, and he shook his head. "Believe me, Mom, I'm not in any kind of trouble. It's just—"

He paused for a moment, then shrugged.

"I can't really talk about it, but I suppose I can tell you it's just that one of the people I'm responsible for is in a lot of personal pain at the moment. It doesn't have anything to do with his job, or with me, really, but . . . he's hurting. And even though the reason he is doesn't have anything to do with his job, it's to the point where his emotional state could start affecting the quality of his work. And because of the nature of what he does and what I do, I'm one of the very few people he can talk to about it."

He glanced at Zachariah from the corner of one eye and saw from his brother's explanation that Zack had realized exactly who he was talking about. Zachariah's blue eyes darkened, and Jack knew he, too, was comparing their family life with what happened to Herlander and Francesca Simões.

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that!" Christina's quick sympathy was genuine, and she reached out to lay one hand on her son's forearm. "At least if he can only talk to a few people about it, I know at least one of them is going to have a sympathetic ear," she said.

"I try, Mom. I try. But it's one of those cases where there's not really much anybody can do except listen." He shook his head, his eyes shadowed. "I don't think this story's going to have a happy ending," he said quietly.

"All you can do is all you can do, son," Thomas told him. "And your mom's right. If he's got you to talk to, then at the least this person, whoever he is, knows he's not all alone with it. Sometimes that's the most important thing of all."

"I'll try to remember that," Jack promised.

There was a moment of silence, then he shook himself and smiled at his mother.

"However, in answer to the missed question which started this entire conversational thread, if we've got carrot cake for dessert, then, no, I don't want any more potatoes. I'm not about to waste any space I could use on a second or third helping of carrot cake on mashed potatoes!"

Chapter Twenty

Several hours later, as Jack let himself into his own apartment, his thoughts drifted back to what his parents had said.

The truth was, he thought, that even though they might have a point about the importance of a sympathetic ear, Herlander Simões desperately needed more than Jack McBryde—or anyone else—would ever be able to give him. And despite his own training, and despite how hard he tried, Jack's professional detachment wasn't enough to protect him from the fallout of Simões' despair.

He checked for any personal com messages without finding any and walked through the apartment's sitting area towards his bedroom. At the moment, it was a rather lonely bedroom, without female companionship, and he suspected his own reaction to Simões had a lot to do with that. His last relationship had been working its way towards an amicable parting for several months even before Bardasano had called him in, but he had no doubt his absorption with Simões had hastened its end. And he had even less doubt that it had a lot to do with why he'd found himself unable to work up much enthusiasm for finding a new one.

Which is pretty stupid of me, when you come down to it, he reflected wryly.It's not like turning myself into a monk is going to help Herlander any, now is it?

Maybe not, another corner of his brain replied. In fact, definitely not. But it's a little hard to go leaping gaily through life when you're watching someone come gradually apart before your very eyes.

He undressed, stepped into the shower, and keyed the water. Zachariah, he knew, preferred the quickness and convenience of a sonic shower, but Jack had always been addicted to the sheer, sensual pleasure of hot water. He stood under the drumming needle spray, absorbing its caress, yet this time he couldn't fully abandon himself to it the way he usually could. His brain was too busy with Herlander Simões.

It was the contrast between the barren unhappiness of Simões' current existence and his own family's closeness, he realized yet again. That comforting, always welcoming, nurturing love. Looking at his parents, seeing how after all these years their children were still their children. Adults, yes, and to be treated as such, but still their beloved sons and daughters, to be worried about and treasured. To be (although he suspected his mother would be more comfortable with the verb than his father) celebrated for who and what they were.

For who and what had been taken away from Simões.

He'd tried—and failed, he knew—to imagine what that had truly felt like. The pain of that loss . . .

He shook his head under the pounding water, eyes closed. Just from the purely selfish perspective of what had been stolen from Simões' own life, the anguish must be incredible. But he'd spoken with Simões several times now. He knew that part of the hyper-physicist's anger, his rage, really was the product of his sense that he'd been betrayed. That something unspeakably precious had been ripped away from him.

Yet those same conversations had made it clear to Jack that far more than his own loss, it was the entire lifetime which had been stolen from his daughter that was truly tearing the man apart. He'd seen the promise in his Francesca which Thomas and Christina McBryde had seen realized in their JoAnne, their Jack and Zachariah and Arianne. He'd known what that child could have grown up to be and become, all of the living and loving and accomplishments which could have been hers in the four or five centuries which the combination of prolong and her genome would have given her. And he knew every one of those loves, every one of those accomplishments, had died stillborn when the Long-Range Planning Board administered the lethal injection to his daughter.

That's what it really comes down to, isn't it, Jack? he admitted to the shower spray and the privacy of his own mind. To the LRPB, Francesca Simões, ultimately, was just one more project. One more strand in the master plan. And what does a weaver do when he comes across a defective thread? He snips it, that's what he does. He snips it, he discards it, and he goes on with the work.

But she wasn't a thread. Not to Herlander. She was his daughter. His little girl. The child who learned to walk holding onto his hand. Who learned to read, listening to him read her bedtime stories. Who learned to laugh listening to his jokes. The person he loved more than he could ever have loved himself. And he couldn't even fight for her life, because the Board wouldn't let him. It wasn't his decision—it was the Board's decision, and it made it.

He drew a deep, shuddering breath, and shook himself.

You're letting your sympathy take you places you shouldn't go, Jack, he told himself. Of course you feel sorry for him—my God, how could you not feel sorry for him?—but there's a reason the system is set up the way it's set up. Someone has to make the hard decisions, and would it really be kinder to leave them up to someone whose love is going to make them even harder? Who's going to have to live with the consequences of his own actions and decisions—not someone else's—for the rest of his life?

He grimaced as he recalled the memo from Martina Fabre which had been part of Simões' master file. The one which had denied Simões' offer—his plea—to be allowed to assume responsibility for Francesca. To provide the care needed to keep her alive, to keep private physicians working with her, out of his own pocket. He'd been fully aware of the kinds of expenses he was talking about—the LRPB had made them abundantly clear to him when it enumerated all of the resources which would be "unprofitably invested" in her long-term care and treatment—and he hadn't cared. Not only that, he'd demonstrated, with all the precision he brought to his scientific work, that he could have satisfied those expenses. It wouldn't have been easy, and it would have consumed his life, but he could have done it.

Except for the fact that the decision wasn't his, and, as Dr. Fabre had put it, the Board was "unwilling to allow Dr. Simões to destroy his own life in the futile pursuit of a chimerical cure for a child who was recognized as a high-risk project from the very beginning. It would be the height of irresponsibility for us to permit him to invest so much of the remainder of his own life in a tragedy the Board created when it asked the Simões to assist us in this effort."

He turned off the shower, stepped out of the stall, and began drying himself with the warm, deep-pile towels, but his brain wouldn't turn off as easily as the water had. He pulled on a pair of pajama bottoms—he hadn't worn the tops since he was fifteen—and found himself drifting in an unaccustomed direction for this late at night.

He opened the liquor cabinet, dropped a couple of ice cubes into a glass, poured a hefty shot of blended whiskey over the ice, and swirled it gently for a second. Then he raised the glass and closed his eyes as the thick, rich fire burned down his throat.

It didn't help. Two faces floated stubbornly before him—a sandy-haired, hazel-eyed man's, and a far smaller one with brown hair, brown eyes, and a huge smile.

This is stupid, he thought.I can't change any of it, and neither can Herlander. Not only that, I know perfectly well that all that pain is just eating away at him, adding itself to the anger. The man's turning into some kind of time bomb, and there's not a damned thing I can do about it. He's going to snap—it's only a matter of time—and I was wrong when I downplayed his probable reactions to Bardasano. The break is coming, and when it gets here, he's going to be so damned angry—and so unconcerned about whatever else might happen to him—that he's going to do something really, really foolish. I don't know what, but I've come to know him well enough to know that much. And it's my job to keep him from doing that.

It was bizarre. He was the man charged with keeping Simões together, keeping him working—effectively working—on his critical research projects. And with seeing to it that if the time ever came that Simões self-destructed, he didn't damage those projects. And yet, despite that, what he felt was not the urgent need to protect the Alignment's crucial interests, but to somehow help the man he was supposed to be protecting them from. To find some way to prevent him from destroying himself.

To find some way to heal at least some of the hurt which had been inflicted upon him.

Jack McBryde raised his glass to take another sip of whiskey, then froze as that last thought went through his mind.

Inflicted, he thought. Inflicted on him. That's what you're really thinking, isn't it, Jack? Not that it's just one of those terrible things that sometimes happens, but that it didn't have to happen.

Something icy seemed to trickle through his veins as he realized what he'd just allowed himself to admit to himself. The trained security professional in him recognized the danger of allowing himself to think anything of the sort, but the human being in him—the part of him that was Christina and Thomas McBryde's son—couldn't stop thinking it.

It wasn't the first time his thoughts had strayed in that direction, he realized slowly as he recalled past doubts about the wisdom of the Long-Range Planning Board's master plan, its drive to master the intricacies, shape the best instruments for the attainment of humanity's destiny.

Where did we change course? he wondered. When did we shift from the maximizing of every individual into producing neat little bricks for a carefully designed edifice? What would Leonard Detweiler think if he were here today, looking at the Board's decisions? Would he have thrown away a little girl whose father loved her so desperately? Would he have rejected Herlander's offer to shoulder the full financial burden of caring for her? And, if he would have, what does that say about where we've been from the very beginning?

He thought about Fabre's memo again, about the thoughts and attitudes behind it. He never doubted that Fabre had been completely sincere, that she'd truly been attempting to protect Simões from the consequences of his own mad, quixotic effort to reverse the irreversible. But hadn't that been Simões' decision? Hadn't he had the right to at least fight for his daughter's life? To choose to destroy himself, if that was what it came to, in an effort to save someone he loved that much?

Is this really what we're all about? About having the Board make those decisions for all of us in its infinite wisdom? What happens if it decides it doesn't need any random variations any more? What happens if the only children it permits are the ones which have been specifically designed for its star genomes?

He took another, deeper sip of whiskey, and his fingers tightened around the glass.

Hypocrite, he thought. You're a fucking hypocrite, Jack. You've known—known for forty years—that that's exactly what the Board has in mind for all those "normals" out there. Of course, you didn't think about it that way, did you? No, you thought about how much good it was going to do. How their children, and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren would thank you for allowing them to share in the benefits of the systematic improvement of the species. Sure, you knew a lot of people would be unhappy, that they wouldn't voluntarily surrender their children's futures to someone else, but that was stupid of them, wasn't it? It was only because they'd been brainwashed by those bastards on Beowulf. Because they were automatically prejudiced against anything carrying the "genie" stigma. Because they were ignorant, unthinking normals, not an alpha line like you.

But now—now that you see it happening to someone else who's also an alpha line. When you see it happening to Herlander, and you realize it could have happened to yourparents, or to your brother, or your sisters . . . or some day to you. Now you suddenly discover you have doubts.

He dragged in a deep, shuddering breath and wondered how the warmth and love and caring of his family could have crystallized this dark, barren night of the soul for him.

It's only fatigue—emotional and physical fatigue, he told himself, but he didn't believe it. He knew it went deeper and farther than that. Just as he knew that anyone who found himself suddenly experiencing the doubts he was experiencing, asking the questions he found himself asking, should immediately seek counseling.

And just as he knew he wasn't going to do anything of the sort.

Chapter Twenty-One

In the event, the weeks that Brice Miller and his friends spent fretting over their upcoming encounter with the notorious Jeremy X, proved to be pointless. When they were finally introduced to the feared and ferocious terrorist, after they arrived on Torch, it turned out that the reality bore no resemblance to the legends.

To begin with, he was nottwo hundred and twenty centimeters tall, nor was his physique that of an ogre. Quite the opposite, to Brice's surprise and relief. The former head of the Audubon Ballroom and current Secretary of War for Torch was no more than a hundred and sixty-five centimeters in height, and his build was wiry and slender rather than massive.

He seemed quite a cheerful fellow, too. Even puckish, you might say—at least if, like Brice, you had just recently encountered the term and been taken by it, but hadn't yet read enough literature to realize that "puckish" was by no means the same thing as "harmless."

Jeremy X didn't scowl, either. Not once. Not even after Hugh Arai—far more bluntly and precisely than he needed to, in Brice's opinion—explained the manner in which Brice's clan had stayed alive on Parmley station, for the past half century.

Unfortunately, while Jeremy X didn't scowl, someone else in Queen Berry's audience chamber—that was what they called it, anyway, although Brice thought it looked more like a big office with no desk and not very many chairs—most certainly did scowl. And shemade up for everything Jeremy lacked, and then some.

Thandi Palane was her name. It turned out she was the commander of Torch's entire military. Brice had been surprised to hear that. If anyone had asked him to guess at the woman's occupation, he would have said either professional wrestler or enforcer for criminal enterprises. Uniform be damned. That woman was just plain scary. Even without the scowl.

Thankfully, the queen of Torch herself didn't seem to share her military commander's attitude. In fact, she seemed very friendly. And after a few minutes, Brice realized that Palane's scowl wasn't directed at him anyway. She was apparently just scowling at the general state of the universe, moral failings thereof.

By then, though, Brice had stopped caring what Palane thought or didn't think. In fact, he'd become almost completely oblivious to her existence—and even the existence of Jeremy X. That was because it hadn't taken more than five minutes in the presence of the queen of Torch before Brice had developed an infatuation for the young woman. A really, really powerful infatuation, the sort that drives all other thoughts from a teenage boy's brain like a steam cleaner scours all surfaces.

Also a really, really, really stupid infatuation, even by the standards of fourteen year old adolescent males. Brice wasn't so far gone that he didn't realize that, at least in some part of his brain. Big deal. He was providing neurologists with the most graphic evidence probably ever uncovered that the brains of adolescents—male adolescents, for sure—were not fully developed when it came to those portions that evaluated risks.

From the slack-jawed look on their faces, he was sure that his friends Ed Hartman and James Lewis had been struck down by the same infatuation. And, alas—unlike Brice, who still had a few functioning neurons in his cortex—were now completely ruled by their limbic systems. You might as well have called them Amygdalum and Amygdalee. He could only hope they didn't do anything really foolish. Too much too hope, of course, that they wouldn't drool.

It was odd. Brice was already self-analytical enough to realize that his points of attraction when it came to girls were . . .

Being honest, not probably all that mature. Good looks came first, put it that way. And, prior to this very moment, he would have sworn that for his friends Ed and James, good looks came first, last, and everything in between.

Yet the truth was that Queen Berry wasn't actually pretty. She certainly wasn't ugly, either, but about the best you could say for her thin face was that everything was in the right place, nothing was deformed, and her complexion was good in pale sort of way. She had nicely colored eyes, for sure. They were her best facial feature. A vivid pale green that almost made up for her mousy-brown hair. Glossy and healthy-looking mousy-brown hair, true. Still. Mousy-brown was mousy-brown.

True, also, that her slender figure—quite evident, in the casual clothing she chose to wear, even sitting on her throne (which was really just a big, comfortable-looking chair)—was unmistakably female. Still. Various secondary sexual characteristics that normally loomed large in Brice's assessment of female attractiveness and from what he could tell completely dominated that of his friends—big breasts, to name one—were markedly absent here.

So why was he smitten? What was it about the young queen's open and friendly countenance that seemed somehow dazzling? What was it about her certainly-healthy-but-that's-about-it figure that was producing hormonal reactions way more powerful than any he'd ever experienced gazing upon the voluptuous figure of Cousin Jennifer?

Part of the explanation was simply that Berry Zilwicki was the first unknown young woman that Brice Miller had ever encountered, aside from brief views of slaves being transported or the slavers overseeing the process, some of whom were also female. One of the many drawbacks of being raised as he had, part of a small clan of people very isolated from the rest of the human race, was that by the time boys reached puberty, they already knew every girl around. And vice versa, for the girls. There were no mysteries, no unknowns. True, the fact that some girls—for Brice, it has been Jennifer Foley—had suddenly developed in such a way as to stimulate new and primitive reactions from the opposite sex (or, sometimes, the same sex—Ganny's clan wasn't at all prudish or narrow-minded about such things) helped a bit. Still, while Cousin Jennifer's ability to stir up fantasies in Brice's mind was new, the cousin herself most certainly was not. He still carried a small scar on his elbow from the time she'd struck him there with a handy tool, in retaliation for his theft of one of her toys. And she was still holding something of a grudge for the theft itself.

They'd been seven years old, at the time.

The queen of Torch, on the other hand, was really new. Brice didn't know anything at all about her, except for the bare facts that she was several years older than he was—irrelevant, at the moment—and commanded legions of armed and dangerous soldiers. Also irrelevant, at the moment. Everything else was unknown. That, combined with her friendly demeanor, opened the floodgates of fourteen-year-old sexual fantasies in a way that Brice had never encountered and against which he had few defenses.

But there was more involved. Dimly, Brice Miller was beginning to grasp that sex was a lot more complicated than it looked. He was even verging on the Great Truth that most men were quite happy even when the Significant Other in their life was not especially good-looking. So perhaps Brice was not destined for a life of chastity after all. Given that his heretofore stratospheric standards seemed to be crumbling by the minute.

"—the matter with you, Brice? And the two of you also, Ed and James. It's a simple enough question."

The genuine irritation in Ganny El's tone of voice finally penetrated the hormonal fog.

Brice jerked. What question?

Thankfully, James played the fool, so Brice didn't have to. "Uh . . . what question, Ganny? I didn't hear it."

"Have you suddenly gone deaf?" Butre pointed at one of the men standing not far from the queen. He was on the short side, and so wide-bodied he looked a little deformed. "Mr. Zilwicki wants to know if you'd be willing to spend a few months—"

Zilwicki cleared his throat. "Might be as long as a year, Ms. Butre."

"Twelve counts as a 'few,' when you're my age, young man. To get back to the point, James—and you too, Ed and Brice—Mr. Zilwicki has a job for you." She gave Zilwicki a beady stare. " 'Somewhat' dangerous, he says. A word to the wise, youngsters. This is one of those situations where the phrase 'somewhat dangerous' is a lot closer to 'a little bit pregnant' than it is to . . . oh, let's say the version of 'somewhat dangerous' that a conscientious playground attendant says to a mother when her child is heading for the seesaw."

That began dispelling the hormonal fog. For the first time since he'd laid eyes on the queen, Brice focused on someone else in the room.

Zilwicki. He was the queen's father, or maybe step-father. And his first name was Anthony, right? Brice wasn't entirely certain.

Good fortune struck again. Thandi Palane frowned—the frown helped clear away still more of the hormonal fog—and said: "Are you sure about this, Anton?"

"They're awfully young," added the queen doubtfully.

That was a dash of cold water. She'd said "awfully young" in the manner that a protective adult refers to children. Not, sadly, in the way that . . .

Well. That Brice imagined sophisticated older women spoke of young men to whom they were inexplicably attracted. Admittedly, he wasn't sure of that, either. Seeing as how the situation had never actually happened to him.

One of the other men in the room spoke up. He was a lot less striking than Zilwicki. Just an average-sized man, with a very square face. Very wide shoulders, too.

"That's the whole point, Your Maj—ah, Berry. Add them into the mix, as young as they are, and with neither the ship nor anybody on it having any connection to either Torch or the Ballroom—or Manticore or Beowulf or Haven—and they'll be about as invisible as anyone can be, where we'd be going."

"And where it that, precisely?" demanded Ganny. "I can't help but notice that you've made no mention of that so far."

The square-faced man glanced at Zilwicki. "Mesa. To be precise."

"Oh, well. And why don't we sodomize all the demons in the universe, while we're at it?" Elfride Margarete Butre glared at him. "What do you want us to do for an encore, Cachat? Circumcise the devil?"

Good fortune again. Brice had forgotten that man's name too. His first name was Victor, and he was from the Republic of Haven.

Ca-chat. Silently, Brice practiced the name a few times. It was pronounced in the Frenchified way that Havenites often spoke. KAH-SHAH, rhyming with "pasha," except the emphasis was on the second syllable instead of the first.

It finally dawned on him to wonder what a Havenite was doing as part of Queen Berry's inner circle. Especially given that Zilwicki—more memories came flooding back in, as the hormonal fog continued to lift—was from the Star Kingdom of Manticore. The somewhat haphazard and always intensely practical education given the clan's youngsters didn't spend much time on the fine points of astropolitics. But it wasn't so sketchy as to have overlooked the most hard-fought, bitter and longest-running war in the galaxy.

Haven. Manticore. And now . . . Mesa.

Suddenly, Brice was excited. Excited enough that he even forgot for a moment that he was in the presence of the universe's most wondrous female.

"We'll do it!" he said.

"Yeah!" and "Yeah!" came the echoes from James and Ed.

Ganny's shoulders sagged a little, but her glare at Cachat didn't fade in the least. "You cheated, you bastard."

Cachat looked more curious than offended. "How did I cheat?" Then, he shrugged. "But if it'll make you feel better . . ."

He looked now at Brice and his two friends. "The mission we'll be undertaking is in fact very dangerous. I don't think you'llbe in much danger, yourselves, at least until the very end. You might not even participate in the 'very end' at all, for that matter, since you'll mostly be there just as a backup in case things go wrong. Still, it can't be ruled out—and the fact that something will have gone wrong if you doget involved means that it's likely to be pretty dangerous."

"And when he says 'pretty dangerous,' " Zilwicki chimed in, "he means 'pretty dangerous' in the sense that you've gone into the den of the most ruthless and evil people in the world and yanked on their collective beard, not 'pretty dangerous' in the sense that you've picked a fight in the schoolyard with some kids who are a bit bigger than you."

"So there's no hard feelings if you decline," concluded Cachat.

"We'll do it!" Brice said.

"Yeah!" and "Yeah!" came the echoes from James and Ed.

"You dirty rotten cheaters," hissed Ganny. She point a finger at the three boys. "You know perfectly well their brains haven't fully developed yet."

"Well, sure," said Zilwicki. He poked his forehead with a finger. "Cortex is still a little unshaped, especially in the risk-assessment areas. But if it'll make you feel any better, the same's probably true for me, even at my decrepit age." He hooked a thumb at Cachat. "For sure and certain, it's true for him."

"Oh, wonderful," said Ganny. Brice couldn't remember her ever sounding so sullen.

He, on the other hand, felt exuberant. He'd finally realized what was going on. The most wildly improbable fantasy, come true to life!

The classic, in fact. Young hero, sent out on a quest to slay the dragon in order to rescue the princess. Well, very young queen. Close enough.

The traditional reward for which deed of derring-do was well-established. Hallowed, even.

His eyes flicked right and left. True, in the fantasies there was only one young hero—it being a solitary quest, given the nature of the reward—but Brice was sure he'd outshine his friends. And Zilwicki and Cachat didn't count, because Zilwicki was the queen's own father and Cachat was apparently hooked up with Palane and no man, not even one with no frontal lobes at all, would be stupid enough to try to jilt her.

Then Ganny went and wrecked it all. "I'm coming too, then, Cachat, whether you like it or not."

Cachat nodded. "Certainly. The plan sort of depends on that, in fact."

"And my great-nephew Andrew Artlett." She pointed to the individual in question, who'd been standing against a far wall.

Cachat nodded again. "Makes sense."

Ganny now pointed to another person standing against the wall. A young woman, this time. "And Sarah."

"That'd be perfect," agreed Cachat. He nodded toward two others standing nearby. Oddny Ann Rødne and Michael Alsobrook. "They'd be handy, as well."

Ganny shook her head. "We'll need Oddny to take the news back to Parmley Station and help get everything organized. As for Michael . . ." She shrugged. "Where would he fit in the scheme? Which is pretty obvious, I'd say."

"Obvious, indeed," said Zilwicki. "You're the matriarch in charge, Andrew and Sarah are married, and the youngsters are their kids." He studied Brice and his friends for a moment. "Their ages don't match, unless they were triplets, which they very obviously are not. But given the somatic variation involved, you could hardly claim any of them except James were the natural offspring of Andrew and Sarah, anyway. So two of them have to have been adopted."

"Oh, that's gross," complained Sarah. She glanced at Artlett, half-glaring. "He's my uncle."

"Calm down!" barked Ganny El. "Nobody said you had to consummate the marriage, you nitwit. In fact, you don't even have to share a cabin with him." Butre's eyes got a little unfocussed. "Now that I think about it . . ."

"Good idea," said Cachat. He gave Sarah and Andrew a quick examination, his eyes flicking back and forth. "Given the age disparity, an estrangement would be logical. So if any Mesan customs officials decide to press a search, they'd discover a very good-looking young woman apparently on the outs with her husband. Even customs officials have fantasies."

"Oh, that is so gross," complained Sarah. "Now you're whoring me out to strangers!"

"I said, calm down!" Butre glowered at her. "Nobody's asking you to do anything more strenuous than bat your eyelashes. And as often as you do that, don't even try to claim you'll get exhausted in the effort."

Armstrong glared at her, but didn't say anything. But Zilwicki was now shaking his head.

"It's sad, really, to see such a crude resurgence of sexism."

Cachat and Butre stared at him. "Huh?" she asked.

"Not all customs officials are male, you know. Or, even if they are, necessarily heterosexual. If you want to create this little diversion—which I admit isn't a bad idea—then you really need a male equivalent for Sarah. Which"—he glanced at Andrew Artlett, and spread his hands apologetically—"I'm afraid Andrew is not."

Uncle Andrew grinned. "I'm ugly. Not that it gets in my way, much."

Zilwicki smiled. "I don't doubt for an instant that you're a veritable Casanova. But we don't actually want to get close to any Mesan officials, we just want to stir up their hindbrains."

Ganny was looking unhappy. "I don't care. I want Andrew along, if we're going to do this at all. He's . . . well, he's capable. Even if he is crazy."

A new voice came into the discussion. "Problem solved!"

Everybody turned to look at a young woman perched on a chair at the back of the room. Brice had noticed her, naturally, when they first came in. First, because she was an unknown young female; secondly, because she was attractive, to boot. But his attention had soon become riveted on the queen, and he'd almost completely forgotten the presence of the other young woman.

That was odd, in a way, because the young woman sitting at the back of the room was quite a bit better-looking than the queen herself. Still not someone you'd call a beauty, true, but by any standard criteria of pulchritude she had Berry beat hands down. Her figure was fuller, for one thing, although she was also slender. For another, her somewhat darker complexion and really rich chestnut hair were a lot more striking than the queen's. And while her blue eyes were not as dramatic as the queen's green ones, they were still attractive in their own right.

What was her name? Brice tried to remember the initial introductions. Ruth, he thought.

"Problem solved," she repeated, coming to her feet. "I come along too—I might even help in the distract-dumb-males-or-lesbians department, although obviously not as much as Sarah—but I can pose as Michael Alsobrook's wife." She pointed at Brice. "We can claim him as a child, very plausibly, given his somatic features. Michael and I might be older than we look, given prolong. That only leaves James to be accounted for and that might even be an advantage even if it's necessary at all which is probably isn't because by now the human genome is so mixed up with so many recessive features that keep popping up that you never know what a kid might look like but even if somebody assumes there's no way that Michael could be the father I could certainly be his mother in which case"—here she gave Alsobrook a gleaming smile that was simultaneously fetching, amused and apologetic—"I've either been cheating on my husband or I've got loose habits, either of which might intrigue a nosy customs official—"

She hadn't taken a single breath since she started the sentence. It was pretty impressive.

"—although we've got to face the fact that if anybody does a DNA match the whole charade goes into the incinerator and it's the easiest thing in the world to gather DNA samples."

"Actually, it wouldn't," said Ganny, whose spirits seemed to be perking up. "It might even help. The fact is that all of us except you are related—too damn ingrown, to be honest—and while your DNA won't match, so what? There could any number of explanations for that. I can think of three offhand, two of which would certainly intrigue a nosy customs inspector with an active libido and an orientation toward females."

Zilwicki and Cachat practically exploded. "No!" they both said, almost in unison.

Ruth glared at them. "Why?"

Zilwicki's jaws tightened. "Because I'm responsible for your safety to the Queen, Princess. Both queens. If you get even hurt, much less killed, Berry's just as likely to skin me alive as Elizabeth Winton."

Princess, was it? Brice felt himself getting intrigued. That was less of a fantastical stretch than a young queen, after all—in fact, the more he thought about it, "queen" seemed rather stuffy—and the Ruth woman really was very attractive. Very talkative too, apparently, but that was okay with Brice. Seeing as how he'd probably be tongue-tied, anyway.

The princess jeered. "Don't be stupid, Anton! If I'm killed—even hurt—there's no way you're still going to be alive either. Not with this plan. So what do you care what happens afterward? Or do you believe in ghosts—and think ghosts can be subjected to corporal punishment?"

Zilwicki glared at her. But . . . said nothing. Brice began to realize that Cachat and Zilwicki hadn't been exaggerating when they said this mission was possibly dangerous.

Cachat tried a different tack. "You'll blow the mission." Sorrowfully but sternly: "Sorry, Ruth. You're a brilliant analyst, but the fact remains that you're not really suited for field work."

"Why?" she demanded. "Too jittery? Too jabbery? And what do you think these three kids are? Suave secret agents? Who just somehow can't keep their tongues from hanging out whenever they run into a female anywhere this side of nubile and short of matronly."

She flashed Brice and his friends a quick smile. "S'okay, guys. I don't mind and I'm sure Berry doesn't either."

Brice flushed. And made sure and certain his tongue was firmly inside his mouth. He had just encountered the second of the Great Truths, which was that a female intelligent enough to be attractive for that very reason, no matter what else, was also . . .

Intelligent. Bright. Perceptive. Hard to fool.

He felt a profound wish that a dragon might show up. Frightening, taloned, clawed, scaled, to be sure. But probably not very bright, and certainly not able to read his mind. Well. Read his limbic system. Being honest, there wasn't all that much "mind" involved.

"Besides," Ruth continued, "you'll need somebody on Ganny's ship who's a computer and communications whiz. Anton, you can't be two places at once. If things do go into the crapper, probably the only chance you'll have of getting out is if somebody in the backup getaway ship can substitute for your skills manipulating God-knows-what in the way of Mesan security systems. 'Cause you're not likely to have time to do it, what with all the guns blazing in the getaway and probably having not much more than a tin can and some wires to worth with even if you did. Have enough time, that is."

Now, she flashed that same quick smile at Uncle Andrew. "Meaning no offense."

"None taken," he said, smiling back. "I'm a whiz with anything mechanical or electrical, and I'm even pretty good with computer hardware. But that's about it."

Ruth looked back at Cachat and Zilwicki, triumphantly. "So there. It's all settled."

"I'm for it," said Ganny forcefully. "In fact, I'm making it a condition. Either the princess comes with us, or the deal's off. I could give you all sorts of reasons for that, but the only really important one is that I'm getting even with you for playing tricks on my boys." She gave Brice and his friends a look that could best be described as disgusted. "Taking advantage of their stunted forebrains! Ed, put your tongue back in your mouth. You too, James."

She said nothing to Brice. He felt very suave, although he'd have to double-check the dictionary to make sure the word meant what he thought it meant. Now that Princess Ruth was coming along, he had a feeling he wasn't going to get away with his usual vocabulary habits. Use any long and/or fancy-sounding word you want, serene in the knowledge that your dummy cousins won't know if you got it wrong.

Didn't matter. What he was already thinking of as The Great Adventure would probably be better with a smart princess along. Even if such a fantastical creature was completely absent from the classics.

Chapter Twenty-Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It most certainly is not."

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

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

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

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

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

"I'm a little astonished that the Wintons agreed to let her stay here."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh's rubbed his chin. "None at all?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh started rubbing his chin again.

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

"I knew you'd see the light of day," he said cheerfully.

Hugh smiled. "I'm still not available as a consort."

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

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

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

Chapter Twenty-Three

"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

MANPOWER SLAVE IDENTITY NUMBER: D-17d-29547-2/5.

scanning error

NUMBER D-17d-29547-2/5 ALREADY REGISTERED

REGISTRATION DATE: MARCH 3, 1920

REGISTRATION IDENTITY: ZEIGER, TIMOTHY

RESUBMIT FOR SCANNING

"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 genegineered 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?"

Chapter Twenty-Four

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, threaening 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 consipracy 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 reasearch 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 monicker 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 thispopular 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 dozensof 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."

Chapter Twenty-Five

Once they arrived back at the palace, they found a small delegation waiting to meet them. Jeremy X was there, along with Thandi Palane, Princess Ruth, and two men Hugh didn't know. One of them had a treecat perched on his shoulder.

"Should we meet in the audience chamber?" Berry suggested.

Jeremy shook his head. "The security precautions there are sub-standard, as I've told you a gazillion times." Sternly: "And this time, damnation, you will listen to me. We'll meet in the operations room. It's the only place in the palace that's really secure."

Berry didn't argue the point. In fact, she almost—not quite—looked a bit chastened.

The two Amazons and Saburo politely detached themselves. Jeremy led the rest of the group to an elevator, which was just large enough for all of them to fit into it. The elevator took them down . . .

A long, long, long way. Wherever they were headed, Hugh realized, it had to be a place specially constructed for a specific purpose, and almost certainly by Manpower. They were going far deeper than could be explained by any normal architecture, and there hadn't been enough time since the foundation of Torch—not with everything else to be done—for the new nation to have completed such a project.

Hugh's spirits picked up. That was old training at work. The simplest and still surest way to make a room secure from any spying apparatus was to bury it deeply in the earth. Judging from the time it was taking the elevator to get there, and Hugh's estimate of their speed, this room must be at least a thousand meters below the surface, and probably closer to two thousand. About the only particles that would penetrate to that depth, at least reliably, were neutrinos. To the best of Hugh's knowledge, not even Manticore had managed to build detection equipment that used neutrinos.

Sound detection was far easier, of course, since depth actually provided some benefits. But that was easy to block.

Jeremy must have sensed Hugh's curiosity. "Manpower built this buried chamber to cover its most secure computers—read 'really deep dark and secret, burn-before-readingrecord archives.' Which, of course, meants they were also their most incriminating records, as well as the most sensitive. And then the incompetent clown charged with destroying the evidence neglected to punch in the instructions in the proper sequence, during the rebellion. Probably because he was shitting his pants. So the chamber computers locked down instead of slagging the molycircs and everything stored in them. And then he couldn't get them to unlock and let him back in because—apparently—he either never had the access code for that little problem in the first place or (more likely, my opinion) he simply forgot what the hell it was. Probably because he was shitting his pants. Then he just ran away—see prior explanation—and apparently got killed in the general mayhem. We're not positive, because it took us—Princess Ruth, that is—almost two days to unseal the chamber. By then, few of the bodies anywhere in the headquarters area had enough left for good physical identification. And the DNA records were mostly destroyed because the slaves who stormed the record office reduced the library files to teeny, tiny, throughly stomped upon and incinerated chunks of circuitry. Along with the technicians and clerks who'd maintained those records."

Berry grimaced.

But Jeremy just smiled. Thinly, but it was a smile. Whatever else might be preying on his conscience, the massacre of so many of Manpower's management and employees during the rebellion was obviously not one of them.

Hugh didn't blame him in the least. He'd seen some of the vids taken at the time himself, and had just shrugged them off. Yes, some of what had happened here had been hideous—but there was a good reason Manpower's slaves called most of its employees "the scorpions."

Hugh's parents and all of his siblings had been shoved into space unprotected and died horrible deaths, just so a slaver crew might claim they'd had no cargo. Hugh wasn't any more likely to lose sleep over the butchery of anyone connected with Manpower than he was to lose sleep over the extermination of dangerous bacteria. So far as he was concerned, anyone who voluntarily joined Manpower forfeited any right to be considered a human being any longer.

That didn't mean he had approved of the Ballroom's tactics. Some he had, most he hadn't. As a rule, Hugh had been inclined toward Web Du Havel's view of the matter. But, as with Du Havel, for him the issue was purely one of tactical effectiveness. By any reasonable moral standard, anyone connected to Manpower deserved any fate meted out to them. Such, at least, was Hugh Arai's opinion—which he'd held rock solid since the age of five.

The elevator came to a stop.

"How deep—"

"One thousand, eight hundred and forty-two meters," Berry said. "I asked myself, the first time. The place still gives me the creeps."

From the elevator, it was a short walk down a wide corridor—there was plenty of room there for additional computer systems, if they were needed, although it was currently empty—and then into a circular and very spacious chamber. Looking around at the equipment lining much of the wall space, Hugh recognized them as security-proofing devices.

State of the art, too. Much of the equipment had been made on Manticore, he was pretty sure.

At the very center of the chamber was a large and circular table. Torus-shaped, rather. Keeping an actual "center" in a table with that great a diameter would have been pointless and sometimes even awkward. Instead, the open center had a robot standing idle, ready to move papers and material around, and Hugh could see where a portion of the table could be slid aside to allow a person to enter that central space.

In short, it was a state-of-the-art conference table. Probably designed and built somewhere in the Republic of Haven. The table itself was made of wood—or possibly a wood veneer—and Hugh thought he recognized it as one of the very expensive hardwoods produced on Tahlmann.

Jeremy had been leading the way, but once they reached the chamber Berry took charge. Young she might be, and generally disinclined toward the trappings of royalty. But it was already clear to Hugh that when she wanted to be, the queen was quite capable of taking control of things.

"Please, everyone, take a seat. Judson and Harper, since I presume your presence here means you're the ones making the report, I'd recommend you take those two seats over there." She pointed to two seats on either side of some discretely recessed and subdued equipment. Hugh recognized it as the control center for sophisticated displays.

That equipment, judging from what he could see of it, had been made on Erewhon. Combined with the origins of most of the other equipment present—all the lighting equipment was obviously Solarian, probably made somewhere in Maya Sector—this chamber was a testimony in itself to the material support Torch had gotten from its many powerful sponsors.

Once they were all seated, Berry gestured toward the two men Hugh wasn't familiar with. "Hugh, since you've never met them, let me introduce Harper S. Ferry and Judson Van Hale. They both work for Immigration Services. Harper's a former member of the Audubon Ballroom; Judson's parents were both genetic slaves although he was born free on Sphinx and was a forest ranger before coming here."

That explained the treecat. Hugh nodded at both of them, and they nodded back.

"As for Hugh, he's a member of Beowulf's Biological Survey Corps—"

That news heightened Ferry's interest, quite obviously. As was true of many people in the Audubon Ballroom, he was aware that the BSC was not the innocuous outfit its name suggested. Just as obviously, it didn't mean anything to Van Hale.

"—who came here for reasons I don't think I'm at liberty to discuss in front of the two of you"—she smiled at them—"unless the nature of your report changes things."

"Which it certainly will," said Jeremy. "But, at least for the moment, Harper and Judson don't need to know the ins and outs of it. I'll simply add that I've known Hugh since he was five years old. He claims me as some sort of godfather, a notion which is preposterous on the face of it. Still, I'll vouch for him."

He turned toward Berry. "May I?"

"Please do."

The War Secretary leaned forward on the desk. "This morning, alerted by some peculiarities, these two agents began an investigation. Everything unfolded very quickly, and by mid-afternoon a man was dead at one of our pharmaceutical camps and our brand new star nation—this is my opinion, at any rate—finds itself confronted by a new and serious threat. More precisely, has discovered a serious threat. I doubt very much if it's actually new. That's one of things we need to find out."

By then, he had everyone's attention. He turned toward Van Hale and Ferry. "Take it from there, please."

Harper S. Ferry cleared his throat. "I'm afraid we don't have any visual records beyond the basics, so a lot of this is going to be verbal. A little over two months ago, on February ninth, Genghis here"—he nodded toward the treecat on Van Hale's shoulder—"detected an unusual emotional aura coming from one of the newly arrived immigrants. A man by the name of Ronald Allen."

"It wasn't really that unusual," Judson interrupted. "Allen was certainly uneasy, especially when he caught sight of Genghis. But a lot of immigrants are nervous when they arrive, and treecats often cause uneasiness in people. It was mostly just a matter of Genghis feeling that the 'mind glow' tasted a little . . . odd."

Everyone at the table looked at the treecat; who, for his part, returned their scrutiny with an appearance of indifference. It might be better to say, casual insouciance.

Which, it probably was. Everyone in the room was very familiar with treecats and their abilities.

Van Hale continued. "It was enough for me to bring the matter to Harper's attention, and he set an inquiry into motion."

"Nothing special," said Harper. "Just the sort of routine double-check we launch any time there's anything that appears to be possibly amiss. Still, it's my fault that I forgot the matter and didn't follow up on it. And, unfortunately, the clerk who handled the inquiry didn't notify me immediately when an anomaly turned up. Instead, she just launched a routine double-check herself."

"Strip her damn hide off, when you get the chance," Jeremy growled.

"Don't think I'm not tempted. But I won't, beyond making sure she understands her mistake, because the responsibility was ultimately mine." Harper made a face. "By the time Judson reminded me of the case—which was just this morning—weeks had gone by. Allen had gotten a job as a roustabout with one of the pharmaceutical companies—they're almost always hiring, with the boom we're having—and wasn't residing in the capital any longer."

"What was the anomaly?" asked the queen.

"As I believe you know, Your Majesty—"

"We're in private, here," she reminded him just a bit tartly. "Please call me Berry."

"Ah . . . Berry. As I think you know, we scan every ex-slave immigrant's tongue marker as soon as they arrive. Partly as a security device, but mostly as a health measure. A lot of Manpower's genetic lines are subject to medical problems, some of which are severe. Many of those conditions are susceptible to preventive or ameliorative treatment. But it's often the case that the person in question isn't even aware of their medical problem. By doing the automatic scans, we give our medical services a leg up."

She nodded. "Yes, I knew that. But what was the anomaly?"

"Ronald Allen's number turned out to be a duplicate. Another immigrant named Tim Zeiger, who'd arrived a year earlier, has the same number."

Berry looked puzzled. "But . . . how is that kind of mistake possible?"

"It's not," Jeremy said flatly. "Those bar codes are genetically programmed into the slave at fertilization, Berry, and the process used to assign them is about as close to fool-proof as human endeavors get. This isn't the kind of situation where 'mistakes' happen."

"Then how . . ." The young queen's face, pale by nature, turned even paler. "Oh . . . my . . . God. That means Manpower had to have deliberately violated their own procedures. And the only reason they would have done that was in order to . . ."

She looked at Jeremy, seeming in that moment to be even younger than she was. "They've been penetrating the Ballroom, Jeremy."

"All too true. And Torch, now. This Ronald Allen never claimed to be a Ballroom member, nor do we have any indication that he's ever joined."

For a moment, Jeremy's expression lightened. "Mind you, it's still possible he had. For reasons I presume are obvious, it's never been the Ballroom's custom to maintain precise and readily accessible membership records."

A nervous little titter went around the table. But it was over very quickly.

"Sending in counter agents to penetrate revolutionary regimes is a tactic at least as old as the Tsarist Okhrana," Jeremy went on after a moment, "and that's because, properly done, it's as effective as hell. But, of course, there are always those little problems, as well, aren't there? Like this one."

He nodded to Harper, who worked briefly at the display controls, and a hologram sprang up in the open center of the table. It was a crude hologram, with peculiar lacunae in the imagery. Hugh recognized what he was seeing immediately. As was true of police officials most places in the modern universe—or even people whose jobs involved at least some policing functions—Harper S. Ferry and Judson Van Hale had been legally required to carry vid-recording equipment at all times and turned on whenever they were functioning in an official capacity. That was partly for the purpose of protecting suspects from possible police misconduct, but mostly because such records had proven time and again to assist the police themselves.

The crudity and sometime raggedness of this particular hologram was caused by the fact that it was a computer composite of only two vid-recorders—both of them located on the officers' shoulders, from the apparent height of the viewpoints, and both of which had been subject to violent motions during the critical last period.

Still, the record was clear enough. Whatever motives or incentives might have been driving the man named Ronald Allen, they'd been powerful enough to lead him to commit suicide, after only a moment's thought. Even though he'd only seen it second-hand, Hugh knew he'd never forget that image of Allen starring into the trees for two or three seconds, before he clenched down on his poison tooth. A man taking one last brief look at the world, before he deliberately and consciously ended his own life. Hugh wouldn't be surprised if either Harper or Judson—maybe both—would need some psychological treatment in the near future. That sort of vivid and gut-wrenching image—never mind that Harper was a hardened Ballroom killer and the man who died worked for Manpower—was exactly the sort of thing that could trigger post-traumatic stress disorder.

The final image was of a dead man's mouth, pried open with a stick to show the bar code on his tongue. There was something particularly horrifying and gruesome about the sight, and the expression of everyone sitting around the table was a bit haggard when it finally faded In fact, Berry's complexion was almost completely white when Jeremy spoke again, harshly.

"There's no way known for that kind of genetic tongue-marker to be faked cosmetically," he saidhis voice flat and hard. "Not against the kind of scanning we do, at least. There's no way to remove it that isn't both difficult and damned expensive—Manpower made sure of that, the bastards—and the thing will grow back even if you simply amputate the tongue and use regen to grow it back again. Trust me, we've already determined that both the codes in this instance are as genuine as genuine can be. Duplicates, yes; fakes, no."

"But why?" Berry asked in the tone of someone just as happy to have something to distract her drom the memory of a dead man's poison-frothed tongue. "Why bother to use a duplicated number? After all, Manpower designs the numbers in the first place. Why not just use new numbers altogether, set aside for the purpose?"

Jeremy shook his head. "The process used to assign and imprint numbers isn't all that complicated, really, Berry—not for someone who's designing complete human genotypes! Trust me, we know how it works—and from too many independent sources—to doubt that Manpower can, and does, make damned certain there aren't going to be any accidentally duplicated numbers. They've got a lot of reasons to want to be sure of that, including their own security concerns and the need tobe able to positively and absolutely identify any individual slave's specific batch in case some genetic anomaly turns up and they need to track down anyone else who may have it. Keeping the numbers straight—both before and after a slave is decanted—isn't a minor consideration, given that they produce slaves at so many different breeding sites, andthey've put a lot of effort into developing procedures to do just that.

"If they started screwing around with those procedures, they might poke a hole in them they don't want. Oh, they could set aside the occasional batch number. In fact, I think they probably do, if they need lots of them. But they'd have to set aside the entire batch each time, given their procedures, so I doubt they do it very often. If they did, the barcodes would have to 'clump,' and there'd always be the chance—probably a pretty good one, actually—that somebody might notice an association between batch mates doing suspicious things. It might not be too likely in any single agent's case, but statistics play no favorites. Sooner or later, somebody would be likely to notice the clumping—or, for that matter, just notice an age spread, or a genetic variation, or any number of little differences batch mates shouldn't have. And if that happened, then those agents would be sitting ducks. Manpower might as well have their tongues marked shoot me now."

He shook his head again. "And Manpower knows it, don't think they don't. No, there's a good reason they'd use duplicate numbers, especially from different batch numbers—whenever they could be certain the numbers in question were available, at least. Among other things, that would give them a lot more potential age variations, not to mention letting them randomize batch numbers to avoid that particular association. And how much safer could it be to reuse a given number than in a case where they knew the legitimate 'recipient' was already dead? Which, in this case, they did—or thought they did—since the aforesaid legitimate recipient was aboard a ship they knew had blown the hell up. It's really a pure fluke that we found out."

Hugh had already reached that conclusion himself, but he had a rather more burning question on his mind.

"How?" he asked simply. He and Jeremy looked at one another in silent understanding, their expressions grim, and Berry frowned at the two of them.

" 'How' what?" she demanded after a moment.

"How can you use a person bred to be a genetic slave—and with no way to ever disguise the fact—as a counter-agent?" Jeremy asked in reply. "How do you do that without running the constant and tremendous risk that he or she will turn on you—and a turned agent is far worse than having no agent at all. Anybody who's familiar with the ABCs of espionage and counter-espionage knows that much."

Ruth interjected. "Counter-espionage is to espionage what epistemology is to philosophy, Berry. The most fundamental branch. How do you know what you know? If you can't answer that, you can't answer anything." She flashed a quick, nervous smile. "Sorry. I know that sounds pedantic. But it's true."

Hugh had only a fuzzy sense of the meaning of the term "epistemology," but he understood the gist of the princess' comments, and agreed with her. Manpower could obviously breed such a counter-agent. That would be no more difficult, biologically speaking, than breeding any other slave. And although it would be a nuisance—but no more than that—they could easily enough duplicate a number.

But, as Jeremy had just asked, how could they possibly be sure of retaining the agent's loyalty, once they sent him out?

Hugh could think of ways Manpower might try to retain that loyalty, to be sure. Threatening hostages would probably be the one with the greatest likelihood of success; sometimes the crudest methods really did work best. But keeping people close to the agent hostage and threatening to harm them wouldn't work as well in this sort of situation as it might in others. In the very nature of their origins and upbringing, Manpower's slaves didn't have people close to them. Except for the sort of adopted relations that Hugh himself had gotten, of course. He, of all people, was unlikely to ever underestimate how precious that sort of "relationship" could become . . . yet every slave knew in his bones that those bonds were fragile. They existed only on the sufferance of others, and they were always subject to being torn apart by those same others—and always would be . . . so long as the institution of slavery itself survived. When an agent ended up confronting the sort of gut-wrenching stress inherent in betraying comrades dedicated to the overthrow of the monstrous evil threaning to do just that, "reliability" went straight out the airlock.

In fact, that was true of just about every method Hugh could think of, in a case like this, and Ruth's basic point sat at the center of everything: a turned agent was the great disaster every intelligence agency did everything in its power to avoid. Unless the people Manpower had in charge of its counter-espionage against the Ballroom were complete fools—and there was no evidence that they were, and plenty of evidence that they weren't—there was no chance they'd take this sort of risk.

And if they had been inclined to, it would have bitten them on the ass a long time ago, he thought grimly.

There was a a long, still moment of silence as the question lay ugly and naked among them. Then Ruth inhaled audibly.

"Manpower isn't what it seems," she said. "It just can't be. We already suspected as much, and this is still more evidence—and powerful evidence at that. There is no way a mere corporation, no matter how evil and shrewd and influential and powerful, could have created the man we all just saw dying. Not the way he died. One or two, maybe. With the right psych programming, the right threats and bribes. Maybe. But there's no way—no way—they could create enough of him to justify sending him to Torch for what had to be no more than a routine penetration. We've put this man's life here on-planet under an electron microscope, and he did nothing—nothing at all—except the sort of things a simple, white-bread information probe would have required. No corporation, not even the biggest transtellar, could have enough of these sorts of people to waste one of them on something that routine. They just couldn't. Something else is going on."

"But . . . what?" asked Berry.

"That's what we have to find out," said Jeremy. "And, finally, we're going to put the needed resources into it."

Ruth looked very cheery. "Me, for starters. Jeremy's asked me to . . . well, co-ordinate it, anyway. I'm not really heading it up, exactly. God, is this fun or what?"

Berry stared at her. "You think this is fun? I think it's pretty horrible."

"So do I," said Palane forcefully.

"Well, sure. One of you was born and raised in the warrens of Chicago, in the proverbial desp'rate straits. And the other was born and raised in the serf hellhole of Ndebele, which isn't exactly desp'rate straits but is about as miserable as anything this side of . . . of . . ."

"Dante's third level of Hell," Hugh offered.

"Who's Dante?" asked Berry.

"He must be referring to Khalid Dante, the OFS security chief for Carina Sector," said Ruth. "Nasty piece of work, by all accounts. But the point I was getting to is that I was born and raised in the comfort and security of the royal house of Winton, so I know the truth, which is that the ultimate horror is boredom."

She sat back in her seat, looking very self-satisfied.

Berry looked at Palane. "She's gone barking mad on us."

Palane smiled. "So? She was always barking mad, and you know it. Which only makes her an even better choice, when you come down to it. Who better to set on Manpower?"

Chapter Twenty-Six

"I think that just about does it, Jordin," Richard Wix observed. He was obviously trying to keep his voice properly blasé—or, at least, professionally detached—but he wasn't doing a particularly good job of it, and Jordin Kare chuckled.

"You do, do you?" he inquired.

"We've got the locus' central focus nailed, we've got the tidal stresses, and we've got the entry vector," Wix replied.

"Which is all well and good, Doctor," Captain Zachary put in, "except for that other little problem."

"We been over that and over that," Wix said, as patiently as he could (which, truth to tell, wasn't all that patiently). "I don't see any way a gravitic kick that weak is going to have any significant impact on efforts to transit. We compensate for kicks like that every day, Captain."

"No, T. J., we don't, actually," Kare said. Wix glowered at him, but Kare only shrugged. "I'll grant you that we routinely compensate for kicks of its magnitude. For that matter, we've got a kick several times this strong on the Manticore-Basilisk transit, and it's never been a problem. But you know as well as I do we've never seen one like this—one whose strength and repetition rate vary this sharply and unpredictably." He shook his head. "If you can show me what's causing it—a model that explains it, one that lets you predict what it's going to do for, say, a twenty-four-hour duration—then I'll agree with you that it's a matter of routine compensation. But you can't do that, can you?"

"No," Wix admitted after a moment. "I don't think it's powerful enough, even at the strongest reading we've recorded, to seriously threaten a ship transiting the terminus, though."

"I agree with you." Kare nodded. "That's not really my point, though. My point is that we're looking at something we've never seen before: a kick—and let's not forget, TJ, that what we call a 'kick' could just as accurately be called a 'spike'—that doesn't seem to be associated in any way with the routine stress patterns of the locus."

"Exactly how significant is that?" Zachary asked. Kare cocked an eyebrow at her, and she shrugged. "I'm nowhere near the theoretician the two of you are, of course, but it looks to me like Dr. Wix does have a point about the relative strength of the kick, or 'spike,' or whatever we want to call it. There's no way anything that weak is going to pose any kind of threat to Harvest Joy's hyper generator or alpha nodes, so I don't see its significantly impacting our transit, either. Obviously, something about it bothers you a lot more than that, though."

"What bothers me is that there's not another single instance anywhere in the literature of a gravitic spike like this one that wasn't somehow connected to the observable patterns of the locus associated with it," Kare said, his expression thoughtful. "People tend to think of wormhole termini as big, fixed doorways in space, and in gross terms, I don't suppose there's anything wrong with that visualization. But what they actually are are fixed points in space where intense gravity waves impinge on one another. On the gravitic level, they're areas of immense stress. It's a very tightly focused stress, one in which enormous forces are concentrated and counterbalanced so finely that they appear, on the macro level, to be stable. But it's a stability which results only from keeping enormous amounts of instability perfectly balanced against one another.

"That's always been the really tricky point about surveying and charting wormholes, of course. Nobody could possibly build a ship tough enough to survive even momentarily if it tried to power its way through that interface of balanced instabilities by brute force. Instead, we have to chart them, much like I suppose oceanographers chart currents and winds, to determine the precise vectors which let ships . . . well, 'shoot the rapids,' as a friend of mine likes to put it."

He paused until Zachary nodded, and to the captain's credit, he noticed, there was no apparent impatience in her nod. He flashed her a quick smile.

"I know none of that came as any great surprise to you, Captain," he told her. "But restating it may help to put my current concerns into context. You see, every other 'kick' or 'spike' we've ever encountered has been linked directly to a stress, or an eddy, in those patterns of focused instability. In fact, more often than not, when we find a kick, it leads us to a stress pattern we might not have noticed otherwise. In this case, though, it appears to be totally unrelated to any of the stress patterns in this terminus. It comes and goes on its own periodicity and with its own frequency shifts, completely irrespective of anything we've been able to observe or measure from this locus. I'm not saying it doesn't have a regular periodicity; I'm simply saying we haven't been able to determine what that periodicity may be, and we haven't been able to find any aspect of the terminus which is associated with it. It's almost . . . almost as if what we're observing here doesn't really have anything to do with the terminus at all."

Wix snorted. Kare looked at him, and the younger hyper-physicist shook his head at him.

"Oh, I can't disagree with anything you just said, Jordin. But whatever else this maybe, it's clearly a hyper wall interface spike, and the only two things we've ever seen produce wall interface spikes are hyperdrive alpha translations and wormhole termini. One way or another, it's associated with a terminus!"

"Maybe." Kare said. Wix arched a skeptical eyebrow, and Kare grimaced. "All right, it's definitely associated with a terminus. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to establish how it's associated with this terminus, have we?"

"Well, no." Wix frowned as he made the admission, then shrugged. "It's almost like it's coming from somewhere else," he said.

"But what I seem to be hearing both of you saying, is that even in a worst-case scenario, based on what we know at this point, Harvest Joy could safely transit?" Zachary asked.

"Pretty much," Kare admitted after a moment.

"Then I think it's time we talked to Queen Berry and the Prime Minister," she said.

* * *

"So, let me see if I have this straight," Berry Zilwicki said. "We know enough, we think, to send Harvest Joy through the wormhole—sorry, through the terminus—but we've got this 'kick' thingy, and we don't know what's causing it. And because we don't, Dr. Kare," she nodded courteously to the Manticoran, "is worried that we may be dealing with something no one's ever seen before."

"That's pretty much it, Your Majesty," Kare agreed. "It's not the strength of the kick that worries me; it's the fact that we can't explain what's causing it. The hyper-physicist in me is intrigued as hell by the discovery of a new phenomenon. This is the kind of thing we look for all the time, you understand. But the surveyor in me is more than a little unhappy because of the hyper-physicist in me's inability to explain what's going on before I go venturing off into the unknown."

"But you don't see any physical danger to the ship in making the transit?" Web Du Havel asked.

"Probably not," Kare said "Almost certainly not, in fact. But given that we're dealing with something I ought to be able to explain and can't, I can't make any sort of categorical guarantee. I'm perfectly willing to make the transit aboard her, you understand, and I'm not exactly in the habit of sticking my neck out unless I'm pretty sure I'm going to be able to pull it back in safely afterward. But the bottom line is that we're dealing with an uncertainty factor no one's ever dealt with before."

"What about getting back again?" Thandi Palane asked. Everyone looked at her, and she shrugged, hazel eyes intent. "If there's anyone in the galaxy who knows less about surveying wormholes than I do, I've never met her," she said. "On the other hand, I've been doing my best to bone up on the subject, and I've been watching those of you who do know what you're doing for the last three T-months. It occurs to me that you've been paying a lot of attention to charting the patterns, and what I'm wondering about is whether or not you think this 'kick' is enough that we should be worrying about how well we'll be able to chart the patterns from the other side for the return trip."

"I don't see any reason it should make the charting exercise significantly more difficult from the other end," Kare replied. "Despite my own concern over the kick's unpredictability, it didn't keep us from getting a surprisingly quick fix on the terminus' basic patterns. I don't see anything about it to suggest that it's going to significantly scramble patterns at the other end of the bridge, and having made transit once, Harvest Joy's sensors will have given us a huge head start on analyzing them, anyway. I suppose it's theoretically possible we'd have a problem, but it seems extraordinarily unlikely."

"Forgive me, Doctor," Palane said with one of her dazzling smiles, "but 'extraordinarily unlikely' doesn't exactly sound like 'no way in hell' to me. And I can't help thinking the Star Kingdom might just be a little ticked off with us if we absentmindedly misplaced their best hyper-physicists by feeding them to some kind of rogue terminus."

"That's probably true," Du Havel agreed with a chuckle. "And that doesn't even consider the kind of PR effect it could have on the summit between Manticore and Haven."

The others around the conference table nodded, although in Wix's case it was obviously a nod of acknowledgment, not agreement. Eloise Pritchart's acceptance of Torch as the site for her summit meeting with Elizabeth Winton had reached the Torch System two days ago, and no one in that room was unaware of the monumental possibilities direct, face-to-face negotiations between the two warring heads of state presented. Wix, though, clearly failed to see the connection Du Havel was making, and the prime minister shrugged.

"I never said it would be a logical effect, Dr. Wix," he said. "Human beings, however, don't always proceed on the basis of logic. For that matter, I think they almost never proceed on the basis of logic, when you come down to it. If nothing else, the fact that we'd managed to 'misplace,' as Thandi puts it, an entire survey team just three months before the summit would probably put something of a damper on the festivities. I imagine some people might even take it as an omen for the summit's ultimate chances of success, and the last thing anyone needs at this point is any sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of doom and gloom."

"I could live with that, Web," Palane said dryly. "I'd just as soon not piss Queen Elizabeth off at us, though."

"Worst-case scenario, Your Majesty," Captain Zachary said, "is that we can't survey the other end at all. Or that we can't chart it well enough to come back through it, anyway. In that case, we're looking at having to come home the long way around, via a regular hyper-space route."

"Would that be likely to pose any significant problems or risks?" Du Havel asked.

"Mr. Prime Minister, there's no way anyone could make this process risk free, whatever you do," Wix pointed out. "We could have dropped a decimal point in our analysis of the terminus. Over the last couple of hundred years, we've actually turned up a terminus no one has ever successfully transited. Just one. That's an absurdly tiny percentage of the total, but it has happened. Frankly, though, the possibility of something that unlikely happening would be a lot greater than the possibility that Harvest Joy couldn't get home again—eventually—from the other end of the bridge, wherever it is."

"That's true, Mr. Prime Minister," Zachary agreed. "The longest wormhole leg anyone's ever charted is right on nine hundred light-years long in normal-space terms. The average is a lot shorter than that, and transits of more than three or four hundred light-years are rare. Harvest Joy, on the other hand,has a four-month unrefueled endurance. That gives us a cruising radius of eight hundred light-years before we'd have to re-bunker, and that figure is based on our having to make the entire trip under impeller drive. As soon as we could get into a grav wave, our endurance would go up hugely, so we'd have to go a hell of a lot farther directly away from any settled area of the galaxy before we wouldn't be able to get home eventually."

"Well, that's a relief," Du Havel said.

"So are we prepared to authorize the transit?" Kare asked.

"I think . . . yes," the prime minister replied after a thoughtful moment, and glanced at the queen. "Finding out where that terminus connects to is going to have too many economic and strategic implications for us to even think about delaying over something as . . . esoteric as this 'kick,' I think."

"I agree." Queen Berry nodded, but she also frowned. "Before we do, though, is there any reason you have to go along, Dr. Kare?"

"I beg your pardon, Your Majesty?"

"I asked if there was any reason you, personally, would have to go along," the queen repeated.

"Well, no . . . not really, I suppose," Kare said slowly. "It's my project, though, Your Majesty. If we're going to send anyone through, then I ought to be going along, as well. Sort of like the captain going along with the rest of his ship."

"With all due respect, Jordin," Zachary said with a chuckle, "that's not really the best example you could have come up with. It wouldn't be like a captain going along with the rest of her ship; it would be like an admiral going along with one of the ships under her command. You might want to consider which one of us would actually be in command."

"Well, you would, of course, Josepha!" Kare said quickly.

"And that's my point," Berry said. "From what you're saying, it sounds to me like the return charting ought to be pretty straightforward. They aren't going to need you or Dr. Wix to do it, at any rate, right?"

"Right," Kare acknowledged with manifest unwillingness. "But—"

"But I'm afraid that means you're staying home, Doctor." There was understanding, and more than a little compassion, in the teenaged monarch's voice, yet that voice was also firm. "I know we're almost certainly worrying about nothing. And I know how much I always hated it when Daddy told me I couldn't do something I really wanted to do. Especially when I knew that he knew I wasn't really going to get into trouble if I did it. And I know you're going to be really pissed off if I don't let you go along with Captain Zachary. Despite which, I'm not going to."

"Your Majesty—" Kare began, but Berry shook her head.

"Doctor," she said with a very slight yet undeniably impish smile, "you're grounded."

Chapter Twenty-Seven

"Ready to proceed, Ma'am," Commander Samuel Lim, HMS Harvest Joy's executive officer reported crisply.

"Thank you, Sam," Captain Josepha Zachary acknowledged, and glanced one last time around her bridge.

Although she'd managed to hang on to Harvest Joy, she had an entirely different complement of officers from the one she'd had for the exploration of the Lynx Terminus. They were just as good a bunch, she thought, but there was a subtle difference this time around. Last time, everyone had been a newbie as far as wormhole exploration was concerned; this time, she was the experienced "Old Lady" whose calm, confident demeanor everyone else was trying to duplicate.

The thought amused her more than a little, and she turned her attention to one of the half-dozen other veterans of the Lynx Terminus expedition who were back aboard Harvest Joy today. Dr. Michael William Hall was the third-ranking member of Dr. Kare's team, in terms of seniority, which made him the most senior scientist present, given Queen Berry's edict. Hall's shaved scalp gleamed as if it had been waxed, and with his swarthy complexion, broad shoulders, and generally muscular physique he looked far more like the stereotype of a rugby player (which he was) than of an extraordinarily well-qualified hyper-physicist (which he also was). At the moment, she suspected, Hall was finding it a bit difficult to restrain his own half-triumphant and half-sympathetic smile as he reflected upon what must be going through Jordin Kare and Richard Wix's minds about now. It was truly amazing how stubborn Berry Zilwicki could be when she set her mind to it, Zachary reflected.

Or maybe not so amazing at all, given the stories about what she survived in Old Chicago before the Zilwickis came along, she thought much more grimly, then shook that thought aside.

"If you're ready, Doctor?" she asked out loud, arching one eyebrow.

"We're ready, Captain," Hall confirmed for the remainder of his team. He was the only one actually on the bridge; the others were assembled under Dr. Linda Hronek, the survey expedition's fourth ranking scientist, in the wardroom which had been transformed temporarily into the science team's command post.

Lieutenant Gordon Keller, Harvest Joy's tactical officer, had made himself even more than normally useful helping them set up their equipment. Which was saying quite a bit, since Lieutenant Keller was always useful to have around. He was definitely on the young side for a cruiser's tactical officer, but Harvest Joy's combat days were well behind her now. Zachary and Keller kept her people well trained and well rehearsed—she was a Queen's ship, however long in the tooth she might be growing, and the possibility that she might yet be called to action always existed, however slight it might have become—but she'd sacrificed a quarter of her armament when she was converted for service with the Astrophysics Investigation Agency.

At the moment, Keller was on the command deck, with his weapons crews closed up, but his attention—like everyone else's—was on the astrogation plot, and Zachary had no doubt that his extra efforts on the survey team's behalf had been his own way of getting his hands at least a little dirty. Missiles and energy weapons might not have anything to contribute to exploring a wormhole, but at least he could tell himself truthfully that he'd contributed.

"Well, if everyone's all set, I suppose we should get started," Zachary said calmly now, and glanced at Lieutenant Karen Evans, her astrogator.

"The transit vectors are locked in?" Zachary knew the answer to the question already, of course, but there were rules to follow, and those rules existed for very good reasons.

"Yes, Ma'am." If Evans felt any irritation at being asked a question she'd already answered for the XO, her response showed no trace of it.

"Very well." Zachary turned to her helmsman. "Ten gravities, Senior Chief."

"Ten gravities on Astro's programmed heading, aye, aye, Ma'am," Senior Chief Coxswain Hartneady acknowledged, and Zachary looked down at the com display by her left knee as Harvest Joy began to creep slowly towards the terminus.

"Prepare to rig foresail for transit, Mr. Hammarberg," she told the face looking back at her from the com.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," Lieutenant Commander Jonas Hammarberg replied formally. "Standing by to rig foresail on your mark."

"Threshold in two-zero seconds," Evans reported.

"On your toes, Senior Chief," Zachary murmured.

"Aye, Ma'am," Hartneady replied, never taking his eyes from his own displays as Harvest Joy edged into the terminus. The survey ship was tracking directly down the path Evans had programmed. If everything went the way it was supposed to go, she'd go right on doing that. If things decided not to go the way they were supposed to go, however, James Hartneady might find himself extraordinarily busy sometime in the next few seconds.

"Threshold!" Evans said sharply.

"Rig foresail for transit," Zachary ordered.

"Rigging foresail, aye," Hammarberg responded instantly.

Harvest Joy's impeller wedge fell abruptly to half strength as her forward beta nodes shut down. At the same moment, her forward alpha nodes reconfigured, dropping their own share of the cruiser's normal-space impeller wedge to project a Warshawski sail's circular disk of focused gravitational energy, instead. The sail was perpendicular to Harvest Joy's long axis, and over three hundred kilometers in diameter.

"Stand by after hypersail," Zachary said, watching the flickering numerals in the Engineering window opened in one corner of her own maneuvering plot as the cruiser continued to creep forward under her after impellers alone.

"Standing by aft hypersail, aye," Hammarberg replied, and she knew he was watching the same flashing numbers climb steadily higher on his own displays as the foresail moved deeper into the terminus. They weren't climbing anywhere near as quickly as they could have been, given the absurdly low speed with which anyone but a madwoman approached a first-transit through an uncharted terminus, of course, but—

The numbers suddenly stopped flashing. They went on climbing, but their steadiness told Zachary the foresail was drawing enough power from the terminus' grav waves to provide movement.

"Rig aftersail," she said crisply.

"Rigging aftersail, aye," Hammarberg said, just as crisply, and Harvest Joy shivered as her impeller wedge disappeared entirely and her after hypersail spread its wings at the far end of her hull.

Senior Chief Hartneady's hands moved smoothly through the tricky maneuver, and Zachary felt her stomach trying to turn over as the cruiser slid into the terminus' interface with equal smoothness.

The inevitable queasiness of crossing the hyper wall was briefer but substantially more intense in a wormhole transit, and she ignored it with the practice of several decades' experience, never looking away from her maneuvering display. She watched it narrowly, eyes focused, and then it flashed again.

No one had ever been able to measure the duration of a wormhole transit. Not from the inside of one, at any rate, and no chronometer aboard Harvest Joy managed to measure this one, either. For however long that fleeting interval was, though, the cruiser simply ceased to exist. One instant she was sixty-four light-minutes from the star called Torch; the next she was somewhere else, and Zachary felt herself swallowing in relief as her nausea vanished.

Harvest Joy's Warshawski sails radiated the brilliant blue flash of transit energy as she continued to slide forward out of the far side of the terminus under momentum alone, and Zachary nodded in satisfaction.

"Transit complete," Hartneady reported.

"Thank you, Senior Chief," Zachary acknowledged. Her gaze was back on the sail interface readout again, watching the numbers spiral downward as her ship moved further forward.

"Engineering, reconfigure to—"

An alarm shrilled with shocking suddenness, and Zachary's head whipped around towards the tactical display.

"Unknown starships!" The professionalism of merciless training flattened the stunned disbelief in Lieutenant Keller's voice without making his report one bit less jarring. "Two unknown starships, bearing zero-zero-five by zero-seven-niner, range one-zero-three thous—"

Twelve battlecruiser-grade grasers, fired at a range of just over a third of a light-second, arrived before he could complete his final sentence, and HMS Harvest Joy, Josepha Zachary, and every man and woman aboard her ship disappeared in a single cataclysmic ball of incandescent fury.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

April, 1931

"But what could have happened to them?" asked Berry Zilwicki. The young queen's face was creased with worry.

Dr. Jordin Kare's face showed concern also. But he was doing his best to maintain a calm composure. "There could be any number of reasons they're not back yet, Your Majesty. I know TJ and I both emphasized how unlikely it was, but, frankly, the most probable explanation is that this time, for one reason or another, they didn't manage to chart the gravitic stresses accurately enough on their way through. Harvest Joy's instrumentation is damn good, but if they didn't get a good read when they make transit, it could take months for them to nail things down with sufficient accuracy for a return transit without additional support."

"For that matter, assuming they did fail to get a good map on their way through, they may have come out someplace close enough to Torch for Mike and Linda—I mean Dr. Hall and Dr. Hronek—to figure it'd take longer to do the survey than to come home the long way round, through hyper, and head back with better support," Dr. Wix interjected.

"In either of those cases," continued Kare, "then they've already begun returning through hyperspace. But that could take them some time, before they get back."

"How much time?" asked Berry.

Both physicists shrugged simultaneously. "There's simply no way to know," said Kare.

Berry shook her head. "Sorry, I said that stupidly. What I should have asked is what's the probable range of time, given past experience?"

Wix ran fingers through his long and thick blond hair. "At the short end, a few days. That'd be unlikely, though. At the other extreme . . . Well, the longest recorded voyage—well-documented, anyway—through hyperspace for a wormhole survey ship was a little under four months."

"One hundred and thirteen days, to be precise," said Kare. "That was the Solarian survey ship Tempest back in . . . what? 1843, TJ?"

Wix nodded, and Berry made a face. "Four months!"

Kare's look of concern was replaced by one of reassurance. A good attempt at it, anyway. "It's not as bad as it sounds. For one thing, there's not much danger involved. Like Captain Zachary said before they ever headed out, survey ships are designed with the possibility in mind that this might happen. They've got plenty of endurance and life support."

"Absolutely," Wix agreed with an emphatic nod. "The real thing to worry about on a trip that long is boredom, Your Majesty. It's not that big a ship, you know."

Their attempt at reassurance didn't help. Berry grimaced, as she imagined being trapped in such a vest-pocket world for almost four months.

"But of course survey ships are designed with that in mind also," Kare added, a bit hurriedly. "I can assure you, Your Majesty—I speak from personal experience here—that a survey ship has as much in the way of stored entertainment as even a big city. Well . . . not live entertainment, of course. But there's about all you could ask for in the way of reading material, vids, games, music, you name it."

"Sure is," said Wix. "I once took the opportunity on a long survey voyage—almost certainly the once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity—to watch the entirety of The Adventures of Fung Ho."

Berry's eyes widened. The Adventures of Fung Ho had been the longest-running fictional vid series in human history—aside from soap operas, of course—with forty-seven continuous seasons.

"All of it? That's—" She had a knack for math, and did the calculations quickly. "That's over a thousand hours of viewing time. A thousand and thirty-four, to be precise, except that I think there were a couple of years when they had shortened seasons."

Wix nodded. "Three seasons, actually. 1794, due to an actors' strike, where they lost almost a third of the season. 1802, from a writer's strike—but that only lasted for a few weeks. And the biggest loss, over half the season in 1809, when Lugh came under severe bombardment and just about all activity on the planet had to be suspended for the duration of the emergency."

Lugh was the third planet of the star Tau Ceti, and was the location where most of the episodes in The Adventures of Fung Ho had been recorded. The planet was popular for a large number of vid series, especially those involving adventure, due to its flamboyant scenery and even more flamboyant biota. Unfortunately, the Tau Ceti system also had over ten times as much dust as did Sol's system and that of most inhabited solar systems. That massive debris disk meant the planet was subject to more in the way of impact events than all but a handful of other planets with permanent human settlements. The danger of bolides shaped everything about Lugh's culture, from the structure of its system defense force down to the fact that those same bolides were a regular feature in the adventure vids produced there.

Berry shook her head slightly, as she continued with her calculations. A thousand hours of viewing time translated into eighty-three consecutive days, assuming you sat and watched for twelve hours a day.

"Gah," she said. "All of it?"

"He cheated," said Kare. "He skimmed through all the episodes involving E.A. Hattlestad and Sonya Sipes."

"That has got to be the silliest sub-plot ever invented by the human race," groused Wix, "even allowing for the fact that it's supposed to be romance."

Berry chose not to argue the matter. She'd seen a large number of the episodes of the Fung Ho series herself—although certainly not all of it, nor even close—and had been rather partial to the romance between Hattlestad and Sipes. As much of it as she'd seen, at least. Granted, the premises were pretty extreme, starting with the size disparity between Hattlestad—who was practically a homunculus—and the eight-foot-tall giantess Sipes. But so were the premises of the entire series, when you got right down to it. That wasn't surprising, given that Fung Ho had been inspired by the adventures of Baron Münchhausen. Add asteroids, alien tempters and temptresses (whose temptations usually succeeded, Fung Ho being Fung Ho), and energy weapons.

"Still," she said, "I'm impressed. Or appalled, I'm not sure which."

Kare and Wix both chuckled. "To be honest," said Wix, "after it was all over and I thought about it, I was a lot closer to being appalled than impressed, myself. The series is addictive, but speaking objectively it's about as ludicrous an exercise in fiction as you can find in the record."

Kare's smile faded. "But to get back to the point, Your Majesty, I think it's much too early to start really worrying about what happened to the Harvest Joy. Yes, there are some explanations that involve real disasters. But they're not that likely."

"Well, okay," said Berry. She cocked her head. "I'm presuming that until you know more, you have no intentions of sending another survey ship through the wormhole." That was a statement, not a question. Beneath the pleasant tone, there was the hint that Berry—Queen Berry, when push came to shove—would not permit any such foolishness.

Kare shook his head. "Oh, no. Even if we had another survey ship with an experienced captain and crew at our disposal—"

"Which we certainly don't," Wix said forcefully.

"—we wouldn't do it, anyway. There's a standard procedure to be followed in cases like this. Stripping away the jargon, the gist of it is: remeasure, recalculate, and refigure everything, before you so much as breathe heavily on that wormhole."

Berry nodded. "Okay. We'll just wait then. For now, at least."

The very muscular woman named Lara appeared in the entrance to the small salon where Berry had been meeting with the two scientists. Jordin and Wix weren't quite sure what her formal duties were. She seemed to serve the queen as a combination bodyguard, personal handler and court jester.

"The delegation from the pharmaceutical companies has now been waiting for twenty-five minutes," she said. "You're late, not them."

The physicists, accustomed to the court of Manticore, were startled. Even now, after having spent two and half months on Torch, they still weren't really acclimatized to the planet's sometimes odd customs. It was inconceivable that anyone, much less a mere bodyguard, would speak that bluntly—no, rudely—to Queen Elizabeth. And if they did, there'd be hell to pay.

But Queen Berry seemed to think it was simply amusing. "Lara, weren't you paying attention in your sessions on royal protocol?"

"Slept right through the silly business. Are you coming, or do you want me to dream up some more excuses?"

"No, no, I'll come. We're done here." She gave Kare and Wix a smile and a semi-apologetic nod of the head. "Sorry, but I'm afraid I've got to leave now. Please let me know immediately if anything further turns up."

After she left, Wix let out his breath slowly. "Well," he said, "it is the most likely explanation."

Kare made a face. He had not, in fact, lied to the queen. As Wix had just stated, the most likely explanation was that the Harvest Joy couldn't return through the wormhole, for whatever reason, and was now slowly making its way back to Torch via hyperspace.

But . . .

It wasn't the only possible explanation. He'd been honest enough when he stressed how uncommon it was—these days, at least—for ships to be lost during wormhole surveys. Statistically, the odds were very much against anything of the sort having happened to Harvest Joy. On the other hand, though, there was a reason he'd deliberately avoided getting into any details concerning the disasters that could happen to survey ships. However unlikely they might be, they could happen, and some of them were . . . gruesome. The fate of the Dublin and her crew was still something no one involved in survey work wanted to contemplate or talk about, even a century and a half later.

And there was that one wormhole no one had ever come back from . . . at all.

"Yes, it is," he said. "The most likely explanation, by far."

* * *

"Where's Ruth?" Berry asked plaintively, once they were in the corridor that led—eventually—to the ballroom where the trade delegation was waiting.

"Saburo says she's running late, girl," Lara said, shrugging with the casual informality which was such a quintessential part of her. "Even later than you are."

The ex-Scrag was still about as civilized as a wolf, and she had a few problems grasping the finer points of court etiquette. Which, to tell the truth, suited Berry just fine. Usually, at least.

"If I've got to do this," the queen said firmly, "Ruth has to do it with me."

"Berry," Lara said, "Kaja said she'll be here, and Saburo and Ruth are already on their way. We can go ahead and start."

"No." They'd reached an intersection of corridors that was wide enough that someone had seen fit to place a couple of armchairs in it. Berry flounced—that really was the only verb that fit—over to one of them and plunked down in it. "I'm the Queen," she said snippily, "and I want my intelligence advisor there when I talk to these people."

"But your father isn't even on Torch," Lara pointed out with a grin. Thandi Palane's "Amazons" had actually developed senses of humor, and all of them were deeply fond of their commander's "little sister." Which was why they took such pleasure in teasing her.

"You know what I mean!" Berry shot back, rolling her eyes in exasperation. But there was a twinkle in those eyes, and Lara chuckled as she saw it.

"Yes," she admitted. "But tell me, why do you need Ruth? It's only a gaggle of merchants and businessmen." She wrinkled her nose in the tolerant contempt of a wolf for the sheep a bountiful nature had created solely to feed it. "Nothing to worry about in that bunch, girl!"

"Except for the fact that I might screw up and sell them Torch for a handful of glass beads!"

Lara looked at her, obviously puzzled, and Berry sighed. Lara and the other Amazons truly were trying hard, but it was going to take years to even begin closing the myriad gaps in their social skills and general background knowledge.

"Never mind, Lara," the teenaged queen said after a moment. "It wasn't really all that funny a joke, anyway. But what I meant is that with Web tied up with Governor Barregos' representative, I need someone a little more devious to help hold my hand when I slip into the shark tank with these people. I need someone to advise me about what they really want, not just what they say they want."

"Make it plain anyone who cheats you gets a broken neck." Lara shrugged. "You may lose one or two, early, but the rest will know better. Want Saburo and me to handle it for you?"

She sounded almost eager, and Berry laughed. She often suspected Saburo X still didn't understand exactly how it had happened, but after a brief, wary, half-terrified, extremely . . . direct "courtship," he wasn't complaining. On the face of it, his and Lara's was one of the most unlikely pairings in history—the ex-genetic-slave terrorist, madly in love with the ex-Scrag who'd worked directly for Manpower before she walked away from her own murderous past—and yet, undeniably, it worked.

"There is a certain charming simplicity to the idea of broken necks," Berry conceded, after a moment. "Unfortunately, that's not how it's done. I haven't been a queen for long, but I do know that much."

"Pity," Lara said, and glanced at her chrono. "Now they've been waiting over half an hour," she remarked.

"Oh, all right," Berry said. "I'll go—I'll go!" She shook her head and made a face. "You'd think a queen would at least be able to get away withsomething when her father is half a dozen star systems away!"

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Harper S. Ferry stood in the throne room, arms crossed, watching the thirty-odd people standing about. He knew he didn't cut a particularly military figure, but that was fine with him. In fact, the ex-slaves of Torch had a certain fetish for not looking spit and polish. They were the galaxy's outcast mongrels, and they wanted no one—including themselves—to forget that.

Which didn't mean they took their responsibilities lightly.

Judson Van Hale walked casually across the throne room, angling a bit closer to Harper, with Genghis riding his shoulder.

"This is a lively bunch," Judson murmured disgustedly out of the corner of his mouth as he stopped beside Harper. "Genghis is downright bored."

He reached up and caressed the cream-and-gray treecat, and the 'cat purred and pressed his head against Judson's hand.

"Boring is good," Harper replied quietly. "Exciting is bad."

"Aren't they running late?" Judson asked after a moment, and Harper shrugged.

"I don't have anyplace else I need to be today," he said. "And if Berry's running true to form, she's dragging her heels, waiting for Ruth. And Thandi, if she can get her here."

"Why aren't they here?"

"They're going over something to do with security for the summit, and according to the net," Harper tapped his personal com, "Thandi's sending Ruth on ahead while she finishes up." He shrugged again. "I'm not sure exactly what it is she's working on. Probably something about setting up liaison with Cachat."

"Oh, yeah. 'Liaison,' " Judson said, rolling his eyes, and Harper slapped him lightly on the back of the head.

"No disrespectful thoughts about the Great Kaja, friend! Not unless you want her Amazons performing a double orchidectomy on you without anesthesia."

Judson grinned, and Genghis bleeked a laugh.

"Who's that guy over there?" Harper asked after a moment. "The fellow by the main entrance."

"The one in the dark blue jacket?"

"That's the one."

"Name's Tyler," Judson said. He punched a brief code into his memo pad and looked down at the display. "He's with New Age Pharmaceutical. It's one of the Beowulf consortiums. Why?"

"I don't know," Harper said thoughtfully. "Is Genghis picking up any sort of vibes from him?"

Both humans looked at the treecat, who raised a true hand in the thumb-folded, two-finger sign for the letter "N" and nodded it up and down. Judson looked back at Harper and shrugged.

"Guess not. Want us to stroll a bit closer and check him out again?"

"I don't know," Harper said again. "It's just—" He paused. "It's probably nothing," he went on after a moment. "It's just that he's the only one I see who's brought along a briefcase."

"Hm?"

Judson frowned, surveying the rest of the crowd.

"You're right," he acknowledged. "Odd, I suppose. I thought this was supposed to be primarily a 'social occasion.' Just a chance for them to meet Queen Berry as a group, before the individual negotiating sessions."

"That's what I thought, too," Harper agreed. He thought about it for a moment longer, then keyed a combination into his com.

"Yes, Harper?" a voice replied.

"The guy with the briefcase, Zack. You checked it out?"

"Ran the sniffer over it and had him open it," Zack assured him. "Nothing in it but a microcomputer and a couple of perfume dispensers."

"Perfume?" Harper repeated.

"Yeah. I picked up some organic traces from them, but they were all consistent with cosmetics. Not even a flicker of red on the sniffer. I asked him about them, too, and he said they were gifts from New Age for the girls. I mean, Queen Berry and Princess Ruth."

"Had they been pre-cleared?" Harper asked.

"Don't think so. He said they were supposed to be surprises."

"Thanks, Zack. I'll get back to you."

Harper switched off the com and looked at Judson. Judson looked back, and the ex-Ballroom assassin frowned.

"I don't like surprises," he said flatly.

"Well, Berry and Ruth might," Judson countered.

"Fine. Surprise them all you want, but not their security. We're supposed to know about this kind of crap ahead of time."

"I know." Judson tugged at the lobe of his left ear, thinking. "It's almost certainly nothing, you know. Genghis would be picking up something from him by now if he had anything . . . unpleasant in mind."

"Maybe. But let's you and I sashay over that way and have a word with Mr. Tyler," Harper said.

* * *

William Henry Tyler stood in the throne room, waiting patiently with the rest of the crowd, and rubbed idly at his right temple. He felt a bit . . . odd. Not ill, really. He didn't even have a headache. In fact, if anything, he felt just a bit euphoric, although he couldn't think why.

He shrugged and checked his chrono. "Queen Berry"—he smiled slightly at the thought of the Torch monarch's preposterous youth; she was younger than the younger of Tyler's own two daughters—was obviously running late. Which, he supposed, was the prerogative of a head of state, even if she was only seventeen.

He glanced down at his brief case and felt a brief, mild stir of surprise. It vanished instantly, in a stronger surge of that inexplicable euphoria. He'd actually been a bit startled when the security man asked him what was in the case. For just an instant, it had been as if he'd never seen it before, but then, of course, he'd remembered the gifts for Queen Berry and Prince Ruth. That had been a really smart idea on Marketing's part, he conceded. Every young woman he'd ever met had liked expensive perfume, whether she was willing to admit it or not.

He relaxed again, humming softly, at peace with the universe.

* * *

"All right, see? I'm here," Berry said, and Lara laughed.

"And so graceful you are, too," the Amazon said. "You who keep trying to 'civilize' us!"

"Actually," Berry said, reaching out to pat the older woman on the forearm, "I've decided I like you all just the way you are. My very own 's, but I'm sure she'll lend you to me if I ask. Just do me a favor and try not to get any blood on the furniture. Oh, and let's keep the orgies out of sight, too, at least when Daddy's around. Deal?"

"Deal, Little Kaja. I'll explain to Saburo about the orgies," Lara said, and it was perhaps an indication of the effect Berry Zilwicki had on the people about her that an ex-Scrag didn't even question the deep surge of affection she felt for her teenage monarch.

* * *

A slight stir went through the throne room as someone noticed the queen and her lean, muscular bodyguard entering through the side door. The two of them moved across the enormous room, which had once been the ballroom of the planetary governor when Torch had been named Verdant Vista. The men and women who'd come to meet the Queen of Torch were a little surprised by how very young she looked in person, and heads turned to watch her, although nobody was crass enough to start sidling in her direction until she'd seated herself in the undecorated powered chair which served her for a throne.

Harper S. Ferry and Judson Van Hale were still ten meters from the New Age Pharmaceutical representative when Tyler looked up and saw Berry. Unlike any of the other commercial representatives in the room, he took a step towards her the moment he saw her, and Genghis's head snapped up in the same instant.

The 'cat reared high, ears flattened and fangs bared in the sudden, tearing-canvas ripple of a treecat's war cry, and vaulted abruptly from his person's shoulder towards Tyler.

Tyler's head whipped around, and Harper felt a sudden stab of outright terror as he saw the terrible, fixed glare of the other man's eyes. There was something . . . insane about them, and Harper was suddenly reaching for the panic button on his gun belt.

The pharmaceutical representative saw the oncoming 'cat, and his free hand flashed across to the briefcase he was carrying. The briefcase with the "perfume" of which no one at New Age Pharmaceuticals had ever heard . . . and which Tyler didn't even remember taking from the man who'd squirted that odd mist in his face on Smoking Frog.

Genghis almost reached him in time. He launched himself from the floor in a snarling, hissing charge that hit Tyler's moving forearm perhaps a tenth of a second too late.

Tyler pressed the concealed button. The explosive charges in the two massively pressurized canisters of "perfume" in the briefcase exploded expelling the binary neurotoxin which they had contained under several thousand atmospheres of pressure. Separated, its components had been innocuous, easily mistaken for perfume; combined, they were incredibly lethal, and they mingled and spread, whipping outward from Tyler under immense pressure even as the briefcase blew apart with a sharp, percussive crack.

Genghis stiffened, jerked once, and hit the floor a fraction of a second before Tyler, left hand mangled by the explosion of the briefcase, collapsed beside him. Harper's finger completed its movement to the panic button, and then the deadly cloud swept over him and Judson, as well. Their spines arched, their mouths opened in silent agony, and then they went down as a cyclone of death spread outward.

* * *

Lara and Berry did their best to maintain suitably grave expressions, despite their mutual amusement, as they walked towards Berry's chair. They were about halfway there when the sudden, high-pitched snarl of an enraged treecat ripped through the throne room.

They spun towards the sound, and saw a cream-and-gray blur streaking through the crowd. For an instant, Berry had no idea at all what was happening. But if Lara wasn't especially well socialized, she still had the acute senses, heightened musculature, and lightning reflexes of the Scrag she had been born.

She didn't know what had set Genghis off, but every instinct she had screamed "Threat!" And if she wouldn't have had a clue which fork to use at a formal dinner, she knew exactly what to do about that.

She continued her turn, right arm reaching out, snaking around Berry's waist like a python, and snatched the girl up. By the time Genghis was two leaps from Tyler, Lara was already sprinting towards the door through which they'd entered the throne room.

She heard the sharp crack of the exploding briefcase behind her just as the door opened again, and she saw Saburo and Ruth Winton through it. From the corner of her eye, she also saw the outrider of death scything towards her as the bodies collapsed in spasming agony, like ripples spreading from a stone hurled into a placid pool. The neurotoxin was racing outward faster than she could run; she didn't know what it was, but she knew it was invisible death . . . and that she could not outdistance it.

"Saburo!" she screamed, and snatched Berry bodily off the floor. She spun on her heel once, like a discus thrower, and suddenly Berry went arcing headfirst through the air. She flew straight at Saburo X, like a javelin, and his arms opened reflexively.

"The door!" Lara screamed, skittering to her knees as she overbalanced from throwing Berry. "Close the door! Run!"

Berry hit Saburo in the chest. His left arm closed about her, holding her tight, and his eyes met Lara's as her knees hit the floor. Brown eyes stared deep into blue, meeting with the sudden, stark knowledge neither of them could evade.

"I love you!" he cried . . . and his right hand hit the button to close the door.

Chapter Thirty

"It's getting harder, Jack." Herlander Simões leaned back in the visitor's chair in Jack McBryde's kitchen and shook his head. "You'd think it would either stop hurting, or that I'd get used to it, or that I'd just go ahead and give up." He bared his teeth in a bitter mockery of a smile. "I always used to think I was a fairly smart fellow, but obviously I was wrong. If I really were so damned smart, I'd have managed to do one of those things by now!"

"I wish I could tell you some magic formula, Herlander." McBryde flicked the top off another bottle of beer and slid it across to his guest. "And, I'll be honest with you, there are times I just want to kick you right in the ass." There was at least a little humor in his own smile, and he shook his head. "I don't know whether I'm more pissed off with you for the way you keep right on putting yourself through this or for the way it's twisting up your entire life, not just your work."

"I know."

Simões accepted the new beer and took a long pull from the bottle. Then he set it down on the table top, folding his hands around it so that his thumbs and forefingers were a loose circle about the base. He stared down at his cuticles for several seconds, his worn face set in a pensive expression.

"I know," he repeated, looking up at McBryde at last. "I've been trying to get past my own anger, the way you suggested. Sometimes, I think I'm making progress, too. But something always seems to come along."

"Are you still watching those holos at night?" McBryde's voice had gone very gentle, and Simões' shoulders seemed to hunch without actually moving a millimeter. He looked back down at the beer bottle, his hazel eyes like shutters, and nodded once.

"Herlander," McBryde said softly. Simões looked up at him, and McBryde shook his own head. "You're just killing yourself doing that. You know it as well as I do."

"Maybe." Simões inhaled deeply. "No, not maybe—yes. I know it. You know it. For that matter, my official therapist knows it. But I just . . . can't, Jack. It's like as long as I look at the HD every so often she isn't really gone."

"But she is gone, Herlander." McBryde's voice was as merciless as it was gentle. "And so is Harriet. And so is your entire damned life, if this succeeds in sucking you down."

"Sometimes I think that might not be such a bad thing," Simões admitted quietly.

"Herlander!" This time McBryde's voice was sharp, and Simões looked up again.

It was odd, McBryde thought, as their eyes met. Under normal circumstances, having one of the scientists whose security he was responsible for overseeing as a guest in his apartment—as someone who had turned into something remarkably like a personal friend—would have broken every rule of the Alignment's security services. In fact, it did break every one of them . . . except for the fact that Isabel Bardasano's personal orders were still in effect.

He'd had his reservations when he first received those orders, and in some ways, he had even more reservations now. For one thing, his relationship with Simões really had turned into something which truly did resemble friendship, and he knew that hadn't been a good thing, in oh so many ways. Turning someone who was a solid mass of emotional anguish into a friend was one of the best recipes for destroying one's own peace of mind he could think of. Empathizing with what had been done to Herlander Simões and his daughter was even worse, given what it did to his own anger quotient . . . and the mental byroads it had been leading him along. And leaving all of that aside, he was only too well aware that his objectivity—the professional objectivity it was his sworn duty to maintain where Simões was concerned—had been completely destroyed. What had begun as obedience to orders, as a mere dutiful effort to keep an important scientific asset functional, had segued into something very different.

Simões was equally aware of that. It was odd, but in some ways the fact that McBryde had begun from a purely pragmatic effort to salvage Simões' utility to the Gamma Center had actually made it easier for the hyper-physicist to open up with him. McBryde was the only person who hadn't started out concerned only for Simões' "own good," and that had let Simões lower his guard where the security man was concerned. There were times when McBryde wondered if there hadn't been at least a trace of self destructiveness in Simões' attitude towards him—if a tiny part of the scientist hadn't been actually hoping that he would say or do or reveal something which would force McBryde to yank him from the Center.

But regardless of the exact nature of the tangled emotions, attitudes, motives, and hopes, Jack McBryde was the one person in the entire galaxy with whom Herlander Simões was prepared to be totally honest. He was also the only person who could take Simões to task for something like the scientist's self-flagellating habit of watching the recorded imagery of Francesca night after night without triggering Simões' instant, self-defensive anger.

"Let's be honest here, Jack," the scientist said now, smiling crookedly. "Sooner or later you're going to decide it's time to pull me. I know as well as you do that my efficiency is still dropping. And I'm not exactly what someone might call the life of the party when it comes to the rest of the team's morale, now am I? It's not even actively destructive, anymore. Not really. It's just this slow, grinding, wearing away. I'm so frigging tired, Jack. There's a big part of me that just wants to stop. Just wants it to beover. But there's another part of me that can't stop, because if I do, Frankie's just gone forever, and those bastards will just go ahead and forget about her. Sweep her under the rug."

His voice had hardened with the last two sentences, and his hands locked around the beer bottle, squeezing it. Throttling it, really, McBryde thought, and wondered if he should try to distract Simões from his anger.

He knew he really ought to be consulting with the scientist's assigned therapist. He should have been offering his information to her, and asking her advice on how he could most constructively respond to Simões. Unfortunately, he couldn't. To his surprise, part of the reason he couldn't was because it would have been a betrayal of Simões' confidence. Despite what he'd said to the other man at their very first meeting about respecting his privacy, he'd never actually violated it, and he suspected that Simões knew it.

The other reason was more disturbing, when he allowed himself to confront it (which he did as seldom as possible). He was afraid. Afraid that in discussing Simões' mindset and anger, he might reveal altogether too much about certain thoughts of his own . . . especially to a trained Alignment therapist who was already thinking in terms of the potential security risk her patient might present.

Should I try and pull him up out of the anger, or just let him vent? He needs to let some of that pressure out, but it doesn't just go away when he does, does it? McBryde shook his head mentally. Of course it doesn't. It's like letting the pressure out only lets more oxygen in. Only makes the fire burn hotter in the end.

"You're still pounding away at Fabre and the rest, aren't you?" he asked out loud.

"You're the security guy," Simões riposted with just a flash of anger directed at him. "You're already reading all my mail, aren't you?"

"Well, yes," McBryde admitted.

"Then you know, don't you?" Simões challenged.

"The question was what's known as a conversational gambit," McBryde said just a bit flatly. "A way of edging into a point that needs to be discussed with at least a modicum of tact, Herlander."

"Oh." Simões' eyes fell for a moment, then he shrugged. "Well, in that case, yeah. I'm still . . . letting them know how I feel."

"Somehow I suspect they've already got at least a vague idea about that," McBryde said dryly, and Simões surprised both of them with a chuckle. A harsh chuckle, but still a chuckle.

Despite that, it wasn't really a laughing matter. Simões hadn't—quite—degenerated to the point of issuing actual threats in his twice-a-week e-mails to Martina Fabre, but the degree of anger—of hatred, to use an honest word for it—in those messages was distressingly clear. In fact, McBryde had quietly advised Fabre to take a few additional security precautions of her own. Had the man sending those messages been one whit less important to the Alignment's military research efforts, he might very well already have been arrested. He certainly would have been put under precautionary surveillance . . . except, of course, that in this case he already was under precautionary surveillance.

It was like watching a slow-motion holo of an avalanche, McBryde thought. And in many ways, Simões' sheer brilliance and the mental agility, focus, and stubbornness which had made him one of the Alignment's star researchers only made it worse. Whether he wanted to or not (and McBryde had come to the conclusion that he actually did want to), the hyper-physicist was actively applying that same focused refusal to quit to his campaign to make Fabre and the members of the Long-Range Planning Board fully aware of the searing depth of his hatred and resentment. In some ways, that campaign was all that was keeping the rest of his life afloat, the only thing giving him the momentum—and the will—to go on facing the wasteland the rest of his life had become.

Yet not even that was enough to halt the grinding collapse of who and what he had once been. It wasn't happening overnight. It wasn't merciful enough to happen overnight. But despite all of the effort being mounted to salvage Herlander Simões—or, at least, the asset he represented—the scientist continued his slow, steady, inexorable collapse. They'd managed to slow it down, and his therapist credited McBryde with the lion's share of that accomplishment, yet nothing seemed able to arrest it.

I don't think anything can arrest it, McBryde thought somberly. I think it's his own impotence driving it. I have read those e-mails, so I know exactly what he's been saying to Fabre, and if I were her, I'd have already demanded that he be placed in preventive custody. As a member of the LRPB, she'd get it if she asked for it, too. I wonder why she hasn't? I suppose it's at least possible she feels sorry for him. That she genuinely does feel responsible for having created the circumstances that ripped his life apart. But there's so much anger inside him, so much need to punish someone—someone besides himself, or in addition to himself, maybe—for what happened to his daughter. One of these days, he really is going to work himself around to the point of trying to kill her, or someone else on the Board, or anyone he can punish for what happened to Francesca. And that's going to be the end.

When that day ultimately came, McBryde knew, it would be his job to stop Simões, and the awareness gnawed at him. Gnawed at his sympathy, and at his own doubts.

Because the truth is that Bardasano's actually right about how quickly we're finally coming up on Prometheus, he thought. I never really expected it to happen in my own lifetime, which was pretty stupid, given how young I am, and how much I knew about what was going on on inside the "onion." But we've been working towards that moment for so long that, emotionally, I never really realized I might be one of the ones to see it. Now I know I will be . . . and Herlander's kicked every one of those doubts I didn't really know I had fully awake, hasn't he?

How many more Herlanders is the Board going to create? How many people—and just because they're "normals" doesn't keep them from being people, damn it!—are going to find themselves in his position? Hell, how many billions or trillions of people are we going to end up killing just so that the Long-Range Planning Board can steer the entire human race into the uplands of genetic superiority? And how willing are we really going to be to accept Leonard Detweiler's challenge to improve every single member of the human race to our own pinnacle of achievement? Are we really going to do it? There'll have to be at least some beta lines, of course. And probably at least a few gamma lines. Obviously we won't be able to do without those, now will we? We'll find plenty of reasons for that, and some of them will probably even be valid! But what about Manpower's slaves? What about all those "normals" out there? Are we really going to treat them as our equals . . . aside, of course, from the unfortunate necessity of dictating what children they're allowed to have? Assuming, of course, that their chromosomes offer sufficient promise for them to be allowed to have children at all? And if we don't treat them as our equals—and you really know we damned well won't, Jack—are the children we allow them to have really going to end up our equals? Or will they be sentenced forever to never climb above the gamma level? And who the hell are we to tell an entire galaxy of it has to do things ourway? Isn't that the very thing we've been so pissed off over at Beowulf for so long? Because the sanctimonious bastards insisted that we couldn't do things our way? For telling us what to do, because that's what it comes down to in the end, however high the motivations we impute to ourselves.

He looked down into his own bottle of beer for several seconds, then shook himself and looked back up at Simões.

"You know, Herlander," he said conversationally, "it's going to be those letters to Fabre that finally yank the rug out from under you. You do realize that, don't you?"

"Yeah." Simões shrugged. "I'm not going to just give her a pass on it, though, Jack. Maybe I can't do anything to stop her from doing it to some other Frankie, and maybe I can't do anything to . . . get even with the system. Hell, I accept that I can't! But I can at least make damned sure she knows how pissed off I am, and why. And telling her's the only relief I'm likely to find, now isn't it?"

"I happen to know that there are no surveillance devices in this kitchen." McBryde leaned back in his own chair, and his tone was almost whimsical. "At the same time, you might want to consider the wisdom of telling someone who works for Security for a living that you want 'to get even with the system.' That's what we call in the trade becoming an active threat."

"And you don't already know I feel that way?" Simões actually smiled at him. "For that matter, you're the only person I can say it to knowing that someone isn't going to report it to Security! Besides, you're supposed to be keeping me on the rails as long as you can, so I figure you're not going to turn me in as a security risk—which would undoubtedly come as a huge surprise to your superiors, I don't think—as long as you can keep on getting at least some work out of me for the Center."

"You know it's not as cut and dried as that anymore, don't you, Herlander?" McBryde asked quietly, and the hyper-physicist's eyes flicked up for a moment, meeting his.

"Yeah," Simões said after a moment, his own voice quiet. "Yeah, I know that, Jack. And"—he smiled again, but this time it was a smile fit to break a statue's heart—"isn't it a hell of a galaxy when the only true friend I've got left is the man who's ultimately going to have to turn me in as an unacceptable security risk?"

Chapter Thirty-One

"I think we should talk to Admiral Harrington," said Victor Cachat. "As soon as possible, too—which means going to see her where she is right now, not spending the time it would take to set up a meeting on neutral ground."

Anton Zilwicki stared at him. So did Thandi Palane.

So did Queen Berry and Jeremy X and Web Du Havel and Princess Ruth.

"And they say I'm barking mad!" exclaimed Ruth. "Victor, that's impossible."

"Harrington's reported to be at Trevor's Star," said Zilwicki. "In command of Eighth Fleet, to be precise. What do you think the chances are that she'll agree to let a Havenite secret agent on board her flagship?"

"Fairly good, actually, if everything I've learned about her is accurate," replied Victor. "I'm more concerned with figuring out how I can protect Haven from having information forced out of me if she decides to get hardnosed."

He gave Zilwicki a look that might be called "injured" if Cachat had been someone else. "I will point out that I'd be the only one taking any real risks, not you and certainly not Admiral Harrington. But that's easy enough to handle."

"How?" asked Berry. She glanced apologetically at Ruth. "Not that I think the Manticorans would violate their word to allow you safe passage, assuming they gave it in the first place. But you really don't have any way to be certain, and once they got their hands on you . . ."

Zilwicki sighed. Palane looked as if she couldn't decide between just being very unhappy or being furious with Victor.

"Are you kidding? We're dealing with Mad Dog Cachat here, Berry," Thandi said. Her tone of voice was not one you'd expect from a woman describing the love of her life. It had a greater resemblance to a file peeling off metal. "He'll handle it the same way that presumed Manpower agent Ronald Allen handled it. Suicide."

Cachat didn't say anything. But it was obvious from the look on his face that Thandi had guessed correctly.

"Victor!" Berry protested.

But Anton knew how hard it was to talk Victor Cachat out of a course of action once he'd decided upon it. And the truth was, Anton wasn't inclined to do so anyway. It was less than a day since they'd returned to Torch and learned about the assassination attempt on Berry that had happened three days earlier. Anton Zilwicki was as furious as he'd ever been in his life—and Cachat's proposal had the great emotional virtue of being something concrete they could do—and do it now.

Besides, leaving emotional issues aside, there were a number of attractive aspects to Victor's proposal. If they could get Honor Harrington to agree to meet with them—a very big "if," of course—they'd have opened a line of communication with the one top Manticoran leader who, from what Anton could determine, was skeptical of the established wisdom in the Star Kingdom when it came to Haven.

Of course, even if Anton was right, it was still a stretch to think she'd agree to let a known Havenite agent—who, if he wasn't precisely an "assassin," was certainly a close cousin—into her physical presence. Given that she herself had been the target of an assassination attempt less than six T-months earlier.

On the other hand . . .

By now, Anton and Victor had gotten to the point where, at least when it came to professional matters, they could almost read each other's minds. So Zilwicki wasn't surprised when Victor said: "Anton, it'll be the very openness of our approach that's most likely to lead Harrington to agree. Whatever I'm up to, she'll know I'm not skulking about—and unlike the assassination attempt on her, I'd be coming at her directly. Which, given her level of protection—not to mention her own reputation as a hand-to-hand fighter—is hardly a real danger."

He spread his hands and looked down upon himself, smiling as beatifically as Victor Cachat could manage. Which, admittedly, would have left any saint appalled. "I mean, look at me. Is this the physique of a deadly assassin? Unarmed assassin, at that, since she'll be perfectly capable of detecting any weapons and insisting I remove them."

Zilwicki made a face. "Anybody know a good dental technician? He'll also have to be immediately available—and be familiar with archaic dental practices like tooth extraction."

Berry frowned. "Why do you need a dental technician?"

"He's actually suggesting that I do, Berry. So I can get a poisoned hollow tooth installed. Which is just silly." Victor clucked his tongue chidingly. "I have to tell you, Anton, that in this technological area Haven is way ahead of Manticore. And apparently Manpower, as well."

Thandi Palane was squinting at him. "Victor, are you telling me that you routinely carry around suiciding devices?" Her tone of voice was short of absolute zero, but could have made ice cubes in an instant. "If so, I am not pleased. And wouldn't be, even if we didn't share a bed every night."

Cachat gave her a quick, reassuring smile. "No, no, of course not. I'll have to get it from our station on Erewhon. But we'll need to pass through Erewhon en route to Trevor's Star, anyway."

On their way out of the palace to start making their preparations, Anton murmured: "Nice save, Victor."

Cachat might have looked a bit embarrassed. If so, though, it was only an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny bit of embarrassment.

"Look, I'm not crazy. Of course I don't carry the thing into bed. In fact, I don't keep it anywhere in the bedroom. But . . . what would be the point of having a suicide device in another star system? Naturally, I carry the thing with me at all times. I've done so for years."

Zilwicki didn't shake his head, but he was sorely tempted. There were times when Victor seemed like an alien from a far away galaxy with an emotional structure not even remotely akin to that of human beings. It was obvious Cachat thought it was perfectly reasonable—normal practice for any competent secret agent—to carry around a suicide device at all times. He'd no more think of venturing out without one than another man would go without putting on shoes.

In point of fact, no intelligence agency other than that of Haven followed such a practice—and, although he wasn't positive, Anton was pretty sure not even the Havenites did so routinely. Not even when Saint-Just had been running the show. Suicide devices would only be provided to agents on rare occasions, for missions that were especially sensitive. They wouldn't be passed around like so many throat lozenges!

Once again, if Anton needed the reminder, Victor Cachat was demonstrating that he was Victor Cachat.

"One of a kind," he muttered.

"What was that?"

"Never mind, Victor."

* * *

Hugh ran his fingers through his hair. That was a gesture he normally only did when he was exasperated. Which . . .

He was and he wasn't. It was all rather confusing—and Hugh Arai hated being confused.

"I still don't see why you're so insistent—"

"Cut it out, Hugh!" snapped Jeremy X. "You know perfectly well why I'm twisting your arm as hard as I can. First, because you're the best."

"Oh, that's nonsense! There are plenty of security people in the galaxy better than I am."

Jeremy's beady gaze really had to be seen to be believed.

"Well . . . all right, fine. There aren't all that many and while I think it's ridiculous to claim I'm 'the best,' it's probably true. . . ."

His voice trailed off. Web Du Havel finished the sentence: "That nobody is any better than you."

Hugh gave the prime minister of Torch a rather unfriendly look. "Meaning no offense, Web, but when did you become an expert on security?"

Du Havel just grinned. "I'm not and never claimed to be. But I don't have to, since"—here he indicated Jeremy with a thumb—"I've got as my war secretary a man who proved, year after year after year, that he could thwart just about any security system in existence. So I figure I can take his word for it, when it comes to such matters."

That was . . . hard to argue with.

Jeremy waited just long enough to make sure Hugh had conceded the point. Concession by stubborn silence, perhaps—but concession it was, and they both knew it.

"The second reason's just as important," he continued. "Normally, we'd lean on the Ballroom for anything like this. But with what we know now, from the Ronald Allen incident, we can't do that. I doubt if Manpower has been able to get very many agents to penetrate the Ballroom or Torch government offices—but it seems almost certain that however many such agents there are, all of them will have assassinating the Queen as one of their top priorities."

He paused, waiting for Hugh—forcing Hugh, rather—to agree or disagree.

Since the answer was obvious, Hugh nodded. "No argument there. And your conclusion is . . . ?"

"Obvious, it seems to me. We need to pull together a security team that's completely outside the Ballroom and doesn't depend on using genetic ex-slaves."

Hugh saw a possible beam of light.

"Well, in that case, I need to remind you I'm a genetic ex-slave, so that would seem—"

"Cut it out!" That was as close to a roar as Hugh had ever seen coming from Jeremy. The man's normal and preferred style was whimsical, not ferocious.

Jeremy glared at him. "You don't count, and the reason's obvious—and you know it. I can vouch for you since the age of five, and if I can't be trusted we're all screwed anyway since I'm the be-damned Secretary of War! Let's not go crazy, here. But even with you in charge, I still want the rest of the team to be from Beowulf."