TORCH OF FREEDOM — Snippet 03:

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 Congo 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, and 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 would be hoping he might have a heart attack or be hit by a micro meteorite or something, at which point they could finally get rid of his entire 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.”