TORCH OF FREEDOM — Snippet 04:

Chapter 2

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 more different, 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.


“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.”