TORCH OF FREEDOM — Snippet 07:

Chapter 3

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 political situation on Manticore with the Liberals 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 Congo, 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 Torcher 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.”