TORCH OF FREEDOM — Snippet 10:

January, 1920 PD

Chapter 5

“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 LRP’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.”