TORCH OF FREEDOM — Snippet 11:

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 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.”