“No, I don’t guess it is,” she agreed with a smile of her own. Then she glanced at Du Havel and Jeremy before looking back at Kare.

“Obviously, we’d like to get started as quickly as possible,” she said. “For one thing, we’re not at all sure how much Mesa really does or doesn’t know about the wormhole.”

“You didn’t find anything at all in their databases, Your Majesty?” Zachary asked.

“Nothing,” Jeremy responded for Berry. Zachary looked at him, and he shrugged. “I’m afraid Captain Zilwicki isn’t on-planet at the moment, but if you’d like to discuss our data search with Ruth Winton we’ll be happy to make her available to you. For that matter, if you — or Dr. Kare or Dr. Wix — could provide any clues or hints that might help us spot something we’ve missed, we’d be delighted to hear about them.”

He held Zachary’s eye for a moment, waiting until she gave him an ever so slight nod, then continued.

“I don’t know how familiar you are with Manpower’s procedures, Captain,” he continued, and his voice had assumed a slightly distant tone, almost a professional chill. “Especially since the Ballroom started successfully attacking their depots whenever we — I mean, whenever it — could, Manpower’s gotten even more security conscious. By now, their practice is to restrict the data available to any of their operations to what they figure that particular operation is going to need — a strict ‘need-to-know’ orientation, you might say. And in the last couple of T-years, they’ve improved their arrangements for wiping data, as well.”

He shrugged.

“Although the initial claim to ‘Verdant Vista’ was backed by the Mesa System’s government, everyone knew it was actually a Manpower and Jessyk operation. Of course, everyone also knows that the Mesan ‘government’ is actually pretty much owned outright by the Mesa-based transstellars, so the Mesan Navy’s involvement probably shouldn’t have come as quite as much of a surprise as it did for some people.

“At any rate, the management here in-system handled their data storage in accordance with Manpower’s established policies. I’m sure they never in their worst nightmares expected what Captain Oversteegen and Captain Roszak — excuse me, Commodore Oversteegen and Rear Admiral Rozsak — helped us do here, but we found several largish chunks of their computer banks slagged down when we finally got possession of them. So we don’t really have any idea how much effort they put into studying the wormhole here.”

“Jeremy’s right about that,” Du Havel put in. “What we can tell you, though, is that we haven’t found anything outside the computers to suggest there was any ongoing survey effort. And none of the Mesan survivors who decided to stay on here ever heard anything about that kind of effort. In fact, several of them have told us they’d been specifically told by their superiors that it hadn’t been surveyed yet.” It was his turn to shrug. “Of course, none of them were hyper-physicists. Almost all of them were involved in pharmaceutical research, so it wouldn’t have been their area of expertise, anyway.”

“As far as we can tell, though, Captain,” Thandi Palane said, “everything they’ve told us is the truth. We’ve got a few treecats of our own here on Torch these days, and they confirm that.”

Zachary nodded, and so did Kare. That tracked with what his own briefings on Manticore had suggested. And he was relieved to hear the tone in which Du Havel and Palane had talked about the Mesan survivors in question. The fact that an entire research colony of Mesans — of scientists who weren’t Manpower or Mesa Pharmaceuticals employees and who’d actually treated the genetic slaves assigned to their efforts like human beings — had been not only spared but actively protected by those slaves during the chaotic bloodlust of the system’s liberation had been a not insignificant factor in the ability of Torch’s friends in the Star Kingdom to get this effort cleared. And he found the fact that the Queen of Torch and her senior advisors clearly thought of those scientists as fellow citizens, not dangerously suspect potential enemies, personally reassuring.

“That’s interesting,” he said out loud. “Especially given the persistent rumors before the liberation that Torch was ‘at least’ a three-nexii junction. What you’ve just told us certainly agrees with everything official we’ve been able to find, but I can’t find myself wondering where that specific number — three, I mean — came from in the first place.”

“We’ve wondered the same thing,” Du Havel replied. “So far, we haven’t found anything to suggest a reason for it, though.” He shrugged. “Given the fact that it really hasn’t made any difference one way or the other as far as our decision-making priorities go, though, it’s been mostly a matter of idle curiosity for us. We’ve been too busy clubbing alligators to worry about what color the swamp’s flowers are.”

He grinned wryly, and Kare chuckled at the aptness of the metaphor, especially given how well it suited Torch’s biosphere.

The F6 star now officially known as Torch was unusually youthful, to say the least, to possess life-bearing planets at all. It was also unusually hot. Torch, almost exactly twice as far from Torch as Old Earth lay from Sol, could be accurately described as “uncomfortably warm” by most people. “Hotter than Hell,” while less euphemistic, would probably have been more accurate. Not only was Torch younger, larger, and hotter than Sol, but Torch’s atmosphere contained more greenhouse gases, producing a significantly warmer planetary surface temperature. The fact that Torch’s seas and oceans covered only about seventy percent of its surface and that its axial inclination was very low (less than a full degree) also helped to account for its rain forest/swamp/mudhole-from-Hell surface geography.

The star system’s original survey team had obviously possessed a somewhat perverse sense of humor, given the names it had bestowed upon Torch’s system bodies. Torch’s original name — Elysium — was a case in point, since Kare could think of very few planetary environments less like the ancient Greeks’ concept of the Elysian Fields. He didn’t know why Manpower had renamed it “Verdant Vista,” although it had probably had something to do with avoiding the PR downsides of turning a planet named “Elysium” into a hot, humid, thoroughly wretched purgatory for the hapless slaves it intended to dump there. Personally, Kare was of the opinion that “Green Hell” would have been a far more accurate name.

And it would have suited the local wildlife so well, too, he thought with a mental chuckle. The chuckle faded quickly, however, when he reflected upon how many of Manpower’s slaves had fallen prey to “Verdant Vista’s” many and manifold varieties of predator.

Another little point the bastards might have wanted to bear in mind, he reflected rather more grimly. People who survive this kind of planetary environment aren’t likely to be shrinking violets. Given where their settlement pool is coming from in the first place, the locally produced generations are probably going to be an even uglier nightmare for those bastards. Pity about that.