Anyone who knew anything about Klaus Hauptman and his daughter Stacey had to be aware of their virulent, burning hatred for all things associated with the genetic slave trade. By any measure one cared to use, the Hauptman Cartel was the Star Kingdom’s single largest financial contributor to the Beowulf-based Anti-Slavery League. Not only that, the Cartel had already provided the Kingdom of Torch with well over a dozen frigates. No serious interstellar navy had built frigates in decades, of course, but the latest ships — the Nat Turner-class — Hauptman had delivered to Torch were significantly more dangerous than most people might have expected. Effectively, they were hyper-capable versions of the Royal Manticoran Navy’s Shrike-class LAC but with about twice the missile capacity and a pair of spinal-mounted grasers, with the second energy weapon bearing aft. Their electronics were a downgraded “export version” of the RMN’s (which was hardly surprising, given the fact that they were going to be operating in an area where the Republic of Haven’s intelligence services had ready access), but the Turners were probably at least as dangerous as the vast majority of the galaxy’s destroyers.

According to official reports, the Hauptman Cartel had built them at cost. According to unofficial (but exceedingly persistent) reports, Klaus and Stacey Hauptman had picked up somewhere around seventy-five percent of their construction costs out of their own pockets. Given that there were eight of them, that was a pretty hefty sum for even the Hauptmans to shell out. And according to the last word Kare had picked up before leaving Manticore for Torch, the Torch Navy had just ordered its first trio of all-up destroyers, as well. Even after they were completed, Torch would scarcely be considered one of the galaxy’s leading navies, but the kingdom would have a fairly substantial little system-defense force.

Which just happened to be hyper-capable . . . which meant it could also operate in other people’s star systems.

And the fact that Torch has officially declared war on Mesa isn’t going to make those Manpower bastards feel any happier when they find out the sort of capability the Torches are building up out here, the hyper-physicist reflected with grim satisfaction.

When he’d mentioned that thought to Josepha Zachary on the voyage here, she’d nodded emphatically and added her own observation — that Torch obviously had a well thought-out, rationalized expansion program in mind. It was clear to her that they were using the frigates as training platforms, building up a cadre of experienced spacers and officers to provide the locally trained (and highly motivated) manpower to systematically upgrade their naval capabilities as time, money, crewmen, and training permitted.

“At any rate,” he said out loud, “and returning to my original point, that’s why TJ and I were both a bit surprised that anyone ever managed to pick it up at all. Which, I suppose, could explain why Mesa apparently hadn’t gotten around to surveying it yet. They may have had enough trouble finding it in the first place that they simply hadn’t known it was there long enough.”

“I hadn’t realized it would have been so difficult for them to detect, Doctor,” Jeremy said. “On the other hand, the fact of its existence had become sufficiently common knowledge that Erewhon, at least, knew all about it over two T-years ago. And, frankly, the Ballroom knew about it for at least six months before anyone in Erewhon realized it existed. Given what Captain Zachary’s just said, I’m a bit surprised someone like the Jessyk Combine didn’t get a survey crew in here sooner. If anybody in the galaxy would recognize the potential value to shippers, I’d think Jessyk would.”

“Yes, TJ and I have kicked that around a good bit, too,” Kari replied, “and he’s come up with a theory for why they might not have surveyed it even if they’d known it was there all along, if anyone’s interested.”

“I don’t know about anybody else, but I am!” Queen Berry said, and cocked her head at Wix.

“Well,” Wix rubbed the mustache that was a couple of shades lighter than the rest of his rather unruly beard, “I hope nobody’s going to confuse me with any kind of intelligence analyst. But the best reason I’ve been able to come up with for Jessyk and Manpower’s trying to keep their little wormhole quiet is that they didn’t want to draw any more attention to what they were doing here on Torch.”

Faces tightened all around the table, and Du Havel nodded thoughtfully.

“I hadn’t really considered that,” he admitted, “and I should have. It’s the sort of propaganda factor the ASL’s tried to keep in mind for a long time. But you may well have a point, Dr. Wix. If this wormhole had started attracting a lot of through traffic, then there’d have been a lot more potentially embarrassing Solarian witnesses to the mortality rate among the members of their planet-side slave labor force, wouldn’t there?”

“That’s what I was thinking,” Wix agreed. Then he snorted. “Mind you, that’s a pretty sophisticated motive to impute to anyone stupid enough to be using slave labor to harvest and process pharmaceuticals in the first place! Completely leaving aside the moral aspects of the decision — which, I feel confident, would never have darkened the doorway of any Mesan transtellar’s decision processes — it was economically stupid.”

“I tend to agree with you,” Du Havel said. “On the other hand, breeding slaves is pretty damned cheap.” His voice was remarkably level, but his bared-teeth grin gave the lie to his apparent detachment. “They’ve been doing it for a long time, after all, and their ‘production lines’ are all in place. And to give the devil his due, human beings are still a lot more versatile than most machinery. Not as efficient at most specific tasks as purpose built machinery, of course, but versatile. And as far as Manpower and Mesans in general are concerned, slaves are ‘purpose built machinery,’ when you come down to it. So from their perspective, it made plenty of sense to avoid the initial capital investment in the hardware the job would have required. After all, they already had plenty of cheap replacement units when their ‘purpose built machinery’ broke, and they could always make more.”

“You know,” Kare said quietly, “sometimes I forget just how . . . skewed the thinking of something like Manpower has to be.” He shook his head. “It never would’ve occurred to me to analyze the economic factors from that perspective.”

“Well, I’ve had a bit more practice at it than most people.” Du Havel’s tone was dry enough to create an instant Sahara . . . even on Torch. “The truth is that slavery’s almost always been hideously inefficient on a production per man-hour basis. There’ve been exceptions, of course, but as a general rule, using slaves as skilled technicians — which would be the only way to make it remotely competitive with free labor on a productive basis — has had a tendency to turn around and bite the slaveowner on the ass.”

He smiled again, chillingly, but then the smile faded.

“The problem is that it doesn’t have to be efficient to show at least some profit. A low return on a really big operation still comes to a pretty impressive absolute amount of money, and their ‘per-unit’ capital costs are low. I’m sure that was a major element in their thinking — especially when you consider how much capital investment in slave-production facilities Manpower would have to write off if it were even tempted to ‘go legitimate.’ Not that I think it would ever occur to them to make the attempt, you understand.”

“No, I guess not.” Kare grimaced, then gave himself a shake. “On the other hand, whatever the Mesans’ motives for leaving this particular wormhole unexploited, it gives me a certain warm and fuzzy feeling to reflect on the fact that when it starts producing revenue for you people, that cash flow’s going to find itself being plowed into your naval expansion.”

“Yes,” Thandi Palane agreed, and her smile was even colder than Du Havel’s had been. “That’s a possibility I’ve been spending quite a bit of my own time contemplating. We’ve already managed a couple of ops I’m pretty sure have pissed Manpower off, but if we can get our hands on a few more hyper-capable ships of our own, they’re going to be very, very unhappy with the results.”

“In that case,” Kare replied with a smile of his own, “by all means, as Duchess Harrington would put it, ‘let’s be about it.'”