Chapter Fourteen

“So what’s on the agenda today?” Judson Van Hale asked cheerfully as he walked into the office.

“You,” Harper S. Ferry replied repressively, “are entirely too bright and happy for someone who has to be up this early.”

“Nonsense!” Judson gave him a broad, toothy smile. “You effete city boys simply have no appreciation for the brisk, bracing, cool air of dawn!” He threw back his head, chest swelling as he inhaled deeply. “Get some oxygen into that bloodstream, man!” he advised. “That’ll cheer you up!”

“It would be a lot less strenuous to just kill you . . . and a lot more fun, now that I think about it,” Harper observed, and Judson chuckled. Although, given Harper S. Ferry’s record during his active career with the Audubon Ballroom, he wasn’t entirely certain the other man was joking. Pretty certain, but not entirely. On the other hand, he figured he could rely on Genghis to warn him before the ex-Ballroom operative actually decided to squeeze the trigger.

Unlike Harper, Judson had never personally been a slave. Instead, he’d been born on Sphinx after his father’s liberation from the hold of a Manpower Incorporated slave ship. Patrick Henry Van Hale had married a niece of the Manticoran captain whose ship had intercepted the slaver he’d been aboard, and, despite the fact that Patrick had been young enough to receive first-generation prolong after he was freed, he’d still had the perspective of Manpower’s normally short-lived slaves. He and his new bride hadn’t wasted any time at all on building the family they’d both wanted, and Judson (the first of six children . . . so far) had come along barely a T-year after the wedding.

Both Patrick and Lydia Van Hale were rangers with the Sphinx Forestry Service, and, although as a citizen of Yawata Crossing Judson had scarcely been the backwoods bumpkin he enjoyed parodying, he had spent quite a lot of his time in the bush during his childhood. His parents’ employment explained most of that, and Judson had fully intended to follow in their footsteps. In fact, he’d completed his graduate forestry classes and his internship in the SFS when the liberation of Torch changed everything.

The fact that he’d never personally been a slave hadn’t diminished his hatred for Manpower in any way, and he and his family had always been active in supporting the Anti-Slavery League. Judson’s parents had never subscribed to the Ballroom’s approach, however. They believed that the Ballroom’s atrocities (and, even now, Judson figured there was no better word to describe quite a few of the Ballroom’s operations) played into the hands of slavery’s supporters. That wasn’t a point on which Harper would have agreed with them, and truth to tell, Judson himself had always been a bit more ambivalent about that than his parents were. He’d wondered, sometimes, if that was because he felt as if he’d personally had a “free ride” where slavery was concerned. If he was more willing to see violence as the proper response because he felt hypocritical condemning those who resorted to violence against an abomination they’d experienced firsthand . . . and he hadn’t. He’d escaped it before he’d even been conceived, after all, and the Star Kingdom of Manticore was one of the few star nations where no one really cared, one way or the other, if someone was an ex-slave or the son of ex-slaves. You were who you were, and the fact that you’d been designed as someone else’s property was neither stigma nor a badge of victimhood.

In that respect, Judson knew he would never be able to fully share his parents’ attitude. Both of them were fiercely grateful to the Royal Manticoran Navy for his father’s freedom and equally fiercely loyal to the Star Kingdom of Manticore for the safe harbor and opportunities it had given him, but Patrick Henry Van Hale also remembered being a slave . . . and he’d been designed as a “pleasure slave.” Even though he’d been only around nineteen T-years old when he’d been freed, he’d already undergone the full gamut of what Manpower euphemistically called “training”. Lydia Van Hale hadn’t . . . but she’d been the one who’d spent years helping him deal with — and survive — the dehumanizing trauma of that experience. In ways they would never be able to escape, Patrick’s slavery still defined who both of them were, and it was an experience Judson had never shared. They’d never harped on that, never indulged in the “if only I’d had it as good as you do” school of child rearing, yet he’d become only increasingly aware of that difference between them as he’d grown older. And as he’d also become increasingly aware of the lifetime scars they both carried with them from his father’ experience, his hatred for Manpower and all things Mesan had only grown.

Which, he knew, was another reason he’d found it ever more difficult to shed crocodile tears for the Ballroom’s “victims.”

Yet he’d been his parents’ son, and whatever he’d felt, he would never have been able to justify signing on with the Ballroom. Which was why the liberation of Torch changed everything.

His Forestry Service training had included eleven T-Months at the Royal Law Enforcement Center in Landing, which had given him a firm grounding in law enforcement and investigative techniques, and his childhood on Sphinx and the time he’d spent in the bush had accounted for his adoption by Genghis. As far as Judson was aware, only one ex-slave had ever been adopted by a treecat, but there were probably half a dozen children of ex-slaves who had been, and he was one of them. When the Kingdom of Torch had sprung into existence, Judson had realized immediately that it was going to need people with his skill set just as badly as it was going to need people with Harper’s skills. In fact, Torch was probably going to need people like Judson even more, if only because there were so few of them.

When Jeremy X. renounced the Ballroom’s “terrorists” tactics on behalf of Torch, Judson’s only qualm had evaporated. He’d been on the next ASL-sponsored transport to Torch, with his parents’ blessing, and Jeremy and Thandi Palane had been delighted to see him . . . and Genghis.

He’d encountered a few ex-Ballroom types (and some he was pretty convinced weren’t all that ex- about their relationship with the Ballroom) who seemed to regard him as some sort of Johnny-come-lately. Almost as a dilettante who’d sat around on his well-protected ass in his cushy Manticoran life while other people did the heavy lifting which had eventually led to Torch’s existence. There weren’t many of them, though, and as pissed off with them as Judson sometimes was, he didn’t really blame them for it. Or he was at least able to maintain enough perspective to cope with it, at any rate.

He figured he owed a lot of that to Genghis’ influence. The ‘cat had been with him for over fifteen T-years, and he’d been Judson’s best sounding board for that entire time. That had turned into an incredibly rich and satisfying two-way communication street since the two of them had mastered the sign language Dr. Arif had devised with the assistance of the treecats Nimitz and Samantha, and Genghis had stepped on more than one temper flare in the T-year they’d spent here on Torch. It was hard for a man to lose it when his treecat companion decided to smack him down for letting things get out of hand.