Chapter Twenty-Two

“I’m glad you decided not to get hardnosed about it, Jeremy,” said Hugh Arai, as he lowered himself into a chair in the War Secretary’s office. “Lowered” was the proper term, too. The chair didn’t look all that sturdy, and Hugh massed slightly over two hundred kilos. That weight was calculated Earth-normal, true, but Torch’s gravity wasn’t that much lower. Certainly not enough to make a difference.

Jeremy watched the delicate process with a sardonic smile. “You really needn’t take so much care,” he said. “If you crush the miserable thing, maybe I’ll be able to get the State Accounting Office to authorize more suitable furniture. Not likely, though.” He took a seat behind the desk. “I’m sorry to say that the anal-retentive manias of the SAO’s officials is the clearest evidence I’ve ever seen that Manpower’s genetic schemes actually work according to plan. Most of them are J-11s.”

Now sure that the chair would hold his weight, Hugh looked up and gave Jeremy a smile. J-11s were the “model” of slave that was supposedly designed to handle technical work of an accounting and record-keeping nature. Like all such precise Manpower designations, it was mostly nonsense. Manpower’s geneticists did breed for those skills, but genes were far more plastic than they liked to admit — certainly to their customers. There was no gene for “accounting,” nor was there one for “file-keeping.”

It was true that slaves designed for a certain task tended to do it well. But that was far more likely the product of the slave’s training and — probably most important of all — the slave’s own self-expectation, than any genetic wizardry on Manpower’s part.

That said . . . In Hugh’s experience, J-11s did tend to be anal-retentive. That manifested itself primarily in a certain sort of knee-jerk stinginess. You might as well try to get blood from a stone as squeeze money out of a J-11 was a common wisecrack among genetic slaves and ex-slaves.

“As for the other,” Jeremy continued, waving his hand in an airy gesture, “I am magnanimous by nature. It is well known.”

“It most certainly is not.”

Jeremy shrugged. “Those gypsies aren’t the first people who’ve ever had to cut a deal with the devil in order to stay alive. Plenty of slaves and ex-slaves have done the same. But it was clear enough they didn’t go any further than they had to, and . . . The fact that they adopted so many slaves spoke in their favor.”

He gave Hugh a beady eye. “As you knew it would, so you can stop pretending you weren’t trying to manipulate me.”

“Manipulate the situation, it’d be better to say. I was just playing it by ear, so to speak. I wasn’t actually sure what use we could get out of Parmley Station, but I had the sense that there had to be something.”

He smiled, perhaps a bit ruefully. “Mind you, I wasn’t expecting such an enthusiastic response as soon as we got here. Cachat and Zilwicki reacted like treecats discovering a bin full of celery.”

Jeremy’s smile was definitely on the rueful side. “I’ve sometimes regretted the way we let those damn spooks run loose among us. I’m not sure who’s worse. Sometimes I think it’s Cachat, sometimes Zilwicki — and in my darkest moments I think they’re both playing a charade so I won’t notice that Princess Ruth is the one really running amok.”

“I’m a little astonished that the Wintons agreed to let her stay here.”

“It’s not really that odd, if you’re willing to stretch the definition of ‘public service.’ The Manticoran dynasty has always had a tradition that its youngsters can’t just lounge about idly.”

Hugh shook his head. “In the nature of things, spying is hardly what you’d call ‘public’ service. And — being cynical about it — that’s mostly the purpose of having young royals displaying their patriotic merits, isn’t it?”

Jeremy pondered the question, for a moment. “Actually, no. Not with that dynasty, anyway. With most it would be, true enough. But I think the main concern of the Wintons is with maintaining their own . . . call it ‘fiber,’ for lack of a better term. The big problem with letting young royals spend their time loafing is that eventually they became the royals, and then it won’t be long before the dynasty itself is a loafer.”

He gave Arai another beady gaze. “I can tell you that our own founding dynast has stated any number of times that no kid of hers is going to be an idler.”

Unwarily, Hugh said, “Well, good. But first she has to produce said kids.”

Too late, he recognized the beadiness of the gaze. Jeremy hadn’t become one of the galaxy’s deadliest pistoleers if he hadn’t known how to keep his eyes on the target.

“Exactly so. And for that, unless we opt for artificial insemination — and you really don’t want to hear the Queen’s opinion on that subject, trust me — we need a consort.”

“Not a chance, Jeremy,” said Hugh, chuckling. “Leaving aside the fact that I barely know the girl, having just met her, I have my own career plans.”

Jeremy X had an impressive sneer, as you’d expect. “Oh, right. I forgot. Hugh Arai plans to devote his life to the retail-trade slaughter of Manpower villains. ‘Slaughter,’ did I say? A better term would be ‘pruning.’ Very careful pruning, one tiny little slaver bud at a time. God forbid he should forego that grand opportunity in order to help forge an entire star nation of ex-slaves, which could actually do some ‘slaughtering.'”

“We both agreed on my career, years ago,” Hugh said mildly. “Godfather.”

Jeremy glared at him. “I’m not your godfather, damn it! I’m your adviser — and my advice has changed. That’s because the situation has changed.”

“I’m still not playing Bachelor of the Week, Jeremy. For Christ sake, I just met the woman! I’ve spent a total of maybe two hours in her presence, not one minute of which was taken up by a personal exchange between the two of us. Not even an exchange concerning the time of day, much less anything intimate.”

Jeremy grinned impishly. “So? That’s what dates are for, don’t you know? Just say the word and I’ll set one up.”

Hugh shook his head. “I see your persistence hasn’t changed any. Out of pure curiosity, though, where does a reigning queen go, on a date?”

Jeremy’s grin was immediately replaced by a scowl. “With this queen? Damn near anywhere, the crazy girl. She has absolutely no sense of security, Hugh. I mean, none whatsoever.”

Arai cocked his head. “This is coming from you? Mister I’ll Take Any Chance And Make Obscene Gestures At Security While I’m At It.”

“It’s not funny, Hugh. She’s wide open for an assassination attempt — which you know, and I know, and everybody in the galaxy knows except her, Manpower would be delighted to carry out—and she refuses to take any serious precautions.”

Hugh’s rubbed his chin. “None at all?”

“Not really. That gaggle of ex-Scrags she’s had around her since the fracas on the Wages of Sin try their best to keep an eye on her. But you’re a security expert — used to be, anyway, before you got started on this commando silliness — and you know perfectly well that jury-rigged protection’s not really worth very much. The only way the Amazons can pull it off is by pretending they’re just accompanying Berry whenever she goes out in public because they’re devoted to her. Which is true enough that Berry’s willing to look the other way, even if she does sometimes get grumpy about it.”

The impish grin came back. “That’s because she says having all those lady weightlifters around is scaring off potential boyfriends, most of whom are scared off anyway because of her silly titles. Her term, not mine — ‘silly.’ But it occurs to me that you’d hardly be scared off by a bunch of genetically engineered female super-soldiers on account of Manpower already engineered you to bench press elephants.”

“Very funny. I’ll admit the prospect of facing down a bunch of ex-Scrags does not fill me with terror. I’m still not doing it, Jeremy.” Hurriedly: “Even if I wanted to, there isn’t time. If this scheme Cachat and Zilwicki cooked up is going to work at all, I’ve got to get back to Parmley Station.”

“Why?” Jeremy demanded. “Your team can handle the work of getting that station fixed up without you, perfectly well.”

“Maybe so — but they can’t obtain the freighter. For that, we’re going to need serious financial backing and that means I have to report back to Beowulf.”

“Oh, that’s nonsense. We’re not talking about a warship, Hugh — hell, we’re not even talking about a big freighter. Just something around a million tons. And as beat-up as we want it, we ought to be able to pick it up cheaply. Between them, Cachat and Zilwicki can come up with the money. Zilwicki could probably do it on his own, without even tapping into Havenite funds. His lady friend is one of the richest women in the Star Kingdom.”

Hugh sat through the little speech with growing impatience. “Come on, Jeremy! Stop playing the innocent. You know perfectly well the issue isn’t money as such — it’s laundering the money so there’ll be no trace of it for Manpower’s agents to pick up. For that, nobody’s as good as Beowulf’s secret services.”

Jeremy leaned back in his chair and bestowed a cool smile on Arai. “No, actually, they aren’t the best. I admit Beowulf’s very good at it — but you forget that we’re less than a week’s travel from the galaxy’s champion money-launderers. Who happen to be on very good terms with Torch.”

Hugh opened his mouth, and . . . closed it. Then opened it again, and . . . closed it.