Since the Dead Tree version has been delayed, snippets will continue. (Drak acting for Eric)


“Ha!” Jeremy jeered. “Forgot about the Erewhonese, didn’t you? They’re not that many generations removed from outright gangsters, Hugh. And all that happened when they ‘went legit’ is that their money-laundering skills got even better. Had to, of course.”

He looked out the window at the lush landscape three stories below. “All we have to do is set the problem before them — Walter Imbesi, that is, we don’t even need to talk to the official triumvirate — and you’ll have a tramp freighter delivered to you in less than two months with impeccable credentials — lousy ones, of course, but impeccable — and not a trace that any part of its origins had anything to do with either Torch or Manticore or Haven or Beowulf. Or Erewhon. And you’ve already got a crew that can’t be traced.”

Slowly, Hugh got up and went to the window, thinking as he went. The truth was that Jeremy’s scheme was better than anything even Beowulf’s secret services would be able to come up with. Assuming that Cachat and Zilwicki decided to undertake this very dangerous mission — that was still unsettled, as yet — then they’d have as good a backup escape route as you could ask for.

The Mesa System was home to a number of huge interstellar corporations, so it had a truly enormous amount of freight traffic coming in and out. Not as much as Manticore or Sol or a few of the other well-established old star systems in the League’s core, but close.

True, Mesan security was pretty ferocious, but it was still forced to work within some limits. About thirty percent of Mesa’s population were freeborn citizens, and they had a wide range of rights and liberties that were enshrined by law and even respected, most of the time. Mesa’s government was not an outright dictatorship that could operate with no restraints at all. Like many rigid caste societies in history that had a large population of privileged free citizens — South Africa’s apartheid system was a well-known example — Mesa’s government was a mixture of democratic and autocratic structures and practices.

The same democratic liberties were not extended to the remaining seventy percent of the population, of course. Slaves constituted about sixty percent of Mesa’s population. The remaining ten percent consisted of the descendants of slaves who’d been freed in the earlier periods of Mesan history.

In its origins, Manpower had claimed that genetic slavery was actually “indentured servitude.” That fiction had been openly dispensed with centuries ago, when the Mesan constitution was amended to make the manumission of genetic slaves illegal. But that still left a large population of freed ex-slaves — legally second-class citizens (“seccies,” was the slang term used for them) — inhabiting all of Mesa’s large towns and cities, and even a number of villages in more rural areas.

Periodically, calls were made to expel all seccies from the system. But, by now, the seccies had become an integral part of Mesa’s social and economic structure and provided a number of useful functions for the planet’s freeborn citizens. As had been true throughout history, once a large class of ex-slaves came into existence, they were hard to get rid of, for the same reason that a large class of illegal immigrants was hard to get rid of. People were not cattle, much less inert lumps of stone. They were intelligent, self-motivated and often ingenious active agents. About the only effective way to just eliminate such a large class of people was to adopt a political and legal structure that was sometimes described as “totalitarian.”

For a wide variety of reasons, Mesa was not prepared to adopt that option. So, Mesa’s security forces simply kept a close eye on the seccies — insofar as they could. That wasn’t as easy as it sounded, though, because seccy society was socially intricate, often shadowy, and intermixed with that of Mesa’s freeborn citizens. Marriage was illegal, but despite all of Manpower’s pretensions to creating new types of people, human nature remained pretty intractable. There were plenty of personal liaisons between seccies and freeborn, regardless of what the law said or official custom prohibited and frowned upon.

A large number of those liaisons were commercial, not personal. Mesa’s huge population of slaves needed to be supplied, and — again, despite all official Manpower pronouncements — it often proved most practical to have those needs supplied by slave sutlers. And there were even some luxury goods, as well. “Luxury,” at least, as slaves reckoned these things. Many of the slaves were allowed to work for themselves on the side, and use whatever income they garnered for their own purposes. That was a messy but useful way of keeping social antagonisms from becoming too explosive.

Seccies were very much what their name implied — second-class, or lower, members of Mesan society, thoroughly excluded from the “respectable” professions and employment generally. The majority of them eked out their existences doing casual day labor, and they were generally non-persons as far as Mesa at large was concerned. Some of them, however, had amassed considerable personal fortunes from their positions as slave sutlers — who frequently also served as loan sharks, drug pushers, etc., servicing the “gray economy” of the slave community. Some of these seccy sutlers, especially the richer ones, even had silent freeborn partners.

Naturally, some of the seccies had been co-opted into the Mesan security apparatus. In general, the authorities ignored the activities of the sutlers (which, accordingly, were not taxed), and in return, the sutlers were expected to help defuse tensions in the slave community — and to inform the authorities if they saw something in danger of getting out of hand. In fairness to them, one of the reasons seccies played the informant role as often as they did stemmed less from the rewards they received for it than their recognition that any sort of organized slave revolt on Mesa would be not simply totally futile but guaranteed to produce stupendous numbers of dead slaves. For all that they were frequently venal, it was still true that seccies identified more closely with their still enslaved brethren than they did with the rest of Mesa.

It was that large class of seccies and the inherently complex and disorganized life they led that would be the key to open Mesa to Cachat and Zilwicki, if they decided to go. Hugh knew none of the details, and didn’t want to, but he was certain that the Ballroom had connections with many seccies on Mesa. Given the amount of traffic going in and out of the Mesa System, it really wouldn’t be that hard for Cachat and Zilwicki to disembark openly — as members of a freighter crew, perhaps — and then quietly vanish into seccy society. As long as they watched their steps — and the two were experts at this work — there really wasn’t much chance they’d be spotted by Mesa’s security agencies.

As long as they didn’t do anything, that is. But the moment any alarms were triggered, the gloves would come off and Mesa’s ruthless and brutal security forces would come down on the seccy ghettos like a hammer. The real trick would be getting off the planet and making their escape afterward.

Hence the tramp freighter and its Butre clan crew. They’d have absolutely no connection to Cachat and Zilwicki at all, so far as anyone on Mesa would be able to determine. Even if the security forces went so far as to do a DNA analysis of the crew — quite possible, actually — they’d not find anything to arouse their suspicions.

Hugh started rubbing his chin again.

Jeremy recognized the gesture, of course. He’d known Hugh since a frightened and bewildered five-year-old boy who’d just lost his entire family came off a Beowulfan warship and was greeted by a Ballroom contingent who took him and the few other survivors under their wing.

“I knew you’d see the light of day,” he said cheerfully.

Hugh smiled. “I’m still not available as a consort.”

“Oh, come on. One date. Surely a fearless commando — gorilla commando, at that — won’t shy away from such a paltry thing. The girl’s barely twenty years of age, Hugh. What could be the danger?”

Hugh brought up his memories of the queen from their one brief encounter. A plain-looking girl, really. But Hugh wasn’t impressed by such things. He’d been struck by her eyes.

“Don’t play the fool, Jeremy. You know the answer perfectly well, or you wouldn’t have made her your queen in the first place.”