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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's 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 "terrorist" 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.

And it was Genghis' ability to communicate fully with Judson which made his telempathic abilities so valuable to Torch. At the moment, they were officially assigned to Immigration Services, although Thandi Palane had made it quite clear to Judson that that assignment was in the nature of a polite fiction. Their real job was to keep an eye on people who got close enough to Queen Berry to pose a potential threat to the teenaged monarch.

It'd help if Berry were willing to let us put together a proper security detail for her, he thought now, with a familiar sense of disgruntlement. One of these days she's going to have to figure out that she's making it a hell of a lot harder to keep her alive by being so stubborn about it. And if she weren't such a lovable kid, I swear I'd snatch her up by the scruff of the neck and shake some sense into her!

The thought gave him a certain degree of satisfaction . . . which was only slightly flawed by Genghis' bleeking chuckle from his shoulder as the 'cat effortlessly followed the familiar thought through its well-worn mental groove.

"Brooding about Her Majesty's stubbornness again, are we?" Harper inquired genially, and Judson scowled at him.

"It's a sorry turn of events when a man's own 'cat rats him out to such an unworthy superior as yourself," he observed.

"Genghis never signed a word," Harper pointed out mildly, and Judson snorted.

"He didn't have to," he growled. "The two of you have been so mutually corrupting that I think you're developing your own 'mind voice'!"

"I wish!" Harper's snort was only half humorous. "It'd make our job a lot easier, wouldn't it?"

"Probably." Judson walked across to his own desk and dropped into his chair. "Not as much easier as it'd be if Berry was only willing to be reasonable about it, though."

"I don't think anyone—except Her Majesty, of course—is likely to argue with you about that," Harper observed. "On the other hand, at least you and I have it easier than Lara or Saburo."

"Yeah, but unlike Lara we're both civilized, too," Judson pointed out. "If Berry gets too stubborn with her, Lara'll just sling her over a shoulder, unlike either of us, and haul her off kicking and screaming!"

"Now that," Harper said with a sudden chuckle, "is something I'd pay good money to see. And you're right—Lara'd do it in a heartbeat, wouldn't she?"

It was Judson's turn to chuckle, although he wondered if Harper found it quite as ironic as he himself did that the closest thing to a personal bodyguard the Queen of Torch would accept was a Scrag.

Well, an ex-Scrag, if we're going to be fair about it, he reminded himself. And given that Lara's one of Thandi's "Amazons," I think it would be a very good idea to be as fair as possible in her case.

Still, it was a bizarre sort of relationship, in a lot of ways. The Scrags were the direct descendants of the genetically engineered "super soldiers" of Old Earth's Final War, and an awful lot of them had found themselves in the service of Manpower or working as mercenaries for one or another of Mesa's outlaw corporations. Given the way most Scrags clung to their sense of superiority to the "normals" around them—and the reciprocal (and, in most cases, equally unthinking) prejudice most of those normals exhibited where the Scrags were concerned—it wasn't as if the majority of Lara's relatives found themselves with a lot of lucrative career opportunities. So, over the centuries, many of them had drifted into various criminal enterprises—which, of course, only strengthened and deepened the anti-Scrag stereotypes and prejudices. It had been only a short step from there to the role of Mesan enforcers and leg breakers, especially since Mesa was one of the few places in the galaxy where "genies" were regarded as an everyday fact of life. All of which meant that the Scrags and the Ballroom had shed an awful lot of each others' blood.

Yet, despite all that, here were Lara and her fellow Amazons, not simply accepted on Torch but full citizens trusted with the protection of Torch's queen.

And thank God for them, he reflected rather more soberly.

"Well," Harper said after several seconds, still smiling with the echoes of his mental vision of a squalling, kicking Berry tossed across Lara's shoulder and hauled off to safety somewhere, "I'm afraid that rather than giving our lives in the defense of our beloved—if stubborn—queen, our day is going to be one of those less scintillating moments of our life experience."

"I always get worried when you start trotting out extra vocabulary," Judson observed.

"That's because you're a naturally suspicious and un-trusting soul, without one scintilla of philosophical discernment or sensitivity to guide you through the perceptual and ontological shallows of your day to day existence."

"No, it's because when you get full of yourself this way it usually means we're going to be doing something incredibly boring, like counting noses on a new transport or something."

"Interesting you should raise that specific possibility." Harper smiled brightly, and Judson eyed him with a suspicion that rapidly descended into resignation.

"Oh, crap," he muttered.

"That's not a very becoming attitude," Harper scolded.

"Oh, yeah? Well, let me guess, O Fearless Leader. Which of us have you decided to assign as doorman this afternoon?"

"Not you, that's for sure," Harper said with an audible sniff. He watched Judson from the corner of one eye, timing his moment carefully. Then, the instant Judson started to brighten ever so slightly, he shrugged. "I've assigned the best qualified person to the job, and I'm sure he won't object the way certain other people might. Of course, despite all of his other qualifications, Genghis will need you along as interpreter."

Judson raised one hand in an ancient (and very rude) gesture as his traitor treecat's bleeking laughter echoed Harper's obvious amusement. Still, he couldn't fault the other man's logic.

Somebody had to be in charge of the reception, processing, and orientation of the steady stream of ex-slaves pouring into Torch on an almost daily basis. The news that they finally had a genuine homeworld to call their own, a planet which had become the very symbol of their defiant refusal to submit to the dehumanization and brutality of their self-appointed masters, had gone through the interstellar community of escaped slaves like a lightning bolt. Judson doubted that any exile had ever returned to his homeland with more fervor and determination than he saw whenever another in the apparently endless stream of ASL-sponsored transport vessels arrived here in Torch. Torch's population was expanding explosively, and there was a militancy, a bared-teeth snarl of defiance, to every shipload of fresh immigrants. Whatever philosophical differences might exist between them, they were meaningless beside their fierce identification with one another and with their new homeworld.

But that didn't mean they arrived here in a calm and orderly state of mind. Many of them did, but a significant percentage came off the landing shuttles with a stiff-legged, raised-hackle attitude which reminded Judson of a hexapuma with a sore tooth. Sometimes it was the simple stress of the voyage itself, the sense of traveling into an unknown future coupled with the suspicion that in a galaxy which had never once given them an even break, any dream had to be shattered in the end. That combination all too often produced an irrational anger, an internal hunching of the shoulders in preparation for bearing yet another in an unending chain of disappointments and betrayals. After all, if they came with that attitude, at least they could hope that any surprises would be pleasant ones.

For others, it was darker than that, though. Sometimes a lot darker. Despite Harper's deliberate humor, he knew as well as Judson that any given transport was going to have at least one "Ballroom burnout" on board.

Harper was the one who'd coined the term. In fact, Judson doubted that he himself would ever have had the nerve to apply it if Harper hadn't come up with it in the first place, and the fact that the other man had only made Judson respect him even more. Harper had never discussed his own record as a Ballroom assassin with Judson, but it wasn't exactly a secret here on Torch that he'd long since forgotten exactly how many slavers and Manpower executives he'd "terminated with extreme prejudice" over his career. Yet Harper also recognized that too many of his Ballroom associates had been turned into exactly what the Ballroom's critics insisted all of them were.

Every war had its casualties, Judson thought grimly, and not all of them were physical, especially in what was still called "asymmetrical warfare." When the resources of the two sides were as wildly unbalanced as they were in this case, the weaker side couldn't restrict itself and its strategies on the basis of some sanitized "code of war" or some misplaced chivalry. That, as much as the raw hatred of Manpower's victims, was a major reason for the types of tactics the Ballroom had adopted over the decades . . . and the revulsion of many people who rejected its methods despite their own deep sympathy with the abolition movement as a whole. Yet there were more prices than public condemnation buried in the Ballroom's operations. The cost of taking the war to something as powerful as Manpower and its corporate allies in ways that maximized the bloody cost to them was all too often paid in the form of self brutalization—of turning oneself into someone not only capable of committing atrocities but eager to.

The Ballroom had always made a conscientious effort to identify itself and its members as fighters, not simple killers, but after enough deaths, enough bloodshed, enough horror visited upon others in retaliation for horrors endured, that distinction blurred with dismaying ease. All too often, there came a time when playing the role of a sociopath transformed someone into a sociopath, and quite a few Ballroom fighters who fell into that category turned up here on Torch unable—or unwilling—to believe that a planet inhabited almost exclusively by ex-slaves could possibly have renounced the Ballroom's terrorist tactics.

Judson didn't really blame them for feeling that way. In fact, he didn't see how it could have been any other way, actually. And he'd come to feel not simply sympathy, but a degree of understanding for the men and women who felt and thought that way which he would flatly have denied he could ever feel before his own time here on Torch. He'd seen and learned too much from hundreds, even thousands, of people who—like his own father—had experienced Manpower's brutality firsthand to blame anyone for the burning depth of his hatred.

Yet it was one of the Immigration Service's responsibilities to identify the people who felt that way, because Jeremy X had been completely serious. And he'd been right, too. If Torch was going to survive, it had to demonstrate to its friends and potential allies that it was not going to become a simple haven for terrorism. No one in his right mind could possibly expect Torch to turn against the Ballroom, or to sever all of its links to it, and if Jeremy had attempted to do anything of the sort, his fellow subjects would have turned upon him like wolves. And rightfully so, in Judson's opinion. But the Kingdom of Torch had to conduct itself as a star nation if it ever meant to be accepted as a star nation, and a home for ex-slaves, built by ex-slaves, as an example and a proof of ex-slaves' ability to conduct themselves as a civilized society, was far more important than any open support for Ballroom-style operations could ever have been.

For all the vocal sympathy others might voice, from the comfort of their own well fed, well cared for lives, for the plight of Manpower's victims, there was still that ineradicable prejudice against slaves. Against anyone defined primarily as a "genie." As a product of deliberate genetic design. It wasn't even as if some genetic slaves didn't have their own variety of it, he thought, given the attitude of all too many of them towards Scrags. In his darker moments, he thought it was just that every group had to have someone to look down on. That it was an endemic part of the human condition, however that human's genes had come to be arranged in a particular pattern. Other times, he looked around him and recognized the way the vast majority of people he personally knew had risen above that "endemic" need and knew it was possible, in the end, to exterminate any prejudice.

But however possible it might be, it wasn't going to happen overnight. And in the meantime, Torch had to stand as the light for which it was named, the proof genetic slaves could build a world, and not just a vengeance machine. That they could take their war with Manpower with them and transform it in ways which proved that, in fact, they were not inferior to their designers and oppressors, but superior to them. And just as they had to prove that to the people whose support their survival required, they had to prove it to themselves. Had to take that ultimate vengeance upon Manpower by proving Manpower had lied. That whatever had been done to them, however their chromosomes had been warped or toyed with, they were still human beings, still as much heir to the potential greatness of humanity as anyone else.

Most of them would have been incredibly uncomfortable trying to put that thought into words, but that didn't keep them from grasping it. And so when someone who couldn't accept it arrived on Torch, it was Immigration's responsibility to recognize him. Not to deny him entry, or to threaten him with arbitrary deportation. The Torch Constitution guaranteed every ex-slave, and every child or grandchild of ex-slaves, safe haven on Torch. That was why Torch existed. But, in return, Torch demanded compliance with its own laws, and those laws included the prohibition of Ballroom-style operations launched from Torch. Despite everything else, Torch would not imprison people who refused to renounce the Ballroom's traditional tactics, but neither would Torch allow them to remain or to use its territory as a safe refuge between Ballroom-style strikes. Which was why the people whose own hatred might drive them to do exactly that had to be recognized.

And, as much as Judson personally hated the duty, there was no question that Harper was right. Genghis' telempathic sense, his ability to literally taste the "mind glow" of anyone he met, made him absolutely and uniquely suited to the task.

"All right," he said out loud, "be that way. But I'm warning you now, Genghis and I will expect tomorrow afternoon off."

He kept his tone light, but he also met Harper's gaze steadily. However well suited to the task Genghis might be, wading through that many mind glows, so many of which carried their own traumas and scars, was always exhausting for the treecat. He'd need a little time away from other mind glows, a little time in the Torch equivalent of the Sphinx bush, and Harper knew it.

"Go ahead," he said. "Twist my arm! Extort extra vacation time out of me!" He grinned, but his own eyes were as steady as Judson's, and he nodded ever so slightly. "See if I care!"

"Good," Judson replied.

* * *

Several hours later, neither Judson nor Genghis felt particularly cheerful.

It wasn't as if the arriving shuttles were steeped solely in gloom, despair, and bloodthirsty hatred. In fact, there was an incredible joyousness to most of the arrivals, a sense of having finally set foot on the soil of a planet which was actually theirs.

Of being home at last.

But there were scars, and all too often still-bleeding psychic wounds, on even the most joyous, and they beat on Genghis' focused sensitivity like hammers. The fact that the 'cat was deliberately looking for dangerous fault lines, pockets of particularly brooding darkness, forced him to open himself to all the rest of the pain, as well. Judson hated to ask it of his companion, but he knew Genghis too well not to ask. Treecats were direct souls, with only limited patience for some of humanity's sillier social notions. And, to be honest, Genghis had a lot less trouble accepting and supporting the Ballroom's mentality than Judson himself did. Yet Genghis also understood how important Torch was not simply to his own person, but to all of the other two-legs around him, and that much of its hope for the future rested on the need to identify people whose choice of actions might jeopardize what the Torches were striving so mightily to build. Not only that, Torch was his home, too, now, and treecats understood responsibility to clan and nesting place.

Which didn't make either of them feel especially cheerful.

<That one.> Genghis' fingers flickered suddenly.


Judson twitched. So far, despite the inevitable emotional fatigue, today's transport load of new immigrants had contained few "problem children," and he'd settled into a sort of cruise control as he watched them filtering through the arrival interview process.

<That one,> Genghis' fingers repeated. <The tall one in the brown shipsuit, by the right lift bank. With dark hair.>

"Got him," Judson said a moment later, although there was nothing particularly outwardly impressive about the newcomer. He was obviously from one of the general utility genetic lines. "What about him?"

<Not sure,> Genghis replied, his fingers moving with unusual slowness. <He's . . . nervous. Worried about something.>

"Worried," Judson repeated. He reached up and ran his fingers caressingly down Genghis' spine. "A lot of two-legs worry about a lot of things, O Bane of Chipmunks," he said. "What's so special about this one?"

<He just . . . tastes wrong.> Genghis was obviously trying to find a way to describe something he didn't fully understand himself, Judson realized. <He was nervous when he got off the lift, but he got a lot more nervous after he got off the lift.>

Judson frowned, wondering what to make of that. Then the newcomer looked up, and Judson's own mental antennae quivered.

The man in the brown shipsuit was trying hard not to let it show, but he wasn't looking up at the crowded arrival concourse in general. No, he was looking directly at Judson Van Hale and Genghis . . . and trying to make it look as if he weren't.

"Do you think he got more worried when he saw you, Genghis?" he asked quietly. Genghis cocked his head, obviously thinking hard, and then his right truehand flipped up in the sign for "Y" and nodded in affirmation.

Now, that's interesting, Judson thought, staying exactly where he was and trying to avoid any betraying sign of his own interest in Mr. Brown Shipsuit. Of course, it's probably nothing. Anybody's got the right to be nervous on their first day on a new planet—especially the kind of people who're arriving here on Torch every day! And if he's heard the reports about the 'cats—or, even worse, the rumors—he may think Genghis can peek inside his head and tell me everything he's thinking or feeling. God knows we've run into enough people who ought to know better who think that, and I can't really blame anyone who does for not liking the thought very much. But still . . .

His own right hand twitched very slightly on the virtual keyboard only he could see, activating the security camera that snapped a picture as the brown shipsuit sank into the chair in front of one of the Immigration processors. However nervous the newcomer might be, he was obviously at least managing to maintain his aplomb as he answered the interviewer's questions and provided his background information. He wasn't even glancing in Judson and Genghis' direction any longer, either, and he actually managed a smile when he opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue for the Immigration clerk to scan its barcode.

Some of the ex-slaves resented that. More than one had flatly refused when asked to do the same thing, and Judson found it easy enough to understand that reaction. But given the incredible number of places Torch's new immigrants came from, and bearing in mind that the mere fact of ex-slavery didn't necessarily mean all of them were paragons of virtue, the assembly of an identification database was a practical necessity. Besides, the Beowulf medical establishment had identified several genetic combinations which had potentially serious negative consequences. Manpower had never worried about that sort of thing, as long as they got whatever feature they'd been after, and that lack of concern was a major factor in the fact that even if they were ever fortunate enough to receive prolong, genetic slaves' average lifespans remained significantly shorter than "normals' " did. Beowulf had devoted a lot of effort to finding ways to ameliorate the consequences of those genetic sequences if they could be identified, and the barcode was the quickest, most efficient way for the doctors to scan for them. There wasn't much that could be done for some of them, even by Beowulf, but prompt remedial action could enormously mitigate the consequences of others, and one of the things every citizen of Torch was guaranteed was the very best medical care available.

Given that no slaveowner had ever bothered to waste prolong on something as unimportant as his animate property, much less worry about things like preventative medicine, that guarantee was one of the kingdom's most ringing proclamations of the individual value it placed upon its people.

"Is he still nervous?" Judson murmured, and Genghis' hand nodded again.

"Interesting," Judson said softly. "You may just make him that way because he's one of those people who doesn't want anyone poking around inside his head."

This time, Genghis nodded his head and not just his hand. Treecats were constitutionally incapable of really understanding why anyone might feel that way, since they couldn't imagine not being able to "poke around" inside each other's minds. But they didn't have to be able to understand why two-legs might feel that way to grasp that some of them did feel that way, and if that were the case here, it would scarcely be the first time Genghis had seen it.

"Still," Judson continued, "I think we might want to keep an eye on this one for at least a couple of days. Remind me to mention that to Harper."

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