TORCH OF FREEDOM — Snippet 34
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.