Laukkonen still looked skeptical, but he folded his arms across his chest, frowning ever so slightly as he considered what Bottereau had said. Then he shrugged.

“All right,” he said. “All right, I’ll give you your three or four months — hell, I’ll give you six! But the interest rate’s going up. You do understand that, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Bottereau sighed. “How much did you have in mind?”

“Double,” Laukkonen said flatly, and Bottereau winced. Still, it wasn’t as bad as he’d been afraid it might be, and what Manpower was promising him would still be enough.

“Agreed,” he said.

“Good.” Laukkonen stood. “And remember, Arsène — six months. Not seven, and sure as hell not eight. You need longer than that, you damned well better get me a message — and a down payment — in the meantime. Are we clear on that?”

“Clear,” Bottereau replied.

Laukkonen didn’t say anything more. He simply nodded curtly, once, and walked out of the bar, picking up his bodyguards on the way.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Have a seat, Herlander,” McBryde invited as the sandy-haired man with the haunted hazel eyes stepped into his office.

Herlander Simões sat in the indicated chair silently. His face was like a shuttered window, except for the pain in those eyes, and his body language was stiff, wary. Not surprisingly, McBryde supposed. An “invitation” to an interview with the man in charge of the Gamma Center’s entire security force wasn’t exactly calculated to put someone at ease even at the best of times. Which these most definitely were not for Simões.

“I don’t imagine it made you feel especially happy to hear I wanted to see you,” he said out loud, meeting the situation head on, and snorted gently. “I know it wouldn’t have made me happy, in your place.”

Still, Simões said nothing, and McBryde leaned forward behind his desk.

“I also know you’ve been through a lot, these past few months.” He was careful to keep his tone gentle and yet professionally detached. “I’ve read your file, and your wife’s. And I’ve seen the reports from the Long-Range Planning Board.” He shrugged ever so slightly. “I don’t have any kids of my own, so in that sense, I know I can’t really understand how incredibly painful all of this has been for you. And I’m not going to pretend we’d be having this conversation if I didn’t have a professional reason for speaking to you. I hope you understand that.”

Simões looked at him for a few seconds, then nodded once, jerkily.

McBryde nodded back, maintaining his professional expression, but it was hard. Over the decades, he’d seen more than his share of people who were in pain, or frightened — even terrified. Some of them had had damned good reason to be terrified, too. Security specialists, like cops the galaxy over, had a tendency not to meet people under the most favorable or least stressful of conditions. But he couldn’t remember ever having seen a human being as filled with pain as this man. It was even worse than he’d thought when he’d spoken to Bardasano about him.

“May I call you Herlander, Dr. Simões?” he asked after a moment, and the other man surprised him with a brief, tight smile.

“You’re the Center’s security chief,” he pointed out in a voice which sounded less harrowed than it ought to have, coming from a man with his eyes. “I imagine you can call any of us anything you want!”

“True.” McBryde smiled back, easing carefully into the possible, tiny opening. “On the other hand, my mother always taught me it was only polite to ask permission, first.”

A brief spasm of pain seemed to peak in a Simões’ eyes at the reference to McBryde’s mother. It obviously reminded him of the family he’d lost. But McBryde had anticipated that, and he went on calmly.

“Well, Herlander, the reason I wanted to see you, obviously, is that there’s some concern about how what you’ve been through — what you’re still going through — is likely to affect your work. You’ve got to know the projects you’re involved in are critical. Actually, they’re probably even more critical than you realize already, and that’s only going to get more pronounced. So the truth is that I’ve got to know — and my superiors have to know — how well you’re going to be able to continue to function.”

Simões’ face tightened, and McBryde raised one hand and waved it gently in a half-soothing, half-apologetic gesture.

“I’m sorry if that sounds callous,” he said levelly. “It’s not meant to. On the other hand, I’m trying to be honest with you.”

Simões gazed at him, then shrugged.

“Actually, I appreciate that,” he said, and grimaced. “I’ve had enough semi-polite lies and pretenses out of all those people so eager to ‘save’ Frankie from how terrible her life had become.”

The quiet, ineffable bitterness in his voice was more terrible than any shout.

“I’m sorry about that, too,” McBryde told him with equally quiet sincerity. “I can’t undo any of it, though. You know that as well as I do. All I can do, Herlander, is to see where you and I — and the Gamma Center — are right now. I can’t make your pain go away, and I’m not going to pretend that I think I can. But, to be brutally frank, the reason I’m talking to you is that it’s my job to help hold the entire Center together. And that means holding you together . . . and recognizing if the time ever comes when we can’t do that anymore.”

“If the time ever comes?” Simões repeated with a heartbreaking smile, and despite his own training and experience, McBryde winced.

“I’m not prepared to accept just yet that it’s inevitable,” he said, wondering even as he did if he truly believed that himself . . . and doubting that he did. “On the other hand, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you I’m not going to be making contingency plans in case it does come. That’s my job.”

“I understand that.” For the first time, there was a flicker of something more than pain in those hazel eyes. “In fact, it’s a relief. Knowing where you’re coming from, and why, I mean.”

“I’ll be honest with you,” McBryde said. “The last thing I really want to do is to get close, on a personal level, to someone who’s in as much pain as I think you are. And it’s not as if I’m any kind of trained counselor or therapist. Oh, I’ve had a few basic psych classes as part of my security training, of course, but I’d be totally unqualified to try and cope with your grief on any sort of therapeutic basis. But the truth is, Herlander, that if I’m going to feel confident I understand you, and the security implications you present, you’re going to have to talk to me. And that means I’m going to have to talk to you.”

He paused and Simões nodded.

“I don’t expect you to be able to forget I’m in charge of the Center’s security,” McBryde continued. “And I’m not going to be able to promise you the kind of confidentiality a therapist is supposed to respect. I want you to understand that going in. But I also want you to understand that my ultimate objective, however we got where we are, is to try to help you stay together. You can’t complete the work we need completed if you fall apart, and it’s my job to get that work completed. It’s that simple. On the other hand, that also means you’ve got at least one person in the universe — me — you can talk to and who will do anything he can to help you deal with all the shit coming down on you.”

He paused again, looking into Simões’ eyes, then cleared his throat.

“On that basis, Herlander, let’s talk.”

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13 Responses to TORCH OF FREEDOM — Snippet 47

  1. John T Mainer says:

    I’m the one who will kill you now if I think you are a threat. I’m planning on killing you once your finished anyway because killing your child made you at least a definite long term threat. I don’t want to be your friend. Tell me how much our killing your child hurt you, so I can decide when to put a pulser dart through your brainpan and dump your body in the biowaste disposal?

    Is is alright if I call you Herlander? I wouldn’t want to be forward or impolite after all.

  2. maria says:

    I like that. It sums it up oh so well. But at least he is honest, which I’m guessing Herlander was getting very little of.

  3. John Roth says:

    @1 John T. Mainer

    I don’t think so. So far I haven’t seen any indication that they think he’s any kind of a security risk, at least in terms of going over to the enemy. It looks like they’re much more interested in whether they can get him to finish the current project before he finishes crashing and burning.

    That project, by the way, looks interesting. I somehow doubt if they’d be quite so interested in streak drive improvements if they didn’t think they could install it in existing warships, given that Bardisino, at least, thinks that Prometheus is so close.

    I suspect that everyone would breath a sigh of relief if Herlander in fact pulled through, although they’re not expecting it and they’re not planning on it. Which is why they’re setting up contingency plans to replace him, and more plans to make sure that what he’s working on is recorded so nothing will be lost if he goes completely crackers and starts destroying things.

  4. catboy says:

    I agree with 1

  5. Thirdbase says:

    I have to agree with #3, John.

    Right now they are looking to see that Herlander can finish what he is working on, or at least continue to advance it without accidentally or deliberately sabotaging the project. Early on an accidental mistake is more likely. Then later a deliberate revenge based sabotage will be more likely. The idea of him talking with the enemy is so far out there, that MA security hasn’t even thought of it.

  6. Woff'65 says:

    @5 I don’t know so much. Anyone who is in that much pain because of the actions of their employers is going to be a potential security concern, either because he is going to pop into work with a tri-barrel some day or because he is going to leg it to the opposition.

    I think it would depend on how the alignment intend to deal with him. Oddly enough, if he thought they were going to kill him he might be more likely to take it out on his co-workers directly, whereas if they took him off the job to send him to he Mesan equivalent of the funny farm he might very well run to the opposition.

  7. John T Mainer says:

    It shows a real blindness on their part that they are still acting like conspirators when they are in the endgame of conquering a nation. There is no need to dispose of people for anything beyond the most immediate needs. If things go well, they have a long term in the open to recover use of such assets. If things go badly, they will be destroyed, and one more broken researcher more or less won’t make a quantitative difference. They just can’t make the switch from conspirator to ruler. Eloise Pritcher could give lessons.

  8. Kenny says:

    I can’t think of anything more likely to make me begin to think of a revenge action than this particliar interview.

  9. John Roth says:

    @7 John T. Mainer

    John, I don’t see anything that indicates they’re intending to dispose of him. Taking precautions for if he finishes breaking down, yes. We literally don’t know enough about Mesa’s culture to know what the norms are for handling the incurably mentally ill.

    In any case, you’re assuming that they’re taking some action because they’re “conspirators.” There are actions I expect them to take after they’ve won — they may very well be planning to either get rid of Manpower or cut it loose to sink or swim on its own, for example.

  10. Drak Bibliophile says:

    Without some additional signs that he’s betray the Alignment, they are likely to transfer him to some nice safe (boring) job where the only person he’d hurt is himself.

    One thing to remember, as far as the Alignment is concerned, it is unlikely Herlander could ‘defect’. He has no way of getting off Mesa or contacting anybody who could help him defect. It isn’t like there are known (to him or the Alignment) ‘enemy agents’ walking around Mesa.

    Of course, how would our favorite secret agents know about Herlander?

  11. John Roth says:

    @10 Drak

    Or it might even be a quite interesting job that would engage his quite formidable mathematical talents, but which is not strategically urgent. Any organization has lots of those projects — they might pay off big, but they’re not being worked on because there are more urgent priorities.

  12. Thirdbase says:

    @ #10 Drak,

    That’s what they call HUMINT. People on the ground talking and buying drinks.

  13. Drak Bibliophile says:

    Thirdbase. True, they may have heard about his daughter. However, anybody who knows Herlander’s real job (thus why he’d be a valuable defector) would be drinking where our favorate secret agents can find out what Herlander really does. Remember Herlander’s neighbors don’t know his real job.

    If Herlander was breaking security, then he would be in jail.

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