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STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets

This is the place where we will be posting snippets of soon-to-be published works!
STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by Duckk   » Tue Dec 24, 2013 10:48 am

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Reserved for official snippets of Cauldron of Ghosts.
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Re: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Dec 24, 2013 11:19 am

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Since Toni posted these earlier, I'll be posting the first three chapters now with the first snippet beginning with Chapter Four (this evening).

Cauldron of Ghosts - Chapter 01

Cauldron of Ghosts

By David Weber & Eric Flint

MAY 1922 Post Diaspora

"Lot of help that is too. Victor can turn almost anything into splinters."

Yana Tretiakovna, Torch secret agent

Chapter 1

"So now what?" asked Yana Tretiakovna. She leaned back in her comfortable armchair, her arms crossed over her chest, and bestowed an impressive glower upon Anton Zilwicki and Victor Cachat. The first of whom was perched on a seat as he scrutinized a comp screen; the other of whom was slouched in an armchair and looking almost as disgruntled as Yana.

"I don't know," said Cachat, almost muttering the words. "I've been trying to get an answer to that very question from" -- his finger pointed to the ceiling -- "unnamable but no doubt exalted figures on high."

Taken literally, the gesture might have led to the conclusion that the hard-bitten atheist Victor Cachat had suddenly become a believer, since there was nothing beyond the ceiling other than the heavens. The large suite the three people were sharing was on the top floor of a former luxury hotel in Haven's capital that had been sequestered for its own purposes decades earlier by the Legislaturalist secret police. After the revolution -- the most recent one, that is -- the new regime had tried but failed to find the rightful owners, since they'd all died or vanished. So, not knowing what else to do, they'd turned it into a combination safe house and luxury resort for guests of the government.

Clearly, though, Cachat was oblivious to the irony involved. Still half-muttering with disgust, he went on. "So far, I might as well have been putting the question to a streetlight. Except a lamp post would at least shed some light."

Anton's mouth quirked wryly. "I'm pretty sure the question you should be asking is 'where,' not 'what.'" He pointed to something on the screen. "See that?"

Ennui was shoved aside by interest, as Victor and Yana both rose from their chairs and came over to look at the screen.

"And what the hell is that?" demanded Tretiakovna. "It looks like scrambled eggs on steroids."

"It's an astrogational display showing traffic to and from the planet," said Cachat. "And that exhausts my knowledge of the matter. I can't really interpret it."

Yana stared at the screen again. The ex-Scrag looked rather alarmed.

"Do you mean to tell me that this is how orbital controllers guide spacecraft to a supposedly -- ha, ha, I'm dying of laughter here -- safe orbit or landing? If so, I'm never flying again. Not even a kite."

"Relax, Yana," said Anton. "They don't use this sort of condensed display at all -- leaving aside the fact that all orbital routes are selected and monitored by computers. No, I slapped this together just to see if my guess was right, which is that traffic is being shifted around to allow for some sudden and unscheduled departures."

He pointed to… this and that and the other, all of which looked like nothing much of anything to his two companions. "Think of these as boltholes, if you will."

Victor and Yana looked at each other, then down at Anton.

"So who's bolting?" asked Yana.

Zilwicki heaved his massive shoulders. For someone built along normal human rather than dwarf lord lines, that would have been a shrug.

"How should I know?" he said. "Victor will have to find out from his unnamable but no doubt exalted figures on high."

Yana said something in a Slavic-sounding language that was almost certainly unprintable. Victor, a bit of a prude when it came to coarse language, kept his response to: "Well, hell." And a second or two later: "Hell's bells."

****

Luckily for the dispositions of Cachat and Tretiakovna, relief from uncertainty came a few minutes later, in the persons of Kevin Usher and Wilhelm Trajan. Usher was the head of the Federal Investigation Agency, Haven's top domestic police force; Trajan, the head of the Republic's foreign intelligence agency, the Federal Intelligence Service.

Yana let them into the room, in response to the buzzer. As soon as they entered, Cachat rose to his feet.

"Kevin," he said, in a neutral tone. Then, nodding to Trajan: "Boss."

"Not anymore," said Wilhelm. He glanced around, spotted an empty chair, and slid into it. Once seated, he molded himself into the chair's contours, as someone does who is finally able to relax after a long period of tension.

"You're being reassigned to the foreign office," he elaborated. "No longer part of the FIS."

He did not seem dismayed at losing the services of the man whom knowledgeable people, including himself, thought to be Haven's most brilliantly capable intelligence agent. When President Pritchard had notified him of her decision to transfer Cachat, Wilhelm's reaction had been: You mean I can go back to running a spy outfit, instead of being a lion tamer?

Usher took a seat some distance away from Trajan. "It's one hell of a promotion, Victor. If you, ah, look at it in the right light."

Victor gave him a dark look. "Under very dim lighting, you mean."

Kevin's expression, in response, was exasperated. "Oh, for God's sake, Victor! No, I don't mean using night goggles. I mean bright -- really, really, really bright -- floodlights. Your days of creeping around in the shadows are over. Over -- with a bang and a boom. O-V-E-R."

Trajan's tone was milder. "Be realistic, Victor. Your exploits in launching Torch almost blew your cover completely as it was. They left it pretty tattered. Now, after Mesa? You -- and Anton, and Yana" -- he nodded in their direction -- "just brought back the biggest intelligence coup in galactic history for… oh, hell, who knows how many centuries? Do you really think there's any chance you can stay in your old line of work? Even using nanotech facial and body transformations won't help you, since they don't disguise DNA. Sure, that'd probably be enough for a modest, barely-known sort of spy. But you? Anybody who thinks you might be coming their way will have DNA swabs taken of anybody who might remotely be you."

"StateSec destroyed all my DNA records except theirs the day I graduated from the Academy," said Victor. "Those are still closely guarded and I've been very careful not to scatter my DNA traces about." His tone of voice was perhaps a bit peevish.

"True enough," said Anton. "You won't find Special Officer Cachat carelessly discarding a cup after he's taken a drink from it, I will grant you that. But come on, Victor -- you know the realities perfectly well. As long as you were obscure and nobody was looking for your DNA, those precautions were probably good enough. But today?"

"Exactly," said Trajan. He nodded toward the window overlooking Nouveau Paris. "Word's already leaked out to the press. Within a couple of days -- a week, at the outside -- your name and likeness will be known to every person on Haven above the age of five and with any interest at all in the news. As well as -- more to the point -- every intelligence service in the galaxy, each and every one of which will be trying to get their hands on your DNA traces. Sooner or later, at least some of them are bound to succeed. So give it up. And don't bother arguing with me or Kevin about it, either. President Pritchart made the decision. If you want it overturned, you'll have to figure out a way to get her out of office."

Usher wiped his face with a large hand. "Wilhelm, he gets enough ideas on his own without you making suggestions.

Trajan looked startled. "What? I wasn't -- " Then, looked alarmed. "Officer Cachat…"

"I wasn't planning to organize a coup d'état," Victor said sarcastically. "I am a patriot, you know. Besides, I don't blame the president for the decision."

The dark look came back. "Clearly, she was misled by evil advisers."

Anton started laughing softly. "Ganny warned you, Victor. It'll be your turn now for the video treatment! I'd have some sympathy except I don't recall you ever showing any for me because my cover got blown."

Zilwicki looked over at Tretiakovna. "What's your guess, Yana? Ganny thought the news services would go for either 'Cachat, Slaver's Bane' or 'Black Victor'."

"'Black Victor,'" she replied instantly. "Give Cachat his due, he isn't prone to histrionics. 'Slaver's Bane' is just too… too… not Victor. Besides, look at him."

Cachat's expression was now very dark indeed.

"'Black Victor,' it is," announced Zilwicki. "Victor, you need to buy some new clothes. All leather, neck to ankles. Black leather, it goes without saying."

For a moment, it looked as if Cachat might explode. At the very least, spout some heavy duty profanity. But…

He didn't. Anton wasn't surprised. Victor's deeds were so flamboyant that it was easy to forget that the man behind them was not flamboyant at all. In fact, he was rather modest -- and extraordinarily self-disciplined.

So, all that finally came out, in a very even and flat tone of voice, was: "Where am I being assigned, then? I'll warn you, if it's someplace that has an active cocktail circuit, I won't be any good at it. I don't drink much. Ever."

"S'true," said Yana. "He's boring, boring, boring. Well, except when he's overturning regimes and stuff like that." She actually giggled, something Anton had never heard her do before. "Cocktail circuit! Diplomatic small talk! I can see it already!"

Victor now looked long-suffering. For his part, Usher looked exasperated again.

"We are not morons," he said. "Victor, you -- and you and you" -- his forefinger swiveled like a turret gun, coming to bear on Anton and Yana -- "are all going to Manticore. Tomorrow, so get packed."

Anton had been planning to get to Manticore anyway, and as soon as possible. He hadn't seen his lover Cathy Montaigne in more than a year. He hadn't yet come up with a way to do so that the many and manifold powers-that-be were likely to approve, though, and now it had been unexpectedly dropped in his lap.

He saw Victor glance at him and smile. There was real warmth in that smile, too, something you didn't often get from the man. Not for the first time, Anton was struck by the unlikely friendship that had grown up between he and the Havenite agent. Unlikely -- yet all the stronger, perhaps, because of that very fact.

There were people in the world whom Anton liked more than he did Victor. But there were very, very few whom he trusted as much.

"And in what capacity am I going?" he asked Usher. "Somehow, even with all this new-found cordiality, I doubt that I've been assigned to Haven's foreign service."

Usher gave him a grin. "By all accounts -- I was on Old Earth, remember, when the Manpower Incident went down -- no star system in its right mind would assign you to its diplomatic corps."

"Yes, I remember."

It was hardly something Anton would forget. Nothing official had ever been said, and to this day Victor refused to cross any t's and dot any i's. Nonetheless, Anton was quite certain that Kevin Usher had engineered the entire episode. He'd stayed in the background, letting Cachat and the Audubon Ballroom do the rough work, but his had been the guiding hand.

Zilwicki's daughter Helen -- no, all three of his children, since he'd adopted Berry and Lars afterward -- were still alive because of Victor and Kevin. It was a reminder, if he needed one, that just because he didn't share someone's ideology didn't mean they didn't take it seriously themselves. Haven's political ideals were not Anton's -- well, some of them were -- but it had been those ideals that had shielded his family.

Suddenly, he was in a very good mood. The information he and Victor had brought back from Mesa had not only ended the galaxy's longest and most savagely fought war, and turned two bitter enemies into allies. Uneasy and hesitant allies, perhaps, but allies nonetheless. That information had also turned a friendship right side up. All the wariness and reservations he'd had to maintain about Victor Cachat were now draining away. Rapidly, too.

Something in Victor's expression made it clear that he understood that also. But all he said was: "True enough. I may be a problem child for the diplomatically-inclined, but Anton gives them nightmares."

"You still haven't answered my question, Kevin," said Anton.

Usher shrugged. "How the hell should I know? All I was told by Eloise was to round up all three of you -- and Herlander Simões, of course -- and take you to Manticore. Victor, you're not exactly reassigned to the foreign service." He gave Trajan a reproving glance. "Wilhelm was overstating things a bit. For one thing, Leslie Montreau was in the room along with Tom Theisman when Eloise made the decision to yank you out of the FIS. She nodded quite vigorously when Tom said that maybe she didn't want -- his words, not mine -- 'that lunatic bull in a china shop' in her department."

"What's a china shop?" asked Yana.

"It's an antique phrase," Anton explained. "'China' was a name for a fancy kind of what they called… porcelain, if I remember right."

"Lot of help that is. So what's porcelain?"

"Stuff that Victor could turn into splinters easily."

"Lot of help that is too. Victor can turn almost anything into splinters."

Victor waved them down impatiently. "So to whom am I assigned, then?"

Usher scratched his scalp. "Well… no one, really. Eloise just thinks having you on Manticore will be essential to firming up the new alliance."

"Why? Anton knows as much as I do -- and he's Manticoran to begin with."

Usher was starting to look exasperated again. Zilwicki interjected himself into the discussion.

"That's sort of the whole point, Victor. I'm a known quantity, in the Star Kingdom. I've even had a personal audience with the empress. You, on the other hand, are a complete unknown. Well, almost. I think Duchess Harrington has a good sense of you. But no one else does, in Manticore."

Cachat was staring at him, obviously in complete incomprehension. It was odd, the way such a supremely capable man could be so oblivious to his own stature. That was a feature of Victor that Anton found simultaneously attractive and rather scary. In the right (or wrong) circumstances, people with little in the way of egos -- more precisely, little concern for their egos -- could do…

Pretty much anything.

"Just take my word for it, will you? They'll want to see you, and talk to you, before they'll settle down with any information you bring to them."

"What he said." Usher rose from his chair. "Oh seven hundred, tomorrow morning. Be down in the lobby, packed and ready to go."

Trajan rose also, and went to the door. "Have a nice trip," was what he said. What he meant, of course, was "have a nice long trip." And there seemed to be a little spring in his step, as if a great weight had finally been lifted from his shoulders.
*
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
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Re: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Dec 24, 2013 11:20 am

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Cauldron of Ghosts - Chapter 02

Chapter 2

"Well, it would have been nice if they'd given us another week or so to complete our preparations, but I guess you can't expect too much from slavers." Colonel Nancy Anderson tapped her bottom teeth a few times with a thumbnail, in an unconscious mannerism that her subordinates had labeled grief-unto-others.

The "others" not being them, however, they were not perturbed by the gesture. Anderson was something of a martinet compared to most officers in Beowulf's Biological Survey Corps, but that wasn't saying much. The BSC was an intensely disciplined organization, but that was scarcely evident to those more familiar with other military services. Despite the innocuous sounding name, the BSC was a military outfit -- one of the galaxy's elite special forces, in fact -- but it had precious little time for the spit-and-polish formality so near and dear to conventional military minds. The BSC was quite capable of performing military theatre with the best of them; when it came to doing its actual job, however, its personnel were much more of the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-on-with-it suasion.

"How do you want to handle it, Nancy?" asked her XO, Commander Loren Damewood. He was lounging back in a seat at one of the com stations, studying the data on the screen more intently than his relaxed posture and lazy tone of voice would indicate. "Their transponder's showing one of the flagged Jessyk Line codes. They've used it before -- though maybe not this particular ship -- when they did business here."

Colonel Anderson understood his point. Slavers didn't randomly show up at stations whose control was unknown to them. And just to make sure nothing had changed since they or another ship in their company last showed up, they'd use seemingly-innocuous transponder codes. Knocking at the door, as it were, with a special rhythm.

"They've got a cargo on board, then."

Damewood nodded. "And that's a two million ton ship, according to the sensors, so it's probably a pretty big one."

That precluded the simple and straightforward measure of disintegrating the oncoming slaver ship with Parmley Station's disguised but very powerful grasers once it got close enough. "Cargo" was a euphemism, dealing with slavers. The term meant human beings, alive and… certainly not well, given the realities of their situation, but still very far from dead.

"Plan C?" suggested a third officer in the command station. That was Ayibongwinkosi Kabweza, the commander of the Torch army's assault troops aboard Parmley Station.

Colonel Anderson took a moment to consider the question. She had no previous experience working with Torch military units and wanted to be sure she didn't handle the issue improperly.

The Biological Survey Corps had asked the government of Torch to provide them with a battalion for service on Parmley Station once it became clear that their plans for the station simply needed more forces that the BSC itself could provide. For all its wealth and power, Beowulf was still a one-star system and a member of the Solarian League. While the Beowulf System Defense Force was unusually large and powerful for a League member system, thanks to the existence of the Beowulf Terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction, it had never needed -- or maintained -- a large army. Instead, it had concentrated on maintaining one whose quality was excellent, and its modest size had allowed it to be picky about the personnel it recruited and then equip them with the very best. Given the heightened political tensions of recent years, Beowulf had increased its military spending considerably, but the priority was to fully modernize its naval forces first. At least for the time being, Beowulf's available ground and marine forces remained sparse.

They'd made the request for assistance from Torch a little reluctantly. The training, methods and tactics of Torch's army units had been shaped by Thandi Palane and were based on those of the Solarian Marines, which were in many respects quite different from those of Beowulf's military, especially the BSC. Not only that, but the Royal Torch Army was still very much a work in progress, feeling its way towards its own sense of identity and organic traditions.

With no real experience to go on, it was hard to assess how well the two forces would work together. To make things still trickier, like many newly-formed units, Torch's assault troops were likely to have a chip on their shoulder when dealing with forces that had been long-established. They would detect patronizing attitudes in every careless or misspoken phrase.

If Colonel Anderson chose to employ Plan C, it would be Lt. Colonel Kabweza and her soldiers who would carry it out. Plan C had the nickname among her BSC agents of Plan Biggest Hammer Around. If the Torch battalion she commanded shared any of the traditions and attitudes of Solarian Marines -- which they were bound to, since both Palane and Kabweza came out of that military force -- they would apply ferocious shock tactics in a boarding operation. The Beowulfan military, like that of Manticore, was highly skeptical of the Solarian Navy's reputation, especially that of Battle Fleet. Not so, however, of the Solarian Marines. Unlike Battle Fleet officers and crews, who could easily go through an entire career without seeing any combat at all, the Marines were a real fighting force.

It was tempting. Slaver crews, no matter how vigilant and well-armed, had no more chance of resisting a full-bore close assault by Torch units trained to Solarian Marine standards than vigilant and toothy mice had of resisting bobcats. There wasn't even much chance that the cargo would get harmed, so swiftly and savagely would the attack be driven through.

Still, there was some chance. All it would take would be for one of the slaver ship's officers on the bridge to trigger the slave evacuation procedures. The cargo would be forced out of their compartments by poison gas and expelled into vacuum. There would be no logic to doing so, since under the circumstances there was no way the slaver crew could pretend they hadn't been carrying slaves. Some of the corpses would even be drifting in sight of the Station. But the slavers might figure that they were doomed anyway -- not without some reason, being honest -- and choose to commit an act of mass murder as a twisted form of reprisal. God knew the slave trade attracted enough sadists and sociopaths! Indeed, one might say that those were two of the trade's more essential qualities.

But even if no harm came to the cargo, there was no chance that Torch assault troops would leave any of the crew alive. Their tactics, like those of Solarian Marines, would lean entirely toward eliminate the threat, not taking prisoners. Not to mention that the majority of Torch's assault troops had once been slaves themselves, and somewhere around one-third were former members of the Audubon Ballroom. Their hatred for slavers would be personal and deep. No matter how well disciplined they were, their tendency would always be to give no quarter.

Anderson shook her head. "No, Ayi, I don't think so. This will be our first operation since we transformed Parmley Station into a fortress. If possible, I want to get some intelligence out of it."

The skepticism on the lieutenant colonel's face was obvious, but Kabweza didn't say anything. However prickly they might be in some respects, Torch assault troops had been trained by Thandi Palane. Unlike some Beowulfan units, they would not be inclined to debate orders they disagreed with.

"We'll try Plan F," said Anderson. "We may as well find out now just how effective our new counter-sensor techniques are." Seeing the expression on Kabweza's face, Anderson smiled and said: "Oh, fine, Ayi. If it'll make you happy, we'll use your people as backup instead of Loren's usual crew."

She cocked an eye at Damewood. "If that's all right with you, XO."

"Huh." Damewood gave Kabweza a look from lowered brows. "A small number, Ayi. And nobody trigger-happy."

"None of my people are 'trigger-happy,'" said the lieutenant colonel. "We just don't suffer from the BSC's habitual slackness when it comes to smiting evil-doers."

That got a laugh from everyone on the bridge. Kabweza waved her hand in what might have been called a conciliatory gesture. "I'll head up the section myself, just to keep you from getting nervous."

The ship's captain and executive officer bestowed upon her the sort of look naval officers might give to a lieutenant commander who'd just announced she was going to assign some perfunctory duty to herself instead of an ensign.

"I need the exercise," Kabweza issued by way of explanation.

That elicited another laugh. The lieutenant colonel looked to be as much out of shape as a lioness hunting on the savannah. She wasn't nearly as big as Thandi Palane, but she'd passed through the same rigorous regimen in the Solarian Marines.

"It's true," she insisted.

Damewood rose from his chair. Unfolded from his seat, it might be better to say. The XO seemed to have a skeleton with considerably more bones than any member of the human species had a right to. There were rumors that he was the product of dark experiments done in complete violation of Beowulf's code of biological ethics.

No one really believed the rumors. Still, they never quite died away.

"I'll get my gear." He glanced at a different com screen which showed another ship already docked to the station. "How about the Hali Sowle? They could make a useful diversion if Ganny's willing to stick her neck out a little itsy-bitsy teeny tiny bit."

"I heard that, smart-ass." Elfride Margarete Butre -- the "Ganny" in question -- was slouched in a seat next to the bridge's entrance in a manner that seemed even more boneless than the one Damewood had assumed. In her defense, despite looking like a woman in her late thirties or early forties, she was at least a century older than the XO.

The matriarch of the clan that had once owned Parmley Station rose to her feet and planted hands on her hips. "Just what did you have in mind, Loren?" she demanded. She was rather formidable-looking, despite being less than one hundred and fifty centimeters tall. "Exactly in mind, I'm talking about. None of your damn BSC hand-waving bullshit."

Damewood smiled. "Nothing fancy, Ganny. It'd just be nice to have you pulling away from the station right as this new ship is arriving and cursing a blue streak on an open frequency. You could even directly warn the incoming people that they're about to be fleeced by the greediest and most unscrupulous bastards this side of Betelgeuse."

He paused, his eyebrows rising as if he'd been struck by a sudden thought. "You do know how to curse, don't you?"

Her reply put to rest any doubts he might have had -- or anyone this side of Betelgeuse, for that matter.

****

"Will you listen to this?" Ondøej Montoya, the Ramathibodi's com officer was grinning widely. "This kind of talent shouldn't be hidden under a bushel."

He pushed a button and the transmission he'd been receiving was broadcast into the bridge.

The ship's captain frowned slightly. She found Montoya's habit of using archaic references rather annoying. What the hell was a bushel? But the frown faded quickly enough, as she listened to the broadcast. Before long, she was grinning herself.

" -- une vraie salope! And as for you, dickless, I wouldn't wish you on a Melbourne humpmonkey! Although you'd probably do okay with my second cousin Odom -- that's short for Sodom; his family dropped the 's' after his third conviction for fumbled rape, on account of he'd become an embarrassment to them -- when he gets out of prison in maybe fifty or sixty years. I'll make sure to tell him to look you up although I doubt you'll still be alive by then, the way you swindle people."

Captain Tsang chuckled. "What's she so riled up about?"

Montoya shrugged. "Hard to tell, exactly. Near as I can make out, she thinks they overcharged her for everything and didn't give her anywhere near a fair price for her own goods."

Marième Tsang studied the image of the ship slowly receding from the huge bulk of Parmley Station. "She doesn't look to be carrying our sort of cargo, although you never know. What's the name of that ship?"

"The Hali Sowle." The com officer shook his head. "I couldn't find her registered in our data banks. But…" He shrugged again.

That didn't mean anything. Vessels plying the slave trade -- even those which weren't carrying slaves themselves -- did their best to stay off registries. From the look of the ship, she was just a tramp freighter who'd probably arrived at the Station more by accident than design. But as Captain Tsang had said, it was impossible to be sure without examining the vessel's interior.

Captain Tsang wasn't too worried about being swindled herself. Parmley Station was a known if unofficial transit hub for the slave trade, and the Ramathibodi was not a tramp. She was owned -- not formally, of course -- by the Jessyk Combine, one of Manpower's many subsidiaries. The people running Parmley would no doubt drive a hard bargain, but they'd keep it within limits or run the risk of losing most of their business over time.

Which brought to mind…

"Who is running Parmley these days, Ondøej? We haven't come through here in… what's it been now? Two T-years?"

"More like two and a half." Montoya worked at the console for a moment, pulling up another screen and scanning it for a few seconds. "According to this, the station is currently held by Orion Transit Enterprises. It says here that that's a subsidiary of an outfit based in Sheba's Junction named Andalaman Exports. For whatever any of that's worth."

"Not much," grunted Tsang. Sheba's Junction was hundreds of light years away, almost on the other side of human-occupied space. She didn't know anything about the system beyond the name, and the only reason she knew that was because it was unusual.

By now, the Hali Sowle had moved far enough away from Parmley Station to no longer pose a traffic hazard.

"Get us a docking approach, Lt. Montoya," Tsang ordered, shifting for the moment into formalities.

"Yes, Ma'am," replied Montoya. One of the things the captain liked about the ship's com officer, despite some of his annoying habits, was the fact that he didn't abuse the slackness that characterized relations between officers and crew members on a slave ship.

The inevitable slackness, given the self-indulgence of slaver ship companies that was one of the perks of the business. "Running a tight ship" was simply impossible, under those circumstances. All a captain could aim for was to maintain the necessary competence at the work itself.

Montoya was competent. So was the Ramathibodi's pilot. Docking would take at least half an hour and Tsang wasn't needed for any of it. So, she slouched back in the seat at her command station and pulled up her financial records. Studying them -- basking in them, rather; gloating over them -- was her favorite form of relaxation.
*
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
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Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
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Re: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Dec 24, 2013 11:20 am

DrakBibliophile
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Posts: 2125
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 2:54 pm
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Cauldron of Ghosts - Chapter 03

Chapter 3

Loren Damewood finished keying in the sequence he was using from his specialized software. Through his fingertips, he could feel the vibration of the locks opening. The sensations were very slight, of course, since he was wearing a skinsuit and gauntlets. If he'd been inside the ship instead of in the vacuum outside, that would have made an audible noise. Not a loud one, so it wouldn't be noticed by anyone aboard the Ramathibodi unless they were standing nearby. That was unlikely, though. Damewood had deliberately picked a cargo bay personnel hatch, and cargo bays tended to be big, empty, boring spaces unfrequented by crew people unless there was actual cargo to be transferred. And the only sort of "cargo" which would be transshipped at someplace like Parmley Station was highly unlikely to come from a standard bay like this one.

Still, he was miffed. There shouldn't have been any noise, if proper maintenance had been done.

But he wasn't surprised. "Proper maintenance" and "slave ship" were not terms that went together very often. There wasn't much difference between the sort of people who served on the crews of pirate ships and those who worked on slavers. A few pirate captains managed to maintain tight discipline on their ship, but most didn't even try. Neither did slaver captains.

And there was a bright side. Cruddy maintenance usually went along with cruddy security, at least for anything except critical systems.

The hatch that he and his companions were gathered around began to slide open. Damewood's program wasn't doing that directly. If it had, telltales would be showing on the bridge that someone was almost certain to spot. Instead, his specialized software had insinuated itself into the ship's own operating programs. The Ramathibodi was opening that hatch itself, with the added modification that it was doing so without triggering any telltales or alarms.

"In we go," he murmured. To himself only, of course -- all coms were silenced.

He didn't lead the way into the ship. That would have been silly, with Ayibongwinkosi Kabweza and her people present. He was the tech expert in charge of disabling security, not one of the assault troop gorillas.

The lieutenant colonel slipped through the hatch as soon as it had opened far enough to make that possible. The three members of her section had finished passing through before the hatch had time to fully open.

Loren waited until the hatch finished moving before he entered the airlock behind them. "Trigger-happy gorillas," he murmured. To himself only, of course.

Once they were in the airlock, they had to wait while Damewood's program cycled it through the process. It had been a vacuum when they entered; by the time they exited, the atmosphere would match that of the ship.

****

In Parmley Station's number one cargo bay, Nancy Anderson and two members of her team faced the captain of the Ramathibodi. She'd brought five members of her own crew to the parley.

The cargo bay was a big one for a station which had not originally been intended as a freight transfer point. Designed to accommodate the sometimes large equipment items required by a space-going amusement park, it was slightly over thirty meters in its longest dimension. The slavers had advanced a third of the way in before coming to a stop. They were now separated from the BSC trio by a distance of about seven meters.

"What's your pleasure?" Anderson asked. "Full trans-shipment, partial -- or are you just looking for supplies and R&R?"

"What R&R?" That came from one of the slaver crewmen standing a little behind Captain Tsang. It was a sarcastic remark, not a question.

"This is the biggest amusement park within fifty light-years." Nancy's lips twisted into a little smile. "Even if most of the rides don't work."

"Shut up, Grosvenor," said the Ramathibodi's captain. To Anderson she said: "Partial trans-shipment. We've got more labor techs than we can sell, where we're going. May as well drop them off here."

The fact that the Ramathibodi only wanted a partial transshipment set the tactical parameters of the situation. If they'd been looking for a full trans-shipment, the BSC team could have simply waited until all the slaves were off the ship before launching their attack. Instead, it would be more complicated.

Anderson nodded. "Anything you want to pick up?"

"Pleasure units, if you have any. Those are always easy to sell. Heavy labor units, too."

"Heavy labor units, we've got. Pleasure units…" She paused, before smiling nastily. "That depends on what you're willing to pay."

"I'd want to see 'em first."

"Well, sure." Anderson gestured toward the heavy battle steel box attached to one of the compartment's bulkheads by a maglock. "But why don't we start with the labor tech transaction?"

Tsang shrugged. "Whatever suits you."

Anderson wanted to give Loren Damewood and Ayibongwinkosi Kabweza as much time as possible to get into position and prepare their attack. The dickering and exchanges needed to complete the first transaction should provide them with plenty.

She and the Ramathibodi's captain moved forward to stand beside the steel box. For obvious reasons, the sort of electronic transfers that were the normal method of paying for goods and services were unsuitable for the slave trade, except in very secure locations like Mesa itself. Instead, recourse was made to more ancient forms of payment, involving the modern equivalent of cash transfers.

Such transfers were sometimes needed in perfectly legitimate businesses, so a well-developed and secure method for conducting them had been worked out centuries earlier. The method relied on the use of credit chips issued by one or another recognized major bank, usually though not always a bank headquartered on Old Earth itself.

Anderson keyed in the combination to unlock the battle steel box, and its lid slid smoothly upward. Inside were a large number of credit chips, issued by the Banco de Madrid of Old Earth. Each of those chips was a wafer of molecular circuitry embedded inside a matrix of virtually indestructible plastic. That wafer contained a bank validation code, a numerical value, and a security key whose security was probably better protected than the Solarian League Navy's central computer command codes. Any attempt to change the value programmed into it when it was originally issued would trigger the security code and turn it into a useless, fused lump. Those chips were recognized as legal tender anywhere in the explored galaxy, but there was no way for anyone to track where they'd gone, or -- best of all from the slavers' perspective -- whose hands they'd passed through, since the day they'd been issued by the Banco de Madrid.

Captain Tsang leaned over far enough to examine the chips, but she didn't touch them. In fact, she was careful to keep her hands well away from the box. Any attempt to take the chips before the transaction was complete would result in a missing hand or two.

She took out a small portable device and aimed it in the direction of the chips, still being careful not to let either her hand or the unit come any nearer to the box than was necessary for the immediate purpose. She spent a few moments studying the readout; not long, just enough to verify that the chips were legitimate and that there were enough of them to cover any transactions they'd be carrying out that day.

That done, she turned to one of her subordinates and said, "Start bringing 'em out."

She then glanced around, looking for the needed exit from the compartment.

Anderson pointed to a hatch just to her left. "We'll file them through there."

As each slave passed through the hatch, Tsang's hand unit would record the amount owed until enough was reached to remove one of the chips from the box. There shouldn't be any dickering needed, not for labor techs.

Just to be on the safe side, though, she said: "We'll want standard Verge price."

"Not a problem," said Anderson, nodding.

Tsang took a couple of steps back from the box. The damn things made her nervous, even though she'd never heard of one malfunctioning.

That done, she relaxed. This looked to be a simple, straightforward matter, now that the preliminaries were done.

****

Trigger-happy gorillas or not, once they were inside the ship the small unit of assault troops waited for Loren to bring out more of his specialized equipment and scan the area.

"That way," he said softly. His pointing finger steered the section down the corridor branching off to the right.

The progress that followed was odd. The four assault troops moved forward quickly, leapfrogging down the corridor, one person providing cover while the others took more advanced positions. Meanwhile, in the rear -- sometimes quite far to the rear -- Damewood came up much more slowly. He wasn't precisely "moseying along," but an uncharitable observer might have used the term anyway.

Neither Kabweza nor any of her subordinates would have done so, however. Indeed, the thought never crossed their minds. The XO had a reputation for being something of a wizard with his sensor gear. That ability could make a world of difference to the outcome of their mission. Torch assault troops might be the modern analog of Viking berserks, but analogy was not identity. More than three thousand years of civilization had elapsed, after all, since the legendary Ragnarr Loðbrók led his longships across the North Sea to plunder France and the British Isles.

"Two hatches up, on the left," Loren said. "That'll let us into the slave quarters through a storage compartment. It's unoccupied."

****

It also turned out to be very full, almost to the point of being impassable without hauling supplies into the corridor, which would have been too time-consuming.

Not quite. It helped that the battle armor worn by the assault troops made it quite easy to crush whatever cartons, containers and cans needed to be crushed to clear a path.

One of those containers, as it happened, contained some sort of bright purple fruit juice. So it was on a garish note that they emerged into the slave quarters, as if they had camouflaged themselves to blend into a psychedelic landscape.

The compartment they entered was packed almost as full of people as the one they were exiting had been packed with supplies and equipment. The people were plastered against the walls, staring at them with wide-eyed alarm.

Kabweza had been expecting that, so she'd had Sergeant Supakrit X lead the way. As soon as he entered the slave quarters the sergeant opened the faceplate of his armor and stuck his tongue out.

Supakrit X was an escaped slave. His tongue displayed the genetic marker used by Manpower to identify their products. The marker was unique and difficult to duplicate -- impossible, really, if it was examined at close quarters.

Which his marker was, almost immediately. A small young female slave came up to him, quite fearlessly, and pried his mouth further open with her fingers. Supakrit, who was much bigger than she was, leaned over to help her in the project. She gave the marker on his tongue a short but intense examination and then stepped back.

"It's real," she announced. "But they're not Ballroom, I'm pretty sure."

Supakrit straightened up and grinned. "Bunch of maniacs. No, girl, we're from the Royal Torch Army." He hooked a thumb at Commander Damewood. "We're working with the Biological Survey Corps."

Hearing that, one of the older male slaves grinned even more widely than the sergeant. Very few slaves had yet heard of the new former slaves' planet of Torch. But some slaves knew the truth -- some of it, anyway -- about the BSC. Apparently he was one.

The young woman was scowling, however. "Don't call me 'girl.'"

Kabweza moved forward. "Give us a name, then."

"Takahashi Ayako. You can call me Ayako."

The fact that she had a full name and was willing to use it publicly was significant. Manpower did not give names to its slaves. They were raised with the last three or four digits of their slave number serving the purpose. Over time, though, slaves managed to create a society of their own, with adoptive parents who took most youngsters into their shelter. Manpower's managers tolerated the practice, because it served their own purposes. It was simpler and cheaper to have slaves raise the youngsters who came out of the breeding vats instead of Manpower having to do it directly.

But while they tolerated the custom of slave families -- and even made an effort not to break them up if possible -- they did not tolerate the slaves doing so openly. A first name could be used publicly, including one chosen by the slave herself. After all, even animal pets had names. But a slave who used the surname of their parents in public was considered to be a borderline rebel and was likely to be punished.

Apparently, Ayako was such a borderline rebel -- or someone acute enough to have realized almost instantly that Manpower's authority was about to be abrogated.

Despite the Japanese name and the placement of the surname first, Takahashi didn't look the least bit Oriental. Her eyes were hazel, her hair was a sort of redbrick color, and her skin was several shades darker than that of most people from East Asia.

But that wasn't atypical of human beings two thousand years after the diaspora from Earth began -- even leaving aside the way Manpower's gengineers scrambled genetic lineages for their own purposes. One of Kabweza's trainers when she'd been in a Solarian Marines boot camp had been named Bjørn Haraldsson, despite to all outward appearances being of purely African descent.

"Are you here to free us?" asked the man who'd grinned in response to Supakrit X's announcement.

"Yes. But for the moment, we need you to just stay put," said Kabweza. After a very brief pause, she added: "Except for one of you who should come with us. That'll speed up the introduction."

"Me," Takahashi said immediately. "I know everybody. It's because I'm so friendly" -- she gave Supakrit a sharp glance -- "except when people call me 'girl.' Well, and other stuff."

She was an attractive young woman. She'd probably drawn the unwelcome attention of some of the slaver crew if there hadn't been enough pleasure slaves aboard.

Judging from the skeptical expressions on the faces of several of the slaves in the compartment, Takahashi's claim to superb friendliness was not universally shared. But if nothing else, the woman wasn't shy. That ought to be enough. Heavily-armed and very dangerous-looking people who arrive to free people from bondage don't really need much in the way of a friendly introduction, after all.

"Come with us, then." Ayibongwinkosi moved toward the hatch at the opposite end of the compartment. "The rest of you, like I said, just relax. This will all be over pretty soon."

****

Kabweza's progress was slow. Not only was the compartment packed with people, but the same armor that had made it so easy to plow through containers required her to move carefully here. It would be easy to crush flesh and even break bones without hardly noticing.

Once at the hatch, she waited for Damewood to come up. Loren fiddled with his equipment for a few seconds. What exactly was he doing? Ayibongwinkosi didn't know and wasn't about to ask.

Click. The sound of the locks drawing back was quite audible.

"Slobs," muttered Damewood.

The likelihood that the slight sound had alerted anyone on the other side of the hatch was low. Still, Kabweza passed through the hatch by rolling and coming to a crouch, her flechette gun covering the area.

Clear. Still in a crouch, she swiveled the other way.

The corridor was clear there also.

She gestured, waving the rest forward.

Takahashi was the last one to emerge. "Which way to the crew quarters?" the lieutenant colonel asked her softly. "Do you know?"

Ayako nodded and pointed in the direction Kabweza had first covered. "That way."

"Are you sure?"

The young woman got a pinched look on her face. "Yes," she said curtly. "I'm sure."

Ayibongwinkosi didn't inquire further. She nodded to Supakrit X and he took point.
*
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Re: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Dec 24, 2013 9:09 pm

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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 01

Chapter 4

The labor tech units started arriving in ten minutes. The slaves shuffled into the compartment, their heads down and their eyes on the floor. Two of the slave ship's crew members herded them along with deactivated -- for the moment -- neural whips. The slavers were rather lackadaisical about it, though; clearly they weren't expecting any sort of trouble. The people being channeled through the compartment were genetic slaves who'd been born, bred and shaped by bondage. They had learned long ago that resistance simply led to suffering.

The expressions on their faces weren't so much despairing as simply blank. Despair was an emotion, after all -- and Manpower's slaves discovered as children that emotions were dangerous to such as they. Those looks made Nancy furious, but she let no sign of her anger show on her own face.

After the first batch of slaves passed through the compartment, a green light on the box started flashing. While they'd been waiting for the slaves to arrive, Anderson and Tsang had programmed the box to record the right number of slaves for one chip.

"Go ahead," said Nancy. Gingerly, the Ramathibodi's captain reached into the box and removed one of the chips.

One chip only -- and she was careful to lift that one out with just her thumb and forefinger. If the box sensed that more chips were being removed than had been properly accounted for, the lid would slam down and make sure the chips stayed inside -- along with the hand that held them.

****

When the slaves arrived at the open hatch that led into the rest of the Station, the two guards from the Ramathibodi relinquished control to three people from Parmley Station's contingent. Two of them were equipped with the same neural whips; the third was outfitted as a medical technician. She was there to give each arriving slave an examination to make sure no defectives were being pawned off on them.

She went about the business in a quick, almost perfunctory manner, giving each slave a scan with the medical detection device in her hand before they passed into the personnel tube beyond. The device would catch anything obvious, like a contagious disease or late-stage cancer.

It wouldn't spot more subtle problems, but those weren't of much concern. The sort of medical chicanery involved in passing off immediately defective units as healthy slaves was avoided in the slave trade as bad business. Contrary to the popular saw there is no honor among thieves, illegal or extra-legal transactions actually required a more punctilious attention to dealing in good faith -- for the good and simple reason that no recourse to the courts was possible in the event of a dispute. That meant that such disputes were usually settled violently, which made everyone involved stay away from petty chiseling.

The other reason the medical technician didn't pay much attention was even simpler. Given the nature of Manpower's production methods, it was a given that a high percentage of their slaves would have some long-term medical problems. The sort of radical genetic engineering that created such slaves often produced unwanted side-effects. A slave bred for great strength might have a severe blood pressure problem, for instance, or be prone to renal failure.

As a rule the lifespan of genetic slaves was shorter than that of most humans, even leaving aside the fact that such slaves were almost never given prolong to extend their lifespan. According to the Bible, The days of our years are threescore years and ten. Manpower, Inc., perhaps not wishing to seem presumptuously equal to the Lord, figured fifty or sixty years was plenty good enough for their products.

Once the medtech nodded her approval, each slave passed through the hatch into the personnel tube leading to their new quarters aboard Parmley Station. The two guards waiting inside shepherded them along. More precisely, lounged against the walls and occasionally waved them along in as perfunctory a manner as the medtech did her duties. They weren't worried about rebellion. The slaves knew perfectly well that a station like this one would have the same forced evacuation mechanisms that all slave ships did. If they rebelled successfully here in the compartments and corridors, someone in the inaccessible control room would just push a button and they'd all be expelled into vacuum.

****

Lt. Colonel Ayibongwinkosi Kabweza and her team passed a total of eight hatches along the way before they finally arrived at a hatch that Ayako told them led into the crew's quarters. According to Ayako, at least six of the compartments they'd passed held slaves.

If she was disturbed by the fact that Kabweza made no effort to open those hatches and free the slaves therein, she gave no sign of it. She seemed quite intelligent; enough, probably, to realize that freeing slaves for the sake of it before the ship was secured would be counter-productive.

"This is it," she whispered, touching the hatch with a forefinger. "It'll be locked."

Damewood sneered -- an expression which was wasted, because of the faceplate.

His fingers worked at his device. Less than five seconds later, he stepped back from the hatch.

"At least this one got some maintenance." He motioned Kabweza and her team forward with a hand gesture at the same time as the hatch started opening.

It was gorilla time now. A hatch sliding aside couldn't be broken off its hinges, of course, but the lieutenant colonel did as good an imitation of smashing down a door as was possible under the circumstances.

The compartment she found herself in was small; empty; not more than five meters long -- just an entry tube. There were open hatches to the right and left at the end opposite the one she'd entered. Through the auditory-enhancement that was built into her armored skinsuit, she could hear the sound of voices coming from the hatch on the left.

Two seconds later she was passing through that hatch, her flechette gun at the ready.

Three members of the slave ship's crew were sitting at a table in a small mess hall, playing cards. Shocked by her sudden appearance, the two who were facing her -- one male; one female -- stared at her open-mouthed. The man sitting with his back toward her was starting to turn in his seat.

Colonel Anderson had made it clear she wanted live slavers for questioning. One of the Torch soldiers in the section, Private Mary Kyllonen, was armed with an old-fashioned stun gun for precisely that reason. But since Kabweza hadn't known what they would be facing when they broke into the crew's quarters, she'd left Kyllonen in the rear -- and there was no time now to bring her forward before the slavers sounded the alarm.

A bit disgruntled by the silly business of taking prisoners but obedient to orders, Kabweza fired at the lower legs of the man sitting in front of her. The shot shredded the limbs below the knees so badly that they'd have to be amputated. But with quick care he'd survive and he didn't need legs to talk.

She strode forward two paces and drove the table into the wall behind it with a powerful thrust of her foot, crushing the female crew member between them. That broke a number of the woman's ribs, one or more of which were almost certainly driven into her lungs. She gasped but made no other sound. Quick care, again; she'd survive; and she could talk in a whisper for a while.
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Re: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Fri Dec 27, 2013 7:43 pm

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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 02

Almost simultaneously, the lieutenant colonel slammed the butt of her weapon into the forehead of the third and final crew member. She tried to keep the impact light enough to simply stun the man, but…

That was hard to do, wearing an armored skinsuit in combat. She was pretty sure she'd broken his skull. He might survive, he might not -- but Colonel Anderson seemed like a sensible commander, even if she was occasionally given to foolish whimsy. She had enough experience to understand the realities of close quarters assault.

The whole thing hadn't taken more than a few seconds. Best of all, it had been done fairly quietly. The flechette gun's knife-edged projectiles moved at high subsonic velocities, without the betraying cracking sound of a pulse rifle's supersonic darts. The man she'd shot in the legs had screamed in agony, but not for more than two seconds. Private Kyllonen had come in right behind Kabweza and silenced him with the stun gun. Neither of the other crew members had been able to call out a warning and the rest of the noises were muffled enough that there was a good chance they hadn't alerted anyone else in the ship. Even that one short scream probably hadn't done more than cause someone in the bridge to be puzzled. A brief sound, no matter how loud, tends to be dismissed if it isn't followed by anything else.

Kabweza didn't care much anyway. She was already passing through a hatch at the far end of the mess, with her section closely following. This really wasn't going to take long.

****

Nancy Anderson's com unit buzzed softly. She held up a finger, indicating to the Ramathibodi's captain that she needed a moment to take the call.

"Yes, what is it?" Her tone was mildly annoyed.

"Sorry to bother you, Chief, but I thought you should know that the Hali Sowle seems to be returning to the Station."

Nancy had the unit on loudspeaker, so Captain Tsang could hear both sides of the exchange.

"Oh, good grief. What does that maniac want now?"

"I have no idea, Chief. They haven't sent any messages yet. And I may have misread their change of course, although I can't think of anything else they'd be doing except coming back here."

"All right. She probably just wants to yell at us some more, but just to be on the safe side get the point defense units ready. The laser clusters'll be more than enough to deal with that piece of crap."

She thumbed off the com. "That's probably overkill," she said to Tsang. "I doubt if that tub has any military hardware worth talking about. Still, we may as well play it safe. The Hali Sowle's skipper really isn't playing with a full deck."

Tsang grinned. "Better she's your headache than mine." She glanced down at the device in her hand. "Unless you've come up with a different reading than I have, all the labor techs we're selling have been accounted for. You're paid up, except for one more chip."

"I concur." Anderson nodded toward the open box, which was again showing the green light.. "Go ahead and take it out."

Tsang did so. "All right, that business is done. What do you want to do next? Dicker over the pleasure units or deal with the heavy labor ones?"

The message about the Hali Sowle's return had been a code. Parmley Station's control center had gotten a very brief encrypted signal from Loren Damewood, notifying them that Kabweza's team was inside the slave ship and had started their assault. Things would start moving very quickly now.

"Let's handle the pleasure units first," said Anderson. The moment they brought out the BSC people posing as Manpower pleasure slaves, Tsang and her people would get distracted and let their guard down a little further.

"Okay with me."

****

One of the members of the section stayed behind in the mess hall to tend to the prisoners. Kabweza didn't really need the whole unit for the assault itself. There wasn't room for them anyway, in the cramped quarters they were passing through. She'd rather keep the XO and his special gear and skills with her than leave him behind to carry out simple medical tasks.

And they were simple. All that was needed was to keep the three prisoners alive. In good health was a moot point, and consciousness would have been a nuisance.

Corporal Bohuslav Hernandez started by applying automatic tourniquets to the mangled legs of the man Kabweza had shot, since he was the one whose injuries most needed immediate attention. He then examined the woman with the half-crushed chest and the man who'd been struck on the head.

He decided the woman would be able to breathe well enough if she were sedated. He injected her with a drug that wouldn't paralyze her or render her completely unconscious but would leave her unable to act or think coherently, much less call out any warnings to anyone else.

He was tempted to do the same with the unconscious man, but he wasn't sure of the extent of the damage done to his brain. From the feel of it, he thought the man's skull was broken.

Hernandez decided it was best to leave well enough alone. There was no chance the man would regain consciousness before the action was all over and any warning he might make would be a moot point.

****

Takahashi Ayako had stayed with the section, since they were still in a part of the ship she was familiar with. When they got to the next closed hatch, the freed slave made agitated motions with her hands.

That's the crew quarters, she mouthed silently.

Kabweza nodded. Like Loren's earlier sneer, the gesture was not really visible because of the shielded faceplate. But it didn't matter. Damewood had read Ayako's lips also, and was already working at his special equipment.

Over-riding the security on internal hatches was child's play for someone like Loren. After a few seconds, he held up a hand, all his fingers open. Then, quickly, closed his fist and opened them again. The signal indicated that he was about to open the hatch.

Kabweza took half a step back. Behind her, so did the other remaining members of her section. Takahashi scuttled aside.

The hatch started sliding open. Kabweza went in and --

Nothing. The corridor was empty. To the left, three hatches -- all of them open -- led into sleeping compartments. None of them were occupied. All of them were unkempt and messy.

When Ayako came into the corridor, she looked at one of the compartments and the pinched look came back to her face. Quickly, she looked away.

"Where to now?" Ayibongwinkosi asked softly, the volume on her helmet speaker turned down very low.

Takahashi looked uncertain and made a little shrug. "I'm not really sure," she whispered. "This…" She paused and took a little breath. "This is as far as I ever… that they took me."

She pointed to a closed hatch at the very end of the corridor. "But from things they said, I think that leads into their headquarters. The 'bridge,' is that right?"

"Okay. You stay here. The rest of you, follow me."

Takahashi shuddered slightly. "I don't want to stay here. I really don't."

Ayibongwinkosi hesitated a moment. Then: "Come with us, then. But stay behind and don't get in the way."

Five seconds later, she and her section were ready at the hatch. The XO started working his magic again.
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Re: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Dec 29, 2013 9:59 pm

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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 03

****

Hearing some small noises behind her, Nancy turned her head and saw that two of her people were at the hatch on her side of the cargo bay. One of them said: "We've got 'em here, boss."

Anderson turned back to the Ramathibodi's captain. "Okay, we're ready to start negotiating over the pleasure units. You can transfer the credit chips, if you're so inclined."

Tsang gestured at one of her subordinates to take the small bag of credit chips they'd already acquired for the labor techs onto their own ship.

"Not that we don't trust you or anything," Tsang said to Nancy. "Still, it's like the old song goes: 'better safe than sorry.'"

"An ancient saw on Old Earth said it better. 'Good fences make good neighbors.'"

Anderson and Tsang exchanged slightly derisive smiles. The derision wasn't aimed at each other so much as at the universe in general. Slave traders have an outlook on life that a fanciful poet -- or literary critic, more like -- might call expansively ironic.

This sort of dickering in stages was common in their business. Indeed, it was considered politesse for the purchasing party to allow the seller to periodically move their newly-acquired funds to a safe place before proceeding.

Once the Ramathibodi's crewman with the bag of credit chips had left, Anderson made a motion to her own people to bring the pleasure units onto the cargo bay.

There were three of them, one female and two males. All three, as one would expect, were exceedingly attractive. Unlike most slaves, they didn't keep their eyes down and their gaze on the floor. Their gazes were level, just… vacant.

Tsang smiled and rubbed her hands together. "Well, now!"

****

When the crewman carrying the bag of credit chips arrived on the bridge -- sauntered onto the bridge, it would be better to say -- his first words were:

"Hey, guys, look at this! We did better than… what the fuck?"

****

Showing a surprisingly limited lexicon for people whom a literary critic might call expansively ironic, Captain Tsang used the same words when Anderson and her two people suddenly drew their side-arms. Simultaneously, the tri-barrel mounted on a bulkhead in the cargo bay swiveled to bring its deadly muzzles to bear on the Ramathibodi's contingent. And -- a final insult -- the three pleasure units drew tiny pistols from who-knows-where on their scantily-clad persons.

"What the fuck?"

****

In the end, they captured all but two of the slavers alive.

The man whose skull had been bashed by Kabweza died eighteen hours later without ever regaining consciousness. Anderson made no criticism, though. Given the difficulty of the task and the training of Torch assault troops, having only one fatality was a minor miracle.

The lieutenant colonel was less philosophical about the matter. "I'll never live this down," she predicted.

"Don't be so hard on yourself, Ayi," said Anderson soothingly. "One fatality isn't bad."

"It's better than nothing," Kabweza replied. "But I'm still going to be the butt of everyone's jokes when the rest of our people find out. Kindergarten playgrounds have more dangerous so-called 'assault troops' than we turned out to be."

****

The death of the second slaver could not be placed at the feet of the assault troops, unless you wanted to accuse them of negligent homicide -- which Anderson didn't even consider, once the circumstances were explained to her.

When the section left the mess hall, Takahashi Ayako picked up a kitchen knife that was lying on a counter. It was just a paring knife, having a blade no more than nine centimeters long. One of the assault troops spotted her doing it, but his only reaction was amusement.

"Hey, look, I just thought she was cute," Sergeant Supakrit X later explained to the battalion commander. "There she was, surrounded by apes armed to the teeth and armored to boot, but she still insisted on getting a weapon herself. If you can call a glorified toothpick a weapon."

"Cute," said Kabweza, looking disgusted.

Supakrit X made a face. "Look, Chief, I'm sorry. I misjudged."

"Cute," Kabweza repeated. "Glorified toothpick."

****

The four slavers on the bridge had surrendered as soon as Kabweza and her soldiers burst in. None of them had been armed except the com officer, Ondøej Montoya, whom Captain Tsang had left in charge while she went aboard Parmley Station. And Montoya's sidearm -- in a holster with the flap closed -- would have been useless against the heavily armed assault troops' armor.

After they surrendered, Kabweza ordered all four slavers to stand against one of the bulkheads, leaning far forward and forced to support their weight on their hands. That rendered them not quite as helpless as if they'd been handcuffed, but Torch assault troops didn't carry restraining gear because they weren't usually given sappy, sentimental orders to take prisoners.

Still, they were pretty helpless. Takahashi obviously thought so. No sooner had the four slavers assumed the position than the freed slave screeched pure fury, raced forward and stabbed one of them in the kidney with her little paring knife.

The wound was not fatal. Given modern medicine, it wasn't even very serious. But the shock and pain was enough to cause the slaver to jerk back, whereupon he tripped over Takahashi and the two of them went down -- the large slaver on top of the small slave.

Ironically, he'd have done better if their positions had been reversed. If Ayako had been on top, she would have stabbed him with full force; very dramatically, her hand rising above her head before she drove down the blade. She would have cut him up quite nicely, but the assault troops would probably have hauled her off before she could have done any lethal damage.

As it was, with her underneath, Kabweza and her people couldn't get to her. And since she was now driven by necessity she eschewed any dramatic stabbing and just pushed the blade as far as she could into the closest target, which happened to be the man's left eyeball.

Nine centimeters is not very long -- but the skull of a human male isn't much more than twenty centimeters across in the long axis from front to back. Driven by the sort of rage possessed by Takahashi Ayako, the blade went almost halfway into the slaver's brain. And then, shrieking and cursing, she twisted and drove the blade back and forth and up and down.

It took the Torch soldiers no more than four or five seconds to get the slaver rolled over and haul Takahashi off him, but by then she'd pretty well transformed a third of his frontal lobes into hash. The autopsy 'bot later reported that she'd carved up part of the limbic system as well.

Modern medicine is not actually miraculous, although the term is often used. For all practical purposes, the man was gone before any aid could be given him.

Or as now-corporal Supakrit X put it with great satisfaction over the troops' evening meal, "I'm telling you, that fucker was dead-dead-dead."

He wasn't especially upset by his lowly new rank. For one thing, he knew his demotion had been mostly done as a matter of principle, rather than because Kabweza was really mad at him. He figured he'd get his rank back soon enough.

Besides, the way he looked at it, he'd been busted in a good cause. It wasn't like getting demoted for being drunk and disorderly.

"And I still say she's cute," he added. "Although you'd really want to be on your best behavior on a date."
*
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Re: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Wed Jan 01, 2014 12:27 am

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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 04

Chapter 5

"I'd miss Steph," Andrew Artlett protested. "Just for starters. Then there's the lousy pay."

Princess Ruth Winton frowned. "Lousy pay? You're being offered almost half again what you're making here on Torch -- and you're getting top rate for starship mechanics." After a brief pause -- very brief; Ruth hated admitting to a lack of complete expertise on any subject -- she added: "So I'm told, anyway."

"Well, yeah. But going back to Parmley Station to work on this project is risky as all hell." Stoutly: "I should be getting hazard pay. That's generally figured as a hundred percent pay increase. Double-time, that is."

There were so many fallacies and lapses of logic in those statements that the Manticoran princess was rendered almost speechless.

Almost. Speechlessness was a state of affairs that was probably impossible for Ruth Winton.

"What? That's insane! Every single sentence you just said is blithering nonsense."

She began counting off her fingers. "First off, there's nothing at all risky for you in this deal. Your aunt Elfride, maybe --"

"Don't call her that to her face," Andrew cautioned. "She answers to Ganny. Or Ganny El, if she likes you."

"I have met the woman. I was just being formal. Seeing as how this is supposed to be an employment interview." Ruth looked simultaneously cross and a bit embarrassed. "Of sorts," she added.

"'Employment interview'!" Artlett said mockingly. "Oh, yeah. I can see it in the want ads now." He mimicked holding up a reading tablet. "'Wanted. Damn fool mechanic for desperado duties aiding and abetting Audubon Ballroom sociopaths --"

He glanced at the huge figure of Hugh Arai, who was lounging in a nearby armchair in the princess' suite. (Ruth called it a working office, but that was the obliviousness to luxury of someone born and raised in Mount Royal Palace in Manticore's capital city of Landing. It was a no-fooling suite, on the top floor of the finest hotel in Beacon.)

"Meaning no offense, Hugh, I'm just saying it like it is." Arai smiled at him.

Andrew resumed pretending to read a want ad: "-- and Beowulfan cold-blooded killers masquerading as biologists -- "

Again he glanced at Arai. "Meaning no offense. Just telling it like it is." The smile became a grin.

Back to the imaginary want ad: " -- for the purpose of hunting down any and all practitioners of the slave trade, which individuals are noted -- no, notorious -- throughout the inhabited portions of the galaxy for their cruelty and depraved indifference to human life, including that of starship mechanics."

Triumphantly, he set down the imaginary tablet. "Ha!"

Ruth had waited for him to finish. Impatiently, because she was impatient with silliness by nature. But she'd still waited. She knew Artlett well enough by now to know there was no point in trying to derail him when he was hell-bent on riding his broad (broad? say better, oceanically expansive) sense of humor to the end of the track.

"If we might return to reality for a moment," she said, "your duties will keep you on Parmley Station most of the time. A construct that is not only one of the largest space-going installations within light years of its solar system but is by now almost as heavily armed as an orbital fortress."

Hugh shook his head. "Bit of an exaggeration, Ruth. The defenses and armaments on Parmley Station aren't designed to fight off a battle fleet."

Andrew started to say something, probably along the lines of claiming that Arai was supporting him, but Hugh's deep voice rode over him easily. "But they'll squash any pirates or slavers who show up as easily as swatting an insect."

He gave Artlett a beady gaze: "As you know perfectly well, since you were paid to be a consultant when we designed those defenses."

"Still." Andrew was nothing if not stubborn. He waved his hand in a gesture that might mean… pretty much anything. "Pirates. Slavers. Dangerous people, no matter how you slice it."

He decided to fall back onto more sensible grounds. "And like I said, I'd miss Steph."

Ruth pounced. "Why is that? I just talked to her this morning and she seemed quite amenable to relocating to Parmley Station."

Andrew stared at her. "She… But -- she told me -- it was just a few weeks ago!"

Ruth waved her hand airily. "That was then, this is now. She's had time since to gauge the real possibilities at either place. Here, on Torch, it seems like everybody and their grandmother is setting up a restaurant. The competition is brutal. The hours, long; the income…" The princess made a face, as if she had any idea of the harsh realities of trying to run a small restaurant.

Which, of course, she didn't. But Ruth Winton never let petty details like her own ignorance get in the way of a good argument. She pressed on.

"Whereas on Parmley Station -- " The royal expression became positively beatific, as she contemplated the commercial advantages of opening a restaurant there.

"It's a busted enterprise," jeered Artlett. "A pipe dream on the part of my great-uncle Michael Parmley -- a screwball if there ever was one -- who poured a fortune into building the galaxy's most derelict orbital amusement park."

"That was then, this is now," interjected Hugh Arai. "As you know perfectly well, Andrew." He leaned forward. "Today, it's on the verge of becoming Beowulf's central hub for covert operations against Mesa and Manpower."

"The best clientele you could ask for!" Ruth said enthusiastically. "Beefy commando types. They eat like horses and tip like the upper crust."

Most of that was pretty accurate. Not all covert operations people were beefy; but they did tend to eat a lot. That was a combination of a usually high-powered metabolism with near-constant physical training.

The analogy to the tipping habits of upper crust gamblers was wide of the mark, though. Wealthy people actually tended to be on the cheapskate side when it came to things like tipping. And charity, for that matter. It had been a constant for millennia that people of average means gave a higher percentage of their income to charitable causes than rich people -- especially when you factored into the equation the end beneficiaries. Average people gave to those poorer than they. Rich people usually donated their money to cultural institutions -- museums, universities and opera houses, for instance -- of which they or their children were major personal beneficiaries. And then named them after themselves.

There were exceptions, of course, and those individuals could be spectacular in their largesse. The Winton dynasty had a long tradition of being very generous, especially for medical causes. Ruth's misapprehension was the understandable product of her own personal experience.

But while the analogy was off, the reality remained. Covert ops people did tend to tip generously -- and Andrew knew it, from having spent a lot of time in their company over the past period.

He ran fingers through his hair, in a gesture of exasperation. "Damn it, she was the one who insisted on coming here in the first place. I would have been perfectly happy to stay on Parmley Station. Women!"

Ruth had her own opinion -- well-formed; cured; tempered; hardened; sharp on all edges and corners -- as to which of the two human genders was actually prone to flightiness, inconstancy and indecision. Shakespeare's greatest play wasn't about a princess of Denmark, now was it?

But she saw no reason to squabble over the matter, since Artlett was now clearly on the verge of capitulating to logic and reason.

"All right, then," he said. "I'll go. If it's okay with Steph."

****

After Andrew left the suite, Hugh cleared his throat. "I noticed that you left out some particulars."

"I wouldn't call them 'particulars.' Speculative possibilities is closer to the mark."

Arai shook his head. "You're quibbling and you know it. What you're calling 'speculative possibilities' are part of the established plans for using the Hali Sowle."

"Established by whom?" Ruth countered. "Ganny El still hasn't agreed -- and if she doesn't, the whole deal collapses."

"I know you didn't learn to lie, cheat and steal at Mount Royal Palace. So where does it come from, this brazen shamelessness? This cunning deftness at misdirection and maneuver? This dazzling expertise at deceit and deception?"

"You might be surprised at what goes on in the corridors and back rooms of Mount Royal Palace, Hugh. But, no, I didn't learn the skills there. No more than the rudiments, anyway."

She sniffed. "Where do you think? I've been studying for the past three years at Zilwicki and Cachat University."

Hugh chuckled. "Point. Speaking of which, do you think they're really responsible for the slaughter on Mesa?"

"I assume you're referring to the claim being spread by Manpower through the Solarian media that they set off the nuclear explosion at Green Pines. If so, the answer is 'no.' It's clear they didn't do it. We'll get the full story from them when they arrive here."

Word had come from Sharon Justice, one of Haven's representatives on Erewhon, that Zilwicki and Cachat had arrived at Parmley Station a few weeks earlier. But her message had contained no other information beyond the bare fact that they were alive.

Arai leaned back in his chair and clasped his fingers over his belly. "Explain your reasoning." His tone wasn't argumentative, just interested.

"Hell, Hugh, it's obvious." She leaned forward in her own chair, sliding almost to the edge of it. Ruth was not capable of thinking or expounding anything in a relaxed position. Within less than a minute, Hugh knew from experience, she'd have risen from the chair and started pacing.

"For starters, if they were going to set off that large an explosion, why pick that target?"

"Well, according to the news reports --"

"Oh, please!" Ruth got to her feet. Hugh glanced at his watch. Seven seconds.

"That silly business about Green Pines being a residential center for the Mesan elite? Every other apartment in the complex inhabited by a Manpower big shot? That's why it was targeted?"

By the time she finished, she'd taken five steps one way and was now reversing direction. Long steps, too; Ruth was a strider.
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Re: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Jan 02, 2014 9:45 pm

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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 05

"I don't doubt that a lot of important managerial people lived there. But you know how incredibly tough modern construction can make buildings, Hugh -- especially when they're intended for the use of the powerful and wealthy."

She threw up her hands, without breaking stride. "Are we supposed to believe that Anton Zilwicki was incompetent as well as murderous? For Pete's sake, the man used to be in charge of building entire orbital stations. If there was anyone in the galaxy who'd know in precise detail just how ineffective such a bomb would be on such a target, planted in such a way -- "

She finally stopped, leaning forward with her hands on her hands. "Whoever did it set that thing off in the open." She threw up her hands again. "In a stupid park. Most of the force of the blast would have been completely wasted! Unless your goal was to vaporize kiddies and puppies and -- and -- whatever else they had there. Miniature sailboats in the miniature lake, whatever."

Hugh winced. Ruth could sometimes get so swallowed up in her calculations that she'd blurt out the most insensitive and callous things without even thinking about it.

She pulled out her minicomp. "Let me show you something."

At that moment, the door to the suite opened and two young women came in. The one in front, much smaller than the one following her, immediately made a beeline toward Hugh and, with no ceremony of any kind, plumped herself on his lap.

The woman in the rear smiled and closed the door.

Ruth frowned at the lap-sitter. "In the long, illustrious -- and very well-recorded -- annals of royalty throughout the galaxy, Berry, no ruling queen I know of has ever just plopped herself on her consort's lap in public."

Berry Zilwicki curled her lip. The gesture was rather ineffective, since sneering did not come naturally to her.

"He's not my 'consort,' first of all. He's my boyfriend. And how is this 'in public'? You and Thandi are my two best friends, even leaving aside her formal status as head of the armed forces and yours as assistant chief spook."

Ruth was not fazed. "There are four people in this room. That defines 'in public' whenever royalty is engaged in pre-fornication. Which you so obviously are."

Berry kissed Hugh in a manner that left little doubt that Ruth's assessment was accurate. When she was finished, she gave the Manticoran princess as regal a look as she could manage. Which wasn't much; Berry looked down her nose about as poorly as she sneered.

Hugh cleared his throat again. "Speaking of which, Ruth and I were just discussing the chief spook when you walked in."

Torch's "chief spook" was Anton Zilwicki, Berry's adoptive father. Her expression immediately sobered.

So did Thandi Palane's, although the big woman's expression was usually pretty stern. Being born and raised on one of the Mfecane worlds didn't lead to carefree and happy-go-lucky personalities.

"Specifically," said Ruth, "I was explaining to him -- since he pretended to be an ignoramus on matters of interstellar politics, which he most certainly isn't even if he does look like a Sasquatch -- that there was no way -- "

"Hey!" Berry protested. "Don't call my boyfriend a Bigfoot!"

She and Ruth both studied the appendages in question for a moment, which was easy to do since Hugh had one of them propped up on a small ottoman.

"I rest my case," said Ruth.

"Well… Okay, he has big feet. That doesn't mean he's abominable."

Arai made a shooing gesture with his hand. "Just keep going, Ruth."

"Yeah, I'd like to hear it myself," said Thandi, who perched herself on the armrest of a nearby divan. The piece of furniture was sturdily built, fortunately. Palane wasn't built along the purely massive lines of Arai, who'd been bred by Manpower to be a heavy labor slave, but she was tall, muscular, and weighed well over a hundred kilos.

"As I was saying to Hugh when you walked in" -- Ruth began pacing again -- "or about to show him, rather…"

She fiddled with her minicomp until she found what she wanted, glanced around the room for the location of the wallscreen, and brought the image up on what had seemed until the instant before to be a huge landscape called Bernese Alps by an ancient painter named… Ambrose Bierce, maybe. She couldn't remember. Ruth wasn't much interested in primitive art.

The wallscreen didn't really fill an entire wall -- not even close, given the size of the suite -- but it still measured about three meters across by a little over half that in height. The image now displayed on it was pretty spectacular -- and far more grim.

"That is what the immediate surrounding area of Nouveau Paris looked like after Oscar Saint-Just set off the nuclear explosion that ended McQueen's rebellion. Notice that all of the surrounding towers are still intact? Battered pretty badly, sure -- but they're still there. That's how hard it is to take down a modern ceramacrete tower. Keep in mind that detonation was in the megaton range. The bomb that was set off in Green Pines was piddly, in comparison. Somewhere around fifty kilotons."

"What's your point?" asked Berry.

"The point is that neither your father nor Victor Cachat are so incompetent that they'd use a bomb that way. If they did decide to strike that kind of blow at the Mesan elite, they'd do it differently. My guess is that they'd figure out a way to smuggle the bomb into the building with the highest number of big shots and set it off inside. The ceramacrete shell would then contain the force of the blast and concentrate its effectiveness. And while that would still kill a lot of bystanders, it would have a much better big-shot-to-kiddies-and-puppies kill ratio."

Hugh winced again. Berry scowled. "My father would not do that."

Ruth shook her head. "No, he wouldn't. I was just trying to show that even if you leave personal psychology out of the equation, that bomb was not set off by your father and Victor."

"Victor wouldn't agree to it, either," said Thandi mildly.

"I agree," said Ruth. She paused for a moment. "It took me a long time to get over the cold-blooded way Victor let my security team get gunned down. But eventually I realized… I don't know how to put it, exactly…"

"He can be completely ruthless toward anyone he considers a combatant," Thandi said, "and Victor's definition of 'combatant' can be pretty wide. That's how he would have seen your people, especially since at the time they were at war with Haven. But there's no way he'd ever put children in that category. And in the end, Victor's ruthlessness always has a purpose -- to defend those whom he sees as weak and helpless against those who are mighty."

She shrugged. "Like any soldier he'll accept the fact that in war there's bound to be collateral damage. Except he wouldn't use that term because he despises it. He'd call them innocent victims. And there's no way he'd deliberately use innocent victims as the mechanism for striking down his enemies -- which is what they'd be, in that scenario."

Ruth studied the image on the wallscreen for a few more seconds before she switched it off. Oscar Saint-Just had been the man who trained Victor, sure enough, and the two men had a lot in common. But that commonality ended at a certain point. If anyone ever put together a visual track record of Cachat's life, there'd never be a scene like that in it.

The wallscreen reverted back to resembling a painting again. Not the same one, though. The program automatically switched the image every twelve hours and whenever someone overrode it manually. Ruth hadn't bothered to change the program because it was all pretty much the same to her. If she remembered right, this new image was another ancient painting called Water Lilies by… Claude Money. Something like that.

There was silence in the room, for a few seconds. Then Berry sighed and said softly, "I just want to see him again. And Victor too. They should be here any day. I was so happy to find out they were still alive."

There had been a time, less than two years ago, when Ruth would have been delighted to discover that Victor Cachat had shuffled off this mortal coil. But it seemed like ancient history now.

"So am I," she said. "So am I."

There was a buzz at the door. "Open," said Ruth.

One of Torch's intelligence officers came in, a man in his fifties by the name of Shai-gwun Metterling. Unlike most immigrants, he had no genetic connection to Manpower at all, neither personally nor anywhere in his heritage. He'd come to Torch because of his political convictions.

In and of itself, that wasn't all that unusual. By Ruth's rough count, there were at least twenty thousand people who'd immigrated and taken Torch citizenship since the new star nation was created who'd done so purely out of idealism. What was unusual, and had immediately caught Ruth's attention, was Metterling's background. Most such immigrants tended to have skills and training that weren't all that immediately useful. There were two hundred philosophers in the mix, twice that many poets, well over a thousand musicians -- and a sad dearth of engineers and doctors.

Metterling, on the other hand, had been a colonel in the Andermanni Navy's intelligence service. A well-regarded and decorated one, too, not someone who'd been cashiered. Ruth had checked, very carefully, worried that he might be a double agent. But Metterling had come through her scrutiny with flying colors.

"What's up, Shai-gwun?" she asked.

Metterling gave Thandi a glance that seemed a bit apprehensive. "We just got word from Cachat and Zilw -- ah, your father, Your Majesty." That last was said to Berry.

Who practically sprang off of Hugh's lap. "They're here!"

Again, that quick glance at Palane -- and it was no longer a "bit" apprehensive. "Ah. Well, no. It seems they decided to go straight to Haven."

Thandi rose from the arm rest and stood straight up. "And aren't going to -- didn't -- stop here on the way?" she demanded.

"Ah. Well, General Palane… Ah. No."

"I'll kill him," Thandi predicted.
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Re: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Jan 05, 2014 9:10 pm

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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 06

Chapter 6

"We haven't done that in a while," said Yuri Radamacher. His voice was barely louder than a murmur, with complex undertones that conveyed satiety, exhaustion, smug self-satisfaction, bemused wonder at capabilities thought lost forever, and, most of all -- the saving grace that would keep him from ridicule or possible bodily harm -- full of affection for the person lying next to him.

Who, for her part, slapped him playfully on his bare midriff. That produced a meaty sound. Yuri was not exactly fat, but he was in no danger of being blown away by a gust of wind, either.

"Don't sound so pleased with yourself," she said. "Of course we haven't done that in a while. We haven't seen each other in… what's it been, now? More than a T-year."

"Three hundred and ninety-six standard days. God, I've missed you."

Sharon Justice rolled onto her side and propped her head up on one hand. "I missed you too. But look at the bright side -- for the first time in years, it looks like we'll be able to see each other regularly and for… oh, hell, it could be a long time."

Yuri hesitated, tempted to raise the subject of marriage. Even the Republic of Haven's stringent rules concerning assignments for its officials were subject to relaxation and modification when married couples were involved. But after a moment, he decided to let it slide.

He knew that Sharon was twitchy on the subject. That was not unusual, of course. The whole subject of marriage had gotten very complicated and thorny since the development of prolong. That was especially true for a society like Haven's, which tended to be conservative on social issues despite the often radical character of its politics.

The traditional concept of marriage was that of a union between two people which was expected to last a lifetime. Many did not, of course. Still, even people who got divorced generally viewed the divorce as a failure; an unfortunate and in some sense unnatural outcome.

But the same institution now had to be stretched across lifetimes that were measured in centuries, not decades. And to make things still more complicated, that greatly extended lifespan was characterized through at least eighty percent of its duration as the lifespan of a young person. Only toward the very end of the life of someone on prolong did the aging process and eventual decrepitude start manifesting itself. That stood in stark contrast to the ancient realities of human life, in which the period of vigorous youth was a fairly brief interlude between childhood and middle age.

The traditional institution of marriage was simply not well-suited for these new conditions. Much of its stability had been provided by the "natural" aging process. As a couple grew old together, they came to rely on each other for succor and support as much as intimacy. Prosaic as it might be, sharing aches and pains did a great deal to solidify a marriage; and, on the flip side, worked against any tendencies toward infidelity.

None of that was true any longer. Even the needs and demands of child-raising, traditionally the strongest bond in a marriage, was far less important. People on prolong could bear children throughout most of their now-very-long lives, but very few did so. Most couples would devote a few decades to having and nurturing children, but no more than that. Depending on the specific star nation and its customs, they might do their child-raising early in life or they might -- this was the normal practice in Manticore, Beowulf and the Andermanni Empire -- postpone having children until they were well-established in their careers and in a more solid financial position. But whatever stretch in their long lifespans they chose to devote to child-raising, once that was done they did not usually repeat the process. And in the doing they had only devoted ten percent or less of their lives -- as opposed to the one-third or even one-half of a lifetime that child-bearing and rearing had traditionally occupied.

Under that pressure -- it might be more accurate to say, sudden removal of pressure -- the institution of marriage was undergoing profound and manifold transformations throughout the human-inhabited portions of the galaxy. Those changes had already been underway as a result of medical and technological advances, and prolong drove them even faster. In some adventurous societies -- Beowulf being a prime example -- a dizzying number of variations on marriage had emerged and were being experimented with. But in other, more staid societies, the reaction tended the other way. The lifelong nature of marriage was insisted upon even more firmly -- with the inevitable consequence that fewer and fewer people entered into marriage. Instead, serial cohabitation without formal marriage was becoming the norm; or, at least, the most common pattern.

Even child-bearing and raising was adapting. As had always been the case in matrilineal societies, prolong society had effectively done away with the concept of bastardy. The reasons were different, but the end result was much the same: people in advanced societies who would live for centuries usually had such a deep and widespread safety net -- some of it public, some of it private -- that a single parent or a couple simply didn't require marriage as a practical economic matter. The laws of most star nations did require an official recognition of parenthood, but that was separate from the legal requirements for marriage. That was to protect the children. You might not be formally married to the mother or father of your child, but you were still legally responsible for the children themselves.

All of which was well and good, and Yuri understood the dynamic on an intellectual level. The fact remained that he was a Havenite, not a Beowulfer, and like most people from Haven his basic emotional attitudes were conservative and old-fashioned. The years he'd spent as a State Security officer during the Pierre-Saint Just period compounded the problem. Early on, he'd developed sharp differences with their policies. Given the nature of their regime, he'd had to hide his real opinions and keep an emotional distance from everybody. The end result had been a man who was innately friendly and sociable transformed into a lonely soul.

Dammit, he wanted to get married.

But he was almost certain that Sharon would refuse and he'd learned long ago that if you thought the answer to a question was going to be "no," it was better not to ask the question at all. Once stated openly, "no" tended to get locked in place.

So, partly out of frustration and partly out of a sense of duty, he rose from the bed, put on some clothes and headed for the kitchen. "Want some coffee?"

"Akh!" Sharon rose hurriedly from the bed and grabbed a robe. "Yes -- but I'll make it, thank you very much. You'll break the coffeemaker."

"Don't be silly."

She brushed past him, putting on the robe and moving quickly. "Fine. You'll break the coffee."

"That's ridiculous. You can't -- "

"You can." Sharon started working at the controls of a machine that, to Radamacher's way of thinking, bore a closer resemblance to a computer terminal than a simple device to brew a drink that the human race had been enjoying for millennia. "I love you dearly, Yuri, but you make the worst coffee this side of a Navy mess hall."

"That's where I learned to make coffee in the first place."

"I know." She pushed buttons that did mysterious things. "For years, I had a secret belief that the reason we had such a hard time fighting the Manticorans was because of the Navy's coffee. The deterioration that crap must have produced in the brains of our officers and ratings didn't bear thinking about."

The button-pushing ended with a triumphant glissando of flying fingers. Yuri had no idea what she was doing. Programming the heat death of the universe? It was a coffee maker, for God's sake. What was wrong with letting the gadget's own computer handle the business?

"And since I got here," she continued, "my suspicion has been confirmed. I've talked to any number of Erewhonese who've had Manticoran Navy coffee, and they all swear it's terrific."

Her ritual apparently done, Sharon finished tying up her robe and sat down at the kitchen table. "Oh, stop pouting -- and have a seat, will you? The coffee will take a few minutes."

Yuri was tempted to respond my coffee gets done in no time at all but wisely restrained himself. As a friend who shared his own insouciant attitude toward making coffee had once said, "Gourmets are subtle and quick to anger."

He pulled up a chair and changed the subject. "Speaking of the Erewhonese, I suppose you should bring me up to date. Seeing as how I'm Haven's ambassador to Torch and -- hold your breath, this takes a while -- 'high commissioner and envoy extraordinary' to Erewhon. In the moments I can spare from being your sex toy."

Sharon smiled. "'Sex toy, is it? I'll remember that." The smile was replaced by a slight frown. "I assume the reason you didn't replace Guthrie as the ambassador to Erewhon also is because the Erewhonese made it clear they were not too happy with us."
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