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STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets

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Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Jan 30, 2014 10:38 pm

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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 17

JUNE 1922 Post Diaspora

"When I killed people retail, I was a terrorist. Now that I kill 'em wholesale, I'm a stalwart soldier. Get medals for it and everything."

Sergeant Supakrit X, Royal Torch Marines

Chapter 12

Anton Zilwicki thought that Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou was restraining himself from throwing his hands up in frustration. Or, at least, the Benton-Ramirez y Chou equivalent of such a gesture. That might be no more than an eye-twitch. Jacques served Beowulf as its unofficial -- and well-hidden -- liaison with the Audubon Ballroom. Beyond that, he was a "director at large," a Beowulfan title that corresponded to what most star nations would have called a minister without portfolio.

Beowulfan political customs were sometimes odd, to people not used to them. This was a star system, after all, which named its elite commando unit the "Biological Survey Corps." What made that disorienting to non-Beowulfers -- not to mention a little scary -- was that the name wasn't simply a disguise. There were historical origins for the name; centuries earlier, it had been a surveying outfit. But in some way comprehended only by Beowulfers, they seemed to think that the work done by such people as Hugh Arai still did have something to do with biology.

How so? Anton had no idea. He was a simple highlander from Gryphon. To his way of thinking, the only connection between the work of the BSC and biology was that the activity involved the rupturing -- not to mention maiming, obliterating, rending, terminating; oh, it was a long list -- of organisms and their various organs.

"If only you'd been able to bring back McBryde," said Jacques. He did, however, have the good grace to give Anton and Victor a wry little smile, making it clear that he was not criticizing. Simply… lamenting something that was indeed lamentable.

"Agreed," said Victor. "For our purposes, Herlander Simões is something of an idiot savant. Oh, he's got a huge amount of info about Mesa's 'open' society, but outside of his technical specialties, he's generally obtuse about anything else to do with this 'Alignment' of his. His superiors undoubtedly preferred things that way, and I'm sure McBryde told him as little as possible prior to their decision to defect. True, they were friends. But the formal relationship between the two men was that of a top level security officer handling a known security risk. Out of old habit, if nothing else, McBryde would have kept most things from him."

Eloise Pritchart shifted slightly in her chair. That wasn't due to discomfort. As you'd expect of something made for Manticoran royalty, the chair was state-of-the-art furniture, adjusting instantly to the anatomy and posture of the person sitting in it.

No, it was just that, like the representative from Beowulf at this meeting, she was also frustrated. But, also like Jacques, she had more than enough sense and experience than to suggest there was any blame to be laid at the feet of Zilwicki and Cachat. They'd done astonishingly well in their mission to Mesa. It was hardly their fault that they hadn't been able to produce everything you might possibly desire.

Jack McBryde, the man who could have told them so much, was dead. Dead at his own hand, when he destroyed the Mesan Alignment's Gamma Center as security agents were closing in on him.

The Mesan defector whom Zilwicki and Cachat had managed to bring back, Herlander Simões, was a scientist. He was proving invaluable when it came to uncovering many of Mesa's technical secrets, but he knew very little beyond that.

It might be better to day, he knew very few details. He had, on the other hand, verified enough of what McBryde had passed on to Anton and Victor to provide a general picture of the situation. Three critical points were established:

One. Lurking somewhere within Mesa's government and the corporate hierarchy that dominated the planet -- Manpower's top officials, almost certainly, and there were bound to be other firms involved -- was a shadowy organization known as the Mesan Alignment.

Two. The Alignment was ancient, dating all the way back to the founders of Mesa six centuries earlier. Those people, led by Leonard Detweiler, had been a political faction on Beowulf which had objected to Beowulf's stringent policies concerning manipulation of the human genome. Everyone had thought their disagreement had been satisfied by the creation of Manpower, Inc., and the selective improvement of their own citizens after they emigrated from Beowulf to Mesa. No one had suspected just how much "improvement" they'd incorporated into their own genomes, however, and it now turned out that their purpose had been far broader and deeper than originally thought -- and they had managed to keep it a secret from anyone outside their circle.

Three. The goal of the Mesan Alignment was nothing less than the conquest of the human-occupied galaxy. The conquest might at times manifest itself in more subtle ways than outright and open force, but the end remained the same regardless of the means employed. The Mesan Alignment intended to politically dominate humanity and impose its own views on the proper way to guide and shape the species.

Beyond that, several other points seemed well-established also. First, the Mesan Alignment had developed at least one and probably two space propulsion systems based on new and revolutionary principles. Second, they had used those space drives to launch the savage sneak attack on Manticore known as the Yawata Strike. Third, they had been responsible for a number of assassinations and assassination attempts using some as-yet-unknown method of nanotech-based quasi-mind control, including the murders of Yves Grossclaude, Lieutenant Timothy Meares, Admiral James Webster, Lara Novakhovskaya and almost three hundred other people in the failed assassination attempt on Berry Zilwicki, and Jwei-shwan Anderman, Emperor Gustav Anderman's nephew and second in line for the Andermani throne. There'd almost certainly been others no one yet knew about . . . and then there was the one spectacular failure they all knew about: Honor Alexander-Harrington.

And, fourth, they had been largely responsible for instigating the war between the Republic of Haven and Manticore and keeping it going. It now seemed clear, for instance, that Haven's former Secretary of State Arnold Giancola had been an agent for the Mesan Alignment, given the fact that Yves Grossclaude had been the only man who could have proven that Giancola was responsible for the forged diplomatic correspondence which had sent the two star nations back to war with one another.

These last four points were perhaps not quite as well-established as the first three, but you'd need a sharp knife or a razor blade to split the difference. As far as Anton was concerned, it was the difference between a 99.9% probability and a 99.8% one -- of academic interest even to statisticians.

The silence in the conference room following Victor's statement went on long enough to start becoming uncomfortable. Finally, Empress Elizabeth planted her hands on the large table around which they were all sitting and said:

"Look, there's no point crying over spilt defectors. We just have to make do with what we have. The question now is, what's our next step?"

Anton started to answer that question but Victor spoke first.

"Anton and I need to go back to Mesa and fill in the missing holes."

Which was exactly what Anton had been planning to say. He sat back and waited for the inevitable outburst.

Outbursts, rather. Just about everyone spoke simultaneously.

"That's insane." (President Pritchart)

"Are you insane?" (Empress Elizabeth)

"That seems extraordinarily foolish." (Benjamin Mayhew, Protector of Grayson)

"You've gone mad." (Prime Minister Alexander)

"That's the craziest idea I've heard in…hell, who knows?" (Admiral Givens)

"That's sheer suicide." (CNO Caparelli.)

"Why not just shoot yourself?" (Foreign Secretary Langtry)

Haven's Secretary of War Tom Theisman settled for: "You're nuts."

Interestingly, Hamish Alexander-Harrington started to say something but closed his mouth when he noticed that Honor Alexander-Harrington was keeping silent. In fact, she looked as if she were actually considering the idea.

And -- still more interesting -- Anton saw that Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou had his lips pursed and was glancing around the room in a manner that was almost shifty-eyed.

He knew something. What? Anton had no idea. But it was sure to be… interesting.

Once the hubbub settled down, Anton said: "Victor's right. It needs to be done and we're obviously the best people to do it. And, no, it's not a crazy idea. It'll be dangerous, for sure. Very dangerous. But not suicidal."

"Please explain why you think it wouldn't be," said Harrington. "Disguises won't be enough, not even nanotech body transformations. Not for the two of you. They're bound to obtain samples of your DNA sooner or later. They might even have them already, if you left traces on Mesa."

"I doubt that very much," said Victor. "Even if they picked up some traces of our DNA -- which wouldn't be easy at all, since we weren't careless -- I still don't think there's more than a one-in-ten chance they have any usable records."

"Why is that?" asked Hamish Alexander-Harrington. Like his wife's, his tone was more one of interest and assessment than outright skepticism.

"Because of Jack McBryde," said Anton. He and Victor had discussed this already. More than once. "The blast he set off that destroyed Gamma Center had to have been a shaped nuclear charge. There's no other way to explain the total destruction of the center and the relatively minor damage to everything around it. Which means -- "

Victor picked it up: "That the charge was prepared long beforehand. And since no one person could jury-rig something like that, it had to have been set in place by the Mesan Alignment itself. Which means --"
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Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Feb 02, 2014 10:02 pm

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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 18

"That they've created what amounts to an intelligence bolthole," said Anton. "They've known for some time that they couldn't be sure someone wouldn't attack and overrun Mesa. It's only a one-planet star system and it doesn't have much of a real naval force. So they made sure that, if worse came to worst, they could obliterate any evidence of their own existence."

"And go back to hiding as mere run-of-the-mill corporate monsters," finished Victor.

"The conclusion from that is obvious," said Anton.

There was silence in the room again. Finally, Empress Elizabeth rolled her eyes to the ceiling and said: "Why do I feel like a dimwit?" She brought her gaze back down and bestowed it upon Anton and Victor. It bore more resemblance -- a lot more -- to the gaze of a basilisk than a dimwit, though.

"Explain," she commanded. "The rest of us here are not super-spies. What conclusion is obvious?"

Anton and Victor looked at each other. From subtleties in Victor's expression that Anton was sure no one else in the room could have interpreted, he knew that the Havenite's attitude was: She's your empress, dammit. YOU try to explain it without pissing her off any further.

Anton cleared his throat. "Your Majesty, we learned enough from Jack McBryde to know that he was a key figure in Gamma Center. So key a figure, in fact, that he was able to trigger off the self-destruct mechanism without a partner.."

There came simultaneous grunts from Hamish Alexander, Tom Theisman and CNO Caparelli. Harrington's eyes widened.

"Jesus H. Christ," said Caparelli. "How did we miss that?"

Seeing that the empress' gaze was now entering you-are-all-about-to-be-turned-into-stone territory, Caparelli hurriedly added: "No massive self-destruct program is ever set up to be operable by just one individual, Your Majesty, unless that individual is specifically empowered to do so -- and on his own initiative."

Stone, so help me God. Crumbling year-by-year under the pitiless elements.

Harrington laughed. "Elizabeth, either McBryde had that sort of authority -- which is certainly possible, given this Gamma Center's obvious importance -- or else he'd managed to hack the system in order to steal it for himself. If he did have the authority, he was even more senior than we'd assumed he was, and that almost certainly means he had access to the 'Alignment's' central security systems. Maybe not command authority outside the Gamma Center, but access enough to dump something of his own into them. And if he didn't have that authority and . . . acquired it for himself, he probably had the ability to use whatever access he did have to hack into complete command of their security protocols in general. Well… maybe not complete command, but awfully close."

The basilisk gaze didn't soften, exactly, but the threat level receded a bit. Limestone instead of basalt. "All right. I get that. And what follows is…?"

"What else did he do besides blow up the center?" said Harrington. "What other measures did he take that would have damaged the Alignment's security protocols? If the man was prepared to defect in the first place -- and to kill himself if the defection plan went south -- he was furious. He had to have been. Not boiling over, no. Someone like McBryde would have been cold and controlled. But he was an angry, angry man. Don't think he wasn't. He wouldn't have left this life without hammering the Alignment as hard as he could."

Petrified wood territory. And ebbing fast. Elizabeth settled back in her chair, her own eyes now starting to widen.

Theisman apparently decided the royal ire had lowered enough for it to be safe for a Havenite to chime in. "He would have struck at a lot of things, Your Majesty. One that we know of for sure was Mesa's orbital traffic control. That's why the Hali Sowle was able to leave with no problems. We'll never know everything he did, but it's almost inconceivable -- given the nature of the man's occupation -- that he didn't try to shred the Mesan Alignment's records of its enemies."

"We don't have to guess about that, actually," said Victor. "Herlander told us 'Eggshell' was a code word that indicated McBryde planned to wreak havoc on the Alignment's security, over and above the damage done by destroying Gamma Center." He shrugged. "We don't know -- probably never will -- exactly how much damage he was able to do, and in which specific areas. He'd have been concentrating mostly on their records of the Ballroom, of course. But it'd be far easier to just -- well…" He looked at Zilwicki. "Anton's the expert on these things. Let him explain."

"He wouldn't have tried to isolate out the Alignment's records on the Ballroom, Your Majesty. Why bother with something that complex and finicky? He would have simply targeted all security protocols designed to track enemies. Which, of course --"

"Would include us," said Victor. "That's why I said I don't think it's likely our DNA records still exist on Mesa. If they ever did at all, which I also doubt."

There was silence again. Then Benjamin Mayhew said: "But you can't be sure about any of this."

"No. We can't." Victor shrugged. "Our line of work has its risks, Protector. But the truth is, these odds are better than ones we've faced before."

The empress' gaze was now merely skeptical.

"On occasion," Victor qualified.

"Which occasion?" asked Langtry.

"Victor faced worse odds during the Manpower Incident," said Anton. "Way worse. Of course, he was young and stupid then and didn't understand the difference between risky, dangerous and sheer lunacy."

Anton smiled crookedly. "Even as a youngster, I stayed farther away from that edge than he did. But I do know the difference between risky, dangerous and sheer lunacy, and our proposal is not lunatic. It's just risky."

"Risky as all hell, you mean," said Theisman.

"If you prefer, yes. Most of the risk, though, just comes from the intrinsic nature of the project. Penetrating the Mesan Alignment's security right on Mesa itself is a dangerous proposition whether or not they have our DNA records. But I agree with Victor. I don't think they do."

Throughout the discussion, Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou had remained silent. His expression had seemed a bit detached, in fact, as if he was only paying attention with part of his mind while he mostly considered something else. Now, finally, the Beowulfer spoke.

"It doesn't matter. Even if the Alignment does have Zilwicki and Cachat's DNA records -- anyone's records, for that matter -- there's a way to get around it. Theoretically, at least. It's never been tested under field conditions."

The empress' lips tightened. "And, what, exactly, is 'it'?" Her gaze was re-entering dangerous territory. Soapstone, at least. Maybe pumice. "Is there some reason nobody at this table except me can resist being cryptic?"

Jacques looked a bit rueful. "I wasn't trying to be mysterious, Your Majesty. It's just… this is something Beowulf has had under wraps for almost a year. As in deep, dark secret 'under wraps.' As Special Officer Cachat says, old habits die hard. For me to talk about something like this openly and in plain language is about as unnatural as -- as -- " He puffed out his cheeks, as if he couldn't find a suitable analogy.

The empress gave him a thin smile. "Try real hard."

That produced a little chuckle around the table, shared by Benton-Ramirez y Chou himself. He gave a little shrug, as if were shedding a weight from his shoulders, and started speaking.

"The gist of it is that we've developed -- "

There was a knock on the door to the conference. A real knock, too, not a buzzer or a ringer. Anton guessed that meetings held in this royal inner sanctum were so rarely interrupted that no one had ever bothered to arrange for a way to signal that someone wanted to enter.

Elizabeth frowned. "Come in," she said.

The door opened and a woman came in. Anton recognized her as one of the empress' personal assistants, although he didn't know her name. The woman practically exuded diffidence and hesitation.

"I'm very sorry to interrupt, Your Majesty. But this is a rather unusual --"

The empress waved her hand impatiently. "Just sum it up quickly, Beatriz."

"There's a delegation here from Torch, Your Majesty. Ah, actually, 'delegation' is probably not the right term. It seems like most of the government is here."

Elizabeth's frown vanished, replaced by a look of surprise. "Who, exactly?"

"Queen Berry. Prime Minister DuHavel. Secretary of War -- ah -- X. The commander of the armed forces, General Palane. And your niece, Princess Ruth."

"Dear Lord. Well, show them in, then." The empress examined the conference table and then turned to one of her bodyguards. "We'll need to stretch this a bit. See to it, would you, Lieutenant Tengku?"

The lieutenant pushed a button so discreetly positioned on the wall that Anton hadn't noticed it before. A small control panel slid out and he began working at it. A few seconds later, the conference table began to lengthen -- or rather, the entire space surrounding the table began to lengthen. Anton was eerily reminded of the standard depiction of the expansion of the universe: objects didn't spread through space; rather, space itself expanded.

The room itself didn't seem to be getting any bigger. The floor was somehow expanding without pushing against the walls; and, along with it, the table was expanding and all the chairs (and people) sitting at it were being repositioned to make room for more people. There was almost no sensation of movement involved.

He glanced at Victor to see how he was reacting to Thandi Palane's imminent arrival. The Havenite agent's looked out of focus. Anton had to fight not to burst into laughter.

Being fair to Victor, he was probably looking forward to seeing her more than anything else. Anticipation -- eager anticipation -- would be his dominant emotion, overlying the others.

Fear. Anxiety. Dread. Trepidation. Oh, it was another long list.
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Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
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Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
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Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Feb 04, 2014 10:44 pm

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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 19

Chapter 13

"Some introductions are in order," said Empress Elizabeth, after the delegation from Torch had taken seats at the table. "The young lady sitting at the far end of the table from me is Queen Berry, Anton Zilwicki's daughter. You all know Prime Minister DuHavel, who is sitting next to her -- and my niece Ruth, of course. On the Queen's other side is the commander of Torch's armed forces, General Thandi Palane."

Victor was rather impressed. The queen of Manticore had never met Berry or Thandi before. She must have taken the time to memorize what they looked like from images and videos. There were plenty of monarchs and heads of state in the galaxy who didn't think much beyond breakfast. Manticore's was not one of them.

He wondered if she'd also memorized -- but there were very few images available and even fewer good ones --

Apparently she had. Or she was just guessing right. Elizabeth was now looking at the last member of Torch's delegation.

As was everyone else in the room, and some of them with eyes that were very wide indeed.

"And of course none of us prior to this moment have ever met Torch's Secretary of War. I'm a bit uncertain as to the proper etiquette here. Should we call you 'Mr. X'?"

Jeremy's smile was cheerful. "Oh, goodness! No, no, Your Majesty, a simple 'Jeremy' will do fine."

Everyone continued to stare at him. Him being the galaxy's most notorious terrorist. Or freedom fighter, depending on how you looked at things. But either way, the pronoun was him!

The cheerful smile remained. "Please, everyone, relax. I left my horns and cloven hooves at home. True, I did bring the tail -- but it's only vestigial, I assure you."

That brought a few answering smiles and an outright laugh from Benjamin Mayhew. Grayson's Protector looked around the room, with eyes that were shrewd as well as good-humored.

"If you'll all take the expert testimony of a Grayson," he said, "I'd say Jeremy X falls a long way short of Creation's genuine devils." More softly he added: "There are enough of those to go around -- in places like Mesa, for example -- but there are none of them here. Not today. Not in this room."

Nimitz yawned. Then, bestowed a benign gaze on Jeremy. Then, bleeked his amusement.

Between them, the devout statesman and the insouciant treecat brought relaxation back to the room.

Except on the part of the two Grayson armsmen and the two members of the Queen's Own standing against the walls, needless to say. Those worthies had never once taken their eyes off Jeremy X since he entered the room -- and there seemed no chance they would until he left it.

Other than a quick, amused glance when he'd first sat down, however, Jeremy himself paid them no mind at all.

Once things had settled down, Elizabeth nodded toward Benton-Ramirez y Chou. "Jacques here was just beginning to explain to us a secret project by Beowulf that -- oh."

Honor Alexander-Harrington smiled. "We should perhaps preface that by explaining to our friends from Torch the new proposal advanced by Mr. Zilwicki and Special Officer Cachat."

All eyes swiveled to them. Thandi Palane's face seemed completely blank, as it had since she entered the room. You wouldn't realize she and Victor had ever met before, if you didn't know better. Whatever emotions might be roiling under the surface, she was far too much the professional soldier to let any of it show.

"If you would do the honors, Special Officer Cachat?" Harrington continued.

Quickly, Victor sketched the proposal. He didn't delve into any of the arguments for or against, he just summarized it in a few concise sentences.

When he finished, another (if smaller) outburst filled the room.

"Daddy, you can't!" (Queen Berry)

"You're daft." (Secretary of War Jeremy X)

"That's ridiculous. You wouldn't stand a chance." (Prime Minister DuHavel)

"Are you out of your minds?" (Princess Ruth Winton)

The only contrary note came from Thandi Palane. She said nothing at all. However, one of her eyebrows was now slightly cocked, as if she was mildly intrigued by the idea but was reserving judgment for the moment.

Quick moment.

Berry turned to her and said: "Tell them they can't do it, Thandi. Victor will listen to you even if Daddy doesn't, and Daddy won't go without him."

Palane's eyebrow cocked a little further. "Judging from recent evidence," she said, "Special Officer Cachat pays me no mind at all."

That was said without any heat, just as a simple statement of fact. So might an entomologist describe the behavior of a beetle.

Anton thought Victor might almost have winced, there. Hard to know. When he was of a mind, the Havenite agent had a stone face that put statues to shame.

"Furthermore," Palane continued, still in that same level tone of voice, "I have no authority over either one of them. And finally --"

For the first time, some emotion crept into her voice. A slightly apologetic tone. "It's probably a good idea, Berry. The truth is, neither your father nor Victor is crazy at all. Or if they are, they're crazy like a fox."

"Thandi!"

"Why don't you hear us out, girl?" said Anton to his daughter, a bit gruffly. "This is not a harebrained scheme we came up with in an idle moment. Victor and I have talked this through a lot -- and now it seems the Beowulfers might be able to tip the odds still further in our favor."

Berry crossed her arms over her chest. For a moment, she looked like a stubborn twelve-year-old. Then, perhaps reminding herself of her new august stature and her still-more-august company and surroundings, she took a deep breath and said: "Fine. Go ahead."

****

Anton took a few minutes to explain the proposal in much greater detail than Victor had done. Along the way, various people chimed in to provide their own insights and opinions. When he was finished, he looked at Benton-Ramirez y Chou.

"As you were saying…"

Jacques nodded, and started in. "We've developed a technique to -- I'm using these terms loosely, you understand -- sheathe someone in a coating of fake DNA. 'Fake' in the sense that it's not the DNA of the person being sheathed. It's real DNA, just taken from someone else."

Everyone stared at him. After a moment, Foreign Secretary Langtry tugged his ear and said: "How can you possibly change someone's DNA? I would think that would -- would --"

"She or he would no longer be the same person," said Eloise Pritchart. "At least, I don't think so, although I suppose that might pose an interesting philosophical question."

Jacques shook his head. "No philosophical subtleties are involved. The person's DNA doesn't get altered. What we do is…"

His face got an expression somewhere between a grimace and a rueful smile. "This really isn't as gross as it's going to sound -- doesn't hurt at the time, although it's an uncomfortable adjustment afterward. Essentially, we flay the person's skin and grow another one, using someone's else's DNA."

Berry's expression was pure grimace. "Oh, that's disgusting!"

Anton shrugged. "It's not all that different from what happens in a regeneration of destroyed skin tissue -- although as far as I know there's always enough surviving skin that the injured person's own skin is used."

Jacques nodded. "The tricky part is suppressing auto-immune responses to foreign bodies. That's easy enough to do for most transplants, but the skin is the body's largest organ and the way it interacts with the rest of the body gets awfully complex. There's really no medical use for the technique, since anyone who suffers one hundred percent destruction of their skin tissue is bound to be dead anyway. But eventually it occurred to us that the intelligence uses of the technique might be tremendous if we could perfect it."

Victor's face hadn't been marked by a grimace, as you'd expect. The Havenite agent was perfectly capable of accepting even grotesque consequences if he thought they were warranted. His expression showed only keen interest.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, here," he said. "The gist of what you're saying is that we'd be protected from routine DNA sampling -- hair, flakes of skin, traces of sweat, body oils, that sort of thing. So if someone tried to find out who we were from testing the residues we left on a door button or a railing, they'd be misled. But we wouldn't be protected from targeted examination. If someone tested our blood or swabbed the insides of our mouths, for instance, we'd be exposed."

"That's a pretty accurate summation. I feel obliged to point out that if your supposition that the Alignment has lost your genetic records because of McBryde's actions is correct, you might be worse off if you went to Mesa with this genetic sheathe I'm describing."

"Yes, I understand that," said Victor. "If we got seriously tested after they'd already picked up routine samples, we'd show two different DNA results. That would set off alarm bells even if they didn't suspect anything beforehand."

He looked at Anton. "I still think it'd be worth it."

Anton nodded. "So do I. The only reason they'd take mouth swabs or blood samples is if they were already suspicious. Mesa isn't exactly a dictatorship -- not, at least, for its own citizens -- but it's a far cry from a state that respects legal procedures if they think anything important is at stake. If we're that far in the hole, they'll be trampling right over us anyway."

"What's most important about the sheathe," Victor said, "isn't the fact that it hides our true identities. If we're right, they don't have those anyway. The real advantage is that it would enable us to assume false identities -- entirely false ones, I mean. Am I right about that?"
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Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Feb 06, 2014 10:19 pm

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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 20

Jacques looked puzzled. "I'm not sure -- Oh." His face cleared up. "I see what you're getting at. Even if Mesa doesn't have your DNA records -- as individuals, that is -- they do know your personal history. Enough of it, anyway."

"Which means," said Anton, "that they'd be on high alert for any routine samples that showed the individuals were from either Haven -- more specifically, Nouveau Paris -- or Gryphon's highlands. Neither of those genetic strains is as distinct as something like" -- he nodded toward Princess Ruth -- "Masadan origin or" -- now he glanced at Thandi -- "Mfecane origin. But it's distinctive enough that they'd probably be able to spot it even from routine sampling."

"There's no 'probably' about it," said Benton-Ramirez y Chou. "The Alignment's biological skills are as good as those of us Beowulfers, for the most part, and better in some areas. They'd spot someone from Haven or Gryphon, you can be sure of it. Especially someone from Nouveau Paris or the highlands, because their methods are more than good enough for that sort of detail."

Victor's smile had little humor in it. "Precisely. So we go in sheathed as" -- he looked at Zilwicki -- "what strikes your fancy, Anton?"

"I've always had a yen to be a filthy-rich oligarch from one of the Verge territories, unrestrained by any code or scruple."

Jeremy grinned. "Perhaps from Hakim?"

"Just the thing." The Hakim System was notorious even by Verge standards for the behavior of its upper classes. And it was very far away from either Manticore or Haven. "And how about you, Victor? An effete snot from one of the Core planets, do you think?"

Across the table, Thandi Palane smiled -- with no more humor than Victor had. "A dilettante news reporter, too rich to actually have to work at it but with delusions of journalistic grandeur. From the Hirochi system, perhaps. That was mostly settled by people from east Asia, so you'd be fairly removed from the usual Havenite genome."

Berry stared at her, aghast. "You're encouraging them!"

Palane's smile became gentler. "It's a good idea, Berry. We do need to find out more about the Alignment -- and it's a simple fact that Victor and Anton are the best people to do the job."

Victor's gaze seemed slightly out of focus. "We could… use some help, though."

Anton understood what he meant immediately. Well… within a second, anyway. It was a little disturbing, the way his mind seemed able to track Cachat's so well.

But it was a great idea. "That'd be just about perfect!" He smiled broadly at Thandi. "Our very own one-person wrecking crew."

"You have got to be kidding," said Thandi.

"No, actually, I'm not," said Anton. He nodded toward Cachat. "And for sure and certain he isn't."

Honor Alexander-Harrington spoke up for the first time since the Torch delegation entered the room. "If I'm not mistaken, they're proposing that General Palane accompany the mission to Mesa. Special Officer Cachat and Mr. Zilwicki are proposing it, at least. The general herself seems to have some reservations, of course."

Berry stared at her, mouth open. Then, stared at her father. Her mouth still open.

"I can see several advantages to the idea myself," Alexander-Harrington went on. "On the other hand, I also see one big drawback -- the fact that General Palane is in command of Torch's armed forces. It'd be like sending Admiral Caparelli here on an intelligence mission."

"That analogy is a bit forced, Duchess Harrington," said Jeremy X. "For two reasons. The first is that the so-called 'armed forces' of Torch bear a lot more resemblance to a work-in-progress -- small work in progress -- than they do to anything either you or the Republic of Haven would call a real military. General Palane has set underway a training program for ground troops that's going quite well, I think, but she has good subordinates and they could do without her for a time. That's especially true for the navy, for which her background and experience really aren't of much use."

He gave Thandi an apologetic little smile. "Meaning no offense."

She shrugged. "None taken. The truth is, Duchess Harrington, I let Captain Petersen do pretty much what he wants. He knows far more than I do about how to put together a navy from what amounts to scratch."

Harrington nodded. "Yes, I know Anton. He's a superb officer. It depends mostly on how long you'd be gone. A few months wouldn't be any particular problem. Your armed forces need that much time for training before you'd be able to launch any major operations anyway. But once you do start to engage the enemy…"

"For that, you need a real commander-in-chief," said Thandi. "On the spot and taking responsibility. Yes, I understand."

She now looked at Victor and Anton. "So, what's your estimate?"

"Three months," said Victor. "Maybe four. No more than five."

Anton pursed his lips. "Always the cheerful optimist. I agree we'll need at least three months. But I'd extend the outer limit to six."

"No longer?" asked Theisman.

"The situation is too fluid, and moving rapidly," said Anton.

"If we can't find what we need within half a year," added Victor, "it'll most likely be a moot point anyway. Which is part of the reason we'd like General Palane to come on the mission. Things are likely to get… ah, hectic."

Theisman now looked at Palane. "And exactly how would you make such a big difference, if I might ask?"

Palane looked uncomfortable. "This is a little awkward. Ah…"

"What the general is having a hard time coming right out with," said Victor, "is that there are no more than a few dozen people in the universe who are her equal when it comes to hands-on personal violence, and no more than a handful who surpass her." His tone was flat, almost harsh. "I can testify to that personally. Having her come along would be roughly equivalent to bringing a squad of Marines with us. Anybody's Marines, take your pick."

"Half a platoon, more like," said Anton. "There's a reason that Luis Roszak -- who is nobody's fool, believe me -- personally selected her for his staff despite her total lack of the usual connections. The same reason that lots of people on Torch call her Great Kaja. That nickname originated with former Scrags and it translates more-or-less as 'the Galaxy's scariest she-wolf."

He glanced at Caparelli. "Meaning no offense, but however capable your CNO is at his normal line of work, I wouldn't trade a hundred of him for Palane where we'll be going."

Caparelli chuckled. "No offense taken." He gave Thandi a look that was a lot more interested than the casual one he'd given her when she first came in. "Are they right, General Palane? And to hell with false modesty."

"Yes," she said tersely. "They are."

While this exchange had been going on, Alexander-Harrington had been studying Palane. There was something very intense about that scrutiny, Anton thought. He wasn't sure what it was, exactly, but he suspected the duchess was beginning to shape some sort of plan.

For what? He could only guess -- and his first guess was that Harrington had been struck by the same notion that had already come to him and Victor.

A war with the Mesan Alignment was now inevitable -- in fact, it had already started. Sooner or later, Mesa was going to have to be conquered and occupied. Who, then, should be the occupying troops? Of a planet shaped by centuries of harsh slavery, and with a population more than two-thirds of which was made up of slaves or their disenfranchised descendants?

Torch didn't begin to have the military force needed for such an occupation, of course. But most of the occupation troops could be provided by other star nations. What Torch could provide would be a cadre of specialists, in essence -- people who would understand the attitudes of the majority of Mesa's population and could serve as trusted liaisons between them and the occupying forces.

Having a Torch commander-in-chief who was familiar with the situation on the ground in Mesa due to a personal reconnaissance might prove to be invaluable, in that event. And if the Seccies and slaves of a liberated Torch later learned that that same commander-in-chief had personally risked her life scouting their homeworld in preparation for its liberation . . . .

Anton's own scrutiny of Harrington must have been intense also. Intense enough that she turned to look at him directly, almost as if she possessed some sort of telepathic ability.

Which was absurd. She wasn't a treecat, after all.

"I can think of some other reasons it would be a good idea for General Palane to go along on the expedition," Alexander-Harrington said. "Especially… Let's just say I'd like to have an assessment of Mesa -- from being there on the ground herself, not from reports -- coming from someone with her experience and abilities. That could prove very useful, down the road a bit."

She couldn't be telepathic, damnation. It just wasn't in the human genome.

Was it?

The personal com on Harrington's wrist must have given her a vibration, because she suddenly looked at it.

"A reminder from my staff," she said. The slight smile on her face indicated that she hadn't really needed the reminder but was appreciative of having attentive subordinates.

Turning to the Empress of Manticore, she said: "It's time Admiral Theisman and I were getting out to Imperator. It's always remotely possible Admiral Filareta will actually get here on schedule, after all."
*
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
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Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Feb 09, 2014 10:27 pm

DrakBibliophile
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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 21

Chapter 14

After the delegation from Torch had all entered the suite assigned to them in Mount Royal Palace, Berry turned to Thandi.

"But…" Her voice was very small. "If you go too, what'll … I mean…"

Palane put an arm around her. "You'll be fine, girlfriend. Your father will need me a lot more than you will. Jeremy isn't really planning any coup d'états, as it turns out."

"Lord, no," said Jeremy, sprawling onto a couch in the suite's central chamber. "I'd be a lamb among lions. The only woman on Torch scarier than the Great Kaja is the damn Queen herself."

Berry gave him a reproving glance. "Am not."

"Are too. The veritable reincarnation of that Russia czarina. Catherine the Great, wasn't it? Except her husband was a squishy fellow -- she had him deposed, if I recall correctly -- whereas our Queen's consort is one of those Beowulfan knee-breakers. Ogres flee at his approach."

In a more serious tone, he added: "I'm really quite satisfied with the way our government's turning out, Berry. Especially you." He cast a colder eye on DuHavel, standing nearby. "I'm not even too disgruntled with our Prime Minister. Wishy-washy though he be, and given to far too many compromises with the establishment."

"We are the establishment, Jeremy," Web said mildly.

"Pah! Only on our own itty-bitty planet. I was speaking of the great behemoths of the galactic establishment."

DuHavel eased himself into a couch at right angles to the one Jeremy was occupying. "In any event, whether or not I am indeed guilty of compromisitis, I think it's all becoming a moot point. Or am I the only one who thinks we're about to be tasked with providing the new anti-Manpower alliance with an occupation force for Mesa? Not all of it, of course. Not even most of it."

Berry stared at him. "Huh?"

Jeremy smiled, very thinly. "I'm reading the tea leaves -- say better, the entrails -- about the same way as you, Web."

Berry now stared at him. "Huh?"

"Same here," chimed in Thandi. She was still on her feet, close to the door, in a parade rest stance. "In fact, I think it's pretty much a done deal."

Berry turned to stare at her. "Huh?"

The door buzzed. Thandi glanced at her watch. "About what I figured." Leaning over slightly, she opened the door.

Victor Cachat came in, followed closely by Anton Zilwicki. A little behind them was Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou.

Thandi and Victor looked at each other, both very stiff-faced. Anton's mouth quirked a little and he said: "You can blame me, Thandi. Victor was all for stopping at Torch first, but --"

"He's lying," said Victor.

"You're lying," said Thandi. Neither one of them looked away from each other.

" -- I insisted that, oh, the hell with it. If the two of you won't accept that perfectly workable attempt to provide everyone with a way to save face, drop it anyway. We're got a mission to organize, not to mention laying plans for an occupation force for Mesa."

Berry scowled. "I hate feeling like the dunce in a crowd. What are you all talking about?"

"If it makes you feel any better, Your Majesty, I'm scrambling to catch up myself," said Jacques, closing the door behind him.

Berry was still grumpy enough to say: "Don't call me 'Your Majesty.' I hate that title." A bit belatedly, she added: "Please."

"You're not at home, Your Majesty," Web said. "He has to and you have to let him."

"What he said," chipped in Jeremy. "Although now that we're here on Manticore we're going to run into a bit of a problem. There's one too many majesties about. So we have to start adding modifiers. That's how they used to do it back in the old days. 'Your Most Christian Majesty,' 'Your Most Catholic Majesty,' that sort of thing."

He looked around the room. "What say you, gentle folk? I propose Her Most Modest Majesty."

Berry sniffed. "Wasn't three minutes ago you said I was the reincarnation of Catherine the Great."

"I was hoping you'd forgotten. All right, then. Her Most Fearsome Majesty."

Whether by conscious intent or not -- and with Jeremy X you never knew; there was usually a method to his whimsy -- his banter had eased some of the personal tension in the room.

Quite a bit, as it turned out. Thandi took three steps over to Victor, seized the back of his head and planted a quick, fierce kiss on his lips. "I forgive you," she said. "Don't do it again."

Then, taking him by the hand, she led him over to another couch where they both sat down. This couch was the third leg of a U-shaped furniture arrangement in the center of the room. They faced Jeremy across a table that had presumably begun life as a coffee table but had long since mutated into a low-slung version of something that belonged in a banquet hall. Web DuHavel sat to their right, on the couch that formed the connecting link to the U.

Berry sat next to Web. He slid over to allow her room in the middle of the couch so that Anton could take a seat on her other side. Jeremy did the same so that Jacques and Ruth could share his couch. The Beowulfer leaned back in a very relaxed manner, something which the high-tech and expensive piece of furniture made easy to do. Ruth, as was her habit, perched on the edge of the seat. The couch put up a fight but she mastered the beast easily enough.

Once everyone was seated -- or half-seated, in the case of Ruth -- Jacques said: "I wasn't actually trying to reassure Her Majesty. I really am trying to catch up. Am I correct in thinking that at least some of you are seriously contemplating using Torch troops as part of an occupying force for Mesa? If so, I suspect my niece is of a like mind."

"And what do you think?" asked Victor.

"I don't know. The idea hadn't even occurred to me before this."

The Havenite agent nodded at Zilwicki. "Anton and I spent a fair amount of time discussing the idea. Since we had plenty of time to spare, while we were drifting around in space. The logic is quite robust."

"Sure is," said Ruth. She started counting off on her fingers. "First, we've got to occupy Mesa. I leave aside for the moment the precise definition of 'we,' but at the very least it'll include the Star Empire, the Republic of Haven, the Kingdom of Torch, and -- this is a bit of a guess, but the odds are long in favor -- Beowulf."

"You can take that as a given also," said Benton-Ramirez y Chou.

"Add to that Erewhon and Maya Sector," said Victor. "Not immediately, but sooner or later it's bound to happen."

Jacques cocked his head at him. "Erewhon, I concur. But are you sure about Maya Sector? Barregos and Roszak are about as devoted to realpolitik as the Andermanni."

"If 'rayal politique' means what I think it means," said Berry, "I think you're misjudging them a little. Luiz Roszak, anyway. I don't know Oravil Barregos."

"It doesn't matter," said Anton. "Cold-blooded self-interest will drive them toward us just as quickly as whatever shreds of idealism they still possess." A bit grudgingly, he added: "Which are some pretty big shreds, at least in the case of Roszak."

"To get back to the point," said Ruth, "once everybody figures out that we have to occupy Mesa sooner or later" -- she held up another finger -- "it won't take them long to realize that sooner is way better than later. That's because --"

Another finger came up. "A big part of this war is the propaganda front. Most people in the Solarian League still don't believe our version of what's happening. The single biggest step we could take to start turning that around is to overrun Mesa. Fast and hard. That way we can -- hopefully -- get access to their own records."

Anton grunted skeptically. "I wouldn't count on that. The very fact that McBryde could do the damage he did indicates the Alignment has contingencies in place to destroy any critical records if they need to."

Ruth looked stubborn, an expression that came rather naturally to her. "Okay, maybe. But there'll still be people who can be interrogated."

"Unless they murder all of them," said Jeremy, "which I wouldn't put past the bastards for a minute."
*
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
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Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Feb 11, 2014 10:48 pm

DrakBibliophile
Admiral

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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 22

"All the more reason for a quick and decisive intervention," said Victor. "And, to come back to where we started, all the more reason for an occupying army that can't be bamboozled by the local authorities. Most of the troops will have to be provided by others, since Torch's army doesn't begin to be large enough. But if Torch provides… what should we call them?"

"Reconnaissance and liaison units," said Thandi.

"Yes, that. We'd be a long ways toward gaining the unstinting allegiance and trust of about two-thirds of the population."

"It's more than that," said Ruth. "Full citizens don't make up more than thirty percent of Mesa's population. About sixty percent are outright slaves, and the remainder are the descendants of slaves who were freed centuries ago when Mesa still allowed manumission."

Jacques pursed his lips. "How many occupying armies in history have ever enjoyed that advantage?"

"None that I know of," said DuHavel. "The closest analog I can think of was the occupation of the southern areas of the United States of America after their civil war. But slaves only constituted a minority of that population."

"The logic is pretty irresistible, I admit -- at least in theory. But in practice…"

"Does Torch have an army that could take on that task?" said Thandi. "That's what you're wondering."

"Yes."

She shrugged. "Right now, no. But we're not all that far away, between the training programs we've got up and running and the fact that people keep volunteering for the military."

"You haven't imposed conscription, I take it?"

"No," said DuHavel.

"Not yet," said Jeremy. He gave the prime minister a sharp glance. "But we will if we need to."

Thandi raised her hand. "Let's not reopen that argument, guys. There's no point it in anyway. If we got a much bigger influx than we're getting already, our training programs would start to collapse. Our cadre is still awfully slender."

"If you're pretty close to having the forces we'd need for that purpose, then Beowulf could make up the difference," said Jacques. "Whatever that might take. The way I see this war shaping up --"

He broke off. "But we're getting way ahead of ourselves. Let's wait and see what happens with Filareta. And then, whatever the outcome, we need to have a full discussion with all the parties involved. Manticore and Haven, especially."

Thandi leaned back. "I agree."

"So do I," said Victor. "So let's move on to the subject that's immediately to hand. What's involved with this new genetic treatment you told us about? And how long would it take?"

"And how many people can you do it for?" asked Anton. "If it's this new, it's still going to be fiendishly expensive."

"Very big and fierce fiends at that," said Jacques, smiling. "But then again, Beowulf is a very big and fiercely rich planet. We can afford as many treatments as are needed, short of an entire battalion. The real question is, how many people do you want for the mission? And who?"

Victor and Anton looked at each other. Then, at Thandi.

"The three of us, obviously," said Zilwicki.

"Yana should come too," said Victor, "if she's willing. She just spent months on Mesa, so she knows the territory."

"She's willing," said Thandi.

"You haven't even seen her since we got back," pointed out Victor. "She's still at Parmley Station.

"She's willing," said Thandi. "Just take my word for it."

"Speaking of Parmley Station…" Anton frowned. "Do you think Steph Turner would be willing to go back to Mesa? None of us know the planet the way she does."

Victor looked skeptical. "I don't know, Anton. I agree she'd be ideal, but…" He shook his head. "I can't see why she'd be willing to take the risk. She's a civilian, push comes to shove."

Jacques looked back and forth between them. "I'm not familiar with the person."

"Steph was the owner of the restaurant on Mesa that I worked at," said Anton. "We made contact with her through the Ballroom. She's not a member of it but she owed them a favor. The reason she came back with us is because the whole thing blew open right in her restaurant. She didn't have any choice. Brought her daughter out too."

"Pay her," said Jeremy. He smiled and pointed at Benton-Ramirez y Chou with a thumb. "Out of Beowulf's treasury. They can afford whatever she wants."

Jacques didn't object. He didn't seem in the least bit concerned about the matter, in fact. "Would money do it?"

Anton and Victor looked at each other again. "Abstractly… probably not," said Victor. "But if we tied it to something she'd really want…"

"Maybe," finished Zilwicki. "We need to figure out what that might be, though. She's already got enough to set up the restaurant she wants."

"Nancy," said Ruth. "Nancy's the key."

Jacques cocked his head. "Nancy is..."

"Steph's daughter. She's on Beowulf at the moment, undergoing prolong treatments. She's fifteen years old. Maybe sixteen, now. In other words --"

"On the eve of all her higher education." Jacques nodded. "And if her mother is a refugee from Mesa with just enough to set up a restaurant… I assume the prolong was paid for by Beowulf, yes?"

Ruth nodded. "So there won't be anything left over. If Steph wants her to go to the best academies…"

She spread her hands. "You know how it is."

Highly advanced planets like Beowulf and Manticore had extensive and well-funded programs to enable students from lower class backgrounds to attend the finest institutions of higher education. Even so, it helped a great deal if the student's family could also provide them with assistance. In the nature of things, bureaucrats assigned to manage finances invariably found reasons that Assiduous Student's Need Alpha was really Lackadaisical Student's Whim Beta, and either refused to pay for it or didn't pay enough. Or simply took months to decide, by which time the need (or whim, if such it was) had passed by.

"It's worth a try," said Victor. "If we want Yana, we'll need to send a courier to Parmley Station anyway. We can ask Steph to come back with her. For reasons unspecified, of course --"

"Dear God, yes," said Jacques, grimacing. "This new technique isn't 'top secret.' It's… Let's just say it's to 'top secret' what a supernova is to 'dynamic.' We have to keep knowledge of it limited to the smallest circle possible."

"Steph'll come, without questioning the reason," said Anton. "She knows we wouldn't ask her if it wasn't important."

"Which brings us back to my original questions," said Victor. "How long does it take and what's involved?"

Jacques looked at him for a moment. "You understand that this new treatment isn't in place of a nanotech physiological transformation? It's added on top of it."

"Yes, obviously. It wouldn't do us much good to have our DNA disguised if we could be recognized from a visual image."

"Oh!" That came from Ruth. "Yukh. I've been through that process. It takes days and it's miserable."

"Really, really miserable," said Berry.

Victor shrugged. "I'm sure it's not that bad."

Berry and Ruth stared at him the way people might stare at a lunatic. Anton couldn't help but laugh.

"Girls, you need to remember the source. Black Victor, remember? Sometime, have him describe to you what StateSec Academy was like under Saint-Just."

"Oh, double-yukh," said Berry. "I remember now. Victor once told me that he had the fourth highest pain threshold ever recorded at that academy. Which begs the question -- which I didn't ask then and I'm sure as hell not asking now -- of how they test that in the first place."

Jacques looked interested. "I'm curious. How do they test that, Mr. Cachat."

"Well, mainly -- "

"Enough," said Thandi. "I don't want to know either. Leaving aside how bad the nanotech treatment is, what's the new one like? And how fast is it?"

"Quicker than you'd think. It's counter-intuitive, but since we're replacing the entire skin we don't need to allow for the usual time lapse for growth. The main thing, really, is just leaving enough time to make sure there aren't any rejections issues. The discomfort's not too bad, either."

"I assume it'll need to be done on Beowulf," said Anton.

"Oh, yes. In fact, there's only one facility in the universe that can do it. At the University of Grendel."

Thandi's expression was close to a scowl. "You let academics be in charge of something that requires this level of security?"

Anton chuckled. He knew Beowulf a lot better than Thandi did. The planet was… unique, in many respects.

"Well, they're Beowulfan academics," said Jacques. "From the Department of Chaotics, to be specific.."

"Department of what?"

"It's a field of study which I believe is only found on Beowulf," Jacques explained.

"Are we gonna have fun or what?" said Anton.
*
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
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Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Feb 13, 2014 9:42 pm

DrakBibliophile
Admiral

Posts: 2117
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 23

Chapter 15

Well, what have we here? Yuri thought to himself, as he and Sharon were ushered into a suite on one of the top floors of the Suds Emporium. The room they entered was probably listed in the hotel's data bank as the living room of a suite; if so, proving yet again that the Erewhonese had a wry sense of humor. A fabled despot of the ancient Orient would have turned green with envy if he'd seen the place. All that was lacking were scantily clad slaves fanning the inhabitants with palm leaves.

And probably the only reason that was lacking was that the rulers of Erewhon had a very well developed sense of security. Slaves could talk -- or scribble, if you cut out their tongues. The gangsters who'd originally settled Erewhon might have solved that problem by simply killing their slaves, but their descendants weren't quite that ruthless.

Not quite. It helped that they had excellent air conditioning.

When they got the summons from Walter Imbesi, Yuri and Sharon had presumed that they'd be meeting with him alone. Instead, the room's inhabitants included the triumvirate who semi-officially ran Erewhon -- Tomas Hall, Alexandra Havlicek and Jack Fuentes -- as well as Imbesi. Walter himself had no even semi-official position in Erewhon's power structure, but for all practical purposes the triumvirate was really a quadrumvirate.

Erewhon's government was not perhaps unique in the galaxy, but it came pretty close. It had a formal government apparatus, complete with a tripartite separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, a written constitution, and a citizens' bill of rights to match the finest democracies anywhere. Then, paralleling all that, was the real fount of authority: an elaborate network of informal -- it might be better to say, semi-formal -- protocols and customs that bound all of the great families of Erewhon into a complex web of alliances and understandings that kept disputes within reasonable bounds.

You wouldn't think such a contradictory-seeming system would work at all, much less be a stable one. But Erewhon had been ruled that way for a long time now, without ever suffering internal strife much worse than scuffles since the conclusion of the bloody civil war between the Nationalists and Conventionalists that had taken place more than three and a half centuries earlier. On two occasions since the victory of the Nationalists in that civil war, the scuffles had begun erupting into deadly violence but they'd been squelched very quickly by the combined power of the rest of the planet's great families.

The setup might have been oppressive for most of the planet's population, except for the fact that all the great families had long ago established the practice of absorbing through adoption anyone showing real talent and promise. One of the effects of that practice, of course, was that the power and influence of the great families themselves was tremendously enhanced. Today, there was almost no one on Erewhon who couldn't consider themselves part of one of the great families, indirectly if not directly. In a very real sense, the entire population had become vested in customs that originated in the social mores of criminals, but had by now acquired a veneer of respectability so hard that no one in the galaxy challenged Erewhon's legitimacy

Over the centuries, the practice had become a social custom so deeply ingrained that Erewhon was one of the very few star nations whose culture had no trace of xenophobia or social exclusivism. That was one of the reasons that Erewhon had been receptive from the beginning to the emergence of a star nation of former genetic slaves right next door to it. (So to speak. Torch was actually about twenty-seven light years from Erewhon. But by the standards of modern space travel, that made them close neighbors.)

The presence of the triumvirate along with Walter Imbesi in the suite was not the most interesting factor, though. What Yuri found most significant was the presence of Luis Rozsak, the commanding officer of Maya Sector's fleet-in-all-but-name and the man who'd defeated the armada sent to destroy Torch. By parties unknown, in the official record, but everyone knew perfectly well the mercenary armada had been hired by Manpower -- or some other and still more inimical forces on Mesa.

There was a man accompanying Rozsak who was also wearing the uniform of the Solarian League Navy. Yuri didn't know him. He'd had no contact yet with Mayan officials. The only reason he recognized Rozsak was because he'd studied Sharon's reports on the man while en route to Erewhon, which had included holopics of him.

Sharon leaned over and whispered in his ear: "That's Lt. Commander Jiri Watanapongse, Rozsak's intelligence specialist. He's very good."

The Erewhonese and Mayans in the suite waited politely for Yuri and Sharon to finish their hurried exchange. Then Alexandra Havlicek rose from her seat and went over to a side table laden with bottles.

"A drink?" she asked, pouring herself one. "This is Centaurian whiskey, which for my money is the best galaxy. But if you're not partial to whiskey…"

She finished pouring her drink and now had a free hand. She gestured with the hand to the rest of the very long and very well-laden side table. "We have pretty much anything you might enjoy."

Sharon leaned over again. "Stay away from the booze, unless you've taken an anti-alcohol -- "

Yuri held up his hand. "Please, I wasn't born yesterday." He knew perfectly well that the Erewhonese -- for a certainty -- had all taken anti-alcohol preventatives, and the Mayan had likely done the same. He hadn't bothered to do so himself before coming here because he wasn't fond of alcoholic beverages to begin with. He'd always found that abstention worked better than any chemical measures.

He didn't bother to whisper, either. Seeing that he was following that tactical route -- we're all adults here, with no reason to play silly games -- Sharon shrugged and headed for the side table.

She had taken anti-alcohol preventatives. Unlike Yuri, Sharon enjoyed her liquor. Enjoyed it enough, in fact, that she used a semi-permanent subcutaneous delivery system instead of the usual pills. That enabled her to fine tune the dosage to allow her to get a slight buzz -- without which she claimed booze wasn't booze -- but nothing strong enough to affect her reasoning powers.

"I've never had Turnerian whiskey, but I've heard about it for years," she said to Havlicek. "How do you recommend it? Neat? On the rocks?"

"Oh, you can't dilute it with ice. If you really insist on chilling your liquor, then at least use -- "

"Neat it is, then. Would you do me the honors?"

She and Havlicek exchanged smiles. The sort that had been exchanged between conspirators from time immemorial. Fellow spies, fellow sports fans, fellow drug addicts…

While Havlicek poured Sharon a glass of the whiskey, Yuri took a seat next to Watanapongse. "What are you having?" he asked, looking at the small but expensive-looking metal pot on the low table in front of the captain. There was a diminutive cup next to the pot holding some sort of very dark liquid.

"It's a type of coffee we make on Maya. If you trace it back far enough it'd have been called 'Turkish coffee,' but I don't know how much it resembles its ancestor. I've visited Terra twice, but never got a chance to try the real stuff."

It looked very strong and very bitter. Yuri decided it was just what he needed for the upcoming ordeal.

"I'll have one, then. Where -- "

"I'll get it for you. It'll just take a bit." Watanapongse rose smoothly from his armchair and headed toward a different side table. This one, Yuri saw, had what looking like coffee-making equipment on it. Or at least equipment whose ancestors had once made coffee. From what he could tell at the distance, this equipment might also be able to navigate through hyperspace.

Ordeal… wasn't quite the right word. Everyone would be exceedingly pleasant, he was sure of that. However battered the Republic of Haven might have been in the last stretch of the war with Manticore, it was still one of the galaxy's great military powers -- far, far more powerful than either Erewhon or Maya, or even both combined. Erewhon was now an ally of the Republic, however strained that alliance might be in some respects, and he was almost certain that Maya was seeking to join that alliance. Or, at least, develop an informal relationship with Haven that came very close.
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Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Feb 16, 2014 10:45 pm

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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 24

The big problem with this upcoming discussion, from Yuri's point of view, was that he knew damn good and well that within five minutes he'd be out of his pay grade; within fifteen minutes, he'd be way out of his pay grade; and within half an hour his pay grade would be an invisible microbe whimpering in the dust somewhere far, far below.

What was worse -- oh, so very, very worse -- was that he probably wouldn't be able to wriggle out of the situation by pointing to that selfsame oh-so-very-very-modest pay grade. The Erewhonese didn't think in those terms. The Mayans probably did, as a rule, but Yuri was pretty sure they were going to be pitching the rules here.

And what was absolutely certain was that Yuri and Sharon weren't going to be able to claim that their superiors kept them on too tight of a leash for them to be able to say or agree to much of anything.

Alas, their immediate superior -- for Sharon, officially; and if not Yuri, it amounted to much the same in practice -- was a certain Victor Cachat. That is to say, the person who more than any other human alive today paid no attention whatsoever to pay grades. His own, least of all.

The first and most ancient law for all government officials like Yuri Radamacher -- bureaucrats, to call them by their right name -- was Cover Your Ass.

But how do you cover your ass when you're trying to cover it from the likes of Victor Cachat? The only way to do it was to satisfy him that you did your best -- that is to say, your very very very best -- to take advantage of every opportunity that came your way.

Such as the opportunity to expand an alliance against the galaxy's largest and most powerful star nation and its most vicious and cunning cabal -- respectively, the Solarian League and the Mesan Alignment -- by bringing in Erewhon and Maya Sector.

If Cachat were sitting in this very seat at this very moment, waiting for Captain Watanapongse to return with a pot of coffee -- and the Mayan officer was even now headed back this way -- would he be whining and pissing and moaning to himself that he was way above his pay grade?

Ha. The murderous brutal sociopathic reptilian callous son-of-a-bitch would be licking his chops, that's what. Because he was dead sure and certain that he was a supremely competent murderous brutal sociopathic etc., etc., etc.

Watanapongse set down the pot and cup. Yuri poured the one into the other and took a careful sip.

Then, sighed.

"Good, isn't it?" asked the Mayan intelligence officer.

Yuri sighed again. That seemed easier, simpler and safer than saying anything. And within five minutes --

Jack Fuentes cleared his throat. "Thank you both for coming. The reason we asked for this meeting -- "

No, two minutes. Easier and simpler and safer were terms that would be as foreign to Yuri Radamacher as words written in ancient Sumerian.

He wondered if the ancient Sumerians had had a term for "pay grade."

Probably. He knew they'd had executioners.

****

"Oh, come on, Yuri. That wasn't so bad." Sharon climbed into the capsule whose hatch Yuri was holding open for her. The system of mass transport the Erewhonese had chosen for their capital city was a variant of the vacuum transport method. It was fast and efficient, but it required the use of smaller vehicles than either of them were used to. Climbing into the capsules was easier if someone gave you a bit of assistance.

Once Sharon was in place, Yuri slid into the seat behind her, spoke their destination and pressed the button indicating that the coupling was finished. The capsules could be linked in a chain as long as sixty capsules, but they were so small in diameter that two people could not sit next to each other unless one of them was an infant.

Sffffttttt. The joined capsules sped off. The arrangement made conversations a bit difficult, though.

"Admit it!" Sharon said. She started to turn her head until she remembered that she could pull up a virtual screen that would allow her to look at Yuri directly.

"Admit it," she repeated, after the screen came up.

For a moment, Yuri was tempted to claim that the awkward seating arrangement made it hard for him to get his thoughts in order. But the moment --

Sttttfffff. A chime announced they'd arrived.

-- was brief. It really was a fast and efficient system.

"Okay," he said, after they climbed out. "It wasn't as bad as I thought it'd be. Mind you!" He held up a cautionary finger. "That's not saying a lot. I'm told that root canals weren't as bad as they were thought to be. But they were still pretty bad."

Sharon rolled her eyes. "Nobody's had a root canal in… hell, what is it? Two millennia? Outside of planets that were lost and cast back into medievalism, anyway." She took Yuri by the arm and led him toward the exit. "You're just being grumpy because you think it's an art form at which you're a maestro."

Her tone was cheerful. "And speaking of maestros, I think you did damn well today, myself. For a measly high commissioner and envoy extraordinary."

They passed out into the open. The sunlight was bright -- and also quite cheering, even if the color was a little off to them. Erewhon's star was a K5, smaller and dimmer than Haven's or La Martine's, which were both G stars. To Yuri and Sharon, everything seemed to have a slightly orange cast.

There was a bit of a breeze, too, to make the day still more enjoyable. Despite his grim determination to find wrack and ruin all about, Yuri couldn't help but feel his spirits picking up.

Sharon, who knew him well, jumped onto the moment with heavy boots.

"Look at all the bright spots," she said. "First -- there's no doubt about this -- the Erewhonese and the Mayans have finally decided they can trust each other."

"Sure. Gangsters and traitors are natural bosom buddies."

"Second, it's just as obvious -- they didn't come right out and say it, of course -- that they're going to be integrating their military forces all the way down the line, not just having Erewhon serve as Maya's workshop. That has the potential to turn two third-rate powers into one that swings some real weight."

"Just what the galaxy needs. Another Machiavelli in the game."

"Stop it, Yuri. You know just as well as I do how important that could wind up being, if the Solarian League collapses -- which we both think it will, and not even that far in the future."

Yuri made a face. He didn't disagree with anything Sharon was saying. It was just that…

They'd reached the entrance to their apartment building. He gave Sharon a warning look. As long as they'd been moving and talking out in the open, the scrambling equipment they both carried would have made it impossible for anyone to overhear their conversation or even read their lips. And once they entered their apartment, the much more powerful and sophisticated equipment there made it possible for them to speak openly again. The danger was in this transition zone. Someone could have planted surveillance gear in the vicinity which their portable scramblers couldn't handle, and they were still too far away for the stationary equipment in their apartment to protect them.

Of course, it was a warning that Sharon didn't need at all, as her answering glare made clear. It was admittedly a little silly for him to caution a former StateSec officer on security issues.

Neither of them said anything further until they'd reached the apartment and the door had closed behind them. Then, after a quick glance at the monitors to make sure the scramblers were operating, Sharon crossed her arms and gave Yuri a level stare.

"Okay, get it out of your system. 'It was just that….' What, Yuri?"

He took a deep breath. "Why me? Why do I have to be the one trying to thread the needle between encouraging them -- yes, I agree; of course I agree; if they can pull off this alliance we'll all be in a better position -- and not coming right out and committing Haven to anything because I don't have the goddam authority to do it in the first place."

She smiled and patted his cheek. "Because you're so good at it. That's why Victor made sure you got the assignment."
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Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Feb 18, 2014 10:56 pm

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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 25

Chapter 16

"I think you're all insane, of course," Honor Alexander-Harrington said with one of her crooked smiles as she sat back in her chair with her wineglass and looked at her mostly rather-less-than-reputable dinner guests. Neither of her spouses had been able to join them, and the nature of those guests -- and their plans -- had restricted her potential invitation list in rather draconian fashion. The table before them bore the remnants of a generous meal, and James MacGuiness made the circuit refreshing coffee cups for the coffee drinkers who had not yet transitioned to something stronger. Those coffee drinkers included Victor Cachat (not surprisingly for those who knew him) and Yana Tretiakovna, who claimed to prefer a caffeine buzz to alcohol.

"If you thought it was a bad idea, you should've said so at the time," her Uncle Jacques replied. "And if we're going to talk about insane ideas, I could think of a few of yours over the years which were even better qualified for that particular adjective."

"Well, of course you can! You don't think I'd venture an opinion like that without having a meterstick of my own to base it on, did you? Besides, I do come by my genome honestly, you know, and if memory serves there's been a . . . less than fully rational action plan from both sides of the family tree upon occasion. I remember stories Daddy told me about one of my uncles, for example. Back when he was a captain in the BSC, I believe."

"If you'll pardon my saying so, Your Grace," Thandi Palane said a bit dryly, "I doubt most of your uncle's follies could outshine the one you pulled at a place called Cerberus."

"Or the one at a dinner party I can call to mind," Benjamin Mayhew said even more dryly. The Protector of Grayson and his wives were the only members of the dinner party which kept her guest list from being totally disreputable, in Honor's opinion.

"Details. Details!" Honor waved her wineglass dismissively. "Besides, I already admitted I needed a meterstick of my own. And I never said it was a bad idea, either. I just said that the whole lot of our fearless agents" -- the wineglass gestured at Thandi, Victor Cachat, Anton Zilwicki, and Yana Tretiakovna -- "have fairly tangential contact with rationality." Her smile faded. "And probably a little more in the way of guts than is good for them."

"While I hate to disabuse you of your obviously inflated notion of my bravery quotient, Your Grace," Zilwicki said, "I intend to emulate an Old Earth mouse to the very best of my ability once we're on-planet."

"Of course you do," Catherine Montaigne said sarcastically. "I've noticed what a shy and retiring type you are."

"Actually," Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou said rather more seriously, "he's not that far wrong." Montaigne looked at her old friend incredulously, and the Beowulfer shrugged. "There are lots of different ways to be as unobtrusive as possible, Catherine. One of the most effective is to be something else entirely as obtrusively as you possibly can. Which is exactly what our friends here are proposing to be, when you come down to it."

"Doesn't mean we won't have to be careful when we go about our nefarious activities," Zilwicki agreed. "But the principle's one every stage magician understands perfectly. We'll be so busy waving our public personas under everyone's noses that no one's going to be wondering what we might have hidden behind the curtain."

"That's all well and good," Honor said in a much more serious tone. "And, for what it's worth, I agree with you. But something nobody's been talking about very much is that for this Alignment to have operated so long without anyone's spotting it, even on Beowulf, it has to be very, very good at covert operations of its own . . . including penetration of other people's security. That 'sleeper agent' your people found on Torch is one example of how far they're prepared to go, and if McBryde was right about their having buried genetic 'sleepers' all over the galaxy, how confident can we really be that they haven't penetrated the BSC itself?"

"Much as it pains me to admit it, we can't be," Benton-Ramirez y Chou replied, more than a bit sourly. "Obviously, we've had to rethink everything we thought we knew about Mesa in light of the information Victor and Anton -- and Yana -- brought home. I have a few ideas about how we might look for those 'genetic sleepers' of yours using gene scans, but nobody's worried much about that particular form of security screening in the past. On the other hand, we've always been pretty fanatical about compartmentalizing information and operating on a 'need to know' basis. To be honest, that's one reason I was so uncomfortable bringing this new genetic sheathing technology into the light of day even under these circumstances. It's certainly not impossible that the Alignment's caught a hint of the R&D on it, or even -- although I think it's very unlikely -- infiltrated some of its 'sleepers' into the R&D program itself. But I guarantee you that anyone who's involved with it is going to find himself under the most intense scrutiny of his entire life as soon as we get home. And I don't see how they could have prepared a cover that's going to stand up to our newest counterintelligence types."

He took a stalk of celery from the plate in front of him and offered it to the cream and gray treecat in the high chair beside him. Bark Chewer's Bane accepted it with a pleased "Bleek!" and began chewing happily. The Blue Mountain Dancing Clan scout was Benton-Ramirez y Chou's newly assigned bodyguard, and he and Honor's uncle were settling into a comfortable working relationship. It wasn't the same as an adoption bond, as Bark Chewer's Bane's retention of his treecat name indicated, but it was the sort of relationship which was going to become increasingly common as the 'cats integrated themselves more and more thoroughly into human society.

"As soon as BCB and I get home," Benton-Ramirez y Chou went on, his expression amused as Honor rolled her eyes at the acronym he'd adopted for his new partner, "he and some of his friends and I will be personally interviewing every member of the team working on this project. Between us, I'm pretty sure we'll be able to uncover anyone with divided loyalties. After that, we'll be working our way through as much of our entire security structure as we can." He grimaced. "Obviously, we're going to be limited by time constraints and the number of 'cats available to us, so we're not going to get very far beyond the 'management' echelons for quite some time, but we'll pay special attention to plugging any leaks in our more sensitive programs. Especially this one. And if we find one" -- the last amusement faded from his expression and his eyes were grim -- "we'll plug it very, very thoroughly indeed."

"That sounds like a good idea to me," Cachat observed.

"And to me," Yana agreed even more firmly. The ex-scrag had hit it off surprisingly well with their hostess. Personally, Benton-Ramirez y Chou thought that was at least partly because of how much she had in common with Nimitz. However "reformed" she and her fellow Amazons might have become since falling under Thandi Palane's influence, there was still a lot of predator in them, and especially in Yana.

"I hope this won't seem too dreadfully ignorant of me," Catherine Mayhew said, "and I know that the . . . enmity between Beowulf and Mesa's been around a long, long time, but it seems even deeper and more, well, personal than I'd thought it was. I haven't had the opportunity to sit in on all the intelligence briefings Benjamin has, and unlike him, no one was sending any mere women off to Old Earth for their college educations when it would've done me any good. But why in Tester's name could anyone be so filled with determination or hatred or whatever it is as to spend six hundred years planning something like this?" She shook her head. "I'm not questioning any of the information Mister Zilwicki and Mister Cachat brought back from Mesa. I'm just trying to wrap my mind around it and understand."

"That's going to be a big part of the problem when we start trying to prove any of this to the Sollies, Cat," Honor said soberly. "The League would be prepared enough to see this as more anti-Mesan panic mongering on the part of Manticore and Haven, based on our obvious, corrupt imperialism -- now that we've taken our masks off, that's clearly the only reason we've been so fanatical about enforcing the Cherwell Conventions for so long! -- but including Beowulf's going to make it even easier for their propagandists to attack the entire idea. Everybody knows Beowulfers've been lunatics on anything to do with Mesa for centuries, after all. And on the face of it, it does sound pretty absurd."

"I didn't mean to say that," Catherine began, but Benton-Ramirez y Chou interrupted her.

"Honor didn't mean to suggest that you had," he said. "But she's right, and so are you. It does sound absurd. For that matter, there are people back home on Beowulf who're going to find it hard to accept all of this. Of course, in their case it's not going to be because they won't believe Mesans are despicable enough for something like this; it's going to be that they can't believe we could have missed it for so long. And, much as I hate to admit it, one of the reasons they're going to think that way is that we've become so accustomed to thinking of all Mesans in terms of Manpower and their transstellar partners."
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Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Feb 20, 2014 10:48 pm

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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 26

"Personally," Catherine Montaigne said, "I've come to the conclusion that one reason the bastards have been so busy propping Manpower up has a lot to do with setting up an obvious stalking horse. Web DuHavel and I have argued for years over why Mesa's stood so foursquare behind genetic slavery for so long given the economics of the institution and the potential social powder keg all those seccies and slaves create on Mesa itself. Now that we know about this Alignment, it makes a lot more sense. Just thinking about the hooks it can get into people by involving them in the filth of the slave trade puts an entirely new perspective on it, but when you add in the façade it sets up -- the way it colors all of our thinking where Mesa as a whole is concerned -- it makes even more sense."

"Exactly." Benton-Ramirez y Chou nodded. "The idea that someone might set themselves up as proponents of the galaxy's vilest form of commerce so that we'd concentrate on that view of their villainy and not notice an even deeper one is going to take a little getting used to. And the truth is that Beowulfers have become so set in their ways of hating and despising everything about Mesa and Manpower that it's going to take time for a lot of us to start taking this threat as seriously as we ought to."

"That's just it," Catherine Mayhew admitted. "I've always wondered exactly why the hatred between your people and the Mesans cuts so deep. I don't have any problem understanding that it could, you understand. After all, we have our own relationship with Masada as an example. I just don't understand the . . . the mechanism for it, I guess you'd say."

"I think that's because -- like the original Manticoran colonists -- your ancestors missed the Final War, Cat," Honor said. "By the time the first Manties debarked from Jason, that war had been over for a long time, but it's even further removed for you Graysons. Or us Graysons, I suppose I should say." She smiled again, briefly. "You didn't find out about it until you reestablished contact with the rest of the galaxy, and to be honest, you had a lot more pressing worries at the time, given Grayson's planetary environment and the Masadans, when you did find out."

"Honor's right," Benton-Ramirez y Chou agreed. "And I have to admit that as terrible as the Final War was, it has a lot more ongoing immediacy for Beowulf and Mesa than for anybody else in the League. More even than for people living in the Sol System today, for that matter. I know our Final War Museum in Grendel is the best and biggest in the entire League, but it only gets a single wing in the Solarian Military Museum in Old Chicago."

"I don't know as much about the Final War -- stupid damned name, when I think about it -- as I wish I did," Cachat said. He smiled faintly. "Like the Graysons, I've had more pressing worries until very recently."

"It probably wouldn't hurt for you to spend a little time in the Museum while you're on Beowulf," Benton-Ramirez y Chou said thoughtfully. "Assuming you've got the time for it, anyway. There are some really good VR programs covering it in the System Database, though, and you're going to be spending at least a while recuperating from the mods."

"Oh, goody!" Yana snorted. "Educational VRs to distract us from all the things you're going to be doing to us. I can hardly wait."

A general chuckle ran around the table, but then Benton-Ramirez y Chou sobered and returned his attention to Catherine Mayhew.

"Despite Victor's well taken observation on the stupidity of calling any war the 'final' one, Old Earth's version of it came entirely too close to being just that, at least where the Sol System was concerned," he said much more somberly. "The Ukrainian Supremacists may have started it when they turned the super soldiers loose," he glanced semi-apologetically at Yana, who snorted in amusement at his expression, "but they weren't the only lunatics running asylums. And let's be honest, the super soldiers weren't really all that much more heavily genetically modified than Honor here is. Enhanced strength, better reflexes, they heal faster, and enhanced intelligence -- although that one's still a rather . . . nebulous concept -- but that was small beer compared to the other crap that got turned loose. For example, there were the Asian Confederacy's version of super soldiers. Now, those were scary. Implanted and natural weaponry, a metabolism that was so enhanced they 'burned out' in less than twenty years and their combat gear had to include intravenous concentrated nourishment just to keep them running that long, and enough other genetic tinkering to make them all sterile -- thank God! In terms of effectiveness in sustained combat, the mods didn't do a lot for them, given the sophistication of the weaponry available even to us poor old 'pure strain' models. Doesn't really matter all that much how strong someone is or how good his reflexes are when he's up against a main battle tank. But it turned them into god-awful special operations troops, and the 'intelligence' mods on them pushed them over the edge into the outright megalomania that proved Old Earth's undoing. It was when they turned on the Confederacy's political leadership in the Beijing Coup that the Final War really turned into the ultimate nightmare."

"Why did they stage the coup?" Cachat asked. Benton-Ramirez y Chou arched an eyebrow at him, and the Havenite shrugged. "The Confederacy was winning against the Ukrainians, from what little I know about the history involved, but that all turned around shortly after the coup. So why did they do it? And why did it turn around?"

"They staged the coup because they were sterile," Honor said before her uncle could reply. "They'd decided their obvious superiority to the pure strain humans who were giving them orders proved they should be in charge, and they'd decided they were clearly the next step in human evolution. But the Confederacy's leadership controlled the cloning farms where they were created, and the Confederacy refused to allow them unlimited reproduction." She shrugged. "So they staged their own revolt in order to take over the cloning facilities and produce more of their own kind."

"And the reason the war in Europe started turning against them," Benton-Ramirez y Chou said, nodding in agreement, "was because their mods had turned them into predators, not herd animals. Among other things, they were so full of contempt for their 'obsolescent' pure strain opponents that they tended to downplay the need to unite against their outside foes while they engaged in internal warfare with one another for control of the Confederacy."

"And while all that was going on," Catherine Montaigne put in sourly, "the idiots in Western Europe had pulled the stopper out of their own bottle of lunacy." Montaigne had spent longer on Old Earth than anyone else gathered around the table. She'd spent quite a bit of that time learning about the womb in which Mesa and genetic slavery had been conceived, and her expression was bitter. "The Ukrainian Supremacists had taken all of them by surprise by the timing of their attack, but everyone on the planet -- hell, everyone in the entire star system -- had seen it coming for a long, long time. The Western Europeans weren't interested in genetically modifying human beings. Instead, they decided to genetically modify diseases like anthrax, botulism, bubonic plague, meningitis, typhus, cholera, and something called Ebola."

"I've never even heard of most of those," Yana said plaintively.

"That's because most of them have been effectively stamped out." Montaigne's expression was grim, "and thank God for it! In fact, most of them had been stamped out on Old Earth before the Final War, too. Until the idiots dusted them off and sent them off to war, at least."

"How could they have expected that to work?" Elaine Mayhew demanded, eyes dark with the horror the mere thought of such a weapon evoked in someone who'd been raised in Grayson's hermetically sealed environments.

"They thought they'd designed firewalls into their pet monstrosities." Benton-Ramirez y Chou's voice was even grimmer than Montaigne's. "They'd integrated 'kill switches' and stockpiled disease-specific vaccines. But once they were out into a real-world environment, their firewalls evolved right out from under them a hell of a lot faster than they'd expected. Oh, initially, their weapons had almost exactly the desired effect when they deployed them. That lasted as long as three years, and the Confederacy's super soldiers' hyper-active metabolisms seem to have made them even more vulnerable than pure strain humans. But once the pathogens got loose in the civilian population of Asia, the law of unintended consequences came into play with a vengeance. By the time the same diseases started bleeding back across the frontier into Europe, they'd developed effective immunity to the vaccines which was supposed to protect Europeans against them."

Catherine and Elaine looked at their husband, as if they hoped he'd tell them Benton-Ramirez y Chou was exaggerating, but Benjamin shook his head.

"There's a reason they managed to kill off damned near the entire Old Earth branch of the human race," he told his wives. "And don't think it was all Europe and Asia, either. The western hemisphere made its own contribution to the holocaust."

"True," Honor agreed. "On the other hand, at least they weren't crazy enough to turn genetically engineered diseases loose on their opposition."

"Oh, no!" Benton-Ramirez y Chou showed his teeth in something which approximated a smile in much the same way a hexapuma's bared teeth approximated a pleasant greeting. "They were lots smarter than that. They decided to deploy weaponized nanotech!"

"Sweet Tester," Catherine Mayhew murmured.

"Rather than further disturb the digestion of Mac's meal," Honor said after a moment, "I propose we not go a lot deeper into the specifics of the Final War, Uncle Jacques. I don't think we really need to in order to answer Cat's original question about the . . . ill feeling between you noble Beowulfers and those despicable Mesans."

"No. No, we don't," Benton-Ramirez y Chou agreed. "But that 'ill feeling' owes a lot to how Beowulf and the rest of the colony systems which responded to Old Earth's attempted suicide viewed what had happened there."

He sipped from his own wineglass, then set it down very precisely.
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