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Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets

This is the place where we will be posting snippets of soon-to-be published works!
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Jan 07, 2014 11:03 pm


Posts: 2311
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 07

"Yeah, they're still mad that Haven restarted the war with Manticore before the ink on our mutual defense treaty had barely dried." He shrugged. "On the other hand, because we made no effort to get them to join the hostilities, they aren't that mad. Certainly not enough to take the risks involved in producing a major rupture with us. So, everyone agreed to one of the time-honored diplomatic code messages. 'You don't get an ambassador, you louses. Just a high commissioner etc., etc. So there.' I think that's aimed more at the Star Kingdom than us."

"Star Empire," Sharon corrected him. She ran fingers through her hair. Short hair, these days. She'd dyed it a nice auburn color since he'd seen her last and cut it back quite a bit. Truth be told, he preferred her hair longer. But that was an age-old tug of war between men and women that men invariably lost once a relationship congealed. Yuri might not be the sharpest pencil in the box when it came to romantic relationships, but he wasn't obtuse enough to venture into that mine field.

"I think you're probably right about Manticore," she said. "The Erewhonese love their subtle ploys and gestures. 'See? We made it real clear to Haven that they're in the dog house, the rotters.' I'm not sure how much good it'll do them, though."

"Might be quite a bit. The Star Empire's current prime minister is as sophisticated as they come and he's probably familiar with Erewhon's somewhat peculiar mores. And for sure and certain the Winton dynasty will pay attention. They're no slouches themselves when it comes to hints and veiled messages. You wouldn't think a royal lineage would have that much in common with a long line of gangsters, but there it is."

"Ha! If Victor we're here, he'd say they were cut from exactly the same cloth -- so why shouldn't they speak the same patois?"

That brought a few seconds' worth of silence. Then Yuri sighed and leaned back in his chair. "I still don't like the basta -- man, but I have to admit I was glad to find out he was still alive. It's like the old saying: 'yeah, he's a ruthless son-of-a-bitch, but he's our ruthless son-of-a-bitch."

"Are you still holding a grudge, Yuri? La Martine was years ago."

"He told them to break my nose. On purpose!"

"He sure did. That made you a bloody mess -- and may very well have kept you alive."

Impatiently, Yuri shook his head. "I understand the logic, Sharon. I still don't like the man. He gave you a beating, too. I was madder about that than I was about my nose. Still am."

"Are you aware that he's been a consistent influence -- no small one, either -- boosting your career? Mine, too. Ever since La Martine. I'm pretty sure he's the main reason you got this posting. Kevin Usher listens to him. So does Wilhelm Trajan, although" -- she grinned, here -- "I don't think he does so nearly as cheerfully as Kevin does."

Yuri looked a bit guilty. "Well… Yeah, I sort of figured that out a while ago. Look, I'm not saying my attitude toward Cachat is rational. It's probably not. Okay, for sure it's not." Stubbornly: "I still don't like him."

The com unit on the wall chimed, indicating someone desired a connection.

Sharon punched the acceptance key. The screen came to life.

Seeing the familiar face on the screen, Sharon said: "Walter. I assume you called to talk to Haven's new ambassa -- ah, high commissioner and -- "

"-- and envoy extraordinary and whatever other twaddle terms we need to keep up appearances." Walter Imbesi gave Radamacher a quick, almost perfunctory smile. "Actually, no. I'd been planning to give you a day or so to -- ah, renew acquaintance -- before bothering you with business. But something's come up that we think is pressing. As in really pressing."

Both Sharon and Yuri sat up straight. "Which is…?" said Yuri.

"It seems Victor Cachat is back from the dead. Presumed dead, rather. Anton Zilwicki also. I have been asked to convey to you the government's displeasure at not being informed of Cachat's survival. Given that we are formally allied, they feel they should have been notified. If not at once, certainly in less time than two months."

"The ship they used to carry the message to me was an Erewhonese vessel," said Sharon. "Are you seriously going to claim you didn't get the news as soon as I did?"

"I grant you we learned the fact of their survival as soon as you did. The government's displeasure stems from your failure to formally notify them and provide any further details.."

Yuri decided to let Sharon keep handling things, even though it would normally be his job as ambassador. (Fine. Envoy extra-crispy etc., etc., but in practice it came to the same thing.) But he'd just arrived and hadn't been fully briefed. More precisely, he hadn't been briefed at all. Well, leaving aside carnal matters that were none of anyone else's damn business.

Sharon obviously agreed, since she spoke without hesitation or so much as a glance in his direction. "Let's translate that statement out of diplomatese, shall we? The triumvirate that runs the show -- we'll skip all the silly stuff about 'the government' -- is ticked off but since they're probably not that ticked off -- yet, anyway -- they sent you as their spokesman since you don't officially have any political position or power -- we'll all agree not to collapse in riotous laughter here -- and so they figure coming from you it'll have less of an edge to it."

Sharon shrugged. "It was Victor's order not to divulge anything, and he's my boss."

Imbesi pursed his lips. "The conclusion I come to is that Cachat thought gaining a few weeks of secrecy was important enough to risk irritating an ally. Fine. The few weeks have now gone by -- so we can move to the critical question, which is what did he and Zilwicki discover that warrants these extreme measures?"

He waved his hand again in a gesture which, though dismissive, was not small at all. "And please spare me the usual drivel about 'the needs of security,' Sharon. I've gotten to know Victor Cachat rather well over the past couple of years. Perhaps unusually for someone in his line of work, he's not obsessive about secrecy."

"Generally, no. You're right. But in this instance" -- Sharon spread her hands in a gesture that simultaneously conveyed I speak the solemn truth and it's out of my hands anyway -- "he told me nothing in the first place."

Imbesi was silent for a few seconds. Then, pursed his lips. "You're not lying, are you?"

He looked at Yuri. "I know what happened on La Martine, High Commissioner Radamacher. We compiled an extensive file on the affair -- on anything involving Victor Cachat's history, once it became clear how large a presence he was going to have for us. One of the conclusions I drew from the affair was that Cachat has an almost eerie sense for selecting his subordinates. The two of you -- others -- and then he gives them lots of leeway and doesn't micromanage. Some people might even accuse him of recklessness, in that regard. But I don't know of any instance where his judgment has proven faulty."

Yuri had to fight a little to keep an expressionless face. He really didn't like Victor Cachat. But as much as any person alive he knew just how capable the man was. Fiendishly capable, even. But Yuri didn't doubt at all whose fiend he was: Haven's, as sure as any law of thermodynamics.

So he was just as surprised as Imbesi to learn that Cachat hadn't told Sharon what he'd learned and where he was going with it. They hadn't talked about it, simply because… Well, more pressing matters arose. But he'd assumed that would be part of the briefing Sharon would give him afterward.

The Erewhonese politician's assessment was quite correct. Cachat was supremely confident in his ability to select his assistants, and then he didn't second-guess himself.

He hadn't even told Sharon?

Imbesi said it for him. "So all hell's about to break loose." He nodded, more to himself than anyone else. "I'll let the triumvirate know. Sharon, High Commissioner Radamacher -- "

"Call me Yuri, please."

"One moment, Walter." Sharon leaned forward a little. "As long as we're on the subjects of secrecy and all hell breaking loose, when can we expect a briefing from you regarding the new relationship you've forged with Maya Sector? Congratulations, by the way. You've come up in the galaxy. You used to launder money and now you're laundering superdreadnaughts."

She smiled sweetly. "Seeing as how we're allies, as you just pointed out."

There was no reaction at all on Imbesi's face in response to those comments. Which were obviously something else Yuri needed to be briefed on.

After a moment, Imbesi just said: "I'll have to get back to you on that. Have a pleasant day."

The screen went dark.

"I can't remember feeling like such a complete ignoramus since I was twelve," Yuri complained. "When I got called on in class to enumerate the noble gases and I didn't have a clue what the teacher was talking about. Since when did chemical elements have an aristocracy?"
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Jan 09, 2014 10:27 pm


Posts: 2311
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 08

Chapter 7

The alley below was vacant, except for the usual piles of debris. Cary Condor removed her finger and let the curtain covering the window fall back in place. It was an old-style material curtain -- a piece of decorated fabric -- rather than a modern electronic screen. There was a screen in place also, and Cary flipped the switch to turn it back on.

"Are you really sure this is necessary?" she asked, as she turned away from the window. "It seems… pretty unsanitary."

"The curtain?" Stephanie Moriarty looked up from the table where she was working at a portable computer. "You'd be surprised how effective a simple material block is to a lot of surveillance techniques. There's more to the world than electrons. Besides, how is it any more unsanitary than everything else in this dump?"

Cary didn't have a good answer for that, beyond I'm used to crappy clothes and bedding. So she shifted her objection to the curtain onto other grounds. "If somebody comes in here on a raid it'll be a dead giveaway that we're trying to hide something. Nobody in this day and age, not even in Mesa's seccie quarters, uses antiques like this."

"Oh, for -- " Moriarty took a deep breath. "Cary, if 'somebody' -- and, gee whiz, who might that be other than security goons? -- comes busting in here on a raid, explaining a curtain will be the least of our problems."

There came a hoarse chuckle from the figure lying on a bed in one of the corners of the room. "Probably won't be any kind of problem at all. On account of we'll be in little bitty pieces two seconds after they come in. Both of you and what's left of me."

Karen Steve Williams raised her head from the pillow enough to gaze down at her legs. Her non-existent legs, below the knees. "I try to look on the bright side. At least my damn feet would stop itching."

Moriarty's mouth twisted into a wry smile. "Be careful what you wish for. If your no-longer-there feet can still itch, how do you know that your no-longer-there body won't itch too, once you're dead?"

Karen chuckled again. "Talk about a fix! Spend all of eternity trying to scratch a non-existent itch with non-existent hands."

Cary gave her two companions an exasperated look. She did not share their amusement with silly whimsies. "Once you're dead, you're dead. Not there. Your body isn't non-existent, you are. Itching is irrelevant. It's like saying the color yellow won't be in harmony any longer."

"Spoilsport." That came from Karen, whose head was back on the pillow and whose eyes were closed again. She didn't have much energy these days. Cary didn't think she'd live for many more weeks. The injuries the young woman had sustained making her escape -- hair-breadth, hair-raising, barely-in-the-nick-of-time escape -- from Mesa's security forces after the nuclear detonation at Green Pines had been horrible.

The amputated legs weren't even the worst of it. Karen was also missing her spleen as well as one of her kidneys and most of her liver. And there'd been some damage to her brain, too. She sometimes had trouble talking and her vision was impaired.

More to get her mind off the depressing subject of Karen's medical condition than out of any real interest, Cary moved toward the table where Stephanie was sitting. "Any news?" she asked.

Moriarty jabbed an accusatory finger at the computer screen. "This is official Mesan news, remember? Better known as the Fantasy Channel."

Cary ignored the sarcastic remark and leaned over her comrade's shoulder to get a better look at the screen. The portable computer was another antique. Its virtual screen expansion had collapsed a few weeks earlier so their view was limited to the screen's physical dimensions. Which were all of twenty-five by fifteen centimeters. It was almost like looking through a keyhole.

Cary now knew what a keyhole was, because the small apartment they'd rented actually had one as a supplement to the usual security devices. There was no key, though, which didn't matter since the lock was broken anyway. Their landlord, as shrewd and grasping as such people usually were in slums, had quickly gauged their level of desperation, divided it by his equally-quick gauge of their resources, and provided them with the smallest and most rundown unit in his building for a price they could just barely afford.

At that, they'd been lucky. There'd been rumors of a robbery gone badly wrong in a nearby district just a day before they'd approached the landlord, and he'd assumed they were what was left of the criminal gang. It hadn't occurred to him that their battered appearance and the two badly injured members of their party had anything to do with the Green Pines incident.

The one male in their four-person group, Firouz Howt, had died two days later. Since disposing of the body themselves would be very dangerous, they'd decided the landlord was the lesser risk. That assessment had proven correct. He'd disposed of the body for the value of the organs and tissues, and charged them nothing.

So, he'd seen the wounds that had finally taken Firouz's life, and had had no trouble recognizing them as injuries sustained in a gunfight. The landlord had a couple of visible scars himself that showed he was no stranger to violence. But that had simply confirmed his supposition that they were criminals. And not very competent ones, so he wasn't too nervous at having them around.

That had been just about the only good luck they'd had since Green Pines, but it had been enough to keep them alive. If they could somehow come up with the money, they might even be able to get Karen the medical treatments she needed to stay alive.

The landlord had offered to be of assistance there also, as what he called their "manager" but what he meant was their pimp. Cary and Stephanie had turned him down. Partly because the idea of becoming prostitutes was repellent, partly because it would be dangerous, but mostly -- being honest -- because they couldn't possibly raise the sums necessary in that manner.

The news being carried on the channel Stephanie had turned to was the usual fare these days. Fifty percent, a relentless drumbeat on the ever-present danger of Audubon Ballroom terrorist activity; twenty percent, a relentless drumbeat on the also ever-present if not quite as fearsome danger of criminal activity; ten percent, bits and pieces involving official Mesan politics; ten percent, bits and pieces of galactic news. The remaining ten percent was distributed fairly evenly between quirky human interest stories, natural disasters -- those were mostly of human origin given Mesa's very mild climate; fires and such -- and fashions.

Yes, fashions. Most of which could only be afforded by a tiny number of seccies.

Calling it "the Fantasy Channel," therefore, was an exaggeration. If you set aside the barrages on so-called "terrorism," anyway. Most of that was made up out of whole cloth. But the other half of the news wasn't fabricated -- although the Mesa authorities censored quite a bit of it. The problem wasn't so much was what said as what was not said. You might be told, for instance -- with perfect accuracy -- that a given town had been subjected to flooding or an earthquake or some other natural disaster. What wouldn't be mentioned was that the flood/earthquake/whatever had struck the seccie part of the town and due to substandard construction/corrupt business practices/overcrowding/whatever there had been considerable loss of life.
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Jan 12, 2014 10:26 pm


Posts: 2311
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 09

Again, like looking through a keyhole. The problem wasn't so much the distortion in what you could see. Some distortion was there, certainly, but you could adjust for it. The big problem were all the things you couldn't see because your field of vision was too limited.

Much better and less censored news was available on subscription channels. But those were quite expensive and restricted to full citizens.

What were they not being told by the news media? There was no way to know. Not, at least, without access to information coming from outside the Mesan loop -- and that was simply not available to seccies such as themselves.

"They're planning something, the bastards," Stephanie half-muttered as she watched the newscasters. "They're spending more time than usual hollering and screaming about the Ballroom. Way more time, in fact. It's practically all they're talking about lately."

Cary frowned. She knew what Stephanie was getting at. Provocation was probably the oldest trick in the counter-revolutionary book -- and, unfortunately, was often very effective. If the Mesan media outlets were bombarding the populace with warnings about the imminent threat of terrorist outrages, those outrages were sure to come -- carried out not by the so-called terrorists but by agencies of the Mesan government.

It was an effective tactic in large part because it was so hard to argue against, especially when you had no access yourself to any mass media. Fine to say, "people aren't that dumb; they'll see through it." The historical record said otherwise. Over and again, throughout history, a lot of people had been that dumb.

"Nothing we can do about it," she said, straightening up. "Except… Do you think we ought to suspend our regular check-ins for a while? Maybe a week?"

"No, don't." That came from Karen, lying on the bed. Cary hadn't realized she was still awake.

"Why not?" asked Stephanie. "The odds against our check-ins turning up anything are close to astronomical anyway. So what's the harm in suspending them for a while?"

Once a day, either Cary or Stephanie ventured outside the apartment to check one of the six dead drops they maintained in various places in the city. Four of them were in the seccie quarters. The other two were in heavily-trafficked areas frequented by seccies on their way to work as servants in the citizen districts.

The drop locations had been set up by the Manticoran agent who'd called himself Angus Levigne when he'd been active on Mesa. Months had gone by since he and his odd-looking partner had left the planet -- or gotten killed, they didn't know which. The odds against Levigne or someone else using the sites to get in touch with them again were low, of course. Maybe not astronomically low, but pretty close. Still, since they had no other means of re-establishing contact with anyone from off-planet, they continued to maintain the routine checks.

Painfully, Karen levered herself up on one elbow. "I don't care about the drop boxes -- although we may as well check them while we're out."

"I ask again: why? We can get food and supplies a lot closer than the nearest of the drop sites, so why take the risk?"

Karen shook her head. "You're not thinking far enough ahead. How much money do we have left?"

Cary was their treasurer, insofar as the term "treasure" wasn't laughable. Official Keeper of the Piggy Bank would be a more accurate way of putting it.

"Not a lot."

"Enough to pay the rent and buy food and supplies to keep us going for six more months?"

Cary took in a breath and puffed it out, swelling her cheeks. "Well. No. I figure we can go another two months for sure. Maybe up to three, if we ration really tightly."

"About what I thought. We need to face facts squarely, folks." Karen made as little waving motion with her hand, indicating her body. "I'm most likely going to be dead within three months."

Stephanie started to protest but Karen talked over her. "Cut it out, Moriarty! Optimism and keeping our spirits up is one thing. Dumber'n a box of rocks is another. You know as well as I do that I'm not going to last much longer unless we can get me some pretty major medical treatment -- and how are we going to pay for that when we're as strapped as we are?"

Slowly, just as painfully as she'd raised herself up, Karen put her head back on the pillow and stared at the ceiling.

"When I die, two things happen. Or rather, one thing happens for sure and the other happens if we plan for it ahead of time. The thing that happens for sure is that the money we've got left will stretch further because you'll only have to feed two people instead of three. The thing that might happen -- if we make our preparations ahead of time -- is that you two come into a lot more money. Well… a fair amount more, anyway. Enough to keep you going for half a year at least."

Stephanie's expression was skeptical, bordering on sarcastic. "And just how in God's name do you think that'll -- Oh."

The conclusion it had taken her half a sentence to reach had come to Cary almost immediately.

"Jesus, Karen," she said.

"When did you get religion?" Karen said. "Although I guess I should aim that more at Stephanie, seeing as how she's the one who claims to be the atheist here and you still cling to some shreds of your childhood faith. But I remind you that faith doesn't think anything but the soul is eternal, so what does it matter what happens to my body after I'm gone? I don't give a damn, myself."

She raised her head again, just enough to give her two companions a ferocious glare. "What I do give a damn about is that I don't want that chiseling scumbag landlord pocketing the money -- which is what he did with Farouz's remains. So when I die, keep it a secret from the shithead. Cut me up yourselves -- the bathtub's one of the few things in this dump that works -- and freeze the parts. Then sell what you can."

She sagged back down. Her voice was getting weaker. "But you have to plan for it. Go out there and find the market. You've got weeks to do it. You ought to turn up something."

She was silent for a while. Then she said, very softly: "I'm so tired." She was asleep within seconds.

Cary and Stephanie looked at each other. Neither of them said anything for perhaps a minute.

"I don't think I can do it," Stephanie finally said. Her eyes were tearing up. "I really don't."

Cary had known that already. Stephanie had her strengths -- plenty of them -- but despite the airs she sometimes put on she just wasn't what you'd call "hard-boiled." She was tough enough when dealing with enemies. But butcher a dead friend? She'd make a mess of the business before she gave up altogether.

"I'll do it," Cary said. "But only if we've found a buyer."

There was silence again, for another minute. Then Stephanie sighed and got to her feet. "I guess that means I check the drop box today. And then…"

She raised her hands in a gesture that was half-despairing and half-aggravated. "Where the hell do I go to find a buyer for body parts? The only person we know who'd know is the shithead himself. And we can't ask him."

"We'll figure out something," Cary said. Trying her best to believe it.
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Jan 14, 2014 10:21 pm


Posts: 2311
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 10

Chapter 8

Looking around the office of his new boss, Lajos Irvine starting counting the ways.

The ways his new boss was so much worse than his old one, Jack McBryde.

True, his old boss had turned out to be a traitor. But if you left that one flaw aside, he'd been a real pleasure to work for. Lajos hadn't appreciated how much so until he'd had some months to fully explore the depth and breadth of his new boss' qualities.

Using the term "qualities" loosely and understanding that the term was neutral. A fetid odor was also a "quality."

To start with, there was the fact that Lajos had been waiting for twenty minutes for George Vickers to make his appearance. Why had the man bothered to set the meeting at this hour in his own office if he hadn't planned to be there himself?

If this had been a one-time event, Lajos would have assumed that Vickers had been delayed unexpectedly or had simply been absent-minded and forgot the time. But it wasn't a one-time occurrence, it was an every-time occurrence. Vickers was wasting the time of his subordinate for the sole purpose of showing him who was the boss.

Not that there would have ever been any doubt about it, which made the whole exercise purposeless as well as annoying.

As a genetically-engineered specialist developed to infiltrate the societies of genetic slaves, Lajos Irvine was officially the equal of any other specialty line produced by the Alignment. Unlike the agents produced for the External Bureau, who were indistinguishable from general utility slave lines except for their special slave numbers, Lajos was a full member of the Alignment. Not the very innermost circles of the onion, true -- although that was not precluded for him in the future -- but he was still a genetic slave in form only. He'd been given prolong treatments, for instance.

Formalities aside, though, there was still a deep-seated prejudice against people like him that permeated the Alignment. Not all people shared it -- McBryde hadn't, for one -- but many did. And even leaving the bias aside, the fact remained that Lajos was a specialty line and George Vickers was an alpha line.

There was no chance, no matter what his accomplishments might be, that he'd ever wind up replacing Vickers in this office -- so what was the point of this rigmarole?

Everything about the office reminded Lajos of what a jackass his new boss was. His eyes fell on the wall behind Vickers' desk. The equivalent of that wall in Jack McBryde's office had been decorated with a few paintings and some simple images of the McBryde family. Jack himself had been in a couple of the images, but no more than that.

That wall had vanished, destroyed with the rest of Gamma Center. This wall, in contrast, was solid Vickers territory. Every single thing on the wall was about him. His images -- fancy holograms, these, and expensive ones at that -- and his awards and certificates and decorations. The only other people in the holograms on the wall were those of Vickers' associates whom he obviously felt enhanced his own prestige. Some were his immediate superiors; others were images of people who were apparently very high up in the Alignment.

Then there was the desk. Jack McBryde's desk had been a beehive of activity. There would have been three or four virtual screens up and running, and half the desk would have been covered with slips and sheets of papic. Jack had been fond of the old-fashioned way of taking notes.

"I don't know why but I think better when I'm chewing on an idea I've written down myself." He'd given Lajos a grin and added: "Would you believe I've even been to the paper exhibit in the Museum of Science and Technology?"

"What's 'paper'?" Lajos had asked.

Jack had picked up a sheet of papic. "It's what they used to use instead of this. Looks just like it -- they let me pick one up -- but it feels a little different. Coarser. They made it out of pulped wood, you know."

Lajos had made a face. "Sounds awfully unsanitary."

"Oh, the paper was safe enough. The manufacturing process was destructive, though. Poisoned the environment like you wouldn't believe. Once they figured out a way to make plastic biodegradable they got rid of paper."

Vickers' desk looked like it ought to be in a museum itself. The expanse was completely empty except for one virtual screen which simply displayed the agency's logo -- as if anyone who had the security clearance to get in here in the first place wouldn't know where they were.

Other than that, there was simply a name plate perched on the corner of the desk. A big name plate, reading:

George Vickers

Assistant Director

Central Security Agency

Perhaps most telling of all, the nameplate didn't face the visitor. It faced Vickers -- or would, whenever the Great Man finally made his entrance.

Vickers had to have some genuine ability or he'd never have been given this post. The Alignment gave short shrift to bosses who were incompetent. But, so far at least, Lajos hadn't seen any evidence of it.

The door to the office swung open and Vickers came in.

"Ah, there you are," he said, as if Lajos hadn't been sitting there for the better part of half an hour and Vickers had been looking for him.

Damn, he missed Jack.

A thought, needless to say, that he kept entirely to himself.


After George Vickers finished his explanation of Lajos Irvine's new assignment, there was silence in the room for at least half a minute.

From the self-satisfied look on his face, Vickers assumed that the silence was due to Lajos striving mightily to absorb the subtleties and profundities of the strategic thinking involved.

Instead of, as was actually the case, Lajos striving mightily not to burst out with sentences that would be:

a) True.

b) Emotionally satisfying.

c) Useless.

d) Damaging to his career.

He knew that much from the beginning, but he couldn't relinquish the sentences for half a minute.

That is the stupidest -- Most of the sentences began with that clause.

What imbecile came up with this idea? Variations on that theme constituted a good two-thirds of the sentences.

What is the fucking point --

He finally managed to bring himself under control enough to utter his first words aloud.

"Uh, George, in my experience criminals make it a point to know as little as possible about anything that might be dangerous and brings them no income. As informers -- on political activity, that is -- they're about as useful as -- as -- "

He tried to come up with an analogy. Sewer rats and alley cats wouldn't do because such animals might actually provide a modicum of useful information. The absence of either one in an area might indicate the presence of a terrorist cell, for instance.

Or a big, mean dog, more likely. But there was still the possibility of usefulness.

Criminals? One of whose characteristics was the inclination to lie as a first reaction to any question and another of which was that most of them were damn good at it.

And another of whose characteristics was that they were prone to violence.

"That raises another issue," he said. "I'm not trained -- "

"Relax, Lajos," said Vickers, waving his hand in a genial manner. Or what he took to be one, anyway. "We're going to be providing you with some assistance. Nobody expects you to match muscle with hooligans."
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Jan 16, 2014 7:34 pm


Posts: 2311
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

Things are going to be "interesting" the rest of today and tomorrow as I'm getting ready to move Saturday so I'm posting this early.

Now I can trust everybody to wait until the usual time to read this. [Very Big Evil Grin]

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 11

Great. I'll be saddled with brainless goons. Which meant his already slim chances of turning up any information by infiltrating the Mesa seccie underworld just went on a starvation diet.

"But what -- "

Vickers waved his hand again. The gesture, this time, was firm; decisive; not genial at all.

"It's been decided, Lajos. Just do it. We haven't gotten anywhere in weeks following the usual methods, so the power-that-be upstairs" -- he pointed at the ceiling, in blithe disregard of the fact that CSA headquarters was two miles to the west and there was nothing on the floors above them except a lot of computers and clerical workers -- "have decided to try a flanking approach. It's obvious that our firm and decisive measures have driven the terrorists to bay. They're huddling in their shelters, now. If they want to do anything, they have to use criminals as their intermediaries. So -- "

His chest swelled a little. "Operation Capone." He bestowed a sly smile on Irvine. "I came up with the name. Capone was a notorious Roman gangster in ancient times. The orator and philosopher Cicero even talked about him."

Operation Capone. Lajos had never heard of anyone by that name. What he did know was that all you had to do was lop the "e" off the end of the name and you had a castrated rooster. A near-mindless critter that made a lot of noise and couldn't accomplish a damn thing.


After he left Vickers, Lajos went down to the mess hall in the basement. He did have his own office in the building but he didn't like to use it. The room they'd given him was more like a cubicle with delusions of grandeur than anything he'd call an "office," and Lajos didn't like feeling cramped whenever he had to do any serious thinking.

And serious thinking was called for here. Whatever he thought of them, orders were orders, and the basic law of hierarchies applied just as much to the Alignment as to any other institution in human history.

Shit rolls downhill. If this idiot scheme came apart at the seams, or just came to nothing at all, Lajos would be the one blamed. Not George Vickers. Not whoever on high gave Vickers his orders. Certainly not any of the Detweilers.

Poor put-upon Lajos Irvine, that's who'd get the fault laid at his feet.

The first thing he had to figure out was his cover identity. None of the ones he had already established would work well in this assignment.

Thankfully, the powers-that-were hadn't been stingy as well as stupid. The budget Vickers had given him was enough for Lajos to set himself up in whatever identity was most likely to be successful.

Forget being a robber, contract killer, any of that business. Lajos had neither the skills nor the temperament to pull off such identities successfully. Not long enough, anyway. Even Vickers was willing to allow that this maneuver was going to take a fair amount of time before it produced any results.

A fence, then. And he'd have to be selling something fairly exotic, in order to explain why no one in the criminal underworld in the capital's seccie quarters had run across him before.

So… sell what? Drugs were out. Sure, there was always some sort of new design pharmaceutical coming on line, but that was a very well-established market with well-established suppliers. Well-established suppliers with a long and well-deserved reputation for violent retaliation against newcomers and interlopers, to boot.

No, it'd have to be something less obvious. Stolen art was a possibility. But the problem there was the market was too upscale to be likely to prove very helpful in tracking down Ballroom terrorists in hiding.

Lajos didn't think there were nearly as many such terrorists as his superiors seemed to be believe, anyway. Not ever -- and certainly not now, after the savage reprisals carried out in the seccie areas following Green Pines. Anyone even remotely suspected of having ties to the Ballroom had been targeted, and the authorities had been indiscriminate in their application of violence. The way they looked at it, "collateral damage" was just another term for a job well done.

Lajos estimated that somewhere around two thousand people had been killed, and at least twice that many badly injured. He was quite sure that most of the casualties had had no connection to the Ballroom, but some of them would have. The point being that he didn't think there were really that many terrorists still at large, and they'd be deep in hiding and…

Casualties. Fatalities. Desperate need for money…

Body parts and tissues. That was the market he'd aim for. There was a small trade in such goods in seccie areas. More modern medical methods were available and not even that expensive, but there were always some people who wanted to stay off the official grid for one reason or another. For such people, going to an established hospital for regeneration treatments posed too much of a risk, even compared to the risks of undergoing primitive organ-replacement surgery in unlicensed clinics.

The market was too erratic and marginal to have a well-established network of fences in place. There'd be some, sure, but they'd be freelancers. What the underworld called gypsies. Savage, often, but they'd be individuals or very small groups, not large gangs. The goons Vickers had promised to provide Lajos should be able to handle any problems of that nature that came up.

And he'd certainly not have any problem coming up with a supply of goods to sell. Not with the resources of the entire Mesan penal system at his disposal. Mesan authorities had no hesitation when it came to using the death penalty as a means of disciplining the population. Lajos wasn't sure of the exact number, but there'd be at least half a dozen people being executed every month. Their bodies were normally cremated, since the body parts and tissues market was too small to be of interest to the giant corporations that dominated the planet -- and the wealthy individuals who ran those corporations had other and better means to provide for their medical needs.

Just a little change in methods, for a while. Cut up the executed corpses to provide Lajos with the supplies he needed, cremate what was left and hand those remains over to the grieving relatives when there were any. Would anyone bother to weigh the ashes and try to calculate if everything was accounted for? Not likely. Not that class of people. And if they did, so what? Nobody cared what they thought anyway.

His spirits were picking up now. This…

Was still a stupid idea. But at least it'd be workable, wouldn't pose too many risks -- and, who could say? Maybe he'd even turn up something.

Hearing a slight noise behind him, he turned in his seat and saw that two men had just entered the mess hall and were headed his way.

Large men. The muscle, obviously.

When they reached the table, one of them said: "Vickers sent us."

"We're supposed to give you whatever help you need," said the other. "I'm Borisav Stanković," he said. "Call me Bora." He pointed a thumb at his partner. "This is Freddie Martinez."

Martinez nodded.

Lajos rose from the table he'd been sitting at and stuck out his hand. "Pleased to meet you."

"What's the job?" asked Stanković, once the handshakes were done.

"Sit down and I'll explain it to you."


After he finished, Stanković and Martinez looked at each other.

"Piece of cake," said Stanković. Martinez nodded.

A promising start, Lajos decided.
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Jan 19, 2014 7:55 pm


Posts: 2311
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 12

Chapter 9

"So I finally get to meet you, Special Officer Cachat. You made yourself impossible to find when I visited Torch for Berry's coronation." Despite the reproving words, Cathy Montaigne's tone was friendly and she was smiling. She strode forward and extended her hand.

Victor shook her hand and then executed a flourishing bow; the sort of gesture that had once been part of Haven's social protocol during the Legislaturalist era and was still part of Manticoran protocol -- although you rarely saw it done outside of some formal royal occasions. And then it was done only by some members of the aristocracy and usually done badly. Cachat's performance, on the other hand, had been flawless.

Startled, Cathy looked at Anton Zilwicki. "You told me he was a rabid republican."

"I said no such thing. 'Rabid' means raving; slavering with fury; downright witless. Victor neither raves nor slavers and he certainly isn't witless. Setting that aside, yes, he's a republican. Sort of the way polonium is radioactive."

She turned back to Victor. "But he did that perfectly." She waggled her fingers. "Maybe just a shade too flamboyantly."

"I figured it was better to err in that direction than the other," said Cachat. "Given the nature of the exercise."

"But… you're too young. From what Anton tells me. You wouldn't have been more than a boy during the Legislaturalist era."

"And born and raised in a Dolist slum to boot," added Anton.

"Then how would you have learned -- ?"

Anton made a loud snorting noise. The sound conveyed an odd cross of derision and grudging admiration. "He would have practiced it in a simulator on the way here," he said. "You wouldn't believe how much faith Victor has in the gadgets. He never travels without one if he can manage it -- he even squeezed one into the courier ship -- and he spends at least an hour a day in there practicing whatever. I'd accuse him of idolatry and worshipping golden calves except he's as much of an atheist as he is a republican."

"Oscar St. Just was a monster," said Victor. "Doesn't mean he wasn't smart. He believed in the value of simulator training and I learned it from him."

Cathy started to make a flippant remark but stopped. A thought had just crossed her mind. She'd never met Victor Cachat before this moment but she had seen him before, in a manner of speaking. One of Jeremy X's people had made a video recording of the gun fight in the bowels of Old Chicago between Cachat -- later joined by Jeremy himself -- and a group of Havenite soldiers and their Scrag allies. That had happened during the so-called Manpower Incident.

The quality of the recording had been quite poor; what you'd expect to get from a cheap handheld device in bad lighting conditions. But even so, two things had struck her powerfully when she'd watched afterward. Jeremy hadn't wanted to show it to her but she'd insisted and he owed her too much to refuse.

The first was the sheer brutality involved. "Gun fight" was far too antiseptic a term for the slaughter produced when people shot each other at literally point blank range and the person doing most of the shooting had been armed with a flechette gun.

He'd known how to use it, too, and that had been the second thing Cathy had been struck by. Once the fight began, Cachat had been nothing but a blur. Partly that was the poor quality of the recording, but mostly it had been Cachat himself. He'd moved quickly, surely, spinning, shifting aside -- while every shot he fired went true. He hadn't seemed like a man so much as a killing machine.

He would have been what, at the time? Twenty-one years old? Twenty-two? Certainly not more than twenty-five.

"The fight in Old Chicago," she blurted out before she could stop herself. "When you saved Helen. You practiced that in a simulator."

Victor frowned and glanced at Zilwicki. Who, for his part, spread his hands.

"Don't look at me. I kept my description vague. Really vague. And it was all over before I got there anyway."

"Jeremy," Victor muttered. "Damn him. He told me -- I asked, later -- that there hadn't been any recordings made."

"He's been known to lie." That came from Anton.

Cachat's frown faded into a mildly irritated expression. "Sort of like plutonium is radioactive."

He looked back at Cathy. "Yes, I trained for it in a simulator. A much bigger and more sophisticated simulator than the portable one I take with me, of course. How else could I have managed it?"

She felt like she was being extremely rude, all of sudden. Whatever might be Victor Cachat's exotic history and peculiar attitudes, he was the man who had saved the lives of all three of her adopted children. And done so at incredibly great risk to his own.

So she extended both her hands this time and took both of his, in a gesture that was not formal in the least. "Please. Be welcome in this home. Now and always."

Cachat's poise faltered for an instant. "Well… thank you," he said awkwardly, seeming to shed a decade and two inches of psychic armor in the process. Cathy now understood the truth of something Anton had once said to her about his Havenite partner: that somewhere deep underneath Cachat's ferocious skills and adamantine willpower there remained a shy and lonely boy from the slums. Only a handful of people in the universe were ever made privy to that inner core, he'd told her -- and Anton himself wasn't really one of them. Or only partly so, at any rate.

"I'm not sure if he lets anyone into that sanctum, except Thandi Palane and Ginny Usher," he'd told her. "Probably Kevin Usher, too."

Cathy decided then and there that she'd add herself to that small list. First, because she owed the man that much. Second, because she enjoyed a challenge. And finally --

She couldn't keep herself from giggling. At her age!

"What's so funny?" asked Anton.

"Never mind." She didn't think even Anton would understand, not really. He thought -- she was sure almost everyone did, except Jeremy X and Web DuHavel and maybe Empress Elizabeth, who'd been a close childhood friend -- that Cathy's rebellious history stemmed from her deep political principles. And…

That was indeed true enough. But she couldn't deny that at least a part of the reason for her notorious past was simply a juvenile glee in thumbing her nose at the establishment. Any establishment.

As Countess of the Tor, Cathy's coat of arms carried the family motto I cannot, which according to family legend referred to the heroic stance taken by an early politician who refused to sign on to a popular but unwise law. Cathy had her doubts about the legend, but the motto suited her well enough. In the interests of full disclosure, though, she'd sometimes thought she should add to the motto Épater la bourgeoisie -- or use it altogether as a substitute.

She'd already scandalized Manticoran polite society with her longstanding association with the terrorist madman Jeremy X -- now, sadly for polite society's amour-propre, reborn as a respectable cabinet member of Torch's government. Now she could add the scandal of a friendship with the man who was rapidly becoming the Republic of Haven's most notorious secret agent.

How delightful.

She led the way through the foyer and into the rooms beyond. The first of which had the official title of "the salon" but which Anton insisted on calling "the extravagansory." Or, sometimes, "the playing field."

Cachat looked around, his expression one of mild interest.

Anton grinned. "Didn't miss a beat. Congratulations, Victor. The first time I came into this room I said 'holy shit!' It took me four hours in here before I worked up the nerve to ask where the bathroom was. Were, as it happens. There are eight of them. Would you believe she calls this a 'town house'?"
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Jan 21, 2014 10:03 pm


Posts: 2311
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 13

"Are you quite done?" said Cathy. This was an old jape of Anton's. Most people would have let it go by now, but he was from the Gryphon highlands. One had to make allowances.

"By certain values of 'town' and 'house,' the label is perfectly appropriate," said Cachat. His tone was as relaxed and casual as his expression. "To be sure, the values are ones that should be lined up against a wall and shot."

That was said just as mildly. Cathy wasn't fooled. She was quite certain that if -- no, more likely to have been when -- the Havenite agent ever lined someone against a wall and shot them, he'd do so in the same relaxed and casual manner.

Oh, this was going to be so delightful. She'd have to make sure she had a doctor in attendance, though, when she trotted Cachat out for his first public appearance at one of her soirees. He was bound to say something that would cause one or two of the more rigid members of Manticore's upper crust to suffer cardiac arrest.


"He's a little unsettling, isn't he?" was Empress Elizabeth's first comment after Haven's delegation withdrew from the conference room. She looked at Honor Alexander-Harrington, who was sitting to her left a little way down the large table in the middle of the room. "Special Officer Cachat, I mean."

Honor chuckled and reached over to scratch the ears of the cream-and-gray treecat perched on the back of the chair beside hers. "At least this time he wasn't carrying a suicide device. I don't think he was, anyway."

Captain Spencer Hawke, her personal armsman, was standing just behind her. His already-stiff stance became rigid. "I assure you, My Lady, he carried no such device… this time. We checked him over thoroughly." A bit grudgingly, the Grayson added: "So did the Queen's Own, of course."

"Not to mention that we had a trio of treecats keeping a beady eye on him," added Hamish Alexander-Harrington, who was seated across from Honor with Samantha, Nimitz' mate, curled up neatly in his lap. She made a very pleased with herself sound, and Nimitz and Ariel, the somewhat younger male treecat on the back of Elizabeth's chair, bleeked with laughter. Samantha deigned to open one grass-green eye and look at each of them with a predator's thoughtfulness, then closed the eye once more.

Honor shook her head. "I'm afraid neither of you really understands Victor Cachat. First of all" -- she looked at Elizabeth -- "to answer your question, yes, he's a little unsettling. But he's not a monster or a maniac. He's more like the closest thing a human can come to a treecat."

Nimitz issued a sound that was halfway between a purr and a growl. Ariel echoed the sound an instant later, but Samantha merely flipped the tip of her tail.

"The point being," Honor continued, "any suicide device he'd carry -- anywhere, not just here -- wouldn't be a bomb, or anything that would wreak indiscriminate damage. It'd be very selective, with just himself as the target."

She glanced back at Captain Hawke and then over at the two members of the Queen's Own Regiment standing guard against the wall behind Elizabeth. "We analyzed the one he brought aboard Imperator when he and Zilwicki paid me that little visit. If he'd activated it, it would have injected him with a chemical compound which would trigger a previously implanted chemical compound that was inert in the absence of the right catalyst . . . at which point it would have sent his heart into severe ventricular fibrillation while simultaneously triggering both brain and pulmonary embolisms."

The empress grimaced. So did Hamish. For that matter -- Honor glanced around the room -- so did all the other people seated at the table. Those consisted of William Alexander, Baron Grantville and Prime Minister of the Star Empire of Manticore; Sir Anthony Langtry, the Star Empire's Foreign Secretary; and two admirals: Sir Thomas Caparelli, First Space Lord, and Admiral Pat Givens.

"So don't be too sure what Cachat might or might not have been carrying," Honor continued. "If he thought it was called for, he's perfectly capable of having a biological mechanism designed so that we could only detect it if we gave him a complete somatic screening. Which we didn't, of course. That would have been undiplomatic, to say the least."

Prime Minister Alexander looked alarmed. "If I'd known he was capable of that, I think we should have insisted on a somatic screen."

Honor started to answer, but the treecats beat her to it. This time, all of them issued sounds that were pretty much pure growls, and Nimitz followed up by pressing one true-hand's palm to his mouth, then swinging it in a throwing away motion before touching the outermost finger of the same true-hand to his forehead. None of the humans in the room had any problem translating the sign for "bad idea," and Hamish barked a laugh.

"It seems none of the six-limbed participants in this little discussion agree with you," he observed, then looked at Honor for a few seconds. "But I see what you're getting at. The issue isn't what Cachat could do but what he would do."

Honor nodded. "Yes." She turned back to Elizabeth. "You already knew what Anton Zilwicki's capable of. Well, now you've gotten a feel for how far Cachat will go for something he thinks is really important, which is why you asked for him to come to Manticore. As partnerships go, I think the two of them are the most capable pair of spies the galaxy's produced in a long, long time. Which is the reason they've turned out to be such a nightmare for our real enemies -- ours and Haven's -- and a blessing for us. Men like them don't give their loyalty lightly, but once they do, it's stronger than battle steel."

The last phrase came out flat, certain, final.

"In other words, you're telling me it's time to quit shilly-shallying," said Elizabeth.

"If you dress that up a little, yes. It's time to decide whether you're on the floor or sitting out the dance."

The empress chuckled. So did Hamish. Both admirals just smiled.

For his part, Foreign Secretary Langtry looked unhappy, but didn't seem inclined to say anything. Prime Minister Grantville sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.

"If I can put this into more formal language," he said, "what Honor is saying is that while it's possible Zilwicki and Cachat are wrong, it's unlikely. And it's not possible at all that either man's loyalties are in doubt. Which means our course of action should be based on those presumptions."

"Spoken like a true statesman, Willie," said Honor. Nimitz issued a noise that seemed approving. So did Ariel.

Samantha just nodded once, in the gesture the 'cats had learned from humans centuries ago.


"The meeting with the Empress went pretty well, I think," said Victor later that night over dinner, in response to a question from Cathy. "Hard to be sure, of course. Nobody in that room got where they are by being easy to read."

Cathy cocked her head. "Then… why do you seem a bit apprehensive?"

Startled, Cachat looked up from his plate. "I do?"

"Tense as a drum," said Anton. "It's pretty hard to miss, especially coming from you."

"Oh. That." Victor had barely touched his food. Now, he laid down his utensils. Much as a medieval knight on a battlefield might lay down his sword and shield as he conceded defeat.

"I wasn't actually thinking about that at all," he said. He glanced at his watch. "We sent the courier to Torch five days ago, right after we arrived here. It should have arrived at Beacon by now."

Anton sucked his teeth. "Carrying your message to Thandi letting her know that, hey guess what, you're now on Manticore. Having not stopped at Torch on your way to Haven."

Cathy looked back and forth between the two men. "Do you think she'll be upset with you, Victor?"

"Is Uranium 235 fissile material?" mused Anton.

"She's going to kill me," foresaw Victor.
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Fri Jan 24, 2014 9:14 am


Posts: 2311
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 14

Chapter 10

Thandi Palane glowered at the figures on the computer screen. She was trying to fit a round peg into a square hole: make a too-skeletal logistics network support the number of combat units she wanted for Torch's military. Palane believed in a teeth-to-tail ratio that belonged to a tiger rather than a tadpole, but the tadpole was fighting back pretty fiercely.

Her mood wasn't helped by the fact that the person sitting next to her, Captain Anton Petersen, had told her so. Several times, in fact, albeit politely. He had far more experience than Thandi did with these sorts of problems. Her own experience as a company grade Solarian Marine officer had been heavily concentrated in combat operations. Logistics on the level with which she was now trying to grapple had been something she left to others.

Her experience was short in other areas, as well. So, very soon after Torch was founded, Thandi had put in a request to both Manticore and Haven for training missions to be sent to provide her with advice and assistance.

Both star nations had agreed, although it had taken Haven a while to put their own mission together. Petersen and his aides, on the other hand, had arrived within two months. He was a former officer in the Royal Manticoran Navy who'd compiled an impressive record in command of two destroyers and the light cruiser HMS Impulse before he'd been badly wounded. During his regeneration and physical rehab he'd moved over to the staff side and discovered he was even better at that than at commanding a Queen's ship. His superiors had thought so, as well, and he'd been working directly for its Chief of Naval Operations, Sir Thomas Caparelli, before his sudden transfer to Torch.

Anton had now been with her for more than a year, and he'd been invaluable. Although he was still technically nothing more than an "adviser," he was one of Palane's handful of chief subordinates and for all practical purposes he was in charge of Torch's navy. Even the Havenites got along well with him, after they arrived.

None of which improved her disposition at the moment, however. I-told-you-so may be a fine fellow but he's still not likely to be welcomed with open arms when he tells you so.

There was a buzz at the door to Thandi Palane's office. "Open," she said.

Colonel Shai-gwun Metterling came in. "A courier just arrived from Manticore. It seems -- ah…"

Hearing the hesitation and trace of trepidation in her aide's voice -- Shai-gwun was normally a sanguine fellow -- Thandi looked up immediately. "What is it?"

"Well. It turns out Special Officer Cachat and Anton Zilwicki went to Manticore from Haven instead of, ah, as we thought they would -- Cachat would, anyway -- returning here."

Thandi stared at him for a couple of seconds. Then said:

"He's a dead man walking."

Metterling opened his mouth; closed it. Advising his commanding officer on matters of the heart went farther outside his military occupation specialty than -- than --

He couldn't think of an appropriate comparison. Composing an opera, maybe?

"Dead," Thandi repeated. Abruptly she rose from her seat. "Don't let that courier ship so much as shift a kilometer out of its orbit. I'll be taking it to Manticore. Anton, hold down the fort for me."

"Yes, General Palane. When do you expect to return?"

But she was already brushing past him and out the door. Moving like one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Death, to be specific. Famine, Pestilence and War would be straggling far behind.


Although he wasn't willing to insert himself into a domestic quarrel between Palane and Cachat -- talk about Scylla and Charibdys! -- Captain Petersen didn't feel he could in good conscience say nothing to anyone about his superior officer's plans. She was so riled up she seemed oblivious to the fact that she was about to go AWOL. That was bad enough if you were a rating. If you were the commanding officer of the entire military…

He put in a call to Hugh Arai. In doing so, he was going completely out of channels, since Arai had no official position in either Torch's military or government. Torch had never gotten around to adopting a formal definition of a monarch's consort.

In the real world, however, he was the right person to contact. Arai was privy to all the plans and discussions of the "inner circle," people listened to him, and Petersen had a great deal of confidence in his judgment.

In the event, the captain's concerns proved overblown. As furious as she was, by the time Thandi got to her apartment -- that took fifteen minutes -- and packed her bag -- that took three minutes -- she'd calmed down enough to realize she couldn't simply commandeer a courier vessel and head off to Manticore.

So, she put in a call to Petersen. "Sorry, Anton. I… sort of lost my temper, there. Cancel the hold on the courier. I'll be back within the hour."

But by then, Petersen had already alerted Arai and the consort-in-fact-if-not-in-name had informed his monarch and bed partner. He'd also given her his advice and, as she usually did, Berry accepted it.

She called Thandi at her apartment -- not more than thirty seconds after Palane had broken off her call to Captain Petersen. The conversation that ensued was the last thing Thandi had expected.

"What can I do for you, Your Majesty?"

"Since when do you call me 'Your Majesty'? I've got great news, Thandi! It turns out that Daddy and Victor wound up on Manticore. Imagine that! So I've decided to kill two birds with one stone. Well, I guess that's a silly way to put it, but the point is that I want to combine seeing Daddy again with an official state visit to the Star Empire. I started to give the orders myself but then I realized that was probably inappropriate and you should do it instead. So tell the captain of the Pottawatomie Creek to get ready to leave for Manticore as soon as possible. Oh, and you need to pack a bag. I want you to come with me. Captain Petersen can manage things and you'll want to see Victor anyway. I'm bringing Web and Jeremy too. Hugh will stay here and hold the fort while we're gone."

Thandi stared at the image of the young woman on the screen. Her brain seemed to have taken flight like a startled bird and was flapping around aimlessly.

She heard someone's voice behind Berry but couldn't make out the words. Then, another voice, but she couldn't understand what it was saying either.

"What do you mean you can't do that?" said Berry, looking over her shoulder.


"Oh, that's ridiculous, Hugh!" said Berry. "God, I detest stupid formalities."


"The so-called 'integrity of government' can kiss my sweet royal ass. Call Web. Tell him to make you a member of the cabinet."


"How should I know which cabinet post, Jeremy? Who cares, anyway?" She looked back at Thandi, her expression that of someone sharing the absurdity of the world's workings with a close friend. "Can you believe this crap?"

Berry looked back over her shoulder and said: "Make him the cabinet member in charge when the queen and prime minister are out of the system. Call it the… Hell, I don't know. The Department of the Posterior."


Berry's lips tightened. "Is that so?" She looked back at Thandi. "Time to take off the royal gloves." Then, looked back over her shoulder again.

"The law says I can order one person exiled every year, right? Totally at my discretion? No appeals, no arguments, no ifs, ands or buts. I am correct, am I not?"

Voices-talking-but-the-words-were-not-comprehensible. But given the brevity of the speech it had to have been a three word response: Yes, Your Majesty.

Berry looked triumphant. "Fine. Spread the word far and wide -- have it announced on all the news stations; hire people to shout it from the rooftops -- that the first jackass who questions Hugh's right to run the show while we're gone is immediately exiled. How's that? Are we satisfied now, Mister Galaxy's-Worst-Terrorist-Turned-OCD-Protocol-Fussbudget? How about you, Doctor Anal-Retentive-Former-Coldblooded-Commando?"

She turned back to Thandi. "How soon can you get here?"

Thandi's brain came to roost where it belonged.

"About half an hour."


By the time Thandi got there, Ruth Winton had decided to come along also.

More precisely, the princess had announced her decision to join the party headed for Manticore but various objections were raised, centered on the fact that with Anton Zilwicki gone the princess was needed to oversee Torch's intelligence community. Said objections were over-ruled by Berry in a peremptory manner on the grounds that a traveling monarch needed a companion and if anybody didn't like it see aforementioned provisions for summary exile and since when was intelligence a community anyway?

"L'état, c'est toi," Hugh muttered.

"What was that wisecrack?" demanded Berry.

"T'wasn't a wisecrack but the now-revealed godawful truth," said Jeremy X. He started singing the verses of La Marseillaise.

Under his breath.
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Jan 26, 2014 10:38 pm


Posts: 2311
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 15

Chapter 11

"Does she ever stop griping and grousing?" asked Colonel Donald Toussaint. His tone of voice was relaxed, though, and he was smiling rather than frowning. Apparently, he'd already been briefed on the… distinctive personality and behavior of the Hali Sowle's captain.

"Ganny?" Commander Loren Damewood shook his head but didn't look up from the console he was monitoring. "Not that I've ever noticed. But I might have missed a stretch where she was quiet, here or there, if I was pre-occupied with something. After a while you just tune it out. It's like living by the ocean -- before too long, you don't hear the surf unless you think about it."

Another burst came over the com. " -- the fuck designed this stupid software, anyway? For Christ's sake, I could chew some raw silicon -- don't think I couldn't! -- and spit out a better program than this miserable misbegotten -- "

Donald tuned it out and swiveled his seat in order to bring his three immediate subordinates into sight.

He had to fight down a grin. This must be what the historical novels mean by "a motley crew."

On the left, looking like a misplaced piece of heavy equipment that someone as a prank had made to resemble a human being was Major Arkaitz Ali bin Muhammad. He was even bigger and squatter than Donald himself.

The major had formerly gone by the monicker of Arkaitz X. When he joined the Torch military he dropped the "X" and, as was the usual custom, adopted as a new surname the identity of some historical leader of anti-slavery revolts or protests. In his case, the name of the man who'd led the great Zanj Rebellion against the Abbasid Caliphate more than two millennia earlier.

On the right stood a woman whose membership in the human race was evident at a glance. That was Lt. Colonel Ayibongwinkosi Kabweza, Donald's second-in-command. Insofar as this motley crew had a normal human member, it was Kabweza. She was the descendant in the matrilineal line of a slave freed a century earlier by a Beowulfan cruiser, but the ensuing four generations had brought the usual genetic blending. There were still traces of her maternal ancestor's largely Mfecane heritage, but she looked more like a native of Terra's great archipelago in southeast Asia than anything else.

Then, there was the person in the middle. Major Anichka Sydorenko. As was the case with Kabweza, Major Sydorenko's membership in the human race was self-evident, as was her gender. As was true of almost all former Scrag females, she was tall, blonde, blue-eyed, erect of posture and generally majestic in appearance.

Although it was encouraged, it was not a legal requirement that former Ballroom members or former Scrags who joined the military had to abandon the "X" appellation or the Scrag habit of having no surname at all. But Torch's Secretary of War insisted that anyone who desired to rise above the rank of non-commissioned officer did have to do so. When it was pointed out (by zealous news commentators as well as disgruntled comrades) that the Secretary of War himself had not followed suit, Jeremy X argued that maintaining his established identity was essential to demonstrating civilian control of the military.

And if that argument didn't make any sense, so be it. Jeremy X he remained. Most people were pretty sure that the real reason was to quietly reassure the Ballroom that while he had formally resigned his membership he hadn't abandoned them. Not in the least.

Donald gave the two majors no more than a passing glance, however. He was mostly concerned with Lt. Colonel Kabweza. Until he'd arrived there a week earlier, Kabweza had been the commander of the Torch forces at Parmley Station. Furthermore, she had a real military background.

The fact that Donald had enlisted in the military was mostly a legal formality. What he really was, official rank be damned, was the Torch analog of the ancient position of commissar and its modern equivalent, the post of People's Commissioner favored by the former Havenite regime of Rob Pierre and Oscar St. Just.

The analogy was only a rough one. The original post of commissar had been created during the Russian Revolution because the Bolshevik regime didn't trust many of the former Tsarist officers who formed the backbone of its military cadre during the civil war that followed. The task of the commissars was to oversee the political reliability of the officers who directly led the armed forces in combat.

Reliability wasn't the issue here. Nobody thought that Torch's military was in any way politically suspect. A high percentage of the soldiers and officers were former members of the Audubon Ballroom, for one thing. For another, whatever political disagreements and policy disputes might exist among the military cadre, none of the officers -- commissioned or non-commissioned -- had their origins in the overthrown Manpower regime. And finally, there was not the proverbial cold chance in hell that any member of Torch's armed forces -- officer, non-com, green private just joined yesterday, anybody -- would defect and switch sides, which the Bolsheviks and Havenites had had to worry about.

There were some real advantages to having an enemy as blatantly committed to chattel slavery as Mesa and Manpower. Why don't you come over to our side so we can put you in shackles and keep you there for the rest of your life -- oh, and that of all your descendants too -- is about the worst recruiting pitch ever devised.

In a sense, the problem Torch faced was the exact opposite. The reason that Jeremy X had decided he needed a layer of officers like Donald (X-now-Toussaint) was not to ride herd on the officers. They were not so much overseers in the traditional manner of commissars as they were negotiators and facilitators whose main job was to ensure that the enlisted ranks didn't rupture military discipline and protocol.

Depending on the armed service in question, former members of the Ballroom constituted anywhere between twenty percent and forty percent of the enlisted personnel. And at least that high a percentage were made up of people who were heavily influenced by the Ballroom and its attitudes.

But the Ballroom had provided less than half that percentage of the officers.

The reason was obvious and nobody thought it was due to political discrimination. Not with Jeremy X himself as the Secretary of War! The problem was simply that the training and experience of Ballroom activists, while it had certainly exposed them to combat, had little in common with the skills and experience needed by officers of a regular military force.

The potential for clashes between officers and the ranks was clear, therefore. Jeremy had decided the best way to deal with it -- forestall it where possible; diffuse it where necessary; squash it outright as a last resort -- was to place some of the Ballroom's most prominent and respected leaders in the top ranks of the field grade officers.

So, in the here and now that Donald was dealing with, he was officially in charge of all Torch forces assigned to Parmley Station and whatever missions might be dispatched from there. But he knew and she knew and anyone except outright dimwits knew perfectly well that Lt. Colonel Kabweza would be leading any of the ground forces that actually went into combat. Just as everyone knew that Lt. Commander Jerome Llewellyn was the person who'd really be in charge of the two frigates which had been assigned to the Parmley Station task force whenever they went into action.

Frigates were simply too small and fragile to have any significant role in modern naval combat. The roles the frigate had once filled were now filled by destroyers in any navy which aspired to be anything more than a system-defense force, and even destroyers were experiencing a steady upward creep in size and tonnage. There was still a role for small warships -- indeed, a larger one than they had played in the better part of a century -- but that role was played by LACs, not frigates, thanks to the revolution in warship technology which had come out of the Havenite Wars, especially where LACs were concerned. Unlike true starships, which were required to sacrifice considerable amounts of their internal mass to the hyper generator and alpha nodes which made hyper-flight practical, LACs were pure sub-light vessels. They could use all of that mass for the additional weapons, better armor, more point defense, and much stronger sidewalls which were now possible, and that made them far more effective in combat. They were also more survivable and, assuming equivalent levels of technology in their construction, cost less than a frigate.

But the LAC did have one great weakness, because it was a sub-light warship, unable to deploy across interstellar distances on its own. It was well suited to system defense, but to project power, it required a LAC carrier, and CLACs were very, very expensive.

Up until very recently, Torch's tiny navy consisted entirely of the fifteen frigates built for it by the Hauptman Cartel: seven of the John Brown-class and eight of the newer Nat Turner-class. The John Brown-class were modernized conventional frigates while the Nat Turner-class were the more fancy hyper-capable Shrike equivalents.

That situation had changed radically when Luis Roszak handed Torch the heavy cruiser Spartacus and all the other captured warships which had surrendered to him after the Battle of Torch, but that gift -- magnificent thought it had been -- was something of a problem in its own right. The primary reasons the Royal Torch Navy had consisted solely of frigates prior to the battle were fairly straightforward. First, they were the cheapest hyper-capable ships Torch could afford, and even that had been possible only because of the Hauptman Cartel's generosity. Second, (and even more importantly), they made ideal training platforms.
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Jan 28, 2014 10:12 pm


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Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 16

Because of the nature of Manpower's genetic slavery, there were very few ex-slaves who had any experience with the complex requirements of operating starships -- of any kind, much less warships. There were no more than a handful who had any experience with operating the sort of huge warships -- battlecruisers, dreadnaughts and superdreadnaughts -- which completely dominated modern warfare. And none of those had any experience in command positions. The few ex-slaves who did have naval experience had mostly been marines. And those who hadn't been marines had almost all been simple ratings. Volunteers from Beowulf and Manticore, where liberated slaves and the children of liberated slaves had enlisted in the military with ferocious patriotism, had supplied a small core of highly experienced and highly proficient officers, but that supply could be stretched only so far. It could have been exhausted very quickly, indeed, in manning heavy hyper-capable combatants, so what would be the point of equipping Torch's navy with capital ships? Even if they could have afforded such craft, they didn't have the personnel to staff and operate them.

Most poor one-planet star nations, faced with the same reality, abandoned any idea of having a navy at all. At least, beyond whatever token force the existing regime decided was necessary for its own self-esteem. That varied quite a bit. The general pattern was that nations with a reasonably democratic political structure only maintained what pre-space travel people would have called a "coast guard." Nations which labored under autocratic regimes, on the other hand, sometimes devoted a preposterous share of the public wealth to supporting naval forces that were still much too puny to do any good in an actual war, but made the local despots feel good about themselves. These were the sort of despots who invariably paraded around in fancy military uniforms festooned with a chestful of medals and decorations.

As it happened, though, Torch's immense pharmaceutical potential gave its new government good reason to believe that it wouldn't take more than a few years before it could afford a real navy. Still a rather small one, granted, but a navy that would be powerful enough to deal with the sort of recent raiding expedition that would have destroyed Torch had not Luiz Roszak and his Mayan forces stood in the way. And, thanks to Roszak, they had a very substantial core around which that sort of navy could be built. But before they could make proper use of those ships, they had to train not simply the officers to command them but the crews to man them, and for that the Nat Turner-class frigates were ideal. Too small and feeble to survive a modern space battle, frigates were still big enough and had the FTL capability to provide Torch's fledgling navy with the experience it needed to train its officers and ratings.

And, truth be told, there were frigates . . . and then there were frigates, and the Nat Turners were significantly more dangerous than most people might have expected. Effectively, they were hyper-capable versions of the Royal Manticoran Navy's Shrike-class LAC but with about twice the missile capacity and a pair of spinal-mounted grasers, with the second energy weapon bearing aft. Their electronics were a downgraded "export version" of the RMN's (which was hardly surprising, given the fact that they'd been going to be operating in an area where the Republic of Haven's intelligence services had ready access and no one in the galaxy had dreamed Haven and Manticore might end up allies), but the Turners were probably at least as dangerous as the vast majority of the galaxy's destroyers. They were, in fact, considerably more modern and up-to-date fighting ships than the ex-State Security ships which had been handed over to Torch, and they would have eaten most navies' destroyers for lunch in a stand-up fight. The new ships were earmarked for substantial upgrading courtesy of Haven, but until that process had been completed, the Turners were much better training platforms and combat units in almost every respect.

On the other hand, training could only go so far against simulated enemies. At some point, the frigates and their crews had to be tempered in real combat.

The trick, obviously, was to pick the right enemy -- and for that purpose, Manpower's far-flung slave-trading empire was ideal. There were any number of outposts and depots scattered throughout the human-occupied galaxy that would provide Torch's adolescent navy with opponents tough enough to test it but weak enough to be defeated if the navy handled itself properly.

Hence, also, the Hali Sowle. The one big problem with using frigates against the slave trade -- at least, against outposts and depots if not other spacecraft -- was that the ships were hard to disguise. Nothing else really looked much like a frigate. By now only the most ignorant slave traders didn't know that a slave revolt on the planet once called Verdant Vista had produced a nation of ex-slaves; that the new nation called itself Torch, a name which itself had obvious implications; that Torch had declared war on Mesa; and… had a small navy that mostly consisted of frigates. Granted, it wasn't the only star nation that used frigates, but the rest were either single-star systems that generally stayed out of everyone's way or the ramshackle or the now-collapsed Silesian Confederacy.

So here you are, staffing a slave trading depot, and a frigate arrives in your star system. Gosh, who is it most likely to be?

There would be no such suspicion attached to the Hali Sowle, on the other hand. Tramp freighters were an integral part of the slave trade. Some were slave transports themselves; others provided the slave trade with the supplies it needed. No slaver would think twice at the appearance of such a craft in their star system, even if that particular freighter had never come there before.

And a Nat Turner could be handily fitted into many tramp merchantmen's cargo holds, which had suggested all sorts of devious possibility to the RTN's operational planners.

The Hali Sowle's owner and operator had to agree to the whole project, of course. But Ganny El was nothing if not a haggler, and she had a whole clan of people she was responsible for on whose behalf to haggle.

So, haggle she did. She'd already gotten Beowulf to absorb the cost of providing prolong treatments for all clan members still young enough to benefit from them. She figured it was time to provide those same now-long-lived youngsters with the galaxy's best education, all expenses paid. By others.

Three others qualified, when it came to the galaxy's best educational systems. Manticore, Beowulf, and most of the Solarian League's other Core worlds.

For obvious reasons, the other Core worlds were ruled out. So Ganny started chewing on the flanks of Beowulf and Manticore. Both of whom, as it happened, were patrons of the new star nation of Torch.


But now, unfortunately, a hitch had developed. The Hali Sowle, it turned out, did not have an internal topology that leant itself to carrying the frigates inside its hull. Furthermore, being a merchant ship -- and an old one, at that -- it did not have the capability to operate the long-range drone sensor platforms that were critical to its mission. The compromise that had been decided upon was that the Hali Sowle would carry a support and communications module in its cargo hold that did have that capability. Both of the frigates would be tractored to the hull of the Hali Sowle, riding the racks which had been built to transport external cargo canisters back when the freighter's designers had thought they were building an honest merchantman.

That wasn't likely to be a problem, though. Unless Ganny maneuvered the freighter like an idiot once they neared a target -- and nobody thought for one moment there was anything wrong with the old lady's brains -- there was no real chance that frigates tractored to the ship's hull would be spotted by anyone. All she had to do was keep the roof or belly of the Hali Sowle's wedge toward enemy sensors and they wouldn't be able to see a thing.

The problem lay elsewhere. Trying to integrate the new, state-of-the-art systems of the comm module with the aged and obsolescent systems of the Hali Sowle was proving to be trickier than anyone had foreseen.


There came another string of blistering phrases over the intercom. Louder than usual, even.

"-- ever catch the worthless pedophile who foisted this piece of crap so-called software on innocent babes in the woods I swear to God I'll cut -- "

Donald Ali bin Muhammad couldn't keep from wincing. Having taken a momentary break from his work at the nearby console, Loren Damewood spotted the grimace.

He laughed. "You think the grousing and griping is bad? Try negotiating with her sometime."

Donald stared at him, wide-eyed. "Did you have to --"

"Not personally, no. 'Course not. Way over my pay grade. Thank God." Damewood shook his head. "But the stories you hear… Scare children to sleep with 'em."

"-- be any razor, neither. Screw the quality of mercy. I'm going medieval. Chain saw, that's what I'll use. Never heard of a chain saw? Well, gather round, kiddies -- "
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]

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