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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   » Sun Feb 23, 2014 10:30 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 27

"My own ancestors -- and Honor's, of course" he nodded at his niece " -- ended up in command of the Rescue Fleet. In a way, since the League grew out of the relief effort and the kick in the pants that gave to interstellar commerce and travel in general, you could say the present day Sollies are at least partly our family's fault, I suppose. On the other hand, there's more than enough blame to go around where that minor problem's concerned, so I don't intend to dwell on it. But the lesson Beowulf and most of the rest of the human race took away from the Final War was that they never -- ever -- wanted to face that sort of nightmare again. And the 'super soldiers' and, possibly even more, the mindset of the Ukrainian supremacists, was almost worse than the gene-engineered diseases."

Several of the others looked a bit surprised by his last sentence and he snorted.

"I know. Compared to the Asian Confederacy's nightmares, the Scrags were actually almost benign, weren't they?" He gestured at Yana. "I mean, look at her. Then look at Honor. Not a lot to choose between them, is there?"

Yana and his niece looked at each other for a moment. Then Honor smiled slowly and shook her head.

"No, not a lot at all," she murmured.

"But the idea behind the Ukrainians was even worse," Benton-Ramirez y Chou said softly. "The Confederacy had seen its super soldiers as weapons systems, tools that wouldn't be allowed to reproduce and certainly weren't any sort of pattern for the future of humanity. But the Ukrainians had intended all along to force the evolution of the next step, of Homo superior, and that was what had initiated the entire conflict. All of the carnage, all of the destruction and the billions of lives which had been lost, started in the Ukrainian ideal of designed genetic uplift. The further weaponization of biotechnology, and of nanotechnology, made the devastation immeasurably worse, but the people trying to dig the human race's homeworld out of what had become a mass grave were determined that it wasn't going to happen again. The Beowulf Biosciences Code evolved directly out of the Final War. That's why it unequivocally outlaws any weaponization of biotech in general . . . and why it places such stringent limits on acceptable genetic modification of humans."

"And Mesa doesn't agree with that, obviously," Victor said.

"No, it doesn't." Benton-Ramirez y Chou agreed. "Leonard Detweiler thought it was a hysterical overreaction to a disaster, an isolated incident which, for all its horror, had after all been limited to a single star system. Mind you, the bio weapons had jumped the fire breaks between Old Earth, Luna, and Mars, but even at their worst, they'd never gotten beyond Sol's Oort cloud, and the human race had lots of star systems by then. And even if that hadn't been the case, then surely humanity had learned its lesson. Besides, he didn't have any real objection to outlawing weaponized biotech -- or he said he didn't, at any rate. It was the Code's decision to turn its back on targeted improvement of the human genotype, to renounce the right to take our genetic destiny into our own hands, that infuriated him. 'Small minds are always terrified by great opportunities,' he said. He simply couldn't believe any rational species would turn its back on the opportunity to become all that it could possibly be."

He paused for a long moment, then sighed deeply.

"And the truth is, in a lot of ways, Detweiler was right," he admitted. "Again, look at Honor and Yana. Nothing horrible there, is there? Or in any of a dozen -- two dozen -- specific planetary environment genetic mods I could rattle off. Even you Graysons." He smiled at the Mayhews and shook his head. "Without the genetic mods your founders put into place so secretly, you wouldn't have survived. But what Detweiler never understood -- or accepted, anyway -- was that what the mainstream Beowulfan perspective rejected was the intentional design of a genotype which was intended from the beginning to produce a superior human, a better human . . . what lunatics from Adolph Hitler to the Ukrainian supremacists to the Malsathan unbeatables have all sought -- a master race. For all intents and purposes, a separate species which, by virtue of its obvious and designed superiority to all other varieties of human being must inevitably exercise that superiority.

"Detweiler never understood that. He never understood that his fellow Beowulfers were repelled by the reemergence of what had once been called racism which was inherent in his proposals."

Several members of his audience looked puzzled, and he snorted and looked at Catherine Montaigne.

"I'm sure your friend DuHavel could explain the concept," he said.

"And he's done it often enough," Montagne agreed just a bit sourly, and glanced around at the other table guests. "What Jacques is talking about is the belief that certain genetic characteristics -- silly things like skin color, hair color, eye color -- denoted inherent superiority or inferiority. As Web is fond of pointing out, once upon a time Empress Elizabeth would have been considered naturally inferior because of her complexion and relegated by her inferiority to slave status."

"That's ridiculous!" Elaine Mayhew said sharply, and Benton-Ramirez y Chou chuckled with very little humor.

"Of course it is. It's the sort of concept that belongs to primitive history. But the problem, Elaine, is that what Detweiler was proposing would have reanimated the concept of inherent inferiority because it would have been true. It would have been something which could have been demonstrated, measured, placed on a sliding scale. Of course, exactly what constituted 'superiority' might have been open to competing interpretations, which could only have made the situation even worse. We Beowulfers are fiercely meritocratic, but we're also fanatically devoted to the concepts of social and legal equality, and what Detweiler and his clique wanted struck at the very heart of those concepts.

"So we told him no. Rather emphatically, in fact. So emphatically that if he had attempted to put his theories into practice on Beowulf, he would have been stripped of his license to practice medicine and imprisoned."

Benton-Ramirez y Chou shrugged. "I suppose it's possible our ancestors overreacted, although I'd argue they had good reason to. On the other hand, Detweiler was damned arrogant about his own position. He was deeply and profoundly pissed off by how . . . firmly his arguments were rejected, and it would appear the present-day members of this 'Mesan Alignment' have taken his own overreaction to truly awesome heights. When he shook the dust of Beowulf from his sandals and emigrated to Mesa, he took with him a sizable chunk of the Beowulfan medical establishment. A larger one, really, than the rest of Beowulf ever anticipated would follow him into exile, although it was still only a tiny minority of the total planetary population. And that, Catherine," he smiled wryly at Catherine Mayhew, "is exactly why the enmity between Mesa and Beowulf has been so intense for so long. You could say that Mesa is Beowulf's equivalent of Masada's Faithful, and you wouldn't be far wrong. In fact, you'd be even closer to correct than most of us have imagined over the last five or six centuries."

"That's . . . a bit of an understatement, if you don't mind my saying so," Zilwicki observed, and Benton-Ramirez y Chou nodded.

"Absolutely. I've been thinking about it a lot since you dropped McBryde's bombshell on us, and I've come to the conclusion that what's really behind this entire master plan of theirs -- assuming McBryde got it right, of course -- is more than simply finally accomplishing Leonard Detweiler's dream of creating a genetically superior species. That's obviously part of it, but looking at what we did already know about Mesa and Mesans, I'd say an equally big part of it is proving they were right all along. It's been a long, long time since the Final War. The feelings of revulsion and horror it generated have largely faded, and the prejudice against 'genies' is far weaker than it used to be. In fact, I would argue that if it weren't for the existence of genetic slavery, that prejudice probably would have completely ceased to exist by now. If this Alignment had been willing to take even a fraction of the resources it must have invested in its conspiracies and its infiltration and the development of the technology that made Oyster Bay possible and spend it on propaganda -- on education, for God's sake -- it almost certainly could have convinced a large minority, possibly even a majority, of the rest of the human race to go along with it. To embark, even if more gradually and more cautiously than the Alignment might prefer, on the deliberate improvement of the human genome. For that matter, in the existence of people like Honor and Yana we've already deliberately improved on that genome! But I don't think it ever really occurred to them to take that approach. I think they locked themselves into the idea that their vision had to be imposed on the rest of us and that as the people whose ancestors had seen that division so clearly so much sooner than anyone else, it's their destiny to do just that. Which is one reason I compared them to the Faithful, Catherine. Their whole purpose -- or the way they've chosen to go about achieving it, at least -- is fundamentally irrational, and only someone as fanatical as the people who built 'doomsday bombs' to destroy their entire planet in order to 'save it' from Benjamin the Great and the rest of the moderates could possibly have invested so much in that irrationality."

"I agree," Honor said softly, her eyes dark. "I agree entirely. And that's what truly scares me when I think about this. Because if they really are religious fanatics in some sort of Church of Genetic Superiority, then God only knows how far they are truly prepared to go to drag us all kicking and screaming into their version of Zion."
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Feb 25, 2014 10:10 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 28

Chapter 17

The first thing Thandi Palane noticed when she came into the suite was that the central salon's furniture had been rearranged so that all the couches and chairs had a good view of the HD wallscreen. The paintings which normally filled the screen had been replaced by a talk program.

"-- know anything about this man," said one of the people sitting around the table that was pictured in the center of the screen. She was a red-haired woman with sharp features that matched her sharp tone of voice.

"I wouldn't go so far as that," said the man sitting at one end of the table. The table had an odd sort of L-shape, which led Thandi to think the man in question was the talk show's host or moderator.

The man glanced at a small screen recessed into the table. "We know, for instance, that he was the governor of La Martine province for a short time."

"Short time!" That came from the same red-haired woman. The barked laugh that followed had the same edge to it that Thandi was already coming to associate with the woman -- for whom she was also already developing a dislike.

"That's what I believe is called a 'euphemism,'" the woman continued. "He was relieved from his post almost as soon as he got it -- and I can't help but notice that that came after he spent time under arrest. You can't help but wonder --"

"Cut it out, Charlene," said a woman sitting at the other end of the table from the man Thandi presumed to be the moderator. "None of this even qualifies as 'established fact' in the first place, much less any interpretation of it. The events both you and Yael are referring to took place during the revolution that overthrew St. Just -- and in a Havenite province that's far distant from our own borders and about which we know precious little to begin with. Everything about that revolution is still murky, especially at the edges. So I think it behooves us --"

Thandi turned to Ruth Winton, who was sitting on one of the couches next to Victor. "What's this?"

"It's a show called The Star Empire Today," said Ruth. "The moderator is Yael Underwood."

"He's the slimeball with the long blond hair and weaselly expression sitting on the far right," said Anton Zilwicki, who was seated on another couch in between Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou and Catherine Montaigne.

Cathy laughed. "God, I swear! Nobody can hold a grudge like a Gryphon highlander."

"What grudge?" asked Thandi.

Berry had come in right behind her and provided the answer -- after laughing herself. "Underwood's the one who outed Daddy. That happened before we met you at the funeral ceremony for Hieronymus Stein on Erewhon."

"-- do you refuse to admit that everything about him -- "

"-- why am I the only one here who seems to remember, Florence, that this man was our sworn enemy until yesterday --"

"-- go so far as Charlene, but what does seem fairly well established is that his role in the Manpower Incident was hardly --"

Thandi tuned out the yabber-jabber. "What do you mean by 'outed'?"

"Underwood did a whole show devoted to Anton," explained Cathy. "He let the Talking Heads blather for a while before he trotted out somebody who actually knew something and that guy -- Mr. Wright they called him, didn't they, Anton? -- really spilled the beans."

"I found out later his real name's Guillermo Thatcher," said Anton. "He'd recently retired from SIS -- that stands for Special Intelligence Service, if you didn't know already, which is the Manticoran civilian spook agency -- and someday I hope to catch him in a dark alley with no witnesses around."

Thandi smiled. The smile widened when she saw the gloomy expression on Victor's face.

"-- Special Officer Cachat," the Charlene women was saying, "and you really have to wonder exactly what the 'Special' part of that entails, don't you? If you ask me -- "

"And now they're outing Victor, I take it?"

"Trying to," said Anton. "It's pretty flimsy stuff so far, and" -- he jabbed a thick finger at the HD screen -- "I don't think there's any Mr. Damn-the-bastard Wright equivalent on this panel. It's mostly been a pillow fight between Shrill Charlene and the other woman. Her name's Florence Hu and she's more-or-less the Liberal Party voice on the panel."

Cathy sniffed. "Emphasis on the 'less,' if you please."

"They're swinging at each other plenty fiercely," Anton continued, "but how much damage can you do with a pillow? The simple truth is that none of them know very much about Victor to begin with. That includes Yael Underwood whom I also have daydreams about meeting in a dark alley someday."

Thandi slid onto the couch next to Victor and patted his hand. "Don't let it bother you so much, dear. It'll be over soon enough."

Victor's expression, amazingly, got more gloomy still. "I'm afraid not," he said.

"Oh, come on. These so-called 'news talk shows' have the attention span of a gerbil. By next week --"

"Victor is all they'll be talking about," said Anton. "Well… might take a bit more time than that, depending on this and that and the other. There are some ways, Thandi, in which you don't know Victor that well. The reason for that sourpuss expression on his face isn't because of what's on the HD screen now. It's because he knows what he ought to do next and he really, really, really doesn't want to do it."

Victor grunted. "The reason for the sourpuss expression, as Anton puts it, is because I find his ability to figure out what I'm thinking distressful as well as disturbing. He's getting better at it, too, to make it still worse."

Thandi frowned. "What are you talking about?"

Berry, now standing next to her, looked back and forth between the two men. "Look at 'em. It's like they belong to some sort of weird club. You know, the sort of goofy super-exclusive fellowship that's got stupid secret handshakes."

Ruth suddenly sat up straight and clapped her hands. "Oh, my God! That's brilliant, Anton and Victor! It's absolutely brilliant!"

She jumped to her feet and began pacing back and forth, gesticulating in a manner so vigorous it was almost wild. She came within a centimeter of knocking over a very expensive-looking vase perched on a side table. "You'll have to get approval, of course. Might even have to go all the way to President Pritchard. But she's an ex-spook herself so she's bound to understand why it's such a great idea."

Striding back, she passed by Benton-Ramirez and Chou and waved her hand at him. "He'll have to sign on, too, obviously. But I can't imagine that'll be a big problem."

Jacques looked up at Thandi and Berry. "What are they all talking about?"

Thandi shrugged. "Got no idea. Spook-think doesn't come naturally to me. Victor, would you care to enlighten us?"

She pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Perhaps I should rephrase that. If you don't explain yourself I'm going to take up a new aerobic exercise. It's called the Cachat Curl."

"Can I watch?" asked Berry.

Victor raised his hands in a gesture that combined exasperation and surrender. "Given that there's clearly no way to avoid publicity about…" (A deep breath, here.) "…me, we should run with it. Turn it to our advantage."

"Pile it on with a shovel," chimed in Anton. "As thick and treacly as we can. Make sure the news outlets are obsessed with the story and for as long as possible."

He looked at Jacques. "You'll have to help. To make the scheme work right, we'll need to create a double for Victor. Um. Me too, I guess."

"No 'guess' about it," said Victor. "Yes, you too."

Anton chuckled but didn't look away from Jacques. "They'll have to be sheathed with our DNA, I'm thinking, not just nanotech body-transformed. Just in case someone manages to pick up trace residues. We won't expose them to the media directly, of course, since that would require them to be able to act like we do as well as looking like we do."

"God help the universe," muttered Thandi.

"That would get… tricky," Anton went on. "But it doesn't matter. Once we leak Victor's entire history to the press -- and we do know where all the bones are buried --"

"Oh, so many many bones," chortled Ruth, still striding. "God, the media will go wild!"

"Especially when we leak the Ballroom footage of the Old Town gunfight," said Anton.

Victor made a noise that sounded like a vehement protest strangled before it took actual form in words. Anton gave him a sideways look. "Of course we have to release that, too. It'll be the icing on the cake, Victor. You know it as well as I do."

The Havenite agent's expression had passed beyond gloomy by now and had entered the territory shared by sullen rancor and spread the misery. "I've never seen that footage, but it's got to include Jeremy as well as me." He gave Cathy a sharp look. "Yes?"

"Well… yes, it does. Right at the end."
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Feb 27, 2014 9:41 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 29

"He gunned down at least four of the bastards, as I recall. So let the damned media get their first actual look at what the expression 'galaxy's most deadly terrorist' actually means."

"That's… probably a good idea on its merits, now that I think about," said Anton.

As they'd been talking, Jacques' head had gone back and forth between them. Now he raised his hands.

"You're making me dizzy. I don't understand -- " He broke off sharply, his eyes widening. "Oh, dear God in Heaven. That's… brilliant."

Thandi started whistling tunelessly. "If anybody thinks I can't turn the Cachat Curl into a general-purpose workout routine, you'd best start thinking again. What the hell are you all talking about?"

Jacques pointed at Victor and Anton, moving his finger between them. "First, we start creating doubles for them at the same time as we're putting them through the body-transformation and sheathing. Second -- oh, somewhere around next week, as soon as everyone's off to Beowulf, we start feeding little tidbits to the media. But we don't stretch it out too long, because we want a big splash. A really big splash. Then we dump everything. Give Underwood as much material as he got when he did the Zilwicki exposé -- what was it? Two years ago?"

"Three," replied Anton.

"Hey!" said Berry. "It wasn't an 'exposé'. It was pretty positive, actually."

"Positive, negative -- it doesn't matter," said Jacques. "It's just got to be explosive and exciting." He now looked at Montaigne. "I haven't seen this footage you're talking about. Is it…?"

"Explosive and exciting?" She looked as if she didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "Let's put it this way. Victor gunned down at least a dozen State Sec goons and Scrags. Jeremy did for the rest. There was one badly wounded survivor. Donald X -- no, I guess he's Donald Ali bin Muhammad now -- shot him dead. That's on the footage too."

"We can probably cut that part," said Anton.

"Why?" asked Victor. "Donald won't care. Who's going to charge him -- or me, or Jeremy -- with anything? The people with legal jurisdiction are the authorities on Terra. Given the current situation, they've got enough on their plates. I don't think they're going to be dredging up the Manpower Incident and sending out extradition notices."

Anton grunted. "True. Keep going, Jacques."

By now, Benton-Ramirez y Chou was on his feet along with Ruth, although he wasn't pacing. "It's brilliant. The media will go wild. I'm just starting to grasp at all the ramifications. For one thing…"

He looked down at Anton, and then at Cathy. "I know the basic facts about the Manpower Incident. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it's fair to say that Victor saved the lives of your children."

"There's no doubt about it," said Anton.

"Yes," said Berry. "I was there myself, although I didn't see the actual shooting."

Jacques nodded. "You're all probably too close to it to see it for what it's worth in propaganda terms. Right at the point where the leaders of Manticore and Haven are trying to convince their own populations that it's time to end the galaxy's bloodiest and bitterest war -- and meeting a lot of resistance -- we get a story splashed all over the media -- first here in the Star Empire, then in the Republic of Haven -- that tells how a young Havenite StateSec agent saved the lives of three Manticoran children -- one of whom is now an officer in the fleet and another of whom is the newly-crowned queen of the new star nation of Torch -- and began a friendship and later a partnership with the father of those children -- who's himself a well-known figure in the Star Empire -- "

Ruth snickered. "Captain Zilwicki, Scourge of the Spaceways."

"-- that led eventually to the uncovering of the evil masterplan of the Mesan Alignment. Who, among their many other crimes, are the ones responsible for instigating the war between Manticore and Haven and keeping it going."

He started rubbing his hands. "Not to mention that Victor was part of the underground opposition that eventually overthrew the Saint-Just regime. Oh, God, it's brilliant. The media will slobber over it for weeks. And by the time they finally start tiring of it…"

He lowered his hands and grinned. "The doubles will be ready to go to work. We trot them out from time to time in front of the media -- never too close and not too often, just enough -- to give the impression that Cachat and Zilwicki are both neck-deep in whatever oh-very-hush-hush scheming is being done by the authorities -- the authorities here, you understand, and later on Haven and maybe Beowulf -- while they're actually almost eight hundred light years away… On Mesa, which is the last place anybody would think they'd gone to."

Thandi rubbed a hand over her face. "Okay, now I get it. What you're proposing is basically a diversion. A whopping big diversion." The hand came away. "You're right. It's brilliant. But we'll need a double for me also. I'm too prominent a figure to just vanish. If people see my double engaging in what looks like discussions with my Manticoran counterparts, they won't think anything of it. That's exactly what they'd expect to see."

Anton and Victor looked at each other. "She's right," said Victor. Anton nodded.

So did Jacques. "We'll include you in the mix, then." He thought for a moment. "Anyone else? This Yana person, perhaps…"

"No," that came from Victor and Thandi simultaneously.

"Nobody will notice if Yana just disappears," Thandi elaborated. "We need to give her a body transformation and a genetic sheathe since she was on Mesa with Victor and Anton. But she doesn't need a double."

"The same's true of Steph Turner," Victor added. "That's assuming she agrees to come at all."

Jacques pulled out his com. "Okay. So who makes the call? And who do we start with?"

Victor and Anton exchanged looks again.

"There's something a little scary about that," mused Cathy.

"You think?" That came from Berry. But she was smiling when she said it.

"We need to start with President Pritchart," said Anton. He pointed at Victor. "He's actually very disciplined, believe it or not. He won't -- can't -- agree to this without the approval of his superiors. And given that they're bouncing his official status around, there's no one except Pritchart who could sign off on it. As for who should make the call…"

Victor pulled out his com. "I'll do it. I'd rather Jacques did, but… a special officer beards his own commander-in-chief."

"Eloise Pritchart does not have a beard," said Cathy.

Victor's gloomy expression was back. "Stick around," he said, as he keyed in some numbers. "By tomorrow she may have."

His face got the slightly vacant look of someone who's talking to someone far away. "This is Special Officer Cachat. Would you please pass on to President Pritchart that I need to speak with her as soon as possible."

After a moment, he continued: "Yes, I know she's very busy. This is important."

Another moment passed. Victor rolled his eyes. "Yes, thank you." He turned off the com. "Wasn't it Shakespeare who said, 'first thing we do, we kill all the bureaucrats'?"

Cathy shook her head. "No. It was lawyers."

"He got it wrong, then." He put the com away. "I wouldn't hold out great hopes that I'll be able to see her anytime soon. The president's gofer -- excuse me, assistant executive director -- made it pretty clear that I was a nuisance with delusions of grandeur."

"Is that so?" Jacques took his com back out. "Let me try, then." He entered some numbers and within a short time got the same slightly vacant expression.

"This is Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou, Third Director at Large of the Planetary Board of Directors of Beowulf. What is your name, please?"

A few seconds passed. "Well then, Assistant Executive Director Hancock. I need to speak to President Pritchart."

A few seconds passed. "I didn't say I needed an appointment, Ms. Hancock, I said I needed to speak to President Pritchard. If you require an explanation of the word 'now' I can have it provided for you by my cousin. That would be Chyang Benton-Ramirez. He's the Chairman of Beowulf's Board of Directors."

A few seconds passed. "Thank you, Assistant Executive Director Hancock."

To the people around him he said: "She's getting her."

A couple of minutes passed. "Eloise? Jacques here. Something very important has come up. I need to meet with you as soon as possible. I'll be bringing your Special Officer Cachat with me. Captain Zilwicki as well. And General Palane."

A few seconds passed. "Splendid. Fifteen thirty it is."

He put away the com and glanced at his timepiece. "Okay, we've got a little over two hours. We'd best get moving."


After they left, Ruth sat back down at looked at the HD. The talking heads were still at it.

"-- unfortunate, I agree, but there it is." Yael Underwood was saying. "We just don't know very much about Cachat and what little we do know is half-speculation."

"Boy, are you in for a wild ride," said Ruth.
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Mar 02, 2014 10:15 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 30

Chapter 18

When Steph Turner and Andrew Artlett were ushered into the conference room, they were surprised to find Queen Berry and Princess Ruth waiting for them. There was another person in the room whom they didn't recognize. That was hardly surprising, since they'd only been in the Beowulfan capital city of Columbia for a short time. Their ship had arrived the previous evening.

"Where's Victor?" Steph asked. "And Anton? They were the ones who sent me the message to come here right away."

Andrew pulled out a chair for her and helped her get seated at the table in the center of the room, facing Berry and Ruth and the unknown man. He wasn't usually given to such gallantries, but he was trying to evade the gazes coming his way. The ones that indicated and what is he doing here?

Recognizing the gazes, Steph said a bit awkwardly: "Andrew, uh, decided to come with me."

Having sat down by then, Andrew got a little belligerent. "I know I wasn't invited but I also know Cachat and Zilwicki. They're up to something. Involving Steph. Which means 'up to no good,' most likely. They got a history. So I came along to make sure Steph doesn't get hustled."

Berry and Ruth looked at each other, and then at the man Steph and Andrew didn't know.

"I guess it's your call," Berry said to him.

The man chuckled. "Who knows? This whole project is scrambling everybody's pre-existing notions of proper jurisdiction. But I'll kick it off."

He swiveled in his seat to face Andrew. "I assume you're Andrew Artlett, right? The now-famous -- in some circles, anyway -- starship mechanic who jury-rigged the repairs on the Hali Sowle that enabled Cachat and Zilwicki to bring back their galaxy-shaking -- that's almost literally true -- intelligence from Mesa."

"What of it?" Andrew demanded, leaning his weight on forearms planted on the table.

Steph put a hand on his arm. "Hon, I think he's being complimentary. Ease up on the testosterone, will you?"

"Um." Andrew settled back. The expression on his face was that of a man who was embarrassed but was valiantly refusing to acknowledge the fact. "Um," he repeated.

"I'm Henry Kham," the man said. "I'm with… Well, for the moment let's just call it the Inter-Agency Development Team."

"'Inter' between what agencies and developing what and who's on the team?" Andrew demanded.

Steph gave him an exasperated glance. "I think we'll find out soon enough. Now will you puh-lease let Mr. Kham finish what he's saying."


Kham smiled. "The interaction is between a number of organizations representing -- so far -- four star nations. Beowulf, Manticore and Torch being three of them, which is why we're here. The Republic of Haven is also involved but they didn't have a representative available to come to this meeting."

"Where's Victor?" asked Steph.

"He's tied up at the moment."

A little choking sound came from Berry, followed almost immediately by the same sort of noise from Ruth. Kham gave them an inquisitive glance. "A poor choice of words?" he asked.

"Ah… " Ruth shook her head. "No, no. That's fine."

Berry murmured something that sounded like except he usually does the tying although Steph wasn't sure. The young queen's face was a little puffy, as if she was doing her best to stifle laughter.

Ruth flipped her hand in a shooing motion. "Keep going, Henry. Don't mind us."

Kham turned back to Steph and Andrew. "As for the project we're developing, it's basically simple. As invaluable as the information Cachat and Zilwicki brought back was, we need more. So we're planning to insert another intelligence team on Mesa." He now looked directly at Steph. "And we want to ask you to accompany them."

Andrew looked like he was about to object but Kham held up his hand. "Hear me out, please. We wouldn't be expecting Ms. Turner to play a direct role in the intelligence-gathering. What we'd want her to do is set up a safe house and provide the actual operatives with guidance and advice."

"No," said Artlett. He stood up and extended his hand to his companion. "Let's go, Steph."

"Andrew, sit down," she said.

He stared at her, half-gaping.

"Sit. Down," she repeated. "First, it's my decision, not yours. Second, you're being rude. Keep talking, Mr. Kham. What sort of safe house and with what -- and how much -- money?"

Kham shrugged. "We hoped you'd tell us what would work best as a safe house. Money's not an issue. We'll provide it, and as much as you need."

Steph pursed her lips and her eyes got a little unfocussed.

Artlett sat back down. "Steph, you can't be seriously -- "

"Be quiet. I'm thinking."

He rolled his eyes. But he kept quiet.

After half a minute or so, Steph's gaze came back in focus. "A restaurant's probably out, even though it'd be the easiest for me and ideal for a safe house."

"Agreed," said Kham. "We already thought of that, but…" He shook his head. "The problem is that we just don't know how much data the Mesans still have on everything connected with Cachat and Zilwicki's expedition. But you might still be in their records. We can disguise you, but part of those records are that you owned and operated a restaurant. That might be enough to get flagged if a new one opened up in the seccie quarters."

Ruth spoke up. "I suggested a flophouse. From what I've read, there are a lot of cheap boarding houses in the area."

Steph nodded. "Yeah, there are. A lot of seccies -- men, mostly -- are itinerant laborers. And the houses go in and out of business regularly, since they're usually just someone's home being turned to commercial use when need be. There aren't any regulations governing boardinghouses except the same fire and sanitation regs that apply to everybody. But those don't even get inspected for that often."

"That's what I figured. And it'd be pretty close to what you used to do, since -- correct me if I'm wrong -- part of what a boardinghouse provides are regular meals for the renters. Kind of like a small private restaurant."

"No, you're right." Steph's eyes got out of focus for a moment. Kham took the moment to interject himself.

"That was the objection, though, raised by -- ah, one of the development team members," he said. "That a boardinghouse is close enough to what you used to do that it might get flagged for attention also."

"Could be," Steph said. "But that's not what makes me twitchy about the idea." She gave Ruth a sharp glance. "Did your reading indicate the other services usually provided by flophouses?"

Ruth frowned. "I'm not sure what you mean."

"Laundry's one of them. But like I said, the clientele is mostly male. So most flophouses provide prostitutes also. Sometimes that service is done directly by the woman -- they're almost always women -- who own the house. But it's usually contracted out."

Berry made a face. "Steph, nobody would expect you --"

Steph laughed, quite cheerfully. "You'd better not! But that's not the problem." She gave Kham a look that was not quite condemnatory but came awfully close. "Am I right in thinking that your so-called 'development team' could come up with a whore or two, if need be?"

"Well… they wouldn't be whores, no. They'd actually be trained intelligence operatives. But with that caveat, yes. We could." He shrugged. "Spying and sexual favors go back together a very long ways."

"Could you provide the pimp, too?" She waved her hand. "Never mind. Hypothetical question. I'm sure you could. Just like I'm sure that the reason Victor isn't here is because you're putting him through some kind of body modification process because there's no way he wouldn't insist on being part of this. Make him the official pimp and no other pimp would dare come near the place. Not, at least, after the first couple of 'em got filleted."

Steph shook her head. "But that's still not the problem. Where were you planning to set up this safe house? Neue Rostock? That'd be the best district from the standpoint of avoiding the police. Either that or Lower Radomsko. But if you set it up in Neue Rostock you'd have to deal with Dusek's organization, since they don't let…" Her eyes got unfocused again. "Huh. Actually, that's a possibility worth thinking about. Lower Radomsko would be a mess. Victor could handle any one of those crazy little gangs -- wouldn't even work up a sweat, knowing him -- but there are just so many of them and they really can get pretty crazy. Let me think."

Again, the unfocused look. After about a minute, she said: "The flophouse is a possibility. The other one is a boutique of some kind. There are a jillion of them in the seccie quarters. They open and close like flowers and most of them have the lifespan of mayflies. Nobody in authority pays any attention to them at all, except for those few in the better-off seccie districts that can get a credit line. They'll get occasional inspections from credit rating services, which are private but have connections with police and regulatory agencies. But as long as you don't try to buy on credit, you're all but invisible to anyone except your clientele."

"And those are… who?" Kham asked.

"Women, mostly. Looking for deals and…" She sighed. "Men make fun of us about it, but the truth is that a little fashion -- even the cheap stuff within the reach of poor seccies -- makes life a little brighter."

"Amen," said Ruth. When everyone looked at her she flushed a little. "Hey, it's true even for royalty. Main difference is just that they -- well, okay, we -- can afford the expensive stuff. About the only woman of any class I know who's completely indifferent to fashion" -- her thumb went sideways -- "is Her Mousety here and she's just plain unnatural."
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Mar 04, 2014 10:40 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 31

"Clothes are clothes," Berry said. "What's the big deal? I never understood it. Might as well get all excited about different kinds of breakfast food."

"Like I said, unnatural." Ruth looked back at Steph. "I can see the advantages."

"How about combining the two?" suggested Kham. "A small flophouse with a small boutique attached?"

"I can't see the benefit. I think you'd be more likely to combine the disadvantages of both. But it's my turn to ask questions. What -- exactly -- did you want this safe house for? Or for who, I guess I should say?"

"The truth is, we don't know yet. The 'who,' I mean. The other function of the safe house -- which might wind up being its only function, for all we know at the moment -- is to serve as a permanent drop box. That means a place where information can be passed on. Or along."

"Or along…" Steph nodded. "In other words, your -- should I call it the 'now-developed team'? -- will actually be at least two teams. Maybe more. And you need them to be able to stay in touch without actually being in touch."

"Ah… well, yes."

A voice came into the room, from a hidden speaker somewhere.

"This is cumbersome," the voice said. "Ms. Turner, are you in or out?"

"Who are you?"

"Who the hell are you?"

The first question came from Steph; the other from Andrew. Both of them were looking around the conference room, trying to spot the source of the voice.

"That doesn't matter right now," the voice said.

"Do you recognize that voice?" Steph asked Andrew quietly.

He shook his head. "Nobody I know. But it's someone from the Traccora system, I'm pretty sure. We had a slaver crew come through Parmley Station from there once. The accent's pretty distinctive."

"In or out, Ms. Turner?" the voice repeated. "There are security issues involved. If the answer is 'in,' we'll continue. If it's 'out,' we thank you for your assistance -- it's really been quite helpful -- and bid you farewell with our good wishes."

"That's it, then," said Andrew, sounding relieved. He rose to his feet again. "Let's go, Steph."

But she made no move to rise. "If I go, what happens to Nancy?"

Both Kham and the unseen voice started to speak but Berry interrupted.

"Shut up, both of you." She gave Steph a very direct gaze. "I will take care of her until you get back. Or if you don't come back at all. Whatever Nancy needs and for however long those needs might last."

She didn't add I swear or I promise or any other such phrase. She didn't need to.

Kham now spoke. "Beowulf will assume all costs of your daughter's education, Ms. Turner. I assure you -- "

"Hush. I knew that the moment you advanced the proposal. The one thing you people aren't is stingy. But that's not what I needed to know. If I get killed on this mission -- and don't waste time telling me it can't happen, because it's Mesa we're talking about -- then Nancy's lost the only family she has. She needs people more than money."

She and Berry looked at each other for a bit longer. Then Steph nodded. "Okay, I'm in."


She turned to Andrew. "I hate those people, Andrew. You have no understanding of how deep that hate runs. You just don't. You and your folk had it rough on Parmley -- rougher than I did, in some ways -- but you were always you. You always had pride. You weren't defined by other people. People who despised you and made sure you knew it for as far back as you could remember and who rubbed your face in it every chance they got and if you protested or argued -- even looked at them cross-eyed -- they'd beat you or kill you. And do it with impunity."

She took another deep breath. "They just lost that impunity. I didn't realize it at first, when we got off Mesa. Not at all, those months we drifted in space in the Hali Sowle. But after we got to Torch and I saw that new world being created…"

Andrew opened his mouth; then, closed it. Then, rubbed his face.

"I guess I'm a little old to discover patriotism," Steph said. "Or maybe that's just giving myself airs and this is really nothing more than a primitive desire for vengeance. I don't care. The stinking bastards finally lost their impunity. And now somebody is getting ready to drive in the blade and I want my hand on the hilt too."

She looked away from him and up at the wall. "That's you, isn't it, Victor? And Anton's with you?"

"In or out, Ms. Turner?" the voice said. "You understand that if the answer is 'in' and you later change your mind we'll have to sequester you until the mission is completed?"

"I thought you'd say 'we'll have to cut your throat.'"

"Why would we do that?" The voice sounded genuinely puzzled. "No point in it."

Steph laughed. "I knew it! It's Victor. Yes, I'm in."

Andrew puffed out his cheeks. "Well. Me too, then." He pointed an accusing finger at the wall. "Don't argue with me, Victor! I'm coming too, it's settled. And how the hell did you get rid of that godawful Nouveau Paris accent?"

"Why would I argue with you? I can think of at least two ways you could be very useful, just off the top of my head. Yes, it's Victor. Berry, Ruth, Henry -- show them in, please. Anton finally woke up. Thandi and Yana are climbing the walls. They don't handle tedium well."

There was a brief pause, perhaps two seconds, and the voice continued. "Yana says she votes for the boutique. Thandi won't come right out and say it but she obviously does too. I have almost no idea what you're talking about and Anton's already looking bored but I think it's probably a brilliant idea. Come on it and we'll pursue it further."

Berry and Ruth rose from the table. Kham followed them after pulling out his com and keying in some instructions.

One of the walls of the conference room began sliding aside. Beyond, Steph and Andrew could see a corridor. It looked like a hospital corridor, for whatever undefinable reason.


"It's quite cunning, actually," Victor said, sticking a finger against his throat. "It's a nanotech method. They do something to my vocal cords and fiddle with the laryngeal nerve. Don't ask me the details because I don't have a clue. And, voila, my Nouveau Paris accent that I could never get rid of -- it was always my one big weakness as a spy -- is transformed into a Traccoran accent."

"I hate it," said Thandi, who was lying on a bed next to him. "I don't mind his new body. But that new voice of his…"

Victor's physique hadn't changed much. There'd been no reason to change it since it had been quite normal. But his face was completely different. He was a very handsome man, now, in a slightly androgynous way. Dark eyes were now a bright, pale green; dark coarse hair cut short was now a fancy blond hair style. Combine that with the new voice and there wasn't a trace left of Victor Cachat.

Anton… looked pretty much as he had before. Oh, his face had been completely changed, but he still had the same short, squat and extremely powerful physique.

Andrew Artlett frowned. "I don't get it. What's the point of leaving your body the same? No offense, but there aren't too many people who're built like that."

Zilwicki got a sour expression on his face and pointed at Victor. "Blame him. I was supposed to get redesigned as a Hakim grandee, but --"

"That idea was a non-starter," said Victor, "once we realized that the only way to disguise him would be to make him so fat he'd look like a beach ball. So fat, in fact, that he'd face real health issues. What was far more important than that --"

"Minor issues of my life span and morbidity, that is," said Anton. Sourly. " -- was that he'd be so corpulent he'd have a hard time moving quickly in case he needed to. Which, on this mission, is not unlikely. So…"

Victor crossed one hand over the other. "The original plan was for Anton to go in as a Hakim grandee with Yana as his servant. I suggested we swap the roles. Now Yana is the rich bigwig and squatty here" -- a thumb indicated Anton -- "is the menial servant. Hakim's got a big mining industry so they use a lot of modified heavy labor slaves. Look just like him, in fact."

"He doesn't have a slave marker on his tongue," objected Steph.

"That's not really necessary," said Anton. "Hakim -- this is about its only saving grace -- is pretty easy-going about manumission. By now, there are quite a few descendants of ex-slaves around."

Cachat turned his head toward an open door to the side. "Yana, stop sulking in there. You've got to show yourself sooner or later."

"Screw you. This was your idea. I plan to hold that grudge the rest of my life."

Yana Tretiakovna came into the room. She moved with a somewhat mincing gait, quite unlike her usual athletic stride.

The reason was… obvious. Steph smiled. Artlett grinned.

"Don't. Say. Anything," warned Yana. She glared down at her new bosom. Her very, very impressive new bosom.

"Mind you, it's likely to be a short life," she said. "I'm bound to topple over and kill myself the moment I get distracted."

"It's a status symbol in a number of Verge cultures," Kham elaborated. "And the wealthier you are, the -- ah -- more voluptuous you are."

Steph and Andrew studied Yana a bit longer.

"So what do we call you now?" Andrew asked. "Midas?"
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Mar 06, 2014 10:26 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 32

Chapter 19

"What did you say?"

Albrecht Detweiler stared at his oldest son, and the consternation in his expression would have shocked any of the relatively small number of people who'd ever met him.

"I said our analysis of what happened at Green Pines seems to have been a little in error," Benjamin Detweiler said flatly. "That bastard McBryde wasn't the only one trying to defect." Benjamin had had at least a little time to digest the information during his flight from the planetary capital of Mendel, and if there was less consternation in his expression, it was also grimmer and far more frightening than his father's. "And the way the Manties are telling it, the son-of-a-bitch sure as hell wasn't trying to stop Cachat and Zilwicki. They haven't said so, but he must've deliberately suicided to cover up what he'd done!"

Albrecht stared at him for several more seconds. Then he shook himself and inhaled deeply.

"Go on," he grated. "I'm sure there's more and better yet to come."

"Zilwicki and Cachat are still alive," Benjamin told him. "I'm not sure where the hell they've been. We don't have anything like the whole story yet, but apparently they spent most of the last few months getting home. The bastards aren't letting out any more operational details than they have to, but I wouldn't be surprised if McBryde's cyber attack is the only reason they managed to get out in the first place.

"According to the best info we've got, though, they headed toward Haven, not Manticore, when they left, which probably helps explain why they were off the grid so long. I'm not sure about the reasoning behind that, either. But whatever they were thinking, what they accomplished was to get Eloise Pritchart -- in person! -- to Manticore, and she's apparently negotiated some kind of damned peace treaty with Elizabeth."

"With Elizabeth?"

"We've always known she's not really crazy, whatever we may've sold the Sollies," Benjamin pointed out. "Inflexible as hell sometimes, sure, but she's way too pragmatic to turn down something like that. For that matter, she'd sent Harrington to Haven to do exactly the same thing before Oyster Bay! And Pritchart brought along an argument to sweeten the deal, too, in the form of one Herlander Simões. Dr. Herlander Simões . . . who once upon a time worked in the Gamma Center on the streak drive."

"Oh, shit," Albrecht said with quiet, heartfelt intensity.

"Oh, it gets better, Father," Benjamin said harshly. "I don't know how much information McBryde actually handed Zilwicki and Cachat, or how much substantiation they've got for it, but they got one hell of a lot more than we'd want them to have! They're talking about virus-based nanotech assassinations, the streak drive, and the spider drive, and they're naming names about something called 'the Mesan Alignment.' In fact, they're busy telling the Manty Parliament -- and, I'm sure, the Havenite Congress and all the rest of the fucking galaxy! -- all about the Mesan plan to conquer the known universe. In fact, you'll be astonished to know that Secretary of State Arnold Giancola was in the nefarious Alignment's pay when he deliberately maneuvered Haven back into shooting at the Manties!"

"What?" Albrecht blinked in surprise. "We didn't have anything to do with that!"

"Of course not. But fair's fair; we did know he was fiddling the correspondence. Only after the fact, maybe, when he enlisted Nesbitt to help cover his tracks, but we did know. And apparently giving Nesbitt the nanotech to get rid of Grossclaude was a tactical error. It sounds like Usher got at least a sniff of it, and even if he hadn't, the similarities between Grossclaude's suicide and the Webster assassination -- and the attempt on Harrington -- are pretty obvious once someone starts looking. So the theory is that if we're the only ones with the nanotech, and if Giancola used nanotech to get rid of Grossclaude, he must've been working for us all along. At least they don't seem to have put Nesbitt into the middle of it all -- yet, anyway -- but their reconstruction actually makes sense, given what they think they know at this point."

"Wonderful," Albrecht said bitterly.

"Well, it isn't going to get any better, Father, and that's a fact. Apparently, it's all over the Manties' news services and sites, and even some of the Solly newsies are starting to pick up on it. It hasn't had time to actually hit Old Terra yet, but it's going to be there in the next day or so. There's no telling what's going to happen when it does, either, but it's already all over Beowulf, and I'll just let you imagine for yourself how they're responding to it."

Albrecht's mouth tightened as he contemplated the full, horrendous extent of the security breach. Just discovering Zilwicki and Cachat were still alive to dispute the Alignment's version of Green Pines would have been bad enough. The rest . . . !

"Thank you," he said after a moment, his tone poison-dry. "I think my imagination's up to the task of visualizing how those bastards will eat this up." He twitched a savage smile. "I suppose the best we can hope for is that finding out how completely we've played their so-called intelligence agencies for the last several centuries will shake their confidence. I'd love to see that bastard Benton Ramirez y Chou's reaction, for instance. Unfortunately, whatever we may hope for, what we can count on is for them to line up behind the Manties. For that matter, I wouldn't be surprised to see them actively sign up with the Manticoran Alliance . . . especially if Haven's already on board with it."

"Despite the Manties' confrontation with the League?" The words were a question, but Benjamin's tone made it clear he was following his father's logic only too well.

"Hell, we're the ones who've been setting things up so the League came unglued in the first place, Ben! You really think someone like Beowulf gives a single good goddamn about those fucking apparatchiks in Old Chicago?" Albrecht snorted contemptuously. "I may hate the bastards, and I'll do my damnedest to cut their throats, but whatever else they may be, they're not stupid or gutless enough to let Kolokoltsov and his miserable crew browbeat them into doing one damned thing they don't want to do."

"You're probably right about that," Benjamin agreed glumly, then shook his head. "No, you are right about that."

"Unfortunately, it's not going to stop there," Albrecht went on. "Just having Haven stop shooting at Manticore's going to be bad enough, but Gold Peak is entirely too close to us for my peace of mind. She thinks too much, and she's too damned good at her job. She probably hasn't heard about any of this yet, given transit times, but she's going to soon enough. And if she's feeling adventurous -- or if Elizabeth is -- we could have a frigging Manty fleet right here in Mesa in a handful of T-weeks. One that'll run over anything Mesa has without even noticing it. And then there's the delightful possibility that Haven could come after us right along with Gold Peak, if they end up signing on as active military allies!"

"The same thought had occurred to me," Benjamin said grimly. As the commander of the Alignment's navy, he was only too well aware of what the only navies with operational pod-laying ships-of-the-wall and multidrive missiles could do if they were allied instead of shooting at one another.

"What do you think the Andies are going to do?" he asked after a moment, and his father grated a laugh.

"Isabel was always against using that nanotech anywhere we didn't have to. It looks like I should've listened." He shook his head. "I still think all the arguments for getting rid of Huang were valid, even if we didn't get him in the end, but if the Manties know about the nanotech and share that with Gustav, I think his usual 'realpolitik' will go right out the airlock. We didn't just go after his family, Benjamin -- we went after the succession, too, and the Anderman dynasty hasn't lasted this long putting up with that kind of crap. Trust me. If he thinks the Manties are telling the truth, he's likely to come after us himself! For that matter, the Manties might deliberately strip him off from their Alliance. In fact, if they're smart, that's what they ought to do. Get Gustav out of the Sollies' line of fire and let him take care of us. It's not like they're going to need his pod-layers to kick the SLN's ass! And we just happen to have left the Andies' support structure completely intact, haven't we? That means they've got plenty of MDMs, and if Gustav comes after us while staying out of the confrontation with the League, do you really think any of our 'friends' in Old Chicago'll do one damned thing to stop him? Especially when they finally figure out what the Manties are really in a position to do to them?"

"No," Benjamin agreed bitterly. "Not in a million years."

There was silence for several seconds as father and son contemplated the shattering upheaval in the Mesan Alignment's carefully laid plans.

"All right," Albrecht said finally. "None of this is anyone's fault. Or, at least, if it is anyone's fault, it's mine and not anyone else's. You and Collin gave me your best estimate of what really went down at Green Pines, and I agreed with your assessment. For that matter, the fact that Cachat and Zilwicki didn't surface before this pretty much seemed to confirm it. And given the fact that none of our internal reports mentioned this 'Simões' by name -- or if they did, I certainly don't remember it, anyway -- I imagine I should take it all our investigators assumed he was one of the people killed by the Green Pines bombs?"
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Mar 09, 2014 9:17 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 33

"Yes." Benjamin grimaced. "As a matter of fact, the Gamma Center records which 'mysteriously' survived McBryde's cyberbomb showed Simões as on-site when the suicide charge went off." He sighed. "I should've wondered why those records managed to survive when so much of the rest of our secure files got wiped."

"You weren't the only one who didn't think about that," his father pointed out harshly. "It did disappear him pretty neatly, though, didn't it? And no wonder we were willing to assume he'd just been vaporized! God knows enough other people were." He shook his head. "And I still think we did the right thing to use the whole mess to undercut Manticore with the League, given what we knew. But that's sort of the point, I suppose. What's that old saying? 'It's not what you don't know that hurts you; it's what you think you know that isn't so.' It's sure as hell true in this case, anyway!"

"I think we could safely agree on that, Father."

They sat silent once more for several moments. Then Albrecht shrugged.

"Well, it's not the end of the universe. And at least we've had time to get Houdini up and running."

"But we're not far enough along with it," Benjamin pointed out. "Not if the Manties -- or the Andies -- move as quickly as they could. And if the Sollies believe this, the time window's going to get even tighter."

"Tell me something I don't know." His father's tone was decidedly testy this time, but then he shook his head and raised one hand in an apologetic gesture. "Sorry, Ben. No point taking out my pissed-offedness on you. And you're right, of course. But it's not as if we never had a plan in place to deal with something like this." He paused and barked a harsh laugh. "Well, not something like this, so much, since we never saw this coming in our worst nightmares, but you know what I mean."

Benjamin nodded, and Albrecht tipped back in his chair, fingers drumming on its arms.

"I think we have to assume McBryde and this Simões between them have managed to compromise us almost completely, insofar as anything either of them had access to is concerned," he said after a moment. "Frankly, I doubt they have, but I'm not about to make any optimistic -- any more optimistic -- assumptions at this point. On the other hand, we're too heavily compartmentalized for even someone like McBryde to've known about anything close to all the irons we have in the fire. And if Simões was in the Gamma Center, he doesn't know crap about the operational side. You and Collin -- and Isabel -- saw to that. In particular, nobody in the Gamma Center, including McBryde, had been briefed about Houdini before Oyster Bay. So unless we want to assume Zilwicki and Cachat have added mind reading to their repertoire, that's still secure."

"Probably," Benjamin agreed.

"Even so, we're going to have to accelerate the process. Worse, we never figured we'd have to execute Houdini under this kind of time pressure. We're going to have to figure out how to hide a hell of a lot of disappearances in a really tight time window, and that's going to be a pain in the ass." Albrecht frowned, his expression thoughtful as he regained his mental balance. "There's a limit to how many convenient air-car accidents we can arrange. On the other hand, we can probably bury a good many of them in the Green Pines casualty total. Not the really visible ones, of course, but a good percentage of the second tier live in Green Pines. We can probably get away with adding a lot of them to the casualty lists, at least as long as we're not leaving any immediate family or close friends behind."

"Collin and I will get on that as soon as he gets here," Benjamin agreed. "You've probably just put your finger on why we won't be able to hide as many of them that way as we'd like, though. A lot of those family and friends are going to be left behind under Houdini, and if we start expanding the Houdini lists all of a sudden . . ."

"Point taken." Albrecht nodded. "Look into it, though. Anyone we can hide that way will help. For the rest, we're just going to have to be more inventive."

He rocked his chair from side to side, thinking hard. Then he smiled suddenly, and there was actually some genuine amusement in the expression. Bitter, biting amusement, perhaps, but amusement.

"What?" Benjamin asked.

"I think it's time to make use of the Ballroom again."

"I'm not sure I'm following you."

"I don't care who the Manties are able to trot out to the newsies," Albrecht replied. "Unless they physically invade Mesa and get their hands on a solid chunk of the onion core, a bunch of Sollies -- most of them, maybe -- are still going to think they're lying. Especially where the Ballroom's concerned. God knows we've spent enough time, effort, and money convincing the League at large that the entire Ballroom consists of nothing but homicidal maniacs! For that matter, they've done a lot of the convincing for us, because they are homicidal maniacs! So I think it's time, now that these preposterous rumors about some deeply hidden, centuries-long Mesan conspiracy have been aired, for the Ballroom to decide to take vengeance. The reports are a complete fabrication, of course. At best, they're a gross, self-serving misrepresentation, anyway, so any murderous response they provoke out of the Ballroom will be entirely the Manties' fault, not that they'll ever admit their culpability. And, alas, our security here is going to turn out to be more porous than we thought it was."

Benjamin looked at him for another moment, then began to smile himself.

"Do you think we can get away with its having been 'porous' enough for them to have gotten their hands on additional nukes?"

"Well, we know from our own interrogation of that seccie bastard who was working with Zilwicki and Cachat that it was the seccies who brought them the nuke that went off in the park," Albrecht pointed out. "Assuming anyone on their side's concerned with telling the truth -- which, admittedly, I wouldn't be, in their place -- that little fact may just become public knowledge. In fact, now that I think about it, if Cachat and Zilwicki are telling their side of what happened, they'll probably want to stress that they certainly didn't bring any nukes to Mesa with them. So, yes, I think it's possible some of those deeply embittered fanatics, driven to new heights of violence by the Manties' vicious lies, will inflict yet more terroristic nuclear attacks upon us. And if they're going to do that, it's only reasonable -- if I can apply that term to such sociopathic butchers -- that they'd be going after the upper echelons of Mesan society."

"That could very well work," Benjamin said, eyes distant as he nodded thoughtfully. Then those eyes refocused on his father, and his own smile disappeared. "If we go that way, though, it's going to push the collateral damage way up. Houdini never visualized that, Father."

"I know it didn't." Albrecht's expression matched his son's. "And I don't like it, either. For that matter, a lot of the people on the Houdini list aren't going to like it. But messy as it's going to be, I don't think we have any choice but to look at this option closely, Ben. We can't afford to leave any kind of breadcrumb trail.

"McBryde had to know a lot about our military R&D, given his position, but he was never briefed in on Darius, and he was at least officially outside any of the compartments that knew anything about Mannerheim or the other members of the Factor. It's possible he'd gotten some hint about the Factor, though, and he was obviously smart enough to've figured out we had to have something like Darius. For that matter, there are a hell of a lot of Manties who're smart enough to realize we'd never have been able to build the units for Oyster Bay without it. So it's going to be painfully evident to anyone inclined to believe the Manties' claims that the Mesan Alignment they're talking about would have to have a bolt-hole hidden away somewhere." He shook his head. "We can't afford to leave any evidence that might corroborate the notion that we simply dived down a convenient rabbit hole. If we have to inflict some 'collateral damage' to avoid that, then I'm afraid we're just going to have to inflict the damage."

Benjamin looked at him for several seconds, then nodded unhappily.

"All right," Albrecht said again. "Obviously, we're both responding off the cuff at the moment. Frankly, it's going to take a while for me, at least, to get past the simple shock quotient and be sure my mind's really working, and the last thing we need is to commit ourselves to anything we haven't thought through as carefully as possible. We need to assume time's limited, but I'm not about to start making panicked decisions that only make the situation worse. So we're not making any decisions until we've had a chance to actually look at this. You say Collin's on his way?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Then as soon as he gets here, the three of us need to go through everything we've got at this stage on a point-by-point basis. Should I assume that, with your usual efficiency, you've brought the actual dispatches about all of this with you?"

"I figured you'd want to see them yourself," Benjamin said with a nod, and reached into his tunic to extract a chip folio.

"One of the joys of having competent subordinates," Albrecht said in something closer to a normal tone. "In that case," he went on, holding out one hand for the folio while his other hand activated his terminal, "let's get started reviewing the damage now."
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Mar 11, 2014 9:37 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 34

Chapter 20

Corporal Supakrit X set one of the two cups he was holding in front of Takahashi Ayako. Then, pulled out a chair and sat down at the table across from her. He blew on the coffee in his own cup while studying her. The young woman looked awfully gloomy for someone who'd recently been freed from slavery.

He thought he knew the reason, though. Uncertainty about the future -- more precisely, uncertainty about one's proper course of action with regard to that future -- always trumped satisfaction about the past. And while he didn't know Ayako all that well, yet -- a situation he had every intention of changing as rapidly and as extensively as possible -- he was pretty sure she was one of those people who defended themselves against the risk of having a bad outcome by assuming the worst was bound to happen anyway.

It was a syndrome he recognized quite easily. He'd had it himself back in the days he'd been one of Manpower's slaves. Optimism was not a wise sentiment for chattel.

"You could join the Ballroom," he said.

Ayako made a face. "And do what? Just because I killed that one shithead -- the guy raped me; it was personal -- doesn't mean I'm a homicidal maniac."

Supakrit placed his hand over his heart. "I'm hurt! Hurt! I was one of those homicidal maniacs myself, you know." He took a sip from the cup. "Pretty damn good at it, too."

Ayako gave him a derisive look. "Was? And just what do you think you are now, Corporal Mayhem? A philanthropist?"

He smiled. "But now I do mayhem in a uniform. Makes all the difference in the world. 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."

"You have a medal?" Ayako's tone was skeptical.

"Well, no. General Palane's an old school Marine. She doesn't believe in handing out medals like candy the way the Solarian Navy does. I was coming up for a Good Conduct Medal but…" He grinned at her. "I figure you're to blame for that."


"The point is, now that I'm an of-fi-cial soldier, I can get a medal. As a Ballroom guy, the only thing I qualified for was a wanted poster."

"They haven't made wanted posters in over a millennia."

"Fine. Wanted e-poster. I did get one of those."

"For what?" She waved the question away. "Never mind, I don't want to know. I'm still trying to hold onto my image of you as a nice guy even if it's getting pretty tattered."

For the first time, she drank from her cup. "This stuff is crap," she pronounced.

"It's Marine coffee. There are rules, you know. Navy coffee has to be good but Marine coffee has to be terrible. Anybody who brews good coffee gets busted a rank. Two offenses in a year puts you in the brig."

There was a companionable silence for a moment. Then, Ayako sighed and shook her head. "I don't think I want to join the Ballroom."

"I don't recommend it myself, as a matter of fact." He made a gesture, indicating his uniform. "There's a reason I quit and joined the Marines. The Ballroom… Well, let's just say they're going through an identity crisis. It ain't pretty to watch, believe me."


"Well, yeah, sure. The Ballroom's whole purpose pretty much got the legs cut out from under it once Torch was created. It didn't help any that Jeremy quit also, of course. But even if he'd stayed in charge I think the Ballroom would be having a rough time."

He drained the coffee out of his cup. "What do they do now? Keep shooting slavers one at a time? Or in small batches, at best? Even with explosives they can't do as much damage as a warship or a Marine battalion."

"They could with nuclear weapons."

"Jeremy always ruled that out. Chemical and biological weapons too." Supakrit shook his head. "Logically, it might not make a lot of sense. What the hell, dead is dead, right? But people just don't react the same way when you use weapons that are completely indiscriminate. Jeremy never even let us use conventional explosives on anything but legitimate targets."

"Legitimate to who?"

The corporal chuckled. "Always a point in dispute, granted. But we blew up Manpower offices and headquarters, we didn't blow up restaurants and apartment buildings just because there might be some scorpions caught in the mix."

"So what will they do now?" she asked.

"Don't know. And since I didn't want to stick around long enough to find out, I joined the Marines as soon as they started recruiting." Supakrit paused for a moment, thinking. "I figure they'll wind up doing one of two things. The dumb thing to do would be to keep up the terror campaign. The smart thing would be to dissolve the Ballroom and reconstitute it as a political party."

"Political party? I thought Torch didn't have any."

The corporal clucked his tongue. "Boy, are you a babe in the woods. Officially, no. We have what's called a 'grand coalition' in charge. But that won't -- can't -- last forever. I don't give it more than two or three years, myself. Sooner or later, formal factions will crystallize. That's what parties are, you know? Just a fancy way of saying 'we agree with each other and you guys are full of crap.'"

"How many?"

"I figure at least three. The Ballroom types -- especially if they have enough sense to get rid of the Ballroom altogether. The people who generally agree with DuHavel. And I'd be surprised if a third party doesn't emerge also. There're always some people in any society who are just naturally conservative and they'll eventually want their own spokespeople."

"I thought DuHavel was the conservative on Torch."

Supakrit laughed. "Only by a Ballroom definition of 'conservative' -- and not even most of my former comrades really think of Web that way. I'm sure Jeremy doesn't any longer, if he ever did." He made a wagging motion with his hand. "Here on Torch, DuHavel ranks as what you might call a centrist. Anywhere else in the galaxy except maybe Haven he'd be considered a flaming radical. Well, maybe not flaming. But radical, yes."

He paused and gave her a sideways look. "You interested in politics?"

"Not especially."

"Well, that's out too, then. So. No Ballroom for you. No smoke-filled back room either."

"Why would a back room -- any room -- be full of smoke? And if it was, why wouldn't everyone get out?"

"And your possible budding career as an historian gets cut short too."

She squinted at him. "Are you making fun of me?"

"Actually, no. I'm not. I'm just trying to help you figure out what to do with your life." He held up his empty cup. "More coffee?"

"I don't think I can even finish this one. Supakrit…"


She was silent for a few seconds, staring down at the table top. Then said, in a much softer tone than usual: "I don't know what I want to do with my life. Before the last few weeks -- you were a slave; you know how it is -- I didn't think about the future at all."

"Yeah, I know."

"I stayed away from getting close to anyone, too. You know."

Supakrit nodded. He knew what she was talking about very well. Better than he wished he did. As a teenager he'd made the mistake of falling in love with another slave. There'd been a few wonderful months and then… She was taken away. He had no idea where. Not then, not now. He'd never seen her again. Had no idea if she was still alive -- and knew he almost certainly never would know.

He'd always understood the limits Jeremy X placed on the Ballroom's tactics. Understood -- and agreed. But that was just tactics. Emotionally…

If Supakrit X could round up everyone in the galaxy associated with Manpower -- okay, leave out the janitors and such -- and throw them into a black hole, he'd do it without blinking. And then spend eternity listening to them scream. (Or was it the other way around? For them, it would be eternity. For him, just a few seconds. He could never remember.)

Of course, people didn't live that long, not even ones who'd gotten prolong. Speaking of which…
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Mar 13, 2014 9:19 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 35

"You're what, Ayako? Twenty-two? Twenty-three?"


"You've still got a few years, then. Have you started thinking about prolong?"

She shrugged. "Can't afford it."

"Yeah. It's not cheap."

"How about you? Or are you already too old?"

Supakrit got up and went over to the coffee maker. After pouring himself another cup, he came back to the table. He used the time to make a decision.

A very easy decision to make, as it turned out.

After he sat down, he said: "That's one of the reasons I enlisted in the Marines. Prolong's expensive for an individual, but governments…" He smiled at her. "The magic of taxes, you understand. Actually, Torch probably gets as much money from export tariffs as it does from taxes, but the principle's the same."

"What principle?"

"The principle -- one of the first ones they set up, in fact -- that if you enlist in the armed forces the government of Torch will pick up the tab for your prolong treatments. I did it just in the nick of time." He blew on the coffee. "I'm thirty, if you're wondering."

Ayako scowled. "Supakrit, I really don't think I'd do well in the military."

"Neither do I," he said, still smiling. "Issues of impulse control."

"Hey! The guy had it coming!"

"I'm not denying it. As impulses go, that one was understandable. Even admirable, if you look it from the right angle. Which I did and do, by the way. But you're still probably not self-disciplined enough to like the military. Maybe the Navy, but sure as hell not the Marines."

He drank some of the coffee. Half the cup, actually. Bracing himself. The decision had come easily but implementing it was…

Hard. He'd been a slave for two-thirds of his life.

"There's a family provision to that principle, Ayako. Spouses and children are also covered if you enlist. And the coverage lasts as long as you're in the service, so you if you get married afterward…"

He couldn't quite finish that thought, so he went off on a tangent. "You can petition to have parents and siblings covered too. I'm told they usually grant the petition but…" His expression hardened. "How many ex-slaves have parents and siblings? Or know where they are, if they do."

Ayako stared at him. Then said abruptly: "Are you proposing to me?"

"Yes. I am." Supakrit held up his hand. "Look, it can just be a formality. Nobody's going to stick their nose into our sex life."

"Shut up. What a jerk. But I'm not. Yes."

Now it was the corporal's turn to stare. "Yes… what?"

She rolled her eyes. "I'm marrying a moron. Yes, I will marry you. What the hell did you think 'yes' meant?"

She rose and held out her hand. "Come on. We'll settle the rest of it right now. I've got a private room and you don't so we'll use mine. I'm not getting laid in a barracks. Forget that stupid coffee. I guarantee you I taste way better than it does."

But they'd only taken two steps toward the door when the com in the mess room started blaring.

"All personnel assigned to Operation Serket Breach, report immediately to Launch Bay Sigma Nine. The mission will depart Parmley Station at sixteen hundred hours."

Simultaneously, Supakrit and Ayako looked at their watches.

"Hell's bells," he said.

"There ain't no justice at all," she agreed. "You better go. Just make sure you come back in one piece, okay?"

They did have time for a kiss, at least.


After he left, not knowing what else to do with herself, Ayako wound up making her way into Parmley Station's control center. She didn't have any official clearance to be there, but she'd already learned that BSC personnel were willing to bend the rules if they thought there was a good reason to do so.

She figured her reason was as good as it got. So she didn't wait for anyone to challenge her. As soon as she entered she made her way toward the big tactical plot in the middle of the chamber. She'd never been inside the control center, but the tactical plot was obviously what she wanted. She'd had it described to her before. It was very similar, apparently, to the ones used by starships.

"I just got married -- well, agreed to, anyway -- and then you -- you" -- she managed enough impulse control to choke down the pejorative that had been about to emerge -- "bad people yanked my fiancé off to go play Marine somewhere."

Plaintively, she added: "I don't even know where he's going because you -- you -- obsessive-compulsive motherfu -- really bad people are maniacs about so-called security and who would I tell anyway? It's just stupid."

The five people in the center stared at her. Two of them were obviously Torches and two were just as obviously Beowulfers. She wasn't sure about the guy doing something at a console against the far wall. (Or what that called a bulkhead? Ayako wasn't sure.)

"Who are you?" one of the Beowulfers asked. He was one of the three people monitoring the tactical plot.

"And what are you doing here?" asked the man standing next to him. He was one of the Torches, as was the third person working at the tactical plot. She was the only one Ayako recognized, although she wasn't sure of the woman's name. Alexia… something.

"I told you. I just got married and my brand-new husband -- okay, fine, be anal-retentive about it; my to-be-husband -- is on that ship." She pointed at the tactical plot, which to her just looked like an immense kaleidoscope. "Whichever one it is. In that thing."

"The Hali Sowle?" That was asked by the other Beowulfer, a woman sitting at a console nearby.

"Yeah, that's it."

The male Torch at the tactical plot was now looking belligerent. "You can't just -- "

"Ease up, Liam," said the Beowulfer next to him. "This might be quite charming -- and the universe needs as much charm as it can get, these days."

To Ayako he said: "I take it your husband -- past, present or future, we'll worry about that later -- is one of the Marines or naval personnel aboard the Hali Sowle. What's his name?"

"Supakrit. Corporal Supakrit X. Royal Marines."

"Check that, would you, Magda?"

The Beowulfer female at the console worked the board for a few seconds and then studied the screen.

"Yeah, he's there. One of the Marines assigned to the mission."

"Hey!" protested the Torch named Liam. "Security!"

"Give it a rest, will you?" Magda was still examining the screen. "What's she going to do? Grow Warshawski sails and fly herself to give warning to whoever you might notice I didn't actually specify?"

She tapped the screen and looked up at Ayako. "What's really interesting is that Corporal Supakrit is listed in the rolls as being single."

Liam glared at Ayako. "So she's lying."

"Fuck you. Me and Supakrit just got married. Well, decided to. About two seconds before you assho -- bad people -- told him he had to report to launch bay whatzit."

"That order was actually given by Colonel Anderson, not us," said the woman Ayako thought was named Alexia. Her tone was mild, and seemed a bit amused. "We're just in charge of traffic and such."

The Beowulfer at the tactical plot grinned. "Like I said, charming. Just got hitched, huh? Well, come over here and I'll show you where your future husband is. I'm Bill Jokela. What's your name?"

"Takahashi Ayako. Call me Ayako." Ignoring the glare still coming from Liam, Ayako came up to stand beside Jokela. Up close, the tactical plot looked more like a kaleidoscope than ever.

Jokela pointed to one of the symbols in the plot. It was colored a bright green. "This is the Hali Sowle. They've already left Parmley, but they're still a good fifteen light minutes from the hyper limit. So they won't be making their alpha translation for another -- "

"Their what?"

Jokela paused and gave her a considering look. Then, gave the same look to the movements in the tactical plot.

"What the hell, we've got time," he said. "An introduction to basic astrogation. Pay attention, Takahashi Ayako. Who knows? You might want to make a career out of it."
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Mar 16, 2014 8:58 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 36

Chapter 21

"Zachariah McBryde?"

Zachariah turned around to face the speaker, being careful not to spill his coffee. He had a bad habit of over-filling the mug, which could make walking back to his laboratory an exercise in finicky precision that almost matched the demands of his actual job.

Two men stood there, he discovered. Both were wearing severely utilitarian jumpsuits with nameplates over the left pockets -- the one on the left was A. Zhilov; the one on the right, S. Arpino -- and both had the elaborate security badges given to visitors draped over their chests with lanyards.

"Yes?" he said.

The one named Zhilov nodded stiffly. "Come with us, McBryde." He turned over the badge in order to show the identification on the other side, which was a hologram depicting himself and the legend Agent, GAUL.

Zachariah tried not to let his sudden apprehension show on his face. The Genetic Advancement and Uplift League -- the "Gauls," to use the nickname that was sometimes used (though never in front of them) -- served the inner layers of the onion as a special security force.

Which explained Zachariah's tension. The most common use the Alignment leadership had for the Gauls was as what you might call enforcers.

"The preferred term for that is 'internal disciplinarians,' you understand," Zachariah's brother Jack had once told him. Jack had been smiling when he made the quip, but there been very little humor in the smile. Like most of the Alignment's professional security people, he hadn't had much use for the Gauls.

The tension shifted into anger. "How many times do we have to go through this rigmarole?" he demanded. "I've told you everything I know about my brother already -- at least five times over. There isn't anything else. Trust me. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. I have no idea why Jack did what he did."

If he did it at all, which I don't believe for a minute.

Zhilov frowned. "I have no knowledge of what you are talking about. Your family affairs do not concern us."

He turned his head to give the man next to him a quizzical look. "Do they?"

His partner Arpino was consulting a small tablet. "There is mention here of a brother by the name of Jack McBryde, who is deceased. But that has no bearing on our mission, so far as I can see."

"As I thought." Zhilov turned back to Zachariah. "Come with us, please."

Now puzzled, Zachariah felt his anger fading -- but only to be replaced by annoyance. Come with us! As if he was some sort of servant.

He took a sip of his coffee. Partly to stall; partly because if he did wind up having to go with them somewhere, he wanted to keep the coffee-spilling to a minimum. The janitor 'bots wouldn't complain, of course, but it was good coffee.

His brother Jack had once referred to the Gauls as goons. He'd gotten close-mouthed right afterward. Zachariah had gotten the impression that Jack had let that slip inadvertently.

He hadn't pressed Jack on the matter. He and his brother were both very far inside the onion, but they had different specialties. In some respects, Jack had had a higher security clearance than Zachariah did; in other respects, the situation was reversed. They were very close, probably more than most brothers were, but they were also careful not to intrude on each other's preserves.

He was tempted to try stonewalling the Gauls, but he knew that sooner or later he'd have to give in. They wouldn't have come looking for him if they hadn't had the authority to do so. They also had a reputation for rigidly following orders. They weren't stupid, certainly. No one that far into the onion lacked intelligence. But they didn't seem to have much in the way of imagination -- and even less in the way of empathy.

"Fine. We'll go. Where are you taking me?"

No answer came. The Gauls just turned and headed down the corridor, with Zachariah in their wake.


When the two Gauls ushered him into a room buried in one of the wings of the Science Center's labyrinthine administration building, the first person Zachariah saw was Anastasia Chernevsky. She was sitting at the end of a conference table in the middle of the room.

Zachariah was relieved to see her. For all his outward nonchalance dealing with the two Gauls, he'd been worried -- and had grown more so when they left the science labs and headed for the admin building. He hardly ever went over there and couldn't imagine a reason the Gauls would be taking him to it unless…

Unless what? The fact that Zhilov and Arpino had denied knowing anything about Jack would lead to the conclusion that at least he wasn't facing another inquisition over his brother's purported treason. But why else would…

Zachariah didn't like uncertainty, other than the frisson of awaiting the results of a lab experiment.

Now, seeing Chernevsky, he relaxed a bit. The uncertainty was still there, because he had no more idea why she'd be present than he was himself. But he and Anastasia got along well and always had. They weren't exactly friends, since as his supervisor she maintained a certain distance. But their personal interactions had always been pleasant and they respected each other professionally.

The point being that Zachariah couldn't imagine she'd have agreed to participate in yet another interrogation of him by security people on the subject of his brother Jack. Why would she? She'd have nothing to contribute and would find the whole business distasteful at the very least. Unlike Zachariah himself, he didn't think Anastasia questioned the official line that Jack had committed treason. But he was sure that she didn't think Zachariah had been involved, in whatever had really happened.

"Hi, Anastasia. Fancy meeting you here."

She gave him a quick, almost fleeting smile. Then, motioned to a chair at the end of the table she was sitting at. "Have a seat."

He did so. He was now sitting at a right angle to her. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that Zhilov and Arpino had taken positions on either side of the door he'd just come through. They weren't exactly standing at attention, but they came pretty close. Zachariah had a feeling the Gauls came pretty close to standing at attention even in a shower. The Genetic Advancement and Uplift League was nothing if not rigid.

"What are we -- "

Chernevsky held up a cautioning hand. "Just wait a bit, Zachariah. She should be coming -- "

The door behind her swung open and a woman came through. Zachariah recognized her although they'd never spoken to each other. She was high up in the inner onion and most likely in security.

Well… not "security" in the same sense that his brother Jack had been. Zachariah didn't know anything specific about his brother's work. He and Jack had been very careful to steer clear of that subject -- just as they'd avoided discussing the exact nature of Zachariah's job. But from various things Jack had let slip, Zachariah knew that the essential nature of his work had been what you might call "defensive." To put it another way, Jack McBryde had been one of the Mesan Alignment's top guardians.

The person he'd reported to, though, Isobel Bardasano, had been…

Different. If his brother Jack had been the human analog of a watchdog, Bardasano had been a wolf. Of that, Zachariah had been quite sure.

He'd only met Bardasano twice, and on both occasions the contact was brief. He remembered her quite vividly, though. She was a striking person in her appearance. Intense, in demeanor -- and covered with flashy tattoos and body piercings.

This woman had the same casually arrogant, predatory air about her, although she had nothing visible in the way of tattoos or body piercings. Not even earrings.

He wondered if she was Bardasano's replacement. After the destruction of Gamma Center, Bardasano had disappeared. Zachariah had no idea what had become of her. It was conceivable that she'd even been executed. The Alignment didn't use the death penalty very often; not, at least, with people in the inner layers of the onion. And when it was used, it was kept very quiet. But it wasn't inconceivable that even someone as high up as Bardasano might have suffered the ultimate penalty in punishment for the disaster at Gamma Center. Zachariah was sure that the now-almost-universal belief within the Alignment's innermost core that the explosion had been caused by his brother was nonsense. But whatever had really happened, Bardasano had to have been involved in it up to her neck.

Which is where she might have finally ended up -- to her neck, and no further.

The woman pulled out a chair across from Zachariah and sat down. "I'm Janice Marinescu. Nice to meet you and all that, but let's not waste time. You're familiar with the plans for Operation Houdini."

That was a statement, not a question. But Marinescu paused and gave Zachariah a level stare. Apparently, for whatever reason, she wanted him to affirm that he was familiar with Houdini.

Cautiously, he nodded. "Yes, I am. Why?"

"Because it's being implemented. The political situation is unfolding rapidly now and we don't want to take the chance that someone might take advantage of the situation -- "

Someone might take advantage…Zachariah was tempted to say "Why don't you come right out and use the name Manticore, which is what you know and I know we're talking about?"

But, he didn't. The tension was back in full force. Something…

Had gone pear-shaped. Or, at least, the powers-that-were in the very innermost circles were worried that it might be going pear-shaped soon.

" -- so you'll be in the third departure division. You and" -- Marinescu nodded at Anastasia -- "Chief Scientist Chernevsky. Although you might not be evacuated via the same route."

Zachariah took a deep breath. That explained the presence of the Gauls. Houdini was going to tear a lot of families apart. Including his own. The authorities were seeing to it that anyone slated for Houdini who got cold feet or second thoughts would have…


He decided to think of them that way. And never mind that the chaperones undoubtedly had orders to permanently silence anyone who got too recalcitrant.

Being completely cold-blooded about it, Zachariah understood the logic. The whole purpose of Houdini was to remove anyone from Mesa who could reveal anything about the onion's inner layers and inner workings. They either left the planet by evacuation or they left it by shuffling off their mortal coil.

There was no third alternative. Houdini had always been just a possibility, and one he'd never spent much time dwelling on. Now it was here. For real. As serious as the proverbial heart attack.

Zachariah felt a sharp, almost agonizing, pain in his chest, as if he were actually having a heart attack.

He wasn't. He was just facing the prospect -- the now certain prospect -- that within a short time he'd lose his entire family. Part of the reason he'd never dwelt on Houdini in the past was that his brother Jack had also been slated for evacuation. So whatever happened, he'd still have one sibling.

Now… nothing. No one.

He'd be leaving his girlfriend Veronica behind too, but that wasn't cause for more than regret. The relationship wasn't really all that serious.

The worst of it, in some ways, was that he couldn't even say anything to his family. The seriousness with which the Alignment took Houdini had been emphasized again and again and again. Nobody could be left behind on Mesa who knew anything important.

Which meant that if Zachariah did mention anything to his family -- any member of it, just one -- and the authorities found out, his whole family would be destroyed.

He took a deep, shuddering breath. Anastasia reached out and put her hand on his. Then, gave it a gentle squeeze.

She'd be leaving people behind too. He wasn't sure who, exactly. But her husband was probably one of them. Filiberto Chernevsky had a responsible position in Mesa's government, even a rather prestigious one. But no one in Mesa's formal government -- well, very few people, at least -- were anywhere close to the inner layers of the onion.

"How soon?" he asked Marinescu. Her only response was that same flat-eyed level stare.
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]

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