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Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets

This is the place where we will be posting snippets of soon-to-be published works!
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Mar 18, 2014 8:49 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 37

Chapter 22

Ruth Winton barked a sarcastic laugh. "Will you look at that? The only time in recorded history -- we're talking a good two thousand years -- when the Talking Heads on a vid news program had their tongues tied."

It was true enough. The panel of guests on tonight's special edition of Yael Underwood's The Star Empire Today were all staring at the huge screen behind them. They'd just spent the last few minutes swiveled in their seats, watching the recorded footage of the gunfight in the subterranean depths of Chicago's Old Quarter that had triggered off the Manpower Incident years earlier.

It hadn't, actually. The conflict that ended with the killing by Manpower-hired mercenaries of General Raphael Durkheim, Haven's StateSec chief in the Solarian League's capital, and the subsequent destruction of Manpower Inc.'s headquarters in the same city by a retaliatory force sent by the Audubon Ballroom had actually been months in the making. But the general public -- anywhere; on Haven as well as Terra, or Manticore -- had never known more than the basic facts involved. And not all of those, and especially not the names of the key players who'd never been identified by the media, which was most of them.

First and foremost among those previously unidentified key players was the man sitting next to Ruth at that moment. Victor Cachat, who'd wreaked most of the havoc in the scene that had just been played out on a screen for the Talking Heads of Underwood's show. A screen, of course, that had also been watched by…

"What's the count now, Ruth?" asked Anton Zilwicki. He was seated next to Cathy Montaigne on another couch in the salon of the genetic treatment center.

Ruth glanced down at the com in her hand. "Two hundred and seventy-three million viewers as of this moment, but…" She paused for a few seconds. "It's climbing fast. Word's spreading, obviously. By the time the replays are counted, we'll be looking at somewhere between one and two billion people. That's just here in the Manticore System itself. Once the recording gets shipped to the rest of the Star Empire, Haven, Beowulf, and who knows where else, the number will start getting called 'astronomical.'"

She tapped the com screen a couple of times. "Yeah, what I figured. "They're already calling it the third-most-watched news show in a decade. We're in territory that's usually only inhabited by championship sporting events."

The stunned silence of the Talking Heads had been brief, of course. They were already jabbering away again.

"-- why Captain Zilwicki trusts him so much, which has always been a mystery. What's still unclear -- "

"-- think it's now blindingly obvious -- "

"-- can't say it too many times. We have no reason -- none, at, all -- to suddenly place our trust in Cachat. If anything, his now-proven extraordinary savagery -- "

"-- was dealing with the worst sort of StateSec killers and sociopathic so-called 'super-soldiers' left over from the Final War. Of course he was savage! What do you propose he should have done, Charlene? Give them a lecture? Or do you -- "


Sitting on the other side of Victor from Ruth, Thandi tuned it all out. She was still trying to process the experience herself. She'd known of the gunfight in the Old Quarter, but this was the first time she'd seen the recording of the event.

It wasn't the brutality of the killing that she found startling. Nor was it even Victor's ruthlessness and the skill he'd shown at killing so many people in such a short time.

Being completely objective about it, Thandi knew that if she'd been in Victor's place in that half-crumbling cavern in the ancient catacombs of Chicago, the killings would have happened even faster and more surely.

Victor probably would have died there, except that Jeremy X intervened at the end. The surviving Scrags -- there'd been three of them completely unwounded and another three injured but not out of action, had all been bringing their weapons to bear on Victor when Jeremy's pistol fusillade started taking them down.

Thandi wouldn't have needed Jeremy. She was bigger than Victor, stronger than Victor, faster than Victor, a better shot with any kind of projectile weapon than Victor -- there was no comparison at all between their respective skills fighting unarmed or with hand weapons -- and she'd spent her whole adult life training constantly for exactly this sort of combat.

But… at that age? With no combat experience at all and only the rudimentary training Victor would have received at the StateSec academy and what he'd taught himself later in simulators?

Impossible. If Thandi Palane had been in Victor's position at such a young age and with his level of actual combat experience -- which was to say, none at all…

There and then…

The only reason Victor had survived -- no, triumphed -- was because of the man's nature. His psychology, so to speak. Even then, as raw as any newly minted young officer and only in his early twenties, he'd been a natural killer. And a superb one, an outlier at the very edge of human potential. If that had been Thandi herself down in that cavern, she'd have been dead after taking down one or two -- maybe three -- of her opponents.

She knew of no one that wouldn't be true of. Not one person.

Except the man she slept with every night, whenever they could.

She felt a warm glow in her heart, then, and reached out to take Victor's hand. That was probably not the reaction most lovers would have had, but they hadn't been born and raised on Ndebele.

She gave the hand a squeeze, and when he glanced at her, a warm smile.

A very warm smile. They'd finally finished the genetic sheathing and the nanotech body transformations were far enough along for Thandi to have gotten used to her new body and Victor's.

Well enough, anyway. Buster, you are so getting laid tonight.
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Mar 20, 2014 10:17 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 38


Anton Zilwicki's thoughts were elsewhere. He'd been associated with Victor for so long that he took the man's somewhat peculiar nature as a matter of course. Watching the recording hadn't bothered him in the least. He'd seen it before, for one thing. For another, although he hadn't been there when the killings took place, he'd arrived immediately thereafter -- soon enough that when his daughter Helen burst out of the shadows where she'd been hiding and raced toward him, she'd had to practically dance to get through the carpet of bodies littering the cavern floor. She'd stepped directly on two of the bodies and had gotten so much blood on her shoes that they'd thrown them away afterward.

She'd just turned fourteen at the time. And just a short time earlier, had herself…

"Oh, hell and damnation," Anton said. "I made sure the news reporters couldn't get to Helen -- the Navy was very cooperative about that -- and we've got Berry trained to a T, of course. But since Lars never met Victor and never saw the mayhem, I didn't think we needed to do much preparation with him. I completely forgot --"

Underwood had shifted the focus of The Star Empire Today. Again, the Talking Heads were swiveled in the chairs, watching the footage recorded earlier of an interview with Lars Zilwicki. The campus grounds of the New University of Landing formed the backdrop. Lars had just started his third year there.

"-- never saw it, not even the… leftovers, I guess you'd say. They made sure to take me and Berry out by a different route. I heard a lot about it later, of course. But I didn't meet Victor Cachat then, and I've never met him since."

The young man on the screen shrugged. "Being honest, it didn't have much of an impact on me. I was still way too shaken up by what Helen did the day before to think much about what happened in the cavern next to the ruins of the Artinstute where me and Berry were hiding."

Lars made a face. "Well, I guess not so much what Helen did as what I did to the bodies afterward. Those bastards had... hurt Berry. Really badly. I sort of lost it."

The image shifted to the interviewer, who was frowning slightly. "Ah… exactly what are you referring to, Mr. Zilwicki?"

Shut up, Lars, Anton silently willed at the figure on the screen. Shut up, shut up, shut…

"Oh, hell and damnation," he repeated aloud.

Cathy smiled. "We're talking about Lars. Being interviewed by a very attractive and sophisticated-looking young woman. You really think he's not going to keep talking?"

"She's ten years older than he is," Anton growled. "At least."

Across from him, Berry smiled also. "And that has stopped my brother… when, exactly?"

"-- thought you already knew about that," Lars was saying. "After Helen made her escape from the Scrags working for Durkheim -- well, indirectly, I guess; you do know about that, right? -- she ran across three thugs in the underground passageways. They attacked her, figuring… well, we'll never know but I'm guessing they were planning to do the same… that, Berry -- never mind all that."

A little apprehensively, Anton glanced at Berry. But his daughter was watching with what seemed to be a very serene expression. Knowing her, it probably was. The incident Lars was fumbling around had been a hideous one for her, but between her innate sanity and the best therapists Cathy could hire -- which meant the best therapists anywhere in the galaxy -- Berry had put it all behind her quite some time ago.

"-- same three who'd imprisoned me and Berry. What the shi -- ah, bad men -- didn't know was that even though Helen was only fourteen at the time -- she was small for her age then, too, which isn't true these days, heh -- she'd been training for years in martial arts by Robert Tye. Yeah, that Robert Tye, if you're at all familiar with martial arts."

"So she was able to successfully defend herself?" said the interviewer.

Lars grinned, a lot more coldly that any young man his age should have been able to. "That's one way to put it, I guess. She killed all three of the bastards."

The interview was cut short there. Underwood had other fish to fry. He swiveled in his chair, which took less time than it took his panel guests because he'd been half-facing the wall screen, and gave the audience a meaningful look.

Underwood was a something of a genius at his trade. He was a master of the meaningful look that… actually had no clear meaning at all but imparted the sort of gravitas to him that was invaluable for successful talk show hosts.

He broke off the look when he saw that his Talking Heads had resumed their normal position and turned to face them.

"Interesting, that last item, wouldn't you say? Charlene?"

Charlene Soulliere, the female guest who represented the Progressive Party -- unofficially, not in any formal sense -- had a sour expression on her face, as she'd had from the beginning of the show. For reasons that made no sense in ideological terms -- in the past, if anything, they'd tended in the direction of being Havenite apologists -- the Progressives were now taking a stance of sharp opposition to the rapprochement between Manticore and Haven.

Why? Nobody outside the Progressives' own leadership really knew, but theories abounded.

One school of thought believed that the PP was on the Mesan Alignment's payroll. Anton thought that was unlikely, although he didn't rule it out completely. He leaned more toward the second school of thought, which was that --

The Progressives were a pack of fumble-witted loons whose incompetence at politics seemed to have no bottom.

Cathy Montaigne didn't rule that out entirely -- which she did with the Mesan-Alignment-stooges theory, on the grounds that the Mesan Alignment would have to be incompetent themselves to pay good money for Progressive Party stoogery, and there was no evidence that was true -- but was more inclined toward the third school of thought, which contended that --

The Progressives were angling to get back into power as part of a coalition government with the Conservative Association. That was a truly ridiculous proposition in any sane and sensible programmatic terms but couldn't be ruled out since the only difference between the Conservative Association and the PP when it came to political scruples was that the Conservative Association did have one fixed and invariant principle -- what's ours is ours and don't you even THINK about mucking around with it in any way whatsoever -- and the Progressives had none at all beyond the craving for political power.
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Mar 23, 2014 9:17 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 39

"Any comment, Charlene?"

Soulliere sniffed. "One has to wonder if there is anyone in that crowd whose first recourse when faced with a problem isn't to resort to violence -- and the most brutal sort of violence at that. Do I need to remind the panel that the father of this fourteen-year-old homicidal maniac is the man who littered the grounds of the Tor estate with corpses not all that long ago?"

Cathy almost sprang out of her seat with excitement. "Yes! Go for it, Mack! Gut the fucking asshole!"

Cathy proceeded to issue several more sentences which, though grammatically impeccable, transgressed the bounds of propriety. Pretty much the way piranhas transgress the bounds of dining etiquette.

The "Mack" in question was Macauley Sinclair, the panelist sitting just to the left of the moderator. He was a short fellow with a round, cheery face, who represented the Liberal Party on the panel in the same informal way that Soulliere spoke for the Progressives.

He'd taken the place of Florence Hu on the panel. Cathy had pulled a lot of strings to make sure of that. For this show, she wanted a Liberal voice that didn't quaver and whine. There was a reason politicians and (especially) their staffs called Sinclair "Mack the Knife" in private.

Yael Underwood, being an expert at the business, immediately saw to it that Sinclair got the floor.

"Homicidal maniac, is it?" he jeered. Then, he broke the normal rules of Talking Headship and looked directly at the viewing audience. "For reasons that are understandable, Lars Zilwicki didn't go into the details of the incident. I happen to know them, however -- as should Ms. Sanctimonious over here, if she'd done her homework."

He gave her a skeptical glance. "At least, one has to hope that Soulliere's comment was the product of ignorance."

She tried to angrily interrupt but Sinclair drove right over her. Looking back at the viewing audience he continued.

"Here are the details -- the very grim details. The three men in question -- rightly called 'thugs' by Lars Zilwicki -- had kidnapped the boy and his sister Berry and were holding them captive in Chicago's infamous underground warrens. Lars was eleven years old at the time; Berry, thirteen. Both of them were badly beaten, especially the girl -- who was also repeatedly gang-raped. These were the three unfortunate gentlemen whom the small fourteen-year-old girl that --"

He had a truly magnificent sneer. "-- Sanctimonious Soulliere calls a 'homicidal maniac' killed in self-defense when they tried to visit the same atrocities upon her."

The whole panel erupted. But Mack the Knife's voice rose above the babble -- largely because he kept speaking directly at the viewers.

"-- no mistake what this is really all about. The same Progressives who proved themselves completely incapable of leading a war against the Republic of Haven when such a war was needed, are now trying to sabotage a peace treaty with the Republic when that is needed and finally available. And they're doing so for no better reason -- assuming there's any coherent thought at all involved -- than political maneuvering."

A subscriber to Theory #3, clearly, although he was leaving the door open for Theory #2. In line with Cathy's own position, in other words.

That was hardly surprising, since he more-or-less worked for her. Informally, true, and without remuneration. But there was a reason that Sinclair's other nickname was Montaigne's Mugger.

Anton brought his attention back to the talk show. Sinclair was still going strong. For all that he was barely over five feet tall and was wearing a very expensive suit, it wasn't hard at all to imagine him wielding a claymore like his ancestors had.

Whack. "-- ignore what she says. The real reason for Soulliere's hostility to Cachat is purely because the man is walking, breathing, living, tried and tested proof -- tried and tested three times over -- that there is no better ally for us in a fight than the same Havenites we've been fighting for what sometimes seems like a lifetime. I ask you --"

Babble, babble, babble. Soulliere was trying desperately to make herself heard, but the panel was now clearly swinging in Sinclair's direction. Who was back to looking straight at the audience.

"-- really simple question, as simple as it gets. You're attacked by thugs in a dark alley. Who do you want coming to your defense?"

A truly magnificent sneer.

Whack. "Soulliere and her back room cronies? Or Victor Cachat and Anton Zilwicki? Or -- better yet, because we're talking a war here, folks, one that's going to make our fight with Haven look like a playground spat -- would you prefer a bunch of young homicidal maniacs in uniform? Such as --"

He turned to Underwood. Something indefinable in the talk show host's posture made Anton realize that he and Sinclair had set this up in advance.

"I believe you have some relevant footage, Yael, am I correct?"

"Well… yes. As it happens, we do."

The back screen lit up with an image of Anton's daughter Helen. She was wearing her dress uniform and posed somewhat formally with four other young naval officers. Anton recognized all but one of them. They were friends of Helen's as well as comrades; people she'd gone through the naval academy with at Saganami Island.

She looked…

Good. Really good. She would never be a beauty, but -- thank God -- she took after her mother more than her father in that department. And while she might be a tad on the stocky, well-muscled side, she stood with the obvious grace of more than ten years training in Neue-Stil Handgemenge, one of the most lethal martial arts in galactic history. But what she looked like most of all was a young woman proud of her uniform, committed to her star nation, confident in herself, and prepared to spit in the entire galaxy's eye if that was what duty and that uniform demanded of her.

Sinclair spoke again. "That's the young woman Soulliere called a 'homicidal maniac.' Not just the girl who escaped her Manpower kidnapers on Old Earth when she was only fourteen T-years old, but also the young woman who served as Sir Aivars Terekov's assistant tactical officer throughout the Battle of Monica. And never mind that when the wolves come baying at our door again, Soulliere and her Progressive pack of curs will be the first ones screaming for exactly this young homicidal maniac -- and her friends -- to come to their rescue.


Soulliere went ballistic at that point. Anton thought that "pack of curs" was probably over the top for what was, after all, an evening talk show program.

Not that he gave a damn. He started softly singing a tune.

"Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear

And he shows 'em, pearly white…"

He was pretty sure the same lyrics were being sung by people all over the Star Empire, at that moment. It was a very old song, after all.

"This is going splendidly!" Cathy exclaimed. She took Anton's hand and gave it a squeeze.

I am so getting laid tonight.

He managed to keep a solemn face, though.
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Mar 25, 2014 9:25 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 40

JULY 1922 Post Diaspora

"You're all under arrest. It turns out I have a long-suppressed megalomaniacal personality. Who knew?"

Hugh Arai, consort to Queen Berry of Torch

Chapter 23

"Talk about a stroke of genius," Ruth said, shaking her head with admiration as she studied the data on her tablet. "Which one of you wants to take the credit? Or are you willing to split it, in the spirit of" -- she waved her hand airily -- "whatever. Take your pick. Collectivism, cooperation, humility, whatever rings your bell."

Victor looked disgusted. "Let Anton have it -- or better yet, Yana." Who, for her part, was looking at her own body in the same wall mirror Victor was using -- and didn't look any happier than he did.

"I look like a cow. What possible use are udders this size? I've got enough production capacity for quadruplets -- but there are still only two nipples. So what's the point?"

She glared at Victor. "Do men really like this nonsense?"

Victor didn't look at her. He was still examining his own body and looking no happier than she did. "Ask someone else," he said. "I was socially deprived as a youth. My opinion on these matters is not to be trusted."

Thandi Palane had left off examining her new body ten minutes earlier and was now relaxing in an armchair. Her cheerful equanimity concerning her new physique was due to the simple fact that it wasn't much different from her old one. Given that Thandi's ability to commit mayhem was a large part of the reason she'd been included in the mission, it would have been counter-productive to change her body so much that all of her muscle memory would have gotten skewed. So, the gene-engineers had settled for adding a little weight and height.

The main change had been to her face. They'd eliminated the distinctive Ndebele facial features. They'd left her very pale skin tone as it was, but she now looked like someone from a heavy gravity planet whose ancestry had been mostly northern European instead of African. She was also a lot less good-looking.

Yana, on the other hand, now had a physique that looked like a teenage boy's notion of the perfect female figure. A particularly callow boy, at that.

The engineers had given her a face to go with it, too. The former attractive blonde was now a gorgeous brunette whose ancestry seemed to be East Asian rather than Slavic. About the only thing they hadn't changed very much was her height. Nanobots could do a lot, but the only way to drastically shorten someone was to remove bone or cartilage, both of which carried health risks if taken too far. So, they'd shortened her, but only by two centimeters. That would be enough to throw off any automatic body gauge software that Mesa's security forces might be using.

The precaution was probably unnecessary, but changing a person's height by a few centimeters was not significantly risky -- so why not do it? Anton, Victor and Thandi had all had their heights changed as well, but in their cases they'd been made a little taller.

"Take credit for what, Ruth?" asked Andrew Artlett. He was sitting next to Steph Turner on a sofa against the wall opposite the big mirror. His physical appearance had been modified only slightly, because there was no need to do more than that. The one time Mesan inspectors had come aboard the Hali Sowle, Andrew had stayed in his cabin. The Mesans might still have his genetic record -- or rather, that of the Parmley clan members to whom he was closely related -- but they hadn't made any physical images of him. The only reason nanobots had been used on him at all -- his nose and brow ridge had been thickened, his cheekbones made more prominent and his eye and hair color changed -- was to protect against the remote chance that the Mesans had somehow gotten their hands on old holopics of him. That chance was so remote it was well-nigh astronomical, but since a minor body adaptation was easy they'd decided to do it.

More precisely, Anton and Victor had decided to have it done -- over Andrew's protests. He'd accused them of being motivated by nothing more than a determination to spread the misery around.

There was… possibly a bit of truth to the charge. Nanobot body engineering was a thoroughly unpleasant experience.

"Take a look at this," Ruth said. She keyed in some commands and her virtual screen was enlarged tenfold and projected far enough away so Andrew and Steph could see it easily.

"You see this and this? And this?" She manipulated the cursor to highlight three figures on the screen. The figures were labeled Perspective Density, Adjustment Velocity and Reversal Prospect.

Andrew's frown was enhanced by his modified brow ridge. Steph's frown looked about the same as it always did, because her features had been modified to make her face a bit more slender. As with Andrew, her body modification had been minimal and mostly confined to her face. The likelihood that Mesa had good holopics of someone who'd owned a small restaurant in the seccie quarters was small. They might have a few images, but they wouldn't be precise enough for body identification software.

The real danger for her was that the Mesans certainly had her DNA on record, for the good and simple reason that Mesa obtained DNA samples at birth from every resident of the planet. And even if Victor and Anton's hypothesis that Jack McBryde had badly damaged Mesa's security files was correct, it was unlikely that McBryde had gone so far as to destroy all DNA records. He would have targeted the records of Mesa's enemies -- which, ironically, would not have included Steph Turner at the time.

So, she'd gotten a genetic sheathe, as had Andrew. Steph's was more subtle than that given to everyone else, though. There was no need to disguise her origins as a Mesa seccie. To the contrary, that would be an integral part of her cover. They'd only needed to put a few changes in the sheathe that would obscure her individual identity.

"Ruth, I haven't got the faintest idea what any of those numbers mean," said Steph.

"Same here," said Andrew. "And I'll add to that -- hey, I'm a dummy, okay? -- that I don't even understand what the terms mean. I know what each one of those words means, taken by itself. But what the hell is the 'density' of a perspective?"

Berry piped up. "I'm a dummy too." She was perched on the edge of her seat and leaning over in order to get a better view of the screen. "How about an explanation?"

Ruth looked at each of them in turn, her expression a mix of puzzlement, mild consternation, and uncertainty. Those sentiments could be translated -- quite easily, by her best friend Berry -- into the following phrases:

How can anyone be this ignorant of basic sociometric attitude assessments?

Am I supposed to explain what this all means?

I'm really not the best person to do that since my explanation is likely to be harder to understand by people who don't know anything to begin with.

Anton came to her rescue. "Translated a bit roughly, the terms mean the following. 'Perspective density' refers to the sureness of the opinion. They call it density because -- "

"-- they're a pack of cone-headed sociometricians and they'd rather die than use clear terminology," said Victor.

"Well, yes, that too. But as I was saying before I was interrupted by Secret Agent Sourpuss, they use the term 'density' because the firmness with which someone holds an opinion is usually the product of multiple cross-associations. To give an example, a person believes a planet is a sphere because they know many things which all reinforce that opinion. Whereas if their opinion on a given subject is established by only one or two inputs, that opinion's density will be thin."

"Except the term they actually use for a thinly-sustained opinion is 'disagglutinated,'" said Victor. "It's got six syllables instead of one. This is why Anton and I are spies instead of sociometrician cone-heads."

Anton shook his head sadly. "He's always had a bitter streak. Mind you, he's also right. They are a lot of cone-heads."

"What does the number mean, then?" asked Andrew. "Perspective density: 0.67."

Ruth decided she could answer that one easily enough. "It's a scale of 0 to 1, in which '0' means the perspective is so disagglutinated -- and for the record, I think the term is quite appropriate -- that it might as well not exist, and '1' is a perspective so heavily and completely buttressed by a multitude of other opinions that it is accepted as pure and simple fact."
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Mar 27, 2014 9:27 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 41

"Give me examples," said Steph.

Ruth was back at sea again. Examples? How do you give examples of basic --

"'A moon is made out of green cheese,'" said Anton. "That'd get a PD rating of 0.01 -- or maybe 0.02 or 0.03. Nothing is ever ranked an absolute 0 -- or an absolute 1. On the opposite end, let's take the statement 'a moon orbits a planet'. That'd get a PD rating of .9 something."

He looked at the screen. "What that number tells us is that the perspective of the Star Empire's population as a whole -- Ruth didn't point to that figure but it's on the upper left of the screen -- you see it? 0.99? that means the analysis applies to the entire population within one-hundredth of a point of certainty -- "

"To anybody except statisticians playing cover-your-ass that means absolute certainty," said Victor.

Anton continued. "-- is two-thirds of the way toward being rock solid that the events and statements of fact shown in the recent The Star Empire Today are correct."

"That doesn't make any sense at all!" protested Andrew. "Not the two-thirds part, that's probably okay. But what's this nonsense about 0.99 certainty of the opinion of the entire population." Her threw up his hands. "You said the number of people who've seen the show so far isn't more than half a billion, right? That's short -- way, way short -- of even the Manticore System's total population. That's what? three billion?"

"Just about," Anton replied. "A bit over, as I recall."

"That's not even twenty percent, then."

Ruth was about to explode. How can anybody be so grossly ignorant of the simplest and most --

But this time, Berry came to her rescue. "That's a sample of half a billion, Andrew. That's gigantic. Most opinion samples are quite satisfied their results are accurate if they sample just one or two percent."

"Less than that," said Victor. "The number doesn't mean that 99% of the Star Empire's opinion was taken. It just means that there's at least a 99% chance -- it's actually a 100% chance, for all practical purposes -- that the opinion sample represents that of the entire population."

He scratched his jaw. "That number's not the surprise. It's the density number. I'd expected something in the 0.3 range. 0.4 if we were lucky."

"The AV number's even more surprising," said Cathy Montaigne. She was perched on the armrest of the couch occupied by Anton.

"AV means 'adjustment velocity', right?" said Steph. "The number means squat to me anyway, but why is it surprising?"

"It refers to the speed with which people's perspective is changing," Cathy explained, "and it's always closely associated with perspective density. The basic rule-of-thumb -- although there are exceptions -- is that the more densely someone holds an opinion, the more slowly it's likely to change. And vice versa, of course."

Andrew grunted. "Okay, I get it. To use an example, my opinion that Victor and Anton railroaded me into getting a horde of sub-atomic golems set loose inside my body to torture and torment me for no better motive than spite is so densely held that it will only change -- if it does at all -- at the speed with which a proton decays. What would that number be, by the way?"

Cathy laughed. "That number would approach infinity -- or eternity, I should say. Sociometricians would give it a 'less than 0.01%.' That's as low as they ever go on account of" -- she pointed at Victor -- "what he says. Cover their ass."

"Why do they express it as a 'less than' instead of just giving it a straight number?" asked Berry.

"Because they're a bunch of cone-heads," said Victor. He nodded toward the screen. "What that number up there means -- the AV figure of >36% -- is that opinions are shifting toward greater density at a rate that is thirty-six percent above the norm for perspective shifts at that density."

"Huh?" said Andrew.

Ruth tried to come back in at that point. "What they're trying to measure is how fast a perspective is shifting compared to how fast you'd normally expect that solidly-held an opinion to shift. If the shift is in the direction of favoring the new opinion, it'll be expressed in the positive using the symbol for 'more than.' If it's shifting against, it'll be expressed as a negative."

"Huh?" Andrew repeated.

"The gist of what it means in the here and now," said Victor, "is that the impact of Yael Underwood's broadcast about -- about -- "

"About you, dear," said Thandi smiling broadly. "Just suck it up."

"About me," Victor said sourly, "is that the public opinion of the Star Empire is shifting in favor of our perspective on the real nature of interstellar politics a lot faster than such solidly held opinions -- remember, that number was 0.67 -- usually shift. When they shift at all, which usually they don't -- or shift in a negative direction."

There was a moment's silence. Then Steph said, "Wow. I'm right, aren't I? It's a 'wow'?"

Finally, Ruth felt back on sure ground. "It's a great big huge 'wow.' The only explanation I can think of is that the emotional impact of seeing a young StateSec officer risk his own life in order to save the life of an RMN officer's daughter just blew away a lot of established pre-conceptions. And then their continuing close friendship -- which it obviously is even if both of them will probably try to make light of it -- added layers of density to the new perspective."

"I think she's right," said Cathy. "The personal history between Anton and Victor makes their intelligence concerning Mesa plausible to people. Which it wouldn't be at all if someone said: 'Hey, guess what? A couple of spies -- one from Manticore, one from Haven -- decided to work together and look what they discovered. Imagine that!'"

"So what does that last number mean?" asked Berry. "The one labeled 'reversal prospect'?"

"That's sociometrician gobbledygook for 'how likely is it that this perspective development will be reversed?'," said Victor. "And it's a bunch of twaddle, since all it does is say the other way around what the PD and AV numbers already established."

Anton smiled. "Leaving aside Victor's commentary, it is true that the RP number closely correlates to the other numbers."

"Closely correlates," sniffed Victor. "As in the chance for losing a game is ninety percent 'closely correlates' with the chance of winning being ten percent."

While they'd been bantering, Cathy had been monitoring her watch. "It's about time. Ruth, change to the live feed, will you?"

"Sure." The Manticoran princess tapped her tablet a few times and the image on the big virtual screen shifted to an outside view of Mount Royal Palace. A shuttle was coming in for a landing.

A minute or so went by, while the shuttle settled in and an armed security detachment took positions near the hatch through which the passengers would be disembarking.

The hatch opened and the first passenger came down the ramp. The reporter, who'd been prattling vacuities while she waited for something to happen, immediately said: "As expected, that's President Eloise Pritchart, arriving for her scheduled meeting with the empress and the prime minister. Following her is Haven's Secretary of War Thomas Theisman. And now, if our private sources are accurate, we should be seeing…"

A short, very wide-shouldered man started down the ramp. "Yes, that's him. The now-famous Captain Zilwicki, formerly an intelligence officer in the Royal Manticoran Navy and now operating on his own. Or, often, in tandem with his unlikely partner…"

Another man came down the ramp. He was dressed all in black, in garments which were very closely patterned on the former uniform of Haven's now-defunct State Security.

"And that's Victor Cachat, who has become just as famous as Zilwicki." The reporter chuckled. "The more sensational news outlets have started referring to him as 'Black Victor,' we're told."

"Yes!" exclaimed Anton, pumping his fist. "Join the Notoriety Club, buddy."

Victor was back to looking disgruntled; sour; even sullen.

"When are we leaving?" he demanded. "At least on Mesa I'll be able to get some privacy."

Ruth pursed her lips. "That may be the single most deranged statement I've ever heard in my life." Then, with a grin: "But what else could you expect from…" Her voice lowered an octave and took on a pronounced tremor. "…Black Victor?"
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Mar 30, 2014 9:02 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 42

Chapter 24

"Just what I always wanted," Yana Tretiakovna said sardonically, gazing at the detailed holograph floating before her. "My very own starship." She paused for a moment, head cocked, then frowned. "It's smaller than I thought it would be, though. Is this the compact version?"

Her appearance had changed radically, shifting from a Slavic to an East Asian template and becoming increasingly voluptuous. The process wasn't complete, but it was close enough for her to begin the necessary therapy to adjust for her . . . rearranged (and considerably more top-heavy) physique, and she was not pleased by the discomfort level that her new physique imposed as she grimly jogged on the gymnasium's treadmill every day. That was probably the real reason she'd been so enthusiastic about taking a break from that strenuous exercise routine, Anton Zilwicki thought.

Of course, the fact that she was thoroughly pissed off that he'd required so little in the way of alterations and virtually no PT or specialized exercise programs suggested it might be . . . unwise of him to twit her over her enthusiasm. On the other hand, he'd loyally spent his gym time right beside his new partner, since his own idea of a "mild workout" would have reduced half the galaxy's professional bodybuilders to tears.

"It's not actually your starship, you know," he pointed out mildly. "I'm sure the BSC would like to get her back intact at the end of the day."

"I'm not planning on breaking it," she replied a bit snippily. "And it's not like I'm really going to be the one in charge of this side of the operation, either. If memory serves, you're the senior member of this team."

"Nonsense! No Technician class worker from Hakim could possibly be senior to a Patrician like you. Your lightest whim is my command, Mistress. Within reason, of course."

"Oh, of course!" Yana's tone was sarcastic, but her eyes were thoughtful as she studied the lines of the sleek little starship's image. "And speaking of handing ships back over intact, just how was the Survey Corps able to lay its hands on this one so promptly?"

"They didn't." Anton shrugged. "That is, they didn't have to 'lay hands' on anything; they own the Brixton's Comet outright, and have -- according to Uncle Jacques -- for over thirty T-years. They just didn't get around to mentioning it to anyone."

Yana smiled at Anton's use of the we're-less-than-totally-fond-of-him-but-he's-not-all-that-bad nickname Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou had received from the small party of spies planning on sneaking onto the most dangerous planet in the galaxy. No one was quite certain how it had begun, although Yana suspected it stemmed from the conferences which both he and his formidable niece had attended in the Old Star Kingdom, but it had been Victor Cachat who'd first used it -- completely deadpan -- to Benton-Ramirez y Chou's face. To his credit, the half-sized Beowulfer had simply gone right ahead with the abstruse point he'd been explaining at the time without so much as a blink. From his reaction and from what she knew about the BSC, Yana wouldn't have been especially surprised to discover that some of his team members during his own time in Beowulf's special forces had called him the same thing. Or something even more disrespectful, given the BSC's informality in the field and just how well he'd performed there. It was the sort of backhanded compliment elite forces routinely paid to those they most respected. Whatever the reason, he seemed perfectly comfortable with it.

And it certainly took less time to say than his surname did.

"And just how sure are they that no one outside the BSC knows that they've owned her outright for years and years?" she asked.

"Fairly confident." Anton shrugged again. "That's about as good as it gets in this business, you know. They bought her -- had her built, really, right here in the Hidalgo Yard -- through about six layers of shell companies, and they've operated her on a lease basis ever since. And according to Uncle Jacques, she's only been used twice in all that time for specific covert operations. They've actually earned back her construction costs several times over by now, all through legitimate leases, and she's been leased so many times, by so many different lessees, that she has an absolutely ironclad history, no matter how deep anyone looks from the outside. About the only way anyone could consider her suspect would be for the 'anyone' in question to have someone deep enough inside the BSC to know all about her. And if they've got anyone that deep, we're all screwed before we ever leave Beowulf, so I figure we might as well operate on the assumption that her identity's at least as secure as ours are going to be."

Yana considered that for a moment, then nodded. For all her often deliberately "lowbrow" public persona, the ex-Scrag was ferociously intelligent, and while her actual experience and skill set tended more towards focused mayhem than covert operations, she'd had enough experience operating with the duo of Cachat & Zilwicki to accept Anton's analysis without too many qualms.

Now he manipulated the image, expanding it until they could make out the hull's details.

"She's a nice little ship, actually," he pointed out with a connoisseur's enthusiasm. "Only about forty-five thousand tons, of course, but in most ways she's a lot like Duchess Harrington's personal yacht, the Tankersley. She's fitted up on a rather more luxurious scale than the Duchess ever considered necessary, and she doesn't have accommodations for quite as many warm bodies, but the basic power plant and automation are virtually identical."

"That's good, considering how little I know about the guts of a starship," Yana observed dryly. She was a skilled small craft pilot, at home behind the controls of anything from high-performance air-breathing atmospheric craft to heavy-lift cargo shuttles or an all-up armored assault shuttle, but all of that experience was strictly sub-light.

"Don't worry," Anton said reassuringly. "I know my way around a starship's innards just fine, and this design incorporates so much automation -- and so many multiply redundant backup systems -- that the possibility of any sort of serious malfunction's effectively nonexistent. And," he added feelingly, "she's not only one hell of a lot younger than Hali Sowle, but she's been properly maintained for her entire life."

"Well, that's a relief. I've spent long enough drifting around playing cards for one lifetime, thank you very much."

"Me, too." Anton grinned. "And while we're on the subject of reasons not to worry, the reason she's got all that automation is that she was intended from the beginning to be operated by a two-person crew. It's not like I'm going to need a lot of assistant engineers, and I'll probably be able to find time in my arduous schedule to do any astrogating we need, as well"

"You get us there in one piece, and I'll be happy," Yana told him. Brixton's Comet's normal-space controls were essentially little more than an upgraded and fancified version of a regular cargo shuttle. In fact, they were a bit simpler even than that, since the yacht had never been intended for atmospheric flight. Of course, there was the minor matter of the Visigoth Wormhole to consider. Which reminded her…

"You do realize that getting us there in one piece includes getting us through the damned wormhole, don't you?" she asked.

"Between Visigoth's traffic control, the ship's computers, and my own odd few decades of naval service, I'm sure we'll be able to limp through it somehow," he assured her.

"Yeah, sure," she agreed, eyes fixed on the holograph.

"Don't worry about it," he said in a rather more reassuring tone. "We'll be fine at least as far as the transportation's involved. And we'll be a lot more comfortable than the others will."
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Apr 01, 2014 9:53 pm


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

This book should be available now so this is the last snippet.

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 43

"Well, than Andrew and Steph will be, anyway," Yana corrected him with a smile, and he chuckled.

"Actually, I think they're probably going to be more comfortable than Victor is," he said. "Working crew berths aboard liners like the Pygmalion may not be luxury suites, but they aren't exactly dungeon cells, either. Their quarters will actually be more comfortable -- and probably more spacious -- than anything Andrew had growing up on Parmley Station, and they'll be a hell of a lot better than anything Steph had as a seccie growing up in Mendel. But poor Victor! Can you even imagine how badly his revolutionary's instincts are going to revolt against a first-class suite on one of the fanciest luxury liners in space?" Anton shook his head, his sad expression belied by the twinkle in his deep eyes. "I foresee great angst on his part!"

"Bull." Yana laughed. "You know exactly how he and the Kaja will be spending their time in that first-class suite of theirs!"

"I have no idea what you could possibly be talking about," Anton said virtuously, and Yana laughed again.

She had a point, Anton conceded, and even if she hadn't had one, Victor Cachat was nothing if not adaptable. And the fact that Mesa was one of Pygmalion's regular stops (and that her captain owed Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou several very sizable personal favors) was going to prove very useful. The ship, one of the Tobias Lines' elite vessels, had exactly zero connection with anything Beowulfan and the line's owners had been among the Solarian League's most vociferous critics of "Manticoran mercantile imperialism" for the last forty or fifty T-years. They deeply resented Manticoran penetration of what they considered to be rightfully "their" markets, especially as that penetration pushed them further and further out of the bulk freight carrying trade and into the passenger traffic. They couldn't complain about their profit margin on the fast, sleek liners they continued to operate, but a very high profit margin on a couple of dozen vessels came in a poor second compared to a moderate profit margin on several score vessels.

What mattered at the moment was that there was absolutely nothing to make even a member of the Mesan Alignment suspicious of Pygmalion's pedigree, and she'd plied the same route -- which included both Beowulf and Mesa -- for the last seven T-years. She was a thoroughly known quantity, and her owners didn't need to know that Captain Vandor's daughter-in-law owed her life and the lives of her three then-unborn children to a BSC covert team under the command of one Major Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou. In fact, Captain Vandor and his family had been very careful about seeing to it that that particular bit of knowledge did not become public. There were several reasons for that, but the most important one was that Vandor was a man who believed in paying his debts, which included keeping the identity of the unknown criminals who'd raided the offices of a highly respected Solarian shipping line -- the one, in fact, which had employed (and continued to employ) one Sebastián Vandor -- and in the process "kidnapped" a secretarial worker who had subsequently managed to escape from her abductors and was now the mother of Sebastian's grandchildren.

The Tobias Lines would have looked with disfavor upon any efforts to publicize the fact that its current CEO's (sadly deceased) brother had been using the company's assets to cover Manpower shipments of genetic slaves inside the League. Of course, that had been back in the good old days when Tobias had still boasted a sizable freighter fleet. Times had changed . . . but memories were long, and there was no statute of limitations on the League's anti-slavery laws. But that once-upon-a-time relationship was one reason Pygmalion served the Mesan run and enjoyed a certain coziness with the Mesa System's government and its various agencies.

All of which only helped make the liner one of the least likely to be suspected means whereby desperate and coming spies might be inserted into the very heart of darkness.

Brixton's Comet wasn't quite as speedy as Pygmalion. The passenger liner had military grade particle screening and a military grade hyper generator, as did most of the galaxy's relatively small number of really fast passenger liners and specialty freighters. Brixton's Comet, although she was obviously the sort of plaything only the fabulously wealthy might possess, did not have military grade particle screening. She could go as high in hyper-space as Pygmalion could, but her sustained velocity there was barely seventy percent as great. The passenger liner could make the trip from Beowulf to Mesa via the Visigoth System and its wormhole junction in little more than twelve T-days; Brixton's Comet would require eighteen. On the other hand, the yacht wasn't dependent upon the passenger liner's schedule and Yana and Anton ought to be able to leave at least a full T-week and a half before Pygmalion did. That meant they ought to arrive in Mesa a good four T-days sooner than the rest of their team did, which would give them that additional time to establish their own covers . . . and that much more separation from the insertion of the others.

Victor and Thandi would enter Mesa openly, relying upon their thoroughly legal (albeit rather less than legally obtained) visas, which would subject them to the full rigor of Mesan Customs. That was fine, since the Mesans were supposed to figure out -- eventually -- that Victor's ostensible reason for visiting their fine planet was not precisely what he had declared upon arrival. Mesa being Mesa, the authorities ought to be quite satisfied with that discovery and pat themselves on the back for it without spending much thought worrying over the possibility that the dark little secret they'd discovered about their guest was there specifically to be discovered and provide the sort of answer which would keep them from looking any deeper.

Andrew Artlett and Steph Turner would enter Mesa in less visible fashion. It wasn't at all uncommon for ships like Pygmalion to sign on temporary crew, and it wasn't much less common for that temporary crew to jump ship. It was an acknowledged way for the big lines, especially, to find the hands they needed in a short-term arrangement with the understanding that they could pay dirt poor wages because what the short-term hands in question had in mind was finding cheap transportation to where they really wanted to go. "Gypsies" was the most commonly used polite term for people like that, and nobody worried his head too much over their comings and goings. Admittedly, Mesa was likely to keep a much closer eye on any gypsies who decided to stay on in someplace like Mendel, but Victor had come up with an extremely Victor-like plan to let them drop entirely off the grid once they were on-planet.

As a general rule, Anton Zilwicki disliked plans which had too many moving parts. The Demon Murphy was the unceasing foe of those who became too enamored of their own cleverness, and Zilwicki had adopted the KISS Principle as his guiding light long, long ago. In this instance, however, he'd considered every aspect of the insertion plan, and assuming they were going to actually continue with what Duchess Harrington had so aptly described as their insanity, he was satisfied this was the best way to go about it.

Besides, he thought, looking down at the hologram, she really is a sweet little ship. I'm going to enjoy playing with her. And this time I'm not going to spend T-weeks on end playing cards and listening to Andrew whistle. What's a little possibility of mayhem and disaster compared to that?
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Apr 03, 2014 9:35 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 44

Chapter 25

Cary Condor took off her hat and hung it on a peg next to the door. Like everything else in their apartment, the peg was an antique. It was a piece of actual wood, made from one of the trees called nackels that covered much of Mesa's lowlands. Nackelwood had no interesting grain; no aromatic odor; nothing. Its sole virtues were that it was readily available, easy to work and cheap.

It was a fairly common material used for furniture in seccie areas -- but even in seccie areas most small items like clothing pegs were made of modern extrusile memory foams. As the hat drew near, the foam's embedded sensorium would cause it to extrude as a peg shape, which it would withdraw once the object was removed. Using a wood peg, on the other hand…

The thing was rigid, fixed, immovable, an actual safety hazard. What if you slipped? You could lose an eye on the damn thing.

But that was admittedly far down the list of dangers they faced. So Cary didn't give the peg more than a perfunctory scowl before hanging up her hat and turning to her companions.

Just one companion, as it turned out. Karen was still asleep.

"How is she?"

Stephanie was sitting at the small kitchen table. "No better -- but no worse, either, from what I can tell. I think her condition may have stabilized, at least a little."

Sighing, Cary pulled out a chair and joined Stephanie at the table. "What makes the whole thing so horrible is that if we could just get her some decent medical care…"

"We could heal her. Completely. New legs, new organs, the works. With modern medicine, it wouldn't be that hard and not even too expensive." She shrugged. "For all the good that does. We might as well wish for our own spacecraft and no-questions-asked orbit clearance, while we're at it."

Cary laughed. "And a pilot, don't forget! Neither one of us knows a thing about operating spaceships."

"Or even flyers, in your case," said Stephanie. "Hell, I can barely manage to handle a simple flyer myself."

Cary winced. She'd flown with Stephanie, once, with Stephanie at the controls.

Once. It was an experience she'd sworn never to repeat. Most seccies -- Cary and Stephanie were no exception -- had little experience operating equipment beyond whatever they might learn on a job. Most seccies who knew how to fly learned the skills as cabbies, personal valets or lorry drivers. Stephanie's experience had come entirely from a few months she'd spent working for a restaurant as a parking attendant.

Cary hated Mesa's overlords. Manpower, Inc., the Jessyk Combine, any and all of them. She knew that David Pritchard's detonation of the nuclear device at Green Pines had been tactically insane -- not to mention suicidal for himself. But she'd never had any trouble understanding the emotions that had driven him to do it.

More than half of Mesa's population was kept in conditions of chattel slavery, without even the hope of manumission. The descendants of slaves who'd been freed centuries earlier when manumission had still been legal, seccies like Cary herself, lived in conditions that were better but only marginally so. Worse, actually, in material terms, more often than not. But unlike an outright slave, a seccie had a certain degree of personal freedom. Very circumscribed freedom, granted, but at least someone like Cary didn't have to account to a master or mistress for everything they did or every step they took.

Her angry musings were interrupted by Stephanie. "Look, there's no point chewing on ourselves over Karen's situation. The truth is, we're lucky any of us are still alive. Once David -- and damn him again -- set off that bomb, something like this was bound to happen."

Cary couldn't help but shiver. The weeks following the detonation at Green Pines had been…

Hideous. Mesa's security forces had gone berserk. They'd ripped through the seccie quarters like weasels set loose in a chicken coop. Their official rationale had been "rooting out terrorists," but that had been an excuse -- and one they didn't care at all if anyone believed. They'd simply been wreaking vengeance.

Ironically, that very savagery was probably all that had kept Cary and Karen and Stephanie from being captured. The security forces had been so engrossed in random slaughter that they'd actually been a little lax in punishing real enemies.

So, keeping just half a step ahead of their pursuers, Cary and her two companions had managed to escape, although Karen had been terribly injured in the process. But the security forces had captured most of their former confederates.

They'd caught the leader of their group, Carl Hansen, within a few hours after Green Pines. His corpse, rather. Carl had committed suicide when he realized he had no chance of escape. If he hadn't, the security thugs would have caught everyone. But Carl's suicide bought the rest of them a little breathing space.

Cary didn't know who else might have also escaped. Unfortunately, they couldn't use the drop boxes to re-establish contact with any of them who'd done so. Angus Levigne had set up those locations, and he'd been insistent on keeping knowledge of them restricted to a small circle. The only ones in that circle who were still alive were the three women in that apartment.

A finger poked her shoulder. "Hey, snap out of it," said Stephanie. "Whatever place you're at right now, it's not doing you any good. Let's concentrate on the moment. Did you find out anything today?"

Cary realized that she had wandered off mentally. That happened to her a lot, just as the nightmares came to her almost every night. She knew she was suffering from a bad case of PTSD -- which, like Karen's injuries, was a medical condition that could be easily cured if she had access to the right treatment.

Sure. All she and Moriarty had to do was steal a flyer, hope that Stephanie wouldn't kill them in a crash along the way, steal a shuttle at the spaceport that neither of them knew how to operate so they could reach orbit where they could steal a spacecraft neither of them knew how to operate so they could travel to a planet neither of them knew how to navigate to where they could get the medical assistance they needed from nobody they knew which they'd pay for with money they didn't have.

The tough problem, of course, would be evading Mesa's orbital defenses.

She couldn't help but break into laughter. Genuine laughter, too, even if it was probably a bit hysterical.

"Well, the drop box had nothing, as usual. But I did meet that person you were told to look for."

Stephanie's lips tightened. "So, at least that…" She took a breath. "Wasn't wasted."

Stephanie had been the one who'd made the initial contact with the district's criminal gang. Since they didn't have any money to spare, she'd paid for the information they needed a different way.

It had been unpleasant, certainly, but no worse than anything they'd already been through. Both of them had spent time in the custody of the security forces, in the past, being interrogated. "Interrogation," in the parlance of Mesa's security thugs, routinely included rape. That was almost invariably true for young women, usually true for young men, as likely as not for middle-aged people and not unheard of even in the case of the elderly.

Cary had gone through it twice. The worst of it, in a way, had been the bizarrely impersonal nature of the brutality. Her rapists had seemed to be acting out some sort of routine, as if what they were engaged in was just part of a job. It wasn't simply that they treated her as slab of meat; so far as she could tell, they really didn't see her as anything else. They might as well have been butchers working at their trade.

She shook her head, shaking away the memories at the same time. She could do it with those, because she'd been able to get psychological treatment afterward that had prevented the trauma from getting fixed into PTSD.

"Anyway, what you learned turned out to be true. I went to that bar he told you about."

"The Rhodesian Rendezvous."

"Yeah. Talk about a dive! That place is a little scary. Well, more than a little. The only people who seem to hang out there are roughnecks to a man -- and I do mean man. I was the only woman in the place."

She chuckled, very dryly. "For once, I was glad I don't look like you." Cary wasn't unattractive. But she wasn't nearly as good-looking as Moriarty.

For her part, Stephanie made a face. "Trust me, girl. Looking like me is as much of a curse as a blessing. Anyway, what happened then?"

"That guy was there, all right. The one that -- what was his name? I can't remember -- told you to ask for."

"Jake. Something. I don't remember his last name. For that matter, I'm not sure he ever gave it to me."

"Well, for whatever it's worth, at least Jake didn't cheat you. Triêu Chuanli was there, all right. In one of the back rooms, not in the main area of the bar. I had to do some fast talking to get to see him, but they finally let me."

Stephanie's lips quirked. "Bet they made it like some sort of royal audience."

"Actually, no. Well, they did -- the two goons who ushered me back there, I mean -- but Chuanli himself was pretty low key. He was even polite. Asked me to sit, if I wanted any sort of refreshment. Ha!" She smiled. "Just as if I was a proper lady and he was a proper gentleman offering tea and crumpets. Whatever crumpets are."

"They're a goofy type of pancake. The ancient Angleterrans used to eat them, whoever they were." Moriarty made an impatient shooing motion with her hand. "Keep going."

Cary decided to cut the small talk that had followed for a few minutes. Triêu -- he'd insisted on being on a first name basis -- really had been quite pleasant, even cordial. If she hadn't known he was some sort of higher-up in a criminal cabal, Cary would have thought he was a professional of some sort. Maybe even a university professor.

Good-looking guy, too. But again, she shook her head.

"The long and the short of it is that, yes, he'd be interested in our merchandise whenever we see fit to present him with it. He was obviously curious as to why we didn't have it right now -- or even have a date in mind. But he didn't push that at all."

"Is that the long or the short? And whichever it is, what's the kicker? There's got to be one."

Cary smiled. "Bad expression. I should have said, 'the short and the short of it.' What it came down to was, yes, he'd be willing to buy. No, he wasn't slobbering all over himself with eagerness. This sort of merchandise, it seems, does have a market but it's a pretty erratic one and if it takes too long maintaining the merchandise in good condition can cost enough to eat up any profits he might make. You can't just stuff it into a freezer. So -- this is the kicker -- the price isn't that great. He'll give us a deal. We either take a straight-up payment -- "

"For how much?"

Cary gave her the amount, in all three currencies Chuanli had offered to deal in. Moriarty grimaced.

"That's not much," she said. "Wouldn't keep us going for more than another three months, tops."

"Or we can share part of the risk with him. We could wind up with quite a bit more, if he can turn the merchandise around quickly. Or we might end up with even less than the straight-up price, if it takes too long. In whatever case, though, we don't get paid until he makes the sale. Or sales -- which is more likely -- if he winds up having more than one customer."

Stephanie grimaced again. "That means we have to trust him, too."

Cary and pursed her lips. "I don't think that's actually a problem, Stephanie. It's hard to explain, but… I get the sense that when you deal with someone like Chuanli, it's taken for granted that everyone is acting in good faith. Honor among thieves, I'd guess you'd say. That's probably because since nobody can appeal a dispute to the courts, nobody wants to take a risk that the swindled party comes back at you with bloodshed in mind."

Stephanie rolled her eyes. "Oh, right." She spread out her hands, indicating the cramped apartment. "We're practically awash in hit men. Oh, wait. I guess that'd have to be hit girls, since there are no actual men here."

"Hey, look. Nobody ever promised us a rose garden."

"Yeah, but is it too much to ask for a cactus garden? This is pushing it." Stephanie chewed on her lower lip for a few seconds. "So what do you think? Go for the better but riskier deal?"


She chewed on her lip for a few more seconds. "Okay. What the hell. We may as well keep living dangerously, given our track record."
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Apr 06, 2014 9:02 pm


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

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 45

Chapter 26

Lajos Irvine's boss George Vickers had done one thing right, at least. The two assistants he'd provided Lajos looked to be a lot more capable than the numbskulls he'd been provided the last time his superiors decided he needed support.

That had been Isabel Bardasano's doing. The now-deceased former head of Alignment Security had normally been as sharp as they come. But that time, the fieldcraft of the meatheads she'd handed Lajos had been so bad they'd given themselves away to the targets as soon as they encountered them. Being fair to Bardasano, she'd been in a hurry and the only forces she had immediately at hand were some of Mesa's security people. They hadn't been part of even the outermost layers of the Alignment and were accustomed to dealing with seccies. They'd also had the vicious nature and the overconfidence that normally infected a "security force" whose brutality and violence was unchecked by anything remotely like "legal rights" on the part of their victims. A very little bit of that was enough to turn even once-intelligent human beings into arrogant, head-breaking thugs, and Lajos' hastily assigned "backup" had been at their trade entirely too long.

To make things worse -- not to mention terrifying -- the targets in question had been the deadliest bastards Lajos had ever run across in his entire career. One of them, especially. That maniac had gunned down all three goons in that many seconds -- no, probably less. Lajos didn't remember too well because he'd been so frightened.

He'd been even more frightened a short time later when the two targets dragged him into a tunnel and had a short discussion over whether or not to kill him. That they'd do so without hesitation had been manifestly obvious. Lajos still woke up sometimes with nightmares of the cold gaze of the gunman. Those black eyes had been as merciless as a spider's. He'd never forget them.

This time around, though, the higher-ups seemed to have had their heads screwed on straight. These two agents were part of the Alignment and had the earmarks of people with experience in the field against serious opponents. They were the police equivalent of elite special forces, not uniformed goons. Lajos didn't have any doubt that the men would handle themselves just fine if it came down to rough stuff. Which, hopefully, it wouldn't. Lajos had no romantic notions concerning violence. If all went as planned, his transactions and dealings with Mesa's seccie underworld would be as banal and unexciting as grocery shopping.

Lajos finished reading through his notes and turned away from the monitor. "I'm thinking our best bet is to approach either Jurgen Dusek in Neue Rostock or go the other way and see if we can get someone in Lower Radomsko interested."

Neue Rostock was at the center of the seccie districts in the capital. It was a heavily crime-ridden area and Dusek was the district's acknowledged crime boss. Not the only one, but what ancient gangsters would have called the capo di tutti capi.

Lower Radomsko presented a different picture. It was also well into the central areas inhabited by seccies and was, if anything, even more crime-ridden than Neue Rostock. But its underworld was disorganized, dominated by a multitude of small gangs none of whom recognized any master.

"I'd go for Neue Rostock," advised Stanković. "Dealing with Dusek will be a lot easier than trying to deal with that mob of crazies in Lower Radomsko."

Martinez issued a little grunt, which seemed to indicate his agreement.

Lajos leaned the same way as Stanković, but for the moment he decided to play the devil's advocate. "Yeah, that's true -- but so is the corollary. If things go wrong, dealing with Dusek will be a lot less easy. I've never dealt with the man before, but I know a lot about him. By all accounts, once you scratch that gangster-politesse veneer of his you're dealing with Attila the Hun's first cousin. He's the mean one in the family, by the way."

Stanković chuckled. "Yeah, I've heard the same thing. But…" He turned his head sideways a little, to give Lajos a slanted gaze. "Don't take this the wrong way, boss, but I don't think you've had much experience in Lower Radomsko."

"None at all," Lajos agreed. "Personally, that is. I know a fair amount about it, though, just from -- " He waved his hand. "Stuff."

"Yeah, that's what I thought. The thing is, you really have to spend time there to get a good sense of it. Freddie and I never did ourselves but we worked with a Mesan security agent -- one of the Tabbies -- who'd spent years there. The stories he had to tell…" He shook his head. "The place is a shithole."

Lajos leaned back in his chair, his interest rising. "Go on," he said.

"It's…" Stanković groped for words.

"Fucking lunacy," provided Martinez.

His partner nodded. "That's about right. It's just chaos, boss. You'll think you've made a deal, gotten some sort of arrangement -- this happened to the Tabby three times, I'm not kidding -- and the next minute some other asshole has shoved his way in and you've got to start all over. One of those times he told us he wound up having to deal with four gangs. And it wasn't any big money deal, neither."

"Just looking for a runaway slave," said Martinez. "The bounty amounted to pocket change. But for the sorry-ass screwballs in Lower Radomsko" -- he rubbed a thumb and two fingers together -- "what you and I would call pocket change is worth killing over."

"He got the runaway, eventually," said Stanković. "But not before five people had been killed -- one of whom was the runaway herself. Got her throat cut by one gang just so another one wouldn't get the bounty."

"Screw Lower Radomsko," said Martinez.

Lajos laughed and raised his hands in a mock gesture of surrender. "Okay, okay, guys. I'm convinced. Neue Rostock it'll be, then."

Lajos was pleased. More than a decision had been arrived at here, he knew. A working relationship had been moved forward, too. He'd been worried about that a little. Lajos' entire career had been as a lone wolf. He had no experience handling other agents and hadn't been sure if he had the skills or aptitude for it. Judging from the friendly expressions on the faces of Stanković and Martinez, though, it seemed he did.


"What's up, boss? Did you get the results from -- "

Seeing the people already sitting in Anastasia Chernevsky's office, Zachariah McBryde abruptly stopped talking. When he got the summons to report to Chernevsky -- which came via personal courier, which was unusual but not unheard-of -- he'd assumed she wanted to discuss one of the projects they were working on.

That couldn't possibly be what she'd summoned him for, though, he now realized. Two of the four scientists in the room had no connection to the work he was doing, and he didn't recognize one of them at all. The only reason Zachariah even knew she was a scientist was because the lab coat the woman was wearing had the tell-tale signs of a working garment.

But the icing on the cake was the presence of Janice Marinescu. He hadn't seen her since the meeting where she informed Zachariah and Anastasia that Operation Houdini was being set underway.

He got a sharp, sinking feeling in his stomach. The experiments he'd been running lately had been difficult enough to keep his mind focused. As time went by with no further notice or even mention of Houdini, he'd managed to half-forget about the issue. And now here it was, back in full force. There could be no other reason for Marinescu's presence.

"Okay, we're all here," Marinescu said. "The five of you in this room are the people from this science project who've been selected for Houdini. Anastasia Chernevsky in in overall charge of the center. Three of you" -- she glanced briefly at Zachariah and the two scientists he knew -- "are task force directors, and Gail Weiss is… let's just say she has special skills we don't want to lose.

"As you've probably already guessed, Houdini has just gone from alert status to active status. The first division is already being taken off-planet. Unfortunately, we're evacuating a lot more people in a shorter span of time than we'd foreseen. That means we're forced to use avenues of exfiltration that we hadn't planned on originally. Many of us -- including all five of you in this room -- will be evacuated via Manpower shipping."

One of the task force directors, Stefka Juarez, made a face. It had been an involuntary reaction and the expression left her face within two seconds, but Marinescu spotted it and gaze her a hard gaze. "Is there a problem, Ms. Juarez?"

She didn't wait for an answer before continuing. "It's a little late in the day, don't you think, to discover you have qualms about Manpower's activities. You're in the inner layers of the onion and have been since you were a teenager. You've known for years -- and if you had any disagreements you certainly kept them quiet -- that the Alignment's longterm goals required the development of genetic slavery. And still do -- and will, for several more generations."

She stopped and gave all of them that cold gaze. "The same goes for the rest of you. So if it turns out -- which it has -- that you have to be exfiltrated by ships from the slave trade, deal with it. You may have been able to keep your hands clean in your scientific work, but others of us -- me, for one -- have not enjoyed that luxury. You'll forgive me if I don't have any sympathy for your current plight. Which, as plights go, isn't much."

She stopped to look at each one of them in turn, for a second or two. "Do any of you have anything you want to say?"

All of them were silent. Chernevsky and Gail Weiss shook their heads.

"Very well." Marinescu had her hands folded in her lap. Now she unclasped them and pointed at the door. "When you leave here, each of you will be escorted by a member of the Genetic Advancement and Uplift League to a briefing room. There, you'll be given the details of your evacuation route. Everything you need to know except the exact time of departure and the specific ship you'll be taking. We won't know that for a while yet. Right now, we're only halfway through scheduling the evacuation details for the second division."

The third of the task force directors, Joseph van Vleet, was frowning. "How will we know -- "

" -- when to leave? The same member of the Uplift League whom you'll meet when you leave here will come and notify you. They will also accompany you throughout the evacuation. Every stage of it until you reach your final destination."

Once again, Juarez grimaced. Zachariah barely knew her, since their work was in areas quite far removed from each other. He couldn't help but wonder, though, how someone who'd been made a task force director could have such abysmal social skills.

"Is that really necessary?" she asked.

Marinescu looked at her the way a predator studies the weakest member of a herd. After a short pause, she said: "The very fact you ask that question demonstrates that it is."

She turned her eyes onto the rest of them. "Do I need to explain again -- how many times has each of you been briefed on Houdini? at least three -- that the whole point of the operation is to prevent our enemies from learning anything about the Alignment. I should say, as little as possible about the Alignment and nothing at all about the inner layers of the onion -- or even the onion's existence. The only way to be sure of that is to follow two essential guidelines.

"First, no one outside the group selected for Houdini can know anything about it. That means nobody. That includes spouses, parents, children, siblings, cousins, friends -- nobody. Secondly, nobody can be left behind who does know about Houdini. Nobody. Not. One. Single. Person."

She paused again, to scan all of their faces. Looking for weakness, hesitation, indecision, vacillation… anything that would trigger her predator's instincts. Her own gaze was pitiless.

Zachariah held his breath. The moment was… dangerous. Really, really dangerous.

"If you don't understand exactly what that means," she continued, "let me explain it to you as clearly as I can. If you tell anyone about Houdini who is not part of it, that person will be eliminated. So will any person that that person might have told. I stress might have told. We will bend the stick in the direction of caution, be assured of that."

She nodded toward Anastasia. "If Director Chernevsky tells her husband or any of her three children, to give a hypothetical example, all of them will be eliminated. Including herself, of course. Violating the tenets of Houdini will be considered high treason. Do you all understand me?"

Anastasia's face was drawn, but she nodded curtly. So did Zachariah and van Vleet. Weiss and Juarez just stared down at the floor.

"Just to be clear on this. 'Telling anyone' will be interpreted as broadly as possible. So don't try -- don't even entertain the possibility in your dreams -- to let your family and friends know you'll be leaving by some circuitous or indirect means. Do not tell them that you'll be going on a long trip soon due to your work. Do not give them unusual gifts. Do not take them on sudden vacations. Do or say absolutely nothing that is in any way out of the ordinary. And don't doubt for a moment that you will be under surveillance. We will know if you do."

She paused again. "I repeat: do you all understand me, in every particular?"

This time, everyone nodded.

"Good. Now, as to the second issue. It may turn out -- this is not likely, but it can't be ruled out altogether -- that at some point in the evacuation, through no fault of your own, you become compromised. If that happens, the member of the -- the Gaul, to hell with circumlocutions, will see to it that you do not fall into enemy hands. You won't have to do anything. It will be done for you. If you need me to spell that out, I will do so."

Again, the pause. By now Zachariah just wanted to get the meeting over with. He felt like he'd been beaten on the head with a club. Beaten on his spirit, rather -- or soul, if he had one.

Marinescu was not one to let anything slide, however. "I repeat. Do any of you need me to spell out what this means?"

All five of them shook their heads.

"Good. Director Chernevsky, if you would lead the way? You will be followed by the others at five second intervals in alphabetical order. After Chernevsky, Juarez goes, followed by McBryde and Van Vleet. Ms. Weiss, you go last."

Chernevsky was already on her feet and heading for the door. After a slight hesitation, Juarez got up and followed. After the director passed through the door, Juarez glanced at her timepiece. Five seconds later, she followed.

Zachariah did the same. When he came through the door, Anastasia was no longer in sight. Juarez and her escort were already well down the corridor.

One of the three Gauls still waiting stepped up. "Task Force Director McBryde, I will be your escort. Come with me, please."

Zachariah recognized him, but he couldn't remember if this one was Zhilov or Arpino. But the man was already moving down the corridor so he didn't ask.

He didn't suppose it mattered anyway. He felt a lot like a man being led to the scaffold. Under the circumstances, would you ask the executioner his name? It seemed like a waste of time and effort. In the nature of things, your relationship with your executioner was fleeting.
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
Re: STICKY: Cauldron of Ghosts Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Apr 08, 2014 9:02 pm


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

Well, this should really be the last snippet. [Smile]

Cauldron of Ghosts - Snippet 46

Chapter 27

Colonel Nancy Anderson waited until the Hali Sowle was eight light-minutes away from the trading depot before she said anything about their mission. There was no rational reason for that. If anything they'd said or done or just blind bad luck had given them away to the Manpower personnel staffing the depot, they were as good as dead anyway. At that range, even low-powered missiles carrying small warheads would easily destroy a ship like the Hali Sowle.

And whether they'd been found out or not, why bother keeping silent for any length of time once the Hali Sowle left the depot? They were a starship, not a submarine maintaining silence under the surface of an ocean lest they be detected by their enemies. In space, as the old saw went, no one can hear you scream -- or talk, or sing, or whisper, or shout at the top of your lungs.

But, rational or not, the time just passed had been very tense. All members of the BSC handled tension well; Anderson handled it particularly well or she'd never have reached the rank of colonel. Still…

Eight light-minutes was one Astronomical Unit, one of the most ancient of all measures. It was the distance between Sol and Terra back in the human race's system of origin.

Most Beowulfers might not be superstitious -- but they still ate comfort food like anyone else. One AU was the astrogational equivalent. For reasons that might make no sense, star travelers just seemed to relax a little once they'd gone that distance.

"Well, I didn't spot any problems. Did anyone?"

"No," said Damewood. "The lion moved among the lambs with nary a one of the little fuzzballs sensing anything amiss." He pointed to his work station, with the special displays now up that he'd made sure were not in sight when Manpower's inspectors came through. "I was checking too, you'd better believe it."

Sitting in the captain's seat, Ganny El blew a raspberry. "'The lion moved among the lambs'! Yeah, right. Completely toothless lion -- no claws, neither -- and a pack of lambs that sure looked like predators to me." She held up an admonishing finger. "I'm telling you, I'm not doing this again! You hear that, Anderson? I don't care how much money you wave under my nose."

The colonel smiled but didn't say anything. She had no more intention than Ganny of repeating the somewhat hair-raising experiment. One test run, carried out at a large and well-equipped Manpower depot, was enough to determine if there was any significant chance that the identity of the Hali Sowle would flag any alarms. They'd decided it was better to take the risk now with a skeleton crew than find out later when the Hali Sowle was carrying a full complement.

But no alarms had been triggered. Neither by the name nor the characteristics of the ship itself. The Hali Sowle had arrived at Balcescu Station after approaching and identifying itself quite openly; had spent two days at the depot engaged in trade and simply enjoying the depot's restaurants and shops; and had then left in just as straightforward a manner. And there'd been no trouble of any kind, leaving aside the quarrel Ganny had gotten into with a shopkeeper whom she accused of trying to fleece her.

So, it now seemed clear that the Hali Sowle could go anywhere safely except possibly to Mesa itself. And if Zilwicki and Cachat were right in their estimate that the destruction of Gamma Center (and Jack McBryde's accompanying actions) had obliterated the Mesan records of the vessel altogether., the Hali Sowle could even go to Mesa.

But no one proposed to send the Hali Sowle to Mesa. It would be too risky to use the ship a second time to get the spies off the planet -- much less onto it in the first place -- and there was certainly no chance of using the Hali Sowle as a raider in the system. Mesa's naval forces might be on the paltry side when compared to the fleets of star nations like Manticore and Haven, but they were more than powerful enough to swat two frigates as if they were insects.

Leaving aside Mesa, though, it now seemed that the rest of the galaxy was open to the Hali Sowle's new business.

Purely as an idle exercise, Anderson tried to calculate how much money it would take to get Ganny to withdraw her proclamation. The number would be large, certainly, but very far short of infinity. The Parmley clan's matriarch wasn't exactly avaricious, since it was never her own wealth that concerned her. But she kept an eye out for the interests of her kin like no one Nancy had ever seen.

Now that she'd finagled a full suite of prolong treatments for every member of the clan who could benefit from them and also bargained to get excellent educations for all the youngsters -- and even a few of the adults who had a mind to go to school -- what fresh field could she aspire to conquer?

There had be something, knowing Ganny, but what?.

Loren Damewood had apparently been undertaking the same exercise. And, as was the XO's way, didn't hesitate from putting his speculations in words.

"Oh, come on, Ganny. There's got to be some price you'd settle for. What have you got a hankering for these days? Mansions on the shores of the Emerald Sea for each and every one of your kinfolk, down to the babes and toddlers? All-expenses-paid cruises on luxury liners through the Core worlds?"

Nancy couldn't resist joining in. "How about precious metals and jewelry? That's been a winner for going on ten thousand years."

Ganny's sneer was every bit as flamboyant as her cursing. "Even if such a price existed -- which for the record, it doesn't -- what difference would it make to you? Between the whole lot -- scrape it up from every member of the BSC anywhere in the galaxy -- you couldn't come close. Seeing as how 'BSC' really stands for Beggars' Succor and Care.'"

Damewood clutched his chest. "Oh, Ganny! That's cold!"


Csilla Ferenc watched the departing freighter on the screen. She had no interest in the vessel itself. The receding image was just something to look at -- and wasn't even real any longer, at this distance. The software used by Balcescu Station's astrogation control substituted a stylized symbol for an actual image of a ship when it was too far away to be seen clearly with optical equipment.

She was just brooding. The departure of the Hali Soul -- no, Sowle -- had gone with even less notice than a tramp freighter normally would have gotten. That was because traffic through Balcescu had risen sharply over the past few weeks.

What bothered Ferenc wasn't the heavy workload, so much. She didn't enjoy it, but the overtime pay was nice. No, what bothered her was that she didn't know the reason for the increase in traffic.

Sure, the extra ships that came through were all from Mesa and had impeccable papers. (Which were electronic, not molecular, of course; but the old term was still used by most traffic control services.) But maybe that was the problem. Their documentation was too good, in a way. In Ferenc's experience, the documentation for real shipping concerns got frayed at the edges after a while.

Not that of this additional traffic, though. Their credentials and bona fides and bills of lading looked like they'd just come out of the virtual presses at the headquarters of Manpower, the Jessyk Combine, Axelrod Transtellar, and Technodyne.

They had serious backing behind them, too. Any questions beyond the routine ones got stonewalled -- and both times she'd tried to push a little, Csilla had gotten slapped down by her superiors.

Slapped down hard and fast.

It was the speed of the reprimands that had struck her the most. The management of Balcescu were rude bastards and had been as long as Ferenc had been at the station. Reprimands were always a lot harsher than they should have been.

But they never came all that quickly. The station's bosses were as lazy as they were nasty. Usually, you'd find out a tick had been placed in your records a week or two -- sometimes a month or two -- after the incident that triggered it.

Not now. Those two reprimands had been given to her within hours. Within less than an hour, in the case of the second one.

And all she'd asked for was identification for the three individuals listed as "supercargo; special assignments"! Normally, she would have gotten chewed out if she hadn't insisted on an explanation.

Something was going on. And what bothered Ferenc was that the explanation that kept coming to her made her profoundly uneasy.

At that moment, as it happened, the person sitting at the control station next to her voiced her own worries.

"Csilla, do you think there's really anything to all the Mantie hollering about a 'secret conspiracy' behind Manpower?"

Ferenc glanced around the control room quickly. The only other person within hearing range was András Kocsis, and he wasn't paying any attention because he was in the middle of directing an incoming freighter.

She wasn't worried about Steve anyway. He was just a working stiff like them.

Reassured, she turned to the man who'd asked the question, Béla Harsányi. "Are you trying to get into trouble?"

Béla looked uncomfortable -- but stubborn. "Come on, Csilla. You've got to have been wondering about it yourself." He motioned toward his own control screen. "I mean, look at the traffic we've been getting. Some of these ships we've never seen at all before, and many of the ones we have are acting… You know. Weird."

Weird. Depending on how you looked at it, that was either discretion or circumlocution. In plain language, what Harsányi meant was that the crews of the slave ships -- some of them, anyway -- hadn't been behaving in their usual manner when they came into the station on what was still called "shore leave."

First off, a lot fewer of them took shore leave than normal.

Secondly, and more tellingly, they hadn't been behaving like arrogant assholes when they did. They'd seemed a little subdued, actually -- as if they knew something themselves that was making them a little nervous.

She kept her hair in a braid when she was on duty. That was an old habit from her days on a station whose artificial gravity had been erratic. One experience with being caught trying to follow traffic with her long hair flying all over and impeding her vision had been enough.

She might have given up the habit after she got to Balcescu, since there was no danger at all that this station was going to suffer from the same problem. Balcescu Station wasn't a flea-bitten third rate transfer point in the sticks, it was Manpower's principal depot in this whole star region. But by then she'd found that being able to fiddle with the braid was a way of calming herself down when she got a little agitated.

She was fiddling with it now. "I don't know, Béla. Yeah, sure, I've wondered myself. But…:

She let go of the braid and shrugged. "First, we'll probably never know. And second, let's hope we never know because the only way I can see we'd find out…"

She decided to let the sentence die a natural death. But Harsányi's lips peeled back, revealing clenched teeth.

"Yeah, right," he said. "The only way we'll find out is if the Manties decide to prove it -- in which case we're dead meat anyway."

That was… something of an exaggeration, Csilla thought. Balcescu Station wasn't anywhere near the most likely avenues of approach the Mantie fleet would take if it decided to strike at Mesa. But it couldn't be ruled out.

Not with the Manties. Unlike the great majority of the population of Mesa -- not to mention the morons in the Solarian League -- Ferenc and Harsányi knew the realities of interstellar warfare.

Some of those realities, anyway. Enough to know that the Manties, if they decided to be, could be the scariest people in the universe for people like her and Béla.

First, the Manties hated slavers -- and she and Béla were part and parcel of the slave trade even if they didn't have any personal contact with slaves themselves. Second, Csilla had just celebrated her fortieth birthday -- and the Manties had been at war for more than half her lifespan. Thirdly, going by the record, they were awfully damn good at it.

"Oh, I wouldn't go that far," Csilla said. "'Dead meat's a little extreme, don't you think?"

But by the time she finished the sentence, she was back to fiddling with her braid.


Elsewhere in Balcescu Station, in a much fancier work area, someone else was fretting over the same issue. That was the station's CO, Zoltan Somogyi, Csilla Ferenc's ultimate boss in the depot and the originator of the two reprimands that she was still smarting from.

Somogyi himself had forgotten about the reprimands -- and done so within hours. He hadn't issued them because he was worried about Csilla Ferenc. He barely knew the woman. She worked for him but he was the top manager of the Station. So did almost eight hundred other people.

No, he'd issued those reprimands, along with more than a dozen similar ones, because he'd been told in no uncertain terms by people he knew even less well than he did Ferenc that they would tolerate no interference with what they were doing -- about which he knew even less. The one thing -- the only thing, really -- he did know about the people who'd given him those instructions was that their authority was paramount. Within Manpower, Inc., as well as…

Beyond it. How far beyond it he didn't know. And that was what was causing him to lose sleep.

People like Ferenc and Harsányi knew nothing of the Mesan Alignment, not even of its existence. So far as they knew, they were simply employees of one of the giant corporations that effectively ruled their home planet. And if the work that corporation did was unsavory in the eyes of much of the human race, they were largely indifferent to the matter -- just as, in ages past, men who went into the bowels of a planet to dig out its mineral wealth didn't think much about the fact that many people thought the work they did was crude, dirty and beneath their own dignity.

In truth, Zoltan Somogyi didn't know much more about the Mesan Alignment than his employees. The difference was that he knew it did exist although he thought it was nothing more than an organization dedicated to the secret uplift of the Mesan genome. He had hopes he might eventually be asked to join, in fact.

But there were less benign forces in Mesan society, who were even more secretive and a lot more dangerous. Somogyi was highly placed enough to have realized years before that someone, somewhere, was pulling the strings.

Who they were… he didn't know, although he suspected they were Manpower's innermost circle.

What their goals were… he didn't know.

What their plans were for him… he didn't know that, either.

What worried him was that he thought such plans probably existed. And whatever they were, probably weren't going to be good for him. Not because those mysterious hidden powers bore any animosity toward him but simply because he was beneath their notice.

When a behemoth makes plans to go somewhere, do those plans take into consideration the small and fragile creatures that might get underfoot along the way?
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]

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