A Rising Thunder – Snippet 29

 

The Havenite glowered at him. Victor Cachat was extraordinarily capable, even gifted, in certain very specific, very narrow types of human endeavor. You needed someone killed? Victor Cachat was your man. A lock picked, an extortionist shown the error of his ways, a counterespionage sting run with consummate artistry, a planetary régime destabilized? Pish-tush! Mere bagatelles! Any of those minor challenges, and he was quite literally in a league of his own.

 

Step outside those…call them his “core competencies,” however, and his expertise disappeared rapidly. When it came to electronics (other than those specifically associated with explosions, arson, and general mayhem, at least) he was not, to put it charitably, at his best. Indeed, Thandi Palane had been known to observe that he was the only man in the universe who could make a standard wrist chrono explode…accidentally. Zilwicki, on the other hand, was one of the galaxy’s top handful of hackers, cyberneticists, and mollycirc wizards. Worse, at the moment, he was a trained naval officer, fully at home on the bridge and (unlike Cachat) able to absorb and interpret its displays as naturally as breathing.

 

“You know,” Cachat said now, “it would be a tragedy if the working relationship you and I have developed should come to a catastrophic end due to the sudden, unanticipated demise of one half of that relationship.”

 

“Really?” Zilwicki’s tone remained grave, but there might have been the merest hint of the twinkle in those dark eyes, and his lips twitched ever so slightly. “Are you feeling ill, Victor? You don’t have a bad tooth, do you?”

 

“Oh, no.” Cachat smiled sweetly. “I’m feeling just fine.”

 

“Oh, stop it, you two!” Yana said from behind them. Both men looked at her, and she shook her head, her expression disgusted. “I swear, I’ve known three-year-olds with higher maturity quotients than either of you!”

 

“Hey, he started it!” Cachat said virtuously, jabbing a finger in Zilwicki’s direction.

 

“Did not.”

 

“Did too!”

 

“Didn’t!”

 

“Did!”

 

“Stop it!” Yana thwacked Cachat on the back of the head, then shook an index finger under Zilwicki’s nose. “Victor isn’t the only one you’re teasing, Anton, so don’t think I’m going to let you keep this up.”

 

“Just as a matter of idle curiosity, what do you propose to do about it?” he inquired mildly.

 

Me? Nothing.” Yana’s smile was even sweeter than Cachat’s had been. “Not directly, anyway. No, I’ll just mention your behavior to Her Majesty. I’m sure you don’t want Berry taking you to task for picking on Victor this way, do you?”

 

Zilwicki regarded her thoughtfully, then shrugged. His daughter was unlikely to “take him to task,’ but that didn’t mean she couldn’t find ways to demonstrate her disapproval. And Yana had a point. Berry did have an especially warm spot in her heart for Victor Cachat, galaxy-renowed assassin, ice-cold killer, and general purveyor of doom, chaos, and despair. Besides…

 

“All right,” he said. “There’s good news, and there’s bad news. The bad news is that there’s no sign of Eighth Fleet. The good news is that the star system’s still intact. So we’re not likely to find Duchess Harrington on-planet, but it doesn’t look like the talks could’ve collapsed too disastrously.”

 

“Are you sure you’d be able to find Eighth Fleet if it was still here?” Cachat asked. Zilwicki looked at him, and he shrugged. “You’re the one who told me our sensors were crappy, Anton, and everybody knows Manty stealth is better than anyone else’s.”

 

“That’s true,” Zilwicki acknowledged. “On the other hand, according to your friend Justice, Eighth Fleet wasn’t making any effort to hide. First, I imagine, because the whole point was for the Pritchart administration to be well aware —painfully well aware, if I may be so bold — of the iron fist inside Duchess Harrington’s velvet glove. And, second, because sitting there with its stealth and EW online for such extended periods would give your Navy entirely too good a look at their capabilities under what would amount to laboratory conditions. In other words, if they were still here, we’d be able to see them even with this one-eyed bastard.”

 

He jerked his head at the display pretending to be a plot, and Cachat nodded. It would have taken someone who knew the Havenite spy as well as Zilwicki did to recognize the worry in his expression.

 

“Hey, it’s not the end of the world, Victor,” Zilwicki said more gently. “Like I said, the system’s still here. For that matter, I’m picking up Capital Fleet’s transponder beacons. If the talks had come apart spectacularly, there’d be a lot fewer ships and a lot more wreckage.”

 

“True enough, I suppose.” Cachat nodded brusquely, then gave himself a mental shake. “I could wish Duchess Harrington were still here, for a lot of reasons. But all we can do is the best we can do. Are we close enough for me to call in?”

 

“You’ll still be looking at a twenty-five minute two-way lag,” Zilwicki told him. “Do you want to send a one-way burst, or are we going to have to go through some kind of challenge-response validation?”

 

“Burst, I think,” Cachat said after a moment’s reflection. “We can at least get the ball started rolling.”

 

“Fine. In that case, you’d better get started recording it.”

 

*   *   *

 

The officer of the watch looked up from her own paperwork as Petty Officer Harder finished re-securing the access panel and started folding up her toolkit once more.

 

“Any problems, PO?”

 

“No, Ma’am.” Harder smiled wryly. “Matter of fact, it looks like they did catch up on the last inspection and just forgot to log it. Everything’s fine.”

 

“Good.” The officer smiled back and shook her head. “Sorry you had to come all the way down for something that was already done, but Captain Hershberger’s right. Everything has to be four-oh on this one.”

 

“You got that one right, Ma’am,” Harder agreed, and headed for the flag bridge hatch.

 

*   *   *

 

The uniformed four-man escort waiting dirt-side for the shuttle seemed unable to decide whether its passengers were honored guests, prisoners, or homicidal maniacs. Since the escort was meeting Victor Cachat, Zilwicki thought that wasn’t an unreasonable attitude on its part.

 

“Officer Cachat,” the senior man said, looking at Cachat.

 

“Yes,” Cachat replied tersely.

 

“And this would be Captain Zilwicki, then?”

 

“Yes, and this is Yana Tretiakovna.” Cachat’s tone had taken on a certain dangerous patience, Zilwicki noted.

 

“Thank you, Sir. But I don’t believe anyone’s told me who this is,” the escort commander said, twitching his head in Herlander Simões’ direction.

 

“No, they haven’t, have they?”

 

“Sir, I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist on some identification.”

 

“No,” Cachat said flatly.

 

“Officer Cachat, I realize you’re senior to me, but I’m still going to have to insist. My orders are to escort you directly to Péricard Tower, and I don’t think Presidential Security’s going to be happy about admitting someone they don’t even have a name for!”

 

“Then they’re just going to have to be unhappy,” Cachat told him. “I’m not simply posturing, Officer…Bourchier,” he went on, reading the other man’s nameplate. “This man’s identity — for that matter, the very fact of his existence — is strictly need-to-know. Frankly, I’d be a lot happier if you’d never even seen him. But the only four people who have the authority to decide you have a need-to-know who he is are Director Trajan, Director Usher, Attorney General LePic, or President Pritchart. Now, do you want to get one of them on a secure com to get that kind of clearance, or do you want to just take my word for it?”

 

“Believe me,” Yana said in an exaggerated stage whisper, one hand cupped beside her mouth. “You want to just take his word for it.”

 

Bourchier looked at all of them for a long moment, then inhaled deeply. Obviously he’d heard the stories about Victor Cachat.

 

“Fine,” he said. “Have it your way. But if Agent Thiessen shoots him on sight, nobody better blame me for it.”

 

*   *   *

 

Approximately ninety minutes later, Cachat, Simões, and Zilwicki were escorted into a maximum security briefing room. Yana had declined Cachat’s invitation when she found out who else was going to be present. Apparently there were limits to her insouciance, after all.

 

Actually, Zilwicki didn’t really blame her as he surveyed the briefing room’s occupants. President Eloise Pritchart, Secretary of War Admiral Thomas Theisman, Attorney General Denis LePic, Vice Admiral Linda Trenis of the Bureau of Planning, and Rear Admiral Victor Lewis, the CO of the Office of Operational Research, sat waiting for them, along with three members of the President’s security detail. All of whom, Zilwicki noted, looked just as unhappy as Officer Bourchier had suggested they might.