Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 04

Chapter 5

“I’d miss Steph,” Andrew Artlett protested. “Just for starters. Then there’s the lousy pay.”

Princess Ruth Winton frowned. “Lousy pay? You’re being offered almost half again what you’re making here on Torch — and you’re getting top rate for starship mechanics.” After a brief pause — very brief; Ruth hated admitting to a lack of complete expertise on any subject — she added: “So I’m told, anyway.”

“Well, yeah. But going back to Parmley Station to work on this project is risky as all hell.” Stoutly: “I should be getting hazard pay. That’s generally figured as a hundred percent pay increase. Double-time, that is.”

There were so many fallacies and lapses of logic in those statements that the Manticoran princess was rendered almost speechless.

Almost. Speechlessness was a state of affairs that was probably impossible for Ruth Winton.

What? That’s insane! Every single sentence you just said is blithering nonsense.”

She began counting off her fingers. “First off, there’s nothing at all risky for you in this deal. Your aunt Elfride, maybe –”

“Don’t call her that to her face,” Andrew cautioned. “She answers to Ganny. Or Ganny El, if she likes you.”

“I have met the woman. I was just being formal. Seeing as how this is supposed to be an employment interview.” Ruth looked simultaneously cross and a bit embarrassed. “Of sorts,” she added.

“‘Employment interview’!” Artlett said mockingly. “Oh, yeah. I can see it in the want ads now.” He mimicked holding up a reading tablet. “‘Wanted. Damn fool mechanic for desperado duties aiding and abetting Audubon Ballroom sociopaths –”

He glanced at the huge figure of Hugh Arai, who was lounging in a nearby armchair in the princess’ suite. (Ruth called it a working office, but that was the obliviousness to luxury of someone born and raised in Mount Royal Palace in Manticore’s capital city of Landing. It was a no-fooling suite, on the top floor of the finest hotel in Beacon.)

“Meaning no offense, Hugh, I’m just saying it like it is.” Arai smiled at him.

Andrew resumed pretending to read a want ad: “– and Beowulfan cold-blooded killers masquerading as biologists — ”

Again he glanced at Arai. “Meaning no offense. Just telling it like it is.” The smile became a grin.

Back to the imaginary want ad: ” — for the purpose of hunting down any and all practitioners of the slave trade, which individuals are noted — no, notorious — throughout the inhabited portions of the galaxy for their cruelty and depraved indifference to human life, including that of starship mechanics.”

Triumphantly, he set down the imaginary tablet. “Ha!”

Ruth had waited for him to finish. Impatiently, because she was impatient with silliness by nature. But she’d still waited. She knew Artlett well enough by now to know there was no point in trying to derail him when he was hell-bent on riding his broad (broad? say better, oceanically expansive) sense of humor to the end of the track.

“If we might return to reality for a moment,” she said, “your duties will keep you on Parmley Station most of the time. A construct that is not only one of the largest space-going installations within light years of its solar system but is by now almost as heavily armed as an orbital fortress.”

Hugh shook his head. “Bit of an exaggeration, Ruth. The defenses and armaments on Parmley Station aren’t designed to fight off a battle fleet.”

Andrew started to say something, probably along the lines of claiming that Arai was supporting him, but Hugh’s deep voice rode over him easily. “But they’ll squash any pirates or slavers who show up as easily as swatting an insect.”

He gave Artlett a beady gaze: “As you know perfectly well, since you were paid to be a consultant when we designed those defenses.”

“Still.” Andrew was nothing if not stubborn. He waved his hand in a gesture that might mean… pretty much anything. “Pirates. Slavers. Dangerous people, no matter how you slice it.”

He decided to fall back onto more sensible grounds. “And like I said, I’d miss Steph.”

Ruth pounced. “Why is that? I just talked to her this morning and she seemed quite amenable to relocating to Parmley Station.”

Andrew stared at her. “She… But — she told me — it was just a few weeks ago!”

Ruth waved her hand airily. “That was then, this is now. She’s had time since to gauge the real possibilities at either place. Here, on Torch, it seems like everybody and their grandmother is setting up a restaurant. The competition is brutal. The hours, long; the income…” The princess made a face, as if she had any idea of the harsh realities of trying to run a small restaurant.

Which, of course, she didn’t. But Ruth Winton never let petty details like her own ignorance get in the way of a good argument. She pressed on.

“Whereas on Parmley Station — ” The royal expression became positively beatific, as she contemplated the commercial advantages of opening a restaurant there.

“It’s a busted enterprise,” jeered Artlett. “A pipe dream on the part of my great-uncle Michael Parmley — a screwball if there ever was one — who poured a fortune into building the galaxy’s most derelict orbital amusement park.”

“That was then, this is now,” interjected Hugh Arai. “As you know perfectly well, Andrew.” He leaned forward. “Today, it’s on the verge of becoming Beowulf’s central hub for covert operations against Mesa and Manpower.”

“The best clientele you could ask for!” Ruth said enthusiastically. “Beefy commando types. They eat like horses and tip like the upper crust.”

Most of that was pretty accurate. Not all covert operations people were beefy; but they did tend to eat a lot. That was a combination of a usually high-powered metabolism with near-constant physical training.

The analogy to the tipping habits of upper crust gamblers was wide of the mark, though. Wealthy people actually tended to be on the cheapskate side when it came to things like tipping. And charity, for that matter. It had been a constant for millennia that people of average means gave a higher percentage of their income to charitable causes than rich people — especially when you factored into the equation the end beneficiaries. Average people gave to those poorer than they. Rich people usually donated their money to cultural institutions — museums, universities and opera houses, for instance — of which they or their children were major personal beneficiaries. And then named them after themselves.

There were exceptions, of course, and those individuals could be spectacular in their largesse. The Winton dynasty had a long tradition of being very generous, especially for medical causes. Ruth’s misapprehension was the understandable product of her own personal experience.

But while the analogy was off, the reality remained. Covert ops people did tend to tip generously — and Andrew knew it, from having spent a lot of time in their company over the past period.

He ran fingers through his hair, in a gesture of exasperation. “Damn it, she was the one who insisted on coming here in the first place. I would have been perfectly happy to stay on Parmley Station. Women!”

Ruth had her own opinion — well-formed; cured; tempered; hardened; sharp on all edges and corners — as to which of the two human genders was actually prone to flightiness, inconstancy and indecision. Shakespeare’s greatest play wasn’t about a princess of Denmark, now was it?

But she saw no reason to squabble over the matter, since Artlett was now clearly on the verge of capitulating to logic and reason.

“All right, then,” he said. “I’ll go. If it’s okay with Steph.”


After Andrew left the suite, Hugh cleared his throat. “I noticed that you left out some particulars.”

“I wouldn’t call them ‘particulars.’ Speculative possibilities is closer to the mark.”

Arai shook his head. “You’re quibbling and you know it. What you’re calling ‘speculative possibilities’ are part of the established plans for using the Hali Sowle.

“Established by whom?” Ruth countered. “Ganny El still hasn’t agreed — and if she doesn’t, the whole deal collapses.”

“I know you didn’t learn to lie, cheat and steal at Mount Royal Palace. So where does it come from, this brazen shamelessness? This cunning deftness at misdirection and maneuver? This dazzling expertise at deceit and deception?”

“You might be surprised at what goes on in the corridors and back rooms of Mount Royal Palace, Hugh. But, no, I didn’t learn the skills there. No more than the rudiments, anyway.”

She sniffed. “Where do you think? I’ve been studying for the past three years at Zilwicki and Cachat University.”

Hugh chuckled. “Point. Speaking of which, do you think they’re really responsible for the slaughter on Mesa?”

“I assume you’re referring to the claim being spread by Manpower through the Solarian media that they set off the nuclear explosion at Green Pines. If so, the answer is ‘no.’ It’s clear they didn’t do it. We’ll get the full story from them when they arrive here.”

Word had come from Sharon Justice, one of Haven’s representatives on Erewhon, that Zilwicki and Cachat had arrived at Parmley Station a few weeks earlier. But her message had contained no other information beyond the bare fact that they were alive.

Arai leaned back in his chair and clasped his fingers over his belly. “Explain your reasoning.” His tone wasn’t argumentative, just interested.

“Hell, Hugh, it’s obvious.” She leaned forward in her own chair, sliding almost to the edge of it. Ruth was not capable of thinking or expounding anything in a relaxed position. Within less than a minute, Hugh knew from experience, she’d have risen from the chair and started pacing.

“For starters, if they were going to set off that large an explosion, why pick that target?”

“Well, according to the news reports –”

“Oh, please!” Ruth got to her feet. Hugh glanced at his watch. Seven seconds.

“That silly business about Green Pines being a residential center for the Mesan elite? Every other apartment in the complex inhabited by a Manpower big shot? That’s why it was targeted?”

By the time she finished, she’d taken five steps one way and was now reversing direction. Long steps, too; Ruth was a strider.