Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 05

“I don’t doubt that a lot of important managerial people lived there. But you know how incredibly tough modern construction can make buildings, Hugh — especially when they’re intended for the use of the powerful and wealthy.”

She threw up her hands, without breaking stride. “Are we supposed to believe that Anton Zilwicki was incompetent as well as murderous? For Pete’s sake, the man used to be in charge of building entire orbital stations. If there was anyone in the galaxy who’d know in precise detail just how ineffective such a bomb would be on such a target, planted in such a way — ”

She finally stopped, leaning forward with her hands on her hands. “Whoever did it set that thing off in the open.” She threw up her hands again. “In a stupid park. Most of the force of the blast would have been completely wasted! Unless your goal was to vaporize kiddies and puppies and — and — whatever else they had there. Miniature sailboats in the miniature lake, whatever.”

Hugh winced. Ruth could sometimes get so swallowed up in her calculations that she’d blurt out the most insensitive and callous things without even thinking about it.

She pulled out her minicomp. “Let me show you something.”

At that moment, the door to the suite opened and two young women came in. The one in front, much smaller than the one following her, immediately made a beeline toward Hugh and, with no ceremony of any kind, plumped herself on his lap.

The woman in the rear smiled and closed the door.

Ruth frowned at the lap-sitter. “In the long, illustrious — and very well-recorded — annals of royalty throughout the galaxy, Berry, no ruling queen I know of has ever just plopped herself on her consort’s lap in public.”

Berry Zilwicki curled her lip. The gesture was rather ineffective, since sneering did not come naturally to her.

“He’s not my ‘consort,’ first of all. He’s my boyfriend. And how is this ‘in public’? You and Thandi are my two best friends, even leaving aside her formal status as head of the armed forces and yours as assistant chief spook.”

Ruth was not fazed. “There are four people in this room. That defines ‘in public’ whenever royalty is engaged in pre-fornication. Which you so obviously are.”

Berry kissed Hugh in a manner that left little doubt that Ruth’s assessment was accurate. When she was finished, she gave the Manticoran princess as regal a look as she could manage. Which wasn’t much; Berry looked down her nose about as poorly as she sneered.

Hugh cleared his throat again. “Speaking of which, Ruth and I were just discussing the chief spook when you walked in.”

Torch’s “chief spook” was Anton Zilwicki, Berry’s adoptive father. Her expression immediately sobered.

So did Thandi Palane’s, although the big woman’s expression was usually pretty stern. Being born and raised on one of the Mfecane worlds didn’t lead to carefree and happy-go-lucky personalities.

“Specifically,” said Ruth, “I was explaining to him — since he pretended to be an ignoramus on matters of interstellar politics, which he most certainly isn’t even if he does look like a Sasquatch — that there was no way — ”

“Hey!” Berry protested. “Don’t call my boyfriend a Bigfoot!”

She and Ruth both studied the appendages in question for a moment, which was easy to do since Hugh had one of them propped up on a small ottoman.

“I rest my case,” said Ruth.

“Well… Okay, he has big feet. That doesn’t mean he’s abominable.”

Arai made a shooing gesture with his hand. “Just keep going, Ruth.”

“Yeah, I’d like to hear it myself,” said Thandi, who perched herself on the armrest of a nearby divan. The piece of furniture was sturdily built, fortunately. Palane wasn’t built along the purely massive lines of Arai, who’d been bred by Manpower to be a heavy labor slave, but she was tall, muscular, and weighed well over a hundred kilos.

“As I was saying to Hugh when you walked in” — Ruth began pacing again — “or about to show him, rather…”

She fiddled with her minicomp until she found what she wanted, glanced around the room for the location of the wallscreen, and brought the image up on what had seemed until the instant before to be a huge landscape called Bernese Alps by an ancient painter named… Ambrose Bierce, maybe. She couldn’t remember. Ruth wasn’t much interested in primitive art.

The wallscreen didn’t really fill an entire wall — not even close, given the size of the suite — but it still measured about three meters across by a little over half that in height. The image now displayed on it was pretty spectacular — and far more grim.

“That is what the immediate surrounding area of Nouveau Paris looked like after Oscar Saint-Just set off the nuclear explosion that ended McQueen’s rebellion. Notice that all of the surrounding towers are still intact? Battered pretty badly, sure — but they’re still there. That’s how hard it is to take down a modern ceramacrete tower. Keep in mind that detonation was in the megaton range. The bomb that was set off in Green Pines was piddly, in comparison. Somewhere around fifty kilotons.”

“What’s your point?” asked Berry.

“The point is that neither your father nor Victor Cachat are so incompetent that they’d use a bomb that way. If they did decide to strike that kind of blow at the Mesan elite, they’d do it differently. My guess is that they’d figure out a way to smuggle the bomb into the building with the highest number of big shots and set it off inside. The ceramacrete shell would then contain the force of the blast and concentrate its effectiveness. And while that would still kill a lot of bystanders, it would have a much better big-shot-to-kiddies-and-puppies kill ratio.”

Hugh winced again. Berry scowled. “My father would not do that.”

Ruth shook her head. “No, he wouldn’t. I was just trying to show that even if you leave personal psychology out of the equation, that bomb was not set off by your father and Victor.”

“Victor wouldn’t agree to it, either,” said Thandi mildly.

“I agree,” said Ruth. She paused for a moment. “It took me a long time to get over the cold-blooded way Victor let my security team get gunned down. But eventually I realized… I don’t know how to put it, exactly…”

“He can be completely ruthless toward anyone he considers a combatant,” Thandi said, “and Victor’s definition of ‘combatant’ can be pretty wide. That’s how he would have seen your people, especially since at the time they were at war with Haven. But there’s no way he’d ever put children in that category. And in the end, Victor’s ruthlessness always has a purpose — to defend those whom he sees as weak and helpless against those who are mighty.”

She shrugged. “Like any soldier he’ll accept the fact that in war there’s bound to be collateral damage. Except he wouldn’t use that term because he despises it. He’d call them innocent victims. And there’s no way he’d deliberately use innocent victims as the mechanism for striking down his enemies — which is what they’d be, in that scenario.”

Ruth studied the image on the wallscreen for a few more seconds before she switched it off. Oscar Saint-Just had been the man who trained Victor, sure enough, and the two men had a lot in common. But that commonality ended at a certain point. If anyone ever put together a visual track record of Cachat’s life, there’d never be a scene like that in it.

The wallscreen reverted back to resembling a painting again. Not the same one, though. The program automatically switched the image every twelve hours and whenever someone overrode it manually. Ruth hadn’t bothered to change the program because it was all pretty much the same to her. If she remembered right, this new image was another ancient painting called Water Lilies by… Claude Money. Something like that.

There was silence in the room, for a few seconds. Then Berry sighed and said softly, “I just want to see him again. And Victor too. They should be here any day. I was so happy to find out they were still alive.”

There had been a time, less than two years ago, when Ruth would have been delighted to discover that Victor Cachat had shuffled off this mortal coil. But it seemed like ancient history now.

“So am I,” she said. “So am I.”

There was a buzz at the door. “Open,” said Ruth.

One of Torch’s intelligence officers came in, a man in his fifties by the name of Shai-gwun Metterling. Unlike most immigrants, he had no genetic connection to Manpower at all, neither personally nor anywhere in his heritage. He’d come to Torch because of his political convictions.

In and of itself, that wasn’t all that unusual. By Ruth’s rough count, there were at least twenty thousand people who’d immigrated and taken Torch citizenship since the new star nation was created who’d done so purely out of idealism. What was unusual, and had immediately caught Ruth’s attention, was Metterling’s background. Most such immigrants tended to have skills and training that weren’t all that immediately useful. There were two hundred philosophers in the mix, twice that many poets, well over a thousand musicians — and a sad dearth of engineers and doctors.

Metterling, on the other hand, had been a colonel in the Andermanni Navy’s intelligence service. A well-regarded and decorated one, too, not someone who’d been cashiered. Ruth had checked, very carefully, worried that he might be a double agent. But Metterling had come through her scrutiny with flying colors.

“What’s up, Shai-gwun?” she asked.

Metterling gave Thandi a glance that seemed a bit apprehensive. “We just got word from Cachat and Zilw — ah, your father, Your Majesty.” That last was said to Berry.

Who practically sprang off of Hugh’s lap. “They’re here!”

Again, that quick glance at Palane — and it was no longer a “bit” apprehensive. “Ah. Well, no. It seems they decided to go straight to Haven.”

Thandi rose from the arm rest and stood straight up. “And aren’t going to — didn’t — stop here on the way?” she demanded.

“Ah. Well, General Palane… Ah. No.”

“I’ll kill him,” Thandi predicted.