Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 10 

Chapter 8

Looking around the office of his new boss, Lajos Irvine starting counting the ways.

The ways his new boss was so much worse than his old one, Jack McBryde.

True, his old boss had turned out to be a traitor. But if you left that one flaw aside, he’d been a real pleasure to work for. Lajos hadn’t appreciated how much so until he’d had some months to fully explore the depth and breadth of his new boss’ qualities.

Using the term “qualities” loosely and understanding that the term was neutral. A fetid odor was also a “quality.”

To start with, there was the fact that Lajos had been waiting for twenty minutes for George Vickers to make his appearance. Why had the man bothered to set the meeting at this hour in his own office if he hadn’t planned to be there himself?

If this had been a one-time event, Lajos would have assumed that Vickers had been delayed unexpectedly or had simply been absent-minded and forgot the time. But it wasn’t a one-time occurrence, it was an every-time occurrence. Vickers was wasting the time of his subordinate for the sole purpose of showing him who was the boss.

Not that there would have ever been any doubt about it, which made the whole exercise purposeless as well as annoying.

As a genetically-engineered specialist developed to infiltrate the societies of genetic slaves, Lajos Irvine was officially the equal of any other specialty line produced by the Alignment. Unlike the agents produced for the External Bureau, who were indistinguishable from general utility slave lines except for their special slave numbers, Lajos was a full member of the Alignment. Not the very innermost circles of the onion, true — although that was not precluded for him in the future — but he was still a genetic slave in form only. He’d been given prolong treatments, for instance.

Formalities aside, though, there was still a deep-seated prejudice against people like him that permeated the Alignment. Not all people shared it — McBryde hadn’t, for one — but many did. And even leaving the bias aside, the fact remained that Lajos was a specialty line and George Vickers was an alpha line.

There was no chance, no matter what his accomplishments might be, that he’d ever wind up replacing Vickers in this office — so what was the point of this rigmarole?

Everything about the office reminded Lajos of what a jackass his new boss was. His eyes fell on the wall behind Vickers’ desk. The equivalent of that wall in Jack McBryde’s office had been decorated with a few paintings and some simple images of the McBryde family. Jack himself had been in a couple of the images, but no more than that.

That wall had vanished, destroyed with the rest of GammaCenter. This wall, in contrast, was solid Vickers territory. Every single thing on the wall was about him. His images — fancy holograms, these, and expensive ones at that — and his awards and certificates and decorations. The only other people in the holograms on the wall were those of Vickers’ associates whom he obviously felt enhanced his own prestige. Some were his immediate superiors; others were images of people who were apparently very high up in the Alignment.

Then there was the desk. Jack McBryde’s desk had been a beehive of activity. There would have been three or four virtual screens up and running, and half the desk would have been covered with slips and sheets of papic. Jack had been fond of the old-fashioned way of taking notes.

“I don’t know why but I think better when I’m chewing on an idea I’ve written down myself.” He’d given Lajos a grin and added: “Would you believe I’ve even been to the paper exhibit in the Museum of Science and Technology?”

“What’s ‘paper’?” Lajos had asked.

Jack had picked up a sheet of papic. “It’s what they used to use instead of this. Looks just like it — they let me pick one up — but it feels a little different. Coarser. They made it out of pulped wood, you know.”

Lajos had made a face. “Sounds awfully unsanitary.”

“Oh, the paper was safe enough. The manufacturing process was destructive, though. Poisoned the environment like you wouldn’t believe. Once they figured out a way to make plastic biodegradable they got rid of paper.”

Vickers’ desk looked like it ought to be in a museum itself. The expanse was completely empty except for one virtual screen which simply displayed the agency’s logo — as if anyone who had the security clearance to get in here in the first place wouldn’t know where they were.

Other than that, there was simply a name plate perched on the corner of the desk. A big name plate, reading:

George Vickers

Assistant Director

Central Security Agency

Perhaps most telling of all, the nameplate didn’t face the visitor. It faced Vickers — or would, whenever the Great Man finally made his entrance.

Vickers had to have some genuine ability or he’d never have been given this post. The Alignment gave short shrift to bosses who were incompetent. But, so far at least, Lajos hadn’t seen any evidence of it.

The door to the office swung open and Vickers came in.

“Ah, there you are,” he said, as if Lajos hadn’t been sitting there for the better part of half an hour and Vickers had been looking for him.

Damn, he missed Jack.

A thought, needless to say, that he kept entirely to himself.

****

After George Vickers finished his explanation of Lajos Irvine’s new assignment, there was silence in the room for at least half a minute.

From the self-satisfied look on his face, Vickers assumed that the silence was due to Lajos striving mightily to absorb the subtleties and profundities of the strategic thinking involved.

Instead of, as was actually the case, Lajos striving mightily not to burst out with sentences that would be:

a) True.

b) Emotionally satisfying.

c) Useless.

d) Damaging to his career.

He knew that much from the beginning, but he couldn’t relinquish the sentences for half a minute.

That is the stupidest — Most of the sentences began with that clause.

What imbecile came up with this idea? Variations on that theme constituted a good two-thirds of the sentences.

What is the fucking point —

He finally managed to bring himself under control enough to utter his first words aloud.

“Uh, George, in my experience criminals make it a point to know as little as possible about anything that might be dangerous and brings them no income. As informers — on political activity, that is — they’re about as useful as — as –“

He tried to come up with an analogy. Sewer rats and alley cats wouldn’t do because such animals might actually provide a modicum of useful information. The absence of either one in an area might indicate the presence of a terrorist cell, for instance.

Or a big, mean dog, more likely. But there was still the possibility of usefulness.

Criminals? One of whose characteristics was the inclination to lie as a first reaction to any question and another of which was that most of them were damn good at it.

And another of whose characteristics was that they were prone to violence.

“That raises another issue,” he said. “I’m not trained –“

“Relax, Lajos,” said Vickers, waving his hand in a genial manner. Or what he took to be one, anyway. “We’re going to be providing you with some assistance. Nobody expects you to match muscle with hooligans.”