Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 14 

Chapter 10

Thandi Palane glowered at the figures on the computer screen. She was trying to fit a round peg into a square hole: make a too-skeletal logistics network support the number of combat units she wanted for Torch’s military. Palane believed in a teeth-to-tail ratio that belonged to a tiger rather than a tadpole, but the tadpole was fighting back pretty fiercely.

Her mood wasn’t helped by the fact that the person sitting next to her, Captain Anton Petersen, had told her so. Several times, in fact, albeit politely. He had far more experience than Thandi did with these sorts of problems. Her own experience as a company grade Solarian Marine officer had been heavily concentrated in combat operations. Logistics on the level with which she was now trying to grapple had been something she left to others.

Her experience was short in other areas, as well. So, very soon after Torch was founded, Thandi had put in a request to both Manticore and Haven for training missions to be sent to provide her with advice and assistance.

Both star nations had agreed, although it had taken Haven a while to put their own mission together. Petersen and his aides, on the other hand, had arrived within two months. He was a former officer in the Royal Manticoran Navy who’d compiled an impressive record in command of two destroyers and the light cruiser HMS Impulse before he’d been badly wounded. During his regeneration and physical rehab he’d moved over to the staff side and discovered he was even better at that than at commanding a Queen’s ship. His superiors had thought so, as well, and he’d been working directly for its Chief of Naval Operations, Sir Thomas Caparelli, before his sudden transfer to Torch.

Anton had now been with her for more than a year, and he’d been invaluable. Although he was still technically nothing more than an “adviser,” he was one of Palane’s handful of chief subordinates and for all practical purposes he was in charge of Torch’s navy. Even the Havenites got along well with him, after they arrived.

None of which improved her disposition at the moment, however. I-told-you-so may be a fine fellow but he’s still not likely to be welcomed with open arms when he tells you so.

There was a buzz at the door to Thandi Palane’s office. “Open,” she said.

Colonel Shai-gwun Metterling came in. “A courier just arrived from Manticore. It seems — ah…”

Hearing the hesitation and trace of trepidation in her aide’s voice — Shai-gwun was normally a sanguine fellow — Thandi looked up immediately. “What is it?”

“Well. It turns out Special Officer Cachat and Anton Zilwicki went to Manticore from Haven instead of, ah, as we thought they would — Cachat would, anyway — returning here.”

Thandi stared at him for a couple of seconds. Then said:

“He’s a dead man walking.”

Metterling opened his mouth; closed it. Advising his commanding officer on matters of the heart went farther outside his military occupation specialty than — than —

He couldn’t think of an appropriate comparison. Composing an opera, maybe?

“Dead,” Thandi repeated. Abruptly she rose from her seat. “Don’t let that courier ship so much as shift a kilometer out of its orbit. I’ll be taking it to Manticore. Anton, hold down the fort for me.”

“Yes, General Palane. When do you expect to return?”

But she was already brushing past him and out the door. Moving like one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Death, to be specific. Famine, Pestilence and War would be straggling far behind.

****

Although he wasn’t willing to insert himself into a domestic quarrel between Palane and Cachat — talk about Scylla and Charibdys! — Captain Petersen didn’t feel he could in good conscience say nothing to anyone about his superior officer’s plans. She was so riled up she seemed oblivious to the fact that she was about to go AWOL. That was bad enough if you were a rating. If you were the commanding officer of the entire military…

He put in a call to Hugh Arai. In doing so, he was going completely out of channels, since Arai had no official position in either Torch’s military or government. Torch had never gotten around to adopting a formal definition of a monarch’s consort.

In the real world, however, he was the right person to contact. Arai was privy to all the plans and discussions of the “inner circle,” people listened to him, and Petersen had a great deal of confidence in his judgment.

In the event, the captain’s concerns proved overblown. As furious as she was, by the time Thandi got to her apartment — that took fifteen minutes — and packed her bag — that took three minutes — she’d calmed down enough to realize she couldn’t simply commandeer a courier vessel and head off to Manticore.

So, she put in a call to Petersen. “Sorry, Anton. I… sort of lost my temper, there. Cancel the hold on the courier. I’ll be back within the hour.”

But by then, Petersen had already alerted Arai and the consort-in-fact-if-not-in-name had informed his monarch and bed partner. He’d also given her his advice and, as she usually did, Berry accepted it.

She called Thandi at her apartment — not more than thirty seconds after Palane had broken off her call to Captain Petersen. The conversation that ensued was the last thing Thandi had expected.

“What can I do for you, Your Majesty?”

“Since when do you call me ‘Your Majesty’? I’ve got great news, Thandi! It turns out that Daddy and Victor wound up on Manticore. Imagine that! So I’ve decided to kill two birds with one stone. Well, I guess that’s a silly way to put it, but the point is that I want to combine seeing Daddy again with an official state visit to the Star Empire. I started to give the orders myself but then I realized that was probably inappropriate and you should do it instead. So tell the captain of the Pottawatomie Creek to get ready to leave for Manticore as soon as possible. Oh, and you need to pack a bag. I want you to come with me. Captain Petersen can manage things and you’ll want to see Victor anyway. I’m bringing Web and Jeremy too. Hugh will stay here and hold the fort while we’re gone.”

Thandi stared at the image of the young woman on the screen. Her brain seemed to have taken flight like a startled bird and was flapping around aimlessly.

She heard someone’s voice behind Berry but couldn’t make out the words. Then, another voice, but she couldn’t understand what it was saying either.

“What do you mean you can’t do that?” said Berry, looking over her shoulder.

Voices-talking-but-the-words-were-not-comprehensible.

“Oh, that’s ridiculous, Hugh!” said Berry. “God, I detest stupid formalities.”

Voices-talking-but-the-words-were-not-comprehensible.

“The so-called ‘integrity of government’ can kiss my sweet royal ass. Call Web. Tell him to make you a member of the cabinet.”

Voices-talking-but-the-words-were-not-comprehensible.

“How should I know which cabinet post, Jeremy? Who cares, anyway?” She looked back at Thandi, her expression that of someone sharing the absurdity of the world’s workings with a close friend. “Can you believe this crap?”

Berry looked back over her shoulder and said: “Make him the cabinet member in charge when the queen and prime minister are out of the system. Call it the… Hell, I don’t know. The Department of the Posterior.”

Voices-talking-but-the-words-were-not-comprehensible.

Berry‘s lips tightened. “Is that so?” She looked back at Thandi. “Time to take off the royal gloves.” Then, looked back over her shoulder again.

“The law says I can order one person exiled every year, right? Totally at my discretion? No appeals, no arguments, no ifs, ands or buts. I am correct, am I not?”

Voices-talking-but-the-words-were-not-comprehensible. But given the brevity of the speech it had to have been a three word response: Yes, Your Majesty.

Berry looked triumphant. “Fine. Spread the word far and wide — have it announced on all the news stations; hire people to shout it from the rooftops — that the first jackass who questions Hugh’s right to run the show while we’re gone is immediately exiled. How’s that? Are we satisfied now, Mister Galaxy’s-Worst-Terrorist-Turned-OCD-Protocol-Fussbudget? How about you, Doctor Anal-Retentive-Former-Coldblooded-Commando?”

She turned back to Thandi. “How soon can you get here?”

Thandi’s brain came to roost where it belonged.

“About half an hour.”

****

By the time Thandi got there, Ruth Winton had decided to come along also.

More precisely, the princess had announced her decision to join the party headed for Manticore but various objections were raised, centered on the fact that with Anton Zilwicki gone the princess was needed to oversee Torch’s intelligence community. Said objections were over-ruled by Berry in a peremptory manner on the grounds that a traveling monarch needed a companion and if anybody didn’t like it see aforementioned provisions for summary exile and since when was intelligence a community anyway?

L’état, c’est toi,” Hugh muttered.

“What was that wisecrack?” demanded Berry.

“T’wasn’t a wisecrack but the now-revealed godawful truth,” said Jeremy X. He started singing the verses of La Marseillaise.

Under his breath.