Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 17

JUNE 1922 Post Diaspora

“When I killed people retail, I was a terrorist. Now that I kill ’em wholesale, I’m a stalwart soldier. Get medals for it and everything.”

Sergeant Supakrit X, Royal Torch Marines

Chapter 12

Anton Zilwicki thought that Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou was restraining himself from throwing his hands up in frustration. Or, at least, the Benton-Ramirez y Chou equivalent of such a gesture. That might be no more than an eye-twitch. Jacques served Beowulf as its unofficial — and well-hidden — liaison with the Audubon Ballroom. Beyond that, he was a “director at large,” a Beowulfan title that corresponded to what most star nations would have called a minister without portfolio.

Beowulfan political customs were sometimes odd, to people not used to them. This was a star system, after all, which named its elite commando unit the “Biological Survey Corps.” What made that disorienting to non-Beowulfers — not to mention a little scary — was that the name wasn’t simply a disguise. There were historical origins for the name; centuries earlier, it had been a surveying outfit. But in some way comprehended only by Beowulfers, they seemed to think that the work done by such people as Hugh Arai still didhave something to do with biology.

How so? Anton had no idea. He was a simple highlander from Gryphon. To his way of thinking, the only connection between the work of the BSC and biology was that the activity involved the rupturing — not to mention maiming, obliterating, rending, terminating; oh, it was a long list — of organisms and their various organs.

“If only you’d been able to bring back McBryde,” said Jacques. He did, however, have the good grace to give Anton and Victor a wry little smile, making it clear that he was not criticizing. Simply… lamenting something that was indeed lamentable.

“Agreed,” said Victor. “For our purposes, Herlander Simões is something of an idiot savant. Oh, he’s got a huge amount of info about Mesa‘s ‘open’ society, but outside of his technical specialties, he’s generally obtuse about anything else to do with this ‘Alignment’ of his. His superiors undoubtedly preferred things that way, and I’m sure McBryde told him as little as possible prior to their decision to defect. True, they were friends. But the formal relationship between the two men was that of a top level security officer handling a known security risk. Out of old habit, if nothing else, McBryde would have kept most things from him.”

Eloise Pritchart shifted slightly in her chair. That wasn’t due to discomfort. As you’d expect of something made for Manticoran royalty, the chair was state-of-the-art furniture, adjusting instantly to the anatomy and posture of the person sitting in it.

No, it was just that, like the representative from Beowulf at this meeting, she was also frustrated. But, also like Jacques, she had more than enough sense and experience than to suggest there was any blame to be laid at the feet of Zilwicki and Cachat. They’d done astonishingly well in their mission to Mesa. It was hardly their fault that they hadn’t been able to produce everything you might possibly desire.

Jack McBryde, the man who could have told them so much, was dead. Dead at his own hand, when he destroyed the Mesan Alignment’s Gamma Center as security agents were closing in on him.

The Mesan defector whom Zilwicki and Cachat had managed to bring back, Herlander Simões, was a scientist. He was proving invaluable when it came to uncovering many of Mesa’s technical secrets, but he knew very little beyond that.

It might be better to say, he knew very few details. He had,on the other hand, verified enough of what McBryde had passed on to Anton and Victor to provide a general picture of the situation. Three critical points were established:

One. Lurking somewhere within Mesa’s government and the corporate hierarchy that dominated the planet — Manpower’s top officials, almost certainly, and there were bound to be other firms involved — was a shadowy organization known as the Mesan Alignment.

Two. The Alignment was ancient, dating all the way back to the founders of Mesa six centuries earlier. Those people, led by Leonard Detweiler, had been a political faction on Beowulf which had objected to Beowulf’s stringent policies concerning manipulation of the human genome. Everyone had thought their disagreement had been satisfied by the creation of Manpower, Inc., and the selective improvement of their own citizens after they emigrated from Beowulf to Mesa. No one had suspected just how much “improvement” they’d incorporated into their own genomes, however, and it now turned out that their purpose had been far broader and deeper than originally thought — and they had managed to keep it a secret from anyone outside their circle.

Three. The goal of the Mesan Alignment was nothing less than the conquest of the human-occupied galaxy. The conquest might at times manifest itself in more subtle ways than outright and open force, but the end remained the same regardless of the means employed. The Mesan Alignment intended to politically dominate humanity and impose its own views on the proper way to guide and shape the species.

Beyond that, several other points seemed well-established also. First, the Mesan Alignment had developed at least one and probably two space propulsion systems based on new and revolutionary principles. Second, they had used those space drives to launch the savage sneak attack on Manticore known as the Yawata Strike. Third, they had been responsible for a number of assassinations and assassination attempts using some as-yet-unknown method of nanotech-based quasi-mind control, including the murders of Yves Grossclaude, Lieutenant Timothy Meares, Admiral James Webster, Lara Novakhovskaya and almost three hundred other people in the failed assassination attempt on Berry Zilwicki, and Jwei-shwan Anderman, Emperor Gustav Anderman’s nephew and second in line for the Andermani throne. There’d almost certainly been others no one yet knew about . . . and then there was the one spectacular failure they all knew about: Honor Alexander-Harrington.

And, fourth, they had been largely responsible for instigating the war between the Republic of Haven and Manticore and keeping it going. It now seemed clear, for instance, that Haven’s former Secretary of State Arnold Giancola had been an agent for the Mesan Alignment, given the fact that Yves Grossclaude had been the only man who could have proven that Giancola was responsible for the forged diplomatic correspondence which had sent the two star nations back to war with one another.

These last four points were perhaps not quite as well-established as the first three, but you’d need a sharp knife or a razor blade to split the difference. As far as Anton was concerned, it was the difference between a 99.9% probability and a 99.8% one — of academic interest even to statisticians.

The silence in the conference room following Victor’s statement went on long enough to start becoming uncomfortable. Finally, Empress Elizabeth planted her hands on the large table around which they were all sitting and said:

“Look, there’s no point crying over spilt defectors. We just have to make do with what we have. The question now is, what’s our next step?”

Anton started to answer that question but Victor spoke first.

“Anton and I need to go back to Mesa and fill in the missing holes.”

Which was exactly what Anton had been planning to say. He sat back and waited for the inevitable outburst.

Outbursts, rather. Just about everyone spoke simultaneously.

“That’s insane.” (President Pritchart)

“Are you insane?” (Empress Elizabeth)

“That seems extraordinarily foolish.” (Benjamin Mayhew, Protector of Grayson)

“You’ve gone mad.” (Prime Minister Alexander)

“That’s the craziest idea I’ve heard in…hell, who knows?” (Admiral Givens)

“That’s sheer suicide.” (CNO Caparelli.)

“Why not just shoot yourself?” (Foreign Secretary Langtry)

Haven’s Secretary of War Tom Theisman settled for: “You’re nuts.”

Interestingly, Hamish Alexander-Harrington started to say something but closed his mouth when he noticed that Honor Alexander-Harrington was keeping silent. In fact, she looked as if she were actually considering the idea.

And — still more interesting — Anton saw that Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou had his lips pursed and was glancing around the room in a manner that was almost shifty-eyed.

He knew something. What? Anton had no idea. But it was sure to be… interesting.

Once the hubbub settled down, Anton said: “Victor’s right. It needs to be done and we’re obviously the best people to do it. And, no, it’s not a crazy idea. It’ll be dangerous, for sure. Very dangerous. But not suicidal.”

“Please explain why you think it wouldn’t be,” said Harrington. “Disguises won’t be enough, not even nanotech body transformations. Not for the two of you. They’re bound to obtain samples of your DNA sooner or later. They might even have them already, if you left traces on Mesa.”

“I doubt that very much,” said Victor. “Even if they picked up some traces of our DNA — which wouldn’t be easy at all, since we weren’t careless — I still don’t think there’s more than a one-in-ten chance they have any usable records.”

“Why is that?” asked Hamish Alexander-Harrington. Like his wife’s, his tone was more one of interest and assessment than outright skepticism.

“Because of Jack McBryde,” said Anton. He and Victor had discussed this already. More than once. “The blast he set off that destroyed GammaCenter had to have been a shaped nuclear charge. There’s no other way to explain the total destruction of the center and the relatively minor damage to everything around it. Which means –“

Victor picked it up: “That the charge was prepared long beforehand. And since no one person could jury-rig something like that, it had to have been set in place by the Mesan Alignment itself. Which means –“