Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 18 

“That they’ve created what amounts to an intelligence bolthole,” said Anton. “They’ve known for some time that they couldn’t be sure someone wouldn’t attack and overrun Mesa. It’s only a one-planet star system and it doesn’t have much of a real naval force. So they made sure that, if worse came to worst, they could obliterate any evidence of their own existence.”

“And go back to hiding as mere run-of-the-mill corporate monsters,” finished Victor.

“The conclusion from that is obvious,” said Anton.

There was silence in the room again. Finally, Empress Elizabeth rolled her eyes to the ceiling and said: “Why do I feel like a dimwit?” She brought her gaze back down and bestowed it upon Anton and Victor. It bore more resemblance — a lot more — to the gaze of a basilisk than a dimwit, though.

“Explain,” she commanded. “The rest of us here are not super-spies. What conclusion is obvious?”

Anton and Victor looked at each other. From subtleties in Victor’s expression that Anton was sure no one else in the room could have interpreted, he knew that the Havenite’s attitude was: She’s your empress, dammit. YOU try to explain it without pissing her off any further.

Anton cleared his throat. “Your Majesty, we learned enough from Jack McBryde to know that he was a key figure in GammaCenter. So key a figure, in fact, that he was able to trigger off the self-destruct mechanism without a partner..

There came simultaneous grunts from Hamish Alexander, Tom Theisman and CNO Caparelli. Harrington’s eyes widened.

“Jesus H. Christ,” said Caparelli. “How did we miss that?”

Seeing that the empress’ gaze was now entering you-are-all-about-to-be-turned-into-stone territory, Caparelli hurriedly added: “No massive self-destruct program is ever set up to be operable by just one individual, Your Majesty, unless that individual is specifically empowered to do so — and on his own initiative.”

Stone, so help me God. Crumbling year-by-year under the pitiless elements.

Harrington laughed. “Elizabeth, either McBryde had that sort of authority — which is certainly possible, given this GammaCenter‘s obvious importance — or else he’d managed to hack the system in order to steal it for himself. If he did have the authority, he was even more senior than we’d assumed he was, and that almost certainly means he had access to the ‘Alignment’s’ central security systems. Maybe not command authority outside the GammaCenter, but access enough to dump something of his own into them. And if he didn’t have that authority and . . . acquired it for himself, he probably had the ability to use whatever access he did have to hack into complete command of their security protocols in general. Well… maybe not complete command, but awfully close.”

The basilisk gaze didn’t soften, exactly, but the threat level receded a bit. Limestone instead of basalt. “All right. I get that. And what follows is…?”

“What else did he do besides blow up the center?” said Harrington. “What other measures did he take that would have damaged the Alignment’s security protocols? If the man was prepared to defect in the first place — and to kill himself if the defection plan went south — he was furious. He had to have been. Not boiling over, no. Someone like McBryde would have been cold and controlled. But he was an angry, angry man. Don’t think he wasn’t. He wouldn’t have left this life without hammering the Alignment as hard as he could.”

Petrified wood territory. And ebbing fast. Elizabeth settled back in her chair, her own eyes now starting to widen.

Theisman apparently decided the royal ire had lowered enough for it to be safe for a Havenite to chime in. “He would have struck at a lot of things, Your Majesty. One that we know of for sure was Mesa‘s orbital traffic control. That’s why the Hali Sowle was able to leave with no problems. We’ll never know everything he did, but it’s almost inconceivable — given the nature of the man’s occupation — that he didn’t try to shred the Mesan Alignment’s records of its enemies.”

“We don’t have to guess about that, actually,” said Victor. “Herlander told us ‘Eggshell’ was a code word that indicated McBryde planned to wreak havoc on the Alignment’s security, over and above the damage done by destroying GammaCenter.” He shrugged. “We don’t know — probably never will — exactly how much damage he was able to do, and in which specific areas. He’d have been concentrating mostly on their records of the Ballroom, of course. But it’d be far easier to just — well…” He looked at Zilwicki. “Anton’s the expert on these things. Let him explain.”

“He wouldn’t have tried to isolate out the Alignment’s records on the Ballroom, Your Majesty. Why bother with something that complex and finicky? He would have simply targeted all security protocols designed to track enemies. Which, of course –“

“Would include us,” said Victor. “That’s why I said I don’t think it’s likely our DNA records still exist on Mesa. If they ever did at all, which I also doubt.”

There was silence again. Then Benjamin Mayhew said: “But you can’t be sure about any of this.”

“No. We can’t.” Victor shrugged. “Our line of work has its risks, Protector. But the truth is, these odds are better than ones we’ve faced before.”

The empress’ gaze was now merely skeptical.

“On occasion,” Victor qualified.

Which occasion?” asked Langtry.

“Victor faced worse odds during the Manpower Incident,” said Anton. “Way worse. Of course, he was young and stupid then and didn’t understand the difference between risky, dangerous and sheer lunacy.”

Anton smiled crookedly. “Even as a youngster, I stayed farther away from that edge than he did. But I do know the difference between risky, dangerous and sheer lunacy, and our proposal is not lunatic. It’s just risky.”

“Risky as all hell, you mean,” said Theisman.

“If you prefer, yes. Most of the risk, though, just comes from the intrinsic nature of the project. Penetrating the Mesan Alignment’s security right on Mesa itself is a dangerous proposition whether or not they have our DNA records. But I agree with Victor. I don’t think they do.”

Throughout the discussion, Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou had remained silent. His expression had seemed a bit detached, in fact, as if he was only paying attention with part of his mind while he mostly considered something else. Now, finally, the Beowulfer spoke.

“It doesn’t matter. Even if the Alignment does have Zilwicki and Cachat’s DNA records — anyone’s records, for that matter — there’s a way to get around it. Theoretically, at least. It’s never been tested under field conditions.”

The empress’ lips tightened. “And, what, exactly, is ‘it’?” Her gaze was re-entering dangerous territory. Soapstone, at least. Maybe pumice. “Is there some reason nobody at this table except me can resist being cryptic?”

Jacques looked a bit rueful. “I wasn’t trying to be mysterious, Your Majesty. It’s just… this is something Beowulf has had under wraps for almost a year. As in deep, dark secret ‘under wraps.’ As Special Officer Cachat says, old habits die hard. For me to talk about something like this openly and in plain language is about as unnatural as — as — “He puffed out his cheeks, as if he couldn’t find a suitable analogy.

The empress gave him a thin smile. “Try real hard.”

That produced a little chuckle around the table, shared by Benton-Ramirez y Chou himself. He gave a little shrug, as if were shedding a weight from his shoulders, and started speaking.

“The gist of it is that we’ve developed –“

There was a knock on the door to the conference. A real knock, too, not a buzzer or a ringer. Anton guessed that meetings held in this royal inner sanctum were so rarely interrupted that no one had ever bothered to arrange for a way to signal that someone wanted to enter.

Elizabeth frowned. “Come in,” she said.

The door opened and a woman came in. Anton recognized her as one of the empress’ personal assistants, although he didn’t know her name. The woman practically exuded diffidence and hesitation.

“I’m very sorry to interrupt, Your Majesty. But this is a rather unusual –“

The empress waved her hand impatiently. “Just sum it up quickly, Beatriz.”

“There’s a delegation here from Torch, Your Majesty. Ah, actually, ‘delegation’ is probably not the right term. It seems like most of the government is here.”

Elizabeth’s frown vanished, replaced by a look of surprise. “Who, exactly?”

“Queen Berry. Prime Minister DuHavel. Secretary of War — ah — X. The commander of the armed forces, General Palane. And your niece, Princess Ruth.”

“Dear Lord. Well, show them in, then.” The empress examined the conference table and then turned to one of her bodyguards. “We’ll need to stretch this a bit. See to it, would you, Lieutenant Tengku?”

The lieutenant pushed a button so discreetly positioned on the wall that Anton hadn’t noticed it before. A small control panel slid out and he began working at it. A few seconds later, the conference table began to lengthen — or rather, the entire space surrounding the table began to lengthen. Anton was eerily reminded of the standard depiction of the expansion of the universe: objects didn’t spread through space; rather, space itself expanded.

The room itself didn’t seem to be getting any bigger. The floor was somehow expanding without pushing against the walls; and, along with it, the table was expanding and all the chairs (and people) sitting at it were being repositioned to make room for more people. There was almost no sensation of movement involved.

He glanced at Victor to see how he was reacting to Thandi Palane’s imminent arrival. The Havenite agent’s looked out of focus. Anton had to fight not to burst into laughter.

Being fair to Victor, he was probably looking forward to seeing her more than anything else. Anticipation — eager anticipation — would be his dominant emotion, overlying the others.

Fear. Anxiety. Dread. Trepidation. Oh, it was another long list.