Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 19 

Chapter 13

“Some introductions are in order,” said Empress Elizabeth, after the delegation from Torch had taken seats at the table. “The young lady sitting at the far end of the table from me is Queen Berry, Anton Zilwicki’s daughter. You all know Prime Minister DuHavel, who is sitting next to her — and my niece Ruth, of course. On the Queen’s other side is the commander of Torch’s armed forces, General Thandi Palane.”

Victor was rather impressed. The queen of Manticore had never met Berry or Thandi before. She must have taken the time to memorize what they looked like from images and videos. There were plenty of monarchs and heads of state in the galaxy who didn’t think much beyond breakfast. Manticore’s was not one of them.

He wondered if she’d also memorized — but there were very few images available and even fewer good ones —

Apparently she had. Or she was just guessing right. Elizabeth was now looking at the last member of Torch’s delegation.

As was everyone else in the room, and some of them with eyes that were very wide indeed.

 “And of course none of us prior to this moment have ever met Torch’s Secretary of War. I’m a bit uncertain as to the proper etiquette here. Should we call you ‘Mr. X’?”

Jeremy’s smile was cheerful. “Oh, goodness! No, no, Your Majesty, a simple ‘Jeremy’ will do fine.”

Everyone continued to stare at him. Him being the galaxy’s most notorious terrorist. Or freedom fighter, depending on how you looked at things. But either way, the pronoun was him!

The cheerful smile remained. “Please, everyone, relax. I left my horns and cloven hooves at home. True, I did bring the tail — but it’s only vestigial, I assure you.”

That brought a few answering smiles and an outright laugh from Benjamin Mayhew. Grayson’s Protector looked around the room, with eyes that were shrewd as well as good-humored.

“If you’ll all take the expert testimony of a Grayson,” he said, “I’d say Jeremy X falls a long way short of Creation’s genuine devils.” More softly he added: “There are enough of those to go around — in places like Mesa, for example — but there are none of them here. Not today. Not in this room.”

Nimitz yawned. Then, bestowed a benign gaze on Jeremy. Then, bleeked his amusement.

Between them, the devout statesman and the insouciant treecat brought relaxation back to the room.

Except on the part of the two Grayson armsmen and the two members of the Queen’s Own standing against the walls, needless to say. Those worthies had never once taken their eyes off Jeremy X since he entered the room — and there seemed no chance they would until he left it.

Other than a quick, amused glance when he’d first sat down, however, Jeremy himself paid them no mind at all.

Once things had settled down, Elizabeth nodded toward Benton-Ramirez y Chou. “Jacques here was just beginning to explain to us a secret project by Beowulf that — oh.”

Honor Alexander-Harringtonsmiled. “We should perhaps preface that by explaining to our friends from Torch the new proposal advanced by Mr. Zilwicki and Special Officer Cachat.”

All eyes swiveled to them. Thandi Palane’s face seemed completely blank, as it had since she entered the room. You wouldn’t realize she and Victor had ever met before, if you didn’t know better. Whatever emotions might be roiling under the surface, she was far too much the professional soldier to let any of it show.

“If you would do the honors, Special Officer Cachat?” Harrington continued.

Quickly, Victor sketched the proposal. He didn’t delve into any of the arguments for or against, he just summarized it in a few concise sentences.

When he finished, another (if smaller) outburst filled the room.

“Daddy, you can’t!” (Queen Berry)

“You’re daft.” (Secretary of War Jeremy X)

“That’s ridiculous. You wouldn’t stand a chance.” (Prime Minister DuHavel)

“Are you out of your minds?” (Princess Ruth Winton)

The only contrary note came from Thandi Palane. She said nothing at all. However, one of her eyebrows was now slightly cocked, as if she was mildly intrigued by the idea but was reserving judgment for the moment.

Quick moment.

Berry turned to her and said: “Tell them they can’t do it, Thandi. Victor will listen to you even if Daddy doesn’t, and Daddy won’t go without him.”

Palane’s eyebrow cocked a little further. “Judging from recent evidence,” she said, “Special Officer Cachat pays me no mind at all.”

That was said without any heat, just as a simple statement of fact. So might an entomologist describe the behavior of a beetle.

Anton thought Victor might almost have winced, there. Hard to know. When he was of a mind, the Havenite agent had a stone face that put statues to shame.

“Furthermore,” Palane continued, still in that same level tone of voice, “I have no authority over either one of them. And finally –“

For the first time, some emotion crept into her voice. A slightly apologetic tone. “It’s probably a good idea, Berry. The truth is, neither your father nor Victor is crazy at all. Or if they are, they’re crazy like a fox.”

“Thandi!”

“Why don’t you hear us out, girl?” said Anton to his daughter, a bit gruffly. “This is not a harebrained scheme we came up with in an idle moment. Victor and I have talked this through a lot — and now it seems the Beowulfers might be able to tip the odds still further in our favor.”

Berry crossed her arms over her chest. For a moment, she looked like a stubborn twelve-year-old. Then, perhaps reminding herself of her new august stature and her still-more-august company and surroundings, she took a deep breath and said: “Fine. Go ahead.”

****

Anton took a few minutes to explain the proposal in much greater detail than Victor had done. Along the way, various people chimed in to provide their own insights and opinions. When he was finished, he looked at Benton-Ramirez y Chou.

“As you were saying…”

Jacques nodded, and started in. “We’ve developed a technique to — I’m using these terms loosely, you understand — sheathe someone in a coating of fake DNA. ‘Fake’ in the sense that it’s not the DNA of the person being sheathed. It’s real DNA, just taken from someone else.”

Everyone stared at him. After a moment, Foreign Secretary Langtry tugged his ear and said: “How can you possibly change someone’s DNA? I would think that would — would –“

“She or he would no longer be the same person,” said Eloise Pritchart. “At least, I don’t think so, although I suppose that might pose an interesting philosophical question.”

Jacques shook his head. “No philosophical subtleties are involved. The person’s DNA doesn’t get altered. What we do is…”

His face got an expression somewhere between a grimace and a rueful smile. “This really isn’t as gross as it’s going to sound — doesn’t hurt at the time, although it’s an uncomfortable adjustment afterward. Essentially, we flay the person’s skin and grow another one, using someone’s else’s DNA.”

Berry‘s expression was pure grimace. “Oh, that’s disgusting!”

Anton shrugged. “It’s not all that different from what happens in a regeneration of destroyed skin tissue — although as far as I know there’s always enough surviving skin that the injured person’s own skin is used.”

Jacques nodded. “The tricky part is suppressing auto-immune responses to foreign bodies. That’s easy enough to do for most transplants, but the skin is the body’s largest organ and the way it interacts with the rest of the body gets awfully complex. There’s really no medical use for the technique, since anyone who suffers one hundred percent destruction of their skin tissue is bound to be dead anyway. But eventually it occurred to us that the intelligence uses of the technique might be tremendous if we could perfect it.”

Victor’s face hadn’t been marked by a grimace, as you’d expect. The Havenite agent was perfectly capable of accepting even grotesque consequences if he thought they were warranted. His expression showed only keen interest.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, here,” he said. “The gist of what you’re saying is that we’d be protected from routine DNA sampling — hair, flakes of skin, traces of sweat, body oils, that sort of thing. So if someone tried to find out who we were from testing the residues we left on a door button or a railing, they’d be misled. But we wouldn’t be protected from targeted examination. If someone tested our blood or swabbed the insides of our mouths, for instance, we’d be exposed.”

“That’s a pretty accurate summation. I feel obliged to point out that if your supposition that the Alignment has lost your genetic records because of McBryde’s actions is correct, you might be worse off if you went to Mesa with this genetic sheathe I’m describing.”

“Yes, I understand that,” said Victor. “If we got seriously tested after they’d already picked up routine samples, we’d show two different DNA results. That would set off alarm bells even if they didn’t suspect anything beforehand.”

He looked at Anton. “I still think it’d be worth it.”

Anton nodded. “So do I. The only reason they’d take mouth swabs or blood samples is if they were already suspicious. Mesa isn’t exactly a dictatorship — not, at least, for its own citizens — but it’s a far cry from a state that respects legal procedures if they think anything important is at stake. If we’re that far in the hole, they’ll be trampling right over us anyway.”

“What’s most important about the sheathe,” Victor said, “isn’t the fact that it hides our true identities. If we’re right, they don’t have those anyway. The real advantage is that it would enable us to assume false identities — entirely false ones, I mean. Am I right about that?”