Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 20 

Jacques looked puzzled. “I’m not sure — Oh.” His face cleared up. “I see what you’re getting at. Even if Mesa doesn’t have your DNA records — as individuals, that is — they do know your personal history. Enough of it, anyway.”

“Which means,” said Anton, “that they’d be on high alert for any routine samples that showed the individuals were from either Haven — more specifically, Nouveau Paris — or Gryphon’s highlands. Neither of those genetic strains is as distinct as something like” — he nodded toward Princess Ruth — “Masadan origin or” — now he glanced at Thandi — “Mfecane origin. But it’s distinctive enough that they’d probably be able to spot it even from routine sampling.”

“There’s no ‘probably’ about it,” said Benton-Ramirez y Chou. “The Alignment’s biological skills are as good as those of us Beowulfers, for the most part, and better in some areas. They’d spot someone from Haven or Gryphon, you can be sure of it. Especially someone from Nouveau Paris or the highlands, because their methods are more than good enough for that sort of detail.”

Victor’s smile had little humor in it. “Precisely. So we go in sheathed as” — he looked at Zilwicki — “what strikes your fancy, Anton?”

“I’ve always had a yen to be a filthy-rich oligarch from one of the Verge territories, unrestrained by any code or scruple.”

Jeremy grinned. “Perhaps from Hakim?”

“Just the thing.” The Hakim System was notorious even by Verge standards for the behavior of its upper classes. And it was very far away from either Manticore or Haven. “And how about you, Victor? An effete snot from one of the Core planets, do you think?”

Across the table, Thandi Palane smiled — with no more humor than Victor had. “A dilettante news reporter, too rich to actually have to work at it but with delusions of journalistic grandeur. From the Hirochi system, perhaps. That was mostly settled by people from east Asia, so you’d be fairly removed from the usual Havenite genome.”

Berry stared at her, aghast. “You’re encouraging them!”

Palane’s smile became gentler. “It’s a good idea, Berry. We do need tofind out more about the Alignment — and it’s a simple fact that Victor and Anton are the best people to do the job.”

Victor’s gaze seemed slightly out of focus. “We could… use some help, though.”

Anton understood what he meant immediately. Well… within a second, anyway. It was a little disturbing, the way his mind seemed able to track Cachat’s so well.

But it was a great idea. “That’d be just about perfect!” He smiled broadly at Thandi. “Our very own one-person wrecking crew.”

“You have got to be kidding,” said Thandi.

“No, actually, I’m not,” said Anton. He nodded toward Cachat. “And for sure and certain he isn’t.”

Honor Alexander-Harrington spoke up for the first time since the Torch delegation entered the room. “If I’m not mistaken, they’re proposing that General Palane accompany the mission to Mesa. Special Officer Cachat and Mr. Zilwicki are proposing it, at least. The general herself seems to have some reservations, of course.”

Berry stared at her, mouth open. Then, stared at her father. Her mouth still open.

“I can see several advantages to the idea myself,” Alexander-Harrington went on. “On the other hand, I also see one big drawback — the fact that General Palane is in command of Torch’s armed forces. It’d be like sending Admiral Caparelli here on an intelligence mission.”

“That analogy is a bit forced, Duchess Harrington,” said Jeremy X. “For two reasons. The first is that the so-called ‘armed forces’ of Torch bear a lot more resemblance to a work-in-progress — small work in progress — than they do to anything either you or the Republic of Haven would call a real military. General Palane has set underway a training program for ground troops that’s going quite well, I think, but she has good subordinates and they could do without her for a time. That’s especially true for the navy, for which her background and experience really aren’t of much use.”

He gave Thandi an apologetic little smile. “Meaning no offense.”

She shrugged. “None taken. The truth is, Duchess Harrington, I let Captain Petersen do pretty much what he wants. He knows far more than I do about how to put together a navy from what amounts to scratch.”

Harrington nodded. “Yes, I know Anton. He’s a superb officer. It depends mostly on how long you’d be gone. A few months wouldn’t be any particular problem. Your armed forces need that much time for training before you’d be able to launch any major operations anyway. But once you do start to engage the enemy…”

“For that, you need a real commander-in-chief,” said Thandi. “On the spot and taking responsibility. Yes, I understand.”

She now looked at Victor and Anton. “So, what’s your estimate?”

“Three months,” said Victor. “Maybe four. No more than five.”

Anton pursed his lips. “Always the cheerful optimist. I agree we’ll need at least three months. But I’d extend the outer limit to six.”

“No longer?” asked Theisman.

“The situation is too fluid, and moving rapidly,” said Anton.

“If we can’t find what we need within half a year,” added Victor, “it’ll most likely be a moot point anyway. Which is part of the reason we’d like General Palane to come on the mission. Things are likely to get… ah, hectic.”

Theisman now looked at Palane. “And exactly how would you make such a big difference, if I might ask?”

Palane looked uncomfortable. “This is a little awkward. Ah…”

“What the general is having a hard time coming right out with,” said Victor, “is that there are no more than a few dozen people in the universe who are her equal when it comes to hands-on personal violence, and no more than a handful who surpass her.” His tone was flat, almost harsh. “I can testify to that personally. Having her come along would be roughly equivalent to bringing a squad of Marines with us. Anybody’s Marines, take your pick.”

“Half a platoon, more like,” said Anton. “There’s a reason that Luis Roszak — who is nobody’s fool, believe me — personally selected her for his staff despite her total lack of the usual connections. The same reason that lots of people on Torch call her Great Kaja. That nickname originated with former Scrags and it translates more-or-less as ‘the Galaxy’s scariest she-wolf.”

He glanced at Caparelli. “Meaning no offense, but however capable your CNO is at his normal line of work, I wouldn’t trade a hundred of him for Palane where we’ll be going.”

Caparelli chuckled. “No offense taken.” He gave Thandi a look that was a lot more interested than the casual one he’d given her when she first came in. “Are they right, General Palane? And to hell with false modesty.”

“Yes,” she said tersely. “They are.”

While this exchange had been going on, Alexander-Harrington had been studying Palane. There was something very intense about that scrutiny, Anton thought. He wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, but he suspected the duchess was beginning to shape some sort of plan.

For what? He could only guess — and his first guess was that Harrington had been struck by the same notion that had already come to him and Victor.

A war with the Mesan Alignment was now inevitable — in fact, it had already started. Sooner or later, Mesa was going to have to be conquered and occupied. Who, then, should be the occupying troops? Of a planet shaped by centuries of harsh slavery, and with a population more than two-thirds of which was made up of slaves or their disenfranchised descendants?

Torch didn’t begin to have the military force needed for such an occupation, of course. But most of the occupation troops could be provided by other star nations. What Torch could provide would be a cadre of specialists, in essence — people who would understand the attitudes of the majority of Mesa’s population and could serve as trusted liaisons between them and the occupying forces.

Having a Torch commander-in-chief who was familiar with the situation on the ground in Mesa due to a personal reconnaissance might prove to be invaluable, in that event. And if the Seccies and slaves of a liberated Torch later learned that that same commander-in-chief had personally risked her life scouting their homeworld in preparation for its liberation . . . .

Anton’s own scrutiny of Harrington must have been intense also. Intense enough that she turned to look at him directly, almost as if she possessed some sort of telepathic ability.

Which was absurd. She wasn’t a treecat, after all.

“I can think of some other reasons it would be a good idea for General Palane to go along on the expedition,” Alexander-Harrington said. “Especially… Let’s just say I’d like to have an assessment of Mesa — from being there on the ground herself, not from reports — coming from someone with her experience and abilities. That could prove very useful, down the road a bit.”

She couldn’t be telepathic, damnation. It just wasn’t in the human genome.

Was it?

The personal com on Harrington’s wrist must have given her a vibration, because she suddenly looked at it.

“A reminder from my staff,” she said. The slight smile on her face indicated that she hadn’t really needed the reminder but was appreciative of having attentive subordinates.

Turning to the Empress of Manticore, she said: “It’s time Admiral Theisman and I were getting out to Imperator. It’s always remotely possible Admiral Filareta will actually get here on schedule, after all.”