Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 22


“All the more reason for a quick and decisive intervention,” said Victor. “And, to come back to where we started, all the more reason for an occupying army that can’t be bamboozled by the local authorities. Most of the troops will have to be provided by others, since Torch’s army doesn’t begin to be large enough. But if Torch provides… what should we call them?”

“Reconnaissance and liaison units,” said Thandi.

“Yes, that. We’d be a long ways toward gaining the unstinting allegiance and trust of about two-thirds of the population.”

“It’s more than that,” said Ruth. “Full citizens don’t make up more than thirty percent of Mesa‘s population. About sixty percent are outright slaves, and the remainder are the descendants of slaves who were freed centuries ago when Mesa still allowed manumission.”

Jacques pursed his lips. “How many occupying armies in history have ever enjoyed that advantage?”

“None that I know of,” said DuHavel. “The closest analog I can think of was the occupation of the southern areas of the United States of America after their civil war. But slaves only constituted a minority of that population.”

“The logic is pretty irresistible, I admit — at least in theory. But in practice…”

“Does Torch have an army that could take on that task?” said Thandi. “That’s what you’re wondering.”


She shrugged. “Right now, no. But we’re not all that far away, between the training programs we’ve got up and running and the fact that people keep volunteering for the military.”

“You haven’t imposed conscription, I take it?”

“No,” said DuHavel.

“Not yet,” said Jeremy. He gave the prime minister a sharp glance. “But we will if we need to.”

Thandi raised her hand. “Let’s not reopen that argument, guys. There’s no point it in anyway. If we got a much bigger influx than we’re getting already, our training programs would start to collapse. Our cadre is still awfully slender.”

“If you’re pretty close to having the forces we’d need for that purpose, then Beowulf could make up the difference,” said Jacques. “Whatever that might take. The way I see this war shaping up –“

He broke off. “But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. Let’s wait and see what happens with Filareta. And then, whatever the outcome, we need to have a full discussion with all the parties involved. Manticore and Haven, especially.”

Thandi leaned back. “I agree.”

“So do I,” said Victor. “So let’s move on to the subject that’s immediately to hand. What’s involved with this new genetic treatment you told us about? And how long would it take?”

“And how many people can you do it for?” asked Anton. “If it’s this new, it’s still going to be fiendishly expensive.”

“Very big and fierce fiends at that,” said Jacques, smiling. “But then again, Beowulf is a very big and fiercely rich planet. We can afford as many treatments as are needed, short of an entire battalion. The real question is, how many people do you want for the mission? And who?”

Victor and Anton looked at each other. Then, at Thandi.

“The three of us, obviously,” said Zilwicki.

Yana should come too,” said Victor, “if she’s willing. She just spent months on Mesa, so she knows the territory.”

“She’s willing,” said Thandi.

“You haven’t even seen her since we got back,” pointed out Victor. “She’s still at Parmley Station.

“She’s willing,” said Thandi. “Just take my word for it.”

“Speaking of Parmley Station…” Anton frowned. “Do you think Steph Turner would be willing to go back to Mesa? None of us know the planet the way she does.”

Victor looked skeptical. “I don’t know, Anton. I agree she’d be ideal, but…” He shook his head. “I can’t see why she’d be willing to take the risk. She’s a civilian, push comes to shove.”

Jacques looked back and forth between them. “I’m not familiar with the person.”

“Steph was the owner of the restaurant on Mesa that I worked at,” said Anton. “We made contact with her through the Ballroom. She’s not a member of it but she owed them a favor. The reason she came back with us is because the whole thing blew open right in her restaurant. She didn’t have any choice. Brought her daughter out too.”

“Pay her,” said Jeremy. He smiled and pointed at Benton-Ramirez y Chou with a thumb. “Out of Beowulf’s treasury. They can afford whatever she wants.”

Jacques didn’t object. He didn’t seem in the least bit concerned about the matter, in fact. “Would money do it?”

Anton and Victor looked at each other again. “Abstractly… probably not,” said Victor. “But if we tied it to something she’d really want…”

“Maybe,” finished Zilwicki. “We need to figure out what that might be, though. She’s already got enough to set up the restaurant she wants.”

Nancy,” said Ruth. “Nancy‘s the key.”

Jacques cocked his head. “Nancy is…”

“Steph’s daughter. She’s on Beowulf at the moment, undergoing prolong treatments. She’s fifteen years old. Maybe sixteen, now. In other words –“

    “On the eve of all her higher education.” Jacques nodded. “And if her mother is a refugee from Mesa with just enough to set up a restaurant… I assume the prolong was paid for by Beowulf, yes?”

Ruth nodded. “So there won’t be anything left over. If Steph wants her to go to the best academies…”

She spread her hands. “You know how it is.”

Highly advanced planets like Beowulf and Manticore had extensive and well-funded programs to enable students from lower class backgrounds to attend the finest institutions of higher education. Even so, it helped a great deal if the student’s family could also provide them with assistance. In the nature of things, bureaucrats assigned to manage finances invariably found reasons that Assiduous Student’s Need Alpha was really Lackadaisical Student’s Whim Beta, and either refused to pay for it or didn’t pay enough. Or simply took months to decide, by which time the need (or whim, if such it was) had passed by.

“It’s worth a try,” said Victor. “If we want Yana, we’ll need to send a courier to Parmley Station anyway. We can ask Steph to come back with her. For reasons unspecified, of course –“

“Dear God, yes,” said Jacques, grimacing. “This new technique isn’t ‘top secret.’ It’s… Let’s just say it’s to ‘top secret’ what a supernova is to ‘dynamic.’ We have to keep knowledge of it limited to the smallest circle possible.”

“Steph’ll come, without questioning the reason,” said Anton. “She knows we wouldn’t ask her if it wasn’t important.”

“Which brings us back to my original questions,” said Victor. “How long does it take and what’s involved?”

Jacques looked at him for a moment. “You understand that this new treatment isn’t in place of a nanotech physiological transformation? It’s added on top of it.”

“Yes, obviously. It wouldn’t do us much good to have our DNA disguised if we could be recognized from a visual image.”

“Oh!” That came from Ruth. “Yukh. I’ve been through that process. It takes days and it’s miserable.”

“Really, really miserable,” said Berry.

Victor shrugged. “I’m sure it’s not that bad.”

Berry and Ruth stared at him the way people might stare at a lunatic. Anton couldn’t help but laugh.

“Girls, you need to remember the source. Black Victor, remember? Sometime, have him describe to you what StateSec Academy was like under Saint-Just.”

“Oh, double-yukh,” said Berry. “I remember now. Victor once told me that he had the fourth highest pain threshold ever recorded at that academy. Which begs the question — which I didn’t ask then and I’m sure as hell not asking now — of how they test that in the first place.”

Jacques looked interested. “I’m curious. How do they test that, Mr. Cachat.”

“Well, mainly — “

“Enough,” said Thandi. “I don’t want to know either. Leaving aside how bad the nanotech treatment is, what’s the new one like? And how fast is it?”

“Quicker than you’d think. It’s counter-intuitive, but since we’re replacing the entire skin we don’t need to allow for the usual time lapse for growth. The main thing, really, is just leaving enough time to make sure there aren’t any rejections issues. The discomfort’s not too bad, either.”

“I assume it’ll need to be done on Beowulf,” said Anton.

“Oh, yes. In fact, there’s only one facility in the universe that can do it. At the University of Grendel.”

Thandi’s expression was close to a scowl. “You let academics be in charge of something that requires this level of security?”

Anton chuckled. He knew Beowulf a lot better than Thandi did. The planet was… unique, in many respects.

“Well, they’re Beowulfan academics,” said Jacques. “From the Department of Chaotics, to be specific..”

“Department of what?”

“It’s a field of study which I believe is only found on Beowulf,” Jacques explained.

“Are we gonna have fun or what?” said Anton.