Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 23


Chapter 15

Well, what have we here? Yuri thought to himself, as he and Sharon were ushered into a suite on one of the top floors of the Suds Emporium. The room they entered was probably listed in the hotel’s data bank as the living room of a suite; if so, proving yet again that the Erewhonese had a wry sense of humor. A fabled despot of the ancient Orient would have turned green with envy if he’d seen the place. All that was lacking were scantily clad slaves fanning the inhabitants with palm leaves.

And probably the only reason that was lacking was that the rulers of Erewhon had a very well developed sense of security. Slaves could talk — or scribble, if you cut out their tongues. The gangsters who’d originally settled Erewhon might have solved that problem by simply killing their slaves, but their descendants weren’t quite that ruthless.

Not quite. It helped that they had excellent air conditioning.

When they got the summons from Walter Imbesi, Yuri and Sharon had presumed that they’d be meeting with him alone. Instead, the room’s inhabitants included the triumvirate who semi-officially ran Erewhon — Tomas Hall, Alexandra Havlicek and Jack Fuentes — as well as Imbesi. Walter himself had no even semi-official position in Erewhon’s power structure, but for all practical purposes the triumvirate was really a quadrumvirate.

Erewhon’s government was not perhaps unique in the galaxy, but it came pretty close. It had a formal government apparatus, complete with a tripartite separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, a written constitution, and a citizens’ bill of rights to match the finest democracies anywhere. Then, paralleling all that, was the real fount of authority: an elaborate network of informal — it might be better to say, semi-formal — protocols and customs that bound all of the great families of Erewhon into a complex web of alliances and understandings that kept disputes within reasonable bounds.

You wouldn’t think such a contradictory-seeming system would work at all, much less be a stable one. But Erewhon had been ruled that way for a long time now, without ever suffering internal strife much worse than scuffles since the conclusion of the bloody civil war between the Nationalists and Conventionalists that had taken place more than three and a half centuries earlier. On two occasions since the victory of the Nationalists in that civil war, the scuffles had begun erupting into deadly violence but they’d been squelched very quickly by the combined power of the rest of the planet’s great families.

The setup might have been oppressive for most of the planet’s population, except for the fact that all the great families had long ago established the practice of absorbing through adoption anyone showing real talent and promise. One of the effects of that practice, of course, was that the power and influence of the great families themselves was tremendously enhanced. Today, there was almost no one on Erewhon who couldn’t consider themselves part of one of the great families, indirectly if not directly. In a very real sense, the entire population had become vested in customs that originated in the social mores of criminals, but had by now acquired a veneer of respectability so hard that no one in the galaxy challenged Erewhon’s legitimacy.

Over the centuries, the practice had become a social custom so deeply ingrained that Erewhon was one of the very few star nations whose culture had no trace of xenophobia or social exclusivism. That was one of the reasons that Erewhon had been receptive from the beginning to the emergence of a star nation of former genetic slaves right next door to it. (So to speak. Torch was actually about twenty-seven light years from Erewhon. But by the standards of modern space travel, that made them close neighbors.)

The presence of the triumvirate along with Walter Imbesi in the suite was not the most interesting factor, though. What Yuri found most significant was the presence of Luis Rozsak, the commanding officer of Maya Sector’s fleet-in-all-but-name and the man who’d defeated the armada sent to destroy Torch. By parties unknown, in the official record, but everyone knew perfectly well the mercenary armada had been hired by Manpower — or some other and still more inimical forces on Mesa.

There was a man accompanying Rozsak who was also wearing the uniform of the Solarian League Navy. Yuri didn’t know him. He’d had no contact yet with Mayan officials. The only reason he recognized Rozsak was because he’d studied Sharon’s reports on the man while en route to Erewhon, which had included holopics of him.

Sharon leaned over and whispered in his ear: “That’s Lt. Commander Jiri Watanapongse, Rozsak’s intelligence specialist. He’s very good.”

The Erewhonese and Mayans in the suite waited politely for Yuri and Sharon to finish their hurried exchange. Then Alexandra Havlicek rose from her seat and went over to a side table laden with bottles.

“A drink?” she asked, pouring herself one. “This is Centaurian whiskey, which for my money is the best galaxy. But if you’re not partial to whiskey…”

She finished pouring her drink and now had a free hand. She gestured with the hand to the rest of the very long and very well-laden side table. “We have pretty much anything you might enjoy.”

Sharon leaned over again. “Stay away from the booze, unless you’ve taken an anti-alcohol –“

Yuri held up his hand. “Please, I wasn’t born yesterday.” He knew perfectly well that the Erewhonese — for a certainty — had all taken anti-alcohol preventatives, and the Mayan had likely done the same. He hadn’t bothered to do so himself before coming here because he wasn’t fond of alcoholic beverages to begin with. He’d always found that abstention worked better than any chemical measures.

He didn’t bother to whisper, either. Seeing that he was following that tactical route — we’re all adults here, with no reason to play silly games — Sharon shrugged and headed for the side table.

She had taken anti-alcohol preventatives. Unlike Yuri, Sharon enjoyed her liquor. Enjoyed it enough, in fact, that she used a semi-permanent subcutaneous delivery system instead of the usual pills. That enabled her to fine tune the dosage to allow her to get a slight buzz — without which she claimed booze wasn’t booze — but nothing strong enough to affect her reasoning powers.

“I’ve never had Turnerian whiskey, but I’ve heard about it for years,” she said to Havlicek. “How do you recommend it? Neat? On the rocks?”

“Oh, you can’t dilute it with ice. If you really insist on chilling your liquor, then at least use –“

“Neat it is, then. Would you do me the honors?”

She and Havlicek exchanged smiles. The sort that had been exchanged between conspirators from time immemorial. Fellow spies, fellow sports fans, fellow drug addicts…

While Havlicek poured Sharon a glass of the whiskey, Yuri took a seat next to Watanapongse. “What are you having?” he asked, looking at the small but expensive-looking metal pot on the low table in front of the captain. There was a diminutive cup next to the pot holding some sort of very dark liquid.

“It’s a type of coffee we make on Maya. If you trace it back far enough it’d have been called ‘Turkish coffee,’ but I don’t know how much it resembles its ancestor. I’ve visited Terra twice, but never got a chance to try the real stuff.”

It looked very strong and very bitter. Yuri decided it was just what he needed for the upcoming ordeal.

“I’ll have one, then. Where –“

“I’ll get it for you. It’ll just take a bit.” Watanapongse rose smoothly from his armchair and headed toward a different side table. This one, Yuri saw, had what looking like coffee-making equipment on it. Or at least equipment whose ancestors had once made coffee. From what he could tell at the distance, this equipment might also be able to navigate through hyperspace.

Ordeal… wasn’t quite the right word. Everyone would be exceedingly pleasant, he was sure of that. However battered the Republic of Haven might have been in the last stretch of the war with Manticore, it was still one of the galaxy’s great military powers — far, far more powerful than either Erewhon or Maya, or even both combined. Erewhon was now an ally of the Republic, however strained that alliance might be in some respects, and he was almost certain that Maya was seeking to join that alliance. Or, at least, develop an informal relationship with Haven that came very close.