Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 24


The big problem with this upcoming discussion, from Yuri’s point of view, was that he knew damn good and well that within five minutes he’d be out of his pay grade; within fifteen minutes, he’d be way out of his pay grade; and within half an hour his pay grade would be an invisible microbe whimpering in the dust somewhere far, far below.

What was worse — oh, so very, very worse — was that he probably wouldn’t be able to wriggle out of the situation by pointing to that selfsame oh-so-very-very-modest pay grade. The Erewhonese didn’t think in those terms. The Mayans probably did, as a rule, but Yuri was pretty sure they were going to be pitching the rules here.

And what was absolutely certain was that Yuri and Sharon weren’t going to be able to claim that their superiors kept them on too tight of a leash for them to be able to say or agree to much of anything.

Alas, their immediate superior — for Sharon, officially; and if not Yuri, it amounted to much the same in practice — was a certain Victor Cachat. That is to say, the person who more than any other human alive today paid no attention whatsoever to pay grades. His own, least of all.

The first and most ancient law for all government officials like Yuri Radamacher — bureaucrats, to call them by their right name — was Cover Your Ass.

But how do you cover your ass when you’re trying to cover it from the likes of Victor Cachat? The only way to do it was to satisfy him that you did your best — that is to say, your very very very best — to take advantage of every opportunity that came your way.

Such as the opportunity to expand an alliance against the galaxy’s largest and most powerful star nation and its most vicious and cunning cabal — respectively, the Solarian League and the Mesan Alignment — by bringing in Erewhon and Maya Sector.

If Cachat were sitting in this very seat at this very moment, waiting for Captain Watanapongse to return with a pot of coffee — and the Mayan officer was even now headed back this way — would he be whining and pissing and moaning to himself that he was way above his pay grade?

Ha. The murderous brutal sociopathic reptilian callous son-of-a-bitch would be licking his chops, that’s what. Because he was dead sure and certain that he was a supremely competent murderous brutal sociopathic etc., etc., etc.

Watanapongse set down the pot and cup. Yuri poured the one into the other and took a careful sip.

Then, sighed.

“Good, isn’t it?” asked the Mayan intelligence officer.

Yuri sighed again. That seemed easier, simpler and safer than saying anything. And within five minutes —

Jack Fuentes cleared his throat. “Thank you both for coming. The reason we asked for this meeting –“

No, two minutes. Easier and simpler and safer were terms that would be as foreign to Yuri Radamacher as words written in ancient Sumerian.

He wondered if the ancient Sumerians had had a term for “pay grade.”

Probably. He knew they’d had executioners.


“Oh, come on, Yuri. That wasn’t so bad.” Sharon climbed into the capsule whose hatch Yuri was holding open for her. The system of mass transport the Erewhonese had chosen for their capital city was a variant of the vacuum transport method. It was fast and efficient, but it required the use of smaller vehicles than either of them were used to. Climbing into the capsules was easier if someone gave you a bit of assistance.

Once Sharon was in place, Yuri slid into the seat behind her, spoke their destination and pressed the button indicating that the coupling was finished. The capsules could be linked in a chain as long as sixty capsules, but they were so small in diameter that two people could not sit next to each other unless one of them was an infant.

Sffffttttt. The joined capsules sped off. The arrangement made conversations a bit difficult, though.

“Admit it!” Sharon said. She started to turn her head until she remembered that she could pull up a virtual screen that would allow her to look at Yuri directly.

“Admit it,” she repeated, after the screen came up.

For a moment, Yuri was tempted to claim that the awkward seating arrangement made it hard for him to get his thoughts in order. But the moment —

Sttttfffff. A chime announced they’d arrived.

— was brief. It really was a fast and efficient system.

“Okay,” he said, after they climbed out. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be. Mind you!” He held up a cautionary finger. “That’s not saying a lot. I’m told that root canals weren’t as bad as they were thought to be. But they were still pretty bad.”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Nobody’s had a root canal in… hell, what is it? Two millennia? Outside of planets that were lost and cast back into medievalism, anyway.” She took Yuri by the arm and led him toward the exit. “You’re just being grumpy because you think it’s an art form at which you’re a maestro.”

Her tone was cheerful. “And speaking of maestros, I think you did damn well today, myself. For a measly high commissioner and envoy extraordinary.”

They passed out into the open. The sunlight was bright — and also quite cheering, even if the color was a little off to them. Erewhon’s star was a K5, smaller and dimmer than Haven’s or La Martine’s, which were both G stars. To Yuri and Sharon, everything seemed to have a slightly orange cast.

There was a bit of a breeze, too, to make the day still more enjoyable. Despite his grim determination to find wrack and ruin all about, Yuri couldn’t help but feel his spirits picking up.

Sharon, who knew him well, jumped onto the moment with heavy boots.

“Look at all the bright spots,” she said. “First — there’s no doubt about this — the Erewhonese and the Mayans have finally decided they can trust each other.”

“Sure. Gangsters and traitors are natural bosom buddies.”

“Second, it’s just as obvious — they didn’t come right out and say it, of course — that they’re going to be integrating their military forces all the way down the line, not just having Erewhon serve as Maya’s workshop. That has the potential to turn two third-rate powers into one that swings some real weight.”

“Just what the galaxy needs. Another Machiavelli in the game.”

“Stop it, Yuri. You know just as well as I do how important that could wind up being, if the Solarian League collapses — which we both think it will, and not even that far in the future.”

Yuri made a face. He didn’t disagree with anything Sharon was saying. It was just that…

They’d reached the entrance to their apartment building. He gave Sharon a warning look. As long as they’d been moving and talking out in the open, the scrambling equipment they both carried would have made it impossible for anyone to overhear their conversation or even read their lips. And once they entered their apartment, the much more powerful and sophisticated equipment there made it possible for them to speak openly again. The danger was in this transition zone. Someone could have planted surveillance gear in the vicinity which their portable scramblers couldn’t handle, and they were still too far away for the stationary equipment in their apartment to protect them.

Of course, it was a warning that Sharon didn’t need at all, as her answering glare made clear. It was admittedly a little silly for him to caution a former StateSec officer on security issues.

Neither of them said anything further until they’d reached the apartment and the door had closed behind them. Then, after a quick glance at the monitors to make sure the scramblers were operating, Sharon crossed her arms and gave Yuri a level stare.

“Okay, get it out of your system. ‘It was just that….’ What, Yuri?”

He took a deep breath. “Why me? Why do I have to be the one trying to thread the needle between encouraging them — yes, I agree; of course I agree; if they can pull off this alliance we’ll all be in a better position — and not coming right out and committing Haven to anything because I don’t have the goddam authority to do it in the first place.”

She smiled and patted his cheek. “Because you’re so good at it. That’s why Victor made sure you got the assignment.”