Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 25


Chapter 16

“I think you’re all insane, of course,” Honor Alexander-Harrington said with one of her crooked smiles as she sat back in her chair with her wineglass and looked at her mostly rather-less-than-reputable dinner guests. Neither of her spouses had been able to join them, and the nature of those guests — and their plans — had restricted her potential invitation list in rather draconian fashion. The table before them bore the remnants of a generous meal, and James MacGuiness made the circuit refreshing coffee cups for the coffee drinkers who had not yet transitioned to something stronger. Those coffee drinkers included Victor Cachat (not surprisingly for those who knew him) and Yana Tretiakovna, who claimed to prefer a caffeine buzz to alcohol.

“If you thought it was a bad idea, you should’ve said so at the time,” her Uncle Jacques replied. “And if we’re going to talk about insane ideas, I could think of a few of yours over the years which were even better qualified for that particular adjective.”

“Well, of course you can! You don’t think I’d venture an opinion like that without having a meterstick of my own to base it on, did you? Besides, I do come by my genome honestly, you know, and if memory serves there’s been a . . . less than fully rational action plan from both sides of the family tree upon occasion. I remember stories Daddy told me about one of my uncles, for example. Back when he was a captain in the BSC, I believe.”

“If you’ll pardon my saying so, Your Grace,” Thandi Palane said a bit dryly, “I doubt most of your uncle’s follies could outshine the one you pulled at a place called Cerberus.”

“Or the one at a dinner party I can call to mind,” Benjamin Mayhew said even more dryly. The Protector of Grayson and his wives were the only members of the dinner party which kept her guest list from being totally disreputable, in Honor’s opinion.

“Details. Details!” Honor waved her wineglass dismissively. “Besides, I already admitted I needed a meterstick of my own. And I never said it was a bad idea, either. I just said that the whole lot of our fearless agents” — the wineglass gestured at Thandi, Victor Cachat, Anton Zilwicki, and Yana Tretiakovna — “have fairly tangential contact with rationality.” Her smile faded. “And probably a little more in the way of guts than is good for them.”

“While I hate to disabuse you of your obviously inflated notion of my bravery quotient, Your Grace,” Zilwicki said, “I intend to emulate an Old Earth mouse to the very best of my ability once we’re on-planet.”

“Of course you do,” Catherine Montaigne said sarcastically. “I’ve noticed what a shy and retiring type you are.”

“Actually,” Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou said rather more seriously, “he’s not that far wrong.” Montaigne looked at her old friend incredulously, and the Beowulfer shrugged. “There are lots of different ways to be as unobtrusive as possible, Catherine. One of the most effective is to be something else entirely as obtrusively as you possibly can. Which is exactly what our friends here are proposing to be, when you come down to it.”

“Doesn’t mean we won’t have to be careful when we go about our nefarious activities,” Zilwicki agreed. “But the principle’s one every stage magician understands perfectly. We’ll be so busy waving our public personas under everyone’s noses that no one’s going to be wondering what we might have hidden behind the curtain.”

“That’s all well and good,” Honor said in a much more serious tone. “And, for what it’s worth, I agree with you. But something nobody’s been talking about very much is that for this Alignment to have operated so long without anyone’s spotting it, even on Beowulf, it has to be very, very good at covert operations of its own . . . including penetration of other people’s security. That ‘sleeper agent’ your people found on Torch is one example of how far they’re prepared to go, and if McBryde was right about their having buried genetic ‘sleepers’ all over the galaxy, how confident can we really be that they haven’t penetrated the BSC itself?”

“Much as it pains me to admit it, we can’t be,” Benton-Ramirez y Chou replied, more than a bit sourly. “Obviously, we’ve had to rethink everything we thought we knew about Mesa in light of the information Victor and Anton — and Yana — brought home. I have a few ideas about how we might look for those ‘genetic sleepers’ of yours using gene scans, but nobody’s worried much about that particular form of security screening in the past. On the other hand, we’ve always been pretty fanatical about compartmentalizing information and operating on a ‘need to know’ basis. To be honest, that’s one reason I was so uncomfortable bringing this new genetic sheathing technology into the light of day even under these circumstances. It’s certainly not impossible that the Alignment’s caught a hint of the R&D on it, or even — although I think it’s very unlikely — infiltrated some of its ‘sleepers’ into the R&D program itself. But I guarantee you that anyone who’s involved with it is going to find himself under the most intense scrutiny of his entire life as soon as we get home. And I don’t see how they could have prepared a cover that’s going to stand up to our newest counterintelligence types.”

He took a stalk of celery from the plate in front of him and offered it to the cream and gray treecat in the high chair beside him. Bark Chewer’s Bane accepted it with a pleased “Bleek!” and began chewing happily. The Blue Mountain Dancing Clan scout was Benton-Ramirez y Chou’s newly assigned bodyguard, and he and Honor’s uncle were settling into a comfortable working relationship. It wasn’t the same as an adoption bond, as Bark Chewer’s Bane’s retention of his treecat name indicated, but it was the sort of relationship which was going to become increasingly common as the ‘cats integrated themselves more and more thoroughly into human society.

“As soon as BCB and I get home,” Benton-Ramirez y Chou went on, his expression amused as Honor rolled her eyes at the acronym he’d adopted for his new partner, “he and some of his friends and I will be personally interviewing every member of the team working on this project. Between us, I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to uncover anyone with divided loyalties. After that, we’ll be working our way through as much of our entire security structure as we can.” He grimaced. “Obviously, we’re going to be limited by time constraints and the number of ‘cats available to us, so we’re not going to get very far beyond the ‘management’ echelons for quite some time, but we’ll pay special attention to plugging any leaks in our more sensitive programs. Especially this one. And if we find one” — the last amusement faded from his expression and his eyes were grim — “we’ll plug it very, very thoroughly indeed.”

“That sounds like a good idea to me,” Cachat observed.

“And to me,” Yana agreed even more firmly. The ex-scrag had hit it off surprisingly well with their hostess. Personally, Benton-Ramirez y Chou thought that was at least partly because of how much she had in common with Nimitz. However “reformed” she and her fellow Amazons might have become since falling under Thandi Palane’s influence, there was still a lot of predator in them, and especially in Yana.

“I hope this won’t seem too dreadfully ignorant of me,” Catherine Mayhew said, “and I know that the . . . enmity between Beowulf and Mesa’s been around a long, long time, but it seems even deeper and more, well, personal than I’d thought it was. I haven’t had the opportunity to sit in on all the intelligence briefings Benjamin has, and unlike him, no one was sending any mere women off to Old Earth for their college educations when it would’ve done me any good. But why in Tester’s name could anyone be so filled with determination or hatred or whatever it is as to spend six hundred years planning something like this?” She shook her head. “I’m not questioning any of the information Mister Zilwicki and Mister Cachat brought back from Mesa. I’m just trying to wrap my mind around it and understand.”

“That’s going to be a big part of the problem when we start trying to prove any of this to the Sollies, Cat,” Honor said soberly. “The League would be prepared enough to see this as more anti-Mesan panic mongering on the part of Manticore and Haven, based on our obvious, corrupt imperialism — now that we’ve taken our masks off, that’s clearly the only reason we’ve been so fanatical about enforcing the Cherwell Conventions for so long! — but including Beowulf’s going to make it even easier for their propagandists to attack the entire idea. Everybody knows Beowulfers’ve been lunatics on anything to do with Mesa for centuries, after all. And on the face of it, it does sound pretty absurd.”

“I didn’t mean to say that,” Catherine began, but Benton-Ramirez y Chou interrupted her.

“Honor didn’t mean to suggest that you had,” he said. “But she’s right, and so are you. It does sound absurd. For that matter, there are people back home on Beowulf who’re going to find it hard to accept all of this. Of course, in their case it’s not going to be because they won’t believe Mesans are despicable enough for something like this; it’s going to be that they can’t believe we could have missed it for so long. And, much as I hate to admit it, one of the reasons they’re going to think that way is that we’ve become so accustomed to thinking of all Mesans in terms of Manpower and their transstellar partners.”