Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 26


“Personally,” Catherine Montaigne said, “I’ve come to the conclusion that one reason the bastards have been so busy propping Manpower up has a lot to do with setting up an obvious stalking horse. Web DuHavel and I have argued for years over why Mesa‘s stood so foursquare behind genetic slavery for so long given the economics of the institution and the potential social powder keg all those seccies and slaves create on Mesa itself. Now that we know about this Alignment, it makes a lot more sense. Just thinking about the hooks it can get into people by involving them in the filth of the slave trade puts an entirely new perspective on it, but when you add in the façade it sets up — the way it colors all of our thinking where Mesa as a whole is concerned — it makes even more sense.”

“Exactly.” Benton-Ramirez y Chou nodded. “The idea that someone might set themselves up as proponents of the galaxy’s vilest form of commerce so that we’d concentrate on that view of their villainy and not notice an even deeper one is going to take a little getting used to. And the truth is that Beowulfers have become so set in their ways of hating and despising everything about Mesa and Manpower that it’s going to take time for a lot of us to start taking this threat as seriously as we ought to.”

“That’s just it,” Catherine Mayhew admitted. “I’ve always wondered exactly why the hatred between your people and the Mesans cuts so deep. I don’t have any problem understanding that it could, you understand. After all, we have our own relationship with Masada as an example. I just don’t understand the . . . the mechanism for it, I guess you’d say.”

“I think that’s because — like the original Manticoran colonists — your ancestors missed the Final War, Cat,” Honor said. “By the time the first Manties debarked from Jason, that war had been over for a long time, but it’s even further removed for you Graysons. Or us Graysons, I suppose I should say.” She smiled again, briefly. “You didn’t find out about it until you reestablished contact with the rest of the galaxy, and to be honest, you had a lot more pressing worries at the time, given Grayson’s planetary environment and the Masadans, when you did find out.”

“Honor’s right,” Benton-Ramirez y Chou agreed. “And I have to admit that as terrible as the Final War was, it has a lot more ongoing immediacy for Beowulf and Mesa than for anybody else in the League. More even than for people living in the Sol System today, for that matter. I know our Final War Museum in Grendel is the best and biggest in the entire League, but it only gets a single wing in the Solarian Military Museum in Old Chicago.”

“I don’t know as much about the Final War — stupid damned name, when I think about it — as I wish I did,” Cachat said. He smiled faintly. “Like the Graysons, I’ve had more pressing worries until very recently.”

“It probably wouldn’t hurt for you to spend a little time in the Museum while you’re on Beowulf,” Benton-Ramirez y Chou said thoughtfully. “Assuming you’ve got the time for it, anyway. There are some really good VR programs covering it in the System Database, though, and you’re going to be spending at least a while recuperating from the mods.”

“Oh, goody!” Yana snorted. “Educational VRs to distract us from all the things you’re going to be doing to us. I can hardly wait.”

A general chuckle ran around the table, but then Benton-Ramirez y Chou sobered and returned his attention to Catherine Mayhew.

“Despite Victor’s well taken observation on the stupidity of calling any war the ‘final’ one, Old Earth’s version of it came entirely too close to being just that, at least where the Sol System was concerned,” he said much more somberly. “The Ukrainian Supremacists may have started it when they turned the super soldiers loose,” he glanced semi-apologetically at Yana, who snorted in amusement at his expression, “but they weren’t the only lunatics running asylums. And let’s be honest, the super soldiers weren’t really all that much more heavily genetically modified than Honor here is. Enhanced strength, better reflexes, they heal faster, and enhanced intelligence — although that one’s still a rather . . . nebulous concept — but that was small beer compared to the other crap that got turned loose. For example, there were the Asian Confederacy’s version of super soldiers. Now, those were scary. Implanted and natural weaponry, a metabolism that was so enhanced they ‘burned out’ in less than twenty years and their combat gear had to include intravenous concentrated nourishment just to keep them running that long, and enough other genetic tinkering to make them all sterile — thank God! In terms of effectiveness in sustained combat, the mods didn’t do a lot for them, given the sophistication of the weaponry available even to us poor old ‘pure strain’ models. Doesn’t really matter all that much how strong someone is or how good his reflexes are when he’s up against a main battle tank. But it turned them into god-awful special operations troops, and the ‘intelligence’ mods on them pushed them over the edge into the outright megalomania that proved Old Earth’s undoing. It was when they turned on the Confederacy’s political leadership in the Beijing Coup that the Final War really turned into the ultimate nightmare.”

“Why did they stage the coup?” Cachat asked. Benton-Ramirez y Chou arched an eyebrow at him, and the Havenite shrugged. “The Confederacy was winning against the Ukrainians, from what little I know about the history involved, but that all turned around shortly after the coup. So why did they do it? And why did it turn around?”

“They staged the coup because they were sterile,” Honor said before her uncle could reply. “They’d decided their obvious superiority to the pure strain humans who were giving them orders proved they should be in charge, and they’d decided they were clearly the next step in human evolution. But the Confederacy’s leadership controlled the cloning farms where they were created, and the Confederacy refused to allow them unlimited reproduction.” She shrugged. “So they staged their own revolt in order to take over the cloning facilities and produce more of their own kind.”

“And the reason the war in Europe started turning against them,” Benton-Ramirez y Chou said, nodding in agreement, “was because their mods had turned them into predators, not herd animals. Among other things, they were so full of contempt for their ‘obsolescent’ pure strain opponents that they tended to downplay the need to unite against their outside foes while they engaged in internal warfare with one another for control of the Confederacy.”

“And while all that was going on,” Catherine Montaigne put in sourly, “the idiots in Western Europe had pulled the stopper out of their own bottle of lunacy.” Montaigne had spent longer on Old Earth than anyone else gathered around the table. She’d spent quite a bit of that time learning about the womb in which Mesa and genetic slavery had been conceived, and her expression was bitter. “The Ukrainian Supremacists had taken all of them by surprise by the timing of their attack, but everyone on the planet — hell, everyone in the entire star system — had seen it coming for a long, long time. The Western Europeans weren’t interested in genetically modifying human beings. Instead, they decided to genetically modify diseases like anthrax, botulism, bubonic plague, meningitis, typhus, cholera, and something called Ebola.”

“I’ve never even heard of most of those,” Yana said plaintively.

“That’s because most of them have been effectively stamped out.” Montaigne’s expression was grim, “and thank God for it! In fact, most of them had been stamped out on Old Earth before the Final War, too. Until the idiots dusted them off and sent them off to war, at least.”

“How could they have expected that to work?” Elaine Mayhew demanded, eyes dark with the horror the mere thought of such a weapon evoked in someone who’d been raised in Grayson’s hermetically sealed environments.

“They thought they’d designed firewalls into their pet monstrosities.” Benton-Ramirez y Chou’s voice was even grimmer than Montaigne’s. “They’d integrated ‘kill switches’ and stockpiled disease-specific vaccines. But once they were out into a real-world environment, their firewalls evolved right out from under them a hell of a lot faster than they’d expected. Oh, initially, their weapons had almost exactly the desired effect when they deployed them. That lasted as long as three years, and the Confederacy’s super soldiers’ hyper-active metabolisms seem to have made them even more vulnerable than pure strain humans. But once the pathogens got loose in the civilian population of Asia, the law of unintended consequences came into play with a vengeance. By the time the same diseases started bleeding back across the frontier into Europe, they’d developed effective immunity to the vaccines which was supposed to protect Europeans against them.”

Catherine and Elaine looked at their husband, as if they hoped he’d tell them Benton-Ramirez y Chou was exaggerating, but Benjamin shook his head.

“There’s a reason they managed to kill off damned near the entire Old Earth branch of the human race,” he told his wives. “And don’t think it was all Europe and Asia, either. The western hemisphere made its own contribution to the holocaust.”

“True,” Honor agreed. “On the other hand, at least they weren’t crazy enough to turn genetically engineered diseases loose on their opposition.”

“Oh, no!” Benton-Ramirez y Chou showed his teeth in something which approximated a smile in much the same way a hexapuma’s bared teeth approximated a pleasant greeting. “They were lots smarter than that. They decided to deploy weaponized nanotech!”

“Sweet Tester,” Catherine Mayhew murmured.

“Rather than further disturb the digestion of Mac’s meal,” Honor said after a moment, “I propose we not go a lot deeper into the specifics of the Final War, Uncle Jacques. I don’t think we really need to in order to answer Cat’s original question about the . . . ill feeling between you noble Beowulfers and those despicable Mesans.”

“No. No, we don’t,” Benton-Ramirez y Chou agreed. “But that ‘ill feeling’ owes a lot to how Beowulf and the rest of the colony systems which responded to Old Earth’s attempted suicide viewed what had happened there.”

He sipped from his own wineglass, then set it down very precisely.