Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 31

 

“Clothes are clothes,” Berry said. “What’s the big deal? I never understood it. Might as well get all excited about different kinds of breakfast food.”

“Like I said, unnatural.” Ruth looked back at Steph. “I can see the advantages.”

“How about combining the two?” suggested Kham. “A small flophouse with a small boutique attached?”

“I can’t see the benefit. I think you’d be more likely to combine the disadvantages of both. But it’s my turn to ask questions. What — exactly — did you want this safe house for? Or for who, I guess I should say?”

“The truth is, we don’t know yet. The ‘who,’ I mean. The other function of the safe house — which might wind up being its only function, for all we know at the moment — is to serve as a permanent drop box. That means a place where information can be passed on. Or along.”

“Or along…” Steph nodded. “In other words, your — should I call it the ‘now-developed team’? — will actually be at least two teams. Maybe more. And you need them to be able to stay in touch without actually being in touch.”

“Ah… well, yes.”

A voice came into the room, from a hidden speaker somewhere.

“This is cumbersome,” the voice said. “Ms. Turner, are you in or out?”

“Who are you?”

“Who the hell are you?”

The first question came from Steph; the other from Andrew. Both of them were looking around the conference room, trying to spot the source of the voice.

“That doesn’t matter right now,” the voice said.

“Do you recognize that voice?” Steph asked Andrew quietly.

He shook his head. “Nobody I know. But it’s someone from the Traccora system, I’m pretty sure. We had a slaver crew come through Parmley Station from there once. The accent’s pretty distinctive.”

“In or out, Ms. Turner?” the voice repeated. “There are security issues involved. If the answer is ‘in,’ we’ll continue. If it’s ‘out,’ we thank you for your assistance — it’s really been quite helpful — and bid you farewell with our good wishes.”

“That’s it, then,” said Andrew, sounding relieved. He rose to his feet again. “Let’s go, Steph.”

But she made no move to rise. “If I go, what happens to Nancy?”

Both Kham and the unseen voice started to speak but Berry interrupted.

“Shut up, both of you.” She gave Steph a very direct gaze. “I will take care of her until you get back. Or if you don’t come back at all. Whatever Nancy needs and for however long those needs might last.”

She didn’t add I swear or I promise or any other such phrase. She didn’t need to.

Kham now spoke. “Beowulf will assume all costs of your daughter’s education, Ms. Turner. I assure you — “

“Hush. I knew that the moment you advanced the proposal. The one thing you people aren’t is stingy. But that’s not what I needed to know. If I get killed on this mission — and don’t waste time telling me it can’t happen, because it’s Mesa we’re talking about — then Nancy‘s lost the only family she has. She needs people more than money.”

She and Berry looked at each other for a bit longer. Then Steph nodded. “Okay, I’m in.”

“Steph!”

She turned to Andrew. “I hate those people, Andrew. You have no understanding of how deep that hate runs. You just don’t. You and your folk had it rough on Parmley — rougher than I did, in some ways — but you were always you. You always had pride. You weren’t defined by other people. People who despised you and made sure you knew it for as far back as you could remember and who rubbed your face in it every chance they got and if you protested or argued — even looked at them cross-eyed — they’d beat you or kill you. And do it with impunity.”

She took another deep breath. “They just lost that impunity. I didn’t realize it at first, when we got off Mesa. Not at all, those months we drifted in space in the Hali Sowle. But after we got to Torch and I saw that new world being created…”

Andrew opened his mouth; then, closed it. Then, rubbed his face.

“I guess I’m a little old to discover patriotism,” Steph said. “Or maybe that’s just giving myself airs and this is really nothing more than a primitive desire for vengeance. I don’t care. The stinking bastards finally lost their impunity. And now somebody is getting ready to drive in the blade and I want my hand on the hilt too.”

She looked away from him and up at the wall. “That’s you, isn’t it, Victor? And Anton’s with you?”

“In or out, Ms. Turner?” the voice said. “You understand that if the answer is ‘in’ and you later change your mind we’ll have to sequester you until the mission is completed?”

“I thought you’d say ‘we’ll have to cut your throat.'”

“Why would we do that?” The voice sounded genuinely puzzled. “No point in it.”

Steph laughed. “I knew it! It’s Victor. Yes, I’m in.”

Andrew puffed out his cheeks. “Well. Me too, then.” He pointed an accusing finger at the wall. “Don’t argue with me, Victor! I’m coming too, it’s settled. And how the hell did you get rid of that godawful Nouveau Paris accent?”

“Why would I argue with you? I can think of at least two ways you could be very useful, just off the top of my head. Yes, it’s Victor. Berry, Ruth, Henry — show them in, please. Anton finally woke up. Thandi and Yana are climbing the walls. They don’t handle tedium well.”

There was a brief pause, perhaps two seconds, and the voice continued. “Yana says she votes for the boutique. Thandi won’t come right out and say it but she obviously does too. I have almost no idea what you’re talking about and Anton’s already looking bored but I think it’s probably a brilliant idea. Come on it and we’ll pursue it further.”

Berry and Ruth rose from the table. Kham followed them after pulling out his com and keying in some instructions.

One of the walls of the conference room began sliding aside. Beyond, Steph and Andrew could see a corridor. It looked like a hospital corridor, for whatever undefinable reason.

****

“It’s quite cunning, actually,” Victor said, sticking a finger against his throat. “It’s a nanotech method. They do something to my vocal cords and fiddle with the laryngeal nerve. Don’t ask me the details because I don’t have a clue. And, voila, my Nouveau Paris accent that I could never get rid of — it was always my one big weakness as a spy — is transformed into a Traccoran accent.”

“I hate it,” said Thandi, who was lying on a bed next to him. “I don’t mind his new body. But that new voice of his…”

Victor’s physique hadn’t changed much. There’d been no reason to change it since it had been quite normal. But his face was completely different. He was a very handsome man, now, in a slightly androgynous way. Dark eyes were now a bright, pale green; dark coarse hair cut short was now a fancy blond hair style. Combine that with the new voice and there wasn’t a trace left of Victor Cachat.

Anton… looked pretty much as he had before. Oh, his face had been completely changed, but he still had the same short, squat and extremely powerful physique.

Andrew Artlett frowned. “I don’t get it. What’s the point of leaving your body the same? No offense, but there aren’t too many people who’re built like that.”

Zilwicki got a sour expression on his face and pointed at Victor. “Blame him. I was supposed to get redesigned as a Hakim grandee, but –“

“That idea was a non-starter,” said Victor, “once we realized that the only way to disguise him would be to make him so fat he’d look like a beach ball. So fat, in fact, that he’d face real health issues. What was far more important than that –“

“Minor issues of my life span and morbidity, that is,” said Anton. Sourly. ” — was that he’d be so corpulent he’d have a hard time moving quickly in case he needed to. Which, on this mission, is not unlikely. So…”

Victor crossed one hand over the other. “The original plan was for Anton to go in as a Hakim grandee with Yana as his servant. I suggested we swap the roles. Now Yana isthe rich bigwig and squatty here” — a thumb indicated Anton — “is the menial servant. Hakim’s got a big mining industry so they use a lot of modified heavy labor slaves. Look just like him, in fact.”

“He doesn’t have a slave marker on his tongue,” objected Steph.

“That’s not really necessary,” said Anton. “Hakim — this is about its only saving grace — is pretty easy-going about manumission. By now, there are quite a few descendants of ex-slaves around.”

Cachat turned his head toward an open door to the side. “Yana, stop sulking in there. You’ve got to show yourself sooner or later.”

“Screw you. This was your idea. I plan to hold that grudge the rest of my life.”

Yana Tretiakovna came into the room. She moved with a somewhat mincing gait, quite unlike her usual athletic stride.

The reason was… obvious. Steph smiled. Artlett grinned.

“Don’t. Say. Anything,” warned Yana. She glared down at her new bosom. Her very, very impressive new bosom.

“Mind you, it’s likely to be a short life,” she said. “I’m bound to topple over and kill myself the moment I get distracted.”

“It’s a status symbol in a number of Verge cultures,” Kham elaborated. “And the wealthier you are, the — ah — more voluptuous you are.”

Steph and Andrew studied Yana a bit longer.

“So what do we call you now?” Andrew asked. “Midas?”