Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 34 

Chapter 20

Corporal Supakrit X set one of the two cups he was holding in front of Takahashi Ayako. Then, pulled out a chair and sat down at the table across from her. He blew on the coffee in his own cup while studying her. The young woman looked awfully gloomy for someone who’d recently been freed from slavery.

He thought he knew the reason, though. Uncertainty about the future — more precisely, uncertainty about one’s proper course of action with regard to that future — always trumped satisfaction about the past. And while he didn’t know Ayako all that well, yet — a situation he had every intention of changing as rapidly and as extensively as possible — he was pretty sure she was one of those people who defended themselves against the risk of having a bad outcome by assuming the worst was bound to happen anyway.

It was a syndrome he recognized quite easily. He’d had it himself back in the days he’d been one of Manpower’s slaves. Optimism was not a wise sentiment for chattel.

“You could join the Ballroom,” he said.

Ayako made a face. “And do what? Just because I killed that one shithead — the guy raped me; it was personal — doesn’t mean I’m a homicidal maniac.”

Supakrit placed his hand over his heart. “I’m hurt! Hurt! I was one of those homicidal maniacs myself, you know.” He took a sip from the cup. “Pretty damn good at it, too.”

Ayako gave him a derisive look. “Was? And just what do you think you are now, Corporal Mayhem? A philanthropist?”

He smiled. “But now I do mayhem in a uniform. Makes all the difference in the world. When I killed people retail, I was a terrorist. Now that I kill ’em wholesale, I’m a stalwart soldier. Get medals for it and everything.”

“You have a medal?” Ayako’s tone was skeptical.

“Well, no. General Palane’s an old school Marine. She doesn’t believe in handing out medals like candy the way the Solarian Navy does. I was coming up for a Good Conduct Medal but…” He grinned at her. “I figure you’re to blame for that.”

“Ha!”

“The point is, now that I’m an of-fi-cial soldier, I can get a medal. As a Ballroom guy, the only thing I qualified for was a wanted poster.”

“They haven’t made wanted posters in over a millennia.”

“Fine. Wanted e-poster. I did get one of those.”

“For what?” She waved the question away. “Never mind, I don’t want to know. I’m still trying to hold onto my image of you as a nice guy even if it’s getting pretty tattered.”

For the first time, she drank from her cup. “This stuff is crap,” she pronounced.

“It’s Marine coffee. There are rules, you know. Navy coffee has to be good but Marine coffee has to be terrible. Anybody who brews good coffee gets busted a rank. Two offenses in a year puts you in the brig.”

There was a companionable silence for a moment. Then, Ayako sighed and shook her head. “I don’t think I want to join the Ballroom.”

“I don’t recommend it myself, as a matter of fact.” He made a gesture, indicating his uniform. “There’s a reason I quit and joined the Marines. The Ballroom… Well, let’s just say they’re going through an identity crisis. It ain’t pretty to watch, believe me.”

“Really?”

“Well, yeah, sure. The Ballroom’s whole purpose pretty much got the legs cut out from under it once Torch was created. It didn’t help any that Jeremy quit also, of course. But even if he’d stayed in charge I think the Ballroom would be having a rough time.”

He drained the coffee out of his cup. “What do they do now? Keep shooting slavers one at a time? Or in small batches, at best? Even with explosives they can’t do as much damage as a warship or a Marine battalion.”

“They could with nuclear weapons.”

“Jeremy always ruled that out. Chemical and biological weapons too.” Supakrit shook his head. “Logically, it might not make a lot of sense. What the hell, dead is dead, right? But people just don’t react the same way when you use weapons that are completely indiscriminate. Jeremy never even let us use conventional explosives on anything but legitimate targets.”

“Legitimate to who?”

The corporal chuckled. “Always a point in dispute, granted. But we blew up Manpower offices and headquarters, we didn’t blow up restaurants and apartment buildings just because there might be some scorpions caught in the mix.”

“So what will they do now?” she asked.

“Don’t know. And since I didn’t want to stick around long enough to find out, I joined the Marines as soon as they started recruiting.” Supakrit paused for a moment, thinking. “I figure they’ll wind up doing one of two things. The dumb thing to do would be to keep up the terror campaign. The smart thing would be to dissolve the Ballroom and reconstitute it as a political party.”

Political party? I thought Torch didn’t have any.”

The corporal clucked his tongue. “Boy, are you a babe in the woods. Officially, no. We have what’s called a ‘grand coalition’ in charge. But that won’t — can’t — last forever. I don’t give it more than two or three years, myself. Sooner or later, formal factions will crystallize. That’s what parties are, you know? Just a fancy way of saying ‘we agree with each other and you guys are full of crap.'”

“How many?”

“I figure at least three. The Ballroom types — especially if they have enough sense to get rid of the Ballroom altogether. The people who generally agree with DuHavel. And I’d be surprised if a third party doesn’t emerge also. There’re always some people in any society who are just naturally conservative and they’ll eventually want their own spokespeople.”

“I thought DuHavel was the conservative on Torch.”

Supakrit laughed. “Only by a Ballroom definition of ‘conservative’ — and not even most of my former comrades really think of Web that way. I’m sure Jeremy doesn’t any longer, if he ever did.” He made a wagging motion with his hand. “Here on Torch, DuHavel ranks as what you might call a centrist. Anywhere else in the galaxy except maybe Haven he’d be considered a flaming radical. Well, maybe not flaming. But radical, yes.”

He paused and gave her a sideways look. “You interested in politics?”

“Not especially.”

“Well, that’s out too, then. So. No Ballroom for you. No smoke-filled back room either.”

“Why would a back room — any room — be full of smoke? And if it was, why wouldn’t everyone get out?”

“And your possible budding career as an historian gets cut short too.”

She squinted at him. “Are you making fun of me?”

“Actually, no. I’m not. I’m just trying to help you figure out what to do with your life.” He held up his empty cup. “More coffee?”

“I don’t think I can even finish this one. Supakrit…”

“Yes?”

She was silent for a few seconds, staring down at the table top. Then said, in a much softer tone than usual: “I don’t know what I want to do with my life. Before the last few weeks — you were a slave; you know how it is — I didn’t think about the future at all.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“I stayed away from getting close to anyone, too. You know.”

Supakrit nodded. He knew what she was talking about very well. Better than he wished he did. As a teenager he’d made the mistake of falling in love with another slave. There’d been a few wonderful months and then… She was taken away. He had no idea where. Not then, not now. He’d never seen her again. Had no idea if she was still alive — and knew he almost certainly never would know.

He’d always understood the limits Jeremy X placed on the Ballroom’s tactics. Understood — and agreed. But that was just tactics. Emotionally…

If Supakrit X could round up everyone in the galaxy associated with Manpower — okay, leave out the janitors and such — and throw them into a black hole, he’d do it without blinking. And then spend eternity listening to them scream. (Or was it the other way around? For them, it would be eternity. For him, just a few seconds. He could never remember.)

Of course, people didn’t live that long, not even ones who’d gotten prolong. Speaking of which…