Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 35 

“You’re what, Ayako? Twenty-two? Twenty-three?”


“You’ve still got a few years, then. Have you started thinking about prolong?”

She shrugged. “Can’t afford it.”

“Yeah. It’s not cheap.”

“How about you? Or are you already too old?”

Supakrit got up and went over to the coffee maker. After pouring himself another cup, he came back to the table. He used the time to make a decision.

A very easy decision to make, as it turned out.

After he sat down, he said: “That’s one of the reasons I enlisted in the Marines. Prolong’s expensive for an individual, but governments…” He smiled at her. “The magic of taxes, you understand. Actually, Torch probably gets as much money from export tariffs as it does from taxes, but the principle’s the same.”

“What principle?”

“The principle — one of the first ones they set up, in fact — that if you enlist in the armed forces the government of Torch will pick up the tab for your prolong treatments. I did it just in the nick of time.” He blew on the coffee. “I’m thirty, if you’re wondering.”

Ayako scowled. “Supakrit, I really don’t think I’d do well in the military.”

“Neither do I,” he said, still smiling. “Issues of impulse control.”

“Hey! The guy had it coming!”

“I’m not denying it. As impulses go, that one was understandable. Even admirable, if you look it from the right angle. Which I did and do, by the way. But you’re still probably not self-disciplined enough to like the military. Maybe the Navy, but sure as hell not the Marines.”

He drank some of the coffee. Half the cup, actually. Bracing himself. The decision had come easily but implementing it was…

Hard. He’d been a slave for two-thirds of his life.

“There’s a family provision to that principle, Ayako. Spouses and children are also covered if you enlist. And the coverage lasts as long as you’re in the service, so you if you get married afterward…”

He couldn’t quite finish that thought, so he went off on a tangent. “You can petition to have parents and siblings covered too. I’m told they usually grant the petition but…” His expression hardened. “How many ex-slaves have parents and siblings? Or know where they are, if they do.”

Ayako stared at him. Then said abruptly: “Are you proposing to me?”

“Yes. I am.” Supakrit held up his hand. “Look, it can just be a formality. Nobody’s going to stick their nose into our sex life.”

“Shut up. What a jerk. But I’m not. Yes.”

Now it was the corporal’s turn to stare. “Yes… what?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m marrying a moron. Yes, I will marry you. What the hell did you think ‘yes’ meant?”

She rose and held out her hand. “Come on. We’ll settle the rest of it right now. I’ve got a private room and you don’t so we’ll use mine. I’m not getting laid in a barracks. Forget that stupid coffee. I guarantee you I taste way better than it does.”

But they’d only taken two steps toward the door when the com in the mess room started blaring.

All personnel assigned to Operation Serket Breach, report immediately to Launch Bay Sigma Nine. The mission will depart Parmley Station at sixteen hundred hours.”

Simultaneously, Supakrit and Ayako looked at their watches.

“Hell’s bells,” he said.

“There ain’t no justice at all,” she agreed. “You better go. Just make sure you come back in one piece, okay?”

They did have time for a kiss, at least.


After he left, not knowing what else to do with herself, Ayako wound up making her way into Parmley Station’s control center. She didn’t have any official clearance to be there, but she’d already learned that BSC personnel were willing to bend the rules if they thought there was a good reason to do so.

She figured her reason was as good as it got. So she didn’t wait for anyone to challenge her. As soon as she entered she made her way toward the big tactical plot in the middle of the chamber. She’d never been inside the control center, but the tactical plot was obviously what she wanted. She’d had it described to her before. It was very similar, apparently, to the ones used by starships.

“I just got married — well, agreed to, anyway — and then you — you” — she managed enough impulse control to choke down the pejorative that had been about to emerge — “bad people yanked my fiancé off to go play Marine somewhere.”

Plaintively, she added: “I don’t even know where he’s going because you — you — obsessive-compulsive motherfu — really bad people are maniacs about so-called security and who would I tell anyway? It’s just stupid.”

The five people in the center stared at her. Two of them were obviously Torches and two were just as obviously Beowulfers. She wasn’t sure about the guy doing something at a console against the far wall. (Or what that called a bulkhead? Ayako wasn’t sure.)

“Who are you?” one of the Beowulfers asked. He was one of the three people monitoring the tactical plot.

“And what are you doing here?” asked the man standing next to him. He was one of the Torches, as was the third person working at the tactical plot. She was the only one Ayako recognized, although she wasn’t sure of the woman’s name. Alexia… something.

“I told you. I just got married and my brand-new husband — okay, fine, be anal-retentive about it; my to-be-husband — is on that ship.” She pointed at the tactical plot, which to her just looked like an immense kaleidoscope. “Whichever one it is. In that thing.”

“The Hali Sowle?” That was asked by the other Beowulfer, a woman sitting at a console nearby.

“Yeah, that’s it.”

The male Torch at the tactical plot was now looking belligerent. “You can’t just — “

“Ease up, Liam,” said the Beowulfer next to him. “This might be quite charming — and the universe needs as much charm as it can get, these days.”

To Ayako he said: “I take it your husband — past, present or future, we’ll worry about that later — is one of the Marines or naval personnel aboard the Hali Sowle. What’s his name?”

“Supakrit. Corporal Supakrit X. Royal Marines.”

“Check that, would you, Magda?”

The Beowulfer female at the console worked the board for a few seconds and then studied the screen.

“Yeah, he’s there. One of the Marines assigned to the mission.”

“Hey!” protested the Torch named Liam. “Security!”

“Give it a rest, will you?” Magda was still examining the screen. “What’s she going to do? Grow Warshawski sails and fly herself to give warning to whoever you might notice I didn’t actually specify?”

She tapped the screen and looked up at Ayako. “What’s really interesting is that Corporal Supakrit is listed in the rolls as being single.”

Liam glared at Ayako. “So she’s lying.”

“Fuck you. Me and Supakrit just got married. Well, decided to. About two seconds before you assho — bad people — told him he had to report to launch bay whatzit.”

“That order was actually given by Colonel Anderson, not us,” said the woman Ayako thought was named Alexia. Her tone was mild, and seemed a bit amused. “We’re just in charge of traffic and such.”

The Beowulfer at the tactical plot grinned. “Like I said, charming. Just got hitched, huh? Well, come over here and I’ll show you where your future husband is. I’m Bill Jokela. What’s your name?”

“Takahashi Ayako. Call me Ayako.” Ignoring the glare still coming from Liam, Ayako came up to stand beside Jokela. Up close, the tactical plot looked more like a kaleidoscope than ever.

Jokela pointed to one of the symbols in the plot. It was colored a bright green. “This is the Hali Sowle. They’ve already left Parmley, but they’re still a good fifteen light minutes from the hyper limit. So they won’t be making their alpha translation for another — “

“Their what?”

Jokela paused and gave her a considering look. Then, gave the same look to the movements in the tactical plot.

“What the hell, we’ve got time,” he said. “An introduction to basic astrogation. Pay attention, Takahashi Ayako. Who knows? You might want to make a career out of it.”