Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 36 

Chapter 21

“Zachariah McBryde?”

Zachariah turned around to face the speaker, being careful not to spill his coffee. He had a bad habit of over-filling the mug, which could make walking back to his laboratory an exercise in finicky precision that almost matched the demands of his actual job.

Two men stood there, he discovered. Both were wearing severely utilitarian jumpsuits with nameplates over the left pockets — the one on the left was A. Zhilov; the one on the right, S. Arpino — and both had the elaborate security badges given to visitors draped over their chests with lanyards.

“Yes?” he said.

The one named Zhilov nodded stiffly. “Come with us, McBryde.” He turned over the badge in order to show the identification on the other side, which was a hologram depicting himself and the legend Agent, GAUL.

Zachariah tried not to let his sudden apprehension show on his face. The Genetic Advancement and Uplift League — the “Gauls,” to use the nickname that was sometimes used (though never in front of them) — served the inner layers of the onion as a special security force.

Which explained Zachariah’s tension. The most common use the Alignment leadership had for the Gauls was as what you might call enforcers.

“The preferred term for that is ‘internal disciplinarians,’ you understand,” Zachariah’s brother Jack had once told him. Jack had been smiling when he made the quip, but there been very little humor in the smile. Like most of the Alignment’s professional security people, he hadn’t had much use for the Gauls.

The tension shifted into anger. “How many times do we have to go through this rigmarole?” he demanded. “I’ve told you everything I know about my brother already — at least five times over. There isn’t anything else. Trust me. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. I have no idea why Jack did what he did.”

If he did it at all, which I don’t believe for a minute.

Zhilov frowned. “I have no knowledge of what you are talking about. Your family affairs do not concern us.”

He turned his head to give the man next to him a quizzical look. “Do they?”

His partner Arpino was consulting a small tablet. “There is mention here of a brother by the name of Jack McBryde, who is deceased. But that has no bearing on our mission, so far as I can see.”

“As I thought.” Zhilov turned back to Zachariah. “Come with us, please.”

Now puzzled, Zachariah felt his anger fading — but only to be replaced by annoyance. Come with us! As if he was some sort of servant.

He took a sip of his coffee. Partly to stall; partly because if he did wind up having to go with them somewhere, he wanted to keep the coffee-spilling to a minimum. The janitor ‘bots wouldn’t complain, of course, but it was good coffee.

His brother Jack had once referred to the Gauls as goons. He’d gotten close-mouthed right afterward. Zachariah had gotten the impression that Jack had let that slip inadvertently.

He hadn’t pressed Jack on the matter. He and his brother were both very far inside the onion, but they had different specialties. In some respects, Jack had had a higher security clearance than Zachariah did; in other respects, the situation was reversed. They were very close, probably more than most brothers were, but they were also careful not to intrude on each other’s preserves.

He was tempted to try stonewalling the Gauls, but he knew that sooner or later he’d have to give in. They wouldn’t have come looking for him if they hadn’t had the authority to do so. They also had a reputation for rigidly following orders. They weren’t stupid, certainly. No one that far into the onion lacked intelligence. But they didn’t seem to have much in the way of imagination — and even less in the way of empathy.

“Fine. We’ll go. Where are you taking me?”

No answer came. The Gauls just turned and headed down the corridor, with Zachariah in their wake.


When the two Gauls ushered him into a room buried in one of the wings of the Science Center’s labyrinthine administration building, the first person Zachariah saw was Anastasia Chernevsky. She was sitting at the end of a conference table in the middle of the room.

Zachariah was relieved to see her. For all his outward nonchalance dealing with the two Gauls, he’d been worried — and had grown more so when they left the science labs and headed for the admin building. He hardly ever went over there and couldn’t imagine a reason the Gauls would be taking him to it unless…

Unless what? The fact that Zhilov and Arpino had denied knowing anything about Jack would lead to the conclusion that at least he wasn’t facing another inquisition over his brother’s purported treason. But why else would…

Zachariah didn’t like uncertainty, other than the frisson of awaiting the results of a lab experiment.

Now, seeing Chernevsky, he relaxed a bit. The uncertainty was still there, because he had no more idea why she’d be present than he was himself. But he and Anastasia got along well and always had. They weren’t exactly friends, since as his supervisor she maintained a certain distance. But their personal interactions had always been pleasant and they respected each other professionally.

The point being that Zachariah couldn’t imagine she’d have agreed to participate in yet another interrogation of him by security people on the subject of his brother Jack. Why would she? She’d have nothing to contribute and would find the whole business distasteful at the very least. Unlike Zachariah himself, he didn’t think Anastasia questioned the official line that Jack had committed treason. But he was sure that she didn’t think Zachariah had been involved, in whatever had really happened.

“Hi, Anastasia. Fancy meeting you here.”

She gave him a quick, almost fleeting smile. Then, motioned to a chair at the end of the table she was sitting at. “Have a seat.”

He did so. He was now sitting at a right angle to her. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that Zhilov and Arpino had taken positions on either side of the door he’d just come through. They weren’t exactly standing at attention, but they came pretty close. Zachariah had a feeling the Gauls came pretty close to standing at attention even in a shower. The Genetic Advancement and Uplift League was nothing if not rigid.

“What are we — “

Chernevsky held up a cautioning hand. “Just wait a bit, Zachariah. She should be coming — “

The door behind her swung open and a woman came through. Zachariah recognized her although they’d never spoken to each other. She was high up in the inner onion and most likely in security.

Well… not “security” in the same sense that his brother Jack had been. Zachariah didn’t know anything specific about his brother’s work. He and Jack had been very careful to steer clear of that subject — just as they’d avoided discussing the exact nature of Zachariah’s job. But from various things Jack had let slip, Zachariah knew that the essential nature of his work had been what you might call “defensive.” To put it another way, Jack McBryde had been one of the Mesan Alignment’s top guardians.

The person he’d reported to, though, Isobel Bardasano, had been…

Different. If his brother Jack had been the human analog of a watchdog, Bardasano had been a wolf. Of that, Zachariah had been quite sure.

He’d only met Bardasano twice, and on both occasions the contact was brief. He remembered her quite vividly, though. She was a striking person in her appearance. Intense, in demeanor — and covered with flashy tattoos and body piercings.

This woman had the same casually arrogant, predatory air about her, although she had nothing visible in the way of tattoos or body piercings. Not even earrings.

He wondered if she was Bardasano’s replacement. After the destruction of Gamma Center, Bardasano had disappeared. Zachariah had no idea what had become of her. It was conceivable that she’d even been executed. The Alignment didn’t use the death penalty very often; not, at least, with people in the inner layers of the onion. And when it was used, it was kept very quiet. But it wasn’t inconceivable that even someone as high up as Bardasano might have suffered the ultimate penalty in punishment for the disaster at Gamma Center. Zachariah was sure that the now-almost-universal belief within the Alignment’s innermost core that the explosion had been caused by his brother was nonsense. But whatever had really happened, Bardasano had to have been involved in it up to her neck.

Which is where she might have finally ended up — to her neck, and no further.

The woman pulled out a chair across from Zachariah and sat down. “I’m Janice Marinescu. Nice to meet you and all that, but let’s not waste time. You’re familiar with the plans for Operation Houdini.”

That was a statement, not a question. But Marinescu paused and gave Zachariah a level stare. Apparently, for whatever reason, she wanted him to affirm that he was familiar with Houdini.

Cautiously, he nodded. “Yes, I am. Why?”

“Because it’s being implemented. The political situation is unfolding rapidly now and we don’t want to take the chance that someone might take advantage of the situation — “

Someone might take advantage…Zachariah was tempted to say “Why don’t you come right out and use the name Manticore, which is what you know and I know we’re talking about?”

But, he didn’t. The tension was back in full force. Something…

Had gone pear-shaped. Or, at least, the powers-that-were in the very innermost circles were worried that it might be going pear-shaped soon.

“– so you’ll be in the third departure division. You and” — Marinescu nodded at Anastasia — “Chief Scientist Chernevsky. Although you might not be evacuated via the same route.”

Zachariah took a deep breath. That explained the presence of the Gauls. Houdini was going to tear a lot of families apart. Including his own. The authorities were seeing to it that anyone slated for Houdini who got cold feet or second thoughts would have…


He decided to think of them that way. And never mind that the chaperones undoubtedly had orders to permanently silence anyone who got too recalcitrant.

Being completely cold-blooded about it, Zachariah understood the logic. The whole purpose of Houdini was to remove anyone from Mesa who could reveal anything about the onion’s inner layers and inner workings. They either left the planet by evacuation or they left it by shuffling off their mortal coil.

There was no third alternative. Houdini had always been just a possibility, and one he’d never spent much time dwelling on. Now it was here. For real. As serious as the proverbial heart attack.

Zachariah felt a sharp, almost agonizing, pain in his chest, as if he were actually having a heart attack.

He wasn’t. He was just facing the prospect — the now certain prospect — that within a short time he’d lose his entire family. Part of the reason he’d never dwelt on Houdini in the past was that his brother Jack had also been slated for evacuation. So whatever happened, he’d still have one sibling.

Now…  nothing. No one.

He’d be leaving his girlfriend Veronica behind too, but that wasn’t cause for more than regret. The relationship wasn’t really all that serious.

The worst of it, in some ways, was that he couldn’t even say anything to his family. The seriousness with which the Alignment took Houdini had been emphasized again and again and again. Nobody could be left behind on Mesa who knew anything important.

Which meant that if Zachariah did mention anything to his family — any member of it, just one — and the authorities found out, his whole family would be destroyed.

He took a deep, shuddering breath. Anastasia reached out and put her hand on his. Then, gave it a gentle squeeze.

She’d be leaving people behind too. He wasn’t sure who, exactly. But her husband was probably one of them. Filiberto Chernevsky had a responsible position in Mesa‘s government, even a rather prestigious one. But no one in Mesa‘s formal government — well, very few people, at least — were anywhere close to the inner layers of the onion.

“How soon?” he asked Marinescu. Her only response was that same flat-eyed level stare.