Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 37 

Chapter 22

Ruth Winton barked a sarcastic laugh. “Will you look at that? The only time in recorded history — we’re talking a good two thousand years — when the Talking Heads on a vid news program had their tongues tied.”

It was true enough. The panel of guests on tonight’s special edition of Yael Underwood’s The Star Empire Today were all staring at the huge screen behind them. They’d just spent the last few minutes swiveled in their seats, watching the recorded footage of the gunfight in the subterranean depths of Chicago‘s Old Quarter that had triggered off the Manpower Incident years earlier.

It hadn’t, actually. The conflict that ended with the killing by Manpower-hired mercenaries of General Raphael Durkheim, Haven’s StateSec chief in the Solarian League’s capital, and the subsequent destruction of Manpower Inc.’s headquarters in the same city by a retaliatory force sent by the Audubon Ballroom had actually been months in the making. But the general public — anywhere; on Haven as well as Terra, or Manticore — had never known more than the basic facts involved. And not all of those, and especially not the names of the key players who’d never been identified by the media, which was most of them.

First and foremost among those previously unidentified key players was the man sitting next to Ruth at that moment. Victor Cachat, who’d wreaked most of the havoc in the scene that had just been played out on a screen for the Talking Heads of Underwood’s show. A screen, of course, that had also been watched by…

“What’s the count now, Ruth?” asked Anton Zilwicki. He was seated next to Cathy Montaigne on another couch in the salon of the genetic treatment center.

Ruth glanced down at the com in her hand. “Two hundred and seventy-three million viewers as of this moment, but…” She paused for a few seconds. “It’s climbing fast. Word’s spreading, obviously. By the time the replays are counted, we’ll be looking at somewhere between one and two billion people. That’s just here in the Manticore System itself. Once the recording gets shipped to the rest of the Star Empire, Haven, Beowulf, and who knows where else, the number will start getting called ‘astronomical.'”

She tapped the com screen a couple of times. “Yeah, what I figured. “They’re already calling it the third-most-watched news show in a decade. We’re in territory that’s usually only inhabited by championship sporting events.”

The stunned silence of the Talking Heads had been brief, of course. They were already jabbering away again.

“– why Captain Zilwicki trusts him so much, which has always been a mystery. What’s still unclear —

“– think it’s now blindingly obvious —

“– can’t say it too many times. We have no reason — none, at, all — to suddenly place our trust in Cachat. If anything, his now-proven extraordinary savagery — “

“– was dealing with the worst sort of StateSec killers and sociopathic so-called ‘super-soldiers’ left over from the Final War. Of course he was savage! What do you propose he should have done, Charlene? Give them a lecture? Or do you —


Sitting on the other side of Victor from Ruth, Thandi tuned it all out. She was still trying to process the experience herself. She’d known of the gunfight in the Old Quarter, but this was the first time she’d seen the recording of the event.

It wasn’t the brutality of the killing that she found startling. Nor was it even Victor’s ruthlessness and the skill he’d shown at killing so many people in such a short time.

Being completely objective about it, Thandi knew that if she’d been in Victor’s place in that half-crumbling cavern in the ancient catacombs of Chicago, the killings would have happened even faster and more surely.

Victor probably would have died there, except that Jeremy X intervened at the end. The surviving Scrags — there’d been three of them completely unwounded and another three injured but not out of action, had all been bringing their weapons to bear on Victor when Jeremy’s pistol fusillade started taking them down.

Thandi wouldn’t have needed Jeremy. She was bigger than Victor, stronger than Victor, faster than Victor, a better shot with any kind of projectile weapon than Victor — there was no comparison at all between their respective skills fighting unarmed or with hand weapons — and she’d spent her whole adult life training constantly for exactly this sort of combat.

But… at that age? With no combat experience at all and only the rudimentary training Victor would have received at the StateSec academy and what he’d taught himself later in simulators?

Impossible. If Thandi Palane had been in Victor’s position at such a young age and with his level of actual combat experience — which was to say, none at all…

There and then…

The only reason Victor had survived — no, triumphed — was because of the man’s nature. His psychology, so to speak. Even then, as raw as any newly minted young officer and only in his early twenties, he’d been a natural killer. And a superb one, an outlier at the very edge of human potential. If that had been Thandi herself down in that cavern, she’d have been dead after taking down one or two — maybe three — of her opponents.

She knew of no one that wouldn’t be true of. Not one person.

Except the man she slept with every night, whenever they could.

She felt a warm glow in her heart, then, and reached out to take Victor’s hand. That was probably not the reaction most lovers would have had, but they hadn’t been born and raised on Ndebele.

She gave the hand a squeeze, and when he glanced at her, a warm smile.

A very warm smile. They’d finally finished the genetic sheathing and the nanotech body transformations were far enough along for Thandi to have gotten used to her new body and Victor’s.

Well enough, anyway. Buster, you are so getting laid tonight.