Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 42 

Chapter 24

“Just what I always wanted,” Yana Tretiakovna said sardonically, gazing at the detailed holograph floating before her. “My very own starship.” She paused for a moment, head cocked, then frowned. “It’s smaller than I thought it would be, though. Is this the compact version?”

Her appearance had changed radically, shifting from a Slavic to an East Asian template and becoming increasingly voluptuous. The process wasn’t complete, but it was close enough for her to begin the necessary therapy to adjust for her . . . rearranged (and considerably more top-heavy) physique, and she was not pleased by the discomfort level that her new physique imposed as she grimly jogged on the gymnasium’s treadmill every day. That was probably the real reason she’d been so enthusiastic about taking a break from that strenuous exercise routine, Anton Zilwicki thought.

Of course, the fact that she was thoroughly pissed off that he’d required so little in the way of alterations and virtually no PT or specialized exercise programs suggested it might be . . . unwise of him to twit her over her enthusiasm. On the other hand, he’d loyally spent his gym time right beside his new partner, since his own idea of a “mild workout” would have reduced half the galaxy’s professional bodybuilders to tears.

“It’s not actually your starship, you know,” he pointed out mildly. “I’m sure the BSC would like to get her back intact at the end of the day.”

“I’m not planning on breaking it,” she replied a bit snippily. “And it’s not like I’m really going to be the one in charge of this side of the operation, either. If memory serves, you’re the senior member of this team.”

“Nonsense! No Technician class worker from Hakim could possibly be senior to a Patrician like you. Your lightest whim is my command, Mistress. Within reason, of course.”

“Oh, of course!” Yana’s tone was sarcastic, but her eyes were thoughtful as she studied the lines of the sleek little starship’s image. “And speaking of handing ships back over intact, just how was the Survey Corps able to lay its hands on this one so promptly?”

“They didn’t.” Anton shrugged. “That is, they didn’t have to ‘lay hands’ on anything; they own the Brixton’s Comet outright, and have — according to Uncle Jacques — for over thirty T-years. They just didn’t get around to mentioning it to anyone.”

Yana smiled at Anton’s use of the we’re-less-than-totally-fond-of-him-but-he’s-not-all-that-bad nickname Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou had received from the small party of spies planning on sneaking onto the most dangerous planet in the galaxy. No one was quite certain how it had begun, although Yana suspected it stemmed from the conferences which both he and his formidable niece had attended in the Old Star Kingdom, but it had been Victor Cachat who’d first used it — completely deadpan — to Benton-Ramirez y Chou’s face. To his credit, the half-sized Beowulfer had simply gone right ahead with the abstruse point he’d been explaining at the time without so much as a blink. From his reaction and from what she knew about the BSC, Yana wouldn’t have been especially surprised to discover that some of his team members during his own time in Beowulf’s special forces had called him the same thing. Or something even more disrespectful, given the BSC’s informality in the field and just how well he’d performed there. It was the sort of backhanded compliment elite forces routinely paid to those they most respected. Whatever the reason, he seemed perfectly comfortable with it.

And it certainly took less time to say than his surname did.

“And just how sure are they that no one outside the BSC knows that they’ve owned her outright for years and years?” she asked.

“Fairly confident.” Anton shrugged again. “That’s about as good as it gets in this business, you know. They bought her — had her built, really, right here in the Hidalgo Yard — through about six layers of shell companies, and they’ve operated her on a lease basis ever since. And according to Uncle Jacques, she’s only been used twice in all that time for specific covert operations. They’ve actually earned back her construction costs several times over by now, all through legitimate leases, and she’s been leased so many times, by so many different lessees, that she has an absolutely ironclad history, no matter how deep anyone looks from the outside. About the only way anyone could consider her suspect would be for the ‘anyone’ in question to have someone deep enough inside the BSC to know all about her. And if they’ve got anyone that deep, we’re all screwed before we ever leave Beowulf, so I figure we might as well operate on the assumption that her identity’s at least as secure as ours are going to be.”

Yana considered that for a moment, then nodded. For all her often deliberately “lowbrow” public persona, the ex-Scrag was ferociously intelligent, and while her actual experience and skill set tended more towards focused mayhem than covert operations, she’d had enough experience operating with the duo of Cachat & Zilwicki to accept Anton’s analysis without too many qualms.

Now he manipulated the image, expanding it until they could make out the hull’s details.

“She’s a nice little ship, actually,” he pointed out with a connoisseur’s enthusiasm. “Only about forty-five thousand tons, of course, but in most ways she’s a lot like Duchess Harrington’s personal yacht, the Tankersley. She’s fitted up on a rather more luxurious scale than the Duchess ever considered necessary, and she doesn’t have accommodations for quite as many warm bodies, but the basic power plant and automation are virtually identical.”

“That’s good, considering how little I know about the guts of a starship,” Yana observed dryly. She was a skilled small craft pilot, at home behind the controls of anything from high-performance air-breathing atmospheric craft to heavy-lift cargo shuttles or an all-up armored assault shuttle, but all of that experience was strictly sub-light.

“Don’t worry,” Anton said reassuringly. “I know my way around a starship’s innards just fine, and this design incorporates so much automation — and so many multiply redundant backup systems — that the possibility of any sort of serious malfunction’s effectively nonexistent. And,” he added feelingly, “she’s not only one hell of a lot younger than Hali Sowle, but she’s been properly maintained for her entire life.”

“Well, that’s a relief. I’ve spent long enough drifting around playing cards for one lifetime, thank you very much.”

“Me, too.” Anton grinned. “And while we’re on the subject of reasons not to worry, the reason she’s got all that automation is that she was intended from the beginning to be operated by a two-person crew. It’s not like I’m going to need a lot of assistant engineers, and I’ll probably be able to find time in my arduous schedule to do any astrogating we need, as well”

“You get us there in one piece, and I’ll be happy,” Yana told him. Brixton’s Comet‘s normal-space controls were essentially little more than an upgraded and fancified version of a regular cargo shuttle. In fact, they were a bit simpler even than that, since the yacht had never been intended for atmospheric flight. Of course, there was the minor matter of the Visigoth Wormhole to consider. Which reminded her…

“You do realize that getting us there in one piece includes getting us through the damned wormhole, don’t you?” she asked.

“Between Visigoth’s traffic control, the ship’s computers, and my own odd few decades of naval service, I’m sure we’ll be able to limp through it somehow,” he assured her.

“Yeah, sure,” she agreed, eyes fixed on the holograph.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said in a rather more reassuring tone. “We’ll be fine at least as far as the transportation’s involved. And we’ll be a lot more comfortable than the others will.”