Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 44

Chapter 25

Cary Condor took off her hat and hung it on a peg next to the door. Like everything else in their apartment, the peg was an antique. It was a piece of actual wood, made from one of the trees called nackels that covered much of Mesa‘s lowlands. Nackelwood had no interesting grain; no aromatic odor; nothing. Its sole virtues were that it was readily available, easy to work and cheap.

It was a fairly common material used for furniture in seccie areas — but even in seccie areas most small items like clothing pegs were made of modern extrusile memory foams. As the hat drew near, the foam’s embedded sensorium would cause it to extrude as a peg shape, which it would withdraw once the object was removed. Using a wood peg, on the other hand…

The thing was rigid, fixed, immovable, an actual safety hazard. What if you slipped? You could lose an eye on the damn thing.

But that was admittedly far down the list of dangers they faced. So Cary didn’t give the peg more than a perfunctory scowl before hanging up her hat and turning to her companions.

Just one companion, as it turned out. Karen was still asleep.

“How is she?”

Stephanie was sitting at the small kitchen table. “No better — but no worse, either, from what I can tell. I think her condition may have stabilized, at least a little.”

Sighing, Cary pulled out a chair and joined Stephanie at the table. “What makes the whole thing so horrible is that if we could just get her some decent medical care…”

“We could heal her. Completely. New legs, new organs, the works. With modern medicine, it wouldn’t be that hard and not even too expensive.” She shrugged. “For all the good that does. We might as well wish for our own spacecraft and no-questions-asked orbit clearance, while we’re at it.”

Cary laughed. “And a pilot, don’t forget! Neither one of us knows a thing about operating spaceships.”

“Or even flyers, in your case,” said Stephanie. “Hell, I can barely manage to handle a simple flyer myself.”

Cary winced. She’d flown with Stephanie, once, with Stephanie at the controls.

Once. It was an experience she’d sworn never to repeat. Most seccies — Cary and Stephanie were no exception — had little experience operating equipment beyond whatever they might learn on a job. Most seccies who knew how to fly learned the skills as cabbies, personal valets or lorry drivers. Stephanie’s experience had come entirely from a few months she’d spent working for a restaurant as a parking attendant.

Cary hated Mesa‘s overlords. Manpower, Inc., the Jessyk Combine, any and all of them. She knew that David Pritchard’s detonation of the nuclear device at Green Pines had been tactically insane — not to mention suicidal for himself. But she’d never had any trouble understanding the emotions that had driven him to do it.

More than half of Mesa‘s population was kept in conditions of chattel slavery, without even the hope of manumission. The descendants of slaves who’d been freed centuries earlier when manumission had still been legal, seccies like Cary herself, lived in conditions that were better but only marginally so. Worse, actually, in material terms, more often than not. But unlike an outright slave, a seccie had a certain degree of personal freedom. Very circumscribed freedom, granted, but at least someone like Cary didn’t have to account to a master or mistress for everything they did or every step they took.

Her angry musings were interrupted by Stephanie. “Look, there’s no point chewing on ourselves over Karen’s situation. The truth is, we’re lucky any of us are still alive. Once David — and damn him again — set off that bomb, something like this was bound to happen.”

Cary couldn’t help but shiver. The weeks following the detonation at Green Pines had been…

Hideous. Mesa‘s security forces had gone berserk. They’d ripped through the seccie quarters like weasels set loose in a chicken coop. Their official rationale had been “rooting out terrorists,” but that had been an excuse — and one they didn’t care at all if anyone believed. They’d simply been wreaking vengeance.

Ironically, that very savagery was probably all that had kept Cary and Karen and Stephanie from being captured. The security forces had been so engrossed in random slaughter that they’d actually been a little lax in punishing real enemies.

So, keeping just half a step ahead of their pursuers, Cary and her two companions had managed to escape, although Karen had been terribly injured in the process. But the security forces had captured most of their former confederates.

They’d caught the leader of their group, Carl Hansen, within a few hours after Green Pines. His corpse, rather. Carl had committed suicide when he realized he had no chance of escape. If he hadn’t, the security thugs would have caught everyone. But Carl’s suicide bought the rest of them a little breathing space.

Cary didn’t know who else might have also escaped. Unfortunately, they couldn’t use the drop boxes to re-establish contact with any of them who’d done so. Angus Levigne had set up those locations, and he’d been insistent on keeping knowledge of them restricted to a small circle. The only ones in that circle who were still alive were the three women in that apartment.

A finger poked her shoulder. “Hey, snap out of it,” said Stephanie. “Whatever place you’re at right now, it’s not doing you any good. Let’s concentrate on the moment. Did you find out anything today?”

Cary realized that she had wandered off mentally. That happened to her a lot, just as the nightmares came to her almost every night. She knew she was suffering from a bad case of PTSD — which, like Karen’s injuries, was a medical condition that could be easily cured if she had access to the right treatment.

Sure. All she and Moriarty had to do was steal a flyer, hope that Stephanie wouldn’t kill them in a crash along the way, steal a shuttle at the spaceport that neither of them knew how to operate so they could reach orbit where they could steal a spacecraft neither of them knew how to operate so they could travel to a planet neither of them knew how to navigate to where they could get the medical assistance they needed from nobody they knew which they’d pay for with money they didn’t have.

The tough problem, of course, would be evading Mesa’s orbital defenses.

She couldn’t help but break into laughter. Genuine laughter, too, even if it was probably a bit hysterical.

“Well, the drop box had nothing, as usual. But I did meet that person you were told to look for.”

Stephanie’s lips tightened. “So, at least that…” She took a breath. “Wasn’t wasted.”

Stephanie had been the one who’d made the initial contact with the district’s criminal gang. Since they didn’t have any money to spare, she’d paid for the information they needed a different way.

It had been unpleasant, certainly, but no worse than anything they’d already been through. Both of them had spent time in the custody of the security forces, in the past, being interrogated. “Interrogation,” in the parlance of Mesa‘s security thugs, routinely included rape. That was almost invariably true for young women, usually true for young men, as likely as not for middle-aged people and not unheard of even in the case of the elderly.

Cary had gone through it twice. The worst of it, in a way, had been the bizarrely impersonal nature of the brutality. Her rapists had seemed to be acting out some sort of routine, as if what they were engaged in was just part of a job. It wasn’t simply that they treated her as slab of meat; so far as she could tell, they really didn’t see her as anything else. They might as well have been butchers working at their trade.

She shook her head, shaking away the memories at the same time. She could do it with those, because she’d been able to get psychological treatment afterward that had prevented the trauma from getting fixed into PTSD.

“Anyway, what you learned turned out to be true. I went to that bar he told you about.”

“The Rhodesian Rendezvous.”

“Yeah. Talk about a dive! That place is a little scary. Well, more than a little. The only people who seem to hang out there are roughnecks to a man — and I do mean man. I was the only woman in the place.”

She chuckled, very dryly. “For once, I was glad I don’t look like you.” Cary wasn’t unattractive. But she wasn’t nearly as good-looking as Moriarty.

For her part, Stephanie made a face. “Trust me, girl. Looking like me is as much of a curse as a blessing. Anyway, what happened then?”

“That guy was there, all right. The one that — what was his name? I can’t remember — told you to ask for.”

“Jake. Something. I don’t remember his last name. For that matter, I’m not sure he ever gave it to me.”

“Well, for whatever it’s worth, at least Jake didn’t cheat you. Triêu Chuanli was there, all right. In one of the back rooms, not in the main area of the bar. I had to do some fast talking to get to see him, but they finally let me.”

Stephanie’s lips quirked. “Bet they made it like some sort of royal audience.”

“Actually, no. Well, they did — the two goons who ushered me back there, I mean — but Chuanli himself was pretty low key. He was even polite. Asked me to sit, if I wanted any sort of refreshment. Ha!” She smiled. “Just as if I was a proper lady and he was a proper gentleman offering tea and crumpets. Whatever crumpets are.”

“They’re a goofy type of pancake. The ancient Angleterrans used to eat them, whoever they were.” Moriarty made an impatient shooing motion with her hand. “Keep going.”

Cary decided to cut the small talk that had followed for a few minutes. Triêu — he’d insisted on being on a first name basis — really had been quite pleasant, even cordial. If she hadn’t known he was some sort of higher-up in a criminal cabal, Cary would have thought he was a professional of some sort. Maybe even a university professor.

Good-looking guy, too. But again, she shook her head.

“The long and the short of it is that, yes, he’d be interested in our merchandise whenever we see fit to present him with it. He was obviously curious as to why we didn’t have it right now — or even have a date in mind. But he didn’t push that at all.”

“Is that the long or the short? And whichever it is, what’s the kicker? There’s got to be one.”

Cary smiled. “Bad expression. I should have said, ‘the short and the short of it.’ What it came down to was, yes, he’d be willing to buy. No, he wasn’t slobbering all over himself with eagerness. This sort of merchandise, it seems, does have a market but it’s a pretty erratic one and if it takes too long maintaining the merchandise in good condition can cost enough to eat up any profits he might make. You can’t just stuff it into a freezer. So — this is the kicker — the price isn’t that great. He’ll give us a deal. We either take a straight-up payment –“

“For how much?”

Cary gave her the amount, in all three currencies Chuanli had offered to deal in. Moriarty grimaced.

“That’s not much,” she said. “Wouldn’t keep us going for more than another three months, tops.”

“Or we can share part of the risk with him. We could wind up with quite a bit more, if he can turn the merchandise around quickly. Or we might end up with even less than the straight-up price, if it takes too long. In whatever case, though, we don’t get paid until he makes the sale. Or sales — which is more likely — if he winds up having more than one customer.”

Stephanie grimaced again. “That means we have to trust him, too.”

Cary and pursed her lips. “I don’t think that’s actually a problem, Stephanie. It’s hard to explain, but… I get the sense that when you deal with someone like Chuanli, it’s taken for granted that everyone is acting in good faith. Honor among thieves, I’d guess you’d say. That’s probably because since nobody can appeal a dispute to the courts, nobody wants to take a risk that the swindled party comes back at you with bloodshed in mind.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Oh, right.” She spread out her hands, indicating the cramped apartment. “We’re practically awash in hit men. Oh, wait. I guess that’d have to be hit girls, since there are no actual men here.”

“Hey, look. Nobody ever promised us a rose garden.”

“Yeah, but is it too much to ask for a cactus garden? This is pushing it.” Stephanie chewed on her lower lip for a few seconds. “So what do you think? Go for the better but riskier deal?”


She chewed on her lip for a few more seconds. “Okay. What the hell. We may as well keep living dangerously, given our track record.”