Well, this should really be the last snippet. [Smile]

Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 46

Chapter 27

Colonel Nancy Anderson waited until the Hali Sowle was eight light-minutes away from the trading depot before she said anything about their mission. There was no rational reason for that. If anything they’d said or done or just blind bad luck had given them away to the Manpower personnel staffing the depot, they were as good as dead anyway. At that range, even low-powered missiles carrying small warheads would easily destroy a ship like the Hali Sowle.

And whether they’d been found out or not, why bother keeping silent for any length of time once the Hali Sowle left the depot? They were a starship, not a submarine maintaining silence under the surface of an ocean lest they be detected by their enemies. In space, as the old saw went, no one can hear you scream — or talk, or sing, or whisper, or shout at the top of your lungs.

But, rational or not, the time just passed had been very tense. All members of the BSC handled tension well; Anderson handled it particularly well or she’d never have reached the rank of colonel. Still…

Eight light-minutes was one Astronomical Unit, one of the most ancient of all measures. It was the distance between Sol and Terra back in the human race’s system of origin.

Most Beowulfers might not be superstitious — but they still ate comfort food like anyone else. One AU was the astrogational equivalent. For reasons that might make no sense, star travelers just seemed to relax a little once they’d gone that distance. 

“Well, I didn’t spot any problems. Did anyone?”

“No,” said Damewood. “The lion moved among the lambs with nary a one of the little fuzzballs sensing anything amiss.” He pointed to his work station, with the special displays now up that he’d made sure were not in sight when Manpower’s inspectors came through. “I was checking too, you’d better believe it.”

Sitting in the captain’s seat, Ganny El blew a raspberry. “‘The lion moved among the lambs’! Yeah, right. Completely toothless lion — no claws, neither — and a pack of lambs that sure looked like predators to me.” She held up an admonishing finger. “I’m telling you, I’m not doing this again! You hear that, Anderson? I don’t care how much money you wave under my nose.”

The colonel smiled but didn’t say anything. She had no more intention than Ganny of repeating the somewhat hair-raising experiment. One test run, carried out at a large and well-equipped Manpower depot, was enough to determine if there was any significant chance that the identity of the Hali Sowle would flag any alarms. They’d decided it was better to take the risk now with a skeleton crew than find out later when the Hali Sowle was carrying a full complement.

But no alarms had been triggered. Neither by the name nor the characteristics of the ship itself. The Hali Sowle had arrived at Balcescu Station after approaching and identifying itself quite openly; had spent two days at the depot engaged in trade and simply enjoying the depot’s restaurants and shops; and had then left in just as straightforward a manner. And there’d been no trouble of any kind, leaving aside the quarrel Ganny had gotten into with a shopkeeper whom she accused of trying to fleece her.

So, it now seemed clear that the Hali Sowle could go anywhere safely except possibly to Mesa itself. And if Zilwicki and Cachat were right in their estimate that the destruction of Gamma Center (and Jack McBryde’s accompanying actions) had obliterated the Mesan records of the vesselaltogether, the Hali Sowle could even go to Mesa.

But no one proposed to send the Hali Sowle to Mesa. It would be too risky to use the ship a second time to get the spies off the planet — much less onto it in the first place — and there was certainly no chance of using the Hali Sowle as a raider in the system. Mesa’s naval forces might be on the paltry side when compared to the fleets of star nations like Manticore and Haven, but they were more than powerful enough to swat two frigates as if they were insects.

Leaving aside Mesa, though, it now seemed that the rest of the galaxy was open to the Hali Sowle‘s new business.

Purely as an idle exercise, Anderson tried to calculate how much money it would take to get Ganny to withdraw her proclamation. The number would be large, certainly, but very far short of infinity. The Parmley clan’s matriarch wasn’t exactly avaricious, since it was never her own wealth that concerned her. But she kept an eye out for the interests of her kin like no one Nancy had ever seen.

Now that she’d  finagled a full suite of prolong treatments for every member of the clan who could benefit from them and also bargained to get excellent educations for all the youngsters — and even a few of the adults who had a mind to go to school — what fresh field could she aspire to conquer?

There had be something, knowing Ganny, but what?

Loren Damewood had apparently been undertaking the same exercise. And, as was the XO’s way, didn’t hesitate from putting his speculations in words.

“Oh, come on, Ganny. There’s got to be some price you’d settle for. What have you got a hankering for these days? Mansions on the shores of the Emerald Sea for each and every one of your kinfolk, down to the babes and toddlers? All-expenses-paid cruises on luxury liners through the Core worlds?”

Nancy couldn’t resist joining in. “How about precious metals and jewelry? That’s been a winner for going on ten thousand years.”

Ganny’s sneer was every bit as flamboyant as her cursing. “Even if such a price existed — which for the record, it doesn’t — what difference would it make to you? Between the whole lot — scrape it up from every member of the BSC anywhere in the galaxy — you couldn’t come close. Seeing as how ‘BSC’ really stands for Beggars’ Succor and Care.'”

Damewood clutched his chest. “Oh, Ganny! That’s cold!”

****

Csilla Ferenc watched the departing freighter on the screen. She had no interest in the vessel itself. The receding image was just something to look at — and wasn’t even real any longer, at this distance. The software used by Balcescu Station’s astrogation control substituted a stylized symbol for an actual image of a ship when it was too far away to be seen clearly with optical equipment.

She was just brooding. The departure of the Hali Soul — no, Sowle — had gone with even less notice than a tramp freighter normally would have gotten. That was because traffic through Balcescu had risen sharply over the past few weeks.

What bothered Ferenc wasn’t the heavy workload, so much. She didn’t enjoy it, but the overtime pay was nice. No, what bothered her was that she didn’t know the reason for the increase in traffic.

Sure, the extra ships that came through were all from Mesa and had impeccable papers. (Which were electronic, not molecular, of course; but the old term was still used by most traffic control services.) But maybe that was the problem. Their documentation was too good, in a way. In Ferenc’s experience, the documentation for real shipping concerns got frayed at the edges after a while.

Not that of this additional traffic, though. Their credentials and bona fides and bills of lading looked like they’d just come out of the virtual presses at the headquarters of Manpower, the Jessyk Combine, Axelrod Transtellar, and Technodyne.

They had serious backing behind them, too. Any questions beyond the routine ones got stonewalled — and both times she’d tried to push a little, Csilla had gotten slapped down by her superiors.

Slapped down hard and fast.

It was the speed of the reprimands that had struck her the most. The management of Balcescu were rude bastards and had been as long as Ferenc had been at the station. Reprimands were always a lot harsher than they should have been.

But they never came all that quickly. The station’s bosses were as lazy as they were nasty. Usually, you’d find out a tick had been placed in your records a week or two — sometimes a month or two — after the incident that triggered it.

Not now. Those two reprimands had been given to her within hours. Within less than an hour, in the case of the second one.

And all she’d asked for was identification for the three individuals listed as “supercargo; special assignments”! Normally, she would have gotten chewed out if she hadn’t insisted on an explanation.

Something was going on. And what bothered Ferenc was that the explanation that kept coming to her made her profoundly uneasy.

At that moment, as it happened, the person sitting at the control station next to her voiced her own worries.

“Csilla, do you think there’s really anything to all the Mantie hollering about a ‘secret conspiracy’ behind Manpower?”

Ferenc glanced around the control room quickly. The only other person within hearing range was András Kocsis, and he wasn’t paying any attention because he was in the middle of directing an incoming freighter.

She wasn’t worried about Steve anyway. He was just a working stiff like them.

Reassured, she turned to the man who’d asked the question, Béla Harsányi. “Are you trying to get into trouble?”

Béla looked uncomfortable — but stubborn. “Come on, Csilla. You’ve got to have been wondering about it yourself.” He motioned toward his own control screen. “I mean, look at the traffic we’ve been getting. Some of these ships we’ve never seen at all before, and many of the ones we have are acting… You know. Weird.”

Weird. Depending on how you looked at it, that was either discretion or circumlocution. In plain language, what Harsányi meant was that the crews of the slave ships — some of them, anyway — hadn’t been behaving in their usual manner when they came into the station on what was still called “shore leave.”

First off, a lot fewer of them took shore leave than normal.

Secondly, and more tellingly, they hadn’t been behaving like arrogant assholes when they did. They’d seemed a little subdued, actually — as if they knew something themselves that was making them a little nervous. 

She kept her hair in a braid when she was on duty. That was an old habit from her days on a station whose artificial gravity had been erratic. One experience with being caught trying to follow traffic with her long hair flying all over and impeding her vision had been enough.

She might have given up the habit after she got to Balcescu, since there was no danger at all that this station was going to suffer from the same problem. Balcescu Station wasn’t a flea-bitten third rate transfer point in the sticks, it was Manpower’s principal depot in this whole star region. But by then she’d found that being able to fiddle with the braid was a way of calming herself down when she got a little agitated.

She was fiddling with it now. “I don’t know, Béla. Yeah, sure, I’ve wondered myself. But…”

She let go of the braid and shrugged. “First, we’ll probably never know. And second, let’s hope we never know because the only way I can see we’d find out…”

She decided to let the sentence die a natural death. But Harsányi’s lips peeled back, revealing clenched teeth.

“Yeah, right,” he said. “The only way we’ll find out is if the Manties decide to prove it — in which case we’re dead meat anyway.”

That was… something of an exaggeration, Csilla thought. Balcescu Station wasn’t anywhere near the most likely avenues of approach the Mantie fleet would take if it decided to strike at Mesa. But it couldn’t be ruled out.

Not with the Manties. Unlike the great majority of the population of Mesa — not to mention the morons in the Solarian League — Ferenc and Harsányi knew the realities of interstellar warfare.

Some of those realities, anyway. Enough to know that the Manties, if they decided to be, could be the scariest people in the universe for people like her and Béla.

First, the Manties hated slavers — and she and Béla were part and parcel of the slave trade even if they didn’t have any personal contact with slaves themselves. Second, Csilla had just celebrated her fortieth birthday — and the Manties had been at war for more than half her lifespan. Thirdly, going by the record, they were awfully damn good at it.

“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far,” Csilla said. “‘Dead meat’s a little extreme, don’t you think?”

But by the time she finished the sentence, she was back to fiddling with her braid.

****

Elsewhere in Balcescu Station, in a much fancier work area, someone else was fretting over the same issue. That was the station’s CO, Zoltan Somogyi, Csilla Ferenc’s ultimate boss in the depot and the originator of the two reprimands that she was still smarting from.

Somogyi himself had forgotten about the reprimands — and done so within hours. He hadn’t issued them because he was worried about Csilla Ferenc. He barely knew the woman. She worked for him but he was the top manager of the Station. So did almost eight hundred other people.

No, he’d issued those reprimands, along with more than a dozen similar ones, because he’d been told in no uncertain terms by people he knew even less well than he did Ferenc that they would tolerate no interference with what they were doing — about which he knew even less. The one thing — the only thing, really — he did know about the people who’d given him those instructions was that their authority was paramount. Within Manpower, Inc., as well as…

Beyond it. How far beyond it he didn’t know. And that was what was causing him to lose sleep.

People like Ferenc and Harsányi knew nothing of the Mesan Alignment, not even of its existence. So far as they knew, they were simply employees of one of the giant corporations that effectively ruled their home planet. And if the work that corporation did was unsavory in the eyes of much of the human race, they were largely indifferent to the matter — just as, in ages past, men who went into the bowels of a planet to dig out its mineral wealth didn’t think much about the fact that many people thought the work they did was crude, dirty and beneath their own dignity.

In truth, Zoltan Somogyi didn’t know much more about the Mesan Alignment than his employees. The difference was that he knew it did exist although he thought it was nothing more than an organization dedicated to the secret uplift of the Mesan genome. He had hopes he might eventually be asked to join, in fact.

But there were less benign forces in Mesan society, who were even more secretive and a lot more dangerous. Somogyi was highly placed enough to have realized years before that someone, somewhere, was pulling the strings.

Who they were… he didn’t know, although he suspected they were Manpower’s innermost circle.

What their goals were… he didn’t know.

What their plans were for him… he didn’t know that, either.

What worried him was that he thought such plans probably existed. And whatever they were, probably weren’t going to be good for him. Not because those mysterious hidden powers bore any animosity toward him but simply because he was beneath their notice.

When a behemoth makes plans to go somewhere, do those plans take into consideration the small and fragile creatures that might get underfoot along the way?