Since Toni posted these earlier in her table on Baen’s Bar, I’ll be posting the first three chapters now with the first snippet beginning with Chapter Four (this evening).
Cauldron of Ghosts – Chapter 01
Cauldron of Ghosts
By David Weber & Eric Flint
MAY 1922 Post Diaspora
“Lot of help that is too. Victor can turn almost anything into splinters.”
Yana Tretiakovna, Torch secret agent
“So now what?” asked Yana Tretiakovna. She leaned back in her comfortable armchair, her arms crossed over her chest, and bestowed an impressive glower upon Anton Zilwicki and Victor Cachat. The first of whom was perched on a seat as he scrutinized a comp screen; the other of whom was slouched in an armchair and looking almost as disgruntled as Yana.
“I don’t know,” said Cachat, almost muttering the words. “I’ve been trying to get an answer to that very question from” — his finger pointed to the ceiling — “unnamable but no doubt exalted figures on high.”
Taken literally, the gesture might have led to the conclusion that the hard-bitten atheist Victor Cachat had suddenly become a believer, since there was nothing beyond the ceiling other than the heavens. The large suite the three people were sharing was on the top floor of a former luxury hotel in Haven’s capital that had been sequestered for its own purposes decades earlier by the Legislaturalist secret police. After the revolution — the most recent one, that is — the new regime had tried but failed to find the rightful owners, since they’d all died or vanished. So, not knowing what else to do, they’d turned it into a combination safe house and luxury resort for guests of the government.
Clearly, though, Cachat was oblivious to the irony involved. Still half-muttering with disgust, he went on. “So far, I might as well have been putting the question to a streetlight. Except a lamp post would at least shed some light.”
Anton’s mouth quirked wryly. “I’m pretty sure the question you should be asking is ‘where,’ not ‘what.'” He pointed to something on the screen. “See that?”
Ennui was shoved aside by interest, as Victor and Yana both rose from their chairs and came over to look at the screen.
“And what the hell is that?” demanded Tretiakovna. “It looks like scrambled eggs on steroids.”
“It’s an astrogational display showing traffic to and from the planet,” said Cachat. “And that exhausts my knowledge of the matter. I can’t really interpret it.”
Yana stared at the screen again. The ex-Scrag looked rather alarmed.
“Do you mean to tell me that this is how orbital controllers guide spacecraft to a supposedly — ha, ha, I’m dying of laughter here — safe orbit or landing? If so, I’m never flying again. Not even a kite.”
“Relax, Yana,” said Anton. “They don’t use this sort of condensed display at all — leaving aside the fact that all orbital routes are selected and monitored by computers. No, I slapped this together just to see if my guess was right, which is that traffic is being shifted around to allow for some sudden and unscheduled departures.”
He pointed to… this and that and the other, all of which looked like nothing much of anything to his two companions. “Think of these as boltholes, if you will.”
Victor and Yana looked at each other, then down at Anton.
“So who’s bolting?” asked Yana.
Zilwicki heaved his massive shoulders. For someone built along normal human rather than dwarf lord lines, that would have been a shrug.
“How should I know?” he said. “Victor will have to find out from his unnamable but no doubt exalted figures on high.”
Yana said something in a Slavic-sounding language that was almost certainly unprintable. Victor, a bit of a prude when it came to coarse language, kept his response to: “Well, hell.” And a second or two later: “Hell’s bells.”
Luckily for the dispositions of Cachat and Tretiakovna, relief from uncertainty came a few minutes later, in the persons of Kevin Usher and Wilhelm Trajan. Usher was the head of the Federal Investigation Agency, Haven’s top domestic police force; Trajan, the head of the Republic’s foreign intelligence agency, the Federal Intelligence Service.
Yana let them into the room, in response to the buzzer. As soon as they entered, Cachat rose to his feet.
“Kevin,” he said, in a neutral tone. Then, nodding to Trajan: “Boss.”
“Not anymore,” said Wilhelm. He glanced around, spotted an empty chair, and slid into it. Once seated, he molded himself into the chair’s contours, as someone does who is finally able to relax after a long period of tension.
“You’re being reassigned to the foreign office,” he elaborated. “No longer part of the FIS.”
He did not seem dismayed at losing the services of the man whom knowledgeable people, including himself, thought to be Haven’s most brilliantly capable intelligence agent. When President Pritchard had notified him of her decision to transfer Cachat, Wilhelm’s reaction had been: You mean I can go back to running a spy outfit, instead of being a lion tamer?
Usher took a seat some distance away from Trajan. “It’s one hell of a promotion, Victor. If you, ah, look at it in the right light.”
Victor gave him a dark look. “Under very dim lighting, you mean.”
Kevin’s expression, in response, was exasperated. “Oh, for God’s sake, Victor! No, I don’t mean using night goggles. I mean bright — really, really, really bright — floodlights. Your days of creeping around in the shadows are over. Over — with a bang and a boom. O-V-E-R.”
Trajan’s tone was milder. “Be realistic, Victor. Your exploits in launching Torch almost blew your cover completely as it was. They left it pretty tattered. Now, after Mesa? You — and Anton, and Yana” — he nodded in their direction — “just brought back the biggest intelligence coup in galactic history for… oh, hell, who knows how many centuries? Do you really think there’s any chance you can stay in your old line of work? Even using nanotech facial and body transformations won’t help you, since they don’t disguise DNA. Sure, that’d probably be enough for a modest, barely-known sort of spy. But you? Anybody who thinks you might be coming their way will have DNA swabs taken of anybody who might remotely be you.”
“StateSec destroyed all my DNA records except theirs the day I graduated from the Academy,” said Victor. “Those are still closely guarded and I’ve been very careful not to scatter my DNA traces about.” His tone of voice was perhaps a bit peevish.
“True enough,” said Anton. “You won’t find Special Officer Cachat carelessly discarding a cup after he’s taken a drink from it, I will grant you that. But come on, Victor — you know the realities perfectly well. As long as you were obscure and nobody was looking for your DNA, those precautions were probably good enough. But today?”
“Exactly,” said Trajan. He nodded toward the window overlooking Nouveau Paris. “Word’s already leaked out to the press. Within a couple of days — a week, at the outside — your name and likeness will be known to every person on Haven above the age of five and with any interest at all in the news. As well as — more to the point — every intelligence service in the galaxy, each and every one of which will be trying to get their hands on your DNA traces. Sooner or later, at least some of them are bound to succeed. So give it up. And don’t bother arguing with me or Kevin about it, either. President Pritchart made the decision. If you want it overturned, you’ll have to figure out a way to get her out of office.”
Usher wiped his face with a large hand. “Wilhelm, he gets enough ideas on his own without you making suggestions.
Trajan looked startled. “What? I wasn’t — ” Then, looked alarmed. “Officer Cachat…”
“I wasn’t planning to organize a coup d’état,” Victor said sarcastically. “I am a patriot, you know. Besides, I don’t blame the president for the decision.”
The dark look came back. “Clearly, she was misled by evil advisers.”
Anton started laughing softly. “Ganny warned you, Victor. It’ll be your turn now for the video treatment! I’d have some sympathy except I don’t recall you ever showing any for me because my cover got blown.”
Zilwicki looked over at Tretiakovna. “What’s your guess, Yana? Ganny thought the news services would go for either ‘Cachat, Slaver’s Bane’ or ‘Black Victor’.”
“‘Black Victor,'” she replied instantly. “Give Cachat his due, he isn’t prone to histrionics. ‘Slaver’s Bane’ is just too… too… not Victor. Besides, look at him.”
Cachat’s expression was now very dark indeed.
“‘Black Victor,’ it is,” announced Zilwicki. “Victor, you need to buy some new clothes. All leather, neck to ankles. Black leather, it goes without saying.”
For a moment, it looked as if Cachat might explode. At the very least, spout some heavy duty profanity. But…
He didn’t. Anton wasn’t surprised. Victor’s deeds were so flamboyant that it was easy to forget that the man behind them was not flamboyant at all. In fact, he was rather modest — and extraordinarily self-disciplined.
So, all that finally came out, in a very even and flat tone of voice, was: “Where am I being assigned, then? I’ll warn you, if it’s someplace that has an active cocktail circuit, I won’t be any good at it. I don’t drink much. Ever.”
“S’true,” said Yana. “He’s boring, boring, boring. Well, except when he’s overturning regimes and stuff like that.” She actually giggled, something Anton had never heard her do before. “Cocktail circuit! Diplomatic small talk! I can see it already!”
Victor now looked long-suffering. For his part, Usher looked exasperated again.
“We are not morons,” he said. “Victor, you — and you and you” — his forefinger swiveled like a turret gun, coming to bear on Anton and Yana — “are all going to Manticore. Tomorrow, so get packed.”
Anton had been planning to get to Manticore anyway, and as soon as possible. He hadn’t seen his lover Cathy Montaigne in more than a year. He hadn’t yet come up with a way to do so that the many and manifold powers-that-be were likely to approve, though, and now it had been unexpectedly dropped in his lap.
He saw Victor glance at him and smile. There was real warmth in that smile, too, something you didn’t often get from the man. Not for the first time, Anton was struck by the unlikely friendship that had grown up between he and the Havenite agent. Unlikely — yet all the stronger, perhaps, because of that very fact.
There were people in the world whom Anton liked more than he did Victor. But there were very, very few whom he trusted as much.
“And in what capacity am I going?” he asked Usher. “Somehow, even with all this new-found cordiality, I doubt that I’ve been assigned to Haven’s foreign service.”
Usher gave him a grin. “By all accounts — I was on Old Earth, remember, when the Manpower Incident went down — no star system in its right mind would assign you to its diplomatic corps.”
“Yes, I remember.”
It was hardly something Anton would forget. Nothing official had ever been said, and to this day Victor refused to cross any t’s and dot any i’s. Nonetheless, Anton was quite certain that Kevin Usher had engineered the entire episode. He’d stayed in the background, letting Cachat and the Audubon Ballroom do the rough work, but his had been the guiding hand.
Zilwicki’s daughter Helen — no, all three of his children, since he’d adopted Berry and Lars afterward — were still alive because of Victor and Kevin. It was a reminder, if he needed one, that just because he didn’t share someone’s ideology didn’t mean they didn’t take it seriously themselves. Haven’s political ideals were not Anton’s — well, some of them were — but it had been those ideals that had shielded his family.
Suddenly, he was in a very good mood. The information he and Victor had brought back from Mesa had not only ended the galaxy’s longest and most savagely fought war, and turned two bitter enemies into allies. Uneasy and hesitant allies, perhaps, but allies nonetheless. That information had also turned a friendship right side up. All the wariness and reservations he’d had to maintain about Victor Cachat were now draining away. Rapidly, too.
Something in Victor’s expression made it clear that he understood that also. But all he said was: “True enough. I may be a problem child for the diplomatically-inclined, but Anton gives them nightmares.”
“You still haven’t answered my question, Kevin,” said Anton.
Usher shrugged. “How the hell should I know? All I was told by Eloise was to round up all three of you — and Herlander Simões, of course — and take you to Manticore. Victor, you’re not exactly reassigned to the foreign service.” He gave Trajan a reproving glance. “Wilhelm was overstating things a bit. For one thing, Leslie Montreau was in the room along with Tom Theisman when Eloise made the decision to yank you out of the FIS. She nodded quite vigorously when Tom said that maybe she didn’t want — his words, not mine — ‘that lunatic bull in a china shop’ in her department.”
“What’s a china shop?” asked Yana.
“It’s an antique phrase,” Anton explained. “‘China’ was a name for a fancy kind of what they called… porcelain, if I remember right.”
“Lot of help that is. So what’s porcelain?”
“Stuff that Victor could turn into splinters easily.”
“Lot of help that is too. Victor can turn almost anything into splinters.”
Victor waved them down impatiently. “So to whom am I assigned, then?”
Usher scratched his scalp. “Well… no one, really. Eloise just thinks having you on Manticore will be essential to firming up the new alliance.”
“Why? Anton knows as much as I do — and he’s Manticoran to begin with.”
Usher was starting to look exasperated again. Zilwicki interjected himself into the discussion.
“That’s sort of the whole point, Victor. I’m a known quantity, in the Star Kingdom. I’ve even had a personal audience with the empress. You, on the other hand, are a complete unknown. Well, almost. I think Duchess Harrington has a good sense of you. But no one else does, in Manticore.”
Cachat was staring at him, obviously in complete incomprehension. It was odd, the way such a supremely capable man could be so oblivious to his own stature. That was a feature of Victor that Anton found simultaneously attractive and rather scary. In the right (or wrong) circumstances, people with little in the way of egos — more precisely, little concern for their egos — could do…
Pretty much anything.
“Just take my word for it, will you? They’ll want to see you, and talk to you, before they’ll settle down with any information you bring to them.”
“What he said.” Usher rose from his chair. “Oh seven hundred, tomorrow morning. Be down in the lobby, packed and ready to go.”
Trajan rose also, and went to the door. “Have a nice trip,” was what he said. What he meant, of course, was “have a nice long trip.” And there seemed to be a little spring in his step, as if a great weight had finally been lifted from his shoulders.