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Chapter 9

“So I finally get to meet you, Special Officer Cachat. You made yourself impossible to find when I visited Torch for Berry’s coronation.” Despite the reproving words, Cathy Montaigne’s tone was friendly and she was smiling. She strode forward and extended her hand.

Victor shook her hand and then executed a flourishing bow; the sort of gesture that had once been part of Haven’s social protocol during the Legislaturalist era and was still part of Manticoran protocol—although you rarely saw it done outside of some formal royal occasions. And then it was done only by some members of the aristocracy and usually done badly. Cachat’s performance, on the other hand, had been flawless.

Startled, Cathy looked at Anton Zilwicki. “You told me he was a rabid republican.”

“I said no such thing. ‘Rabid’ means raving; slavering with fury; downright witless. Victor neither raves nor slavers and he certainly isn’t witless. Setting that aside, yes, he’s a republican. Sort of the way polonium is radioactive.”

She turned back to Victor. “But he did that perfectly.” She waggled her fingers. “Maybe just a shade too flamboyantly.”

“I figured it was better to err in that direction than the other,” said Cachat. “Given the nature of the exercise.”

“But . . . you’re too young. From what Anton tells me. You wouldn’t have been more than a boy during the Legislaturalist era.”

“And born and raised in a Dolist slum to boot,” added Anton.

“Then how would you have learned—?”

Anton made a loud snorting noise. The sound conveyed an odd cross of derision and grudging admiration. “He would have practiced it in a simulator on the way here,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe how much faith Victor has in the gadgets. He never travels without one if he can manage it—he even squeezed one into the courier ship—and he spends at least an hour a day in there practicing whatever. I’d accuse him of idolatry and worshipping golden calves except he’s as much of an atheist as he is a republican.”

“Oscar Saint-Just was a monster,” said Victor. “Doesn’t mean he wasn’t smart. He believed in the value of simulator training and I learned it from him.”

Cathy started to make a flippant remark but stopped. A thought had just crossed her mind. She’d never met Victor Cachat before this moment but she had seen him before, in a manner of speaking. One of Jeremy X’s people had made a video recording of the gun fight in the bowels of Old Chicago between Cachat—later joined by Jeremy himself—and a group of Havenite soldiers and their Scrag allies. That had happened during the so-called Manpower Incident.

The quality of the recording had been quite poor; what you’d expect to get from a cheap handheld device in bad lighting conditions. But even so, two things had struck her powerfully when she’d watched afterward. Jeremy hadn’t wanted to show it to her but she’d insisted and he owed her too much to refuse.

The first was the sheer brutality involved. “Gun fight” was far too antiseptic a term for the slaughter produced when people shot each other at literally point blank range and the person doing most of the shooting had been armed with a flechette gun.

He’d known how to use it, too, and that had been the second thing Cathy had been struck by. Once the fight began, Cachat had been nothing but a blur. Partly that was the poor quality of the recording, but mostly it had been Cachat himself. He’d moved quickly, surely, spinning, shifting aside—while every shot he fired went true. He hadn’t seemed like a man so much as a killing machine.

He would have been what, at the time? Twenty-one years old? Twenty-two? Certainly not more than twenty-five.

“The fight in Old Chicago,” she blurted out before she could stop herself. “When you saved Helen. You practiced that in a simulator.”

Victor frowned and glanced at Zilwicki. Who, for his part, spread his hands.

“Don’t look at me. I kept my description vague. Really vague. And it was all over before I got there anyway.”

“Jeremy,” Victor muttered. “Damn him. He told me—I asked, later—that there hadn’t been any recordings made.”

“He’s been known to lie.” That came from Anton.

Cachat’s frown faded into a mildly irritated expression. “Sort of like plutonium is radioactive.”

He looked back at Cathy. “Yes, I trained for it in a simulator. A much bigger and more sophisticated simulator than the portable one I take with me, of course. How else could I have managed it?”

She felt like she was being extremely rude, all of sudden. Whatever might be Victor Cachat’s exotic history and peculiar attitudes, he was the man who had saved the lives of all three of her adopted children. And done so at incredibly great risk to his own.

So she extended both her hands this time and took both of his, in a gesture that was not formal in the least. “Please. Be welcome in this home. Now and always.”

Cachat’s poise faltered for an instant. “Well . . . thank you,” he said awkwardly, seeming to shed a decade and two inches of psychic armor in the process. Cathy now understood the truth of something Anton had once said to her about his Havenite partner: that somewhere deep underneath Cachat’s ferocious skills and adamantine willpower there remained a shy and lonely boy from the slums. Only a handful of people in the universe were ever made privy to that inner core, he’d told her—and Anton himself wasn’t really one of them. Or only partly so, at any rate.

“I’m not sure if he lets anyone into that sanctum, except Thandi Palane and Ginny Usher,” he’d told her. “Probably Kevin Usher, too.”

Cathy decided then and there that she’d add herself to that small list. First, because she owed the man that much. Second, because she enjoyed a challenge. And finally—

She couldn’t keep herself from giggling. At her age!

“What’s so funny?” asked Anton.

“Never mind.” She didn’t think even Anton would understand, not really. He thought—she was sure almost everyone did, except Jeremy X and Web Du Havel and maybe Empress Elizabeth, who’d been a close childhood friend—that Cathy’s rebellious history stemmed from her deep political principles. And . . .

That was indeed true enough. But she couldn’t deny that at least a part of the reason for her notorious past was simply a juvenile glee in thumbing her nose at the establishment. Any establishment.

As Countess of the Tor, Cathy’s coat of arms carried the family motto I cannot, which according to family legend referred to the heroic stance taken by an early politician who refused to sign on to a popular but unwise law. Cathy had her doubts about the legend, but the motto suited her well enough. In the interests of full disclosure, though, she’d sometimes thought she should add to the motto Épater la bourgeoisie—or use it altogether as a substitute.

She’d already scandalized Manticoran polite society with her longstanding association with the terrorist madman Jeremy X—now, sadly for polite society’s amour-propre, reborn as a respectable cabinet member of Torch’s government. Now she could add the scandal of a friendship with the man who was rapidly becoming the Republic of Haven’s most notorious secret agent.

How delightful.

She led the way through the foyer and into the rooms beyond. The first of which had the official title of “the salon” but which Anton insisted on calling “the extravagansory.” Or, sometimes, “the playing field.”

Cachat looked around, his expression one of mild interest.

Anton grinned. “Didn’t miss a beat. Congratulations, Victor. The first time I came into this room I said ‘holy shit!’ It took me four hours in here before I worked up the nerve to ask where the bathroom was. Were, as it happens. There are eight of them. Would you believe she calls this a ‘town house’?”

“Are you quite done?” said Cathy. This was an old jape of Anton’s. Most people would have let it go by now, but he was from the Gryphon highlands. One had to make allowances.

“By certain values of ‘town’ and ‘house,’ the label is perfectly appropriate,” said Cachat. His tone was as relaxed and casual as his expression. “To be sure, the values are ones that should be lined up against a wall and shot.”

That was said just as mildly. Cathy wasn’t fooled. She was quite certain that if—no, more likely to have been when—the Havenite agent ever lined someone against a wall and shot them, he’d do so in the same relaxed and casual manner.

Oh, this was going to be so delightful. She’d have to make sure she had a doctor in attendance, though, when she trotted Cachat out for his first public appearance at one of her soirees. He was bound to say something that would cause one or two of the more rigid members of Manticore’s upper crust to suffer cardiac arrest.

* * *

“He’s a little unsettling, isn’t he?” was Empress Elizabeth’s first comment after Haven’s delegation withdrew from the conference room. She looked at Honor Alexander-Harrington, who was sitting to her left a little way down the large table in the middle of the room. “Special Officer Cachat, I mean.”

Honor chuckled and reached over to scratch the ears of the cream-and-gray treecat perched on the back of the chair beside hers. “At least this time he wasn’t carrying a suicide device. I don’t think he was, anyway.”

Captain Spencer Hawke, her personal armsman, was standing just behind her. His already-stiff stance became rigid. “I assure you, My Lady, he carried no such device . . . this time. We checked him over thoroughly.” A bit grudgingly, the Grayson added: “So did the Queen’s Own, of course.”

“Not to mention that we had a trio of treecats keeping a beady eye on him,” added Hamish Alexander-Harrington, who was seated across from Honor with Samantha, Nimitz’s mate, curled up neatly in his lap. She made a very pleased with herself sound, and Nimitz and Ariel, the somewhat younger male treecat on the back of Elizabeth’s chair, bleeked with laughter. Samantha deigned to open one grass-green eye and look at each of them with a predator’s thoughtfulness, then closed the eye once more.

Honor shook her head. “I’m afraid neither of you really understands Victor Cachat. First of all”—she looked at Elizabeth—“to answer your question, yes, he’s a little unsettling. But he’s not a monster or a maniac. He’s more like the closest thing a human can come to a treecat.”

Nimitz issued a sound that was halfway between a purr and a growl. Ariel echoed the sound an instant later, but Samantha merely flipped the tip of her tail.

“The point being,” Honor continued, “any suicide device he’d carry—anywhere, not just here—wouldn’t be a bomb, or anything that would wreak indiscriminate damage. It’d be very selective, with just himself as the target.”

She glanced back at Captain Hawke and then over at the two members of the Queen’s Own Regiment standing guard against the wall behind Elizabeth. “We analyzed the one he brought aboard Imperator when he and Zilwicki paid me that little visit. If he’d activated it, it would have injected him with a chemical compound which would trigger a previously implanted chemical compound that was inert in the absence of the right catalyst . . . at which point it would have sent his heart into severe ventricular fibrillation while simultaneously triggering both brain and pulmonary embolisms.”

The Empress grimaced. So did Hamish. For that matter—Honor glanced around the room—so did all the other people seated at the table. Those consisted of William Alexander, Baron Grantville and Prime Minister of the Star Empire of Manticore; Sir Anthony Langtry, the Star Empire’s Foreign Secretary; and two admirals: Sir Thomas Caparelli, First Space Lord, and Admiral Pat Givens.

“So don’t be too sure what Cachat might or might not have been carrying,” Honor continued. “If he thought it was called for, he’s perfectly capable of having a biological mechanism designed so that we could only detect it if we gave him a complete somatic screening. Which we didn’t, of course. That would have been undiplomatic, to say the least.”

Prime Minister Alexander looked alarmed. “If I’d known he was capable of that, I think we should have insisted on a somatic screen.”

Honor started to answer, but the treecats beat her to it. This time, all of them issued sounds that were pretty much pure growls, and Nimitz followed up by pressing one true-hand’s palm to his mouth, then swinging it in a throwing away motion before touching the outermost finger of the same true-hand to his forehead. None of the humans in the room had any problem translating the sign for “bad idea,” and Hamish barked a laugh.

“It seems none of the six-limbed participants in this little discussion agree with you,” he observed, then looked at Honor for a few seconds. “But I see what you’re getting at. The issue isn’t what Cachat could do but what he would do.”

Honor nodded. “Yes.” She turned back to Elizabeth. “You already knew what Anton Zilwicki’s capable of. Well, now you’ve gotten a feel for how far Cachat will go for something he thinks is really important, which is why you asked for him to come to Manticore. As partnerships go, I think the two of them are the most capable pair of spies the galaxy’s produced in a long, long time. Which is the reason they’ve turned out to be such a nightmare for our real enemies—ours and Haven’s—and a blessing for us. Men like them don’t give their loyalty lightly, but once they do, it’s stronger than battle steel.”

The last phrase came out flat, certain, final.

“In other words, you’re telling me it’s time to quit shilly-shallying,” said Elizabeth.

“If you dress that up a little, yes. It’s time to decide whether you’re on the floor or sitting out the dance.”

The Empress chuckled. So did Hamish. Both admirals just smiled.

For his part, Foreign Secretary Langtry looked unhappy, but didn’t seem inclined to say anything. Prime Minister Grantville sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.

“If I can put this into more formal language,” he said, “what Honor is saying is that while it’s possible Zilwicki and Cachat are wrong, it’s unlikely. And it’s not possible at all that either man’s loyalties are in doubt. Which means our course of action should be based on those presumptions.”

“Spoken like a true statesman, Willie,” said Honor. Nimitz issued a noise that seemed approving. So did Ariel.

Samantha just nodded once, in the gesture the ’cats had learned from humans centuries ago.

* * *

“The meeting with the Empress went pretty well, I think,” said Victor later that night over dinner, in response to a question from Cathy. “Hard to be sure, of course. Nobody in that room got where they are by being easy to read.”

Cathy cocked her head. “Then . . . why do you seem a bit apprehensive?”

Startled, Cachat looked up from his plate. “I do?”

“Tense as a drum,” said Anton. “It’s pretty hard to miss, especially coming from you.”

“Oh. That.” Victor had barely touched his food. Now, he laid down his utensils. Much as a medieval knight on a battlefield might lay down his sword and shield as he conceded defeat.

“I wasn’t actually thinking about that at all,” he said. He glanced at his watch. “We sent the courier to Torch five days ago, right after we arrived here. It should have arrived at Beacon by now.”

Anton sucked his teeth. “Carrying your message to Thandi letting her know that, hey guess what, you’re now on Manticore. Having not stopped at Torch on your way to Haven.”

Cathy looked back and forth between the two men. “Do you think she’ll be upset with you, Victor?”

“Is Uranium 235 fissile material?” mused Anton.

“She’s going to kill me,” foresaw Victor.

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