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Chapter 12

Anton Zilwicki thought that Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou was restraining himself from throwing his hands up in frustration. Or, at least, the Benton-Ramirez y Chou equivalent of such a gesture. That might be no more than an eye-twitch. Jacques served Beowulf as its unofficial—and well-hidden—liaison with the Audubon Ballroom. Beyond that, he was a “director at large,” a Beowulfan title that corresponded to what most star nations would have called a minister without portfolio.

Beowulfan political customs were sometimes odd, to people not used to them. This was a star system, after all, which named its elite commando unit the “Biological Survey Corps.” What made that disorienting to non-Beowulfers—not to mention a little scary—was that the name wasn’t simply a disguise. There were historical origins for the name; centuries earlier, it had been a surveying outfit. But in some way comprehended only by Beowulfers, they seemed to think that the work done by such people as Hugh Arai still did have something to do with biology.

How so? Anton had no idea. He was a simple highlander from Gryphon. To his way of thinking, the only connection between the work of the BSC and biology was that the activity involved the rupturing—not to mention maiming, obliterating, rending, terminating; oh, it was a long list—of organisms and their various organs.

“If only you’d been able to bring back McBryde,” said Jacques. He did, however, have the good grace to give Anton and Victor a wry little smile, making it clear that he was not criticizing. Simply . . . lamenting something that was indeed lamentable.

“Agreed,” said Victor. “For our purposes, Herlander Simões is something of an idiot savant. Oh, he’s got a huge amount of info about Mesa’s ‘open’ society, but outside of his technical specialties, he’s generally obtuse about anything else to do with this ‘Alignment’ of his. His superiors undoubtedly preferred things that way, and I’m sure McBryde told him as little as possible prior to their decision to defect. True, they were friends. But the formal relationship between the two men was that of a top level security officer handling a known security risk. Out of old habit, if nothing else, McBryde would have kept most things from him.”

Eloise Pritchart shifted slightly in her chair. That wasn’t due to discomfort. As you’d expect of something made for Manticoran royalty, the chair was state-of-the-art furniture, adjusting instantly to the anatomy and posture of the person sitting in it.

No, it was just that, like the representative from Beowulf at this meeting, she was also frustrated. But, also like Jacques, she had more than enough sense and experience than to suggest there was any blame to be laid at the feet of Zilwicki and Cachat. They’d done astonishingly well in their mission to Mesa. It was hardly their fault that they hadn’t been able to produce everything you might possibly desire.

Jack McBryde, the man who could have told them so much, was dead. Dead at his own hand, when he destroyed the Mesan Alignment’s Gamma Center as security agents were closing in on him.

The Mesan defector whom Zilwicki and Cachat had managed to bring back, Herlander Simões, was a scientist. He was proving invaluable when it came to uncovering many of Mesa’s technical secrets, but he knew very little beyond that.

It might be better to say, he knew very few details. He had, on the other hand, verified enough of what McBryde had passed on to Anton and Victor to provide a general picture of the situation. Three critical points were established:

One. Lurking somewhere within Mesa’s government and the corporate hierarchy that dominated the planet—Manpower’s top officials, almost certainly, and there were bound to be other firms involved—was a shadowy organization known as the Mesan Alignment.

Two. The Alignment was ancient, dating all the way back to the founders of Mesa six centuries earlier. Those people, led by Leonard Detweiler, had been a political faction on Beowulf which had objected to Beowulf’s stringent policies concerning manipulation of the human genome. Everyone had thought their disagreement had been satisfied by the creation of Manpower, Inc., and the selective improvement of their own citizens after they emigrated from Beowulf to Mesa. No one had suspected just how much “improvement” they’d incorporated into their own genomes, however, and it now turned out that their purpose had been far broader and deeper than originally thought—and they had managed to keep it a secret from anyone outside their circle.

Three. The goal of the Mesan Alignment was nothing less than the conquest of the human-occupied galaxy. The conquest might at times manifest itself in more subtle ways than outright and open force, but the end remained the same regardless of the means employed. The Mesan Alignment intended to politically dominate humanity and impose its own views on the proper way to guide and shape the species.

Beyond that, several other points seemed well established also. First, the Mesan Alignment had developed at least one and probably two space propulsion systems based on new and revolutionary principles. Second, they had used those space drives to launch the savage sneak attack on Manticore known as the Yawata Strike. Third, they had been responsible for a number of assassinations and assassination attempts using some as-yet-unknown method of nanotech-based quasi-mind control, including the murders of Yves Grosclaude, Lieutenant Timothy Meares, Admiral James Webster, Lara Novakhovskaya and almost three hundred other people in the failed assassination attempt on Berry Zilwicki, and Jwei-shwan Anderman, Emperor Gustav Anderman’s nephew and second in line for the Andermani throne. There’d almost certainly been others no one yet knew about . . . and then there was the one spectacular failure they all knew about: Honor Alexander-Harrington.

And, fourth, they had been largely responsible for instigating the war between the Republic of Haven and Manticore and keeping it going. It now seemed clear, for instance, that Haven’s former Secretary of State Arnold Giancola had been an agent for the Mesan Alignment, given the fact that Yves Grosclaude had been the only man who could have proven that Giancola was responsible for the forged diplomatic correspondence which had sent the two star nations back to war with one another.

These last four points were perhaps not quite as well established as the first three, but you’d need a sharp knife or a razor blade to split the difference. As far as Anton was concerned, it was the difference between a 99.9 percent probability and a 99.8 percent one—of academic interest even to statisticians.

The silence in the conference room following Victor’s statement went on long enough to start becoming uncomfortable. Finally, Empress Elizabeth planted her hands on the large table around which they were all sitting and said:

“Look, there’s no point crying over spilt defectors. We just have to make do with what we have. The question now is, what’s our next step?”

Anton started to answer that question but Victor spoke first.

“Anton and I need to go back to Mesa and fill in the missing holes.”

Which was exactly what Anton had been planning to say. He sat back and waited for the inevitable outburst.

Outbursts, rather. Just about everyone spoke simultaneously.

“That’s insane.” (President Pritchart)

“Are you insane?” (Empress Elizabeth)

“That seems extraordinarily foolish.” (Benjamin Mayhew, Protector of Grayson)

“You’ve gone mad.” (Prime Minister Alexander)

“That’s the craziest idea I’ve heard in . . . hell, who knows?” (Admiral Givens)

“That’s sheer suicide.” (First Space Lord Caparelli.)

“Why not just shoot yourself?” (Foreign Secretary Langtry)

Haven’s Secretary of War Tom Theisman settled for: “You’re nuts.”

Interestingly, Hamish Alexander-Harrington started to say something but closed his mouth when he noticed that Honor Alexander-Harrington was keeping silent. In fact, she looked as if she were actually considering the idea.

And—still more interesting—Anton saw that Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou had his lips pursed and was glancing around the room in a manner that was almost shifty-eyed.

He knew something. What? Anton had no idea. But it was sure to be . . . interesting.

Once the hubbub settled down, Anton said: “Victor’s right. It needs to be done and we’re obviously the best people to do it. And, no, it’s not a crazy idea. It’ll be dangerous, for sure. Very dangerous. But not suicidal.”

“Please explain why you think it wouldn’t be,” said Harrington. “Disguises won’t be enough, not even nanotech body transformations. Not for the two of you. They’re bound to obtain samples of your DNA sooner or later. They might even have them already, if you left traces on Mesa.”

“I doubt that very much,” said Victor. “Even if they picked up some traces of our DNA—which wouldn’t be easy at all, since we weren’t careless—I still don’t think there’s more than a one-in-ten chance they have any usable records.”

“Why is that?” asked Hamish Alexander-Harrington. Like his wife’s, his tone was more one of interest and assessment than outright skepticism.

“Because of Jack McBryde,” said Anton. He and Victor had discussed this already. More than once. “The blast he set off that destroyed Gamma Center had to have been a shaped nuclear charge. There’s no other way to explain the total destruction of the center and the relatively minor damage to everything around it. Which means—”

Victor picked it up: “That the charge was prepared long beforehand. And since no one person could jury-rig something like that, it had to have been set in place by the Mesan Alignment itself. Which means—”

“That they’ve created what amounts to an intelligence bolthole,” said Anton. “They’ve known for some time that they couldn’t be sure someone wouldn’t attack and overrun Mesa. It’s only a one-planet star system and it doesn’t have much of a real naval force. So they made sure that, if worse came to worst, they could obliterate any evidence of their own existence.”

“And go back to hiding as mere run-of-the-mill corporate monsters,” finished Victor.

“The conclusion from that is obvious,” said Anton.

There was silence in the room again. Finally, Empress Elizabeth rolled her eyes to the ceiling and said: “Why do I feel like a dimwit?” She brought her gaze back down and bestowed it upon Anton and Victor. It bore more resemblance—a lot more—to the gaze of a basilisk than a dimwit, though.

“Explain,” she commanded. “The rest of us here are not super-spies. What conclusion is obvious?”

Anton and Victor looked at each other. From subtleties in Victor’s expression that Anton was sure no one else in the room could have interpreted, he knew that the Havenite’s attitude was: She’s your empress, dammit. YOU try to explain it without pissing her off any further.

Anton cleared his throat. “Your Majesty, we learned enough from Jack McBryde to know that he was a key figure in Gamma Center. So key a figure, in fact, that he was able to trigger off the self-destruct mechanism without a partner.”

There came simultaneous grunts from Hamish Alexander, Thomas Theisman and First Space Lord Caparelli. Harrington’s eyes widened.

“Jesus H. Christ,” said Caparelli. “How did we miss that?”

Seeing that the Empress’ gaze was now entering you-are-all-about-to-be-turned-into-stone territory, Caparelli hurriedly added: “No massive self-destruct program is ever set up to be operable by just one individual, Your Majesty, unless that individual is specifically empowered to do so—and on his own initiative.”

Stone, so help me God. Crumbling year-by-year under the pitiless elements.

Harrington laughed. “Elizabeth, either McBryde had that sort of authority—which is certainly possible, given this Gamma Center’s obvious importance—or else he’d managed to hack the system in order to steal it for himself. If he did have the authority, he was even more senior than we’d assumed he was, and that almost certainly means he had access to the ‘Alignment’s’ central security systems. Maybe not command authority outside the Gamma Center, but access enough to dump something of his own into them. And if he didn’t have that authority and . . . acquired it for himself, he probably had the ability to use whatever access he did have to hack into complete command of their security protocols in general. Well . . . maybe not complete command, but awfully close.”

The basilisk gaze didn’t soften, exactly, but the threat level receded a bit. Limestone instead of basalt. “All right. I get that. And what follows is . . . ?”

“What else did he do besides blow up the center?” said Harrington. “What other measures did he take that would have damaged the Alignment’s security protocols? If the man was prepared to defect in the first place—and to kill himself if the defection plan went south—he was furious. He had to have been. Not boiling over, no. Someone like McBryde would have been cold and controlled. But he was an angry, angry man. Don’t think he wasn’t. He wouldn’t have left this life without hammering the Alignment as hard as he could.”

Petrified wood territory. And ebbing fast. Elizabeth settled back in her chair, her own eyes now starting to widen.

Theisman apparently decided the royal ire had lowered enough for it to be safe for a Havenite to chime in. “He would have struck at a lot of things, Your Majesty. One that we know of for sure was Mesa’s orbital traffic control. That’s why the Hali Sowle was able to leave with no problems. We’ll never know everything he did, but it’s almost inconceivable—given the nature of the man’s occupation—that he didn’t try to shred the Mesan Alignment’s records of its enemies.”

“We don’t have to guess about that, actually,” said Victor. “Herlander told us ‘Eggshell’ was a code word that indicated McBryde planned to wreak havoc on the Alignment’s security, over and above the damage done by destroying Gamma Center.” He shrugged. “We don’t know—probably never will—exactly how much damage he was able to do, and in which specific areas. He’d have been concentrating mostly on their records of the Ballroom, of course. But it’d be far easier to just—well . . .” He looked at Zilwicki. “Anton’s the expert on these things. Let him explain.”

“He wouldn’t have tried to isolate out the Alignment’s records on the Ballroom, Your Majesty. Why bother with something that complex and finicky? He would have simply targeted all security protocols designed to track enemies. Which, of course—”

“Would include us,” said Victor. “That’s why I said I don’t think it’s likely our DNA records still exist on Mesa. If they ever did at all, which I also doubt.”

There was silence again. Then Benjamin Mayhew said, “But you can’t be sure about any of this.”

“No. We can’t.” Victor shrugged. “Our line of work has its risks, Your Grace. But the truth is, these odds are better than ones we’ve faced before.”

The Empress’ gaze was now merely skeptical.

“On occasion,” Victor qualified.

Which occasion?” asked Langtry.

“Victor faced worse odds during the Manpower Incident,” said Anton. “Way worse. Of course, he was young and stupid then and didn’t understand the difference between risky, dangerous and sheer lunacy.”

Anton smiled crookedly. “Even as a youngster, I stayed farther away from that edge than he did. But I do know the difference between risky, dangerous and sheer lunacy, and our proposal is not lunatic. It’s just risky.”

“Risky as all hell, you mean,” said Theisman.

“If you prefer, yes. Most of the risk, though, just comes from the intrinsic nature of the project. Penetrating the Mesan Alignment’s security right on Mesa itself is a dangerous proposition whether or not they have our DNA records. But I agree with Victor. I don’t think they do.”

Throughout the discussion, Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou had remained silent. His expression had seemed a bit detached, in fact, as if he was only paying attention with part of his mind while he mostly considered something else. Now, finally, the Beowulfer spoke.

“It doesn’t matter. Even if the Alignment does have Zilwicki and Cachat’s DNA records—anyone’s records, for that matter—there’s a way to get around it. Theoretically, at least. It’s never been tested under field conditions.”

The Empress’ lips tightened. “And, what, exactly, is ‘it’?” Her gaze was reentering dangerous territory. Soapstone, at least. Maybe pumice. “Is there some reason nobody at this table except me can resist being cryptic?”

Jacques looked a bit rueful. “I wasn’t trying to be mysterious, Your Majesty. It’s just . . . this is something Beowulf has had under wraps for almost a year. As in deep, dark secret ‘under wraps.’ As Special Officer Cachat says, old habits die hard. For me to talk about something like this openly and in plain language is about as unnatural as—as—” He puffed out his cheeks, as if he couldn’t find a suitable analogy.

The Empress gave him a thin smile. “Try real hard.”

That produced a little chuckle around the table, shared by Benton-Ramirez y Chou himself. He gave a little shrug, as if were shedding a weight from his shoulders, and started speaking.

“The gist of it is that we’ve developed—”

There was a knock on the door to the conference. A real knock, too, not a buzzer or a ringer. Anton guessed that meetings held in this royal inner sanctum were so rarely interrupted that no one had ever bothered to arrange for a way to signal that someone wanted to enter.

Elizabeth frowned. “Come in,” she said.

The door opened and a woman came in. Anton recognized her as one of the Empress’ personal assistants, although he didn’t know her name. The woman practically exuded diffidence and hesitation.

“I’m very sorry to interrupt, Your Majesty. But this is a rather unusual—”

The Empress waved her hand impatiently. “Just sum it up quickly, Beatriz.”

“There’s a delegation here from Torch, Your Majesty. Ah, actually, ‘delegation’ is probably not the right term. It seems like most of the government is here.”

Elizabeth’s frown vanished, replaced by a look of surprise. “Who, exactly?”

“Queen Berry. Prime Minister Du Havel. Secretary of War—ah—X. The commander of the armed forces, General Palane. And your niece, Princess Ruth.”

“Dear Lord. Well, show them in, then.” The Empress examined the conference table and then turned to one of her bodyguards. “We’ll need to stretch this a bit. See to it, would you, Lieutenant Tengku?”

The lieutenant pushed a button so discreetly positioned on the wall that Anton hadn’t noticed it before. A small control panel slid out and he began working at it. A few seconds later, the conference table began to lengthen—or rather, the entire space surrounding the table began to lengthen. Anton was eerily reminded of the standard depiction of the expansion of the universe: objects didn’t spread through space; rather, space itself expanded.

The room itself didn’t seem to be getting any bigger. The floor was somehow expanding without pushing against the walls; and, along with it, the table was expanding and all the chairs (and people) sitting at it were being repositioned to make room for more people. There was almost no sensation of movement involved.

He glanced at Victor to see how he was reacting to Thandi Palane’s imminent arrival. The Havenite agent’s eyes looked out of focus. Anton had to fight not to burst into laughter.

Being fair to Victor, he was probably looking forward to seeing her more than anything else. Anticipation—eager anticipation—would be his dominant emotion, overlying the others.

Fear. Anxiety. Dread. Trepidation. Oh, it was another long list.

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