Back | Next

Chapter 13

“Some introductions are in order,” said Empress Elizabeth, after the delegation from Torch had taken seats at the table. “The young lady sitting at the far end of the table from me is Queen Berry, Anton Zilwicki’s daughter. You all know Prime Minister Du Havel, who is sitting next to her—and my niece Ruth, of course. On the Queen’s other side is the commander of Torch’s armed forces, General Thandi Palane.”

Victor was rather impressed. The Queen of Manticore had never met Thandi before. She must have taken the time to memorize what she looked like from images and videos. There were plenty of monarchs and heads of state in the galaxy who didn’t think much beyond breakfast. Manticore’s was not one of them.

He wondered if she’d also memorized—but there were very few images available and even fewer good ones—

Apparently she had. Or she was just guessing right. Elizabeth was now looking at the last member of Torch’s delegation.

As was everyone else in the room, and some of them with eyes that were very wide indeed.

“And of course none of us prior to this moment have ever met Torch’s Secretary of War. I’m a bit uncertain as to the proper etiquette here. Should we call you ‘Mr. X’?”

Jeremy’s smile was cheerful. “Oh, goodness! No, no, Your Majesty, a simple ‘Jeremy’ will do fine.”

Everyone continued to stare at him. Him being the galaxy’s most notorious terrorist. Or freedom fighter, depending on how you looked at things. But either way, the pronoun was him!

The cheerful smile remained. “Please, everyone, relax. I left my horns and cloven hooves at home. True, I did bring the tail—but it’s only vestigial, I assure you.”

That brought a few answering smiles and an outright laugh from Benjamin Mayhew. Grayson’s Protector looked around the room, with eyes that were shrewd as well as good-humored.

“If you’ll all take the expert testimony of a Grayson,” he said, “I’d say Jeremy X falls a long way short of Creation’s genuine devils.” More softly he added: “There are enough of those to go around—in places like Mesa, for example—but there are none of them here. Not today. Not in this room.”

Nimitz yawned, then bestowed a benign gaze on Jeremy. Then, bleeked his amusement.

Between them, the devout statesman and the insouciant treecat brought relaxation back to the room.

Except on the part of the two Grayson armsmen and the two members of the Queen’s Own standing against the walls, needless to say. Those worthies had never once taken their eyes off Jeremy X since he entered the room—and there seemed no chance they would until he left it.

Other than a quick, amused glance when he’d first sat down, however, Jeremy himself paid them no mind at all.

Once things had settled down, Elizabeth nodded toward Benton-Ramirez y Chou. “Jacques here was just beginning to explain to us a secret project by Beowulf that—oh.”

Honor Alexander-Harrington smiled. “We should perhaps preface that by explaining to our friends from Torch the new proposal advanced by Mr. Zilwicki and Special Officer Cachat.”

All eyes swiveled to them. Thandi Palane’s face seemed completely blank, as it had since she entered the room. You wouldn’t realize she and Victor had ever met before, if you didn’t know better. Whatever emotions might be roiling under the surface, she was far too much the professional soldier to let any of it show.

“If you would do the honors, Special Officer Cachat?” Harrington continued.

Quickly, Victor sketched the proposal. He didn’t delve into any of the arguments for or against, he just summarized it in a few concise sentences.

When he finished, another (if smaller) outburst filled the room.

“Daddy, you can’t!” (Queen Berry)

“You’re daft.” (Secretary of War Jeremy X)

“That’s ridiculous. You wouldn’t stand a chance.” (Prime Minister Du Havel)

“Are you out of your minds?” (Princess Ruth Winton)

The only contrary note came from Thandi Palane. She said nothing at all. However, one of her eyebrows was now slightly cocked, as if she was mildly intrigued by the idea but was reserving judgment for the moment.

Quick moment.

Berry turned to her and said: “Tell them they can’t do it, Thandi. Victor will listen to you even if Daddy doesn’t, and Daddy won’t go without him.”

Palane’s eyebrow cocked a little further. “Judging from recent evidence,” she said, “Special Officer Cachat pays me no mind at all.”

That was said without any heat, just as a simple statement of fact. So might an entomologist describe the behavior of a beetle.

Anton thought Victor might almost have winced, there. Hard to know. When he was of a mind, the Havenite agent had a stone face that put statues to shame.

“Furthermore,” Palane continued, still in that same level tone of voice, “I have no authority over either one of them. And finally—”

For the first time, some emotion crept into her voice. A slightly apologetic tone. “It’s probably a good idea, Berry. The truth is, neither your father nor Victor is crazy at all. Or if they are, they’re crazy like a fox.”


“Why don’t you hear us out, girl?” said Anton to his daughter, a bit gruffly. “This is not a harebrained scheme we came up with in an idle moment. Victor and I have talked this through a lot—and now it seems the Beowulfers might be able to tip the odds still further in our favor.”

Berry crossed her arms over her chest. For a moment, she looked like a stubborn twelve-year-old. Then, perhaps reminding herself of her new august stature and her still-more-august company and surroundings, she took a deep breath and said: “Fine. Go ahead.”

* * *

Anton took a few minutes to explain the proposal in much greater detail than Victor had done. Along the way, various people chimed in to provide their own insights and opinions. When he was finished, he looked at Benton-Ramirez y Chou.

“As you were saying . . .”

Jacques nodded, and started in. “We’ve developed a technique to—I’m using these terms loosely, you understand—sheathe someone in a coating of fake DNA. ‘Fake’ in the sense that it’s not the DNA of the person being sheathed. It’s real DNA, just taken from someone else.”

Everyone stared at him. After a moment, Foreign Secretary Langtry tugged his ear and said: “How can you possibly change someone’s DNA? I would think that would—would—”

“She or he would no longer be the same person,” said Eloise Pritchart. “At least, I don’t think so, although I suppose that might pose an interesting philosophical question.”

Jacques shook his head. “No philosophical subtleties are involved. The person’s DNA doesn’t get altered. What we do is . . .”

His face got an expression somewhere between a grimace and a rueful smile. “This really isn’t as gross as it’s going to sound—doesn’t hurt at the time, although it’s an uncomfortable adjustment afterward. Essentially, we flay the person’s skin and grow another one, using someone’s else’s DNA.”

Berry’s expression was pure grimace. “Oh, that’s disgusting!”

Anton shrugged. “It’s not all that different from what happens in a regeneration of destroyed skin tissue—although as far as I know there’s always enough surviving skin that the injured person’s own skin is used.”

Jacques nodded. “The tricky part is suppressing autoimmune responses to foreign bodies. That’s easy enough to do for most transplants, but the skin is the body’s largest organ and the way it interacts with the rest of the body gets awfully complex. There’s really no medical use for the technique, since anyone who suffers one hundred percent destruction of their skin tissue is bound to be dead anyway. But eventually it occurred to us that the intelligence uses of the technique might be tremendous if we could perfect it.”

Victor’s face hadn’t been marked by a grimace, as you’d expect. The Havenite agent was perfectly capable of accepting even grotesque consequences if he thought they were warranted. His expression showed only keen interest.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, here,” he said. “The gist of what you’re saying is that we’d be protected from routine DNA sampling—hair, flakes of skin, traces of sweat, body oils, that sort of thing. So if someone tried to find out who we were from testing the residues we left on a door button or a railing, they’d be misled. But we wouldn’t be protected from targeted examination. If someone tested our blood or swabbed the insides of our mouths, for instance, we’d be exposed.”

“That’s a pretty accurate summation. I feel obliged to point out that if your supposition that the Alignment has lost your genetic records because of McBryde’s actions is correct, you might be worse off if you went to Mesa with this genetic sheath I’m describing.”

“Yes, I understand that,” said Victor. “If we got seriously tested after they’d already picked up routine samples, we’d show two different DNA results. That would set off alarm bells even if they didn’t suspect anything beforehand.”

He looked at Anton. “I still think it’d be worth it.”

Anton nodded. “So do I. The only reason they’d take mouth swabs or blood samples is if they were already suspicious. Mesa isn’t exactly a dictatorship—not, at least, for its own citizens—but it’s a far cry from a state that respects legal procedures if they think anything important is at stake. If we’re that far in the hole, they’ll be trampling right over us anyway.”

“What’s most important about the sheath,” Victor said, “isn’t the fact that it hides our true identities. If we’re right, they don’t have those anyway. The real advantage is that it would enable us to assume false identities—entirely false ones, I mean. Am I right about that?”

Jacques looked puzzled. “I’m not sure— Oh.” His face cleared up. “I see what you’re getting at. Even if Mesa doesn’t have your DNA records—as individuals, that is—they do know your personal history. Enough of it, anyway.”

“Which means,” said Anton, “that they’d be on high alert for any routine samples that showed the individuals were from either Haven—more specifically, Nouveau Paris—or Gryphon’s highlands. Neither of those genetic strains is as distinct as something like”—he nodded toward Princess Ruth—“Masadan origin or”—now he glanced at Thandi—“Mfecane origin. But it’s distinctive enough that they’d probably be able to spot it even from routine sampling.”

“There’s no ‘probably’ about it,” said Benton-Ramirez y Chou. “The Alignment’s biological skills are as good as those of us Beowulfers, for the most part, and better in some areas. They’d spot someone from Haven or Gryphon, you can be sure of it. Especially someone from Nouveau Paris or the highlands, because their methods are more than good enough for that sort of detail.”

Victor’s smile had little humor in it. “Precisely. So we go in sheathed as”—he looked at Zilwicki—“what strikes your fancy, Anton?”

“I’ve always had a yen to be a filthy-rich oligarch from one of the Verge territories, unrestrained by any code or scruple.”

Jeremy grinned. “Perhaps from Hakim?”

“Just the thing.” The Hakim System was notorious even by Verge standards for the behavior of its upper classes. And it was very far away from either Manticore or Haven. “And how about you, Victor? An effete snot from one of the Core planets, do you think?”

Across the table, Thandi Palane smiled—with no more humor than Victor had. “A dilettante news reporter, too rich to actually have to work at it but with delusions of journalistic grandeur. From the Hirochi system, perhaps. That was mostly settled by people from east Asia, so you’d be fairly removed from the usual Havenite genome.”

Berry stared at her, aghast. “You’re encouraging them!”

Palane’s smile became gentler. “It’s a good idea, Berry. We do need to find out more about the Alignment—and it’s a simple fact that Victor and Anton are the best people to do the job.”

Victor’s gaze seemed slightly out of focus. “We could . . . use some help, though.”

Anton understood what he meant immediately. Well . . . within a second, anyway. It was a little disturbing, the way his mind seemed able to track Cachat’s so well.

But it was a great idea. “That’d be just about perfect!” He smiled broadly at Thandi. “Our very own one-person wrecking crew.”

“You have got to be kidding,” said Thandi.

“No, actually, I’m not,” said Anton. He nodded toward Cachat. “And for sure and certain he isn’t.”

Honor Alexander-Harrington spoke up for the first time since the Torch delegation entered the room. “If I’m not mistaken, they’re proposing that General Palane accompany the mission to Mesa. Special Officer Cachat and Mr. Zilwicki are proposing it, at least. The general herself seems to have some reservations, of course.”

Berry stared at her, mouth open. Then, stared at her father. Her mouth still open.

“I can see several advantages to the idea myself,” Alexander-Harrington went on. “On the other hand, I also see one big drawback—the fact that General Palane is in command of Torch’s armed forces. It’d be like sending Admiral Caparelli here on an intelligence mission.”

“That analogy is a bit forced, Duchess Harrington,” said Jeremy X. “For two reasons. The first is that the so-called ‘armed forces’ of Torch bear a lot more resemblance to a work-in-progress—small work in progress—than they do to anything either you or the Republic of Haven would call a real military. General Palane has set underway a training program for ground troops that’s going quite well, I think, but she has good subordinates and they could do without her for a time. That’s especially true for the navy, for which her background and experience really aren’t of much use.”

He gave Thandi an apologetic little smile. “Meaning no offense.”

She shrugged. “None taken. The truth is, Duchess Harrington, I let Captain Petersen do pretty much what he wants. He knows far more than I do about how to put together a navy from what amounts to scratch.”

Harrington nodded. “Yes, I know Anton. He’s a superb officer. It depends mostly on how long you’d be gone. A few months wouldn’t be any particular problem. Your armed forces need that much time for training before you’d be able to launch any major operations anyway. But once you do start to engage the enemy . . .”

“For that, you need a real commander-in-chief,” said Thandi. “On the spot and taking responsibility. Yes, I understand.”

She now looked at Victor and Anton. “So, what’s your estimate?”

“Three months,” said Victor. “Maybe four. No more than five.”

Anton pursed his lips. “Always the cheerful optimist. I agree we’ll need at least three months. But I’d extend the outer limit to six.”

“No longer?” asked Theisman.

“The situation is too fluid, and moving rapidly,” said Anton.

“If we can’t find what we need within half a year,” added Victor, “it’ll most likely be a moot point anyway. Which is part of the reason we’d like General Palane to come on the mission. Things are likely to get . . . ah, hectic.”

Theisman now looked at Palane. “And exactly how would you make such a big difference, if I might ask?”

Palane looked uncomfortable. “This is a little awkward. Ah . . .”

“What the general is having a hard time coming right out with,” said Victor, “is that there are no more than a few dozen people in the universe who are her equals when it comes to hands-on personal violence, and no more than a handful who surpass her.” His tone was flat, almost harsh. “I can testify to that personally. Having her come along would be roughly equivalent to bringing a squad of Marines with us. Anybody’s Marines, take your pick.”

“Half a platoon, more like,” said Anton. “There’s a reason that Luiz Rozsak—who is nobody’s fool, believe me—personally selected her for his staff despite her total lack of the usual connections. The same reason that lots of people on Torch call her Great Kaja. That nickname originated with former Scrags and it translates more or less as ‘the Galaxy’s scariest she-wolf.’ ”

He glanced at Caparelli. “Meaning no offense, but however capable your First Space Lord is at his normal line of work, I wouldn’t trade a hundred of him for Palane where we’ll be going.”

Caparelli chuckled. “No offense taken.” He gave Thandi a look that was a lot more interested than the casual one he’d given her when she first came in. “Are they right, General Palane? And to hell with false modesty.”

“Yes,” she said tersely. “They are.”

While this exchange had been going on, Alexander-Harrington had been studying Palane. There was something very intense about that scrutiny, Anton thought. He wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, but he suspected the duchess was beginning to shape some sort of plan.

For what? He could only guess—and his first guess was that Harrington had been struck by the same notion that had already come to him and Victor.

A war with the Mesan Alignment was now inevitable—in fact, it had already started. Sooner or later, Mesa was going to have to be conquered and occupied. Who, then, should be the occupying troops? Of a planet shaped by centuries of harsh slavery, and with a population more than two-thirds of which was made up of slaves or their disenfranchised descendants?

Torch didn’t begin to have the military force needed for such an occupation, of course. But most of the occupation troops could be provided by other star nations. What Torch could provide would be a cadre of specialists, in essence—people who would understand the attitudes of the majority of Mesa’s population and could serve as trusted liaisons between them and the occupying forces.

Having a Torch commander-in-chief who was familiar with the situation on the ground in Mesa due to a personal reconnaissance might prove to be invaluable, in that event. And if the seccies and slaves of a liberated Torch later learned that that same commander-in-chief had personally risked her life scouting their homeworld in preparation for its liberation . . .

Anton’s own scrutiny of Harrington must have been intense also. Intense enough that she turned to look at him directly, almost as if she possessed some sort of telepathic ability.

Which was absurd. She wasn’t a treecat, after all.

“I can think of some other reasons it would be a good idea for General Palane to go along on the expedition,” Alexander-Harrington said. “Especially . . . Let’s just say I’d like to have an assessment of Mesa—from being there on the ground herself, not from reports—coming from someone with her experience and abilities. That could prove very useful, down the road a bit.”

She couldn’t be telepathic, damnation. It just wasn’t in the human genome.

Was it?

The personal com on Harrington’s wrist must have given her a vibration, because she suddenly looked at it.

“A reminder from my staff,” she said. The slight smile on her face indicated that she hadn’t really needed the reminder but was appreciative of having attentive subordinates.

Turning to the Empress of Manticore, she said: “It’s time Admiral Theisman and I were getting out to Imperator. It’s always remotely possible Admiral Filareta will actually get here on schedule, after all.”

Back | Next