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Chapter 14

After the delegation from Torch had all entered the suite assigned to them in Mount Royal Palace, Berry turned to Thandi.

“But . . .” Her voice was very small. “If you go too, what’ll . . . I mean . . .”

Palane put an arm around her. “You’ll be fine, girlfriend. Your father will need me a lot more than you will. Jeremy isn’t really planning any coup d’état, as it turns out.”

“Lord, no,” said Jeremy, sprawling onto a couch in the suite’s central chamber. “I’d be a lamb among lions. The only woman on Torch scarier than the Great Kaja is the damn Queen herself.”

Berry gave him a reproving glance. “Am not.”

“Are too. The veritable reincarnation of that Russia czarina. Catherine the Great, wasn’t it? Except her husband was a squishy fellow—she had him deposed, if I recall correctly—whereas our Queen’s consort is one of those Beowulfan knee-breakers. Ogres flee at his approach.”

In a more serious tone, he added: “I’m really quite satisfied with the way our government’s turning out, Berry. Especially you.” He cast a colder eye on Du Havel, standing nearby. “I’m not even too disgruntled with our Prime Minister. Wishy-washy though he be, and given to far too many compromises with the establishment.”

“We are the establishment, Jeremy,” Web said mildly.

“Pah! Only on our own itty-bitty planet. I was speaking of the great behemoths of the galactic establishment.”

Du Havel eased himself into a couch at right angles to the one Jeremy was occupying. “In any event, whether or not I am indeed guilty of compromisitis, I think it’s all becoming a moot point. Or am I the only one who thinks we’re about to be tasked with providing the new anti-Manpower alliance with an occupation force for Mesa? Not all of it, of course. Not even most of it.”

Berry stared at him. “Huh?”

Jeremy smiled, very thinly. “I’m reading the tea leaves—say better, the entrails—about the same way as you, Web.”

Berry now stared at him. “Huh?”

“Same here,” chimed in Thandi. She was still on her feet, close to the door, in a parade rest stance. “In fact, I think it’s pretty much a done deal.”

Berry turned to stare at her. “Huh?”

The door buzzed. Thandi glanced at her watch. “About what I figured.” Leaning over slightly, she opened the door.

Victor Cachat came in, followed closely by Anton Zilwicki. A little behind them was Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou.

Thandi and Victor looked at each other, both very stiff-faced. Anton’s mouth quirked a little and he said: “You can blame me, Thandi. Victor was all for stopping at Torch first, but—”

“He’s lying,” said Victor.

“You’re lying,” said Thandi. Neither one of them looked away from each other.

“—I insisted that, oh, the hell with it. If the two of you won’t accept that perfectly workable attempt to provide everyone with a way to save face, drop it anyway. We’re got a mission to organize, not to mention laying plans for an occupation force for Mesa.”

Berry scowled. “I hate feeling like the dunce in a crowd. What are you all talking about?”

“If it makes you feel any better, Your Majesty, I’m scrambling to catch up myself,” said Jacques, closing the door behind him.

Berry was still grumpy enough to say: “Don’t call me ‘Your Majesty.’ I hate that title.” A bit belatedly, she added: “Please.”

“You’re not at home, Your Majesty,” Web said. “He has to and you have to let him.”

“What he said,” chipped in Jeremy. “Although now that we’re here on Manticore we’re going to run into a bit of a problem. There’s one too many majesties about. So we have to start adding modifiers. That’s how they used to do it back in the old days. ‘Your Most Christian Majesty,’ ‘Your Most Catholic Majesty,’ that sort of thing.”

He looked around the room. “What say you, gentle folk? I propose Her Most Modest Majesty.”

Berry sniffed. “Wasn’t three minutes ago you said I was the reincarnation of Catherine the Great.”

“I was hoping you’d forgotten. All right, then. Her Most Fearsome Majesty.”

Whether by conscious intent or not—and with Jeremy X you never knew; there was usually a method to his whimsy—his banter had eased some of the personal tension in the room.

Quite a bit, as it turned out. Thandi took three steps over to Victor, seized the back of his head and planted a quick, fierce kiss on his lips. “I forgive you,” she said. “Don’t do it again.”

Then, taking him by the hand, she led him over to another couch where they both sat down. This couch was the third leg of a U-shaped furniture arrangement in the center of the room. They faced Jeremy across a table that had presumably begun life as a coffee table but had long since mutated into a low-slung version of something that belonged in a banquet hall. Web Du Havel sat to their right, on the couch that formed the connecting link to the U.

Berry sat next to Web. He slid over to allow her room in the middle of the couch so that Anton could take a seat on her other side. Jeremy did the same so that Jacques and Ruth could share his couch. The Beowulfer leaned back in a very relaxed manner, something which the high-tech and expensive piece of furniture made easy to do. Ruth, as was her habit, perched on the edge of the seat. The couch put up a fight but she mastered the beast easily enough.

Once everyone was seated—or half-seated, in the case of Ruth—Jacques said: “I wasn’t actually trying to reassure Her Majesty. I really am trying to catch up. Am I correct in thinking that at least some of you are seriously contemplating using Torch troops as part of an occupying force for Mesa? If so, I suspect my niece is of a like mind.”

“And what do you think?” asked Victor.

“I don’t know. The idea hadn’t even occurred to me before this.”

The Havenite agent nodded at Zilwicki. “Anton and I spent a fair amount of time discussing the idea. Since we had plenty of time to spare, while we were drifting around in space. The logic is quite robust.”

“Sure is,” said Ruth. She started counting off on her fingers. “First, we’ve got to occupy Mesa. I leave aside for the moment the precise definition of ‘we,’ but at the very least it’ll include the Star Empire, the Republic of Haven, the Kingdom of Torch, and—this is a bit of a guess, but the odds are long in favor—Beowulf.”

“You can take that as a given also,” said Benton-Ramirez y Chou.

“Add to that Erewhon and Maya Sector,” said Victor. “Not immediately, but sooner or later it’s bound to happen.”

Jacques cocked his head at him. “Erewhon, I concur. But are you sure about Maya Sector? Barregos and Rozsak are about as devoted to realpolitik as the Andermani.”

“If ‘rayal politique’ means what I think it means,” said Berry, “I think you’re misjudging them a little. Luiz Rozsak, anyway. I don’t know Oravil Barregos.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Anton. “Cold-blooded self-interest will drive them toward us just as quickly as whatever shreds of idealism they still possess.” A bit grudgingly, he added: “Which are some pretty big shreds, at least in the case of Rozsak.”

“To get back to the point,” said Ruth, “once everybody figures out that we have to occupy Mesa sooner or later”—she held up another finger—“it won’t take them long to realize that sooner is way better than later. That’s because—”

Another finger came up. “A big part of this war is the propaganda front. Most people in the Solarian League still don’t believe our version of what’s happening. The single biggest step we could take to start turning that around is to overrun Mesa. Fast and hard. That way we can—hopefully—get access to their own records.”

Anton grunted skeptically. “I wouldn’t count on that. The very fact that McBryde could do the damage he did indicates the Alignment has contingencies in place to destroy any critical records if they need to.”

Ruth looked stubborn, an expression that came rather naturally to her. “Okay, maybe. But there’ll still be people who can be interrogated.”

“Unless they murder all of them,” said Jeremy, “which I wouldn’t put past the bastards for a minute.”

“All the more reason for a quick and decisive intervention,” said Victor. “And, to come back to where we started, all the more reason for an occupying army that can’t be bamboozled by the local authorities. Most of the troops will have to be provided by others, since Torch’s army doesn’t begin to be large enough. But if Torch provides . . . what should we call them?”

“Reconnaissance and liaison units,” said Thandi.

“Yes, that. We’d be a long ways toward gaining the unstinting allegiance and trust of about two-thirds of the population.”

“It’s more than that,” said Ruth. “Full citizens don’t make up more than thirty percent of Mesa’s population. About sixty percent are outright slaves, and the remainder are the descendants of slaves who were freed centuries ago when Mesa still allowed manumission.”

Jacques pursed his lips. “How many occupying armies in history have ever enjoyed that advantage?”

“None that I know of,” said Du Havel. “The closest analog I can think of was the occupation of the southern areas of the United States of America after their civil war. But slaves only constituted a minority of that population.”

“The logic is pretty irresistible, I admit—at least in theory. But in practice . . .”

“Does Torch have an army that could take on that task?” said Thandi. “That’s what you’re wondering.”


She shrugged. “Right now, no. But we’re not all that far away, between the training programs we’ve got up and running and the fact that people keep volunteering for the military.”

“You haven’t imposed conscription, I take it?”

“No,” said Du Havel.

“Not yet,” said Jeremy. He gave the Prime Minister a sharp glance. “But we will if we need to.”

Thandi raised her hand. “Let’s not reopen that argument, guys. There’s no point it in anyway. If we got a much bigger influx than we’re getting already, our training programs would start to collapse. Our cadre is still awfully slender.”

“If you’re pretty close to having the forces we’d need for that purpose, then Beowulf could make up the difference,” said Jacques. “Whatever that might take. The way I see this war shaping up—”

He broke off. “But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. Let’s wait and see what happens with Filareta. And then, whatever the outcome, we need to have a full discussion with all the parties involved. Manticore and Haven, especially.”

Thandi leaned back. “I agree.”

“So do I,” said Victor. “So let’s move on to the subject that’s immediately to hand. What’s involved with this new genetic treatment you told us about? And how long would it take?”

“And how many people can you do it for?” asked Anton. “If it’s this new, it’s still going to be fiendishly expensive.”

“Very big and fierce fiends at that,” said Jacques, smiling. “But then again, Beowulf is a very big and fiercely rich planet. We can afford as many treatments as are needed, short of an entire battalion. The real question is, how many people do you want for the mission? And who?”

Victor and Anton looked at each other, then at Thandi.

“The three of us, obviously,” said Zilwicki.

“Yana should come too,” said Victor, “if she’s willing. She just spent months on Mesa, so she knows the territory.”

“She’s willing,” said Thandi.

“Speaking of Parmley Station . . .” Anton frowned. “Do you think Steph Turner would be willing to go back to Mesa? None of us know the planet the way she does.”

Victor looked skeptical. “I don’t know, Anton. I agree she’d be ideal, but . . .” He shook his head. “I can’t see why she’d be willing to take the risk. She’s a civilian, push comes to shove.”

Jacques looked back and forth between them. “I’m not familiar with the person.”

“Steph was the owner of the restaurant on Mesa that I worked at,” said Anton. “We made contact with her through the Ballroom. She’s not a member of it but she owed them a favor. The reason she came back with us is because the whole thing blew open right in her restaurant. She didn’t have any choice. Brought her daughter out, too.”

“Pay her,” said Jeremy. He smiled and pointed at Benton-Ramirez y Chou with a thumb. “Out of Beowulf’s treasury. They can afford whatever she wants.”

Jacques didn’t object. He didn’t seem in the least bit concerned about the matter, in fact. “Would money do it?”

Anton and Victor looked at each other again. “Abstractly . . . probably not,” said Victor. “But if we tied it to something she’d really want . . .”

“Maybe,” finished Zilwicki. “We need to figure out what that might be, though. She’s already got enough to set up the restaurant she wants.”

“Nancy,” said Ruth. “Nancy’s the key.”

Jacques cocked his head. “Nancy is . . .”

“Steph’s daughter. She’s on Beowulf at the moment, undergoing prolong treatments. She’s fifteen years old. Maybe sixteen, now. In other words—”

“On the eve of all her higher education.” Jacques nodded. “And if her mother is a refugee from Mesa with just enough to set up a restaurant . . . I assume the prolong was paid for by Beowulf, yes?”

Ruth nodded. “So there won’t be anything left over. If Steph wants her to go to the best academies . . .”

She spread her hands. “You know how it is.”

Highly advanced planets like Beowulf and Manticore had extensive and well-funded programs to enable students from lower class backgrounds to attend the finest institutions of higher education. Even so, it helped a great deal if the student’s family could also provide them with assistance. In the nature of things, bureaucrats assigned to manage finances invariably found reasons that Assiduous Student’s Need Alpha was really Lackadaisical Student’s Whim Beta, and either refused to pay for it or didn’t pay enough. Or simply took months to decide, by which time the need (or whim, if such it was) had passed by.

“It’s worth a try,” said Victor. “If we want Yana, we’ll need to send a courier to Parmley Station anyway. We can ask Steph to come back with her. For reasons unspecified, of course—”

“Dear God, yes,” said Jacques, grimacing. “This new technique isn’t ‘top secret.’ It’s . . . Let’s just say it’s to ‘top secret’ what a supernova is to ‘dynamic.’ We have to keep knowledge of it limited to the smallest circle possible.”

“Steph’ll come, without questioning the reason,” said Anton. “She knows we wouldn’t ask her if it wasn’t important.”

“Which brings us back to my original questions,” said Victor. “How long does it take and what’s involved?”

Jacques looked at him for a moment. “You understand that this new treatment isn’t in place of a nanotech physiological transformation? It’s added on top of it.”

“Yes, obviously. It wouldn’t do us much good to have our DNA disguised if we could be recognized from a visual image.”

“Oh!” That came from Ruth. “Yukh. I’ve been through that process. It takes days and it’s miserable.”

“Really, really miserable,” said Berry.

Victor shrugged. “I’m sure it’s not that bad.”

Berry and Ruth stared at him the way people might stare at a lunatic. Anton couldn’t help but laugh.

“Girls, you need to remember the source. Black Victor, remember? Sometime, have him describe to you what StateSec Academy was like under Saint-Just.”

“Oh, double-yukh,” said Berry. “I remember now. Victor once told me that he had the fourth highest pain threshold ever recorded at that academy. Which begs the question—which I didn’t ask then and I’m sure as hell not asking now—of how they test that in the first place.”

Jacques looked interested. “I’m curious. How do they test that, Mr. Cachat.”

“Well, mainly—”

“Enough,” said Thandi. “I don’t want to know either. Leaving aside how bad the nanotech treatment is, what’s the new one like? And how fast is it?”

“Quicker than you’d think. It’s counterintuitive, but since we’re replacing the entire skin we don’t need to allow for the usual time lapse for growth. The main thing, really, is just leaving enough time to make sure there aren’t any rejections issues. The discomfort’s not too bad, either.”

“I assume it’ll need to be done on Beowulf,” said Anton.

“Oh, yes. In fact, there’s only one facility in the universe that can do it. At the University of Grendel.”

Thandi’s expression was close to a scowl. “You let academics be in charge of something that requires this level of security?”

Anton chuckled. He knew Beowulf a lot better than Thandi did. The planet was . . . unique, in many respects.

“Well, they’re Beowulfan academics,” said Jacques. “From the Department of Chaotics, to be specific.”

“Department of what?”

“It’s a field of study which I believe is only found on Beowulf,” Jacques explained.

“Are we gonna have fun or what?” said Anton.

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