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Chapter 15

Well, what have we here? Yuri thought to himself, as he and Sharon were ushered into a suite on one of the top floors of the Suds Emporium. The room they entered was probably listed in the hotel’s data bank as the living room of a suite; if so, proving yet again that the Erewhonese had a wry sense of humor. A fabled despot of the ancient Orient would have turned green with envy if he’d seen the place. All that was lacking were scantily clad slaves fanning the inhabitants with palm leaves.

And probably the only reason that was lacking was that the rulers of Erewhon had a very well developed sense of security. Slaves could talk—or scribble, if you cut out their tongues. The gangsters who’d originally settled Erewhon might have solved that problem by simply killing their slaves, but their descendants weren’t quite that ruthless.

Not quite. It helped that they had excellent air conditioning.

When they got the summons from Walter Imbesi, Yuri and Sharon had presumed that they’d be meeting with him alone. Instead, the room’s inhabitants included the triumvirate who semi-officially ran Erewhon—Tomas Hall, Alessandra Havlicek and Jack Fuentes—as well as Imbesi. Walter himself had no even semi-official position in Erewhon’s power structure, but for all practical purposes the triumvirate was really a quadrumvirate.

Erewhon’s government was not perhaps unique in the galaxy, but it came pretty close. It had a formal government apparatus, complete with a tripartite separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, a written constitution, and a citizens’ bill of rights to match the finest democracies anywhere. Then, paralleling all that, was the real fount of authority: an elaborate network of informal—it might be better to say, semi-formal—protocols and customs that bound all of the great families of Erewhon into a complex web of alliances and understandings that kept disputes within reasonable bounds.

You wouldn’t think such a contradictory-seeming system would work at all, much less be a stable one. But Erewhon had been ruled that way for a long time now, without ever suffering internal strife much worse than scuffles since the conclusion of the bloody civil war between the Nationalists and Conventionalists that had taken place more than three and a half centuries earlier. On two occasions since the victory of the Nationalists in that civil war, the scuffles had begun erupting into deadly violence but they’d been squelched very quickly by the combined power of the rest of the planet’s great families.

The setup might have been oppressive for most of the planet’s population, except for the fact that all the great families had long ago established the practice of absorbing through adoption anyone showing real talent and promise. One of the effects of that practice, of course, was that the power and influence of the great families themselves was tremendously enhanced. Today, there was almost no one on Erewhon who couldn’t consider themselves part of one of the great families, indirectly if not directly. In a very real sense, the entire population had become vested in customs that originated in the social mores of criminals, but had by now acquired a veneer of respectability so hard that no one in the galaxy challenged Erewhon’s legitimacy.

Over the centuries, the practice had become a social custom so deeply ingrained that Erewhon was one of the very few star nations whose culture had no trace of xenophobia or social exclusivism. That was one of the reasons that Erewhon had been receptive from the beginning to the emergence of a star nation of former genetic slaves right next door to it. (So to speak. Torch was actually about twenty-seven light-years from Erewhon. But by the standards of modern space travel, that made them close neighbors.)

The presence of the triumvirate along with Walter Imbesi in the suite was not the most interesting factor, though. What Yuri found most significant was the presence of Luiz Rozsak, the commanding officer of Maya Sector’s fleet-in-all-but-name and the man who’d defeated the armada sent to destroy Torch. By parties unknown, in the official record, but everyone knew perfectly well the mercenary armada had been hired by Manpower—or some other and still more inimical forces on Mesa.

There was a man accompanying Rozsak who was also wearing the uniform of the Solarian League Navy. Yuri didn’t know him. He’d had no contact yet with Mayan officials. The only reason he recognized Rozsak was because he’d studied Sharon’s reports on the man while en route to Erewhon, which had included holopics of him.

Sharon leaned over and whispered in his ear: “That’s Lieutenant Commander Jiri Watanapongse, Rozsak’s intelligence specialist. He’s very good.”

The Erewhonese and Mayans in the suite waited politely for Yuri and Sharon to finish their hurried exchange. Then Alessandra Havlicek rose from her seat and went over to a side table laden with bottles.

“A drink?” she asked, pouring herself one. “This is Turnerian whiskey, which for my money is the best in the galaxy. But if you’re not partial to whiskey . . .”

She finished pouring her drink and now had a free hand. She gestured with the hand to the rest of the very long and very well-laden side table. “We have pretty much anything you might enjoy.”

Sharon leaned over again, whispering, “Stay away from the booze, unless you’ve taken an anti-alcohol—”

Yuri held up his hand. “Please, I wasn’t born yesterday.” He knew perfectly well that the Erewhonese—for a certainty—had all taken anti-alcohol preventatives, and the Mayan had likely done the same. He hadn’t bothered to do so himself before coming here because he wasn’t fond of alcoholic beverages to begin with. He’d always found that abstention worked better than any chemical measures.

He didn’t bother to whisper, either. Seeing that he was following that tactical route—we’re all adults here, with no reason to play silly games—Sharon shrugged and headed for the side table.

She had taken anti-alcohol preventatives. Unlike Yuri, Sharon enjoyed her liquor. Enjoyed it enough, in fact, that she used a semi-permanent subcutaneous delivery system instead of the usual pills. That enabled her to fine tune the dosage to allow her to get a slight buzz—without which she claimed booze wasn’t booze—but nothing strong enough to affect her reasoning powers.

“I’ve never had Turnerian whiskey, but I’ve heard about it for years,” she said to Havlicek. “How do you recommend it? Neat? On the rocks?”

“Oh, you can’t dilute it with ice. If you really insist on chilling your liquor, then at least use—”

“Neat it is, then. Would you do me the honors?”

She and Havlicek exchanged smiles. The sort that had been exchanged between conspirators from time immemorial. Fellow spies, fellow sports fans, fellow drug addicts . . .

While Havlicek poured Sharon a glass of the whiskey, Yuri took a seat next to Watanapongse. “What are you having?” he asked, looking at the small but expensive-looking metal pot on the low table in front of the captain. There was a diminutive cup next to the pot holding some sort of very dark liquid.

“It’s a type of coffee we make on Maya. If you trace it back far enough it’d have been called ‘Turkish coffee,’ but I don’t know how much it resembles its ancestor. I’ve visited Terra twice, but never got a chance to try the real stuff.”

It looked very strong and very bitter. Yuri decided it was just what he needed for the upcoming ordeal.

“I’ll have one, then. Where—”

“I’ll get it for you. It’ll just take a bit.” Watanapongse rose smoothly from his armchair and headed toward a different side table. This one, Yuri saw, had what looking like coffee-making equipment on it. Or at least equipment whose ancestors had once made coffee. From what he could tell at the distance, this equipment might also be able to navigate through hyperspace.

Ordeal . . . wasn’t quite the right word. Everyone would be exceedingly pleasant, he was sure of that. However battered the Republic of Haven might have been in the last stretch of the war with Manticore, it was still one of the galaxy’s great military powers—far, far more powerful than either Erewhon or Maya, or even both combined. Erewhon was now an ally of the Republic, however strained that alliance might be in some respects, and he was almost certain that Maya was seeking to join that alliance. Or, at least, develop an informal relationship with Haven that came very close.

The big problem with this upcoming discussion, from Yuri’s point of view, was that he knew damn good and well that within five minutes he’d be out of his pay grade; within fifteen minutes, he’d be way out of his pay grade; and within half an hour his pay grade would be an invisible microbe whimpering in the dust somewhere far, far below.

What was worse—oh, so very, very worse—was that he probably wouldn’t be able to wriggle out of the situation by pointing to that selfsame oh-so-very-very-modest pay grade. The Erewhonese didn’t think in those terms. The Mayans probably did, as a rule, but Yuri was pretty sure they were going to be pitching the rules here.

And what was absolutely certain was that Yuri and Sharon weren’t going to be able to claim that their superiors kept them on too tight of a leash for them to be able to say or agree to much of anything.

Alas, their immediate superior—for Sharon, officially; and if not Yuri, it amounted to much the same in practice—was a certain Victor Cachat. That is to say, the person who more than any other human alive today paid no attention whatsoever to pay grades. His own, least of all.

The first and most ancient law for all government officials like Yuri Radamacher—bureaucrats, to call them by their right name—was Cover Your Ass.

But how do you cover your ass when you’re trying to cover it from the likes of Victor Cachat? The only way to do it was to satisfy him that you did your best—that is to say, your very very very best—to take advantage of every opportunity that came your way.

Such as the opportunity to expand an alliance against the galaxy’s largest and most powerful star nation and its most vicious and cunning cabal—respectively, the Solarian League and the Mesan Alignment—by bringing in Erewhon and Maya Sector.

If Cachat were sitting in this very seat at this very moment, waiting for Captain Watanapongse to return with a pot of coffee—and the Mayan officer was even now headed back this way—would he be whining and pissing and moaning to himself that he was way above his pay grade?

Ha. The murderous brutal sociopathic reptilian callous son of a bitch would be licking his chops, that’s what. Because he was dead sure and certain that he was a supremely competent murderous brutal sociopathic etc., etc., etc.

Watanapongse set down the pot and cup. Yuri poured the one into the other and took a careful sip.

Then, sighed.

“Good, isn’t it?” asked the Mayan intelligence officer.

Yuri sighed again. That seemed easier, simpler and safer than saying anything. And within five minutes—

Jack Fuentes cleared his throat. “Thank you both for coming. The reason we asked for this meeting—”

No, two minutes. Easier and simpler and safer were terms that would be as foreign to Yuri Radamacher as words written in ancient Sumerian.

He wondered if the ancient Sumerians had had a term for “pay grade.”

Probably. He knew they’d had executioners.

* * *

“Oh, come on, Yuri. That wasn’t so bad.” Sharon climbed into the capsule whose hatch Yuri was holding open for her. The system of mass transport the Erewhonese had chosen for their capital city was a variant of the vacuum transport method. It was fast and efficient, but it required the use of smaller vehicles than either of them were used to. Climbing into the capsules was easier if someone gave you a bit of assistance.

Once Sharon was in place, Yuri slid into the seat behind her, spoke their destination and pressed the button indicating that the coupling was finished. The capsules could be linked in a chain as long as sixty capsules, but they were so small in diameter that two people could not sit next to each other unless one of them was an infant.

Sffffttttt. The joined capsules sped off. The arrangement made conversations a bit difficult, though.

“Admit it!” Sharon said. She started to turn her head until she remembered that she could pull up a virtual screen that would allow her to look at Yuri directly.

“Admit it,” she repeated, after the screen came up.

For a moment, Yuri was tempted to claim that the awkward seating arrangement made it hard for him to get his thoughts in order. But the moment—

Sttttfffff. A chime announced they’d arrived.

—was brief. It really was a fast and efficient system.

“Okay,” he said, after they climbed out. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be. Mind you!” He held up a cautionary finger. “That’s not saying a lot. I’m told that root canals weren’t as bad as they were thought to be. But they were still pretty bad.”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Nobody’s had a root canal in . . . hell, what is it? Two millennia? Outside of planets that were lost and cast back into medievalism, anyway.” She took Yuri by the arm and led him toward the exit. “You’re just being grumpy because you think it’s an art form at which you’re a maestro.”

Her tone was cheerful. “And speaking of maestros, I think you did damn well today, myself. For a measly high commissioner and envoy extraordinary.”

They passed out into the open. The sunlight was bright—and also quite cheering, even if the color was a little off to them. Erewhon’s star was a K5, smaller and dimmer than Haven’s or La Martine’s, which were both G stars. To Yuri and Sharon, everything seemed to have a slightly orange cast.

There was a bit of a breeze, too, to make the day still more enjoyable. Despite his grim determination to find wrack and ruin all about, Yuri couldn’t help but feel his spirits picking up.

Sharon, who knew him well, jumped onto the moment with heavy boots.

“Look at all the bright spots,” she said. “First—there’s no doubt about this—the Erewhonese and the Mayans have finally decided they can trust each other.”

“Sure. Gangsters and traitors are natural bosom buddies.”

“Second, it’s just as obvious—they didn’t come right out and say it, of course—that they’re going to be integrating their military forces all the way down the line, not just having Erewhon serve as Maya’s workshop. That has the potential to turn two third-rate powers into one that swings some real weight.”

“Just what the galaxy needs. Another Machiavelli in the game.”

“Stop it, Yuri. You know just as well as I do how important that could wind up being, if the Solarian League collapses—which we both think it will, and not even that far in the future.”

Yuri made a face. He didn’t disagree with anything Sharon was saying. It was just that . . .

They’d reached the entrance to their apartment building. He gave Sharon a warning look. As long as they’d been moving and talking out in the open, the scrambling equipment they both carried would have made it impossible for anyone to overhear their conversation or even read their lips. And once they entered their apartment, the much more powerful and sophisticated equipment there made it possible for them to speak openly again. The danger was in this transition zone. Someone could have planted surveillance gear in the vicinity which their portable scramblers couldn’t handle, and they were still too far away for the stationary equipment in their apartment to protect them.

Of course, it was a warning that Sharon didn’t need at all, as her answering glare made clear. It was admittedly a little silly for him to caution a former StateSec officer on security issues.

Neither of them said anything further until they’d reached the apartment and the door had closed behind them. Then, after a quick glance at the monitors to make sure the scramblers were operating, Sharon crossed her arms and gave Yuri a level stare.

“Okay, get it out of your system. ‘It was just that . . . ’ What, Yuri?”

He took a deep breath. “Why me? Why do I have to be the one trying to thread the needle between encouraging them—yes, I agree; of course I agree; if they can pull off this alliance we’ll all be in a better position—and not coming right out and committing Haven to anything because I don’t have the goddam authority to do it in the first place.”

She smiled and patted his cheek. “Because you’re so good at it. That’s why Victor made sure you got the assignment.”

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