Back | Next

Chapter 5

“I’d miss Steph,” Andrew Artlett protested. “Just for starters. Then there’s the lousy pay.”

Princess Ruth Winton frowned. “Lousy pay? You’re being offered almost half again what you’re making here on Torch—and you’re getting top rate for starship mechanics.” After a brief pause—very brief; Ruth hated admitting to a lack of complete expertise on any subject—she added: “So I’m told, anyway.”

“Well, yeah. But going back to Parmley Station to work on this project is risky as all hell.” Stoutly: “I should be getting hazard pay. That’s generally figured as a hundred percent pay increase. Double-time, that is.”

There were so many fallacies and lapses of logic in those statements that the Manticoran princess was rendered almost speechless.

Almost. Speechlessness was a state of affairs that was probably impossible for Ruth Winton.

What? That’s insane! Every single sentence you just said is blithering nonsense.”

She began counting off her fingers. “First off, there’s nothing at all risky for you in this deal. Your aunt Elfriede, maybe—”

“Don’t call her that to her face,” Andrew cautioned. “She answers to Ganny. Or Ganny El, if she likes you.”

“I have met the woman. I was just being formal. Seeing as how this is supposed to be an employment interview.” Ruth looked simultaneously cross and a bit embarrassed. “Of sorts,” she added.

“ ‘Employment interview’!” Artlett said mockingly. “Oh, yeah. I can see it in the want ads now.” He mimicked holding up a reading tablet. “ ‘Wanted. Damn fool mechanic for desperado duties aiding and abetting Audubon Ballroom sociopaths—”

He glanced at the huge figure of Hugh Arai, who was lounging in a nearby armchair in the princess’ suite. (Ruth called it a working office, but that was the obliviousness to luxury of someone born and raised in Mount Royal Palace in Manticore’s capital city of Landing. It was a no-fooling suite, on the top floor of the finest hotel in Beacon.)

“Meaning no offense, Hugh, I’m just saying it like it is.” Arai smiled at him.

Andrew resumed pretending to read a want ad: “—and Beowulfan cold-blooded killers masquerading as biologists—”

Again he glanced at Arai. “Meaning no offense. Just telling it like it is.” The smile became a grin.

Back to the imaginary want ad: “—for the purpose of hunting down any and all practitioners of the slave trade, which individuals are noted—no, notorious—throughout the inhabited portions of the galaxy for their cruelty and depraved indifference to human life, including that of starship mechanics.”

Triumphantly, he set down the imaginary tablet. “Ha!”

Ruth had waited for him to finish. Impatiently, because she was impatient with silliness by nature. But she’d still waited. She knew Artlett well enough by now to know there was no point in trying to derail him when he was hell-bent on riding his broad (broad? say better, oceanically expansive) sense of humor to the end of the track.

“If we might return to reality for a moment,” she said, “your duties will keep you on Parmley Station most of the time. A construct that is not only one of the largest space-going installations within light-years of its solar system but is by now almost as heavily armed as an orbital fortress.”

Hugh shook his head. “Bit of an exaggeration, Ruth. The defenses and armaments on Parmley Station aren’t designed to fight off a battle fleet.”

Andrew started to say something, probably along the lines of claiming that Arai was supporting him, but Hugh’s deep voice rode over him easily. “But they’ll squash any pirates or slavers who show up as easily as swatting an insect.”

He gave Artlett a beady gaze: “As you know perfectly well, since you were paid to be a consultant when we designed those defenses.”

“Still.” Andrew was nothing if not stubborn. He waved his hand in a gesture that might mean . . . pretty much anything. “Pirates. Slavers. Dangerous people, no matter how you slice it.”

He decided to fall back onto more sensible grounds. “And like I said, I’d miss Steph.”

Ruth pounced. “Why is that? I just talked to her this morning and she seemed quite amenable to relocating to Parmley Station.”

Andrew stared at her. “She . . . But—she told me—it was just a few weeks ago!”

Ruth waved her hand airily. “That was then, this is now. She’s had time since to gauge the real possibilities at either place. Here, on Torch, it seems like everybody and their grandmother is setting up a restaurant. The competition is brutal. The hours, long; the income . . .” The princess made a face, as if she had any idea of the harsh realities of trying to run a small restaurant.

Which, of course, she didn’t. But Ruth Winton never let petty details like her own ignorance get in the way of a good argument. She pressed on.

“Whereas on Parmley Station—” The royal expression became positively beatific, as she contemplated the commercial advantages of opening a restaurant there.

“It’s a busted enterprise,” jeered Artlett. “A pipe dream on the part of my great-uncle Michael Parmley—a screwball if there ever was one—who poured a fortune into building the galaxy’s most derelict orbital amusement park.”

“That was then, this is now,” interjected Hugh Arai. “As you know perfectly well, Andrew.” He leaned forward. “Today, it’s on the verge of becoming Beowulf’s central hub for covert operations against Mesa and Manpower.”

“The best clientele you could ask for!” Ruth said enthusiastically. “Beefy commando types. They eat like horses and tip like the upper crust.”

Most of that was pretty accurate. Not all covert operations people were beefy; but they did tend to eat a lot. That was a combination of a usually high-powered metabolism with near-constant physical training.

The analogy to the tipping habits of upper crust gamblers was wide of the mark, though. Wealthy people actually tended to be on the cheapskate side when it came to things like tipping. And charity, for that matter. It had been a constant for millennia that people of average means gave a higher percentage of their income to charitable causes than rich people—especially when you factored into the equation the end beneficiaries. Average people gave to those poorer than they. Rich people usually donated their money to cultural institutions—museums, universities and opera houses, for instance—of which they or their children were major personal beneficiaries. And then named them after themselves.

There were exceptions, of course, and those individuals could be spectacular in their largesse. The Winton dynasty had a long tradition of being very generous, especially for medical causes. Ruth’s misapprehension was the understandable product of her own personal experience.

But while the analogy was off, the reality remained. Covert ops people did tend to tip generously—and Andrew knew it, from having spent a lot of time in their company over the past period.

He ran fingers through his hair, in a gesture of exasperation. “Damn it, she was the one who insisted on coming here in the first place. I would have been perfectly happy to stay on Parmley Station. Women!”

Ruth had her own opinion—well-formed; cured; tempered; hardened; sharp on all edges and corners—as to which of the two human genders was actually prone to flightiness, inconstancy and indecision. Shakespeare’s greatest play wasn’t about a princess of Denmark, now was it?

But she saw no reason to squabble over the matter, since Artlett was now clearly on the verge of capitulating to logic and reason.

“All right, then,” he said. “I’ll go. If it’s okay with Steph.”

* * *

After Andrew left the suite, Hugh cleared his throat. “I noticed that you left out some particulars.”

“I wouldn’t call them ‘particulars.’ Speculative possibilities is closer to the mark.”

Arai shook his head. “You’re quibbling and you know it. What you’re calling ‘speculative possibilities’ are part of the established plans for using the Hali Sowle.

“Established by whom?” Ruth countered. “Ganny El still hasn’t agreed—and if she doesn’t, the whole deal collapses.”

“I know you didn’t learn to lie, cheat and steal at Mount Royal Palace. So where does it come from, this brazen shamelessness? This cunning deftness at misdirection and maneuver? This dazzling expertise at deceit and deception?”

“You might be surprised at what goes on in the corridors and back rooms of Mount Royal Palace, Hugh. But, no, I didn’t learn the skills there. No more than the rudiments, anyway.”

She sniffed. “Where do you think? I’ve been studying for the past three years at Zilwicki and Cachat University.”

Hugh chuckled. “Point. Speaking of which, do you think they’re really responsible for the slaughter on Mesa?”

“I assume you’re referring to the claim being spread by Manpower through the Solarian media that they set off the nuclear explosion at Green Pines. If so, the answer is ‘no.’ It’s clear they didn’t do it. We’ll get the full story from them when they arrive here.”

Word had come from Sharon Justice, one of Haven’s representatives on Erewhon, that Zilwicki and Cachat had arrived at Parmley Station a few weeks earlier. But her message had contained no other information beyond the bare fact that they were alive.

Arai leaned back in his chair and clasped his fingers over his belly. “Explain your reasoning.” His tone wasn’t argumentative, just interested.

“Hell, Hugh, it’s obvious.” She leaned forward in her own chair, sliding almost to the edge of it. Ruth was not capable of thinking or expounding anything in a relaxed position. Within less than a minute, Hugh knew from experience, she’d have risen from the chair and started pacing.

“For starters, if they were going to set off that large an explosion, why pick that target?”

“Well, according to the news reports—”

“Oh, please!” Ruth got to her feet. Hugh glanced at his watch. Seven seconds.

“That silly business about Green Pines being a residential center for the Mesan elite? Every other apartment in the complex inhabited by a Manpower bigshot? That’s why it was targeted?”

By the time she finished, she’d taken five steps one way and was now reversing direction. Long steps, too; Ruth was a strider.

“I don’t doubt that a lot of important managerial people lived there. But you know how incredibly tough modern construction can make buildings, Hugh—especially when they’re intended for the use of the powerful and wealthy.”

She threw up her hands, without breaking stride. “Are we supposed to believe that Anton Zilwicki was incompetent as well as murderous? For Pete’s sake, the man used to be in charge of building entire orbital stations. If there was anyone in the galaxy who’d know in precise detail just how ineffective such a bomb would be on such a target, planted in such a way—”

She finally stopped, leaning forward with her hands on her hands. “Whoever did it set that thing off in the open.” She threw up her hands again. “In a stupid park. Most of the force of the blast would have been completely wasted! Unless your goal was to vaporize kiddies and puppies and—and—whatever else they had there. Miniature sailboats in the miniature lake, whatever.”

Hugh winced. Ruth could sometimes get so swallowed up in her calculations that she’d blurt out the most insensitive and callous things without even thinking about it.

She pulled out her minicomp. “Let me show you something.”

At that moment, the door to the suite opened and two young women came in. The one in front, much smaller than the one following her, immediately made a beeline toward Hugh and, with no ceremony of any kind, plumped herself on his lap.

The woman in the rear smiled and closed the door.

Ruth frowned at the lap-sitter. “In the long, illustrious—and very well-recorded—annals of royalty throughout the galaxy, Berry, no ruling queen I know of has ever just plopped herself on her consort’s lap in public.”

Berry Zilwicki curled her lip. The gesture was rather ineffective, since sneering did not come naturally to her.

“He’s not my ‘consort,’ first of all. He’s my boyfriend. And how is this ‘in public’? You and Thandi are my two best friends, even leaving aside her formal status as head of the armed forces and yours as assistant chief spook.”

Ruth was not fazed. “There are four people in this room. That defines ‘in public’ whenever royalty is engaged in pre-fornication. Which you so obviously are.”

Berry kissed Hugh in a manner that left little doubt that Ruth’s assessment was accurate. When she was finished, she gave the Manticoran princess as regal a look as she could manage. Which wasn’t much; Berry looked down her nose about as poorly as she sneered.

Hugh cleared his throat again. “Speaking of which, Ruth and I were just discussing the chief spook when you walked in.”

Torch’s “chief spook” was Anton Zilwicki, Berry’s adoptive father. Her expression immediately sobered.

So did Thandi Palane’s, although the big woman’s expression was usually pretty stern. Being born and raised on one of the Mfecane worlds didn’t lead to carefree and happy-go-lucky personalities.

“Specifically,” said Ruth, “I was explaining to him—since he pretended to be an ignoramus on matters of interstellar politics, which he most certainly isn’t even if he does look like a Sasquatch—that there was no way—”

“Hey!” Berry protested. “Don’t call my boyfriend a Bigfoot!”

She and Ruth both studied the appendages in question for a moment, which was easy to do since Hugh had one of them propped up on a small ottoman.

“I rest my case,” said Ruth.

“Well . . . Okay, he has big feet. That doesn’t mean he’s abominable.”

Arai made a shooing gesture with his hand. “Just keep going, Ruth.”

“Yeah, I’d like to hear it myself,” said Thandi, who perched herself on the armrest of a nearby divan. The piece of furniture was sturdily built, fortunately. Palane wasn’t built along the purely massive lines of Arai, who’d been bred by Manpower to be a heavy labor slave, but she was tall, muscular, and weighed well over a hundred kilos.

“As I was saying to Hugh when you walked in”—Ruth began pacing again—“or about to show him, rather . . .”

She fiddled with her minicomp until she found what she wanted, glanced around the room for the location of the wallscreen, and brought the image up on what had seemed until the instant before to be a huge landscape called Bernese Alps by an ancient painter named . . . Ambrose Bierce, maybe. She couldn’t remember. Ruth wasn’t much interested in primitive art.

The wallscreen didn’t really fill an entire wall—not even close, given the size of the suite—but it still measured about three meters across by a little over half that in height. The image now displayed on it was pretty spectacular—and far more grim.

“That is what the immediate surrounding area of Nouveau Paris looked like after Oscar Saint-Just set off the nuclear explosion that ended McQueen’s rebellion. Notice that all of the surrounding towers are still intact? Battered pretty badly, sure—but they’re still there. That’s how hard it is to take down a modern ceramacrete tower.”

“What’s your point?” asked Berry.

“The point is that neither your father nor Victor Cachat are so incompetent that they’d use a bomb that way. If they did decide to strike that kind of blow at the Mesan elite, they’d do it differently. My guess is that they’d figure out a way to smuggle the bomb into the building with the highest number of bigshots and set it off inside. The ceramacrete shell would then contain the force of the blast and concentrate its effectiveness. And while that would still kill a lot of bystanders, it would have a much better bigshot-to-kiddies-and-puppies kill ratio.”

Hugh winced again. Berry scowled. “My father would not do that.”

Ruth shook her head. “No, he wouldn’t. I was just trying to show that even if you leave personal psychology out of the equation, that bomb was not set off by your father and Victor.”

“Victor wouldn’t agree to it, either,” said Thandi mildly.

“I agree,” said Ruth. She paused for a moment. “It took me a long time to get over the cold-blooded way Victor let my security team get gunned down. But eventually I realized . . . I don’t know how to put it, exactly . . .”

“He can be completely ruthless toward anyone he considers a combatant,” Thandi said, “and Victor’s definition of ‘combatant’ can be pretty wide. That’s how he would have seen your people, especially since at the time they were at war with Haven. But there’s no way he’d ever put children in that category. And in the end, Victor’s ruthlessness always has a purpose—to defend those whom he sees as weak and helpless against those who are mighty.”

She shrugged. “Like any soldier he’ll accept the fact that in war there’s bound to be collateral damage. Except he wouldn’t use that term because he despises it. He’d call them innocent victims. And there’s no way he’d deliberately use innocent victims as the mechanism for striking down his enemies—which is what they’d be, in that scenario.”

Ruth studied the image on the wallscreen for a few more seconds before she switched it off. Oscar Saint-Just had been the man who trained Victor, sure enough, and the two men had a lot in common. But that commonality ended at a certain point. If anyone ever put together a visual track record of Cachat’s life, there’d never be a scene like that in it.

The wallscreen reverted back to resembling a painting again. Not the same one, though. The program automatically switched the image every twelve hours and whenever someone overrode it manually. Ruth hadn’t bothered to change the program because it was all pretty much the same to her. If she remembered right, this new image was another ancient painting called Water Lilies by . . . Claude Money. Something like that.

There was silence in the room, for a few seconds. Then Berry sighed and said softly, “I just want to see him again. And Victor too. They should be here any day. I was so happy to find out they were still alive.”

There had been a time, less than two years ago, when Ruth would have been delighted to discover that Victor Cachat had shuffled off this mortal coil. But it seemed like ancient history now.

“So am I,” she said. “So am I.”

There was a buzz at the door. “Open,” said Ruth.

One of Torch’s intelligence officers came in, a man in his fifties by the name of Shai-gwun Metterling. Unlike most immigrants, he had no genetic connection to Manpower at all, neither personally nor anywhere in his heritage. He’d come to Torch because of his political convictions.

In and of itself, that wasn’t all that unusual. By Ruth’s rough count, there were at least twenty thousand people who’d immigrated and taken Torch citizenship since the new star nation was created who’d done so purely out of idealism. What was unusual, and had immediately caught Ruth’s attention, was Metterling’s background. Most such immigrants tended to have skills and training that weren’t all that immediately useful. There were two hundred philosophers in the mix, twice that many poets, well over a thousand musicians—and a sad dearth of engineers and doctors.

Metterling, on the other hand, had been a colonel in the Andermani Navy’s intelligence service. A well-regarded and decorated one, too, not someone who’d been cashiered. Ruth had checked, very carefully, worried that he might be a double agent. But Metterling had come through her scrutiny with flying colors.

“What’s up, Shai-gwun?” she asked.

Metterling gave Thandi a glance that seemed a bit apprehensive. “We just got word from Cachat and Zilw—ah, your father, Your Majesty.” That last was said to Berry.

Who practically sprang off of Hugh’s lap. “They’re here!”

Again, that quick glance at Palane—and it was no longer a “bit” apprehensive. “Ah. Well, no. It seems they decided to go straight to Haven.”

Thandi rose from the arm rest and stood straight up. “And aren’t going to—didn’t—stop here on the way?” she demanded.

“Ah. Well, General Palane . . . Ah. No.”

“I’ll kill him,” Thandi predicted.

Back | Next