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Chapter 6

“We haven’t done that in a while,” said Yuri Radamacher. His voice was barely louder than a murmur, with complex undertones that conveyed satiety, exhaustion, smug self-satisfaction, bemused wonder at capabilities thought lost forever, and, most of all—the saving grace that would keep him from ridicule or possible bodily harm—full of affection for the person lying next to him.

Who, for her part, slapped him playfully on his bare midriff. That produced a meaty sound. Yuri was not exactly fat, but he was in no danger of being blown away by a gust of wind, either.

“Don’t sound so pleased with yourself,” she said. “Of course we haven’t done that in a while. We haven’t seen each other in . . . what’s it been, now? More than a T-year.”

“Three hundred and ninety-six standard days. God, I’ve missed you.”

Sharon Justice rolled onto her side and propped her head up on one hand. “I missed you too. But look at the bright side—for the first time in years, it looks like we’ll be able to see each other regularly and for . . . oh, hell, it could be a long time.”

Yuri hesitated, tempted to raise the subject of marriage. Even the Republic of Haven’s stringent rules concerning assignments for its officials were subject to relaxation and modification when married couples were involved. But after a moment, he decided to let it slide.

He knew that Sharon was twitchy on the subject. That was not unusual, of course. The whole subject of marriage had gotten very complicated and thorny since the development of prolong. That was especially true for a society like Haven’s, which tended to be conservative on social issues despite the often radical character of its politics.

The traditional concept of marriage was that of a union between two people which was expected to last a lifetime. Many did not, of course. Still, even people who got divorced generally viewed the divorce as a failure; an unfortunate and in some sense unnatural outcome.

But the same institution now had to be stretched across lifetimes that were measured in centuries, not decades. And to make things still more complicated, that greatly extended lifespan was characterized through at least eighty percent of its duration as the lifespan of a young person. Only toward the very end of the life of someone on prolong did the aging process and eventual decrepitude start manifesting itself. That stood in stark contrast to the ancient realities of human life, in which the period of vigorous youth was a fairly brief interlude between childhood and middle age.

The traditional institution of marriage was simply not well suited for these new conditions. Much of its stability had been provided by the “natural” aging process. As a couple grew old together, they came to rely on each other for succor and support as much as intimacy. Prosaic as it might be, sharing aches and pains did a great deal to solidify a marriage; and, on the flip side, worked against any tendencies toward infidelity.

None of that was true any longer. Even the needs and demands of child-raising, traditionally the strongest bond in a marriage, was far less important. People on prolong could bear children throughout most of their now-very-long lives, but very few did so. Most couples would devote a few decades to having and nurturing children, but no more than that. Depending on the specific star nation and its customs, they might do their child-raising early in life or they might—this was the normal practice in Manticore, Beowulf and the Andermani Empire—postpone having children until they were well established in their careers and in a more solid financial position. But whatever stretch in their long lifespans they chose to devote to child-raising, once that was done they did not usually repeat the process. And in the doing they had only devoted ten percent or less of their lives—as opposed to the one-third or even one-half of a lifetime that child-bearing and rearing had traditionally occupied.

Under that pressure—it might be more accurate to say, sudden removal of pressure—the institution of marriage was undergoing profound and manifold transformations throughout the human-inhabited portions of the galaxy. Those changes had already been underway as a result of medical and technological advances, and prolong drove them even faster. In some adventurous societies—Beowulf being a prime example—a dizzying number of variations on marriage had emerged and were being experimented with. But in other, more staid societies, the reaction tended the other way. The lifelong nature of marriage was insisted upon even more firmly—with the inevitable consequence that fewer and fewer people entered into marriage. Instead, serial cohabitation without formal marriage was becoming the norm; or, at least, the most common pattern.

Even child-bearing and raising was adapting. As had always been the case in matrilineal societies, prolong society had effectively done away with the concept of bastardy. The reasons were different, but the end result was much the same: people in advanced societies who would live for centuries usually had such a deep and widespread safety net—some of it public, some of it private—that a single parent or a couple simply didn’t require marriage as a practical economic matter. The laws of most star nations did require an official recognition of parenthood, but that was separate from the legal requirements for marriage. That was to protect the children. You might not be formally married to the mother or father of your child, but you were still legally responsible for the children themselves.

All of which was well and good, and Yuri understood the dynamic on an intellectual level. The fact remained that he was a Havenite, not a Beowulfer, and like most people from Haven his basic emotional attitudes were conservative and old-fashioned. The years he’d spent as a State Security officer during the Pierre and Saint-Just period compounded the problem. Early on, he’d developed sharp differences with their policies. Given the nature of their regime, he’d had to hide his real opinions and keep an emotional distance from everybody. The end result had been a man who was innately friendly and sociable transformed into a lonely soul.

Dammit, he wanted to get married.

But he was almost certain that Sharon would refuse and he’d learned long ago that if you thought the answer to a question was going to be “no,” it was better not to ask the question at all. Once stated openly, “no” tended to get locked in place.

So, partly out of frustration and partly out of a sense of duty, he rose from the bed, put on some clothes and headed for the kitchen. “Want some coffee?”

“Akh!” Sharon rose hurriedly from the bed and grabbed a robe. “Yes—but I’ll make it, thank you very much. You’ll break the coffeemaker.”

“Don’t be silly.”

She brushed past him, putting on the robe and moving quickly. “Fine. You’ll break the coffee.”

“That’s ridiculous. You can’t—”

You can.” Sharon started working at the controls of a machine that, to Radamacher’s way of thinking, bore a closer resemblance to a computer terminal than a simple device to brew a drink that the human race had been enjoying for millennia. “I love you dearly, Yuri, but you make the worst coffee this side of a Navy mess hall.”

“That’s where I learned to make coffee in the first place.”

“I know.” She pushed buttons that did mysterious things. “For years, I had a secret belief that the reason we had such a hard time fighting the Manticorans was because of the Navy’s coffee. The deterioration that crap must have produced in the brains of our officers and ratings didn’t bear thinking about.”

The button-pushing ended with a triumphant glissando of flying fingers. Yuri had no idea what she was doing. Programming the heat death of the universe? It was a coffee maker, for God’s sake. What was wrong with letting the gadget’s own computer handle the business?

“And since I got here,” she continued, “my suspicion has been confirmed. I’ve talked to any number of Erewhonese who’ve had Manticoran Navy coffee, and they all swear it’s terrific.”

Her ritual apparently done, Sharon finished tying up her robe and sat down at the kitchen table. “Oh, stop pouting—and have a seat, will you? The coffee will take a few minutes.”

Yuri was tempted to respond my coffee gets done in no time at all but wisely restrained himself. As a friend who shared his own insouciant attitude toward making coffee had once said, “Gourmets are subtle and quick to anger.”

He pulled up a chair and changed the subject. “Speaking of the Erewhonese, I suppose you should bring me up to date. Seeing as how I’m Haven’s ambassador to Torch and—hold your breath, this takes a while—‘high commissioner and envoy extraordinary’ to Erewhon. In the moments I can spare from being your sex toy.”

Sharon smiled. “ ‘Sex toy,’ is it? I’ll remember that.” The smile was replaced by a slight frown. “I assume the reason you didn’t replace Guthrie as the ambassador to Erewhon also is because the Erewhonese made it clear they were not too happy with us.”

“Yeah, they’re still mad that Haven restarted the war with Manticore before the ink on our mutual defense treaty had barely dried.” He shrugged. “On the other hand, because we made no effort to get them to join the hostilities, they aren’t that mad. Certainly not enough to take the risks involved in producing a major rupture with us. So, everyone agreed to one of the time-honored diplomatic code messages. ‘You don’t get an ambassador, you louses. Just a high commissioner etc., etc. So there.’ I think that’s aimed more at the Star Kingdom than us.”

“Star Empire,” Sharon corrected him. She ran fingers through her hair. Short hair, these days. She’d dyed it a nice auburn color since he’d seen her last and cut it back quite a bit. Truth be told, he preferred her hair longer. But that was an age-old tug of war between men and women that men invariably lost once a relationship congealed. Yuri might not be the sharpest pencil in the box when it came to romantic relationships, but he wasn’t obtuse enough to venture into that mine field.

“I think you’re probably right about Manticore,” she said. “The Erewhonese love their subtle ploys and gestures. ‘See? We made it real clear to Haven that they’re in the dog house, the rotters.’ I’m not sure how much good it’ll do them, though.”

“Might be quite a bit. The Star Empire’s current prime minister is as sophisticated as they come and he’s probably familiar with Erewhon’s somewhat peculiar mores. And for sure and certain the Winton dynasty will pay attention. They’re no slouches themselves when it comes to hints and veiled messages. You wouldn’t think a royal lineage would have that much in common with a long line of gangsters, but there it is.”

“Ha! If Victor were here, he’d say they were cut from exactly the same cloth—so why shouldn’t they speak the same patois?”

That brought a few seconds’ worth of silence. Then Yuri sighed and leaned back in his chair. “I still don’t like the basta—man, but I have to admit I was glad to find out he was still alive. It’s like the old saying: ‘Yeah, he’s a ruthless son of a bitch, but he’s our ruthless son of a bitch.’ ”

“Are you still holding a grudge, Yuri? La Martine was years ago.”

“He told them to break my nose. On purpose!”

“He sure did. That made you a bloody mess—and may very well have kept you alive.”

Impatiently, Yuri shook his head. “I understand the logic, Sharon. I still don’t like the man. He gave you a beating, too. I was madder about that than I was about my nose. Still am.”

“Are you aware that he’s been a consistent influence—no small one, either—boosting your career? Mine, too. Ever since La Martine. I’m pretty sure he’s the main reason you got this posting. Kevin Usher listens to him. So does Wilhelm Trajan, although”—she grinned, here—“I don’t think he does so nearly as cheerfully as Kevin does.”

Yuri looked a bit guilty. “Well . . . Yeah, I sort of figured that out a while ago. Look, I’m not saying my attitude toward Cachat is rational. It’s probably not. Okay, for sure it’s not.” Stubbornly: “I still don’t like him.”

The com unit on the wall chimed, indicating someone desired a connection.

Sharon punched the acceptance key. The screen came to life.

Seeing the familiar face on the screen, Sharon said: “Walter. I assume you called to talk to Haven’s new ambassa—ah, high commissioner and—”

“—and envoy extraordinary and whatever other twaddle terms we need to keep up appearances.” Walter Imbesi gave Radamacher a quick, almost perfunctory smile. “Actually, no. I’d been planning to give you a day or so to—ah, renew acquaintance—before bothering you with business. But something’s come up that we think is pressing. As in really pressing.”

Both Sharon and Yuri sat up straight. “Which is . . . ?” said Yuri.

“It seems Victor Cachat is back from the dead. Presumed dead, rather. Anton Zilwicki also. I have been asked to convey to you the government’s displeasure at not being informed of Cachat’s survival. Given that we are formally allied, they feel they should have been notified. If not at once, certainly in less time than two months.”

“The ship they used to carry the message to me was an Erewhonese vessel,” said Sharon. “Are you seriously going to claim you didn’t get the news as soon as I did?”

“I grant you we learned the fact of their survival as soon as you did. The government’s displeasure stems from your failure to formally notify them and provide any further details.”

Yuri decided to let Sharon keep handling things, even though it would normally be his job as ambassador. (Fine. Envoy extra-crispy etc., etc., but in practice it came to the same thing.) But he’d just arrived and hadn’t been fully briefed. More precisely, he hadn’t been briefed at all. Well, leaving aside carnal matters that were none of anyone else’s damn business.

Sharon obviously agreed, since she spoke without hesitation or so much as a glance in his direction. “Let’s translate that statement out of diplomatese, shall we? The triumvirate that runs the show—we’ll skip all the silly stuff about ‘the government’—is ticked off but since they’re probably not that ticked off—yet, anyway—they sent you as their spokesman since you don’t officially have any political position or power—we’ll all agree not to collapse in riotous laughter here—and so they figure coming from you it’ll have less of an edge to it.”

Sharon shrugged. “It was Victor’s order not to divulge anything, and he’s my boss.”

Imbesi pursed his lips. “The conclusion I come to is that Cachat thought gaining a few weeks of secrecy was important enough to risk irritating an ally. Fine. The few weeks have now gone by—so we can move to the critical question, which is what did he and Zilwicki discover that warrants these extreme measures?

He waved his hand again in a gesture which, though dismissive, was not small at all. “And please spare me the usual drivel about ‘the needs of security,’ Sharon. I’ve gotten to know Victor Cachat rather well over the past couple of years. Perhaps unusually for someone in his line of work, he’s not obsessive about secrecy.”

“Generally, no. You’re right. But in this instance”—Sharon spread her hands in a gesture that simultaneously conveyed I speak the solemn truth and it’s out of my hands anyway—“he told me nothing in the first place.”

Imbesi was silent for a few seconds. Then, pursed his lips. “You’re not lying, are you?”

He looked at Yuri. “I know what happened on La Martine, High Commissioner Radamacher. We compiled an extensive file on the affair—on anything involving Victor Cachat’s history, once it became clear how large a presence he was going to have for us. One of the conclusions I drew from the affair was that Cachat has an almost eerie sense for selecting his subordinates. The two of you—others—and then he gives them lots of leeway and doesn’t micromanage. Some people might even accuse him of recklessness, in that regard. But I don’t know of any instance where his judgment has proven faulty.”

Yuri had to fight a little to keep an expressionless face. He really didn’t like Victor Cachat. But as much as any person alive he knew just how capable the man was. Fiendishly capable, even. But Yuri didn’t doubt at all whose fiend he was: Haven’s, as sure as any law of thermodynamics.

So he was just as surprised as Imbesi to learn that Cachat hadn’t told Sharon what he’d learned and where he was going with it. They hadn’t talked about it, simply because . . . Well, more pressing matters arose. But he’d assumed that would be part of the briefing Sharon would give him afterward.

The Erewhonese politician’s assessment was quite correct. Cachat was supremely confident in his ability to select his assistants, and then he didn’t second-guess himself.

He hadn’t even told Sharon?

Imbesi said it for him. “So all hell’s about to break loose.” He nodded, more to himself than anyone else. “I’ll let the triumvirate know. Sharon, High Commissioner Radamacher—”

“Call me Yuri, please.”

“One moment, Walter.” Sharon leaned forward a little. “As long as we’re on the subjects of secrecy and all hell breaking loose, when can we expect a briefing from you regarding the new relationship you’ve forged with Maya Sector? Congratulations, by the way. You’ve come up in the galaxy. You used to launder money and now you’re laundering superdreadnoughts.”

She smiled sweetly. “Seeing as how we’re allies, as you just pointed out.”

There was no reaction at all on Imbesi’s face in response to those comments. Which were obviously something else Yuri needed to be briefed on.

After a moment, Imbesi just said: “I’ll have to get back to you on that. Have a pleasant day.”

The screen went dark.

“I can’t remember feeling like such a complete ignoramus since I was twelve,” Yuri complained. “When I got called on in class to enumerate the noble gases and I didn’t have a clue what the teacher was talking about. Since when did chemical elements have an aristocracy?”

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