Back | Next

February 1923 Post Diaspora

“You know, I believe that’s the first time I ever heard the words ‘Ballroom’ and ‘watchdogs’ used together.”

—Anton Zilwicki

City of Mendel
Mesa System

Catherine Montaigne was appalled.

Her personal shuttle had been designed as the luxury tender of a luxury yacht owned by one the galaxy’s more…idiosyncratic billionaires. The term “no expense spared” was most often used to indicate only that something was very expensive. In the Harriet Tubman’s case, however, it was literally true, and her shuttle was an almost equally expensive vessel. Indeed, ton-for-ton, it was actually more expensive. It was much larger than most “shuttles”—a bit larger than a naval pinnace, actually—and boasted quite a lot of features lesser vessels did not. Unlike a standard shuttle’s rows of seats, its passengers sat in luxury armchairs scattered around a tastefully decorated “salon” with smart wall bulkheads. At the moment, those bulkheads were configured to display a panorama of snowy mountains and a magnificent waterfall. The viewscreen at the forward end of the compartment and the “portholes” spaced along that panorama displayed a much uglier view, however.

For all that she’d led a rather adventurous life, Montaigne had seldom seen destruction on this scale. Well, she had toured the ruins of Yawata Crossing after the Yawata Strike had virtually destroyed the entire city. That had been worse, but it had also been…different. The tsunami which destroyed that city might have been spawned by de-orbiting wreckage as the result of an attack, but the tsunami itself had been a force of nature.

What had happened to the city of Mendel had not. And Mendel was far larger than Yawata Crossing had ever been.

That size actually gave the destruction passing beneath her luxury shuttle even more impact, in a way, because so much of the city was untouched. It provided a stark visual contrast between what Mendel had been and what its devastated sections had become. Of course, she reminded herself, the true devastation was concentrated on the seccy side of town, so that part of it probably hadn’t mattered very much to the city authorities. Or to the previous city authorities, at least. But there’d been more than enough additional damage to go around.

The broken stub of a residential tower directly in front of the shuttle looked as if it had been hammered by a small asteroid. The once massive ceramacrete structure was a rim of rubble around a deep, ugly crater, and a vast swathe of the city had been blanketed in a deep layer of the finely divided dust, like lung-tearing snow, vomited skyward from its destruction. Much larger and more dangerous debris had showered outward from the kinetic weapon strike which had wreaked that destruction, as well. More than enough “minor” craters marked where that wreckage had found the earth once again, and trees and recreational structures in the parks and green belts had been flattened like reaped grain by the blast front.

Gutted industrial areas were interspersed with the green belts. It had been the seccy side of town, after all, which made it the logical home for the industry first-class citizens objected to finding in their own backyards. Most of that damage, she knew, had been inflicted by direct combat, which probably explained why most of the ravaged structures were still recognizable. As structures, at least.

For a moment, her mind fluttered away from the chaos and the human agony and suffering that must have accompanied it. What would be the term for an expert on methods of destruction? Demolitionist? No, that would be the person who did the destroying.

She shook her head slightly, as if to shed those useless questions.

She knew the city bore other, lesser—but no less obscene—wounds left by the “small” nuclear detonations and fuel-air bombs attributed to Ballroom terrorist attacks. Those were beyond her view, even from the shuttle’s two thousand-meter altitude, but whatever else they might be, they hadn’t been Ballroom attacks. If anyone in the galaxy was in a position to know that, she was. That was another problem she’d need to address, but not yet. Not now.

At her command, the shuttle and its sting ship escorts were passing over the city slowly, but from their meager altitude, the terrain below them was still passing fairly quickly.

She waved a hand at the shattered tower which had drawn her eye.

“Is that…?”

“Yes, that’s Hancock.” Saburo X, sitting next to her, nodded. “Bachue the Nose ran that district, and we’re sure she’s the one who gave the order to drop most of an entire floor onto the Misties below. Killed somewhere around two thousand of the bastards.”

“Misties” was the nickname for the troops of the Mesan Internal Security directorate, whose official acronym was MISD. They were the most hated and feared of Mesa’s enforcement agencies.

Had been feared, rather. They weren’t any longer. But they were still hated.

“And that,” Saburo pointed toward another huge tower, “is Neue Rostock, Jurgen Dusek’s district. I’m told—” He paused as the shuttle passed over the ceramacrete structure and it disappeared from view through the viewports, then shrugged and continued. “I’m told—”

“Sandra,” Cathy said, “full vision, please.”

One might have expected such a palatial saloon to be carpeted. It was not, however, for reasons which became apparent as the deck, bulkheads, and overhead all vanished. Only the passengers’ comfortable seats remained visible…floating unsupported two thousand meters above the cityscape.

Two thousand meters of crystal clear, completely empty, thin air above the cityscape.

Saburo tensed a bit in his seat. Behind her, Jeremy X uttered a quickly stifled little hiss.

Cathy’s stepdaughter Berry had a more pronounced reaction.


Cathy glanced at her. The young woman’s thin face was paler than usual. Her eyes were wide, and her hands were locked with clawlike power on her seat’s armrests.

“For Pete’s sake,” Cathy said. “It’s just the smart walls! Well, and the smart deck, I guess. But still—”


“Oh, pfui.” Cathy gave Neue Rostock Tower a quick glance. It was now—appeared to be, rather—passing directly below her. “Sandra, restore the sissy floor.”

The space below their feet and under their seats instantly seemed to be a deck again, although the deck was now a magic carpet suspended in mid-air. The view all around them remained unimpeded.

Saburo whistled softly. “Perhaps a bit of warning next time, Countess.”

“I gave up the title, remember?”

“As you said yourself, pfui. People who make perfectly serviceable shuttles disappear are obviously aristocracy. Sensible commoners like us—” he pointed toward himself with a thumb and Berry with a forefinger “—would do nothing of the sort.”

“Berry is hardly a commoner,” a voice spoke up from the luxurious landing shuttle’s flight deck. It belonged to Cathy’s assistant, Sandra Kaminisky. “She’s a monarch. And, Catherine, I really don’t think it’s proper to call your stepdaughter queen a ‘sissy.’”

“Who asked you?” Cathy demanded.

“You did. When we left Congo you told me to maintain proper protocols.”

Sandra more-or-less ran the Harriet Tubman, as well as serving as a combination social secretary and aide-de-camp. And, in truth, Cathy had told Sandra to keep her from straying too far into her normal habits. This was, after all, officially a royal visit. Queen Berry had brought much of Torch’s government with her, prominent among them, Prime Minister Web Du Havel and the Secretary of War, Jeremy X.

Now that the deck had been restored—more precisely, now that the optical illusion that the deck had vanished had been abnegated—Berry was able to relax a little. She turned her head and looked at her prime minister, whose expression was serene. Undeniably, it was serene.

“You knew she’d do that,” Berry said accusingly, and Du Havel shrugged.

“I had no idea what she’d do. But I’ve known her for decades. Any time Cathy is in close proximity to technology which she doesn’t understand but knows how to use, you’ve got to be on your guard.”

Cathy had ignored the interplay while Neue Rostock Tower reappeared to her left as the shuttle banked. Now that she had a better look at it, she could see just how badly damaged it was. Repair and construction remotes swarmed about it, but even now, the next best thing to three T-months after the fighting, they were still mostly at the “hauling away debris” stage. Actual repair, assuming that would ever happen, lay in some distant future. At least it was still standing, though, unlike Hancock. Its upper stories were basically a heap of rubble, but it was obvious that it had never been hit by the monster that had destroyed Bachue’s tower. Instead, it had been systematically hammered by far more—but far smaller—KEWs. Among other things. Scores of jagged breaches had been blasted through the incredibly tough outer shell of its lacerated ceramacrete flanks by other weapons, as well.

There were more of those holes than she could possibly have counted. A lot more. Neue Rostock hadn’t been destroyed…only blasted into ruin.

“Ruthless bastards,” she muttered.

“Being fair about it,” Saburo said, “they did try to limit the collateral damage as much as they could once they launched their assault on Neue Rostock. That’s why they refused to release even the tactical KEWs to General Drescher for so long. Which was just as well for Dusek and our friends. Drescher was a nasty enough handful even when her superiors insisted she had to send her assault force in on the ground, and when they finally relented enough to let her use the tactical KEWS…” He shook his head. “Just as happy she wasn’t in charge from the beginning. She might’ve hit Hancock with something a lot smaller than the big bastard they actually used…and then the collateral damage wouldn’t have stopped them from doing the same thing to Neue Rostock.”

Cathy had already known that much, from the report Thandi Palane had sent to Torch right after the fighting was ended by the arrival of Admiral Gold Peak’s fleet in the Mesa System.

The Mesan authorities had begun trying to crush the rebelling seccies by using the Office of Public Safety’s regular troops, the so-called “Safeties.” Those barely even qualified as policemen; they were essentially just official thugs. The Safeties had very rapidly gotten chewed to pieces once the crime bosses who ran the seccy districts realized they were in a fight for their lives. At which point the authorities sent in the MISD’s troops. They were, if anything, even more brutal than the Safeties, but they were also better trained and armed.

Unfortunately for those authorities, the Misties had gotten hammered even more badly than the Safeties, at which point they had sent in the army—the Mesan Planetary Peaceforce. The MPP had still heavier combat equipment than the MISD’s forces, and they’d been trained as a real military force. By Mesa’s admittedly loose standards, they even followed the established laws of war. Prior to the recent emergency, they’d never been deployed to break heads—and necks—among the slaves and seccies of Mesa, so the slaves and seccies hadn’t felt the same hatred for them that they felt for the OPS and MISD.

That wasn’t saying much, of course. The distinction between sheer hatred and bitter hostility could get awfully thin.

Cathy sighed. Creating a functioning society with a generally accepted government out of the human cauldron Mesa’s former rulers had created wasn’t going to be easy, to put it mildly. She had no idea where to even start.

Fortunately for her and Mesa, she didn’t have to figure it out. That was in the hands of other people. People who, despite outward appearances, she suspected would do a much better job of it than she could have.

Two of those people were now sitting with her, looking down on the wreckage. Seated just behind her was Jeremy X. Today, he was the government of Torch’s Minister of war. But in his former life, he’d been the head of the Audubon Ballroom—which, depending on how you looked at it, was either the fighting organization of Mesa’s genetic slaves or the galaxy’s most savage terrorist organization.

Or perhaps both.

An even more dubious candidate for peacemaking was the man seated to her right. Saburo X had been in charge of organizing and coordinating the activities of the Ballroom on Mesa itself. The sharp point of the spear, you might say.

But perhaps that was the key to it, she thought. Jeremy X and Saburo X hadn’t simply hated Manpower Incorporated and Mesa’s government the way all the ex-slaves and seccies did. Unlike most of those folk—and more than any of them—they’d spilled blood themselves. A lot of it. They didn’t really need revenge, any longer, because they’d already gotten plenty.

So—maybe—they’d do the best job of making peace.

What was the old saying? Magnanimous in victory, if she remembered right. It might prove true that people who used “X” for a surname could manage that better than anyone else.

On the other hand, if she remembered the saying right, the other half of it was Gracious in defeat.

Could the people who’d once ruled a planet like Mesa manage that? She had her doubts.

“We’ll be landing soon,” Sandra said. “You might want to get properly dressed for the occasion. That especially applies to you, Catherine. Even if you did renounce your title, you still shouldn’t disembark in the company of a reigning monarch wearing a sports jumper. What they used to call ‘sweatpants,’ except that I can’t remember the last time I observed you sweating.”

Catherine frowned. “Who the hell needs an assistant to be that sarcastic?”

“You do,” Berry said. “I remember you spending quite a while interviewing candidates until you found one with the best—or worst, maybe—reputation.” She thought for a moment, then added: “Sandra’s really good at it too. I approve of her. Especially right now.”

* * *

Saburo spent the rest of their flight to Mendel’s spaceport giving Catherine a detailed explanation of the various ruins.

“Most of the damage in the seccy districts was caused by the Hancock KEW and the debris it threw up. Well, there was plenty of battle damage, too, but you can’t really see that from this far up. A lot of the damage to the industrial sections around Neue Rostock is from that. Dusek’s people fought a delaying action against the Misties to cover the evacuation of as many people as possible into the tower.”

“How many nuclear strikes were there?” she asked, then, seeing the frown gathering on her companion’s brow, hastened to add: “Blasts, rather. I guess I’m not supposed to call them ‘strikes,’ since that suggests they were sent down from orbit.”

The frown faded, and after a moment, a little smile took its place.

“I can’t say I care that much, myself,” he said. “But, yes, the Manties—The Grand Alliance, I mean—will get touchy on the subject.

“There weren’t any nukes in Mendel itself in the final wave, after Gold Peak got here,” he continued. “But there were three in the ‘terrorist campaign’ her arrival interrupted. That one—” he pointed at a spot in the distance “—is the only one you can see from here. The other two were smaller. One of them took out an entertainment complex on the outskirts of the city, and the other one—go figure—was detonated above a lake in one of the richest citizen districts. Other than the fish, all it killed were some boaters and people having picnics. As a military target, it made no sense at all. Not even from the standpoint of running up the body count just for the hell of it.”

“And the big one?” As far away as they were, all Cathy could see was what looked like rubble.

“That used to be a district that had a concentration of research labs and high-priced think tanks. Sort of the crème de la crème of their brainiacs.” Saburo shrugged. “It wasn’t really that big a blast, by nuke values. Five kilotons, they figure. If the labs and such had all been in a single big, sensible ceramacrete structure, the bomb—missile, whatever it was—wouldn’t have done nearly as much damage. But, no! They had to use up prime real estate right in to middle of Mendel—well, the middle of the suburbs, anyway—to show how prestigious their work was. All low airy buildings—not a one of ’em more than nine or ten stories—with lots of walkways and gardens. So they fried.”

It was impossible to miss the coldness in Saburo’s voice. However much the man might have it under control, he hated the people who had enslaved him and his folk just as much as any of them. You’d not find any sympathy in his heart for the thousands of slavers—that’s how he’d think of them, even if they hadn’t directly participated in slavery—who’d died in the aftermath of the Grand Alliance’s seizure of the Mesa System.

Maybe the children. A tiny little bit.

Building a society out of that was…not going to be easy.

“We’re coming in for the landing,” Sandra announced. “Everyone please check your seatbelts. That means you, too, Catherine.”

Mendel Spaceport,
Planet Mesa,
Mesa System.

Cathy wasn’t surprised to see the people assembled to greet them as they disembarked from the shuttle. The small group standing at the foot of the ramp were the ones she’d expected to be there. Jurgen Dusek was the all-but-officially-recognized leader of Mesa’s seccies, and four of the other people were also heads of seccy districts—understanding that “leader of a seccy district” overlapped with “crime boss.” Thandi Palane was the commander of Torch’s military, and the person who’d led the military side of the seccy rebellion. Which, while…convoluted, actually made sense, since the only star nation which had actually been in a formal state of war with the Mesa System, prior to Tenth Fleet’s arrival, had been the Kingdom of Torch.

She was sorry, but not surprised, that Anton Zilwicki wasn’t there. He’d sent her a message after Harriet Tubman entered the system that he’d be away when her shuttle landed—somewhere unspecified on unspecified business, and for an unspecified amount of time. There were drawbacks to being in love with the man who was one of the galaxy’s most accomplished spooks, even if the spook in question insisted in public that he was just a retired naval officer…and never mind that one of the Star Empire’s most popular news shows had once exposed his rather flamboyant history. (Which had gotten quite a bit more flamboyant since, but most of that—thankfully—was still unknown to the public.)

She wasn’t surprised by the other people who weren’t there, either. There were no officers from Admiral Gold Peak’s forces, and only a small security detachment of Marines. Victor Cachat was there, true, but the role he’d played in the rebellion, coupled with his by now well-known relationship with Palane, made his presence more of a personal one than as a representative of Haven’s government.

No one was calling it that—not openly, anyway—but this visit to Mesa by Torch’s queen and government officials amounted to a show of force. Not a show of military force. That was hardly necessary, with the Tenth Fleet orbiting the planet along with three quarters of a million ground troops. No, this was a political show of force. Nothing could more pointedly underline the impending transformation of Mesa’s society than a visit from the rulers of the planet that had been seized by Mesa’s own former slaves.

Being honest about it, although this was certainly nothing anyone would say openly, either, the visit was also in the way of a showing of teeth to the Grand Alliance. Not an outright baring of teeth; just a slight lifting of the lip to show the tips of the canines.

It was certainly not a visit that suggested or implied any military conflict. But, politically, it was a reminder to the people who’d occupied and now controlled Mesa that whether they liked it or not, they had no choice but to give the now-freed slaves and liberated seccies a dominant position on the planet—and do it soon. Fine, fine, as soon as possible. That still left the “as possible” issue open to debate.

What Cathy hadn’t expected was the crowd that had poured onto the ceramacrete apron. It was…


She had no idea how many people were spilled all over the spaceport’s grounds, but the number had to run into six figures. Half a million? Even more? It was quite obvious that the spaceport’s security force was no longer making any attempt to control the crowd, if it ever had.

Judging partly from their appearance, but mostly from their apparel, the crowd was entirely made up of slaves and seccies. She’d be surprised if there were even a dozen full citizens present.

She made a remark to that effect once she reached the bottom of the ramp, and the response was immediate.

“I’d be surprised if there was even one of the bastards,” Dusek said.

Cachat’s contribution was a sniff.

“But plenty of them will be watching on the newscasts,” Thandi said, grinning quite cheerily. “The datanet available to the full citizens has always actually been a lot more independent and fractious than you might have expected. The news channels available—legally, at least—to seccies and slaves were something else entirely, of course. Those were both centralized and rigidly controlled. And, at the moment, we control them, since the Alliance didn’t grab them right off. We can’t control what the full citizens’ nets are showing, but I’d be surprised if they weren’t playing it pretty much straight up. They’ve got pretty discerning subscribers who won’t be happy if they find out they’ve been lied to. As for the seccy channels, they were instructed to cover your arrival. Exclusively and until we tell them they can resume regular broadcasting. Which won’t be for a while yet.”

“Unless the Military Administration seizes the restricted channel network—which I would’ve done right off,” Victor said. He sniffed again. “That was slack on their part. On the other hand, they didn’t have the advantage of being trained by Oscar Saint-Just.”

Everybody looked at him. Except for Thandi and Dusek, their expressions ranged from startled to (on Cathy’s part) somewhat aghast.

“Yeah, that’s what I would’ve done, too,” Dusek agreed.

Jeremy had recovered almost instantly. His mental reflexes were as quick as his physical ones.

“How long will it be before they do elbow us out?” he asked, and Victor shrugged.

“They’ve had almost three months to do it already, and they haven’t,” he pointed out. “So it’s possible they never will. Of course, this—” he waved a hand to indicate the massive, gathering crowd “—may change their mind. If it does, and if they’re smart, they’ll do it after we finish broadcasting the rally.”

“What rally?” Berry asked.

Dusek pointed to a bustle of activity in the distance. A number of people seemed to be erecting some sort of structure.

“That rally,” he said. “They should have the speakers’ platform ready shortly.” He smiled. “So you’d better start working on your speeches.”

It was Berry’s turn to look aghast. But Cathy just nodded. Giving impromptu speeches was something she’d done more times than she could remember. She was quite good at it. Actually, she was very good at it.

“And if the Manties are really smart,” Victor continued, “they’ll dicker with us instead of being heavy-handed. All we really need is unimpeded access to a few outlets, only one of which needs to be a news channel. They can leave most of the others in the hands of the citizens.”

He smiled as well. It was a very thin smile.

“Excuse me. Every Mesan is a citizen now. I should’ve said ‘the former full citizens.’”

Cathy had gotten to know Victor fairly well by now. She was amused but not surprised to see the way the man—who was, after all, an official in Haven’s government—slid so easily and naturally into the role of a revolutionary activist.

You always had to remember that about Victor Cachat. While the man’s loyalty to Haven was absolute, it was not tribal. It was based on his deeply rooted political convictions. He’d already, as a very young man, turned against Haven’s government when he decided it had betrayed Haven. No one doubted that he could and would do it again, if he felt it necessary. Perhaps oddly, that was part of the reason everyone who knew the man trusted him as much as they did—from Haven’s president, Eloise Pritchart, on down.

“We’d better get to it, then,” Cathy said. “From the looks of that crowd, it’s going to take us a while to get to the platform.”

Speech?” Berry whined.

HMS Artemis,
Mesa planetary orbit,
Mesa System.

Michelle Henke, known on formal occasions as Countess Gold Peak, stopped watching the newscast and looked back at the officers gathered around the briefing room table aboard her flagship.

“They’re not snarling…yet,” she said. “But they will be, before long, if we don’t handle this right.”

Oliver Diamato, one of Lester Tourville’s task force commanders, frowned.

“Snarl with what, Admiral? They can’t possibly think they’ve got the firepower to go toe-to-toe with us!”

“Doesn’t matter one damned bit,” Tourville said curtly, still watching the display with a baleful expression.

The treecat perched on the back of his chair made a soft, scolding sound, and the Havenite admiral—Henke’s second in command for Tenth Fleet—turned his head to look at it. It cocked its head at him, gazing at him steadily until he smiled ever so slightly and reached up and back to rub its ears for a moment. Lurks in Branches regarded him for another moment, then gave a human-style nod, and Tourville turned back to Diamato.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said in a less…fraught tone. “They know perfectly well that the Grand Alliance has no desire to maintain a permanent military occupation of Mesa. We’ve managed it for three months, now, and I’m honestly a little surprised we’ve kept a lid on things as well as we have. But the pressure is building, Oliver. Sooner or later, we’ll have to cede authority to a civilian government. They know that, too. And this—” he nodded toward the display “—is their none too subtle way of reminding us that that government will have to be acceptable to that crowd. Which numbers—”

He turned his head slightly. “Do we have a count yet, Frazier?”

“It’s still growing, Sir,” Commander Frazier Adamson, Tourville’s ops officer, replied over the briefing room com. “Currently, it’s somewhere between eight hundred and twenty and eight hundred sixty thousand people. But before it’s over, they should be close to a million. Give or take thirty thousand.

“It’s impossible to make crowd-counting an exact science,” Adamson’s voice took on a slightly aggrieved tinge, “because human beings keep moving around. Especially civilians.”

“We should have seized the system’s news services,” Diamato said, and Tourville shrugged.

“We did seize everything that had any possible military application.”

“And I wasn’t about to try to seize anything else, Oliver,” Henke said. Diamato looked at her, and it was her turn to shrug. “Their datanet is as diversified as any datanet in the galaxy, and there were way too many news and entertainment services, at least for their full citizens. We couldn’t have seized control of all of them, and shutting them down would have required us to shut down their ISPs, and that would have shut down their entire planetary communications net. The only news services with a plug we could have pulled without shutting down the entire web were the restricted ‘seccy channels.’” She shook her head. “That kind of blackout would have been catastrophic for any hope of maintaining something like public order down there. Even if that weren’t true, shutting down the communications—or even ‘just’ seizing control of the news services—could only have fanned the flames for the people who already think we’re responsible for the ‘nuclear strikes.’”

“Well, with all due respect, Admiral, we should at least get control of those restricted channels now,” Diamato said. “After the rally’s over, anyway,” he added a bit grudgingly. “It’d be too heavy-handed to do it right now.”

“Actually, it’d be too heavy-handed to do it at all,” Michelle said. “One of the main reasons General Hibson’s been able to keep that lid on is the fact that the MMA’s kept its hands off the news and information services.” General Susan Hibson’s Mesan Military Administration had been—functionally, at least—the Mesa System’s government for the last three months. “There’s a reason we’ve been careful about not tampering with the full citizens’ services, and making it very clear that we haven’t. And the same reasoning applies to brute forcing some kind of control of the seccy news channels. Probably applies even more strongly, actually.”

“Absolutely,” Tourville agreed. “Remember what it was like when Ransom controlled all of our news channels back home, Oliver. Anybody with two neurons to rub together knew they were lying to us. Well, those seccies and ex-slaves down there in Mendel knew exactly the same thing, especially the ones who managed to pirate the full citizens’ feeds. This is the first time anyone except the people whose boot was on their neck’s had any input into the news they’re receiving over ‘their’ services. We need to leave them in control of those feeds—clearly and visibly in control—or they won’t trust us. In fact, if we don’t leave them in control, there wouldn’t be any reason they should trust us. And right now, we need that trust, since there’s none at all coming from the rest of the population.”

“What’s your estimate, Cynthia?” Henke asked, looking at Captain Cynthia Lecter, her chief of staff. “I think we can figure that 99.9 percent of the former full citizens think we’re responsible for the nukes. But what about the seccies and ex-slaves?”

Captain Lecter shook her head.

“I think you’re too pessimistic about the assumptions of the former full citizens, Milady,” she said. “We need to come up with a shorter term for that, by the way. One or two syllables instead of six. Anyway, I figure as many as ten to fifteen percent of them are at least skeptical that we’re the guilty party. They’ve had time to do some thinking now, and too many things about the slaughter don’t make any sense with us as the culprits.”

That high?” Tourville’s expression was dubious.

“Yes, Sir. But I’m simply speaking of people who have doubts that we did it. Call them agnostics, if you will. That doesn’t mean they believe our theory that the Alignment did it. In fact, a number of those agnostics are furious with us for making the accusation, since they considered themselves the Alignment.”

“And the seccies and ex-slaves?” Henke asked.

“That’s not easy to determine, Milady,” Lecter replied. “Obviously, a much higher percentage of ex-slaves and seccies are willing to believe us. But it’s hard to probe beneath the surface, because most of the ones who do think we did it are keeping their mouths shut. They’re in an impossible situation, if you think about it. We did liberate them, after all. And even if they think we were responsible for the nuclear attacks, they don’t think they were the target. All the blasts were clearly aimed at one or another full citizen target. It’s just that a lot of seccies and ex-slaves got caught in the destruction because they were too close.”

“It’s a common pattern,” Rear Admiral Michael Oversteegen put in. “Go back through history, and you’ll find that whenever some outside military force liberates a conquered people, th’ ones bein’ liberated almost always suffer a lot of collateral damage. You almost never hear about it afterward, though. Like Captain Lecter says, what’s someone who’s lost a husband or a mother or a child supposed t’ say? ‘I hate you bastards because you killed some of my family when you freed us.’” He shrugged. “So would you rather we hadn’t?”

War was a mucky business. Henke had known that since she was very young—and if she’d ever needed further proof of it, she had it now.

“All right, people. Cynthia, after that’s over—” she pointed to the rally being shown on the display “—schedule a meeting for me with Dusek and some of the other seccy leaders. And we’ll need General Hibson in attendance, too. We need to…formalize our understanding of how news on events like this will be handled.”

“Understanding?” Tourville smiled crookedly. “Sounds more to me like we’re talking about continued capitulation, Milady.”

“I prefer to think of it as an enlightened mutual understanding, Lester.” Henke’s smile was even more crooked than his. “Speaking of which, I think it would probably be a good idea to have you present, too.”

Tourville nodded his agreement.

“I wish at least some ex-slave leaders had emerged by now,” he asked then. “We really need input at the top from what you might call the very bottom. Even Dusek really speaks more for the seccies than the slaves at this point. Oh,” he waved one hand, “I’m not saying they don’t trust him, but the truth is, from their perspective, he was closer to a full citizen than a slave, given his position in Neu Rostock. We need some leaders who are genuine ex-slaves if we want them fully onboard.”

A loud roar from the display drew Henke’s eyes back to it. Catherine Montaigne had left the platform, and a new speaker had come forward.

“Ex-slave leaders?” she asked, with something that might, by a sufficiently charitable soul, have been described as a laugh. “Oh, I think you might reasonably say there were some of those around with him on the planet!”

She sat back and watched as Jeremy X began to speak.

Varuna Tower
City of Mendel,
Planet Mesa,
Mesa System.

Brianna Pearson stared at two of the people seated in her penthouse living room.

“Are you serious?”

Her inflection made it clear that she wasn’t really asking a question. She rose from her own chair and went over to one of the huge windows that overlooked the city. From this elevation, she could see most of Mendel as it stretched to the north of the city’s center.

What was left of Hancock Tower lay in that direction—so did Neue Rostock—but she could see neither of them. In the case of Neue Rostock, which lay to the northwest, too many tall buildings obscured her view. But she would have been able to see the very top stories of Hancock…once. Now, though, after the KEW called down by that damned idiot Bentley Howell, she would have had to be a lot closer—or a lot higher—to see its ruins.

Something else she couldn’t see at the moment but had seen all too clearly before the arrival of the Grand Alliance’s fleet was the damage caused by the debris thrown up by Hancock’s destruction. Among Howell’s many other idiocies, it had apparently not occurred to him that a KEW strike of that magnitude would fling tons of material into the sky, and that what went up would come down again, unless it achieved orbital velocity. The ceramacrete exteriors of the towers facing the blast site had survived reasonably intact—and served as something of a protective dyke for the buildings beyond them—but there’d been a lot of secondary damage even to them. The damage done to anything in the open, between those towers and Hancock, had been far worse. The number of ground vehicles destroyed outright by the falling debris had numbered in the scores. The number which had been “merely” damaged reached into the hundreds, and no one had a final count, even now, on exactly how many private air cars had simply been swatted out of the air by the blast front. They did know that seven of the city’s mass transit air buses had gone down, though. Worse, half a dozen above-ground high-speed personnel tubes had been thoroughly wrecked, as well.

And they knew the human casualties had been just as bad as the physical damage.

She considered her visitors’ distorted reflection in the window’s crystoplast. She’d just been introduced to the man sitting on the right side of the divan. He was a large, heavyset fellow named Ingemar Bukelis, who worked for the Mesan Office of Investigation’s Domestic Intelligence Branch. Brianna already knew the woman on the left, Skylar Beckert, but only slightly. Beckert was the director of MISD’s Domestic Intelligence Analysis and, as such, had been several rungs down from Brianna’s own position in the hierarchy of Mesa’s government.

Former government, she reminded herself. The political situation was chaotic. There were three separate power centers on the planet, now. The first, and by far the most powerful, was the MMA, what amounted to a military dictatorship exercised by Susan Hibson in Admiral Gold Peak’s name. Being fair about it, Hibson was trying to rule in with as light a hand as possible under the circumstances, and the occupiers had left as much as possible of the pre-invasion civilian infrastructure up and running. The Mesan military was also still in uniform and, technically, under the same officers, but its leash was short. Very, very short.

The second source of power was the new Citizens Union set up by the leaders of the seccy insurrection. Jurgen Dusek, the boss of Neue Rostock, had been chosen as its Chairman. Chosen by whom? So far as Brianna knew, by a two-person electorate: himself and Thandi Palane, the military leader of the insurrection. But none of the other bosses seemed to be objecting. Not publicly, at any rate.

The relationship between the MMA and the Citizens Union was a cooperative one but, under the surface, a competing one, as well. The Military Administration held ultimate authority and wasn’t shy about showing it—wisely, in Pearson’s opinion, given the powder keg the planet represented. But Gold Peak and Hibson clearly wanted to minimize any appearance of heavy-handed military dictatorships. And it looked to Pearson as if they also understood that they simply could not exclude the seccies and slaves—ex-slaves—from the levers of power. Not if they wanted to maintain any sort of long-term stability, at least. And it appeared the Citizens Union recognized that any transition to “self-rule” had to be handled very carefully if things like bloodbaths were to be avoided. So for at least the moment, the CU was the MMA’s junior partner, although everyone realized that would have to change—and sooner, rather than later—if the Grand Alliance was ever going to be able to step back from its role as military occupier.

At least, that was how it looked to Pearson from what was admittedly quite a distance—a literal distance as well as a figurative one. She hadn’t left her penthouse, except for quick errands, since the day after the Grand Alliance’s fleet entered the Mesa System.

Which led her to consider the third of the power centers—the one that was by far the largest, in terms of people, and by far the weakest, in terms of power. That was the bureaucrats and administrators of the previously existing Mesan government, a surprising amount of which was still operating. Gold Peak and Hibson had been careful about preserving the organs of government and the regulatory agencies. Executive authority over those agencies was quite another matter, but most people who’d had government jobs had kept working, once the initial uncertainty created by the conquest had eased.

Not all, though—and Pearson herself was a case in point. She was Vice President of Operations (Mesa) for Technodyne Industries, and by virtue of that position had also been a member of Mesa’s General Board. People like her, from the highest echelons of Mesa’s government, were for the most part staying out of sight, although many of them hadn’t exactly tried to hide. They’d just gotten out of the way, like Pearson, who’d placed herself under what amounted to voluntary house arrest. Anyone running things now could easily discover her address. If they wanted her, all they had to do was send someone to summon her…or arrest her, if that was what they preferred.

Others had truly gone into hiding, though. Pearson had been attending an emergency meeting in the General Board’s conference room when word arrived that a big hyper footprint had just been detected. That footprint had belonged to Admiral Gold Peak’s Tenth Fleet and its dozens of superdreadnoughts and battlecruisers.

The Mesan Navy couldn’t possibly fight off that kind of firepower, and four of the Board members had raced out of the conference room within five minutes. No one had seen Regan Snyder, Fran Selig, François McGillicuddy, or Bentley Howell since, so far as Pearson knew. They’d “taken a powder,” to use an ancient and obscure cliché.

That was hardly surprising. Regan Snyder had been Mesa’s Director of Commerce—and, more to the point, Manpower Incorporated’s representative on the General Board. Fran Selig had been the Commissioner of Mesa’s Office of Public Safety, while Bentley Howell had been her counterpart for the Mesan Internal Security Directorate. And François McGillicuddy, as Mesa’s Director of Security, had been both Selig and Howell’s boss.

In short, they were the most prominent figures on Mesa of the galaxy’s most hated and reviled system government, and the three most visible officials in charge of suppressing the slaves and seccies. It appeared the MMA had more pressing concerns than catching them, just at the moment, but they had to be sweating the moment that changed, because if Admiral Gold Peak—or, still worse, Dusek and Palane—wanted to settle grudges, those four would be first in line for the guillotine.

They might still be, when they finally were caught. And so might Pearson herself, for that matter. She’d never had the public notoriety of many Board members, and behind the scenes she’d tried her best to keep the repression within bounds. But Mesa’s slaves and seccies had had centuries to build up a reservoir of hatred for their masters. She didn’t suppose they’d be prone to making fine distinctions at this point.

The one thing Pearson had feared the most, though, hadn’t happened. Neither Mendel nor—so far as she knew—anywhere else on the planet had endured the raging slaughter that the freed slaves on the planet now called Torch had inflicted on its full citizens. Manpower’s headquarters building had been stormed even before Hibson’s troops had been able to reach the surface, and the casualties there has been…ugly. But that had actually been a surprisingly isolated event. No doubt there’d been some additional lynchings, here and there, but nothing on the scale of the madness on Torch.

Part of the reason for that was simple: the Tenth Fleet had close to a million ground troops, and Susan Hibson was prepared to land as many of them as she needed. Her Military Administration had very quickly established martial law, disarmed the Misties…and made it very clear what would happen to any freelance vigilantes. Too late to save the Manpower HQ, perhaps—and Pearson had to wonder if that had truly been an oversight on Hibson’s part—but still very quickly indeed, And at least two other factors had mitigated against a mass pogrom, as well. The first was that Mesa’s economy was complex and multifaceted. It was not the rather crude high-tech plantation-style economy that Torch had had. Slaves were scattered all over, mostly working alone or in very small groups. It would have taken them time to organize a lynch mob—time which hadn’t been given to the slaves’ victims on Torch.

Or to Manpower. Which was probably because no “organizing” had been required in Manpower’s case. That mob had been more a matter of…spontaneous—and instantaneous—combustion. Or like dropping a lump of metallic sodium into a beaker of water, perhaps.

Before any other mobs could have assembled, Tenth Fleet’s ground forces were already beginning to land…and the third factor had come into play. Ironically, the very same huge ceramacrete structures that had made the seccy rebellion so difficult to crush now worked in favor of the full citizens. By the end of that first day, most of them had retreated into their towers and armed themselves. It had always been legal for full citizens to own light weapons, and among them were the surviving members of the MISD and the OPS forces, most of whom still had headed home with their military grade weapons before Hibson’s confiscations. If any slaves had tried to assault any of those enormous buildings, they would have suffered terrible casualties. Indeed, the Manpower mob’s casualties against the corporation’s far smaller force of security guards had been atrocious enough to discourage anything not fueled by a sheer, incandescent, bone-deep hatred. A need to destroy that didn’t truly care if it died in the destruction, as well.

Pearson had seen video of that mob. She never—ever—wanted to see something like it again.

Now she turned back to face Bukelis and Beckert.

“You are serious, aren’t you? You really think the Grand Alliance is telling the truth about these—these—” She waved her hand. “I still choke on saying it, because it’s so ridiculous. About this so-called ‘Mesan Alignment’ of theirs, which they claim is the ultimate source of all the galaxy’s wickedness?”

She shook her head vigorously. The motion was not so much one of denial as that of a dog, shaking off rainwater. Then she pointed at the fourth person in the room, a short and wiry fellow with an undefinable academic aura.

“For God’s sake!” She jabbed her finger again. “There—right there!—is your Mesan Alignment. The most thinly disguised ‘secret cabal’ in history. Chicherin is even one of its officers, even if he does pretend not to be. Which is pointless, now. I figure it took the Grand Alliance less than twenty-four hours to turn up the names and ranks of every member of the Alignment in good standing. Am I right, Jackson?”

The vice president of Research and Development for the Mesan Genetic Consultancy made a slight motion with his shoulders. Jackson Chicherin’s gestures all tended to be minimalist. This one was his version of a shrug.

“Probably,” he said. “Our ‘security’ was basically designed just to keep the Office of Investigation from having to take official notice of us. As long as we kept our heads down—just a little—we got ignored by the security establishment. And for the record, I am not an ‘official’ in the Alignment.”

He cleared his throat.

“We don’t actually have officials, as such. I am merely Mendel’s Deputy Lodge Leader for the Alignment.”

Pearson rolled her eyes.

“Why am I not surprised?” she demanded of no one in particular, then resumed her seat. “All right. Try to convince me.”

“Let me do the trying, Brianna,” Chicherin said before either Beckert or Bukelis could speak up. He nodded toward the two people sitting on the divan. “What they’ll tell you—I know, because they’ve spent several hours telling me already—are the following things. All of which, by the way, I believe to be true, as well.

“There are three critical issues involved.” He raised a hand and started counting off his fingers. “First, neither the Audubon Ballroom nor any other slave or seccy organization had the skills and resources carry out the wave of terrorist attacks prior to the Grand Alliance’s invasion.”

“Second,” he counted off another finger, “the reason Ingemar is here is because he was Harriet Caldwell’s assistant. Caldwell was probably the best analyst for the office of investigation’s Domestic Intelligence Branch.”

“Harriet was a real whiz at it,” Bukelis put in. “No-Sparrow-Shall-Fall Caldwell, we called her. It was only partly a joke.”

“I’d heard of her all the way over in Domestic Intelligence Analysis,” Beckert added.

Pearson was a bit impressed. Despite the similarity in their names, DIB and DIA were not close at all. The Domestic Intelligence Branch was part of Mesa’s Office of Investigation, which was charged by law to deal only with full citizens, whose legal and civil rights were scrupulously observed. Domestic Intelligence Analysis, on the other hand, was part of the MISD, which was legally forbidden to deal with full citizens. The two agencies were supposed to “liaise” with each other, but that was mostly a fiction. If an analyst for DIB had a reputation good enough to be familiar to DIA agents and officials, she had to be really good.

“You said, ‘was a whiz at it,’” she said. “Am I to take it she is no longer of this world?”

Bukelis shook his head.

“Harriet and her boss, Tony Lindstrom, were ambushed in MISD’s own parking structure. Their armored limousine was shredded by a ten-millimeter tribarrel. The weapon was recovered and turned out to be of Manticoran manufacture.”

His shrug was not minimalist at all.

“The official report put it down as another Ballroom terrorist incident. But that’s pure bullshit. Not even Dusek had more than a handful of genuine military-grade weapons, and they were all ours. Acquired from sources right here on Mesa by…creative bookkeeping, shall we say? We didn’t encounter a single Manty weapon, even during the worst of the fighting in Neue Rostock. And how would the Ballroom have known they were exiting the building in the first place? It was an impromptu expedition, not a planned one.” He grimaced. “There’s no way Harriet and Tony were killed by the Ballroom. No way at all.”

“Of course not,” Skyler Beckert said. She looked at Pearson. “I can’t tell you how many times I tried to convince my boss, Bentley Howell, that there was no way the Ballroom could have been responsible for the preinvasion terrorist incidents. And the invasion itself pretty much demolished the alternate theory I’d developed.”

“Which was?”

“That the Manties were carrying out what amounted to an undercover commando operation on Mesa, which they were disguising as some sort of terrorist plot. Mind you, there’s some evidence for that at the beginning. I was never able to figure out exactly what happened, but I’m certain Zilwicki and Cachat were somehow involved with the Green Pines Incident, which was the first use of nuclear devices.

“How did the invasion demolish your theory?” Pearson asked.

“A commando operation of that nature only makes sense as part of a long-term plan to destabilize Mesa. Why would the Manties bother, if they were going to conquer the system outright a year later?”

“Maybe they didn’t know that at the time. It’s quite possible, you know, that Gold Peak’s invasion was a last-minute decision,” Pearson pointed out, and Beckert shrugged.

“Could be,” she conceded, “but what’s still obvious—now, in hindsight—is that the Manties could have taken Mesa any time they chose. I find it hard to believe that they’d have taken the risk of using nukes in a commando operation—a totally unnecessary commando operation they would have known was going to piss off a lot of Solly public opinion and that could be traced back to them—under those circumstances. That’s the sort of tactic and exposure you resort to only for ‘must-succeed, can’t-do-any-other-way’ objectives. Which kicking the crap out of us clearly wasn’t on, oh, so many levels.”

It did seem implausible, Pearson thought, and looked back to Chicherin.

“You said ‘three reasons,’ Jackson. What’s the third?”

He raised his hands and then spread them while turning in his chair. The gesture indicated the huge expanse of windows overlooking the city.

“It’s right out there. Unless you’ve got the brains of a goose, you can’t believe for one moment that the Grand Alliance was responsible for the nuclear strikes that followed immediately on their conquest. None of it makes any sense, for the very reasons Skyler just summed up for any ‘commando operation.’ They had no motive—indeed, they had every reason to keep casualties to a minimum. The Manties have no track record of doing that sort of wholesale murder. In fact, even their worst critics had to admit—before this, at least—that their record was the exact reverse of that! And while the Havenites were notoriously brutal under the old regime, not even they ever carried out this kind of indiscriminate slaughter. And even if they’d been crazy enough to do it here, the method makes no sense. Why use nukes, when they could’ve used KEWs? And, finally, the targets make no more sense than any of the rest of it. One of the bombs exploded on an uninhabited island, for God’s sake.”

He lowered his hands.

“And then, there’s this. Whatever government emerges here in Mesa, we full citizens have to be part of it. No one can govern Mesa without us. We’re still thirty percent of the population, and we have a much higher percentage of the educated and skilled work force.”

Pearson had already figured that out, but—

“Where are you going with this?” she asked.

“You and I—” he flipped a finger back and forth to indicate the two of them “—are probably the best candidates from the old General Board to be included as full citizen representatives in the new government, whenever it starts getting formed. Neither of us had a reputation for being harsh, and in your case, there’ll be plenty of people willing to testify you did your best to restrain Selig, Howell, McGillicuddy, and—” his tone darkened “—that snake Snyder. We don’t even have to lie. You did.”

“I’m not sure how much weight that’s likely to swing with anybody,” she replied. “But what does any of this have to do with what you came here to talk to me about?”

“Isn’t it obvious? At the risk of seeming like a cynical, calculating, cold-blooded maneuverer, Brianna, it’s entirely to our advantage to support the Grand Alliance’s claims concerning the nuclear bombardment after the conquest. As it happens, I think it is true somebody else is responsible for the killings. Whether it’s the Manties’ version of the ‘Mesan Alignment’ is another issue. That’s obviously nonsense. We had nothing to do with it. But somebody did it. Somebody else—not us, not the Grand Alliance. Somebody else. That’s enough to start making peace, Brianna.”

She stared at him for a while, then, abruptly, snorted.

“What did you get your degree in?” she asked.

“I have lots of degrees. Most of them in biology and genetics, of course. But I also picked up a master’s certificate in history along the way. I did my thesis on an Ante Diaspora statesman. Man by the name of Machiavelli.”

HMS Artemis,
Mesa Planetary Orbit,
Mesa System.

Back | Next