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A Rising Thunder: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Friday, January 13, 2012 19:02 EST



    “This,” Yana Tretiakovna announced, “is booooooring.”

    The tall, attractive, and very dangerous blonde flung herself backward into the threadbare armchair. She leaned back, crossed her arms, and glowered out the huge crystoplast wall at what any unbiased person would have to call the magnificent vista of Yamato’s Nebula.

    At the moment, she was less than impressed. On the other hand, she had a lot to not be impressed about. And she’d had a lot of time in which to be unimpressed, too.

    “I’m sure you could find something to amuse yourself if you really wanted to,” Anton Zilwicki said mildly, looking up from the chess problem on his minicomp. “This is one of the galaxy’s biggest and most elaborate amusement parks, you know.”

    “This was one of the galaxy’s biggest amusement parks,” Yana shot back. “These days, it’s one of the galaxy’s biggest deathtraps. Not to mention being stuffed unnaturally full of Ballroom terrorists and Beowulfan commandos, not one of whom has a functioning sense of humor!”

    “Well, if you hadn’t dislocated that nice Beowulfan lieutenant’s elbow arm wrestling with him, maybe you’d find out they had better senses of humor than you think they do.”

    “Yada, yada, yada.” Yana scowled. “It’s not even fun to tease Victor anymore!”

    A deep basso chuckle rumbled around inside Zilwicki’s massive chest. When Yana had first signed on to assist in his and Victor Cachat’s high-risk mission to Mesa, she’d been at least half-frightened (whether she would have admitted it to a living soul or not) of the Havenite secret agent. She’d agreed to come along — mostly out of a desire to avenge her friend Lara’s death — and she was a hardy soul, was Yana. Still, the notion of playing the girlfriend (although the ancient term “moll” might actually have been a better one) of someone many people would have described as a stone-cold, crazed sociopathic killer had obviously worried her more than she’d cared to admit. In fact, Zilwicki thought, Cachat had never struck him as either stone cold or crazed, but he could see where other people might form that impression, given his Havenite colleague’s body count. As for sociopathy, well, Zilwicki’s internal jury was still out on that one in some ways.

    Not that he hadn’t known some perfectly nice sociopaths. Besides, Zilwicki had observed that who was the sociopath and who was the defender of all that was right and decent often seemed to depend a great deal on the perspective of the observer.

    And sometimes the cigar really is a cigar, of course, he reflected. That’s one of the things that make life so interesting when Victor’s around.

    Over the course of their lengthy mission on Mesa, Yana had gotten past most of her own uneasiness with the Havenite. And the four-month voyage from Mesa back to the Hainuwele System had finished it off. Of course, the trip shouldn’t have taken anywhere near that long. The old, battered, and dilapidated freighter Hali Sowle their Erewhonese contacts had provided had been a smuggler in her time, and she’d been equipped with a military grade hyper generator. It wasn’t obvious, because her original owners had gone to considerable lengths to disguise it, and they hadn’t tinkered with her commercial grade impeller nodes and particle screening, but that had allowed her to climb as high as the Theta Bands, which made her far faster than the vast majority of merchant vessels. Unfortunately, the hyper generator in question had been less than perfectly maintained by the various owners through whose hands the ship had passed since it was first installed, and it had promptly failed after they managed to escape Mesa into hyper. They’d survived the experience, but it had taken Andrew Artlet what had seemed like an eternity to jury-rig the replacement component they’d required.

    They’d drifted, effectively motionless on an interstellar scale, while he and Anton managed the repairs, and even after they’d gotten the generator back up, using the Mesa-Visigoth Hyper Bridge had been out of the question. They’d been better than nine hundred and sixty light-years from their base in Hainuwele (and well over a thousand light-years from Torch) but given the…pyrotechnics which had accompanied their escape, they’d dared not return to the Mesa Terminus and take the shortcut which would have delivered them less than sixty light-years from Beowulf. Instead, they’d been forced to detour by way of the OFS-administered Syou-tang Terminus of the Syou-tang-Olivia Bridge, then cross the four hundred and eighty-odd light-years from the Olivia System to Hainuwele the hard way.

    The trip had given them plenty of time to hone their card playing skills, and the same enforced confinement had given the coup de grace to any lingering fear Yana might have felt where Victor Cachat was concerned. It had also given Cachat and Zilwicki plenty of time to debrief Herlander Simões, the Mesan physicist who had defected from the Mesan Alignment. Well, “plenty of time” was probably putting it too strongly. They’d had lots of time, but properly mining the treasure trove Simões represented was going to take years, and it was, frankly, a task which required someone with a lot more physics background then Zilwicki possessed.

    Enough had emerged from Simões’ responses and from the maddeningly tantalizing fragments which had been proffered by Jack McBryde, the Mesan security officer who’d engineered Simões’ defection, to tell them that everything everyone — even, or perhaps especially, the galaxy’s best intelligence agencies — had always known about Mesa was wrong. That information was going to come as a particularly nasty shock to Beowulf intelligence, Zilwicki thought, but Beowulf was hardly going to be alone in that reaction. And as they’d managed to piece together more bits of the mosaic, discovered just how much no one else knew, their plodding progress homeward had become even more frustrating.

    There’d been times — and quite a few of them — when Zilwicki had found himself passionately wishing they’d headed towards the Lynx Terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction, instead. Unfortunately, their evasive routing had been more or less forced upon them initially, and it would have taken even longer to backtrack to Lynx than to continue to Syou-tang. And there’d also been the rather delicate question of exactly what would happen to Victor Cachat if they should suddenly turn up in the Manticore Binary System, especially after the direct Havenite attack on the aforesaid star system, word of which had reached the Mesan news channels just over two T-months before their somewhat hurried departure. It had struck them as unlikely that one of Haven’s top agents would be received with open arms and expressions of fond welcome, to say the least.

    For that matter, exactly who had jurisdiction over Simões (and the priceless intelligence resource he represented) was also something of a delicate question. Their operation had been jointly sponsored by the Kingdom of Torch, the Republic of Haven (whether or not anyone in Nouveau Paris had known anything about it), the Audubon Ballroom, the Beowulf Biological Survey Corps, and Victor Cachat’s Erewhonese contacts. There’d been absolutely no official Manticoran involvement, although Princess Ruth Winton’s contributions hadn’t exactly been insignificant. She’d been acting in her persona as Torch’s intelligence chief, however, not in her persona as a member of the Star Empire of Manticore’s ruling house.

    Bearing all of that in mind, there’d never really been much chance of heading straight for Manticore. Instead, they’d made for Hainuwele, on the direct line to Torch. It was the closest safe harbor, given the available wormhole connections, and they’d hoped to find one of the BSC’s disguised commando ships in-system and available for use as a messenger when they got there. They’d been disappointed in that respect, however; when they arrived the only ship on station had been EMS Custis, an Erewhonese construction ship which had just about completed the conversion of Parmaley Station into a proper base for the BSC and the Ballroom to interdict the interstellar trade in genetic slaves.

    Artlet’s and Zilwicki’s repairs had been less than perfect, and Hali Sowle had limped into Hainuwele on what were obviously her hyper generator’s last legs. Custis‘ captain been out of touch for two or three months himself while his construction crews worked on Parmaley Station, but he’d been able to confirm that as far as active operations between Haven and Manticore were concerned, a hiatus of mutual exhaustion had set in following the Battle of Manticore. Both Anton and Victor had been vastly relieved to discover that no one had been actively shooting at one another any longer, given what they’d learned on Mesa, but it had been obvious the good captain was less than delighted at the notion of finding himself involved in the sort of shenanigans which seemed to follow the team of Zilwicki and Cachat around. He’d apparently suspected that his Erewhonese employers wouldn’t have approved of his stepping deeper into the morass he was pretty sure Hali Sowle and her passengers represented. They might have convinced him to change his mind if they’d told him what they’d discovered on Mesa, but they weren’t about to break security on that at this point. Which meant the best he’d been willing to do was to take his own ship to Erewhon (which, to be fair, was the next best thing to twenty light-years closer to Hainuwele than Torch was) to fetch back a replacement generator for Hali Sowle. In the process, he was willing to take an encrypted dispatch from Victor to Sharon Justice, who’d been covering for him as the Republic’s senior officer in the Erewhon Sector, but that was as far as he was prepared to go.



    Zilwicki didn’t try to pretend, even to himself, that he hadn’t found the captain’s attitude irritating. Fortunately, he was by nature a patient, methodical, analytical man. And there were at least some upsides to the situation. Neither he nor Cachat wanted Simões out of their sight, and while they had no particular reason to distrust Custis‘ captain or crew, they had no particular reason to trust them, either. If even a fraction of what Jack McBryde and Herlander Simões had told them proved true, it was going to shake the foundations of star nations all across explored space. They literally could not risk having anything happen to him until they’d had time for him to tell his tale — in detail — to their own star nations’ intelligence services. Much as they might begrudge the month or so it would take Custis to make the trip to Erewhon, they preferred to stay right where they were until Justice could arrange secure transport to Torch. They’d both breathe an enormous sigh of relief once they had Simões safely squirreled away on Torch and could send discreet dispatches requesting all of the relevant security agencies send senior representatives to Torch.

    No one expected it to be easy, and he knew Cachat was as worried as he was over the possibility that the Star Empire and the Republic might resume combat operations while they waited, but both of them were aware that they’d stumbled onto the sort of intelligence revelation that came along only once in centuries. Assuming it wasn’t all part of some incredible, insane disinformation effort, the Mesan Alignment had been working on its master plan for the better part of six hundred T-years without anyone’s having suspected what was happening. Under those circumstances, there were quite literally no lengths to which Victor Cachat and Anton Zilwicki wouldn’t go to keep their sole source of information alive.

    Which was why they were all still sitting here aboard Parmaley Station’s moldering hulk while they awaited transportation elsewhere.

    “You know,” Yana said a bit plaintively, “nobody told me we were going to be gone on this little jaunt for an entire year.”

    “And we haven’t been,” Zilwicki pointed out. “Well, actually, I suppose we have, depending on the planetary year in question. But in terms of T-years, it’s been less than one. Why, it’s been barely ten T-months, when you come down to it!”

    “And it was only supposed to be four,” Yana retorted.

    “We told you it might be five,” Zilwicki corrected, and she snorted.

    “You know, even Scrags can do simple arithmetic, Anton. And –”

    The powered door giving access to the combination viewing gallery and sitting room was one part of Parmaley Station which had been thoroughly refurbished. Now it opened rather abruptly, interrupting Yana in mid-sentence, and a dark-haired man came through it. Compared to Zilwicki’s massive musculature and shoulders, the newcomer looked almost callow, but he was actually a well-muscled young fellow.

    “Ah, there you are!” he said. “Ganny El said she thought you were in here.”

    “And so we are, Victor,” Zilwicki rumbled, and raised an eyebrow. “And since we are, and since you’re here at the moment, may I ask who’s babysitting our good friend Herlander? Unless I’m mistaken, it is your watch, isn’t it?”

    “I left Frank sitting outside his door with a flechette gun, Anton,” Cachat replied in a patient tone, and Zilwicki grunted.

    The sound represented at least grudging approval, although one had to know him well to recognize that fact. On the other hand, Frank Gillich was a capable fellow. He and June Mattes were both members of the Beowulf Biological Survey Corps, part of the original BSC team which had discovered the Butre Clan here on Parmaley Station and brokered the deal that left the Butres alive and turned the station into a BSC/Ballroom front. Most people (or most people who didn’t know Victor Cachat, at least) would have considered Gillich and Mattes about as lethal as agents came, and Zilwicki was willing to concede that Gillich could probably be counted upon to keep Simões alive for the next fifteen or twenty minutes.

    “I thought I was the hyper-suspicious, paranoid, obsessive-compulsive one,” Cachat continued. “What is this? Are you trying to claim the title of Paranoiac in Chief?”

    “Hah!” Yana snorted. “He’s not trying to do anything. He’s just been hanging around you too long. That’s enough to drive anyone — except Kaja…maybe — around the bend!”

    “I don’t see why the entire universe insists on thinking of me as some sort of crazed killer,” Cachat said mildly. “It’s not like I kill anyone who doesn’t need killing.”

    He said it with a completely straight face, but Zilwicki thought it was probably a joke. Probably. One could never be entirely certain where Cachat was concerned, and the Havenite’s idea of a sense of humor wasn’t quite like most people’s.

    “May I assume there’s a reason you left Frank playing babysitter and asked Ganny El where you might find us?” Zilwicki asked out loud.

    “Actually, yes,” Cachat replied, dark brown-black eyes lighting. “I think I’ve finally found the argument to get you to agree to take Herlander straight to Nouveau Paris, Anton.”

    “Oh?” Zilwicki crossed tree trunk arms and cocked his head, considering Cachat the way a skilled lumberjack might consider a particularly scrubby sapling. “And why should we suddenly depart from our agreed on plan of parking him on Torch and inviting all the mountains to come to Mohammed?”

    “Because,” Cachat replied, “a dispatch boat just came in from Erewhon.”

    “A dispatch boat?” Zilwicki’s eyes narrowed. “Why would anyone in Erewhon be sending a dispatch boat out here?”

    “Apparently Sharon decided it would be a good idea to let anyone from the Ballroom or the BSC who checked in with Parmaley Station know what’s going on,” Cachat replied. He shrugged. “Obviously, she didn’t know I was going to be here when she sent the boat — she sent it off about three weeks ago, and the earliest Custis could get to Erewhon is tomorrow.”

    “I’m perfectly well aware of Custis‘ schedule,” Zilwicki rumbled. “So suppose you just go ahead and tell me ‘what’s going on’ that’s so important your minions are throwing dispatch boats around the galaxy?”

    “Well, it happens that about three months ago, Duchess Harrington arrived in Haven orbit,” Cachat said. “The news got sent out to all of our intelligence stations in the regular data dumps, but it still took over a month to get to Sharon, and she sent the dispatch boat out to distribute it to all our stations in the sector. It stopped off at Torch, too, according to its skipper. We were the last stop on the information chain.” He shrugged again. “I imagine the only reason it got sent here at all was Sharon’s usual thoroughness. But according to the summary she got from the home office, Duchess Harrington is in Nouveau Paris for the express purpose of negotiating a peace settlement between the Republic and the Star Empire.”

    Anyone who knew Anton Zilwicki would have testified that he was a hard man to surprise. This time, though, someone had managed it, and his eyes widened.

    “A peace settlement? You mean a formal treaty?

    “Apparently that’s exactly what she’s there to get, and according to Sharon’s summary, President Pritchart is just as determined as the Duchess. On the other hand, after twenty years of shooting at each other, I doubt they’ve already tied it all up in a neat bow. And since Duchess Harrington actually believed both of us before we ever set out for Mesa, I don’t see any reason she wouldn’t believe us if we turned up with Simões in tow. For that matter, she’ll have her treecat with her, and he’ll know whether or not we’re telling the truth. Or whether or not Herlander is, when you come down to it.”

    “And if there’s anyone in the Star Empire who could convince the Queen to listen to us, it’s Harrington,” Zilwicki agreed, nodding vigorously.

    “Exactly. So my thought is that we leave the recordings of our interviews with Herlander here on our station to be picked up by the next BSC courier to come through and taken on to Torch. Redundancy is a beautiful thing, after all. In the meantime, though, you and I commandeer Sharon’s dispatch boat, load Herlander on board, and head straight for Haven.” Cachat grinned. “Do you think finding out about the Alignment’s existence might have some small impact on the negotiations?”

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