Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Crown of Slaves: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Saturday, April 9, 2005 09:56 EDT



    "I feel ridiculous wearing this get-up," grumbled W.E.B. Du Havel, as Cathy Montaigne led him down a wide corridor of her townhouse toward the even wider staircase which swept down to the main floor.

    "Don't get pig-headed on me, Web." Cathy gave his portly figure a look that was just barely this side of sarcastic. "You'd look really ridiculous trying to pull off the Mahatma Gandhi routine."

    Du Havel chuckled. "'Minus fours,' didn't he call it? When he showed up in London wearing nothing much more than a glorified loincloth?"

    He glanced down at his ample belly, encased in a costume whose expensive fabric seemed wasted, as brightly colored as it was. Red, basically, but with ample splashes of orange and black—all of it set off by a royal blue cummerbund, parallel white and gold diagonal sashes running from left shoulder to right hip, and a slightly narrower set of the same colors serving as pinstripes for his trousers. The trousers were also blue; but, for no discernable reason Du Havel could make out, were at least two shades darker than the cummerbund.

    The shoes, needless to say, were gold. And, just to make the ensemble as ludicrous as possible, ended in slightly upturned, pointed tips festooned with royal blue tassels.

    "I feel like the court jester," he muttered. "Or a beach ball."

    He gave Cathy a skeptical glance. "You're not playing some sort of practical joke on me?"

    "How fucking paranoid can you get, anyway?"

    "Well, at least your language hasn't changed since Terra. That's something, I suppose."

    They were almost at the top of the stairs, entering an area where the left wall of the corridor gave way to an open vista over a balustrade, looking down upon a huge foyer which seemed packed with people. Du Havel's steps began to lag.

    Cathy reached back, grabbed his elbow, and hauled him forward. "Relax, will you? Neo-Comedia is all the rage this year. I had that outfit made up special for you, just for this occasion, by the second best tailor in Landing City."

    No help for it, then. Du Havel decided to make the best of a bad situation. They began walking slowly down the stairs, Cathy at his side acting as if she was escorting visiting royalty.

    Du Havel, his curious mind active as ever, whispered: "Why the second best?"

    He was amused to see the smile on Cathy's face. Her be a nice girl at formal occasions smile, that was. Not one she often wore, for sure, but she was as good at it as Cathy was at most anything she put her mind to. She even managed to hiss back a reply without once breaking the smile.

    "I'm trying to get along with Elizabeth, these days. She'd be pissed if she thought I was trying to swipe her favorite tailor."

    He chewed on that, for the few seconds it took them to parade down the long and sweeping staircase. By the time they neared the bottom, it seemed as if all eyes in the foyer were on him—as well as those of many people spilling into the multitude of adjacent rooms. For all that he'd now been resident for two weeks in the Montaigne townhouse—"pocket Versailles" would be a better word for it—Du Havel was still bewildered by the architecture of the place. For some odd reason, his prodigious intellect had never been more than middling-stupid when it came to spatial reckoning.

    "Surely the Queen of Manticore can't be that petty?"

    On the next to last riser, Cathy came to a halt; with a subtle hand on his elbow, bringing Du Havel to a halt also. He realized that she was doing it deliberately, to give the entire crowd a moment to admire the evening's special guest.

    Still, her formal smile never wavered. "Don't be silly. Elizabeth's not petty at all. It's not the principle of the thing, it's the sport of it. She and I used to swipe things from each other all the time, when we were kids. It was something of a contest."

    "Who won?" he whispered.

    "I was way ahead on points, when the Queen Mother—she was still the Queen, back then—banned me from the Palace altogether. Elizabeth's still holding a bit of a grudge, I think. So I saw no reason to rub her nose in it again, all these many years later."

    The major domo stepped forward. In a bellowing voice:

    "Catherine Montaigne, former Countess of the Tor! And her guest, the Right Honorable W.E.B. Du Havel, Ph.D.!"

    A voice piped up from the back of the room. A youthful feminine voice which Du Havel recognized. His eyes immediately spotted the tall figure of Anton Zilwicki's daughter Helen.

    "You're slacking, Herbert! How many PhDs?"

    A quick laugh rippled through the crowd. The major domo let the laughter subside before booming onward.

    "Too many to count, Midshipwoman Zilwicki! My feeble mind is not up to the effort! I can recall only—"

    He began reeling off the list of Du Havel's academic degrees and awards—not missing many, Du Havel noted—and ended with the inevitable: "Nobel-Shakhra Prize for Human Aspiration, and the Solarian Medallion!"

    "You two hussies orchestrated this," he muttered. Cathy's smile just widened a bit.

    But, despite himself, Du Havel couldn't help but feel genuine pride at hearing the long list recited. Granted, a number of those degrees were honorary. But most of them weren't—and even the ones which were, never would have been bestowed upon him had it not been for his own accomplishments.

    Not bad, really, for a man who had been come into the universe in a Manpower Unlimited slave pit, with the birth name of J-16b-79-2/3.



    Within a half hour, Du Havel had managed to relax. Fortunately, Cathy proved to have been correct about his preposterous costume. If anything, it was quite a bit more subdued than those worn by many people at the soirée. And while Du Havel was not accustomed to being the official guest of honor at a huge social gathering of a star nation's haut monde, he was by no means a shy wallflower. Like any experienced and accomplished university don, he was a past master at the art of making conversation.

    Besides, as he'd realized almost at once, the jocular interplay between the major domo and Helen Zilwicki had given his introduction to Manticore's high society just the right touch of good humor. He was quite sure Cathy had planned it for the purpose.

    He was rather impressed, in fact. He'd known for a long time that Cathy had the makings of a superb politician. But, in those long years of her exile on Terra, when he'd first met the woman, she'd never really exercised them. He'd suspected then—and thought the suspicion was confirmed now—that the ultimate reason was her own shock at being expelled from Manticore's aristocracy. No matter how much she might have denied caring about it, few people can easily handle being rejected by the society they'd been raised in. Even if subtly, their self-confidence would take a beating on a level below that of conscious thought.

    Watching her now, the ease and grace with which she moved through the crowd, he knew that she'd gotten it all back. Back—and then some, because the years of exile had not been wasted either. This was no headstrong young woman, any longer, sneering at tactics from the lofty mount of principle. This was a woman in her early middle age, now entering the prime of her life, with her confidence restored and armed by years of study and political struggle.

    Look out, Manticore, he thought with amusement.

    He brought his attention back to the conversation he was having with an elderly gentleman and his two female companions. Sisters, if Du Havel remembered their introduction correctly.

    He wasn't quite sure. All three of them were prattling half-baked nonsense, and he hadn't paid much heed to most of it. Just enough, with the experience of years at academic social gatherings, to be able to make the necessary sage nods and judicious noises at the proper intervals.

    Fortunately, Du Havel had trained himself to be patient at these things. Not easy, that. By nature, he was not given to suffering fools gladly.

    He heard the major domo booming another introduction.

    "Captain Michael Oversteegen, CGM, GS, OCN, commanding officer, Her Majesty's Starship Gauntlet!"

    A tall, slender man in a Manticoran naval uniform had entered the room. Du Havel didn't pay much attention, until he noticed a definite lessening in the volume of noise produced by the crowd. As if most conversations had either faltered momentarily, or the speakers lowered their voices.

    That included, thankfully, the three siblings. Du Havel spotted Helen Zilwicki not far away, and disengaged himself from the Babbling Trio with a smooth and meaningless polite phrase.

    "Who's he?" he murmured into Helen's ear, when he came alongside her. The young woman hadn't noticed him until then, because her own eyes were riveted on the Manticoran officer. Just about everyone's seemed to be—and Du Havel had already spotted Cathy making her way through the crowd toward the newly-arrived guest.

    "Oh. Hi, Web. That's Oversteegen. The Oversteegen. Cathy invited him, but she never once thought he'd show up. Neither did I."

    Du Havel smiled. "Let's start back at the beginning, shall we? 'The' Oversteegen may mean something to you. But as someone who just arrived in the Star Kingdom two weeks ago from Terra, I'm afraid it means nothing to me."

    Helen's eyes widened, as a youngster's will when she stumbles across the shocking discovery that not everybody shares her own particular interests.

    "He's the captain who won the Battle of Tiberian," she replied, and shook her head at his uncomprehending expression. "The one where his ship took out four other cruisers single-handedly," she added in a tone that was half-protesting, as if leaving unspoken: How can ANYONE not know about it?

    "Oh, yes. I recall reading about the incident at the time. A year or so ago, wasn't it? But I got the impression his opponents were merely pirates, not a naval force."

    Helen's eyes widened still further. Du Havel had to fight to keep from grinning. The eighteen-year-old girl was too polite to come right out and say it, but it was obvious to him that her thoughts were running along the lines of: How can ANYONE be such an idiot?

    She managed, however, to keep most of the outrage out of her ensuing reply. She only spluttered twice.

    "Those were Gladiator-class cruisers, for Chr—" She suppressed the splutter, and continued in a calmer tone of voice. Much the way a mother restrains her indignation at the folly of a toddler. "Gauntlet's sensor records proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt."

    Du Havel raised a questioning eyebrow. Helen Zilwicki had to suppress another splutter.

    "How can any—?" Cough. "The Gauntlet was the name of Oversteegen's ship. Still is, I should say." The next words were spoken a bit slowly, as a mother might speak to a child, introducing simple concepts.

    "Gladiators, Web. The Solarian League Navy's most recent class of heavy cruisers. They've got completely up-to-date weaponry and EW capability, probably as good as anything we've got. Solarian ships of the wall are nothing much—leaving aside the sheer number of them—because the League hasn't fought a real war in centuries. But there's nothing obsolete about their lighter warships, since those are the ones that do the SLN's real work."

    Her eyes grew a bit unfocused, as if she was thinking far back—or far ahead. "Nobody's defeated a Solarian heavy cruiser in open battle in over half a century, Web. And nobody's ever beaten four of them at once, with a single vessel of any kind short of a dreadnought—much less another heavy cruiser. Not, at least, that there's any record of, in the Academy's data banks. I know. I did a post-action study of Gauntlet's engagement for a course I just finished. Part of the assignment was to do a comparative analysis."

    She bestowed a look of deep reproof upon Du Havel. "So what difference does it make if they were 'pirates'? Even chimps would be dangerous in Gladiators, if they knew how to operate the vessels in the first place."

    "How did pirates ever get their hands on them?"

    Helen scowled. "Good question—and don't think everybody isn't asking it, too. Unfortunately, the only pirates who survived were low-level muscle, who didn't know anything."

    She hesitated a moment. "I guess I probably shouldn't say this, but… what the hell, it's nothing that hasn't been speculated on in the news media. There's really only one way they could have gotten them, Web. For whatever reason, somebody in the League with big money and just as much influence must have been behind that extensive pirate operation. Nobody that I know has any idea what they were up to, but just about everybody—me included—thinks that Manpower must have been behind it. Or maybe even Mesa as a whole."

    Her scowl was now pronounced. "If we could prove it—"



    Du Havel shifted his gaze back to the Manticoran captain under discussion. With far greater interest, now. However much distance there might be between him and most, in terms of intellectual achievements and public renown, there was one thing which Web Du Havel shared with any former genetic slave.

    He hated Manpower Unlimited with a bone deep passion. And though, for political reasons, he disagreed with the violent tactics used by the Audubon Ballroom, he had never once had so much as a qualm about the violence itself. There was not a single responsible figure in that evil galactic corporation—not a single one, for that matter, on the entire planet of Mesa—whom Web Du Havel would not himself have lowered into a vat of boiling oil.

    Capering and singing hosannas all the while—if he thought it would accomplish anything.

    He took a deep breath, controlling the sudden spike of rage. And reminding himself, for perhaps the millionth time in his life, that if sheer righteous fury could accomplish anything worthwhile, wolverines would have inherited the galaxy long ago.

    "Introduce me, would—" He broke off, suddenly realizing the request was moot. Cathy Montaigne was already leading Captain Oversteegen toward him.

    It would be a while before they got there, however, given the press of the crowd and the fact that several people were stepping forward to offer their hands to the captain. Hastily, he whispered: "Just so I don't commit any social gaffes, why are you—and Cathy—so surprised to see him here? He was invited, was he not?"

    He heard Helen make a little snorting sound. As if, once again, the well-mannered girl had suppressed another outburst of derision.

    "Just look at him, Web. He's the spitting image of a younger Baron High Ridge."

    Du Havel's face must have registered his incomprehension. Not at the name itself—he knew enough about Manticoran politics to know that Helen was referring to the current Prime Minister—but at the subtleties which lay beneath.

    Helen pursed her lips. "I thought you were supposed to be the galaxy's expert—okay, one of maybe ten—on political theory? So how come you don't know your ass from— Uh. Sorry, didn't mean to be rude."

    He grinned, enjoying the girl's lapse from social manners. Given Du Havel's slave origins and present exalted status, most people were excessively polite around him. Obviously petrified lest they trigger off some buried resentment, of which they apparently assumed he harbored a multitude.

    As it happened, Web Du Havel was thick-skinned by nature—and enjoyed few things so much as a sleeves-rolled-up, hair-hanging-down, intellectual brawl in which quarter was neither asked nor given. Which, of course, was the reason he and Catherine Montaigne had become very close, many years earlier. That had happened the first time they met, within an hour of being introduced at a social event put on by the Anti-Slavery League on Terra.

    The argument rolling properly, Cathy had informed him, in her usual loud and profane manner, that he was a damned bootlicker with the mindset of a house slave. He, for his part, had explained to the assembled crowd—just as loudly, if not as profanely—that she was a typical upper class dimwit, slumming with the chic downtrodden of the day, who couldn't bake a loaf of bread without romanticizing the distress of the flour and the noble savage qualities of the yeast.

    It had gone rapidly downhill from there. By the end of the evening, a lifetime's friendship had been sealed. Like Du Havel himself, Cathy Montaigne was one of those ferocious intellectuals who took their ideas seriously—and never trusted another intellectual until they'd done the equivalent of a barbarian ritual. Matching intellectual wound to wound, sharing ideas—and derision—the way ancient warriors, meeting for the first time, mixed their actual blood from self-inflicted wounds.

    "Give me a break, Helen," he said, chuckling. "The real problem here is your provincialism, not mine. The ins-and-outs of the political fine points here on Manticore only seem of galaxy-shaking importance to you because you were born here. Your backyard looks like half a universe, because you have no idea how big the universe really is. Abstractly, you do—but the knowledge has never really sunk into your bones."

    He paused, giving the slowly approaching captain another glance. Still plenty of time, he decided, to continue the girl's education.

    "The Star Kingdom is a polity of five whole settled planets in only three star systems, since Trevor's Star's annexation—and assuming you can call Medusa a 'settled planet' in the first place. Even with San Martin added, your total population does not exceed six billion. There are five times that many people living in the Solar System alone—or Centauri, or Tau Delta, or Mithra, or any one of several dozen of the Solarian League's inner systems. The 'Old League,' as it's popularly known. The Solarian League as a whole has an official membership of 1,784 planets—that's not counting the hundreds more under Solarian rule in the Protectorates—which exist in a volume of galactic space measuring between three and four hundred light years in diameter. Within that enormous volume, there are literally more stars than you can see here at night with the naked eye. No one has any idea what the total population might be. The Old League alone has a registered population of almost three trillion people, according to the last census—and that census grossly undercounted the population. No serious analyst even tries to claim they know how many more trillions of people live in the so-called 'Shell Worlds' or the Protectorates. I leave aside entirely the untold thousands—millions, rather—of artificial habitats scattered across thousands of solar systems. Each and every one of which star polities has its own history, and its own complex politics and social and economic variations."

    The captain and Cathy were getting close, now. It was time to break off the impromptu lecture, since he still needed to know the reasons for Helen's bemusement at Oversteegen's appearance at the event.

    "Let me just leave you with the following thought, Helen: It's only been since the human race spread across thousands of worlds that political science has really deserved the term 'science'—and it's still a rough-and-ready science at that. Sometimes, it reminds me of paleontology back in the wild and woolly days of Cope and Marsh, battling it out over dinosaur bones. If nothing else, the preponderance of the League in human affairs skews all the data. But at least now we have a range of experience that allows us to do serious comparative studies, which was never possible in pre-Diaspora days. But that's really what someone like me does. I look for patterns and repetitions, if you will. The number of individual star systems whose political details I'm familiar with is just a tiny percentage of the whole. The truth is, I know a lot more about ancient Terran history than I do about the history of most of today's inhabited worlds. Because that's still, more often than not, the common history we use as our initial crude yardstick."

    Suitably abashed, the girl nodded.

    "And you still haven't explained—in terms I can understand—why you and Cathy are so surprised that Captain Oversteegen showed up. Or, for that matter—given the surprise—why she invited him in the first place."

    "Oh. It's because he doesn't look like High Ridge by accident. He's part of that whole Conservative Association bunch of lousy—well. Crowd I don't like, let's put it that way. Cathy hates them with a passion. He's related to the Queen—distantly—on his father's side, but his mother is High Ridge's second cousin. As his looks ought to tell anyone who lays eyes on him!"

    Du Havel nodded, the picture becoming clearer in his mind. He was more familiar with Manticore's politics than that of most star systems, naturally. Even leaving Catherine Montaigne aside, Manticore played a far more prominent role in the Anti-Slavery League than its sheer weight of population would account for. He understood the nature and logic of the Conservative Association well enough, certainly. It was an old and familiar phenomenon, after all, as ancient as any political formation in human affairs. A clique of people with a very prestigious and luxurious position in a given society, who reacted to anything which might conceivably discommode them with outrage and indignation—as if their own privileges and creature comforts resulted from laws of nature equal in stature to the principles of physics. Very fat pigs in a very plentifully-supplied trough, basically, who attempted to dignify their full stomachs by oinking the word "conservative."

    Given that W.E.B. Du Havel considered himself, by and large, to be a conservative political theorist—using the term "conservative" loosely—he found the phenomenon not only understandable but detestable.

    "Bunch of lousy swine will do nicely, Helen. But you can't confuse the individual with the group. Does Oversteegen himself belong to the Conservative Association? And, if so, why did Cathy invite him? And, if so—and having invited him nonetheless—why did he choose to come?" He gave the large crowd a quick overview. Diehard members of the Liberal Party, for the most part—and the ones who weren't, with not more than a handful of exceptions, departed from the Liberals to the left of the political spectrum. "I'd have thought that as likely as a Puritan agreeing to attend a witches' Sabbath."

    "What's a 'Puritan'?" she asked. "And why would witches—silly notion, that—hold a soirée on— Never mind." Cathy and the captain were almost there. Quickly, Helen whispered: "I don't think he's in the CA. Truth is, I don't know much about his own personal opinions. Not sure many people do. But—"

    A last, quick, hissed few words: "Sorry. You'll have to find out the rest from him, I guess."



    A moment later, Cathy was making the introductions. And Web Du Havel began getting his answers.

    He was delighted, of course. Except that, within a few minutes, he was back to silently cursing his ridiculous costume.

    There was no way to roll up the sleeves!

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image