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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Sixteen

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



    Staring up at the ceiling of his hotel bedroom, Victor Cachat was trying to decide what mood he was in. He didn't trust the sensations produced by the sunny warmth spilling across him from the lightly-shaded window. Sunlight was a treacherous thing, apt to confuse a man and make his brains woolly.

    But, try as he might, he couldn't help himself. He felt good. Very good indeed. Not elated, just... the kind of self-satisfaction that a man feels when, against all instinct, he has Done The Right Thing.

    Of course, he also felt incredibly stupid. And was quite sure that, the moment Ginny showed up, she'd be rubbing salt into that wound.

    Sure enough.

    The door opened and Ginny bustled in, carrying a tray laden with food. Victor avoided looking at her.

    There was perhaps three seconds of blessed silence. Just enough time for Ginny to size up the situation. Victor on the bed, and still fully clothed. Naomi Imbesi sleeping in the same bed, and no longer wearing her outfit of the night before. But, still, wearing a robe. And, still—it was blindingly obvious—not having spent the time engaged in carnal activity.

    "Victor, you're hopeless," he heard her growl. "I can't believe I wasted a night's drunkenness just to give you the opening and—you! It's disgraceful!"

    "I feel great," countered Victor, still avoiding her eyes. "And you should talk, anyway. In fact, I'm surprised you can talk at all, the hangover you must have. Ms. Comatose-After-Causing-A-Scandal."

    Repartee with Ginny was usually a lost cause. "Aren't you the barbarian? D'you think we're still in the dark ages?" She set the tray on a nearby table and beamed approvingly down on Naomi. Who, for her part, was lazily raising her head and smiling back.

    "Great stuff, Naomi. Works way better than the junk I brought with me ever does."

    "Best hangover-preventative I've ever found," agreed Naomi sleepily. With a soft laugh: "And I tried a lot of them, believe me."

    She raised herself up in bed, making no attempt to cover her breasts as her robe fell open. Victor felt uncomfortable for a moment, in the way that a young man caught in flagrante delicto by his older sister will. But the sensation didn't last long. Ginny was neither a prude nor given to hypocrisy, even leaving aside the fact that she'd connived in the whole affair herself.

    The whole affair...

    Victor found himself wondering if this still-to-happen episode could even be given the name of "affair." He had no doubt at all that Naomi's attempt to seduce him came from ulterior motives. That was part of the reason he'd gotten mulish, at the end.

    Only part of it, though—and, being honest, only a trivial part. Like many of the young cadre who'd joined State Security from the Dolist slums, Victor had something of a puritanical streak in him. But that was more in the way of a reaction to the slovenliness of Dolist life than anything driven by hard ideology, much less religious conviction. Victor had no religious convictions, beyond a hard agnosticism and the certainty that even if something which could be labeled "God" did exist, it cared not in the least about the sexual habits of a minor species inhabiting a tiny portion of one galaxy among untold billions.

    No, the real reason he'd gotten stubborn the night before wasn't because of any self-prohibition against casual sex. It was simply due to Victor's natural contrariness. He didn't necessarily object to a woman attempting to seduce him for ulterior motives—not that it had ever happened much in his life. He was just damned if he was going to be easy.

    Naomi, clearly enough, hadn't been fooled by his claims of not feeling well. To his relief, she hadn't tried to push the issue. But, of course, she'd insisted on sleeping in the same bed, because for her to leave the suite altogether—at that hour—would undo her carefully crafted work of providing them with an excuse to be seen together. And she'd made something of a production about getting undressed and into a robe.

    "And how about you, Victor?" Naomi asked slyly. "Are you feeling better this morning? Or do you need some of my stuff to counter the effects of your—ah, what was it?—one drink? Two?"

    Grinning, Ginny picked up the food tray and handed it to Naomi. The Erewhonese woman perched it on her lap and started eating with enthusiasm. She offered some to Victor, but he settled for a couple of the fruits. Erewhon's notion of what constituted a proper breakfast nauseated him a little. He was accustomed to the typical Nouveau Parisian's breakfast, which ran heavily toward grains instead of...

    "What is that, anyway?"

    "Blood pudding, Erewhon style," said Naomi cheerfully. "They make it by—"

    "Never mind! I can probably guess, not that I want to."

    Naomi and Ginny exchanged the sort of glances which culinary sophisticates exchange in the presence of stick-in-the-mud louts.

    By the time Naomi was finished, Ginny was perched on the foot of the bed, sitting cross-legged. She was wearing a version of a kimono, this morning, which was every bit as immodest as her usual wear. Victor was puzzled by the choice, in fact, since maintaining the cover seemed singularly useless under the circumstances.

    He said as much; and, once again, found Naomi and Ginny exchanging the same irritating glance.

    "And what are you two being so superior about now?"

    Ginny shook her head. "I worry about you sometimes, Victor. All this travel you've done, these past few years—and it hasn't broadened your horizons one single bit. We're about to start a ménage a trois, dummy. How else are you going to have Naomi keep hanging around, with me in tow?" She made a face. "I am not getting drunk every night just to keep a cover going, especially when you insist on wasting the opportunity."

    Victor's eyes widened. Naomi chuckled throatily. "Great minds think alike, obviously. Mine and Ginny's, that is. It'll work just fine, Victor. I'm well-known in Erewhon's haut monde for being bi-sexual—not that that's anything unusual here, this planet's almost as easygoing that way as Beowulf—and by now anybody will believe anything about Ginny's preferences. So the three of us can keep seeing each other, anywhere and any time, and nobody will wonder about it. In fact—"

    She cocked an inquisitive eye at Ginny. Ginny smiled and shook her head. "No thanks. I don't actually sleep around on Kevin, despite the act. It's not even because he'd get jealous. To be honest, I'm not sure he would, he's such an oddball. It's just..." Her face lost all expression.

    "Um." Naomi winced. "Yeah, I can imagine. If I'd been brought up in Manpower's slave quarters, I probably wouldn't have any interest in sex at all."

    Ginny shrugged. "It's not that bad. Still, if I ever had any notion that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, I lost it long ago."

    Naomi rose, holding the tray, and padded over to the table where she set it down. Completely oblivious, so far as Victor could tell, to the fact that her lush figure was half-spilling out of the hotel robe. He found it somewhat unsettling. For all that he knew his relationship with Naomi was fundamentally political, Victor still found it impossible to be that casual about intimacy. Not for the first time in his life, he felt like a country bumpkin.



    Having set down the tray, Naomi turned around. She was smiling.

    "Not that I'd actually mind—you're pretty cute, Victor—but I hope I'm right in assuming that the two of you are here to establish a private liaison with Erewhon. Or else I'll be wasting a lot of sweat, politically speaking."

    Ginny cocked her head. "Yes, we are. But—who exactly is 'Erewhon,' Naomi? Or am I wrong in assuming that you're... ah, working, on behalf of your uncle?"

    "No, you're right. But don't assume that because Walter's got no official position that he won't get listened to."

    Now that they'd moved onto political ground, Victor felt more at ease. He understood the way Erewhon's government worked better than Ginny did. Between her own sharp wits and the fact that she was Kevin Usher's wife, Ginny's grasp of interstellar politics was acute. But she rarely spent the time in study that Victor did as a matter of routine. In the end, when all was said and done, Ginny was an amateur at this business and he was a professional.

    "I understand that," he said. "What I don't understand is why the families in power didn't send someone to, ah—"

    "They're not as smart as my uncle, for starters. But even if they were, they'd have hesitated. Everybody on Erewhon is furious with the Star Kingdom—its government, at least—for the way they've been treating us the past few years. Just about anywhere you go, now, you'll hear the same wisecrack: 'With Manticorans as allies, who needs enemies?' But the families running things at the moment are noted for being cautious. So even if they have figured out what you're really doing here, they'd probably have privately asked my uncle to serve as the go-between anyway. 'Plausible deniability,' and all that."

    Victor nodded. Then, decided he had no choice but to stretch the truth a bit. "That's about our position. We're not here officially representing President Pritchart, either." To put it mildly; she'd have kittens if she knew what Kevin was doing. "But it's fair to say she'd listen carefully to anything we said to her." She would, too. Then she'd skin Kevin alive.

    Naomi was all business, now, moving over to a nearby armchair and easing into it. She even managed, in some weird manner Victor couldn't begin to fathom, to wear her robe like formal business wear.

    "That's good enough for a start. Unlike the ruling families, my uncle has made up his mind. He thinks Erewhon's alliance with the Star Kingdom is a losing proposition and that—given the change of government you've had—we'd do a lot better in alliance with the Republic of Haven. But I'll give you fair warning—he'll drive a hard bargain. If Erewhon comes over to Haven, we're in position to give you a lot more in the way of tech transfer than anything you'll get from the Solarians for years to come."

    Victor heard Ginny's sharply indrawn breath. In a way, that was odd, since this possibility was one which he and Kevin had discussed in Ginny's presence. But even Victor was feeling a little light-headed. Naomi had just bluntly put on the table what would, without a doubt, be the greatest intelligence coup Haven had had in years, if it happened. Because of its position as a member of Manticore's alliance, Erewhon had...

    EVERYTHING. Well... not quite. But we're pretty sure they've got their hands on the latest Manty compensators and FTL com, just for starters. They aren't as fully up to speed as the Graysons are, but that's only because they had too much infrastructure in place when they signed on with Manticore. They haven't been as aggressive about rebuilding from the ground up, and their hardware was already good enough to get by—better than anything we had, at any rate! But they've still got at least eighty percent of the total Manty package, and that means—

    Sweet Jesus. Practically overnight, we'd make up almost all of Manticore's tech edge.

    He shook his head, trying to focus on immediate questions. "What do you mean by a 'hard bargain'?"

    Naomi shrugged. With her bosom, wearing a robe that was too small for here, the gesture was... distracting. "I don't know. You'd have to work that out with my uncle. And then—assuming he was satisfied—he'd have to work it out with the families in power. I can tell you for sure that at the very least they'd insist that the Republic of Haven help us deal with the Congo problem."

    "Deal with it in what way?"

    "How about carpet nuclear bombardment?" Ginny snarled. "For starters."

    Victor grimaced. "Ginny, most of the people living on Congo are slaves."

    Ginny started to snap a reply; then, took in another breath and nodded abruptly. "Okay. I take it back. How about a simple war of conquest? Then we shoot everybody except the slaves. Better yet, leave them stranded in that jungle with nothing more than a loincloth and let them die slowly."

    Victor sighed and rubbed his face. "Congo" wasn't even the name of the planet they were talking about. Not officially, at least. The star manuals listed it simply under a catalog number, and the Mesan corporations for whom the planet was essentially their private property called it "Verdant Vista."

    But for everyone else in this portion of the galaxy, the place was called Congo. Victor even knew the obscure historical reference from which the name had derived, a place on ancient Earth called "King Leopold's Congo." A colonial hellhole, reborn—and often cited by the Anti-Slavery League and the Renaissance Association as a prime example of the horrors unleashed by the galaxy's toleration of Manpower and Mesa.

    Manpower maintained a slave-breeding center on Congo, as it happened. But the main product of the jungle planet was a variety of pharmaceuticals which were both valuable and difficult to duplicate artificially—and which were extracted by using the most savage forms of forced labor imaginable. One study commissioned by the Renaissance Association claimed that the life expectancy of the average slave laborer once they began working on the plantations was not more than six years.

    "Please, Ginny," he said softly. "Anger will get us nowhere." He cocked an eye at Naomi. "I assume Erewhon has considered the possibility and ruled it out."

    Again, Naomi shrugged. Victor had to repress the urge to shout Put real clothes on, woman! I'm trying to think!

    "You'd have to get the details from my uncle. But, yes, I know we've considered the option of a straight-up military campaign and decided it just wasn't feasible. For starters, while we could defeat Mesa's private fleets, Erewhon just doesn't have the ground forces to occupy the planet. We're essentially a commercial power, not a military one. And any ground campaign on Congo..."

    She let the sentence trail off. Something like sixty percent of Congo's land surface, if Victor remembered correctly, was classified as rain forest. And the other forty percent was mostly worse: swamps, marshy lowlands, bayous—every conceivable form of terrain guaranteed to make life miserable for ground troops.



    The solution was immediately obvious to Victor, but he was quite sure no Erewhonese had ever thought of it. And he wasn't at all sure they'd accept the idea once he proposed it. It would be a radical solution, sure to rub the wrong way against the cautious businessmen and merchants who dominated Erewhon's oligarchical society.

    If he even proposed the idea in the first place, he reminded himself, exercising his own caution. His tentative scheme would only work if...

    There were at least two big "ifs" he could think of, right offhand. Before he could take the idea any further, he'd have to establish his own liaisons with the relevant parties involved. One of whom—

    That last thought came with an odd combination of emotions. A bit of guilt, mingled with quite a bit more in the way of anticipation. It wasn't as if Naomi was actually his girlfriend, after all; nor was it Victor's fault if the only direct liaison he could think of with the Solarian League's most capable military officer in the region just happened to go through a dazzling smile.



    "Let's pursue this later," he said, clearing his throat. "For the moment, I assume that Erewhon is furious with the Manties because they won't lift a finger to deal with Congo."

    Naomi's face was tight. "Congo poses a constant threat to us. We weren't too concerned until a few years ago, when the Mesans discovered the system had its own wormhole junction. But that changed everything. Sure, Mesa wouldn't attack Erewhon directly—but who's to say whom else those scumbags might allow through the junction? It's like having a gangster for a neighbor, with the combination to your back door. We were assured by the Star Kingdom that after the war with Haven was successfully prosecuted and peace was made, they'd give us whatever help we needed. Those assurances were given by the Cromarty Government, of course."

    Victor felt the need to play the devil's advocate. Not out of perversity, but because his political instincts told him that he needed to appear objective to the Erewhonese. "In all fairness, Cromarty probably would have kept the promise."

    "Yes, probably. Instead, however, Cromarty was assassinated and High Ridge took over, and the new regime has made it crystal clear that they don't feel bound by any commitments made by the previous administration." Harshly: "The dishonorable bastards."

    Victor understood the anger lurking under the last sentence, and knew as well that no Manticoran in the current regime would. The informal style of Erewhonese politics came with a cultural background that was just foreign to such people as Baron High Ridge. On Erewhon, a person's word was considered his bond—and the bond was assumed by the families involved. If a man made a promise, and was unable to keep it for any reason, it was expected that his relatives would do so.

    Probably the most common popular saw on Erewhon was: a deal's a deal. The Erewhonese were notorious throughout the galaxy—their own portion of it, at least, as well as those sectors of the Solarian League which had regular contact with them—for being inveterate hagglers and bargainers. But they were also just as well-known for being trustworthy once a bargain was made. It was no accident that Erewhon had the lowest percentage of lawyers relative to the general population of any industrialized world in the human-settled galaxy. The Erewhonese just didn't think in terms of "lawyering"—whereas a long-standing joke in the Solarian League had a man suing his mother for the trauma inflicted upon him by childbirth.

    "Okay, then. I think I've got the basic parameters of the problem clear enough. For the moment, at least. I need to—ah—investigate a few things. When and where can we meet with your uncle?"

    Naomi grinned. "The Wages of Sin, where else?"

    Ginny clapped her hands. "Oh, I've always wanted to see that place!" She sprang to her feet and flung herself upon her closet with what struck Victor as excessive enthusiasm. "Wait'll you see the outfit I'm going to wear! Victor's gonna look like a lobster, he'll be so embarrassed!"

    Five minutes later she was parading around, showing off the outfit. Victor looked pretty much like a lobster, all the way down to the way his back was hunched. When Naomi announced she was going to match Ginny and go her one better, an impartial observer would have said he bore a closer resemblance to a hermit crab, desperately looking for a shell to crawl into.



    To his relief, Victor discovered that the rendezvous with Walter Imbesi couldn't happen immediately, due to the Erewhonese magnate's other pressing business. He'd have a least a day or two of relative tranquility, before he had to board the shuttle for the space station which was Erewhon's most notorious tourist attraction, accompanied by two women both of whom seemed determined to kill him by public embarrassment.

    Of course, Victor's definition of "tranquility" would have puzzled most people, who didn't associate the term with scheming and plotting and scurrying in the shadows. But that was a world which Victor had grown comfortable in, during the past several years.

    Comfortable enough, even, to feel no particular qualms about entering a Manticoran-officered warship disguised as a customs official, early the following afternoon. And why should he? It wasn't technically a Manticoran warship, after all, and while Victor himself wasn't technically a customs official, the subterfuge had been approved by the niece of an Erewhonese magnate who, even though neither she nor he were technically officials in the Erewhonese government, didn't seem to have any trouble finding the necessary documents on very short notice.

    Besides, Victor did know the basic procedures and lingo of customs officials; and, besides, he wasn't in the least bit interested in either the Manticoran officers of the warship or the warship itself. Just one of the members of the crew. Any one of seventy-three percent of the members of the crew, for that matter.



    And, in the event, his skulking mission proved simpler than Victor had dared hope. There was even a member of the crew who recognized him.

    "Fancy meeting you here," drawled Donald X. "I won't bother to ask if Captain Zilwicki invited you aboard." He glanced at the far exit to the small mess compartment where he'd been sitting at a table. "Can you wait long enough to let me get out before you start blowing apart whoever it is you came here to blow apart?" After another quick glance around the compartment: "Which must be ethereal spirits, I guess." There was no one else in the compartment.

    Victor was probably flushing, as much from irritation as embarrassment. Donald had been one of the Ballroom gunmen who'd observed Victor's berserk massacre of the StateSec squad and the Scrags searching for Helen Zilwicki in Chicago's underground ruins.

    "Why are you complaining? I saved you some work."

    "True enough," grunted Donald, smiling faintly. He clasped thick hands on the table before him, fingers intertwined. The hands and fingers were so thick that the resultant double fist looked almost the size of a ham. Donald X had come into the universe in Manpower's slave-breeding vats, bearing only the name—breeding number, more precisely—of F-67d-8455-2/5. The "F" prefix indicated a slave bred for a life of heavy manual labor. Donald had decided otherwise, years later, but his adult body still bore the imprint of that original intention. He was not excessively tall, but thick and muscular in every dimension.

    "What can I do for you, Victor Cachat?"

    "You remembered my name?"

    Donald's thin smile widened a bit. "You're a very hard man to forget. And now, I ask again—" He unclasped his hands and raised one of them in a pacific gesture. "Easy, comrades, there's no problem."

    Victor turned and saw that two other crewmen were standing in the hatchway he'd come through to enter the mess compartment. Also members of the Audubon Ballroom, obviously. Victor hadn't even heard them arrive, and reminded himself that he was dealing with people who were generally accounted the most dangerous terrorists in the galaxy.

    Or "freedom fighters," depending on how you looked at the question.

    Freedom fighters, Victor told himself firmly. He turned back to Donald and said: "I need to talk to Jeremy."

    Donald shrugged. "Be difficult, that. Jeremy's somewhere else."

    Victor wasn't surprised. It would have been blind luck to have found the head of the Ballroom conveniently located on Erewhon.

    "I still need to talk to him, as soon as he can get here."

    "Just like that, eh? And what, exactly, gives you the right to summon Jeremy?"

    "'Right' has nothing to do with it. The word is 'opportunity.'" He hesitated for an instant. But, then, remembering that Donald was close to Jeremy, added:

    "How would you like a planet of your own?"

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