Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Crown of Slaves: Chapter Eighteen

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



    Thandi studied the rendezvous location for fifteen minutes before finally deciding it wasn't a trap.

    Actually, she'd determined that much within two minutes, insofar as the word "trap" held a military connotation. The other thirteen minutes she spent trying to determine her own emotional state. That represented a different sort of trap. She found it disturbing as well as interesting that the prospect of a lunch engagement with Victor Cachat was causing her a considerable degree of anticipation, even excitement.

    Why? she wondered, as she examined the young man sitting at a table in a small restaurant in one of Maytag's less reputable neighborhoods. Thandi had a good view of Cachat, peering at him through an electronic haze-curtain which shielded her booth from the dining room as a whole. She'd chosen this restaurant for their meeting because of that feature. It gave her a chance to arrive early and reconnoiter the situation before committing herself. Lieutenant Commander Watanapongse had given her the option of simply backing out of the meeting if she found anything struck her wrong. If she decided not to follow through, she could just slide out the rear exit without ever being spotted.

    Maybe. She was beginning to wonder if she wasn't completely outclassed in this cursed secret-agent business. Thandi was an amateur, when all was said and done. A gifted amateur, perhaps, and one with the advantage of extensive military training. But she knew that Victor Cachat was a professional at it—and quite possibly one at the top of the trade.

    The first thing she'd noticed about Cachat was that he had arrived early also. In fact, he'd already been sitting at the table when Thandi eased herself into the booth half an hour before their appointed lunch engagement. So much for cleverness.

    The second thing she'd noticed about him was that he seemed to spend no time at all examining his surroundings. He hadn't left the table once, or seemed to do more than glance around the main dining room. He'd ordered one of the rich coffee drinks for which Erewhonese restaurants were famous and spent the time slowly savoring it while he proceeded to read something on the table's built-in display screen. To all appearances, a man simply whiling away a long lunch break while he waited for his companion to arrive. Yet she sensed that, within a minute of his arrival, Cachat had assessed his surroundings thoroughly.

    At one point, Thandi had seen him exchange some sort of jest with the waiter. She had a dark suspicion the jest was at her expense; some variation on the ancient theme of women and their concepts of punctuality. Which, if true, was ironic as well as irritating. In point of fact, Thandi was a bit obsessive about being punctual—not to mention the fact that she'd arrived early to this engagement. For all the good it had done her.

    The waiter ignored Victor thereafter, being no more energetic than he had to be. The restaurant was not particularly noted for its food or service, so its clientele was fairly sparse. Victor was certainly not tying up a table. And since Thandi had been let in the back way by the restaurant's owner, the waiter himself didn't realize there was a woman waiting in one of the special booths. The existence of those booths was the restaurant's real stock in trade, and only the owner handled their clientele. Lieutenant Commander Watanapongse had discovered the restaurant shortly after Rozsak and his team set up their operations on Erewhon, and the SLN officers had wound up using it often for clandestine meetings.

    Pfah! She was growing to detest so-called "special operations." She felt like an idiot sitting in a clever secret booth while a man awaiting her company simply browsed through what she was sure was nothing more exotic than the local news. What make the whole situation particularly aggravating was that Thandi realized soon enough that the real reason for her hesitation was personal, not professional. She could see no signs of an ambush, nor was there any logical reason for one anyway. She was just nervous because of her emotional reaction to the man.

    Why? she asked herself again. Cachat wasn't particularly attractive, at first glance. True, his figure was well-shaped, and probably a lot more muscular than it appeared. But Thandi didn't find that particularly impressive. Why should she? Thandi routinely made men blanch in the local gym she used for her exercise routines. She'd once gotten rid of a man pestering her in that gym by bench-pressing a hundred and fifty kilos. Not once, either—a full set of ten. She hadn't even been sweating hard when she was done.

    People who had never encountered the human variation which had evolved on the Mfecane hell-planets were often aghast once they realized they had encountered someone with the strength of an ogre—but without an ogre's clumsy reflexes. Thandi considered her ancestors a pack of racist idiots, but there was no denying that at least on a physical level their project had been a successful one. Her special team had been shocked when they discovered that their "superhuman" phenotypes didn't begin to match her own.

    Nor was Cachat a handsome man. He wasn't ugly, to be sure. But his square face, with its severe lines, was hardly something that would cause advertising agencies to come looking for his services. Except, possibly, someone wanting to recruit for a missionary sect. Zealots needed. Must be young, clean-cut, grim-looking. Pretty boys need not apply.

    And... that was it, she knew. Cachat had a purpose to his life. It was obvious to her in everything he said and did; just the way he carried himself. The purpose might be right or wrong—Thandi was in no position to judge—but it gave Cachat the same assurance that Luiz Rozsak possessed. Even a greater one, perhaps. Rozsak's self-confidence was purely a personal matter, whereas Cachat's came as much from his sense of belonging to something larger than himself.

    Thandi found that immensely appealing in a man. She was self-analytical—sometimes to the point of brooding, she often thought—and knew that her reaction was the product of her upbringing. And, therefore, not to be trusted at all. But she still couldn't help the emotional reaction itself.

    As she continued studying Cachat, she found herself wondering what would have happened on Ndebele if this man had been her boyfriend. She didn't wonder for very long. She'd have gotten her education without having to pay a price on the side. The plant manager would have been too terrified of Cachat to do otherwise. There was something... indefinable, maybe, but still there about the young Havenite. He was quietly intimidating, pure and simple.

    Oh, enough! She rose abruptly from her table and passed through the screen-haze into the main dining room.



    Cachat spotted her immediately. His dark eyes followed her calmly as she strode toward his table, his face bearing no expression at all. Thandi had an uncomfortable feeling that he'd known she was there all along.

    She asked, as soon as she sat down.

    Cachat shrugged, very slightly. "Did I know you were there? No. But I suspected you'd be in one of those odd little booths. You picked the restaurant, after all—and why else would you have done so? The food's lousy."

    "How do you know?" she asked, a bit belligerently. "Have you ever eaten here?"

    He smiled, and the expression transformed his face completely. The subtle impression of ruthlessness remained, but he suddenly seemed like a very nice man underneath it all. Thandi found herself warming to him a lot, and cursed the reaction. She had no business getting attracted to this man, under these circumstances. She still had no idea what Cachat was after. Neither had Watanapongse, when she raised the message she'd received the night before with him. But neither Thandi nor Rozsak's chief intelligence officer thought the matter was a personal one. The Republic of Haven was trolling in some very troubled waters here, and Victor Cachat was presumably the bait. If he was asking for a private meeting with an officer on Rozsak's staff—he'd specifically requested it be Lieutenant Palane—then it was presumably for political reasons. And, most likely, reasons which would not mesh particularly well with Rozsak's own plans.

    "I asked," he replied. Again, he made that modest little shrug. "I suspect I have better local connections than you do. At least, when it comes to knowing which of the city's restaurants are good for eating, and which are good for fooling around."

    Thandi's lips tightened. She hadn't liked Imbesi's niece any more than the woman had liked her. But most of her reaction—disturbing, this—was due to the fact that she really didn't like the idea of Victor having pillow talk with the woman.

    And now you're jealous, too! What other idiot fancies are you going to indulge in?

    But she said nothing. And something subtle in Cachat's expression made it clear to her that he appreciated her ability to refrain from making the catty remark which she was tempted to make.

    She covered the personal awkwardness with political awkwardness.

    "So what's this about, Officer Cachat? Why all the secret agent rigmarole?"

    The smile was still on his face. "As I recall, I simply sent a message over to your hotel asking for a lunch date. Nothing spy-ish about it. Wasn't even written in secret code. You were the one who insisted on meeting here."

    Thandi was a bit embarrassed. She was tempted to tell him that Watanapongse had insisted on the location. But, again, she didn't. Thandi was no more capable of being catty about a fellow officer than another woman. She'd agreed, after all.

    "Okay, maybe it was foolish. But... what do you want? And don't bother telling me it was just the pleasure of my company."

    "As a matter of fact, that is the reason I specifically asked for you," he said. The words came out a bit stiffly. Thandi suspected Cachat was as uncomfortable with personal emotions as she was. And, again, felt herself warming toward him still more; and—again—felt like an idiot for having the reaction. She was a professional military officer trying to advance her career, damnation, not a schoolgirl with a sudden crush on a man who was essentially a complete stranger.

    Fortunately, Cachat hurried past the moment. "What this is about, however, is the political situation in Erewhon. It seems to me that the Republic of Haven and certain officers of the Solarian League Navy with close connections to Governor Barregos have certain interests in common. And, if I'm right, there's a way we could both advance those interests."

    Her eyes narrowed a little. "You're suggesting a distance exists between the Governor and... ah, what you call 'certain officers' in the SLN. For the record—"

    "Cut it out, Lieutenant Palane. 'For the record,' all officers of the SLN are disinterested and apolitical military figures whose personal and political loyalties are identical. 'For the record,' the Office of Frontier Security is an organization devoted to the advancement of backward planets. 'For the record,' while we're indulging in this game, a brothel is a clinical center for the study of human sexual behavior. Of those three statements, which do you think is the least absurd?"

    She snorted. "The one about the brothel."

    "My opinion also." He leaned forward in his chair. "Look, Lieutenant, I don't care in the least what personal ambitions Captain Rozsak might have. Or how those ambitions might—or might not—clash eventually with those of Governor Barregos. It's none of my business. Nor is it the Republic of Haven's business, except insofar as any changes in the Solarian League's political set-up might affect the none-too-secret tech transfer we get from certain Solarian commercial interests."

    "I'd think that would be your major concern."

    He waggled a hand. "Yes and no. Yes, it's always our major concern about the Solarian League. But—no—we don't lose a lot of sleep over it. To put it bluntly, as long as we can keep coming up with the cash, somebody in the Solarian League will sell us what we need. The only difference between a major SL commercial combine and a whore is that a whore is a more selective and a lot less mercenary."

    Thandi couldn't find any fault with that characterization. Certainly not with any of the Solarian combines which maintained operation in OFS territory. So, with a little waggle of her own fingers, she indicated her agreement.

    "Keep talking."

    Cachat planted his hands on the table. Then, after a short pause, began moving the utensils around. The sight reminded Thandi that she was getting hungry.

    "Let's call the salt shaker 'Erewhon.' The spoon shows the wormhole connecting Erewhon with the Solarian League. The only junction Erewhon has except for the one to Phoenix, which means that it's commercially more tied to the Solarians than they'd like to be. Okay, now let's call the pepper shaker—"

    "I need to eat," she said abruptly.

    He paused, scrutinizing her. "Sorry. I'm always forgetting to eat, myself. I'm overlooking the price you'd have to pay for your physique. You must have a metabolism like a furnace."

    He turned and motioned at the waiter. The man began slouching over. A bit disgruntled, obviously, that he was going to have to do some work.

    After she and Victor gave the waiter their orders, Thandi cocked her head. "And what would you know about my metabolism?"

    "I study things. Ginny tells me I'm compulsive about it. So after I met you, I did some research on the Mfecane worlds. Ndebele, in particular."


    He made a face. "If you'll pardon my saying so, your ancestors were a bunch of lunatics."

    "Tell me something I don't know."

    "Still, there was a method to their madness. At least, once you get past the initial premise that the African genotype is the purest human stock. It's actually the most variegated, since it's the oldest. However, in an odd sort of way, that initial racialist obsession worked to their advantage. Because it meant that they had the widest genetic variation to start applying natural selection to, not to mention—"

    "Their own grotesque genetic manipulations." Harshly: "Tell me something I don't know."

    He shrugged. "What I suspect you don't know—fully realize, anyway—is that the combined effect of the whole process made the Mfecane worlds an even greater experiment in human development than the Ukrainian laboratories which produced the so-called 'supersoldiers' of the Final War, whose modern descendants we call 'Scrags.' About the only thing comparable is the slave breeding laboratories run by Manpower Unlimited. Except that Manpower is deliberately trying to contain development within narrow limits, whereas your ancestors were trying to exceed all limits. Which they certainly did, as far as most physical characteristics are concerned."

    "Yeah, great," she said sourly. "That explains why we're all serfs today."

    "Well, I did say they were a bunch of lunatics. I know this will sound cold-blooded, but I actually find the fact that neither the Ukrainians nor the Mfecane founders succeeded in their aims to be profoundly satisfying. Philosophically, if you will." A bit stiffly: "I've detested elitism my entire life. That much hasn't changed, whatever else I've changed my mind about."

    Thandi smiled crookedly. "Shrimps of the world, unite, is that it?"

    His own smile was just as crooked. "What can I say? I'm not much good at it myself, but the crude and simple fact is that the main way the human race gets ahead is by being lovers, not fighters. Mix it all up, and let the devil take the foremost. If nothing else, the supermen will starve quicker."

    She burst into laughter. And since, fortunately, the waiter had just plopped down bowls of soup, didn't find the humor of the moment undermined by famine.

    She more-or-less inhaled the soup. The waiter appeared with a basket of rolls, and she began mopping up what was left of the soup. Victor was trying not to stare at her.

    "S'true," she mumbled, after more-or-less inhaling her third roll. "I have to eat—lots—at least four times a day. If I don't, I start suffering starvation symptoms way, way faster than most people."

    There was a fourth, and last, roll left. She eyed Victor and he gestured politely.

    After inhaling the fourth roll, she'd taken the edge off. "It's something of a problem for me, actually. On campaign, I need to carry a lot of extra rations. Luckily, the weight's not a problem for me. As it is, my field kit's about twice as heavy as that of most Marines."

    "Do you like being a Marine?"

    She considered the question for a moment. "Not... exactly. I like the status, yes. I also like the training and skills." Coldly: "Wish I'd had them when I was a kid. There's a few bastards—ah, never mind. Ancient history. But—overall? I don't know. It's something to do, and I don't know what else I'd do instead."

    She shook her head. "Enough of me." Pointing to the pepper shaker: "Continue, please."



    Victor started moving things around again. "Actually, now that it's available, let me use this big empty roll basket instead to represent the Solarian League. Okay, now we'll use the pepper shaker—"

    He positioned it not far away from the salt shaker which marked Erewhon.

    "—to indicate the location of Congo. And now—"

    Quickly, he positioned his knife and fork, and the knife he borrowed from Thandi's side of the table.

    "—we can see the whole thing. Through hyper-space, Congo's not more than three days travel from Erewhon. And now it's been discovered that Congo's system has a wormhole junction with no fewer than three termini. Since the wormhole was first found by Mesan interests only a short while ago, the presumption is that at least one of them connects to the Solarian League. But nobody really knows where its termini lead to, except the Mesans." He wiggled one of the knives to indicate that its actual line of connection was uncertain.

    Thandi studied the arrangement. "And your point is?" Before Victor could answer, she added: "I'm not being sarcastic. Astrogeography is not my strong suit. I'm a foot soldier, remember?"

    "My point is that since the junction was discovered, Congo has been simultaneously a giant headache and a giant opportunity for Erewhon. A headache, because so long as it's controlled by Mesan interests, the system acts as a potential attack route."

    "Who'd want to attack Erewhon?"

    Victor shrugged. "Who knows? At the moment, Erewhon's allied with Manticore, and the only official enemy they have is us. The Republic of Haven. But we're not a threat—not through Congo, anyway—because we're located"—he balled up his napkin and planted it toward the edge of the table—"way over here. I suppose it's possible that one of those termini leads to Havenite space, but if it does the Republic certainly doesn't know about it. I admit, the Erewhonese would have to take our word for that, but it does happen to be true."

    He studied the arrangement for a moment. Then, softly: "The Erewhonese are big believers in cold-blooded politics, Lieutenant Palane. What's sometimes called by the old name of 'Realpolitik.' No different, in that respect, from the Andermani. So the question of 'who' really doesn't matter to them. What matters to them is that Congo will always pose a potential danger, so long as it's in unfriendly hands."

    "In what sense is Mesa 'unfriendly hands'? Yeah, sure, they're stinking rotten scum. But they're a pack of commercial combines, not a star nation trying…"

    The question trailed off, as Thandi realized the answer herself.

    Victor put it in words. "Mesa itself probably wouldn't ever attack Erewhon. But they'd sell the attack route in a heartbeat, to anyone who came up with the price. It's not quite like having the combination to your back door in the hands of a thief. It's more like having it in the hands of the neighborhood's biggest fence. Comforting, eh? In some ways it's even worse, because a big fence knows a lot of thieves, and is always happy to drum up new business."

    "Commerce raiders, if nothing else," Thandi agreed. "Okay. Now explain the 'big opportunity'? Erewhon already has a wormhole junction connecting it to the Solarian League. Why do they need more?"

    "The 'Solarian League' covers a huge chunk of the galactic neighborhood, Lieutenant. I'm afraid my little jury-rigged setup—"

    "Call me Thandi."

    She said it very abruptly. Almost harshly. As if—which was probably true—she wanted to force Victor Cachat as much as herself toward a personal involvement. In that direction, at least.

    Cachat hesitated, while he took a deep breath. Then, to her surprise, murmured: "It's always hard for people like us, isn't it? Never been sure if that's a curse or a blessing."

    For a long moment, their eyes met. Now that she was seeing them straight on, in good light, Thandi was surprised. She'd thought Cachat's eyes had been very dark brown, almost black. But, they weren't. More like the color of a wood on Ndebele derived from teak; a color, she knew, which varied a lot depending on the grain of the time or the mood of the moment. Sometimes, a brown which was astonishingly light and warm.

    This was such a time. She felt a certain smile spreading across her face, in response. That smile. The involuntary one that sometimes came upon her, and made men forget her metabolism.

    Cachat took another deep breath, and looked away. "I wish…"

    He shook his head. "Lieutenant—Thandi—this little setup of mine doesn't begin to capture the reality. The Solarian League is enormous. Even compared to the Republic of Haven, much less star nations like Manticore or Erewhon. Having more wormhole termini connecting to different parts of the League—assuming that's where at leads one of them leads—would be a blessing for Erewhon's trade. But it hardly matters. If there's one clear and consistent pattern in history since the advent of star travel, it's that a discovery of a new wormhole junction always leads to economic expansion. All of which—looking at it from an Erewhonese viewpoint—means both expanded business possibilities as well as expanded threats. Either way, Erewhon wants to make sure that Congo is… what's the right way to put it? Let's just say 'locked up.' Secure, if you will."

    Thandi examined the arrangement on the table, trying to visualize the actual three-dimensional reality it represented.

    "Okay. So why don't the Erewhonese just grab it themselves? They're a star nation, with a real fleet. Even got state-of-the-art ships of the wall. Sure, with its money, Mesa can always put together a fleet which can intimidate most people. But not the kind of thing which could stand up against a real navy in an all-out war."

    "Well… Let me put it this way. The Erewhonese, like the Andermani, believe in Realpolitik. But there's a subtle difference. Gustav Anderman founded the Empire, and he thought like a military man. So the Andermani version of Realpolitik has a definite militarist flavor to it. The Andermani probably would just grab Congo in a shooting war. But Erewhon was founded by a consortium of successful gangsters. And the thing about gangsters—this much hasn't changed on Erewhon, for sure—is that they're basically a cautious and conservative lot. Cold-blooded business people, really. Getting too rough is more likely to bring down the police on your head, or other gangsters. So they tend naturally to think in terms of 'arrangements.' Rather than try to act like a cop, they'll prefer simply to put the cop on their payroll."

    He smiled suddenly, the expression wry. "I sometimes think that's one reason they haven't been as fanatical about building up their navy—even in the middle of a war—as the Graysons. Because one thing Graysons don't think in terms of is 'arrangements.'"

    "That might work with a local cop. But it strikes me as a risky proposition dealing with a star nation. What's the old saying? 'An honest cop is one who stays bribed'? How do you make sure a star nation stays bribed? What's the secret?"

    He pondered the thought for a few moments, then shook his head. "Well, I wouldn't say there's any general catch-all secret. But in this instance, I happen to think there is a clear solution to Erewhon's problem. And one which would also suit the Republic of Haven, and—I think, anyway—the man you're working for." Smiling, he wiggled his fingers. "I will leave it unsaid, who that man might be. The Captain or the Governor, or both, I really don't care." The smile faded away. "And would also have the advantage of hammering Mesa and Manpower, who are truly the scum of the universe. And—this matters to me, even if it doesn't to anyone else—would start to correct a real injustice."

    Thandi's eyes widened. "Ambitious, aren't you? Okay, Victor. Tell me what it is."



    After Victor told her, Thandi's eyes were even wider. "You are clinically insane. Why in the world would Captain Rozsak—you didn't hear me say that name—go along with this?"

    He told her. Now, Thandi's eyes were narrow.

    "I'll give you this, Victor Cachat. You're gutsy as well as sharp. What makes you think you can say something like that and not get assassinated? Nothing personal, mind."

    "By you?" He shrugged. "You'd never get out of this restaurant alive—well, not more than ten meters from it—and why would you do it anyway? You're certainly not personally offended. Neither will Rozsak be, when you tell him. I'm not accusing him of being anything but shrewd and ambitious, after all. That's hardly an insult, in Solarian circles."

    Thandi's eyes quickly ranged around the room, looking for the implied threat and not finding it. "Being very shrewd and very ambitious is an insult, Victor," she muttered. Never get out alive—not more than ten meters—what did he mean by that? There was no one she could detect in the restaurant who posed any real threat to her. "Well, okay. Not an insult, exactly. Just dangerous."

    She dismissed the waiter immediately. She'd already gauged and dismissed the restaurant owner when she came in. One of the patrons, maybe? But she couldn't see any of them who'd—

    "Relax, Thandi. It's nobody in the restaurant."

    She'd already reached that conclusion. "Who's outside, then? Havenites? Can't be. We examined the Republic's assets here on Erewhon early on. They aren't much, even leaving aside the fact that your ambassador and FIS chief-of-station are incompetent. The best you could come up with on such short notice would be local goons. And—no offense, Victor, but I'm not bragging, either—I'd go through them like I went through the rolls and soup."

    He shook his head. "Use your brains, Thandi. I already told you I always do my research ahead of time. Do you really think I'd be advancing this proposal if I hadn't gotten the agreement of the key players involved? I have and they did. In fact, early signs are that they are wildly enthusiastic about it. Enthusiastic enough, anyway, to provide me with an armed guard. And I can guarantee you that you wouldn't go through them easily, if at all."

    Thandi sucked in a long breath. "Oh, Jesus. Victor, you are out of your mind to fool around with those people."

    "I am not 'fooling around' with them, for starters. And I already know them anyway, from..." He waved his hand vaguely. "Back when. And spare me the lectures, given the people you and Rozsak are willing to work with. You look stupid, frankly, perched way up there on your moral high horse."

    She nodded, acknowledging the hit. "Still..."

    "Just raise it with Rozsak, will you? I think you might be surprised how he'll react."



    Thandi did, and she was surprised.

    "We'll certainly pursue it," Rozsak said instantly, as soon as she'd finished. He cocked an eye at Watanapongse. "Jiri?"

    "I agree. If it worked, in fact, it'd be ideal. Mind you, I think it's probably too tricky to pull off, but..."

    They were meeting in the lieutenant commander's hotel room. Watanapongse looked at the computer in the corner desk. "Then again, maybe not. I've been doing some research myself, for the past couple of days. Victor Cachat is... an interesting fellow. His record is completely murky, except for these odd little flashes of lightning here and there. The Manpower Incident on Terra, early in his career. Then, whatever he did in La Martine to keep that sector from rebelling against the new Pritchart regime. A couple of other episodes it's hard to make any sense out of, except that he was centrally involved."

    Watanapongse swung back to face Rozsak and Palane. "Add it all up? The only reason for a record that murky is because Haven's been making strenuous efforts to keep Cachat out of the limelight. And why would they bother, if he was just a run-of-the-mill agent?"

    "He's not even an 'agent' at all, Sir," Thandi half-protested. "Nowadays he's supposed to be a cop."

    Captain and lieutenant commander, simultaneously, bestowed a certain look upon the most junior lieutenant on Rozsak's staff.

    "Okay, you don't have to rub it in," she grumbled. "Sir and Sir. I was born yesterday, almost."

    Rozsak chuckled. "We'll keep pursuing Cachat's option, for the moment. So stay in touch with him, Thandi."

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image