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Merchant Princes #06: The Trade of Queensby Charles Stross
Morning, July sixteenth.
In a locked store room on the eighth—top—floor of a department store off Pennsylvania Avenue, a timer counted down towards zero.
Another timer matched its progress—in a janitors store on the top floor of a museum building near the Mall, behind a door jammed by cyanoacrylate glue in the lock and hinges.
And unfathomably far away, on a scaffold by the swampy banks of a slow-moving river, two men labored over a third timer, readying it for delivery to a target in the looking-glass world of the United States of America.
Nobody understood yet, but the worlds were about to change.
Four hundred miles from D.C., in a quiet residential street in Boston, the first bomb of the day detonated.
It wasnt a very large bomb—just a repurposed concussion grenade—but it was right under the drivers seat of the parked Saturn it was attached to. There was a bright flash; every window shattered as the car heaved on its suspension. Mike Fleming, standing in his doorway with keyfob remote raised, had no time to blink; the pressure wave shoved him backward and he stumbled, falling against the doorframe. In the ringing moment of silence after the blast, car alarms went off up and down the street and panicking dogs added their voices to the chorus. The hot yellow light of burning plastic and seat cushions filtered through the empty windows of the car, warmth beating on Mikes face as he struggled to work out why he was sitting down with his legs askew, why the back of his head hurt—
They want me dead, he realized, coldly. Then: Dr. James screwed up. It was an easy mistake to make. The technician whod planted the bomb had meant to wire it to the ignition circuit, but theyd got the central locking instead. The fine art of car bombing had gotten positively esoteric in the past few years, with the proliferation of in-car electronics, remote-control engine starters, and other bells and whistles; and US government agents were more used to defusing the things than planting them. Then: But that means theyre complicit for sure. The thought was shocking. Its Operation Northwoods, only this time theyre doing it for real.
Mike reached up gingerly and felt the back of his head. There was going to be a nasty lump in a few hours, but his fingers came away dry. No bleeding. Taking stock, limb by limb, he took deep breaths, pushing down the wave of impending panic. Im alive, he told himself. Shaken but intact. Hed been lucky; if he hadnt changed the batteries in his keyfob remote three months ago he might have been closer to the car, or even reduced to using the door key, with fatal results. As he stood up, something crunched underfoot. Fragments from the rear window, pea-sized pellets of safety glass. Bending down stiffly, he picked up his go-bag. His leg twinged hard inside its cast. What now? Clear the killing zone, the instructors had insisted, years before. But theyd been talking about a different kind of ambush—a car bomb was a passive trap. Probably they were relying on it. Probably . . . Mike pulled his pistol from the bag and duck-walked towards the street, edging around the burning car as he scanned for threats. In the distance, a siren began to scream.
Less than twenty seconds had elapsed.
"Duty Chief? This is the major. I have some orders for you. The day code is: Echo, Golf, Zulu, Xray, five, nine, Bravo. Did you get that?"
"Yes, my lord. One moment… yes, that is correct. What do you have for me?"
"Flash priority message to all Internal Security posts. Message begins: Traitors to the Clan have activated Plan Blue without authorization. Any security officers in possession of special weapons are to secure and disarm them immediately. Anyone not in possession but with knowledge of the disposition of special weapons must report to me immediately. Use of lethal force to secure and disarm special weapons in the possession of unauthorized parties is approved." Riordan swallowed and shifted his grip on the cell phone. "Anyone who is unaware of Plan Blue or the nature of the special weapons—you should execute Plan Black immediately. I repeat, Plan Black, immediate effect. Order ends. Please copy."
The stunned silence at the other end of the connection lasted almost a second. "My lord. Plan Blue? Plan Black?"
"Copy, damn your eyes!"
"Sir." The duty officer pulled himself together: "I copy . . ." He repeated Riordans orders. "Ill put that out immediately, by your leave?"
"Do it. Riordan out."
He closed the phone with a snap and glanced sidelong at Lady Olga. She was staring across her seat back at Miriam, who was talking intently into her own phone, her face a study in strain. He opened his mouth, but she raised a finger. Half a minute passed as their driver, Alasdair, carried them ever closer to the turnpike; then Miriam held the phone away from her face and shook her head. "Trash," she said, holding it out to Brill, who popped the battery before sliding it into a waste bag. "We are so fucked," she said tonelessly.
"Plan Black?" Olga raised an eyebrow.
"What did Mr. Fleming say?" asked Riordan, ignoring her to focus on Miriam.
"Its—" Miriam shook her head, punch-drunk. "Crazy talk. He says Dr. James works for the vice president! And hes been in collusion with someone in the Clan for years! Its insane! He said something about tapes, and about them wanting an excuse, a Pearl Harbor."
"Can Fleming do anything for us?" Riordan stared at Miriam as she shook her head again. "Why not?"
"He says hes disposable. Hes going to try and find someone to talk to, but theres no point going through the chain of command. Were trying to negotiate with people who want us dead—tell me its not true?"
"Figures," Olga said tartly. Everyone stared at her—even Sir Alasdair, by way of the rearview mirror.
"What do you mean, my lady?" Riordans return to exaggerated courtesy was a sign of stress, screamingly clear to Miriam even in her punch-drunk state.
"Weve been looking for a second mole, ever since Matthias went over the wall, nearly a year ago. But we havent been looking very hard, if you follow. And I heard rumors about there being a former politician, now retired, chief executive of a major logistics corporation, who was cooperating with us to provide doppelgangered locations and distribution hubs, back in the good years, in the late eighties and early nineties. The West Coast operation—back when WARBUCKS was out of politics. Before his comeback as VP. The crown fits, does it not?"
"But why—" This from Brilliana, unable to contain her curiosity.
"We dont work with politicians," Riordan said tiredly. "Its too hard to tell good from bad—the ones who stay bought from the ones who dont. Theres too much potential for blowback, as the CIA can attest. But WARBUCKS was out of politics, wasnt he?"
Miriam nodded, brooding. "He was in the wilderness until . . ." Her eyes widened. "Oof. So, he got a second start in politics, and the duke would have pulled the plug. Am I right? But then Matthias went over the wall, and his report would have ended up where WARBUCKS—or one of his people—could read it, and hed have to take out Matthias and then try to—oh no—"
"Hed have to try to kill us all," Olga finished the sentence, nodding, "or not even BOY WONDER could keep him from impeachment, yes? Our mole, for whom we have not been looking with sufficient vigor, isnt a low-level functionary; hes the vice president of the United States. And now he fears exposure."
Riordan reached over to tap Sir Alasdair on the shoulder. "Do you know where your Plan Black site is?" he asked.
"Yes, my lord." Alasdair nodded, checking his side mirror as he floored the accelerator to merge with the traffic on the interstate. "Im taking us there."
"Whats Plan Black?" Miriam tried to make eye contact with Olga.
Riordan cleared his throat. "My lady, we need to get you to a place of safety. But its not just you; in light of the current situation we all need to get clear. Plan Black is a defensive measure, put in place by his grace after the mess last year. Its a pull-out—everyone in this world is to proceed to a safe site, collect essential equipment, and cross over."
"But thats—" Miriam paused. "What about the conservative faction? Earl Hjorth, the duchess, whoever took the bombs and activated Plan Blue, will they—"
"No." Riordan bared his teeth. "And Im counting on it. Because if they disobey a directive from the acting head of Clan Security in the middle of an emergency, thats all I need to shoot them."
"Its the civil war, my lady, all over again." Olga whistled tunelessly. "Theyve been begging for it—and now theyre going to get it."
In another world, in a mansion overlooking a lawn that swept downhill to the banks of a small river, an elderly man sat at a writing desk in a room off to one side of the great hall. It was a small room, walled in bare stone and floored with planks, which the tapestries and rugs failed to conceal; the large window casements, built for light but featuring heavy oak shutters with peepholes and iron bolts, suggested the architect had been more concerned with security than comfort. Despite the summer heat he held his robes of office tight about his shoulders, shivering as he stared at the ledger before him with tired eyes. It was a balance sheet of sorts, but the items tallied in its columns were not quantities of coin but the living and the dead. And from time to time, with the slow, considered strokes of his pen, Baron Julius Arnesen moved names from one column to the other.
Arnesen was a survivor of seventy-some years, most of which he had experienced in a state of barely suppressed existential terror. Even now, in a house his security chief assured him was securely doppelgangered from both the known alternate worlds (in the United States by a convenient interstate off-ramp, and in New Britain by a recently acquired derelict ware house), and at the tail end of yet another civil war (this one between the Clan and the rival noble houses, rather than between Clan families) and at the tail end of his years, he could not bring himself to sit with his back to door or window. Besides, an instinct for trouble that had served him well over the decades whispered warnings in his ears: Not all was right in the Gruinmarkt, or within the uneasy coalition of Clan radicals and conservatives who had agreed to back the baroness Helge Thorold-Hjorth and her claim to bear the heir to the throne. Its all going to come apart again, sooner or later, he told himself gloomily, as he examined the next name in the ledger. There are too many of them. …
The civil war in the Gruinmarkt, torched off by the conservative Baron Henryks scheme to marry the troublesome Helge—who had grown up in the United States, calling herself Miriam—to the kings second son, had left an enormous mess in its wake. Crown Prince Egon, paranoid by disposition, had sensed in the betrothal the first stirring of a plot to assassinate him; hed moved against the Clan with vicious speed and ruthless determination, and in the three months theyd run wild his followers had destroyed the work of decades.
Egon was dead now, blown to bits along with most of his army when they tried to take a Clan castle, and Helge—pregnant as a result of the gynecological skullduggery of one of the Clans own doctors—was acknowledged as the dead Prince Creons widow. But a goodly chunk of the backwoods nobility wouldnt believe a word of it, even if she presented them with a baby who was the very spitting image of Creon in six months time. To them, Helge was simply an impostor, willing puppet for the Clans avarice and ambition. They were keeping their mouths shut right now, out of fear, but that wouldnt last forever; and weeding out the goats from the sheep was proving to be a well nigh impossible task. As magister of the royal assizes, Julius had considerable freedom to arraign and try hedge-lords whom he might suspect of treasonous intent; but he also had to walk a fine line between rooting out threats and conducting a witch hunt that might itself provoke another uprising.
Here in the countryside eight miles outside the capital Niejwein, in a house seized from the estate of the lord of Ostrood—conveniently missing with his sons since the destruction of the royal army at the Hjalmar Palace—Julius had established a crown court to supervise the necessary unpleasantness. To arraign and execute nobles in the capital would be inflammatory; better by far to conduct the grim job beyond the city walls, not so far out of sight as to invite accusations of secrecy, but distant enough to deter casual rubbernecking. With selected witnesses to testify to the fairness of the proceedings, and a cordon secured by imported American security devices as well as armed guards, he could proceed at his leisure without fear of the leading cause of death among judges in the Gruinmarkt—assassination by an angry relative.
Take the current case in hand, for example. Sir Euaunt ven Pridmann was a hedge-knight, titular liege lord to a village of some ninety souls, a house with a roof that leaked, three daughters with dowries to pay, one son, and a debt run up by his wastrel grandfather that exceeded the villages annual surplus by a factor of fifteen. Only a writ of relief from usury signed by the previous kings brother had spared him the indignity of being turfed out of his own home.
For such a man to show up in the army of the late pretender to the throne might be nothing more than simple desperation, for Egon had promised his followers a half share in the Clan lands that they took for him—not that ven Pridmann had done much looting and pillaging. With gout and poor eyesight hed spent three-quarters of the war in his sickbed, and another fourth groaning with dysentery. That was why he hadnt been present at the destruction of the Hjalmar Palace by the god-cursed "special weapon" Clan Security had apparently detonated there, and his subsequent surrender and protestations of loyalty to the true heir were just another footnote to the whole sordid affair. But. But. Julius squinted at the ledger: How could you be sure? Might ven Pridmann be what the otherworld Americans called a werewolf, one who stayed behind to fight on in secret, after the war? Or might he have lied about his culpability, claiming innocence of very real crimes?
Julius sighed and laid his pen down beside the ledger. You couldnt be sure; and speculation about intangibles like loyalty in the absence of prior evidence was a good way to develop a raging case of paranoia. You could end up hanging thousands, as a preventative measure or in the hope of instilling a healthy fear in the survivors—but in the end, would it work? Would fear make them keep their heads down, or provoke a further uprising? Hes got gout, Julius reasoned. And hes too poor to buy a gun or pay a lance of infantry. Low risk. And reasoning thus, he crossed ven Pridmann off the death list.
There was a knock.
"Yes? Yes?" Julius said querulously, looking up.
An apologetic face peeped round the door. "Sorry to bother you, my lord, but you have a visitor? Philip ven Holtz-Hjalmar from the Office of the Post, with dispatches from the Crown."
"Tell him to leave them—" Julius paused. Thats funny, I wonder what it is? The post office in question was the Clans courier ser vice, manned by members of the six families and their close relatives who held in common the talent of walking between worlds. Normally he could expect at most one courier delivery a day, and todays had arrived some hours ago. "Show him in."
"At once, my lord."
The manservant withdrew. After a moments muted conversation, the door opened again.
"My lord Arnesen." Julius didnt recognize the courier. He was a young fellow, wearing a dark business suit, conservatively cut, standard uniform for the couriers who had to travel in public in American cities. The briefcase he held was expensive and flashy: brushed aluminum with a combination lock and other less obvious security measures. "May we speak in private?"
"Of course." Julius waved at his servant: "Be off, and keep everyone away from the door."
"Thank you, my lord." The courier didnt smile.
"Well? What is it?" Julius strained to sit up, pushing back against the weight of his years.
"Special message, for your eyes only, from her grace the dowager Thorold Hjorth." He put the briefcase down on the side table.
This should be good, Julius thought. The duchess Hildegarde, Helges grandam, one of the mainstays of the conservative faction, hadnt had the time of day for him since the disaster at the Summer Palace three months ago. If shes decided to kiss and make up now it must mean—
He was still trying to articulate the thought when the messenger shot him in the face, twice. The gun was fitted with a suppressor, and Baron Arnesen was seated; there was barely any noise, and the second bullet was in any case unnecessary.
"She sent her best wishes," said the courier, sliding his pistol back into the padded sleeve and picking up his briefcase in his left hand. "Her very best wishes."
Then he rolled his left sleeve up, focused his eyes on the temporary tattoo on the back of his wrist, and vanished into the locked and derelict ware house that Julius Arnesen had been so reassured to hear of from his chief of security.
Meanwhile in another world, a doctor of medicine prepared himself for his next house call—one that would destroy families, rewrite wills, and quite possibly generate blood feuds. They deserve it, he thought, with a bitter sense of anticipation. Traitors and bastards, the lot of em.
For Dr. Robard ven Hjalmar, the past six months had brought about a disastrous and unplanned fall from grace and privilege. A younger child of the same generation as the duchess Patricia, or Angbard ven Lofstrom, born without any great title or fortune to his outer-family-derived name, Robard had been quick-witted and ambitious enough to seize for himself the opportunity to study needful skills in the land of the Anglischprache, a decade before it became the common pattern of the youth of the six families. In those days, the intelligent and scholarly were viewed with circumspection, if not outright suspicion: Few paths were open, other than the military—a career with direct and useful benefits to the Clans scions.
Excerpted from The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross.
Copyright © 2010 by Charles Stross.
Published in 2010 by A Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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