Excerpt – Conventions of War

“Interstellar Adventure Has a New King.” — George RR Martin

Author’s note: It was difficult to choose an excerpt from this book for a number of reasons. It’s the third book of a series, which makes it hard to find a passage that doesn’t require a lot of summary. Two excerpts have already been published, one in the April-May 2005 issue of Asimov’s , the other in the premiere issue of Aeon .

But that still leaves a lot of the book that hasn’t been seen. In the following, we track Lady Caroline Sula, head of the stranded Action Team 491, in an attempt to assassinate the judge who ordered the death by torture of hundreds of her comrades.

I’ll just let the characters introduce themselves from this point…

The following excerpt is copyright (c) 2005 by Walter Jon Williams. All rights are reserved by the author. It may not be duplicated or distributed without permission of the author

An Excerpt from

Conventions of War

by Walter Jon Williams

The bomb was disassembled and brought up to the High City in pieces, hidden in Team 491’s toolboxes, and then stowed in PJ Ngeni’s guest cottage behind the Ngeni Palace. The explosive itself, which might have triggered the sniffers at the funicular, was brewed in PJ’s kitchen out of components purchased from hardware stores and cleaning supply houses.

As the bomb reached final assembly, PJ hovered above the table in the study, torn between anxiety and an eerie delight. Eventually he became a distraction, and Sula had to take him to his study and pour several drinks down him before he calmed down.

Sula had at one point expressed doubts about smuggling arms past the detectors on the funicular, and PJ had promptly volunteered the Ngeni clan’s collection of sporting weapons. Sula was about to decline– the guns were registered and if they had to be left behind would point straight at PJ– when she hesitated, and went to the nearest comm terminal.

Checking in at the Records Office, she found the arms registry and erased anything connected to anyone named Ngeni.

The police would have ballistics and forensics information regarding any legally-purchased firearm, but they would be useless for an old weapon that had been fired many times. Sula made certain to equip her team with weapons that were centuries old.

On the day of the operation Zanshaa’s viridian sky was clear and sunny, which made it the more likely that Lord Makish would be walking home. This was desirable from Sula’s point of view, but less desirable was the probability that other Naxids, who preferred their weather hot, would be on the streets.

If they die, they die . Sula certainly didn’t intend to risk herself in order to spare a few stray Naxids.

Shortly after noon, Spence went off to Garden of Scents to stand lookout. Sula and Macnamara strapped their toolboxes onto the back of his two-wheeler at the Ngeni Palace, got aboard, and hummed away through half-empty streets. They traveled along Lapis Street, which paralleled the Boulevard of the Praxis to the north, and parked in the lane to one side of the Urghoder Palace, the empty building next to Judge Makish’s residence.

Sula tucked her hair into a bandanna, and over this put a worker’s lightweight cap; then with Macnamara following she carried her toolbox around the corner, past the inscribed entrance to the Orghoder Palace, and to Makish’s elaborate wrought silver-alloy gate. She entered, approached the front door– which in form echoed the artichoke shape of the towers– and pressed a button which ,ade a clacking noise, similar to the noise of the aejai.

Behind her Macnamara hovered near the gate, as if in uncertainty. He’d already put one of his toolboxes down behind some bushes near the path.

The liveried servant who answered the door reared back, as if in loathing or surprise, and stood as tall as her short-legged centauroid form permitted, on tiptoe reaching Sula’s shoulder.

“You should have come to the back entrance!” she declared in a voice that rose nearly to a screech.

“Beg pardon,” Sula said, “but we were told to work on the garden. If this is the Orghoder Palace, that is.”

“The Orghoder Palace is next door!” the servant said. “Be away!”

“We were told wrong, then,” Sula said cheerfully. “Thanks anyway!”

“Away!” the servant repeated.

Hope we blow your ass to the ring , Sula thought. Under the servant’s black-on-red eyes she and Macnamara left the garden and neatly closed the gleaming alloy gate behind her. While the servant continued to watch, the two made their way to the Orghoder Palace, and entered the overgrown, disused front garden, where– behind the ivy-crusted flanking wall of yellow sandstone– they were out of sight of the Makish front door.

They opened their boxes and readied their tools. Sula and Macnamara each inserted a receiver in one ear, clipped a tiny microphone to their collars, and did a brief communications check with Spence. For the rest of the afternoon they worked steadily in the garden, a task that Sula found more taxing than she’d expected. She’d been raised in cities, and grown up in ships and barracks: her experience with domestic plants was limited. Macnamara, fortunately, was from the country, and had lived so bucolic a childhood he’d actually worked as a shepherd. Under his guidance Sula pruned and hacked at the overgrown foliage and thought herself lucky that no actual sheep were involved. Macnamara assisted when a bough or a root needed more muscle than Sula possessed, but was otherwise busy in a secluded corner of the garden, digging a slit trench with a portable pick.

Sula wanted someplace to hide when the bomb actually went off. They had debated whether they truly needed to be anywhere in the vicinity– possibly a real professional saboteur, certain in her luck and in the technology of remote-controlled detonators, wouldn’t need to be anywhere closer than the Garden of Scents– but Sula lacked that confidence. If one of the Makish servants found the toolbox hidden in the garden, she wanted to be close enough to claim it before anyone opened the box to find the bomb.

Plus the bomb might not quite do the job: Sula wanted to be on hand in case Makish needed to be finished off, and if she was to be nearby, Sula wanted a safe hiding place.

Macnamara sweated great stains in his coveralls as he swung his pick and cursed the roots that got in his way, and perspiration poured down Sula’s face as she gasped in air heavily perfumed by sweet blossoms while she hacked at chuchu-berry bushes and tried to avoid impaling herself on the diabolic swordlike thorns of pyrocantha. At least her labors kept at bay her nagging suspicion, the silent voice in her ear that told her she was an amateur, that her plan was idiotic and that when this went wrong she was going to share the fate of her superiors.

Her training had been thorough in building bombs and other items of sabotage. How and when to use them hadn’t been a part of the course. Perhaps, she thought, her superiors hadn’t known, either.

She and Macnamara had broken out their water bottles, picked some overripe chuchu berries, and were taking a break from their exertions when Spence’s voice whispered in Sula’s ear that Makish and his guards were coming on foot.

It was four hours past noon. Surveillance had shown that the High Court did not keep burdensome hours, which was why Sula had decided to spend all afternoon waiting.

“Comm: acknowledge,” Sula replied. “Comm: send.”

At her command the message was encoded and sent in a brief burst transmission, lasting a hard-to-detect fraction of a second. The communications protocols were an echo of those used at the disastrous Axtattle action, and at the memory Sula felt a shimmer of unease pass along her nerves. A fresh sheen of sweat break out as she and Macnamara tossed their tools in a corner, took refuge behind some bushes, and dug weapons out of their toolboxes.

“I believe this is yours!” came a shrill voice. Sula’s heart gave a leap. She hastily stuffed her pistol into a thigh pocket, parted the branches of a chuchu-berry bush, and saw Lord Makish’s servant thrusting a toolbox at them, balancing it on top of the low wall that stood between the sidewalk and the Orghoder garden.

“You careless people left this in the Makish garden!” the servant cried.

“Take cover,” Spence said in Sula’s ear. “Less than half a minute now.”

“Thank you,” Sula said as she rushed forward, arms outstretched for the box and its bomb.

Leaning against the wall on the garden side, Sula observed, was a saw, a sharp toothed blade fixed in a metal frame, and equipped with a pistol grip.

“Who do you work for?” the servant demanded as Sula claimed the toolbox and lowered it carefully to the ground. “I shall contact your employers with a complaint.”

“Please don’t do that, miss,” Sula said as– her eyes scanning the street– she reached for the pistol grip of the saw.

“Twenty-five seconds,” Spence reported– a quarter-minute, more or less.

“You are impudent and careless with your employer’s property,” the servant said as she leaned intently over the wall. “You have– ”

Sula slashed her across the throat with the saw. The Naxid reared back, hands scrabbling for her neck.

“Comm: Abort! Stand by!” Sula said. “Comm: send!”

“Abort” and “Stand by” were actually two different orders, but Sula didn’t have time to sort them out. With any luck Spence would think to take her binoculars off Makish and see what was happening at the Orghoder palace.

The Naxid fell to the sidewalk in a tangle of elaborate livery, her polished shoes kicking. Sula peered over the wall and looked down the Boulevard of the Praxis: she saw Judge Makish and his guards, and accompanying them an officer in the viridian green of the Fleet. Badges of high rank glittered on the officer’s shoulders and medals gleamed on his chest.

“Standing by,” came Spence’s reply. Sula was aware of Macnamara emerging from cover, a pistol held warily behind his leg.

Sula picked up the bomb and vaulted the wall. The servant gasped and sputtered at her feet, black scales flashing red in what Sula hoped were unreadable patterns. Sula turned toward Makish and his group and advanced at a trot.

“Sir!” she called, waving. “My lords!”

The bodyguards swept to the front, alert, hands reaching for weapons. “Your servant is ill!” Sula said. “She needs help!”

The entire group increased speed, bodies weaving as the foremost pair of limbs dropped and began to be used as legs. Sula had to leap out of the way. Surprise swirled through her head as she looked at four receding Naxid backs, at black scales glittering in the brilliant light of Shaamah. Sula put the bomb down and followed the Naxids. Her hand reaching into her thigh pocket for her pistol. The two guards– trained in first aid, no doubt– bent over the wounded servant, hands plucking at her livery.

The flat Naxid head served only as a platform for sensory organs: a Naxid’s brain was in the center of its humanoid torso, with the heart and other vital organs being in the lower, four-legged body. Sula would liked to have shot the guards first, but Makish and the Fleet officer– a junior fleet commander, no less– stood between Sula and the military constables, so she chose the more dangerous of the two and put a pair of shots into the center of the fleetcom’s back.

As she shifted her aim a long series of shots rang out, and her startled nerves gave a leap with each angry crack– had the bodyguards got to their weapons that fast? she wondered. She shot Makish, her body braced for the impact of enemy bullets that didn’t come, and then she realized that the other shooter was Macnamara, firing over the stone wall and catching the enemy in a crossfire.

There was a pause in which the only thing Sula heard was the singing in her ears from the sound of the shots. The pistols PJ had given them had proved rather noisy. There were Naxid bodies sprawled on the sidewalk and a lot of deep purple Naxid blood.

“Run!” Sula said, the idea occurring to her suddenly; and she sprang over the Naxid bodies, the pistol still in her fist. Behind, Macnamara vaulted the wall and pelted in her wake.

“Comm: Stand by! Any second now! Comm: Send!”

The bomb was now redundant as an assassination device, but it could still serve as a propaganda weapon. The government might deny a pair of assassins with pistols, but they couldn’t deny a big explosion on the Boulevard of the Praxis, right in the middle of the High City.

A file of Naxid children approached, neatly attired in school uniforms, their bodies snaking from side to side in the wake of an adult supervisor.

Sula preferred not to murder children, not even if they were Naxids, but fate had not consulted her, and she wasn’t about to slow down and explain things. “Run!” she said as she dashed past. “Bad things!”

“Wait!” the supervisor said, her black-on-yellow eyes going wide. Sula didn’t spare her a backward glance.

Sula skated around the side of the Oghoder Palace and into the narrow lane that ran down its side. The cool shade of the lane was welcome after the afternoon sun. Sula slowed to a trot, and Macnamara slowed in her wake, pausing to pull an emergency flare from his pocket, strike it on the cool sandstone wall, and toss it behind. Their retreat would be covered by billowing red smoke.

Sula gasped for breath, her hand trailing on the palace wall for balance, and she wondered how much time to give the Naxid schoolchildren to get out of the way. She counted to ten, then spoke.

“Comm: Detonate. Comm: Send.”

A scant second later the sandstone wall punched Sula’s fingers with surprising strength, and the ground lurched beneath her feet. She didn’t feel the explosion so much with her ears as with her insides, an uneasy stirring as the shock wave passed through each organ. The red smoke at the end of the lane was blown over them in a thin scarlet fog; and suddenly they were in a rain of rubble and trash blown off the Oghoder Palace roof. Sula tried to knock the stuff off her cap and shoulders as she ran.

She unfastened the grey jumpsuit as soon as she made her way out of the cloud, and when they got to Macnamara’s two-wheeler they both peeled out of their suits and took off their headgear, revealing richer clothing beneath. The workers’ costumes were shoved into the two-wheeler’s panniers, and with Macnamara driving the vehicle moved out into traffic, the two passengers to all appearances a pair of upper-middle-class youth on a summer joy ride. Anyone looking closely would have seen the clothing was soaked through with sweat, but the gyroscopically-stabilized two-wheeler was moving too fast for that, weaving through the traffic, darting into lanes and alleys.

Behind them the grey cloud of debris towered over the High City like a omen foretelling dark events to come.

“The plan was too elaborate,” Sula said, blinking against the setting sun. “It would have been safer to plant the bomb somewhere along the route, or pull up alongside Makish in a car and gun him down.”

“You wanted something noisy,” Spence pointed out.

“The big boom was the only thing the plan had going for it. The rest was fucking stupid.” She looked at Macnamara. “If you hadn’t known exactly what to do at the critical moment, we would have been neck-deep in the shit.”

The flaws in the plan seemed so obvious now: she only wished at least a few of them had occurred to her at the planning stage.

Action Team 491 stood in the shade of an ammat tree on the broad terrace of the Ngeni Palace, looking down the cliff at the Naxid checkpoint at the base of the road that zigzagged up the acropolis to the High City. The Naxids had shut down traffic entirely and the long line of vehicles on the switchback road hadn’t moved in a long time.

Probably the funicular wasn’t moving, either. The High City was being sealed off while the search went on for the assassins.

“Cocktails?” PJ Ngeni said as he arrived with a tray.

Sula took a Citrine Fling from the tray and raised the other hand to lightly fluff the damp hair at the back of her neck. On arrival at the Ngeni Palace she’d first insisted on a bath and a change of clothes before conducting her debriefing. The tub PJ had offered her had been large enough for a troop, and once she’d applied a lavender-scented bath oil to the steaming water she’d remained in the tub till her toes wrinkled.

Macnamara and Spence took their cocktails, sipped, and made gratified noises. PJ smiled.

“Any news, my lord?” Spence asked.

“No, Miss Ardelion.” Using the code name. “There hasn’t been a word on any of the news channels.”

“They haven’t made up their minds how to report it,” Sula said. “They can’t deny the explosion, and they can’t deny closing all the exits to the High City.”

“What are they going to do?” Spence’s dark eyes looked worried. “Search the High City for us?”

“I don’t think they’ve got enough personnel. The High City’s big, and they don’t have that many people here.” With the ring and its elevators destroyed, the Naxids had been forced to bring their forces to the surface using shuttles propelled by chemical rockets, shuttles of which they had a limited supply. The actual numbers of those brought down from orbit were still fairly small, and the new arrivals depended for order on Naxids already on the planet when they arrived.

“They could bring in Naxid police from outside the city,” Spence said.

Sula looked down at the road with its traffic frozen in place. “We’ll see them from here if they do. But I don’t think they will.” She sipped her Fling and gave a cold smile. “With all access to the High City cut off, the Naxids are essentially besieging themselves up here. I don’t think they can afford to keep it up for long.”

Team 491 and their host had a pleasant cocktail hour on the terrace, after which they adjourned to the sitting room to watch the news and await the arrival of the caterer. The last light of Shaamah gleamed a greenish pink on the window panes, the Naxid announcer said that a truck containing volatile chemicals had overturned on the Boulevard of the Praxis, causing an explosion and the unfortunate death of Lord Makish, Judge of the High Court, and his companion, Junior Fleet Commander the Lord Renzak.

Sula broke out in laughter. “They denied it!” she said. “Perfect!”

No mention was made of a platoon of Naxid schoolchildren being wiped out, so Sula assumed they had weathered the bomb without too many serious injuries.

With a hand comm she entered the Records Office computer on Administrator Rashtag’s passwords. It took a few minutes to update the text file she had already composed, and with a verbal command she sent it into the world.


Death of a Traitor

Lord Makish, Judge of the High Court, was executed this afternoon by loyalist forces operating in the High City of Zanshaa. The sentence was imposed on Lord Makish by a tribunal of the secret government after Lord Makish was found guilty of signing the death warrants of Lord Governor Pahn-ko and other loyal citizens.

Executed along with Lord Makish was the traitorous Fleet officer Lord Renzak.

The sentence was carried out by loyal Fleet elements using a bomb. These Fleet personnel have now reached safety and have been debriefed by their superiors.

Though the rebel government claims that the deaths were the result of an accident with a truck carrying a volatile chemical– and who ever heard of such a truck on the Boulevard of the Praxis?—- all the thousands of loyal citizens who heard or witnessed the explosion now have proof that loyalist forces operate at will even in the High City.

Those rebels who heard the explosion should know that the tribunals are waiting. Those who murder loyal citizens will be noted, and their victims will be avenged.

Because most of the Records Office personnel had gone home at the close of the business day, Sula sent out Resistance in smaller packets of a few thousand each so as not to tie up the broadcast node too conspicuously. As before, fifty thousand were sent. As before, they were sent randomly to inhabitants of Zanshaa who were not Naxids.

PJ’s comm chimed as these operations were under way. He answered, then reported. “My smoking club. They’re going to be closed for a few days, till the damage is repaired.”

“Anyone hurt?” Sula asked.

“Cuts from flying glass, a couple of sprained ankles, and one broken collarbone.”

Sula sent another two thousand copies of Resistance on their way. “Did you ask what was happening at the Makish Palace?”

PJ looked stricken. “I didn’t think to.” He turned to go back to the comm.

“Don’t worry about it,” Sula said quickly. “It’s not that important. When they reopen I’m sure you’ll get the story.”

The caterer arrived with a glorious meal for four, crisp duck served with a creamy eswod concoction and a tart sauce of taswa fruit. PJ offered the best of the Ngeni clan’s cellars to Spence and Macnamara, and afterwards produced cigars.

Afterwards Action Team 491 reluctantly left the Ngeni Palace for whatever lodgings they could find. They were supposed to be workers caught in the High City when the exits were closed, and it would be logical for them to look for a hostel to stay in– and Sula told her team to make certain they got receipts, in order that their stories be all the more convincing.

Lodgings were indeed hard to find– there were plenty of genuine workers wandering from one place to the next, with their IDs scanned by police patrols every few blocks. Sula finally found a place by paying more than she suspected a worker could afford. There she enjoyed another bath, to wash away the odor of PJ’s cigars, and then slept on the broad, faintly scented mattress.

In the middle of the night Sula heard the creak of a floorboard, then felt the pillow press down hard on her nose and mouth. She gasped for breath, but there was no air. She tried to claw the pillow off her face but her hands seem to have been pinned.

She sat up with a cry half-strangled in her throat, her hands clutching at her neck. Her pulse thundered in her ears like a series of gunshots. She stared blindly out into the dark, trying to see the shadow that was her attacker.

“Lights!” she called, and the lights flashed on.

She was alone in her room.

She spent the rest of the night with the lights on, and the video wall showing a harmless romantic drama that Spence would probably have adored.

In the morning she rose and found that the road and the funicular had been reopened. Showing her identification and her receipt for a night’s lodging, she left the High City for the Lower Town. As she took a cab to Riverside, she saw a few copies of Resistance pasted to lampposts, each surrounded by clumps of readers.

Buying breakfast from a vendor near the communal apartment, she learned that the Naxids had ordered their remaining hostages shot, then sent the police out onto the streets to find more.

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