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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Monday, March 22, 2004 11:54 EST



    “You there, Steve?”

    Stephen Westman, of the Buffalo Valley Westmans, grimaced and shoved his hat back on his head. It was of a style which had once been called a “Stetson” on humanity’s homeworld, and a decorative band of hammered silver and amethyst winked as he shook his head in exasperation. There was such a thing as operational security, but so far most of his people seemed to have trouble remembering that.

    At least I managed to get my hands on commercial market Solly crypto software. The Manties can probably break it once they get here in force, but as long as we’re only up against our own locally-produced crap, we should be okay.

    “Freedom Three, this is Freedom One,” he said into his own com in a patiently pointed tone. “Yes, I’m here.”

    “Aw, hell, Ste -- I mean, Freedom One,” Jeff Hollister sounded sheepish. “Sorry ‘bout that. I forgot.”

    “Forget about it… this time,” Westman said. “What is it?”

    “Those fellows you wanted us to keep an eye on? They’re headed up the Schuyler. Looks like they figure to put down for the night somewhere around Big Rock Dome.”

    “They do, do they?” Westman pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Why, that’s mighty interesting, Freedom Three.”

    “Thought you might think so.” Hollister’s tone was satisfied.

    “Thanks for passing it along,” Westman said. “I’ll see you around.”

    “Later,” Hollister agreed laconically, and cut the circuit.

    Westman folded up his own com and shoved it back into his pocket while he considered the information.

    He was a tallish man, a shade under a hundred and eighty-eight centimeters in height, with broad, powerful shoulders. He was also strikingly handsome, with sun-bleached blond hair, blue eyes, and a bronzed face first-generation prolong kept reasonably young, but which sixty-one T-years of experience, weather, and humor had etched with crows feet. At the moment that face wore a thoughtful expression.

    Well, hemused, it’s about time I get this show on the road, if I’m really serious. And I am.

    He considered for a moment or two longer, standing in the dappled shade of the Terran aspens which had been introduced to Montana over three T-centuries before. He listened to the rustle of wind in the golden leaves and looked up, checking the sun’s position out of automatic habit as deep as instinct. Then he nodded in decision, turned, and walked through what appeared to be a solid wall of stone into a large cavern.

    Like the crypto software he’d purchased for his people’s communicators, the holo generator which produced the illusion of solid stone was of Solarian manufacture. It galled Westman to use Solly technology, given the fact that the Solarian League and the never-to-be-sufficiently-damned Office of Frontier Security had been The Enemy much longer than the Manties. But he was a practical man, and he wasn’t about to handicap himself or his followers by using anything but the best hardware available.

    Besides, there’s something… appropriate about using Solly equipment against another fucking bunch of carrioncat outsiders. And those bastards on Rembrandt are even worse. If that son-of-a-bitch Van Dort thinks he’s going to waltz Montana off and fuck us over again, he’s in for a painful surprise.

    “Luis!” he called as he walked deeper into the cavern. Much of it was natural, but he and his people had enlarged it considerably. The New Swan Range was lousy with iron ore, and enough of that still made the best natural concealment available. He didn’t really like putting so many eggs in a single basket, even one this well hidden, but he hadn’t had a lot of choice when he first decided to go underground -- literally. Hopefully, if things went the way he planned, he’d be able to expand into an entire network of satellite bases that would lessen his vulnerability by spreading out his assets and his organization.

    “Luis!” he called again, and this time, there was an answer.

    “Yes, Boss?” Luis Palacios called back as he came clattering up the poured concrete steps from the lower level of caverns.

    Palacios had been Westman’s foreman -- effectively, the field manager for a ranching and farming empire which had netted profits on the order of ninety million Solarian credits a year -- just as he’d been for Westman’s father. He was lean, dark, and almost a full centimeter taller even than Westman, and the left side of his face carried three deep scars as a legacy from one of Montana’s nearcougars. He was also the one man on Montana -- or, for that matter, in the entire Talbott Cluster -- whom Westman trusted without reservation or qualification.

    “Jeff Hollister just called in,” Westman told him now. “Those Manty surveyors and that jackass Haven are headed up the Schuyler to Big Rock. What say you and I and some of the boys go extend a proper Montana welcome?”

    “Why, I think that’d be right neighborly of us, Boss,” Palacios said with a grin. “Just how warmly do you figure to welcome them?”

    “Well, I don’t see any reason to get carried away,” Westman replied. “This’ll be our first party, after all.”

    “Understood.” Palacios nodded. “You want me to pick the boys?”

    “Go ahead,” Westman agreed. “Be sure to include at least three of the ones we’re considering for cell leaders, though.”

    “No sweat, Boss. Bennington, Travers, and Ciraki are all on call.”

    “Good!” Westman smiled in approval. “Tell them I figure to drop in on our off-world guests tomorrow morning, but we’ve got a ways to go. So I want to move out within the next four or five hours.”



    Oscar Johansen checked his GPS display with a certain sense of satisfaction. He’d been pleased to discover that Montana at least had a comprehensive network of navigation satellites. He could have asked HMS Ericsson or Volcano -- the support ships the RMN had stationed here -- to provide him with the same data, but he really preferred working with the existing local infrastructure… whenever he could.

    You never knew what you were going to find on a planet in the Verge. Some of them were little better than pre-space Old Earth, while others were even further advanced than Grayson had been before it signed on to the Manticoran Alliance. Montana fell somewhere between the two extremes. It was too dirt-poor to afford a really solid tech base, but it had made innovative use of what it could afford. Its navigation satellites were a case in point. They were at least a couple of centuries out of date by Manticoran standards, but they did the job just fine. And they also pulled double duty as weather satellites, air traffic control radar arrays, law enforcement surveillance platforms, and traffic control points for any freighters which called here.

    And there’s no reason why the place has to be so poor, he thought as he tagged the GPS coordinates to the electronic map in his memo board. The beef they raise here would command top prices back home, and with the Lynx Terminus, they can ship it fresh direct to Beowulf or even Old Earth. He shook his head, thinking of the astronomical prices Montanan beef or nearbuffalo could bring on the mother world. And there are dozens of other opportunities for anyone with just a little bit of startup capital.

    Which, after all, was the reason Johansen was here. The Alexander Government had made it clear that Her Majesty had no intention of allowing her new subjects in Talbott to be turfed out of the development of their own star systems by sharp Manticoran operators. The government had announced it would carry out its own surveys of the Cluster, in conjunction with local governments, to confirm all existing titles of ownership. Those titles would be fully protected, and to ensure local participation in any development projects, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had announced that, for its first ten T-years of operation, any new startup endeavor in the Cluster would enjoy a reduction in taxation equal to the percentage of ownership held by citizens of the Cluster. After ten T-years, the tax break would reduce by five percent per T-year for another ten T-years, then terminate completely in the twenty-first T-year. Given where the Star Kingdom’s wartime tax rates stood, that provision alone was guaranteed to ensure the massive representation of local interests.

    Johansen looked up at the sun blazing in a wash of crimson and gold coals on the western horizon. Montana’s primary -- also called Montana -- was a bit cooler than Manticore-A. And Montana was almost one full light-minute further from its primary than the capital planet of the Star Kingdom was from Manticore-A, too. With evening coming on rapidly, that coolness was especially noticeable, and he looked over to where the expedition was pitching its tents for the night. They were going up with the efficiency of well-organized practice, and his eyes strayed to the rippling, steel-colored sheet of water rushing over the rocks and gravel of the Schuyler River. Local trees, interspersed with Terran oak and aspen, grew right down to the riverbank, casting their shadows over the crystal-clear water, and temptation stirred. There had to be some deep pools out there, he thought, and he’d already encountered the planet’s nearbass.

    It’s usually a good idea to maintain a certain separation between the chief and his Indians, he thought with a lurking smile, so I probably shouldn’t disturb them now that they’ve gotten into the swing of things over there. And if I get busy fast enough, I might even hook enough fish to give us a little variety for dinner. Even if I don’t, I can always claim that was what I was trying to do!

    He headed for his personal air car and his tackle box.



    The sun rose slowly over the eastern rampart of the Schuyler River Valley. Light frost glittered on the higher slopes to the north, and long fingers of shadow -- crisp and cool in the mountain morning -- reached out across the sleeping surveyors’ camp.

    Stephen Westman watched the sun edging higher, then checked his chrono. It was time, and he rose from his seat on the fallen tree trunk, lifted his pulse rifle from where it had leaned against the trunk beside him, and started down the slope.



    Oscar Johansen rolled over and stretched luxuriantly. His wife had always been perplexed by the way his sleeping habits flip-flopped whenever he was in the field. At home, he was a night owl, staying up until all hours and sleeping as late as he could get away with. But in the field, he loved the early hours of sunrise. There was something special, almost holy, about those still, clear, crystalline minutes while sunlight flowed slowly, slowly back into a world. Every planet habitable by man had its analogues of birds, and Johansen had never yet been on a world where one of them hadn’t greeted the dawn. The songs or calls might vary wildly, but there was always that first, single note in the orchestra. That moment when the first singer roused, tested its voice, and then sounded the flourish that formalized the ending of night and the beginning of yet another day.

    His Manticoran-manufactured tent’s smart fabric had maintained his preferred overnight temperature of twenty degrees -- sixty-eight degrees on the ancient Fahrenheit scale Montana’s original, deliberately archaic settlers had brought with them -- and he picked up the remote. He tapped in the command, and the eastern side of the tent obediently transformed itself into a one-way window. He lay there on the comfortable memory-plastic cot, enjoying the warmth of his bedroll, and watched the morning shadows and the misty tendrils of vapor hovering above the river, as if the water were breathing.

    He was still admiring the sunrise when, suddenly, the fly of his tent flew abruptly open. He shot upright in his cot, more in surprise than anything else, then froze as he found himself staring into the business end of a pulse rifle.

    “Morning, friend,” the weathered looking man behind the rifle said pleasantly. “I expect you’re a mite surprised to see me.”



    “Goddamn it, Steve!”

    Les Haven sounded more irritated than anything else, Johansen decided. The Land Registry Office inspector obviously knew the tall, blond-haired leader of the thirty or forty armed, masked men who’d invaded their encampment. The Manticoran wondered whether that was a good sign, or a bad one.

    “Looks like you’ve fallen into bad company, Les,” the leader replied. He jerked his head at Johansen. “You procuring for off-world pimps these days?”

    “Steve Westman, if you had the sense God gave a neoturkey, you’d know this was just goddamn silliness!” Johansen decided he would have been happier if Haven had been just a bit less emphatic. But the Montanan had the bit well and truly between his teeth. “Damn it, Steve -- we voted in favor of annexation by over seventy-two percent. Seventy-two percent, Steve! Are you gonna tell that many of your neighbors they’re idiots?”

    “Reckon I am, if they are,” the blond-haired man agreed amiably enough. He and four of his men were holding the survey party at gunpoint while the rest of his followers busily took down the tents and loaded them into the surveyors’ vehicles.

    “And they are,” Westman added. “Idiots, I mean,” he explained helpfully when Haven glared at him.

    “Well, you had your chance to convince them you were right during the vote, and you didn’t, did you?”

    “Reckon not. Course, this whole planet’s always been pretty stubborn, hasn’t it?” Westman grinned, the skin crinkling around his blue eyes, and despite himself, Johansen felt the man’s sheer presence.

    “Yes, it has,” Haven agreed. “And you’re about to get seventy-two percent of the people on it mighty riled up!”

    “Done it before,” Westman said with a shrug, and the Land Registry Office inspector exhaled noisily. His shoulders seemed to slump, and he shook his head almost sadly.

    “Steve, I know you’ve never trusted Van Dort or his Trade Union people any more than you’ve trusted those Frontier Security bastards. And I know you’re convinced Manticore’s no better than Mesa. But I’m here to tell you that you are out of your ever-loving mind. There’s a whole universe of difference between what the Star Kingdom’s offering us and what Frontier Security would do to us.”

    “Sure there is… until they’ve got their claws into us.” Westman shook his head. “Van Dort’s already got his fangs in deep enough, Les. He’s not opening the door for another bunch of bloodsuckers if I have anything to say about it. The only way we’re going to stay masters of our own house is to kick every damned outsider out of it. If the rest of the Cluster wants to stick its head into the noose, that’s fine with me. More power to them. But nobody’s handing my planet over to anybody but the people who live here. And if the other folks on Montana are too stubborn, or too blind, to see what they’re doing to themselves, then I guess I’ll just have to get along without them.”

    “The Westmans have been respected on this planet ever since Landfall,” Haven said more quietly. “And even the folks who didn’t agree with you during the annexation debate, they still respected you, Steve. But if you push this, that’s going to change. The First Families’ve always carried a lot of weight, but you know we’ve never been the kind to roll over and play dead just because the big ranchers told us to. The folks who voted in favor of annexation aren’t going to take it very kindly when you try to tell them they don’t have the right to decide for themselves what they want to do.”

    “Well, you see, Les, that’s the problem,” Westman said. “It’s not so much I want to tell them they don’t have the right to decide for themselves. It’s just that I don’t figure they’ve got the right to decide for me. This planet, and this star system, have a Constitution. And, you know, I just finished rereading it last night, and there’s not a single word in it about anybody having the legal right -- or power -- to sell off our sovereignty.”

    “Nobody’s violating the Constitution,” Haven said stiffly. “That’s why the annexation vote was handled the way it was. You know as well as I do that the Constitution does provide for constitutional conventions with the right to amend the Constitution any way they choose, and that’s exactly what the annexation vote was. A convention, called exactly the way the Constitution required, exercising the powers the Constitution granted to its delegates.”

    “‘Amend’ isn’t the same thing as ‘throw in the trash,’” Westman retorted. It was obvious he felt strongly, Johansen decided, but he was still calm and collected. However deeply his emotions might be engaged, he wasn’t allowing that to drive him into a rage.

    For which Oscar Johansen was devoutly grateful.

    “Steve --“ Haven began again, but Westman shook his head.

    “Les, we’re not going to agree on this,” he said patiently. “It may be you’re right. I don’t think so, you understand, but I suppose it’s possible. But whether you are or not, I’ve already decided where I stand, and how far I’m ready to go. And, I’ve got to tell you, Les, that I don’t think you’re going to much like what it is I have in mind. So I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize, right up front, for the indignity I’m about to inflict.”

    Haven’s expression became suddenly much more wary, and Westman gave him an almost mischievous smile. Then he turned his attention to Mary Seavers and Aoriana Constantin, the two female members of Johansen’s ten-person survey team.

    “Ladies,” he said, “somehow I hadn’t quite figured on there being any women along this morning. And while I realize we here on Montana are a mite backward, compared to someplace like Manticore, it just goes against the grain with me to show disrespect for a lady. So if the two of you would just sort of move over there to the left?”

    Seavers and Constantin gave Johansen an anxious look, but he only nodded, never taking his eyes from Westman. The two women obeyed the order, and Westman smiled at Johansen.

    “Thank you, Mr.… Johansen, isn’t it?”

    Johansen nodded again.

    “Well, Mr. Johansen, I hope you haven’t taken my somewhat strongly expressed opinion of your Star Kingdom personally. For all I know, you’re a perfectly fine fellow, and I’m going to assume that’s the case. However, I think it’s important for me to get my message across to your superiors, and to Les’ bosses, as well.

    “Now, this morning’s in the nature of a warmup exercise. Sort of a demonstration of capabilities, you might say. And because that’s all it is, I’d just as soon no one get hurt. I trust that meets with your approval?”

    “I think you can safely assume it does,” Johansen told him when he paused.

    “Good.” Westman beamed at him, but then the Montanan’s smile faded. “At the same time,” he continued, his voice flatter, “if it comes to it, it’s possible a whole lot of people’re going to get hurt before this is over. I want you to tell your superiors that. This one is a free -- well, almost free -- warning. I’m not going to be issuing very many more of them. So tell your superiors that, too.”

    “I’ll tell them exactly what you’ve said,” Johansen assured him when he paused expectantly once more.

    “Good,” Westman repeated. “And now, Mr. Johansen, if you and all your men -- and you, too, Alvin -- would be so good as to strip to your skivvies.”

    “I beg your pardon?”Johansen looked at the Montanan, startled into asking the question, and Westman gave him an oddly sympathetic smile.

    “I said that I’d appreciate it if you’d strip to your underwear,” he said, then nodded towards the two women. “A true Montana gentlemen would never inflict that indignity upon a lady, which is why these two ladies have been excused. You gentlemen, however, are another case.”

    He smiled pleasantly, but there was absolutely no give in his expression, and his henchmen were obviously ready to enforce his demand if it proved necessary.

    Johansen looked at him for another few moments, then turned to his subordinates.

    “You heard the man,” he said resignedly. “I don’t think we have much choice, so we might as well get started.”




    Johansen’s survey crew, aside from the two women, and all of their local colleagues stood barefoot in their briefs and watched their vehicles and all of their equipment heading off deeper into the mountains. Westman and two of his men waited beside the final air car. The leader watched the last of his other men depart, then turned back to his prisoners.

    “Now,” he said, “Les here knows the way to Bridgeman’s Crossing. You gentlemen just head off that way. I’ll be sending a message to your boss, Les, telling him you’re coming, but it may take me a few hours to get it to him without giving him any hints about where to find us.”

    “Steve,” Haven said very quietly and seriously, “you’ve made your statement. God only knows how much trouble you’ve gotten yourself into already. But we’ve known each other a long time, and I like to think we’ve been friends. And because we have, I’m telling you now. Give this up. Give it up before someone does get hurt.”

    “Can’t do it, Les,” Westman said with genuine regret. “And you’d best be remembering what I’ve said. We have been friends, and it would grieve me to shoot a friend. But if you keep helping these people steal my planet, I’ll do it. You know I mean what I say, so I’d suggest you convince President Suttles that I do. I expect Trevor Bannister knows it already, but from what I’ve seen, keen intelligence isn’t exactly Suttles’ strong suit, so Trevor may need a mite of help getting through to him. And, Mr. Johansen, I’d suggest you convince your Baroness Medusa of the same thing.”

    He held their eyes a few more moments, and then he and his last followers climbed into the air car and it lifted off into the cool morning.



    “I don’t like what I’m hearing. I don’t like it at all,” Henri Krietzmann said harshly.

    His tone and expression contrasted strongly with the deliciously cool breeze blowing across the penthouse terrace. The primary component of the distant binary system known as Spindle was a G0 star, but the planet Flax was thirteen light-minutes from it, and it was spring in the planet’s northern hemisphere. Spectacular thunderheads -- blinding white on top and ominous black across their anvil bottoms -- drifted steadily in from the west across the Humboldt Ocean, but it would be hours before they arrived. For the moment, the three men on the terrace could enjoy the brilliant spring sunshine and the windborne perfume of spring blossoms from the terrace’s bounteous planter boxes as they gazed out over the capital city of Thimble on the west coast of the improbably named continent of Gossypium.

    It was a beautiful city, especially for a planet in the Verge. Its buildings were low, close to the ground, without the mountainous towers of modern counter-grav cities. That was because when most of Thimble was being built, the people doing the building hadn’t had counter-grav. But if they’d been limited to primitive technologies, they’d obviously taken great pains when they designed their new capital. The huge central square, built around a lovingly landscaped park of flowering green and intricate water features, was clearly visible from the penthouse terrace. So were the main avenues, radiating out from the square like the spokes of a vast wheel. Most of the city buildings were constructed of native stone, a blue granite that glittered when the sun struck it, and more water features and green spaces had been carefully integrated into the city plan.

    It wasn’t until one got beyond the center of the city on the landward side, away from the ocean, that one began to encounter the ugly, crowded slums which were the legacy of poverty in almost any of the Verge systems.

    “None of us particularly likes it, Henri.” Bernardus Van Dort said mildly. Van Dort was fair-haired and blue-eyed. He stood well over a hundred and ninety-five centimeters in height, and he sat with the confidence of a man who was accustomed to succeeding. “But we can hardly pretend it was unexpected, now can we?”

    “Of course it wasn’t unexpected,” the third man, Joachim Alquezar, put in, his lips twisting wryly. “After all, stupidity’s endemic to the human condition.”

    Although very few people would ever have described Van Dort as short, Alquezar made him look that way. The red-haired native of the planet San Miguel was two hundred and three centimeters tall. San Miguel’s gravity -- only eighty-four percent of Terran Standard -- tended to produce tall, slender people, and Alquezar was no exception.

    “‘Stupidity’ isn’t really fair, Joachim,” Van Dort reproved. “Ignorant, yes. Unaccustomed to thinking, yes, again. And prone to react emotionally, certainly. But that isn’t the same thing as irredeemably stupid.”

    “Forgive me, Bernardus, if I fail to discern a practical difference.” Alquezar leaned back, cradling a snifter of brandy in his right hand and waving a cigar gently with his left. “The consequences are identical.”

    “The short term consequences are identical,” Van Dort replied. “But while there’s not a great deal that can be done about genuine stupidity, ignorance can be educated, and the habit of thought can be acquired.”

    “It always amazes me,” Alquezar said with the smile of an old friend rehashing a familiar argument, “that a hardheaded, hard-hearted, money-gouging Rembrandt capitalist can be so revoltingly liberal in his view of humanity.”

    “Oh?” Van Dort’s blue eyes glinted as he smiled back. “I happen to know that ‘liberal’ only became a dirty word for you after Tonkovic pinched it for herself.”

    “Thereby confirming my lifelong suspicion -- previously unvoiced, perhaps, but deep seated -- that anyone who actually believes someone who claims to be a liberal suffers from terminal softheadedness.”

    “I hope the two of you are enjoying yourselves.” Krietzmann’s tone hovered just short of biting. At thirty-six T-years, he was the youngest man present. He was also the shortest, at a brown-haired, gray-eyed, solidly muscled hundred and seventy centimeters. But despite the fact that he was twenty T-years younger than Alquezar, and over forty younger than Van Dort, he looked older than either of them, for he was a citizen of Dresden.

    “We’re not enjoying ourselves, Henri,” Van Dort said, after a very brief pause. “And we’re not taking the situation lightly. But I think it’s important to remember that people who disagree with us aren’t necessarily monsters of depravity.”

    “Treason’s close enough to depravity for me,” Krietzmann said grimly.

    “Actually,” Alquezar said, looking steadily at Krietzmann while the breeze ruffled the fringe of the umbrella over their table and sent the Spindle System flag atop the hotel popping and snapping, “I think it would be wiser if you didn’t use words like ‘treason’ even with Bernardus and me, Henri.”

    “Why not?” Krietzmann shot back. “I believe in calling things by their proper names. Eighty percent of the Cluster’s total population voted to join the Star Kingdom. To my mind, that makes anyone who’s prepared to resort to extralegal means of resisting the annexation guilty of treason.”

    Alquezar winced ever so slightly, and shook his head.

    “I won’t disagree with you, although I imagine the point could be argued either way, at least until we get a Constitution adopted that establishes exactly what is and is not legal on a Cluster-wide basis. But however accurate the term may be, there are certain political drawbacks to using it. One which springs immediately to mind is that throwing around terms like ‘treason’ and ‘traitor’ will actually help your opponents polarize public opinion.”

    Krietzmann glared, and Van Dort leaned forward to lay a hand on the younger man’s forearm.

    “Joachim is right, Henri,” he said gently. “The people you’re describing would love to provoke you into something -- anything -- they and their supporters can characterize as extremism.”

    Krietzmann glowered some more, then inhaled deeply and gave a choppy nod. His shoulders relaxed ever so slightly, and he reached for his own glass -- not a brandy snifter like Alquezar’s or a wineglass like Van Dort’s, but a tall, moisture-beaded tankard of beer. He drank deeply, then lowered his glass.

    “All right,” he half-growled. “Point taken. And I’ll try to sit on myself in public. But,” his eyes flashed, “that doesn’t change the way I feel about these bastards in private.”

    “I don’t think anyone would expect it to,” Van Dort murmured.

    Not if they have any sense at all, at any rate, he thought. Expect emotional detachment out of Henri Krietzmann on an issue like this? Ridiculous!

    He felt a familiar twinge of guilt at the thought. Dresden was ruinously poor, even for the Verge. Unlike his own Rembrandt, or Alquezar’s San Miguel, which had managed to pull themselves up by their boot straps to become fabulously wealthy -- by Verge standards -- Dresden’s economy had never risen above the marginal level. The vast majority of Dresden’s citizens, even today, were ill-educated, little more than unskilled labor, and modern industry had little use for the unskilled. The Dresden System’s poverty had been so crushing for so long that only the most decrepit (or disreputable) of tramp freighters had called there, and no outside system -- including Rembrandt, he admitted bleakly -- had ever been attracted to invest there.

    Which was why Dresden’s medical capabilities had been as limited as its industrial capacity. Which was why Henri Krietzmann had seen his father and his mother die before they were sixty T-years old. Why two of his three siblings had died in early childhood. Why he himself was missing two fingers on his mangled left-hand, the legacy of an industrial accident in an old-fashioned foundry on a planet without regen. And why Krietzmann had never received even the cheapest, simplest first-generation prolong therapies and could expect no more than another sixty to seventy years of life.

    That was what fueled Henri Krietzmann’s hatred of those attempting to derail the Constitutional Convention. It was what had driven him to educate himself, to claw his way out of the slums of the city of Oldenburg and into the rough and tumble of Dresden politics. The fire in his belly was his blinding hatred of the Solarian League, and of the Office of Frontier Security’s pious platitudes about “uplifting the unfortunately retrograde” planets of the Verge. If OFS, or any of the Solly lobbying groups who claimed to be so concerned about the worlds it engulfed, had really cared, they could have brought modern medicine to Dresden over a century ago. For a fraction of what Frontier Security spent on its public relations budget in the Sol System alone, they could have provided Dresden with the sort of education system which would have permitted it to build up its own industrial and medical base.

    Over the last twenty T-years, largely as a result of the efforts of men and women like Henri Krietzmann, that had begun to change. They had scratched and clawed their own way up out of the most abject poverty imaginable to an economy that was merely poor, no longer destitute. One which was finally beginning to provide something approaching decent health care -- or something much closer to it -- to its citizens. One whose school systems had managed, at ruinous expense, to import off-world teachers. One which had seen the possibilities for its own development when the Trade Union came calling and, instead of resisting “exploitation” by Rembrandt and its allies, had actually looked for ways to use it for its own advantage.

    It had been a hard, bloody fight, and it had instilled a fiercely combative, fiercely independent spirit in the citizens of Dresden, matched with boundless contempt for the parasitic oligarchs of star systems like Split.

    Oh, no. Detachment was not a quality much to be found in Dresden.

    “Well,” Alquezar’s deliberately light tone told Van Dort his old friend had followed -- and shared -- his own reflections, “however Henri wants to describe them amongst ourselves, we still need to decide what to do about them.”

    “That’s true enough,” Van Dort agreed. “Although, I caution all of us -- myself included -- yet again that we must avoid creating an undue impression of collusion between us. More especially, between you and me, Joachim, and Henri.”

    “Oh, give it a break, Bernardus!” Krietzmann’s grim expression was transfigured by a sudden grin, and he snorted a genuine laugh. “Every voter in the Cluster knows you and your Trade Union set up the annexation effort in the first part, unscrupulous and devious money grubbers that you are. Yes, and funded it, too! And I was the politician who led the effort on Dresden. And Joachim here is the head of the Constitutional Union Party -- and just happens to be the senior Convention delegate from San Miguel, which just happens to be another member of the Trade Union . . . of which, he also happens to be a major shareholder. So just who, with the IQ of a felsenlarve, is going to believe we aren’t in collusion whatever we do?”

    “You’re probably correct,” Van Dort conceded with a slight smile of his own, “but there are still proprieties to observe. Particularly since you’re currently the President of the Convention. It’s perfectly reasonable and proper for you to consult with political leaders and backers, and you campaigned openly enough for the President’s job on the basis of your determination to drive the annexation through. But it’s still important to avoid the impression that we ‘unscrupulous and devious money grubbers’ have you in our vest pocket. If you’re going to work effectively with all of the delegates to the Convention, that is.”

    “Probably something to that,” Krietzmann agreed. “Still, I don’t think someone like Tonkovic cherishes any illusions that I nurture warm and fuzzy feelings where she’s concerned.”

    “Of course you don’t,” Alquezar agreed. “But let me be the one to lock horns with her openly. You need to remain above the fray. Practice polishing your disinterested statesman’s halo and leave the down and dirty work to me.” He grinned nastily. “Trust me, I’ll be the one having all the fun.”

    “I’ll avoid having myself tattooed into your lodge, Joachim,” Krietzmann said. “But I’m not going to pretend I like Tonkovic.”

    “Actually, you know, Aleksandra isn’t all that bad,” Van Dort said mildly. The other two looked at him with varying degrees of incredulity, and he shrugged. “I don’t say I like her -- because I don’t -- but I worked quite closely with her during the annexation vote campaign, and at least she’s less slimy than Yvernau and his friends on New Tuscany. The woman’s at least as ambitious as any politician I’ve ever known, and she and her political allies are as self-centered and greedy as anyone I’ve ever met, but she worked very effectively to support the plebiscite. She wants a degree of local autonomy she’s never going to get, but I don’t believe she has any intention of risking the chance that the annexation might actually fail..”

    “Whatever her intentions, she’s fiddling while the house burns down,” Krietzmann said bluntly.

    “Not to mention encouraging the kind of resistance movements we’re all worried about,” Alquezar added.

    Van Dort considered pointing out that Alquezar’s own CUP’s agenda probably did some encouraging -- or at least provoking -- of its own, but decided against it. There was no real point. Besides, Joachim understood that perfectly well, whether he chose to say so or not.

    “Well, that’s really neither here nor there right this moment,” he said instead. “The real question is how we respond to the emergence of organized ‘resistance movements.’”

    “The best solution would be to drive the Convention through to a conclusion before they have the opportunity to really get their feet under them,” Krietzmann said, and both his guests nodded in agreement. “That’s why I’m so pissed off at Tonkovic,” the Convention President continued. “She knows perfectly well that she’s not going to get anywhere close to everything she’s asking for, but she’s perfectly content to string out the negotiating process as long as possible. The longer she can tie us up, the more concessions she can expect to extort out of us as her price for finally bringing a draft Constitution to a vote.”

    “She’d probably say the same about me,” Alquezar pointed out.

    “She has said it,” Krietzmann snorted. “But the real difference between the two of you, Joachim, is that she sees the indefinite delay of a finalized Constitution as a completely legitimate tactic. She’s so focused on securing her own platform to protect her own position in Split that she’s ignoring the very real possibility that she could delay the Convention long enough for the entire effort to come unglued.”

    “She doesn’t believe that will ever happen,” Van Dort said. “She doesn’t believe Manticore would permit it to.”

    “Then she needs to listen to what Baroness Medusa is saying,” Krietzmann said grimly. “She’s made herself plain enough to anyone who will listen. Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Alexander aren’t about to force anyone to accept Manticoran sovereignty. Not here in the Cluster, at any rate. We’re too close to the League for them to risk incidents with OFS or the SLN unless the local citizenry’s support for the Star Kingdom is solid. And they don’t really need any of us just to hang onto the Lynx Terminus. In fact, we actually complicate the equation, in a lot of ways. To put it bluntly, we’re much too secondary to the Star Kingdom’s survival needs at the moment for them to start pouring starships and Marines down a rat hole to suppress resistance to an involuntary conquest.”

    “Surely neither the Queen nor the Governor sees this as some sort of conquest!” Van Dort protested.

    “No . . . not yet,” Krietzmann agreed. “But until we decide the constitutional basis for our formal annexation and send it to Parliament for ratification, there’s really nothing Alexander or even the Queen can do. And the longer we spend arguing about it, and the wider we allow our own internal divisions to become, the longer the delay in getting the damned thing drafted in the first place. And if the delay stretches out long enough, or if enough brainless wonders embrace the ‘armed struggle’ people like that lunatic Nordbrandt are calling for, then what looked like the smooth assimilation of eager new citizens starts to look like the forcible conquest of desperately resisting patriots. Which, I hardly need point out to you two, is exactly how OFS is already trying to spin this for the Solly media.”

    “Damn.” Even that mild obscenity was unusual for Van Dort, and he shook his head. “Have you discussed this with Aleksandra?”

    “I’ve tried to.” Krietzmann shrugged. “She didn’t seem impressed by my logic. Of course, I have to admit I’m a politician from a pretty bare-knuckled school, not a polished, cultured diplomat, and she and I have never liked each other a lot, anyway.”

    “What about you, Joachim?” Van Dort looked at his friend, and it was Alquezar’s turn to shrug.

    “If it’s escaped your notice, Bernardus, Tonkovic and I aren’t on speaking terms at the moment. If I say the sky is blue, she’s going to insist it’s chartreuse. And,” he admitted grudgingly, after a moment, “vice versa, I suppose. It’s called polarization.”

    Van Dort frowned down into his wineglass. He’d tried to stand as far in the background as he could once the Convention actually convened. There’d been no way he could do that during the annexation vote campaign, but he was well aware that his very visibility had helped to produce what resistance to the vote there’d been. The Rembrandt Trade Union consisted of the systems of Rembrandt, San Miguel, Redoubt, and Prairie, and the RTU had made plenty of enemies in the Cluster. In Van Dort’s opinion, much of that enmity had resulted from envy, but he was honest enough to recognize that many of the Cluster’s other worlds had more than a little justification for feeling that the RTU had used its economic clout to extort unfair concessions.

    Quite a lot of justification, actually, he thought. And I suppose that’s my fault, too.

    However necessary it might have been to expand the Trade Union’s reach and wealth, the legacy of distrust and hostility its tactics had aroused still lingered. People like Stephen Westman, on Montana, had made opposition to the “continued economic exploitation” of their worlds by Rembrandt and its Trade Union partners a keystone of their opposition to the annexation vote. Of course, Westman had his own, very personal reasons for hating anything Van Dort was associated with, but there was no doubt that a very large number of his fellow Montanans -- and of the citizens of other planets in the Cluster -- resented the RTU enormously, whatever they thought of the annexation itself. Which was why Van Dort had very deliberately stepped back from public participation in the Convention’s actual deliberations here in Spindle. But now . . . .

    “I suppose I’d better talk to her,” he sighed. Krietzmann and Alquezar both looked at him with “Well, at last!” expressions, and he grimaced. “I’ve still got a few markers with her,” he conceded, “and so far, at least, we haven’t developed the sort of antagonism you and she have, Joachim. But don’t expect any miracles. Once she’s got an idea or strategy into her head, knocking it back out again is all but impossible.”

    “Tell me about it!” Alquezar snorted. “But you’ve still got a better shot at it than I do.”

    “I suppose,” Van Dort said glumly. “I suppose.”

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