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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Friday, April 2, 2004 03:18 EST



    “Good evening, Madam Governor.”

    “Good evening, Madam President.” Dame Estelle Matsuko, Baroness Medusa, and Provisional Crown Governor of the Talbott Cluster in the name of Queen Elizabeth III, bowed slightly, and Samiha Lababibi, President of the Spindle System, returned it. The two women were both dark complexioned and slender, although Lababibi had a more wiry, muscular build, courtesy of a lifetime passion for yachting and skin diving. At a hundred and sixty-five centimeters, she was also seven and a half centimeters taller than Dame Estelle. But both had black hair and brown eyes, although Dame Estelle’s had a pronounced epicanthic fold. She was also several decades older than Lababibi, even if her second-generation prolong made her look younger, and she’d resigned the office of Home Secretary to accept her present assignment.

    “I’m glad you were able to attend,” the system president continued. “I was afraid you wouldn’t have returned from Rembrandt in time.”

    “The timing was a bit closer than I’d anticipated,” Medusa agreed. “I was in the middle of discussions with the Trade Union’s executive council when the report of that business on Montana came in.”

    “Oh, that.” Lababibi rolled her eyes with a grimace of disgust. “Little boys playing sophomoric tricks,” she said.

    “Little boys with pulse rifles, Madam President,” Medusa replied. Lababibi looked at her, and the Provisional Governor smiled with very little humor. “We were lucky this time. Lucky this Mr. Westman was prepared to make his point without actually shooting anyone.”

    “Madam Governor,” Lababibi said, “Stephen Westman -- all those Montanans, even the women! -- have far too much testosterone in their systems. They still believe all that First Landing frontiersman nonsense. Or claim they do, anyway. But I assure you, the vote there was almost as one-sided as here on Flax. Lunatics like Westman are only a tiny minority, even on Montana, and there’s no way -- “

    ”President Lababibi,” Medusa interrupted pleasantly, “this is a social gathering. I really shouldn’t have let myself sidetrack you into discussing Mr. Westman at all. I do think you may be . . . underestimating the potential seriousness of the situation, but please, don’t distress yourself over it tonight. We’ll have sufficient time to discuss it officially later.”

    “Of course.” Lababibi smiled.

    “Thank you.” Medusa turned to scan the crowded ballroom of the Spindle System President’s State Mansion. They actually called it that, she reflected, without any of the shorter, less pretentious titles which would have been used most places. Nor had they spared any expense on its interior decor. The outer wall was composed entirely of French doors, giving onto the immaculately groomed Presidential Gardens with their deliberately archaic gas-jet torches flaming in the cool spring night. The opposite wall consisted solely of floor-to-ceiling mirrors, which gave the already large room a sense of glassy vastness, and the end walls and ceiling were decorated with heroic bas relief frescoes, glittering with touches of gold leaf. The long line of tables set up beside the live orchestra was covered in snowy white linen and littered with expensive tableware and hand blown glassware, and massive chandeliers, like cascades of crystal tears, hung from the vaulted ceiling.

    In many ways it was all horridly overdone, and yet it worked. It blended together beautifully, a perfect frame for the richly dressed guests, in the formal styles of a dozen different planets. Yet even as Medusa admitted that to herself, it still bothered her a bit to see such a magnificently decorated room in the mansion of the chief executive of a star system as poor as Spindle was.

    But, then, all these systems are crushingly poor, she thought. Devastated economies in the midst of everything they need to be prosperous . . . except for that first boost up. All except Rembrandt and its trading partners, perhaps. But even the Trade Union’s members are poverty stricken compared to Manticore, Sphinx, or Gryphon.

    She’d known that, intellectually, before she ever arrived here. But knowing and understanding were very different. And one thing that bothered her deeply was the vast gulf between the haves and have-nots in Talbott. Even the wealthiest Talbotter was scarcely even well-off compared to someone like Klaus Hauptman or Duchess Harrington. But on many of these worlds there was no middle class. Or, rather, what middle class they had was only a thin layer, without the numbers or strength to fuel the growth of a self-sustaining economy. And that was less because of the huge size of the lower classes than because of the vast over-concentration of wealth and property in the hands of a tiny, closed wealthy class. In terms of real buying power, and the ability to command the necessities of life, the gap between someone like Samiha Lababibi and someone from Thimble’s slums was literally astronomical. And although the Lababibi family fortune might have constituted little more than pocket change for Klaus Hauptman, it, along with that of a handful of other families, represented a tremendous portion of the total available wealth of the Spindle System . . . and starved the economy as a whole of desperately needed investment capital.

    And as for economic power, so for politics. Samiha Lababibi looked perfectly at home in this sumptuous ballroom because she was. Because hers was one of three or four families who passed the presidential mansion back and forth at election time, like some private possession. Medusa came from a star nation with an overt, official aristocracy; Lababibi came from a “democracy” in which the ranks of the governing class were far more closed and restricted than anything the Star Kingdom of Manticore had ever dreamed of.

    Yet the Lababibis weren’t pure parasites. Samiha was actually a flaming liberal, by Spindle standards. She was genuinely committed to her own understanding of the good of all of her star system’s citizens, although Medusa suspected she spent more time emoting over the poor then she did actually thinking about them.

    Hard for it to be any other way, really. She doesn’t actually know them at all. They might as well be living on another planet for all that her path is ever going to cross theirs. And just how much does that differ from a Liberal back home? Or, Medusa grinned, from the “Old Liberals.” Montaigne’s certainly spent enough time with the have-nots, and her version of the party’s something else entirely.

    “I see Mr. Van Dort and Mr. Alquezar are here,” she said aloud. “I haven’t seen Ms. Tonkovic or Mr. Krietzmann yet, though.”

    “Henri is here somewhere,” Lababibi replied. “Aleksandra screened me to apologize. She plans to attend, but some last-minute matter came up, and she’s going to be a little late.”

    “I see,” Medusa murmured. Translated: she’ll be here when she’s good and ready, thus making it clear that she has no intention of becoming one more hanger-on of the Provisional Governor.

    She was about to say something more, when her eye caught sight of a cluster of black and gold uniforms.

    “Excuse me, Madam President,” she said, giving Lababibi a gracious smile, “but I just noticed the arrival of Admiral Khumalo and his officers. As Her Majesty’s senior civilian representative here in Talbott, I really must go and pay my respects. If you’ll forgive me?”

    “Of course, Madam Governor,” Lababibi, and Medusa went sweeping off across the ballroom floor.



    “So, tell me, what do you think of the President’s modest home?” Aikawa Kagiyama murmured into Helen’s ear.

    “A nice enough little hovel, in an unpretentious, understated sort of way,” she replied judiciously, and Aikawa snorted a chuckle.

    “I imagine Lady Montaigne -- excuse me, Ms. Montaigne -- could outdo her if she put her mind to it,” he agreed.

    “Oh, no! Cathy’s taste is far too good to ever indulge in something like this. Although,” she added in a more serious tone, “I do like the mirrors. I’d like them better if the air-conditioning were a little more efficient, of course. Or if they’d at least propped some of those glass doors open . When you pack this many bodies into one confined space, it gets a bit warmer than I really like.”

    “No shit. “ Aikawa nodded in agreement, then cocked his head as he saw a small, slender woman moving across the floor towards them. She wore the elegantly tailored trousers and jacket of formal Manticoran court dress, and the crowd of Spindalians and off-planet diplomats stepped aside to let her pass. It didn’t look as if they even realized they were doing it; it was simply an inevitable law of nature.

    “Is that who I think it is?” he asked quietly.

    “Of course not. It’s the Pope,” she replied sarcastically from the corner of her mouth.



    “Good evening, Admiral.”

    “Good evening, Madam Governor.” Augustus Khumalo bowed gracefully to Dame Estelle. “As always, it’s a pleasure to see you.”

    “And you, Admiral,” Baroness Medusa replied. Then she looked past him at the commanding officer of his flagship. “And good evening to you, too, Captain Saunders.”

    “Madam Governor.” Captain Victoria Saunders had been born a Sphinx yeoman. Despite three decades of naval service, her bow lacked the spontaneous, almost instinctive grace of her admiral’s.

    “May I present Captain Aivars Terekhov of the Hexapuma, Madam Governor,” Khumalo said, indicating Hexapuma’s commander with an easy wave.

    “Captain Terekhov,” Medusa acknowledged.

    “Madam Governor.” Like all of Khumalo’s subordinates, the tall, broad shouldered officer in the white beret of a starship commander was in full mess dress, and he rested the heel of his left hand on the hilt of his dress sword as he bowed to her. Medusa’s dark eyes regarded him intently for just a moment, and then she smiled.

    “Hexapuma. She’s a Saganami-C-class, isn’t she?” she said.

    “Why, yes, Milady. She is,” he confirmed, and her smile grew a bit broader as he managed to keep any surprise at her observation out of his voice and expression. Khumalo’s face had gone completely expressionless momentarily, and Medusa suppressed an urge to chuckle.

    “I thought I recognized the name,” she said. “One of my nieces is a captain at BuShips. She mentioned to me that they were going to begin naming the later Saganamis after predators, and I can’t think of anything much more predatory than a Sphinxian Hexapuma. Can you?”

    “Not really, no, Milady,” Terekhov conceded after a moment.

    “And are these your officers?” she asked, looking past him.

    “Some of them,” he replied. “Commander FitzGerald, my Executive Officer. Commander Lewis, my Chief Engineer. Lieutenant Commander Kaplan, my Tactical Officer. Lieutenant Bagwell, my Electronics Warfare Officer. Lieutenant Abigail Hearns, Commander Kaplan’s assistant. Midshipwoman Zilwicki, and Midshipman Kagiyama.”

    Medusa nodded as each of Terekhov’s subordinates bowed to her in turn. Her gaze sharpened slightly and slipped past Hearns to the towering man in the non-Manticoran uniform standing behind her as the Grayson lieutenant was introduced, and she shook her head ruefully when it was Helen Zilwicki’s turn.

    “My, what an interesting wardroom you have, to be sure, Captain,” she murmured.

    “We do have a somewhat . . . varied assortment,” he agreed.

    “So I see.” She smiled at Helen. “Ms. Zilwicki, I hope you’ll be kind enough to give Ms. Montaigne my greetings when next you see her. And, of course, I trust you’ll present my respects to Queen Berry, as well.”

    “Uh, of course, Madam Governor,” Helen managed, acutely aware of the sharp look Rear Admiral Khumalo was pointing in her direction.

    “Thank you.” Medusa smiled again, and then returned to attention to Khumalo.

    “I recognize Captain Anders and Commander Hewlett, Admiral,” she said, inclining her head to two more white-bereted officers. “But I don’t believe I’ve met these other ladies and gentlemen.”

    “No, Madam Governor. This is Commander Hope, of the Vigilant, and her executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Diamond. And this is Lieutenant Commander Jeffers, of the Javelin, and his executive officer, Lieutenant Kulinac. And this is . . .”



    “Tell me, Captain Terekhov. What’s your impression of the Cluster?”

    “In all honesty, President Lababibi, I haven’t been here long enough form any first-hand impressions,” Terekhov said easily.

    He stood with a delicate, fluted wineglass in one hand, smiling pleasantly, and if he was aware of Rear Admiral Khumalo’s slightly flinty expression, he gave no sign of it. The cluster of Manticoran officers stood out sharply from the rest of the visually spectacular throng. The senior delegates to the Constitutional Convention had coalesced around them with the inevitability of gravity, and Terekhov’s recent arrival and seniority made him a natural focus of attention.

    “Come now, Captain!” the System President chided gently. “I’m sure you were thoroughly briefed before being sent out here. And you’ve voyaged all the way from Lynx to Spindle.”

    “Yes, Ma’am. But briefings scarcely qualify me to form first-hand impressions. As for the voyage from Lynx, it was spent entirely in hyper. I’ve actually seen virtually nothing of the Cluster.”

    “I see.” She regarded him thoughtfully, and the extremely tall, red-haired man standing beside her chuckled.

    “I’m sure the good captain will soon have far more opportunity than he ever wanted to get to know all of us, Samiha. Although, to be honest, I suspect that the people already living here -- including most of the ones in this room -- didn’t really have any better impressions of our neighbors before the annexation vote than Captain Terekhov does.”

    “I think that’s putting it just a bit too strongly, Joachim,” Lababibi said tartly.

    “But not by very much,” a new voice said, and Terekhov turned his head to see a green-eyed, auburn-haired woman who hadn’t previously been introduced.

    “Ah, there you are, Aleksandra . . . at last,” President Lababibi said. She smiled, not entirely pleasantly, and turned back to Terekhov. “Captain, permit me to introduce Ms. Aleksandra Tonkovic, President of Kornati and the Split System’s senior delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Aleksandra, this is Captain Aivars Terekhov.”

    “Captain Terekhov.” Tonkovic held out her right hand. Terekhov shook it, and she smiled at him. She was a strikingly handsome woman -- not beautiful, in any conventional sense, but with strong, determined features and sharp, intelligent eyes. “I’m afraid my colleague Joachim is correct about our relative insularity prior to the annexation vote -- if, perhaps, less correct about certain other issues.”

    “Since this is a social gathering, Aleksandra, I shall refrain from engaging you in philosophical combat and smiting you hip and thigh.” Joachim Alquezar also smiled . . . although there was a very little humor in his eyes.

    “Good,” President Lababibi said, with a certain emphasis. Almost despite himself, Terekhov crooked one eyebrow, and the Spindalian smiled crookedly at him. “I’m afraid Mr. Alquezar and Ms. Tonkovic aren’t precisely on the best terms, politically speaking.”

    “Oh, yes,” Terekhov said. “If I remember correctly, Mr. Alquezar heads the Constitutional Union Party while Ms. Tonkovic heads the Talbott Liberal Constitutional Party.”

    “Very good, Captain,” Alquezar complimented. Rear Admiral Khumalo’s expression was somewhat less congratulatory. He started to sidle sideways, but Baroness Medusa intercepted him in what appeared to be a completely innocent fashion.

    “I’m a Queen’s officer, Mr. Alquezar. And I have the honor to command one of her cruisers in what I’m sure everyone in this room recognizes is a . . . delicate situation.” He shrugged with a pleasant smile. “Under the circumstances, I have a certain responsibility to do my homework.”

    “To be sure,” Alquezar murmured. His eyes twitched briefly sideways in Khumalo’s direction, and then he glanced at Tonkovic. Almost as one, they stepped closer to Terekhov.

    “Tell me, Captain,” Alquezar continued. “As a Queen’s officer who’s done his homework, what do you think of the . . . political dynamic here?”

    Despite his conversation with Governor Medusa, Khumalo had managed to drift a few meters closer to Terekhov and the two Talbotter political leaders. If the captain noticed, no sign of it crossed his face.

    “Mr. Alquezar,” he said with a slight chuckle, “if I haven’t had an opportunity to form a first-hand opinion of the Cluster as a whole, what makes you think I’ve had the chance to form any meaningful opinion of the local political equation? And even if I had, I rather doubt, first, that any opinion of mine could be particularly reliable, on the basis of so little information, or, second, that it would be my place as a serving military officer to offer my interpretation to two of leading political figures of the region. Presumptuous, if nothing else, I should think.”

    “Exactly so, Captain,” Khumalo said heartily, moving close enough to graft himself onto the small conversational knot. “Naval officers in the Star Kingdom are executors of political policy, Mr. Alquezar. We’re not supposed to involve ourselves in the formulation of that policy.”

    He’d at least used the verb “supposed,” Alquezar noted, exchanging a brief, almost commiserating glance with Tonkovic.

    “Agreed, Admiral,” another voice said, and a flicker of something suspiciously like panic danced across Khumalo’s face as Henri Krietzmann blended out of the crowd. “On the other hand,” the Convention’s president observed, “this is scarcely your normal political situation, now is it?”

    “Ah, no. No, it isn’t,” Khumalo said after a moment. He darted an imploring look at Medusa, but the Provisional Governor only returned it blandly. She obviously had no intention of rescuing him. If he’d wanted to quash the conversation between Terekhov, Lababibi, Alquezar, and Tonkovic before the captain could say something the rear admiral didn’t want said, he’d failed. Now he found himself standing there with the four most powerful political leaders of the entire Convention, and he looked as if he would have preferred standing in a cage full of hexapumas... with a raw steak in his hand.

    “I think we can all agree with that, Henri.” There was a distinct chill in Tonkovic’s voice, and Krietzmann gave her a thin smile.

    “I would certainly hope so. Although,” he observed, “it’s sometimes difficult to believe we do.”

    “Meaning what?” she demanded, a spark of anger dancing in her green eyes.

    “Meaning that the Convention is an exercise in living politics, Aleksandra,” Lababibi said before Krietzmann could respond.

    “Which is always messy,” Medusa agreed, and smiled impartially at the disputants. “Admiral Khumalo and I could tell you tales about politics back home in Manticore, couldn’t we, Admiral?”

    “Yes.” If Khumalo was grateful for the Provisional Governor’s intervention -- or, at least, for the form that intervention had taken -- it wasn’t apparent in his expression. “Yes, Baroness, I suppose we could.”

    “Well,” Krietzmann said, his eyes flicking ever so briefly to Alquezar and then to Lababibi, “I’m sure that’s true. But I have to admit I feel more than a little concern over reports about things like that business on Montana or, if you’ll forgive me, Aleksandra, this ‘Freedom Alliance’ Agnes Nordbrandt has proclaimed back on Kornati. I’m beginning to feel as if the house is on fire and we’re too busy arguing about the color of the carpet to do anything about the flames.”

    “Really, Henri.” Tonkovic’s smile was scalpel-thin, “Yyou’re being unduly alarmist. People like Westman and Nordbrandt represent a lunatic fringe which will always be with us. I’m sure they have their equivalents back on Manticore.”

    “Of course we do,” Khumalo said quickly. “Of course, the situation is different, and tempers seldom run quite so high as they are out here right this minute. And, of course -- “

    He broke off, and Medusa used her wineglass to hide a grimace of combined amusement and irritation. At least the pompous ass had stopped himself before he said “Of course, we’re civilized back home.”

    “With all due respect, Admiral,” she said in her best diplomat’s tone, “tempers do run just as high back home.” She smiled at the Talbotter political leaders. “As I’m sure all of you are well aware, that the existing Star Kingdom is a political system with several centuries of experience and tradition behind it. As Mr Alquezar and Ms. Tonkovic have just made clear, on the other hand, your people are still in the process of forging any Cluster-wide sense of true identity, so it’s scarcely surprising your political processes should be striking more sparks, on every level. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that bitter partisan political strife isn’t very much alive and well back home. We’ve simply institutionalized its channels and managed to turn most of the bloodletting into non-physical combat. Usually.”

    Khumalo’s expression had tightened at her oblique reference to the collapse of the High Ridge Government, but he nodded.

    “Precisely what I meant, Madam Governor, although I doubt I could ever have put it quite that well myself.”

    “I’m sure,” Krietzmann said. “But that still leaves us with the problem of how to deal with our own crop of idiots.”

    “That’s exactly what they are,” Tonkovic said crisply. “Idiots. And there aren’t enough of them to constitute any serious threat. They’ll subside quickly enough once the draft Constitution is approved and all of this political angst is behind us.”

    “Assuming a draft ever is approved,” Krietzmann said. He accompanied the remark with a smile, but his distinctive, saw-edged, lower class Dresden accent was more pronounced than it had been.

    “Of course it will be,” she said impatiently. “Everyone at the Convention agrees we must have a Constitution, Henri,” her voice had taken on a lecturing tone, the patience of a teacher explaining things to a slow student. She was probably completely unaware of it, but Krietzmann’s mouth tightened dangerously. “All we’re seeing is a lively, healthy debate over the exact terms of that Constitution.”

    “Excuse me, Aleksandra,” Alquezar said, “but what we’re seeing is a debate over what we expect the Star Kingdom to put up with. We asked to join them. As such, are we going to agree to abide by the Star Kingdom’s existing domestic law and accept that it extends to every system, every planet, of the Cluster? Or are we going to demand that the Star Kingdom accept a hodgepodge of special system-by-system exemptions and privileges? Do we expect the Star Kingdom to be a healthy, well-integrated political unit in which every citizen, whatever his planet of birth or present residence, knows precisely what his legal rights, privileges, and obligations are? Or do we expect the Star Kingdom to be a ramshackle, shambling disaster like the Solarian League, where every system has local autonomy, every planet has veto power over any proposed legislation, the central government has no real control over its own house, and all actual authority lies in the hands of bureaucratic monsters like Frontier Security?”

    He’d never raised his voice, but ripples of stillness spread out from the confrontation, and Tonkovic’s eyes blazed with green fury.

    “The people of the Talbott Cluster are the citizens of their own planets and their own star systems,” she said in a cold, flinty voice. “We have our own histories, our own traditions, our own systems of belief and political structures. We’ve offered to join the Star Kingdom, to surrender our long held sovereignties to a distant government which isn’t presently ours, and in whose creation neither we nor any of our ancestors had any part. I believe it’s not merely reasonable, but our overriding responsibility, as the representatives of our native planets, to ensure that our own unique identities don’t simply disappear. And to ensure that the political rights we’ve managed to cling to aren’t simply thrown away in the name of some vast, uniform code of laws which has never been any part of our own tradition.”

    “But -- “ Alquezar began, but Lababibi put a hand on his forearm.

    “Joachim, Aleksandra -- and you, too, Henri. This is a social gathering,” she said in a calm, firm voice, unconsciously echoing what Medusa had said to her several hours earlier. “None of us is saying anything we haven’t all said before, and that we won’t all say again in the proper forum. But it’s impolite to involve Admiral Khumalo and Captain Terekhov in our domestic, family quarrels. As your hostess, I’m going to have to request that we drop this topic for the evening.”

    Alquezar and Tonkovic turned to look at her in unison. Then they looked back at each other and both of them visibly inhaled deeply.

    “You’re quite correct, Samiha,” Alquezar said after a heartbeat or two. “Aleksandra, we can duel one another into bloody submission another time. For the rest of this evening, I propose a truce.”

    “Accepted,” Tonkovic replied, obviously making a genuine effort to infuse a little warmth into her own voice. The two of them nodded to each other, then to the others, and turned and walked away.



    “Whew! That looked like it was going to turn nasty,” Aikawa whispered in Helen’s ear. The two of them stood to one side, taking unabashed advantage of the sumptuous buffet to stoke their metabolisms. And using the effective invisibility their extremely junior status bestowed upon them to eavesdrop shamelessly on their superiors.

    “Turn nasty?” Helen murmured back under cover of munching on a canape. “Aikawa, those two -- Tonkovic and Alquezar -- must’ve been sticking daggers into each other for a long time. And that other guy, Krietzmann! He’s one scary little bastard.” She shook her head. “I sure wish I’d had the chance to read those political briefings the Captain was talking about.”

    “You and me both,” Aikawa agreed. “But did you notice the Admiral?”

    “You mean besides the fact that he didn’t really want the Captain talking to any of them?”

    “Yeah. It seemed to me he was on both sides at once.”

    “Meaning what?” she asked, turning to look at him.

    “Well, he seemed to agree with what’s-her-name -- Tonkovic -- that whatever’s going on on this Montana place isn’t all that serious. Nothing to really worry about. But it looked to me as if he really agreed politically with the other two, Alquezar and Krietzmann.”

    “Of course he did. And so would I. Agree with the other two, I mean.”

    “Yeah,” Aikawa said, but his expression was troubled, and she raised an eyebrow at him. “I just wish I knew what the Captain really thinks about all this,” he said after a moment, answering the unspoken question.

    Helen considered that for a few seconds, then nodded.

    “Me, too,” she said. “Me, too.”

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