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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Thursday, April 8, 2004 01:39 EDT



    “Well, you can stop wondering about where we’re being sent,” Leo Stottmeister announced two days after the Thimble banquet.

    “And why, might that be, 0 Font of Wisdom?” Ragnhild demanded suspiciously.

    “Because I, by a mighty feat of deductive reasoning, have divined the answer.” He grinned at the other midshipmen around the commons table. “I just finished helping Commander Wright download all available astro material from Hercules on Nuncio, Celebrant, Pequod, and New Tuscany. And I’ve got to tell you guys, it isn’t all that great.”

    “Nuncio, eh?” Helen scratched an eyebrow and frowned. “So we’re catching the Northern Patrol.”

    “Looks like,” Leo agreed. “And I’m guessing we’re going to spend a lot of our time doing survey work.” The others looked at him, and he shrugged. “Hercules’ astrogation department has been doing its best to update the various charts, but they really suck. We know about where to find the stars themselves, but we know damn-all about the system astrography, and even some of the grav wave data looks suspect.”

    “Not too surprising our charts’re so bad, I guess,” Aikawa said. “Before we found the Lynx Terminus, this wasn’t an area we were particularly interested in. I guess I’m just a little surprised the locals don’t have better information than you seem to be suggesting.”

    “Some of them may,” Ragnhild said “There have to be at least some decent charts in the hands of local merchant skippers.”

    “Then why doesn’t Hercules already have them?”

    “I can think of two possible reasons,” Leo suggested. “One, the flagship -- ” by which he meant “the Admiral,” as all his listeners were aware “-- hasn’t assigned sufficient urgency to running the data down. Or, two, the locals who have the information aren’t inclined to share it.”

    “There’s a third possibility,” Paulo d’Arezzo said diffidently. All eyes swiveled in his direction, and he smiled faintly. “The Cluster represents a pretty big volume,” he pointed out. “It takes a while to get from one star to another, and the locals don’t have a lot of dispatch boats. So any information that’s moving out there is probably moving aboard regular merchies -- which means slowly -- and Hercules has to wait until whichever local skipper has the necessary data wanders by Spindle. It could just be a delay in the information loop.”

    “I suppose that’s possible,” Leo said after a moment, and Helen wondered if he felt as surprised by his agreement with d’Arezzo as she did. Although, a certain sour honesty made her admit, on the rare occasions when the overly handsome middy deigned to open his mouth, he had a pretty fair track record for making sense.

    “Well, whatever the reason, the charts we’ve got have more holes in them than anything else,” Leo continued. “If I were the Captain, I wouldn’t trust any of them as far as I could spit. So, like I say, we’re going to be spending a lot of our time surveying.”

    “Borrrrrrrrring,” Ragnhild sighed.



    “”Are we ready to proceed, Mr. Wright?” Aivars Terekhov asked.

    “Yes, Sir,” the Astrogator replied crisply.

    “Very well. The con is yours, Commander.”

    “The con is mine, aye, Sir. Helm, come to zero-seven-niner by one-one-one. Make your acceleration four-zero-zero gravities.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir. Coming to zero-seven-niner by one-one-one, acceleration four-zero-zero gravities,” Senior Chief Clary responded.

    She moved her joystick, and Hexapuma rolled on her long axis and swung her bow towards the Spindle hyper limit. She went almost instantly to the specified acceleration, and loped off across the trackless waste of the system’s ecliptic.

    Terekhov leaned back in his command chair, watching his bridge crew as the ship moved smoothly towards her destination, sixty-plus light-years distant. The voyage would require eight and a half days, by the standards of the rest of the universe, although it would take only a little over five and a half by Hexapuma’s clocks.

    It was impossible to tell from looking at him what he thought of his orders. At least they hadn’t come as a surprise. And if he thought playing mapmaker in a poverty-stricken backwater while his Star Kingdom fought for its life elsewhere was less than the best possible employment for him or his ship, no sign of it showed in his pensive expression.

    “Commander FitzGerald,” he said, after a moment.

    “Yes, Sir?”

    “Set the normal watch schedule, if you please. Once we cross the Delta wall, we’ll exercise Tracking and send the crew to Action Stations for weapons drill.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir.” FitzGerald turned to Lieutenant Commander Kaplan. “Commander Kaplan, you have the watch.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir,” Kaplan acknowledged. “I have the watch.” She stood as the captain climbed out of his command chair, then she crossed to it, and settled herself into it in his place. “Dismiss the departure watch,” she announced. “Second watch personnel, man your stations.”

    HMS Hexapuma accelerated steadily onward, oblivious to the comings and goings of the ephemeral beings on her bridge. Unlike her crew, she had no doubts, no questions. Only purpose.



    Agnes Nordbrandt forced herself to amble along, lost in the flow of the crowds. It wasn’t easy, yet she knew unhurried, apparently aimless movement was her best camouflage. It was purposeful movement, brisk movement, that drew the watchful eye, and she couldn’t afford that on this, of all days.

    She did allow herself to glance at her chrono. Twelve more minutes. It seemed like an eternity after all the hard work, the planning, the sweating. Now, in less than another fifteen minutes, it was all going to pay off, and the smug, smiling parasites who’d mocked her and her followers as an inconsequential “lunatic fringe” would discover just how wrong they’d been.

    She moved out of the main pedestrian flow and into a park. It was a carefully selected park, and she strolled idly along its paths. She supposed there was no compelling reason she had to be this close to the Mall in person. Not really. In fact, it was a dangerous complication, with potentially deadly risks. But she also knew she couldn’t possibly have stayed away. However tactically foolish it might have been of , she had to be here, within visual range of the Nemanja Building, the home of the Kornatian Parliament.

    She found the park bench she’d been looking for and settled down on it. As promised, the Nemanja Building, like an elaborate marble and granite wedding cake on its gentle hill, was clearly visible between the uppermost, blossom-laden boughs of the Terran cherry trees planted along the park’s verge. The planetary flag flapping from the pole atop its tallest tower signified that Parliament was in session, and she took her book reader from her bag and laid it in her lap, before she glanced casually at her chrono yet again.


    She looked up, and for one, fleeting moment her expression of casual boredom disappeared into a flare of savage satisfaction as a brilliant light flashed from the fifth floor. She watched the fifth-floor installment of the veranda-like balcony which circled the Nemanja Building at each level disintegrate, fly outward, and then go spinning towards the ground in broken bits and pieces that tumbled with dream-like slowness. A plume of dust and smoke jetted upward from the gaping wound in the parliament building’s flank, and dust trails hung in midair, comet tails traced by the plummeting rubble.

    The explosion’s rumbling thunder reached her eighteen seconds after the flash, and she saw other people in the park looking up, crying out, pointing and shouting questions at one another. Birds -- native Kornatian species, and Terran imports alike -- erupted from the park’s greenery, shrieking in terrified protest, and playing children froze, turning to stare uncomprehendingly at the towering jet of smoke.

    And then, hard on the heels of the first explosion, the rumble of other explosions came washing over the capital. Not one more, or two, but ten. Ten more explosions, ten more charges of commercial blasting compound many times as powerful as the ancient chemical explosives of pre-space days. They ripped through government office buildings, shopping malls, banks, and the Split Stock Exchange. Fire and smoke and the demonic howl of emergency sirens -- and the screams and shrieks of the wounded and dying -- followed close behind the explosions, and Agnes Nordbrandt bared her teeth, shivering in a strange ecstasy of mingled horror and triumph. She watched the dust and smoke billowing above the city of her birth, like funeral palls across the cloudless blue dome of the sky. She saw other people leaving the park, running towards the explosions, and she wondered whether they were going to gawk at the disaster or out of some instinct to help. Not that it mattered.

    She sat on the bench, waiting, while ten more minutes ticked into eternity… and then the second wave of explosions shook the city.

    She watched the fresh smoke clawing at the skyline, and then she calmly slid her book reader back into her bag, stood, walked one hundred and six meters down a graveled path, and opened the unlocked hatch in the storm drain’s ceramacrete cover. She swung down the ladder, closing the hatch and locking it carefully behind her. There was only a trickle of water down the very bottom of the drain channel, and she pulled out her hand light and strode briskly away.



    Vuk Rajkovic, Vice President of the Republic of Kornati, stared in horrified disbelief at the smoldering wreckage. The bomb on the fifth floor of the Nemanja Building had been bad enough. It had killed eleven of Parliament’s deputies and at least twenty members of their staffs. But the second bomb, the one planted on the third floor, directly under the first one….

    He shook his head, feeling nausea swirl underneath the shock. The vicious calculation of that second bomb touched his horror with a sun-hot lick of hatred. That one had only gotten one more deputy -- old Nicola Martinovic, who’d plunged back into the smoke and flames like the old warhorse he was. He’d carried two people out and gone back for a third just as the fresh fireball and the flying cloud of shrapnel which had once been stone walls, plaster, framed diplomas, and portraits of husbands and wives and children came screaming out of the rubble.

    But Nicola hadn’t been alone. The Nemanja Security Force had been there, the cops diving in, tearing at the flaming wreckage with bare hands. And the first of the Capital Fire Department rescue teams, flinging themselves into the flames and the leaning, groaning structural members, ready to fall. They’d been there, too. And the second explosion had slaughtered them, as well, as it spilled the entire western third of the building into the streets below.

    And if I’d gotten around from the Chamber just a little bit faster, it would have slaughtered me, right along with them, he thought. A part of him almost wished it had.

    “Mr. Vice President! Mr. Vice President!”

    Rajkovic turned, blinking smoke-reddened eyes, as Darinka Djerdja, his executive assistant, clawed her way through the smoke towards him.

    “Yes, Darinka?” Too calm, he thought. I sound too calm. It must be shock.

    “Mr. Vice President, this wasn’t -- I mean,” Darinka dragged in a deep breath, then coughed explosively as the smoke hit her lungs. He handed her his handkerchief, and she held it over her mouth and nose, coughing into it until she finally managed to catch her breath.

    “Now, Darinka. Try again.”

    “Mr. Vice President,” tears cut startlingly white tracks in the soot and grime on her pretty face, “these weren’t the only bombs.”

    “What?” He stared at her. He couldn’t have heard her correctly.

    “All over the Mall, Mr. Vice President,” she told him, reaching out in her distress to grip him by the upper arms and shake him. “The Stock Exchange. First Planetary Bank. The Sekarkic Square subway station. They’re everywhere! We have hundreds of dead and wounded, Sir -- hundreds of them!”

    “All right, Darinka,” he told her, although a part of him sneered that it would never be all right again. “All right, I understand. I’d better get over to Civil Defense. Do you have your official com?”

    “Yes, Sir,” she said with almost pathetic eagerness, grasping at anything useful she could do.

    “All right. Listen, the regular civilian circuits are jammed, and I lost my com somewhere between here and the Chamber. So get on yours. Contact General Suka. Tell him that on my instructions he’s to declare martial law. Do it now; I’ll get the formal, signed proclamation to him as soon as I can. Then get hold of Colonel Basaricek, at Police HQ. Give her the same message. And tell both of them I’m going to Civil Defense, and that we’ll use the com room there as our headquarters. And tell the General he’d better start bringing in emergency personnel from other cities. We’re going to need them.”



    “Mr. Vice President, you’d better see this.”

    Rajkovic turned away from yet another hoarse-voiced, exhausted conference. Six hours had elapsed since the horrendous attack, and the news just kept getting worse. According to Brigita Basaricek, the commanding officer of the Kornatian National Police, the count of confirmed dead had already topped five hundred, with twice that many injured. The missing numbered in the thousands, but some of them -- most of them, please God! -- were probably simply lost in the confusion, not buried under the rubble.


    “What?” he snapped at the aide whose name he’d never learned. He regretted his tone the moment the words were out of his mouth, but the young man didn’t even seem to notice.

    “It’s the HD, Sir. There’s a message from someone claiming responsibility.”

    Rajkovic found himself back in the communications room without any conscious memory of having moved. The place was crowded, uniformed and civilian personnel standing motionless, staring at the HD in total, shocked silence. They didn’t even notice he was there, until he started elbowing his way through the crowd like the aggressive soccer wing he’d once been.

    They got out of his way when they finally realized who he was, and he found himself in the front row, staring up at the display with the rest of them. Staring at a face he knew well, someone who had once been a close political ally... and an even closer friend.

    “-- responsibility in the name of the Freedom Alliance of Kornati. We regret that we have been driven to this extremity, but we will not turn aside from the road we have chosen. The collaborationist regime of President Tonkovic and her sycophants will not be allowed to sign away the sovereignty of our home world. The indecently wealthy traitors whose corruption and greed have inflicted so much poverty, so much suffering, upon so many Kornatians, will profit no further from their crimes. Their plan to sell our planet to the highest bidder to protect their own obscene fortunes will not succeed. And the off-worlders who seek to steal our souls along with our rightful wealth, our liberties, and our rights as freeborn citizens of the sovereign Planet of Kornati, will find only death on our soil. The Freedom Alliance is the avenging sword of the betrayed people of the Split System, and it will not be sheathed while a single traitor clings to power on our world! Let those who love freedom rally to us -- and let those who worship slavery fear us!”

    She stared out of the HD, dark eyes blazing with a messianic light, and her voice rang with absolute conviction and sincerity. It came to Vuk Rajkovic in that moment that she’d never before found her true place. Not in the electoral fray, not in efforts to reform a corrupt political system, not in the thrust and parry of parliamentary debate. Not even in the white-hot crucible of the annexation campaign. But she’d found it now. This was the struggle to which she could give all she was, all she believed in -- all she possessed or would ever possess. He saw it blazing in her face as he looked at her, and he turned to Colonel Basaricek.

    “Find that bitch, Brigita,” he said harshly. “Find her... and kill her.”

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