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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Saturday, April 17, 2004 10:36 EDT



    Nuncio was a poverty-stricken star system, even for the Verge. Which was particularly ironic, given the system’s potential, Aivars Terekhov thought as Hexapuma decelerated smoothly towards her parking orbit and he listened to the soothing routine of his bridge.

    The G0/K2 binary system boasted two remarkably Earth-like planets, thoroughly suitable for human occupation with only a little development. Basilica, the habitable world of the G0 primary component orbited its star at a distance of twelve light-minutes, and boasted a planetary environment any resort world might have envied. With a planetary mass ninety-seven percent of Old Earth’s, a hydrosphere of eighty percent, rugged mountains, gorgeous volcanic atolls, sandy beaches, endless rolling plains, and an axial inclination of less than three degrees, Basilica was as close to climatically idyllic as any home for humans outside man’s original star system could hope to be. Unfortunately, the planet’s successful colonization had called for a degree of subtle genetic manipulation of the terrestrial plants and food species to be introduced there. Had Nuncio been colonized today, or even as recently as the last couple of T-centuries, it would have been a snap. Even at the time the system actually was settled, making the necessary alterations would have been relatively straightforward for a good Solarian genetic lab.

    Unfortunately, the colonists’ analysts had missed the data in the initial planetary survey which should have told them before they set out that the changes were needed. By the time they realized what they actually faced, all of the “good Solarian genetic labs” and their capabilities had been light-centuries behind them… which explained why it was Pontifex, the habitable planet of the secondary component which had actually been settled.

    Not that the original colonists hadn’t tried to make a go of Basilica first. That was the main reason for Nuncio’s current tiny system population and extraordinarily backward infrastructure. Like the original inhabitants of Grayson, the Nuncians’ ancestors had been religious emigres who’d deliberately sought a new home, far beyond the reach of their hopelessly secular fellow humans. That had made them the first colony expedition into what had since become the Talbott Cluster, just as the Graysons had settled their homeworld long before the starship Jason delivered the first colonists to a planet named Manticore.

    Unfortunately for those first Nuncians, they had encountered a trap almost as deadly, although in quite a different way, as the one which had met Austin Grayson’s followers, and they’d been operating on a considerably tighter budget when they organized their exodus. They hadn’t shared the Church of Humanity Unchained’s prejudice against technology, but they hadn’t been able to afford as much of it as other, more successful colonizing expeditions, and what they’d managed to bring with them hadn’t been up to managing the required genetic modifications. That simple fact had almost wiped them out when their crops failed and sixty-five percent of their food animals died within one generation. Somehow, they’d managed to retain enough space flight capability (barely) to transfer about half of their surviving population -- and what remained of its food supplies -- to Pontifex, a much colder, dryer world, six light-minutes from its cool primary and with far more extreme seasonal changes, but without Basilica’s subtle genetic trap.

    None of the people left behind on Basilica had survived, and over half of those they’d managed to transfer had died during their first winter on Pontifex. The half which survived -- less than sixteen percent of their original expedition -- had fought desperately to cling to the technology they still had, but it had been a long, bitter struggle, and the dreadful death toll of the colony’s first few years had killed too many trained technicians, too many teachers. They’d regressed to an early steam-powered level before they managed to arrest the agonizing slide downward, and there they’d stayed for generations. Now, six centuries after mankind first landed on Pontifex, and two centuries after the Nuncians had been rediscovered by the rest of humanity, the planetary population was barely three hundred and fifty million, and its technological capabilities and educational system were far inferior to the ones Grayson had attained before joining the Manticoran Alliance.

    And, Terekhov mused as Hexapuma settled into her assigned orbit around Pontifex, they didn’t exactly react to their difficulties the way the Graysons did. Planet names notwithstanding, according to Commander Chandler’s intelligence package, these people are as aggressively atheistic as it’s possible for human beings to be. Which is something I’d better remind all our people to keep in mind.

    “Incoming message, Sir,” Lieutenant Jefferson Kobe, the com officer of the watch reported, and Terekhov turned his chair to face the communications section. “It’s from their planetary president’s office, Sir,” Kobe said after a moment.

    “Put it on my terminal, please, Mr. Kobe,” Terekhov requested, tapping the key to deploy the larger of his two com screens.

    “Aye, aye, Sir,” Kobe acknowledged, and a moment later, Terekhov’s screen blinked to life with the hawk-like face of a man who was probably in his mid-thirties, bearing in mind the primitive medical establishment of the planet.

    “Greetings, Captain -- ?” The caller paused, and Terekhov smiled.

    “Captain Aivars Terekhov, commanding Her Majesty’s Starship Hexapuma, at your service, Mr. -- ?” It was his turn to pause interrogatively, and the hawk-like face returned his smile.

    “Alberto Wexler, at your service, Captain Terekhov,” he said. “I’m President Adolfsson’s personal assistant. He’s requested me to welcome you to Nuncio and to invite you -- and some of your officers, perhaps -- to meet with him and Commodore Karlberg, the commander of our Space Force. He wondered if you might care to join the two of them for dinner this evening?”

    “That’s very kind of President Adolfsson,” Terekhov replied, “and I certainly accept the invitation. With the President’s permission, I’d like to bring my executive officer and one or two of my midshipmen along.” He smiled again, much more broadly. “Commander FitzGerald would be there for business; the midshipmen would be along to practice being seen and not heard.”

    Wexler chuckled.

    “I don’t see any reason why the President -- or Commodore Karlberg -- should object, Captain. If eighteen o’clock local would be convenient for you, we’ll expect you then. I’ll doublecheck to confirm with President Adolfsson that your midshipmen will be welcome, and someone from my office will be in touch to confirm arrangements.”

    “Eighteen o’clock sounds fine, Mr. Wexler,” Terekhov said, checking to be sure the ship’s clocks had been recalibrated to the base time of the rest of the universe -- and to the local planetary day -- after Hexapuma dropped below relativistic velocities.

    “Until dinner, then, Captain,” Wexler said, and cut the circuit.




    Ragnhild Pavletic decided that there were times when catching the Captain’s eye had its drawbacks. Like now. No doubt it was immensely flattering to be chosen for semipermanent assignment as her CO’s personal pilot. It was a great honor for a mere middy to be picked over petty officer pilots who might have as much as fifty T-years worth of experience, or even more, and she knew it. The fact that Ragnhild had stood first in her class for flight training every term for her entire time on the Island had more than a little to do with it, and she knew that, too. She’d set the new standard for virtually every record except the time/distance glider record set by Duchess Harrington over forty T-years ago. That one seemed destined to stand for quite a while longer, although Ragnhild took considerable quiet pride in the fact that she’d broken two of the Duchess’ other records.

    Whatever the reasons, she’d been assigned permanently to Hotel-Papa-One, Hexapuma’s Pinnace Number One, which, in turn, was permanently assigned to “Hotel Alpha,” Captain Terekhov himself. That meant she tended to stay current on what the Captain was up to and she could expect to end up attending a lot of dirt-side meetings and (possibly) soirees her fellow middies would not, which was good. But that very opportunity sometimes had its downside. Like tonight.

    Of course it was flattering to be informed that she would be accompanying the Captain and the Exec to their very first meeting with the local planetary potentate. It also, unfortunately, made her highly visible, and unlike some of her fellow midshipmen, Ragnhild was of firmly yeoman ancestry. She’d had the social decorum expected of a Manticoran naval officer hammered ruthlessly into her at the Academy, but that wasn’t enough to make her feel confident in rarefied social circles. She always secretly dreaded that she’d pick up the wrong fork, or drink out of the wrong glass, or commit some other unpardonable breach of etiquette which would undoubtedly spark an interstellar incident, if not an outright war.

    That was all bad enough, but the fact that Pontifex didn’t possess even first-generation prolong made it far worse, because Ragnhild Pavletic was cute. It was the curse of her life. She wasn’t beautiful, not pretty or handsome, but cute. She was petite, delicately built, with honey-blond hair, blue eyes, a snub nose, and even -- God help her -- freckles. Her hair was so naturally curly she had to keep it cut into a short-cropped mop less than five centimeters long if she was going to have any hope of managing it, and she, unfortunately, was a third-generation prolong recipient. Worse yet, she’d received the initial treatment even earlier than most, with the result that it had started slowing the physical maturation process proportionately sooner. Which meant that at a chronological age of twenty-one T-years, she looked like a pre-prolong thirteen-year-old. A flat-chested thirteen-year-old.

    And the Captain was taking her down to meet the president of an entire planet full of pre-prolong people who were going to think she was exactly as old as she looked. To them.

    She gritted her teeth and tried to smile pleasantly as she settled Hotel-Papa-One onto the apron of the old-fashioned airport outside Pontifex’s capital city of Ollander Landing with polished precision. Paulo d’Arezzo had been selected to share her evening’s ordeal, but he, unfortunately, was marginally junior to her. The Navy’s protocol for boarding and disembarking from small craft was ironbound and inflexible: passengers boarded in ascending order of rank, from most junior to most senior, and disembarked in the reverse order. She’d hoped, initially, that as pilot she might be able to skip her assigned place in the queue, but Captain Terekhov seemed to possess ESP. He’d informed her that since she was to attend the dinner tonight, she could hand the pinnace over to its flight engineer as soon as they hit the ground in order to debark with the other guests.

    That meant Captain Terekhov was the first person down the boarding ramp to the assembled honor guard standing beside the long, clunky looking ground limousine and Paulo was the last. Which meant that the midshipman’s preposterous good looks didn’t get a chance to distract any attention from her.

    The honor guard snapped to the local version of attention and presented arms crisply, but Ragnhild saw more than one or two sets of eyes widen as they caught sight of her. Damn it, she was so tired of looking like someone’s kid sister, even back home where people were accustomed to prolong!

    She forced her expression to remain calm and collected as she followed Captain Terekhov and Commander FitzGerald and listened to the polite, formal greetings from President Adolfsson’s representative. Despite the amount of attention she was devoting to looking like she was at least old enough for high school, she was aware that it was unusual for a planetary president to send his personal executive assistant to greet the mere captain of a visiting warship. Within his own domain of Hexapuma, Captain Terekhov was junior only to God, and even that precedence tended to get a bit blurred. But he was only the captain of a heavy cruiser, when all was said and done, and this Wexler was greeting him as if he were at least a senior flag officer.

    The Captain took it all in stride, apparently effortlessly, and Ragnhild envied his composure and confidence. Of course, he was fifty-five T-years then she was. He looked very much of an age with Wexler, and he was a senior-grade captain, to boot, but still….

    “It’s a pleasure to greet you in person, Captain,” Wexler was saying. “It’s just not the same, somehow, over a com link.” His mouth twisted in a wry smile. “Of course, half of our local coms don’t even have visual, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain, since the President does have that capability on all of his lines.”

    Ragnhild stood behind the Captain, listening unobtrusively to the conversation, and wondered if Wexler was deliberately drawing attention to Pontifex’s primitive technology. It happened, sometimes. Or that was what her instructors at the Academy had told her, anyway. Sometimes the inhabitants of planets whose societies or technology bases had been hammered especially hard took a sort of aggressive, in-your-face reverse pride in their neo-barbarian status.

    “It’s actually fairly amazing what a broad spectrum of technological capabilities societies can adjust themselves to,” Captain Terekhov observed. “The capabilities change, but the interactions and the basic human motivations seem to remain surprisingly intact.”

    “Really?” Wexler said. “I often wish I’d had the opportunity to travel, myself, a chance to see how other planets have adapted themselves. I suppose that’s probably the one thing I most envy about someone like you, Captain. A professional naval officer who spends his time visiting one world after another.”

    “Actually, Mr. Wexler,” Terekhov said with a smile, “naval officers spend most of their time looking at displays and repeater plots -- when they’re not doing paperwork or looking at the bulkheads of their cabins. We do get to see quite a few different worlds, in peacetime, at least. But we spend a lot of time basically sitting around between planetfalls. In fact, I sometimes envy people who have the opportunity to sit in one place long enough to really understand a planet and its societies.”

    “Another case of the other man’s grass always being greener, I suppose,” Wexler murmured, then gave himself a little shake and gestured at the waiting ground car.



    Planetary President George Adolfsson looked quite a bit like Alberto Wexler. He was older, possibly within ten T-years of Terekhov’s own age, and the hawk-like profile was leaner, more angular. But the dark hair (liberally laced with gray in his case) and dark eyes, with their odd little flecks of amber scattered around the iris, were the same, and so was the easy sense of humor.

    “Thank you for joining us for dinner, Captain.”

    “Thank you for the invitation, Mr. President,” Terekhov replied, shaking the offered hand firmly. “May I present Commander FitzGerald, my executive officer, Midshipwoman Pavletic, and Midshipman d’Arezzo?”

    “Indeed you may, Sir.” Adolfsson shook each of the Manticorans’ hands in turn. “And this,” he indicated the tall, rawboned, sandy-haired man standing respectfully at his right shoulder, “is Commodore Emil Karlberg, the senior officer of the Nuncio Space Force.”

    “In all its magnificent glory,” Karlberg said dryly, extending his own hand to Terekhov. All of the Nuncians’ Standard English had a peculiar accent, with swallowed last syllables, flattened vowels, and a staccato rythym pronounced enough to make their speech actually a bit difficult to follow. Planetary variations from the norm were far from uncommon, but this one was much more noticeable than most. No doubt the planet’s long isolation from the galactic mainstream, coupled with the loss of most of its recorded sound technology during the interval, helped account for it. But there were obviously purely local variations, as well, for Karlberg had a markedly different accent from Adolfsson or Wexler. It was sharper, more nasal.

    “I’ve viewed the download you were kind enough to make available to us on your ship’s capabilities,” the commodore continued. He shook his head. “I realize Hexapuma is ‘only’ a heavy cruiser, but she seems like a superdreadnought to us, Captain. My ‘Space Force’ consists of exactly eleven light attack craft, and the biggest of them masses all of eighteen thousand tons. So the entire Nuncio fleet masses about a third as much as your single ship.”

    Ragnhild instructed her expression to remain one of simple polite interest, but Karlberg’s statement stunned her. Intellectually, she’d known from the outset that none of the poverty-stricken governments in the Cluster had the economic and industrial capacity to build anything like an effective naval force. But that was pathetic. Less than a single LAC squadron to defend -- or even effectively patrol -- an entire star system? She wanted to glance at Paulo, to see how he’d reacted to it, but she knew better than to allow her attention to wander.

    “Emil, don’t get started talking shop so quickly!” President Adolfsson scolded with what was obviously a fond smile. “Captain Terekhov’s been in-system for less than twelve hours. I think you might give him, oh, another thirty or forty minutes of amiable social chitchat before you dive headlong into all that important stuff.”

    “Oops.” Karlberg shook his head again, this time with an expression strongly reminiscent of a small boy who’d just been told he was too bouncy for polite manners.

    “Don’t worry,” the President assured him. “I won’t have you beheaded just yet. It would delay dinner, and getting the gore out of carpet is always such a pain.”

    Karlberg chuckled, and Terekhov and FitzGerald both smiled broadly. The midshipmen didn’t, and Wexler surprised Ragnhild by smiling sympathetically at both of them. It wasn’t the smile that surprised her; it was the fact that it was the sort of smile subordinate officers shared in the presence of their joint betters, and not the smile of a patronizing adult for a mere child. She was entirely too familiar with the difference between them.

    Perhaps, she thought, as the President ushered his guests down a glass-sided hallway filled with the rich, golden sunset of Nuncio-B towards a spacious, woodpaneled dining room, this dinner wasn’t going to be quite the ordeal she had dreaded.




    “So that’s about the size of it, Captain Terekhov,” George Adolfsson said two hours later. He leaned back comfortably in his chair, nursing a glass of Pontifex’s traditional plum brandy while he gazed across the table at his Manticoran visitors. “As far as everyone on Pontifex is concerned, the chance to join your Star Kingdom is the greatest opportunity to come along since the Founding Idiots landed their incompetent, superstitious posteriors on Basilica.”

    His tone was so dryly, bitingly humorous Ragnhild had to raise one hand to conceal her smile. The meal had been delicious, although she personally found the brandy far too rough edged for her taste. And President Adolfsson had been a charming host. It turned out Wexler was the President’s nephew, as well as his assistant, and she suspected that uncle and nephew had gone out of their way to charm their visitors. And done so very effectively, because, when it came right down to it, they were simply naturally charming.

    But the President also had a dead serious side, and it showed as he met Terekhov’s eyes very steadily.

    “We’ve got considerably less than a half billion people in the entire Nuncio System, Captain,” he said quietly, all traces of banter vanishing from his voice. “We don’t have prolong, we don’t have any sort of decent medical establishment, our educational system is a joke by modern standards, and our cutting-edge technology is probably at least two hundred T-years behind yours. But we do know all about the benefits Frontier Security brings. That’s why over ninety-five percent of the voters here on Pontifex favored annexation by your kingdom, instead. And it’s also the reason our delegation to the Constitutional Convention is working so closely with Joachim Alquezar.”

    “With all due respect, Mr. President,” Karlberg said, “I’m still not comfortable about tying ourselves so closely to the Rembrandters.”

    “Emil,” Adolfsson said patiently, “what happened to us here wasn’t Bernardus Van Dort’s fault. It wasn’t even the Rembrandt Trade Union’s fault. Damnation, man! There’s only been a Trade Union for the last fifty T-years! Rembrandt and San Miguel certainly never ‘looted’ Pontifex’s economy. It’s past time we stopped being envious and started emulating them! Although,” he added in the tone of someone making a grudging concession, “I suppose we won’t have to be quite so… assertive in our business negotiations with our neighbors.”

    “Assertive!” Karlberg snorted. Ragnhild was still surprised by the comfortable, casual way the commodore addressed his President. She tried -- and failed -- to imagine anyone talking that way to Queen Elizabeth. Yet despite the comfort level, there was nothing disrespectful about Karlberg. It was almost as if his familiarity was an indication of the true depth of his respect for the President.

    “I realize my ship and I are new to the Cluster, Commodore,” Terekhov said. “But I’ve spent quite a few hours reading over the intelligence briefings Admiral Khumalo and Governor Medusa have made available. From what I can see, Mr. Van Dort must be a remarkable individual, and I understand he and Mr. Alquezar are close personal friends, as well as business and political associates.”

    “You understand correctly, Captain,” Adolfsson replied. “Oh, he didn’t organize the Trade Union solely out of selfless humanitarianism. But I’ve never subscribed to the theory that the entire RTU was conceived of simply as a means to fleece the other star systems in the area. And whatever else may be true, I’m convinced Van Dort -- and Alquezar -- are deeply committed to driving through this annexation.”

    “So am I, Uncle George,” Wexler said. “But they could be fully committed to doing that simply because of all the opportunities they see to get even richer as part of the Star Kingdom. Altruistic concern for the rest of us may run pretty far second to that.”

    “No reason it shouldn’t,” Adolfsson said with a shrug. “‘Rich’ isn’t a dirty word, Alberto. Especially not when the difference between rich and poor for a planet is also the difference between prolong and its absence, or the chance for a decent job and housing for all our citizens.”

    “Point taken, Mr. President,” Karlberg said. “I guess it’s just reflex. I’ve spent so long envying the Rembrandters every time one of their freighters came rumbling through that it’s hard not to go right on doing it.”

    “The President is right, though, I think, Commodore,” Terekhov said. “Even without the annexation, the Cluster’s simple proximity to the Lynx Terminus would have tremendous economic implications for all your star systems. Assuming, of course, that somebody like Frontier Security didn’t move in on you as soon as you became prosperous enough to be worth grabbing.”

    “I know,” Karlberg agreed, nodding briskly. “And we’ve already seen some signs of those economic implications of yours, Captain. Not that much so far, but we’ve had three freighters stop over here in Nuncio in just the last month and a half. That may not sound like much to someone from Manticore, and one of them only stopped on spec, to see if there was any reason the owners should make us a semi-regular stopover in the future. But that still represents a huge jump in local traffic for us, and I expect it to continue to increase. Unfortunately, it looks like there are some liabilities coming along with the good news.”

    “What sort of liabilities, Sir?” FitzGerald asked.

    “We’re in the outermost tier of the systems of our so-called ‘Cluster,’ Commander,” Karlberg said. “We’re more exposed than other systems -- like Rembrandt and San Miguel -- which are basically pretty much slap in the middle. I suspect we’re also going to attract less of the new investment everyone is visualizing, unless the President’s hopes of luring investors into sinking capital into developing the resort potential of Basilica bear fruit, of course. But even so, we’re undoubtedly looking at a major increase in our prosperity and in the amount of merchant traffic in the area. Which is what concerns me most at the moment.”

    “Why, Commodore?” Terekhov asked, watching Karlberg intently.

    “Because it’s going to make us more of a target, especially given how exposed we are, and I don’t have the available assets to encourage the ill-intentioned to stay the hell out of my star system,” Karlberg said bluntly. “Especially not if they have modern vessels available.”

    “Modern vessels?” Terekhov leaned forward, and his eyes narrowed. So did FitzGerald’s -- and both midshipmen’s, for that matter. The pirates operating out of the Verge in the Talbott Cluster’s vicinity tended to be among the less technically capable of their ilk. In many ways, they were the equivalent of the rowboat-equipped pirates who’d haunted pre-space Old Earth’s shallow coastal seas, and they made the average Silesian pirate look like a first-line naval unit in comparison. Against that sort of opposition, even Karlberg’s diminutive, obsolescent light attack craft should have made a good showing.

    “Yes,” the commodore said, and there was no longer any trace of levity in his voice or expression. “Someone’s intruded into the system here at least three times in the last two weeks. Whoever it is isn’t interested in introducing himself, and the only one of my LACs that’s gotten close enough to try for a solid sensor sweep failed completely. Now, admittedly, our electronics are pretty much crap compared to yours, Captain, but we ought to be getting at least some useful data. We aren’t, which suggests that whoever we’re up against has considerably more modern electronics than we do. Which, in turn, suggests they’re probably much more modern and capable generally than we are.”

    “You keep using the plural, Commodore,” Terekhov observed. “You’re fairly confident you’re dealing with more than a single intruding vessel?”

    “I’m ninety-five percent certain there are two of them,” Karlberg said. “And, whatever they are, they’re bigger and, presumably, tougher than anything I’ve got. And they’re arrogant buggers, too. They’re waltzing right into and through my star system because they know damned well that nothing I’ve got could hurt them, even if I could manage to track them accurately.”

    “I see,” Terekhov said slowly. He glanced at FitzGerald, and Ragnhild finally allowed herself to glance at Paulo, as well. She could see from his expression that he was thinking the same thing she. If Karlberg was correct (and Ragnhild was impressed by the man’s obvious capability) about how modern these intruders were, where had they come from? What were modern vessels doing playing pirate in such a poverty-riddled portion of the Verge? This was the sort of area that attracted chicken thieves, not the sort that could pay the operating costs of modern, powerful raiders.

    “Well, Commodore, Mr. President,” Terekhov said after a few moments of silent thought, “if you do have somebody wandering in and out of your system with less than honest motivations, then I suppose we ought to see what Hexapuma can do to discourage them.” He smiled thinly. “As permanently as possible.”




    “Mr. Dekker?”

    “Yes, Danny?”

    “Mr. Dekker, I think you’d better see this.” Daniel Santiago’s Montana accent was more pronounced than usual, and his brown eyes looked worried.

    “What is it?” Dekker pushed back his chair and rose, walking across to Santiago’s desk.

    “This e-mail just came in.” Santiago pointed at his old-fashioned display. “The system says it comes from an address that doesn’t exist.”

    “What?” Dekker bent over his subordinate’s shoulder, peering at the screen.

    “It used to exist,” Santiago continued, “but this provider shut down over two T-years ago.”

    “That’s ridiculous,” Dekker said. “Somebody must be playing games with his mail origination.”

    “That’s why I think you should take a look at it, Boss,” Santiago said. He reached out and tapped the message subject header, and Dekker’s eyes narrowed.

    “Re: Reasons to evacuate… right now,” it said.



    “I do not believe this!” Oscar Johansen said. “What did I do? Kill one of this guy’s relatives in a previous incarnation?”

    “It’s not really personal, Oscar,” Les Haven said with a grimace. “It just seems that way.”

    “Yeah? Easy for you to say!” Johansen glared at his hardcopy printout of the mysterious e-mail. “You’re not the one who’s going to have to explain all of this to the Home Secretary!”

    “Well, you aren’t either, come to that,” Haven replied. “My government’s gonna have to do the explaining. And President Suttles and Chief Marshal Bannister are gonna purely hate it.”

    “And so is Chairwoman Vaandrager,” Hieronymus Dekker put in with a heavy sigh.

    The three of them stood behind a police cordon and a hastily erected wall of sandbags, gazing resignedly at the Rembrandt Trade Union’s Montana office from a range of two kilometers. The building sat in a corner of the Brewster City Spaceport, backed up against the warehouse-surrounded trio of combined personnel and heavy-lift freight shuttle pads which customarily serviced RTU traffic on Montana. At the moment, they weren’t servicing anything, and the office building itself had been evacuated within fifteen minutes of the e-mail’s receipt.

    “You think he’s serious?” Johansen asked after a moment.

    “Steve Westman?” Haven snorted. “Damn betcha, Oscar. Man may be a brick or two shy of a full load, but he is a determined sort of cuss. As you might have noted about three weeks ago.”

    “But this --!” Johansen said, waving helplessly at the deserted office building and shuttle pads.

    “He probably thinks it’s funny,” Haven said. Johansen looked at him, and the Montanan shrugged. “The RTU more or less extorted this particular landing concession out of the planetary government ‘bout twenty T-years ago,” he said. “Matter of fact, today’s the anniversary of the formal signing of the lease agreement.”

    “We didn’t ‘extort’ anything out of anyone,” Dekker’s tone was stiff and a bit repressive.

    “Didn’t use guns or knives,” Haven conceded. “And I don’t recall anyone being outright threatened with dismemberment. But as I do recall, Hieronymus, Ineka Vaandrager -- she wasn’t Chairwoman then, Oscar; just the head of their Contract Negotiation Department -- made it pretty clear that either we gave you folks the concession, or the RTU put its southern terminal on Tillerman. And slapped a fifteen percent surcharge on to all Union shipments in or out of Montana, just to smack our wrists for being so ornery and disagreeable about it all.” He squinted up at the taller, fair-haired Rembrandter. “’Scuse me if I seem a mite prejudiced, but that sounds kinda like extortion to me.”

    “I admit,” Dekker said uncomfortably, avoiding the Montanan’s eyes, “that it was a perhaps extreme tactic. Chairwoman Vaandrager hasn’t always been noted for the… civility of her negotiating tactics. But to respond with threats of violence on this scale hardly seems a rational act.”

    “Oh, I dunno,” Haven said. “Least he sent your employees a warning to get out of the way, didn’t he? Hell, Hieronymus -- for a feller like Steve, that’s downright gentlemanly. And at least the whole shebang is far ’nough away from everything else he can blow the crap out of it ’thout damaging anything else or killing anybody.”

    “But surely your planetary authorities should have acted sooner if they knew all along that he was angry enough with us to do something like this --“ Dekker began, looking far from mollified by Haven’s observations, but the Montanan cut him off with a vigorous head shake.

    “He was mighty pissed off, all right. Butn’t enough for something like this. Not until Van Dort organized the entire annexation effort.”

    “Not even Mr. Van Dort could have ‘organized’ something on that scale if the proposal hadn’t won the endorsement of the overwhelming majority of the Cluster’s citizens!” Dekker protested.

    “Didn’t say he could have. Didn’t say it was a bad idea, for that matter. I just said it was Van Dort who did the actual organizing,” Haven replied. “And he did. Now, Steve doesn’t much like Van Dort, for a lot of reasons, including the fact that he was original Chairman of the RTU’s Board and he’s still the biggest stockholder the RTU has. When he says ‘frog’ the RTU jumps, which means the plebiscite vote had the RTU Board’s approval. Which probably means it had Vaandrager’s, who may be the one person in the entire Cluster Steve likes less than he does Van Dort. And the fact that she approved it, far as a feller like Steve is concerned, automatically makes it just one more example of how she ‘negotiates’ for whatever it is she wants. Which brings him right back to this tidy little enclave of yours, and I’ve gotta tell you, Hieronymus -- there aren’t many Montanans who won’t understand exactly how he’s thinking. So if he’s in the mood to be sending messages, this has to be just about the best exclamation point he could’ve come up with. ’Specially since the RTU managed to ‘negotiate’ that exclusive contract with Manticore to transport all the Star Kingdom’s official freight, mail, and personnel here in the Cluster.”

    Johansen started to object that the RTU was the only local entity with the ability to meet all the Star Kingdom’s shipping requirements. Despite what anyone else might think, that was the only reason it had been able to secure that exclusive contract, and the contract itself was only interim, until it was possible to invite other bidders to compete. But he kept his mouth closed, instead. Les Haven already knew all of that… whether he believed it or not, which was more than Johansen was prepared to say. And whatever Haven thought, now that Johansen had spent some time in the Cluster himself, he could well understand how anyone already suspicious of outside interference in the Cluster’s affairs or angry over the Trade Union’s economic muscle might easily conclude that the contract was a sweetheart deal from Manticore to repay the RTU for serving as the Star Kingdom’s front man.

    Not that understanding was any particular comfort as he looked at the shuttle pads and warehouses which contained, among other things, something in excess of fifty million Manticoran dollars worth of survey equipment, air cars, computers, communications systems, field desks, and camping equipment.

    “I know how much of our stuff you have warehoused, Hieronymus,” he said, after a moment. “How much else is in storage or on the pads?”

    “Something in excess of one-point-three billion Rembrandt stellars,” Dekker replied, quickly enough to show where his own unhappy thoughts had been. “On the order of five hundred million of your Manticoran dollars. Not to mention, of course, all of the base equipment and --“

    Johansen never discovered whatever else the RTU’s chief Montana factor had been about to say.

    The first explosion was the brightest. The brilliant flash was literally blinding, and the Manticoran wondered how Westman had managed to get military-grade chemical explosives into the warehouse. The structure housed -- had housed -- low value, bulk cargo, so security had probably been at least a little laxer than on the other buildings, and for all its violence, the explosive device itself could probably have been hidden in something a small as a large suitcase. But even so --

    His brain was still beginning to spin up to full speed with the awareness that Westman obviously hadn’t been bluffing after all, when the other explosions began. At first, they weren’t as violent as the initial one, but they’d obviously been placed with some forethought. The first explosion had torn open the central warehouse and scattered flaming debris over most of the compound. The second group of explosions were in the shuttle pads themselves. The first two didn’t seem all that spectacular; but there was a personnel shuttle docked in Pad Three. A shuttle which had developed some technical glitch -- a glitch which hindsight suggested to Johansen had been arranged with malice aforethought -- that had immobilized it and prevented its removal when the e-mailed warning arrived. A shuttle whose hydrogen tanks and emergency thruster fuel reservoirs were almost full.

    If the first explosion had seemed overpowering, this one was stupendous. The entire pad disintegrated in a towering, blue-white flower of dust-curdled fury, and Johansen instinctively flung himself flat on his belly behind the sandbags. The e-mail had warned everyone to keep well back, but he doubted anyone had anticipated anything like this. The blast front from the splintered shuttle raced outward in a ring of flame and dust that enveloped the shuttle pads on either side. It ran into the back of the RTU office block like a tsunami, smashing its way in through windows and doors, and the entire structure blew apart like a house of sticks in the path of a tornado. Warehouses and freight vehicle maintenance bays disappeared into the vortex to be chewed up and spat out in very, very tiny bits and pieces.

    The chain of explosions blended into one, huge, overwhelming event, and Oscar Johansen felt like a gnat trapped between the swatting palms of an enraged fire giant as a mushroom cloud of smoke, dust, wreckage, and swirling flame towered high into the heavens.

    This, he thought, looking up as the outward-speeding, ground-level ring of smoke and dust swept by overhead like a lateral hurricane, is not going to look good on my resumé.

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