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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Monday, April 19, 2004 23:23 EDT



    Thank goodness I set up a secure contact point the last time I was here, Damien Harahap thought. I just wish these goddamned romantics didn’t have this damned horse fetish!

    He shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. The Montanans’ ancestors had scarcely been unique in importing horses and other draft animals as part of their original colonizing expedition. If nothing else, animal transport provided an always useful and sometimes vital fallback. Machines could break, technology could fail or be lost. But horses, donkeys, and oxen -- or camels, depending on local climatic conditions -- could survive, and reproduce, almost anywhere mankind himself could manage to cling to life.

    But the Montanans had taken the whole business rather farther than most. It was part of their romanticized lifestyle. And, Harahap grudgingly conceded, there were times and places where the stupid, four-footed, sharp-spined, stubborn creatures had their uses.

    And the fact that they produce no detectable energy signature -- aside from infrared -- is a case in point, he admitted. Not that the Montana government had the sort of reconnaissance assets wealthier, more advanced star systems might have boasted. Still, the Montana Marshals Service, the local planetary police force, had an impressive record of successes. It wasn’t especially huge, but its personnel were smart, well-trained, and -- unusually for police, in Harahap’s experience -- accustomed to thinking outside the box. It was only a matter of time before the Manties provided them with the technological upgrades to let them begin using their existing capability to good effect, so Westman’s insistence on developing the proper mindset and techniques to evade the eventual spy satellites probably did make sense. Especially given how hot the hunt for him and his associates had turned in the four days since they’d pulled off their little bombing attack.

    If I hadn’t prearranged the message drop last time I was here, I’d never’ve been able to find him, and it’s going to get worse. They’re going to have to go further underground, so I guess I can’t blame them for being just a bit… overly security conscious at the moment. However uncomfortable it is.

    At least he and the blasted animal were almost to the agreed meeting site. He hauled out his GPS unit to doublecheck, and grimaced in approval. He’d thought that was the clump of trees Westman’s messenger had described to him, but it was good to have confirmation.

    His horse ambled up the trail, stubbornly moving at a speed it found good, and Harahap tried to look as if he thought it was a reasonable pace, as well. Eventually, he reached the designated spot and clambered down from the saddle with a profound gratitude flawed only by the knowledge that eventually he’d have to climb back on top of the unnatural beast for the trip back to what passed for civilization.

    He tied the horse’s reins around a native falseoak, gave it a sour look, and stood massaging his backside while he gazed out from the top of the cliff.

    He could see why Westman’s messenger had told him this was one of the planet’s more popular scenic attractions. Of course, most sensible tourists settled for making the trip from the capital in a few minutes of comfortable air car travel. Only the genuine lunatics insisted on doing it in the “authentic Montana way,” and Harahap was darkly certain that the livery stable operators who rented them horses for the trip probably hurt themselves laughing while they watched the off-planet idiots go riding off.

    From his present height, Harahap could see for what had to be at least a hundred kilometers across the gorge of the New Missouri River, and despite his aching buttocks and thighs and the grim reality of the errand which brought him here, he felt more than a touch of outright awe. The New Missouri was the second-longest river on Montana, and over the eons, it had carved a path through the New Sapphire Mountains that dwarfed anything Harahap had ever seen. Westman’s representative had informed him proudly that the New Missouri Gorge was almost twice the size of something called the Grand Canyon back on Old Earth, and it was certainly more than enough to make Damien Harahap feel small and ephemeral.

    He pulled out a holo camera and began obediently taking pictures like any proper nature lover. The camera was part of his tourist’s cover, but he’d already decided this was one set of pictures he was actually going to keep when he heard the rattle of stones from the higher slopes behind him. He lowered the camera and looked around casually as Stephen Westman rode down the slope on a tall, roan gelding.

    “I must say,” Harahap said as the Montanan drew up beside him and dismounted with the fluid grace of a lifetime’s practice, “this is a much more spectacular backdrop than our previous meeting enjoyed.”

    “It is that,” Westman agreed, blue eyes looking past his visitor to take in the spectacular view once more. It was a sight he never tired of, although sometimes it took the awe of an off-worlder’s first glimpse of it to remind him just how wonderful it was.

    “I’m not sure all this isolation was really necessary, though,” Harahap continued. “And while I’d never want to sound critical, I might point out that standing here on the edge of this cliff makes us rather vulnerable to any directional microphones in the area.”

    “It does -- or would, if there were any,” Westman replied, and smiled thinly. “To be honest, Mr. ‘Firebrand,’ one reason I chose it was so I could be positive you’d come alone. And while I’d never want to sound ominous, I might point out that standing here on the edge of this cliff makes you a rather easy target for the fellows with pulse rifles sitting out there amongst the shrubbery to watch my back.”

    “I see.” Harahap considered the Montanan’s smiling face calmly, then nodded. “So it was less about security from the authorities’ sensor systems than about getting me nicely out in the open.”

    “Yep,” Westman acknowledged. “Not that I really think you’re working for Suttles or the Manties. I know Chief Marshal Bannister pretty damned well, and this wouldn’t be his style. And I don’t think the Manties’ve had time to get around to sending their agents after me this way. But you could have been working for the Rembrandters. Not very likely, but it was possible. Matter of fact, you still could be.”

    “As an agent provocateur?” Harahap chuckled. “I approve of your caution. But if I were working for Vaandrager or Van Dort, the pulse cannon-armed air cars would already be sweeping down upon us.”

    “And crashing in the Gorge,” Westman said with a smile. Harahap cocked an eyebrow at him, and the Montanan shrugged. “I invested quite a bit of money in the necessary tools before I went underground, Firebrand. Including some rather nice Solly shoulder-fired surface-to-air-missiles. They may be a mite out of date, and I don’t have many of them, but they work just fine, and I expect they should deal with anything short of a modern assault shuttle. I sort of figured this would be a good place to trot some of them out.”

    “Then it’s fortunate for both of us that I don’t work for the RTU.” Harahap returned the other man’s smile while he considered whether or not Westman was telling him the truth. On balance, and especially in light of how smoothly he’d carried out his strike on the Trade Union’s spaceport enclave, Harahap was inclined to believe him.

    “But if you’re not working for the Rembrandters or the Manties,” Westman observed, “that still leaves the question of exactly who you are working for.”

    “I told you the last time we spoke. Of course, we didn’t have a name then, but we’re the same people. And we’ve decided that calling ourselves the Central Liberation Committee has a nice ring to it.”

    Westman’s lips quirked, mirroring the flash of amusement in his eyes, but Harahap wasn’t fooled. This was an extremely intelligent man, whatever his prejudices, and he understood that anyone who chose to involve himself in this sort of game had to have motives of his own. Motives which might or might not have any particular correspondence to the motives he said he had.

    “We’ve finally started getting ourselves effectively organized,” the Gendarmerie captain continued, “and our scam to extract operating funds from the RTU worked out even better than we’d anticipated.” As he’d hoped, Westman’s smile grew a little broader at the reference to the supposed embezzlement from the Trade Union’s coffers. The idea seemed to amuse him even more than it had Nordbrandt. “We’ve also managed to locate a moderately corruptible Solly source in the Meyers System for weapons and other hardware.”

    “You have,” Westman said with no particular emphasis.

    “We have. I’m not going to try to fool you, Mr. Westman. Like your SAMs, these aren’t the very latest weapons available. In fact, they’re probably from a planetary militia’s armory somewhere. But they’ve been thoroughly reconditioned, and they’re as good as or better than anything your government has. The communications and surveillance equipment is newer and better than that -- the latest Solly civilian equipment. Probably still not quite as good as the Manty military will have, but light-years better than anything you could obtain locally.”

    “And you’re prepared to make all of this available to me out of the goodness of your hearts, of course.”

    “Actually, to a large extent, that’s exactly right,” Harahap said, meeting the other man’s searching gaze with the utter sincerity that was one of his most important professional assets. “Oh, we’re not totally altruistic. Noble and generous, of course, but not totally altruistic.”

    Westman snorted in amusement, and Harahap smiled. Then he let his expression sober once more.

    “Seriously, Mr. Westman. Probably eighty or ninety percent of the Central Committee’s motivations are a combination of altruism and self-interest. The other ten percent come under the heading of pure self-interest, but, then, we could say the same about you, couldn’t we?”

    He held Westman’s gaze until the other man nodded, then went on with a small shrug.

    “We don’t want to see this annexation go through any more than you do. Even if Tonkovic manages to hold out for every constitutional guarantee in the galaxy, there’s no reason to believe a government as far away as the Manticore System would feel any particular obligation to honor them. Especially not once they’ve gotten their own military forces and domestic collaborators set up here at the local. We don’t much care for Rembrandt and the RTU, either, and you and I both know who’s going to wind up skimming all the cream off the local economy if this thing goes through. So we’ve got plenty of reasons of our own to want to throw all the grit we can into the works. But having said that, I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that at least some of the Central Committee’s members think they see an opportunity for their own star systems’ investors and shippers to help themselves to a larger slice of the pie here in the Cluster if we can take the RTU down a peg.”

    “Which suggests that even if we get rid of the Manties and the Rembrandters, we’re likely to see someone else trying to move in on the RTU’s operation,” Westman said sourly.

    “It’s an imperfect universe,” Harahap pointed out gently. “And any political or economic system is dynamic, constantly changing. Look at it this way -- you may not get a perfect resolution out of removing Manticore and the RTU from the equation, but you will have gotten rid of the two devils you know about. And whatever new changes someone else may try to impose, you’ll be starting fresh, from a level playing field, if you want to keep them off of Montana.”

    Westman made a noncommittal sound. He stood gazing off over the Gorge, and Harahap let the silence linger for a minute or two. Then he cleared his throat. Westman looked at him, and he flipped his shoulders in a small shrug.

    “The bottom line is that we all want at least some of the same things… and none of us are likely to get any of them operating on our own. At the moment, the Manties and the governments committed to the annexation have all the central organization, all the information sharing, and all the firepower. Your operation showed imagination, careful planning, and ability. Those are exactly the qualities in you which attracted our attention in the first place. But they’re also the qualities which are going to make squashing you a priority for the Manties. The same thing will be true of anyone who proves he’s an effective opponent, and they’re far better off -- organizationally, not simply in terms of manpower and weapons -- than we are. So if we want any realistic chance of keeping control of our own star systems and our own souls, we’re going to have to come up with some sort of countervailing coordination of our own. That’s what the Central Committee is trying to provide.”

    “And just how widespread are your… call them ‘local chapters’?” Westman asked after a moment.

    “We’re still setting them up,” Harahap admitted. “In addition to our conversations with you, we’ve been in contact with people from New Tuscany to Split. Some of them -- like Agnes Nordbrandt, in Split -- have already signed on with us,” he continued, bending the truth just a bit. It wasn’t much of a lie, after all. He hadn’t been in contact with Nordbrandt since their conversation on Kornati, but he felt confident she would jump at the official offer of assistance when he made it.

    “Nordbrandt?” Westman’s eyes sharpened with interest. “So she meant it when she said she was going underground, did she?”

    “Oh, yes, she certainly did,” Harahap said. “Of course, I’ve been moving around a lot lately, but I met with her personally a couple of months ago, and we discussed her plans in some detail.” Another small exaggeration there, but one Westman couldn’t check. And one which should polish Harahap’s credibility just a bit brighter. “Why? Have you heard anything more recent about her?”

    “It’s over a hundred and twenty light-years from Montana to Split,” Westman pointed out. “It takes even a dispatch boat two weeks to make the trip. The last I heard was over a month ago, when she resigned her parliamentary seat and announced she intended to oppose the annexation ‘by other means.’” He shrugged. “If she’s as serious as you’re saying, I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from her sometime soon.”

    “No doubt,” Harahap agreed. “From the plans she discussed with me, she should be making quite a splash. Maybe not as spectacular as that little trick you pulled off last week, perhaps, but enough to make the Manties sit up and take notice.

    “But the delay in the information loop that you just pointed out is one of the strongest arguments in favor of your accepting the Central Committee’s assistance,” he continued. “If all goes well, we’ll be located in the Spindle System ourselves. That will put us right on top of the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention, and let us disseminate intelligence information as rapidly as it comes into our hands. And, let’s face it, Spindle is probably where the Manties will set up their own administrative hub once they take over, so information is going to flow to the center much faster than it moves around the periphery.”

    Westman nodded, his expression thoughtful. He turned to gaze back out over the Gorge one more time, removing his hat and letting the brisk, cool breeze ruffle his blond hair. A Terran hawk passed overhead, outspread wings riding the Gorge’s thermals, and Harahap heard its shrill, piercing cry as it stooped upon some small prey. Finally, Westman turned back to him and extended his hand.

    “All right,” he said. “Like you say, even if we all have our own individual motives, at least we all agree on the importance of smacking down Rembrandt and kicking the Manties’ asses back out of the Cluster. I expect that’s enough to go on with for now.”

    “I don’t think you’ll regret this,” Harahap lied.

    “If I do, it won’t be the first thing in my life I’ve regretted,” Westman said philosophically. The two of them shook firmly, and the Montanan put his Stetson back on his head. “And now that we’re all such close friends,” he continued, “I expect we need to be giving some thought to communications links.” Harahap nodded, and Westman pursed his lips. “How long will you be on-planet?”

    “I really need to leave again as soon as possible,” Harahap said frankly. “We’ve got other representatives working the far side of the Cluster, but I’m the contact person most of the people here on the southern border actually know.”

    “I suppose that makes sense,” the Montanan conceded. He thought some more, then shrugged. “I can have my communications people set up three or four separate secure channels by tomorrow morning,” he said. “We’re organized on a cell basis, and each channel will connect to a separate cell, so even if we lose one or two of them, you should still be able to contact me when you come back around.”

    “Sounds good,” Harahap agreed, impressed by the amount of thought Westman had clearly put into this entire operation. “And we’ll have to make some arrangements for the arms delivery.”

    “How soon can we expect them?”

    “That’s a bit hard to say, exactly,” Harahap said. “I’d guess we’re probably looking at something between two and three months. The weapons are already in the pipeline, but we have to have them delivered. And, to be honest, I wasn’t positive you were going to agree to associate yourself with us, so you’re not the first stop on our delivery schedule.” He grimaced. “Pity. It would have made a lot more sense to drop your consignment off on the way into the Cluster from Meyers. As it is, we’ll have to loop back and catch you on the way home.”

    “Well, I imagine we’ll survive in the meantime,” Westman said with a slow smile. “After all, I wasn’t figuring on any outside support when I set things up. We’ll be all right until your guns get here.”

    “Good,” Harahap said with another of his patented sincere smiles. “I’m really looking forward to working with you.”

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