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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 12, 2004 03:53 EDT



    Winter wrapped a cold, gray fist around the city of Vermeer. Heavy mist drifted above the broad, slow-flowing Schelde River, and woebegone native longfrond trees drooped over the gray-green water in their humid shroud. The sky was the color of old slate, shedding a handful of fat, lazy snowflakes, and the raw chill hovered barely above the freezing point.

    In short, a depressingly typical winter’s day on sunny Rembrandt, Bernardus Van Dort thought sardonically as he stood, gazing out the familiar window, hands clasped behind him. Only a batch of loopy, Renaissance Revivalists like my esteemed over-educated, under-brained ancestors could pick a planet like this for their new home. Bunch of artistically obsessed nincompoops, the lot of them.

    The dreary scene was a far cry from the springtime warmth of Thimble. Then again, Rembrandt wasn’t as nice a planet, in lots of ways, as Flax. He wondered sometimes if his homeworld’s miserable climate helped explain the alacrity with which Rembrandters had abandoned the Founders’ cultural pretensions. He didn’t know about that, but he was quite certain it explained the emergence of the merchant marine -- rare, for any system in the Verge -- which had allowed Rembrandt to become a mercantile power.

    A matter of anything that gets us off-world has to be a good idea, that’s what it was. He smiled at the thought. I know I always luxuriated shamelessly on visits to planets which actually see the sun between summer and late spring.

    The office door opened behind him, and he turned. The movement also brought him back to face the office’s luxurious appointments. During the decades when it had been his office, the furnishings had been almost spartan, their only real ostentation the mementos and trophies of the grizzled Van Dort merchant skipper founders of the fortune he’d used to such telling effect. Their only color had been the mountain landscapes and rolling prairie scenes which had reminded his wife Suzanne of her own homeworld. They’d lurked among the grimmer, harsher Van Dort mementos like small, warm windows onto a slower, gentler life, and he felt a fresh pang of loss when he looked up and they were no longer there.

    Now the office boasted expensive light sculptures, exquisite handcrafts from literally every world of the Cluster, exotically inlaid wood paneling from the rain forests of the Marian System, framed holos of its present occupant closing contract and trade treaty negotiations with magnates and heads of state. Its new, ankle-deep carpet, and polished display cabinets filled with glittering cut crystal, polished wood and beaten copper images, reeked of wealth and power, and he found the change… distasteful.

    Fair enough, I suppose, he thought with a mental grimace, given how distasteful I find the present occupant, as well.

    Ineka Vaandrager was a small, fair-haired woman, no more than a hundred and sixty centimeters tall, who moved with a sort of choreographed precision, like a machine programmed to get from one point to another by the shortest possible route. She was thirty T-years younger than Van Dort and, like him, a first-generation prolong recipient. But the therapy’s sustained youthfulness made her hazel eyes no softer, and she had a mouth like a steel trap. She wasn’t really unattractive in any physical sense, but there was a coldness -- a hardness -- about her which Van Dort had always found repellent.

    Which didn’t keep you from making use of her, did it, Bernardus?

    He faced that admission squarely, accepting that the problem she represented was as much of his making as of anyone else’s, even as he made himself nod to her, with a smile whose welcome she must know as well as he did was false. She smiled back with matching sincerity but declined to offer him her hand as she crossed to the huge desk sitting with its back to the office’s outer wall of windows.

    “I’m sorry I’m late, Bernardus,” she said. “It was unavoidable, I’m afraid. I hope Erica saw to your needs while you waited?”

    “Yes, she did,” Van Dort replied, but he let a trace of hardness, at odds with his affable tone, show in his own blue eyes. Vaandrager saw it, and her mouth tightened as he silently called her bluff on the “unavoidable” nature of her tardiness. She really was a remarkably petty woman in so many ways, he reflected.

    “Good,” she said shortly, and waved for him to take one of the chairs facing her desk as she sat behind it. “Well, I’m sorry you were kept waiting.” She waited while he seated himself and her own chair adjusted to her body, then smiled brightly, as if determined to get their meeting off on a fresh foot after an inauspicious beginning. “But we’re both here now! So, what can I do for you, Bernardus?”

    “I’m a bit concerned about some things I’ve been hearing.” He came to the point with characteristic brevity. “Specifically, about new negotiations with Scarlet. I was under the impression we already had quite a favorable agreement in place with them -- we certainly did when I left for the Convention -- so I fail to understand why it’s necessary to ‘renegotiate’ at this point. And I’ve heard about certain threats of retaliation in which our representatives seem to have indulged when President Standley proved… unreceptive to our ‘requests.’”

    “Did you come all the way home from Spindle over something that routine?” she asked, and shook her head in amused exasperation.

    “It’s scarcely ‘routine,’” he said, his own expression anything but amused. “And, as I say, I fail to see any pressing reason for new trade negotiations at a time when we ought to be concentrating on… other matters, shall we say? I thought we were in agreement about that, Ineka.”

    He held her eyes across the desk, and she made an impatient, throwing away gesture.

    “It’s just business, Bernardus,” she said impatiently. “Your Convention was supposed to report out a Constitution long before this. It hasn’t, and the Trade Union’s affairs can’t simply be placed on indefinite hold, you know. Surely you don’t expect the rest of the universe to stop dead in its tracks while you’re off playing statesman!”

    “It’s not ‘just business,’” he said flatly. “It’s an attempt to pound Standley into submitting to demands even more unfavorable to his star system than the last package. It’s also, in case you’ve failed to notice, a poster example of why so many other planets in the Cluster don’t trust us as far as they can spit. And right this minute, especially in light of what’s happened on Kornati, we can’t afford to give them any more justification for distrusting us.”

    “Don’t be absurd!” she scoffed. “Nothing we can do is going to make people who resent us suddenly start trusting us instead. Or do you think giving away all the trade advantages we’ve built up over the past fifty T-years is going to convince someone like that butcher Nordbrandt to make nice with us?”

    “Did you actually bother to view the reports from Kornati at all?” Van Dort demanded. “Or has your brain just gone into total shutdown?”

    “Yes, I viewed them,” she said sharply. “And I don’t care for your tone!”

    “Well, that’s too damned bad. I don’t care for your stupidity.”

    Their eyes locked, mutual hostility like a palpable force between them.

    “You’re not Chairman of the Board any longer. I am,” she gritted. Then she made her jaws relax, but her hard eyes never wavered as she went on in a flat, biting tone as flexible as hammered steel. “And as Chairwoman, I don’t intend to let a group of insane, bloodthirsty malcontents dictate our trade policies! You can go back to Spindle and kowtow to them if you want -- we have no intention of following suit.”

    “You know,” he said in a far more conversational tone, leaning back and crossing his legs, “I never realized, back when I first tapped you for Negotiations, just how blunt an instrument you actually are. It may surprise you to discover this, Ineka, but not all problems are nails you can pound flat or boulders you can smash by simply reaching for a bigger hammer. I suppose it’s my own fault for not recognizing your limitations at the time, but I thought we needed someone like you. I was in a hurry, more worried about results than any hostility we might generate, and there were… other things on my mind.”

    His eyes darkened briefly in memory of old, unhealed pain, but he shook it aside, and his eyes narrowed with hard, focused purpose.

    “Truth to tell, I still believe we did need those results -- then. But I’ve come to suspect I was wrong to think a hammer was the best way to get them. Especially a hammer as fundamentally stupid as you are.”

    Vaandrager’s face darkened as his tone flayed her sense of self-importance. She opened her mouth to snap back, but he continued.

    “That, however, is an error I intend to correct.”

    His voice was harder now, flatter, and she closed her own mouth as wariness flickered in her own eyes. Bernardus Van Dort might not be as abrasively confrontational by nature as she was. Indeed, he was essentially a collegial sort, who believed in negotiation and compromise, however ruthless his public image might be. But there was a will of iron under that normally affable exterior, and the Trade Union’s corporate offices were littered with the corpses of careers whose once promising owners had provoked his ire.

    “Look, Bernardus,” she said after a moment, schooling her voice into something closer to normal, “I suppose I apologize for that last statement. Or, at least, its tone. But that doesn’t make it untrue. And the fact that you’re no longer Chairman -- and that I am Chairwoman -- means our viewpoints are bound to diverge. I have a responsibility to our stockholders and to everyone else who depends on the umbrella of the Union. It’s always been our policy to press for progressively reduced import and export duties for our shipping and industries, because we depend on the removal of trade barriers for our goods and shipping, and you know it. I’m not going to abdicate that responsibility just because some mass murderers on a planet so poor it doesn’t have a pot to piss in don’t like us. And, I remind you, when you were Chairman, your own policies were rather more… aggressive than the ones you seem to be attempting to insist upon now.”

    “Yes, they were,” he agreed in the patient tone of one addressing a small, spoiled child. “On the other hand, the plebiscite completely transformed the entire political and economic equation, and when the environment changes that radically, policies have to be adjusted.”

    “Business is business,” she said flatly, “and politics are politics. Don’t expect me -- or our investors -- to confuse them, or to abandon core policies and sacrifice hard-won gains for some quixotic quest of yours. There was a time when you understood that.”

    “There was a time when my options and tools were more circumscribed… as you ought to understand perfectly well. Or were you absent the day your corporate mentor explained exactly what it was the Trade Union was intended to to accomplish?”

    “Please!” She rolled her eyes. “Do you really think anyone else ever believed that pious, moralistic ‘mission statement’? Propaganda’s all very well, and it obviously has its place, but don’t make the mistake of believing anyone else ever took it seriously.”

    “I don’t really care about ‘anyone else.’ I took it seriously when I drafted it. And I still do.”

    She started to laugh, then stopped as she finally recognized the true depth of the incandescent rage hidden behind the cold self-control in his icy blue eyes. The scornful amusement drained out of her expression, and he watched it go with grim satisfaction.

    “You really don’t want to cross swords with me, Ineka,” he told her softly. “I created the Trade Union. It was my idea. I found the initial capital -- most of it out of my own family’s pockets. I talked a gaggle of other independent shipowners into associating themselves with me, and I sold the notion to old President Verstappen and Parliament. I talked San Miguel, Redoubt, and Prairie into joining as equal partners. And yes, I wrote our mission statement. And whatever you may think, I didn’t do all of that just to put money in your credit accounts or cater to your own over-inflated ego.”

    “I --“ she began hotly, but his voice rolled right over hers, still soft, but inexorable as Juggernaut.

    “I did it because it was the only possible option I saw to avoid what Frontier Security’s done to every other Verge system that attracted its attention. Because the only way I could think of to protect our citizens from the kind of debt peonage the Solly multistellars impose was to become a fat enough goose, with enough potential golden eggs, to be able to buy better treatment, like the Maya Sector did.

    “Oh, I won’t try to pretend the possibility of getting even wealthier didn’t appeal to me as well, but money’s only a tool, Ineka. You’ve never understood that. You seem to feel some compulsion to just keep piling it up, higher and deeper, as if it had some intrinsic value besides the things you can do with it. But neither of us could possibly spend the money we already have fast enough to keep our net worth from increasing hand over fist, so what’s the point in squeezing the last drop of blood out of a turnip just to keep score or count coup?”



    He paused, and she let her chair come forward, planting her elbows on her desktop and leaning towards him.

    “You -- and, I suppose, I -- may be in that fortunate position, Bernardus. But we have shareholders and investors, the citizens of our member governments and our captain-partners, who aren’t. People who expect us to show the maximum return on their investment, gain the most advantageous tariff and import duty terms we can, demolish trade barriers and gain favored-planet status any way we have to. To create and maintain the system that helps them build the sort of personal independence most people in the Verge can’t even dream of. The level of economic security your dream and all the years of hard work you and others put into it made possible for them in the first place.”

    “Don’t trot that argument out with me, Ineka,” he said scornfully. “It’s the most valid one you have, but it’s not what punches your buttons. You could care less about the small shareholders, and independent captains, or the prosperity of member governments’ citizens. You’re too busy hobnobbing with the big financiers, the shipping line owners, and enjoying the power you have, the club you hold over entire planetary governments, when you get ready to ‘demolish trade barriers’. In fact, what you remind me of most is a home-grown OFS. And when people like Nordbrandt resort to violence and use the specter of economic exploitation to justify their actions, your actions just keep pumping hydrogen into the fire.”

    “I resent that!”

    “Resent it all you like,” he told her flatly. “I came home for two reasons. One was to remove myself from the political debate, because some of the delegates were spending more time worrying about the RTU ‘puppetmaster’ than about drafting a Constitution. But the other was to investigate reports I was getting about your policy directives. I didn’t have any idea Nordbrandt was going to murder so many people, but the reports from Kornati only emphasize to me how right I was to be worried about you.”

    She glared at him, and he leaned forward in his own chair, looming over her even seated. Van Dort rarely relied upon his own imposing physical stature in negotiations, but he was far from unaware of the advantages it gave him. He used them ruthlessly now, intruding into her space, underlining the nonphysical dimensions of his threat.

    “You aren’t going to do anything to lend one gram of additional credence to the arguments of the Cluster’s Agnes Nordbrandts and Stephen Westmans. The Union’s member systems and shareholders already stand to make a fortune off our existing service contracts with the Star Kingdom. Once the annexation’s completed, we’ll still enjoy the inside position in the Cluster, because we’re already up and running -- the only organized local shipping cartel. But all those tariff and tax advantages you’ve extorted out of other systems, all the trade barriers you’ve busted, won’t matter squat. We’ll all belong to the same political unit, and aside from the junction use fees, the Star Kingdom’s always pursued a policy of interstellar free trade. Do you think they’ll do less for their domestic commerce? That the Queen of Manticore’s going to let you keep your sweetheart deals? Or that you’ll actually need them?”

    He grimaced in disgust. Was she really so smallminded she didn’t realize even that much? Couldn’t see the huge edge the Union’s existing connections and infrastructure would give it in the new, unified Cluster economy? They might no longer dominate it outright, but where was the need to do that when a smaller slice of such a hugely increased pie would be so vast?

    “If you can’t think of it any other way, think about this -- the amounts of money you’ll be able to pile up in your private accounts if the annexation goes through will dwarf anything you could ever have managed without it. But if enough people start agreeing with Nordbrandt, the annexation won’t go through. And if it doesn’t, OFS won’t hesitate an instant. They’ll move in on the Cluster like vultures, and we’ll be just wealthy enough to be their priority target, and not wealthy enough to have any voice in the terms of our peonage. So forget about altruism, or the silly concept that human beings have any value that can’t be quantified in terms of money, and think about what will happen to you -- you personally, Ineka -- when the Sollies move in.”

    She stared at him, her mouth taut with rage, and he suddenly realized that she didn’t really believe it.

    My God. She actually thinks she can cut a deal with OFS -- that she’s a big enough fish, got enough clout, to protect her personal position if she offers to throw in with them and bring her local contacts and knowledge with her. And she doesn’t give a solitary damn about anyone else. She’d be perfectly happy to play Judas goat if it let her hang onto her own precious, privileged position. Could it be she’d actually prefer OFS? Yes, it could be, in some ways, at least. Because if the annexation goes through and we integrate into the Star Kingdom’s economy, she’s suddenly going to be a much smaller fish. And one without the power to rattle the cages of planetary presidents. But as an OFS collaborator… .

    He felt physically ill at the thought, but as he looked into those hard, flat hazel eyes, he could no longer deny the truth.

    She really is exactly what Nordbrandt claims to be fighting.

    The thought sent a chill through him, and, for just a moment, he felt inexpressibly weary. Was this what he and Suzanne had once dreamed of? What he’d spent fifty T-years of his life building?

    He wanted to reach across the desk and throttle her. Yet, even then, he realized that in many ways, on a personal level, Vaandrager simply represented what he’d been trying to do on a star system’s level.

    “I’m not going to argue with you about this any longer, Ineka,” he said. “I thought you might be reassuring to the Board when I resigned. That they’d see you as a promise that whatever else happened, we wouldn’t simply abandon our current advantages until we were certain the annexation would make them unnecessary. That’s why I didn’t oppose your campaign for the Chairwomanship -- because I wanted to avoid as much instability as we could while the Constitution was drafted. But I see now that that was a mistake.”

    “Are you threatening me?” she demanded tautly. “Because, if you are, you’re making a serious error.”

    “You worked for me for thirty T-years,” he told her levelly. “In all that time, did I ever make a threat I couldn’t back up?”

    He met her furious glare coldly, and something flickered at the backs of her hot eyes. Something like fear.

    “You may believe,” he continued, “that I’ve been unaware of your efforts to sew up proxies while I’ve been off-planet. If so, you’re wrong. I know exactly how many votes you have in your pocket. Can you say the same about me?”

    Her fists clenched on the desktop, and her expression was a mask.

    “I spoke with Joachim at some length before I left Flax,” he went on. “We were both… disturbed by reports we were receiving. Which was why I took the precaution of getting his signature on a request to convene a special meeting of the Board.”

    The color flowed out of her set face as he watched.

    “As you may be aware, the Van Dort family -- which is to say, me -- controls forty-two percent of the Union’s voting shares outright. The Alquezar family controls another twelve percent. There are no proxies involved, Ineka. Unlike you, Joachim and I control our votes directly, and I remind you that according to the bylaws, a special meeting must be convened upon the request of fifty-one percent of the voting stockholders. I’d hoped I might convince you to see reason. I see now that I can’t. Fortunately, there are other remedies.”

    “Now, just a minute, Bernardus,” she began. “I know tempers are running high. And you’re right about how my ego sometimes gets involved in these things. But there’s no need to destabilize the entire Union just because you and I disagree on policy and tactics.”

    “Spare me, Ineka,” he said wearily. “You were my mistake. Now I’m going to fix it. Don’t waste your time or mine pretending you and I can come to some sort of meeting of the minds. What’s happening in Thimble right now is far more important than anything happening here, and I’m not going to have you standing in the way.”

    “You arrogant prick!” Vaandrager lurched to her feet, leaning both hands on the desk, her eyes flaming with hate. “You sanctimonious, holier-than-thou bastard! Who the hell d’you think you are to come into my office and lecture me on morality and social responsibility?!”

    “I think I’m the one who gave you an opportunity to convince me to leave you in the Chairwomanship,” he said softly.

    She closed her mouth, and it was his turn to stand, looming over her with a height advantage of over thirty-five centimeters.

    “You’ve never understood that with power comes responsibility,” he told her. “Maybe I’m foolishly romantic -- maybe I am sanctimonious -- to believe that. But I do. That’s why you’ll be out of this office within six days, one way or the other. I’m posting the request for the special meeting this afternoon. If you choose to resign rather than force me to take it to the Board, I’ll settle for that. If you choose to fight me, I’ll make it my personal business to break you. When we lock horns, you’ll lose, and not just the Chairwomanship. When the dust settles, you’ll find yourself out on the street without -- as you so quaintly put it -- a pot to piss in, wondering what lorry just ran over you.” He smiled thinly, without a single trace of humor. “Believe me, Ineka.”

    He held her gaze once more, and tension crackled between them like poisoned lightning.

    Then he turned and walked out of the office which had once been his without another word.

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