Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Thirty One

       Last updated: Monday, July 12, 2004 22:04 EDT



    Captain Damien Harahap, Solarian Gendarmerie, known as “Firebrand,” was not a happy man.

    He sat at a small table in the Karlovac bar, nursing one of the capital city breweries’ justly famed beers, and his gaze dropped for a moment to the old-fashioned printed newspaper on the table. He’d never much cared for such primitive versions of a proper ’fax, and he particularly resented the inability to go straight to a decent infonet to follow up the articles. He sometimes wondered how intelligence agents had done their jobs properly in pre-electronic days. They must have spent literally hours every day just rummaging around through reams and reams of ink-smeary, finger-staining paper!

    But this particular newspaper was especially infuriating because it suggested so much while confirming absolutely nothing. Oh, if he decided to take all the reporters’ speculation and editorial commentary at face value, the news was disastrous. But he would almost have preferred to know that was true than to be reduced to guessing about things this way.


    The headlines, with the possible exception of the first, didn’t seem to have much doubt. It wasn’t until he got into the articles themselves that the questions became evident. The Karlovac Tribune-Herald, which had bannered its afternoon’s edition with the first headline, had been the most resistant to the general euphoria. As its lead writer had noted, “Government spokesmen continue to stress that no positive identification of Nordbrandt’s remains has been made. Forensics specialists caution that it may never be possible to absolutely confirm that the remains in the National Police’s hands are indeed those of the infamous terrorist. Nonetheless, there appears to be significant reason to believe she has, indeed, been killed.”

    Which would be just my luck, he thought bitterly. Two days ago. Just two days ago! If I’d gotten here two days earlier, she would’ve been too busy meeting with me to get her lunatic ass blown away like this!

    It took all his formidable self-control to keep his expression tranquil and sip his beer as if he had no cares at all. Especially when he thought about all the spadework he’d done, all the preparation. Wasted. Just thrown away because the bloodthirsty bitch just had to go out into the field playing soldier!

    He drew a deep breath and commanded himself to break the feedback loop of his temper. He was only making himself angrier by brooding on all his wasted time and effort, and there was no point in it. Besides, it was bad tradecraft.

    He snorted in wry amusement at the thought. But it was true, and he took a deeper pull at his beer and sat back to think.

    He’d underestimated her. He’d sensed a certain capacity for violence in her, recognized her as a potentially lethal tool, but he’d never imagined she might prove this violent. Her first attack on the planetary parliament had been more than sufficiently spectacular -- in fact, he’d been astounded, upon his arrival here, to learn she’d managed to carry out such an operation successfully. But the ensuing pattern of assassinations, bombing attacks on exposed portions of the Kornatian infrastructure, and general mayhem were even more surprising, in a way. Either he’d significantly underestimated the size of her organization, or else Kornati’s security forces were even more inept than he’d believed possible.

    Calm down, Damien. She probably had managed to put together a bigger organization than you thought. But she might not have, too. You haven’t really had enough chance to analyze the operations she pulled off successfully to make a meaningful estimate of the organization she needed to do it. You’re still reacting to these damned “newspaper” articles, and you know there’s more than a little hysteria in the way they’ve been reporting things. This planet doesn’t have much tradition of violence in politics. The emergence of any violent terrorist organization’s obviously taken them by surprise. That’s probably enough right there to explain how she managed the Nemanja bombing! And of course the newsies are figuring it took some kind of massive organization to pull it off. Just like the government is inevitably going to insist there are only a handful of the lunatic fringe out there throwing bombs.

    The truth was that what looked to the local media like a carefully planned and orchestrated program of attacks might well be nothing of the sort. More than half the bombings appeared to have targeted things like public transportation stations and power transmission lines. Those sorts of targets were both highly visible and extremely difficult for even the best trained, most experienced security forces to protect. Most of those attacks could very well have represented nothing more than opportunity targets. The massive fire touched off by the bombing attack on the petrochemical storage tanks at Kornati’s fifth-largest refinery would have required more planning and faced more significant opposition from both public and private security forces, but most of the other industry-oriented attacks had been on smaller factories or branch offices of banking and investment firms. Again, widespread strikes on relatively lightly defended targets which had helped generate a public perception of some sort of terrorist tsunami.

    No, she hasn’t really gone after all that many “hard” targets after all, has she? It just looks that way. Then again, that’s what terrorist campaigns are all about. There’s no way she and her true believers could ever have hoped to defeat the planetary government in an open, standup fight. But if she’d been able to convince enough of the public that the government couldn’t crush her, either. Couldn’t prevent her from hitting any target she chose….

    Except that it was beginning to look as if the government had done just that.

    He sighed, finished his beer, tossed a couple of local coins onto the tabletop, and stood. He tucked the folded newspaper under his arm -- not because he was particularly interested in keeping it, but because leaving it behind might prick someone’s curiosity if they’d noticed how intently he’d been scanning it earlier. It probably didn’t much matter either way, but that sort of professional consideration was programmed into him on an almost instinctual level.

    He stepped out onto the sidewalk and turned towards the local subway station.

    It was a warm, sunnily pleasant day, as if deliberately designed to mock his gloomy thoughts, and he ambled along. He was halfway to the stairs leading down to the subway when someone stepped up close behind him. Instincts jangled, but before he could do more than inhale once, something hard pressed against the base of his spine.

    “Keep walking… Firebrand,” a voice said very quietly somewhere behind his left ear.

    In all the bad holo dramas Harahap had ever seen, the steely-eyed, strong-jawed intelligence agent would have swept backwards with his elbow, catching his invisible assailant unerringly in the solar plexus, simultaneously disarming and disabling him. Then he would have paused to straighten his jacket before turning to his whooping, gasping foe, collecting his dropped weapon, and delivering some clever witticism for the defeated underling to relay to his superiors.

    Life being life, and considering how difficult it was to survive when one’s spine was blown in two, Damien Harahap kept walking.

    His mind raced as they continued past the subway entrance. His first thought was that in the wake of Nordbrandt’s death, her organization had come sufficiently unraveled for his cover to have been blown to the Kornatian National Police. But as he pondered it, he decided that didn’t make a lot of sense. If the graybacks knew who he really was, they’d probably have approached this in a totally different manner. There were certain rules planets in the Verge knew better than to break, and one of them was that they never arrested and tried -- far less thought about imprisoning -- Gendarmerie intelligence agents. No Verge government could afford the retribution Frontier Security would visit upon anyone who dared embarrass OFS that way. Besides, if the police meant to arrest him, why not simply do so? The fellow behind him had certainly gotten the drop on him with embarrassing ease. There was no reason to believe a larger arrest team couldn’t have done the same thing. For that matter, the fellow behind him had had plenty of opportunities to inform him he was being taken into custody.

    That left, so far as Harahap could see, only two real possibilities. The first, and more frightening, was that the KNP had decided not to take him into custody at all. They might know exactly who he was and believe he’d had even more to do with organizing and equipping the FAK before the Nemanja bombing than he had. If that were so, they might have decided to send a message to his superiors -- or to him, at least -- by simply making him disappear. In which case this relaxing little stroll was going to end in an alley somewhere with a pulser dart in his brain. Or, more likely, with his throat slit and his wallet stolen -- an unfortunate victim of a violent robbery whose demise owed absolutely nothing to the Kornatian government whose parliamentary representatives he’d helped to murder. And if he did end up there, OFS would probably let it go. After all, one couldn’t make an omelet without cracking the occasional egg. There were plenty more where he’d come from, and at least Kornat would have played by the rules and refrained from embarrassing Frontier Security in the Solly press.

    The thought made him breathe harder and faster, but he didn’t really think that was what was happening. How much of that was because he so desperately wanted it not to be was more than he was prepared to say, even to himself.

    The second and, he sincerely hoped, more likely possinility was that Nordbrandt’s organization hadn’t been completely rolled up and that some remnant of it had recognized him when he turned up at the appointed contact point. In that case, whoever it was might be prepared to assume Nordbrandt’s mantle and continue her struggle, in which case he -- or she -- undoubtedly wanted “Firebrand’s” support more badly than ever. Or, he might have been recognized by one of Nordbrandt’s survivors who only wanted a way off-planet and figured “Firebrand” was his best chance of arranging or extorting a ticket.

    Of the various possibilities for his abduction, only the hope that it was one of Nordbrandt’s people, regardless of his captor’s precise demands, offered much chance for Harahap’s continued breathing, so he decided to operate on that assumption.

    They’d walked another eight or nine blocks before the man behind him spoke again.

    “In the middle of the next block. Number 721. On your right. Up the steps, in the front door, and continue to the end of the hall.”

    Harahap allowed himself a small nod and started looking for street numbers.

    The next block consisted of tall, narrow tenement buildings. Back on pre-space Old Earth, they might have been called “brownstones.” Here on Kornati they were called “one-suns” because they were packed so closely together that only one wall had windows to admit sunlight. These particular one-suns were a bit more rundown than some, but not as badly as many others. It was an industrial district, and the blue-collar workers who lived here earned enough money to aspire to a somewhat higher standard of living.

    They came to Number 721, and Harahap turned to his right and up the steps as if this had been his destination all along. The front door had been repainted fairly recently, in a deep, dark green that seemed out of place in this grimy, urban setting. It wasn’t locked -- doors seldom were in this part of town, where renters could rely on their neighbors to break the kneecaps of anyone stupid enough to try to rob or burglarize any of their fellow residents -- and it opened at his touch.

    He walked down the hallway, smelling a combination of cooking, faint mildew, and people living too close together. The door at the end of the hall swung open at his approach, and he stepped through it to find himself face-to-face with a dark-haired, dark-eye, dark-complexioned woman of medium height.

    “I suspected the rumors of your unfortunate demise were exaggerated, Ms. Nordbrandt,” he said calmly.






    “So I decided to let them think they’d gotten me, at least for a week or two,” Agnes Nordbrandt said the thirty-odd minutes later.

    She and Harahap faced one another across a small table in the one-sun apartment’s tiny kitchen. A pot of some sort of soup or stew simmered on the old-fashioned stovetop behind him, and he sat with his hands on the table, a mug of surprisingly good tea clasped loosely between them, while he watched her face. It seemed thinner than at their last meeting, harder. And there was a brighter, fiercer glitter in her dark eyes. The nascent fanaticism he’d sensed from the outset was stronger. He’d seen that before, in his line of work. There were some who harbored a natural predatory streak, sometimes without ever suspecting it themselves. People who turned out to have a taste for blood, who actually enjoyed doing what still went by the euphemism of “wet work.” Agnes Nordbrandt, it appeared, fell into that category.

    “They did get some good people,” she continued more harshly, then stopped and made herself relax. “And, while I suppose the reports of my death may be disheartening to some of our cells, I expect the blow to the government’s credibility when it turns out I’m not dead to more than offset any interim damage.”

    “I see.” He sipped tea, then returned the mug to the table and smiled ever so slightly. “On the other hand, I don’t believe any of the newspaper articles I’ve read said that the government ever claimed you were. It’s all been pure media speculation, with government spokesmen persistently cautioning people that there’s no proof you’re not alive.”

    “I know.” Her grin was positively vicious. “That’s one reason the entire idea appeals to me so much. The government can argue all it wants that it never tried to claim I was dead. But no one’ll remember that, especially when I begin all my communiques announcing my continued existence with ‘Despite the corrupt governing elite’s terrified efforts to claim they had silenced my voice of opposition… .’”

    “I see,” he repeated. She was right, and she was also demonstrating a rather more sophisticated grasp of effective propaganda and psych war than he’d really expected out of her. Which, he chided himself, had been foolish. She had, after all, been a successful Kornatian politician before the annexation vote destroyed her constituency. Of course, she remained fundamentally a lunatic, but she was clearly a lunatic with good tactical instincts, however poor her grasp of the strategic realities might prove in the end.

    “How long are you planning to pull back on your operations?”

    “You noticed that, did you?” Nordbrandt seemed pleased by his perceptiveness. “I figure another couple of weeks, maybe three, with nothing more than a few, widely isolated operations -- the sorts of thing action cells might come up with on their own if they were completely cut off from central guidance -- should pretty much convince all the press pundits I’m safely dead. And it should also encourage Rajkovic and Basaricek to believe the same thing, whether they admit it to anyone else -- or even themselves -- or not. Or, at least, for the grays and General Suka’s people to relax and lower their guards just a little. Which ought to make the wave of attacks I’m planning to punctuate my statement of continued health even more effective.”

    “Can you afford to take the pressure off for that long?”

    “For two weeks, certainly. Three?” She shrugged. “That may be a bit more problematical. Not so much here on Kornati, but on Flax. I don’t want the Constitutional Convention too comfortable with the notion that they don’t face any opposition.”

    “I see your point,” he said. “On the other hand, I’ve just come from Montana. You’ve heard about Westman and his Independence Alliance’s attack on Rembrandt’s facilities there?”

    “No. Last I heard, he was still playing around stealing people’s clothes.”

    Her disdain for Westman’s opening operation was obvious… and, Harahap thought, proved that whatever her own strengths might be, her understanding of the full possibilities of psychological warfare were, in fact, almost as limited as he’d first thought they were. Or perhaps it would be more fair to her to say she suffered from tunnel vision. She was too enamored of the raw violence of her own chosen tactics to consider the possibilities inherent in any other approach.

    “Well, that might have been a bit silly,” Harahap conceded, catering to her prejudices. “If it was, though, he’s decided to take a rather… firmer approach since.”

    He proceeded to tell her all about Westman’s attack on the RTU’s Montana headquarters. By the time he was done, she was chuckling in open admiration. Of course, Harahap had chosen not to stress the careful precautions Westman had taken to avoid casualties.

    “I love it!” she announced. “And, to be honest, I never thought Westman would have it in him. I always figured him for just one more useless cretin of a Montanan aristocrat -- like Tonkovic and her cronies here on Kornati.”

    It occurred to Harahap, not for the first time, that the citizens of the Talbott Cluster, including an amazing number of those who should have known better, were sadly ignorant about the societies of their sister worlds. True, Westman was what passed for an “aristocrat “ on Montana, but the mind boggled at the thought of him as, say, a New Tuscany oligarch. Whatever their other faults, the Montanans would have laughed themselves silly at the very prospect.

    “He did seem to be taking things lightly, just at first,” he said. “But he’s gotten more serious since. And he’s decided to sign on with our Central Liberation Committee. That’s what we finally decided to call ourselves. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?” he added with a smile.

    “He has?” Nordbrandt demanded, eyes narrowing as she ignored his humorous question.

    “He has,” Harahap said more seriously. “Which is one reason I suspect that even if you decided to take the full three weeks before announcing you’re still alive, someone else’ll help keep the pressure on. And we’ll be providing him with modern weapons and support to do it with. As I told you we might the last time I was here, we seem to’ve come into a bit of an unexpected stock dividend from Van Dort’s RTU, and our contacts have come through with modern weapons, night vision optics, communications hardware, and military-grade explosives. May I assume you’d like a few of those goodies yourself?”

    “You certainly may,” she said with the fervency of someone who, since their last conversation, had experienced the realities of operating from the wrong side of a capability imbalance. “How soon can we expect to see them?”

    “They’re in transit,” he told her, and watched her eyes glitter. “Unfortunately, it’s still going to take them about sixty T-days to get here. Freighters aren’t exactly speed demons, and we need our delivery boys to be so ordinary looking they slide in under the authorities’ radar.” She looked disappointed at the thought of taking that long to get her hands on her previously unanticipated new toys, and he smiled crookedly. “Besides,” he continued, “I imagine you’ll be able to make good use of all that time. After all, we’re going to have to figure out how to land -- and hide, here on the planet -- something on the order of a thousand tons of weapons, ammunition, and explosives.”

    “A thousand?” Her eyes glowed, and he nodded.

    “At least,” he said gently. “And it could be twice that. That was the minimum quantity I was assured of when I set out. They were still assembling the shipment, though, and the numbers may well have gone up since. Can you handle and hide that big a consignment?”

    “Oh, yes,” she told him quietly. “I think you can rely on that!”






    “Celebrant Traffic Control, this is HMS Hexapuma requesting clearance to an assigned parking orbit.”

    Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri sat patiently at his communications panel after transmitting Captain Terekhov’s request. Like all the other systems out here, Celebrant certainly didn’t possess any FTL com capability, and Hexapuma had just crossed the G4 star’s 20.24-light-minute hyper limit. The star system’s habitable planet, which also rejoiced in the name Celebrant, was directly between the ship and its primary, with an orbital radius of just under eleven light-minutes, so it would be at least eighteen minutes before any response could be received by Hexapuma.

    That was perfectly all right with Terekhov. At this range, even the sorts of sensors available in the Cluster should have gotten a clear fix on Hexapuma’s hyper footprint and impeller wedge, so they knew someone was coming. And it was only courteous to let them know as soon as possible who that someone was.

    He gazed into his maneuvering plot, watching his ship’s green bead move steadily closer to the planet of its destination, and, somewhat to his own surprise, discovered that he felt… content. They’d done good work in Nuncio. It might not be as dramatic and glorious as charging into combat against the Republic of Haven’s massed fleet, but it was good, useful work. Work that was going to have profound, positive consequences for the future of the entire Star Kingdom in the fullness of time.

    And let’s be honest. Even if we were serving with Eighth Fleet, we’d probably spend most of our time sitting around in parking orbit, waiting for an enemy attack or preparing for one of our own. That’s what duty with the Fleet is -- ninety-nine percent boredom and one percent sheer, howling terror. I suppose the same is true enough out here, but at least we can spend some of that ninety-nine percent of the time doing useful things, like survey work to update our charts. Besides, these people need us an awful lot worse than the Star Kingdom needs one more heavy cruiser serving with Eighth Fleet or Home Fleet. And every single thing we do lays one more brick in the notion that the Star Kingdom is worth something. That its protection and freedoms actually mean something.

    How odd. He’d known he’d taken a savage satisfaction in destroying Anhur and her consort. But exactly when had he slipped over from being here because someone had to be here to being content that he was the one who actually was here?

    He didn’t know, but as he gazed at the blue and white icon indicating an inhabited world named Celebrant, he actually found himself looking forward to discovering what new routine, boring, absolutely vital and essential tasks awaited them here.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image