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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Thirty Two

       Last updated: Thursday, July 15, 2004 04:15 EDT



    “You know, Boss, we can’t keep this up forever,” Luis Palacios remarked as he slid the final charge into its hole.

    “You think Suttles and his yahoos can actually find their ass with both hands?” Stephen Westman shot back with a chuckle.

    “Matter of fact, they can, Boss. Well, maybe not Suttles, but Trevor Bannister’s no fool, and you know it. Reckon that’s why we’re taking all these precautions you insist on.”

    Chief Marshal Trevor Bannister commanded the Montana Marshals Service, the police force with jurisdiction over the entire star system. Like their fellow Montanans, the marshals made something of a fetish out of appearing as calm and unhurried as it was physically possible. Unfortunately, appearances could be deceiving, and the marshals had an enviable record for cracking even the most difficult of cases. Prior to the recent unpleasantness, Bannister and Westman had also been close friends. Which, Westman knew, wouldn’t for a moment deter Bannister from hunting him, and all his men, down. The Chief Marshal had a well earned reputation for integrity and stubbornness that was monumental even for a Montanan.

    “All right.” Westman nodded. “I’ll grant you old Trevor’s bright enough. And he’s pretty good dog to set on any trail. But if we keep on being careful, sticking to the rules for security, he’s going to play hell catching up with us.”

    “Reckon you’re right.” Palacios tamped the charge, and his nimble fingers began fitting the detonator. “That wasn’t the point I was aiming to make, though.”

    He fell silent, working carefully at his task and obviously concentrating hard, and Westman stood behind him, watching him with affectionate exasperation. Luis Palacios had been Westman’s father’s foreman before the old man’s death. He’d been respectfully warning his new, younger boss against mistakes for as long as Westman could remember. And he preferred to do it by throwing out cryptic utterances until sheer frustration compelled Westman to ask him what he meant.

    Like now.

    “All right, Luis,” he sighed. “What point were you aiming to make?”

    “The point that we can’t keep hitting them hard enough to convince the Manties and Rembrandters to mosey on home and not start hurting people,” Palacios said, turning to look up at him, and his voice was very, very serious.

    Westman looked back down at him in the lantern light. The artificial light did strange things to Palacios’ expression. The foreman’s scarred face looked older, thinner. The shadows seemed to add still more gravity to the already grave set of his mouth and eyes, and Westman wondered if they did the same thing to his face. Silence lingered for several seconds, and then Westman shrugged.

    “You’re right,” he agreed quietly. “I mean to postpone the moment as long as possible, but I’ve always said it was bound to happen if they wouldn’t listen to reason. You know that.”

    “Yep.” Palacios gave the charge and its detonator one last, careful examination, then stood. He slapped his palms together, dusting them off, then reached into his shirt pocket for a twist of the dried native plant the colonists had named backy. It didn’t really look thing like Old Earth tobacco, but it was pleasant tasting, mildly stimulating, and easily grown and cured. Palacios cut himself a short length, popped it into his mouth, and began to chew.

    “Thing is, Boss,” he said, after a moment, “you’ve warned all of us about that. And we’ve believed you. Problem is, I’m not so sure you’ve believed yourself.”

    “What do you mean?”

    If any other man alive had said that to Stephen Westman, he’d have been furious. At least angry at the implication that he’d lied to himself. But Luis Palacios wasn’t “any other man.” He was the person who probably knew Westman better than Westman knew himself.

    “Boss, I’m not saying you haven’t considered the possibility of actually hurting, even killing, the people who get in our way pretty damned seriously. And I’m not saying you’re not willing to get your hands dirty, even bloody, if you have to. And I’m not even saying I think you’ll hesitate if the time comes to do any of those things. But the truth is, Boss -- and you know it as well as I do, if you’re honest with yourself -- you don’t want to do it. Matter of fact, I don’t expect there’s a single thing in the world you want less. Except maybe -- maybe -- to see the Manties take us over.”

    “I never said I did want to.” Westman’s voice was harsh, not with anger, but with resolution. “But I will. If I have to.”

    “Never doubted it,” Palacios said simply. “But you’ve been moving heaven and earth to avoid it. And, truth to tell, I don’t much like what I reckon it’s going to do to you if it comes down to it. Don’t expect I’ll much care for how the other folks on this planet’ll think about all of us, for that matter. Not that I’m about to pack it in on you at this point. I just want you to be thinking about the fact that we’ve probably come pretty close to playing this string all the way out. Reckon we’ll get away with it today without hurting anybody. It won’t be that way much longer, though. And sooner or later, we’re gonna come up against some of Trevor’s boys and girls, and we’re all gonna have guns in our hands. The boys and me, we’ll back you all the way. You know that. And I don’t reckon most of us are gonna have anywhere near the problem you are when it comes to squeezing those triggers, ’cause we’re all perfectly willing to let you do the thinking. But you’re the one’s gonna have to live with those decisions.”

    He paused again, looking very levelly into Westman’s eyes.

    “I’ve known you a lot of years, Boss. Grown pretty fond of you, too. But it’s not gonna be so very much longer before you have to make those decisions, and I don’t want you making one that’s gonna eat you up alive from the inside. So you’d best be thinking real hard about how much blood -- and whose -- you’re really ready to shed.”

    Stephen Westman looked back into his foreman’s eyes for several seconds, then nodded.

    “I’ll think about it,” he promised. “But I’ve already done a lot of that. I don’t think I’m going to change my mind, Luis.”

    “If you don’t, you don’t,” Palacios said philosophically. “Either way, the boys and I’ll back your play.”

    “I know you will,” Westman said softly. “I know you will.”




    “He said they’re going to what?”

    Warren Suttles sat back behind his desk in the spacious, sun-drenched office of the System President and looked at Chief Marshal Bannister in shock. Bannister was a man of only medium height -- a bit on the short side, actually, for Montana -- with a head of thick, grizzled red hair and dark eyes. He was deeply tanned and, despite a job which kept him behind a desk far too much of the time, he was fighting a mainly successful battle against the thickening of his middle. He was also a taciturn, soft-spoken man with a reputation for never using two words when he could do the job with one -- or with a grunt.

    Which was the main reason he didn’t reply to what he recognized as a rhetorical question. It wasn’t the only reason. As a matter of simple fact, Trevor Bannister found Warren Suttles the silliest excuse for a chief executive of any of the three system presidents he’d served as Chief Marshal. Suttles wasn’t a bad man; he just wasn’t a very strong one, and the spin-masters and political handlers who’d gotten him elected weren’t any better. For all practical purposes, the so-called “Suttles Administration” was little better than a committee whose nominal head would’ve had trouble deciding what color to paint his bedroom without first commissioning multiple popular opinion polls. It was unfortunate, in many ways, that Warren Suttles was President instead of Stephen Westman. Although, when it came right down to it, little though Bannister respected Suttles, the President’s policies -- especially where the annexation issue was concerned -- were far better for Montana’s future then Westman’s were. He didn’t like admitting that. If there was anyone on Montana who liked Bernardus Van Dort less than Stephen Westman, it was almost certainly Trevor Bannister, and the thought of supporting anything Van Dort thought was a good idea stuck in his craw sideways. But he’d managed to choke it down, because however much he loathed Van Dort, Suttles was right about the future, and his administration’s policy of embracing the annexation was the only one that made sense.

    And even if it didn’t, this son-of-a-bitch’s the duly elected President of my star system, his policies represent the freely expressed will of damned near three quarters of the electorate, and I’m bound -- both by law and my personal oath -- to enforce the law and to protect and preserve the Constitution of Montana against all enemies, foreign or domestic. Including enemies who happen to be close personal friends.

    “Can he really do that?” Suttles asked, finally moving on from useless questions to some which might actually be worth answering.

    “Mr. President,” Bannister pointed out, “the man’s done every other single thing he said he would.”

    Warren Suttles clenched his jaw and managed -- somehow -- to keep himself from glowering at the man seated across his desk from him. If he’d thought for a minute that he could politically survive firing Bannister, he would’ve done it in a heartbeat. Or he liked to think he would have. The fact was, that he wasn’t sure he would’ve had the nerve to do it even if it had been politically feasible. Which, of course, it wasn’t. Trevor Bannister was an institution, the most successful, most hard driving, most dedicated, most decorated, most everything-in-the-damned-world Chief Marshal in the history of Montana. And he wasn’t even impolite. It was just that he managed to make Warren Suttles feel like an idiot -- or feel pretty confident Bannister thought he was an idiot -- with apparent effortlessness.

    “I’m aware of that, Chief Marshal,” the System President said after a moment. “Just as I’m aware that, so far, we don’t seem to’ve come a single centimeter closer to apprehending him than we were after that first escapade of his.”

    That was about as close to a direct criticism of Bannister’s campaign against the Montana Independence Movement as Suttles was prepared to come, and the verbal shot bounced off Bannister’s armor without so much as a scuff mark. He simply sat there, gazing attentively and respectfully at the System President, and waited.

    “What I meant, Chief Marshal,” Suttles continued a bit stiffly, “was that it seems incredible to me that even Mr. Westman and his henchmen could pull this one off. I’m not saying they can’t; I’m just saying I don’t understand how they can, and I’d appreciate any insight into their capabilities you could offer me.”

    “Well, Mr. President, I can’t say positively, of course. What it looks like is that he got to the old service tunnels under the bank. They’re supposed to be sealed off, and the ceramacrete plugs the Treasury put in sixty, seventy T-years ago are ten meters thick. They’re also supposed to be alarmed, and the alarms are supposed to be monitored twenty-seven hours a day. On the face of it, it shouldn’t be possible for him to get through them, but it seems pretty clear from his message that he did. Say what you will about the man, he’s got a way of doing what he sets his mind to.”

    “You don’t think this time he might be bluffing?”

    “Mr. President, I’ve played a lot of poker with Steve Westman. One thing about him; he don’t bluff worth a damn, and he never has. He’s not bluffing this time.”

    “So you think he’s actually planted explosives under the System Bank of Montana?”

    “Yes, Sir. I do.”

    “And he’ll actually set them off?”

    “Don’t see any other reason to’ve put them there.”

    “My God, Chief Marshal! If he sets those things off, blows up the national bank, it’ll be a devastating blow to the entire economy! He could trigger a full-scale recession!”

    “I expect he’s thought of that, Mr. President.”

    “But he’s gone to such pains to avoid angering the public. What makes you think he’s ready to change that pattern here?”

    “Mr. President, he’s told us all along he’s prepared to go to the mat over this. That he’s prepared to risk being killed himself, and to kill other people, if that’s what it takes. And everything he’s done so far’s been a direct, logical escalation from the last thing he did. Sure, he’s going to piss off a lot of people if he blows the economy into a recession. However, pissing people off is what he’s been after all along. And however pissed they’re going to be at him, he’s figuring they’re going to be just as pissed at you, me, and the rest of the Administration, for letting him do it. The man’s willing to get himself killed over this -- you really think he’s going to lose sleep over people thinking unkind thoughts about him?”



    Suttles felt his teeth trying to grind together, but this time, he knew, at least two-thirds of his frustration was directed at the absent Westman, not at Bannister. Well, maybe a bit less than two-thirds.

    “All right, Chief Marshal. If you’re convinced he’s serious about it, and if you’re also convinced he’s somehow planted explosives charges in the bank service tunnels, why don’t we send someone down to disarm them?”

    “Mostly because Steve obviously thought of that, too. He warned us not to, and I’m pretty sure if we try something like that anyway, we’ll just set them off early.”

    “Don’t we have experts who specialize in disarming bombs and disposing of explosives?”

    “We do. So does the Navy. I’ve talked to them. They say there’s at least a dozen ways he could have rigged his charges to go off the instant anyone steps into those tunnels, assuming that’s where the bombs are.”

    “They’re not even willing to try?”

    “Of course they are. Question is, are we willing to send them in?”

    “Of course we are! How can you even think of not sending them?”

    “First, because I’d just as soon not get them killed,” Bannister said calmly. “And, second, because if we do get them killed, sending them in after Westman’s taken such pains to warn us not to -- to specifically tell us the charges’ll detonate if we do -- it’ll be a mite difficult to convince the public he’s the one responsible for their deaths.”

    “Of course he’d be responsible for their deaths! He’s the one who put the damned bombs there in the first place!”

    “Not saying he didn’t. All I’m saying is public perception’s going to be that your Administration sent those bomb disposal experts in knowing the bombs would go off -- and kill them -- if you did. They’ll blame Westman, all right. But they’ll blame you for ignoring his warning almost as much as they’ll blame him. And do you really want the voters thinking we’re just as clumsy, stupid, and ineffectual as Westman’s been claiming we are right along?”

    Suttles opened his mouth to snap a reply, then paused. A part of him couldn’t help wondering if just possibly Trevor Bannister secretly agreed with Westman. Was it possible the Chief Marshal, for all his famed devotion to duty, actually wanted Westman to win? Possibly enough to see to it that Westman’s attacks succeeded?

    But that thought wasn’t what froze him in mid-snap. Partly because, even at his most irritated, he knew the very idea was ludicrous. Not that it was impossible Bannister agreed with Westman, but that he would have permitted that agreement to deflect him a single millimeter from his duty. But mostly he froze because he’d suddenly realized that the Chief Marshal had a point.

    “Have you talked to the Treasury Secretary about this, Chief Marshal?” he asked instead of saying what he’d started to say.

    “I have.”

    “What was his estimate of the consequences if the bombs go off?”

    “I understand he’s prepared to give you his formal estimate at the emergency Cabinet meeting, Mr. President.”

    “I’m sure he is. And I’m sure you expect me to make my decision only after every member of the Cabinet’s had a chance to express his or her own views on exactly what I ought to be doing.”

    There was an ever so slightly biting edge to the President’s voice, and Suttles was rather pleased to see a faint spark of surprise in Bannister’s dark eyes.

    “However,” he continued, “let’s not waste time pretending anything any of them say is going to weigh as heavily as what you recommend, Chief Marshal. So just go ahead and tell me what Secretary Stiles had to say.”

    “He estimates, in a worst-case scenario, that we’ll lose about two months worth of electronic records. Anything over two months old is backed up at the remote location in the New Swans. Well, it’s backed up in the Bank building, as well. Unfortunately, the backups’re in the sub cellars, which means they’re even closer to his bombs -- assuming they’re really there -- than the primary computers. According to the Secretary, we can probably reconstitute about eighty percent of the electronic records from hardcopy records at secondary locations, although it’ll take weeks -- at best -- to get the job done. I think he’s being over optimistic in that estimate, Mr. President. But that’s what he’s going to tell you.”

    “And did he happen to mention what effect he expects that to have on the economy?”

    “I don’t think he has the least idea, Mr. President. I don’t think anyone does. It’s never happened before. I don’t expect it to be good, and neither does he, but his feeling is that unless it sparks an outright panic -- which, I think is unlikely -- the effect should stop well short of the sort of panic-induced recession you referred to earlier.”

    “Which isn’t the same thing as saying that it won’t cost us millions, possibly even billions.”

    “No, Mr. President. It isn’t.”

    “And your recommendation is still that we accept the damage rather than sending in bomb disposal units to try and prevent it?”

    “Mr. President, if I thought there was a chance in hell of disarming those bombs without setting them off, I’d personally lead our BDUs into those tunnels. I don’t think there is. So I’m recommending we not get people killed in addition to the damage we’re already going to take. The bombs are going off, Sir. Do we really want to get our own people killed, and assume the political consequences stemming from the electorate’s view that we did it because we were too stupid to take Westman’s word for what would happen?”

    Suttles looked at him for several moments in silence. Then the System President inhaled deeply, planted his hands on his desktop, and shoved himself erect.

    “All right, Chief Marshal,” he sighed. “Let’s get on into the Cabinet meeting. And, if you don’t mind,” he actually managed a smile, “let me at least pretend to listen to everyone else before I decide we’re going to do things your way.”

    “Of course, Mr. President,” Trevor Bannister said, and rose with considerably more genuine respect for his President than usual.

    Be damned, he thought, following Suttles out of the office, might just be the man’s got a spine, after all. Be nice if he had a brain to go with it, but who knows? It may turn out he’s even got one of those if he ever decides to stand up on his hind legs and use it.

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