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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Thirty Three

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



    “Well, what do you make of it, Andrieaux?” Samiha Lababibi asked.

    “What do you mean, what do I make of it?”

    The Spindle System President and New Tuscany’s senior delegate sat in a private dining room at one of the most exclusive restaurants in Thimble. It was a very private dining room -- one whose security against any known listening device was guaranteed, as was the discretion of the wait staff which served diners in it.

    “Andrieaux, let’s not play games, please,” Lababibi said with a winsome smile. She picked up the wine bottle and poured fresh glasses for both of them. “The probability that Nordbrandt’s dead is bound to affect everyone’s calculations. What I’m asking for is your estimate of how it’s going to affect Alquezar’s, Aleksandra’s… and ours.”

    “Surely it’s much too early to be formulating new policies on the basis of something which hasn’t even been confirmed yet,” Andrieaux Yvernau protested gracefully, and Lababibi’s smile took on a slightly set air. He sipped his wine appreciatively, then set down the glass with a sigh. “Personally, I find the entire matter extraordinarily tiresome,” he said. “I’d like to think that if she really is dead -- and I do devoutly hope she is -- we might be allowed at least a few days, or weeks, of peace before we have to return to the fray with Alquezar’s hooligans.”

    “It’s extremely unlikely Joachim is going to give us that sort of vacation, Andrieaux,” Lababibi pointed out. And, she didn’t add aloud, if you want a little rest, you smug, self-satisfied ass, you might think about the fact that my own life was ever so much more restful before that crazed bitch drove me into your waiting arms -- yours and Aleksandra’s.

    “Really, Samiha, what does it matter what Joachim’s willing to give us? As long as we hold firm, he and that disgusting Krietzmann have no choice but to await our response.” He smiled thinly. “According to reports I’ve received from certain people officially on the other side, our dear friend Bernardus is having steadily mounting problems holding the RTU-backed delegates for Alquezar. And if they come over to our side --“

    He shrugged, his smile turning into something remarkably like a smirk.

    “They haven’t shown any signs of breaking with him yet,” Lababibi pointed out.

    “Not openly, no. But you know there have to be fissures under the surface, Samiha. They can’t possibly be comfortable siding with lower class cretins like Krietzmann, whatever Van Dort and Alquezar are demanding. It’s only a matter of time before they start coming over, and when they do, Alquezar will have no choice but to accept the ‘compromise’ between Aleksandra’s demands and my own, far more moderate position.”

    “And you don’t see Nordbrandt’s death affecting that equation in any way?”

    “I didn’t say that,” Yvernau said with a patient sigh. “What I said is that it’s too early to be formulating new policies when all we can do is speculate upon the effect her demise is likely to have. Although, if I had to guess, I’d be tempted to wager it will strengthen my position more than anyone else’s. To some extent, of course, Aleksandra’s contention that Nordbrandt never represented any serious threat will be validated. Insofar as that view is accepted, it will also tend to validate her stand in holding out for the most liberal possible protection of our existing legal codes and societies. However, it will also take some of the pressure off certain of her… less enthusiastic supporters, shall we say?”

    He darted a look across the table at Lababibi, who returned it with an expression of complete tranquility. An expression, she knew, which fooled neither of them. She had, indeed, been driven into Tonkovic’s camp by the wave of panic Nordbrandt’s extremism had sent surging through the Spindle System oligarchs. If Nordbrandt truly was gone, and if her organization truly was crippled, some of that panic might begin to subside. In which case, the pressure being exerted on Lababibi to maintain a united front with Tonkovic might also ebb. It might even be possible to move back towards a position based on principle instead of other peoples’ panic.

    Not that Yvernau would be particularly happy if she managed that.

    “If,” he continued, “Aleksandra’s bloc of votes begins to show signs of crumbling, Alquezar will scent blood. He and Krietzmann -- and Bernardus, if he ever deigns to return from Rembrandt -- will begin to press their demands that we accept the Star Kingdom’s legal code lock, stock, and barrel with even greater fervency. Which, of course, will only stiffen Aleksandra’s opposition. I suspect we’ll see a period of gradual erosion of her support base, unless, of course, some replacement for Nordbrandt appears. But it will be a gradual process, one which will take weeks, even months, to show any significant effect on the balance of power in the Convention. Eventually, of course, the balance will tip against her. But she already knows that as well as you and I do, whether she chooses to admit it or not. Which means that somewhere deep inside she’s already accepted that she’ll never get everything she’s holding out for. So if I choose my moment properly, when I step forward to present my compromise platform -- one which gives Alquezar perhaps half of what he wants -- she’ll endorse it. And if both of us unite in a sudden surge of goodwill and the spirit of compromise, Alquezar will find it extremely difficult not to meet us halfway.”

    “And if he refuses to, anyway?”

    “Then he loses his own oligarchs,” Yvernau said simply. “Not even Van Dort will be able to hold them if Alquezar first throws away a chance for a compromise solution and, second, makes it clear the draft Constitution he favors will strip them of every single legal protection they’ve spent centuries acquiring. Which means, in the end, that I and those who think like me will get everything we’ve wanted all along. Effectively total local autonomy in return for a unified interstellar fiscal, trade, diplomatic, and military policy emanating from Manticore.”

    “And you believe this will take weeks. Even months.”

    “I think it’s extremely likely to,” Yvernau acknowledged.

    “You’re not concerned about Baroness Medusa’s warnings that our time isn’t unlimited? Nor worried that if things stretch out that long the Star Kingdom may simply decide to walk away? To take the position that if we can’t put our own house into order well enough to report out a draft Constitution after all this time, then obviously we’re not really serious about joining the Star Kingdom at all?”

    “I think there will probably be some internal, domestic pressure for the Star Kingdom do that,” Yvernau said calmly. “In this instance, however, I think Aleksandra is correct. The Queen of Manticore herself has committed her crown and prestige to the annexation. If she’s actually told Medusa there’s a time limit -- if our beloved Provisional Governor hasn’t simply manufactured the threat to push us along -- I suspect her ‘time limit’ actually contains a large measure of bluff. She might want a Constitution hastened, and she might not be prepared to use force to suppress opposition to the annexation, but neither is she going to simply walk away and present to the galaxy at large the impression that she’s abandoned us to Frontier Security.”

    “I see.”

    Lababibi nodded slowly, as if in agreement with her dinner companion, but underneath her calm surface she wondered just how overconfident Yvernau -- and Tonkovic -- were actually being.




    “Do you think she’s actually dead?” Baroness Medusa, asked as she gazed around a dinner table of her own. This one sat in the luxurious -- by Spindle standards -- mansion allocated as the official residence of Her Majesty’s Provisional Governor. And this dining room was guarded by far more effective anti-snooping systems than protected the one in which Samiha Lababibi and Andrieaux Yvernau were dining at that very moment.

    “I don’t know, Milady,” Gregor O’Shaughnessy admitted. “I wish we’d had some of our own forensics people on-site, although I’m not really sure even that would have helped a lot.

    “From Colonel Basaricek’s report, it certainly sounds as if she could be gone, but Basaricek herself points out that her evidence is extremely problematical. I’ve requested a copy of the KNP’s low-light imagery. Once we have it, we may be able to enhance the quality sufficiently to make a more positive estimation of whether or not it really was Nordbrandt. Of course, even for a dispatch boat, the transit time between here and Split is over seven days one-way, so it’ll be at least another week before it could possibly get here.”

    “Excuse me, Gregor,” Commander Chandler said, “but if we’re requesting copies of the imagery, why don’t we simply offer our own forensic services to determine whether or not the remains are hers?”

    “I considered that, Ambrose,” O’Shaughnessy told Rear Admiral Khumalo’s intelligence officer. “But then I read the full appendices Basaricek had attended to her basic report.”

    “I skimmed them myself,” Chandler said. He grimaced. “I can’t say I understood everything in them. Or even most of what was in them, for that matter.”

    Rear Admiral Khumalo frowned from his seat at the foot of the table as Chandler made that admission. Dame Estelle saw it and wondered whether Khumalo’s problem was that he felt Chandler should have understood the technical material, or if he was just irritated with the ONI officer for admitting ignorance in the presence of civilians.

    “I didn’t understand them either.” O’Shaughnessy didn’t even glance at Khumalo, but the Provisional Governor suspected him of deliberately drawing a little fire away from his uniformed colleague. “But, because I didn’t understand them, I went and asked Major Cateaux for her analysis.”

    Several people sat a bit straighter, listening more intently, at the mention of Major Cateaux. Sandra Cateaux was the senior Marine physician assigned to the understrength battalion stationed in Spindle.

    “She reviewed the material,” O’Shaughnessy told them. “And when she finished, she told me what I’d been afraid she was going to.” He shrugged. “The short version is that if the remains the KNP recovered had been those of a Manticoran citizen, the Major could easily have identified the victim. But because they’re the remains of a Kornatian citizen, she doesn’t have the base information she requires for a genetic determination. Apparently Nordbrandt never had a genetic scan -- they’re rarely performed by the current Kornatian medical establishment -- and, so far as the KNP’s been able to determine, no samples of her blood or tissue were retained by her physicians. Or else, as I suspect was the case, she and her organization saw to it that any samples which had been retained were properly disappeared when she decided to go underground.

    “As for more mundane, not to say primitive, forensic techniques, apparently Ms. Nordbrandt hadn’t previously suffered any physical injuries which would have left identifying markers in the rather, um… finely divided remains. The Kornatians do have her dental records; unfortunately, they didn’t recover enough teeth for a positive ID.

    “In short, according to Major Cateaux, the available material and records simply aren’t enough to conclusively determine from the physical evidence whether or not the remains belong to Nordbrandt.”

    “What about genetic comparisons to family members?” Captain Shoupe asked. Khumalo’s chief of staff was frowning intently as she leaned forward to look down the length of the table at O’Shaughnessy.

    “That might be a possibility,” Dame Estelle’s intelligence chief acknowledged. “Except, unfortunately, for the fact that Ms. Nordbrandt was adopted.” Shoupe winced, and O’Shaughnessy nodded. “That’s right. She was a foundling. Colonel Basaricek’s looking into it, but she’s not optimistic about her investigators turning up anything that would guide us at this late date to Nordbrandt’s biological family.”

    “So all we can really say is that it may be Nordbrandt,” Khumalo rumbled with an expression of profound disapproval.

    “I’m afraid so, Admiral,” O’Shaughnessy said regretfully, and a gloomy silence fell briefly over the table.

    “There may be some indirect, inferential evidence,” Chandler said after a moment. All eyes turned in his direction, and he shrugged.

    “While Gregor was consulting with Major Cateaux, I spent some time analyzing the news reportage from Kornati and cross-indexing it with Colonel Basaricek’s report on FAK activity. The two salient points which struck me, once I’d stripped away all of newsies’ verbiage and wild speculation, were that, first, Nordbrandt hasn’t stepped forward to announce she’s still alive. And, second, the tempo of FAK attacks has dropped radically. Obviously, as Gregor’s just ‘ pointed out, all ‘ our information is over a T-week out of date simply because of the time it spends in transit. Nonetheless, the pattern I’m referring to had been established over a period of almost eight days before Vice President Rajkovic sent Basaricek’s report to the Convention.”

    “Those are both excellent points, Ambrose,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It does seem peculiar for a terrorist leader who’s been reported killed by government forces not to announce she’s still alive… if she is still alive. The uncertainty among her followers would have to have a pronounced negative effect on their ability and willingness to continue the struggle. For that matter, it’s a bit odd that no one’s come forward claiming to be her spokesperson even if she’s actually dead, just to try to hold her movement together.”

    “That might depend on just how disordered they are in the wake of her death,” Captain Shoupe suggested. “Maybe there’s nobody left in a sufficiently clear position of command to organize that sort of hoax.”

    “More likely, they just don’t think it would work,” Chandler said. Shoupe looked at him, and he shrugged again. “Nordbrandt was FAK’s sole spokeswoman. She was the terrorists’ public face, the voice which openly -- proudly -- accepted responsibility for their atrocities in their collective name. If she were still alive and not seriously incapacitated, she’d never rely on a spokesperson to inform her homeworld of that. So either she isn’t still alive, or else she is seriously incapacitated. Or, for some reason, she’s chosen not to announce her survival, despite her decision’s probable negative impact on her own organization.”

    “Can anybody suggest a reason why she might make a choice like that?” Dame Estelle asked.

    “I can’t, Milady,” Chandler said. “On the other hand, I wasn’t privy to her plans before this attack went sour. I’m certainly not privy to whatevers going through the FAK’s collective mind at this point. It’s entirely possible there might be some tactical or strategic advantage in allowing the Kornatian authorities to believe she’s dead. I simply can’t imagine what it might be from the limited information we possess.”

    “I have to agree with Ambrose, Milady,” O’Shaughnessy said. “I can’t think of any advantage it might gain for them, either. As he says, none of us have any sort of inside line to what these people might be thinking or planning, but his second point -- that the FAK’s been almost somnolent since her reported death -- may also be significant. It may well be she was just as charismatic and central to her organization’s operations and existence as her role as its sole spokeswoman, as Ambrose puts it, might suggest. If she was, and if she’s dead, then the FAK may very well be disintegrating even as we speak.”

    “Now that’s a pleasant thought, Mr. O’Shaughnessy,” Rear Admiral Khumalo observed.

    “Yes, it is,” the Provisional Governor agreed. “And, to be honest, I think it’s what President Tonkovic thinks is happening. She’s still talking in terms of our providing ‘technical’ assistance -- reconnaissance and intelligence support and modern weapons for her own law enforcement and military personnel -- rather than the actual insertion of our own troops. I, personally, don’t plan on investing too much confidence in the notion that Nordbrandt’s gone and the FAK is going -- certainly not without additional evidence. But the possibility obviously exists. And if it happens to be true, it would free us to turn our primary attention to Mr. Westman and his Montana Independence Movement.”

    “Which,” Khumalo sighed gloomily, “is a problem less likely to yield to simple solutions than Ms. Nordbrandt appears to have been.”




    “Excuse me, Skipper.”

    “Yes, Amal?” Aivars Terekhov looked up from his discussion with Ansten FitzGerald and Ginger Lewis as Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri poked his head into the bridge briefing room.

    “Sorry to disturb you, but a dispatch boat’s just arrived from Spindle, Sir,” Hexapuma’s communications officer said. “She’s already uploaded her dispatches to us.”

    “Really?” Terekhov tipped his chair back, turning it away from the table to face the hatch. “May I assume we have new orders?”

    “Yes, Sir, we do. I’ve copied them for you,” Nagchaudhuri said, extending a message board. But Terekhov shook his head.

    “Just give me the gist of them.”

    “Yes, Sir. We’re to return to Spindle via Rembrandt, picking up Mr. Bernardus Van Dort from Vermeer en route.”

    “Van Dort? Was there any explanation of why we’re to collect him?”

    “No, Sir. Of course, all I’ve done so far is to decrypt our orders. There was a lot more in the download, including news reports from Spindle and a hefty amount of private correspondence for you from Admiral Khumalo and the Provisional Governor. I’d say there’s a fair chance something in there may give us a clue or two, Skipper.”

    “You have a point,” Terekhov agreed, and turned to look at Fitzgerald and Lewis again.

    “Well, the good news is that at least the Celebrants don’t seem to be experiencing the problems the Nuncio was. We can pull out in good conscience without worrying about abandoning them to some outside threat. Or, at least, any known outside threat.” He smiled thinly.

    “True enough, Skipper,” FitzGerald agreed. “I wish we’d had more than eight days in-system, though. Our astrogation database updates are just getting started, and I hate to stop now.”

    “It’s a pain, but it’s not the end of the universe,” Terekhov said. “We had to take the first couple of days to introduce ourselves to the Celebrants. Frankly, I think that was time well spent -- probably better than if we’d launched straight into the survey, when all’s said, Ansten. The relationship between the people who live here and the Star Kingdom’s more important than the coordinates of some minor system body.”

    “You’ve got me there, Skip,” FitzGerald said.

    “Very well. Amal.”

    “Yes, Sir?”

    “First, a message to President Shaw’s office. Inform them that we’re under orders to depart as soon as possible for Spindle. This is only a heads-up for general information. I’ll want to send him a personal message before we actually depart.”

    “Aye, Sir.”

    “Second, a message for the dispatch boat’s skipper. Unless he has specific orders to continue on to some other system, I’ll want him to return directly to Spindle. We’ll upload our logs, including our reports on events in Nuncio, as well as any mail our people want to send ahead. The dispatch boat can shave three days, absolute, off our own arrival time, even assuming we don’t have to lay over in Rembrandt while we wait for Mr. Van Dort.”

    “Aye, Sir,” Nagchaudhuri repeated.

    “Third, general broadcast to all our small craft and away duty and leave parties. All hands to repair onboard immediately.”

    “Aye, Sir.”

    “I think that’s it for now. Get back to me as soon as you can on the dispatch boat’s availability, please.”

    “Yes, Sir. I’ll see to it.”

    Nagchaudhuri stepped back through the hatch on to the bridge, and Terekhov glanced at his two senior subordinates.

    “What do you think they’re up to, Skip?” FitzGerald asked after a moment.

    “Not a clue in the universe,” Terekhov told him with a grin.

    “Me neither,” Ginger Lewis said. “But, in the words of an old pre-space book I read once, ‘Curiouser and curiouser.”



    “Jesus Christ.”

    Stephen Westman couldn’t have said whether he meant it as a prayer or a curse. He sat in his underground headquarters with Luis Palacios, staring at the news footage which had finally arrived from the Split System. That footage was over forty days old; the Talbott Cluster wasn’t served by the fast commercial dispatch boats the interstellar news services used to tie more important bits of the galaxy together, and the news had crossed the hundred and twenty light-years between Split and Montana aboard a regular freighter. Which meant it had crossed slowly. Not that the delay in transit had made it any better.

    “My God, Boss,” Palacios said. “She’s got to be a frigging maniac!”

    “I wish I could disagree,” Westman replied.

    He looked down at his hands and was astounded to see they weren’t shaking like leaves. They ought to have been. And he was vaguely surprised he wasn’t actively nauseated by the gory imagery of the atrocity Agnes Nordbrandt had committed.

    “They attacked their own parliament building while Parliament was in session!” Palacios muttered. “What were they thinking?”

    “What do you think they were thinking?” Westman snorted bitterly. “Look at this ‘manifesto’ of theirs! They’re not trying to convince people to support them -- they’re declaring war against their entire government, not just the annexation effort. Hell, Luis -- they’ve gone to war against their entire society! And it looks like they don’t give a good goddamn who they kill in the course of it. Look at this body count. And it’s from their very first damned operation. Operation! It was a goddamned massacre! They wanted the highest possible casualty totals -- that’s why they had two damned waves of fucking bombs!”

    He sat back, shaking his head, thinking about how hard he and his people had worked to avoid killing anyone, much less innocent bystanders. The spectacular destruction of the System Bank of Montana had antagonized a sizable percentage of Montana’s electorate, exactly as Westman had anticipated. He hadn’t really liked pissing off that many people, but it was inevitable that the majority of Montanans were going to oppose his objectives, at least initially. After all, almost three-quarters of them had voted in favor of annexation. So there wasn’t a lot of point pussyfooting around and trying to avoid hurt feelings. He’d made his point that he was prepared to attack economic targets other than the hated Rembrandter presence on Montana. And he’d made his secondary point, that he was prepared to disrupt the entire star system’s economy, if that was what it took to get all the assorted and accursed off-worlders off Montana once and for all. But he’d also managed to do it without killing, or even injuring anyone.

    Frankly, he’d been surprised no bomb disposal experts had been sent into the bank’s cellars in an effort to defuse his bombs. Delighted, but surprised. He’d expected that they would be, despite the airy confidence to the contrary he’d adopted for his followers’ benefit. And he’d known that if the Marshal Service or the military had sent bomb disposal units into the tunnels, some or all of those men and women would have been killed by his anti-tampering arrangements. He’d anticipated that Trevor Bannister would know he wasn’t bluffing, but he’d been very much afraid that halfwitted jackass Suttles and the rest of his Cabinet would reject Trevor’s advice.

    Yet they hadn’t, and because they hadn’t, he still wasn’t a murderer.

    It wouldn’t last, of course. As Luis had pointed out, sooner or later people were going to be killed. But one thing he was grimly determined upon was that he would never resort to general and indiscriminate slaughter. His government had no right to subvert the Montana Constitution, and no off-worlders had the right to exploit and economically enslave his planet. He would fight those people, and those who served them, in any way he must. Yet he’d also do his best to minimize casualties even among their ranks. And before he embarked on the deliberate massacre of innocent men, women, and children, he would turn himself in, and all his men with him.

    Still, he thought, drawing a deep breath and getting a grip on his shock, he was still a long way away from that kind of decision. And he had no intention of finding himself forced to make it.

    But I do have another decision to make ‘Firebrand’ and his Central Liberation Committee are supporting both me and Nordbrandt. Do I really want to be associated, even indirectly, with someone who could do something like this? Nobody outside the Central Liberation Committee would ever know I was, but I’d know. And Firebrand was so enthusiastic about Nordbrandt and her plans. My God, his eyes narrowed, momentarily harder than blue flint, in fresh realization, the whole time he was standing here telling me how he admired my “restraint,” he was already in bed with a murderous bitch like this!

    I should tell him to bugger off and stay the hell away from me, if he’s so fond of bloodthirsty lunatics. The last thing I need is to be associated with someone like Nordbrandt!

    But he was right. I do need the weapons and other support he’s offered to provide. And so far, at least, there’s been no pressure to change my operational methods. If there is any pressure, I can always just say goodbye and don’t screen us, we’ll screen you.

    He gazed off into nothingness, at things only he could see, and wrestled with his own demons even as he shied away from a demoness named Nordbrandt.

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