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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Thirty Seven

       Last updated: Wednesday, August 25, 2004 23:28 EDT



    The unarmed air car approached the agreed upon meeting site at exactly the agreed upon time.

    Stephen Westman stood leaning against a tree, arms folded across his chest, and watched it come. It had taken two full days of cautious contacts and secret negotiation to arrange this meeting, and there was a certain fitting irony, though he’d be unable to share it with his “guests,” to the location he’d chosen. The last off-worlder he’d met here had been the man called “Firebrand,” whose objectives had been somewhat different from these off-worlders’. He wondered if Van Dort and the Manties in the air car would find the scenery as spectacular as Firebrand had.

    The air car circled the site once, then settled to a neat landing the better part of seventy meters from Westman. The turbines whined as they spooled down, and Westman straightened, letting his arms fall to his side. Luis Palacios had wanted to be here, but Westman had turned him down. Although the MIM leader had complete faith in Chief Marshal Bannister’s integrity, he had somewhat less confidence in Bernardus Van Dort’s. And he’d never met any Manticoran -- aside, he corrected himself with a snort of amusement, from those Manty surveyors he’d encountered on the banks of the Schuyler River. For all he knew, Manties might be almost as treacherous as Sollies.

    The passenger side hatch opened, and Trevor Bannister climbed out. The strength of the pang Westman felt as he saw his old friend for the first time in months surprised him. He wondered if Trevor felt the same way, but no expression crossed the chief marshal’s face as he made a quick but thorough survey of the surroundings, then turned and walked slowly to his waiting “host.”

    “Afternoon, Trevor,” Westman said.

    “Steve.” Bannister nodded, then shoved his Stetson well back on his head and gazed out over the New Missouri Gorge. “Nice scenery.”

    “Seemed appropriate.”

    The two men looked at one another for a moment, then Westman smiled.

    “Don’t see any desperate ambushers?”

    “Didn’t expect to.” Bannister took off his hat and ran his fingers through his grizzled red hair. “You might want to think about the fact that the people in this air car also took your word that they had safe conduct,” he said. Westman looked surprised, and the chief marshal snorted. “These aren’t Montanans, Steve. Matter of fact, they’re senior representatives of those antichrists you’ve been campaigning against. But they still took your word. You might want to consider what that says about whether or not you can trust what they say.”

    “Point taken.” Westman nodded. “All the same, a dishonest man can trust an honest man to stay honest. Doesn’t necessarily work the other way ’round.”

    “Reckon there’s something in that,” Bannister conceded. Then put his hat back on, turned, and waved to the passengers still in the air car.

    Westman watched them disembark. Van Dort was easy to recognize, even at this distance, thanks to his height. Besides, Westman had met the Rembrandter personally. The thought was like an under-ripe persimmon, and his mouth twisted briefly before his eyes moved on to the other new arrivals.

    The bearded man beside Van Dort also had blond hair and blue eyes. In fact, Westman thought with a certain inner amusement, the meeting site seemed to the crowded with tallish, blond-haired men. But the amusement faded as the off-worlders got closer and he looked into Aivars Terekhov’s blue eyes. This wasn’t a man to take lightly, he realized.

    His concentration on the two men had held his attention until they were almost up to him. He looked past them then, at the final person to climb out of the air car, and the last flicker of amusement disappeared. He’d been told Van Dort and Captain Terekhov would be accompanied by a single aide, a Manticoran midshipwoman. Some sort of very junior lieutenant, Bannister’s messenger had told him. But no one had warned him what she looked like, and despite all his own formidable self-control, his eyes darted to Trevor Bannister’s face.

    The chief marshal looked back at him, once again expressionless as a sphinx, and Westman winced mentally. It must have been like a punch in the belly when he saw that dark-haired, dark-eyed, solidly muscled young woman. Especially when he saw her standing with Bernardus Van Dort.

    “Steve,” Bannister said in a professionally detached tone, “I don’t have to introduce you to Mr. Van Dort, I know, but this,” he gestured at the Manticoran captain, “is Captain Aivars Terekhov, commanding officer of HMS Hexapuma. And this,” he gestured at the young woman standing respectfully behind Van Dort and Terekhov, and his voice never even wavered, “is Midshipwoman Helen Zilwicki.”

    “Welcome,” Westman said, shaking aside his own reaction to the young woman. “Wish I could say it’s a pleasure to see you gentlemen, but I never was much good at polite lies. Nothing personal, but seeing you two on Montanan soil under any circumstances doesn’t exactly make me want to do handsprings of delight.”

    “Chief Marshal Bannister reminded me that you’re a blunt-spoken man,” Van Dort said with a smile of what looked like genuine amusement. “I can work with that. In fact, I’ve been accused of being just a little too blunt-spoken myself, upon occasion.”

    “Hope you won’t take this wrongly,” Westman said, “but that’s not the only thing you’ve been accused of. Especially not here on Montana.”

    “I’m sure it isn’t,” the Rembrandter conceded. “As a matter of fact, if I were a Montanan, I’d probably harbor quite a bit of -- ill-will, shall we say? -- where Rembrandt and the Trade Union were concerned.”

    One of Westman’s eyebrows quirked at the admission. Of course, he reminded himself, words cost nothing. And even if Van Dort’s statement was completely accurate, it didn’t mean a thing about the Rembrandter’s ultimate objectives.

    “As I’m sure you’ve noticed,” he said, “I’ve had my people put up a tent over there, under the trees. It’s quite a nice tent, actually -- used to belong to some Manticoran surveyors, I believe -- and it’s air-conditioned. I thought we might all like to get out of the sun and sit down someplace cool for this little talk you gentlemen wanted.”



    Helen was confused. There was something going on between Westman, Van Dort, and -- of all people -- Chief Marshal Bannister. She didn’t have a clue what it was, but somehow she felt certain she was mixed up in it somehow. Which was preposterous, of course, except for the fact that she knew it was the truth.

    She followed the four men to the waiting tent. Its side still carried the rampant manticore of the Star Kingdom’s coat of arms, and she felt a flicker of amused respect for Westman’s audacity. He was making a none-too-subtle point by flaunting his trophy, but it also provided a comfortable place for the representatives of the various sides to sit down and talk.

    All four men found seats around the camp table inside the tent. There was a fifth chair, but Helen chose to stand, hands clasped loosely behind her, at Van Dort’s shoulder. She felt Westman’s eyes flicker over her again, once more with that odd expression of almost-recognition. He looked as if he were about to insist that she sit down, which would have been in keeping with the elaborate Montanan social code. But he glanced at Van Dort and Bannister, then visibly changed his mind.

    “All right,” he said after a moment. “This meeting was your idea, I understand, Mr. Van Dort. That being the case, I reckon it’s only fair to give you the floor first.”

    “Thank you,” Van Dort said, but he didn’t seem in any great hurry. He sat for a moment, his hands lightly folded on the camp table while he gazed out through the window-configured tent wall across the magnificent sweep of the New Missouri River Gorge. He sat that way for several seconds before he brought his gaze back inside and focused on Westman.

    “I’m here,” he said, “not as a representative of Rembrandt, but as the personal representative of Baroness Medusa, Queen Elizabeth’s Provisional Governor for the Talbott Cluster. I don’t expect you to forget I’m a Rembrandter. Nor do I expect you to forget all the reasons you have for disliking me personally, or for distrusting and detesting Rembrandt and the Trade Union. If you wish to discuss our past policies and how we went about implementing them, I’m quite prepared to do so. However, I’d like to request that you allow me to speak as Baroness Medusa’s envoy first. I suspect,” he allowed himself a crooked smile, “that if we get into debating Montana-Rembrandt relations, we’ll be here for the next several days. At least.”

    Westman’s mouth twitched. It looked, Helen thought, as if the Montanan had felt a sudden urge to smile back at Van Dort. If he had, he managed to suppress it quite handily, though.

    “Speaking as Baroness Medusa’s representative, then,” Van Dort continued, “I’ve been instructed to ask you to set forth your exact objections to the annexation of the Montana System, at the freely voted upon request of its citizens, by the Star Kingdom of Manticore. I realize you’ve published your manifesto, and knowing Montanans, I have no doubt that it honestly represents your convictions. What Baroness Medusa would like to do is to give you the opportunity to expand upon your manifesto’s statements. She hopes, frankly, to open a direct dialogue. To give you a channel through which both of you may straightforwardly set forth your views and opinions. Whether or not this ultimately achieves anything is, of course, impossible to predict. But Baroness Medusa feels, and I believe with reason, that without such a dialogue, there’s no hope at all of arriving at a negotiated resolution of the current situation.”

    “I see,” Westman said after frowning for several seconds. Then he shook his head -- not in rejection, but to indicate a certain dubiousness, Helen thought.

    “That all sounds very reasonable,” the guerrilla leader went on. “But I’m just a mite skeptical. And, truth be told, it’s a mite difficult for me to forget who you are. You just mentioned freely voted upon requests, but everybody in the Cluster knows the entire annexation plebiscite came out of Rembrandt. And that you personally were the driving force behind it, at least at first. I hope you won’t take this wrongly, but that tends to taint the whole notion in my eyes.”

    “I don’t blame you,” Van Dort said calmly. “As I said, I’d prefer not to debate all of the past strains and tensions between Montana and the RTU. I will acknowledge freely, however, that the RTU’s policies were part of a carefully planned strategy to build the economic power of the RTU’s member systems as rapidly as possible. In pursuit of those policies, we did some things which, quite frankly, were one-sided and unfair to other systems. Montana was such a system, and, as such, you have every right to resent and dislike us.

    “I regret the fact that all of that’s true, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t do exactly the same again under the same circumstances. This entire Cluster’s been looking down the barrel of Frontier Security’s pulser for a long time now. I saw that coming even before OFS started looking our way, and I came up with the RTU as the best strategy to protect my own homeworld. I didn’t think there was any way I could hope to protect anyone else, so I didn’t try to. But the discovery of the Lynx Terminus changed all that.

    “My point is simply this: the policies which made Rembrandt an economic aggressor were intended to defend Rembrandt. When I saw an opportunity for an even better defensive strategy -- annexation by the Star Kingdom -- I leapt at it. And, in the process, I finally did find a way I could hope to protect the rest of the Cluster. You may not believe that was my motivation, but it was. And whether it was or not, and all personal considerations aside, you should consider the advantages and disadvantages of the proposal not on the basis of where it originated, but on the basis of what it can mean for your own world and your own objectives. That’s what Baroness Medusa’s asking you to do -- and the reason she hopes to open a dialogue with you.”

    “I see.” Westman sat back, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

    “I see,” he repeated. “Unfortunately, at the moment, it seems to me that my objectives and Baroness Medusa’s are mutually exclusive. I don’t want Montana to join the Star Kingdom; she wants to annex it for her Queen.” He shook his head again. “Not a whole lot of room for compromise there, I think.”

    “I don’t believe I said anything about compromises, Mr. Westman.” Westman’s eyebrows rose, and Van Dort smiled again, thinly, this time. “Assuming your own government remains committed to seeking annexation, and assuming the Constitutional Convention drafts a Constitution which is mutually acceptable to our citizens and Manticore, Montana will become a member of the Star Kingdom.”

    Westman’s eyes flashed, but Van Dort met his fiery gaze steadily.

    “That isn’t meant to sound gratuitously confrontational,” the Rembrandter said. “However, the fact is that, like any guerrilla movement, yours can only succeed if a significant percentage of the Montanan population decides to support it. Without that, your movement is ultimately doomed, and the question simply becomes how much damage you do to your own star system and, indirectly, to the Star Kingdom at large before it’s ultimately suppressed.”

    “I expect you might find the amount of damage we can do more than you’d care for,” Westman half-snapped.

    “Baroness Medusa finds the damage you’ve already done more than she cares for. But that doesn’t mean the Star Kingdom isn’t prepared to absorb even more damage if it must. And, I repeat, the Star Kingdom will only be involved in attempting to forcibly suppress your actions if the majority of your fellow Montanans continue to desire to become citizens of the Star Kingdom. Should that be true, however, and should an acceptable Constitution be drafted and approved by the Manticoran Parliament and the legislatures of the Cluster’s member star systems, the Star Kingdom will commit whatever resources are necessary to bring an end to violence here on Montana.”

    “Better listen to him, Steve,” Chief Marshal Bannister said shortly. “So far, you’re up against me, and I’m basically a cop. If the annexation goes through and you’re still blowing things up, or, even worse, having shootouts with me and my people, the Manticorans will send in Marines. And those Marines’ll have battle armor, orbital surveillance systems, armored vehicles, and all the things I don’t have. You’re good. I’ll admit that. In fact, I think you may be better than I am. But you’re not good enough to stand up to that kind of an opponent. Especially not if everyone else is rooting for the other side.”

    Westman’s face tightened. It looked to Helen as if he would have liked to reject what both Van Dort and Bannister had said. But the man was obviously too realistic to fool himself. Yet there was something in his eyes. Something that seemed to suggest at least a kernel of doubt.

    I wonder, she thought. Does he have access -- or think he has access -- to some sort of off-world support? Something that might give him an edge, or at least some kind of equalizer, against modern military hardware? But if he does, where the hell is it coming from? And where the hell is Daddy when I need a super-spook?

    “Whether or not I can win in the end is one thing,” Westman said after a few, tense seconds. “Whether or not what I believe in requires me to try is something else. And whether or not this planet will be worth annexing after we’re done is still another something else.”



    “Forgive me, Mr. Westman,” Captain Terekhov said, “but I believe you’re missing part of Mr. Van Dort’s point.”

    “Which is?” Westman asked.

    “What Baroness Medusa is trying to tell you, Sir,” the Captain said calmly, “is that the amount of damage is immaterial. The Star Kingdom isn’t interested in annexing Montana because of the wealth you don’t have. Obviously, in the long term, we believe Montana, like all the Cluster’s star systems, will become more prosperous and represent a net economic gain for the Star Kingdom as a whole. But, to be perfectly honest, the Lynx Terminus represents the only powerful selfish reason for us to be involved in this region, and there are many countervailing reasons why we shouldn’t be here. At the possible expense of belaboring a point, the entire question of annexation only arose after the citizens of the Cluster requested it. The Star Kingdom’s commitment to the annexation of Montana is a moral one, not an economic one. Damage can be repaired. Destroyed facilities can be rebuilt. The legal and moral obligations of a government to protect its citizens -- both in their persons and property and in their right to live under the government of their choice -- aren’t negotiable.”

    Westman sat back, regarding the Captain through narrow eyes. There was a speculative light in them, Helen thought. It was as if what the Captain had just said puzzled him. Or surprised him, at least.

    “It’s those legal and moral obligations I’m fighting for,” the Montanan said, his voice quiet. “I don’t believe the government has the legal right to discard our own Constitution. This star system was settled by a bunch of fools who’d fallen in love with an over-romanticized fantasy about a time and place, Captain. They didn’t have a clue about how accurate or inaccurate their fantasy was, and it didn’t matter. They set up a government and a Constitution predicated on principles of independence, orneriness, the freedom of the individual, and the individual’s responsibility to look after himself and stand up for what he believes in. I don’t say they built the perfect government. Hell, I don’t even say the system we had before this annexation plebiscite came along was what they actually had in mind in the first place! But it was my government. It was a government of my friends and my neighbors, and of people I didn’t much care for, but it didn’t involve any foreign queens, or any baronesses, or any kingdoms and parliaments. I won’t stand by and see my planet sold out to someone else, no matter how good a price some of the folks who live here think they’re getting. I won’t give up the laws and customs my ancestors built, brick by brick, on this planet, not on Rembrandt, and not on Manticore.”

    “So to protect our government and way of life you’re willing to blow up buildings and eventually kill people -- and you and I both know that’s coming, Steve -- to prevent your fellow citizens from doing what three-quarters of them voted to do?” Chief Marshal Bannister shook his head. “Steve, I’ve always respected your guts and integrity, and God knows I’ve come to respect your ability. But that’s just plain loco. You can’t preserve something by blowing it up and shooting it.”

    Westman looked stubborn, and Van Dort pushed back from the table.

    “Mr. Westman, we’re not going to magically resolve issues like this in a single meeting, even with the best of intentions. Probably not in half a dozen meetings. I think we’ve made at least a start on explaining our position to you. As I say, Baroness Medusa invites you to send a detailed explanation of your own views and desires to her. She doesn’t want to browbeat you into some sort of abject surrender. Mind you,” he let a flicker of a smile show, “I don’t think she’d object if you suddenly decided you wanted to! But she’s not foolish enough to expect that. What she hopes, I think, is that she may be able to convince you that what you fear isn’t going to happen. That, unlike the Trade Union, the Star Kingdom isn’t interested in squeezing every drop of profit it can out of the Cluster. That you won’t give up your individual liberties, or your right to local self-government. But she can’t do that, and you can’t explain your concerns and your reservations to her, if there’s no communication between you except bombs and pulser darts.”

    He paused, looking into Westman’s eyes.

    “We’ll be here in Montana for at least the next few weeks. Rather than continue the discussion at this time and risk turning a debate into a quarrel that backs people into positions they can’t get out of later, I think we’d be wise to consider this a good beginning and call it a day. Before we do that, though, I’d like to address one other point, if I may.”

    Westman looked back at him for several seconds, then made a small inviting gesture for him to continue.

    “Up to this point,” Van Dort said quietly, “all your operations have been directed against property, not people. Don’t think for a moment that Baroness Medusa is unaware of the extraordinary effort you’ve made to keep it that way. She recognizes -- as I’m sure Captain Terekhov could confirm -- that you’ve deliberately handicapped your operational flexibility and, in fact, accepted a greater degree of risk to your organization, in order to avoid killing. But as Chief Marshal Bannister just pointed out, you must be aware that you won’t be able to do that much longer. At the moment, there’s a huge distinction between you, your actions, and your apparent objectives, on the one hand, and those of butchers like Agnes Nordbrandt, on the other.”

    Something flashed in Westman’s eyes at Nordbrandt’s name, Helen realized. She didn’t know what, but that moment of intense emotion was impossible to hide.

    “Right now,” Van Dort continued, “you’re technically a criminal. You’ve broken the law and conspired with others to break the law, and God only knows how many millions of stellars worth of damage you’ve done. But you’re not a murderer like Nordbrandt. I think you might want to consider keeping it that way. I’m not trying to convince you to surrender your weapons or turn yourself in. Not yet, anyway. But I do think you should very carefully consider the possibility of declaring at least a temporary cease-fire.”

    “And give you time to finish voting out your draft Constitution without opposition?” Westman demanded.

    “Possibly. Maybe even probably. But I submit that whatever you do here on Montana, you won’t stop the other systems represented at the Convention from voting out a Constitution if they decide to do it. If a Constitution is voted out, and if the Montanan legislature votes to ratify it, and if the Star Kingdom’s Parliament votes to accept it, then -- if your principles leave you no other choice -- you can always start shooting again. But do you really have to push things to the point that people get killed, and no one in your organization -- not just you, but no one -- can ever step back from the brink, before you even know a viable Constitution’s going to be put into place?”

    “Listen to the man, Steve,” Bannister said quietly. “He makes sense. Don’t make my boys and girls and your people kill each other when there may never even be any need for it.”

    “I won’t say yes or no to the possibility of a cease-fire,” Westman said bluntly. “Not here, not without a chance to think about it and talk it over with my people. But,” he hesitated, looking back and forth between Van Dort and Bannister, then gave a short, jerky nod. “But I will think about it, and I will discuss it with my people.” He smiled tightly at the Rembrandter. “You got at least that much of what you wanted, Mr. Van Dort.”



    Helen followed Captain Terekhov and Van Dort back towards the air car. Bannister and Westman walked a little apart from the other two, talking quietly. From their expressions, Helen suspected they were discussing personal matters, and she wondered what it must feel like to find close friends suddenly enemies over something like this.

    The Captain and Van Dort reached the air car and climbed aboard. Helen waited politely for Bannister to do the same, and the Chief Marshal shook Westman’s hand and did. She started to step past the guerrilla leader to follow the others, but Westman raised a hand.

    “Just a minute, please, Ms.… Zilwicki, was it?”

    “Helen Zilwicki,” she said a bit stiffly, glancing towards the air car and wishing fervently that at least one of her superiors was in earshot.

    “I won’t keep you,” he said courteously, “but there’s something I’d like to ask you, if I may.”

    “Of course, Sir,” she agreed, although it was the last thing in the world she wanted to do.

    “You remind me of someone,” he said quietly, his eyes on her face. “You remind me of her a lot. Did Mr. Van Dort ever mention Suzanne Bannister to you?”

    “Suzanne Bannister?” Helen repeated, trying to keep her eyes from widening at the surname. She shook her head. “No, he hasn’t.”

    “Ah.” Westman seemed to consider that for a moment, then nodded. “I wondered,” he said, and inhaled deeply.

    “Economic warfare isn’t the only thing that lies between Rembrandt and Montana, Ms. Zilwicki,” he said softly, then he nodded to her again, politely, and walked briskly away.

    She gazed after him for several seconds, wondering what he meant. Then she shook herself and turned back towards the air car.

    Bernardus Van Dort and Trevor Bannister sat side by side, watching her, and she suddenly wondered how she’d managed to miss the pain on both their faces whenever they looked at her.

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