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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Thirty Eight

       Last updated: Wednesday, September 1, 2004 22:47 EDT



    The stars outside the armorplast dome were dominated by the huge cloud-swirled blue marble of the planet called Montana. There were fewer ships and orbital constructs circling it than there would have been back home, but Helen had grown accustomed to the sparser traffic here in the Verge. Now she lay sprawled across one comfortable chair, staring at the huge storm system dominating the planet’s eastern hemisphere. One of the things spacers missed was the feel and smell of weather, and for someone from Gryphon, where it was always lively (to say the very least), the sense of deprivation sometimes hit hard.

    But it wasn’t really weather that was bothering her, and she knew it.

    The hatch opened with its familiar silent speed, and she looked up quickly, then relaxed.

    “How’d it go?” Paulo d’Arezzo asked.

    Helen gazed at him thoughtfully, reflecting on how much their relationship had changed over the past month. It was sometimes hard to remember how standoffish she’d thought he was . . . until she saw him with the other middies. It wasn’t the nose-in-the-air sense of superiority she’d once thought it was, but Paulo was an intensely private person. She wondered, sometimes, if anyone else aboard Hexapuma had the least idea about his background and the demons he carried quietly around with him. Even now, she wasn’t prepared to ask him, but she thought she knew the answer.

    “Better than I expected, in some ways,” she said after a moment in response to his question.

    “Can you talk about it?”

    “They didn’t tell me not to, but they didn’t tell me I could, either. Under the circumstances, I’d just as soon not, if you don’t mind.”

    “Fine,” he said, and she smiled at him. That was something she’d come to appreciate about Paulo. He could ask a question like that without giving the impression he was trying to entice her into telling him something she shouldn’t. He was simply asking if she could talk about it, and he was perfectly prepared to talk about something else entirely if she told him she couldn’t. Even Aikawa would have looked disappointed if she’d told him no; Paulo didn’t.

    He dropped into the other chair, propped his heels on the edge of the com console, and dug out his sketch pad. He began to work, and she watched him from her comfortable drape across her own chair.

    “Is this the only place on board where you sketch?” she asked several minutes later, into the quiet, companionable sound of soft pencil lead kissing sharp-toothed paper.

    “Pretty much,” he said, eyes on the pad and his gracefully moving pencil. He paused and glanced up at her with an off-center smile. “It’s kind of a private thing for me. I started doing it as much for a sort of therapy as anything else. Now --“ He shrugged. “I guess it’s kind of like Leo’s poetry.”

    “Leo writes poetry?” Helen felt both eyebrows rise, and he shook his head with a chuckle.

    “You didn’t know?”

    “No, I certainly didn’t!” She looked at him suspiciously. “You’re not just pulling my leg to see if it’ll come off in your hand, are you?”

    “Me? Never!” He chuckled again. “Besides, I understand you’re a very dangerous person. Wouldn’t be very safe to try pulling your leg, now would it?”

    “So how come you know about his poetry and I don’t?”

    “Far be it from me to suggest that you can sometimes be a bit unobservant,” he said, his pencil moving across the paper again. “On the other hand, I sometimes have to wonder where all of your father’s sneaky, all-seeing, spymaster genes went, because you sure didn’t get any of them!”

    “Ha ha, very funny,” she said with a grimace. “You aren’t going to tell me how you found out, are you?”


    He looked up with another smile, then returned his attention to his artwork, and she glowered at the top of his head. For somebody who didn’t mingle worth a damn, he seemed to do an extraordinarily good job of picking up information. In fact, he seemed to do quite a number of things extraordinarily well in his quiet loner’s kind of way.


    “Yes?” he looked back up, his expression intent, as if some odd note in her voice had alerted him.

    “I need some advice.”

    “I’m not exactly the best person to ask, if it’s a social question,” he cautioned, with something almost like panic in his eyes.

    “You’re going to have to get over that rabbit-in-the-headlights reaction to mingling with other people, you know. A successful naval officer doesn’t have to be a howling extrovert, I suppose. But a hermit’s going to experience a certain difficulty in building sound professional relationships.”

    “Sure, sure!” He raised his hand, waving his pencil at her admonishingly. “Stop criticizing and ask your question.”

    “I said I’d prefer not to talk about the meeting, but there was one really weird thing, and I’m not sure what to do about it.”

    “What do you mean, ‘weird’?”

    “As we were leaving, Westman asked me if Mr. Van Dort had ever mentioned someone named Suzanne Bannister.”

    “He did what?” Paulo frowned with the expression of someone who knew he didn’t have all the information required to understand something. “Why would he do that?”

    “I don’t know.” She turned her eyes away, gazing back out the armorplast at the storm system. “He said I reminded him of someone, then asked me if Mr. Van Dort had ever mentioned her. And I don’t think the last name’s exactly a coincidence,” she added.

    “Bannister? I guess not!”

    He sat there for several seconds, frowning at her profile.

    “You’re worried that he had got some kind of ulterior motive for telling you, aren’t you?” he asked finally, and she gave an irritated little shrug.

    “No, not really . . . most of the time. But I can’t be sure. And even if he doesn’t, I’ve got a strong feeling it might be painful to Mr. Van Dort if I brought it up. Or mentioned it to the Captain..”

    “Well,” Paulo said, “it seems to me you’ve got three options. First, you can keep your mouth shut and never bring the question up. Second, you can ahead and ask Van Dort who this Suzanne Bannister was. Or, third, if you really think Westman might’ve had some sort of ulterior motive, you could report it to the Skipper and see what he thinks you should do about it.”

    “I’d already pretty much come up with those same options on my own. If you were me, which one would you choose?”

    “Without being there and actually hearing what he said to you, I’m not prepared to say,” he said thoughtfully. “If you’re reasonably certain this isn’t simply a case of Westman looking for some way to upset Van Dort or create some kind of suspicion between him and the Skipper -- or between him and you, for that matter -- then maybe you should just go ahead and ask him. If you're seriously afraid it is a way to make trouble, you should probably tell the Skipper without letting Van Dort know anything about it. Let the Skipper decide the best way to handle it..” He shrugged. “Bottom line, Helen, I don’t think anyone else can make that decision for you.”

    “No,” she agreed, yet even as she did, she realized just talking to Paulo about it had helped her decide what to do.




    “Yes, Helen? What can I do for you?

    Bernardus Van Dort laid aside the old-fashioned stylus with which he’d been scribbling longhand notes when the cabin hatch chime sound. He tipped back his chair, smiled, and indicated the small couch on the other side of the cabin he’d been assigned.

    Helen settled down and looked at him, wondering one last time if she was doing the right thing. But she’d made her mind up, and she inhaled unobtrusively.

    “I hope I’m not out of line, Sir,” she said. “But someone suggested that I reminded him of someone called Suzanne Bannister.”

    For just an instant, Van Dort’s face froze. All expression vanished, and for that moment, Helen felt as if she were looking at an old-fashioned marble statue. Then he smiled again, but this time the smile was crooked and contained no humor at all.

    “Was it Westman? Or Trevor?” His voice was as calm and courteous as ever, yet wrapped around a tension, almost a wariness, she’d never heard from him before.

    “It was Mr. Westman,” she said steadily, meeting his gaze without flinching, and he nodded.

    “I thought it probably was. Trevor and I haven’t mentioned Suzanne to one another in over twenty years.”

    “Sir, if it’s none of my business, just tell me so. But when Mr. Westman told me about her -- I don’t know. It was as if he really, really wanted me to know and, I think, to ask you about her. And as if his reasons didn’t have anything at all to do with the annexation or why we’re here.”

    “You’re wrong about that, Helen,” Van Dort looked away at last. He gazed intently at a perfectly bare patch of bulkhead. “It has quite a lot to do with why we’re here -- why I’m here, at any rate -- even if only indirectly.”

    He was silent for a long time, still gazing at the bulkhead. The blindness in his eyes made Helen regret that she’d begun the entire conversation, but he hadn’t bitten her head off or told her to go away. He simply sat there, and she couldn’t just leave him wherever he’d wandered to.

    “Who was she, Sir?” she asked quietly.

    “My wife,” he said, very, very softly.

    Helen stiffened, her eyes opening wide. She’d never heard that Van Dort had been married. Then again, she thought, she hadn’t actually heard anything about his personal life.

    Van Dort’s eyes finally released the bulkhead and returned to her face. He studied her features, then nodded slowly.

    “I see why he told you to ask. You look so much like her. You could be her again, or at least her daughter. That’s why I almost refused Captain Terekhov’s offer to assign you as my aide. It was too much like how I met her, in many ways.”

    “Would… would you care to talk about it, Sir?”

    “No.” He smiled again, wryly. “But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t explain it to you, anyway. I probably should’ve explained it to Baroness Medusa before she asked me to come here, for that matter. I suppose it comes under the heading of ‘potential conflicts of interest.’”

    She said nothing, only looked at him, and he faced her fully.

    “How old do you think I am, Helen?”

    “I’m not sure, Sir,” she said slowly. “You’re obviously first-gen prolong, if you’ll pardon my saying so. I guess… sixty T-years?”

    “I’m well past eighty,” he said. Her eyebrows arched, and he chuckled humorlessly. “I may well have been the first person in the Talbott Cluster to receive prolong. My father was merchant-owner of two freighters when I was born. My mother and I lived aboard, with him, until I was almost sixteen and he sent me off to Old Earth to college. He had a freight concession from one of the Solly shipping lines, and he made regular runs deeper into the League. Prolong wasn’t available here, but he took me along on those trips into the Old League and had the therapies started when I was about fourteen.

    “You’re what -- third-generation, I suppose?” He looked the question at her, and she nodded. “Your father?”


    “Well, I imagine there are enough first-gen recipients in the Star Kingdom for you to realize that first-generation prolong’s effects aren’t very evident until you’re well into your biological thirties.” She nodded again, and he grimaced. “Given the fact that prolong wasn’t generally available here, the handful of us who’d gotten it the way I did tended not to mention it. It creates a certain resentment when your contemporaries discover you’re going to live three or even four times as long as they are. So the fact that I’d received the prolong therapies wasn’t general knowledge, and most people simply assumed I naturally looked younger than my age.

    “Then I met Suzanne.”

    He fell silent again, gazing into the past, and this time there was a deep, bittersweet joy in his smile. A joy compounded equally of happiness and pain, Helen thought without knowing why she was so certain.

    “I was the skipper of one of my father’s ships at the time. I was probably, oh, thirty-three or thirty-four, and Dad had almost a dozen ships by then. By Verge standards, we were indecently wealthy, but Dad already had his eye on Frontier Security. He knew they were coming, and he was afraid of what it would mean for all of us, but especially for Mom and me. He died of a heart attack -- he was only fifty-six -- the same year I met Suzanne, before he could think of any way to protect us. But it was his concern that started me in the direction of the Trade Union and led directly to where we all are now.

    “But that was all in the future the day I brought Geertruida’s Pride to Rembrandt. Suzanne was Trevor’s older sister. He was only a baby, probably less than five T-years old, when I met her. She was a lieutenant in the customs service, and she commanded the inspection party they sent aboard to clear our cargo for landing. She really did look amazingly like you, Helen. Oh, the uniform was different, and she looked a few bio-years older than you do, but when I first saw you standing there, just inside the boarding tube, I thought --“

    He shook his head, his eyes bright.

    “Anyway, I fell for her. Dear God, did I fall! In my entire life, I have never met and don’t believe I ever will meet another woman with that much sheer zest for life. With as much intelligence and strength of will. As much courage. And she, God forgive me, fell in love with me.

    “I should have realized she looked young for her age. I should’ve trusted her enough to tell her I’d received prolong. But I’d kept quiet about it for so long it was a reflex to keep on saying nothing. So I did keep quiet. I was here long enough for both of us to realize how deeply we were attracted to one another. And I came back, for a long visit, three months later. I was here almost five T-months that time, and when I left, we were married.”

    He closed his eyes, his face wrung with pain.

    “That was when I told her I was a prolong recipient and that, as a surprise honeymoon gift, I’d arranged a trip to Beowulf itself for her to receive the same therapies. And that was when I found out she was too old. That she was her father’s daughter by his first wife, and that she was over twenty years older than Trevor.”

    He was silent again for what seemed like minutes. Then he inhaled deeply and opened his eyes.

    “There are myths from Old Earth, from almost every culture and civilization there ever was, of immortal beings -- elves, gods and goddesses, nymphs, demigods -- who fall in love with mortals. They all end badly, one way or another. Mine was no exception. She forgave me for not telling her, of course. That made it almost worse. I’m not saying we didn’t love each other very much, and that we didn’t take a tremendous joy in one another, but the entire time, we knew I was going to lose her. I think she felt worst about the thought that she’d be ‘deserting’ me. Leaving me behind. We had two daughters, Phillipia and Mechelina. They’d received prolong at the earliest possible age, of course, and I think it made Suzanne feel better when she reflected on the fact that we’d have each other when she was gone.

    “I also think the fact she hadn’t received prolong made her more aware of her mortality, gave her the sense that she had less time in which to do all the things she wanted to do. When I came up with the idea for the Trade Union, she was one of my most enthusiastic backers. And she threw herself into the project the same way she did everything, with every gram of her energy, every scrap of ability.

    “Her brother, Trevor, was old enough by then that he’d already begun his career in the Marshals Service, and he didn’t think much of the idea. He never really understood, I think, that Suzanne and I were trying to build some sort of bastion here in the Cluster that might be able to resist Frontier Security. He’d never forgiven me, anyway, for marrying his sister without warning her I was going to outlive her by a century or two, and now I’d seduced her into helping me loot the economies of other planets, other star systems. He and his best friend, Stephen Westman -- young, intemperate hotheads, the pair of them, even for Montanans -- were both convinced I was a ruthless, self-centered bastard who didn’t give much of a rat’s ass -- to use Westman’s charming turn of phrase -- for anyone else as long as I got what I wanted. Suzanne was… irritated with them for their attitude, and she did have a temper. Words were exchanged, and feelings were badly hurt on both sides. But Suzanne and I were certain that, eventually, they’d come to understand what we were doing, and why.”



    He picked up the stylus again, turning it in his fingers.

    “By that time, Suzanne and I were both in our fifties, and she was beginning to look noticeably older than I did. Still an amazingly attractive woman, and not just in my opinion, but definitely the older of the two. It hurt her, I think. No, I know it did, but she found it useful, too. She was one of the RTU’s best negotiators. She could make people who loathed and distrusted the entire concept decide it was a good idea, and she used that attractive-but-mature, decisive personality and appearance like some sort of lethal weapon. I, on the other hand, looked too young, too wet behind the ears, to make some people happy, so I often let her handle the negotiations. Sometimes we double-teamed the other side, with her hitting them high and me hitting them low, and we usually traveled together. She was my wife, my friend, my lover, my partner -- she and the girls were everything in the universe to me, and just like my mother and father, we spent most of our time living aboard one or another of the Van Dort Line ships.

    “I’d originally been scheduled to go open a round of negotiations with New Tuscany, but she decided to go, instead. She said she could handle the assignment at least as well as I could’ve, and by going, she could free me up to stay home and deal with some other problems which had arisen. So I took the shuttle up with her and the girls, kissed them, watched them board the Anneloes and set out for New Tuscany.

    “I never saw any of them again.”

    Helen’s jaw tightened -- in pain, not really in surprise.

    “We never found out what happened,” Van Dort said softly. “The ship simply. . . vanished. It could’ve been almost anything. The most logical explanation was pirates, although she was armed, and there hadn’t been much pirate activity in the Cluster for two or three years. But we never found out, never knew. They were just… gone.

    “I didn’t take it well. I’d spent so long worrying about her shorter life expectancy, thinking about how I was going to lose her, about how I should have told her before I ever married her, of how incredibly lucky I’d been that she loved me anyway. But it never occurred to me in my worst nightmares that the last thing I’d ever see of her was her and our daughters smiling, waving goodbye. That they’d just be… erased out of my life, like some deleted computer file.

    “I refused to deal with it, refused to come to grips with it, because if I’d done that, I would have had to admit it’d happened. Instead, I buried myself in my work. I dedicated myself to making the Trade Union the success Suzanne and I had dreamed it could be. And anything that got in the way of that success was my enemy.

    “Trevor blamed me for her death for years. I don’t think he does anymore, but he was younger then. He seemed to feel I’d sent her to New Tuscany, because it wasn’t important enough for me to waste my own time on. It was my fault, as he saw it, that she was ever on that ship in the first place. And the way I refused to face my own loss, to admit it or let the rest of the universe see my wounds, convinced him I was just as cold, callous, and scheming as he’d ever suspected.

    “And as if I were determined to confirm the validity of his opinions, I brought Ineka Vaandrager on board. I justified it then on the grounds that time was getting short, that Frontier Security was beginning to look more hungrily in our direction, and it was. That’s the worst of it; I can still justify everything I did on that basis and know it was true. But I can never run away from the suspicion that I would’ve turned to Ineka anyway. That I just didn’t care. I’m sure Westman’s bone-deep resentment and distrust of the RTU stems from that period, the five or ten T-years after Suzanne’s death. And that’s why I understand why Montanans might not be particularly fond of me.

    “It’s also the reason I turned so eagerly to the possibility of building support for a Cluster-wide annexation plebiscite when Harvest Joy came out of the Lynx Terminus. It was like my last chance for salvation. To prove -- to Suzanne, I think, more than anyone else -- that the RTU wasn’t just a money machine for Rembrandt and for me personally. That it really was intended to stop Frontier Security, and that I was willing to abandon it entirely, even after all these years, if the possibility of protecting all of the Cluster offered itself.”

    He stopped and looked up from the stylus in his hands. He met Helen’s gaze, and he smiled sadly.

    “I’ve never explained all of that to anyone before. Joachim Alquezar knows, I think. And a few others probably suspect. But that’s the true story of how the plebiscite came to be, and why. And also the reason Montana is special to me in so many ways. And why Steve Westman’s doing what he’s doing.”

    He shook his head, his smile sadder than ever.

    “Ridiculous, isn’t it? All of this springing from the mistakes of one man who was too stupid to tell the woman he loved the truth before he asked her to marry him?”

    “Mr. Van Dort,” Helen said, after a moment, “it may not be my place to say this, but I think you’re being too hard on yourself. Yes, you should’ve told her about the prolong. But not telling her wasn’t an act of betrayal -- she certainly didn’t see it that way, or she wouldn’t have stayed. And it sounds to me like the two of you had a marriage which was a genuine partnership. My father and mother had that sort of marriage, I think. I never knew Mom well enough to really know, but I do know Daddy and Cathy Montaigne are like that, and I like to think that someday I may find someone I can have that kind of relationship -- that kind of life -- with. And whatever might’ve happened someday because you had prolong and she didn’t, that wasn’t why you lost her and your daughters. You lost them because of circumstances beyond your control. Beyond anyone’s control. It could’ve happened to anyone. It happened to happen to you and to them. I lost my mother because of circumstances beyond anyone’s control, and even with all the love my father’s given me, there were times I wanted to strike out at the universe. Wanted to take it by the throat and strangle it for stealing my mother from me. And unlike you, I knew precisely how she died, knew it was her choice, as well as her duty.

    “So don’t blame yourself for their deaths. And don’t blame yourself for being bitter because they died. That’s called being a human being.

    “As for Westman and Chief Marshal Bannister and their attitudes towards the Trade Union and even the annexation, all you can do is all you can do. Maybe you weren’t exactly the nicest person in the world while you were trying to build up the RTU, but that doesn’t mean it’s tainted or poisoned somehow. And if the annexation goes through, I can’t think of a better possible memorial for your wife and daughters.”

    “I’ve tried to tell myself that,” he half-whispered.

    “Good,” Helen said more briskly. “Because it’s true. And now that I know about Suzanne, and your daughters, and all the rest of your deep, dark secrets, be warned! The next time I see you sinking into a slough of despond or starting to feel overly sorry for yourself, I’m going to kick you -- with infinite respect, of course! -- right in the ass.”

    He blinked, both eyebrows flying up. And then, to her relief, he began to laugh. He laughed for quite a long time, with a deep, full throated amusement she’d never really expected to see from him. But finally, the laughter eased into chuckles, and he shook his head at her.

    “You’re even more like Suzanne than I thought,. That’s exactly what she would’ve told me under the same circumstances.”

    “I thought she sounded like a smart lady,” Helen said in a satisfied tone.

    “Oh, yes. Very like Suzanne… and that,” he added in a softer voice, “is probably the greatest compliment I could ever pay anyone.”

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