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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Thirty Nine

       Last updated: Monday, September 13, 2004 05:49 EDT



    The dispatch boat from Spindle began uploading its message queue well before it reached Montana planetary orbit. Lieutenant Hansen McGraw, the com officer of the watch, watched the message headers scroll up on his display. Most were protected by multilevel encryption, and he waited patiently while the computers sorted through the traffic. Half a dozen of the larger message files, he noted, were personal-only for Captain Terekhov and Bernardus Van Dort. One of them, however, carried a lower security classification and a higher priority rating. He downloaded that one to a message board, and handed it to Senior Chief Harris.

    “Deliver this to the Exec, please, Senior Chief.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir,” Harris said, and tucked the message board under his arm. He carried it across the bridge to the lift, down one deck, and along a passage to the wardroom, where he stepped through the open hatch and cleared his throat politely.

    “Yes, Senior Chief?” Lieutenant Frances Olivetti, Hexapuma’s third engineer, happened to be sitting closest to the hatch.

    “Message for the XO, Ma’am.”

    “Bring it on over, please, Senior Chief,” Ansten FitzGerald said from where he sat in the midst of a pinochle game with Ginger Lewis, Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri, and Lieutenant Jefferson Kobe.

    “Yes, Sir.” Harris crossed to the executive officer. He handed over the message board, then stood waiting, hands clasped behind him, while FitzGerald opened the message file and scanned it. His eyes narrowed and he frowned slightly, obviously thinking hard. Then he looked back up at Harris.

    “Who has the standby pinnace?”

    “Ms. Pavletic, Sir,” the senior chief replied.

    “In that case, please inform her that I anticipate she’ll be leaving the ship to collect the Captain and his party within the next few minutes, Senior Chief.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir.” Harris came briefly to attention, then headed back out through the hatch while FitzGerald plugged his personal com into the shipboard system and punched in a combination.

    “Bridge, Officer of the Watch speaking,” Tobias Wright’s voice replied.

    “Toby, it’s the Exec. I need to speak to Hansen, please.”

    “Yes, Sir. Wait one, please.”

    There was a very brief pause; then Lieutenant McGraw answered.

    “You wanted me, Sir?”

    “Yes, I did, Hansen. Please make a general signal to all work and shore parties to return on board.”

    “Yes, Sir. Should I indicate immediate priority?”

    “No,” FitzGerald said after a brief consideration. “Instruct them to return directly, but to expedite any extended tasks.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir.”

    “Thank you. FitzGerald, clear,” the executive officer said.

    He switched off his com and returned his attention to his cards. Several people looked as if they’d have liked to ask him questions, but none of them did. Aikawa Kagiyama, who was in the process of suffering abject annihilation across a chessboard at Abigail Hearns’s hands, found it even more difficult to concentrate on his game. There was only one logical reason for the instructions the XO had issued: Hexapuma had just received new orders which required her to go someplace else.

    He frowned, part of his mind trying to decide whether to sacrifice a knight or his single remaining bishop in an effort to briefly stave off the lieutenant’s merciless attack, while the rest of his mind considered the implications of new orders. Hexapuma had been in Montana for just under eleven T-days, and it had been nine days since the Captain and Van Dort’s first meeting with Westman. Aikawa didn’t know how well that entire effort had been going. He knew Van Dort had met with Westman a second time, but he couldn’t pick up a single hint about what they might have discussed. It was deeply frustrating for someone who prided himself on always knowing what was going on. And the fact that Helen really did know but refused to tell him was even more frustrating. He respected her refusal to gossip about the details to which she might be privy, but all the respect in the galaxy wasn’t going to make him feel any less curious.

    “Are you planning to move sometime soon?” Lieutenant Hearns asked pleasantly, and he gave himself a shake.

    “Sorry, Ma’am. I guess I was woolgathering.”

    He looked back down at the board and interposed his king’s knight. Lieutenant Hearns’ castle swooped down and took it instantly.

    “Mate in four moves,” she informed him with a smile.

    Aikawa grunted in exasperation as he realized she was right. He started to tip over his king, then stopped himself. It might just be possible, he thought, studying the board carefully, that he could at least make her take an additional two or three moves to finish him off. Which was about the best any of the midshipmen, with the sole exception of Ragnhild Pavletic, had so far managed.

    He shelved consideration of what their new orders might be and gave himself over to the intense examination of the board.



    “Flight Ops, this is Hawk-Papa-One, requesting clearance for a direct transit to Hexapuma Alpha’s current location,” Ragnhild Pavletic said into her boom mike.

    “Hawk-Papa-One, Flight Ops,” Lieutenant Sheets’ voice replied in her earbug. “Hold while we clear your flight plan.”

    “Flight Ops, Hawk-Papa-One copies.”

    Ragnhild sat back in the pilot’s seat and considered her projected trip. As always, the exact location of Captain Terekhov -- “Hexapuma Alpha” -- was monitored whenever he was off the ship. As such, she knew that he, Bernardus Van Dort, and Helen Zilwicki were currently in a restaurant rejoicing in the name of The Rare Sirloin. It was supposed to be one of the better restaurants in Brewster, the Montana capital. Ragnhild didn’t know about that personally, of course. Unlike some midshipwomen, she thought, she hadn’t been invited to eat there no less than three times in the last week.

    On the other hand, I haven’t been expected to pull my full watch assignment on board ship as well as going haring off dirt-side every time Van Dort does, either.

    She was surprised Helen didn’t show more signs of exhaustion. She was spending most of her putative free time assisting Van Dort aboard ship, whenever she wasn’t somewhere on the planet with him. She was still finding time -- somehow -- for regular exercise and sparring sessions, but that was about it, and her bunk time was suffering. Still, there did seem to be the odd half-hour here and there Ragnhild couldn’t quite account for. And, interestingly enough, there seemed to be matching holes in Paulo d’Arezzo’s known whereabouts.

    The thought of Helen spending time with the too-pretty midshipman was fairly preposterous. But not as preposterous as it would once have been, she reminded herself. Something had happened to alter their relationship, and no one else in Snotty Row seemed to have any idea what it might have been. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to have any romantic overtones -- thank God -- but it was all very odd. And if she and Paulo were sneaking off somewhere, where was it? As big as Hexapuma was, there weren’t that many places aboard her where two people could evade observation.

    No, she told herself once again, it had to be a simple coincidence.

    “Hawk-Papa-One, Flight Ops,” Lieutenant Sheets said suddenly.

    “Flight Ops, Hawk-Papa-One,” Ragnhild acknowledged.

    “Hawk-Papa-One, you are cleared to Hexapuma Alpha’s current location. Flight path Tango Foxtrot to Brewster Interplanetary, Pad Seven-Two. Contact Brewster Flight Control on Navy Channel Niner-Three at the two hundred klick line for final approach instructions.”

    “Flight Ops, Hawk-Papa-One copies flight path Tango Foxtrot to Brewster Interplanetary, Pad Seven-Two, contacting Brewster Flight Control on November Charlie Niner-Three at the two-zero-zero klick line for final approach instructions.”

    “Hawk-Papa-One, Flight Ops. Confirm. You are cleared to separate at your discretion.”

    “Flight Ops, Hawk-Papa-One separating now.” She looked over her shoulder at the pinnace’s flight engineer. “Chief, disengage the umbilicals.”

    “Disengage umbilicals, aye, Ma’am.” The flight engineer tapped commands into his console and watched telltales flicker from green, through red, to amber as the pinnace’s service connections to the ship were severed.

    “Confirm all umbilicals disengaged, Ms. Pavletic.”

    “Thank you, Chief.” Ragnhild glanced over her own displays, doublechecking the umbilicals’ status, and nodded in satisfaction. She keyed her mike again. “Flight Ops, Hawk-Papa-One confirms clean separation at zero-niner-thirty-five.”

    “Hawk-Papa-One, Flight Ops. Confirm. You are cleared to apply thrust.”

    “Flight Ops, Hawk-Papa-One. Applying thrust now.”

    The pinnace’s bow thrusters flared as Ragnhild backed the sleek craft out of its docking arms. She watched the boat bay bulkhead’s smart-painted range marks and numbers glide past as the pinnace moved slowly astern. She came up on the departure mark exactly on the tick and at exactly the correct velocity, she noted with pleasure, and the reaction thrusters gimbaled upward, pushing the pinnace down and out of the bay. Once she had sufficient separation, she dropped the nose, closed the bow thruster ports, and engaged the main thrusters. This flight would be too short enough to bother with the impeller wedge -- they’d already be configuring for atmosphere by the time they were sufficiently clear of the ship to activate the wedge -- and she settled back to enjoy a good old-fashioned airfoil flight.




    “Well, this is a fine kettle of fish,” Aivars Terekhov commented sourly as he finished reading the last of his personal dispatches from Rear Admiral Khumalo and Baroness Medusa.

    “That’s certainly one way to put it,” Van Dort agreed. His personal dispatches were even more voluminous than Terekhov’s, and he was still reading. He looked up from the current message and grimaced.

    “Joachim Alquezar commented to me once that Aleksandra Tonkovic, just after the Nemanja bombing, said something to the effect that we wouldn’t need a silver bullet to kill Nordbrandt. I’m beginning to wonder about that.”

    “It does seem she has some sort of evil fairy looking out for her, doesn’t it?” Terekhov said sourly.

    “So far, at any rate. But what’s impressed me even more than her unpleasant propensity for surviving is her sheer malevolence. You do realize that by now she’s killed something over thirty-six hundred people, most of them civilians, in her bombing attacks alone?”

    “Which doesn’t even count the wounded. Or the cops – or the frigging firemen!” Terekhov snarled, and Van Dort looked up quickly.

    Even that mild an obscenity was unusual from Terekhov. Van Dort and the Manticoran captain had become quite close over the thirty-five days he’d spent aboard Hexapuma. He liked and admired Terekhov, and he’d come to know the Manticoran well enough to realize that that language indicated far more anger from him than it would have from someone else.

    “She’s certainly a very different proposition from Westman,” the Rembrandter said after a moment. “And the people she’s recruited obviously have much more deep-seated grievances than Westman does.”

    “To put it mildly.” Terekhov tipped his chair back behind his desk and cocked his head at Van Dort. “I’m not really familiar with Split,” he said, “and the standard briefing on the system was fairly superficial, I’m afraid. My impression, though, is that the system’s economy and government is set up quite differently from Montana’s.”

    “They are,” Van Dort said. “Economically, Montana’s beef and leatherwork command decent prices even in other systems here in the Cluster, and they also ship it Shell-ward. They have some extractive industries in their asteroid belt, also for export, and they don’t import all that much. By and large their industry’s domestically self-sufficient for the consumer market, although their heavy industry’s more limited. They import heavy machine tools, and all their spacecraft are built out-system, for example. And their self-sufficiency stems in part from the fact that they’re willing to settle for technology that’s adequate to their needs but hardly cutting edge.

    “Montana isn’t a wealthy planet by any stretch, but it maintains a marginally favorable trade balance and there isn’t actually any widespread poverty. That’s an unusual accomplishment in the Verge, and whether Westman and his people want to admit it or not, the RTU’s shipping strength is one reason they’re able to pull it off.

    “The other way Montana differs from Kornati is that it’s much easier, relatively speaking, for someone who works his posterior off and enjoys at least a little luck to move from the lowest income brackets to a position of comparative affluence. These people make an absolute fetish out of rugged individualism, and there’s still a lot of unclaimed land and free range. Their entire legal code and society are set up to encourage individual enterprise to use those opportunities, and their wealthier citizens look aggressively for investment opportunities.

    “Kornati’s a much more typical Verge planet. They don’t have an attractive export commodity, like Montana’s beef. There’s not enough wealth in the system to attract imports from outside the Cluster, and although their domestic industry’s growing steadily, the rate of increase is low. Since they have nothing to export, but still have to import critical commodities – like off-world computers, trained engineers, and machine tools – if they want to build up their local infrastructure, their balance of trade’s . . . unfavorable, to say the very least. That exacerbates the biggest economic problem Kornati faces: lack of investment capital. Since they can’t attract it from outside, what they really need is to find some way to pry loose enough domestic investment to at least prime the pump the way other systems have managed.

    “The Dresden System, for example, was even poorer than Split thirty T-years ago. By now, Dresden’s on the brink of catching up with Split, and even without the possibility of the annexation, Dresden’s Gross System Product would probably pass Split’s within the next ten T-years. It’s not that Dresden’s wealthier than Split – in fact, the system’s actually quite a bit poorer. It’s just that the Dresdeners’ve managed to begin a self-sustaining domestic expansion by encouraging entrepreneurship and taking advantage of every opportunity – including energetic cooperation with the RTU – that falls their way. The oligarchs on Kornati, by and large, are more interested in sitting on what they have than in risking their wealth in the sorts of enterprises which might bolster the economy as a whole. They aren’t quite a kleptocracy, and that’s about the best I can say for them.”

    The Rembrandter’s expression mirrored his contempt for the ruling families of Split, and he shook his head.

    “The truth is that while the situation on Kornati isn’t actually anywhere near so bad as Nordbrandt’s agit-prop paints it, it isn’t good. In fact, it’s pretty damned bad. You saw the slum areas in Thimble while you were in Spindle?” Terekhov nodded, and Van Dort waved a hand. “Well, the housing in Thimble’s slums is two or three notches above the quality of housing available in Karlovac’s. And the social support payments on Kornati have only about sixty percent of the buying power of equivalent safety net stipends on Flax. Starvation isn’t much of a problem, because the government does heavily subsidize food for those receiving social support, but it’s no damned picnic to be poor there.”

    “I gathered that from the briefing papers,” Terekhov said, indicating the chip folio-littered desk, “and I didn’t understand it. According to other parts of the package, the Kornatians are fiercely devoted to individual civil rights. How does a nation with that sort of attitude justify not providing an adequate safety net for its people? I realize there’s a difference between having the right to have the government leave you alone and depending on the government to take care of you, but it still strikes me as reflecting contradictory attitudes.”

    “Because it does, in a way,” Van Dort agreed. “As you say, their civil rights tradition is that the citizen has the right to be free of undue government interference, not to be taken care of by the government. When that tradition first evolved, about a hundred and fifty T-years ago, the economy was far less stratified than it is now, the middle class was much larger, relatively speaking, and the electorate in general was far more involved in politics.

    “But over the last seventy or eighty T-years, that’s changed. The economy’s stagnated, compared to other systems in the area, even as the population’s increased steeply. The poor and the very poor – the underclass, if you will – has grown enormously relative to the total population, and the middle class has been severely pinched. And there’s a growing attitude on the part of some Kornatian political leaders that the civil rights of voting citizens are important, but that those of citizens who don’t vote are more . . . negotiable. Especially when the citizens involved pose a threat to public safety and stability.”



    “This is the local ‘autonomy’ and ‘freedoms’ Tonkovic wants to preserve?” Terekhov asked bitingly, and Van Dort shrugged.

    “Aleksandra’s looking out for her own interests and those of her fellow oligarchs. And, to be blunt, most of them are a pretty sorry lot. There are exceptions. The Rajkovic family, for example. And the Kovacics. Did your briefings give you much detail on the Kornatian political set up?”

    “Not a lot,” Terekhov admitted. “Or, rather, I have a whole kettle of alphabet soup full of political party acronyms, but without any local perspective, they don’t mean a whole lot to me.”

    “I see.” Van Dort pursed his lips, thinking for several seconds, then shrugged.

    “All right,” he said, “here’s the ‘Fast and Dirty Rembrandt Guide to Kornatian Politics,’ by B. Van Dort. I’ve already given it, in somewhat greater detail, to Dame Estelle and Mr. O’Shaughnessy, which I suspect has something to do with the nature of our instructions from the Baroness. Do bear in mind, though, that what I’m about to tell you is from the perspective of someone on the outside looking in.”

    He raised both eyebrows at Terekhov until the Manticoran nodded, then began.

    “Aleksandra Tonkovic’s the leader of the Democratic Centralist Party. Despite its rather liberal-sounding name, the DCP is, in my humble opinion, anything but ‘centralist,’ and it certainly doesn’t believe in anything a Rembrandter or a Montanan would call ‘democracy.’ Essentially, its platform is dedicated to maintaining the current social and political order on Kornati. It’s an oligarchical party, dominated by the Tonkovic family and perhaps a dozen of its closest allies, who tend to regard the planet as their personal property.

    “The Social Moderate Party is the DCP’s closest political ally. For all intents and purposes, their platforms are identical these days, although when the SMP was first formed, it actually was considerably to the ‘left’ of the Centralists. The generation of DCP leadership before Tonkovic successfully co-opted the SMP, but the appearance of a compromise platform, evolved after annual conferences between their ‘independent’ party leaderships, was too valuable to give up through an official merger.

    “Vuk Rajkovic, on the other hand, is the leader of the Reconciliation Party. In a lot of ways, the RP is more of an umbrella organization than a properly organized political party. Several minor parties merged under Rajkovic’s leadership, and they, in turn, reached out to other splinter groups. One of them, by the way, was Nordbrandt’s National Redemption Party. Which, I imagine, didn’t do Rajkovic’s political base a bit of good when she decided to begin blowing people up.

    “The biggest difference between the Reconciliation Party and Tonkovic and her allies is that Rajkovic genuinely believes the Kornatian upper classes – of which he is most decidedly a prominent member – must voluntarily share political power with the middle and lower classes and work aggressively to open the door to economic opportunity for those same groups. I’m not prepared to say how much of this position’s based on altruism and how much is based on a coldly rational analysis of the current state of the Split System. There’ve certainly been occasions on which he’s couched his arguments in the most cold-blooded, self interested terms possible. But when he’s done that, he’s usually been talking to his fellow oligarchs, and speaking as someone who’s occasionally attempted to locate a few drops of altruism in Rembrandter oligarchs, I suspect he’s discovered that self interest is the only argument that particular audience understands.

    “The most significant thing about the last presidential election was that the Reconciliation Party launched an aggressive voter registration campaign among the working class districts of Kornati’s major cities. I don’t think Tonkovic and her allies believed that effort could have any practical effect on the outcome of the campaign, but they found out differently. Tonkovic only won because two other candidates withdrew and threw their support to her. Even so, she managed to outpoll Rajkovic by a majority of barely six percent on Election Day, and that was with eleven percent of the total vote split between eight additional candidates.”

    Van Dort paused, smiling nastily, and chuckled.

    “That must’ve come pretty close to scaring Aleksandra right out of her knickers,” he said with relish. “Especially because, under the Kornatian Constitution, the vice presidency goes to the presidential candidate who pulled the second-highest total of votes. Which means –“

    ”Which means the fellow she had to leave in charge on Kornati when she went scampering off to Spindle is her worst political enemy,” Terekhov finished for him, and it was his turn to chuckle. Then he shook his head. “Lord! What idiot thought up that system? I can’t conceive of anything better designed to cripple the executive branch!”

    “I expect that’s exactly what the drafters of the original Constitution had in mind. Not that it’s meant a lot over the past several decades, since, until the Reconciliation Party came along, there wasn’t really any significant difference between the platforms of any of the presidential candidates who stood much chance of winning either office.

    “But, after the last presidential election, Rajkovic and his allies – which, at that time, still included Agnes Nordbrandt – controlled the vice presidency and about forty-five percent of the seats in the Kornatian Parliament. Tonkovic’s Democratic Centralists and the Social Moderates between them controlled the presidency and about fifty-two percent of Parliament, and the remaining three percent or so of the vote was scattered among more than a dozen marginal so-called parties, many of which managed to elect only a single deputy. I haven’t seen the most recent figures, but when Nordbrandt’s NRP disintegrated during the plebiscite campaign, Rajkovic lost enough deputies to drop his representation in Parliament to around forty-three percent, and Tonkovic picked up about half of what Rajkovic lost. I have no idea, at this point, how Nordbrandt’s terrorist campaign has affected the balance in Parliament. I’d expect that from Rajkovic’s perspective, the effect hasn’t been good.

    “On the other hand, Aleksandra has the problem that her strongest, most serious political rival is the acting head of state back home. Because he’s only the acting head of state, he’s pretty much stuck with the Cabinet Tonkovic selected and Parliament approved before annexation ever came up. She probably figures that the combination of passive resistance within the Cabinet, plus the fact that he doesn’t control a majority in Parliament, will prevent Rajkovic from doing anything especially dangerous while she deals with the Constitutional Convention in Spindle. On the other hand, he is at home, at the center of the government and the entire political system, which gives him the home court advantage to set against all of her efforts to hobble him.”

    “That,” Terekhov said, after a moment, “sounds like a remarkably good recipe for political and economic disaster.”



    “It isn’t a good situation, but it isn’t quite as bad as a bare recitation of the political alliances and maneuverings involved might suggest. For instance, a surprisingly high percentage of their civil service is both honest and reasonably efficient, despite the oligrachic political system. As far as I can tell, the Kornatian National Police are also reasonably honest and efficient, and Colonel Basaricek does her level best to keep her people out of politics and out of the hip pockets of the local elite. In fact, she’s apparently been working on reinforcing a more traditional view of the entire citizenry’s civil rights among her personnel over the last five or ten T-years. Enough so that she’s drawn some noticeable political flak from people who value domestic tranquility over the rights of troublemakers.

    “The biggest political problem’s the way the electorate’s grown increasingly apathetic over the past several decades. There’s always been a strong tradition of patronage on Kornati, and these days that translates into clients who vote in accordance with their patrons’ desires in return for a degree of security and protection in an economy that isn’t doing well. Coupled with the extremely low level of voter registration, that’s how a very small percentage of the total population’s managed to take control of the legislative process. Which is another huge difference between Split and Dresden… and one reason Dresden is overtaking Split economically so rapidly.”

    “We’ve seen that system before,” Terekhov said grimly. “It was called the People’s Republic of Haven.”

    “Split isn’t anywhere near that bad yet, but I’d have to say it has the potential to end up that way. Unless, of course, Rajkovic’s accomplishment in the last presidential election reverses the trend. My impression is that, at least until Nordbrandt started killing people, Aleksandra and her colleagues believed Rajkovic’s campaign represented an anomaly. I think they hoped – probably with reason – that if they managed to stymie his efforts to make genuine, large-scale progress in opening up the system, as his party platform called for, the first-time voters who came out in his support would decide the system doesn’t work, after all. If they go home again, and decline to vote in future elections, it’ll be business as usual for the oligarchs.”

    “And that’s why Tonkovic doesn’t want anybody upsetting her own little playhouse, is that it?”

    “I’d say so, yes.” Van Dort looked troubled. “I wondered what Aleksandra had in mind when she supported the original plebiscite so enthusiastically. In my opinion, she was driven far more by fear of being ingested by Frontier Security than by the advantages membership in the Star Kingdom might bring to her planet and its economy. Where the majority of the Convention’s delegates, including a majority of the oligarchs, see annexation as an opportunity to improve the lives, health, and life expectancy of their worlds’ citizens, Aleksandra doesn’t, really.

    “I’m not saying the other oligarchs are saints, because they’re not. They figure that if the economy improves for everyone, those already at the top of the heap will improve their situations even more. But I do think most of them’re able to look at least a short distance past the limits of their own greedy self-interest. I don’t really think Aleksandra is. Worse, I don’t think she realizes she isn’t. She and the people she associates with on Kornati – the people she thinks of as the ‘real’ Kornatians – are quite well off as things are. The people who aren’t ‘real’ to her don’t matter. Don’t even exist, except as threats to the ones who are ‘real.’ So what they want the Star Kingdom to do is to protect them from the League’s bureaucratic nightmare and otherwise leave them alone. And I’m afraid Aleksandra, despite having quite a good mind, actually, has been extrapolating from her own experience in Split when she visualizes the Star Kingdom. I’m convinced that when she and her closest associates decided to support the plebiscite, they believed the Star Kingdom’s version of representative government was essentially a façade. That they’d be able to continue business as usual even after the annexation went through.”

    “Well, they’re in for a disappointment,” Terekhov said with a harsh chuckle. “Just wait until a few sharp Manticoran business types start lining up local partners! Investment capital won’t be a problem much longer, and once the Kornatians have hard money in their pockets, and something to spend it on, the economic climate’s going to undergo a major change. And when that happens, their comfortable little closed political shop is going to find its windows smashed in, too. If they didn’t like what happened in the last presidential election, they really won’t like what a Manticoran election looks like!”

    “I think they believe that since the Star Kingdom requires its citizens to pay taxes before they’re allowed to vote, they’ll be able to control the situation. That the Manticoran system’s set up to give the Star Kingdom’s upper class control of the electorate while maintaining the fiction that the lower classes have any real political power,” Van Dort said, and Terekhov barked a sharp laugh.

    “That’s because they don’t understand how high a percentage of our people do pay taxes. Or maybe they think our tax codes are as complicated and buggered up as theirs are as a way to chisel people out of the franchise.”

    “Not all of our tax codes are that bad,” Van Dort protested.

    “Oh, please, Bernardus!” Terekhov shook his head in disgust. “Oh, I’ll grant you Rembrandt isn’t quite as bad as the others, but I’ve taken a look at the rat’s nest of tax provisions some of you people have out here. I’ve seen hyper-space astrogation problems that were simpler! No wonder nobody knows what the hell is going on. But the Star Kingdom’s personal tax provisions are a lot simpler – I filled out my entire tax return in less than ten minutes, on a single-page e-form, last year, even with the emergency war taxes. And all the Star Kingdom requires to vote is that a citizen pay at least one cent more in taxes than he receives in government transfer payments and subsidies. Once the infusion of investment capital hits your local economies, there’re going to be an awful lot of franchised voters. And somehow I don’t think they’re going to be very fond of Ms. Tonkovic and her friends. In fact, I think they’ll probably line solidly up behind Mr. Rajkovic.”

    “Which is precisely what’s driving her delaying tactics now,” Van Dort said. “I doubt she’s truly realized just how wrong her original analysis of the Star Kingdom’s political structure really was even now, but she has begun to realize that it was wrong. Unfortunately, from her perspective, she’s now committed to supporting the annexation. Worse, she’s probably realized that even if she could opt out on behalf of the Split System, despite the plebiscite vote – which would be political suicide for her personally, at a bare minimum – Split would simply find itself encysted within the Star Kingdom once the rest of the Cluster joined it. The odds of her being able to maintain her neat little closed system under those circumstances would be minute. So instead, she’s fighting for a Constitution which will not simply leave the existing economic structures and control mechanisms in place in Split, but actually give them the imprimatur of an official constitutional guarantee backed by the Crown. That’s the ‘local autonomy’ she keeps harping on – the right of individual star systems s to determine who holds the franchise within their own political structures.”

    “It’s not going to happen,” Terekhov said flatly. “Her Majesty will never stand for it. It’s too close to the old PRH, and no Manticoran monarch or government would even consider letting it stand.”



    “It’s a pity you can’t just announce that to the Kornatians,” Van Dort mused. “It might even separate some of the FAK’s rank and file from Nordbrandt.”

    “Assuming they were prepared to believe anybody where political promises are concerned.”

    “There is that,” Van Dort conceded. Then he smiled. The expression was so unexpected Terekhov blinked in surprise.

    “What?” the Manticoran asked.

    “I was just reading between the lines of Baroness Medusa’s instructions. She must have twisted Aleksandra’s arm right to the brink of dislocation.”

    Terekhov cocked an eyebrow, and Van Dort chuckled.

    “Given everything I just told you about the relationship between Aleksandra and Rajkovic, do you think she really wants us rummaging around in Split, outside her ability to control what we do? If she’s requested Manticoran support on the basis outlined in my instructions, with Rajkovic approving or disapproving our actions on the spot, then Dame Estelle must have figured out a way to screw a pulser muzzle straight into her ear canal. This could actually be fairly interesting.”

    “But it does take us away from Montana,” Terekhov pointed out.

    “Yes, it does. I’m not sure that that’s a bad thing, though.”

    “Why not?”

    “I’ve been spending a fair amount of time with Trevor Bannister.” A shadow flickered briefly through Van Dort’s eyes and vanished. “We’ve covered a lot of ground, including dealing, more or less, at least, with some personal matters that could have gotten in the way. In addition, though, I’ve been through Trevor’s intelligence summaries and compared them to what I personally know about Stephen Westman. I’m inclined to think that what Nordbrandt’s been doing on Kornati’s something of bucket of cold water for Westman. A horrible example, if you will, of where his own operations could go if he and his followers find themselves increasingly isolated from the Montanan mainstream. And I also think meeting you and talking with you, as well as listening to Baroness Medusa’s message to him, may actually have started getting the notion that Manticore isn’t a clone of Frontier Security through his skull. Leaving him alone to think about it for a while might not be a bad idea.”

    “I hope that’s not just whistling in the dark,” Terekhov said. “Either way, though, we have our movement orders.”

    “Yes, we do.” Van Dort frowned with the expression of a man trying to remember something that was at the tip of his mental tongue. Then he snapped his fingers.

    “What?” Terekhov asked.

    “I almost forgot. When I was down at Trevor’s office this morning, he gave me a new piece of information. I’m not sure where he got it – he’s protecting his sources carefully – but it seems Westman’s been in contact with at least one off-worlder who appears to be very… supportive of his position.”

    “He has?” Terekhov frowned. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

    “Neither do I. The last thing we need is some sort of interstellar coordinating committee operating Cluster-wide.”

    “Absolutely. Do we know anything about this mysterious stranger?”

    “Not much,” Van Dort admitted. “All we really know is that he met with Westman about two T-months ago and that he was identified only by the codename ‘Firebrand.’ What he and Westman discussed, where ‘Firebrand’ came from, and where he went when he left, are all unanswered questions, but the name itself has some unpleasant connotations from our perspective.”

    “It does, indeed.”

    Terekhov frowned some more, then shrugged.

    “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it for now,” he said, and reached out to punch an address combination into his desktop com.

    “Bridge, Officer of the Watch speaking,” Lieutenant Commander Kaplan said.

    “Are all our people back aboard, Naomi?”

    “Yes, Sir. They are.”

    “Very well. In that case, request permission from Montana Traffic Control for us to leave orbit and depart the system for Split.



    “Well, ‘Firebrand,’” Aldona Anisimovna said as Damien Harahap walked into the conference room attached to her Estelle Arms Hotel suite on Monica. “Welcome back. How was your trip?”

    “Long, Ms. Anisimovna,” he replied. In fact, he’d left Monica better than three T-months ago. He’d spent most of that time traveling between star systems, penned up in the confines of a dispatch boat, and he wanted a long, soaking bath, a thick, rare steak with baked potato and sour cream, and several hours of convivial female companionship – in that order.

    Anisimovna and Bardasano sat on the other side of the crystal-topped conference table. Izrok Levakonic was supposed to be there, but there was no sign of him. Harahap nodded his head in the direction of Levakonic’s empty chair in silent question, and Anisimovna smiled.

    “Izrok’s out at Eroica Station,” she said. “He’s helping out with a minor technical problem the Monican Navy’s experiencing, and he’ll probably be stuck out there for the next few days. Go ahead with your report. Isabel and I will see to it that he’s brought up to date.”

    “Of course, Ma’am.”

    ‘Technical problem,’ is it? Harahap snorted mentally behind his expressionless eyes. And just how much would that have to do with all those battlecruisers which have miraculously appeared here in Monica?

    The Gendarmerie captain was beginning to suspect that the scale of Anisimovna’s plans was considerably more audacious than he’d believed possible. It all seemed extraordinarily risky, assuming he was starting to get it figured out correctly. But somehow he doubted even Manpower would have been prepared to make the investment that many hundreds of thousands of tons of battlecruiser represented unless it was pretty damned sure of success.

    In any case, that part of the operation wasn’t his responsibility.

    “While I was gone,” he began, “I contacted Westman in Montana, Nordbrandt in Split, and Jeffers in Tillerman. The quick overview is that, of the three, Nordbrandt’s definitely the best suited to our needs. Jeffers talks a good fight, but my impression is that he’s actually too shy to come out of the woodwork without a great deal of additional encouragement. Westman’s the big question mark. I suspect that in terms of capability, he leaves both the other two in the dust. And my impression is that he’s deeply committed to his beliefs. But he’s also much more opposed to inflicting casualties. In terms of representing a serious threat to his own government, or to OFS, he’s probably the most dangerous. But in terms of our need for a threat which is spectacular, however genuine it may or may not be, his disinclination to kill people is definitely a strike against him.”

    He looked back and forth between the two women. Both of them were listening intently, and Bardasano had a memo pad in front of her. They weren’t going to interrupt him with questions until he’d finished his basic presentation, he realized. That was nice. Too many of his uniformed superiors were too in love with demonstrating their own insightful intelligence to keep their mouths shut until people who knew what was really happening could finish explaining it to them in short sentences of single-syllable words.

    “I’d like to discuss each of these three possibilities in increasing order of value, if that’s acceptable?” he asked. Anisimovna nodded, and he smiled.

    “Thank you. In that case, let’s get Jeffers out of the way. First of all, Jeffers doesn’t have a very good grasp of operational security,” Harahap began. “In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s already been pretty thoroughly penetrated by local counter-intelligence types. When I spoke to him, he said he…“

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