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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Forty One

       Last updated: Friday, September 24, 2004 12:48 EDT



    HMS Hexapuma slid into orbit around Kornati with the polished professionalism to be expected from one of the galaxy’s premier navies. Aivars Terekhov observed the maneuver from the center of his smoothly humming bridge with profound satisfaction. Hexapuma was seventeen days out of Montana -- a rapid passage by anyone’s standards -- and between them, he and Ansten FitzGerald had turned the ship into a precision instrument.

    But however satisfied he felt about that, Terekhov cherished no illusions that his responsibilities in Split would be easily discharged. Amal Nagchaudhuri’s department had been monitoring the Kornatian news channels ever since Hexapuma translated back into normal-space. There’d been no more major incidents in the last several weeks, but there had been a handful of minor attacks -- little more than pinpricks, really. It seemed apparent they were intended more to keep the public reminded the rumors of Nordbrandt’s demise had been wildly exaggerated than to do any significant damage. And they clearly were succeeding. Even if the newsies’ commentary hadn’t made that point, the fervency with which Kornati Traffic Control welcomed Hexapuma would have made it abundantly clear the locals had pinned an enormous amount of hope on the capabilities of his ship and crew.

    The problem with heightened expectations, he reminded himself, is that they lead to heightened dejection if they’re disappointed. And as good as my people are, the chances of our finding Van Dort’s silver bullet aren’t exactly overwhelming.

    The ship settled precisely into her assigned position, and Senior Chief Clary rang off main thrusters and reconfigured for automatic station keeping. Terekhov nodded in satisfaction, then turned towards Communications as a chime sounded.

    Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri listened for a few moments, then looked up.

    “Skipper, I have a Ms. Darinka Djerdja on the line. She’s Vice President Rajkovic’s personal assistant, and she asks if it would be convenient for you to speak to the Vice President.”

    Despite himself, Terekhov felt an eyebrow rise. Evidently, the locals were even more eager to talk to him then he’d anticipated.

    “Do we have visual?”

    “Yes, Sir,” Nagchaudhuri replied.

    “Then please inform Ms. Djerdja that I would be honored to speak to the Vice President. When he comes on the line, put it on my display here, please.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir.”

    It took less than four minutes. Then a stocky, dark-haired man of medium height appeared on Terekhov’s display. Vice President Vuk Rajkovic had steady gray eyes, a strong chin, and ears that could have been used for airfoils. They stuck out sharply on either side of his head, and they would have made him look ridiculous if not for the concentrated purpose in those piercing eyes.

    “Captain Terekhov, I’m Vuk Rajkovic,” the big-eared man said in a deep, whiskey-smooth baritone.

    “Mr. Vice President, this is an honor,” Terekhov replied, and Rajkovic snorted.

    “This, Captain, is a case of the cavalry riding to the rescue. Or, I certainly hope it is -- and that we haven’t waited too long to call for help.”

    “Mr. Vice President, I assure you we’ll do anything and everything we can,” Terekhov said, conscious of both Van Dort’s briefing on the local political situation and his own instructions from Baroness Medusa. “However, I hope no one in Split has unrealistic expectations about just what we can do.”

    “I don’t expect miracles, Captain,” Rajkovic reassured him. “I’m afraid some members of my Cabinet and Parliament probably do. And I know those idiots who report the news do. But I recognize that you have a single ship, with limited manpower, and no more idea where to find these lunatics then we have. I suppose what I’m really hoping for is two things. First, Id be absolutely delighted if you were able to break the FAK wide open in a single brilliantly conceived and executed operation, after all. Second, failing that -- which, frankly, seems likely to me -- I’d be extremely gratified by even one or two relatively minor successes. If it’s possible for us to score a few victories, even small ones, with your assistance, then the notion that the entire resources of Star Kingdom stand ready to assist us further should be a major morale enhancer for all of our people.”

    “I see.” Terekhov gazed at the face on his com. Obviously Rajkovic wanted him to know he was only too well aware that Hexapuma was unlikely to slay the FAK dragon with a single stroke of the sword. And, the captain conceded, the expectations attached to the Vice President’s second hope were both pragmatic and realistic.

    “We’ll certainly give it our very best effort, Mr. Vice President,” he assured Rajkovic.

    “No one could ask for more, Captain. Would it be possible for you -- and for Mr. Van Dort -- to meet with me in the President’s Mansion this afternoon?”

    “It’ll take at least a little while to get Hexapuma snugged down, Sir. However, I’d estimate that Mr. Van Dort and I could be available to you within ninety minutes or so. Two hours would be better, frankly.”

    “Two hours would be more than satisfactory, Captain. My calendar’s been cleared for the afternoon. Please com Ms. Djerdja when you’re ready to join us here. I’d like to have Mavro Kanjer, my Secretary of Justice, and Colonel Basaricek and General Suka present, as well. I should be able to get them here between the time you leave you ship and the time you reach the spaceport and we can find transportation to the President’s Mansion for you.”

    “Of course, Mr. Vice President.”

    “Until then, Captain,” Rajkovic said with a warm smile, and disappeared from Terekhov’s display.

    The captain looked up. Helen Zilwicki was at Tactical with Naomi Kaplan while Ragnhild Pavletic was at Communications with Nagchaudhuri, and Terekhov pointed a finger in Helen’s direction.

    “Ms. Zilwicki, you’re relieved. Please go inform Mr. Van Dort that we’ll be leaving the ship within two hours to meet with Vice President Rajkovic and his senior military and police officers. Then prepare yourself to accompany us.”

    “Yes, Sir.” Helen stood and faced Kaplan. “Ma’am, I request relief.”

    “Ms. Zilwicki, you stand relieved,” Kaplan replied gravely, and Helen braced briefly to attention, then headed for the lift.

    Terekhov was already pointing the same finger at Ragnhild.

    “Ms. Pavletic, you also are relieved. Report to Boat Bay One and assemble Pinnace One’s crew. You’ll transport Mr. Van Dort and me to the Karlovac spaceport and remain there to return us to the ship after our meeting with Vice President Rajkovic. See to it that you’re fully cognizant with local flight control procedures and that our flight’s fully cleared. In addition, contact the senior KNP officer at the spaceport -- I’m sure Karlovac Flight Control can put you in touch with him -- and ask him to com Major Kaczmarczyk to coordinate security overwatch for the pinnace.”

    “Yes, Sir!” Ragnhild said. She stood and turned towards Nagchaudhuri to request relief, but Terekhov was already punching a combination into his own com.

    “Major Kaczmarczyk,” a voice said a moment later, and the bristle-cut Marine appeared on his display.

    “Tadislaw, Mr. Van Dort and I are going down to meet with the Kornatian Vice President and his senior cops. I want you present for the meeting. In addition, I think it’s time for a proper show of force. Nordbrandt’s demonstrated that she’s ambitious, if nothing else. If she sees an opportunity to take out the Manticoran big shots sent to help hunt her down, I expect her to take it. Even if she doesn’t, a demonstration of our own capabilities won’t hurt a thing.”

    “Yes, Sir. I understand,” Kaczmarczyk said when Terekhov paused.

    “Ms. Pavletic will have Pinnace One. I’ve instructed her to contact Karlovac Flight Control for clearance and a flight plan, and also to request that the senior police officer at the spaceport contact you. I expect you’ll be hearing from him sometime in the next ten to fifteen minutes. When you discuss arrangements with him, make it clear you intend to provide security for our party between the spaceport and the President’s Mansion, as well. If he needs to clear that with his own superiors, he should have time before we actually head down.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir. I’ll get right on it.”

    “Good. Terekhov, clear.”

    The captain cut the com link and looked up. Ragnhild had already disappeared in Helen’s wake, and he gazed at the tactical plot. There were more orbital installations and traffic then he’d anticipated from Bernardus’ description of the Split economy and tech base, although the plot still looked incredibly sparse compared to what it would have shown around Manticore, Sphinx, or Gryphon.


    “Yes, Sir?” Naomi Kaplan said.

    “I want to know just what orbital assets the Kornatians have. I expect they’ll be perfectly willing to brief us on their capabilities, but sometimes there’s a discrepancy between what people tell you they can do and the capabilities of the hardware they actually have in place. Put out some arrays to give us a look at the far side of the planet. Then run a detailed analysis of every ship and satellite out there. I’d like you and Lieutenant Hearns to be prepared to give me a full-dress brief on your findings right after breakfast tomorrow.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir. We’ll be there,” Kaplan assured him, and began giving instructions of her own to her ratings.

    Terekhov gave the plot one more brief examination, glanced at the main visual display and the huge blue and white globe of Kornati, then stood. If he was going to go call upon the local head of state, acting or no, it behooved him to make the best impression that he could, and Chief Steward Agnelli would never forgive him if he didn’t give her enough time to make him what she considered presentable.




    “They’re here.”

    The voice didn’t identify itself. On the other hand, it didn’t have to. First, because Nordbrandt recognized it. And, second, because it was speaking over one of the secure military coms which had been landed the evening before. Only four people, including Nordbrandt, had so far received those.

    “You’re positive?” she asked.

    “They’ve contacted the graybacks to clear their small craft into the spaceport,” Drazen Divkovic replied. “I’m not sure of their arrival time, but Rajkovic’ll want to see them as soon as possible.”


    Nordbrandt frowned at the drably painted wall of her one-sun’s kitchen. She knew why Drazen had contacted her directly this way, and a part of her agreed with him. But it was too soon. The Manties’ guard would be up, and the essentially civilian weapons her action groups had used against Kornatian opposition would be grossly inadequate against Manticoran hardware. Her people needed the time to become reasonably proficient with their new weapons before they crossed swords with the Manties.

    “Take no action at this time,” she said.

    She could visualize the expression of frustration her words sent flickering across Divkovic’s face. He’d been fiery and impatient enough even before his brother was killed. But he was also disciplined.

    “Acknowledged. Clear,” was all he said, and the link went dead.

    Nordbrandt put the fist-sized com back into its hiding place in the flour canister, stopped by the oven to check the bread whose rich aroma filled the kitchen, then sat back down to consider the implications.

    They’d known the Manties were coming. Tonkovic was unaware one of her own aides at her precious Constitutional Convention was a FAK sympathizer and information source, and that source had informed Nordbrandt almost as quickly as Tonkovic had informed Rajkovic. But the man hadn’t been able to tell Nordbrandt when Hexapuma would arrive, and the actual timing was… inconvenient.

    She’d arranged for the second load of weapons to be landed that very night. Things had gone so well the first time that she’d decided to go ahead and run in a full shuttle load -- over a thousand tons -- in a single flight. Since she had enough from the first load tucked away in her twelve separate caches to meet her immediate operational needs in and around the capital, she’d decided to risk landing that large a chunk of the total consignment at Charlie One, the carefully hidden base training camp also known as “Camp Freedom.”

    Charlie One had been located with security in mind, which meant it was incredibly inconveniently placed to support operations in or around Karlovac. Or any of Kornati’s other major cities. Or even moderately large towns, for that matter. But its very isolation should mean it would be reasonably safe to hold the majority of the new weapons and equipment there for at least a short time -- long enough, certainly, to carefully disperse it all to secondary hidden locations.

    But all of that had been predicated on relative freedom of movement, and certainly hadn’t included the intrusion of a Manticoran warship. She rather suspected that Firebrand’s delivery crew would be less than delighted by that turn of events.



    “You’re shitting me.”

    “I wish!” Annette De Chabrol shot back.

    “A goddamned Manty cruiser?” Duan Binyan stared at her, still trying to scrub the last rags of sleep out of his brain.

    “A Saganami-class, no less!” De Chabrol snarled. “The son-of-a-bitch is sitting in a parking orbit less than a thousand kilometers from us right this instant!”

    “All right. All right! Calm down,” Duan urged. She looked at him out of his cabin com as if she thought he were an idiot, and he shrugged.

    “So there’s a Manty cruiser in orbit with us,” he said, just a bit more calmly than he actually felt. “So what? We’re a legitimate merchantship, certified by the locals’ own customs inspectors, and we’re here to pick up and drop off a half-dozen small consignments and a dozen passengers. It’s all logged with Traffic Control -- and with Customs and the KNP -- and it was set up months ago. There’s absolutely no reason for these Manties to be any more suspicious of us than the Kornatians are.”

    De Chabrol stared at him for three seconds, then shook herself.

    “That’s all well and good, Binyan,” she said in a marginally calmer voice. “But it overlooks one little point. The Kornatians’ sensors suck; Manty sensors most empathically do not. This cruiser’s a helluva lot more likely to spot anything out of the ordinary we might do… like landing, oh, I don’t know -- say, a thousand tons or so of prohibited military-grade weapons for a bunch of murdering terrorists.”

    Her tone was withering, and Duan was forced to admit she had a point.

    “I don’t have any more desire to stick my reproductive equipment into a power outlet then you do,” he said. “Unfortunately, we may not have a lot of choice. Nordbrandt’s people have already set up tonight’s delivery, and we don’t have any way to tell them we’re not coming. We can always simply scrub the delivery without telling them, of course. But there’s no telling how they’ll react if we don’t show up.”

    “What? You expect them to call the authorities and say, ‘Hi, this is your friendly local terrorist organization speaking. Those nasty people in the Marianne were supposed to deliver a thousand tons of weapons and explosives to us so we could kill more of you, and they didn’t. So we’re ratting them out to you. Go arrest them’?”

    “No,” he said with considerable restraint. “What I’m afraid of is that if we don’t make the delivery, someone in their part of the pipeline is going to ask one question too many, stay in the wrong place just too long, or panic and start trying to contact their own leaders -- something that ends up drawing the local cops’ attention. And if that happens, and they get busted, and the locals roll up the delivery chain and find us at the end of it, I don’t doubt for a minute that Mr. Saganami-class cruiser will very cheerfully board us or blow us out of space at their request.”

    “So why don’t we just leave? Let them go ahead and roll up the locals! It’s no skin off our ass if they do.”

    “Oh, yes, it is. Nordbrandt’s contact for this shipment’s the Jessyk agent here on Kornati. If we pull out, and Nordbrandt’s people get nailed, there’s no way they won’t tell the authorities exactly who was supposed to deliver their weapons… and didn’t. And if it’s escaped your attention, our agent doesn’t have diplomatic immunity. The locals will bust him in a heartbeat, and when they do, they’ll hand him over to the Manties. And the one thing we can’t afford is for the Manties to start wondering why the Jessyk Combine -- a Mesan transstellar corporation -- is shipping weapons to terrorists in the Talbott Cluster. Believe me,” he looked into her eyes, “there’s more going on here than just a weapons drop to a bunch of lunatics. If you and I do anything that compromises the rest of Bardasano’s operation, we’ll be lucky if we manage to kill ourselves before her wet work teams catch up with us.”

    De Chabrol had opened her mouth in fresh protest. She closed it again.

    “Yeah,” Duan said dryly. “What I thought myself.”

    “So we go ahead with the drop as planned?”

    “Only the next scheduled phase. Between what we already have down and the next load, they’ll have almost a third of the entire consignment. That’s a hell of a lot more than they had before, and we’ll explain that the arrival of this Manty cruiser means we have to haul ass. I’m pretty sure Nordbrandt will understand. And even if she doesn’t, even if we wind up ratted out, Bardasano won’t blame us for it. Or, she probably won’t, at least. She came up through covert ops herself, and they say she’s got enough experience to recognize what field ops realistically can and can’t do when Murphy turns up. If we manage to make that much of our drop and get away clean, I think she’ll agree it was the best we could do under the circumstances.”

    “I hope you’re right. And I hope we do get away with it.”

    “So do I. But the bottom line is that Bardasano’s more likely to order us popped if we screw up this operation than the Manties are, even if they grab us under the equipment clause.”

    “What a charming incentive,” De Chabrol muttered, and Duan chuckled in sardonic agreement.

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