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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Forty Five

       Last updated: Tuesday, October 26, 2004 15:32 EDT



    “My God, Aivars.” Bernardus Van Dort’s face was ashen as he looked up from the report. “A thousand tons of modern weapons?”

    “That’s Kaczmarczyk’s best estimate.” Terekhov sat behind his desk in his day cabin, and his expression was as grim as his voice. “He may be off in either direction, but I doubt he’s very far off.”

    “But, dear God, where did they come from?”

    “We don’t know. And we may not find out. We only have five prisoners, and three of them are critically wounded. Doctor Orban’s doing what he can, but he’s pretty sure we’re going to lose at least one of them.”

    “And your own losses?” Van Dort asked, his voice softer.

    “Two dead, one wounded,” Terekhov said harshly. “Either some of these people were suicidal, or else they didn’t know what the hell they were doing! Using plasma grenades in an underground tunnel?” He shook his head viciously. “Sure, they killed two of my Marines, but the same grenades killed at least fifteen of their people -- possibly more!”

    Van Dort shook his head, not in disbelief, but like a man who wished he could disbelieve.

    “What do we know about their casualties?” he asked after a moment.

    “So far Tadislaw’s confirmed at least seventy bodies. That number may very well go up. At the moment, only his Marines are equipped for search and operations in there. Without armor, or at least skinsuits, nobody can get through the fires and the heat.”

    Van Dort closed his eyes, trying -- and, he knew, failing -- to imagine what it must have been like in those narrow, underground passages when modern weapons turned them into a roaring inferno.

    “I don’t know what I feel,” he admitted after several moments, opening his eyes again. “It was a massacre,” he said, and raised one hand before Terekhov could open his mouth to protest his choice of nouns. “I said a massacre, Aivars, not an atrocity. At least we tried to give these people a chance to surrender, which is more than they’ve done. And if we’ve killed seventy or eighty of them, that’s a drop in a bucket compared to the thousands of civilians -- including children -- they and their… colleagues have slaughtered. But it’s still -- what? ninety-plus percent of everyone in their base when we arrived?” He shook his head again. “Even knowing who they were, what they’ve done, that kind of death rate…”

    His voice trailed off, and he shook his head again, but Terekhov barked a hard, sharp-edged laugh.

    “If you want someone to spend your pity on, Bernardus, I can find you some much more deserving candidates!”

    “It isn’t pity, Aivars, it’s --“

    ”I’m a naval officer, Bernardus.” Terekhov interrupted. “Oh, sure, I spent twenty-eight T-years as a Foreign Office weenie, but I was a Naval officer for eleven T-years first, and I've been a Naval officer for fifteen T-years since. I’ve spent too many years cleaning up after people who do things like this, and that affects your perspective. We call them ‘pirates,’ or sometimes ‘slavers,’ but they’re no different, when you come right down to it, from Nordbrandt and her butchers. The only difference is the justification they use for their butchery, and I, for one, am not going to shed one single tear for these butchers!”

    Van Dort gazed at his friend’s bleak expression. Maybe Terekhov was a harder man than he was -- hardened by his profession, and experience. Yet, even if he was, Van Dort knew he was right. FAK’s actions had put its members beyond the pale. Whatever twisted justification they gave themselves for their actions, they’d reduced human beings -- men, women, and children -- to tools. To readily expended pawns. To things to be destroyed in a coldblooded, calculated ploy to terrify and demoralize their opponents.

    And yet… and yet…

    There was a part of Bernardus Van Dort which couldn’t help being horrified. Couldn’t accept that any human beings, whatever their crimes, could be wiped away in such transcendent horror without some corner of his soul crying out in protest. And even if he could have shed that soul-deep repugnance, he didn’t want to. Because the day he could do that, he would become someone else.

    “Well, whatever else it’s done,” he said at length, “it has to be a body blow to the FAK. It’s more than three times their total casualties to date, and all inflicted in less than two hours. That kind of damage has to knock even fanatics like Nordbrandt back on their heels.”

    “And losing a thousand tons of modern weapons has to make a hole in their offensive capabilities,” Terekhov pointed out. But there was something odd about his voice, and Van Dort looked up quickly.

    The Manticoran’s eyes were distant, almost unfocused, as he gazed across the cabin at the bulkhead portrait of his wife. He sat that way for over a full minute, rubbing the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand together in a slow, circular movement.

    “What is it, Aivars,” Van Dort finally asked.

    “Hmph?” Terekhov shook himself, and his eyes refocused on Van Dort’s face. “What?”

    “I asked what you were thinking about.”

    “Oh.” The Manticoran tossed his right hand in a throwing-away gesture. “I was just thinking about their weapons.”

    “What about them?”

    “Tadislaw already has First Platoon’s armorers examining their find. So far, everything’s been Solarian manufacture. Some of the small arms are at least twenty T-years old, but all of them are in excellent shape. Replacement parts, some a lot newer than the weapons themselves, indicate they were all refurbished and reconditioned before they were delivered to Nordbrandt. The crew-served weapons they’ve looked at so far seem to be newer than that, though, and they’ve turned up modern com gear, reconnaissance systems, night vision equipment, body armor, military-grade explosives and detonators…” The captain shook his head. “Bernardus, they had everything they needed to equip a battalion of light infantry -- modern light infantry -- complete with heavy weapons support, buried in that hole in the ground.”

    “I realize that,” Van Dort said.

    “You’re missing my point. They had it buried in a hole in the ground. Why? If they had this kind of equipment, why weren’t they using it? They could’ve blasted their way right through anything the Kornatian police could put in their way. Hell, for that matter, they could’ve blasted their way through anything Suka’s System Defense Force could have thrown at them, unless the SDF was prepared to resort to saturation airstrikes! Nordbrandt could have invaded the Nemanja Building and taken the entire Parliament hostage on the very first day of her offensive, instead of just bombing it with civilian explosives. So why didn’t she?”

    Van Dort blinked, then frowned.

    “I don’t know,” he admitted slowly. “Unless they didn’t have them then.” He inhaled deeply, still thinking. “Maybe you said it yourself. You said they were either suicidal or didn’t know what they were doing. Maybe they just hadn’t had the weapons long enough.”

    “That’s exactly what I was thinking. But if they didn’t have them stockpiled to begin with, where did they come from? How did they get here? I can’t believe Nordbrandt had a big enough war chest socked away to pay for them, but the kind of rogue arms dealer who’d deal with someone like her would demand cash in advance, and he wouldn’t sell them cheap. So who did pay for them? And when did they deliver them? And while we’re asking questions like that, how do we know this is the only stockpile she had?”

    “I don’t know,” Van Dort admitted again. “But I think we’d better find out.”




    Agnes Nordbrandt’s hands trembled as she switched off the com and returned it to its hiding place in the canister of flour. She put the canister back into the cabinet, closed the door, and switched on the HD. But there was only regularly-scheduled programming, none of the screaming news bulletins which would go streaming out when the government announced its stunning victory.

    How? How had they done it? How had they even spotted Camp Freedom in the first place?

    Was it her fault? That second load of weapons and equipment -- had they spotted the delivery shuttle after all? Tracked it to Camp Freedom?

    No. No, it couldn’t have been the delivery. If they’d spotted that, they would have attacked before this. They would never have risked waiting until we might have dispersed the weapons to other locations.

    But if not that, then what?

    Drazen. It must have been Drazen’s people. Yet how could it have been? They’d made dozens -- scores -- of careful, stealthy trips in and out of Camp Freedom since the Nemanja bombing without anyone ever noticing a thing. And Drazen had been even more cautious than usual. Less than a dozen individual flights -- nondescript personal air cars and copters -- buried in the background of an entire hemisphere’s routine, civilian traffic. Their flight paths had been almost random. Even their arrival times had been staggered over a window more than six hours wide! There was no way they could have been spotted. No way their courses and arrivals could have been connected with one another.

    The Manties, she thought. The goddamned, murdering Manties. They did it. Them and their sensors and their jackbooted Marines!

    It was the only answer. Only the Manties had the technical capability to pluck a handful of innocent-looking flights out of the clutter of everyone else’s air traffic. Only the same greedy, avaricious, grasping imperialists out to devour her planet. They were the only ones who could have spotted Drazen, and their mercenary so-called “Marines” were the only troops in the star system who could have butchered everyone in Camp Freedom like so many helpless sheep hurled into a furnace.

    Hot tears burned the backs of her eyes, but she refused to shed them. She wouldn’t weep. She would not weep! Not even though the hired thugs of the interstellar appetite waiting to rape her world and the corrupt regime of local despots waiting to help them do it had murdered Drazen and his entire cell. Had burned them like so many logs in a fire and butchered over ninety other people -- friends, colleagues, brothers and sisters of the armed struggle, some of whom she’d known for literally two-thirds of her entire life -- with them.

    She would not weep.

    They may have destroyed Camp Freedom, she told herself fiercely, but they don’t know about the other arms caches. They don’t know the Movement still has modern weapons, still has dozens of times the firepower and capability we had at the beginning!

    She told herself that, and resolutely refused to consider the fact that whatever the FAK might have, the government had the Star Kingdom of Manticore.



    “So now what do we do?”

    Vice President Vuk Rajkovic looked around the table at the members of “his” Cabinet, although less than a quarter of them had been chosen by him.

    “What do you mean, Mr. Vice President?” Mavro Kanjer asked.

    “You know perfectly well what I mean, Mavro,” Rajkovic told the Secretary of Justice flatly. “You were there when Van Dort told us what Aleksandra didn’t tell us.” Several people shifted uneasily, and Rajkovic stabbed them with an angry glare. “All of you know, by now. Don’t pretend for one moment you don’t! And if any of you want to try to, I’m officially informing you now that I have formal confirmation of Van Dort’s statements from Baroness Medusa herself. President Tonkovic was informed six weeks ago that a hard deadline existed, and she still hasn’t informed her own government of that fact.”

    People looked away from him. Some looked down at the table, some at the walls, and some at each other. Then, finally, Vesna Grabovac looked up and met his gaze squarely.

    “What do you think we should do, Mr. Vice President?” the Treasury Secretary asked.

    “I think we should consider the fact that President Tonkovic was required by our Constitution to inform the rest of her government -- and, especially, Parliament -- of that communication from the Provisional Governor ‘without delay.’ I submit to you that six weeks -- over a quarter of the total time remaining to the Constitutional Convention -- constitutes a very significant delay.”

    “Are you suggesting she be recalled to face Parliamentary questioning?” Alenka Mestrovic, the Education Secretary demanded.

    “I think the possibility should be considered very strongly, yes,” Rajkovic said unflinchingly.

    “We can hardly sustain a constitutional crisis at a moment when we’ve just learned Nordbrandt and her lunatics are in possession of modern, off-world weapons!” Kanjer protested.

    “My God, Mavro!” It was Goran Majoli, Secretary of Commerce and one of Rajkovic’s strongest allies in the Cabinet. “We -- or, rather, the Manticorans -- just seized over a thousand tons of those ‘modern weapons’ and killed over a hundred of her murderers in the process! If we can’t face the possibility of an open political debate about our own President’s compliance with the Constitution now, then when do you suggest we will be able to?”

    Kanjer glared at Majoli. Obviously, Rajkovic thought, Kanjer felt that "never" would be a very good time to consider Aleksandra’s conduct.

    Voices started up all around the table, with a contentiousness not even the most broad minded could have dignified with a term as civilized as “debate.” Rajkovic let the wrangling stretch out for several minutes, then hammered on the wooden block with his gavel. The crisp, sharp sound brought the raised voices to an abrupt, slithering stop, and he glared at all of them.

    “This is a meeting of the Cabinet, not a sandbox full of fighting children!” Even some of Tonkovic’s most avid supporters had the grace to look embarrassed at that, and he swept his eyes over all of them.

    “Obviously, we aren’t going to reach consensus on this this afternoon,” he said flatly. “It is, however, a matter we’re going to have to settle, and soon. Whatever President Tonkovic may think, I cannot justify not passing that information on directly to Parliament now that it’s been officially communicated to me by the Provisional Governor.”

    The silence became deathly still as Tonkovic’s partisans realized what he was saying, and he met their gazes levelly.

    “I called this meeting, and asked the question that I did, primarily as a matter of courtesy. In my judgment, the destruction of so much of Nordbrandt’s organization, and the capture and destruction of so many off-world weapons, should have a calming effect on public opinion. I believe there won’t be a better time for me to grasp the nettle and bring this information to Parliament’s attention without provoking widespread public outrage and protests. I’ll do so in as noninflamatory a fashion as I possibly can, but all of you know as well as I do that, however public opinion reacts, Parliament won’t take it well. And Parliament may, at its own discretion, summon any elected official -- including the President -- to answer before its members for the proper discharge of his or her duties.”

    “And you’ll just happen to suggest that they ought to do so in this case, eh?” Kanjer demanded with an ugly expression.

    “I’ll suggest nothing of the sort,” Rajkovic replied coldly. “If that were what I wanted to suggest, however, it would be unnecessary, and you know it as well as I do.”

    “I know you’re planning on staging what amounts to a coup d’etat!” Kanjer retorted angrily.

    “Oh, bullshit, Mavro!” Majoli snapped. “You can’t accuse Vuk of staging a coup when all he’s doing is what the Constitution flatly requires him to do! Or do you suggest he should violate the Constitution in order to protect someone else who’s already doing the same thing?”

    Kanjer snarled at the Commerce Secretary, and Rajkovic hammered the gavel again. Kanjer and Majoli sat back from the table almost simultaneously, still glaring at one another, and the Vice President shook his head.

    “I’ll be dispatching an official report of the raid and its results to Spindle by tomorrow or the next day. Anyone who wishes to communicate with President Tonkovic is welcome to send his or her messages via the same courier. Frankly, I invite you to do so. Whether you believe this or not, Mavro, I’d far rather resolve this without a constitutional crisis. And I’ve been acting head of state long enough to have a very good idea of just how unpleasant it would be to have the job permanently, thank you!

    “I have also, however, been summoned to appear before Parliament tomorrow afternoon. The exact reason Parliament wishes to see me hasn’t been vouchsafed, but I suspect we can all deduce what it is they want to talk about. And when they ask me questions, Ladies and Gentlemen, I will answer them -- fully, frankly, and as completely as I can. What will come of that, I don’t know, but I suggest that it behooves all of President Tonkovic’s friends to convince her that there are matters here on Kornati which require her urgent attention.”




    “Sir? Do you have a minute?”

    “What is it, Lajos?” Aivars Terekhov replied, glancing up from the paperwork on his computer display to find Surgeon Commander Orban looking in through the open hatch of his bridge briefing room.

    “Sir, I don’t know if this is important, but I thought I should mention it to you.”

    “Mention what to me?” Terekhov raised one eyebrow and half-turned towards the hatch with his elbow on the briefing room table.

    “Well, Sir,” Orban said slowly, “normally, under the Beowulf Code, what a patient says under heavy medication is privileged doctor-patient information.”

    Terekhov felt his muscles freeze. The Star Kingdom subscribed firmly to the bioethics of the Beowulf Code. Most physicians would have been prepared to face prison themselves rather than violate it.

    “I believe, Doctor,” he said slowly, “that your responsibilities as a Queen’s officer supersede that particular privilege under certain circumstances.”

    “Yes, Sir, they do,” Orban said, his eyes even darker than usual. “I don’t like it, but they do. For that matter, under the circumstances, I suspect the old Hippocratic Oath would, even though it was hardly written for a case like this.”

    “Like what?” Terekhov made his voice remain calm and patient.

    “One of my patients, one of the terrorists, is under some fairly heavy pain medication, Sir,” the surgeon commander said slowly. “I’d say he’s got no more than a seventy percent chance, even with quick heal.” He frowned, then waved one hand impatiently. “Whatever. The important thing is that he’s fairly delusional at the moment. He thinks the SBAs and I are someone called ‘Drazen’ or ‘Brother Dagger,’ and he keeps trying to make some kind of report to us.”

    “What sort of report, Doctor?” Terekhov asked very intently.

    “I don’t know, Sir. We’re recording it, but his voice is pretty much gone and it’s all fairly garbled. In fact, most of it seems to be so much gibberish. But there’s one name he keeps saying over and over again. It seems to have something to do with all the weapons they had down there. I think this fellow’s been thrown back to before the attack, because he keeps telling this ‘Drazen’ fellow that ‘the shipment has been delivered.’”

    “‘The shipment’?” Terekhov repeated sharply, and Orban nodded. “And you said he keeps repeating a name?”

    “Yes, Sir.” The physician shrugged. “I guess it must be a code name of some sort. I mean, ‘Firebrand’ could hardly be someone’s real name, could it?”



    “‘Firebrand’? Is Dr. Orban sure about that, Aivars?” Van Dort demanded.

    “Whether he is or not, the recorder is,” Terekhov said harshly. “I played it back myself. And then I had Guthrie Bagwell digitally enhance it. That’s the name he keeps saying. And he’s telling this ‘Drazen’ that he -- our wounded terrorist -- personally took delivery of ‘Firebrand’s guns.’ I don’t think there can be any reasonable doubt. This ‘Firebrand’ character is how Nordbrandt got her hands on at least -- at least, Bernardus -- a thousand tons of modern weapons. Do you think it’s just a coincidence that your friend Westman’s been having some sort of contact with someone using the same name?”

    “No. No, of course it isn’t.” Van Dort rubbed his face with his palms, then drew a deep breath and laid his hands flat on the tabletop in front of him and stared at their backs.

    “Then maybe Mr. Westman has just been stringing us along,” Terekhov suggested, his tone even harsher.

    “Maybe,” Van Dort said. Then he shook his head. “Of course it’s possible. Anything’s possible -- especially in a situation like this! But why? The one thing about Westman, from the very beginning, was how determined he's been to minimize casualties. Minimize them. There couldn’t be a bigger difference between his attitude and Nordbrandt’s! Why would he be dealing with someone who’s connected with her?”

    “I can think of only two reasons.” If Terekhov’s voice was less harsh, it was much colder. “First, we’ve been wrong about Westman from the start. Maybe he’s just smarter than Nordbrandt, not less bloodthirsty. He could simply’ve decided to start out more slowly, so he’d be able to make a stronger case to the Montanan public for having been forced to it by the reactionary forces of a corrupt regime when he unleashes his own bloodbath.

    “Second -- and, to be honest, the one I would infinitely prefer -- this ‘Firebrand’ is simply that rogue arms dealer I mentioned to you once before. Somebody peddling arms wherever he can find a buyer, who’s managed to contact both Westman and Nordbrandt. In that case, Westman really may be as different from Nordbrandt as we always thought he was.”

    “But how could a single arms dealer make contact in such a relatively short period with two such totally different people? Neither of whom were on some directory of would-be freedom fighters or terrorists before they went underground, and that wasn’t all that long ago. So how did he find both of them so promptly?” Van Dort objected. “Especially when the two people in question live on planets over a light-century apart?”

    “That, Bernardus, may be the one ray of sunlight in this entire thing,” Terekhov said grimly. “I’ve been worried -- for that matter, the Office of Naval Intelligence and Gregor O’Shaughnessy have been worried -- that certain . . . outside interests might be interested in destabilizing the Cluster to prevent the annexation from succeeding. It might just be that this ‘Firebrand’ is the front man for somebody trying to do just that.”

    “By feeding weapons to local terrorists, or possible terrorists,” Van Dort said.

    “Absolutely. And, if that’s the case, and if your estimate of Mr. Westman is accurate, we may finally have caught a break.”

    Van Dort looked up at him, trying to understand how the probable confirmation that the Solarian League was actively working against the annexation effort could possibly be construed as “a break,” and Terekhov smiled slowly. It wasn’t an excessively pleasant smile.

    “We’re going back to Montana, Bernardus. I’ll leave one platoon of Marines, with battle armor, one pinnace, and orbital sensor arrays, to support the Kornatians until Baroness Medusa’s reinforcements get here. But you and I, and the Kitty, are returning immediately to Montana. Where we’re going to confront Mr. Westman with the media coverage, and the government reports, and our own records, of what Agnes Nordbrandt’s been doing here in Split. We’re going to ask him if he really wants to be associated with a murderous bitch like her, and then, when he denies he ever could be, we’re going to hit him squarely between the eyes with the fact that he’s been buying guns from the same supplier she has and see how he likes that.”

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