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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Thirty

       Last updated: Tuesday, July 6, 2004 13:34 EDT



    “Pontifex Traffic Control, this is Hexapuma, requesting clearance to depart planetary parking orbit.”

    “Hexapuma, this is Commodore Karlberg,” an unexpected voice replied to Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri’s routine hail instead of the duty traffic controller. “You are clear to depart Pontifex orbit, with our profound thanks. We won’t forget what you people did for us. Good luck, and good hunting.”

    Nagchaudhuri glanced at Captain Terekhov, seated in his command chair at the center of Hexapuma’s bridge. Terekhov looked back at him, then pressed a stud on the arm of his chair.

    “I’m glad we could help, Commodore,” he told the Nuncian Navy’s commanding officer. “I hope you won’t have any other unpleasant visitors, but if anything untoward does turn up, you ought to be seeing another Queen’s ship in the next few weeks. In the meantime, thank you for the good wishes.”

    “You earned them, Captain,. Oh, and we’ll keep a real close eye on your prisoners until the Provisional Governor decides exactly what she wants to do with them.”

    “Thank you, Sir. I never doubted you would. Terekhov, clear.”

    “Least we can do for you, Captain. Karlberg, clear.”

    Terekhov nodded to Nagchaudhuri, who closed down the circuit, then turned his command chair to face Lieutenant Commander Wright.

    “All right, Commander. We’ve got clearance, so why don’t we just step along smartly now?”

    “Aye, aye, Sir.” The Astrogator grinned and looked at Senior Chief Clary. “Helm, execute planned orbital departure maneuver.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir. Breaking orbit now,” Clary acknowledged, and Hexapuma raised her nose and moved ahead at a steady one hundred gravities’ acceleration.

    “Maintain present accel until Point Able,” Wright directed. “Then come to zero-zero-three by two-seven-niner at five hundred gravities.”

    “Maintain current acceleration to Point Able, then alter to zero-zero-three by two-seven-niner at five-zero-zero gravities, aye, Sir,” Clary replied, and Terekhov tipped his command chair back in profound satisfaction as his ship accelerated slowly clear of Pontifex near-space traffic. Seventy-five light-years to Celebrant, he thought. Ten and half days for the rest of the universe, or a little over seven by Hexapuma’s internal clocks. The downtime the voyage offered would be welcomed by everyone on board.

    Hexapuma’s twelve days in Nuncio had been as productive as they had been hectically busy. Two ex-Peep pirate vessels destroyed or captured, Emerald Dawn retaken (even if she was going to require the lengthy services of a well equipped repair ship before she ever left Nuncio again), and the meticulous updating of the Navy’s astrography on the Nuncio System. President Adolfsson’s government and citizens had made their enthusiastic approval of Hexapuma’s efforts on their behalf clear, and he and his crew could depart secure in the knowledge that this star system, at least, harbored no reservations about the desirability of inclusion in the Star Kingdom.

    And the prize money for retaking Emerald Dawn -- not to mention the head money for the “pirates” we killed or captured -- doesn’t particularly depress our people, either.

    But most importantly of all, in Terekhov’s view of the universe, Hexapuma’s crew was no longer an unknown quantity. And it was clear that same crew no longer harbored any reservations, if it ever had, about the competency of its captain. That was worth quite a lot, he told himself. Quite a lot, indeed.

    “Approaching Point Able,” Senior Chief Clary announced.

    “Very well, Helm,” he acknowledged, and he smiled.



    “Over there!”

    Captain Barto Jezic, Kornatian National Police, looked up in irritation as the harshly whispered warning came over the com.

    “This is Team Leader!” he snapped into his own boom mike. “Who the hell said that, and where the hell are you? Over.”

    There was a moment of intense silence. Every one of Jezic’s people recognized that tone of voice. It was rather famous throughout the entire KNP, in fact. Someone was about to sprout a brand new anal orifice, unless he was very, very lucky.

    “Uh, sorry, Team Leader,” the hapless focus of his wrath said after a moment. “This is Blue Three. Second story of Main Admin, eastern side. I have movement on the south side of Macek Avenue. Five -- no, correction, seven -- human heat sources. Over.”

    “That’s better, Blue Three,” Jezic growled, more than a little mollified by Blue Three’s prompt clarification. Well, that, and the fact that it looked as if their information had been accurate, after all.

    “All units,” the captain continued, “Team Leader. Stand by to execute. Remember, damn it, we need prisoners, this time, not just bodies! Team Leader, clear.”

    He eased forward from his own position, fifty meters from his official command post, and flipped his own visor down over his eyes. He would cheerfully have traded two fingers from his left hand for really modern gear, but what he had would have to do. At least it had decent light-gathering capabilities and infrared, which meant he didn’t have to go to active sensors to sweep Macek Avenue himself.

    There they were! He felt the adrenaline spike and forced himself to inhale deeply. He was astonished to find his hands trembling on his rifle -- not in fear, but in anticipation… and raw fury. He didn’t like that. The KNP’s senior SWAT officer was supposed to be a professional. But the last thirty days of Agnes Nordbrandt’s murderous campaign had eroded that professionalism more than he cared to admit.

    He waited a few heartbeats, until he felt confident he could keep his voice crisp, unshadowed by his sudden, blazing hatred, then keyed his com again.

    “Blue One, Team Leader.”

    “Blue One, go,” Lieutenant Aranka Budak’s voice came back over his headset.

    “Blue One, they’re heading towards your position in the parking garage. You’re authorized to take them as soon as all seven identified hostiles cross the perimeter of your engagement zone. ROE Bravo apply. Acknowledge.”

    “Team Leader, Blue One is authorized to take seven -- repeat, seven -- hostiles into custody as soon as all have crossed my zone perimeter. Rules of Engagement Bravo are in effect. Blue One, over.”

    Jezic grunted in satisfaction. He didn’t know how Intelligence had broken FAK’s security on this one. He had his suspicions, which included the probable serious violation of someone’s guarantee against self-incrimination. No doubt the courts would eventually have something severe to say about that, and Jezic wouldn’t object when they did. He wasn’t particularly delighted by the notion that his own organization might be resorting to that sort of interrogation technique. There were times when you simply had to have the information -- sometimes when innocent lives were on the line -- and he wouldn’t shed any tears for the tender sensibilities of terrorist murderers. But once any police force started cutting that kind of corner, it was only a matter of time before people who weren’t terrorists found themselves subject to the same abuses. Worse, each time it happened, it got easier to justify doing it again, for progressively less vital reasons. And enough of that could make Nordbrandt’s accusations into ugly truths.

    But however the information had been developed, he was delighted to have it, and he’d studied it as intensively as time had permitted. If only their… informant was also right about who was leading this attack!

    He pushed that thought down -- again -- and watched the developing situation in silence. He’d hoped the bastards would come in along Macek. That was why he’d put Aranka on that flank. Lieutenant Budak and her special weapons squad were the best he had -- in his opinion, the best the entire National Police had. If he couldn’t be out on the flank himself, there was no one else on Kornati that he would have preferred to see in his place.




    Juras Divkovic slipped through the rainy shadows as quietly as the night breeze.

    Unlike some of Agnes Nordbrandt’s original recruits, Divkovic had never doubted there would be blood in the streets before it was all over. The whole system was so rotten, so riddled with corruption, grafters, self-seeking, dishonest politicians, all controlled by the filthy money of people like that traitor Tonkovic, that it couldn’t be any other way. Some of Nordbrandt’s initial supporters hadn’t shared that hard awareness. They’d talked boldly enough about the “people in arms” and the “armed struggle,” but they hadn’t really meant it. They were theorists, effete dilettantes -- silly upperclass poseurs afraid, when it came right down to it, of getting a little blood on their hands. Or risking their own precious hides.

    It was a good thing Nordbrandt had insisted on a cellular organization from the outset. Without it, he was certain, the whiners and fairweather “activists” would have sold the entire FAK leadership to the collaborationists running Kornati just to save their own asses. But they couldn’t betray people they didn’t know, and Nordbrandt had been smart enough to create two totally separate organizations. One composed of the big talkers with the testicles of timid gnats who could be counted on for financial contributions, political activism, agitation and demonstrations, but not for the Movement’s real work. And a second, composed of people like Divkovic, who’d known from the outset what have to be done and demonstrated their willingness to do it. The people who had begun building the infrastructure the FAK required years before the time had come for open conflict.

    Most of the first organization had either gone to ground, hiding from both sides, or, worse, turned themselves into eager informants in a desperate attempt to disassociate themselves from the FAK’s armed campaign. Some had even succeeded, but none of them were any great loss. In fact, their disappearance pleased Divkovic. None of them had actually known anything useful about his side of the FAK, so the self-serving informants could do no real damage to operations. And their defection got them out of his way, reduced the threat of future security breaches . . . and left the direction of the Movement firmly in the hands of people like Divkovic himself. Now that there was no longer any need for Nordbrandt to jolly the weak sisters along, the Movement had rolled up its sleeves and gotten down to the serious business of kicking the accursed Manties out of Split and restructuring Kornati.

    He held up his left hand, halting his strike group, and went down on one knee behind a trash barrel. He leveled his binoculars across it, gazing out over the wide boulevard at the Treasury Department compound, fifteen blocks from the Nemanja Building. This was the deepest they’d struck into Karlovac itself since the attack on the Parliament Building, and Divkovic was determined to make it a success. The darkness and misty rain were on his side, as was the lateness of the hour, but none of it helped visibility, and he spared a moment to wish his people had equipment as good as the gear Tonkovic and her flunkies were able to provide to their so-called “Police.”

    They didn’t, unfortunately, although they’d at least gotten their hands on a few modern weapons. Divkovic himself carried a pulse rifle, ‘liberated’ from the Rendulic police arsenal in one of the Movement’s early attacks. Such weapons were too expensive for most civilians -- only someone with the resources of the government could afford them -- which was why most of his people were still armed with chemical-powered weapons. Just like most of their equipment, they had to make do with what they could get their hands on, and despite their revolutionary ardor, that put them at a severe disadvantage. Still, his old-fashioned, pure optic binoculars were enough to bring the lighted window on the fifth floor of the main administration building into sharp focus. He couldn’t see much in the way of details, but the conference room blazed with light, despite the hour.

    That was the Movement’s handiwork, he thought with vengeful satisfaction. The tremors their strikes were sending through Kornati’s corrupt economy and political structure had panicked the pigs rooting around in the public trough. Now Treasury Secretary Grabovac had summoned her flunkies to an emergency meeting in her frantic efforts to shore up the Establishment’s sagging house of cards. It was fitting that they should meet in the dark of night, like maggots crawling through the belly of a rotting carcass . . . and that Grabovac and her bootlicking stooges had decided to trust in the secrecy of their meeting time rather than bolstering their normal night security forces.

    Thoughts of security forces brought his glasses around in another long, slow scan of the grounds. This Treasury compound was usually a secondary, or even tertiary, management node. Its three buildings and central parking garage were an isolated government enclave in one of the poorer sections of the capital that thrust in towards its center, and it was used mainly for routine record storage and clerical functions. That was one reason it had been chosen for tonight’s meeting -- because no one had believed the Movement would suspect that anything important would take place in such a low-security, low-level facility.

    According to their intelligence, the only on-site security was internal. Little more than watchmen, although they’d been issued weapons and ammunition since the FAK began operations. Most of them were overaged, out-of-shape people who should already have been drawing pensions -- the sort who’d be like sheep before the wolves of his own well-trained, motivated people. The fact that, look though he might, he couldn’t see a single one of them walking the outside perimeter of the compound, rain or no rain, said volumes about their preparedness, he thought with grim amusement.

    Grabovac’s personal security team would be a more serious proposition. But according to their information, it consisted of only three men, and they’d be in or directly outside the conference room itself.

    He returned his attention to the conference room window one last time and saw a blur, a shifting shadow against the window, as someone moved inside the room as if to demonstrate that it was occupied, just as it was supposed to be. He inhaled in satisfaction, lowered the binoculars, and cased them with deliberate movements. Then he turned to his second in command, whom he knew only as “Tyrannicide.”

    “All right,” he breathed in a throaty whisper, scarcely louder than the rainy wind. “They’re in the conference room, just like they’re supposed to be. Let’s go.”

    Tyrannicide nodded. He rose, cradling his pulse rifle -- liberated in the same raid as Divkovic’s -- in his arms, and beckoned to the other two men of his section. All three started directly across the avenue towards the fire escape Divkovic had selected as the secondary point of entry, floating through the night’s misty ambiguity like vague spirits. Karlovac City’s street lighting had never been more than barely adequate; on nights like this, it was little more than a gesture towards providing any kind of visibility.

    Which was good, Divkovic thought, watching them go for a moment. Then he turned and led his own four-person section towards the parking garage. The conference room was less than ten meters down the hall from the garage’s fifth-floor access door, and his smile was ugly as he visualized the expressions of the doomed administrative underlings summoned to their emergency meeting.





    Jezic was glad he hadn’t keyed his mike as the heartfelt expletive escaped. So much for comprehensive intelligence!

    He watched what was supposed to have been a single, unified FAK strike team split into two sections and thought furiously. They might not be proceeding exactly as Intelligence had predicted, but they were here. Which meant news of the Treasury Department’s emergency, secret meeting had leaked to them, exactly as the KNP had feared. That was fairly ugly confirmation that their own internal security procedures had been compromised, although the fact that the attack hadn’t been canceled when the meeting was moved elsewhere and the trap was set in its place probably indicated the leak was somewhere on the Treasury side. And from one of the less senior day-workers, at that. Someone who hadn’t been in the loop when the last-minute cancellation had been decided upon.

    But that could be left for later. His problem was that two separate forces were going to run into different parts of his own teams, and do so at different times. The three people headed for the far end of the Admin Building were almost certainly planning to use one of the exterior fire escapes to gain access to the fifth floor as one prong of a pincer attack on the conference room. That was going to take them directly into his Red Team. And given how much further they’d have to go, they were probably going to run into Red Team at least four or five minutes before the parking garage team crossed Aranka Budak’s third-floor perimeter. As soon as anyone challenged them or demanded their surrender, the alarm would be raised, at which point the other group of terrorists would turn around and try to vanish. Given the damnable efficiency with which they’d been using storm drains, sewers, service conduits, and all the other various underground connections of Karlovac to escape after launching their attacks, it was possible -- although not, in his opinion, bloody likely -- that they’d succeed in disappearing, too.

    That would be bad enough under any circumstances, but if Nordbrandt really was present tonight herself… .

    “Red One, Team Leader,” he rasped over the com. “Hold off as long as you can! I want the garage team as far into Blue One’s zone as possible. Team Leader, over. “

    ”Team Leader, Red One copies,” Sergeant Slavko Maksimovac said. “I’ll hold as long as I can, Barto, but they’re coming right down my throat. Red One, over.”

    Jezic was about to reply when everything began happening at once.



    Divkovic didn’t know what warned him. Maybe it was simply the instincts of a predator. Or perhaps it was something else -- an injudicious movement by one of Lieutenant Budak’s people, or a dull gleam of reflected light off something that shouldn’t have been there. It could even have been nothing at all, nothing but an overactive imagination that, just this once, was right.

    Whatever it was, it brought the muzzle of his pulse rifle snapping up to the ready position, and he froze where he was, at the foot of the parking garage ramp. The dark-haired woman behind him almost ran into him, and he hissed at her to move to his left. The next member of the team fanned out to the right, and Divkovic stood motionless, nostrils flared, eyes probing the poorly illuminated garage.

    He hesitated for less than three seconds, then made his decision and signaled for his section of the strike team to withdraw. He hated to abort the mission, especially when he had no means of communication with Tyrannicide’s people. But both parts of the operation had been planned to succeed on their own, if necessary. So if he was wrong, all it meant was that Tyrannicide’s team would carry through the attack without him, while if his suddenly jangling suspicions were justified, continuing could lead his entire cell straight into disaster.



    “Oh, crap!” Barto Jezic snarled in bitter frustration as the terrorists’ parking garage prong stopped where it was, fanned out briefly, and then began withdrawing. He’d really wanted prisoners, especially if-- But there was no time to think about that now, and it was still possible… .

    “All units, Team Leader!” he barked. “Able Zulu. Able Zulu!”



    Juras Divkovic cursed vilely as the multimillion-candlepower searchlights on top of the main administration building snapped to blinding, brilliant life. Their dazzling beams lanced out through the misty rain, slamming into his people’s retinas like fists. The sudden shock effect was literally stunning, and his entire team froze.

    “This is Captain Barto Jezic, National Police!” a hugely amplified voice crashed out. “You are under our guns! Surrender or die!”

    Someone behind Divkovic whimpered, and the terrorist cell leader bared his teeth in a vicious snarl. His brain raced, trying to consider too many things at once. The bastards had known they were coming. That was the only way those lights could have been waiting in position. But he hadn’t seen a sign of anyone on the way in. Did that mean his planned escape route was still clear? Or did it mean he simply hadn’t seen whoever was prepared to block it? Or --

    “You’re running out of time!” the grayback’s amplified voice roared. “Drop your weapons and surrender -- now!”

    Divkovic hesitated, wavering. It was, he suddenly discovered, far easier to be totally committed when it was a matter of killing someone else. The abrupt discovery that he was afraid to die filled him with a sudden, towering rage -- a fury directed as much at his own previously unsuspected weakness as at the establishment thugs who’d ambushed him.

    “What do we --?” the woman behind him began, and Divkovic’s anger peaked. He whipped around towards her, lips parted to snarl his rage at her.



    The sudden movement of the lead terrorist, the rise of his weapon, had inspired -- or terrified -- two of his followers. They flung themselves to the sides, going prone. And then Jezic saw the muzzle flashes of chemical-powered rifles as they opened fire on the searchlights.

    There was no one on the building’s roof. The lights were remotely controlled, although the terrorists had no way of knowing that. But opening fire at all was a fatal mistake. Under Able Zulu, the Rules of Engagement changed.

    “Blue Team, Blue One!” Aranka Budak snapped over the com. “Take them!”



    Juras Divkovic had one fleeting moment to realize what was happening. An instant to recognize that his unsuspected cowardice, if that was what it was, didn’t matter. Wasn’t going to have the chance to seduce him into surrender -- and survival -- after all.

    He was fleetingly aware of more fire, from Tyrannicide’s direction. Had Tyrannicide’s people opened fire when his idiots did? Or had it been more grays? Or -- ?

    “Cease fi--“ he began to bellow, out of some pointless instinct.



    Barto Jezic saw it happening, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. For that matter, he wasn’t even certain he would have tried to stop it if he’d been able to. Budak’s command was in policy and in accordance with the Rules of Engagement currently in force.

    It was exactly the correct response, however final it might have been.



    A tornado of pulser fire slammed back at Divkovic and his companions. The pulse rifles were bad enough, but there were two old-fashioned, multi-barreled bulky miniguns, as well. Slower-firing and less destructive than a tribarrel they might have been, but a thousand rounds per minute, even from an obsolete nitrocellulose weapon, were quite sufficient to turn a human body into a finely suspended red mist.

    The shattering explosion when something hit the detonator of the commercial explosives tucked away inside one of the terrorist’s backpacks was almost anticlimactic.



    Jezic swore in mingled frustration and satisfaction. He really had wanted those people alive. But he was too honest with himself to pretend he didn’t feel a deep, vicious sense of triumph as his people took the terrorists down.

    The mingled snarl of pulser fire, civilian-made rifles, and minigun thunder from the direction of Sergeant Maksimovac’s Red Team ended as abruptly as Aranka’s fire had, and Jezic swore again, then relaxed and shrugged his shoulders.

    He’d accomplished his primary goal by stopping the attack dead in its tracks, he reminded himself. And if there was enough left down there for the forensic specialists, he might find out he’d done quite a bit better than that… .



    “You’re joking!” Vulk Rajkovic looked at Colonel Brigita Basaricek’s face on his com screen. The National Police’s commanding officer was a tall, hawk-faced woman with dark hair and eyes in the KNP’s pearl-gray tunic. At the moment, her eyes gleamed, although her expression remained guarded, as though she were unwilling to believe her own news.

    “The attack itself was stopped dead, Mr. Vice President,” she said. “There’s no question that every one of the terrorists was killed. As to the other, well, the forensic people don’t have a lot to work with. Apparently she was personally carrying one of the explosive charges they’d planned to use to level the garage on their way out.”

    “But you think it was actually her?” Rajkovic pressed.

    “Mr. Vice President, I think there’s a good chance of it,” Basaricek replied after a momentary hesitation. “Again, I have to stress that forensics doesn’t have much. But the information we had before the attack was that it was under the operational control of the man they called Icepick, but that Nordbrandt herself was in overall command. The fact that Secretary Grabovac was supposed to be there in person apparently made the meeting important enough for her to decide it justified her own presence. You know how she’s insisted on that ‘lead from the front’ image from the beginning.”

    She paused until Rajkovic nodded. Much as he’d come to hate and loathe Agnes Nordbrandt, no one had ever called her a coward. And, much as he hated to admit it, her habit of personally accompanying certain especially high profile attacks had earned her a grudging respect -- though certainly not admiration -- from some segments of the planetary press. He wasn’t certain if she insisted on doing that for exactly that reason, or if it was because of her own fanaticism, and it didn’t matter. Particularly not if Basaricek’s information was correct.

    “At any rate, we’ve positively identified ‘Icepick’ among the dead,” the KNP’s commander continued. “We’d already known he was one of her most senior action cell leaders. Now that we’ve managed to run his fingerprints, we can ID him as one Juras Divkovic. His father was killed -- apparently by some of my own people, I’m sorry to say, though it might have been some of the militia we were forced to call out -- when the Odak factory riots got out of hand eight years ago. From everything I’ve seen on him and his family, it’s hard to blame him for being bitter as hell, and he’s got two brothers. Both of them disappeared right after the attack on the Nemanja Building, just like ‘Icepick,’ so I’m afraid we may be running into them sometime soon, as well.

    “In addition to him, however, we also recovered the bodies -- or partial remains, at least -- of six other people. One of them was female and, from the low-light surveillance footage Lieutenant Budak’s people got just before it all fell into the crapper, looked an awful lot like Nordbrandt. As I say, she was carrying a heavy explosive charge which detonated during the firefight, so the biggest pieces of her body we’ve been able to recover aren’t much. What we have is being transported to our central forensics lab for examination, but it’s not like we have the sort of technology someone like the Star Kingdom or the Sollies has, and it was a powerful explosion. It’s going to take us days or even weeks just to sort out which body parts go together. We may never be able to say for certain that it was or wasn’t her.”

    “But if it was… .” Rajkovic’s voice trailed off as he contemplated the devastating impact Nordbrandt’s death would have on the FAK. It was unlikely to stop the lunatics she’d set in motion in their tracks, but it would certainly be a body blow.

    “All right,” he said, shaking himself back to the present. “Do the best you can to confirm that one way or the other, Colonel. And in the meantime, we need to make sure this doesn’t hit the press. The last thing we need is for it to look as if we’ve made unfounded claims that she’s dead if it turns out later that she actually isn’t!”

    “Ah, Sir, that may be a problem.”

    “Problem?” Rajkovic’s tone sharpened, and the colonel’s mouth twitched unhappily.

    “Mr. Vice President, the gunfire didn’t last long, but it was quite… noticeable,” she said. “And the explosion was even more so. All the commotion attracted a lot of attention, including the press. At least three news teams got there even before the forensics vans. Our people were under orders to keep their mouths shut and refer all inquiries to the official public information officers, of course. Unfortunately, one of the questions our PIO was asked by a reporter was whether or not he could confirm Nordbrandt was among the dead. So it looks to me like someone leaked the possibility to them when they first hit the scene.”

    She grimaced again, more strongly, and shook her head.

    “I’m sorry, Sir. I know how sensitive this information is, and how important it was to keep it under wraps until we did have confirmation. But it appears it’s already gotten out. The only people who could’ve leaked it are all KNP personnel, and if I can find out who it was, I assure you they’ll be hearing directly from me about it, but the damage is already done, I’m afraid.”

    “I see.” Rajkovic frowned, then shrugged. “Done is done, Colonel. If you can find out who did it, give him -- or her -- a few extra kicks from me, but you’re right. We can’t shove the cat back into the bag. We’ll just have to be as forthcoming as we can while making it clear we don’t have any confirmation for them. Not that they’ll pay the least attention to us,” he predicted with a sigh.

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