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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Forty

       Last updated: Monday, September 20, 2004 22:17 EDT



    “Damn, I hate this kind of shit,” Captain Duan Binyan muttered as the Jessyk Combine’s armed freighter Marianne decelerated towards Kornati orbit.

    “Why they pay us the big money,” Annette De Chabrol, Marianne’s first officer said philosophically. The tension around her brown eyes gave the lie to her calm tone, though, and Duan snorted.

    He kept his eyes on the maneuvering plot as the freighter’s velocity dropped steadily. So far, so good, he thought. And at least they’d been able to grease a few useful palms at this stop. Marianne’s false registry and collection of bogus transponder codes could get them in and out of most star systems, especially out here in the Verge. In fact, she spent at least half her career pretending to be another ship entirely, especially when she had “special consignments” on board. But in many ways, Duan would have felt better transporting a cargo of slaves than running this particular load in through Kornatian customs.

    Unfortunately, when you commanded one of Jessyk’s “special units” and Ms. Isabel Bardasano personally explained that your mission was Priority One, you nodded, saluted, and went off and did whatever it was she’d requested. Quickly and well.

    He’d made his rendezvous with the local Jessyk cargo agent a full light-year short of the Split System and precisely on time, despite having been diverted to drop off that load of technicians in Monica. No one had told him what that was all about, but he was used to that. He had his suspicions, anyway, and he’d been rather amused by the technicians’ uneasy expressions when they discovered what their accommodations aboard Marianne usually housed.

    Still, only Marianne’s superior speed had let him make the rendezvous on schedule, and he was glad it had. That far out in interstellar space, he and the agent’s dispatch boat could be confident of remaining unobserved while last-minute instructions were passed. The good news was that it meant that this time, at least, he was coming in with a complete local background brief and knew the arrangements to receive his cargo at least appeared to be in place and secure. The bad news was that the agent had also brought them up to date on the local political situation, and Duan didn’t much care for what he’d heard about one Agnes Nordbrandt.

    No one had told him specifically that he was delivering weapons to the FAK, but it didn’t take a hyper-physicist to figure it out. He didn’t have a clue why he was, other than the fact that Isabel Bardasano thought it was a Good Idea. Given Bardasano’s reputation, that was more than enough for Duan Binyan.

    But there was obviously only one group on Kornati who could possibly require the better part of four thousand tons of small arms, unpowered body armor, encrypted communicators, stealthed counter-grav surveillance sats and drones, and military-grade explosives. And given the local authorities’ ugly attitude, Duan Binyan didn’t even want to think about what would happen to anyone caught running modern weapons into the hands of the “Freedom Alliance of Kornati.”

    Of course, he thought glumly, they can’t kill us any deader than the frigging Manties would if they caught us with a special consignment. They’ve made that clear enough.

    “Are there any Manty transponders out there?” he asked, prompted by unpleasant thoughts of the Royal Manticoran Navy.

    Zeno Egervary, Marianne’s communications officer -- and also her chief security officer -- glanced at his own display for a moment, then shook his head.

    “Nothing. Not even a merchie.”

    “Good,” Duan muttered, and slouched a bit more comfortably in his command chair.

    Even without a special consignment aboard, Marianne had obviously been designed as a slaver, and she carried all of the necessary equipment. Which meant, under the Manticorans’ “equipment clause” interpretation of the Cherwell Convention, she was a slaver, and her crew was guilty of slaving, even if there were no slaves physically present. And since the Manties seemed determined to move into the area, their nasty habit of executing slavers gave Duan Binyan a rather burning desire to be certain there were none about.

    Fortunately, Marianne’s sensor suite was good enough for Egervary to be sure there weren’t. In fact, her sensors were far more capable than any legitimate merchantship -- especially one that looked as decrepit as she did --ever carried. Nor was that the only unusual thing about her. The four million-ton freighter might look like a tramp whose owners routinely skimped on maintenance, but she had a military-grade hyper generator and particle screening. Her acceleration was no greater than that of other merchantmen her size, but she could reach the Epsilon Bands and sustain a velocity of .7 c once she got there, which gave her a maximum apparent velocity of over 1,442 c, thirty-two percent faster than a “typical” merchie. He would have liked to have military-grade impellers and a military-grade compensator, as well, but those would have been almost impossible to disguise and would have cut massively into her cargo capacity. And if he couldn’t have those, at least her designers had provided her with eyes and ears as good as most military vessels boasted, which was at least equally important to a ship which had to operate covertly.

    She was also armed, although no one in his right mind -- and certainly not Duan Binyan -- would ever confuse her with a warship. She didn’t make any effort to pretend she wasn’t armed, although her official papers significantly understated the power of the two lasers she mounted in each broadside and her engineering log always showed that at least one of them was down for lack of spare parts. The Verge could be a dangerous place, and probably ten or fifteen percent of the merchies which plied it were armed, after a fashion, at least. The “inoperable” broadside mount was simply part of Marianne’s down-at-the-heels masquerade, and half her point defense clusters and counter-missiles tubes were concealed behind jettisonable plating, again in keeping with her pretense of parsimonious owners.

    All in all, Marianne was capable of holding her own against any pirate she was likely to meet. She could even encounter a light warship -- a destroyer, say -- from one of the podunk navies out here with a more than even chance of success. And on at least two occasions, Marianne herself had turned “pirate” for specific operations. On the other hand, any modern warship would turn her into so much drifting debris in short order. Which was the reason Duan and his crew vastly preferred to depend upon stealth and guile.

    “We’re coming up on the outer orbital beacon,” De Chabrol announced, and Duan nodded in acknowledgment.

    “Go ahead and insert us.”

    “Okay,” De Chabrol acknowledged, and Duan chuckled. His ship might be armed, but no one would ever mistake her bridge routine for something a man-of-war would have tolerated for an instant!




    Agnes Nordbrandt sat in the passenger seat of the battered freight copter as it whirred noisily through the night. Counter-grav air lorries would have been more efficient, and they were common enough on Kornati these days that she probably could have rented one or two without arousing suspicion. But helicopters were cheaper, and so ubiquitous no one could possibly stop all of them for random searches.

    This particular helicopter was operating under a perfectly legitimate transponder, although the freight company which owned it wasn’t aware of tonight’s trip. The pilot, whose mother had been hospitalized for the last eight T-years, was one of the freight company’s senior pilots… and also a member of Drazen Divkovic’s FAK cell. He’d been with the company for twelve T-years, and part of his arrangement with his employer was that he could use company vehicles to moonlight to supplement the regular salary which somehow had to pay for his mother’s hospitalization as well as feeding his own wife and children.

    Knowing all of that, unfortunately, didn’t make Nordbrandt noticeably happier.

    The problem was the helicopter’s maximum cargo capacity of only twenty-five tons. She had six more, similar helicopters, although two of them couldn’t be used long, since they’d been stolen for this operation. Still, even with all six of them, she could transport only a hundred and fifty tons in a single flight. Which meant it would require twenty-six round trips by all six to move her arriving bounty of destruction.

    In some ways, that wasn’t entirely bad. She’d made arrangements to spread the weapons between several dispersed locations, and that would’ve required her to break the entire consignment down into smaller increments, anyway. But it was going to take at least a couple of days to move everything, and that much exposure was dangerous.

    She didn’t like coming out into the open this way herself, either. Not out of any sense of cowardice, although she was honest enough to admit she was afraid on a personal level, but because if the graybacks managed to capture or kill her, the effect on the FAK would be devastating. Indeed, the fact that she’d supposedly been killed once would probably make the psychological effect even worse if she actually was arrested or killed. Yet she didn’t have much choice, at least for this first stage of the delivery operation. She had to be on hand, had to be confident her arrangements were working, and had to be available to resolve any last-minute complications which reared their ugly heads.

    She’d chosen the delivery site with care, because landing the shuttle was the most hazardous single element of the operation. “Firebrand” had assured her his agents would be well versed in clandestine deliveries, and that they’d be capable of flying a nape-of-the-earth course. She’d taken him at his word and selected a site in the rugged Komazec Hills. It was only three hundred kilometers from Karlovac, but the rough terrain provided plenty of concealed spots. And the hills were close enough to the capital that a cargo shuttle making dispersed deliveries to legitimate customers could duck into their valleys and ridgelines for cover against standard air traffic and police radars without arousing undue suspicion.

    There was still a major degree of risk, and most of it was the fault of her own operations. What she thought of as her “I’m Back” strike in the capital lay almost seven T-weeks in the past, but the entire planet was still reeling from its effects. The thought gave her a great deal of satisfaction, but the wildly successful attacks had bloodied the graybacks’ nose badly enough to ensure a high degree of alertness. The biggest danger was that some spaceport security officer would doublecheck the cargo shuttle’s delivery manifests and discover that the legitimate businesses to which the shuttle was supposedly making direct deliveries weren’t expecting anything of the sort. But Firebrand’s contacts had managed to find a customs agent willing to look the other way for a price. He was the one who’d certify the shuttle’s cargo as whatever innocuous civilian machine tools or spare parts its manifest showed, and he was also the one responsible for confirming the delivery orders. So as long as he stayed bought, the shuttle should be able to lift out from the port without challenge, disappear into the hills, and meet with Nordbrandt’s helicopters.

    She really wished she could take delivery directly from the spaceport. She and Firebrand had considered the possibility, and it had been attractive in many ways. But the decisive point had been her inability to transport that much cargo in a single flight. She couldn’t risk moving her own people in and out through the spaceport security perimeter that often. If anyone saw them meeting out here in the middle of the night, it would sound every security alarm on the planet, of course. But she had a far better chance of not being seen here at all than she would have had of entering and leaving a public spaceport that many times.

    Her own helicopter flew along openly enough, trusting in its legitimate transponder code, until it reached the Black River. The Black flowed out of the Komazec Hills to join the larger Liku River which flowed through the heart of Karlovac. The Black was far smaller than the Liku, but it was big enough to have chewed a deep gorge through the Komazecs, and Nordbrandt’s pilot abruptly cut his transponder, dipped down into the gorge, and throttled back to a forward speed of no more than fifty kilometers per hour. Twenty-three minutes later, he lifted up over the edge of the gorge, crossed a ridgeline, slid down the further side to an altitude of thirty meters, traveled another twelve kilometers, and then set neatly down in an overgrown, bone-dry wheat field. The farm to which the wheat field belonged had been abandoned when its owner had the misfortune to be walking across the Mall on the day of the Nemanja bombing.

    Nordbrandt wasn’t immune to the harsh irony which made this particular landing site available. She hadn’t had anything in particular against the farm’s owner. He’d simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time and become a martyr to Kornatian independence. And now his death was making a second contribution, she thought, as she swung down through the passenger door into the tall wheat.



    Two of the other helicopters were already present, and as she walked across the field, two more came clattering in to land. Unless the police had redeployed their ground surveillance satellites since she went underground, she had a window of almost five hours before the next overhead pass. If she’d been in charge of the graybacks, those satellites would have been redeployed. According to the sources she still had inside the government, however, they hadn’t. Apparently no one realized she’d managed to obtain full information on the recon network while she was still a member of Parliament.

    Of course, it’s always possible that they’ve turned my sources. In which case, they probably have redeployed the birds. In which case the KNP and SDF will come screaming in on us sometime in the next, oh, half-hour or so. Another of those little uncertainties that make life so . . . interesting.

    She checked her disguised, expensive chrono. The cargo shuttle was late, but that was fair enough, because so was the sixth and final freight copter. Timing on something like this never worked out exactly to schedule, and she’d allowed for slippage when she and Drazen devised the plan.

    She sat on an abandoned piece of farm equipment, gazing up at the stars. A heavy overcast was coming up from the south, gradually devouring the stars in that direction, and her thoughts silently urged the cloud pack on. If it moved in, covered their operation, it would be that much less likely that any chance overflight -- or even one of the grays’ recon satellites -- would notice this peculiar congregation of freight vehicles.

    She was still sending encouraging thoughts in the clouds’ direction when the cargo shuttle g swept almost silently up and over the tree-covered ridge north of the farm. Its air-breathing turbines were much quieter than Nordbrandt’s clattering helicopters had been, and it moved with the peculiar grace of a counter-grav vehicle which had slipped the trammeling bounds first formally described by Sir Isaac Newton, so many weary centuries before.

    The shuttle had full rough-field capability, and its pilot obviously knew his business. It swept once around the field, perhaps ten meters up, then ghosted in to land. A personnel hatch opened, and a single man in civilian clothing climbed out of the cockpit. Nordbrandt pushed up from her improvised seat and walked across the field to meet him.

    “You have something for me,” she said calmly.

    “Yes, I do,” he confirmed, equally casually. “As you requested, we’ve made the load up in twenty-ton lots, loaded on standard helo freight pallets. And just as a bonus, we used counter-grav pallets.”

    “That’s good.” It was hard to keep a combination of thankfulness and irritation out of her matter-of-fact voice. Thankfulness, because the counter-grav units would let them move the cargo so much more rapidly and easily. Irritation, because she and Drazen should have thought to ask for them at the outset.

    “Yeah,” the pilot agreed. “You told us you wanted twelve pallets -- that’s two hundred and forty tons, total -- but I only see five choppers.”

    His tone made the statement a question, and Nordbrandt nodded. It wasn’t really any of his business, but there was no point in rudeness. The Central Liberation Committee had just demonstrated how valuable it could be, so she supposed she’d better cut its representatives some slack rather than risk irritating them.

    “Our sixth copter’s on its way in now. It ought to be here in the next fifteen minutes. It’ll take them about an hour, on average, to reach their destinations. Say another hour and a half on the ground to unload -- and we can probably cut that even further, with the counter-grav, because we won’t need the forklifts after all -- and another hour to get back here. That’s four hours, which leaves us another hour to load the second group of pallets and clear out before any of the graybacks’ -- the police’s, I mean -- surveillance satellites get a good look at this field.”

    The pilot looked at her just a bit dubiously, then shrugged.

    “Once I kick it out the hatch, it’s your responsibility. The schedule sounds a little tight to me, but I’m out of here in forty minutes, whatever happens.”

    With that, he walked back to the shuttle and opened the exterior cargo controls’ access door. The dim light of the instrument panel gilded his face in a wash of red and green, and he began entering commands.

    The shuttle’s computers obediently opened the huge after hatch. The two hundred-plus tons of military equipment occupied only a fraction of the cargo hold, and more commands fired up the pallets’ built in counter-grav units. An overhead tractor grab picked up the first pallet, moved it smoothly down the cargo ramp, and held it motionless, hovering a meter above the ground, until half a dozen eager hands grabbed the handholds and towed it out of the way.

    The trio of FAK members guided the floating munitions across to one of the waiting helicopters while the tractor grab went back for a second load. Three more Kornatians were waiting, and quickly turned its towards a second copter. The third pallet was on its way out of the hold almost before they had number two clear, and Nordbrandt nodded in profound satisfaction.

    She stood to one side, staying out of the way, while her people guided the pallets into the helicopters’ cargo compartments. They loaded the copter which had furthest to go first, and it lifted away into the night, its movements slower and more ponderous than when it arrived, even before the second was fully loaded.

    She stood quietly, watching as five of the freight copters headed out. By then, the cargo shuttle was completely empty. The additional pallets were moved into the concealment of a convenient barn, and the shuttle closed its hatches, fired up its turbines, and disappeared the way it had come. Nordbrandt gave the landing site one more look, noting the trampled tracks in the wheat field, then climbed up into the sixth and final helicopter. It would drop her off where other secure transportation was waiting to return her to her tenement safe-house before it returned for its second load.

    “Make sure you set the timers before you lift out with your final load,” she told the pilot, raising her voice over the clatter of the rotors.

    He nodded hard, his expression serious, and she sat back in satisfaction. She’d anticipated that using the wheat field as the transfer point would leave the dry, ripe wheat trampled and beaten down. Most probably, no one would have noticed anything this far out in the boonies, but she intended to take no chances. Sometime early the next morning, well before sunrise, a fire would break out in one of the derelict farm’s abandoned buildings. It would spread to the wheat field, and probably to the orchards beyond. By the time the local rural fire department responded, all signs that anyone had visited the farm would be erased.

    All very sad, she thought. The abandoned farm, its owner dead at terrorist hands, totally destroyed by fire. Tragic. But at least there wouldn’t be anyone still living there to be threatened by the flames, and it wasn’t as if the farm still represented a livelihood for anyone. That was about all anyone would think about it. It certainly wouldn’t occur to them that the FAK would waste its time burning down a single, isolated, abandoned farm in the middle of nowhere.

    She sat back in her seat, thinking of all the expanded potential the helicopter’s cargo represented, and smiled thinly.

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