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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Forty Six

       Last updated: Tuesday, October 26, 2004 15:31 EDT



    Aleksandra Tonkovic sat in the golden sunlight spilling through the windows of her office on the planet Flax and glared at the neat, formal words before her. The entire Constitutional Convention had received precisely the same report on the FAK raid, and at least that bastard Rajkovic had been careful to keep any of his poisonous, scarcely veiled anticipation out of a document he knew so many other star system’s political representatives were going to see.

    Her personal correspondence had been another matter, of course.

    No doubt he would insist he was merely doing his duty as Planetary Vice President. As the dutiful servant of Parliament. But she knew Vuk Rajkovic. Knew he’d never shared her vision of Kornati’s future. No wonder he and that rabble rouser Nordbrandt had been such bosom buddies for so long! His Reconciliation Party might as well have publicly acknowledged that Nordbrandt’s National Reformation Party was no more than an auxiliary adjunct of its own!

    She gritted her teeth, inhaled deeply, and forced herself to step back -- a little, at least -- from her rage.

    Fair was fair, she told herself sternly. Whatever his other faults, Rajkovic had never hidden his core beliefs. That was one of the things which made him dangerous. He had a carefully built reputation as an honest politician, one who not only couldn’t be bought, but one who also meant exactly what he said. Tonkovic had enjoyed such a reputation with the electorate, but there’d been a difference; Rajkovic enjoyed the same reputation among his fellow politicians.

    No, none of the idiots who followed Rajkovic’s lead could ever claim they hadn’t known exactly where he was going. Unless, of course, they willfully kept their eyes screwed shut throughout the journey.

    Tonkovic had hated leaving him behind to work behind her back, but there was no one besides herself she could trust to represent the Split System properly, and the Reconciliation bloc in Parliament had been large enough to virtually guarantee Rajkovic would have been sent, if she hadn’t come In which case, the Split System would have found itself firmly aligned with those idiots Van Dort and Alquezar and their junkyard dog, Krietzmann.

    And now this.

    She’d hoped his onetime association with Nordbrandt might cripple him politically when the FAK began its atrocities. Not that she’d ever wanted the attacks themselves, of course. But it would have been so fitting to see his career ended by the bloodthirsty terrorism of the very elements he’d argued for so long needed to be given greater access to power. Surely the unprovoked mayhem wreaked by the ignorant, childish, brutishly vicious rabble of that “dispossessed” and “unfairly excluded” underclass he was so fond of championing should have destroyed his credibility.

    Instead, he’d emerged from the carnage as a decisive national leader, a figure of reassuring calm and inflexible determination, dealing with the crisis while Tonkovic was in an entirely different star system. Someone who was enough the Mob’s own to have credibility with it and simultaneously “respectable” enough to be seen by the oligarchical party leaders as their only real conduit to the underclass which had suddenly assumed such a frightening, bogeyman presence.

    Although she’d consistently played down the FAK’s threat, privately, Tonkovic had been as frightened as anyone else by its initial, spectacular successes. She’d wanted to blame Rajkovic for not having seen it coming, but she’d known that would have been absurd. Another part of her had blamed him for not acting more decisively after it began, but her contacts back on Kornati made it clear he -- and, of course, her Cabinet appointees -- had been doing everything possible. And another part of her had hoped that if Nordbrandt wasn’t going to be crushed -- which, of course, Tonkovic wanted her to be -- at least Rajkovic’s image of decisiveness would erode under the fear and hatred generated by the FAK’s bombing campaigns.

    It had even looked as if that much was happening… until that even more unmitigated bastard Van Dort and the fucking Royal Manticoran Navy moved in and smashed Nordbrandt’s hidden weapons cache. Only fifteen days ago. Was it really only fifteen days since that devastating blow had staggered not simply Nordbrandt’s murderous organization but the entire political calculus of Kornati?

    The sheer, stunning scope of the defeat inflicted upon the FAK and, even more importantly, its future capabilities, had enormously strengthened Rajkovic’s hand. Especially after Nordbrandt’s resurrection and the terrorists’ resurgence. Even people who might otherwise have remained calm and collected enough to recognize that the Reformation Party’s platform was just as dangerous, in the long run, as any terrorist bomb, thought he could walk on water! The idiots ought to have realized Nordbrandt was only the tip of an iceberg, no more than the first outrider of the barbarian invasion Rajkovic’s entire political philosophy was busy opening doors for.

    Even after Nordbrandt was defeated -- as Tonkovic had never doubted she inevitably would be -- she’d serve as an incendiary example to all of those useless, lazy, under-productive parasites who wanted to overturn the established bastions of society and loot the economy in some sort of crazed redistribution campaign. And the “rights” Rajkovic kept telling those same parasites they had would be the justification the Mob used to sanctify its demolition work! Unless the sane elements of Kornatian society were very, very lucky, they’d find themselves facing an entire succession of Nordbrandt clones. Tonkovic doubted any of them would possess the venomous capability of the original, but that wouldn’t prevent them from doing enormous damage.

    Which was why it was more important than ever to ensure that Kornati retained the law enforcement and economic mechanisms to guarantee another Nordbrandt couldn’t succeed where the FAK failed. That was why she’d decided against passing on that insufferable prig Medusa’s arrogant and humiliating demand that she surrender the principles she’d come to Spindle to fight for.

    Even now, she couldn’t believe Medusa was so foolish as to believe she could convince anyone who knew how the game was played that the Alexander Government’s warnings about a set deadline were anything but a ploy. A bluff. One more attempt to browbeat her into surrendering Kornati’s essential sovereignty. The Star Kingdom of Manticore had invested too much prestige in this annexation. Allowing the annexation to fail and Frontier Security to snap up the Cluster after all would be a devastating blow to its interstellar credibility. If she only stood her ground -- if those cowards back on Kornati only let her call Manticore’s bluff -- Prime Minister Alexander would find some perfectly logical “reason of state” to extend the deadline.

    And even if he didn’t, how much worse off could they be? If they surrendered their full sovereignty, then everything that mattered about Kornati would be destroyed, possibly within months, certainly within years. Far better to hold their position on the basis of principle. And if the Manticorans carried out their cowardly threat and specifically excluded the Split System from their precious Star Kingdom because Split refused to cave in, she and her government could face the people of Kornati with their heads high. The fault would lie elsewhere, and Kornati would be free to pursue its own destiny. Best of all, the Star Kingdom which had refused to grant them membership as if they were some sort of moral pariahs would protect them from State Security after all by its simple presence.

    So of course she hadn’t told anyone back home about Medusa’s insulting, intolerable demands. If she had, some of the weaklings in Parliament might have been panicked into insisting that they throw away the last shreds of self-determination. And if she never told anyone, the government would at least have plausible deniability. They could blame their homeworld’s exclusion from the Star Kingdom on her. On a single, courageous woman who'd taken it upon herself to save her planet’s ancient liberties. It might be hard on her, initially. But ultimately, her actions would prove justified, and she would return once more to her rightful place in world of the Kornatian politics.

    But did Rajkovic understand that? Of course he didn’t! Or, even worse, he didn’t care. It well might be that his own vengeful political ambitions drove him to seize this opportunity to destroy her, regardless of the ultimate cost to Kornati.

    She looked at the letter -- the official letter, on official parchment, not a simple electronic message -- once more, and her jaw clenched. It was very short and to the point.



    Presidential Mansion
    December 13, 1920 PD


    Madam President,

    At the command of Parliament, I must request you to return to Kornati by the first available transportation. Your presence before the Special Committee on Annexation and the Standing Committee on Constitutional Law is required.


    By command of the Parliament and people of Kornati,

    Vuk Ljudevit Rajkovic
    Planetary Vice President



    The sentences, the phrasing, were purely formal, defined by centuries of custom and law, yet she heard Rajkovic’s gloating triumph in every syllable. He hadn’t been able to defeat her at the polls, and so he’d embraced this sordid maneuver to steal the office he’d been unable to win.

    She inhaled another deep breath and gave herself a fierce mental shake.

    This wasn’t the end. Yes, she’d been recalled to appear before Parliament, and the phrasing made it clear it would be an adversarial proceeding. And, yes, Parliament had the authority to remove her from office if it determined she’d violated the constitutional limits upon her powers as Planetary President and Special Envoy, or failed to discharge her responsibilities to either office. But her Democratic Centralists and their allies still commanded a majority in Parliament, and it would require a two-thirds vote to sustain an impeachment. Rajkovic and his cronies would never be able to muster that many votes for what was so obviously a partisan effort to steal the presidency.

    She looked at the letter one last time, then stood and tossed it contemptuously onto her desk.

    She had people to see before she returned home to confront that pygmy Rajkovic and his contemptible allies.




    Forty-five days after leaving the Montana System for Split, and twenty-two days since the destruction of the FAK base, HMS Hexapuma came back over the Montana alpha wall 19.8 light-minutes from the system primary. The spectacular blue radiance of a hyper-transit radiated from her sails like sheet lightning, and she folded them back into an impeller wedge and began accelerating in-system from a base velocity of just under fifteen thousand kilometers per second.

    Aivars Terekhov sat on his bridge, watching the G1 star grow before his ship, and then looked at Amal Nagchaudhuri.

    “Record a message to Chief Marshal Bannister, please,” he said, and Nagchaudhuri touched a control stud.

    “Live mike, Skipper.”

    “Chief Marshal,” Terekhov began. “Mr. Van Dort and I have returned to Montana after uncovering information on Kornati which, we believe, should have a significant bearing on Mr. Westman’s opposition to the annexation. We would greatly appreciate it if you could contact him and inform him that we would like to speak to him again. We should enter Montana orbit in approximately two hours and twenty-five minutes, and Mr. Van Dort and I are both looking forward, on a personal level, to seeing you again. If it would be convenient, we’d very much enjoy having dinner with you at, say, the Rare Sirloin. If that would be possible, would you care to make reservations for our regular table, or should I?”

    He stopped and watched while Nagchaudhuri played back the recording through his own earbug. Then the com officer nodded.

    “Clear copy, Skipper.”

    “Go ahead and send it,” Terekhov said.

    “Aye, aye, Sir.”



    “What are you going to do, Boss?” Luis Palacios asked.

    “I don’t rightly know,” Stephen Westman replied. It wasn’t an admission he would -- or could -- have made to anyone else.

    The two of them sat under the aspens outside the hidden mouth of the MIM’s cave headquarters, gazing across the small mountain valley. The air was cooler than it had been, and the brisk, elusive smell of autumn was approaching. Palacios' jaw worked steadily, rhythmically, on a chew of backy while they listened to the wind, whispering in the leaves, and silence fell between them once more.

    It was a comfortable silence. The silence of a leader and his follower. Of two old friends. And of a patron and the old and faithful retainer who’d long since earned the right to speak his own mind. And who knew now, at this moment, that there was no need for him to do so.

    Westman sat in that silence, and the brain behind his blue eyes was busy.

    How had it come to this? He could look back and see every step, every decision, and, truth to tell, he had no regrets even now. In fact -- his lips twitched as he remembered barefooted off-worlders in their underwear limping off down a mountain trail -- some of it had been just plain fun.

    But then the temptation to smile faded. It wasn’t that he was no longer prepared to fight, to die -- even to kill -- for what he believed was right. It wasn’t even that he was no longer prepared to take Luis and his other followers with him. It was that he was no longer confident that what he had believed in was right.

    There. He’d admitted it. He had doubts. Not about whether or not the RTU had cheated and abused Montana. Not about whether or not that arrogant bastard Van Dort should’ve told Suzanne the truth about his prolong before he trapped her into marriage. And certainly not about how far he was prepared to go to prevent the organized rape of his planet by greedy, corrupt off-worlders. But…

    But what if they weren’t greedy, corrupt off-worlders, out to clearcut his world and turn all its citizens into debt-enslaved peons on the planet their ancestors had made their home? What if he had permitted his hatred for Rembrandt to automatically extend itself to anyone Rembrandt -- and Van Dort -- thought good? And what if -- most disturbing thought of all, in oh, so many ways -- he had been wrong about Bernardus Van Dort himself?

    Surely not! Surely he couldn’t have been wrong about all of that! But, the same stubborn integrity which had turned him into a guerrilla demanded insistently, what if he had? And, that dogged integrity insisted, it was possible. After all, what did he actually know about the Star Kingdom of Manticore? Nothing, when it came down to it. Only that its vast wealth was based on its shipping and astrographic advantages, and that had only resonated in his own mind with Rembrandt’s position in the Cluster. He knew it was a kingdom, with an hereditary queen and an aristocracy, and that was enough to raise any good Montanan’s hackles. Yet if Van Dort and the Manticoran captain, Terekhov, were to be believed, it was the selfish resistance of oligarchs like Aleksandra Tonkovic which was stalling the annexation. And if the Star Kingdom was what Westman feared, why should someone like Tonkovic resist the Constitution proposed by Joachim Alquezar and Henri Krietzmann? And, for that matter, what could a Dresdener possibly have in common with one of the wealthiest oligarchs San Miguel -- charter partner in the RTU -- had ever produced?

    Face it, Stevie, he told himself, this mess is a whole bunch more complicated than you thought it was when you decided to jump right in like the hard-assed, stubborn, always-sure-you-know-all-the-answers country boy jackass you’ve always been.

    Even as he thought it, he knew he was being unfair to himself.

    But not very, his stubborn doubt insisted. Sure, a man has to take a stand for what he knows is right, and it’s too late to take a stand after the fight’s already lost. But a man ought to be certain he knows what he’s fighting against -- not just what he’s fighting for -- before he gets ready to kill people, or asks people who trust him to kill people. And what if you don’t like Van Dort? Nobody says you have to. He doesn’t even say you have to. Hell, Trevor says I should listen to him, and he was Suzanne’s brother!

    He frowned, remembering, once again seeing his best friend’s glamorous older sister through the adoring eyes of a small boy. What had he been? Ten? No, he doubted he’d been even that old. But he remembered the day Suzanne left with her wealthy off-world husband. He remembered the day Trevor told him Suzanne’s husband would live a thousand years, while she grew old and died. And he remembered the day -- no little boy, now, but a man grown, a man of the Founding Families -- when Suzanne came back to Montana to explain why her precious, treacherous husband was trying to make all the rest of the Cluster the economic slaves of Rembrandt.

    His jaw clenched as he relived that moment of betrayal. The instant he realized that somehow Suzanne had been changed. That the strong, magnificent person he remembered had been brainwashed into spouting the Rembrandt line. And then the even worse betrayal, when she died. Died before she had time to come to her senses and realize how she’d been used.

    He remembered it all, so clearly. Was it truly possible he’d perceived it all wrongly?

    No. Van Dort himself admitted Rembrandt had been committed to building its economy at everyone else’s expense. But the reason for it… Was it possible he was also telling the truth about his reasons for it? And about the reasons he’d abandoned fifty T-years of consistent policy when another opportunity offered?

    And did it really matter why Van Dort had done what he’d done?

    “I expect I’ll meet with them again, after all, Luis,” he said, finally.

    “Figured you might, Boss,” Palacios said, as if fifteen seconds and not fifteen minutes had passed between question and answer.

    He spat backy juice, and then the two of them sat silently once more, gazing out over the valley.



    “He says he’ll meet with you,” Trevor Bannister said.

    “Under the same conditions?” Terekhov asked.

    “Well, it seems to’ve worked last time,” Bannister said with a shrug. Then his expression changed, ever so slightly. “One thing, though. He seems pretty insistent that your midshipwoman -- Ms. Zilwicki, was it? -- come along again.”

    “Ms. Zilwicki?” Almost unconsciously, Terekhov looked up from his com to where Helen sat side-by-side with Ragnhild Pavletic, watching Abigail Hearns demonstrate something at Tactical. Then he looked back at Bannister. “Did he say why?”

    “No, he didn’t. Might be I could guess, but I expect you’d do better asking Van Dort.” Bannister paused, then continued grudgingly. “One thing I can tell you, though. If he’s asking you to bring Ms. Zilwicki along, it damned sure means he’s not planning anything… untoward.”

    Terekhov started to ask what he meant, then changed his mind, remembering Van Dort’s cryptic comments about his personal history with Bannister. There was something going on here, and if it meant one of his officers -- especially one of his midshipmen -- might be being placed in danger, it was his responsibility to find out what that something was. But if Helen would have been endangered by it, Bernardus would have told him. Of that much, he was certain.

    “Tell Mr. Westman his word is sufficient bond for me. Mr. Van Dort and I will meet him at any time or place of his choosing. And if he wishes Ms. Zilwicki to be present, I’m sure that can be arranged, also.”

    Something flickered in Bannister’s eyes. Surprise, Terekhov thought. Or possibly approval. Maybe even a combination of the two.

    “I’ll tell him,” the Chief Marshal said. “I imagine I can get the message to him sometime this evening. Would tomorrow afternoon be too early for you?”

    “The sooner the better, Chief Marshal.”



    “Flight Ops, this is Hawk-Papa-One. Request departure clearance for Brewster Spaceport.”

    “Hawk-Papa-One, Flight Ops. Wait one.”

    Helen sat in the pinnace’s comfortable seat, listening through the open flight deck hatch, as Ragnhild talked to Flight Ops. She’d decided it would be an ignoble emotion, unworthy of one such as herself, to feel base envy for all the extra time her friend was getting on the flight deck. She suspected from some of Ragnhild’s comments and one or two of Lieutenant Hearns’ remarks that Ragnhild might be seriously considering putting in for duty with the LAC squadrons after their snotty cruise. It would certainly be an appropriate choice for someone with her knack for tactics and amply demonstrated flying ability.

    The conversation between Ragnhild and Flight Ops was cut off as the hatch slid shut, and Helen looked back out her viewport, watching the brightly lit boat bay begin to move as Ragnhild lifted the pinnace clear of the docking arms and applied thrust.

    She didn’t know everything the Captain and Mr. Van Dort wanted to tell Westman, but she had a pretty shrewd suspicion of the main thrust of their message.

    It would be interesting to see how he responded.



    Stephen Westman watched the air car settle once again beside the tent he’d… appropriated from the Manticoran survey party. They were certainly prompt. And from the sound of Trevor’s message, they genuinely believed they had some sort of new information for him. Although he was unable to imagine what they might have discovered in Split that would have any bearing on the situation here in Montana.

    Face it, boy, he thought. A part of you damned well hopes they did find something. This resistance movement thing is no job for a man who’s started to have more questions than answers.



    Stephen Westman, Helen thought, really was a remarkably handsome man. She’d been concentrating more on what he had to say than what he looked like during their first meeting, but his sheer physical charisma had been evident even then. Today, in what was probably his best Stetson, and wearing one of the peculiar neck ornaments the Montanans called “bolos” with a jeweled slide in the form of a rearing black stallion that glittered in the sunlight, the tall, broad shouldered man presented a truly imposing appearance.

    Yet even as she acknowledged that, she sensed something different about him. Not any absence of assurance, but… something almost like that.

    No, she thought slowly. That’s not quite right. He looks like… like someone who’s self-confident enough to admit to himself that he’s no longer positive about something he thought he knew all about.

    The instant the thought crossed her mind, she scolded herself for it. Wishful thinking wasn’t what anyone needed just now, even from a lowly midshipwoman/"aide". She hoped the Captain and Mr. Van Dort were more resistant than she was to the temptation to read what she knew all of them wanted to see into the MIM founder’s attitude.

    “Captain Terekhov,” the Montanan said, extending his hand in greeting. “Mr. Van Dort.”

    That really was different, Helen realized. He didn’t seem particularly happy to see the Rembrandter, and there was still unconcealed dislike in his eyes, even if he did manage to keep it out of his expression. But the crackling undertone of hostility which had been so noticeable at their first meeting was far less pronounced this time.

    “Mr. Westman,” the Captain greeted him, then stood aside as Trevor Bannister climbed out of the air car and extended his hand to Westman.



    The two men nodded to one another, and Westman waved at the familiar tent.

    “If y’all would care to step into my office?” he invited with just a trace of a mischievous smile.



    “So,” Westman said, laying his Stetson on a corner of the camp table and looking across it at his guests. “Trevor tells me you gentlemen believe you’ve discovered something I ought to know?” He smiled thinly. “I trust you’ll both bear in mind that I’m going to be inclined to be just a mite suspicious about the altruism that brings you here.”

    “I’d be disappointed if you weren’t,” Aivars Terekhov said with an answering smile.

    “Then I’d suggest you just fire away.”

    “Very well,” Terekhov said without so much as a glance at Van Dort. It was Terekhov’s Marines who’d turned up the evidence, after all. And there was no point in adding the additional barrier of Westman’s personal antipathy for the Rembrandter to the equation.

    “We know you’ve said -- and, so far, at least, demonstrated by your actions -- that you don’t see yourself as the sort of outright terrorist Agnes Nordbrandt’s decided to become.”

    Westman’s lips tightened ever so slightly at the words “so far, at least,” but he simply sat, waiting courteously, for Terekhov to continue.

    “While we were in Split,” the captain continued, watching the Montanan’s face carefully, “we located one of Nordbrandt’s base camps. One platoon of my Marines raided it. The FAK suffered very close to one hundred percent casualties, over a hundred of them fatal, in an operation which lasted about twenty minutes.”

    Westman’s eyes narrowed, as if he realized Terekhov had deliberately underscored the speed and totality with which a single platoon of Captain Kaczmarczyk’s Marines had demolished the Freedom Alliance base.

    “Afterward, we discovered just over a thousand tons of modern, off-world weapons.” Terekhov watched Westman’s expression even more closely than before. “All of them were of Solarian manufacture, and in first-rate condition. Information from one of the captured terrorists indicated that they’d been supplied -- very recently -- to Nordbrandt through the offices of someone called ‘Firebrand.’”

    Trevor Bannister had told his off-world allies Westman was famous among his friends for his inability to bluff across a poker table. Now Terekhov saw a quick, brief flare of recognition in the Montanan’s blue eyes. It vanished as quickly as it had come, but not quickly enough to hide itself.

    “When we were in Montana previously, Mr. Westman,” Terekhov said quietly, “the name ‘Firebrand’ also came up here.” Westmans’s eyes flickered again, although his expression itself might have been carved out of pleasantly attentive stone. “That suggests to me, Sir, that there’s a closer association between you and your organization, on the one hand, and Agnes Nordbrandt and her organization, on the other, than you’ve previously implied.”



    Oh, he didn’t like that one! Helen thought.

    The expression which had given away so little turned obsidian-hard, but even that was less flinty than his eyes. His nostrils flared as he inhaled a sharp, angry breath, but then he made himself stop, clearly reaching for self-control before he opened his mouth.

    “There is no association between the Independence Movement and the FAK.” He said then, icily, his casual Montanan manner of speaking far less noticeable than usual. “I’ve never personally met, corresponded with, or communicated in any way with Agnes Nordbrandt, and I despise her methods.”

    That’s an interesting statement, Helen thought as her father’s training kicked in. Mad as he is, he picked his words pretty carefully, I think. Especially that word “personally.”

    “One need not approve of someone’s methods or tactics to work with them,” the Captain pointed out. “In the end, though, the methods of those one is prepared to associate with, even if only indirectly, are likely to color one’s own achievements.” He held the Montanan’s eyes levelly across the table. “And it might be well for you to consider who else might see an advantage in supporting the… aspirations of two people as different from one another as you and Agnes Nordbrandt.”

    “I could say the same of you, Captain,” Westman replied, letting his eyes shift to Mr. Van Dort’s face. “The fact that your Star Kingdom’s seen fit to associate its policies with someone like the Trade Union strikes me as sufficient reason to question its ultimate objectives.”

    “I understand that.” The Captain actually chuckled with what seemed genuine humor. “You made that clear enough the first time we met, Mr. Westman. I’ve done my best, as has Mr. Van Dort, for that matter, to answer your concerns on that head. But I strongly suggest you consider the scale of our find. We captured or destroyed a thousand tons of weapons, Mr. Westman -- in one base. Whether we got all of them or not, I honestly can’t say at this point, although I suspect it was probably the majority of those landed for her so far. But we know you invested in at least some weapons yourself before you went underground, so obviously, you’ve had to make your own contacts and come up with the cash to pay for them. Based on that experience, how likely do you think it is that the FAK managed to pay for that much modern hardware out of its own resources? And if it didn’t, if someone’s prepared to subsidize someone like Nordbrandt on the scale those weapons represent, what might his objectives be?”



    Westman felt his shoulders tighten as the Manticoran’s level-voiced questions recalled his own doubts about ‘Firebrand’s’ honesty.

    You were never stupid enough to believe all he was spouting about how much of what he and his “Central Liberation Committee” were doing was based on “altruism,” Stevie, he reminded himself. And it’s not like you were signing up to follow him wherever he led. But still… .

    He made himself sit back in his chair, looking across the table at Terekhov, and inhaled deeply.

    “And just who do you think might be prepared to subsidize… someone like Nordbrandt?” he asked.



    Not a muscle in Terekhov’s face so much as twitched, but a fierce bolt of exultation ripped through him as Westman asked the question he’d prayed for.

    “I’d start,” he said calmly, “by considering who -- aside from patriots such as yourself, of course -- might think the Star Kingdom’s presence in the Cluster was a bad thing. And I’d also ask myself who they might prefer to see here instead of the Star Kingdom. If whoever supplied Nordbrandt is also prepared to supply weapons to… someone else, on a similar scale, than the supplier must have both extensive resources and extensive contacts with those weapons’ source.”

    He gazed into Westman’s eyes, pausing, waiting with the same precision he would have used to time a missile salvo. Then --

    “And I’d reflect on the fact that every one of those weapons, every round of ammunition, every bit of equipment, came from somewhere in the Solarian League.”



    I really, really never want to play cards against the Captain, Helen reflected as Hotel-Papa-One sliced across the boundary between Montana’s indigo atmosphere and the still blackness of space.

    She didn’t know where or how it was all going to end, but the Captain had obviously gotten to Westman. Whether the Montanan would be able to step far enough back from his own commitment to Montanan independence to really consider what the Captain had suggested remained to be seen, but she suspected the odds were good.

    Whether or not Westman would be prepared to give up his vendetta against the annexation -- and the Rembrandt Trade Union -- no matter who he might unknowingly have allied with was, of course, another question entirely.

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