"God damn that son-of-a-bitch!"
Planetary Governor Jasper Aubert slammed himself down in the comfortable chair behind his desk. He was a tallish man, who normally had the well-groomed, smoothly dignified good looks of the successful politician he'd been back on Old Earth. At the moment, however, he looked much more like a petulant child throwing a temper tantrum than like Seamus II's personal representative from the sophisticated old imperial capital world itself.
"Pankarma?" Ákos Salgado asked, as he followed the Governor into the office.
"What?" Aubert looked up from his scowling contemplation of his desk blotter.
"I asked if you were referring to Pankarma and his GLF idiots."
"As a matter of fact, no," Aubert half-snarled, his cultured Earth accent notably in abeyance. "Not that Pankarma isn't a son-of-a-bitch in his own right. Not to mention an ambitious, possibly traitorous bastard. But I was 'referring,' as you put it, to that other son-of-a-bitch, Kereku."
"Ah." Salgado nodded. He wasn't exactly surprised, even if the governor of a Crown World wasn't supposed to talk that way about the sector governor for whom he theoretically worked. Given the fact that Salgado's opinion of Sir Enobakhare Kereku closely paralleled that of his own immediate superior, however, he felt no particular urge to point out the inappropriateness of Aubert's comment.
"May I ask just what the good Sector Governor has done this time?" he inquired after a moment.
"He's decided to 'counsel me,' " Aubert snapped. "Jesus! He's talking to me as if I were some sort of political intern! God damn, but I hate these career bureaucrats who think they understand how politics work! You think that ivory-tower asshole Kereku would have survived six months in real-world politics back on Terra?"
Salgado laughed at the thought, although, despite his own intense dislike for Kereku (and his officious chief of staff, Obermeyer), he had to admit privately that one thing Kereku wasn't was an ivory-tower intellectual. True, Kereku was firmly aligned with the reactionary bloc which had gathered around Sir Jeffrey Madison, the current Foreign Minister, and the Earl of Stanhope, in the senior levels of the Out-Worlds hierarchy. Salgado was, of course, a protégé of Senator Gennady, like Aubert himself, which meant that Kereku was far more likely to adopt confrontational policies in either of them or. And, equally true, the Sector Governor was also technically a bureaucrat, never having won an elective office. But, for all that, he was scarcely a typical example of the breed.
Kereku had started out in the diplomatic corps and done superlatively there, then moved over to Out-World Affairs decades ago. Salgado didn't have much faith in Kereku's judgment where Gyangtse was concerned, and he'd done his best -generally successfully-to steer Aubert into a more pragmatic policy. But he had to admit that Kereku had at least gotten his ticket punched. If he'd never won an election himself, he'd put in his own time in exactly the sort of positions that Salgado currently held-not to mention holding five separate Crown World governorships and overseeing two successful Incorporation referendums himself-before rising to his present rank.
None of which made the effort of imagining Kereku as a successful politician any less of using.
"I think you can safely say that the Sector Governor … wouldn't have prospered in real politics," he agreed once he'd stopped laughing.
"Of course he wouldn't survive it," Aubert agreed viciously. "But he's lecturing me on the 'political dynamic' here on Gyangtse. Lecturing me! As if he'd ever visited the damned planet more than once himself or had the least idea what these frigging neobarbs are trying to pull!"
"Lecturing?" Salgado repeated. "Lecturing how, Jasper?"
"He obviously thinks I don't have a clue," Aubert said bitterly. "On the basis of his own vast, personal experience-with other worlds!-he seems to think this entire planet is about to go up in a ball of plasma! He's even talking about the possibility of some sort of serious armed, open resistance movement-as if these GLF clowns could find their backsides with both hands!"
"It sounds like that insubordinate piece of work Palacios has been running around behind your back," Salgado said, his own expression turning ugly. Ákos Salgado had had precious little use for the military even before he and Aubert arrived on Gyangtse. The military was no more than a necessary evil, at the best of times … and in Salgado's opinion, it was most often the military's ham-handed approach to politically solvable problems which produced the sort of disastrous situations that same military then used to justify its own existence.
More to the point, in this instance, Major Serafina Palacios was exactly the sort of Marine he most loathed. She looked so tautly professional, so competent. So utterly devoid of a single thought she couldn't fire out of a rifle's barrel. Although Salgado had absolutely no interest in learning how to read all of the ridiculous 'fruit salad' Marines-like the anachronistic, lowbrow primitives they were-insisted on draping all over their uniforms, she'd obviously had her ticket punched by the senior members of her own xenophobic, militaristic lodge. That was they way they groomed their own for accelerated promotion, and her arrogant attitude showed that she knew it. Worse, he was certain she spent all of her time looking down her nose at him, as if her experience carrying a rifle and bashing in neobarb skulls was somehow superior to his own hard won understanding of the horse-trading realities of practical politics.
He'd taken pains to depress her pretensions and put her in her place when she first began hawking her particular brand of alarmism, and her apparent inability to grasp the fact that he was her superior in the Gyangtse pecking order infuriated him. She'd simply ignored him-just as she'd ignored or disregarded the intelligence reports of the militia, which lived here and might thus be reasonably expected to actually know a little something about the planet-and asserted her right as Aubert's official military adviser to go right on repeating her mantra of doom at every meeting with the governor. Until Salgado had taken to arranging creative schedule conflicts whenever Palacios tried to corner Aubert and pour her paranoia into his ear, that was.
"I don't know for sure that it was Palacios," Aubert said, in the tone of a man manifestly trying to be fair. "But someone's obviously been feeding the most pessimistic possible interpretation of our own intelligence sources to Martinsen. To listen to Kereku's message, you'd think someone was shipping in HVW launchers! And," the planetary governor's voice turned suddenly harsh and bitter again, "I'm pretty sure from the way he's talking that this isn't the only place he's been starcomming messages to."
"What do you mean?" Salgado asked sharply.
"What do you think I mean, Ákos? Where else would he be peddling his unhappiness with the way we seem to be handling things here on our mountainous little ball of mud?"
"You think he's taking his concerns to the Ministry?"
"I'm almost sure of it." Aubert shoved himself up out of his chair and turned to look out the window of his office, hands clasped behind him. "He didn't say so in so many words, of course- no doubt because he doesn't want to get into a public pissing contest with me when he knows how many friends I have back at Court and in the Senate. But trust me, I could hear it. It was there, behind the things he actually did say."
Salgado frowned, and his mind shifted into high gear. It was true Aubert had a great many contacts and allies back on Old Earth. Not as many, or as powerful, as he might choose to believe he had, perhaps, but they were still impressive, or he wouldn't have been here. Politics had its own rules, its own tickets which had to be punched, and for all its headaches, Gyangtse was still a plum assignment for a man of ambition. There were far cushier, less strenuous ones available, but anyone who aspired to the higher offices Aubert sought had to have a planetary governorship, or its equivalent, in his résumé. And, frankly, the process of successfully steering a planet like Gyangtse through the transition from Crown World to Incorporated World would give Aubert tremendous clout in his future political career-far more than a simple, "routine" governorship on some planet full of placid farmers might have. Whatever he might choose to say about his "need to serve the Empire," that was the only reason Jasper Aubert was out here. Which was fair enough; it was also the only reason Ákos Salgado had attached himself to Aubert. And Ákos Salgado had no intention of having his own career plans derailed because his chosen patron's career stumbled.
The problem, he realized, was that neither he nor Aubert could know exactly what Kereku had actually said in any of his messages to Earl Stanhope. And without knowing how Kereku had chosen to present his criticism of the situation here on Gyangtse, they couldn't know what they had to say to rally Aubert's Old Earth patrons in his defense.
"Exactly what did Kereku have to say about our current policy?" the chief of staff asked after a moment.
"He suggested that we made a mistake in agreeing to 'negotiate' with Pankarma in the first place," the Governor growled. "Which, of course, overlooks the fact that that wasn't what we actually did at all! Pankarma's a citizen of Gyangtse, whether we like it or not. He may be associated with the GLF, and the GLF may be a proscribed organization, but he's here, and he has the ear of a significant number of locals, so how the hell were we supposed to keep him out of the Incorporation debate? But that's not the way Kereku sees it, of course! He says that by not protesting Pankarma's participation ,and by actually daring to attend referendum debates and conferences I knew Pankarma would also be attending, I gave him de facto recognition as 'a legitimate part of the Gyangtse political process.' He's insinuated that by doing so we've violated the basic imperial policy against negotiating with 'terroristic movements.' Without, by the way, ever mentioning that he was the one who classified the GLF as 'terroristic' on the basis of the vast insight into local conditions he garnered on his single two-day visit to the damned planet when he first assumed his post! And he also had the gall to inform me that talking to the GLF has only 'exacerbated' the situation by 'raising unrealistic expectations' on Pankarma's part."
Salgado's lip curled. Maybe he'd been a little too charitable when he dismissed the ivory-tower label in Kereku's case.
"Neither the Sector Governor nor his esteemed chief of staff seems to have the least grasp of what we're actually doing," Aubert continued, glaring out the window across the streets and roofs of Zhikotse's Old Town. "They want me to refuse to sit down across a conference table from Pankarma, or even engage him in public debate on the holovid, because the GLF has blown up a few bridges and a power transmission tower or two, but at the same time they want me to keep a lid on the situation. I've explained to them, repeatedly, that getting Pankarma involved in the debate-offering him a shot at real local political power, after the Incorporation goes through-is the best way to wean him away from his previous extremism. And that even if he and the GLF don't see that and continue to insist on our complete withdrawal, I can keep them from carrying out further attacks as long as I can keep them talking. That it's a case of showing them enough of a carrot that they decide they've got too much to lose if they abandon the negotiating process."
"I don't understand how he and Obermeyer can fail to grasp that point, Jasper." Salgado shook his head. "The incidence of the sorts of attacks that inspired the two of them to classify the GLF as a 'terroristic' organization in the first place dropped off to almost nothing when you offered it a seat at the table. And it's not as if we're actually proposing to give the lunatics what they say they want! Hell, for that matter, Pankarma himself has to realize he's not going to get what he's demanding. Sooner or later, he's going to have to tell us what he's really prepared to settle for."
"I suppose," Aubert said, "that it's possible Pankarma truly doesn't realize that. That's what Kereku seems to think, anyway, even if the local political leadership disagrees with him. Somehow, I don't think people like President Shangup and the Chamber of Delegates would be going along with us if the people who actually live here thought we were making a serious mistake! But what do I know? I've only been here a year. We've been over this again and again, and my own analysis is the same as yours, of course. Get them involved in the existing system, coopt them by showing them how they can benefit from it, and they'll lose interest in getting rid of it soon enough."
In fact, as Salgado knew perfectly well, Aubet's analysis was Salgado's. But that wasn't a point a successful manager made to the man he was managing. And especially not when that man's superior had just rejected the analysis in question.
"But even if Kereku were right," Aubert continued, "we're in a position to keep Pankarma talking forever, if we decide to. Or, at least, until the Incorporation is a done deal and he and his crackpots become the responsibility of the local authorities."
Salgado nodded, because what Aubert had just said was self-evidently true. Oh, Pankarma was continuing his movement's economic boycott of any off-world-owned businesses-or, for that matter, any Gyangtsese business which 'collaborated' with off-world firms. And he continued to spout the sort of fiery rhetoric which had been his stock in trade for so long. But that was only to be expected. He had to at least appear to pander to the prejudices and paranoia of his lunatic fringe followers lest one of his more radical disciples end up deposing him. But all the winning cards were in Aubert's hand. He was the one who could call upon the full coercive power of the Empire at need … and also the one who controlled all of the possible concessions Pankarma and his followers could ever hope to obtain. Unless and until the Incorporation referendum succeeded and those goodies fell into the hands of Gyangtse's new senators, of course. After which any continued hooliganism on Pankarma's part also became someone else's problem.
"Unfortunately," Aubert continued in a quieter, flatter voice, "Kereku doesn't see it that way. He thinks we've 'legitimized' Pankarma in his own eyes, and the eyes of his followers, by agreeing to talk to him and allow him to participate in the public debate instead of regarding him and all of his people as common criminals. And he seems to believe Pankarma is genuinely likely to resort to fresh and even more violent acts if he decides we're not going to give him what he wants. And, of course, we can't give him what he claims to want."
Which, Salgado admitted unhappily, was true. If Pankarma was far enough out of touch with reality to genuinely believe the Empire could ever be induced to withdraw from Gyangtse, he was doomed to ultimate disappointment. Once a planet was taken under imperial sovereignty, it stayed there-especially out here, among the old League systems closest to the buffer zone of Rogue Worlds between the Empire and the Rishathan Sphere.
But the Empire had also made it clear that it was prepared to involve the inhabitants of those worlds in their own governance. A substantial degree of local autonomy was available, especially once a Crown World qualified for Incorporated World status and the senatorial representation which went with it. Seamus II and his advisers felt no pressing need to exercise dictatorial power, nor were they interested in promoting the economic rape of frontier worlds by the Empire's transstellar giants. But that local autonomy would be exercised only from a position firmly inside the Empire.
"Pankarma knows that, Jasper," the chief of staff said now. "He has to. He's what passes for a well-educated man out here, and he's never struck me as an outright maniac."
"I agree," Aubert said. But he also turned in place, putting his back to the window to look hard at Salgado.
"I agree," he repeated. "But what if we've been wrong?"
"Wrong?" Salgado blinked. "Wrong to have involved Pankarma in the Incorporation debate? Or in our estimate of what he really wants?"
"Both-either!" Aubert shook his head and snorted harshly. "Kereku has a point when he says Pankarma's never wavered from his ultimate demand of complete Gyangtsese independence. He may be 'participating' in the debate over the Incorporation referendum, but what he's really saying-over and over again-is that he and his followers are completely opposed to the ultimate success of the Incorporation process. And he has gained a much more public, much more visible platform for his rhetoric since we let him into the debate process. I disagree with Kereku's view that that amounts to 'legitimizing' the GLF somehow, but it has brought him closer to the forefront of what passes for the political process out here. And if he's really as fanatical, deep down inside, as his rhetoric suggests, then when he finally realizes we intend to complete the Incorporation process regardless of anything he says or does, he just might provoke exactly the sort of incident Kereku is so damned concerned about."
"We both know how unlikely that is," Salgado said reasonably.
"I didn't say it was likely. I said it was possible. And if it does happen, Ákos, it's going to look really, really bad for me. For us. Especially after Kereku's been running around warning everyone that the sky is falling!"
"That's true enough," Salgado admitted unwillingly.
"But what the hell do we do about it?"Aubert growled. "Pankarma does have a seat at the table now, and we gave it to him. If we suddenly snatch it away from him, the way Kereku seems to want us to, we're just likely to push him into some sort of violent reaction. But if I don't remove him from the process, and if Kereku can convince Stanhope we're in violation of standing policy, then it really is possible I could find myself recalled to Old Earth."
He looked levelly into his chief of staff's eyes, and Salgado heard the unspoken corollary.
"Well," he said, after a moment, "since neither one of us wants to go home with our job half done, I suppose we've got to find a way to fix the things Kereku thinks are wrong." He grimaced. "Mind you, I still think he and Obermeyer are jumping at shadows. But be that as it may, he's got the whip hand just now, so I suppose we're just going to have to satisfy him somehow."
"That's easier said than done, Ákos."
"Yes, it is," Salgado agreed. Still, he had no more desire than Aubert to see the planetary governor-and himself, as Aubert's chief of staff-recalled as failures. "On the other hand, it's not an impossible challenge, either. I mean," he smiled nastily, "Sector Governor Kereku is the one who's just pointed out that 'terrorists' are common criminals, not legitimate political figures."