Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 33

Chapter Nine

“I don’t like it,” Rosa Shuman said, sitting well back in the outrageously comfortable, throne-like chair behind her desk. She was turned half away from her single guest, looking out through her office windows over the capital city which had been named (with dubious humor) “Capistrano” by the colony’s original settlers. “I don’t like it at all. Those Allenby yahoos have always been too big for their britches.”

“I’m not going to argue with you about that, Rosa,” General Felicia Karaxis replied in the sort of tone very few other people would have dared use with the president of the Swallow System Republic. Felicia Karaxis wasn’t “other people,” though. She commanded the Swallow System Army, and since Swallow had a unified military, that meant she also commanded the security forces responsible for keeping one President Rosa Shuman seated in that throne-like chair. She also knew where most of the bodies were buried on Swallow…especially given how many of them she’d planted herself.

“I’ve been telling you for years that we needed to go in there and clean them out,” Karaxis continued, leaning back in her own chair and reaching into her tunic’s inside pocket for one of the thin cigars she favored. She found one, extracted it, and began peeling it out of its sealed wrap as she continued. “Let me make a sweep through their damned mountains with air cav and infantry. I’ll sort the bastards out!”

“Believe me, I’d love to let you,” Shuman replied, although if she was going to be honest she was a bit less confident than Karaxis about just how simple it would be to “sort the bastards out.” She hated the entire Allenby clan with a pure and burning intensity not even Karaxis could match, but she wasn’t going to take them lightly.

“I’d love to let you,” she continued, “but Parkman and those other bastards over at Tallulah don’t want us spoiling the tourist trade.”

“Tourist trade!” Karaxis snorted harshly, exhaling smoke. “If I were him, I’d be a lot more worried over what Floyd and Jason might send to visit him than over getting out for a little skiing!”

Shuman rolled her gray eyes. Felicia might be a bit short on tact, she thought, but she did have a way of cutting to the heart of things. And if it had been possible for there to be anyone in the entire Swallow System more hated than Rosa Shuman, it would probably have been Alton Parkman, the Tallulah Corporation’s system manager. Hell! Shuman hated his guts, for that matter! Not that she was in much of a position to do anything about it.

At the same time, she had to admit Parkman did have a point…of sorts, at least. Swallow wasn’t a particularly wealthy star system, and the Tallulah Corporation wasn’t much as Solarian transstellars went. Of course, even a relatively poverty-stricken star system represented a very large amount of money, and as the system’s legal president — duly appointed as vice president by her since deceased husband, Donnie, and his legal successor under the constitution he’d personally drafted — Shuman was in a position to skim off quite a bit of it. Parkman was in an even better position, since Tallulah (like quite a few of the transstellars) was prepared to wink at 8its managerial personnel’s graft, tax evasion, and outright theft as long as they continued to show a healthy bottom line. It was Tallulah’s version of an incentive program.

Swallow basically represented a captive market for Tallulah, whose faithful minions Donnie and Rosa Shuman had crafted a tariff policy guaranteed to close anyone else out of the system’s economy. Of course, Donnie had gotten a bit too greedy later and tried to insist on taking a bigger slice of the pie, which was how he’d come to suffer that tragic air accident and Rosa had tearfully inherited the presidency. Aside from her husband’s untimely demise, however, Rosa had little about which to complain. She knew that, and she was perfectly happy to settle for Donnie’s original deal with Tallulah and OFS. A population of over four billion human beings, forbidden the opportunity to trade with anyone else, could produce a very healthy bottom line, with plenty to go around, and Swallow had done just that for Tallulah for the better part of fifty T-years. But the “tourist trade” Parkman was worried about added another nice, solid chunk of change to the Tallulah balance sheets.

The Cripple Mountains were among the more spectacular mountain ranges in explored space. Broken Back Mountain, the Cripples’ tallest peak, was almost two hundred and fifty meters taller than Old Earth’s Mount Everest, and three more of the Cripples’ mountains were at least as tall as Everest. The rest of the mountain range was scaled to match, providing superlative skiing, some of the most rugged and towering (and beautiful) scenery in the galaxy, and opportunities for mountaineering, camping, hunting, and fishing in a genuinely unspoiled wilderness paradise. True, that same “wilderness paradise” could kill the unwary in a heartbeat, yet that only added to its appeal for the true aficionado, and Tallulah Travel Interstellar had a complete lock on that part of the system’s economy, as well.

Unfortunately, the descendants of the people who’d homesteaded the Cripple Mountains were about as hard to tame as the mountains themselves, and Floyd Allenby was a case in point.

“I’m telling you, Rosa,” Karaxis said, jabbing the air with her cigar as if it were a pointer or a swagger stick, “sooner or later we’re going to have to go in to deal with the Allenbys, and the longer we put it off, the worse it’s going to be when we do. Let me go in quick and dirty and will see how long this ‘Cripple Mountain Movement’ of theirs lasts!”

Shuman considered pointing out that it had been Karaxis’ security people who’d killed Floyd Allenby’s wife eight T-years ago. To be fair, they hadn’t meant to. Sandra Allenby’s air car had simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact, Shuman had acknowledged that Sandra’s death had been a terrible accident and offered a very generous financial settlement. Unfortunately, Floyd Allenby didn’t seem to think a surface-to-air missile came under the heading of “accidents,” and he’d wanted blood, not money. A lot of those Cripple Mountains rednecks thought that way. In fact, his entire damned family seemed to agree with him.

“Felicia,” the president said, “we can’t afford to kill off Allenbys in job lots — especially right now — for a lot of reasons. You know the way they think. If we go in after any of them, we have to go after all of them, and the effect of eliminating the biggest, most highly skilled, and most profitable group of guides would not make our Mister Parkman very happy. And to be honest, I don’t think your people would really enjoy going after them on their own ground. I don’t doubt you could deal with them in the end,” she continued quickly (and not entirely accurately) when she saw Karaxis’ expression, “but it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience and I’m pretty sure it would take longer than either of us would believe at this point. Even worse, they aren’t exactly the only bunch up in those mountains who’d raise all kinds of hell if you went after them the way you’d have to make them give up Floyd or the others.”

Karaxis growled something unintelligible around her cigar, eyes angry, but she couldn’t very well dispute what Shuman had just said.

“Besides,” the redhaired president continued, “as near as we can tell, even the Allenbys are still split over whether or not they should be supporting Floyd. All of them hate our guts, but for right now at least a majority of the clan doesn’t seem to feel that going up against us openly is a winning strategy.”

“Because they aren’t all completely crazy after all,” Karaxis grunted. “If they ever come out in the open where we can get at them, we’ll chop them into husky bait!”

“I’m sure that’s a factor in their thinking,” Shuman agreed. “The problem is that they’re so damn bloody-minded. If we step on their toes hard enough, they may just decide they don’t care how ugly things could get. Don’t forget what old Simon was like!”