"What do you think will happen to them?" Ragnhild asked -quietly.
"To the Peeps? Or Baranyai's people?" Helen asked in reply.
All of Hexapuma's midshipmen sat around the commons table in Snotty Row. Two local days had passed since the destruction of Commodore Henri Clignet's "People's First Liberation Squadron" and the recapture of Emerald Dawn .
There'd been enough left of Anhur's impellers to get her under way under a mere fifty gravities' acceleration, and the savagely battered wreck now lay in a parking orbit around Pontifex. Emerald Dawn's helpless hulk had been towed in by a half a dozen LACs and occupied an orbit not far from her erstwhile captor. Baranyai had been able to confirm that one of the freighter's heavy shuttles was missing, but no one had found any trace of it, so far. Eventually, Helen felt sure, it would turn up somewhere. Probably someplace on the surface of Pontifex, abandoned by whoever had used it to get there. Exactly how the Peep escapees thought that they were going to blend into such an isolated local population was more than she could say, but she supposed they figured that making the attempt beat the alternatives.
"All of them, I guess," Ragnhild said. "But I was thinking mostly about the Peeps."
"Fuck the Peeps," Aikawa said, so harshly Helen glanced at him in some surprise. "You talked to Baranyai, just like me, Ragnhild. Do you think for a minute they don't deserve whatever they get?"
"I didn't say I felt sorry for them, Aikawa," Ragnhild responded. "I just said I wondered what would happen to them in the end."
"Whatever it is, it'll be better than they have coming," Aikawa muttered, staring down at the hands clenched before him on the tabletop.
"I heard the Exec talking to Commander Nagchaudhuri this afternoon," Leo Stottmeister said. "He said the Captain's going to ask President Adolfsson to hold them here, at least temporarily."
"Makes sense to me," Helen said. "We sure don't have the space aboard ship for them!"
"No, we don't," Leo agreed. "But I don't think that's all the Captain has in mind." He looked around the table and saw all of them looking back at him. "The Exec told the Commander that the Captain's going to recommend to Admiral Khumalo that Clignet and Daumier and all of their people be handed over to the Peeps, along with all the evidence we've been able to collect about their activities."
"Oh, my!" Helen sat back in her chair, her lips half-parted in a sudden smile. "That's… evil," she said admiringly.
Clignet, as part of the megalomania which had driven him to dream-apparently sincerely-of someday restoring the People's Republic in all its malevolent glory, had kept a detailed personal log of his "squadron's" activities. He'd lovingly detailed each prize they'd taken, by name, registry, and cargo. Listed the profits they'd earned by disposing of them, the star systems where they'd been sold, even the names of the brokers through whose hands they'd passed. He'd recorded the other rogue Peep units he'd been in contact with, and the "Liberation Force in Exile" organization which had grown up among them. He'd also meticulously listed the names of those he'd ordered executed for "treason against the People"… including at least forty people who'd never been citizens of the People's Republic in the first place. And he'd kept an equally thorough list of his personnel who had most distinguished themselves "for their zeal in the People's service."
That information alone would have been enough to get most of them hanged in the Star Kingdom. But there was a cool, deliciously vicious elegance in the thought of handing them back to the restored Republic of Haven. Not even the most virulent Manticoran patriot could doubt for a moment what sort of welcome President Eloise Pritchart's government and Admiral Thomas Theisman's Navy would extend to Henri Clignet and his homicidal band.
And they'll just hate the thought of being executed by the counter-revolutionaries as garden variety rapists, thugs, and murderers. And-oh, my-when Pritchart and Theisman have to admit these people are out there and that they came originally from the Republic-! I wonder just how many birds we would hit with that stone? Daddy and Web would love it!
"I agree that it's appropriate," Paulo d'Arezzo said quietly. "And don't get me wrong, I don't feel a gram of sympathy for them on that score. But I've got to tell you, Aikawa, after what I saw in Anhur , it's hard not to feel at least a little… I don't know. Not sorry , but-"
He shrugged uncomfortably, and the others all looked at him. He looked back, not exactly defiantly, but… stubbornly. As if he expected them to jump down his throat for daring to say anything smacking of even the tiniest sympathy for the StateSec survivors.
But they didn't. Not at once, at any rate, and Helen realized she felt an odd sort of respect for him for having dared to say what he just had. And, as her mind went back over the horrors she'd seen aboard Anhur , she also realized she felt at least a trace of agreement with him.
"I know what you mean." She hadn't realized she was going to say anything until the words were already out, and d'Arezzo seemed even more surprised than the others to hear them. "It was… pretty bad," she told Aikawa and Ragnhild, and Leo nodded in sober agreement. "I know you guys must've seen plenty of bodies and blood aboard Emerald Dawn , but there was this one stretch of passageway in Anhur . Couldn't have been more than fifteen, twenty meters-twenty-five, max. We counted seventeen dead in that one space. Took one of Commander Orban's forensic sniffer units to do it, too. The… parts were so mixed up together, and so… chopped up and burned we couldn't even tell for sure which bits went with which, so we DNAed the whole heap of scraps to see how many people were in it. And that was just one stretch, Aikawa. So far, we've confirmed over two hundred dead."
"So?" Aikawa looked at her almost angrily-not so much at her personally, as at the suggestion that anything should make him feel the slightest trace of sympathy for the people who'd done what had happened to Emerald Dawn's crew.
"She and Paulo have a point, Aikawa," Leo said somberly. "I don't know about anyone else, but I'll admit it-I puked my guts up when we finally got into their after impeller rooms. Jesus. If I never see that kind of mess again, it'll be twenty years too soon. And the Skipper did it all with one salvo from our bow chasers. Can you imagine what would have happened with a full broadside?"
"Okay, okay," the smaller midshipman said. "I admit it was pretty horrible. I could tell that much from the visual imagery. But a lot of people who never murdered anyone, or raped anyone, or tortured anyone just for the hell of it, have had equally terrible things happen to them in naval combat. You guys're trying to tell me that makes up for everything they did to helpless prisoners in cold blood?"
He sounded almost incredulous, and Helen shook her head.
"No, of course not. It's just, well-"
"It's just that we feel guilty, too," d'Arezzo said softly. Helen turned her head, staring at him in surprise as he put his finger unerringly on the concept she'd been fumbling towards.
"Yes," she said slowly, looking into those gray eyes as if, in some way, she were seeing their owner for the first time. "Yes, that's exactly what I meant." She turned to look at the others, especially Aikawa. "It's not that I don't think they deserve whatever horrible thing happens to them, Aikawa. I just don't want us to turn into them giving it to them. What we did to that ship ought to constitute sufficient punishment for anything anyone could ever do. I don't say it does, I said it ought to. And if I'm going to like myself, I don't want to turn into someone who wants to personally punish even someone like Clignet even more terribly. I'll pull the lever myself, if they sentence the bastard to hang. Don't get me wrong. But if we can hand them over to someone else-someone who has every bit as much justification and legal jurisdiction as we do, who will proceed after due legal process to punish them further-then I say let's do it."
"Why?" Aikawa demanded. Much of the belligerence had gone out of his tone, but he wasn't quite prepared to give up the fight yet. "Just so we can keep our hands clean?"
"Not our hands, Aikawa," d'Arezzo said. "They're already dirty, and I think Helen and I are both equally willing to get them even dirtier, if that's what our duty requires." He shook his head. "It's not our hands we're worried about; it's our souls."
Aikawa had opened his mouth. Now he shut it again very slowly. He looked back and forth between Helen and d'Arezzo, then at Leo.
"He's got a point," Leo repeated, and Helen nodded in slow, emphatic agreement. Aikawa frowned, but then he shrugged.
"Okay," he said. "Maybe you all do, Leo. And maybe I'll feel differently in a few weeks, or a few months. If I do, I guess it'd be better not to've done a lot of things I'll start wishing I could undo. Besides," he managed an expression far closer to his normal grin, "what really matters is that the bastards get the chop, not that we give it to them. So I guess if the Captain wants to be generous and give Pritchart and Theisman a present, I can go along with that, too."
"Geez, Aikawa, your saintly compassion and kindliness leave me breathless," Helen said dryly, and joined the general chuckle that ran around the table after her sentence. Yet even as she chuckled, she was thinking about the unsuspected depths Paulo d'Arezzo had just revealed. And the even more disturbing thought that perhaps those depths had been unsuspected only by her…
"It feels good to get back to a routine, Skipper," Ansten FitzGerald said frankly as he and Terekhov sat in the captain's quarters drinking Chief Steward Agnelli's delicious coffee. The desk between them was littered with paperwork and record chips as they caught up on all of the routine details of Hexapuma's day-to-day existence.
"Yes. Yes, it does." Terekhov heard the profound satisfaction in his own voice. He didn't know if the vicious pounding he'd given Anhur had finally laid to rest the demons of Hyacinth. Frankly, he doubted it. But he knew he'd at least made some progress against them, and the demonstration that he hadn't lost his touch after all had been, in his humble opinion, pretty damned convincing. Best of all, he hadn't given in to the almost overwhelming compulsion to hang or space Clignet and his surviving oficers-that cold-blooded, murdering, sadistic bitch Daumier, at the very least-himself. He would never have doubted for a moment that they'd had it coming; but the question of whether he'd done it for justice's sake or simply to slake the fires of his own vengeance in blood was one he never wanted to have to answer. And not just for himself. It would have been one he had to answer for Sinead, as well, even if she never, ever asked him.
"Still," he said, thinking aloud, "we were lucky."
"Some people make their own luck, Skip," FitzGerald said, regarding him through a tiny wisp of steam across his own coffee cup.
"Don't give me that, Ansten." Terekhov smiled crookedly. "Tell me you didn't think I'd gone off my nut when I opted to suck them in that close-if you can!"
"Well… " FitzGerald began, startled that the Captain had brought that particular point up between them.
"Of course you did. For God's sake, Ansten! We've got Mark 16s in the tubes. I could've pounded either one of them-or both-into scrap, with no option but to surrender, without ever letting them into energy range at all. Couldn't I?"
"Yes, Sir, you could have," FitzGerald said quietly. "And I suppose, if I'm going to be honest, I did wonder if not doing that was the best tactical choice."
Even now, the exec was more than a little surprised they could have this conversation. He remembered all his earlier doubts about Aivars Terekhov and the scars Hyacinth must have left behind. And, truth to tell, he wasn't convinced yet that he'd been wrong to harbor them. But the action against Anhur and Clignet's psychopaths had gone a long way toward resolving them. And, more importantly, in many ways, it seemed to have resolved a lingering constraint in his relationship with his Captain.
"I won't lie to you, Ansten," Terekhov said, after a moment, looking down into his cup. "When we found out they were Peeps-and especially that one of them was a Mars class-it did affect my judgment. It made me even more determined not just to defeat them, but to smash them. Ansten," he looked up from the coffee's brown depths, and his blue eyes were dark, without the distancing reserve FitzGerald had become accustomed to, "I wanted to do every single thing we did to them. I know what that ship looked like inside when we finished with her, and I wanted to see it. I wanted to smell it."
FitzGerald gazed at him, his own eyes gray, calm mirrors. Perhaps they wouldn't have been so calm if he hadn't heard Terekhov's tone. If he hadn't recognized his Captain's own realization of the demons he carried around with him.
"But," Terekhov continued, "whatever I wanted, I'd already decided on exactly the sort of engagement I planned to fight if I could get whoever it was that close. I'd made that decision before I knew they were Peeps. Not because I wanted to punish the same people who massacred my people at Hyacinth, but because I wanted-needed - to take them out, whoever they were, so fast and so hard, from such a close range and at such a low relative velocity, that they wouldn't even dream of dumping their computer cores when I told them not to."
"Well, Skip," FitzGerald said with a slow smile, "you certainly did that."
"Yes, I did," Terekhov agreed with a slight smile of his own. "But now that it's over, I realize I need you to help me watch myself." His smile disappeared, and he looked at FitzGerald very levelly. "There's only one person aboard any warship with whom its captain can truly let down his guard, and that's his exec. You're the one person aboard the Kitty I can discuss this with-and the one person in a position to tell me if you think I'm stepping over the line without damaging discipline or undermining the chain of command. That's why I'm telling you this. Because I need you to know I want your input in a case like this."
"I- " FitzGerald paused and sipped coffee, deeply touched by his Captain's admission. The relationship he'd just described was the one which ought to exist between every successful captain and his executive officer, yet the degree and level of frankness he'd asked for-and offered-was attained only too rarely. And FitzGerald wondered if he would have had the moral strength and courage to admit to another officer, especially one of his subordinate officers, that he'd ever doubted his own judgment. Not because he was stupid enough to believe they wouldn't realize he had, but because admitting it simply wasn't the way the game was played.
"I'll bear that in mind, Skipper," he said quietly, after a moment.
"Good." Terekhov leaned back with a more comfortable smile, holding his coffee cup and its saucer in his lap. He gazed around the cabin for a moment, as if composing his thoughts, then grimaced.
"I'm starting work on my post-battle reports, and I'm looking forward to seeing yours and the rest of our officers. I'm especially curious as to whether or not the rest of you are going to identify the one weakness I've discovered about the new ship types."
"Like the lack of manpower?" FitzGerald asked dryly, and Terekhov chuckled.
"Exactly like the lack of manpower," he agreed. "We were swamped trying to deal with Anhur's casualties and damages. Even with the Nuncians to take up so much of the slack, we didn't begin to have the warm bodies we would've needed if we'd had to board a couple of intact ships. And as for doing that and making critical repairs, especially if we'd already had to detach some of the Marines-!"
"I never thought I'd say reducing the Marine detachments was a mistake, Skipper," FitzGerald said, shaking his head, "but it really is going to be a problem for us on detached operations like this."
"I know. I know." Terekhov sighed. Then he shrugged. "On the other hand, what we need right now more than anything else is a warfighting navy, not a peacekeeping one, and so far, these designs are one hell of a lot more efficient as pure fighting machines. We'll just have to learn to cope with the problems in other operational regimes. And let's be honest-if we'd been conducting regular anti-pirate operations instead of taking on semi-modern heavy cruisers, we wouldn't've felt the strain quite so badly."
"Probably not," FitzGerald conceded. "But for the people who get stuck pulling this sort of assignment, it's going to be an ongoing pain in the ass, and no mistake about it."
"Agreed. But speaking about the difference between our little soiree here and 'regular anti-pirate operations,' what do you think about our discoveries in Anhur's computers?"
"I think it's past time we settled accounts with Manpower once and for all," FitzGerald said grimly, his expression hard. "And probably with all the rest of those bloodsucking Mesan bastards."
"My, my! You are upset," Terekhov observed with a lightness which fooled neither of them.
"Skipper, Clignet's logs virtually admit Manpower's recruited every damned refugee StateSec ship they can get their hands on!"
"Unsavory of them, I admit," Terekhov acknowledged, picking up his saucer and crossing his legs as he leaned back to sip coffee. "Not, on the other hand, really a surprise, I think. Now is it?"
"Hiring StateSec scum? Damned right that's a surprise, Skipper! Or it sure as hell is one where I'm concerned!"
"Actually, 'hiring' isn't exactly the right verb. It's more like placing independent contractors on retainer. And the contractors are working on commission, not direct payment. All Manpower's doing, really, is providing some initial maintenance and resupply gratis , then pointing their new… associates at profitable hunting grounds. And, of course, helping dispose of their plunder. Let's face it, Ansten; some of the biggest Solly merchant lines have always been in bed with the more successful pirates. They use them against competitors, and supplying them with information and weapons buys them immunity for ships traveling under their own house transponder codes. Hell, Edward Saganami was killed in action against 'pirates' subsidized by Mesa and the contemporary Silesian government! Not a lot of change there."
"All right," FitzGerald muttered, just a bit rebelliously. "I'll admit it-Mesa and its multistellars have always been outlaws, and they've always been perfectly comfortable working with the most murderous scum out there. But I still think recruiting State-Sec units and rogue People's Navy ships is a new departure for them. And, give the Devil his due, Skip-I always thought the Peeps were as serious as we were about enforcing the Cherwell Convention, at least."
"I suppose it is a new departure for Manpower, in some ways," Terekhov conceded. "If nothing else, they're recruiting ships whose weapons, electronics, and crew quality come a hell of a lot closer to matching that of contemporary navies. It's not up to our weight, maybe. Or the Andies'. But it comes a lot closer, and these units probably are a match for the older ones we're using for routine commerce protection away from the front-line systems. And it also guarantees deniability. After all, these ships are already outlaws against their own star nation-or hard-core patriots, fighting to restore the legitimate government of their star nation, depending on your perspective. They've got their own reasons for doing anything they do, and Manpower can stand back and fling its hands piously into the air in horror right along with the best of them if any of their rogues get themselves caught.
"By the same token, though, these people are all orphans. They're not even privateers working with a viable-or semi-viable-planetary or system liberation organization, like some of the folks we've dealt with in Silesia for so long. As you just pointed out, opposition to the genetic slave trade's always been a core policy of Haven, whether it was the People's Republic or just the Republic. The fact that these people are willing to sign on with slavers cuts the last real link with where they came from or who they used to claim to be.
"So they don't have anywhere else to go, whatever lies they may tell themselves, and there's no countervailing loyalty to draw them away from their new associates. The best kind of mercenaries, Ansten-people no one can hire away from you, because they aren't officially your employees, and even if they were, they don't have anywhere to go! And, as pirates, they pay their own way with the loot they're taking from the people you want hurt in the first place. Talk about making war pay for itself!"
"Skipper," FitzGerald said in pained tones, " please don't sound like you actually admire these bastards!"
"Admiration doesn't come into it. Understanding what they're trying to do, now-that's another matter. And I don't. Understand, I mean."
"Excuse me?" FitzGerald looked at him quizzically. "Weren't you the one who was just explaining about how all of this is such a great advantage for them?"
"That was all in the tactical sense-or, at most, the operational sense. I'm talking about figuring out the strategic sense in what they're doing. Aside from taking a certain vengeful pleasure in blacking our eyes after all we've done to them over the centuries, and maybe using people who used to be Peeps to do it with, I don't see what they're trying to accomplish. Anhur and 'Citizen Commodore Clignet' would obviously have added to the pressure on us here in the Cluster, if they hadn't gotten their chops busted so quickly. But his log entries pretty clearly imply that Manpower has acquired an entire little fleet of ex-Peep rogue units. And, apparently, even more ship commanders they can help acquire vessels and suitable crews from other sources. So where are they? Are they planning to try to swamp us out here in the Cluster? If they are, where's the rest of them? And are they really stupid enough to think discovering hordes of ex-Peeps flailing about in the Cluster wouldn't make Queen Elizabeth even more determined to drive the annexation through? Ansten, by now the entire galaxy knows the Queen wants to occupy the Haven System, depopulate Nouveau Paris, plow the entire planet with salt, and then nuke it into a billiard ball to make sure she didn't miss any microbes. Show her a batch of 'Citizen Commodore Clignets,' and she'll find the reinforcements she needs to hold the Cluster even if she has to buy them from the Sollies out of the Privy Purse!"
"That might be… just a… bit of an overstatement, Skipper." FitzGerald's voice quivered, and his lips twitched. He paused and inhaled deeply. "On the other hand, I will concede Her Majesty is just a little irked with Peeps in general, and the old regime in particular. Something about that assassination attempt in Grayson, I think."
"Exactly. Oh, she's going to be pissed off wherever and whenever they turn up. And I don't expect Manpower to hold off using them just because they don't want to hurt Her Majesty's feelings. But I don't think they're clumsy enough to make heavy use of them here, if their object in the long run is to encourage us to stay out of the Cluster. I could be wrong about that. And it's possible any of their tame Peeps they chose to use here would be just one of several strings to their bow. But they started recruiting these people, according to Clignet, long before we ever discovered the Lynx Terminus. So they obviously had something in mind to do with them before the Cluster became an issue. And I'd very much like to know what that 'something' was."
"Put that way, I have to agree," FitzGerald said thoughtfully.
"Well, I'm sure we'll both keep turning it over in the backs of our brains for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, I think we can give ourselves at least a modest pat on the back for dealing with Clignet and his butchers. And then get back to the boring, day-to-day duties we expected when we first arrived in Nuncio."
"Yes, Sir," FitzGerald sighed. "I've already got Tobias running preliminary updates on our charts, and I promised him he can have the snotties when he needs them. I guess we can settle down for the real survey activity tomorrow, or the next day."
"Time estimate to completion?"
"With all of the remote arrays we deployed against Clignet, we've already got a pretty damned good 'eye in the sky.' We're going to have to use the pinnaces to pick some of them up if we want to recover them-which," he added dryly, "I'm assuming, given their price tags, we do?"
"You assume correctly," Terekhov said even more dryly.
"Well, about a quarter of them've exhausted their endurance, so we're going to have to go out and get them. That's the bad news. The good news is that they've given us enough reach that we can probably complete the survey within another nine to ten T-days."
"That is good news. At that rate, we'll be able to pull out for Celebrant almost exactly on schedule, despite playing around with Clignet. Outstanding, Mr. Exec!"
"We strive to please, Skip. Of course," the XO smiled nastily, "doing it's going to require certain snotties to work their butts off. Which may not be such a bad thing, given some of the experiences they have to work their way past," he added more seriously.
"No, not a bad thing at all," Terekhov said. "Of course, I don't see any reason to explain to our long-suffering snotties that we're doing this for their own good. Think of all the generations of oppressed midshipmen who'd feel cheated if this one figured out their heartless, hard-driving, taskmaster superiors actually care what happens to them!"