"Welcome to Cimmaron, Madame Vice President!"
"Thank you, Commodore," Tatiana Illyushina replied with admirable gravity, just as if she hadn't known the silver-haired woman in the uniform of the Republican Navy for virtually her entire life.
"If you'll come this way," Magda Petrovna continued courteously, waving at the scarlet carpet runner between the motionless ranks of the Marine honor guard, "there are other people who will be almost as happy to see you as I am."
"Of course, Commodore Petrovna," Tatiana agreed, and stepped forward as the Navy band struck up "Ad Astra," the Terran Republic's chosen anthem.
"And thank God that's over!" Tatiana said the better part of four hours later as she flung herself untidily into a huge, comfortable armchair in her assigned VIP suite. She looked more like a teenager than ever, Magda reflected, as she parked herself sideways, leaning back with both legs across one of the chair's armrests.
"If Lad had leveled with me about how much feathers and fuss were going to be involved with this job, I never would have taken it!" the Vice President continued astringently.
"Of course you wouldn't have," Magda agreed so affably that Tatiana half-straightened in the chair to dart a suspicious look in her direction. "I'm sure you'd be much more content just sitting home on Novaya Rodina, probably darning socks or knitting cute little caps for the troops."
"Not exactly the most respectful possible attitude, there, Commodore," Tatiana said, flopping back with a little-girl grin.
"Then don't do that 'poor-little-me' number with me, young lady."
The slight twinkle in Magda's brown eyes undermined the severity she projected into her tone, and Tatiana laughed. But then she sighed, turned to put her feet on the floor, and straightened up with a much more serious expression.
"I hadn't expected to see quite so much damage, Magda," she said quietly.
"And we hadn't expected to inflict it," Magda agreed. Her mouth thinned with anger for a moment. "The only good thing I can say for the bastards who decided not to obey Pritscowitzki's surrender order is that almost every one of them managed to get himself or herself killed in the process."
"Almost?" Tatiana repeated.
"We have about a dozen of them in custody," Magda told her.
"That wasn't in any of the reports I saw before I headed out here." Tatiana's voice was decidedly firmer than it had been, and Magda wondered if the young woman realized just how much she'd actually grown since Pieter's murder. That was still the voice of the girl Magda had watched grow up, but it was also the voice of a woman who had grown accustomed to responsibility . . . and to holding others accountable for the discharge of their responsibilities.
"Because we hadn't realized who they were when I sent those reports off," Magda said. "These aren't the lieutenants and noncoms who were doing the actual fighting, Tatiana. They're some of the field grade officers who coordinated the resistance. When we overran the actual fighting positions, they jettisoned their uniforms and tried to pass themselves off as civilians to avoid the net."
She showed her teeth in a cold little smile.
"It didn't work. We picked them up in ones and twos over the last week or so as we've started making real progress on organizing the civilian population."
"What have you done with them?" Tatiana asked.
"For now, I've got them confined in solitary. As for what we do with them in the end, I think that's going to be a political decision, Tatiana. I know what I'd like to do with them." Her normally warm brown eyes were frozen as she looked steadily at her Vice President. "So far, by our count, the civilian death toll is somewhere in the neighborhood of six thousand, and every one of them was killed in fighting which never would have happened if these people hadn't chosen to violate the legal order of their superior officer to surrender. Under Federation law and the Articles of War, refusal of a direct legal order is a capital offense. Given how many people they got killed, I don't think there's very much chance that a court-martial would choose to show clemency in this case, either. But-"
"But every single officer and enlisted person in the Republic's armed forces is currently violating the 'legal orders' of their Federation superiors," Tatiana finished for her.
"Exactly." Magda grimaced. "From everything we can tell, it looks like Heart World public opinion is still a bit lukewarm-or, at least not incredibly optimistic about the eventual outcome-when it comes to supporting the Rump war effort. But that's not the case on the Corporate Worlds, which is where every one of these people is from. If we shoot them, or hang them, however justifiable our actions, the Corporate World propaganda machine will have a field day with it."
"They'd claim it was an atrocity," Tatiana said sourly. "Just like they did that strike on Galloway's World."
"Not quite the same," Magda disagreed. "I'm afraid the Galloway strike probably was an atrocity, however we want to slice it, Tatiana. I understand why whoever did it did it, of course. And no one is ever going to be able to claim the Archipelago and The Yard weren't legitimate military targets. But it was a nuclear strike on an inhabited planet by members of the Federation's own military. We can't deny that, and, to be honest, it was a godsend for the Corporate World propagandists."
Tatiana looked for a moment as if she intended to argue, but then she shrugged.
"Point taken," she conceded. "And I suspect, to be honest, that when the Rump finally gets around to declassifying the actual damage estimates and casualty counts, we're going to find out it was one hell of a lot worse than anything that happened here on Cimmaron. But just to keep the record totally straight, the Republic had nothing at all to do with that strike. We didn't order it, we didn't authorize it, and we didn't know a damned thing about it until the Rump media started reporting it."
"Of course not. But nobody in the Corporate Worlds is going to admit that. For that matter, the civilians probably don't even realize that that was the way it had to have been. But right now, as far as we know, we have a lot more Rump prisoners of war than they have of our people, and all of us, on both sides, are still trying to feel our way into some sort of code for the treatment of other human POWs. It's not," she said dryly, "something we've had to pay a great deal of attention to over the last few centuries.
"So, if we shoot these people as they so richly deserve, are we going to provoke retaliation against our own people in Rump hands? That's the immediate, tactical concern that I and other members of the military are probably going to have. But on a more fundamental level, if we're going to argue that our decision to reject what were certainly legal orders when they were given was a valid one, as a matter of conscience, then unfortunately, I think we're on shaky ground to deny at least the theoretical validity of that argument as a defense for these people's actions."
"Point taken," Tatiana said again. She leaned back once more in her chair with a heavy sigh. "I wish just one thing about this civil war of ours could be simple and straightforward!"
"I don't think civil wars come in that flavor."
"No. No, they don't." Tatiana shook her head and considered what the other woman had said for several seconds, then shrugged.
"All right, Magda. I'm sure Lad and the Congress are going to make any final decisions about your prisoners. For right now, though, on my authority, you are not to consider them prisoners of war at all. Lad may overrule me, but until he does, I want no legal precedent that could be used to argue that they come under the protection of the uniforms they abused. As far as I am concerned, they're terrorists, murderers-not soldiers. I intend to argue that they should be held as common criminals and prosecuted as such, under the civil law code of the planet where the murders were committed, after the conclusion of hostilities."
"The Rump is almost certain to insist that they be included in any future prisoner exchanges." Magda didn't sound as if she disagreed, only as if she were noting potential difficulties. "If nothing else, the Corporate Worlds are going to insist. They'll probably make it a case of 'protecting' their citizens from legalized murder at the hands of us barbarians."
"At the moment, my response to that is to go ahead and let them insist all they want. I'll recommend allowing contact with them, but only through civil lawyers serving as their defense counsel in a civilian court. And I'll also recommend that we make it very plain that we have no intention of proceeding with their prosecution until the termination of hostilities and that after we've won, they will be fully entitled to representation by counsel of their choice-from the Rump, if that's what they want."
"It's going to be a can of worms however we approach it," Magda said heavily. "And it may well be something we'll run into on other worlds, again, before this thing is over. Off the top of my head, I'd say what you're proposing makes sense. As the acting Cimmaron CO, I'll endorse it officially if you want me to."
"I think that would probably help," Tatiana said. "On the other hand, you might want to wait until your opinion is asked for. I don't see any way Lad, at least, won't ask for the input of the military commander on the spot, and if you wait until you're asked, it may seem less like I put you up to it before I ever sent my recommendation in. I suspect that some of the Senators and Congressmen are already a little unhappy over the 'Novaya Rodina clique's' undue influence on the formulation of national policy, so let's not throw any more fuel on the fire unless we have to."
"I hadn't thought of that," Magda said, eyeing the young woman with even more respect. Then she shrugged slightly.
"At least a partial change of subject, Madame Vice President," she said, then paused.
"What sort of change of subject?" Tatiana asked warily.
"It's about your request to tour the worst damaged areas. I don't think it would be a very good idea to proceed the way you've suggested."
"Magda, the citizens of Cimmaron are Fringers, and the Republic is a Fringer government-one the local planetary government has already asked to join. And I, as you may recall, am the Vice President of the Republic. I need to see the damage, the losses they suffered, with my own eyes. Because of my office and my responsibilities to the people of this planet, and because I-me, individually, on a personal level-need to see it. And, politically, so that the Cimmarons know that I've seen it, and that the Republic takes what happened here very seriously."
"I don't disagree," Magda replied. "I only said I have reservations about the way you've suggested making your tour. You need more security than your plan is allowing for, Tatiana."
"I'm not some Inner World machine politician!" Tatiana said hotly. "I don't need an entire posse of security people, armed to the teeth, between me and our own people!"
"Yes, you do." Magda's voice was so firm that Tatiana blinked at her.
"You're not back on Novaya Rodina," the commodore continued in that same no-nonsense tone. "These people don't know you the way people back home do. To them, you're still just as much an outsider as the Corporate World Marines who had their boots on the backs of their necks. Maybe-no, certainly-almost all of them think of you as a different kind of outsider, but they've been through a lot in the last couple of months. The best of them are going to be wary, and some of them are going to blame us for the deaths of family and loved ones. Yes, the bastards I've got in lockup are the ones who decided not to surrender, but we're the ones who decided to attack the planet. For that matter, in a population this size, there have to be Rump sympathizers. Maybe it's only a tiny percentage of the total population, but that's still a very large absolute number. And all it takes is one Rump loyalist, or one unstable person who's lost a husband, or a wife, or child and has access to a gun, for the Republic to need a new Vice President. And I," she finished in a tone of vast understatement, "wouldn't like that very much."
"Neither would I, when you put it that way," Tatiana admitted with a crooked smile. "And your solution is?"
"My solution is tighter security." Magda grimaced. "To be perfectly honest, what I'd like to suggest would be that you forget about it completely. Unfortunately, your political arguments are valid, and I know from personal experience just how stubborn you are. So my compromise solution is to assign you a bodyguard of Marines and lay on some fairly visible overhead security with armed skimmers prominently on display. If it will make you feel any better, I'll have the Jarheads drape the skimmers with some nice, festive bunting and pretend they're a parade in honor of your visit, but I want that security in place before I let you out on the street, young lady!"
"My, doesn't that sound like fun," Tatiana said with a grimace of her own that was only half-humorous. "I can just see myself now, marching along with some suspicious, hard-nosed Marine hanging over my shoulder like an anchor."
"Oh," Magda said with a lurking smile. "I think we can probably do a little better than that for you."
" . . . and that over there used to be the Weston Tower, Madame Vice President," Councilman Higgins said. He gestured at the huge structure, now little more than a charred shell, and his voice was heavy. "That one was particularly ugly, I'm afraid."
Tatiana glanced at him. He sat next to her in the open skimmer's middle row of seats, and his expression was as grim as his tone of voice. Selkirk's Landing was the heart of his constituency in the Cimmaron planetary legislature. That was what had won him the seat he occupied now . . . and, she was sure, explained his dark emotions.
She looked over her shoulder at the Marine captain sitting in the jump seat behind her. She'd been both delighted and more than a little irritated by Magda's choice of nursemaids. If she'd been permitted to make the choice herself, it would have been exactly the same one, but the slight, knowing smile Magda had bestowed upon her when she produced the newly promoted Captain Skjorning had been maddening. Not a surprise, really. Novaya Rodina was the sort of world where everyone knew exactly who everyone else was seeing. Just . . . maddening.
She was certain Stanislaus had been pleased to see her. The light in his blue eyes had given that much away, at least. But he wasn't the man she remembered from Novaya Rodina. That man was still inside there somewhere, and she saw occasional flashes of him, but only like brief sparkles of light behind the barred shutters of the grim, haunted eyes of the man he had become. Now his face was expressionless as a stone wall, and that very absence of expression on the face whose smiling gusto for life had implanted itself so deeply in her memory, was like the blow of a fist.
He wasn't even looking at her. For that matter, for the first time since they'd set out, he didn't seem to be watching their flanking armored Marines or the armed skimmers hovering above them at higher altitudes, either. He was staring at the building-the one Higgins had identified as the Weston Tower-and his jaw was clenched.
"I've seen a lot of ugly things since my arrival, Mr. Higgins," she said, turning back to the Cimmaron legislator. "A lot of tragic, heartbreaking things."
"I know you have, Madame Vice President." Higgins, too, was staring at the burned-out building, but he shook himself and met Tatiana's gaze. "But the holdouts turned that building into a strongpoint . . . without evacuating the school on its upper floors."
"Oh, my God," Tatiana whispered, and he nodded slowly.
"Wasn't your people's fault," he said heavily. "No way any of them could have known there was a school up there. Or that the lunatics shooting at them hadn't at least evacuated the children. But we lost two hundred. Two hundred kids, Madame Vice President. Not a one of them over the age of ten standard years."
A tear Tatiana knew was completely genuine sparkled at the corner of the man's eye, and he shook his head.
"Some of our people, the parents especially, are . . . pretty bitter over it," he said. "Who can blame them? Their children are dead, and the only people still alive for them to hate are your Marines. They'll get past that part of it, eventually-most of them, at any rate. They'll understand who was really responsible for it. But right now, the wound's still too fresh, the pain's still too sharp."
He sighed, watching the building as the skimmer moved steadily past it. Then he shook himself and managed a smile. It wasn't much of a smile, but at least he was trying.
"This next bit doesn't bother me anywhere nearly as much," he told her, pointing at the better part of an entire square block of burned-out buildings. "This whole block belonged to the Masaryk Corporation, out of New Detroit. They've been evading taxes and siphoning money out of the Selkirk's Landing economy for as long as I can remember. Rebuilding this block is going to be a pleasure!"
Tatiana nodded, smiling back at him, but she didn't even see what he was pointing out to her. Her attention was fixed on Stanislaus Skjorning's profile as the bearded Beaufort giant's eyes remained locked on the looming tombstone of the Weston Tower.
The sun had set, and the cool, early fall night was settling in over the balcony terrace of Tatiana's suite as she sat down to supper. It was the first time all day that she'd truly had any time to herself, and she looked across the table at her sole dinner guest.
He hadn't wanted to be there. If she hadn't seen the pain in his face, she would have been hurt by his efforts to avoid the invitation. But as Magda Petrovna had observed, Tatiana Illyushina had grown. She refused to allow him to evade her, and so he sat facing her across the snowy white tablecloth and glitter of crystal and china.
The food and the service were superb; she'd expected that. What she hadn't expected, despite the deep and obvious changes in Stanislaus, was that he would be virtually silent throughout the meal. That hurt, too, but she simply pretended not to notice, pretended to concentrate on her own excellent dinner, just as he was pretending to concentrate upon his.
Until the dessert dishes had been removed and they were left with only their wine glasses, at least.
He looked around, then, with the first obvious uneasiness she'd seen out of him. Well, she reflected, that was probably wise of him.
"Tell me, Stanislaus," she said quietly.
He twitched as if she'd touched him with a live wire. His eyes jerked up from the wine glass in his hand, and despite everything she'd already seen, all of her suspicions, she was shocked by the fear she saw in them. Fear-the one thing no one would ever have expected from any Skjorning, she thought.
"To be telling what?" he asked.
"Don't pretend that you don't know what I'm talking about," she said gently. "I've been with you all day. You haven't made a single joke, haven't produced a single real smile, haven't said any of those absurd, wonderful things you always say. You're a ghost, Stanislaus-the ghost of the man I met on Novaya Rodina. And I want that man back. I want him back now, here. And you're going to tell me where he's gone so I can bring him back."
She stopped and cleared her throat, surprised at the way tears had fogged her voice, prickled at the backs of her eyes.
"Tatiana-" he began, then closed his mouth. Jaw muscles bunched, and he looked away, over the terrace's rail at the sparkling lights of First Stop, Cimmaron's planetary capital. From here, in the gathering dark, all they could see were the lights, sparkling with the purity of Heaven's own stars. The damage, the wreckage left by the fighting which should never have happened, was invisible, but both of them knew it was there.
"Lass," he said finally, still looking away, "don't ask me to be telling you. It's-It's not to be something I'd want you to be carrying with you. Bad enough that I-"
He cut himself off, chopping one hand in the air between them.
"I can't do that," she told him softly, and he looked at her, obedient, manifestly against his will, to the unwavering determination of a voice as stern as Beaufort bedrock. "I thought you were only going to be someone to have a good time with for a few days before you shipped out," she continued. "And I did-have a good time, I mean. But that wasn't all that happened, and I don't think it was all that happened for you, either, Stanislaus. And I won't-I can't-walk away from that, or from you. If it hurts you, I'm sorry. But I'm not going away, and I'm not letting you go away from me. So tell me. You've got to tell someone."
"I . . . I can't," he said, and his voice was hoarse.
"I didn't see what you've seen here, Stanislaus," she said with an odd, quiet serenity. "I doubt I can even imagine what you saw here. No, I'm sure I can't-I saw your face when Higgins was telling me about the school." His nostrils flared, and he flinched as if she'd just punched him. "But I saw Pieter Tsuchevsky shot. I knew they were going to shoot me next. And I saw Marines-Marines in the uniform of my Federation-murdering people I'd known from the day I was born. I saw them firing into the crowd, and I saw that crowd go over them like the sea, Stanislaus. I saw them in some cases torn apart-literally torn apart-by the bare hands of my neighbors, my friends. So no, I can't imagine what you've seen here, but I think I can at least begin to understand, to share it with you, if you'll just let me in. And knowing that there is someone to share it with you . . . that's important, Stanislaus. That's so important."
"Start at the beginning," she told him, still with that note of implacable, serene command. "I've cleared my schedule for the entire night. So take your time. But start now."
He looked at her squarely for the first time since she'd begun speaking, and she kept her own expression calm and attentive as she saw the tear trickling down his right cheek. For an instant longer, he wavered. But then he closed his eyes, his shoulders seemed to sag visibly, and he sat back in his chair.
"It wasn't to be this way," he began finally, slowly. "Not like this. But after we'd broken into the system, after they'd had the killing of Longbow, Brigadier Lyman assigned us to the occupation of Selkirk's Landing."
He inhaled deeply.
"We'd the wording that the planet had surrendered," he continued, "and-"
Tatiana Illyushina sat there in the chill of the gathering night and listened as Stanislaus Skjorning surrendered his pain to her one slow, anguished syllable at a time.
The larger of Cimmaron's moons was high overhead, shining down on a city which had largely turned off its lights and gone to sleep. But on one terrace balcony, the lighting still burned dimly as a young woman sat on the long, padded bench against the terrace's outer parapet. A tall, broad shouldered Marine captain lay stretched out on the bench, his head resting in her lap, and her hand lay gently on his huge chest.
Stanislaus' face was no longer the armored mask he had shown that Tatiana from the moment of her arrival on Cimmaron. The mask was gone, crumbled into ruin, and if the face which had hidden behind it was older, more worn, than the one she remembered from Novaya Rodina, at least it belonged to the same man once more. She stroked his chest gently, her hand scarcely moving, and she knew her own face showed the tears she'd shed as he told her about the people he'd lost, the people he'd killed . . . those tiny, broken bodies in the flaming charnel house which had been a school. It was the children, she knew. That was what had threatened to destroy him. And the fact that he'd known that it truly wasn't his fault, hadn't meant that it wasn't his doing.
But they'd survived that. He'd gotten it out, shared it with her, and he'd been right about the horror she would feel, the grief. But she'd been right about his need to let her in so that he was no longer alone with the crushing weight of those murdered children. And now, hours later, in the hard-won tranquility that came after the storm, they floated together in the quiet hollow of the night's hand.
"Look at the moons, Stanislaus," she murmured. "Aren't they beautiful?"
"Aye, they are that," he agreed. "A mite on the small side, they're to be, for a proper moon, but beautiful."
"You and Lad!" She laughed softly and hit him on the chest with a small fist. "To hear the two of you talk, every single thing on Beaufort is bigger and better than anywhere else in the known universe!"
"Bigger, aye. That they're to be, I'm thinking. But better?" He shook his head. "Not always better, and right this minute it's in my mind that it may just be Novaya Rodina has the most beautiful sight I've ever had the seeing of."
"What are you talking about now?" she asked, but her voice was low, soft, and her eyes softened as he reached up one hand to touch her cheek gently.
"I'm thinking you're to know that already, love," he said very, very softly, and something inside her trembled as he called her "love" for the first time.
"I don't know how you passed the Marine physical with vision that bad," she said, and he shook his head.
"No, love. It's past the time for us to be hiding behind jokes. It was a dark place I'd gone to, and it's the light of you that's to be bringing me back from it again. So let's not be pretending any longer, you and I."
"It'll never work, you know," she told him . . . in the voice of someone who believed exactly the opposite. "You're from Beaufort; I'm from Novaya Rodina. I've never seen a body of water larger than a pond in my entire life-not close up and personal. And you-! I can just see you as a megaovis rancher on Novaya Rodina!"
"Somehow, I'm doubting that you're to be one bit less stubborn than me," he said. "And that being so, aren't you thinking that it's to be a mite silly to be dwelling on niggling little details like that? Besides, you're to be Vice President, and Congress has already had the deciding that Beaufort's to be our capital." He smiled, a smile that was more than a shadow of the infectious grin she remembered. "So I'm to be having the inside track, I'm thinking."
"You do, do you?"
She arched her eyebrows, then laughed suddenly. The sound was throaty and low, and it bubbled with a sort of wicked joy. Of relief, and the feeling of life in her veins. She thumped his chest again, and then she pushed at him-a bit like a miniature poodle pushing at a great dane.
"Get up!" she told him peremptorily. "Come on, you big lummox-on your feet!"
"And what's this to be about?" he demanded as he climbed to his feet once more, towering over her.
"It's about taking unfair advantage," she told him tartly, looking up at him in the moonlight with laughing eyes. "You're so damned complacent about getting me to Beaufort. Well, you may be right. But in that case, Captain Skjorning, I intend to acquire a few unfair advantages of my own."
"Such as?" he inquired, smiling back down at her, and she took one of his hands in both of hers and started towards her suite, towing him behind her, like a catcher boat towing a doomwhale.
"As I believe I may have mentioned earlier," she told him, "I've cleared my schedule for the entire night."