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Chapter Eight

The court-martial board filed into the conference room set aside for its deliberations. Not a word was exchanged as its members passed the Marines flanking the room's single door, and the soft click as that door closed behind them was almost deafening.


Earl White Haven seated himself at the head of the table, looking down its length at Admiral of the Green Theodosia Kuzak at its foot. Their juniors took chairs flanking the polished slab of native golden wood, two on each side, and he let his cool, expressionless eyes study them as they settled.


Of them all, he knew Kuzak best. For reasons of her own, the red-haired admiral had nourished a reputation as a strict, humorless disciplinarian almost from Academy graduation, and her green eyes and severe features could produce a poker face that went well with that perception. Except, he thought fondly, for those who knew the woman behind them. He and Theodosia had been friends literally since childhood—and once, briefly, they'd been much more. It had been a difficult time in White Haven's life, a time when he'd been forced to accept at last that his wife's injuries were real and permanent. That no medical miracle would let her leave her life support chair ever again. The accident hadn't been his fault, but he hadn't been there to prevent it, either, and he'd been wracked by guilt and almost unbearable grief as he watched her turn into a frail and fragile ghost of the beautiful woman he'd loved. The woman he still loved, and with whom he could never again have a physical relationship. Theodosia had understood he could no longer be strong. That he'd needed comfort—no more and no less—from someone whose integrity he knew he would never have cause to question . . . and he hadn't.


Rear Admiral of the Green Rexford Jurgens, at Kuzak's left, was a very different proposition. He was a blocklike, chunky man with sandy hair and a permanently belligerent expression, but his belligerence was more pronounced than usual today, and his light brown eyes were like shutters. He didn't look like a man facing a decision; he looked like one who'd already decided and prepared himself to defend his position against all comers.


Admiral of the Red Hemphill, next in seniority after Kuzak, was harder to read, even after all the years she and White Haven had spent as adversaries. As fair-skinned as Kuzak, Sonja Hemphill was a handsome woman, golden haired and with striking blue-green eyes, but where Theodosia's face often hid the real Theodosia, the determination that was Hemphill's driving force tightened her features and made her look almost as opinionated as she actually was. Though twenty years younger and far junior to White Haven, she'd made her name early in the R&D community, and she was a leading advocate of the jeune ecole's material-based "new tactical thinking," whereas the earl was the acknowledged leader of the historical school. He respected both her personal courage and her abilities in her own areas of competence, yet they'd never liked one another, and their professional differences only made their natural antipathy worse. Their clashes had assumed mythic stature over the last fifteen T-years, and there were other worries this time: she was also a cousin of Sir Edward Janacek and heir to the Barony of Low Delhi, and, like Jurgens, her spiritual home was the Conservative Association.


The third female member of the board, Commodore Lemaitre, was a complete contrast to Theodosia Kuzak, and not just physically. She was dark haired, dark skinned, and whippet thin, with intense brown eyes, and she radiated taut, barely leashed energy. Another member of the jeune ecole, Lemaitre was nonetheless an excellent tactical theorist, though she'd never commanded in action. She was also, despite an abrasive personality, a superior administrator. White Haven suspected her support for the jeune ecole stemmed less from a rigorous analysis of its merits than from her family ties to the antimilitary Liberal Party and its fundamental distrust for all things traditional, yet sheer ability had her on the fast track for a rear admiral's star. Unfortunately, she knew it did, and she lacked the one thing which made Hemphill endurable. Sonja might be a hard driver and more than a bit ruthless, and she was oppressively confident of the merits of her own pet technical and tactical theories, yet she was willing to admit she herself was fallible. Lemaitre wasn't. She was totally convinced not only of her own rectitude but of the superiority of any ideology she chose to honor with her support, and he'd seen her nostrils flare when Captain Harrington took the stand.


Captain The Honorable Thor Simengaard was the board's junior officer, and also its largest. His family had migrated to Sphinx two T-centuries before, but they'd come from Quelhollow, an ancient world, settled before Old Earth's Final War and the galaxy-wide ban on the practice of genetically engineering colonists for their new homes. The massively thewed Simengaard stood just over two meters tall, with hair so intensely black it hurt the eye. His dark coppery complexion made his startling, topaz eyes appear even brighter, and his mild, homely features masked a stubbornness more than equal to Jurgens' more obvious belligerence.


It would not, White Haven thought, be a pleasant task to preside over these personalities.


"All right." He broke the silence at last, and five pairs of eyes swiveled to him. "We all know the pertinent regs, and I trust we've all reviewed the JAG's procedural notes and the specific wording of the articles cited in the charges?" He let his gaze circle the table until they'd all nodded. Even the way some of them did that only shouted that they'd already made up their minds, whatever the regs said about considered judgments, and he leaned back in his chair, resting his elbows on its arms and intertwining his fingers above his lap as he crossed his legs.


"In that case," he went on quietly, "let's get to it. We've all heard the evidence, but before I open discussion of the charges, let's admit that our decision—whatever it may be—is going to set off a political warhead."


Lemaitre and Jurgens stiffened, and White Haven smiled without humor. Bringing politics into a court-martial decision was forbidden. Indeed, each officer had been required to affirm under oath that his or her decision would be apolitical, rendered solely on the basis of the evidence, and he was certain Kuzak and Simengaard had so sworn in good faith. He was equally certain Jurgens hadn't, and Lemaitre's expression was informative, to say the least. Hemphill, though. . . . He wasn't certain about Sonja. She simply looked back at him, and if her lips were tight, her aqua eyes were unflinching.


"I'm not suggesting that any one of us would use his or her vote for partisan purposes," he went on. One must, after all, be polite. "Nonetheless, each of us is a fallible human, and I'm certain all of us have considered the political ramifications."


"May I ask exactly what your point is, Sir?" Commodore Lemaitre asked stiffly. White Haven turned his cool, blue eyes on her, then shrugged.


"My point, Commodore, is that each of us should realize that our fellows are as aware of the political dimension as we are ourselves."


"It sounds to me, Sir, as if you are suggesting someone might cast a partisan vote," Lemaitre returned, "and I, for one, resent the imputation."


White Haven carefully said nothing about shoes that fit, but he smiled faintly, holding her eyes until she flushed and looked down at her blotter.


"You are, of course, free to place whatever interpretation you wish upon my remarks, Commodore," he said after a moment. "I will simply repeat that this will be a politically sensitive decision, as we all know, and add to that the fact that it should not be allowed to shape our perception of the evidence. That warning, and the need to issue it, comes with my other responsibilities as president of this court. Is that understood?"


Heads nodded again, though Jurgens looked as if he'd swallowed a fish bone. Lemaitre, however, didn't nod, and White Haven's gaze sharpened.


"I asked if that was understood, Commodore," he repeated softly. She twitched as if he'd pinched her, then nodded angrily. "Good," he said, voice still soft, and looked at the others. "In that case, is it your pleasure to cast your initial ballots without debate, ladies and gentlemen, or to open the floor to preliminary discussion of the charges and evidence?"


"I don't see any need for ballots, Sir." Jurgens spoke up instantly, as if he'd been primed and waiting, and his irritated voice was almost theatrically brusque. "The entire body of the charges is based on an illegal interpretation of the Articles of War. As such, they can have no merit."


There was a moment of absolute silence. Even Hemphill and Lemaitre seemed stunned, and Kuzak's poker face slipped enough to let contempt leak through. White Haven only nodded, lips pursed, and swung his chair gently from side to side.


"Perhaps you'd care to elaborate on that point, Admiral," he said after a moment, and Jurgens shrugged.


"The specifications allege that Lord Young broke off the action on his own initiative and then refused orders to return to formation. Whether or not that's an accurate description of his actions, and whether they showed good judgment or bad, doesn't affect the fact that he had every legal right to do so. Admiral Sarnow had been wounded and incapacitated, and all other flag officers of the task group had already died in action. As the acting commander of a heavy cruiser squadron, it was his responsibility to take the actions he felt were called for in the absence of orders to the contrary from competent authority. He may well have shown execrable judgment, but the judgment was legally his to make, and any other interpretation is nonsense."


"That's insane!" Thor Simengaard's deep, rumbling voice was a snarl of blunt disgust. "Tactical command hadn't been shifted from Nike—and he certainly had no way to know Sarnow had been wounded!"


"We're not discussing what Lord Young did or did not know." Jurgens glared at the captain, but, despite his junior status, Simengaard didn't even flinch. "We're discussing the facts of the case," the rear admiral went on, "and the facts are that Lord Young was senior to the woman who instructed him to return to formation. As such, he was not bound to obey her orders, and she, in fact, had no authority to give them."


"Are you suggesting she gave the wrong orders, Admiral?" Theodosia Kuzak asked in a cool, dangerous tone, and Jurgens' shoulders twitched again.


"With all due respect, Admiral, whether they were right or wrong has no bearing on their legality."


"And the fact that Admiral Sarnow, Admiral Danislav, Admiral Parks, an independent Captain's Board, and the General Board of Admiralty have all endorsed them in the strongest terms also has no bearing on the case?" Kuzak's quiet, measured voice dripped vitriol, and Jurgens flushed.


"Again, with all due respect, it does not," he said flatly.


"Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen." White Haven's raised hand cut off Kuzak's reply, and the members of the board looked back down the table at him. "I anticipated that this point might arise," he continued once he had their undivided attention, "and I asked the Judge Advocate General to address it for me." He laid a memo pad on the table and keyed it alive, but his eyes held Jurgens' rather than looking down at the small screen.


"This particular situation has never before arisen, but according to Vice Admiral Cordwainer, the precedents are clear. An officer's actions must be judged by two standards. First, by the situation which actually obtained at the moment of those actions; second, by the situation he believed obtained, based on the information available to him. Admiral Jurgens is correct that, in fact, Admiral Sarnow had been incapacitated. By the same token, however, Lord Young was under the impression that the admiral remained in command, and that Lady Harrington, as Admiral Sarnow's flag captain, was fully empowered to give him orders. As such, his refusal to obey her repeated order to return to formation constituted defiance of his legal, acting superior to the best of his own, personal knowledge. That, according to Admiral Cordwainer, is the reason the specifications were written as they were. He stands charged not with disobeying Captain Harrington, his junior, but with disobeying orders from the flagship which, so far as he then knew, had every legal right to issue those orders."


"Gobbledygook!" Jurgens snorted. "Lawyer's double-talk! What he knew or didn't know can't change the facts!"


"What he knew or didn't know are the facts of the matter, Sir," Simengaard returned sharply.


"Don't be absurd, Captain!" Lemaitre spoke up for the first time, dark eyes flashing. "You can't convict an officer who acted within the law simply because some other officer withheld critical information from him. It was Captain Harrington's duty to transfer command when Admiral Sarnow was wounded. The fact that she didn't do so makes her culpable, not him!"


"And just whom, do you suggest, should she have transferred command to, Commodore?" Kuzak asked. "The next surviving officer in the chain of command after Sarnow was Captain Rubenstein, but by his own sworn affidavit, his communications had been so badly damaged as to make it impossible to exercise tactical control from his ship."


"Then she should have transferred it to Captain Trinh," Lemaitre shot back. "Intolerant's com facilities were unimpaired, and he was next in seniority to Captain Rubenstein."


"Intolerant was also under heavy fire, as was the entire task group," Kuzak replied in cold, dispassionate tones. "The tactical situation was as close to desperate as any I've ever reviewed. Any confusion in command at that moment could have led to catastrophe, and Dame Honor couldn't even know the extent of Trinh's current knowledge of the situation. Under the circumstances, she showed eminently sound judgment in refusing to risk disordering the task group's command at such a moment. Moreover, her actions led the enemy directly into the arms of Admiral Danislav's relieving force and left forty-three enemy ships no option but to surrender to him. Captain Young's actions, on the other hand, speak volumes about what he would have done in her place."


Kuzak's upper lip curled, and Lemaitre and Jurgens both flushed. It showed more clearly on Jurgens' pale, freckled complexion, but the commodore's face turned darker than ever.


"Even if Captain Harrington were a paragon of all the military virtues—a point I am not prepared to grant, Ma'am—she had still arrogated to herself a command authority which was not legally hers." Lemaitre bit off each word with furious precision. "Lord Young was not legally—legally, Ma'am!—bound to accept that authority, particularly when he was in fact senior to her. The details of the tactical situation can have no bearing on the law."


"I see." Kuzak regarded the commodore dispassionately for a moment, then smiled thinly. "Tell me, Commodore Lemaitre—when was the last time you exercised tactical command in a combat situation?"


Lemaitre's dark complexion paled. She opened her mouth to reply, but White Haven's knuckles rapped sharply on the table, swinging the disputants back toward him once more, and his face was hard.


"Allow me to point out, ladies and gentlemen, that Lady Harrington's actions have been approved at the highest level. She is not, has not been, and will not be charged with any wrongdoing."


His deep, measured voice was as hard as his expression, and Lemaitre clenched her jaw and looked away. Jurgens snorted derisively, but Sonja Hemphill sat in masklike silence.


"Having said that, this court undoubtedly has the right to consider any bearing her actions may have had on Lord Young's. Since this set of circumstances has never before arisen, we, like many a court-martial, are faced with the need to set precedent. The Judge Advocate General's brief makes it clear that an officer's understanding of the situation is an acceptable basis for determining the probity of his actions. Admittedly, it's a meterstick which is usually appealed to by the defense, not the prosecution, but that doesn't mean it applies in only one direction. Whether or not it's applied in this case, and how, lies in our hands. From that perspective—and that perspective only—Lady Harrington's actions and how Lord Young understood them are germane. This board will restrict itself to considering them in that light."


"Is that an order, Sir?" Jurgens asked through gritted teeth.


"It is the direction of the president of the court," White Haven returned coldly. "If you disagree with it, you are, of course, entitled to note your disagreement and take written exception to it. You are even—" he showed his own teeth in a humorless smile "—entitled to withdraw yourself from the court, if you so desire."


Jurgens glared at the earl but said nothing more. White Haven waited a moment, then leaned back in his chair once more.


"Shall we return to the discussion at hand?" he suggested, and Kuzak nodded sharply.


"The operable points, in my view," she said, "are, first, that the flagship had not passed command and that, in consequence, Dame Honor was, so far as Young then knew, legally empowered to give the orders she gave him. Second, that, without orders from anyone, he unilaterally withdrew his squadron from the support of the task group at a critical juncture. And, third, that he refused orders from the task group flagship to return to formation, even though all other ships then under his command did so. I believe the record is amply clear. He panicked; he ran; and he didn't stop running even after the other units of his command had done so."


"So you're saying the specifications are valid in every jot and tittle, are you?" Jurgens' tone was much more caustic than any a rear admiral should address to an admiral, and Kuzak regarded him as she might have a particularly disgusting form of insect life.


"I believe that's substantially what I said, Admiral Jurgens." Her voice was cold. "If you'd prefer for me to be plainer, however, I believe his actions were as contemptible as they were gutless, and that if any officer ever deserted in the face of the enemy, Pavel Young is certainly that man. Is that clear enough for you, Admiral?"


Jurgens turned purple and half-rose from his chair, and White Haven cleared his throat.


"We'll have no personal exchanges, ladies and gentlemen. This is a court-martial, not a shouting match. Formality may be relaxed to allow free discussion and decisions without respect to rank, but the rudiments of military courtesy will be observed. Please don't make me repeat that warning."


Jurgens sank back slowly, and the silence that followed was both fragile and sullen. White Haven let it linger a moment, then continued.


"Does anyone wish to bring forth any additional points for the court's consideration?" No one replied, and he gave a tiny shrug. "In that case, ladies and gentlemen, I suggest we vote on the specifications. Please indicate your votes on the forms before you."


Styluses scratched and paper rustled as the forms were folded and passed to the head of the table. He gathered them in a small heap, then opened them one by one, and his heart sank as he found what he'd expected.


"The vote is: guilty on all specifications, three; innocent on all specifications, three." He looked up with a thin smile. "It would seem we're going to be here a while, ladies and gentlemen."


 


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