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by Eric Flint



Citizen Rear Admiral Genevieve Chin stared at the holopic on her desk. Without even realizing it, she was perched on the edge of her chair.

Citizen Commodore Ogilve, slouched in a nearby chair in her office, put her thoughts into words:

"He looks like a real piece of work, doesn't he?"

Glumly, Chin nodded. The holopic on her desk was that of a State Security officer whose face practically shrieked: fanatic. The fact that it was the image of a young man did not detract from the impression in the least. Coarse black hair loomed over a wide, shallow brow; the brow, in turn, loomed over eyes as dark as the hair. The eyes themselves were obsidian flakes against an ascetic-pale, hard-jawed, tight-lipped, square-chinned and gaunt-cheeked face. Genevieve had no difficulty at all imagining that face in the gloom of an Inquisition dungeon, tightening the rack still further on a sinner. Or shoving the first torch into the mound of faggots piled under a heretic bound to a stake.

Chin couldn't detect any traces of the leering cruelty that had not been hard to find on the face of the officer's predecessor. But she took no great comfort from the fact. Even assuming she was right, that cold-blooded part of her which had enabled a disgraced admiral to survive for ten years through Haven's Pierre–Saint-Just–Ransom regime would have preferred an outright sadist to a sheer fanatic as the effective new head of State Security in La Martine Sector. One could at least hope that a sadist would be careless or lazy, too often distracted by his vices to pay full attention to his official assignment. Whereas this man . . . 

"Is he really as young as he looks, Yuri?" she asked quietly.

The third person in the room, who was leaning against the closed door to her office, nodded his head. He was a somewhat plump middle-aged man of average height, with a round and friendly looking face, wearing a StateSec uniform.

"Yup. Just turned twenty-four years old. Three years out of the academy. Unfortunately, he seems to have done splendidly on his first major field assignment and caught Saint-Just's eye. And now, of course . . ."

Citizen Commodore Ogilve sighed. "Since all the casualties State Security suffered in Nouveau Paris when McQueen launched her coup attempt—what in Hell what was she thinking?—Saint-Just is throwing every young hotshot he's got left into the breaches." He wiped his face with a thin hand. "If we'd had any warning . . ."

"And what good would that have done?" demanded Chin. "Sure, we could have seized this sector, and so what? As long as Nouveau Paris stayed under Saint-Just's control, he'd have the whip hand." Chin leaned back in her chair wearily. "God damn Esther McQueen and her ambitions, anyway."

She glanced at her desk display. It was dark, at the moment, but she had no difficulty imagining what it would have shown if she'd slipped it to tactical mode. Two State Security superdreadnoughts keeping orbit close to her own task force circling the planet of La Martine.

Admiral Chin's task force was much bigger in terms of ships, true—fourteen battleships on station, along with an equivalent number of cruisers and half a dozen destroyers. And so what? Chin was fairly confident that under ideal conditions she could have defeated those two monsters—though not without suffering enormous casualties. She had the advantage of handpicked officers and well-trained Navy crews, whereas the officers and crews of the StateSec superdreadnoughts had no real battle experience. They'd been selected for their political reliability, not their fighting skills.

But it was all a moot point. The StateSec warships had their impellers and sidewalls up and she didn't. They'd gotten word of Esther McQueen's failed coup attempt in Nouveau Paris before she had, and had immediately gone to battle stations . . . and stayed there. By the time she'd realized what was happening, it had been too late. Any battle now would be a sheer massacre of her own forces.

It had almost been a massacre anyway, she suspected. McQueen's coup attempt had immediately placed the entire Navy officer corps under suspicion; especially any officers who, like Chin herself, dated back to the old Legislaturalist regime.

But when her own People's Commissioner had been found murdered three days before the news arrived . . . As accidental as it may have been, the timing had been unfortunate—putting it mildly!

Ironically, Genevieve suspected, she owed her life to the Manticorans. If the Star Kingdom's Eighth Fleet hadn't begun their terrifying onslaught on the People's Republic of Haven, State Security probably would have decided just to destroy her chunk of the Navy. But . . . Oscar Saint-Just was between a rock and a hard place, and he'd probably decided he simply couldn't afford to lose any part of the Navy that he didn't absolutely have to lose.

That, at least, had been the gist of the message sent ahead to the two StateSec superdreadnoughts by Saint-Just's handpicked hatchetman.

She studied the holopic again. No further action to be taken against Navy units or personnel until my arrival. Military situation critical.

And so things had remained for a very tense three weeks, since the news of McQueen's coup attempt had arrived at the distant sector capital of La Martine. The entire Republican Navy in the sector had been under arrest in all but name. All of it, for the past week—the superdreadnought captains had demanded the recall of every ship on patrol. Genevieve Chin and her people had been under the equivalent of a prison lockdown, with two ferocious State Security SDs standing guard over them while everyone waited for the young new warden to show up.

"Do you know anything about him, Yuri?"

Yuri Radamacher, the People's Commissioner for Citizen Commodore Jean-Pierre Ogilve, pushed himself away from the door. "Personally, no. But I did find this record chip in Jamka's quarters. It's a personal communiqué from Saint-Just."

Ogilve stiffened in his chair. "You took that? For God's sake, Yuri—"

Radamacher waved him down. "Relax, will you? Now that Jamka's dead, I am the highest-ranked StateSec officer in this task force—in the whole sector, as a matter of fact, even if the captains in command of those two SDs aren't paying any attention to my exalted rank. The fact that I searched Jamka's quarters after his body was found won't strike anyone as suspicious. In fact, suspicion would have been aroused if I hadn't."

He pulled a chip from his pocket. "As for this . . ." Shrugging: "I'll have to destroy it, of course. No way to just put it back without leaving too many traces. But I doubt its absence will be noticed, even if Saint-Just thinks to enquire." Radamacher made a face. "Not only was Jamka a slob, but after anyone studies more than ten percent of the chips scattered all over his quarters they'll realize . . ."

He shrugged again. "We all knew he was a vicious pervert. Let Saint-Just's fair-haired boy"—motioning to the holopic with the chip—"wallow in that muck for a bit, and I don't think he'll be worrying about a missing private message from Saint-Just."

Yuri slid the chip into the holoviewer. After a moment, the image of the officer was replaced by another. The same officer, as it happened. But this was not a formal pose. What began playing was a recording of an interview between the officer and Saint-Just himself, which had apparently been made in Saint-Just's office recently.

"I'll give the kid this much," murmured Radamacher. "He's StateSec through-and-through, but he doesn't seem cut from the same cloth as Jamka. Watch."

Fascinated, Admiral Chin leaned forward. The sound quality in the holoprojection was as good as the images themselves—not surprising, given that Saint-Just would have had the very best equipment in his own office.


The first thing that struck Admiral Chin was that the head of Haven's State Security seemed a smaller man than she remembered. Genevieve hadn't seen Saint-Just in person for many years, and then only at a distance at a large official gathering. On that occasion, Saint-Just had been positioned behind a podium on an elevated dais, at quite some distance from Genevieve. He'd looked like a big man to her, then. Now, seeing him in a holoprojection sitting behind the desk in his own office, he simply seemed a small, unprepossessing bureaucrat. If Chin hadn't known that Oscar Saint-Just was perhaps the most cold-bloodedly murderous human being in existence, she would have taken him for a middle-aged clerk.

That accounted for some of it. But Genevieve knew that, for the most part, the reason Saint-Just seemed much smaller to her was purely psychological. The last time she'd seen Saint-Just she'd hated and feared him, and had been wondering whether she'd still be alive by the end of the week. She still hated Saint-Just—and still wondered how much longer she'd be alive—but the passage of years and the slow rebuilding of her own self-confidence as she'd forged La Martine Sector into an asset for the Republic had drained away most of the sheer terror.

The door to Saint-Just's office opened and the same young StateSec officer whose face she'd been staring at earlier was ushered into the office by a secretary. The secretary then closed the door, not entering the room himself.

The young officer glanced at the two guards standing against the far wall behind Saint-Just. The Director of State Security was seated at a desk near the middle of the room, studying a dossier open before him.

Chin was impressed by the officer's glance at the guards. Calmly assessing, it seemed—just long enough to assure himself that the guards were not particularly concerned about him. Their stance was alert, of course. Saint-Just wouldn't have tolerated anything else from his personal bodyguards. But there was nothing visible in that alertness beyond training and habit; none of the subtle signs which would have indicated that a man about to be arrested or secretly murdered had just been ushered into Saint-Just's presence.

Chin knew she couldn't have maintained that much poise herself, in that situation, even with her advantage of many more years of life and experience. The StateSec officer was either blessed by a completely secure conscience, or he was a phenomenally good actor.

The officer marched briskly across the wide expanse of carpet and came to attention in front of the Director's desk. Genevieve noted that he was careful, however, not to get too close. The officer was not a particularly big man himself, and as long as he stayed out of arm's reach of Saint-Just, the bodyguards wouldn't get nervous. He would already have been thoroughly checked for weapons. It was quite obvious that neither of the two guards—much less both together—would have any difficult subduing him if he suddenly went amok and tried to attack the Director. The guards were not precisely giants, but they were very big men. Admiral Chin had no doubt both of them were experts in close-quarter combat, armed or unarmed.

Which the officer standing at attention before the desk didn't seem to be, from what Genevieve could tell. He had a trim and well-built figure, yes; she could detect the signs of a man who exercised regularly. But Genevieve was an accomplished martial artist herself—had been, at least, in her younger days—and she couldn't detect any of the subtle indications of such training in the officer's stance.

Then, noticing something else, she cawed laughter. "They've removed his belt and shoes!"

Radamacher smiled sourly. "After Pierre was killed, I doubt if Saint-Just is going to overlook any possible danger." He paused the recording and studied it. Then, chuckled. "Is there anything sillier-looking than a man trying to stand at attention in his socks? It's a good thing for him the Committee of Public Safety did away with the old Legislaturalist custom of clicking your heels when coming to attention, or that youngster would look like a pure idiot."

But the humor was as sour as the smile. Idiotic or not, Saint-Just's new version of the Committee of Public Safety had Haven and its Navy by the throat. And young men like the officer standing at attention before him were the fingers of that death-grip.

Yuri started up the recording again. For half a minute or so, the three people in the room watched Saint-Just simply ignore the young man standing before him. The Director of State Security—now also Haven's head of state—was perusing the dossier spread out on the desk before him. The personal records of the officer himself, obviously.

Chin took the time to study that young officer. And, again, was impressed. Most young subordinates in that position would not have been able to disguise their anxiety. She knew perfectly well that Saint-Just was dragging out the process simply to reinforce that he was the boss and that his subordinate was completely at his mercy. A word from Saint-Just could destroy a career—or worse.

But from this youngster . . . nothing. Just an impassive face and stance, as if he possessed all the patience in the universe and not a trace of its fears.

Something indefinable in the expression on Saint-Just's face, when he finally raised his eyes from the dossier and studied the officer, let Genevieve know that Saint-Just's petty little attempt at intimidation had fallen flat—and Saint-Just knew it. For the first time, words entered the recording, and Chin leaned forward more closely.

* * *

"You're a self-possessed young man, Citizen Lieutenant Cachat," Saint-Just murmured. "I approve of that—as long as you don't let it get out of hand." 

Cachat simply gave Saint-Just a brisk little nod of the head. 

Saint-Just pushed the dossier aside a few inches. "I've now studied this report on the Manpower affair which you brought back from Terra. I've studied it three times over, in fact. And I will tell you that I've never seen such a cocked-up mess in my life." 

Saint-Just's right hand reached out and fingered the pages of the report. "One of the pages in this dossier consists of your own record. Terra was your first major assignment, true. But you graduated almost at the top of your class in the academy—third, to be precise—so let's hope you can match the promise." 


"Oh, hell," muttered Ogilve.

" 'Oh, hell' is right." Radamacher grimaced. "The top five positions in any graduating class at the StateSec academy require a pure-perfect rating of political rectitude from every single one of your instructors. I graduated third from the bottom, myself."

He jabbed a finger at the recording, which he'd paused again. "And take a look at the kid's face. First time he's had any expression at all. This'll be news to him, you know. He'd had no idea where he stood at the academy, since it's the academy's policy not to let any of the cadets know how they're doing in the eyes of their superiors. I only found out my own standing years later, and then only because I was called on the carpet for 'slackness' and it was thrown in my face. A charge which, you can bet the bank, nobody's ever thrown at this young eager-beaver. Look at him! His eyes are practically gleaming."

Chin wasn't sure. There was something a bit odd to her in Cachat's expression. A gleam in his eyes, perhaps. But there was something . . . cold about it. As if Cachat was taking pleasure in knowledge for reasons other than the obvious.

She shook the thought away. It was ridiculous, really, to think you could make that much out of a hologram recording, even one of the finest quality.

"Start it up again," she commanded.

* * *

Saint-Just was still speaking. "So now you tell me the truth, young Victor Cachat." 

Cachat glanced down at the dossier. "I haven't seen Citizen Major Gironde's report, Citizen Chairman. But, at a guess, I'd say he was concerned with minimizing the damage to Durkheim's reputation." 

Saint-Just's snort was a mild thing, quite in keeping with his mild-mannered appearance.  

"No kidding. If I took this report at face value, I'd have to think that Raphael Durkheim engineered a brilliant intelligence coup on Terra—in which, sadly, he lost his own life due to an excess of physical courage." 

Again, that little snort. More like a sniff, really. "As it happens, however, I was personally quite familiar with Durkheim. And I can assure you that the man was neither brilliant nor possessed of an ounce of courage more than the minimum needed for his job." His voice grew a bit harsh. "So now you tell me what really happened." 

"What really happened was that Durkheim tried to put together a scheme that was too clever by half, it all came apart at the seams, and the rest of us—Major Gironde and me, mostly—had to keep it from blowing up in our faces." He stood a bit more rigidly. "In which, if you'll permit me to say so, I think we did a pretty good job." 

"'Permit me to say so,'" mimicked Saint-Just. But there was no great sarcasm in his tone of voice. "Youngster, I'll permit any of my officers to speak the truth, provided they do so in the service of the state." He moved the dossier a few inches farther away from him. "Which I'd have to say, in this case, you probably are. I assume you and Gironde saw to it that Durkheim went under the knife himself?" 

"Yes, Citizen Chairman, we did. Somebody in charge had to take the fall—and be dead in the doing—or we couldn't have buried the questions." 

Saint-Just stared at him. "And who—I want a name—did the actual cutting?" 

Cachat didn't hesitate. "I did, Citizen Chairman. I shot Durkheim myself, with one of the guns we recovered from the Manpower assassination team. Then put the body in with the rest of the casualties." 


Again, Radamacher paused the recording. "Can you believe the nerve of this kid? He just admitted—didn't pause a second—to murdering his own superior officer. Right in front of the Director! And—look at him! Standing there as relaxed as can be, without a care in the world!"

Genevieve didn't quite agree with Yuri's assessment. The image of Cachat didn't looked exactly "relaxed" to her. Just . . . firm and certain in the knowledge of his own Truth and Righteousness. She couldn't keep her shoulders from shuddering a little. Just so might a zealous inquisitor face the Inquisition himself, serene in the certainty of his own assured salvation. The fanatic's mindset: Kill them all and let God sort them out—I've got no worries where I stand with the Lord. 

Radamacher resumed the playback.


The room was silent for perhaps twenty seconds, with Saint-Just continuing to stare at the young officer standing at attention before him—and the guards with their hands on the butt of their sidearms. 

Then, abruptly, Saint-Just issued a dry chuckle. "Remind me to congratulate the head of the academy for his perspicacity. Very good, Citizen Captain Cachat." 

The relaxation in the room was almost palpable. The guards' hands slid away from the gunbutts, Saint-Just eased back in his chair—and even Cachat allowed his rigid stance to lessen a bit. 

Saint-Just's fingers did a little drum-dance on the cover of the dossier. Then, firmly, he pushed the entire dossier to the side of the desk. 

"We'll put the whole thing aside, then. It all turned out well, obviously. Amazingly well, in fact, for an operation you had to put together on the fly. As for Durkheim, I'm not going to lose any sleep over an officer who gets himself killed from an excess of ambition and stupidity. Certainly not when we're in a political crisis like this one. And now, Citizen Captain Cachat—yes, that's a promotion—I've got a new assignment for you."


To Chin's surprise, the recording ended abruptly. She cocked an eyebrow at Radamacher, who shrugged. "That's all there was. It you want my guess, I suspect the rest of it was none too complimentary to Jamka and Saint-Just saw no reason to let the bastard see the nuts and bolts of whatever he discussed with Cachat thereafter."

He popped the chip out of the holoviewer and put it back in his pocket. "Cachat's official new title may not have registered on you properly. Special Investigator for the Director is not a title used too often in State Security. And it's not one any StateSec officer wants to hear coming his way, let me tell you. This recording must have been made before Nouveau Paris got the news that Jamka had been murdered. I don't think Saint-Just was any too pleased with Jamka, and this was his way of letting Jamka know his ass was on the line."

"And about time!" snarled Ogilve. "I don't mind so much having a People's Commissioner looking over my shoulder—no offense, Yuri—" For a moment, he and Radamacher exchanged grins. "—but having a swine like Jamka around is something else entirely."

He gave Admiral Chin a look of sympathy. As the top-ranked naval officer in La Martine Sector, Genevieve had been saddled with Jamka as her People's Commissioner.

She shrugged. "To be honest, I didn't mind it all that much. The pig was usually more interested in his own—ah, hobbies—than he was in doing his job. And since he kept his vices away from me personally, I could pretty much just ignore him and go about my business."

She went back to studying the holoviewer gloomily. The original image of StateSec Citizen Captain Cachat was back. "This guy, on the other hand . . ." She sighed and slumped back in her chair. "Give me a lazy, distracted and incompetent commissioner any day of the week. Even a vicious brute." With an apologetic glance at Radamacher: "Or one like you, that the Navy can work with."

Her eyes moved back to Cachat's image. "But there's nothing worse I can think of than a young, competent, energetic, duty-driven . . . ah, what's the word?"

Radamacher provided it. "Fanatic."



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