Chapter 24: War Criminals
We had to wait about nineteen hours for our rescue. The first sign that succor was at hand was when the Crockett’s tumble was slowed to a stop and she was firmly clamped to a larger vessel. Then Vennick, those surviving officers who could be spared and myself on crutches stood ready at the main airlock. Holt was not happy with me, but I figured that my passing out and falling over would be only a minor indignity; if we were rescued by friendlies. If it was a Free Worlds ship, well, resistance was out of the question and there would be no one to remember that the captain fainted before being shot.
I couldn’t have been more pleased when the hatch slid open to reveal Winslow, my old commanding officer with an escort of marines. I saw almost immediately, however, that there was something dreadfully wrong. Winslow appeared to have aged decades. Worse yet, he had a look that told me he may not have been entirely pleased to see me alive. As he stepped onto my ship, I saluted and tried to steel myself for what might be coming. Nothing could have prepared me for it.
“Captain Morgan, First Officer Vennick, I am placing you both under arrest for crimes against humanity.”
“Is this some kind of sick joke?” Growled Holt.
Winslow didn’t respond.
“What are we accused of?” I asked.
The Captain’s gray eyes drilled holes in my flesh. “Firing on an inhabited world with a forbidden weapon, causing unconscionable loss of life on a planetary scale.”
“According to whom?” Asked Vennick, his voice was almost unnaturally calm.
“Commodore Lord Albert Caldwell, commander of the Imperial fleet in this system.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “This is all a mistake, but we’ll come with you.”
“You can’t just drag these men off!” said the Doctor. “He’s lost his leg! He still needs a doctor!”
“I’m alright!” I tried to give him a ‘Shut the hell up!’ look before he ended up forced to join us in the Agamemnon’s brig. “Under these circumstances they can bloody well drag me off if they bloody well want too!” I’m sure that latter statement didn’t help, but I was rather angry myself.
“You can accompany your captain if you wish Doctor Holt,” said Winslow.
Holt hesitated. “What about my other patients?”
“We’ll begin transferring them to our sick bay immediately. No one else has been charged with a crime, except your weapons officer.”
“She didn’t make it,” said Vennick in a low voice.
“Whichever you choose, your people are safe,” said Winslow.
I shrugged. “You have people a lot worse off than me, Doc.”
Holt looked at Winslow. “I’ll be allowed access to him later?”
Winslow nodded. “And we’ll go slow.”
“Very well, I’ll help supervise the transfer and then come to the brig.”
I quickly found myself grateful for our escort taking it slow. Despite the excellent care I’d received, it had been less than forty-eight hours since my leg had been sawn off. I felt light-headed and at one point couldn’t avoid a brief stumble. “I’m alright!” I said at Vennick’s questioning look. Winslow didn’t seem to notice.
It was my old commander’s apparent willingness to believe in my guilt that hurt the most. During the months I served on the Agamemnon, he had become like a father to me. I felt that I had to know where things stood with him. When we boarded the elevator to the security deck, I took the chance of sounding pathetic and spoke. “You don’t think I’d be capable of doing what I’m accused of do you?”
The captain gave me a sidewise look. “I’m trying not to think at all.” He rubbed his forehead with one hand. “Even over an inhabited world, a vulnerable enemy carrier would be a very tempting target to an ambitious young ship’s commander. Very tempting indeed for anyone…except you.” He put a hand on my shoulder and spoke quickly and quietly. “This will soon be resolved. Take my word on it. The tables will be turned. But keep in mind, Caldwell is very powerful and dangerous, especially when cornered. You are the primary witnesses now. Take care.” The elevator doors opened and we stepped out. I began to feel more hopeful.
My First Officer and I were put in separate cells. I sat down on the cot and tried to rest. Now What? I’d never been involved in any legal proceeding before either in or out of the navy. I had no idea what was next, or how long things would take. Could I be cooling my heels (er, heel) for days? Longer? I was impatient but considering the seriousness of the charges, things could not help but go slow.
One thing I was not confused about was the broad outline of what was going on. Sometime in the last forty-eight hours, Commodore Caldwell had figured out that bombarding a helpless, inhabited world just to take out an empty carrier was not a good move for his career after all. He must have decided next to pin the deed on some conveniently dead people, namely the Crockett’s officers and crew. It must not have been pleasant for him when our distress signal was reported to him. He probably wished he could have sent a torpedo our way. Of course, if Winslow was correct and it does boil down to his word against ours, Caldwell still has the advantage of rank and position. I devoutly hoped that Winslow had secured the Crockett’s log.
I began to think about Ari. Would she be more upset by me losing my leg or being accused of a war crime? I thought I knew which would hurt my mother most. As for me, a leg can always be replaced. They’ll either grow me a new one or fit me with a nice prosthesis. Even if they find me guilty, the Navy will provide me with some means of conveniently mounting the scaffold.
Nothing much happened for a couple of days. Holt came by early the next morning, inspected my wound and changed the dressing. He pronounced it the best bit of chainsaw surgery he had ever seen. Before he left, he told me that he’d left some pain meds with the guards. I thanked him but said I wouldn’t need them. He shrugged, “You’re probably right, but just in case.”
At noon on my lunch tray, between the ham sandwich and the peas was a small blue pill. I picked it up. It occurred to me that I could hide and accumulate some of these over time. I wondered how many it would take to make a lethal dose. I shook my head and tossed the tablet at the toilet. It bounced on the seat and plopped into the water; just enough to set off the auto-flush. I’ll trust my old captain.
Ariadne shook a coating of salt out onto her uncooked salmon, then unscrewed the lid from the salt cellar and dumped the remainder of its contents into her tea. She looked up to see her fellow diner’s horrified faces. “What? There’s plenty of salt onboard. Here,” she guided her hoverchair over to the pantry, “I’ll refill it.”
“That’s not the problem,” said Pym. “That’s an awful lot of salt for one human being.”
“Not for a Syrenkan,” said Justin. He and the baby were the only ones at the dinner table who weren’t shocked. “It’s been a long while since you swam a proper sea hasn’t it, milady?”
“Over a month,” she wondered why she felt embarrassed. “It’s not harmful, it just makes me crave salt. That and being pregnant. If it bothers you, I can always eat in my cabin.”
“Please don’t do that!” Said Jen. “We enjoy your company.” The others nodded, Mara began to cry.
“Well, I can’t seem to argue.” Ari felt shy.
“If it’s not harmful,” Justin picked up his fork. “Then let’s get back to eating. Could some one pass the parsnips?”
The next morning, I got to meet my defense team. I was not impressed. To be fair, my lack of experience with JAC left me with no idea what to look for in a representative. Nevertheless, I quickly concluded that my wellbeing was not their first priority. I can, perhaps, attribute this to my ancestral mistrust of those who make their livelihood from the law.
The four of them were about as comforting as the Apocalyptic Four Horsemen. The head of the team seemed especially ill at ease, though he tried to mask it with a forced cheerfulness that would have been more sincere coming from an undertaker. After a brief introduction and even briefer inquiry about my health, he announced that we were to proceed at once to the flagship for a reading of the charges.
As I’ve mentioned before, I know little of the law. There was, none the less, something about the situation that set off multiple alarms in my head. Under Winslow’s care, I knew I had an excellent chance of surviving to my trial date. Under Caldwell’s direct supervision, I had good reason to think my odds would be no better than that of a house-cat left in a room full of cold-hounds.
“Is that really necessary?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” said one of the unsmiling faces. “It’s required under Section 37 of the Military Code.”
The man I’d silently labeled ‘Mr. Happy’ made a dismissive shrug. “I can understand your hesitance in this matter, but I assure you that you have nothing to fear...”
“Fear? All I asked is if it were necessary.”
I could hear the man’s mouth open and close again. He was decidedly less happy. “Then Lieutenant Blair has already answered your question, commander.”
“Is there a problem?” Asked one of the other men, who seemed especially nervous and impatient. “We need to move on.”
Something was going on here, so I played another card just to see what would happen. “I fear I must decline. It’s my wound you see…”
“I’ve had enough of this nonsense!” Said the impatient man, who next pulled out a small pistol. “You’re coming with us.”
I have to confess that I was rather surprised at just how quickly the situation had decayed and fallen out of orbit. ‘Mr. Happy’ gave his partner a look of disgust then shrugged again and pulled another firearm. “Though hasty, my colleague here is quite correct. You are coming with us.”
“You’ll get no argument from me.”
“That’s the spirit.” The smile returned. “We’re willing to make this as painless as possible.”
I was curious but not curious enough to want to know what they intended to make painless. They allowed me my cap, jacket and crutches before we set out. In the corridor, we acquired two more guards who I did not recognize. Neither of the pair had ID badges. I began to have serious doubts about my chances.
It soon became plain that we weren’t heading for a shuttle. “Flight-Deck’s that way.” I nodded down the corridor we weren’t taking.
“Shut-up!” Was the unsurprising response.
I knew the layout of the Agamemnon well enough to know where we were headed instead, the main disposal chutes. They intend to toss me out with the trash! Unfortunately, I didn’t see any way to alter my situation.
Eventually, we came to a large, heavily reinforced door. “This, Commander, is where we must part company.” Mr. Happy motioned toward the door with the muzzle of his pistol. He wasn’t even pretending to smile now.
“Just to satisfy my curiosity, why?”
“Why?” The man seemed at a loss.
It’s now or never! I began to move and time slowed to a standstill. Then my concentration was shattered by a gun going off near my ear.