Fiction by Jefferson Swycaffer
The cordula, glittering, icy and ivory, lay upon Secretary Vissene's desktop. Within it, a trebly fatal dose of a narcotic formula slept, waiting to be released.
Across is lay a crumpled gold sash.
"I don't need a bodyguard," Antonin Vissenne said, matter-of-factly. He walked on without looking at the woman to whom he spoke. "I've said that time and time again."
"But it's the Grand Admiral's orders," Didi Champlain wailed. "You can't leave the embassy compound -"
"Who'll stop me?" Vissenne asked, and did not wait for an answer. He hit the door moving and strode out into the sun filled courtyard. Short hedges of dark green, spangled with microscopic red beads, lined the concrete walk that led to the front gate. Beyond the gate, two Marines stood guard, eyeing a man who stood well in front of his throng of supporters.
Didi Champlain, Captain of Marines, dogged Vissenne's footsteps, miserably aware of her full responsibility for her charge's safety. He'd dashed out so quickly, she hadn't even had time to snatch up a sidearm.
"I have to stick by you at all times," she tried again.
Vissenne favored her with no response at all. He came to the gate, straight armed it open, passed through, and with the momentum of his long-legged stride, threw the gate backward, slamming it in Champlain's face.
"Mr. Vissenne!" she snapped. She fumbled the gate open and hurried through to catch up with him.
Beyond the gate, Vissenne came to a halt before the man who'd petitioned to speak to him. Tall, sad-eyed, with long-brown hair that swept down to a pointed beard, he stood thing and jittersomely active in humble clothing. He was a Sonallan non-human; his name was Ponestamo. Champlain scurried up, to stand too close to each of them. Vissenne ignored her utterly.
"I beg of you, sir," Ponestamo began and halted himself before the tangible unresponsiveness on Vissenne's face. The latter was a true master of brick wall stubbornness.
"I beg of you, sir. Release Wonolancet."
"Certainly," Vissenne said swiftly. "Give me the five others who helped murder Governor Walton."
"Five for one," Vissenne ground on mercilessly. "I seem to remember that being a watchword of your recent rioting. 'Five for one,' you promised. I assume, to the fifteen thousand battle deaths suddered when we took this planet. Very realistic. I've heard such promises, on other Sonallan worlds, threatening as much as a thousand for one. The promise has never been kept. Five for one. That, at least, is something that an insane man might believe is approachably attainable."
"Give me five men, and I will give you one. Give me any five bomb setters, any five snipers, any five arsonists, and I will give you one from my prison. Give me the five that I want, and you can have Wonolancet."
He spoke rapidly, dangerously, and not even Ponestamo dared interrupt.
Champlain did. "Mr. Vissenne. And you call yourself a diplomat." She chided him, using the tone of voice that one would use to chide an infant. Vissenne stopped speaking, and gazed through Ponestamo, his eyes unfocused. He held himself motionless, while unguessed thoughts spun in his mind.
Finally, he turned to Champlain, regarding her. "You are..?"
"Captain Champlain, sir," she said cheerfully.
Bubbles Champagne, Vissenne's mind flippantly tagged her. "Miss… Champlain. Would you care to speculate upon Wonolancet's eventual fate, should he remain unransomed?"
Champlain looked down. Ponestamo blurted, "You'll have him murdered, by your nameless, gold-sashed executioner."
Vissenne looked him over. "Whoever wears the gold sash," he said gently, "is the executioner, and has the right to be nameless."
"You'd poison Wonolancet, for crimes he never committed."
"He deserves a trial, at least," Champlain interjected.
"Miss Champlain. I would like you to negotiate with the gentleman." Vissenne smiled as he said this, and yet it was clear that he was not joking.
"I couldn't," she objected. "I'm not accredited, and I'm not -"
"You have common sense. Talk to him." It was an order.
"Um…" She and Ponestamo exchanged a glance, before each returned to his and her gaze to Vissenne.
"Oh, no; I'm serious," the diplomat murmured. "Talk. I will consider it in good faith." He folded his arms to watch.
"Mr. Ponestamo?" The syllables came to her with some difficulty.
"Miss Champlain…" The Sonallan looked back and forth between her and Vissenne. Shrugging, he faced her squarely. "I have come to petition for the release of the prisoner named Wonolancet. None of the charges against him have been substantiated, not has he been permitted to make a statement."
It was formal and correct; it was the first time that he had been allowed to be.
Champlain forebore to watch Vissenne. She'd handle this on her own. "The arresting detail found evidence linking him to the conspiracy that engineered the death of one of our officials. The link is tenuous, but…" And what harm would there be in letting him talk to his people? "He will be permitted to issue a statement, if you will guarantee that it contains no incitement or agitation." She smiled, an honest smile. "Tensions are bad enough, you know, that it would only do harm if he urged rioting, for instance."
Ponestamo's face lit up, and he returned Champlain's smile warmly. "Someone reasonable, for once!" he exclaimed, and his glance flicked toward Vissenne.
"We are a reasonable race," Champlain said with deep sincerity. "And there are no problems that cannot be solved by straight-forward communication."
Vissenne, casually standing nearby, only watched, arms across his chest, and attentively bemused expression upon his open face. He gave no indication of disapproval, nor of any intention of interrupting or guiding the negotiations.
"Wonolancet, then, will be given a fair trial?" Ponestamo asked urgently.
"Of course. This world may be under martial law… I can do nothing about that… but a trial is still a guaranteed right."
"It would have to be open to the public, of course," Ponestamo said, gingerly seeing how many concessions he could gain.
"Televised. But yes. And, well, I'm sure that select observers can even be present in person."
"Then the trial will be on this planet?"
"It almost must be. I don't think that spiriting him away will serve any good." She paused. "In return, of course, I'm going to have to ask that the bombings and snipings stop."
Ponestamo frowned. "I can't promise that." Hurriedly, he added, "I'll do all that I can, of course. Believe me, I will. But I don't control those factions. I've striven to remain moderate. We, too, believe in peaceful discussion."
"But you can get word to those factions? Surely you can speak to those who will see the message passed along?"
"Of course. Of course. This is, at last, a promising break. Mr. Vissenne's been obdurate up to this point." He spoke as if Vissenne were not present, as if he and Champlain stood alone before the sun- washed embassy. "He has given no hint of compromise." Suspicion filled him. "He won't accept your offers, will he? Can he?"
Champlain, too, blinked in uncertainty. "I… never…"
Vissenne stirred. "Carry on, Miss Champlain. I'll gladly accept whatever agreement you two can come to." Something in his voice caused her to glance at him sharply. His expression, however, remained benign.
"Well, Mr. Ponestamo -"
"Ponestamo alone, Miss Champlain. I'm unsigilated… of common birth. Nevertheless, I rightfully speak for my people." This last, he uttered somewhat defensively.
"Ponestamo, if there is a reduction – no, a cessation – of bombings, of killings, then Wonolancet will be allowed to receive visitors."
"That is very fair," Ponestamo agreed.
There, in the sunlight, under the narrow eyes of Vissenne, they spoke for another hour, refining the agreement. Both were bone-tired, mind-weary, but uplifted in spirit, when they finally parted. Ponestamo went to his people, to bring them word of the Imperial concessions; Champlain and Vissenne together passed back through the iron gate, which clapped shut behind them with a satisfying finality."
Back in the garden, Vissenne stopped and sat upon a bench by a surging fountain. He motioned Champlain to join him.
Alertly, aware of Vissenne's almost legendary fury, Champlain settled herself. "You don't intend to keep those promises, do you?" she accused.
The fountain jetted, splashed. Vissenne took some time before he answered.
"I won't have to."
He gazed at some infinite horizon as he spoke. "Ponestamo is a moderate. When has that meant anything other than 'fool'? Who else but a moderate would have the simple straight-forwardness to come to our gate to ask for his man back? Ask! Truly amazing…" He recalled himself, and met Champlain's gaze.
"It suits my purposes to have Ponestamo denounced by his own side. He will be. People will die tonight. His moderate faction is nicely counter-balanced by the radicals, who will see only that he made concessions, and that we did."
"I'll give you command of the company on night patrol, keeping order in the city." A final hint of his normal cruelty manifested itself. "You'll want to wear combat armor."
She left him then, and as she departed, her frequent backward glances showed him sitting easily, admiring the garden…
As the afternoon passed, word of the proposed settlement made the rounds, both within the embassy and beyond it – in the city so full of hatreds. By the early evening, beneath the rays of a swollen sun, the demands began to filter in. Vissenne summoned Champlain.
"We have here an interesting development," he said softly, holding up a document. "Ponestamo relays word from one of the more vitriolic factions of the underground. They say that the trial must be open to the public, in person."
"Can it be?" Champlain asked.
"Yes, it could be. Should the be your answer?"
"It would be, if I was the one making the policy."
Vissenne smiled. "You are. This is your round. I will bow to your every whim." He waited for a moment or two, then purred, "I have nothing to lose." "Well then, tell them that the trial will be open. Surely we can find a hall large enough to accommodate a sizeable crowd."
Vissenne's neutral attitude profoundly discomforted Champlain.
He rose, and paced, while she sat and watched him. Evidently, he waiting for something; he showed no surprise when several further letters arrived. He flipped them open, skimmed them, and tossed them to Champlain.
From one group – 'The Blood-Wings of Freedom' – came the most ludicrous demand. They stated that if Wonolancet was not released within the hour, rioting would begin. Champlain dismissed that, with a muttered, "How silly."
"What does it gain them? We're being reasonable…" She stopped, afraid that she'd gone too far.
"Reasonable? Very much so. You don't expect the rioting to actually materialize?"
"No. We're promising them more than ever before. They should be very happy to get that much."
Vissenne looked away. "There's something called the 'Revolution of Rising Expectations'. Or, 'Give them two and they'll take ten'."
"But they can see that they won't get it."
"I don't think they see that at all. You have given them hope."
"Hmph." She turned to a second communiqué. It was far more reasonable, although its terms were not acceptable. One of the more respectable factions asked that the trial of Wonolancet be presided over by a Sonallan judge, and that the rules of the trial be Sonallan. It hinted that the martial law conditions for military justice were not quite applicable.
"I'll have to say no," Champlain said.
"That might be fun," Vissenne retorted.
"Damn it, these are reasonable people!"
"All revolutionaries are."
Champlain stopped, stunned. "What?"
"Certainly. It's an extension of your own views. What do they want? They want their planet back. Very sensible. The maneuvering of fleets and armies is unimportant to them; they want the right to buy and sell in the marketplace, to worship their esoteric god, to raise their families. They want to be left alone. This is all very realistic. Since we stand in their way, being in military occupation of their world for reasons that are equally realistic to us, they naturally resent us. Revolution has become their means of expressing their dissatisfaction."
"Can't we appease them?"
"Yes, we can. I'm letting you do so. Pray continue."
His voice was so flippant, so sardonic. Something was badly wrong. The third letter was milder yet. It proposed a joint Imperial and Sonallan Council to oversee martial law restrictions. Champlain agreed to that at once.
"You like it?" Vissenne asked mischievously.
"Very well. I'll transmit your agreement immediately."
Within half an hour the response had returned. The faction that had proposed the joint Council was the only one of the dozen or more factions to agree to it even in principle. The rest wanted the Council to be solely Sonallan.
"They're asking too much!" Champlain objected.
"Yes," Vissenne hummed merrily. "They are."
"Turn the proposal down, then."
"Good idea." He stopped, and turned back to her. "Have you noticed something?"
"We don't hear from Ponestamo now."
Champlain frowned. "Why not?"
"Doubtless he's been discredited."
"That's very stupid of them."
Vissenne agreed. "I'm now going to retire for the night; you are now in command. Rioting will begin at ten o'clock."
"How do you know that?" Champlain demanded, hurt.
"I have my ways."
"I can forestall rioting."
"Don't forget to wear combat armor on your evening patrol." He departed.
Messages continued to roll in, and the demands became more and more aggressive. Small scattered outbreaks of rioting had begun by the time that she closed down operations.
Was a military patrol necessary? Best, she felt, to show at least some semblance of strength, to remind the rioters who was truly in charge. That was, perhaps, the best decision of her day.
People died that night.
Wherever Champlain went, there was fighting. It seemed that every man on the planet – but none of the women – had an illegal weapon, and that her company was the target. Vissenne had been right; combat armor was all that kept them alive.
In double column, hugging the sides of the street, her platoon of the company moved warily along, while alerts sounded, and news filtered back from the soldiers on point. All was dark, and broken glass littered the streets; snipers had shot out the lights. There was not one stretch of minutes that passed and was not interrupted by the flat snap of incoming fire. Outriding fire teams roved, clearing the flanks. At times, bombs dropped among them. Casualties dropped, not often, but often enough to keep the nerves on edge. When a soldier fell, his radio automatically cut off the shrieks of pain, emitting only on the medical frequencies.
For now, Champlain's goal was to complete the patrol and get back to the embassy. Darkness flowed, and in the corners and crawlways of this city, enemies lurked.
Ahead, fifteen men – Why always is it men? Half my company is female, and they fight as well if not better – let fly with a furious burst of shells, laserbolts, and free-flight missiles. Return fire dropped only two, while three Marines fell, instantly surrounded by friendly recovery teams.
Ambush! Champlain knew, and had only enough time to warn her unit. Heavy laser fire from a shielded emplacement split the column in two, and men and women dropped back out of the deadly line of fire.
I didn't want to use missiles! she snarled to herself. She had very little choice.
On the tactical channel, she ordered the leftmost of the flanking platoons towards her in the center. On the company channel, she ordered free-flight missiles launched; Marines unclipped the tiny dartlets from their belts and flipped them underhand. They spurted, darting too quickly to be seen, and slapped the air as they clawed at the masonry and glass. The enemy laser was soon silenced, buried beneath a tall building, now only rubble.
I was promised that the fighting would stop! She didn't know what had gone wrong; she was too weary to try to understand.
The ambush was better prepared than she'd thought. Closing in from several sides, unseen soldiers maneuvered for advantage. They outnumbered Champlain's company by two or three dozen to one, perhaps more. They were unarmored, however, and the Marines carried S.L.A.P. fun attachments for their slugthrowers. One soldier in ten carried a Magnetic Accelerator Rifle – bulky, black, and as tall as the bearer – and all had a supply of missiles.
The battle raged until dawn. Never was the outcome truly in doubt. Eighty Sonallans were recovered – dead or wounded – while the Imperial Marines suffered fifteen losses.
Champlain completed her patrol before returning to the embassy.
Sleep. Sleep in which to forget. Sleep in which to remember all to horribly clear.
She threw herself awake at the first tap on her door; sweat drenched her; hear heart pounded. It was nearly noon, although she knew that she had slept little, and rested less.
"What is it?" Her voice sounded unsteady, even to her.
"Secretary Vissenne would see you," a muffled voice called.
She closed her eyes. "I will be there."
Minutes later she entered his office.
He smiled, and the cruelty was plain to see. "Hello, Bubbles. Has your optimism let you down already? Are you ready to abandon 'straightforward communication'?"
She slumped. "Mr. Vissenne, if you have called me here to gloat -"
He spread his hands in something like an apology, although the smile never left his face. "An object lesson. You need to learn something about how and why I operate the way I do. You needed to know when not to present the appearance of weakness."
"Ponestamo truly wanted to give us concessions, in return for the promises we'd give him. Why did you ruin it all? And how? What did you do, to cause this?"
He grew serious, and took a deep breath. "I caused all this by letting you speak to him. He's dead, by the way. Shot by his own side. He himself said that he didn't control the violent factions. That only meant that he had no power. Have moderates ever?"
"You let them imagine that we were ready to give in. They upped their demands. Then they started shooting."
"Why did you let this happen?"
"Because I'll need you. I need your help. But I most certainly don't need a bright-eyed, bubbly little air-head who imagines that we can talk out all our problems. We won't sit down and settle fifty years worth of resentment in one hour, you know. You do know? You didn't yesterday. I taught you."
"You killed ninety people…"
"Three hundred, all told. More perhaps. Yes, I'll take the responsibility. I knew what was happening. Grant me some credit for knowing my business."
"We can't talk with them," Vissenne continued. "No one can just talk with just anyone else, when real issues stand in the way. Diplomacy is no more than a matching of threats. If we're successful, we play the game of war with our words, and the loser sees that he would lose with bullets also. Yes, yes, there are a thousand subtleties, and it is true that ideals do count for something. Wouldn't it be nice if they counted for all."
"Rule one: deal from strength. Concessions are best offered as an example of how, even weakened by the concession, your side is still stronger. Deal from strength. We've got the upper hand, and the gods have mercy on us when we let the enemy imagine otherwise. Some day, Miss Champlain, you'll come with me and see how we deal when our side is the weaker. That, that calls for a calculated evil that you haven't got within you. Yet."
"They saw a momentary weakness, and they attacked you with everything they were worth."
Silence ran through the room; every window had been shuttered, last night, against gunfire. Now they let in the gentle sunshine of midday. Birds inside the embassy garden flittered cheerfully between the hedges.
"What did you gain?" she asked.
"Ponestamo was discredited. Too bad; his ideas were the most realistic. But in the long run, it's in my interest that this world is pacified by the sword."
"It will build up a resentment that will last for years," Champlain spoke.
Vissenne, within him, rejoiced. She was thinking the way he needed her to. "For centuries, rather. Yes, this will be a world to keep watch over. It gains us an example. Ten thousand other worlds will see this, and know that our might is something real. We work by the threat and reward, by promises, and by the whip. If the whip is never used, it becomes forgotten. We can't afford that. Neither, though, can we afford to be using it in every case. It must be the barest reminder."
He said that in such a way as to cause Champlain to look up. He meant her to listen. Perhaps he really did need her, as an aide with a practical knowledge of the whip.
"Like the death penalty," he continued, "which is one of the most potent inducements toward compliance with the law, the massive use of force must only be called in on rare occasions. When it is, however, it is best that it becomes widely known."
Champlain, inwardly, agreed. It would be difficult to forgive Vissenne for playing this trick upon her, but now, she saw how necessary it had been. And, as in the case of drilling the lesson into a Marine trainee that to drop to the ground and lay flat when the shooting starts, the only lesson that will truly be learned is under live fire. No one truly believes that knives cut until they've seen the color of their own blood."
"Think about the death penalty," he went on – although by this time Champlain understood. She listened anyway.
"The condemned man is braced against wall. The main in the gold sash then comes out. The cordula is in his hand. An arms reaches out; a body slumps. That is it."
Vissenne continued. "Why is it so ritualized? 'The man in the gold sash.' He never has a name. It could be me; it could be you. But in truth, he is society's revenge personified, civilization itself made flesh. Very ritualistic and very deliberately so. Not to frighten the poor buggar who's about to die. To hell with him; he's no longer important. Only the living are important. The gold sash, the cordula, all of those are for people who will hear about it later."
"And even deterrence isn't the point. The point is to remind people that the government is legitimate, and that is has the means and the right to strike back."
"I understand," spoke Champlain.
"Wonolancet dies today, for that very reason."
"Without a trial?" she burst.
"You promised him one, but only on the condition that the violence stop." He smiled. "It didn't."
"Is Wonolancet actually guilty?"
Vissenne shrugged. "I don't care if he is or not. It's beyond him now; he's become a symbol. He dies today."
He lifted the gold sash from beside his desk, where Champlain had not seen it. He offered it to her. He reached back and brought forth the cordula. That, too, he handed to her.
There are no words.
The gold sash was the ultimate anonymity, if only in a ritual fashion. Wear it, and one is not oneself, but is rather the man in the gold sash, whether he is a man, whether or not he wants to be.
Societies live by their rituals. People die by them.
"Wonolancet awaits your services, sir," Vissenne said, and the person he looked at was not Didi Champlain.
He knew, though; he knew. In the last possible moment, when the indescribable insult had not been done, but could not be stopped, in that shadowy instant between thought and action, Vissenne's face froze. He'd gone too far.
Champlain still had her dignity and her honor. Vissenne threw them into her face. He knew, fully, what pain he had put upon her. He had a tiny fraction of a second to grieve.
Face neutral, he looked upon the main in the gold sash, and knew he had lost a valuable tool; he knew that he had lost a true friend.
An hour later, with the deed done, with Wonolancet no longer a living symbol, Champlain threw loose the sash and wept.
Later, she stood, composed herself, and washed her face.
A day later, Champlain resigned her commission, leaving Vissenne, leaving the hateful world, leaving the loathed Sonallan frontier.