It was still and very quiet in the palatial room. Four humans and thirteen treecats, four of them half-grown 'kittens, sat silently, eyes locked on the HD which showed only silent swirls of soothing, standby color. The only movements were the slow twitch, twitch, twitch of the very tail-tip of the treecat clasped in Miranda LaFollet's arms and the gently stroking true-hand with which the treecat named Samantha comforted her daughter Andromeda. Andromeda was the most anxious of the 'kittens, but all four were ill at ease, clustered tightly about their mother with half-flattened ears. Their empathic senses carried the raw emotions of the adults in the room—human and treecat alike—to them all too clearly, yet they were too young to understand the reason for the jagged-clawed tension which possessed their elders.
Allison Harrington pulled her eyes from the silent HD and glanced once more at her husband's profile. He stared stonily straight before him, his face gaunt, and Allison needed no empathic sense to feel his tormented grief calling to her own. But he refused to acknowledge the pain—had refused from the very beginning—as if by denying it or battling it in the solitary anguish of his own heart without "burdening" her he could somehow make it not real. He knew better than that. Surgeons learned better, if only from watching patients face those demons alone. Yet that was knowledge of the head, not the heart, and even now he refused to look away from the HD. Both her small hands tightened on the single large one she had captured almost by force when he sat down beside her, but his expression was like Sphinx granite, and she made herself look away once more.
Brilliant sunlight, double filtered through the dome covering Harrington City and then again by the smaller one covering Harrington House, streamed incongruously through the window. It should be night outside, she told herself. Blackest night, to mirror the darkness in her own soul, and she closed her eyes in pain.
Senior Master Steward James MacGuiness saw her and bit his lip once more. He longed to reach out to her, as she had reached out to him by insisting that he be here, "with the rest of your family," for this terrible day. But he didn't know how, and his nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply. Then he felt a soft, warm weight land solidly in his lap and looked down as Hera braced both hand-feet on his chest and reached up to touch his face ever so gently with one true-hand. The 'cat's bright green gaze met his with a soft concern that made his eyes burn, and he stroked her fluffy pelt gratefully as she crooned ever so softly to him.
The HD made a small sound, and every eye, human and 'cat, snapped to it. Very few of the people of Grayson knew the subject of the upcoming special bulletin. The ones in this room, and in a similar room in Protector's Palace, did know, for the chief of the local bureau of the Interstellar News Service had warned them as a matter of courtesy. Not that most Graysons wouldn't suspect its content. The days of instant news had been left centuries behind along with the days when humanity inhabited only a single planet; now information moved between the stars only as rapidly as the ships which carried it. Humanity had readjusted its expectations to once more deal with news that arrived in fits and starts, in indigestible chunks and rumors awaiting confirmation... and this story had spawned too many "special reports" and too much speculation for the Graysons not to suspect.
The HD chirped again, and then a message blurb blinked to life, each letter precisely formed. "The following Special Report contains violent scenes which may not be suitable for all audiences. INS advises viewer discretion," it said, then transformed itself into a time and date reference: "23:31:05 GMT, 01:24:1912 P.D." The numbers floated in the HD, superimposed on a slowly spinning INS logo, for perhaps ten seconds, announcing that what they were about to see had been recorded almost a full T-month earlier. Then they vanished, and the familiar features of Joan Huertes, the Interstellar News anchor for the Haven Sector, replaced them.
"Good evening," she said, her expression solemn. "This is Joan Huertes, reporting to you from INS Central, Nouveau Paris, in the People's Republic of Haven, where this afternoon Second Deputy Director of Public Information Leonard Boardman, speaking on behalf of the Committee of Public Safety, issued the following statement."
Huertes disappeared, to be replaced by the image of a man with thinning hair and a narrow face which seemed vaguely out of place atop his pudgy frame. Despite his soft-looking edges, there were deep lines on that face, the sort which came to a man for whom worry was a way of life, but he seemed to have himself well in hand as he folded his hands on the podium at which he stood and gazed out over a large, comfortably furnished conference room crowded with reporters and HD cameras. There was the usual babble of shouted questions everyone knew would not be answered, but he only stood there, then raised one hand in a quieting gesture. The background noise gradually abated, and he cleared his throat.
"I will not take any questions this afternoon, citizens," he told the assembled newsies. "I have a prepared statement, however, and supporting HD chips will be distributed to you at the end of the briefing."
There was a background almost-noise of disappointment from the reporters, but not one of surprise. No one had really expected anything more... and all of them already knew from officially inspired "leaks" what the statement would be about.
"As this office has previously announced," Boardman said flatly, obviously reading from a holo prompter no one else could see, "four T-months ago, on October 23, 1911 P.D., the convicted murderess Honor Stephanie Harrington was captured by the armed forces of the People's Republic. At that time, the Office of Public Information stated that it was the intention of the Committee of Public Safety to proceed with the full rigor of the law, but only within the letter of the law. Despite the unprovoked war of aggression which the elitist, monarchist plutocrats of the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the puppet regimes of the so-called 'Manticoran Alliance' have chosen to wage upon the People's Republic, the People's Republic has scrupulously observed the provisions of the Deneb Accords from the start of hostilities. It is not, after all, the fault of those in uniform when the self-serving masters of a corrupt and oppressive regime order them to fight, even when this means engaging in acts of naked aggression against the citizens and planets of a star nation which wishes only to live in peace and allow other nations to do the same.
"The fact that, at the time of her capture, Harrington was serving as an officer in the navy of the Star Kingdom, however, further complicated an already complex situation. In light of her repeated claim that under the terms of the Deneb Accords her commission in the Manticoran Navy protected her, as a prisoner of war, from the consequences of her earlier crime, the People's government, determined not to act hastily, requested the Supreme Tribunal of the People's Justice to examine the specifics of the case, the conviction, and the Accords in order to ensure that all aspects of the prisoner's legal rights should be scrupulously maintained.
"Because Harrington's conviction had been returned by a civilian court prior to the commencement of hostilities, the Supreme Tribunal, after careful deliberation, determined that, under the provisions of Article Forty-One of the Deneb Accords, the interstellar protections normally afforded to military personnel did not apply. The Supreme Tribunal accordingly ordered that Harrington be remanded to the custody of the Office of State Security as a civilian prisoner, rather than to the People's Navy as a prisoner of war. In ordering Harrington remanded, People's Justice Theresa Mahoney, writing for the Tribunal in its unanimous opinion, observed that—" Boardman picked up an old-fashioned sheet of hardcopy from the lectern and read aloud from the obvious prop "—'This was not an easy decision. While both civil law and Article Forty-One are quite clear and specific, no court wishes to establish any precedent which might serve to place our own uniformed citizens at risk should our enemy choose to seek vengeance in the name of "retaliation" or "reciprocity." Nonetheless, this Tribunal finds itself with no legal option but to order the prisoner remanded to the custody of the civilian judicial system, subject to its own legal requirements. Given the peculiar circumstances surrounding this case, and bearing in mind the Tribunal's concern over the possibility of retaliatory acts on the parts of the People's enemies, the Tribunal would respectfully request that the Committee of Pubic Safety, as the People's representative, consider clemency. This consideration is urged not because the Tribunal believes the prisoner deserves it, for she manifestly does not, but rather out of the Tribunal's real, serious, and pressing concern for the safety of citizens of the Republic currently in the hands of the Manticoran Alliance.'" He laid aside his sheet of paper and folded his hands once more before him.
"The Committee, and particularly Citizen Chairman Pierre, considered the Tribunal's opinion and recommendation most carefully," he said in a solemn voice. "Although the People would always prefer to show mercy, even to their enemies, however, the requirements of the law in this case were, as the Supreme Tribunal noted, quite clear. Moreover, however merciful the People would prefer to be, the People's government cannot show weakness to enemies of the People at a time when the People are fighting for their very lives. With that in mind, and given that the heinous nature of prisoner's crime—the cold-blooded, deliberate, and premeditated murder of the entire crew of the merchant freighter RHMS Sirius—was such as to preclude any reduction in the sentence handed down by the court at the time of her conviction, Citizen Chairman Pierre declined to exercise his pardon authority. Accordingly Harrington was remanded to the appropriate authorities at Camp Charon in the Cerberus System, and at oh-seven-twenty GMT this morning, January twenty-fourth, the Central Headquarters of the Office of State Security in Nouveau Paris received confirmation from Camp Charon that sentence had been carried out, as ordered."
Someone gasped in the quiet, sun-drenched room. Allison wasn't certain who; it could even have been her. Her hands tightened like talons on her husband's, yet he didn't even flinch. The shock seemed blunted somehow, as if their long anticipation had crusted it in scar tissue that deadened the nerves, and neither she nor any of the others could tear their eyes from the HD. There was a dreadful, self-punishing mesmerization about it. They knew what they were going to see, yet to look away would have been a betrayal. They had to be here, however irrational it might be to subject themselves to it, and the demands of the heart had no need for reasons based in logic.
On the HD, the conference room was also utterly silent as Boardman paused. Then he looked straight into the camera, his face grim, and spoke very levelly.
"The People's Republic of Haven cautions the members of the so-called 'Manticoran Alliance' against the abuse or mistreatment of any Republican personnel in retaliation for this execution. The People's Republic reminds its enemies—and the galaxy at large—that this was a single, special case in which a condemned criminal had, for over eleven standard years, evaded the legally mandated punishment for what can only be called an atrocity. Any attempt to mistreat our personnel in response to it will carry the gravest consequences for those responsible when peace is restored to this quadrant. In addition, the People's Republic would point out that any such actions would, almost inevitably, lead to the worsening of conditions for prisoners of war on both sides. Honor Stephanie Harrington was a murderer on a mass scale, and it was for that crime, not any actions she might have performed as a member of the Star Kingdom of Manticore's armed forces since the outbreak of hostilities, that she was executed."
He stood a moment, then inhaled and nodded sharply.
"Thank you, citizens. That concludes my statement, My aides will distribute the video chips. Good day."
He turned and strode briskly away, ignoring the fresh babble of questions which rose behind him, and the HD blanked once more. Then Huertes' image returned, her expression even graver than before.
"That was the scene in the People's Tower this afternoon as Leonard Boardman, Second Deputy Directory of the Office of Public Information, speaking on behalf of the Committee of Public Safety, made the announcement which, frankly, had been anticipated for over two T-months by informed sources here in the People's Republic. What repercussions today's events may have on the military front is anyone's guess, but many usually reliable sources here in the capital have told INS off the record that they anticipate Manticoran retaliation and are prepared to respond in kind." She paused a beat, as if to let that sink in, then cleared her throat. "In the meantime, here is the HD imagery provided by the Office of Public Information. INS wishes once again to warn our viewers of the graphic and violent nature of what you are about to see."
The HD faded to black slowly, as if to give any members of INS' audience time to flee if they wished to... or to be sure that anyone who had been temporarily out of the room would have time to get back for the promised tidbit of violence. Then the display glowed back to life.
The scene was very different from the conference room in which Boardman had made his announcement. This room was much smaller, with bare walls and floor of unrelieved ceramacrete. It was high-ceilinged, and a rough wooden platform took up almost all its floor space. A flight of steps ran to the surface of the platform, and a rope—free end looped into the traditional hangman's noose—dangled from the ceiling above the center of the platform. For several seconds, the HD showed only the empty room and the grimly functional gallows, but then the viewers heard the sudden, shocking sound of a door being thrown open and six people entered the camera's field of view.
Four men in the red-and-black uniform of State Security formed a tight knot about a tall, brown-haired woman in a bright orange prison jumpsuit. A fifth man, in the same uniform but with the insignia of a full colonel, followed them in, then turned to one side and stopped. He stood at a sort of parade rest, one foot beside an unobtrusive pedal set into the floor, and watched the prisoner being led across the room.
Her wrists were chained behind her, and more chains weighted her ankles. Her face showed no expression at all, but her eyes clung to the gallows, as if hypnotized by the sight, as her guards urged her forward. Her hobbled steps became slower and more hesitant as they neared the platform stair, and her expressionless mask began to crack. She turned her head, looking at the guards while desperation wavered in her eyes, but no one would look back. The StateSec men's faces were grim and purposeful, and as her resistance grew, they gripped her arms and half-led and half-carried her up the steps.
She began to pant as they forced her to the center of the platform, and she stared up at the rope, then, with a painful effort every viewer could actually feel, forced herself to look away. She closed her eyes, and her lips moved. She might have been praying, but no sound came out, and then she gasped and jerked as a black cloth hood was pulled down over her head. Her panting breath made the thin fabric jump like the breast of a terrified bird, and her wrists began to turn and jerk against their cuffs as the noose was lowered over the hood, snugged down about her throat, and adjusted with the knot behind one ear.
The guards released her and stood back. Her faceless figure swayed as the fully understandable terror of what was about to happen weakened her knees, and then the colonel spoke. His voice was harsh and gruff, yet there was an edge of compassion in it, like the tone of a man who dislikes what duty requires of him.
"Honor Stephanie Harrington, you have been convicted of the high crime against the People of premeditated murder. The sentence of the court is death, to be carried out this day. Do you wish to say anything at this time?"
The prisoner shook her head convulsively, chest leaping as she hyperventilated in terror, and the colonel nodded silently. He didn't speak again. He only reached out his foot and stepped firmly on the floor pedal with a heavy thrust of merciful quickness.
The sound as the trapdoor opened was a loud, shocking thunk! and the grisly sound as the prisoner's weight hit the end of the rope was horribly clear. There was a short, explosive spit of air—a last, agonized gasp for breath, cut off in the instant of its birth—and then the brown-haired woman jerked once, hugely and convulsively, as the rope snapped her neck.
The body hung limp, turning in a slow circle while the rope creaked, and the camera held on it for at least ten seconds. Then the HD went blank once more, and Huertes' soft contralto spoke from the blackness.
"This is Joan Huertes, INS, reporting from Nouveau Paris," it said quietly. The heartrending keen of thirteen treecats answered it, and the soft weeping of Miranda LaFollet and James MacGuiness, and Allison Harrington reached out a trembling hand to touch her husband's hair as his armor of denial crumbled at last and he fell to his knees beside her while he sobbed into her lap.