The man Geraldine Metcalf escorted into Honor's office had snow white hair and a deeply lined face. According to the imagery in his file, he'd had neither of those things before he was shipped out to Hades... but, then, neither had all the fingers on his left hand been gnarled and twisted or the right side of his face and what she could see of his right forearm been pocked with the ugly scars of deep, cruel burns. He was also missing even more teeth than Alistair McKeon, and he walked with a strange, sideways lurch, as if there were something badly wrong with his right knee.
But there was nothing old or defeated in the strong bones of his ravaged face or the hard brown eyes which met Honor's as she stood behind her desk in welcome.
"Admiral Parnell," she said quietly.
"I'm afraid you have the advantage of me," he replied, examining her carefully. His mouth quirked as he took in the dead side of her face and her missing arm, and he gave a small snort which might have been either amusement or an acknowledgment that State Security had initiated both of them into the same club. "Grayson uniform, I believe," he murmured. "But a woman?" He cocked his head and looked back at the dead side of her face, and something changed in his eyes with an almost audible click.
"Harrington," he said softly, and she nodded, surprised by his recognition.
"Honor Harrington," she confirmed, "and these are my senior officers—Rear Admiral Styles, Royal Manticoran Navy; Commodore Ramirez, San Martin Navy; and Commodore McKeon, also of the Royal Manticoran Navy. And this—" she nodded to the fourth officer present "—is Citizen Commander Warner Caslet of the People's Navy."
Parnell looked at each of the others in turn, fierce eyes lingering on Caslet for just a moment. Then he nodded to Honor with a curiously courteous choppiness, and she waved at the chair facing the desk.
"Please be seated, Admiral."
He lowered himself cautiously into the chair with a wince of pain, his stiff knee refusing to bend in the slightest, and leaned back, resting his crippled hand in his lap. He let his gaze run over all of them again, then returned it to Honor and smiled.
"I see you've been promoted since the last time anyone bothered to share news of the war with me, Admiral Harrington," he observed almost whimsically. "The last I remember, you were a captain in the Manticoran Navy."
"But you've been out of circulation for some time, Sir," Honor replied with a small, crooked smile of her own.
"True," he said more bleakly. "That, unfortunately, is all too true. But, you know, I spent the entire flight here asking myself what could possibly be going on. This isn't my first return flight to Styx, of course." He raised his smashed hand slightly. "They were quite insistent about seeking certain statements and information from me, and I'm afraid our immunization program works quite well... against any of the drugs in our own pharmacopeia, at least.
"But given that the pinnace flight crew wore Manticoran, Grayson, and Erewhonese uniforms—not to mention at least one uniform I didn't even recognize—I was forced to the conclusion that something unfortunate had happened to Corporal Tresca." He saw Honor's eyebrow start up once more and laughed harshly. "Oh, yes, Admiral. 'Citizen Brigadier' Tresca was an InSec corporal before the coup—didn't you know that?"
"According to his personnel file, he was a Marine captain," Honor replied.
"Ah." Parnell nodded. "I don't suppose I should be surprised. He had the access codes to the personnel files, I'm sure, and he was always rather fond of fulfilling his fantasies." The Admiral's tone was light, but his eyes were polished agate, and Honor felt the hatred radiating from him like winter fog. "May I assume something did happen to him?"
"You might say that, Sir," Honor said.
"I do hope it was fatal?" Parnell inquired politely, and his eyes flashed at her small nod. "Oh, good," he murmured. "That's one item out of the way already."
"I beg your pardon, Sir?"
"Um?" The Legislaturalist shook himself. "Forgive me, Admiral Harrington. My attention seems to wander a bit these days." He smiled thinly. "It's just that I made myself a small list of things to do if the opportunity ever came my way, and killing Tresca was the second item on it. Is it to much too hope that he died badly?"
"I think you could say he died about as badly as anyone possibly could, Sir," McKeon answered for Honor, remembering the savagely mutilated lump of once-human meat his people had found in Tresca's blood-spattered quarters.
"Then I suppose that will have to do," Parnell said. An unreadable flash of emotion flickered across Warner Caslet's face, almost too quickly to be seen, but Parnell's alert eyes caught it. He smiled again, and this time there was no humor in expression, only cold ugly hate. "Does my attitude shock you, 'Citizen Commander'?" he asked softly.
Caslet looked back at him for a silent moment, then nodded, and Parnell shrugged.
"It would have shocked me once, too, I suppose. But that would have been before I watched Corporal Tresca personally hammer a six-centimeter nail through the skull of my chief of staff because neither one of us would give StateSec the 'confessions' it wanted." Caslet blanched, and Parnell's nostrils flared. "They'd worked on him for over two hours before they even started on me that afternoon, of course," he added conversationally, "and the first nail didn't kill him immediately. Commodore Perot always was a tough man. So Tresca used the same hammer on my hand and my right knee for ten or fifteen minutes before he got around to driving the second one in."
Honor heard a retching sound and looked up to see Rear Admiral Styles dashing from the office, one hand clamped over his mouth. Nausea rippled in her own belly, but she fought it down. In a strange way, her access to Parnell's emotions actually helped, for she felt the terrible, bottomless hatred and the anguish hiding behind his calm demeanor. He and his chief of staff had been close, she realized, perhaps as close as she and McKeon, and she felt her hand clench in an ivory-knuckled fist at the thought of watching anyone do something like that to Alistair.
"Confessions, Admiral?" she heard her own voice ask, and his nod thanked her for her own conversational tone, as if it were a shield against something he chose not to face too closely.
"Yes. He wanted us to confess our participation in the Harris Assassination plot. We'd been sentenced to death for it already, of course, but he wanted chips of our confession for the records. For propaganda, I assume. I could be wrong, though. It may simply have been for his own pleasure." He cocked his head, then sighed. "I suppose there's a certain poetic justice in it. Internal Security did create him, after all. And if we're going to be honest, we brought Pierre and his damned Committee down on our own heads out of sheer incompetence. Didn't we, Citizen Commander?"
This time there was a cold, bleak hatred in his voice, and Caslet winced. Parnell's question and the bottomless contempt of his tone—contempt for a traitor who served traitors—cut him like a knife, and he opened his mouth to defend himself. But no words came out. He could only sit there, staring at the fierce, crippled man who had been his uniformed commander-in-chief only eight T-years earlier. The man who had administered his own officer's oath at the Naval Academy so many years before that, though there was no reason to expect Parnell to remember one single midshipman among hundreds.
"I understand your feelings, Admiral," Honor said quietly. The Legislaturalist looked at her, his mouth taut, as if prepared to reject her statement, and she shifted the stump of her left arm ever so slightly. It was a tiny gesture, more imagined than seen, but Parnell's lips relaxed. "I understand your feelings," she repeated, "but you should know that Cit—That Commander Caslet is here on Hell because he did his best to see to it that captured Allied personnel were treated properly and humanely by State Security. I assure you, Sir, that to my own personal knowledge, he has always demonstrated all the virtues of the old Havenite officer corps... and none of its vices."
She held the ex-CNO's gaze with her own, and it was Parnell who finally looked away.
"I had that coming, Admiral Harrington," he said after a moment, and glanced at Caslet. "I apologize, Commander. I've been stuck here on Hell, but I've talked to other politicals sent here since my own arrival. I know at least a little something about the pressures you and people like you have faced, and in your position I might—" He paused and cocked his head, as if reconsidering something, then shrugged. "No, let's be honest. In your position I would have kept my head down and tried to do my duty as best I could and somehow stay alive." He chuckled softly, almost naturally. "I forget sometimes that knowing they're going to kill you in the end anyway tends to make it just a little easier to choose 'death before dishonor.' "
"Sir— Admiral Parnell," Caslet began. He stopped again and closed his eyes, sitting unmoving for several seconds before he could open them again. "We all thought you were dead, Sir," he said finally, his voice hoarse. "You and Admiral Rollins, and Admiral Horner—Vice Admiral Clairmont, Admiral Trevellyn... It all happened so fast, Sir! One day everything was fine, and then the President and the entire Government were gone, and we were already at war with Manticore, and—" He stopped again, breathing hard, and gazed straight into Parnell's face. "I'm sorry, Sir," he said very softly. "We shouldn't have let it happen, but there was no time, no—"
"Stop, Commander," Parnell said, and this time his voice was almost gentle. "You were too junior to keep it from happening. That was my job, and I'm the one who blew it, not you. And don't shed too many tears for the old regime," he went on. "I do, of course—on a personal level, at least. To the best of my knowledge, not a single member of my family survived the purges. I could be wrong. I hope I am. But if any of them lived, they did it by going so far underground that StateSec couldn't find them, and the chance of pulling that off—" He shrugged.
"But the old regime was rotten, too," he went on after a moment. "If it hadn't been, Pierre couldn't have pulled this off. Hell, Commander—all of us at the top knew the system was breaking down! We just didn't know how to fix it, and so we let the rot spread further and further, and in the end, Pierre dragged us all down for the kill. But we knew exactly what we were doing when we sent you and people like you out to conquer other star systems. Don't you ever think for a moment that we didn't. And to be honest about it, I don't really regret it now." He smiled faintly as Ramirez tightened angrily in his chair. "It was the only way out for us," he said, half-apologetically, "the only game we knew, and I'd be lying if I said we didn't take a certain pride in playing it as well as we possibly could."
Ramirez clamped his jaw hard but said nothing. Silence hovered in the office for several moments, and then McKeon leaned back and crossed his legs.
"Forgive me, Admiral Parnell," he said, "but you said that killing Tresca was the second thing on your list." Parnell regarded him with a faint, grim gleam of amusement and nodded. "In that case, would you mind telling us what the first one was?"
"I wouldn't mind at all, Commodore," Parnell said politely. "In fact, this is probably as good a starting place as any. You see, killing Tresca was a purely selfish ambition, something just for me; that's why it was number two on the list. But number one was telling the rest of the galaxy what Tresca told me the day he murdered Russ Perot and smashed my hand to splinters."
"And that was?" McKeon prompted courteously when the Legislaturalist paused.
"That was the identity of the three people who were really the brains behind the Harris Assassination," Parnell said flatly, "because it wasn't the Navy at all." Caslet inhaled sharply, and the ex-CNO glanced at him. "Surely you must have suspected that, Commander. Did you really think we'd do something like that, especially when we'd just gone to war?"
"Not at first," Caslet said in a low voice. "But then all the confessions and all the evidence came out, Sir. It seemed impossible... and yet—"
"I know." Parnell sighed. "For that matter, I believed it for a while myself, so I suppose I shouldn't blame you. But it wasn't us, Commander—not the Navy and not the Legislaturalists. It was Pierre himself. He and Saint-Just and Cordelia Ransom set the entire thing up as a means to simultaneously decapitate the government and paralyze the only force that could have stopped them: the Navy."
"Dios," Ramirez said softly, but Parnell was looking at Honor, and he cocked his head.
"You don't seem surprised to hear that, Admiral," he observed.
"ONI and SIS have suspected it for quite some time, Sir," she replied levelly. "We had no proof, however, and I believe the decision not to make allegations we couldn't prove was made at the highest levels." She shrugged. "Under the circumstances, I think it was the proper one. Without corroborating evidence, it could only have been viewed as self-serving propaganda and hurt our credibility."
"I see. But you know, don't you, that there are at least a dozen people here on Hell, myself among them, who can 'corroborate' it in considerable detail? For that matter, somewhere in the data base there should be a recording of the interrogation session in which Tresca himself told me."
Warner Caslet inhaled sharply, and Parnell turned to look levelly at him once more. The younger man opened his mouth, then shut it again, and Parnell smiled sadly.
"Treason comes hard even now, doesn't it, Commander?" he asked gently. "Here I sit, aiding and abetting the Republic's enemies in time of war, and that disappoints you. It's not what you expected from an admiral who's sworn an oath to defend it, is it?"
"Sir, your decisions have to be your own," Caslet began. He was white-faced under his tan, and his eyes were troubled. "God knows I have no right to judge you. And from what you've just said, the people running the Republic now are traitors, as well as monsters and mass murderers. I haven't— I mean, I've thought about it myself. But like you, I swore an oath, and it's my country, Sir! If I break faith with that, I break faith with myself... and then what do I have left?"
"Son," Parnell said compassionately, "you don't have a country anymore. If you ever went home again, you'd wind up right back here—or dead, more likely—because nothing you could possibly say could excuse you for sitting here in this room with these people... and me. And I'll tell you something else, Commander. From what you've just said to me, I can tell you that you're better than the Republic deserves, because you're still loyal to it, and it's never been loyal to you. It wasn't when people like me ran it, and it sure as hell isn't now."
"I can't accept that, Sir," Caslet said hoarsely, but Honor felt the torment within him. The pain and disillusionment and, even more than either of those things, the agonizing suspicion that he could accept it. Indeed, that the core of him already had. And that suspicion terrified Warner Caslet, for if it were true, it would drive him inexorably towards a decision, force him to take control and forge purposefully and knowingly in the direction in which he had so far only drifted.
"Maybe you can't," Parnell said after a moment, allowing him to cling to the lie—for now, at least—if he chose. "But that doesn't make anything I've just said untrue, Commander. Still, I suppose a little of that same idealism still clings to me, too. What an amazing thing." He shook his head. "Forty years of naval service, dozens of cold-blooded campaigns under my belt—hell, I'm the one who drew up the plans to begin this war! I screwed them up, of course, but I was damned straight the one who authorized 'em. And eight more years here on Hell, on top of all that. And still there's something down inside me that insists the drunk-rolling whore I served is a great, shining lady who deserves to have me lay down my life in her defense."
He sighed and shook his head again.
"But she isn't, son. Not anymore. Maybe someday she will be again, and it's going to take men and women like you—people who stay loyal to her and fight for her from within—to bring that about. But they'll have to be people like you, Commodore. You can't be one of them anymore... and neither can I. Because however we may feel about her, she'll kill us both in an instant if she ever gets her hands on us again."
His voice trailed off, and silence hovered in its wake. The other officers in the office looked at one another for several seconds, and then Honor cleared her throat.
"Are you saying that you'll take service with the Alliance, Sir?" she asked in a very careful tone.
"No, Admiral Harrington. Or not directly, at least. I can't help you kill people like him." He nodded his head at Caslet. "I helped train him, shaped his beliefs, sucked him into serving the same system I served. What's happening now is at least as much my fault as it is Pierre's, and I can't be a party to killing officers who are caught up in a mess I made. And for that matter, when you come right down to it, maybe some good will actually come of Pierre's damned 'Committee' someday. God, I hope it does! If all of this has been for absolutely nothing..."
He shook his head again, eyes lost as he stared at something none of the rest of them could see. Then a shiver seemed to ripple through him, and he was suddenly back with them, his face calm once more as he smiled crookedly at Honor.
"No, I can't do that. I won't," he told her. "But that doesn't mean that I can't hurt Pierre, because that I can do, and with a clear conscience. I'm afraid your military intelligence people won't get much out of me, Admiral Harrington—even assuming that anything I once knew is still current—but if you can get me into the Solarian League, I think you'll find it worth your while."
"The League?" Honor's surprise showed in her voice, and he chuckled.
"There are quite a few other people here on Hell who'd be delighted to go with me, I'm sure," he said. "For that matter, there are probably some who can and will offer their direct services to your Alliance. I'd be a bit cautious about accepting them, if I were you—it's never an easy thing to change allegiances. Not for the ones you want on your side in the first place, at least! But those of us who can't do that can still seek asylum in the League. They've got all those wonderful laws covering displaced persons and political refugees, and I rather suspect the newsies will swarm all over us when we 'come back from the dead.'"
He smiled mirthlessly at Ramirez's soft sound of sudden understanding and nodded to the towering San Martino.
"I imagine the very fact that StateSec proclaimed that we were dead will go some way towards undermining the regime's credibility," he said, "and if there is any supporting evidence in the archives here and you'd be kind enough to let us have copies of it, we'll see to it that it gets into the right hands. From a few things I've heard from more recent additions to the population here on Hell, the Sollies have been funneling technology to the Republic for some time now. I'd think a shift in public opinion back home might, ah, adversely impact that practice. And even if it doesn't, news from the League manages to trickle into the Republic despite all Public Information can do. When word of who really murdered the old government gets out, it should help undermine the Committee, I imagine."
"You may be hoping for too much, Sir," Caslet told him soberly. Parnell looked a question at him, and he shrugged.
"There are three kinds of people who support the Committee now, Sir: those who truly believe in its official platform; those who want to prop it up just long enough to replace it with their own idea of the 'right' system... and those too terrified to do anything else. The only ones who would even care about something that happened eight T-years ago are the first group, and not even they are likely to do anything about it, I'm afraid. They can't—not without throwing away the very reforms they want, and certainly not in the middle of a war like this one's become."
"You may be right, Commander," Parnell said after a moment in tones of considerable respect, "but I still have to try. In a sense, I'm just as trapped as anybody still in the Navy is. I have to do this, even if it's not going to do any good at all. It's both the most and the least that I can do."
"I understand, Sir," Caslet said. He clenched his hands together into a double fist in his lap and stared down at them, his shoulders taut, then sighed. "And I suppose I'm going to have to decide what I can do, too, aren't I?" he murmured after a moment.
"Think of it this way, Commander," Parnell replied gently. "I don't know exactly how you landed here, and Hell is hardly the place that anyone I know would choose to go voluntarily, but there are some advantages to being here." Caslet looked up at him, eyes shadowed with disbelief, and the Legislaturalist admiral grinned. "Freedom of conscience, Commander Caslet!" he said, and laughed out loud at Caslet's expression. "You're in such deep shit now that it can't possibly get any deeper, son," the ex-CNO told him, "so the only thing that matters now is what you choose to do. It wasn't something we ever encouraged you to do when we were running the Republic, and Pierre and his people would sure as hell never, ever want you to do it now. But between us, we've shoved you into a corner with your back flat to the wall, and in some ways a man with nothing to lose has more freedom of choice than anyone else in the universe. So use what we've given you, Commander." There was no humor in his voice now, and he leaned forward in his chair, brown eyes dark and intent. "You've paid a hell of a price for it, and it's a gift that can kill you in a heartbeat, but it's yours now—all yours. Make up your own mind, choose your own course and your own loyalties, boy. That's all the advice I have left to give you, but you take it... and you damned well spit in the eye of anyone who dares to fault whatever decision you make!"