Last Chapter: Homeward Bound.
The trials of Colonial Freedom League participants from Vladimir took place in the Supreme Court in the capital of Rzehv. An imposing, solid baroque structure, it was part of the "historic" downtown government center that formed an oasis of traditional architecture amid the towering skyscrapers that dominated the rest of the city. Gendarmes in modern personal armor shouldering assault rifles patrolled around the entrance, where sophisticated electronic sensors scanned everyone entering. The trials were being down in batches, which led to serious crowding of the courtroom once the families of the accused were accommodated. They were also a target for the few agitators who dared to show their faces, and rumors of surviving cells plotting breakout attacks were rife in the city. No chances were being taken by the planetary government, which had already resolved to use later supplementary trials of the higher leadership to make an example for the rest of the population.
But the batched trials were at least a way of dealing with the tens of thousands of lower-level activists and members quickly. Membership in the CFL had been criminalized centuries ago, when the organization had first been banned under the First Empire. It was simply a matter of establishing that the accused had been involved in the organization to justify a guilty verdict, and the court could move on to the more involved process of sentencing. Sentences had to be passed down individually and with due attention by the magistrate to the circumstances of involvement, as well as prior records and other mitigating conditions, before punishment could be handed down.
Tamara Beletskaya had been found guilty in the first trial, months ago. Only lately had the court docket cleared enough to allow them to go back and hand down sentence on her. Magistrate Ivan Federov had her case, and has listened attentively while Inquisitor Panacilk had made the argument for the relatively harsh penalty of forty years imprisonment and exile from Vladimir. She had run away to New Kiev and therefore given a more affirmative measure of allegiance to His Majesty's enemies, compounding merely subversive criminality with state treason. Her privileged background meant that she had no excuse of ignorance or want to drive her into the ranks of a criminal conspiracy. The Inquisitor did his job as well as possible, and Federov had taken notes throughout the presentation.
Her Advocate was the locally famous Emil Getyko, the foremost pleading expert on Vladimir. He gave a presentation of his own, presenting Tamara as the naive victim of a treacherous lover, seduced into a conspiracy whose consequences and gravity she didn't comprehend. He disputed the charge that Tamara's flight was premeditated treason but rather presented it as a panicked response to circumstances beyond her control, and subject to peer influence that made refusing personally dangerous.
Federov quizzed both the Inquisitor and the Advocate after their presentation, taking more notes as he did so. Once that was done, he called for the character witnesses to take the stand and have their say. As per the usual protocol now they would be asked questions by the Magistrate, and by the Inquisitor and Advocate as appropriate. Aside from the sentencing presentations it was expected that both lawyers would be neutral and even-handed in their approach, with a goal of recovering fact rather than strengthening their cases. The Magistrate would then deliberate and announce a decision that took into account all of the outstanding circumstances, the gravity of the offense, the propensity of the guilty party to reoffend, and prospects for rehabilitation. Emotion ideally had no role in the process.
In a court of law, an Evidenzburo agent was necessarily required to shed a certain degree of identity and approach the court honestly, even if operationally aliases could be used in legal settings, not so much for this private affair--which was not even required of her, technically: She could have refused the court under needs of the service easily enough, and had instead volunteered. Nonetheless, she dressed as she was, in long black skirt with light black fringes, a silver buttoned blouse, and long black duster with her hair firmly pulled back. But she still came off more as a teenaged girl at a funeral than a serious agent of His Majesty the Emperor, especially with her gloves respectfully removed in the courtroom. The name was read off as 'Inspektor Sophia Vuletic' by the court recorder and she rose and stepped forward to the witness stand and waited for permission to sit, her face schooled and expressionless.
"Do you, Sophia Vuletic, affirm that you will answer honestly and completely all questions posed to you by officers of this court, under penalty of imprisonment and fine for dishonesty or evasion?" The courts had had to deal with diverse enough religions and cultures even back in the pre-spaceflight era that the old oaths before God had been long dropped. A rationalist ethos held the threat of temporal punishment more efficacious for deterring perjury anyway, and that truth-telling was obvious enough of a virtue that all decent peoples regardless of religion would practice it. That last assumption had been spurred by, and played a role in, the process of Jewish assimilation with the abolition of separate Jew Oaths in the Empire and the other Habsburg lands.
"I so affirm, Your Honour," Sophia replied, answering and suppressing a faint smile that would have otherwise shown forth at the words, since Your Honour was the title of address for most Taloran military officers, not law officials. So strange, all I've seen. But Tamara needs me now, the stupid, foolish girl. She straightened herself slightly, and still seemed utterly innocuous in the court, perhaps to the point that some of them might not yet have gotten over that very explicit rank of Inspektor and the cold black garb she wore.
Federov nodded, and flipped a page of his notes to start over with a fresh slate. "How are you acquainted with Ms. Belatskaya, Inspektor Vuletic?" It was a standard, rather broad opening question that would allow the witness considerable leeway in telling her story, or when dealing with a spy, to not tell a lot.
"She was the initial contact in the cells that I made on Vladimir, Your Honour. I approached her by asking for shelter, identifying myself and my subordinate as other individuals, tourists from Dvonomir, who had been caught up in the Imperial dragnets. She offered us a place to stay to avoid being detained again during the curfew and we went home with her, her lover, and his friend. She treated us very well for a hostess, behaving like any other spoiled college girl I've met in my life, Your Honour, with no real apparent revolutionary ambition. But of course after relating various details--for example a finger I'd broken was attributed to the security services--it was ultimately let out that they were united together in a cell associated with the Rus revanchists. We then claimed to be members of the Colonial Freedom League, and asserted the severity of the situation and the need to flee--we directly begged to be taken off planet, and encouraged it to take place.
" Tamara had no real conception of the seriousness of her actions by that point, and took us shopping and other various and normal activities before her boyfriend managed to get the resources together to evacuate us through a network of traitorous, schismatic priests. It was only when we were changing in nuns' habits to escape the planetary surface that she realized the severity of her situation and broke down crying at the prospect of never seeing her family again. I comforted her and encouraged her to be strong then, and we ended up bunking together on both the escaping freighter and the Grom Pobedy when Pavel Yeremeyev picked us up. She was a friendly girl, basically innocent of moral failings except for her sexual weakness and susceptibility to influence on the account of others, both myself and her boyfriend alike. She settled into life on New Kiev with no revolutionary ambitions whatsoever and only regret at ending up so impoverished, as she intimated at our last meeting.
"I would note that she was released from detention initially on my explicit order so that we could take advantage of her cell to infiltrate the Rus State, and her flight from Vladimir was directly the result of my orders and my lobbying to their cell as well."
"A question, your Honor?" Getyko rose up from his seat at the defendant's table. Tamara herself was still in detention, and would not be brought before the court except for a final interview and to hear the sentence passed on her. Federov nodded his indulgence. "Inspektor Vuletic, then, it is your belief that Ms. Beletskaya would not have fled to New Kiev absent your own encouragement, done in your capacity as an agent of the Imperial intelligence services? I wish to establish this indisputably for the record."
"Yes. She would have never had the courage without my presence to stiffen her." Sophia knew better than to elaborate extensively; the Inquisitor's grilling would be a chance for her to explain with more nuance without compromising the statement.
The Inquisitor duly rose to the challenge, after a request to the judge for time. Joseph Panacilk had a reputation as an aggressive examiner, and he would not pull punches on an Imperial agent. "Inspektor Vuletic, the nature of conspiracy is such that many may be convinced by their peers to attempt some thing that they themselves, alone, would not dare to. You have already alluded to the moral weakness displayed by Ms. Beletskaya in the case of her boyfriend, one Genrikh Trefilov. Do you deny the possibility that he could have exercised the same role in directing Ms. Beletskaya's actions that you claim for yourself?" And, by implication, that someone else could step in with the same influence, casting doubt on the ability of Tamara to be successfully rehabilitated.
“No, I do not deny it and indeed readily acknowledge it, though I find such moral weakness and the attendant influence it leaves them susceptible to common among women of a certain class of which Miss Beletskaya was a part. Genrikh might however have been far less effective at overcoming her fears." She had to be careful when testifying, not to err to much on the side of a desire for explanation and exposition. The legal world, ironically, was not well suited for her, but she regarded the chore as an ethical one.
The magistrate looked up from his notes. "From your acquaintance, limited though it was, you are certain that Ms. Beletskaya was not motivated by treasonous or subversive intentions in her membership with the CFL? And that it was an exclusive consequence of her intimate relationship with another member of the group?"
"She found the idea of the revolt as told to her by her lover to be romantic," Sophia clarified, "But readily confessed to a completely nonexistant understanding of any of the ideology of the CFL or the Rus revanchists. She impressed me as really being mostly in it for the men from first to last. To say that she had intentions, Your Honour, would be to gift Miss Beletskaya with entirely too much intelligence."
“Then her behavior was a result of bad influences and acquaintances, and not malicious as such?" Getyko sensed an opening here, and took it. "Not from any desire to be a threat to the Empire?"
"Correct. Miss Beletskaya showed no malicious or outraged tendencies toward even blatant moral ills. She always appeared more incomprehending than not, and never capable of any kind of strong sentiment."
He nodded his concurrence. "Was she involved with anything at all more serious than a notional membership in a banned organization? Indeed, in your professional judgment, is she even capable of doing serious harm to the security of the Empire?"
"Only if being used as a completely ignorant dupe by the sinister and malevolent, Your Honour."
"I think that will be enough questions," Federov said, after the rapid exchange. They seemed to have extracted all relevant testimony from the agent, and time was a factor. There were a number of other witnesses to get through, and he wanted the sentencing wrapped up today. "Do you have any further observations on the conduct of Ms. Beletskaya that you wish to appraise the court of?"
"I believe firmly that if she can find even a halfway ethical husband the moment she's released, she will not again trouble His Majesty's courts for even the smallest of infractions," Sophia concluded in a simple and blunt summarization of exactly what she thought Tamara Beletskaya to be good for. Poor thing.
"Thank you for your testimony, Inspektor Vuletic." Magistrate Federov finished a final note, then put down his fountain pen and struck the judge's dais with a gavel. "We will take your observations into due account in our further considerations. You are henceforth dismissed from this court."
"Thank you, Your Honour." Sophia pushed herself up and politely stepped down, heading out to leave the court-room... So she could get to the spaceport and file her flight-plan. She'd been living on the Titicaca since arriving to avoid paying money for a hotel, and it was scarcely like the yacht could be matched by any hotel in her budget.
She was met at the exit by a well-dressed couple. The man was short and squat, rough-looking despite the expensive suit he had on, while the woman looked like a sister of Tamara's. They maneuvered around a bored looking bailiff to intercept Sophia before she got out of earshot. "Thank you for testifying for Tamara," the woman began. "She was never a bad girl, she just got mixed up with those CFL hooligans..."
"No, she was never a bad girl," Sophia agreed simply, watching the couple with rather studious eyes. It had been obvious where the defence counsel came from even beforehand, of course. "Quite the contrary, she was always affiable and nice and I do feel rather bad for her."
"Thank you for saying so. Your words will count for a lot with the judge." Tamara's father nodded, agreeing with himself. "I don't think we'll have to fear exile now."
"No, you won't. They might even let her out in fifteen years. She's had prolong, it won' t be a waste of a life, and she might learn responsibility in a serious prison like that. Perhaps. It won't be one of isolation, certainly. Or you may have to unmake bad habits she learns; I cannot say. But take care of her moral education while she is confined." Sophia turned away. "On Earth, Mister Beletskaya, I spend my time between my duties to the Empire in the service of the cause of the reform of prostitutes. Universally they are not bad people; just poor, and given no direction in life, and still might be redeemed by Christ.
“Well, Tamara has never had to want for the former, but if you wish for your daughter to have a life that isn' t one of but more misadventure and shame, consider carefully how you'll give her that direction. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have not seen my own family in several years, and need to be off to rectify that." Sophia gave them no chance to make a reply, certainly not in the decorum of an extremely heavily policed courthouse.
The field at Glina was a tiny little thing, 4,000 meters in length for the single runway and that was it, with numerous landing pads circling out from it. The incredible thing, then, was the long and lean yacht with its stub wings and high fuselage, overhead mounted engine room, which settled down on a heavy quad-set landing gear, one under each stub and one fore and aft, off to the side on one of the parking strips.
“Well, someone rich must be up hiking in the mountains or something, right, da’?” Jelica Vuletic informally asked her father as the man brought his old van, a simple wheeled all-terrain model with loading bay in the rear for cargoes, up into the Glina field vehicle park, staring at the ship which, though it wasn’t really that big, still looked like a superdreadnought from this close up, and must have been several thousand tons at least. Empty.
“It’s the size of an assault lander, Jelly,” Gradimir Vuletic answered with a bit of amused fondness. “So the person must be very rich indeed, or connected. C’mon, dear,” he addressed to his wife, who watched the interplay between the two with some faint irritation. Jelica’s sky-high dreams had mostly served to drain money from her distant sister in law without any result, to date, after all, and it was time her husband stopped coddling his eldest daughter.
His younger brother Tvrtko laughed at the nickname and followed them out. His wife, two daughters—the oldest one catching furtive glances at her engagement ring—and three sons followed. Gradimir had only Jelica and his two sons. And of their oldest brother, Vatroslav, there was nothing at all except for the gravestone which Sophia still visited every time she came home, and cried, every time she came home. It had been fourty years, and yet for their strange older sister, it had never slipped away. Nor had the bittersweet nature of her meetings with her cloistered sister Marija who she had slipped away from as they grew up at the same age, before the three brothers, as her psychic powers had manifest.
“Hmm!” Tvrtko exclaimed as they walked over together, all twelve of them, toward the terminal. “She’s got Imperial Auxiliary markings and a pretty hefty armament for a yacht. Might be a Count, bringing His Worshipfulness down to the planet to hunt or whatnot. But why Glina? It’s all claimed land, not like down in the south at Varazdin.” Where Tvrtko Vuletic and his family lived on a farm Sophia had helped them buy… The trip up to Glina to meet both his older brother and his sister was trivial in light of that. Particularly when she usually ended up paying for everything, including the lunch she’d suggested for them all in the terminal when they came to pick her up. It did have a good restaurant…
…Of course, recognizing her face was often hard, these days. But the figure remained mostly the same, and as they entered the restaurant the waitress waiting for them seemed well aware they must be the Vuletic party, and with a smiled greeting led them toward a section of the dining room laid out with a bunch of tables pushed together in a long set. And at the end was Sophia. Looking a bit worse for wear, truth be told, but without any hints of cosmetic surgery on her face since the last visit when she’d appeared with her latest look. That much, at least, was reassuring in some sense.
She had been looking through the menu, but leapt to her feet when she saw them with an outburst of emotion… “Gradimir! Tvrtko! God be praised that I see you again… Jelica, little Marija, Zvonimira… And, yes, my nephews—Slavco, Petar, Velimir, Mihovil, Dubravko, God, but it’s good to see you all!” The black clad woman, shorter than many of the addressed children, went down the line, hugging them and kissing their cheeks with inordinate fondness, pausing for a moment at Jelica to grin a bit dangerously as she did.
And then, warmly and more quietly, embracing her brothers in turn and offering polite greetings to their wives Emilija and Jagoda. Then she returned to her position at the head of the table—she was the eldest left, after all—smiling with intense brilliance. “I’m so glad you’re all here to meet me. It’s never a more heartening sight in all the world than to see my family together,” she offered with a quiet sincerity.
“And it’s never a better sight than to see you still breathing, big sister,” Tvrtko answered with amusement. Especially at the emphasis on big, since Sophia, dark, latin little Sophia with her legacy of Bogumil blood, who never quite fit in with the rest, had always been the smallest of the lot. But though she had not fit in to the slavic stock of the Vuletic family, the place they all occupied in each other’s hearts was the same without the slightest bit of difference, and nobody doubted first and foremost that Sophia Dragomira was every bit a Vuletic, even when she had turned out to be a telepath of terrifying power.
“Still breathing, but I don’t have a heartbeat,” Sophia answered in dry amusement… But from her tone, it also left her brothers with the chill of the idea that she wasn’t joking.
“Sophia…?” Gradimir queried more cautiously.
“Got banged up on a mission. Fortunately there was this stasis tube nearby. Can’t really say anymore, except that the artificial heart is manufactured by the same company on reserve to make them for the Imperial family, so don’t worry about the reliability!” The declaration sparked some giggles and laughs, some nervous and many sincere, from her nieces and nephews. Everyone knew as a matter of course that Auntie Mira, as she was most fondly known, was completely invincible in whatever she did for the Empire. Except for the adults, to whom Vatroslav’s gravestone provided all the contrary evidence necessary, including to Sophia herself.
So there was a moment of nervous silence, and Sophia managed to delicately avoid its lingering by correctly guessing that her nieces and nephews wanted a vegetarian manestra—correctly guessing in the sense that it was a game they’d long made of her invariably ‘guessing’ correctly with her powers. Well, it wasn’t perhaps their first choice, but Sophia had arrived on a Friday and they knew their auntie Mira, for all her kindness, was a stickler about religious observation. The day’s meal would be excellent, but they’d have to settle for seafood.
“Will you ever retire, Sophia?” Emilija asked from her seat beside Gradimir. “Surely you’ve found some fine officer willing to marry you, and settle down by the capital, by now… And with a wound like that…”
Sophia shrugged idly. “I like my job, Emilija, and I don’t see much reason to leave it. Nor have any men really stood out to me. Marija and I were always like that, you know. I might have followed her into the religious life if it weren’t for my talents, and the call to Imperial service. I still feel it, for that matter, which is a good enough reason not to retire. Anyway, I just picked up a major perk…” She looked next down the line to Jelica, and Emilija followed the eyes and frowned a bit at her daughter.
“So, Jelica, since I’m going to try and ignore the stereotypical ‘God help me, but you’ve grown so much since I last saw you’,”she exagerrated the voice to giggles, seeing as Jelica was the oldest of the lot at nearly twenty-five and all were now entering their teen years, “I’ve been hearing from your father that you’ve had real trouble certifying the hours you need for your sub-twenty-k-ton piloting license. Can’t get any apprentice work, usual encouragement not to be a spacer from silly men who don’t get the point of our society, und so weiter, und so weiter, she finished in amused German. “How would you like to pick them all up?”
“Mother will never let me join the Navy,” Jelica answered instantly, which got a vigorous agreeing nod from Emilija.
“Oh, you don’t have to. You can get them with me, Jelly,” Sophia answered with a grin, and gestured outside. To the view of the enormous interstellar yacht.
Gradually as people got the meaning, a hushed silence fell over the family.
“God above, Sophia, who did you….” The comment from Gradimir, who like Vatroslav had been in the army, was cut off just in the nick of time as the small telepath giggled softly to her younger brother and shook her head.
“Oh no. Don’t you remember how I’m a commissioned officer in the reserves? That fancy part about getting a civil service and a military paycheck at the same time. Well, as it happened, for one of my recent missions they put me to active duty for some inane bureaucratic reason. This paid off incredibly, because as it happens on that mission I,” another wave toward the yacht, “stole that from enemies of the Empire. The prize court awarded her to me. I’ve named her the Titicaca, and the auxiliary status means we can siphon fuel off from Navy bases, pretty much. So, Jelica, I’ve accrued more vacation time than I know what to do with while I’ve been in the service, and I’ve come to take you out for quite some time, cruising the Empire, making connections, and getting your hours. And then, I’ll let you use her whenever I’m busy, which as you know is, heh, quite often. Consider it our shared venture, and I think a worthy substitute for a gift.”
“Auntie Mira I….” Jelica’s eyes were wide as she stared across the table at Sophia.
“I already paid to send you to the training academy, so why should I stop now?” Sophia smiled brilliantly, and settled back to enjoy in a motherly way the look of shock on Jelica’s face as the soup was served.
“Thank you, sis,” Gradimir said with a quiet and intense enthusiasm, which his wife did not really share.
So much for her finally growing up and settling down with someone, Emilija shook her head, but did smile wryly. “I admit I approve more of this than I did of someday finding out you’d procured a commission for her.”
“Well, I had thought about that, and though I’m sure Leonidas could do something, there’s no guarantee that poor Jelica wouldn’t end up filing forms in the lowest level basement of some office in Vienna, which would kinda of not exactly be a spacer’s life,” Sophia answered cheerfully.
“Leonidas?” Tvrtko asked.
“My manager. We have those in the civil service too, you know,” Sophia answered as coyly as ever. They all had long figured out, considering growing up around her telempathic powers had been a fact, that she was in the Evidenzburo, but it was still not something discussed in public, or really at all. Sometimes Tvrtko and Gradimir would muse on her existence and safety in privacy over a few beers, but that was that, and so the point was quietly accepted.
Gradimir laughed softly. “Well, I’ll leave it at that. But thank you, sister. To say you’ve made all of Jelica’s dreams come true is a minor understatement.”
Sophia smiled brilliantly from the far end of the table, emphasizing the fine curve of her cheekbones and ever-youthful face. Though they’d all had the highest end prolong, unlike many others on their hardscrabble homeworld, and would be around for quite some time… All due to Sophia. But it had been too late for her parents, and she missed their steady presence at these gatherings. Yet there was much new life ahead, and the farm awaited. And so did a chance to finally establish a real relationship with at least one of her nieces and nephews, whose presence reminded her all the more of how she’d almost certainly never have children, and definitely never be able to raise them on her own. Her life had carried her much too far from that course.
“Thank you so much, Auntie Mira,” Jelica replied, almost trembling, as the waitresses came around again, getting somewhat distracted, so that Sophia went ahead and ordered her a gin and tonic.
That got a very reproving glance from Emilija. “If you’re going to teach her responsibility…”
“Well, I’m going to make her into a good spacer. But I think in her line of work being able to handle liquor is a job requirement,” Sophia answered with brilliant jovialty. “So, Jelica, steady your nerves a bit, though of course we’re not taking her up any time soon—I intend to stay here quite some time, this visit. Among other things, I need to distribute all the gifts I got from the capital, let’s see, there’s a new hunting rifle for Mihilov, a..”
A voice from the other end of the table, the twenty-three year old ‘little’ Marija—to distinguish her from her cloistered aunt—piped up at once. “Wait, what, you’ll stay? Thank God! I can actually invite you to my wedding and actually have my auntie Mira there, since grandmama didn’t live long enough… Oh, Auntie Mira, you must come, won’t you?”
“You’re getting married?!” This time Sophia did squawk.
“Yes, yes, and he’s a wonderful fellow—a lieutenant in the local gendarmes!—even if it isn’t as grand or fancy as a thing as taking Jelica off to go gallivanting through the Empire, auntie. I’m so happy and we’re to have a proper Christian wedding and everything, the first one for one of the family’s girls in quite some time…”
Sophia and Jelica exchanged a sheepish glance at that. “Well, of course I’ll go,” Sophia answered with a decisive shrug. “When is it?”
“Two months, three days!”
“Well, excellent, my little Marija. We’ll stay that long, take everyone on the cruiser through the system before that, and then… Well, Jelica and I will be spending close to a year on our cruie. I have a LOT of vacation time built up.” Sophia grinned. “So, how would you like to go on a honeymoon to Earth?”
The squeal was the happiest sound that Sophia had heard in quite some time, and she ducked her head down and shook it faintly. It might never really be the life that Sophia could have in the long run, but she was indeed happy these times she spent with her family. No, Isabella, you just never did understand. And I’m sorry.
The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth.
-- Wikipedia's No Original Research policy page.In 1966 the Soviets find something on the dark side of the Moon. In 2104 they come back.
-- Red Banner / White Star
, a nBSG continuation story. Updated to Chapter 4.0 -- 14 January 2013.