The crowd gathered at the church stirred uneasily as Benson entered from the rooms in back. She looked out upon the proverbial sea of angry faces. Not a person present smiled back at her.
She stood at the podium on the small dais at the front of the church and said, “Thank you all for coming. I’ve asked you here to announce formal proceedings for taking over the governance of Wallisville, and all the surrounding territory. The Navy hereby claims control based on the concept of ad coelomin League law.”
The expressions of everyone in the room changed from anger to shock and surprise.
The Captain continued. “The term is Latin, and means ‘to the sky.’ It’s an old concept based on the doctrine that a person who owned property owned everything beneath it and above it. In League law, it means that planets colonized by the League are owned by the League until such time as colonization has advanced sufficiently to warrant the issuance of deeds.
“Halcyon is not yet at that point, your gold stakes not withstanding. You probably would have been there by now, if the war had not interfered. But it did. As such, none of this . . .” she waved her arms around in all directions, “belongs to you. Not to any of you.”
The looks on their faces began shifting back towards anger.
“I know you have a system of claims and you’ve been panning for gold, digging for gold, and so forth. But it’s not yours. It’s the League’s. And as the League’s highest designated authority, I am in charge of Wallisville, the surrounding lands, the river, the mountains, and everything else. I am in charge of this entire planet under the terms of ad coelom.”
Some murmurs rippled through the crowd. Time to toss them a bone, Benson thought.
“I don’t intend to change much, at least not right away. And I’m open to considering your claims on the gold. That’s not what I’m interested in right now.”
She had their attention. They stopped muttering and focused on her.
“Right now, I am interested in justice for my crewmembers who have been murdered. We have apprehended three of the suspects. I will conduct a fair trial for them, and then render an appropriate judgment following Naval guidelines.”
People looked at one another, some raising eyebrows. Not taking their gold is mollifying them, Benson thought.
“This trial will start right after lunch. I don’t anticipate it taking long. You are all welcome to attend. But you may not interfere.”
She stopped talking and smiled at everyone.
“Thank you for coming.”
Mayor Carver approached her while the townsfolk filed out the door.
“Captain, I . . . I don’t know much about law, and there ain’t any lawyers hereabouts that I’m aware of. And I ain’t never heard about this ad colon before . . .”
Benson smiled but did not bother correcting him.
“But I just don’t know if the people of Wallisville will accept you as their leader. I mean, we hardly know you. And I’m sure you’re a fine Captain, ma’am, but this here is a community of likeminded individuals, and . . . well, we’re a little harder to manage than a spaceship, I imagine.”
Benson nodded and said, “I appreciate your concern, Mr. Carver.”
He winced when he noticed she did not address him as ‘Mayor.’
“However, it’s an easy concept to grasp. This planet has not been lawfully integrated into the full League. It’s a lawless frontier. We’re the Navy, the highest representation of government present, at the moment. As such, I’m claiming command. Easy peasy.”
“Well, yes, ma’am, I understand you’re claiming power and all. It’s just that . . . well, here’s the thing. These people . . . we have grown to think of ourselves as, well I guess you could say ‘self-governing.’ If there’s a problem, we take care of it.”
“And does that involve shooting someone?”
Carver shrugged. “Sometimes. I won’t lie, there have been arguments settled over guns. More than one. But we don’t generally resort to violence. We talk things through, work things out. I’ve helped settle many a disagreement. I could probably help patch things up with you and Mr. Darcy, if you gave me a chance.”
“Mr. Carver, four of my crewmembers are dead. They were murdered in cold blood. They were led to their deaths by the three men in the town lockup. We will have a proper Navy trial for them, and mete out justice as required by law. You are welcome to attend the trial, along with anyone else who so desires to witness justice being served.”
When it became clear nothing he could say would sway her on the matter, Carver simply nodded and turned for the door.
The Methodist Women’s Bible Study Group did not show up with lunch for the crew that day. Benson sighed when it became apparent they were not coming, and ordered rations from the transport distributed. After eating home cooking for so many days, the standard Navy dehydrated nutrition bars did not exactly please their palates. But the crew ate without complaints.
An hour later, Benson ordered six of her crew to arm themselves and retrieve Darcy’s men. They returned with the prisoners, and a crowd. No one looked like they were mad enough to start anything, Benson thought, as everyone filed into the church. But nobody looked happy, either.
Benson made the trial short and sweet. She had Ensign Kilmeade describe what happened in her own words. She heard from Curly and Vargas about what happened with Yoo and how they handled the snipers. Finally, she addressed the three men on the front pew.
“What do you have to say for yourselves? Do you deny your involvement in this plot?”
One of them reluctantly stood up. He looked at the crowd, then turned and addressed Benson.
He said, “We was told what to do by Mr. Darcy.”
He paused dramatically, and the crowd seemed to hold its collective breath.
“Given the chance . . . we’d do it again.”
He sat down with a smug look on his face. The other two prisoners exchanged a smile. Benson noticed several in the crowd smiling, too.
She said, “Very well. As Captain of the SLS Excelsior, and ranking officer of this territory under ad coelom, I sentence you three to death, to be carried out immediately.”
The crowd gasped and a couple of men stood up in anger, pointing fingers.
“You can’t do that!”
“Who do you think you are?”
Benson looked to the side of the room where Curly and the other sailors stood, armed. Not too subtly, they drew their weapons and aimed them toward the men standing up. The men saw this, and sat down quickly.
Benson said, “Ensign Kilmeade, march the prisoners outside. If anyone tries to interfere, shoot them.”
Noise erupted in the church as everyone spoke at once while Kilmeade frog marched the men up the aisle and out the door. But no one tried to intervene, and for that Benson felt grateful. There would be fewer deaths that way.
She followed Kilmeade out the door and the crowd followed her.
Kilmeade marched the men to a spot Benson had picked out earlier. The Captain lined the men up and faced them. Behind them, nothing but wide-open fields lay between the men and the river.
Benson said, “Hand me your weapon, Ensign. I’ll do this.”
Kilmeade gave her the gun, butt first. Benson took it and aimed at the prisoners, starting with the one on her left.
Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!
The crowd behind her stood silent. The three men lay sprawled on their backs, smoke drifting up from where their faces had been.