Lal groaned. The Peacekeepers' engineers had confirmed the brash University crew's claim. He was now in possession of six self-driving all-terrain cars, each loaded with deadly nerve gas. "X-Rovers", the University called them. Lal ordered them brought within the defensive perimeter, but that they were to stay outside the base proper. The Spartans were awful enough, he wouldn't risk other Greek gifts.
The University's nearly superfluous human couriers had come in a separate vehicle and been eager to depart, joking about homework. Lal let them go. The Spartans would arrive all too soon, and then there might be no escape. He did not believe in taking hostages.
At least the cars arrived with the overdue and frankly unexpected materialization of Zakharov's "we'll talk later". Which was just as well, he had some explaining to do.
Lal composed himself as he established the commlink. After a moment's static, Zakharov's image appeared on the screen. He was surrounded by a mostly young looking crowd, though with longevity treatments it was impossible to guess age. What Lal could be sure about though was that they looked smugly proud of themselves.
Part of Lal wanted to yell at them, but he was a conciliator and a diplomat. "Greetings, Provost Zakharov. I am glad we have an opportunity to discuss matters."
"Everyone, please say hallo to Commissioner Lal." Zakharov said, and his companions quickly did, most of them waving a little. He then continued, "My condolences about the Spartans." It would have seemed more heartfelt if he hadn't been smiling.
"Actual help would have been more welcome."
That wiped the grin off Zakharov's face. "I sent-"
"Opportunities to commit war crimes do not qualify as actual help."
Zakharov sighed theatrically. "We sent what we could. We're scientists, engineers and academics. Students may riot, but professors are not soldiers. The X-Rovers will prove effective." Some of his crowd chuckled.
Effective. The euphemism sent a chill down Lal's spine, where it met a burning anger. How dare Zakharov treat this as a technical problem, where the most "effective" solution should be taken, morality be damned? Had the academic already forgotten the horrors of Earth? Lal hadn't. No one should. The Peacekeepers had footage of a devastating nerve gas attack in Blagoveshchensk. Lal had it spliced into his broadcast. As the people in the video convulsed and died, he said, "There are reasons why chemical weapons are banned."
Zakharov watched with a blank expression behind his tinted glasses, even while the crowd around him seemed disturbed by the carnage. Eventually, he shrugged. "It's horrible, but that's war. What aid were you hoping for against the Spartans, if not the kind that kills and maims? Diplomacy? You are already the best of us at talking nicely to the chronically unreasonable. If you were hoping we might wave flowers at them, you should have asked the Gaians."
Lal had asked the Gaians, and the Morganites too. Skye told him to trust Planet, while Morgan invoked the laws of supply and demand, trying to extort an obscene price for the services of Morgan Mercenaries. "Had the University and others showed solidarity, the Spartans might not have dared attack at all, knowing we are willing to defend each other from aggression, despite our differences."
"Assuming they wouldn't conclude they simply needed more weapons, or decide to attack us instead. Use the nerve gas, and they'll recalculate the odds."
"Assuming they don't decide that they will stop at nothing to gain vengeance for the atrocity committed against them."
"Always a risk, but there will be fewer of them. There is not a civilian among them."
Lal resisted the urge to throw up his hands. "We will not commit war crimes."
"I hope the Spartans won't either. But isn't that their excuse for this vendetta? That you're withholding the technology needed to make nerve gas?"
Lal tensed. "That is indeed their accusation."
"Absurd, isn't it?" Zakharov smiled. "Brewing nerve gas is easy. I felt embarrassed asking my chemistry students to make it, even if they're not my absolutely best ones. But they'll get course credits and I brought them along so you could thank them." The students' expressions suggested that they had developed a more realistic expectation of Lal's gratitude.
"Provost, you should be more than embarrassed. It should not be made at all."
"Well, we've already made it, so you might as well just use it on the Spartans. It's called ironic." Zakharov had the cheek to sound long-suffering.
"No. Poison gas is completely against both the word and the spirit of the UN Charter. We would lose all our moral authority and give atrocities a sheen of legitimacy."
"You'll lose rather more than your moral authority if the Spartans massacre every one of you. There must be quite a few children living in your base now."
Lal closed his eyes and took a deep breath. That was true, but all the same… "No. We won't use it." If the Peacekeepers resorted to atrocity, they could not hope to build a better world for those children.
Zakharov waited a moment before answering. "Fine then. I feared you might be that foolish, so instructions for easy disposal are included. I trust you've already found them? Or you could use the nerve gas on yourselves, it'll work even better in the ventilation system, and will be quicker than what the Spartans have planned for you." Given the intensity the majority of the students decided to study the ground at that statement, it wouldn't have surprised Lal if many of them took up geology.
"We'll destroy it. Should the fight go against us, we plan to retreat." Given the Spartan military, it could well be not a case of if, but of when. Zakharov was trying transparent scare tactics all the same.
"That sounds sensible, but if that's your plan, may I suggest leaving before the Spartans cut you off? It would be best to destroy the base too, so that they can't use it. Your people are welcome to become University students," Zakharov said mildly enough, but it was too much.
"Is that what you want? You surely know I would never allow the use of nerve gas, so is this token effort a fig leaf for your ambitions? You want us and the Spartans to destroy each other, so we are no longer in your way? And if the survivors end up bolstering your faction, so much the better?"
This prompted some nervous tittering among the University ranks, but Zakharov shook his head sharply, sending his hair flying. "Don't be ridiculous. If I wanted that, why give you the means to win? I could have pleaded that we were peaceful researchers and given you nothing, like the Gaians and the Morganites. No matter what you do, I will try to leverage the best possible position for the University out of it, but the Peacekeepers being eliminated is certainly not my preferred plan!"
"Of course," Lal said. Zakharov had already been a fervent and not necessarily sympathetic ideologue during the Unity's construction, a characteristic that escalated when the spaceship broke apart. That had been a time of extreme tension, but this day only heightened Lal's fears about what Zakharov might do to see his ambitions realised. The University might even have given the Spartans a similar gift. His previous outburst was still more truthful than helpful.
"You're not convinced."
Lal sighed. "You're not convincing." It had been a long day, following a long year.
Zakharov flashed a smile. "As I said, the University will try to optimise any situation. But we'd prefer something better than the minimax, and you are a reasonable man, Lal. Reasonable people can reach agreements. That sets you apart from the Spartans, and even more from the Believers. It's in the University's best interests to keep the Peacekeepers around as an ally."
"But ideally a Peacekeepers without any of the Peacekeeping Forces' pesky scruples?"
Zakharov looked down slightly and spread his hands. "I wish we could have sent you more aid, but we just don't have many troops. We need those we have, Miriam's mob are the most aggressive door-to-door proselytizers. I might find myself in your position all too soon." He was presumably trying to sound remorseful, but he was a bad actor. His students nodded along earnestly though.
"So what you want is a precedent. You want to use nerve gas on your enemies, then point at us Peacekeepers for justification."
Zakharov grimaced for a second. "I don't want to, but I might find myself in a situation where I don't have much choice, as you are now. I would protect my people. You should think about it."
Lal lifted his chin. "If we survive the Spartans, we will think about how this affects our relationship. But the Peacekeeping Forces will never commit atrocities."