|Patriarch's Hope |
|excerpt courtesy of Time Warner Trade Publishing|
"Mr. SecGen?" Hazen held the file, waiting.
I snapped my attention back to our conference. "Very well, we'll see." I slid his folder into the "undecided" pile. Though a puter screen was inset into the table in front of each seat, the Navy cherished its traditions. One of them was using old-style paper folders for cadet candidate files.
The purpose of my Academy jaunt was twofold. First, Devon was one of the few places outside my own walled home in which I was free of the ubiquitous mediamen. The Academy grounds were closed, and woe betide the heli that overflew it.
My other motive was more complex. Once, as Academy Commandant, I'd selected a few cadets as special aides. It hadn't worked out; I'd gotten them massacred in one of my senseless follies. Yet my successors, blind to my misconduct, continued the tradition.
Years later, when I returned to public life as a Senator, then as SecGen, I'd tired of the self-serving blather of my politically astute assistants, and sought out younger adjutants. I'd coopted midshipmen fresh out of Academy, and to my dismay, watched them grow into political creatures as unacceptable as those they replaced.
The solution I'd devised was to select them at Academy, before they became middies, thenwith an occasional exceptionsend them to a year or two aboard ship. Thereafter, when they were offered a shoreside posting at the U.N. Rotunda, I had at least a hope they'd remember their traditions and the discipline of Naval life. Most of them did, as long as I didn't keep them too long. My current aide, Charlie Witrek, was a willing joey, one I'd come to like, but in a week he would be rotated back aloft, and we'd bring down some middy I'd chosen in previous years.
The system worked well, overall. Of course, none of the selectees must have any idea he'd been chosen to ripen in the fleet, else he wouldn't take his shipside duties seriously. For that I needed the cooperation of Academy's staff, and of course I had it. They too wanted their minions to mature as young midshipmen, and if that weren't enough, none cared to risk a SecGen's enmity.
Still, I found the selection process uncomfortably reminiscent of Final Cull, the miserable job of choosing who, among the myriad of applicants, was to attend Academy. One of my great pleasures as SecGen had been to return to the Navy the long-sought privilege of selecting its own officer candidates.
Today, for two hours, Hazen, Arlene, and I reviewed files with the staff sergeants, noting which youngsters showed promise.
Over the years Arlene and I had developed a fine working relationship. By my authority, she sat in on many of the conferences I was required to endure. Here, at Academy, her views were particularly valuable; we'd been cadets together and shared a knowledge and love of the Navy.
I opened another folder. "What about"
The door flew open. "Commandant!" A sergeant, his breath coming hard. A red-haired midshipman was close behind.
Hazen reared up. "How dare you burst in like"
"We couldn't reach you; your caller was set to 'don't disturb.' We've had an, uh, accident. Suit training, the pressure room. Five cadets . . ."
I grimaced, recalling cadet days. First, Sarge had taught us how to suit up. We'd endured his drills several days in a row, skylarking when his eye wasn't on us. Then, one day, after suiting, Sarge sent us one by one into a foggy room with an airlock at each end. About half of us, when we emerged, turned green. The other half had known how to seal their suits properly.
The five cadets who'd gotten a whiff of the gas would suffer no more than a day's sore stomach and the indignity of losing their lunch. A tough lesson, but far more gentle than that of unforgiving space.
"Take them to sickbay, Gregori." Hazen shot me an apologetic glance. "I'm sorry, Mr. SecGen."
"Sir, two are dead. The rest . . . the medics are working on them, but"
"Oh, Lord God." My voice was strained.
The Commandant blinked. "Impossible! How? What . . ."
"I don't know!" Gregori sounded near tears.
I scrambled to my feet, lurched to the door.
"Nick, wait." Arlene.
I paid her no heed. Leaning heavily on my cane, I strode through the admin wing, outside to the late-afternoon sun, along the walkway toward the classrooms, the dorms, the suiting chamber halfway across the base.
By interfering, I was muscling in on Hazen's prerogatives, but anxiety drove me onward. Cadets didn't die in suiting practice. Not at Devon. Farside was another matter; there was no appeal from the laws of vacuum. If some of our charges were deadI took a deep breathAcademy faced a scandal. Someone had been unforgivably negligent. And the Commandant would write letters this night, that would ravage families' lives.
By the time I neared the classroom area, all had caught up with me: the staff sergeants who'd joined our conference, the Commandant, Arlene, the agonized Sergeant Gregori, the middy who'd burst in with him.
Hazen panted to Gregori, "Full report!"
"Aye aye, sir. I took Krane Barracks to the suiting room at seventeen hundred hours. Later than usual, but we were keeping them out of the sun." The sergeant paused for breath. "Twenty-nine cadets; Cadet Robbins was confined to barracks. I had them help each other suit up. Same as always, sir."
"Get on with it!"
I opened my mouth for a rebuke, but held my peace. Hazen was in charge, not I.
"Then I sent them through. Midshipman Anselm, here, was helping. A canister of the emetic was already in place; Sergeant Booker used the chamber this morning. The first four cadets went through without incident."
Where in God's own Hell was the suiting chamber? I'd never remembered it as so distant.
Gregori slowed his pace, to match mine. "Cadet Santini doubled over as she came out the lock. I helped with her helmet and gave her a piece of my mind, but my eye was on the cadets going through the room." Abruptly he came to a halt, his gaze withdrawn to a private hell.
"I told you to report!" Hazen.
"Belay that!" My voice was a lash. Protocol be damned. I was Commander in Chief, and could do as I pleased. I limped to Gregori. "Are you all right, Sergeant?" He was responsible for the cadets' safety. Lord God knew what he must be feeling.
"Sir . . ." His eyes beseeched mine. "Other cadets were falling ill. It's not their fault, they're young, they don't know to double-check the seals. I was trying to watch them all, and Santini had her helmet off. I knew she'd be all right. Except . . ." He shuddered. "When I looked down she was in convulsions. There was nothing I could do. Nothing!" His voice broke.
Awkwardly, I let my hand brush his shoulder.
He began to walk again, this time more slowly. "In the chamber, Ford pitched flat on his face. Then Eiken went down. I realized something was terribly wrong and yelled at Anselm to purge the room, but he didn't hear me, or didn't understand."
The middy stirred.
I raised a hand. "In a moment, Mr., ah, Anselm. Go on, Sarge."
"By the time I ran round to the other door and triggered the emergency oxygen flush, two more were down. I ordered Anselm to pull them outhe was suited, I wasn'tand ran back to Santini. She was staring at the sky." Gregori's mouth worked. "By the time we got the others out, three more were dying. I called sickbay, and rang for Lieutenant LeBow."
At last, the suiting chamber, a low, windowless, gunmetal gray building behind the nav training center. I recalled the suit room, with its rows of lockers where the cadets would enter. The airlock to the main chamber, the waiting lock at the far exit.
A covey of cadets milled about. I said, unbelieving, "You left your squad there?"
"Lieutenant LeBow told me to report to you, flank." And the sergeant would, of course. In the Navy, orders were obeyed.
My knee ached abominably. I bit back a foul imprecation as we neared the dazed cadets. Some were weeping. A few slumped on the grass. Among them were five motionless forms in gray. Three med techs worked over them, from scramble carts. A lieutenant watched, arms folded.
A cadet corporal saw us coming. "Attention!" His voice was ragged.
"As you were," I rasped. Then I had a glimpse of one of the casualties. "Oh, Lord." Blood had flowed, from her mouth and eyes. "You, there, any survivors?"
The med tech looked up, his eyes grim. He shook his head.
"What caused it?"
"I don't know." Wearily, he knelt on the grass. "We couldn't have been three minutes responding to the call. They were gone. We never had a chance."
I turned. "Sergeant M'bovo, escort the squad to barracks." The sooner the joeykids were removed from the sight, the better.
"Let me take them, sir. They're mine." Gregori.
"No, I want you here." If it was Gregori's blunder that had killed his cadets, he should be kept far from them. "Stay with them, Sergeant M'bovo. See that they're on light duty for three days."
"Aye aye, sir." There was little else he could say, to a direct order. Civilian I might be, and outside the chain of command, but I was SecGen. "You joeys, back to barracks. Double-time!"
When the cadets were out of earshot Hazen grated, "I'd have laid on extra drills, to keep them occupied."
So might I, in my younger days. "Let them grieve." I turned to the redheaded middy. "Let's hear your version." My wife flinched, and too late, I realized it sounded an accusation.
Anselm stammered out his story, but it corroborated the sergeant's in all details.
Arlene pulled me close, to whisper in my ear. "Nick, let Hazen handle it. You're stepping on his toes."
True, but I was beyond that. "Where's the emetic canister?"
"Still in the dispenser." Sergeant Gregori swung open the panel.
"Don't touch that!" I lowered my voice to a normal tone. "Commandant, have the gas analyzed. A party of three to take the canister to the lab. Send LeBow, there. And two sergeants who had nothing to do with the incident. Get these poor children's bodies to sickbay, we can't have them lying here. Well, what are you staring at? Get moving, flank!"
"Aye aye, sir." As if dazed, Hazen reached for his caller. Gregori said nothing, but his eyes bore mute reproach.
"And autopsies on the cadets. Tonight." I tried to think what else. "Seal the base." If rumors got out, we'd be besieged with mediamen, to the Navy's detriment. All mediamen were ghouls. "Gregori, Anselm, wait for us at the Commandant's office."
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