|Patriarch's Hope |
|excerpt courtesy of Time Warner Trade Publishing|
Hazen was busy on his caller.
The lieutenant jumped as if shot. "Yes, sir!"
"Suit up, and go into the chamber. Check out"
"I won't need a suit, sir. It's been purged."
"Suit up." My tone was icy. "We'll take no chances."
"Aye aye, sir." At least he seemed abashed, as well he should, quarreling with a direct order. On the other hand, as a civilian I had no right to give him orders.
"Look around, report by radio anything that seems out of place." As he turned to the suiting-room door I added, "Careful with your seals!"
LeBow's expedition found nothing. By the time he emerged, the lifeless cadets had been carried to sickbay, and two staff sergeants had arrived to escort the canister to the lab. We all watched LeBow disconnect it from the intake. Ignoring common sense, I held my breath to inspect it gingerly. The customary factory label, the usual warnings. If the manufacturer had inadvertently sent us a contaminated canister, I'd see the culprit hanged. I hoped that was the case. The alternatives didn't bear thinking about.
There was work ahead, and I'd realized I didn't trust Hazen to do it alone. This was one of the moments I regretted refusing to carry a personal caller. An old habit, dating from my days as Commandant. As I'd learned on Hibernia, a commander who carried a caller had no peace.
"Would you give Branstead a call?" I gave Hazen my chief of staff's code. "Tell him to cancel my suborbital. I'll spend the night in Devon."
"Nick, we have to get home." Arlene looked apologetic. "Derek's coming, and tomorrow there's the delegation from Dutch Relief."
"Belay that, Commandant. Let me talk to him." I took the caller. "Jerence? Arlene's on the way home, I'll stay here." Arlene shot me a look of annoyance. "Lay on transport tomorrow, I'll let you know when. No, I'm fine. There's been an . . . incident. What? I don't care, reschedule him. Next week." I rang off, gave my wife an awkward hug. "Get ready for Derek, listen to the Hollanders for me. I'll see you soon."
Somewhat mollified, she rested her chin on my shoulder. "Nick, those cadets . . ."
"Yes, I know. Terrible."
"I mean the survivors."
"Death happens, Arlene. We've both seen it. They have to get used"
"They're bewildered, and in pain."
"It's not my responsibility."
"You remember, don't you, Nick?" Her voice was soft.
I looked away. At last I said, "I'll do what I can."
In the gathering dusk Hazen and I walked slowly back to his office. "How well do you know Gregori, Commandant?"
"He's a good man. Even if he wasn't watching carefully, how could he have caused their deaths? We've used the emetic for years."
My smile was grim. "Generations."
"It was surely an accident, Mr. SecGen. Contaminants."
"Do you believe that?" My own doubts were growing.
A long silence. "I want to."
Abruptly I liked him more. "I'm sorry. I know I've been taking over."
"That's your privilege, sir. You're SecGen."
I grinned, remembering an Admiral who'd commandeered my ship, long past. "That doesn't make it easier."
"No," he said. I admired his honesty. He added, "You don't remember me, do you?"
I cast about in my memory. "I was notified of your appointment. You had UNS Churchill, am I right?"
"I was in Valdez Barracks." He spoke as if he hadn't heard. "When you took command." He slowed his pace, so I'd have less difficulty keeping up. "Sergeant Ibarez."
"Ah." How could I make him change the subject? I loved Academy, truly I did. Yet . . .
"I was one of the few left here when you took the cadets to Farside. Else I'd have volunteered. I know I would." His face was red, and his gaze was carefully averted. "I'd fallenwe were skylarking in barracks. About a week before the fish attacked. I broke three ribs. Sarge said you were furious."
"It's a cool night," I said desperately. "After the sun goesCommandant, I atone every night of my life for what I did to those wretched cadets. Be thankful you weren't among them." During the final alien attack I'd called for volunteers, knowing, but not telling them, I was sending them to their deaths. At least, with effort, I now could speak of it. For years I could not.
"Sir, do you know what it's like, to be class of '01, the last class Nicholas Seafort commanded? They say you called the cadets to Farside dining hall." His eyes were distant, as if reliving a memory he couldn't have known. "You said there'd be danger, and asked for cadets willing to go to the Fusers. Your voice . . . hushed, urgent, almost desperately casual. Even as joeykids, they understood."
"Mr. Hazen . . ." How could I divert him?
"For years, those who refused cast blame one on another, or you. Only Boland and Branstead could be proud. And Tenere." The pitifully few survivors, who'd sailed with me in the Mothership.
"And whenever it came up, I was hurt and defensive." His tone was conversational. "I would have gone, but how could I prove it? We fought, at times. I lost friends." He chopped off his words, cleared his throat. "When I was posted here, I couldn't fathom the honor. To walk where you walked, sit at your desk, command men you"
"Stop it!" My cry echoed through the quadrangle.
He faced me, determined. "I wanted so to impress you. To make you see I had matters well in hand. You think I don't know what an idiot I sounded, shouting at Gregori? I could have bitten my tongue off."
"It's all right, Mr. Hazen. I've done the same."
"Not in front of your . . ." He muttered something unintelligible.
"Idol." His gaze was a challenge, as if daring me to object.
I muttered, "Lord God preserve us." We'd reached the steps. I took his arm, leaned my weight on it as we climbed. "I really ought to have this leg looked at."
"May I ask what it is, sir? I noticed you began to carry a cane a few years ago."
"Arthritis. The Helsinki crash aggravated it." Arthritis was curable, and had been for generations. But I deserved my infirmities.
He paused at the door to his office. "Will you see Gregori and Anselm now, or wait for the lab report?"
"Wait, I think."
"I could show you to the VIP suite."
"I know the way. Ring my quarters when you have the report." I limped to my apartment.
I peeled off my jacket, washed my face, combed my hair. I caught a glimpse of the aging visage in the glass, and paused. Wrinkles on my forehead, and my hairline was creeping upward. I hadn't let them give me cosmetic enzymes, though I'd had the primary anti-aging compounds. They were universally disseminated through drinking water.
Still, even past sixty, I wasn't all that old. The relentless extension of life was the main cause of Earth's overcrowding, and a terrible strain on our resources. I had another quarter century of active life, if I wanted it. Perhaps even more. These days, retirement benefits didn't start until eighty-five.
I passed a hand over the faint outline of the hideous scar that had once adorned my cheek. Many years ago I'd let them remove it, at the insistence of Admiralty. Joeykids had started to emulate my appearance, and that was intolerable.
Nearly fifty years, since Father had brought me to Academy's gates, guided me within, and strode off without a backward glance. The U.N. Navy had been thenand still wasthe glamorous service youngsters dreamed of joining. The Army was a poor relative, and resented it.
Of course, the Navy had the advantage of starting its officers young. The discovery in 2046 that N-waves travel faster than light, and the accompanying revision of physics, led to the fusion drive, and superluminous travel. But the stars came at a cost: melanoma T, a vicious carcinoma triggered by long exposure to Fusion fields. It was an occupational hazard for spacefarers.
Fortunately, humans whose cells were exposed to N-waves within five years of puberty seemed almost immune. But the Navy couldn't put untrained children aboard its great starships. And so cadets were recruited barely into their teens, as I had been. After two years at Academy they were shipped off as green young middies to get their sea legs aboard a starship.
Gaunt eyes stared at me from the mirror.
As a middy, I'd been catapulted to Captain of UNS Hibernia on the death of her other officers. Later, on Challenger, I'd fought off relentless attacks by the alien fish. We'd survived to see home system, but not before I'd damned myself by breaking my sacred oath, to save my ship.
By then, to my infinite disgust, I was a media hero. Eventually, Admiralty appointed me Commandant of Naval Academy. And at Farside, when the fish attacked, I engaged in the greatest betrayal since Judas. I sent my cadets to their deaths with lies.
The caller chimed. "Yes?"
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