Luck has always run in both directions for Naval Commandant Nicholas Seafort. While he has managed to save the Hope Nation colony from alien attack, he and his friends have paid a heavy price. Most recently, his exploits have earned him a dignified position as an instructor at the United Nations Naval Academy. But, as Seafort suspects, trouble isn’t far behind. A return to Earth means a return to his roots, some of which he wishes would remain buried. He’s uncomfortable with fame and can’t always restrain his temper as the political machine shifts around him. But when the fishlike aliens mount an attack, Seafort is the only man Earth can count on. Now he must decide whether he has the courage and fortitude to make a terrible choice . . .
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The Seafort Saga, Book Four
By David Feintuch
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 David Feintuch
All rights reserved.
"BUT VASILY'S A RUSSIAN, and we're short on Eurasians." Lieutenant Darwin Sleak flipped through the stack of folders on the polished conference table, each an application to the United Nations Naval Academy. Sleak glanced at Commandant Kearsey for approval, squinting in the bright summer Devon sun.
The Commandant tapped his folder. "Born September 2187. Grades put him in the eleventh percentile among applicants, admission tests put him eighteenth. Low, but someone has to be near the bottom." He shrugged his unconcern. "Put him on the list, I suppose." He turned to me. "Any comment, Captain Seafort?"
I blurted, "I thought the Selection Board didn't consider nationality." Damn Final Cull, anyway. My aide Edgar Tolliver carefully studied his fingernails, accustomed to my outbursts.
Commandant Kearsey said, "Officially, we don't. And we wouldn't take some unqualified joey simply to gain another Russian. But with a war on, we need public support from every continent. A balanced cadet class doesn't hurt."
I knew he was right. The Navy's appalling losses to the fishlike aliens that had attacked our Hope Nation and Vegan colonies had to be made up, and the cost of rebuilding the fleet would be enormous. The deadly assaults had destroyed fourteen ships of the line and killed untold hundreds of crewmen, some my friends. And then we'd lost Orbit Station, where Vax Holser had died hoping to save me.
I forced my thoughts into a new channel. "What if we just took the top three hundred eighty?"
"We'd lose all geographical balance."
My tone was acid. "So? Balance wasn't a consideration when you took Senator Boland's son." I shouldn't have said it, but my new shoes hurt and so did my chest; I'd grown accustomed to one-sixth gravity during my recent stay on Lunapolis.
I braced myself for the Commandant's withering glare that had transfixed me as a raw cadet only fourteen years ago. Certainly my manner warranted it. But I was no longer a frightened thirteen-year-old reporting for induction; now I was the notorious Nicholas Ewing Seafort, "hero" of Hope Nation. My face scowled from a recruiting poster, and in two short weeks I was to replace Kearsey as Commandant of both U.N.N.S. Academy bases, here at Devon and at Farside, on Luna. I alone knew of the perversions on which the public's adulation was based. I, and Lord God. Someday I must face His reckoning.
Commandant Kearsey concealed whatever annoyance he felt. "We can't very well turn down a U.N. Senator's son, Captain. Especially when Boland's on the Security Council's Naval Affairs Committee. Anyway, the boy's grades are acceptable."
"Lower than the Russian's, I think. Who are we bumping for the Boland boy?"
His staff aide, Sergeant Kinders, handed him a folder. "A Parisian. Jacques Theroux." The Commandant frowned. "It's not as if the boy will know why he's off the final list. What's more important: putting another cadet in Boland's place, or having powerful friends at appropriation time? Do you want the new ships built or not?"
I stared at the door, knowing I had no answer. The Navy must be restored, to guard our far-flung colonies, and to protect home system if the fish attacked. I muttered, "I'd still pick the first three hundred eighty."
Even Tolliver and Sleak looked at me strangely. It was a moment before Commandant Kearsey answered. "Then we'd lose Final Cull. We'd be stuck with the candidates the Selection Board sent."
Lieutenant Sleak cleared his throat, waited for the Commandant's nod. "Final Cull is Academy's hard-won prerogative, and our only input into the Selection process. Would you have us give it up?" His tone was cold, despite the fact that I'd soon be his commander.
Final Cull was a traditional privilege, and the Navy shouldn't surrender its traditions easily.
Yet, still ...
"Father, can Jason stay for dinner?" At thirteen I knew better than to ask in front of the prospective guest. I hoped I could get away with it, as I'd just thrown Father's cherished obligations of hostship into the balance against his stern disapproval of my friend.
Father's eyebrow raised. "He could abide our prayers?"
Jason flushed, his eye on the orchestron we were updating on the creaky kitchen table. He paused, chip in hand. "I may be a freethinker, sir, but I respect the customs of your house." Quickly, as if he'd gone too far, he bent over the orchestron motherboard.
Father grunted. "Respect for Lord God isn't a custom. It is life itself." Still, I knew Jason's forthrightness had gained him favor in Father's eyes. "Perhaps you too will find Him, before you consign yourself to damnation." Oh, please, not a sermon. Not in front of Jason.
Father gave the gleaming teapot one last swipe with the soft cloth. "I can't imagine why Nicholas thinks asking permission in your presence will sway me. He knows better manners than he practices." I swallowed. More verses at bedside, or worse; Father always remembered the day's sins. Still, the corners of his mouth turned up grudgingly. "Pea soup, the fresh bread, and tomatoes from the garden. Can you tolerate it?"
"That's fine, sir," Jason said quickly. I flashed him a grin across the table; he surreptitiously kicked my shin.
Later, washing for dinner, Jason asked softly, "Heard anything yet?"
I shook my head. One way or another, word had to come soon. Time was running out.
"He's said you can go for sure?"
"Aye." Perhaps my imploring and tears had nothing to do with Father's consent. I suspected they'd helped, despite the switching he'd given me when I persisted.
"Well, you reached the second interview, and didn't get a washout letter. You made it to Final Cull." Like any teener, he was familiar with Academy admission procedures. If I passed Final Cull I'd be admitted to Terrestrial Academy at Devon, where they'd subject me to basic training before shipping me to Farside for my real education.
"Aye." I wished Jason wouldn't talk about it; I'd persuaded myself that not discussing my chances somehow improved them. At dinner Father drew himself from his customary meditative silence, for Jason's sake. For the moment, Jase was Father's guest as well as mine. "Your, ah, plaything is fixed?"
"The orchestron? Aye, sir. But it's an instrument, not a toy."
"An instrument of ... electronics." He and I both knew his unspoken thought. An instrument of Satan, as all idle amusements.
"And of music, Mr. Seafort. There isn't much the Welsh Philharmonic can play that we couldn't re-create on it."
"By pushing buttons." But Father's tone was agreeable, as he mopped at his soup with the hot bread he'd pulled from the oven an hour before.
Jason's lean face lit with the grin I cherished. "It's all in knowing what buttons to push, sir."
Father looked to me, shaking his head as if in exasperation. Recklessly, I grinned back; Jason had that effect on me. He was courteous to Father, even respected him in a way, without taking Father's manner seriously. At first I'd been scandalized, then put off, but now I knew it was part of Jason's singular view of the world.
Father asked, "You'll be in third?" Two conversational gambits in an evening. He was treating Jason as an adult, and I was grateful.
"Yes, sir. This year I'm taking Engineering for electives."
"I like to build things, or fix them."
"A city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven."
Jason looked confused. I explained, "He means the tower of Babel. Genesis Nine."
Father swung to me in rebuke. "Genesis Eleven. Don't pretend to learning you lack, Nicholas."
"I'm sorry, sir."
"Nicky could sign up for half days, Mr. Seafort. We could work on projects together."
Father raised an eyebrow. "Nicholas learns best at home, where his idleness is held in check." That was like Father, to discuss my faults in front of anyone, as if I had no feelings. But to my surprise he added, "Anyway, Nicholas won't be at your school next year. I imagine he'll be at Academy." I was astonished. Father had never once hinted he thought I had a chance of being accepted.
"Of course," Jason said quickly. "I just meant if he didn't—I mean, I forgot."
Two days later I was on my knees pulling the stubborn weeds from our garden, knowing Father's vigilant eye would judge my work, and that my chance of parole on Saturday depended on his approval. Jason had bought us tickets to the football game with the Irish, though I hadn't told Father yet.
A shadow fell across the black dirt. I looked up, a bead of sweat trickling. "I'm not done yet, sir. I'll catch the rest of that row, after."
He waved it away. "The post is here."
"The post?" Why would he interrupt my chores for—"It came?" I was on my feet. "What does it say?"
"I don't know. It's yours to open."
I reached out, but he shook his head. "On the kitchen table." I dashed to the door. "Mind you wash your hands!"
I took enough time to rinse so I'd leave no grime on the towel. That would infuriate Father, and I wouldn't enjoy the consequences. I rushed back to the kitchen, tore open the embossed envelope. Father waited, leaning against the sink, his face grave.
"The Selection Board of the U.N.N.S. Naval Academy always has more qualified candidates than places. We regret to inform you that after careful consideration we are unable ...
I dropped the letter on the table, blinking away a blur. Unbelieving, I snatched it up again. "... you are to be congratulated that you were one of the final candidates in this year's selection process. If you wish to apply again next year we would be happy to consider."
My eyes stinging, I ran into my room, slammed the door, threw myself on my bed. Footsteps. The door opened almost instantly. "Stand up!"
"Let me be alone for—"
"Up!" Father's tone brooked no argument. I stumbled to my feet. He stepped back into the hall. "Close your door properly."
I gaped. "You care more about—" His eyes narrowed and I stopped just in time. "Aye, sir." I turned the knob, closed the door quietly. Through the door Father said, "I won't have you slamming doors in my house."
"No, sir. I'm sorry." I crept back to my bed, kicked off my shoes. I buried my head in the pillow, determined to smother my sobs.
He gave me about an hour before he came back into the room. "May I read your letter?"
My voice was muffled. "You know what it says."
"From your reaction, yes." He paused. "They rejected you." His phrasing reduced me to helpless tears. For a moment his hand lay on my shoulder, then it was gone, as if it had fallen by accident. "Nicholas, turn so I can see you."
"I want to be alone."
His tone was sharp. "Yes, to feel sorry for yourself."
"Why shouldn't I?" My voice was muffled.
"So you set yourself against the Lord?"
Father pulled at my arm until I turned onto my back. Reluctantly, I looked to him, eyes red.
"If Lord God wanted you to attend Naval Academy, do you think they'd not have admitted you?"
I was outraged. "You're saying He didn't want me to go?" Father was silent. "Why should He care one way or the other? It was the stupid Selection Board, not Him."
Father shook his head. "He cares. About you, as about all of us."
My tone risked a strapping, but I didn't care. "Then why did He have me waste my time applying?"
Father's eyes bored into mine. "Perhaps to teach you to accept failure like a man, rather than as a whining child."
I closed my burning eyes. Father would never understand. "Nicholas, this is hard for you. But you must accept His will. I'll pray with you later. Perhaps we can find His consolation." It meant I would spend hours on the hard bedroom floor, knees aching, while I sought the relief Father himself could give, but would not.
I looked up at the Commandant. "Give up Final Cull? Is that so awful?"
Kearsey's fingers drummed the conference table. "The Selection Board ... you know who's on it?"
I said, "Admiralty appoints two members, the Secretary General appoints two, and three come from the Senate."
"Did you know the Navy used to select its own applicants?"
"Of course, all the services did, until the scandals." Seventy-five years later, the Navy hadn't forgotten its humiliation.
The Commandant smiled grimly. "There was a battle royal when the changes were proposed. We lost; the Navy would no longer be allowed to choose its own candidates. Elitism, they called it, though why the Navy officers' corps shouldn't be elite, only Lord God knows. As a sop, they left us Final Cull. The politicians send us their selections, but at least we can weed through them."
I stabbed at my folder. "Is that what we're doing by making sure we have proportionate Russians and Equadorians and Yanks? By making a place for the Boland boy?"
He flushed. "We do the best we can. Next year you'll get to decide alone. But even though it's my responsibility, you're the one who has to take the class through Academy. Do you object to Vasily Karnyenkov? Would you rather have Jacques what's-his-name?"
I'd rather not have to cull at all. "No," I said wearily. "Let it be." Under the table, my nails left marks in my creased trouser leg.
Tolliver and I walked slowly across the immaculate lawn to Officers' Quarters. "Even if you did alienate him, sir, what difference does it make? Another few days and he'll be gone."
"He's been the Commandant for, what, eighteen years? They'll still look to him for advice. I don't need another enemy."
"You didn't make an enemy," Tolliver soothed. "He was only defending Final Cull."
"It's not as if we can predict what kind of middies they'll turn into." I brooded. Test scores and grades couldn't reveal which of our green cadets would mature into outstanding officers after two years or more of our instruction.
I parted with Tolliver at my door. As a full Captain and the Commandant-elect, I rated an apartment that was large and luxurious by Naval standards. I'd be spending much of my time here, as Commandant. I stripped off my jacket, loosened my tie, and sat on the edge of the bed with caller in hand. Two days had passed since I'd last visited the clinic. Perhaps Annie was better.
I waited for the connection to New York. "Dr. O'Neill's office, please." Another wait. I drummed my fingers on the bedside table. The marvels of technology. Finally he came on the line.
"I'm glad you called." He sounded harried.
"How is my wife?"
"She's, ah, progressing as expected."
I waited, but he didn't continue. "You had something to tell me, Doctor?"
"Not particularly. Why?"
"You said you were glad I called."
"We're always glad when relatives take an interest, Captain. In general the patient's progress is more rapid—"
"How is Annie, Dr. O'Neill? Do you know?"
He lapsed into incomprehensible medical jargon, analyzing Annie's blood tests for each of the seventeen hormones known to be responsible for mood and behavior.
I listened, trying to filter truth through his statistics. At length I could stand it no longer. "But how is she?"
"She continues to stabilize. Right now she's responding to changes in her secondary meds. Taking more interest in surroundings, but her mood swings are greater."
I closed my eyes. Annie, I wish I knew how to help you. If only I hadn't let you meet me at that gutted church, in the stricken Hope Nation city of Centraltown. But for my folly, you'd be whole, rather than languishing in a clinic undergoing hormone rebalance, to our mutual humiliation. I wondered if any of the Academy staff knew the nature of her illness. Rebalancing was seen as shameful, and discharged patients were patronized if not ostracized. I myself struggled with those very feelings.
Tired, helpless, I grunted vague responses to Dr. O'Neill's prattle until I could ring off. Though I hated the embattled city of New York, I yearned to chuck everything and jump on the next suborbital. Instead, I had to endure two more days of Final Cull. I supposed I could find some excuse for not attending, or tell Commandant Kearsey I didn't care whom he selected, but such an attitude approached heresy. Better to delay my visit another few days, until after Handover.
Still an hour to dinner, and the silent apartment was oppressive. I thrust on my jacket, left my quarters. The Admin Building's brass door handles were polished and gleaming, the compound's walkway meticulously edged. With a start I realized it was the same path on which I'd labored for hours with hand clippers and spade, while my bunkmates were enjoying their Sunday afternoon freedom. Well, I wasn't the only one, and I hadn't earned punishment detail often.
Excerpted from Fisherman's Hope by David Feintuch. Copyright © 1996 David Feintuch. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPART 1 August 4, in the Year of our Lord 2201,
PART 2 October, in the year of our Lord 2201,
PART 3 November, in the year of our Lord 2201,
PART 4 January, in the year of our Lord 2202,