North American Federation Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island
“Which one is he?”
Vice Admiral Eriq Cafferty looked up from his flexscreen at the sound of his attaché’s voice behind him and rubbed his eyes with one hand. The unforgiving steel bleachers he sat on played havoc with his lower back, and the squeaking of sneakers on the polished hardwood floor from the far side of the gym was starting to give him a headache. He twisted one hip, trying to get a bit of relief while at the same time politely facing his questioner.
His attaché, Lieutenant Commander Alejandra Basilio, was looking across the wide gymnasium at the sweat-drenched recruits crashing and banging into each other. Behind her sat a bald man in civilian clothes. His eyes were shut, most likely going over neuretics information. The two of them along with Cafferty had entered the gym a few minutes earlier and took a seat as far away from the action as they could to observe unseen.
It was obvious to Cafferty that the young officer candidates were blowing off steam. Today marked the nine-week milestone in Officer Candidate School, and these six, five men and one woman, passed their Victory Runs the previous day. As of today, they were regarded as Candidate Officers, a position of some esteem and authority within the twelve-week long OCS class. According to Cafferty’s flexscreen, all distinguished themselves in one way or another, and passed each and every one of the NAFN’s toughest tests along the way. But only one had unanimously blown away the instructors with his mettle, determination, and intelligence. Not to mention scoring off the charts in raw skills, Cafferty thought. As best as they could be measured.
“The blond,” he said to Basilio.
Basilio squinted. “Ah, sir, two of them are blond. At least I think so. They’re all dripping with sweat,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
Cafferty smiled. “The big one.”
“Oh, the banger, not one of the bangees,” she replied.
Cafferty slid his flexscreen closed and pointed with it. “Yes, banger.” He waved the tube. “He’s been giving the instructors a hell of a time keeping him challenged on the courses. I’m sure you’ve seen the results of…damn.”
The flexscreen tube slipped from his grasp and clattered onto the metal bench in front of them, then bounced down through the bleachers, striking several more benches on the way down to the floor. The sound echoed off the walls, and the sneaker squeaking ceased.
Cafferty heard a low, “Oh shit,” from the game, then a much louder, “Admiral on deck!”
The six on the court snapped to attention facing the bleachers as the basketball bounced lazily away, coming to rest near the far door. Cafferty let the silence linger for a few moments, thankful for the rest it gave his ears, then waved a hand.
“At ease, Candidate Officers,” he called out. As one, the six went to sharp parade rest. He heard their low breathing sounds as each of them attempted to maintain a perfectly still composure while trying to catch up on oxygen. Tops in their class, he thought as he stared across the gym. These are the young men and women who will be leading us into the next decade, taking over for me and my generation’s bad backs. He twisted his other hip and felt a small, satisfying crack.
He waited a few more moments, then said, “Candidate Officer Gabriel, report on the double.”
A tall man snapped to attention, then jogged towards the two officers on the bleachers. Upon reaching them, he came to rigid attention again, staring at the wall above their heads.
“Officer Candidate, er, Candidate Officer Evan Gabriel, reporting, sir!” the young man said.
Cafferty chuckled. “Took me a while to get used to all the different names I was assigned during OCS as well.” He looked back at the other five, who were still at parade rest, and saw several curious glances in his direction. He waved his hand again. “Back to the game, candidates.”
The five looked at each other uneasily. Finally the lone woman in the group walked over to the basketball, picked it up, and threw it two-handed into the chest of one of the others. The game, or grunt-laced brawl, picked up where it had left off.
Cafferty folded his hands on his lap and turned his attention back to the young man in front of him. “Tell me, son. How does an additional title of Regimental Commander sound?”
One eyebrow rose almost imperceptibly on Gabriel, but his gaze never left the wall. “Quite an honor, sir!”
“An honor I understand you deserve based on what I’ve been told by your instructors. You’ll be nominally in charge of several other candidates for the final three weeks of school. Is command something that interests you?”
“Absolutely, Admiral,” he replied with a tiny nod. “It’s why I applied to OCS.”
Cafferty returned the nod. “And your friends out there,” he said, glancing at the basketball game. “Can you command friends? Send them into battle? Send them to die?”
He saw Gabriel’s jaw clench. Good, emotion, thought Cafferty. Can’t have robots in the Navy.
“Sir, I don’t have any friends,” he replied, and Cafferty caught a minute change in the tenor of his voice.
Gabriel’s file, the one Cafferty had pored over that morning on the flight in from Toronto, read like a Greek tragedy. Lost his mother to a rare form of untreatable cancer when he was only nine. Lost his father in an accident in the immediate aftermath of the Shanghai asteroid event when he was twelve. Lost his older brother when he had unexpectedly left Earth several months ago to pursue business on New Tokyo. He had no other immediate family, and he enlisted in the Navy, with the backing and help of his only other surviving relative, an uncle, a Navy man himself. He bounced around from one location to another, never staying in one place long enough to create any connections.
When Gabriel was a noncom serving in South Africa, he applied for Officer Candidate School. His commanding officer put in a glowing recommendation, part of which said that Gabriel would most likely be his commanding officer within a few years if he was granted entry.
What the file didn’t technically say, but Cafferty easily understood, was that Gabriel was alone and had been most of his life. He put his heart and soul into the military, and his achievements and grades during the first three quarters of OCS showed it. Looking at the square-jawed young man standing in front of him, hazel eyes boring into the wall, Cafferty knew Gabriel had been meant for something greater than grunt work. He suspected the man was destined for an important future.
“You have three more weeks of OCS,” said Cafferty. “After which time you will graduate to O-1, an Ensign, and be assigned to a North American Federation Navy regiment either on Earth or off-world. Do you have any preference as to where you’ll be sent?”
“No, sir,” Gabriel said immediately. “Happy to serve wherever I’m sent, sir.”
“While we both know everyone has some type of preference, I appreciate your flexibility,” said Cafferty with a small smile. “And that is the correct answer, of course.”
“Admiral, if I may?” said Basilio, and Cafferty nodded.
“Mister Gabriel, what are your goals?” she asked.
Gabriel shoulders shifted. He blinked twice, but regained his composure. “Ma’am?”
“Your goals,” Basilio repeated. “Why are you here?”
Gabriel opened his mouth to reply, then closed it. After a few moments, he answered, “I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m not sure what you mean.” His eyes never left the wall behind the bleachers, but Cafferty saw a flicker of uncertainty in them.
Basilio leaned forward. “Why did you enlist in the Navy, Mister Gabriel?”
Gabriel cleared his throat. “I’m not entirely sure, ma’am. I… I had nothing else. And it’s something…” He paused.
“Go on,” said Cafferty.
Gabriel’s lips twitched and he blinked deeply. “It’s something I thought I’d be good at. And I feel I am good at it, ma’am. Sir.”
Cafferty nodded slightly. “That you are, son. Seems as though you may have found your calling.”
He turned to Basilio. “Anything else, Lieutenant Commander?”
She shook her head. “No, sir. That’s all I wanted to hear.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Cafferty caught Gabriel’s gaze shift slightly to the man who sat two rows behind Basilio. Cafferty saw that the man had focused his eyes on Gabriel like targeting lasers.
“Never mind him,” said Cafferty. “He’s just an observer. From another department.”
“Sorry, sir, I…” Gabriel began, only to be cut off by Cafferty’s raised hand.
“No worries. Please,” he said with a wave, “rejoin the game. If I recall from my OCS days many years ago, you’ve only got a few hours open today, then it’s back to the grind.” He stared into Gabriel’s eyes. “But I’ll be watching you, son. Following your progress. I think you have a great deal of potential, Mister Gabriel. Don’t waste it.”
Gabriel’s posture tightened. “Aye aye, sir. Thank you, sir!” he snapped, then spun on one heel and jogged back to the court.
Cafferty watched him go, then grimaced as the pain in his back shot through his system once again. “What do you think, Alex?”
“I think it’s an excellent class, Admiral,” she replied. “And I think that Gabriel is obviously the standout. I also think…”
“I want him.”
Cafferty turned at the sound of the voice behind him. The man in civilian clothes stood up and stepped down the rows of metal benches, his clanging footsteps competing with the sneaker squeaking from the far side of the gym.
“You can’t have him, Pete. You know that,” said Cafferty as the man reached the bottom of the bleachers. “At least not yet. He needs to get his feet wet first.”
“Then get them wet, Eriq,” replied the man. “Authorize an accelerated pay grade jump. Bump him to O-2 right away. I know you can do that.”
Cafferty shook his head. “And he needs trial by fire. Isn’t that what you’re always asking for when you cherry-pick my finest?”
“Put him under fire,” said the man as he glanced over his shoulder at the basketball game. “You know there’s a shitstorm brewing in the Canary Islands. And you know you’ll be sending people, regardless of the election results next week.”
The man turned towards the rear door. “Give him a wartime command. Get him to O-3. Then give him to me.” He walked out of the gymnasium without another word.
Cafferty watched the twin steel doors swing shut behind the man, then looked back towards the court. The six recruits were banging into each other, harder than before, as their time off wound down. He saw Gabriel posting up a heavier but shorter man, backing him down into the paint while dribbling. Just as he was about to turn and shoot, the young woman darted in and picked his pocket. She fired the ball back to the top of the circle where her teammate waited. His uncontested jump shot snapped the netting as it sailed through the basket. Gabriel’s expression at the minor failure was pure disgust.
“Admiral, may I ask who that man was?”
Cafferty answered without turning from the game. “An old friend from Naval Special Warfare doing his own recruiting.” He stood and stretched his back. “Every now and then he stops by to see a class. I suppose Gabriel caught his department’s attention as well as ours.”
“And you’re okay with that?” Basilio asked as she stood up.
He smiled. “As long as it’s only every now and then. Sometimes a young man or woman comes along that doesn’t belong in the regular Navy. Someone meant for something bigger.” He watched as the recruits played on, sweat soaking through their workout clothes, turning the gray fabric black. “And this time, it seems to be young Mister Gabriel.”
The two officers stepped down the bleachers. Cafferty stooped to pick up his dropped flexscreen tube and grunted as his back pain flared up. Basilio quickly bent and retrieved it for him.
“Thanks, Alex,” he said. “I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“None of us are, sir.”
Basilio walked towards the doors as Cafferty took one last look at the court. The bodies were crashing together once again. He heard a voice yell, “C’mon, big E, is that all you got?” He smiled and turned towards the door to follow Basilio out.
Good luck, Mister Gabriel.