Where does this story begin? The normal place to begin any story is at the beginning, but where does this specific story begin? Does it begin with the founding of the Empire of Humanity by Antonino Calegari after the Colonial Revolt and the War of Unification? No, I think not, since the history of the Empire would cover almost one hundred seventy years and many thousands of planets, I think you would probably tire of reading that tale long before you reached this part of that story. Perhaps this story starts at the birth of Jesip Dwight Roger Allen Elder? Again, I think not. Although his whole biography would be interesting, and this story is a critical part of that biography, I think there is a better starting place for this story. Therefore, I pass over his birth and the first twenty Imperial Years of his life in the Duchy of Krasgia, which is in the Kingdom of Sharnalt. Instead, I shall begin after he receives his notification that he passed the first two parts of the mandatory examination for admission into the Imperial Naval Academy. So, I think that the beginning of this story is just after his arrival aboard the I.N.S. GEORGE GEMISTUS PLETHO and just before he begins the last part of his entrance examination. This part being the last challenge he has to face before the Imperial Navy would actually accept him into the Academy.
Jesip Dwight Roger Allen Elder is, at 156 centimeters and 53 kilograms (when measured at one standard gravity), a small man unlike most on Krasgia; nowhere near as large as his name. Nevertheless, since commoners normally have four or five given names, there were after all over ten trillion people counted in the last Imperial Census, he isn’t unusual in that respect. Only the aristocracy, since they each have a title to identify them, normally have just the three names, two given and one family.
Elder’s face is not handsome, indeed you’d probably say it’s ugly instead of plain, since it is full of hard angles and planes. The thick eyebrows on the bony eye ridges meet over the nose that would be voluminous for someone fifty centimeters taller and fade away at the outer edges of the grey eyes set deep in their sockets. On top of his head is a stock of hair that is so black it is almost blue. However, he is intelligent; neither you nor he can dispute that now, given that he passed the preliminary examinations he took to get this close to entering the Imperial Naval Academy. In round numbers, one hundred thousand men and women were eligible on Krasgia this year and thus were required to take the first part of the test, and only about one thousand of them passed it. The second preliminary part of the test eliminated all but about one hundred. It was as part of those ninety-seven people that Elder came aboard the PLETHIO. Not one person who passed the preliminary tests refused to continue the process, not even Elder.
The Navy clerk behind the satin black counter, actually the lower half of a door, was a large balding bear of a man, clearly a veteran of long service. Elder looked at the four silver, 10-centimeter long, slashes just above the cuffs of the indigo blue uniform sleeves and took the second needed to dredge from his memory that this meant the clerk was a Chief Sergeant, a higher ranking NCO.
The Chief Sergeant took Elder’s Identity Bracelet and placed it into the reader. On a terminal next to it sprang up a screen of data that Elder could not read since the terminal did not face him, but he knew that the data was there, and he knew what the data was: his DNA, medical history, financial history, educational history, personal history, and criminal history (he had nothing in that section). After handing the bracelet back, the Chief Sergeant piled three indigo blue jumpsuits on the counter, each with the single silver 5-centimeter disk indicating the rank of Cadet Trainee on the sleeves. Also on them was the silver insignia of the Naval Academy on the left chest, matching the one the clerk had over his five rows of medal ribbons that Elder didn’t know the meaning of. The clerk also had the logistics insignia on his right chest, an area blank on Elder’s new uniform jumpsuits. Elder ran his hand over the top uniform, feeling the high quality fabric. He felt it and thought it was the sort of fabric suitable for an Earl or perhaps even a Duke, not a commoner like him. He had a moment of worry about wearing something made of cloth so fine. He checked out the insignia of the Naval Academy, it was attached by a common molecular-level binding, similar to what was used on the jewelry Elder always wore since he felt people should have something nice to see when talking with him.
The Chief Sergeant returned as Elder finished looking at the uniforms, Elder had not noticed him leaving, with some more equipment. There was two pair of glossy black soft Wellington boots, a small personal care kit, several sets of the undersuit and socks, and a portable computer. While Elder looked these new items over, the Chief Sergeant put a small tote bag on the counter.
His deep voice matching his size, the Chief Sergeant said, “Count each item and put them into the tote, Cadet Trainee Elder. Once you know exactly what your issue consists of, sign and DNA print here to accept the equipment. The Navy will issue you the rest of your gear when you reach the Academy, if you do.”
“Yes sir.” Elder whispered as he reached for the gear since his tenor voice did not have the strength or courage to do any more.
“NEVER CALL ME SIR!” The Chief Sergeant’s face flushed an ugly red in anger as he bellowed nose-to-nose at Elder’s face. “I will call you sir if you make it through the Academy, but you will NEVER call me sir! I am a Chief Sergeant and you will call me Chief Sergeant. Do you understand that, Cadet Trainee?”
Stunned by the shouted reaction to his attempt at politeness, Elder too an involuntary step back. He could only blush, which made him seem even uglier than usual, and knowing that he blushed even more, and stumble out, “Yes Chief Sergeant.” Elder resolved to never make that mistake again, he would always use the proper rank of the individual when talking to someone.
After staring at Elder for another second, the Chief Sergeant straightened up, nodded slightly and growled, “Good. Now make your inventory Cadet Trainee. You will be responsible for this equipment and if you damage or lose it without just cause, you will pay for its repair or replacement.” Once Elder returned to the counter and went through the equipment and placed it in the indigo blue tote bag, the Chief Sergeant slid a legal terminal to Elder so that he could officially accept it all. Elder knew what to do with the legal terminal; he had, after all, been through good schooling.
Glancing at the terminal next to him the Chief Sergeant said, “Very well. You are assigned quarters for the duration of your stay onboard. You will go to Room Seven Fifty Three, just down this corridor,: the now unangry Chief Sergeant leaned over the counter and pointed to his right, “and take the second turning to your left. The number is next to the hatch. Once inside, change into a uniform and await further instructions. Do you understand. Cadet Trainee?”
“Yes Chief Sergeant, I understand. Is there anything else? You said something about more equipment.” Elder spoke more to steady his nerves than to gain information.
“Not now Cadet Trainee. I am done with you. You don’t get the hat and the rest until you reach the Academy.” The Chief Sergeant started to turn away from Elder.
“The hat?” Elder squeaked his question before he could think. He felt a little shamed; his voice hadn’t broken for years.
The Chief Sergeant glared at Elder for a second, then reached off to the side and pulled an indigo blue hat out from somewhere. It had a glossy black visor that was more than large enough to shade the eyes and a 15-centimeter high rigid circular section supporting a flat top that had to be 50 centimeters wide. “Your ground dress hat. You don’t get issued one for wear while you are onboard a ship, it’s too cumbersome to use shipboard. Haven’t you ever seen one before, Cadet Trainee?”
“No sir, uh I mean Chief Sergeant; I’m not from a Navy family.”
“Not even in the Holovids? Surely you’ve watched Holovids, Cadet Trainee?” The Chief Sergeant’s baritone voice was full of wonder as his eyes went wide in pretended shock.
“Oh, yes, now that you mention it, I have seen Navy people wearing it in the Holovids. I’m sorry Chief Sergeant, my mind is a bit jumbled right now.” Elder felt his blush again; he was not making a good first impression with this man who might, for all Elder knew, be important to Elder’s continued participation in this examination.
“That’s all right Cadet Trainee” The Chief Sergeant smiled, not a large smile, but obviously a real smile nonetheless. “Most people taking the entrance examination are a bit shaky in the nerves while waiting for it to start. Now, to you room Cadet Trainee, and get into uniform. They’ll notify you when it’s time for your briefing.” Elder turned to start walking to his assigned quarters. “Good Luck, Cadet Trainee. Yahweh knows you’ll need it.”
“I will? Why Chief Sergeant?” Elder turned back to the counter.
The Chief Sergeant sighed the sigh of those imposed upon. “Cadet Trainee, only about half the Cadet Trainees who get this far pass the test and there are often several casualties. In addition, out of all the Cadets that enter the Academy each class, only about fifty or so become Graduated Cadets. You are on a hard voyage Cadet Trainee Elder.”
Mumbling his thanks, Elder stumbled off to find his quarters. He had never heard anything about the success rate either entering into or graduating from the Academy and the numbers were something he hadn’t expected. He knew how hard the preliminaries had been and when he learned of the attrition rate, after he had passed, he had been shocked that he had passed. But, only fifty graduates each class? Out of how many thousands? How could he compete? Should he give up now and save himself the pain and humiliation? No, Constance had been proud of him when he had passed the preliminary tests especially since she had not passed the second part. He could not o back to face her without at least trying, however much it hurt. It would hurt too much to lose her, and he was not sure that he could live with that pain, although he never understood why she loved him and stood by him.
Then shock hit him, that Chief Sergeant had not once made a comment about Elder’s size or looks. Elder almost stopped in the corridor as he thought about that phenomenon. However, Elder kept going mechanically as he worked his way to realizing that, even as a Cadet Trainee, he probably outranked the Chief Sergeant and the Chief Sergeant, from long experience, was being polite to someone superior in rank.
Once in the small, sparsely furnished, steel-gray room, and changed into his Navy uniform, Elder could only read the various manuals and texts provided to him in the computer database in the room’s computer terminal or sleep, after the approximately half minute it took him to thoroughly investigate the room. He decided that it would be a better use of his time to read manuals, information probably would be more helpful than a nap and he would need all the help he could get. The first manual he read was one on using the standard issue space suit. Elder noticed a locker when he had entered the room, which he discovered contained a glossy white space suit once he opened it, and Elder guessed he would need to know how to use that suit very soon. Strange that there was no training equipment available. He would learn the information much faster with a normal training helmet than merely reading, although he did enjoy reading. Perhaps the hours of grogginess after a session under the training helmet were not acceptable here.
Three hours later, after Elder had scanned through several manuals, “Cadet Trainee, you will put on the space suit provided in your locker.” Elder jumped at the unexpected command, coming as it did from a concealed speaker in the room. He shut off the computer terminal and went to the locker.
It was easy for him to put the suit on, even by himself and with no prior experience. All he had to do was unzip his uniform where needed, step back into the legs, connect the waste disposal unit, slip his arms into the arms of the suit, pull the double-seal fasteners and fold the armored cover over them. Because of the armor and shielding, the suit was a set of rigid barrels and tubes with flexibility only at the neck, waist, elbows, knees and gloves. Even with his lack of experience, and his apprehension, it took less than a minute to get the suit properly on.
Elder took the helmet from the shelf on the right side of the locker and positioned it on the neck ring. Giving it the quarter-turn required, he locked it into place. The shielding on the faceplate was designed to keep all harmful radiation out of the helmet and as a result, prevented anyone from seeing into the helmet, but without preventing the wearer from seeing out.
Elder hit the power switch and then waited the few seconds or the automatic adjustments to fit the suit to him. Then there were the few more seconds for the self-test programming to conclude and report that there were no malfunctions in any of the suit systems. Then he waddled out of the locker and experimented as much as he could in the small room to be sure that he could maneuver the suit safely. Once the noise of the self-test was over, Elder was struck by the silence. The suit filtered out the background noise and the clicks, beeps and boops of equipment signaling to humans that something was happening – the hums, the sounds of metal on metal, the conversations that people had with each other in the corridors of the ship, noise that Elder noticed only when it was absent were missing from his consciousness.
“Cadet Trainee Elder, you will immediately report to Briefing Room Seventeen for debarkation instructions. You will bring all issued equipment and any personal belongings you may wish to bring. You will not, repeat not, bring your civilian clothing.” Elder could not find the hidden speaker, not that it mattered, but he did try.
Shrugging in the suit was impossible, so he stopped trying after a moment. Picking up the tote bag holding everything the Navy issued him and attaching it to some clips at the waist of his suit, Elder trudged to the door of his room. It opened for hi at the touch of the control.
Outside his room, he could see no indication which direction Briefing Room Seventeen was. There was an enlisted Marine in the Forest Green version of the jumpsuit standing at rest nearby, a Leading Private. Elder plodded over to ask him which way to go.
“Cadet Trainee, all briefing rooms are aft. There are ten briefing rooms per deck. I am under orders not to provide any other information concerning your testing.” The Marine, now at attention, snapped the information at Elder just as soon as Elder started walking toward him.
“Thank you Leading Private, but how do I get aft?” Elder asked, as he got closer to the Marine. He did not want to repeat the mistake he made earlier with the supply office Chief Sergeant. Elder did not know if this was part of the test and feared to learn, the hard way, that it was.
“Cadet Trainee, I am under orders not to provide any further information concerning your testing.”
“Thank you Leading Private.” And, since he could see no other recourse, Elder turned and plodded back to his room. The door would not open. Therefore, the computer terminal within the room, and all the information in the computer databases, was no longer available to him. He tried his portable computer on a panicked hunch and found that it had a database about this ship, along with several others. Once he had that database, he started walking away from his room. It did not take long for him to determine his present location and the direction aft was, so he headed off to Briefing Room Seventeen after stowing his computer on another clip on his suit instead of back in the tote bag.
As he plodded along the ship’s light brown corridors, he soon met some other people in glossy white space suits, each one of them acting as if they were searching for something or someplace. Try as he could, Elder was unable to speak with them, and after a few tries, he decided that his communications equipment was inoperative. He hoped the Navy would repair it before the test if the radio was important for the rest of the test. Although, now that he thought about it, maybe the Navy was responsible for the problem. The self-test when he first activated the suit had not notified him of any malfunction in the communications equipment. In fact, it had stated that there were no malfunctions in any of the systems. And, if his communication equipment wasn’t working, how had he been able to communicate with the Marine or hear the announcements earlier? The Navy was testing him, it had to be. Elder prayed silently that he would pass this test.
The others in the corridors soon entered rooms, but none of those rooms was the one Elder was looking for. He was alone in the corridor when he finally found Briefing Room Seventeen, primarily because he had been searching on the wrong deck. A simple mistake, not rechecking the deck plans, but one that took Elder several minutes to realize. He was the tenth person in a space suit to enter the room. Nine other space suits stood between him and the Lieutenant at the desk, almost completely blocking his view.
The Lieutenant standing behind the desk began speaking as soon as Elder was in the room. “Silence Now that everyone is present, I will begin your briefing.” The Lieutenant’s thin tenor voice came over the suit audio system, more proof to Elder that the Navy was deliberately playing with his communications. “I will not brief you very thoroughly concerning this examination, since to brief you fully would invalidate the examination. If you make it through this stage, you will enter the Academy as part of the next available class. You will either succeed or fail as a team; individual results do not count; only the results of the entire team will count as far as entering the Academy. The examination is scheduled for one hundred seventy five Imperial days. Failure to complete the full duration of you examination period is grounds for disqualifying the entire team. Each separate testing location will have a separate team. Each team will be the size of the group in this Briefing Room. You are to expect to be without aid or assistance from the Navy, except for certain stored material on your testing site, for the remainder of you examination. You are to solve this stage on your own. Notwithstanding this, in the event that you find yourselves in a situation that you cannot resolve by yourselves, there is a panic button located on the bridge. Once you press that button, you have terminated your examination and the Navy will remove you from the testing site. You will now depart here and proceed to the Hanger Bay where you will board the transportation to your testing site. This briefing is over. Carry on Cadet Trainees.” The Lieutenant sat and began working with the computer on his desk.
The Cadet Trainees turned and plodded out of the room. Elder tried to talk with the others and discovered that his communications gear was not working again. If the Navy kept switching the gear on and off like this, how would he know if it failed for real? Elder hoped he would never have to learn that bit of information. In the passageway outside the Briefing Room, a Marine Senior Corporal silently beckoned the Cadet Trainees to follow her. She led them down the corridors to the Hanger Bay and then stood and watched them as they went through the Hanger Bay blast doors, with Elder bringing up the rear, appropriately as he thought.
As the group walked toward the Hanger Bay, Elder pondered the situation so far. The Navy was trying, successfully, to keep him off balance. Activating the self-test on the suit as he plodded along at the rear of the group, Elder discovered that nothing was wrong. At least, nothing was wrong according to the self-test program. Could Elder trust that program? He decided that he had to trust it until it was obvious he could not. And, so far, the only part he could not trust was the communications gear. The Navy did not want the Cadet Trainees to compare notes it seemed, which was the reason for the periodic inability to use the communications gear. Elder came to that conclusion just as he entered the Hanger Bay.