Location: London, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies
One Mississippi…two Mississippi…
<Breath in…breath out.> Ben took the calming breaths.
Three Mississippi…four Mississippi…
It was amazing how sitting at a door for less than five seconds could mess with a person’s nerves. Ben knew this tactic well. He’d sat next to his father while the man did this to visiting CEOs or planetary delegates. It was a simple power play. It told whoever was knocking on the door that they didn’t hold any authority here. From the little Ben knew about Fleet politics this was only the opening act.
“Come in.” The voice was muffled by the expensive wood, but Ben didn’t hesitate to obey.
The door slid open soundlessly and Ben found himself staring out into the sky. Despite being a Fleet officer who had been into space several times; suddenly being exposed to a direct view of two and a half kilometers up made his head swim. <Move,> Ben told his legs, knowing this was another power play. <Make them know who is in charge and then hit them with a display of power.>
Ben tore his eyes away from the glass wall directly ahead of him and turned to his right. There was a short hallway with a small nook containing what looked like a chunk of metal before it opened up into the admiral’s office.
A Rear Admiral in the Commonwealth Armed Forces was the second highest rank attainable by an officer. In the Fleet, a rear admiral could hold a couple different positions. The first was a staff position leading a department for a fleet. This gave the officer the experienced needed to one day command a fleet of his or her own. Traditionally, fleet level staff positions went to senior rear admirals who were being evaluated for command. The second position available to the high ranking officers was a field position as a task force commander. Due to sheer size of the Commonwealth, very few systems or even sectors earned a full fleet presence. The next unit down in the organizational structure was a task force; which was normally a contingent of warships broken off from a fleet. This could be anywhere from a handful to dozens of ships; it just depended on the situation. Since task force command was a good progression from ship command, but not as taxing as being a department head for an entire fleet, this position went to newly minted rear admirals.
Ben didn’t know as much about the rank responsibilities of his infantry officer counterparts, but he did know that an infantry rear admiral typically was in charge of a planetary invasion force in the field, or a corps in garrison. An infantry corps is the highest unit structure in the Fleet’s military counterpart, numbering roughly a million soldiers. Needless to say, anyone with the four golden stripes of a rear admiral had more responsibility than a twenty-six-year-old lieutenant could possibly comprehend.
All of this went through Ben’s head in the second and a half it took him to traverse the small hallway and emerge into the office. The office was massive and just a luxuriously decorated as the area the hawkish commander reigned over. The carpet looked like spider silk from Arachna, one of the Corer Worlds with an indigenous population of horse-sized spiders. The silk was the planet’s primary export good, and was sought all over the Commonwealth. Gold, silver, and other precious metals and stones glinted in fixtures and from behind high density security polymer display cases. There had to be ten million dollars in conversation pieces throughout the office, and that didn’t even include the expensive art decorating the walls. Ben couldn’t be certain, but he swore there was an original Van Gogh hanging behind the admiral’s desk. Even coming from a blue-blooded, blue-eyed family this was extravagant.
Ben took it all in as he smartly marched toward the Admiral’s desk. He stopped three paces from it, snapped to the position of attention, and announced himself. “Lieutenant Gold, reporting as ordered, Sir.” If Ben had been in the infantry he would have added a salute to the reporting process, but the Fleet didn’t require that.
Rear Admiral Johnathan Helms sat behind his desk reading his PAD. He didn’t look up. He just continued to read the electronic document in front of him. It was another power play, so Ben sat there and took it. He was a lieutenant and this man was a rear admiral. Even with Ben’s pedigree this man was clearly the one holding all the cards.
When Ben first arrived at First Fleet’s Personnel Department he’d done his due diligence. He researched all of his bosses, including the man sitting before him right now. Ben knew that the admiral was one hundred and eighty centimeters tall, and his enhanced black skin and eyes were the result of genetic mutation from the first colonists to settle the sub-tropical planet of New Kingston. Ben knew that the admiral had come up through the tactical school, and had commanded everything from a frigate on freighter escort to a battleship in combat against the Eastern Block. It was due to those commands that the admiral could attribute much of his wealth.
Due to the sensitive nature of ship design and its impact on interstellar warfare, it was very hard to capture enemy ships; but the Commonwealth encouraged it whenever possible. It even offered an incentive of twenty percent remuneration to the captain and another ten percent to the crew who were able to pull it off. Rear Admiral Rear Johnathan Helms had a reputation for two things; winning battles and capturing enemy ships. When a captured battleship went for a few billion dollars it became a lucrative business.
Ben waited another twenty seconds before the admiral acknowledged him. “At ease, Lieutenant.” The older man put down his PAD and looked up at Ben.
From the admiral’s reputation, Ben expected cold calculation and ruthlessness in the man’s eyes; just like the commander in the lobby. What Ben saw were deep laugh lines on the man’s face, and calm, reassuring eyes. Instead of the brilliant strategist, Ben saw a loving uncle who would sit for hours playing with nieces and nephews. More than the wait at the door, the sudden look into the clouds, and the waiting at the position of attention; the admiral’s face threw Ben off the most.
The admiral saw this, and he smiled. The smile was more along the lines of something Ben expected. Like an eagle that would protect its young, but that didn’t stop it from being what it really was, and airborne predator.
“Lieutenant Gold, please have a seat.” The admiral’s voice had pleasant, accented rumble to it.
“Thank you, sir.” Ben lowered himself into the seat. The nano-fibers adjusted to the contours of his body and took all the pressure off his back and shoulder’s. He almost sighed in relief.
“I’ve been reading up on you, Lieutenant.” The admiral leaned back in his chair casually. “Top of your class out of Columbia’s Fleet Reserve Training Curriculum, an excellent rating on your Midshipman Evaluation Form, along with a glowing letter of recommendation from your detachment’s Commander.” The admiral didn’t need to read off his PAD to list Ben’s accomplishments. “After graduation you entered the Fleet Reserves and signed an active contract in exchange for assignment preference after your doctoral studies; a Ph.D. in Intergalactic Relations.” The admiral raised his eyebrows in respect.
“Yes, Sir.” Ben didn’t know what else to say when the senior officer paused.
“You’ve been with us in Personnel for the last few years and earned high marks in everything from annual evaluations to extracurricular,” the admiral chuckled. “Your boss managed to added that your one hell of a fencer to your fitness report in the last fifteen minutes.”
The admiral was putting Ben at ease, so Ben smiled back, but still remained professional. “Yes, Sir. She’s not too bad herself.”
That favorite Uncle look was back on the admiral’s face. “By all accounts you are an exemplary officer, Lieutenant Gold. Do you have anything to add?”
“I start my thesis presentation tomorrow, Sir.” It wasn’t an addition as much as a clarification.
“Good luck.” The sentiment was genuine. “And that’s the reason I’ve called you here today.”
Ben didn’t know why, but he tensed up. The smile vanished from his face and the admiral noticed. “Don’t worry, Lieutenant, you aren’t in trouble. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.”
“Sir?” Ben said before he could stop himself. He still wasn’t quite sure what he’d done to earn a meeting with a rear admiral.
“From your time with us I’m sure you are aware of promotion regulations, probably far more than I am.”
Ben didn’t know about that. “I’m proficient, Sir.”
“Good. Because this conversation is about your future.” A mixture of exhilaration and dread filled Ben’s gut.
The admiral retrieved his PAD and punched in a few commands. Ben’s PAD, which was in a secure pocket on his thigh, pinged softly. The admiral nodded, and Ben retrieved it. On the screen was a short bio Ben wrote back when he first started at the Personnel Department. It had the basics of who he was, what he’d done, and what he wanted to do. Clearly listed were his five and ten year goals. Ben had forgotten he’d written this, and that he was almost at that five-year mark.
“I’m more interested in what you have listened under your ten-year goal,” the admiral stated.
There were two things listed under the ten-year goal slot; making Lieutenant Commander, and being accepted into the Diplomatic Relations Corps. “Sir, I…” Ben didn’t know what to say.
“Here is what I have in mind.” The older officer was reclining in his chair again. “Thesis presentations take a few days, a few more for the committee to make a decision; so let’s call it a week total. It would be less anywhere else, but they’re a bit pretentious over at Oxford.” Ben was grinning despite himself, not at the joke but at what was happening. “Once you achieve your doctorate you’ll be eligible for promotion based on academic achievement.”
Ben’s grin morphed into a smile. Officer promotions were handled in zones based upon your commission date, time in service, and your evaluation reports. On average it took a lieutenant eight years to make the jump to lieutenant commander. Some people saw it in six, others in ten; but most of the officers Ben talked to said that eight was a good benchmark. Making the jump in four was unheard of; especially in the Fleet Reserve.
“Don’t look so surprised.” The admiral’s expression was warm, but his eyes were focused. “Diplomatic Relations is a critical needs specialty, and having a doctorate in intergalactic relations makes you an ideal candidate. However…” Ben’s momentary high ended in a sudden plummet back down to earth. “…I’m sure you’re aware of the Corps requirements.”
Ben was aware of the requirements, he’d memorize those years ago; and he felt stupid for getting his hopes up. The Diplomatic Relations Corps had two requirements. First, you needed to be an officer in the rank of lieutenant commander or higher, or a noncommissioned officer in the rank of chief petty officer of higher. If everything worked out like the admiral had planned, Ben would meet this requirement soon. It was the second requirement that was a problem. All officers of the Diplomatic Relations Corps needed to have command experience. Being a commander meant that you had exercised Commonwealth authority sometimes weeks out of the communications loop. Commanders had a lot of autonomy within the Fleet to make decisions. With the powers of command came some serious responsibility.
“I need command experience,” Ben answered the admiral’s unasked question. He couldn’t help the defeat that crept into his voice.
“Yes you do.” Unlike Ben, the admiral didn’t look discouraged at all. “So I’m prepared to give you that.”
“What!” Ben couldn’t help himself.
Getting a promotion ahead of his peers was one thing, but getting command was something entirely different. His doctorate made him eligible for promotion, but getting a command so soon would mean he was jumping a bunch of other officers who’d been waiting in line for god knew how long. Ben wasn’t sure how he felt about it.
“You’re not going to be getting a cruiser, destroyer, or even one of those rust-bucket frigates that they’re about to mothball.” The admiral’s face was serene as he explained it all. “What I can get you is a gunboat command at the ass end of nowhere. The boat I have in mind is finishing construction, and will be shipping out in the next few months. You’ll go with it, you’ll do a six month tour scouting asteroids and doing commerce inspections, you’ll get some experience under your belt, and then you’ll come back to Earth to start your diplomatic training.”
<This is too good to be true,> and Ben realized it had to be. Nothing in this world was free, even the rich had to pay; sometimes more than anyone else, and with currency more valuable than money.
“That is a dream come true, Sir; so you’ll understand if I’m a bit apprehensive.” To Ben’s surprise the admiral smiled.
“It’s good that you’re apprehensive.” The friendly uncle look was gone. The admiral’s face was more calculating now. “You’ll only get so far in the Fleet with good evaluations and a can do attitude.”
Ben knew that. In a perfect world that was all it would take, but in reality you needed more. You needed patronage, mentorship, or straight up cash to climb the ladder. Ben knew of commanders who’d served decades in a rank without making captain, and that was because they didn’t play the game. Ben hadn’t played the game before, but his family were grand masters of it, and it seemed like it was time for him to enter the fray.
Ben kept his expression respectful because his question wasn’t. “What do you want?”
The admiral was silent for a while, just like when Ben reported in. His black eyes scrutinized Ben, the flecks of blue dancing in his sclera. Finally, he gave a nod.
“The next Admiral’s Board is approaching,” the rear admiral explained. “If I set the path for you to achieve your dream, I’d like your family to back mine.”
<There it is. Quid pro quo, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.> The thing about it was that Ben got just as much out of it as the rear admiral did.
Ben got a bump in rank, the experience he needed to live his dream, and the patronage of a full admiral. As far as military contacts went, Rear Admiral Johnathan Helms was someone Ben could hitch himself to and ride to the top. The admiral might be playing the political game necessary to reach the top, but Ben knew the man was also competent. If he wasn’t, Ben’s answer might have been different.
“Yes, Sir. I’ll be happy to put in a good word for you to my father.”