Linda, Jade’s and Chris’s guide when they arrived at the Academy, tells Jade Chris has been beaten.
I got up and followed Linda out into the hallway. Joy hurried after us.
“Return to your quarters, Cadet Meyer,” Linda ordered. “This does not concern you.”
Joy snorted, “Yeah, right.”
“If I must order you a second time,” Linda insisted, “I will be forced to record your insubordination in your permanent record.”
“Go ahead!” Joy retorted. “Do you really think it’s going to amount to much compared to what I’ve already done today?”
Before Linda could reply, I said, “Please let her come, Master Scout. I might need the support.”
Linda’s face softened. “Very well. Cadet Meyer may accompany us.”
I waited for Linda to tell me something more about Chris. When she didn’t, I asked, “What happened?”
“We don’t really know, Jade. The Commander is talking to Cadet Sanford right now.” Linda turned him her head and met my gaze. “All I can tell you is that Cadet Sanford found Chris on the floor, beaten into unconsciousness. He immediately called for medical help and went with Chris to the infirmary.”
“I saw Pete heading back to his room thirty minutes ago,” Joy said. “Why did it take so long to come and get Jade?”
“Please excuse the faculty for putting Chris’s health above alerting you.” Sarcasm dripped from Linda’s tone. “I’ll inform the Commander, so he can change the Academy’s emergency protocols to suit you.”
Joy bristled at the unnecessarily harsh rebuke. “I simply wondered why someone couldn’t be sent sooner. There are plenty of aids, teaching assistants, and even other cadets, that I’d think the Commander could have found a warm body to send with the message.”
“Will the two of you please stop this?” I asked. “Joy, I’m glad I got the news from someone I know, even if it took a little longer. Linda, Joy is just worried about Chris and burying her concern beneath this attitude. Meanwhile, I just want to find out how Chris is.”
That last bit was supposed to just be a simple statement of fact, but my voice broke when I spoke Chris’s name and the emotions I’d held in check rose to the surface. My shoulders heaved once, and then tears streamed from my eyes. Joy and Linda immediately wrapped arms around me and, awkward as it was walking that way, I appreciated their support.
I wasn’t cried out by the time we got to the infirmary, but I took a moment to force down my tears, dry my face, and put on the brightest smile I could muster before we walked through the door. I shouldn’t have bothered, since Chris was still unconscious.
The man I love more than life itself looked horrible. His face was puffy and turning blue-black from the bruising. Both eyes were closed, but his left eye was so swollen I don’t think Chris could have opened it even if he was conscious. Tubes ran into his arms and a bank of machines behind him displayed an array of confusing information. Two doctors watched the machines, discussing them in quiet tones. I had no trouble hearing their words, but had no idea what those words meant.
Pete and the Academy Commander stood on the far side of the room, speaking softly. When he saw me, Pete immediately hurried around the bed and gave me a big hug.
“I would have come and gotten you as soon as Chris was in the infirmary,” Pete told me, “but they wouldn’t let me.”
“I know, Pete. It’s okay.” I kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you for everything you’ve done.”
“I haven’t done anything, Jade. But, when I find out who did this—”
The Commander’s voice interrupted Pete. “If you find out who did this, Cadet Sanford, you will alert my office. You will not take matters into your own hands. Is that clear?”
“I hear you, Sir,” Pete replied.
“That isn’t what I asked you, Cadet.”
“Yes, Sir, that is clear.”
The Commander seemed satisfied with that answer, and his eyes swung to me. “Cadet Cochran, rest assured we’re doing everything in our power to heal Cadet Marlow and identify the perpetrators of this vile act. Do you know anything that might prove useful to the investigation?”
I shrugged, “I don’t know. It was probably someone who felt threatened by him. And, definitely, someone from a Federation world.”
The Commander’s gaze sharpened. “What makes you say that? Have any of them threatened you?”
“No, they’re much too subtle for that. But, Chris and I have been on the receiving end of more than a few carefully veiled insults about our ‘backward customs’ and heard plenty of derisive laughter when we are unfamiliar with some modern convenience. If you want to find people who feel threatened by Chris, start with that crowd. They see themselves as our superiors in every way. That self-image will be destroyed if we turn out to be better cadets than them.”
The Commander looked thoughtful. “I was unaware this sort of thing was happening. Have you reported it?”
“That’s a joke, right?” I asked, my tone incredulous. When the Commander shook his head, I continued, “Do you really think you’d have taken the complaints seriously?”
The Commander’s eyebrows drew down in irritation. “Of course, I would, Cadet Cochran!”
Mimicking a whiny child’s voice, I said, “They’re being mean to us, Commander! They laugh at us and tell us how to do stuff we already know how to do, like use the shower.” I returned to my normal tone of voice. “Can you honestly say you’d have taken any of that seriously?”
The Commander had the good grace to shake his head. “No, Cadet Cochran, I probably would not have.”
“You know,” Pete said, “there are more people who looked bad because of Chris’s accusations. People like Master Scout Zheng. I mean, Chris flat out accused the man holding a bias against cadets from lost colonies.”
The Commander sighed, “I can assure you that Master Scout Zheng had nothing to do with this.”
I folded my arms and stared hard at the Commander. “I don’t really think the faculty is behind this, either, but why are you so certain about Master Scout Zheng?”
“Because he has brought Cadet Marlow’s solutions to me—along with those of several other cadets from lost colonies—every day since class began.”
That caught me by surprise. “Why would he do that?”
The Commander did not meet my gaze. “He is protesting an official Academy order.”
I had no idea what the Commander was talking about, but Joy figured it out. In acid tones, she asked, “You ordered the faculty to ignore cadets from lost colonies? Is that why they never call on Jade or Chris or anyone who isn’t from a Federation world?”
The Commander’s face hardened. “I do not like your tone, Cadet Meyer.”
Julie folded her arms and glared right back at the Commander. “That makes us even. I don’t like the orders you gave. How can you even justify doing something like that?”
“I do not have to answer questions from cadets.”
Linda spoke for the first time since we entered the room. “No, Sir, you don’t. But, I think you should in this case. These cadets deserve the truth, Sir.”
The Commander reflected on her advice for several seconds. “I gave those orders because those orders were given to me by the Federation Parliament.”
Pete could not contain his incredulity. “That has to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of in my life! How can the Parliament even remotely justify that?”
“I will answer that question, Cadet Sanford, provided I have your word that this will go no farther.” The Commander looked at Joy and me. “That applies to you young ladies, as well.”
We all chorused, “Yes, Sir.”
“This Academy is a very high profile experiment for the Federation. Nothing like it has ever been tried before. Every lost colony cadet has been carefully selected from amongst the best his or her colony has to offer. Whether you like it or not, a lot more is riding on the success or failure of each cadet from a lost colony than ever rides on the success or failure of Federation cadets.” The Commander stood and began pacing. “Parliament fears any failures by lost colony cadets—especially, washing out—will be perceived as an intentional insult to the lost colony the cadet represents. Insulted colonies will, almost certainly, become less friendly toward the Federation, jeopardizing both political and business negotiations.”
Looking dumbfounded, Pete said, “So, they told you not to call on cadets from lost colonies because you think an entire world is going to be embarrassed if the cadet gets the wrong answer?”
The Commander nodded, “That’s essentially correct. After four weeks, if the cadets from lost colonies show sufficient mastery of the subject matter, we may begin calling on them in classes.”
“Wow!” Joy exclaimed. “And I thought those snooty cadets from Federation core worlds were bad! Jade, have you ever been more insulted in your entire life?”
I shook my head, “No. And I cannot imagine how Chris will feel when he hears this!”
“Hears…what?” a weak voice asked.
I hurried to the bedside and saw Chris’s right eye flutter open. “How are you, Chris?”
“Fog-bound… Academy has…good drugs.”
“But, even with the drugs you do know who I am, right?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
Chris’s lips twitched up at one corner. “Partner in adventure… Love of my life… Future mother of my children.”
I felt my face relax in relief and my own mouth stretched out in a smile. “Yeah, and don’t you ever forget it!”
I wanted to continue being sweet with Chris but the Commander had different ideas.
“Cadet Marlow, do you know who attacked you?”
“No… Wore masks… Didn’t speak… Security recordings?”
The Commander shook his head, “No, the recordings have been mysteriously erased. If you don’t know who attacked you, we may never find out.”
“Pete?” Chris asked.
“Yeah, buddy, what you need?”
“My data pad. Turned on…audio recording…when they came in.”
The Commander nodded in understanding. “Perhaps they said something after you fell unconscious. If so, a simple voice print analysis will identify them! That was good thinking, Cadet Marlow.”
Chris’s attackers did speak after he passed out. But none of us needed a voice print analysis to identify them.
Who attacked Chris and what will be done about them? Find out in Chapter 22, coming Wednesday.