The wind howl was barely audible as Alicia stepped out of the elevator. It was still there, though. Not so much heard, as sensed. And although the air inside Camp Cochrane's main administration building was kept at a toasty 23°, and despite the fact that her uniform's smart fabric would have maintained a comfortable body temperature even if it hadn't been, she shivered. She'd grown too accustomed to the bone-deep warmth of Jepperson's summer for the abrupt transition to the middle of winter in Old Earth's Argentina Province's high Andes Mountains.
She walked briskly down the well lit hallway, following the map of the building which Admin had uploaded to her through her neural receptor. The map showed only a very limited portion of the administration building, of course. She didn't need all of it, and she wasn't a bit surprised by the fact that the Cadre insisted on a strict interpretation of the need-to-know rule, especially here. Camp Cochrane was to the Imperial Cadre what Camp Mackenzie was to the Imperial Marines.
It was also very large.
Alicia had arrived in the middle of the night, and also in the middle of a snowstorm. Or, at least, she'd thought it was a storm until a real storm blew in the following morning. The darkness and flying snow had kept her from forming more than a very vague impression of Cochrane on her arrival, but she'd seen enough to be a bit disappointed. Somehow, she'd assumed that the central headquarters facility of the famed Cadre would consist of more than a handful of nondescript weather domes, none of them more than three or four stories tall.
Her initial disappointment had become something quite different when the air car transporting her from Valparaiso Spaceport to her new temporary home had passed through a portal in one of those "nondescript weather domes" and she'd discovered just how large they actually were. They might not go up very far, but they went down a long way, indeed. Her own temporary quarters were fourteen stories below ground level, and she'd been astounded by the number of people who seemed to spend most of their time termite-swarming around the interiors of Cochrane's vast, buried structures.
She still didn't understand where they'd all come from, not given the Cadre's constitutionally mandated numerical limitations. Either there was something seriously wrong with her math, or else the Cadre had a simply enormous logistical tail and very, very few shooters, which seemed a contradiction of everything she'd ever heard about its operations.
At least seventy-five percent of the people she'd seen so far were in civilian clothing, like Colonel Gresham, too. After spending the last two-plus standard years of her life surrounded by uniforms, Alicia found that a little disconcerting. But she was once again the newest kid on the block, and she'd made up her mind to possess her soul in patience until someone got around to explaining things to her.
Which, she thought as she turned a final corner and saw the numbered door of the office which was her destination, is about to begin now, hopefully.
She slowed as she approached the door, but before she could knock, it slid silently open in front of her. She quirked an eyebrow and stepped through the opening.
There was an anteroom on the other side, with pleasant pastel-colored walls and a viewscreen set to window mode. The view of almost horizontal, wind-driven snow was scarcely homey, but the illusion that she was looking out an actual window was almost perfect. There were several comfortable chairs, but no sign of any other living human.
"Please be seated, Staff Sergeant DeVries," a voice said. It was obviously a computer's voice, and Alicia wondered whether it was a full cyber-synth AI. "Major Androniko will be with you shortly."
"Thank you," Alicia replied. She managed to keep her tone conversational, although the truth was that cyber-synths made her more than a little nervous. She didn't have the sort of phobia where they were concerned which the neo-Luddites treasured, and her own ability to sustain a synth-link made her quite comfortable about claiming a computer without an AI as an extension of her own merely human capabilities. But she also knew that a cyber-synth personality was exactly what it was called: an artificial intelligence. And one that wasn't all that tightly wrapped, by human standards.
She'd met several aliens in her life-more than most people her age, probably, given her father's position in the Foreign Ministry-and none of them had ever bothered her the way AIs did. She didn't know why. Perhaps it was just that the intelligence behind those alien eyes had at least evolved the same way hers had, rather than being whipped up to order from scratch in a cybernetics lab somewhere. Or perhaps it was the … eccentricities and well-known instability the cybernetics types still hadn't been able to remove from the cyber-synth equation.
She pushed that thought aside, selected a chair, and leaned back comfortably, watching the blizzard.
The delay, as promised, was brief.
"Major Androniko will see you now, Staff Sergeant," the same computer voice said, and another door opened, this one in the inner wall of the anteroom.
"Thank you," Alicia said once more, and stepped through the door.
The office on the other side was large and efficiently laid out. At first glance, it seemed like an awful lot of space for the single, tallish, dark-haired woman sitting behind the outsized desk which faced the door. But a second glance made it clear that the office's occupant actually had very little available free space. Alicia had seldom seen so many chip files in one place. The hard data storage stacks in the Emperor's New College main library had been bigger and more extensive, but she couldn't remember any place else of which that had been true. And arranged among the chip file cabinets and the standard data terminals were even bigger, clunkier storage cabinets-the sort that actual hardcopy documents might be tucked away inside of.
Unlike many of the people Alicia had seen here at Camp Cochrane, Major Androniko was in uniform. Not in the black tunic and green trousers of Alicia's Marine uniform, but in the green-on-green of the Imperial Cadre, with the starship and harp insignia of the House of Murphy on her collar.
"Staff Sergeant DeVries, reporting as instructed, Ma'am," Alicia said, coming to attention, and Androniko cocked her head to one side as if to see her better.
"Stand easy, Sergeant," the major said after a moment. "In fact," she pointed at one of the two chairs in front of her desk, "why don't you go ahead and sit down? This is in the nature of an entry interview, and it's probably going to take a while, so I believe we can probably afford to dispense with military formality for the moment."
"Thank you, Ma'am," Alicia said, although to be honest, she wasn't positive she wanted to abandon the comforting familiarity of proper military conduct. Androniko smiled faintly, as though she knew exactly what Alicia was thinking, and waited while her visitor settled herself into one of the chairs and its powered surface adjusted to the contours of her body.
"Now then, Sergeant," Androniko said then, "I'm sure you have a lot of questions. People always do at this point. So why don't I give you the quick ten-credit virtual tour, and then we can address any questions that remain unanswered?"
She arched one eyebrow, and Alicia nodded.
"Very well." Androniko tipped back in her own chair, propping her elbows on the armrests and steepling her fingers in front of her.
"First, as it says right here -" she unsteepled her hands long enough to point at the nameplate on her desk "-I'm Major Aleka Androniko. For my sins, I am also Brigadier Karpov 's executive officer, which makes me Camp Cochrane's second-in-command."
Alicia managed not to gawk at her, but it wasn't easy. The thought that a facility is important as Camp Cochrane could have someone as junior as a mere brigadier commanding it seemed bizarre. For that matter, the number of people she'd already encountered, assuming her experience so far represented anything like an average density for the entire base, seemed awfully high for any brigadier's command she'd ever heard of. And a major wasn't usually a brigadier's XO, either.
Or, she admonished herself, not in the Corps, anyway.
"No doubt," Androniko continued, "you've noticed what appear to be rather a large number of cadremen and cadrewomen about the place, given the statutory limitation on our total manpower. Actually, those people represent a certain amount of Senate-approved cribbing on our part. Most of them-all of the ones in civilian dress-are technically civilian contractors, not cadremen. In fact, virtually all of our senior 'civilian contractors' are, like Colonel Gresham, retired cadremen and cadrewomen. Many of them were invalided into early retirement, but their own time in the Cadre gives them invaluable experience and skills which we badly need. The Senate has decided we can put them on retainer as civilians to provide the trained manpower we need, especially here at Cochrane and our other central command and control nodes.
"Despite that … accommodation on the Senate's part, however," the major continued, "the sad truth is that the Cadre is always short of personnel. We have a far lower ratio of tail to teeth then any of the other services, including the Marines. In fact, we don't have all of the logistical capability we actually need to support our shooters out of our own resources, which is why we call on the Marines and the Fleet for support for many of our operations.
"The reason we're always shorthanded has less to do with any sort of constitutionally-mandated limitations than it does with the fact that the supply of suitable manpower is, frankly, severely limited. Finding and recruiting Cadre-quality men and women is a constant challenge, Staff Sergeant. The popular view that the Cadre consists of supermen and women isn't just a matter of the 'Cadre mystique,' I'm afraid. We're not really superhuman, of course, but drop commandos-and over eighty percent of our personnel are drop commandos-require certain very specific physical and mental qualities. Some of those are similar to those required by Marine Raiders and Recon, which is one reason we tend to use those duty assignments as a filtering system. Others are qualities which no standard Marine specialization requires. And others, quite frankly, have more to do with motivation, attitude, and loyalty which go far beyond any purely physical capabilities."
Androniko paused, as if to permit Alicia to digest what she'd already said. After a moment, she resumed.
"I'm not going to go into a great deal of detail about those 'specific physical and mental qualities' just now, Sergeant. To be totally honest, until we've completed your medical and you've been processed through the standard testing regimen, we can't be absolutely positive you possess them in the combination the Cadre requires. Our screening process has been steadily improved over the years, but there's simply no way to make it perfect, and we still lose about eight percent of all of our prospects at this stage. I don't expect that to happen in your case, however, because our pre-recruitment dossier on you was exceptionally thorough."
"It was, Ma'am?" Surprise startled the question out of Alicia, and Androniko smiled slightly.
"I think you might say that, yes," she said. "You first came to our attention when you were only fourteen. The standard battery of tests given to all students in their final form of high school often picks up potential Cadre recruits, and yours were … fairly outstanding, I think I might say. And you have an interesting personal pedigree, even for a Cadre recruit."
Alicia frowned, and Androniko smiled again.
"Oh, but you do! Take your mother's family-New Dubliners for over three hundred years. Loyalty to the House of Murphy's practically a planetary fetish for New Dublin, and then there's your grandfather -the most highly decorated Marine on active duty, I believe. Or your Uncle David, one of the youngest Fleet commodores in imperial history when he was killed. And your mother, Chief of Thoracic Surgery at Johns Hopkins/Bethesda of Charlotte, and very highly thought of in her field.
"And that's only the O'Shaughnessy side. Your father is just as 'ineresting,' isn't he? A farm boy from Silverado, and an Ujvбri, to boot, with three doctoral degrees, and G-20 rank over at the Foreign Ministry. One of the top three or four people in the Ministry's permanent policy formulation staff."
Alicia suppressed another, deeper frown, surprised even now by Androniko's familiarity with her family history, and the major shrugged.
"We do a thorough background when we get test results like yours, Sergeant. It only makes sense to eliminate as many potentials as we can as early as we can, so we can concentrate on the ones who're going to make good prospects. And we tend to take the long view when the indications are good. We have to, because of how stringent our standards are and the limitations on how we can recruit.
"We're legally prohibited from actively recruiting anyone, regardless of test results, before they're at least eighteen standard years old, and the Cadre's policy is that we won't accept anyone who hasn't completed at least one combat tour in either the Marines or Fleet. We've made a few exceptions to that policy, primarily when we've seen someone with qualities we need in Cadre staff officers, given how we're always starved on the support side, but the age requirement is set by law and can't be set aside. However, when someone's test results are sufficient to pop through our filters, we generally flag that individual for future consideration. When, as in your case, they eventually join the military, we keep an eye on them and occasionally intervene to … customize their career tracks."
Alicia blinked. Was that why she'd received the Recon assignment she requested out of Camp Mackenzie? Sergeant Major Hill had warned her she probably wouldn't get it-were her high school test results the reason he'd been wrong?
"One thing you have to understand, Sergeant DeVries," Androniko said, "is that all of your life, like every man or woman who ever joins the Cadre, you've been one of the 'one-percenters.' You've always been in that rarefied top one percent of the people doing whatever you were doing at any given moment in your life. But here in the Cadre, that level of capability and performance is the norm. You may or may not continue to stand out from those around you, but if you do, you'll find that doing so just got much more difficult. The Cadre comes as close as any organization in the history of mankind to being a true elite. The scores we require for our enlisted personnel are higher, by a very considerable margin, than those required for admission to the Fleet Academy on New Annapolis or the Marine Academy on New Dublin. There isn't a single cadreman or cadrewoman who doesn't have the inherent capability and talent to be a Fleet admiral or Commandant of the Corps. Indeed, one of the regular service branches' most persistent-and, in many ways, best taken-complaints about the Cadre is the way in which we skim off their own potential officers for our own use.
"I'm telling you this not to give you an inflated opinion of your own capabilities-one of the mental qualities we require is a certain resistance to delusions of grandeur-but to warn you. If you pass the medicals, you will find yourself working, quite possibly for the first time in your life, with people who are every bit as capable, self-motivated, and accustomed to succeeding as you are yourself."
She paused again, then chuckled.
"One reason why I tend to emphasize that point during these little interviews is that it was one I had trouble with, myself. I regarded myself as an extraordinarily capable human being before the Cadre put the arm on me, and I suppose I was. But it was a well-deserved humbling experience to discover that in this group, my level of capability was taken for granted, not marveled at.
"And now, let's move on to some of the nuts and bolts. First, among the physical qualities I mentioned before are synth-link capability and the ability to multitask at a very high-level, even under conditions of maximum stress. In addition to that -"