Nervously, Jellena tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. She wanted to be pacing this pastel coloured hallway, but that wasn’t what Peace Keeper Special Investigators did. Not even nervous cadet ones. And she was very nervous. Why had Director Symes asked to see her? She knew her grades hadn’t been as good as they could be, but she wasn’t flunking. Was she?
Her nerves gathered together in the pit of her stomach, which started to churn in an unpromising fashion. Jellena recognised the sensation. The last time she’d felt it was six months ago, just before she’d sat the entry exam for the academy. I threw up three times then. She gulped. I can’t throw up here in the hallway or, worse, in Director Symes’ office!
But just as she considered looking for the comfort stations, the door of Director Symes’ office slid open.
“Cadet Batrice, please.”
Jellena swallowed, hard, and forced herself to stand up. Then, on trembling legs, she walked into the academy director’s office.
The first thing she noticed was that Director Symes sitting behind his desk looking down at a datapad, although he looked up as she walked in. Then her eyes fell on a badged special investigators officer standing just to Symes’ left. For some reason, she found herself staring at him. He was slightly under average height with light-brown, close cropped hair and a pair of humorously sparking blue-grey eyes, which, she realised, were looking straight at her. Jellena blushed and snapped her gaze to a spot on the floor.
“Cadet Batrice reporting as ordered,” she mumbled.
“At ease, Cadet,” said Director Symes, an amused note in his voice.
Jellena tried to relax, but the knots of tension in her shoulders refused to quit.
“I’ve called you here to discuss your current studies,” Director Symes continued and Jellena felt a cold jolt of fear stab through her gut. “I’m going to be frank, Cadet Batrice; you’re not fulfilling your potential. Your academic grades are in the barely acceptable range, which concerns me, but what concerns me more is your standing in your physical classes.” There was a brief pause. Jellena risked looking up and saw that the director had picked up the datapad on his desk. “At your last assessment, you came bottom out of the entire class in both marksmanship and self defence; you also managed to achieve a new, and unwelcome, first for the academy as the first cadet to fail to finish the assault course.”
Jellena dropped her gaze to the floor once more as her cheeks burned with humiliation.
“It’s not too late for you to change your mind and switch to training for the research department,” Director Symes continued. “Although you’re struggling in with some of your theory classes at the moment, if you drop the physical courses, I am positive you can make up those marks.”
It was a way out. But it wasn’t the dream she’d had ever since she was a kid. “I want to be a field agent, sir,” she managed to say.
Director Symes heaved a sigh. “Then, I cannot put this too bluntly.” This was it: This was when Director Symes was going to kick her out. “You are in the last chance saloon, Cadet Batrice. Another failing assessment and I will have no choice but to terminate your attendance here.”
Jellena swallowed. She hadn’t been kicked out. Yet. “I, I won’t let you down, sir.” Somehow, though, the words sounded hollow to her ears. Who was she kidding here?
“I hope not,” said Director Symes.
Jellena waited for the dismissal, but it didn’t come and eventually she plucked up the courage to look up once more in time to see the badged officer nod.
“Lieutenant Delacarte here,” Director Symes explained, gesturing to the badged officer, “has been seconded to the PT staff here at the academy for the next six months. He has volunteered to work with the remedial students, such as yourself.” Again Jellena’s cheeks burned hotly. “In this instance, no-one is failing in quite such a wholesale fashion. So for the next two months, which is the time between now and your next batch of assessments, you will be receiving one-on-one tuition from Lieutenant Delacarte.” Lieutenant Delacarte inclined his head a little and offered a fractional smile. “We’ll see how you do.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jellena answered, sensing that was the appropriate response. “I won’t let you down.” This time the words came out a little less nervously.
Director Symes nodded. “See that you don’t. Dismissed.”
Jellena somehow managed to make her way out of his office and even a couple of steps down the hallway before her knees gave out and she collapsed to the floor, sobbing in mixed relief and humiliation. She hadn’t been thrown out but her position couldn’t be much very much worse. How had she screwed up so far?
“Easy there.” The voice was soft and was paired by hands gently soothing down her spine. “Here; let me help you.” Jellena allowed the voice’s owner to gently lift her from the hallways floor and guide her over to the nearest bench. “Are you going to be OK?” the voice continued. “Or do you want me to call for someone from Medical?”
For the first time, Jellena got a look at her rescuer and she realised that it was Lieutenant Delacarte. “No. I’ll be fine,” she answered, her words brusque with humiliation. “You don’t need to baby me.”
Lieutenant Delacarte lifted an eyebrow and gave her a quizzical sort of look. “Baby?” he echoed. “I just want to make sure you’re not going to pass out between here and your dorm room. I wasn’t aware that was ‘babying’.”
Jellena blushed. “Oh,” she murmured in a small voice. “I’ll be fine.”
Lieutenant Delacarte started to stand up again, then paused, thought better of it and sat once more. “Just on a hunch,” he said, “did you make any time for breakfast this morning?”
She stared at him. What the hell kind of question was that?
“Director Symes makes a habit of first-thing meetings,” he continued, ignoring her silence. “And I know I was never able to eat before hand, so here’s a suggestion: how about I take you out to breakfast?”
Of the speech, only one thing actively penetrated Jellena’s befogged mind. “You got hauled in to see Director Symes?”
“On occasion,” Lieutenant Delacarte agreed, a disarmingly sheepish smile on his face. “Whether you know it yet, or not, everyone finds some part of the course here difficult. There’s a reason for that. Special Investigators have to be able to cope with the toughest assignments and the heaviest responsibilities. The training is designed to make sure that every graduate can cope.”
“So I’m not a complete and utter failure?”
He smiled again. “No.”
Despite herself, Jellena found she was warming a little to the officer. He seemed to be a nice guy; she just hoped that impression wasn’t a false one. “Do many cadets end up this close to flunking out this soon in their course?”
“Enough that Director Symes usually asks for two or three officers to mentor cadets who’re struggling. Look, I can tell you more but even if you’re not hungry, I’m starving; I only found out about this meeting an hour ago. Before that, I was still being checked over by the medical staff.”
Jellena stared at him. “Pardon?”
Back came the sheepish smile. “I’ll explain over breakfast; I’m not taking no for an answer.”
“All right, all right,” Jellena groaned. “I give in.”
Lieutenant Delacarte smiled. “Good. Let me show you the best place for pancakes in the whole of Tospa.”
Twenty minutes later, Jellena found herself dressed in civvies and seated in a diner that would have looked as if it had come from an earth history book on the 1950s, except for the clientele which was a peculiar mix of races from around the galaxy. She recognised the Vendrons and Istensi present and she thought there might have been a couple of Malchiars as well, but the rest she had to simply assign the term ‘alien’ to.
“Now,” said Lieutenant Delacarte, who was also dressed in civvies, “are you eating while we’re here, or do you just want some coffee?”
To her general surprise, Jellena actually realised she was hungry. How had she gone from wanting to puke to wanting to eat in such a short space of time? “I guess I’ll try those pancakes you mentioned.”
Lieutenant Delacarte nodded as the waitress stepped up to their booth. “Hi Minella,” he said. “Two pancake stacks and as much coffee as you can spare.”
The waitress, a Medusan with a full head of lilac-coloured tentacles that draped down her back and twitched with an apparent life of their own, smiled. “You got it, Parish. By the by,” she added, “we got cinnamon buns back on the menu again. You want some?”
He grinned. “They’re more Rob’s thing than mine, but I’ll be sure to tell him they’re back.”
Minella grinned in response. “OK, then. I’ll bring your coffee right out.”
And with a twitch of the tentacles, she departed.
“This whole place belongs to Minella,” Lieutenant Delacarte explained. “She waitresses here still because, as she says, why pay folks to do something if you’re not prepared to do it yourself?”
“You come here often, then?” It was a stupid question and Jellena knew it.
Lieutenant Delacarte, for his part, just nodded. “I used to come here all the time when I was in the academy. Rob thought I was sweet on Minella, but I wasn’t; this was just somewhere friendly I could come and work on assignments in peace.”
Jellena stared. “This is peace to you?” she asked, gesturing as if to encompass the babble of the busy restaurant.
Lieutenant Delacarte tipped his head back and laughed. “Believe me, if you’d ever shared a room with a party animal Celuch, you’d have a whole new definition of peace.”
“You didn’t get on with your first year room-mate?”
“Oh, we got on,” Lieutenant Delacarte replied, “but he was very social, so if I wanted to work, I had to find somewhere else to work.”
“Ah.” Jellena considered this for a few minutes. She had always considered that schoolwork had to be done in complete silence, with no distractions. That was part of the problem she’d been having in her academic classes; they always seemed too noisy or distracting.
Minella returned bearing a carafe of very rich looking black coffee, two cups and a jug of cream. “I know you take your coffee black, Parish, but I wasn’t sure about your new friend here.” Then, as she set the carafe down on the table, she turned to Jellena. “I’m sorry, I should have said earlier; my name’s Minella, the owner of Minella’s Diner.” She flashed a toothy smile. “Welcome.”
“Uh, hi,” said Jellena a little shyly.
“Any friend of Parish’s is a friend of mine,” Minella continued. “And any time you want some good home cooking, you just come on over here. The coffee’s always on and the pancakes are always fresh.”
Under this friendly barrage, Jellena mustered a smile. “Thank you.”
“Any time, hon. Five minutes for the pancakes,” she added. “Dex is just doing them now.”
“Whenever they’re ready,” Lieutenant Delacarte replied. “Thanks Minella.”
Jellena watched as the diner owner moved out of earshot. “She seems nice.”
Lieutenant Delacarte chuckled. “She is nice.” He poured out a cup of coffee. “How do you take it, by the way?”
“Uh, with cream and sweetener,” Jellena answered.
Lieutenant Delacarte nodded and duly added the cream and sweetener and handed her the cup. “Enjoy.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Jellena, finally remembering propriety.
Lieutenant Delacarte made a great show of looking over first one shoulder then the other. “You mean me?” he asked. Jellena blushed. “OK. Let’s get one thing straight. Neither of us are on duty right now. I’m Parish; got that?”
Jellena ducked her head in embarrassment. “OK.”
“Do you have a preferred short, or do you go by your full name?”
“Jellena,” she mumbled.
“Jellena it is, then.” He took a sip of coffee. “So, What did you want to hear first? Why I was in medical or about the secondment programme?”
Jellena gaped. Surely the former was none of her business while the latter must have been something she should have already known about?
For his part, Lieutenant Delacarte rolled his eyes. “OK, this isn’t going to work if every time I say anything, you freeze up like a frightened rabbit. I’m not some scary ogre or some kind of avenging angel who’s gonna swoop down on every little mistake and get you canned from the academy. I’m just a regular guy. I’m twenty-three—”
“You’re twenty-three and a lieutenant?” Jellena exclaimed. “I thought—but—I…”
Lieutenant Delacarte held up a hand. “Stop. Breathe.”
Jellena swallowed and tried to do as he suggested. It didn’t help. “How?” she asked.
“I was top of my academy class and was seconded straight to the anti-slavery task force. They thought a young officer would be less intimidating for some of the victims.” Lieutenant Delacarte sighed. “They were right.”
“Too many and not enough.” Lieutenant Delacarte shook his head and offered a faint smile. “It’s not something that’s easy to talk about. I did two years as a negotiator, then they gave me a promotion and transferred me to Tospa to work on a related investigation.”
Sparing Jellena from needing to find a response to that, Minella came back. This time, the waitress was carrying two steaming stacks of pancakes and a jug on her tray.
“Here you go, kids,” she said, setting the contents of the tray on the table. “Dig in while they’re hot – and just holler if you need any refills.”
“Will do,” Lieutenant Delacarte answered. “And thanks.”
Minella smiled and departed again.
The jug, Jellena discovered, was filled with syrup. She watched Lieutenant Delacarte pour a liberal helping of the sticky substance on his pancakes. He offered the jug to her, and she accepted it but only poured out a small puddle beside her pancake stack.
“Not a syrup fan?” he asked.
Sheepishly, Jellena answered, “I’ve never tried it before.”
That earned her a warm smile. “Then I hope you like it.”
For a couple of moments, at least, there was an awkward silence between them, while they ate.
“I guess,” said Lieutenant Delacarte once the silence had become too much for him to bear, “we’d better go back to the beginning, because this really isn’t going to work out if you’re so intimidated by me that everything I say makes you tense up.” He offered up that sheepish smile again. “So. My name’s Parrish Delacarte. I’m twenty-three. I’m originally from Artez III, but I’ve been living in Tospa for the last—” he paused and, to Jellena’s amusement, counted on his fingers. “Five, coming up on six years. I made lieutenant last August, and I’m currently nursing three broken ribs, thanks to someone pushing me over a wall last night,” he finished with a rueful smile.
Despite herself, Jellena winced. “That sounds painful.”
“The scary thing is Rob – the guy who pushed me over the wall – actually did me a favour.” Jellena blinked. “It was a light fight with a bunch of Antarians. There was one coming up in my blind side, Rob saw them, I didn’t and…yeah.” He rubbed the back of his neck in a sheepish gesture. “I feel pretty silly about the whole thing.”
That was something Jellena could imagine all too easily. The memory of her efforts on the assault course loomed large.
“So, that’s me,” Lieutenant Delacarte said. “How about you? What’s your story?”
“Me?” Jellena blinked. “I—I thought Director Symes would have told you everything.”
“About your grades, maybe,” he replied. “I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about who you are. Where you’re from. Why you’re so determined to become a Special Investigators Field Agent.” He smiled faintly. “I know when I joined the academy, I didn’t know which branch I was really going for until at least the middle part of my first year and I didn’t have to firmly decide until my second year.” His smile broadened into a grin. “Well, OK, I knew I wasn’t going for Medical, but they have a separate entry requirement anyhow.” At that, Jellena mustered the briefest smile. “But you were pretty damn certain about the Investigators so…?”
Jellena sighed and looked down at her pancakes. “You think I’m dumb for that.”
“Not even slightly,” came the unexpectedly vehement response. “The academy likes it when cadets have some clue about what they want. I’m just curious about why you want it so much…”
“…when I suck so badly at the physical side of it?” Jellena finished.
“If you want to put it that way,” Lieutenant Delacarte said.
“What other way is there to put it?”
“Narrowing your options.”
Jellena snorted and pushed the remains of the pancakes away. “It’s OK, you can tell me I suck. I know I do.”
“OK. Rule number one: You might be struggling but you do not ‘suck’ at anything. Think you suck at something and you will suck at it.”
“But nothing,” said Lieutenant Delacarte forcefully. “Attitude is half the battle with anything. The moment you think ‘can’t’, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So,” he finished, “why the field agent path and not the research path?”
“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” Jellena answered. “I like solving puzzles and I want to make the universe a better place and I know I could have joined the militia on Linella Prime but–“
“But Linella Prime’s a quiet sort of place. Not much going on,” Lieutenant Delacarte completed, nodding. “I see.”
“You see what?”
“That it’s a really long held desire and you’re not going to change your mind about it.” He smiled. “That is OK, you know?”
“Only if you succeed.”
Lieutenant Delacarte rolled his eyes. But just when Jellena expected another lecture on attitude, all he said was, “So, I’m guessing you had a few ideas about what the academy was gonna be like?” Jellena nodded. “And I’m guessing that they don’t exactly tie to how you’re finding it?”
“It’s nothing like what I expected,” she admitted, looking down again. “Everything’s so—so noisy. And—and the other cadets aren’t how I pictured and—”
“And maybe you’re scared to admit your ideas were wrong,” he suggested gently.
“Maybe.” Jellena’s voice was small. “Or maybe I’m not cut out for this.”
“If you weren’t, Director Symes would have already canned you,” said Lieutenant Delacarte. “If you ever got selected in the first place. You know there’s a cut made after the first twelve weeks of the course, right?”
“That weeds out the folks who really aren’t cut out for a role in any branch of the Special Investigators. They’re pretty obvious, once you know what Director Symes and the faculty are looking for. Dex, for example. The chef here. He was academy intake the year after me. His parents wanted him to join. He only barely scraped through the exam and by the end of the first twelve weeks, he was only too happy to have Director Symes hand him his discharge.”
“But Director Symes must get it wrong sometimes.”
“He is, allegedly, a mere mortal and not actually omniscient,” said Lieutenant Delacarte with amusement, “so yeah, sometimes he does get it wrong. But not as wrong as you’re trying to make it. Answer me this: Do you still want to join the Investigators as a field agent?”
“Then keep that thought in your mind and you’ll get there.”
“It seems so far away.”
“Then we’ll break the task down until it’s a manageable size. We’ll start with self-defence, because I think that’s the area you’re weakest in. The marksmanship is a lot easier to remedy – most folks have some basic idea of how to aim and your marks suggest you’re in that category.”
“How can you tell?”
Lieutenant Delacarte huffed with laughter. “You hit the target you’re aiming at. It might not be the right place, exactly, or the shot you’re supposed to be going for, but you’re still on the right range. Someone who can’t aim won’t even manage that much.”
“I need to speak to the PT department, to see when they’ve got facilities available, so I’ll comm. you with some time slots once I know that and you can let me know which of them will work around your current class schedule. And, in the mean time, there’s one thing that you can do.”
“Join a springball club.”
Jellena blinked. “Uh, why?”
“Hand-to-eye coordination,” said Lieutenant Delacarte, “is kinda key in almost anything you do. If you don’t like springball, you can try something else, but whatever you pick it needs to be something you’re going to enjoy and something you can do in your downtime.”
“I—I like springball.”
“OK, then.” Lieutenant Delacarte smiled. “You done?”
Jellena looked up to see him gesture towards her plate. She nodded.
“OK.” He waved to Minella, who stopped by to drop off the check. “So, I’ll comm. You a bit later today with those details and, with a bit of luck, we’ll be able to get started after the holiday.” Jellena nodded. “Are you doing anything for that, by the way?”
“Studying,” Jellena answered.
“That’s all you plan on doing?” Lieutenant Delacarte sounded sceptical.
Jellena flushed. “I’ve got so much ground to make up.”
“Maybe so but all work and no play won’t help in the long run. A Special Investigator isn’t on duty twenty-four/seven.” Lieutenant Delacarte suddenly smiled. “Here’s a thought. You’re free to say no, but I think you’ll like it: How ’bout you meet me at the academy rec centre tomorrow afternoon?”
“A couple of friends of mine have challenged me to a game of springball. I was gonna back out, because Rob – my usual partner – isn’t going to be fit to play, but, maybe you’d like to come along instead?”
Jellena stared for a moment. “But I—I haven’t played since before I came to the academy and I’m out of practice.”
“I’m willing to take that risk. That gives you an afternoon off and you’ve still got a couple of days for study. What do you think?”
And to her own surprise, Jellena found herself saying, “Okay.”
That got Lieutenant Delacarte smiling again. “Meet us at fourteen hundred, outside the rec centre, all right?”
“OK.” Jellena nodded. “I—I’ll be there.”
Lieutenant Delacarte smiled again and stood up. “See you then, then.”
And with that, he departed, handing the check, plus a collection of credit chips, to Minella as he went.
Jellena sat where she was for a few moments, trying to collect her thoughts. She’d just agreed to play springball with at least one (and presumably several) senior officers. Her. A cadet. Was she insane? Cadets didn’t do that kind of thing.
Or maybe they did and she’d had her head rammed too far up her own rear to realise it.
She should go hit the library and try to get a start on the case law analysis assignment. Or go over her notes for the procedural test. Or there was the history essay. Or—
Jellena dropped her head to the table and groaned. This was hopeless. How could she waste tomorrow afternoon playing springball? She had far too much work to do.
“You mind if I give you some friendly advice?”
Jellena lifted her head from the table and realised that Minella had now come across to start clearing away the dirty dishes. “Sure.”
“If you try and do it all, you’ll end up doing none of it.”
Jellena blinked. “Huh?”
Minella slid into the seat Lieutenant Delacarte had vacated. “You’re a cadet with the Special Investigators, and that’s a hard thing to do. I’ve seen a lot of you kids come in here when you’ve been struggling and if there’s one thing I’ve picked up it’s this: You can’t do it all. So you need to prioritise. And you need to find a balance in what you do because if you don’t, you’ll burn out. I’ve seen that too. It’s not pretty.”
“But if I don’t do it all I’m going to fail.”
“Are you?” The tentacles twitched. “Or are you failing because you’re trying to do too much?”
“I—” Jellena stopped and frowned.
Minella reached out and gave one of Jellena’s hands a gentle squeeze. “You say you’re failing and I’m guessing they’ve put you on special measures, with Parish taking you under his wing. Am I right?”
Jellena felt a surge of anger. “Did he tell you?”
“You’re not listening to me, hon,” Minella retorted. “I told you, I’ve seen a whole lot of cadets come down here. Want to know how Parish knows about this place? He was on special measures for a spell himself and Win’net Androvan, his mentor, brought him here. So, trust me, I know the situation.”
Jellena flushed and ducked her head. “Oh.”
“So le’me guess some more. You worry about the area you’re failing in. It sits on you like a heavy weight. It takes up all your thinking time so you can’t concentrate on anything else, so you fail some more and the whole thing starts again. Am I right?”
“Then the biggest thing you’ve gotta do is break the cycle.” Minella gave Jellena’s hand another squeeze.
“You say that like it’s easy.”
“We both know it isn’t. But here’s a way to start: tell me what assignments you’ve got right now and when they’re due.”
“I, what?” Jellena looked up. “Why?”
Minella took out her waitress’ notepad. “Don’t argue; just tell me.”
And to her surprise, Jellena found herself doing exactly that. In all, there were six assignments and three tests all due within the next month. Listed out, it sounded even more daunting than she’d previously considered, but to her amazement, Minella merely smiled.
“Piece of cake,” said the waitress.
“OK. You’ve got this test here a week today, right? Well you need to study up for that, sure. You’ve also got an assignment for your history course, which is due first day after the holiday. That’s another you’ll need to tackle over the break. This analysis for Dr Szanada, though? That’s not needed until the end of the month. Even if you only look at it for five minutes a day between now and then, you’ll still be more than ready. The forensics paper isn’t due for two weeks and you’ve got three weeks for the criminology case study.”
“But it still needs to all be done.”
“Sure. But my point is, it doesn’t have to all be done now.”
It was such a simple thought but it felt like a revelation to Jellena. She’d always assumed that it was better to do the work as quickly as possible to get it out of the way – it was how it had always worked in school, when there was always something more to be expected the next night. Maybe that was part of the problem, too. The academy wasn’t like school.
“I could still do the other assignments this weekend though,” she said slowly.
“You could,” Minella agreed. “As long as you set yourself a reasonable set of expectations. This is a month’s work and while I know it’s a break, because of the holiday an’ all, you can’t possibly do it all. So don’t beat yourself up because you can’t or because you aren’t gonna spend the whole time in the academy’s library.”
It was almost the same thing as Lieutenant Delacarte had said before he’d left and, come to think, her roomie had said something similar, if rather blunter. This time, though, it settled rather better against Jellena’s mind. What was it Jazz always used to say? One guy calls you a duck, ignore him. Two guys call you a duck, start to wonder. Three guys, go find a pond and start swimming. Maybe it was time she found that pond and started swimming.
“You want some more coffee?” Minella asked, standing up again.
Jellena shook her head. “No, thanks – I probably ought to be going now anyway.”
Minella gave her a long, scrutinising look. “Uh-huh?”
Jellena managed a smile. “Yeah – I guess I need to buy some springball gear, if I’m gonna play tomorrow.”