It began as a whisper at the back of the auditorium. From the front, the sound was like the ocean building as it more rows picked it up. As the wave grew closer, those at the back stopped whispering and began speaking, and the noise became a cacophony, with the only discernible word being, “Heigeman.”
Paula froze in her seat, resolutely starting at the front of the room, where the Commandant was still trying to carry on with the briefing. No one in the room, not even Paula, was still paying attention. The ocean had swallowed everything.
By the time Heigeman limped to the stage and leaned against the railing to pull himself up the stairs, with his stick-straight left leg making them difficult, even the Commandant had given up. Paula let the waves rock her, and shifted her focus to the podium rather than having to watch Heigeman, or to see the people who were watching her. She didn’t need to see them to know they were there. She was going to be tied to Heigmean for the rest of her life.
When he reached the podium, the Commandant stepped aside for Heigeman without a word. He took his place at the front of the room and silenced the whispers with a look. The sound stopped so fast, Paula almost gasped in the echoing quiet that followed. Silence dragged out, Heigeman’s gaze taking in the entire room searching, until at last landing on her. A chill ran up her spine as he marked her and remained there after he moved on.
It wasn’t until he released her that she realized she hadn’t taken a breath since she gasped, and did her best to recover without audibly pulling in air. Not when the room was still so quiet. They were waiting, all of them, for Heigeman to speak, and he was denying them.
When she finally reached the point where she thought she would scream just for a sound, Heigeman spoke.
“The Yelianik Campaign was a success.”
The ocean roared again, this time from the centre of the room and rolling out, denial and bafflement, as how could he possibly say that? There was no interpretation that could turn the events of the most disastrous campaign of the last decade into a victory.
But the room didn’t know what Paula knew. They didn’t know the true purpose of the Yelianik Campaign. If they had, they would know the losses were irrelevant to those who determined these things. All those lives, the previous Commandant considered them expendable, as did those running the campaign. As did Heigeman. Paula did not, had not. She would never accept that many lives exchanged for any outcome, and certainly not the recovery of an artifact no one understood.
They recovered the artifact. Paula brought it back. Heigeman did not return with it, with her. He was listed among the lost on the campaign when she left him behind Paula. But now, now, he was here, and his triumphant voice was as cold and unyielding as the decision to sacrifice over a hundred ships for merely the hope of recovering an unknown weapon.