Copyright 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

"THE CHOSEN FEW" BY PAUL S. GIBBS

 

CHAPTER ONE

The promotions list had been posted, all right--but I wasn't on it.

With growing incredulity I scrolled through the long list of names, ranks, serial numbers and postings. Among my people surnames are unknown, and that does occasionally confuse the Combined Forces computers. I was sometimes amused to find my "first name" listed as "Lieutenant," and a confused set of question marks--meaning "data missing"--in the "rank" column.

But I reached the end of the list, a Centaurii j.g. whose unpronounceable name began with seven Z's, without finding my name at all. I leaned back in my chair, my tail lashing in agitation, the claws of my right hand drumming on the desktop. This was…contrary to expectations, as our ship's surgeon might have said.

The officer's quarters aboard ESV Zelazny were impressively large, even luxurious, easily twice the size of those aboard any other CF vessel. But far more than mere size, it was the little things, the options if you will, which had always impressed me most. "Personalized environments," for example: the ability to tailor the conditions to suit one's own comfort. I'd spent considerable time perfecting my program, and was inordinately proud of it; so much so that I had set it to run automatically every time I entered the room. As I sat in my workroom that evening, the light around me was dim and magenta, a brighter spot falling upon the desk. The faint sound of clicking tatak-wood wind chimes played pleasantly, randomly, just at the threshold of my hearing. I inhaled the rich, sweet scent of late-second-summer Lamnia blossoms, mingling with air in which the oxygen content was slightly higher than ship's norm. Usually it served to comfort me, to remind me of home; like their computers, the CF tended to design their living spaces for the convenience of humans. At that moment, however, nothing in the universe could have comforted me. In fact I was damned mad.

Zelazny was in transit between hypertunnel nodes. Late last night we had completed the fifth jump of an extremely long journey, one which would take another two weeks and ten jumps to complete. Our ultimate destination was a frontier outpost, a half-built space station on the edge of a newly-opened sector. With the ship's computers running flawlessly, and little to occupy my mind, my time on the Control Deck crawled by like the stars in the view-screens, every second taking a separate eternity. I processed the data dump from CF Headquarters early in my shift, routing it to the proper departments as per standard procedure. I might have sneaked a peek at the list then…but Lieutenant Commander Goodwin was on watch, and despite his happy-go-lucky exterior he was tough as a brush demon on P&P. Both he and I knew that the promotions list was not for the eyes of the crew until the First Officer had reviewed and publicly posted it.

And so I'd had to wait. Reminding myself, as both the humans and my own hunting ancestors had it, that patience is a virtue, I somehow made it through my shift, occupying myself with a redundant but officially-sanctioned diagnostic scan of the computer core. When finally I was relieved, I hurried through a meal--oblivious to what that sight would do to the appetites of the others in the Officer's Mess--and retreated to my quarters. I made myself more comfortable, exchanging my uniform for a day-robe and a softer collar--and then I pounced on my terminal. And now this.

Abruptly I made a decision. This was not helping: I could stare at that list until doomsday, and my name still wouldn't be on it. My people have a saying, loosely translated: "Time to quit stalking and take up the chase." And if there was ever such a time, this was it. I flicked the intercom. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla to Control."

"Control," came a familiar, friendly voice, with a soft and lilting accent. "Singh."

"Commander," I said formally, conscious that others might be listening, "where is the captain, please?"

"One moment, Lieutenant," she replied. "I'll check."

As I waited I grimaced, exposing teeth in an expression which was by no means a smile; a soft growl escaped my throat. That was the number-one problem in my life right now, that one word: Commander. Technically, Lieutenant Commander, true; but either way it opened up a gulf between Aparna Singh and me--one that had never existed before. She trained me when I was posted to Zelazny five years before; and when I was promoted to full lieutenant six months later she organized the party. More recently I had helped her celebrate her own promotion. The day-robe I wore was made from brightly-colored madras silk, a birthday gift from her just a few weeks before, direct from her home on Terra. In private she insisted that there was no division between us, that our friendship was the same as it always had been. From her point of view, perhaps; but from where I stood, something felt different.

"He's in his office," Singh said finally, breaking through my morose thoughts.

"Thank you," I said, and I clicked off before she could ask why I wanted to know. With a sigh I stood and reached for the uniform I had quitted just a few minutes before. Time to quit stalking indeed.

###

The drop-shaft deposited me on the fourth level of Zelazny's crew decks, directly opposite the captain's office.

At that point in my Combined Forces career I had served under two commanding officers--but of course I was familiar with the reputations of many others, and I knew very well how incredibly lucky I'd been to be posted under Captain Isaac Haliday. Despite being a legend in two branches of the Combined Forces--his Naval exploits were the stuff of legend--he had the reputation of being quite approachable, and fiercely loyal to his officers and crew. But nonetheless, it was with a certain trepidation that I neared his office. In truth the captain and I had never had much contact with each other: I was the second-shift Compcomm, on duty when he was rarely on the Control Deck. He did know my name; but that could simply have been because I was the only Sah'aaran on board, and my fuzzy face was fairly unmistakable. Perhaps this was a very large mistake…

But I had come this far, even changing back into my uniform, and--more importantly perhaps--had anyone happened by, I would have looked ridiculous standing there dithering in the corridor. Finally then, I forced myself to touch the door chime. I heard the brisk voice from inside, "Enter!" and the door rumbled aside.

Fortunately the captain was alone; I had interrupted no vital ship's business.. He sat at his bare desk, leaning far back in a chair that seemed too small for him, a palm-reader in his hands, a cup of coffee and the remains of a sandwich at his side. His feet were on the desk as well.

He looked up quickly as the door closed behind me. Were it not for that sound, he might not have noticed me at all, despite my long orange mane. Unlike most of the crew I wore no boots; and to human ears my footsteps were practically silent. More than once I'd been roundly cursed for "sneaking up" on someone, when I thought myself as loud as a flatulent maxigrazer.

"Lieutenant Ehm'ayla," he said in surprise.

"Excuse me if I'm bothering you, sir," I said. "May I speak to you for a moment?"

"Of course," he smiled. "Please sit down."

The captain's office, a room no more than four meters square, was not a space he used very often, and it showed. There were just three pieces of furniture, all fleet-issue: a desk and two chairs, grey and nondescript. On the walls were a few framed holos, shots of his previous commands. And that was all. No more was needed, though: Captain Haliday could make the bleakest room seem vibrant just by being there.

Sixty-two years old, a native Terran, he stood a little over two meters tall, and if there was a milligram of excess fat on his body, I don't know where he'd hidden it. His hair was wavy and silver, not yet white; his eyes grey and piercing. He'd spent the first thirty-five years of his CF career in the Navy, and out of respect to that branch he still preferred to wear their olive-green uniform rather than Survey grey. And out of respect for Haliday, the Admiralty let him.

I sat, perching myself awkwardly on the room's only other chair, while the captain bustled rather self-consciously about, sending the dishware down the disposal chute and setting the palm-reader aside. "Would you like a cup of coffee, Lieutenant?" he asked.

I suppressed a shudder. "No, thank you, sir," I said.

"You know," he commented affably as he sat down across from me, "All those years I spent in the Navy, I never had an office. Never thought I needed one. But it does rather grow on you after a while. They knew what they were doing when they designed this ship."

I had no reply for that. He leaned back, his hands clasped over his flat stomach, gazing earnestly at me and giving me every iota of his attention. "Now," he said, "what can I do for you, Lieutenant?"

"Well, sir…" I began, and fumbled to a halt.

"I take it," he said helpfully, "that something is troubling you. I can't recall that you've ever asked to see me before."

"No, sir," I said. "I haven't." I took a deep breath. "It's the promotions list. It's just been uploaded from HQ--"

"Has it really?" he asked. "I haven't had a chance to take a look yet. What about it?"

"I…I wasn't on it." By then I was feeling terribly foolish, like a whiny kit; but to back down now would be much worse.

He nodded. "I see," he said sagely.

"I was really counting on that promotion, sir," I said. I swallowed. "And…I really think I deserved it."

"I agree, you did," he said. "My report was strongly in favor."

"Thank you, sir," I said, surprised and gratified. It had been nothing more than a scheduled performance review, co-written by Aparna Singh and Commander Vandevere, the first officer. For the captain to have attached a report of his own was highly unusual.

"You're welcome," Captain Haliday said. "But we do have to look at this from the Admiralty's point of view. In their eyes Zelazny has become rather top-heavy with command-rank officers."

"I suppose that's true," I agreed reluctantly.

"And since your specialty is compcomm, and Commander Singh is your superior in years of service, that does tend to influence their thinking. They asked themselves, 'Does any ship need two command-level Compcomms?' And obviously their answer was 'no.'"

"Yes, sir."

"The Zelazny is a very special case, Lieutenant," the captain went on. "You probably know that I didn't really want another command after I left the Navy. I had half a mind to retire. But when the Admirals showed me the plans for this ship--" he waved a hand over his head--"and offered her to me, I knew I'd have to take her. But on one condition: that they allow me to assemble the most experienced crew possible. The best people for the best ship. I wanted a team that could work together virtually as one person, one single mind--and that's exactly what I achieved. I'm very pleased to have you as part of that team, Lieutenant, and if I had my way you would be an LC by now. Unfortunately, that was not my decision to make. I can only recommend."

"I understand that, sir," I said. I paused. "Captain, in your career you must have come across other situations like mine. What would you recommend I do?"

He hesitated, then smiled. "First of all let me say I understand your desire to move up. It's a trait we all share, or we wouldn't be CF officers. It's certainly no sin to want a promotion. But I'm afraid yours might be a long time in coming, if you remain aboard Zelazny." He held up his hand, forestalling my protest. "Let me explain, Lieutenant. I'm not casting aspersions on your abilities--not at all. From my point of view, and that of the crew, I would like to see you stay right where you are. But you personally, if you want to advance your career…I'd have to suggest a transfer. Become more visible; get out from under all those command-level officers. I'd even suggest a change in specialty, if you can manage it."

I felt my heart sink. I'd been afraid he'd say something exactly like that. Probably because deep inside I knew that he was right. But it was not what I'd wanted to hear.

"I realize it's not an easy choice," the captain was saying. "But if it turns out to be the one you have to make, you'll have my full support. I'd be very sorry to lose you--but I won't stand in your way."

I nodded sadly, and stood. "Thank you, sir," I said. "You've been very helpful."

His smile widened. "That I doubt," he observed. "But you're welcome nonetheless."

###

The environmental program started automatically as I entered my cabin, dimming the lights and sending the clicking of chimes and the faint scent of flowers wafting toward me. Angrily I raked my claws across the control panel, canceling the run. I wasn't in the mood to be soothed. In the darkness I made my way into the bedroom and sank down into the big chair near my bunk, my legs tucked beneath me and my face buried in my hands. I was crumpling my uniform, but I didn't care.

When you consider the career of Isaac Haliday, it was almost inevitable that when he was given a Survey command after many years in the Navy, every officer in the scientific branch would be clamoring to serve under him. Nor is it surprising that his crew always accomplished much more than any other. Under his command more hypertunnel nodes were mapped, more systems surveyed, more habitable planets found. Constantly in the news, he had managed--if possible--to become even more famous as an explorer than as a warrior. To be assigned under Haliday's command was the dream of almost every Survey officer I'd ever known; the few who had not shared it were widely regarded as idiots. The day, almost exactly five years ago, when young Ensign Ehm'ayla of the SV Point Cabrillo received her promotion and assignment to Zelazny, was the most exciting of my life. I'd made it; I was on the Control Deck of the newest and finest ship in the Survey, serving under the most famous captain,.

I leaned back, there in the darkness, and smiled wryly. An accomplishment, yes, something to be proud of; but at the time, I didn't exactly think so…

###

On most CF ships ensigns don't have private quarters. Until they pin that second silver sunburst on your chest, you have a roommate--for better or worse.

Mine, during my post-Academy stint on Point Cabrillo, was a young native Terran, Ensign Angela Metcalf, Security Trainee Level Two. Through one of those strange perversities of a universe which loves to complicate our lives, she and I had opposite shifts: I was asleep when she was on duty, and vice-versa. I don't think I ever woke her; Sah'aarans aren't quiet for nothing. And when she rose…well, I pretended; and I usually went back to sleep quickly once she was gone. Angela and I were good friends, and I don't recall that we ever seriously quarreled; but I am by nature a solitude-loving person, not cut out to share quarters. I endured it through my years at the Officer's Academy, and on board Point Cabrillo; but I can't say that I ever enjoyed it.

That particular evening, as I stumbled in half-dazed, she was already dressed, standing in front of the mirror turning her long mass of dark-brown hair into a tightly-coiled braid. "Ehm'ayla!" she said. "You're late." She turned and peered a little closer, her eyes narrowing. "And you look like you've seen a ghost. What's up?"

"I've just come from a meeting with the captain," I told her.

She grinned. "That almost qualifies. What's wrong? Have you been snarling at Lieutenant Porter again?"

"No," I assured her. "Well, not much. No-- this time it wasn't a reprimand. It was…this." I handed her the hard copy, or tried to; she literally had to pry the sheet from between my claws.

"'To Captain Felix Golding, SV Point Cabrillo," Angela read. "'Be advised that Ensign Ehm'ayla, Compcomm Trainee Level 1, has been assigned to ESV Zelazny, as second-shift compcomm officer, and will, upon transfer to said vessel, be promoted to the rank of lieutenant junior grade. Transfer will take place at the Centaurii Dockyards--'"

At that point it finally sank in. She tossed the sheet aside and grabbed me up in a bearhug. She had strong arms, and I felt my ribs creak in protest. "Ehm'ayla, that's wonderful! Do you know what this means? This is it--your ticket to the top. Everybody wants to be assigned to Zelazny." Then she released me and stepped back, eyeing me suspiciously. "So how'd you rate, anyway?"

I shrugged, yet another human habit I'd picked up. "I have no idea. They had an opening, and their first office and compcomm chief picked me out of a dozen candidates. Said they were 'impressed' by my service record. That's all I know."

"Epsilon Niobe," Angela said firmly. "That was it. Has to be."

I nodded thoughtfully. "Maybe." About five months ago: a system-survey mission, mapping hypertunnel nodes; for me, a rare chance for off-ship duty. Five of us; we used a landing pod, so Point Cabrillo could continue work in another part of the system. An engine failure, and a landing perhaps a little harder than the book calls for on an airless asteroid… somehow I managed to get the mangled comm system working again, long enough for one brief yell for help. One was enough, though, and the rescue pods arrived before our air ran out. Captain Golding, given to colorful metaphors, said in his report that I'd put the comm back together with "chewing gun and baling wire," whatever those might be. It got me a bit of tinsel, my first, to hang on my dress uniform.

"I…was thinking about refusing," I told Angela.

She gazed at me open-mouthed, as if I'd grown a second head. "Turn down Zelazny? You must be crazy! Why, for heaven's sake?"

"I don't know," I said. "I guess I'm…comfortable here. This ship is home, you're my friends. I don't want to give that up."

"Listen to me, my dear dimwitted Sah'aaran," Angela said patiently. "Life in the Survey is like that. We knew that when we signed on. Your first assignment is never permanent; it's a springboard, a proving ground. You've been third-shift compcomm for more than a year. If you don't take this, that's what you'll be indefinitely.

"But on Zelazny…believe me, Ehm'ayla, if you take this assignment, before long you'll be a lieutenant commander. I guarantee it."

###

I chuckled to myself, there in my private quarters on board Zelazny, counting backwards in my mind. Five years had passed since that conversation, and I was still waiting. And where are you now, my friend? I wondered. Of course I allowed Angela and Captain Golding to bully me into accepting the transfer. And I had never really regretted it. But if I'd known then that such a prestigious posting could cripple my chances for further promotions…

I shook my head. There might be wisdom in Captain Haliday's advice, as there had been in Angela's; but at the moment it remained obscure. It was late, anyway; time for bed, or I'd be grouchy tomorrow. And believe me, you don't want to deal with a grouchy Sah'aaran.

###

A soft chime and a gradual brightening of the lights woke me at 0600, after a remarkably unrestful night.

Groaning, I yawned and stretched, and reached up to rake my mane out of my face. Disentangling myself from the single light bed-covering, I sat up, and leaned over to tap on the computer terminal: Daily Schedule?

The small screen lit. Oh-eight-hundred, briefing with Lieutenant Commander Singh. Mission Planning Lounge. Topic: upgrade of navigation coprocessor array. Ten hundred hours, duty shift begins. Nineteen hundred, senior officer's dinner, Officer's Mess. Casual.

I sighed. Life's little obligations, in this case a long-standing habit of Captain Haliday's: weekly dinners with his most trusted officers, intended to improve morale and share ideas. I had recently become the ship's most senior lieutenant--a dubious honor at best--and so I was usually invited. "Casual," by the way, translated as "no uniforms," giving me the additional problem of deciding what to wear.

I stood and stretched again, wincing. Regardless of species--so I've found--some of us are "morning people"…and some are not. My daily struggle to achieve consciousness was nothing new--just ask my mother, or my Academy roommate, who once awakened me while wearing a fencing mask--but familiarity does not necessarily imply acceptance. A few simple Tai Chi exercises worked out the kinks, more or less, and got my blood circulating too. Halfway through my ultrasonic shower I began to feel myself evolving toward sentience.

Afterwards, standing naked before the mirror, fumbling in the drawer for brush and claw-file, I chanced to look up…and something about the reflection that stared back at me made me pause and peer closer.

Superficially at least, nothing seemed different. Golden-brown fur covering a wide, high-cheekboned face; stiff black whiskers flanking a blunt muzzle; yellow-green eyes with dark vertical-slit pupils; pointed ears emerging from the unruly mass of an unbrushed mane. The same features that had confronted me every morning for the last thirty years…and yet somehow not. Perhaps because this face wore an unfamiliar, almost frightening, expression of grim determination.

During the night, the automated laundry system had delivered a fresh uniform into the hanging locker. I dressed rapidly but carefully, keeping a sharp lookout for wrinkles and lint. In that respect, if in few others, Captain Haliday was utterly uncompromising, a holdover from his Navy days. I adjusted the grey jumpsuit's mag-seal so that exactly six centimeters of undershirt showed; I pulled the elastic trouser-cuffs to a finger's-breadth above my shinbones; I precisely centered the plain grey collar which preserved my Sah'aaran modesty. My mane had grown a little too long, but I wouldn't have time for a trip to the barber today. A pair of transparent plastic clips would keep the hair out of my face for now.

As I checked my reflection again, one last time, I felt my eyes drawn inexorably to the three silver stars pinned in a triangle over my left breast, and I grinned ruefully. Why are you so anxious to be promoted? I asked myself. Someone once described being a Combined Forces lieutenant as "the perfect combination of power and plausible deniability," with ample room for buck-passing both above and below. And certainly I'd always found that to be true. I was comfortable as a lieutenant, as I'd been as an ensign aboard Point Cabrillo. And that, of course, was exactly the problem. If I had to name my number-one failing, it would be just that: an overdeveloped ability to become comfortable.

At that point, as I pensively smoothed down my uniform, my stomach sent up its usual message: Feed me now! Despite everything, I'd been fairly quick, and I still had more than an hour for a leisurely breakfast.

The Officer's Mess was two levels up from my quarters, on the first deck of the crew compartment. As the up-shaft deposited me there I came fact-to-face with Lieutenant Commander Goodwin--or maybe "face-to-belt-buckle" would be more accurate.

Maxwell Goodwin, widely regarded as the best pilot and navigator in the Survey, came very close to being rejected by the Combined Forces. He and three generations of his ancestors were born on the colony world of New Galway, a planet with gravity little more than half that of Earth's. As a result, Goodwin was to a native Terran what a redwood is to a shrub. As female Sah'aarans go I was a fairly typical specimen, at 165 centimeters and 50 kilograms. Goodwin towered over me, his shock of curly red hair almost two hundred and forty centimeters above the deck-plates, but I doubt whether he outweighed me by more than five kilos. His arms and legs were like sticks, making his hands and feet appear huge; had I been so inclined, I could have encircled his thigh with one hand. To pass the CF physical he'd been obliged to have every major bone in his body reinforced with graphite-based ceramics. The ceilings on Zelazny were tall enough for him, just barely; the doorways were most certainly not, but he'd long since gotten used to ducking. He was five years older than me, but he looked, and sometimes acted, like a teenager.

From somewhere up in the clouds he smiled down at me, his blue eyes twinkling. "Good morning, Ehm'ayla."

His use of my name was a signal: I was free to reply in kind. "Good morning, Max."

Despite Goodwin's self-conscious command style, off-duty he was good company, and I counted him as one of my closest friends. Once upon a time, not too long ago, we'd both been the same rank. Since his promotion I'd found myself stumbling a little over his first name. Aparna was right: I did brood too much over this rank business…

"I'm on my way to breakfast," I went on. "Care to join?"

"My destination exactly," he agreed, and we fell in together, me stretching my legs and him taking baby steps.

When Zelazny was still on the drawing board, there were those who questioned the participation of the Psych Boys (officially, the Spaceflight Psychology Center) in the design process. I must admit that I was one of them--until I saw the final results. If you're going to build an ESV--an Extended Survey Vessel, a ship capable of voyages up to four years in duration--it's good sense to make it comfortable. The size of my quarters was one result of that. The Officer's Mess was another: an extremely pleasant place to eat, quiet and conducive to digestion. A low ceiling covered with acoustic baffles; a random scattering of tables of various sizes, gently spot-lit from above; the floor carpeted, the walls covered with paintings and prints…a far cry indeed from the noisy, spare, utilitarian cafeterias of my past. It had only one real disadvantage: it was a place you were tempted to linger in. More than once, dreaming over my second or third cup of tea, I'd nearly been late for duty.

Goodwin and I found the hall almost empty. A few lieutenants greeted us with waves and friendly words before returning to their coffee and conversations. And at a small table in the far corner, our ship's surgeon sat alone. Dr. Zeeleeayykk was a Centaurii--one of twenty or so aboard Zelazny--and resembled a cross between a parrot and a velociraptor. She sat with her back to us, her long iridescent-green tail-feathers spread out across the floor and her gaze fixed on a palm-reader, munching her way through an enormous plate of fresh fruit. I liked Dr. Zeeleeayykk; along with Goodwin and Singh, I counted her as one of my closest friends and few real confidants. I could even overlook her vegetarianism--but as a rule we avoided eating together.

Max and I picked up our breakfasts from the machines and took them to a table near the center of the room. He had ordered a large bowl of oatmeal, steaming and drenched with milk and honey; me, a very large and very rare steak. I called it "comfort food."

"Tea?" Goodwin offered, lifting a steaming pot.

"Please," I said. Coffee I loathed, but tea--especially the mild "breakfast blend" that Max favored--I had learned to relish. Max filled a cup and passed it to me.

We are in silence for a time. Then, "I hear you didn't get your promotion," he commented softly. "I'm really sorry…"

I kept my face impassive, but I was shocked right down to my toe-claws. Great Goddess, I thought, it's all over the ship! I wondered darkly who the snitch had been; but then I realized, with a rush of shame, that it had been me. For the past six weeks that promotion had been the sole subject of my mess-hall conversation; I really had been counting on it. The list was now open for public viewing; anyone not finding my name therein would draw the obvious conclusion. Suddenly that officer's dinner didn't seem like such a good idea. Maybe I could develop a headache…

Goodwin was gazing at me expectantly, and I forced a smile. Actually I'd been avoiding thinking about the subject, and the reminder was less than appreciated. But… "I'm trying not to let it ruin my life," I told him.

"That's good," he said. He stirred his oatmeal. "You know," he said, "it took me a devil of a long time to get my last promotion…"

He was trying to be helpful, I knew, and so I bit back my first reply, which would probably have caused him to pick up his teapot and find another table. Instead I said, "Last night I discussed it with the captain. He believes the promotion was denied because Zelazny already has too many command-level officers."

"That could be," Goodwin said. He smiled broadly and reached across to pat my hand. "It certainly wasn't for want of qualifications."

"Schmoozer," I growled, but with a smile. "Thanks, Max. I appreciate the vote of confidence." I paused. "The captain also told me I ought to consider a transfer."

"Well," Goodwin said thoughtfully, "he may have a point. There might be places where your accomplishments would be more visible. It really comes down to this: how quickly do you want it to happen? You will get promoted, Ehm'ayla. Even if you don't transfer out. Sooner or later, the Admiralty will have no choice."

"I know," I said. But by then you and Aparna will be full commanders or captains, Zelazny's mission will be over, and who knows where I'll be? Did I really want to wait that long?

"Max," I said hesitantly, "you say it took you a long time to make L.C. Did it…matter? Or was it something you didn't think about?"

"It mattered," he said firmly. "Certainly it mattered. I think it does to all of us. But to be honest, it wasn't something I obsessed about. It was going to happen when it happened."

I grinned at him. "Is that perhaps a less than subtle hint, Commander?"

He slowly matched my grin. "If you like, Lieutenant. Or you can see it as the wisdom of my sainted mother's Irish ancestors."

"Uh-huh," I said. "What did they used to call it? 'A bit of the blarney.'" I paused. "Seriously, Max, do you think I ought to consider a transfer?"

"Oh boy," he said. He poured us both a refill and leaned back, rolling his mug between his hands. "Considering the length of time I've spent serving under Captain Haliday, I think I'm the wrong person to ask." He took a long swallow, his Adam's apple bobbing. "But if you can stand another bit of wisdom--" he grinned-- "or blarney, there's an old Terran saying: 'the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.'"

At that juncture, Doctor Zeeleeayykk would have said, "What does the color of ornamental vegetation have to do with the Lieutenant's promotion?" But my grasp of Terran idiom was somewhat better than her translator's. I nodded. "Point taken." I glanced at my wrist chrono. "And I'm about to be late for my briefing." I gulped down the rest of my tea, and then I reached across and squeezed his hand. "Thanks, Max," I said. "For the tea…and everything else."

###

I was not in fact late for the briefing, but Singh was. While I waited I activated my palm-reader to study the assignment.

At two hundred meters, Zelazny was not the largest ship ever launched by the CF--many of the main-line Navy battleships were much larger--but she was definitely the most sophisticated, and made the greatest demands on her computers. Grav-plates on every deck; auto-kitchen machinery capable of satisfying every dietary need; personalized environments in the officers' quarters…without the most sophisticated computing machinery ever built, Zelazny would never have left Sol system. She carried a crew of two hundred and fifty; ten times that many people wouldn't have sufficed to monitor her systems manually. And that explains why three-quarters of my time on the Control Deck was spent nursemaiding those computers: because a failure of any one of them could leave us quite literally dead in space.

Of all the ship's functions, navigation required the most computing power. Despite Max Goodwin's oft-repeated boast that he could pilot Zelazny himself, without any help from that "overgrown adding machine," the fact is that keeping track of the shifting positions of thousands of hypertunnels was beyond the mental capacity of any known sentient species. It was in fact very nearly too much for the computers that Zelazny had been launched with. Some weeks ago, just before departing Terra on our current assignment, we had picked up a package of eight extremely powerful Xerxes-built positronic coprocessor units. As the ranking Compcomm officers, it was Aparna Singh's job, and mine, to install them and get them running, linked to the main nav computer--preferably without causing it to crash.

It was all there in the briefing book--almost. The entire procedure, yes: step by step, start to finish. But not one word to indicate what a miserable job it would be. Crawling on hands and knees through a circuitry conduit, dragging a heavy toolbox; working in a space so narrow that your elbows are jammed into your ribs…Aparna Singh was rather small as humans go, not much larger than me--but she was the supervisor, and I the subordinate. Unless I chanced to slip and break an arm sometime in the next few days, guess who would get the honor of doing the job?

I chuckled hollowly. Crawling on hands and knees through a circuitry conduit. Once before I'd been forced to do just that--and under circumstances that made the job at hand seem like a day in the park. Quite some time ago…


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