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 TWO
 
 

"…Here's the situation," Captain Haliday said. He glanced in turn at the officers gathered around the mission-planning table: Commander Vandevere, Lieutenant Commander Hullumm, Lieutenant Singh…and a certain Lieutenant j.g. Ehm'ayla, six months aboard Zelazny and participating in her first high-level briefing. Looking back through the mists of time, I imagine she looked rather bewildered.

"This satellite relays the entire hyperzap load for two-thirds of the TCA," the captain went on. "A great deal of traffic, I assure you. Justin?"

The other members of Captain Haliday's senior staff--I wasn't yet confident enough to call them my "colleagues"--were as diverse a group as could be found on any Combined Forces vessel. Commander Justin Vandevere, for example: he was human, but had grown up on Centaurus; he had just turned fifty, and what remained of his sandy-brown hair was beginning to go grey. There was a touch of the melancholy in his big brown eyes, and in the droop of his mustache. He had been Captain Haliday's utterly-devoted aide since the day, more than thirty years before, when Haliday pulled him out of the flaming wreckage of a gun turret. The captain often referred to Vandevere as "my right hand," but the commander preferred to say "left"--because his own right arm was prosthetic.

"The backup processors have been able to handle forty-seven percent of the load," he said. "But we don't dare push them any harder--we could burn out the station's computer core. We need to bring the main processors back on line as soon as possible."

He touched keys on the computer console, and the big 3D viewer on the rear wall rippled and cleared. What it showed--a large number of closely-spaced twisting lines on a blue background--made no sense to me at first.

I'd been on the Control Deck three hours earlier, when Zelazny approached the station, nudged alongside by Goodwin's skilled hands. It started life as an asteroid, a potato-shaped lump of nickel and iron in a tumbling orbit in the midst of an uninhabited binary-star system. The CF Engineering Corps straightened out its path, equipped it with automatic station-keeping thrusters, hollowed it out, and filled the interior with the complex machinery of a hyperzap "switchboard." Very little rock remained visible; it was hidden beneath dozens of huge parabolic transceiver dishes, all pointing in different directions, turning slowly as they tracked the hypertunnel nodes. The intense gravitational stresses of two suns, plus four gas-giant planets had created no fewer than a dozen hypertunnel nodes; and that was why the station was there, almost literally in the middle of nowhere. The system was Grand Central for ships and radio messages both.

Vandevere created a pointer and directed it toward the center of the screen. "The problem is here," he said. "An entire bank of memory has burned out. It appears to have been a cascade failure: the first segment to go overloaded the next, and so on. Eventually the fail-safes kicked in, powering down the main processor; but not soon enough. We're going to have to replace a full ten modules."

At the foot of the table, our chief engineer shook his massive head in disgust. Lieutenant Commander (Techspec) Hullumm was a Quadrian, a member of the third species to join the Alliance. His people were legendary for their engineering skills--something which was not, perhaps, intuitively obvious when you first laid eyes on one. A quadruped, his smooth, brown, vaguely elephantine body was three meters long and two high at the shoulder, supported by massive, pillar-like legs. His head was wide and flattened, and his four eyes gleamed like rubies from deep sockets. The wide-spaced pair gave him three hundred degrees of peripheral vision; the inner pair could focus as close as a microscope. His four facial tentacles, two on each side of his wide mouth, were tipped with little cilia-like tendrils, and for dexterity they had any biped's fingers beat hands-down. He spoke Terran quite well, and had a good grasp of both idiom and sarcasm; but his voice sounded as if it was issuing from the bottom of a well. "And just how in hell are we supposed to accomplish that?"

I had no idea what he was talking about--but the others obviously did, and I was too proud to ask. If there was one thing I'd learned in the Officer's Academy, though, it was how to be a sponge: I'd wait, remain quiet, and see what I could soak up.

"It's going to be a challenge, all right," Vandevere agreed. "This station is entirely automated, and designed to be totally fail-safe. This kind of failure was supposed to be impossible."

"You can't build a fail-safe hyperzap station," Aparna Singh said. My supervisor, then a lieutenant, was Terran/Indian. Small and trim, she had light-brown skin, delicate features, coal-black hair that cascaded down her back like a waterfall, and huge, dark, infinitely-expressive eyes. I had known her for six months, and already I counted her as my best friend on that side of the galaxy. Long ago her people revered tigers; maybe she detected in me some small resemblance. "It's functionally impossible. The equipment is too complex. Didn't the designers study chaos theory?"

"Evidently not," Vandevere said. "Of course you're right, Aparna. But obviously those designers believed otherwise--and that's what we have to deal with now."

I'd finally soaked up enough, and suddenly I understood. The scale. The lines on the diagram were passages, circuitry conduits; but they were no more than forty centimeters in diameter. How in the Goddess' name did they build the thing? I wondered. With mice? But the answer to that was obvious: it had been pre-fabbed in sections, by robots. The area Vandevere had highlighted was almost dead center, buried in the heart of the asteroid. Which meant…

"I'm open to suggestions," Captain Haliday said.

In the lengthening silence I finally heard a voice. Strangely, it seemed to be mine. "I have one, sir."

They all turned toward me, and I saw looks of surprise on their faces. Maybe I'd spent a little too much time being a sponge…

"Go on, Lieutenant," the captain said.

Somehow I managed to get my throat working and forged ahead. "Sir--I volunteer. I believe…I believe I'm the only one on board who can do the job."

The captain's eyebrows lifted. "The only one? Why is that?"

"Two others are technically qualified, sir," I explained. "Commander Hullumm and Lieutenant Singh. But of the three--I'm the only one skinny enough to fit down those conduits."

The captain sat silent for a moment, gazing at the others…and then all four of them burst out laughing. The Quadrian's chuckle sounded like someone beating on a kettle-drum. I sat there with lashing tail, baffled and hurt.

Finally the captain wiped his eyes. "I do beg your pardon, Lieutenant," he said. "I certainly don't mean to disparage your offer--it's just the way you worded it that caught me off-guard. What do you think, Aparna?"

She glanced at me and smiled kindly. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla is correct, Captain," she said. "She knows the equipment every bit as well as Commander Hullumm or me; and, well…physically she is the smallest."

Hullumm cleared his throat thunderously. "Lieutenant," he told me, "I don't think you understand what you'd be getting yourself into. There's no life-support on that station. None. There's micro-gravity, maybe enough to keep you on the deck; but there's no air or temperature control. You'd have wear a pressure suit…"

"No," Vandevere said. "That won't be possible. Given the diameter of those ducts, Ehm'ayla has a good chance of getting through--especially when you consider how famously agile Sah'aarans are. But not in a pressure suit. Too bulky."

"The station is fairly small," Singh pointed out. "Would it be possible to rig some kind of temporary life-support?"

"Maybe," Vandevere said, stroking his mustache thoughtfully. "In the Navy we did that sort of thing fairly often. But it won't be easy. To begin with, there's only one way into the station." He moved the pointer to the only open space of any size, a small chamber on the station's underside, nestled in among the massive scaffolds which supported a bank of transceiver dishes. It was perhaps two meters square. "The monitor room," he went on. "The diagnostic panels are housed there. It's also the only point where all the wiring conduits intersect. Lieutenant Ehm'ayla will have to enter the conduits there, and make her way along them to the repair site. In a straight line it's about sixty meters, but with all the twists and turns…it's probably at least three times that. If we close off the other conduits, we should be able to flood her route with enough air to sustain her--for a while at least. But there's no way for us to effectively circulate that air. It's going to get a bit stuffy in there before she's finished."

"Life support isn't just air," the captain pointed out. "What about temperature?"

"Cold won't be a problem," Hullumm said, "but heat might. All of that equipment generates warmth, of course. The air we'll be pumping in will very quickly become dangerously hot."

"Field-gear uniforms have temperature-control," Vandevere began--but then he broke off, shaking his head. "No," he corrected himself. "Too bulky again."

"Exactly," Hullumm said. "We'll have to get the doctor's opinion, but I'd guess she'd have no more than an hour before the heat overcomes her. Probably less."

I swallowed. Is it too late, I wondered, to go back to being a sponge?

"Lieutenant," the captain said, "now that you fully understand the situation, you may reconsider. No one will blame you if you choose to back out."

I gazed at him for a moment. Then, somehow, I found myself shaking my head. "No sir," I said. "I'll do the job. It's the only alternative." For better or worse, sponge time was definitely over.

###

I crawled. Through dark tunnels, so narrow that my shoulders brushed their sides, I crawled. Or floated; in that tight space it amounted to the same thing. Too cramped for hands and knees, I propelled myself forward with my elbows. The air I breathed was already warm, going on hot, and it stank of metal and mustiness. My headlamp sent a bobbing beam of light ahead of me, reflecting back from yet another damn curve I'd have to snake around.

Somehow or other we accomplished it. A team of Commander Hullumm's Techspecs arrived first, in pressure suits, bearing tanks of air and emergency patches, the kind used to temporarily seal hull breaches. Having closed off the termini of the other conduits, they pumped air into my long serpentine route, and set up a chemical rebreather to scrub out the carbon dioxide. That was the theory, anyway; whether it would have any effect on the air sixty linear meters into the heart of the asteroid, I rather doubted. But it's the thought that counts.

And then I arrived, stepping from the pod into a space already coffin-sized, and made all the smaller by the equipment which was supposed to keep me alive. The engineers departed, so as to not put any more strain on the makeshift life-support system; but the landing pod remained, connected to the station by a pressure corridor, waiting to speed me back to the ship. For all practical purposes, though, I was on my own.

For comfort's sake, I would have just as soon done the job naked; but it was not to be. The conduits I'd be crawling through were packed with sensitive electronics, to which dust and hairs are pure death. That was one reason why the station was normally kept in vacuum; overheating was the other. The air we'd pumped in was absolutely pure, microscopically filtered--and I'd have to keep it that way.

To that end I'd been fitted with a "clean suit." Snow-white, made of a slick stretchy material, it fit like a coat of hull enamel, and covered me from head to toe. Even my tail had its own form-fitting sleeve. I disliked wearing something so tight and enclosing; but a baggier garment would have slowed me down, hampered my movements. My muzzle was enclosed in a filter mask, which crushed my whiskers and made the act of breathing even more difficult. A pair of goggles, and a commpak clipped to my right ear completed the ensemble. Behind me, at the end of a short line, I dragged the padded case containing the ten new memory modules. I needed my hands free, and I didn't want the line to get tangled around my legs, so I'd tied it to my tail. In micro-gravity the box slid smoothly over the deckplates.

I had studied the station plans, memorizing every detail; and as I crawled I stopped every few seconds to read hatch numbers. I will very likely carry to my grave the number of the one for which I searched: 37-MJ6. It might as well have been branded on my brain.

It seemed to take most of eternity to reach the correct panel, but it was probably more like twenty minutes. The panel was on my right, a curved sheet of gleaming steel about half a meter high and wide. Now, if the damn thing wasn't vacuum-welded…I rested my aching arms for a moment, half-floating with my cheek against the deck-plates; then I reached up to my commpak.

A standard, off-the-shelf model probably wouldn't have penetrated the station's RF noise; but this one was…special. I'd had it since my days on Point Cabrillo, and over the years I'd done a considerable amount of tinkering on it, increasing the range and the signal gain by about fifty percent. The only drawback (and the reason why the CF didn't approve of my work) was that the modified unit used power about twice as fast. But there are times…

I pulled the microphone free from my hood and tapped the call button with a clumsy gloved finger. "Ehm'ayla calling Zelazny."

The reply was static-ridden, garbled, barely audible. "Zelazny. Haliday here. What's your status, Lieutenant?"

"I'm at the panel, sir," I said. I glanced down at a small instrument strapped to my left wrist. "Ambient temperature is approximately thirty and rising. Temperature in my suit is…appreciably higher. I'm beginning to remove the cover now."

The panel was secured by flush-fitting bolts with star-shaped heads; fortunately I'd been well-equipped. My slim toolkit was clipped to my belt; with some difficulty I got it free and rummaged inside, quickly locating the proper tool. Its handle was practically touching my goggles as I brought it into position.

The first bolt resisted my strength with iron will, and I wondered darkly what idiot had used a power tool to secure a maintenance hatch. I braced my legs against the conduit's sides and tried again. Suddenly, with a pop that echoed hollowly through the tunnels, it broke free. I eased the bolt out and placed it carefully near my head; the other three were more cooperative. And then the panel…just hung there.

I cursed under my breath, in Sah'aaran. The damn thing ought to have fallen off; but it remained obstinately in place. It was flush-fitting, and had nothing so convenient as a handle; I'd have to pry it free. I searched through my toolkit. A knife perhaps; a thin prybar; an old-fashioned flat-bladed screwdriver; what did I have that was narrow and thin? Nothing at all? Commander Hullumm had failed me?

For a minute I lay thinking furiously. To come all that way, just to be foiled by such a simple thing…

Simple, yes--and with an equally simple solution. With a sigh I raised my right hand, encased in a glove made of that same white material, and expressed my claws. They cut easily through the thin fabric. I inserted their tips under the panel's edge…and pulled hard. The hatch broke loose, striking me sharply on the forehead, and I yowled a few choice Sah'aaran words--ones I was glad my mother wasn't there to hear.

"Lieutenant?" the captain's voice spoke in my ear. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, sir," I said, rubbing the bruise. "The panel is off. Beginning replacement now."

I glanced down at my left wrist--and my heart began to hammer. The instrument strapped there served a triple function: a thermometer, yes; and also a pair of dials indicating the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide around me. The temperature was above thirty-five degrees, the oxygen was declining rapidly, and the carbon dioxide increasing just as fast. As we'd feared, there wasn't enough circulation. Covered head to toe with fur, Sah'aarans don't sweat when overheated; instead, we pant. But in this case my instinct--my need--to do so had to be rigidly controlled; it would only make the air go foul more rapidly. Breathing in quick sips through my nose, I could literally feel my body temperature rising.

I turned over onto my back, spread my legs, and caught hold of my tail. I untied the line and pulled the case up between my legs, somehow managing to transfer it over my abdomen and breast. Flipping over onto my stomach, I fiddled with the tight latches.

When new cadets first arrive at the Officer's Academy, the Psych Boys test them for common phobias. Except for the fear of deep water which is a common Sah'aaran trait, I seemed to have very few. As I struggled to open the case, I found myself remembering the claustrophobia test, and how I emerged completely untroubled--even a bit bored--from the dark box. Maybe I could suggest a few refinements …

Finally I got the case unlatched. Inside, nestled in foam padding, were ten flat black packages, each about the size of my hand: Centaurii-built hundred-terabit positronic memory modules. Behind the inspection hatch was an identical set, in a neat row of angled sockets. No way to tell, visually at least, that they were burnt out; we'd had to rely on the station's own diagnostic software.

I raised my right hand to remove the first module; and as I did, I noticed that the entire arm was shaking. I had to grasp it firmly with my left hand to stop it--and that brought the wrist-band instrument into view. The temperature was now over forty, the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels well into their respective red zones.

Get to work, idiot, I told myself angrily, Death by hypoxia, hyperthermia, or carbon dioxide poisoning is all the same: the operative word is "death." Oh, to be a sponge again…or even to have one there beside me, soaked in cold water...One by one I pulled the dead modules from their sockets and replaced them, pushing the new ones firmly into place. As ordered, I stowed the bad ones in the case,.

Dark spots were floating before of my eyes as I rammed the last module home; but unfortunately I was far from finished. I tapped my commpak. "Ehm'ayla calling Zelazny," I said. "Ready to test."

"Acknowledged," Aparna replied. "Stand by."

I might have heard the hum as the new modules powered up--if it hadn't been drowned out by the blood roaring in my ears. I waited thirty agonizing seconds; then the captain said, "You've done well, Lieutenant. The new modules test one hundred percent. Get the cover back on and get the hell out of there."

"Yes, sir!" I said. He didn't have to tell me that twice. I fumbled for tool and bolts--and immediately ran into trouble. The driver kept falling out of my clumsy and nerveless hand; I almost lost two of the bolts. It took forever to get the panel into place and tightened down, and another eternity to get the toolkit back onto my belt, the box latched and fastened to my tail. I didn't give a damn about the old modules, and I would cheerfully have left them there, but Captain Haliday wanted them: he intended to use them as evidence when he charged the station's designers with incompetence. I began to turn…

This time my curse was in Terran. "Dammit!"

"Lieutenant!" Captain Haliday called. "What's wrong?"

Struggling I almost wept: "I can't turn around, Captain. It's too tight."

I hadn't considered that. I'd been counting on my small size and the flexibility of my spine. But I couldn't do it. No matter how I twisted, the tunnel was too small to allow me to bend myself double. And that suddenly, in that instant of realization, the claustrophobia which the Psych Boys said I didn't have grabbed me by the throat and squeezed.

"Lieutenant! Lieutenant Ehm'ayla!" the captain's voice was stern and uncompromising. "Listen to me. You're going to be fine--but you'll have to back out. Do you understand?"

"Y…yes, sir," I managed. I straightened myself out, getting my elbows and knees underneath me once again, and backed up. I backed over the case, dragging it along behind me, pulling my tail uncomfortably between my legs. I kept backing, around one corner, another, and another. It worked, but it was terribly clumsy…and damnably slow.

"That's it!" the captain coached. "Keep moving. You're doing fine, Ehm'ayla. Just keep moving!"

To this day I don't know how far I got. Maybe halfway; maybe a little more. My elbows and knees kept slipping out from under me, and my visual field was gun-barrel narrow, bright floating blobs obscuring the rest. The last time I looked at my meter, the last time the numbers meant anything to me, the temperature was up to fifty, the oxygen was well down into the danger zone, and the carbon dioxide was approaching lethal concentrations.

Finally my strength gave out. My arms and legs collapsed, and I fell on my stomach in the tunnel, half-drifting, like a beached starfish.

"Ehm'ayla!" Captain Haliday called. "You've stopped moving! What's wrong?"

"Can't…can't go any farther, sir," I mumbled. "Can't get up."

"You have to!" he said. "Get up, Lieutenant! That's an order! Get up and fight!"

I tried, but my arms wouldn't hold my weight, microscopic though it was. "Sorry, sir," I said. "Can't…can't make it."

As I lay panting helplessly, more dead than alive, I dimly heard the frantic conversation on Zelazny's Control Deck. "Options, Justin?" the captain demanded.

"Very few, sir," Vandevere replied grimly. "She's too far in; even if the pod pilot could fit down the conduits, he couldn't reach her in time. Nobody could reach her in time."

They're going to have a devil of a time recovering my corpse, I thought hazily. See where volunteering gets you…

"Unless…" Vandevere said thoughtfully.

"Unless what?" the captain demanded.

"Sir, do you remember that skirmish in the Antares system, about fifteen years ago? How we rescued the last survivor off the gunboat with the ruined docking port?"

"Yes," the captain said, with rising enthusiasm. "Yes, by God, I do! It just might work! Haliday to Pod Two. Are you there, Johnson?"

A new voice entered the debate: the pod pilot, who'd been standing by to carry me back to Zelazny. "Here, sir!"

"Johnson, do you have a pressure suit aboard?"

"Yes, sir."

"Get into it. On the double. And find a rescue bubble and a cargo net too. As soon as you're buttoned up I want you to string the net across the cargo hatch. Then strap yourself in securely, and blow the hatch."

"Sir?"

"You heard me! And make sure your connection to the station is wide-open. Let me know when you're ready. Double-time, mister!"

"Yes, sir!"

"Ehm'ayla!" the captain called. "Can you hear me?"

"Mmmm," I said. Hardly the regulation response, but all I could manage. Somewhere in the rapidly-disconnecting fabric of my mind I understood what the captain was planning, and I knew I should object; but I didn't have the strength.

"Lieutenant," Captain Haliday went on, "we're going to get you out of there. Listen closely: you must do exactly what I tell you. When I say 'now,' I want you to relax, let go, and open your mouth. Do you understand? If you don't let the air out, your lungs might rupture."

"I…understand, sir," I managed. "Thank…you."

"Save that for when you're back on board," he said. "Ready, Johnson?"

"Yes, sir!"

"All right. Stay sharp. On my signal: three, two one…NOW!"

I did as he said, letting myself drift and opening my mouth wide. In the last instant I realized how much this was going to hurt. Fortunately most of the corners were rounded…

With a solid whump! the air suddenly belched out of the conduit as from a pricked balloon. Like a leaf in a hurricane I was carried along with it, corkscrewing helplessly and banging around the corners. It was all over in a matter of seconds. My last memories are of the pressure tunnel flashing past, and then smashing face-first into a tangle of cargo netting, bright stars beyond. The pilot stuffed me bodily into a rescue bubble; I heard the hiss as the thing inflated…and then, finally, mercifully, I passed out.

###

I have no memory of being rushed to sickbay, nor of being stripped and put into a cold bath; which is good, because I hate baths. I do know, because I was told, that my body temperature had climbed to almost ten degrees above normal, and my heart came very close to stopping. A very near thing indeed.

I spent the next five days in bed, bruised from head to toe and weak as a kitten. Near the end of that time Captain Haliday came to see me, all smiles, bearing a message from CF Headquarters: my second commendation for Service Above and Beyond…and my promotion to full lieutenant. Very nice, of course; but I've always thought that there must be an easier way …

###

"Ehm'ayla? Are you all right?"

I shook my head hard, and looked up sharply to see Aparna Singh standing beside me, a palm-reader and a stack of data cards in her hands, gazing down at me in concern. With a rush of embarrassment, I wondered how long she'd been there.

"Um--yes, fine, thank you, Commander," I said. "I was--uh--studying the briefing book."

"Of course," she said with a smile. She circled the room and sat down, the data cards cascading across the table. Reaching out to corral them, she said, "I heard about your promotion…"

I held up my hand. "I know. You heard, you're sorry, I appreciate that, and I'm doing all right. Okay?"

"Uh--okay," she said, so flustered that the cards escaped from her hands and skittered across the table again. I shouldn't have been so brusque with my best friend; but all this earnest sympathy was beginning to get on my nerves.

"Then--uh--let's get on with the briefing," Aparna went on. She paused. "If you should want to talk later, when we're off duty…"

I reined in my irritation, and smiled. "Thanks," I said. "You'll definitely be the first person I ask. But I really am doing all right."

"Good."

…But of course we both knew that I was lying through my teeth. Obviously this promotion business was bothering me, even more than I'd cared to admit. One way or another it would have to be resolved. And soon--before it began to affect my efficiency.

All right, I told myself grimly. If a transfer is what it takes, then a transfer is what it will be. And with any luck, maybe this time I wouldn't have to nearly lose my life.


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