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 SIX


"I apologize for the delay," Commodore Ehm'rael said. "We are still waiting for Captain Antilles." This time she spoke Terran, as impeccably and formally as she spoke Sah'aaran--because this time Captain Haliday was with us.

"Believe me, Commodore," the captain said, "I understand."

He had of course been surprised by my request--though less by the fact of it than by the timing. He sat me down in his office, and asked the standard "are you very sure" questions, hoping I think to change my mind…but once I'd answered in the affirmative, he'd little choice but to keep his promise and help me. He made the necessary arrangements; quickly and efficiently, yes, but entirely without pleasure--a fact which I found curiously flattering. And then, though it was certainly not required of him, he accompanied me to the commodore's office.

The palm-reader containing my transfer order lay on the desk near Ehm'rael's left hand. There were four signatures on it already, two in Terran and two in Sah'aaran hieroglyphic script; only one space remained blank. One of the signatures was Admiral Conroy's, though we had not seen him: he was far too busy to do more than touch stylus to palm-reader. He, I am sure, was happy enough to be getting Raven back into space; the means were irrelevant. I couldn't tell whether the commodore was pleased or not--but she was certainly not surprised. Two hours had passed since I called her with my decision, and at no time had she shown the slightest hint of surprise. Was I really that predictable? Or (I glanced uneasily at the tiny shrine in the corner) was this situation being orchestrated by the Goddess? I'd never been much of a believer; but such a rich concentration of coincidences did tend to make one think.

"Lieutenant," the commodore said (she only called me "my child" in private), "I am duty-bound to ask if are you certain about this. It is not too late to change your mind…"

I glanced at the captain; his face wore the same carefully neutral expression it had assumed several hours before. I swallowed the lump that had suddenly formed in my throat. "No, Commodore," I said. "I don't want to change my mind."

She nodded serenely. "As you wish."

Just then the intercom buzzed, and Ehm'rael pounced on it. She listened to a few quiet words from her Centaurii secretary, then said, "Send her in."

Her? I wondered. Who's "her"? Then the door opened, and I found out--much to my dismay. Not Captain Antilles, of course, but his first officer, Commander Edgeworth. She barged in as if she owned the place, apparently not noticing Captain Haliday or me. "You have an Anthro-Paleo Scispec for us, Commodore?" she said eagerly.

"I do," Ehm'rael said. She paused. "Forgive me, Commander, but I was expecting Captain Antilles--?"

"He sends his apologies," Edgeworth said, just as she had the night before. She pulled a palm-reader from her pocket and held it up. "This authorizes me to approve the transfer."

"Very well," the commodore said. She extended a hand. "Then here is your new Scispec: Lieutenant Ehm'ayla."

Edgeworth spun around, her gaze locking with mine. I smiled politely. "Commander," I said, "we met at the admiral's dinner…"

Her jaw dropped--and then she rounded on Ehm'rael with flashing eyes. "This is not acceptable, Commodore," she said through clenched teeth. "Not at all."

As always, my mentor confronted anger with beatific calm--the one trick she had never managed to teach me. "May I ask why, Commander?"

Oddly, Edgeworth seemed to have no ready answer. Finally she said, rather lamely, "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla is a Compcomm, is she not? I must question whether she has the requisite experience…"

Ehm'rael interrupted her firmly. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla graduated with honors from the most prestigious university on Sah'aar, earning a degree in archaeology. Her assignment to Compcomm was entirely a matter of Combined Forces expediency--though her work there has earned her many commendations, as Captain Haliday will attest. The captain and I can also vouch for her intelligence and adaptability."

"But her rank--" Edgeworth persisted.

"Is irrelevant," the commodore interrupted again, more sharply this time. "The Alliance wishes to expedite the colonization of this sector; your mission is therefore of paramount importance. The loss of Lieutenant Commander Morada has caused an unacceptable delay. Admiral Conroy believes it is better to take advantage of the abilities of a slightly less senior officer, rather than prolong that delay. He has approved this, and so have I. It is what you humans call a fait accompli."

Edgeworth glanced at me again, and as I gazed into her eyes I began to question the wisdom of my decision. There was more to her objections than concern over my qualifications--that much seemed certain. Exactly what, I had no idea--but her attitude certainly did not bode well.

But we all sometimes run into people who seem determined to judge us unfairly. It happened to me fairly often; sometimes because of my size--but more often because of my species. The best--and worst--thing you can do to such a person is prove them wrong.

Finally Edgeworth sighed and shrugged. "As you say, Commodore, we have very little choice. We've been delayed too long already." She lifted the palm-reader and inscribed her large, bold signature on the last blank line. And with that, for better or worse, it was done.

She turned to me. "You will report to Raven by fifteen hundred hours tomorrow," she said expressionlessly. "Life on our ship is very different from what you've become used to aboard Zelazny. Our crew accommodations are extremely limited, and our weight restrictions for personal gear are severe. I will transmit to you a list of our rules and regulations. Good day, Commodore. Good day, Captain." And with that string of declarative sentences still hanging in the air, she exited.

"What," Captain Haliday wondered, "was all that about?"

"A very good question, Captain," the commodore said. "I am only slightly acquainted with Commander Edgeworth, but I would have expected at least a hint of gratitude."

"Maybe," I suggested, "she doesn't like having decisions made for her."

"Perhaps true," the commodore agreed. She turned to Haliday. "Captain, I apologize for depriving you of an experienced officer."

He smiled. "To be honest, Commodore, it will be a loss. But that's life in the Combined Forces." He reached across to grasp my arm. "When I next meet her, I fully expect to see an LC, if not indeed a full commander."

Ehm'rael nodded. "Very likely, Captain."

I forced an answering smile. The reaction had set in, and I'd suddenly gone ice-cold, right down to the tip of my tail. The commodore knew, of course--she could easily see my lashing tail--but she said nothing. Perhaps she could read my mind too; if so, what she saw there was: Great Goddess, what have I done?

###

Sickbay, of all places.

I sat on the edge of a hard, cold exam table, one of a dozen in that large, sterile room, embarrassed and chilly in an ill-fitting paper gown which wouldn't close in the back. "I don't know why you're bothering," I growled, my tail flicking.

"Regulations," Dr. Zeeleeayykk said evenly. Because she found it uncomfortable to cover her feathers, her uniform--like that of Ehm'rael's secretary--was nothing more than a sleeveless, legless tabard, fastened at the sides, and a pair of soft boots, with separate compartments for each toe, and a hole at the back for her heel-spur. Field gear she avoided whenever possible, smart woman. "'A thorough physical exam is required before the ship-to-ship transfer of CF personnel.' Though I must agree with you." She lifted her palm-reader, ticking off the items one by one with a bony, dark-green digit. "Heart, perfect. Respiration, perfect. Blood pressure, perfect. Weight, slightly below average; muscle tone, excellent. Vision, ninety-five percent better acuity than human norm, two hundred percent better low-light response. Hearing, four hundred percent better in high frequencies than a human, and three hundred percent better in low frequencies. You are indeed in excellent health, Ehm'ayla."

It was the morning of my last day aboard Zelazny. Excused from duty, I had until fifteen hundred to report to the Raven--and I'd be well-advised to be early, lest I deepen Commander Edgeworth's inexplicable displeasure. But if little surprises like this kept cropping up…

"Thanks," I said. "Can I go? I've got a lot of packing to do--"

"One last item," she said.

I sighed. "And that is?"

The Combined Forces take medical care very seriously. Hardly surprising, when you think about it: it's very difficult to run a ship with a sick crew, and harder still with a dead one. (Fortunately, the days when a captain could flog a weak crewman back to work were long gone--even in the Navy.) My physical and mental health were more closely scrutinized now than at any other time in my life, even infancy. And always at the most inopportune times. But though I always grumbled--Dr. Zee expected it--actually I had nothing to complain about. If I was indeed in perfect health, it was entirely due to her…with a little help from Zelazny's state-of-the-art medical equipment. Several times I'd had reason to be profoundly grateful for her care--most especially, those times when I'd almost managed to do myself in.

"Claws, please."

I raised the backs of my hands before her and tightened the proper muscles. As Dr. Zee took my hands in hers and bent down for a closer look, I found myself smiling nostalgically. My schoolteachers did exactly the same thing when I was a kit, sometimes with a magnifying glass, checking for signs of inadequate care. Not that they ever found any: if nothing else, we Sah'aarans are proud of our claws.

Perhaps I'd better explain that all at once, so you'll understand what happened to me later. If it sometimes seems that I am inordinately aware of my claws, that's because I am. It's impossible to overstate the importance of those sixteen sharp appendages to Sah'aaran society. It's an obsession, virtually a cult, and it infuses our entire culture. In a real sense we are defined by our claws, more so than by any other attribute.

Sah'aarans are carnivores--a fact of evolution for which we make neither apology nor excuse. But physically, we are relatively small: humans are much bigger and heavier. More to the point, most of the animals which were our prey were also larger than us. The keys to our ultimate survival were intelligence, agility, keen hearing and vision…and most importantly, claws. Those others get you close to your prey…but the claws finish the job.

These days, of course, not one in a thousand Sah'aarans will ever hunt for food. We are no longer savages, but a civilized and peaceful species, accomplished in art, literature, science and technology; early signers of the TCA Charter. But even so, the psychological importance of our claws has never diminished. It's all through our religion, our rituals, our literature and art. Our deity, the Goddess, is always depicted with her hands in two stylized poses: one open and giving, the other with hugely-expressed claws. Our claws are our peace-keepers, and our hedge against times when civilization abandons us. With our claws, the saying goes, we can survive anywhere.

Sah'aarans are taught from infancy how to care for our claws; how to keep them properly trimmed, cleaned and sharpened. At one time those were matters of life and death. And most importantly, we are taught self-control. Over and over, every Sah'aaran swears an oath never to use claws against any sentient being, except in the direst contingency of self-defense. I myself had never done so--and I never expected that I would.

The claws of young kits are fairly soft--they begin to harden in adolescence--and won't hold a sharp point. That in itself probably averts some tragedies. But at no time are a Sah'aaran's claws ever cut short, not as a punishment, nor for any other reason. To be deprived of claws would be a violation comparable to rape. No human can truly understand just how strongly we feel about this--but fortunately, TCA law is on our side.

"No problem there," Dr. Zee said, straightening. "Of course."

I smiled. "I always did get good marks for that," I said. "I wasn't aware that it's part of the standard CF medical exam, though."

Dr. Zee couldn't smile, but the sideways tilt of her head somehow conveyed the impression of an embarrassed grin. "It is not," she said. "Just my own curiosity. Retractable claws fascinate me--perhaps because I am not so equipped."

The doctor's fingers were tipped with narrow, definitely non-retractable claws--or "talons," to be strictly accurate. Being vegetarians, the Centaurii were as careless about their talons as a human is about his fingernails--and indeed, Dr. Zee's did not extend past the tips of her fingers.

"They have their advantages," I said. "But they're a major responsibility too. Is that all?"

"That is all," she said. She handed me my clothing, and she turned away politely, jotting notes on her palm-reader as I dressed. A few seconds later she glanced back over her shoulder. "I understand it was the Raven's first officer who signed your transfer?" she asked.

I paused, halfway into my skivvies. "That's right," I said. "Why?"

She shook her head. "Commander Edgeworth struck me as rather…strange," she said. "Even for a human. You might recall that during the admiral's dinner I spent some time speaking with the Raven's Dr. Enyeart…"

I hid my grin behind my hand. In point of fact she'd spoken to no one else. "Yes, I remember."

"At best a moderately accomplished physician," Dr. Zee commented flatly. "As I was speaking with him, several times I noticed Commander Edgeworth gazing at me--in a decidedly unfriendly fashion."

"She wasn't particularly friendly to me either," I said. I slipped on my uniform, and as I fastened the mag-seal, my fingers brushed across the mauve Compcomm patch. I grinned ruefully. Won't be wearing that much longer. I shrugged. "Maybe it's stress. I'd be surprised if tempers aren't flaring all over that ship."

Dr. Zee sighed, a long whistling exhalation which needed no translation. "In forty years of practicing medicine," she stated, "I have never learned to understand human behavior."

I grinned. "I doubt you ever will."

"Most likely not," she agreed. She paused for a moment, watching absently as I smoothed down my clothing. Finally she said, "Ehm'ayla, are you…certain you are doing the right thing?"

I'd been asking myself the exact same thing, over and over, for many hours. "I…think so, Zee," I said. "I think it's time to get my career moving again. I don't know if you can understand that--"

"No," she said flatly. "I cannot. That is not how the Centaurii mind works. We crave constancy, not change." She spread her long feathery arms. "I am a ship's surgeon, and that pleases me."

But will it still please you a hundred years from now? I wondered wryly. I laid a hand on her arm, and she didn't flinch. "Zee," I said, "I complain about these exams…but I'm really going to miss my personal physician."

Once again her head tilted. "And I will miss my most challenging patient."

She let me hug her for twenty seconds or so, then she pushed me away gently. I hate good-byes; and this, I knew, was only the first. My voice was huskier than usual as I said, "I…guess I'd better go get that packing done."

###

They gave me a party.

Inevitable, really--but still, I wish they hadn't. Aparna and Max were the main instigators, of course, along with Dr. Zee and Commander Hullumm. They commandeered the Officer's Mess, festooning it with streamers, balloons and banners bearing such messages as "Good Luck!", "Congratulations!" and "Bon Voyage!" I had no choice but to attend--and to let Aparna outshine me in one of her dazzling saris, because all my clothing save my uniform had already been packed.

The fact is, I hate being the center of attention; but unfortunately my life repeatedly thrust me into exactly that situation. The only Sah'aaran in my Academy class, the only Sah'aaran on Point Cabrillo and Zelazny…and now this.

All of my friends were there, and then some. Max Goodwin and Aparna Singh, certainly, and Dr. Zeeleeayykk; even Commander Hullumm had squeezed his bulk though the corridors. Mingling with them were a number of lieutenants and ensigns; some I knew well, others only by name. Captain Haliday and Commander Vandevere had put in an appearance too. When I arrived--a little late again, because of my damn interrupted packing--they clustered around me, patting me on the back, shaking my hand, and shouting their congratulations over the babble of voices. I found and pasted onto my face a rather glazed smile, and I turned a slow circle, thanking them all en masse. Someone pressed a glass into my hand, and I sipped cautiously: fruit punch, non-spiked. Aparna's doing, no doubt: she knew my tolerance for alcohol.

Eventually the captain raised his hand for silence. "Everyone," he said, "I believe Commander Singh has something to say."

Never had I seen Aparna Singh at a loss for words. Nor was this an exception, though her voice was more hesitant than usual. "All of us," she began, "have had the pleasure of serving with Lieutenant Ehm'ayla for a number of years. We all know her not only as a fine and efficient officer, an asset to any crew, but also as a comrade and friend--in my case, one of the closest I have ever had. When she and I first met, five years ago, I was afraid that our physical and psychological differences would preclude understanding; but I've since discovered that there are no differences, however wide, which cannot be overcome by truly kindred spirits."

My goofy smile was threatening to become a grimace. Great Goddess, I thought desperately, she's getting maudlin! Get me out of here!

But I couldn't leave, not now, and I hid my expression behind the rim of my glass. Aparna went on: "In the Combined Forces, friendships--indeed, relationships of all kinds--are often transitory. It's something we've all had to face, time and again. After a time we learn to endure the partings--but never to accept. For me, this one is especially painful. Ehm'ayla and I have been called the best Compcomm team in the Survey. I don't know if that's true--but I do know that we're a team which will never be duplicated. This transfer is a great opportunity for Ehm'ayla--but I am going to miss her nonetheless. As shall we all."

There was a smattering of applause; and then, predictably, all eyes turned toward me. With no way out short of cardiac arrest, I sighed, set my glass down, and turned to face them, hurriedly clearing my throat, which had turned traitor and closed up. My tail was swishing too, but that I couldn't help. I took a deep breath and spoke:

"As you all know," I said, "most of my Survey career has centered around this ship, under the command of Captain Isaac Haliday. In the years I have been aboard Zelazny, it has come to feel more like home than any other place; and all of you, this entire crew, have become as much a family to me as my blood relations. I am deeply proud to have served with you all.

"I'm sure you will miss my smiling face…" A quick ripple of laughter: they all knew I was more likely to snarl than smile. "…And I know I'll miss all of yours. Thank you."

When the applause died away, my ordeal was over. Well, almost. I retrieved my glass, which someone had kindly refilled, and I forced myself to mingle. Goddess, how I hate this! I thought, even as I made polite conversation.

After a time, Commander Hullumm made his way across to me, gently shouldering the others out of the way, a little unsteady on his tree-trunk legs. The glass clutched in his upper-right tentacle contained nothing but orange juice; but to Quadrians, citric acid is a mild intoxicant. As he approached, he held out a small package. Uh-oh, I thought darkly, here it comes.

"Lieutenant," he said, "I know you have a very limited weight allowance, but I hope you can find room for this. It's from all of us."

Suppressing a sigh, I accepted the package: hand-sized; not particularly heavy, wrapped in brightly-colored paper. My shipmates clustered around as I opened it.

I found myself holding a small disk of hullmetal, ten centimeters in diameter and two thick. Someone--probably Hullumm himself, exercising the incredible skill in his tentacles and microscope eyes--had polished the metal to a gleam, and had engraved upon it the silhouette of Zelazny. On the reverse the senior officers were listed, myself included. Utterly useless, totally foolish…and completely wonderful.

For several seconds I couldn't reply, and Hullumm cocked all four eyes challengingly. "Well?" he rumbled.

For the first time in our long association I transcended rank, protocol and species. "It's beautiful, Hullumm," I said. "Thank you." And then, balanced on the tips of my toe-claws, I kissed his velvety forehead.

Astounded, he reached up with a tentacle to touch the spot. "Thank you."

I don't remember much more about the party--which is good, because it quickly became exactly the sort of sloppy, sentimental sob-fest that I would cross the Alliance to avoid. When the captain finally broke it up, an hour later, I was on the verge of clawing somebody. Anybody.

I endured their good-byes--ranging from Dr. Zee's "your work has been exemplary; I predict a bright future" to Max Goodwin's grinning, thumb's-up "knock 'em dead, kid." And I gave my own, somehow retaining control over my voice and the Terran language. Aparna hung back, oddly enough; when at last I made my escape, racing down the corridor toward the drop-shaft, she hadn't said a word to me. Angry, perhaps? Bitter that I was breaking up the team?

…But I should have known her better than that. I head the footsteps from far down the corridor: not the sharp thumping of regulation boots, but the loose slapping of sandals. At the drop-shaft I paused, and she drew up beside me, reaching out to clasp my hands. "I know how much you hated that," she said with a grin. "It had to happen, though. We needed it, even if you didn't."

"I know," I agreed. As painful as it was. "Actually… I think I would have felt rather abandoned if you hadn't."

"I thought as much." she paused. "I meant exactly what I said back there: I am going to miss you terribly."

The feeling was creeping up on me again. I'd felt it first the previous evening, as I informed the captain of my decision; again in Commodore Ehm'rael's office; and yet again just minutes ago during the good-byes: the choking, panicky certainty that I'd made a gigantic mistake. Worse was the fact that I could do absolutely nothing about it now; as Ehm'rael said, it was a fait accompli. I had three hours to report to Raven, or be thrown in the brig for desertion.

"I'm going to miss you too," I told her. "You know that." No words could even begin to convey my gratitude for the friendship she'd shown me, from the very moment I stepped on board Zelazny as a newly-minted, nervous j.g.; nor explain the deep comradeship I'd felt for her, as we shared work, meals, shore-leaves, heartaches, fears and dreams. But fortunately, no words were needed.

"I know," she said, and I knew she was responding not merely to my words, but to my thoughts as well. "I can't help feeling, though, that this isn't permanent."

"No?"

"No," she replied firmly. "We will serve together again. I don't know where or when--but we will. And when we do, this rank business won't matter any more--to either of us."

We embraced, a lot longer and harder than I'd hugged Dr. Zee. "I won't say good-bye, then."

"No," she agreed. "Not good-bye. Just…'so long.'"

###

It was a little past fourteen hundred hours when Joel Abrams met me on the outpost's Pedestrian Walk. On a shoulder-strap I carried a cylindrical case, three-quarters of a meter long and thirty centimeters wide, containing everything I'd been allowed to bring with me. Packing that case had been an endless series of choices, agonizing--but unavoidable. Raven's weight restrictions were severe indeed.

Even as the airlock closed behind me I spotted Joel, sitting on a nearby bench. He looked up, his eyes locking with mine…..and on his face I seemed to see a strange expression, an equal mix of fear, sadness and dismay. Only for an instant, though, before a wide and silly smile broke through. My imagination? Probably. He rose and stepped quickly toward me, reaching out to grasp my arms. "Ayla!" he said. "It is true!"

"Hello, Joel," I said. "What's true?"

"That you're shipping out with us."

I nodded, managing a half-hearted smile. "You didn't know?"

"Not exactly," he said. "I knew we had a new Anthro-Paleo Scispec. But I didn't know it was you--not until the officer's briefing an hour ago. After I heard, I begged Commander Edgeworth to let me come meet you."

"And I'm glad to see you," I said. Especially in preference to Edgeworth herself: something about that woman gave me the creeps. Hopefully our mutual antipathy wouldn't last long; otherwise I was in for a very unpleasant year.

"I don't imagine you've done much work in anthropology lately…?" Joel asked.

"Not much," I admitted. "I'm hoping I still remember how."

"It's probably like riding a bicycle," he said.

"Like what?"

"Uh--never mind. I mean it'll come back to you. You certainly won't lack opportunities to practice. I think you're going to find our mission very…interesting."

If I'd known exactly what he meant by that, I would have fled screaming. Unfortunately I didn't. Not yet, anyway.

"We'd better get going," Joel went on. "We've got just enough time for me to show you your quarters before Captain Antilles' mission briefing. He wants to ship out first thing in the morning."

"Uh--okay, sure," I said. The reaction had begun to set in--the realization of what I'd done--and I suddenly found myself rooted to the spot, unable to move or even breathe.

Joel linked his arm with mine. "I know," he said quietly, sympathetically. "Believe me, I know. It'll be all right, Ayla. Somehow it will."

I smiled. "Thanks." Abruptly then I reached a decision. Something needed to be said, then and there, before we reached the ship. "Joel--about the other night in Krav's Place. I'm sorry if I--"

But he never heard my apology--nor I his. We were interrupted by a voice ringing out stridently from the PA system. "Attention. Attention, all personnel. ESV Zelazny now departing from Docking Berth Two."

Unable to help myself, I twisted free from Joel's grip and pressed my face against the small round viewport beside the airlock. I was in time, but only just; the pressure corridor had already retracted, and even as I watched, the magnetic clamps released. I saw the little puffs of gas as the thrusters pushed Zelazny delicately away--it had to be Max on the helm again. The ship drifted a few kilometers, slowly rotating until her stern faced the station. Then the fusion-drive glowed, and Zelazny took off as if kicked. She vanished from sight in seconds--and a big chunk of my life went with her.

One year, I reminded myself. Three hundred and sixty-five Terran Standard days. And then you can write your own ticket.

Joel laid an arm across my shoulders. "Okay?" he asked gently.

I sighed. "Okay," I said, and I let him lead me away.

…And as he did, I realized with a start that I didn't even know what my new commanding officer looked like.


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