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 SEVEN


My new cabin was…small.

You can get too used to things, especially comfort; and I had definitely gotten too used to my spacious quarters aboard Zelazny. In contrast, this place seemed hardly larger than a closet.

The single room was two meters deep by three wide. The bunk was tucked against the right-hand wall, with shallow storage shelves built into its head and foot, and drawers below. A small, circular table with a single chair stood in the opposite corner. A computer terminal was perched on a shelf behind the table, a few more drawers beneath. Another corner contained a tiny semicircular hanging-locker. The floor was bare metal, overlaid with a honeycomb of oddly new-looking grav-plates. The light came from a single harsh glow-panel which covered the entire ceiling. The walls, quite unadorned, were painted that ubiquitous color which someone long ago dubbed "CF Grey." A pocket door in the left-hand wall let into the tiny bathroom (or "head"), which also incorporated a hypersonic shower. That at least was entirely adequate for my needs.

I dropped my travel case onto the bunk and flopped down next to it, wincing as my butt hit the mattress. Hard indeed--and no use looking for the pneumatic adjustments I'd grown used to. A tightly-folded bundle at the head of the bunk contained a single blanket, a set of sheets and a pillow. "Good as it gets, eh?" I said hopefully.

Leaning against the door-frame with his arms crossed over his chest, Joel Abrams grinned down at me. "Cabins identical to this one are occupied by sixty-two other members of this crew," he told me. "Myself included. Only the captain's and Commander Edgeworth's are larger."

Finally it sank in, and I looked up at him sharply. "Is this Commander Morada's quarters?"

He nodded. "It is. Was. There are no others available. It's not like we could stretch a velvet rope across the doorway and charge admission."

"I suppose not." I shuddered. I'd never occupied a dead man's quarters before. My revulsion was irrational and superstitious, unworthy of me; still…

But it was not only my new minimalist cabin which had me off-balance that afternoon. In fact it was a combination of factors. Arriving aboard Raven, my first duty had of course been to report to my commanding officer--which had proven not difficult, as I'd found Commander Edgeworth waiting impatiently at the ship's airlock. Coming to attention before her--something I hadn't been required to do in a long time-- I said, "Lieutenant Comp--er, Scispec Ehm'ayla reporting, Commander."

"About time," was her only reply. In fact I was almost an hour early, but I decided not to make an issue of it. "You have been assigned quarters and authorized for computer access," she went on. "There's a mission briefing at fifteen-thirty. Don't be late."

"Understood, Commander," I replied stiffly.

"Commander Abrams, show the lieutenant to her cabin," Edgeworth said, and stalked away without another word. Behind her back, Joel smiled and a rolled his eyes, as if to say "she's always like that"; but somehow that failed to reassure me.

And then there were my new crewmates. We saw only a few of them as we made our way through the narrow corridors; but those few looked at me with very strange expressions, nothing like benign curiosity. Several of them stopped short as if they'd seen a ghost. There was something else odd about them too, about their appearance. It took me quite a while to figure out what. At the time it scarcely registered, because I was too busy trying to memorize the ship's layout. Commander Edgeworth had sent me a diagram, but I'd had little time to study it. I'd have to learn by exploration. Surely I couldn't get too lost on a ship less than a third the size of Zelazny.

"You're better off than some," Joel said, breaking into my thoughts. "You've also inherited an office."

"Have I really?" I said, absurdly delighted. "That's a first. Where is it?"

"Sciences section," he said. "Deck Eight. I'll show you later. I wouldn't get too excited, though--it's just a box with a desk."

I shrugged. "Still a step up from a Compcomm board."

"You've got a point there." He grinned and straightened. "Tell you what," he went on. "We've got about forty-five minutes until the briefing. Why don't I leave you alone for a while? You can get unpacked, freshen up, get familiar with the computer, whatever. I'll come get you when it's time."

I nodded thoughtfully. Joel did still know me, after all: well enough to see that I was feeling overwhelmed. And when that happens, what I need is solitude--which is safer for all concerned. "Sounds good," I said. "Thank you, Joel--for everything."

"De nada," he said. "I'll see you later." And with that he exited, stage left.

I sat for a brief time, motionless in the sudden silence, until I felt able to cope once again. Then I took a deep breath and opened my case.

As I've mentioned before, the surest way to drive a Sah'aaran insane would be to confine him in a small, sterile, bare, impersonal space--exactly like the one I now found myself in. Unfortunately there was little I could do by way of personalization, not with what I had.

I'd done my best, crowding the weight-limit to the edge, but in the end I'd packed only a pitiful fraction of my belongings. The most bulky item was a tight cylinder containing a few day-robes for off-duty wear, rolled up with a single casual collar. Into the middle of the bundle I had stuffed my hygiene items, most importantly my hairbrush and claw-file. Beneath the clothes were two slim, flat plastic cases. The larger containing my commpak and scanpak, both specially-made, the latter with a four-finger sensor gauntlet. I'd be needing that very soon indeed. The smaller case held my three medals. The circumstances behind the first two I have already described; but the event which earned me the third was quite different, and much more recent. It involved a landing-party mission, with me in charge, which turned nasty in a swamp chock-full of large and unfriendly reptiles. Suffice it to say that Ensign Morley had reason to be grateful that I kept my claws well-tended. I wouldn't have packed the medals, but they went with the dress uniform. I'd also found room for a few holos, shots of my mother and father, and my twin brother Sah'sell.

….And last but not least, the gift from Commander Hullumm. Actually that little object had put me about two hundred grams over the limit. An inconsequential amount--but I'd been on pins and needles waiting for Commander Edgeworth to weigh my case. Too late now.

As for uniforms, I had packed none beyond the one I was wearing--because the mauve patch on my left breast had just become ipso facto obsolete. Raven's own tailoring machines would provide me with new ones, duty-wear and field-gear, and all the necessary accessories.

It didn't take long to arrange those few items--the holos and Hullumm's gift in the shelf at the head of the bed, the hygiene items in the bathroom, the clothes in the hanging locker and the drawers--and afterwards I sank down in the chair to examine the results. There still wasn't much that said "Ehm'ayla," but in time, that might change. I always had been an incurable collector. I was definitely going to miss my artwork, though, and most especially my rugs. I had entrusted it all to Commodore Ehm'rael; she would see it safely into storage, or ship it on to Sah'aar if necessary.

Now what? I asked myself. The unpacking had taken just fifteen of Joel's forty minutes. What to do next?

Finally I swiveled the chair around to face the desk. Joel's third suggestion was probably the best: introduce myself to the ship's computer. Commander Edgeworth had told me that my access codes had been authorized. A quick tour then, to familiarize myself…

I was still sitting there, seething, when the door-buzzer sounded. "Come in!" I snarled.

It was Joel; and as he entered his eyes were wide with alarm. "Something wrong?"

"I thought you said this ship was refitted," I demanded.

He grinned. "'Refitted' is too strong a term," he said. "The engine was brought back on-line, the auto-kitchen was updated, and grav-plates were installed. Other than that, she's just about the same as when she was commissioned."

"Including the computer?"

"Yes. Why?"

I expressed a claw and flicked the terminal's "off" switch. "I've been arguing with this pile of scrap silicon for the past twenty minutes."

"What about?"

"I was trying to order my new uniforms," I said, "and the damn thing kept asking me for a boot size. It simply would not believe that I don't need any--and it wouldn't let me proceed. Obviously it hasn't been clued in about Sah'aaran uniforms."

"So who won?"

I grinned. "Up until yesterday I was a Compcomm," I reminded him. "The computer I cannot defeat has yet to be built." I sighed. "Fortunately, I was able to get the correct design from the outpost's computer. Thanks to Commodore Ehm'rael--it arrived when she did. We'll find out for sure tomorrow morning." I shook my head. "With my luck, I'll probably spend the next year in field gear."

He grinned and held out his hand. "Come on," he said. "It's time for the briefing."

As we made our way down the corridor, I was struck yet again by the palpable antiquity of this ship. Everything was quite clean, with a fresh coat of CF Grey; but the layout itself seemed somehow to exude an aura of age. Take the corridors, for example: they were narrow, low-ceilinged, and lined with an eclectic assortment of undisguised pipes, power conduits and ventilation shafts, as well as waist-level grab-rails on both sides. The lighting was harsh and unsubtle, hard on my eyes. The air was stale, with a sharp, metallic tang. There is no absolute rule linking old with unsafe, certainly not; but if not for my implicit trust in Joel's engineering skills, I would have felt terribly unsafe aboard that relic.

When no one else was in sight, I leaned close to Joel and said quietly, "I get the feeling Commander Edgeworth doesn't like me."

His chuckle seemed forced--or was that just my imagination? "She's like that to everyone at first," he said quickly. "And frankly, I don't think she liked the way Commodore Ehm'rael maneuvered you aboard. I think she felt a little, well…manipulated."

"Oh boy," I said. "I certainly don't need that hanging over my head."

"It won't," he assured me. "Not for long, anyway. If nothing else, Commander Edgeworth is practical. If you're as good an Anthro-Paleo as I think you'll be--well, she can't argue with success, can she?"

"I hope you're right."

Raven's crew section had ten decks, arranged like the layers of a cake, perpendicular to the engine's thrust. Each deck was seventeen meters in diameter, the rooms arranged along spoke-like corridors that converged on a central hub. The Control Deck, Deck One, was topmost, and numerically, (though not physically) the rest ascended from there. The officer's quarters were on Decks 3 and 4; the crew quarters took up the next three. The mess hall and recreation room were on Deck 5, and sickbay on Deck 6, as was Mission Planning. The science section--where my office apparently lay--was on Deck 8. Decks 9 and 10, just above the engine hull, were combined into the landing-pod hangar. I'd gleaned that much from the map Commander Edgeworth had sent me; the details could come later.

One such became obvious immediately, though--much to my horror. All the corridors converged at a central hub…which did not contain the familiar forcefield drop-, but rather a wide spiral ramp extending the entire length of the hull. "You mean this is it?" I asked Joel incredulously, as we started down. "The only way to get from deck to deck?"

"Afraid so," he said. "We didn't have a lot of power to spare. It was either drop-shafts or grav-plates. We opted for the latter." He grinned. "If nothing else, this mission is building up our leg-muscles."

If nothing else, I thought sourly.

Mission Planning was typical of the species: a large space dominated by a rectangular black-topped table with ten close-spaced chairs. Eight of then were already occupied as Joel and I entered. Commander Edgeworth sat near the head of the table, Dr. Enyeart opposite her. The rest were strangers, humans all, a mixture of men and women. I gave them scarcely a glance, though--because my gaze was immediately caught and held by the baleful figure at the head of the table. Finally, my new commanding officer.

I've often heard that ninety percent of your impression of someone is formed in the first few minutes after you meet him. And truly, I will never forget my first meeting with Captain Antilles. Believe me, I've tried.

No older than forty, he was surprisingly young for a CF captain. Slim, almost bony, he towered over me by a good half-meter; his features were sharp and pinched, his hair blond and close-cropped. His eyes were small, deep blue, and piercing, and as they locked with mine they narrowed, the muscles at the corners of his jaw tightening visibly. I shuddered.

Joel introduced me: "Captain, ladies and gentlemen, this is Lieutenant Ehm'ayla, our new Anthro-Paleo Scispec. Lieutenant, this is Captain Mark Antilles."

I did my best. I smiled and stepped forward, thrusting out my hand as the humans do. "Captain," I said brightly, "it's a pleasure to finally meet you…"

Without moving, he glanced distastefully at my extended palm. When he raised his eyes, his gaze was ice-cold, as hospitable as the Antarctic. "You're late, Lieutenant," he said. His voice was quiet, precise, clipped. "Take your seat."

My hand dropped to my side, and my heart to the deck. "Yes, sir," I said, and I did as he asked, at the foot of the table. Joel settled in beside me.

"I suppose introductions are in order," Antilles went on. Clearly he regarded it an odious duty. "You already know Commander Edgeworth, Dr. Enyeart and Lieutenant Commander Abrams. The others are the remainder of my senior staff." He indicated the man to my right: fortyish, with brown hair and a pleasant--if somewhat wide and florid--face. "This is Lieutenant Commander Karl Gaetano, our geology Scispec." Then a woman about thirty-five, her skin very dark, her features like fine sculpture, and her hair a tightly-braided black coil. "Lieutenant Commander Barbara Delaney, Bio-Sciences." Next a small man, perhaps fifty, and wonderfully Terran/Japanese. "Lieutenant Commander Kiro Nakamara, our astrophysicist." Then a woman in her late twenties, very small, with pale skin and long, flowing dark hair. "Lieutenant Nadia Kerenski, Climatology." And finally a man perhaps five years younger than me, and so similar to Captain Antilles that they might have been brothers. Only his hair color differed: bright red, not blond. "And Lieutenant Peter Harris, our head of Security."

I gave them all my most disarming smile, careful not to show my teeth. "It's a pleasure," I said. "I'm sure I'll enjoy working with you…"

What I received in return was…nothing. Dead silence, blank stares; a room full of mannequins would have been more welcoming. My heart sinking a little lower, I put away my smile.

This reaction seemed to please Antilles no end; with a faint smirk he said, "All right, ladies and gentlemen. Let's get to work."

He nodded to Edgeworth, and she punched keys on her terminal, throwing a star-chart onto the big viewscreen. (A flat-field screen, that is, not a holo; this ship really was old.) Outlined in white was the elongate triangle of a galactic sector, Outpost Four a tiny red dot at the apex. The triangle was divided into six smaller slices, three shaded in pale blue and the rest black. Easy enough for even a mere lieutenant to decipher; but Captain Antilles explained anyway.

"Our assignment is to survey this sector," he said, "primarily to locate and categorize habitable planets. Our other objectives are the mapping of hypertunnel nodes, the placement of hyperzap relay satellites, and--perhaps most importantly--to locate any intelligent life-forms. So far we have found none; which, from the TCA's point of view, is fortunate.

"We had completed approximately half of our task when we were forced to return to Outpost Four. We will continue our mission here." He indicated a black triangle. "The first system we will examine is the binary star A- and B-Benideel. Alpha Benideel is very similar to Sol, and is already known to possess planets; we are to determine whether any of them are habitable.

"Our refueling and resupply having long since been completed, and with our crew now back to full strength, we will depart at oh-six-hundred. Do you have any difficulty with that, Mr. Abrams?"

"None at all, sir," Joel said cheerfully. "The fusion drive is in top condition and ready to run."

"Glad to hear it," the captain said, with the first genuinely warm smile he'd cracked so far. He glanced around. "We have lain fallow far too long, ladies and gentlemen, and we have a great deal of lost time to make up. You know your departments, and you know what I expect of you."

Then his gaze found me, the one exception. His tone hardened audibly as he said, "Lieutenant, our transit to A-Benideel will take approximately two weeks. Before we arrive I expect you to have familiarized yourself fully with the details of our previous surveys. I understand that your previous assignment was Compcomm?"

"Yes, sir."

"And your qualification for Scispec rests solely on a university degree from your homeworld?"

"Yes, sir," I replied levelly. "As well as years of independent study." Strange how terribly thin that sounded, even to my ears…

He shook his head. "I hope," he said dubiously, "that Admiral Conroy and Commodore Ehm'rael haven't made as big a mistake as I fear. We shall see. Commander Gaetano?"

The geologist had been staring sidelong at me; with a jerk he came back to life. "Sir?"

"You will monitor Lieutenant Ehm'ayla's progress," Antilles told him. "You're responsible for seeing that she gets everything she needs. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," Gaetano said. He glanced at me briefly, and in his eyes there was still nothing like friendliness.

The captain looked around. "Any questions?" he asked. Apparently there were none. "All right, then," he said. "Dismissed."

As Joel and I exited, a little behind the others, he slipped his arm through mine and drew me aside. "That went well," he commented.

I looked up at him incredulously. "You could have fooled me."

His smile widened. "My first day aboard was a disaster," he said. "Captain Antilles knew very well how bottom-of-the-line this ship is, and since I'd helped refit her, he decided to take it out on me. It took months to convince him that I'm not a complete idiot. At least he's willing to give you the benefit of the doubt."

"Uh-huh," I agreed. "Plenty of doubt. Listen, I'm starving." Which was hardly surprising: I'd been far too rushed for lunch. "If you show me the mess hall, I'll buy dinner."

He shook his head. "I'll be happy to show you the mess hall," he said. "But I'll have to take a rain check. If we're shipping out at oh-six-hundred, I've got to make sure I can back up my promises."

He had a point: if Antilles called for one-and-a-half G's, and nothing happened…well, he didn't strike me as someone who could just laugh it off. "The auto-kitchen was updated--?" I asked.

"Yes," he confirmed. "That at least."

And did that include the "carnivore" database? I wondered wryly. Dietary restrictions can be a real pain. "Lead on, then."

###

I've never thought of myself as a snob; but still, I couldn't suppress a frown of disapproval as I entered the mess hall. Once again it was habit: I had grown too used to the concept of an Officer's Mess, the one place where the enlisted are forbidden to enter.

But such did not exist here. Raven had just one dining area, which served the entire crew. A cavernous space--comparatively speaking--it was completely unadorned and undecorated, though it did have a single large viewport. Round tables of identical size, each with four chairs, formed precise rows. The auto-kitchen machinery stood along the back wall, along with the screen-and-keyboard selection units, the disposal chutes, and the racks of utensils and condiments. By and large, a familiar place--if perhaps a bit too regimental for my taste. Only a few tables were occupied, and the diners, engrossed as they were in meals, conversations and palm-readers, seemed not to notice me.

I paused just inside to orient myself--and I'm very glad I did, because it saved me from a dire faux pas. To my right there was a…division, I suppose I'd call it. Nothing so obvious as a rope or a railing; simply a slightly wider strip of floor, like the bare stripe of rock between clones of sea anemones. Obviously the area near the viewport, containing about a third of the tables, was Officer's Country. If I'd unthinkingly taken a seat on the other side…It seems a trivial thing, I know; but it's amazing how quickly such silly details can become overwhelmingly important in an enclosed environment.

Pleased that my powers of observation still functioned, I stepped over to one of the selection units--and the instant I left the doorway, I was noticed. Goddess, was I noticed! Crossing the room, I left behind me a wake of stilled conversations and paused meals. The sensation of all those eyes boring into my back was disconcerting, though I knew I shouldn't read anything sinister into it. I was a stranger, after all, aboard less than two hours. They'd get used to me soon enough. Meanwhile, I was anticipating another argument with the computer, and I was not disappointed.

Updated the auto-kitchen certainly had been--in fact the compact bank of machinery looked strange, sitting in a space clearly intended for a much larger unit--but its menu choices were disappointingly limited. Well, that had happened many times before, and I had long since learned to improvise. Just give me a half-kilo New York steak, rare. Make that very rare; in fact, don't cook it at all: just warm it to 36 C. And add a glass of milk, room temperature. The machines filled the order with a minimum of complaint; I added cutlery and a few packs of black pepper to the tray, and took it to Officer's Country. I didn't feel comfortable simply joining someone unannounced, so I took a table by myself, near the window, where I could watch and listen. Sponge time again.

Despite Joel's blithe assurances, I was not convinced that my first meeting with Captain Antilles had gone at all well. Seldom had I encountered a CO so hard-nosed, and never one so openly disdainful. Comparisons to Captain Haliday were unfair--but inevitable. He had never called my assignment to his ship a "mistake"…

I shook my head and attacked my dinner. Tomorrow, I told myself. It's been a long, hard day. Tomorrow you can start proving to him that you're the best Anthro-Paleo in the Survey. After you've had some rest.

Lost in thought, it was some minutes before I realized that I was being watched. When I finally felt the eyes upon me, I paused and glanced casually around through half-lidded eyes.

There were only a few others present, as I said: five officers and ten enlisted, give or take. But as my surreptitious gaze circled the room, I saw to my surprise that every one of them had stopped eating to stare at me, expressions of horror and disgust on their faces. What in the world--? I wondered--then I looked down at my tray, and suddenly understood.

I am by no means a messy eater; I use a knife and fork, implements as common on Sah'aar as they are on Terra. But I was eating raw meat, and I was cutting and swallowing large chunks one after another almost without chewing, because that's how my teeth are designed With a little imagination one could easily believe that I was tearing at my prey like a ravenous beast.

Which--to be blunt--was their problem, not mine. Maybe they were revolted by my underdone steak…but I'd often felt the same about, say, a big plateful of lettuce. Learning to tolerate the eating habits of other species is part of a CF officer's most basic training--or so I'd always believed.

But those staring faces did at least remind me of what I'd realized before: that there was something extremely odd about this crew. I hadn't been able to pin it down before; but now I could. In fact it hit me right between the eyes. Since setting foot on Raven, I'd seen only humans. No other species at all. Could it be that I was the only non-Terran aboard?

No, I thought instantly. Highly unlikely--and a violation of Combined Forces regulations too. No; there must at least be a few other non-humans aboard, hidden below-decks, perhaps. After all, I'd seen barely a third of the crew so far. I'd encounter them eventually.

Now, though…surrounded by strangers, I found myself growing unbearably self-conscious, for the first time in a good many years. Rapidly, but with as much decorum as I could manage, I finished my dinner and departed--not to say "fled"--aware as I did that the eyes were still upon me. I had the rest of the evening to myself, and I might have spent it exploring; but no. Tired and edgy as I was, if I could find my way back to my quarters I'd be ahead of the game.


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