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 EIGHT


A new uniform? Well, almost.

Actually, the jumpsuit I donned that morning was identical to the ones I'd worn throughout my career. Only one thing had changed. A minor detail…but to me, very important indeed: the little oval patch over my left breast was now Scispec green.

On the back of the bathroom door I'd discovered a full-length mirror, and I turned slow circles before it, inspecting the job done by Raven's antique tailoring equipment. On the whole, I thought I approved. For the moment I had strained the machine's capacity only to the point of producing a pair of standard duty uniforms and a few sets of undergarments. Field gear I would worry about later, when I needed it. I considered myself damn lucky: after my sharp disagreement with the computer, anything might have happened. The all-important tail hole was present, and in the right place; so too was the elastic around the pants-cuffs. And the size was just right, neither too snug nor too loose. Had I been superstitious I would have considered it an omen, that this new job of mine would be perfect fit too.

As soon as I was certain that my new uniform was wearable, I dropped the old one down the disposal chute; by now it was on its way to the mass recycler. What I didn't know then--couldn't have, of course--was the true extent of the corner I'd turned: never again would I wear Compcomm mauve.

I'd set no alarm, but even so I woke promptly at oh-six-hundred. Partly out of habit, but mainly because of a familiar sound, one which even a human could easily hear: the deep throbbing rumble of a fusion drive. We'd departed Outpost Four dead on schedule; as I was to find out, Captain Antilles was nothing if not prompt. Our first hypertunnel jump would come later that day; for better or worse, my new life had begun.

It would be a rather less structured life than I'd grown accustomed to. I no longer had to worry about Control Deck shifts--not at least until my name came up in the rotation, and I was called to man the Science station. When we reached our destination my real work would begin; but for the moment my duty was to bring myself up to speed on Raven's mission. (And--let's be honest--to discover how much anthropology and paleontology I'd forgotten.)

Emotionally, then, I was riding high, eager to tackle my new duties. Unfortunately my body wasn't quite so enthusiastic. I'd slept poorly, mostly because of my new bunk, unfamiliar and quite hard indeed. No doubt I'd get used to it in time; but for the moment my muscles were stiff and sore, and there was a painful kink in my neck. That too would pass.

I was also hungry again--amazing how many calories you can burn tossing and turning--and when I could finally tear myself away from the mirror, I headed for the mess hall. Leaving my quarters, I couldn't help pausing for a rueful glance at the discolored rectangle beside the door, where a name-plate had been removed but not replaced. Have to see about that…

I was in the mood for fish, and in need of a caffeine fix; fortunately the autokitchen could supply both. Taking my salmon fillet and pot of strong tea over to the officer's section, I looked around hopefully. Once again there were just a few others present, and of those, I recognized only one: Commander Gaetano, the geologist. He sat alone at a table near the viewport, a palm-reader in his hand; he did not respond to my friendly nod.

I was about to take a table by myself when I caught sight of another familiar face, far in the back at a table entirely bare except for a single steaming mug. His head rested in his hands, his fingertips massaging his temples; small wonder I'd overlooked him before. Crossing over, I slid boldly into the seat opposite him. "Good morning!"

Joel raised his head to gaze at me through puffy and red-rimmed eyes. "What's good about it?" he grumbled.

"Great Goddess!" I said. "You look like you've been up all night!"

He straightened slowly, cracking his back, and took a long drink from his mug. Strong coffee--big surprise. "How'd you guess?" he asked. He shook his head. "I've got to stop making promises I can't keep."

"The fusion drive?" I guessed.

"Was off-line until oh-five-thirty," he confirmed. "The damn pinch-bottle field again. Fortunately Captain Antilles doesn't know…or at least I hope he doesn't."

I nodded at the viewport, in which the space station was conspicuously absent. "So?"

"So…somehow or other, we're doing point seven-five G's," Joel said. "Exactly what the captain called for. Hopefully we'll keep doing it." He smiled abruptly, and reached over to touch my new green patch. "That's a change," he commented.

I smiled. "What do you think?"

"It suits you," he said. "And I know you'll live up to it." His fingers drifted over to brush lightly across my rank stars. "There'll be some changes there too, one of these days."

"I hope you're right." Otherwise I just gave up the best posting I've ever had, for nothing.

As he had done that night in Krav's place, he laid his hand atop mine, and once again I felt that same electric thrill. "How was your first night in your new quarters?" he asked.

"Interesting," I said. I paused. "One strange thing, though…"

"Which is?"

"My bunk seems to have…seatbelts."

Actually, technically, it was more like a harness, affixed firmly to both sides of the frame. I'd found the crumpled straps shoved underneath the mattress when I tucked in the sheets. It made me wonder a bit about the late Commander Morada: had he been especially prone to falling out of bed?

Joel grinned. "They all do," he assured me. "Part of Raven's past--just like the grab-rails in the corridors. When she was built, grav-plates hadn't been invented."

"So?" I said. "The decks are perpendicular to the engine's thrust. Doesn't that provide gravity?"

"Sure does," Joel said. "When the ship is accelerating. But remember, we don't have a ramscoop--so we have to stretch our fuel supply. Whenever possible, we coast."

"So that the ship would be in freefall most of the time without the grav-plates."

"Exactly. And was, originally. She was designed for long periods of zero-G." He waved a hand. "This room for example. The tables and chairs used to be bolted to the floor, and the tops of the tables were magnetic, to hold down trays and utensils. We replaced them when we installed the grav-plates."

I shook my head. Sah'aarans don't do very well in zero-G: our sense of balance is too finely-tuned. I myself could endure it only in small doses, with the help of strong anti-nausea drugs. To have to work, eat and sleep in freefall for weeks on end…I couldn't even imagine it. "Remind me to be glad I wasn't born fifty years earlier."

"I'm glad you weren't too," he said with a wink. He nodded at my tray. "Finish your breakfast, and I'll show you your office."

I shook my head. "No," I said. "Thank you, but no. You're done in. I can find it myself. You get some rest."

He smiled tiredly. "Thank you," he said, squeezing my hand gratefully. "I've got just enough strength left to reach my bunk."

"Dinner tonight?" I asked.

"I'd like that. I'll--"

He broke off then, his breath catching in his throat; his hand, still gripping mine, suddenly tightened. Peering at something over my shoulder, his eyes slowly widened in terror.

I risked a quick glance--and what I saw both confused and dismayed me. Commander Edgeworth had entered the hall, but she wasn't there to order breakfast. She stood in the doorway, her arms crossed, staring fixedly at Joel and me. For a few seconds her icy gaze remained locked with his…then she suddenly turned and departed.

Quickly Joel withdrew his hand from mine. He stood. "I'll--uh--I'll talk to you later," he said. "I've--got to get some sleep."

And with that he too left, moving remarkably fast for someone so exhausted. Twice in a row, now: maybe I needed a better brand of mouthwash.

###

Joel had been right: my new office was nothing to write home about.

As part of Raven's dubious transformation, the Deck 8 cargo bays had been converted into science labs. All the various disciplines had their workspaces there. The largest, of course, belonged to Biosciences, followed by Geology and Climatology. Anthro-Paleo didn't have a lab as such; but a space had been provided for storing and cataloging fossils and artifacts. Fossils there were in plenty, a collection for which I was now responsible; but artifacts there were none. That, of course, could change at any time.

Nearby were the offices. Thin metal partitions divided a small cargo bay into half a dozen coffin-sized cubicles, set in a semicircle around an open area containing a table, a computer terminal and a flat-field viewscreen, intended as an informal Mission Planning lounge. ID plates beside the office doors marked them by specialty and by the occupant's name. Mine was in the middle of the row, between Gaetano and Kerenski. The sign said "Anthropology-Paleontology"; but the name-plate was gone, leaving a rectangular scar. I'd have to see about that too. With some trepidation I slid aside the flimsy pocket door.

As Joel said, a box, no more than two meters square. The cantilevered desk filled most of the available space; a swivel chair stood behind it. On the right-hand wall was a small viewscreen, and a computer terminal perched on the corner of the desk. And that was all. No windows, and no decoration; not even any indication that there ever had been any. I shuddered. How can anyone live like this? I wondered. And, What can I transfer from my quarters, to liven up this place? I chuckled, suddenly wishing that I'd packed my diploma from Sah'salaan University; not only for decoration, but to prove that I really did earn that degree.

Closing the door, I slipped behind the desk--which required me to flatten myself against the wall and shuffle sideways. I sat down gingerly, but the chair was surprisingly comfortable, and even had a slot between the seat and the back. Sheer coincidence, of course, but an uncommon luxury for my tail.

For a moment I sat motionless, reminding myself firmly that I didn't suffer from claustrophobia. So the Psych Boys said, but some part of me was suddenly not so sure. Fortunately I had a ready-made distraction at hand. Taking a deep breath, I activated the terminal and tapped in, "DISPLAY SURVEY LOGS FOR CURRENT MISSION OF SV RAVEN. CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER."

The screen flashed, "Specify log types."

I bared my teeth. "ALL," I tapped in. Doubtless there'd be far too much to take all at once; but I could break off and return whenever I chose. You'd better pay attention, I told myself firmly, as text began to flow across the screen. There might be a quiz.

###

Two hours later, I'd finally had enough. I tapped the "PAUSE" key and leaned back, rubbing at my blurry eyes. The entire office seemed to jerk and jitter around me: past time for a break.

No civilian can possibly imagine the number of log entries and data dumps made during a planetary survey. And the pearls of wisdom contained therein, though numerous, are scattered thinly in a vast sea of worthless trivia. I was paying the price for requesting all the logs.

Lacking a ramscoop, Raven's effective cruising range was limited by the amount of fuel she could carry; typically about four month's worth, coasting whenever possible and conserving every last milligram. With that in mind, the mission-planners had divided the sector into six smaller segments, bite-sized chunks as it were. In their logs the crew referred to each of these segments as a "survey." In two hours, then, I had gotten barely a tenth of the way into the very first survey, begun more than a year ago. This was not going to be an afternoon's work; in fact I'd be lucky to finish before we reached A-Benideel.

All that verbiage was at least giving me some insight into my crewmates' personalities. The Command Log, as written by Captain Antilles, made for the dullest reading: it was nothing more than a short, matter-of-fact, bare-bones recording of Raven's position and status. As Exec, Commander Edgeworth wrote about crew matters, but managed to drain even that subject of life. Like Antilles, her logs might have been written by a computer. Not so, most of the others.

I found myself strangely fascinated by Commander Gaetano's log. While much of it was rather dry, in amongst all the rocks, minerals, and tectonics I had begun to glimpse a person I thought I could like. He had an absolutely passionate love for his work, a trait I've always admired. Why his real-life persona seemed so different, I couldn't say.

Of course the most poignant was that recorded by Commander Morada. As with Gaetano, his entries were businesslike; but amidst the statistics I'd detected a clear conflict of emotions. On one level he expressed an almost childlike delight in the fossils he'd uncovered. On another, disappointment, because he had found neither intelligent life nor ancient civilization. And finally, frustration. I could well understand that: no paleontologist could ever be satisfied with a mere sackfull of fossils. As I myself would, he'd wanted to know everything; the entire evolutionary history of each and every planet he visited--but unfortunately, the realities of the mission had never given him time for anything more than a cursory glance. A fact which he'd greatly resented: it resonated all through his log. Eventually I would come to his very last entry; and I wasn't looking forward to that.

But the log that drew me back, time and again, had nothing to do with science: it was the one recorded by the Techspec Crew Chief, Lieutenant Commander Joel Aaron Abrams. I could have safely ignored his entries: problems with the fusion drive were none of my business. But I didn't, because his offhand, sarcastic writing style was a breath of fresh air after the captain's coldness. I had forgotten many things about Joel, unfortunately; his quirky sense of humor being one of them.

Of course there were many other things which I had not forgotten. His eyes, for example; his smile; his kind words; his unwavering friendship and loyalty. Joel's sudden reappearance in my life had stirred up a great many memories, and emotions too. Unfortunately I'd had no time to bring those feelings out into the open and examine them. Now, alone and at rest for the first time in days, I finally could. I was still quite fond of him, even after six years; that was obvious. But exactly how fond? Was it simple friendship, as I'd always believed; or was there more? How to know?

Nothing more physical than hand-holding or the occasional hug had ever occurred between the two of us--but there was one occasion when something nearly did. A vivid memory, but one I didn't call upon very often, because its associated feelings were…difficult.

It happened during our fourth year at the Officer's Academy, one weekend when we both managed to acquire a three-day pass--a near miracle. Determined to make the most of it, we packed quickly and grabbed a shuttle to the seaside town of Pacific Grove, where a friend of the Abrams family owned an apartment in a wonderful old 20th-Century building, overlooking the Bay near Lover's Point. He was off-planet on business, and he'd kindly allowed Joel to use the place.

It was only a ten-minute flight from Vallejo, and as soon as we arrived we hit the town. In that one frenetic day we visited Fisherman's Wharf, Cannery Row, Asilomar Beach, museums, shops, cafés, historic spots…It was close to midnight when we finally straggled back to the apartment, cold and exhausted but glowingly happy. I recall collapsing onto the old, sprung sofa in front of the living room window, and spreading my day-robe across legs still chilled from the foggy night air. The curtains were open, and spread out before me was the rectilinear blaze of lights that is Monterey Bay at night.

"We must have walked forty kilometers today," I told Joel, or rather his back; he was in the kitchen. "My feet are killing me."

He emerged finally, a streaming mug in each hand; I smelled hot cocoa. For him, that was a departure: he'd consumed enough coffee that day to float a landing pod. He sat down carefully next to me and handed me a mug. I sipped, and nodded approvingly. He knew how I liked it: neither too sweet nor too hot. "What you need," he said, "is a foot massage."

"Pardon me?"

"A foot massage. Shiatsu. I took a class once. You'll love it."

I was dubious, but he was insistent. He removed the mug from my hands and set it aside, along with his own. Then he turned me sideways on the sofa and lifted my feet into his lap. I sighed, feeling supremely silly--but that quickly changed as he went to work.

Sah'aaran feet have the same number of bones as a human's, but that's where the similarity ends. We are digitigrade: we stand on our toes and the balls of the feet with our heels elevated. Because of this, our balance is dynamic, requiring our tail as a counterweight, as well as constant sensory input from our toes. Which is why we do not--can not--wear shoes: we wouldn't be able to walk. Which usually isn't a problem, because the pads of our feet are covered with thick skin like moccasin leather, proof against all but the roughest terrain. It was into those pads that Joel's skillful fingers pressed--with wonderful results. Frankly, I had never felt anything so good in my life, and very soon a purr rumbled up from my belly. My tail swished back and forth in contentment, curling randomly around Joel's arms and wrists.

Retrieving my mug, I closed my eyes and leaned back. Sipping cocoa, having my feet reshaped by an expert, a marvelous feeling of relaxation spread through me, one which I seldom experienced during those stressful days of lectures, exams and exercises.

Finally Joel released my feet and leaned back. "How's that?"

"Wonderful," I told him. "Thank you. I'm sorry I ever doubted you." Even though he had finished, my lower legs were still draped across his lap, and oddly, I had no particular desire to move them. My tail, as if with a mind of its own, brushed lazily across his knees. He gazed at me, his eyes shining, and my breath caught in my throat. He reached out his arms…

…And whatever might have happened then was interrupted by a visiphone call from our friends at the Academy, where a late-night party was in full swing. And after that…well, the mood was broken, and Joel and I retired to our (separate) bedrooms for some much-needed sleep. And though the rest of that weekend was quite pleasant, memorable even, somehow that particular set of circumstances didn't reoccur. Over the years I'd often wondered if I should have been grateful to our late-night caller--or if I should have hunted him down and killed him. I also couldn't be sure how far the situation would have gone--but I had suspicions, and frightening ones at that.

And now, seven years later…well, the most charitable thing I could say was that Joel was being somewhat evasive. Every time I tried to start a serious conversation, he vanished as if through a hypertunnel. Most disconcerting…

I shook my head hard. Break time was over, and I still had more than two hours before lunch. More than enough time to cover another few weeks' worth of logs. I dug the heels of my hands into my aching eyes, and reached for the "RESUME" key.

###

"So…how did your first day go?" Joel asked casually.

His question was intended to distract rather than acquire information; but I wasn't falling for that. My eyes firmly on the chessboard, I replied, "Actually, I had a small problem."

He leaned back, crossing his arms. "Such as?" he asked.

Evening aboard Raven. After ten solid hours of study, interrupted only by a half-hour lunch, I'd emerged from my office with my eyes and nerves both totally shot, and my body one solid cramp. Sometime during those long hours too, the walls of my office had moved half a meter closer together. As soon as I could walk I made my way to the mess hall, having grown ravenous despite my physical inactivity; and there, to my disappointment, I failed to find Joel. Once again I ate alone; and this time no one paid the slightest attention to me. In fact their indifference was quite palpable--which bothered me not at all. Gradually, as I devoured a large slab of liver, my vision cleared and my nerves settled.

I had almost finished my meal when Joel hurried in, apologetic. As was typical, a few hours' sleep had been sufficient to revive him; he had showered and shaved, and once again resembled a human being. And--as was also typical--after awakening he'd immediately returned to the engine hull.

"Ayla, I'm sorry," he said, sitting down across from me. "We were fine-tuning the deuterium injectors, and I lost track of time."

"That's all right," I said. It certainly wasn't the first time something like that had happened, and doubtless wouldn't be the last. Then I saw his empty hands. "You're not eating?" I asked.

"No," he said. "I had a big lunch, or breakfast, or something, just after I woke up. Tell you what: you finish up, and I'll show you our Rec Room."

Which was not difficult, as it turned out: that space shared Deck 5 with the mess hall. Small, yes, especially compared to Zelazny's (there I go again), but actually quite pleasant. A deeply-carpeted floor, much to the relief of my toes; walls a restful shade of pale blue. The few paintings and prints were all Terran in theme. A number of game tables were scattered about, and along the far wall I saw a few semi-private reading niches with chairs and sofas. There was even a small theater. Certainly the most agreeable space I had encountered so far--an opinion which appeared to be widely shared. Many of those present wore off-duty, casual clothing, the first I'd seen aboard Raven.

"What do you do for exercise around here?" I asked.

Joel pointed to a door in the port-side wall, from which two crewmembers were exiting. They wore shorts and T-shirts, and towels hung around their necks. "The gym," he said. "Not much, I'm afraid, but adequate. Variable-resistance machines, treadmills, stair-climbers, that sort of thing." He smiled and winked. "We don't have room for a tennis court."

I grimaced. As Dr. Zeeleeayykk had certified, I was in good physical shape--but it took work to stay that way. When available, tennis was indeed my favorite exercise--as Joel knew better than anyone. Variable-resistance machines, treadmills and stair-climbers were rather lower on my list. But there again, I'd have to improvise.

I wasn't in the mood for exercise that evening, though, so Joel and I acquired a table and began a game of chess. Joel was damn good, having won a few minor tournaments in his youth; years ago he could have beaten me with his eyes closed. But since then I'd been under the intense tutelage of Dr. Zee, who had devoted the better part of seventy-five years to perfecting her status as a Grand Master. I went on the attack immediately, and very soon Joel was in trouble. He knew it, too; hence his dastardly attempt to distract.

"I still have massive amounts of information to go through," I told him. "But I realized very quickly that I can't possibly memorize it all-- it would be foolish even to try."

"Sounds logical," Joel said. He moved his remaining rook a few squares--but it was too little too late.

"So," I went on, "I decided to skim most of it, and bookmark anything that looks important. That's already sped me up considerably."

"That sounds logical too," he said. "So what's the problem?"

"I'm getting to that," I said. "As I went on, I noticed that the amount of raw data was gradually getting smaller."

His looked up sharply. "How's that again?"

"I'll see if I can explain." I thought for a moment, then went on, "Raven surveys Planet A. As the Scispecs work they collect data, which they then feed the into their logs. Correct?"

"Correct."

"Then the ship moves on to Planet B, which takes about the same amount of time to survey. You'd expect the Scispecs to log roughly the same amount of data, right?"

"I suppose," he said dubiously.

"But they didn't," I said. "Or at least they didn't seem to. Each new planet appeared to generate less and less data."

He shook his head. "I…don't know why that should be," he said.

I glanced up at him quickly, but his eyes were on the board. I'd known him a long time, though, and something about his tone troubled me. Perhaps a little too casual and offhand? "As it turns out, that actually wasn't the case. The data was being collected, all right; megabytes of it. But much of it was stored in files with security locks--which I'm apparently not authorized to access."

He looked up, frowning. "That's strange."

"Very," I agreed. "Especially since most of that data was Commander Morada's. Some of the others Scispecs' reports are locked up too; but for the most part it was his. In some cases almost half his logs are unavailable."

Joel shook his head again. "Has to be a mistake," he said. "Commander Edgeworth must have screwed up your authorization codes--gave you the wrong clearance."

"I thought of that," I said. "But it's not the answer. Those files can only be viewed by Captain Antilles and Commander Edgeworth. No one else. I was wondering…if you'd have any idea why?"

He shook his head. "No," he said--and once again the alarm sounded. Too quick, too dismissive. "As I told you, I've had enough to do just keeping the engine running."

"Uh-huh," I said, and if he heard the irony in my tone, he chose to ignore it.

"So tell me," he asked, clearly dreading the answer, "did you try to hack the files?"

"Of course I did," I said, a little offended that he needed to ask. "But so far they've defeated me."

"Like I said, I'm sure it's a mistake," Joel told me. "I'm sure Commander Edgeworth would fix it, if you asked."

"Probably so," I agreed. I peered at him curiously. Suddenly he was nervous, fidgety, his eyes shifting rapidly back and forth as if seeking escape. Clearly there was something he wasn't telling me--but what? And more importantly, why? We never kept secrets…

He caught my gaze; and then, very deliberately, he knocked over his king with a flick of his forefinger. "I concede."

###

I couldn't sleep. Again.

After that strange chess game, I returned to my cabin with no more ambition than to crawl into bed--but as might be expected, it wasn't quite that easy. After an hour of tossing and turning, half-asleep at best, wide-awake mostly, I gave up and rose. This time, though, it wasn't the hard bunk, but rather the mystery of those locked files--and Joel's bizarre reaction. Before speaking to him, I'd been more than halfway convinced that it was a mistake, as he'd tried to tell me. But my words had frightened him half to death; I'd seen it in his eyes, almost smelled it. He'd known that it wasn't an error. But that meant…what?

I didn't need to turn on the lights; the soft glow of the bedside chronometer was quite sufficient. I felt my way over to the table and sat, tucking my legs beneath me and wrapping my tail around my knees. The previous evening I'd discovered my cabin's one unexpected luxury: a pneumatic-tube link to the auto-kitchen, through which I could order anything I liked, as long as I didn't mind it arriving sealed in a plastic bag, or--like the warm milk I requested now--a squeeze-bottle. Sipping slowly, I leaned back, staring into the darkness.

Joel had recommended that I speak to Commander Edgeworth; but I found myself reluctant to do so--probably because she had been anything but helpful so far. Nor did she strike me as a person willing to admit mistakes. If she had indeed mis-entered my authorization codes (which I now strongly doubted), by bringing it to her attention I'd more likely gain her enmity, not her assistance. Try again myself? I wondered. Why not?

Setting aside the empty milk container, I swiveled around to my terminal. I'd always had a flair for computers, even as a kit; but over the last ten years my skills had been nurtured and honed into expertise. I had the Combined Forces to thank for that--but it was Aparna Singh who taught me the fine points of "hacking."

Slowly, patiently, I probed those files, exploring the security locks. It would be tedious to detail my efforts; let's just say that I quickly became certain that I was indeed dealing with a deliberate attempt to keep those files secret--and not just from me, but from almost everyone aboard. But why? What purpose was served by making scientific data accessible only to the captain and the first officer?

If Aparna had taught me anything, it was that there's always a "back door." It's just a matter of finding it. I was fairly certain I had done so when my terminal suddenly went dead.

I sat for a moment, staring at the blank screen. One second I'd been working intently; the next nothing, as if someone had kicked out the plug. Equipment failure? I wondered. And, If so, who do I call? I hadn't been introduced to Raven's Compcomm…

It was nearly midnight, and I had reluctantly decided to leave it and consult Joel in the morning, when the intercom suddenly buzzed. "Edgeworth to Lieutenant Ehm'ayla."

Uh-oh. "Ehm'ayla here."

Without preamble she demanded, "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Pardon me, Commander?" I said, startled.

"The computer alerted me that you were attempting to access secured files," she explained impatiently. "I want to know why."

Quickly I considered my options. No point in denying it; better perhaps to brazen my way through. I said, "Commander, I believe those files contain information vital to my assigned duties. I was attempting to determine why I had been denied access to them."

"If you'd bothered to ask," she said tightly, "I would have told you that those files contain information which the captain has deemed to be…sensitive. Some of them may be opened to you, if and when the captain deems it appropriate. In the meantime you will confine your studies to the files which are available, and stop wasting our clock cycles. Is that clear, Lieutenant?"

"Commander--" I began, but she rode me down.

"Is that clear?"

I swallowed. "Yes, Commander," I said. "Quite clear."

"Good," she said, and she clicked off, leaving me sitting wide awake in the dark, my claws expressed and my tail lashing. Because, you see, it wasn't clear; not one damn word of it.


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