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 NINE


Shedding season.

The lives of female Sah'aarans are plagued by two great miseries--three, if you count our mates. The one, which comes in summer and winter, is equivalent to what human women call "that time of the month." Extremely unpleasant, especially for the unbonded; but it can at least be brought under control with hormones, and ceases in our sixth decade. But shedding season--mercifully, at the opposite poles of the calendar--goes on as long as we live.

Back home on Sah'aar, on the endless rolling veldt of Sah'salaan Continent, a mild winter was giving way to spring. The grasses would be sprouting, tall and grey-green, and the flowers too, short-lived but spectacular. Scattered across the plains, the twisted, jet-black skeletons of the tatak trees would be transformed, almost overnight, by millions of tiny pale-green leaves.

My family home on Sah'aar was a big, sprawling structure, circular, the garden in its center dominated by an enormous tatak, a "specimen" as botanists say. Its deeply-grooved trunk was easy to climb, and high in the canopy there was a certain branch where I would often recline with my back against the trunk, gazing out over the endless plains. A pleasantly shady place, cool even on the hottest day; and pleasant in another way, with a touch of mystery and imagined danger, on warm scented nights when the moons were high and bright. Some nights I even slept up there, much to my mother's chagrin. My brother could never quite reach that branch: sometimes it's an advantage being smaller.

Adrift in a sea of memories, I sighed. My quarters had a built-in vacuum, which dwelt behind a panel inside the wardrobe. The tube was long enough to reach throughout the room, and that morning I was using it--as I had several times in the last few days--to suck up the short golden-brown hairs that appeared as if by magic on every horizontal surface.

But the worse part wasn't the cleaning-up; it was the constant and maddening itch, all over my body. Nothing known will relieve it for long. It made my uniform all but unendurable; even my day-robes and bedding were torment. The only relief was to wear nothing at all--which was rarely an option. The itching would last for about a week, until my fur looked shabby and threadbare; then the new undercoat would sprout, and it would all be over for another six months.

…Annoying as it was, however, the shedding was at least a diversion. Shipboard life can be monotonous, but in the ten days since our departure from Outpost Four, my existence had become stuck in a routine more stultifying than anything I'd ever experienced. Every day was the same: up at oh-six-hundred, shower, and dress; breakfast in the mess hall (usually alone); then to my office and study. Lunch at the briefing table; and again more study. Then dinner, a few hours in the Rec Room or the gym, and to bed.

Nor did the behavior of my new crewmates help matters: "standoffish" doesn't even come close. Never before did I have so much trouble making friends; I met Joel Abrams my second day on Terra. But here--? My overtures were not even visibly rejected; just…disregarded. Why, I had no idea; except…well, I was an outsider, a new addition to a long-established crew. And the man I'd replaced had obviously been popular. A certain degree of resentment was to be expected. I could only hope that the ice would melt eventually.

I sighed again as I coiled the hose and stowed it. Miserable or not, it was time for me to get back to work. I pulled on my uniform carefully, as if over spun glass; but cautious as I was, it wouldn't be long before those layers of cloth became instruments of torture. Why did Sah'aarans ever take to clothing, anyway?

###

After an hour, I gave up and switched off my terminal. It was no use; my mind simply wasn't on my work. I closed my eyes and leaned back with my hands clasped behind my head, grimly battling an urge to scratch. I should have stayed in my quarters, I realized belatedly. I could have worked there just as easily, and without the discomfort of clothing. And taken a break every hour for a sonic shower, which would remove the loose hairs and thus take the edge off the itching. Tomorrow I'd do just that.

I had at least managed to decorate my office, a little, using local materials. It appeared that the late Commander Morada had been a bit of a shutterbug: during his landing-party missions he'd often used his scanpak to shoot still images, of no apparent scientific value. Hard-copy prints of his most attractive shots now hung on my walls. The images I'd chosen came from a wide variety of worlds, and ran the gamut from desert to forest to mountains. I truly regretted never having met Morada: even our taste in scenery was similar. Nor was that all. I'd borrowed a particularly attractive fossil from the collection--a fist-sized spiral shell, very like the Terran chambered nautilus, still attached to a wedge of black shale--and it now occupied the corner of my desk. Funny how those few objects prevented the walls from closing in. Most of the time, anyway. Joel had managed to get name-plates made for my quarters and my office, and that was good too: they made me feel less like a trespasser.

I rubbed my tired eyes. My physical discomfort was not the only thing distracting me: something else was niggling at the back of my mind. A question, one which I had shelved some days ago, expecting it to answer itself. Apparently it had not; and now it was once again clamoring for my attention …

My eyes snapped open. Of course! My first day aboard: I'd looked around the mess hall and seen nothing but humans. But that wasn't right, and ever since I'd unconsciously had my eye out for fellow non-Terrans. Oddly, though, the expected encounter never happened. By this time I'd seen (if not actually met) all sixty-four of my crewmates; evidently what I'd rejected as ludicrous was quite true: I was entirely surrounded by Homo sapiens.

I straightened up. I knew now that Commander Edgeworth was monitoring my computer usage, which--though within her purview as first officer--was uncustomary, even rude. If she was doing so now, hopefully she'd interpret my queries as simple curiosity. Keying the terminal, I tapped in, "DISPLAY CREW ROSTER OF SV RAVEN, CROSS-REFERENCED BY PLANET OF BIRTH."

What flashed onto the little screen was nothing short of appalling: one listing for "Sah'aar"…and sixty-four for "Terra." Which meant that my crewmates were not only all humans, but all Earthlings too. Impossible! I thought. There must be some mistake… But my astonishment was short-lived, because at that moment there came a knock on the door. For an instant I froze; then I quickly cleared the screen. "Come in!" I said, in a voice that was almost mine.

The person who stood glaring at me was not the first officer, come to berate me again. In fact it was Gaetano.

"Commander!" I said in surprise. "What--uh--what can I do for you, sir?"

He glanced around my office, taking in my new decorations with obvious disapproval. He said, "Captain Antilles ordered me to keep an eye on your progress, Lieutenant. I think it's time we find out how you're doing."

Uh-oh, I thought. Here comes the quiz. I'd been dreading it for days, without really knowing that it was coming. Swallowing my dismay, I nodded. "Certainly, Commander."

"Let's use the briefing table," he said, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. "More room."

"After you, sir," I said, agonizingly aware as I stood that my desk and chair were covered with a fine mist of hairs.

As we sat facing each other across the table, I found myself every bit as nervous as I'd been on the day of my Academy finals, my throat dust-dry and my tail going eight to the bar. Unaccountable; except…well, I'd been a student of human body language for many years, and what I was picking up from Gaetano both puzzled and alarmed me. He wanted me to fail. He didn't expect me to, not exactly; but he desperately wanted me to. I could see it in his eyes.

"All right, Lieutenant," he began. "Let's see how much you know. You've studied our logs?"

I haven't spent the last ten days filing my claws. "Almost all, sir," I told him. "I'm currently reviewing your last survey." The one where Morada got killed.

He hesitated, and I wondered if he would tell me I should be farther along. Finally he sighed. "I suppose that's adequate progress," he said. He produced a palm-reader, keyed it, and frowned down at the screen. "All right," he went on. "We'll start with the star cataloged at CAO 4792. Tell me about its planets."

He leaned back and crossed his arms, staring owlishly at me as I struggled to gather my thoughts. He could not have caught me at a worse time, unless perhaps he'd awakened me in the middle of the night. Horribly uncomfortable, my mind still reeling from the implications of what the computer had told me…But there was no way I could put him off, without making him believe I was simply unprepared. Somehow I had to put it all aside and focus on his questions.

And Goddess, what questions! I had not been quizzed in such detail for years; and I'd never had such an implacable and exacting inquisitor. On a certain level I could forgive him: he was acting under orders, and Captain Antilles had good reasons to be skeptical. I'd been forced on him, qualified or not, in a way that smacked of favoritism. In his position, I'd have had doubts too. But there was more to Gaetano's behavior than that. Much more.

It would be pointless for me to detail the questions he asked. Suffice it to say that I answered them all; some instantly, some with a few seconds' thought…and some by the skin of my teeth. And obviously, that wasn't what he wanted. I saw the growing dismay in his eyes, desperation turning to outright fear as the quiz continued; and gradually his questions became more and more esoteric. It was as if he'd been ordered to make me fail, and didn't dare report that he couldn't. Finally, almost an hour later, it ended. The exam ground to a halt when Gaetano asked a question which I couldn't answer. "I'm sorry, Commander," I said, with a smile and a helpless shrug. "I haven't studied that planet yet."

"Hmph," he said. "All right. Make sure you have before we reach A-Benideel."

"Yes, sir," I said. I waited, but clearly he had no intention of volunteering the information. "So--how did I do?"

His questions were astute, proving him every bit as intelligent as I'd expected. And he had more than a passing knowledge of paleontology. But toward the end he'd been getting positively slippery; almost desperate in his attempts to trip me up with minutiae. And that's something I don't appreciate. Hence my question: the verbal equivalent of slapping his face.

"You did very well, Lieutenant," he said grudgingly. "Ninety-eight percent. The captain will be pleased."

Why was I so certain he meant just the opposite? Maybe because the words had to be dragged out of him, like pulling teeth. Why? I wondered. Why should any captain want an officer to fail in her duties? What could be the profit in that? A question I'd be quite some time answering.

"Captain Antilles also ordered me to assist you," Gaetano went on. He paused. "So…is there anything you need, or any questions I can answer?"

One came to mind immediately; but did I dare? The last time, I found myself staring at a dead terminal--but Gaetano wasn't Edgeworth. "Yes, sir," I said. My tail began to lash again, and my claws suddenly expressed; but I took a deep breath and forced myself to go on. "I've found that quite a few of the science logs--mostly Commander Morada's--are in secure storage, accessible only by the captain and the first officer. I've been wondering why."

His reply was a good deal more instructive than Commander Edgeworth's, though not much more informative. He paled, his mouth opening and closing a few times. Then he said, "Because of Morada's death, Lieutenant. He had an…unfortunate habit of adding too much personal detail to his logs. Captain Antilles believes that those details should be expunged before anyone else is allowed to view the material--to spare Morada's family embarrassment. So far, neither the captain nor Commander Edgeworth has had the time."

Where should I start? If anything, Gaetano was an even worse liar than Joel Abrams. His story contradicted everything Edgeworth had told me--but still, there was not one word of truth in it. Nowhere in Morada's logs--the ones available to me--had I seen any hint of "personal detail." Why should it be "excessive" in some, and nonexistent in others? And Morada's logs were not the only ones locked away. This explanation, such as it was, came directly from the geologist's none-too-quick imagination. What kind of idiot does he think I am?

But instructive still--in its own way. He is afraid! I thought. But what of? Obviously, his superior officers: Antilles and Edgeworth. Whatever was going on, they were at the heart of it.

I could have pressed him, pointing out the inconsistencies; but I would have accomplished nothing more than to put his back against the wall, and the Goddess only knows how he would have reacted. I nodded. "Thank you for clearing that up, Commander," I said mildly. "Could you please let me know when those files become available? They seem to contain a great deal of Mr. Morada's work; I'm sure they could help me perform my duties more effectively."

He gave me a quick, startled look, and I nearly laughed in his face, because his thoughts were as easy to read as the large-print edition. She bought that? I returned his gaze blandly, and a few seconds later he swallowed. "I'll do that, Lieutenant."

"Thank you, sir."

For a moment he sat silent, gazing at me speculatively; then he said, "I'm curious, Lieutenant…"

"Yes, sir?"

"I've studied paleontology, but very little archaeology. I can understand your fascination, though. Henry and I used to have some interesting discussions..."

"I can well imagine," I said dryly. Gaetano was caught off-guard, and he flashed a brief, genuine smile, and quite an charming one too, before he mastered himself.

"--Which got me thinking," he went on. "I imagine you've studied quite a few different cultures--?"

I hesitated. What's this? I wondered uneasily. Another test? "A fair number," I said carefully.

He ran a hand through his short brown hair. "I've been wondering…in your studies, which cultures did you find to be the best?"

I felt my claws begin to express again, for no good reason, and I dropped my hands into my lap. "I'm not sure what you mean, Commander."

He shrugged. "It's a simple enough question," he said. "Obviously some cultures, some societies, are better than others."

I shook my head. "I'm sorry, sir," I said, "but I'm afraid that isn't obvious--not to me."

He cocked a curious eyebrow. "No?" he said. "Certainly some societies are powerful and advanced, some weak and primitive. History is full of powerful cultures dominating weaker ones. Even on your own world, I'd venture to say."

"That much is true," I admitted. "Even on my world--in the past."

"To be sure," he said quickly. "In the past. Couldn't it be argued that those powerful, advanced cultures are intrinsically more worthwhile, more deserving of survival? When they sweep aside the weak, couldn't that be thought of as a kind of evolutionary process?"

Once again I fought to keep from laughing. Great Goddess, I thought, don't tell me he's a Social Darwinist! Gazing steadily at him, I said, "I'm not qualified to judge the relative worth of cultures, sir."

"But still--" he insisted.

"Commander," I said, "in my experience, every culture has to answer the same basic questions: how to keep the populace alive, safe and contented. Would you agree with that?"

He thought about that, and finally nodded. "Yes, I suppose so."

"I believe there can be only one basis for comparing cultures. Not how they answer those questions--but how well they do. If the majority of the population of any society is safe, well-fed, free, and reasonably content…then everything else is irrelevant."

Gaetano frowned.

"--And," I went on, "in any honest assessment, it's not necessarily the more powerful or the more advanced cultures that come out on top."

"In your opinion."

I bit back my objection just in time. "Yes, sir," I said. "In my opinion."

There was a long pause; then Gaetano shook his head sadly. "That's what poor Henry used to say too, more or less." Suddenly then--so suddenly that I drew back in alarm--he leaned forward. "And let me tell you something, Lieutenant," he said, softly but urgently, "that's exactly the sort of opinion you'll keep to yourself, as long as you're aboard this ship. Do I make myself clear?"

I looked into his eyes--and suddenly I was frightened. Almost as frightened as he himself was. "Yes, sir," I said. "Very clear."

"Good," he said. He rose. "I'll--uh--let you get back to your studies now."

And with that he retreated, his office door snapping shut behind him. For a moment I sat stunned. I don't like this, I thought uneasily. First the computer's revelations; now this. Goddess, what have I gotten myself into?

###

I asked Joel--but I wish I hadn't.

Later that afternoon I joined him in the gym. Shedding season isn't exactly the best time to begin an exercise regimen, but I'd had precious little choice: the last ten days had involved too much sitting and reading, and too little physical activity. The problem was not really my muscle tone--though that would have begun to slip eventually--but rather my nerves. On board Zelazny I would have grabbed my racquet and defeated somebody in straight sets, but here I had to content myself with exercise machines. Fortunately, I'd been able to convince the tailoring equipment to provide the simple necessities: a T-shirt and a pair of elastic-waist shorts with a tail hole.

At the moment, Joel and I were the only ones there, he lying flat on his back beneath the handlebars of a resistance machine set to do bench-presses, and me pumping away on a nearby stair-stepper. There was little else to choose from in that small space, apart from a well-used, much-patched punching bag, and a wrestling mat in the far corner. We'd been working for some minutes when I gathered my courage and panted, "Joel? Are you aware that everyone on this ship besides me is Terran?"

The effect of that simple question was extraordinary. The bar slipped from his hands and came down with a clang; if he'd been using free-weights, he would have garroted himself. He sat up hurriedly. "Yes," he said simply. He reached for his towel and mopped the sweat from his face and hands, while I watched enviously, my tongue lolling with my panting. "I guess I was. Why do you ask?"

"Well," I said, "among other things, it's a violation of CF policy."

I suppose I'd better explain that. In the early years of the Combined Forces, single-species ships were not only the rule--they were the law. There were reasons why that seemed desirable; taken at face-value, they make sense. But as the humans have it, there's a particular road paved with good intentions.

The member species of the Terran/Centaurii Alliance vary widely in their physical needs. Gravity and air, dietary and sanitary arrangements…the differences are legion. Sah'aarans, despite our tails and claws, are perhaps the most human-like of all Alliance members--within certain limits. But many species aren't so fortunate. To build a ship that can accommodate even a majority of them is a difficult and expensive proposition; in earlier times, prohibitively so. Nor was that all: there was a time when no one believed that a multi-species crew could function. The formation of the Alliance had been difficult enough; why extend that friction to every ship in the fleet? In the beginning, then, every planet in the Alliance contributed its own ships and crews. Officers were trained on their own homeworlds, and command decisions were made by a multi-species Board of Admirals.

Needless to say, it didn't work. Not for long, anyway. Some worlds could afford no ships at all, others just a handful; which meant that the majority of the fleet was either Terran or Centaurii. Eventually the other member species, having studied human history, began to mutter darkly about "Terran imperialism." On Quadria, Xerxes and Hattoa there were riots, when false rumors of a Terran invasion spread.

All of which meant that the CF was eventually obliged to become truly combined. The shakeup occurred about eighty-five years ago, and resulted in many changes. Since that time all officers have been educated at the Academy on Terra, ships are built to standard specs at three shipyards, and every Alliance member world contributes what they can in exchange for equal protection. And--last but certainly not least--single-species vessels are expressly banned. Every CF ship is supposed to carry an integrated crew. Supposed.

"So?" I prompted.

"So what?"

"How did it happen?" I asked patiently. Goddess, he's never been this obtuse before…

He shrugged. "Accident, I suppose," he said. "I don't really know. I've never thought about it. You know about the manpower shortage in the Survey, Ayla. God only knows how much longer we would have been stuck at Outpost Four if you hadn't come along. We have to make do with what we can get--personnel as well as equipment."

"Present company excepted, of course," I said with a mocking grin. "But that's not an answer."

He lay down and gripped the bars. "No? Why not?"

"Joel, I can imagine an all-human crew being assembled by accident. Humans are the majority in the CF, even now. But there are humans on every Alliance world. This crew is entirely Terran; they were all born and raised on Earth. That's too much of a coincidence to swallow."

"Sorry," Joel said. "Can't help you there. I know how I came aboard, and how you did. That's all I can swear to."

I peered at him sharply, as the bar rose and fell rhythmically to the pumping of his arms. It was that tone again, as when I'd asked him about the locked files: casual, offhand, dismissive. Once again he knew more than he was telling. What's with this crew? I wondered angrily, not for the first time. What are they all so afraid of? And you, Joel. We used to be able to talk about anything. I trusted you. Why are you closing up on me now?

I stopped stepping, and leaned heavily across the grip-bar, panting hard from heat, exertion--and frustration. What I might have said I'm not sure; but given that Joel was a superior officer, it probably would have amounted to insubordination. Fortunately we were both spared, him a set of burning ears and me a trip to the brig. Before I could speak, two of our crewmates entered, gym-bags in hand. They gave our little tableau scarcely a glance as they crossed to the wrestling mat.

Joel sat up and draped his towel around his neck. "Let's hit the showers," he suggested. "I'm exhausted."

"Yeah," I said. "Me too."


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