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
Compare and contrast.
Words of dread, to anyone who has ever suffered through an essay exam. History is usually the worst: "Compare and contrast the grazing-land policies of the Ehm'rralla Matriarchy with those of the Sah'sanraan Confederacy." Whereupon you regurgitate all the dubious facts stuffed into your head during the semester, preferably in some kind of logical sequence.
My student days were long over, but recent events had caused old habits to resurface. It's probably not surprising, then, that I found myself thinking in terms of just such an essay, on the subject "Compare and contrast two ensigns."
The first was one of the most instantly-likable humans I'd ever encountered. Twenty-two years old, on his first deep-space assignment; bright-eyed, eager, hopeful and utterly bewildered. I'd been on board twelve days, and our arrival at A-Benideel was imminent, when he finally gathered his courage and approached me. Several times I'd noticed him in the Rec Room or the dining hall, peering at me in benign curiosity--a welcome departure from the studied indifference or free-floating hostility I got from my other crewmates. Every time I caught him gazing at me, he looked away hurriedly, Shy, I guessed. I remembered being that young; but one thing I'd never been was shy.
The night he finally found the nerve, I was sitting alone in the Rec Room, curled up in a surprisingly comfortable chair in one of the reading niches, my legs tucked beneath me and my tail waving contentedly. Because of my shedding, I had dared for once to wear a day-robe outside the privacy of my quarters. I hardly expected it to cause a major scandal--casual clothing was common enough in the Rec Room--and in fact the green-striped, red-belted garment attracted scarcely a glance. My one-and-only non-uniform collar was an all-purpose model, black with multicolored beading. The palm-reader in my lap was displaying a murder mystery; I'd had quite enough survey logs for one day.
Unlike Gaetano a few days before, the young ensign's timing was perfect: he could hardly have caught me at a better time. In the early evening it is impossible to be anything other than relaxed, my mind drifting and receptive. My after-dinner shower had dulled the itching, and that was good; but the main reason for my contentment was my full belly. It is always hard for me to avoid the onset of comfortable lethargy after a good dinner--or even a mediocre one.
I heard the hesitant footsteps, and I glanced up to see him sidling into the niche, his hands clasped tightly together as if to stop them from fidgeting. Needless to say, he was Terran, but good-looking nonetheless, with deep blue eyes and an unruly shock of blond hair. His build was trim, but raw-boned and somewhat awkward.. He smiled apologetically and cleared his throat. "Am I disturbing you, Lieutenant?"
"Not at all," I assured him. In fact I was astounded: no one else had shown the slightest interest in speaking to me. "Ensign--?" I prompted.
"Matthews, ma'am," he said politely. "Brian Matthews. May I may I speak to you for a moment?"
"Of course," I said. I laid aside my palm-reader and pointed to the adjacent sofa. "Have a seat."
He did so, perched stiffly upright with his hands clasped in his lap. He made several abortive attempts to speak, but dried up every time. "What can I do for you, Ensign?" I asked finally, half-amused.
That seemed to prime his pump. "Well, ma'am," he said, "we haven't met, but I'm a Compcomm--"
I nodded at the mauve patch. "I noticed," I said with a smile. In fact it had caught my eye immediately.
"--And the crew chief."
My whiskers twitched. An ensign as a crew chief? I thought incredulously. "A big responsibility," I commented.
"Very," he agreed. He sighed. "Especially for a Level II trainee. Frankly, I didn't get half as much training as I needed." He paused. "I'm sure you've noticed how old and primitive this ship's computer is "
"As a matter of fact, yes," I said dryly.
He flashed a smile. "I do what I can with it," he said. "Oddly enough, as limited as it is, it's been remarkably reliable. As long as we don't push it too hard." He shook his head. "It's the comm equipment that gives me fits. No major problems, just one or two annoying ones which I can't seem to fix. The trouble is, I don't have anyone to consult. My two subordinates are also ensigns, Level III trainees, and I'm supposed to be instructing them. I don't want to bother the captain or Commander Edgeworth "
I smiled wryly. "I can sympathize with that. So?"
"So I've always been fascinated by Zelazny. In fact I did my senior thesis at the Academy on her. You were her Compcomm "
"Second shift," I corrected quickly. "And I had nothing to do with designing her."
"Still," he said with a smile. "I know you've changed specialties, but even so you're the most experienced Compcomm I've ever met. If you can spare the time, I'd like your help. Maybe you can chase down the faults I haven't been able to locate."
I should have refused; I would have saved myself a great deal of trouble. But somehow I couldn't. Something about this young man intrigued me; perhaps he reminded me of a certain Sah'aaran on her first deep-space assignment. That was part of it; but to be honest, there was another reason why I was so tempted to agree: loneliness. After being ignored for two weeks, even a call for help was a welcome change.
And so I smiled and nodded. "I'd be happy to, Ensign. When are you next on duty?"
A nasty thought struck me, and I said, "Er--who'll be officer of the watch then?"
If he guessed the reason behind my question, he gave no sign. He said, "Lieutenant Harris, ma'am."
I nodded slowly. Better him than Commander Edgeworth . "I'll meet you on the Control Deck."
He smiled broadly. "Thank you, Lieutenant," he said. "Very much."
"Better save that," I advised, "until I actually solve your problems. But you're welcome."
He rose and beat a hasty and slightly gangling retreat. I watched him go then I smiled, shook my head, and returned to my mystery. Was I ever that young?
The next morning, for the first time, I made my way to Raven's Control Deck.
After my extraordinary discussion with Commander Gaetano, I'd hastened to complete my studies of Raven's survey logs; and then--finding myself with some time on my hands--to make a more detailed examination of the fossils I'd inherited. It proved to be an interesting collection. In the past year Raven had surveyed a wide variety of habitable worlds with a huge variety of environments. Commander Morada may never have had as much time for field-work as he'd liked; but even so he'd put together a vast grouping, ranging from stromatolites to the bones of large animals, every specimen meticulously documented. I could have spent the rest of my life examining that collection; I only hoped I'd be given the opportunity to add to it.
I'd been able to cover the last few logs remarkably fast--mainly because I was still denied access to most of the data. My studies had become an exercise in reading between the lines, as I tried to figure out what was being concealed from me. And as for why After Edgeworth's violent reaction--and Gaetano's bizarre one--I'd given up any overt effort to answer that question, concentrating instead on doing the best I could with the material I had. What Antilles and Edgeworth thought of my progress I could only guess: I'd had no contact with either of them for days. Nor Gaetano either; his office door stayed resolutely closed. Which didn't bother me much, to be honest.
Such was my mental state as I made my way up the long spiral stairway. Physically I felt better than I had for days. The itchy phase of my shedding had begun to taper off, the Goddess be thanked, giving way to regrowth. Which was not only more comfortable, but meant less time wasted cleaning up.
The central-hub stairs deposited me just outside the Control Deck, which occupied about a third of Deck One. I hesitated before the big, red-painted blast doors. Do I really want to go through with this? I asked myself. For several reasons, I thought I did. One was curiosity: I wanted to see this ship's antique controls. And also well, strange as it may sound, I already found myself missing the Control Deck. After so many years, my sudden departure had left a definite void. Third--probably most importantly--this seemed to be a chance to actually accomplish something. The time I'd spent studying had not been wasted; I'd been preparing myself for my real job. But somehow--probably because the work had been so unstructured--it felt wrong. Non-productive. An opportunity to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty was just what I needed. I took a deep breath and stepped forward.
As the doors parted, a wash of familiar sounds enveloped me. Control Decks always sound alike, I've found, no matter the vessel. There's always the soft hum of high voltage, the chime and ping of sensors, the muted click of keyboards, the quiet chatter of intercom traffic. Rapidly--before anyone noticed me--I surveyed the scene, and found it at once familiar and strange.
Raven's Control Deck was much smaller than Zelazny's, smaller even than Point Cabrillo's. And compared to the efficient, ergonomic control stations I'd grown so used to well, let's just say Raven might as well have been operated by levers and valves. Never before had I seen such a collection of patched-together junk.
The room was wedge-shaped, narrow where I stood and widening rapidly toward the front wall. The large flat-field viewscreen showed nothing more than a sprinkling of blue-shifted stars. The control stations were built into two long desk-like panels along the side walls, equally spaced with no divisions between them. Nav--manned now by a serious-looking young woman--was at the front, on the port side; behind were Life Support and Tech. On the starboard, running aft to fore, were Compcomm, Sciences and one which I didn't recognize, until I remembered that Raven began life as a Patrol cutter. That station, directly opposite Nav, was--or used to be--Weapons Control. It appeared to be have been entirely disconnected. The command console stood in the center, as always: a large swivel chair in the midst of a bank of monitor screens.
All of the stations were the very antithesis of ergonomic. The massive chairs had clearly been designed for zero-G; their elaborate harnesses dangled behind them, unused and useless. The controls were arranged in straight lines on horizontal panels, and the small displays were inconveniently placed. No "heads-up" holographic readouts here. Worse yet, it was painfully clear that every station had been extensively and repeatedly repaired, not to say jury-rigged. Nothing matched: some panels had black backgrounds, some grey; many were ill-fitting. Even a couple of the seats had been replaced. I wondered how many mothballed ships Joel and his team had cannibalized during the refit.
As was typical for a flat-space transit, all the stations except Sciences were manned; and yes, Lieutenant Harris was at the command console. The Security chief sat staring into the main viewer, so that at first I saw only the back of his head. I might have continued to stand there indefinitely, unnoticed; but then the doors clanked closed behind me, and the young ensign at the Tech station--a dark-haired, sharp-featured young human--glanced my way. Catching sight of me, he jumped in alarm. "Lieutenant Harris!" he squeaked.
Harris spun around, and so did everyone else. Five faces, and only one with an expression other than dull hostility: Matthews. He looked positively ecstatic to see me, and a little surprised too, as if he hadn't really expected me to come.
Harris' eyes narrowed. "Lieutenant Em-eye-lah, isn't it?"
I nodded, ignoring his strained pronunciation; he'd come closer than some.
"What are you doing on the Control Deck?" he asked. His tone was condescending, and I felt my tail stiffen in anger. That is not how you treat a fellow officer; most especially not in the presence of juniors. Nothing is more destructive of discipline. You're a lieutenant too, I reminded myself firmly. Senior to him. And it's about time you started exercising your authority.
I stepped forward, aware of the eyes following me, and pointed to the Compcomm station. Without apology, as firmly and steadily as I could, I said, "Ensign Matthews requested my assistance with the comm equipment."
"And why did he ask for your help?" Harris said; it was just short of a sneer. From the Tech panel I heard a muffled sound; I glanced over in time to see the dark-haired ensign hide a guffaw behind his hand.
And that did it. I stared silently at Harris for a moment before I replied; my gaze seemed to make him nervous. Gradually my smile widened to show my teeth. When I spoke again my tone was still pleasant--but my words were not. A mistake; but I'd just about had it with this crew. "Possibly because I was working a Compcomm panel when you were still a cadet."
There was a noise like sudden a gust of wind: the sound of four people sucking in a deep breath. Harris' face darkened, and his jaw worked silently for a few seconds. Finally he ground out, "Ensign Matthews has overstepped his authority. But he is correct about the comm equipment. I'm aware of your previous assignments, Lieutenant. I don't suppose you can do much harm."
I bowed my head. "Thank you, Lieutenant," I said. And then I made another mistake, my second in as many minutes, and by far the more serious. But I think I can be forgiven. On any other ship, what I did would have been obligatory: no officer can afford to ignore insubordination. If you don't nip it in the bud immediately, there's no telling where it will lead. I stepped over to the Tech station and bent down. "I suggest you keep your mind on your duties, Ensign," I said, quietly but pointedly.
The look he gave me was venomous, and his voice just barely on the non-actionable side of surly. "Yes ma'am." I'd made an enemy; but I didn't care. I should have, though. Goddess, I should have! I might have spared myself but we'll get to that.
Much satisfied with the assertion of my legitimate authority, I crossed to Compcomm. The eyes lingered on me for a time, those of Harris and the nameless Techspec the longest; but finally they drifted away.
I smiled bleakly at Matthews. "And how are you, Ensign?"
He had witnessed the confrontation; his answering smile was nervous. "Very well, thank you, Lieutenant." He paused, then went on quietly, "Thank you for coming."
"Happy to," I said. I glanced at Harris, and shuddered. A little belatedly, I was beginning to have second thoughts. I hadn't liked the looks of the Security crew chief when I'd first set eyes on him, my first day aboard. He had the captain's ear; it might be dangerous to push him too far. Maybe I should have swallowed my pride and been more deferential. Too late now. "Let me guess," I went on. "You're having hyperzap trouble."
He nodded, smiling wryly. "That's one of my problems," he confirmed. "One of my duties is to deploy relay satellites "
"I know," I interrupted, and he grinned in embarrassment.
"Of course you do," Matthews said. "I'm sorry." He took a deep breath. "The deployment has been straightforward enough, but I've had a lot of trouble making contact with the satellite network."
On any flight into virgin territory, the positioning of relay satellites is indeed one of a Compcomm's most important jobs. In each system she passed through, Raven left a string of those devices behind her. They represented a lifeline, the only way for a ship to exchange messages with home.
The satellites weren't much to look at, just lumpy spheres about a meter and a half in diameter. Even a small ship like Raven could carry an ample supply. Once launched, a relay would maneuver itself into position near the node, and immediately reach out for contact with its "neighbor" on the other end of the hypertunnel. They were relatively simple devices, capable of handling only a few messages at a time; but later, when the sector became populated, they would be replaced by much higher-capacity models, similar perhaps to the one that almost killed me.
I nodded. "Go on."
"I've also been having some problems with the intercom. Signaling the wrong station, not coming through on all decks--that sort of thing."
The lesser of two evils. "What did the techs at Outpost Four say about the hyperzap problem?"
"They couldn't diagnose it," he said in disgust. "They said the equipment was within tolerances. But try explaining that to the captain."
"Outpost repair crews have notoriously little imagination," I told him. Over the years I'd often been told the same thing: the equipment's fine, no faults that we can locate. The clear implication being that the real problem was with my head. Then again, I'd always been a demon for efficiency: witness my hopped-up commpaks. I knew a few tricks which might help--but did I dare? On Zelazny, my superiors were usually willing to let me experiment. Here, I wasn't so sure.
I glanced quickly over my shoulder, but we were still being ignored. "All right," I said. "Let's take a look."
Another hallmark of a good officer is the ability to fake it convincingly. True, I was an experienced Compcomm; but that would avail me very little here. It was Zelazny's state-of-the-art gear that I knew best; this stuff was ancient history, two tin cans and a string. Gazing dubiously at the well-worn panel, I shook my head. Start with the system scan, I decided, and hope for inspiration.
Two hours later I was still at work. I'd spent most of that time exactly where I still was: flat on my back, halfway inside a maintenance hatch, a tiny space that was more than a little dirty: apparently the refit had not included a thorough cleaning.
Matthews was in seventh heaven. It took me less than five minutes to cure his problem with the intercom: a single switching circuit, which I bypassed until it could be replaced. The other problem wasn't quite so easy to solve. Unfortunately, the techs at Outpost Four were correct: the equipment was performing up to specs. But neither was Matthews imagining things, as his logs clearly showed.
Hyperzap communication is not at all like talking on the visiphone; it more closely resembled the ancient practice of mailing a letter. Raven's reports to Outpost Four were sent as highly-compact data packets, "zapped" through the hypertunnels by the relay satellites, one after another down the line, in much the same way as ships travel--but considerably faster.
Matthews' trouble lay in the first part of the process: that of "waking up" the satellites and instructing them to receive the data. And after a couple hours' work, I finally knew why: handshaking. The satellites which Raven scattered like maxigrazer droppings were modern, standard-issue CF units--but he was trying to contact them using old, outdated comm equipment. The protocols were slightly different, enough so that the connection took a few extra seconds. I could clearly picture Antilles' baleful stare boring into Matthews' neck while the hapless ensign sweated and prayed for the "contact" light to flash. He'd endured a year of that already; how, I had no idea.
Fortunately for Matthews, I've never believed in published specs. I found the proper tools in an emergency locker, and with them I was tweaking a few firmware settings which aren't, according to the book, supposed to be touched. It was a trick I'd learned years ago from Aparna Singh; I remember being quite scandalized when she first showed me. You can do that? How applicable it was to two tin cans and a string remained to be seen. We were fortunate also in that Raven had made a hypertunnel jump less than nine hours before, and had dropped a satellite at that time. No more than ten light-minutes behind us, it was still close enough to use for testing without an unendurably long delay.
Above me, Matthews' panel beeped. "What's the result?" I called.
"Still nineteen-point-nine," he replied.
I sighed. Nineteen point nine percent faster was a definite improvement; it might make the difference between five minutes and four, thus improving the captain's temper a little. But well, I'd always been someone who needs that last decimal point. Unfortunately, though we'd tried half a dozen times already, it remained elusive.
The others, including Lieutenant Harris, had continued to ignore us; and as time went by I'd all but forgotten them. And that proved to be a mistake. My battle for that last fraction was suddenly interrupted by a loud, harsh voice, right beside me. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla!"
I used to think that "nervous as a cat" was just an expression; at that moment I discovered otherwise. I jumped, banging my head and painfully scraping an ear on a support strut. Dazed, stars dancing before my eyes, I backed out of the hatch. When I saw who had spoken, the curse died on my lips. Hurriedly I scrambled to my feet.
Captain Antilles stood beside the Compcomm station, with crossed arms and an expression of dark disapproval. Behind him stood Harris, looking pleased; everyone else was staring. Matthews had backed away a few steps, his eyes wide with fear.
"Lieutenant Ehm'ayla," the captain repeated, his voice now low and dangerous, "what are you doing here?"
Bravely but unwisely, Matthews tried to jump in. "It's my fault, Captain," he said. "I asked her to--"
Antilles' eyes flicked across to him briefly, disdainfully. "I am not speaking to you, Ensign," he said. "Yet." He glanced back at me. "Answer the question, Lieutenant."
"Sir," I said respectfully, "Ensign Matthews has been experiencing difficulties with the comm equipment. Because of my experience as a Compcomm, he asked for my help."
"And who authorized this?"
"The Compcomm crew chief, Captain," I said. "Because the equipment is his responsibility."
Which was true--but to mention it was another mistake. Antilles' scowl deepened. "Lieutenant," he said between clenched teeth, "you signed aboard this ship as a Scispec, did you not?"
"And if you'd wished to remain a Compcomm, you could have stayed aboard Zelazny."
"Then I would strongly suggest that you confine yourself to your assigned duties, which should be more than enough to occupy your time. Is that understood, Lieutenant?"
I considered telling him what I'd done; that his comm equipment was now twenty percent more efficient than it had been. But somehow I didn't think he'd care. I hesitated a second too long, and he repeated, louder and more harshly, "Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir. Understood."
"And henceforth you will stay off the Control Deck, unless you are specifically ordered to be here."
Behind him Lieutenant Harris was grinning nastily--but it didn't last long, before the captain rounded on him. "And you," he said, "should have informed me immediately, instead of letting this go on for two hours. I am not pleased, Lieutenant. Not at all."
"Yes, sir," Harris said. "Sorry, sir." The look he shot me behind the captain's back could have blistered paint. Another enemy; suddenly I had an unfortunate knack for acquiring them.
Antilles glanced at me, his eyes narrowed. "What are you waiting for, Lieutenant?"
With as much dignity as I could muster, I rolled down my sleeves and departed. The eyes followed me. By evening the story would be all over the ship, becoming more and more sensational with each telling. That was inevitable. Much worse was the damage done to my authority as an officer. Already shaky, it might now be beyond repair--and if so, I was in deep, deep trouble.
That evening I sat alone at the rear of the dining hall, picking at my dinner and trying to ignore the stares and whispers that surrounded me. As I'd feared, the story had spread like wildfire. Of course I could hear all the whispers, no matter how quiet, and they made for interesting listening, to say the least. "The captain had to eject her from the Control Deck." "She was caught sabotaging the comm equipment, I heard." "She threatened the captain, and Lieutenant Harris too--that's what I heard." I might have leapt onto the table and loudly proclaimed my innocence--but what would have been the point? Against rumors, truth contends in vain.
When I heard the quiet shuffling of feet beside me I glanced up, lifting only my eyes. "Do you really want to be seen talking to me?" I asked softly.
Ensign Matthews grinned and shrugged. "I'm already on report," he said. "How much worse can it get?"
I winced. "I'd rather you didn't find out," I said. "I'm sorry, Brian."
He sat down opposite me, straddling the chair backwards and resting his chin on his hands. "I'm the one who should apologize," he said. "I've been on report before; I'll survive. But I dragged you into that situation, and I'm really sorry. Believe me, I didn't expect the captain to react like that."
"No reasonable person would," I assured him. I sighed. "I suppose I'll survive too; this can't last forever." I paused. "Just out of morbid curiosity, did you have to undo my modifications?"
He shook his head. "No," he said with a lopsided grin. "I showed Captain Antilles the results of our tests; even he couldn't argue with a twenty-percent improvement. He decided to let your work stand. For the moment."
He spoke those last words in deliberate imitation of our captain, and I chuckled. "What's the Terran phrase? A Pyrrhic victory."
Slowly he matched my smile. "It was that. For both of us." He rose. "Good night, Lieutenant. And thank you again for your help."
"I wish I could say 'you're welcome,'" I replied. "Good night, Ensign."
I watched him depart; then I smiled and shook my head. I'd made one friend, anyway; too bad there weren't a few more stars on his chest.
Compare and contrast.
The other ensign in my imaginary essay could not have been more different. I got to know him quite well in the weeks that followed, to my everlasting sorrow. A Techspec trainee Level III, fresh out of the Officer's Academy; and--in my humble opinion--a disgrace to the uniform. I'd earned his undying enmity by reprimanding him on the Control Deck; too bad I didn't know just how deep that enmity ran.
Raven arrived at A-Benideel dead on schedule. I wasn't on the Control Deck when we cleared the last hypertunnel but I did I witness the event, on the viewscreen in the briefing area outside my office. The other Scispecs--Gaetano, Delaney, Nakamara and Kerenski--were there as well, all of them studiously ignoring me. I was getting used to that, though, and I no longer felt much anger: just a kind of tired resignation.
Arriving as we did at the edge of the system, standard procedure called for Captain Antilles to plot a minimum-fuel course inward, past as many of the planets as possible, using the gravity of each to boost us toward the next. The star itself would give us a final push toward the outbound hypertunnel. As might be expected, though, there was a complication.
"The star is somewhat smaller and cooler than Sol," Commander Nakamara told us. "Four gas-giant outer planets "
All of them colder than the domain of the Dark Ones, I thought grimly.
" and possibly three or four inner," he went on. "At the moment we can't be certain. Our sensor sweeps have been blocked by an extraordinarily dense asteroid belt, much thicker than Sol's."
He threw a graphic onto the screen, and there were several whistles of awe. Even I was impressed. Sah'aar's sun has a thick asteroid belt too--we've been mining it for almost two centuries--but nothing like this. Unless Raven's Navspec was as skilled as Max Goodwin (which I doubted) we'd do better to bend our course above the ecliptic, and so avoid them entirely. It would cost some fuel, true; but a collision could cripple or destroy us.
"We should know more tomorrow, when we're closer to the inner system," Nakamara concluded. "I'd suggest an adjournment until then." He glanced around at the others, ignoring me as he would an empty chair. My so-called "colleagues" nodded agreement.
"Sounds like a plan," Gaetano said, leaning back and stretching out his arms. "Who's for dinner?"
As one they rose and departed, chatting amiably. I watched them go, my emotions seesawing back and forth between white-hot anger and black despair. Two weeks. Two solid weeks, and I was no closer to understanding these people. Nor did I even know why they treated me like part of the furniture. Because they're Terran, and I'm not?
The logical part of my mind rejected that notion immediately. No, ridiculous. Terrans do have an unfortunate history of racial prejudice--or so I'd heard; I'd lived among them for years without experiencing anything which would confirm that reputation. Surely it was something humans had outgrown, left behind when they became part of the interstellar community. Surely it was. Which made my colleagues' behavior doubly inexplicable.
I sighed. One year, I reminded myself. Minus two weeks.
Finally I stood and gathered up my palm-reader, on which I'd been jotting notes all through the briefing. Might as well head off to dinner myself, though I didn't feel particularly hungry.
The dining hall was crowded, and--to my ears at least--noisy. My scientific friends sat together at a table near the viewport; judging from their laughter, they were having a good time. No use waiting for an invitation to join them: not one of them so much as glanced my way. I looked around in vain for Joel, and sighed in frustration. My long-time best friend was becoming increasingly elusive. He hardly ever joined me for meals any more, nor did we often meet in the Rec Room or the gym. On the rare occasions when I did see him, he always pleaded overwork; but I couldn't help wondering if he was deliberately avoiding me. If so, it was both inexplicable and unprecedented. During our Academy years he'd had a knack for showing up in the damnedest places; turn a corner and there he was; always with a smile, usually with an invitation. Only in the women's locker room had I felt reasonably certain I wouldn't run into him. Much more than my crewmates' disdain, Joel's abandonment saddened me.
Finally I took my tray and my palm-reader to a table in the rear, quite alone. As I ate I keyed the reader, scrolling through my notes and the sensor-stream data I'd downloaded. So far this system looked to be a dud, at least where anthro-paleo was concerned
The mess hall was noisy, as I said; terrible acoustics. But Sah'aarans can pick out individual sounds in a babble of noise more effectively than humans. And what I heard then, spoken by a loud and vaguely-familiar voice, brought my head up sharply, my ears pricked.
The voice was that of a young human male, brash and dripping with sarcasm. "Hey! Look at that! She drinks her milk out of a glass! I heard she lapped it out of a bowl!" The words were followed by a burst of raucous laughter.
The source was not difficult to find. Near the edge of Officer's Country three tables had been pushed together, and around them sat a number of ensigns, male and female, trainees from various departments. A group which did not include Brian Matthews. The man who was the center of attention sat sideways to me, but I recognized him nonetheless: the Techspec I'd upbraided on the Control Deck the previous morning. I like to know my enemies, and so I'd made inquiries, both of the computer and Commander Abrams. The young idiot was one Wallace Osgood, known to his friends as "Wally." A name which will be branded on my memory until the day I die. He had a reputation as a wag, not to mention a bully; and he had a large entourage of sycophants, who apparently found him amusing. Even as I glanced up he was still basking in his audience's admiring laughter.
Briefly I considered what to do. Of course he was talking about me; who else? There was indeed a glass of milk on my tray, next to my half-finished steak. But how to respond? My bad-tempered half wanted to strangle him, and his friends too; but the wiser half--which had gotten me through ten years in the Combined Forces with only a few informal reprimands--held me back. Get more evidence, it whispered. That one remark wasn't enough: he could claim I'd misheard or misunderstood.
So, before Osgood realized that he'd been overhead, I quickly lowered my head, pretending to study my palm-reader. Let's see how much rope I can give him
It was not long before he reeled out another hank. Just seconds later his voice rang out again, bold and sarcastic. "We'd better check ship's stores," he said. "See if we stock flea collars." And then, over the burst of laugher, he added, "Or catnip mice."
Now, I like to think that I'm not terribly sensitive. Over the years I'd heard any number of "cat" puns; even Joel had a stockpile. (His favorite, whenever he found me in a non-talkative mood, was "Cat got--?") Usually I enjoyed them, and I'd even been known to tell a few on myself. But this was nothing like Joel's gentle teasing; it was bitterly sarcastic, little short of vicious. As if I were to tell Joel a joke which began "Did you hear the one about the two Jews ?" Even as my anger deepened, Osgood tossed off witticism: "Good thing there aren't any Pollies on board; she'd be chasing them all over the ship." And again: "You know how they call her to a briefing? 'Here kitty, kitty, kitty '"
I was absolutely appalled. Partly by what I was hearing--and partly by my own naiveté. What was I thinking, just minutes before? That the human species must surely have outgrown racism? Obviously, despite my experiences to the contrary, it still existed--and was liable to pop up, unexpected and unwelcome, like a loathsome disease. Seldom had I felt as alone as I did at that moment. Surrounded by humans, all of whom disliked me for some unfathomable reason what could I do? How could I get through this?
Nip it in the bud, I decided. Again. Let him know that you're are aware--and that you don't intend to sit still for it.
As the next remark--"I sure hope they had her spayed before they let her on board!"--drifted across the hall, I raised my head. Osgood had turned away from me; but I caught the eye of a young woman who sat across from him. She fell silent, her laughter faltering and her eyes widening. Osgood saw this, and he turned to gaze at me sidelong. As he did I hit him with the full force of my glare.
It was at best a mixed success. I had seen ensigns wither beneath that stare like grass under a blowtorch--but Osgood did not. He stared back at me, and maybe he looked troubled for a second or two--but then his expression cleared, and he laughed in my face. It was the most blatant act of insubordination I'd ever seen.
I sat frozen, disbelieving, rigid with shock. On any other CF vessel, no ensign would dare ridicule a superior: he'd be busted faster than he could draw a deep breath. What was different here?
The answer was simple enough, but by the time I figured it out, the group had already made good their escape. Osgood had been present on the Control Deck the previous day; he had seen the captain publicly tear down my authority. In his mind, any action I tried to take wouldn't stick.
And the damnable thing is, he was probably right.