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 ELEVEN


A-Benideel was a bust.

It took us two days to discover this, as Raven fell slowly through the system. Our captain had indeed chosen to rise above the thick asteroid belt, and after passing it by, had dropped the ship back into the ecliptic for a look at the inner planets. He needn't have bothered.

Before we departed the system for good, Antilles called the customary briefing; my second since joining the crew. Gathered in Mission Planning that morning were the captain, Edgeworth, Joel, Gaetano, Nakamara, Delaney, Kerenski, and (very much as an afterthought, it seemed to me) my poor self. The captain listened to my colleagues' reports with scant and rapidly-diminishing patience, drumming his fingers on the table.

"Four inner planets," Nakamara was saying. "All of them of nickel-iron composition. The innermost is very small, and occupies an orbit equivalent to that of Mercury. It has extremely high temperatures and radiation, and no atmosphere. The second and third planets are moonless, slightly larger than Earth, and uninhabitable, having high-pressure atmospheres composed mainly of carbon dioxide, not unlike Venus. Temperatures on the second planet average nine hundred degrees; on the third, six hundred."

"The fourth planet is slightly more promising, but only slightly," Gaetano said. "It is a Mars-like world with a thin, cold atmosphere, again mostly carbon dioxide."

Commander Delaney took it up. "As far as we can determine, the fourth planet is lifeless, though there is a possibility of microscopic life near the poles, where there are concentrations of water ice."

"Temperatures on the fourth planet average about five degrees," Lieutenant Kerenski said. Her voice--which I'd seldom before heard--was quiet, even shy, and had a faint accent. "We've observed extremely high winds driving huge dust storms in the temperate zones."

"The planet is not habitable," Nakamara said. "But it could be colonized as Mars has, with pressure domes, and could possibly be terraformed in the future."

The captain stirred. "Is there any evidence that it has ever been habitable?"

The others exchanged a glance. That question came suspiciously close to the subject of paleontology, and I was about to jump in, when Gaetano interrupted. "No, sir," he said. "The planet's climate and atmosphere have remained unchanged for many millions of years. We find no trace of the ancient riverbeds which are so obvious on Mars. Clearly, there has never been running water."

The captain sighed tragically. "Then the system is useless," he muttered.

A strange thing happened then. A stir went through the room, and several quick, surreptitious glances were shot in my direction. It was almost as if the captain had said something improper, and the others were reacting to it with embarrassment and chagrin. But why? He was right, after all, if your definition of "useful" is "a good place for a colony." Why should such an obvious statement be so shocking?

Gaetano broke in quickly, as if to cover up the gaffe. "It is less than ideal," he agreed. "But spectral analysis of the asteroid belt shows large quantities of iron, nickel, cobalt, copper, carbon, and silica. The mining potential is huge."

Antilles dismissed that with a sneer. "Perhaps so," he said. "But that's scarcely our concern." He gazed around the table. "If that's all, ladies and gentlemen, we'll adjourn. We'll be hyperjumping tonight; our next stop will be a single-star system approximately twenty light-years distant. The transit will require three jumps; we should arrive in six days. Dismissed." And with those words he began to rise.

I'd sat there at the foot of the table for the last half-hour, silent and incredulous, as my crewmates talked around me as if I wasn't there. Finally I could take it no longer. Still seated, I cleared my throat. "Excuse me, Captain?"

Antilles glanced over in surprise, as if seeing me for the first time. "Yes, Lieutenant?"

"I was wondering sir, if you wished to hear my report."

His face twisted into a smirk. "Do you have a report, Lieutenant?"

There was a quick wave of unpleasant laughter, in which Joel did not join. He turned away quickly, looking troubled. "Pardon me, sir?" I said, startled.

"Lieutenant," Antilles said, as if to a child, "we've just heard that the planets in this system have always been entirely lifeless. Your specialty being ancient life, I therefore assumed that you had nothing to tell us."

"That is true, sir," I said. His tone ought to have warned me, but foolishly I soldiered on. "But it's customary in briefings to invite all officers to participate. Or so I've always understood."

Another stir circled the table, but this time it wasn't laughter. Commander Edgeworth swept the others with her icy glare, and sudden silence fell.

The captain fixed me with a stare like a Centaurii basilisk. "Let's get one thing straight, Lieutenant," he said coldly. "I consider your tenure on this ship to be temporary. Admiral Conroy and Commodore Ehm'rael forced you on me, and I resent that deeply.

"I have studied your service record; you are not qualified for the position you now hold. Obviously the admiral and the commodore believe otherwise, and so I will need proof before I can be rid of you. I don't imagine it will be difficult to acquire.

"I know you came aboard hoping for a promotion; but that it is not going to happen--not on my ship. You will be leaving this vessel when we return to Outpost Four, no matter what I have to do to accomplish it. Where you go from there I frankly do not care. Do I make myself clear, Lieutenant?"

Like a bucket of icewater, his words left me gasping. Most of the others were staring, their unfriendly gazes pinning me to my seat. Only Joel's eyes remained averted--but I was too shocked to care. I couldn't decide which was worse: the bald-faced hostility, or the impropriety of saying such a thing in the presence of others. Captain Haliday seldom had cause to criticize his officers; but when he did, it was done in private. Morale aside, that's common decency. Something which Captain Antilles did not value, it seemed.

"Do I make myself clear?" he repeated.

"Yes, sir," I said. "Perfectly."

###

Out in the corridor, Gaetano suddenly and painfully grabbed my arm, pulling me aside. When the others had passed out of earshot, he said harshly, "What the hell got into you, Lieutenant?"

I met his gaze steadily. "I was trying to give my report, Commander."

"You didn't have a report."

"I know that," I snapped. I paused to get my voice under control, then went on, "But it would have been polite for the captain to ask. Or at very least acknowledge my existence. Sir."

"What do you mean?" he demanded.

I swallowed. "Commander, I am a Combined Forces officer, a lieutenant with ten years' service. If nothing else, that ought to entitle me--

"No," he interrupted harshly. "It doesn't. Listen to me, Lieutenant: no one cares how many years service you have. All that matters here is what you've accomplished--and so far, that's zero. Until you have something to show us, Lieutenant, you are worthless to this ship. Do you understand? Worthless!"

If Antilles' words were a dousing of icewater, Gaetano's were a punch in the stomach. Several times I'd been termed a "disappointment" by someone very close to me, and that hurt; but never, not even in my darkest nightmares, had I ever been called "worthless." I pulled free from his grasp and turned away, burying my face in my hands. I didn't want him to look at me; didn't want him to see the hot blood rising to my ears.

Suddenly then, inexplicably, his attitude changed. He took a step back, and when he spoke again, his voice was quiet, almost hesitant. "We--uh--might have better luck in the next system. If we do, you'll get a chance to make your report. I'll make sure of that. All right?"

I glanced at him sharply--but clearly that was the closest thing to an apology I was likely to get. I cleared my throat--which had tightened a little--lest it betray me. "Thank you, Commander," I said with deep irony. "Thank you very much."

###

To my relief, the Sciences section was deserted, my so-called colleagues elsewhere, when I returned there a little while after the meeting. Suddenly exhausted, I collapsed into a chair behind the briefing table. I raised my hands to massage my throbbing temples, and as I did I discovered that they were shaking. In fact my whole body was trembling violently with shame and rage. My tail was beyond lashing: it was simply stiff, the tuft at its end bristling and quivering. Drawing a deep breath, I let it out as a long slow hiss, trying without success to calm myself.

I could say something trite and obvious here, such as "the truth was out;" but that would not be true. The captain's words, and Gaetano's, had done nothing but add another layer to the mystery surrounding me. Why? I wondered for the thousandth time. Why do they treat me this way? What did I ever do to them?

It's true what they say, about the "best laid plans." Just two weeks ago I'd been thinking ahead to the end of the mission, to "writing my own ticket." But now…the captain had made his beliefs very clear, and his intentions too: I was unqualified, and one way or another he would have me off his ship. In making good on that, he could do irreparable damage to my career. Forget promotions: to make it through this mission with my present set of stars intact might be more than I could manage.

Finally I glanced at my wrist chrono. A little past twelve hundred: lunch time. There was a pneumatic link to the auto-kitchen on the wall behind the table; during the last two weeks I'd made frequent use of it. I glanced at the little hatch…and shook my head. My stomach was a hard knot; I could have forced nothing into it. Might as well begin preparing for the next survey. I rose and slid open my office door…and then I stumbled back several steps, as if recoiling from a blow. If not for the table I would have fallen.

There is a material commonly found on Combined Forces vessels, a spray polymer: thick, black, and nearly indelible. It's used to mark packing crates, touch up a ship's hull lettering…many things. In my absence someone had used it, freehand and without a stencil, to scrawl two wide lines of words across my office walls. The first read "Welcome to the Cat House," and was followed by a crude drawing of a grinning Terran tabby. The second, a little lower, read "Die Zeef!" The scrawls went right across my scenic prints, but thankfully my desk, chair and terminal were untouched, as was my beautiful fossil.

I nearly fainted. Gasping for breath, my heart hammering. I sank back into the chair I had just quitted. The office door was not powered; it could not take pity on me by closing itself.

I was a long time regaining my composure. When finally I could breathe once more, when I felt that I could again speak Terran, I slid my shaking hand across the table toward the intercom. My voice was strangled, almost inaudible, as I said, "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla to Commander Abrams."

He was only a few seconds in answering, but if felt like eternity. "Abrams here."

I might simply have screamed for help; but I had no way of knowing where he was, nor who might be listening. As calmly as I could, I said, "Commander, would you please come to my office? I'm--having a small difficulty."

There was a pause, during which I held my breath. He was the Crew Chief, and always busy; he might ask me what the trouble was, and might insist on sending a subordinate. But he knew me, and must have heard the desperation in my voice. "On my way, Lieutenant," he said, and clicked off.

I don't know how long it took for him to arrive; five minutes maybe, no more. While I waited I sat absolutely still, hardly even breathing, my horrified gaze fixed on the scrawls. One word in particular caught my eye and held it: "Zeef." A term I'd believed lost in the mists of time. The Terrans, in their mania for classifying things, long ago dubbed my species Xenofelis sapiens Sah'aar. Which wasn't a problem…except for another, less fortunate human trait: that of twisting names into insults. Times change, understanding grows…but not as fast as one might hope.

Joel arrived out of breath, and paused in the doorway, gazing at me with his brow creased in concern. "Ayla," he said, "what's the matter?"

I pointed. "Take a look," I said softly.

He quirked an eye, then stepped over to the office door. A quick glance, and he reeled back in shock. "Good God!" he cried. "What in the world--?"

"The term is 'vandalism,'" I told him. "Also known as a 'hate crime.'"

He looked quickly at me. "Isn't that a little dramatic? Are you sure this isn't just a…joke? A prank?"

"Yes," I said. "I am. Very sure."

"Was the door locked?"

I growled under my breath. My office was in fact equipped with a lock, but I hadn't been using it. I had no idea what combination Morada had set, if any; and I hadn't troubled myself to reset it. "No," I said. "In ten years in the CF I've never found it necessary to lock a door."

"Well, maybe you ought to start," he said.

I nodded. "I will." I damn well would: I'd create a cipher that the Central Computer at Headquarters couldn't crack in a century.

"I don't understand," Joel was saying. "Who on earth would do such a thing?"

"I've got a pretty good idea," I told him bitterly.

"You do," he said slowly. He sat down beside me. "Who, then?"

"Ensign, Techspec Trainee Level III, Wallace 'Wally' Osgood," I told him flatly.

"Osgood?" he repeated. "Why him?"

I sighed. "Joel, have you ever heard the word 'Polly'?" I asked.

He nodded and glanced away, looking troubled. "Yes," he said. "I'm afraid I have. As a derogatory term for Centaurii."

"Exactly," I said. "The other night I heard Osgood say it." I pointed to the shorter scrawl. "And if he'll use one racial slur…"

"I see," he said. "But why--"

"I told you already," I said tiredly. "I reprimanded him on the Control Deck. Those remarks in the dining hall were the beginning of his revenge--this is the second act."

"Can you prove that?" he asked.

I sighed heavily. "No, of course I can't. I didn't see him do it. But who else could it have been, Joel? You know Osgood; you told me yourself what he's like."

"Yes," Joel agreed. "I do know him. Unfortunately. What--uh--what would you like me to do now?"

I looked up at him in irritation. Surely it was obvious; why was he forcing me to spell it out? I thought he knew me better than that… "I want you to put him on report, Joel," I said. "I want his hide nailed to a bulkhead."

"Why me?"

"First and foremost, because he's your ensign," I said patiently. "And second, because I can't."

"Why not?"

I sensed in him what might most charitably be termed a reluctance to act. I fixed him with my stare. "Joel, twenty minutes ago Commander Gaetano told me that I am 'worthless.' Five minutes before that, our good captain informed me, in front of his senior officers, that he plans to kick me off the ship when we return to Outpost Four. You were there; you heard him. I have no authority, Joel. None. That's been made abundantly clear. But as far as I know, you still do."

He hesitated a long time. Finally he said, in pleading tones, "Ayla, please believe me, I want to help you. But this is…difficult. I've got to follow procedure--you know that. I need proof, witnesses, something other than your suspicions. You may know for certain who did this--and I don't really doubt you--but I have to convince Commander Edgeworth."

Osgood's hand holding the knife that's sticking into my ribs wouldn't convince her, I thought. "So?" I said pointedly.

He sighed. "So," he said heavily, "I will talk to him, off the record. Osgood has been trouble the entire year he's been aboard, and anything I say to him probably won't do much good. It hasn't so far. But I will try."

I turned away and nodded. Best I could get, it seemed. "All right, Joel."

He grasped my hand, and nodded into my office. "I'll get a crew up here and have that cleaned up. There'll be no trace, I promise."

I forced a smile. "Thank you, Joel."

His answering smile was hesitant, but seemed genuine. "You're welcome."

I hesitated, then went on, "Joel? Is my sanity important to you?"

"Huh?" He frowned quizzically. "Yes, of course it is."

"Then can you please answer a question, before it drives me crazy?"

"I'll try."

I took a deep breath. "Why, Joel? Why does everyone on this ship hate me?"

He paused. My hand was still clasped in his; now he covered it with his other, making a sandwich. "I…don't think that's really true," he said. "You're new on this ship, and you've become an easy target for a lot of unfocused anxiety. This mission hasn't been easy, Ayla. We're a long way from home, on a less-than-ideal ship, with little hope of rescue if things go wrong. It's been very stressful for everyone. And maybe some of them feel that you haven't paid your dues, so to speak, the way they have. Osgood is an exception, though. His problems are caused by his own deep insecurity."

Despite myself, I smiled. "Your diagnosis, Doctor?"

He matched my smile. "No. I wish it was; then it might be wrong. Unfortunately it's the Psych Boys'. They decided that a tough mission with a stern commander would straighten him out, teach him discipline. So far there hasn't been much sign of that, I'm sorry to say: he's still a jerk." He paused and squeezed my hand. "Bottom line, Ayla," he went on. "I know you: you've never been easy to bully. But they don't know that; not yet anyway. As soon as they learn, things will get better. You'll see."

I nodded, but remained silent. Let him think I believed him. I wanted to; his argument was logical, and better thought out than Gaetano's. But equally untrue. Too many things weren't adding up; far too many to ascribe to job stress. As much as I wished I could believe Joel's reassuring words, I couldn't. He didn't even believe them himself. That fact drove the wedge between us a tiny bit deeper; though perhaps I was the only one who recognized that.

Joel gave my hand one last squeeze, and let go. He stood. "I have to go," he said. He nodded toward the office door. "I've got a cleaning crew to arrange."

"No trace," I reminded him.

"No trace."

###

My cabin was untouched, thankfully.

There was little else I could do but return there. Raven was falling toward a hypertunnel node, on her way out of the A-Benideel system; I had studied all I could until our next survey; and with Joel's cleaning crew arriving, I had no desire to remain in my office. It would have been poetic justice for Joel to assign Osgood to that cleaning crew--but he probably wouldn't. There would indeed be no trace, though: of that I felt certain.

I made my way through the corridors in a rush, gripped by sudden panic. Even as I spoke to Joel, a horrible thought occurred to me: what if Osgood got into my quarters too? I had to restrain myself from dashing up the stairs like a madwoman, and I paused before the door with a feeling of dark foreboding. I already felt violated; if he'd rampaged through here too…

Fortunately my fears were groundless: there was no sign that anyone had entered. No scrawled messages; nothing disturbed or missing; not even a rubber snake in the bed. Apparently he wasn't quite that daring.

I had been warned, though, and would tempt fate no longer. I completed my rapid and reassuring inspection, and then sat down for a heart-to-heart with the computer. It was the work of perhaps half an hour to design cipher-keys for both doors, ones which I felt certain were unbreakable. Ten years as a Compcomm paid. I encrypted the lock on my cabin door immediately; I'd work on my office later.

That done, I went hunting. And in so doing, I made another costly tactical error. It wasn't the last, and it wasn't the worst; but it was bad enough. I had no real assurance that Joel really would speak to Osgood; certainly he had seemed very reluctant to do so. I'd never been any good at letting things dangle, and asking another to solve my problems was anathema. Osgood was a slow learner; he needed to be shown again that I had no intention of being his victim. Sooner or later, if I kept reminding him, the fun would eventually go out of the game. That was the theory; the reality was somewhat different.

I found him alone in the mess hall, nursing a cup of coffee, staring sourly at the viewport. His solitude and mournful expression gave me pause: maybe Joel had spoken to him, against my expectations. For a few seconds I lingered in the doorway, debating; then I girded myself and stepped forward. It might be now or never: I had already realized the futility of tackling him while he was surrounded by his supporters.

I stepped up before him, and cleared my throat quietly. "Ensign Osgood?"

He jumped; obviously he hadn't heard my approach. Somehow that pleased me. His eyes widened, then narrowed. "What do you want?" he said in a flat and disinterested voice.

I ignored his tone; bigger fish to fry. "A moment of your time, Ensign," I said mildly. He stared, saying nothing, and I went on, "While I was at a briefing this morning, someone vandalized my office."

His eyes widened again, which to me was virtually a confession; but he quickly mastered himself and assumed a carefully neutral expression. Too quickly. I was right, I realized. Joel did already talk to him. "What's that got to do with me?" he demanded.

I shrugged. "Nothing at all, maybe" I said. "You seem to have a lot of friends, though, and I'd like you to give them a message from me."

I leaned closer, and had the pleasure of seeing him draw back. I went on, "I don't appreciate vandalism. Regulations frown on it too; the term is 'gross insubordination,' and it's a court-martial offense. I can't prove who did it--yet. There's a law of averages about that kind of thing, though: more incidents, more evidence. It's only a matter of time until I catch up with the guilty party, and when I do…well, let's just say he'll think twice before doing it again." I smiled broadly. "Pass that on for me, would you please?"

He stared at me for a long moment. If I expected him to break down and confess, I was disappointed; but I'm not that stupid. Finally he said, "Certainly, Lieutenant. I'll be very happy to."

"Thank you, Ensign," I said, and I turned and left. My satisfaction was all too brief, though, ruined by the whispered words I heard as I reached the door: "Stinkin' Zeef."


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