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
We moved on.
Neither the Alliance nor I had gained much from the survey of A-Benideel; hopefully the next system would be more productive--and include a habitable planet or two. I was beginning to feel a little cramped on board that tiny ship; it was long past time for a breath of fresh air, the feel of earth beneath my feet and most especially, the sight of open spaces. I'd never known a ship so conducive to claustrophobia.
It was with a certain trepidation that I returned to my office the day after the vandalism, and many minutes before I could force myself to open the door. Finally I took a deep breath and reached for the handle. I glanced rapidly from side to side and let out the breath as a long sigh of relief. Joel had kept his promise--more thoroughly than I'd believed possible. There was indeed no trace. Whether the walls had been repainted, covering the scrawls, or the black spray somehow removed, I didn't know; nor did I care. A faint odor lingered in the air: a sharp chemical smell that could have been either paint or solvent. Even my scenic prints were spotless; replaced, probably.
I smiled as I slid in behind my desk. My relationship with Joel Abrams had hit a difficult phase, for reasons unknown; but he was still as good as his word. The clean walls, along with the freshly encrypted door-lock, made me feel safer, a little less violated. Too bad that feeling wouldn't last.
The morning brought me two more surprises.
The first came less than an hour after I sat down. The survey of A-Benideel had indeed done nothing for the Anthro-Paleo--as the captain had reminded me--but it was my duty nonetheless to couch that fact in official language and enter it in my log. Which--inauspicious as it might sound--was by no means unprecedented: a quick search through Morada's logs revealed several similar reports, and that made me feel better. Not every solar system has habitable planets; very few, actually. I was composing my report--not an easy task--when there was a knock at my door. Who in the world--? "Come in!" I said cautiously.
It was Gaetano; he stood with his hands behind his back and a strange expression on his face. "Lieutenant," he said quietly, "may I have a word with you?"
Great Goddess, I thought in despair, not another quiz! "Of course, sir," I said, beginning to rise.
He waved me back down. "This will only take a moment." He stepped forward, and reached behind to close the door. Then he said, "Lieutenant, I have become aware that some things I said to you yesterday may have been ill-considered, and liable to be misconstrued. My words may also have caused you some emotional distress. If that is the case, I would like to apologize. It was not my intention to upset you."
You could have fooled me, buster. But there comes a time to cut your losses. "That's quite all right, Commander," I said, tempering my gracious words with a touch of irony. "I know this crew has been under a lot of stress "
He nodded several times, looking relieved. I was deeply suspicious of his sudden conversion--and can you blame me? He'd spoken up quickly enough yesterday, and apparently meant every word; why should he be so concerned about my feelings now? What's he up to?
"Exactly," he said gratefully. "Thank you for understanding "
"Not at all, Commander."
" And if you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to bring them to me. I'll do whatever I can to help."
On a warm day in the Dark Domains. "Thank you, Commander. I'll keep that in mind."
He nodded a few more times. "Remember," he said, "I'm right next door." And then he departed. For several seconds I stared at the closed door in amazement; then I shook my head and went back to work. The Sah'aaran phrase I muttered isn't readily translatable, but a reasonable equivalent might be: "Ain't that a kick in the head?"
The second surprise came a few minutes later, in the form of an intercom call. To be strictly accurate, I should say that the call itself did not surprise me--actually I'd been expecting it--but what came of it most definitely did. "Abrams to Ehm'ayla."
What's this about, I wondered, as I reached for the button. As if I don't know. "Ehm'ayla here."
"So," he said without preamble, "any trace?"
I smiled. "No trace," I said. "Thank you, Joel. You're a life-saver." Osgood's life, that is.
"You're welcome," he replied. He paused. "I did have a talk with Osgood," he went on, as if reading my mind. "I'm afraid I couldn't come right out with an accusation, but I did make some pretty strong implications."
I'll bet. "And--?"
"And," he said with a sigh, "I doubt it did any good. I certainly didn't get a confession. Although " he paused. "He's on duty now, and he's quieter than I've ever seen him. Maybe I made an impression after all."
I coughed delicately. It may have had less to do with his words and more to do with mine, which were probably more to the point. No way to know for certain. "Thanks for the effort, anyway," I said.
"I also want you to know," he said, "I'll be keeping an eye on him. If I find the slightest bit of evidence that he was responsible, or if there are any more incidents I'll go directly to Commander Edgeworth. I'll make her listen."
How much that promise was worth, I wasn't sure; but I appreciated the sentiment. Maybe our strained relations were finally beginning to ease. I decided to press my luck a little further. "Joel," I said, "I hate to bring it up, but we haven't been communicating very well since I came aboard."
"You're right," he said contritely. "And I'm sorry. My fault, I'm afraid."
"It didn't used to be that way."
"No," he agreed. "But we used to have a lot less on our minds." He paused. "Tell you what: let's do something about it. How about dinner tonight? Not in the mess hall, though," he added quickly.
"My quarters. More intimate."
I chuckled. Given the size of the cabins aboard Raven, "intimate" was indeed the word. But he did have a point.
"Sounds good to me," I said. "When?"
"Oh-six-thirty," he decided. "Can't stay up too late, after all: we're not as young as we used to be."
And that's the truth. "I'll be there," I promised.
"Good. Oh--one more thing," he said. "No uniforms, huh?"
"You're taxing my wardrobe," I told him. "But I'll see what I can do."
"See you there," he said, and he clicked off. I sat silent for a moment; then I shook my head in wonderment. For once it was Be Nice To Ehm'ayla Day; maybe I should have checked my horoscope.
When I told Joel he was taxing my wardrobe, I wasn't kidding. I had not brought with me the fancy evening robe I'd worn to Admiral Conroy's dinner--it was in storage on Outpost Four--nor anything like it. Nor could Raven's tailoring machinery be persuaded to create such a thing: it only knew uniforms, gym shorts and other simple garments.
I found myself unaccountably nervous as I hurried to shower and dress. Fumbling, I dropped my hairbrush and my claw-file twice. Why? I wondered angrily, as I stooped for the brush and banged it back into the drawer. Great Goddess, you've had dinner with Joel Abrams hundreds of times. Why this now?
I donned the newest and best-looking of my day-robes, with vertical stripes of brown on a background of gold, and knotted its shimmering metallic sash low on my right hip. My one black beaded collar would have to stand watch again. I turned back and forth before the mirror many times, smoothing down the robe over and over, fussing with the dangling ends of the sash, until I finally realized that I was stalling. I sighed. "Good as it gets," I muttered, and left the cabin.
I had only a short journey ahead of me: Joel's quarters were on the very next corridor clockwise from mine. It was exactly oh-six-thirty, according to my wrist-chrono, when I pressed the buzzer.
He was not long in answering, and he bowed and beamed a broad welcoming smile. "Punctual as always, Lieutenant," he said with mock formality. He waved an arm. "Welcome to my humble abode. Please come in."
"Thank you, Commander," I said with equal severity, and entered. He caught my eye--and we burst out laughing. He reached out to clasp my hands, looking me up and down with evident appreciation.
"You look wonderful, Ayla."
I made a face. "Considering my limited resources," I said. "But thank you anyway." I glanced at him. "You're looking not half-bad yourself."
He was wearing black trousers, non-CF-issue, and a long-sleeved white pullover. It was the first time I had seen him out of uniform in more than six years, and the sight unleashed a flood of memories. Goddess, how happy we were !
He gazed down at himself. "This?" he said primly. "Just a little something I threw on. Let's sit, shall we? There's hardly enough room in here to stand."
We did so; and as we did, I looked around. It was the first time I'd seen his cabin; and yes, it was almost identical to mine. The only real difference was that it was flipped, so that his bunk was on the left rather than the right. The walls were almost bare, just a few engineering diagrams; and there was a small cluster of holos near the head of his bunk. Despite his higher rank, he hadn't escaped the weight limits either.
I'd expected one of us to be sitting on the bunk, but not so: he had somehow acquired a second, mismatched chair, probably from the mess hall. As yet, the table was bare.
"Where's the good china?" I asked as we settled in.
He grinned. "If this ship had any, I'd be using it."
"I thought every ship was issued a set?"
"They are," he agreed. "Every piece of Raven's was broken forty years ago--during an encounter with a gravitational eddy."
The picture that engendered was amusing and horrifying. An officer's dinner, the good dishes and the dress uniforms and then wham! Roast beef and gravy everywhere. But, having once seen what was left of a ship that hit a strong eddy at full acceleration (no survivors) it wasn't really all that funny.
"So what's on the menu?" I asked.
He lifted the computer terminal from the shelf and set it before me. "Pot Luck," he said with an embarrassed grin. "You know me, Ayla: I can barely feed myself, let alone a Sah'aaran."
That was true: as a cadet Joel Abrams ate what was put in front of him, scarcely even noticing what it was; and if nothing was put in front of him, that's what he ate. Only in the matter of coffee was he fussy.
I tapped a few quick keys and turned the terminal over to him. During the last two weeks, in my copious spare time, I'd been tinkering with the auto-kitchen, trying to vary my menu. The staple food of most Sah'aarans is the "maxigrazer": a large, stupid, bovine creature, genetically-engineered to produce the greatest amount of lean meat with the least amount of fuel and byproducts, shall we say, both solid and the kind that contribute to global warming. I'd been trying my best to recreate it but so far my skill at culinary programming wasn't quite up to the task. I was getting darn close, though: just a little more work on the texture. The traditional, sweet-and-sour Ehm'malla sauce had been easier to replicate.
Joel watched with interest as the pneumatic tube delivered my meal: a large, gently-warmed steak, and tea. The meat arrived in a plastic bag and the tea in a squeeze-bottle, but what the hell. Joel's steak was Terran beef, and broiled; he'd also ordered a baked potato and salad. And coffee. Always coffee. I'd sometimes joked that he was fueled by the stuff, like deuterium for a fusion drive.
We ate in near-silence for a time; making only brief comments about the ship and the mission: shallow, almost meaningless words. It was not--certainly not--that we had nothing more substantive to say. In fact neither of us knew how to begin.
Joel finally broke the spell. We had passed through dinner into dessert, and I was indulging my favorite vice: New York cheesecake. Leaning back in his chair, coffee cup in hand, he suddenly chuckled. "I was just remembering the party at the end of our first semester," he said. "Larry Inman's first big blow-out. God, what a night!"
"You might remember it," I said. "I don't. Nothing after the first half-hour, anyway."
His grin widened. "Well, Larry should have warned you that he'd spiked the punch. But you can hardly blame him for not knowing about Sah'aarans and alcohol."
"I suppose not," I said. I shook my head. "Even I didn't know. It wasn't a subject that came up at home."
"What did it take--one cup?" Joel asked. "The next thing I knew you were under the table--literally. Your roommate and I had to pour you into bed "
" And I had an astrogation final the next morning," I said. "I passed--but I have no idea how. My head was three times its normal size."
"Where is Larry these days, I wonder?" Joel mused.
"The last I heard," I told him, "he'd been assigned to Naval Logistics, and was stationed on Terra."
Joel chuckled in amazement. "Who'd have thought it?" he said. "Larry Inman, the Toastmaster of the Officer's Academy, working at Headquarters."
"I'm surprised he even graduated," I agreed. "I never saw him spend a minute studying." I paused, then went on quietly, "The other day I was thinking about that three-day pass in Monterey when we were seniors."
Joel nodded, a faraway look on his eyes. "I've been thinking about that lately too. It's funny: I know we were both stressed out of our minds but I couldn't for the life of me tell you why. I have no idea what classes we were taking, or what kind of assignments they'd thrown at us. But I remember that weekend as if it was yesterday."
"Me too," I said. "I remember the night we went out to Point Piños to watch the sunset. The Officer's Academy might as well have been a million kilometers away."
He grinned. "You were wearing a day-robe, and kept complaining that your legs were cold. Until you actually saw the sunset." He shook his head again. "I've never been happier."
"Nor me," I said; and to my surprise, I realized that I meant it. Was it the break from routine? The surroundings? Or the company? I couldn't decide.
Joel set down his cup and reached out to clasp my hand. "There's something else I've been thinking about a lot lately," he said quietly. "The time we've lost--these last six years. I'm really sorry the CF forced us apart so long."
"Me too," I told him. "I'm just beginning to realize how much."
My tail began to wave then, in tune with my sudden agitation, and I cursed it for a traitor. Joel noticed: he glanced behind me, but just as quickly looked away. He'd known me a long time.
"Ayla," he said, "may I ask you a question?"
Uh-oh. "You can ask. Can't swear I'll answer."
"We've talked a lot about the last six years, about our careers and such. But well, we haven't said much about personal matters. I've been wondering "
He dried up, looking embarrassed, and I grinned. " If I had any wild and torrid romances," I finished dryly.
He flashed an embarrassed grin. "Something like that," he agreed. He paused. "So did you?"
I shook my head. "No," I said flatly. "I didn't." I shrugged. "I don't meet many Sah'aarans out here in space, Joel. Least of all, unbonded males. Someday my biology will catch up with me, and I'll have to go home. I'll find a mate; then I'll probably retire from the CF, take a professorship at Sah'salaan University, and settle down to raising kits." I crossed my arms. "Equal time, Mr. Abrams. What about you?"
"I've had a few relationships," he said. He smiled. "Nothing I'd describe as wild or torrid--nor even long-lasting. There was one, though, while I was stationed at Centaurus. I really thought we had a future. But you're right, Ayla: the CF is hell on relationships. Jessie was a top-rated Tactical officer; eventually she shipped out on a Navy destroyer, and that was that."
"Too bad," Considering my predicament, my sympathy was all that it should be.
"Yes," he said softly. "It was."
Something in his eyes made my reply words catch in my throat. He leaned a little closer. "I'm wondering, though "
"You're full of questions tonight," I quipped uneasily. "What do you wonder?"
He took a deep breath. "After we left the Academy, I thought a lot about our time together, what we meant to each other. There were some things I didn't understand, and so I did some reading: about Sah'aarans, your psychology and physiology. I know about bonding, Ayla. I understand that you'll eventually end up in a permanent relationship, and that it will be chosen by your pheromones rather than your emotions. But I've always wondered: while you're waiting for that to happen, do you have to be alone?"
Suddenly my heart began to hammer. I understood now why I'd been so nervous: this was Monterey all over again--but without the possibility of interruption. The choice I'd been spared then was before me now. And whatever choice I made, our relationship would never be the same again.
What I should have said--indeed what was on the tip of my tongue--was "Yes. I do." That would have ended it, probably forever. But my tail wasn't the only traitor that night. Maybe it was his eyes again; maybe it was oh, I don't know. But I heard myself say, "I think--I've been alone too long already."
Without another word he pushed aside the dishware and leaned across the small table to embrace me. And I let him do it. My own arms, as with a mind of their own, encircled him; I felt his strong, steady heart beat, as rapid as my own. A purr began, somewhere deep inside me, and quickly grew. Joel looked into my eyes for a few seconds, as if in uncertainty; then he kissed me. A human custom and for me, a unique experience.
And after that, it's all a bit of a blur. Certainly at some point he reached up underneath my mane to gently strip away my collar, proving that he did know Sah'aaran physiology. And that, the touch of his lips burrowing deep into the fur of my throat, was the proverbial Point of No Return. A little while later my day-robe departed for parts unknown, and I felt the cool and yielding surface of a bunk beneath my back, mingling with the warmth of his arms and his body; I shivered at the strange smoothness of his bare skin against my fur. Later I'd wonder why I let this happen--but at the moment I had a few other things on my mind.
The bunks aboard Raven were entirely too narrow.
We would have been better off in that Pacific Grove apartment, which had big double beds with antique brass headboards. Here well, we managed, despite everything, though both of us did almost end up on the floor. Maybe we should have brought those seatbelts out from beneath the mattress. But sleeping together afterwards was impossible. Which is a pity, really--for more reasons than one.
And so, as soon as our strength had returned, we rose and gathered our scattered apparel; and then I departed. No regrets or second thoughts had yet penetrated my endorphin-soaked euphoria; that would come later.
Joel caught me in the doorway, his arm around my waist. "Ayla?"
I turned toward him, and right there in the corridor he bent me over backwards with a kiss. "Sleep well," he said.
"Good night, Joel." I reached up to brush his cheek tenderly with the back of my hand; then he stepped back, and the door closed between us. Alone, I stood still for a moment; then I sighed and turned to go, realizing as I did that it was past midnight. How time flies
I'm not certain whether I heard some small sound, or simply felt a presence--but I had almost reached my cabin door when I suddenly spun around, my eyes searching wildly. I caught no more than a glimpse as the figure ducked quickly around the corner at the end of the corridor; but that was more than enough to recognize the dark hair and sharp features of Wally Osgood.
I got absolutely no work done the next morning. I did try; but in the end I spent most of the time sitting in my office staring at my lovely fossil, drumming my claws on the desk while my tail lashed back and forth behind me. How could you? I thought angrily, over and over; How could you?
There are any number of answers I could give, some practical, some deeply psychological. I could say, for example, that it was my painful loneliness aboard that unfriendly ship. And that would be true. But it might be closer to the mark to say that I'd done what I did simply because I wanted to. Had wanted to, in fact, deep inside, for many years.
And why not? The Goddess knows it was enjoyable--as well as memorable and different. Not perfect, alas; in retrospect it couldn't have been: Sah'aarans and humans aren't built the same. It would have required much more than that one experience for us to understand each other's bodies. I was still faintly surprised that such a thing was even possible. Obviously those sniggering stories I'd heard as a kit had a basis in fact. But no commitment was implied, no strings attached on either side. It might happen again someday; or it might not. And that's all there was to it.
So I'd tried to tell myself--but it wasn't working. The beliefs pounded into my head by conservative parents kept popping up, smashing through my rationalizations. In fact I was feeling guilty as hell--not to mention afraid, virtually certain that I'd ruined a wonderful friendship. Worse, I'd have to live with the consequences for a year, or until Captain Antilles tossed me off the ship, whichever came first. Just what my life needed: another damn complication.
The debate banged back and forth in my brain for several hours, until finally I shook my aching head, angrily putting a stop to it. This can't go on, I told myself firmly. If nothing else, I was in danger of being thrown into the brig for dereliction of duty. No: one way or another, there had to be a resolution. Find him, I told myself. Talk to him. Work it out now, once and for all.
Filled with determination, I left my office. It was nearly twelve hundred hours, and so there was a finite possibility I would find him in the mess hall. If not eating, then at least replenishing his caffeine supply. And if I didn't catch him there, I'd try his office. If he was anywhere aboard Raven, I'd find him.
Fortunately for me--I was not at all certain if I was authorized to enter the engine hull, and the last thing I needed was more trouble with the captain--Joel was indeed in the mess hall. I found him sitting alone at a table in the rear, toying listlessly with a sandwich and a cup of coffee, a pensive look on his face. I crossed quickly over to him--and that, as had happened too often lately, was a mistake.
I saw it out of the corner of my eye, as I made my way through the crowd: an odd sight. Near the viewport, Ensign Osgood and Commander Edgeworth sat together, deep in conversation. Strange indeed, even ominous--had I let myself notice. As they caught sight of me their discussion faltered, and their eyes followed me across the hall. I ought to have turned tail and departed; spoken to Joel in private, some other time. But--unsure how long my resolve would last--I plowed ahead.
Seating myself across from him, I forced a smile. "Hello, Joel."
He looked up quickly, his startled expression beginning to slide into an answering smile but then he glanced over my shoulder, and suddenly his face became a mask of sheer terror. He swallowed hard. "Oh--hello, Ayla," he said unsteadily.
Once again I should have been warned--but I was not. Blithely, I plowed ahead. "Joel, we need to talk."
I quirked an eye. "I wouldn't think you'd need to ask," I said. "Or was last night a normal evening for you?"
He shook his head. "No," he said. "No, of course it wasn't." He paused. "Uh, Ehm'ayla, this isn't the best time "
"Yes it is," I interrupted firmly. "It has to be. There are some things that need to be said right now. We've got to figure out where we stand, you and I."
He looked over my shoulder again, and lowered his voice even more. "Ehm'ayla, please," he begged. "Listen to me: this is not a good place for this discussion."
My eyes narrowed. "Why?" I asked. "What are you afraid of, Joel?" I waved my hand. It was lunch hour: the place was busy, noisy. "No one can hear us." I smiled slowly. "Or--would you rather I come to your quarters later?"
"No!" he said, so forcefully that I started back, shocked and hurt. He lowered his voice again. "No," he repeated, quietly but intensely. "That would not be a good idea."
"Joel," I said, "what exactly are you telling me? I admit I've been feeling a little guilty; but that's just my repressive Sah'aaran upbringing. I'm certainly not ashamed by what happened. Amazed, yes--but not ashamed. Are you trying to tell me that you are?"
"No," he said again. "No, certainly not. It's just " He took a deep breath and dropped his voice even more; a human couldn't have heard him. "What happened last night was a mistake, Ehm'ayla. It was my fault; I admit that, and I apologize. But we both know it never should have happened.
"You and I are very good friends, and I hope we always will be. I pray I haven't ruined that. But that's all we can ever be: friends. It would be terribly wrong for us to ever repeat it. I hope you can see that."
I was about to tell him, angrily, that I couldn't see it at all. But I never got the chance. He looked over my shoulder again, and paled; then he rose quickly. "Please excuse me," he said.
And with that he departed, not to say fled. He must have taken my heart with him; certainly it felt as if it had been ripped from my chest.
And as I watched him go, I caught a glimpse of Edgeworth's doleful stare and Osgood's sardonic grin, before they too stood and left the hall.