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 THIRTEEN


Another day, another solar system.

"The star is cataloged as CAO 11247," Commander Gaetano told the Scispec meeting. He grinned. "It hasn't rated a name yet, so if you have any suggestions, forward them to the TCA Planetary Research Center, Monterey, California."

There was a ripple of laughter; evidently that was a running gag, predating my arrival. Gaetano went on, "We're scanning eleven planets. No asteroid belt of consequence this time. The seven outer are large, cold gas giants; not much interest to us. But the inner four are smaller, and solid. One of them looks promising."

Standing beside the big viewscreen, Gaetano touched keys on the terminal before him, bringing up a diagram of the system. As he spoke, he glanced at all of us in turn; and for once his gaze didn't slide past me as if I wasn't there. Several times, in fact, his eyes lingered on me, his expression almost friendly--or at least not openly disdainful. I had to keep fighting an impulse to look back over my shoulder.

"It's too early to tell for certain," he went on, "but the second planet may be a live one--so to speak. Spectroanalysis is showing an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. This star is smaller and cooler than Sol, however, and even though the planet is in a close orbit, it may turn out to be quite cool--even frigid. Perhaps too cold for life. Lieutenant Kerenski, you'll monitor the data relative to that?"

The climatologist nodded. "Yes, sir."

"The captain should be able to plot a direct course inward," Gaetano said. "If so, we'll reach the second planet by twelve hundred tomorrow."

There was a stir, and a few glances were exchanged. The reason why wasn't hard to deduce: my colleagues were feeling just as cramped as I was. Gaetano nodded and smiled. "As you've already deduced, if the planet does turn out to be habitable we'll begin our surveys of the surface immediately. As I recall, it's my turn to lead the landing parties…"

There were several mutters and groans, of the "yeah, right" variety, and even a soft, sardonic raspberry, source unknown. Gaetano's smile widened. "Now, now," he said, "you'll all get your turns. Now, as to the initial landing. Commander Delaney, will you be available?"

The biologist nodded eagerly. "Just try keeping me away."

To my astonishment, Gaetano turned to me next. "And can I count on you, Lieutenant?"

For several seconds I was speechless. Finally I swallowed and said, "It will be my pleasure, Commander."

He actually smiled at me. "Good," he said. He glanced around. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, we have sensor-stream data to monitor. Let's get to work, shall we?"

Along with the others, I gathered up my palm-reader and stood. By this time tomorrow I'd be doing what I'd signed aboard to do--after I'd ordered myself some field gear.

###

Alone in my office, I switched on my terminal. With a sigh of pleasure I leaned back in my chair, my tail flicking lazily, as data began to flow across the screen. Funny how quickly your opinions can change: at first my office had seemed coffin-sized, claustrophobic; I could hardly stand being cooped up inside it more than an hour at a time. It hadn't gotten any larger--but now it felt more like a refuge than a prison. Alone in there, with no one bothering me, I could pretend that I wasn't up to my whiskers in problems. Unfortunately, though, I had to leave the office once in a while--and whenever I did, the problems were always there waiting.

As Raven fell through the system, her sensor-packages--which extended far from the hull on long booms--were running at full capacity. Each planet would be photographed, measured in many different ways, and cataloged. So too would every other object--up to and including the star itself. But only something of overwhelming interest, such a habitable planet, would cause the captain to alter our minimum-fuel course--and even then, only briefly. Exhaustive studies would come later; in many cases, much later. If the second planet proved habitable, we might orbit it for a few days. If not, we would pass it by and move on.

But in the meantime, I had available to me a constant stream of data from many types of sensors, dozens of channels to choose from. Cameras, of course, photographing in spectra ranging from visible light to X-rays; but that wasn't all. There were also gravity sensors, radiation meters, spectrometers…and others. Much of the data was meaningless to me, and so I edited out those channels, concentrating on the cameras and sensors which were pointed toward the second planet. There and there alone would I find anything to pique my professional curiosity.

…As the minutes passed, though, I found my attention beginning to wander. As yet we were far from the planet, as far as Saturn is from Terra, and even through Raven's best telescopes it was no more than a dim blue blur. In the hours to come, both the pictures and the data would improve. I instructed the computer to alert me if anything unexpected or interesting occurred, and I leaned back, closing my eyes and allowing myself to sink into a deep ocean of thought.

Our six-day transit from A-Benideel had passed uneventfully. And that was a blessing, because it meant there had been no more vandalism, no more remarks--in fact no incidents of any kind, unpleasant or otherwise. I did occasionally see Ensign Osgood, in the mess hall or the Rec Room, but it seemed that I finally had him cowed: one glance from me was enough to make him turn tail and run. And if I derived a fiendish pleasure from that, I think I can be forgiven.

With that difficulty apparently solved, my next most vexing problem was the matter of Lieutenant Commander (Techspec) Joel Aaron Abrams. Since that day in the mess hall he had gone from elusive to unfindable. He had actually changed his personal habits, so it seemed, to avoid running into me. With many years of practice under my belt, I had a pretty solid understanding of human behavior--but that, I absolutely could not explain. Why all the fuss over one simple sexual encounter? Was it really worth it? Always before we'd kept it inside our own species; but what, really, is the difference? Yes, I'd felt a certain amount of guilt, but it had already begun to pass, replaced by the realization that what's done is done. Our relationship might never be the same; but "different" doesn't necessarily imply "destroyed." It might even have been better than before; we might have more completely understood each other's feelings. But Joel didn't seem to want to try. By Sah'aaran standards or human, his behavior was barely rational.

It was also utterly uncharacteristic of him. People do change over time; we had been apart more than six years; and when we parted we'd been little more than kids. Some change was inevitable; certainly those six years had changed me, for the better I hoped. But Joel had changed more than seemed believable. He'd been the most reliable, most even-tempered human I'd ever known, a major stabilizing influence on me. That was true no longer. But what had happened to cause the change, I had no idea.

Nor was any I too sure of my own behavior. Joel was avoiding me, yes; but I had made no attempt to track him down or confront him. It would not have been difficult: it wasn't as if he had an infinite amount of space in which to hide. The fact that I had not, and had no particular desire to…was that childish of me? Was I being petulant or wise? I couldn't decide. And so, for almost a week, I had let the situation lie. What would have happened if I'd cornered him and made him talk to me? I'll never know.

But bottom line (as Joel himself would have said) it seemed that a legendary friendship had crumbled to dust--and that did indeed hurt. A lot.

###

CAO 11247/2 was habitable, but only just.

"What we are not dealing with here," Lieutenant Kerenski told us, "is a tropical paradise. Equatorial temperatures average ten degrees Celsius. The so-called 'temperate' zones average below zero. There are massive ice caps and glaciers, extending from both poles to more than thirty degrees north and south latitude. Only the tropics are what we'd describe as 'habitable.'"

If anything, our briefing area was a little too warm; but I shivered nonetheless. The Sah'aaran vision of Hell is not the burning-hot netherworld of so many human myths, but rather a pitch-black and freezing-cold limbo. What I saw now was a fair approximation of those Dark Domains. Even from orbit, the place looked frigid. The huge ice-caps gave it a strangely banded aspect: white on both ends, with a narrow mottled belt of blue, brown and green around the middle.

"The continental arrangement is unremarkable," Gaetano said. "At least what we can see of it, which isn't much. Most of the land-masses are covered with ice--in many places dozens of kilometers thick. It would be dangerous and pointless to attempt a landing in those areas, and I will recommend to the captain that we concentrate on the equatorial zone. By no means is this an ideal world for our purposes--but it does have one interesting feature."

He tapped keys, and the viewscreen image zoomed in with dizzying speed, until finally it centered on a patch of coastline somewhere in the tropics. Gaetano created a red pointer and moved it in a slow circle. "Here we find proof that the climate has not always been so frigid," he went on. "What we see is a gentle slope of siltstone and sandstone, twenty kilometers wide, leading up from the water and ending at a sharp rocky cliff many kilometers long. Clearly it is an ancient sea-bed, formerly part of the continental shelf, exposed by the withdrawal of water from the oceans to form the ice-caps. From the degree of erosion, the depth that various stream channels have cut, I estimate that this land was under water not more than a million years ago."

"That agrees with what we know of the star," Nakamara commented. "It's a ten-percent variable, and is deep into a cooling cycle. A million and a half years ago it was much hotter--though never as hot as Sol. The planet is in a relatively close orbit, however, and may once have had a climate much like Earth's."

"There is rich plant life in the equatorial and tropical regions," Delaney said. "Rich in quantity, that is; diversity is quite low. Major portions of the land-masses are heavily forested; we may be seeing something similar to Terran conifers. Other areas appear to be grassland, many thousands of square kilometers. As for the oceans…cold waters are typically rich in plankton, diatoms and related forms, but these seas are extremely saline, and aren't as productive as we might expect."

"The climate is quite dry," Kerenski said. "As Commander Gaetano indicated, much of the water is locked up in ice, unavailable for precipitation. Whatever plant-life is present must be adapted to extreme drought as well as severe cold."

"What about animal life?" Gaetano asked.

"Our studies are inconclusive so far," Delaney said, "but we believe there are no large animals."

"Meaning that you're not certain," Gaetano said.

Delaney smiled and shook her head. "No. Not until we go and look."

She let the stir go around the table, then went on, "We're scanning no life at all on the ice caps--though that may not be absolutely true. There may be algae or something similar in the interstices between ice crystals; on Terra and elsewhere, such forms are incredibly tenacious."

At that point all eyes turned toward me. I'd expected that, though, and so I wasn't caught completely off-guard. "From orbit, there is no sign of civilization," I said. "No cities, no ruins, no earthworks. But that is by no means proof positive. On most worlds, civilization tends to favor temperate zones. For all we know, there may once have been a thriving society, all trace of which is now buried under kilometers of ice. We may be able to learn more during our landing parties." Even as I spoke, I shivered again; I was beginning to regret agreeing to join the landing party. No way out, though.

Gaetano glanced around the table. "All right," he said. "Obviously this planet is not a good prospect for colonization. But our second--equally important--mission is to locate any signs of past or present civilizations. As Lieutenant Ehm'ayla has pointed out, it may be impossible for us to determine whether intelligent life did ever exist here; but it is our duty--however painful--to try. We will concentrate our landings on the equatorial areas, which seem to be survivable. I'd like to begin with that ancient seacoast; I want to know exactly how old it is. It's nightfall there now; dawn will occur at about ten hundred tomorrow, ship's time. Commander Delaney, Lieutenant Ehm'ayla, you will please report to the launching bay at oh-nine thirty. Any questions?"

We all glanced at each other; then I raised my hand. "I have one, sir."

He looked at me in surprise. "Yes, Lieutenant?"

"Would it be possible to requisition a pair of electric socks?" I asked, dead-pan. There was a few seconds stunned silence; then slowly my colleagues relaxed and began to chuckle. Pleased, even gratified, I leaned back, smiling. Maybe--just maybe--I was finally beginning to make some headway.

###

At least the pods were new.

Given Raven's age and condition, I expected to find her hangar deck stocked with equally decrepit landing craft. Fortunately that was not the case: the five pods stowed within the main hull's lowest deck were quite modern, identical to the ones carried by Zelazny.

I was the first to arrive; deliberately so, though the Goddess knows it wasn't easy. As I stepped out of the airlock at the foot of the spiral stairs and saw that I was indeed alone, I sighed in relief, set my canvas sample bag aside, and adjusted my uniform yet again. Damn field gear!

The hangar was by far the largest single space aboard Raven, two decks high and entirely open except for the stairwell. Faded red lines divided the floor into six wedge-shaped sections, five of them occupied by pods, and the sixth by the device that launched hyperzap relay satellites: nothing more than a big magnetic cannon. Several satellites sat alongside it, ready for launch, stacked like cannonballs.

The pods, slim silver darts, looked ludicrously small in their wide parking spaces; but Raven had once been a Patrol cutter, and her hangar was built for gunboats. They sat with their noses pointed outward, ready for launch; but only one of them faced the doors, a pair of massive armored portals large enough for two pods to pass through abreast. That perplexed me--until I realized that the entire floor was a turntable. The other pods and the satellite gun could be rotated into place as needed. It was an arrangement I had never before encountered.

It seemed a safe assumption that the pod facing the door was our ride, and so, leaving my sample bag next to the airlock, I strolled over for a closer look. Even after three weeks, Raven still seemed strange to me, and so that little ship was oddly comforting in its familiarity. About five meters long, the gleaming hull tapered from a wide exhaust bell down to a needle-sharp bow, behind which the pilot's windscreen was tilted at a rakish angle. Small dark portholes marked the positions of the six passenger seats. The ship rested on three skids, which would be retracted in flight; and its maneuvering wings were folded flat against the hull. On the bow was stenciled the number "5"--and nothing else. I was still puzzling over that when I realized I wasn't alone.

He was young, slim, and rather short, with a wide face and a mop of reddish-blond hair. As he appeared around the pod's stern, a palm-reader in his hand, I saw a single star and a patch of Techspec yellow on the breast of his field gear. I cleared my throat, and he looked up from his preflight checklist, snapping smartly to attention.

"As you were, Ensign--?" I said, and he smiled.

"Mayer, ma'am," he said. His tone was confident--even brash--but friendly. "Techspec trainee Level II Albert Mayer. You must be Lieutenant Ehm'ayla."

"That's right," I said. I nodded at the pod. "This ours?"

Mayer nodded. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "And I'm your pilot."

I quirked an eye. "Isn't that a job for a Navspec?"

"Usually yes," he agreed. "But Captain Antilles believes it's more efficient this way. I take care of 'em, so I drive 'em too. Don't worry," he added quickly, "I'm fully qualified."

"I'm sure you are," I said. I peered closely into his cheerful and guileless face. Had he been among Osgood's fan club, that night in the mess hall? I didn't think so--and that raised him several points in my estimation. "I know how the captain likes efficiency," I commented, with a nod toward the pod. "That, for example."

He looked puzzled. "Ma'am?" he said.

"Every pod I've ever come across has had a name, like 'Lulu' or "Annabelle,'" I explained. "But this one is just plain 'Five.'"

Mayer grinned and ran a hand through his hair, disheveling it even more. "Between you and me, Lieutenant," he said, "you're right. The captain hates pet names."

Why doesn't that surprise me? I thought wryly.

At that moment Gaetano and Delaney arrived. Like me they wore field gear, with scanpaks and commpaks tucked into their belts and canvas bags slung over their shoulders. Catching sight of me, Gaetano smiled. "Good morning, Lieutenant," he said. "You're early. And I see you've already met our chauffeur." He rubbed his hands together then, as excited as a kit in a fish-market. "So--shall we go?"

###

Mayer was indeed an excellent pilot.

The descent took no more than twenty minutes, and it was glass-smooth all the way. As the pod cleared the hangar and fell toward the atmosphere, I craned my neck for a look through the tiny porthole, back at Raven. Unfortunately she hadn't gotten any better-looking in the last few weeks. And after the ship had dwindled into the distance, I leaned back and breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Though in fact I rarely saw Antilles or Edgeworth, lately I'd come to feel as if they were staring over my shoulder constantly, judging me and finding me wanting. To escape their gaze, even temporarily, felt like a stay of execution.

Across the aisle from me, Gaetano settled back in his seat, his eyes closed; behind him Delaney frowned at a palm-reader. Neither of them seemed interested in conversation, and that was fine with me. I wriggled around, making myself as comfortable as my uniform allowed, and I let my mind drift. Problems I had in plenty, and unanswered questions in even greater supply--but now I had to somehow set them all aside and concentrate on being the best damned Anthro-Paleo in the Survey. The captain had called me "unqualified"; one way or another, I was determined to see him eat those words.

###

At the top of the ramp I paused, turning my head quickly as an icy blast struck me full in the face, stinging my nose and bringing tears to my eyes. Shivering, I wrapped my arms around my torso and my tail around my ankles. How can I get any work done, I wondered dismally, when I'm busy freezing to death?

Mayer had set us down somewhere in the middle of Gaetano's coastal terrace--a place that was indeed a dead ringer for the upper reaches of the Dark Domains. Unless that was simply my morbid imagination. It was early morning, not long after dawn, the sun just rising over the hills behind us. Its rays were dim and wan, and conveyed no warmth at all. The sky was clear, though, azure blue, the air dry and crystal-clear. This place was two degrees north of the equator, and that was an odd coincidence: according to my scanpak, the temperature stood at two degrees as well.

To north and south the plateau stretched out straight and flat, as far as the eye could see. About half a kilometer to the west (the direction from which the biting wind blew ceaselessly, tearing at my mane and flattening my ears) the plateau ended abruptly in a tumbled cliff of black stone some twenty meters high. Below that the plain lay flat and dun-colored, utterly featureless except for a few meandering dry gullies. Shading my eyes, I thought I saw on the horizon the bright edge of the sea.

To the east, a gentle slope half a kilometer wide bordered a steep crumbled step some eight meters high, above which lay another wide angled terrace, and another, and another. The distant high ridge was crowned with a thick line of trees: tall, coniferous-looking growths, so dark green as to appear black in the weak sunlight. The surface beneath the pod was crumbly red soil, liberally sprinkled with sharp-looking shards of dark stone; just looking down made my feet hurt. Here and there, knobby outcrops of dark-grey rock broke the surface. Stunted, anemic-looking bushes grew at wide intervals, and the rattle of their seed-pods in the wind was the only sound. Several mingled scents tickled my nose: a tang of salt from the distant sea; an aromatic, resinous smell, as of pine-pitch; and a spicy odor not unlike sage. It was a strange but not unpleasant combination, reminding me somewhat of the forests of coastal California.

Behind me in the hatchway, Gaetano cleared his throat loudly, and with an effort I tore my gaze away from that appalling landscape. "All right," he said cheerfully. "Enough gawking at the scenery--let's get some work done!" Obviously he didn't mind the cold; in fact he seemed to be enjoying it. He rubbed his hands together vigorously. "I know it's a little nippy, ladies, but I'd suggest keeping your thermostats as low as you can stand. We're going to be down here a while--don't want to run out of power!"

Partway down the ramp, Delaney looked half-frozen already, her hands thrust tightly into her armpits. She grinned and rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Easy for him to say," she muttered, and I chuckled. She had a point, judging from the straining mag-seal of Gaetano's uniform: when it came to natural insulation, he was indeed better equipped than most.

Buffeted by that infernal wind, we descended. Behind us at the pod's controls, Mayer twisted around to grin and wave. "Good luck!" he called. He would not be accompanying us--lucky him--but his job was at least as important: to keep an eye on us. Hopefully he wasn't given to napping. At the bottom of the ramp we paused again, as the full force of the wind struck us. I heard someone gasp, and I realized to my embarrassment that it was me. Sah'aarans in general do not tolerate low temperatures well; those from Sah'salaan, where the summers are hot at the winters mild, worst of all--and so, despite my grumbling, I was grateful to be facing the cold with the best equipment the Combined Forces had to offer.

The person who long ago described field-gear as a "necessary evil" was only half-right. Almost as thick as a spacesuit, and every bit as uncomfortable, the CF's outdoor-duty uniform does at least have one redeeming feature: temperature control. Buried deep within the slick, tough, silver fabric was a network of fine tubing, filled with a fluid that could be either heated or chilled, at need, by a small unit attached to the belt. Unfortunately, for this to work well, the jumpsuit had to be snug-fitting, and it had to cover as much of the body as possible. The only parts of me it left bare were my head, feet, hands and tail--a degree of enclosure which was uncomfortable at best. Thank the Goddess my shedding was over; that would have been intolerable. Equally uncomfortable--but necessary--was the wide elastic strap which hugged my torso, holding the life-sign monitors close against my chest.

My other equipment was more or less standard. A stinger hung low on my belt, directly under my right hand; I'd made sure its power cell was fully charged. To my right ear I'd clipped my custom-built commpak, adjusting the microphone clear of my whiskers. On my left hand I wore the snug black sensor gauntlet of my scanpak; the holographic readout screen was held over my right eye by an elastic headband. Over my left hip I'd hung a water bottle; hopefully it wouldn't freeze solid. And in the canvas bag over my shoulder I had a rock hammer and a small case full of brushes, dental picks and other fine tools. Those I had inherited--literally--from Commander Morada. Handling his tools felt almost as creepy as sleeping in his bed; but I was trying not to think about that.

"We all know our jobs," Gaetano said quietly--and if he shot a quick, significant glance at me, I suppose he can be forgiven. "Let's try to stay in sight of each other. Be careful--" he winked--"and have fun."

We split up then, each of us heading in a different direction. Gaetano strode purposefully toward a knobby outcrop of stone some meters distant, and Delaney wandered over to kneel beside one of the sad-looking bushes. And me? I took a deep breath, keyed my scanpak, and headed south, one eye on the rough ground lest I stumble, and the other on the data which flowed swiftly across the little screen. This was it: both the culmination of all those weeks of study and my chance to show the captain that a Compcomm can transmute into a Scispec. This was what I'd set out to do, prepared myself to do…so why was my heart suddenly pounding, my movements clumsy and graceless? Why did I seem to hear Antilles whispering in my ear, over and over, "not qualified…not qualified…"? A simple case of first-day jitters? Or had I taken his words more thoroughly to heart than I'd known?

Thirty meters from the pod, I stopped and glanced back. Gaetano was chipping at a seam of hard black rock, the clink of his hammer echoing sharply through the clear dry air. Delaney was kneeling now in a clump of low-growing shaggy scrub. She ran her gauntleted hand over a puffy seed-head, then snipped off the pod with a pair of tiny clippers, sealed it in a small clear envelope, and stowed it carefully in her bag. I sighed. Both of them seemed confident enough…

Abruptly Mayer's voice, quiet and full of concern, crackled through my commpak. "Lieutenant? Are you all right?"

I swallowed and pulled the microphone closer. "Yes," I said. "I'm fine. Why do you ask?"

"Your telemetry was looking a bit…strange," he said. "Heartbeat and respiration almost off the scale--like you'd just run a hundred-meter dash. But if you're sure you're all right…"

I took a deep breath and, with an effort of pure will, managed to slow my racing heart. "I'm fine," I repeated. "But thank you for asking."

"Just doing my job," he said cheerfully, and clicked off.

I chuckled. That makes two of us, I thought. I keyed my scanpak and moved on.

###

"How's it going?" Gaetano asked affably.

I snorted in disgust and cast aside my hammer. Two hours had passed since out arrival in that chilly place. I'd spent much of that time as I was now: squatting in the dirt like my distant ancestors. And I had absolutely nothing to show for it but sore feet and a slight case of the sniffles. Kneeling down beside me, next to an outcrop of dull grey stone, the geologist set aside a sample bag that was as heavily laden as mine was empty.

"Not very well, sir," I said. For the last two hours I had worked entirely alone, sometimes within sight of my companions and sometimes not. Mayer had checked in twice, as regulations demanded, and I had dutifully replied; but my mind had been almost entirely on my work. So much so, in fact, that I scarcely felt the cold--if I kept moving. One thing I hadn't been able to ignore was thirst: the air was dry and remarkably parching. I'd already half-drained my bottle.

I waved a hand. "Igneous rock. Kilometers of it, in every direction along this terrace. I won't find any fossils here."

He nodded thoughtfully. "Indeed not," he agreed. He turned and pointed to the brown expanse below the cliffs. "You might have better luck down there."

That was probably true, I had to admit. Old seabed; it would most likely be composed of partly-consolidated sediments. If nothing else, seashells and fish skeletons were a distinct possibility. "But can we reach it?" I asked.

"I think so," he said. "The cliff-face has eroded back to a fairly gentle angle. If we're careful, we can find a way down."

I peered for a moment at that endless flat, and shrugged. "Why not?" I said. "I'm certainly wasting my time up here."

I stood…and Gaetano reached out quickly to catch me, as I swayed and nearly fell. "Are you all right, Lieutenant?" he asked.

"I…think so, sir," I said. "That's strange…suddenly I felt dizzy." I passed my hand before my eyes, brushing away the stars. "I'm fine now, Commander. Thank you."

"Maybe you are," he said. He released me and raised his scanpak gauntlet. He made a few quick gestures in midair, changing the settings, then passed his hand quickly over my head and torso. "There's the problem," he said a moment later. "It's the thin air; O2 level in your blood is a little low. Sah'aarans are used to more oxygen than Terran norm, isn't that right?"

"A fraction more, yes, sir," I confirmed. A small oxygen boost was part of the personal-conditioning program in my cabin aboard Zelazny--and I sorely missed it. Over the years I'd become accustomed to Terran air, my lung capacity actually increasing; but that extra kick of O2 was always a welcome boost at the end of a long day.

"I don't think it's dangerously low," Gaetano said. "But you'd better avoid any more quick movements. And I'd suggest breathing slowly and deeply." He grinned. "Might improve your mental acuity too."

"Thank you very much, Commander," I said with a sardonic bow. "I'll do that."

I glanced around curiously, noticing for the first time how far I'd come: the landing pod was no more than a gleaming speck away to the north. I noticed too that Gaetano and I were alone. "Where's Commander Delaney?" I asked.

He pointed over his shoulder, at the distant high ridge to the east. "She climbed up to those trees," he said. "Said she was tired of looking at weeds…"

"She went alone?" I interrupted with a frown, and Gaetano shrugged.

"Unless she took her imaginary friend with her," he said. "Why do you ask, Lieutenant?"

On the verge of replying, I thought better of it. Survey safety protocols specifically prohibited working alone…but Raven wasn't Zelazny. On a larger ship, where the Scispecs had subordinates to assist them, that rule made sense. Not here. And as Gaetano had told me, Captain Antilles only valued results. If a few regulations were flouted along the way, what would he care?

And so I merely smiled and shook my head. "Just curious, sir."

He caught my eye and held it for a few seconds; then he nodded. "Of course," he said. "Shall we go?"

I shook my head as I fell in beside him, remembering of course to breathe slowly and deeply. Not my problem; but if I ever got a chance to lead a landing party…

It was not far to the cliff. At the brink we knelt, and peered cautiously over the edge. Gaetano was correct: in the million years (give or take) since the sea receded, the cliff-face had indeed eroded, huge blocks of porous-looking black stone tumbling down onto the strand. The result, in some places, was a rough slope of no more than forty degrees. Several possible routes presented themselves--but no matter which we chose, it would be a rugged climb.

Gaetano was silent for a few moments, his eyes narrowed and searching. Finally he pointed to the right, to a jumble of huge boulders which formed a zigzag giant's staircase down to the ancient beach. "There," he decided.

Slowly I nodded. "Best we're likely to find," I agreed dubiously.

He went first. He paused for a moment, planning a route; then he slowly lowered himself over the edge. Below him was an initial drop of about two meters, to the sharply-angled top of a ragged slab. The strain on his face eased as he found a foothold, and his weight was gradually taken by his legs. He edged out toward the edge of the stone…and then all hell broke loose. With a roar the slab beneath him broke loose, and it took half the cliff with it. Caught suddenly in the midst of a sliding mass of rock and earth, Gaetano gave a cry, and his hands scrabbled helplessly at the cliff-edge, seeking holds which crumbled even as he found them.

But before he had slid more than half a meter, I was in motion. I tossed aside my sample-bag and threw myself full-length on the edge of the cliff, my hands closing around his arms even as they slid out of sight. My claws dug deep into the thick fabric of his field gear. I jammed my toe-claws hard into the rocky soil, willing them to hold. Feeling my grip, Gaetano grasped frantically at my wrists. The dead weight was terrible, and I was dragged almost half a meter before I ground painfully to a halt. Below Gaetano the slide still rumbled and boomed, scattering wide across the dry seabed.

"Can you get a foothold?" I called down in strangled tones.

"I'm trying, dammit!" he yelled. His legs kicked and scrambled; but every time he jammed his boots into a crack, the rock powdered away like sand. "Hang on!" he pleaded.

"I am!" I said. "But not indefinitely!"

We hung thus, utterly helpless, for perhaps a minute, though it seemed far longer. The strain on my arms was unendurable, and his grasp had cut off my circulation, rendering my hands totally numb. I had no idea whether I was still hanging on or not. My hips and shoulders were being dragged out of their sockets, and my toe-claws were slowly plowing eight shallow furrows, the skin peeling away from the tops of my toes. My commpak had gone flying, and his was missing too. From somewhere I heard mine buzzing with Mayer's frantic voice, as he saw the telemetry from our racing hearts and gasping lungs; but we had no way to respond. Worst of all, I could no longer catch a deep breath, and I was beginning to feel dizzy again. Either I would let go, or he would pull me over the cliff with him; there was no other alternative. The strength of my limbs and claws would determine which.

And then the miracle occurred. I heard rapid footsteps and a shout of alarm behind me, and I craned my neck for a quick look over my shoulder. It was Delaney, running like a track star despite field gear; even as I watched she discarded her sample bag and her scanpak. "Hang on!" she called. "I'm coming!"

"Not my legs," I gasped as she approached with outstretched arms. "If my toe-claws come loose we'll both go over."

She drew back a step. "What, then?"

"My tail," I said. Fighting to keep it still, I raised the appendage before her. "Take hold near the base."

She hesitated. Whether she was fearful of hurting me, or reluctant to touch that part of my body, I don't know; but finally I felt the grip of her left hand near where my tail emerged from my uniform. I whipped the rest around her waist. "Now the far end," I said. "The other hand. Like belaying a rope."

I had neither time nor breath for a better explanation; but fortunately she understood. She gripped just above the tuft with her right hand, and leaned back hard.

In the Sah'aaran owner's manual, what we were doing is high on the "not recommended" list. I stood an excellent chance of dislocating most of the vestigial vertebrae. But we had no other choice. With some of the weight off my legs, I was able to scramble back a little on my knees, making up the slippage, and replant my toe-claws more firmly. Even as I did, Gaetano found a solid foot-hold. Just one; but it allowed us to pull him more than halfway up in a single convulsive surge, a yowl of pain escaping my throat. Another foothold, and another mighty pull, and Gaetano lay flat on his stomach, trembling and panting. Behind, a final few pebbles pattered down.

Delaney released my tail and knelt down beside him. "Are you all right, Karl?"

Oh sure, I thought sourly, as I got my legs underneath me and sat up. Never mind the Sah'aaran with the skinless toes and strained tail.

"I'm fine," he said breathlessly. "Just scared to death." And then, incredibly, he sat up and laid his hands on my shoulders. "What about you, Lieutenant?" he said, his concern apparently genuine.

For a few seconds I couldn't reply. so amazed was I. Finally I said, "I'm all right, Commander." I grinned faintly. "I think I'm going to be sore in the morning, though."

"That may be an understatement," he agreed with a wry smile. "I'm no lightweight." He paused, then went on quietly, "You saved my life, Lieutenant. Thank you."

I returned his smile hesitantly. "You're welcome, Commander."

Gaetano glanced from Delaney to me and back again. "Let's get out of here, shall we?" he asked. He quirked a grin. "As far as I'm concerned, this party is over."


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