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 FOURTEEN


"What the hell happened down there, Commander?" Antilles demanded.

Neither Gaetano nor I was seriously injured in our little mishap; we were able to make it back to the pod under our own power, albeit slowly. We had both collected our share of scrapes, strains and bruises, though, and as soon as we were back on board Raven he ordered me, and himself, to sickbay.

I'd had little contact with our chief surgeon, Dr. Enyeart; in fact I'd seen him no more than once or twice since the briefing my first day aboard. Now, sitting in a paper gown on one of his exam tables, I saw no reason to revise my first impression of him: dour, taciturn, lugubrious, more like an undertaker than a healer. Dr. Zeeleeayykk called him a "moderately accomplished physician," but that was far too charitable. Where Sah'aarans were concerned, "barely competent" came closer. His chief nurse, one Lieutenant j.g. Medspec Lenora Burke, was a fiftyish, grey-haired woman with a permanent expression of impatience; clearly she had better things to do than minister to the sick and injured.

Did I say that the Combined Forces takes health care seriously? So I'd always thought--but Raven's sickbay made me wonder.

It wasn't that the place was dirty--in fact it was spotlessly clean. What distressed me was that it seemed to have been an afterthought, much as my office was. There were just two rooms, one of which was Enyeart's office. The other, much larger, did double duty, being both hospital and treatment room. Against the rear wall stood four examination tables, while opposite, no more than three meters away, were six close-spaced hospital beds. Folding screens shielded them from prying eyes; but since when are germs deterred by curtains? Even more alarming was the equipment--or rather the lack thereof. Compared to Zelazny's state-of-the-art diagnostic and treatment devices, Dr. Enyeart seemed to have little more to work with than a scanpak and a bottle of aspirin.

He used the former to examine my tail, declaring the appendage merely strained, nothing dislocated or fractured. Which was fortunate, because I'm not sure I would have trusted him to treat it. The tops of my feet were stinging like fire: they had been scraped raw by the rocky ground. With undisguised distaste, Nurse Burke cleaned the grit and fur out of the wounds, and Enyeart sealed them with dermapatches. And that was all; except that my hips and shoulders were stiff and sore, and my wrists so deeply bruised that the slightest touch was painful. They would probably ache for days.

Gaetano had fared only slightly worse. There were a number of shallow cuts on his face, caused by falling stones; and a sharp rock had sliced right through his field gear into his left leg. He'd twisted his back, and his wrists were also bruised, though not as deeply as mine. Lastly there were four pinprick holes on each of his forearms, where the tips of my claws had penetrated his sleeves. Considering the alternative, he'd come through pretty well.

We were about to get dressed when Captain Antilles barged in. scowling; and with him, as if on a leash, came Lieutenant Harris. The security chief said nothing, but used a palm-reader to take careful note of everything that was said.

"My fault, Captain," the geologist said without flinching. Enyeart and Burke had retreated into the office; no fools they. Gaetano glanced at Harris's busy stylus, and when he continued he spoke formally, for the record. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla and I wished to take a closer look at the seabed. I believed it safe to climb down, but it was not: the cliff began to collapse under me. Fortunately she was able to catch me. Ensign Mayer alerted Commander Delaney that something was wrong; she arrived as quickly as she could. She and Ehm'ayla pulled me to safety. I can say without hesitation, sir, that Lieutenant Ehm'ayla saved my life."

The captain's steely gaze flicked over to me. On Zelazny, such a report would have earned me a commendation at least. Similar incidents had twice earned me medals. But here, even a kind word was too much to expect.

"Why did you wish to examine the seabed, Mr. Gaetano?" Antilles asked.

Gaetano hesitated, looking sidelong at me. Did he know what was coming? Probably; but he had no choice. "The coastal terrace was composed entirely of igneous rock, and did not contain fossils. I suggested to the lieutenant that she might have better luck on the old seafloor."

"I see," the captain said. "Your desire to take responsibility is commendable, Commander. But considering the reason why you undertook the descent, I have no choice but to place the blame solely on Lieutenant Ehm'ayla."

The word what? almost exploded from me, in one language or another; I managed to bite it back in time. Watching intently, the captain seemed to be enjoying my struggle for composure. Gaetano glanced from me to him several times, his expression troubled. Finally he swallowed. Choosing his words carefully, he said, "I must strongly disagree, Captain. The decision was entirely mine."

"Spoken like a model officer," the captain said; it was more than half a sneer. "But I suggest you remember where your loyalties lie." His gaze shifted to me, and his jaw hardened. "I am still amassing evidence, Lieutenant. This incident will be featured prominently--you may be sure of that."

With that he and Harris departed--but not before Harris threw me an evil grin over his shoulder. He hadn't forgotten that day on the Control Deck either.

Gaetano raised his hand, as if to pat my knee comfortingly; but then he thought better of it and let the arm flop awkwardly. He said, "My report won't read that way, Lieutenant. Neither will Delaney's. We both know what really happened. I'd be dead now if not for you--that's what our reports will show."

I nodded and turned away. "Thank you, Commander," I said. "I appreciate that."

Hollow words, though--and we both knew it.

###

Raven remained at CAO 11247/2 almost five days. There were four more landing parties, long, cold affairs, and I took part in every one of them, despite the fact that the morning after the first I almost couldn't get out of bed. My wrists had swollen ominously--in spite of ice and anti-inflammatories--to the point where I had trouble using my fingers. The bruises were livid under my fur. There was little more Enyeart could do; as with many things, only time would cure. And my tail? Well, let's just say sitting down was even less comfortable than standing up.

What if I hadn't been able to hold on? I thought bitterly, deep in the night, as I lay on my stomach waiting for a painkiller to kick in and allow me to sleep. Would Antilles have thought it deliberate? Would I be up on murder charges now? Yes, it rankled me: to have an act of self-sacrifice--of bravery, if you like--thrown back in my face. The captain's desire, his need, to blame me for the incident bordered on irrational. Once again I found myself pondering that unanswerable question: What did I ever do to him?

But sore as I was, I still had a planet to help explore. Our landing parties gradually built up a story worthy of H. G. Wells: a rich and diverse biosphere thrown out of balance by a slow, inexorable decline in solar energy. What remained was a few tough, adaptable forms, plant and animal both, clinging desperately to life. With just a little more cooling, that narrow equatorial strip would be gone, buried in ice; and that would write finis for life on that world, for anything more complex than bacteria. Just two or three degrees might be enough.

We did eventually reach that ancient seabed, but not by climbing: Ensign Mayer landed us there. And yes, it was a treasure trove of fossils. In a few hours of steady work I filled my bag with shells, the incredibly fragile gossamer skeletons of fishlike creatures…many things. All very interesting of course, but as I worked I found myself feeling the same frustration Morada had expressed in his logs. In no way was I investigating this planet's past; at best I was taking a few random snapshots. It was like studying geography by throwing darts at a map blindfold. I tried to imagine doing the same on Sah'aar. Some parts of my homeworld are barren enough to convince any archaeologist that the entire planet is uninhabited. A no-good way to do science--but this was not an exhaustive study. I could do nothing more than swallow my impatience and write my report.

Still, on a certain level I was not displeased with my work. I already knew that Antilles intended to portray me as unqualified; after the accident on the cliff, he might even add "dangerous" to the list. There was no way to prevent that; I could only hope that my logs would tell a different story. My work here should be a solid beginning.

Just hours before we departed the system, Gaetano and I made one final landing, in a Goddess-abandoned spot at the very edge of the ice. We did so, and in such a terrible hurry, for the most ludicrous reason imaginable. Looking through some of the still pictures made during Raven's many orbits, Commander Nakamara found one which--as he put it--"electrified" him. The rest of the science staff and I saw it that morning, when he showed it to us in a state of wild excitement. The photo--taken through a partial and rare clearing of the persistent overcast--showed an area of perhaps ten square kilometers covered with evenly-spaced, rectangular shapes. Structures, perhaps? The ruins of an ancient city?

I was skeptical, to say the least. I had found no hint of intelligent life, past or present; Delaney had found no animal larger than a shrew. There was no sign of the residual radioactivity that any technological civilization leaves behind. And…well, for a time on 20th Century Terra there was quite a furor over a space-probe photo which seemed to show a huge humanoid face in the Cydonia region of Mars. Some Terrans--those susceptible to a particular type of gullibility--saw everything in that photo, from "ancient astronauts" to the face of their God. It would undoubtedly have become part of Brenner's "Watcher" mythos, if it hadn't turned out to be nothing more than a trick of light and shadow, complicated by missing pixels. I strongly suspected we were dealing with something similar, and I said so; but my suggestion was greeted with little enthusiasm. Only from Gaetano did I receive a measure of support: "I tend to agree with Lieutenant Ehm'ayla. But if there's even the slightest chance…"

And so there we were, he and I, in a landing pod that was bucking like a scalded grekk-lizard as it dropped through a thick, blinding layer of roiling grey clouds. We had no other choice, unfortunately: in subsequent orbits the place had remained stubbornly shrouded by overcast. Before we boarded the pod, I asked Gaetano why, if Nakamara was so damn enthused, wasn't he making the landing instead of me? But he just grinned and said, "Because you're the Anthro-Paleo, not him," and that settled it.

As the clouds grew thicker the ride kept getting worse, and finally Mayer glanced back from the pilot's seat. "Commander?"

Gaetano leaned forward, shouting over the wind's howl. "What is it, Ensign?"

Mayer kept his eyes on the controls as he replied. He was flying blind, so to speak, depending entirely on instruments: visibility was almost nil. "Sir, I don't like the looks of the target area. The ground slopes almost thirty degrees to the north. Twenty's the limit for this bird--and in this weather, even that's pushing it. The wind is blowing almost forty KPH up-slope."

For a moment Gaetano sat chewing his lip in indecision. He was a qualified pilot too, and he knew as well as I did that Mayer was right: to land on that slope in that wind bordered on suicidal. The pod might turn over, or one of the wings could stab into the dirt. Had I been behind the controls, we'd already be on our way back to Raven.

"Where's the nearest flat ground, Ensign?" Gaetano asked finally.

"Checking, sir," Mayer said. A few seconds later he went on, "Six kilometers east. Top of a hill. The wind is bad, but I can land into it."

Gaetano and I exchanged a glance. A six-kilometer hike in a stiff, cold wind, in our bruised condition and in field gear…not an option. Once again Gaetano hesitated. Then he said, "Ensign, could you hover above that steep a slope? Even for a few seconds?"

"You mean, long enough for the two of you to jump out, sir?" Mayer asked.

"Exactly."

"To be honest, sir, I'd rather not," Mayer said. He paused, then went on reluctantly, "But it's possible."

Once again Gaetano paused, and I held my breath. Common sense dictated that we abort the landing: Nakamara's fantasies weren't worth three lives. But Gaetano seemed unwilling--even afraid--to make that decision.

"Do it," he said finally. "As soon as we're clear, find the nearest safe landing place and wait. We'll call you when we're ready for pickup."

"Aye, sir!"

It was without a doubt the hairiest pod-landing I'd ever experienced--and an exhibition of piloting skill worthy of Max Goodwin himself. Mayer was wasted as a Techspec. He brought us down as low as he dared, less than two meters off the ground. The pod's deck was tilted about thirty degrees to port, and when Mayer popped the hatch, Gaetano and I did not so much disembark as fall overboard. Before I jumped I expressed all sixteen claws, and as I hit the slope I dropped to my butt--gritting my teeth at the stab of pain from my tail--and dug into the crumbly rock-strewn earth, arresting my slide. A few meters below me Gaetano did the same, as well as he could with the heels of his heavy boots. We stayed low, shielding our faces, as Mayer gunned the pod's jets and lifted off, vanishing quickly into the mist. Then we rose shakily, exchanged a glance, and began to pick our way carefully down-slope. The things I do for the Survey…

The place was bleak, cold, all but lifeless, and very foggy. Side-by-side we limped, careful of our strained bodies, through streamers of mist whipped by an icy wind. I could see no more than two meters in any direction--but from somewhere ahead came the rush of flowing water, mingled with a creaking, groaning, snapping sound unlike anything I'd ever heard. The fog suddenly parted before us--and we stopped short, gasping in awe.

We stood at the brink of a wide, deep, straight-sided chasm. Impossible to tell how broad; a few meters to our right and left the fog closed in like a proscenium curtain. Directly across from us lay the ice. The solid, sheer edge of the glacier was perhaps five kilometers distant, but it was hundreds of meters tall, and seemed close enough to touch. Its ragged face gleamed white at the edges, but its heart was sapphire blue. Piled at its feet was an enormous snaking ridge of sand and gravel: the terminal moraine. Through numerous gaps in the hillock ran small swift streams, their waters milky-white with silt. And the glacier lived. It groaned, it creaked, it crackled, the noises echoing through the chasm like the cries of tortured souls. And even as we watched, a huge promontory broke free and fell with a shattering crash that shook the ground beneath our feet.

We were seeing the edge of the ice, the very spot where it had reached equilibrium with the warmer tropics. But as I stared open-mouthed across the valley it seemed to me that this was no more than a temporary armistice, in a war that the ice would eventually, inevitably win. Enclosed in my glove-tight field gear, the thermostat cranked high, I nonetheless found myself shivering. Images came into my mind, unbidden and unwelcome, of the gruesome engravings in ancient Sah'aaran religious texts. The resemblance was far too close for comfort. The gateway to the Dark Domains--so we're taught as kits--lies between massive pillars of ice, through which the damned must pass; and many don't make it even that far, crushed instead by huge falling blocks as they cower in terror. They're the lucky ones.

Gaetano was staring at me. "Are you all right, Lieutenant?"

I shook myself, and cleared my throat hurriedly. "Yes, thank you, Commander. I'm fine."

"Good." He grinned sourly and pointed down into the chasm. "There's our 'ruins.'"

Squinting, I followed his pointing finger. The canyon was filled with hundreds of tall, close-spaced towers of rock, perhaps fifty meters tall, their tops flat, hexagonal and about twenty meters wide. Many others lay in ruins, toppled by the encroaching ice.

"Columnar basalt," Gaetano said in disgust.

I nodded. "The Devil's Postpile," I said.

"Pardon?"

"On Terra, sir," I explained. "In the Sierra Nevada in California, near Mammoth Lakes. It's a park, a monument, built around formations like these. Not quite on this scale, though."

As it slowly cools, a mass of molten basalt tends to shrink, and to split into upright, many-sided columns. The Devil's Postpile Terran Monument was a smaller version of what we saw now, except that the columns there were closer-packed. I remembered well the hike Joel and I took there many years ago. A summer day, hot and dry; after we returned to our hotel I was so overheated that I allowed him to throw me head-first into the swimming pool. It seemed a million years ago.

"The scale is unusual," Gaetano said. "But not unprecedented. I take it we're agreed, Lieutenant, that this is an entirely natural phenomenon, unrelated to any intelligent life?"

I shivered again. "Definitely, sir."

"Then let's make a few quick scans and get the flock out of Dodge."

We did that. He set his scanpak to "geology" mode, to get the mineralogical makeup of the columns. Meanwhile I set mine to visual and did a slow sweep of the area, using the tiny camera built into the eyepiece. As I did, it came to me that the place actually had a kind of wild beauty, if I put aside my superstitions. The billowing clouds, the gleaming blue ice, the dark angular columns…on a whim, after I'd completed the scan, I keyed for a panoramic snapshot, just as Morada had done so many times. My office still had one bare wall…

Behind me, Gaetano suddenly said, "Damn!"

I shut down my scanpak and turned to face him. Scowling impatiently, his hand to his ear, he tapped his commpak's call button repeatedly, a little more peevishly each time. "Problem, Commander?" I asked.

"Well, yes," he replied. "I'm having trouble contacting the pod. Too much interference."

I hid my sudden gleeful grin behind a cough. Why he was having difficulty I don't know--though the fact that we were in a deep hollow made entirely of iron-rich basalt was a likely contender--but for me it was a gift from the Goddess herself. "May I try, sir?" I asked casually.

He shrugged. "Be my guest."

To adjust the little mike and tap the call button was an ingrained reflex, notable now only because it hurt my hands. "Ehm'ayla to Pod Five. Come in!"

That familiar brash voice came through immediately, loud and clear. "Pod Five. Mayer here. Are you ready for pickup, Lieutenant?"

I managed to keep a straight face, though Gaetano was gaping in amazement. I said, "Yes we are, Ensign. At your convenience."

"On my way!"

Getting back on board the pod was considerably more difficult than getting off had been, but finally we were strapped in and on our way. As the acceleration built and the ride smoothed I relaxed, settling into my seat with a sigh of relief. With all Raven's faults, at least it would be warm up there. I'd get rid of my field gear first; and then, after a good meal and a cup of tea, my contentment would be complete. I could feel the purr already.

Gaetano remained silent all through the flight; but I could feel his eyes upon me. He waited until we had docked and the two of us had left the hangar deck; and finally, in a stairwell deserted but for the two of us, he brought me to a halt with an out-thrust arm. "One word, Lieutenant," he said. "How?"

Inwardly I smiled. Should I? Does the magician explain his tricks? Well, to a superior officer he might. "Can you keep a secret, Commander?" I asked.

He paused, a strange look on his face. "Yes," he said finally. "I can."

I unclipped my commpak and showed it to him. "One of my specialties," I said. "Years ago during my Compcomm training, I started tinkering with commpaks. I found a way to double the signal strength."

His eyebrows rose. "Really," he said. "Does the CF know about it?"

"Er--well, yes, as a matter of fact they do, sir. Officially they'd prefer I didn't."

"Why?"

"Because my modifications increase power consumption."

"So why--?"

"Because it's so useful," I told him. "Just now, for example. You'll have to admit, sir, it would have been a long walk back to the pod."

"Very," he agreed with a wry smile.

"--And some years ago I was in a situation which would have been fatal, if I hadn't been able to get a signal through."

He held up his hand. "All right, you've convinced me," he said. He hesitated. "Uh--listen, Lieutenant. Completely off the record--if I was to say, loan you my commpak…"

"…It might accidentally get dropped, and I'd be duty-bound to repair it," I said blandly. "Good thing I know how."

"Yes, a very good thing," he said. He smiled. "It would be a shame if you had to do that, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, sir," I agreed. "A damn shame."

He glanced up the stairway; no one was in sight. Then, in a single swift movement, he stripped off his commpak and passed it to me. I dropped it quickly into my sample bag. "Tomorrow morning," I promised.

"No hurry," he said. "We're finished with this ice-cube now. Thank you, Lieutenant."

And then he was gone, climbing rapidly out of sight. Alone, I shivered again, as a residual chill took me. That meal and cup of tea were long overdue.

###

The universe had developed an annoying habit since I arrived aboard Raven: blind-siding me.

With our survey of CAO 11247/2 finished, I spent the rest of the day in my office, relaxing and working on my report. That evening--with a lighter heart and more enthusiasm than I'd felt for weeks--I made my way to the mess hall for a well-deserved dinner. A large one too: red meat and fish. Tramping around in the cold did wonders for my appetite. I took my dinner and my palm-reader to a table near the viewport, settled my abused body carefully into the chair, and keyed up the rough draft of my report. Commander Gaetano had promised that this time I would actually be permitted to present it; indeed, I didn't see how I could be prevented. Which meant that it had better be a good one.

I heard the footsteps long before their owner reached me; but for a long moment I didn't bother to look up from my reader. No one ever disturbed my solitude--not even when I wanted them too. And so the quiet words, spoken close to my ear, surprised me: "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla?"

The voice was all too familiar. I glanced up sharply to see Commander Edgeworth looking down at me, her arms tightly crossed, her expression stern and uncompromising. Which wasn't unusual--but the fact that she was talking to me was.

"Commander," I said warily. "How can I help you?"

"I need to speak to you, Lieutenant," she said. "May I sit down?"

"Please," I said. Regretfully I pushed aside my half-eaten dinner. I'd finished the swordfish and moved on to a particularly good re-creation of a maxigrazer steak. As the commander sat down across from me, she glanced at my tray, shuddered, and quickly averted her eyes.

She said, "Lieutenant, I take no pleasure from this. But Captain Antilles and I have discussed the matter, and we feel we have no other choice."

My fingertips began to tingle, though I had no idea why. A conversation that begins like that is unlikely to be a pleasant one, though. "I don't understand, Commander," I said.

"Lieutenant, during the few weeks you've been aboard, the captain and I have received a number of complaints about you."

"In regards to what?"

"To be blunt, your eating habits and your choice of diet. No one else aboard is a carnivore, and many of your crewmates find your diet of raw meat …upsetting."

"With respect, Commander," I said, "that's scarcely my problem. I have to eat. My diet isn't my 'choice;' it's dictated by my physiology, as is yours. You would be made sick by a diet of raw meat; I can't digest vegetable matter. There's nothing either of us can do about it."

My voice had risen during this exchange; not to the point of insubordination, but enough so that we now had spectators. The mess hall was crowded, and everyone was staring, conversations and meals temporarily abandoned. The spectators included Joel Abrams, who had just entered the hall: he paused uncertainly in the doorway, frowning in concern.

Unperturbed, Edgeworth continued, "I wish it was that simple, Lieutenant. This ship has a crew of sixty-five, of which you are just one. The captain and I must consider everyone's feelings. You are the junior member of this crew--"

"Excuse me, Commander," I interrupted her. "I am a lieutenant with ten years' service. Are you saying that I'm junior to ensigns with only five?"

"On this ship, you are junior," she said firmly. "We have served Raven for more than a year; you, only a month. And the unpleasant fact remains, you are spoiling the appetites of some members of this crew."

"Who are they?" I demanded. "I'd like some names, Commander." Though of course I already knew. In my mind's eye I saw a vandalized office; I saw myself in that very mess hall, making thinly-veiled and ill-considered threats. I saw a figure ducking quickly around a corner as I emerged from Joel's quarters late one night. Each vision featured the same slimy individual.

She waved a dismissive hand. "That isn't important, nor is it your concern. As I said, this is not a pleasant duty for me. But out of consideration for the other members of this crew, Captain Antilles and I must request that from now on you refrain from entering our mess hall."

Once again, as had happened far too often lately, I was struck dumb. Finally I said, "Commander Edgeworth, in my ten years in the Combined Forces I have taken meals in a number of dining halls, among a large variety of other species--including humans. Never before has anyone complained."

"That's as may be," she said airily. "This is a different crew--and different circumstances. The captain and I do regret the necessity, Lieutenant. We hoped that our request would be sufficient, without having to make it an order."

Desperately I looked around, seeking support--and found none. Close at hand, Lieutenant Harris was looking pleased, though he quickly glanced aside when my gaze fell on him. Farther away, Commander Gaetano looked troubled and sad; but he too lowered his eyes. And right on the edge of Officer's Country, Ensign Wally Osgood watched intently, trying without success to hide his laughter behind his hand.

And Joel, at one time my best friend, more recently my lover, and most recently a total stranger? His gaze locked with mine, his expression one of agonized indecision, and for an instant I thought he would speak up. But then Edgeworth caught his eye. I saw the iron-hard look she shot him, and I saw him recoil as from a physical blow. He turned and left the hall. And that suddenly, my will to fight was gone. I was alone, utterly alone, trapped without allies in a losing battle.

Edgeworth was gazing at me expectantly. I sighed. "Very well, Commander," I said. "For the record, I consider your 'request' to be highly improper, very likely a violation of CF regulations, and I suspect that's why you don't want to make it an order. But if I refuse, I don't imagine I'll ever be able to eat here in peace. Out of respect for my crewmates' digestion, henceforth I will take my meals in my own quarters. Please excuse me."

And with that I departed, leaving behind my half-finished dinner. Let someone else clean it up. If I wasn't good enough to eat there, I'd be damned if I'd bus the tables.


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