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 FIFTEEN


I heard voices.

Given that I've already confessed my unfortunate habit of eavesdropping in the mess hall, this may be hard to believe, but the fact is, I did not make a habit of listening to the private discussions of my superior officers. But in this case I literally couldn't help it. Commander Gaetano's office was right next to mine, with only a thin partition between, and the words came through the ventilation duct above my head as clearly as if they'd been shouted in my ear. I don't know if the parties involved realized I was there; if so, perhaps they thought they were being quiet. I certainly can't believe they wanted me to hear.

Once again Raven was in transit, and once again our next destination was some six days away. Which was quite all right with me: I planned to spend the time healing. Days after the incident at the cliff-edge, my battered and bruised body had still not completely recovered--though some of the pain was no doubt psychological, becoming as I had an unwilling passenger on an emotional roller-coaster. Blamed for the accident, brutally humiliated by my public banishment from the mess hall…even saving Gaetano's life could not adequately compensate. Nor did the stony silence with which the captain greeted my survey report do much for my morale.

That morning--as I had done quite often lately--I was taking refuge in my office; not that I had a great deal of work to do. I'd woken up stiff, sore, depressed, disgusted and half-ill; I'd been tempted to put myself on sick-call and stay in bed. In retrospect, I should have.

I heard the footsteps first, though I scarcely noticed; then the rumble of the door in its track; and finally the strident tones of Commander Edgeworth. "A moment of your time please, Mr. Gaetano."

"Certainly, Commander. Come in."

The click of the latch, and the scrape of a chair being pulled back. Edgeworth went on, "Some weeks ago Captain Antilles asked you to keep an eye on Lieutenant Ehm'ayla."

Not surprisingly, my ears pricked up. Slowly I lowered my palm-reader to the desk.

"And I have," Gaetano replied. "Very closely."

"The captain considers it absolutely vital to get her off this ship as soon as possible. I don't think I need to tell you why."

"Indeed not."

There was a pause, then "So?" she prompted impatiently.

"So--the captain may find that more difficult than he expects."

She sounded startled. "Why?"

"She's doing her duty," Gaetano said. "She's as good an Anthro-Paleo as Morada was--probably better. You heard her survey report: it was thorough, concise, and exact. Like it or not, Commander, she is qualified, and always was."

"There must be something," Edgeworth said desperately.

I heard the shrug of his shoulders in his voice. "Not that I've been able to find. You show that report to Admiral Conroy, and he'll recommend promotion, not removal. And it gets worse."

"How?" she asked reluctantly.

"Think about it: it won't just be Admiral Conroy reviewing the captain's complaint. The other Sah'aaran will get involved too--Commodore Ehm'rael. And do you know who she is?"

"Besides a respected officer in the Engineering Corps?" Edgeworth said sarcastically.

"She sponsored Lieutenant Ehm'ayla for the Officer's Academy," Gaetano said. "She takes Ehm'ayla's welfare very seriously. There's no way you could ever prove to her that Ehm'ayla is incompetent. She'd resent the implication from the get-go. And she had Conroy's ear. The captain would be fighting a losing battle. A hopeless battle, more likely."

Who's he been talking to? I wondered. Joel, maybe?

"You're probably right," Edgeworth agreed with a sigh. "Dammit! Why couldn't she be unqualified?"

"The captain's bad luck, I guess," Gaetano said, with more than a touch of irony.

"Do you think we could…engineer something?"

"To make her look incompetent, you mean? I doubt it. She's already overcome all the obstacles you've thrown at her. She did graduate top of her class at the Officer's Academy, you realize. That's not something they give away for free."

"Well, then, what do you suggest?"

"Has the captain considered enlisting her help?"

There was a pause, then Commander Edgeworth said in tones of outrage, "What?"

"Why not?" Gaetano said. "The captain's goal would be any archaeologist's dream. She wouldn't have to know why he's looking."

"Would she--could she--be a…believer?" Edgeworth asked uncertainly.

"Probably not," Gaetano said. "Not at first, anyway. I'm not an archaeologist, but I know how they're trained. As it stands right now, she'd see it as nonsense, pseudoscience. That's the knee-jerk reaction of any conventionally-trained scientist. But if the captain talked to her, shared his data with her…"

"As he did with Morada?" Edgeworth demanded, her voice hardening.

"Well, it would be a lot easier than working around her."

"No," Edgeworth said with finality. "Impossible. The captain would never agree. Not to that. And most especially not with her."

"You're probably right," Gaetano agreed with a sigh. "Too bad."

Edgeworth said suspiciously, "I don't like what I'm hearing, Mr. Gaetano. It sounds a bit like divided loyalties. I wonder if something has…colored your thinking, shall we say?"

"You mean, can I separate my analysis of her from the fact that she saved my life? No, Commander, I can't. In a similar situation, could you?"

"In a similar situation," she said coldly, "some of us might have preferred falling off the cliff to being beholden to one of them."

"That's your opinion," he said placidly. "Please forgive me if I don't share it."

"All right," she said resignedly. "That's over and done with; no point in arguing about it. I would suggest, though, that you think long and hard on your situation here."

"I do," he assured her. "Every day."

"Good. Keep observing her, Mr. Gaetano. If you find anything, anything at all, which could help us--report it to the captain or myself immediately. Immediately, Commander."

"Yes, ma'am," he said. "Immediately."

One may well imagine me, sitting in my tiny office, hardly daring to breathe, gripping a palm-reader hard enough to break it in two, my claws expressed right down to the quick, my tail going like a flag in a gale. I could not, absolutely could not, believe what I had just heard. That, from two command-level Combined Forces officers? And one them Karl Gaetano? We'd had a bad beginning, true; but lately he'd been treating me quite decently, and I'd found myself beginning to like him. He'd defended me before the captain, the day of the accident; and some of the words he'd just spoken could be construed as being in my favor too. But--so it seemed--his kindness was terribly shallow, and entirely self-serving.

I waited until I heard his door open and close again, and a few minutes more. Then, as silently as I could, I eased my own door open and left my office.

Where to turn? I wondered as I paced the empty corridors, almost in a daze. That the captain disliked me I knew; but this…Gradually I forced myself to think logically. It was clear now that something was going on; some kind of conspiracy was flowing all around me. Looking, Gaetano had said; Antilles was looking for something. But what? How to find out, without revealing what I'd heard? I had to do something, tell someone, but who? Who could I trust, when both the captain and the first officer were involved?

Of all those sixty-four Terrans, there was only one. Years ago,I would have trusted him with my life. Lately I wasn't so sure--but he was literally all I had. As quickly as I could then, I made my way to the central stairway and down.

###

I found Joel at his station--but unfortunately, not alone.

No engine hull is a comfortable or attractive place, but Raven's (predictably, I suppose) was worse than most. When I emerged from the massive airlock hatch at the base of the connecting ring, it was as if I'd entered another world.

The hull was a massive sphere, connected to the cylindrical main hull by a wide, thick-walled ring with airlocks at both ends. Much to my discomfort, there was no gravity in the ring, and so the ladder bolted inside served only to keep my body oriented as I propelled myself downward, hand-over-hand. I shared the space with four huge insulated fuel lines, bringing deuterium from the tanks mounted to the main hull. The ring was a division in more ways than one: in an emergency the two halves of the ship could be separated there--but doing so would leave the main hull dead in space.

As I passed through the final airlock, gravity returned. I paused for a moment at the foot of the ladder, peering around. The engine hull had neither corridors nor decks, not as such, but rather catwalks, many levels of them, connected by ladders and lined with machinery. Lighting was spotty, leaving large areas in darkness. The air was hot, stale, and stank of coolant. And the place was noisy. Raven was coasting, saving fuel, her fusion drive all but idling. But even so the lower hull was filled with a deep subsonic rumble, which I felt through the soles of my feet as I made my way down the ladders and catwalks, following the fuel lines. At full power the noise would have been unendurable; no wonder so few Sah'aarans become Techspecs.

At the very center of the hull was the huge black cylinder of the fusion drive itself, the point where all the pipes, conduits and cables converged. Everything else, all that close-packed equipment, existed either to support or to feed off of the fusion drive. The cylinder was ringed around with several levels of catwalks, lined with control panels; and at one of them I found Joel.

He looked hot, his thinning hair plastered across his shining red forehead. His sleeves were rolled up, and his uniform's mag-seal was unfastened almost to the waist, exposing the grey undershirt beneath. Around him, his subordinates--ensigns mostly--manned the panels or performed routine maintenance; and among them was Wally Osgood. His hostile, suspicious gaze followed me as I crossed over to Joel.

As I approached, the Techspec crew chief looked at me in surprise, which quickly turned to outright terror. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla," he said apprehensively.

"Commander Abrams," I said formally, aware of the ears surrounding us, "may I have a word with you, please?"

He looked around nervously. Some of his staff--most especially Osgood--were staring at us with a frankness that bordered on insubordinate. "Uh--certainly," he said. He pointed toward a nearby ladder. "Let's go up to my office."

I followed him, aware of the eyes boring into my back. What Joel called his "office" was a small cubbyhole on the next-highest catwalk, almost entirely enclosed by monitor panels, the top of one of which served as his "desk." There was barely enough room for the two battered chairs which were bolted to the floor. Not exactly a fine and private place: there were no true walls, and the floor was an open grid. But it would have to do. We sat down facing each other. "What can I do for you, Lieutenant?" he asked.

I should have been warned by his tone, and his continued refusal to use my name--but like an idiot, I forged ahead. "Joel," I said, "I need your advice. I've just heard something extremely…alarming."

"Go on."

I tried; but I had spoken only a few words when he raised his hand, bringing me to a halt. "Just one moment," he said. "Let me get this straight. You were listening to a private conversation between Commander Edgeworth and Lieutenant Commander Gaetano?"

"I couldn't help it," I said. "For the Goddess' sake, Joel, you know what my hearing is like! I wasn't deliberately eavesdropping."

"Nevertheless…"

"Nevertheless nothing, Joel. I heard something I don't like. Evidence of a conspiracy, here, on board Raven. Does it really matter how I came to hear it?"

"No," he said reluctantly. "No, I suppose not. All right, go on."

Once again I tried--and once again I didn't get far. "Ehm'ayla," he said pleadingly, "stop. Don't say another word. Please."

I paused, confused. "What do you mean, 'stop?'" I demanded. "This is evidence of…"

"I don't care!" he interrupted. He swallowed and lowered his voice to a whisper. "I don't care what it's evidence of. Nor should you. It's not our business--either one of us."

"Of course it is," I insisted. "It's everyone's business. If the captain of this ship is…"

"No!" he said sharply, half-rising. His face, ruddy with heat just moments ago, had gone dead-white, though he was still sweating profusely. Running a hand across his forehead, he looked nervously at the catwalk below. Finally he went on, quietly and urgently, "Ehm'ayla, please listen to me. When we were younger, you trusted me, didn't you?"

I nodded. "Yes," I said. "Yes, of course I did."

"Back then I was worthy of your trust," he said sadly. "Now…" He shook his head. "But I'm asking you, Ayla--begging you--to please trust me again, for a little while. If you do as I say--exactly as I say--things will turn out all right. I'm certain of that."

I peered at him curiously. "And if I don't?" I asked.

He shook his head. "I don't know," he said. "But I don't want to find out. No--I don't want you to find out."

He appeared absolutely sincere--not to mention terrified. "All right, Joel," I said quietly. "I'll listen."

He took a deep breath. "This isn't going to be easy for you to hear, Ayla. Especially you. But please bear with me. The plain fact is, Commodore Ehm'rael did make a mistake getting you assigned to this ship." He held up a hand to forestall my protest. "You are qualified--no reasonable person could question that. But that's part of the problem. Bottom line, being put off this ship when we return to Outpost Four would not be the worst thing that could happen to you. In fact it might well be the best."

I shook my head. "I don't understand."

"I know," he said sadly. "And that's part of the problem too. You always need to understand. In most situations, that's good--it's the very essence of science. But here and now, it is definitely not good. Somehow you've got to curb your curiosity. What you must do is simply this: do your duty, file your reports…and otherwise keep quiet. Don't ask questions--not even of me--and whatever you do, don't make waves."

"Why?" I insisted.

He frowned. "There you go again," he said in despair. "Please, Ayla. You know I care about you--very much. I don't want to see you get hurt. All I ask is that you trust me, do as I say…and don't ask why. Someday, when this mission is over, I might be able to explain it to you--but not now."

"Something is going on, isn't it?" I said, and with a sigh he turned aside. "Joel, this is bigger than both of us," I went on. "We're Combined Forces officers. If anyone aboard this ship--even the captain--is engaged in something contrary to orders, it's our sworn duty to--"

He cut me off, his eyes suddenly blazing in anger. The palms of his hands slammed the panel behind him as he stood. "I don't need you or anyone else to tell me my duty," he said harshly. "I know damned well what my duties are, and I'll perform them as I see fit. Do I make myself clear, Lieutenant?"

Slowly I rose, my tail rigid with anger behind me. Obviously I'd been mistaken; there was no one, absolutely no one, I could count on. "Yes, Commander," I said stiffly. "Very clear indeed."

"And will you do as I say?"

"Abrogate my duty?" I asked. I shook my head. "No sir, I will not. I can not." I paused. "Will you do as I ask--and tell me what's going on?"

He sighed and shook his head. "I can't. I wish I could--but I can't."

"Then I guess there's nothing more to say. May I go, Commander?"

"Yes," he said. "Yes, you may, Lieutenant."

I turned to go; but at the head of the ladder I paused glanced back. "One more point, if I may, sir?"

"Which is?" he asked.

"I don't know who you are any more, Commander Abrams," I said. "And quite frankly, I don't think I want to find out."

###

Someone wanted to talk to me.

When I arrived at my office the next morning, I was surprised to find the "message waiting" light flashing on my terminal. Why not use the intercom to contact me directly? I was always available, the Goddess knows. Reluctantly I pushed the "play" button.

The voice was male, hesitant, apologetic…and unfortunately familiar. "Ayla, this is Joel. About that incident in my office yesterday. I want to apologize. You caught me at a bad time, but that wasn't your fault, and I had no cause to be so brusque with you. I'm very sorry. I think we should talk this over. Would you meet me in my quarters later? Let me know."

Suddenly my head was throbbing, and I leaned back, massaging my temples. Why me?

I'd lain awake half the night, the bizarre events of the previous day playing and replaying endlessly through my mind. Though much still remained obscure, parts were finally beginning to make sense, in a perverse and terrifying way. As I struggled to understand, what occurred to me first was this: Joel had not denied the reality of what I'd overheard, nor had he explained it away. Had he sensed that it was too late for such ploys? Had he seen that I would no longer accept his denials? Or had there been something else at work?

He knows. That much at least was clear. Joel knew that something was going on aboard Raven: some conspiracy that involved--at very least--the captain and the first officer. And I would have laid odds that he knew the details as well. But at the same time it appeared that he himself was not part of the plan. It isn't our business, he'd said, clearly including himself.

And he'd been terrified. I'd seldom seen him afraid; he'd seldom had reason to be. But this frightened him half to death. Strangely, though, it seemed that a good part of his fear was directed toward me.

Do your duty, he'd said. File your reports, mind your own business…and don't make waves. Words which had echoed through my head all night, as I tried to comprehend what he'd really been telling me. Whatever was going on, clearly I was not meant to understand--and in Joel's mind, I would be better off if I didn't try.

…And was that really such a bad idea? Did I even care what the captain was doing? Might it not be better to stop struggling and let him put me off the ship? True, it wouldn't look good on my service record: it would amount to a tacit admission that he was right. It might take years for my career to recover. But how much better would a nervous breakdown look? Why not take Joel's advice and get out from under? My dreams of promotion were a distant memory; perhaps it was time to cut my losses…

So I thought, as I sat gazing at my scenic prints and my beautiful fossil. Joel's words were beguiling; logical, even. It would be easy enough to curb my curiosity and concentrate on survival. Yes, an easy way out…but even then I knew I was not going to take it. Not me. If Joel wanted to ignore his Combined Forces oaths, that was his decision. But I would not; could not.

One of the more hair-raising theories in physics holds that every time someone makes a decision a new universe splits off, in which that choice is made the other way. I've never been sure whether I believe that or not. Consider the number of sentient beings in the universe, and consider how many choices they must make in a single day. The word "infinite" doesn't even begin to describe the number of universes thus created. But if you accept this theory, then somewhere there is a universe in which some other Ehm'ayla decided to meet with Joel later that day. I sometimes wonder if she heard anything useful, or was once again exhorted to stick her head in the sand. I'll never know.

I leaned forward and tapped: "RECORD REPLY."

"READY," the screen flashed.

I took a deep breath. "Reply: 'Get lost, Commander.'"

###

A few minutes later, as I struggled with the pangs of regret, there was a knock at my door. Far too soon to be Joel responding to my response; so it was with only a moderate degree of trepidation that I said, "Come in!"

My visitor was Gaetano, and he was smiling. Up until recently I would have welcomed that smile; but now it seemed terribly insincere. Or was that just my imagination? I couldn't get that conversation out of my mind…

"What can I do for you, Commander?" I asked.

"Oh, nothing, really," he said. He closed the door and perched himself on the edge of my desk. "I haven't seen much of you since we broke orbit. I was wondering how you're feeling."

"Better, I suppose," I said. "Though I'm still a little sore What about you?"

He grinned and rubbed the back of his neck. "The same," he said. "Not that I'm complaining, of course. Oh--I also want to thank you for 'repairing' my commpak."

I smiled. Despite my blazing anger the night of my banishment from the mess hall, I'd done the job anyway. Probably it was therapeutic, forcing me to concentrate on something other than my desire to strangle both Edgeworth and Osgood. It wasn't a long or difficult task: just a matter of opening the case and tweaking a few settings. The hardest part was finding the correct tools. I finally stole (sorry, borrowed) them from a maintenance locker near my quarters. As promised, I returned the commpak to Gaetano the next morning.

"You're welcome," I said. "It's working to your satisfaction, I hope?"

"It's working," he said. "The rest remains to be seen. Needless to say, I haven't had a chance to test it."

Abruptly he sobered, putting away his grin. He cleared his throat and shifted his weight. "Listen, Ehm'ayla, I just want you to know…I was there, the other night in the mess hall. I don't know if it makes any difference, but I agree with you: it was an improper request to make of anyone, let alone an officer of your standing. I've seen you eat, and I was never offended or put off my feed. All of us have different eating habits" He grinned. "Some people think my sauerkraut is every bit as nauseating as your raw meat." He shook his head. "Sometimes I think this crew is far too insular."

I fought to speak around the sudden lump in my throat. "I appreciate that, sir," I said. "I really do."

"If you like," he went on, "I'll tell Commander Edgeworth the same thing."

The tone in his voice was strange. Have you ever had someone offer you something in a way that virtually demands you refuse? It was like that. He made the offer out of politeness, and if I insisted, he'd follow through--but he would much prefer that I didn't.

And so, I didn't. Maybe I should have, just to see what would have happened. I shook my head. "No, thank you, Commander," I said. "I really don't think it would do much good. She was following the captain's orders, and once he's made a decision…"

He nodded, his expression one of profound relief. "You're right about that," he confirmed. "His decisions, good or bad, are final. I am sorry, though."

"Thank you."

"For whatever it's worth. Now," he went on more briskly, "we've been so busy these last few days, I haven't had a chance to ask you: is there anything I can help you with? Any questions or concerns I can address?"

I almost did it: asked him about the conversation I'd overheard. I almost asked him what was going on, and why it was so vitally important that I be removed; what the captain was searching for, and why I had to be kept in the dark. I almost did.

But finally, deep inside, I sighed. What's the use? It could only cause trouble. He'd be upset--probably angry--that he'd been overheard; he might even report it to Edgeworth. And I'd learn nothing: once again he would simply invent some outrageous lie--and then disappear into his office, leaving me utterly alone. No; whatever was happening, I'd have to decipher it the hard way. His friendliness might be phony and self-serving--but it was better than none at all.

And so I shook my head again. "No, thank you, Commander. So far I seem to be doing fine." Goddess, what a liar!

"Glad to hear it," he said. "And I agree: you are doing fine." He paused. "In that case, I wonder if you'd be willing to help me."

"Of course," I said in surprise. "What with?"

"Some of the mineral samples from that last planet," he said. "I've--uh--gotten a little backed up cataloging them. And since you're the only other person aboard who's studied geology…"

Eagerly I pushed back my chair and stood. "After you, Commander."


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