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 SIXTEEN


I was losing weight.

Amidst all my troubles, it was quite a while before I noticed--but my uniforms were getting progressively looser, especially around the waist and hips; until finally, for the first time in my career, I was forced to order a smaller size. Even my field gear was not quite as snug as it ought to have been.

I might have chalked it up to Raven's antique tailoring machines, if not for the corroborating evidence of my eyes and hands. I could see in the mirror my increasingly-prominent cheekbones, feel my shrunken stomach and protruding ribs and vertebrae. At a guess, I had lost something like eight kilos since coming aboard. Which might not sound like much--but my weight had remained more or less constant all my adult life. To lose that much, that quickly, was a sure sign that something wasn't right.

But what, exactly? My cuisine was not at fault, as a chat with the computer quickly revealed. Subsisting as I was on ersatz maxigrazer, nonetheless I was receiving all the calories, protein, vitamins and minerals needed to build a healthy Sah'aaran. No: the problem was the large discrepancy between what the autokitchen delivered and what actually reached my stomach. A difference explained partly by the amount of food that went down the disposal chute uneaten, and partly by the number of meals I'd skipped entirely. An insidious process--and an entirely unconscious one. If asked, I would have insisted that only occasionally did I fail to eat--but in fact it had become increasingly frequent, even commonplace. More and more, I simply wasn't hungry.

It was all there on the screen: in common with all CF personnel, my nutrition was closely tracked by the computer. The difference is, on board Zelazny Dr. Zeeleeayykk would have already been demanding to know what was wrong. More likely, she would already have hauled my tail into sickbay for a checkup. Here…well, if Raven's computer had alerted Dr. Enyeart, he had better things to do.

There are several dire medical conditions which can cause a Sah'aaran to experience anorexia. But I didn't think it necessary to have myself checked for liver parasites or a pre-cancerous intestinal tumor. No, the simplest explanation seemed the most likely: stress. You can't force food into a stomach that's tied in a knot. The same thing happened during my first few weeks at the Academy: I dropped nearly five kilos before I learned how to deal with it.

Needless to say, I couldn't allow this to continue. But what to do? The ideal solution would have been to reduce my stress level. Unfortunately that didn't seem likely any time soon--not until Captain Antilles threw me off his ship. Second best would be to simply make myself eat, knotted stomach or no. Now that I knew, maybe I could. Third best…

I found the program in the autokitchen database: a fortified milkshake, intended for persons who were temporarily off solid food. I could easily digest the dairy base, and the various additives boosted the calories, protein, vitamins, minerals and the fiber. It wouldn't do as a steady diet, of course; but if sometimes I couldn't force myself to eat, perhaps I could make myself drink.

###

Commander Delaney stretched out her arms and lifted her face to the light. "Now this," she commented, "is more like it."

Feeling the warmth of the sun and the gentle breeze stirring my mane, I tended to agree. I took a deep, flower-scented breath and let it out slowly, feeling my tension drain at least partially away. Much more like it indeed.

The star cataloged as CAO 11378 was a steady, friendly yellow-orange sun. The planet was the third of nine--and that was not the only way in which it strongly resembled Terra. Two-thirds water; four large continents and a scattering of smaller subcontinents and islands; climate a touch warmer than Earth's; large and generous temperate zones. And an explosion of life, enough to send Raven's biomass sensors off the scale. Tropical rainforest, coniferous forest, grasslands, tundra, savanna…you name the biome, this world had it, complete with a rich selection of animal life.

"I don't need to tell you," Commander Delaney told us at the mission briefing (she was in charge of the survey; her turn), "this is a prime prospect for colonization. One of the most promising we've located. Because of that, the search for intelligent or pre-intelligent life is vitally important." She looked at me. "That's Lieutenant Ehm'ayla's job; but it will be up to all of us to assist her in the course of our work."

And assisted they had. It's really rather amusing: investigate a bleak ice-cube of a world, and no one wants to join the team. But find a warm, friendly planet, and they're tripping over each other to be the first one into the pod.

That day for example, the fourth since our arrival. We were investigating a temperate savanna, a place of gentle rolling hills, tall, waving golden grass, and large gnarled trees with outspread limbs. It reminded me strongly of my home on Sah'aar, and possibly too the foothills of northern California in summer. The trees were actually more like Valley Oaks than tatak: ash-grey trunks, scaly bark, immense canopies of twisted branches, and small dark-green leaves. Weirdly, though, the lower branches were interlaced with thick, snake-like vines, fibrous and remarkably tough. Delaney had managed to cut down a sample, and had proclaimed it to be a kind of epiphyte or "air plant," not unlike the Terran "Spanish moss." The growths gave the arid landscape an oddly tropical look.

The entire science team was on the surface, wandering around with vaguely beatific looks on their faces and their scanpak gauntlets hanging loose. Even Nakamara, though his specialty ended at the edge of the atmosphere. Taking a respite from fossil-hunting, I'd joined Delaney in the shade of one of the massive trees. Through a powerful spotting scope she observed a herd of grazing animals about a kilometer distant, all the while scribbling rapid notes on a palm-reader.

The beasts were small and dark-colored, with spindly legs and small, triangular heads atop long necks. According to Delaney they were about the size of a Thompson's Gazelle; and--judging by their legs--built for speed. There were perhaps a thousand individuals, most of them grazing contentedly on the tall grass. Occasionally one or two of them would rise unsteadily to their hind legs and browse the leaves from the trees. The herd appeared…well, not nervous, exactly, but certainly alert.

We hadn't yet discovered what their predators were; but they would undoubtedly be small and swift, not unlike the Terran cheetah. Commander Delaney had begun to speculate about that--but then she glanced over to see me staring at her, and desisted, much to my amusement. Was she worried about offending me? If so, that was a first for any member of Raven's crew.

And as for me…well, it was probably my savage heritage, combined with the surroundings, that had me wondering what the small grazers would taste like. Needless to say, a thought I did not speak aloud.

As I lounged there at ease, it came to me that I actually felt good for once, despite field gear. My bruises and strains had healed, the planet was pleasant, and my time was being put to good use. Only one thing marred my satisfaction: I still wasn't going to get my name in the history books for uncovering a new civilization. This planet was as devoid of intelligent life as all the others Raven had visited--a fact which would make the Alliance Office of Expansion and Colonization very happy.

As a loyal citizen of the Alliance, it ought to have made me happy too--but it did not. It sometimes troubled me, that the Alliance regarded worlds like this one as little more than free real estate. True, the planet had no sentient owners; but it did have a unique and irreplaceable ecosystem. For it to be overrun by humans (or even Sah'aarans) and their imported animals, plants and pests; for the native biodiversity to be drastically reduced, or relegated to a few scattered, sickly reserves, islands under siege…would be a tragedy and a shame. But there was nothing I could do to halt, or even slow, the inexorable march of Alliance expansion. No one could, though some tried. I was a good soldier; I did my duty, and followed orders. Didn't make such things any easier to stomach, though.

…But that day, such thoughts were far from my mind. Uppermost was the fact that Delaney was not only tolerating me, but actually seemed to be welcoming my presence. She smiled at me, and quite warmly too, when I stumbled across her; and she seemed interested in my descriptions of the similarities between this place and the Sah'salaan veldt. She neither ignored me nor tried to brush me off. Where the science staff was concerned, I did indeed seem to be making some progress. Even as I chatted with her, though, I couldn't help wondering how much she knew about Antilles' secret agenda.

I'd been resting there quite some time--longer than I should have--when my commpak suddenly beeped. "Gaetano to Ehm'ayla."

Duty calls. Guiltily I reached for the microphone. "Ehm'ayla here. What's up, Commander?"

"I've found something which ought to interest you."

I hauled myself to my feet. "Where are you, sir?"

"About a kilometer west of you," he replied. "I'll keep transmitting a carrier wave; you can home in on it."

"On my way, sir," I said. I glanced at Delaney and smiled. "Happy hunting," I told her, and then I was gone. So as not to spook her herd I stayed low, circling around the back of the tree. When I was out of sight, I keyed my scanpak, linking it with my commpak to home in on Gaetano's signal. But before I set out on the indicated vector, I paused to turn my thermostat down a degree or two. This was not a planet for field gear; unfortunately, shorts and a halter weren't CF-approved. Slightly cooler, I set off toward the west at an easy walk.

I found Gaetano easily enough. Directly in my path, a low grassy hill was bisected by a gully, four meters deep and five across, probably cut by numerous flash floods over many centuries. A little distance to my right the channel petered out in a wide alluvial fan. The scaly dark gravel caught my eye instantly, and I bent down to examine a few chips. As I suspected, it was shale. I made my way up the wash into the gully, and the walls rose quickly around me, thick chocolate-brown layers which dipped sharply to the west. If this was what Gaetano meant, he was right: it was very interesting. I picked my way carefully over sharp, shifting stones, the ringing clatter echoing and re-echoing.

Gaetano was some distance up the gully, where it took a sharp bend to the north. He was perched two meters up the left-hand wall, the toes of his boots jammed into a crack. His bare right hand grasped a knob of rock, while his left--the gauntleted one--scanned slowly across the shale. On the loose gravel I was not nearly as quiet as usual, and as I approached he glanced down at me with a smile. "Ah, there you are, Lieutenant." More nimbly than I'd have expected, he scrambled down.

"What have you got, Commander?" I asked, as he crunched toward me.

He nodded back over his shoulder toward the wall. "Seems to be a be a rich layer of fossils up there," he said. "I haven't touched it--I called you as soon as I realized what I was seeing." He grinned. "Mind you, I'm not claiming it's the Burgess Shale…"

"But it's worth a look," I finished. "Thank you, sir."

I stepped over. For a few seconds I eyed the nearly-vertical wall, seeking a route; then I clambered up, my claws making the ascent almost effortless. Two meters up I wedged my toes into the same crack Gaetano had used, found a grip for my right hand, and reached out with my gauntlet.

Recently I had re-taught myself the knack of tuning a scanpak so that fossils stand out from a matrix of rock with almost photographic clarity, because of their higher density. Over the last few days it had served me well--but this time it didn't seem to be working. The little screen showed only a jumbled mass of overlapping patterns, utterly indecipherable. I growled impatiently, wondering if my scanpak had someone gotten out of calibration; it would be both time-consuming and annoying to re-tune it. But then, with a shock, I realized that there was nothing wrong with the instrument. What it was telling me was literally true: the rock was crammed with fossils, one atop another, more densely-packed than any I'd ever seen. Not the Burgess Shale, Gaetano said; but it was damn close.

He called up to me, "Any good?"

"Incredible!" I told him. "You've made a major find, sir!"

"All in a day's work," he said modestly. "I'm going to follow the seam up the gully a ways. Call me if you need any help."

"Yes, sir," I said absently, only halfway hearing his shuffling, sliding footsteps recede into the distance. Goddess, I've never even heard of a bed this rich…

Most of the fossils were concentrated in a single layer, a hand's-width thick and lighter in color than those surrounding it, cream rather than brown. Clearly it represented a change of some sort; but what exactly? A mass extinction? Vulcanism? The lighter rock might have been volcanic ash…It would require further work, on my part and Gaetano's, to know for certain; even to know how old the layer was. In the meantime…

I didn't have the time or the tools for a proper excavation--but the fossiliferous layer protruded a considerable distance from the wall, like a cantilevered shelf. Over the next half-hour, working mostly one-handed, I carefully knocked loose a number of sizable chunks, each one a gold-mine of fossils. Occasionally I dared to let go my grip entirely, trusting to my toe-claws and my sense of balance to keep me upright.

Many hours in the lab would be needed to remove the fossils from the clinging rock, and more to sort and identify them. But even at a glance I could see that they were invertebrates, former inhabitants of a shallow sea. A few seemed almost familiar: in particular a long, sinuous shape like a segmented worm, and a small, oval, jointed creature reminiscent of the Terran trilobite. Others were simply bizarre, defying classification.

As I went about my work, I was dimly aware of two sounds. One was easy to identify: the intermittent sharp tap of Gaetano's rock hammer, echoing down the gully. The other was harder to place: a high-pitched creak which seemed to come from directly above me. At first it was almost subliminal; but as it slowly grew in volume, gradually it became distracting. Finally I looked up, seeking the source.

Intent upon my excavations, I'd failed to notice that the gentle breeze had risen to a fresh wind. It was blowing down the gully as through a wind-tunnel, raising dust-devils and swirling clouds of grit. But that didn't explain the noise--not entirely.

The missing piece was the tree. It perched on the edge of the gully almost directly above me, quite dead; the roots, protruding through cracks in the shale, hung lifeless all around me. The bare branches, grey and broken, were nonetheless festooned with a tight wrapping of that snake-like epiphyte, very much alive, bright green and healthy. The tree itself was the cause of the sound, as the wind rubbed together several large branches. Annoying, especially to my ears; but harmless. Reassured, I went back to work.

I think I heard the crack first, followed by the shout of warning; logically, of course, that's how it must have been. Yes: a loud, splintering snap, and then "Ehm'ayla! Look out!"

I looked up sharply. A limb almost as big as me had broken off the tree, the tangling vines arcing it toward me like a perfect golf swing. The jagged end swept toward my face…

I tried to duck, but perched as I was, I was only partially successful. The branch struck a glancing blow on the left side of my head. I felt something tear, a paralyzing jolt of pain surged through me, and then I was falling, toppling over backwards.

It wasn't a long fall, fortunately, and I managed somehow to curl myself into a tight ball and roll with it. My scanpak and commpak were jolted loose by the impact. I bounced down the wall and onto the floor of the gully, landing on my back, shaken but unhurt, the tough fabric of my field gear protecting me from the rocks. Somewhere behind me, at the far end of its arc, the branch tore free, turned a somersault, and crashed into the gully.

Unhurt? Not quite. When I finally caught my breath, I became aware that a warm dampness was spreading rapidly down the left side of my head. Shakily I lifted my hand…My fingers shied away from what they found there--and from the stab of pain their touch brought. I saw then that there was blood on my hand. A lot of blood. In fact I was bleeding like the proverbial stuck pig, all down the side of my head and onto my shoulder.

I heard the slip and slide of rapid footsteps on loose shale, and Gaetano dropped to his knees beside me. "Lieutenant!" he panted. "Are you all right?"

"No," I said unsteadily. "No, Commander, I don't think I am."

"Let me see," he said. He looked--and the color drained from his face. "My God," he uttered. He tapped his commpak. "Gaetano to Pod Three! Medical emergency! Lieutenant Ehm'ayla is badly hurt--I need an evac now!"

In the few minutes before the pod arrived, I found Gaetano's hand and squeezed it hard, even as he tried to staunch the bleeding with a gauze pad from his first-aid pouch. If--as I suspect--it was sheer will that kept me from passing out, then it served me right: Mother always told me I'd regret my stubborn streak someday.

###

My left ear was not completely severed; any competent physician ought to have been able to save it. Too bad there wasn't one available.

I sat on one of Dr. Enyeart's exam tables, rigid, my claws digging into the padding. No longer from pain, though: the local anesthetic he'd injected had left that side of my head numb as stone. No: it was stark terror that had my heart pounding and my tail lashing, even as the good doctor cleaned away the dried blood and matted fur. "Well?" I demanded. My voice was thick and lisping: blood loss and a concussion made it difficult to concentrate, and I was slipping back into my native vocal habits.

He stepped back and shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said. "There's nothing I can do."

"What?"

"Necrosis has already set in," he said. "You must appreciate the seriousness of the wound --there was less than a millimeter of undamaged tissue left. The blood flow simply wasn't adequate." He shook his head again, mournfully. "If we'd been just a little quicker…"

I almost screamed: And whose fault is that? But I didn't. Perhaps it was shock; or perhaps it was the realization that he could make the scar a whole lot uglier than it needed to be, if I made him mad. "What now?" I asked--though of course I already knew.

My ears are as feline as the rest of me. Triangular, pointed, furry on the outside and almost bare on the inside; mounted high on my head, and built to swivel, to zero in on sounds. They are also richly supplied with blood vessels--as Gaetano had discovered.

The jagged end of the branch raggedly cropped my ear, no more than two centimeters above my scalp. I bled--Goddess, how I bled!--all during the pod flight, even though Gaetano had wrapped what felt like kilometers of gauze around my head. And I bled as I made my way up to sickbay, leaning on Gaetano's supporting arm. Despite the gauze the blood soaked my mane and fur, all down the left side of my head and face. I didn't stop bleeding, in fact, until Gaetano lifted me onto the exam table, and the doctor clamped off the severed vessels.

"I'm afraid I have no choice," Enyeart said. "I'll have to remove the dead tissue and seal up the wound. The effect on your hearing should be minimal…"

It shouldn't have been that way. Even through my dizziness I knew that; and also that when I regained my strength I would be very, very angry. My memories were a little fuzzy, but I clearly recalled Gaetano saying "medical emergency" when he called for the pod. Surely Mayer had relayed that to Raven; he was too conscientious not to have. By regulations, Enyeart and Burke should have been waiting for us in the hangar deck. In no way should I have had to walk, let alone climb stairs. But no: both doctor and nurse were in sickbay--and they were very much surprised to see us. I waited long minutes while two of them, looking remarkably disorganized, gathered their equipment. It's not correct to say that on Zelazny heads would have rolled; on Zelazny such a thing would have never happened at all. Dr. Zee would have been there on the hangar deck, and she would have gone to work on me then and there if necessary. Gaetano knew that too; his expression was ugly as he allowed Burke to eject him from sickbay. But Enyeart, all too obviously, wasn't Zeeleeayykk. Was that delay about to cost me an ear? No way to know for certain. I nodded in resignation. "All right," I said quietly. "Do what you have to."

Enyeart reached for his instruments…then paused to gaze at me severely. "This is going to be delicate," he said. "If you'd like the smallest possible scar, I'd suggest holding still."

I almost said something horribly sarcastic--but once again I held my peace. I was too woozy for snappy repartee anyway. "Yes, Doctor."

Once started, the job took no more than a few minutes. The dangling flap which up until an hour ago had been my left ear, he snipped free and lifted away. I last saw it lying in a little pool of blood in an enamel dish, before Nurse Burke whisked it away. Enyeart trimmed back the stub a little more, evening up the ragged edge; cauterized the seeping blood vessels; and finally sealed the wound with a strip of dermapatch, which would evaporate once the injury had healed.

As he worked I sat still, fighting to keep my emotions under control. I had what's usually termed an "active childhood," complete with broken bones, a dislocated shoulder, and more cuts, scrapes and bruises than I can possibly count. Even a broken nose. But never in my life had I ever lost any portion of my anatomy. Of course my loss was trifling, compared to that of Commander Vandevere, say…but this was me, my body. To lose even the smallest part of what I'd been born with was not something I could take lightly.

Finally Enyeart stepped back. "That's it," he said quietly. "It will be sore to the touch for a while, and there will be some temporary swelling as well. That should pass in a few days." He shook his head. "I am truly sorry, Lieutenant. If there had been any other way…"

"Reconstructive surgery?" I asked.

"Possible, I'd say. But that's outside my area of expertise." He paused, then went on briskly, "All right. Let's see where else you're injured."

He had finished checking me over--discovering nothing more dire than another collection of nasty bruises--when Commander Edgeworth strode in. Oh Goddess, I thought in despair. Not now. I can't cope with her now… But as usual, I had no way out.

She was scowling, of course; I'd rarely seen her with any other expression. Ignoring me, she fixed Enyeart with her stare. "How is she, Doctor?" she asked flatly.

"Lieutenant Ehm'ayla has had a bad fall," Enyeart said, as if dictating his medical log. "She lost a portion of her left ear. She also has a mild concussion, multiple bruises, and a strained neck."

"Is she fit to resume her duties?" Edgeworth asked.

Do I look it? I might have asked; but Enyeart beat me to it. "No, Commander," he said firmly. "Because of the blood-loss, and especially the concussion, I'm prescribing bed rest. Two to three days at least."

Even if I'd been in the mood to argue--I wasn't--it would have been pointless: it's easier to contest holy writ than the orders of a ship's surgeon. Edgeworth knew that too. Unfortunately it would mean the end of my involvement with CAO 11378/3--and that wonderful shale: in two to three days we'd be gone. Hopefully Gaetano had rescued my samples. Maybe I can talk him into collecting a few more chunks…

Edgeworth sighed and turned her scowl upon me. "You have a definite knack for causing trouble, Lieutenant."

With the emergency over I was growing terribly tired. Partly it was the blood loss…and partly not, too. Had I felt better I might have considered my words a little more carefully--but I probably would have spoken them anyway. I'd had enough accusations to last a lifetime. "I was performing my duties to the best of my ability, Commander," I said softly. "I cannot be held responsible for the behavior of dead trees."

Her jaw dropped and she sucked in a deep breath, obviously shocked that I'd dared to talk back. I went on, "I believe I have sufficient data to compile my report on the planet--and it will be turned in on time. You have my word on that."

Her face darkened, and her mouth opened and closed a few times. "See that it is, Lieutenant," she said lamely; then she turned on her heel and departed.

I closed my eyes and leaned back, feeling a tiny, sad smile tug at the corners of my mouth. To see the first officer finally at a loss for words…that was almost worth the pain.

###

Enyeart would have preferred I stay in sickbay; but that I would not do, and finally, reluctantly, he allowed me to return to my quarters.

I was terribly dizzy now, hardly able to stand unassisted; and so I was very glad of the strong, supporting arm that encircled my waist. There was no way I could have made it up those two terrible flights of stairs alone, except perhaps by crawling; as it was, I allowed myself to be all but carried.

So woozy was I, I didn't even open my eyes until we'd almost reached my cabin. I assumed that my savior was Gaetano--but I was wrong. When I finally did look up I saw not the wide face and brown hair of Raven's geologist, but rather the narrow features and receding hairline of Joel Aaron Abrams. I stumbled, and I would have fallen full-length on the deck but for his arm. In other circumstances I might have pulled away--but at the moment that was not an option. He didn't speak, and neither did I; that was probably a good thing. Concern and anguish were writ large in his pale blue eyes and in the tight set of his jaw.

I have no idea how long it took to reach my quarters; time had telescoped, and the corridors seemed kilometers long. When finally we arrived he sat me down on the bunk and gently stripped off my dirty and blood-spattered field gear. Then he fetched a washcloth, a basin of warm water, and a bottle of soap from the bathroom, and washed the remaining blood from my mane and fur. Finally he tucked me into my bunk. He did all this in silence, not speaking a word until he had placed a squeeze-bulb of water and a palm-reader beside my bed. Then he bent down and kissed me on the forehead. "I'll check on you later," he said. "Try to get some sleep. If you need anything, feel free to call me--anytime."

He turned to depart…but before he could, I said, "Joel, please…don't go."

He paused in the doorway, gazing at me; then he stepped back inside and let the door close behind him. He smiled and crossed over to clasp my hand. "I won't."

###

The next three days I spent in my quarters, quietly recuperating.

As predicted, what remained of my ear did indeed swell ominously. The day after the accident the stub was a small furry balloon, extremely sore to the touch. That and my twisted neck, made lying down, in any position, quite uncomfortable. Unfortunately my collection of bruises made standing and sitting painful too. During that time I held myself together with painkillers; not opiates--though I would have welcomed their blissful oblivion--but analgesics. At best they took the edge off the pain. Of course it was temporary, as I kept telling myself. I would recover in time. Sure I would.

I postponed the inevitable as long as I could, but eventually I had to enter the bathroom--and that put me face to face with the mirror. I might have turned aside, refused to look…but something, a morbid fascination perhaps, drew my gaze inexorably toward the glass.

Sah'aarans and humans are similar in many ways--not the least of which is that strong emotions can cause hyperactivity of the tear ducts--also known as "crying." The difference is that we find it shameful, a weakness only tolerated in the smallest kits. But what I saw in the mirror brought me to the very edge of breaking down. Grotesquely swollen, angry red under the dermapatch, the stub of my left ear seemed to my eyes a huge and hideous deformity. The kind that makes people stare as you walk down the street; and when you catch their eye they turn away, shaking their heads in pity. The kind that makes kits point and snicker behind their hands. The kind that makes old women refer to you as "Oh, you poor dear!" Goddess, I thought in despair, as I reached up gingerly to touch the hot and painful mass, might as well resign my commission and join a sideshow

…But when I forced myself to think rationally, I had to admit that even this was temporary. Reconstructive surgery has become a fine art, and the replacement could be cloned from my own cells. With luck and a good surgeon I could end up with an ear virtually indistinguishable from the original. But not, unfortunately, until I returned to civilization.

Of course Joel was not able to stay with me very long that first day. He was Techspec crew chief; he had responsibilities far exceeding mine. He remained, silently holding my hand, until I finally fell asleep; but when I woke several hours later he was gone. He left a note of apology, scribbled on my palm-reader, and finished it by once again begging me to call him if I needed anything. But he did not attempt to visit me again during my convalescence. I thought back upon the message I'd sent him--"get lost"--and once again I felt a stab of guilt. Did he think I was still angry? And was I, in fact? I no longer knew--but I made no effort to contact him.

Even so, I was not left alone during my recuperation; far from it. Not that I was bothered by the captain or Commander Edgeworth; nothing that unpleasant. But I did have several other, more welcome visitors. The first, the morning after the accident, was Commander Gaetano. He arrived in field gear, smiling; and over his shoulder he carried my sample bag, a little dusty but otherwise unharmed. At my invitation he sat down, pulling the chair up next to my bunk. He gazed down at me in concern. "How are you feeling, Lieutenant?"

"Like a well-used punching bag," I told him. "But I'll survive."

"No thanks to our friend Dr. Enyeart," Gaetano growled. He glanced at my most obvious injury. "If he'd been prepared, as he should have been…"

I shook my head, which hurt. "That's over and done with," I said. "But I'm glad you stopped by, Commander. I wanted to say…thank you. If you hadn't shouted…"

He smiled and patted my knee. "Then we're even," he said. He paused. "I'm sorry I ran out on you while you were in sickbay," he went on. "I intended to stay and make sure you were all right--but the captain wanted a report on the 'incident.'" He smiled again. "As I understand it, though, you had adequate assistance."

I smiled in return. "Yes I did," I agreed. I cleared my throat. "What--uh--what did the captain have to say? If I may ask," I added hurriedly.

Gaetano looked away and sighed. "What you'd expect. I told him exactly what happened…but what he heard was something else again. In his version--the officially-logged version--you were engaged in a dangerous and unauthorized 'stunt.' His word, not mine. Therefore you're solely responsible for the accident, and for 'delaying the mission.' Once again, you may be assured that my report won't read that way."

"I appreciate that, sir."

Gaetano nodded down at my bag, lying on the floor at the foot of the bed. "I think you'll find that all your samples are there," he said. He winked. "And perhaps one or two more. Your rock hammer, your scanpak headset and commpak are there too. A little scratched, but still functional."

"Thank you, sir."

"Don't thank me, thank Ensign Mayer. He went back for them." Gaetano glanced at my bedside chrono, and abruptly he stood. "I have to go," he said. "Another survey. You'd feel right at home: we're landing above the arctic circle."

I shivered. "I'm really sorry to be missing that."

He grinned. "I'm sure." He patted my knee again. "Get well soon, Lieutenant. We miss you--believe me, we do."

Oddly enough, he seemed to be telling the truth. And at various times over the next few days the entire science staff dropped in. Delaney visited twice, staying more than an hour each time; even Nakamara and Kerenski put in an appearance. They all inquired about my health, of course; and they also shared with me their survey notes and their anecdotes. Seldom in my life have I been as grateful for anything as I was for the attention they paid me. Whether Gaetano put them up to it, or they did it of their own volition, I don't know--and I don't care. I only wish I'd known the risk they ran doing so.

Of all my visitors, perhaps the most welcome--and certainly the most unexpected--arrived during the afternoon of the second day. Feeling a little better by then, I was sitting up in bed working on my survey report, surrounded on all sides by chunks of shale, each containing a multitude of fossils. I'd spent hours already looking at them, imagining the ancient sea that had spawned these strange little creatures. How many million years ago? I might never know.

Brian Matthews hung back in the hallway for several seconds, peering in uncertainly. "Do I have to get out of bed and drag you in?" I asked in mock exasperation.

"No, ma'am!" he said, and entered, standing awkwardly at the foot of the bed with his hands behind his back as I put aside my palm-reader.

"I haven't been seeing much of you lately," I commented. "Where have you been keeping yourself?"

"Uh--nowhere in particular," he said. His gaze kept stealing involuntarily to the left side of my head, for which I can hardly blame him. Finally, embarrassed, he fixed his eyes determinedly on mine. "I--uh--guess we've just been missing each other. What with the captain changing me to the third shift, and you being banned from the mess hall…"

I grinned. "What you really mean is that you've been avoiding me."

He looked away. "No, of course not, Lieutenant," he said, a little too quickly.

"That's all right," I said. "Actually I don't blame you. The smart people do avoid me. For some reason, I seem to be bad news: the last time we met you ended up on report."

He waved a dismissive hand. "As I told you, that doesn't matter. But to be honest….you're right. I have been avoiding you--and I'm sorry. Lack of courage, I guess."

"That I doubt," I said. "And I still don't blame you. So what brings you here today, Ensign?"

He smiled. "Nothing earth-shattering," he said. "I just wanted to see how you're feeling. They say you had quite a fall--"

"About two meters," I said. "Stories grow in the telling. I'll be fine, eventually." I touched the stub. "Even this."

"I'm sorry about that too," he said soberly. "But I'm glad you're going to be all right." He smiled. "They say you're doing a good job at Anthro-Paleo. Maybe too good."

I looked up sharply. "What do you mean?" I demanded.

Startled, he took a step backwards. "The, the captain and Commander Edgeworth," he stammered. "They'd prefer it if you weren't such a good officer--so I've heard. I mean, it's no secret the captain wants you off the ship…"

I sighed. "I know," I said. So does everyone else, it seems. "What I don't know is why."

I speared him with a questioning gaze, but he shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant. If I knew, I'd tell you--believe me. But I don't. Our captain doesn't open his mind to ensigns."

Once again I sighed. He was telling the truth; I could see it in his face. Life really is terribly unfair, I thought. The one person willing to help me knows nothing!

"It ought to be getting better, though," he went on brightly. "Commander Gaetano says the science staff is really impressed by your work. The captain will have to change his mind eventually."

Says who? I wondered darkly. I forced a smile. "I appreciate that, Brian--really. And the visit too."

"You're welcome," he smiled. He paused "To tell the truth I've been feeling a little…responsible. Ever since that day on the Control Deck. If I have been avoiding you, Lieutenant, that's why. I only got put on report--what you got was a lot worse."

"Osgood," I stated.

"Osgood." He shook his head, his eyes narrowing. "I wish it had occurred to me to warn you about him. He'll get his eventually, but who knows when?"

I'm not holding my breath, I thought sourly.

Matthews grasped my hand. "I'll let you get back to work now, Lieutenant. May I--stop by again later?"

I nodded. "Please do," I said. "You're welcome here any time."

He departed, and I closed my eyes, letting my head slip a little deeper into the pillow. Somehow--if only temporarily--my injuries seemed a little less painful just then.

###

On the fourth day I rose, ignoring the lingering pains; showered, dressed, and made my way slowly and carefully to Mission Planning.

They were surprised to see me, I know; in the case of the captain and Commander Edgeworth, displeased as well. All of them stared. Of course they did, though some tried not to. During the night the swelling had gone down a little, and the angry red wound was beginning to fade to a pale pink scar. No longer, perhaps, a hideous deformity; but shocking still. The compassion on the faces of the Scispecs, was better than any painkiller.

As I entered Gaetano smiled and moved one seat over, inviting me with a wave of his hand to sit beside him; but then--to my dismay--Edgeworth shot him an icy look, and his smile vanished as if switched off. Even now, there was a line he dared not cross.

I sat still, despite my increasing discomfort, as Nakamara, Kerenski, Delaney and Gaetano spoke. Finally the captain glanced distastefully at me. "I suppose you have a report as well, Lieutenant?" he asked.

In my condition, I might have asked permission to remain seated; but I wouldn't give him that satisfaction. I rose stiffly to my feet. "Yes, sir," I said, ignoring his tone. "Quite an extensive one." And with only brief glances at my palm-reader, I gave it.

As I spoke, I gradually became aware that I was surrounded by a palpable and growing tension. It was as if I stood at the center of a bar magnet, watching as a sprinkling of iron filings fled toward the poles. On one side the science staff, listening to my report with obvious appreciation, expressions of encouragement on their faces; on the other the captain and Commander Edgeworth, bleak and suspicious, repeatedly exchanging troubled glances.

I wish I'd paid more attention--but I had eyes only for my colleagues, whom I could finally call that without sarcasm or quotation marks. Their silent encouragement made me feel that I had at last become part of the team. I wish I'd known that the true situation was exactly the opposite; that even the small degree of approval I'd gained would be seen by some people as a major threat. I wish I'd known how alarmed, even terrified, those people were growing--and that they didn't dare allow me to ever fit in.

…And above all, I wish I'd known to what lengths their panic would drive them. My life was already intractable, a total wreck; little did I know that it would soon become Ground Zero.


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