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 SEVENTEEN


We have arrived at a part of my tale which I may have trouble telling. It involves events and experiences which are deeply shameful to me; which no Sah'aaran would willingly speak of to another. But since I am writing for humans, I must force myself: because my audience must understand these events to appreciate what came after.

It happened about a week after my injury; four days after Raven's departure from CAO 11378. A long transit this time, more than two weeks and a dozen hyperjumps to our next destination. And--though I didn't know it yet--it would also be my very last mission aboard Raven.

As the days passed I continued to heal, as best I could. The bruises faded quickly enough, as did the pain of my mild concussion and twisted neck. And as for my other injury…by the fourth day the swelling was almost gone; and within another three the wound was as healed as it was going to get. I woke one morning to find the dermapatch evaporated, the edge of the stub healthy pink and almost pain-free. I might have learned to ignore my loss, except…well, I've already mentioned that my ears were designed to swivel, to zero in on the source of sounds. That was a reflex, totally involuntary. But every time it happened now, the severed muscles of my left ear sent up a twinge of protest. Not an agonizing pain--but an effective reminder. I kept reminding myself how fortunate I'd been: if the branch had swung just a little lower, I might have lost my entire head. It was at best cold comfort.

That evening, that horrible evening when what remained of my life fell apart, I was in the Rec Room. Since my banishment from the mess hall nearly four weeks before, that and the gym were the only public areas still open to me. The gym I couldn't avoid using: I had to have exercise. The Rec Room I avoided as much as I could, because I didn't feel comfortable there; but shuttling back and forth between my tiny quarters and tinier office did occasionally tell on my sanity. Whichever of the two I ventured into, my solitude was rarely disturbed.

And that's how it was that evening, as I sat down behind a chessboard. Any number of potential opponents were available--but when I glanced around invitingly they all turned away. Finally I sighed and keyed the computer; it, at least, was always willing to play. It was a lousy conversationalist, though, and I couldn't ever defeat it without cheating. Two more reasons why I really missed Joel. My Joel, that is.

I'd had no contact with Commander Abrams for days. Since my accident we'd been the proverbial Ships that Pass in the Night: several times I'd seen him, in the Rec Room or the corridors, and once or twice he seemed on the verge of speaking…but each time he seemed to lose his nerve, and quickly turned aside. On one such occasion I caught a glimpse of his face before he escaped; he appeared…what? Ashamed, it seemed, and angry too; but the anger was turned inward. What was going on in his mind I had no idea--nor was I certain if I wanted to find out. He'd been there for me when I was injured, and for that I was grateful; but beyond that, I honestly didn't know how I felt.

…But that evening in the Rec Room. Had I truly been left alone, I would have been content: I'm not afraid of solitude. But unfortunately I was not, at least for very long. Across from me was a card table, its surface covered with green felt. When I arrived it was unoccupied; but not long after I began my game, four young ensigns entered and sat down there. They brought out a deck of cards and a rack of chips from the compartment underneath, and began a noisy game of poker. Nothing wrong with that…except that one of them was Wally Osgood.

Since the vandalism of my office, he and I had settled down into a cold war. I'd never been able to prove that he had held the spray can; and in the press of events, I'd lost interest in the investigation. Thus he'd escaped court-martial. And, having gotten me banished from the mess hall, he'd won that round. Still, my threats had not been entirely without effect: they had at least encouraged him to avoid me. If that pleased me, though, I was a fool. I should have known that he wouldn't let it go; I should have known that his pent-up hatred would eventually explode.

Yes, I should have known. And that evening, I should have been warned by his presence, especially in the company of his supporters; I should have quietly abandoned my game and left. I still curse the stubbornness that made me stay.

They played half a dozen hands, boisterously. I did my best to ignore them; but I could feel their eyes on me, could feel the other three silently egging Osgood on. Finally he rose to the bait, and spoke across the intervening space, a little louder than necessary: "Would you like us to deal you in, Lieutenant?"

There are many ways in which those words could be spoken: a sincere invitation might be one. But this was nothing of the kind. His voice dripped sarcasm, and as he spoke, his friends snickered behind their hands.

I glanced up from the chessboard to see him leering at me. The others looked on in keen interest. "Oh good," Osgood said brightly. "I was afraid you couldn't hear me." Mouthing the words grotesquely, as to someone stone-deaf, he repeated: "Would…you…like…us…to… deal…you…in?"

"No thank you, Ensign," I said. I should have tried to laugh along; or maybe even accepted the "invitation," which really would have flummoxed him. But I didn't. I chose instead to keep what was left of my dignity--and that choice doomed me.

Osgood's face darkened. "Oh, do excuse me for asking, Lieutenant," he said, elaborately obsequious. "I suppose poker is too plebeian for an officer of your high and lofty status."

"I've played poker," I said truthfully. "Quite a bit."

"Oh really," he said. "Then I guess it must be our company you object to. Is that it? We're not good enough for you?"

Too late, I began to grow alarmed. This was rapidly getting out of control: his voice was hard and hostile, rising toward hysterical. The others in the Rec Room had abandoned their conversations, put aside their palm-readers and their games, and were staring in confusion. "No, of course not," I said.

"'Of course not,'" he quoted in nasty parody of my voice, slurred "R" and all. Abruptly he stood and approached my table. The other three sat silent; was that excitement or dread on their faces? Osgood bent low over me. "Well, let me tell you something, Lieutenant. We don't like you. We were very happy here before you came aboard. This was a good ship, a Terran ship. We didn't need any Zeefs, or any Pollys, or any of the other damn bugs and animals that run around this so-called Alliance. Most of all, we didn't need you. And the sooner you're gone, the better off we'll all be." He spoke now in a shrill whisper, his eyes shining; and as he spoke, he punctuated each phrase by flicking chess pieces off the board with his finger, one by one.

And then…I snapped. Suddenly I was tired: of him, of his sneering face, of the circumstances that forced me to endure a brazen insubordination which wouldn't have lasted five seconds aboard Zelazny. Goaded beyond endurance, I made yet another tactical error: my third, last, and most costly. But all the same I don't know what else I could have done; I had no legitimate authority, none that my superiors would recognize. But if Osgood won yet again, if I meekly allowed him to get away with this, I would not have one minute of peace as long as I remained aboard. Circumstances had forced me that far: into actions that violated oaths, some I had taken when I became a CF officer, some much older than that.

The Rec Room was dead silent; I could literally feel the anticipation. And then, as swiftly and silently as my ancestors, I struck. My left hand shot out and caught hold of Osgood's lapels. I am stronger than I look, and I had surprise on my side; I grabbed a fistful of grey fabric and pulled, forcing his face down close to mine. I raised the back of my right hand before him, not five centimeters from his eyes, and slowly expressed my claws.

"I've had enough of you, Ensign," I said, my voice a low and dangerous growl. "You are insubordinate, and you are also an idiot, which you make more obvious every time you open your mouth. I've put up with you for nearly two months, but no longer. I really think you'd be much safer if you left me alone. Now get the hell away from me!"

With that I stiff-armed him away. He stumbled back several steps, saving himself from falling by grasping the edge of the card table. His eyes were huge, his gaze riveted on my claws. For a few seconds he stared; then he turned and fled, followed soon after by his companions, silent and aghast. They left a snowfall of cards and chips behind them.

I sighed as I turned back to the table. All around me the spectators were still staring, but eventually they returned to their activities. I was alone now, and I might have continued my game: no one else would have bothered me. But I would have had no peace of mind. Already I could feel the eyes stealing back to me, and hear the whispers. As quickly as I could, I cleaned up the scattered chess pieces and left.

In other circumstances the look on Osgood's face would have been priceless; and there was a certain satisfaction in seeing him turn and run. But it was already fading, in light of what I knew to be true: I had not heard the last of this. As in physics, there would be an equal and opposite reaction; of that I was certain. I only wish I'd known how bad it would be--and how soon it would find me.

###

I was trying to sleep, and failing, when the harsh voice of Captain Antilles came crackling through the intercom: "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla, report to sickbay immediately!"

For an instant I lay frozen with dread. This had something to do with Osgood, that I knew; but at twenty-three hundred hours? I'd thought I had until morning anyway. And why sickbay? But as always…I rolled over and touched the button. "On my way, sir."

Though I had to hurry--Antilles demanded absolute punctuality--I made sure my uniform, fur and mane were spotless and wrinkle-free before I left my cabin. When I arrived I found the captain in Enyeart's small office, along with the doctor himself, and Nurse Burke. Antilles sat at the desk, usurping the doctor's chair; Enyeart and Burke stood flanking him. Their grim gazes bored into me like a laser drill.

I pulled myself crisply to attention. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla reporting as ordered, Captain."

"Sit down, Lieutenant," he said, his lips barely moving, indicating with a flick of his fingers the only other chair. I did so, and he went on, "I understand there was an…incident in the Recreation Room this evening, involving yourself and Ensign Osgood."

Sinking feeling. "Yes, sir," I said. I'd been expecting this, and had been prepared to ride out the reprimand as best I could. It would be useless for me to explain; he wouldn't be interested. As usual, I'd have to take my lumps, deserved or not. But why sickbay? I wondered again, uneasily. I hadn't injured Osgood, though the Goddess knows I'd wanted to. Was the captain going to claim that I had? If so, then the situation had become infinitely worse, especially if it came down to my word against Osgood's. Injuries could be faked, stories invented, the silence of witnesses ensured one way or another--and it would be a court-martial offense. Great Goddess, if only Gaetano had been there! He'd support me!

"--And you threatened the ensign with your…claws," the captain continued, pronouncing the last word distastefully.

"Yes, sir," I said. Why bother to deny it? There were far too many witnesses. "I was angered by statements made by Ensign Osgood, which I believed to be insubordinate. I have had difficulties with him for some weeks. I deeply regret the incident, sir, and I assure you it will not be repeated."

"Frankly, Lieutenant, your assurances are not sufficient," Antilles said. He paused, then went on casually, "I am given to understand that Sah'aaran claws are not always under conscious control; that they may sometimes be extended reflexively."

"That is true, sir," I confirmed. Such as right then, for example. "But…" I was about to go on, to explain the vast difference between expressing claws and using them. But I was not given the chance.

"I am speaking, Lieutenant," he said sternly. "Since you arrived on this ship I have feared that your temper might cause trouble. I have studied your service record very closely; you have been reprimanded for outbursts of anger more than once. Tonight my fears were justified: your loss of control might have caused a grave injury. I cannot simply accept your assurances that it will not happen again. You will continue to have outbursts; that is inevitable. My only choice is to make sure you are incapable of causing injury."

I had no conscious idea what he meant--but something must account for the fact that my heart began to hammer and my tail to lash. "I don't understand, sir," I said carefully.

"Then I'll explain," he said with a cold smile. "Call it 'disarmament.' I hereby order you to allow Dr. Enyeart to trim your claws to the point where they can cause no damage."

I went cold, absolutely frozen, my spine a steel rod, my tail a wire topped with a bottle-brush. When finally I could speak again I said, "Sir, I must respectfully refuse that order on the grounds that it is unlawful." By the book; but words I had never expected to speak.

His face darkened. "I am this ship's commander; I decide what is lawful here. Not you, nor anyone else."

"Sir," I said desperately, "you order is a direct violation of Combined Forces regulations regarding the sanctity of the individual body. 'No CF personnel, officer or enlisted, shall be ordered to undergo any procedure which in any way alters the basic or specific form of his, her or its body.'"

"Whether that applies in this case I doubt," Antilles said dismissively. "But in any event, you may feel free to file a grievance with the Admiralty at your convenience. In the meantime, I will protect my crew. Your hands, please."

I hesitated for an agonized instant, and the captain scowled. "If you continue to refuse, I will have Security restrain you--forcibly if necessary. There is no alternative, Lieutenant. You will save yourself a great deal of pain by submitting peacefully."

He would do that, I knew--with Lieutenant Harris' willing help. And the results would be the same, except that I'd end up with another set of bruises, or a stinger hangover. I had no succor, no way to prevent this: the Admiralty was on the other side of the galaxy. Even Gaetano wouldn't have dared to intervene. Slowly, painfully, I laid my hands on the table.

And then Burke pounced, taking hold of my hands, one at a time, in an unbreakable grip. She knew just where to press, below the tip of each finger, to force the claw to express. Then it was Enyeart's turn. He used a pair of heavy ring-type clippers, not unlike what a veterinarian would use on a dog's nails. The blade was sharp, but even so he had a difficult time: Sah'aaran claws are tough. As he worked I sat still, rigid with horror and shame, my heart hammering and my breath coming in gasps.

It didn't take long; no longer, in fact, than it had for Enyeart to remove my ear. They did both hands, four digits per; and then my feet as well. Which was nothing more than insult to injury: we use our toe-claws for traction--as when I'd saved Gaetano's life--never for attack. But this had nothing to do with logic or reason. Within two minutes all sixteen claws--black, lovingly-tended, and needle-sharp--lay like shavings of ebony on the desktop. Enyeart had cut them right down to the quick, and it stung. It was a wonder I didn't bleed, though he probably had a coagulant pencil handy. If he damaged the cuticles…

Antilles was smiling faintly as the doctor finished his work. He said, "You are ordered to report to Dr. Enyeart or Nurse Burke once a week to have the new growth removed--and be assured I will follow up on that. If you attempt to evade my orders, the doctor is instructed to remove your claws permanently. Do I make myself clear, Lieutenant?"

I peered hard at Enyeart and Burke, searching for some sign of remorse, or at very least some realization of the terrible crime they'd just committed. But there was none: for all the emotion they showed, they might as well have been Modifieds. "Yes, Captain," I said. "Quite clear."

"Good. You are dismissed." He paused. "Oh, Lieutenant?"

"Sir?"

"Two more things. Number one, it would be best if you refrained from using any of the Rec Room facilities for the remainder of your time aboard."

A blow, but only a dull one; I was already quite numb. I might have asked how I was supposed to get any exercise, if the gym was off-limits to me too; but obviously he didn't care. "Yes, sir."

"And number two, you are restricted to quarters for the next five days."

I came close to thanking him for that; but I didn't, because he might have changed his mind. Instead, exhausted, I nodded. "Sir," I said, and then I left, before he could think of anything worse.

###

I made my way back to my cabin slowly and gingerly, because my toes hurt as they pressed on the deckplates. The pain would pass--at least the physical pain.

Dazed, I sat down on my bunk. Slowly I raised my hands, and they trembled violently before me. I willed the proper muscles to contract, which they did; but only the barest hint of black emerged, useless, blunt as a spoon. For the first time in my life I thought I knew how a victim of rape must feel. There was no other word for it: I had been violated. The loss of my ear was nothing next to this. That was an accident, an act of the Goddess; this was deliberate, calculated malice. Never mind that they would grow back if left alone: I had been mutilated. And not just my body. Everything I thought I was, everything my culture had given me, had been left in a neat little pile on the doctor's desk. No human could possibly understand what the captain had done to me.

Does he know? I wondered. Did he have any idea what he'd done? Would he even care? Or had his only thought been to leave me even more defenseless than I already was?

I buried my face in my hands, and for the first time since childhood, I wept.

###

He came to see me; and had I any emotions left, I might have been surprised that he'd found the courage.

I spent the next two days in my quarters, studying, meditating, reading, exercising, anything, in an obsessive attempt to keep my mind constantly occupied. At times I almost succeeded; but then I would feel a little twinge in the tips of my fingers or toes, and it would all come back. Then I'd gasp, as if physically struck, and angrily blink back the tears that sprang to my eyes. Someday, if I lived long enough, the shame and horror and anger would fade. Maybe. I no longer wanted to thank Captain Antilles for restricting me to quarters, though. He'd known what I hadn't, what it took me less than a day to discover: in certain circumstances, solitude can be the most exquisite torture of all.

My stinger lay on the work-table. I could not remember exactly when I'd gotten it out of its locked drawer; I only knew that I'd suddenly found myself with it in my hand, set for a full-power zap, staring into the gleaming silver discharge points with my thumb resting lightly on the trigger. That shocked me deeply; perhaps my subconscious planned it that way. I remember debating with myself, wondering which path I should take: the easy exit into oblivion, or the long and winding road through hell. That I finally decided to continue living is of course obvious, but it was a near thing. I remember forcing myself to power down the stinger and set it aside, discharge points to the wall. And there it still was: I hadn't been able to force myself to put it away.

When the doorbell buzzed I ignored it. In the depths of my shame and depression I wanted no company. And besides, who on this benighted ship would mean me anything but harm? Trouble and grief I needed no more of. But the buzzing was insistent, and finally I sighed. "Come in!"

I looked up listlessly as the door opened. He stood in the hallway with his hands behind his back, gazing at me with an equal mix of concern, hesitation and fear. "Ehm'ayla?" he said softly.

My tone was bitter, and I made no attempt to soften it. "How may I help you, Commander Abrams?"

"May I--come in?"

I shrugged. "It's your ship, not mine. You can go wherever you please."

He let the door close behind him, and slowly crossed the room. There was no other chair; he perched himself awkwardly on the edge of my bunk. He glanced at the table, and his eyes widened briefly as they rested on the stinger. Then, very deliberately, he looked away. "Ayla," he said, "I heard…what happened to you."

"Did you indeed?" I asked mockingly. "By now I don't imagine there's anyone who hasn't."

"Ayla, will you please listen to me?" he begged. "I'm trying to tell you how sorry I am."

"'Sorry' is meaningless, Commander," I told him. I raised my hands. "I'm sorry too--but here I am."

"What more can I say?" he demanded. "It wasn't my fault, Ehm'ayla. I had no idea the captain would do something like that! How could I have?"

"And now that he has, what will you do?" I challenged. "Will you stand beside me when I swear out a formal complaint? Will you testify at the court-martial?"

Joel frowned. "I…I don't know if that's a good idea," he said.

"Then you're suggesting I let him get away with it?"

He shook his head. "No," he said. "Or, well…not exactly. I just don't know how much good a formal complaint would do. Whatever you say, he'll counter it by claiming that he was protecting his crew…"

"That's nonsense," I said flatly, "and you know it. You know the oaths I took as a kit. I wouldn't have harmed that fool Osgood--I was just trying to get his attention. I showed him the backs of my hands, for the Goddess' sake! You know what that means!"

"Yes," Joel said quietly. "I know what that means. The captain doesn't. I could have told him--if he'd asked. But he didn't; he's not in the habit of soliciting my opinion. You know that. He did what he thought was right."

"That's nonsense too," I said. "This wouldn't stop me if I really wanted to hurt someone." I snatched up the stinger and showed it to him. "There's this," I said. "There's my rock hammer, knives from the mess hall…and any number of large and heavy objects. If I had violent tendencies, I could still find a way to act on them. The captain knows that. If he really thought I was dangerous, he'd have a guard outside that door--or I'd be in the brig. This was never about 'protecting the crew.'"

"What, then?"

"Intimidation," I said. "Demoralization. Neutralization. Don't you see? He's isolated me from contact with the crew, except where it's unavoidable. He wants me alone and helpless. And you know what? He's doing a hell of a job."

"Why?" Joel asked. "Why should he?"

I fixed him with my gaze. "I don't know, Joel. Why don't you tell me?"

He turned aside and shook his head. With difficulty I swallowed the sudden flash of rage that pulsed through me. Once again, I thought. Once again the silence. He knew the answer--of course he did--but still he wouldn't speak. I didn't know how to get the truth out of him, short of physical force--and unfortunately he was bigger than me. I tried an oblique approach. "Joel, you know CF regulations as well as I do--"

"Probably."

I spread my hands. "--and based on them, would you agree that my rights have been violated?"

He hesitated a second, then nodded. "Yes," he said softly. "Yes, of course I do."

"You are a command-level officer, and you've been aboard for more than a year," I continued. "I am a lieutenant, and I've been here less than three months. Obviously you have more power, more authority than me. Especially now."

"So?"

I swallowed hard. I knew what I had to say--but the words stuck in my throat, and I had to force them through. "I need your help, Joel. Any authority that's legally mine, the captain has undermined. I can't turn to any other senior officer for redress. The science staff might agree with me in principle, but they won't dare take action. I know that for certain. I need help, your help, before my career, my health and my sanity are permanently damaged."

He nodded. "I understand," he said quietly. "And I do want to help you--believe me, I do." He paused. "But I'm as helpless as you."

"Knowledge is power, Joel. Something apart from our assigned mission is going on around here. I don't know the details--but you do."

Once again he glanced away, shaking his head; but I'd had enough of that. "Not this time, Joel," I snapped. He looked up quickly, alarmed by the sharpness of my tone. "You do know what's going on," I went on quietly. "It's too late to pretend that you don't. You've evaded, ignored or obfuscated every question I've asked since I came aboard. All you've given me is cryptic advice. I've followed it: minded my own business, did my duty, filed my reports." I spread my fingers. "This is the result. For some reason I don't understand, I've been forced into a war with this ship's commander. Give me a weapon, Joel. At least tell me what I'm fighting for."

He looked at me for a long time, a whole parade of emotions passing across his face. This, I knew, was not what he'd expected when he came to my quarters: he thought he could simply put his arms around me and make the world go away. And he could have, too, if I'd let him. The problem is, the world would still have been there when we finished. He wasn't prepared for me to demand something more concrete. Even so, for a few seconds I truly thought he would tell me what I wanted to know. It came down to the balance of a hair…but finally he sighed and shook his head. "Ayla," he said, "I'm sorry. I wish to God none of this ever happened. But what you want…I can't give you. I can only ask you to believe: what little knowledge I have can't help you--but it could harm you, and I won't risk that."

"Do you want me to beg?" I flared. "You ought to know me better than that, Joel. I have never begged for anything, and I never will." I glanced down at my hands. "When they did this, I didn't beg. I think Antilles expected me to, wanted me to--but I wouldn't."

He shook his head. "No, I don't want you to beg, Ehm'ayla. Of course not. That's not what this is about. I just wish I could convince you to trust me."

"We meant something to each other, a long time ago," I commented.

"We still do," he said. "At least I hope so."

"And even so, you won't help me?"

He shook his head miserably. "I can't help you." He paused. "Not that way. Please listen, Ehm'ayla. This will all blow over, if you let it." He nodded down at my hands. "Even that. If you do nothing more to aggravate him, maybe the captain can be persuaded to let them grow back…"

I turned aside. "Get out," I said softly.

"Pardon me--?"

I wheeled around. "I said 'get out!'" I snarled. "Which word didn't you understand?"

"Ayla…"

"I thought we were friends," I said. "Maybe more than friends. I do trust you, Joel--or I used to. But from where I stand, it appears you're the one who doesn't trust me. And if so…then we're finished. Our friendship--and anything else there might have been. Get out!"

I turned away again--and when the door had closed behind him I collapsed, burying my face in my arms. What was that lingering smell? The smoke of burning bridges, perhaps?

###

My next visitor received a somewhat warmer welcome: Commander Gaetano.

As he entered he spied the stinger, just as Joel had; he frowned and shook his head. "That's not the answer," he told me seriously. "Believe me, it's not."

I sighed. "I know that now. Uh--how can I help you, sir?"

Once again emulating Joel, he perched himself on the edge of the bunk. "I was about to ask you the same thing," he said. He paused. "Are you…all right, Lieutenant?"

No point in asking f he knew what had happened to me. Everybody did. I could imagine Osgood's laughter as he heard the news; a vision which almost made me wish I had clawed him.

Gaetano was gazing at me expectantly. I shook my head. "I don't know, Commander. I honestly don't. No one on this ship can understand what the captain really did to me--not even him. It was not the same as trimming your fingernails."

"I understand, a little," Gaetano assured me. "As much as any human can. It's pointless and facile to say I'm sorry." He smiled faintly. "But I am, nonetheless."

Why was talking to Gaetano so much easier than talking to Joel? Possibly because I expected nothing from him. He was superficially friendly, but that was all: he'd never been truly open with me. Even though I knew he was deeply involved in whatever was going on, I'd never bothered to ask him to explain-- because he would either ignore the question or lie. I expected nothing else. But from Joel I expected much more: help, honesty, actions that went beyond cheap platitudes. That's why my anger with him ran so terribly deep.

"I appreciate that, Commander."

"I also want you to know that I'm not the only one," the geologist went on. "All the Scispecs feel as I do. We believe the captain overreacted--especially since it wasn't your fault to begin with. No one who's been aboard Raven very long could believe that Osgood was the innocent victim of your 'violence.' Everyone knows how he's been harassing you."

"I don't suppose you'd be willing to tell the captain that," I said hopefully.

"As a matter of fact I would," he replied. "And did. On behalf of the science staff I informed him that your civil rights have been violated--in our opinion."

That surprised me, more than anything had since I came aboard. That any of them, let alone all of them, would stick their necks out for me… "Thank you, sir," I said softly. I swallowed. "Do you… think it did any good?"

He smiled helplessly and shrugged. "Who knows?" he said. He paused "How can I put this? Every once in a while a captain needs to be reminded that he's not God."

True enough, I thought, but how does that help me?

Gaetano went on, "Lieutenant, this might not be easy for you to hear. I've come to understand what kind of person you are: impatient, aggressive, a go-getter. Ordinarily there's nothing wrong with that. But in this case I think the best virtue you can cultivate is patience. That's the only advice I can give--and it comes from someone who knows this ship and this crew: simply to endure. No one--not even the captain--can reasonably disparage the quality of your work. Just keep doing it, as best you can."

"And nothing else?" I asked pointedly.

"To be honest, yes," he said seriously. "Just trust me, Lieutenant. I think the worst is behind you--if, and only if, you let things be. It's all up to you."

Joel had said the same, in slightly different words, and not long afterward I'd thrown him out. So why did I have no particular urge to eject Gaetano? I gazed into his face; his expression was drawn, anxious…even fearful. Here is a man split in two, I suddenly realized. On the one hand he wants to help me. But on the other he knows things he doesn't dare reveal. Just by being there he was putting himself at risk.

…And that realization left me once again battling ugly pangs of guilt. Joel was also torn in two; I should have seen that. He and Gaetano were of a kind, both trying to balance their concern for me against something which frightened them half to death. The only real difference was this: Joel's stake in keeping me safe was much greater than Gaetano's. And his fear of the consequences of failure too?

"I understand, Commander," I said. And I did: better than before. "Thank you."

"No charge," he said. His grin reappeared suddenly. "Speaking of work, can I talk you into helping me again?"

"What with?"

"That last planet," he said. "Prime real estate. The E and C office will want a complete mineralogical and soil analysis. I took hundreds of samples; now I need to catalog them against my scanpak readings."

I was about to refuse, gently and politely; I really wasn't in the mood. But then I saw his face, full of hope and expectancy, and realized what he was trying to accomplish in his clumsy human fashion: occupational therapy.

"One small problem, Commander," I said. "I'm restricted to quarters for the next three days."

"That's right," he said, crestfallen. Then he brightened. "Well, I'm not restricted to quarters, and I'm not restricted from yours. We can work here, if you're willing."

"You're sure the captain won't mind?"

"What the captain doesn't know," he assured me, "won't hurt him. Or us."

What the captain doesn't know, I corrected darkly, isn't much. But if Gaetano would take responsibility… "All right, Commander," I said. "I think I'd like that."

…And the strange thing is, I was telling the truth.


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