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 EIGHTEEN


Two weeks passed.

It's easy, isn't it, to toss off a statement like that; to dismiss fourteen days of one's life with one short sentence. A lot easier than living it.

They let me out of my gulag eventually, though I scarcely noticed the difference. With every public area of the ship now off-limits to me except the corridors and the stairway, I spent my days shuttling back and forth between my quarters and my office. My only relief, the only area bigger than a gym-locker which I could legally inhabit, was the briefing area outside my office. I spent as much time there as I could--and often I had company. During those two weeks the science staff was my lifeline, my only link to sanity. With their help I might have begun to recover, if not for one thing: twice during those two weeks I was obliged to report to sickbay and let Nurse Burke clip back the incipient rebirth of my claws. Which kept the incident rather fresh in my mind.

Would the captain actually have ordered me permanently declawed if I'd failed to report? I don't know--but it was not a chance I could take. A little research convinced me of that. No such thing had ever happened to any Sah'aaran; not according to the CF medical database, anyway. I had better luck with the veterinary-medicine files. By extrapolation, it turned out that Dr. Enyeart would have had two very different methods to choose from. He could have opened the tip of each digit with a laser scalpel and cauterized the cuticle. Or he could have amputated them to the first joint, the way they declaw Terran housecats. Both were too horrible to contemplate; worse, I had no assurance that either could be successfully reversed. And so I did not resist. In my situation any Sah'aaran would do the same--or so I like to tell myself.

What rankled me, more even than what had happened to my claws, was Osgood. I didn't see him at all; I was scarcely likely to. But I did hear things, and I did ask questions, usually of Gaetano. And to learn that no punishment, absolutely none, had fallen on Osgood for his part in the incident…was nearly unbearable. He had been officially judged blameless, and it was noted thus in the ship's log: he'd been the victim of an "unprovoked attack" by me. Meaning he was running around scot-free, able to use the mess hall, Rec Room and gym without restriction, without a stain on his character or his service record. Which was proof, as if any was needed, that the universe is absolutely unjust. As it turned out, though, I needn't have obsessed over the matter quite so much: as the humans have it, "what goes around comes around."

After the initial shock had faded a bit, I found myself pondering the same question, over and over: How does Antilles expect to get away with it?

What I mean is this. Eventually--in a little more than two months--Raven would return to Outpost Four for resupply. Antilles had to know that my first action upon arrival would be to swear out a complaint against him--and if he believed me too intimidated, he was in for a surprise. If Commodore Ehm'rael was still on the station, I need only show her my hands; her anger would do the rest. It would not be easy for me to do so--very much the opposite--but I would have no choice; for the greater good, I would have to put aside my personal shame. And she'd help me; that was an absolute certainty. The honor and dignity of our species--not to mention her feelings for me--would demand it. If I knew her, she'd be hard-pressed not to use her own claws on Antilles. He must know that.

There were just three explanations, as I saw it. Perhaps he truly didn't understand the import of what he'd done, and expected to laugh it off. If so, he didn't know Sah'aarans. Or perhaps he intended to rely on the "any means" doctrine in Combined Forces justice: a commanding officer may protect his ship and crew by "any means" necessary. Which could get nasty: it would be my word against his; and as a captain, his would carry a great deal more weight. Especially if he could count on falsified evidence and perjured testimony. But Commodore Ehm'rael would believe me; and in any case, the sanctity of the individual body was part of the Alliance Charter, while "any means" was merely a judicial rule of thumb. Or finally, perhaps he intended to "relent" three weeks before our return, and allow my claws to grow back--thus giving my complaint no physical evidence. Once again it would be my word against his--but that at least was easy to cure. Using a palm-reader (because I didn't trust the computer) I wrote out the entire story: everything that had happened to me since I arrived aboard Raven. Memory is a fallible thing, but in this case the dates, times, places, persons involved and words spoken were indelibly imprinted upon my mind. I then used my scanpak to photograph my hands and feet, clearly showing the stubs of my claws. I downloaded it all onto a data card, encrypted it, and locked it in the same thumbprint-access drawer where I kept my stinger. Whatever happened, I would have evidence.

One thing was certain: even at grave risk to my career, I had no intention of letting Captain Antilles get away with this. Out here in the middle of nowhere, where he was a demigod, he could intimidate me; but in the presence of a higher authority, no. There was no way he could stop me from filing the biggest civil-rights complaint the Combined Forces had ever seen. If need be I'd bring in Sah'aaran government--something my father could accomplish easily. If it was the last thing I ever did, I'd see Antilles court-martialed--and some others with him. For a time I'd been dreading that supply stop, knowing that Antilles would use it as an opportunity to throw me off the ship--but no longer. No; that visit to Outpost Four was my last chance to save my career, and quite possibly my health as well. The only problem was staying alive--and sane--long enough to get there.

###

Near the end of those fourteen days I had a very curious experience, the very last thing I would have expected: Captain Antilles asked a favor of me.

It was early afternoon, and I had just finished a late lunch (made so by a Scispec briefing: we were rapidly approaching our next system, and the astronomical data hinted that it might be very interesting indeed.) I was about to take my half-empty tray out for disposal when the intercom beeped. "Antilles to Lieutenant Ehm'ayla."

As always when I heard that voice, a trapdoor seemed to open in my stomach, and my tail began to lash. But I had no choice; I never did. "Ehm'ayla here."

"Lieutenant, I have a request to make of you," he said, flatly and without preamble.

Great Goddess, I thought in despair, what does he want now? Shave off my fur? Cut off my tail? File down my teeth? When will he learn that he can't turn me into a human? "Go ahead, sir."

"We're experiencing a…difficulty on the Control Deck," he said. "I would like to know if you are available to take a partial shift at Compcomm." His tone was clipped, almost strangled; obviously the words were issuing from between tightly-clenched teeth.

If I'd dared, I would have refused; anything that brought me closer to the captain I avoided if I could. But that was impossible. It was his whim of the moment to make an order a "request;" perhaps because he was asking me to work outside my assigned specialty. And besides, this was so obviously painful for him, it was a pleasure to obey. "Certainly, sir," I said sweetly. I paused. "May I ask why, Captain? I thought this was Ensign Matthews' shift…?"

His voice hardened. "Ensign Matthews is…unavailable," he said. "When may we expect you, Lieutenant?"

"Five minutes, sir."

"Acceptable. Antilles out."

I sat for a few seconds, my mind whirling and my tail waving. "What," I wondered out loud and in Sah'aaran, "does this mean?" Whatever circumstance had made Matthews "unavailable"--he could be on sick-call, for example--would leave the captain in dire straits indeed: there was precious little redundancy in Raven's crew. I imagined him frantically reviewing the crew roster, and finally, with vast reluctance, concluding that there was only one other qualified person on board: the rebel without claws. In other circumstances the situation would have been quite humorous.

It actually took me a little longer than five minutes, because on my way up I had to stop at my quarters for my commpak. I arrived on the Control Deck at a run, out of breath. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla reporting for duty, sir," I said formally.

Seated at the command console, the captain swiveled around to face me, scowling as usual. Did he thank me politely for helping him out of a jam? You know better than that. "You're late, Lieutenant," he said. "Are you familiar with our computing and communications hardware?"

To anyone else but him, I would have been honest and confessed that I was going to have to fake it: two tin cans and a string. "Yes, sir," I said simply. "I believe so."

"We'll see. Take your position; we'll be hyperjumping in a few minutes."

I didn't know the ensign--one of Matthews' subordinates--who sat at Compcomm; I only knew that she looked harried and exhausted, her hair beginning to slip from its tightly-wound coil atop her head. I found out later that she'd pulled a double shift, and came close to a triple. Against regulations; but Antilles would not have cared. I laid my hand on her shoulder. "Relieving you," I said.

She looked profoundly grateful as she cleared the board and stood, cracking her back. "Thank you, Lieutenant," she said quietly, and then she departed, slowly and stiffly. I saw a bunk in her future.

It took some minutes for me to familiarize myself with the quaintly-antique equipment (I halfway expected to find a bundle of long wires and sockets to plug them into) and to tune my commpak to Raven's interlink frequency. I had not used my commpak since the day of my accident; fortunately it was designed to clip to my right ear.

But after all, I found the equipment not too different from what I'd trained on years ago. A quick glance at the monitor screens was enough to assure me that I'd have no difficulties with Raven's computer. Its CPU was running at seventy-five percent of rated capacity--which would have been ridiculously high for Zelazny's; they rarely had to push themselves above sixty--but was handling the load with aplomb. I was faintly amused to find that my modifications to the comm equipment, made all those weeks ago, were still in place. Obviously the predicted "difficulties" had failed to materialize--not that the captain would ever admit it.

Thus assured, I gazed quickly over my shoulder. Besides the captain, only two of the five people on the Control Deck were familiar to me. One was Commander Nakamara; he was manning the Science station to my left. As he caught my glance he looked up from his monitors and smiled. The other, sitting directly opposite at Tech, I recognized by the back of his head: Osgood. Looking at him, I felt that same cold dread in the pit of my stomach. Wherever he turned up, trouble soon followed.

He must have felt my eyes on him, or else he'd suddenly become psychic: he turned and looked at me. And as he did I received the shock of my young life. He looked as if he'd been hit by a runaway landing pod. Both his eyes were blackened, half-closed; numerous other bruises colored his cheeks and jaw, making his face look puffy. His upper lip had been split, and repaired with a sliver of dermapatch. Obviously he had been "done over," as the humans say--and from the looks of it, by a professional. Amidst my astonishment, one coherent thought surfaced: couldn't have happened to a nicer fellow. He gazed at me expressionlessly for a few seconds; then, very deliberately, he turned away. And from that moment on, I never heard another word from him.

Finally I tore my gaze away and turned back to my panel. A nasty suspicion had taken root in the back of my mind: were Osgood's condition and the circumstances which brought me to the Control Deck entirely unconnected? I waited until the captain was occupied--he had stepped forward to peer over the Navspec's shoulder--and then I leaned across and whispered to Nakamara. He wasn't Gaetano, true; but all the Scispecs had been treating me quite well lately. I'd risk it. "Commander?"

The tone of my voice must have alerted him to my desire for privacy. "Yes, Lieutenant?" he whispered back.

"Sir, can you tell me what happened to Ensign Matthews? The captain said he was 'unavailable'…"

Nakamara glanced nervously at Antilles, but he was still engrossed in the Nav panel. The astrophysicist leaned closer and lowered his voice a little more. "I suppose you'll find out sooner or later. Matthews is restricted to quarters indefinitely. He…got into a fistfight in the gym last night. A very nasty affair, so I'm told."

I glanced quickly at Osgood. "Yes," Nakamara confirmed. "With him." He smiled. "From what I heard, Osgood got the worst of it."

I didn't know whether to be flattered or furious. That young idiot! I thought savagely. That kind of thing can destroy a career--as I had recently learned. And…well, this may perhaps sound egotistical, but I felt certain that the fight had not been about anything as banal as an unpaid poker debt. Osgood would "get his sooner or later," Matthews said when he visited me after my accident. If I hadn't been distracted by the fact that my body was a roadmap of pain, I might have understood what he was planning. If I had, I would have stopped him. If not for his own sake, then for mine.

And that thought led to a worse one: why haven't I been blamed? This would seemed a golden opportunity for the captain to humiliate and demoralize me once again-- and he had yet to pass up any such chance. What he would have done to me, what punishment he would have dreamed up…I shuddered to contemplate. It was several days before I found out how I'd escaped.

I had very little time to contemplate Ensign Matthews' foolish loyalty, before Antilles returned to the command console and keyed the PA. "Attention all decks," he announced. "Hyperjump in one minute. Repeat, hyperjump in one minute. All stations, report."

Quickly I turned my attention to my panel, watching as the lights winked green one by one. "All stations report ready, Captain," I said finally.

"Ten seconds late," he observed, as if it was my fault. "Very well."

Hypertunnel travel is entirely harmless to living tissue--but not, occasionally, to computers. As the last few seconds ticked down, I kept my eyes not on the main viewer but on my monitor screens, my fingers hovering tensely over the kill-switches. Dimly I heard the Navspec counting down: "Five…four…three... two…one…Jump!"

At that instant there was an electric-blue flash, and then it was all over: we were elsewhere, thirty light-years distant from where we'd been just seconds before. Nervously I watched the CPU meter climb toward one hundred percent, as the navigational instruments struggled to re-orient themselves…but gradually, after peaking at ninety-eight point three, the meter began to drop. A quick scan of the diagnostic panel showed that no memory had become corrupted; it would not be necessary for me to dump and reload any programs. And a good thing too, because I was not at all certain I could have done so quickly enough to satisfy the captain.

Antilles turned to the Navspec. "Report!" he barked.

She frowned at her screens. "Navigational computer confirms the jump, Captain. We have arrived in system CAO 21437."

I glanced quickly at the main viewer. The star-field looked no different than it had before the jump…except for one obvious addition: three bright points, forming a skewed triangle in the center of the screen.

"Take us in," Antilles ordered the Navspec. "Minimum-fuel course." He turned to me. "Lieutenant, deploy a relay satellite, and report our status to Outpost Four."

"Aye, sir," I said, with a confidence I didn't feel. Of course I'd done this before, hundreds of times--but never with equipment this primitive. Would I have to go down to the pod hangar to accomplish it? And was there any way to find out, without making myself look like an idiot?

The answers to those questions were "no" and "yes"--as I discovered completely by accident. Panic had begun to set in when suddenly a voice spoke quietly into my ear: not the Goddess, but Ensign Mayer. "Hangar deck to Compcomm," he said. "Ready to deploy."

"Thank you, Ensign," I replied gratefully. If we ever made it back to Krav's Place, I owed him a drink. The rest was easy, and for that I had another ensign to thank: Brian Matthews. He had almost entirely automated what could have been an annoyingly cumbersome process--to the extent that his program loaded automatically as soon as we cleared the hypertunnel, giving me control of the hangar deck's decompression sequence, the launch doors and the magnetic cannon.

On one of my screens I watched the little sphere, gleaming in the glare from our fusion drive, recede rapidly into the distance. The tiny silver point was almost lost to view when the huge, tissue-thin light-sail blossomed forth. Quickly then I compiled a message, the standard status report: log entries, survey reports, and navigation readouts. As I worked, I silently thanked Ensign Matthews. He really is far overdue for promotion, I thought. At very least, he was wasted aboard Raven.

About then, I became aware that I was being watched. Finally I risked a quick glance--and saw that I indeed was, by none other than the captain. He gazed at me with an intensity that was truly alarming, his eyes narrowed and his lips pursed. What in the world--?

Probably waiting for you to screw up, I told myself sourly. And if you let him make you nervous, you will.

Finally a light flashed on my panel, and I touched buttons. "Satellite in position, Captain," I reported. "Transmission successful."

A very strange smile crossed the captain's face, so quickly that I dismissed it as imagination. "Good," he said. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Your report please, Commander Nakamara?"

Our astrophysicist had been busy too. Without looking up from his monitors he said, "It appears to be a trinary system, Captain. Very complex orbits. A red giant, a white dwarf, and a Sol-sized yellow-orange main-liner."

"Any planets?" Antilles asked impatiently.

"One moment, sir," Nakamara said, turning back to his panel. There was a pause of two or three minutes, during which the captain's scowl steadily deepened, and everyone else on the Control Deck held his or her breath, myself included. Finally Nakamara spoke again, distractedly. "The radiation flux makes it difficult to…ah! One planet, Captain. It appears to be locked in a Trojan-point relationship, equidistant to all three stars. Slightly larger than Terra…" he trailed off, "…and possibly habitable."

A stir went around the Control Deck, quickly stilled by Antilles' stern glance. And no wonder: even the greenest ensign would know how extraordinary a find that was. A trinary system is the last place you'd look for a habitable planet--or indeed any planet at all. The gravitational fields of those three suns would be unbelievably strong and chaotic. Under that kind of stress, it would be virtually impossible for a planet to accrete at all, let alone remain in one piece long enough to evolve a breathable atmosphere. The tides would rip it apart.

"It could be an outsider," Nakamara went on. "From another solar system, trapped by the powerful gravity."

"But habitable?" the captain asked incredulously.

"Uncertain as yet, sir," Nakamara hastened to say. "Spectroanalysis is indicating an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, but I have no data on surface conditions yet." He paused. "However, if it does prove to be habitable, it might well be a first."

"Can you get us a visual?" Antilles asked.

"Possibly, sir. One moment."

On the main viewer, the crooked triangle of suns suddenly jumped forward in staccato leaps, shifting to the left before vanishing off the edges of the screen. Centered now was a small, dim dot, blurred and indistinct, a patchwork of brown, blue and green.

"Best I can do for the moment, I'm afraid," Nakamara said. "That's maximum magnification and computer enhancement."

While this was going on, I'd been doing my job--or the job I temporarily found myself in possession of again--scanning all the standard radio bands, searching for signals which might indicate intelligent life. That, too, I'd done countless times before--but never with any particular success.

This time, though…I'd run through almost every available frequency, finding nothing but static, and I was on the verge of giving up, when suddenly I froze in my seat. My tail, which had been waving absently, went rigid behind me as my hand rose to my commpak.

Antilles noticed immediately, of course, and rounded on me. "Report, Lieutenant," he snapped.

Very early in his or her training, a Compcomm develops the ability to find signals in an ocean of noise. Most spend hours practicing. At the risk of sounding immodest, it's something we Sah'aarans are quite good at. I was two months out of practice, but the faint sound grabbed my attention instantly.

"I may be receiving something sir," I reported. "On an extremely low RF band."

"Let's hear it."

I touched controls, and a tidal wave of static crashed from the speakers. A few seconds later Captain Antilles shook his head. "I don't hear anything," he said darkly, over the noise.

Human ears, I reminded myself. "One moment, sir. I'll try to clean up the signal."

On Zelazny that would have been kit's play; but Raven's micro-brained computer made it a much longer and more difficult task. Finally the static diminished--but did not entirely go away--and my putative "signal" came through strong and clear. It was a pure tone oscillating over a three-second cycle from the near-subsonic to a frequency high enough to raise my hackles.

I had never seen Captain Antilles so excited. He leaped from the command console and crossed rapidly to my station, greatly alarming me. But for once he meant me no harm. He bent low over my panel, gazing at the signal's sine-wave display on one of my screens. "Regular indeed," he murmured. He glanced up at me. "Is it a form of communication, Lieutenant?"

"Unknown, sir," I said. "If it is, it's unlike anything I've ever encountered."

He looked on the verge of making a disparaging comment about the depth of my experience; but apparently he thought better of it. He said, "Try the translation algorithms."

"Aye, sir." Again, that was something which would have taken mere seconds aboard Zelazny. Here, it was more than five minutes before the computer delivered its verdict. While we waited the captain stood beside me, one hand on the panel and the other on the back of my chair, making me extremely nervous. He remained motionless until my twitching tail collided with his arm; then he gave me a strange, sharp look and moved a step to the left.

Finally the computer flashed its judgment across my monitor: "Unable to translate: specified signal is not a recognized form of communication."

"Damn!" Antilles said savagely. "What the hell is it, then?"

"I believe I can answer that, sir," Nakamara broke in. He threw a graph onto one of his screens: an oscillation curve exactly matching that of my signal. "This planet has a very odd magnetic field," he went on. "Exceptionally strong, and with rapid and violent oscillations. I've never seen anything like it."

"So what we're hearing is accidental?" the captain asked. "A natural phenomenon?"

"Almost certainly," Nakamara said. "The patterns match too exactly for it to be a coincidence."

The captain gazed at me challengingly. "Your opinion, Lieutenant?"

"I concur with Commander Nakamara's, sir," I said carefully. I realized with a sudden surge of amusement that I was working two specialties at once; a possibly unprecedented situation. "This does not appear to be evidence of intelligent life--but that certainly doesn't preclude the possibility."

"Harumph," Antilles said; it was the first time I actually heard someone say that. "We shall see. Continue to monitor, Commander. And you, Lieutenant, get that racket off the speakers."

I might have reminded him that it was he who'd wanted it on in the first place; but why borrow trouble, when you've plenty in stock already? "Aye, sir," I said, and banished the sound.

The captain returned to the command console, where he sat with his chin in his hands, staring moodily at the main viewer. And as the hours went by and planet grew steadily larger on the screen, I also found myself gazing more and more often at that mottled disk. The sight gave me a strange feeling, somewhere in the depths of my stomach. What I didn't know, couldn't know then, was just how well I would get to know CAO 21437/1 (and only): far better than any sane person would want to.


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