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 NINETEEN


This planet, I could give a name.

I had not availed myself of Commander Gaetano's offer to suggest one for the first world we surveyed; frankly, I've never been big on labeling things. This time, though--even before our first landing--I knew I'd have to make an exception. And so, in the privacy of my own thoughts, I christened the place "Hellhole."

It was a name I'd have to keep to myself, because the captain would not have appreciated the grim humor behind it. He had taken a bizarre and inordinately strong interest in the worthless chunk of sun-baked rock, even going so far as to attend the science staff's pre-landing briefing--which, I was assured, he had never before done.

Picture the scene: the other Scispecs and myself gathered in the briefing area outside our offices…and there he was, perched balefully at the end of the table, his arms crossed and an impatient scowl on his face. The term "nerve-wracking" doesn't even come close.

Nakamara was in charge this time, and led the meeting. "This planet is unusual in many ways," he said. "Not the least of which is its orbit--or its lack thereof. It is caught in one of the largest star's Trojan points--which probably also accounts for the presence of the planet's two moons. They are most likely captured asteroids, very small and quite irregular in shape.

"The planet does rotate; its diurnal cycle is some twenty-six Terran hours, divided almost exactly between light and dark. But its axis is absolutely perpendicular, and thus there are no seasons at all."

"The climate is extremely harsh," Kerenski took up the story. "Habitable, but just barely. There are no ice caps. Average equatorial temperature is thirty-seven degrees; in the temperate zones, over twenty-six. Humidity is low, about two percent globally. There are a number of high plateaus where the daily temperature variations are brutal: from more than thirty-seven degrees in the daytime to minus six or lower at night."

"The land masses are large," Gaetano said, "covering more than seventy percent of the planet's surface. The seas are small, shallow, and extremely salty."

An ideal vacation spot, yes, I thought wryly.

"Harsh or not," Delaney said, "the planet does harbor a surprising quantity and variety of life. The equatorial regions are barren desert, but the higher temperate latitudes are astoundingly rich. Once again we're seeing huge areas of grassland, many thousands of square kilometers; and some of those high plateaus Nadia mentioned support limited stands of forest. Animals too--some of them may be quite large."

"Dangerous?" Gaetano asked sharply.

Delaney smiled wickedly. "Only one way to find out."

"Very encouraging," Gaetano said. And then all of them except the captain turned their expectant gazes upon me.

"The quality of our orbital scans has been excellent," I said. "As with our previous surveys, we see no evidence of civilization. By all outward appearances, this planet seems uninhabited." Not to mention useless, I added silently.

"What about the magnetic anomalies?" Captain Antilles broke in quietly, still not looking at me.

"Pardon me, sir?" I asked, startled.

"The planet's unusual magnetic field," he explained. "Is it a form of communication?"

"I was under the impression we'd settled that yesterday, sir," I said carefully. "Commander Nakamara believes…"

The captain frowned, and finally his eyes shifted to me. "Does Commander Nakamara do all your work, Lieutenant?"

The implications of his words stung, and I had to fight to keep my voice even and respectful. "Not at all, sir," I said. "But I do value his expert opinions. In this case, he believes the fluctuations to be a natural phenomenon, most likely caused by tidal stresses on a core of liquid metal. Based on my experience as a Compcomm, I agree. The computer has found no trace of intelligence--nothing but random noise. And in any event, geomagnetism is an unlikely form of communication."

"Your opinions are noted, Lieutenant," Antilles said dismissively. He turned to Nakamara. "Are conditions safe for our landing parties, Commander?"

"The radiation levels are slightly high, but within tolerances," Nakamara said. "The major problems will be the ultraviolet…and the heat. I've already discussed this with Dr. Enyeart. He suggests avoiding the equatorial areas, unless absolutely necessary. He also suggests that the surveys begin in the early morning, and that they last no more than five hours. He will provide UV-blocking skin treatments for those who require it. He also strongly suggests that everyone carry as much water as possible. And finally, if anyone in a landing party experiences symptoms of heat exhaustion, he or she should call for pickup immediately."

"You may consider the doctor's recommendations my orders," the captain said. He looked around the table, his gaze once again excluding me. "I will tell you now, however, that I do not intend this to be a brief or cursory examination. As Commander Nakamara has indicated, this planet poses many questions. Before we leave, it is my intention that they be thoroughly answered. I believe you all understand me."

I had a strange sensation then. I'd felt it once before, during the briefing that followed our survey of A-Benideel. Now, as then, the others glanced quickly at me, their expressions troubled, as if the captain had once again said something he shouldn't have. But exactly what, I still had no idea.

He went on, "Most especially, I want to know beyond a doubt whether this planet has ever harbored intelligent life. Despite some opinions expressed here, I still consider that an open question."

"Our first landing will be at oh-seven-hundred tomorrow," Nakamara said. "Let's get to work."

###

I went to see Ensign Matthews.

It had been my intention not to; I feared that it would only get us both deeper in trouble. But that evening I found my curiosity getting the better of me: I simply had to know what had really happened--and how I'd avoided being blamed.

The enlisted Security man guarding Matthews' cabin was young, tall and slim. As I approached he gazed at me with a mixture of respect, trepidation and outright terror in his dark eyes. "May I help you, Lieutenant?"

"I'm here to see Ensign Matthews," I told him. "If I may."

"Do you--uh--do you have permission from Lieutenant Harris?"

"No," I said. "I wasn't aware I needed it."

He gazed at me uncertainly for a long moment. Then he sighed. "I should call him," he said. "But he hates being bothered off-duty. All right. You can go in, ma'am."

"Thank you, Crewman," I said. He stepped aside, and I entered.

As CF vessels go, Raven was very unusual in that everyone, even ensigns and enlisted personnel, had private quarters. Probably it had to do with the small crew and smaller ship; everyone needs a place in which to be absolutely alone--especially on the long, boring Patrol runs for which the ship had been built.

Matthews was seated at his work table, a palm-reader in his hands. He wore casual trousers and a loose long-sleeved shirt, and seemed to have entered "shore-leave" mode. He looked up with a cheerful smile as I entered; and as he turned toward me I saw that his left eye was spectacularly blackened, the bruise shading from purple into yellowish-green. "Lieutenant!" he said. "This is a surprise!"

Despite his carefree attitude, I had to suppress a shudder. I'd recently done the "restricted to quarters" thing myself, for the first time in my career; and while I suppose it's better than the brig, still I hoped it would also be the last. I do not respond well to confinement--No Sah'aaran does.

My first words, as the door closed behind me, wiped the smile off his face. "You, Mr. Matthews, are an idiot."

The palm-reader tumbled out of his hands. "Pardon me?"

I perched myself on the edge of his neatly-made bunk. "Fighting with Osgood," I explained. "Don't you know what that could do to your career?"

He shrugged. "As I said before, it isn't the first time. Fights happen, Lieutenant, even on Survey vessels. Most especially during long patrols. As long as no one is badly hurt, the Psych Boys usually see it as a stress-release."

He had a point, but still… "That wasn't just a 'stress release,' Brian," I said. "We both know that."

"You're right," he admitted. He took a deep breath. "Osgood is an idiot--always has been. We were in the Officer's Academy together; even then he was the bully, the class clown. He was almost expelled at least five times. But what he did to you was nothing like a schoolboy prank. That night in the gym he was bragging about what he'd done--he was actually pleased by it, proud of it. Finally I couldn't take any more. And with him, a calm discussion of the issues wasn't sufficient."

"In a way, I appreciate it," I said. "Your loyalty, if nothing else. But don't you realize the position you put me in? The captain might have chosen to blame me for this too. I don't know how--but he would have found a way. Did that occur to you while you were pummeling Osgood?"

He shook his head, crestfallen. "No," he said quietly. "No, Lieutenant, it didn't."

"In fact," I went on, "I still can't believe I wasn't blamed."

Suddenly he was all smiles again. "That's the best part of the story," he said. "You see, most of the people in the gym that night were Osgood's friends--you know the ones I mean."

I nodded. To my sorrow, I did: the ones who sat with him in the mess hall, laughing at his racist remarks; and the ones around the poker table that terrible night.

"But," Matthews went on, "all of a sudden they weren't supporting him any more. He was joking about what he'd done to you--but they weren't laughing. All he got was silence; no encouragement at all. But he's not the kind of person who'd take that as a signal to shut up--he kept getting louder. Afterwards, he tried to get them to say that you'd ordered me to attack him, unprovoked. But they wouldn't do it."

"No?" I asked, startled. "Why not?"

"I don't know," he said. "But when Lieutenant Harris arrived, not one of them supported Osgood. They all swore he caused the fight."

I was absolutely astounded; I'd honestly believed that there was no limit to what Osgood could get away with. Had he finally gone too far? I like to think that most intelligent beings have a streak of decency in them; was it possible that the consciences of Osgood's clique had finally begun to bother them? "So why are you here, and Osgood still on duty?" I asked.

Matthews smiled. "The captain and Commander Edgeworth had fits about that. In the end they blamed the one who threw the first punch, and that was me. I never denied it."

I peered closely at him. "Commander Nakamara told me that Osgood got the worst of it," I commented. "I think he was right. How did you manage that?"

He grinned and pointed to the wall above his bunk, where hung a framed certificate. I leaned over for a closer look. It was an award, the familiar gilt-edged parchment presented at the Officer's Academy for athletic excellence. I owned one myself; it was in storage on Outpost Four. Mine was for tennis--but Matthews' was for boxing. In his junior year, it seemed, he had taken the All-Academy middle-lightweight championship.

"I see," I said blandly. "Well, Ensign, I'm still in a difficult position. On one hand I want to thank you and congratulate you; it was past time someone taught Osgood a lesson. But on the other hand I'm duty-bound to tell you: never do anything like that again!"

He smiled. "I don't imagine it will be necessary again."

###

I'd named this planet correctly--very definitely, I had.

The first landing of what turned out to be a long and exhausting survey took place in a valley, or more accurately a canyon, which cut north to south for two hundred kilometers through the heart of a large continent in the planet's northern hemisphere.

Our crowded pod touched down on the canyon floor just after sunrise (first sunrise, that is: as yet only the red giant had topped the horizon.) Stepping off the ramp, last in line, I squeezed my eyes tight shut as a stiff hot wind threw a load of sand in my face. Goddess! I thought. If it's like this with one sun barely risen…

The surface beneath my long-suffering feet was gravel, very sharp, clattering and shifting as I searched in vain for a comfortable place to stand. The air smelled of dust and heat; and apart from the echo of my companions' footsteps, the only sound was the eerie moaning of the wind.

Beside me, Gaetano squinted up into the bloody light. "Reminds me of the Grand Canyon," he commented.

I looked around. I found myself at the bottom of a huge gash some two kilometers deep, the sides extensively convoluted and channeled. By running water? At the rim the walls were about three kilometers apart; where we stood, maybe two. The floor was flat and utterly dry, covered in some places by thick beds of gravel, in others by deep washes of sand. In that weird light all colors were deadened to dark grey and black, and the shadows were green.

"Then where's the Colorado?" I teased.

He shrugged affably. "Okay. Mariner Valley on Mars, then."

That I could almost buy, having once stood in that famous place myself. But I'd been wearing a pressure suit, and the temperature had been well below zero, making that comparison less than apt too.

The red star had fully risen by then--a gigantic blood-colored orb that filled a quarter of the sky, and yet could be looked at full-on without discomfort--and its green-tinged shadows were steadily shrinking, when the other two suns rose, swiftly and simultaneously. "Dramatic" is not the word for the change that occurred. "Horrifying" might do.

It was like the beam of an arc-light on a darkened stage. Suddenly the gravel was pale pink, not black, and the washes of sand beige. The shadows all but vanished. The canyon walls were abruptly banded in wide stripes of brown, cream, orange, red and purple, making that Grand Canyon comparison more appropriate. But appreciating the beauty of the transformation was the farthest thing from my mind--because with the rising of the other two suns came a crashing wave of heat. It was almost solid, like a fast-moving wall: it slammed into me, taking my breath away and almost knocking me flat. I found myself turning away, half-crouched, as if shying away from a physical blow. Along with my colleagues, I touched my scanpak gauntlets to my belt-buckle, turning down my thermostat. Even that didn't help much

"Wow," Gaetano said. He lifted his hand to the sky. "Massive UV--thank God for sunscreen."

I needed sunscreen on only one small part of my anatomy: the tip of my nose. The small tube that Dr. Enyeart had pressed on me could have lasted months--not that I planned on hanging around that long. I was thanking the Goddess for a UV-proof coat of fur. My human colleagues weren't quite that lucky, even though field gear leaves very little flesh vulnerable. Even Delaney wasn't entirely immune.

Nakamara clapped his hands together for attention. (He was, as I mentioned, in charge of this survey. My turn, if it ever came, would evidently be in the far future.) "All right, people," he said, "It isn't going to get any cooler, and we've only got five hours. Let's get some work done."

Delaney glared in disgust at the canyon walls, on which there was not one spot of green. "How in hell am I supposed to get any work done here?" she muttered. Then she sighed and moved off, struggling through the deep gravel. I shared her sentiments, but in my case it was more like: "How are we supposed to stay alive long enough to get any work done?"

I shrugged, and reached into my sample bag for my rock hammer. Some of the layers in the canyon walls seemed to be limestone; maybe I could find some fossils interesting enough to compensate for a lethal dose of heat-stroke.

###

There weren't any fossils--not a damn one.

I'd been working alone for two hours when Gaetano happened by. He found me half a kilometer up a narrow side-canyon, perched atop a boulder (unsteadily. without help from my toe-claws) running my scanpak across an outcrop of grey sandstone. Not because it was especially promising--it wasn't--but because it was in the shade. All around me the air literally shimmered with heat. When I heard the slithering clatter of footsteps behind me I spun, nearly losing my footing…and ended up facing the wrong direction.

Dr. Enyeart had promised that the loss of my ear would have a "minimal" effect on my hearing--but he was wrong. True, the internal parts were undamaged. But the external structure--that which amplified sounds and enabled me to determine the direction from which they came--was gone on that side, skewing my hearing to the right. Eventually I might learn to compensate…but I wasn't holding my breath.

Fortunately it was Gaetano, not some weird and ravenous creature. Fighting his way through the sand, the geologist was sweating freely, his hair plastered across his forehead and his face flushed; but he grinned nonetheless. "How're you doing?" he asked.

I switched off my scanpak and sat down atop the boulder. There was ample room for two; he hauled himself up beside me. "It's hot, this planet is worthless, I'm almost out of water, and the power cell in my cooling unit is dying fast," I told him succinctly. "So how are you doing?"

"About the same," he said. "Though I'd say 'strange.' This planet is truly bizarre."

"How so?" I asked. To my embarrassment, I suddenly realized that I'd neglected to call him "sir"--but he seemed to neither notice nor care. Indeed, I felt that I could have called him by his first name without his taking offense. A comfortable and cheerful thought; but I could never forget that his friendliness was entirely superficial, and masked terrible secrets.

He waved a gauntleted hand. "Case in point, this canyon," he said. "It shows every sign of having been cut by water--like the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, as I said. But our friend Lieutenant Kerenski insists that this planet has never had that much flowing water."

I shrugged. "So she's wrong."

He grinned. "Don't let Nadia hear that. But no--I don't think she is. This planet really is exceptionally dry. Always has been, as far as I can tell." He indicated the outcrop behind us. "Case in point number two," he went on. "What are most of those layers composed of?"

"Limestone," I said instantly. That much had been obvious at first glance.

"Which forms--?" he prompted, sounding exactly like an especially pedantic professor from my first year at Sah'salaan U.

"Usually from the accretion of shells in a shallow sea," I said. Then I realized what he was driving at. "Meaning that this entire area, thousands of square kilometers, must once have been under water."

"Perfect score," he beamed. "And that doesn't seem likely. We've scanned the seas, remember: they're small, extremely salty, and devoid of life. They're hypersaturated, more saline than the Dead Sea on Terra. Even a brine shrimp would curl up and die."

"So they aren't accreting shells at all."

"Exactly," he agreed. "Only rock salt. They're surrounded by huge salt pans, like the floor of Death Valley. Kilometers deep--obviously they've been forming for a good long time. So either conditions on this planet were once radically different--more so than I'm willing to admit--or…" he trailed off.

"Or?" I prompted.

"Or…I have no idea," he grinned. "'Tis a puzzlement."

"I wonder…"

"Go on."

"Well," I said slowly, aware that the theory I was hatching was a trifle off the wall, "Trojan-point orbits are notorious 'collectors.' In the Terra-Luna system, spacecraft have to avoid them, or risk running into huge debris clouds. Most of the outer moons of Jupiter are asteroids caught in the Trojan points."

"All true," Gaetano agreed. "So?"

"So…could this planet be from outside, as Commander Nakamara suggested? Captured somehow by these suns' gravity?"

"Meaning that it evolved its geology in a different system, under a cooler sun, and was then cut loose from its primary?"

"Stranger things have happened," I pointed out. "Stars do explode, or collide."

"True enough, but there's a problem," Gaetano said. "The atmosphere would have frozen solid during the transit. It could have thawed out later, without significant loss, but all life would have been destroyed--even bacteria. Evolution would have had to begin all over again."

"Unlikely," I agreed. "Although we have no idea of the time involved. But that leaves us back where we started."

"True," he said placidly. He glanced up at the cliff. "So--any luck?"

"Zero," I told him flatly. "I've been poking around for two hours. If there's a fossil anywhere here, it's beyond my skill to find it."

He frowned. "That's…strange."

"Very," I agreed. "As far as I can tell, the rock is pure, uniform calcium carbonate. For all I know, it precipitated out of solution."

"Not likely," he said. "Not on this scale."

"I know." I sighed. "Add it to the list, I suppose."

"Right."

"Commander," I said, having decided against using his first name, "what do you think about the magnetic field?"

He scratched his chin. Then he said, slowly, "I tend to agree with Hiro: it's a natural phenomenon. The tidal stresses are terrific--we've already detected several strong earthquakes. That would keep the core in constant, chaotic motion. The geodynamo effect, you know."

"And the captain's theory--?"

He smiled wryly. "Implausible at best." He ran his hand across his forehead, and half a liter of sweat streamed down his arm.

"I've always wondered," I said, or rather panted--indeed, my half of the conversation was a good deal more disjointed than I've written it, because of my constant panting--"what it's like to perspire."

"Believe me," he said, shifting uncomfortably, "you wouldn't like it."

I glanced up at those awful suns. "How hot is it, I wonder?"

He consulted his scanpak. "Forty-three degrees exactly."

Goddess! "I think you ought to know," I told him with a smile, "anything above thirty-two voids my warranty."

"Mine too," he said. "But ours is not to reason why."

I made a face. I knew the quote--but I'd never been too thrilled by the "do or die" part.

Gaetano slid off the boulder, and gave me a hand down. "Let's go see how the others are doing, eh? Before it really gets hot."

###

The next morning I was sick.

Not to the point of heaving, or anything as dramatic as that; but I woke from ten hours of restless sleep feeling shaky and fragile, with a pounding headache centered somewhere between my eyes. Unable to face breakfast (as I'd been unable to face dinner the night before) I reluctantly made my way to sickbay.

To my surprise, I found all four of my colleagues already there, sitting in their skivvies on the exam tables, looking as miserable as I felt. Gaetano glanced up, grinning weakly, as I entered. "We were wondering when you'd show up," he commented.

As I stripped down to my underwear and hauled myself up beside the geologist--there being no other available space--I asked hesitantly, "Uh--we haven't picked up some weird and lethal virus, have we?"

Running his scanpak over me, Enyeart snorted in disgust. "No," he said. "What you picked up was a case of heat exhaustion, running around down there without enough water."

"I had water," I protested. "Two full liters." And I'd finished it, right down to the last tepid drop. I'd also kept my thermostat turned as low as I'd dared; in fact I returned to the pod with the battery in my cooling unit stone dead. Maybe I should scrounge up a spare. Or two.

"Not enough," the doctor said ruthlessly. I was reluctant to let him touch me; indeed, every time I saw him the stub of my ear twitched, and I had to resist an impulse to hide my hands behind my back. But this was an emergency. He rubbed a drug-patch through my fur into my upper arm, and a few seconds later my headache began to recede. "Carry more next time. Or stay down a shorter time, or pick a cooler place to land."

Wonderful advice, yes. "Wait a minute," I said. "If we're all here, who's heading down to the planet?"

"Nobody," Nakamara said flatly.

"And the captain--?"

"Is livid," Gaetano grinned.

I could well imagine; but Enyeart said firmly, "Livid or not, none of you is going down there today. I'm prescribing rest and lots of fluids, for the next twenty-four hours." He turned to me, his gaze almost accusing. "Especially you, Lieutenant," he said. "For some reason you were the hardest-hit."

I thought, Yeah, well, you try traipsing around down there in a fur bodysuit, and see how you like it! "Understood, Doctor," I said.

Nakamara cleared his throat. "I suggest we adjourn to our briefing area," he said. "We can at least discuss yesterday's observations. That shouldn't be too taxing." He smiled. "And the lemonade is on me."

Silently I shook my head. Antilles would just love this one, I knew, especially considering how interested he was in Hellhole. The entire survey team putting themselves out of commission at once--? At least he couldn't blame it on me.

We all nodded our agreement. Whatever the doctor had given me had worked: my headache was gone, and I no longer felt on the verge of throwing up. Just very tired. Taking it easy, quietly conversing…that, I could cope with. Enyeart sighed tragically. "I suppose that will be sufficient, though bed rest would be better," he said. "There's nothing more I can do for you, at any rate."

As my colleagues and I dressed, the doctor produced a palm-reader from his pocket and frowned down at it. "One moment, Lieutenant," he said to me. "It's been almost a week again--we might as well take care of it now, since you're here. I have the clippers with me…" And he did, right there in his pocket. At the sight of them I turned away, suddenly ill again.

Three things happened then. First, my heart sank; second, my tail began to wave. Those were normal. What was unusual, unprecedented even, was this: my fellow Scispecs paused in the act of dressing to fix Enyeart with harsh and disbelieving stares. I could clearly read their minds, most especially Gaetano's: She came to him for help, and this is what she gets? But Enyeart, utterly oblivious, stood gazing expectantly at me, those damn clippers dangling from his knobby hand.

At that moment I experienced a sudden--but brief--feeling of power. I came close to telling Enyeart where to stuff the cutters. But if I had, he'd have gone straight to Antilles--and then all hell would have broken loose. My colleagues' support, even Gaetano's, was paper-thin; if the captain ordered me permanently declawed, they would not dare to prevent it. And that, as I've said, was a risk I didn't dare take.

And so I sighed and nodded. "All right, Doctor," I said. I glanced at Nakamara. "I'll be there in a few minutes, sir…if that's all right."

Nakamara glanced from me to the doctor and back again. He opened his mouth…and then he too sighed. "Of course, Lieutenant," he said softly. "We'll be waiting for you."

And then he and the others trooped out, leaving me to the tender mercy of Enyeart's clippers. As they departed, Gaetano gripped Nakamara's elbow. "You know, Hiro, I bet we'd find lots of fascinating stuff at the south pole…"


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