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 TWENTY-TWO
 
 

By the second week of my ordeal I was naked.

That was by no means an easy decision, and I didn't make it lightly. But in the end it was inevitable--and unavoidable.

If not for my two spare power cells, it would have happened much sooner. I did what I could to make them last: during the day I activated the cooler only when I was in danger of fainting; and at night I didn't use the heater at all, relying instead on my bed of grass and leaves. But careful as I was, twelve days after my stranding both batteries were stone dead. And as I'd feared, without the cooler my uniform was unendurable, especially in direct suns.

Nor was that the only reason. Field gear is virtually indestructible; no tool I possessed could have cut it. But the thorny underbrush could--and did. Several times those wicked barbed spikes grabbed my clothing and left me hanging helpless until I fought free. Needless to say, that kind of treatment took its toll. The tubes that carried the antifreeze were deeply-buried and self-sealing; long before the efficiency of the temperature-control unit was impaired, the batteries were dead. But my field gear was part of my nighttime insulation--did I really want my PJ's full of gaping holes?

All of which might explain why one morning with the temperature rising fast and a long day of hunting ahead of me, I simply left my uniform lying on my bed. I had no underwear, so I left my shelter wearing nothing but the wide black belt, on which hung my water bottles, knife and stinger.

Doing so took me back more than twenty years, to my childhood.

Sah'salaan Continent, my ancestral home, has a unique climate, with the long torrid summers broken into two distinct parts. "First-summer" lasts about two Terran Standard months, and is extremely hot and dry. It's followed by two weeks of drenching monsoon rains, the so called "interval." Then comes two months of "second-summer." Slightly cooler, it's the season when many annual plants sprout and bloom. It fades slowly and imperceptibly into golden autumn and mild hazy winter .

In such a climate, fur and clothing together can be sheer torture. My ancestors wore only collars, supplemented by bracelets, anklets, belts and harnesses. Even today, during the hot months--and sometimes even the cool ones--it's impossible to keep clothing on a Sah'aaran kit. Most parents don't even try. My brother and I were absolutely typical: the merest hint of sunshine and our day-robes came off. At school we had to remain clothed; but on our own time--vacations and holidays--we seldom troubled ourselves. In the hotter equatorial regions, even the schools are sometimes "clothing-optional."

Young kits can get away with that sort of thing. But later, in adolescence and adulthood, concepts like modesty and decorum come along to spoil your idyllic little world. Then you leave your clothes on, and on hot days you stay indoors near the air-chiller if you can; or you suffer outdoors if you must. Even as a kit, doing without clothes gave me a wonderful feeling of freedom: I always resented the first day of school and that stiff new day-robe. It was a feeling which even the passage of twenty-odd years hadn't eliminated.

Only in one way did I feel naked--in the sense of exposed or indecent--and that was easy enough to cure. Over the next few days, as I waited out the heat of the afternoon in my shelter, I occupied myself by weaving grass into a wide comfortable collar, which remained around my neck the remainder of my sojourn on Hellhole. Other than that, I spent the daytime hours entirely naked--and soon learned to appreciate the wisdom of my hunting ancestors.

###

It's tempting to say that laying aside my uniform marked the turning point in my conversion from Combined Forces officer to savage carnivore. But that's not quite true. There still remained one technological crutch which Hellhole had yet to take away: my stinger.

It's amazing how quickly even the most bizarre circumstances can become routine. It happened aboard Raven, almost against my will; and now it was happening again. Just three weeks into my exile, this solitary life felt almost normal, my previous existence a barely-remembered dream. A typical day proceeded thus. I rose early, before red dawn. I drank from the bottle that I kept from freezing by sleeping with it; groomed myself as well as I could, and checked for predators. If there were none (and there never were, after sunrise) I kicked my ladder out the door and followed it down. I tended my firepit, adding fuel and re-banking the coals. If I had food to spare, I attended to other chores: gathering firewood, filling my water jugs, and so on. Or, if I was hungry or in need of fresh meat, I strapped on my belt and went hunting. Successful or not--I usually was--I returned to my shelter before the heat became unendurable, and before I ran out of water. If successful, I loaded up my firepit for smoking, and whiled away the hours in the shade, guarding the meat from scavengers. If not, I might nap through the afternoon in my shelter; or--more likely--spend the time in my handmade swimming pool, immersed up to my whiskers. As evening approached and the temperature began to fall, I cleaned up whatever I was doing, banked my fire, and climbed up to my shelter, rolling up the ladder and closing the grass curtain. And as the cold began to bite, I donned the remains of my field gear and crawled into bed. I rarely stayed awake past sunset; there was no point in doing so.

A simple routine--but not easy. In fact it was a hell of a lot of hard physical work, more than had ever been required of me. But simple--and in a way not unpleasant, after what I'd been through aboard Raven. In a bizarre sense, my exile was just what I needed: a life with no intrigue, no intractable senior officers, no conspiracies, no fears that my career was being destroyed. Those simple, silent days were better for my psyche than years of psychotherapy. It might even be said that being stranded saved my life.

The incident that did in my stinger--and very nearly me as well--began with a mistake.

I'd known since the beginning that there were carnivores in the forest (other than myself, I mean) and that most of them were nocturnal. In fact there was a whole nighttime economy, about which I knew very little, because I didn't dare investigate. Other than the hundreds of eyes that circled my shelter every night, and an occasional glimpse of something large and dark fleeing the dawn, I'd seen nothing. During my time on Hellhole I had just two encounters with predators. Both were nearly fatal.

I'd worked hard that day, hunting and killing the largest wild "pig" I'd yet seen, and lugging many kilos of meat back to my tree for smoking. That one animal provided me with enough food for a week--and a good thing it did. Fortunate too that I filled my water jugs before I lay down, dead-tired, to sleep.

In the depths of the night I was awakened from deep sleep by a strange noise, at once a skittering, chattering and chuckling. I sat up, scattering my bedding…and realized with a shock that I wasn't alone. Fortunately both moons were riding high; otherwise I would never have seen my executioners coming. I knew instantly what had happened: in my exhaustion I'd neglected to pull up my ladder. A small error, my first--but very nearly my last.

Individually they were small, rat-sized; but there were hundreds of them. They swarmed up the ladder, chittering horribly…and before I could blink they were all over me.

Goddess, if only I'd had my claws! With a gasp of horror I leaped to my feet, lest I be overrun. My belt hung nearby; from it I snatched my stinger and my stone knife--and turned to fight for my life. The creatures crawled up my legs, and I struck at them; they scrambled up the walls, and I shot them down. They climbed the ladder by the dozen--until I fought my way over to the doorway. Grasping my knife in my teeth, laying down a covering barrage, I pulled the ladder up one-handed. Another minor horde of the damned things came with it--but at least I'd stemmed the tide.

I don't know what they looked like; all I saw in the quick blue flashes was the gleam of big chisel teeth. By the hundreds I struck them down, and there were always more. And they bit. Whenever they could get close enough, they bit, hard and deep. Very soon I was covered head to toe with bites: my feet, my legs, my tail…and especially my arms. Had I been naked I might have bled to death--but even field gear did not deter them much. My right arm was bitten down to the bone when six of the things launched themselves at my face at once. In terror of being blinded or losing my remaining ear, I threw up my arm, and they clamped down on it. They took chunks of flesh, fur and field gear with them as I flung them away. After that my right arm was all but useless, limp and tingling.

Even as I fought I was aware of a red light flashing in the darkness: my stinger's low-power warning. For days I'd anxiously watched the meter's steady fall. I'd hoarded the last reserves like a miser, snapping off quick, low-power shots--and only when I was certain of my aim. Just enough to stun: I finished the kills with my knife. This--the dozens or hundreds of wild bursts I fired that night--was it. Near the end of the fight the stinger buzzed harshly and died. I flung it away and spat my knife back into my hand.

The remaining few creatures went on the defensive, skittering away from my knife-thrusts; but the shelter was too small for them to evade me very long. One by one I hunted them down and knifed them, catching the last one as it burrowed deep into my bedding.

And that was all, except for the cleaning-up. Groping through the darkness I found the little furry corpses, some charred and some bleeding, and tossed them out the door. It seemed to take hours; maybe it did. I never saw them again--not even their bones.

I was bleeding from perhaps two dozen wounds, but fortunately most of them were minor. Much worse was my right arm: it hung limp and stung like fire, and blood poured through the shredded sleeve. Though the wounds desperately needed suturing, I lacked the materials--and the skill.

I made do, all but emptying my little first-aid kit. I sprayed antiseptic into every wound, not knowing what pathogens they might have picked up from my attackers' saliva; when I finished the can was empty. I sealed the largest bites with the dermapatches; the rest I wrapped with gauze. To get at the injuries I'd been obliged to strip off my field gear, and very soon I found myself shivering violently, as much from shock as from cold. And when I'd patched myself up as best I could--I collapsed. Literally: I had barely enough strength to don my blood-spattered uniform and burrow into my bedding before I passed out.

I spent the next three days in bed, too weak to rise, alternately burning with fever and shaking with chills. That was shock too: fortunately none of my wounds had turned septic. But infected or not, for three days I was virtually helpless. Somehow I found the strength to eat a little--and to drink a lot. If not for the ample supplies within easy reach, I would have died.

On the fourth day I rose, though just sitting up made me dizzy. Shaking with effort, I stripped and removed the gauze that wrapped me like a mummy. Most of my wounds were already closing; and that was good: I lacked the materials to re-bandage all but the worst. The one exception was my arm. The most serious bites lay under dermapatches; those I left alone. But many of the others were still angry-looking, barely scabbed over. I washed the wounds and covered them again, stretching my last few centimeters of bandage as far as it would go. I could think of nothing else to do. Fortunately my arm was usable again. Not fully; that would be a long time coming. But adequately.

Then I surveyed the damage to my home. Fortunately I had found and evicted all the invaders; no rotting corpses, thank the Goddess. But blood had soaked into the floor, and the walls were shot full of charred holes. Eventually they'd have to be rebuilt--but that job would have to wait. For now I lacked the strength even to begin.

Later that morning I kicked down the ladder and descended carefully, my field gear slung over my shoulder. The short walk to my waterhole was almost beyond my strength. Wounded as I was, I decided against immersing myself--but I just had to wash the blood out of my uniform. That I accomplished, more or less; but as I laid my one piece of clothing across the rocks to dry, I shook my head ruefully at the condition in which the attack had left it. The right sleeve hung in tatters up to the elbow; the left sleeve and the legs were in little better shape. Not all the blood had washed out, and the silver fabric was mottled with rusty brown stains. As much as I dislike field gear, I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for this set; it deserved an easier death.

As I sat waiting for my field gear to dry, my arm began to sting again. I had to firmly suppress an urge to rub at it, knowing that I'd likely break the fragile scabs and start them bleeding. Deep in my throat I growled, knowing that nothing I possessed would soothe the burning…

Soothe. Across the stream there was a patch of grass, the same variety I'd used to braid my ropes. I remembered the juice which had oozed from the cut ends, and how it had penetrated my hands, preventing the rough stems from irritating them. I wonder…

I waded across, knife in hand, and returned a minute later with a double handful of grass. I mashed the stems between two flat rocks, adding water to the pulp until I created a dubious-looking greenish paste. I unwound the gauze from around my arm and applied a tiny amount of the stuff to one of my smaller wounds, like a poultice. And instantly, like switching off a light, the stinging ceased. Eagerly I scraped up the remainder of the paste…and when I returned to my shelter I brought along a large sheaf of grass, wrapped in my field gear.

Back at my tree I discovered another difficulty, potentially serious but not unexpected: my fire was out, stone cold dead. The banked coals would easily last through a single night--but not three. Even in my delirium I'd known this would happen; I'd dreamed about it, over and over, as I tossed and turned.

Even in perfect health, I'm not sure if I could have managed the bow-drill business. But once again the Goddess was smiling on me: my stinger's power cell had recovered. Just a little--enough for a single weak discharge. That spark, directed into a handful of dry grass, did the trick; but for my stinger it was the kiss of death.

Two days later, feeling stronger, I went to work again. I scouted up a small chunk of obsidian, and from it I chipped a spearhead. A "poplar" sapling, hacked off laboriously with my knife, became the haft. I split one end and bound the spearhead there, using a length of thread raveled from the sleeve of my uniform. Even as I worked I knew I'd once again turned a corner: no longer could I hide behind a bush, letting a bolt of lightning do my killing. No; from now on it would be mano a mano, up close and personal, my strength and speed against my opponent's. More dangerous, more time-consuming, yes--but in a way, more rewarding too.

###

In the fourth week, I began thinking about rescue.

By this time (I told myself) Raven would be seriously overdue. A ship may already have been dispatched to search for her--and they might arrive at any time.

That idea--unlikely as it was--threatened to become an obsession. I became irrationally fearful that the rescue vessel would come and go without finding me. Why would they even bother to look? They'd be searching for a disabled ship, not a single stranded Sah'aaran.

To ease that fear I turned to the remaining artifacts of my former life. Since my stranding neither my scanpak nor my commpak had seen much use, except that I'd occasionally called on the former to check unfamiliar foodstuffs for harmful substances. Now I brought them out from the shelf where they'd lain all but forgotten for several weeks. Twice a day, morning and evening, I took an orbital scan, seeking anything that might be circling Hellhole; twice a day I transmitted a broad-band distress signal. And twice a day I was disappointed. I had to firmly resist the temptation to keep scanning, keep transmitting, for hours on end, as if sheer persistence would force my rescuers to appear. Power was far too precious. Five minutes at a time was all I could afford; and even that would drain the cells soon enough. It was like a knife through my heart, every time I saw that little screen come up blank, and heard the waves of static crash into my ear. Of course it was--but I persevered. Under the circumstances, I could do nothing else.

###

At the end of the fifth week I celebrated a minor victory: my claws had finally grown long enough to sharpen.

The process had been agonizingly slow. Every morning I checked them--finger and toe alike--and every morning it seemed that they were as short as Enyeart's clippers had left them. They had grown, of course. The miracle is that they were all growing back straight and strong. A small--but horrible--possibility existed that they wouldn't, if the constant cutting had scarred the cuticles. Difficult as it was, I'd had to force myself to be patient. My claws were indeed getting longer, but their tips were still blunt, and if I tried to shape them prematurely I could do a great deal of harm.

So things had stood for more than a month…until the morning when I judged them finally ready. Like those of Terran felines, Sah'aaran claws exfoliate; and so--as much as I hate to admit it--I began the job by using the tree trunk as a scratching post. That was a start--but the final, personal shaping required a file. Which I didn't have. Once again I depended on the wisdom of my ancestors, and substituted a small chunk of sandstone.

The shaping of claws is an art-form among Sah'aarans, learned in childhood and perfected in adolescence, when we each develop our own individual style. For us, claw-care is never-ending business: a Sah'aaran with time on his hands will almost invariably pull out his file for a quick touch-up. On Sah'aar, that is so common a sight as to be invisible, and by no means an impolite thing to do. Among humans I'd soon learned to desist--after a notoriously cranky Academy professor confiscated my file.

What I achieved that morning was not the most elegant of jobs--but when I looked down at those needle-sharp points, a feeling of wild exhilaration surged through me. Once again I was whole; once again I was Sah'aaran. Once again I could greet another of my species properly, and without shame. And it had taken a stranding with slim hope of survival to achieve that. If Raven had survived, Enyeart would have kept cutting my claws once a week as long as I remained aboard; until, perhaps, I forgot what it was like to have them. As I turned my hands back and forth, admiring my handiwork, I made a vow: I will never lose these again. No one--not even the Goddess Herself--would take them away. I might die here, or I might be rescued; I might return to Sah'aar, or I might go to Terra. I might someday command a ship; or I might retire early. An infinite number of possibilities lay before me. But whatever happened to me, I would face it as my heritage demanded: with proudly expressed claws.

###

In the fading twilight I drew the knife from my belt and scratched another line into the tree trunk: it was the forty-second such mark I'd made there.

The grim figures--forty-two days, six weeks--echoed dismally through my mind as I prepared for the coming night. I pulled up and stowed my ladder--never again would I forget that. I hung up my belt. I untied the thong which held my too-long mane out of my eyes. I took a long drink, and splashed water on my face, rubbing it into my aching eyes. I'd been having trouble with them these last few weeks: sharp pain and blurred vision were becoming increasingly frequent; and at night the darkness was filled with amorphous purple blobs. I had no good explanation for this, though of course it troubled me greatly. Another addition to my growing list of worries.

I pulled on the remnants of my field gear, and fluffed up my bedding. And then, slowly and tiredly, I lay down, curling tight around myself against the growing chill. Another hard, hot, exhausting day…but for some reason, sleep would not come.

Forty-two days. Six weeks in that hellish, unchanging climate, with every day so much like the last that they blurred together, punctuated only by those moments when the planet did its best to kill me. The wounds of its last attempt had finally faded, more or less. Hellhole grass juice had remarkable healing properties--but the scars on my right arm were large and ugly indeed, the fur tufted and patchy above them. The arm still seemed partially impaired too, my grip not as strong as it ought to have been. The wages of carelessness.

Throughout my exile I had, quite deliberately, lived on the surface, keeping my mind screwed tight to the daily dialectic of problem-solution-problem. I had not allowed myself to feel; I'd clamped off all emotion apart from the unavoidable moments of stark terror. The depression, the hopelessness, the anger which might have welled up and consumed me…those I had no time for; they were distractions I could not afford. I'd kept a tight lid on them--until now. Lying there in my bed, the night growing darker and colder around me, I suddenly felt the dam burst. The moisture on my cheeks now wasn't the water I had splashed there, but rather a saltier fluid. I took a deep shuddering breath and let it out slowly.

This abrupt surge of emotion wasn't hard to understand: time was passing, and I had entered one of my twice-yearly fertile periods. Back home in Sah'salaan the second-summer would be fading into autumn, with its days of hazy sunshine and pleasant warmth. The tatak would be losing their leaves, the branches loaded down with the hard black nuts that have become so popular on Terra. And meanwhile, millions of unbonded females would be hating the sunshine, hating the warmth, hating the trees, hating their parents and siblings--and most of all, hating themselves. Thank the Goddess "that time" comes only twice a year. The symptoms were many, emotional fragility being only one of them. Cramps, bloating, enlargement and tenderness of my mammaries…I had them all, and then some. And no way of ameliorating them. The hormone treatments which would have made life endurable were hundreds of light-years away. Never before had I been forced to endure without them. Fortunate indeed that I was alone: I would not have been pleasant company.

There were many things I had thrust aside during those weeks, discarded from my thoughts as irrelevant to the business of survival. One of those, which I had not thought about since Raven exploded, was the nature of the conspiracy aboard that ship. Now, in an unconscious effort perhaps to distract myself from my mood swings, I suddenly found myself wondering yet again what I'd been mixed up in. It's tempting to say that it no longer mattered; and to a certain extent that was true. And yet….can I really be blamed, if I was still curious? Something had been going on, contrary to Combined Forces regulations; and whatever it was, it had kept the senior officers in a state of permanent fear. Captain Antilles' plan had drawn me in as well, against my will, and for the better part of three months had made my life a living hell. Is it so strange that I still wondered what that plan had been? I'd never know now--and I'd come so damn close! If only Joel had come to me sooner…

Joel. Strange--or perhaps not so strange--how he had become the focal point of everything: questions, emotions, regrets. But it wasn't Lieutenant Commander Abrams, Techspec Crew Chief of the SV Raven, whom I saw in my mind's eye, but rather Cadet Abrams of the CF Officer's Academy. I saw his laughing face; I saw the two of us studying together, late into the night. I saw him patiently coaxing a terrified, shivering Sah'aaran into the shallow end of a swimming pool. I saw our forays into San Francisco, him chasing the elusive Perfect Cup of Coffee, and me settling for tea. I saw us on the beach, among the redwoods, on the trails of Point Reyes…I saw that weekend in Pacific Grove, and I felt regret, now, for a lost opportunity. I saw it all, every moment of those four whirlwind years; but inevitably those pleasant visions ended in a flash of white light, an explosion all the more horrible because it was utterly silent.

We wasted so much time, I thought. The tears were flowing freely now, down my face and into my fur; but I made no attempt to stop them. Whatever was going on aboard Raven, did it really matter that much? Was it worth losing everything we'd had?

With the benefit of hindsight, I cursed the day I set foot aboard that ship. And more: I cursed the fate that had taken me to Outpost Four and the admiral's dinner. It would have been better if Joel and I never encountered each other; if we'd held on to our memories--and our illusions. Better if I'd never known that he'd been killed; or if I'd read about it long after the fact in some cold listing of vital statistics. Better that than the cruel fate which tantalized me with visions of what could have been, only to snatch them away. And it's your fault, I told myself bitterly. You're the one who wanted a promotion…

And yet…the voice that whispered to me out of the darkness might have been my own: some inner and wiser self, perhaps. Or it might have been Commodore Ehm'rael, as ever acting as my conscience, and somehow speaking to me over the gulf of many light-years. I'll never know. But what it whispered was this: what you had, can never be taken away. And I understood. The memories of those four happy years were within me, and would remain alive as long as I did.

…And that's why it was it so vitally important that I survive my exile. Years ago I'd met Joel's parents on Terra; I even believed that they liked me. I vowed, there and then, that they would not hear the news of their son's death from some cold and uncaring admiral. No: I would tell them myself, face to face. And if they'd have me, I would remain to grieve with them, as is the Sah'aaran way.

I turned over again, and curled up a little tighter. Time to sleep: tomorrow would be another hard, hot day. And so too would the many tomorrows yet to come.


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