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-THREE


They carried me to the landing pod and strapped me into a seat. Careful as they were, my body was a solid mass of pain, and I could scarcely breathe. I felt the sting in the side of my neck as someone injected me with something from a first-aid kit. Even as the pod lifted off, the pain had begun to ease into a comfortable numbness; and I let my mind drift with it, down and away into a stormy sea of memory...

###

The smells were familiar.

Before I arrived at the Officer's Academy, I had never been away from my homeworld. Of the many strange sensations which assailed me during those first few days on Terra, it is the smells I remember most vividly. First the sharp metallic scent of shipboard air; then the unfamiliar and overpowering coastal odors of a place that seemed cold, damp and uninhabitable: the San Francisco Bay Area. But the most difficult to get used to was the distinctive smell of humans. Eventually I did--but I can never forget how my claws expressed and my tail lashed, the first few times I walked into a room full of Terrans…

When I woke I took a deep breath--which proved to be a mistake, as it caused a sharp twinge in my left side. I tried again, more carefully, and smelled…spaceship. Recycled air and humans. Odd how those scents now seemed familiar, even comforting, rather than strange and threatening. Underneath was another smell, sharp and unpleasant: disinfectant. Which could only mean…sickbay. For some reason my eyes refused to open; abandoning the attempt, I groped around with my hands.

I lay on a none-too-soft bed, covered to the waist by a thin sheet. Underneath that I seemed to be wearing a common, one-size-fits-none disposable gown. Alternating as I had for weeks between nakedness and field gear, the short garment felt strange, at once insubstantial and confining. A tightness encircled my lower chest and upper abdomen: an elastic wrap of some sort. The only sounds were the familiar subsonic rumble of a fusion drive on warm idle, and the quiet chime of a monitor registering. Evidently I'm alive, I thought wryly. Good to know…

Finally I forced my eyelids open. They were stickily reluctant, covered with some kind of gel. My eyes were less painful than they'd been for some time; an anesthetic ointment, perhaps? As through a mist, I peered around--and what I saw both comforted and confused me. Sickbay, yes: specifically the hospital section. No one seemed to be about; and the other dozen beds were unoccupied, their panels dark and silent. What perplexed me was the light--or rather the lack thereof. The ceiling panels had been dimmed drastically, and emitted no more than a soft orange glow. The surrounding beds were no more than indistinct lumps. What in the world--?

My breathing quickened in panic as a wild thought flashed through my mind: maybe they do think I'm dead! Perhaps this was the morgue, not the hospital; perhaps the autopsy was about to begin…

Calm down idiot, I told myself sharply. The monitor was chiming more rapidly now, in response to my rising heartbeat. If I was in fact believed to be deceased, the pinging would soon attract someone's attention. And the morgue had cold drawers, not warm beds. Still…my voice was huskier than usual from disuse, and for the first time since childhood I stumbled over the Terran words. "Hello? Is anyone there?"

The rumble of a door, somewhere behind me; and a brief stab of bright light, quickly extinguished. Then footsteps, sharp and clicking. The figure that approached was a tall spindly blur; but the scent was familiar--and not human. "Doctor Zeeleeayykk?" I said.

"That is correct," came the familiar, flat translator buzz; and in that instant I knew two things. First, my memories of rescue were accurate; and second, I was indeed aboard Zelazny. As the doctor stepped up beside me I could see, only just, the familiar green feathers, grey tabard and bright red cockatoo's crest. She tilted her head in lieu of a smile. "How are you, Ehm'ayla?" she asked.

"I'm…not sure," I said. "Maybe you'd better tell me."

"As you wish," she agreed affably. The bed jolted as she perched herself at its foot. "You were brought aboard yesterday morning, suffering from three fractured ribs and a dislocated shoulder. The dislocation has been reduced, and the ribs are wrapped; they will be sore for some days yet. You also had a collection of minor cuts and scrapes, which I have dermapatched. You are more than twelve kilos underweight, and suffering from a mild case of anemia. There is also evidence of stress. Those, I fear, will take somewhat longer to fix."

No point telling her that the weight-loss and stress predated my stranding; let her think they were the result of living as a savage. I waved a hand. "Why is it so dark in here?"

She hesitated; and when she spoke again, her translator sounded flatter than usual. "I feared you might awaken before I could warn you," she said. "As indeed you did. The sunlight on that planet is terribly bright--"

"Don't I know it."

"--and contains massive quantities of UV and infrared. Hazardous even for human or Centaurii eyes, in large doses--but Sah'aarans are exceptionally sensitive to those wavelengths. I fear you have suffered extensive retinal damage…"

Goddess! "I knew it was bright down there…but I had no idea it was that bad." So that's why my eyes always hurt…

"I will not lie to you," she said. "If you had remained there much longer, the damage would have been permanent. Given time, you might even have ended up blind. But fortunately we have caught it in time--and there may be an effective treatment. A Terran ophthalmologist recently developed a technique involving steroids and ultrasound…"

"When can we start?" I asked eagerly.

"Tomorrow," she said. "The sclera is mildly sunburned; I would like to clear that up first. Hopefully by then your retinas will be somewhat less inflamed also." She paused. "I should warn you--it will not be a pleasant process. There are fourteen daily treatments…"

"The alternative is even less pleasant," I pointed out.

"True enough," she agreed. "In the meantime…" She lifted a small object from the bedside table and handed it to me: a pair of dark goggles, identical to the ones worn by Techspecs while working close to the fusion exhaust. The bulbous lenses were fastened together by a short elastic band; a longer strap would hold them tight against the face.

"While the treatments continue, and for perhaps two weeks afterwards, you will need to wear those," Zee explained. "Your eyes will be extremely sensitive to light, and your retinas very fragile. Until they have regenerated completely, even moderate light could cause serious damage."

"Goddess!"

"Strictly temporary," she assured me. "If all goes well, your sight should be fully restored in less than a month."

I clasped her hand. "Thank you."

She cocked her head again. "As the humans say, 'no charge.'"

Abruptly then, something she'd said earlier finally sank in. "I've been unconscious a whole day?"

"Approximately."

"Do you know what our position is?" Obviously we were not under thrust; the engine's rumble was too soft. Which meant…

"Still in orbit around that unpleasant planet," she said, sounding perplexed. "We may be leaving soon, though, because--"

She was interrupted then, as the door directly across from my bed suddenly opened. It led into a main corridor, and I turned my head quickly from the onslaught of light, squeezing my eyes tight shut. A deep, familiar and very welcome voice said, "I understand your patient is awake, Doctor?"

"Indeed she is, Captain," Dr. Zee said. "Please come in. I apologize for the darkness; I must protect her eyes."

"I understand," Haliday said. I heard the door hiss closed, and the tap of his approaching footsteps; and when I opened my eyes the room was once again dim. My former CO stood close beside me, and even in the gloom I saw the flash of his teeth as he smiled broadly.? "You've had quite an experience, so I hear," he said kindly.

"Yes sir, I have," I agreed. I paused. "Thank you for rescuing me, Captain."

"You're quite welcome," he said. "Though as it happens, it was an accident." He hesitated, then went on, "Lieutenant, what happened? How did you end up down there?"

I tried to lever myself up with my elbows, and failed, halted by a sharp pain from my shoulder and ribs. Dr. Zee eased me into a more dignified sitting position, and bulked the pillows behind me. "Sir," I began, and swallowed hard. "Before Max and Aparna found me, I'd been stranded down there sixty-three days."

"Sixty-three days?" Haliday repeated in astonishment, and I nodded.

"Yes sir. Just as they found me--alone."

He frowned. "And Raven--?"

A blinding flash, all the more horrible because of its utter silence… "I…have reason to believe she was destroyed, sir," I said quietly. "I heard her disaster beacon, and then I saw what appeared to be a fusion explosion. After that…all contact was lost."

The captain's eyebrows rose. "And this happened while she was in orbit?"

"Yes, sir."

He gazed at me for a few seconds, gnawing his lower lip; then he leaned across me to key the intercom. "Control Deck," he said. "Nav."

"Goodwin here."

"Max, break orbit. Take us out to the farther moon, and hold until further orders."

"Aye, sir." Max was a good soldier; he didn't ask why.

Immediately the rumble of the fusion drive grew louder and deeper. Hellhole's two tiny moons were in close orbits; the transit should take no more than fifteen minutes.

Haliday pulled over a chair and sat down on it backwards, resting his hands on its back. "Probably unnecessary," he said with a smile. "But I didn't survive twenty-five years of combat by being careless." He paused. "Now, Lieutenant, I need to know everything that happened to you."

"Captain," Dr. Zee said, "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla is not fully recovered…"

I held up my hand. "That's all right, Doctor. I feel strong enough--and the captain does need to know."

"I won't tire her," Haliday said. "I promise."

With an untranslated hiss and a shake of her head, the doctor withdrew into her office. As the door closed behind her, I reached for my goggles. "If you like, sir, we can turn up the lights."

"No need," Haliday replied. "I'm not afraid of the dark."

I nodded gratefully. "Thank you." I paused. "Sir, if I may--how did you find me? You said it was an 'accident'--?"

He nodded. "That's right." Resting his chin on the backs of his hands, he frowned, collecting his thoughts. "As I'm sure you've surmised, the Admiralty sent us to search for Raven, after she was reported missing. And a devil of a job it was, too. We had almost nothing to go on: her last reported position was fifty light-years from here, at A-Benideel."

"Excuse me, sir," I said, "but that's impossible. This is the third system we visited after A-Benideel. We transmitted our status after every hyperjump--I know that for certain."

He smiled grimly. "I'm sure you're correct," he said. "But the signals were getting nowhere. The relay satellite Raven dropped at A-Benideel was dead--its solar panels never deployed. The messages she sent after leaving that system never got through. I'm surprised the Compcomm didn't notice…"

"So am I, sir." Though surprised was scarcely the word. Could I have been so terribly wrong about Brian Matthews? Had I been beguiled by his handsome face and friendly demeanor? Or…was there another answer? Worry about that later. "Please go on, sir."

"After finding nothing there, we had a mystery on our hands--and a dilemma as well. It was possible that Raven wasn't even in trouble--her crew might simply have been unaware that their messages weren't being received. But after we replaced the defective satellite, we tried to contact her ourselves--and failed. After that, we had no choice but to go on searching." He shook his head. "And that's when our problems really began. We had to second-guess Antilles, decide which systems he would choose to investigate. We searched nearly a dozen before we arrived here. The planet caught our attention immediately. It's a very peculiar world…"

I smiled. "I know," I said. "Believe me, I do."

"Hmmm? Oh, yes, I suppose you do. At any rate, we found no trace of Raven, and we had no idea that anyone was on the surface. We were about to break orbit when we ran into something extremely odd--and that's what I sent Max and Aparna to investigate: a massive magnetic disturbance. It popped up about an hour before you were found. I've never seen anything like it; the computer-plot looked almost like a target. It was centered directly on the place where you were found."

He cocked an eye, but I shook my head. "I have no explanation for that, sir."

"It gets better," he said with a grim smile. "Immediately after the pod reached the area, the anomaly vanished. Max made a pass over the clearing--and both he and Aparna swear they didn't see you. They were about to return to the ship when they picked up another energy reading--one we're having a very hard time explaining. It was almost identical to that of a hypertunnel."

I blinked. "A hypertunnel, sir? On the planet's surface?"

He nodded. "Exactly what we've been trying to understand. At any rate, Max made another swing over the clearing--and that's when they found you." He smiled. "And your little playmate too."

I grinned wryly. "I'm glad they did."

"So am I." Haliday paused. "I'm curious, Lieutenant," he went on. "According to Singh's report, you were naked except for a collar made of plant fibers, and you were carrying a spear, a stone knife, and a bundle of raw meat."

I sighed. "Yes, sir," I confirmed. "All true. I was stranded with almost no equipment--little more than field gear. After my stinger died, savagery was my only hope."

He glanced at me, at my teeth and claws…and nodded. "I understand," he said quietly. Then he went on briskly, "And that's brought us full circle: your stranding, and the destruction of Raven."

"Yes, sir." For a few seconds I stared up at the ceiling; then I went on, "You mentioned how peculiar this planet is. The anomalies are what attracted us here. Captain Antilles was especially interested in the magnetic fluctuations--he believed they might be a form of communication, though the Scispecs disagreed. We spent two weeks in orbit searching for intelligent life--but we found nothing. If someone has recovered my scanpak…"

Haliday shook his head. "I'm afraid not," he said. "Our landing parties found nothing apart from what you had when you were rescued: a grass collar and a belt with two water bottles."

I frowned. "My scanpak wasn't in my shelter, sir?"

"Shelter?" he echoed blankly.

"Yes, sir," I said. "A treehouse--only a few dozen meters from the clearing where I was attacked."

He shook his head again. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant," he said. "I had teams down yesterday and this morning--until the heat became too intense. None of them reported finding any kind of shelter."

How can that be? I asked myself. Great Goddess, there's my firepit, my rope ladder, my trash heap…how could anyone miss all that? Something isn't right here…

Haliday cleared his throat. "Could we return to that later, Lieutenant?" he said mildly. "You were telling me about Raven--?"

With an effort I fought free from my confusion. "Er--yes, sir," I said. I took as deep a breath as my ribs allowed. "I was part of the final landing party. Captain Antilles ordered us to pull out…"

As I spoke, narrating the events of that terrible day for the first time to someone other than myself, my throat began to constrict, and I had to fight to keep my tone even and professional, as befits an official report. Haliday saw that I was having a hard time--of course he did--but he remained silent, encouraging me with occasional nods, and let me take my time. Only once did his expression change. I had not the heart to describe everything that had happened to me aboard Raven--not yet. If I'd tried, I would not have been able to finish. The captain knew I was leaving something out; at very least, he must have wondered why no one searched for me when I fainted on the trail. So did I; the explanation which occurred to me immediately after the incident no longer satisfied me. But the rigors of survival had left me no time to puzzle out a better one. Haliday allowed me to gloss over that detail, without comment--but his eyes narrowed, and I knew it hadn't passed him by.

When at last I finished, the captain rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "A disaster beacon, a white flash, and a burst of static," he mused. "Certainly consistent with a fusion explosion."

I nodded. "The rest you know, sir," I said. "I spent the next two months fighting to survive."

His thoughts were still on Raven. "I hate to suggest it," he said, "but a fusion drive failure with no external cause usually indicates faulty maintenance."

"So I've always heard," I agreed. "But I'm having trouble believing it."

"Why?"

"Certainly Raven was not a young ship," I said, "and she'd been inadequately refit. But Joel--Lieutenant Commander Abrams--was one of the finest Techspecs in the CF."

"True enough."

"I can't believe he'd allow the fusion drive to deteriorate that badly. Not him. In fact he had a great deal of confidence in it--and more importantly, he knew its limitations."

The captain grinned ruefully. "Which leaves us with lots of questions and no answers."

More than you know. "Captain, if I may…what happens now?"

"To begin with," Haliday said, "what you've just told me alters our mission entirely. I was ordered to locate Raven, but that appears to be impossible. My next moves will be to scan the system for debris--though it's unlikely any will turn up--and to hyperzap for further orders. It will be several days before we receive an answer--and in the meantime I'd like to find an explanation for those strange readings, if I can."

"Yes, sir," I said. I swallowed. "But what I really meant was--what happens to me?"

"Ah," he said. "Of course. First of all, word of your rescue has been relayed to your family." He smiled. "Aparna's idea. Beyond that…well, most likely we'll be ordered back to Outpost Four. Admiral Conroy is certain to convene a hearing--possibly even a court-martial."

"I understand, sir." As with any Combined Forces officer, those words sent a shiver down my spine--but practically speaking, I had little to fear. A court-martial is standard procedure following the loss of any ship, and as the last surviving officer of Raven, it was my duty to answer for her destruction. All I could offer them was what I'd seen and heard--and really, what more could they want? Except…

"But I don't want you worrying about anything," the captain said sternly. "I want you to concentrate on recovering your strength. As soon as you're up to it, we'll want your assistance with our investigations--and a detailed report of your experiences. But that can wait until you're feeling better."

"Yes, sir." Goddess, what a difference! In a similar situation, Antilles would already have accused me of sabotage--not to mention desertion. And he'd have ordered Enyeart not to waste medical resources on me. But Haliday was not Antilles--thankfully. "Captain?"

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

"If it's possible, sir, when this is all over…I'd like to request reassignment to Zelazny. I think I've discovered where I belong."

He smiled, deepening his dimples, and patted my hand. "Don't worry," he said. "I'd be a fool to let you go again."

###

"How does that feel?" Dr. Zee asked from somewhere behind me.

Flat on my back on an exam table, my eyes held shut by gauze patches coated with polymer gel, I tried to nod, but was prevented by the padded clamps that gripped my head. "Not bad," I said. "Rather relaxing, in fact."

And it was, in a strange way. Much more so than what preceded it. The alternating pulses of ultrasound--too high-pitched even for my ears--were emitted by a pair of small parabolic dishes about ten centimeters above my face. The effect, like someone gently massaging my forehead, cheeks and eyes, was more pleasant than otherwise, though it did cause a peculiar tingling deep in my eyeballs. Or maybe that was the steroids at work.

"Good," Zee said. "Dr. Sumner's article indicated that the process should be painless, but I had no way to be certain. To my knowledge the technique has never been tried on a Sah'aaran."

Always happy to be your guinea-pig. I didn't voice that thought; this was far too important for sarcasm. And of course she was doing her best to help me--which is more than I could ever say for the late, unlamented Dr. Enyeart.

Twenty-four hours had passed since my return to consciousness, and my strength was finally beginning to return, though I still couldn't stand without assistance. The throb in my side and shoulder had begun to fade, and the other wounds I'd suffered during the attack gave me no further trouble. Dr. Zee had managed to find me a nail-file, and I'd spent a pleasant hour properly tending my claws, all sixteen of them. I'd been able to keep them adequately sharp with my little shard of sandstone, but I'd never been able to shape them to my satisfaction. That familiar chore made me feel almost like a member of civilized society once more.

The ship's barber had paid me a visit too. All CF vessels have one, of course, for the benefit of crewmembers whose hair requires cutting. Even poor benighted Raven: I well remembered the ill-disguised hostility with which he treated me the one and only time I sought his services. Zelazny's barber was a hundred-and-fifty-year-old female Centaurii. What would make a member of her species want to cut hair, I don't know; but I was happy to see her. That feeling may not have been reciprocated: my mane was in terrible shape. It was not only a matter of cutting, but also of combing out the tangles, a process which took the better part of an hour and was remarkably painful. When the barber left she took three-quarters of my mane with her: during my exile it had grown well past the base of my tail. Even as a kit I'd never worn it that long, and to be relieved of all that weight was a distinct pleasure. My fur was another matter, one with which I would have to deal myself. Thankfully, Hellhole had no insects: I did not require delousing.

And--as might be expected--I'd been eating like a starved tiger. It felt good not to have to hunt it down and kill it myself. Dr. Zee approved entirely: underweight and anemic as I was, nothing I could do would please her more. Kilos of maxigrazer steak, beef liver and salmon, as well as liters of milk, vanished down my gullet, while the doctor nodded happily and the nurses looked on in astonishment.

…And finally, my eyes. The treatment began with something I would have gone a long way to avoid: an injection directly into my eyeballs. Thank the Goddess, Dr. Zee used a pressure-spray hypo, not a needle. The ultrasound had been massaging me about fifteen minutes--and I was on the verge of dozing off--when Dr. Zee switched off the emitters. "That should be sufficient for now," she said. "Any aftereffects?"

"Just some tingling," I said, as she released my head from the clamp. "I don't know if that's good or bad."

"According to Dr. Sumner," she said, "it is good. I will remove the gauze now, but do not open your eyes yet."

"All right." Swallowing my impatience, I remained still while the doctor peeled off the pads and wiped away the clinging gel. Through closed eyelids I saw shadows, and I heard the hum of a scanpak.

"Good," she said finally. "There are definite signs of regeneration." She lifted my head, and her long bony fingers slipped my goggles into place. "You may open your eyes now."

I did, slowly. The gel had left my eyelids sticky, and once again I had to force them apart. The view, when I had, was somewhat disheartening. The goggles were dark indeed, designed to cut out ninety-five percent of visible light; with them on and the lights turned low, sickbay seemed darker than the Guano Caves of Ehm'sauur. Even with the lights at normal level, the lenses left me in a permanent and disorienting twilight, a world where familiar faces and objects became dim, fuzzy loomings. Two senses partially disabled; which would be the next to go?

Dr. Zee helped me sit up. "Comfortable?" she asked.

"Not especially," I told her. "But I'll live." I shook my head. "I could wish they were a little lighter, though. I can't even read."

"If you can avoid walking into walls," Zee said dryly, "consider yourself fortunate."

I had my doubts--but no use saying so. "Another month?"

She nodded. "Approximately. And no, we cannot rush the process. To do so could only worsen the damage."

"I understand." And I did: inconvenient and undignified though the goggles were, the alternative was much worse. If my vision became permanently impaired, my career would be over, finito. Prosthetics have become a fine art--but no one yet has perfected an artificial eye. And what use would a blind Scispec be?

"Doctor," I said, "when can I get out of here?"

She produced a palm-reader and gazed down at it. "There is little more I can do for you here," she said reluctantly. "You will need to return every day for further treatments…"

"I will," I promised. And this time, without coercion.

"…But other than that, your injuries have healed adequately." She brushed her fingers across my scarred arm, left bare by the sleeveless hospital gown. "I wish I could do more about those," she went on. "But I do not have the facilities. When we return to Terra or Centaurus…"

I flexed my hand. The grip still wasn't what it used to be, but… "I can wait," I said. I shrugged. "The price of trying to live as a savage."

She cocked her head. "Those may be," she said gently. "But that is not."

"Pardon?"

She pointed with a scaly forefinger. "Your ear," she explained. "That did not happen while you were marooned."

Suddenly self-conscious, I touched the little stub. "What--uh--what makes you say that?"

She leaned closer. "The scar is too even," she said. "Clearly a surgical amputation."

I sighed. "You're right," I confirmed. "It happened weeks before we arrived at Hellhole. There was an accident during a landing party…"

I began to describe the incident, but I didn't get very far. "One moment," she interrupted. "Your ear was not completely severed?"

"No," I said. "Not quite."

"And yet Dr. Enyeart did not attempt reattachment?"

I shook my head. "He told me it wasn't possible--necrosis had already set in…"

"How long after the accident did he begin treatment?"

"About forty-five minutes. There was the trip in the pod, of course, and there'd been some kind of miscommunication…" I trailed off then, because Dr. Zee was shaking her head. "What?" I asked.

She glanced aside. "My people do not believe in speaking ill of the dead…"

"Neither do mine."

"But I fear the late Dr. Enyeart took the path of least resistance. It is unlikely that necrosis would have advanced so far so quickly."

A brief stab of rage caused my claws to express; but it faded quickly into resignation. Over and done with--and no one to sue. "Reconstruction?" I asked hopefully.

She peered closer. "Possible," she said finally. "Though it will not be easy. It might have been better if he had not attempted to even up the wound. He left us precious little tissue to work with."

His parting shot, I thought sourly. I hope he's enjoying the Dark Domains.

"…At any rate, it will require the facilities of a full medical center and cloning lab," Zee was saying. "And will also have to wait until we return to civilization."

I nodded thoughtfully. What was another month or two of skewed hearing? And it was hardly at the top of my list of problems. "So when can I get out of here?"

She shook herself. "Ah yes," she said, and once again consulted her palm-reader. "Tomorrow morning," she decided. "In the meantime I will arrange for quarters, uniforms and so on."

"All right," I said with a sigh. Anyone who knows me--as Dr. Zeeleeayykk certainly did--knows how much I hate enforced inactivity. My idea of R and R is a few sets of tennis, not a day in bed. Not that I had the strength. But then the full significance of her words sunk in, and I chuckled bitterly. "Uniforms, eh? So I'm still an officer?"

She tilted her head quizzically. "To the best of my knowledge you are--"

"--until the court-martial," I finished

She waved a dismissive hand. "You need not worry about that. It is simply a formality--a closing of the books. Trust me: I have testified at many."

"…And in the meantime," I said gloomily, "I'm aboard a ship to which I'm not assigned, and without any position or duties."

"By the captain's orders," she said, "your first and only duty is to recover your strength. Beyond that…do not worry. Captain Haliday will work something out. He takes care of his officers…and his friends."

I chuckled again, wondering which category--if either--I fit. I pulled my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around them. "What I can't understand," I said plaintively, "is why no one has visited me. Surely the whole crew must know I'm back…"

Dr. Zee turned away. "Actually," she said, "several have tried. Singh, Goodwin, Hullumm, and Lieutenant Morley--to name a few."

"Then why--?"

"Because I would not let them in," she said flatly.

As I said, she knew me well; and I'm sure she expected an explosion. But I lacked the strength for that too. "You wouldn't let them in," I said. "Why, if I may ask?"

She fixed me with her beady gaze. "You were alone for more than sixty days," she said. "Your reintroduction to society should be gradual. And the captain ordered you to rest."

She might have a point. All those people crowding around, asking questions, trying to be cheerful…it would have been too much. I couldn't have endured it--not yet. It would have been nice to know that in advance; I would have felt a bit less abandoned. But the doctor didn't know--could not have known--what I'd been through before my stranding.

"Very few people could have survived that planet," she said softly. "I know I could not."

I shook my head. I'd never thought about it in those terms; I'd simply done what needed to be done, day after day. And not only on Hellhole. "Perhaps," I murmured. "I don't really know."

She helped me down off the table. "Come," she said. "You should rest now. And I will make those arrangements."


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