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-SIX


The next morning I was on the hot seat.

Scarcely had court convened when Commander Sutton called me to the stand. Combined Forces regulations protected me from self-incrimination, and in a criminal case I could not have been compelled to testify. But this was not--and if I'd refused, it would have brought the entire proceedings to a screeching halt, making me extremely unpopular. I'd gone into this knowing that if I wanted to get it over with quickly, I would have to waive my right not to testify. So there I was, wide open for Sutton's best serve. I could only hope my backhand was up to it.

The distance from the defense table to the witness stand seemed to have expanded a thousandfold, and my feet felt nailed to the floor. Once again it was the eyes that did it, that made me feel no more than a centimeter tall. By the time I took the seat my tail was writhing and my fingers tingling, a hint of black showing at the tips as I lifted my hand and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

As I sat, trying desperately to relax myself with some Yoga breathing exercises Aparna once taught me, the courtroom computer began the standard ID check. "Ehm'ayla, Lieutenant," it said tonelessly. "Service number CFS 989-0659. Species, Sah'aaran; planet of birth, Sah'aar. Age, thirty Terran Standard years…"

And when's the last time you were home for a birthday? I thought morosely. Aboard Zelazny I was always given a party; Max and Aparna saw to that. But it was never the same. Amidst the revelry I could never forget that there was another party going on in that big house on the outskirts of Sah'salaan, with my twin brother Sah'sell as guest of honor. Ten years, that's how long it had been; an entire Terran decade since he and I celebrated our birthday together. The Combined Forces is hell on family relationships too.

"…Three times decorated for valor…" True enough, and I was very conscious of the bare patch on the breast of my dress-uniform jacket, where my medals should have hung. They'd been atomized along with Raven.

"…Last recorded assignment, Anthropology-Paleontology Scispec, Survey Vessel Raven. Previous assignment, assistant Compcomm, Extended Survey Vessel Zelazny."

And so on. By the time the computer finished summarizing my life, I'd forced a measure of calm upon myself, my tail had stilled, and my claws had entirely vanished. When Commander Sutton rose to face me, I felt I could once again speak intelligible Terran. If only that half-mechanical face wasn't so damned unnerving…

Briefly she fixed me with her gaze. Her eyes were icy blue--at least the left one was. The right was entirely concealed by her readout screen, across which danced a constant stream of data. I had to force myself not to watch, lest it become distracting. Finally she began--and she wasted no time. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla," she said, pronouncing my name as crisply and accurately as a human ever could, "would you please describe the events of September 25, 2371, your last day aboard SV Raven?"

And so it began. It would be pointless for me to repeat word-for-word the testimony I gave; suffice it to say that by fourteen hundred, when court adjourned for the day, I was utterly exhausted, as frazzled as if I'd been dragged through a hedge by my tail. But in terms of my story, I had not yet landed in the forest clearing: the dissection of my tale had been that thorough. Nor was it merely Sutton who did the slicing: Conroy, Ehm'rael and the two captains got into the act as well.

With that degree of scrutiny, I'd found it much harder than I expected to tell the truth while avoiding any mention of my treatment aboard Raven. To do so, while remaining consistent, might be more than I could accomplish. Never had I expected to end up living proof of another told Terran saying: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave…" But I could think of no way to alter my resolve.

It didn't help that Commander Sutton was the most unsettling individual I'd ever encountered. Not so much her appearance--if you can get used to Quadrians, you can get used to anything--but rather her habits. Her movements, for example. Watching her, I gradually became convinced that her entire musculature had been augmented, most likely to correct some congenital defect. The result was excruciating to watch; her actions were jerky, robotic, unnatural. She also had the habit of pausing--in the middle of a sentence--and staring into space for a second or two, while absorbing some bit of information flowing across her eye-screen. If I'd had any thought of trying to deceive her, I would have given it up immediately: everything the Combined Forces knew about me and Raven she had at her fingertips--literally.

A few examples should serve to illustrate my difficulties--and the microscopic examination my testimony had to endure. Such as:

"Lieutenant Ehm'ayla, are you aware that no transmissions from Raven were received after she departed the A-Benideel system?"

"I was made aware of that after my rescue," I replied, "by Captain Haliday. While aboard Raven, however, I was not aware."

"Captain Haliday has reported that one of the hyperzap relay satellites left by Raven in that system was nonfunctional. You were assigned to Raven as a Scispec, but previous to that you spent many years as a Compcomm. Based on that experience, would you say it is common for a crew not to be aware that a relay satellite is malfunctioning?"

"I would say that it is extremely uncommon," I said. "Standard procedure calls for a Compcomm to confirm the status of each satellite, before the ship leaves the system."

"Can you explain why that did not occur?"

"No. I cannot." I spread my hands helplessly. "As you noted, I was assigned to Raven as a Scispec. My duties almost never took me to the Control Deck. I participated in the deployment of just one relay satellite, in the CAO 21437 system."

Sutton pounced on that instantly. "How did that come about, Lieutenant?"

I hesitated, sensing a booby-trap ahead; but once started, I had little choice but to finish. "I was taking a partial shift at Compcomm when we arrived in that system. As such, it fell to me to deploy the satellite, and to transmit our position and status. Of course I had no way of knowing that my signal would not be received."

Commodore Ehm'rael cleared her throat. "How did you come to be taking a shift at Compcomm?" she asked quietly.

If I'd been human, I'd have been sweating bullets by then. Instead my tail began to lash, and I was powerless to stop it. The commodore glanced at that waving appendage and frowned. Of all the judges, only she knew what it meant. Choosing my words carefully, I said, "Raven had a small crew. Ensign Matthews, the Compcomm crew chief, had a personal difficulty--" being restricted to quarters must quality as a "difficulty"--"which kept him off duty several days. Captain Antilles knew of my prior experience, and asked me to relieve the number-two Compcomm. She had been on duty for more than fifteen straight hours."

"Did you take any other shifts at that station?" Ehm'rael persisted.

"No," I said. "After that the captain was able to juggle shifts--and Ensign Matthews was back on duty within a week."

"How well acquainted were you with Raven's Compcomms?" Sutton asked.

"The second- and third-shift officers, not at all," I said. "I knew them by sight--no more. But I got to know Matthews fairly well."

"And how would you rate his qualifications?"

"He was somewhat inexperienced," I said. "But his performance was excellent, given the circumstances. He had the makings of a fine officer."

"Would he have been likely to make such an elementary mistake as forgetting to check the status of a relay satellite?"

"Very unlikely," I said. "But I have no way of knowing whether he was on duty when Raven departed A-Benideel. It might have been one of his subordinates."

"Of course," Sutton said. She sounded almost disappointed. "We'll move on, then…"

And again:

"Lieutenant, in the course of your career you have encountered many officers, have you not?"

"Certainly I have," I replied. Strange question, I thought; little did I know what she was leading up to.

"And have you ever formed opinions as to their qualities? The efficiency with which they perform their duties, for example?"

"I…suppose I have, yes. In some cases."

"During your time aboard Raven, did you form any opinions about Lieutenant Commander Abrams, the Techspec crew chief?"

Joel. Seventy days later, the pain had not diminished. For a long moment I couldn't reply, and I was keenly aware of the eyes upon me. Most especially those of Commodore Ehm'rael, narrowed now in suspicion. Sutton took a deep breath--but the commodore interrupted her quietly. "Is there a problem, Lieutenant?"

"No, Commodore," I said, and hurriedly cleared my throat. "Commander Abrams and I were old friends. His death…upset me." An understatement--even a huge one--isn't a lie.

"Are you able to answer Commander Sutton's question?"

"Yes," I said. I took deep breath. "Yes, Commodore, I am. Based solely on my experience as an officer, I can say that Commander Abrams was a highly efficient engineer. He was almost single-handedly responsible for the fact that an aging and unsafe ship remained spaceworthy as long as it did."

"And his staff?" Sutton asked.

Osgood. Instantly my grief vanished beneath a wave of anger, closely followed by a stab of shame. I'd never truly wished anyone dead--but in his case I'd come damn close. On any other ship he would have been busted within a week. He'd have spent his entire tour peeling potatoes. But Antilles and Edgeworth blamed me for every incident. Why? Why was that fool of an ensign worth more than me?

Once again the eyes were upon me; once again I had to force myself to speak--and quickly too, before Ehm'rael could jump in again. "Commander Abrams maintained an efficient staff as well." Whatever else they were, they were efficient. "I saw no sign of lax maintenance--and on the one occasion the Techspecs helped me with some repair work--" removing evidence of vandalism qualifies as "repair"--"it was done rapidly and well. Raven's destruction cannot be blamed on poor maintenance."

From the expression on the visible half of Sutton's face, I could clearly read her thoughts: what can we blame it on, then? But once again she just sighed and changed the subject.

Thus my exhaustion at the end of the day is understandable. So too are my feelings of discouragement and despair--which were intensified greatly by the normally-welcome sight of Aparna Singh waiting for me at Zelazny's airlock.

She stepped forward quickly and linked her arm with mine, separating me from Vandevere and Haliday as effectively as a rancher "cuts out" a maxigrazer calf. "Ehm'ayla," she said, "I need to have a word with you--in private."

Vandevere and the captain were halfway to the drop-shaft, deep in conversation, and appeared not to notice my absence. I sighed. "Can I take a rain check?" I asked. "I'm tired and hungry, and I want to get out of this uniform. I've got to report to sickbay too…"

"Five minutes?" she said, raising another unwelcome echo from the past. I hesitated…but best perhaps not to alienate one of the few friends I had. I nodded tiredly.

"All right," I said, just as on that other occasion. "Five minutes."

It was her quarters to which she took me, rather than the mess hall; apparently she did want privacy. As we entered, I glanced around--and was pleased to see that her cabin had not changed during my absence. Not surprisingly, her decor was distinctly Indian, right down to the multi-armed bronze Shiva in the corner. Seating herself across from me, she peered into my eyes--and the look of determination on her face made me draw back in apprehension. "What--uh--what can I do for you?" I asked.

"You can tell me what the hell you think you're doing," she snapped.

Recoiling from the harshness of her tone, I shook my head. "I…don't know what you're talking about."

"Yes you do, Lieutenant," she said pointedly. "Your testimony today. You didn't say a word about what happened to you aboard Raven. And don't tell me you didn't have an opportunity--Commander Sutton gave you any number of openings. I think you were deliberately skating around the subject."

"You're right," I told her. "I was. And I intend to keep on doing it. I'll tell them everything about the explosion--but that's all."

"Why?" she demanded. "Ehm'ayla, you--an officer--were treated like dirt by a Survey crew. That's unprecedented. Inexcusable. Don't you want the court to know? So the Admiralty can make certain it never happens again? Don't you want justice?"

"Not at that cost," I said. I shook my head. "What good would it do, Aparna? It isn't likely to happen again: that crew was an aberration. Now they're dead--and what they did to me died with them."

"Not entirely," she countered firmly. "The memories didn't die. They're still very much alive--obviously. And they'll remain alive until you do something to purge them. Myself, I couldn't stand it; carrying around that kind of emotional wreckage would drive me insane."

I sighed. "It doesn't work that way," I said. "Not for us. Please understand, Aparna: what happened to me was…shameful. Especially this." I lifted my hands. "The single most humiliating thing that could happen to a Sah'aaran."

"I do understand," she said, her tone softening. "All the more reason--"

"No," I interrupted. "You don't. No non-Sah'aaran could. We endure our shame, in private. We do not burden others with it--ever."

"But if you'd returned here aboard Raven…"

I turned away. "That would have been different," I said. "Obviously. I'd have had no choice but to tell someone. Probably Commodore Ehm'rael, difficult as it would have been. Because the alternative would have been to let Antilles ruin my career with his lies. It would have accomplished something. But not any more. I shouldn't even have told you. I thought it would be different somehow, because you're human…but it wasn't. If Ehm'rael found out now…I'd never be able to face her again."

Aparna shook her head. "You're right," she said. "I don't understand."

"I know," I said sadly. "All I can ask is that you trust me. I know what I'm doing, Aparna--and believe me, I have no intention of perjuring myself. Everything the court needs to know, I will tell them. I swear."

"All right," she said reluctantly. "It is your business, I suppose--and it would be pointless for me to order you to change your mind. I just hope you're not making a bad mistake."

"I hope not too." I paused. "Please--promise me you won't mention this to anyone. All right?"

She hesitated, and I pressed her, my tone sharpening. "All right?"

Finally she glanced aside and nodded. "All right."

Why was it, though, that when I looked into her big dark eyes I got the feeling she had her fingers--metaphorically speaking--crossed behind her back?

###

I couldn't sleep.

The last time I'd suffered insomnia (other than on Hellhole, which doesn't count) was during my early days aboard Raven, most significantly the night when I learned that there were large segments of the science logs off-limits to me. That was also the night I discovered that my computer usage was being monitored--and when I ceased to feel safe. Since returning to Zelazny I'd been sleeping like a corpse; but now, as on that night aboard Raven, my well-deserved rest was disturbed by the vague awareness that something didn't make sense.

The court-martial had concluded its fourth day that afternoon, and from where I sat (mostly on the witness stand) we were not a lot closer to reaching a conclusion. I'd felt Aparna Singh's eyes on me all through the day, as well as the preceding three, her gaze one of stern disapproval. But she'd promised, and I couldn't believe she would break her oath. Of much greater concern to me were the eyes of Commodore Ehm'rael, drilling, always drilling into the side of my head. She knew me almost as well as my mother did; but more to the point, she understood the Sah'aaran mind in a way that none of the other three judges could. What she knew now--or thought she knew--I didn't care to speculate.

One advantage of being allowed to sleep aboard Zelazny: I knew the layout of my cabin like the back of my hand. In total darkness, but with absolute assurance, I rose, ordered and received a glass of warm milk, and curled up in the big chair, my legs tucked beneath me and my tail wrapped around my knees.

For several minutes I sat sipping…and listening. A human ear might have reported utter silence--but mine detected much more. The faint rumble of the fusion drive; constant. The muted sigh of air through the vents and the rush of water through the plumbing; common. The click of a relay closing; frequent. The quiet mutter of faraway voices; never-ending. Like Commander Hullumm, I knew this ship; I knew every sound she could make, right and wrong. This was home--in many ways, much more so than that sprawling house on the savanna.

The court-martial, the daily ordeal of testimony, had brought back memories of Raven and Hellhole, many of which I would have preferred stayed buried. But they'd been forced upon me, and in examining them I was uncovering a number of items which simply didn't add up.

Raven…It was all very well for me to conclude that my experiences aboard that ship weren't relevant to the business of the court. But to expect myself to simply let the matter drop was unrealistic. I had lived with it all far too long: the racism, the ostracism, the fear and doubt. Try as I might, the desire to know why still burned inside me.

Unfortunately, I had as little explanation for that as I had for the ship's destruction; nothing more than a head full of unconnected data-points. For example: Antilles had deliberately surrounded himself not just with humans, but with Terrans, persons born on Earth herself. I'd never believed Joel's facile explanation that such a thing could "just happen." No: Antilles had worked hard indeed to achieve that goal, in the face of CF regulations. But why? Prejudice, perhaps? He'd hated me--that was obvious. Had that hatred extended to all non-humans? Or--to cast the net even wider--to everyone not born on Terra?

I shook my head tiredly. The motivations of racism are alien to me. It is not, alas, an exclusively human phenomenon; but in their past, that species did possess a definite and unfortunate talent for intolerance. I'd always believed it something they'd outgrown. Now I knew better.

What was Antilles looking for? The rest of the crew had known, that much was certain. And the prospect that I might find out terrified those few who cared for me even slightly--including both Gaetano and Joel. It had something to do with science; I'd been able to puzzle out that much. More specifically, my own specialties of anthropology and paleontology: most of the logs I'd been prevented from seeing involved those subjects. But even that wasn't enough…

Morada, I thought suddenly. My predecessor aboard Raven had recorded most of the information Antilles saw fit to lock up. Could it be that he'd known to much for his own good?

I shook my head again, angrily. No, I thought. Ridiculous. His death was ruled an accident, just like my encounter with the tree-branch, or Gaetano at the cliff. Planetary exploration is a dangerous business. And even Antilles wouldn't have gone that far…

Or would he? I shuddered and wrapped my arms around my torso. Was that what scared Joel and Gaetano so badly: the prospect that I might also suffer a fatal "accident"? Or had an excess of stress made me paranoid? How to know? How to ever know, with the evidence blown to hell and gone?

Joel was right, I thought tiredly. And so was Gaetano. I should have heeded their warnings, should have let well enough alone. My struggle to understand had accomplished nothing more than to make me the target of Antilles' wrath. Rather than cursing Joel as a coward, I should have praised him as a visionary.

…And he'd still be dead, I reminded myself sharply. Doubtless true; but maybe he and I could have found a way to he happy together during the time we had left. Or at very least, not at each other's throats constantly. Maybe.

Unfortunately, thoughts of Raven weren't the only thing murdering sleep: there was also Hellhole. I suddenly realized that I was rubbing my right forearm, and I forced myself to desist. Ehm'rael knew about my eyes, and she knew about my ear--everybody knew about my ear--but she had not seen the scars on my arm, because my uniform had long sleeves. The wounds were no longer painful, and the muscles were only moderately impaired; but still, those marks were the most potent reminder of my exile. Hopefully I could have them repaired soon: until they were gone, I could not even begin to forget.

Hellhole was a desolate and virtually waterless planet, a fact which my colleagues and I recognized immediately. The animal life was secretive, nocturnal, almost invisible by day. Huge areas of the planet were uninhabitable, deadly to human or Sah'aaran. And yet I'd managed to become stranded in a place with shade, water, the tools with which to contrive shelter, and diurnal animals who virtually stood still and waited for me to kill them. In short, the only spot on their entire planet where survival was even an option. If I'd been marooned in the canyon of our first landing, or the dry grassland of our second, or--worst of all--near one of those sterile saline seas…I would have been sun-dried Sah'aaran within a day. And isn't that a bit much to chalk up to coincidence?

But there was no intelligent life. I'd been willing to stake my professional reputation on that. No cities, no ruins, no structures of any kind. That damned magnetic field, which had so fascinated Antilles, was nothing more than a natural curiosity. Unless you believe in the supernatural, there was nothing but coincidence to chalk it all up to.

Except…as I reflected on Joel's last words to me, it seemed obvious that Antilles had expected my colleagues to find on Hellhole something connected to his personal agenda. Why else take such an interest in that useless world? Why else keep us there for two weeks, our assigned mission all but forgotten? Why else had Gaetano nearly suffered apoplexy when I asked him what Antilles wanted us to find? And why else had the captain been convinced beyond reason that the magnetic fluctuations were a form of communication? What had he expected to find? Some kind of intelligence? And (a thought which stiffened my tail and sent a shiver down my spine) what if he was right? Which might even mean…

But…no. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the court seemed likely to reach the most obvious conclusion: Raven's destruction was entirely accidental. A conclusion which even I, albeit reluctantly, was beginning to accept. That very afternoon, Commander Hullumm had testified that Raven was "a disaster looking for a place to happen"--and I had to agree. And besides, if some unknown force had reached out from Hellhole and destroyed the ship, why would it have spared me? And why then would it make no contact with me? No, that made no sense either. Easier to believe (as Ehm'rael surely did) that I'd survived because the benevolent Goddess had been looking out for me. And that brought me back to where I'd started from, which is to say nowhere.

I stifled a yawn then, and glanced at the softly-glowing numerals of the bedside chrono: 0213. I was due in court in less than seven hours, and I couldn't afford to be groggy. Fortunately the warm milk had done its work, stimulating my endorphins, and I felt sleep creeping up on me even as I climbed back into bed. Any mysteries still hanging around would have to make an appointment during business hours.

###

The show was almost over.

I suppose it's wrong of me to term it thus, but that's exactly how I'd come to see it: the biggest vaudeville act ever to hit Outpost Four. The public gallery was filled to overflowing every day, with a rotating cast of off-duty officers and enlisted. Most of them were mere thrill-seekers--but the contingent from Zelazny was there to root for me, and their daily presence cheered me greatly.

As courts-martial go, my first (and hopefully last) hadn't been quite as painful as I'd feared. Commander Sutton had held her prosecutorial instincts largely in check, and one of the judges, openly biased in my favor, would not allow me to be treated badly. Before long the affair resembled a free-for-all at the debating club. I was not the sole witness: the court also heard from Hullumm, Max, Aparna, the outpost Techspecs who'd worked on Raven, and even Captain Haliday and Dr. Zeeleeayykk. The logs of Raven's refit at Centaurus were read into evidence as well. But my testimony had ultimately been the most important, and during those five days I spent something like thirty hours on the hot seat. And grueling hours they were, with everyone in sight questioning and re-questioning my every word.

I told them the truth, and nothing but the truth; but not, I'm sorry to admit, the whole truth. It wasn't easy--damned difficult, in fact--but I managed to restrict my testimony entirely to Raven's destruction and my stranding. Not one word did I speak of what had come before. Shame was part of the reason why--but only part. As the days dragged on, I found myself increasingly reluctant to open a can of worms which might keep me on the witness stand another thirty hours. To get this over with had become my obsession, literally my only thought.

Commodore Ehm'rael suspected. Of that I was absolutely certain: more than once I caught her gazing at me through narrowed eye, as if attempting to read my mind. Her questions had been brief and emotionless, dealing only with the matter at hand--or I should say the questions she spoke. The ones in her eyes were another matter. After this was over, I would somehow have to evade her, to escape before she gave voice to those questions. If she managed to corner me, I would be honor-bound, by Sah'aaran ethics and personal loyalty, to answer.

…But by the fifth morning, it was all over. The testimony had been taken, every detail picked to molecule-sized pieces; logs had been read and discussed, blueprints had been unrolled and debated. Only the verdict remained. Vandevere and Haliday sat flanking me, as they had throughout the trial, and I felt even smaller than usual between them. Aparna, Max, Hullumm and Dr. Zee were in the gallery above. And from the other table, where she'd sat quite alone for five days, Commander Sutton flashed an affable, "no hard feelings" smile, which I did my best to return. If she reckoned victories in terms of convictions, then she was about to lose; but it seemed not to bother her. Very little did, I suspected.

And me? I was simply tired. My ribs and shoulder no longer troubled me, but my body was not yet fully recovered from my sojourn on Hellhole: even now I was several kilos underweight, and my stamina was poor. My eyes still dwelt behind dark goggles, and would for the foreseeable future. They had received their final treatment the previous afternoon, and Dr. Zee swore that the regeneration of my retinas was proceeding adequately--but my vision was still blurry, and I was still painfully sensitive to light. But far worse than my physical infirmities was the uncertainty that preyed upon my mind. For the first time in my career I was without ship or assignment, and I had no idea what my future would be after the court adjourned.

The boson's whistle stilled the hum of conversation, and we snapped to attention as Conroy, Ehm'rael and the two captains entered and took their places. "Be seated," the admiral said, and we did. He nodded to the commodore, and she cleared her throat.

"We have reached our decision," she said. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla, will you please rise?"

I did, coming once again to attention. Ehm'rael went on, "It is the judgment of this court that the destruction of Survey Vessel Raven was accidental. This court has heard testimony which clearly indicates the unfortunate inadequacy of the refit carried out by the Centaurus Dockyards. In their haste to make Raven ready, the Techspecs there were evidently obliged to ignore a number of serious deficiencies in the vessel's aging and obsolete fusion drive. It will be the recommendation of this court that the Admiralty launch a thorough investigation into this matter.

"The dearth of hard evidence renders any more specific conclusion impossible--and indeed inappropriate, as it might tend to place blame where it does not belong. Because of this, it is our belief that a verdict of 'accidental destruction' is the only possible choice.

"The court wishes to thank Lieutenant Ehm'ayla for her testimony, without which this investigation would have been impossible. We wish also to recognize her courage and resourcefulness, as amply demonstrated in difficult and dangerous circumstances. Her service record will so note."

I risked a quick glance at the gallery. Aparna was smiling broadly, soundlessly clapping, and Max was giving me a thumb's-up. Beside me Haliday was smiling too, and Vandevere, looking ludicrously self-satisfied, slapped me on the back.

Ehm'rael reached for the gavel. "This court stands…" she began--but that was as far as she got. The wide doors at the rear of the courtroom suddenly flew open, and an officer entered: a young dark-haired human male with the stars of a lieutenant commander on his grey uniform. Even after five months I recognized him immediately: Merton, Admiral Conroy's officious aide. At the moment he was not quite so supercilious: his face was dead white, his eyes wide and haunted. He hurried up the aisle and stepped behind the bench, bending down to whisper urgently to Conroy and the other judges. The admiral's impatient frown vanished instantly, and the blood drained from his face. Grey Wolf went pale as well, and Ehm'rael's eyes widened; Keeleek's long beak dropped open.

"This court stands in recess," the commodore said, her voice suddenly shrill. She banged the gavel a bit harder than necessary. "All participants will hold themselves available for further proceedings." Then the four of them rose and departed through their private door, almost at a run.

The gallery began to break up, muttering in confusion. Realizing that I was still standing at attention, I sank back into my seat, and glanced up at Haliday. "What was all that about, sir?"

He shook his head in confusion. "I haven't a clue, Lieutenant--but maybe we can find out. Commander Merton!"

The admiral's aide was still lingering near the bench, wondering perhaps whether he'd actually been dismissed. At Haliday's call he turned and stepped over. "Sir?" he said crisply.

"What's going on?" the captain demanded.

Merton hesitated, swallowing. He seemed uncertain whether he should speak--and frankly I wish he'd held his peace. What he said shocked me to the tip of my tail, and brought the past seventy days crashing down around me. It also, though in cosmic terms it scarcely mattered, put my future with the Combined Forces in serious jeopardy.

"Captain, SV Raven just entered the system. She'll be docking within the hour."


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