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-SEVEN


"Well, ladies and gentlemen," Haliday said, "I'm open to impressions."

Three hours had passed since the abrupt end of the court-martial. Amidst all the confusion I'd been allowed to return to Zelazny, and that surprised me: I'd expected to be taken into custody as a perjurer or a lunatic. After changing out of my dress uniform, I joined the ship's senior officers in Mission Planning. I sat shell-shocked, flanked by Haliday and Vandevere; Max Goodwin, Aparna Singh, Dr. Zeeleeayykk and Commander Hullumm rounded out the cast. At the head of the room, the big viewscreen showed the battered (but very much intact) hull of Raven, in her docking clamps a third of the way around the ring. Her shining viewports stared at me like a thousand accusing eyes.

I said, "Captain, if I may…"

He spread his hands. "Be my guest."

"I realize how this makes me look," I said, raking my colleagues with my pleading gaze. "I can only ask you all to be believe that I'm not crazy, and I wasn't lying. I know what I saw, and that's exactly what I told the court."

The captain held up a hand, silencing me. He glanced around sternly. "I want to make this very clear, right here and now," he said. "Just as I made it clear to Admiral Conroy an hour ago. I have absolutely no doubt that Lieutenant Ehm'ayla reported exactly what she experienced. She is a respected Survey officer, with a reputation as a thorough and careful observer, and I have no reason to believe that she would lie. Least of all for personal gain." He gazed at me. "Lieutenant, neither your sanity not your veracity are in question. Very much the opposite. But obviously we need to find another explanation for what you experienced. Can we count on your assistance?"

"Yes, sir," I said. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Haliday replied, with just a touch of irony. "All right. Justin, what's the current situation?"

Vandevere lifted his palm-reader and frowned at it. "Raven docked two hours ago," he said. "Captain Antilles seemed very surprised by all the excitement. He quickly filed a report; I'll summarize.

"To begin with, Antilles denies any knowledge of the communications failure. He claims to have no idea that the relay satellite at A-Benideel was defective--and he plans disciplinary action against his Compcomm crew chief."

Poor Brian, I thought. It wasn't your fault. I'd bet my last credit-chip on that.

"Did he explain why Raven was overdue returning to the outpost?" Haliday asked.

Vandevere nodded. "He has indeed. According to him, they discovered a region unusually rich in habitable planets--which his logs confirm. Instead of wasting time--as he put it--returning to the station, Antilles decided to extend Raven's supplies by mining a comet."

A stir went around the table. In theory, such a thing was possible--comets do indeed contain the raw materials for both food and fuel--but such a maneuver was rarely worth the effort or the risk. But with Antilles in charge…

"He believed that the Admiralty had been notified of his decision," Vandevere went on. He scrolled down a page or two. "Antilles' account of the events at CAO 21437/1 differ greatly from Ehm'ayla's. He reports that she vanished during a landing party--and that her fellow Scispecs searched for several hours, but were unable to find her. He also claims--and again, his log supports--that Raven remained in orbit for three more days, searching for her. Without success, obviously."

The word was literally forced out of me: first as a Sah'aaran yowl, then in Terran: "What?"

"I'm quoting from Antilles' official report," Vandevere said mildly, and I subsided. He went on, "Antilles can't account for the explosion described by Ehm'ayla; Raven observed no such phenomenon.

"After three days, Raven departed," Vandevere concluded. "According to Antilles' report, he decided against returning to the outpost, because his mission was already far behind schedule. And once again, he believed the Admiralty knew of his decision."

I was on the verge of exploding, but Aparna laid her hand atop mine, calming me. She said, "Commander, you keep saying 'claims'--Captain Antilles claims such-and-such happened. Does that mean you don't believe him?"

Vandevere leaned back, crossing his arms. "Let's just say I'm deeply troubled by some aspects of his report." He glanced around. "We've all known Ehm'ayla for years, and we can vouch for her honesty and the accuracy of her observations. I can't say the same for Captain Antilles."

"Meaning what exactly, Justin?" Haliday asked--but rather than answer, Vandevere turned to Singh.

"I think it's time," he said.

"You're right," she agreed. Gazing into my eyes, she squeezed my hand. "Ehm'ayla, I hope you can forgive me. I'm afraid I broke my promise."

"You mean--?" I began, and she nodded.

"Yes," she said. "I told Commander Vandevere what happened to you aboard Raven. Yes, I promised not to--but he had to know. If only so he could avoid the subject while cross-examining you."

She was right--and I had neither the heart nor the strength to be angry at her. "I understand."

Haliday and the others were frowning, looking almost comically perplexed. "Will someone," the captain said pointedly, "please tell me what's going on?"

"What Lieutenant Ehm'ayla told Commander Singh is…personal," Vandevere replied--bless him. "And it's not my place to repeat it without her permission. Suffice it to say that she was not made at all welcome aboard Raven. In fact she was treated horribly. She also discovered that Raven has an entirely Terran crew, in direct violation of CF regulations."

"And they wanted to keep it that way," I put in quietly.

"And," Aparna said with a quick glance at me, "she also discovered some very disturbing irregularities."

The captain rounded on me incredulously. "Why the devil didn't you report any of this, Lieutenant?"

I turned away. "I…didn't think it was relevant, sir," I said. "I believed it was a dead issue, because it had nothing to do with Raven's destruction. The crew's feelings toward me didn't impair their efficiency--quite the opposite."

"And the 'irregularities'?"

I shook my head. "I was never sure. I had no proof; just suspicions."

Haliday shook his head. "Lieutenant, I do appreciate your feelings. In the Academy we're taught to solve our own problems, by any means available. But the situation has changed. Everything you know--or think you know--is extremely relevant now. And personal or not, we need the whole story--here and now."

"Yes, sir," I said; and pushing aside the smothering wave of shame that threatened to engulf me, I told them. Everything. I left nothing out. Even Aparna hadn't heard all the details, and as I spoke she looked alternately shocked and sickened. To go on speaking required all my strength: the pain, buried under sixty-three days of solitude, had reawakened, and threatened to choke me.

Partway through, the captain interrupted. "Are you certain this Osgood person wasn't just hazing you? Breaking in the newcomer?"

"Yes, sir, I am," I told him. "I was seldom hazed as a cadet…"

"For obvious reasons," Max put in dryly.

"…But from what I understand, it's supposed to be more or less a playful thing--like short-sheeting a bunk. This was…cruel. Almost vicious. And it's supposed to taper off in time. This actually intensified. Osgood didn't stop until Matthews pummeled him."

Haliday nodded dubiously. "Go on."

I did--and a moment later it was Dr. Zeeleeayykk's turn to break in, almost overloading her translator. "He threatened what?"

"To…to have me permanently declawed." Somehow I forced the words out, the tips of all sixteen digits tingling madly. Time had not dampened the shame--and to bare it like this, in front of so many, was almost more than I could endure. If Ehm'rael had been there, it would have been impossible. "Unless I allowed them to cut my claws to stubs every week."

"Why, for the Maker's sake?"

I shrugged. "To protect his crew--so he claimed."

She shook her head angrily. "That is contrary to every CF regulation, Alliance law and medical ethic," she spat. "And Enyeart--he was ready to do so?"

"Ready, willing and able," I said bitterly. "Or so I had to assume--I had no desire to find out."

"I shall have him struck off," Zee declared. "I will have him up before the Surgeon General and the Alliance Medical Association…"

"Later, Doctor," Haliday said. He turned to me. "You said there were 'irregularities' in Raven's mission. What exactly did you mean?"

"First you need to understand that Captain Antilles is extremely charismatic," I said. "In the pejorative sense: he exercises extraordinary control over his crew. In some cases he inspires an almost fanatical zeal. It's my belief that he's been pursuing an agenda antithetical to his assigned mission--and that several of his officers are involved.

"I'm afraid my evidence is mostly circumstantial, though," I went on. "Or I should say 'anecdotal.' Things I overheard, things I was told…and a number of ridiculously transparent lies. Several crewmembers were friendly to me, and it frightened them badly when I asked questions. And Captain Antilles was desperate to get me off the ship." Briefly I described the conversation I'd overheard between Edgeworth and Gaetano, and the warnings given me by both Gaetano and Joel.

"…And I was never allowed to do my job," I finished. "Not really. As you all know, I signed aboard Raven as Anthro-Paleo Scispec. More than half of my predecessor's work was inaccessible to me; it was locked in secured files, to be viewed only by the captain and the first officer. I participated in mission briefings, but my contributions were not welcome. The captain brushed aside my work as unimportant. Whatever his plans were, I was not to be included."

Commander Hullumm suddenly snorted, as only he could. "This isn't helping."

"Hullumm is correct, Captain," Dr. Zee said. "Antilles is a racist, and he has surrounded himself with racists. That is obvious, and cannot be endured. But conspiracy…that is another matter, and a much more serious one. As yet, I have heard nothing which a court would accept as evidence."

Haliday nodded. "Agreed," he said. He turned to me. "Please understand, Ehm'ayla: we're not questioning your word. Far from it. As with your stranding, I believe you've reported exactly what happened. And I don't mean to trivialize your experiences. What happened to you is inexcusable, and we will see justice done. But the doctor is right. If we're to prove conspiracy, we need hard evidence. That conversation you overheard was certainly suspicious--but it could all too easily be explained away. As it stands, we have no clear idea what we're looking for."

I sighed. "No, sir," I agreed, "we don't. All I know is what I was told: that Antilles is 'searching' for something. I have no idea what."

"Justin," the captain said, "I trust your hunches. I have to: every time I discount them, I end up in trouble. What's you're feeling about this?"

For a long moment Vandevere sat deep in thought, gazing at Raven through narrowed eyes. Finally he said, "Captain, you know the old saying: 'where there's smoke there's fire.' That crew's behavior…let's just say it isn't natural." He nodded at the screen. "I don't know what's going on aboard that ship, but I'd lay odds that something is. Something more serious than racism."

Haliday nodded--and at that moment the intercom buzzed. "Control Deck to captain!"

I recognized the voice instantly: Lieutenant j.g. Morley, formerly my trainee. Now he had my old job, second-shift Compcomm. "Haliday here."

"Sir, there's an incoming transmission," Morley said. "From Raven."

Haliday glanced at me. "Antilles?"

"I…suppose it could be, sir," I said. My fingertips tightened abruptly, and I dropped my hands into my lap. "I don't know why he'd be calling, though."

"I think I do," Haliday said grimly. "Put it through, Morley."

On the viewscreen Raven rippled and vanished. She was replaced by a face, one I hadn't seen in more than seventy days--and had never expected to see again. I shuddered as those piercing eyes came to rest on me, and beneath the table my claws expressed painfully to their full length. Not in anger, not yet, but rather in shame…and terror. I was genuinely afraid of this man, and I hid my claws for fear that he might take them away again. Crazy, I know--but I couldn't help it.

For an endless moment Antilles gazed at me, his expression unfathomable; then his eyes shifted. "Captain…Haliday, isn't it?" he said casually. That was a deliberate snub, and a stir went around the table. Everyone in the Combined Forces knew Isaac Haliday, by reputation if nothing else.

"That's correct," Haliday replied. "And whom have I the honor--?" He could give as good as he got, any day.

"Captain Mark Antilles," the younger man said stiffly. "Commanding SV Raven."

"Ah yes," Haliday said. "What can I do for you, Captain?" For the moment his tone was neutral, friendly even; but the look in his eye told me that he was sizing up Antilles--and not liking what he saw.

"I have just been made aware that my Anthro-Paleo Scispec is aboard your ship," Antilles said, his lips barely moving. "I would appreciate your returning her to Raven, so I may continue my mission. I am badly behind schedule; I must re-embark almost immediately."

Haliday sat silent for a time. Anyone who knew him would recognize that silence: it was dangerous. When he spoke again the hint of friendliness was gone, replaced by a faint undertone of contempt. "Captain, need I remind you that Lieutenant Ehm'ayla is a commissioned Survey officer, not a piece of furniture? She has expressed her desire to be reassigned to Zelazny--a request I am duty-bound to respect."

"Need I remind you," Antilles hissed, "that she is still legally attached to my ship. She signed the transfer in good faith, and so did you. So far as I know, it has not been rescinded. She is mine, Haliday, and I want her back now."

This is bizarre, I thought wildly. All those weeks he was dying to get me off his ship, and now he wants me back on? What's he up to?

Haliday said coldly, "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla has informed me of acts committed on her person, evidently at your order, which appear to have been violations of her rights. It is clear at least that her treatment aboard your ship--at the hands of your officers and crew--was not what any sentient being has the right to expect."

For a moment Antilles was silent. His face betrayed no emotion, but the muscles at the corners of his jaw were twitching. Finally he said, "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla was a disciplinary problem from the moment she signed aboard Raven--as her record shows. It was necessary for me to take action on several occasions. If she describes the incidents differently…well, that's hardly surprising."

I began to snarl a reply, but Haliday silenced me with a hand on my arm. He leaned forward, and suddenly his voice had the ring of steel. "Let me tell you something, Captain Antilles. I was battling the Chrysaoans when you were in grade school, and I will not be dictated to by the likes of you. I know a good officer when I see one; Lieutenant Ehm'ayla is one of the best. What she's described was not 'disciplinary action;' it sounds more like torment. Under the circumstances, given her appalling treatment under your command, Ehm'ayla has every right to reconsider her transfer. At very least she's raised some extremely serious issues, and I am not disposed to send her back to Raven until they're resolved. Do I make myself clear, Captain?"

Antilles' face darkened. "Admiral Conroy will hear of this," he muttered.

"He'll be getting my report as well," Haliday said cheerfully. "We'll see which one he believes. Good day, Captain."

"You're going to regret this, Haliday," Antilles said. "Mark my words!"

"That, I sincerely doubt. Zelazny out."

Haliday clicked off, and for a moment heavy silence hung over the room. Finally I said, "Captain, I'm sorry to have caused all this trouble." I took a deep breath. "Perhaps it would be better if--"

"No," he said sharply. "It wouldn't." He shook his head, then went on quietly, "I appreciate your desire to make peace, Lieutenant. But as your former CO--and your friend--I can't let you do it. That man--" He nodded at the screen, which was once again filled with Raven-- "is genuinely insane. Megalomaniacal. If you return to that ship, we might never see you again."

That should have shocked me--but it did not. It made too much sense. "Do you mean…?"

"Indeed I do, Lieutenant," he said grimly. "Think what this implies. You've told us about his personal agenda, and how he went to great lengths to keep you from learning about it. He must have seen you as an impediment to his plans--his treatment of you makes that apparent. Certainly he's none to pleased to find you here--perhaps he believed he'd already done away with you."

And he was almost right. "What now, sir?"

"You're safe aboard Zelazny," Haliday said firmly. "He knows that--and that's why he called: to try to bully me into sending you back to Raven."

"Can he force you to turn me over, sir?"

He looked pained. "How long did you serve under me, Lieutenant? You know better than that. Let him try. I'll tie him so firmly in red tape, he'll never get free. I'll take it all the way to the Admiralty if necessary."

"I appreciate that, sir."

"Unfortunately, that's not the only thing he could try," Vandevere put in.

"Meaning?" Haliday asked.

Vandevere glanced at me. "Whether there truly is a conspiracy, we don't know--we have no hard evidence, and we don't even know where to begin looking. But Ehm'ayla's treatment aboard Raven is a matter of fact, not conjecture. There may be no physical evidence…"

I shook my head. "Not as such," I acknowledged. "But in my cabin aboard Raven--unless someone found it and destroyed it--is an encrypted data card containing the whole story. Names, dates, incidents…and holos of my cut claws."

Vandevere nodded. "That would be a start--and there are certain to be witnesses, if they can be persuaded to testify. It would be enough to justify a formal complaint--and Antilles wouldn't want that: it could cost him his career. That makes it absolutely vital that he silence her…or at very least, discredit her story. It occurs to me that the easiest way for him to do so would be to charge her with desertion. Claim that she deliberately hid from his search parties."

I shuddered. Not another court-martial! was my first thought--but my second was worse. Such an accusation would be ridiculous--who in her right might would desert on Hellhole?--but it might still make my own complaints seem self-serving. As a superior officer, his word was automatically worth more than mine; a sad fact of any hierarchy. At very least it would land me in the brig--even Haliday couldn't prevent that. And afterwards…let's just say my chances of coming out on top would be low. I might be ordered back to Raven, where I didn't look like a good life-insurance risk; or I might be sent to the stockade. Just thinking about it made my stomach tighten again.

"Captain," Dr. Zee said, "do you realize what a weak chain of assumptions this is? We have no proof that Captain Antilles wishes to harm Lieutenant Ehm'ayla."

"Of course you're right, Doctor," the captain replied. "But Justin said it best: he's more willing to believe Ehm'ayla than Antilles. Now that I've seen him, so am I. He's already in violation of CF regulations, with his all-Terran crew. That took time and planning; he must have had a reason. True, all we have so far are assumptions…but if there's even a chance he's up to something, it's our sworn duty to put a stop to it." He glanced around. "Are we all agreed on that?"

All around the table there were nods. Vandevere said, "We still need proof before we can take this to Admiral Conroy. I hope you'll forgive me for saying so, Ehm'ayla, but I doubt he'll accept a lieutenant's ill-defined suspicions at face value."

Only too true, I thought. Of course I could count on Commodore Ehm'rael's faith and support; that was a given. But would it be enough? If Antilles started throwing charges at me…No. I needed help. At very least I needed someone willing to testify. But who? Who knew the truth, and would be willing to speak it? Not Gaetano. As much as it pained me to admit it, I couldn't count on him; not after that conversation I'd overheard. He was far too willing to straddle the fence. The rest of the science staff? I feared they'd be even less willing to stick their necks out. And Ensign Matthews…he'd help me, but he knew nothing of importance. Who did that leave?

"All right," the captain was saying. "Conclusion: we believe Lieutenant Ehm'ayla accurately reported what she experienced, and we believe Captain Antilles may be engaged in activities contrary to his sworn duties. Justin, I want you to examine Raven's logs. If there are discrepancies, no matter how small, I want them. Aparna, I want you to have a word with this Ensign Matthews, if you can arrange it. I want to know about that satellite in the A-Benideel system."

"Sir?"

"That 'communications failure' is a little too convenient for my taste," Haliday said grimly. "And Ehm'ayla--"

What task he would have assigned me I never learned, because he was interrupted by another beep from the intercom. "Control Deck to captain."

He sighed and punched the button. "Haliday here. What is it, Morley?"

"Sir, I'm sorry to interrupt, but I've just received a text message addressed to Lieutenant Ehm'ayla. It's tagged 'highest priority'…"

What in the world--? I thought. I glanced at the captain, and he nodded his permission. "This is Ehm'ayla," I said. "Who is it from, Bob?"

"I don't know, Lieutenant," he said. "It was routed through the outpost computer--but there's no sender or source tags. Looks like someone really wanted to remain anonymous."

I frowned. Who--? "Route it to my palm-reader, please."

"Yes, Lieutenant."

Even as I brought the little instrument out of my pocket, it gave a quiet beep. Very aware of the seven disparate pairs of eyes upon me, I opened the message. It was short, just a single line--and as I read it, my tail began to dance a rumba.

"Lieutenant?" the captain said quietly.

I looked up. "It's from Joel," I said faintly. I hurriedly cleared my throat. "Lieutenant Commander Abrams, sir. He says--he wants to talk."


<--HomeIndesNext-->