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
I found Joel in Krav's Place.
According to his message, he didn't want us to meet aboard Raven--and that was fine with me. I had no particular desire to set foot on that ship again; if Captain Haliday was correct, I might find it very difficult to get off again. I'd briefly considered recruiting a squad of Zelazny security guards to surround me--but no. Obviously Joel did not want to attract attention; best that I follow his lead. And if things went as I feared they might, the fewer witnesses the better.
By venturing onto the station alone, I was placing myself in real--but hopefully slight--danger. If Antilles was indeed as desperate as Vandevere believed, there was no telling what he might try. Perhaps he'd convince Admiral Conroy to place me under arrest for desertion; or maybe order his own security chief to do the job. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, they used to say: Haliday might find it much harder to get me off Raven than to keep me off. Logically, I should have remained aboard Zelazny and locked myself in my quarters--but that was not an option. As with every hazardous mission I'd ever faced, this one was both necessary and unavoidable. The speed and stealth of my hunting ancestors was my best defense: to move with the speed and precision of a commando squad, finishing my business before anyone realized I was on the station. The alternative--to shoot my way out with a hand-stinger--was ludicrous.
So, half an hour after receiving Joel's message, having made one or two quick preparations, I made my way through the pressure tunnel and set off toward the Roach café at a rapid and determined pace. Others on the Walk saw me, my eyes a dark mystery behind my goggles, and hurriedly got out of my way. Smart people. As I walked I kept a sharp lookout for both station security and Raven crewmembers, but I saw neither. Fortunately.
It is undeniably true that my temper is my worst attribute. On my way to becoming an officer I'd had to learn to curb it--and the lessons were often painful. As a cadet and an ensign I'd gathered more than my share of reprimands; but it's to my credit, I think, that my record aboard Zelazny was spotless. Now, though for several hours, ever since Raven dropped into the system, I'd felt blazing anger slowly building within me. Very soon it would have to find an outlet--one way or another.
Krav's was packed, and amidst the raucous crowd I spotted Joel sitting alone at the same table I'd occupied just a few days before. Hunched down, as if trying not to be seen, he sipped slowly at a cup of Xerxian coffee, a thoughtful look on his face and his eyes searching anxiously. I made my way through the throng, and it parted before me like that famous sea in Terran mythology. As I appeared beside him, Joel looked up sharply, his startled expression shading into a welcoming smile, and then into a look of concern as he caught sight of my goggles and baggy uniform. "Ehm'ayla," he said softly. "My God, I'm glad to see you! For the last two months I thought you were dead "
"Did you really?" I asked with heavy irony, and he nodded.
"Yes," he said. "Really."
I frowned. "Your message said you want to talk to me--?"
He nodded again. "I do," he said. He glanced around nervously. "But not here. There's a meeting lounge two levels up "
"All right." That was probably a good idea; fewer distractions--and less background noise.
He peered at me for a long moment, and he knew me too well not to recognize the anger on my face and in my tone. He sighed then, ran his credit card through the slot on the table, and rose. Together we threaded through the crowd and onto the Walk.
"How are you?" he asked, as we headed for the up-shaft. "I heard what happened to you. Your eyes--?"
"Are healing," I told him shortly. Dammit, stop asking questions! I thought savagely. I don't want to be reminded how much you care "I'm feeling much stronger now too."
"That's good," he said in relief. "When you were lost I can't tell you what it did to me."
It was only a short ride up to the third level, and then just a few steps to the meeting lounge. The place was small and quite empty; it contained a single table, four chairs, and a computer terminal. Joel ushered me in with a wave of his hand, and then, as the door closed behind us, stepped quickly over to the terminal and tapped on the keyboard. The computer beeped an acknowledgment.
I rounded on him with narrowed eyes. "What's going on?" I demanded. "What did you do?"
He flashed a quick, sad smile. "I've just locked the door and turned off the security monitors," he said. "Until I tell the computer otherwise, we're sealed in."
He sighed and glanced at his wrist chrono. "Right about now," he said, "a message should be arriving in Admiral Conroy's in-box, marked 'extremely urgent.' As soon as he reads it, all hell is going to break loose--and I will very probably be taken into custody, along with a number of others."
"Yes," he said. "I've had enough, Ayla. I've been living with this too long--I can't take it any more. That message contains the full story--everything I know about Antilles' plans." He peered into my eyes. "Everything I would have told you, if you'd made it to my cabin that night. Everything I should have told you a long time ago. I asked you here because I want you to hear it from me, as I promised. And I don't want to be interrupted."
Stricken, I stopped in my tracks. Even as he'd spoken I'd been advancing on him with fire in my eyes and half-expressed claws--and Joel had retreated, step for step, until his shoulders thumped against the wall. Calmly he nodded at my hands. "That isn't necessary," he said softly, and I let them flop to my sides.
"I--I'm sorry, Joel," I said. I shook my head. "Everything that's happened to me--I don't know who or what to trust any more. For the last two months, I've thought you were dead, along with the rest of Raven's crew. And when the ship showed up here in one piece "
He nodded. "I understand," he said. "And no one has more right than you to be angry. But please believe me: I'm not your enemy. Very much the opposite."
"I know who my enemy is," I replied. "Our beloved Captain Antilles. He treated me like slime mold for three months--and then he left me to die on that hell-hole planet. Now he's on the verge of making me look like a lunatic, a liar, a deserter, or all three. I want to know why--and I won't be put off or lied to any longer."
He glanced aside. "I have no intention of doing so--any longer." He waved at the table. "Please," he went on, "let's sit."
We did so, facing each other, and as I laid my hands on the table I noticed that they were trembling. With anger or excitement, I couldn't decide which. I peered at him coldly. "What can you say that will make me believe you now?" I demanded. "You've lied to me, dodged my questions, so many times "
He nodded sadly. "I know I have," he acknowledged. "And I can't blame you if you don't believe me. But just wait, Ehm'ayla. That message to Admiral Conroy is going to cause an avalanche. Others will come forward--or at least I hope they will. If so, Antilles' reign of terror is over."
"That's what I've never understood," I said. "He's only one man. What kind of hold does he have over that crew? I know you don't subscribe to his beliefs; surely you couldn't have felt any loyalty toward him. Why haven't you turned him in before this? And if not you, why hasn't someone?"
Joel shook his head. "It's not that simple," he said. "And as for being 'only one man' you're only half right. He is one man--but with a multitude of eyes and ears. You know about his most obvious followers: Edgeworth, Harris, Osgood. But you don't know about his fellow travelers. No one does for certain, not even me. There aren't many--but they're enough: Antilles has ways of finding things out. The entire crew knows that. We also know that you don't betray him--not if you want to go on breathing."
"You could have transferred."
"No," he said tiredly. "People don't transfer off that ship. They don't even try. Your predecessor, Morada. Do you really think he accidentally fell from that cliff?"
"Goddess!" I said. That had occurred to me more than once--but I'd always rejected it as ludicrous. Even Antilles wouldn't go that far or would he?
"Yes," Joel said grimly. "He was murdered. Morada was disgusted with Antilles; he was going to file a complaint as soon as Raven arrived here for supplies. But Henry knew too much; he was the one who'd unearthed most of the data the captain needed. Antilles couldn't let him talk. Along with Edgeworth and Harris, he decided to make Morada an 'example.' Harris actually did the deed: the rock-slide was triggered by a well-placed stun grenade. None of the rest of us knew--not before the fact. But Antilles had sent his message, loud and clear: on his ship you keep quiet and do your job or you don't make it home."
"That's insane!" I protested. "How could a man like that be allowed to command a ship?"
"I told you a long time ago," Joel said. "Raven isn't Zelazny. She's a very small cog in a very large machine. The Admiralty takes no notice of her at all--nor of Captain Antilles."
"And that's his problem?" I guessed.
Joel smiled wryly. "No," he said. "It's his opportunity. He wants anonymity. We're on a mission of exploration--but what the Survey assigned us to look for and what Antilles is actually looking for are two different things. He has an objective of his own."
I leaned forward eagerly. Things were finally beginning to make sense; everything I'd heard, seen and found aboard Raven had begun to form a pattern. And an ugly one at that. "And that is?"
Joel was silent for a moment, staring into space. Gazing closely at him for the first time, I saw to my dismay how haggard he'd grown, as if he'd aged far beyond his thirty years. But at the same time he seemed relieved. Overjoyed to be unburdening himself of a terrible secret at long last. Would he really have told me all this, if my stranding hadn't intervened? No way to know--so assume that he would have, and move on from there. Finally he said, "He's looking for the Watchers."
I blinked. I don't know what I'd expected; something stupendous, perhaps, like the Fountain of Youth, or the Lost Treasure of the Hattoa, or the equation that explains hypertunnels. At very least something tangible, from which Antilles could profit. Certainly not the biggest archaeological fraud since Piltdown Man. "Joel," I growled, "if that's supposed to be a joke, I'm not in the mood."
He shook his head firmly. "No. Not at all. Remember that night in Krav's, after the admiral's dinner? I asked you to tell me about them."
I nodded slowly. He had indeed, and I'd given him the opinion of every sensible archaeologist. Abruptly my mind flashed back to the conversation I'd overheard in my office, weeks later. Would she--could she--be a believer? Edgeworth had asked. Probably not, was Gaetano's reply. She'd think of it as nonsense, pseudoscience. And he was right. "I wondered why you'd asked," I said.
"And I told you it was something I'd read," Joel said. He shook his head. "The first lie. What I was really looking for was the voice of sanity. For weeks--months--I'd had Antilles' theories pounded into my head. We all did--all the senior officers. Finally it reached the point where I didn't know which of us was crazy--him or me."
"I still don't understand," I said. "Why is he looking for the Watchers, of all things?"
"He has some unique ideas about anthropology," Joel said heavily, "which in his mind are connected with the Watcher hypothesis. You explained Brenner's claims: the Watchers seeded humanity on Terra, and carefully observed the non-human species of the galaxy."
I nodded. "That about sums it up."
"--And Antilles believes it," Joel said. "Implicitly. He wants to find them--the Watchers. Not just evidence of their existence; he wants to contact them directly, face to whatever. He wants to enlist their aid."
"What kind of aid?"
"Military," Joel said. He took a deep breath, and went on flatly, "Antilles believes that Terran humans are literally the Chosen People. And only native Terrans: he regards colony-born humans like your friend Max Goodwin as 'traitors.' He wants to obtain from the Watchers concrete evidence that Terrans are inherently superior to every other species. To him, sentient non-humans are an abomination, beneath contempt. He has advocated extermination, or at very least enslavement. And that's what he ultimately wants from the Watchers: their help in wiping out the 'bastard' species."
For a moment I sat silent, shocked far beyond a lashing tail. Then I said, "I see. And in that case, I have just one question."
I lifted my claws before his face. "Why in the Goddess' name did you let me board that ship?"
He recoiled from the force of my anger. "What could I have done?" he demanded. "I had no idea you were replacing Morada--not until long after the transfer was signed. Even Edgeworth didn't know until she arrived at Commodore Ehm'rael's office. She was trapped; she had no choice but to accept you. There was certainly nothing I could have done to prevent it."
"You could have warned me," I countered. "You knew what kind of treatment I could expect. You could have helped me protect myself."
He looked away. "I was a fool," he said finally. He glanced at me, and in his eyes I saw the haunted look of someone bowed down by guilt. "I know that now. But you have to understand what life aboard Raven was like "
"You think I don't?" I demanded, and he shook his head.
"No," he said. "You don't--not really. You were never really allowed to participate. You don't know what it's like to attend a meeting of senior officers and be told, by a Survey captain no less, that collectively you represent the anointed 'master race.' You don't know what it's like to be told that you're either 'with him or against him'--and realize how literally he meant it. You don't know what it's like to sit and listen to him expound on the 'inevitable war of conquest,' when Terrans will rise up and destroy or enslave all other species. And you certainly don't know--can't know--what it's like to watch your colleagues gradually become so crushed under his rhetoric that they no longer have the will to fight; or to watch some of them slowly begin to believe the crap he's spouting. You only saw the results. On that ship there are people--Edgeworth and Harris, for example--who have become so enmeshed in Antilles' beliefs that they've lost all individuality. They're extensions of Antilles now--like his arms and legs. And then there are people like Osgood. I don't know what he believes in, if anything--but Antilles gave him a chance to throw his weight around, and he took it eagerly. And your own colleagues. Remember how they treated you at first? Even they had begun to believe, just a little. How could they help it? On a ship full of Terrans, with no counter-example--nothing to prove Antilles wrong--it's almost inevitable that his message would affect them eventually. And they're trained scientists--professional skeptics, by definition."
"But it didn't affect you?" I sneered.
"No," he said, gazing at me intently. "It didn't. And you know why? Because I'd known you. Whenever Antilles started lecturing us about 'Terran superiority,' it was your face I saw in my mind's eye. Is that so strange? I can't claim my heart was too pure or my spirit too noble--but I can say that I had something concrete to hold onto. A counter-example, like I said; proof that he was wrong. And for that, I have you to thank."
I couldn't hold his gaze. "You haven't answered my question, Joel. Why didn't you warn me?"
He sighed. "I should have. In retrospect, of course I should. That afternoon when I escorted you from Zelazny to Raven, I came very close."
I shook my head. "My people have a saying: 'Close doesn't fill your kits' bellies.'"
He nodded and smiled sadly. "How well I know that--now. I may not have been affected by Antilles' rhetoric--but I sure as hell was by Henry Morada's death. All of us were. And as much as we wanted to put an end to Antilles' scheme, none of us wanted to make the first move. We were scared, Ayla. Simple as that. Maybe you can't understand that; if so, I envy you. But imagine what would have happened if I had warned you. In the first place, how could I have worded it? 'Watch your back while you're aboard Raven; the captain hates non-Terrans.' Then what? You would have demanded to know what I meant--and it would have escalated from there. Eventually both of us--and Antilles too--would have ended up in Admiral Conroy's office. I had no proof--I still don't--so it would have been my word against his. If the other officers supported me, fine; but if they didn't "
I peered at his drawn, anxious face. "You're right, Joel," I said. "I don't understand. In your place "
He interrupted me harshly. "You don't know what you would have done in my place, Ehm'ayla--because you weren't."
"Maybe not," I admitted. "But what about later? When the torment had begun? You could have told me why it was happening, instead of letting me twist in the wind."
"No," he said. "I couldn't. By then it was too late."
His eyes suddenly blazed with anger. "Do you think I enjoyed lying to you? Of course I didn't. It was the hardest thing I've ever done--because I knew I was destroying our friendship. But I had no choice. I know you, Ayla. You actively seek confrontation. Maybe that's a Sah'aaran trait--a 'carnivore thing.' Or perhaps it's just your trait; maybe that's why you never got along with your father. Only you know how many reprimands it's earned you.
"If I'd told you what was going on, you would have confronted Antilles, all full of righteous indignation and he would have arrested you as a mutineer. He might even have had you shot, if he could trump up some evidence that you'd 'attacked' him. He's capable of it--believe me. Either way, it would have proved his point: that you--and by extension, all non-humans--are inherently violent, not to be trusted. And you yourself: you would have returned to this outpost in shackles, your career ruined or in a body-bag. How could I have taken that risk?"
I shook my head sadly. "Joel, the Ehm'ayla you knew was a twenty-year-old kit." I pointed to the three stars on my breast. "Don't you think I learned something on my way to earning these? Do you really think I have that little self-control? If so, you're as bad as Antilles."
He looked away.
"And bottom line, Mr. Abrams," I said, mocking his own favorite catch-phrase, "you didn't trust me--and that I can't forgive. Who gave you the right to make all the decisions? I don't recall being consulted."
His eyes still averted, he nodded. "I know that now," he said. "But then I couldn't risk it." He looked up, fixing me with his gaze. "I couldn't stand the thought of losing you, Ayla, because I lo--"
I held up my hand, cutting him off. "Don't say it, Joel. Just don't." From my breast pocket I brought forth the commpak I'd secreted there. "Commander Vandevere? Did you get all that?" I said into its tiny microphone.
Joel's eyes widened briefly; then he smiled wryly and nodded.
The first officer's voice spoke quietly into my ear: "We did--but it might end up being somewhat redundant. In fact I think you're about due for some company."
"Acknowledged, Commander. Thank you."
"I should have known you'd hedge your bets," Joel commented as I put away the commpak. "You of all people."
"It was the only way, Joel," I told him. "I needed evidence--and whatever you might tell me, I couldn't be certain you wouldn't try to deny it later. This has already gone on too long."
"You're right," he said. He looked exhausted, used up; and I could scarcely blame him, because I felt exactly the same. "More than a year too long."
"Joel," I said, "I understand the pressure you were under. I know how charismatic Antilles is; I can understand what months of listening to him would do to someone's mind. But I can not understand how you could stand by and let him strand me."
Joel shook his head, frowning in confusion. "But I didn't--because he didn't."
"Ayla," Joel said slowly, "as God is my witness, Captain Antilles did not strand you on that planet."
"What?" I demanded--but before he could reply, we were interrupted by a sudden pounding on the door.
"Security!" came a muffled and peevish voice. "Open up!"
Joel smiled grimly. "Obviously Admiral Conroy has received my message," he commented. He leaned forward and tapped on the keyboard, and the door snapped open. Then both of us leaped to our feet as an entire squad of green-suited, grim-faced troopers swarmed in. Ignoring me they surrounded Joel, stinger-rifles cocked and leveled.
"Commander Abrams," their leader said, "by order of Admiral Conroy, you're under arrest, sir."
Joel stepped forward, his hands raised. "I'm not armed, Ensign," he said quietly. "I'll come quietly."
"Joel," I said, "please believe me--I never meant for this to happen."
He glanced back, even as the troopers led him out. "There seems to be a lot of that going around."
"Well," Haliday said with a grim smile, "this is without a doubt the most interesting day I've had since I left the Navy. Thanks mostly to you, Lieutenant."
As he spoke he fixed me with his gaze, and I squirmed. "Am I in trouble, sir?"
"Technically speaking," he said thoughtfully, "your performance at the court-martial might be termed perjury. But under the circumstances, Admiral Conroy has decided it would be pointless to prosecute you. I imagine you have Commodore Ehm'rael to thank for that."
I swallowed. "Yes, sir," I said. "I'm sorry, sir."
"No harm done," Haliday said. "But," he went on sternly, "I'm afraid this has damaged my trust in you. I understand Sah'aaran sensibilities--and I know that they sometimes mix poorly with Combined Forces regulations. But you are sworn to obey orders, Lieutenant--and from now on, when I ask you for a report, I expect it to be as complete as you can make it. Your personal feelings notwithstanding. Do I make myself clear?"
Looking him in the eye, not daring to turn away, I said, "Yes, sir. Perfectly clear."
"Good," Haliday said. He paused, and when he continued his tone had softened. "I understand what you've been through, Ehm'ayla. A betrayal of friendship is never easy to endure."
Especially when you're not certain who's been betrayed. "Thank you, sir."
"But in the end, it appears your Commander Abrams did the right thing," he went on. His gaze shifted. "Justin, what's the current situation?"
Zelazny's senior officers seemed doomed to spend their lives in Mission Planning--but the cast of characters was shrinking, Commander Hullumm and Max Goodwin having returned to their real jobs. As before, Raven filled the viewscreen, and my gaze was drawn back again and again to that patched hull. I could only imagine the chaos aboard her now.
Vandevere consulted his palm-reader. "Captain Antilles and his senior officers have been placed under arrest, on charges of murder and conspiracy. They were all taken into custody without incident, except one: Lieutenant Commander Harris, the Security crew chief. He drew a stinger, and had to be stunned."
That's Harris, I thought sourly. Not that he had anything to lose. "Commander," I said, "was it only the senior officers who were taken into custody?"
Vandevere nodded. "With one exception," he said. "A certain Ensign Wallace Osgood, a Techspec trainee. He was arrested on charges of insubordination and violating the civil rights of a fellow officer."
I nodded in satisfaction. In netting the bigger fish, I'd feared they might allow the minnow to slip through the mesh.
"Justin," Haliday said, "what do you think of Abrams' story?"
Vandevere smiled. "Given the circumstances," he said, "I'm inclined to believe it." He shook his head. "It's incredible. Unprecedented. But it does fit the facts we have. Antilles and his senior officers are being questioned now; we'll have to wait and see if anyone corroborates."
They will, I thought. The logjam was broken, thanks to Joel; the others would quickly fall in line, if only to exonerate themselves.
"'Incredible' is the word for it, all right," Haliday agreed grimly. "Aparna, what did you find out?"
She glanced quickly at me. "I wasn't able to speak to Ensign Matthews," she said. "But I did get a look at Raven's Compcomm logs. When the ship departed A-Benideel, the officer on duty was a trainee Level III, Crockett by name. I found no indication that he checked the satellite's status." She spread her hands. "Impossible to say whether that was deliberate, or if he simply forgot."
Haliday shook his head. "He didn't forget," he said with certainty. "I'd lay odds on it: Antilles knew damn well that satellite was dead, and didn't want that fact logged."
I nodded thoughtfully. In the wake of Joel's story I was remembering many things--and among them was the day I took a shift at Compcomm. Antilles ordered me to transmit the standard hyperzap--and as I did, I caught him watching me with a very strange expression on his face. Because he knew I was wasting my time? Was it possible he'd actually enjoyed the sight?
"Why would he do that, sir?" Aparna asked; but it was Vandevere who answered.
"A damaged relay would be the perfect way to conceal his activities. And an excellent alibi too, should a ship be sent to search for them."
Haliday nodded. "What we don't know is if Ensign Crockett was an active participant, or an unwilling victim. If the latter, if he was ordered not to check the satellite--well, how many ensigns would dare question a captain's orders?"
Especially if the captain is Antilles, I thought. Either way, it appeared Brian Matthews was off the hook, and for that I was grateful. To discover that he--the archetypal Boy Scout--had been part of Antilles conspiracy would have been more than I could stand.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen," Haliday was saying, "it appears our job here is done." He turned to me. "But not yours, Lieutenant. You're in for another court-martial, I'm afraid. You'll be the key witness against Antilles and his officers."
I shuddered. This time, every detail of what they did to me would have to come out--whether I liked it or not. "Thanks to you, sir," I said, "I've been reminded of my duty."
Haliday nodded solemnly. "Glad to hear it." He glanced around. "This has been a very long day, and I'm sure we're all tired. Dismissed."
I waited until the others had departed, leaving me alone with Haliday. "Captain? May I have a word with you?"
"Of course," he said affably. "What can I do for you?"
I swallowed. "Sir," I said, "I'm sure the Admiralty will be ordering Zelazny back to Terra or Centaurus "
"Very likely," he agreed. "I'll be receiving new orders within a day or two."
"What I'm wondering is what's to become of me? Officially I suppose I'm still attached to Raven, but I don't imagine she'll be shipping out again soon "
"Not with her present crew," Haliday agreed. "As for you " He shook his head. "I'm sorry to say I just don't know. This is a unique situation. You've requested a transfer back to Zelazny, and I have no problem with that." He nodded at the green patch on my breast. "But you're a Scispec now, and that's a precious commodity. The Admiralty might have other plans for you."
"Yes, sir," I said sadly. "I understand."
He patted my arm. "I'll have a word with Admiral Conroy," he promised. "He has friends at HQ. And if you need to catch up with us after the trial well, that won't take long."
"Thank you, sir."
"And in the meantime," he said, "get some rest. You've had the hardest day of all."
Someone was in my quarters.
Returning there from Mission Planning, I had to force myself to keep moving. After riding an adrenaline high for hours, I hadn't realized how exhausted I was; but Captain Haliday, perceptive as ever, had seen it. The end of the court-martial, Raven's return, my talk with Joel had it all happened in just that one day? With the excitement over, it was as if a giant hand had squashed me flat: my eyes were aching and my tail dragging. I wanted nothing more than to collapse into my bunk. Unfortunately I was not at all sure I would be able to sleep, not with the day's events still racing around my head like a Shrekk-rat in a wheel.
As I entered, I reached up tiredly to peel away my goggles. The lights were turned low, for the sake of my poor eyes, and so I entirely failed to notice the figure sitting quietly in my desk chair until it suddenly rose and moved toward me. Reflexively I fell into a crouch but then I caught a whiff of a familiar scent. "Commodore?"
It was indeed. Commodore Ehm'rael--whom I had last seen hours ago in the courtroom--stepped silently toward me. I lifted my hands for the ritual greeting but she did not meet them. Instead she caught hold of my right hand in an unbreakable grip. With her forefinger she pressed firmly below the tips of my three fingers, forcing the claws to express. I still bore the painful memory of the last time someone had done that, and it was all I could do not to struggle. For a few seconds she held my hand close to her eyes, examining my claws minutely. Then, with a sigh, she released me and turned away.
"Commodore?" I repeated. "What's wrong? How did you get in here?"
She reached up to brush my cheek. "Please forgive the intrusion, my child," she said in Sah'aaran. "Your security personnel could not refuse a commodore's orders. Perhaps I abused my authority; but I had to see you. I had to know."
"To know what?" I asked, also switching to the mother tongue.
She perched herself on the divider, and I sank down onto the desk chair. "News reached me," she said, choosing her words carefully, "of what Captain Antilles did to you aboard Raven. I will not name the act; we both know what I mean. Such things are virtually unknown among us, but not absolutely: accidents do happen. If the cuticles are damaged, it is not impossible for the claws to grow back in a deformed or weakened condition. And if such had been the case, I feared you could not bring yourself to tell me."
"It pleased the Goddess that it not be so," I said: a stock Sah'aaran phrase. I didn't really believe that, though. I'd had plenty of time to think about it, and I suspected that it had pleased Dr. Enyeart that it not be so. He and Burke has been covering their own asses.
"What is more important," Ehm'rael said, "is why you did not tell the court."
"It was irrelevant " I began, and she frowned and shook her head. I sighed and lowered my eyes. "It is not our way to burden others with our shame."
"That is so," the commodore said. "But though that precept has served our species well, it cannot be applied in this case." She lifted my chin and peered into my eyes. "What Captain Antilles did to you was a violation," she went on. "In both senses of the word. He violated your legal rights--and your body, as surely as a rapist. On Sah'aar such a crime would be unspeakable, unthinkable."
"I do not believe he understood the implications of his actions." Somehow I was managing to keep control of my voice; it was easier in Sah'aaran than in Terran. "He knows nothing of our culture. Nor would he have cared. He only wished to humiliate and intimidate me."
"And did he succeed?"
I hung my head again, and it was a long time before I could reply. "Yes," I whispered. "Yes, Commodore, he did."
"Not even the Goddess herself would require you to keep that bottled inside," Ehm'rael went on. "But there is a more important consideration, child. Captain Antilles' crimes did not affect you alone. Can you honestly say you never suspected he had caused Commander Morada's death?"
I nodded wearily. "You are correct, Commodore," I said. "It was my duty to report what I knew--despite my shame."
"Yes," she said simply. "It was. But I am not here to berate you, child. What is done is done, and Antilles has been stopped." She paused. "I am here to make a confession," she went on. "When I read Commander Abrams' report, I came very close to violating my oaths as an officer--and my beliefs as a Sah'aaran. I was filled with rage such as I have seldom felt; it was all I could do to prevent myself from killing Antilles with my bare claws. It would have solved nothing, and in any event I would have been prevented; but my anger was so great that I was partway to his cell before reason returned. I can only imagine the depths which your shame and anger must have plumbed."
I said nothing; I had no words.
"Tell me, child," she said. "If you had not been stranded, what would you have done?"
"When Raven returned to the outpost, Captain Antilles would have filed complaints against me, in an attempt to remove me from his ship," I said. "He would have said that I had been insubordinate, even dangerous; and that I was unqualified for my assignment. I would have had no choice but to respond. It was my intention to somehow put my shame aside and show you what he had done." I lifted my hands. "I knew that you would understand and believe."
"And you were counting on my anger," she observed wryly.
"Perhaps so," I admitted. "But that is all in the past. My claws returned, without deformity. And during my time alone my shame and anger subsided."
"Did they?" she said, her eyes, shining green in the dim light, boring into mine. "Did they really?"
Again I had no answer, and she went on: "I also wish to say that you need not have worried about burdening or offending me. I share your shame, you see. With knowledge of your treatment aboard Raven comes realization that I am responsible. I arranged your transfer; I urged you to take it. I can only ask you to believe that I knew nothing of Captain Antilles' personal agenda."
"Certainly you did not," I replied quickly. "No one did, outside his crew. And in the end the transfer was my choice, Commodore. You need feel no shame."
She smiled. "You are kind. But it was my suggestion--that you obtain more experience--which set events in motion. Raven seemed Goddess-sent for that very purpose--but clearly it was sent by the Dark Ones instead. I may only beg your forgiveness."
"And I yours," I replied. "I fear I have not lived up to your expectations."
She rose, and cupped my face in her hands. "You have far exceeded them," she said earnestly. "Always. The greatest gift the Goddess gives us is life, and the greatest honor we can do Her is to protect that gift. You did what was necessary to survive. Your actions have brought you honor and have made me very proud."
I clasped her hands between mine. "Thank you."
She went on, "Our shame will always be with us, Ehm'ayla. But in enduring it, we grow stronger. The human philosopher Nietzsche observed: 'what does not kill me, strengthens me.'"
"Perhaps," I said. I swallowed. "Commodore, do you know what is to become of me?"
"That remains to be determined," she said. "But you need not worry: you have done the Combined Forces a great service, and that will not be forgotten."
I quirked an eye. "If you say so."
She smiled and brushed my cheek again, then rose to her feet. "Rest now, child. We will speak again soon."
And then she was gone, her footsteps silent as only a Sah'aaran's can be. And watching her go, somehow I knew that, despite everything, I would indeed be able to sleep in peace.