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-NINE
 
 

I went down to the security cells.

No, not as a client--though several times in the recent past I'd thought it a distinct possibility. I went as a visitor--and that was painful enough.

When at last I woke, the morning after Raven's return, I found the "message waiting" light on my terminal flashing. Even before I opened the missive I knew that it was not from Commodore Ehm'rael. She disliked even intercoms; e-mail she detested. Typically Sah'aaran, I suppose, but even I don't take it quite that far. Anything she wished to say to me, she'd have said face-to-face. But if not her…who? Joel?

But--for better or worse--my correspondent was not Raven's former chief Techspec. The message was brief, just a few words: "Please come see me. I'd like to speak to you"--and the sender was Lieutenant Commander Karl Gaetano. Offhand, the very last person I would have expected to contact me thus--but on reflection, perhaps not.

As I showered, dressed, and breakfasted, I considered what I should do. I could simply ignore it, and eventually it would cease to matter. What could he possibly have to say that I'd want to hear? But even as I sought reasons why I shouldn't go, I knew that I would. And so, perhaps two hours after the message was sent, I once again made my way across to Outpost Four. A place that seemed likely to be my home for quite some time.

The Security section was on the lowest level, several floors below the Walk, amidst a maze of narrow, dingy hallways lined with storage compartments and environmental machinery. It was in fact one of the first parts of the station built; that probably says something about the nature of most sentient species. The dozen cells lined both sides of a narrow corridor, and were overseen by a central monitor station. Normally they'd house enlisted men who'd had a few too many at Krav's, and maybe gotten into a fight. They'd probably never hosted real felons before.

As I made my way down the corridor toward the desk I kept my eyes resolutely forward, not looking into the cells. I knew who occupied them, or at least I could guess: persons whose gazes I had no desire to meet. I felt their eyes upon me, boring into my back like a laser drill; some hostile…and some not.

The guard--a Navy lieutenant j.g.--was human, and appeared to be only a little younger than me. No ambition, perhaps. He sat bored and listless in the midst of a circular bank of monitor screens; but as I stepped up before him he looked up sharply, and his hand fell to his stinger. "May I help you, ma'am?" he asked, sizing me up through narrowed eyes.

"Lieutenant Ehm'ayla," I said. "I'm here to see Commander Gaetano."

He tapped on his keyboard, frowned at the screen for a moment, and nodded. "Admiral Conroy has approved the visit," he said. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, farther down the corridor. "Cell Eleven. Enjoy."

"Am I permitted to enter the cell?" I asked. "I'd like to speak with him face-to-face."

He hesitated, frowning. "Are you sure that's wise, Lieutenant?" he asked dubiously.

I raised my hands and showed him my claws. "I can take care of myself."

His eyes widened, and he grinned. "Who's gonna take care of him?" he said. "All right. I'll be watching--give me a wave when you're finished."

"Thank you," I said. Leaving my stinger with him, as regulations demanded, I circled the desk and made my way slowly up the corridor, my tail waving and my fingertips tingling. Is this really a good idea? I asked myself again. What can he possibly want to say--?

The doorway was wide and apparently open; but the small metal cones lining it like teeth on all four sides were stinger discharge points. A prisoner might try leaping through--but he'd be unconscious before he hit the floor. The cell itself was painfully bare, and I shivered to see it. Built into the rear wall was an uncomfortable-looking bunk; in the corner was a washbasin and a toilet, out in the open, without so much as a privacy screen. And that was all. I'd never spent time in the brig--and a good thing too: I could not have endured it. Not without frequent sedation.

Gaetano sat on the bunk, his head in his hands. His uniform had been exchanged for a plainer jumpsuit, pale green, with a large "P" stenciled across the back. Around his right wrist he wore a snug silver band: a prisoner ID, sealed all but irremovably to his flesh. His hair was disheveled, and a full day's growth of beard grizzled his chin. His face, upon which I had so often seen a cheerful grin, was haggard, his mouth set in a grim line. I cleared my throat, and he looked up sharply. "Lieutenant!" he said. "I didn't expect you to come."

The mood I'd worked myself into might best be described as "implacable." I'd listen to whatever he has to say, as long as it wasn't too outrageous; but he knew, as I knew, that I would soon be testifying against him. If his intention was to beg me to intercede for him, he would not find me a receptive audience.

I glanced back at the desk and waved; the guard nodded and pressed a button. Beside the door a light changed from red to green, and I stepped forward, over the discharge points. Behind me the light flickered red again. "I came," I said simply. "What can I do for you, Commander?"

He smiled wanly. "Nice of you to use the title," he said. "I don't imagine it'll be valid much longer." He scooted over. "Please--sit down."

Silently, I did. For a few seconds he peered into my eyes--or tried to: he was foiled by my dark goggles. Finally he sighed and went on, "There are a few things--a few truths--you ought to know, while I still have a chance to tell you." He took a deep breath. "What I'm about to say will probably seem self-serving, or an attempt to influence your testimony. I can only ask you to believe that it isn't."

I nodded. "Go ahead." I was determined to give him as little encouragement as possible, without actually killing the conversation.

He spoke mechanically, uttering words obviously long-rehearsed. "First of all I want to apologize for the way you were treated by Raven's crew--myself included." He paused. "Although I can say that on no one's behalf but my own. I myself am utterly disgusted by their actions, and by many of my own. They were unworthy of any Combined Forces officer, any sentient being, and most especially any human. None of us represented our species very well."

Still I was silent, and a moment later he continued. "I'm ashamed to admit it, but for a time I did subscribe to some of Antilles' theories." He smiled wryly. "Do I believe in the Watchers? No. But as for the rest…well, the conditions he created--a total absence of non-human influence--made believing almost easy. Then you came aboard."

"And that changed everything," I said.

If he heard the sarcasm in my tone, he gave no sign. "It may be scant satisfaction," he said, "but Antilles was terrified of you from the moment you joined the crew. To him you represented the ruination of all his plans. And of course he was right, though not exactly in the way he expected."

"What did he expect from me?" I asked. I'd become intrigued in spite of myself, and the question popped out before I could bite it back.

"I'll get to that," Gaetano promised, "if you'll bear with me. There's some background you need first."

I spread my hands. "I've got nothing but time."

"It was expected of me--and of everyone else--to hate you. I'll be honest: I did try. And failed. With our specialties so closely related, we couldn't help working together frequently. And Antilles ordered me to monitor your work--though of course he was hoping I'd find deficiencies he could exploit. Which I never did, I might add. Under those circumstances I found it impossible to hate you. Looking back now, I think I first realized that the day of the A-Benideel briefing. It makes me cringe to remember the things I said to you then; I will always regret them. But the moment I saw your reaction, you ceased to be a symbol and became a person, with likes, dislikes, beliefs, fears…and pain. And as a person, I could find nothing about you to hate, and a great deal to like. I'm only sorry I couldn't show it as openly as I wished."

I remembered that day very well. Gaetano confronted me in anger because I'd dared to speak up in the briefing; and in the course of the discussion, told me that I was "nothing" aboard Raven. But almost immediately after uttering the words he backed off, and the next day he offered an apology of sorts. And after that he became increasingly friendly. "I'm…grateful for all you did," I said.

He bowed his head. "I wasn't the only one who felt that way," he said. "Ensign Matthews is another: he's quite fond of you. I think you know the risks he took showing it."

"I do," I said. "But I don't know of any others. All I got from the rest was a kind of careful indifference."

"That's true," he agreed. "That's all they dared show. The fact is, the crew's acceptance of Antilles' theories wasn't half as deep as he hoped. His only true believers--willing to do anything for the cause--were Edgeworth, Harris, and a very few others. Some crewmembers gave lip-service to his ideas, but most--like myself--preferred silence. We were kept in line by fear. Anyone who dared to oppose him might end up like Henry Morada."

"And?" I prompted. He was making sense, I had to admit, especially in light of what Joel had told me. Entirely too much sense.

"And…that's why Antilles was so afraid of you: more crewmembers might begin to see you as a person. And that was happening--slowly but surely. Our Scispec colleagues do like you, more than you might realize. They just didn't dare show it."

I nodded. "The crew's support of Antilles' theories was already weak," I mused. "If something were to break it entirely…"

"Exactly," Gaetano said. "No telling what might happen--even mutiny."

"And so he didn't dare let me be personified."

"That's right." He sighed. "The ridicule, the undermining of your authority--all happened at his direct instigation. It was intended to depersonalize you. The nadir, of course, was that last incident with Osgood."

My fingers twitched. "I always believed that to be the end of a long cycle of revenge. I reprimanded him on the Control Deck…"

"That probably is how it began," Gaetano agreed. "Antilles encouraged Osgood's desire for revenge, and turned him loose on you." He shook his head. "Privately Antilles despises him--thinks he's an idiot. He was hoping you'd get mad enough to kill Osgood, or at least claw him badly. It would have been small loss, and it would have justifiably landed you in the brig. When you failed to oblige, the captain had to salvage the situation as best he could. He'd hoped to make you look like a wild animal: savage, bloodthirsty, dangerous."

"He didn't really know what he was doing," I said. I nodded down at my hands. "What these mean to us."

"Nor would he have cared," Gaetano said flatly. "But if it's any consolation, that was his biggest mistake. You were isolated from the rest of the crew, so you might not have known, but sympathy for you increased greatly about then. Even Osgood's friends began to have doubts. They kept silent after Matthews beat the tar out of Osgood, when they might have blamed you. Tormenting you was no longer fun."

I raised my hands. "You said this was a mistake," I said. "How so? And what did he hope to accomplish?"

"To demoralize and intimidate you," Gaetano said. "He also hoped to prove that you were out of control, not to be trusted. To make you a living demonstration of his theories. Why was it a mistake? Because he was counting on you to injure or kill Osgood. You didn't--but he proceeded exactly as if you had. Maybe he didn't know what else to do…"

"Or maybe he let his prejudices blind him."

"Perhaps," Gaetano agreed. "I can't say for certain. But the results were undeniable: even those who believed Antilles' theories couldn't support such a harsh punishment for a minor infraction. Especially when you'd so obviously been goaded into it."

"So?"

"So…the captain saw it happening, of course, and we can only imagine the depths of his desperation. To be frank, Lieutenant, being stranded very likely saved your life. If not for that, I truly believe you would have ended up exactly like Morada."

His words ought to have set off an alarm bell; but they didn't; I was too busy contemplating my narrow escape. What would it have been? I wondered morbidly. Another collapsing cliff? A stinger misfire? A landing-pod crash? I lived through sixty-three days on Hellhole--but what would have happened if fate had left me aboard Raven?

"What you don't know is how the crew felt after you were gone," Gaetano went on quietly. "Antilles was relieved, of course--it spared him a messy job--but that feeling wasn't shared by many. I know how I felt, at least: sad…and deeply guilty. Exactly how I felt after Morada was murdered. Many others felt the same--most especially Joel Abrams."

I stiffened. "I don't care how he felt," I said harshly.

Gaetano cocked a curious eyebrow. "I thought you and he--"

"You thought wrong," I interrupted. "Commander Abrams is of no consequence to me. None at all."

Gaetano shrugged. "If you say so. Where was I? Oh, yes--even with you gone, Antilles' plans were ruined. Belief in his theories was badly shaken, and the crew was no longer willing to support his search for the Watchers. The prospect of returning to the outpost terrified him; he delayed it as long as he could. He never imagined you'd be here--but he was terribly afraid that someone would finally find the courage to expose him. And that's exactly what happened."

I glanced aside. "Would it have, if I hadn't been here?"

"I think it would," he said. He quirked a smile. "In a way you were more valuable dead, Ehm'ayla: you became a martyr. Your presence on Raven was the beginning--but your absence was the climax. The rest was inevitable, I think. The only question was, who bells the cat. If you'll pardon the expression."

And we know who that ended up being. "Commander--Karl--I do appreciate the explanation. And I am grateful to you. I know you didn't dare do much--just a few small acts of kindness. They did make life more endurable, I assure you."

"But?" he prompted with a smile.

"But," I said, "my feelings about you, Antilles, Edgeworth--the entire crew--are inextricably mixed. I thought I'd sorted it out while I was stranded--but that's when I believed you were all dead. I don't know what to believe now, Karl. I don't know who's guilty and who isn't."

"I'm guilty," he said firmly. "That's undeniable. I'm guilty of silence; I'm guilty of not refusing, as was my sworn duty, orders which I knew to be illegal. I'm guilty of withholding evidence of terrible crimes, including murder. And I'm guilty of looking the other way while you were brutalized. My guilt is scarcely mitigated by those 'small acts of kindness.'"

"I'm sorry," I said. I waved a hand, indicating the small bleak cell. "Sorry it turned out like this."

"I'm sorry too," he said. "And please believe me: I don't blame you at all. That's the real reason I wanted to speak with you: to tell you that I harbor no ill-will toward you, no matter what happens to me. You saved my life; I'll always be grateful for that. We were doomed long before you came aboard Raven, no matter how much we hoped to ride the situation through. Even if you'd never been involved, it would have ended just as it has--but with many more lives ruined in the process. That was foreordained, the day Captain Antilles announced his true intentions."

"I think you're right," I said. "I only wish I'd never been a part of it."

"I wish you hadn't too," he said. "You deserved nothing that happened to you."

I hesitated. Then I said, "There's something else I'd like to ask you…"

He nodded. "I'll answer if I can."

I took a deep breath. "Everything makes sense to me now," I said, "except one thing: why? What made Antilles the way he is? And how in the Goddess' name did he ever get command of a CF vessel?"

Gaetano smiled grimly. "The second question is the easiest," he said. "He got command by being an efficient and knowledgeable officer. You know how rare a commodity that is. The Admiralty willingly overlooked what they believed were just some personality quirks. If they'd known the truth, maybe it would have been a different story. But obviously, they never inquired."

He paused. "As for the other…well, I don't know for certain. But there were rumors--and having seen the records, I have no trouble believing them."

He paused again, staring into space, then went on, "If you examine the records at the Officer's Academy, you'll find that from the moment he enrolled, Antilles was always second in his class. One particular cadet was always ahead of him. Four straight years, the two of them were in lock-step, that other cadet leading and Antilles following. What happened to the other I don't know--but I do know that he was Centaurii."

I looked up sharply…and then I nodded. You humans always need to think you're something special, I'd once told Joel. I could easily picture Antilles, a bright, smart, ambitious young cadet…but no matter how hard he tried, how much he achieved, there was always someone a step ahead. In such a situation, wouldn't it be comforting to believe that it isn't your fault? That this alien is ahead of you not because of innate talent, but because of some anti-Terran conspiracy? And given time, couldn't that belief become an obsession?

"Eventually," Gaetano was saying, "Antilles came across Brenner's nonsense--and obviously he found it all too congenial to his views. In his mind the Watchers became living, breathing persons, as real as you or I. And worse: they came to represent not just a comforting illusion, but a means for revenge. He has dedicated his life to searching for them, so that together they can destroy every non-human species in the galaxy."

"And all because he graduated second in his class," I said bitterly.

"Yes," Gaetano agreed. "A man murdered, careers ruined, an innocent person brutalized--all because of that."

Abruptly then, something which had been clamoring for my attention for some minutes finally succeeded. "Wait a minute," I said. "You said Antilles was relieved when I was stranded? That it 'spared him a messy job'?"

Gaetano nodded. "That's right," he said. "Otherwise he would have been forced to arrange another 'accident.' And that might--"

"That's not what I meant," I interrupted. "Stranding me down there--wasn't that his plan? Didn't Harris go with us that day to make sure I'd be left behind?"

"No," he said. "He did not. You vanished, Ehm'ayla. As simple as that. We couldn't even pick up the signal from your life-sign monitor. We spent hours searching--all of us, including Harris. Delaney had to return to the ship suffering with heat-stroke; she was in bed for days. Finally we decided that something--some animal--must have grabbed you."

Suddenly my head was spinning. Joel had said roughly the same thing--but I'd discounted it almost immediately. Partly because any such statement from him was self-serving (though perhaps my thinking so was unjust), but mostly because he hadn't been there. Antilles could have told him anything. But to hear this from Gaetano…

I'd passed out on the trail--which, given the heat, hadn't seemed particularly inexplicable. But just before I fell, I seemed to see a flicker of movement among the trees to my right. At the time I rationalized it as a product of my imagination. When I learned that Raven was still in one piece, an alternate explanation had offered itself: Lieutenant Harris and his stinger rifle, making sure I'd miss the last flight from Hellhole. The dizziness I'd suffered after I woke could easily have been a stinger hangover. An easy explanation, yes, entirely logical--but here was Gaetano to swear it wasn't true.

I grasped his hands. "Tell me," I said urgently. "Tell me every detail."

###

My mind was whirling as I departed the Security section, once again running the gauntlet of those staring eyes. For the second time in less than a day, the Fates--or perhaps the Dark Ones, but surely not the Goddess--seemed to be laughing up their collective sleeve at my confusion. What seemed a clear-cut case of betrayal and abandonment had suddenly become complicated, not to say incomprehensible. And how to resolve it, I hadn't a clue. Unless…

I had almost reached the up-shaft when my racing thoughts were interrupted by a mocking voice from my right, speaking just a single word: "Disgusting!"

I jerked as if shot, and spun, my hands raised and my claws expressed. I found myself facing an all-too-familiar figure; tall, with close-cropped hair and narrow sardonic features. Wearing a green jumpsuit, he stood with his arms folded across his chest, so close to the stinger barrier that he was in danger of being zapped. "Captain Antilles," I stated flatly.

He looked me up and down with obvious disdain. "Disgusting," he repeated.

I straightened and put away my claws. "What is?"

"You are." He shook his head. "An animal," he went on, half to himself. "They dressed an animal in a Combined Forces uniform and put it aboard my ship."

My body went rigid with anger. "What do you mean by that?"

"Isn't it obvious, Lieutenant?" he sneered. "Or aren't you as intelligent as they claim? You're not Terran. You're not even human. You're an animal--a savage, flesh-eating beast. You belong in a zoo, not on a spaceship."

My claws had expressed again, painfully. I took a few steps toward the barrier, but Antilles did not move. "I put up with your hatred for three months," I growled. "But no more. You're not in command here--I don't have to listen to your filth."

His face darkened and his jaw clenched, just as they had so many times before. "Watch your mouth," he rasped.

"Not any more, Captain," I said. "Not for the likes of you. I'll save my respect for people who deserve it--like Captain Haliday and Commodore Ehm'rael. You deserve none. All I have for you is contempt."

I thrust my claws close to his face, and all the anger, I'd kept bottled up inside for the sake of my career suddenly poured forth in a stream of snarled words. "Do you see these, Captain? I demanded. "Yes, they grew back--no thanks to you. Do you know what you did to me? Do you have any idea how much of a Sah'aaran's life is contained right here? Do you know how defenseless you left me? Do you even care? Did you have any thought other than to humiliate me?"

"I acted to protect my crew," he said flatly.

"No, you didn't," I told him. "If I'd really wanted to hurt someone, I could have found a way--you know that as well as I do. No: your only desire was to spit on my heritage. For three months you tried to make me feel ashamed of being Sah'aaran. And the worst thing is, you almost succeeded. But no more, Captain. Never again."

"I am ashamed," he said coldly. "Humanity should never have had anything to do with your kind. I am ashamed that I allowed you aboard my ship, and that I was obliged to treat you as an officer. I am ashamed that your precious commodore forced me to waste time dealing with you. I am ashamed that you didn't simply die on that planet, and leave me in peace."

"No more, Captain!" I snapped. "You are an aberration--a throwback. Signing aboard your ship was the biggest mistake of my life--and one I won't repeat. If I never see you again, it will be too soon."

I turned to depart--but Antilles wasn't finished. "You and your so-called 'sentient' species are nothing compared to Terrans," he said. "It disgusts me that so many true humans are blind to what you represent. But that will change. Someday the Terran race will wake up, and you will be purged from the galaxy. Purged."

"I've heard this before," I said tiredly. "The same old racist claptrap that most of your species left behind two centuries ago. None of it is new. Way back when, humans with light skin hated ones with dark skin. You and your followers hate non-Terrans. What's next? Anyone from outside this galaxy? This space-time continuum? It's all nonsense, Captain. You might convince misanthropes like Edgeworth, or paranoids like Harris, or bullies like Osgood. But never anyone with half a brain."

"We shall see," he said simply.

"Perhaps. But I'm not holding my breath." I paused. "I'm curious, Captain: why are you even talking to me? You must know I'll be the star witness at your court-martial."

He dismissed that with a wave of his hand. "I cannot expect justice," he said. "Not from an organization so thoroughly infiltrated by aliens. They will close ranks, and my life will be over. That I know."

"And so you've got nothing to lose," I finished. "Actually, you may be right." By this time my anger had turned cold and drained away. He simply wasn't worth the effort. All I had left was a kind of tired sadness. He was an intelligent and talented, a charismatic leader with a knack for inspiring confidence. What a waste, that he should end his career like this!

"And as it happens," I went on, "neither do I. Or rather, nothing more to fear. So let me tell you what I think of you." I took a deep breath. "I don't have your talent for hatred, Captain. I certainly can't manage to hate whole species at a time. I don't even hate you any longer. I've always been very fond of humans--but you, sir, give them a bad name. You are evil. That's an old-fashioned concept; but it's the only one that fits. Everything you say, do, and believe in, is absolutely evil. And as soon as you and your opinions pass from the universe, the better off the rest of us will be.

"I am not a savage, Captain. As a small child I swore an oath never to use my claws in anger against any sentient being. So far I've kept that promise--but in your case I could have made an exception."

"You prove my point," he said with a grim smile.

I shook my head. "Good-bye, Captain. The next time we meet will be at your court-martial. Until then, get the hell out of my life!"

Antilles stumbled back from the force of my anger, his eyes widening. I grinned mockingly; then, very deliberately, I turned my back and walked away.

The next voice pleaded rather than insulted--and if possible, was even less welcome. "Ayla!"

I paused, but didn't turn, and the words "Go to hell, Joel!" rose unbidden to my tongue. I heard the rapid clatter of footsteps as he approached the barrier.

"Ehm'ayla, wait! I need to talk to you!"

I sighed. Entirely too soft-hearted, that's me. "Do you really, Joel?" I asked, still without turning. "What have you to say that I'd want to hear?"

"Want to hear, nothing," he said quietly. "Need to hear, plenty."

I spun, facing him with a snarl. Like Gaetano and Antilles, he wore a green jumpsuit, and a prisoner band was sealed around his wrist. His thinning hair was mussed, his chin dark-stubbled. He stood with his hands clasped together, his face pale and his eyes peering out from dark hollows. "What does that mean?" I demanded.

He shook his head sadly. "You'll never change, will you?" He sighed. "Ayla, you suffered terribly from Antilles' scheme--that's undeniable. But do you honestly believe you were the only one?"

I glanced aside. "No," I admitted. "Of course I wasn't. Morada…"

"Henry was lucky," Joel said grimly. "he got out of the situation with his reputation intact; he was buried with honors on Luna, and now he's at peace. Sometimes I envy him." He shuddered. "But I wasn't thinking of him."

"Who, then?" I asked sarcastically. "You?"

"Yes," he said simply. "Me--and all the others. We were victims too."

I shook my head. "Only of your own behavior, Joel," I said. "You could have put a stop to Antilles' plans at any time. All it would have taken was a quick visit to Admiral Conroy. Don't tell me he wouldn't have listened; he did yesterday. You chose not to--and that's what you'll have to live with for the rest of your life."

"You're right, I will," he said. "And so will our colleagues." He shook his head. "But you're wrong to assume it was a simple choice."

I shrugged. "What was so complicated? A crime is being committed, you put a stop to it. Sounds pretty easy to me."

Again he sighed. "Ehm'ayla, if your universe really is that black-and-white, I envy you too. But I don't think it is. What I'm hearing now is your anger--and for that I can't blame you. But can you honestly say your own behavior was perfect? Did you do nothing you consider a mistake now?"

Great Goddess, I thought, why are you even talking to him? He's behind a barrier! Walk away! There's nothing he can do about it! But I couldn't; perhaps he'd touched a nerve. "Of course I made mistakes," I admitted. "I could have just left the Rec Room that evening; and when I heard Edgeworth and Gaetano talking in the office next door, I could have put my fingers in my ears. But there's one difference, Joel: my mistakes only harmed myself."

"That's where you're wrong," he said. "You still don't get it, do you? You've called me a coward, and maybe you were right. I was motivated by fear--but in no way was I frightened only for myself. No: I was afraid for you. Your presence took a complicated situation and made it impossible. Did I react correctly? No. Did I make mistakes? Absolutely. But right or wrong, I did it all for one reason: because I…"

I raised my hand. "I told you before, Joel," I warned. "Don't say it."

"I will say it," he insisted, "and you can't stop me. I did it all because I love you. Since the day we met, I have never stopped loving you."

My heart sank. So I was right, I thought. But why now? Goddess, why now?

"I knew what you were asking me that night in Krav's," he went on. "And I wish I could have responded. I wanted to, I started to--but then my crewmates arrived, and I panicked. I knew I shouldn't be seen with you. And later…every time I spoke to you, every time I was seen treating you as an equal, I became a little more suspect in Antilles' eyes. God knows what would have happened to me, if he hadn't needed me to keep the engine running."

"But why didn't you tell me years ago--when we were cadets? I never knew, Joel. I thought we were just good friends. If you'd told me…" What? I asked myself angrily. If he'd told you, what would you have done? A question for which I had no answer.

He gazed at me sadly. "Some of us aren't like you, Ehm'ayla; we can't express ourselves quite so directly. Maybe I thought my actions would be enough. And maybe, when nothing happened, I thought I was the one being rejected."

I shook my head. "Joel, those 'actions' might have meant something to a human woman--but not to me. My species doesn't fool around with the subtle language of love--because for us it isn't. It isn't even love--not at first. It's biochemistry, pure and simple, as tender as a supernova. We learn to love later, because we have no choice."

He nodded. "I know," he said. "After the CF pulled us apart, I had time to think about our relationship--and to do some studying. I learned about bonding. I know that anything we might have couldn't be permanent--and I've always been willing to accept that." He turned away. "That night in my quarters…I told you the next day that it had been a mistake. Circumstances forced me to say that, but in a way it was true: at that time, in that place, it was a mistake--my mistake--because it placed us both in danger. But if it should ever happen again, it would be anything but."

I shook my head. "Joel," I said, "please don't do this to me. Don't you understand? Anything we might have had has been destroyed."

"Why?" he demanded. "Because of this?" he held up the prisoner band. "This is not the end of my life, Ayla. Yes, I'm about to be court-martialed. Am I guilty? Yes. I wouldn't seek to deny that, even if doing so would be any use. Am I likely to be cashiered? Yes? Imprisoned? Maybe, though I doubt it."

He was probably right, I had to admit. He was guilty of conduct unbecoming, certainly, and of dereliction of duty and withholding evidence. But little else. He hadn't participated in Morada's murder; hadn't even known about it until after the fact. He hadn't brutalized me, nor participated in Antilles' conspiracy. His crimes were mainly ones of omission. The CF would probably set him adrift, cutting their losses. Imprisonment costs money.

"But whatever happens, I'm determined not to let it ruin my future," he was saying. He peered at me earnestly. "And I'd like you to be a part of that future. Isn't that possible, Ayla? I'm not saying we should forget what happened; obviously that's impossible. But can't it be something that happened to two other people? Can't we rewind back to where we were before Raven?"

I turned away, putting my back to him. Finally I said, "I…don't know, Joel. I honestly don't. Too much has happened; it could never be the same. I don't know if I could ever trust you as I used to. I'd always be wondering if it might happen again: if sometime I'd really need you, and you wouldn't be there."

"The message I sent Admiral Conroy," Joel said quietly. "It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision--not at all. I began composing it the day you vanished. I don't know how many hours I spent on it--in secret, of course, using a palm-reader. I didn't dare use the ship's computer. It was the only way I could keep my promise to you…or so I thought. Several times I almost abandoned it--I convinced myself that it was too dangerous, and that I could still get out of the situation unscathed if I just kept quiet. But every time I tried, I imagined what you would say--and I kept working. I had to. I'm not the man I was when you came aboard Raven--thank God. I can't swear that the choices I make will always be right, Ayla. But I can swear that I'll always be there for you--if you'll let me."

I turned. "Joel, please understand. I can't hate you--I don't have the strength. But things have changed. My career is in limbo; I have no idea what's going to happen to me. Neither of us is in a position to make promises--and I don't want to make any. All I want is some stability in my life--exactly what Antilles stole from me. Other than that…I don't know. Maybe someday I will--but not now."

He nodded. "You're right," he said. "I'm sorry, Ehm'ayla. I have no right to pressure you. Hell, I don't even have the right to speak to you! I just didn't know if I'd ever get another chance." He sighed. "And things have changed--more than I care to admit. But whatever happens, I want you to remember: I will always love you."

"I…wish I could say the same, Joel. I really do."

And with that I turned and fled, flinging myself into the open maw of the up-shaft. Behind me there was silence: if the others had anything to say, they'd kept it to themselves. Maybe there's a lesson to be learned there.


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