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 THIRTY


I stood with my head in my hands, shuddering uncontrollably, ignoring the curious glances of the passersby on the Walk. Gradually, by dint of many deep breaths, I managed to force a measure of calm upon myself. Finally I set off toward the nearest up-shaft, my steps shaky but rapidly growing stronger. Antilles and Joel had almost driven it from my mind, but I had an urgent mission to complete…if indeed it was not already too late.

###

Settling my tired body gratefully into the chair, I nodded respectfully at the superior officers confronting me. "Commodore," I said. "Captain, Commander…thank you for agreeing to meet with me on such short notice."

Ehm'rael, Haliday and Vandevere exchanged a half-amused glance. "We could scarcely refuse," the commodore said, "given the urgency of your message. How may we help you, Lieutenant?"

I took a deep breath, centering myself, and turned to my former CO. "Captain," I said, "with all due respect, Zelazny must return to Hellhole as soon as possible."

Haliday frowned. "Return where, Lieutenant?" he asked blandly.

"Er--sorry, sir," I said. "The planet where I was stranded."

The captain smiled thinly. "From your description, I'd say 'Hellhole' is appropriate," he observed. "But I'm at a loss to understand why you'd want to go back there--you of all people."

"If I had a choice, sir, I wouldn't." I shook my head. "But I don't. This is…necessary."

Haliday leaned back, crossing his arms. "Tell us why."

"Yes, sir." I paused, gathering my thoughts, then went on, "As you all know, that planet has a number of very peculiar features…"

"Certainly there were many anomalies," Ehm'rael agreed. "And they will be investigated at the appropriate time. But the Survey cannot spare Zelazny."

"They must," I insisted. I swallowed. "I admit I have a personal stake in this," I went on. "and perhaps that's affected my thinking. All I ask is that you hear me out."

Again the three of them exchanged a glance, and the commodore nodded. "We shall listen."

Two hours had passed since I departed the security cells. I'd spent most of that time hunched over a computer terminal, and my half-healed eyes were throbbing; but still, I felt well pleased with my what I'd accomplished. Having ferreted out a sufficiency of data--if not, alas, the proverbial 'smoking gun'--I'd requested my fellow officers' presence in a meeting lounge on the outpost's third level. The very room where I'd met Joel the previous afternoon--an irony I didn't care to dwell upon.

"Thank you, Commodore," I said. I took a deep breath. "Until a few hours ago, I would have agreed that the anomalies should be investigated by someone else. But not now.

"When we learned yesterday that Raven hadn't been destroyed, I was forced to rethink my stranding. Inevitably, I came to the conclusion that Captain Antilles had deliberately stranded me. It was a logical explanation, and it fit the facts, if we assume that he's guilty of Commander Morada's murder. Antilles was desperate to get me off his ship, but he was reluctant to arrange another 'accident': questions would be asked. A mysterious disappearance on a dangerous planet would serve just as well."

Haliday nodded. "My thoughts also," he agreed. "But you're saying that's not the case?"

"I'm beginning to believe it isn't, sir," I said. "I've just spent two hours searching through Raven's logs. I've also spoken to several of her officers. Their stories match perfectly: I was not deliberately stranded. From their point of view, I simply disappeared."

"Is it not possible," Commodore Ehm'rael suggested quietly, "that those logs were falsified, and those interviews self-serving? Raven's officers are facing court-martial, and their treatment of you is not the least of the charges against them."

"Possible," I agreed. "I wouldn't put it past Antilles or Edgeworth. But the others…well, I've told you about the relationships I developed aboard Raven. Those officers have no reason to lie to me--most especially Ensigns Mayer and Matthews, who haven't even been charged. Their stories, I'm inclined to believe."

"We'll have to take your word for that," Haliday said. "You mentioned two reasons--what's the other?"

"Something we all missed, sir," I said. I shook my head. "Not surprising, I suppose, in the rush of events. Just after I lost contact with Raven, I saw her explode--or thought I did. That's why we suffered through that court-martial. But in fact the ship was not destroyed--and because of that, the explosion makes no sense."

Vandevere cleared his throat. "Not necessarily," he said. "It would be easy enough to fake-- say by directing a plasma burst into the upper atmosphere. The superheated gas would react with the ionosphere; the effect could resemble an explosion." He glanced at Haliday and grinned. "We made good use of that trick at Procyon, eh, Captain?"

"I'm sure that's true, sir," I agreed quickly, before the two of them could embark down Memory Lane. "I'd never before seen a ship destroyed. But when I saw what appeared to be a massive explosion, I drew the only conclusion I could. Perhaps you or Captain Haliday could have spotted the discrepancies…"

"Maybe," Haliday said. "But I don't quite see your point."

"Raven's logs make no mention of the phenomenon," I explained. "The crew never even saw it, let alone caused it." I glanced at Ehm'rael. "Those logs might have been falsified too--but that doesn't answer one question: why should they bother?"

"Pardon me, Lieutenant?" Haliday said--but before I could reply, Ehm'rael interrupted. She spoke slowly, frowning in concentration, as if thinking through her ideas even as she voiced them.

"I believe I understand," she said. "If Captain Antilles did strand Ehm'ayla deliberately, he did so believing that the planet would kill her. And if so, why should he trouble himself to create the illusion that Raven had been destroyed?" She paused. "It may even have suited him better if she was aware of being left behind. He had no reason to waste time or fuel on such theatrics."

I nodded. "My point exactly," I said. I swallowed. "I wanted to believe he'd done it. That's why it took me so long to spot the anomaly."

"Given what we know about Antilles," Haliday said grimly, "that's certainly understandable. I also believed him capable of dumping you there--and I'd lay odds he actually considered it. But losing a second Anthro-Paleo would indeed have raised some eyebrows." He paused, drumming his fingers. "If we accept Antilles' logs at face value, Raven spent three days searching for you. From orbit; Antilles permitted no more landings."

I nodded again. "And I have several people prepared to swear that's true," I said. "Most especially Ensign Mayer, who piloted one of the pods. He claims to have crossed and re-crossed the forest at least a hundred times. I believe him--but at the same time, it's impossible. There's no way he could have missed me--or me him."

"And add to that," Haliday said musingly, "the fact that my landing parties failed to locate your shelter and equipment."

"--And," Vandevere put in, "those strange readings just before we found her. One of which resembled a hypertunnel."

Haliday glanced up sharply. "You're not suggesting--?"

Vandevere shook his head. "Skipper, I don't know what I'm suggesting. But Ehm'ayla is right: something damn peculiar was happening down there." He grinned suddenly. "Something less prosaic than doing away with an inconvenient Sah'aaran."

Haliday nodded. "I'm inclined to agree." He glanced at me. "But that still doesn't answer my question: why should we be the ones to investigate? Or perhaps I really mean, why should you?"

I met his gaze steadily. "Sir, this may sound strange…"

He smiled. "Compared to what I've heard already? I doubt it."

"Some time ago--before Raven returned--it occurred to me that the forest where I was stranded was, well, too good to be true. Anywhere else on that planet, I'd have been dead within a day. Captain Antilles didn't strand me…but all the same, I did not end up there accidentally. I'm certain of that."

Frowning, Haliday turned to Ehm'rael. "Commodore? What do you think?"

She peered at me searchingly for a moment before she spoke. "I have known Lieutenant Ehm'ayla since she was an infant," she said. "She is not given to irrational fantasies. Clearly her stranding was not the simple matter we assumed it to be. Further investigation is indeed required--and she deserves a chance to participate."

Captain Haliday nodded. "And that defines our problem nicely."

"Pardon me, sir?" I asked

He grinned ruefully. "New orders, Lieutenant," he said. "From the Admiralty, received just this morning. Zelazny is to return to Terra with all due speed. It is--was--my intention to ship out tomorrow morning."

I slumped. "I…wasn't aware of that, sir."

"I know," he said. Abruptly he hauled himself to his feet. "I need to have a word with Admiral Conroy," he went on briskly. "Will you accompany me, Commodore? I'll be needing your support, I suspect."

"Gladly, Captain," she said. "I suspect you are correct."

Haliday bowed. "Justin," he said, " return to the ship and continue preparing for departure. One way or another, we'll be leaving soon."

Vandevere rose. "Aye, sir!"

"Thank you, Captain--" I began, but Haliday waved me off.

"Better save that," he suggested, "until I've convinced the admiral to overrule direct orders from Headquarters."

Ehm'rael glanced at captain. "Will you excuse us for a moment? I'll catch up with you."

"Of course, Commodore," Haliday said. He and Vandevere departed, deep in conversation, and as the door closed behind them, Ehm'rael stood and laid her hand on my forehead.

"Commodore--?" I said.

She sat down beside me, gazing deep into my eyes. "Forgive me, child," she said, switching to Sah'aaran. "I am somewhat…concerned by this."

"I know what I saw--" I began, but she shook her head.

"You misunderstand me," she said. "I do not question your experiences, nor your arguments. What concerns me is you. I am not certain if you are strong enough--physically or emotionally--for such an arduous expedition."

"Nor am I," I told her. "But it must be done."

She sighed. "You are correct. Unfortunately." She smiled wryly. "Now let us see if Captain Haliday and I can convince Admiral Conroy."

###

It was a little past eighteen hundred when I arrived at Captain Haliday's office. His response to my buzz was immediate, and when I heard his call of "Come in!" I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and stepped forward, snapping to attention as the door closed behind me. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla reporting as ordered, Captain!" I said crisply.

Leaning back in his chair with his feet on the desk, Haliday glanced at me over the screen of his palm-reader. "I'm not Antilles," he said mildly. He pointed the toe of his boot at the other chair. "Have a seat."

"Uh--yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

After my meeting with Haliday, Vandevere and Ehm'rael, I'd had little but worry to occupy my time; and so, after a certain amount of dithering, I undertook a job which would have been impossible just a day before: retrieving my property from Raven. Accompanied by an Outpost Four security guard--though the ship was quite deserted--I made my way first to my former quarters. After two weeks aboard Zelazny, I was freshly re-appalled by that cramped and primitive space. Much to my surprise (I'd expected Edgeworth to have jettisoned it all, to save weight) my meager belongings were intact. Someone--Joel perhaps, or Gaetano--had been there during my absence, and had straightened up, made the bed I'd left rumpled that last hurried morning, and arranged my medals across the blanket in memorial. That touched me deeply--and made me angry as well, because I wasn't in the mood to be touched.

Quickly I collected everything--clothing, medals, holos, Hullumm's engraved disk, the data card containing my evidence--and then moved on to my tiny office. The security guard lounged outside, not even batting an eye, as I helped myself to that beautiful "nautilus" fossil, as well as a number of choice pieces from my hard-won "Burgess Shale." I'd left the Survey more than enough samples--and after what I'd been through, the very least they owed me was a few chunks of rock. I left Morada's snapshots on the walls for my successor's enjoyment.

And then I fled, departing Raven for the very last time. Setting foot aboard her required a supreme act of will, and left me shaky and half-sick; her empty corridors contained far too many echoes. Returning to Zelazny and arranging those few items in my quarters there was a considerably more pleasant activity. I might have to repack them all tomorrow, if Zelazny departed without me; that was why I hadn't yet collected the rest of my property from the outpost's storage lockers. But for the moment they made those rooms seem a bit less empty.

…And now, I sat silent and expectant while Haliday straightened and set aside his palm-reader. He fixed me with his stern gaze. "Lieutenant," he said, "over the past two weeks you have caused me more trouble than the rest of this crew put together. Are you aware of that?"

I glanced aside. "Yes, sir."

He smiled. "Fortunately for you, I like officers who cause trouble occasionally. It's the ones who never do that scare me. I imagine you already know why I called you here…"

"Your meeting with Admiral Conroy, sir?"

"Indeed." He shook his head. "And between you and me, Lieutenant, those are three hours I'd like to have back. Stephen Conroy has one of the finest military minds ever produced by the Navy--but with no imagination whatsoever. If it wasn't for Commodore Ehm'rael…well, you and I might be having this discussion in the security cells, after I was arrested for assaulting a superior officer."

I winced. "Sorry, sir."

"Not your fault," he assured me. "The bottom line is this: the commodore managed to convince Conroy that your Hellhole might represent a threat to the security of this sector." He held up his hand, forestalling my protest. "Do I believe that? Probably not. But obviously we can't have unexplained phenomena occurring smack-dab in the middle of what will soon be Alliance territory."

"I suppose not."

"And at any rate," Haliday went on dryly, "that argument did at least catch the admiral's attention. Which is exactly what Commodore Ehm'rael had in mind, I'm sure. Conroy has decided to investigate immediately--and to send the fastest ship available." He waved a hand. "This ship."

"What about me, sir?" I asked reluctantly.

"Oh, you're coming along. Admiral Conroy wasn't able to reassign you to Zelazny permanently--not yet, at least. But for the duration of this mission, you're my supercargo." He smiled. "And general Hellhole expert."

"Thank you, sir. Very much."

"You're quite welcome," he said. "We'll be shipping out at oh-six-hundred tomorrow. I'm afraid our time is limited, though."

"Why is that, sir?"

"Because of you, actually," Haliday said. "Because your testimony will be needed at the court-martial of a Survey captain and his senior officers. Both Commander Sutton and the defense attorneys need time to prepare their cases, though--which means Admiral Conroy can grant us twenty days."

Twenty days, I mused. With transit time--five days each way--that gave us ten days to investigate. Ten days to accomplish what Raven couldn't in two weeks: figure out Hellhole. "Understood, sir."

Haliday paused. Then he said, "I may regret asking this, Lieutenant, but you never really answered my question this afternoon. You explained quite cogently why Hellhole needs a closer look--but not why you need to be involved."

"I've been asking myself the same thing, sir," I said. "There are two reasons, one practical and one…not."

"Go on."

"On the practical side, sir, this entire episode has damaged my credibility as an officer. I reported a ship destroyed when it was not, and I put the Combined Forces through the trouble and expense of a court-martial. That must have left me looking foolish--at least to some. Those who know me might still trust my observations, but I doubt many others will, unless we can explain why I saw what I saw. And until we have--well, Captain Antilles entered a number of disparaging comments into my personnel record. He or his attorneys might use those entries, combined with what I reported about Raven, to attack my testimony."

Haliday nodded thoughtfully. "You might have a point," he said. "Though I hate to admit it." He paused. "And your other reason?"

"It may be harder to explain, sir," I said. "But…well, Max and Aparna snatched me away from that planet so suddenly. Somewhere deep in my mind, I must have unfinished business there. You might say I need to make peace with the place."

"I understand, Lieutenant," Haliday said. "Believe me, I do. But," he went on sternly, "that presupposes I'll actually allow you to land."

My tail stiffened. "Sir?"

"I'll probably have to," he said. "Whether I like it or not, you are our expert." He scowled. "But before you set foot down there, I'll need to be convinced that you are physically fit to do so--especially your eyes. And you will take precautions to protect your vision at all times. Do I make myself clear, Lieutenant?"

"Absolutely, sir."

"In the meantime," he said, his tone softening, "during our transit I want you to work with Commander Vandevere. I'd like the two of you to review all of Raven's science logs regarding Hellhole, and I want you to describe for him your time on the planet, in the finest detail you can. Knowing Justin, he'll find some connections the rest of us have missed."

"Yes, sir."

"Then you're dismissed, Lieutenant. The mission briefing is at oh-eight-hundred--don't be late!"

I departed then, and out in the corridor I paused, resting my forehead against the wall. Back to Hellhole, I thought. I shook my head. You must be out of your mind!

###

Vandevere asked suddenly, "Lieutenant? Would you mind a personal question?"

What I thought was, uh-oh; but what I said (and pleasantly too) was "Not at all, sir."

It was the morning of Zelazny's third day in transit, back to a place I'd never thought to see again. With no official duties--a unique and not particularly welcome situation--I'd spent the majority of my time exactly where I was now: Mission Planning. Sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of the first officer, I'd occupied myself reviewing every bit of data recorded during Raven's two-week stay at Hellhole. And for the first time, that included everything Antilles had shunted into locked files. That information was the most interesting of all--and not because of what it said about the planet.

We were taking a break, Vandevere and I. Though six days had passed since the last treatment, my eyes remained as weak and sensitive as they'd been when the process started--a fact which alarmed me greatly, despite Dr. Zee's assurances. As usual, I'd been staring at the computer screen longer than I should, and finally I was obliged to rest. I was still rubbing my eyes, in a futile attempt to massage away the ache, when Vandevere spoke.

"It's something I've been meaning to ask you since we first met," he said. "I've often noticed in your speech a tendency to invoke your Goddess--especially in times of stress."

"A bad habit of mine," I agreed.

Working closely with Vandevere, more like research partners than superior and subordinate, I was finally beginning to understand him. A fine officer though he was, I'd never felt truly comfortable around him, believing him rather gloomy, even morose--an outlook which I find almost incomprehensible. Over the last several days I'd come to see that he was a good deal more complex. Like his quarters, he was an eclectic mix--one which somehow managed to achieve a harmonious whole. More important, he was gratifyingly impressed by the Anthro-Paleo work I'd done aboard Raven.

"For some years," he went on, "it's been a hobby of mine, studying religions and belief systems. The Sah'aaran Goddess faith is one of the most interesting I've ever encountered."

"In what way, sir?"

"Mostly its emphasis on faith as a totally individual experience," he said. "Most human religions have an immutable dogma, distributed by a hierarchy of priests, soothsayers, gurus, whatever have you. As I understand it, there is nothing between Sah'aarans and their Goddess except their own consciences."

I nodded. "That's basically correct," I confirmed. "We enter our shrines alone." And naked--but I saw no reason to mention that.

"…But I've often noticed that when a species reaches a certain level of technological advancement, religion begins to lose its attractions. Usually because science begins to answer the same basic questions--the origin of life, for example. At very least, there's a reshuffling of boundaries."

"True enough."

"What I'm really getting at is this," he said, sounding embarrassed. "Obviously you have a scientific background; as an archaeologist you understand the origins of religion better than most. How has that affected your faith? Are you a…believer?"

For a moment I sat silent. Then I straightened and re-seated my goggles. Vandevere was gazing at me with a strange expression on his face, half curiosity and half…longing. Seeing that, I suddenly understood why comparative religion had become a "hobby" of his. "That's a difficult question, sir," I said. "Up until recently I would have said no, I'm not." I smiled. "Though please don't tell my mother that. But lately…well, on Hellhole I found myself doing an awful lot of praying--which I haven't since I was a child. At the time it seemed entirely appropriate. In the end I suppose I'd have to call myself 'undecided.'"

"Many people--theologians and scientists alike--believe that faith and science are not incompatible."

"So I've heard," I said. "Less than six months ago I would have disagreed."

"You say you did a lot of praying. I assume it was for such things as 'survival' and 'deliverance'?"

I nodded. "That about sums it up."

"Is it possible your prayers were answered? You did survive, and you were rescued. Is it possible something supernatural truly was involved?"

"I've considered it," I said seriously. "And it does almost make sense. Considering the circumstances of my stranding and my rescue, anyone could be forgiven for invoking the occult."

"But?" he prompted with a smile.

"But I have a hard time believing that--because I do have a scientific background. I'd be happier with a rational explanation. Something hidden, something undiscovered…but something explainable."

He cocked a sardonic eyebrow. "Such as the Watchers?"

I snorted. "Brenner never had a shred of credible evidence," I said. I indicated the data cards littering the table. "Antilles spent more than a year trying to modify fact to fit theory. Without success, obviously--though that didn't deter him. I don't believe in Brenner's Watchers. I can't." I paused. "But at the same time…I'm beginning to believe that I was being watched. By something."

###

"I'm going what?"

Universal law: when your physician calls you to her private office and bids you sit down, it is never good news.

Dr. Zeeleeayykk peered at me in alarm. My claws were digging into the false-wood surface of her desk, and in the narrow corner behind my chair, my tail thumped the walls painfully. Yes, I was upset. Wouldn't you be if someone told you you're going blind?

"I am truly sorry," her translator buzzed. "But the test results are unequivocal. Some manner of retinal degeneration has set in--and I cannot stop it."

I shook my head hard. How? I thought wildly. How can this be happening? Why now, just when I was beginning to put my life back together? Surely there must be an answer… "The Sah'aaran College of Surgeons?" I murmured.

She shook her head. "I have hyperzapped them; it will be days before we receive a reply. But I very much doubt they will have an answer. Their entire database is available to me here."

I nodded miserably "I know." It had helped her keep me healthy, before that ill-considered transfer. "And it contains nothing to account for this?"

"Nothing," she confirmed sadly. "Sah'aarans rarely suffer from vision problems. Nothing like this has ever been described."

"You must at least have a theory."

She spread her hands helplessly. "Nothing so tangible. My guess is that some form of radiation, emitted by one or more of Hellhole's suns, was not adequately screened by the atmosphere. Something other than infrared or ultraviolet--those I have already accounted for. We may learn more when we arrive, but whether that will lead to a cure…" she shook her head again, mournfully.

"Why is it showing up now? It's been almost three weeks since I was rescued." I heard the edge in my voice--prove it!--and fought to moderate it. Bad news, so kill the messenger: an old and unfortunate habit. If Dr. Zee noticed, she let it pass without comment.

"The effects may have been masked by the treatment I prescribed," she said flatly. "For a time, it did indeed appear that your retinas were healing. But with the treatments ended, the degeneration has progressed rapidly. It has already erased the gains we made, and has begun to attack previously undamaged cells."

"If…if we began the treatments again…" I was desperate now, grasping at straws, and Dr. Zee knew it. She let me down easily.

"I cannot recommend that," she said. "The effect would be unpredictable; it might actually accelerate the degeneration. It was an appropriate treatment for damage caused by excess ultraviolet and infrared--but not for your condition. And for that I am responsible."

I waved that off impatiently. I'd had quite enough lately of people accepting blame. "Is there nothing you can do?"

"To the best of my knowledge, no," Dr. Zee said. "In some cases of retinal damage it is possible to implant a tiny signal-boosting device within the optic nerve. But only if the degeneration can first be halted. Of course I will continue my research…"

"How long?" I forced myself to ask.

"That is difficult to say. It could go into remission…"

I raised my hand, interrupting her. "The truth, if you please, Doctor."

She glanced aside. "I ought to know better than to waste my bedside manner on a Sah'aaran," she muttered. "All right: the truth. Barring any acceleration or deceleration--and both are possible--I estimate you will be totally blind in a month."

A month. The words echoed and re-echoed relentlessly through my head. A month--and my career is over.

"The color-sensitive 'cone' cells seem to be the most vulnerable," Dr. Zee was saying. "The 'rods' appear more resistant. Your color vision will therefore be lost first; your monochrome sight will last somewhat longer. There are many things we can do to preserve your vision as long as possible…"

"Doctor," I interrupted, "I know you're only doing your job, and I'll be happy to discuss that with you--but not right now."

She peered at me for a moment, then nodded. "I understand." She reached across to grasp my hand; fortunately I'd put away my claws. "When you are ready, I will be here."

###

Half-dazed, I wandered the corridors, neither knowing nor caring where my feet took me. The crewmembers I encountered gazed at me in concern, but forbore to speak. Not that they would have received anything like an intelligible reply.

Finally--I have no idea how, nor how much later--I found myself in my quarters, curled up on my bunk in the dark. What do I do now? I asked myself, over and over. The CF was not simply my career; it was my life. Even on my worst day aboard Raven, the idea of resigning would have seemed repugnant, unthinkable. I'd always expected to enjoy a long and successful career, culminating in a peaceful retirement. All that, out the airlock now.

The Combined Forces does its best to accommodate physical disabilities. My friendly adversary Commander Sutton was living proof of that, as was Zelazny's own first officer. After all, one species' "disability" might be another's norm. And medical science has performed miracles in reversing--or at least compensating for--many handicaps. But there are exceptions, and blindness is one of them. If indeed I lost my sight, there would be no place for me aboard a CF vessel.

The chief cause of my despair had nothing to do with money. My years of service would guarantee me a decent pension; and coming as I did from one of the five wealthiest families on Sah'aar, I'd never have to worry about poverty. No: the problem lay in contemplating the long, empty years that stretched out before me. At thirty, my species considered me young; I could live another nine decades or more. What, now, would fill that time?

At that juncture, I would have done well to remember the rich and full lives led by many blind persons, and the contributions they have made to society. But right then, as I lay in the dark overcome by horror, no such hopeful or logical thought could possibly have penetrated my mind. My chosen career was over, dead, kaput; that was all I knew.

In the short term, I wanted just one thing: home. Like a wounded animal retreating to its den, I yearned for that big sprawling house on the savanna; to see it again while I still could. Sah'aar, Sah'salaan…that was where I would go. After this mission is over…

That thought brought me bolt upright, my heart skipping a beat. Great Goddess, the mission! We were so close, less than a day from Hellhole; I had studied Raven's logs until I could recite them verbatim. After all I'd been through, surely Captain Haliday couldn't…

###

Captain Haliday could. And did.

He called me to his office that very evening, and as I entered I noticed first the palm-reader he held, and then the look of profound sadness on his face. "Sit down, Lieutenant," he said quietly.

I did. For a few seconds he gazed at me, as if uncertain how to begin; then he took a deep breath and held up the palm-reader. "I have here a report from Dr. Zeeleeayykk," he said. "The results of your eye exam."

Sinking feeling. "Yes, sir."

"First of all I want you to know how sorry I am. You are a fine officer, and you deserve much better. I place the blame squarely upon Antilles--whether or not he deliberately stranded you--and I intend to add that to my report."

"I appreciate that, sir," I said. My voice was husky, and I hurriedly cleared my throat.

He went on, "This will of course mean your retirement from active duty."

Another nail in the coffin. "Yes, sir. I realize that."

"It does not, however, mean the end of your life--nor the end of your Combined Forces career. You will no longer be fit for deep-space missions, but a consulting or research position is a virtual certainty. The CF doesn't throw away talented people, Lieutenant. If you don't believe me, ask Vandevere."

I glanced away. "Thank you, Captain," I said, all but inaudibly.

"What you end up doing will be your own choice," Haliday went on. "And you won't be rushed into any decisions, not while you're emotionally fragile. Whatever decision you make, however, will have my full support. After we've finished our business with your Hellhole, I will personally take you home to Sah'aar. You'll have the best doctors the Alliance can supply."

"Thank you."

Haliday paused. "As for the current mission…"

My sinking feeling sank a little lower. "Yes, sir?"

"I'm sorry, Ehm'ayla, but in light of this report I can't allow you to participate in the landing parties."

"Sir," I said, "I must respectfully request that you reconsider."

He set aside the palm-reader and leaned back, crossing his arms. "Tell me why."

"Captain, Dr. Zee estimates that I have a full month before I lose my sight entirely. For the moment my vision is still adequate, especially with the help of my goggles. If I take precautions, my vision should suffer no further damage." I paused and swallowed. "And…I want this, sir. That planet did this to me; I want to find out why."

Haliday gazed at me for a long moment, chewing his lower lip thoughtfully. Finally he shook his head. "No," he said. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant, but I can't allow it. I don't doubt your intention to be careful; but I must look at the big picture. You are disabled, however slightly, and as such you would be a liability to a landing party, rather than an asset." Before I could object, he held up his hand. "I told you before, Ehm'ayla: regulations. My hands are tied. You will participate in every aspect of our research--but you'll do it from up here." He cocked an eyebrow. "Understood?"

I hesitated…and then I nodded. I had little choice. "Understood, sir."

"Good," he said. "We'll be arriving at fourteen hundred hours tomorrow. I'll want you on the Control Deck when we do."

"Yes, sir."

He peered at me closely, suspicious perhaps of my too-quick surrender. "All right then, Lieutenant. Dismissed."

As I departed, I chuckled bitterly to myself. Consider two captains. One harsh, obsessive, hate-filled, a man for whom I felt nothing but loathing. The other stern, but sympathetic and understanding, a man who had earned my respect and admiration. Is it not the supreme irony that it was the latter whose orders I might have to disobey?


<--HomeIndesNext-->