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-THREE


"…And a thorough search of the area failed to turn up any sign of Pod Eight," Goodwin concluded. "Or of Lieutenant Ehm'ayla's equipment."

Haliday nodded in acknowledgment, then fixed me with his stern gaze. "Lieutenant," he said, "do you have any idea how many regulations you've broken?"

I returned his gaze evenly. Not defiantly, certainly not, but calmly--just as one is supposed to face a firing squad. "Yes, sir," I said. "I do."

"…And I won't even begin to describe the difficulties you've caused this crew, and me," he went on. He cocked an eyebrow challengingly. "Do you have anything to say for yourself?"

Mission Planning was crowded that afternoon: every senior officer aboard Zelazny had turned out to hear my tale--and to gawk. The captain, Vandevere, Max, Aparna, Dr. Zee, Commander Hullumm--even Ancheta, the Anthro-Paleo. On the hotseat again, I sat squirming, trying as best I could to ignore the soreness in my wrists and heels. At least my uniform fit now--better than it had since my early days aboard Raven. I took a deep breath and said, "Sir, I cannot excuse my actions. I can only say that I did what I believed necessary. I recognize that I have violated regulations, as well as your orders, and I am prepared to accept the consequences."

"Spoken like an officer," Haliday observed approvingly. He paused and glanced around--and as he did, I suddenly understood what was happening. My friends and colleagues were not there just to hear my report, but also to support me. I learned later that in the hours following my being escorted from the hangar deck under armed guard, Vandevere, Goodwin, Singh, Hullumm and Zee each visited the captain to plead my cause. And now, as the five of them sat staring owlishly at him, he sighed and continued. "The Survey is not the Navy," he said. He quirked a smile. "As I found out long ago. A Survey captain cannot expect the level of discipline that the commander of a Navy vessel must. This vessel's primary mission is the expansion of scientific knowledge, and as such, its officers must be allowed a certain leeway. But that is not a license for them to run off willy-nilly whenever they feel like it." He looked around, frowning. "As I think we'd all agree." His gaze returned to me. "Under normal circumstances, Lieutenant, I would have no alternative but to turn you over for court-martial." He paused. "However," he went on, "these are not normal circumstances. I've been informed--" he glanced quickly at Dr. Zee--"that you were suffering from extreme stress. Which I can easily believe. Certainly you have not been yourself lately, physically or emotionally. Based on the good doctor's report--and certain other recommendations--I have decided to let the matter drop."

A stir went around the table: a collective sigh of relief, mine not the least. "Thank you, sir," I said.

"You're welcome," he replied. "My report will indicate that you vanished during an authorized landing. And as for the matter of a false decompression alarm and a stolen pod…" he glanced around severely. "…That never happened." He speared Vandevere with his gaze. "I am, however, ordering a thorough review of our security procedures. I find it unacceptable that a former Compcomm--no matter how talented--should be able to hack her way into key systems so easily."

Vandevere nodded. "Aye, sir."

"And as for you, Lieutenant," Haliday went on, turning again to me, "you are not entirely off the hook. I mentioned some days ago that my confidence in you had been badly shaken. After this, it has been all but destroyed. You will have to work very hard to regain my trust, Ehm'ayla. And if you ever pull another stunt like that one…"

I couldn't hold his gaze. "Understood, sir."

"I hope so," he said grimly. "Now--your report, if you please."

Breathless from my narrow escape, nonetheless I managed to force my mind back to the matter at hand. I had a palm-reader before me, but I didn't bother to consult it; and if my report was not as crisp and emotionless as is customary, no one seemed to mind. My colleagues listened with rapt attention, never once interrupting. With my scanpak gone for good, I had no proof, no visual aids; I could only hope my words were convincing.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Haliday said quietly, when I'd finished. He turned to Zee. "Exactly what did happen to her?"

The doctor glanced quickly at me, but as always her expression was unreadable. "It is readily apparent," she said, "that the lieutenant received some form of medical treatment, involving technology far in advance of our own." She nodded at me. "Her eyes have been entirely healed; all sign of macular degeneration has vanished. Alliance medical science would regard that as impossible."

Aparna reached across to grasp my hand, and I smiled and nodded in return. Overwhelmed as I'd been by my experiences, at very least I had that to cling to: the end of my career was postponed indefinitely.

"And," the doctor went on, "as we can see, her missing ear has been replaced. That I could have accomplished myself--but not with the same degree of perfection. There is no scar.

"Those two are the most obvious items--but they are by no means all. My examination has led me to believe that Ehm'ayla was not simply repaired, but actually rebuilt. On a genetic level--or possibly even molecular."

Another stir swept around the table, and I glanced away, feeling my ears redden. "That's a rather remarkable statement, Doctor," Haliday said dryly. "I assume you have proof?"

"Yes, sir," Dr. Zee said. "I do. As I said, her eyes and her ear are barely the beginning. During her first stay on the planet, Ehm'ayla acquired a number of scars, from injuries she did not have the facilities to properly treat. Her right arm in particular was badly mangled, in fact partially impaired, due to nerve and muscle damage. Like all of us, she also had a collection of other, minor scars, some dating to her childhood. Most were noted in her medical file. All of them, without exception, are now gone. And more: during her life Ehm'ayla has suffered several broken bones, most recently several fractured ribs. Though they healed adequately, still they left sutures, detectable by tomographic scan. Again, these were noted in her medical file--and again, they are gone. Finally--most convincingly, to my view--after her return to the ship this morning, I was obliged to perform minor surgery on her. You have all no doubt noticed the dermapatches on her hands and feet. I removed from the base of each an undeveloped fifth digit, commonly called a 'dewclaw.' Ehm'ayla underwent that same procedure once before, as do all Sah'aarans--when she was one week old."

Haliday leaned forward to study me closely, his eyes narrowed. "She doesn't look any different…"

"No," Zeeleeayykk agreed. "But there are minor alterations. For example, she is now point-seven-two centimeters taller than she was--and she weighs five kilos more than she did when we arrived."

"Lieutenant?" the captain asked. "What do you have to say about this?"

I shook my head. "I'm…not certain, sir." I indicated my palm-reader. "My report contains everything I remember--but I don't know how much of it actually happened. From the moment I entered the tunnels, the experience became more and more bizarre." I took a deep breath. "But," I went on, "if it did all happen as I remember it, then the doctor's observations do fit. I did feel as if I was somehow dissolved and reconstituted."

I shuddered then, just a little, and Haliday asked, "Painful?"

"No, sir. Not exactly."

He quirked an eyebrow, then turned to Zee. "Have you performed a genetic scan, Doctor?"

She nodded. "I have, sir," she acknowledged. "The most detailed available. It revealed no detectable differences from her previous genetic state."

Haliday shook his head. "I'm afraid that doesn't quite answer my question," he said. He glanced at me apologetically. "To be blunt, Doctor, is this really is Lieutenant Ehm'ayla, not an impostor?"

She shrugged. "Medical science would indicate the former, Captain. She has all of Ehm'ayla's memories--so far as we have been able to determine--and the psychological tests I ran are consistent with earlier readings, barring a certain degree of disorientation. She can easily pass any ID scan used by the CF or the Alliance. In my opinion, Captain, she has simply been…renewed."

Unfortunately, it wasn't that simple--not for me, anyway. The doctor's conclusions didn't surprise me: I'd known full well what had happened to me the instant I looked down at my hands and feet. Seeing those useless stubs--thank the Goddess they were gone now!--had caused a creepy, almost panicky sensation to sprout in the pit of my stomach; and now, hours later, it had blossomed and was well on its way to setting fruit. I have no idea how long I spent in front of the mirror, naked, examining every square millimeter of my body with eyes and hands. Apart from the obvious--my ear, my eyes, an arm now free of disfiguring scars--there were no gross differences; my mother would still know me. But still, I could not entirely convince myself that it was me I was seeing. Had my unknown hosts simply repaired me, in the most expeditious way possible? Or were their motives more sinister? Had they planted within my body or my mind some kind of booby-trap or Trojan Horse? Worse, could I be certain that they'd given me back everything I'd had before? My memory seemed intact; Dr. Zee had quizzed me, using my personnel file, and so too had Max and Aparna. If anything, my recall of past events seemed sharper now than before. But if something was missing, would I know? Would I be able to endure life, always waiting for something to blow up?

…But do I have any other choice? There was no way back; only forward. Might it not be better to believe that I'd been given a second chance--and to act accordingly?

"You say she's been 'rebuilt,'" Haliday said. "I assume you mean from the original materials?"

Dr. Zee nodded. "I believe so."

"Can you be certain of that?" the captain persisted. "Isn't it more likely that she's a--clone?"

I winced, and Haliday flashed a rueful smile. "I'm sorry, Ehm'ayla," he said. "But you have to admit; it is a valid question."

"Indeed it is," Dr. Zee said. "And I confess, it would be virtually impossible to know for certain--except for one small anomaly." She turned to me. "If you would, Lieutenant?"

For some strange reason, I felt reluctant, even squeamish--but the captain and the others were gazing at me expectantly. Slowly I rolled up my right sleeve and laid my arm across the table, face-up. The others leaned close--and their jaws dropped in astonishment.

At the base of my hand was a small square of dermapatch, covering the wound where an "undeveloped fifth digit" had been removed a few hours before. Below that, encircling my wrist, was a strip of bare flesh about three centimeters wide. Not pink, though, as was most of my skin beneath the fur, but rather reddish-brown, and overlaid with a strange pattern in tarnished silver. Narrow lines and short bars; angles and curves; dots and apostrophes. Some strange writing, perhaps? The language of my hosts? For a time I'd wondered--but the true explanation was considerably more prosaic.

Aparna's eyebrows rose. "That looks like…circuitry," she said, and I nodded.

"It is," I said. "In a manner of speaking. After I landed, I sealed a prisoner ID band around my wrist. Apparently my hosts weren't able to remove it when they stripped me. It went into the ooze with me--and this is what's left of it. Somehow it merged with my flesh during the reconstruction."

Haliday glanced quickly at Dr. Zee, and once again she shrugged. "It amounts to little more than what the Terrans call a 'tattoo'--an injection of pigment beneath the skin. Entirely harmless." She gazed at me. "But to be rid of it will require skin-grafts, I fear. There are no active hair follicles in the affected area."

She gazed expectantly at me, and I shrugged. "I'll…think about it," I told her.

The doctor cocked her head--but whatever she might have said was overridden by the captain.

"All right," he said. "We know what happened to Lieutenant Ehm'ayla--now we need to know why."

"I've been thinking about just that, sir," I told him. "Even before I discovered the underground complex. It's my belief that Hellhole itself is a trap."

"A trap for who?" Haliday asked.

"For whoever comes along," I said. "I don't know any more about the nature of those beings than I did before. They never revealed themselves; that thing I encountered was obviously a construct of some kind. But I do know what motivates them: curiosity. Whether it's benign or hostile I can't say--but I'm certain now that they created Hellhole as a way to satisfy it."

"Pardon?" Vandevere said.

"The planet is a bundle of contradictions, Commander," I explained. "It shouldn't exist at all, in a trinary system; and it certainly shouldn't be habitable. And consider also its bizarre magnetic field. That alone would instantly attract the attention of any passing ship; even the Hattosh would stop for a look. Most species would do exactly as Raven did: send down landing parties."

"That much is true," Vandevere agreed.

"And after even a cursory look, they'd be drawn in by the planet's other anomalies," I went on. "You've all read Raven's reports; you understand what I mean. And remember: we're dealing with an enormously advanced species. It's my belief that they created Hellhole--or at very least modified it--as an irresistible paradox for the curious."

"Accepting that," Haliday said, "how does it explain what happened to you?"

"I believe the inhabitants were observing me--me, in particular--as early as the first Raven landings. I think they decided to learn more about me--and to do so, they engineered my stranding. That was also a hallucinatory experience--the similarities are striking." I took a deep breath. "They made me believe Raven had been destroyed; I assume to give me at least a semi-plausible reason for my stranding. And more importantly, they placed me beyond the reach of search parties."

"That's what I've been wondering," Max broke in. "Where exactly did they put you?"

I shook my head. "I don't know. Was it someplace real? Or did I spend sixty-three days in sensory deprivation, having images pumped into my mind? Physically, it seemed real--and up until recently I had the scars to prove it. But exactly where I was…Somewhere reachable by hypertunnel, obviously, but it could easily have been another planet--or even another time, if some of the theories about hypertunnels are correct."

"But why did they let you go the first time?" Max asked. "And why that business with the carnivore? If they were testing your fighting ability, couldn't they have done it in the other reality?"

"Maybe," Aparna said quietly, "in that case they were testing us."

Haliday cleared his throat. "These beings," he said. "Whatever they are, they seem entirely amoral. They don't seem to appreciate the suffering their 'observations' cause."

I nodded. "That may be essentially true, sir," I agreed soberly. "Which might make them more dangerous than if they were openly hostile."

"So in the end," Vandevere said, "the repairs to your body were part of the test? The cheese at the center of the maze?"

I hesitated. "That is one possible interpretation," I agreed. "And it's certainly what I believed at first. But I've had plenty of time to think about it--and I'm no longer sure I believe it. The concept of 'pain' and 'suffering' seems foreign to them; why should they understand 'reward'?"

Haliday frowned. "They why did they heal you?"

"I have a theory, sir," I said. "But only that. I'll see if I can explain." I paused to collect my thoughts, then went on, "In both zoology and paleontology you come across the term 'type specimen.' When a species is classified, its official description is based on one single example. In paleontology, that's often all we have: one fossil. But in zoology it's a way to cut through the chaos caused by species variability." I paused again, and swallowed. "It's not a comforting thing to contemplate," I said wryly, "but I believe my captors consider me to be the 'type specimen' for Sah'aarans. If so, then perhaps the repairs were intended to make me more 'typical'--to distinguish the characteristics formed by evolution and heredity from those caused by thirty years of wear and tear."

"In that case," Vandevere said dryly, "you should consider yourself lucky you aren't stuffed and mounted in a display case somewhere."

"I have a feeling, sir," I said, "that I am. Not literally, of course--but virtually."

"All of which raises an obvious question," Dr. Zee put in. "Why were you, of all Raven's crew, singled out?"

"Except for me, they were all Terran," I reminded her. I shook my head. "I can only guess that my hosts had never before encountered a Sah'aaran--but somehow, somewhere, they had encountered a human."

My fellow officers exchanged a glance. Then Haliday said slowly, "I wonder…is it possible Antilles was right after all? Are they the Watchers?"

All eyes turned toward me. I said, "That depends on your definition, sir. If you mean the Watchers who were going to help Antilles purge the galaxy of non-humans, I'd say no. And if you mean the Watchers who supposedly planted humanity on Terran, I'd say…very unlikely. I found nothing resembling Brenner's dubious artifacts. But…well, sir, something is down there--and they definitely do watch."

There was a moment of silence; then the captain cleared his throat. "In your opinion, Lieutenant," he said in businesslike tones, "is there anything more to be learned here?"

"I doubt it, sir," I said. Strange: a week ago I'd been dying to get to Hellhole, willing to throw away my career and even my life to accomplish it. But now I was every bit as eager to get away. Partially, perhaps, that attitude had been implanted in me, just as the compulsion to return had been; but that's only half the story. A week ago I'd believed my career, my life, almost over. I'd intended my return to Hellhole to be my last hurrah; I'd even been resigned to dying there. But now…suddenly my future stretched out before me, not dark and bleak, but bright and full to the brim. Time to put Hellhole behind me and get on with my life. And hopefully to begin a healing process of quite another sort.

I went on, "It seems clear, sir, that those tunnels don't exist in our reality, any more than my old shelter does. If we send any more landing parties, they'll find nothing. And if there are any non-humans in the group…they might turn up missing."

The captain nodded. "I'm inclined to agree." He looked around. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, it appears we're left with more questions than answers--and that seldom sits well with a Survey crew. But it could also be said that some of us--" he glanced at me and smiled--"have had their most important questions answered quite adequately. I see nothing to be gained from staying here. Comments?"

There were none. "All right then," he concluded, "let's get out of here, shall we? Dismissed."

He was waiting for me in the corridor, Max Goodwin was; and as I passed him he reached out quickly to link his arm with mine. "Tell me," he said with a smile, "is that new body of yours up to a few sets of tennis?"

###

"Gone?" I echoed in dismay. "Already?"

My long, strange journey was ending where it begun: in Commodore Ehm'rael's office on the third level of Outpost Four, amidst her rugs and her holos, the candles flickering before a tiny golden Goddess. Even before Zelazny docked she requested my presence, and I arrived at her office with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. She'd read my report--it had preceded us by several days--which might explain why she did not seem particularly surprised by my miraculous restoration. And though she never said a word, I suspect she knew the entire story, false alarm, stolen pod, and all. She had a way of finding things out. The first question I asked her--after I had greeted her properly--can probably be guessed.

She nodded. "Yes," she said softly; we were of course speaking Sah'aaran. "Some of Raven's junior officers and enlisted personnel are still here, awaiting reassignment; but the senior officers have already departed. Some on the Walter Colton; others--those requiring higher security--on the Blackhaw."

"But how?" I insisted. "How could the courts-martial have proceeded without my testimony?"

"You were reported missing," she reminded me gently. "And it was not known when--or if--you would be found. But in any event, your participation was not required. The defendants waived their right to trial, and pled guilty to all charges."

"All?"

"All," she repeated. "Against the advice of their attorneys. The hearing was amazingly brief for so serious a matter. Captain Antilles, Commander Edgeworth and Lieutenant Harris faced the greatest number of charges--and the most serious as well, including murder. Dr. Enyeart and Nurse Burke were charged with violations of medical ethics, and of your civil rights as an Alliance citizen. The latter also applied to Ensign Osgood--the only junior officer to face charges. All of them have been discharged from CF service; Dr. Enyeart's medical license has been revoked; and all will serve prison terms of various lengths. For Antilles, Edgeworth and Harris, it will be life."

I shuddered, imagining what their lives would be like on some bleak, dismal prison planet. They brought it on themselves, I reminded myself firmly. All of them. "And the others?" I asked.

"Lieutenant Kerenski, and Lieutenant Commanders Delaney and Nakamara, were charged with concealing evidence, dereliction of duty, and conduct unbecoming," Ehm'rael said. "They have been permitted to remain in the CF, but they have received formal reprimands, a reduction in rank of one level, and an eight-year ban on promotion. They will be reassigned elsewhere."

…And won't see Terra again until retirement. For them I felt some sympathy--but only some. "What about Gaetano and…and Abrams?" I asked reluctantly.

"They were judged not to have participated in the conspiracy, nor in tormenting you. And there were also strong mitigating circumstances. Commander Abrams did finally speak out, in the end; and Gaetano, to a certain extent, provided you with aid and comfort during your difficulties. Most of the charges against them were dismissed, except that of conduct unbecoming. Based largely upon your own reports, I might add."

She fixed me with her gaze, curious and even a little disapproving. She always did have a "throw the book at them" view of discipline. "Commander Gaetano was as kind to me as he dared," I acknowledged. "More so than the other Scispecs. And Commander Abrams…." I trailed off, my throat suddenly thick.

The commodore nodded and smiled. "I know," she said softly. "I know of your relationship with him. We spoke quite frankly about it, he and I, before his departure. And knowing you as I do, child, I suspect that his feelings toward you are not unreciprocated."

I turned away, but the commodore shook her head. "There is nothing to be ashamed of," she said firmly. "Our biology is uncompromising--but as long as both parties understand that, it need not preclude a temporary relationship, even an intimate one. Such things have happened. To his credit, Mr. Abrams has taken the time to understand how we function."

I still couldn't meet her gaze. "Joel and Gaetano--what was their punishment?" I asked.

She hesitated, and a look of pain crossed her face. Finally she said, "Reassignment, a formal reprimand, and a five-year ban on promotion."

I nodded slowly. It could have been much worse--and their new assignments would probably be endurable. On the whole I could only be glad. I was grateful for Gaetano's "small acts of kindness"--and as for Joel…well, Ehm'rael was correct, perhaps more than she knew. His feelings for me were far from unreciprocated. Throughout Zelazny's five-day journey from Hellhole, with little else to occupy my mind, I had looked forward to seeing him, and rehearsed, over and over, what I would say. But now…

"However," the commodore said, and her tone froze my heart. I looked up sharply, and she went on, "However, Mr. Abrams has not seen fit to accept his punishment. I regret to say that he has resigned his commission instead. Neither Admiral Conroy nor I wished to accept his resignation; but he was within his rights, and in the end we had no choice. His departure has been registered as a retirement, in recognition of exemplary service. He will have full access to his benefits and pension."

It was like a knife through the heart--but all the same, not entirely unexpected. He'd expected to be kicked out of the CF; perhaps he'd even been counting on it. And when it didn't happen…As I sat gasping, Ehm'rael reached into a desk drawer and brought out a palm-reader. "He left this for you," she said as she handed it to me. "I did not read it, of course, but I believe it contains an explanation. He told me that he owed you that, at very least."

I keyed the reader. The message it contained was long, and as I read it the lump in my stomach grew steadily larger and harder.

"My dearest Ehm'ayla:

"By the time you receive this, you will already have learned of my decision to resign my commission. You will be wondering why I have done this, especially since the punishment inflicted by the court-martial was lenient. I will try to explain, and I can only hope you will understand. When I asked Admiral Conroy and Commodore Ehm'rael to approve my resignation, I told them that I no longer felt myself fit to wear the uniform. And that was true--as far as it went.

"There can be no doubt that I failed in my duties. As officers, we are sworn to uphold the laws of the Alliance--and in this I utterly failed. I allowed fear for my own safety to cloud my judgment; I made myself overlook actions on the part of my superior officers which I knew to be illegal. For that at least, I no longer deserve to be an officer--even less, a command-level officer.

"But we've already discussed that, and there is more to the story. Above and beyond all else, I allowed fear to interfere with my duty to protect you. Not my duty as an officer--but rather as someone who loves you.

"I also told the admiral and the commodore that I no longer have confidence in my ability to make decisions. Also true; but once again, not the whole story. Commodore Ehm'rael suggested that I might regain my confidence, given time--and in fact she offered me a position on her personal staff, in which I could have employed my skills as an engineer without facing the split-second decisions that are common aboard any CF ship. It may well be she was right. But as long as I wore that uniform, I would never have rid myself of my memories of failure. Those memories will always be with me, no matter what I do--but at least now I am not in a position to repeat my errors.

"I know you, Ayla, and I know you will regard this as the coward's way out. If you faced a similar situation--unlikely as that is, with your habit of landing on your feet--you would stay and fight, and soon regain your self-respect and the respect of others. You will judge my choice by the only criteria available to you: your own. All I can ask is that you judge me no more harshly than you would judge yourself.

"You may be wondering what I plan to do now--actually, I'm not quite certain. I have sufficient funds for quite some time; I certainly won't starve. And it's a big Alliance. My CF career never allowed me to see as much of it as I'd hoped; I think I might take some time to correct that.

"Will we see each other again? I don't know--but I doubt it. Your career will take you far: five years from now you will have your own ship. I wish you every success, Ehm'ayla. And if I might make one request, it's this: if you ever find yourself thinking of me, please remember that I will always love you.

"--Joel Aaron Abrams."

I extracted the card and slipped it into my pocket, aware as I did that the commodore's eyes were upon me, her expression one of sympathy. "Thank you," I told her. "For delivering the message--and for offering Joel a position."

"You are welcome," she said. She sighed and shook her head. "I assure you, it was not intended as a sinecure--but rather as rehabilitation. In some ways he has suffered as greatly as you--but I will always believe that he could have been redeemed. The Combined Forces has lost a fine officer." She peered at me. "I thank the Goddess we did not lose two."

"Yes," I agreed softly. "It was a loss." But it was not the CF I was thinking of--and Ehm'rael knew it.

"I am sensing a certain degree of guilt," she observed.

"Yes," I said heavily. "You sense correctly, Commodore. Perhaps I am wrong, but…"

"It may be somewhat misplaced," she said. "Mr. Abrams' actions are his own; evidently he believed that to be his only choice. I do not believe he would wish you to feel responsible."

I sighed and nodded. "No," I said. "You are correct. He would not." Nevertheless, the knot of sorrow and regret in my gut refused to go away. Joel…

The commodore might have been reading my mind; or, more likely, my expression clearly telegraphed my thoughts. "You will see him again," she said softly.

I looked up, startled. "Pardon me?"

"Joel Abrams," she said. "You will see him again; and when you do, what happened aboard Raven will no longer be a barrier between you." She smiled. "Call it a prophecy, if you wish."

I nodded slowly. "You may be right." But when? Decades from now, when we're old and grey? Dammit, Joel, I do love you. But where in all the Alliance can I find you to tell you so?

But I was wasting Commodore Ehm'rael's time, and with an effort I forced my mind back to the business at hand. "What of Raven's junior officers and enlisted?"

"With the exception of Ensign Osgood, they were judged to have been victims of Captain Antilles' misused authority," she said. "They will be reassigned, separately. Officially at least, they will have no blemish upon their careers."

"That is well," I said. Certainly most of them had done me no harm, and one or two had even been my friends: Mayer and…Matthews! I thought suddenly. Before we leave, I must tell Captain Haliday about him! He'd love serving aboard Zelazny "The majority of them were indeed helpless under Antilles' power," I went on. "And even those who tended to support his views might change their minds in a less poisonous atmosphere."

"Exactly what the Admirals hope," she confirmed. "As you might imagine, however, they will be closely watched--until they have proved by their actions that their beliefs have indeed changed."

"That is good also." I shook my head. "I apologize, Commodore. You called me here on business of your own, and I have not allowed you to conduct it."

She waved a dismissive hand. "Not unexpected," she said. "I had three reasons for summoning you." She smiled. "Apart from the pleasure of seeing you restored to health. The first was to give you news of Raven's crew. The second involves a rather more important matter: your service record."

"Pardon me?"

"Captain Antilles made an exceptionally large number of entries in your file. All of them unfavorable, I fear. No doubt he wished to bolster his case for having you removed from his ship."

One again, not a complete surprise; but nonetheless I felt my tail begin to lash. Bastard, I thought savagely. I should have clawed him, when I had the chance! "May I be permitted to see those entries?" I asked mildly.

"Certainly," she said. She fit another card into the palm-reader and handed it to me. I scrolled through briefly, the heat of my anger increasing with each page. I won't repeat any of Antilles' comments; let's just say they bordered on libelous. Not only had he blamed everything solely upon me--every accident, every incident, every disciplinary problem, whether I was involved or not--he had also made some broad generalizations about my character and my ancestry. Typical, I suppose; but nonetheless my hand was trembling with the effort of keeping my claws unexpressed as I handed back the reader. If I ever catch up with him…

Ehm'rael noticed my anger, of course, and laid her hand atop mine. "Calm yourself, my child," she suggested. "As you know, a CF officer's service record is usually permanent, good or bad; all one can normally do is to add comments in rebuttal, for whatever that may be worth. In this case, however, since the officer who made these entries is now a convicted felon, Admiral Conroy and I have convinced the Admiralty to order them expunged. Your record will show that your service aboard Raven was exemplary. That was sworn to by Mr. Gaetano and Mr. Abrams, before their departure. And others as well."

The Goddess bless you, Joel, I thought. And you too, Karl. And even you, Admiral. You can kiss my hand any time! "Thank you, Commodore," I said. "I am grateful."

"You are most welcome--again." she said. "The third and final matter we must discuss is the most important: your next assignment. First of all, you should know that the Survey has decided to re-crew Raven and continue her mission."

In alarm, I half-rose. "Commodore," I said, "if they are thinking of sending me back to Raven, I will not go. I will barricade myself in a closet first."

She waved her hand again. "Sit down, please," she said with a smile. "Admiral Conroy and I are well aware: even with a new crew, your feelings toward that ship are traumatic. That is understandable. We have no intention of forcing you back aboard. I believe this assignment may be more to your liking."

She fit another card into the palm-reader and laid it before me. On the little screen I saw the standard transfer form, with my name at the top--and it was a transfer back to Zelazny. To my surprise--I might have thought he'd want to be rid of me, after all the trouble I'd caused--Captain Haliday had already signed the form, as had the commodore and Admiral Conroy. Accepting a stylus from Ehm'rael, I eagerly filled in the remaining space. "It is indeed, Commodore. I have been feeling somewhat uncertain about my future lately."

She smiled. "I am pleased to help," she said, "but I cannot entirely ease your uncertainty: only Captain Haliday may accomplish that. You are once again officially a member of Zelazny's crew--but I do not know to what position you will be assigned."

Probably back to Compcomm, I thought glumly. Oh well, there are worse fates. Though I really was starting to enjoy the Scispec thing…

"I am sure the captain's decision will be a wise one," I said flatly. I paused. "If our business is completed, Commodore, may I take my leave of you? Now that I know where I am going, I must retrieve my belongings from storage. Zelazny will be departing soon."

"Of course, my child." She hesitated, then went on wistfully, "I fear it may be some time before me meet again."

"What does your future hold, Commodore?"

"Home," she said simply. "My work here is done. The corner has been turned; this outpost will be completed without further interference from me." She smiled. "Admiral Conroy will be glad to see me go, I suspect. I will return to Sah'aar; I have been away from my home and mate far too long. I do not believe I will leave again; certainly not without Sah'majha. If the Admirals desire my services, they can come to me."

I turned aside. In both of those things, I envied her: a mate to return to--and a home where she truly felt welcome. Would I ever achieve either? Or would home and family always be the ship and crew that waited for me now? There are worse fates than that too, I suppose…

"Your time will come," Ehm'rael said. She reached across to grasp my hand. "In the past few months you have experienced more than many people will in a lifetime," she went on quietly. "You have suffered much--but you have also learned." She nodded at the bare embossed strip around my wrist. "What was done to you in the tunnels may have been nothing more than the conclusion of an experiment--but it has given you a second chance. I pray--I know--you will not waste it."

I smiled. "Indeed, I will not." I stood. "It is time."

A simple hand-clasp wasn't sufficient; I embraced her, and the warmth of her strong arms took me back more than twenty years. "Goodbye, Commodore."

"Goodbye, my child," she said. "I need not add, 'the Goddess be with you.' That She is, and always will be, She has already made abundantly clear."


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