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.




Life is good, I reflected. In the long run, life is good.

Wearing a day-robe of madras silk (Aparna's birthday gift so long ago), with the collar Max had given me fastened snugly around my neck and a cup of his special-blend tea in my hands, I lounged comfortably, enjoying my newly-restored quarters. Back was everything that had made this place home: my hangings, my paintings, my sculptures; back too was the rest of my wardrobe. Retrieving and sorting my belongings had been a definite and long-anticipated pleasure, and I will leave to your imagination my feelings as my fingers closed around the custom-molded grip of my own tennis racquet.

Zelazny was once again in transit to the populated sectors of the galaxy. We'd arrived at Outpost Four intending to clear up loose ends--but as it turned out, there were very few left to tie. I visited Commodore Ehm'rael; I filed my reports; I recovered my belongings; I signed myself officially aboard. And then I bowed out.

Captain Haliday acceded to my request for some time off duty with a smile and a nod. Actually he seemed relieved: I suspect he also had no idea to what duty he'd assign me. "Take all the time you need," he said. "You've earned it."

…And three days later, I was still taking it. I'd locked up my uniform (still with a green Scispec patch), and hung out a figurative "Do Not Disturb" sign. I spent some time unpacking and redecorating, and some writing letters to my family; but mostly I rested. With my body fully restored, very soon my well-known devotion to duty would reassert itself…but not quite yet.

And my long-sought promotion? I scarcely recognized the person I'd been six months ago, nor her drive to earn that extra star. Who cares about titles? I thought now. This ship is my home, these people are my friends. They'd give their lives for me, as I would for them. Why look for trouble by demanding more?

When at length my reveries were interrupted by the door-buzzer, I sighed. Maybe my devotion to duty had come calling already. "Come in!"

Captain Haliday peeked around the divider, his hands clasped behind his back. I quickly set aside my teacup and began to rise; but he shook his head and smiled. "Quite all right," he said. "Do you have a moment?"

"Of course, sir," I said. "Sit down."

He perched himself on the divider, and as he did, he glanced around curiously. "I don't think I've ever seen your quarters before," he commented amiably. "They suit you."

"Thank you, sir," I said. "It took a lot of work."

He nodded to the wall above my bunk, where a new piece hung: a crudely-chipped stone knife with a grass-wrapped handle, mounted on red velvet and framed in gold. I'd been lucky to find a shop on Outpost Four able to do the job in a hurry. "A reminder?" he guessed.

"Yes, sir," I said. "Of many things." I paused. "Uh--how may I help you, Captain?"

"Ah," he said, with a mysterious smile. He was carrying two small objects, I saw now, one of them a palm-reader. The other, clutched tightly in his left hand, remained hidden. "A little unfinished business," he went on. "You'll be happy to know that the Admiralty has stamped the entire affair closed. Based on your report, Hellhole has been declared off-limits to all TCA vessels. Hopefully no one else will have to spend sixty-three days satisfying someone's curiosity."

"That's good," I said. I paused. "Were you able to do anything for Ensign Matthews, sir?"

Haliday nodded. "I was indeed. Coming from you, I considered that recommendation high praise indeed. The Survey has decided to re-crew Raven…"

"I know; Commodore Ehm'rael told me."

"…And several members of our crew decided to transfer to her."

That, I had not known; ship's operations hadn't been high on my list of priorities recently.

"One of whom was Ensign Tate," Haliday went on. "She became our third-shift Compcomm when Morley was promoted. She'll be Raven's Compcomm crew chief now, which will be quite a boost for her résumé."

I nodded. I knew Melissa Tate only slightly; she'd been a Techspec trainee before I left Zelazny. I wished her all the joy of Raven's antique equipment. "So that left us with a third-shift opening?" I asked. Strange; I expected…

"Just so," he confirmed. "One which I was pleased to fill with your friend Matthews. Aparna tells me he's working out quite well. Third-shift is a bit of a comedown, but he'll be gaining some needed experience."

That young idiot has been aboard three days, and hasn't visited me? I thought furiously. But the reason why was easy enough to deduce: my metaphorical Do Not Disturb sign. Aparna would have warned him: when Ehm'ayla says she doesn't want visitors, she means it. Though this time she'd have been only half-right. "I'm sure he'll be an asset."

"I sure he will too," Haliday said. He grinned and winked. "To our boxing team, if nothing else. And that brings me to the other reason I'm here. Lieutenant Commander Ancheta also decided to transfer to Raven."

"Our Anthro-Paleo," I commented.

"That's right. Raven still has quite a bit of territory to cover, and it will be a major opportunity for him as well. And that leaves me with the problem of replacing him. Commander Vandevere directly supervises our science departments, and I've relied heavily on his advice. He was very impressed with what you accomplished aboard Raven, despite Antilles' sabotage. Based on his recommendation, I'm pleased to offer you the position."

"I'm honored to accept, sir," I said, with rising excitement. The opportunities which accompanied those simple words were endless. To hold such a position aboard Zelazny, where I would be permitted--required--to do my best work, would be to "write my own ticket" indeed. Then it sunk in, and I frowned. What I asked Haliday was essentially the same thing I'd asked Ehm'rael, all those months ago. "But, sir, a crew chief? Doesn't that require--?"

He smiled broadly and keyed the palm-reader. "From Combined Forces Headquarters, received just this morning." He cleared his throat and recited: "'In recognition of meritorious service under extraordinary conditions, Lieutenant Ehm'ayla is hereby granted immediate promotion to the rank of Lieutenant Commander, and all the rights and duties pertaining thereto."

He held out his left hand, and finally I saw what he'd held within it: a silver star, identical to the three already pinned to my uniform. "Congratulations, Commander."

My body went numb, and my Terran fled like a thief in the night, every word. It was several seconds before I could rise and accept the star; and several more before I could wrap my tongue around the words: "Thank you, Captain." I was aware, though, somewhere in the depths of my mind, that he wasn't the one I should be thanking. How many strings Ehm'rael had pulled, how many favors she'd called in, I didn't know; nor did I care.

"You're quite welcome," he said. He offered me his arm. "Now. if you'll permit me to escort you to the Officer's Mess, Goodwin and Singh have arranged a reception in your honor."

As I allowed him to lead me away, I reflected: what was I thinking a few minutes ago? "Who cares about promotions?" I do. I damn well do!

…And as the mess-hall doors trundled open, I saw the crowd and the decorations, heard the cheers and congratulations, felt the hands slapping my back and grasping my arms, and someone pressed a glass into my hand, I realized again: life is good. In the long run, life is good.