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

 

PROLOGUE
  

The day of my rescue dawned frigid and blinding-bright--exactly like the sixty-two that preceded it.

Uncurling stiffly from my makeshift bed of grasses and leaves, I yawned and stretched, sharp but ill-tended claws sprouting from each finger and toe. The temperature was still near freezing, and as I dragged myself upright I huddled miserably within the shredded remains of my uniform. Not for long, though: in half an hour it would be hot, by noon broiling. Welcome to Hellhole.

Shivering, I crossed the shelter, brushing my overly-long mane out of my eyes, tying it back with a leather thong. On a small shelf, hacked laboriously out of the tree trunk, the few, pitiful remaining artifacts of my life as a Survey officer were arranged, as if in a shrine. A canvas sample bag; a pitted, dulled rock hammer; a stinger, stone dead, its charge used up weeks ago; a scanpak and a commpak, battered but more or less functional.

I reached for the scanpak first, settling the tiny holoscreen over my right eye, slipping my left hand into the sensor gauntlet and raising it high above my head. Weeks ago, with high hopes but low expectations, I had set the instrument to do an orbital scan. I only dared operate it a few minutes a day, and even so the "recharge" light pulsed constantly in a corner of the display. And as always, that was all: my rescue was still not at hand.

The commpak, then. It was critically low on power too, its charge dial far into the red. I didn't bother with the clip; I simply held the speaker against my remaining ear and keyed the emergency beacon. I was rewarded with a hiss of static, punctuated by wild random crackles. Hellhole had a crazy, inexplicable magnetic field: that was why we'd come. And why was I still there, marooned, alone? I wished I knew.

My water-gourd was still half-full, saving me a great deal of trouble. I drank deep, and rubbed some into my eyes, which were aching and blurry again. Then my stomach growled loudly, and I sighed. My larder was empty; time to rejoin my ancestors.

A glance down the trunk of the tree revealed no circling predators: as usual, they had scattered with the dawn. I gave the ladder a kick, and it unrolled noisily to the ground. I shuddered as I remembered the night I'd neglected to pull it up. They were small, rat-sized; but there were hundreds of them, their claws and teeth vicious. I hoped someday to have the scars repaired.

The temperature was already rising, as quickly as the suns themselves, and my uniform, ragged as it was, had become stifling. I unfastened the thick jumpsuit's mag-seal and stripped down to my fur. That helped--a little. I rigged my knife-belt, hanging the two one-liter water bottles at the rear, flanking my tail; and I slung my spear at my back. Then I swarmed down the ladder.

As soon as my feet touched the baked earth I fell into a crouch, every sense alert. I swung my gaze in a slow circle, and sniffed at the thin, hot breeze, seeing nothing and detecting no scent other than the strange, medicinal odor of the vegetation. The predators had indeed retired for the day.

I adjusted my knife-belt and the sling of my spear, and began to jog down the hard-packed path, heading in the only direction which might reward my efforts: deeper into the woods. Everywhere else was wasteland: barren, waterless and deadly, entirely devoid of life.

In such a situation, I suppose, it would be nice to be an omnivore. But evolution had provided me with a carnivore's digestive system, and that was that. After all those weeks the prey was becoming wary, avoiding the area around my shelter, forcing me to go farther and farther afield for every hunt. Which of course increased both the trouble and the danger. Especially the danger.

The canopy closed in far above me, dimming the sunlight--by no means a bad thing. Huge trees, identical to the one I called home, crowded in on all sides, their trunks as substantial as skyscrapers, their crowns lost in the blazing sky, and their bases obscured by thick mats of nasty, thorny underbrush. Any of those thickets could be concealing my breakfast--or something that would like fresh Sah'aaran for its own breakfast. I slowed to a walk.

I can't recall what attracted my attention first; the scent, maybe, or the faint staccato sound. Maybe both. But something made me fall into a low crouch next to a thick stand of scrub. Very slowly, wary of the thorns, I parted the branches for a look, my tail flicking eagerly behind me.

The birds were large and flightless; they had thick, stubby legs, long necks; heavy bodies, and feathers a surreal electric blue. A human probably would have compared them to wild turkeys. There were six of them in that little clearing, pecking at the ground for insects or seeds. They made a soft contented clucking sound, deep in their breasts. Fate had been good to me for once: I was downwind of the creatures, and their eyesight was poor. Roused, they'd scatter like shrapnel, but if I remained concealed…

Slowly I slipped back. A little to my left was an opening wide enough to burst through without savaging myself on the thorns. I edged toward it, unslinging my spear as I went. Cautiously I peered through. One of the birds stood not more than three meters away, oblivious, its head lowered. That was my target.

I took a deep breath, Evolution had shaped more than my stomach, of course; it had given me sharp teeth and claws, hearing and eyesight many times more acute than a human's. And--in theory at least--the instincts of a hunter. Sah'aaran civilization is a veneer on a savage prehistory. So they claim; but from where I stood, I was not cut out for this!

I gripped my spear and charged. The big dumb bird never knew what hit it. I felt the shock in my arms as the spear-point went home, straight through the breast. My prey screamed and flopped; the rest of the flock squawked and scattered, vanishing like wraiths into the underbrush.

I stood for a moment, staring down at the bleeding corpse, and I shuddered. Sixty-three days--after a lifetime of getting my meals from machines. What did I do to deserve this?

###

Sometime later, I headed home. Slung across my back was most of the meat, wrapped in a rude sack made from the bird's own hide. And as always, my hands, arms, breast, and the fur around my mouth were stiff with dried blood. Instinct, I guess: the sight and smell of the fresh raw meat was irresistible, no matter how I fought to control myself. I used my knife to slice through the hide; but after that it was teeth and claws. A fine figure of a Combined Forces officer, yes, top of her class: a naked savage tearing at her prey. Great Goddess, get me off this rock! Before it becomes permanent!

Still, I was well pleased with my morning's work. With any luck, there should still be a few live embers buried under the ashes in my firepit. Properly smoked, and wrapped in leaves, the meat would remain edible almost indefinitely. I might not have to hunt again for days.

And then…well, in one particular way my distant ancestors were much smarter than me. After a heavy meal they would find a quiet place to sleep it off. Being stuffed to the gills can cause a definite alertness deficit, I've found. And that can be dangerous, especially in places where you're not top of the food chain…

I had entered a wide clearing, and was within sight of my shelter, when I abruptly stopped short and lowered my bundle--and myself--to the ground. Dizzy almost to the point of passing out, I sat breathing hard, my head between my knees. It was not the first time I'd felt light-headed in this climate, with those blazing suns beating down on me; certainly not. But this sensation was different: stronger, more sudden…and yet oddly familiar. Somehow, somewhere, I had experienced it before…

But I didn't have time to puzzle out when or where, before I was interrupted. An almost subsonic thudding, the sound failed to penetrate my spinning head for a full five seconds. When it finally did, far too late, I leaped to my feet and spun around, my hand already dropping to my belt.

The thing was huge, three meters or more, a massive shaggy bundle of teeth and claws which resembled a cross between a Terran grizzly and a Centaurii mazhar. I had no time to dwell on the details, though, because it was less than two meters away and coming fast.

Somehow--only the Goddess knows how--I managed to spin out of the way. As the creature barreled past, fighting momentum, I swung wildly with my stone knife. To wound it, to slow it down until I could reach my spear…that was my only chance.

At best I was partially successful. The knife scored a deep gash in the creature's side, bringing forth a gush of blood--but a hind leg caught me and flicked me away as if I weighed nothing. Tumbling helplessly, I landed hard on my left side. I heard a splintering crack and felt a sharp stabbing pain as the haft of my spear broke beneath me. My knife had gone flying. My mane had come untied too, spilling into my face, blinding me until I brushed it away.

Breathless and shaken, I began to lever myself upright…and a tearing pulse of agony down my left side informed me of my broken ribs and dislocated shoulder. My arm gave way and I collapsed onto my right side, unable to move.

Get up, I screamed silently. You idiot, get up!

I never did. With the beast nearly on top of me--I could smell its rank breath--I set my teeth against the pain and flipped over onto my back. My left arm was useless, but I raised my right, and my feet as well, all twelve claws expressed. If nothing else, I'd go out fighting…

The carnivore reared above me in horrible silence, teeth and claws poised for the kill. Blood as red as my own ran from a long gash on its side. I braced myself for the shock of its terrible weight…but it never came.

From somewhere above I heard a noise, a low hum that grew quickly into a high-pitched whine. Once again it was familiar, but once again I had no attention to spare to wonder why. A shadow passed rapidly over us, causing the beast to hesitate, raising its head in confusion. For a second it stood frozen…and then its belly exploded. Showered suddenly with blood, meat and bone, I shielded my eyes with my arm….and when I finally dared to look, I found myself gazing at clear glaring sky. Not around the creature, though; but through it: through the huge smoking hole that had suddenly opened in its midsection. The beast teetered…and then it fell toward me. Somehow I managed to roll out of the way as it collapsed, a steaming heap of scorched and bloody fur.

I lay on my face for a moment, fighting unconsciousness. Then slowly, painfully, I raised my head, wondering who or what had saved me. What I saw jolted me to the tip of my tail.

The landing pod crouched on the far side of the clearing, the dust just beginning to settle around its skids. As I watched its hatch popped and four figures exited, sprinting across the clearing and stopping short several meters from me. In disbelief I gazed upon the silver and black jumpsuits of Survey field gear. Their stingers were drawn, and the gauntlets of their scanpaks were extended toward me. And behind the eyepieces…Two of them I didn't recognize: a security man and a female Scispec, ensigns both. But the other two I did know, as I saw them my breath caught in my throat. They gazed at me from their wildly disparate heights, he without recognition, and she in growing astonishment.

I got my elbow underneath me and sat up. Slowly, with an agonizing grind from my ribs, I stood, cradling my left elbow in my right palm; I had the panicky feeling that if I let go my arm would fall off. Max Goodwin backed away a step or two, raising his stinger. Naked, covered with dirt and blood, fur and mane disheveled …no wonder he didn't recognize me, this man I had known for years. I must have looked like a wild animal.

But Aparna Singh held her ground, reaching across to grasp Goodwin's arm, forcing him to lower his weapon. "No, Max," she said urgently. "It's her! I told you--it's her!"

Finally I found my voice. Except for a few exasperated mutterings in my own language, I had not used it for more than sixty days. I looked up into Goodwin's startled face and said, "Lieutenant Scispec Ehm'ayla reporting for duty, sir."

His jaw dropped. He looked me up and down, and slowly he grinned. "You're out of uniform, Lieutenant."

...And then he reached out quickly to catch me, as I collapsed into his arms.

###

They carried me to the landing pod and strapped me into a seat. Careful as they were, my body was a solid mass of pain, and I could scarcely breathe. I felt the sting in the side of my neck as someone injected me with something from a first-aid kit. Even as the pod lifted off, the pain had begun to ease into a comfortable numbness; and I let my mind drift with it, down and away into a stormy sea of memory…


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