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
Commodore Ehm'rael looked very different in uniform.
It was a little past eight hundred hours when I arrived at her office; a trifle late, because I'd had trouble finding the place in a sea of identical doors on the outpost's third level. Entering, I discovered that the commodore had been assigned a secretary: a Centaurii of indeterminate age. He (the males are easily distinguishable by their heftier build, narrower hips, and lack of a crest) wore an abbreviated tabard uniform in Navy green, a single star on its breast.
"May I help you, ma'am?" his translator said politely.
"I have an appointment with the commodore," I told him. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla."
"One moment please," he said, and he turned to the intercom.
While I waited I glanced around. The outer office was small and bare, containing just the secretary's desk, two chairs, and a computer terminal. Right out of the supply catalog; nothing at all to soften the institutional harshness. Just the sort of environment that would drive Ehm'rael crazy, if I knew her half as well as I thought I did. And me as well: I am Sah'aaran.
I had a duty shift later that afternoon, and Zelazny would be leaving sometime the next day; that pretty well limited my opportunities to meet with the commodore to right now. Personally I would have preferred a later appointment. I'd hardly slept--and not only because it was oh-one-hundred before I dragged my tail back to my cabin. I'd tossed and turned for hours, replaying the evening's events over and over in my mind, before dropping off into an uneasy doze. So--as one may well imagine--my physical and mental condition was somewhat less than optimal as I made my way down to the airlock.
I found Outpost Four considerably more lively during the day-shift: several times I had to dodge the crewmembers who rushed back and forth around me, driving cargo-sleds or lugging toolboxes. The entire structure literally hummed, as the supplies transferred from Zelazny were put to use. Apparently--according to conversations I couldn't help but overhear--Admiral Conroy intended to have another tenth of the ring sheathed and pressurized within a week.
The Centaurii ensign exchanged a few quiet words with the intercom, then looked up at me and nodded, not being equipped to smile. "Please step through, Lieutenant," he said. "The commodore is expecting you."
I already know that, I thought irritably; but I smiled. "Thank you, Ensign."
I stopped just inside the commodore's office, astounded. The weight restrictions on CF vessels are oftentimes quite severe; but (of course) the higher the rank, the higher that allowance. Ehm'rael seemed to have brought most of her home with her--which, for a Sah'aaran, is not at all unusual.
The desk, chairs and computer terminal were standard-issue; but absolutely nothing else was. The beige walls were covered with blueprints; the floor with a large red rug of dazzling pattern, very comfortable against bootless Sah'aaran feet. Matching afghans covered the chairs. On a small table in the corner, a pair of candles flickered before the tiny gold Goddess in a "traveling" shrine of dark Tatak. And on her desk stood a forest of framed holos. Friends and family mostly, including of course her mate Sah'majha (an interesting individual: like Commander Vandevere, a cyborg; but his hand and legs were not the product of any Alliance world) and their kits. Fully grown now, beginning careers and families of their own I used to baby-sit the two of them when they and I were much younger. I was amazed--but perhaps I shouldn't have been--to see an image of myself in the collection, taken at my Academy graduation.
Ehm'rael rose to greet me, and our hands met over the desktop. She wore a duty uniform virtually identical to mine, except for that proud gold E and an additional four rank-stars. Somehow the trim grey jumpsuit made her look sterner--but the bright smile she bestowed upon me as she sat quickly dispelled that impression. She started out immediately in Sah'aaran. "Please sit down, child."
I pulled my chair up close to her desk. "Thank you for agreeing to see me, Commodore," I replied.
She waved that off. "You wish to know why your promotion was denied," she said, and I nodded, shame-faced.
"It's been preying on my mind for two weeks," I told her. "More than it should, I suppose."
She leaned back, her fingers steepled before her. "Tell me why," she urged.
I did, exactly as I'd told Captain Haliday that night in his office. When I finished, Ehm'rael was nodding knowingly. "As your sponsor, I monitor your progress; but of course it is not appropriate for me to interfere. I had no input in that decision, and I sought none. But I do have my sources, and access perhaps to insights which your captain does not share."
She paused, then went on: "Even so, he was partially correct. Zelazny does indeed have an unusually large number of command-grade officers, and that does tend to make the Admiralty reluctant to create another--at least without compelling reasons."
She leaned forward slightly. "But there is another factor. The Admirals are of the opinion--and I must agree--that your career lacks the depth of experience required of a command-level officer."
"I am not certain what you mean, Commodore," I said.
"Thus far you have served aboard two ships and under two captains, and always as a Compcomm," she explained. "A command-level officer must be able to perform any duty. That can range--and has--from acting captain to digging latrines. I am certain you do possess the necessary skills, Ehm'ayla. But in the eyes of the Admiralty, they remain undemonstrated."
So that's what Captain Haliday had been getting at, in his kind-hearted way, when he'd suggested a change in specialty as well as a transfer. With a hint of desperation I said, "Commander Goodwin believes I will be promoted, given time--even aboard Zelazny."
"He is doubtless correct," the commodore said. "If you avail yourself of every opportunity to train in new areas. Unfortunately, aboard Zelazny such opportunities may be all too few. For the Survey, the solidity of her crew is a great benefit; for you, it is a curse. If you wish to be promoted sooner, as opposed to later, I would suggest you accept Captain Haliday's advice: a transfer and a change of specialty."
"Which is what I've been considering, these last two weeks," I said. I glanced away. "But I'm still a little reluctant."
"I understand," she assured me. "All of us--Sah'aarans not the least--have a strong need for stability. In time, our crewmates become family, our ships home. It is difficult to leave them." She paused. "And yet," she went on, "is it not the nature of our profession to take risks? It was a grave risk for you, who had never before been off-planet, to leave Sah'aar and enter the Academy. Have you ever regretted taking that risk?"
"Never," I said truthfully. Not yet, anyway.
"Then perhaps it is time for another risk. The potential benefits to your career--and to your personal growth--are great."
I thought about that for a moment then I rose. "Thank you for your time and your thoughts, Commodore. You may well be correct; but I can do nothing about it until Zelazny returns to Terra or Centaurus."
She waved me back down. "We may have an opportunity for you here and now."
Startled, I plopped into the chair. "Pardon me?" I said, slipping for an instant into Terran.
"The Raven," Commodore Ehm'rael said. "Their anthropology-paleontology Scispec was killed--"
"Joel--Commander Abrams--told me that," I said. "He also told me that they can't return to their survey until Morada has been replaced."
"Which would ordinarily require weeks," the commodore confirmed. "You are aware that there is a shortage of Survey vessels. Even more acute is the lack of trained Scispecs. As might be expected, Captain Antilles is anxious to continue his mission; his crew has been idle far too long."
"I appreciate his dilemma," I said. "But I don't understand "
She smiled. "Has it really been that long, my dear? Your studies at Sah'salaan University were in just those subjects--anthropology, paleontology, archaeology."
This may require a word of explanation, which I'll inject while I watch myself sitting there stunned. In fact the commodore was quite right, as Joel and I had discussed just the night before. Before entering the Officer's Academy, I received the equivalent of a Bachelor's degree in archaeology--and at quite a young age, if I do say so myself. I might have gone on, for a Master's or even a doctorate but fate decided otherwise. You might say I was both pulled and pushed into the Combined Forces. The pull, of course, was provided by the commodore herself, and the stories I'd grown up listening to her tell.
But well, in CF service there can sometimes be a conflict between what you want to be, and what your superiors think you ought to be. Someone decided that I was Control Deck material, and I'd always had a knack for computers. Therefore, Compcomm. I might have fought the decision, and possibly won, staying on a Scispec track; but I chose not to. Why? Because making it to the Control Deck puts you one step closer to command.
"Have you kept up with your studies?" the commodore asked, breaking into my thoughts.
"When I can find the time," I told her. Which is not too damn often. "But the late Mr. Morada was a lieutenant commander. Doesn't that mean ?"
"Normally, the position does require a command-level officer. In this case, however, given the importance of Captain Antilles' survey, I believe Admiral Conroy would authorize an exception. And, depending upon your performance "
Her logic was easy enough to follow. If I did a good job, the Admiralty might find it easier to simply promote me, making things proper and tidy, rather than replacing me with an LC. Devious? Not really, at least not from an engineer's point of view. To Commodore Ehm'rael, there was no wrong path to the right answer.
"My suggestion troubles you," she said a moment later; a statement, not a question.
I smiled wryly. No Sah'aaran can ever conceal a state of emotional distress: our tails give us away. This morning my tail wasn't weighed down by an evening robe--and it was lashing like a banner in a gale. "It's a bit sudden, Commodore," I said. Which was true--but it wasn't the only reason my tail was waving. In fact I was furious with myself. Why hadn't I thought of this myself, as soon as I heard about Morada's death? Because you were too besotted with Joel Abrams, I told myself sourly. "I'm afraid I'll need time to think. I don't want to make a hasty decision "
Ehm'rael nodded. "Certainly not," she agreed. "But I don't need to remind you that your time for thought is short."
Too true: in a day or less, Zelazny would depart for sunnier climes. "I understand," I said, and stood. "I will contact you soon, Commodore. Thank you for your time and assistance."
We clasped hands, and then I departed. Somehow--though I'm sure it wasn't the commodore's intention--I felt worse than when I'd arrived.
I was Officer of the Watch.
Apart from long multi-node transits, there are few things in CF life more stupifyingly boring than dockside watches. The ship is secure, the main drive idling, the nav station unmanned. There's usually very little comm traffic, and so few demands are made on the computers that malfunctions are rare.
But dockside watches--along with those multi-node transits--are a good opportunity for less-senior officers to develop their command skills, and it was my turn again. Perched behind the command console, I was master of all I surveyed--unless something important happened.
Zelazny's control deck was exceptionally large, a rectangle five meters long and four wide. Against the forward wall was the massive holographic viewscreen, and directly behind that the two most important control stations: to port Nav, and to starboard Tech, which monitored the fusion drive and associated systems. Those two stations, like the four behind them, were radically different from those on any other Combined Forces vessel. Each was a self-contained unit, semicircular, angled so that the user could easily see the main viewer. The pivoting chairs, individually form-fitting, were remarkably comfortable even at the end of a long shift. The controls lay comfortably under the user's hands, so well laid out that one scarcely needed to look at them; and overhead hung a clear holographic display dome.
Behind Nav and Tech were the subsidiary stations: Compcomm (the one with which I was most familiar), Sciences (manned only at need, by whichever Scispec happened to be at the top of the rotation), Life Support, and Bussard. From the command console, dead center, I could see them all with a simple turn of my head.
Today just three stations were manned: Compcomm, Life Support and Tech. The ramjet was not in use, of course, and the helm was also locked down; at that moment Max Goodwin was probably getting himself thrown out of Krav's. At Tech and Life Support two ensigns were languidly monitoring, enjoying their rest; I had thought of no busy-work to assign them. And at Compcomm, Aparna Singh was performing a systems scan. Funny, I'd done the exact same thing during my last shift.
Despite the presence of a superior officer on the Control Deck, I was in command of the ship, until either Captain Haliday or Commander Vandevere told me otherwise. Not that I'd be likely to go power-mad: if an emergency did crop up, I was duty-bound to inform the captain. Still, there is an undeniable thrill in planting one's rear in the captain's chair, even at dockside.
Unfortunately though, my temporary command was giving me entirely too much time to think. My mind whirled as I contemplated the events of the last twenty-four hours: unexpected meetings; Joel's inexplicably rude departure from the café; Commodore Ehm'rael's implacable advice Too much for one poor confused Sah'aaran. It didn't help that the main viewer looked straight into Raven's blackened emitter bell. The focus of all my problems, right there in one ancient hull.
I looked around, but no crises seemed to be demanding the CO's attention. I rose and stepped over to Compcomm. "Aparna?" I said softly.
She jumped; those darn silent footsteps of mine again. "Sorry," I said contritely.
"That's all right," she said, bending to retrieve her commpak from the deck "What can I do for you?"
"You remember that discussion we didn't have a couple weeks ago?"
"I think I need it now."
She glanced around. "I don't suppose we'll be interrupted," she observed wryly. "Go ahead."
I perched myself on the edge of her console, extending my tail behind me for balance. Above our heads, multicolored displays danced across the dome, unheeded. "I'm considering a transfer to Raven," I told her.
Her cry of, "You're considering what?" made the two ensigns spin around in their seats. Singh and I gave them our best superior-officer glares (you learn that very quickly) and they returned to their consoles. Aparna lowered her voice. "Why, for pity's sake?"
"They're desperate for an Anthro-Paleo Scispec," I explained. "And both Commodore Ehm'rael and Captain Haliday think I need more experience."
"But on board that?" she protested, nodding at the screen.
I shrugged. "There's an old human saying about 'a bird in the hand.'"
"There is that," she agreed. She crossed her arms. "So--what do you want from me?"
I smiled ruefully. "Talk me out of it," I suggested.
She hesitated. "If Commodore Ehm'rael and Captain Haliday feel so strongly about it, I'm not sure if I can or should. Maybe you should tell me why you want to be talked out of it."
I pointed to the viewer. "Isn't it obvious?" I said with a grin. I hesitated. "Seriously--I really want that promotion."
"I know you do."
"And up until today, I'd have said that I'd do anything for it. This looks like my best opportunity, but now that it's staring me in the face "
"Freezing," I agreed. "As much as I want that promotion, I don't want to give up Zelazny. I'm comfortable here."
"So you have to ask yourself: what's more important, career or comfort?"
"Which I have." I shook my head. "And that's the problem: I can't decide. One minute I think: 'anything to get ahead, do whatever it takes, go wherever you have to.' But the next minute it's: 'relax, don't push so hard, let it happen when it happens.' As if there were two different people inside my head."
"Which of them is winning?"
"I think I think it's career," I said. "I keep having this horrible picture of myself retiring as a lieutenant "
"That's hardly likely," Aparna interrupted.
"Intellectually, I know that," I said. I grimaced. "Emotionally, though "
"All right," she said. She glanced up into the dome; the diagnostic still had about five more minutes to run, the status lights winking green one by one. "I'm sorry, Ehm'ayla, but I'm not comfortable trying to talk you out of it. If I succeeded, I might have an enraged commodore after me."
I nodded. "She is counting on me taking advantage of this--I could tell. I got the impression that she's already been sounding out Admiral Conroy. If I back out now, she loses some of her credibility, and I lose some of her respect."
"Which isn't really a reason to transfer."
"No," I agreed, though somewhat reluctantly. The commodore's respect was one of my most treasured possessions, one which I'd worked a lifetime to earn, and it was not to be discarded lightly. Still, Aparna had a point: it was my life, my decision.
Her eyes suddenly narrowed. "Say--this wouldn't have anything to do with that young man you were talking to last night, would it?"
"Joel?" I said. I shook my head. "No," I said emphatically. Then: "I don't think so." And finally, uncomfortably: "Well, maybe just a little." I'm going to have to think about that too
"The fact is," Aparna said, "I hate giving career advice to friends. If it goes wrong, I feel responsible. But I know how much you were counting on that promotion; you were getting quite tedious on the subject. If you let this opportunity slide, I think you'll regret it later. It wouldn't be forever--"
"Just a year," I agreed. "At least that's what Joel told me. A year until they return Raven to Centaurus. He doesn't expect her to be refitted again."
"So there you are," Singh said. "The crew will be reassigned, and if you've done a good job and been promoted into the position, you'll have your choice of assignments."
I nodded; of course that had occurred to me.
"Maybe even Zelazny again--if that's what you want," Singh went on hopefully. "Captain Haliday would certainly try."
I turned away. Perhaps he would; but try and succeed are often two different things.
"Please don't misunderstand me," Aparna went on. "I'm certainly not trying to get rid of you. You and I are the best Compcomm team in the Survey, and I'd keep it that way forever if I could."
I smiled and leaned over to embrace her briefly. "Thank you," I said. "From you, that means a lot." I paused. "So bottom line?"
"Bottom line I think you're going to end up doing this anyway, no matter what anyone says. I know you, Ehm'ayla, and I think you've already made up your mind."
Actually that wasn't quite true, and I might have said so, but at that moment Aparna's console beeped, signaling the end of the diagnostic. "Your report, Commander?" I said with mock severity.
"All computing equipment online and fully functional, ma'am," she replied with equal formality. She smiled. "Sometimes I wonder why we bother."
A good thought for the day, that.
I had dinner alone, in my quarters.
For me, that was unusual: I almost always took my meals in the Officer's Mess. I liked the feeling of activity around me; I liked to watch the interactions, and--shall I confess?--I liked listening to the conversations. (Ridiculously easy, in fact all but unavoidable: humans always forgot the acuity of my hearing.) But this evening I had some serious thinking to do, probably the most serious since eighteen-year-old Ehm'ayla, fresh out of Sah'salaan University, considered joining the Combined Forces. My cabin had a drop-shaft link to the ship's auto-kitchen machinery; a little limited menu-wise, but I don't go in for gourmet cuisine. I exchanged my uniform for a day-robe and collar, and I curled up in the big chair in the bedroom, my legs tucked up underneath me and the tray in my lap, my mind working furiously as I toyed absently with my poached salmon.
Despite what Aparna believed, in no way had I made up my mind. In fact I was oscillating as badly as an out-of-synch fusion drive--and as dangerously. Career or comfort, Aparna said. More visible, Captain Haliday said. Taking risks, Commodore Ehm'rael said. And against them all, contrary as usual, Max Goodwin's the grass is always greener. Who to believe?
I remembered that teenager, recently graduated and wondering what to do with her life. In the end she bucked tradition, ignored the opinions of family, friends, teachers, advisors--almost everyone, in fact--to follow a path laid out by someone who was both hero and mentor to her. I remembered the day when she stepped off a ship into a place where there was not another Sah'aaran in sight; a strange-smelling, crowded, noisy world that at first frightened her terribly. But she succeeded: she overcame the strangeness, mastered her fears, and made it through those four years, the most challenging of her young life. There was something of her hunting ancestors in her, it seemed: something which would not give up once it got its claws in.
And she'd had help. That thought, bubbling up from nowhere, brought me up short. I succeeded, yes; but the fact that I hung around long enough to try was due in large part to Joel Abrams. After my arrival on Terra I found myself almost paralyzed by fear: of the strangers around me, of the crowds and the noise I was too scared even to accompany my new friends across the Bay to San Francisco. I'd seen pictures of Fisherman's Wharf, and its ant-hill swarms of people; I didn't think I could tolerate it. I was frightened not for myself but for them, all those tourists: afraid that in my panic I might lash out randomly with my claws. Not likely, of course, given the oaths that were pounded into my brain during my childhood; but the fear persisted--until Joel showed me how irrational it was. For that--and many other things--I owed him.
Aparna's question bothered me, and I still could give it no adequate answer. How much of the fact that this opportunity was so terribly tempting was because of Joel? To what extent had my desire to be close to him again affected my dispassionate judgment?
And if it has, so what? the other half of my mind shot back. If you stay with Zelazny, it will be entirely because of friendship and sentiment. And if those two emotions were helping push me toward Raven, so what? In my darker moments I've sometimes wished for the detached logic of a Modified; it would make life much simpler. Or--on reflection--maybe not. I'll never know.
I let my gaze wander around my quarters, taking in my collection of Terran and Sah'aaran art: paintings, sculptures, hangings. In my mind's eye I looked beyond, to the corridors of Zelazny: Control Deck, Officer's Mess, gym, lounge, science labs places I could find blindfold, that felt as comfortable to me as an infant's swaddling-hammock. I looked around and suddenly I realized that it was in farewell. Aparna, Haliday, Ehm'rael--they were right. The path before me was clear, as if laid out by the Goddess herself.
I rose from my chair, setting aside my almost-untouched dinner, and crossed to the desk. I hesitated, a final qualm of indecision passing through me and then reached for the intercom. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla calling Captain Haliday."
The reply came immediately, as if he'd been waiting. "Haliday here."
"Sir," I said, and swallowed hard. "Sir, may I have a word with you?"