Copyright © 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration of this work, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited.
By Paul S. Gibbs
When Captain Kendall entered the office I began to rise, but he waved me affably back to my seat.
"That's quite all right, Lieutenant...Sakai, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir," I said, seating myself carefully. My arms and legs were still plenty sore; even the smallest movement hurt. "Thank you."
He was a heavy-gravity man, short and stocky, almost rectangular in outline, with blazing red hair and a face to match. Straining the seams of his green Navy uniform, he squeezed in behind a massive metal desk that seemed at least three sizes too small, and gestured toward the autokitchen slot. "Coffee?"
I nodded eagerly. "Please," I said. "It's been almost two months since my last cup."
He produced two steaming mugs and handed one to me. "Here you go," he said. He winked. "Such as it is."
I sipped and made a face. I really must have been deprived, to pine after Combined Forces coffee
For a moment Kendall sat silent, rolling his mug between his hands, studying me through narrowed eyes. He nodded at my heavily-bandaged left hand. "I understand you've had quite a time, Lieutenant."
I shuddered. "Yes, sir," I agreed. "That I have. And not only me, of course."
"It's hard to know where to begin "
He quirked a grin. "'At the beginning' is usually recommended."
I returned the smile. He was trying to put me at ease, I knew; he'd read the doctors' reports. "Yes, sir," I said. I took a deep breath and leaned back, peering over the captain's shoulder. The planet swept slowly by, filling the viewscreen behind the desk: a mottled disk of grey and brown, the details softened by the destroyer's high orbit. "The Survey sent Punta Gorda to this system to study solar magnetic bursts. You're aware, sir, how severe they are, and how dangerously close the inner hypertunnel node is to the star "
He nodded. "I am indeed," he confirmed. "Just entering the system is a gamble."
"Exactly. The Admiralty hoped we could find some sort of pattern to the bursts--that it might be possible to predict when the hyper-transit is most dangerous. The first step was mapping; Punta Gorda took the polar orbit, while the commander and I, in a landing pod, took the equatorial."
Kendall nodded. "Lieutenant Commander Ehm'aazah. How well did you know her before the mission, Lieutenant?"
I shrugged. "Hardly at all, sir. Her being a Scispec, and me a Navspec our paths seldom crossed. Of course I knew who she was; I'd seen her in the Officer's Mess, we had several mutual friends--but that's about all."
"And what did you know about her people?"
"Sah'aarans? What everyone knows, I suppose. Feline, carnivorous but intelligent, and peaceful. They're supposed to be standoffish, but she seemed personable enough. Until "
He held up his hand. "No," he said. "I'm sorry--I interrupted you. Please go on where you left off."
I cleared my throat. "Yes, sir. As I said, we were in an equatorial orbit--perhaps half a million kilometers above the photosphere. We'd completed half an orbit when we ran straight into a massive magnetic burst. No chance to avoid it. It fried half our instruments: radio, navigation computer, main propulsion. We had just enough power to break orbit. Punta Gorda was on the other side of the star; she never saw what hit us."
"We were virtually helpless. We couldn't signal for rescue, and we didn't have enough power to get back to the ship. We linked a scanpak to what was left of the computer, and discovered we were aimed in the general direction of a habitable planet." I nodded at the screen. "Though I use the term loosely. We had enough thrust to bend our course toward it." I shook my head. "It wasn't a pretty landing "
"As they say, 'any one you walk away from '" the captain quipped.
"Yes, sir. We weren't badly injured, but that was it for the pod. The hull was pierced, the engines scrap. I went to work salvaging components to repair the transmitter, and the commander went out for a look around. We thought we'd be there no more than a day or two." I chuckled bitterly. "Little did we know "
"Good news and bad news, Lieutenant," Commander Ehm'aazah said.
Inverted beneath the ruined control panel, amidst the shreds of the airbags, I gazed up between my outspread legs. "Call me Kyle," I said with a smile. "And I'll take the good news first."
She shut the buckled hatch as best she could--though a steady draft crept in around the edges--and flung herself into one of the passenger seats, wrapping her arms and tail around her knees. With a single disgusted gesture she stripped off her commpak and scanpak and cast them aside. "All right," she said, "Kyle. There's water less than half a kilometer away, and our portable purifier will make it drinkable." She paused. "There are no dangerous pathogens in the atmosphere. And some of the plant-life and fungi are edible--for you."
I removed my legs from the pilot's couch and swung myself upright, idly wiping my soot-smeared hands on my hips. "So what's the bad news, Commander?"
She flashed an alarmingly toothy grin. "Call me Ehm'aazah," she said, "since we're being informal." Her face fell then, her whiskers drooping. "There's no animal life. None whatsoever. Which means there's nothing for me to eat."
I frowned. "Is that really an issue?" I asked. With a jerk of my thumb, I indicated the battered storage lockers at the rear of the cabin. "We've got emergency rations for two weeks," I went on. "More, if we stretch it. And we won't be here that long. They must be looking for us already "
She nodded, an acquired human gesture. "I hope you're right," she said. "But--well, let's just say I believe in planning for contingencies."
"Can't argue with you there."
She smiled again. Punta Gorda's chief astrophysicist was just a few centimeters shorter than me (but--since I'm well below human average--that's not saying much), and on Earth she would have weighed perhaps forty-five kilos. Her fur--what little I could see of it--was reddish-brown, her rumpled mane blazing orange. Her right eye was swollen almost shut; the other glowed greenish-gold in the dim light. An ugly bruise, legacy of a violent encounter with a seat-back during our landing, made the right side of her face look puffy; and the tall triangle of her right ear was split vertically from base to point, held together with strips of dermapatch. Like mine, her thick silver field-gear uniform was dirty and scuffed; but unlike mine, it was bootless. Her bare feet were delicate and digitigrade.
She gestured at the control panel, dark and partially disassembled beneath the blackened windshield. "How does it look?" she asked.
I sighed and cast aside my tools, running a hand through my short black hair. "Hopeless, I'm afraid," I said. "The comm system is shot. With a day's work--or two--I might be able to scrounge enough components to rig a broad-band signal booster for our commpaks. But given this planet's ionosphere, Punta Gorda will have to be almost on top of us to pick up our signal."
She raised her hand to stroke her whiskers, and snarled as her fingers passed over her swollen muzzle. She'd been fortunate to escape a broken nose or splintered teeth. "It'll be getting dark soon," she said. "And much colder, no doubt." She gestured around the jumbled cabin. "What say we concentrate on making this place comfortable? And I for one could use a hot drink."
"So," Kendall said, "what are the conditions like down there?"
I shuddered again. "Brutal, sir," I said. "The air is thin and very dry. There's a constant wind from the north. I had no control over where we landed--though I did try to put us down in the temperate zone." I shook my head. "Much good it did. We ended up on barren plain, with no shelter at all. Just sandhills, scrubby vegetation, and outcrops of rock. The commander was damn lucky to find that little spring. During the day the sun was warm enough--but at night the wind-chill was close to thirty below."
"What did you do?"
I shrugged. "Made ourselves at home, as best we could," I said. "That first night we were exhausted, dead on our feet. There was no way we could have even begun working on the signal-booster. The commander decided we should start fresh in the morning. We threw out the back two rows of seats; that gave us enough room to spread out pads and blankets from the emergency stores." I smiled. "We even hung up a curtain to divide the cabin. The commander seemed more concerned about my privacy than hers. We had a reasonably comfortable night "
"How did she react to the situation?"
"Like an officer, sir," I said. "She was absolutely in command. Of herself, I mean, mainly. As for how she treated me well, I was always aware that she was the superior, and the final decisions were hers--but she respected my opinions. On the whole I'd say we made a pretty good team."
"In the beginning."
"Yes, sir," I said. "In the beginning. As for what happened later--I take full responsibility for that. It wasn't her fault."
"We'll see," he said. "Go on, please, Lieutenant. What did you do next?"
I leaned back and drained off the remainder of my coffee; Kendall ordered refills. "The next morning we went to work. We were able to rig that booster, though its range wasn't what I'd hoped, and we plugged a spare commpak into it, set to broadcast a distress call every five minutes. There were solar cells in the emergency supplies, and we were able to cobble together a battery charger "
"For your commpaks?"
"Partly," I said. "But mostly for the heating units in our field-gear. We had to run them constantly, unless we were standing in full sun." I shook my head. "The commander suffered from the cold far more than me--which seemed strange, since she's the one with fur. She told me she grew up in an area of Sah'aar where it's always hot "
Kendall nodded. "I get the picture. What else did you do?"
"There wasn't much else we could do, sir," I said. "Except sit and wait." I paused, and smiled wistfully. "And get to know each other "
With the tiniest of grunts, Ehm'aazah hoisted the twin twenty-liter jugs to her shoulders and stood. "Impressive," I said.
"I owe it all to clean living," she quipped, the strain just audible in her voice.
"And point-seven-two gravity," I added dryly.
She grinned. "True enough. I don't think I'd care to try it on Earth."
The spring was a short walk north of the pod, up a gentle rise. It was the only water within God knows how many kilometers, and we were very fortunate to have it; the pod's small supply would have run out in three or four days. Not much larger than a dinner plate, the little rock-rimmed pool bubbled up in the shadow of a huge pyramidal boulder, spilled over, and meandered through a narrow channel choked with algae, vanishing into the sand a few hundred meters away. Filling our jugs was a time-consuming process: the little pool was quite shallow; if disturbed, it filled with swirling grit. We dipped the water out a quarter-liter at a time, slowly and patiently, using a plastic coffee mug.
Kneeling, I lifted the other pair of jugs; but instead of emulating the commodore's stunt, I let them bounce against my legs as I rose. "After you," I said politely, and together we headed down a trail blazed by our own feet.
Around us the wind moaned and shrieked, lopping off the sandhills only to rebuild them elsewhere. The orange sun with the fickle magnetic field shone down from a relentlessly clear, pale-blue sky; but out in the open, the wind quickly stole its warmth. As we walked, I found myself glancing repeatedly at my companion's feet. The coarse sand had already begun to abrade my boot-soles; I could only imagine what it was doing to her bare leathery pads. She had tried spraying them with polymer bandage from our medical supplies, but it quickly wore off. The simple act of walking must have caused her considerable pain--but she never complained.
Burdened as we were, our pace was slow; but soon enough we topped a rise and beheld our home-away-from-home. A Combined Forces landing pod, standard issue: a silver dart, about eight meters long, slim and graceful but this one seemed to have been mashed flat by a giant's foot. Our helpless slide across the plain had been arrested by a large boulder, against which the nose was crumpled, bent back upon itself like the toe of an archetypal dwarf's boot. Two of the three landing skids had been torn off; the third was twisted around itself, jammed against the hull like a dog's injured hind leg. We'd located the portside atmospheric wing about a kilometer back, merged with the rock that had neatly amputated it. The other must simply have disintegrated: we found only scattered fragments. Fortunately, I'd had the presence of mind to dump the remaining fuel before we hit the atmosphere; otherwise we'd have attracted Punta Gorda's attention by going up in a fireball.
We set the four jugs just inside the hatch, and Ehm'aazah fetched the purifier unit. The water was already remarkably clean, and in a pinch we could have drunk it as is; but there were a few microbes, and why take chances? Removing the cap of the nearest jug, she dropped in the long probe, then switched the unit on. In fifteen minutes we could move it to the next.
With nothing better to do, we moved around to the sheltered side of the pod, out of the wind, and sat down side by side, our backs against the battered hull. The sun beat down upon us, and almost immediately we both reached for our belt-buckles, to switch off our heating units. Soon afterward I loosened the sleeve cuffs, and opened the long mag-seal down to my chest. Ehm'aazah followed suit.
We sat in silence for a time. Then I said, "What do you think is keeping them?"
She sighed and shook her head--two more human gestures she'd picked up. "I wish I knew," she said. She glanced up, squinting, toward the crude parabolic dish we'd erected atop the pod. "Are you sure that thing is working?"
I nodded. "It is," I said defensively. I paused. "As well as it can. If they're in orbit, they should have picked up our signal."
A full week had gone by since our forced landing, a fact registered most accurately by the rolling digits on my wrist chrono. Had we tried to reckon the changeless days without a timepiece, we would have quickly lost count. A week--and no sign of rescue. Was it possible that Punta Gorda believed us dead, fallen into the star? Had our crewmates gone about their business, without bothering to search? Unlikely; but still
"Well, for the moment we've done all we can," Ehm'aazah said. "Given our resources. All we can do now is hang on--and keep hoping."
I nodded. "You're right." As hard as that's become
"So," she went on a moment later, "is it true what I've heard? That you've been spending a lot of time with Lieutenant Baker from Exobiology?"
Her tone was casual, determinedly so, and I glanced at her curiously; but I saw only curiosity in her big yellow-green eyes. Trying to lighten the mood, I guessed--and so I replied in kind.
"Oh, Elaine?" I replied. "We're just friends. I've been teaching her some of the finer points of judo--beyond the standard Academy self-defense course."
I gazed at her sidelong, and smiled. "And what about you, Commander? Who have you been spending a lot of time with?"
"No one," she said sadly. "I'm afraid it doesn't work quite the same way for Sah'aarans. We bond; we form a permanent physiological connection with our mates." She shook her head. "Which in my case hasn't happened yet. But I'm only twenty-five; there's still time."
"Does that mean you've never--?" I began, and she cut me off quickly, the tip of her nose reddening.
"Oh no," she said. "I have. A certain amount of experimentation is normal when we're young. Expected, even." She chuckled. "And we females are only fertile twice a year, so it's usually safe."
" I sometimes wonder, though," she went on thoughtfully, "how much longer I'll stay in the CF. Don't get me wrong: I like my career, and it's been everything I expected it to be. But the drive to mate, to have kits it's very strong. I sometimes wonder how much longer I'll be able to resist."
"There aren't many Sah'aarans in the Combined Forces," I observed, and she nodded.
We lapsed into silence again; and after a time, it seemed the most natural thing in the world for me to slip my arm around her. Nor did it seem strange or out of place when she leaned her head on my shoulder and closed her eyes. Soon afterward I became aware of a strange sensation, one I couldn't quite place. A vibration, it seemed to resonate through my chest as through an orchestra's timpani. The wind shaking the pod, perhaps? It was some before I realized that it was Ehm'aazah and that she was purring.
"I don't think either of us expected anything like that, sir," I told Captain Kendall. "I mean, we scarcely knew each other, for God's sake!"
"But--?" he prompted with a smile.
"But," I went on heavily, "we were both scared, uncertain. We had no idea what would happen to us; for all we knew, we could have been stuck down there forever. Maybe it's only natural "
"I'd say so," he agreed. "Of all the species in the Alliance, humans and Sah'aarans are the most similar, physically and mentally. I've heard tell of some very strong emotional attachments "
"So have I," I agreed. "And certainly I'd begun to see her as a good friend. We worked well together, as I said." I paused. "I don't think either of us expected it to go any farther "
But it did. Finally, inevitably perhaps, it did.
For another week we continued as we'd begun. We explored, ranging far over the hills, discovering nothing we hadn't already known about our bleak and featureless prison. We did our little camp chores: fetching water, sorting and resorting our dwindling food supplies, policing the area and hauling away and burying our trash. We charged batteries, feeding our heating units, and we kept alive our Frankenstein's monster, the signal booster which would--should--guide our rescuers to us. The commander saw no point in posting a watch, and so we slept through the nights on opposite sides of our makeshift divider. Every evening as we rolled ourselves in our blankets, we prayed to our respective deities that the sun would rise upon a rescue party--and every morning we were disappointed.
Eventually--of course--the strain began to tell on us. Ehm'aazah felt it most strongly: in addition to the problems we both shared, she had the additional burden of command, and the ultimate responsibility for getting us out alive. As the days went by we almost ceased to speak to each other, and went about our work in silence.
What might have happened, I don't know; what did, I do. It was late at night, somewhere between the fourteenth and fifteenth day of our exile, when I was awakened by a sudden soft rustling: the sound of our survival-blanket curtain being pulled aside.
I turned over, and levered myself up on my elbow to see a pair of glowing eyes just centimeters from my own. "Commander--?" I began.
She laid her fingers across my mouth, and the tips of her claws on my lips urged me to silence. Confused, I settled back, as she dragged over her pad and blankets and laid down beside me.
At that point I thought I understood. The pod was insulated, but the cabin heaters were shot, and we'd never been able to entirely block the draft that poured in through the ruined hatch. She's cold, I thought. And embarrassed to admit it. Can't really blame her. I turned to face her, and drew her close. I was immediately rewarded by the soft vibration of her purr through my chest.
I composed myself to sleep--but soon discovered that my companion desired something more than simple warmth. I was on the verge of dozing off when I suddenly felt a warm, wet roughness abrading the side my face. It took me a moment to realize that she was licking my cheek.
I froze--but she didn't. She moved closer, slipping her arms around me; her tail coiled around my leg and tightened. She spoke not a word, but her purr continued to deepen, until the entire pod seemed to be shaking. Summoning my courage, I moved to kiss her; but she stopped me, and guided me instead to nuzzle her throat, deep under her chin. Sometime later I helped her slip out of her field gear, and she out of mine; we spread both garments loosely over us, sharing their warmth. Her fur was silky-soft, her body trim and taut with corded muscle. She was not a human woman: her shape, her movements, her reactions, were unlike anything I'd ever encountered before. But adaptability is the hallmark of a good officer.
Eventually we did sleep, and I remember thinking as I drifted away that the rescue party could hold off a little longer if it wanted to
Kendall's eyebrows rose. "Well," he said carefully, "it's not unprecedented. There's a certain Sah'aaran commodore with a human husband "
I nodded. "I know."
" And since the commander wasn't normally your direct supervisor "
"To be honest, sir," I told him flatly, "that wasn't uppermost on our minds just then."
He smiled. "No, I don't suppose it was." I paused. "I don't mean to pry, Lieutenant, but did it happen again?"
I felt my face redden. "No, sir," I said. "Just that once. We continued to keep each other warm at night but nothing more."
"And did it relieve the tension between you?"
I sighed. "Not really. If anything, it might have intensified it. Complicated an already complex situation, if you know what I mean."
"I do," Kendall said. He paused. "But--things changed soon afterward, didn't they?"
I glanced aside and nodded. "Yes, sir," I said. "They did. Our food began to run out. Or I should say, hers did."
I shrugged helplessly. "The pod contained the standard emergency supplies. Some of the food was ruined in the crash, and some wasn't suitable for us--packed for Quadrians, or Xerxians, or Hattoa, for example. We managed to salvage enough for about three weeks, tightly rationed."
"Sah'aarans are strict carnivores "
"That's right," I confirmed. "They can digest complex carbohydrates--starches--in moderate amounts, but only if it's mixed with an equal or greater quantity of animal protein. Vegetables--even cooked ones--are worse than useless. They either pass through a Sah'aaran's digestive system unchanged, or come right back up. We shared the meal-packs; I took the vegetables, she took the meat. During my Academy days I went on a vegetarian kick for a while, so I knew how to handle it. After those ran out, we started on the ration bars; about half of them were meat concentrate. We restricted ourselves severely--I don't think either of us took in more than a thousand calories a day, if that. But even so, by the end of the third week it was all gone. I could--did--fall back on native foodstuffs. But there was nothing at all the commander could eat."
"With one exception."
"Yes, sir," I said heavily. "With one exception."
"Kyle? Come here, please."
I paused for a few seconds, steeling myself, finding and holding my psychic center. Then I put aside the striped pink tuber I'd been peeling, rose, and crossed the cabin. Kneeling beside Ehm'aazah, I forced myself to smile. "Yes, Commander?"
Wrapped in a blanket with only her muzzle showing, she smiled weakly in return, gazing at me through dim and lusterless eyes. "I'm sorry to be a bother," she said. "But I'd like some water, please."
I groped for a bottle. "Of course, Commander. No bother at all."
We were six weeks into our exile--and three weeks beyond our food supply. Everything even remotely edible in the pod had been consumed, save only those items packed for other species, and either too unpalatable to choke down, or outright poisonous to humans or Sah'aarans. For me, that was an inconvenience, a nuisance. As my companion had noted, the planet could sustain a human--if he wasn't picky about his diet. Leaves, roots, algae, fungi nutritious, if scarcely delicious, and more abundant than I might have expected, though the gathering required long hours of backbreaking labor. Yes, I could live here, almost indefinitely but Ehm'aazah could not.
Appalling, how quickly she'd declined. Her metabolism, I suppose, though comparative biology isn't my field. During those first few weeks of short rations she'd lost weight, as had I--but when "short" became "none," the drop-off proceeded with horrifying speed.
For days now she'd been too weak to rise. She lay on her pad, swathed in blankets, shivering spasmodically despite her field gear. Her fur and mane were matted and dull, and her frame was bony, all joints and angles, her ribs and vertebrae shockingly apparent. Even her tail was shrunken and knobby, like a string of beads.
Carefully--she seemed terribly fragile now, as if she might break--I lifted her head and held the bottle to her lips. She took several long, slow swallows, then began to cough, and I lowered her to the pad. "Thank you," she said.
I'd tried everything. Leaves and fungi did more harm than good: they made her violently sick, weakening her further. The potato-like tubers, mostly starch, stayed down but had no apparent effect. She lacked the base to assimilate them. What she needed was protein--and I had none to give her.
"Kyle?" she whispered.
"I need you to promise me something."
"When they find you--" she smiled thinly. "If they find you--don't let them leave my body here. Make them take me home to Sah'aar. Please."
"There won't be any need for that--"
She lifted her head, and for an instant her eyes blazed. "Promise me!"
I looked away and nodded. "All right," I said. "I promise."
She closed her eyes. "Thank you."
She fell silent then, and I rose and began to pace the length of the pod. She is going to die, I thought desperately. Unless you do something. But what?
Restlessly I returned to my task: removing the bitter, inedible outer skins from a bowl of tubers, preparatory to boiling them over our little induction stove. As I worked, I found myself glancing again and again at my companion--and every time I did, my desperation deepened. She had sunk once more into lassitude, her eyes closed, unmoving except for an occasional shudder. Whether she was truly unconscious, or merely saving her strength, I couldn't say.
She's a carnivore, I thought. Her digestive system evolved to cope with large quantities of animal protein. In a well-equipped sickbay, some kind of substitute could have been synthesized--but in a well-equipped sickbay, she wouldn't have needed it. Reduced as we were to basics, it seemed an insoluble conundrum
With my mind only half on my work, the inevitable soon occurred: the knife slipped and nicked the tip of my left forefinger. The curse stuck in my throat as I watched the crimson bead grow, break, and flow swiftly into my palm. Blood, I thought wildly. My God, blood!
Cupping my hand, I knelt down beside Ehm'aazah and spoke quietly into her ear. "Ehm'aazah? Can you hear me?"
Her eyes opened a slit. "Kyle? What is it?"
"I know how to save your life."
She frowned. "What? How?"
"Like this," I said; and I tilted my palm over her mouth, letting a trickle of blood fall on her tongue. Instinctively she swallowed, and her eyes suddenly widened.
"No," she said. "Not like that."
"It's the only way," I told her firmly. "Think about it. You can't eat the local flora--but I can." I swallowed. "And my body can turn it into something you can consume. I'm not Sah'aaran, you're not human; it's not cannibalism--not exactly, anyway."
She shook her head. "I don't care," she said. "It's still wrong. Obscene. We don't consume sentient beings. We'd rather die "
I leaned back. "Commander," I said, "six months ago Lieutenant Strickland took a tumble in the engine hull and ruptured his spleen. He needed a transfusion, and sickbay was short on A-negative. Every human aboard with that blood type lined up to donate; the rest of us wished we could. Because he was a shipmate, a comrade. What's the difference? It would help, wouldn't it? Be the next best thing to fresh meat?"
"Yes," she whispered, and I saw that her resolve was weakening. "Yes, it would help "
"Enough to make the difference between life and death?" I persisted.
"Maybe maybe so."
"Then I'm afraid you've been outvoted, Commander," I said with a grim smile. "One to one."
Kendall's eyebrows rose. "So, you ?" he began, and I nodded.
"Yes, sir," I said. "Every day, for more than a week."
"Surely you didn't keep cutting your finger?"
I smiled. "No," I said. "I rigged a device out of bits and pieces from the medical cabinet. A large-bore hypodermic needle, meant for a Quadrian; some tubing; and a bottle. I had no way to preserve the blood, so I had to feed it to her immediately, before it clotted. After I was finished I boiled the apparatus to sterilize it." I shook my head. "In a few days I looked like a 20th-Century Terran junkie--or a pincushion. I had needle-tracks up and down both arms, and even on my legs. Anywhere I could raise a vein. I only withdrew a couple hundred milliliters at a time; not much, but in my state, enough to make me plenty woozy. I don't know how much longer I could have gone on."
"You were taking a big risk, you know," Kendall said. "Infection, phlebitis, collapsed veins, blood clots "
I nodded. "I know, sir. But I couldn't let her die, and I couldn't see any alternative." I took a deep breath. "And--it worked. It wasn't much, as I said--but it did keep her alive. I kept feeding her those tubers, too, and with some protein in her gut she was able to better absorb the carbohydrates. After a few days she seemed to be getting a little stronger. She was able to sit up, and help me take care of her."
"And what did she think about what was happening?"
"I don't know, sir," I said. "We stopped communicating about then--entirely. She allowed me to do what needed to be done but she obviously wasn't happy about it. I got the impression she was ashamed."
"That's not difficult to understand, is it, Lieutenant?" Kendall asked quietly.
I glanced away. "No, sir," I said. "I suppose not." I gazed at him challengingly. "But what was I supposed to do? I couldn't let her die! What would you have done?"
"Probably the same as you," he replied evenly. "But a better question might be, what would you have done if you were her?"
I was silent for a moment, gazing at the viewscreen, and finally Kendall prompted gently, "What happened then?"
"I skipped a day," I said heavily. "I had no choice; I was so dizzy I could hardly stand, and my arms and legs hurt like fire. I knew I couldn't afford to get too weak to gather food for myself; that wouldn't have done either of us any good. I had to take a day to recover. She seemed to understand; I'm absolutely certain she had no idea what would happen "
I woke to darkness--and a violent pain in my left hand.
I cried out and struggled to rise, but was foiled by my tight wrapping of survival blanket. Fighting free of the tough fabric, I rolled, fetching up against the port bulkhead. From somewhere in the surrounding blackness I heard a soft, low growl, barely audible over the howling wind. Hovering, disembodied, a pair of narrow green crescents drifted slowly toward me.
One-handed (my right: the other was numb now and almost useless) I groped through my pockets for my flashlight. Finding it and flicking it on, I swung the beam wildly before me.
Ehm'aazah snarled and covered her eyes, shying back from the sudden onslaught of brightness. Her bared teeth--suddenly very large and terrifyingly sharp--were filmed over with red. She crouched at bay against the opposite wall, atop the shredded remains of her own blanket, her claws fully extended. In her face I saw nothing like sapience.
"Commander?" I said. "Are you all right?"
Her only response was a deeper growl. I glanced down--and despite the cold, I felt myself begin to sweat. Other than my head, my hands were the only flesh left bare by my uniform--the only flesh she could have easily reached. Her teeth had left a line of deep bleeding perforations across the palm and the back. How much damage she'd done I couldn't tell, and didn't have time to assess. But what had happened to her was obvious--horrifyingly so.
I did this, I realized. What I saw before me was not Lieutenant Commander Ehm'aazah, CF officer and respected scientist. It was not even a sentient being. Rather, it was a hunting carnivore, the distillation of millions of years of evolution. Her rational mind was a veneer on a long history of savagery; weakened by hunger, it had retreated, leaving the predator in control. Reduced to her most basic instincts, she was desperately seeking the only food available: that for which she'd developed a taste these last few days. And unless I could somehow connect with that buried rationality
I swallowed hard. "Ehm'aazah," I said, "listen to me. You're not well. I know you're hungry--but please think what you're doing. You're a Survey officer, an intelligent being. You don't want to hurt me. You need to calm down, and let me get you back to bed "
For a few seconds she stared at me, utterly without comprehension--and then, silently and suddenly, she leaped.
I scrabbled frantically for my stinger, realizing too late that it wasn't on my belt: I hadn't bothered carrying it, on this supremely unthreatening world. I lifted my hands to protect my face, and her outstretched arms struck my abdomen, her claws hooking into the thick fabric of my field gear. Knocked backwards, I slammed into the damaged hatch, and it burst open, spilling us both into the frigid, starlit, screaming night. The flashlight flew from my hand and spun away.
We tumbled over and over in a swirling whirlwind of sand, and I ended up flat on my back with her teeth snapping at my throat. I grabbed her lapels, gritting my teeth against the sudden tearing agony in my left hand, and forced her head back. She struggled wildly in my grasp, snarling, her saliva dripping hot onto my face. Her claws were still buried in my uniform, but they hadn't yet penetrated to my flesh. In desperation I brought my feet between us, against her belly, and thrust upward with all my strength.
Had starvation not so terribly weakened her, I don't think I could have gotten away with that--but it had, and I did. She landed on her tail some distance away, her breath knocked out, and her claws left eight parallel rents in my uniform as they tore loose. I scrambled to my feet and dashed toward the pod, a lumpy star-eclipsing bulk looming out of the darkness to my right. To get inside, to find a stinger, was the only hope now--for either of us. If we went mano-a-mano again, God knows what would happen. I might conceivably win--but in so doing I could be forced to injure her badly, even kill her. Better by far to zap her into unconsciousness, and deal with the consequences later.
But even as my groping hands closed on the hatch-frame, I heard a rustle of movement behind me, and I spun. She was there, right behind me, her muzzle just millimeters from my face, her eyes and teeth gleaming in the starlight. Snarling, she raised her hand, aiming a vicious swipe at my head. At the last instant I ducked, throwing myself to the left. Her claws struck the hull with an ear-splitting metallic screech--and broke.
She froze, staring in confusion at the truncated stubs. Then her gaze shifted to me, and something within her seemed to change. The spark of intelligence abruptly returned to her eyes, pushing aside the maniacal predatory gleam. "Kyle?" she said, her voice husky. "What's going on?"
Then she collapsed into my arms, and her weight bore us both to the ground.
"That wasn't the end, though, was it?" Captain Kendall asked, and I shook my head sadly.
"No, sir," I agreed. "It wasn't." I took a deep breath. "At first I was afraid she was dead--that the exertion had been too much for her. She wasn't--but she did remain unconscious a frighteningly long time. When she woke she was rational, but "
" But she was afraid it wouldn't last," Kendall finished quietly.
"Exactly," I said. "And she was right. She knew; she could feel it within herself. I didn't want to believe her and I didn't want to do what she asked me to. But eventually I was forced to--for her safety, and mine."
"And that was, Lieutenant?"
I swallowed. "Tie her up, sir," I said heavily. "Strap her into one of the passenger seats. I didn't want to--but she begged me, and finally I had to. I could see it coming again--the change. And she could feel it. She didn't want to hurt me " I stared into the brown gritty dregs of my coffee. "Over the next week, between feedings, she went back and forth a dozen times. As she grew physically weaker, it happened more and more frequently." I shook my head. "Someday I hope to be able to forget. In a way, it's a good thing she was so weak--otherwise she could have seriously injured herself. Or even broken free--and if that happened, God help us both."
"My doctors call it a kind of somnambulism " Kendall commented.
"So I heard, sir," I said. "And maybe it is. I don't know; I don't have the expertise. I only know it made for the worst seven days of my life."
"It's a good thing we came along when we did, then."
I smiled wryly. "Indeed it is." I paused. "How is Punta Gorda, sir? Will she fly again?"
"I think so," Kendall replied. "The magnetic burst they hit was even stronger than the one that got your pod. They lost most of their primary systems, and some of the backups too. They were damned lucky to be able to limp back to Centaurus--and as I'm sure you've heard, it took them more than six weeks. Of course, when they arrived and reported two crewmembers missing, the Admirals dispatched the nearest ship to search." He smiled and waved a hand. "Us. But, the last report I had, Punta Gorda is salvageable. She might even be ready for re-launch by the time we arrive."
I nodded in relief. "And Commander Ehm'aazah--?"
Kendall touched a button, and the planet vanished from the viewscreen, replaced by a window into the destroyer's sickbay. My fellow castaway was sitting up in bed, the covering pulled up under her arms, a palm-reader in her hands. Less than two days after our rescue, she already looked better, more alert; her face seemed less haggard, less collapsed, and her eyes were brighter. But she was still terribly bony, and seemed to be having trouble holding the reader steady.
"She'll need careful care and feeding," Kendall was saying. "But the docs assure me she'll be fine."
"Physically," I said, and the captain frowned.
"Meaning what, Lieutenant?"
"I tried to visit her earlier, sir," I said. "But when I entered sickbay she started to change again. I could see it I her eyes, as soon as she caught my scent. I had to get out of there fast."
Kendall made a slashing gesture. "I heard about that," he said. "The doctors are sure it's just temporary--a side-effect of starvation."
I turned away. "I hope they're right, sir," I said. "I really do. But I have to wonder "
"Down on the planet, I was absolutely certain I was doing the right thing. I thought I was saving her life "
"And you were."
"Was I, sir? Or was I ruining it? I brought forth something that her people have worked very hard to bury. Maybe it will go away as she gets stronger--and maybe it won't."
"You're saying you gave her a taste for human blood," Kendall said flatly.
"Then why hasn't she attacked the doctors or nurses? Many of them are human. Of course you're nervous--that's perfectly understandable--but I think you're overreacting."
" Or maybe I've only given her a taste for my blood."
His eyes narrowed, and he nodded in sudden understanding. "You care for her, don't you?"
"Yes, Captain," I said. "I do. Can you blame me?"
"After what the two of you went through, certainly not. Though you realize, it would most likely be temporary "
I nodded. "I know," I said. "She explained that. But our friendship doesn't have to be--and that's what I've ruined. I'm not even sure if we can serve aboard the same ship now. Every time she ran into me in the corridors or the mess hall she'd turn into a ravenous beast."
"I still think you're worrying needlessly," Kendall said. "Sah'aarans are civilized people; it isn't just an act. As soon as she's put on some weight, her self-control will return. You'll see. And what occurred down there was the result of unique circumstances; it's scarcely likely to happen again."
I glanced at the screen, and--through some strange coincidence, or burst of telepathy--Ehm'aazah chose that instant to look up at the camera. I gazed into those big gold eyes and shivered.
"You're probably right, sir," I said. "As long as we keep her well-fed."