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.

The Deal: A Vignette

By Paul S. Gibbs

When Admiral Thunumm entered the office, and my fellow supplicants climbed swiftly to their feet, I briefly considered remaining seated: being a civilian has its privileges too. But at the last instant I rose as well, and came stiffly to attention. Force of habit, I suppose.

Our Quadrian host was a living legend, one of the most decorated Navy commanders in CF history. Almost a hundred years old, his head and facial tentacles had turned the bruise-purple of advancing age; but his gaze was clear, and he moved steadily on his four pillar legs. "You may be seated," he said, and he settled down on his haunches behind his oversized desk.

We did this, and one by one he speared us with his quadruple gaze. "Captain Haliday," he said, "as I live and breathe. How are you, Isaac?"

"Very well, thank you, Admiral."

"And how have you been settling in at Ops?"

Haliday grimaced. "To be frank, Admiral, I prefer a control console to a desk, no matter how well-upholstered the chair is."

Thunumm chuckled, a sound like someone beating an empty steel drum. "And Commodore Ehm'rael," he went on. "It's been a long time since Lands-End, hasn't it?"

"Indeed it has, Admiral."

"And in the end we lost more there than we gained."

"In the Alliance's case, perhaps true," she said archly. "In my own, however, most certainly not."

Thunumm chuckled again. "Point taken." His tiny red eyes shifted to me, and narrowed slightly. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure--?"

"May I present Mr. Joel Aaron Abrams," Ehm'rael said, and I nodded politely.

"Pleased to meet you, Admiral."

Thunumm nodded in sudden understanding. "Ah yes--formerly Lieutenant Commander Abrams. Resigned your commission after the Raven affair--"

"True enough."

"--and refused all our offers to reinstate you."

I shrugged. "That chapter of my life is closed."

Thunumm might have gone on--reminding me, perhaps, as others had over the past few years, that I owed my education and present livelihood to the Combined Forces--but Ehm'rael interceded.

"If I may, sir," she said smoothly, "we do not wish to take any more of your time than necessary--and we are not here to discuss Mr. Abrams."

Thunumm nodded ponderously. "I'm told you wish to speak to me about one Lieutenant Commander Ehm'ayla."

"That is correct, sir," Ehm'rael said.

"--Who has also tendered her resignation, if I'm not mistaken."

"And that's why we're here, Admiral," Haliday said. "To ask the Admiralty not to accept it."

Once again Thunumm glanced at us curiously. "Commander Ehm'ayla's former captain, and her lifelong mentor," he observed. "Your interest in the matter is easy enough to understand." His eyes came to rest on me. "But yours--?"

Ehm'rael began to reply, but I overrode her. "Ehm'ayla and I are old friends, Admiral," I said, meeting his gaze steadily. "We attended the Academy together, and I was Raven's Techspec crew chief when she came aboard. She's part of the reason why I resigned, as a matter of fact. A few weeks ago she came to the Monterey area--where I now live--on shore-leave. We met by chance on the sidewalk outside my apartment. Since then she's been staying with me."

The admiral nodded. "I begin to understand," he said dryly.

"Ehm'ayla was offered the position of first officer aboard the Planetary Research Vessel Navarro," Ehm'rael said. "On the advice of Captain Vandevere, she took some of her accumulated leave to consider the offer. She informed the Admiralty of her intention to accept…"

"And two weeks later she changed her mind," Thunumm said; and as he spoke, his gaze rested firmly upon me. The implication was clear, and I swallowed my rising anger.

"Admiral," I said quietly, "I am in love with Ehm'ayla. I have been for many years--since we were cadets, actually. I nearly destroyed our relationship during the Raven debacle, and every day these last few weeks I've thanked God for the chance to set right some of the mistakes I made. And yes--egotistical as it may sound--it's very possible she changed her mind because she doesn't want to be parted from me."

Thunumm made a slashing gesture with his upper tentacles. "Other CF officers have been separated from their loved ones, and survived."

"Sah'aarans take such things more seriously than most," Ehm'rael said quietly. She glanced at me. "Even--so it seems--when there is no bonding involved. In this particular case, she may be troubled by the length of the mission, and that it would take her so far from Terra."

Thunumm was silent for a moment. Then he turned to me. "And what do you want, Mr. Abrams?" he inquired mildly. "What would be your ideal outcome?"

"My own selfish desire is to have her with me forever," I said evenly. "Though Sah'aaran physiology might make that impossible. But what I really want--believe it or not--is what's best for her. And in my opinion, resigning her commission isn't it."

"No?" Thunumm said challengingly. "Even though you did so yourself?"

I glanced away. "The circumstances were different, Admiral. And so too are the personalities involved. I felt I had no choice, for my own good as well as that of the service. I've regretted it--certainly I have--but on the whole I still believe I made the correct choice. Ehm'ayla feels she's being forced into resigning--and that is not what she wants. Very much the opposite."

"And how do you know that, Mr. Abrams?"

"She hasn't said so," I admitted. "Not in so many words. But I know her--and I also know she's been lying awake at night worrying."

Thunumm cleared his throat hurriedly, like a distant rock-slide.

"I agree with Mr. Abrams," Ehm'rael put in. "I have known Ehm'ayla even longer than he--and I know she considers the Combined Forces her life. She would survive, were she forced to resign--certainly she would not starve--but it would break her heart."

Thunumm turned aside. For long moments he studied the Carquinez Bridge, framed beautifully in his big south-facing windows. Finally he said, "What I am about to say is not to leave this office." He paused, while my companions and I murmured our agreement. Then he went on, "All of us here are graduates of the Officer's Academy--and all of us know what a rare thing that is. Of the many who apply, few are accepted; and of those, few graduate.

"Rarer still are the talents required for command--of a Survey vessel no less than a battleship. When we find those talents, it is incumbent upon us to cultivate them. My fellow admirals believe Ehm'ayla possesses those talents--and have decided to 'fast-track' her, as the saying goes, to command. Her appointment as first officer of Navarro was to be the first step."

"I agree," Ehm'rael said. "She does possess those talents--as I did not."

"She does indeed," Haliday agreed. I remained silent.

"--And I rather doubt," Ehm'rael added, "that what you have said would come as a surprise to her."

"Perhaps not," Thunumm agreed. "But you understand now why we must be so insistent. Potential captains are few--we cannot afford to waste even one."

"'Waste' may have more than one definition, Admiral," Ehm'rael said.

"Meaning what, Commodore?"

Ehm'rael shrugged. "Simply this: In your rush to make Ehm'ayla a captain, you seem to be neglecting the fact that she is also a scientist of no small renown."

Thunumm sighed gustily. "Certainly we recognize that, Commodore. But scarce resources must be put to their highest use."

"Which is not what you're doing," I said.

"Pardon me, Mr. Abrams?"

With a glance at Ehm'rael, I went on, "Admiral, for whatever reason, Ehm'ayla won't be accepting that posting. Not that she wasn't tempted; of course she was. But she's decided against it, and that's that." I shook my head. "How she'll feel in a year--even six months--I don't know, but right now…no. And no one, least of all me, could browbeat her into it. Not her."

"Mr. Abrams is correct," Ehm'rael said. "You have allowed her no alternatives--and if that continues, she will leave. You have already received her resignation."

"And then," I said, "you'll be throwing away both the potential captain and the scientist. And if that isn't waste, Admiral, I'd like to know what is."

Once again Thunumm sat silent for a long moment. Then he said, "Your presence here suggests you have an alternative in mind."

"Indeed we do, Admiral," Ehm'rael said. "As I mentioned, Ehm'ayla's problem seems to lie solely with the nature of the posting. We believe--based on Mr. Abrams' assurances--that she would be willing to consider a ground assignment."

Thunumm shook his head. "That might be difficult to arrange…" he said.

Haliday cleared his throat. "Maybe not, sir," he said. "I've taken the liberty of making a few inquiries. Are you familiar with Commodore Green?"

"Josiah Green?" Thunumm asked. "Is he still alive?"

Haliday grinned. "He is. He's the head of Archaeology at the Planetary Research Center in Monterey. He's been looking for an assistant for some time…"

Turning turned to his terminal, Thunumm tapped keys. "According to this," he said dryly, "he has interviewed and rejected nine candidates in the last two years."

"True enough, sir," Haliday agreed smoothly. "But none of them had Ehm'ayla's qualifications. At any rate, I've known Green for many years--and he's agreed, as a personal favor, to at least speak to Ehm'ayla."

"Hardly a firm commitment," Thunumm said.

"No, sir," Haliday said. "But the best we could manage. If I know Josiah, he'll be impressed by her--and if he does accept her, it will solve both problems nicely…"

"True enough," Thunumm said. "If she agrees to speak to him."

He glanced at me, and I nodded. "I believe I can arrange that, Admiral. As I said, she doesn't want to resign--in fact she's desperate to find a way to avoid it. I think she'll see this as a 'Goddess-given opportunity'--as she'd put it."

The admiral thumped his desk with his lower-right tentacle. "I can't argue with you," he said. "To lose her now would indeed be a waste. My problem is to convince the Board of Admirals."

"That may be easier," Ehm'rael suggested quietly, "if this is presented as a temporary assignment. Perhaps she is suffering from fatigue after years aboard Zelazny…"

Haliday stirred, and seemed on the verge of saying something; but Ehm'rael glanced at him, and he subsided. Thunumm hesitated, peering intently at Ehm'rael, and finally nodded as if in sudden understanding. Of what exactly, I had no idea. Finally the Quadrian nodded and rose to his feet, with only the slightest of grunts. It was a signal, and my friends and I stood as well. "All right," Thunumm said. "I must discuss this with my associates on the Board. In the meantime I will sit on her resignation--figuratively speaking. She had better be worth the trouble, Commodore."

"Indeed she is," Ehm'rael assured him. "Thank you, Admiral."

We departed then, and in the corridor we were met by Ehm'rael's mate Sah'majha. He was tall for a Sah'aaran, and an imposing figure with his grey-streaked mane and deep, almost sad-looking gold eyes; but I couldn't suppress a shudder as I gazed upon his Chrysaoan prosthetics. Skeletal, undisguised, almost obscenely mechanical, his copper-red legs protruded from the hem of his brown-striped day-robe, and the matching hand glinted in the sunlight as it slipped lovingly around Ehm'rael's waist. She, apparently, was used to it. "How did it go?" he asked.

Ehm'rael sighed. "As well as it might," she said. "We received no promises, but I expected none. Still, I believe we stated our case convincingly…"

"Commodore," I said, "Captain--thank you. I really appreciate all you've done. And I think Ehm'ayla will too--when she gets over wanting to strangle me."

"It was the least we could do," Ehm'rael said, and Haliday nodded.

"The very least," he agreed. "She's a fine officer--and she deserves better treatment. More than that, she deserves all the happiness she can find."

"And now my work's cut out for me," I said ruefully. I paused. "One thing confuses me, though. Commodore, when you suggested that the Admirals might accept the idea if it was presented as a temporary assignment, it almost seemed as if Thunumm didn't believe you." I shook my head. "No, that's not quite it--but something went through his mind."

"You are correct," Ehm'rael said. She shook her head. "A minor falsehood on my part, and may the Goddess forgive me for it. For his part, Admiral Thunumm saw through it immediately--but he chose not to make an issue of it. Perhaps he will even follow through on my suggestion."

"You've lost me," I said.

Haliday cleared his throat. "Commodore Green at the Research Center isn't just looking for an assistant," he explained. "He's looking for a replacement. The CF has been after him to retire for a long time. He's at least ten years older than I am, and he has a heart condition. But he's turned that department into his own little fiefdom, and he has no intention of leaving." He shook his head. "Can't say I blame him, actually. The reason why he keeps rejecting candidates isn't because they're unqualified--it's because the moment he accepts one, the countdown begins."

"I get the picture," I said wryly. "So--won't he reject Ayla too? Out of hand?"

"I hope not," Haliday said. "First, because she comes with my recommendation--and second, if he doesn't choose soon, the Admirals will simply appoint someone, whether he likes it or not. I'm hoping he can be convinced to see her as the devil he knows, so to speak."

I nodded. "So if she takes that position, it will be more or less permanent. Eventually he'll retire, and she'll take over the Archaeology Department."

"Very likely," Ehm'rael agreed. "A position which--in my opinion--will be far better suited to her talents than that of ship captain."

"And that would mean she'd be sticking around Monterey for a while," I said thoughtfully. "Maybe a good long while."

"Also true," Ehm'rael said. She smiled. "Which will please you, I should think."

I shook my head. "Yes and no," I said. "For the short term, yes--these last few weeks have been the happiest of my life. I think she's been happy too--or would have been, if this business hadn't been hanging over her head. But I've learned too much about Sah'aaran physiology. What we have is temporary--and the more we try to prolong it, the worse it will be for her when it finally ends. And for me too."

A strange thing happened then. Even as I spoke, Sah'majha frowned, as if struck by a sudden thought. He glanced at his mate--and she nodded in apparent agreement. Ayla had once told me that bonded Sah'aarans eventually come to share an almost telepathic link--but I had never before seen it in action. Exactly what it signified, I didn't know.

That hard metal hand clapped down on my shoulder, and somehow I managed not to wince. "One crisis at a time, Mr. Abrams," Sah'majha said cheerfully. "One crisis at a time."


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