NOTE: This is the first story I ever had published. It's okay, though. I think.
Jan Smith sat fidgeting on the vinyl bench, waiting for the docking procedures to be completed and the chime to signal clearance to disembark from the shuttle. This was a fine time to get nervous; she had spent the last few weeks back on Landrus convincing her parents that the Space Service was where she belonged, and now all she could think of was their arguments against it.
Her mother's worry that she was too young to leave home had been easy to dismiss. Lots of people left home at sixteen for advanced training, and besides, she had said, if the Space Service was so eager to accept her now, it must be all right.
Her father had had something to say about that. "Kiddo, the Space Service isn't always right," he had begun. "Take this rush training program. It looks an awful lot like they're wanting to send a lot of new people out in a hurry in all different directions, without taking the time to research what they'll find there. Just because we've made good alliances now with the local nonhuman cultures doesn't mean we can go everywhere without encountering trouble." He had made a sound surprisingly like the derisive snorts of the Landrus miners he tried, with mixed results, to teach. "They think the rest of the galaxy is going to welcome them with open arms. Well, I'd like to tell them that creatures on the other side of the galaxy probably don't HAVE arms, and if they open something it's likely to be fire--or mouths."
Jan had thought about that. Well, maybe the Space Service wasn't the safest kind of work, but teaching on a mining colony where most of the population could barely read and write, and furthermore didn't care, was surely the dullest. Everyone had always assumed she would be a teacher too, since she was such a good student and an avid reader. Lost in the exciting world of books, she hadn't really planned for any future.
Then the Space Service's itinerant proctor had made it to Landrus, and he had given her special aptitude tests that were nothing like the ones in school. The one she liked best, they'd let her try for a long time. For it, she'd put on special goggles and moved sticks and pressed buttons while displays moved and flashed in front of her eyes, caught up in the necessity of making instantaneous life-or-death decisions. It reminded her of the simulator games she'd read about, the ones they had for entertainment on richer worlds. She had thought, when the tests were completed, that she might have done rather well on some of them. She must have, because soon after the proctor left, the Space Service Academy had called her on the colony's high-priority radio.
She had found herself wanting to go more than she had ever wanted anything. She had talked over her parents' objections with a fervor they couldn't dampen or ignore. In the end, they had said that since she had always shown good judgement, and since she was sixteen now, she could go, but they hoped she wouldn't come to regret it.
Now she was here, and she was thinking that their judgement had always been good too. On the way she had had the opportunity to read the list of courses she would have to take, some of them in subjects she had never heard of before. More and more butterflies were hatching in her taut stomach.
As the light turned green and the exit chime sounded, she wondered if anyone in the history of the Space Academy had ever just turned around at this point and gone home. If not, she wasn't going to be the first. She gathered her gear and stepped through the lock. She'd go through with what she'd started, at least until she flunked the first courses and was sent home.
Life on the station was nothing at all like life on Landrus, and Jan loved it. There were so many bright young people, and always something interesting happening. For the first time in her life, she felt like she fit into the society around her, and soon she had a large group of laughing friends.
The classes were hard, but mostly within her capabilities. She delighted in galactic literature, and passed advanced math. She struggled through interstellar physics, partly with the help of some old class notes a friend found for her, with frequently asked test questions and answers included. And she aced targeting, as they had known she would.
Jan had a way with it from the start, and with just a little practice she was very good, so good that the other students would stop what they were doing to watch her on the simulators. So good that her targeting instructor, a characteristically rude and imposingly ugly Ki'on male named Gar'th, first insulted her openly in class, then began to schedule her for special sessions with him in the evening.
Jan grew so confident that whenever the Ki'on instructor made one of his derogatory comments she insulted him back. Her friends tried to tell her that Ki'on were known for their nasty tempers, and also that they liked spirited women. She just laughed. The other students watched in astonishment as she called the instructor things like dirty intergalactic waste, and he didn't even throw her out of class, just stood stroking his whiskers, the sides of his teeth gleaming through the dark, tangled hair.
At the end of the course, when he asked her to marry him, she refused. She expected him to be angry, but when he left her he was still smiling.
In the second year of training, Jan had different courses to take, navigation, engineering, star systems. It was hard going, but she studied and still had time to play simulator games in the recreation rooms almost every night. She beat all her opponents. But none of the recreational games were quite like the precise, heavy, expensive gunnery class simulators, and she missed the feel of them. When Gar'th approached her in the recreation lounge and offered her the use of the classroom units in the evenings, she was so eager, she almost started to like him. "But I have one requirement," he said. She gave him a look that even he could not mistake. "Would I be so crass?" he asked. "What I propose is a contest, just the two of us. We should answer, once and for all, has the human child surpassed her teacher?"
"How could I? There's another course I haven't even taken. Of course, if you're talking about the first-year simulations, then I think I could beat you."
"Of course, the first-year simulations. Anything else would be unfair, and Ki'on are always fair. Even you, human brat, should know that."
"What would the prize be?" she shot back.
"Whatever the victor wishes." He stood, his face immobile, his hand stroking his beard.
Jan thought about it. She was good, but so was the Ki'on. That was why the ugly creeps were always gunnery teachers. But oh, the pleasure of being able to tell him to---the possibilities were many, and each more appealing than the last. The room was noisy with speculation; she couldn't concentrate here. "I need time to think about it."
"I give you one day." He turned, iridium-disk bracelets clanking, and was gone.
Jan waited 23 hours and 55 minutes and buzzed his telecomm. "I'll do it," she said.
"Good." Jan decided that Ki'on were even uglier when they smiled. "Tonight?"
The contest was held in private. Neither contestant would ever talk about the outcome, instead falling silent and manifesting extreme boredom whenever it was mentioned. People who had seen them both in action guessed that it might have been a tie, and that they had exacted mutual promises not to talk about it. There was no sign of any prize being given or taken, no preparations for the elaborate Ki'on wedding celebration. Jan and Gar'th were still seen together on occasion, conversing in the break room over cups of Terran coffee and Ki'on ka'ash. On those occasions they traded insults with such gusto you could have sworn they enjoyed it. Jan's friends were still worried, but she seemed to be having the time of her life.
Jan had an advanced gunnery course next term, same teacher. She aced it again. At the end of term the students were taken out to shoot at defunct ships, remote-controlled to evade like live ones. Jan went, of course, and hit hers easily, but stood afterward looking at the wreckage, no triumph in her stance.
"Something the matter, K'unn'ella?" The Ki'on stood very close.
"Nah." She turned from the screen. "Just seems like such a waste. Those used to be ships, that people served on and--cared about."
"They're junk now."
When it was time to ship out on her first assignment Gar'th asked her again to marry him, but she refused. This time he didn't smile, but turned silently and left the room. Jan had the momentary thought that maybe Ki'on had feelings too, but she soon forgot it in the flurry of preparations for leaving.
Jan shipped out as reserve gunner on the exploration ship Prentiss. She found that she liked life on the ship even more than she had liked Academy Station. It was more like a family, and she got to know her shipmates well. Nina was her best friend, but she liked Susan, and Alan...and there was Gus. The relief helmsman, and no older than she was, Gus was also known for his grasp of interstellar physics. Jan had always felt bad about the methods she'd used to pass that course, and she decided there would be no time like this to remedy the defects in her understanding. On quiet nights Gus was willing, even happy, to go over the basic principles in detail. Jan learned slowly, but Gus was a patient teacher.
Her noncombat assignment was in Medical, the other area where she had shown special aptitude. She worked the neuroscanner like she worked the guns, zeroing in quickly on the trouble spot, but now effecting repairs rather than destruction. She was even learning the brainscanner, more an art than a science with the many layers and interconnections to be sorted and related. It was new technology, but very important, with the battering their nervous systems took from exposure to so many unaccustomed radiations in space. She found that she liked medical work more than gunnery, because she could enjoy the results.
This, then, was what she'd choose as her career. Get back from this tour, study advanced medical, specialize in the brainscanner, forget gunnery except for an occasional game. That way she wouldn't be running into Gar'th so much, either.
When they rounded the Septimius system for the trip home, ships appeared, alien ships, like none they'd ever seen or could find in their frantic examinations of the computer's files. They hailed the strange ships in all known languages, while sending appropriate pictures--"Greetings. We are the exploratory ship Prentiss of the United Space Cultures. We come in peace. We mean no harm to any beings, but seek learning and friendship." No good. The others came on steadily, all six of them, and commenced firing.
The senior gunner was seated, busy, when Jan was called to the bridge on standby. She sat across from the gunnery seat watching the battle, the gunner wiping out two ships but the Prentiss taking heavy damage. Good thing Gus was on helm; he was as gifted in evasive as she was in targets, and the captain had put him on for the emergency. Still, all those ships--charges crackled over the hull and at one point overrode the backlash protectors. Hands and arms were jerked away from instruments, injured. Not Gus, thank goodness, Jan thought, and picked up her medical gear to go to the others until she realized, by the stares, that the gunner was writhing on the floor, the gunnery seat was empty, and she was the only one who could fill it.
A moment before the captain's shouted order she had already dashed across the bridge and snatched up the helmet where it had fallen. Quickly she fitted it, and after a few bad shots she was into the instinctive rhythm. She seemed to know where the enemy would be before they went there, and she targeted unerring shots to that future location. One by one the strange ships disappeared from the display screen. There were shouts as enemy reinforcements were sighted, four new ships, but she took care of them too. Finally only one was left, and it had been damaged.
"Let's try to save this one," the captain said. "Just hit it with a tight beam in its weapons control area. Thorkelson, how's the TPG? Can you tie to gunnery? And Gus, keep ready."
Thorkelson, at the telephotographic, answered, "Sending now, and searching."
"Smith, look sharp," and on her gunnery screen was the closeup that was on all the viewscreens. They all watched as the TPG beam scanned the corridors of the enemy ship. Something ran across one of the halls, something that looked like a furred hominid, and ducked into a room. As the TPG followed, the being pulled another furred creature, limp, from atop a control panel and lowered it carefully to the floor. When it turned again its face was to the camera, and it was humanoid, with a few minor variations. It positioned itself in front of the bank of instruments, and began working them with furred hands.
"Smith, hit it." A pause. She was lost in the implications of the face. So close to human, but too far out in space to be a descendant of any known colonies. Parallel evolution, then. It happened so often; the creatures that thought like humans, that eventually became their allies, usually LOOKED like humans too. Maybe these...
"SMITH! FIRE ON IT!" The captain leapt from his chair and was at her side, shaking her, and she twitched her index finger. Just before the alien ship's gunnery room exploded, the face turned towards her, and Jan saw how it looked when the fire hit.
The Prentiss carried only fragments of ships on its trip back to the station. The damaged alien spacecraft had not been able to withstand the blast in its gunnery section. Gunner Smith did better; though she saw the whole world through a grey fog of sadness, by the next day she was back on duty in the medical room.
But there she found that the scanner was little more than a piece of lead in her hand. Whatever talent she had had, had vanished. It took her longer now than anyone else to locate the trouble spot, and when she found it she was never sure of her aim, and the treatments suffered. She was put to bandaging minor abrasions and keeping records. None of the other scanner technicians could find anything damaged in her brain, and since she had never been hit, they assumed it was psychological. She was assigned to a psychomedic who told her it was all a reaction to her first battle. He went on and on about every creature's right to defend itself, etc., etc. It was true, of course, and it helped a little, but the main things she was cursing herself for had started long before she had shipped out, and she kept them to herself.
Still, the trip back was peaceful, and she had her friends. She came to see that if she had been stupid, the Space Service had been just as bad, and they were older and were supposed to know better. Someone should have investigated her talent, seen what was behind it, maybe put it to better uses than the obvious one. It was like her dad had said; they were in too much of a hurry.
What was done was done, and she would have to make the most of it. Her mind was still a good one. She took apart an old brainscanner and got Gus to explain its workings. Together they refurbished it, left it a little better than it had been before it wore out. She decided she would do Medical research when she got back to station, if that was all she had to offer.
Meanwhile there was scut work all the way back, and begging for a crack at her old job every few days, just in case. The ability, whenever she got the chance to try for it, was still missing.
Then two days out from Academy Station, Gus came into Medical with a troubling weakness in his arm, and asked for Jan. She held a neuroscanner over the area and in a flash found the tiny lesion there, the minutest erosion of a neural sheath, and repaired it. Gus, smiling, took her arm in his newly strengthened one and raised them both overhead in an old Earth gesture of victory.