THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 09:
“It matters if we are going to be shut up shipboard with them,” Kaln said. Her lines looked stubborn, off-center, even angry. Mallu was going to have discipline her again at the first opportunity. She was not well. Perhaps, despite the Bond’s plans, she should just be remanded back to Krant where her actions could not further shame them before strangers. He would endeavor to have an interview with the Preceptor at the earliest opportunity and suggest that.
“I see,” Jalta said, though Mallu was quite sure his pool-sib did not. “Those assigned to this ship will not be mating on the voyage, will they?”
“They are mostly private about such matters, though not nearly as reticent as we Jao,” Nath said, stopping just under the immense building’s roof, then turning off the cart’s engine. She slid out of the seat and looked around, as though expecting someone. The squeal of saws cutting metal assaulted Mallu’s ears. “Sometimes, their entertainment media portrays the act, or at least, I have been told, a simulation, but I have never actually seen it performed in public.”
“`En-ter-tain-ment?'” Jalta emerged from the cart, head cocked in puzzlement. “That is a Terran term, is it not?”
“It is a native form of ollnat, things-that-are-not,” Nath said. “There is quite a lot of that here, some of it productive, but most a waste of time by our standards. Governor Narvo actually forbid it among the jinau personnel and on military installations like this one, though the troops often did not obey. Since the change in oudh, the present governor has found ways to use this trait to our advantage. You will find that humans set great value upon such activities, once you know them better.”
“I have no wish to know them better,” Kaln muttered.
Mallu resisted an impulse to cuff her into silence. He did not want to call attention to his lack of control over her behavior.
A human male limped toward them through the shadowy building, passing the security checkpoint with only a wave at the sentry. “That is regrettable,” he said in heavily accented Jao, “because the crew will contain a number of them. I just wish I were going, too.”
He had black “hair,” as the longish head fur was termed, liberally frosted with silver. That signified something about a human’s physical condition, Mallu had learned after accessing the base’s information cache in their new quarters, but at the moment he could not remember exactly what.
“Rafe Aguilera krinnu ava Terra,” the human said, “Third Construction Supervisor for the new ship.” His body was stiff and straight, unreadable.
Was everyone on this benighted world determined to be rude? Mallu stared at the newcomer stonily.
“You are damaged?” Kaln said, glancing at the male’s heartward leg.
“I was a tank commander in the Battle of Chicago, over twenty orbital cycles ago,” Aguilera said. “Never healed right, not that there was much in the way of adequate medical treatment then.”
Jalta glanced at Nath, puzzlement flattening his ears.
“Rafe refers to the Conquest, when the Jao originally came to this world,” Nath said. “It is an uncomfortable subject for discussion. Even after so many orbital cycles, many humans are quite incapable of being reasonable about it. I would not bring it up, if I were you. We have — as humans say — agreed to disagree about those events.”
That made no sense whatsoever. Mallu gazed at the human, but the creature did not meet his eyes. “We wish to tour the new ship,” he said finally to break the silence.
They passed through the security checkpoint, Nath vouching for them. Just beyond, the enormous building held a number of vessels, each cradled in a framework of what looked to be a local variety of wood. The air was filled with its pungence, oils of some sort, no doubt, released by cutting. Saws screeched on and off. Automatic hammers chattered. Fat white sparks flew as metal was cut, shaped, then welded.
“This way,” Aguilera krinnu ava Terra said and limped deeper into the vast shadowy interior with its islands of harsh illumination.
The human leading, they walked across a poured floor of some gray substance, which was stained and abraded from heavy use, past a number of long black vessels, swarmed over by mixed crews of human and Jao workers, trailing cables and showering sparks. Voices called back and forth, some in Jao, but more in the slippery native tongue. The mood was industrious and focused and oddly collegial as though the members of the two species saw no differences between them.
Mallu glimpsed a large ship in the middle which seemed to be of a different design, though it did not have the odd keels he’d seen the day before at the meeting. “Is that it?” he asked.
Aguilera made a strange chuffing noise as though he were having difficulty breathing. “No, Krant-Captain,” he said in his accented Jao. “Your transport is actually just beyond the building on the other side, in a high security fenced-off area. It is far too large to be constructed in here.”
“Too large even for this place?” Mallu was baffled.
“Yes.” Aguilera turned, leading them around one more of the long black ships, then stopped before a shimmering green door-field flanked by two human guards. He keyed it off and stood aside.
Kaln stepped through and stopped, trailed by Jalta, who did the same. Mallu followed, then stood just beyond, stunned, his field of vision filled by simply the biggest ship he’d ever seen, no doubt, the biggest ever built by any kochan anywhere. Indeed, he thought it even surpassed an Ekhat ship in its dimensions and surely out-massed one.
“We have named it `Lexington,'” Aguilera said.