THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 15:
Mallu struck Kaln midbody and wrestled her to the deck, pulling her weight down on top of him. His still-healing ribs gave way with a sickening wave of brilliant white pain that stole his breath. A step beyond, Aguilera hastily flattened himself against the wall.
Voices shouted, both human and Jao, as boots pounded across the deck. “Desist!” Mallu gasped into Kaln’s battered face. The command deck undulated in time with his stuttering heartbeat. Above him, the tech’s undamaged ear was flattened in pure rage. He clung desperately as she struggled to free herself. Air wheezed in and out of his chest, each breath more difficult than the last.
Jalta leaned down to pull Kaln off. She struck at her crewmate, still thrashing to free herself. “They — they –!” she sputtered, her eyes gone to mad green fire.
“This one has done nothing!” Mallu said. The deck flooring pressed hard against his cheek. “Think!”
“Its body!” She twisted, but couldn’t break his hold. “You saw!”
“This creature is an alien!” he said. “Its angles are no doubt quite different from ours. What looks like insult to us may indicate no more than weariness to them. Think!” He tightened his grip and waited, ribs a blaze of agony, for her to either regain control or lose it forever. If her reason were permanently broken, she would have to be put down, and, as ship-captain, he would have to be the one to do it. Krant had no resources to succor the useless.
“Krant-Captain?” a Jao voice said from the doorway.
He looked up, still gripping Kaln, and saw an unfamiliar vai camiti. “Yes?” he said stiffly. Each breath stabbed like the bite of a white-hot brand. He had not hurt so intensely since that moment in the battle when he’d been knocked across the command deck and struck his chest upon a console.
“Is there something you require?” the newcomer, a short sturdy male, said, as though the three Krants were merely paying a courtesy call between kochan and perhaps refreshments were appropriate.
“N-no.” Mallu eased his hold upon Kaln, each movement wringing fresh misery out of his tortured ribs. “Senior-Tech Kaln?”
Breathing hard, she sat up and stared at her hands as though they belonged to someone else. “I — require nothing.”
“As you perhaps noted earlier,” the Jao said, his body reflecting determination-to-be-of-use, “we have accommodations on this ship for both Jao and human. This close to launch, all services are operational. You have only to express your needs and we will endeavor to satisfy them.”
“This is Terniary-Adjunct Chul krinnu ava Monat,” Aguilera said, gracelessly forcing the newcomer’s name upon them, yet another breach of manners, though Mallu supposed by now the creature simply knew no better. “He is a specialist in the refitting of Earth ships and adapting Earth technology to be used on Jao ships.”
Kaln rose unsteadily, chest heaving, and tugged at her twisted harness. Her eyes were sane again, though, and Mallu sagged back to the deck, concentrating on just trying to breathe.
“You — have not joined the new taif, then,” Jalta said in a transparent attempt to deflect attention away from Kaln’s would-be attack on the human.
Aguilera edged prudently out of her reach, his unvarying human eyes wide, hands knotted into fists.
“No, though I am giving the idea serious consideration,” Chul said. His angles slipped into concern and he bent over Mallu, who was now trying to sit up and failing. “Do you wish assistance, Krant-Captain?”
They had shamed themselves before this well-spoken stranger, Mallu thought, and, even worse, further disgraced themselves by demonstrating lack of association within their own kochan in front of a primitive. How many crew had been on the command deck to witness this humiliation?
He tried to answer Chul, but a great roaring like the seas of some wild world running high before the wind rose in his ears. His jaws gaped and he could not speak.
Chul stood again, and pulled out a pocketcom. “May I suggest we adjourn to the ship’s medical facilities?”
Mallu attempted to protest that he just needed a moment to recover his composure, then ravening blackness engulfed him.
Wrot’s pocketcom buzzed while he sat at an information cache in the base communications center, studying the intriguing stats from NGC 7293. He pulled the sleek black device off the waist band of his Terra-blue trousers and keyed it on, still gazing at the screen. So much information had been brought back, and so much more could be inferred. He had barely dived beneath the surface so far, but he could already see what had intrigued Ronz.
“We have trouble at the new ship,” the Preceptor’s voice said without preamble. “I wish you to take care of it.”
“Certainly,” the formerly retired Jao warrior said, rising at once. “Though I am not very close at the moment. Surely there are those in authority on-site who can see to it in a more timely manner?”
“They are already at work,” the Preceptor said. “I wish you to quiet this storm. Our visitors from Krant are having difficulty finding ways to make themselves useful.”
That was a diplomatic way of saying that they were more perhaps more trouble than they were worth. Wrot cleared the files from the viewer, then headed for the door at a half-run. Other Jao and humans in the center prudently cleared out of his way. He disengaged the door-field and came out into the exuberant light of this system’s sun. Cool, sea-scented air rushed against his muzzle and his whiskers stirred. “Did our staff cause the problem?” he asked into the device.
“No, it was one of the Krants,” the Preceptor said.
“I — see.” And he did, at least to some extent. By all accounts, Krant was infamously hardheaded and self-contained. Though they were low ranked, they rarely sought association with larger, better regarded kochan, preferring their own path whatever the cost. They were so isolated that he’d never actually worked with any, despite, as a human would term it, his long years of service.
“Maneuver them into cooperation — now,” the Preceptor said, “before the mission leaves, or there will be trouble later on.”
“You could simply send them home,” Wrot said, signaling a passing ground vehicle headed in the right direction to pull over. Tires squealed as the driver complied. “We have their data already, and though many of them gave their lives to acquire it, I doubt the survivors understand what those readings imply.”
“But they may,” the Preceptor said. “So I cannot have them running loose back at Krant, spreading rumors, perhaps even generating an expedition of their own. If I am right, this is the most controversial discovery made in some time and we have but one chance to make full use of it. We must proceed most carefully.” He hesitated. “And this may be a splendid opportunity to bring Krant into association, at least to some limited degree.”
“That bunch?” Wrot snorted as the groundcar stopped and the passengers in the back seat, both human male jinau officers, made room for him without protest. “They are notorious for their stiff-necked solitary pride. I have a feeling they would rather die than give it up.”
“It is your job to make certain that does not happen,” the Preceptor said.
“You always ask the impossible,” Wrot said as the groundcar lurched and then continued on its way toward the looming refit facility. It swerved to avoid a pothole and he slid into one of his companions who, obviously intimidated by his rank, apologized without being at fault, something a Jao would never do. Wrot flicked an impatient ear.
“And I always get it,” Ronz said. The pocketcom clicked off.
Kaln led through the maze of ship corridors as white-coated human attendants carried Mallu’s unconscious body on a stretcher. The two creatures with their disturbingly immobile ears had initially tried to take the lead, and now looked at her askance, but she could tell where they were headed by subtle hints from their bodies each time they came to an intersection. And she deserved no better than to go first. She had made herself lowest of the low and everyone should see that.
Chul followed at the rear, while Jalta paced at the stretcher’s side, misery in his every line and angle. Kaln knew better than to speak to her crewmate. She had shamed herself, shamed all of Krant with her loss of control. There was nothing to say. When he recovered — if he recovered — Mallu would order the three service bars on her cheek obliterated and she would serve out her days as a drudge on some scow, scraping rust and cleaning pools, testing and adjusting salts for her betters until her skin cracked.
Aguilera kept pace, though prudently hanging back out of her line of sight. Mallu had been right. The creature was an alien. Its angles most likely meant nothing. She did not know what was wrong with her! She just felt so angry all the time since the disaster in the nebula.