THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 16
They reached a medical bay and turned in. The room had pale green walls the color of sea foam and smelled of astringents and traditional Jao balms, bringing back painful memories of Kaln’s own injuries in the battle with the Ekhat. She edged aside as the attendants hefted the stretcher onto an examination table. A human, obviously female and tall for her kind, met them, pulling white flexible gloves onto slender hands that looked far too feeble to be of any use. She had brown head-fur laced with silver, something like Aguilera’s, but much longer. “I am Doctor Ames,” she said in decent Jao and leaned over Mallu’s unconscious form. “What happened to him?”
Kaln glared at Aguilera. “You brought us to a human? What can such know of our kind? We want a real medician!”
Aguilera just stared at her, dark-brown eyes static.
“Doctor Ames is the lead Jao medician on the Lexington,” Chul said, smoothly stepping between the human and the Krant. His body-angles communicated patient-instruction. “She is quite skilled.”
Kaln’s whiskers bristled. “She is only a native!”
“I said — what happened to him?” The female’s voice was coolly insistent. “We do not have time for quarreling about my status if you wish him to continue breathing.”
“He damaged his ribs back in the battle with the Ekhat,” Jalta said in a subdued tone. His ears and whiskers were limp with unallayed distress. “Though he has not complained, I do not believe they ever really healed.”
“Probably punctured a lung sac.” She turned to a white-coated attendant and issued a series of commands in the choppy local language. Her fingers probed Mallu’s chest, eliciting a faint groan even though the captain was still unconscious. “Fortunate for you lot that you have eight to our two. A human would be in much more serious condition with this sort of injury.”
She gestured at her assistants who then carefully transferred Mallu to a rolling table and bore him away. “We will use X-rays to pinpoint the damage, then reinflate the sac. After that, he needs quiet and time to mend.” She gazed directly into Kaln’s eyes, her body carefully neutral. “No fighting.”
“She did not mean to attack him,” Jalta said. Her crewmate was pacing back and forth. “Mallu thrust himself between them.”
“Whatever the intentions,” Doctor Ames said, “it cannot happen again. Your captain is most fortunate that the rib did not puncture something more vital — like his heart.”
Kaln wanted to flee, to be alone with her shame, but did not know where to go. Her head ached. The quarters they had been assigned were far away and she wasn’t quite sure how to leave the ship and find her way back.
Doctor Ames gazed at her with the dispassion of a kochan-parent. “I think,” she said finally, when Kaln could bear the silence no more, “you need to take a swim.”
Jalta’s head swiveled. Kaln could not believe that she had understood the human’s words correctly.
“We have a number of excellent pools here on the Lexington,” Doctor Ames said. “Why don’t you try out the one on this level? It is just four doors windward down the corridor. Our Jao consultants report that the salts are perfectly balanced.”
A swim. Kaln felt like it had been forever since she’d had that luxury. Her muzzle itched and her nap felt desiccated, absolutely stiff with dirt.
“When you are done, check back here,” Ames said. “Your captain should be better by then.”
Jalta tugged at her arm, and the two of them left to find the promised pool.
Wrot stopped at the office complex inside the refit facility and inquired about Tully. The human was busy in his own small allotted space, he learned from the adjunct on duty, two doors down. Wrot thrust his head into the compact, over-lit room. “Come with me,” he said without preamble, blinking against the brightness.
Tully looked up from his comboard. He had golden hair, not unheard of among his kind, but not overly common either. It had grown rather long recently giving him a ragged incomplete look. “Pretty busy here,” he said, leaning back and tapping a pen against his chin. “Tons of stuff piled up while I was in the mountains. Can it wait?”
“We have trouble over at the ship with the three Krants,” Wrot said. “I could use — as you humans say — backup.”
“Goddammit,” Tully said, rising. He keyed his comboard off and circled his desk. His jinau uniform was rumpled. “They haven’t been here more than a few days. Couldn’t they wait at least a week to start a ruckus?”
“They are traumatized,” Wrot said as Tully ducked past him into the corridor. “Surely you can understand that. They lost their ships and most of their crew, which would be devastating to anyone, but especially so to Krant, which is not rich in assets.”
The two of them hurried down the hall, then descended the stairs. Sounds of the refit assaulted their ears as they came out onto the work floor, the screech of saws cutting metal, the pounding of hammers, the buzz of wood being cut. The smell of fresh paint and scorched metal filled the air. “So what were they doing out there,” Tully said, “if they couldn’t afford to mix it up with the Ekhat?”
“They were part of a three ship task force, dispatched from a Jao base to check out signals which indicated Ekhat activity in the nebula.” Wrot headed toward the outside door at the opposite end. “It is difficult to correctly calculate framepoints in such an environment. One of the three ships was destroyed in transit, the second by the Ekhat they encountered there, probably the Melody, which is not the same faction that attacked Terra two years ago. The third ship fatally damaged the Ekhat vessel, but barely survived the engagement itself, too badly damaged to do anything more than make transit back to the base while the point locus was still active.”
“So they are soldiers?” Tully trotted around the massive Earth subs in their immense wooden cradles and waved to a few of the workers as he passed.
“Yes, though all Jao undertake a form of what you would call military training,” Wrot said, keeping up despite his age. “So you might say that we are all soldiers at some point in our lives.”
Tully fell silent as the two of them dodged ladders, stepped over electrical cables, detoured showers of sparks from the welders perched on ladders and scaffolds overhead. “The crazy bastards would traumatize anyone,” the human said, “at least anyone sane.”
Once they reached the great ship, they were passed through Security immediately. “Status of the difficulty with the Krants?” Wrot asked the stocky human sergeant on duty.
“Krant-Captain Mallu has been taken to the medical bay on Deck Fifty-Seven,” the sergeant said. “I haven’t received an update on his condition.”
“The other two?” Wrot asked.
“Swimming on the same deck. I posted a guard to keep an eye on them — discreetly.”
“Sounds like it’s all been resolved,” Tully said. He shoved his hands into his blue uniform’s pockets. “You don’t need me.”
“We are going to be traveling with these Krants for some time,” Wrot said, leading Tully to a lift station. “It is necessary to achieve at least a rudimentary level of association with them.”
“They don’t like humans,” Tully said. “They already made that clear back in Aille’s office.”
“Which is why it must be you and not me who makes them see reason. Humans are going to matter on this assignment, you and Caitlin most of all. They must acknowledge your right to serve if this is going to work.”
They stepped into the lift and the doors closed. Tully stared at him with those unsettling blue eyes. “You want me to bring these — goobers — into association?”
Despite his many years of proficiency with English, Wrot wasn’t quite sure what “goobers” signified. Humans were so endlessly inventive with language. He flicked an ear. “You and Caitlin.”
The lift whooshed upwards. Tully held onto the internal rail to steady himself. He looked distinctly unhappy. “You don’t want much, do you?”
Wrot leaned against the humming wall. “Anyone who can bring the mountain Resistance leaders into association can deal with a few backwater Jao.”
“I understand the Resistance because I grew up with them,” Tully said as the door slid open. “I know where they’re coming from, but I haven’t got a clue about these guys.”
“Nor have they about you,” Wrot said. “It should make for, as your species would say, an even playing field.”
They padded down the hall, then spotted a uniformed guard at the far end. “You should find the senior-tech and the terniary-commander there,” said Wrot. “Go in and reason with them while I check on Krant-Captain Mallu. Teach them how to deal with humans.”
“Gee,” Tully said, his shoulders slipping into his characteristic reluctant slouch, “may I?”
That, like much Tully said, was rhetorical, and not entirely respectful, either. Reflecting that the human was fortunate that Yaut was not nearby, Wrot left him there and went to the medical bay.