THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 40
“He has you there, Rob,” Caitlin said.
“Then tell us what we’re getting into!” Wiley said, bolting to his feet as if he could no longer be still. “It’s not fair to keep us in the dark!”
Humans couldn’t see as well as Jao at night, Wrot reminded himself. A Jao kept “in the dark” wouldn’t mind, but the experience might be frightening for a human. “I will tell you as soon as I know for sure,” he said. “I cannot promise anything more.”
“I damn well knew he’d say that!” Wiley shoved his chair back so that it squeaked on the tile floor. He stalked out of the food hall, limping a little from an old war injury that hadn’t healed well.
Caitlin stared after him. “That was rude, but he has a point, Wrot.”
“It won’t be much longer,” Wrot said, shaking his head human-fashion. It wouldn’t do any good to discipline Wiley for his discourtesy. Bringing him, and the rest of the Resistance, into association had been tricky and would be an on-going process for some time to come. Many of those holed up in the mountains made Tully, who came from the same background, look positively mellow in comparison. “Once we jump, then we will all know what is — or isn’t — there.”
“What if I guess first?” Her body had gone startlingly neutral, a deliberate choice on her part.
She was good at Jao games, he thought, and who really knew the full measure of what she had learned during her childhood as Narvo’s prisoner? If any human could figure out what Ronz suspected, it would certainly be her. “Then I hope you will do the Preceptor the courtesy of keeping the information to yourself,” he said, lowering his voice so that only the two of them could hear. “There are pressing reasons to not to tell anyone, especially the Jao aboard, until and unless we absolutely must.”
“All right,” she said. Her expression was inscrutable. He could discern nothing of her thoughts. Impressive. “I promise.”
At that, Wrot relaxed a bit. Unlike many humans, Caitlin was as good as her word.
Tully kept a close watch on the Krants as his unit ran firing drills so that they would be proficient if and when the time came. The Krant Jao started out stiff and standoffish, but soon lost themselves in the rhythmical process of cycling together the ammo, then feeding the shells into the hoist and loader drum. He noticed that several Krants volunteered, in fact, to train as gun operators and seemed to be naturals despite their lack of experience with kinetic weapons.
He’d assigned Krant-Captain Mallu as gun mount captain on C-Eleven. The poor bastard had already had more than enough bad luck, losing his ship and then sacrificing his ribs to save Aguilera’s hide. Tully just couldn’t bring himself to shame the Jao any further by ranking him as a mere team member and his still-healing injury prevented him from taking on more strenuous duty. He was betting Mallu could learn what he didn’t already know on the fly and Eleven’s crew would cover for him until he knew the routine. No one advanced among the Jao to ship-captain without a full measure of brains.
At any rate, Tully had drawn enough ammo to give the operators a feel for the ordinance and the firing stats were impressive, especially for a crew just coming up to speed. Tully walked up and down the line of fourteen weapons. Despite the vents, the air was filled with the scent of hot oil, burnt propellant, and heated metal. The guns were blue-steel beauties, whose design had been inspired by the jury-rigged tank weapons used back in that now-famous Battle of the Framepoint, but were specifically crafted for this ship. And they were far more powerful. The guns used in the Framepoint battle had been 140mm tank cannons. These were 500mm guns, larger than the main guns on old-style human battleships. Half of the other artillery-spines sported Jao energy weapons, but Tully figured these alone ought to be enough to take care of whatever was waiting for them in the nebula.
Tully didn’t believe for an instant that the Lexington was on the trail of one of the Ekhat factions, or even two factions. Ronz wasn’t the sort to get all hot and bothered over the Interdict or the Harmony or the Melody, no matter how bat-crazy the aliens were. For the Jao, the Ekhat were business as usual. This, whatever it turned out to be, was something entirely different.
Voices rose, audible even over the roar of firing guns. He signaled and one by one the crews shut down their weapons. Close to the middle, a dark-napped Jao in maroon harness was shouting at Lieutenant Caewithe Miller. He shoved his hands into his pockets and headed that way. It was one of the Krants, of course. Tully’s jinau Jao either got along with humans or he booted their tailless behinds out.
“What is the difficulty?” he said in Jao when he reached the Number Six mount. The Krant was stalking about, looking murderous even to someone not well versed in postures.
The red-haired lieutenant’s blue eyes stared over his shoulder. Her face was flushed. “We seem to have a difference of opinion, sir.”
Miller was from Atlanta, and didn’t usually have much of a southern accent. But Tully had noticed before that the accent tended to come to the surface when the woman was agitated, either from pleasure or anger. Right now, it was pretty pronounced.
Tully locked his arms behind his body, rocked on his heels and did his best rendition of Yaut’s waiting-to-be-informed. He turned to the Jao. It was, he saw now by the droopy ear, Senior-Tech Kaln, making trouble yet again. He repressed an oath. “Yes?”
“They are doing it wrong!” Kaln blurted, her good ear flattened.
“It?” he said politely. Were those angles indicating desire-to-kill? His hand inched forward to rest upon his holstered sidearm.
“Loading the weapon!” She paced up and down, waving her arms in no posture he’d ever encountered. “The lifting device — it is so — slow, so — inefficient! We could do better!”
He glanced at Miller for an explanation. “I sent Senior-Tech Kaln back to my quarters with Private Cupp to view a documentary about the Battle of the Framepoint,” she said, back stiff, shoulders braced. “I thought it would help if she could see for herself how effective kinetic weapons can be against the Ekhat when properly deployed.”
“And?” he prompted.
Kaln turned to him. “I saw!” Her eyes danced with that characteristic green lightning Jao displayed when they were all worked up about something. “It is nothing like throwing rocks after all!”
“Throwing rocks?” he said and glanced at Miller, who gave a slight shake of her head.
“Kinetic weapons!” Kaln said. Her shoulders flexed and he realized suddenly that the angles of her stocky form weren’t indicating desire-to-kill after all, but raw excitement. “I thought you were merely throwing things at the enemy, like children fighting, but this is infernally clever! The Ekhat shield against energy beams, but they will never anticipate such sheer blunt-force savagery!”
“I… see,” Tully said, very much hoping that he truly did. “And you wish to improve the loading process?”
“The hoist is slow,” she said, gaining sufficient control of herself finally to stand still. “It limits how rapidly the loader drum can be filled which also restricts the number of rounds fired in a battle.”
The gun crews were all staring and he could feel the tension from both the humans and Jao. He could just about read their minds. These Krants had just shown up and already they wanted to run the show. However, Kaln was a senior-tech, he thought. That rank indicated true ability, and female Jao were traditionally more proficient at handling technology than the males.
How strange, though, that she should want to do something new, to craft an improvement that a human would even say was “creative.” Jao usually had little ability to visualize things-that-were-not, what they called ollnat. “If you will draw up a plan for improvements,” he said, “I will examine it for feasibility, and then if it looks good, we can take the suggestion to Terra-Captain Dannet.”
Kaln’s black eyes glittered green with emotion.
“For now, though,” he said, “we will finish the drill.”
Lieutenant Miller turned back to the crew. “Load her up!” she said in English.
Kaln joined the crew down in the magazine and the great guns went back to work.