THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 61
Item two. For all the derision that most kochan felt toward Terra Taif, the two greatest of those kochan — Pluthrak and Narvo — were already in association with it. The name-founder of the hybrid kochan-to-be was Aille, once a scion of Pluthrak recognized as namth camiti. And while Aille had formally severed his ties to Pluthrak, it was perfectly obvious that the relationship remained close and warm.
Narvo… The common assumption was that Narvo’s association with Terra was a formality. Something Narvo had been forced into because of the shame brought upon the great kochan by Oppuk. But the more he saw of the situation, the more Mallu was coming to think that Narvo was quite serious about developing the association — if for no other reason than the fact it brought with it, indirectly, an association with Pluthrak.
How else explain Terra-Captain Dannet? Her abilities as a military leader were now obvious — and must have been obvious to Narvo itself when the kochan sent her here. Surrendered her, and her talents, to the exotic new taif. Talents which, to a kochan like Narvo, were more precious than anything.
Third item — the Bond. For the first time in Jao history, the Bond of Ebezon had agreed to affiliate with a kochan or taif. While the affiliation was understood to be temporary, there was bound to remain a residue and a closeness even after the affiliation was formally severed. And the Bond was at least as powerful, in military terms, as any of the great kochan, if not perhaps as wealthy.
It was astonishing, really. Now that experience allowed Mallu to see things clearly, it was obvious that Terra Taif — dismissed by most Jao as an irrelevant freak — was already better positioned in Jao society than the great majority of kochan.
It was certainly better positioned than Krant! Which meant that Krant would gain greatly from an association with Terra Taif.
Allowing, of course, for two unknown factors — the prejudice of Krant’s own elders, and the attitudes of Terra itself. Why would they have any great desire to associate with such as Krant?
As he ruminated, Tully had been watching him closely. Now, he made that lip-twisting gesture — a “smile,” they called it — that seemed the most fluid and varied of all the human gestures.
“Interesting idea, isn’t it?” said Tully. “I’ll raise it with Caitlin, first chance I get. And, one way or another, I’ll do my best to make sure Krant gets a fair share of the loot.” The lips twisted a different way. “Insofar as you can apply the term ‘loot’ to what looks like a wreck, anyway. Speaking of which…”
Tully cocked his head sideways a little. Mallu wasn’t certain, but he thought that gesture was the human version of sudden-consideration.
“We’re supposed to try to capture a live Ekhat,” Tully said.
“Yes, I know. It is not likely we will succeed.”
“Won’t break my heart if we don’t, either. But we’re supposed to try, so try we will. But I’ve seen one of those monsters while it was alive — two of them, in fact — and it’d be easier to capture a Tyrannosaurus alive than one of them.”
Before Mallu could ask, Tully shook his head. “Never mind the reference. Very big predatory animal. The point is, it won’t do any good to point a laser at one of them and say ‘hands up.’ We’ve got to take it down in a way that completely immobilizes it without just killing it.”
The solution was obvious, of course. Almost impossible to do, but obvious. “We need to shoot off all of its limbs. Otherwise it will suicide.”
“What I figure — and there’s no way we’ll be able to do that with lasers. So.”
Tully bestowed on Mallu a variety of big smile — “grin,” he thought it was called — that the Krant-Captain did not think boded well for his immediate future.
“I’m putting you in charge of the special bell-the-Ekhat detail.”
Mallu wondered what bells had to do with anything involved. Tully turned away. “Follow me. I want to introduce you to the key members of your team.”
He led Mallu to a small dining area, what the humans called a “mess hall.” Nine human soldiers and two Jao were sitting at the tables.
“Bringmann. Kelly. Greer. Front and center.”
Three of the human soldiers stood up. All of them were male, and two of them were very large for humans.
Tully waved his hand at Mallu. “I believe you know Krant-Captain Mallu. I’m putting him in charge of you guys. Your team — you’ll love this, boys — is assigned to capture an Ekhat. Alive.”
The faces of all the human soldiers became distorted. Mallu didn’t recognize any specific body gesture, but the gist of it was clear enough — the human equivalent of the shocked-disbelief posture of the two Jao soldiers.
Tully shrugged. “Look, the orders come from on high. Don’t take it personally, Bringmann. Mallu’s got experience fighting them and you don’t.”
The smallest of the three standing jinau nodded.
“Krant-Captain, these two corporals” — Tully pointed to the two large ones — “are Thomas Kelly and Dennis Greer. They’re the unit’s recoilless rifle specialists.”
Mallu stared at them. They were easy to tell apart, because Kelly was very dark-skinned. “And a recoilless rifle is…?”
“Hard to describe. Kelly, Greer, show him.”
Once Mallu saw the weapons and had their operation explained to him, he felt a surge of sympathy for the Jao soldiers who’d fought in the conquest of Terra. Like most Jao who’d been far from the scene, his impression of Terran military capability had been shaped by the knowledge that they used kinetic weapons almost exclusively. Primitive stuff, as you’d expect for a primitive species.
Watching what the Lexington’s big guns had done to five Ekhat ships had drastically shifted his views on the matter, of course. But seeing such an obviously deadly version of a kinetic weapon adapted for ground combat brought it even closer to home.
Such a recoilless rifle — the jinau called it “an 84mm goose”—had originally been designed to destroy human tanks, apparently. But they’d adapted the munitions to serve for shipboard operations. In fact, they had a bewildering variety of munitions, whose distinctions — HEAT, HEP-T, Anti-Personnel Tracer, Armor-Piercing, and there were two or three others — soon had Mallu hopelessly confused.
It did at least become clear why both of the soldiers were so large, by human standards. The concept of a “recoilless” rifle in microgravity was…
The one named Dennis Greer grinned widely when the subject came up. “Yeah, well. It’s tricky. If you don’t know what you’re doing, firing a goose in null gravity is likely to leave you spinning in circles.”
“With a busted neck,” added the other one, Thomas Kelly. “It helps, of course, to have as much body mass as possible.”
Mallu had gotten intrigued by now. The weapons might actually have a chance of attaining their goal. And he could see other uses for them. “Why not use Jao soldiers, then?”
Both human soldiers chuckled. “Jao don’t really take to the things,” said Kelly.
“Bunch of snobs, you ask me,” said Greer.
Mallu looked from one to the other. Then, even though he suspected the subtlety would be missed by the two soldiers, adopted the posture which he thought came closest to the meaning of their chuckles. Amusement-at folly.
“You have simply never met the right Jao,” he said. “Wait here.”
He came back shortly with two of his Krant soldiers in tow. Both of them were large by Jao standards, which meant they were much larger than even Kelly and Greer.
“These are Urta and Naddo.” He pointed out one from the other. “Teach them how to use the gooses.”
He interpreted the expressions on Kelly and Greer’s faces as the human equivalent of expectation-of-silliness-from-others. “You need not be apprehensive,” he said. “We are Krant. Not — what was the term?”
“Yes, that one. Tully once told me we are hillbillies. He was rather exasperated, I believe, so he added the terms ‘stubborn’ and ‘ignorant’ as qualifiers. But I got the sense that ‘hillbillies’ itself was not derogatory.”
Kelly’s dark face displayed a large smile. The grin variety of the expression. “Not coming from Major Tully, anyway. You hear it coming from one of my homeys, be a different story.”
The meaning of the last statement was obscure. But it was clear from the subtle shift in the expressions of the two human soldiers that they were willing to try to teach the two Jao how to use the very un-Jao-like weapons.