Chapter 3

Mallu rousted Jalta and Kaln out of their shared quarters at first-light. The two wanted to go down and explore the tantalizing native sea, glittering gray-green in the distance, but flow felt very insistent that it was time to inspect the new ship. Since it was an unfamiliar design, learning its strengths and weaknesses was of paramount importance if the Krants were to find a way to make themselves of any real use. They donned their worn harness, boots, and trousers, all the traditional maroon of their kochan, and headed out.

Kaln in the fore, as befit her lower rank, they walked across the sprawling base, past bizarre angular buildings that chopped up space into ugly squares and rectangles with no flow. Rain had fallen earlier and the temperature was pleasantly cool, though annoying native species of insects buzzed back and forth. Vehicles passed them, some mag-lev, but others on strange black wheels, bumping along and reeking of scorched hydrocarbons.

The sun was overbright so that they were soon all squinting against its fierceness. It would have been pleasant to swim again in untamed water, Mallu thought, as they trudged across the damp pavement. His eyes kept straying to the everpresent sea.

This inspection was pointless anyway. However splendid, this craft was not their ship and never would be. He and his crew would only be along for some inscrutable purpose of the Preceptor’s, not true members of the ship’s company. They probably would have been better off going to the ocean instead.

“We should have summoned a transport,” Kaln said finally. Despite her recent erratic behavior, she had always been a consummate tech. Her able ear swiveled as another of the odd vehicles swerved around them. “I would have liked to see how the local technology works.”

“We have been shipboard for a long time, and soon we will be in space again,” Mallu said, though his ribs ached just a bit more with every step. A ship captain never admitted to weakness before subordinates. “I would rather get some exercise.”

An immense building loomed in the distance, the one where the meeting with the Preceptor had taken place on the previous day. They had not explored its cavernous interior at the time, but now Mallu could make out actinic flashes inside as though small bolts of lightning were striking. Screeches and the clang of metal striking metal filled the air, and it was much bigger than he remembered, since they walked and walked and it seemed to grow very little closer.

Finally, a wheeled cart with three empty seats rolled out of the building, drove across the remaining stretch of pavement, and finally stopped beside them. A well-made female with exotic russet nap and a lovely vai camiti regarded them with merry-anticipation. “Captain Mallu krinnu ava Krant?” she said.

Mallu’s angles dropped into a rough approximation of acknowledgment, not one of his best stances, but a ship’s captain had far more important things to worry about than the subtleties of his postures.

“Vaim,” she said, indicating we see each other, thereby declaring herself their equal in rank, a brash move. “I am Nath krinnu ava Terra.” Mallu was stunned at her lack of manners, blithely forcing her name upon them. Either living on this forsaken planet had sapped her civility, or she’d come of a low kochan that taught its progeny no better.

Her eyes flickered. She knew exactly the effect she was having, Mallu thought crossly. The reckless presentation of her name was clearly intended to provoke. They were only Krant, after all. Why bother with courtesies to such?

“I am Floor-Supervisor here at the Refit Facility.” She gestured at the empty seats. “I have come to take you to tour the Bond’s prototype ship.”

“Krinnu ava Terra?” Kaln said. Her good ear flattened in distaste. She massaged the damaged one distractedly. “Then you have joined the new taif?”

“I have that honor,” she said as the three climbed in and wedged themselves into the inadequate seats.

“But it admits humans as well,” Kaln said from one of the back seats. “I fail to understand how you — manage—such an arrangement? You do not actually — ?” She broke off, her ear pitched forward in unease.

Nath glanced over her shoulder as she turned the vehicle back around and drove toward the building. “Mate? By the Beginning, what a strange notion!” The element of merriness in all her angles increased as she abandoned anticipation altogether.

“Then are there no marriage-groups?” Mallu asked, bracing his ribs as they careened over the bumpy pavement.

“Not containing humans!” Nath slowed as a particularly large hole wrung a grunt from Jalta in the back to his obvious chagrin. His pool-sib’s body bruises were still particularly painful. Mallu clung to a support and endeavored to suffer in silence with his own healing injuries.

“Actually,” she said, “we are two separate taifs, one human and one Jao. And the natives have peculiar ideas about mating. Half of them seem ready to engage in it at almost any moment with very little preparation or ritual, but only in pairs, rarely larger groups. The other half flee in the opposite direction if you do so much as make a polite inquiry about their practices.”

“It does not matter how the new taifs handle such things,” Mallu said, sternness pervading all his lines, though the effort wrung a deep stab of pain from his ribs. The discussion made him uncomfortable. The three of them had never been called back to the kochan to join a marriage-group, and after losing their ship, it was highly unlikely that they would ever be so honored.