THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 14:
The new ship overwhelmed. Mallu could think of no other word to describe his response. The Lexington possessed passenger quarters for six thousand soldiers in addition to crew quarters for just over a thousand. His own ship, damaged in combat with the Ekhat back in NGC 7293, had carried no more than five hundred, when at full complement, which it seldom was. Krant was rarely able to recruit from other kochan and training of the new generations took time. “A-kee-lara,” Mallu said, struggling to reproduce the alien syllables, “why is this ship so very large?”
The human blinked its unvarying brown eyes. “To fight the Ekhat,” he said in passable Jao. “Is there any other reason to build a ship, either large or small?”
The creature was right, unless one mentioned the Jao practice of subjugating newly discovered sapients and exploiting their resources, and Mallu sensed that was not a subject to be discussed under these circumstances. He prowled corridor after corridor, poking his head in here and there, encountering labs equipped for scientific study, pools, exercise rooms, medical bays, food halls, even more facilities for ollnat, equipment storage, repair stations, weapons platforms, and of course the great engine room which ran the entire length of the ship. Everywhere they went, the walls were thicker than he was accustomed to seeing, the bracing massive, the scale far beyond anything he’d ever thought to experience. It was unaccountably luxurious, space wasted upon the most frivolous of functions.
“Wait here. I cannot take you on the bridge just yet,” Aguilera said finally, stopping just outside a sealed door.
The human term was unfamiliar, but the entrance was labelled like all the others they’d inspected in both Jao and alien squiggles. “You mean the command deck? You do not have the authority?” Jalta said, his ears twitching.
“No,” Aguilera said, his body still, his odd angles altogether uncommunicative, “the three of you do not have clearance.”
Kaln edged toward the human, dwarfing him even though Mallu had observed that their guide was taller than most of his kind. “We are not allowed inside the command structure, but you are?” she said.
“I am the highest ranked human here, third in charge of the entire project,” Aguilera said. “So it makes sense for me to have clearance.” He pulled a pocketcom out of a fold in his trousers and spoke into it.
A single breath later, a tinny voice answered in the local tongue, which had a choppy cadence, like waves out on the wind-swept ocean. Aguilera bobbed his head, then turned to the three. “All right,” he said, “now you can go in.”
Aille krinnu ava Terra had maneuvered them into this position for a reason, Mallu thought, as he trailed after the limping figure onto a vast command deck with stations scattered around its periphery. Whatever his affiliation now, the young governor had begun life as a Pluthrak and that kochan was known across the galaxy, even all the way to Krant, for its cunning and subtlety.
By directing this tour be carried out in precisely this fashion and under the authority of this particular guide, the governor had clearly meant the three Krant to grasp the position of humans here. They were not merely conscripted workmen, as were other species invaded under similar circumstances. Somehow, they had achieved a place in the grand scheme of things, where their contributions were valued and their opinions counted. They were to be allowed to matter in the great ongoing struggle against the Ekhat.
Krant rarely mattered, with its two barren worlds and its isolation from other kochan who possessed not only better resources, but plentiful opportunities for association.
Mallu’s long simmering resentment of the great kochan intensified. Even humans, who looked like they could drown if you so much as poured a handful of water over their heads, had achieved association. But who ever came looking for Krant? Who sought their scions for marriage-groups, inquired of their elders for wise council, or requested their backup when facing the Ekhat? Who among the great kochan required Krant for anything?
Except now, the back of his mind whispered. They were being sought now and their input heeded. Whatever happened on this odd-ball voyage, they must make the most of this rare opportunity.
Kaln was prowling the bridge, as Aguilera termed it, pulling control panels open to examine the wiring, keying on screens and displays. Indicator lights blinked, many of them green, but others red and amber. Power hummed and the whole place felt oddly alive. Off to one side, Jalta was staring fixedly into a screenful of statistics as though they meant something.
Mallu settled into an unoccupied chair, while Aguilera stationed himself beside the door, waiting. It was an impressive ship, perhaps the greatest ever constructed by Jao, but it was being built by humans too, and incorporated more than a little of their technology. Those kinetic weapons certainly bordered on the primitive. Apparently, Lexington would carry humans to operate them as well as Jao to handle the traditional energy guns, while he and the remnants of his crew would rate only the lowly status of mere passengers.
Kaln and Jalta crossed the bridge, then came together, discussing the merits of the long-range sensing devices. Mallu glanced back at Aguilera. The human was standing in what was for him, an awkward posture. Mallu stiffened, reading in that alien body a distorted, but recognizable, intent-to-insult.
Kaln turned too, saw what he saw, then launched herself across the floor. “Stub-ears!” she cried. “Lowest of the low! How could you possibly believe you had the right to insult anyone?”
“Kaln!” Mallu cried, but the tech was beyond responding. It was all crashing in upon her, he knew, the battle with the Ekhat, the loss of their ships, the death of two thirds of their comrades, lives that Krant could ill afford to lose, the baffling summons to this backwater world by the Bond, and now brazen effrontery by a primitive.
She meant to kill it, but Earth’s young governor apparently set great store on this particular savage. Blood thrummed in Mallu’s head as disaster loomed. She would shame them all by her lack of control. They might even be deemed useless and sent away, losing their chance at association. His broken ribs stabbing at every deep breath, he launched himself across the room and tackled her just as she reached her goal.