THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 17
Kaln broke the surface of the little pool and floated. Here, in this deliciously balanced water, she could almost forget her shame. The salts mixture was reminiscent of her homeworld of Mannat Kar, though the saturation was not nearly as strong. She closed her eyes and thought of storms, spray flying in her face, giant swells that carried one far out to sea. She tightened her timesense so that the soothing moment stretched out. The ache in her head — eased.
Then her nap prickled, breaking her concentration. Flow abruptly resumed its normal rate. She opened her eyes, turned, and realized one of those runty humans was watching her from the wall by the door.
“What do you want?” Her voice rang hollowly in the echoing space.
“I came to see if you needed anything,” it said. It had a shaggy golden thatch on its head, and seemed vaguely familiar. Without facial striping, though, it was difficult to be certain of its identity.
“If we wish something, we will request it ourselves,” she said stiffly. “Go away.” Then she plunged beneath the cool surface again. Jalta was swimming along the bottom, his body as sinuous as one of manks that swam Mannat Kar’s seas. It was quite a decent pool, better than any they’d possessed on their lost Krant vessel. How strange to find such a civilized luxury on a ship built at least partially by primitives.
When she judged enough time had passed for the creature to have taken itself off, Kaln surfaced again. The obnoxious beast was still there, hunkered down, arms crossed, watching with those horrid static eyes.
“I sent you away!” She heaved out of the water and stood dripping at the pool’s edge. Light reflected crazily off the water to the walls and ceiling. “We require nothing from you!”
“I just had word that your captain is resting comfortably,” it said, brandishing a pocketcom. “I thought you might like to know.”
Her good ear flattened and she could not think what to say, awash all over again in her shame.
“Do you want to see him?” the golden-haired creature said.
Jalta climbed out of the pool too and stood, sleek and wet, beside her. “When we do, we will find him ourselves!” Kaln said, whiskers bristling. “We do not need your assistance!”
“Is that the Jao way, to refuse association when it is offered?”
“What would a stub-earred thing like you know of association?” Her body slipped toward pure rage and she felt unreasoning emotion take hold of her again. The throb behind her eyes returned, even more savage than before.
“More than you, it would seem.” Its Jao was heavily accented but grammatically correct.
Jalta stiffened. “You dare offer insult to us?”
“It is only an insult if it is true.” The creature straightened and regarded them steadily, hands shoved into folds in its dark-blue clothing. It was not especially tall for its kind, nor heavily muscled, yet possessed a sinewy sort of grace and seemed very sure of itself. “Is it?”
“All Jao seek association,” she said, her angles gone to disbelief.
“So I have been told,” the creature said, “though I am always willing to be instructed.”
“That is not my responsibility,” she said, then shook the water from her nap so that the air filled with flying drops. “You must seek instruction elsewhere.”
“Wrot has assigned me to you,” the creature said, its face and uniform now wet from her spray. “And I am also under Preceptor Ronz’s orders to join the crew, so –” It rocked back on its heels. “– it would seem that we are, in the human vernacular, stuck with each other.”
“Not,” Kaln said, her white-hot anger rising like a deadly high tide, “if I kill you!”
“True.” Its alien face crinkled into a curious expression that she could not read. “I must warn you, though, that more experienced Jao than you have already tried with obvious lack of success.” Its strange grimace broadened. “Just think of me as your very own fraghta.”
Kaln launched herself at the creature, but it slipped tantalizingly just out of reach, much more agile than its appearance indicated. “You intend to — instruct us?” she bellowed, hands clenched.
“I told Wrot I was too busy to take you on,” the creature said blithely, “but he insisted, so here I am.”
It was not to be borne! All the terrible events that had come of their ill-fated expedition crashed in upon her. Kaln snatched up her maroon trousers and donned them again with savage jerks, blood thrumming in her ears. The Bond had summoned them here to this primitive world like errant children, quartered them away from the remnants of their crew, then foisted this — this — beast upon them as a moral guide? She felt as though the top of her head would explode.
“Calm yourself, Senior-Tech,” a Jao voice said from the doorway.
She whirled upon the newcomer. It was one of the Jao from the meeting with Terra’s governor, a highly ranked individual, according to the service bars incised upon his cheek. “This has nothing to do with you!”
“Actually, Tully is here at my order,” the intruder said mildly, his lines indicating bemused-inquiry. “So the situation has a great deal to do with me.”
“Wrot, it seems they do not want a fraghta,” the human said. “I had always heard that it was an honor to be assigned such an advisor.”
“Do you hear how it speaks to us?” She glared at this Wrot-whoever-he-was. “Kill it now before it shames you any further!”
“A fraghta?” Wrot’s wiry old body eased into the angles of consideration. “I had not thought of that before, but actually that is a close approximation of what this situation requires.”
“What situation?” Jalta asked, his own lines hopelessly jumbled.
“You will have to work closely with humans on this expedition,” Wrot said, “without killing them out of hand.”
“But they are savages!” Kaln said. “One does not work with a savage!”
“They are not savages,” Wrot said, his body gone to stern-disapproval. “They are sapients, technologically accomplished and fully capable of association under the right circumstances.” He gazed at her implacably. “Can you say the same for yourselves?”
Kaln bristled. “You criticize Krant now!”
“Actually,” Wrot said, “I am only criticizing you, unless all Krants behave this badly.” He studied her, his eyes flickering green. “Do they?”
The shame of this day’s actions came back to her, losing control and injuring her captain, being sent off to swim away her anger by a human as though she were a child too young to have emerged into society. What would her kochan-parents have said about all this? Her hands clenched. “No,” she said in a strangled voice. “Krant is an honorable kochan. I was taught better.”
“You cannot make yourself of use here,” Wrot said, “unless you are able to work closely with humans. Tully, who at one time had quite a bit to learn himself about working with Jao, will assist you. The three of you should listen carefully to him.”
Him — it was male, then. She hadn’t been sure about that. She batted at her bad ear, frustrated. Those many service bars meant that this Wrot outranked both of them. “I — shall — endeavor to do so,” she said grudgingly.
The native made a strangled noise, shook his head and said something in his native language.
“Speak only Jao in the hearing of your new charges,” Wrot said. “That is respectful, and besides how else will they learn?”
“I said –” The human appeared to struggle with the translation. “I will be — damned.”
The last word had still been in his own indecipherable tongue. She glared at him, whiskers bristling.
“The term — does not translate easily,” he said. “It means something like ‘doomed to eternal punishment.'”
“Well,” Kaln said, somewhat mollified, “that would be proper.”
And then the stub-eared creature led them to a food hall for something to eat.