THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 20
Jalta backed away, while Kaln froze, one dark-napped hand still on the wires.
The human tech, a youngster no more than twenty with fair skin that had gone even paler, was sweating. He clenched a wrench in one hand as though he wanted to give her a solid whack on the head. “Sir, I don’t know exactly what’s going on here, but if they pull those dynamo wires, we’ll be hours getting them reseated and tested.” He glared over his shoulder at Jalta as well. “It could mean we won’t lift on time!”
“You are upsetting our techs,” Tully said, “for no reason beyond idle curiosity, which will stop now.”
Kaln’s hand dropped. She handed the protective cover to the young human tech, who clutched it to his chest as though it were his firstborn and backed away. Her whiskers bristled as she came upright. “You will not speak to me or any other Jao in such a disrespectful manner!”
“It has been given to me to instruct you on how to conduct yourselves in this mixed crew,” Tully said carefully, the blood pounding in his ears. Jeeze, negotiating with rebels had been a hundred times easier than this. It would have been less of a challenge to talk a clam out of its damned shell. He cursed Wrot’s ornery hide for putting him in this position. “That is one of the ways, as a member of the governor’s service, that I make myself of use.” Without knowing exactly what the posture meant, he let his body assume his best Yaut-imitation of a Jao instructing someone very dim. “You will listen and do as I say!”
Jalta dropped his gaze, his stance gone to what seemed to be neutrality. Kaln loomed over Tully, her functional ear pitched at an unsettling angle, not pride exactly. He’d seen that often enough to know. Not anger or rage. Something else.
If it came down to hand-to-hand, he thought, holding his ground as she advanced upon him, he was confident he could take her. Jao were strong, but not as agile or fast as a human in good physical condition. They tended to underestimate humans in general — and Tully’s military assignment meant that he’d trained extensively against Jao soldiers. As long he didn’t let her get a good grip —
With heart-stopping abruptness, she turned away. “Lead us back to the medical bay, smooth-face. We would see our captain for ourselves.”
By leading, of course, he would be assuming an inferior position. Jao deemed it an honor to go last and, of course, “smooth-face” was a sly insult, pointing out that he had no incised bars of service as would a Jao of similar rank. “My full name,” he said with a sudden flash of inspiration, knowing that to force the knowledge upon her was a form of power, “is Major Gabriel Dorran Tully.”
Her eyes flashed green as some restless alien sea, then she fell in behind him.
Wrot suddenly felt it, the pull of events, an alteration in his timesense. Somewhere, faraway, factors had shifted. Something important had changed, something that had to do with this impending exploration. It was time to act.
If what the Preceptor suspected was true, then the Lleix had survived, but as the sudden need for haste pressed in upon him, he knew that, for whatever reason, they might not have much longer. The Ekhat had been in that nebula. Krant’s ships had destroyed the vessel they encountered, but there could easily be more investigating its disappearance. Many more.
He slipped out of the medical bay into the hallway, then used his pocketcom to contact the Lexington’s new captain, Dannet krinnu ava Terra.
“Terra-Captain,” he said, when her gravelly voice answered, “there has been a change. Do you feel it too?”
“I felt a slight increase in urgency,” she said.
Several crewmen hurried past, Jao and human, lost in discussion. “Because the Preceptor has shared more of his concerns with me,” Wrot said, “it is possible I feel the change more strongly.”
“You could tell me what you know,” she said testily, “then I would no doubt experience it in equal measure.”
“The circumstances are not mine to share,” Wrot said. A pallet of supplies was being towed by a sturdy human female jinau to a nearby storeroom. He edged out of the way. “Only the Preceptor can authorize their dissemination.”
“Would your answer be the same, had I not been born of Narvo?” she asked.
“You are Terra now,” he said stiffly and set off for the nearest lift. The strange urgency tugged at him, making his nap itch, his whiskers unsettled. Some unfortunate flow was trying to complete itself. They must leave now, or as close to now as could be managed. “That is all that matters.”
“So I was told,” Dannet said, “though, thus far, I have not always found it to be true.”
“Some maintain long memories concerning Oppuk’s misdeeds, but you have been given command of this great ship,” Wrot said as he jogged down the corridor, weaving around more crewmen, “the largest vessel ever built by Jao. Why should you not feel trusted?”
“I make myself of use,” she said, then fell silent, obviously waiting for him to lead the conversation in a more productive direction.
“How soon can we lift?” he asked, turning at an intersection and dodging a pair of humans towing crates stacked on wheeled platforms.
“The last of the supplies are being loaded now,” Dannet said. “I will recall all personnel not currently on board. We can lift as soon as everyone has reported.”
At her words, he could feel things shifting into place, conditions being satisfied, edges coming into alignment. They would leave shortly, though he had no way to tell at this juncture if it were soon enough. “I will fetch the rest of the Krant crew,” he said, “then return myself.”
“Will that be sufficient?” she asked, acknowledging his superior perception of the situation’s flow.
“It will have to be,” he said.