THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 22
Tully delivered the two Krants to the medical bay where Krant-Captain Mallu did indeed look much improved. Next to his bed, a monitor beeped softly. White-coated personnel slipped in and out of the room, intent on their duties. Kaln and Jalta approached the Captain’s bed and gazed down at him, edgy as though their skins didn’t fit. For once, the female tech was speechless.
“His collapse was not all your fault,” Dr. Ames said to Kaln as she filled in a form on a clipboard, then handed it to a male human aid. “It was mostly the result of his injury in the battle with the Ekhat. He should have sought treatment much earlier and not put himself at such grave risk.
“He is very stubborn,” Kaln said, her single good ear twitching. She batted at the drooping one as though it offended her.
Tully’s pocketcom buzzed. He flipped it open. “We are leaving soon,” Wrot’s voice said in English. “Perhaps even within the hour.”
Having lived on Earth since the original invasion, Wrot dealt with human methods of time management better than most Jao. “What about the rest of the Krant crew?” Tully said, keeping a wary eye on Kaln and Jalta lest they get away from him.
“I just escorted them aboard myself and left them in their quarters,” Wrot said, “though they are jumpy and disgruntled. They wanted to go home to Mannat Kar, their natal world. They don’t understand why they are here instead.”
“Why didn’t the Preceptor send them back, then?” Tully tensed as Kaln glanced at the door. Was she about to bolt again? He maneuvered himself between her and easy escape.
“He has his reasons.” Wrot’s tone was noncommittal.
“Right.” Tully scratched his head. The Preceptor always had his reasons and rarely felt moved to share them. The rest of them might as well be puppets dancing on strings as far as the Bond was concerned. Business as bloody usual. “If we’re leaving, then I have to pick up my kit.”
“Have your batman do it,” Wrot said.
Sometimes Tully forgot that he held a command grade for real these days. As a spy for the Resistance, he’d skulked around military installations for years before Aille had drafted him into his service, pretending to be Private First Class This and Sergeant That. It was still a surprise to wake up each morning and find that he’d earned something real and honest, something lasting and all his own.
“Meet me on Deck Six once you’re done,” Wrot said. “My quarters.”
Tully glanced at Kaln and Jalta. “What about these Krants I’ve been nursemaiding?”
“Leave them with Krant-Captain Mallu,” Wrot said. “He can handle them now.”
“Right.” Tully clicked off, then punched in the code for his batman, David Church. He slipped out of the medical bay into the hallway, watching the furious activity as crewmen, both human and Jao, checked read-outs, monitored controls, hauled packages on-board and stowed them with a quiet intensity. The whole ship reverberated with activated machinery, passing feet, and voices. Damn, he could almost feel the completeness of the impending “flow” himself. Obviously, he’d been hanging around with Jao far too long.
“Church, here,” a voice said on his com.
“Church, this is Major Tully,” he said. “Pack my things on the double, then run them out here to the Lexington. I have quarters on Deck Fourteen. We’re about to lift.”
“Already done, sir.” David Church sounded aggrieved as though Tully had accused him of dereliction of duty. The tall dark-haired youth from Oklahoma was only twenty-six, but took his responsibilities seriously. “Your ship quarters are ready for inspection.”
“Great,” Tully said. Of course it was already done. Church was more than competent even if Tully’s head was still spinning with the suddenness of this whole thing. “Carry on.”
“Yes, sir.” The com clicked off.
Sir, right. That was him. Tully pocketed the device. Still a shock every freaking time someone said the word. He doubted he would ever get used to it.
Mallu slipped off the uncomfortable sleeping platform when the human medician was not looking. His ribs still hurt, but one of the assistants, a young Jao with a marvelously bold vai camiti, had strapped them tightly, and now he could at least breathe.
Kaln and Jalta watched him without comment, but the medician, Ames, caught sight of him out of the corner of one eye and intercepted him. “Will you stop that? You will undo all my hard work!”
He wavered on his feet, then took a few tottering steps around her. “I am fine,” he said, though the blood pounded in his head. “It serves no purpose for me to remain here. I wish to go to my crew.”
The two of them glared at one another, although he could pick up very little of her mood. Her eyes were static and her ears could not so much as twitch.
“Fine,” she said abruptly and crossed her arms. Her naked cheeks were curiously red. “Go! Maybe when you collapse again, they will take you to one of the other medical bays where someone else can try to put you back together. I must warn you, though, that next time it will not be nearly as easy.”
Kaln’s whiskers curled with alarm. “Captain,” she said, “perhaps –”
“No, no, go!” Doctor Ames waved a dismissive hand at him. “I am quite certain you know more of the medical arts and the state of your own internal organs than I do.” She crossed her arms and took up a stiff-backed stance that seemed quite meaningful, though he hadn’t the slightest clue what it signified. “I have only studied Jao physiology for the last ten orbital cycles and performed thousands of medical procedures, but you have been Jao all your life!”
Jalta stepped closer, his body hunched in uncertain-misery, quite a complex posture for one of their kochan. “Stay until you are dismissed, pool-sib,” he said softly. “There is nothing for us to do now. The ship will launch, but, as far as I know, we are not required on the command deck. Let the medician carry out her function as best she knows how. I will see to our crew.”
Mallu’s legs gave way and Kaln leaped to seize his arm. Taking his weight, the tech levered him back to the dreadfully uncomfortable bed, as humans called it.
“You could,” Doctor Ames said, “make yourself of use here by furthering my education. I have never encountered an injury of this sort before. Treating you will allow me to be of more aid to other Jao in the future. Of course, your death could be useful, too, as a cautionary tale for other injured Jao who do not wish to heed my advice.”
“Captain, you must stay!” Kaln burst out. “Indeed, I will not let you leave!”
Mallu sagged back against the thin cloth covering and sighed. Even the shallow breath made his ribs ache.
“Smart female.” Ames jerked her head toward Kaln. “You should promote her.”
“For that,” Mallu said stiffly, “I would have to have my own ship.”
“When the time is right,” Ames said, examining the readout on a medical instrument, “certainly you will get another command.”
But, as a human, she had no idea of Krant’s poverty or isolation, or how seldom his kochan acquired new ships. The last two had been purchased several generations before when a trading run had proved particularly lucrative. They had not encountered such luck again in a very long time, and his sense of flow did not indicate they would any time soon.
He had been entrusted with a great treasure and had let his kochan down. He needed to return home and lay his misfortunes before Amnst, the current kochanau. Delaying here only increased his dread of that final accounting for what he had lost.
But he said none of this. Kochan troubles were not to be spilled before alien primitives, even one that was a bit on the clever side, like this Ames. He closed his eyes and let a rising tide of dormancy overwhelm him. Kaln and Jalta were talking softly, while all around them, the great ship quivered in preparation for launching into the black night of space. There, at least, he would feel at home.
It was time. Dannet krinnu ava Terra settled into her chair and gazed around at the controlled bursts of activity across the command deck. The majority of the bridge officers were Jao, but about a third were human.
Narvo had sacrificed her promising career to this new taif as proof of its intent to fully associate with Pluthrak. So she would work to the best of her ability and captain their huge ship with its barbaric kinetic weapons. But her liking of the assignment was not required.
“On your order, Terra-Captain,” her second, Pleniary-Commander Otta, said. His eyes danced with green fire. His stance was a sturdy version of restrained-readiness which betrayed his Nimmat origin.
“You may launch,” she said with a careless flick of one ear, as though this were any other ship lifting for the first time and not a momentous occasion for both species involved.
“Proceed,” Otta said to his bridge crew. They bent to their work and then the great ship roared into the sky.