THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 37
“In case it has escaped your notice, we are not your kind,” the female said stiffly.
“No, but we serve together on the Bond’s ship,” he said, “both seeking to make ourselves of use to the Preceptor. How will we accomplish our mission, perhaps even fight alongside each other, if our two species cannot observe even the simplest of courtesies? Or, perhaps, you do not care if this assignment is completed successfully.”
The Jak’s ears drooped into uncertainty and the angles of her body altered. “I rank as Sennet-Subprime,” she said, then stalked off down the corridor. The second Jao followed her without a backwards glance.
Tully stared after them. No name, but he’d obtained a rank, and one below him at that. A sennet was the equivalent of a human platoon leader, and subprime would meant something like Assistant, or Second-in-Command. Maybe this hadn’t been such a mistake after all. He straightened his shoulders and entered the pool room.
It was not the fragrant seas of Mannat Kar, Mallu thought, but the pool had nicely balanced salts and was in truth far more satisfying than the facilities on their late lamented ship. He swam on the surface slowly, carefully, letting the water support his healing ribs so that the pain was minimal. Jalta dove next to him, surfacing immediately, then stared over at the door. Mallu followed his subordinate’s gaze. It was one of the humans, the one with bristly yellow nap on its comically round head.
“Krant-Captain,” the graceless creature said, crossing the room to kneel beside the pool. It was dressed in crisp jinau blue and the trousers’ fabric promptly soaked up splashed water. The human didn’t seem to notice.
What was its human-name? Tutty? Tucky? Mallu floated over to the side of the pool and held on, reluctant to heave himself out of the water and endure the ache of his injury unless it was necessary. Behind him, Jalta plunged to the bottom and joined Kaln who was racing back and forth beneath the roiling water, working off nervous energy.
Reflected light danced across the ceiling from the water. “You and your crew have been assigned duty on Weapons Spine C for this mission,” the human was saying in accented, but quite passable Jao, though it was making no attempt to move correctly. “We are running firing drills in a short while, so you need to report for training.”
Mallu flicked an ear, thinking. It would be good to be busy again, to have something useful to do to take his mind off his failure to return to Krant with his ship. “My crew numbers are too few to handle such an assignment.”
“Yes,” the creature said. “That is why you have been added to Baker Company, which is my command.”
“They are waiting for us.” The human stood and gazed down at him with those horribly static eyes.
The shame of it flooded through Mallu. They had placed his crew under the command of a human? Far better that they had all perished back in that vile nebula at the hands of the Ekhat than to be so dishonored! He heaved out of the pool, grunting at the bite of pain in his side.
Jalta popped back to the surface and gazed at him, unease written into the angle of his pool-sib’s ears. “Fetch Kaln,” Mallu said without explanation.
Other Jao were arriving to swim and the room echoed with their voices. Mallu met none of their eyes and kept his head down as he retrieved his harness and trousers from the hooks on the wall, putting them on while his nap was still soaked rather than endure the pain of shaking the water out of his nap. After a few breaths, Kaln and Jalta joined him, dripping, carrying their harness and trousers.
“Do not ask!” he said when their bodies hinted at question. Prudently, they shook themselves and dressed. Then he gestured to the creature. Blast its ears, what was it called — Tunny? Turly? Kaln had told him its name back in the medical bay, but now the alien sounds had slipped his mind, and he could not lower himself to actually ask.
The human stood aside, waving them to the door. “Head to Weapons Spine C,” it said.
“We are required?” Kaln said, her angles confused.
Her mental balance was still precarious and Mallu hesitated to impart the disturbing news of their demotion to her. He turned to the human. It stood to one side, hands shoved into concealed folds in its trousers, gazing pointedly over his head and refusing to lead the way, he realized. The wretch was employing Jao disciplinary techniques as though it had been born to them. One of the Krants would have to go first. He turned to Kaln, who was lowest ranked, and motioned her forward.
All her lines went to incredulity. Her eyes blazed with green fire as she glanced at the human and made no move to obey.
“You toured the ship while I was — indisposed,” Mallu said, as though they were back on their own vessel and this was merely another order to be followed. “Lead us to Weapons Spine C.”
Kaln turned to Jalta as though to protest and Mallu cuffed her good ear. The rapid movement pained his ribs and made him gasp when he spoke. “Weapons Spine C, Senior-Tech!”
Kaln’s angles shifted from incredulity to guilt. With a snarl, she pushed Jalta aside and lurched through the door into the hallway. Mallu motioned Jalta after her, then followed himself, not deigning to notice what the vile little human did.
The four of them entered the nearest lift and rode down to the assigned Weapons Deck in silence. Kaln kept glancing at the human with such distaste, Mallu thought he might have to discipline her again.
They got off on the proper level and found the rest of their Krant crew milling before a row of great guns, muttering and asking why they had been summoned. A number of humans in jinau uniforms were staring.
The yellow-napped human stepped into the center. “Listen up!”
The milling stopped and all the humans present fell into rows, assuming a rigid stance, shoulders back, arms straight, heads high, obviously a codified posture appropriate to the situation.
“I am Major Gabriel Tully, Commander of Baker Company,” the human said in Jao, “and a member of Aille krinnu ava Terra’s personal service.”
Names, names, names! thought Mallu crossly. This species was obsessed with them, forcing their slippery syllables upon hapless bystanders at the slightest provocation. With their bland, almost indistinguishable faces, it was no doubt the only way for them to tell one of their fellows from the other with any degree of accuracy.
“Because everyone on this ship must make themselves of use, all Krant-crew aboard has been assigned to Weapons Spine C, which is under my command.”
Mallu’s crew stiffened and he saw amazement, confusion, and outright hostility in their postures. He stepped forward, trying to project dignity, but the pain in his ribs thwarted his ability to achieve the proper angle. “Whatever comes, you will not shame Krant!” he said, his ears flattened in admonition. “You will put your hand to whatever you are asked, and you will do it to the best of your ability. Show these dry-footed primitives that whatever they can do, a Jao can accomplish faster and better!”
One by one, his crew regained control of their emotions and schooled their bodies to a mostly respectful neutrality. Kaln stood stiffly before him, betrayed by her drooping ear, but otherwise credibly restrained.
Tully turned to him, his naked lips twisted in a strange grimace that Mallu could not interpret. “Very good,” the human said. “Now we are ready to start.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “By the way, Krant-Captain, you might want to bear in mind for future reference, that while Baker Company is one quarter Jao and three quarters human, all the humans with whom you will be working speak excellent Jao.”
Startled, Mallu glanced at the rows of waiting jinau. One of them in the front, small in stature with startling red fur on its head, closed a single eye in what seemed to be a deliberate gesture.