Chapter 13

Kaln stood speechless while the insufferable Tully divided up the Krant crew and assigned them to teams in his mostly human unit to operate the individual gun mounts. Only Krant-Captain Mallu remained apart, ears stiff, still hunched against the obvious ache in his ribs.

Tully gave a quick orientation for the Krants: There were fourteen kinetic guns on this so-called “spine,” which was actually a weapons deck. Each required a seven-man crew: one in charge of fire control radar, four to load the projectiles, a single gun operator, and one to supervise the whole process.

She, in fact, was the only Krant allotted to this particular team, Gun C-Six, though some of the other mounts had been assigned two Krants. Feeling exposed and picked upon, she shuffled behind the six jinau, one Jao and five humans, waiting before “her” designated station. Several of the humans glanced over their shoulders at her with what seemed to be curiosity in their nasty, static, eyes, but the Jao, a stocky middle-aged fellow, pointedly turned away as though tales of her bad behavior had spread throughout the ship.

The one named Tully went on to explain firing procedure in Jao, but she was having a hard time making herself follow his words. By the Beginning, he was only a primitive! As a scion of Krant, she had traveled the stars since emerging from her natal pool, had even fought the Ekhat and survived to tell about it. What could such as he possibly say that was worth her attention?

The gun mount itself, though, was sleek and deadly, crafted of a blue-gray metal which she assumed was an iron alloy. She found it oddly alluring, for some reason. Tracks had been laid into the floor so that the mount could be retracted, as it was now. Bizarre.

“– bulkheads have been reinforced for ramming,” Tully was saying. He gestured at the far wall. “We found that strategy effective when the Melody attacked Terra two years ago. Ekhat ships are particularly vulnerable to structural damage.”

Kaln felt ill. He was talking about actually smashing this ship into an Ekhat vessel. She should have known it would come to something ludicrous like that. Humans were only one evolutionary step away from clouting one another over the head with clubs.

“Senior-Tech?” one of the human crew said in Jao. The creature seemed to be female, small-boned, shorter than most of the others. A strange shade of vivid red fur topped her head.

Kaln realized suddenly that Tully had stopped talking. The gun crews had reported to their assigned stations to run firing drills. Everyone on her own crew was murmuring as they stared at her, waiting. Evidently she had missed something and a response of some sort was required. She blinked.

“I asked — which position would you like to take?” the human said, her tone respectful. “I am charged with supervising this gun as well as several others. You can serve in any capacity you wish: gun captain, gun operator, take the fire control radar, or work in the magazine.” That last word was human. Either there was no Jao equivalent, or the female wasn’t fluent enough in Jao to know it.

The little figure gestured at the gun. She looked inadequate for a soldier of any sort, as though the first strong wave she encountered would sweep her away. “You have experience fighting in space as most of us have not,” the female said, her body carefully still. “We would like to take advantage of that.”

“I — have not worked on this sort of weapon before,” Kaln said. Her mind whirled so that she could not focus. She reached out and touched the cold metal. She did not want to be here, most certainly did not want the responsibility of trying to make this hodgepodge of species work together as an effective crew. “I will train to work in the magazine.” Whatever that was. She hadn’t the faintest idea, but one place she had no wish to be was surely as good as another.

“All right,” the human said. “I rank as ‘lieutenant.'”

Kaln’s good ear flinched at the brash presentation of rank unasked, but then realized the female had at least not forced her personal name upon the Jao. And she had read the service bars incised upon Kaln’s cheek correctly as Senior-Tech, impressive for a primitive.

The rank itself was typically human. One of the Jao with experience dealing with humans had already explained the bizarre customs involved to Kaln and the other Krant officers. The term “general” could mean almost anything, since as well as being a military rank it was a common term. The same for “major.” The term “captain” was more tightly focused, but was still maddeningly vague. It could serve as a verb as well as a noun. Thus, a ship could be “captained” as well as having a captain — but the captainer might not actually have the rank of a captain.

Likewise with the term “lieutenant.” It could either refer to a specific rank or, more fluidly, to a relationship. Thus, apparently, one general — a very high rank, that was — might still serve another as his “lieutenant.”

It was all very frustrating. Only the term “colonel” seem to have any real precision. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be that many colonels.

“The magazine is below,” the lieutenant said. “Access is through this hatch.” She gestured at a circular opening in the floor as one of the humans climbed down a ladder and disappeared. Kaln followed, filled with foreboding.

Light flooded the chamber below, brighter than Jao eyes liked. Peculiarly-shaped objects of some sort were stored neatly in sturdy racks on one wall. Kaln stared at them blankly. They resembled missiles, in their shape, but she could see no sign of any propulsive mechanisms. She had no experience with kinetic weapons. As a military option, such tech seemed no more effective than surly children flinging rocks at one another.

A human almost robust enough to be a Jao turned to her. His hide was darker than most of the others, a mellow shade of brown. “Those are depleted uranium sabot rounds. They will penetrate any Ehkat armor we — you Jao, I should say — have ever encountered.”

Kaln was able to follow that much of the logic, although the thought of meddling with radioactive material was a bit unsettling. Still, she assumed that by “depleted” the human meant that the uranium was no longer very dangerous.

“In times past,” the human continued, “we would have had to load powder as well. But we use liquid propellant, these days.” He pointed to a mechanism. “That’s the hoist that lifts the rounds into the firing chamber. It’s configured now for sabot rounds, but can be changed if we use other ammunition. High explosives, for instance, or incendiary rounds. For space combat, though, that’s pretty unlikely.”

So, apparently, they had different types of missiles. Kaln couldn’t really see the point to that. Throwing rocks, even explosive or combustible rocks, was not going to defeat the Ekhat. The first enemy ship they encountered would make very short work of them.

But at least then her misery would be at an end. Flow stretched out so that everything was slow and murky. Kaln would rather have been anywhere but here and now. The room seemed to be buzzing.

A hand touched her arm. “Senior-Tech?”

Kaln recoiled, then normal flow reasserted itself. She saw the red-topped female who had designated herself as a lieutenant.

“I think you should view one of our vids before assuming your duties here,” the human said, withdrawing her hand. “It is a standard requirement for all jinau troops during what we call basic training, titled ‘Battle of the Framepoint.'”