THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 42
Abandoning the chair before her console, she curled up on her bunk and hugged a pillow to her chest. God, did she ever wish Ed was here right now. Two years of marriage had accustomed her to not having to shoulder emotional burdens alone anymore. Though the two of them were often parted by their jobs, they were in constant contact. This would be so much easier if she could bounce ideas off his practical mind while deciding how to approach this.
She rolled over on her back and stared up at the gray ceiling, feeling the thrum of the great engines. Well, she told herself, she’d gotten along for many difficult years before Eddie Kralik came her way and she could certainly do it again. But she didn’t have to like it.
When Tully checked up on the whereabouts of the three ranking Krants the next morning after breakfast, he managed to interrupt Jalta’s swim long enough to learn that Kaln was down in one of the magazines on Spine C, tinkering with the hoist.
If she’d been human, he wouldn’t have been surprised, but in his experience, Jao just didn’t have ideas about how to improve devices, and if one did occur, no self-respecting Jao would go so far as to act upon it. They were skilled operators of technology as well as competent craftsmen and repairmen. They fought fearlessly and clung to honor, as they defined it, like a human would to his pants when caught naked on a public street. But they usually regarded anything smelling of ollnat as childish or even barbaric.
Yesterday, though, Kaln had somehow gotten an idea on how to enhance the hoist and now she was exploring it. Even if she was wrong and thoroughly screwed the device up, Tully was fascinated. Most Jao, left on their own, would spend their free time swimming, arguing kochan history, or lounging about on a soft pile of dehabia, and most techs would have occupied themselves with the study of operating manuals. The more he knew of this particular Jao, the stranger she seemed.
He left orders for Baker Company to report for firing drills at 14:00, then went down to Spine C to see what Kaln was doing. Fortunately, he found Caewithe Miller already there, supervising. She was young for an officer. Like most of her generation, she’d grown up under Jao rule and didn’t have the same chip on her shoulder carried by those who remembered the brutality of the Conquest first-hand. That gave her an edge in dealing with mixed human and Jao troops.
Along with her own ability, of course. By now, Tully was almost certain that the little redhead was the most capable subordinate officer he had in his unit. And he was even more certain that his assessment wasn’t influenced by the fact that Miller was also, by a country mile, the best-looking one too. Tully was by no means immune to the young woman’s attractiveness, but he was quite disciplined about such things. He always had been, even before he got Yaut’s relentless training.
The great gun mount was locked into the hull, ready for action. Miller was squatting, peering down into the magazine. She glanced up, then sprang to attention. “Sir!”
Freckles stood out on her face. Between those and the bright blue eyes and the red hair and the general prettiness of her features, Tully actually had to struggle a little to keep his mind on business.
“At ease, Lieutenant,” he said. “How’s it going?”
“Okay, I guess.” She glanced at the open hatch. Banging could be heard from below. “If her adaptation works, it may be ready to try later, if that’s all right.”
“We’re running another drill at 14:00,” he said. “Tomorrow’s the day we jump and we have to be sharp. No telling what’s waiting for us in that nebula.” He leaned over the opening. “Senior-Tech Kaln?”
The dark-napped Jao below paused and looked up, good ear pinned. The floor was littered with parts. “I am busy.” Her tone brooked no interruption.
“This mount has to be up and running by –” He broke off, trying to gauge how to explain 14:00 to someone who did not understand measuring time in quantified amounts. “– a little after mid-sun.”
“Do not be ridiculous,” she said, holding up a silvery rod and squinting at it. “There is no sun on this ship. Even a dry-foot like you should know that.”
“We are running firing drills — later,” he said. “And not a lot later. You have to reassemble the hoist in time for that.”
“It will be done when it is done,” Kaln said, turning back to the scatter of disassembled parts.
“No,” he said, trying to channel Yaut, “it will be done on time. Even if I cannot feel the flow of this situation, I know you can, and you will either have the improvement finished or the hoist reassembled in its former condition in time for the drill. Do I make myself understood?”
She threw down the part in her hand with a clank and scrambled back up the ladder to stand before him, shoulders braced, whiskers bristling.
Yaut, he thought, trying to remember the proper stance for someone being defied as she loomed in front of him, a head taller. Yaut, when Tully had done something particularly clueless by Jao standards. What had that looked like? He dropped one shoulder, angled his head, curved his arms.
Kaln’s eyes blazed green. Caewithe Miller edged away, her own arms locked behind her back, her gaze prudently on the back wall.
The Jao froze. If she’d been a dog, Tully would have said her hackles were raised. Time seemed to stretch out as Kaln attempted to out-stare him, but he’d been trained by a master. He concentrated, noting her vai camiti, camouflaged by dark-brown nap. It was actually quite bold, sweeping across her face at a rakish angle.
“This is important,” she said finally. Her whiskers wilted. “I know how to make the device better.”
“I am impressed that you have an idea to improve the technology,” Tully said, not relaxing his stance. “But the gun mount must function in time for the drill. We will jump soon and no one knows what we will find when we emerge from the framepoint. It could be the Ekhat. It could even be something worse. We have to be ready.”
Kaln suddenly dropped her gaze to her maroon boots. “On a Krant ship, such — changing — would not be allowed.” Her voice was low.
Indeed it would not, Tully thought. “Do you often get such ideas?” he asked, grasping at the edge of something intriguing in this conversation that was still eluding him.
“Occasionally,” she said, “but no one is interested in improvements. Things work as they are meant to, as they always have. That is good enough. Anytime I changed something, no matter how well it functioned afterwards, I always had to put it back.”
“I see,” he said, and he thought that finally he really did. She was a Jao maverick, the proverbial square peg trying to fit into an exceedingly round hole, gifted with a least some measure of creativity while born to a species that had little use for such interests.
“Humans respect the power of ollnat,” he said, “but the gun mount must be ready for action.” He considered the situation. “I will assign a ship-tech to assist you.”