The Span Of Empire – Snippet 21
Six fully armed jinau stood outside the Holding Area. Tully peered into the observation window set into the wall beside the door. The aliens had been stripped of their suits, and now sprawled on the floor, entangled with each other. Their bodies were long and sinuous, and such a glossy deep black that they gleamed with iridescent highlights. They had short stubby arms and sleek narrow skulls. They were four-legged and built low to the ground. At the moment, they weren’t moving. He guessed they were still alive, but it was hard to be sure.
“Any trouble here?” he asked the closest guard, a Jao wearing Terra taif’s blue harness.
“We have watched them, but they do nothing but cower,” the Jao said with a contemptuous flick of his ear. “They are not worth the energy it would take to kill them.”
“They are slaves,” Tully said. “I don’t think they’ve ever had the chance to be anything better.”
“Slaves cannot help us,” the Jao said. “Only more and better ships; additional intelligent allies like the Lleix; beings that know how to protect themselves.”
“From their close association with the Ekhat, they might have important information vital to our struggle against their former masters,” Tully said, somewhat alarmed. “See that nothing happens to compromise their potential usefulness.”
Fortunately, though the Jao were baffled by the concept of compassion, they thoroughly understood making oneself of use. It was one of their highest values. The guard’s stance shifted into reluctant-assent. The others would take his lead, Tully knew.
Inside the Holding Area, the gleaming bodies shifted, slithering over one another in a fashion that reminded Tully all too strongly of snakes. He shuddered.
“They’re still alive?” said a human voice from behind his shoulder. “That’s a good sign.”
He turned and met the gaze of Vikram Bannerji, who had put away his gun and armor and resumed his intelligence work. “At least they didn’t pick up that particular meme from their masters,” he said. “If they were Ekhat, they’d have all killed themselves by now.”
Bannerji spread his hands on the thick observation glass and peered in. “I can’t wait to interrogate them.” Within, the clustered bodies shifted, as though aware of his interest. They buried their faces against one another’s shimmering hide. “The things this lot might be able to tell us!”
Or not, Tully thought sourly. It was entirely possible they might be no more intelligent than a St. Bernard or no more able to communicate than a great ape. “When will you get started?” he said.
“As soon as I can get Ramt over here from the Lexington,” Bannerji said with a trace of frustration. “She should be able to translate if they speak any of the known Ekhat dialects. If they have their own language, or some other Ekhat dialect, she’ll be able to learn it faster than I can.”
The young lieutenant looked around at Tully. “I think they belonged to one of the sub-factions of the Complete Harmony.” His eyes glittered behind his glasses. “They might even be the same sub-faction that upraised the Jao into sentience.”
The Ban Chao shuddered.
“What was that?” Bannerji said, looking back over his shoulder. His face paled.
“Maybe a bit of debris,” Tully said.
“Oh.” Bannerji turned back to the window. His hands shook a bit; although how he could have any nerves left after what they’d just been through, Tully didn’t know. “I thought maybe we were under attack again.”
Tully looked at the unresponsive aliens again, then clapped Bannerji on the shoulder. “Keep me posted, Lieutenant. Anything happens with these things–anything at all–you notify me ASAP.”
“Yes sir, Colonel.”
Tully’s pad rang with a com call just as he was almost out of his suit. One of the enlisted jinau helped him get free of it, and he grabbed the pad.
“Colonel, you might want to come up to the command deck.”
Tully recognized the voice of Shan Liang, his executive officer.
“I’ll be up as soon as I scrape the stink off.”
“Actually, Gabe, I think you want to get here ASAP if you don’t want to miss it.”
Shan’s use of his first name told Tully that whatever was in the air, it wasn’t anything very official or touching on the jinau. Curiosity intrigued, Tully replied, “On my way, then.”
Jinau and crewmen made way for Tully. He was, after all, both the senior jinau officer in the fleet and a member of the personal service of Aille krinnu ava Terra. He had to snicker when he remembered just how high he had come, and just how much trouble he had caused Aille in that rise.
When he entered the command deck, Vanta-Captain Ginta krinnu vau Vanta motioned him over to stand with him and Major Liang in front of the Ban Chao’s main view display.
“They found an Ekhat base on the fourth planet, Colonel Tully,” Ginta said. “Dannet is about to deal with it.” The captain’s body was angled in a posture Tully didn’t recognize. Not officially. But he thought that hunger-for-revenge probably expressed it. No Jao alive would not be excited to see large numbers of Ekhat removed from the universe.
Tully understood that attitude very well. Once you got through the frou-frou manners and all the funny body language, most Jao were pretty basic folks, he’d decided. At least in most respects. Like this one. As it happened, he agreed with them; the fewer Ekhat in the universe, the better off the universe would be.
Tully and Liang watched in silence as the penetrator missiles were sent into the dome one at a time. At the end of the exercise, they and the other humans on the command deck celebrated, just as all the human crew in the fleet celebrated.
After the noise died down, Ginta looked at Tully and said, “We will remain in the system long enough to make necessary repairs, then Director Kralik has ordered that we return to Ares Base.”
“How long before we jump?” Tully asked.
Ginta gave the shrug adopted from the humans. “When flow is right. Perhaps one or two of your days. Let your jinau clear the decks away.”
And interrogate the prisoners, Tully thought, or at least try to. He just hoped it wasn’t going to be like having a conversation with a malfunctioning lamp.
Tully supervised the interrogation of their prisoners. Or what passed for an interrogation. It looked like more of a joke to him, something like trying to have a conversation with an earthworm just before you used it to bait the hook.
Vikram Bannerji had directed the guards to separate one of their slithery guests and isolate it in a separate room. The table had been replaced with an ordinary chair for Vaughan and a bench for the Lleix, Ramt, who was to do the translating. Ramt had been observing the aliens’ interaction for hours each day, trying to absorb the scant verbalizations they uttered on their own.
She reported that they seemed to use both a basic Ekhat dialect and their own language, which of course made some sense. The Ekhat were not going to pollute their exalted minds with a slave species’ language, but the slaves would still have their own tongue.
The shimmering black beast rushed about the room, trying to find another of its fellows. Bannerji and Ramt let it run its fear out, hoping evidently that it would eventually calm.
Finally it knocked Bannerji into the wall, but that seemed to frighten it even more and it cowered into a corner.
“Slave creature,” Ramt said in an Ekhat dialect, “calm yourself.”
Tully and Bannerji both had programmed their pocket coms to translate.
The beast ducked its head and seemed to be trying to fold in upon itself.
“How is your kind designated by the masters?” Ramt said.
It did not answer, just burrowed harder.
“Answer, worthless wretch!” Ramt said. “By what name does the Complete Harmony designate your kind?”
It collapsed to the floor, quivering.
Ramt glanced over at the observation window. “Continue,” Tully said. “We can’t give up that easily. They will talk to us–eventually.”
The interrogation went on for two more hours. The slave never once made any kind of meaningful vocalization. They finally joined Tully in the observation room.
“I recommend that we put it back with its fellows,” Bannerji said, “and observe it then. Perhaps it will at least try to tell them where it’s been and what happened to it.”
“They are worthless,” Ramt said, “just semi-mindless trash the Ekhat use and then throw away.”
“They will not be worthless to us,” Tully said, crossing his arms. “I will not allow it.”
Bannerji glanced at him. “Yes, sir,” he said and snapped off a salute. “We’ll make these suckers work for us, no matter what it takes.”
Tully nodded. If they could make the rebels on Earth turn their hands to work with the Jao, they could make a few beaten down Ekhat slaves see it their way too. It was just a matter of time and persistence . . . and the right approach, he thought ruefully, rubbing his neck where Yaut used to grab him to throw him where he was supposed to be.