Authors: Colin Alexander
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Space Opera
There was a converted cargo bay that was large enough to hold the entire Strike Force. I had Andrave order them to assemble there; then I walked down there with Jaenna. I spent most of the trip from the bridge trying to think of what I was going to say. As it turned out, Jaenna had a solution for that problem.
Just before we entered the bay, she put a hand on my arm and said, “Let me go in first, Danny, and do the talking. I need you here because I need the Captain’s visible backing, but I must handle this myself. Please, whatever happens, let me handle it.”
I didn’t like the implications of what she said, not at all, but standing outside the door to the bay gave me no time to discuss any of them. I wonder if Jaenna had planned it that way. Anyway I just nodded, without saying anything. The bay was chilly and stank of too many men too far removed from bathing. The troops stood in clusters defined by the boats they were attached to. There was no other visible sign of organization. It wasn’t an impressive sight. Jaenna did not hesitate. She strode to a position at the front of the bay while I, as requested, hung back toward the wall.
“I am Jaenna a Tyaromon,” she announced. Her voice was surprisingly strong. “At the order of Captain Danny a Troy, I am appointed Strike Force Command. My purpose today is to tell you how this force will be organized and how it will drill.”
For just a moment, I thought they were going to swallow it. Jaenna should have gone straight ahead with whatever she had in mind before anyone had a chance to think about what she was saying. She didn’t, though. She paused, as if trying to assess the reaction to her words. Unfortunately, if you give people a chance to challenge you, there is always someone who will do it.
Before she could speak again, there was a shout, “No! This force will not take your orders.”
The loudmouth was named Grytkanen, an otherwise undistinguished tough who had originally come with Vymander. He stood slightly apart from the center group. He was armed, as we all were. I could see Jaenna lick her lips quickly. She did not look back at me, though.
Jaenna flipped her cloak back over her right shoulder to reveal the blaster at her hip. She addressed Grytkanen directly. “I repeat that I am Strike Force Command at the order of Captain Danny a Troy. This force will obey my orders and disobedience will be punished under Imperial regulations.”
“No,” said Grytkanen. “You cannot be Strike Force Command, so Captain Danny cannot appoint you. Since he cannot have appointed you, the regulations do not apply. Captain Danny will appoint a commander of our choosing.”
I suspect Grytkanen had himself in mind. Jaenna did not ask. “Angel, Gonnar,” she directed, “disarm him and secure him. He will be put off at our next stop.”
The force held its collective breath while everyone watched Angel and Gonnar to see if they would obey her order. From the sneer on Grytkanen’s face, he was obviously expecting them to ignore her. The sneer vanished when Angel grinned and said, “At your order.”
Jaenna nodded at them and turned away, as if to emphasize that the episode was finished. Grytkanen, however, was not cooperative. Angel and Gonnar had taken just two steps when he went for his blaster. Neither of them had drawn a weapon. I opened my mouth to yell, thought better of it, and went for my own blaster. None of it mattered. Jaenna saw Grytkanen move; she must have kept watch from the corner of her eye. She spun in a crouch and her hand moved in a blur and from the end of the blur fire spat. Grytkanen’s blaster had cleared his holster, but just barely, that’s how fast Jaenna was. Her beam struck the casing that held the blaster’s power pack. It exploded into a blue-white flame that left dancing red images in front of my eyes. When my vision cleared, Grytkanen was on his knees, mouth agape, holding the cauterized stump of his forearm with his remaining hand. Nearby members of the Strike Force hastily smothered smoldering patches of clothing, but no one else appeared hurt. There was a stunned silence in the hold. I was stunned, too. I might have seen a shot like that in a Clint Eastwood movie. Seeing it for real was almost unbelievable.
It was Angel who broke the silence. “I’d say he’s pretty well disarmed now,” he said, and chuckled. “If you want, we’ll go ahead and secure him.”
“Not just yet,” Jaenna said. “The penalty for an armed attack on an officer is death. However, I feel my original order remains adequate and it is my prerogative as Strike Force Command to order a lesser penalty, unless the Captain disagrees.”
The Captain did not disagree.
“Good. The Strike Force will be organized as follows. Angel, Gonnar and Derlwin are appointed commanders of their respective boats. By this time tomorrow, they will divide the troops assigned to their boats into groups of three and identify a leader for each trio. The Strike Force will assemble here at that time and we will begin drilling. We will keep drilling until I am satisfied that you can take a defended ship. Are there any questions?”
Jaenna had not holstered her blaster. She still held it at her side, although pointed down at the deck. There were no questions. She dismissed the Strike Force and left the bay the way we had come in while they were still trying to digest what had happened in there. I followed her, full of questions. I had watched the action on Gar, of course, so I’d seen her use a weapon before. Even so, marksmanship was one thing and adrenaline can make all sorts of people do strange things under fire, but that cold-blooded showdown with Grytkanen, practically face-to-face, was of a different order of magnitude. It suggested dimensions to Jaenna I hadn’t seen.
We reached her cabin without a word being said. Once inside, she turned around as the door slid shut behind me. She still held the blaster free of the holster, pointing down at the floor. Her eyes were wide.
“Haranyi told me a situation like that would come to a shooting, and to call it lucky if there was only one.”
That wasn’t what I was expecting her to say. “Haranyi? That’s your war-story friend. Your father’s commander. What is he, prescient?”
“No. But we talked about what would happen if I ever had the chance to run a station, or command a troop. He said it would come to a shooting.”
“You mean you were
“Yes. That’s why I asked you to let me handle it. It had to be clear that you approved, but I had to do it myself.”
I think Jaenna was charitably assuming that I would have blown Grytkanen away first if she hadn’t told me to keep out of it. Possibly, that’s what good pirate captains are expected to do, but I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about walking into a room knowing that someone would shoot at you but not knowing who. Hell of a way to win a job.
“You handled it,” I said simply.
“Yes, I did,” Jaenna said. Suddenly she had the shakes. “Danny, I’m not sure I’m really ready for this. I’m not sure I can do it.”
A day before, I would have rejoiced to hear those words. Now it was a bit late. “What are you saying, Jaenna? You did fine on Gar and you did a good job telling me you were ready for this. I believe. What’s happened to you?”
“I’m afraid I’ll fail, Danny, afraid that all my work and all my hopes will be for nothing. I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake. Haranyi would have killed him. I didn’t. What would you have done?”
What a question! Probably, I’d have gotten my ass burned off no matter what I tried. I tried to convey that to her but I’m not sure she heard me. She was still shaking, maybe a bit worse. I know how to comfort a distressed woman, but this one was holding a blaster and I had just seen, close up, what she could do with it. I tried talking instead.
“Look, Jaenna, I think you’re doing fine and you didn’t make a mistake. Even if you did, you’re still doing fine. Hell, I don’t even want to try counting my mistakes.”
Jaenna had herself back under control by then. The blaster went back into its holster.
“I will succeed, Danny,” she said. “I said I would and I keep my promises.”
“I have no doubt,” I told her. “Tell me one thing, though. Where in hell did you learn to shoot like that? And don’t tell me, ‘Haranyi taught me.’ That’s not something you just teach someone.”
“True.” She had her little smile back. “I started hanging around Haranyi when I was eight. After listening to his stories for a year, I wanted to learn to use the weapons he was talking about. I pestered him for months. Finally, he showed me how a blaster works and then he gave it to me and told me to practice. He said that if I did that, he would teach me more. So, I did. It was hard at first. It was a regular military blaster and it was too heavy for me. I had to use two hands to aim it properly but I kept at it. I went through two or three power packs a day. I got to be very good.”
Her simple statement was as stunning as her ability. Forget for a moment that this commander had handed a nine year old a charged military blaster and told her to practice with it. Those power packs were good for an awful lot of shots. You’ve probably seen a kid in his driveway interminably practicing foul shots. Now picture Jaenna with her blaster. Over and over again, until everything was perfect.
“You’ve been practicing like that since you were nine?”
“I work hard at what I do, Danny,” she said. “I guess it’s too bad that it wasn’t always what I was supposed to do.” Jaenna didn’t elaborate on that rather cryptic statement and I didn’t push the issue.
We had very little trouble over Jaenna’s position after the incident with Grytkanen. There was some grumbling but no one seemed inclined to do more than that. Jaenna did have a plan for the Strike Force, something she had learned from Haranyi naturally, and she drove them to it with the same commitment she had used to hone her skill with the blaster. Vince Lombardi would have loved her.
She co-opted Andrave in her scheme, with the result that the “ship-in-action” alarm exploded unpredictably at all hours. At the cost of lost sleep and indigestion, the time needed to have the force ready for launch rapidly shrank. They also drilled incessantly on boarding actions, with part of the group simulating attackers and another playing the defenders. The corridors were full of crew charging back and forth in mock combat, harmless low-intensity units substituted for the blaster charge packs. I almost died of cardiac arrest the first time a group burst onto the bridge and announced it was under their control, but eventually I became inured to it.
Yttengary was my first contact with a truly alien part of the empire. Although officially subordinate to the Srihani Emperor, the Aalori maintained what amounted to a parallel empire of their own, complete with their own kvenningari. Yttengary’s major trade was starship service, with huge installations on the planetary surface and equally huge ones in orbit. After a tedious to and fro negotiation, they permitted us to dock at one of the orbital installations and to come aboard to make a deal.
Ruoni and I went by ourselves, both silent, though for different reasons. Before we left the ship, he had pulled me aside, close so that no one else could hear. “Be careful with the Aalori, Danny,” he said. “Keep it to business, strictly business, and it will be all right. The Aalori know their business as well as anyone and ships and credits are a universal language. But do not stray from business. The Aalori are alien, not like us at all. It would be hard to say how they would react. One other thing, Danny. When you speak with the Aalori, don’t use the first person.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“You’ll see when we get there. If you are talking to one of them, and he wants to refer to himself, he will say ‘this Aalora’ instead of ‘I’.”
“Sounds clumsy as hell. Why do they do it?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea. On our worlds and stations we don’t pay any attention to it. I’m told, though, that in their territory it’s best to follow their custom. So, don’t say ‘I’. Say ‘this Srihani’.”
The whole idea sounded odd, not to mention being impossible for me to pull off. “I can’t call myself ‘this Srihani.’ I still have trouble thinking of myself that way. It won’t work.”
Ruoni looked troubled. “Maybe you can use ‘this Captain’. I think that will work. It’s important.”
‘Not like us at all.’ Ruoni’s comment stuck in my head. Apparently, compared to the gulf between species, the difference between Earthman and galactic Srihani was as nothing. Even more amazing, after ten millennia in the same empire, they still weren’t sure how to talk to each other.
The Aalori station was radically different from either of the Srihani stations I had been on. The corridors were narrow, with low ceilings, giving it a claustrophobic air in spite of its exterior size. The air was cooled to the point that I shivered and the lighting was too dim for my taste. The corridors were full of Aalori, but the heel-toe tromp that I would expect from a similar crowd of Srihani was replaced by a rasping slide from the Aalori walk. We were the only Srihani in the corridors. I noticed a number of Aalori staring at us, just as I had stared on Orgumuni. Ruoni was right; I was uncomfortable.
It was a relief to reach the station manager’s office, in spite of the awkward chairs, so that we could let our minds focus on business. There, we went through the list of what the Flower would need. The manager consulted his computer, then quoted us an astronomical price in credits. I told him, in response, that we couldn’t pay in credits.
From the feline face, I could not tell whether he was going to laugh at me or eat me. His words though, “What are you offering in trade,” made it clear that this wasn’t an unusual situation.
“Spare parts,” I said. That caught his interest. Yttengary’s business, after all, was repair, so our cargo was doubly valuable to him.
He asked for the cargo manifest. We gave it to him, a piece at a time, haggling over the relative value of each item and each portion of work. When we had finished the list of repairs, Ruoni spoke up.
“It seems,” he said, “that we have not accounted for everything that we carry. I would like to augment our weaponry by trading the remainder.”
That set off a new round of bargaining, so much to upgrade the engines in the landing boats, so much for a missile. By the time we were done, our booty was exhausted and so was I.