“‘The quick red fox jumps over the—’” Taneem paused, her glowing silver eyes narrowing in concentration, her whiplike K’da tail making little circles in the air behind her long, gray-scaled body. “‘Lassie dog’?” she suggested.
“‘Lazy dog,’” Draycos corrected, keeping his own tail motionless. Having grown up among the Phookas instead of proper K’da, Taneem’s body language was very different from his. He didn’t want to make any gestures that she might interpret as impatience. “The ‘y’ at the end of the word makes the ‘a’ long.”
“‘The lazy dog.’” Taneem gave her tail another flick. “There are so many rules to this language,” she said ruefully.
“And so many exceptions to those rules,” Draycos agreed, his mind going back to his own introduction to written English. He and the others of the K’da/Shontine advance team had learned a fair amount of the spoken language from their peoples’ earlier contacts with the Chitac Nomads. But it wasn’t until the advance team had been ambushed and destroyed, and Draycos had linked up with Jack Morgan, that he’d been introduced to the written form. “But you’ll make it through,” he assured Taneem. “I know you will.”
“Then I will,” she said firmly, turning back to the display. “‘When the tall cliff is lit by the sunlight . . .’”
Draycos listened with half an ear, his eyes tracing down the smooth lines of her neck and across the sleek scales along her flank. She did so much remind him of the other Taneem, the friend he’d lost so many years ago to the Valahgua and their horrible Death weapon.
Which made it even more of a shock sometimes when he remembered that only a couple of weeks ago this Taneem had been little more than an animal. A Phooka, rooting around in the forest of Rho Scorvi for grubs, with no knowledge of starships or computers or written English.
Or of war or hatred or enemies. Enemies who had launched a war of conquest against the K’da and Shontine in their distant homelands, ultimately driving them out and into a fleet of refugee ships that was still making its long journey here to the Orion Arm part of the galaxy.
Enemies who had now made that same long trip across space in order to intercept and destroy those K’da and Shontine refugees. Bringing his gaze back to Taneem’s silver eyes, Draycos wondered if he’d really done her a favor by taking her away from that simpler, safer life.
Taneem finished the page, and Draycos keyed for the next one. Nothing happened. Feeling his tail curve in a frown, he tried again. This time the next page came up.
But that second’s delay meant that the ship’s computer was busy. Very busy.
Had Jack made it in?
“Please continue with your exercises,” Draycos told Taneem as he headed for the dayroom door. “I’ll be back soon.”
He found Jack in the Essenay’s cockpit, sitting in the pilot’s seat and glowering at the displays. Alison Kayna was standing behind him, leaning an elbow on the back of his seat as she gazed thoughtfully at something on a handheld computer. “Anything?” Draycos asked as he padded up behind Alison.
“No,” Jack growled. “For a minute there I thought we were in. But then it locked back up on me.”
“I told you it wouldn’t work,” Alison said. “Malison Ring computers aren’t easy to get into without the proper passkeys and protocols.”
“I suppose you want to give it a try?” Jack suggested acidly.
“Well, not now I don’t,” Alison said. “The whole system’s been alerted.”
“What do you suggest?” Draycos asked.
“We pull up stakes and try a different base.” Alison cocked her head. “Only next time I get to try first.”
“Forget it,” Jack said. “My ship. My mission.”
“Your ship, Draycos’s mission,” Alison corrected calmly. “It’s his people at risk out there, not yours.”
“Maybe his people happened to be the first ones on the field,” Jack countered, “but that doesn’t mean the rest of us are sitting on the sidelines. Once the Valahgua finish them off, what’s to keep them from turning that Death weapon of theirs on everyone else in the Orion Arm?”
“Numbers, for a start,” Alison said, shutting off her computer. “If and when you’re ready to give up on that, I’ve got something to show you.”
“Fine,” Jack said, keying a handful of switches. “I’m done.”
“Thank you,” Alison said. “Uncle Virge? Pull up your record of the Iota Klestis battle, will you?”
“Jack, lad?” Uncle Virge asked.
“Sure, go ahead,” Jack said in a tone of strained patience. “While you’re at it, go ahead and call the port tower for clearance. We might as well get off this rock.”
“Preferably before the Malison Ring traces your intrusion attempt,” Alison said.
“Okay, here we go,” Alison interrupted him smoothly as the main display lit up with a set of slightly fuzzy spaceship images. “Four Malison Ring attack ships, four K’da/Shontine advance team defenders. Note how the Malison Ring ships open up with that whatch-ya-call-it—”
“It’s called the Death,” Draycos said, his tail lashing the air as the memory of that horrible day came rushing back. “The weapon that kills right through bulkheads and walls and even the heaviest metal or ceramic shielding.”
“And I still don’t understand how that can work,” Alison said. “But I’ll take your word that it does. Anyway, note how the Malison Ring ships all open up with the Death in perfect unison?”
“Yes, we see,” Draycos said.
“And we’ve been through it a hundred times,” Jack added.
“Maybe you should have gone through it a hundred and one times,” Alison countered. “Remember your theory that Neverlin and the Valahgua must be really good allies because the Valahgua gave him their precious Death weapon to play with?”
Jack’s back visibly stiffened. “Look—”
“We’re listening,” Draycos cut him off, his eyes on the display. Arthur Neverlin was the brains behind this plot. He’d been the second most powerful man in the megacorporation Braxton Universis until he’d tried to kill Cornelius Braxton and take over the company. Jack and Draycos had foiled that attempt, driving Neverlin underground in the process.
But even on the run, the man had plenty of resources to draw on. One of his allies was the Chookoock family of Brum-a-dum, with their collection of slaves and big Brummgan soldiers. Another ally was Colonel Maximus Frost and his team of Malison Ring mercenaries.
All of them with just one goal: to assist the Valahgua in their attempt to utterly destroy the K’da and Shontine.
“Okay,” Alison said. “Let me fast-forward a bit . . . there. See how all four Death weapons also cut off in perfect unison?”
“Because all the K’da and Shontine were dead,” Jack said with exaggerated patience.
“No, they weren’t,” Alison said. “That’s the point. The Havenseeker’s little twitch maneuver had slipped it out of the beam for a few seconds, which is why Draycos and the rest of the bridge crew were still alive at this point. So why did the mercenaries quit firing?”
“We were already on the path to a crash landing,” Draycos said grimly. “They had no need to continue.”
“No, what they didn’t have was the capability,” Alison corrected.
Jack frowned over his shoulder at Draycos. “Is she making any sense to you?”
“Yes,” Draycos said, the pain of memory fading into cautious excitement as he suddenly saw where Alison was going with this. “The Malison Ring ships didn’t shut off the Death weapons. The weapons shut off by themselves.”
“Bingo,” Alison said. “Probably with their innards burned to slag. The Valahgua didn’t trust their new allies not to double-cross them and fly away with their wonderful little Death weapons. So they put a timed self-destruct into each of them, giving the mercenaries exactly three minutes forty-seven seconds’ worth of juice they could use to take out your advance force ships.”
“Which is two birs of Valahguan time measurement,” Draycos said.
“Even a nice round number.” Alison looked at Jack. “You see now what I meant about them not being ready to take on the whole Orion Arm? They don’t even have enough people here to secure and operate the weapons aboard four ships.”
“Which also makes sense,” Draycos said. “In order to have arrived before our advance team, they would have had to travel faster, with more fuel and fewer passengers.”
“It also means they don’t trust their new allies any farther than they can spit them,” Alison said.
“Not really surprising, I guess,” Jack said. “Not with what we know about Neverlin and Frost. Though that doesn’t mean they don’t have a few more Death weapons stashed away to use against the main refugee fleet.”
“Oh, I’m sure they do,” Alison agreed. “But at least this means we’ll mostly be tangling with Neverlin and his buddies. At least those are known quantities.”
“Known quantities who want to kill us,” Jack muttered.
“Well, they want to kill Draycos, anyway,” Alison said coolly. “Possibly me, too. You they just want to capture.”
“That’s so encouraging,” Jack said, stroking his cheek thoughtfully. “I wonder what their plan is.”
“That’s easy enough,” Alison said. “Neverlin wanted to kill Cornelius Braxton so that he could take over his company.”
“For the money,” Jack said.
“Sure, that was part of it,” Alison said. “More importantly, though, controlling Braxton Universis would give him access to the corporation’s security force. Including a lot of armed ships.”
“Would the Braxton security men really have cooperated in this kind of venture?” Draycos asked.
“I doubt it,” Alison said. “But he didn’t need them. That was where the Chookoock family came in—they were going to supply Brummgan mercenaries to crew the security ships. Frost and his renegade Malison Ring buddies would provide leadership and also form the core of the attack force.”
“And while they engaged the K’da/Shontine ships, the Valahgua would be moving in and out of the fleet using the Death weapon on everyone,” Draycos said, a shiver running along his crest.
“At which point they would be free to loot the fleet for new technology, which they’d probably market through Braxton Universis,” Alison concluded. “Very simple, actually. And very, very profitable.”
“That’s what their plan was,” Jack said patiently. “My question was, what’s their plan now?”
“Oh,” Alison said in a slightly more subdued tone. “Good point. Neverlin can’t get those Braxton ships now, can he? They’ll have to go with some other plan.”
“Which I believe is what I just said,” Jack reminded her. “The question is what that plan might be.”
“Jack, lad?” Uncle Virge spoke up. “We’ve got clearance to lift.”
“Take us up,” Jack instructed him. “And give me the two next closest Malison Ring bases.”
“Montenegro and Vers’tekim,” the computer said. The record of the Iota Klestis battle disappeared from the display and was replaced by a star map. “Montenegro is about twenty hours away, Vers’tekim about thirty-two—”
“We’ll take Vers’tekim,” Jack said, his voice suddenly odd.
“Montenegro’s closer,” Alison pointed out.
“I said we’re going to Vers’tekim,” Jack said in a voice that left no room for argument.
He looked over at the computer camera/speaker/microphone module. “And on the way,” he said, “we’re going to stop off at Semaline.”
“Semaline?” Alison echoed. “What in space is on Semaline?”
Jack didn’t answer, but continued to stare at the computer camera. “Jack?” Alison said. “Yo. Jack?”
“Uncle Virge, what’s on Semaline?” Draycos asked.
“Go ahead, Uncle Virge,” Jack invited. “Tell them.”
“Nothing much,” Uncle Virge said. His voice was calm enough, but Draycos could hear the stress beneath it. “There’s a lockbox in one of the banks at the NorthCentral Spaceport. We used to drop by sometimes when our cash supply was low.”
“No, we didn’t,” Jack corrected darkly. “Uncle Virgil did. He never even let me out of the ship there, let alone let me go to the bank with him.”
“It’s nothing you need to worry about, Jack lad,” Uncle Virge said, his voice low and earnest. “Maybe some other day.”
“Some other day is now, Uncle Virge,” Jack said firmly. “We’re stopping at Semaline, and I’m checking out that lockbox.”
“The lives of Draycos’s people are at stake,” Uncle Virge objected. “Go ahead—ask him if this is the time for unnecessary side trips.”
“Actually, I have no objection,” Draycos said.
Alison frowned at Draycos over her shoulder. “You don’t?”
“We have nearly two months until the refugee fleet arrives,” Draycos reminded her. “This will only take a few hours.”
“A few hours can make all the difference between victory and defeat,” Uncle Virge countered. “Shall I cite you a few historical examples?”
“No need,” Draycos said, hearing his voice darken. “I have more than enough of my own.”
There was a moment of awkward silence. Even Uncle Virge apparently couldn’t think of anything to say. “So; Semaline it is,” Jack said, climbing out of the seat. Alison and Draycos moved aside, and he brushed past without looking at either of them. “Give it your best speed,” he added as he left the cockpit.
“Whatever you want, Jack lad,” Uncle Virge muttered.
Jack was lying on his bunk in his cabin, staring at the ceiling with his arms tucked behind his head, when Draycos arrived. “Are you all right?” the K’da asked, padding across the room.
“Sure,” Jack said. His voice sounded oddly distant. “I just wanted to be alone for a while, that’s all.”
“Shall I leave?”
“No, that’s all right,” Jack said. “I was just thinking about Semaline.”
“You remember it well?”
“That’s just it—I hardly remember it at all,” Jack told him. “Just a few scattered images.” He shook his head. “You’d think I’d have clearer memories of the place where my parents died.”
Draycos felt his tail arch. “I didn’t know that.”
Jack shrugged. “That’s what Uncle Virge told me, anyway. Like I said, I don’t really remember.”
“You were only three at the time,” Draycos reminded him.
For a moment Jack was silent. “You think it’s wrong for me to want to go there?” he asked at last.
Draycos hesitated. “In general, no,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “The past is important to all of us.”
“But you don’t think this is the right time?”
“We do seem to have troubles and concerns enough just now,” Draycos reminded him. “Still, as long as you don’t intend to launch a complete examination of your life there, I see no problem with stopping by.”
“I just want to see what Uncle Virgil has stashed in that lockbox,” Jack promised. “Then we’re out of there and off to Vers’tekim.”
“Where you’ll let Alison try to break into the Malison Ring computer?”
Jack made a face. “Don’t you start with me, too. Anyway, what makes you think she’s any better at computer hacking than I am?”
“Nothing in particular,” Draycos said. “But your techniques just now didn’t succeed. There seems little point in refusing to allow Alison to try her methods.”
“I suppose not,” Jack conceded. “Fine. It can be her turn next.”
“I’m sure she’ll appreciate that.”
“As much as she appreciates anything we do,” Jack growled. “I just can’t figure her out. She picks at me about twice an hour—”
“More often if you’ve actually done something to annoy her,” Draycos murmured.
“Yeah, well—yeah,” Jack said. “But every time we try to drop-kick her off the ship, she refuses to go.”
“She has Taneem to think about now,” Draycos reminded him. “They’re beginning to share the same symbiotic bond that you and I do.”
“And, what, Alison thinks the two of them will be safer from Neverlin and the Valahgua if they hang around us?” Jack shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know, though. I still think she’s working some angle.”
“Perhaps,” Draycos said. “Only time will tell.”
Jack snorted gently. “Or else time will slap us flat across the head,” he muttered. “I guess we’ll find out which.”
Copyright © 2007 by Timothy Zahn. All rights reserved.