The Kif Strike Back by CJ Cherryh

“You have aspirations on Anuurn.”

“Oh, yes. On Anuurn and in space.”

Another long silence. A dry sniffing. “The prisoners are inconsequence.” Sikkukkut waved his left hand and set the cup aside into a hand that appeared to take it on the instant. “Go. I have taken time enough with this.”

Pyanfar stood up, bowed; Haral did the same. “And the ship,” Pyanfar said.

“Details.” Sikkukkut waved his hand again. “See to them. Skktotik.”

* * *

Kif arrived at the lock. With deliveries.

“They can by the gods wait,” Tirun said; and Hilfy turned and looked at her, her heart pounding. Tirun was senior; Tirun called the decisions now On The Pride and sat in Haral’s chair. And Hilfy only looked at her, having known Tirun Araun long enough to know with Tirun there was impulse and there was what Tirun had the sense to do in spite of impulse. Don’t back up, don’t show fear-

“Gods be,” Tirun muttered with fury in her eyes. “Hilfy- they’re pushing, these kif are: I don’t like their timing; but it’s a real soft push right now. We got to take that delivery.”

“Sure as rain falls we can’t back up from them,” Hilfy said. “I’ll go down there.”

“Take Khym with you.”

“Rather have Geran.”

“I want a second pair of eyes up here at the boards. Take Khym.”

“Right.” Hilfy punched the all-ship, on low volume. “Geran. Tully. You’re needed on the bridge. Na Khym, go to lower main.”

And she felt a quiver in her stomach as she got up from the board. Raw terror. Pyanfar was out with Haral and the kif wanted in at the lock with an innocuous delivery of a cage full of stinking vermin and a mini-can of grain.

Compliments of the hakkikt.

From Sikkukkut, who had kept Pyanfar and Haral aboard a worrisome long time.

Geran reached the bridge before she had gotten across the deck to the weapons locker. “Kif below,” Tirun said at her back, talking to Geran. “We got visitors.”

A chair sighed with Geran’s weight as Hilfy heaved the weight of an AP about her hips and gathered up a light pistol for herself and one for Khym. Her hands were shaking. She looked up as Tully arrived on the bridge. “Sit scan,” Hilfy said as he looked her way. “Help Geran.”

“Py-anfar got trouble?” Tully asked. There was panic in his eyes. Raw nightmare. “What do?”

“Sit down! Don’t ask me questions!” She had not meant to snarl. Instinct delivered it; terror; vexation. Men. It was not a man’s kind of fight-yet. And all she had for help down there in lowerdeck was a man not hers. Pyanfar could handle Khym. Pyanfar could knock reason into his thick skull, and Pyanfar was off with the kif in gods knew what trouble-

-and na Khym knew that.

Gods, gods. She snapped the locker shut as across the bridge Tully slipped into the chair by Geran’s side, an extra pair of eyes and hands in crisis-that, at least. Skilled and illiterate. And mortally scared.

“Stay put!” Geran was saying to someone on com; and Hilfy guessed who. Chur had surely heard that bridge-call.

Hilfy hit the topside-main at a run, the heavy gun knocking at her leg, the light pistols in either hand as she headed for the lift downside.

“This way,” their guide said, deep in the gut of the kifish ship, down reeking halls, down sodium-lighted corridors and through one and the other ominously scalable door.

On the far side of this last doorway were cross-barred cells.

“Wait outside, captain?” Haral said.

“Aye,” Pyanfar said, and Haral stepped to the side by the outside of that door and set her hand on her gun-fast; and firm; and she blessed her first officer’s good sense as Haral got away with it.

But the kif performed a like maneuver: one of their dark guides went in and beckoned her on; while the others lingered to take up guard with Haral outside.

Move and countermove.

A species old in assassinations and treachery; and the hani species recent from the age of walled estates and bright banners and yes, by the gods, treachery of its own, House and House, with never poison in the cup but connivance and betrayal and duel aplenty. Pyanfar drew a deep breath of the tainted air as she walked in, searching it for information; and saw a touch of color in this black and gray hell, behind crossed bars. Huddled in a corner, the merest glimmer of rust-brown, a lump of hani bodies rested together in their misery.

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Categories: Cherryh, C.J