The Kif Strike Back by CJ Cherryh

“You knew what she would do.” Sikkukkut sipped at his cup, flicked his tongue delicately about his lips. “Well, as we sit here at our ease, Vigilance is still outbound-on Meetpoint vector, without a doubt. Your colleague and partner Ismehanan-min is running hard behind her, not a shot fired on either side. Does that surprise you, Keia?”

“Damn sure surprise,” Jik said darkly.

“And yourself, ker Pyanfar?”

Pyanfar lowered her ears. “Hakkikt, I told you what Ehrran would do the minute she got the chance. No, I’m not at all surprised.”

That did not well please the hakkikt. She saw the tension in the hand that held the cup, the relief of tendons and veins under the dark gray skin. But the snout gracefully lifted from the cup again. The dark eyes blinked ingenuously. “What would you do, skth skku?”

Vassal of mine. Pyanfar flattened her ears further. “What’s necessary to do, The hakkikt has no need of my advice, but our motives still coincide. Pukkukkta. Ehrran plainly aims to kill us, and I don’t intend to let her have a sitting target. By your leave, hakkikt. What I said before the fighting started is still the truth.”

“Sktothk nef mahe fikt.” Safety snicked off a gun close at hand. A guard held a pistol close to Jik’s head and Jik never flinched, but picked up his wine and took a measured sip.

“Do you trust our friend Keia?” Sikkukkut asked.

“He’s still here. He was doublecrossed in this, same as us.”

“Was he, truly? Second question. Is he my friend?”

“Like always,” Jik said with a tilt of his imperiled head, and the cheerfulness faded to a frown. “Hakkikt, long time I work with Ana Ismehanan-min. He sometime crazy. I think maybe he got idea, maybe go this place-”

“Humans.” Sikkukkut leaned forward, set down the cup on the low table and rested his hands on both his knees, long jaw outthrust. “Ismehanan-min knows precisely what he is working for. Mahen interests-which have perhaps very little to do with mine.-Or even yours, ker Pyanfar. I wonder what those two discussed with each other before Ismehanan-min left dock. I wonder what agreements exist. Would you know these things?”

“I’ve never found Goldtooth forthcoming on his plans.” Exhaustion threatened her with shivers; or it was the cold; or a sick dread of the narrow path .they walked, and where it might turn next. The gun stayed at Jik’s head; and there was ice in her stomach and her nose ran. “He left Jik here. So he didn’t tell Jik anything. Same as me. Didn’t trust me with what he was up to.”

“But he trusted-I do dislike that concept-trusted this Rhif Ehrran.”

“That isn’t necessarily so, hakkikt. I don’t think he trusts anyone.”

“But Ehrran has a ship on her tail and at last report, she isn’t firing. Is this characteristic of Ehrran?”

“It is if she’s got a hunter-ship on her back. She’s only brave on docksides. I haven’t seen her style in space. But I know she’s no match for Goldtooth in a fight. Couldn’t be, if he’s got position on her. Fancy ship, fancy computers, lot of programmed stuff. Programs for everything. But I wouldn’t bet Vigilance’s arms systems against Mahijiru and I sure wouldn’t bet her crew. Evidently she thinks the same.”

“There’s another possibility. Ismehanan-min boarded Vigilance during his time in port.”

Her ears pricked up. It took no acting. “After or before he came to me, hakkikt?”

“After. Does it suggest something to you?”

“It might still have been on our business.” The sweat stung in her wounds. Across the chamber, against the wall, Canfy Tahar slowly slumped to the deck, not fainting, but at her limit. Tav knelt by her; and kifish guns angled toward them. They still had their own weapons: kifish etiquette. But theirs were not out of holsters; and the kif s were.

And the gun never left Jik’s temple. He sipped carefully at his drink and ignored it. But that was calculated and dangerous too.

“I doubt it was,” Sikkukkut said. “If they are not acquaintances, who sleep in one bed, they will be by morning. Is that not a hani proverb?”

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Categories: Cherryh, C.J