The Kif Strike Back by CJ Cherryh

“No.” A small and strangled voice. It was not the first time.


“Still with you, captain.”

“Tirun: got a realtime check?”

“483 hours in transit, by the beacon.”

“That’s 20 minutes to final dump,” Haral said.

On schedule, on mark. They had worked it all out at Kshshti, before they undertook this lunacy; worked it out the hard way, in the hours before undock, and in the long hard push that sent The Pride out to a jump by-the-gods deep in the gravity ,well and brought her in gods-rotted deep in this one, in a maneuver a hunter-crew would stick at and no merchanter ever ought to try.

They were hani, all: red-gold maned and bearded, red-gold hides. All of them but one had gold rings aplenty up the sweep of their tuft-tipped ears, gold that meant experience, voyages and ventures from home at Anuurn to Idunspol, Meetpoint, Maing Tol and Kura; Jininsai and Urtur; strange ports, foreign trade, dice-throws and wide bets. But no voyage like this one. Mkks was no hani port. Not a place where any honest freighter would care to go. And no honest merchanter had that outsized engine pack they carried; or that ratio of vane to mass.

Pyanfar said nothing. She uncapped the safety switch on what few armaments The Pride had, and broke another law.

“Eighteen to final dump,” Haral said.

“Call coming-Tirun-Tirun-which one?” Khym’s voice betrayed strain and panic, inexperienced as he was at that board. Disoriented as well as jump-sick, it was well possible. But the switch got made and the station’s voice came through, dopplered out into sanity.

Mahen voice. “Confirm dump, confirm dump-”

“Repeat previous message. Tell them we want that shiplist. Fast.”

There were codes they might have used to get cooperation from the mahendo’sat. There was no way to use them. The kif had ears too.

So they went at it the hard way, and Mkks station began to panic, dopplered message overlaying message, continuing a few seconds yet in the initial assumption: that they had a ship incoming dead at them in helpless malfunction.

By now their own message would be flashing to the kif, who would not be so naive.

The kif might-might-at this stage get a ship out to run; but she had not read Sikkukkut an’nikktukktin as that breed of kif.

Not with prisoners in his hands.

It was a hall somewhere within the upper reaches of the ship docked gods-knew where. Hilfy Chanur knew the ship-name now. It was Harukk.

And she knew the kif seated before her, among other kif. His name was Sikkukkut. He sat as a dark-robed lump on an insect-chair, among its black, bent legs. Sodium-glow relieved the murk close in, casting harsh shadow and orange-pink light. Incense curled from black globes set about the room and mingled with ammonia-stench. She could not so much as rub her offended nose. Her hands were linked with cords behind her back, Tully’s likewise, for all the good that he could have done if his hands were free. Tully’s face was pale, his golden mane and beard all tangled and sweat-matted, his fragile human skin claw-streaked and bleeding in the lurid glow. He had done his best. She had. Neither was good enough.

“Where did you hope to go?” Sikkukkut asked. “To do what?”

“I hoped,” Hilfy Chanur said, because it never paid to back up with a kif, “to fracture a skull or two.”

“No fracture,” Sikkukkut said. “Concussed.”-whether that this was a kif s humor or a kifish total lack of it. Harukk’s captain unfolded himself from his insect-chair in a rustling of black robes. There was no color save the sodium-light, none, throughout all the ship. Objects, walls, clothes were all grays and blacks-They’re color blind, Hilfy thought, really, totally blind to it. She thought of blue Anuurn skies and green fields and hani themselves a riot of golds and reds and every color they decked themselves in, and held that recollection like a talisman against the dark and the hellish glare.

Sikkukkut moved closer. There was a sound like the wind in old leaves as other kif moved beyond the lights and the curling wisps of smoke. She braced herself; but it was Tully the kif aimed at.

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Categories: Cherryh, C.J