The Kif Strike Back by CJ Cherryh

“Aunt,” Hilfy said, “Aja Jin advises we dock and take no connections but shielded line and personnel access.”

“Affirm and acknowledge.”

“Kkkt. Most of all beware your allies. Beware-”

“Shut it down, kif.”

“Fools, I have been given to fools.”

They kept coming. Ahead of them their lone tc’a escort underwent its lunatic evolutions on its way to docking on Kefk’s methane side. Kefk’s methane-side control sent out data matrices in tc’a communication. And camera image came up now on monitor 4, Haral’s sending. Kefk station shone in its own floods like a baleful star, lit in orange and red.

“Gods-be mahen hell,” Chur said.

“Kif have a hell?” Tirun wondered. “How about it, Skkukuk?”

No answer.

“They don’t swear, either,” Hilfy said. “Kif don’t swear, do they, kif?”

“Mind on your business,” Pyanfar said shortly.

“Kefk,” Haral said, and switched a call through-likeliest from Khym’s board. Kefk stats started up, and Tirun sorted them on comp, searching for anomalies and trouble. “All clear, all clear,” Tirun said, “we got a normal approach at this V, all standard for Kefk’s size.”

More numbers started rolling in. “Auto this?” Haral wondered. “Affirm,” Pyanfar said. There was no reason not to. The Pride took the numbers in as Haral punched into the auto-approach: tired, gods, they were all tired. A red light blinked urgently, comp’s advisement that armament was live and it was being asked to violate the law. Pyanfar overrode with a triple keypunch and logged that decision with another press of a key.

“Approach under hostile conditions,” she muttered into the recorder. “Armaments will stay live until dock.” The vid screen caught her eye. There was a tone-difference in the slowly rotating station, a few ships not taking the floods in the same way as others docked at Kefk, three, not two bright spots in Kefk’s as yet indistinguishable row of oxy-breather ships, beside the methane-sector rim. She keyed in a tighter shot. Tighter still.

“I’m not picking up any heat,” Haral said, “except on the ships I think are ours.”

Meaning no hostile ship’s engines were hot and no one unanticipated was lately come or about to bolt dock. Yet.

“We got more than kif at this station,” Pyanfar said. “Haral, have a look at vid one. We’ve got more bright spots on that rim than we ought to have.”

“I see it. Maybe the spare’s our fugitive stsho. Maybe it docked here. Maybe it had to.”

“Might be.”

“Or more of Jik’s gods-be conniving?”

“Or Goldtooth’s.”

The Pride trimmed up and lines trued on: Kefk station kept talking, realtime now for all practical consideration. The system schematic indicated a scatter of miner craft, all insystem and hardly more maneuverable than the asteroids themselves. There were the guard ships, which had shed their V and began a sedate return to their base. And Mahijiru advancing with the only speed in the system besides their own that still warranted a flashing red line on the course-plot.

“Aja Jin says they’ve got the dock secure,” Hilfy said. “Mahijiru’s requesting docking instructions.”

“Huh,” Haral said, and: “thank the gods,” from Geran.

Not going to attack then. Once the braking started in earnest- Goldtooth meant to come in.

Why? for the gods’ sakes, when he was safe and secret out where he was?

Why leave cover, Goldtooth? What are you up to-friend of mine? Another doublecross?

Or did Jik always know you were here?

“Captain,” Haral said, and gave her station-image. “Vid one. That anomaly looks mahen-type.”

Pyanfar looked. The brightness among the dull grim shapes of kifish vessels resolved itself. It was indeed another ship of mahendo’sat design.

That meant an unanticipated mahen ship at Kefk dock-or a hani.

Closer and closer. Pyanfar wiped her eyes. Fool, stay awake, stay alert, or you won’t have to worry. Kif-taint had permeated the bridge. Her nose twitched in the promise of a sneeze. She restrained it, and it crept up again and erupted. She wiped her nose. Another revolution.

Aja Jin and Vigilance and one bright-shining ship too many. “That’s about berth 8 or 20,” Haral said. “I’d sure like to know what it is.”

“So would I,” said Pyanfar. Ask Jik, Haral meant. But Jik was not saying anything about the discrepancy. No one was talking. Neither Jik nor Vigilance. “Put in a call to Vigilance. Ask them to confirm status dockside.”

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Categories: Cherryh, C.J