The Kif Strike Back by CJ Cherryh

“We got a present coming from Sikkukkut,” Pyanfar muttered, and gave a look Hilfy’s direction; Hilfy showed nothing now but a clear-eyed attention to business. “That’s what they say out there, at least; I didn’t like the last present much; and b’gods, if Sikkukkut gives me another earless hanger-on I’ll feed it to Skkukuk and solve two problems.”

“I don’t like this,” Haral said. “I don’t like it at all. Captain, let Tirun and me sort this out in the lock. We might get more kif than we bargained for and they could sabotage that hatch-”

“Airlock gives them advantage of position,” Pyanfar said. “Geran, you got image on them?”

“No, captain-one’s in sight at the bend; there’s more, but they’re staying back and that accessway light’s lousy.”

“Gods-be mess,” Pyanfar muttered. “Stand by, Geran.”

A single shot from their airlock toward the accessway might blow them to hard vacuum, even with light pistols; and Kefk was rife with potential suicides willing to bet their lives hani would hesitate one necessary instant to take the opposition with them.

“We could take it from lowerdeck ops,” Haral said.

“Sfik,” Pyanfar said, and took her gun from her pocket and threw the safety off. “Besides, sabotage at that hatch we don’t need. Airlock it is. You and I go in, cousin. Hilfy and Tirun hold the, rear and keep your hand on that close-switch. And, Geran, you look sharp up there.”

“I’m on it,” Geran said.

Tirun’s ears were back. Tirun had the clear ruthless sense to throw the emergency seal, backup to Geran; Hilfy was there because Hilfy happened to be belowdecks, and sending her topside would say something Pyanfar had no wish to say.

“Huh,” Tirun said, commentary on it all.

They rounded the corner toward the lock. “Geran. Inner hatch only, Geran.”

Ssssnnk. The big inner hatch went back on the instant, and the lock glared white with lights. Tirun took up position where the hatch rim gave some cover from fire and a split-second longer survival in an explosive decompression, her left hand set on the emergency switch. Hilfy stood armed on the opposite side of the hatchway.

“Easy,” Pyanfar said; and walked into the airlock with Haral behind her. “Geran, open her up.”

The outer hatch whisked back. A single kif who stood there a distance down the orange-lighted access, its hands in plain sight. It looked not at all startled at the pair of guns it faced; and it wisely refrained from all sudden movement.

Sikkukkut himself? Pyanfar wondered. But it was not so tall as Sikkukkut. It smelled different. She caught the different smell of Kefk station, musty and ammoniac, that came wafting in with it, fit to raise the hairs on a hani’s back. Her nose twitched. Gods, I’m allergic to the bastards-

“The hakkikt sends,” it said. “Will you accept the gift?”

“What gift?”

The kif made a slow turn. “-Kktanankki!” he called out. Bring it-a word that implied other things beyond bring, like a present that was able to walk under its own power.

A faint sound came from further down, around the corner of the accessway. More kif arrived, a massed drift of shadow with the red-gold of a hani in their midst, a hani in torn blue silk breeches.

Pyanfar’s heart lurched, first in statement and then in recognition of that face, the tangled mane with the bronze tone of Anuurn’s southlands; left ear ripped, a black scar that raked mouth and chin.

“Dur Tahar,” Pyanfar said.

The captain of Moon Rising raised her eyes as the kif brought her to the threshold of the lock. She blinked and the ears came up and flattened as the first kif and two more took her inside, under the white light. Her eyes were the same bronze as her mane, wild and hard and crazed-looking. “Pyanfar Chanur,” Tahar said, in a distant, hoarse voice.

“The hakkikt gives you your enemy,” the foremost kif said. “His compliments, Chanur.”

“Mine to him,” Pyanfar muttered.

“Kkt,” the kif said, and turned with a sweep of its robes and left, taking its dark companions with it, in kifish economy of courtesy.

“My crew,” Dur Tahar said. Her voice struggled for composure and failed. “For the gods’ own sake, Chanur-go after them! Ask for them; get them out of there!”

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Categories: Cherryh, C.J