The Kif Strike Back by CJ Cherryh

“Uhhnnn.” She caught his stare and held it. His eyes darted and jerked and stayed centered, dilated wide in the bright light of the bridge. “How do they sort out which kif, huh, Tully? Who tells them?”

“Kif is kif.”

“Think so? What kind of plan is that? Take on the whole by the gods kif species? You’re crazy, Tully. No. The mahendo’sat don’t deal with crazy people. And you’re dealing with the mahendo’sat, aren’t you?”

“I ask go to bring you, bring you, Pyanfar, I don’t # the mahendo’sat.”

“Say again.”

“Mahendo’sat don’t speak all truth. I’m scared. I don’t know what they do. I think maybe they want help us but I-II” He laid a hand on his chest and said it in hani, sending the translator into sputters. “I Tully-I scare, Py-anfar.”

“Of what? What scares you?”

“I think the mahendo’sat more want help self. Maybe hani have want help self. I don’t know. I don’t understand too much. The translator makes wrong words. I scare-I don’t know-”

“You’re talking real clear now. Tully. You understand me. And I don’t want any more evasions. You don’t tell me you don’t understand, hear? You know what kind of mess we’re in.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Oh, yes, you do. Who’s with the ships, Tully? What’s the arrangement they made? Where are they going next?”

“I don’t understand.”

“I told you I don’t want to hear that. I want to know what you know. Tell me this, Tully-what questions did Sikkukkut ask you? What did he ask you, all alone?”

“Not-not-” His eyes widened. He twisted suddenly and looked behind him. Pyanfar glanced beyond, where Hilfy stood. Reflection and movement in the dead monitor screen. That had caught Tully’s eye; and he seized on the chance.

“Hilfy,” Tully said, pleaded. “Hilfy-”

“Something wrong?” Hilfy asked.

“We’re just talking,” Pyanfar said. Gods rot the timing. “Go see how Chur’s doing, huh?”

“Geran’s with her. Was just there.” Blind to hints. Or ignoring them.

“Fine. Go see about the filters. You want to walk through, walk.”

Hilfy’s ears went down. She stood there.

“I go help,” Tully offered, making to get up.

“You stay put.” She shoved him back down on the chair? arm. “I’m not through with you. Hilfy. Get.”

“What’s the matter? What’s going on?”

Fear. Human sweat. It was distinct and general in the air. The quiet on the bridge despite two stations working, the look on Tully’s face-

“We’re discussing routes,” Pyanfar said evenly, quietly, and laid a quiet hand on Tully’s shoulder. He flinched from under it and glanced round in panic. “Discussing what things he may still know. What he might have told without realizing it, to the mahendo’sat. To the kif in particular.”

“I don’t talk, Hilfy, I don’t.”

“Didn’t say you were a liar, Tully. I asked you what Sikkukkut asked you. I want to know what Sikkukkut wanted to know.”

“For godssakes, aunt-”

There was sweat on Tully’s face. His skin had gone white. He looked up at her.

“Let him alone, gods rot it, aunt, he’s had enough.”

“I know he’s had enough. I know what he went through-”

“You don’t know! Keep your hands off him!”

Panic. Killing rage. O gods. Gods, Hilfy. Whoever wore that look was not a child, had never been a child. “Tully. All right. Get.” She gave him a shove to move him. “Go on, I’ll talk to you later.”

“We send out ships,” Tully said, suddenly, perversely clinging to his place. He poured the words out, clutched her wrist when she made a gesture of dismissal, and he looked from Hilfy to her, to Tirun and Haral and back, his alien eyes flickering and distracted. “It long time-long time-I try- They leave the Earth, understand. They make # self a #-” And when she shifted in the pain of his grip, he held the harder. “You listen, listen, Pyanfar, I tell you-”

“Make sense, gods rot it, the translator’s frying half you say.”

“We send ships-” He let go her bruised wrist to make a vague and desperate gesture of displacement,-of going away. “Ships go from Earth, from homeworld, they make # self # law, make # self # Compact. They don’t like Earth. We fight # long with these human. Now we get no trade # be # to Earth. There be two human Compacts. They # want #. Want Earth. We want be free. We want make our # law. We want go-out in space-not the same direction like before. We find new direction, new trade. We find your Compact, find you. We want trade. This is the truth. If we get trade we make three Compact. Earth # be the third. Earth # be the # friend to hani, to mahendo’sat.”

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Categories: Cherryh, C.J