2235 - Early in the Third Interstellar War
Small Claw of the Khan Zhaarnak'diaano—and whether he would be permitted to stay Clan Diaano depended a great deal on the outcome of this assignment—stepped through the hatch to the wail of pipes. They were subtly wrong, hitting half-notes that Zhaarnak had never associated with naval calls, but the pattern was familiar, and it carried him through an automatic salute to a face he had not seen in nearly a decade. "Permission to come aboard, Sir?" he asked clearly.
"Permission granted, Small Claw," Captain Raymond Prescott replied in crisp English. The accent was familiar, though the tone was not. This is what Raaaymmonnd'pressscott sounds like when he is master of his own domain. Zhaarnak stepped forward, taking care to keep his thoughts from twitching his ears. Prescott, at least, would be able to read them, even if no one else could. He stopped a non-threatening conversational distance from Prescott and the man standing beside him. "Commander Alvaro Jackson, my executive officer."
Zhaarnak bowed acknowledgment.
"If you would follow me, we will have an hour to acquaint you with the ship before supper." Prescott sent Commander Harris off to the still-loaded shuttle with a glance, and collected Zhaarnak with another. They settled into the intraship car in splendid isolation, accompanied only by the onboard computer that controlled the vehicle's movement. Zhaarnak was grateful that Prescott showed no trace of discomfort in his body language. He hoped the trust was genuine, but even the illusion of it told him that Prescott was committed to making him welcome on this ship upon which for months he would be the only member of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee.
"Thank you for accepting this assignment," Prescott said into the silence that wrapped them. Zhaarnak blinked. Prescott had switched to the Tongue of Tongues. His grammar was far more correct and his accent more educated than Zhaarnak remembered it being four years ago, but the words themselves made little sense. He had just begun to consider how to put his confusion into words when Prescott continued. "We knew that many of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee English-speakers would know the language for reasons that we distrust. Fang Waldeck asked before she made me her flag captain if I could work with whomever came. I was prepared to, but it was your name on the list of candidates that made me hope the Strategy Board had used good judgment to select liaisons."
Zhaarnak chose his words carefully. "I am grateful for your faith, and your forgiveness." Prescott gestured uncomfortably with one hand, brushing off the gratitude. Zhaarnak persisted. "I am grateful to be here. My khanhaku was displeased by my actions at the close of the war. Only the decision of the Strategy Board that all those in uniform who spoke human languages and had not incurred the Federation's ire were precious resources prevented my expulsion from the clan." The betrayal he felt about his father colored his voice despite his best efforts, but he smiled as a human might, albeit without exposing his fangs. "So, you see, I must be grateful that you will accept me as liaison officer to your admiral."
Prescott's answering smile was equally careful. "We will make sure that it works, then." His words had the ring of an oath. The car slowed to a stop, they stepped out, and Prescott continued in a brisker tone, "Your combat posting will be on the flag bridge, second to Fang Waldeck's communications officer, but I wanted to introduce you to my own, since I believe you met hers on planet?"
Zhaarnak flicked his ear in respectful assent as the two of them stepped onto the bridge of Prescott's Great Learning. The stations of the command-class flagship were fully manned, with officers who braced to attention at the announcement of Prescott's arrival.
"At ease," he said. The officers returned to their tasks with furtive looks at the two of them striding toward the communications station. "Most of our speakers of the Tongue of Tongues have a purely academic knowledge, limited to reading and to the accents on training tapes that we have been able to distribute," Prescott explained as they moved. "You may have noticed it with the translators on-planet." His slightly cocked head, indicating the concentration on the face of the lieutenant manning the communications station, added wordlessly, Or you may notice it here.
"Ahhhdmiraal Waaaaldeck's communications officer was excellent, and the fang herself quite skilled," Zhaarnak said politely, and slowly enough to be easily comprehensible to the eavesdropping lieutenant, "but I am familiar with the difficulty of comprehending an alien language under stressful circumstances."
Shadows lurked behind Prescott's eyes, but the amusement crinkling them seemed genuine, as well. "They are —"
"Captain!" The communications officer stiffened. "Priority signal from HQ."
Prescott frowned. "Put it up on the screen," he ordered. He cast an assessing glance at Zhaarnak, so quick that Zhaarnak nearly missed it, before gesturing him to stay.
Admiral Minerva Waldeck appeared on the screen, the black and silver of her uniform accentuating the hardness of her expression. "The Rigelians have attacked Gozal'hira," she snapped as soon as the picture stabilized and her eyes caught Prescott's. Zhaarnak was so focused on comprehending her words that their meaning took a moment to sink in. "Orion casualties are in the millions and climbing, and Fang Pharaan isn't sure he'll be able to hold the warp point into Chilliwalt. I want the fleet ready to move within an hour after my shuttle arrives." She looked at someone off-screen, and Zhaarnak took the moment to loosen his fists and wipe dry the blood where his claws had sunk into the skin. A murmur too indistinct for Zhaarnak to make out, and the admiral turned back to the screen. "Seventy minutes to arrival, Raymond," she told Prescott. "Any minute you can shave off our time in-system is one less they'll have to bomb civilians."
"Yes, sir." Prescott's voice was even, without a trace of the tension whitening his knuckles, and Waldeck smiled grimly before cutting the connection.
Before Zhaarnak could blink, Prescott had turned to his communications officer. "Are the resupply shuttles back aboard?" he asked, tone as polite as the one Zhaarnak had once heard him use to organize human soldiers at the POW camp at which they had met. Funny how it was only now that Zhaarnak understood the life-or-death urgency that undergirded it.
The woman nodded. "The last one is docking at Addis now." A hint of a smile touched her lips. "Ten minutes ahead of schedule. It seems the pilot noticed Admiral Waldeck's shuttle was leaving early and sped up accordingly."
Prescott's brows rose. "That poor shuttle," he murmured, then added in a more audible tone, "Thank Captain Essy for keeping me updated, and tell all of the captains that they have thirty minutes to make last-minute checks for anything they can't live without. Anything after that will be at the mercy of the planet's shuttle pilots and whether they can catch up before we transit the warp point." He turned to Zhaarnak and, in the Tongue of Tongues, said, "It seems you will be interceding for us sooner than expected."
Zhaarnak inclined his head. "I thank you for your speed."
Prescott nodded back. "Fang Waldeck will wish to meet with you as soon as she has a moment." He switched to English and projected his voice the slightest bit. "I'll have someone show you the flag bridge, then see you to your quarters to settle in before the admiral arrives." He caught the eye of the ensign standing nervously behind his superior at astrogation. "Ensign Jeong, make it so."
"Yes, sir!" The young man straightened and turned to Zhaarnak. "This way, please, sir." He pronounced each syllable clearly, though not slowly, for Zhaarnak's benefit.
Zhaarnak was glad that only Prescott seemed able to read the amusement in his twitching ears. "Thank you, Ennsaaaainn," he said gravely. As he followed Ensign Jeong off the bridge, he could hear Prescott behind him, organizing his admiral's fleet to leave for the relief of Gozal'hira.
Zhaarnak panted harshly, the blood of his superior still dripping from his claws. His left leg barely held him, flaring with the pain of sliced muscles where Least Claw Khaarnaow'salath had gotten in a lucky slash before he died. The rest of the prison outpost's officers stood around the room, looking as stunned as they had when Zhaarnak challenged Khaarnaow's decision to kill their human prisoners and take their forces to join the Khan's striking force when the peace talks mandated by the disastrous Second Battle of Lorelei inevitably collapsed.
With them, but not of them, stood Lieutenant Commander Raymond Prescott, the only one of the human prisoners who both spoke and understood the Tongue of Tongues, there as witness for his species.
"Do any of you contest my victory?" Zhaarnak demanded. "I say that we are the hirikolus'ni'hami of the Khan'a'khanaaeee, who has sworn his name to a truce. I say that we will not make him shirnowmak, faithless and forsworn, while he negotiates peace. We will guard this world, as is our duty, until we are relieved. Do any of you dispute this?"
Finally, the third ranking officer—second-ranking, now—stepped forward. "We do not, Son of the Khan. What are your orders?"
Zhaarnak's eyes flickered over Prescott, whose face was blank and body stiff. Zhaarnak thought he might see a hint of a relieved slump in his shoulders, but he doubted anyone who had observed and interacted less with the human than he had would. Which left out everyone in this room.
"The humans are to be guarded but not touched. Until we have word from the Khan'a'khanaaeee, nothing changes. Do you understand, Cub of the Khan? No one is to be killed." Zhaarnak could feel the blood dripping from his leg and somewhere else, higher up his back.
Cub of the Khan Meeaathar'raaalpha braced to attention. "Yes, Sir!"
Zhaarnak staggered out from the dueling circle and watched Cub Meeaathar send out his first messenger before he allowed himself to slump into the chair beside which the medic waited, and let go of consciousness.
Zhaarnak woke to the harsh light of the medical bay, with only Prescott attending him. Prescott was in a chair, but he had a book in his lap and did not appear restrained. Nor could Zhaarnak feel any binding around his own limbs. He experimentally moved his right leg, which swung unhindered, and could not suppress a hiss of pain at the ache in his muscles.
Prescott looked up immediately, pushed himself to his feet, and crossed the room to Zhaarnak's side. With one hand, he pressed the buttons to raise the bed to a sitting position, while with the other he passed Zhaarnak a cup of water, filled just low enough that nothing sloshed over the sides, even in Zhaarnak's unsteady hands. Zhaarnak sipped and felt the ache in his head lessen.
"You should be fine," Prescott murmured, stepping back. "The medic closed the broken skin and sped healing on the muscles. You can walk, but should not exercise for two weeks. You should leave in the IV to take care of the blood loss until the end of this shift." Zhaarnak nodded acknowledgment. Prescott inhaled and met Zhaarnak's eyes very directly. "I owe you our lives."
Zhaarnak shook his head. "I did my duty."
Prescott smiled faintly. Zhaarnak wondered what his full, unrestrained smile would look like. He wondered if he would ever see it. "You have taken a risk. The Khan'a'khanaaeee broke the last peace treaty."
Zhaarnak flicked his ears. "If the peace holds, my superiors will recognize the importance of preserving human lives. If it does not, the odds are good that a Terran fleet will reach us before a Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee one. I would prefer even odds that you and I both live to even odds that I live with your blood on my claws."
Prescott nodded slowly and did Zhaarnak the favor of not articulating what they both knew: that Zhaarnak's "even odds" now were weighted toward becoming a prisoner or asylee of the Terran Federation, instead of advancing in the service of the Khan. "Then I think I should tell your subordinates you are awake." He rose, refilled the cup of water at Zhaarnak's bedside, and placed the book on the bed next to Zhaarnak. It was the Conversations of Shaasaal'hirtalkin, which defined the Farshalah'kiah.
"Thank you, Raaaymmonnd," he said.
Prescott paused halfway to the door. "It is I who must thank you," he responded finally, in the archaic grammar of Shaasaal.
In the end, when the ships to repatriate their human prisoners finally came, they came with the news that the assassins of the Khanhath'vilkshathaaeee had executed the Khan'a'khanaaeee for planning to violate his oath of peace with the Terran Federation and had elevated he who would become Liharnow the Great in his place.