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Slowly, Thrr-gilag lifted his gaze from his contemplation of the stained restraint suit resting across his legs. "Yes, Ship Commander Zbb-rundgi?"
"The Diligent is ready to lift," Ship Commander Zbb-rundgi said. "We're waiting on your arrival."
"Thank you," Thrr-gilag said. "I'll be just a few hunbeats longer."
Zbb-rundgi's eyes flicked around the alien study group's private conversation room. "The disassembly crew can deal with the rest of the equipment, Searcher," he said. "There's nothing here you have to supervise."
"I understand," Thrr-gilag said. "As I said, I'll be a few hunbeats longer."
Zbb-rundgi's midlight pupils might have contracted slightly. At his distance Thrr-gilag couldn't tell for sure. "The Overclan Prime's instructions were quite clear, Searcher," the ship commander said. "We were to leave as soon as we were ready."
"And we're not yet ready," Thrr-gilag told him. "You may return to the ship and make any final prelaunch preparations. I'll be there in a few hunbeats."
This time there was no doubt about the pupils. "As you wish, Searcher," Zbb-rundgi said stiffly. Turning, he stalked out of the room.
"That was foolish," a distant voice said in the silence. "Ship Commander Zbb-rundgi holds great favor among the leaders of the Cakk'rr clan, as do the Elders of his family. It is not wise for one in your position to antagonize him."
"My position is that of duly appointed speaker of this mission, Chrr't-ogdano," Thrr-gilag reminded him, fingering one of the darklight sensors in the restraint suit, still partially caked with red dirt from the Human Pheylan Cavanagh's escape attempt. "Until the Overclan Seating revokes that appointment, I'll do whatever I deem necessary. Whether it irritates Ship Commander Zbb-rundgi or not."
"Thrr-gilag, you will look at me."
With a sigh Thrr-gilag raised his eyes to the faint shape floating in the air before him. Chrr't-ogdano, Elder of the Kee'rr clan and chief observer here on Base World 12. And if the look on his mostly transparent face was any indication, he had even less respect for Thrr-gilag's official standing right now than Ship Commander Zbb-rundgi did. "Don't play word games with me," the Elder bit out. "By title you may still be speaker of the mission. The position I refer to is that of the Zhirrzh whose actions allowed the Human prisoner Pheylan Cavanagh to be rescued by his people."
"The blame for that will fall wherever it may," Thrr-gilag said. "Until that time I don't think a certain degree of respect is too much to ask."
Chrr't-ogdano's tongue flicked out in scorn. "Authority is something that can be assigned; respect is something one must earn. If you're too young or too drunk with the taste of power to understand that, then perhaps you shouldn't have been given the speakership in the first place."
Thrr-gilag pressed his tongue against the top of his mouth, choking off the words that wanted to come out. "I'm sorry if I've disappointed you," he said instead. "I did the best I could."
Some of the hardness faded from Chrr't-ogdano's face. "What has happened has happened," he said, his voice heavy with resignation. "Only history now can judge your actions."
Which was not to say, of course, that Chrr't-ogdano hadn't already made up his mind about history's likely evaluation. Or that Ship Commander Zbb-rundgi and the rest of the mission hadn't, either.
And to be honest, Thrr-gilag couldn't really blame them. True, the scheme he'd improvised to recapture Pheylan Cavanagh had worked out exactly as he'd anticipated, a point he planned to emphasize when he presented his case before the Overclan Seating. They'd let the Human into the alien spacecraft and allowed him to activate it, giving the watching Elders valuable information about its operation. Then, again as anticipated, a sudden, clear look at one of the Elders had distracted the Human long enough for Thrr-gilag to slash away his restraints and inject a minuscule amount of tongue poison into his shoulder. New information, a prisoner recaptured with minimal trouble, it should have been little more than a sidelight to the day's report.
But none of them had known about the Human fighter warcraft poised overhead to strike. And the fact remained that if the prisoner had been safely under guard in his cell when the enemy swooped down a few hunbeats later, the rescue might have been thwarted.
Or maybe the Humans would simply have demolished the encampment, raised every Zhirrzh in the mission to Eldership, and taken Pheylan Cavanagh back anyway.
Thrr-gilag shivered, the edge of his tongue scratching lightly against the inside of his mouth at the memory. Those fighter warcraft had been unbelievable. Incredibly fast, incredibly maneuverable, incredibly destructive. In coloration and performance they'd matched perfectly the warcraft that had slashed to a sudden halt the beachhead advance on the Human world of Dorcas, warcraft his brother Thrr-mezaz had suggested might be the mysterious Copperhead warriors mentioned in the Human recorder.
Or could they possibly have even been the exact same warcraft?
Thrr-gilag frowned as that ominous thought struck him. If the Copperhead warriors had been able to slip out past the Dorcas encirclement force . . . "I want to speak with my brother," he told Chrr't-ogdano. "Thrr-mezaz; Kee'rr, commander of the Zhirrzh ground warriors on Dorcas."
"Now?" Chrr't-ogdano asked, taken aback. "Wouldn't it be better to speak with him from the Diligent?"
"To appease Ship Commander Zbb-rundgi, you mean?" Thrr-gilag asked pointedly.
"To appease the dictates of common sense," Chrr't-ogdano shot back. "Or do you wish to still be here when the Human warcraft return in greater numbers?"
Thrr-gilag sighed. "They won't be returning anytime soon," he said. "As I've already explained to Ship Commander Zbb-rundgi. It's been nearly six tentharcs since the rescueif the Humans had had more warcraft nearby, they would certainly have attacked by now. Any future attack must therefore be coming from one of their worlds. At least another fullarc away, probably more."
"That's an assumption."
"It's the consideration of a specialist in aliens and alien cultures," Thrr-gilag snapped, suddenly tired of all these arguments. No one had questioned Svv-selic like this when he'd been in charge. "A pathway to Thrr-mezaz, if you please."
"I obey," Chrr't-ogdano said, glowering, and vanished.
Across the room the door opened, and one of the technics came in pushing a carrier. "Anything new on our prisoners?" Thrr-gilag asked her.
"They're still asleep," the technic said as she pushed her carrier over to one of the three remaining tissue-analysis units. "But their metabolic levels seem to be recovering from the trauma of the transfer aboard ship. The healers think a few more hunbeats should do it."
"Good," Thrr-gilag said, finding a minor flicker of gratification in the fact that this, at least, seemed to be working out. It wasn't the taste of power on his tongue that was delaying their departure, as Chrr't-ogdano and Zbb-rundgi both seemed to think. It was, rather, an overriding concern that their two new alien prisoners might die from their mysterious injuries before they even made it off the planet. Transferring them aboard the Diligent had been risky enough, in the healers' opinion, and Thrr-gilag wanted the aliens to have as much time as possible to settle in before they were subjected to the stresses of liftoff.
Ship Commander Zbb-rundgi hadn't been able to grasp that concept. Or was simply too nervous about anticipated Human attacks to care about healers' warnings. But as long as Thrr-gilag stayed outside the Diligent, he retained the final word on when the ship lifted. "Have the Elders been able to learn anything about their injuries?"
"They're still doing studies," the technic said, the last word almost lost in the brief screech of ceramic against ceramic as the tissue analyzer came up off the floor and onto the carrier. "So far they're as puzzled as the healers are."
There was a flicker beside Thrr-gilag, and Chrr't-ogdano was back. "I have a pathway to Commander Thrr-mezaz," he growled. "Begin."
"This is Thrr-gilag," Thrr-gilag said, wondering what had taken Chrr't-ogdano so long. There was supposed to be a permanent straight-line pathway between here and all three of the Zhirrzh beachheads. Had something gone wrong? "Base World Twelve was attacked about six tentharcs ago by Human fighter warcraft of the type described in your last report. Question: are you certain both of those warcraft are still on Dorcas?"
Chrr't-ogdano nodded and vanished again. Thrr-gilag waited, watching the technic maneuver the tissue analyzer to the door and counting the time to himself. It would take around fifteen beats, he estimated, for each repetition of the message, beginning with whichever communicator Chrr't-ogdano had made contact with on the Zhirrzh homeworld of Oaccanv. From that Elder, then to another, and possibly another, until the message reached the shrine of someone who was also serving as communicator with the Dorcas ground force. Then a similar delay as Thrr-mezaz's return message wended its way back along the same route. The last time he'd talked with someone at the Dorcas beachhead, the round trip had taken roughly 120 beats. It ought to be something similar this time.
He was up to 190 beats when Chrr't-ogdano reappeared. "Both warcraft are still here," he delivered the message. "Are you injured, my brother?"
Thrr-gilag flicked his tongue in a wry smile. That was Thrr-mezaz, all right. He would be the overprotective worried big brother until both of them were raised to Eldership. Probably even after that. "I'm fine," he said to Chrr't-ogdano. "You?'
"Last I checked, I was still here," the reply came back a hunbeat later. At least Thrr-mezaz hadn't lost his dry sense of humor. "How badly was your base damaged?"
"Hardly at all," Thrr-gilag said. "It was an extremely precise attack."
"They were somewhat less so here. How many spacecraft did they use?"
"We saw only five fighter warcraft," Thrr-gilag said. "Though there might have been others outside our detection range. Why? Is the number important?"
"It could be," the answer came back. "If we had some idea of how many warcraft the Humans had committed to their search, it might give us an idea of the size of their overall force. Unless they were just checking systems at random and had immensely good luck."
"I doubt that was it," Thrr-gilag said. "We know they also looked at Survey World Eighteen. The Diligent and Operant nearly caught that group, but they got away."
"Then they must have covered all the likely systems in the area around the battle site," Thrr-mezaz concluded. "That's a huge number of systems."
"Much too huge," Thrr-gilag agreed, frowning. "They must have had some way to narrow the possibilities down."
"I concur," the answer came back. "Unfortunately, that leads to two troubling conclusions. First, that they were able to get extremely detailed readings of our environmental requirements from the survey ships; and second, that they have a detailed catalog of all the systems in this region. I can't see how else they could have limited their search enough to have succeeded so quickly."
Thrr-gilag grimaced. "I'm afraid I have to agree with you," he said. "Unless they've found a way to track ships through the tunnel-line. That would have done it, too."
"Don't even joke about such things," his brother warned. "That's how rumors get started; and the more impossible the story, the faster it spreads. I presume you're evacuating your base?"
"Yes," Thrr-gilag said. "We've been ordered back to Oaccanv. Where I'll no doubt be called before the Overclan Seating."
"No doubt. Be careful how you speak to them. The Too'rr clan was not at all happy with you for taking Svv-selic's place as speaker of the study group."
At least that was one thing they couldn't blame on him. "Not my doing," he told his brother. "Our Elders demanded Svv-selic be demoted after he let the Human get too close to the pyramid."
"Be careful anyway."
"Of course." Thrr-gilag frowned. "Is anything wrong there? The pathway seems longer than it was five fullarcs ago."
The delay this time seemed even longer; and Thrr-gilag was just wondering if he should send one of the other Elders to try to get Chrr't-ogdano back when he reappeared. "We've lost the pathway you and I spoke through back then," the Elder repeated Thrr-mezaz's words, his faint voice gone suddenly grim. "One of our communicators disappeared two fullarcs ago. Prr't-zevisti; Dhaa'rr."
Thrr-gilag felt his midlight pupils narrow with shock. "How in the eighteen worlds did that happen?"
"Human warriors raided one of the pyramids and took his fsss cutting," the reply came. "We tracked him back to their encampment, at which point his reports via his family shrine abruptly ended."
"They killed him?"
"Or else somehow managed to capture him. All we know is that in the fullarcs since then he hasn't been heard from. Not here, nor at his family shrine on Dharanv."
"I see," Thrr-gilag murmured. "How did the Humans breach your defense perimeter?"
"They didn't have to. As it happens, all four pyramids are outside the encampment."'
"Outside?" Thrr-gilag echoed. "Whose flat-headed idea was that?"
"Mine. It was an experiment to see if the Elders could help supplement the sentry line."
Thrr-gilag flicked his tongue. "The Dhaa'rr leaders aren't going to be at all happy about this."
"Their unhappiness has already been expressed to me," the dry response came. "I expect they'll be expressing it to you, as well, once you're up before the Overclan Seating."'
"I appreciate the advance warning," Thrr-gilag said, checking the time. The alien prisoners should have had enough time to recover now. At least as far as they were going to. "I have to go now, my brother. Keep yourself safe, and I'll speak with you again soon."
"I'll be careful," Chrr't-ogdano repeated the words. "You, too. Farewell."
"Farewell." Thrr-gilag nodded to the Elder. "Thank you, Chrr't-ogdano. You may release the rest of the pathway now. It's time to go."
"Good," Chrr't-ogdano grumbled. He gestured toward the door with his tongue. "What about the pyramid? Are you still planning to leave it here?"
"We're hardly going to be able to watch the Humans when they return without it," Thrr-gilag pointed out, frowning at the worried expression on the Elder's face. "Why? Are you afraid?"
"After what happened to Prr't-zevisti?" Chrr't-ogdano countered. "Of course I'm afraid. You would be too."
Thrr-gilag grimaced, reaching behind his head to touch the small scar at the base of his skull