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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter One

       Last updated: Monday, September 21, 2009 21:29 EDT




    Gabe Tully was on detached duty in the Rocky Mountains Resistance camps when his Jao-issued com buzzed in his shirt pocket. A breeze rustled through the coin-shaped aspen leaves overhead as he silenced it quickly, hoping no one working nearby had heard. Even though Earth’s Resistance was cooperating with the Jao invaders to fight the Ekhat — for now — many of his former comrades still resented him for apparently “selling out” by taking service under the Jao governor, Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak.

    That hadn’t exactly been his choice in the beginning, but there was no way to explain the situation to men and women who had never been exposed to Jao culture. They didn’t understand that joining a Jao’s service was more like taking an oath in a brotherhood. His loyalty was to this one particular Jao who didn’t seem as bad as most.

    And, of course, he wasn’t going to point out to these rugged freedom fighters that, for all intents and purposes, they were enrolled in Earth’s new Human taif, whether they liked it or not. The way he saw it, membership was a plus, guaranteeing them rights the Jao had previously denied, but until his Resistance brethren had seen the things Tully had seen and fought the battles he’d fought, there was no way they were going to understand.

    Tully understood though. The old ways were forever altered. There was no going back. Mankind was living in a much more dangerous universe than any of them had ever credited. After the video record had come in from China two years ago, the smoking remnants of towns, forests blasted into cinders and mountains into slag, had all made it clear exactly what the Ekhat intended to do to Earth. If this alliance with the Jao could protect their world from another such attack, it deserved their allegiance, however grudging.

    In order to talk privately, he slipped away from the hodgepodge of ramshackle cabins and tents which sheltered a good portion of what was left of America’s free fighting force, then settled underneath a stone ledge. Bright morning light streamed in from the east. He braced his back against the sun-warmed rock and keyed the com’s channel open. “Tully.”

    “Tully, Ed Kralik here.”

    Tully scowled. There had never been any love lost between the two of them, for all that they’d watched each other’s back during that “unpleasantness” two years ago when the Ekhat attacked Earth. And of course, Kralik, as head of the Jao’s Jinau troops, outranked him, always a sore point. “Yeah, I’m kinda busy.”

    “Aille wants you in Pascagoula on the double.”

    “I’m in the middle of negotiations with Willa Sawyer,” Tully said, watching an eagle soar above the pass. “Can’t this wait a few more days? If I hot-foot it back to Mississippi now, I’ll have to start all over when I return, and these folks are not crazy about the whole idea of working with us in the first place.”

    “This is big,” Kralik’s deep voice said. He hesitated. “Real big, to judge by all the excitement it’s stirred up. The Jao are scurrying about like ants who’ve had their hill kicked apart. Aille understands how important your work is, and he still wants you back on base — now.”

    Wind shifted through a stand of pine higher up on the mountain side, filling the air with their cool pungence. With fall just around the corner, change was in the air. The seasons turned early at this elevation and the steep pass up into the mountains would probably be snowed-in before he could return, isolating the settlement for the winter.

    Tully sighed, then massaged the bridge of his nose. Goddammit. Four weeks of talks shot all to hell, just when that old she-badger Sawyer seemed on the brink of saying yes, but there was no wiggle room with the Jao. If one who outranked you said “jump,” you didn’t even get to ask “how far?” You just closed your eyes and leaped. They would tell you where you landed later — if and when it suited them.

    He stared at the plastic com as though this were all its fault, then ran fingers through his wind-blown blond hair. “It’s not the Ekhat, is it?” he asked with a stab of dread.

    “Not allowed to say,” Kralik said. “In fact, Aille hasn’t even told me yet, but there’s plenty of speculation around here. Everyone agrees that something big is brewing. Just pack up and head out. I’m sending a small courier ship to pick you up down by that old airport in Aspen.”

    “You mean what’s left of Aspen,” Tully said. Most of the former millionaires’ playground was now in ruins, abandoned by its former owners and then plundered by the desperate Resistance. “It’ll take me a whole day to get down into the valley on horseback unless I can persuade Sawyer to waste some of her precious gas to send me in a truck.” He shook his head. “And even then what’s left of those roads will shake your teeth out if you drive too fast.”

    “Sooner would be better,” Kralik said. “Make the best time you can. Your ride will be waiting.”



    Yaut poked his head into Aille’s office and the younger Jao, current Governor of Earth, looked up from the flimsies he was studying. Aille’s golden-brown nap was still damp from a morning swim as his ears settled into polite-inquiry.

    “Tully is on his way,” Yaut said. His fraghta’s ugly face was creased in thought. He had that classic bull-necked solidity that his birth-kochan, Jithra, prided itself upon breeding. His vai camiti, or facial striping pattern, was pure Jithra, strong and unabashed. “He is the last.”

    “But in some ways, the most important,” Aille said. He shoved the flimsies aside and stretched to work the kinks out of his back. “Surprising, I know, but true.”

    “You always understood that one better than I did,” Yaut said grudgingly. He sank onto a soft pile of traditional dehabia blankets along the wall. The room was suitably dim as Jao eyes preferred, mimicking the less brash stars of their homeworlds, both very far away.

    “I just felt from the first moment I came across him that he had a quality I wished to understand, and that understanding it would lead me to comprehend something important about his entire species,” Aille said. “I am not certain, even now, that it could be put into Jao words. It is so uniquely — human.”

    “He was certainly difficult to train,” Yaut said, “but in the end exceeded my expectations.” He stared moodily into the air, his angles signifying contemplation in the no-nonsense Jithra bodystyle. “You should order him to stay out of those mountains, though. Lately, he’s been increasingly obsessed with negotiating with the Resistance, even though his efforts in that direction are obviously hopeless. Those of their number who can see reason, already have, like Rob Wiley. I doubt that the rest of them will ever accept the inevitable and willingly make themselves of use under your rule. They will just have to die out.”

    Aille considered, his ears pitched forward in careful-thought. “I think you misjudge the situation, which admittedly is full of variables. As for Tully, he possesses a great deal of fierce energy, too much to be down here, drilling his new unit all the time. Before he fell into our hands, he was always on the move, infiltrating the next military base or unit. He never stayed in one place very long.”

    “A human would say — `he can’t sit still for two seconds,’” Yaut put in.

    Aille’s ears signaled a sketchy amusement. He was classically trained in postures, of course, like all highly ranked Jao, but he and Yaut were old companions who had no reason to impress one another with the elegance of their movements. “That energy is directed now, put to work in our favor. What he has been doing is critical, though we can no longer spare him. After this situation is resolved, though, I intend to use him to recruit members of the Resistance to staff several official positions in our new human taif so that the group edges toward full association with the Terra’s Jao taif.”

    Yaut sniffed dismissively. “Tully is one thing, but what is left of the Resistance up there will never be that civilized. We cannot afford the time to intensively train them, one by one, through wrem-fa as we did him. Those still skulking up in the mountains are hard-core ferals who have not been held to account by any authority since the Jao took this world. In fact, I doubt even their own government, before the Conquest, could have made use of them.”

    “The secret is — they are in agreement with us already,” Aille said, “only they do not yet realize it.”

    “By the time they do,” Yaut said, his whiskers bristling with doubt, “this reckless world will be a glowing cinder.”

    Memories of the Ekhat attack surged back over Aille. Two orbital periods ago, a fiery plasma ball launched by the Ekhat had broken through combined Jao-Terran forces to incinerate the southern area of China, resulting in at least three million dead, perhaps more. The human authorities of that area had never been able to make a full accounting.

    Aille rose and prowled the length of the room, restless with memory. Just the thought of that spectacular failure made it difficult to sit still. And there was something else, too, waiting out there to make itself known. Faraway, but significant. Lately, he could feel the flow of the nascent situation increasing bit by bit. Something, somewhere, that concerned them all was about to come together. “We can never let the Ekhat get that close again.”

    Yaut’s green-black eyes gazed steadily at him. “Then you will have to make everyone on this world of the fullest use, including the rebels. They will have to be driven out of their mountain strongholds and then forced to understand where their best interests lie,” the old fraghta said, “and right now I do not feel that flow ever completing itself.”

    “Let us hope you are wrong,” Aille said.



    Caitlin Kralik and her husband, Lieutenant General Ed Kralik, reported to the office of the governor of Earth, as requested. Even though she was a member of Aille’s personal service, Caitlin had not seen the young Jao in several months. She’d been traveling the east coast with her father, who was still the President of North America, overseeing the repair of the last of the infrastructure devastated in the original Jao conquest of Earth. Virginia in particular had been shamefully neglected, but at last that was being put to rights.

    Even after two years of Aille’s supervision, people were still wary, still did not want to believe that things had changed. Most did not understand this new partnership with their former rulers. She often had trouble believing how much things had changed herself. The absence of her abusive former Jao guard, the unlamented Banle, did more to reassure her than anything else.

    “Once more into the breach,” Ed murmured, as they paused before the shimmering green door-field of Aille’s office.

    “You aren’t expecting trouble, are you?” she said, one hand resting on his broad shoulder. “Matters have been going so well, I even gave Tamt leave for the next month and she’s gone down to the Mexican coast to swim. I don’t think the poor thing has had a day off since she was born, but I can recall her if you think I’m going to need a bodyguard again.”

    “I don’t think that will be necessary,” Ed said, taking her hand in his and squeezing it. “I’m not really expecting a blow-up, but you never know with the Jao. No matter how smoothly things have gone lately, they are aliens. Their priorities will never be ours and we won’t always understand where they’re coming from.”

    “The directions taken by the new taif are interesting,” she said as the door-field winked off, allowing them entrance. She could make out Aille’s familiar vai camiti within. “They’ve finally selected a designation. They’re calling it `Terra,’ so now everyone can apply their new surname, if they like.”

    “Makes sense,” he said, “but I still don’t see you taking part in official taif activities.”

    “That’s because my father has a cow every time he thinks about how we were all just inducted, willing or not,” she said and stepped into the cool dimness of the spacious office beyond.

    “Your sire has acquired a bovine?” Aille said, rising from his desk.

    “Um, no,” she said. She was struck anew, every time they met, how tall this Pluthrak scion was, even for a Jao, with powerful limbs and that impressive classic Pluthrak vai camiti in the form of a solid black band across his eyes. As always, he carried himself like a prince.

    “If it would please him, we could have one sent over,” Aille said, his angles settled into polite-inquisitiveness, “though I was not aware that such creatures were highly prized in urban households.”

    Caitlin fought to keep a grin off her face, letting her body assume instead the Jao posture signifying appreciation-of-intended-favor. “That is very thoughtful,” she said, “but `having a cow’ is just another of our expressions. It means –” She thought fast, trying to be circumspect. “It means he does not approve.”

    Aille flicked an ear at her, indicating his understanding. Benjamin Wilson Stockwell, her father, had lost two sons to the Jao, one killed in the original conquest and the other murdered on no more than a vicious whim by the former governor of Earth, Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo.

    “Father does want to know when elections for the human government of North America can be held,” she said, noting that the wily fraghta, Yaut, was curled up in a pile of dehabia blankets and studying her. “He’s eager to step down and restore the democratic process.”

    “Not yet,” Aille said, “though it feels that the moment will be soon.”

    She nodded, then sank into a visitor’s chair. The famous Jao timesense had spoken and there was no arguing with that. Jao claimed they always knew when something would happen, not a form of prescience exactly, but something else even more mystifying, an inexplicable sense of time that was right far more than it was wrong. They had no need to depend on anything as primitive as a clock. She wondered if the devilish Ekhat had bred that into them, too, back when the aliens uplifted their species into sapience, along with their physical strength and indomitable wills.

    “So why have you called us here?” Ed positioned himself behind her chair and rested his hands possessively on her shoulders. “I know it must be important to take us away from our current projects.”

    “One of our ships has discovered something intriguing in a distant nebula, one which bears the designation NGC 7293 for human astronomers,” Aille said. “Its crew, or at least, the survivors of the crew, have been sent here for questioning and Bond analysis of the situation.”

    “Survivors?” Caitlin glanced up at Ed.

    “Yes,” Yaut said, rising. The stolid fraghta was all repressed-excitement to her experienced eye. “I will notify Preceptor Ronz that you are here.”

    The door-field winked off as Yaut approached and then Gabe Tully entered, looking rumpled and out of sorts. His hands were shoved into his pockets, his cheeks wind-chapped, and his blond hair disarrayed. “This had better be good,” he muttered. “I almost had Sawyer argued down!”

    Yaut ducked out, then Rafe Aguilera followed in on Tully’s heels, still limping from an old war wound, but head held high. He too had embraced the opportunities provided by the new taif and now was a superintendent in the construction of Earth’s newest spaceship being built here at the Pascagoula facility.

    Ed held out his hand. “Rafe! I had no idea you were coming.”

    The two men grasped hands. Aguilera shook his head. A few more threads of silver were apparent, but otherwise Caitlin thought he looked good. “Something big is cooking,” the older man said. “I can’t wait to find out.”

    The door-field crackled and Caitlin looked over in time to see Yaut return with Preceptor Ronz, along with the old Jao veteran, Wrot, a tall Jao female with classic Narvo vai camiti facial striping, and three unfamiliar Jao clad in maroon trousers and harness. Though most Jao had brown nap that could vary from gold to a reddish cast, these three were surprisingly dark with nap that might have been called bay, if they’d been horses. Their black vai camiti were almost invisible against such a deep brown background, which she thought might be perceived as a mark of homeliness by other Jao. A distinctive facial pattern was prized above all other physical attributes.

    To anyone trained in the subtleties of Jao body language, their postures were blunt and unashamedly singular. The first individual radiated disapproval, the second, unease, and the third, glaring at all of them as though in challenge, had allowed her every line and angle to settle into unadulterated rage.



    The situation was difficult to understand, Mallu krinnu ava Krant told himself, as the elderly Preceptor herded them into the room. As though it weren’t traumatic enough to lose their ship, he and those of his crew who had survived had been dispatched all the way across the galaxy to this backward planet. True, Krant was a small kochan, isolated and little regarded by such luminaries as Narvo and Pluthrak, but even a backwater like Krant deserved consideration.

    The rest of his crew had been sequestered in adequate housing, but he and his top two officers, Jalta, Terniary-Commander, and Kaln, Senior-Tech, had been summoned to this meeting. The room, though comfortably dim, was infested with humans, as the natives of this misbegotten world were called. He’d heard about them in scattered conversations during the voyage here on a Dano ship, troublemakers and savages by all accounts, not worth the firepower it had taken to subdue them.

    They were, he thought, even uglier in person than the ship’s vids had led him to believe, their skin mostly naked, their faces flat, ears tiny and immobile, with not a single whisker to be seen. Their bodies were chaotic, angles completely random.

    Another human entered the now crowded room behind them, followed by several more Jao. He heard the names “Chul,” “Dannet,” and “Nath,” which were at least Jao, along with “Kinsey,” a slippery mouthful of sounds which had to be human.

    A tall golden-napped Jao approached, his body subtly sliding from one welcoming posture to the next, then doubling signifiers without effort, the result no doubt of intensive tutoring by a classically trained movement master. Krant, of course, had no resources for such niceties. “I am Aille krinnu ava Terra,” he said, ears pitched at a friendly angle. The free and easy presentation of his name was in keeping with his high rank. “Welcome.”

    “Terra?” Mallu’s own ears wavered. He glanced at his fellows. They looked baffled as well. “I thought that was the name of this world. How can it also be a kochan?”

    “We are officially two taifs under a single designation, one human and one Jao, named after this planet, newly established and sponsored by the Bond of Ebezon itself,” Aille said. “Though we hope to achieve full kochan status one day. We are unique because our membership includes both humans and Jao.”

    “You allow natives taif status?” Mallu felt his angles go to surprise. A taif was a kochan-in-formation, which one day might take its place beside the other Jao kochan of the galaxy, an unheard of honor for a conquered species. Beside him, Kaln and Jalta froze in mirrored shock.

    “We ‘allow’ them nothing. Humans have earned the right to belong,” Aille said, his body stiff with determination-to-be-courteous. “When you know them and their world better, you will understand. They are like no other species the Jao have ever encountered.”

    Kaln stiffened, her lines disbelieving. “We will not be here long enough to acquire such understanding,” his Senior-Tech blurted, as though the disrespectful words simply could not be contained. She pushed fretfully at a battered ear which still would not stand, despite medical treatment.

    Embarrassed by her bad manners, Mallu stared his female officer into silence. This was the Bond, not to mention a highly ranked individual born of fabled Pluthrak, whatever he was calling himself these days. They could not shame themselves with poor behavior here, of all places. “Do this one the courtesy of not listening,” he said, trying not to breathe too deeply. His ribs ached, broken in the fierce battle that disabled their ship. “She took a blow to the head during the fight and has not fully recovered. Also, we witnessed the destruction of two Krant ships and the death of half of the crew of a third, a heavy loss our kochan can ill afford.”

    Aille regarded them with flickering green-black eyes. “I have heard the reports. You are fortunate to be alive.”

    “Encounters with the Ekhat rarely go well,” Mallu said. “Just surviving can be counted an achievement.”

    “I thought this had nothing to do with the Ekhat,” a human said, speaking in passable but accented Jao. Though its skin was hideously pink and naked, it did have a thatch of silver nap upon its skull.

    “Ekhat were involved,” Preceptor Ronz said, seating himself before a large table off to one side. “But our Krant comrades destroyed the Melody ship they encountered, which was exceptionally well done, by the way. Therefore, the Ekhat are not what is of importance here.”

    “Then what is?” the human demanded.

    The creature’s posture was bold, even self-assured, Mallu thought. This individual was obviously of high status among its own kind.

    “There is evidence in the readings recorded by your ship’s sensors of something possibly very interesting concealed in that nebula,” Ronz said. His eyes studied Mallu, then Jalta and Kaln, as though weighing the worth of each. “I wish to send a ship back to investigate.”

    “We have no ship,” Mallu said stiffly. “Ours was too badly damaged for repair and Krant will not be able to assign us another.” That reality was the worst of all, that he and his subordinates would be remanded to other ships upon their return, demoted and disgraced for having lost their own craft, however valiant their victory had been.

    “The Bond will provide a transport, one that will be listed as under the control of the taif of Terra.” The Preceptor gazed at the three survivors, his posture an enigma. Mallu had heard the Bond were always so, completely neutral in affect so that dealing with them was inevitably off-putting. “You and the rest of your command will be assigned as part of its crew, along with selected humans and a number of Terran-based Jao.”

    “Humans — crewing a Jao ship?” Jalta’s ears flattened with disbelief.

    “You will study selected recordings before the ship leaves,” the Preceptor said. “They document a battle against the Ekhat which took place in this system two orbital periods ago, mostly inside the star’s photosphere. The ships were of human construction, the crews mixed. The results were — impressive.”

    Mallu fought down his unease. All Jao had to respect the Bond of Ebezon, at the very least. Unless they were a major and powerful kochan like Narvo and Pluthrak — and even they were not usually exempt — they were also required to pay heed to the Bond’s wishes, in practice if not in theory. It was unfortunate that Krant scions had fallen under Bond notice, but in the end, they could do nothing but obey and attempt to render such good service that Krant would benefit.

    “Very well,” Mallu said, struggling to remember his long-ago lessons in deportment, scanty though they’d been. The eye of the Bond rarely fell upon those so lowly as Krant. It was an honor that one placed so high believed Krant could be of assistance. He coaxed his lines into what he hoped was a credible stance of acceptance. “We wish only to be of use.”

    “Of course,” the Preceptor said.

    The mood in the room shifted to anticipation.




    Tully had followed most of the discussion, even though it had been conducted in Jao. His command of the language had been passable even before being drafted into Aille’s personal service. It was far better now. Enforced practice, called by some “immersion,” had a way of achieving that.

    So the Preceptor suspected something interesting was concealed in the heart of that nebula. He shuddered to think what that might be. Some of the things that Jao found interesting could give a human nightmares.

    Wrot was watching him closely from across the room. Though he didn’t have much use for Jao generally, he had a grudging respect for the scarred old warrior, who years ago had retired on Earth, when he could have honorably gone home to his own kochan, then had taken up active duty again as a member of Aille’s service. Wrot had then resigned from Aille’s service with the formation of the new Jao taif on Terra and now served as one of its elders.

    “I have just the ship in mind,” Preceptor Ronz was saying. “A new prototype being developed by the Bond. It is nearly ready for a voyage to fine-tune its more innovative features, what humans would call a `shake-down cruise.’”

    “And the rest of the crew?” Aille said, his ears pitched at an angle which indicated curiosity.

    “I wish to send my top advisors,” Ronz said, “mostly humans, but at least a few Jao. Chief among those will be Wrot, who has proved himself not only in battle, but as an elder in Terra Taif and in his wide understanding of human culture. The others –” Ronz glanced around the room. “I wished of course to send Professor Kinsey, but he is very much occupied at the moment with important research.”

    Kinsey, who had to be sixty-five if he was a day and had probably been born in one of those academic jackets with the classic suede-patch elbows, looked from Ronz to Aille.

    Tully tried to imagine Kinsey out sailing the stars, traveling the way Jao did — a form of transit which involved creating point loci that dumped you out in the photosphere of a star. He shook his head.

    Kinsey’s face crinkled unhappily. “I would go, though it would disrupt my work.”

    “Your willingness is appreciated, Professor,” Ronz said. “But I have need of you here. That means Caitlin Kralik is the most logical to go.”

    “No!” Ed Kralik glared at Ronz, hands gripping his wife’s shoulders.

    “You can’t be serious!” Professor Kinsey blurted.

    Caitlin rose from her chair, her face flushed. “Hear him out, please.”

    Though she was the daughter of Benjamin Stockwell, once believed to be an infamous American collaborator with the conquering Jao, Tully had grown to like Caitlin. She had more nerve than any woman he’d ever known, and that included some pretty tough babes back in the Resistance camps. He still remembered her amazing performance two years ago when she had testified before the Naukra itself and helped bring into being the new social pattern under which they all, Jao and human, now coexisted.

    And, once Oppuk had been dislodged from power, the truth about Stockwell’s enforced cooperation had come out. The former Vice-President’s family had been hostage to his every decision. Caitlin had grown up a veritable in-house prisoner with a so-called Jao “guard” dogging her every step. Neither of her brothers had survived.

    “She is the most logical choice,” Ronz said. “Her command of the Jao language is among the best on the planet, including her sophisticated movement vocabulary, and her understanding of Jao culture unsurpassed. In the two orbital periods since the new taif’s formation, her cultural and political advice have never once been in error.”

    “She’s only a child,” Kinsey said. His dark face had gone pale. “Her father will never agree.”

    “I’m twenty-five years old and a married woman,” Caitlin said. “And, as much as I love him, my father has nothing to say about this.”

    “Don’t worry, Professor,” Ed said grimly. “She’s damn well not going anywhere without me! I’ll go too.”

    “It’s just surveillance,” Caitlin said, a hand on his arm. “A short hop there and back.” She turned to the Preceptor. “No fighting, right?”

    “The Ekhat ship patrolling that area was destroyed,” Ronz said. “The likelihood of encountering further danger of that nature is relatively low, though I cannot promise it will not happen. But there was enough data collected by the surviving Krant ship for us to be certain that weapons had been used in that nebula which were not designed by either the Jao or the Ekhat.”

    “Someone else lives there, then,” Caitlin said, raising an eyebrow. “Another sapient species.”

    Tully felt the impact of that statement ripple through the room.

    Ronz gazed at each of them in turn. “This mission is classified as exploration only. It is entirely possible that the new species in question was only traveling through the area. They may not actually reside in that region.”

    “And you are needed here,” Aille said to Kralik. “We cannot spare the commander of all of our jinau forces on Earth to accompany his mate to conduct simple surveillance.”

    Jao did not pair-bond emotionally in the same way as humans. Instead, they formed marriage-groups and mated only when progeny were desired. Tully knew that the Preceptor and Aille were not picking up on Kralik’s very real distress. He didn’t blame Kralik one bit for objecting to them dispatching his wife off to god-knows-where. Space travel was terrifying, all that fooling about inside the hellish photospheres of stars themselves, not to mention the different factions of Ekhat turning up when you least expected them, the crazy bastards. Only an idiot would want to go.

    “In addition,” Ronz said, “I assign Gabriel Tully.”

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