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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Monday, September 28, 2009 19:00 EDT



    “Me?” To his horror, Tully’s voice squeaked.

    “Your expertise will likely prove invaluable,” Ronz said. For a second, the old Jao’s eyes glittered electric green.

    “What expertise?” Tully gazed around the office, baffled. Everyone was staring at him like he should know, and there was the faintest smile on Caitlin’s lips. Though he had gone on the nightmarish trip to “confer” with the Interdict faction of the Ekhat, he hadn’t participated in the subsequent battle with the True Harmony in the sun. Instead, he’d been dispatched to the mountains to track down Rob Wiley, trying desperately to arrange support from that quarter.

    “I refer to your negotiations with Earth’s Resistance,” Ronz said. Unlike the rest of the Jao present, his body was perfectly, implausibly, still, in keeping with the Bond’s trademark disdain of any sort of movement style. “As well as your background as a spy and current post as commander of a reconnaissance unit in the jinau. In all of these roles, you have been quite effective.”

    “Oh.” Sweat rolled down Tully’s neck and soaked into his collar. Aguilera, he could see out of the corner of his eye, in particular was enjoying this. The man’s expression was sardonic and his dark eyes positively gleamed with amusement. Damnation. The two of them had never gotten along. No doubt Rafe would love to see Tully make a fool of himself in front of Jao bigwigs.

    Say nothing, his inner voice cautioned him. Don’t get into an argument he was sure to lose. It would only provide entertainment for all concerned. With an effort, he ducked his head and waited though his mind was whirling.

    “I want to know more about the ship,” one of the newcomer Jao said. He was a stubby fellow with the darkest nap Tully had ever seen. His maroon harness didn’t quite fit and he kept shifting from foot to foot as though uncomfortable. “Would it not make more sense to send a model with which we are all familiar? If we encounter something unexpected, not understanding the qualities of our craft will make maneuvering more difficult.”

    Tully knew that Jao generally found it difficult to develop tech improvements on their own. They called innovation of any sort ollnat, which literally meant “the ability to make things-that-were-not,” and regarded its practice as no more than the foolish occupation of the very young. Whether that Jao aversion to innovation was something genetically bred in them by the Ekhat or simply a cultural feature produced by the Jao’s very conservative clan structure was not yet clear to Tully. But, either way, it was a characteristic that sharply delineated the difference between human intellect and Jao, and one of the reasons many Jao still classed humans as overly clever savages.

    The Preceptor held up a tiny blue memory chip, then inserted it into Aille’s reader. The image of a ship sprang into focus just above the broad oak desk, heavy and rounded, black with eight evenly spaced keels. It was hard to tell exactly how big it was, but Tully got the impression it was truly massive. Was that what they’d been building for the last year in the vast cordoned off area outside the refit facility? He’d glimpsed the rounded shape above the barriers and wondered from time to time what all the fuss over that particular ship was about.

    “The design has been adapted from Earth vessels originally intended to function beneath water,” the Preceptor said as the roomful of Jao and humans crowded around the desk to examine the rotating 3-D representation. “It is more heavily armored than a typical Jao warship, as well as more radiation resistant. This mission will involve travel into a nebula possessing harsh radiation and thick gases. Such qualities may indeed prove useful.”

    The dark-colored Jao turned away. He moved with an odd abruptness that his two fellows shared, not the exquisite, carefully cultivated grace sought after by most Jao. It was his body language, Tully thought with a flash of insight. It wasn’t, well, accomplished. None of these three seemed to be continually dancing the way most Jao did. Maybe they were the Jao equivalent of hicks, from some backwater of Jao society where such niceties weren’t followed or didn’t matter.

    “I will arrange for all of you to tour the new ship over the next few solar periods,” Preceptor Ronz said. “Terra-Captain Dannet, who originally came to us from Narvo –” He gestured at a female, standing in the back, sporting a startling Narvo vai camiti. “– has been making herself of use all during the construction phase and is highly qualified to head the new ship’s first mission. Her input has been invaluable. The rest of you should hasten to familiarize yourselves with its features before your mission leaves.”

    Tully cleared his throat. His back was ramrod-straight. “And when will that be, Preceptor?”

    The Preceptor’s eyes flickered again with enigmatic green fire. “When flow has completed itself,” the old Jao said as he turned away. “You should understand that as well as anyone here by now.”



    Ed Kralik managed to keep a lid on his temper until he and Caitlin were well away from Aille’s office. He took her arm possessively as they clattered down the steps, then plunged outside into the golden Mississippi fall sunshine. His chest heaved. “I don’t care –!”

    “Yes, you do care,” she said, putting her hand over his and squeezing. “We all care. They wouldn’t send a ship if it wasn’t important, especially not this particular ship.”

    “But they’re hiding something,” Ed said. He headed toward their Jeep, his steps so long, he felt her hustle across the pavement to keep up. “That devil Ronz always does this. He manipulates everyone and never tells the whole truth!”

    “But,” she said, “he’s always had Terra’s best interests at heart.”

    “Jao don’t have hearts!” He opened the passenger door and gestured for her to slide in, then slammed the door. Startled pigeons took flight a few feet away.

    “Not in the same sense that we do,” she called after him through the open window, “but they do invest emotional energy in their projects. They take pride in succeeding and in seeing us do well.”

    Her gray-blue eyes were thoughtful as he jerked open the driver’s door and entered on his side. He knew that look. Goddammit, she was intrigued. She wanted to go. “They don’t care if you die,” he said, his hands clasped so hard on the steering wheel, he could feel his blood pounding, “just as long as you make yourself — and your death — of use.”

    “Death doesn’t mean the same to them.” She turned to face him and touched his cheek. “But they were right about the Ekhat, and they are most likely right that we should go and take a look at this — whatever or whomever it is. Another species! It’s possible we could even make them our allies against the Ekhat. Ronz will tell us more in his own time.”

    “`When flow is completed,’” Ed said bitterly. “How I hate that goddammed timesense of theirs!”

    “We are fumbling in the dark that way, compared to them,” she said, “but I wouldn’t have a Jao mind even if I could trade.” She settled back against the upholstery. A car full of Jao pulled around them and drove away, headed for the beach. “They don’t have imaginations, Ed. Think how dull that must be.”

    He hesitated, struck by that. They didn’t have imaginations, ollnat, as they termed it, but they thought something important was out there, concealed at the heart of that nebula.

    So it most likely was.

    “You’re going, aren’t you?” He stared at his clenched hands on the steering wheel.

    “And you’ll stay here and do your job,” she said softly. “For the first time since the conquest, humans and Jao are almost in a state of complete association. That’s sacred to them. We can’t blow it.”

    He felt like he couldn’t breathe. Memories of his mother dying in an epidemic after the conquest, then father and brother slaughtered by so-called “Resistance” bandits, resurfaced. He had no one in the entire world but her. “What if you die?” he said in a strangled voice.

    She touched his face again with outstretched fingers. “How about if I promise I won’t?”

    “Oh, that’s comforting,” he said with a rueful shake of his head, then gathered her into his embrace. She was warm and soft and smelled of blackberry-vanilla, her current favorite soap. He closed his eyes and breathed in her scent, the weight of her in his arms, trying to imprint them on his memory. There was no home for him, no comfort, no center, except where she was. His throat constricted. “I’m damn well going to hold you to it.”

    They remained that way, her head on his shoulder, his arms tight around her, the Mississippi afternoon sun slanting in through the windshield and warming their faces, for a long, long time.



    Mallu checked on the rest of his crew again after the unsettling meeting at the refit facility. The Krant survivors had been housed in what humans called a “barracks,” which was a distressingly angular structure without flow, but had access to a common pool. Most of the injured had recovered enough to swim at this point and morale was slowly improving. Still, to the last individual, they all wanted only to go home to Krant and make themselves of use there. No one wanted to sit here on this out of the way world with its skulking, flat-faced natives, brooding about their shameful failure at NGC 7293.

    Then he went back to Jalta and Kaln at the somewhat better quarters to which their ranks entitled them on this sprawling installation. They had been assigned a section of blue and gold quantum crystal building, well poured, suitably dim inside and equipped with soft dehabia heaped along one wall, a supply of woody tak for scenting the room, and, best of all, a small, but deep pool with its salts perfectly balanced.

    Jalta was swimming with the enthusiasm of one long denied. The transport that brought them to this world had been equipped with a pool, but the three of them had rarely used it, intimidated by the presence of so many born of higher ranked Dano. Kaln, still dripping, eyes wildly green, crouched at the pool’s edge, evidently just emerged from the water.

    Mallu eased onto a pile of gray patterned dehabia. His injured ribs protested with a stab of white-hot pain as he twisted to unbuckle his harness and he braced them with one hand. The memory of that battle in the nebula assaulted him again, the frantic maneuvering, the terrible energy beams crackling over his ship as circuit after circuit fried so that even when the enemy Ekhat vessel imploded, it was all they could do to limp back to the nearest Jao base with half his crew dead and most of the rest injured. They had survived, but at such a cost!

    “So we will return,” he said, not meeting his officers’ eyes.

    “Evidently,” Jalta said. He ducked beneath the roiling water and swam more vigorously as though he could wash the memory away.

    Kaln’s angles went to unmitigated distress. One of her ears had been damaged and now dangled at a permanent angle. She was sensitive about the disfigurement and had not seemed her formerly sensible self since the battle. “What is the point?” she said, her eyes flickering angrily. “Unless they do not believe us.”

    “I think they most definitely do believe us.” With a metallic clink of the buckles, Mallu deposited his harness to one side on the gold quantum crystal floor. He would have to requisition some polish. The straps were looking positively shabby. “Else why would they want us to go back?”

    “There may be more Ekhat waiting,” Kaln said. She shook herself and drops of water flew through the air.

    “Perhaps,” Mallu said. “But even if we do come under fire again, it is still an opportunity for Krant to make itself of use to the Bond.” He stared into her dark face, seeing the faint outline of her vai camiti, which was quite attractive, once you took the trouble to make it out. “Think of it — no one else was there, seeing what we saw, doing what we did. Not Narvo, or Binnat, not even great Pluthrak itself. Though we are small and little regarded, still it was Krant who sacrificed ships and crews, killed the confounded Ekhat, and then brought back whatever information the Preceptor sees in that data.”

    “Krant who lost all its ships and most of its personnel!” Kaln said with a furious flip of her single able ear.

    Jalta’s dark head popped out of the water. His whiskers bristled. “But what in the name of all the seas does the Preceptor see? I have examined the readings repeatedly and can find nothing more than a few unfamiliar weapon signatures. If there was another participant in that fight, they did not make themselves apparent to us — and we were there!”

    “When the flow is right, Preceptor Ronz will tell us.” Mallu stared moodily into the roiling water. They would go back and face their failure, even if cost their lives. That was the nature of vithrik, making oneself of highest use, and perhaps in the end they could at least improve Krant’s ranking among the kochan.

    He slipped into the pool and dove to the bottom, letting the cool liquid support him. Gradually, the ache in his ribs eased. Really, the mix of salts was quite good. One might almost think oneself landed on an altogether civilized world.



    As prearranged, Wrot krinnu ava Terra met with the Preceptor down by the shore in the early-dark, early evening, as a human would have termed it. Waves lapped at the beach and starlight played across the restless water. A few white gulls landed on the sand a short distance away and watched them dispassionately with gleaming black eyes.

    “So . . .” Preceptor Ronz was gazing at the waves as they rolled in. The tide was rising, each wave surging just a bit higher on the sand than its predecessor. “How goes the new taif? Your perspective must be far more telling than mine.”

    That was because Wrot had been among the first to apply for membership in the unique mixed human-Jao organization and was now an official elder. Wrot scratched his ears. “Two steps forward, one back,” he said in English. His stance was rueful-acknowledgement. “Humans are the most astonishingly quarrelsome creatures. Many of them would argue even if you said they were always right.”

    “If they were not so divisive, we would never have conquered them in the first place,” Ronz said. “They have been as much their own enemy as ever the Ekhat will be.”

    “But their minds –” Wrot shook his head, a useful scrap of human body-language he had adopted long ago. “They are endlessly inventive, never at a loss for ideas, even about the most inconsequential of matters. Our new association house in Portland is simply amazing with a unique synthesis of Jao and human comforts and styles. You will have to visit it, once events are more settled.”

    “Yes, `events,’ as you put it.” The Preceptor sighed. His ears, normally exquisitely noncommittal after the fashion of the Bond, slipped into faint wariness. “I called you out here where we can be utterly alone to tell you what I would not say before the others.”

    Wrot waited as flow brought them both to the moment of revelation. The nearby gulls screeched, then flapped away. Something out in the water jumped, scattering the starlit spray.

    “I believe the data recordings from the battle indicate life on one of the worlds concealed inside the nebula,” Ronz said. “Sapient life, most likely a civilization we have long thought extinct.”

    “Many species have been exterminated by the Ekhat,” Wrot said. “They wish to be alone in the universe with their own perfection.”

    “And quite a number of those died at the hands of the Jao under their direction, before we freed ourselves from their bondage.”

    “That is a great tragedy,” Wrot said, “but it was not our desire that caused their deaths, no more than a discharged laser wishes to kill its victim.”



    Ronz hesitated as the waves rolled in and in. The wind gusted, carrying the acrid scent of seaweed and rotting fish. “I think the signs point to the Lleix.”

    Wrot’s mind whirled. Everyone down to the youngest Jao crecheling knew that name. It was the stuff of legend. The Lleix had been a powerful force in the history of the Jao. “Them? Are you sure?”

    “Of course not.” Ronz shrugged out of his black trousers and harness, dropping them to the sand, and stood, feet apart, letting the sea breeze buffet his scarred old body. “Why else would the Bond fund this expedition? Idle curiosity is the province of humans, not the Bond.”

    “But there is not the slightest possibility the Lleix would accept our advances,” Wrot said. “They would in fact most likely do all in their power to destroy us. Our arrival would only sow panic because they undoubtedly would believe that we’ve come to complete their extermination.”

    “That is why, even though you will have oudh, the crew should contain a high percentage of humans,” Ronz said. “Especially ones skilled at negotiating under difficult conditions like Caitlin Kralik and Gabe Tully.”

    “You set us an impossible task.” The soothing hiss and roll of the waves was seductive. Wrot unbuckled his harness and dropped it on the sand, itching for a swim. “Even if the humans successfully approach them first, they will learn of our close association.”

    “We owe the Lleix a great deal,” Ronz said. “They saw the potential for freedom in us, when we could not see it for ourselves. The Ekhat made certain that innovation was not part of our nature. If not for the Lleix, the Jao would never have conceived of fighting free of the Ekhat.”

    “At what point will we tell the rest of the crew your suspicions?” Wrot said.

    “When you have reached the nebula, thoroughly evaluated the data coming in, and they are suspicions no more.”

    Secrets to keep, then. Wrot was good at that and the Preceptor knew it. Between them, the two had kept many secrets for a long time and worked at hidden purposes for the betterment of both Jao and humans. Now they would do it yet again.

    As one, they waded into the cool dark waves, then dove into this world’s wonderful wild water. Though Wrot had swum Earth’s seas many times, he always found the foreign salts exotic, teasing at the senses, hinting at new discoveries yet to come.

    The bay’s current carried them out and they swam far into the night.



    Goddamn high-handed Jao! Tully sat on a peeling vinyl-covered stool at the Foul Play, a retro bar decked out with stainless steel tables and godawful aqua chairs just outside the Pascagoula base. He stared moodily into his amber glass of locally brewed beer — execrable stuff, but effective. Any time he got to thinking maybe Jao weren’t so bad, or maybe at least some of them weren’t, they turned around and bit him on the behind — figuratively, at least.

    The bar was crowded mostly with humans, but a few Jao were scattered throughout the dimly lit room. All around him, glasses clinked. Men and women laughed. Voices beside him murmured just on the edge of comprehension. Behind the bar, popcorn was popping, and some noxious new song, more screech than melody, was playing on the jukebox. He could see his reflection in the mirror behind the bar, red-eyed and haggard from lack of sleep, and it just pissed him off even more. “What are you looking at?” he muttered to the image.

    “Thought I’d find you here,” a voice said from behind, then Ed Kralik, still in his blue jinau uniform, slid onto the seat next to him.

    Kralik’s cool assurance never failed to irritate Tully. “I didn’t think your wife let you out these days without a leash.” Tully scowled and traced the glass’s cool rim with a finger.

    “Feeling sorry for yourself?” Kralik signaled the bartender, a former jinau who still wore his regimental service insignia on his sleeve, for a beer of his own.

    “I don’t see your name on that freaking crew roster,” Tully said, in no mood for Kralik’s usual air of superiority. So what if Kralik’s rank was lieutenant general and he commanded thousands of jinau troops? That didn’t make him one whit better than the lowliest Resistance fighter as far as Tully was concerned.

    “I wish to God it was,” Kralik said, as the glass was set before him. His face was drawn, his gray eyes bleak. “I’d trade with you in a heartbeat.”

    Tully took a long pull of beer and let it trickle down his throat. The frosty bite was soothing. “Well, as you heard this afternoon, they don’t want you — they goddamn want me.” The slightest hint of satisfaction at that thought seeped through him. Someone actually thought Gabriel Dorran Tully, Resistance camp brat and former spy, would be better at something than the highly regarded commander of the jinau.

    “I want you to watch Caitlin’s back,” Kralik said, his gaze trained on Tully’s face.

    “Like I wouldn’t unless you asked?” Tully drained the rest of his beer and set the glass back with a rap. “That’s flattering as all hell.”

    “She’s reckless sometimes,” Kralik said, drumming his fingers on the gleaming black bar. His gray eyes seemed almost colorless in the dim light. “She always thinks she understands the Jao better than anyone and that gets her in trouble.”

    “No one understands the Jao,” Tully said. “If I’ve learned nothing else in the last two years, I’ve learned that. I’m not even sure they really understand each other, and all that fancy dancing around they do just obscures things. From what I’ve seen, it’s entirely possible for their words to say one thing and their bodies something else.”

    Mercifully, the song ended, but then someone dropped more change into the jukebox. Green and yellow lights flashed as the blasted machine lurched into another popular caterwaul. Tully winced. He was a blues man, himself. Some of the world’s best blues musicians lived up in the Resistance camps he’d once called home.

    Even though they were sitting beside each other, Kralik had to raise his voice to make himself heard. “This mission will be a minefield.” His gaze followed the bartender as he moved up and down the counter. “You’ve got representatives from the Bond, a Narvo ship captain, members of Aille’s service, Resistance fighters, and humans from half the nations on Earth, not to mention Jao from different kochan spread across the galaxy, all locked up in one big tin can.”

    “And whatever’s out there waiting in that nebula,” Tully said sourly. “Let’s not forget that.”

    “Aren’t you the least bit curious what’s got Ronz so worked up? I mean, think about it. This is the Bond. They think in such long-range terms, they don’t get excited about anything that takes less than twenty years to play out.”

    Now that Kralik mentioned it, there was just the slightest buzz of curiosity in the back of Tully’s mind, a hint of interest despite his glumness at being forced to abandon his crucial Resistance negotiations for what seemed on the surface little more than a whim. Something intriguing waited out there in the heart of that nebula and they had a damn big ship in which to go look at it. If this whatever-it-was looked back at them even halfway cross-eyed, they’d just blast the hell out of it and go home.

    Of course, the Ekhat had damn big ships too, the practical part of his brain pointed out, and they were barking crazy to boot.

    Kralik was staring at him expectantly. Tully sighed. “Of course, I’ll keep an eye on Caitlin. Though, as I recall, she’s always been more than able to take care of herself.”

    “That she has,” Kralik said, raising his beer. “Here’s to self-sufficiency.”

    “And big freaking guns.” Tully raised his own glass and they both chugged, never taking their eyes off one another.

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