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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Thursday, October 8, 2009 21:45 EDT



    Mallu rousted Jalta and Kaln out of their shared quarters at first-light. The two wanted to go down and explore the tantalizing native sea, glittering gray-green in the distance, but flow felt very insistent that it was time to inspect the new ship. Since it was an unfamiliar design, learning its strengths and weaknesses was of paramount importance if the Krants were to find a way to make themselves of any real use. They donned their worn harness, boots, and trousers, all the traditional maroon of their kochan, and headed out.

    Kaln in the fore, as befit her lower rank, they walked across the sprawling base, past bizarre angular buildings that chopped up space into ugly squares and rectangles with no flow. Rain had fallen earlier and the temperature was pleasantly cool, though annoying native species of insects buzzed back and forth. Vehicles passed them, some mag-lev, but others on strange black wheels, bumping along and reeking of scorched hydrocarbons.

    The sun was overbright so that they were soon all squinting against its fierceness. It would have been pleasant to swim again in untamed water, Mallu thought, as they trudged across the damp pavement. His eyes kept straying to the everpresent sea.

    This inspection was pointless anyway. However splendid, this craft was not their ship and never would be. He and his crew would only be along for some inscrutable purpose of the Preceptor’s, not true members of the ship’s company. They probably would have been better off going to the ocean instead.

    “We should have summoned a transport,” Kaln said finally. Despite her recent erratic behavior, she had always been a consummate tech. Her able ear swiveled as another of the odd vehicles swerved around them. “I would have liked to see how the local technology works.”

    “We have been shipboard for a long time, and soon we will be in space again,” Mallu said, though his ribs ached just a bit more with every step. A ship captain never admitted to weakness before subordinates. “I would rather get some exercise.”

    An immense building loomed in the distance, the one where the meeting with the Preceptor had taken place on the previous day. They had not explored its cavernous interior at the time, but now Mallu could make out actinic flashes inside as though small bolts of lightning were striking. Screeches and the clang of metal striking metal filled the air, and it was much bigger than he remembered, since they walked and walked and it seemed to grow very little closer.

    Finally, a wheeled cart with three empty seats rolled out of the building, drove across the remaining stretch of pavement, and finally stopped beside them. A well-made female with exotic russet nap and a lovely vai camiti regarded them with merry-anticipation. “Captain Mallu krinnu ava Krant?” she said.

    Mallu’s angles dropped into a rough approximation of acknowledgment, not one of his best stances, but a ship’s captain had far more important things to worry about than the subtleties of his postures.

    “Vaim,” she said, indicating we see each other, thereby declaring herself their equal in rank, a brash move. “I am Nath krinnu ava Terra.” Mallu was stunned at her lack of manners, blithely forcing her name upon them. Either living on this forsaken planet had sapped her civility, or she’d come of a low kochan that taught its progeny no better.

    Her eyes flickered. She knew exactly the effect she was having, Mallu thought crossly. The reckless presentation of her name was clearly intended to provoke. They were only Krant, after all. Why bother with courtesies to such?

    “I am Floor-Supervisor here at the Refit Facility.” She gestured at the empty seats. “I have come to take you to tour the Bond’s prototype ship.”

    “Krinnu ava Terra?” Kaln said. Her good ear flattened in distaste. She massaged the damaged one distractedly. “Then you have joined the new taif?”

    “I have that honor,” she said as the three climbed in and wedged themselves into the inadequate seats.

    “But it admits humans as well,” Kaln said from one of the back seats. “I fail to understand how you — manage—such an arrangement? You do not actually — ?” She broke off, her ear pitched forward in unease.

    Nath glanced over her shoulder as she turned the vehicle back around and drove toward the building. “Mate? By the Beginning, what a strange notion!” The element of merriness in all her angles increased as she abandoned anticipation altogether.

    “Then are there no marriage-groups?” Mallu asked, bracing his ribs as they careened over the bumpy pavement.

    “Not containing humans!” Nath slowed as a particularly large hole wrung a grunt from Jalta in the back to his obvious chagrin. His pool-sib’s body bruises were still particularly painful. Mallu clung to a support and endeavored to suffer in silence with his own healing injuries.

    “Actually,” she said, “we are two separate taifs, one human and one Jao. And the natives have peculiar ideas about mating. Half of them seem ready to engage in it at almost any moment with very little preparation or ritual, but only in pairs, rarely larger groups. The other half flee in the opposite direction if you do so much as make a polite inquiry about their practices.”

    “It does not matter how the new taifs handle such things,” Mallu said, sternness pervading all his lines, though the effort wrung a deep stab of pain from his ribs. The discussion made him uncomfortable. The three of them had never been called back to the kochan to join a marriage-group, and after losing their ship, it was highly unlikely that they would ever be so honored.



    “It matters if we are going to be shut up shipboard with them,” Kaln said. Her lines looked stubborn, off-center, even angry. Mallu was going to have discipline her again at the first opportunity. She was not well. Perhaps, despite the Bond’s plans, she should just be remanded back to Krant where her actions could not further shame them before strangers. He would endeavor to have an interview with the Preceptor at the earliest opportunity and suggest that.

    “I see,” Jalta said, though Mallu was quite sure his pool-sib did not. “Those assigned to this ship will not be mating on the voyage, will they?”

    “They are mostly private about such matters, though not nearly as reticent as we Jao,” Nath said, stopping just under the immense building’s roof, then turning off the cart’s engine. She slid out of the seat and looked around, as though expecting someone. The squeal of saws cutting metal assaulted Mallu’s ears. “Sometimes, their entertainment media portrays the act, or at least, I have been told, a simulation, but I have never actually seen it performed in public.”

    “`En-ter-tain-ment?’” Jalta emerged from the cart, head cocked in puzzlement. “That is a Terran term, is it not?”

    “It is a native form of ollnat, things-that-are-not,” Nath said. “There is quite a lot of that here, some of it productive, but most a waste of time by our standards. Governor Narvo actually forbid it among the jinau personnel and on military installations like this one, though the troops often did not obey. Since the change in oudh, the present governor has found ways to use this trait to our advantage. You will find that humans set great value upon such activities, once you know them better.”

    “I have no wish to know them better,” Kaln muttered.

    Mallu resisted an impulse to cuff her into silence. He did not want to call attention to his lack of control over her behavior.

    A human male limped toward them through the shadowy building, passing the security checkpoint with only a wave at the sentry. “That is regrettable,” he said in heavily accented Jao, “because the crew will contain a number of them. I just wish I were going, too.”

    He had black “hair,” as the longish head fur was termed, liberally frosted with silver. That signified something about a human’s physical condition, Mallu had learned after accessing the base’s information cache in their new quarters, but at the moment he could not remember exactly what.

    “Rafe Aguilera krinnu ava Terra,” the human said, “Third Construction Supervisor for the new ship.” His body was stiff and straight, unreadable.

    Was everyone on this benighted world determined to be rude? Mallu stared at the newcomer stonily.

    “You are damaged?” Kaln said, glancing at the male’s heartward leg.

    “I was a tank commander in the Battle of Chicago, over twenty orbital cycles ago,” Aguilera said. “Never healed right, not that there was much in the way of adequate medical treatment then.”

    Jalta glanced at Nath, puzzlement flattening his ears.

    “Rafe refers to the Conquest, when the Jao originally came to this world,” Nath said. “It is an uncomfortable subject for discussion. Even after so many orbital cycles, many humans are quite incapable of being reasonable about it. I would not bring it up, if I were you. We have — as humans say — agreed to disagree about those events.”

    That made no sense whatsoever. Mallu gazed at the human, but the creature did not meet his eyes. “We wish to tour the new ship,” he said finally to break the silence.

    They passed through the security checkpoint, Nath vouching for them. Just beyond, the enormous building held a number of vessels, each cradled in a framework of what looked to be a local variety of wood. The air was filled with its pungence, oils of some sort, no doubt, released by cutting. Saws screeched on and off. Automatic hammers chattered. Fat white sparks flew as metal was cut, shaped, then welded.

    “This way,” Aguilera krinnu ava Terra said and limped deeper into the vast shadowy interior with its islands of harsh illumination.

    The human leading, they walked across a poured floor of some gray substance, which was stained and abraded from heavy use, past a number of long black vessels, swarmed over by mixed crews of human and Jao workers, trailing cables and showering sparks. Voices called back and forth, some in Jao, but more in the slippery native tongue. The mood was industrious and focused and oddly collegial as though the members of the two species saw no differences between them.

    Mallu glimpsed a large ship in the middle which seemed to be of a different design, though it did not have the odd keels he’d seen the day before at the meeting. “Is that it?” he asked.

    Aguilera made a strange chuffing noise as though he were having difficulty breathing. “No, Krant-Captain,” he said in his accented Jao. “Your transport is actually just beyond the building on the other side, in a high security fenced-off area. It is far too large to be constructed in here.”

    “Too large even for this place?” Mallu was baffled.

    “Yes.” Aguilera turned, leading them around one more of the long black ships, then stopped before a shimmering green door-field flanked by two human guards. He keyed it off and stood aside.

    Kaln stepped through and stopped, trailed by Jalta, who did the same. Mallu followed, then stood just beyond, stunned, his field of vision filled by simply the biggest ship he’d ever seen, no doubt, the biggest ever built by any kochan anywhere. Indeed, he thought it even surpassed an Ekhat ship in its dimensions and surely out-massed one.

    “We have named it `Lexington,’” Aguilera said.



    Aguilera studied the three Jaos’ expressions. Their faces were still, but then Jao features were not nearly so mobile as those of humans. Their bodies, especially their ears and whiskers, betrayed them however. Even he, not very accomplished in deciphering Jao formal movement patterns, could read amazement, awe, and bewilderment.

    “It is so — big!” one of them said. Aguilera thought it was the female, Kaln, made easier to identify by the droopy ear.

    Nath joined them. Her eyes flickered with green fire. “Soon,” she murmured.

    Soon it would launch, she meant. Aguilera smiled. Even the Jao were impressed. Considering their experiences out in the universe, which included any number of encounters with other space-traveling species, that really meant something.

    “What does the term Lex-ing-ton indicate?” the tallest of the newcomers said. By the service bars incised on his cheek, Aguilera knew he was the captain, Mallu krinnu ava Krant. “Is it a numeric designation?”

    “Humans like to name their ships,” he said, having already had countless versions of this discussion with Jao, starting two years ago when the Lexington had been nothing more than a few lines on a blueprint. “It gives us a connection to them.” Of course, the Jao entirely missed the sly reference to the first battle of the Revolutionary War when Americans had begun their struggle for freedom from a hated oppressor. He smiled. It was a quiet allusion that the humans on the project enjoyed and kept to themselves. He suspected that Wrot or Ronz might have perceived the connection, but, if so, they had quite wisely never mentioned it.

    “Humans sometimes feel a form of — affection — for their machines,” Nath said. “It makes no sense to us, but they must enjoy the sensation all the same, because its occurrence is frequent. Sometimes they even assign gender to them.”

    “Affection — for a device?” Kaln flicked her good ear in clear dismissal. “That is primitive and ridiculous.”

    “Human insistence upon naming such devices can be both a source of strength and weakness,” Nath said. “Fondness for a particular ship can inspire them to be even more fanatically devoted to a mission than they might have otherwise been.” She hesitated, glancing sideways at Aguilera. He nodded at her. “But it also encourages rampant factionalism, which has been, in the past, one of the species’ greatest weaknesses. We do have to be careful about that.”

    “Have they no kochan-parents to instruct them?” Kaln said. She was the tech, the equivalent of Lead Engineer on her former ship, Aguilera realized, having carefully read the update released from Aille’s office about the new crew members. Jao techs tended to be female, something about their brain structure having more affinity for the work than that of males. He’d had a lot of contact with Jao techs during the construction of this new ship. Disagreements between such often proved quite physical when they lost patience and resorted to wrem-fa, body-learning where nothing was explained. He’d incurred more than one set of bruises that way.

    “Human kochan are very small,” Aguilera said, “usually no more than a single mated pair and their children.” He edged prudently out of reach, lest Kaln forget herself and strike him. “Humans and Jao are of course quite different in many regards, Senior-Tech Kaln,” he said, “but we here on Terra have found that sometimes our mental differences allow us to work more efficiently together than apart.”

    “You are saying that humans know more than Jao?” Kaln’s whiskers stiffened. “That is an insult!”

    “No,” Nath said, moving between the two, “actually it is not. Our two kinds have different strengths, neither more than the other, neither less. Combining the two disparate bodies of knowledge leads to a synthesis and increase for both sides.” Her body had assumed the often seen stance of waiting-to-be-of-use, which even Aguilera could interpret.

    “Desist,” Krant-Captain Mallu said. “Such bickering is pointless. You shame Krant by behaving so. The Ekhat are our enemy, not the Terrans.”

    “Say that to the those who died taking this world,” Kaln said. “I viewed the records and have some idea what this world cost in Jao lives.”

    Aguilera felt his face warm. Things had been so — well — uneventful since Oppuk fell from power, he’d almost forgotten how nasty and condescending Jao could be.

    “Enough!” Aille krinnu ava Terra, current governor of Earth, stepped through the door, looking magnificent with his height and regal bearing as always. “Aguilera is a member of my personal service. You will not speak to him so, nor any other human member of the Lexington crew.”

    Kaln’s good ear wilted. Mallu, the dispossessed captain, stood stiffly before Aille. “Forgive her brashness, Governor,” he said. “She is young and foolish, and still traumatized at both the loss of lives and of our ships.”

    Aille was silent, gathering the moment to himself, something at which he very much excelled. Aguilera had seen the highly ranked Jao do it over and over again during the last two years, pouring oil on troubled waters as he settled squabbles between the numerous rival kochan stationed on Terra.

    “It is a great honor,” Aille said finally when all eyes were focused upon him, “to be assigned to this crew in any capacity. The Lexington represents a tremendous stride forward for both our species.”

    Aille must have suspected there would be trouble from this new outfit, Aguilera realized. These Krant seemed abrupt, mulish, almost provincial, if such an adjective could be applied to Jao. It was like they didn’t know things that other Jao knew, like they were the uncivilized ones, instead of humans.

    “Take them through the ship, Aguilera,” the young governor said. “That is where our focus should be, not on battles which occurred over twenty orbital cycles ago, and in which most of us present –” He fixed the three Krant with a flickering green gaze. “– took no part, unlike Aguilera here, who served his kind with great fortitude and now makes himself of use to our new taif.”

    “Yes, Governor,” Mallu said, his body subdued. “We understand.” He glared at the other two. “Do we not?”

    The other two Jao fell into identical stances. Aguilera thought he read assent. They weren’t graceful about it, though, like Nath or Aille would have been. Their movements were jerky, almost primitive, like football players trying to perform ballet. And their vai camiti were barely visible through that dark, dark nap. By all accounts, bold facial striping was one mark of Jao attractiveness. Were these three — homely?

    Aille was staring at him, clearly waiting. Aguilera cleared his throat. “This way, Captain, Senior-Tech, and –?” With a jolt, he realized he’d forgotten the third Jao’s rank.

    The Jao glowered, and he felt his ears warm. That was a blunder, he told himself. The giving of one’s name was a mark of Jao favor in social situations and this was hardly the moment to ask for that.

    “This is Terniary-Commander Jalta krinnu ava Krant,” Aille said without ceremony, defusing the moment.

    “Terniary-Commander,” Aguilera said, heading toward the immense ship. “If you will follow me.” That at least he’d remembered. With Jao, the lowest ranked always went first. This was neither the time, nor the place, to argue relative status.



    The Lexington had been constructed outside because the shipyard’s main building, large as it was, had been simply inadequate. The new vessel was four thousand feet long, three thousand wide at the thickest point, shaped something like a stubby gray dirigible tapered at both ends.

    Of course, no dirigible had ever possessed even one keel, much less the eight even spaced around this ship. The scope of those keels became more apparent as they approached. “The Lexington is much more heavily armored than usual,” he said, “to allow it to better withstand the stresses of fighting inside a solar photosphere. Even the interior walls are thicker.”

    Mallu’s ears waggled and he could not seem to look away. The captain appeared almost hungry. “What are those extrusions for?”

    He meant the keels, Aguilera thought. “Those are the ship’s weapons platforms,” he said. “Half of them contain laser mounts and the other half, kinetic weapons.”

    “Kinetic weapons?” Kaln said. “That is rather primitive tech, is it not?”

    Aille answered the question. “We experimented with a hastily converted form of this tech when we fought the Ekhat in this star’s photosphere two orbital cycles ago. The weapons, pulled off pre-conquest Terran fighting vehicles, were originally rapid-fire tank cannons. As you can read in the reports of the battle, the innovation proved most efficacious.” Aille gazed up at the ship as they walked. “And I do recommend that you make yourselves familiar with the reports, since you are going to work closely with a number of very talented humans. The information should prove — enlightening.”

    He stopped. “I will leave you now as I have a meeting at my office.”

    “’Off-ice?’” Mallu echoed the Terran word.

    “It means ‘working space,’” Nath said smoothly. “An adaptation of local custom. We have found it most useful to separate room functions as humans do.”

    Mallu looked enigmatic, but said nothing more as Aille turned back. There was definitely something going on inside that thick Jao skull. Aguilera just wasn’t sure exactly what.

    At any rate, the three Krant reminded him far too strongly of Earth’s pre-Pluthrak dealings with the Jao, when tyrannical Governor Narvo had set the mood for human-Jao interaction. Narvo, along with the great kochan of Dano and Jak, had deemed human ideas worthless and humans fit for only the lowest grades of grunt labor.

    As it turned out, Jao were very good at some things, humans at others. Braiding their talents, combined human-Jao forces had proved themselves strong enough to stand up even to the Ekhat on short notice, and, as he had good cause to know now, that was saying something. If humans and Jao went back to pitting those divergent strengths against one another, as they had for far too many years, they would all die — messily — when the Ekhat returned. A single battle with the Ekhat in this system had proved that to even the most doubting on both sides.

    He would find the right words to make these Krant listen, Aguilera told himself. That would be the best use he could possibly make of himself.

    The sounds of construction rose as they neared the immense ship, so that Aguilera had to raise his voice to be heard. “This way,” he said, and motioned them to follow him under a tangle of temporary power cables feeding into one of the Lexington’s eight keels.

    Speechless, the three Krant followed.



    Caitlin Kralik presented herself at Preceptor Ronz’s office in the Bond annex without an appointment. Jao disliked the human predilection for reserving one small bit of measured time for a particular event or activity. Instead, they relied upon their innate timesense to know when something would occur. Therefore, if Ronz didn’t know she was coming, it was his own damn fault. She smiled to herself as the green door-field winked off.

    “Ah, Caitlin,” the old Jao said, rising from a soft pile of dehabia with a grace that belied his age. “Vaist. It felt as though someone would be here soon.” He was clad in unrelieved black harness and trousers and she could see more than a few scars on his chest.

    Vaist was the superior-to-inferior form of greeting, literally you-see-me. She’d heard plenty of that growing up. Coming from the Preceptor, though, it pretty much lost its sting. She wasn’t certain how much of the current Jao-human alliance had been his design, but signs certainly pointed in his direction.

    She smiled and let her body flow into the graceful curves of willingness-to-be-of-use. Years of observation and study had gone into her ability to use Jao body-speech. Vaish,” she said in return. I-see-you. Agreement between the two of them as far as rank was concerned, anyway. Of course, that wasn’t difficult in this case. Ronz outranked everyone on the planet, including Aille.

    “Your parents are well?” the old Jao said, and settled into one of the human-style chairs before a standard desk.

    “Yes.” She settled in the chair beside him and gazed down at her hands, trying to think how to diplomatically frame what she wanted to say.

    “You wish to know what I think is out there,” Ronz said in English, “what is worth going so far and risking our new ship, not to mention all of your lives.”

    “Y-yes.” She met those flickering green and black eyes. Even growing up under the direct supervision of a Jao guard, she’d never learned to read Jao eyes. No doubt all that dancing green fire meant something — at least to another Jao.

    “I am not going to tell you,” Ronz said. His body was very still. The Bond did not hold with elaborate body styling. The whole fad was heavily influenced by fashions that varied from kochan to kochan. One trained in the Narvo style, the Dano, or the Pluthrak. If a Bond member were seen to prefer any one style over another, that would show favor, and above everything else, the Bond was neutral. Else it could not perform its primary function of coordinating the quarrelsome, often divided kochan scattered across the many Jao worlds.

    “If we do not know what to expect, then how can we prepare?” Caitlin schooled her own body to neutrality too, adapting to the game they were playing.

    “The very act of expectation might alter what you find or what you do, if you find it,” Ronz said. “I have shared my suspicions with Wrot krinnu ava Terra. When — and if — the moment comes that the rest of you need to know, he will be the one to decide.”

    “Someone knows, then.” She bent her head, wondering, once the Lexington took off, if she could worm it out of the old Jao veteran in an unguarded moment. He had “gone native” to a degree far greater than any other Jao of her acquaintance. And that was saying quite a bit these days.

    Ronz leaned toward her, his eyes almost entirely green. “No,” he said softly, as though she’d blurted her thoughts aloud, “For all that he comes of blunt-spoken Wathnak, I am confident Wrot will keep silent until he should not.”

    Caitlin’s face heated as she tried to erase all vestiges of unconscious posture from her limbs. Damn body-language! How was she ever going to make it as a diplomat in the midst of a species that could read her every move like a book?

    Ronz leaned back and his body almost, but not quite, implied sly-amusement. “Nice try,” the old rascal murmured in English.

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