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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 18:48 EDT



    Mallu found the interior of the great ship bewildering. They passed crew quarters, startlingly spacious, many of them intended evidently for single occupants. Blatantly wasteful. And there were what Aguilera called “recreation areas,” which included spaces designated “coffee bar,” “TV room,” and “theater.”

    Coffee was a popular concoction which acted as a mild stimulant on humans, Nath explained. While it made Jao nauseated, humans often functioned better with its judicious application. Other beverages would be served there, too, including a number of favored Jao teas as well as light snacks. The TV room and theater were for displays of ollnat in off-duty periods.

    “Ollnat again,” Kaln said, her single ear struggling to communicate bafflement. “This world is obsessed with it!”

    Aguilera turned back to face her, his gait ungraceful. “Ollnat is what saved this world when the Ekhat came,” the human male said stiffly. “Our ability to come up with new ideas is one of humanity’s greatest strengths.”

    As before, Mallu found it off-putting to gaze at that naked face. No whiskers, nap, or, worst of all, facial striping. He could not figure out how the creatures told themselves apart. Their skin coloration varied, from a pale pink to a dark brown. But their bland features all blended together and talking to one felt like conversing with a child still confined to its natal pool.

    Nath gazed at the trio, her arms falling into determined-patience. “Human ollnat bears little resemblance to our own expression of that trait,” she said. “They have the most amazing ability to come up with fresh combinations of familiar elements. In time, we expect our new taif to be at the forefront of a wave of invention, and that will be of use for all Jao.”

    “They are only natives!” Kaln said brashly.

    Her stance was veering into blatant belligerence. Mallu found himself alarmed.

    “And conquered natives, at that,” his Senior-Tech continued. “How can you elevate them to a rank equal with even lowly regarded Jao?”

    “You will not speak of them so in my presence,” Nath said, her body gone very still. “They deserve your respect!”

    “The Floor-Supervisor is correct,” Mallu said. How bad had Kaln’s head injury been, anyway? Perhaps he should have her examined again. She seemed to have lost all sense of propriety. “You have not been here long enough to know what you are talking about. Keep silent!”

    The five of them walked on through the busy ship then. Crew members, both human and Jao, constantly passed them, intent on their tasks. Walking just behind Aguilera, Nath was full of energy, her movements confident, her postures precise. She certainly did not seem lessened by her time on this world. “What kochan gave you birth?” Mallu asked.

    “Tashnat,” she said. “I was Nath krinnu Tashnat vau Nimmat.”

    Two midlevel kochan, well respected, certainly more highly regarded across the Jao polity than Krant.

    Kaln’s eyes flared. “Then how can you dishonor both Tashnat and Nimmat by abandoning them for a taif infested by these primitives?”

    Aguilera was watching their exchange with an intensity that bordered upon fierceness. Mallu realized that Kaln had angled to present her back to the human, a subtle insult in Jao body-speak.

    “What we do here is for the future of all Jao, in fact, for all sapients who face extermination from the Ekhat,” Nath said, her lines gone to an elegant version of disbelief. “You should be honored that the Preceptor believes you can contribute on this mission. If you feel he is in error, then you should inform him immediately.”

    The moment reeked of potential ruin. Mallu froze. Krant was so little regarded in the great sweep of things, it was hard to believe that they had been drawn into something meaningful, a situation where their actions might actually make a difference, where they could be of use to others outside their own small sphere. This kind of chance to serve the wider vithrik rarely came to Krant.

    Jalta and Kaln were watching him. As the highest ranking officer, he had oudh here, minuscule as that charge might be to outside eyes. “The Preceptor is not in error,” he said. His ears flicked back and forth, his body unable to settle into anything recognizable. “We do not wish to make it seem otherwise.”

    He turned to Kaln and forced her to look at him. “And we will keep silent about local matters which are outside our current understanding — is that understood?”

    Her whiskers quivered, but her good ear flicked assent.

    Nath’s lines flowed into a breath-taking rendition of mollified-acceptance. Embarrassed, he turned away as though he did not see. Other kochan could spend time and resources on tutoring their offspring in such beautiful — and pointless — affected elegance, while Krant on its two inhospitable worlds struggled to merely live and produce the next generation. Sometimes he thought other Jao with their exotic seas and exquisite manners were not the same species at all.

    “Now,” Nath was saying, “I will let Aguilera conduct you to the weapons platforms and the command deck. His knowledge of both is unparalleled and I have other tasks which require my attention.”

    Aguilera gestured with his heartward hand. “This way,” he said and set off.

    Kaln’s whiskers bristled, but then, as was proper, the three Krants followed.



    Tully spent the night at the Pascagoula base in the quarters his batman, David Church, maintained for his use whenever his commander was on-site. Tully had been on detached duty for the last few weeks, but his regular post these days was commander of Baker Company, a special unit of ground troops, both human and Jao, trained mostly for reconnaissance. Jao disliked overspecialization, though, so he made sure his company was highly adaptable, good at hand-to-hand, trained on all manners of weapons, ready for whatever the situation required.

    Something had changed inside him two years ago on the northwest coast, when, at a critical moment, Aille and Yaut had trusted him, despite knowing his origins and holding him prisoner for weeks at that point. He’d grown up a Resistance camp brat, fatherless at four, then motherless too, a short time later, stealing food when no one could, or would, share what little they had, sleeping out in the snow and rain huddled into the lee of boulders, learning to scavenge with the best of them. Look out for number one at all times had been his credo. That, and kill Jao, whenever and wherever possible. The Resistance was hellbent on taking back Earth whatever the cost.

    Then he had been forcibly drafted into Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak’s service. At the time, it had seemed a disaster, an enslavement he would have literally given his life to end, but actually, in some inexplicable way, it had been the making of him, almost as though a stern parent had taken him in hand.

    Now that he had traveled with Aille, Yaut, Ed Kralik, and Caitlin out into space and actually experienced the alien insanity of the Ekhat for himself, he knew the truth. If humanity and the Jao didn’t stand together against the Ekhat, whichever maniac faction came along next, they would all die, a whole lot sooner rather than later.

    When he’d reached his quarters last night, his comboard indicated that not only he, but his whole unit, was assigned to the upcoming expedition on the Lexington. He spent the next few hours requisitioning supplies, drafting orders, and downloading background to absorb. They would help man the Lexington’s main guns while on the mission, so he left orders for the company to report to the ship and start qualifying on the new artillery first thing in the morning.

    Fresh from a shower and shaving, Tully caught a ride over to his office which was in the same complex as Aille’s and part of the refit facility. Rain had swept through just before dawn, as it tended to do on the coast, and now the sky was blazingly clear. He’d overindulged at the bar last night, matching Kralik beer for beer, so his head was a bit tender. Inside the administration wing, the Jao preference for low lighting proved a welcome relief from the morning sun.



    As luck would have it, he encountered Yaut in the hallway. The bullnecked old Jao looked mulish as ever. “Vaish,” Tully said, halting prudently out of reach. I see you. He was well aware that, as far as Yaut was concerned, opportunities for further instruction never ceased. The Jao was a great believer in wrem-fa, “body-learning,” where you simply thrashed an offender repeatedly without explanation until he figured the infraction out on his own. Whenever the weather changed, Tully could swear he still felt the bruises.

    The grizzled fraghta flicked a careless ear. As always, his harness gleamed with polish, his traditional trousers, now the blue of the Terran taif, were immaculate. His nap looked well brushed. “Vaist,” he said sourly, as though Tully’s quite proper courtesy had been lacking.

    Several clerks, one human and the other Jao, ducked their heads and hurried past in the dim passageway. “Have you been assigned to the Lexington?” Tully asked.

    “The governor has too many matters which require his attention here,” the old Jao said. And, of course, Yaut went nowhere that Aille didn’t. A fraghta was never separated from his or her charge. Their devotion was legendary.

    But Yaut wanted to go, thought Tully, analyzing the cant of the Jao’s ears, the angle of his spine. He looked — regretful. “Too bad,” he said casually. “What little the Preceptor let slip sounds interesting.”

    “It does not matter if the expedition is interesting.” Yaut’s whiskers bristled. “It is expected, above all else, that you will make yourself of use and do Terra Taif honor. As a member of Aille’s service, what you do reflects upon him!”

    Tully sighed. “You can’t fault me for being human. We like novelty.”

    “I have noticed,” Yaut said, his shoulders stiff. “I believe that appropriate human expression is — ‘you have the attention span of an annoying small flying insect!’”

    “Close enough.” Tully kept even the slightest hint of a smile from reaching his face. Yaut was adept at reading human facial expression these days.

    “Aille wishes to speak with you,” Yaut said.

    All amusement drained out of him. Tully nodded and edged around the fraghta into Aille’s office. It was spacious, with a gleaming oak desk on one side. A floor to ceiling wall of glass looked out over the work floor on the other side. Below, workmen swarmed over the subs being refitted, as well as a number of small Jao spacecraft, the pace frantic. The Ekhat would be coming back and everyone knew it, human and Jao alike. There was no time to be spared anywhere on this world.

    Aille looked up from his com. He had a bold vai camiti slanting across his eyes like a mask, a mark of Jao comeliness, and his nap was lustrous with frequent swims. He radiated confidence and purpose. “I wished to confer before you leave on the Bond’s mission.”

    “Will it be that soon?” Tully stood before the desk, his body as attentive in Jao terms as he could manage.

    “Yes,” Aille said. “As a human would reckon such things, I think only a few days, perhaps even as little as two.”

    “I still have a lot to do then,” Tully said, “and not much time in which to do it.” His mind leaped ahead, calculating.

    “You will listen to Wrot in all things,” Aille said. “I say this, because I believe it would not be apparent to a human, but Wrot evidently has the Preceptor’s confidence. He is being given oudh in this situation.”

    Wrot had the top authority? Tully’s eyebrows rose. “Not the captain of the ship?”

    “The captain is in charge of taking you and the rest of the crew where you need to go, as the driver of a ground vehicle might pilot you around the base,” Aille said. “Wrot will decide what should be done once you arrive.”

    Wrot wasn’t a bad sort, Tully thought, as Jao went, not nearly as stiff-necked and full of pride as your average scion of one of the great kochan. He’d even been a fellow member of Aille’s service before resigning to be one of Terra Taif’s first elders. “I see,” he said carefully, mindful of Yaut glowering behind him.

    “You are the commander of an accomplished unit,” Aille said. “I was very pleased with its performance in the last maneuvers. You should know that a number of them are listed for possible advancement.”

    That was news. Of course, Tully hadn’t seen the evaluations since before he’d taken off for the Rockies. “That’s great.”

    “We have many more deserving humans than we can promote at the moment,” Aille said. “The number of officers in both the human and Jao taifs must be balanced as much as possible, so that neither one nor the other has the advantage.”

    The new taif didn’t mean the same to a human as it did to a Jao. To them, taif — and the kochan that it would eventually become — were tied up in a sense of personal worth. If one’s kochan was not well regarded, then neither were you. Many of the Jao who had flocked to the new taif were of lowly ranked kochan, or, like Caitlin’s current bodyguard, Tamt, had been all but abandoned by theirs, having in some measure not lived up to what had been expected of them.

    It appealed to Tully also, feeding into his desire to belong somewhere, anywhere. He’d had no home since he was almost too young to remember. Here was a group that needed him, filled with people, both human and Jao, who thought that he, Gabriel Tully, actually had something worthwhile to offer. It was the only place he had ever really felt he belonged. And he found that commitment and regard making him a better man.

    “Then we need more Jao,” he said.

    Green fire danced in Aille’s enigmatic black gaze. “`Easier said than done,’ as the saying goes,” the young governor of Earth said. “This mission may well be a way to achieve that, though. Once Jao and human are seen to work well together under difficult circumstances, to accomplish much and then return home safely, that may lure the more skeptical of my species to make the same commitment.”

    “Accomplish much?” Tully echoed. “So far, no one will say exactly what the hell it is that we’re supposed to do besides fly into the heart of some nebula, where at least one Ekhat ship was recently destroyed, and see what, or who, is there.”

    “The Preceptor has his own reasons to withhold information.” Aille rose and stalked around the desk, each step a different posture, his body easily flowing from one into another, as though it took no thought at all.

    Tully couldn’t read ordinary Jao bodyspeak very well, and hardly at all at that speed, but he knew out and out agitation when he saw it, human or Jao. He waited, shoulders back, arms straight, body at attention, communicating respect in the human fashion. “What do you think is out there that’s worth risking the Bond’s shiny new ship?”

    “Not the Ekhat,” Aille said. “The Preceptor has already said that much.”

    “Other than the Ekhat, humans, and the Jao,” Tully said, “who else is there?”

    “Sapience is more common than you might think,” Aille said. His gaze turned to the wall of glass and the workers busily refitting the ships below. “And, due to the mad persecution of the Ekhat, who only wish to be alone in the universe, little of it is willing to be contacted.”

    Even if it was the Jao who found you instead of the Ekhat, Tully thought, they came with lasers, raining death from the sky, hell-bent on ruling what was left after the fires died down. If someone was hiding in that nebula, most likely the last thing they wanted to see was a Jao ship — like the one he was scheduled to ride on.

    “Then we will have to be careful,” he said.

    “Your unit may be of great use out there,” Aille said. “I chose it because of all the jinau under my command, Baker Company has demonstrated the highest capacity for innovation in the field. See that you are prepared for all possibilities.”



    The new ship overwhelmed. Mallu could think of no other word to describe his response. The Lexington possessed passenger quarters for six thousand soldiers in addition to crew quarters for just over a thousand. His own ship, damaged in combat with the Ekhat back in NGC 7293, had carried no more than five hundred, when at full complement, which it seldom was. Krant was rarely able to recruit from other kochan and training of the new generations took time. “A-kee-lara,” Mallu said, struggling to reproduce the alien syllables, “why is this ship so very large?”

    The human blinked its unvarying brown eyes. “To fight the Ekhat,” he said in passable Jao. “Is there any other reason to build a ship, either large or small?”

    The creature was right, unless one mentioned the Jao practice of subjugating newly discovered sapients and exploiting their resources, and Mallu sensed that was not a subject to be discussed under these circumstances. He prowled corridor after corridor, poking his head in here and there, encountering labs equipped for scientific study, pools, exercise rooms, medical bays, food halls, even more facilities for ollnat, equipment storage, repair stations, weapons platforms, and of course the great engine room which ran the entire length of the ship. Everywhere they went, the walls were thicker than he was accustomed to seeing, the bracing massive, the scale far beyond anything he’d ever thought to experience. It was unaccountably luxurious, space wasted upon the most frivolous of functions.

    “Wait here. I cannot take you on the bridge just yet,” Aguilera said finally, stopping just outside a sealed door.

    The human term was unfamiliar, but the entrance was labelled like all the others they’d inspected in both Jao and alien squiggles. “You mean the command deck? You do not have the authority?” Jalta said, his ears twitching.

    “No,” Aguilera said, his body still, his odd angles altogether uncommunicative, “the three of you do not have clearance.”

    Kaln edged toward the human, dwarfing him even though Mallu had observed that their guide was taller than most of his kind. “We are not allowed inside the command structure, but you are?” she said.

    “I am the highest ranked human here, third in charge of the entire project,” Aguilera said. “So it makes sense for me to have clearance.” He pulled a pocketcom out of a fold in his trousers and spoke into it.

    A single breath later, a tinny voice answered in the local tongue, which had a choppy cadence, like waves out on the wind-swept ocean. Aguilera bobbed his head, then turned to the three. “All right,” he said, “now you can go in.”

    Aille krinnu ava Terra had maneuvered them into this position for a reason, Mallu thought, as he trailed after the limping figure onto a vast command deck with stations scattered around its periphery. Whatever his affiliation now, the young governor had begun life as a Pluthrak and that kochan was known across the galaxy, even all the way to Krant, for its cunning and subtlety.

    By directing this tour be carried out in precisely this fashion and under the authority of this particular guide, the governor had clearly meant the three Krant to grasp the position of humans here. They were not merely conscripted workmen, as were other species invaded under similar circumstances. Somehow, they had achieved a place in the grand scheme of things, where their contributions were valued and their opinions counted. They were to be allowed to matter in the great ongoing struggle against the Ekhat.

    Krant rarely mattered, with its two barren worlds and its isolation from other kochan who possessed not only better resources, but plentiful opportunities for association.

    Mallu’s long simmering resentment of the great kochan intensified. Even humans, who looked like they could drown if you so much as poured a handful of water over their heads, had achieved association. But who ever came looking for Krant? Who sought their scions for marriage-groups, inquired of their elders for wise council, or requested their backup when facing the Ekhat? Who among the great kochan required Krant for anything?

    Except now, the back of his mind whispered. They were being sought now and their input heeded. Whatever happened on this odd-ball voyage, they must make the most of this rare opportunity.

    Kaln was prowling the bridge, as Aguilera termed it, pulling control panels open to examine the wiring, keying on screens and displays. Indicator lights blinked, many of them green, but others red and amber. Power hummed and the whole place felt oddly alive. Off to one side, Jalta was staring fixedly into a screenful of statistics as though they meant something.

    Mallu settled into an unoccupied chair, while Aguilera stationed himself beside the door, waiting. It was an impressive ship, perhaps the greatest ever constructed by Jao, but it was being built by humans too, and incorporated more than a little of their technology. Those kinetic weapons certainly bordered on the primitive. Apparently, Lexington would carry humans to operate them as well as Jao to handle the traditional energy guns, while he and the remnants of his crew would rate only the lowly status of mere passengers.

    Kaln and Jalta crossed the bridge, then came together, discussing the merits of the long-range sensing devices. Mallu glanced back at Aguilera. The human was standing in what was for him, an awkward posture. Mallu stiffened, reading in that alien body a distorted, but recognizable, intent-to-insult.

    Kaln turned too, saw what he saw, then launched herself across the floor. “Stub-ears!” she cried. “Lowest of the low! How could you possibly believe you had the right to insult anyone?”

    “Kaln!” Mallu cried, but the tech was beyond responding. It was all crashing in upon her, he knew, the battle with the Ekhat, the loss of their ships, the death of two thirds of their comrades, lives that Krant could ill afford to lose, the baffling summons to this backwater world by the Bond, and now brazen effrontery by a primitive.

    She meant to kill it, but Earth’s young governor apparently set great store on this particular savage. Blood thrummed in Mallu’s head as disaster loomed. She would shame them all by her lack of control. They might even be deemed useless and sent away, losing their chance at association. His broken ribs stabbing at every deep breath, he launched himself across the room and tackled her just as she reached her goal.

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