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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Friday, October 23, 2009 19:12 EDT



    Mallu struck Kaln midbody and wrestled her to the deck, pulling her weight down on top of him. His still-healing ribs gave way with a sickening wave of brilliant white pain that stole his breath. A step beyond, Aguilera hastily flattened himself against the wall.

    Voices shouted, both human and Jao, as boots pounded across the deck. “Desist!” Mallu gasped into Kaln’s battered face. The command deck undulated in time with his stuttering heartbeat. Above him, the tech’s undamaged ear was flattened in pure rage. He clung desperately as she struggled to free herself. Air wheezed in and out of his chest, each breath more difficult than the last.

    Jalta leaned down to pull Kaln off. She struck at her crewmate, still thrashing to free herself. “They — they –!” she sputtered, her eyes gone to mad green fire.

    “This one has done nothing!” Mallu said. The deck flooring pressed hard against his cheek. “Think!”

    “Its body!” She twisted, but couldn’t break his hold. “You saw!”

    “This creature is an alien!” he said. “Its angles are no doubt quite different from ours. What looks like insult to us may indicate no more than weariness to them. Think!” He tightened his grip and waited, ribs a blaze of agony, for her to either regain control or lose it forever. If her reason were permanently broken, she would have to be put down, and, as ship-captain, he would have to be the one to do it. Krant had no resources to succor the useless.

    “Krant-Captain?” a Jao voice said from the doorway.

    He looked up, still gripping Kaln, and saw an unfamiliar vai camiti. “Yes?” he said stiffly. Each breath stabbed like the bite of a white-hot brand. He had not hurt so intensely since that moment in the battle when he’d been knocked across the command deck and struck his chest upon a console.

    “Is there something you require?” the newcomer, a short sturdy male, said, as though the three Krants were merely paying a courtesy call between kochan and perhaps refreshments were appropriate.

    “N-no.” Mallu eased his hold upon Kaln, each movement wringing fresh misery out of his tortured ribs. “Senior-Tech Kaln?”

    Breathing hard, she sat up and stared at her hands as though they belonged to someone else. “I — require nothing.”

    “As you perhaps noted earlier,” the Jao said, his body reflecting determination-to-be-of-use, “we have accommodations on this ship for both Jao and human. This close to launch, all services are operational. You have only to express your needs and we will endeavor to satisfy them.”

    “This is Terniary-Adjunct Chul krinnu ava Monat,” Aguilera said, gracelessly forcing the newcomer’s name upon them, yet another breach of manners, though Mallu supposed by now the creature simply knew no better. “He is a specialist in the refitting of Earth ships and adapting Earth technology to be used on Jao ships.”

    Kaln rose unsteadily, chest heaving, and tugged at her twisted harness. Her eyes were sane again, though, and Mallu sagged back to the deck, concentrating on just trying to breathe.

    “You — have not joined the new taif, then,” Jalta said in a transparent attempt to deflect attention away from Kaln’s would-be attack on the human.

    Aguilera edged prudently out of her reach, his unvarying human eyes wide, hands knotted into fists.

    “No, though I am giving the idea serious consideration,” Chul said. His angles slipped into concern and he bent over Mallu, who was now trying to sit up and failing. “Do you wish assistance, Krant-Captain?”

    They had shamed themselves before this well-spoken stranger, Mallu thought, and, even worse, further disgraced themselves by demonstrating lack of association within their own kochan in front of a primitive. How many crew had been on the command deck to witness this humiliation?

    He tried to answer Chul, but a great roaring like the seas of some wild world running high before the wind rose in his ears. His jaws gaped and he could not speak.

    Chul stood again, and pulled out a pocketcom. “May I suggest we adjourn to the ship’s medical facilities?”

    Mallu attempted to protest that he just needed a moment to recover his composure, then ravening blackness engulfed him.



    Wrot’s pocketcom buzzed while he sat at an information cache in the base communications center, studying the intriguing stats from NGC 7293. He pulled the sleek black device off the waist band of his Terra-blue trousers and keyed it on, still gazing at the screen. So much information had been brought back, and so much more could be inferred. He had barely dived beneath the surface so far, but he could already see what had intrigued Ronz.

    “We have trouble at the new ship,” the Preceptor’s voice said without preamble. “I wish you to take care of it.”

    “Certainly,” the formerly retired Jao warrior said, rising at once. “Though I am not very close at the moment. Surely there are those in authority on-site who can see to it in a more timely manner?”

    “They are already at work,” the Preceptor said. “I wish you to quiet this storm. Our visitors from Krant are having difficulty finding ways to make themselves useful.”

    That was a diplomatic way of saying that they were more perhaps more trouble than they were worth. Wrot cleared the files from the viewer, then headed for the door at a half-run. Other Jao and humans in the center prudently cleared out of his way. He disengaged the door-field and came out into the exuberant light of this system’s sun. Cool, sea-scented air rushed against his muzzle and his whiskers stirred. “Did our staff cause the problem?” he asked into the device.

    “No, it was one of the Krants,” the Preceptor said.

    “I — see.” And he did, at least to some extent. By all accounts, Krant was infamously hardheaded and self-contained. Though they were low ranked, they rarely sought association with larger, better regarded kochan, preferring their own path whatever the cost. They were so isolated that he’d never actually worked with any, despite, as a human would term it, his long years of service.

    “Maneuver them into cooperation — now,” the Preceptor said, “before the mission leaves, or there will be trouble later on.”

    “You could simply send them home,” Wrot said, signaling a passing ground vehicle headed in the right direction to pull over. Tires squealed as the driver complied. “We have their data already, and though many of them gave their lives to acquire it, I doubt the survivors understand what those readings imply.”

    “But they may,” the Preceptor said. “So I cannot have them running loose back at Krant, spreading rumors, perhaps even generating an expedition of their own. If I am right, this is the most controversial discovery made in some time and we have but one chance to make full use of it. We must proceed most carefully.” He hesitated. “And this may be a splendid opportunity to bring Krant into association, at least to some limited degree.”

    “That bunch?” Wrot snorted as the groundcar stopped and the passengers in the back seat, both human male jinau officers, made room for him without protest. “They are notorious for their stiff-necked solitary pride. I have a feeling they would rather die than give it up.”

    “It is your job to make certain that does not happen,” the Preceptor said.

    “You always ask the impossible,” Wrot said as the groundcar lurched and then continued on its way toward the looming refit facility. It swerved to avoid a pothole and he slid into one of his companions who, obviously intimidated by his rank, apologized without being at fault, something a Jao would never do. Wrot flicked an impatient ear.

    “And I always get it,” Ronz said. The pocketcom clicked off.



    Kaln led through the maze of ship corridors as white-coated human attendants carried Mallu’s unconscious body on a stretcher. The two creatures with their disturbingly immobile ears had initially tried to take the lead, and now looked at her askance, but she could tell where they were headed by subtle hints from their bodies each time they came to an intersection. And she deserved no better than to go first. She had made herself lowest of the low and everyone should see that.

    Chul followed at the rear, while Jalta paced at the stretcher’s side, misery in his every line and angle. Kaln knew better than to speak to her crewmate. She had shamed herself, shamed all of Krant with her loss of control. There was nothing to say. When he recovered — if he recovered — Mallu would order the three service bars on her cheek obliterated and she would serve out her days as a drudge on some scow, scraping rust and cleaning pools, testing and adjusting salts for her betters until her skin cracked.

    Aguilera kept pace, though prudently hanging back out of her line of sight. Mallu had been right. The creature was an alien. Its angles most likely meant nothing. She did not know what was wrong with her! She just felt so angry all the time since the disaster in the nebula.



    They reached a medical bay and turned in. The room had pale green walls the color of sea foam and smelled of astringents and traditional Jao balms, bringing back painful memories of Kaln’s own injuries in the battle with the Ekhat. She edged aside as the attendants hefted the stretcher onto an examination table. A human, obviously female and tall for her kind, met them, pulling white flexible gloves onto slender hands that looked far too feeble to be of any use. She had brown head-fur laced with silver, something like Aguilera’s, but much longer. “I am Doctor Ames,” she said in decent Jao and leaned over Mallu’s unconscious form. “What happened to him?”

    Kaln glared at Aguilera. “You brought us to a human? What can such know of our kind? We want a real medician!”

    Aguilera just stared at her, dark-brown eyes static.

    “Doctor Ames is the lead Jao medician on the Lexington,” Chul said, smoothly stepping between the human and the Krant. His body-angles communicated patient-instruction. “She is quite skilled.”

    Kaln’s whiskers bristled. “She is only a native!”

    “I said — what happened to him?” The female’s voice was coolly insistent. “We do not have time for quarreling about my status if you wish him to continue breathing.”

    “He damaged his ribs back in the battle with the Ekhat,” Jalta said in a subdued tone. His ears and whiskers were limp with unallayed distress. “Though he has not complained, I do not believe they ever really healed.”

    “Probably punctured a lung sac.” She turned to a white-coated attendant and issued a series of commands in the choppy local language. Her fingers probed Mallu’s chest, eliciting a faint groan even though the captain was still unconscious. “Fortunate for you lot that you have eight to our two. A human would be in much more serious condition with this sort of injury.”

    She gestured at her assistants who then carefully transferred Mallu to a rolling table and bore him away. “We will use X-rays to pinpoint the damage, then reinflate the sac. After that, he needs quiet and time to mend.” She gazed directly into Kaln’s eyes, her body carefully neutral. “No fighting.”

    “She did not mean to attack him,” Jalta said. Her crewmate was pacing back and forth. “Mallu thrust himself between them.”

    “Whatever the intentions,” Doctor Ames said, “it cannot happen again. Your captain is most fortunate that the rib did not puncture something more vital — like his heart.”

    Kaln wanted to flee, to be alone with her shame, but did not know where to go. Her head ached. The quarters they had been assigned were far away and she wasn’t quite sure how to leave the ship and find her way back.

    Doctor Ames gazed at her with the dispassion of a kochan-parent. “I think,” she said finally, when Kaln could bear the silence no more, “you need to take a swim.”

    Jalta’s head swiveled. Kaln could not believe that she had understood the human’s words correctly.

    “We have a number of excellent pools here on the Lexington,” Doctor Ames said. “Why don’t you try out the one on this level? It is just four doors windward down the corridor. Our Jao consultants report that the salts are perfectly balanced.”

    A swim. Kaln felt like it had been forever since she’d had that luxury. Her muzzle itched and her nap felt desiccated, absolutely stiff with dirt.

    “When you are done, check back here,” Ames said. “Your captain should be better by then.”

    Jalta tugged at her arm, and the two of them left to find the promised pool.



    Wrot stopped at the office complex inside the refit facility and inquired about Tully. The human was busy in his own small allotted space, he learned from the adjunct on duty, two doors down. Wrot thrust his head into the compact, over-lit room. “Come with me,” he said without preamble, blinking against the brightness.

    Tully looked up from his comboard. He had golden hair, not unheard of among his kind, but not overly common either. It had grown rather long recently giving him a ragged incomplete look. “Pretty busy here,” he said, leaning back and tapping a pen against his chin. “Tons of stuff piled up while I was in the mountains. Can it wait?”

    “We have trouble over at the ship with the three Krants,” Wrot said. “I could use — as you humans say — backup.”

    “Goddammit,” Tully said, rising. He keyed his comboard off and circled his desk. His jinau uniform was rumpled. “They haven’t been here more than a few days. Couldn’t they wait at least a week to start a ruckus?”

    “They are traumatized,” Wrot said as Tully ducked past him into the corridor. “Surely you can understand that. They lost their ships and most of their crew, which would be devastating to anyone, but especially so to Krant, which is not rich in assets.”

    The two of them hurried down the hall, then descended the stairs. Sounds of the refit assaulted their ears as they came out onto the work floor, the screech of saws cutting metal, the pounding of hammers, the buzz of wood being cut. The smell of fresh paint and scorched metal filled the air. “So what were they doing out there,” Tully said, “if they couldn’t afford to mix it up with the Ekhat?”

    “They were part of a three ship task force, dispatched from a Jao base to check out signals which indicated Ekhat activity in the nebula.” Wrot headed toward the outside door at the opposite end. “It is difficult to correctly calculate framepoints in such an environment. One of the three ships was destroyed in transit, the second by the Ekhat they encountered there, probably the Melody, which is not the same faction that attacked Terra two years ago. The third ship fatally damaged the Ekhat vessel, but barely survived the engagement itself, too badly damaged to do anything more than make transit back to the base while the point locus was still active.”

    “So they are soldiers?” Tully trotted around the massive Earth subs in their immense wooden cradles and waved to a few of the workers as he passed.

    “Yes, though all Jao undertake a form of what you would call military training,” Wrot said, keeping up despite his age. “So you might say that we are all soldiers at some point in our lives.”

    Tully fell silent as the two of them dodged ladders, stepped over electrical cables, detoured showers of sparks from the welders perched on ladders and scaffolds overhead. “The crazy bastards would traumatize anyone,” the human said, “at least anyone sane.”

    Once they reached the great ship, they were passed through Security immediately. “Status of the difficulty with the Krants?” Wrot asked the stocky human sergeant on duty.

    “Krant-Captain Mallu has been taken to the medical bay on Deck Fifty-Seven,” the sergeant said. “I haven’t received an update on his condition.”

    “The other two?” Wrot asked.

    “Swimming on the same deck. I posted a guard to keep an eye on them — discreetly.”

    “Sounds like it’s all been resolved,” Tully said. He shoved his hands into his blue uniform’s pockets. “You don’t need me.”

    “We are going to be traveling with these Krants for some time,” Wrot said, leading Tully to a lift station. “It is necessary to achieve at least a rudimentary level of association with them.”

    “They don’t like humans,” Tully said. “They already made that clear back in Aille’s office.”

    “Which is why it must be you and not me who makes them see reason. Humans are going to matter on this assignment, you and Caitlin most of all. They must acknowledge your right to serve if this is going to work.”

    They stepped into the lift and the doors closed. Tully stared at him with those unsettling blue eyes. “You want me to bring these — goobers — into association?”

    Despite his many years of proficiency with English, Wrot wasn’t quite sure what “goobers” signified. Humans were so endlessly inventive with language. He flicked an ear. “You and Caitlin.”

    The lift whooshed upwards. Tully held onto the internal rail to steady himself. He looked distinctly unhappy. “You don’t want much, do you?”

    Wrot leaned against the humming wall. “Anyone who can bring the mountain Resistance leaders into association can deal with a few backwater Jao.”

    “I understand the Resistance because I grew up with them,” Tully said as the door slid open. “I know where they’re coming from, but I haven’t got a clue about these guys.”

    “Nor have they about you,” Wrot said. “It should make for, as your species would say, an even playing field.”

    They padded down the hall, then spotted a uniformed guard at the far end. “You should find the senior-tech and the terniary-commander there,” said Wrot. “Go in and reason with them while I check on Krant-Captain Mallu. Teach them how to deal with humans.”

    “Gee,” Tully said, his shoulders slipping into his characteristic reluctant slouch, “may I?”

    That, like much Tully said, was rhetorical, and not entirely respectful, either. Reflecting that the human was fortunate that Yaut was not nearby, Wrot left him there and went to the medical bay.



    Kaln broke the surface of the little pool and floated. Here, in this deliciously balanced water, she could almost forget her shame. The salts mixture was reminiscent of her homeworld of Mannat Kar, though the saturation was not nearly as strong. She closed her eyes and thought of storms, spray flying in her face, giant swells that carried one far out to sea. She tightened her timesense so that the soothing moment stretched out. The ache in her head — eased.

    Then her nap prickled, breaking her concentration. Flow abruptly resumed its normal rate. She opened her eyes, turned, and realized one of those runty humans was watching her from the wall by the door.

    “What do you want?” Her voice rang hollowly in the echoing space.

    “I came to see if you needed anything,” it said. It had a shaggy golden thatch on its head, and seemed vaguely familiar. Without facial striping, though, it was difficult to be certain of its identity.

    “If we wish something, we will request it ourselves,” she said stiffly. “Go away.” Then she plunged beneath the cool surface again. Jalta was swimming along the bottom, his body as sinuous as one of manks that swam Mannat Kar’s seas. It was quite a decent pool, better than any they’d possessed on their lost Krant vessel. How strange to find such a civilized luxury on a ship built at least partially by primitives.

    When she judged enough time had passed for the creature to have taken itself off, Kaln surfaced again. The obnoxious beast was still there, hunkered down, arms crossed, watching with those horrid static eyes.

    “I sent you away!” She heaved out of the water and stood dripping at the pool’s edge. Light reflected crazily off the water to the walls and ceiling. “We require nothing from you!”

    “I just had word that your captain is resting comfortably,” it said, brandishing a pocketcom. “I thought you might like to know.”

    Her good ear flattened and she could not think what to say, awash all over again in her shame.

    “Do you want to see him?” the golden-haired creature said.

    Jalta climbed out of the pool too and stood, sleek and wet, beside her. “When we do, we will find him ourselves!” Kaln said, whiskers bristling. “We do not need your assistance!”

    “Is that the Jao way, to refuse association when it is offered?”

    “What would a stub-earred thing like you know of association?” Her body slipped toward pure rage and she felt unreasoning emotion take hold of her again. The throb behind her eyes returned, even more savage than before.

    “More than you, it would seem.” Its Jao was heavily accented but grammatically correct.

    Jalta stiffened. “You dare offer insult to us?”

    “It is only an insult if it is true.” The creature straightened and regarded them steadily, hands shoved into folds in its dark-blue clothing. It was not especially tall for its kind, nor heavily muscled, yet possessed a sinewy sort of grace and seemed very sure of itself. “Is it?”

    “All Jao seek association,” she said, her angles gone to disbelief.

    “So I have been told,” the creature said, “though I am always willing to be instructed.”

    “That is not my responsibility,” she said, then shook the water from her nap so that the air filled with flying drops. “You must seek instruction elsewhere.”

    “Wrot has assigned me to you,” the creature said, its face and uniform now wet from her spray. “And I am also under Preceptor Ronz’s orders to join the crew, so –” It rocked back on its heels. “– it would seem that we are, in the human vernacular, stuck with each other.”

    “Not,” Kaln said, her white-hot anger rising like a deadly high tide, “if I kill you!”

    “True.” Its alien face crinkled into a curious expression that she could not read. “I must warn you, though, that more experienced Jao than you have already tried with obvious lack of success.” Its strange grimace broadened. “Just think of me as your very own fraghta.”

    Kaln launched herself at the creature, but it slipped tantalizingly just out of reach, much more agile than its appearance indicated. “You intend to — instruct us?” she bellowed, hands clenched.

    “I told Wrot I was too busy to take you on,” the creature said blithely, “but he insisted, so here I am.”

    It was not to be borne! All the terrible events that had come of their ill-fated expedition crashed in upon her. Kaln snatched up her maroon trousers and donned them again with savage jerks, blood thrumming in her ears. The Bond had summoned them here to this primitive world like errant children, quartered them away from the remnants of their crew, then foisted this — this — beast upon them as a moral guide? She felt as though the top of her head would explode.

    “Calm yourself, Senior-Tech,” a Jao voice said from the doorway.

    She whirled upon the newcomer. It was one of the Jao from the meeting with Terra’s governor, a highly ranked individual, according to the service bars incised upon his cheek. “This has nothing to do with you!”

    “Actually, Tully is here at my order,” the intruder said mildly, his lines indicating bemused-inquiry. “So the situation has a great deal to do with me.”

    “Wrot, it seems they do not want a fraghta,” the human said. “I had always heard that it was an honor to be assigned such an advisor.”

    “Do you hear how it speaks to us?” She glared at this Wrot-whoever-he-was. “Kill it now before it shames you any further!”

    “A fraghta?” Wrot’s wiry old body eased into the angles of consideration. “I had not thought of that before, but actually that is a close approximation of what this situation requires.”

    “What situation?” Jalta asked, his own lines hopelessly jumbled.

    “You will have to work closely with humans on this expedition,” Wrot said, “without killing them out of hand.”

    “But they are savages!” Kaln said. “One does not work with a savage!”

    “They are not savages,” Wrot said, his body gone to stern-disapproval. “They are sapients, technologically accomplished and fully capable of association under the right circumstances.” He gazed at her implacably. “Can you say the same for yourselves?”

    Kaln bristled. “You criticize Krant now!”

    “Actually,” Wrot said, “I am only criticizing you, unless all Krants behave this badly.” He studied her, his eyes flickering green. “Do they?”

    The shame of this day’s actions came back to her, losing control and injuring her captain, being sent off to swim away her anger by a human as though she were a child too young to have emerged into society. What would her kochan-parents have said about all this? Her hands clenched. “No,” she said in a strangled voice. “Krant is an honorable kochan. I was taught better.”

    “You cannot make yourself of use here,” Wrot said, “unless you are able to work closely with humans. Tully, who at one time had quite a bit to learn himself about working with Jao, will assist you. The three of you should listen carefully to him.”

    Him — it was male, then. She hadn’t been sure about that. She batted at her bad ear, frustrated. Those many service bars meant that this Wrot outranked both of them. “I — shall — endeavor to do so,” she said grudgingly.

    The native made a strangled noise, shook his head and said something in his native language.

    “Speak only Jao in the hearing of your new charges,” Wrot said. “That is respectful, and besides how else will they learn?”

    “I said –” The human appeared to struggle with the translation. “I will be — damned.”

    The last word had still been in his own indecipherable tongue. She glared at him, whiskers bristling.

    “The term — does not translate easily,” he said. “It means something like ‘doomed to eternal punishment.’”

    “Well,” Kaln said, somewhat mollified, “that would be proper.”

    And then the stub-eared creature led them to a food hall for something to eat.

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