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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Monday, November 2, 2009 01:13 EST



    In his secluded office at the edge of the base, Preceptor Ronz felt the new urgency like a sharp prickle down his spine, an irresistible twitch that commanded his feet to move, to take him somewhere else. He stared blindly at the curving quantum crystal walls, trying to see beyond. The situation had altered.

    He located his pocketcom under a pile of flimsies and contacted Wrot. The crafty old veteran answered immediately. “I feel it, too,” his voice said through the device. “Something is quite definitely trying to complete itself.”

    That could be good or ill, the Preceptor reflected. There was no way of knowing. All he could tell for now was that faraway variables had shifted and it was time to act. He rose restlessly from his chair, knocking over a stack of paper reports. “The ship must leave as soon as possible,” he said.

    “I am already working on it,” Wrot said. Ronz could detect a note of excitement in the old warrior’s voice. “Fortunately, Terra-Captain Dannet’s experience has stood us in good stead. She has prepared well. I have been running checks since I felt the flow turn. The ship’s critical systems are up and running, most supplies already loaded. Subcommanders Brel krinnu ava Terra and Rob Wiley had the foresight to load their equipment several solar revolutions ago, including the space assault modules and ground tanks. All personnel not currently on board have been summoned.”

    “Fortunate, indeed.” Ronz looked down at the plastic com’s rectangle in his hand, trying to make his mind pull up any critical lingering details. Nothing could be left undone. “I do not have to tell you how important this is.”

    “If you are right,” Wrot said, “only our human allies can bargain for us in this situation. Those you seek will not be pleased to have us on their trail again.”

    “No, they will not,” Ronz said. “It is your job to help Caitlin and Tully make them see the possibilities here, the many ways we could now be of use to one another as the Lleix once were to us, so long ago.”

    “Before they kill us for hunting them to the point of extinction,” Wrot said sourly.

    “Yes,” Ronz said. He stalked about his office, round and round and round, utterly unable to be still. An immense opportunity for association loomed before them, if only they could make use of it. He longed to go and put his hand to the task himself, but could not spare his attention here. “That would be best.”



    Feeling the new urgency, Aille collected Yaut and went out to the Lexington’s vast construction yard to watch. The last of the supplies were streaming in. Lines of jinau and Jao soldiers strode purposefully toward the huge ship, their kits slung over one shoulder, talking among themselves with excited gestures.

    Cables were being cast off, power lines withdrawn, scaffolding rolled away. The last minute screech of tools was fading with only the final few touches here and there on the vast hull being administered. Everyone, human and Jao alike, seemed to feel the change in conditions just as strongly. It was time.

    To do what? his brain demanded. Aille was keen to learn what Ronz was planning. Just who did the Preceptor expect to discover in that nebula in the section of space sometimes called the Sangrel Deeps? What could possibly lie hidden there worth all this hurry and secrecy? Jao encountered sapient species from time to time, though rarely those accomplished enough for space travel or as infernally clever as humans. Still, word of such discoveries usually disseminated throughout the many Jao kochan as tales of interest rather than being withheld with this degree of fierce security.

    The Preceptor joined the two of them outside the refit facility. His back bent with age, he watched silently as activity surged around the great ship. Everything had to be cleared away so the Lexington could launch.

    “I do not suppose you can tell me now?” Aille said, letting his angles go to urgent-polite-inquiry.

    The old Jao gazed at him benignly, his body exquisitely neutral, as only those of the Bond could manage, his eyes barely flecked with green. “When flow completes itself, you will be, as a human would say, the first to know.”

    “I do not find that reassuring,” Aille said. “You are risking a great resource on this mystery venture. The Lexington will be urgently needed when the Ekhat decide to sweep back through this system, which could happen any time.”

    Yaut studied them both, but did not comment. His posture reflected restrained-curiosity. The fraghta clearly wished he were going.

    As do we all, Aille thought. Something interesting was out there, something worth all of this commitment of resources, as a human would say, all this fuss. If his responsibilities were not so pressing, he would have named himself a member of that crew and gone off adventuring with them, no matter if he were invited or not.

    But Terra was restless, and there was much still unresolved. He could not leave for the length of time this voyage would consume. His nascent taifs were coming along, but would fall apart without constant reinforcement and supervision.

    Workmen, having just dismantled a huge scaffold, were carting the components back into the refit building, and the three of them moved aside.

    “Much is being risked that much might be gained,” Preceptor Ronz said, standing closer to Yaut. “And I am not going either. Keep that in view. There is far too much demanding my attention here.”

    The flow of supplies was lessening now, and there were gaps in the lines of the reporting troops. The mood projected by one and all was industry and purpose. Both of Terra’s taifs were united on this matter, whatever it turned out to be.

    The door-field behind them faded and Wrot krinnu ava Terra appeared, shepherding a group of battered Jao clad in Krant maroon, evidently the remnants of the crew from the ill-fated ship. Aille estimated there were about thirty, some obviously still recovering from injuries incurred during the battle. They seemed dazed and reluctant, walking slowly, gawking at the Lexington’s immenseness.

    What could they have possibly seen to prompt this mission? Aille wondered. And how could they be unaware of it? Mysteries wrapped in mysteries. The only thing one could say for certain was that the Bond did not play politics. What they planned might be very long-range, but it was inevitably for the good of all kochan.

    He just wished he were going to be one of those allowed to swim in this intriguing new sea.



    On board the Lexington, safely installed in her new quarters, Caitlin heard her pocketcom buzz over on the bunk where she’d tossed it. She set her digital picture frame, which was stuffed with endless photos of Ed, on the little bureau built into the wall and then activated the loop. The first image came up. Ed all kitted up in his dress uniform for a formal reception, looking grave and dignified. She flipped her com open.

    “Caitlin?” Professor Kinsey’s voice said. “I hear you’re leaving.”

    The digital image shifted. Ed on their delayed honeymoon, wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, barefoot on the beach under the bright Mississippi sun. “Yes, Professor,” she said, settling on the narrow bunk, eyes still on the display. “They’re in a great hurry all of a sudden, something about the `flow changing.’”

    “I don’t suppose you know what this is all about yet?”

    The image faded and the next came up. Ed laughing, brandishing a bottle of beer, surrounded by his fellow jinau officers in a New Chicago bar. “No,” she said. “Ronz wouldn’t say, and Wrot won’t tell us until he’s good and ready, and who knows when that might be?”

    He hesitated, and she thought that the pause said more than mere words. “You will take care of yourself, won’t you?”

    New picture. Ed bundled up in a gray parka when they’d visited the Resistance camps on a good-will trip up in the Rockies last winter, holding out his hand to her. “I will.” She forced her voice to remain level. “It’s a great opportunity, Professor. Whatever is out there must be really important. I’m honored that the Preceptor thinks I can be of use.”

    “Jao can be wrong,” her mentor said softly. “Even the Bond, and what is good in the long run for them might well be disastrous for you personally. Keep that in mind while you’re out there adventuring — please.”

    He was so right. She was going to be walking a very thin line on this mission between making herself of fullest use and merely surviving. “I will,” she said. “Good-by, Professor.”

    “Until we meet again,” he said in his stiff, old-fashioned way that never failed to charm her.

    The pocketcom clicked off. She sat alone in her spare room, with only digital books, images, and music recordings to remind her of home. Weight allowances had permitted nothing more. This trip was to be all business.

    The picture frame display continued to run. Ed at the New Chicago Zoo, feeding an elephant, then Ed in their kitchen, looking up from his breakfast of eggs and bacon, grinning and rumpled from lack of sleep because they had spent the night making love after long weeks of separation. It was too much. She couldn’t bear any more and clicked the picture frame off. Resolutely, she turned her thoughts to what she needed to do that very moment.

    The pocketcom would have to be recalibrated for ship frequencies, she thought, gazing at the slim black rectangle in her hand. Everything was changing, so she would have to change too, in whatever way made her most productive. She only hoped the Preceptor was right and she was up to the task.




    Tully delivered the two Krants to the medical bay where Krant-Captain Mallu did indeed look much improved. Next to his bed, a monitor beeped softly. White-coated personnel slipped in and out of the room, intent on their duties. Kaln and Jalta approached the Captain’s bed and gazed down at him, edgy as though their skins didn’t fit. For once, the female tech was speechless.

    “His collapse was not all your fault,” Dr. Ames said to Kaln as she filled in a form on a clipboard, then handed it to a male human aid. “It was mostly the result of his injury in the battle with the Ekhat. He should have sought treatment much earlier and not put himself at such grave risk.

    “He is very stubborn,” Kaln said, her single good ear twitching. She batted at the drooping one as though it offended her.

    Tully’s pocketcom buzzed. He flipped it open. “We are leaving soon,” Wrot’s voice said in English. “Perhaps even within the hour.”

    Having lived on Earth since the original invasion, Wrot dealt with human methods of time management better than most Jao. “What about the rest of the Krant crew?” Tully said, keeping a wary eye on Kaln and Jalta lest they get away from him.

    “I just escorted them aboard myself and left them in their quarters,” Wrot said, “though they are jumpy and disgruntled. They wanted to go home to Mannat Kar, their natal world. They don’t understand why they are here instead.”

    “Why didn’t the Preceptor send them back, then?” Tully tensed as Kaln glanced at the door. Was she about to bolt again? He maneuvered himself between her and easy escape.

    “He has his reasons.” Wrot’s tone was noncommittal.

    “Right.” Tully scratched his head. The Preceptor always had his reasons and rarely felt moved to share them. The rest of them might as well be puppets dancing on strings as far as the Bond was concerned. Business as bloody usual. “If we’re leaving, then I have to pick up my kit.”

    “Have your batman do it,” Wrot said.

    Sometimes Tully forgot that he held a command grade for real these days. As a spy for the Resistance, he’d skulked around military installations for years before Aille had drafted him into his service, pretending to be Private First Class This and Sergeant That. It was still a surprise to wake up each morning and find that he’d earned something real and honest, something lasting and all his own.

    “Meet me on Deck Six once you’re done,” Wrot said. “My quarters.”

    Tully glanced at Kaln and Jalta. “What about these Krants I’ve been nursemaiding?”

    “Leave them with Krant-Captain Mallu,” Wrot said. “He can handle them now.”

    “Right.” Tully clicked off, then punched in the code for his batman, David Church. He slipped out of the medical bay into the hallway, watching the furious activity as crewmen, both human and Jao, checked read-outs, monitored controls, hauled packages on-board and stowed them with a quiet intensity. The whole ship reverberated with activated machinery, passing feet, and voices. Damn, he could almost feel the completeness of the impending “flow” himself. Obviously, he’d been hanging around with Jao far too long.

    “Church, here,” a voice said on his com.

    “Church, this is Major Tully,” he said. “Pack my things on the double, then run them out here to the Lexington. I have quarters on Deck Fourteen. We’re about to lift.”

    “Already done, sir.” David Church sounded aggrieved as though Tully had accused him of dereliction of duty. The tall dark-haired youth from Oklahoma was only twenty-six, but took his responsibilities seriously. “Your ship quarters are ready for inspection.”

    “Great,” Tully said. Of course it was already done. Church was more than competent even if Tully’s head was still spinning with the suddenness of this whole thing. “Carry on.”

    “Yes, sir.” The com clicked off.

    Sir, right. That was him. Tully pocketed the device. Still a shock every freaking time someone said the word. He doubted he would ever get used to it.



    Mallu slipped off the uncomfortable sleeping platform when the human medician was not looking. His ribs still hurt, but one of the assistants, a young Jao with a marvelously bold vai camiti, had strapped them tightly, and now he could at least breathe.

    Kaln and Jalta watched him without comment, but the medician, Ames, caught sight of him out of the corner of one eye and intercepted him. “Will you stop that? You will undo all my hard work!”

    He wavered on his feet, then took a few tottering steps around her. “I am fine,” he said, though the blood pounded in his head. “It serves no purpose for me to remain here. I wish to go to my crew.”

    The two of them glared at one another, although he could pick up very little of her mood. Her eyes were static and her ears could not so much as twitch.

    “Fine,” she said abruptly and crossed her arms. Her naked cheeks were curiously red. “Go! Maybe when you collapse again, they will take you to one of the other medical bays where someone else can try to put you back together. I must warn you, though, that next time it will not be nearly as easy.”

    Kaln’s whiskers curled with alarm. “Captain,” she said, “perhaps –”

    “No, no, go!” Doctor Ames waved a dismissive hand at him. “I am quite certain you know more of the medical arts and the state of your own internal organs than I do.” She crossed her arms and took up a stiff-backed stance that seemed quite meaningful, though he hadn’t the slightest clue what it signified. “I have only studied Jao physiology for the last ten orbital cycles and performed thousands of medical procedures, but you have been Jao all your life!”

    Jalta stepped closer, his body hunched in uncertain-misery, quite a complex posture for one of their kochan. “Stay until you are dismissed, pool-sib,” he said softly. “There is nothing for us to do now. The ship will launch, but, as far as I know, we are not required on the command deck. Let the medician carry out her function as best she knows how. I will see to our crew.”

    Mallu’s legs gave way and Kaln leaped to seize his arm. Taking his weight, the tech levered him back to the dreadfully uncomfortable bed, as humans called it.

    “You could,” Doctor Ames said, “make yourself of use here by furthering my education. I have never encountered an injury of this sort before. Treating you will allow me to be of more aid to other Jao in the future. Of course, your death could be useful, too, as a cautionary tale for other injured Jao who do not wish to heed my advice.”

    “Captain, you must stay!” Kaln burst out. “Indeed, I will not let you leave!”

    Mallu sagged back against the thin cloth covering and sighed. Even the shallow breath made his ribs ache.

    “Smart female.” Ames jerked her head toward Kaln. “You should promote her.”

    “For that,” Mallu said stiffly, “I would have to have my own ship.”

    “When the time is right,” Ames said, examining the readout on a medical instrument, “certainly you will get another command.”

    But, as a human, she had no idea of Krant’s poverty or isolation, or how seldom his kochan acquired new ships. The last two had been purchased several generations before when a trading run had proved particularly lucrative. They had not encountered such luck again in a very long time, and his sense of flow did not indicate they would any time soon.

    He had been entrusted with a great treasure and had let his kochan down. He needed to return home and lay his misfortunes before Amnst, the current kochanau. Delaying here only increased his dread of that final accounting for what he had lost.

    But he said none of this. Kochan troubles were not to be spilled before alien primitives, even one that was a bit on the clever side, like this Ames. He closed his eyes and let a rising tide of dormancy overwhelm him. Kaln and Jalta were talking softly, while all around them, the great ship quivered in preparation for launching into the black night of space. There, at least, he would feel at home.



    It was time. Dannet krinnu ava Terra settled into her chair and gazed around at the controlled bursts of activity across the command deck. The majority of the bridge officers were Jao, but about a third were human.

    Narvo had sacrificed her promising career to this new taif as proof of its intent to fully associate with Pluthrak. So she would work to the best of her ability and captain their huge ship with its barbaric kinetic weapons. But her liking of the assignment was not required.

    “On your order, Terra-Captain,” her second, Pleniary-Commander Otta, said. His eyes danced with green fire. His stance was a sturdy version of restrained-readiness which betrayed his Nimmat origin.

    “You may launch,” she said with a careless flick of one ear, as though this were any other ship lifting for the first time and not a momentous occasion for both species involved.

    “Proceed,” Otta said to his bridge crew. They bent to their work and then the great ship roared into the sky.

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