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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Monday, November 9, 2009 08:44 EST




    The great devils, the Ekhat, had tracked the Lleix down. They were no longer safe in this out-of-the-way pocket of the galaxy where they had long ago gone to ground like terrified prey and where their ancestral guiding spirits, the Boh, could no longer look upon them.

    That dire truth beat through the sprawling Lleix colony at the foot of the Valeron mountains as though all who had been conducting their safe respectable lives there now could think but a single thought between them. After more than a thousand local years secreted on this world, they had been discovered by their age-old enemies and no longer possessed sufficient flight-worthy ships to transport the bulk of their population elsewhere.

    Young Jihan of the Starsifters elian watched as her mentor, Sayr, made his slow and careful way along the crushed stone path leading up the side of the mountain. Though tall with age, his pewter-skinned form was now bent, his dark aureole drooping around his seamed face like the dying petals of a flower. He was the wisest elder she knew, yet distress fluttered in her breast.

    After much deliberation by her elian, he was going to present what she believed to be, at least partially, an erroneous conclusion. The readings the Starsifters had examined from the battle, the debris they had analyzed, had whispered far different findings to her than it had to the rest of the analytical society.

    All agreed that it was the Ekhat who had penetrated the nebula and then fought the Lleix. Alerted by satellites put in orbit long ago, her people had launched their ancient ships, held together with little more than wire and red string for luck, fueled by prayer. There had been two intruding Ekhat ships. One, the Lleix had destroyed themselves, but the survivor fled and then inexplicably fought yet two other much smaller ships which had blessedly destroyed it. One of the newly arrived ships had exploded, but the second, badly damaged, fled the system without making further contact.

    So — something else, actually someone else, had also been present out there in the swirling nebula which confused long-range instrument readings and reflected back scans. Something alien and cunning. The Starsifters had recovered genetic material from both the Ekhat and the Anj, a slave species sometimes employed on the great devils’ ships as they carried out their wanton mission of destruction. A tiny amount of the trace organic material recovered after the battle, though, had not matched either and indeed did not indicate any of the usual enslaved client species used by Ekhat.

    In the Starsifters’ Duty Chamber, she had studied the records, analyzing and reading, researching for days on end until she’d found a passing reference to a great evil from long ago which seemed to match what they had in hand. She believed the physical evidence traced back to a species that had actually fought for the Ekhat in ships of their own, rather than just crewing their masters’ vessels. Despite the conclusions of her elders, she was certain it had not only been the Ekhat in that savage battle. Their wily handservants, the Jao, had been there too.

    Her mentors, led by Sayr, disagreed gently, pointing out that the trace evidence was indeed only that — a trace, a single sample. There was only a forty percent match with the record, hardly conclusive, and besides the Jao had not been seen for over a thousand years. No doubt the Ekhat had grown weary of them, as they did all sapient species, and put them down. The devils they knew were bad enough. Jihan should not invoke ancient fears just to make herself important. The situation was dire at any rate.

    Added to that, they said, was simple logic: The strangers had dispatched the second Ekhat ship. The enslaved Jao would never have done that. No doubt it was another faction of the Ekhat, who were notorious for refusing to tolerate even their own kind. Most likely, the Melody had fired upon the Interdict, or the Harmony upon the Melody. That, the elders could believe.

    The Starsifters were an esoteric elian, highly specialized, attracting few of the youth emerging each year from the Children’s Court, then accepting almost none of those. She herself was the youngest full member by over ten years and little regarded, for all that she studied hard. Many of the elders had never seen an Ekhat ship outside of recordings until the recent battle.

    The last recorded incursion had taken place before she was born, over thirty years ago, and had come to nothing with the bizarrely articulated Ekhat ship sweeping through the nebula without hesitation, evidently on its way to visit destruction upon some other unfortunate world. She had viewed the terrifying records repeatedly.

    Before that, their last encounter with the Ekhat had been almost four hundred years earlier, battling in another star system where the Lleix had also maintained a refugee colony, now destroyed. The survivors had fled here, joining the settlement already in place, poor though it was, and now, as far as anyone on Valeron knew, the Lleix survived nowhere else.

    The wind gusted and she drew the folds of her brocaded robe more closely around her body. The cold bit bone-deep and her breath plumed in a white cloud. Ahead of her, Sayr ascended the path to the waiting wheeled transport which would take him up to the towering hall with its exposed beams, carved Boh faces, and sacred pennants, situated halfway up the mountain.

    Although no Ekhat ships remained in the area, at some point they would seek their missing fellows. And when they did, they would find the Lleix here, hiding. They had always known the Ekhat would discover them at some point. It had been bred into each generation, that knowledge, the understanding that at any moment, they might have to fight, or flee, or perhaps even surrender to extinction, as had so many other species under the maniac ministrations of the Ekhat.

    Only now they could not flee. They had lost two ships fighting off the Ekhat, two they could not spare. Their numbers had grown since retreating to this hidden world, while the refuge where they’d gone to ground was resource-poor. There were too few ships and no way to replace them.

    The Shipbuilders’ elian was defunct. They had not been able to recruit new members when there was no material for construction and its last elders had died a number of generations before she was born. The Shipservicers did better at replenishing their ranks, but even they could not craft the replacement parts needed when the necessary metals did not occur on this world.

    Jihan paced back and forth, her short legs eating up the distance with swinging strides. Sayr was wrong. They were all wrong. It was not just the Ekhat, it was the Jao too, no doubt as bad in their own way as the great devils they served. Though it was forbidden, though she would break sensho by appearing without permission, she had to present the truth to the Han.

    She set off up the winding path, determined to catch up to Sayr. She would make the elders understand before it was too late.





    Grijo arrived early, but the Hall of Decision was already close-crowded. The Hallkeepers, a tiny elian of only three, had done their duty, lighting the space brightly so that the colored woods with their attendant carvings showed well. The silent Boh faces gazed down within, a reminder of what they had lost. Everyone was painfully aware that the ancestral spirits could not find the Lleix in this alien place. As had been true since their initial diaspora, they were alone.

    All the elian were represented, Childtenders, Waterdirectors, Groundtillers, Stonesculpters, the most plentiful, down to the more obscure, such as the Gameconductors and Scentcrafters. Tall and well filled out with age, they still trickled in, one delegate each, always the most senior, who would take back the decision here rendered and disseminate it to the rest of the colony. Each assumed his or her place according to sensho, proper rank sorted out by age, the youngest and least experienced seated in the back.

    Representing the Dwellingconstructors, Grijo climbed laboriously up to sit in the raised immense ornate chair in the center of the vast hall and then waited. As eldest of all, it fell to him to conduct the assembly. His bones were old, though his sight was still quite good, and he possessed the experience of many such sessions to help him maintain order.

    Soon the Starsifters’ representative, venerable Sayr, who was nearly his match in seniority, would present their findings and the assembled elian would be called upon to decide how next to proceed. As if there were any sort of real choice, he reflected. He feared there was not.

    He gazed out at the assembled elian. The Lleix were a graceful silver-skinned people with varying shades of aureoles framing their concerned faces, gold, silver, black, and even the occasional startling russet. Only the comeliest were allowed to produce the next generation, so that the Lleix physical aspect was uniformly pleasing. One and all, their black eyes were properly upswept at the corners, which some vain individuals accented with sticks of black vahl. Down to the last individual, their robes fell in properly draped folds, the styling unchanged in over two thousand years.

    The great doors stood open so that the morning sun streamed in from the east, red and angry. It was the leading edge of winter, and even colder up here on the side of the mountain than down on the plains below. Grijo settled his blue and silver brocaded robe more closely around his age-thickened body. Propriety must be served, even if this turned out to be the long-feared Last-of-Days.

    Several more representatives scurried in and took their place in the assembled ranks, Treebinder and Enginetuner by their robe patterns. Their aureoles fanned out about their faces, carefully dressed for this significant occasion. Dread seethed through the room, along with fear and loathing, so palpable Grijo could taste the emotions.

    The Ekhat had found them. The impact of that knowledge was much like being told one was going to die before the next breath could be drawn. The incursion thirty-two years ago, though the Ekhat had seemed to take no notice at the time, had probably marked their location for later action. Thirty years was but a gust of breeze to an Ekhat, the tumble of one leaf to the ground. No one knew exactly the length of a single Ekhat’s life-span, but it was apparent the devils measured their plans in thousands of years.

    A solitary figure appeared in the doorway and stood, awaiting recognition, its face in shadow. Grijo stood, his sinews paining him, and the great hall went silent but for the whisper of heavy robes and shuffling bare feet. “Have the Starsifters arrived at a conclusion?” he asked, holding his head high, his back straight.

    “We have,” the figure said, and Grijo recognized the voice of Sayr, an old and highly respected authority on the esoteric flotsam of space.

    “Present your findings.” Grijo settled back carefully in the ornate chair, which was noteworthy for its size and carvings, not its comfort. The Lleix did not intend their leadership to find itself too eager to sit here.

    “It was most certainly the Ekhat,” Sayr said, taking the center of the room, gazing at the circles of benches filled with his fellow Lleix, all well grown. His aureole, limp with age and long ago darkened to pewter, drooped around his wise face. “We cannot yet say which faction, though in the end, it will not matter. The Interdict is no better than the Harmony, the Harmony no better than the Melody. All seek our extermination.”

    A ripple of anguish ran through the assembled representatives. Many heads turned away, as though they could not gaze upon this bearer of such unwelcome news.

    “What shall we do?” one youngster with an uncommonly red aureole cried, a head shorter than all the rest.

    Grijo saw by the patterns on her robes that she came of the Foodsculptors, an impoverished elian of the arts who obviously had no one older and more experienced to send. “Hush, daughter,” he said. “That is what we have assembled here to decide.”

    Hakt of the Shipservicers made his way through the ranks of benches and stood beside Sayr. He was good-sized for his age, sturdy and of pleasing demeanor, every fold of his robe in place. His pale-silver aureole fanned his face. “We have made what repairs we can,” he said. “Two of our ships were lost in the engagement and cannot be replaced. We have stripped them of all that could be salvaged.”

    “What of our numbers could be transported to another system with the ships still in service?” Grijo asked.

    “Less than a hundredth,” Hakt said. He glanced up at the unseeing Boh faces.

    So few. Grijo had suspected it might be so. He closed his old eyes, filled with grief. That would not save even a tenth of the elian, who held in trust all of Lleix wisdom and culture, and of course there was no question that the dochaya would have to be left behind.

    “I would also speak to the Han!” someone cried.

    “Jihan!” Sayr’s cracked old voice was filled with reproach.

    Grijo opened his eyes again, saw a restless young figure in the great doorway, outlined in the early red sunlight, shifting from foot to foot. She darted forward with unseemly haste to stand beside Sayr, looking sorely out of place, her head not even reaching his shoulder. “What is this?” Grijo said.

    “Jihan is the junior-most member of our elian,” Sayr said, “with a dissenting opinion on the analysis of the recovered debris. She should not be here and she knows it.” He turned to the youth with great dignity. “Return to the elian-house, youngest,” he said. “We will speak of this later.”

    “The Han needs all of the information to make an informed decision,” the youthful Starsifter said. “It was not just the Ekhat stalking us this time. It was also the Jao!”


    “The Jao?”

    The odd name echoed through the vast hall, different on each tongue. Grijo could feel the radiated puzzlement. He himself did not recognize the designation, though he could see the youngster expected otherwise. He leaned forward, taking care to keep the folds of his robe properly arranged. “What does that mean?”



    A Historykeeper rose from her bench, her robe encrusted with scenes of events that had taken place so long ago, no one remembered. “She names the architects of our destruction,” she said, “from two thousand years ago. They drove us from system after system until finally, what was left of us fled here into the nebula to Valeron.”

    “They are the handservants of the Ekhat,” Jihan said. She gazed about the hall, her aureole quivering with indignation. “They must have come to finish the task they left incomplete so long ago.”

    There had been something about a servant species . . . savage and relentless . . . Grijo cudgeled his mind, seeking to remember long ago lessons in the Children’s Court.

    “I have researched the records. Our last contact with them was a little more than a thousand years ago,” Jihan said, her fingers quivering as she belatedly twitched her robe into an almost acceptable configuration. “They were the ones who drove us from our Last-Home, Sankil.”

    Once the Lleix had held fourteen systems, traded with all manner of species on faraway worlds, built ships so vast and swift that other species commissioned them to build their own fleets. The markets in Lleix cities had been rich with fine scents, exotic fabrics, and imported woods. The tales of that long ago abundance were still told, so fancifully embellished, though, even Grijo, who wished to believe, had trouble crediting them. His people had prospered under the benevolent spiritual guidance of the Boh and never known war — until the Ekhat came and harried them, system after system, from the lush favored worlds they had once called home.

    Now they had taken refuge on this one resource-poor planet, concealed within the nebula, so isolated, they had thought — hoped — obviously deluded themselves — that the Ekhat would not detect them here. Nor had they, until now.

    “There is very little physical evidence for the presence of the Jao,” Sayr said, “only a few scraps of organic tissue that survived the explosion of the smaller ship. What we do know is that the remaining Ekhat vessel fought a second battle sometime after our ships withdrew. If it had been the Jao, surely they would not have attacked their masters. They would have fought for the Ekhat, not against them.”

    Alln of that dreaded elian, Ekhatlore, rose, robe garish with bloody scenes of their ancient enemy. His aureole was so faded with age that Grijo could no longer make out its color. The elder gazed about the assembled representatives, gathering their attention until the hall quieted. “The Ekhat fight one another just as avidly as they seek to exterminate extraneous species. If they fought someone else, it must have been a second Ekhat ship.”

    Jihan turned back to Grijo. “If I am right,” she said, “and these Jao do come after us here, we will not be prepared!”

    “Child,” Alln said, “since we left the Boh behind, we have been prepared for two thousand years to die at the hands of one or the other of these barbarians. What more would you have of us?”

    She looked up at him, indeed at all of them, for she was the youngest, and therefore smallest, present. In spite of her brashness, she was a promising child, he thought, with her classic silver aureole, though her robe-draping was positively haphazard.

    “I think we should find a way to live, not die,” she said. “And to do that, we first have to understand the Jao.”

    “No one understands them these days,” Alln said. “There must have been a Jaolore elian once, but it obviously died out when there was no longer any necessity for it.”

    “Then we need a new one,” she said. Her black eyes glittered as she faced the array of elders.

    A new elian. That happened but once in a lifetime for most Lleix, Grijo thought, sometimes not even then.

    “There is little evidence for the presence of the Jao in that battle,” Sayr said. “And if we could not defeat the Ekhat, how would we do any better against the Jao, even if it was them? Would not our efforts be better spent readying our ships to take a portion of our population to new safety?”

    The assembled representatives muttered and turned to one another, arguing in low, intense voices. Grijo, his thoughts whirling, sat back, the prickly chair creaking under his weight, and tried to come to some conclusion himself.

    Then speakers rose and one by one made their points, to be replaced by those of opposite views. Voices, though never raised, were fiercely eloquent. Ekhatlore thought perhaps young Jihan was right, while many other elders believed she was unused to the rigors of logical thought and merely sought to make herself important beyond her height. It was pointed out repeatedly that even the Starsifters themselves did not support her.

    Outside, the morning light gradually transformed from its fierce red into a thin gold that did not warm at this elevation. Stiff and uncomfortable, Grijo watched it change, creeping through the day until the shadows had gone long and purple and yet nothing was resolved.

    Finally, he heaved onto his feet again and the hall fell silent. “We have reached no accord,” he said, “which in itself is a measure of the direness of this turn of events. Therefore, we must accommodate both views.” He motioned to Hakt of the Shipservicers. The elder rose. “You will ready our ships to transport what portion of our population they can to another world,” he said. “Consult the ancient charts for a possible destination. Requisition whatever you need of the other elian.”

    Then he turned to Jihan. “And you, outspoken child, will form a new elian, Jaolore,” he said. “All of the colony’s records are to be at your disposal. You may recruit any who are willing from the other elian, especially Ekhatlore.”

    Her silver aureole wilted with amazement. “Me?”

    “You have put yourself most unbecomingly forward for one of your tender age and girth,” Grijo said, “and you have boldly gainsaid the elders of your own elian, who have far more experience to make sense of the situation in which we find ourselves. This is a chance for you to redeem yourself. Make what you can of it. I doubt you will ever get another.”

    Jihan made herself respectfully small, lowering her head, averting her eyes, flattening her aureole. “I regret the necessity of what I did,” she said, “but I felt I had no choice.”

    “Many times down through the ages the Lleix have had no choice,” Grijo said, heaving back onto his feet. “And the sum of all those have led us to this, which may well be the Last-of-Days.” He waved a hand in dismissal. “Go and form your new elian while you can, daughter.”

    “It is not the Last-of-Days!” the youth said with all the audacity of her inadequate years and experience. “I will not let it be!”

    And she turned with inelegant recklessness so that her robes actually fell open and headed back down the mountain.

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