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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Monday, November 23, 2009 20:44 EST



    Jihan could not take her eyes from the screen. Both of her small hearts beat wildly. This was obviously a critical moment when the meeting’s potential had poised on the edge of proceeding either very well or very ill.

    “We propose an alliance of our two species against our common enemy, the Ekhat,” the Lleix said. Her movements were calm, yet her body betrayed itself. Much rode upon each word, and Jihan could read the import in every carefully restrained gesture.

    The stumpy Jao shifted into an oddly elaborate stance, arms angled just so, head tilted, ears pricked forward. It wore a dull brown garment on its lower body, encasing both legs, but only straps across its brawny chest. A bright greenness flickered within its black eyes, alien and disturbing. “Why should we listen to you?” it said gracelessly. “If we do not obey our masters, they will destroy us as surely as they now rain destruction upon you.”

    “Because they are the great devils who eat the universe,” the Lleix elder said. “They may refrain from slaughtering you for now, but it will not always be so. Ekhat only want to be alone with their own magnificence. They do not even tolerate variation within their own species. You have seen how the Melody seeks against the Harmony, the Interdict against them both. In their crazed minds, all other species must be exterminated. If you do not ally with us, the Jao will surely be next to fall.”

    The Lleix elder stood alone, Jihan realized, while the Jao was flanked by at least a hundred of its ugly fellows. Were they so cowardly that they required the numbers to be heavily in their favor before they would parley?

    Three other Jao came forward and conferred with the one the elder had named “Breen.” They were all armed with gleaming gray weapons slung over their shoulders and wore similar brown garments. Their bodies flowed from one odd stance to the next and then the next as though they were conversing somehow without words, and Jihan was suddenly certain each position had subtle meaning.

    The elder waited, her black eyes turned to the blue sky-bowl above as though seeking help from that direction. The area around her was undeveloped with no sign of buildings, roads, or agricultural fields. Small red and yellow flying creatures fluttered through the sky like scattered drops of fire. Water surged over a nearby waterfall, obviously, by its casual disharmony, left in its natural state. They must have arranged this meeting faraway from the vulnerable Lleix cities.

    “We are willing to put all of our tech at your disposal and have each of our elian release an expert to advise your forces,” the elder said finally as the Jao continued to confer. “You are already fierce warriors. No one could dispute that. The Lleix believe you can also be a great people. You have only to reach out for the freedom your Ekhat masters have never allowed you.”

    Breen broke off speaking with its fellow Jao and turned back to her. Its black eyes suddenly glittered green again, brighter this time as though lightning flashed inside that hideous skull. “The highest good is to be of use,” it said, its ears pinned. “We make ourselves of use to the Ekhat who gave us all that we have. How do the Lleix make themselves of use?”

    “It is also the highest good to live well as a people,” the elder said, “to learn all that you can and then make of your lives something proper, beautiful, and accomplished.”

    “Beauty is of no use!” Breen advanced upon her, its eyes still shimmering dangerously. “Talk is of no use! Weakness and fear are certainly of no use!”

    Jihan could see the Lleix elder trying not to retreat. “We will make ourselves of use to the Jao,” she said clearly, “by freeing them from the Ekhat.”

    “To do what?” Breen’s body contorted into a bizarre shape which it held for several breaths. “We belong to the Ekhat! They made us what we are. What else should the Jao do but serve?”

    “You should serve yourselves,” the elder said. Her silver aureole was trembling. Jihan saw that she was afraid. The situation was plainly escalating out of control. So much depended upon that moment and the elder knew she was failing, not just herself, but her entire species.

    “We want only to be of use,” Breen said, “so in serving the Ekhat, we are serving ourselves!”

    The Jao was angry, Jihan thought. Obviously, the elder was making it think in new and uncomfortable ways. It did not want its assumptions about the meaning of life challenged.

    “Only go back to your elian,” the elder said, “those among you who make decisions. Ask them to consider. That is all the Lleix desire.”

    “It does not matter what you desire!” Breen raised a sleek deadly-looking weapon. “The Ekhat have decreed you vermin. Nothing is required here except that you die!” It discharged a bolt of shimmering red energy into the elder’s body. She crumpled to the ground, twitching.

    Jihan cried out in dismay, unable to restrain herself even though it had all happened such a long time ago. Then the Breen-creature turned toward the recording device and fired again. The screen flickered and went black. She settled back on her stool, head whirling, and turned off the machine, unable to bear more.

    “So,” Kajin said, his eyes elegantly narrowed, “those are the Jao.”



    The two of them copied files far into the night, packing the filled recording-flats into reinforced boxes provided by Ekhatlore. Jihan kept seeing that moment in her mind when the Jao had fired upon that brave elder, terminating all her wisdom and experience without a single regretful twitch.

    The Jao were utterly savage, she thought. Everyone knew, of course, that the Ekhat were insane. Their minds were impenetrable. No one could have reasonable conversation with one of them, but, from what she had seen in the records, the Jao’s minds obviously worked more like that of the Lleix. They could have understood the same sort of logic that Lleix lived by — they simply chose not to. In its own way, that deliberate turning-away was worse, almost as though they conducted their entire lives in oyas-to. The Ekhat could not be other than they were, but, with Lleix assistance, the Jao could have broken free and developed their own culture, but instead they preferred to be lackeys and slaves, tools for the Ekhat’s legendary cruelty.

    Jihan found the language files and copied them too. She meant to familiarize herself with their tongue so, if the Jao came back, she could translate intercepted transmissions. That would certainly be “of use,” as a Jao would put it.

    Kajin worked alongside her, grim and truculent, but thoroughly knowledgeable as far as the Ekhatlore system of files went. He had been invaluable in her search, she thought wearily. Alln had certainly known what he was doing when he gave this one to the Jaolore.

    “Enough!” Kajin said finally, when, too weary to notice, she copied over an already filled flat. “We will have to come back and search more tomorrow.”

    He was right. She looked at his smudged face, then slumped over the viewer, covering her aureole with her arms. But where could they go? They had no elian-house. There were a number of abandoned structures, left from when an unneeded elian had died out, but she’d had no time to look for one. The research had seemed far more pressing.



    Perhaps the Starsifters would allow them to sleep in her old quarters for just one more night. She lifted her head and gazed out the window. Blackness reigned. It was very late so they would not be there long.

    “Leave the receptacles,” she told Kajin as she tottered onto her weary legs. “We will appropriate an unused elian-house tomorrow and come back for them.”

    He went to the door, but then waited for her, as though she were the elder of the two.

    Too tired to argue sensho, she went through, passing all the wonderfully appointed rooms of this residence without a glance, when normally she would have loved to explore. Opportunities to visit the private interior of another elian-house beyond the Application Chamber almost never came, and certainly not for one of her meager age.

    They exited through the Application Chamber, which was now silent and clean, ready for the next day’s business. She opened the huge doors and stood on the threshold to get her bearings. Chill night air rushed against her face. She could hear water rushing over stone in the stream just beyond the road.

    To her surprise, the space outside the residence was filled with unassigned. They stood in rows, clad only in the brief gray shifts of unskilled workers, their black eyes reflecting the starlight, waiting clearly for — something.

    She was afraid. This was so out of order. Unassigned did not wander the city by night. They went back to the dochaya which was their proper place. “Why are you here?” she said as Kajin emerged to stand beside her in the Ekhatlore doorway.

    One stepped forward, a male so small, he must have been released from the Children’s Court only a Festival or two ago. “We heard there was to be a new elian.”

    His aureole was skimpy, his bone structure unpleasing, his eyes large and utterly round. There had been any number of such homely children in her year. None of them had found elian. “Yes,” she said. “It will be called Jaolore. We are amassing information concerning an ancient enemy who may well have returned to plague us again.”

    “Mistress, you are only one,” the youth said. He glanced back at his fellows. “You will need many more hands and eyes. Choose from among us. We will work hard to make the new elian a success.”

    “No!” Kajin burst out. “These are drudges, fit for nothing but the most menial of tasks! You might select one or two for house servants, once we are more organized, but not to serve in the elian itself!”

    Jihan gazed out over the unpromising group. The enormity of the task ahead daunted her. So much to do and so very little time in which to accomplish it. She had barely started, and yet any moment, the Jao might sweep back through the nebula to finish the task they had left uncompleted so long ago.

    Kajin seethed beside her, his aureole stiff with rage, but Jihan found herself intrigued. She could go to other elian and request the release of more adults to work with her, but they would all be as insulted and reluctant as Kajin, having long ago made their choices of occupation.

    These unassigned workers, though, they wished with all their might to be accepted — anywhere, even by an elian with no resources, headed by a shortest like herself.

    “How are you called?” she asked the slight youth.

    He cast himself to the frosty ground, making his body even smaller. Starlight gleamed on his gray skin. “I am Pyr.”

    “Then, Pyr, come with us,” she said.

    The rest cried out and surged forward. Jihan waved them back with both fists. “I will not select anyone else tonight,” she said, “but I will evaluate our needs and then perhaps come to the dochaya.”

    “You cannot mean that!” Forgetting himself, Kajin seized her arm in the manner of a thoughtless child who understood nothing of propriety, then dropped it as soon as he realized what he had done. “They are less than the sand beneath your feet! They are nothing!”

    She remembered being a dazed child, sent away from the only home she’d ever known to wander the colony during Festival with no surety that she would ever achieve a place. Those accepted by an elian looked back upon that moment with great nostalgia, but what of the ones never selected?

    “They are no different than you and me,” she said firmly. “They wish to live a good life, to follow propriety in all things, and to offer their abilities to a good elian. They only have to be allowed the opportunity.”

    Pyr scrambled to his feet, his body pitifully thin. “You are wise, Mistress!”

    “The honorific used by Accepteds is Eldest,” Kajin said sourly.

    “But you are surely senior to me,” Jihan said, eying the difference in their heights.

    “Pah!” Kajin stalked away into the chill night and the formerly unassigned Pyr hastily cleared his path. “Now and for always, I waive my sensho rights in this elian. I have no wish to lead a pack of fools!”



    Pyr followed the new Eldest to the house of the Starsifters. He was unfamiliar with that elian. It was small, maintaining a modest but nicely kept establishment, and evidently did not often come to the dochaya seeking temporary laborers. Apparently, he had either not wandered past here during Festival or had not noted it.

    Jihan, so tall and silver, so elegant, even in her unadorned robe, led the two of them through the silent house, past room after room, until she reached a small space containing only a sleeping platform and a small table and stool.

    “I am youngest in this house,” she said, “so I sleep here.”

    Youngests rarely had sleeping partners. That honor was reserved for the higher ranked. Even Pyr knew that. He dropped to the floor and stretched out, weary from a day’s labors for the Childtenders in the Children’s Court. The very young were so — energetic. He would not be sorry to leave such duties behind.

    The room was small and cold without a window or electric brazier to make things more cozy. Tattered charts of elements and compounds covered the wall space, overlapping one another, and a crate of electronic modules had been shoved into the corner. Pyr turned on his back and gazed about the chamber. So this was what life outside the dochaya looked like. He’d never thought to see such wonders for himself.

    “Surely you are not going to allow that –” The elder she had referred to as “Kajin” kicked Pyr in the side. “– to sleep here with real adults?”

    Air whooshed out of Pyr’s lungs. Black spots shivered in his vision. He curled around the shock and pain as though he could contain them.

    “Desist!” The elegant Jihan darted between them, looming marvelously tall. “If you cannot behave properly, I will return you to Ekhatlore! I would rather recruit only from unassigned than deal with such crudeness!”

    Kajin stared at her, his aureole stiff with outrage. “But Alln released me! If you send me back, Ekhatlore will not readmit me.”

    “You can always go to the dochaya,” she said grimly.

    Silence prevailed then. Pyr heard the ragged breathing of both as he pressed against the bottom of the sleeping platform. Misery overwhelmed him — to be the cause of so much strife between such notable adults! The shame was worse than the throb in his chest.

    Jihan crawled onto the sleeping platform and turned away. Kajin paced the small room for some time before finally slipping up beside her.

    Pyr huddled on the floor, aching, but wildly happy. He would suffer a thousand beatings if they led to this moment. I have an elian! he thought over and over, far too excited to surrender to sleep. An elian has selected me! I have a place! I am no longer nothing!




    Jihan was wakened by Kash entering her quarters the next morning. She rolled over and saw the elder standing in her doorway, hands thrust beneath her robe. “You must find your own house today,” Kash said. “It is not proper that you dwell here any longer.”

    For a moment, Jihan could not think why Kash wanted her to go, then it all came rushing back to her, the Hall of Decision, her very different results from the space debris analysis, the new elian — her new elian.

    “Yes,” she said humbly. “The Starsifters have been more than generous in allowing me to stay this long.”

    Kash turned away, already not-seeing. Three bowls of steaming sourgrain stood on the table. Gratitude filled Jihan. These elders had taken her in, taught her their craft and nurtured her development, expecting that she would do so for future Starsifters in turn. Now, all that time and careful teaching was lost to them. They would have to wait for Festival and choose again.

    But she did not know what she could have done otherwise. She was right. It had been the Jao out there in that battle, along with the Ekhat. Not-seeing them would not make it any less true. They had to be ready, had to be as prepared as they could make themselves with the limited resources available.

    On the floor, young Pyr stared up at the hot food. “Eat,” she said, gesturing. “We have much to do today.”

    Seen in the daylight, Pyr’s aureole was definitely more gray than silver and his skin dusky, a shade that was almost pewter. No wonder he had not been selected by any of the elian. Compared to Kajin’s beauty, he was like a lump of granite beside a silver nugget.

    But such things were no longer important, she told herself firmly. All that mattered now was that she organize her new elian and learn all she could about the Jao before they came back.

    After they had eaten, she carried the bowls back through the just-stirring house to the communal kitchen. Early morning sunlight slanted in through the row of tiny windows below the rafters. Sayr was there, conferring with several other elders. All fell silent as she entered the homey room where she had spent so much time. She dropped to the polished wooden floor at his feet, wondering if he would acknowledge her. He was the one she had most offended against before the Han.

    “You are leaving,” he said.

    She looked up. He was so very tall and wise. Immanent loss overwhelmed her. “Yes.”

    “This is a good thing,” he said. “New elian bring the colony additional services.”

    “I did not chose this,” she said, trying not to tremble.

    “Your intellect chose,” he said, “and your training. Never turn away from knowledge, no matter how unwelcome it might appear to be. Truth is always to be preferred to delusion.” He rocked back on his heels, gazing down at her with those handsome narrow eyes she knew so very well. “You may be correct in your conclusions, but be aware that you went about this thing badly. Achievements are always judged by the methods used to accomplish them. Poor form makes it harder to gain others’ understanding, even though, at the center of things you may be right. Now, go and solve the conundrum of these Jao.”

    She rose, head still bowed, unable to speak.

    “Walk with grace, Eldest,” he said, then turned away.

    She led Kajin and Pyr out of the house, knowing she would never return. There was nothing for her here now and so very much to do.

    Outside, the day was quite chill, with leaden clouds blowing in from the mountains to the west. A scavenging flock of tiny blue hoppers with their dished faces scattered through the kitchen garden as the three of them exited the Starsifters’ house. Jihan did not look back. Regret would not solve any of her many problems now.

    They wandered the colony, taking note of abandoned houses. There were more than Jihan had realized. Most were very large, belonging to defunct elian such as the Shipbuilders, who had long ago known how to construct spacefaring vessels, the Watercrafters, who had once constructed fountains and ornamental waterfalls, and the Skyflyers, who had maintained a small fleet of personal aeronautical machines for the colony’s use. The majority of the deserted structures were in bad repair with gaping holes in the walls, missing windows and doors, crumbled stonework, or collapsed roofs. Such would require large amounts of time to be made habitable. Even though her new elian was authorized to draw workers from the dochaya, that would take too long. They needed a space in which to live and work now with a minimum amount of restoration.

    The Shipservicers were frantically busy over on the vast landing field beyond the edge of the colony to the east where the land flattened out into a vast plain. They were repairing the ships damaged in the recent battle, refitting others long unused so that they might carry away at least a tiny portion of the Lleix to relative safety.

    So that this would not be the long forecast Last-of-Days.

    But even if a hundredth of their numbers survived by fleeing, the Ekhat and/or the Jao would just hunt them down and kill them somewhere else. It was a never ending cycle and the end would surely come sometime, if not now.

    And it would certainly be Last-of-Days for those stranded behind here on Valeron.

    Finally, she sat down to think on a bench before the Waterdirectors’ sprawling house. One of the largest in the entire colony, they were an industrious elian, responsible for the colony’s clean water supply, as well as sewage and flood control. Long ago, those functions might have belonged to three separate elian, she thought wearily. Now they were combined.

    Kajin settled beside her, but only on the bench’s edge as though avoiding closer contact. His moody silence bore the flavor of recrimination. If she had not broken sensho up on the mountain, neither of them would be in this predicament. What if they never found the right house, she asked herself. What if they just wandered the colony day after day until the Ekhat and Jao came back to slaughter them all? Her aureole clung to her head in misery.

    “Eldest?” Pyr said meekly, crouching at her feet.

    She turned her attention to him. He was still wearing his unassigned’s gray shift. She must apply to the Patternmakers for actual robes, just one more task as yet left undone. “Yes?”

    The youth’s meager aureole flared to its best advantage. “I know of a structure that might do.”

    “You!” Kajin jerked his unadorned garment back as though contact with the youth might contaminate it. “You would not even know how a decent elian is run, much less what one looks like from the inside!” His fine face was scornful as he drew back a hand to cuff the youth into silence.

    “No!” Jihan bolted to her feet. “Let him speak!”

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