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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Tuesday, December 8, 2009 19:19 EST



    The Lexington thrummed and hummed and even quivered from time to time, a persistent reminder to Caitlin that, no matter their ultimate mission, this was also a shakedown cruise. Something could very easily go wrong. Every time she ventured out of her cabin, crew were rushing about to regulate this better and adjust that, or check on those. Even on the third day into the mission, her awareness of their lack of experience added a frisson that kept her nerves unsettled.

    She was also highly aware of the vast variety of life contained within the great ship, everyone intent upon his or her own task, all striving together to make the odd-ball gestalt work. She, of course, had no ship duties and Terra-Captain Dannet had made it clear through disapproving postures that such extraneous crew as herself were not welcome upon the command deck without a compelling reason. So Caitlin kept to her quarters, when she wasn’t tutoring Rob Wiley, and dug through the data from the misadventures of the Krant ships in the Sangrel Deeps nebula, trying to perceive what Ronz suspected.

    The readings and statistics obviously concealed something important, which had sent the usually careful Jao scrambling in what was, for them, a headlong, almost reckless, return to the scene. Damn Ronz, she thought fretfully, going through the files on her personal computer for the umpteenth time. Why couldn’t he have just told her what — or who — he thought they might find there? He’d let Wrot in on the secret.

    On the shelf above her desk, her husband smiled down at her from in front of a temple, an image she’d taken when they had traveled to Amritsar, India, representing Aille. It had been hot as blazes that afternoon and perspiration sheened his forehead. Then the scene shifted to their wedding day. They looked both ecstatic, though her arm was still in a cast, and overwhelmed. Missing him with a fierce ache that took her breath away, she switched off the digital display in order to concentrate.

    Think! she told herself. All the clues were there. She just had to assemble them correctly. The engagement had involved two Ekhat vessels, two Krant ships, and the mysterious third party. Readings inside the nebula, reflected by the dust and gas, were misleading and fluctuated from second to second. It had been difficult to pinpoint the location of one’s own ship, never mind the enemy’s.

    But, as Preceptor Ronz had indicated, impacts on the Ekhat ships had been recorded during the battle which could not have originated from either Krant vessel. She computed the trajectories over and over, but the results always came out the same.

    That third ship out there in the haze had fired upon the Ekhat. The enemy of my enemy is my ally? She squinted at the replay. It was like standing outside in a storm at night, she thought, and watching the rain shear around something invisible. The shape was suggested as much by what wasn’t there, as by what was.

    Who else would have participated in such a battle and then left without contacting the surviving Krant ship? Not another Jao vessel. No matter how estranged a kochan might be from mainstream Jao culture, they were too practical to leave a damaged vessel that might be repaired and returned to use.

    A rival Ekhat faction wouldn’t have fled either. Even though the Harmony — which was itself divided into factions — the Melody, and the Interdict had fought viciously with one another for millennia over how best to achieve the Ekhat’s on-going extermination of all other sapient species, they would never abandon another Ekhat faction’s vessel to be destroyed by inferiors. Most likely, if it was no longer flight-worthy, the crazy bastards would want to blast it themselves even if it cost their lives.

    So, it couldn’t have been the Jao or the Ekhat. Her fingers drummed on the room’s built-in desk, out of sync with the great ship’s droning engines. Then who was left? She’d had access to Aille’s database since being added to his service several years ago. As a result, she knew that other sapient species occurred throughout the galaxy — this arm of it, at any rate, which was all any Jao knew and only a smallish part of it at that. But if sapience was common enough, advanced technological ability was not. The devilish Ekhat made it their practice to stamp out such cultures when they were in their infancy, never giving them a chance to reach the next stage in their development.

    The door chimed. She sighed. Understanding was so close! She could feel the answer hovering just out of reach, waiting for her to open her eyes and recognize it. Letting it go now meant she would have to start all over again, but faced with the monotony of ship-life, she had to welcome any diversion. She reached over to the command board and toggled the door open.

    Gabe Tully stood out in the corridor in his dark-blue jinau uniform, hands clasped awkwardly behind him. Lean and tan from his recent weeks in the mountains with the Resistance, he shifted his weight from foot to foot like a teenaged kid picking up a blind date for a dance.

    Behind him, crewmen rushed past, talking to one another. He glanced over his shoulder. Tully and Caitlin had never been close friends, even though they were both members of Aille’s service, but he’d come a long way since she’d first seen him as a closely monitored Resistance prisoner in Yaut’s rough charge. Intrigued, she waved. “Gabe, come in. I haven’t seen you since we lifted. How are things going?”

    He flushed, then stepped just inside, looking like he might bolt. His eyes appraised the compactly arranged room. Spartan as her quarters were, she thought, they were still probably bigger than his. The Jao didn’t see any point on wasting resources on luxury — except of course for pools.

    “What can I do for you?” she asked, when he didn’t speak.

    “I — ” His gaze dropped to his boots. “Ed asked me to, you know –”

    “Oh, I see.” She sighed, certain she could just hear the conversation back on Earth that had prompted this visit. Was she ever going to pin Ed’s ears back when she got home! “My gallant husband made you promise to look after me.”

    “Yeah,” Tully said. His blond hair was combed, his uniform clean and pressed. He looked almost as presentable as if he had a fraghta to look after him like a high-ranking Jao. Knowing his indifference to traditional spit and polish, she thought his batman David Church must labor night and day. Poor man.

    “So,” Tully said, “are you, like, okay?”

    “I’m fine, Gabe.” She smiled and shook her head. “You don’t have to worry about me, no matter what Ed said. I managed for years before he came along, learned to tie my own shoes and everything!”

    “I don’t mind,” Tully muttered, “though it always seemed to me that you did a pretty good job of taking care of yourself.”

    The moment stretched out, silent and awkward. Not much opportunity for learning the social graces when you grew up in the mountain Resistance camps, she supposed.

    “Maybe you can help me with something, though.” She gestured at the scene frozen on her computer screen. “I don’t have much to do while we’re in transit, beyond tutoring Rob Wiley in Jao bodyspeak when he has time. So, I’m trying to figure out what we’re going back to the nebula in such a hurry to see.”

    “Something’s got their tails in the wringer for sure,” Tully said, dropping into Resistance camp vernacular. He edged closer to peer down at the image she’d frozen from the end of the battle when the Ekhat ship had been heavily damaged and about to implode. “I’ve been wondering about that, myself, not that Wrot or Dannet will tell a lowly grunt like me anything.”



    “Actually, I don’t think even Dannet knows and it’s eating her up. She’s even testier than usual, and that’s saying something. As near as I can tell, the Preceptor only told Wrot.”

    “And why is that?” His earnest green eyes sought hers. “You understand the Jao better than anyone I know, growing up under their thumb like you did. What would make the Preceptor keep this a secret even from his own kind?”

    “I went to Ronz before we lifted and asked him outright. He refused to tell me, said expectation of any particular outcome might change what we find, or do when we find it, which makes no sense.” She paused. “And I suppose it might — for a Jao. I think he’s in error about the human reaction, though. Withholding information just makes us crazy with curiosity.”

    “I bet that’s exactly what the old devil wants,” he said, sitting on her bunk, “to keep us occupied like stupid hamsters on an exercise wheel, running all the time and getting nowhere.”

    She had to laugh. He had a point. There was very little she would put past Ronz and the Bond. “That’s entirely possible!”

    “But that doesn’t explain why he wouldn’t tell the Jao,” he said.

    “If the information were controversial somehow,” she said slowly, trying to fit the pieces of evidence together and make a recognizable pattern inside her head. “If knowing this information would somehow change everything, Ronz would keep it to himself until he was sure he was right. The Jao don’t process new conditions very well. He wouldn’t want to upset everyone needlessly.”

    “Change everything?” Tully said.

    “Yes.” She turned in her chair. “But what would do that, I haven’t a clue.”

    “Well, accepting humans into a new taif changed everything,” he said.

    “Because it meant recognizing that we were more than clever savages incapable of self-rule.” Caitlin tapped a finger on her chin. “Gabe, they admitted at the briefing that a third sapient species fought in that battle. If this was just a standard First Contact scenario with an unknown species, they would know what to do, and they certainly wouldn’t drag an untried ship half-filled with humans along with them to do it. Instead, it looks like Ronz knows, or at least suspects, who these folks were. It must be a species they’ve encountered before. If so, returning to that system in the Lexington, which is a new design, would conceal the fact that we have Jao with us.”

    Tully’s eyes narrowed. “Do you know who it is?”

    “I can’t quite put it together yet, but I’ve been searching the databases and I’m going to keep digging.” Restless, she got up, leaned against the wall and crossed her arms.

    “Wrot may not like that,” he said, grinning. “He’d say that if the Preceptor wanted you to know, he would have told you.”

    “Then Ronz shouldn’t have drafted me for this voyage,” she said. “He knows what humans are like. We can’t leave a puzzle unsolved when all the pieces are scattered right in front of us. It’s just not in our nature!”



    After Tully left Caitlin on Deck Forty-Six, he took the lift up to Seventy-Two, deep in Jao Country, to fetch the three highest ranking Krants. They were taking their morning swim, which should put them in the best mood possible, not that he expected it to be all that good. They were a recalcitrant lot at the best of times and this situation hardly qualified as that. They were put out as all hell at being dragged along on this seeming wild goose chase into the Sangrel Deeps, and quite rightly too, as far as he could tell.

    Wrot had contacted him that morning — ship-morning, that is — and assigned the remnants of the Krant crew to his command while aboard ship. His unit, Baker Company, specializing in reconnaissance, had no mission on the Lexington, beyond eating their heads off and getting into trouble, so they were training on Weapons Spine C to man the new guns. Jao had little patience with anyone sitting idly by when they could make themselves of proper use and expected ground troops to put their hands to whatever needed doing while in transit to an assignment. They neither shared nor tolerated the human tradition that made sharp distinctions between different branches of the military. As far as the Jao were concerned, a soldier was a sailor was an airman was a spaceman, and would damn well do what he or she was told. And do it properly, and do it now.

    Unlike the cobbled-together tank artillery that had proved so successful in the Terran battle against the Ekhat, these guns had actually been designed to be used on a space-going ship. They combined the best of Terran and Jao tech and exuded an air of deadly blue-steel efficiency. And there was the possibility that the Krant crew, experienced with space battles, might even be able to show the human complement a thing or two.

    Or they might just sit in the corner and pout. That was entirely possible. Then it would be up to Tully to maneuver them into answering his authority. Yaut certainly could have done it, and Tully had been trained by the old fraghta. He just had to dig deep and think what Yaut would do in his place.

    Tully squared his shoulders and stepped off the lift when the doors opened. The corridor was redolent with Jao salts. Even if he hadn’t consulted the ship’s directory, he could have just followed his nose to the pool.

    Two sleek wet Jao emerged from a doorway, harness looped over their shoulders, conversing with one another, casually unclothed. The Jao’s lack of a nakedness taboo took a bit of mental adjustment for humans. One of the pair glanced at him, then with a contemptuous flick of her ear, passed by without acknowledgment.

    She had an unusual vai camiti, the markings mostly on the left side of her face, leaving her right eye unmarked. Where had he seen that before?

    “Vaim,” he said, using the Jao greeting proper between two equals: We see each other. It burned him to be ignored as though he were just so much flotsam and Yaut had warned that he must establish himself from the first. Too many Jao still regarded humans as little more than flunkies, fit only to clean up and do grunt work that required muscle.

    They stopped, staring down at him, ears and arms toggled at an angle he deciphered as probably annoyed-disbelief. Yaut had regarded him in that fashion on a daily basis for weeks, and occasionally even the much more patient Aille.

    “You dare to speak so, stub-ears?” the female said, her body rigid.

    That off-center vai camiti, it denoted Jak, he suddenly realized, a high ranking kochan which had lost status on Earth since Pluthrak had arrived. He attempted a rough rendition of waiting-to-be-instructed. “If you rank above me,” he said in Jao, striving to get the angle of his neck correct, “I am willing to be enlightened. I am Major Gabriel Tully, Commander of Baker Company.” Forcing his name upon them unasked was a slyly rude tactic. Yaut would have cuffed him soundly for it, but Yaut wasn’t here.

    The other Jao, a male, was more traditionally marked with a stolid but recognizable facial pattern denoting Kaht, if he wasn’t mistaken, a midlevel kochan. “Oh, it is one of the Pluthrak’s boorish little humans,” he said with a dismissive wave of one hand. “I have always heard that he lets them run quite wild. No doubt, this one has become accustomed to flaunting itself unasked without correction.”

    “This is both a human and a Jao ship,” Tully said, realizing it might be better to let minor breeches of manners like this go unless he wanted to spend all his time forcing traditional Jao into association. Him and his big mouth. He had much bigger battles to fight, but he’d provoked this confrontation and had to see it out. “The giving and receiving of names is a courtesy among my kind.”



    “In case it has escaped your notice, we are not your kind,” the female said stiffly.

    “No, but we serve together on the Bond’s ship,” he said, “both seeking to make ourselves of use to the Preceptor. How will we accomplish our mission, perhaps even fight alongside each other, if our two species cannot observe even the simplest of courtesies? Or, perhaps, you do not care if this assignment is completed successfully.”

    The Jak’s ears drooped into uncertainty and the angles of her body altered. “I rank as Sennet-Subprime,” she said, then stalked off down the corridor. The second Jao followed her without a backwards glance.

    Tully stared after them. No name, but he’d obtained a rank, and one below him at that. A sennet was the equivalent of a human platoon leader, and subprime would meant something like Assistant, or Second-in-Command. Maybe this hadn’t been such a mistake after all. He straightened his shoulders and entered the pool room.



    It was not the fragrant seas of Mannat Kar, Mallu thought, but the pool had nicely balanced salts and was in truth far more satisfying than the facilities on their late lamented ship. He swam on the surface slowly, carefully, letting the water support his healing ribs so that the pain was minimal. Jalta dove next to him, surfacing immediately, then stared over at the door. Mallu followed his subordinate’s gaze. It was one of the humans, the one with bristly yellow nap on its comically round head.

    “Krant-Captain,” the graceless creature said, crossing the room to kneel beside the pool. It was dressed in crisp jinau blue and the trousers’ fabric promptly soaked up splashed water. The human didn’t seem to notice.

    What was its human-name? Tutty? Tucky? Mallu floated over to the side of the pool and held on, reluctant to heave himself out of the water and endure the ache of his injury unless it was necessary. Behind him, Jalta plunged to the bottom and joined Kaln who was racing back and forth beneath the roiling water, working off nervous energy.

    Reflected light danced across the ceiling from the water. “You and your crew have been assigned duty on Weapons Spine C for this mission,” the human was saying in accented, but quite passable Jao, though it was making no attempt to move correctly. “We are running firing drills in a short while, so you need to report for training.”

    Mallu flicked an ear, thinking. It would be good to be busy again, to have something useful to do to take his mind off his failure to return to Krant with his ship. “My crew numbers are too few to handle such an assignment.”

    “Yes,” the creature said. “That is why you have been added to Baker Company, which is my command.”

    Mallu froze.

    “They are waiting for us.” The human stood and gazed down at him with those horribly static eyes.

    The shame of it flooded through Mallu. They had placed his crew under the command of a human? Far better that they had all perished back in that vile nebula at the hands of the Ekhat than to be so dishonored! He heaved out of the pool, grunting at the bite of pain in his side.

    Jalta popped back to the surface and gazed at him, unease written into the angle of his pool-sib’s ears. “Fetch Kaln,” Mallu said without explanation.

    Other Jao were arriving to swim and the room echoed with their voices. Mallu met none of their eyes and kept his head down as he retrieved his harness and trousers from the hooks on the wall, putting them on while his nap was still soaked rather than endure the pain of shaking the water out of his nap. After a few breaths, Kaln and Jalta joined him, dripping, carrying their harness and trousers.

    “Do not ask!” he said when their bodies hinted at question. Prudently, they shook themselves and dressed. Then he gestured to the creature. Blast its ears, what was it called — Tunny? Turly? Kaln had told him its name back in the medical bay, but now the alien sounds had slipped his mind, and he could not lower himself to actually ask.

    The human stood aside, waving them to the door. “Head to Weapons Spine C,” it said.

    “We are required?” Kaln said, her angles confused.

    Her mental balance was still precarious and Mallu hesitated to impart the disturbing news of their demotion to her. He turned to the human. It stood to one side, hands shoved into concealed folds in its trousers, gazing pointedly over his head and refusing to lead the way, he realized. The wretch was employing Jao disciplinary techniques as though it had been born to them. One of the Krants would have to go first. He turned to Kaln, who was lowest ranked, and motioned her forward.

    All her lines went to incredulity. Her eyes blazed with green fire as she glanced at the human and made no move to obey.

    “You toured the ship while I was — indisposed,” Mallu said, as though they were back on their own vessel and this was merely another order to be followed. “Lead us to Weapons Spine C.”

    Kaln turned to Jalta as though to protest and Mallu cuffed her good ear. The rapid movement pained his ribs and made him gasp when he spoke. “Weapons Spine C, Senior-Tech!”

    Kaln’s angles shifted from incredulity to guilt. With a snarl, she pushed Jalta aside and lurched through the door into the hallway. Mallu motioned Jalta after her, then followed himself, not deigning to notice what the vile little human did.

    The four of them entered the nearest lift and rode down to the assigned Weapons Deck in silence. Kaln kept glancing at the human with such distaste, Mallu thought he might have to discipline her again.

    They got off on the proper level and found the rest of their Krant crew milling before a row of great guns, muttering and asking why they had been summoned. A number of humans in jinau uniforms were staring.

    The yellow-napped human stepped into the center. “Listen up!”

    The milling stopped and all the humans present fell into rows, assuming a rigid stance, shoulders back, arms straight, heads high, obviously a codified posture appropriate to the situation.

    “I am Major Gabriel Tully, Commander of Baker Company,” the human said in Jao, “and a member of Aille krinnu ava Terra’s personal service.”

    Names, names, names! thought Mallu crossly. This species was obsessed with them, forcing their slippery syllables upon hapless bystanders at the slightest provocation. With their bland, almost indistinguishable faces, it was no doubt the only way for them to tell one of their fellows from the other with any degree of accuracy.

    “Because everyone on this ship must make themselves of use, all Krant-crew aboard has been assigned to Weapons Spine C, which is under my command.”

    Mallu’s crew stiffened and he saw amazement, confusion, and outright hostility in their postures. He stepped forward, trying to project dignity, but the pain in his ribs thwarted his ability to achieve the proper angle. “Whatever comes, you will not shame Krant!” he said, his ears flattened in admonition. “You will put your hand to whatever you are asked, and you will do it to the best of your ability. Show these dry-footed primitives that whatever they can do, a Jao can accomplish faster and better!”

    One by one, his crew regained control of their emotions and schooled their bodies to a mostly respectful neutrality. Kaln stood stiffly before him, betrayed by her drooping ear, but otherwise credibly restrained.

    Tully turned to him, his naked lips twisted in a strange grimace that Mallu could not interpret. “Very good,” the human said. “Now we are ready to start.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “By the way, Krant-Captain, you might want to bear in mind for future reference, that while Baker Company is one quarter Jao and three quarters human, all the humans with whom you will be working speak excellent Jao.”

    Startled, Mallu glanced at the rows of waiting jinau. One of them in the front, small in stature with startling red fur on its head, closed a single eye in what seemed to be a deliberate gesture.

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