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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Monday, December 14, 2009 22:43 EST



    Kaln stood speechless while the insufferable Tully divided up the Krant crew and assigned them to teams in his mostly human unit to operate the individual gun mounts. Only Krant-Captain Mallu remained apart, ears stiff, still hunched against the obvious ache in his ribs.

    Tully gave a quick orientation for the Krants: There were fourteen kinetic guns on this so-called “spine,” which was actually a weapons deck. Each required a seven-man crew: one in charge of fire control radar, four to load the projectiles, a single gun operator, and one to supervise the whole process.

    She, in fact, was the only Krant allotted to this particular team, Gun C-Six, though some of the other mounts had been assigned two Krants. Feeling exposed and picked upon, she shuffled behind the six jinau, one Jao and five humans, waiting before “her” designated station. Several of the humans glanced over their shoulders at her with what seemed to be curiosity in their nasty, static, eyes, but the Jao, a stocky middle-aged fellow, pointedly turned away as though tales of her bad behavior had spread throughout the ship.

    The one named Tully went on to explain firing procedure in Jao, but she was having a hard time making herself follow his words. By the Beginning, he was only a primitive! As a scion of Krant, she had traveled the stars since emerging from her natal pool, had even fought the Ekhat and survived to tell about it. What could such as he possibly say that was worth her attention?

    The gun mount itself, though, was sleek and deadly, crafted of a blue-gray metal which she assumed was an iron alloy. She found it oddly alluring, for some reason. Tracks had been laid into the floor so that the mount could be retracted, as it was now. Bizarre.

    “– bulkheads have been reinforced for ramming,” Tully was saying. He gestured at the far wall. “We found that strategy effective when the Melody attacked Terra two years ago. Ekhat ships are particularly vulnerable to structural damage.”

    Kaln felt ill. He was talking about actually smashing this ship into an Ekhat vessel. She should have known it would come to something ludicrous like that. Humans were only one evolutionary step away from clouting one another over the head with clubs.

    “Senior-Tech?” one of the human crew said in Jao. The creature seemed to be female, small-boned, shorter than most of the others. A strange shade of vivid red fur topped her head.

    Kaln realized suddenly that Tully had stopped talking. The gun crews had reported to their assigned stations to run firing drills. Everyone on her own crew was murmuring as they stared at her, waiting. Evidently she had missed something and a response of some sort was required. She blinked.

    “I asked — which position would you like to take?” the human said, her tone respectful. “I am charged with supervising this gun as well as several others. You can serve in any capacity you wish: gun captain, gun operator, take the fire control radar, or work in the magazine.” That last word was human. Either there was no Jao equivalent, or the female wasn’t fluent enough in Jao to know it.

    The little figure gestured at the gun. She looked inadequate for a soldier of any sort, as though the first strong wave she encountered would sweep her away. “You have experience fighting in space as most of us have not,” the female said, her body carefully still. “We would like to take advantage of that.”

    “I — have not worked on this sort of weapon before,” Kaln said. Her mind whirled so that she could not focus. She reached out and touched the cold metal. She did not want to be here, most certainly did not want the responsibility of trying to make this hodgepodge of species work together as an effective crew. “I will train to work in the magazine.” Whatever that was. She hadn’t the faintest idea, but one place she had no wish to be was surely as good as another.

    “All right,” the human said. “I rank as ‘lieutenant.’”

    Kaln’s good ear flinched at the brash presentation of rank unasked, but then realized the female had at least not forced her personal name upon the Jao. And she had read the service bars incised upon Kaln’s cheek correctly as Senior-Tech, impressive for a primitive.

    The rank itself was typically human. One of the Jao with experience dealing with humans had already explained the bizarre customs involved to Kaln and the other Krant officers. The term “general” could mean almost anything, since as well as being a military rank it was a common term. The same for “major.” The term “captain” was more tightly focused, but was still maddeningly vague. It could serve as a verb as well as a noun. Thus, a ship could be “captained” as well as having a captain — but the captainer might not actually have the rank of a captain.

    Likewise with the term “lieutenant.” It could either refer to a specific rank or, more fluidly, to a relationship. Thus, apparently, one general — a very high rank, that was — might still serve another as his “lieutenant.”

    It was all very frustrating. Only the term “colonel” seem to have any real precision. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be that many colonels.

    “The magazine is below,” the lieutenant said. “Access is through this hatch.” She gestured at a circular opening in the floor as one of the humans climbed down a ladder and disappeared. Kaln followed, filled with foreboding.

    Light flooded the chamber below, brighter than Jao eyes liked. Peculiarly-shaped objects of some sort were stored neatly in sturdy racks on one wall. Kaln stared at them blankly. They resembled missiles, in their shape, but she could see no sign of any propulsive mechanisms. She had no experience with kinetic weapons. As a military option, such tech seemed no more effective than surly children flinging rocks at one another.

    A human almost robust enough to be a Jao turned to her. His hide was darker than most of the others, a mellow shade of brown. “Those are depleted uranium sabot rounds. They will penetrate any Ehkat armor we — you Jao, I should say — have ever encountered.”

    Kaln was able to follow that much of the logic, although the thought of meddling with radioactive material was a bit unsettling. Still, she assumed that by “depleted” the human meant that the uranium was no longer very dangerous.

    “In times past,” the human continued, “we would have had to load powder as well. But we use liquid propellant, these days.” He pointed to a mechanism. “That’s the hoist that lifts the rounds into the firing chamber. It’s configured now for sabot rounds, but can be changed if we use other ammunition. High explosives, for instance, or incendiary rounds. For space combat, though, that’s pretty unlikely.”

    So, apparently, they had different types of missiles. Kaln couldn’t really see the point to that. Throwing rocks, even explosive or combustible rocks, was not going to defeat the Ekhat. The first enemy ship they encountered would make very short work of them.

    But at least then her misery would be at an end. Flow stretched out so that everything was slow and murky. Kaln would rather have been anywhere but here and now. The room seemed to be buzzing.

    A hand touched her arm. “Senior-Tech?”

    Kaln recoiled, then normal flow reasserted itself. She saw the red-topped female who had designated herself as a lieutenant.

    “I think you should view one of our vids before assuming your duties here,” the human said, withdrawing her hand. “It is a standard requirement for all jinau troops during what we call basic training, titled ‘Battle of the Framepoint.’”




    Wrot prowled the great ship from one end to the other, poking his nose into the engine room, the command deck, the living quarters, and the food halls, sampling the mood of the mixed crew. Emotions varied from excitement at being summoned to such a faraway location to apprehension over what awaited them, and always among the humans simmered insatiable curiosity. Their capacity for sheer inquisitiveness never failed to surprise him despite his long association with the species.

    Certain decks had been designated Jao, others human. The two did not mingle much off-duty, which made sense since their recreational activities and dietary habits were vastly different. But the tendency of the two contingents to keep to themselves concerned him. They all had to pull together, braiding the strengths of their two species so that they were stronger in unison than either could ever be alone.

    Tully had begun accepting Jao into his reconnaissance unit over a year ago, which was highly unusual and considered an experimental policy by the Bond. Such Jao were technically considered jinau, which normally would have been a grave demotion. Only Jao of the lowest ranked kochan would ever consider making such a choice. Typically, Tully’s Jao jinau resigned from their natal kochan and joined the Terran taif.

    The new taif was turning out to be much more successful than anticipated, though. It seemed, despite their reputation, a number of low kochan had given birth to individuals who had the potential to be far more than merely competent dullards. These often became a credit to Terra Taif once they had the opportunity to make themselves of more use with increased responsibilities. Humans were quite fierce in their belief in the value of the individual over the group, and although Wrot would never go that far, it seemed that encouraging individuals to make the most of their innate talents, whatever their origins, possessed a certain merit.

    In the ship-afternoon, Wrot dropped by Deck Forty-Six’s food hall to meet Caitlin Kralik and Rob Wiley and answer some of their questions, if he could. The room was mostly empty at the moment, just a few humans scattered about, seated at green-covered tables, many consuming that vile sludge called “coffee.” Just the reek of it was enough to ruin his appetite.

    Heads turned as he passed, but no one hailed him. Caitlin and Rob Wiley were seated at a table in the far corner, their backs to a vidscreen streaming a view of the stars ahead of them from the Command Deck. The former member of the Resistance was a brown-skinned man, wiry, but still strong for his age. A twisted scar across the heartward side of his face spoke eloquently of old battles and the man’s long-standing fight for survival.

    “Vaist,” the human woman said, using the inferior-to-superior form of the greeting, I see you. She rose, bowed her head and positioned her arms into the graceful curves of recognizing-authority.

    Her slight stature compared to his own species was deceptive, Wrot thought ruefully. Inside, he knew this one was made of steel. Even Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo had learned that to his utter misfortune. The Jao shook his head, a bit of highly useful human body-language he’d acquired long ago. “None of that, girl,” he said. “You’re just trying to make me feel old!”

    “Well, you must be in charge,” she said. “I know the Preceptor told you who’s out there in that nebula. He certainly didn’t tell me.”

    “He told me what he suspects,” Wrot said, sliding onto the chair across from Wiley. It creaked beneath his weight, the furniture in here intended for human dimensions, not Jao. “Which is hardly the same thing, and it would be pointless to run about spreading rumors and getting everyone all excited until we know the truth of it.”

    “You wretch!” she said with a placating smile. “You and Ronz both know how miserably curious humans are! You’re just trying to make us all crazy!”

    Wiley’s dark face was watching the exchange with half-lidded eyes. He’d been slowly changing his attitude toward Earth’s conquerors since being reinstated in the military by Aille, but the old Resistance fighter had spent too many years fighting Jao to unbend easily. Distrust and enmity toward Terra’s previous foes ran deep in his character. He leaned back in his chair and laced his hands over the slight paunch he’d been developing since gaining access to a decent diet.

    “So you admit that there’s something to get excited about,” he said, using Wrot’s words against him. Despite his lack of Jao postures, the former Resistance fighter managed to convey craftiness.

    “More like someone to get excited about,” Caitlin said. She’d angled her arms and body in a sketchy approximation of sly-expectation, hampered by her seated position.

    “You’ll either see what Ronz suspected when we get there,” Wrot said, refusing, as a human might say, to rise to the bait, “or none of us will see anything but gas and dust and debris. First, though, we have to reach the proper coordinates and make our jump.”

    “Two more days until transition is what I’ve heard,” Wiley said. He narrowed his dark-brown eyes. Though lacking green fire, they were oddly expressive. Wrot could almost see the questions burning inside the grizzled old fighter’s head. “And here I thought space travel was supposed to be so blamed fast. I swear I could have walked to the Rockies and back from Pascagoula already.”

    “Terra-Captain Dannet is being rightfully cautious,” Wrot said. “She understands the dangers inherent in emerging in the nebula all too well, so she’ll position the Lexington at the coordinates needed for optimal safety before giving the go-ahead to activate the framepoint.”

    “Just a lot of fancy talk, if you ask me, for ‘we’re not there yet,’” Wiley said, shoving his chair back.

    Caitlin smothered a laugh with one hand, cueing Wrot that the statement was meant to be humorous. Unfortunately, the implied wit eluded him. He had spent over twenty years on Terra, as humans reckoned such things, but their humor was difficult to grasp. All too often, though he had diligently studied the art of joking, he just did not “get it.” Perhaps Caitlin would explain what he’d missed later.

    “At any rate, Rob has some concerns,” Caitlin said. Her blond hair was tied back, her manner forthright. “Serious ones that I hear a number of the human crew share. I wanted you to have a chance to answer.”

    Wiley gave Wrot a hard look. “I think the reason your Bond filled this ship with humans was that they don’t expect us to come back. Losing a ship full of jinau wouldn’t be such a big problem as losing one crammed with high status Jao.”

    Wrot’s whiskers wilted into utter bafflement. “Leaving aside the matter of deliberately sacrificing several thousand highly trained jinau troops,” he said, “do you really think Preceptor Ronz would just throw away this expensive new ship on a mere whim?”

    “I think no one knows what goes on inside his head,” Wiley said stubbornly, “except maybe another Jao.”

    “Certainly not this Jao,” Wrot said.

    Wiley ran a hand back over his tightly curled graying hair. “Then just come out with it. What the hell could be so freaking important that the Bond would risk all our lives just to go take a poke at it?”

    “Something that could change everything, if it’s really there,” Wrot said.

    Caitlin inhaled suddenly. She sat forward in her chair. Her blue-gray eyes turned to Wiley. “And I’m betting this is something that would not be glad to see the Jao.”

    “And why is that?” Wiley gazed at him with a sour expression. “What did you lot do to them?”

    What we used to do to everyone, Wrot thought morosely, even though the Jao’s wholesale slaughter of alien species under the direction of the Ekhat had ended a thousand years before his own birth. “Humans are here because Preceptor Ronz thought they might be useful, given what we may find in the nebula,” he said. “Think! Would he risk members of Aille’s own service if it was only to throw away their lives on a useless gesture?”



    “He has you there, Rob,” Caitlin said.

    “Then tell us what we’re getting into!” Wiley said, bolting to his feet as if he could no longer be still. “It’s not fair to keep us in the dark!”

    Humans couldn’t see as well as Jao at night, Wrot reminded himself. A Jao kept “in the dark” wouldn’t mind, but the experience might be frightening for a human. “I will tell you as soon as I know for sure,” he said. “I cannot promise anything more.”

    “I damn well knew he’d say that!” Wiley shoved his chair back so that it squeaked on the tile floor. He stalked out of the food hall, limping a little from an old war injury that hadn’t healed well.

    Caitlin stared after him. “That was rude, but he has a point, Wrot.”

    “It won’t be much longer,” Wrot said, shaking his head human-fashion. It wouldn’t do any good to discipline Wiley for his discourtesy. Bringing him, and the rest of the Resistance, into association had been tricky and would be an on-going process for some time to come. Many of those holed up in the mountains made Tully, who came from the same background, look positively mellow in comparison. “Once we jump, then we will all know what is — or isn’t — there.”

    “What if I guess first?” Her body had gone startlingly neutral, a deliberate choice on her part.

    She was good at Jao games, he thought, and who really knew the full measure of what she had learned during her childhood as Narvo’s prisoner? If any human could figure out what Ronz suspected, it would certainly be her. “Then I hope you will do the Preceptor the courtesy of keeping the information to yourself,” he said, lowering his voice so that only the two of them could hear. “There are pressing reasons to not to tell anyone, especially the Jao aboard, until and unless we absolutely must.”

    “All right,” she said. Her expression was inscrutable. He could discern nothing of her thoughts. Impressive. “I promise.”

    At that, Wrot relaxed a bit. Unlike many humans, Caitlin was as good as her word.



    Tully kept a close watch on the Krants as his unit ran firing drills so that they would be proficient if and when the time came. The Krant Jao started out stiff and standoffish, but soon lost themselves in the rhythmical process of cycling together the ammo, then feeding the shells into the hoist and loader drum. He noticed that several Krants volunteered, in fact, to train as gun operators and seemed to be naturals despite their lack of experience with kinetic weapons.

    He’d assigned Krant-Captain Mallu as gun mount captain on C-Eleven. The poor bastard had already had more than enough bad luck, losing his ship and then sacrificing his ribs to save Aguilera’s hide. Tully just couldn’t bring himself to shame the Jao any further by ranking him as a mere team member and his still-healing injury prevented him from taking on more strenuous duty. He was betting Mallu could learn what he didn’t already know on the fly and Eleven’s crew would cover for him until he knew the routine. No one advanced among the Jao to ship-captain without a full measure of brains.

    At any rate, Tully had drawn enough ammo to give the operators a feel for the ordinance and the firing stats were impressive, especially for a crew just coming up to speed. Tully walked up and down the line of fourteen weapons. Despite the vents, the air was filled with the scent of hot oil, burnt propellant, and heated metal. The guns were blue-steel beauties, whose design had been inspired by the jury-rigged tank weapons used back in that now-famous Battle of the Framepoint, but were specifically crafted for this ship. And they were far more powerful. The guns used in the Framepoint battle had been 140mm tank cannons. These were 500mm guns, larger than the main guns on old-style human battleships. Half of the other artillery-spines sported Jao energy weapons, but Tully figured these alone ought to be enough to take care of whatever was waiting for them in the nebula.

    Tully didn’t believe for an instant that the Lexington was on the trail of one of the Ekhat factions, or even two factions. Ronz wasn’t the sort to get all hot and bothered over the Interdict or the Harmony or the Melody, no matter how bat-crazy the aliens were. For the Jao, the Ekhat were business as usual. This, whatever it turned out to be, was something entirely different.

    Voices rose, audible even over the roar of firing guns. He signaled and one by one the crews shut down their weapons. Close to the middle, a dark-napped Jao in maroon harness was shouting at Lieutenant Caewithe Miller. He shoved his hands into his pockets and headed that way. It was one of the Krants, of course. Tully’s jinau Jao either got along with humans or he booted their tailless behinds out.

    “What is the difficulty?” he said in Jao when he reached the Number Six mount. The Krant was stalking about, looking murderous even to someone not well versed in postures.

    The red-haired lieutenant’s blue eyes stared over his shoulder. Her face was flushed. “We seem to have a difference of opinion, sir.”

    Miller was from Atlanta, and didn’t usually have much of a southern accent. But Tully had noticed before that the accent tended to come to the surface when the woman was agitated, either from pleasure or anger. Right now, it was pretty pronounced.

    Tully locked his arms behind his body, rocked on his heels and did his best rendition of Yaut’s waiting-to-be-informed. He turned to the Jao. It was, he saw now by the droopy ear, Senior-Tech Kaln, making trouble yet again. He repressed an oath. “Yes?”

    “They are doing it wrong!” Kaln blurted, her good ear flattened.

    “It?” he said politely. Were those angles indicating desire-to-kill? His hand inched forward to rest upon his holstered sidearm.

    “Loading the weapon!” She paced up and down, waving her arms in no posture he’d ever encountered. “The lifting device — it is so — slow, so — inefficient! We could do better!”

    He glanced at Miller for an explanation. “I sent Senior-Tech Kaln back to my quarters with Private Cupp to view a documentary about the Battle of the Framepoint,” she said, back stiff, shoulders braced. “I thought it would help if she could see for herself how effective kinetic weapons can be against the Ekhat when properly deployed.”

    “And?” he prompted.

    Kaln turned to him. “I saw!” Her eyes danced with that characteristic green lightning Jao displayed when they were all worked up about something. “It is nothing like throwing rocks after all!”

    “Throwing rocks?” he said and glanced at Miller, who gave a slight shake of her head.

    “Kinetic weapons!” Kaln said. Her shoulders flexed and he realized suddenly that the angles of her stocky form weren’t indicating desire-to-kill after all, but raw excitement. “I thought you were merely throwing things at the enemy, like children fighting, but this is infernally clever! The Ekhat shield against energy beams, but they will never anticipate such sheer blunt-force savagery!”

    “I… see,” Tully said, very much hoping that he truly did. “And you wish to improve the loading process?”

    “The hoist is slow,” she said, gaining sufficient control of herself finally to stand still. “It limits how rapidly the loader drum can be filled which also restricts the number of rounds fired in a battle.”

    The gun crews were all staring and he could feel the tension from both the humans and Jao. He could just about read their minds. These Krants had just shown up and already they wanted to run the show. However, Kaln was a senior-tech, he thought. That rank indicated true ability, and female Jao were traditionally more proficient at handling technology than the males.

    How strange, though, that she should want to do something new, to craft an improvement that a human would even say was “creative.” Jao usually had little ability to visualize things-that-were-not, what they called ollnat. “If you will draw up a plan for improvements,” he said, “I will examine it for feasibility, and then if it looks good, we can take the suggestion to Terra-Captain Dannet.”

    Kaln’s black eyes glittered green with emotion.

    “For now, though,” he said, “we will finish the drill.”

    Lieutenant Miller turned back to the crew. “Load her up!” she said in English.

    Kaln joined the crew down in the magazine and the great guns went back to work.

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