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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Monday, December 21, 2009 19:30 EST



    That night, using Aille’s access codes, available to her as a member of his personal service, Caitlin sat in her too-quiet quarters and pored over Jao archives, downloading old file after file, reading and listening until her head swam. Finally, she sat back and massaged the bridge of her nose, thinking. One thing was for sure — Jao had absolutely no gift for narrative. Dry facts and understatement were all you got. She suspected a lot was hidden between those lines.

    The Jao had been around a long time as a sovereign species, and before that they had existed for an even longer period as slaves to the insane Ekhat. Oddly enough, the Jao records did not reflect triumph at having escaped such bondage, nor seem particularly ashamed of their origin. It was what had been and nothing could change that, and it had happened to no one now living, nor had anyone currently in existence taken part in the Ekhat’s wholesale slaughter of intelligence across the galaxy.

    So there were no holidays to celebrate their hard-won independence, no days of remembrance, and their own enslavement had certainly failed to make them sensitive to the injustice of doing the same to other species, now that they themselves were free.

    To the Jao, it was simple: the strong should rule, and the weak should make themselves of use. The only reason humans had achieved any measure of equality with their conquerors was that they had proved themselves more trouble to dominate than any other species the Jao had ever encountered. In the end, it had been considered easier to bring them into association so they could make themselves of use that way.

    And not all Jao were in agreement with that decision, even now. Many kochan believed the Bond was making a mistake in allowing Terra to form its own taifs. But since the two most powerful kochan — Pluthrak and Narvo, each for their own reasons — supported the Bond in the matter, the others acquiesced.

    None of this told her, though, who was likely to be lurking in that nebula, so she dove back into the records and ferreted out name after name of other conquered worlds. It would have to be someone with the technological prowess to wander the stars and stand up to the Ekhat in a fight. That seemed to eliminate all of the known conquered species. The Jao freely admitted that humans were the most technologically advanced species they’d ever come up against.

    But that only covered the species encountered since they’d freed themselves from the Ekhat. What about before?

    Under the direction of the Ekhat, they had obediently exterminated developing sapience wherever the Ekhat sniffed it out. The archives contained only the bare bones of these campaigns with poker-faced Jao droning on about how many ships and troops had been involved in an extermination operation. They rarely elaborated beyond that sort of dry but gruesome detail.

    One name cropped up over and over, though: the Lleix. They had been an advanced civilization, spacefaring, and inhabited a number of planets. According to the records, the Lleix had fought gamely and inflicted terrible losses upon the Jao even as, inch by inch, they lost their homes.

    They’d had advantages that Earth had lacked, especially spaceships and a population spread across multiple worlds. Exterminating such a species would be difficult. Even if you took out the majority of their settlements, what were the odds that somewhere a pocket of these hardy, resourceful, and highly intelligent folk had survived?

    Then she stumbled across a file depicting an ancient parley with the Lleix that took place on a grassy slope beneath a star far more orange than Sol. The Lleix was humanoid in shape, though stockier, and its head was encircled by a fleshy crown more like the calyx of a flower rather than anything resembling hair or fur. It was dressed in an elaborately decorated robe as though attending a ceremony. Its face was smooth and round with only the smallest suggestion of nose. No ears were visible and it appeared to be completely hairless. Tall and silver-skinned and alone, it approached the Jao representative.

    Caitlin tapped into the audio and heard the Lleix propose that their two kinds form an alliance and turn against “their common enemy, the Ekhat.” The Jao and the Lleix had far more in common with one another than the Jao had with their terrible masters. Would it not make sense for the Jao to free themselves and devote their resources to making a good life for their own kind rather than exterminating species who had done them no harm?

    “We are willing to put all of our tech at your disposal,” the silver-skinned one said, speaking grammatical, though heavily accented, Jao. “Have each of our elian release an expert to advise your forces. 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.”

    The argument continued until the Jao representative lost patience and killed the Lleix. The alien crumpled to the grass and its corpse was abandoned there unceremoniously.

    Caitlin froze the recording. She remembered having heard the story about this particular species long ago. The Lleix were the ones who first put the notion of the Jao freeing themselves from the Ekhat into their thick-skulled heads. Jao, who disdained ollnat, would never have devised such an innovative idea on their own. And even so, the concept of liberation had taken hundreds of years and many generations to work through Jao culture and sufficiently motivate the great kochan before they actually came up with a plan and acted to make it happen. But by then the Lleix were all dead.

    Or were they?

    Perhaps that was who Ronz suspected had joined the battle back in the nebula and then run away. And if it was a long-lost remnant of surviving Lleix, the last people they would want to see would be the Jao.

    That would explain why the Preceptor had loaded up a new ship of decidedly unJao design with humans and sent it back to investigate. The Lleix would not recognize it as being of Jao origin and humans could front any negotiations so that the Lleix wouldn’t be so likely to attack them out of hand.

    Caitlin’s thoughts whirled. If she had it right, no wonder Ronz and Wrot wanted to keep the notion quiet. Humans had odd ideas, as far as Jao were concerned, about persecution and the value of liberty. If this story got out, the human troops aboard the ship were bound to sympathize with the Lleix if it came to a shooting match.

    And what would the Lleix do, when they learned the Lexington housed a complement of Jao as well as humans? If their performance in the recent nebula battle was any indication of their capability, they might simply drive the Lexington out of their space, then pack up their colony and lose themselves again. By the time anyone on Earth figured out what had happened, it would be too late.

    That meant the diplomatic contingent on board would have to be especially persuasive, she thought. They would have to reassure the Lleix that the Jao had not hunted them down this time merely to finish what they so long ago started, that together, they would be stronger still, forming a three part alliance to stand against the Ekhat.

    Caitlin of course was meant to be one of those diplomats and did not feel nearly golden-tongued enough for such a challenge. She punched in a call for Wrot, ready to share her theory with him. If she was right, she had a lot to learn about the Lleix in a very short time. Blast Ronz! He could have told at least her what he was thinking. He should know her well enough to understand that she could keep a secret — except from her husband, of course, and he wasn’t here.



    Abandoning the chair before her console, she curled up on her bunk and hugged a pillow to her chest. God, did she ever wish Ed was here right now. Two years of marriage had accustomed her to not having to shoulder emotional burdens alone anymore. Though the two of them were often parted by their jobs, they were in constant contact. This would be so much easier if she could bounce ideas off his practical mind while deciding how to approach this.

    She rolled over on her back and stared up at the gray ceiling, feeling the thrum of the great engines. Well, she told herself, she’d gotten along for many difficult years before Eddie Kralik came her way and she could certainly do it again. But she didn’t have to like it.



    When Tully checked up on the whereabouts of the three ranking Krants the next morning after breakfast, he managed to interrupt Jalta’s swim long enough to learn that Kaln was down in one of the magazines on Spine C, tinkering with the hoist.

    If she’d been human, he wouldn’t have been surprised, but in his experience, Jao just didn’t have ideas about how to improve devices, and if one did occur, no self-respecting Jao would go so far as to act upon it. They were skilled operators of technology as well as competent craftsmen and repairmen. They fought fearlessly and clung to honor, as they defined it, like a human would to his pants when caught naked on a public street. But they usually regarded anything smelling of ollnat as childish or even barbaric.

    Yesterday, though, Kaln had somehow gotten an idea on how to enhance the hoist and now she was exploring it. Even if she was wrong and thoroughly screwed the device up, Tully was fascinated. Most Jao, left on their own, would spend their free time swimming, arguing kochan history, or lounging about on a soft pile of dehabia, and most techs would have occupied themselves with the study of operating manuals. The more he knew of this particular Jao, the stranger she seemed.

    He left orders for Baker Company to report for firing drills at 14:00, then went down to Spine C to see what Kaln was doing. Fortunately, he found Caewithe Miller already there, supervising. She was young for an officer. Like most of her generation, she’d grown up under Jao rule and didn’t have the same chip on her shoulder carried by those who remembered the brutality of the Conquest first-hand. That gave her an edge in dealing with mixed human and Jao troops.

    Along with her own ability, of course. By now, Tully was almost certain that the little redhead was the most capable subordinate officer he had in his unit. And he was even more certain that his assessment wasn’t influenced by the fact that Miller was also, by a country mile, the best-looking one too. Tully was by no means immune to the young woman’s attractiveness, but he was quite disciplined about such things. He always had been, even before he got Yaut’s relentless training.

    The great gun mount was locked into the hull, ready for action. Miller was squatting, peering down into the magazine. She glanced up, then sprang to attention. “Sir!”

    Freckles stood out on her face. Between those and the bright blue eyes and the red hair and the general prettiness of her features, Tully actually had to struggle a little to keep his mind on business.

    “At ease, Lieutenant,” he said. “How’s it going?”

    “Okay, I guess.” She glanced at the open hatch. Banging could be heard from below. “If her adaptation works, it may be ready to try later, if that’s all right.”

    “We’re running another drill at 14:00,” he said. “Tomorrow’s the day we jump and we have to be sharp. No telling what’s waiting for us in that nebula.” He leaned over the opening. “Senior-Tech Kaln?”

    The dark-napped Jao below paused and looked up, good ear pinned. The floor was littered with parts. “I am busy.” Her tone brooked no interruption.

    “This mount has to be up and running by –” He broke off, trying to gauge how to explain 14:00 to someone who did not understand measuring time in quantified amounts. “– a little after mid-sun.”

    “Do not be ridiculous,” she said, holding up a silvery rod and squinting at it. “There is no sun on this ship. Even a dry-foot like you should know that.”

    “We are running firing drills — later,” he said. “And not a lot later. You have to reassemble the hoist in time for that.”

    “It will be done when it is done,” Kaln said, turning back to the scatter of disassembled parts.

    “No,” he said, trying to channel Yaut, “it will be done on time. Even if I cannot feel the flow of this situation, I know you can, and you will either have the improvement finished or the hoist reassembled in its former condition in time for the drill. Do I make myself understood?”

    She threw down the part in her hand with a clank and scrambled back up the ladder to stand before him, shoulders braced, whiskers bristling.

    Yaut, he thought, trying to remember the proper stance for someone being defied as she loomed in front of him, a head taller. Yaut, when Tully had done something particularly clueless by Jao standards. What had that looked like? He dropped one shoulder, angled his head, curved his arms.

    Kaln’s eyes blazed green. Caewithe Miller edged away, her own arms locked behind her back, her gaze prudently on the back wall.

    The Jao froze. If she’d been a dog, Tully would have said her hackles were raised. Time seemed to stretch out as Kaln attempted to out-stare him, but he’d been trained by a master. He concentrated, noting her vai camiti, camouflaged by dark-brown nap. It was actually quite bold, sweeping across her face at a rakish angle.

    “This is important,” she said finally. Her whiskers wilted. “I know how to make the device better.”

    “I am impressed that you have an idea to improve the technology,” Tully said, not relaxing his stance. “But the gun mount must function in time for the drill. We will jump soon and no one knows what we will find when we emerge from the framepoint. It could be the Ekhat. It could even be something worse. We have to be ready.”

    Kaln suddenly dropped her gaze to her maroon boots. “On a Krant ship, such — changing — would not be allowed.” Her voice was low.

    Indeed it would not, Tully thought. “Do you often get such ideas?” he asked, grasping at the edge of something intriguing in this conversation that was still eluding him.

    “Occasionally,” she said, “but no one is interested in improvements. Things work as they are meant to, as they always have. That is good enough. Anytime I changed something, no matter how well it functioned afterwards, I always had to put it back.”

    “I see,” he said, and he thought that finally he really did. She was a Jao maverick, the proverbial square peg trying to fit into an exceedingly round hole, gifted with a least some measure of creativity while born to a species that had little use for such interests.

    “Humans respect the power of ollnat,” he said, “but the gun mount must be ready for action.” He considered the situation. “I will assign a ship-tech to assist you.”



    Her eyes glittered with that enigmatic green fire that must signify something, though he had no way to understand. “That would be helpful,” she said. The lines of her body shifted into a posture he’d never seen on Yaut. Skies above only knew what it was. He certainly couldn’t ask.

    He nodded to Lieutenant Miller, then left Senior-Tech Kaln to her self-appointed task.



    Flow increased. Somewhere, something was about to come together and Wrot had a fairly good idea just what that was. The jump into the nebula would be tomorrow and then they would all know whether the Preceptor’s suspicions were justified.

    Part of him hoped Ronz had made an error, that this would be some new species, never before encountered. If so, the Jao would have a “clean slate,” as humans liked to say, no preconceptions, no more than the usual fears at encountering unknown sapients. First contact would be much easier than dealing with the mayhem the Jao had long ago sowed under the Ekhat’s direction.

    Caitlin Kralik had sent him a message last night, requesting a meeting at “his earliest convenience.” That expression amused him, as much about humans did. A Jao would never care if a desired interaction were “convenient” or not. His kind would accept an invitation from a subordinate, if it were deemed necessary or advantageous, and ignore it otherwise. Humans, though, were a different breed. No one understood that better than Wrot, who’d fought in the Conquest and then spent over twenty years afterward living among them.

    He sent word that he would drop by her quarters, then indulged in a quick morning swim so that his wits would be at their sharpest. Caitlin had been sniffing at the edges of the matter ever since they’d left Terra. It was not inconceivable that she’d figured out their mission.

    “Wrot, come in,” Caitlin said, when he presented himself, his nap still damp, at her door.

    “Vaim,” he said. We see each other, a greeting between those of equal status. By naming her so, which she was not in this situation since he had oudh, he rendered her a great compliment.

    Dressed in jeans and a navy-blue shirt, she resembled a jinau. Her face was flushed with excitement. She stood aside as he entered, then eased into the graceful lines of appreciation-of-bestowed-favor. “Vaim, yourself, old man,” she murmured, starting in Jao and then ending in Standard English. She had the air of a mischievous child. A hint of simple pride crept into her lines though she quickly suppressed it.

    “You know,” he said, taking her console chair. She sat across from him on her bunk.

    “I think so,” she said, drawing her legs up and hugging her knees. “You’ll have to tell me whether I’m right.”

    Humans were so much more limber than Jao, he thought ruefully. He cocked an ear at her, waiting.

    “It’s the Lleix,” she said. “The species who first put the notion of freedom into your minds.”

    It would never do to underestimate this one, Wrot told himself. Her childhood exposure to Jao culture had made her infernally clever. He wondered if humans would ever be recruited by the Bond. If so, she would probably be the first selected. “That is what we suspect,” he said, “but there is no way to know until we jump.”

    “If it is them, they won’t welcome us,” she said. Her face had gone pink in the cheeks, a reliable indicator of excitement for her kind. “They’ll be afraid, or angry, or both.”

    “That is, as humans say, an understatement,” Wrot said. “So, if Ronz is correct, we will have to proceed carefully.”

    “Why proceed at all?” she said. “Why not just leave them in peace? If they wanted to be found, they wouldn’t have left after the battle.”

    “The Ekhat have already rediscovered them,” Wrot said. “At some point, they will be back with as many ships as it takes and then this colony will perish. For the sake of our vithrik and all those who died so long ago at our hands, we should make ourselves of use and save these.”

    “How will we even speak to them?” she said. “The only file I found with an audio track had them communicating with your representative in Jao, for all the good it did them.”

    Once the Lleix had even gone to the trouble of learning their enemy’s language to try and forge an alliance. That indicated much about both their desperation and resourcefulness. Wrot closed his eyes, thinking hard. That meeting had been so long ago, no Lleix would remember how to speak Jao now. They’d certainly had no reason to maintain the skill.

    “I do not know,” he said finally, “but they are an intelligent species with something of humanity’s ability to visualize that-which-is-not, otherwise they would never have glimpsed the possibilities in the Jao that we could not see for ourselves. Perhaps you and your fellow humans can connect with them on at least that level.”

    “Are there any restricted files dealing with the Lleix?” she asked, her eyes upon a digital photograph of her mate, Ed, on the shelf above Wrot’s head. “I have Aille’s access codes, but you must have the Bond’s.”

    Now that she had guessed the truth, she should have access to everything so that she could make herself of the fullest use, should the Lleix be waiting for them in that nebula. Still, Wrot hesitated. Caitlin thought she understood the full grimness of the Jao’s former existence as tools of the Ekhat, but he was quite certain she did not. If he gave her access, she would see for herself in gruesome detail all the terrible actions they had carried out long ago under Ekhat rule, and once known, the knowledge could never be taken back.

    It would be a burden she would have to carry all her days. He understood that in this moment, even if she did not.

    But they all had to make themselves of use, Wrot and Caitlin and Tully and Dannet and the Krants, no matter how painful the path was. Vithrik allowed nothing less. He turned his chair around and then added his code to her authorization on the computer. “What you learn here,” he said over his shoulder, “can be shared with no one without Bond permission, not even Ed.” He turned back and met her startled blue-gray eyes. “Can you handle that?”

    “But Ed has very high clearance,” she said. “Surely –”

    “Not without Bond approval,” Wrot said, “and that may never be granted. Ronz would require as good a reason to authorize him as I have with you now.”

    Flow slowed as she took some time to think it over. Wrot appreciated that about this particular human. Plagued as she was with her species’ endless curiosity, she still understood what kind of commitment this would be. She did not rush into big decisions like a child newly emerged from its natal pool.

    Finally, she sighed. “I don’t want to know things I can’t tell Ed, but I don’t see that I have a choice. I need as much information as possible if I’m going to do any good here.”

    “I think you are right,” he said and validated her access.

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