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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Twenty Seven

       Last updated: Friday, February 26, 2010 07:04 EST



    Caitlin knew something was up when the call came in, maybe even what wily old Ronz had suspected from the start because everyone was being very mysterious. Tully had summoned Caitlin and Wrot, asking that they meet him at the Ekhat derelict soonest, but declined to explain further.

    She accompanied Wrot up to the bridge to formally request transport from Dannet. The mood was calmer than when last Caitlin had visited. A faint hint of singed wiring lingered in the air. Repairs were still being made, but most of the equipment seemed to be functioning.

    Beside a damaged console, the Terra-Captain was sitting on her feet, as Jao sometimes did when agitated, looking as though she could launch herself at any second. Her eyes were glittering, her spine angled to indicate barely-repressed-curiosity, whiskers quivering.

    The back of Caitlin’s neck prickled. The former Narvo knew something was up, too, had known it all along, but the Bond had given Wrot oudh over the noncombat aspect of this mission, not her. The Terra-Captain had to play her assigned role.

    Wrot waited, his body arched with polite-request.

    “Lexington will transport you,” Dannet. She rose and stretched like a frustrated lioness. “We have completed our task of destroying leftover fragments from the battle.”

    Indeed, Dannet had been so thoroughly ruthless on that score, Caitlin doubted anything bigger than a bread box was left drifting out there.



    The bad part, she learned two hours later, was that she had to suit up and go over to the derelict — outside — crossing naked space. Why Tully couldn’t just report to her and Wrot on the Lexington was not being explained. He insisted they had to come in person and would say no more on an open channel.

    Well, she thought, in the space suit locker, as Wrot settled a helmet over her head and then activated the seals, it had damn well better be worth it. She didn’t even want to think about what Ed would say when he heard about this. The air rushed and then she was alone with the sound of her thudding heartbeat.

    She’d had the terrifying experience of boarding an Ekhat ship of the Interdict faction several years ago and had no desire to repeat the experience with a Melody ship, even if the wretches were all supposedly dead.

    Wrot gave her a quick course in using her jets, then tethered her with a cord to his own suit. “I will do the maneuvering,” the old Jao said. “You just, as they say, come along for the ride.”

    They cycled through the air lock, then Wrot towed her outside the Lexington’s huge curving hull. The star hung there on her right, swollen and fiery. She could see its surface seething as convection currents swirled, rose, and fell. Had they really emerged into the system through that? She felt ill all over again, a sensation not improved by the lack of gravity. Her stomach kept trying to climb into her throat, and her mind insisted she was falling, even though she knew logically it was not true. A fervent new appreciation for gravity suddenly suffused her. She would endeavor to enjoy it as it deserved, once she was back in a civilized environment.

    Don’t look! she told herself. Think about something else — yeah, like that battered Ekhat derelict just ahead.

    But that didn’t help much. Light gleamed through numerous hull breaches, courtesy of Lexington’s powerful armament. The huge bay door hung crazily to one side, anchored by a single hinge, floating. Probably, she thought, one good tug would send it careening down into the sun to incinerate –

    That didn’t bear thinking about either. She trained her eyes on Wrot’s blue space suit as he jetted assuredly toward his target. Luckily for her, he probably had done this a hundred times, she told herself as they neared the access point.

    Wrot maneuvered through the irregular opening, half manufactured doorway and half blast hole. She held her hands out as he towed her the rest of the way, then eased through the gap into dim green light. Inside, she found herself in a large bay filled with drifting fragments of — something. She craned her head, trying to make sense of the jumble of debris. Maybe this wreckage had once been shuttles. Maybe heavy machinery. Or maybe something only the Ekhat would understand.

    A group of small sinuous creatures in white space suits floated off to one side, guarded by a trio of jinau. “Caitlin! Wrot!” Tully’s voice called. “Up here!”

    She looked around, then spotted a blue-suited figure waving at her from some sort of extension that had once overlooked the storage bay. “Use your jets,” Wrot said, activating his own to head for Tully. “And avoid the wreckage. You could hole your suit on a jagged edge.”

    Taking a deep steadying breath, she activated her jets and wobbled tentatively after him, still tethered. When they reached the platform, she found Tully, Kaln, and Mallu, along with several unfamiliar jinau, one of them Jao and the other human, and a pair of suited figures who were…

    Neither. To her relief, though, it was immediately apparent that they were not Ekhat. Abstractly, she knew that there was only one surviving Ekhat aboard the derelict, which had been very badly injured. But her one experience with Ekhat aboard the Interdict ship had been frightening enough to make her somewhat irrational on the subject. Even the wounded Ekhat would probably scare her silly. Fortunately, it was nowhere in sight.

    “Who is this?” she asked Tully, trying at the same time not to careen into the wall. Wrot put out a steadying hand to stabilize her. “Were they part of the crew on this ship?”

    “Beats me, Caitlin,” Tully said. “I haven’t been able to make heads or tails yet out of what they are doing here, and we haven’t run across any more like them, dead or alive. They say they are Lleix and speak a bit of Jao, as it happens.”

    Lleix! Her heart lurched at the sound of that ancient name. Now that she could see them better, she could see that their appearance matched the record she had watched. The aliens were quite tall, even stately, built wide on the bottom, then more narrowly on the top, possessing two arms and legs and an odd crown of flesh across their heads that rippled apparently to the rhythm of the creatures’ thoughts. The effect suggested the petals of a daisy, if a flower could move at will. Their faces were concave with only a nub of a nose and thin silver lips.

    Two pairs of upswept narrow black eyes turned to her and the one closest spoke in an unexpectedly musical voice. “You are Cat-lin, Queen of the Universe?” The words were Jao, except for the English term “queen.”

    “What?” Caitlin glanced at Tully.

    He scowled and shook his head. “I’m afraid there has been a complication,” he said in English. “After we took them into custody, these Lleix mistook the Jao in my company for our slaves. In addition, our Krant friend over there” — he gestured at Kaln — “has been listening to tales of Paul Bunyan and picked this moment to reciprocate with a tall tale of her own. About Caitlin, Queen of the Universe, and her faithful Jao slaves.”

    The Lleix. Again, the enormity of it hit Caitlin. What had merely been suspected was now standing before her, and, with all that long, complicated history between the two species, it was amazing the creature hadn’t simply fled screaming at the first sight of a whiskered Jao face. “I… see,” she said, though she really didn’t. “Paul Bunyan?”

    “Pool Buntyam!” Kaln said. “He has the strength of twenty humans and prepares comestibles on a grill the size of a shuttle! He –”

    Mallu seized the Senior-Tech’s suit and shook her. “Enough!”

    Wrot turned to Caitlin, eyes jumping with green fire. “This may not be entirely unfortunate,” he said in English while the apparently puzzled Lleix looked on, their fleshy coronas in constant motion. “When the Lleix last had contact with the Jao, we were slaves — of the Ekhat. Better that they believe us now to be humanity’s slaves than still under the control of the Ekhat.”

    “But — ” she said, her mind whirling. “That’s crazy! And it’s wrong to start off by outright lying.”

    “This misunderstanding works in our favor, though,” Wrot said in English. “We should take advantage of it. I believe the correct human term would be ‘play along for now.’”



    For a creature with so much authority, this Cat-lin was very small, Jihan thought. She had expected an Eldest of magnificent proportions, towering far above them all. The Queen of the Universe seemed as slight as a youth about to be released for the Festival of Choosing.

    “I am Jaolore,” she said to the creature slowly, struggling to get each syllable as close to the pronunciation in the ancient records as possible. “This your slave, Rot?” She glanced at the Jao who had accompanied Cat-lin, assisting it — her? — “queen” evidently indicated the feminine gender.

    “Jaolore?” Cat-lin said.

    “My elian learn about Jao,” Jihan said. “We know — from debris — from earlier battle — Jao come back.” Her aureole flattened with anxiety. “Long ago, we fight Jao.”

    Unable to understand a single word, Lliant hovered at her shoulder, glowering.

    “You need not fear them now,” Cat-lin said, then conferred with the others in her own sibilant language before she resumed speaking Jao. “We will go to my ship and talk more there.”

    She must mean the amazingly huge vessel which had defeated the Ekhat. Jihan was both relieved at the thought of quitting this terrible place, lair of the monstrous Ekhat, and yet afraid to venture amongst so many unknown aliens.

    Then she blurted, “Hadata!” She had almost forgotten the poor Starwarder, left behind, concealed in the derelict’s shadow. “We must –” In her distress, the proper vocabulary eluded her. “Must — getting Hadata!”

    “What is this Hadata?” Cat-lin said.

    “Other Lleix, hiding,” Jihan said. “Will die soon.”

    Cat-lin looked at the others. The Jao designated “Rot” spoke, then Cat-lin turned back to Jihan. “Where is this one hiding?”

    “In ship, in darkness, outside this place,” Jihan said.

    “Show us,” Cat-lin said.

    Jihan took Lliant’s arm. “We will go now to retrieve Hadata,” she said, urging him back down the corridor.

    It was entirely possible these aliens were just as bad as the Ekhat, yet they had taken the Anj prisoner rather than destroying them as they could have easily done, and they hadn’t shot the two Lleix on sight. She could not imagine the great devils showing such restraint.

    And they had defeated five Ekhat ships. That alone would hearten her people, should she ever make it back to the Hall of Decision to relate what she had seen. Please the Boh, all three of them, Lliant, Hadata, and Jihan, would have that honor one day.




    Tully sent Caitlin back to the Lexington with Wrot to await the three Lleix. It made him nervous to have an untrained civilian bobbing around a barely secured area. If she slashed her suit or one of these little Ekhat serviles whom they might have overlooked popped up its head long enough to get off a few shots, Ed Kralik would have his skin. In addition, Tully had a lot of confidence in her and thought they needed her. Back on Earth, Caitlin had made a huge difference in the struggle to achieve respect from the Jao.

    Burgeson and Nam returned with the two Lleix along with a third suited figure of the same configuration. One of them carried bundles of fabric over one arm.

    “Finish mopping up here,” he told Burgeson. “Kaln, Nam, you come with me back to the Lexington.”

    Of the three Lleix, only the one named Jihan seemed to speak any Jao. Tully was almost grateful for that. It might prevent further nonsense. He just wasn’t accustomed to having to worry about Jao making stuff up. Such shenanigans weren’t normally part of their nature, but Kaln had already shown herself to be gifted with ollnat through her reworking of the hoist mechanism. And then there was that whole business of Krants making up stories about ships being turned inside out in transit. They obviously had a penchant for ollnat that other kochan lacked. Looking back, he guessed he shouldn’t have been all that surprised.

    The Lleix obediently accompanied them to the Lexington, entering through the same EVA locker room. He worried that the ship’s atmospheric mix wouldn’t be right for them, but they were stuck out here with a damaged ship and were going to run out of air soon at any rate.

    “Wait,” he said to Jihan after the air lock had cycled and the alien was fumbling at its helmet. “We need to test your suit mix to make sure you can breathe our air.”

    “Jao breathe?” it said, black eyes narrowed into gleaming slits.

    “Yes,” he said, glancing at Kaln, who had already removed her helmet and was scratching her ears.

    “Lleix breathe too, then,” Jihan said. One of the others came to help and he realized that it had an injured arm.

    Wondering how it could be so certain, he held his breath as the helmet was pulled off and the silver-skinned alien inhaled. When it didn’t fall over gasping, the other two removed their helmets as well.

    Caitlin entered the locker. “Bring them up to Deck Forty-Six,” she said in English. “I’ve reserved a conference room, then we’ll have to find them quarters.”

    “Does Dannet know we brought them over?” Tully asked as the Lleix struggled out of their suits. He couldn’t help staring. They were taller than humans and sturdy, with massive pillar-like legs, huge four-toed feet and wide hips. Their trunks then tapered up to narrower shoulders which were topped with long graceful necks and round heads. The most exotic aspect of their appearance was the odd fluttering coronas that ran across their crowns from ear to ear. The overall effect, wider on the bottom, attenuating up to their heads, was triangular, even pyramidal.

    They were all completely hairless and silver-skinned. Their broad hands sported three fingers and a thumb. Their eyes were black and upswept, set in dished faces with only the nub of a nose and nearly lipless mouths. Ignoring his scrutiny, they assumed the robes they’d brought along. Nudity did not seem to trouble them, though they all three subsequently fussed with the drape of the fabric, seeming to have a rigid standard of dress to which they conformed.

    He spotted none of the obvious body conformation clues as to gender, but, he told himself, it was entirely possible that they had five distinct genders or even just one. Time would tell.

    “Wrot decided to report in person,” Caitlin said. “But this is not Dannet’s call. Wrot has oudh in this situation.”

    This situation. Tully blinked. Now that he thought about it, Caitlin had not looked all that surprised to find a new alien species hiding out here. The possibility of finding “this” must be what had Ronz so hot and bothered back on Terra that the Bond risked their fancy new ship on a mission to this misbegotten nebula. They damn well knew these Lleix were here! So what if five sodding Ekhat ships were here as well?

    “Wrot will meet us in the conference room.” Caitlin turned to the Lleix and let her body curve into a graceful Jao posture. Tully didn’t recognize which one, but he had to give Caitlin credit. It did give the general impression of respect, at least to his eyes.

    “Please accompany us,” she said to the Lleix.

    “Lleix needing help!” Jihan said.

    “We may be able to provide that help,” Caitlin said, then motioned at Tully.

    Oh, yeah, he told himself, lowest ranked goes first according to Jao tradition and these Lleix seemed to know at least a bit about such things. Cat-lin, Queen of the Universe, could not possibly take the lead.

    Hands shoved in his uniform pockets, he slouched through the door and headed for the nearest lift. The Lleix chattered to each other in musical voices, ran splayed fingers over the walls, examined the flooring and lighting. Though their legs were massive, they did not walk so much as glide, their movements even more lithe than Jao postures.

    They were all dressed in stiff silver-blue robes brocaded with brightly worked scenes, each different. Hidata, the one who had been left behind, obviously deferred to Jihan while the third followed in their wake, uncommunicative. If it had been human, Tully would have said it was sulking, but with aliens, who knew what was going on?

    The lift fascinated them, too, but they did not seem disconcerted by its rapid speed, like most humans. When it stopped, he led them out, then conducted the trio to the conference room where Wrot was waiting.

    A full complement of guards in ship uniforms was already in place, but otherwise the deck seemed to have been cleared of extraneous crew. This might not be Dannet’s show anymore, he thought, but the Terra-Captain was still on the job.

    He stuck his head through the door. Inside there was a gleaming black table surrounded by chairs that were going to be totally inadequate for Lleix dimensions. Caitlin squeezed past him, then stared in dismay.

    “I, um, need to get back to the wreck,” Tully said.

    Caitlin turned back, put a hand on his shoulder, and squeezed. “Oh, no, you don’t, mister,” she said softly. “You’re staying right here!”

    “Hey, you’ve got your faithful slave, Wrot,” he said. “What more do you need, Princess?”

    “That’s Queen Caitlin to you,” she said and her blue-gray eyes gleamed. “And don’t you forget it!”



    Wrot saw them walk in, three tall gliding figures, silver-skinned, clad in silver-blue robes. Only a few file images had survived since the Jao had done their best to extinguish these people, his kind being unsentimental about such things. Now, out of their suits, he saw that they were as unlike Jao and humans as a species could be and still be built along the same general two-armed, two-legged plan.

    The chairs in this room, though sized for use by Jao, who were generally bulkier than humans, were still too small. He dispatched three of the guards out in the corridor to fetch benches from the nearest pool room. In the meantime, they all stood around and stared at one another, the Lleix as frankly curious as the humans and the Jao.

    “Lleix needing help!” the one who called itself Jihan said.

    “Yes.” Caitlin gave it her full attention. “You said that before. What is wrong?”

    “The great devils have founding us!” Jihan said, its corona fluttering.

    “But they are all dead,” Caitlin said.

    “Those now dead,” Jihan said as the three guards returned with benches. “Many more Ekhat! They come!”

    “It means they will send more ships,” Wrot said quietly in English. “And it is right. The Melody lost one ship in the first battle, now five more. They will be back and in still greater force.”

    “You fight more Ekhat?” Jihan said.

    There was a pause as chairs were removed, then benches positioned along the table. Caitlin took a seat on the opposite side as the Lleix gingerly maneuvered themselves onto what was for them a rather narrow target.

    “Humans and Jao do not find it convenient at the present time to fight another battle in this nebula,” Caitlin said. “And even we did, that would only expose the Lleix to more danger. Would it not be better for you to travel to another system where the Ekhat cannot find you? You traveled to the derelict. Surely the Lleix have ships that can transport your people.”

    “Most few ships,” Jihan said. Its corona wilted. “Many Lleix, few few ships. Most left behind.”

    Caitlin glanced aside at Wrot, then folded her hands and leaned across the shiny black table. The tension in the room made Wrot’s whiskers itch. He resisted the urge to rise and pace. “How many Lleix?” she said carefully.

    The Lleix’s black eyes gleamed. It twitched its robes to hang at a precise angle, then sat very still as though thinking hard. “Jao numbers difficult,” Jihan said finally. “Jao gone long time. This one only learn your words short time ago. I think you say — one hundred thousands.”

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