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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Twenty Eight

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 3, 2010 07:32 EST



    Caitlin winced. One hundred thousand? That was a tiny fraction of the population the Lleix must have had once, when they inhabited several well-developed planets. But, in immediate terms, the number was far too large. It would take ten ships the size of the Lexington to transport such a population.

    Still, it was welcome news that the Jao, with their customary ferocious efficiency, hadn’t managed to extinguish this species altogether. And the Lleix had a breeding population that was large enough not to be in danger of dying out from genetic bottlenecks.

    “So, abject and miserable slave Wrot,” she murmured in English without looking at him, “what do we do now? We can’t tell them that the entire human fleet consists of only one ship big enough to even start the job, and it’s already on-site, crammed to the gills with a fair number of Jao as well as humans.”

    “Ask them about their own transport.”

    The glittering Lleix eyes watched her. “You say you have ‘few ships,’” she said. “How many would that be?”

    “Now prepare to leave,” Jihan said. “One thousands go, maybe two, no more.”

    “One thousand ships?” she said, trying to visualize the situation. Perhaps they were all just very small, like the vessel Tully’s people had found moored to the derelict.

    The black eyes glittered. “One thousands Lleix.”

    “My god,” Tully murmured in English. “Then most of them are trapped here, and everyone knows that the Ekhat are coming back. Poor buggers.”

    Caitlin’s head whirled. “Jihan, where are the few Lleix ships going? To other Lleix worlds?”

    “No other Lleix worlds,” Jihan said in its musical voice, then turned its silver head to regard Wrot. Its corona stilled. “Dead everywhere, all dead.”

    At the hands of the Jao. The creature left that unspoken. But upon their last meeting, the Jao had exterminated its kind down to the last elder and infant with ruthless efficiency. And from that day until now, this segment of their population must have hidden here in this nebula, knowing that at some point the Ekhat — and the Jao — would return.

    It had all been a long time ago and things were very different now, due in large part to the Lleix being able to see a capacity for self-direction in the Jao they had not been able to perceive in themselves at the time. The Jao owed these people. They could not be abandoned here to die at the hands of the crazed Ekhat.

    She turned to Wrot. “We have to help them,” she said in English. “How much time do we have before the Ekhat sweep back through this system?”

    “There is no way to be certain,” the Jao said. He hesitated, apparently consulting his Jao timesense. “But it feels like not long.”

    She wanted to shake him until his ears rattled. Instead, she clasped her hands on the table’s gleaming surface and studied her reflection. “Days?” she said finally, raising her eyes. “Weeks? Months?”

    His whiskers quivered with indecision, not something she’d ever seen on him before. “Weeks, I think.”

    “We could hide them on Earth, at least until we find them a proper world of their own,” she said. “A hundred thousand, that’s not even a medium-sized city. North America alone has dozens of areas that might suit, depending on their climatic needs. Do you have any issues with that?”

    The three Lleix sat gazing at her as though she had all the answers, as though she could make their problems, the problems of an entire beleaguered civilization, just evaporate.

    Because she was Caitlin, Queen of the Universe — only she was nothing of the kind. Caitlin, Recovering Political Prisoner, was more like it! Or Caitlin, Bond Lackey!

    “You must excuse me,” she said in Jao, wondering how much the Lleix really understood. Jihan’s grammar was awkward, its word choice basic and repetitive. How it had acquired any knowledge of Jao at all after such a long lapse in contact was totally beyond her. “I will consult my underlings on best how to assist the Lleix,” she said, her face hot. “Stay in this place for now. I am arranging for better quarters.”

    She rose, heart pounding, and stalked out of the room, followed by Wrot and Tully. The door slid shut and then she whirled upon the pair of them, hands fisted. “This is all your fault!”

    Tully backed into the wall, palms facing out as though to protect himself. “Me? I had nothing to do with any of this! You and Wrot obviously had some idea about what we were headed into out here and wouldn’t give me the slightest heads-up! My people could have easily shot these characters before thinking to count arms and legs. You might have at least told me what to be on the lookout for.”

    “Caitlin, Queen of the Universe!” Her face was so heated, she knew her cheeks must be fiery. “That’s not your fault?”

    “Well, Kaln did get a little carried away with all this tall tale stuff,” he said, trying and failing not to smile.

    “And, you!” She glared at Wrot. “Play along, you said!”

    Green lightning flickered in the old Jao’s eyes. “This was a fortuitous blunder,” he said. “If they understood the reality of the situation, they would be terrified.”

    “And well they should be!” Her pulse was pounding. “Sooner or later, they’re going to figure out the truth!”

    “By then,” Wrot said, “they will have learned not to fear the Jao.”

    Fat chance, Caitlin thought. There were still millions of humans on Earth who hadn’t learned that. She herself still bore the scars from her Jao guard’s beatings from not that long ago when she’d been a young political hostage.

    She crossed her arms, resisting the temptation to drop into a Jao posture to make her point. “Look at the position you’ve put me in. They’re asking me, Queen of the Universe, to make all their problems just disappear, only I don’t have the authority to do anything of the sort! I can’t promise to fight off the Ekhat when they come back, or to load up the Lleix and transport the whole lot of them to Terra. I’m not in charge here! I can’t promise a single damned thing and then make good on it!”

    Upon hearing “Queen of the Universe,” one of the guards glanced at her, clearly startled. She glared at him. “Not a word, soldier!”

    He squared his shoulders and gazed over her head at the corridor wall.

    Wrot’s angles went to discomfitted-recognition-of-truth. “If the number they’ve given us is correct,” he said slowly, “I think transport might be arranged through the Bond’s resources, as long as you can persuade your father to authorize sanctuary in North America. Even if it’s only a temporary sanctuary.”

    Her mind whirled. She wasn’t Queen of the Universe, not by a long shot, but she was a sort of princess. Her father was still President of the United States, at least until elections were once again held, and he could do that much. But would he? She remembered the poem engraved long ago on the now battered Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Wonderful sentiments, sure — but even before the Jao conquest a lot of North Americans had been hostile to immigrants.

    And those had been human immigrants. “Illegal aliens,” they had been called. How would people now react to the prospect of taking in a hundred thousand real aliens? In a continent which the conquest and the ensuing twenty years of brutal rule by Oppuk had made much poorer?

    But she knew that her father still believed in the old ideals of the republic. And there was a lot of unoccupied land in North America. Had been, even before the Jao devastated much of it. He would agree, she decided, if she got a chance to explain.



    “For now, this contemplated commitment of resources is simply beyond my oudh,” Wrot said. “And I cannot send a communication asking for clarification that could be intercepted by one or more of the kochan.” His whiskers stiffened. “I must go back and consult with Preceptor Ronz in person.”

    “What about our Lleix guests?” Caitlin said. “Are you planning on taking them as well? If so, it’s quite likely to be an even bigger shock than they’ve already had.”

    “No, I think they should remain here,” Wrot said. He glanced aside at Tully. “And I think you should stay as well with Tully’s company for guards. They have no function on the ship at the moment, since we had to jettison Spine C.”

    “But I have a number of Jao in my unit,” Tully said, “Won’t that freak these guys out if we all just drop in on their settlement?”

    “You are their commander,” Wrot said. “The Lleix will see that all the Jao answer to you. That will only reinforce the idea that my kind are now human slaves and put off the time when we must make a full explanation.” He turned to Caitlin. “You can use the opportunity to continue negotiations with them, evaluate their preparations for the diaspora, and generally learn all you can about the situation, so that when we return, they will be ready to leave.”

    Go down to that planet with only a few jinau to back her up? Caitlin closed her eyes, seeking for calm. He was going to strand her with the Lleix who had been so brutally mistreated for such a long time that they were quite likely to look upon contact with any alien species as nothing but the direst of threats.

    But she had lived in the eye of the storm raging between human and Jao for most of her life before the deposing of Oppuk and the formation of Terra’s new taif two years ago. She knew better than anyone what existing in that sort of maelstrom was like. Venturing among the Lleix mostly likely would not be pleasant, but she could manage, and they deserved what help Terra Taif could provide.

    “All right,” she said. At least he would have to be the one to explain all this to Ed, including the part about her being left behind on a potentially hostile world. She didn’t envy Wrot that. “When do we get started?”

    “As soon as we can work out the logistics,” Wrot said. “Tully, requisition enough supplies to last at least three weeks and get the assault craft prepared.”

    “What about Mallu and Kaln and the rest of the Krants?” Tully said. “They’ve been under my temporary command.”

    Wrot considered. “They will remain under your command for the duration of this assignment. Anyone who can deal with the human Resistance on a regular basis can handle a few obstinate Krants.”

    Tully looked unhappy, but didn’t argue. Caitlin took a deep breath and tucked up a stray lock of hair. The Queen of the Universe should always look her best. “Okay, now we have to go in there and sell this whole idea to the Lleix.”

    She nodded at the guard who reached over and opened the conference room door for her. Holding her head high, she sailed back into the room, trying to exude confidence.

    “Jihan,” she said with a calm that she most definitely did not feel, “we have a proposal for you, one that might save all Lleix, not just two thousand.”

    The bright black gaze turned to her. “All Lleix?” Jihan said.

    “All,” Caitlin said, taking a seat across from the silver-skinned trio. “I cannot promise yet, but we will try.”

    Jihan spoke to the other two in the lilting Lleix language. They answered, eyes narrowed, and then all three focused upon her. “How save?” Jihan said.

    “If we can work out the logistics,” Caitlin said, “we will summon our own ships to transport the Lleix to safety.”

    “Many ships?” Jihan said. Its silver corona stood on end. “And what is lo-jiss-tix?”

    “Many many ships,” Caitlin said. “I’ll explain logistics later. But, as I said, I cannot promise. For now, while we are trying to work out the details, this ship will take you back to your world, and I will go with you to meet the rest of the Lleix.”

    “Cat-lin, Queen of the Universe, goes now to Valeron?” Jihan said.

    “Well, something like that,” she said.



    Wrot left Caitlin with the Lleix while he went up to the control deck to give Terra-Captain Dannet her new orders. One hundred thousand Lleix! The number chased itself round and round in his mind, both a wonderful and frightening revelation. The marvelously many descendants of those who had escaped the Jao’s ancient brutality now translated into the same number who were, as a human would say, in harm’s way. When they had all been believed extinct, the Jao could feel regret at having exterminated such a wise species, but now that the Lleix had been discovered alive, they became a responsibility, and a heavy one at that. What had been a matter of regret was now a matter of conscience.

    The lift doors opened and he stepped inside, his thoughts racing. The Lleix had to be moved soon. There was no time to scout out of the way worlds for a suitable new permanent home. Taking them to Terra was the best option available at the moment, unless Preceptor Ronz had a better idea. But settling them there, even for a short time, could draw the attention of the Ekhat once again. If they realized that Terra Taif had cheated them of their prey, they might well launch another major attack on Terra.

    Therefore, speed was of the essence. The sooner the Lleix were removed, the less likely the diaspora was to be detected. The Ekhat were coming back. He felt it with every fiber of his being. Not now, or even “tomorrow,” but soon.

    The lift stopped and he stepped out onto the busy Control Deck. Lights were flashing, crewmen darting from station to station to station. Dannet was leaning over a console, pointing out a discrepancy to a human technician.

    “Terra-Captain,” he said, striding across the deck. “We have new orders.”

    Her eyes blazed green, but her body said only respectful-attention. They both knew who had oudh now that the battle was over, however little she might like it.

    “We will achieve orbit around the fourth planet in this system for a short time,” he said, “then head back to Terra with all speed possible.”

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