Caitlin Kralik and her husband, Lieutenant General Ed Kralik, reported to the office of the governor of Earth, as requested. Even though she was a member of Aille’s personal service, Caitlin had not seen the young Jao in several months. She’d been traveling the east coast with her father, who was still the President of North America, overseeing the repair of the last of the infrastructure devastated in the original Jao conquest of Earth. Virginia in particular had been shamefully neglected, but at last that was being put to rights.

Even after two years of Aille’s supervision, people were still wary, still did not want to believe that things had changed. Most did not understand this new partnership with their former rulers. She often had trouble believing how much things had changed herself. The absence of her abusive former Jao guard, the unlamented Banle, did more to reassure her than anything else.

“Once more into the breach,” Ed murmured, as they paused before the shimmering green door-field of Aille’s office.

“You aren’t expecting trouble, are you?” she said, one hand resting on his broad shoulder. “Matters have been going so well, I even gave Tamt leave for the next month and she’s gone down to the Mexican coast to swim. I don’t think the poor thing has had a day off since she was born, but I can recall her if you think I’m going to need a bodyguard again.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Ed said, taking her hand in his and squeezing it. “I’m not really expecting a blow-up, but you never know with the Jao. No matter how smoothly things have gone lately, they are aliens. Their priorities will never be ours and we won’t always understand where they’re coming from.”

“The directions taken by the new taif are interesting,” she said as the door-field winked off, allowing them entrance. She could make out Aille’s familiar vai camiti within. “They’ve finally selected a designation. They’re calling it `Terra,’ so now everyone can apply their new surname, if they like.”

“Makes sense,” he said, “but I still don’t see you taking part in official taif activities.”

“That’s because my father has a cow every time he thinks about how we were all just inducted, willing or not,” she said and stepped into the cool dimness of the spacious office beyond.

“Your sire has acquired a bovine?” Aille said, rising from his desk.

“Um, no,” she said. She was struck anew, every time they met, how tall this Pluthrak scion was, even for a Jao, with powerful limbs and that impressive classic Pluthrak vai camiti in the form of a solid black band across his eyes. As always, he carried himself like a prince.

“If it would please him, we could have one sent over,” Aille said, his angles settled into polite-inquisitiveness, “though I was not aware that such creatures were highly prized in urban households.”

Caitlin fought to keep a grin off her face, letting her body assume instead the Jao posture signifying appreciation-of-intended-favor. “That is very thoughtful,” she said, “but `having a cow’ is just another of our expressions. It means –” She thought fast, trying to be circumspect. “It means he does not approve.”

Aille flicked an ear at her, indicating his understanding. Benjamin Wilson Stockwell, her father, had lost two sons to the Jao, one killed in the original conquest and the other murdered on no more than a vicious whim by the former governor of Earth, Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo.

“Father does want to know when elections for the human government of North America can be held,” she said, noting that the wily fraghta, Yaut, was curled up in a pile of dehabia blankets and studying her. “He’s eager to step down and restore the democratic process.”

“Not yet,” Aille said, “though it feels that the moment will be soon.”

She nodded, then sank into a visitor’s chair. The famous Jao timesense had spoken and there was no arguing with that. Jao claimed they always knew when something would happen, not a form of prescience exactly, but something else even more mystifying, an inexplicable sense of time that was right far more than it was wrong. They had no need to depend on anything as primitive as a clock. She wondered if the devilish Ekhat had bred that into them, too, back when the aliens uplifted their species into sapience, along with their physical strength and indomitable wills.

“So why have you called us here?” Ed positioned himself behind her chair and rested his hands possessively on her shoulders. “I know it must be important to take us away from our current projects.”

“One of our ships has discovered something intriguing in a distant nebula, one which bears the designation NGC 7293 for human astronomers,” Aille said. “Its crew, or at least, the survivors of the crew, have been sent here for questioning and Bond analysis of the situation.”

“Survivors?” Caitlin glanced up at Ed.

“Yes,” Yaut said, rising. The stolid fraghta was all repressed-excitement to her experienced eye. “I will notify Preceptor Ronz that you are here.”

The door-field winked off as Yaut approached and then Gabe Tully entered, looking rumpled and out of sorts. His hands were shoved into his pockets, his cheeks wind-chapped, and his blond hair disarrayed. “This had better be good,” he muttered. “I almost had Sawyer argued down!”

Yaut ducked out, then Rafe Aguilera followed in on Tully’s heels, still limping from an old war wound, but head held high. He too had embraced the opportunities provided by the new taif and now was a superintendent in the construction of Earth’s newest spaceship being built here at the Pascagoula facility.

Ed held out his hand. “Rafe! I had no idea you were coming.”

The two men grasped hands. Aguilera shook his head. A few more threads of silver were apparent, but otherwise Caitlin thought he looked good. “Something big is cooking,” the older man said. “I can’t wait to find out.”

The door-field crackled and Caitlin looked over in time to see Yaut return with Preceptor Ronz, along with the old Jao veteran, Wrot, a tall Jao female with classic Narvo vai camiti facial striping, and three unfamiliar Jao clad in maroon trousers and harness. Though most Jao had brown nap that could vary from gold to a reddish cast, these three were surprisingly dark with nap that might have been called bay, if they’d been horses. Their black vai camiti were almost invisible against such a deep brown background, which she thought might be perceived as a mark of homeliness by other Jao. A distinctive facial pattern was prized above all other physical attributes.

To anyone trained in the subtleties of Jao body language, their postures were blunt and unashamedly singular. The first individual radiated disapproval, the second, unease, and the third, glaring at all of them as though in challenge, had allowed her every line and angle to settle into unadulterated rage.