The situation was difficult to understand, Mallu krinnu ava Krant told himself, as the elderly Preceptor herded them into the room. As though it weren’t traumatic enough to lose their ship, he and those of his crew who had survived had been dispatched all the way across the galaxy to this backward planet. True, Krant was a small kochan, isolated and little regarded by such luminaries as Narvo and Pluthrak, but even a backwater like Krant deserved consideration.

The rest of his crew had been sequestered in adequate housing, but he and his top two officers, Jalta, Terniary-Commander, and Kaln, Senior-Tech, had been summoned to this meeting. The room, though comfortably dim, was infested with humans, as the natives of this misbegotten world were called. He’d heard about them in scattered conversations during the voyage here on a Dano ship, troublemakers and savages by all accounts, not worth the firepower it had taken to subdue them.

They were, he thought, even uglier in person than the ship’s vids had led him to believe, their skin mostly naked, their faces flat, ears tiny and immobile, with not a single whisker to be seen. Their bodies were chaotic, angles completely random.

Another human entered the now crowded room behind them, followed by several more Jao. He heard the names “Chul,” “Dannet,” and “Nath,” which were at least Jao, along with “Kinsey,” a slippery mouthful of sounds which had to be human.

A tall golden-napped Jao approached, his body subtly sliding from one welcoming posture to the next, then doubling signifiers without effort, the result no doubt of intensive tutoring by a classically trained movement master. Krant, of course, had no resources for such niceties. “I am Aille krinnu ava Terra,” he said, ears pitched at a friendly angle. The free and easy presentation of his name was in keeping with his high rank. “Welcome.”

“Terra?” Mallu’s own ears wavered. He glanced at his fellows. They looked baffled as well. “I thought that was the name of this world. How can it also be a kochan?”

“We are officially two taifs under a single designation, one human and one Jao, named after this planet, newly established and sponsored by the Bond of Ebezon itself,” Aille said. “Though we hope to achieve full kochan status one day. We are unique because our membership includes both humans and Jao.”

“You allow natives taif status?” Mallu felt his angles go to surprise. A taif was a kochan-in-formation, which one day might take its place beside the other Jao kochan of the galaxy, an unheard of honor for a conquered species. Beside him, Kaln and Jalta froze in mirrored shock.

“We ‘allow’ them nothing. Humans have earned the right to belong,” Aille said, his body stiff with determination-to-be-courteous. “When you know them and their world better, you will understand. They are like no other species the Jao have ever encountered.”

Kaln stiffened, her lines disbelieving. “We will not be here long enough to acquire such understanding,” his Senior-Tech blurted, as though the disrespectful words simply could not be contained. She pushed fretfully at a battered ear which still would not stand, despite medical treatment.

Embarrassed by her bad manners, Mallu stared his female officer into silence. This was the Bond, not to mention a highly ranked individual born of fabled Pluthrak, whatever he was calling himself these days. They could not shame themselves with poor behavior here, of all places. “Do this one the courtesy of not listening,” he said, trying not to breathe too deeply. His ribs ached, broken in the fierce battle that disabled their ship. “She took a blow to the head during the fight and has not fully recovered. Also, we witnessed the destruction of two Krant ships and the death of half of the crew of a third, a heavy loss our kochan can ill afford.”

Aille regarded them with flickering green-black eyes. “I have heard the reports. You are fortunate to be alive.”

“Encounters with the Ekhat rarely go well,” Mallu said. “Just surviving can be counted an achievement.”

“I thought this had nothing to do with the Ekhat,” a human said, speaking in passable but accented Jao. Though its skin was hideously pink and naked, it did have a thatch of silver nap upon its skull.

“Ekhat were involved,” Preceptor Ronz said, seating himself before a large table off to one side. “But our Krant comrades destroyed the Melody ship they encountered, which was exceptionally well done, by the way. Therefore, the Ekhat are not what is of importance here.”

“Then what is?” the human demanded.

The creature’s posture was bold, even self-assured, Mallu thought. This individual was obviously of high status among its own kind.

“There is evidence in the readings recorded by your ship’s sensors of something possibly very interesting concealed in that nebula,” Ronz said. His eyes studied Mallu, then Jalta and Kaln, as though weighing the worth of each. “I wish to send a ship back to investigate.”

“We have no ship,” Mallu said stiffly. “Ours was too badly damaged for repair and Krant will not be able to assign us another.” That reality was the worst of all, that he and his subordinates would be remanded to other ships upon their return, demoted and disgraced for having lost their own craft, however valiant their victory had been.

“The Bond will provide a transport, one that will be listed as under the control of the taif of Terra.” The Preceptor gazed at the three survivors, his posture an enigma. Mallu had heard the Bond were always so, completely neutral in affect so that dealing with them was inevitably off-putting. “You and the rest of your command will be assigned as part of its crew, along with selected humans and a number of Terran-based Jao.”

“Humans — crewing a Jao ship?” Jalta’s ears flattened with disbelief.

“You will study selected recordings before the ship leaves,” the Preceptor said. “They document a battle against the Ekhat which took place in this system two orbital periods ago, mostly inside the star’s photosphere. The ships were of human construction, the crews mixed. The results were — impressive.”

Mallu fought down his unease. All Jao had to respect the Bond of Ebezon, at the very least. Unless they were a major and powerful kochan like Narvo and Pluthrak — and even they were not usually exempt — they were also required to pay heed to the Bond’s wishes, in practice if not in theory. It was unfortunate that Krant scions had fallen under Bond notice, but in the end, they could do nothing but obey and attempt to render such good service that Krant would benefit.

“Very well,” Mallu said, struggling to remember his long-ago lessons in deportment, scanty though they’d been. The eye of the Bond rarely fell upon those so lowly as Krant. It was an honor that one placed so high believed Krant could be of assistance. He coaxed his lines into what he hoped was a credible stance of acceptance. “We wish only to be of use.”

“Of course,” the Preceptor said.

The mood in the room shifted to anticipation.