Tully had followed most of the discussion, even though it had been conducted in Jao. His command of the language had been passable even before being drafted into Aille’s personal service. It was far better now. Enforced practice, called by some “immersion,” had a way of achieving that.

So the Preceptor suspected something interesting was concealed in the heart of that nebula. He shuddered to think what that might be. Some of the things that Jao found interesting could give a human nightmares.

Wrot was watching him closely from across the room. Though he didn’t have much use for Jao generally, he had a grudging respect for the scarred old warrior, who years ago had retired on Earth, when he could have honorably gone home to his own kochan, then had taken up active duty again as a member of Aille’s service. Wrot had then resigned from Aille’s service with the formation of the new Jao taif on Terra and now served as one of its elders.

“I have just the ship in mind,” Preceptor Ronz was saying. “A new prototype being developed by the Bond. It is nearly ready for a voyage to fine-tune its more innovative features, what humans would call a `shake-down cruise.'”

“And the rest of the crew?” Aille said, his ears pitched at an angle which indicated curiosity.

“I wish to send my top advisors,” Ronz said, “mostly humans, but at least a few Jao. Chief among those will be Wrot, who has proved himself not only in battle, but as an elder in Terra Taif and in his wide understanding of human culture. The others –” Ronz glanced around the room. “I wished of course to send Professor Kinsey, but he is very much occupied at the moment with important research.”

Kinsey, who had to be sixty-five if he was a day and had probably been born in one of those academic jackets with the classic suede-patch elbows, looked from Ronz to Aille.

Tully tried to imagine Kinsey out sailing the stars, traveling the way Jao did — a form of transit which involved creating point loci that dumped you out in the photosphere of a star. He shook his head.

Kinsey’s face crinkled unhappily. “I would go, though it would disrupt my work.”

“Your willingness is appreciated, Professor,” Ronz said. “But I have need of you here. That means Caitlin Kralik is the most logical to go.”

“No!” Ed Kralik glared at Ronz, hands gripping his wife’s shoulders.

“You can’t be serious!” Professor Kinsey blurted.

Caitlin rose from her chair, her face flushed. “Hear him out, please.”

Though she was the daughter of Benjamin Stockwell, once believed to be an infamous American collaborator with the conquering Jao, Tully had grown to like Caitlin. She had more nerve than any woman he’d ever known, and that included some pretty tough babes back in the Resistance camps. He still remembered her amazing performance two years ago when she had testified before the Naukra itself and helped bring into being the new social pattern under which they all, Jao and human, now coexisted.

And, once Oppuk had been dislodged from power, the truth about Stockwell’s enforced cooperation had come out. The former Vice-President’s family had been hostage to his every decision. Caitlin had grown up a veritable in-house prisoner with a so-called Jao “guard” dogging her every step. Neither of her brothers had survived.

“She is the most logical choice,” Ronz said. “Her command of the Jao language is among the best on the planet, including her sophisticated movement vocabulary, and her understanding of Jao culture unsurpassed. In the two orbital periods since the new taif’s formation, her cultural and political advice have never once been in error.”

“She’s only a child,” Kinsey said. His dark face had gone pale. “Her father will never agree.”

“I’m twenty-five years old and a married woman,” Caitlin said. “And, as much as I love him, my father has nothing to say about this.”

“Don’t worry, Professor,” Ed said grimly. “She’s damn well not going anywhere without me! I’ll go too.”

“It’s just surveillance,” Caitlin said, a hand on his arm. “A short hop there and back.” She turned to the Preceptor. “No fighting, right?”

“The Ekhat ship patrolling that area was destroyed,” Ronz said. “The likelihood of encountering further danger of that nature is relatively low, though I cannot promise it will not happen. But there was enough data collected by the surviving Krant ship for us to be certain that weapons had been used in that nebula which were not designed by either the Jao or the Ekhat.”

“Someone else lives there, then,” Caitlin said, raising an eyebrow. “Another sapient species.”

Tully felt the impact of that statement ripple through the room.

Ronz gazed at each of them in turn. “This mission is classified as exploration only. It is entirely possible that the new species in question was only traveling through the area. They may not actually reside in that region.”

“And you are needed here,” Aille said to Kralik. “We cannot spare the commander of all of our jinau forces on Earth to accompany his mate to conduct simple surveillance.”

Jao did not pair-bond emotionally in the same way as humans. Instead, they formed marriage-groups and mated only when progeny were desired. Tully knew that the Preceptor and Aille were not picking up on Kralik’s very real distress. He didn’t blame Kralik one bit for objecting to them dispatching his wife off to god-knows-where. Space travel was terrifying, all that fooling about inside the hellish photospheres of stars themselves, not to mention the different factions of Ekhat turning up when you least expected them, the crazy bastards. Only an idiot would want to go.

“In addition,” Ronz said, “I assign Gabriel Tully.”