THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 05:
“Me?” To his horror, Tully’s voice squeaked.
“Your expertise will likely prove invaluable,” Ronz said. For a second, the old Jao’s eyes glittered electric green.
“What expertise?” Tully gazed around the office, baffled. Everyone was staring at him like he should know, and there was the faintest smile on Caitlin’s lips. Though he had gone on the nightmarish trip to “confer” with the Interdict faction of the Ekhat, he hadn’t participated in the subsequent battle with the True Harmony in the sun. Instead, he’d been dispatched to the mountains to track down Rob Wiley, trying desperately to arrange support from that quarter.
“I refer to your negotiations with Earth’s Resistance,” Ronz said. Unlike the rest of the Jao present, his body was perfectly, implausibly, still, in keeping with the Bond’s trademark disdain of any sort of movement style. “As well as your background as a spy and current post as commander of a reconnaissance unit in the jinau. In all of these roles, you have been quite effective.”
“Oh.” Sweat rolled down Tully’s neck and soaked into his collar. Aguilera, he could see out of the corner of his eye, in particular was enjoying this. The man’s expression was sardonic and his dark eyes positively gleamed with amusement. Damnation. The two of them had never gotten along. No doubt Rafe would love to see Tully make a fool of himself in front of Jao bigwigs.
Say nothing, his inner voice cautioned him. Don’t get into an argument he was sure to lose. It would only provide entertainment for all concerned. With an effort, he ducked his head and waited though his mind was whirling.
“I want to know more about the ship,” one of the newcomer Jao said. He was a stubby fellow with the darkest nap Tully had ever seen. His maroon harness didn’t quite fit and he kept shifting from foot to foot as though uncomfortable. “Would it not make more sense to send a model with which we are all familiar? If we encounter something unexpected, not understanding the qualities of our craft will make maneuvering more difficult.”
Tully knew that Jao generally found it difficult to develop tech improvements on their own. They called innovation of any sort ollnat, which literally meant “the ability to make things-that-were-not,” and regarded its practice as no more than the foolish occupation of the very young. Whether that Jao aversion to innovation was something genetically bred in them by the Ekhat or simply a cultural feature produced by the Jaoâ€™s very conservative clan structure was not yet clear to Tully. But, either way, it was a characteristic that sharply delineated the difference between human intellect and Jao, and one of the reasons many Jao still classed humans as overly clever savages.
The Preceptor held up a tiny blue memory chip, then inserted it into Aille’s reader. The image of a ship sprang into focus just above the broad oak desk, heavy and rounded, black with eight evenly spaced keels. It was hard to tell exactly how big it was, but Tully got the impression it was truly massive. Was that what they’d been building for the last year in the vast cordoned off area outside the refit facility? He’d glimpsed the rounded shape above the barriers and wondered from time to time what all the fuss over that particular ship was about.
“The design has been adapted from Earth vessels originally intended to function beneath water,” the Preceptor said as the roomful of Jao and humans crowded around the desk to examine the rotating 3-D representation. “It is more heavily armored than a typical Jao warship, as well as more radiation resistant. This mission will involve travel into a nebula possessing harsh radiation and thick gases. Such qualities may indeed prove useful.”
The dark-colored Jao turned away. He moved with an odd abruptness that his two fellows shared, not the exquisite, carefully cultivated grace sought after by most Jao. It was his body language, Tully thought with a flash of insight. It wasn’t, well, accomplished. None of these three seemed to be continually dancing the way most Jao did. Maybe they were the Jao equivalent of hicks, from some backwater of Jao society where such niceties weren’t followed or didn’t matter.
“I will arrange for all of you to tour the new ship over the next few solar periods,” Preceptor Ronz said. “Terra-Captain Dannet, who originally came to us from Narvo –” He gestured at a female, standing in the back, sporting a startling Narvo vai camiti. “– has been making herself of use all during the construction phase and is highly qualified to head the new ship’s first mission. Her input has been invaluable. The rest of you should hasten to familiarize yourselves with its features before your mission leaves.”
Tully cleared his throat. His back was ramrod-straight. “And when will that be, Preceptor?”
The Preceptor’s eyes flickered again with enigmatic green fire. “When flow has completed itself,” the old Jao said as he turned away. “You should understand that as well as anyone here by now.”
Ed Kralik managed to keep a lid on his temper until he and Caitlin were well away from Aille’s office. He took her arm possessively as they clattered down the steps, then plunged outside into the golden Mississippi fall sunshine. His chest heaved. “I don’t care –!”
“Yes, you do care,” she said, putting her hand over his and squeezing. “We all care. They wouldn’t send a ship if it wasn’t important, especially not this particular ship.”
“But they’re hiding something,” Ed said. He headed toward their Jeep, his steps so long, he felt her hustle across the pavement to keep up. “That devil Ronz always does this. He manipulates everyone and never tells the whole truth!”
“But,” she said, “he’s always had Terra’s best interests at heart.”
“Jao don’t have hearts!” He opened the passenger door and gestured for her to slide in, then slammed the door. Startled pigeons took flight a few feet away.
“Not in the same sense that we do,” she called after him through the open window, “but they do invest emotional energy in their projects. They take pride in succeeding and in seeing us do well.”
Her gray-blue eyes were thoughtful as he jerked open the driver’s door and entered on his side. He knew that look. Goddammit, she was intrigued. She wanted to go. “They don’t care if you die,” he said, his hands clasped so hard on the steering wheel, he could feel his blood pounding, “just as long as you make yourself — and your death — of use.”
“Death doesn’t mean the same to them.” She turned to face him and touched his cheek. “But they were right about the Ekhat, and they are most likely right that we should go and take a look at this — whatever or whomever it is. Another species! It’s possible we could even make them our allies against the Ekhat. Ronz will tell us more in his own time.”
“`When flow is completed,'” Ed said bitterly. “How I hate that goddammed timesense of theirs!”
“We are fumbling in the dark that way, compared to them,” she said, “but I wouldn’t have a Jao mind even if I could trade.” She settled back against the upholstery. A car full of Jao pulled around them and drove away, headed for the beach. “They don’t have imaginations, Ed. Think how dull that must be.”
He hesitated, struck by that. They didn’t have imaginations, ollnat, as they termed it, but they thought something important was out there, concealed at the heart of that nebula.
So it most likely was.
“You’re going, aren’t you?” He stared at his clenched hands on the steering wheel.
“And you’ll stay here and do your job,” she said softly. “For the first time since the conquest, humans and Jao are almost in a state of complete association. That’s sacred to them. We can’t blow it.”
He felt like he couldn’t breathe. Memories of his mother dying in an epidemic after the conquest, then father and brother slaughtered by so-called “Resistance” bandits, resurfaced. He had no one in the entire world but her. “What if you die?” he said in a strangled voice.
She touched his face again with outstretched fingers. “How about if I promise I won’t?”
“Oh, that’s comforting,” he said with a rueful shake of his head, then gathered her into his embrace. She was warm and soft and smelled of blackberry-vanilla, her current favorite soap. He closed his eyes and breathed in her scent, the weight of her in his arms, trying to imprint them on his memory. There was no home for him, no comfort, no center, except where she was. His throat constricted. “I’m damn well going to hold you to it.”
They remained that way, her head on his shoulder, his arms tight around her, the Mississippi afternoon sun slanting in through the windshield and warming their faces, for a long, long time.