Mallu checked on the rest of his crew again after the unsettling meeting at the refit facility. The Krant survivors had been housed in what humans called a “barracks,” which was a distressingly angular structure without flow, but had access to a common pool. Most of the injured had recovered enough to swim at this point and morale was slowly improving. Still, to the last individual, they all wanted only to go home to Krant and make themselves of use there. No one wanted to sit here on this out of the way world with its skulking, flat-faced natives, brooding about their shameful failure at NGC 7293.

Then he went back to Jalta and Kaln at the somewhat better quarters to which their ranks entitled them on this sprawling installation. They had been assigned a section of blue and gold quantum crystal building, well poured, suitably dim inside and equipped with soft dehabia heaped along one wall, a supply of woody tak for scenting the room, and, best of all, a small, but deep pool with its salts perfectly balanced.

Jalta was swimming with the enthusiasm of one long denied. The transport that brought them to this world had been equipped with a pool, but the three of them had rarely used it, intimidated by the presence of so many born of higher ranked Dano. Kaln, still dripping, eyes wildly green, crouched at the pool’s edge, evidently just emerged from the water.

Mallu eased onto a pile of gray patterned dehabia. His injured ribs protested with a stab of white-hot pain as he twisted to unbuckle his harness and he braced them with one hand. The memory of that battle in the nebula assaulted him again, the frantic maneuvering, the terrible energy beams crackling over his ship as circuit after circuit fried so that even when the enemy Ekhat vessel imploded, it was all they could do to limp back to the nearest Jao base with half his crew dead and most of the rest injured. They had survived, but at such a cost!

“So we will return,” he said, not meeting his officers’ eyes.

“Evidently,” Jalta said. He ducked beneath the roiling water and swam more vigorously as though he could wash the memory away.

Kaln’s angles went to unmitigated distress. One of her ears had been damaged and now dangled at a permanent angle. She was sensitive about the disfigurement and had not seemed her formerly sensible self since the battle. “What is the point?” she said, her eyes flickering angrily. “Unless they do not believe us.”

“I think they most definitely do believe us.” With a metallic clink of the buckles, Mallu deposited his harness to one side on the gold quantum crystal floor. He would have to requisition some polish. The straps were looking positively shabby. “Else why would they want us to go back?”

“There may be more Ekhat waiting,” Kaln said. She shook herself and drops of water flew through the air.

“Perhaps,” Mallu said. “But even if we do come under fire again, it is still an opportunity for Krant to make itself of use to the Bond.” He stared into her dark face, seeing the faint outline of her vai camiti, which was quite attractive, once you took the trouble to make it out. “Think of it — no one else was there, seeing what we saw, doing what we did. Not Narvo, or Binnat, not even great Pluthrak itself. Though we are small and little regarded, still it was Krant who sacrificed ships and crews, killed the confounded Ekhat, and then brought back whatever information the Preceptor sees in that data.”

“Krant who lost all its ships and most of its personnel!” Kaln said with a furious flip of her single able ear.

Jalta’s dark head popped out of the water. His whiskers bristled. “But what in the name of all the seas does the Preceptor see? I have examined the readings repeatedly and can find nothing more than a few unfamiliar weapon signatures. If there was another participant in that fight, they did not make themselves apparent to us — and we were there!”

“When the flow is right, Preceptor Ronz will tell us.” Mallu stared moodily into the roiling water. They would go back and face their failure, even if cost their lives. That was the nature of vithrik, making oneself of highest use, and perhaps in the end they could at least improve Krant’s ranking among the kochan.

He slipped into the pool and dove to the bottom, letting the cool liquid support him. Gradually, the ache in his ribs eased. Really, the mix of salts was quite good. One might almost think oneself landed on an altogether civilized world.


As prearranged, Wrot krinnu ava Terra met with the Preceptor down by the shore in the early-dark, early evening, as a human would have termed it. Waves lapped at the beach and starlight played across the restless water. A few white gulls landed on the sand a short distance away and watched them dispassionately with gleaming black eyes.

“So . . .” Preceptor Ronz was gazing at the waves as they rolled in. The tide was rising, each wave surging just a bit higher on the sand than its predecessor. “How goes the new taif? Your perspective must be far more telling than mine.”

That was because Wrot had been among the first to apply for membership in the unique mixed human-Jao organization and was now an official elder. Wrot scratched his ears. “Two steps forward, one back,” he said in English. His stance was rueful-acknowledgement. “Humans are the most astonishingly quarrelsome creatures. Many of them would argue even if you said they were always right.”

“If they were not so divisive, we would never have conquered them in the first place,” Ronz said. “They have been as much their own enemy as ever the Ekhat will be.”

“But their minds –” Wrot shook his head, a useful scrap of human body-language he had adopted long ago. “They are endlessly inventive, never at a loss for ideas, even about the most inconsequential of matters. Our new association house in Portland is simply amazing with a unique synthesis of Jao and human comforts and styles. You will have to visit it, once events are more settled.”

“Yes, `events,’ as you put it.” The Preceptor sighed. His ears, normally exquisitely noncommittal after the fashion of the Bond, slipped into faint wariness. “I called you out here where we can be utterly alone to tell you what I would not say before the others.”

Wrot waited as flow brought them both to the moment of revelation. The nearby gulls screeched, then flapped away. Something out in the water jumped, scattering the starlit spray.

“I believe the data recordings from the battle indicate life on one of the worlds concealed inside the nebula,” Ronz said. “Sapient life, most likely a civilization we have long thought extinct.”

“Many species have been exterminated by the Ekhat,” Wrot said. “They wish to be alone in the universe with their own perfection.”

“And quite a number of those died at the hands of the Jao under their direction, before we freed ourselves from their bondage.”

“That is a great tragedy,” Wrot said, “but it was not our desire that caused their deaths, no more than a discharged laser wishes to kill its victim.”