THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 07:
Ronz hesitated as the waves rolled in and in. The wind gusted, carrying the acrid scent of seaweed and rotting fish. “I think the signs point to the Lleix.”
Wrot’s mind whirled. Everyone down to the youngest Jao crecheling knew that name. It was the stuff of legend. The Lleix had been a powerful force in the history of the Jao. “Them? Are you sure?”
“Of course not.” Ronz shrugged out of his black trousers and harness, dropping them to the sand, and stood, feet apart, letting the sea breeze buffet his scarred old body. “Why else would the Bond fund this expedition? Idle curiosity is the province of humans, not the Bond.”
“But there is not the slightest possibility the Lleix would accept our advances,” Wrot said. “They would in fact most likely do all in their power to destroy us. Our arrival would only sow panic because they undoubtedly would believe that we’ve come to complete their extermination.”
“That is why, even though you will have oudh, the crew should contain a high percentage of humans,” Ronz said. “Especially ones skilled at negotiating under difficult conditions like Caitlin Kralik and Gabe Tully.”
“You set us an impossible task.” The soothing hiss and roll of the waves was seductive. Wrot unbuckled his harness and dropped it on the sand, itching for a swim. “Even if the humans successfully approach them first, they will learn of our close association.”
“We owe the Lleix a great deal,” Ronz said. “They saw the potential for freedom in us, when we could not see it for ourselves. The Ekhat made certain that innovation was not part of our nature. If not for the Lleix, the Jao would never have conceived of fighting free of the Ekhat.”
“At what point will we tell the rest of the crew your suspicions?” Wrot said.
“When you have reached the nebula, thoroughly evaluated the data coming in, and they are suspicions no more.”
Secrets to keep, then. Wrot was good at that and the Preceptor knew it. Between them, the two had kept many secrets for a long time and worked at hidden purposes for the betterment of both Jao and humans. Now they would do it yet again.
As one, they waded into the cool dark waves, then dove into this world’s wonderful wild water. Though Wrot had swum Earth’s seas many times, he always found the foreign salts exotic, teasing at the senses, hinting at new discoveries yet to come.
The bay’s current carried them out and they swam far into the night.
Goddamn high-handed Jao! Tully sat on a peeling vinyl-covered stool at the Foul Play, a retro bar decked out with stainless steel tables and godawful aqua chairs just outside the Pascagoula base. He stared moodily into his amber glass of locally brewed beer — execrable stuff, but effective. Any time he got to thinking maybe Jao weren’t so bad, or maybe at least some of them weren’t, they turned around and bit him on the behind — figuratively, at least.
The bar was crowded mostly with humans, but a few Jao were scattered throughout the dimly lit room. All around him, glasses clinked. Men and women laughed. Voices beside him murmured just on the edge of comprehension. Behind the bar, popcorn was popping, and some noxious new song, more screech than melody, was playing on the jukebox. He could see his reflection in the mirror behind the bar, red-eyed and haggard from lack of sleep, and it just pissed him off even more. “What are you looking at?” he muttered to the image.
“Thought I’d find you here,” a voice said from behind, then Ed Kralik, still in his blue jinau uniform, slid onto the seat next to him.
Kralik’s cool assurance never failed to irritate Tully. “I didn’t think your wife let you out these days without a leash.” Tully scowled and traced the glass’s cool rim with a finger.
“Feeling sorry for yourself?” Kralik signaled the bartender, a former jinau who still wore his regimental service insignia on his sleeve, for a beer of his own.
“I don’t see your name on that freaking crew roster,” Tully said, in no mood for Kralik’s usual air of superiority. So what if Kralik’s rank was lieutenant general and he commanded thousands of jinau troops? That didn’t make him one whit better than the lowliest Resistance fighter as far as Tully was concerned.
“I wish to God it was,” Kralik said, as the glass was set before him. His face was drawn, his gray eyes bleak. “I’d trade with you in a heartbeat.”
Tully took a long pull of beer and let it trickle down his throat. The frosty bite was soothing. “Well, as you heard this afternoon, they don’t want you — they goddamn want me.” The slightest hint of satisfaction at that thought seeped through him. Someone actually thought Gabriel Dorran Tully, Resistance camp brat and former spy, would be better at something than the highly regarded commander of the jinau.
“I want you to watch Caitlin’s back,” Kralik said, his gaze trained on Tully’s face.
“Like I wouldn’t unless you asked?” Tully drained the rest of his beer and set the glass back with a rap. “That’s flattering as all hell.”
“She’s reckless sometimes,” Kralik said, drumming his fingers on the gleaming black bar. His gray eyes seemed almost colorless in the dim light. “She always thinks she understands the Jao better than anyone and that gets her in trouble.”
“No one understands the Jao,” Tully said. “If I’ve learned nothing else in the last two years, I’ve learned that. I’m not even sure they really understand each other, and all that fancy dancing around they do just obscures things. From what I’ve seen, it’s entirely possible for their words to say one thing and their bodies something else.”
Mercifully, the song ended, but then someone dropped more change into the jukebox. Green and yellow lights flashed as the blasted machine lurched into another popular caterwaul. Tully winced. He was a blues man, himself. Some of the world’s best blues musicians lived up in the Resistance camps he’d once called home.
Even though they were sitting beside each other, Kralik had to raise his voice to make himself heard. “This mission will be a minefield.” His gaze followed the bartender as he moved up and down the counter. “You’ve got representatives from the Bond, a Narvo ship captain, members of Aille’s service, Resistance fighters, and humans from half the nations on Earth, not to mention Jao from different kochan spread across the galaxy, all locked up in one big tin can.”
“And whatever’s out there waiting in that nebula,” Tully said sourly. “Let’s not forget that.”
“Aren’t you the least bit curious what’s got Ronz so worked up? I mean, think about it. This is the Bond. They think in such long-range terms, they don’t get excited about anything that takes less than twenty years to play out.”
Now that Kralik mentioned it, there was just the slightest buzz of curiosity in the back of Tully’s mind, a hint of interest despite his glumness at being forced to abandon his crucial Resistance negotiations for what seemed on the surface little more than a whim. Something intriguing waited out there in the heart of that nebula and they had a damn big ship in which to go look at it. If this whatever-it-was looked back at them even halfway cross-eyed, they’d just blast the hell out of it and go home.
Of course, the Ekhat had damn big ships too, the practical part of his brain pointed out, and they were barking crazy to boot.
Kralik was staring at him expectantly. Tully sighed. “Of course, I’ll keep an eye on Caitlin. Though, as I recall, she’s always been more than able to take care of herself.”
“That she has,” Kralik said, raising his beer. “Here’s to self-sufficiency.”
“And big freaking guns.” Tully raised his own glass and they both chugged, never taking their eyes off one another.