THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 10:
Aguilera studied the three Jaos’ expressions. Their faces were still, but then Jao features were not nearly so mobile as those of humans. Their bodies, especially their ears and whiskers, betrayed them however. Even he, not very accomplished in deciphering Jao formal movement patterns, could read amazement, awe, and bewilderment.
“It is so — big!” one of them said. Aguilera thought it was the female, Kaln, made easier to identify by the droopy ear.
Nath joined them. Her eyes flickered with green fire. “Soon,” she murmured.
Soon it would launch, she meant. Aguilera smiled. Even the Jao were impressed. Considering their experiences out in the universe, which included any number of encounters with other space-traveling species, that really meant something.
“What does the term Lex-ing-ton indicate?” the tallest of the newcomers said. By the service bars incised on his cheek, Aguilera knew he was the captain, Mallu krinnu ava Krant. “Is it a numeric designation?”
“Humans like to name their ships,” he said, having already had countless versions of this discussion with Jao, starting two years ago when the Lexington had been nothing more than a few lines on a blueprint. “It gives us a connection to them.” Of course, the Jao entirely missed the sly reference to the first battle of the Revolutionary War when Americans had begun their struggle for freedom from a hated oppressor. He smiled. It was a quiet allusion that the humans on the project enjoyed and kept to themselves. He suspected that Wrot or Ronz might have perceived the connection, but, if so, they had quite wisely never mentioned it.
“Humans sometimes feel a form of — affection — for their machines,” Nath said. “It makes no sense to us, but they must enjoy the sensation all the same, because its occurrence is frequent. Sometimes they even assign gender to them.”
“Affection — for a device?” Kaln flicked her good ear in clear dismissal. “That is primitive and ridiculous.”
“Human insistence upon naming such devices can be both a source of strength and weakness,” Nath said. “Fondness for a particular ship can inspire them to be even more fanatically devoted to a mission than they might have otherwise been.” She hesitated, glancing sideways at Aguilera. He nodded at her. “But it also encourages rampant factionalism, which has been, in the past, one of the species’ greatest weaknesses. We do have to be careful about that.”
“Have they no kochan-parents to instruct them?” Kaln said. She was the tech, the equivalent of Lead Engineer on her former ship, Aguilera realized, having carefully read the update released from Aille’s office about the new crew members. Jao techs tended to be female, something about their brain structure having more affinity for the work than that of males. He’d had a lot of contact with Jao techs during the construction of this new ship. Disagreements between such often proved quite physical when they lost patience and resorted to wrem-fa, body-learning where nothing was explained. He’d incurred more than one set of bruises that way.
“Human kochan are very small,” Aguilera said, “usually no more than a single mated pair and their children.” He edged prudently out of reach, lest Kaln forget herself and strike him. “Humans and Jao are of course quite different in many regards, Senior-Tech Kaln,” he said, “but we here on Terra have found that sometimes our mental differences allow us to work more efficiently together than apart.”
“You are saying that humans know more than Jao?” Kaln’s whiskers stiffened. “That is an insult!”
“No,” Nath said, moving between the two, “actually it is not. Our two kinds have different strengths, neither more than the other, neither less. Combining the two disparate bodies of knowledge leads to a synthesis and increase for both sides.” Her body had assumed the often seen stance of waiting-to-be-of-use, which even Aguilera could interpret.
“Desist,” Krant-Captain Mallu said. “Such bickering is pointless. You shame Krant by behaving so. The Ekhat are our enemy, not the Terrans.”
“Say that to the those who died taking this world,” Kaln said. “I viewed the records and have some idea what this world cost in Jao lives.”
Aguilera felt his face warm. Things had been so — well — uneventful since Oppuk fell from power, he’d almost forgotten how nasty and condescending Jao could be.
“Enough!” Aille krinnu ava Terra, current governor of Earth, stepped through the door, looking magnificent with his height and regal bearing as always. “Aguilera is a member of my personal service. You will not speak to him so, nor any other human member of the Lexington crew.”
Kaln’s good ear wilted. Mallu, the dispossessed captain, stood stiffly before Aille. “Forgive her brashness, Governor,” he said. “She is young and foolish, and still traumatized at both the loss of lives and of our ships.”
Aille was silent, gathering the moment to himself, something at which he very much excelled. Aguilera had seen the highly ranked Jao do it over and over again during the last two years, pouring oil on troubled waters as he settled squabbles between the numerous rival kochan stationed on Terra.
“It is a great honor,” Aille said finally when all eyes were focused upon him, “to be assigned to this crew in any capacity. The Lexington represents a tremendous stride forward for both our species.”
Aille must have suspected there would be trouble from this new outfit, Aguilera realized. These Krant seemed abrupt, mulish, almost provincial, if such an adjective could be applied to Jao. It was like they didn’t know things that other Jao knew, like they were the uncivilized ones, instead of humans.
“Take them through the ship, Aguilera,” the young governor said. “That is where our focus should be, not on battles which occurred over twenty orbital cycles ago, and in which most of us present –” He fixed the three Krant with a flickering green gaze. “– took no part, unlike Aguilera here, who served his kind with great fortitude and now makes himself of use to our new taif.”
“Yes, Governor,” Mallu said, his body subdued. “We understand.” He glared at the other two. “Do we not?”
The other two Jao fell into identical stances. Aguilera thought he read assent. They weren’t graceful about it, though, like Nath or Aille would have been. Their movements were jerky, almost primitive, like football players trying to perform ballet. And their vai camiti were barely visible through that dark, dark nap. By all accounts, bold facial striping was one mark of Jao attractiveness. Were these three — homely?
Aille was staring at him, clearly waiting. Aguilera cleared his throat. “This way, Captain, Senior-Tech, and –?” With a jolt, he realized he’d forgotten the third Jao’s rank.
The Jao glowered, and he felt his ears warm. That was a blunder, he told himself. The giving of one’s name was a mark of Jao favor in social situations and this was hardly the moment to ask for that.
“This is Terniary-Commander Jalta krinnu ava Krant,” Aille said without ceremony, defusing the moment.
“Terniary-Commander,” Aguilera said, heading toward the immense ship. “If you will follow me.” That at least he’d remembered. With Jao, the lowest ranked always went first. This was neither the time, nor the place, to argue relative status.