The Lexington had been constructed outside because the shipyard’s main building, large as it was, had been simply inadequate. The new vessel was four thousand feet long, three thousand wide at the thickest point, shaped something like a stubby gray dirigible tapered at both ends.

Of course, no dirigible had ever possessed even one keel, much less the eight even spaced around this ship. The scope of those keels became more apparent as they approached. “The Lexington is much more heavily armored than usual,” he said, “to allow it to better withstand the stresses of fighting inside a solar photosphere. Even the interior walls are thicker.”

Mallu’s ears waggled and he could not seem to look away. The captain appeared almost hungry. “What are those extrusions for?”

He meant the keels, Aguilera thought. “Those are the ship’s weapons platforms,” he said. “Half of them contain laser mounts and the other half, kinetic weapons.”

“Kinetic weapons?” Kaln said. “That is rather primitive tech, is it not?”

Aille answered the question. “We experimented with a hastily converted form of this tech when we fought the Ekhat in this star’s photosphere two orbital cycles ago. The weapons, pulled off pre-conquest Terran fighting vehicles, were originally rapid-fire tank cannons. As you can read in the reports of the battle, the innovation proved most efficacious.” Aille gazed up at the ship as they walked. “And I do recommend that you make yourselves familiar with the reports, since you are going to work closely with a number of very talented humans. The information should prove — enlightening.”

He stopped. “I will leave you now as I have a meeting at my office.”

“’Off-ice?'” Mallu echoed the Terran word.

“It means ‘working space,'” Nath said smoothly. “An adaptation of local custom. We have found it most useful to separate room functions as humans do.”

Mallu looked enigmatic, but said nothing more as Aille turned back. There was definitely something going on inside that thick Jao skull. Aguilera just wasn’t sure exactly what.

At any rate, the three Krant reminded him far too strongly of Earth’s pre-Pluthrak dealings with the Jao, when tyrannical Governor Narvo had set the mood for human-Jao interaction. Narvo, along with the great kochan of Dano and Jak, had deemed human ideas worthless and humans fit for only the lowest grades of grunt labor.

As it turned out, Jao were very good at some things, humans at others. Braiding their talents, combined human-Jao forces had proved themselves strong enough to stand up even to the Ekhat on short notice, and, as he had good cause to know now, that was saying something. If humans and Jao went back to pitting those divergent strengths against one another, as they had for far too many years, they would all die — messily — when the Ekhat returned. A single battle with the Ekhat in this system had proved that to even the most doubting on both sides.

He would find the right words to make these Krant listen, Aguilera told himself. That would be the best use he could possibly make of himself.

The sounds of construction rose as they neared the immense ship, so that Aguilera had to raise his voice to be heard. “This way,” he said, and motioned them to follow him under a tangle of temporary power cables feeding into one of the Lexington’s eight keels.

Speechless, the three Krant followed.


Caitlin Kralik presented herself at Preceptor Ronz’s office in the Bond annex without an appointment. Jao disliked the human predilection for reserving one small bit of measured time for a particular event or activity. Instead, they relied upon their innate timesense to know when something would occur. Therefore, if Ronz didn’t know she was coming, it was his own damn fault. She smiled to herself as the green door-field winked off.

“Ah, Caitlin,” the old Jao said, rising from a soft pile of dehabia with a grace that belied his age. “Vaist. It felt as though someone would be here soon.” He was clad in unrelieved black harness and trousers and she could see more than a few scars on his chest.

Vaist was the superior-to-inferior form of greeting, literally you-see-me. She’d heard plenty of that growing up. Coming from the Preceptor, though, it pretty much lost its sting. She wasn’t certain how much of the current Jao-human alliance had been his design, but signs certainly pointed in his direction.

She smiled and let her body flow into the graceful curves of willingness-to-be-of-use. Years of observation and study had gone into her ability to use Jao body-speech. Vaish,” she said in return. I-see-you. Agreement between the two of them as far as rank was concerned, anyway. Of course, that wasn’t difficult in this case. Ronz outranked everyone on the planet, including Aille.

“Your parents are well?” the old Jao said, and settled into one of the human-style chairs before a standard desk.

“Yes.” She settled in the chair beside him and gazed down at her hands, trying to think how to diplomatically frame what she wanted to say.

“You wish to know what I think is out there,” Ronz said in English, “what is worth going so far and risking our new ship, not to mention all of your lives.”

“Y-yes.” She met those flickering green and black eyes. Even growing up under the direct supervision of a Jao guard, she’d never learned to read Jao eyes. No doubt all that dancing green fire meant something — at least to another Jao.

“I am not going to tell you,” Ronz said. His body was very still. The Bond did not hold with elaborate body styling. The whole fad was heavily influenced by fashions that varied from kochan to kochan. One trained in the Narvo style, the Dano, or the Pluthrak. If a Bond member were seen to prefer any one style over another, that would show favor, and above everything else, the Bond was neutral. Else it could not perform its primary function of coordinating the quarrelsome, often divided kochan scattered across the many Jao worlds.

“If we do not know what to expect, then how can we prepare?” Caitlin schooled her own body to neutrality too, adapting to the game they were playing.

“The very act of expectation might alter what you find or what you do, if you find it,” Ronz said. “I have shared my suspicions with Wrot krinnu ava Terra. When — and if — the moment comes that the rest of you need to know, he will be the one to decide.”

“Someone knows, then.” She bent her head, wondering, once the Lexington took off, if she could worm it out of the old Jao veteran in an unguarded moment. He had “gone native” to a degree far greater than any other Jao of her acquaintance. And that was saying quite a bit these days.

Ronz leaned toward her, his eyes almost entirely green. “No,” he said softly, as though she’d blurted her thoughts aloud, “For all that he comes of blunt-spoken Wathnak, I am confident Wrot will keep silent until he should not.”

Caitlin’s face heated as she tried to erase all vestiges of unconscious posture from her limbs. Damn body-language! How was she ever going to make it as a diplomat in the midst of a species that could read her every move like a book?

Ronz leaned back and his body almost, but not quite, implied sly-amusement. “Nice try,” the old rascal murmured in English.