Chapter 4

Mallu found the interior of the great ship bewildering. They passed crew quarters, startlingly spacious, many of them intended evidently for single occupants. Blatantly wasteful. And there were what Aguilera called “recreation areas,” which included spaces designated “coffee bar,” “TV room,” and “theater.”

Coffee was a popular concoction which acted as a mild stimulant on humans, Nath explained. While it made Jao nauseated, humans often functioned better with its judicious application. Other beverages would be served there, too, including a number of favored Jao teas as well as light snacks. The TV room and theater were for displays of ollnat in off-duty periods.

“Ollnat again,” Kaln said, her single ear struggling to communicate bafflement. “This world is obsessed with it!”

Aguilera turned back to face her, his gait ungraceful. “Ollnat is what saved this world when the Ekhat came,” the human male said stiffly. “Our ability to come up with new ideas is one of humanity’s greatest strengths.”

As before, Mallu found it off-putting to gaze at that naked face. No whiskers, nap, or, worst of all, facial striping. He could not figure out how the creatures told themselves apart. Their skin coloration varied, from a pale pink to a dark brown. But their bland features all blended together and talking to one felt like conversing with a child still confined to its natal pool.

Nath gazed at the trio, her arms falling into determined-patience. “Human ollnat bears little resemblance to our own expression of that trait,” she said. “They have the most amazing ability to come up with fresh combinations of familiar elements. In time, we expect our new taif to be at the forefront of a wave of invention, and that will be of use for all Jao.”

“They are only natives!” Kaln said brashly.

Her stance was veering into blatant belligerence. Mallu found himself alarmed.

“And conquered natives, at that,” his Senior-Tech continued. “How can you elevate them to a rank equal with even lowly regarded Jao?”

“You will not speak of them so in my presence,” Nath said, her body gone very still. “They deserve your respect!”

“The Floor-Supervisor is correct,” Mallu said. How bad had Kaln’s head injury been, anyway? Perhaps he should have her examined again. She seemed to have lost all sense of propriety. “You have not been here long enough to know what you are talking about. Keep silent!”

The five of them walked on through the busy ship then. Crew members, both human and Jao, constantly passed them, intent on their tasks. Walking just behind Aguilera, Nath was full of energy, her movements confident, her postures precise. She certainly did not seem lessened by her time on this world. “What kochan gave you birth?” Mallu asked.

“Tashnat,” she said. “I was Nath krinnu Tashnat vau Nimmat.”

Two midlevel kochan, well respected, certainly more highly regarded across the Jao polity than Krant.

Kaln’s eyes flared. “Then how can you dishonor both Tashnat and Nimmat by abandoning them for a taif infested by these primitives?”

Aguilera was watching their exchange with an intensity that bordered upon fierceness. Mallu realized that Kaln had angled to present her back to the human, a subtle insult in Jao body-speak.

“What we do here is for the future of all Jao, in fact, for all sapients who face extermination from the Ekhat,” Nath said, her lines gone to an elegant version of disbelief. “You should be honored that the Preceptor believes you can contribute on this mission. If you feel he is in error, then you should inform him immediately.”

The moment reeked of potential ruin. Mallu froze. Krant was so little regarded in the great sweep of things, it was hard to believe that they had been drawn into something meaningful, a situation where their actions might actually make a difference, where they could be of use to others outside their own small sphere. This kind of chance to serve the wider vithrik rarely came to Krant.

Jalta and Kaln were watching him. As the highest ranking officer, he had oudh here, minuscule as that charge might be to outside eyes. “The Preceptor is not in error,” he said. His ears flicked back and forth, his body unable to settle into anything recognizable. “We do not wish to make it seem otherwise.”

He turned to Kaln and forced her to look at him. “And we will keep silent about local matters which are outside our current understanding — is that understood?”

Her whiskers quivered, but her good ear flicked assent.

Nath’s lines flowed into a breath-taking rendition of mollified-acceptance. Embarrassed, he turned away as though he did not see. Other kochan could spend time and resources on tutoring their offspring in such beautiful — and pointless — affected elegance, while Krant on its two inhospitable worlds struggled to merely live and produce the next generation. Sometimes he thought other Jao with their exotic seas and exquisite manners were not the same species at all.

“Now,” Nath was saying, “I will let Aguilera conduct you to the weapons platforms and the command deck. His knowledge of both is unparalleled and I have other tasks which require my attention.”

Aguilera gestured with his heartward hand. “This way,” he said and set off.

Kaln’s whiskers bristled, but then, as was proper, the three Krants followed.


Tully spent the night at the Pascagoula base in the quarters his batman, David Church, maintained for his use whenever his commander was on-site. Tully had been on detached duty for the last few weeks, but his regular post these days was commander of Baker Company, a special unit of ground troops, both human and Jao, trained mostly for reconnaissance. Jao disliked overspecialization, though, so he made sure his company was highly adaptable, good at hand-to-hand, trained on all manners of weapons, ready for whatever the situation required.

Something had changed inside him two years ago on the northwest coast, when, at a critical moment, Aille and Yaut had trusted him, despite knowing his origins and holding him prisoner for weeks at that point. He’d grown up a Resistance camp brat, fatherless at four, then motherless too, a short time later, stealing food when no one could, or would, share what little they had, sleeping out in the snow and rain huddled into the lee of boulders, learning to scavenge with the best of them. Look out for number one at all times had been his credo. That, and kill Jao, whenever and wherever possible. The Resistance was hellbent on taking back Earth whatever the cost.

Then he had been forcibly drafted into Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak’s service. At the time, it had seemed a disaster, an enslavement he would have literally given his life to end, but actually, in some inexplicable way, it had been the making of him, almost as though a stern parent had taken him in hand.

Now that he had traveled with Aille, Yaut, Ed Kralik, and Caitlin out into space and actually experienced the alien insanity of the Ekhat for himself, he knew the truth. If humanity and the Jao didn’t stand together against the Ekhat, whichever maniac faction came along next, they would all die, a whole lot sooner rather than later.

When he’d reached his quarters last night, his comboard indicated that not only he, but his whole unit, was assigned to the upcoming expedition on the Lexington. He spent the next few hours requisitioning supplies, drafting orders, and downloading background to absorb. They would help man the Lexington’s main guns while on the mission, so he left orders for the company to report to the ship and start qualifying on the new artillery first thing in the morning.

Fresh from a shower and shaving, Tully caught a ride over to his office which was in the same complex as Aille’s and part of the refit facility. Rain had swept through just before dawn, as it tended to do on the coast, and now the sky was blazingly clear. He’d overindulged at the bar last night, matching Kralik beer for beer, so his head was a bit tender. Inside the administration wing, the Jao preference for low lighting proved a welcome relief from the morning sun.