Chapter 6

The next morning, Caitlin moved into her quarters on the Lexington. Ed was morose when he dropped her off, kissing her right there on the tarmac in front of Jao and human alike with a passion that curled her toes. She felt her cheeks heat.

“Damn Jao,” he muttered against her neck as supply trucks rumbled past just a few feet away. His warm breath tickled all the way down to her knees. “Spiriting a guy’s wife off to the far reaches of the galaxy on a whim just when he’s gotten used to having her around!”

She laughed, though her heart was racing. Facing east, the morning sun was in her eyes and made it difficult to focus on his face. “Maybe you’re just a little too used to having me around.” She pressed her cheek to the broad expanse of his chest and drank in the sense of calm strength he always exuded. He smelled of after shave, as usual, laundry detergent, and, for some reason, orange juice. Must have spilled some on his jacket that morning. She sighed and clung to him, her fingers smoothing a wrinkle in his shirt over and over. “Maybe you’ll appreciate me even more when I come back.”

If I come back, she thought, and knew that he was thinking the same thing. They’d both traveled to that Ekhat ship two years ago, had stood together in that terrible ear-splitting place and heard the insanity of what the aliens had to say — right before the pair had ripped themselves to shreds for having been defiled by non-Ekhat contact. There had been at least one Ekhat ship in the nebula where the Lexington was headed. The Krant ships had destroyed it, but there could be more.

Ed’s arms tightened until she couldn’t breathe, but then he released her and stepped back, his shoulders resigned. Above all, he was a soldier, she thought. He knew where a soldier’s duty lay, both his and hers. She was just as much a warrior as he was these days, only her weapons were papers and words.

His gray eyes narrowed. “Just see that you do come back,” he said in his officer’s voice.

Caitlin smiled tremulously, her toes still curled from that kiss. “Like anyone could keep me from it!” She hoisted her travel bag’s strap onto her shoulder, then watched him climb into their black car and drive away without looking back. As one of the top commanders of the jinau, he had meetings in New Chicago over the next three days. The Lexington was scheduled to lift before he could return.

At least, humans had calculated that was when it would leave. The Jao, who disliked the notion of chopping time into discrete bits and then fussily counting them, were talking about “flow being very close to completion.” Somewhere in the middle of the two widely disparate attitudes about time lay the truth. The Lexington would take off when all supplies were loaded and personnel were in place, in other words, when the vast ship was ready, and not a single second before.

Caitlin passed through Security to enter the refit facility, then again at the ship herself. Such a grand lady, Caitlin thought, as she walked up the ramp, the Lexington’s massive gray ribbed hull obscuring the sky. So many hopes were riding with her. Earth had been lucky last time in the battle with the Ekhat, cobbling together a ramshackle defense that proved mostly effective, but the Chinese people had paid the price. And luck could only take them so far before it gave out. Preparation was a much better ally.

At the top of the ramp, she encountered the ship’s captain, Dannet krinnu ava Terra, a middle-aged Jao female with a great deal of Ekhat combat under her belt.

“Mrs. Kralik,” Dannet said. Her stance declared this meeting an irritated-distraction to the human’s experienced eyes. “I felt you would come soon.”

Dannet was handsome by Jao standards with a powerful frame as well as a strongly marked vai camiti that boldly stated her origin, despite her adoption of her new taif’s designation. The three broad stripes slanted across her nose and eyes at that precise angle indicated “Narvo,” to anyone with much knowledge of Jao culture.

Narvo had also been the kochan of Oppuk, the late and unlamented Governor of Earth, who had abandoned Earth to the Ekhat when the attack came. Years before, he had murdered Caitlin’s brother in a fit of pique because his Jao accent had been lacking, then later broken her arm as casually as one snaps a twig. He was dead now, but his kochan was very highly ranked. Members of it worked at various positions all over Earth. She often wondered how much they blamed her for Oppuk’s disgrace and death.

To deepen the fragile new association between Pluthrak and Narvo, the current governor, Aille, a former Pluthrak, had applied to Narvo for an experienced captain, once the Lexington was under construction, with the understanding that he or she must join Earth’s new taif. Dannet had come, apparently willing, but seeing that vai camiti was always chilling. It was like looking back through time into Oppuk’s unsane face. Though she had no idea how closely the two were related, Caitlin avoided the Narvo female whenever possible.

“Call me Caitlin,” Caitlin said, summoning her diplomatic skills. She let her angles assume wishing-to-be-of-use. “We are crewmates now. Formality will not be necessary.”

“Formality has its uses,” Dannet said, regarding her with an indecipherable expression. Her body had now gone classically neutral. “Do you know the way to your quarters?”

Thank the gods, she did, having inspected them several days before. “Yes.”

“Then I will leave you,” Dannet said. “I have much to oversee.” She continued on down the ramp, her stride businesslike, resplendent in Terra-blue trousers and gleaming blue harness.

“Gives you the willies, don’t she?” a voice said out of the shadows just beyond the great hatch. A hand extended.

“Rob!” Caitlin took the proffered hand. “I didn’t know you’d come aboard.”

The dark face of Rob Wiley, former Resistance leader, grinned back at her, sporting a gold front tooth. Good dental work was nonexistent back in the mountains and he’d been taking advantage of its availability since accepting the position of one of the two subcommanders heading Lexington’s ground force complement. “Boarded most of my troops this morning.”

“How’s that going?” she asked as the hatch closed behind them.

“Damned weird,” Wiley said, slinging Caitlin’s bag over his own shoulder and then falling into step beside her. “If anyone had told me two years ago that I would share command of anything with a freaking Jao, I’d have sliced their liver out and served it to them for breakfast.”

“Is Brel making it difficult?” Their footsteps echoed across a patch of bare deck plating. Busy crew members, human and Jao, bustled past in both directions, paying them no attention. He directed her to the nearest lift station and punched for the car.

“Not on purpose, but I never know what that rascal is thinking,” Wiley said as they waited. “He says almost nothing, and I can’t figure out what all that stupid dancing around means. I’ve tried to learn a few of the basics, but I think you have to be born to it.”

Or at least exposed at a very early age, Caitlin thought. She’d acquired a Jao guard when she was three, not a positive experience, since it meant she’d been a virtual political prisoner a good deal of her life. But it had left her the Earth’s most fluent human in Jao bodyspeak.

“I can tutor you,” she said. “We’re bound to have some downtime on our hands during the voyage. From what I hear, it takes a few days on the trip out to set up frame travel and then jump.”

The door opened and they stepped into the blue-lighted space. It was much larger than the standard human elevator, probably one of the heavy duty lifts for handling combat equipment and troops, spare parts and supplies. The doors whooshed shut.

“Deck Forty-Six,” she said. Her stomach lurched as they shot upwards, faster than humans liked, just one of the many Jao influences in this huge ship. Why set the lift to half-speed just to make humans a tiny bit more comfortable?

She wondered how long it would take her to get used to it, or if indeed she ever would.