“Actually, I don’t think even Dannet knows and it’s eating her up. She’s even testier than usual, and that’s saying something. As near as I can tell, the Preceptor only told Wrot.”

“And why is that?” His earnest green eyes sought hers. “You understand the Jao better than anyone I know, growing up under their thumb like you did. What would make the Preceptor keep this a secret even from his own kind?”

“I went to Ronz before we lifted and asked him outright. He refused to tell me, said expectation of any particular outcome might change what we find, or do when we find it, which makes no sense.” She paused. “And I suppose it might — for a Jao. I think he’s in error about the human reaction, though. Withholding information just makes us crazy with curiosity.”

“I bet that’s exactly what the old devil wants,” he said, sitting on her bunk, “to keep us occupied like stupid hamsters on an exercise wheel, running all the time and getting nowhere.”

She had to laugh. He had a point. There was very little she would put past Ronz and the Bond. “That’s entirely possible!”

“But that doesn’t explain why he wouldn’t tell the Jao,” he said.

“If the information were controversial somehow,” she said slowly, trying to fit the pieces of evidence together and make a recognizable pattern inside her head. “If knowing this information would somehow change everything, Ronz would keep it to himself until he was sure he was right. The Jao don’t process new conditions very well. He wouldn’t want to upset everyone needlessly.”

“Change everything?” Tully said.

“Yes.” She turned in her chair. “But what would do that, I haven’t a clue.”

“Well, accepting humans into a new taif changed everything,” he said.

“Because it meant recognizing that we were more than clever savages incapable of self-rule.” Caitlin tapped a finger on her chin. “Gabe, they admitted at the briefing that a third sapient species fought in that battle. If this was just a standard First Contact scenario with an unknown species, they would know what to do, and they certainly wouldn’t drag an untried ship half-filled with humans along with them to do it. Instead, it looks like Ronz knows, or at least suspects, who these folks were. It must be a species they’ve encountered before. If so, returning to that system in the Lexington, which is a new design, would conceal the fact that we have Jao with us.”

Tully’s eyes narrowed. “Do you know who it is?”

“I can’t quite put it together yet, but I’ve been searching the databases and I’m going to keep digging.” Restless, she got up, leaned against the wall and crossed her arms.

“Wrot may not like that,” he said, grinning. “He’d say that if the Preceptor wanted you to know, he would have told you.”

“Then Ronz shouldn’t have drafted me for this voyage,” she said. “He knows what humans are like. We can’t leave a puzzle unsolved when all the pieces are scattered right in front of us. It’s just not in our nature!”


After Tully left Caitlin on Deck Forty-Six, he took the lift up to Seventy-Two, deep in Jao Country, to fetch the three highest ranking Krants. They were taking their morning swim, which should put them in the best mood possible, not that he expected it to be all that good. They were a recalcitrant lot at the best of times and this situation hardly qualified as that. They were put out as all hell at being dragged along on this seeming wild goose chase into the Sangrel Deeps, and quite rightly too, as far as he could tell.

Wrot had contacted him that morning — ship-morning, that is — and assigned the remnants of the Krant crew to his command while aboard ship. His unit, Baker Company, specializing in reconnaissance, had no mission on the Lexington, beyond eating their heads off and getting into trouble, so they were training on Weapons Spine C to man the new guns. Jao had little patience with anyone sitting idly by when they could make themselves of proper use and expected ground troops to put their hands to whatever needed doing while in transit to an assignment. They neither shared nor tolerated the human tradition that made sharp distinctions between different branches of the military. As far as the Jao were concerned, a soldier was a sailor was an airman was a spaceman, and would damn well do what he or she was told. And do it properly, and do it now.

Unlike the cobbled-together tank artillery that had proved so successful in the Terran battle against the Ekhat, these guns had actually been designed to be used on a space-going ship. They combined the best of Terran and Jao tech and exuded an air of deadly blue-steel efficiency. And there was the possibility that the Krant crew, experienced with space battles, might even be able to show the human complement a thing or two.

Or they might just sit in the corner and pout. That was entirely possible. Then it would be up to Tully to maneuver them into answering his authority. Yaut certainly could have done it, and Tully had been trained by the old fraghta. He just had to dig deep and think what Yaut would do in his place.

Tully squared his shoulders and stepped off the lift when the doors opened. The corridor was redolent with Jao salts. Even if he hadn’t consulted the ship’s directory, he could have just followed his nose to the pool.

Two sleek wet Jao emerged from a doorway, harness looped over their shoulders, conversing with one another, casually unclothed. The Jao’s lack of a nakedness taboo took a bit of mental adjustment for humans. One of the pair glanced at him, then with a contemptuous flick of her ear, passed by without acknowledgment.

She had an unusual vai camiti, the markings mostly on the left side of her face, leaving her right eye unmarked. Where had he seen that before?

“Vaim,” he said, using the Jao greeting proper between two equals: We see each other. It burned him to be ignored as though he were just so much flotsam and Yaut had warned that he must establish himself from the first. Too many Jao still regarded humans as little more than flunkies, fit only to clean up and do grunt work that required muscle.

They stopped, staring down at him, ears and arms toggled at an angle he deciphered as probably annoyed-disbelief. Yaut had regarded him in that fashion on a daily basis for weeks, and occasionally even the much more patient Aille.

“You dare to speak so, stub-ears?” the female said, her body rigid.

That off-center vai camiti, it denoted Jak, he suddenly realized, a high ranking kochan which had lost status on Earth since Pluthrak had arrived. He attempted a rough rendition of waiting-to-be-instructed. “If you rank above me,” he said in Jao, striving to get the angle of his neck correct, “I am willing to be enlightened. I am Major Gabriel Tully, Commander of Baker Company.” Forcing his name upon them unasked was a slyly rude tactic. Yaut would have cuffed him soundly for it, but Yaut wasn’t here.

The other Jao, a male, was more traditionally marked with a stolid but recognizable facial pattern denoting Kaht, if he wasn’t mistaken, a midlevel kochan. “Oh, it is one of the Pluthrak’s boorish little humans,” he said with a dismissive wave of one hand. “I have always heard that he lets them run quite wild. No doubt, this one has become accustomed to flaunting itself unasked without correction.”

“This is both a human and a Jao ship,” Tully said, realizing it might be better to let minor breeches of manners like this go unless he wanted to spend all his time forcing traditional Jao into association. Him and his big mouth. He had much bigger battles to fight, but he’d provoked this confrontation and had to see it out. “The giving and receiving of names is a courtesy among my kind.”