Chapter 14

That night, using Aille’s access codes, available to her as a member of his personal service, Caitlin sat in her too-quiet quarters and pored over Jao archives, downloading old file after file, reading and listening until her head swam. Finally, she sat back and massaged the bridge of her nose, thinking. One thing was for sure — Jao had absolutely no gift for narrative. Dry facts and understatement were all you got. She suspected a lot was hidden between those lines.

The Jao had been around a long time as a sovereign species, and before that they had existed for an even longer period as slaves to the insane Ekhat. Oddly enough, the Jao records did not reflect triumph at having escaped such bondage, nor seem particularly ashamed of their origin. It was what had been and nothing could change that, and it had happened to no one now living, nor had anyone currently in existence taken part in the Ekhat’s wholesale slaughter of intelligence across the galaxy.

So there were no holidays to celebrate their hard-won independence, no days of remembrance, and their own enslavement had certainly failed to make them sensitive to the injustice of doing the same to other species, now that they themselves were free.

To the Jao, it was simple: the strong should rule, and the weak should make themselves of use. The only reason humans had achieved any measure of equality with their conquerors was that they had proved themselves more trouble to dominate than any other species the Jao had ever encountered. In the end, it had been considered easier to bring them into association so they could make themselves of use that way.

And not all Jao were in agreement with that decision, even now. Many kochan believed the Bond was making a mistake in allowing Terra to form its own taifs. But since the two most powerful kochan — Pluthrak and Narvo, each for their own reasons — supported the Bond in the matter, the others acquiesced.

None of this told her, though, who was likely to be lurking in that nebula, so she dove back into the records and ferreted out name after name of other conquered worlds. It would have to be someone with the technological prowess to wander the stars and stand up to the Ekhat in a fight. That seemed to eliminate all of the known conquered species. The Jao freely admitted that humans were the most technologically advanced species they’d ever come up against.

But that only covered the species encountered since they’d freed themselves from the Ekhat. What about before?

Under the direction of the Ekhat, they had obediently exterminated developing sapience wherever the Ekhat sniffed it out. The archives contained only the bare bones of these campaigns with poker-faced Jao droning on about how many ships and troops had been involved in an extermination operation. They rarely elaborated beyond that sort of dry but gruesome detail.

One name cropped up over and over, though: the Lleix. They had been an advanced civilization, spacefaring, and inhabited a number of planets. According to the records, the Lleix had fought gamely and inflicted terrible losses upon the Jao even as, inch by inch, they lost their homes.

They’d had advantages that Earth had lacked, especially spaceships and a population spread across multiple worlds. Exterminating such a species would be difficult. Even if you took out the majority of their settlements, what were the odds that somewhere a pocket of these hardy, resourceful, and highly intelligent folk had survived?

Then she stumbled across a file depicting an ancient parley with the Lleix that took place on a grassy slope beneath a star far more orange than Sol. The Lleix was humanoid in shape, though stockier, and its head was encircled by a fleshy crown more like the calyx of a flower rather than anything resembling hair or fur. It was dressed in an elaborately decorated robe as though attending a ceremony. Its face was smooth and round with only the smallest suggestion of nose. No ears were visible and it appeared to be completely hairless. Tall and silver-skinned and alone, it approached the Jao representative.

Caitlin tapped into the audio and heard the Lleix propose that their two kinds form an alliance and turn against “their common enemy, the Ekhat.” The Jao and the Lleix had far more in common with one another than the Jao had with their terrible masters. Would it not make sense for the Jao to free themselves and devote their resources to making a good life for their own kind rather than exterminating species who had done them no harm?

“We are willing to put all of our tech at your disposal,” the silver-skinned one said, speaking grammatical, though heavily accented, Jao. “Have each of our elian release an expert to advise your forces. You are already fierce warriors. No one could dispute that. The Lleix believe you can also be a great people. You have only to reach out for the freedom your Ekhat masters have never allowed you.”

The argument continued until the Jao representative lost patience and killed the Lleix. The alien crumpled to the grass and its corpse was abandoned there unceremoniously.

Caitlin froze the recording. She remembered having heard the story about this particular species long ago. The Lleix were the ones who first put the notion of the Jao freeing themselves from the Ekhat into their thick-skulled heads. Jao, who disdained ollnat, would never have devised such an innovative idea on their own. And even so, the concept of liberation had taken hundreds of years and many generations to work through Jao culture and sufficiently motivate the great kochan before they actually came up with a plan and acted to make it happen. But by then the Lleix were all dead.

Or were they?

Perhaps that was who Ronz suspected had joined the battle back in the nebula and then run away. And if it was a long-lost remnant of surviving Lleix, the last people they would want to see would be the Jao.

That would explain why the Preceptor had loaded up a new ship of decidedly unJao design with humans and sent it back to investigate. The Lleix would not recognize it as being of Jao origin and humans could front any negotiations so that the Lleix wouldn’t be so likely to attack them out of hand.

Caitlin’s thoughts whirled. If she had it right, no wonder Ronz and Wrot wanted to keep the notion quiet. Humans had odd ideas, as far as Jao were concerned, about persecution and the value of liberty. If this story got out, the human troops aboard the ship were bound to sympathize with the Lleix if it came to a shooting match.

And what would the Lleix do, when they learned the Lexington housed a complement of Jao as well as humans? If their performance in the recent nebula battle was any indication of their capability, they might simply drive the Lexington out of their space, then pack up their colony and lose themselves again. By the time anyone on Earth figured out what had happened, it would be too late.

That meant the diplomatic contingent on board would have to be especially persuasive, she thought. They would have to reassure the Lleix that the Jao had not hunted them down this time merely to finish what they so long ago started, that together, they would be stronger still, forming a three part alliance to stand against the Ekhat.

Caitlin of course was meant to be one of those diplomats and did not feel nearly golden-tongued enough for such a challenge. She punched in a call for Wrot, ready to share her theory with him. If she was right, she had a lot to learn about the Lleix in a very short time. Blast Ronz! He could have told at least her what he was thinking. He should know her well enough to understand that she could keep a secret — except from her husband, of course, and he wasn’t here.