Her eyes glittered with that enigmatic green fire that must signify something, though he had no way to understand. “That would be helpful,” she said. The lines of her body shifted into a posture he’d never seen on Yaut. Skies above only knew what it was. He certainly couldn’t ask.

He nodded to Lieutenant Miller, then left Senior-Tech Kaln to her self-appointed task.


Flow increased. Somewhere, something was about to come together and Wrot had a fairly good idea just what that was. The jump into the nebula would be tomorrow and then they would all know whether the Preceptor’s suspicions were justified.

Part of him hoped Ronz had made an error, that this would be some new species, never before encountered. If so, the Jao would have a “clean slate,” as humans liked to say, no preconceptions, no more than the usual fears at encountering unknown sapients. First contact would be much easier than dealing with the mayhem the Jao had long ago sowed under the Ekhat’s direction.

Caitlin Kralik had sent him a message last night, requesting a meeting at “his earliest convenience.” That expression amused him, as much about humans did. A Jao would never care if a desired interaction were “convenient” or not. His kind would accept an invitation from a subordinate, if it were deemed necessary or advantageous, and ignore it otherwise. Humans, though, were a different breed. No one understood that better than Wrot, who’d fought in the Conquest and then spent over twenty years afterward living among them.

He sent word that he would drop by her quarters, then indulged in a quick morning swim so that his wits would be at their sharpest. Caitlin had been sniffing at the edges of the matter ever since they’d left Terra. It was not inconceivable that she’d figured out their mission.

“Wrot, come in,” Caitlin said, when he presented himself, his nap still damp, at her door.

“Vaim,” he said. We see each other, a greeting between those of equal status. By naming her so, which she was not in this situation since he had oudh, he rendered her a great compliment.

Dressed in jeans and a navy-blue shirt, she resembled a jinau. Her face was flushed with excitement. She stood aside as he entered, then eased into the graceful lines of appreciation-of-bestowed-favor. “Vaim, yourself, old man,” she murmured, starting in Jao and then ending in Standard English. She had the air of a mischievous child. A hint of simple pride crept into her lines though she quickly suppressed it.

“You know,” he said, taking her console chair. She sat across from him on her bunk.

“I think so,” she said, drawing her legs up and hugging her knees. “You’ll have to tell me whether I’m right.”

Humans were so much more limber than Jao, he thought ruefully. He cocked an ear at her, waiting.

“It’s the Lleix,” she said. “The species who first put the notion of freedom into your minds.”

It would never do to underestimate this one, Wrot told himself. Her childhood exposure to Jao culture had made her infernally clever. He wondered if humans would ever be recruited by the Bond. If so, she would probably be the first selected. “That is what we suspect,” he said, “but there is no way to know until we jump.”

“If it is them, they won’t welcome us,” she said. Her face had gone pink in the cheeks, a reliable indicator of excitement for her kind. “They’ll be afraid, or angry, or both.”

“That is, as humans say, an understatement,” Wrot said. “So, if Ronz is correct, we will have to proceed carefully.”

“Why proceed at all?” she said. “Why not just leave them in peace? If they wanted to be found, they wouldn’t have left after the battle.”

“The Ekhat have already rediscovered them,” Wrot said. “At some point, they will be back with as many ships as it takes and then this colony will perish. For the sake of our vithrik and all those who died so long ago at our hands, we should make ourselves of use and save these.”

“How will we even speak to them?” she said. “The only file I found with an audio track had them communicating with your representative in Jao, for all the good it did them.”

Once the Lleix had even gone to the trouble of learning their enemy’s language to try and forge an alliance. That indicated much about both their desperation and resourcefulness. Wrot closed his eyes, thinking hard. That meeting had been so long ago, no Lleix would remember how to speak Jao now. They’d certainly had no reason to maintain the skill.

“I do not know,” he said finally, “but they are an intelligent species with something of humanity’s ability to visualize that-which-is-not, otherwise they would never have glimpsed the possibilities in the Jao that we could not see for ourselves. Perhaps you and your fellow humans can connect with them on at least that level.”

“Are there any restricted files dealing with the Lleix?” she asked, her eyes upon a digital photograph of her mate, Ed, on the shelf above Wrot’s head. “I have Aille’s access codes, but you must have the Bond’s.”

Now that she had guessed the truth, she should have access to everything so that she could make herself of the fullest use, should the Lleix be waiting for them in that nebula. Still, Wrot hesitated. Caitlin thought she understood the full grimness of the Jao’s former existence as tools of the Ekhat, but he was quite certain she did not. If he gave her access, she would see for herself in gruesome detail all the terrible actions they had carried out long ago under Ekhat rule, and once known, the knowledge could never be taken back.

It would be a burden she would have to carry all her days. He understood that in this moment, even if she did not.

But they all had to make themselves of use, Wrot and Caitlin and Tully and Dannet and the Krants, no matter how painful the path was. Vithrik allowed nothing less. He turned his chair around and then added his code to her authorization on the computer. “What you learn here,” he said over his shoulder, “can be shared with no one without Bond permission, not even Ed.” He turned back and met her startled blue-gray eyes. “Can you handle that?”

“But Ed has very high clearance,” she said. “Surely –”

“Not without Bond approval,” Wrot said, “and that may never be granted. Ronz would require as good a reason to authorize him as I have with you now.”

Flow slowed as she took some time to think it over. Wrot appreciated that about this particular human. Plagued as she was with her species’ endless curiosity, she still understood what kind of commitment this would be. She did not rush into big decisions like a child newly emerged from its natal pool.

Finally, she sighed. “I don’t want to know things I can’t tell Ed, but I don’t see that I have a choice. I need as much information as possible if I’m going to do any good here.”

“I think you are right,” he said and validated her access.