Chapter 15

Mallu heeded the summons to Spine C for additional training, reporting with Jalta, Kaln, and the rest of his reduced Krant crew. His own position as Gun C-Eleven’s captain was much more interesting than he had first thought. The great kinetic weapons packed immense force and he could see how they might even be more effective in some situations than energy weapons for which the Ekhat would have shields.

His ribs still ached, but not as much, though a number of postures were still difficult. However, working with humans as he was, postures weren’t required and mostly he didn’t even bother trying. The creatures seemed oblivious to them anyway and their own postures were too chaotic to interpret.

Jalta was working at the far end on Gun One with no more fuss than if he’d been one of these stub-eared humans. Mallu had been braced for trouble from Kaln, but oddly enough she seemed to be fitting in with her own crew. At least, she had taken a position in the magazine of her gun mount and stayed down there most of the time. As far as he could tell, there had been no more commotion.

His other Krants were also doing fairly well. He’d only had to discipline three so far, and those for minor infractions. That was fortunate because he could feel the flow of this journey increasing. Something was about to happen and they all had to be ready.

His gun crew knew what to do far better than he did, in actuality, so at first he observed the other captains as their crews struggled to increase their efficiency, then watched for the same problems with his own personnel. Those under his responsibility were all human, infernally quick and more agile than Jao, but also more easily distracted. He soon realized that part of his job was to keep them focused, and that was not so hard.

When the drill was completed, Tully called a meeting of the gun captains and read off the stats. “Excellent,” it said. Then Mallu corrected himself mentally — he said. This particular individual was male. He was beginning to be able to reliably tell the genders apart, which seemed important to humans. Males apparently disliked very much being taken for female. The opposite mistake elicited an even more indignant reaction.

Tully said something in his own language. Most of the gun captains, who were all but one human, chuffed, shook their heads, then dispersed. Tully turned to Mallu and switched to Jao. “We jump next-sun. Everyone is to be on duty at that point.”

The nap behind Mallu’s ears prickled with dread. Lexington was a new ship, and unless he were mistaken, this would be its first jump, a tricky enough situation even if they weren’t heading into a planetary nebula. The moment swept back over him, three Krant ships emerging in the nebula, but only two surviving as the third miscalculated, jumped too deep in the targeted star, and was crushed and incinerated. Then, before they could orient themselves, his own ship had taken critical damage from the Ekhat even as its remaining fellow Krant vessel was blasted into fiery splinters. He still felt that terrible moment when he knew they were outclassed.

Tully was watching him closely. “Terra-Captain Dannet is very experienced,” he said. “She came to us from Narvo.”

Mallu’s ears swiveled. He found himself surprised that a mere human had read him so well. “It is difficult to surrender control to others when one is accustomed to wielding it oneself.”

“I understand,” Tully said. His lean body was very straight, almost respectful.

The human and Jao jinau were filtering out of the spine, leaving behind only a small maintenance force to service the guns. His Krant-crew did not follow them, milling about instead, looking to Mallu for direction.

Kaln approached Tully, which initially alarmed Mallu until he saw that her good ear was indecisive.

Tully consulted the sheets in his hands, rustling through them as though in search of something. “You were right,” he said finally to the waiting tech. “Gun Mount Six had a fourteen percent increase in efficiency.”

Kaln glanced at Mallu, her eyes smoldering green.

“I will recommend the upgrade be applied to all the Lexington’s kinetic guns when we return to Terra,” Tully said. “I will need you to document the process so that it can be implemented wherever appropriate.” He glanced at Mallu, his lips stretched into an unsettling grimace. “Be careful, Krant-Captain. Terra Taif may just try to steal this one from you.” Then he followed the rest of the jinau out of the spine.

Mallu was baffled. Kaln was not an object which could be stolen. Was that a sly insult? Whatever did the annoying creature mean by such a comment?

Kaln, however, stared after Tully’s retreating form with an odd hint of longing in her lines.


Jump Day. That’s what Caitlin called it to herself as she left her quarters to make her way up to the Lexington’s bridge the next morning. Heavens only knew what the Jao were calling it. “Today,” most likely, or simply “now.” They were as unsentimental about such things as it was possible for a species to be and still qualify as sapient. She supposed the Ekhat had bred that quality into them back at the beginning of their uplift. It wouldn’t have done for slave soldiers to waste time mooning about the sadness of extinguishing so much promising life or always wanting time off to commemorate some event.

She had done her homework on the Lleix as well as possible with the resources at hand and uncovered more records of Jao attacks against Lleix colonies and ships. The Lleix had fought valiantly, extracting a high price for each system yielded. The Jao had been indifferent to their plight, efficiently exterminating them at every turn, noting statistics but little more.

If the Lleix had gone to earth on a planet concealed in the nebula, they would expect no quarter from Jao and would certainly give none. Any envoys from the Lexington would have to hide Terra’s association with the Jao as long as possible, if they even managed to arrange a first contact. The Lleix were bound to be painfully skittish of alien intrusion.

What would such a culture be like after all this time? Yesterday, Wrot, having validated her conclusion, had asked her to use her university training in the study of human history under Dr. Kinsey to speculate. The Lleix, if she was right, had been in exile, concealed in this extreme environment for many generations.

Their society might well have become rigid and highly ritualized. Something like that had happened to the Jews during the Babylonian period, after the destruction of the Second Temple. She could visualize them embracing control over every aspect of everyday life in an effort to give their existence shape under such harsh conditions.

The Lleix elder trying to convince the Jao to free themselves had been beautiful in its own way, regal and silver-skinned. Would she ever get the chance to talk to one? And if she did, how would she make up for what the Jao had done to them so long ago? She knew full well how deep humanity’s bitterness ran, based upon a much briefer struggle with a far better outcome. The Jao, persecuting them down through the years, must have seemed like evil incarnate to the Lleix.

All around her, the great ship brimmed with activity as she headed for the command deck. Creating a point locus was said to be intricate, not to mention tricky, and everyone was understandably nervous.

Figures darted in and out of doorways as she passed, their faces, both Jao and human, focused and intent. Several exited the lift at the end of the corridor as she entered, then grasped the rail, steeling herself. “Command deck,” she told the controls. The cab soared upwards, as always, too damn fast. She sighed and held on.

When the lift stopped, Tully got on, blue jinau cap tucked under his arm, chuckling. His hair was combed, his uniform spotless. His batman, again, she thought. Bless the man. He deserved a promotion.

“Okay,” she said as the door closed, “what’s so funny? I could use a good laugh today. I’ve got ravens racketing around in my stomach instead of the proverbial butterflies.”

He shook his head, unable to wipe the smile off his face. “Caitlin, I’m not sure this would help.”

“Try me.” She seized the support bar as the lift again raced upwards and even Tully braced himself. Blasted Jao and their cast-iron innards. These contraptions had to be set at least five times as fast as a human elevator. Every time she got on one, she felt like she was on a theme park ride whose main purpose was to frighten the wits out of a person.

“All right,” he said as they arrived at the command deck. His eyes crinkled at the corners with suppressed merriment. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though.”

They stepped out into controlled confusion. Voices, both human and Jao, rose and fell. Crew darted back and forth from station to station in the bridge’s oddly shaped space with no right angles that satisfied the Jao’s need for “flow” in their architecture. Sensors beeped and blinked and whistled, warning of dangers Caitlin had no wish to know.

Terra-Captain Dannet glanced over at them in the midst of conferring with an officer. She said nothing, but her angles shifted subtly toward displeasure. She had the affect of a lioness, all muscle and deadly grace mingled with the attitude that any second those within reach could become prey. Just the sight of the former Narvo made Caitlin want to retreat.

She had stayed out of Dannet’s prickly way up to this point on the mission, but her rank entitled her to be up here during such a momentous event and, attitude or not, she wasn’t going to be faced down.

“Over here,” Tully said in her ear. She nodded and followed him to a station not currently being manned.

“Okay,” he said, his voice still low, his green eyes gleaming with amusement. “I just left my company down on Weapons Spine C. They’re on duty in case trouble is waiting on the other side for us, though the turrets themselves are retracted during the jump. I was inspecting the gun mounts and I kept getting jittery rumors from my people about jumps going bad. They’ve heard that ships were found completely inverted with the hull compressed into a solid core and the exterior of the ship on the outside like a gutted corpse. Their crews were in the same condition, skeletons inverted so that they were a bloody mess.”