She went on to relate an improbable but quite interesting tale. Evidently conditions on Terra had once favored the exceptional growth of occasional individuals. On a trading run, Kaln had once seen examples of gigantism on a lush planet that belonged to the kochan of Hij, but those marine creatures were scarce, having been hunted into near extinction. This “blue ox” sounded much bigger anyway. She listened carefully to Miller’s soft voice with its pronounced Terran accent, trying her best to understand, and soon realized that other humans seated close to them were paying attention, too.

By the end of the narration, some were even adding details, as evidently the female’s memory proved faulty in several respects. This Pool Buntyam supposedly had an enormous appetite and consumed amazing amounts of some comestible called “flapjacks.” Once he had even spilled an entire boatload of a vegetable called “peeze” into a hot spring to create a huge amount of “soup” for his workers.

Then several jinau, both male, argued vociferously, about the exact size of this “ox,” which, Kaln gathered from the tasks it reportedly carried out, was some sort of beast of burden. One human said it was “seven feet” tall, while the other insisted no, no, it measured “seven feet” just between its eyes.

Kaln blinked. “What do the records say?”

Miller exhaled a long sighing breath. “The records from that era were very poorly maintained,” she admitted. “So no one can say who is right.”

“Perhaps we can find stored images,” Kaln said.

Miller closed one eye in what seemed to be a deliberate, if baffling, gesture. Her fellows chuffed. “Perhaps,” she said.

Kaln realized then that they were all amused, even the jinau Jao. Not a word of that improbable story was true. Evidently, humans relished the stringing together of such impossibilities. It was just ollnat, but cleverly done. Kaln had always had a secret fondness for the invention of such tales, even though the practice was considered juvenile. She would remember that for the future and concoct some wild series of events for their ears.

“Now,” Caewithe Miller said, “would you like to hear the story of Snow White?”

That equally unlikely tale was just ending when Tully came back, Mallu behind him. “Listen up, people,” he said in his heavily-accented Jao. “We are closing with our target.” He paused, gazing around at the assembled jinau and Krants. “Preliminary readings indicate that there well may be survivors on the derelict.”

A murmur arose from the humans. The Jao spoke with their bodies instead, indicating unease, fierce-determination, or willingness-to-be-of-use. Kaln realized her own lines and angles had gone to stubborn-pride and made herself assume something less provocative. She had no wish to have her ears boxed and Mallu certainly would have disciplined her, had he noticed.

“We have about fifteen minutes,” Tully said as the craft fired maneuvering jets. The specific terms were gibberish to Kaln, but she got the sense that the mission would be underway very soon.

“Make ready,” Tully said. He returned forward.

You cannot be ready for the Ekhat, she thought. She felt the moment approaching as she studied her fellow Krants. Each had fallen into a single posture now, as had she, as though they all had but a single thought between them: readiness-to-die.


Mallu got up and followed Tully aft. He’d had an idea and wanted to discuss it. Lingering just outside the cockpit, he caught the Terran’s attention and then Tully motioned him forward into the cramped space separated from the main cabin by a bulkhead.

“Yes, Krant-Captain?” the human said, settling back into his seat across from the pilot.

This was a delicate matter, Mallu thought, and he was not a trained negotiator, but Krant had no other official voice here but his. He would just have to do his best. “That derelict is valuable,” he said, his lines gone to desirous-of-favor, for all the good it would do. As nearly as he could tell, humans were oblivious to the niceties of bodyspeak, outside of a few like Caitlin Kralik.

“Really?” Tully scratched the yellow thatch on his head, then turned to the growing image on the viewscreen. “No one told me that.”

“By being first to investigate,” Mallu said, “Baker Company will receive booty rights.”

“Thank you for enlightening me,” Tully said, then picked up a sheaf of papers and leafed through them.

Now, thought Mallu. He only hoped he had the right words. Krant had not exactly ingratiated itself with this particular Terran so far, but Tully was a member of Aille krinnu ava Terra’s personal service and therefore highly regarded. “But Baker Company is not the only group present on this mission.” He glanced back at the crowded cabin. “Krant is here too, though admittedly in fewer numbers.”

Tully turned back to him with just a hint of inquiry in his angles. That seeming posture must be only by chance, Mallu cautioned himself, and then pressed on. “Krant suffered a hard blow when we lost three ships to this nebula,” Mallu said. “We are…”

This would be almost impossible to say to another Jao, but Tully was different. “A poor kochan. Very poor. Our two planets do not produce much in the way of exportable wealth.”

Tully’s head dipped. “You want a share of the spoils,” he said.

“Yes, Major,” Mallu said.

“Is that common practice among the Jao?”

How else would it be done? Mallu wondered. But he had enough experience with humans by now to realize that some Jao practices he’d always taken for granted, as if they were a law of nature, might have alternatives.

“Yes. The kochan present at the action divide whatever spoils might be obtained in accordance with their respective numbers.”

That was… not quite a lie, but close enough to make Mallu uncomfortable. The reality, as all Jao knew, was that numbers as such were only one of the determinant factors involved in these affairs. Status, resources committed, all those things also came into play. Put so many Pluthrak or Narvo or Dano to divide the spoils with an equal number of Jao from Krant or another desperately poor kochan, and the members of the great kochan would come away with most of it.

But, at least formally, humans placed great store by the social virtues they called “equality” and “fairness.” So perhaps in this situation, Krant might be able to get a better outcome.

The human pressed his fingertips together and bowed his head, obviously considering. “I do not understand the way these things are handled among the Jao,” he said finally, “and I do not wish to make a mistake, but I will certainly consult with Caitlin Kralik when we return. She is much better versed in such matters.”

He gazed up then into Mallu’s face. If only Terran ears were more expressive, Mallu thought, then he would have some idea of what Tully was thinking.

“And I would need to consult with representatives of both of Terra’s taifs about the distribution of any wealth earned in this action,” Tully said. His mouth had a strange quirk. “Perhaps, though, something could be done about your ships. We might even be able to work out some kind of deal to construct new ones to replace those that were lost.”

“Like the Lexington?” Mallu said, his ears now frankly astonished. With even one ship like the Lexington, Krant would no longer be poor.

“I think it comes down to association,” Tully said. “Would Krant wish to associate with Terra Taif?”

Mallu stared at him. Association? With this bizarre new taif, most of whose members were humans and not Jao? Had someone asked him the question before he arrived on Terra, Mallu would have dismissed it immediately as madness. But now…

He’d only been thinking in terms of getting as big a share for Krant as possible, of whatever spoils might be derived from the Ekhat derelict. But now that Tully had raised the issue of association, Mallu found himself intrigued.

And then, as he continued to think about it while Tully waited silently, his intrigue deepened. He could see how far removed his initial notions — prejudices, to call things by their right name — had been from reality.

Item one. Terra Taif was certainly not as wealthy and powerful as one of the great kochan like Narvo or Pluthrak, but it was far more wealthy and powerful than any single-system kochan Mallu had ever heard of. It was certainly wealthier and mightier than Krant, which had been driven to the point of desperation by the loss of three ships, any one of which would have been dwarfed by Lexington. And Mallu knew that Terra Taif was planning a fleet of Lexingtons.