THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 69
If the new aliens were triumphant, dare she ask for help? Jihan’s injured arm ached abominably as she swung back to the overhang, then stretched out along it, peering into the maze of debris. She wondered who was winning and who in the name of the Boh these bold strangers could possibly be.
Lliant positioned himself behind her, watching back down the corridor so that they would not be surprised again.
The chamber was suddenly lit again very brightly by a flare of some sort sent up by one of the combatants. Jihan could finally see the newcomers clearly. They wore transparent helmets, similar to those employed by the Lleix, so that their heads were visible. They had no aureoles, which was unattractive, but hardly surprising. Instead, their skulls were covered with patches of fur in varying shades, mostly browns. Their eyes were large and round, white with tiny dark circles in the center like holes. To the last of them, they seemed to be shorter than Lleix. She doubted the tallest of them topped even herself. A magnificent Eldest like Sayr would have dwarfed them all.
Then a figure jetted past her, its movements more deft than the rest, and she stopped breathing. The creature’s entire head was covered in dark brown fur. It had a prominent muzzle and green flecked black eyes along with those large infamous ears, which were swiveling even as it passed.
She turned to Lliant. “That –” she said, but could not find the words to finish.
Lliant pulled himself up beside her, gazing out over the platform into the battle. “Yes?”
The figure was gone, having fired at an Anj, then plunged back into the maze of debris. Blood hammered in her head. Alarm flattened her aureole so thoroughly, she thought it would never again straighten. Once again, the universe had turned itself inside out. The situation was far worse than she’d thought. “That — was a Jao.”
Tully hovered above the corpse of the other Ekhat. Its legs and arms had curled like those of a dead spider after Naddo’s shot had destroyed its head. “Jesus, that’s ugly!” he said with a shudder, then turned to Miller. “Lieutenant, send parties to search the rest of this hulk. Go through every compartment, open every door. I think we’ve run into whatever survivors there were who were still in shape to fight. But I might be wrong, and there are probably some Ekhat or Anj somewhere who are immobilized by injuries.”
“Yes, sir. And what should we do with any we run into who aren’t dead?”
Tully hesitated. Then decided that with one Ekhat captured alive, they’d already fulfilled that mission. One was enough. More than enough, if anyone wanted his opinion.
“If they’re Anj — or any other slave species you might run across — try to keep them alive. If they’re Ekhat, kill ’em.”
She jetted off. Mallu and Kaln motioned him over to a bit of debris.
“Despite appearances, Major, much of this tech is usable,” Kaln said. “We should take care not to damage it any –” She broke off, staring up at the curving wall.
Tully followed her gaze and spotted two figures in unfamiliar design suits surveying the battle scene. They had only two arms and legs, so were not Ekhat, but neither were they short and stumpy like the Anj. A second slave species? “Kaln, Burgeson, Nam, secure those two up there!” he said, motioning.
Nancy Burgeson, who was closest, swooped in to train her weapon on the pair. Kaln, along with Nam, one of the jinau Jao of Baker Company, followed to back him up. The aliens did not flee, however. Instead, they pushed themselves up so that they were floating more or less face to face with their captors, staring back at the trio with upswept black eyes.
These were Jao. Jihan’s mind reeled at encountering yet another of their ancient enemies. But…
Most of the ones who had fought were of another species altogether, similar in conformation to the Jao, but easily distinguished by their smaller build and paucity of fur. Their faces were flatter, their ears tiny and stationary, when she knew from the records that those of the Jao were almost always in motion. And these particular Jao seemed to be under the command of one of the newcomers, the one with bright yellow head-fur. They were clearly following its directions, taking its orders.
Understanding flooded through her. Of course! The Jao had always been a slave species, and still were. For some reason, this particular group of Jao — perhaps all Jao — had fallen under the rule of another alien culture. So they served them now, not the Ekhat.
One of their captors, not a Jao, motioned with its slim gray weapon for her to approach. She turned to Lliant, who had not moved. His black eyes stared. “Come,” she said. “We must do our best to make ourselves understood.”
“They will kill us,” Lliant said. “There is no need to communicate that.”
“If they wished us dead,” she said, “we would already be so. They want something else.” She gestured at two of their captors. “Do you not see? Some of them are Jao!”
He groaned. “And you find that welcome news?”
“They are obviously communicating with one another,” she said, hand fumbling at her controls. “Perhaps we can find the same frequency.”
The closest Jao waved at her now. She pushed off and drifted down to it, if the chamber could be said to have a “down” orientation in any meaningful sense of the word under these conditions. Hurriedly flipping through the available communication channels, she listened to each for a breath, but heard only silence, static, silence. It was hopeless, she thought. Their tech was bound to be radically different. They might not even communicate in frequencies that could be detected by Lleix ears.
At her side, Lliant jerked, then looked at her. His black eyes gleamed. Had he found it? His mouth was moving as though he were trying to tell her something.
She clicked back to their common ship frequency. “– to five-thirty-four!” he was saying. “Dial to five-thirty-four!”
Fingers shaking, she did so. “– throw away your weapons!” a growly voice was saying. In Jao.
Lliant gazed at her expectantly. He did not understand, of course. He was an Ekhatlore. Quite properly, he had only studied the sly maniac tongue of the great devils. But she was Jaolore, however short the duration of her appointment. From long days of study, she knew approximately what those words meant, although they were not pronounced in the same way as the ancient recording. But that was not surprising. Languages changed, over time. She was lucky it was still basically the same.
“We — have — none — weapons,” she said slowly, the alien syllables dropping clumsily off her tongue before she could quite complete the sounds. She remembered the records, how the Jao had simply shot down that brave Wordthreader Eldest when she had pleaded for alliance, and white-hot fear seared through her. “Nothing is required here except that you die!” the Jao had said to the Lleix elder. She had watched the gruesome scene so many times, she knew the dialogue on both sides, word for word.