THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 71
Caitlin knew something was up when the call came in, maybe even what wily old Ronz had suspected from the start because everyone was being very mysterious. Tully had summoned Caitlin and Wrot, asking that they meet him at the Ekhat derelict soonest, but declined to explain further.
She accompanied Wrot up to the bridge to formally request transport from Dannet. The mood was calmer than when last Caitlin had visited. A faint hint of singed wiring lingered in the air. Repairs were still being made, but most of the equipment seemed to be functioning.
Beside a damaged console, the Terra-Captain was sitting on her feet, as Jao sometimes did when agitated, looking as though she could launch herself at any second. Her eyes were glittering, her spine angled to indicate barely-repressed-curiosity, whiskers quivering.
The back of Caitlin’s neck prickled. The former Narvo knew something was up, too, had known it all along, but the Bond had given Wrot oudh over the noncombat aspect of this mission, not her. The Terra-Captain had to play her assigned role.
Wrot waited, his body arched with polite-request.
“Lexington will transport you,” Dannet. She rose and stretched like a frustrated lioness. “We have completed our task of destroying leftover fragments from the battle.”
Indeed, Dannet had been so thoroughly ruthless on that score, Caitlin doubted anything bigger than a bread box was left drifting out there.
The bad part, she learned two hours later, was that she had to suit up and go over to the derelict — outside — crossing naked space. Why Tully couldn’t just report to her and Wrot on the Lexington was not being explained. He insisted they had to come in person and would say no more on an open channel.
Well, she thought, in the space suit locker, as Wrot settled a helmet over her head and then activated the seals, it had damn well better be worth it. She didn’t even want to think about what Ed would say when he heard about this. The air rushed and then she was alone with the sound of her thudding heartbeat.
She’d had the terrifying experience of boarding an Ekhat ship of the Interdict faction several years ago and had no desire to repeat the experience with a Melody ship, even if the wretches were all supposedly dead.
Wrot gave her a quick course in using her jets, then tethered her with a cord to his own suit. “I will do the maneuvering,” the old Jao said. “You just, as they say, come along for the ride.”
They cycled through the air lock, then Wrot towed her outside the Lexington’s huge curving hull. The star hung there on her right, swollen and fiery. She could see its surface seething as convection currents swirled, rose, and fell. Had they really emerged into the system through that? She felt ill all over again, a sensation not improved by the lack of gravity. Her stomach kept trying to climb into her throat, and her mind insisted she was falling, even though she knew logically it was not true. A fervent new appreciation for gravity suddenly suffused her. She would endeavor to enjoy it as it deserved, once she was back in a civilized environment.
Don’t look! she told herself. Think about something else — yeah, like that battered Ekhat derelict just ahead.
But that didn’t help much. Light gleamed through numerous hull breaches, courtesy of Lexington’s powerful armament. The huge bay door hung crazily to one side, anchored by a single hinge, floating. Probably, she thought, one good tug would send it careening down into the sun to incinerate —
That didn’t bear thinking about either. She trained her eyes on Wrot’s blue space suit as he jetted assuredly toward his target. Luckily for her, he probably had done this a hundred times, she told herself as they neared the access point.
Wrot maneuvered through the irregular opening, half manufactured doorway and half blast hole. She held her hands out as he towed her the rest of the way, then eased through the gap into dim green light. Inside, she found herself in a large bay filled with drifting fragments of — something. She craned her head, trying to make sense of the jumble of debris. Maybe this wreckage had once been shuttles. Maybe heavy machinery. Or maybe something only the Ekhat would understand.
A group of small sinuous creatures in white space suits floated off to one side, guarded by a trio of jinau. “Caitlin! Wrot!” Tully’s voice called. “Up here!”
She looked around, then spotted a blue-suited figure waving at her from some sort of extension that had once overlooked the storage bay. “Use your jets,” Wrot said, activating his own to head for Tully. “And avoid the wreckage. You could hole your suit on a jagged edge.”
Taking a deep steadying breath, she activated her jets and wobbled tentatively after him, still tethered. When they reached the platform, she found Tully, Kaln, and Mallu, along with several unfamiliar jinau, one of them Jao and the other human, and a pair of suited figures who were…
Neither. To her relief, though, it was immediately apparent that they were not Ekhat. Abstractly, she knew that there was only one surviving Ekhat aboard the derelict, which had been very badly injured. But her one experience with Ekhat aboard the Interdict ship had been frightening enough to make her somewhat irrational on the subject. Even the wounded Ekhat would probably scare her silly. Fortunately, it was nowhere in sight.
“Who is this?” she asked Tully, trying at the same time not to careen into the wall. Wrot put out a steadying hand to stabilize her. “Were they part of the crew on this ship?”
“Beats me, Caitlin,” Tully said. “I haven’t been able to make heads or tails yet out of what they are doing here, and we haven’t run across any more like them, dead or alive. They say they are Lleix and speak a bit of Jao, as it happens.”
Lleix! Her heart lurched at the sound of that ancient name. Now that she could see them better, she could see that their appearance matched the record she had watched. The aliens were quite tall, even stately, built wide on the bottom, then more narrowly on the top, possessing two arms and legs and an odd crown of flesh across their heads that rippled apparently to the rhythm of the creatures’ thoughts. The effect suggested the petals of a daisy, if a flower could move at will. Their faces were concave with only a nub of a nose and thin silver lips.
Two pairs of upswept narrow black eyes turned to her and the one closest spoke in an unexpectedly musical voice. “You are Cat-lin, Queen of the Universe?” The words were Jao, except for the English term “queen.”
“What?” Caitlin glanced at Tully.
He scowled and shook his head. “I’m afraid there has been a complication,” he said in English. “After we took them into custody, these Lleix mistook the Jao in my company for our slaves. In addition, our Krant friend over there” — he gestured at Kaln — “has been listening to tales of Paul Bunyan and picked this moment to reciprocate with a tall tale of her own. About Caitlin, Queen of the Universe, and her faithful Jao slaves.”
The Lleix. Again, the enormity of it hit Caitlin. What had merely been suspected was now standing before her, and, with all that long, complicated history between the two species, it was amazing the creature hadn’t simply fled screaming at the first sight of a whiskered Jao face. “I… see,” she said, though she really didn’t. “Paul Bunyan?”
“Pool Buntyam!” Kaln said. “He has the strength of twenty humans and prepares comestibles on a grill the size of a shuttle! He –”
Mallu seized the Senior-Tech’s suit and shook her. “Enough!”
Wrot turned to Caitlin, eyes jumping with green fire. “This may not be entirely unfortunate,” he said in English while the apparently puzzled Lleix looked on, their fleshy coronas in constant motion. “When the Lleix last had contact with the Jao, we were slaves — of the Ekhat. Better that they believe us now to be humanity’s slaves than still under the control of the Ekhat.”
“But — ” she said, her mind whirling. “That’s crazy! And it’s wrong to start off by outright lying.”
“This misunderstanding works in our favor, though,” Wrot said in English. “We should take advantage of it. I believe the correct human term would be ‘play along for now.'”
For a creature with so much authority, this Cat-lin was very small, Jihan thought. She had expected an Eldest of magnificent proportions, towering far above them all. The Queen of the Universe seemed as slight as a youth about to be released for the Festival of Choosing.
“I am Jaolore,” she said to the creature slowly, struggling to get each syllable as close to the pronunciation in the ancient records as possible. “This your slave, Rot?” She glanced at the Jao who had accompanied Cat-lin, assisting it — her? — “queen” evidently indicated the feminine gender.
“Jaolore?” Cat-lin said.
“My elian learn about Jao,” Jihan said. “We know — from debris — from earlier battle — Jao come back.” Her aureole flattened with anxiety. “Long ago, we fight Jao.”
Unable to understand a single word, Lliant hovered at her shoulder, glowering.
“You need not fear them now,” Cat-lin said, then conferred with the others in her own sibilant language before she resumed speaking Jao. “We will go to my ship and talk more there.”
She must mean the amazingly huge vessel which had defeated the Ekhat. Jihan was both relieved at the thought of quitting this terrible place, lair of the monstrous Ekhat, and yet afraid to venture amongst so many unknown aliens.
Then she blurted, “Hadata!” She had almost forgotten the poor Starwarder, left behind, concealed in the derelict’s shadow. “We must –” In her distress, the proper vocabulary eluded her. “Must — getting Hadata!”
“What is this Hadata?” Cat-lin said.
“Other Lleix, hiding,” Jihan said. “Will die soon.”
Cat-lin looked at the others. The Jao designated “Rot” spoke, then Cat-lin turned back to Jihan. “Where is this one hiding?”
“In ship, in darkness, outside this place,” Jihan said.
“Show us,” Cat-lin said.
Jihan took Lliant’s arm. “We will go now to retrieve Hadata,” she said, urging him back down the corridor.
It was entirely possible these aliens were just as bad as the Ekhat, yet they had taken the Anj prisoner rather than destroying them as they could have easily done, and they hadn’t shot the two Lleix on sight. She could not imagine the great devils showing such restraint.
And they had defeated five Ekhat ships. That alone would hearten her people, should she ever make it back to the Hall of Decision to relate what she had seen. Please the Boh, all three of them, Lliant, Hadata, and Jihan, would have that honor one day.