THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 72
Tully sent Caitlin back to the Lexington with Wrot to await the three Lleix. It made him nervous to have an untrained civilian bobbing around a barely secured area. If she slashed her suit or one of these little Ekhat serviles whom they might have overlooked popped up its head long enough to get off a few shots, Ed Kralik would have his skin. In addition, Tully had a lot of confidence in her and thought they needed her. Back on Earth, Caitlin had made a huge difference in the struggle to achieve respect from the Jao.
Burgeson and Nam returned with the two Lleix along with a third suited figure of the same configuration. One of them carried bundles of fabric over one arm.
“Finish mopping up here,” he told Burgeson. “Kaln, Nam, you come with me back to the Lexington.”
Of the three Lleix, only the one named Jihan seemed to speak any Jao. Tully was almost grateful for that. It might prevent further nonsense. He just wasn’t accustomed to having to worry about Jao making stuff up. Such shenanigans weren’t normally part of their nature, but Kaln had already shown herself to be gifted with ollnat through her reworking of the hoist mechanism. And then there was that whole business of Krants making up stories about ships being turned inside out in transit. They obviously had a penchant for ollnat that other kochan lacked. Looking back, he guessed he shouldn’t have been all that surprised.
The Lleix obediently accompanied them to the Lexington, entering through the same EVA locker room. He worried that the ship’s atmospheric mix wouldn’t be right for them, but they were stuck out here with a damaged ship and were going to run out of air soon at any rate.
“Wait,” he said to Jihan after the air lock had cycled and the alien was fumbling at its helmet. “We need to test your suit mix to make sure you can breathe our air.”
“Jao breathe?” it said, black eyes narrowed into gleaming slits.
“Yes,” he said, glancing at Kaln, who had already removed her helmet and was scratching her ears.
“Lleix breathe too, then,” Jihan said. One of the others came to help and he realized that it had an injured arm.
Wondering how it could be so certain, he held his breath as the helmet was pulled off and the silver-skinned alien inhaled. When it didn’t fall over gasping, the other two removed their helmets as well.
Caitlin entered the locker. “Bring them up to Deck Forty-Six,” she said in English. “I’ve reserved a conference room, then we’ll have to find them quarters.”
“Does Dannet know we brought them over?” Tully asked as the Lleix struggled out of their suits. He couldn’t help staring. They were taller than humans and sturdy, with massive pillar-like legs, huge four-toed feet and wide hips. Their trunks then tapered up to narrower shoulders which were topped with long graceful necks and round heads. The most exotic aspect of their appearance was the odd fluttering coronas that ran across their crowns from ear to ear. The overall effect, wider on the bottom, attenuating up to their heads, was triangular, even pyramidal.
They were all completely hairless and silver-skinned. Their broad hands sported three fingers and a thumb. Their eyes were black and upswept, set in dished faces with only the nub of a nose and nearly lipless mouths. Ignoring his scrutiny, they assumed the robes they’d brought along. Nudity did not seem to trouble them, though they all three subsequently fussed with the drape of the fabric, seeming to have a rigid standard of dress to which they conformed.
He spotted none of the obvious body conformation clues as to gender, but, he told himself, it was entirely possible that they had five distinct genders or even just one. Time would tell.
“Wrot decided to report in person,” Caitlin said. “But this is not Dannet’s call. Wrot has oudh in this situation.”
This situation. Tully blinked. Now that he thought about it, Caitlin had not looked all that surprised to find a new alien species hiding out here. The possibility of finding “this” must be what had Ronz so hot and bothered back on Terra that the Bond risked their fancy new ship on a mission to this misbegotten nebula. They damn well knew these Lleix were here! So what if five sodding Ekhat ships were here as well?
“Wrot will meet us in the conference room.” Caitlin turned to the Lleix and let her body curve into a graceful Jao posture. Tully didn’t recognize which one, but he had to give Caitlin credit. It did give the general impression of respect, at least to his eyes.
“Please accompany us,” she said to the Lleix.
“Lleix needing help!” Jihan said.
“We may be able to provide that help,” Caitlin said, then motioned at Tully.
Oh, yeah, he told himself, lowest ranked goes first according to Jao tradition and these Lleix seemed to know at least a bit about such things. Cat-lin, Queen of the Universe, could not possibly take the lead.
Hands shoved in his uniform pockets, he slouched through the door and headed for the nearest lift. The Lleix chattered to each other in musical voices, ran splayed fingers over the walls, examined the flooring and lighting. Though their legs were massive, they did not walk so much as glide, their movements even more lithe than Jao postures.
They were all dressed in stiff silver-blue robes brocaded with brightly worked scenes, each different. Hidata, the one who had been left behind, obviously deferred to Jihan while the third followed in their wake, uncommunicative. If it had been human, Tully would have said it was sulking, but with aliens, who knew what was going on?
The lift fascinated them, too, but they did not seem disconcerted by its rapid speed, like most humans. When it stopped, he led them out, then conducted the trio to the conference room where Wrot was waiting.
A full complement of guards in ship uniforms was already in place, but otherwise the deck seemed to have been cleared of extraneous crew. This might not be Dannet’s show anymore, he thought, but the Terra-Captain was still on the job.
He stuck his head through the door. Inside there was a gleaming black table surrounded by chairs that were going to be totally inadequate for Lleix dimensions. Caitlin squeezed past him, then stared in dismay.
“I, um, need to get back to the wreck,” Tully said.
Caitlin turned back, put a hand on his shoulder, and squeezed. “Oh, no, you don’t, mister,” she said softly. “You’re staying right here!”
“Hey, you’ve got your faithful slave, Wrot,” he said. “What more do you need, Princess?”
“That’s Queen Caitlin to you,” she said and her blue-gray eyes gleamed. “And don’t you forget it!”
Wrot saw them walk in, three tall gliding figures, silver-skinned, clad in silver-blue robes. Only a few file images had survived since the Jao had done their best to extinguish these people, his kind being unsentimental about such things. Now, out of their suits, he saw that they were as unlike Jao and humans as a species could be and still be built along the same general two-armed, two-legged plan.
The chairs in this room, though sized for use by Jao, who were generally bulkier than humans, were still too small. He dispatched three of the guards out in the corridor to fetch benches from the nearest pool room. In the meantime, they all stood around and stared at one another, the Lleix as frankly curious as the humans and the Jao.
“Lleix needing help!” the one who called itself Jihan said.
“Yes.” Caitlin gave it her full attention. “You said that before. What is wrong?”
“The great devils have founding us!” Jihan said, its corona fluttering.
“But they are all dead,” Caitlin said.
“Those now dead,” Jihan said as the three guards returned with benches. “Many more Ekhat! They come!”
“It means they will send more ships,” Wrot said quietly in English. “And it is right. The Melody lost one ship in the first battle, now five more. They will be back and in still greater force.”
“You fight more Ekhat?” Jihan said.
There was a pause as chairs were removed, then benches positioned along the table. Caitlin took a seat on the opposite side as the Lleix gingerly maneuvered themselves onto what was for them a rather narrow target.
“Humans and Jao do not find it convenient at the present time to fight another battle in this nebula,” Caitlin said. “And even we did, that would only expose the Lleix to more danger. Would it not be better for you to travel to another system where the Ekhat cannot find you? You traveled to the derelict. Surely the Lleix have ships that can transport your people.”
“Most few ships,” Jihan said. Its corona wilted. “Many Lleix, few few ships. Most left behind.”
Caitlin glanced aside at Wrot, then folded her hands and leaned across the shiny black table. The tension in the room made Wrot’s whiskers itch. He resisted the urge to rise and pace. “How many Lleix?” she said carefully.
The Lleix’s black eyes gleamed. It twitched its robes to hang at a precise angle, then sat very still as though thinking hard. “Jao numbers difficult,” Jihan said finally. “Jao gone long time. This one only learn your words short time ago. I think you say — one hundred thousands.”