Chapter 28

Caitlin winced. One hundred thousand? That was a tiny fraction of the population the Lleix must have had once, when they inhabited several well-developed planets. But, in immediate terms, the number was far too large. It would take ten ships the size of the Lexington to transport such a population.

Still, it was welcome news that the Jao, with their customary ferocious efficiency, hadn’t managed to extinguish this species altogether. And the Lleix had a breeding population that was large enough not to be in danger of dying out from genetic bottlenecks.

“So, abject and miserable slave Wrot,” she murmured in English without looking at him, “what do we do now? We can’t tell them that the entire human fleet consists of only one ship big enough to even start the job, and it’s already on-site, crammed to the gills with a fair number of Jao as well as humans.”

“Ask them about their own transport.”

The glittering Lleix eyes watched her. “You say you have ‘few ships,'” she said. “How many would that be?”

“Now prepare to leave,” Jihan said. “One thousands go, maybe two, no more.”

“One thousand ships?” she said, trying to visualize the situation. Perhaps they were all just very small, like the vessel Tully’s people had found moored to the derelict.

The black eyes glittered. “One thousands Lleix.”

“My god,” Tully murmured in English. “Then most of them are trapped here, and everyone knows that the Ekhat are coming back. Poor buggers.”

Caitlin’s head whirled. “Jihan, where are the few Lleix ships going? To other Lleix worlds?”

“No other Lleix worlds,” Jihan said in its musical voice, then turned its silver head to regard Wrot. Its corona stilled. “Dead everywhere, all dead.”

At the hands of the Jao. The creature left that unspoken. But upon their last meeting, the Jao had exterminated its kind down to the last elder and infant with ruthless efficiency. And from that day until now, this segment of their population must have hidden here in this nebula, knowing that at some point the Ekhat — and the Jao — would return.

It had all been a long time ago and things were very different now, due in large part to the Lleix being able to see a capacity for self-direction in the Jao they had not been able to perceive in themselves at the time. The Jao owed these people. They could not be abandoned here to die at the hands of the crazed Ekhat.

She turned to Wrot. “We have to help them,” she said in English. “How much time do we have before the Ekhat sweep back through this system?”

“There is no way to be certain,” the Jao said. He hesitated, apparently consulting his Jao timesense. “But it feels like not long.”

She wanted to shake him until his ears rattled. Instead, she clasped her hands on the table’s gleaming surface and studied her reflection. “Days?” she said finally, raising her eyes. “Weeks? Months?”

His whiskers quivered with indecision, not something she’d ever seen on him before. “Weeks, I think.”

“We could hide them on Earth, at least until we find them a proper world of their own,” she said. “A hundred thousand, that’s not even a medium-sized city. North America alone has dozens of areas that might suit, depending on their climatic needs. Do you have any issues with that?”

The three Lleix sat gazing at her as though she had all the answers, as though she could make their problems, the problems of an entire beleaguered civilization, just evaporate.

Because she was Caitlin, Queen of the Universe — only she was nothing of the kind. Caitlin, Recovering Political Prisoner, was more like it! Or Caitlin, Bond Lackey!

“You must excuse me,” she said in Jao, wondering how much the Lleix really understood. Jihan’s grammar was awkward, its word choice basic and repetitive. How it had acquired any knowledge of Jao at all after such a long lapse in contact was totally beyond her. “I will consult my underlings on best how to assist the Lleix,” she said, her face hot. “Stay in this place for now. I am arranging for better quarters.”

She rose, heart pounding, and stalked out of the room, followed by Wrot and Tully. The door slid shut and then she whirled upon the pair of them, hands fisted. “This is all your fault!”

Tully backed into the wall, palms facing out as though to protect himself. “Me? I had nothing to do with any of this! You and Wrot obviously had some idea about what we were headed into out here and wouldn’t give me the slightest heads-up! My people could have easily shot these characters before thinking to count arms and legs. You might have at least told me what to be on the lookout for.”

“Caitlin, Queen of the Universe!” Her face was so heated, she knew her cheeks must be fiery. “That’s not your fault?”

“Well, Kaln did get a little carried away with all this tall tale stuff,” he said, trying and failing not to smile.

“And, you!” She glared at Wrot. “Play along, you said!”

Green lightning flickered in the old Jao’s eyes. “This was a fortuitous blunder,” he said. “If they understood the reality of the situation, they would be terrified.”

“And well they should be!” Her pulse was pounding. “Sooner or later, they’re going to figure out the truth!”

“By then,” Wrot said, “they will have learned not to fear the Jao.”

Fat chance, Caitlin thought. There were still millions of humans on Earth who hadn’t learned that. She herself still bore the scars from her Jao guard’s beatings from not that long ago when she’d been a young political hostage.

She crossed her arms, resisting the temptation to drop into a Jao posture to make her point. “Look at the position you’ve put me in. They’re asking me, Queen of the Universe, to make all their problems just disappear, only I don’t have the authority to do anything of the sort! I can’t promise to fight off the Ekhat when they come back, or to load up the Lleix and transport the whole lot of them to Terra. I’m not in charge here! I can’t promise a single damned thing and then make good on it!”

Upon hearing “Queen of the Universe,” one of the guards glanced at her, clearly startled. She glared at him. “Not a word, soldier!”

He squared his shoulders and gazed over her head at the corridor wall.

Wrot’s angles went to discomfitted-recognition-of-truth. “If the number they’ve given us is correct,” he said slowly, “I think transport might be arranged through the Bond’s resources, as long as you can persuade your father to authorize sanctuary in North America. Even if it’s only a temporary sanctuary.”

Her mind whirled. She wasn’t Queen of the Universe, not by a long shot, but she was a sort of princess. Her father was still President of the United States, at least until elections were once again held, and he could do that much. But would he? She remembered the poem engraved long ago on the now battered Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Wonderful sentiments, sure — but even before the Jao conquest a lot of North Americans had been hostile to immigrants.

And those had been human immigrants. “Illegal aliens,” they had been called. How would people now react to the prospect of taking in a hundred thousand real aliens? In a continent which the conquest and the ensuing twenty years of brutal rule by Oppuk had made much poorer?

But she knew that her father still believed in the old ideals of the republic. And there was a lot of unoccupied land in North America. Had been, even before the Jao devastated much of it. He would agree, she decided, if she got a chance to explain.