The Span Of Empire – Snippet 03

Behind the Fleet Commander stood a very tall, very lean human, Lieutenant Fflewdwr Vaughan. It hadn’t taken long after attaining her new position for Dannet to realize that she would need assistants, a staff of sorts. Her position in Terra taif was not sufficient to take individuals into service, that almost feudal relationship between the highest of the individual Jao and those who were gathered around them; and being who she was, she would undoubtedly refuse to take humans into service even if she could. But Terra taif’s elders had all but ordered her to make use of those humans who would be of service to the taif. And the one who made it past her disdain and bristly attitude was a certain dour young Welshman from Caernarvon. Caitlin hadn’t had much contact with him yet, but from all accounts he was a good match for the fleet commander in personality and temperament.

Also present were Colonel Gabe Tully, the ground forces commander of the fleet, accompanied by the Ban Chao’s First Sergeant, Adrian Luff; Wrot krinnu ava Terra, one of Terra taif’s elders and her primary assistant (a wily old devil, for a Jao); Brakan and Matto of the Lleix Starsifters elian; Ramt of the Lleix Ekhatlore elian, and Pyr and Lim of the Lleix Terralore elian.

Completing the roster, and standing against a wall flanking the door, were Caitlin’s personal bodyguards.

For many years Caitlin had been assigned a Jao bodyguard; first Banle krinnu ava Narvo, a terrible wretch who had abused her and held her hostage to ensure her father’s cooperation with the occupying Jao, then later Tamt, a staunch ally who stood between her charge and certain death more than once. After it was determined that Caitlin needed more than the single guard, she selected Miller, a jinau veteran of the Lleix campaign, who was unexpectedly amusing as well as efficient. Tamt now officially reported to Miller, but remained assigned to being Caitlin’s closest companion. Her body-shield, as it were. The two were almost inseparable.

Caitlin had never had a close female friend before. Though she had attended college, Caitlin’s father’s status at that time as a notorious Jao collaborator had prevented development of those sorts of relationships. Her close association, first with Tamt and subsequently with Miller, had proven unexpectedly welcome.

Special benches had been provided for the Lleix as their dimensions were rather broader than even the Jao. The four silver-skinned Lleix gazed at her with upswept expectant black eyes, their fleshy aureoles standing at attention like crowns worn over the head on edge from ear to ear. Taller than humans, their vividly brocaded robes were draped properly, which was always of paramount concern to a Lleix, their hands folded in the proscribed most polite fashion. No one outside the Lleix would ever know now, Caitlin thought, that Lim and Pyr had been thoroughly disenfranchised when the Lexington had first come calling, long-time impoverished denizens of the Lleix slum known as the dochaya.

“We have to make a decision,” she said, once everyone was seated.

Across the table from her, Wrot’s eyes danced with enigmatic green fire. One of his ears signaled slight-error.

She sighed. “Or rather, I have to make a decision, but I want your input.” She gazed around the table, gathering their attention, human, Jao, and Lleix. “So far, this expedition has been a failure. We have found nothing but the ashes left behind by the Ekhat. I worry that it won’t get any better if we continue on this heading. The Ekhat have been working their way out along this arm of the galaxy for unknown thousands of years. Quite possibly hundreds of thousands of years. I have to consider the possibility that it might just be best to cut our losses and return to Terra.”

“We have supplies enough to go on for many months still,” Dannet said. She adjusted an already flawlessly placed strap of her Terra-blue harness, then her face with its bold vai camiti, characteristic of her Narvo origins, turned to Caitlin. That Narvo face always gave Caitlin a bit of a pause, reminding her as it did of mad Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo who had killed her brother and ruled Earth with an iron fist for most of her childhood.

Dannet’s head and ears were canted at the angles which communicated unafraid-of-challenge to anyone versed in Jao body-speak. “There are millions of stars in the Orion arm of the galaxy. We have examined only a tiny percentage of them. Sampled, it would be better to say.”

Caitlin flushed and let her own angles answer with the Jao posture bold-intentions. “Yes,” she said clearly, “but we cannot visit any significant portion of them in the time allotted by the Bond for this expedition.”

“You believe they are all dead,” Lim of Terralore said. She bowed her head on its long graceful neck. Her voice was a piping lilt, incongruous for a creature so tall and sturdy. “That is correct?”

“They have all been dead so far,” Caitlin said. Heartbreakingly so, she thought, though a Jao would have trouble making sense of that emotion. They were far too practical. Dead was dead and therefore of no use. Move along to the next world.

“We cannot ally with the dead, and available resources are limited,” she said, trying to think like a Jao so they would understand her reasoning. “We cannot afford to waste time exploring systems unlikely to contain sentient civilizations.”

“Since you want input, I say let’s not give up just yet,” Gabe Tully said, sitting back in his chair and running his hands through his shaggy blond hair. “The Bond gave us a mandate to explore. Despite the odds, we can’t just go skulking back with nothing to show for it.”

He was right, she thought. They needed something to justify this expenditure of resources and manpower. Jao respected results. Mere trying counted for nothing with them.

“We have found two worlds so far that were clearly inhabited by intelligent technology-using species,” Wrot said, “including this latest one where the inhabitants developed space-going technology.” His head with its many service marks nodded. “The probabilities are that other civilizations are definitely out there somewhere. I say we give it a few more tries, and step up the pace so that we look at twenty or more additional systems, jumping, then moving on the moment it appears hopeless, not lingering to take samples and recordings. Out of millions of stars, the Ekhat must have overlooked at least a few.”

“Is it possible the species we saw today is hiding somewhere in this system?” Tully said. “Like the Lleix did?”

“No,” Dannet said. “A large outpost was located by our sensors on the next planet out from the sun, which is too cold to sustain life as we know it without environmental provisions. The blasted remains of their settlement were detected. There’s no sign of any energy signatures or survivors.”

She could dispatch a squad there to check in person, Caitlin thought, but it would just waste more time, and they had none to waste. The Ekhat would attack Earth again as soon as they were ready, one of the Harmony factions, the Melody faction, or even the fanatical Interdict. She had boarded an Ekhat ship once, seen the monsters with her own eyes, which was more than most people on Earth or even Jao could say. She knew firsthand how totally insane–no, unsane–they were. The two that had spoken with her group had killed themselves before their visitors were permitted to leave because contact with lower life forms had rendered them subsequently unfit to exist.

The monsters had tried to exterminate all life on Earth once already. They would be back, in much fuller force the next time. Their last attack had incinerated a million people and rendered a good chunk of China uninhabitable. The next time, Earth might not survive unless they had extra resources to bring to the fight.

Resources it was her responsibility to secure.

“We will go on,” she heard herself say. “We can’t give up until we find what we have come for.”

“More people,” Pyr said. His aureole stood on end. He inclined his sturdy body toward her. His silver skin gleamed with oil.

“More people,” Caitlin agreed. “To stand with us against the Ekhat. To ally with Jao, humans, and Lleix. To exterminate the Ekhat as completely as they seek to do away with us.”

“That is desirable,” Lim said. She inclined her head respectfully. “But is it likely?”

“Not likely,” Wrot said, “but then how likely was it that humans and Jao should come to the Lleix in the hour of their greatest need?”

“Not likely at all,” Pyr said, “but much appreciated.”

“Together, we are stronger,” Caitlin said. She spread her fingers on the gleaming wood table and stared down at them as though they could give her sorely needed answers. “We will find another species and convince them to work with us, and then another after that, and another, until, united, we can stand strong against the Ekhat.”

Wrot placed his hands on the table across from hers. “On to the next framepoint then.”

Heads nodded around the table. Even the Jao had picked that mannerism from the human as a substitute for their affirmation/readiness-to-perform bi-partite posture.