The Span Of Empire – Snippet 04
Caitlin looked to Dannet. “How long until we can jump?”
“We will jump when we are ready, Director Kralik,” Dannet said with a sly crackle of green in her eyes. One of her ears flicked with repressed-amusement.
A smile quirked at Caitlin’s lips. Dannet was referring to the infamous Jao time sense. Jao always knew how long something would take or when it would happen. They had no need to chop time into tiny pieces and then obsessively count them as they maintained humans did. Strangely, after years of association with Jao, sometimes she thought she could feel it too.
“But in human values,” the fleet commander continued, “probably not long.”
“Good. Until then,” Caitlin said and stood, signifying that the meeting was adjourned. “Batten down the hatches. We’re heading on.”
“I do not know those words, Madam Director,” Dannet said, rising to her lean muscled height and gazing down at Caitlin. “What are `hatches,’ and how, as well as why, are we to `batten’ them?”
“It’s a nautical Terran term,” Caitlin said. “It means secure everything and ready the ship for action.”
“Then I see no reason why you did not simply say so,” Dannet said with an impatient wrinkle of her muzzle. The four Lleix stumbled back to make room as the big Jao strode out of the conference room, her body stiff with simple irritation.
The door slid open, then closed. “You shouldn’t tease her,” Tully said, gazing after Dannet, though his green eyes twinkled. “I don’t care what color harness she wears now, that one is always going to be pure Narvo at heart. She might snap one day and tear off your head.”
“I know,” Caitlin said. “But it’s just so tempting.”
Wrot took a posture of unabashed amusement-at-the-expense-of-others. “Well,” he said, with an undecipherable twitch of his whiskers, “there is that.”
Caitlin Kralik stopped at the door to her suite.
“Caewithe, you and Tamt take off and get some rest. I’ll be in my room the rest of the evening. These guys,” she nodded at the two Terra taif jinau who stood beside the door, “will take care of me tonight.”
“No midnight expeditions without us,” Caewithe said.
“You’ll be the first I call if something comes up,” Caitlin said, holding up a hand as if swearing an oath.
Caewithe made a brushing motion with her hand. “All right, hit the sack, then. See you maÃ±ana.”
Caitlin gave a tired wave and ducked through her door. Caewithe gave the two bodyguards, one human and one Jao, the eye.
“We’ve got it, captain,” the human said with a grin. The Jao just wrinkled his nose in the barest sketch of assent.
“Call me if she leaves,” she ordered.
Caewithe and Tamt headed down the hall side by side. Sailors and soldiers of both races ducked around them. As chief bodyguards to Caitlin, even though their ranks were nominal, their status among the Jao was high. Caitlin was a member of the service of Aille krinnu ava Terra, governor of Terra and first kochan-father of Terra taif, so her personal status was about as high as it got among the Jao; plus she had oudh over the fleet’s mission, which meant that she was essentially in command over them all. All that status reflected on her bodyguards. As a person in service, Caitlin could not take people in service to herself, but her bodyguards came closest to that status in the eyes of the Jao, and the humans of the mission didn’t think much less of her than the Jao did.
The two bodyguards drew near to a mess room, and Caewithe looked up at Tamt. “You up for some tea?”
The Jao grunted. “Swim first. My skin is so dry that it’s about to powder.”
“Right. Later, then.”
Tamt said nothing, just continued down the hall headed for the nearest pool.
Caewithe ducked into the mess room and walked over to a beverage dispenser, where she punched the buttons for Tea, Earl Grey, Hot, Decaf. She did want to sleep tonight, after all. Collecting her cup, she parked at a table and pulled out her com pad to check the next day’s schedule.
She had finished that review and was about to open a report sent to her by one of her sergeants when someone else came in the mess. She looked up to see Lieutenant Fflewdwr Vaughan coming in the room, reading his com pad as he walked. He made his way over to a beverage dispenser and seemingly punched buttons by feel, never looking up. Caewithe decided he had really good peripheral vision as he collected his cup without a fumble and brought it to his lips.
Caewithe hadn’t had a lot of contact with the lieutenant, yet, but what little she had seen had impressed her. He was smart, sharp, quick on the uptake; and it didn’t hurt any that he was easy on the eyes. Ever since her relationship with Gabe Tully had cooled to the point where they admitted it wasn’t going to work between them, she’d kind of had an eye out for a possible companion. Vaughan had recently been added to the short–too short–list. So her ears perked up, figuratively speaking.
One sip, and Vaughan frowned. “We can fly between the bloody stars,” he pronounced, “but we can’t program a machine to make a cup of bloody tea.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Caewithe said. “I think it’s pretty good.”
Vaughan looked up in surprise.
“Oh, Captain Miller, I didn’t see you.”
“I didn’t think you had,” she replied, “the way your eyes were glued to your pad.”
“Sorry.” Vaughan took another sip of the tea, and grimaced.
“Is it really that bad?” Caewithe laughed.
“I’ve drunk worse,” Vaughan said, “but not willingly. You, however, being an American, have undoubtedly been abusing your taste buds with generic coffee ever since you were big enough to reach your mother’s cup.”
“Guilty as charged, Lieutenant. Have a seat.” She waved at a chair at her table, and Vaughan folded his tall frame onto it. “Can I ask you a couple of questions?”
“Ask away.” Vaughan took another swig of tea, this time repressing his grimace of distaste.
“How do you pronounce your first name? My best guess is Flewdwer but I doubt thatâ€™s right.”
He smiled. “Not bad, actually, for someone whoâ€™s not Welsh. But you can save yourself a lot of grief since I generally go by â€˜Flueâ€™. Whatâ€™s your second question?
“Just what do you do for Fleet Commander Dannet?”
Vaughan snorted, then said, “Whatever I can. In a human navy, she’d be a commodore at least, or more likely an admiral, and I’d be a flag lieutenant. But Dannet’s Jao, and they don’t have that concept.”
Caewithe thought for a moment. “But actually, wouldn’t a flag lieutenant be kind of like being in service, like Caitlin Kralik is to Aille?”
“We had hoped that she would see it that way,” Vaughan replied. “But Dannet’s not high enough up in the taif ranks to be allowed to take people into service, so I don’t think I fit into that slot in her mind. And she’s still struggling with what to do with a staff-member who doesn’t automatically feel what it is he’s supposed to be doing. Almost as much as I am, that is,” he ended in a disgruntled tone.
Vaughan looked discomfited. “Well, Lieutenant General Kralik and Wrot. They asked me to volunteer along with some others when Dannet asked for a staff. She chose me, and we talked again.”
“And?” Vaughan repeated.
“And if Wrot’s involved, something sneaky is probably going on. Give.”
Vaughan laid his cup and com pad down, placed his hands on the table, and leaned forward. When he spoke, his voice was low.
“I really am on her staff, and I really am trying to learn to be a flag lieutenant to a Jao. But I’m also her tactical shadow.” Caewithe gave him a skeptical look, and he nodded vigorously. “‘Strue.”
“So what’s a tactical shadow?”
“I’m supposed to record everything she says and does during combat situations, audio and visual, with time ticks and running commentary and every impression I can give. At some point we,” gesturing to the two of them, “are going to want to see humans in the command seat of a Lexington class ship, right?”
“Well, then, Dannet’s about the best we can learn from. She was Narvo, after all.”
Of all the Jao kochans, Narvo was the most combat oriented, particularly in space-borne conflict. Only the Bond of Ebezon compared favorably to them, and the Bond drew the best from all the kochans.
Dannet had joined Terra taif willingly, but no one forgot where she came from. No one.
“That explains why her,” Caewithe said, “but why shadow?”
“She’s Jao,” Vaughan said. “How good are any of them discussing anything that has to do with their ‘flow’ sense?”
At that moment, Vaughan’s pad beeped. “Crap! I’m supposed to be on the command deck in three minutes! Bye!” He slurped his tea and was gone.
An intense young man, Caewithe decided. But she liked intense.