The Span Of Empire – Snippet 07

And Tully had to admit that the general had delivered on that one. Every detachment on the battleships had at least two experienced sergeants, and the assault group had experienced men in three out of every four non-officer leadership slots. The Jao were just as good. And First Sergeant Luff, crusty as he might be at times, was pure gold. He’d come out of the pre-conquest United States Marines, where he’d been a gunnery sergeant. There wasn’t anything that anyone, Jao or human, could pull that he hadn’t seen (or done) worse. There wasn’t a problem that anyone could think of that he didn’t have a suggestion or two about how to deal with it. And Tully had learned that if the first sergeant said, “If I might suggest, sir . . .” that he’d best pay attention. He’d learned that the hard way after one monumental goof, and Luff had saved his official colonel-type backside for him more than once since then.

Kralik had ended their talk with, “But get this straight, Gabe. Caitlin’s mission is what we used to call a reconnaissance in force. You may or may not end up conducting ship to ship actions, and maybe some raids along the way. But your purpose is to defend the fleet and the director. This is not an invasion force. You will not have enough troops and resources to take and hold ground against what the Ekhat could bring. So be smart. Be very smart. Not because of Yaut, or even Aille. You risk the fleet unnecessarily, you waste this command, and I’ll shred you. Yaut will get to sweep up the pieces.”

Tully came out of the haze of memory. “Gotcha, boss.”

He took another sip of coffee, and dove into the reports on his pad, skimming and thumb-printing as quickly as he could. Before long he was so deep in the routine that he was startled to hear his name.

“Gabe Tully,” a familiar voice said.

“Lim?” He looked to find the young Lleix standing before his table. She gazed at him with those narrow black eyes, her body very straight, and so utterly still; as the Jao, with all their fancy body-postures, never were.

“I would speak with you,” she said clearly.

“Fine,” Tully said, waving a hand at an armless chair. “Take a seat.” His pad chimed, and he looked at it. “Never mind,” he said, standing up and sliding the pad into a pocket. “I’ve got to head for my shuttle. Walk with me.”

Tully was fond of this particular Lleix, who had been among the first in the dochaya to believe him when he said the unassigned did not have to just give up and be second-class citizens all their lives.

“Do you need something?” he said, looking up into her silver face for a moment. Tully was not a short human, but even short Lleix topped him, with long graceful necks, upswept black eyes, a dished face with very little nose, and stocky slightly pear-shaped bodies.

She twitched at her robes, though they’d already seemed just fine to him. “I have no purpose on this voyage,” she said, matching her pace to his. Her black eyes glittered. “I am useless.”

They turned a corner. “During explorations, most of us in the fleet have no purpose,” Tully said, “and will not, unless or until we find another species or get into a battle with the Ekhat.”

She was silent for a moment, her fleshy aureole rippling across her head. “I am not accustomed to being useless,” she said finally. “All my life, I am working hard, cleaning elian-houses, fetching supplies, weeding and cooking and repairing, not just sitting around and–waiting–for something that may never occur. This–” Her black eyes gazed around at the ship. “This being unneeded is too hard. Studying Terralore is not enough. I require something to do–now.”

They stepped through a set of heavy blast-proof doors and turned another corner. It was clear to that the poor kid was bored out of her mind. He could certainly sympathize with that. He studied her from the corner of his eye. “What would you like to do?”

Lim stopped and twisted her fingers together, shifting her weight restlessly from foot to foot as Lleix often did when uncertain. “What is needed on the ship?”

“All jobs are currently filled,” he said, “but you could train for one of them anyway as a backup. What are you interested in? Engines? Communications equipment? Food service?”

She was silent then, as though she wanted to say something but did not know how to bring it up. “Pyr said humans used to fight one another,” she said finally.

“Yes,” he said, “we used to be very quarrelsome among ourselves, but now we use that energy to fight the Ekhat.”

His pad chimed again, reminding him of the shuttle. “Walk with me,” he said again.

“The Lleix tried to fight the Ekhat,” she said as they started down the passage, “especially at first, but they always just killed us, so mostly we ran away.”

Tully wasn’t sure where this conversation was going. “There’s no shame in refusing to fight a battle you’re sure to lose if you can avoid it.”

“The Ekhat drove us from our homes,” she said, “from lush beautiful worlds with perfect climates, soaring mountains, deep swift rivers. Every time this happened we left behind gardens that had been tended for a thousand years, great houses whose every room had been perfected over many lifetimes, and elian containing knowledge that has never been recreated.” She was silent for a moment, blinking. “We even left behind the Boh. The Ekhat took everything from us, including most of who we are.” She was quiet for several steps, then said in a low voice, “But we let them.”

“I have been in an Ekhat ship,” Tully said. “I have fought against the crazy devils myself. They have endless resources, and are scary crazy, mad to destroy. I am sure that the Lleix did the best that they could under the circumstances.”

They took a turn into a wider passage.

Lim’s fathomless black eyes regarded him. “Did they?”

He didn’t know what to say then. The Lleix, with their emphasis on sensho, which ranked individuals according to age and height, viewed life very differently from humans. Even Lim and Pyr, who had been remanded to a slum solely because of their failure to meet Lleix standards of beauty, aspired to be old and tall, as though those qualities really mattered. Frankly, Tully was not surprised that, in the end, the Ekhat had pretty much kicked the Lleix’s collective ass, though he kept that opinion to himself.

“I am wishing to no longer be helpless,” Lim said. “I am wishing to learn to fight so that if we encounter the Ekhat again, I do not have to cower in my quarters and wait for others to save us.”

Tully regarded the young Lleix. “Isn’t there an elian that fights? Aren’t they building a Lexington for them?”

“The Weaponsmakers.” Lim adjusted her robes again. “But they were–are–not very good. Not effective.” The last almost sounded like a curse in her mouth.

The Lleix were not cowards, certainly. But it dawned on Tully that they had nothing in the way of a martial tradition as humans and Jao did. There was no separate function for soldiers in their society; nothing even close to a warrior elian. Instead, when the Lleix had been forced in the past to fight back against the Ekhat and Jao, they had turned the work over to the Weaponsmakers elian. From what Tully could tell, it was as if, in human terms, fighting World War II had been turned over to Rosie the Riveter and the engineers who designed the B-17s and the Sherman tanks. And Tully knew better than anyone that there was a world of difference between being able to make or service a weapon and being really good at using it.

The Lleix had no tradition at all, so far as Tully knew, of fighting hand-to-hand or at close range. For Lleix, “combat” was something that geeks did at a distance, using geek methods. If the enemy managed to get close, they were as helpless as so many lambs. Big lambs, but still lambs.

Tully spent a bit more time studying the young Lleix as they moved through the big doors to one of the Lexington’s shuttle bays. Lim had grown sturdy with better food and living quarters, and she was certainly intelligent, having learned English and other Terran languages with a rapacious ferocity that spoke volumes about her will. Her desire to learn combat was perhaps an unusual attitude for her people, but her determination was not–at least, not among those who had not been part of the elite. She had clawed her way out of the dochaya, and she wasn’t the only one who had when their one opportunity to do so had arrived, courtesy of Caitlin Kralik and one Gabe Tully. There was no doubt in Tully’s mind that she could accomplish anything she set her mind to.