The Span Of Empire – Snippet 28
Caitlin’s com pad pinged. She looked up, a bit surprised and a bit disgruntled, since she had set the pad to route all calls to one of her assistants except those coming from the top officers in the search fleet or in the base command. So if someone got through to her, it had to be someone pretty important with something they considered serious enough to call her. That didn’t bode well for her schedule for the rest of the day.
She tapped her pad, and Gabe Tully’s face appeared.
“Sorry to disturb you, Caitlin, but we need to see you.”
“Yeah, me and Lieutenant Bannerji and Ramt.”
It took a moment, but then it clicked for Caitlin that those two people were the ones doing the interrogations of the Ekhat slaves they’d captured. Yeah, she’d consider anything in that area to be serious enough to call her.
“Okay,” Caitlin responded, reaching for the pad. “Let me see when I can clear you a meeting time.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Tully said. “I think you need to come to the Ban Chao. Real soon now, if you get me.”
The picture in Caitlin’s com pad began shifting. Tully was obviously turning his around. In another moment, the picture stabilized, and she could see the Ekhat slaves sitting in a row. A couple of them were wagging in the hind end like excited puppies, but it was the fact that they were all sitting neatly and more or less still that caused Caitlin’s eyes to open wide.
“I’ll be there within an hour,” she said.
“Right.” Tully broke the connection from his end.
Caitlin tapped her pad to open another call. “Caewithe, I need to go to Ban Chao now. Yes, I know it’s not scheduled. Get ahold of the command deck and get a shuttle cleared for us, please. Let me know which one, and I’ll meet you at the bay.” She tapped her pad again to break the call.
Caitlin looked at her work station and tried to decide what she could finish in the next five or ten minutes, closing down the rest of the files. All the while, in the back of her mind was running the thought that if those two Ekhat experts had made a breakthrough of any kind with the slaves, she would kiss them both.
The com pad pinged again just as Caitlin finished sending a note to her assistants telling them where she was going and to not let anyone disturb her for anything less important than an Ekhat attack. Caewithe’s message floated there: Shuttle 9 at Shuttle Bay Green 2. She shut down her work station, grabbed the com pad and headed out the door. “Did you get the message?” she asked as she paused by the guards.
“Yes, Director,” the Jao guard said, falling into place ahead of her. “Shuttle Bay Green 2. Captain Miller and Tamt will meet us there.”
“Let’s go, then.”
And go they did, moving through the corridors at a brisk pace with a burly human and an even larger Jao leading the way. Everyone else took a cue from the Jao in the corridors and cleared out of the way.
Tamt was standing by the shuttle and waved her through the hatch, following her through. Navy crew shut and locked down the hatch as they made their way to their seats. It was empty except for them and the crew–one of the perks of being The Director, Caitlin supposed. No one questioned her about this kind of thing. If she said she needed to be somewhere, then everyone in range would focus on seeing that she got there. A heady brew of authority, Caitlin thought. Her shoulders twitched, shaking off the allure, as she sat in her seat and fastened her harness.
Tamt took the seat next to Caitlin, and Caewithe Miller took the seat across from her. Caitlin waited until the pilot had maneuvered the shuttle out of the shuttle bay, then looked at her guard captain with a grin.
“So, have you seen Lieutenant Vaughan lately?”
Caewithe didn’t say anything, just nodded with a grin of her own.
“They’ve been spending more time in the water lately than we Jao,” Tamt rumbled from beside Caitlin. Caitlin turned her head enough to see flecks of green in Tamt’s black eyes, and her ears and whiskers tilted enough to hint at the posture for blatant humor, which probably ought to be translated as ribald humor. Jao humor, such as it was, tended to be pretty blunt. She looked back at Caewithe and raised her eyebrows.
“I have this one swimsuit, you see,” Caewithe said with a wicked grin.
“Cruel, evil woman,” Caitlin said, laughing, “to lure the poor boy on like that.”
“I’ll let him catch me before too long, I think.” Caewithe’s dimples appeared, then she laughed.
“You’re the first humans I’ve seen who pursue this mating thing properly,” Tamt said. “Although the officers’ pool is kind of public for a mating ritual.”
Caitlin started laughing as Caewithe spluttered. Tamt’s delivery of those lines was very matter of fact and dry, which just made it funnier. From the wiggle of Tamt’s whiskers, it seemed she agreed.
“Okay, that was funny,” Caewithe admitted, “but let’s leave my love life–or lack of it–out of the conversation now, unless you want to start talking about yours.”
Tamt shrugged. “Is nonexistent. Terra taif has offered potential mates, which is more than Kannu ever did.” That was the first time Caitlin could remember Tamt referring to the kochan she had belonged to before being called to Aille’s service and subsequently joining Terra taif. “But I won’t have cubs right now. A battle-ready fleet doesn’t provide the right environment for Jao cubs. They need space to roam and lots of water to play in before they must learn to be of service.”
“Do you want cubs?” Caitlin asked, looking at the being who was perhaps her first real female friend.
“Perhaps,” Tamt replied. “Before Yaut found me and called me to Aille’s service, when Oppuk ruled Terra and none of us knew when we would die from a sniper’s bullet, I would have said no. Now, sometimes I think I would.”
Caitlin looked at Tamt for a moment longer, then looked away with a quiet resolve that her friend would have that opportunity.
They sat in silence for some little while after that. Caitlin pulled her com pad out to see if any further messages had come through. Just about the time she was through with that, the crew announced that they would be docking with Ban Chao shortly.
Tully met them at the shuttle bay, along with Major Liang, his executive officer, and First Sergeant Luff. “Hi, Caitlin,” he said. “Glad you were able to make it. I really think you need to see this.” He nodded to Tamt and Caewithe, but didn’t say anything. Given what Caewithe had told her, that didn’t surprise Caitlin. They were both probably a little uncomfortable.
“Okay, I’m here,” Caitlin said. “Let’s deal with this, gentlemen, shall we? I’ve got to be back on Lexington before too long.”
“Right. This way, then.” Tully gestured toward a hatch and led the way in approved Jao style.
Caitlin found the corridors in Ban Chao to be just as maze-like as the corridors in the Lexington, as well as somewhat more congested. But the crew and jinau of Ban Chao made way for them just as well as the Lexington’s crew did, and before long they were entering a compartment that had a large window in one side of it that looked out over another compartment. “Hello, Ramt, Lieutenant Bannerji,” Caitlin said, greeting those who waited their arrival.
Both responded with a quiet, “Director Kralik.”
Caitlin moved to the window. She could see a glistening black mass of slowly moving bodies in one corner of the other compartment. It looked for all the world like a mass of puppies huddled together in sleepy togetherness. Nonetheless, her shoulders still twitched at how alien the Ekhat slaves were. Oh, she knew how weird that sounded in a universe where she had endured Ekhat and lived with Jao and Lleix. But still, the slaves were very different.