The Span Of Empire – Snippet 57

Chapter 32

The door to the command deck irised open as Yaut drew near. Aille followed his fraghta through the opening, flanked by Pleniary-superior Tura on one side and Ed Kralik on the other. He noted Caitlin Kralik’s eyes widened slightly–he suspected in surprise–at the sight of the Bond of Ebezon officer, last seen at the side of Preceptor Ronz. This was followed by immediate delight at the sight of her husband.

Of course, Caitlin wasn’t the only one who evidenced surprise. Even Wrot’s whiskers twitched a bit. Interestingly enough, it was Fleet Commander Dannet whose stance never wavered from as pure an example of neutral as Aille could remember seeing.

It had taken more time by the human clock to join the newly-arrived flotilla to the exploration fleet than the humans had expected, Aille thought. To the Jao, time was accomplished when it was accomplished, but even for them the span from arrival to joining hovered for longer than desired before moving to completion. But what had been to the Jao a bubble of waiting time, had been long dragging hours to the so-linear humans, he knew.

As he stepped onto the command deck, Aille saw that for all her skill and knowledge in Jao-ness, Caitlin remained human in moments of crux. Instead of having all her subordinates displayed before her in the Jao manner, she stood to the fore, with Wrot and Dannet to her left, three Lleix to her right, and Captain Miller and Tamt directly behind her.

“Vaish,” Caitlin began, moving her arms into the angles for recognition-of-authority.

“Vaist,” Aille replied, his own angles showing a simple pleasure. He advanced to face her. “Well done, Director.” He took her hand to shake it in the human manner. “Well done, Caitlin. Well done to find another space-going culture in so short a time.”

He saw the young woman’s mouth twist a bit. Human-style regret, perhaps, or even dissatisfaction.

“It took longer than I wanted,” she said shortly, “and we haven’t found an ally. At least, not yet.”

“But you found someone else without destroying them,” Aille said. “And that is something we Jao have not excelled at. So again, well done, all of you.” He swept his gaze around the command deck. Here and there Jao angles fleetingly morphed to and through pleasure-at-proper-commendation, while human crew exhibited smiles ranging from small quirks of the mouth to large grins.

“And now,” Aille concluded, “show us what you have found.”

“This way to the conference room,” Caitlin said, with a nod to Tamt. The burly guard’s lines went to attending to duty, with a hint of righteous-pride creeping in. She led the way to a separate door leading from the command deck, which irised open as the approached.


Third-Mordent looked through the view glass down onto the floor of Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s large workroom. She heard the door hiss open behind her. The faint reflectivity of the glass gave her an image of who it was, so she did not turn as her ancestress joined her.

As was often her wont, Ninth-Minor-Sustained said nothing. Third-Mordent had yet to develop to respond to that powerful silence with the like, so she at length intoned, “Thirty-seven Ekhat,” in a soliloquy tone, soft, yet not infirm.

That was the count of the beings in the workroom. Thirty-seven Ekhat, of varying sizes, demeanors, and dispositions. Even through the glass she could faintly hear the dissonance produced as they confronted each other, singing savage attacks, competing with fractal tones and harsh stops and glissandos. Forehand blades were flicking in and out of sheathes around the workroom.

There was a brief clash between two of the Ekhat and another, swift and furious, lasting but a moment before they broke apart and rushed in different directions in the room. Third-Mordent continued to observe.

“Attend,” the barest whisper of song from Ninth-Minor-Sustained. Third-Mordent shifted her gaze and focus to her ancestress, who now had assumed what could only be called a mentorship over her. The concept was not unknown among Ekhat, but it was rare that two unmated mature individuals could retain a relationship long enough beyond the passage of simple knowledge or skills to arrive at this level. All too often, the weaker of such a pair simply became dead meat when the stronger tired of her.

Third-Mordent remained wary, but did not dispute with her ancestress. At this moment, she said nothing.

“Go create order,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained fluted. Third-Mordent waited for Ninth-Minor-Sustained to expand upon the instruction. Silence was all that was delivered.

Third-Mordent turned again to the view window, watching the flow of the individual bodies in the workroom; the shifting combinations of momentary allies that invariably dissolved into foes again; judging the dissonance that continued to incrementally rise, pulse by pulse by pulse.

She felt the moment arrive, that moment when a bell-tone sounded in her mind. Turning without a word, she left Ninth-Minor-Sustained standing at the view glass and moved to the lift that would take her to the great workroom.


Lim stepped onto the mat. She was tired–almost weary, if the truth were known–but that was not unfamiliar to one from the dochaya. She stood straight in her blue gi that she had adopted, and grounded the staff at her side.

The master was sitting at the other end of the mat in what he had told her was a lotus position, hands resting on his knees, eyes closed. It made Lim’s legs ache just to look at him, for her legs would not bend in those directions without either breaking bones or tearing flesh. Yet she knew it was not the limberness of his body but rather the limberness of his mind that made him what he was, and while she could not attain some of his physical capabilities, she could aspire to his mind. So she settled, legs slightly apart, and let her center drop low in her body, taking slow deep breaths as she did so, grasping the staff with both hands and letting some of her weight rest upon it.

She didn’t know how long she waited. It was odd how time sometimes seemed to stretch when she was near the master. But long or short, the moment came when his eyes popped open and he took a deep breath.

“Ha!” Master Zhao said with a smile. He arose to his feet in a single supple movement that Lim could not even describe, much less hope to emulate. “And are you ready to resume, my student, after the recent excitement?” he asked in Mandarin.

“Yes, sifu,” Lim replied, inclining her head in the only respect he would allow her to present.

The master stepped closer, looking up to her with the warm brown eyes that were so different from her own black. “And have you thought on your staff, student Lim?”

“Yes, sifu.”

“And your conclusions?”

Lim moved the staff in front of her. “It is a piece of wood.”

Zhao’s smile broadened.

She leaned on it. “It can support.”

Zhao nodded, still smiling.

Lim took the staff in both hands and held it horizontally before her. “It can be a weapon.”

“Indeed,” the master replied. “All of those are true statements, especially the last one. But is that its purpose?”

Lim shook her head in the almost universal human posture for negatives. “No, sifu.

“Then what . . .” Master Zhao stopped as Lim took the staff in one hand and raised it up. His eyes tracked the staff as it slowly was lowered until the end of it barely rested atop his black hair.

“It extends my reach, sifu.

Master Zhao laughed with joy and took the staff from her. “You have learned the lesson of the staff, my student.” He stepped to one side to place it back in the rack he had pulled it from some time ago. Lim felt a warmth inside her as his simple praise was absorbed.

Turning back to her, Master Zhao said, “We will find more ways to extend your reach.” He gave a slight bow, which Lim returned.

Sifu, I would continue to carry the staff,” Lim said.

“And why would that be?” Master Zhao said.

“I do not think I have learned everything that can be learned from it.”

Master Zhao raised his eyebrows. “I see.” He simply looked at her for a long moment, then continued, “All right. It is true that there is more than one lesson to be learned from the staff. You may continue to carry it.” He raised his hands. “And now, come, let us push hands and see what we can see.”

Lim raised her own, and moved forward to be tested and taught.


The door from the lift to the workroom irised open, and the raw sound being generated by the Ekhat in the room washed over Third-Mordent. She stood still; not-moving, listening/feeling/tasting the dissonance. There was a faint sense of order in it, the very faintest of harmonies, almost imperceptible. Indeed, she realized that if not for the tutelage of Ninth-Minor-Sustained she would not have had the skill/sense/perception to hear it, that the raw sound would have been like raw sewage to her.

Third-Mordent focused on that hint of order and harmony. It took some moments, but before too long a theme formed in her mind; an aria, appropriately enough. With that, she stepped through the open doorway and let it iris shut behind her.

She eyed the milling crowd, direct vision unimpeded by the glass. In a moment Third-Mordent realized she was the smallest Ekhat in the room. Even the smallest of the crowd topped her by an increment.