THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 21
In his secluded office at the edge of the base, Preceptor Ronz felt the new urgency like a sharp prickle down his spine, an irresistible twitch that commanded his feet to move, to take him somewhere else. He stared blindly at the curving quantum crystal walls, trying to see beyond. The situation had altered.
He located his pocketcom under a pile of flimsies and contacted Wrot. The crafty old veteran answered immediately. “I feel it, too,” his voice said through the device. “Something is quite definitely trying to complete itself.”
That could be good or ill, the Preceptor reflected. There was no way of knowing. All he could tell for now was that faraway variables had shifted and it was time to act. He rose restlessly from his chair, knocking over a stack of paper reports. “The ship must leave as soon as possible,” he said.
“I am already working on it,” Wrot said. Ronz could detect a note of excitement in the old warrior’s voice. “Fortunately, Terra-Captain Dannet’s experience has stood us in good stead. She has prepared well. I have been running checks since I felt the flow turn. The ship’s critical systems are up and running, most supplies already loaded. Subcommanders Brel krinnu ava Terra and Rob Wiley had the foresight to load their equipment several solar revolutions ago, including the space assault modules and ground tanks. All personnel not currently on board have been summoned.”
“Fortunate, indeed.” Ronz looked down at the plastic com’s rectangle in his hand, trying to make his mind pull up any critical lingering details. Nothing could be left undone. “I do not have to tell you how important this is.”
“If you are right,” Wrot said, “only our human allies can bargain for us in this situation. Those you seek will not be pleased to have us on their trail again.”
“No, they will not,” Ronz said. “It is your job to help Caitlin and Tully make them see the possibilities here, the many ways we could now be of use to one another as the Lleix once were to us, so long ago.”
“Before they kill us for hunting them to the point of extinction,” Wrot said sourly.
“Yes,” Ronz said. He stalked about his office, round and round and round, utterly unable to be still. An immense opportunity for association loomed before them, if only they could make use of it. He longed to go and put his hand to the task himself, but could not spare his attention here. “That would be best.”
Feeling the new urgency, Aille collected Yaut and went out to the Lexington’s vast construction yard to watch. The last of the supplies were streaming in. Lines of jinau and Jao soldiers strode purposefully toward the huge ship, their kits slung over one shoulder, talking among themselves with excited gestures.
Cables were being cast off, power lines withdrawn, scaffolding rolled away. The last minute screech of tools was fading with only the final few touches here and there on the vast hull being administered. Everyone, human and Jao alike, seemed to feel the change in conditions just as strongly. It was time.
To do what? his brain demanded. Aille was keen to learn what Ronz was planning. Just who did the Preceptor expect to discover in that nebula in the section of space sometimes called the Sangrel Deeps? What could possibly lie hidden there worth all this hurry and secrecy? Jao encountered sapient species from time to time, though rarely those accomplished enough for space travel or as infernally clever as humans. Still, word of such discoveries usually disseminated throughout the many Jao kochan as tales of interest rather than being withheld with this degree of fierce security.
The Preceptor joined the two of them outside the refit facility. His back bent with age, he watched silently as activity surged around the great ship. Everything had to be cleared away so the Lexington could launch.
“I do not suppose you can tell me now?” Aille said, letting his angles go to urgent-polite-inquiry.
The old Jao gazed at him benignly, his body exquisitely neutral, as only those of the Bond could manage, his eyes barely flecked with green. “When flow completes itself, you will be, as a human would say, the first to know.”
“I do not find that reassuring,” Aille said. “You are risking a great resource on this mystery venture. The Lexington will be urgently needed when the Ekhat decide to sweep back through this system, which could happen any time.”
Yaut studied them both, but did not comment. His posture reflected restrained-curiosity. The fraghta clearly wished he were going.
As do we all, Aille thought. Something interesting was out there, something worth all of this commitment of resources, as a human would say, all this fuss. If his responsibilities were not so pressing, he would have named himself a member of that crew and gone off adventuring with them, no matter if he were invited or not.
But Terra was restless, and there was much still unresolved. He could not leave for the length of time this voyage would consume. His nascent taifs were coming along, but would fall apart without constant reinforcement and supervision.
Workmen, having just dismantled a huge scaffold, were carting the components back into the refit building, and the three of them moved aside.
“Much is being risked that much might be gained,” Preceptor Ronz said, standing closer to Yaut. “And I am not going either. Keep that in view. There is far too much demanding my attention here.”
The flow of supplies was lessening now, and there were gaps in the lines of the reporting troops. The mood projected by one and all was industry and purpose. Both of Terra’s taifs were united on this matter, whatever it turned out to be.
The door-field behind them faded and Wrot krinnu ava Terra appeared, shepherding a group of battered Jao clad in Krant maroon, evidently the remnants of the crew from the ill-fated ship. Aille estimated there were about thirty, some obviously still recovering from injuries incurred during the battle. They seemed dazed and reluctant, walking slowly, gawking at the Lexington’s immenseness.
What could they have possibly seen to prompt this mission? Aille wondered. And how could they be unaware of it? Mysteries wrapped in mysteries. The only thing one could say for certain was that the Bond did not play politics. What they planned might be very long-range, but it was inevitably for the good of all kochan.
He just wished he were going to be one of those allowed to swim in this intriguing new sea.
On board the Lexington, safely installed in her new quarters, Caitlin heard her pocketcom buzz over on the bunk where she’d tossed it. She set her digital picture frame, which was stuffed with endless photos of Ed, on the little bureau built into the wall and then activated the loop. The first image came up. Ed all kitted up in his dress uniform for a formal reception, looking grave and dignified. She flipped her com open.
“Caitlin?” Professor Kinsey’s voice said. “I hear you’re leaving.”
The digital image shifted. Ed on their delayed honeymoon, wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, barefoot on the beach under the bright Mississippi sun. “Yes, Professor,” she said, settling on the narrow bunk, eyes still on the display. “They’re in a great hurry all of a sudden, something about the `flow changing.'”
“I don’t suppose you know what this is all about yet?”
The image faded and the next came up. Ed laughing, brandishing a bottle of beer, surrounded by his fellow jinau officers in a New Chicago bar. “No,” she said. “Ronz wouldn’t say, and Wrot won’t tell us until he’s good and ready, and who knows when that might be?”
He hesitated, and she thought that the pause said more than mere words. “You will take care of yourself, won’t you?”
New picture. Ed bundled up in a gray parka when they’d visited the Resistance camps on a good-will trip up in the Rockies last winter, holding out his hand to her. “I will.” She forced her voice to remain level. “It’s a great opportunity, Professor. Whatever is out there must be really important. I’m honored that the Preceptor thinks I can be of use.”
“Jao can be wrong,” her mentor said softly. “Even the Bond, and what is good in the long run for them might well be disastrous for you personally. Keep that in mind while you’re out there adventuring — please.”
He was so right. She was going to be walking a very thin line on this mission between making herself of fullest use and merely surviving. “I will,” she said. “Good-by, Professor.”
“Until we meet again,” he said in his stiff, old-fashioned way that never failed to charm her.
The pocketcom clicked off. She sat alone in her spare room, with only digital books, images, and music recordings to remind her of home. Weight allowances had permitted nothing more. This trip was to be all business.
The picture frame display continued to run. Ed at the New Chicago Zoo, feeding an elephant, then Ed in their kitchen, looking up from his breakfast of eggs and bacon, grinning and rumpled from lack of sleep because they had spent the night making love after long weeks of separation. It was too much. She couldn’t bear any more and clicked the picture frame off. Resolutely, she turned her thoughts to what she needed to do that very moment.
The pocketcom would have to be recalibrated for ship frequencies, she thought, gazing at the slim black rectangle in her hand. Everything was changing, so she would have to change too, in whatever way made her most productive. She only hoped the Preceptor was right and she was up to the task.