THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 29
Jihan could not take her eyes from the screen. Both of her small hearts beat wildly. This was obviously a critical moment when the meeting’s potential had poised on the edge of proceeding either very well or very ill.
“We propose an alliance of our two species against our common enemy, the Ekhat,” the Lleix said. Her movements were calm, yet her body betrayed itself. Much rode upon each word, and Jihan could read the import in every carefully restrained gesture.
The stumpy Jao shifted into an oddly elaborate stance, arms angled just so, head tilted, ears pricked forward. It wore a dull brown garment on its lower body, encasing both legs, but only straps across its brawny chest. A bright greenness flickered within its black eyes, alien and disturbing. “Why should we listen to you?” it said gracelessly. “If we do not obey our masters, they will destroy us as surely as they now rain destruction upon you.”
“Because they are the great devils who eat the universe,” the Lleix elder said. “They may refrain from slaughtering you for now, but it will not always be so. Ekhat only want to be alone with their own magnificence. They do not even tolerate variation within their own species. You have seen how the Melody seeks against the Harmony, the Interdict against them both. In their crazed minds, all other species must be exterminated. If you do not ally with us, the Jao will surely be next to fall.”
The Lleix elder stood alone, Jihan realized, while the Jao was flanked by at least a hundred of its ugly fellows. Were they so cowardly that they required the numbers to be heavily in their favor before they would parley?
Three other Jao came forward and conferred with the one the elder had named “Breen.” They were all armed with gleaming gray weapons slung over their shoulders and wore similar brown garments. Their bodies flowed from one odd stance to the next and then the next as though they were conversing somehow without words, and Jihan was suddenly certain each position had subtle meaning.
The elder waited, her black eyes turned to the blue sky-bowl above as though seeking help from that direction. The area around her was undeveloped with no sign of buildings, roads, or agricultural fields. Small red and yellow flying creatures fluttered through the sky like scattered drops of fire. Water surged over a nearby waterfall, obviously, by its casual disharmony, left in its natural state. They must have arranged this meeting faraway from the vulnerable Lleix cities.
“We are willing to put all of our tech at your disposal and have each of our elian release an expert to advise your forces,” the elder said finally as the Jao continued to confer. “You are already fierce warriors. No one could dispute that. The Lleix believe you can also be a great people. You have only to reach out for the freedom your Ekhat masters have never allowed you.”
Breen broke off speaking with its fellow Jao and turned back to her. Its black eyes suddenly glittered green again, brighter this time as though lightning flashed inside that hideous skull. “The highest good is to be of use,” it said, its ears pinned. “We make ourselves of use to the Ekhat who gave us all that we have. How do the Lleix make themselves of use?”
“It is also the highest good to live well as a people,” the elder said, “to learn all that you can and then make of your lives something proper, beautiful, and accomplished.”
“Beauty is of no use!” Breen advanced upon her, its eyes still shimmering dangerously. “Talk is of no use! Weakness and fear are certainly of no use!”
Jihan could see the Lleix elder trying not to retreat. “We will make ourselves of use to the Jao,” she said clearly, “by freeing them from the Ekhat.”
“To do what?” Breen’s body contorted into a bizarre shape which it held for several breaths. “We belong to the Ekhat! They made us what we are. What else should the Jao do but serve?”
“You should serve yourselves,” the elder said. Her silver aureole was trembling. Jihan saw that she was afraid. The situation was plainly escalating out of control. So much depended upon that moment and the elder knew she was failing, not just herself, but her entire species.
“We want only to be of use,” Breen said, “so in serving the Ekhat, we are serving ourselves!”
The Jao was angry, Jihan thought. Obviously, the elder was making it think in new and uncomfortable ways. It did not want its assumptions about the meaning of life challenged.
“Only go back to your elian,” the elder said, “those among you who make decisions. Ask them to consider. That is all the Lleix desire.”
“It does not matter what you desire!” Breen raised a sleek deadly-looking weapon. “The Ekhat have decreed you vermin. Nothing is required here except that you die!” It discharged a bolt of shimmering red energy into the elder’s body. She crumpled to the ground, twitching.
Jihan cried out in dismay, unable to restrain herself even though it had all happened such a long time ago. Then the Breen-creature turned toward the recording device and fired again. The screen flickered and went black. She settled back on her stool, head whirling, and turned off the machine, unable to bear more.
“So,” Kajin said, his eyes elegantly narrowed, “those are the Jao.”
The two of them copied files far into the night, packing the filled recording-flats into reinforced boxes provided by Ekhatlore. Jihan kept seeing that moment in her mind when the Jao had fired upon that brave elder, terminating all her wisdom and experience without a single regretful twitch.
The Jao were utterly savage, she thought. Everyone knew, of course, that the Ekhat were insane. Their minds were impenetrable. No one could have reasonable conversation with one of them, but, from what she had seen in the records, the Jao’s minds obviously worked more like that of the Lleix. They could have understood the same sort of logic that Lleix lived by — they simply chose not to. In its own way, that deliberate turning-away was worse, almost as though they conducted their entire lives in oyas-to. The Ekhat could not be other than they were, but, with Lleix assistance, the Jao could have broken free and developed their own culture, but instead they preferred to be lackeys and slaves, tools for the Ekhat’s legendary cruelty.
Jihan found the language files and copied them too. She meant to familiarize herself with their tongue so, if the Jao came back, she could translate intercepted transmissions. That would certainly be “of use,” as a Jao would put it.
Kajin worked alongside her, grim and truculent, but thoroughly knowledgeable as far as the Ekhatlore system of files went. He had been invaluable in her search, she thought wearily. Alln had certainly known what he was doing when he gave this one to the Jaolore.
“Enough!” Kajin said finally, when, too weary to notice, she copied over an already filled flat. “We will have to come back and search more tomorrow.”
He was right. She looked at his smudged face, then slumped over the viewer, covering her aureole with her arms. But where could they go? They had no elian-house. There were a number of abandoned structures, left from when an unneeded elian had died out, but she’d had no time to look for one. The research had seemed far more pressing.