The Span Of Empire – Snippet 38
She had seen human-style exercise machines before, so the sight of several of them being utilized by many humans was not a surprise. A few of them had serious expressions on their faces as they handled what were obvious great weights. Several of the others, though, were joking with each other as they went through their repetitions. Human humor was almost ubiquitous in Terra taif, Lim noted. Unsurprising, that was.
On the other side of the room from the machines a number of exercise mats were laid on the floor. It was there that the Jao were clustered. She looked back to make sure; yes, there were no Jao on the exercise machines.
“The Jao do not use the machines?”
Tully shook his head. “No. Their muscles are harder and stronger than human muscles to begin with, and then with the amount of swimming they do almost every day, they’re in constant trim. It’s almost like they were genetically optimized to be in superb condition all the time.”
“But they were,” Lim murmured.
Tully stopped and turned to stare at her. “What?”
“You did not know?”
The human shook his head.
“It was part of what the Ekhat did when they uplifted them to sentience.”
“And you know this how?”
Lim moved a hand in the Lleix gesture of displaying the obvious. “We have lost much of the Lleix knowledge over the ages as we were hunted and hid, but some pieces we retained. This was part of what we knew about the Jao, and was one of the reasons why we feared them so much.”
Tully stared at her, then shook his head sharply. “Just when I think I understand you people, one of you says something like that, and I realize that I really don’t know that much about you. You really were hiding for centuries, weren’t you?”
Lim nodded, using the human gesture. “Longer. The Jao were hunting us for the Ekhat before your Roman Empire was born.”
Tully said nothing; just shook his head again and turned to watch the troops. Lim stood beside him and observed.
The Jao and the human jinau on the mats were all involved in unarmed combat practice. After a while, Lim became aware of one group of humans standing around a mat where a human not dressed like the jinau was apparently working with the troops. One after another the jinau assaulted him; one after another he defeated them with smooth movements.
“Who is that man?” Lim asked Tully, indicating the human she had been observing.
“That’s who I want you to meet,” Tully responded. “His name is Zhao Jiguang, and he is perhaps the deadliest human I’ve ever met.”
“Is there a reason he isn’t dressed like the rest of the jinau?”
“That would be because he isn’t a jinau,” Tully said with a smile.
Lim stared at him, and she felt her aureole rising. “Is this an example of your humor? How can he be on this ship and not be one of the jinau?”
Tully sobered and held his hands up in front of his shoulders. “He’s a master of a martial art called Tai Chi. He came to Lieutenant General Kralik after the plasma disaster in China. He won’t join the jinau, but he did offer to train our troops and the general took him up on it. We’re lucky to have him on the ship.”
Lim looking again at the non-jinau human. He had stopped the exercise, and was talking to those surrounding him. To her eye, this Zhao person seemed not very impressive. He was not even as tall as Tully, much less one of the elders of the Lleix. He was not large. He was soft-spoken. Yet the humans around him were all focused on his words. As she watched, Zhao stopped speaking and placed his hands together before him. It was surprising to her that they all bowed to him; a bow which he returned. She knew that many of the so-called Oriental cultures used bows in formal manners, but it had never occurred to her to see it in a place like this, filled with sweating, grunting humans and Jao striving with each other.
Tully touched her on the shoulder. “Come on.”
Lim followed him over to the mat. Zhao looked toward them as they approached.
“Gabe!” Zhao’s face was split by a wide grin.
“Hey, Joe,” Tully said with an answering smile. They grabbed each other’s hands in a strong handshake, then Tully placed his hand on Zhao’s shoulder and turned to beckon her forward. “Joe, this is Lim, of the Lleix Terralore elian.”
Zhao’s grin slipped away, and he turned to face Lim. “I’ve wanted to meet one of your people for some time,” he said, putting his hands together and giving a slight bow. “It’s an honor to finally get the chance.”
Lim noted that his English was quite good, although with a very slight accent. “Are you from Beijing?” she asked in Mandarin.
Zhao’s eyes widened in delight, and he clapped his hands. “You speak Mandarin!” he exclaimed. “That is so cool!” He laughed for a moment. “Actually, my family is from Nanjing, although I was raised in San Diego.” He beamed at her.
Tully cleared his throat from behind him. “She wants to learn to fight, Joe.”
Zhao’s expression changed as sharply as if a switch had been flipped. He directed a piercing glance at her. Lim stared back at him. They stood thus for a long moment. At last Zhao broke the silence.
“Do you like tea?” he asked in Mandarin.
Of all the questions he could have asked, that was not among what Lim expected. She tilted her head slightly, considering him. “Except for Assam, yes.”
Zhao’s eyes crinkled a bit as he gave a small smile. “Good. You will visit me in my quarters, tomorrow morning, perhaps in midmorning?”
Lim considered him again, tilting her head slightly the other direction. “Yes,” she said after a moment.
Zhao bowed again to her, looked to Tully long enough to say, “Gabe,” and turned and left them there.
“You know, it’s rude to talk as if other people aren’t there,” Tully remarked as Zhao left the exercise space.
Lim deduced he was indulging in humor from the small smile that kept slipping around his mouth. “If Zhao Jiguang had wanted you to be a part of the conversation, he would have spoken to you in English.”
Tully laughed. “Fair answer, Lim. You’re learning how to deal with us. Now, let’s go find some lunch. If we’re lucky, Joe made some of it.”
Lim stopped. “Zhao Jiguang is a cook? I thought he was a fighter.”
Tully took Lim’s arm and urged her along. “Joe’s not a cook. He is many things; one of which is a tai chi master, another of which is a master chef. Now come on, let’s go check it out.”
“Emergence in Ares system confirmed,” the lead sensor officer called out. “Ares Base 118 degrees off port axis.”
Aille looked around as Yaut stirred. “Too much talk,” the fraghta muttered.
Aille let his angles slip to simple humor. “Humans talk, Yaut. Better that they talk about their work than not.” Yaut’s angles morphed to irritation. Aille’s blended a component of sly to his.
“Guard ships query received. Sending our response.” That from the communications tech, a short Jao.
“Trident emerged behind us,” came from the sensor officer again.
Terra-Captain Sanzh looked to Aille. He nodded. “Navigator, direct us to Ares Base,” the captain ordered.
“Kralik will not be happy to see you,” Yaut predicted.
Aille said nothing, but his body flowed into the angles for reluctant-agreement.