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PART VII: The Return

Chapter 36

Tully jerked out of his seat and followed the pilot back to the cockpit. John Hardy, sitting copilot on this run, was hunched over the radar scope, wearing headphones, his dark eyes staring. "Lordamighty!" he said, shaking his head.

"What in the name of hell is it?" Tully said, dropping into Dalgetty's seat.

"Not the Ekhat, sir," Hardy said. "The configuration is way off anything they've ever fielded, but—"

"But—what?" He resisted the urge to shake him.

"There's so many of them," he said. "None of the readings match the Lexington either. I haven't a clue who—or what—it is."

"Readings, as in more than one?" A fourth player in this already crowded drama? Tully shook his head. Very freaking improbable. Lack of sleep dragged at his wits as though he had massive jet lag. He studied the dark-green screen as more bright contacts emerged from of the star's photosphere. They were large, but didn't resemble the spindly collection of tinker toys of an Ekhat vessel, and certainly none came close to the size of the Lexington. Plasma sheared off the still-vague shapes as the intruders headed outbound from the star.

The ground shook as, over at the colony's landing field, Lleix ships took off, one after the other. "Are we go for launch, Major?" Caewithe Miller asked from the cockpit's doorway.

They should launch, Tully thought, drumming his fingers on the armrest, no matter who it was. Whatever the developing situation, they were just sitting ducks down here. "Is there any chatter on the audio channels?" he said, punching in vector assessments on several of the largest targets.

"No," Hardy said. "So far it's—" He broke off, one hand to his headphones. "Wait!"

Tully's calculations came back with the figures. The ships, all of them, were coming about, accelerating toward Valeron.

Hardy pulled off his headphones and passed them to Tully. "Major, it's—for you," he said. His eyes were crinkled with delight.

Tully held one earpiece up to his head. "—port," a Jao voice was saying. "This is Preceptor Ronz of the Bond of Ebezon. Major Tully, report."

He jammed the headphones on and keyed the mike open. "Major Gabriel Tully here," he said. "Welcome to Valeron."

"Rendezvous with the Lexington as soon as we have shed the plasma envelope, Major," Ronz said. "We have a lot to discuss."

"Yes, sir!" Tully said. On the screen, he saw it now, a huge blip, massive enough this time to be the Lexington herself. "I'll be damned," he said softly, then pulled off the headphones and passed them back to Hardy.

"They're ours, sir?" Miller said.

"It would seem so," Tully said. They'd brought a whole fleet! The screen was filled with blips, more ships than Earth had seen at one time since the Conquest over twenty years ago, and he'd been just a kid then. He hadn't seen them personally. He rubbed his face, feeling beard stubble. Maybe a hot shower, something unknown to the Lleix, was in his immediate future. He felt way too grungy to report to anyone. "This is going to be interesting, Lieutenant."

"Is that 'interesting,' like in a good movie, sir? Or 'interesting' like in the Chinese curse?"

He grinned at her. "Why not both?"


Ed Kralik paced the busy bridge of the Lexington, stopping every so often to check the markers on the screen. The three jinau assault ships were still on course for a rendezvous.

Caitlin had to be all right, he told himself for the hundredth time. No casualties had been reported, But then they might not transmit such terrible news over the radio, he told himself for the hundredth time also, preferring to deliver it in person.

Terra-Captain Dannet gave him a sour look every time he passed her station. Her posture seemed all prickly curves and lines that probably communicated something rude like get-out-of-my-face! Ed had a limited bodyspeak vocabulary, at least compared to that of his wife. But if he studied the Terra-captain for a moment, he could have probably been able to make out the central elements of her posture.

That would have meant, though, that he gave a damn what Dannet thought—which he most decidedly did not, at the moment. By all reports, she was a talented officer and had certainly proved herself useful in the best Jao tradition. But he was in no mood to be friendly to any Narvo-striped face.

The problem was that, to a Jao, showing more than a passing concern to a mate outside the breeding pool was considered poor taste. But he wasn't a goddamn Jao. He was a healthy human male who missed his wife after she'd been whisked off to a dangerous corner of the galaxy on the inscrutable whim of the Bond.

At least all the secrecy made more sense after Preceptor Ronz finally had filled him in. The Lleix represented a shameful chapter in the Jao's past. Ronz hadn't wanted to dredge up old sins unless it were necessary, which now apparently it was. Despite being hunted for centuries by the Ekhat, thousands of Lleix had survived here, hidden in this planetary nebula. That was nothing short of amazing.

"Docking with the lead assault craft in ten minutes," a helm officer announced. Human, obviously. A Jao would never bother with chopping up time into segments, then counting them. Every Jao on this ship knew when the docking would take place without anyone having to say.

Ed headed for the lift. No doubt Ronz and Aille were already down in the hanger bay, having felt the moment of arrival near. The doors closed and he watched the deck indicator flash as the lift dropped with a precipitous speed that left his stomach somewhere back around the bridge.

He exited on the hangar deck, then jogged to the observation/control room with its broad windows looking down upon the deck below. The cavernous bay had already been depressurized. The warning lights were flashing and the doors had retracted so that the deck was open to space. Outside the Lexington, Ed could see the characteristic swirls of red and blue, heralding the dust and gas that curled through the region, rendering instruments less than reliable.

Preceptor Ronz waited beside the officer on duty, a Jao clad in Terra Taif's blue, discussing the ships' approach. Aille krinnu ava Terra, current governor of Earth, turned to Ed as he entered. The governor's ears were flat-out eager. Even Ed could tell that much.

Aille's fraghta, Yaut, hovered behind his shoulder, still as bull-necked and ugly as ever. He gave Ed a dour look, but then he looked at everyone like that, even Aille. Ed couldn't imagine the Jao veteran in a lighthearted mood.

"There is no sign the Ekhat have yet returned, General Kralik," Aille said. "And it does not feel as though they will be here soon. Still, there is need for haste. Flow can alter as conditions change rapidly." His body assumed the angles of something like introspection, though, the governor being born of Pluthrak, Ed was sure it was nothing that simplistic. The Pluthrak were famous for notoriously difficult tripartite stances and it amused them to show off.

The first assault craft drifted through the huge doorway, firing station-keeping jets as the Lexington's artificial gravity field asserted itself. The vessel eased into a cradle, then shut down as the next vessel appeared. When all three had settled, the bay doors rolled closed again so that the deck could repressurize.

He wanted to ask how long it would take, but knew the Jao officer would have just stared at him. It took as long as it took. Jao knew how long that was without asking. Timeblind humans just had to wait.

Finally the warning lights went green and the three ships' hatches popped open. Ed dashed through the access hatch and down the steps before Aille, Ronz, and Yaut, as was thankfully proper according to Jao protocol, craning his head for a glimpse of his wife's blond hair.


He descended the last few steps with a jump, then spotted Caitlin. Her slim figure darted through a crowd of jinau, both human and Jao, then around Tully and four oddly pyramidal silver-skinned creatures to throw herself in his arms. He buried his face in her hair, holding her so tightly that her feet dangled above the deck. She smelled of wood smoke and herbs. Two arms, two legs, one head. Everything seemed to be in place. She felt warm and pliant and wonderful. "Are you all right?" he said a moment later when the tightness in his chest eased and he could breathe again.

"Hey, I'm better than all right," she said, then kissed him with a ferocity that promised a far more tantalizing reunion—later. "I'm the Queen of the Universe, or haven't you heard?"

"Um, no." He blinked down at her. Had she hit her head? Maybe she wasn't so completely all right after all.

She laughed and towed him by the arm toward the silver-skinned aliens, who were huddled next to the assault craft, staring around the huge shuttle bay. "Ed," she said, stopping before the closest. "This is Lim."

The creature, who topped his own five-foot, ten-inch height, was clad only in a simple rough-spun gray shift that had gone ragged around the hem. The Lleix had a long graceful neck and dished silver face with understated features, a mere suggestion of a nose, a lipless mouth, and narrow glittering black eyes. A strange fleshy crown ran over the top of its head from right jaw to left and wavered constantly as though blowing in a breeze. Its legs were sturdy as tree trunks, its hips wide, then the torso tapered up to its shoulders.

"Pleasure to meet you, Ed," the Lleix said in quite good English, its voice oddly musical. "How's it hanging?"


"They learned their English from Tully and his jinau," Caitlin said, when she could stop laughing at the startled look on Ed's face. "I'm afraid a lot of it is highly colloquial."

"How did it learn that much English—of any sort—in such a short time?" Ed asked, slipping her arm through his. "The Lexington only left you here a few weeks ago."

"Fifteen days, to be exact." She glanced back at the crowd of jinau off-loading from the assault ships. "That's a long time when you think that the Ekhat might pop back through the framepoint at any moment."

His face tightened. She could tell he was still angry about her being left on Valeron. "Wrot only did what was necessary and you know it," she said softly, glancing over his shoulder to see who was close. Jao had hearing like cats. "I've been making myself of use as we all must."

"I know that," he said. His gray eyes had gone steely. "I just don't have to like it."

"As for the language lessons," she said, "they're almost superfluous. The Lleix sop up vocabulary like a sponge soaks up water. Their brains work very differently from ours in that regard. If you speak a language around them, they will learn it, whether you want them to or not. A few of them already spoke some Jao when we first made contact."

His eyebrows rose. "Jao?"

"They have ancient recordings," she said, "from back when they tried to convince the Jao to turn against the Ekhat. That, apparently, was enough for at least a grounding in Jao."


She looked up and saw Tully waving at her from across the bay. "Yes?"

"We're meeting up in a conference room on Deck Forty-Two," he called.

"Come on," she said, then laced her fingers through Ed's. It felt so good to have him close again, almost like when they had first found each other. She inhaled the scent of his aftershave and associated memories burst through her head, some of them most certainly not for public view. She grinned. "We have to save the Lleix so we can have some alone-time."

He nodded, suddenly all soldier again and not just her husband. He inhaled, the lines of his body gone starkly military. "We're organizing an evacuation," he said.

"Then they will let the Lleix come to Earth?" Relief surged through her. She'd wanted to believe all along that the Jao would reach out to the Lleix, but the reality was they were aliens and frequently did things, or left things undone, in a manner that baffled humans.

"For now," he said. "Ronz decided, which means the Bond decided that we're going to evacuate the Lleix, whether they agree or not. That's why I'm here. We've brought along enough jinau troops to get the job done, even if we have to kill some Lleix in the process. Better to sacrifice a few of them than an entire species. No one is promising what will happen about them living on Earth, though, in the long run."

"When last we spoke to their ruling body, the Han," she said, "they agreed to accept our help if we offered." She gazed at the four dochaya Lleix who were shadowing Tully like puppies. "They are a good people, I think, all things considered. They have their own quirks and odd values, of course, some of which I don't like at all. But their culture is incredibly ancient and they're well worth saving."

He tucked her arm through his as they headed for the lift. "If it wasn't for the Lexington, they would already be dead," she said as the doors opened and they stepped inside, alone for the moment. "Did you hear the particulars of the battle? The Lexington took out five Ekhat ships! Terra-Captain Dannet was amazing! I wish you could have seen it!"

"I'd very much prefer that you hadn't," he said, and then his arms were around her again as the lift raced upwards. She pressed her face to his broad comforting shoulder and drank in his warmth, letting him hold her until all too quickly they'd reached their destination.


It was a strange meeting, Preceptor Ronz thought, as Caitlin and Ed Kralik, faces oddly flushed, joined them in the conference room. Four Lleix were present at the wooden table, along with Wrot and a number of other high-ranking Jao, eight Bond representatives, and an assortment of humans, including Gabe Tully and Rob Wiley, who had both once been steadfast members of Terra's Resistance. The moment's flow raced so that it was all happening just too fast. He tightened his timesense to slow it down.

This was a crucial nexus. He could not allow himself to experience it in headlong haste. Mistakes simply could not be made this time as they had been so long ago at the last official meeting of the Jao and the Lleix.

"Are these their leaders?" he asked, as several crewmen hurried in carrying benches for the silver-skinned aliens.

Caitlin looked at Tully, then folded her hands on the gleaming wood. "No," she said. "The Eldests of the elian decide policy for the Lleix. When your ships jumped into the system, we did not know if they were ours or the Ekhat's. As a safety precaution, we loaded up the three assault ships. The elian launched what Lleix ships still functioned as well, and I'm sure the Eldests boarded them. By now they must have examined the instrument readings and know the Ekhat haven't come back—yet. Once the excitement of your arrival settles down, we'll request a meeting with their ruling body, the Han, to present our proposal."

"Then who are these?" Ronz said.

The four Lleix bowed their heads.

"They are workers from a disadvantaged sector of the colony called the dochaya," Tully said. His green eyes gazed boldly at Ronz. "Like the Jao, they desire only to be of use."

There was something prickly in the human's manner, something that Ronz couldn't quite pick up—affront, perhaps, or even anger?

"There is need of workers on your world?" one of their guests said in lilting English. Its fleshy corona fluttered. "We would serve to our best ability."

It spoke English? In spite of himself, Ronz was startled. The creature had a heavy accent, but its inflection was accurate. When he'd first come to Terra, it had taken more than a hundred successive nights of language imprinting before he'd become that fluent. How in the name of All-That-Swam had a Lleix acquired command of an alien language in only fifteen days?

The Jao present were watching him closely for a reaction. Stillness, he counseled himself. Calm. He must preserve Bond neutrality. He could not allow his body to give his thoughts away.

"I'm sure there will be work on Terra for all who desire it," Caitlin said, leaning forward on the table. Her angles had gone to suppressed-discomfort and she did not look at Ronz.

"Caitlin, Queen of the Universe, is kind," the Lleix said in its fluting voice.

Ronz molded his lines into classic neutrality. "About that," he said to the Lleix, every whisker, every line and angle, and both ears, exquisitely neutral, as though he were only speaking of tomorrow's meal or the mending of a bit of harness. "The moment has come to explain."

"Preceptor!" Caitlin came to her feet. "The Han, after days, endless days, in fact, of discussion, decided to accept human assistance." Her body had gone to desperate-to-intercede. "Can I speak to you in private?"

Silence filled the conference room as all looked to the Preceptor. Then he rose and followed her, along with Tully, out into the corridor.

"Preceptor, you don't know how hard it was to get them to agree to accept the offer of assistance from humans," Caitlin said as the door whisked shut. "If they find out we lied and the Jao are not our slaves, they'll have to talk it to death for months before they can decide again, and even then they very well may refuse."

"They cannot refuse," he said, "else they will all die."

"Even our primary contact, Jihan, agreed to keep this quiet once we were straight with her," Tully said. "Nobody likes it, but I figure we're stuck with the story for now."

"I understand why it was done and that indeed its fabrication is not your fault," Ronz said. "But this matter cannot be allowed to continue. What has happened thus far—especially given that it was initiated by Krant, not a human—can be explained well enough. But if we allow it to go on, the damage to Terra Taif's reputation among the kochan will become enormous. That is far more important now that the tactical concerns of how best to maneuver the Lleix."

"These four have no power to decide anything for the Lleix," Caitlin said. "But if you reveal the truth to them now, they will tell the whole dochaya upon their return. The details will spread throughout the colony within hours."

"So be it," Ronz said. "Flow signals that the time to reveal the deception is now. We must tell the truth and then make ourselves of use by transporting the Lleix away from this exposed position, even if they then believe they do not wish to go." He let his words sink in. "If we must force them, then we will. I have brought sufficient troops and firepower to handle the situation, should that be necessary."

"Let me try to convince the Han first," Caitlin said. Her hands were knotted together, a purely human gesture of distress. "I'll get Jihan to help. We'll make them understand."

Tully looked obstinate, shoulders hunched, body stiff, but then he often looked that way. "And you?" Ronz said, turning to the blond human.

"Hell, I never liked all this stupid storytelling anyway," Tully said. "Let the cards fall as they may."

An interesting colloquialism, praising the power of luck, in which Jao did not believe, a quintessentially human notion. "Very well." Ronz swept an arm toward the door, indicating the two, as was proper according to their lesser rank, should precede him back into the conference room.

Once inside, they took their seats, both folding their hands upon the broad table. Question was in the angle of Aille krinnu ava Terra's ears, but they all waited, Jao and Human and Lleix.

Still. Ronz did not speak until his body was perfectly, gloriously still so it would not betray his inner misgivings about this precarious situation. "Caitlin is not Queen of the Universe," he said to the Lleix.

The four long necks turned so that the inscrutable narrow black eyes were fixed upon his face. Their bodies had gone motionless enough even to do credit to a member of the Bond itself.

"Caitlin Stockwell Kralik does hold high rank among her kind," Ronz said, "but Jao are not, and never have been, human slaves. When my species first came to Terra, we conquered them, and then for a time were their rulers."

The Lleix seemed hardly to be breathing. Even their odd head-coronas had stopped moving.

"Do you understand this word—conquer?" Ronz said.

"Yes," one of them said. "It means to overcome in battle."

"We did not mean to deceive you," Wrot said, his scarred ears frankly abashed, "but the Lleix feared the Jao with good reason. When your representatives initially misunderstood the nature of the relationship between our two species, it seemed easier to let you believe that Jao were under human control, at least until you knew them better."

Finally one of the four turned to Tully and Caitlin. "Does this mean there is no work where we are going?"

"No," Caitlin said, her eyes suddenly bright with that peculiar human tendency to shed moisture when under emotional stress. "This means the Lleix will come on our ships to Terra where there will be much work for everyone."

The four Lleix gazed at one another. Their coronas fluttered, almost in unison, then the same one spoke again. "Then that," it said, "will be a goodness."


Recruited by Hadata, Jihan piloted one of the Starwarders' ailing craft out into the system as alien ships emerged one after the other through the framepoint. After the first few had cleared the star's photosphere enough to be analyzed, Hadata concluded from their design that they most likely did not belong to the Ekhat.

Which meant, logically, this huge fleet must have been sent by the humans. But why so many ships, Jihan wondered, as her hands flew over the little Starwarder craft's controls, unless they meant to fight the Lleix after all?

And even that did not make sense. The Lexington's armaments could easily have destroyed the colony if the humans had so wished. But then they were aliens. Much of what they thought and did would likely make no sense to Lleix and they had already revealed themselves, at least to her, to be exceptionally duplicitous. Jaolore was a failure. The three of them had never understood their ancient enemy's mind. She just hoped the Jao did not turn out to be as insane as the Ekhat themselves.

After Hadata ordered her to assume a high orbit where they could monitor the emerging alien fleet, Jihan tuned the radio to the same frequency as the three assault craft that Tully had commanded and broadcast a call for him. It took much time, but finally she received an answer.

"Major Tully here," she heard in English.

"Tully, this is Jihan of Jaolore," she said. "What are these strange ships? Have they come to destroy the Lleix after all?"

The radio crackled. "No," the human said, "these are human and Jao ships, well, mostly Jao, come to transport the Lleix to safety."

And the Jao were not human slaves, but the elian did not know that. "When we arrive on Terra, will you tell the Han about the true relationship between Humans and Jao?" she said, keeping her voice low, though she did not think Hadata had picked up much, if any, English yet.

Tully hesitated. "We will tell them now, before we leave the system," he said. "As soon as a meeting of the Han can be arranged."


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