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The Eldest

Their hosts designated the Lleix's new home Call-ah-ra-doh. Jihan didn't have the name's sounds quite right yet, but she was close. She had finally mastered the slippery word "human" with its tricky "hwah" sound on the wondrous journey to Terra, with a bit of coaching from Tully, and was finally closing in on the exact pronunciation of "Caitlin." That name's sound combinations were particularly elusive but the little human assured Jihan that she was doing very well.

"We'll have to study your language for years before we achieve anywhere close to your mastery of English," the once alleged Queen of the Universe said.

Een-glish, Jihan thought, not Enn-glish. The Lleix were determined to speak the new language properly and do their benefactors honor. She had considered making the study of English part of Terralore's function, but then decided it would be taking on too much. Instead, she suggested the function to Lim, who promptly formed her own English-study elian on the ship before they even landed on Terra.

More new elian had come into being over the course of the following days, popping up with precipitous haste. All of them had been organized by unassigned from the dochaya, and Jihan suspected many of them would not last. But that would be no tragedy. If some of the newly organized elian fell apart, she was quite confident others, more urgently needed, would arise to take their place.

And then, after they'd arrived in Call-ah-ra-doh, there had been the unexpected defection by more than a few members of the traditional elian to the new ones created by the unassigned. Grijo, Sayr, and most of the Eldests were quite disturbed by the shake-up. They were calling a meeting of the Han to discuss it, but privately Jihan thought the trend was healthy.

Why should one have to work all her life in a craft that did not please her or labor with disagreeable individuals? She knew far better than anyone that adherence to sensho was not always productive. So far, Kajin had gone back to Ekhatlore and she'd accepted one of the deserters, a female from Treebinders, into Terralore, along with twenty-three former unassigned who were all ecstatic to have a place.

The one great certainty was that, on this world, there would be no dochaya as it had been on Valeron. Since arriving here, Jihan had discovered that Tully's hostility toward that Lleix custom was widely shared on Terra. By humans, if not Jao. Within three days of their landing, in fact, a number of humans had showed up in the quarters of the unassigned. Sent there by Tully, it seemed, or at least on his suggestion.

They called themselves "union organizers." A peculiar group, most of whose speech seemed close to gibberish. Still, they were treated very respectfully. By now, all members of the dochaya were partial to humans.

The established elian were not so friendly, of course. But not even they would go so far as to be openly hostile to their human hosts. Partly, because they really had little choice. The survival of the Lleix was now completely dependent on the humans and Jao, and everyone knew it.

But, partly, it was because the Jao and humans seemed sensitive enough to keep the Jao very far removed from the Lleix. Occasionally, a Jao would be seen visiting the area. But almost all of the contact the Lleix had with Terrans was with the indigenous species. Which suited all of them quite well, of course—except for Jihan herself. As the eldest of Jaolore, she wanted to have extensive contact with the Jao, even though they still frightened her.

There was so much to think about, so much new information and ways of living to absorb. On the journey, Jihan had used the time to learn about the structure of the Jao kochan. Preceptor Ronz had explained that each group maintained many functions: choosing mates, generating, raising, and educating children, building space-going ships and houses, even making cloth for capes and trousers and raising food. In a sense, each Jao kochan resembled a tiny Lleix colony, complete in and of itself.

Ronz had been very friendly and helpful, in fact. So had the younger one named Aille. This, despite the fact that they both occupied very prestigious places in their own society. As time passed, it was becoming obvious to Jihan that the long centuries since the Jao had almost exterminated the Lleix had produced a profound change in both species—and perhaps even more so among the Jao. It was difficult to see the blindly murderous being who had so casually struck down the Wordthreader Eldest so long ago, in the sophisticated and subtle persons of Preceptor Ronz and Governor Aille.

Even Grijo and the other elian elders, she thought, were slowly coming to that understanding.

She looked around, enjoying the vista. The wind was rushing down from the mountains, producing a pleasant briskness. The day was clear and the sky so achingly blue that she had difficulty looking up into the brightness after the chronic gray-green atmosphere of Valeron. Jao-style "quantum crystal" shelters were being poured with humans working alongside the Lleix immigrants. The glimmering blue structures were beautiful once they hardened, but very strange inside without a single corner or right angle. They would suffice as shelters for the moment, certainly. But if the Lleix were to stay for any time on Terra they would want to build proper wooden homes. That was quite feasible, the Dwellingconstructors told her. Terra had many fine woods to work with, it seemed.

Jihan's gaze left that sight and wandered to the snow-topped mountains that filled the western horizon. The range was much taller and more rugged than the peaks left behind on Valeron. She longed to explore.

"We selected this region because its climate and geology are similar to what you had back on Valeron," Caitlin said, coming up behind her. "Even before the Conquest, it was sparsely populated with only a few farms and cattle ranches. But almost no one has lived out here since. It gets really cold in the winter and snows a lot. After the Jao came, no one maintained the roads anymore. Fuel and lack of electricity became a problem. Survivors moved to the cities."

Jihan had been glad to see snow on the distant mountains and was even gladder to hear now that it would snow down here. "Will it snow soon?" she asked, longing for that familiar sweet crisp scent.

"Perhaps," Caitlin said. "In fact, even probably. It's early October, and winter comes early at this elevation. I'll check the long-range weather forecast for you."

She left on an errand, then, and Jihan went back to her study of their new planet. This place was not a permanent solution to the Lleix's lack of a home, but the Terran version of a Han had voted to give them sanctuary until a suitable world of their own could be located. Ronz had suggested they might even be able to return to one of the worlds from which they had long ago first fled. The Jao elder had pointed out that it was unlikely the Ekhat would think to look for them there again after all this time.

The ancient names of those abandoned planets were only legend now: Sankil, Thrase, Gisht, and Remaht. The coordinates had been lost on their migrations long ago. Might one or more of those worlds still exist, lying fallow, waiting for their former residents to return? And if the Lleix could locate them, would the Boh be there, ready to watch over the Lleix again? The possibility was exciting, and in the meantime, they had these glorious green and gold hills as well as snow-covered mountains to explore.

Two former unassigned dashed past her, arguing energetically about their new elian, whatever it was. There were many new elian emerging out of the Workorganizers, these days. The people of the former dochaya had decided that one of their new elian's duties was to create other new elian where needed.

It was a claim that few of the established elian recognized, but that hardly mattered any more. Most of the old elian were mired in dull and sullen resentment. Not all, though. In addition to Terralore, two of the most important established elian—Childtenders, who had been the largest until Workorganizers was formed, and Weaponsmakers—were adjusting well to the changes. They were on good terms with the huge new elian, and were cooperating with it.

The Childtenders had always been sensitive to the plight of those of their former charges relegated to the dochaya. As for the Weaponsmakers . . .

For them, this new situation was a blessing. Terra-Taif had decided to design one of the new Lexington-class ships for a largely Lleix crew. So the Weaponsmakers had a lot of work again, along with new skills to learn. They were taking in many new members from the unassigned. A small host, in fact. By long custom, Weaponsmakers would provide most of the crew when the ship was built.

Jihan was keeping a record of these new elian as they came into being, so she followed them out of the invigorating wind into their shelter.

"What is the designation and purpose of your elian?" she asked.

The smaller of the two, a young male, had a bronze aureole and silver skin of a shade far lighter than most. He stared at his feet. The other, an older male, met her gaze, then looked away, making himself respectfully small. "We are the Boh-Finders, Eldest," he said.

"On this world—Terra?" She could not keep the surprise from her voice, though she tried most diligently to support all the new elian.

"No, Eldest," the smaller said. He looked up into her face and his black eyes sparkled with plans. His young body radiated eagerness and he simply could not be still. "We will go to Sankil someday, or Thrase, or even Remaht, and find them there."

It was a long-range plan, but worthy of effort and study. All Lleix had dreamed down through the generations that someday the Boh would once again look upon their lost children and enfold them in their beneficent sacred attention. "Then," she said carefully, "you will need a viewer to examine all the old records and learn as much as you can."

Their aureoles crumpled. Unassigned possessed nothing beyond themselves and had all come away from Valeron with only their shifts. They would not know how to operate a viewer even if one did come their way. Servants, such as they had been, cooked and scrubbed, fetched and carried, labored in the fields, cleaned waterways, streets, and houses. They were not allowed to operate valuable devices.

"Terralore has two such machines," Jihan said. "We will reassign one of them to the Boh-Finders and allow our Pyr some time off from his elian duties to instruct your members in its use."

They would need many more viewers, she realized. Unfortunately, the elian which traditionally handled that work had been one of the eleven which had refused to make the voyage to Terra. She would have to speak with the Workorganizers to see about forming a new elian which could manage the task.

"You would do that," the older said, his aureole now rippling with emotion, "for such as we, for mere—"

"For a new elian with a great purpose," she said. "For that wondrous day when you do find the Boh and we can all finally go home."

The Ship-Captain

Dannet was too surprised to speak, for a moment. And when she did finally manage to utter a word, she immediately felt like a fumble-witted crecheling.


Dumbfounded, she stared at the small human female, Caitlin Kralik. She had apparently once had a different birth name—"family name," they called it, after that peculiar human institution that seemed to substitute poorly for a proper clan. But when Caitlin married her husband—they usually only mated in pairs—she'd taken his family name for her own. That custom also struck Dannet as peculiar, but so did much else about humans.

She looked then to the husband in question, Ed Kralik. He was one of the top commanders of Terra's jinau troops. A very capable commander, by all accounts including those of Jao.

He nodded his head, seeming to be amused. "As she says, Terra-Captain. You, indeed."

Dannet now looked to the two Jao in the room: Wrot, who was one of the new taif's Jao elders, and the much younger former Pluthrak who was the planet's governor. Wrot said nothing and neither did Aille. But the postures of both of them indicated their agreement, Aille's in that damnably sophisticated Pluthrak manner that anyone Narvo-born like Dannet found simultaneously engaging and irritating.

Her wits returned in sufficient force to muster a two-word sentence. "Why me?"

Caitlin's eyebrows went up. Dannet had learned enough of the primitive and overly plastic human methods of body language to know that facial gesture was the rough human equivalent of surprise. That was itself a very rough posture, of course, which was usually combined with another for less coarse effect. But perhaps there were subtleties in that eyebrow-raising expression that Dannet did not recognize yet.

Yet. The qualifier came easily, these days. As time passed, Dannet had come to realize that the Bond's instinct had been a good one, here on Terra. Humans were indeed far more advanced and subtle than she had ever imagined when she first arrived. She still didn't like them much, aside from a few individuals, but she no longer felt much in the way of derision, either.

As it happened, she had already come to the conclusion that Caitlin Kralik and her husband were two of the humans whom she did like. So she was not entirely surprised at Caitlin's next words.

"Why would we not choose you, Terra-Captain?" was her counter-question. "You performed superbly in the expedition to NGC 7293. And you are already familiar with most of the central figures who will be involved in the explora—ah, Operation Sagittarius. Myself, Major Tully—Colonel Tully, now—and the Krants. The only real question is how well you will handle the duties of commanding a fleet instead of a single ship." She gave Dannet a wide smile. "But none of us have any real doubts on that matter. If for no other reason, because we are quite certain that Narvo would have selected you very carefully—and with eventual fleet command in mind."

Subtle, indeed. Dannet had assumed that almost all humans would still react to anything Narvo with nothing but antagonism. Neither she nor the Narvo kochan leaders had expected that hostility would abate in less than a generation. But it seemed that was not true, at least for some of them—and those, very highly placed and influential.

Dannet nodded stiffly, doing her best to mimic that human gesture. That had the advantage of lowering her head, so she could disguise her momentary amusement. Quite obviously, Caitlin had intended to use the human term "exploration," before realizing that to most Jao its use would seem frivolous. So she'd substituted the ponderous alternative "Operation Sagittarius."

Dannet lifted her head back up. And was careful not to let anything in her body posture betray the fact that she herself was one of those few Jao who thought exploration for its own sake was well worth the effort and resources.

Aille spoke next. "You understand that Caitlin will have oudh, when it comes to the basic mission? I am certain she will consult with you closely, as will General Kralik, but any final decisions will be hers. Your authority is over the fleet and naval matters."

Dannet nodded again. Despite the powerful naval forces that were to be committed to the expedition—no fewer than three Lexington-class vessels, along with a large number of smaller ships—the purpose of the project was not primarily military. And besides . . .

She really did approve of the human Caitlin. She foresaw no major problems.

But all she said was, "Yes, Governor."

The Captain

Glumly, Tully stared into his beer. Now that the initial excitement of deciding on the exploratory expedition—no, they were calling it something pompous and stupid; "Operation Riders of the Purple Sage" or something like that—was over, the darker realities were setting in.

Yeah, fine, he'd been promoted to colonel and he'd be in command of an entire regiment and he even got along fairly well with Ed Kralik, who'd be in overall command of the ground forces attached to the expedition. But Tully also knew damn good and well that Kralik had stiff notions concerning the military proprieties.

True, the expedition was going to have a strong scientific component, as well. Maybe some of those scientists would be female, reasonably young—colonel or not, Tully was still shy of thirty—and not too hard to look at.

And willing to overlook the fact that Tully didn't have a high school diploma, much less a college degree. Just a don't-look-too-close Resistance version of a GED.

Yeah, sure. A blue-collar lady astrophysicist or astronomer. Not impossible, no. Just about as likely, Tully figured, as snow in August.

In Florida.

He looked up, and his dark mood got darker. Speak of the devil, and his minion is sure to sashay up. His very off-limits minion.

But he let none of it show. Without quite looking at her, he waved his hand and said: "Have a seat, Lieutenant Miller. Can I buy you a beer?"

"Yes, thank you," she said, sitting across from him in the corner booth in the officers club. "But it's Captain Miller, now. I just got promoted."

She pointed to the insignia on her cap. Now that he looked directly, Tully saw that there were two bars instead of one.

"Congratulations, Caewithe. I'll be sorry to see you go, though. I don't have an opening for a captain in my regiment. Which unit is Kralik assigning you to?"

Miller shook her head. "I'm not under Kralik's command at all. Not Ed Kralik, that is. The powers-that-be decided that Caitlin Kralik needed a special unit of her own. Call it an expanded bodyguard—that's how we apes would look at it—or call it her own personal service, the way the Jao would look at it. Either way, I'm going to be a captain in charge of a platoon-sized force that really ought to have a lieutenant in command except Caitlin told me privately she likes working with me and figures I'll be more in the way of a civilian adviser than a soldier. Assuming nobody tries to kill her, anyway, at which point my formal gorilla status kicks back in."

She gave Tully a big smile. The sort of big smile that a first-grade teacher bestows on one of her brighter students, when she expects him to solve a problem all on his own.

Tully's mind was racing. Special unit. Answers directly to Caitlin Kralik. Not connected to the regular military force at all. Not even indirectly part of my chain of command.

Hot diggedy damn. Well . . .

"I guess this a stupid question, Captain, but . . . " Tully waved over one of the waitresses. "Ah . . . what sort of an education did you pick up along the way?"

By now, Miller had taken off her cap and the waitress had arrived. "I'll have what he's having," she told her. Then, gave Tully the same sort of smile that a first-grade teacher gives one of her brighter students when the stout lad is struggling with the problem but making forward progress. "About what you'd expect. Northern California got hit pretty hard during the Conquest, and, like I said, my family were dockworkers."

She shrugged, using the gesture to get out of her jacket at the same time. "One year in community college, that was it."

The heavy jacket was well suited for Colorado coming into winter but did absolutely nothing for her figure. Tully thought the change was splendid. The answer was even better.

"Well, then. I was wondering, Captain—ah, Caewithe—what you are doing Friday night?"

She bestowed on him the same smile that first-grade teachers bestow on one of their brighter students when the plucky lad finally gets the answer right.

"What a coincidence. As it happens, Colonel Tully—Gabe, rather—I'm at loose ends this coming Friday night."

The smile widened, and lost any trace of the schoolteacher.

"I'm at loose ends Saturday morning, too," she said. "As it happens."

Tully took a long swallow of his beer. By the time he finished, her beer had arrived. He held up his glass in a little salute.

"Here's to Operation Riders of the Purple Sage."

She clinked glasses with him, chuckling. "It's Operation Sagittarius, Gabe. They named it after the galactic arm we're in, not a Zane Grey western."

"And a good thing, too," he said. "A galactic arm is way bigger than Texas. Which way are we going, have they decided yet?"

"Inward, Caitlin tells me. The brains figure there's more chance of finding intelligent life that way, at least until we start getting too close to the center."

Tully summoned up his knowledge of astronomy. It was fairly rudimentary, but some things are pretty basic, too. "We're about two-thirds out on the arm, if I remember right."

She nodded. "Yes, you are. Which means this is likely to be a long expedition."

That was a devil's minion type smile, if Tully had ever seen one.

"I'm at loose ends Sunday and Monday, too," Caewithe added. "As it happens."


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