THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 45
Caitlin swayed. “Oh, my God!” She glanced around at the busy command crew, mostly Jao but sprinkled with humans. Lights blinked. Displays flicked from setting to setting. Business as usual. Each crew member seemed focused upon his or her task, apparently unconcerned that they might all be dead in a few minutes.
“Yeah,” Tully said, “that was my unit’s general reaction. They were pretty spooked, but I’d never heard anything like that the whole time I worked on Aille’s service. So I traced the stories back until I found out that they all originated with Kaln and Jalta. I just checked with Wrot and asked him how likely that kind of accident was to happen.”
“Well?” She felt her heart hammering. Over at the front of the deck, a Jao navigator was calling off coordinates. Things were in motion. Her palms began to sweat.
“Wrot told me that they made it up,” Tully said, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. “It’s the Jao equivalent of a damned tall tale. We’re dealing with a bunch of Jao hillbillies!”
She sagged against the wall. “Wrot was sure?”
Tully nodded. “He said sometimes there is an accident, and a ship is lost during a jump — but then the ship is never heard from again. No one knows what happens to such ships.”
“So why are the Krants trying to get everyone all upset?” she said, peering over shoulders blocking her view. Dannet was discussing a set of readings with a subordinate. Were they about to jump?
“It may be their idea of a joke,” Tully said. “Jao do have a sense of humor, but it’s not anything like ours. I’m going to have my guys start telling Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan stories to the Krants and see how that goes over.”
Caitlin had never heard of “Pecos Bill,” though she was vaguely familiar with the Bunyan mythology. She supposed she’d have to listen in on a few of the stories.
“First framepoint generator set,” a stocky Jao with a well-marked vai camiti said. “Waiting on response from next in sequence.” Beneath their feet, the ship vibrated like a purring tiger.
“Come on,” Caitlin said, taking Tully’s arm. The mood of anticipation on the command deck was infectious. She could almost feel the so-called increasing “flow” of the moment herself. “We’re going to miss all the fun.”
“Yeah,” Tully said. “I can’t wait for the part where we emerge inside the photosphere of a damned star. That’s Christmas and Halloween all jumbled into one terrifying moment.”
“Second framepoint generator set,” the Jao said calmly, as though they weren’t readying to leap into hell. The vibration kicked up a notch, more like trembling now as though the Lexington were a racehorse confined in the starting gate, about to jump out and gallop down the course.
Caitlin’s heart hammered. Why hadn’t she stayed in her quarters until things either went properly — or didn’t? At least then she wouldn’t be staring into the barrel of the gun, so to speak. Her clenched fingernails bit into her palms.
Dannet turned and gave her a long appraising look from the captain’s central station. That slanting Narvo-patterned vai camiti was still off-putting every time she saw it. Caitlin made herself meet the gaze, allowing her lines to indicate only mild-interest.
“Come closer, Envoy,” Dannet said with a hint of wicked-enjoyment in the cant of her ears. “You will not see the process properly from back there.”
Caitlin was suddenly certain that she did not want to see any of what was going on, did not in fact want to be here on this untried ship, jumping into what was most assuredly trouble. Ed had been right. She should have stayed home.
“Thank you, Terra-Captain,” her dry mouth said and her legs carried her closer. She would not disgrace herself, she told herself, fighting to hold onto the shape of mild-interest. Even more important, she would not disgrace humans in this creature’s dancing green-fire eyes.
Tully sauntered after her, hands in his pockets, though the invitation had not included him.
“Third framepoint generator set,” the navigator said, gaze trained upon the readings. “Waiting on Four.”
Now the ship shook as though caught in the riptide of some violent sea. How many generators did it take? Caitlin wasn’t sure, though she’d read a general file on the process several days ago. All useful knowledge seemed to have leaked out of her head in the last few seconds. Sometimes it was four, she thought she’d read, sometimes five?
“Fourth set!” Even the navigator sounded excited now, and it took a lot to make a Jao show emotion while doing his or her job. They tended to be phlegmatic about such things.
The viewscreen was filled with scintillating stars, scattered before them like a field of diamonds. The ship rocked as unseen forces acted upon it. Each of the framepoint generators seemed to be pulling the ship in a different direction.
Caitlin realized she was breathing too fast and tried to slow down before she hyperventilated. It was just a jump, she told herself. Jao did it all the time without turning inside out or getting irretrievably lost. Otherwise they’d never have made it to Earth and caused misery for humans for more than the last twenty years.
“Fifth set!” the navigator said. The rocking escalated into a frenzied motion that mimicked the bucking of a frightened horse and Caitlin had to catch hold of an empty chair for support before a vacant station. She glanced at Tully, who looked white-faced himself, but still managed to wink at her. He’d thrown his arms around a support pillar.
“Stand by,” Dannet said calmly, as though the bridge crew was merely about to conduct a staid tea party. The ship’s insistent motion did not seem to affect her at all. Riding it out like an experienced sailor on a ship’s deck in heavy weather, the former Narvo flicked an ear. “You may jump, Navigator Sten.”
At his station, Sten pushed a lever and the great ship jumped. Caitlin felt her insides fling themselves forward, abandoning where-they-were for sheer in-betweenness, which her senses queasily interpreted as nowhere-at-all. She looked down at her hand holding onto the chair. It seemed almost transparent and yet solidly there, two conflicting states in one. Which was impossible, her stunned mind insisted. She dropped into the chair and huddled over her clenched fists, feeling impossibly thin and altogether ill.
The bridge crew, both human and Jao, were working, murmuring readings, making adjustments. The bucking had stopped and the ship hummed as it made its way through — what? Caitlin felt as though she were riding a horse over a brick wall. The horse had leaped and was sailing through the air now. The ground was far below and they all had to land sometime, didn’t they?
Her hands grew more transparent and even the Jao began to show signs of stress, muttering, stiffening their whiskers, flattening ears, darting to another’s stations, arguing quietly but strenuously over settings. The ship began to shake again, gently at first, then more insistently with each passing second.
Dannet herself prowled the bridge, stopping to correct a human crew member and adjusting settings on that console, then pulling a protesting Jao from his seat and taking his place, handling the controls herself.
Jumping into a nebula was technically harder somehow. Caitlin remembered that one of the Krant ships had been destroyed in the attempt. But Dannet was one of Narvo’s finest ship captains, a gift to Terra Taif to atone for the crimes of Oppuk. Her skills should be superb. Narvo would never shame itself by providing anything less.
Ears flattened, Dannet furiously altered settings. The officer she’d displaced protested from the floor and she back-handed him without taking her eyes off the display. That sort of casual violence, which could easily have been cause for legal action in a human military force, was taken for granted by Jao. The junior officer made no further protest. He simply sprawled on the deck, half-dazed.
The shaking worsened as though the ship were trying to exist in a dozen different places simultaneously. Maybe they were going to turn inside out before it was all over, she thought queasily. How could the Krants have made up such a story anyway? There must have been a grain of truth in it somewhere. Everyone, including the Jao, admitted that their species had little capacity for ollnat.
Tully’s face had taken on a faint green sheen as he gripped his pillar with both arms. Caitlin’s muscles cramped. Lexington shuddered one last time and then the shaking abruptly ceased. The air altered, becoming more breathable. They were — somewhere.
Thank God, Caitlin thought. She glanced down at her hands. The skin and bones were definitely all where they should be, at least for now. The screens had gone white, probably because they’d emerged in the photosphere of a blasted star, she thought shakily, and there was nothing to transmit except a searing blaze of solar combustion. She’d seen that for herself once, when one of the Ekhat factions, the Interdict, had traveled to Earth’s system to warn for its own inscrutable reasons of the immanent arrival of the maniac Harmony. That ship had emerged from Sol in a white-hot ball of flaming solar gases, shedding streamers of fiery plasma as it headed outward.
The Lexington had to look much the same at the moment. Was it just her imagination, or was the hellish heat encasing them actually heating up the bridge? She blotted her suddenly perspiring forehead with a sleeve.
“Hull temperature receding from critical,” a Jao officer said, his voice neutral, but his whiskers limp with relief.
The white viewscreens gave way to a swirl of red gas and dust, interspersed with black starry spaces which seemed to somehow have a meaningful shape. The nebula?
A second later, alarms went off. Caitlin lurched to her feet, gazing around the bridge. Had the heat penetrated a weakness in their never-before-tried shields? Were they about to burn up?
“Ekhat ships, five of them, Terra-Captain,” one of the bridge crew, a balding human, said. His face had gone pale as watered milk. “Dead ahead.”