Chapter 19

Third-Note-Ascending’s ship assumed a low orbit above the star’s photosphere, allowing her two minor conductors on the accompanying vessels to pursue the bizarre interloper as it retreated back into the sun from which it had emerged. Its unexpected intrusion had already altered the note she had been so carefully planning to transmit, once this system was scrubbed free of infestation. She and Third-and-a-Half-Note-Ascending must now consider the implications so that their presentation would reflect the battle and subsequent routing of a minor sapience accurately. How else could the Melody truly know itself than through its works?

Below in the control pit, the little Anj gibbered and howled as they sought to repair the damage the strange ship had inflicted before sinking back into the swirling photosphere. The brutes had actually flung things at them, a form of primitive tech that had proved oddly effective.

They had also fired laser weapons which matched the energy signature of the Jao. But the Jao, notoriously dull brutes that they were, had never employed anything like the solid projectiles that had taken out the Anj breeding gallery on this ship.

An immature and still nameless Ekhat crew member broached the Conductor’s Pod with suitably nervous mincing steps. “Lead Conductor,” it said, not meeting their combined gaze. “Readings are inconclusive, but it would seem one or perhaps even both of our ships in pursuit have been destroyed.”

“That is not likely, unless they fired upon each other,” Third-Note-Ascending said, Third-and-a-Half’s voice in perfect sync. “Which is also not likely.”

“It is not,” the nameless drudge said, remaining prudently out of reach. “Nevertheless, that is what the readings seem to indicate.”

There must be more. “And?” Third said, slowly circling her think-mate.

“The enemy ship seems to be approaching.”

“Then we will destroy it.” Third/Half was again contemplating the marvelous note she would contribute once this business was concluded.

“It is very large.”

Perhaps a quarter variation on the originally planned note with a slight tremolo at the finale would properly reflect the loss of the two Melody ships.

“It masses more than our three remaining ships combined.”

Its rising concern was unseemly. “These creatures hurl bits of metal to defend themselves,” she said, abandoning Half to stalk about the drudge’s quivering form. “Are we to be wary of such?”

“You know best, of course,” it said, realizing its error and retreating. “Only give your orders and they shall be obeyed.”

“Summon a replacement. Then terminate yourself. Your hesitation is a source of discord in our melody.”

“At once, Lead Conductor.” The immature crew member signaled the service pool to send a replacement. Then, gouged out one of its eyes and began probing within for a key synapse.

Not surprisingly, it bungled that also. It collapsed onto the deck, bleeding badly but still breathing. To her annoyance, Third was forced to reach into the wound and sever the cerebral tree herself.

“Clean this up,” Third/Half said to its replacement, going back to their consideration of the forthcoming creation.

Down in the Control Pit, the Anj were screaming. Their fear was pleasantly aromatic, filtering throughout the entire ventilation system. Third/Half turned as one to the viewing tank as a monstrous-sized ball of plasma emerged from the star.


Maintaining the enveloping sheath of plasma as Lexington exited the photosphere was not technically difficult. It simply required modifying the same force shields that protected the ship within the photosphere. The problem for Terra-Captain Dannet was psychological. In the past, she had always been trained to shed the fiery plasma as soon as possible when emerging from a point locus, lest the ship’s overtaxed shields fail.

But the notion of retaining the plasma ball as a protective shield had occurred to the human members helping in the design of Lexington from the very beginning. The Lexington had powerful kinetic energy weapons and the Ekhat would be totally reliant upon lasers. Maintaining a plasma ball around the ship would degrade the effectiveness of the enemy’s lasers without significantly affecting the Lexington’s own guns. Not as well as a star’s photosphere, of course, of which the plasma ball would be just a tiny fragment. But it might be enough to make a difference in a hard-fought battle.

Dannet understood the logic. Still, it seemed unnatural. She was no more prone to enjoying novelty than any Jao.

Spine C was down, having taken the brunt of the ramming, but the other kinetic weapons decks were still functional. She directed them to acquire targets and fire at will.

The guns wouldn’t be as effective out here in open space, naturally. Fighting inside a star’s photosphere required the combatants to draw very close to each other, and their velocities dropped as well. Outside those conditions, in an open vacuum, the combatants would draw much farther apart and their velocities would increase. For all the savage effectiveness of the sabot rounds in close quarters, at these ranges and speeds the great majority of rounds fired would miss their targets. The shells were not missiles, with their own guidance mechanisms. They were very primitive weapons, when all was said and done.

As for Spine C, if there was too much damage, it would be necessary to jettison it for the good of the ship. That provision had been foreseen also — in this instance, by the Jao members of the design team. All of the spines were designed so that they could be jettisoned from the ship. In effect, since the design of the Lexington ensured that almost all battle damage would first be inflicted upon the spines rather than the main hull, those huge spines added another highly effective layer of armor to the vessel.

That might also require jettisoning the crew members in the spine, of course. That would be regrettable, but casualties were a given in war. Any war, much less the brutal and all-out struggle for survival that was the never-ending war with the Ekhat. If the need arose, Dannet would give the order to sacrifice the spine’s crew without a moment’s hesitation.

Lexington edged out of the photosphere, looking for the enemy. If they could take out at least one of the Ekhat ships before they lost the protective shielding of the plasma ball, they would add to their advantage. As Dannet’s human subordinates would say, “help level the playing field.”

The first time she’d heard that expression, she’d been puzzled. Once the logic was explained, she could see the meaning of it. But what sort of contorted mind would imagine a playing field for athletics tilted in the first place? As was so often true with humans, the saying was clever and irritating at the same time.

Carefully, she restrained herself from slipping into a body posture that would project her annoyance. She had been warned when she was offered the assignment by the Narvo leaders. A great honor, of course, to help Narvo to overcome the stain left by Oppuk. That was so, even when the honor would have to remain unspoken, since she would be formally leaving Narvo to accept membership in the new Terra Taif. But she would also, they told her, be accepting a lifetime of aggravation — and if she reacted improperly to such, she would add to the stain rather than helping to remove it.

And so it had been. Thus far, at least, and she saw no reason to expect the situation to improve.

Her Second spoke up. “Damage Control reports they are still unable to evacuate Spine C.” Otta looked up from his screen. His whiskers and the cant of his head displayed concern.

“That will be unfortunate,” Dannet said, “should we be forced to jettison. How is hull integrity in that sector?”

Otta studied the stats. “Eighty-one percent, up from seventy. They are effecting repairs from the inside.”

“I see.” She strode over to the tank displaying projected positions for the Ekhat ships, reduced to probabilities at the moment because of the distortion produced by the fiery plasma. Weapons systems were not the only things degraded by maintaining the shield.

“Inform Tully that we may be required to jettison Spine C soon,” said Dannet. “We cannot risk a hull integrity in the spine worse than ninety percent, with a battle coming very soon.”

“Jettison?” Caitlin Kralik said, crossing the command deck, her tiresomely unchanging eyes focused upon Dannet. The human’s lines and angles had gone to baffled-disbelief. “But…”

Other human bridge crew watched her pass, then returned to their work, industriously not-noticing. Unexpectedly wise of them, Dannet thought, punching up a new set of readings.

“There is a whole company down on Spine C,” Caitlin said, “including a member of Aille’s personal service and the remnants of the Krant crew. You cannot just cast them off! They would fall into the sun without a shield!”

“Your perception of the situation is most likely correct, Mrs. Kralik,” Dannet said, remembering to use the peculiar human honorific taken by mated human females. Her own lines were carefully schooled to cool-indifference.

That took some effort, as skilled as Dannet was at body posturing. She had disliked this particular female even before arriving on Terra and joining the new taif. Everyone in her natal kochan was aware that Caitlin Kralik had been instrumental, somehow, in pushing Oppuk past the bounds of sanity. How else explain what happened? Madness, common among humans, was rare among Jao. Among any Jao, much less a Narvo namth camiti.

Dannet was younger than Oppuk, but still remembered him visiting her natal compound while she was training. He had been magnificent with a rakish vai camiti, strong and decisive. He had certainly deserved better than the ignominious death at the hand of a primitive he had suffered on Terra.

The very primitive, in fact, who was now in command of the crew in Spine C. But that was irrelevant to Dannet’s present concerns.

“That is a decision that must sometimes be made,” she said, “A few lives versus the survival of an entire ship.”